Serenity (2019)

2019 #27
Steven Knight | 106 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Serenity

Sorry, Browncoats — this has nothing to do with Joss Whedon’s sci-fi classic. But if you’re instead worried this might supplant that in the general consciousness, never fear: despite coming with the pedigree of a cast headlined by Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (plus Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane), and a quality writer-director in Steven Knight (the man behind Locke and Peaky Blinders), this Serenity is a dud of epic proportions. I mean, the fact that, even with those names involved, it’s being dumped in the UK as a Sky Cinema Original should tell you something…

On the remote tropical paradise of Plymouth Island, Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fisherman mostly taking tourists out on his boat, but eager to catch that one tuna that eludes him (a tuna isn’t quite as romantic a nemesis as a white whale, but I guess we’ll have to go with it). One day, his ex (Hathaway) turns up on the island with a proposition: she’ll pay him $10 million to drop her abusive husband (Clarke) in the ocean for the sharks. She has extra leverage in that hubby is beginning to get abusive towards the son Baker left behind, but who he still cares about. If that wasn’t enough of a moral quandary, there’s more to Plymouth Island than meets the eye, including a fishing equipment company rep who’s desperate to meet with Baker, but keeps just missing him…

An indecent proposal?

Serenity pitches itself as an island noir, and on the surface it ticks many of the right boxes, especially once Hathaway turns up, looking every inch the part of a classic femme fatale. You can tell she’s hamming it up a little too, playing into the role (with McConaughey, it’s harder to be sure…) It’s also beautifully lensed by DP Jess Hall, capturing both attractive sunny climes and a more overtly noir-ish vibe once a dramatic storm rolls in. But concurrent to that it’s clear some other mystery is going on, and here things get a bit more awkward, the film fumbling not to give too much away too soon. Personally, I think it fails — I guessed the twist pretty early, which I’m pretty sure was not intended, but if you don’t then it’s not cleverly built up to, it’s just muddled.

Once the twist is confirmed — and I say “confirmed” rather than “revealed” because, even though I guessed it, it seemed so loopy that I thought I must be wrong — the whole affair takes on a different light. But it’s not a well thought-through one. It’s the kind of twist that changes your perspective on everything you’ve seen, which is usually a neat development, but here it raises way more questions than it answers. To go into them would be spoilery… so, spoilers follow throughout the next paragraph.

So, we’re supposed to believe this kid has programmed a fishing game starring his dad — not wholly implausible. But it’s one where his dad frequently gets his kit off and shags around for money? I guess we could excuse this as the kid’s been playing too much stuff like Grand Theft Auto and thinks that’s what happens in games, if we’re being kind. But one day he decides to rewrite this game to make it about his dad committing murder, which the character in the game then objects to, and the game turns its own existing rules into an NPC to fight back? What, did this kid accidentally just program a full blown AI? Or several AIs? Or are we going with a Toy Story-esque notion where video game characters are actually sentient? And then somehow his dad actually doing it in-game encourages the kid to murder his real-life stepdad, which we learn thanks to some cheap news voiceover?

So far so noir

Serenity is such a ridiculous mess of a movie that it almost swings back round to being entertaining in its audacity. For me, though, it would need to be better constructed to pull that about-turn off. If it had fully considered the twist and its implications, thought it all through and played by all the necessary rules, some of the people who are laughing at it would still be laughing at it just for the basic concept, but I’d admire it at the very least for committing to its bit. Because it doesn’t, the only reason to consider watching is to marvel at its bizarre eccentricity.

2 out of 5

Serenity will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight, with a limited UK theatrical release from tomorrow.

Advertisements

Anon (2018)

2018 #95
Andrew Niccol | 100 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 + 1.78:1 | Germany / English | 15

Anon

Sky Cinema’s latest acquisition in their attempt to establish a “Netflix original”-style brand is, ironically, also a Netflix ‘original’… just not in the UK (in the US, it was released on Netflix last week). It’s also probably their most promising grab yet… although when its forerunners are Monster Family and The Hurricane Heist, that’s not saying much. But this is a new sci-fi/thriller from the writer-director of Gattaca, so that’s gotta be worth a look… even if he has spent most of the intervening two decades making some, shall we say, less-well-regarded movies.

It’s set in a near future where everyone has ocular implants that feed a constant stream of data, like non-stop augmented reality, identifying people and places, putting digital adverts on the side of buildings, and so on. These devices are connected up to a central network that allows what everyone sees to be monitored and played back when needed — for example, if a crime is committed. It’s the ultimate eyewitness, literally. When someone’s murdered, the police can just play back the last few moments of the victim’s life to see the killer. But when bodies start turning up whose final moments have been tampered with, detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) finds himself on the trail of an off-the-grid hacker (Amanda Seyfried) with the ability to alter records — and when the entire system is based on the notion that what’s recorded is unequivocal truth, her skills are a massive potential threat.

