Morgan

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Though it mostly skirts around more interesting core themes to build its narrative with constituent parts closer in relation to generic thrillers, there are still striking elements in Luke Scott’s Morgan (2016). This is a film that concerns itself with that obsessive contemplated theme of Philip K. Dick’s about what it really means to be human. It begins on a remote compound where a group of scientists have been conducting an elaborate, highly evolved experiment with a new life form. But now an ‘incident’ has occurred in which their biologically engineered star pupil Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) has lashed out at the woman seen as her ‘mother’ figure, Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

In the wake of this anomalous event, ‘Corporate’ has dispatched a handpicked representative, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to review the group’s processes and make a determination about the future of Morgan. Seemingly chosen for her cool composure and hard-nosed objectivity, Weathers immediately rubs the site’s leaders, including Dr. Simon Zeigler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), the wrong way, with suspicions arising that the project that they’ve devoted so much time and dedication to, may now be in jeopardy.

This is an excellent debut for Scott, son of Ridley, though it seems strange considering his lineage that it’s taken until the age of 48 for him to get his first feature into production. Written by Seth Owen, Morgan develops intrigue before gaining decent momentum, if somewhat artificially generated. The twists that follow evolve from what is perhaps the film’s standout scene in which Morgan is interviewed for pysch-evaluation purposes by a late-arriving analyst, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti.

As it develops, Morgan becomes another cautionary tale about how humanity’s obsession with scientific progress, though it can initiate stunning, rapid change and advances for the species, may also bring about its ultimate downfall. Messing with the gene pool is fraught with danger, as is a desire to explore far scientific horizons whilst simultaneously exposing the depths of man’s monumental hubris. Screenwriters have become adept at showing us how horribly pear-shaped these scenarios eventually turn out with Alex Garland’s superb recent effort Ex-Machina (2015) perhaps the finest example to date.

The two female leads are the standouts, with Mara playing the steely Weathers with great conviction and a strong sense of the ambiguity attached to her motivations and ultimate agenda. Taylor-Joy is even more impressive; this fine young actress, who was easily the best thing about Robert Eggers’s otherwise messy, mediocre and overrated The Witch (2015), brings a mesmerising stillness to her performance; it’s a convincing reflection of Morgan’s superabundant, radically advancing intelligence. Yet her reactions are also suffused by a streak of emotional abstraction. She may be engineered out of a test-tube but she possesses a well-honed conception of what constitutes a human’s emotional range. But can she rationalise and express these emotions with authenticity or only imitate them for the purpose of pulling the wool over her creators’ eyes?

Morgan ultimately feels a need to bring tropes – like a car chase and hand-to-hand combat – into play instead of conjecturing, theorising and seeking a generally deeper probing of the central themes though this, of course, may have denied the narrative its pace, energy, visceral gut-punching and commercial prospects. Despite this conscious dumbing down to accommodate broader appeal, Morgan is nevertheless a very solid piece of speculative fiction and a strong debut from a director with a rich cinematic heritage attached to his name.

Inferno

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The general preposterousness of nearly every scene – every twist, escape, rendezvous and revelation of duplicitousness – doesn’t necessarily render Ron Howard’s third flirtation with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code bestsellers unentertaining. Inferno (2016), taken with a grain of salt, has a wonderfully disorienting opening quarter of an hour. Here, Howard and his cinematographer Salvatore Totino, working from an adaptation by the experienced David Koepp, get to indulge a perhaps latent fascination with surrealist horror as the notion of Dante’s circles of hell, with appropriately grotesque, abstract imagery included, is heavily layered into the narrative.

There are other merits beyond the opening stanza to speak of, however, like a semi-manageable plot pitched along with decent forward momentum. And…………..what else? A barely cognisant – for a while at least, and that could be a good or bad thing – Tom Hanks as the much-travelled, much hunted symbologist Robert Langdon, awaking in hospital only to be saved from a hail of bullets and intellectually seduced by a bland medico, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), with a suspiciously broad grasp of the literary subject matter at hand.

The supporting players are a mixed bag. The always watchable Ben Foster is sadly underutilised as Betrand Zobrist, a billionaire with a God complex and the creator of a virus that threatens human existence. His personal fate is exposed early on but he continues to make fleeting flashback appearances. Of course it’s hard to openly root for such a morally destitute villain, but there’s no denying he’s a slightly magnificent bastard. What’s more, he exhibits ‘marginally’ more charisma than a hellfire-seared roundtable of his co-participants combined, particularly the horribly cast French actor Omar Sy, still somehow getting work after 2010 Gallic mega-hit The Intouchables, and here seen impersonating the impersonation of a dodgy World Health Organisation worker. We mostly view Sy in pursuit of both Zobrist and Langdon though his motivations are as murky as his co-workers, many of whom have slinked off to form another faction being led by Sidse Babett Knudsen’s stock-standard Elizabeth Sinskey.

From an even more culturally diverse pack of players – including Irrfan Khan as head of a security firm and Ana Ularu as a Terminator-like member of the Carabinieri – Langdon is again forced to ponder, during infinitesimally brief moments of reverie, just who is chasing him and why. And more tantalisingly, are the chasers allies or are they foes? Who gets the girl? Did Steve Austin teach you, Robert, to visually scan a very detailed painting like that? And just how much red dye is in that endless body of water or is it all goddamn CGI?

Vacillating between mortal terror, rapid-fire puzzling solving and passports-not-required globe-trotting, Inferno, to damn it with faint praise (something, perhaps, any Ron Howard film deserves), proves to be better than both its predecessors. It’s but an incremental advancement in quality, however, barely noticeable and twice as easily forgettable. If or when a fourth installment comes along, we’ll deny everything of course. Da Vinci Code? Angels and Demons? Inferno? Nope, never saw ’em. Don’t know what you’re talking about.

 

Sully

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There’s a familiar mix of proficiency and predictability about Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking these days. The 86 year old has little time to waste on finesse and the subsequent ‘flatness’ of many of his films is a reminder of the shortcomings of his relentlessly economical approach to filming. Combined here with the re-telling of a remarkable real-life tale, Sully (2016) still proves to be one of his finer recent works, far superior to the drab Hereafter (2010) and, especially, the occasionally risible American Sniper (2014). Most of the thanks this time around must go to the reliable, unwavering presence of Tom Hanks who, though he might rightly be derided for never stepping out of his comfort zone, does here what he does best – playing a man of scruples and integrity and doing so with utter conviction and sincerity.

Pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s decision – based on split second calculations when faced with catastrophe – to attempt to land his US Airways aircraft on the Hudson River in 2009 rather than return to New York’s LaGuardia airport, seems foolhardy, desperate and, most likely, deadly. Somehow all 155 passengers and crew aboard survive, becoming part of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, but despite being afforded hero status by the public, Sully’s superiors are determined to bring him to account for what they perceive as a catastrophic error of judgement – one that only through cosmic fortune prevents carnage and a mass loss of life.

Much of the film concentrates on the internal and external conflicts that bear down on Sully and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) in the wake of the drama. The public perception is of heroism in the shape of a man who calculatedly defied a seemingly horrible, inevitable fate. Simultaneously, we’re invited to despise the emotionless mechanism of officialdom, the multi-faced entity attempting to extol a contradictory tale that will bring this supposed hero to account for the liberties he took with so many lives resting in the palm of his hand.

Sully is naturally haunted by the scale of the near-disaster, though his convictions about the quick-fire series of decisions that led to the Hudson becoming the craft’s runway never wavers. In effect the film not only champions the man’s courage and integrity but sets up a battle between human and contrived responses to stressful, life-endangering scenarios that is at the heart of the film’s themes.

Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay is a strong one even though he’s almost duty bound to reduce elements of the accompanying stories down to their most generic constituent parts, such as pointless flashbacks to Sully’s earliest days as a pilot. Sully is sequestered in a hotel after the disaster as the inquiry nears and he attends to a brutal round of media duties. Because of this he’s unable to see his loyal wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and their subsequent phone conversions are painfully conventional back-and-forths. Other reductive scenes similarly reflect the ‘flatness’ of Eastwood’s modern style.

This style, for once, isn’t necessarily a major negative however, especially in the compelling, much anticipated final scenes as the validity of Sully’s judgment are put to the ultimate test. Here, we find out once and for all whether the fate of airborne lives is best entrusted to human instincts or flight simulator computations. These scenes are magnificently handled, playing out with an understated dignity that doesn’t detract from their intrinsic emotional power. Hanks, for all his adherence to playing saints who walk among us, is superb.

 

 

Ghostbusters

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Nostalgia can only carry a reinvented concept so far without genuine substance to support it. A third Ghostbusters film was rumoured for years before the advancing age of the original cast members seemingly put a final nail in the coffin of a much anticipated regeneration. But Hollywood, now approaching critical mass in its search for a new creative nadir, has too often shown disdain for even the most beloved touchstone films of generations past.

With nothing off limits, the re-tooled inversion of Ivan Reitman’s original Ghostbusters (1984) has arrived. Comedy central’s flavours of the months, Melissa McCarthy as paranormal investigator Abby Yates and Kristen Wiig as disgraced academic Erin Gilbert, take the lead roles. They’re joined by Leslie Jones’s ballsy transit worker Patty Tolan and Kate McKinnon’s slightly kooky science boffin Jillian Holtzmann in director Paul Feig’s reconfiguration of the original quartet, unwittingly called into action to solve New York’s outbreak of ghostly pranksters.

The cameos from original cast members are mercifully brief. A bust of the late Harold Ramis means that without dialogue he fares best. Dan Ackroyd’s few rushed lines as a harried cab driver apathetically negotiating his way through the finale’s ghoulish hell storm are passable, whilst Ernie Hudson as Patty’s uncle and Sigourney Weaver as Holtzman’s mentor are inoffensively ticked off. However Bill Murray’s couple of scenes as a psychic debunker are awful and borderline embarrassing, his last fleeting moment – ejected through a window by the crew’s first captured ghost – provides a fitting final indignity of sorts.