Mad skillz

Many a lazy review has described Anon as “like a Black Mirror episode”, which is not wholly inaccurate but is getting to be a stale descriptor — Charlie Brooker didn’t invent high-concept dystopian sci-fi about the dangers of future technology, so why wheel out the comparison every time anyone else dares venture into the same ballpark nowadays? Nonetheless, that is the ballpark Anon is playing in, but mixing speculative sci-fi with an equal dose of hardboiled noir to keep things spicy.

That’s not my only problem with other reviews, though, many of which have put forth low scores and negative reactions. I saw some of them in advance of my viewing, so while watching I kept thinking, “it must go badly wrong later, because so far it’s great.” Well, that moment never came. I wouldn’t say the film is perfect — some parts, especially later on, are a tad hurried, meaning more clarity of motive would be nice — but, for me, the whole worked. There are some interesting sci-fi ideas (all the stuff about being able to trust what you see, including a standout extended sequence where the hacker messes with Sal’s head), plus it feeds some ever-relevant commentary on privacy and surveillance, with the added texture of a noir-shaped plot and atmosphere for good measure.

In fairness, there’s clichéd stuff too, though I’m not sure how much it should bother us. For one example, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Sal has a “dead kid” backstory, something which is a bit overdone at this point, but your mileage will vary on how much that stuff bothers you — while some of us just think it’s a tired trope, for others it seems to completely ruin the film. Conversely, I read someone criticise it for using “noir clichés” and just thought “that’s called genre, kid”. I also saw a review which decided the film was worth 1-out-of-10 just because there was a scene where they were smoking indoors, so there’s no accounting for what different people will consider important in their assessment of artistic quality.

Gunning for other reviewers

In my opinion, Niccol and co have offered up a well-realised near-future world — not necessarily fully imagined (it’s never explained how we got to a point where everyone has these implants, seemingly enforced by law, but that doesn’t really matter), but the way the tech is depicted and how it affects everyday life is very believable. We’re thrown into the deep-end of this environment, with just enough exposition to keep up, before the film quickly moves onto the intriguing mystery that challenges the rules of this world — and considering we’ve only just learnt the rules, being able to get straight to how they’re being circumvented is impressively economical storytelling. It’s also a neat setup for having to go back to old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger-type detective work in a modern setting — this future is so high-tech, the only way to stop the criminal from detecting the operation against her is to put Sal undercover using no-tech communication.

It’s a really well made film, too. The locations are suitably evocative — the police buildings are defined by huge brutalist concrete slabs — which have been attentively framed and shot, without show-off-y camerawork. Then there’s the on-screen graphics during the point-of-view shots, which are detailed and thorough in their content, design, and execution. Their plausibility lends an automatic verisimilitude to the whole situation. And the POV shots had another nice surprise in store…

Brutal

Regular readers may recall that I’m a fan of a good variable aspect ratio, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that Anon features that technique — it’s unusual to see it outside of huge-budget films that have been shot/formatted for IMAX, and even then there’s no guarantee the multi-ratio version will be widely available (cf. Marvel only including them on 3D Blu-rays; Brad Bird not allowing Ghost Protocol to be released with it at all). In Anon, the ‘drama’ scenes are presented in your movie-standard 2.35:1, but it expands to a screen-filling 16:9 every time we see through someone’s eyes. These changes are very effective. The film employs the technique early and then often, so it doesn’t have the “wow” factor that some IMAX films achieve even when viewed at home, but it’s suitably immersive. Indeed, this would probably play really well on a vision-filling IMAX screen. The fact I wouldn’t have a chance to see it even if it did get IMAX showings means I’m not too sad it’s a direct-to-streaming release.

That said, it’s kind of a shame Sky snapped it up over here. This is anecdotal evidence I know, but I know far more people with Netflix (like, pretty much everyone nowadays) than with Sky Cinema (I’m not sure I know anyone but me, actually, and I only subscribe occasionally), and I’d like to be able to recommend this to people, especially so as to go against the grain of the criticisms that I feel have been unwarrantedly negative. Well, obviously I can still recommend it, but how useful is that if people aren’t going to get the chance to see it on the basis of that recommendation?

Who's that girl?