The blatant padding in Feig and Katie Dippold’s overstretched screenplay becomes more obviously damaging as the film progresses. For a while the sheer novelty of this new incarnation and the solid chemistry created between Bridesmaids alumni McCarthy and Wiig and, especially, the quirky McKinnon carries it along without too many dead spots. But as the plot gets lazy and loses all focus and, naturally, the CGI quotient expands, the pitfalls that taint every single over-blown, over-budgeted Hollywood event film become issues.

Nonsensical battles, possessions and a slimed-up flood of extraneous scenes are soon the order of the day. There’s virtually zero wit on display, which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker – Hollywood has provided a multitude of offerings with concepts of ‘witlessness’ and ‘entertaining’ crowding the same space – but a slew of rank, cringeworthy scenes are definitely an issue. Case-in-point, the gang’s meeting with NYC’s mayor (Andy Garcia) to discuss their unofficial status which is riddled with one clunky line after another. Chris Hensworth as a moronic beefcake hired to be the women’s secretary is simply too stupid to be funny for anyone with even fifty percept cerebral capacity, whilst bug-eyed Neil Casey is appropriately cast if utterly unmemorable in the Rick Moranis mould as a beaten-down loser vengefully unleashing an apocalyptic battery of ghosts in an effort to achieve immortality.

Very few iconic moments from the original are recreated, which wouldn’t be a problem if Feig and Dippold were able to conceive equally memorable scenarios. At the end of the day, this updated Ghostbusters (2016), whilst conceptually fresh and imbued with, initially, with a genuine liveliness and sense of fun, simply runs out of legs. It’s entertaining enough, certainly, but you simply reach a point where you just want it to end. The final half hour is tediously anti-climactic, a wearying feeling only enhanced by subsequent news of the certain sequels to come.

 

 

Everest

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Only the most minimal amount of acting is required to sustain this latest encounter with Everest. Though purportedly centred on the epic human endeavour of conquering the world’s most fearsome icy mountain peak, this is a film that’s almost entirely about the spectacle, the awe-inspiring scenic vistas and, most significant of all, the series of disaster scenarios that hope to create tension and drama. Recounting the trek of a group of tourists being led up the mountain in 1996 by trailblazing New Zealand businessman Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), Everest (2015) offers scant character sketches by way of introduction to the men who’ll partake in this adventure of a lifetime.

Other than Hall, these include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a Texan – damned if that isn’t the only fact I can immediately recall about him; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), whose health is an issue and who will clearly be pushing himself to the limit one last time, God help him, for Everest glory. Sam Worthington and Martin Henderson appear and disappear like ghosts, while Jake Gyllenhaal’s Scott Fischer is a young upstart, the laid-back leader of another tourist venture who Hall would like to join forces with.

Then there are the haplessly marginalised female characters, the tortured wives doomed to suffering ‘back home’ and given the skimpiest of material to work with. Keira Knightley, dodgy New Zealand accent and all, is Hall’s pregnant partner, whilst Robin Wright is handed the equally onerous task of breathing life into a faded sketch as Beck’s wife Peach back in the States. Closer to the action, at base camp, is Emily Watson’s hen mother Helen Wilton, providing the line of communication between the front line and the anxiously awaiting womenfolk.

Other shortcomings in William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s painfully hollow screenplay draw attention to their virtual non-presence. Even more skimpily depicted than the females are the all-important Sherpas whose back-breaking, integral participation is reduced to a couple of perfunctory scenes, references and mediocre jokes to show that they’re nothing if not a slap-happy bunch whose amiability seemingly negates any tiresome need to reveal any human depths they might possess. Soon to be seen on our cinema screens is Jennifer Peedom’s glorious Sherpa (2015), a film that, beyond its visual grandeur, dignifies and illuminates the extraordinary breadth of the Sherpas grit and courage in the face of elemental forces and economic calamity.

Baltasar Kormakur’s film is a far less interesting cinematic proposition; in fact it’s possibly the most deadly dull ‘epic adventure’ in recent studio history. With its wind-strewn, comprehension-disabled dialogue, stumbling men rendered anonymous under layers of face-contorting clothing, cringeworthy collection of fake Kiwi accents, and depressingly perfunctory dialogue, Everest stumbles into each murky crevice of cliché armed with well credentialed actors who surely signed on the dotted line for the promise of a getaway and a well paid fitness regime. Tension and drama are absent from every threat posed by the falling, collapsing, clamouring icy chunks and boulders. Even worse, a woeful sense of familiarity has its own sweet way with the entire production, making the ascent to and descent down Everest’s peak as torturous for the audience as it is for the players.

Is there anything more depressing than seeing genuinely fine actors, best known for a series of genuinely interesting creative choices partaking of something so awful, so blatantly commercial and allowing themselves to be made into a cardboard cut-out of a human being, an imposter whose part is either marginal at best or whittled away to noting in the editing room? Is this really the same John Hawkes who has forged and truly earned his reputation as one of American independent cinemas finest actors in recent times thanks to his unforgettable roles in Winter’s Bone (2010), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and The Sessions (2012)? Fair to say Everest won’t be a film he’ll use to highlight his talents to his succeeding generations or even prospective employers from this day onwards.