Nonetheless, recommend it I shall. Perhaps Anon can’t equal other works at the top-tier of its genre, but I feel some have been unfair in writing it off. Any familiarities in the shape of its plot are in aid of creating that noir atmosphere, while the sci-fi concepts are reasonably considered and executed. For fans of the genres involved, it’s definitely worth a look.

4 out of 5

Anon is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Hurricane Heist (2018)

2018 #60
Rob Cohen | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

The Hurricane Heist

Billed as a “Sky Cinema Original Movie” here in the UK (which, I presume, is like half of Netflix’s “original” movies — i.e. they paid for exclusive rights to something already completed), The Hurricane Heist… does what it says on the tin, really: as a hurricane strikes Alabama, a gang of crooks plan to use it as cover to rob a Treasury facility and its $600 million of waiting-to-be-shredded old notes. What they didn’t count on was crack ATF agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who attempts to stop them with the help of meteorologist Will Rutledge (Toby Kebbell) — who drives a tank-like hurricane-proof car — and his ex-military mechanic brother Breeze (Ryan Kwanten).

Yes, a film called The Hurricane Heist has a main character called “Breeze”.

I suppose that’s indicative of the tone the film’s shooting for, really. It’s not Sharknado, but you have to hope the filmmakers knew it was cheap and cheesy as hell and wanted to play up to that. It’s only sporadically successful — much of the dialogue is just bad rather than so-bad-it’s-good, for example — but it has its moments. About halfway through there’s a sequence where Will throws scrap hubcaps into the wind so that they fly at the bad guys like spinning discs of death, at which point the film looks like it might tip from “so mediocre it’s mediocre” into “utter genius”. Sadly, it doesn’t keep that inventiveness up for more than about ten seconds, but at least it means there’s something memorable here. And while it may generally look and feel kinda cheap, there’s a massive amount of practical wind and rain being thrown around to create the storm, which is pretty effective.

The wet and the windiest

Another success comes in a couple of amusing villain deaths during the climax, but to say more would spoil things. The chief villain is played by Ralph Ineson, whose basic skill as a performer at least elevates that role somewhat. Toby Kebbell is probably better than this too, though considering some of his other choices in the past couple of years (Ben-Hur, Warcraft, Fantastic Four) maybe he’s lucky to get this now. Certainly, this is more entertaining than the ones I’ve seen of those.

If The Hurricane Heist had been made 20 years ago it probably would’ve been a major blockbuster. It certainly looks like the CGI was produced back then. Now… well, it’s gone direct to Sky Cinema, hasn’t it? Maybe it’ll find a cult following, but I’m not sure it’s quite barmy enough to achieve that so-bad-it’s-good love. It is pretty stupid and definitely cheesy, but… well, it’s not so much boring as… not exciting. Like, it’s middling. It’s okay. It’s kinda fun. You won’t remember much of it the day after, but for a bit of daft brain-off action on a lazy evening, it’s alright.

3 out of 5

The Hurricane Heist is allegedly in some UK cinemas now. It’s definitely available on Sky Cinema, and will be (presumably exclusively) until at least 5th April 2028.

The Accountant (2016)

2017 #73
Gavin O’Connor | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Accountant

In this action-thriller from the director of the overrated Warrior, Ben Affleck stars as Chris Wolff, an autistic accountant who excels at auditing complex financial records. No, wait! I did say action-thriller, because Chris’ clients are mostly criminal organisations, and he uses the martial arts training his father instilled as a child to double up as a hitman. See, it’s exciting really.

When Chris is called to audit a robotics company (run by John Lithgow) who have found irregularities in their books (why this criminal accountant is called to work for a legit company I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was explained in the film), he unexpectedly bonds with Dana (Anna Kendrick), the company accountant who spotted the problem. After his audit unearths evidence of embezzlement, both Chris and Dana find themselves the target of bad people (led by Jon Bernthal) who want to keep the company’s secrets. Meanwhile, a couple of FBI agents (J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are on the trail of the mysterious criminal known primarily as “the Accountant”…

Maths!

The Accountant has lots of moving bits and pieces — I’ve not even alluded to all of them in that summary — but to call it a complicated film would be either too generous or a disservice, depending on your point of view. There’s a clarity to it all that keeps it easy to follow but suitably engaging, even as it plays out multiple storylines in a couple of time periods (there are flashbacks aplenty to Chris’ childhood training). And if you’re thinking, “finally a film that makes accounting exciting!”, I’m sorry to disappoint you but Chris’ maths skills are really just a MacGuffin to get the ball rolling. What it does deliver is a decent thriller plot, with a couple of twists to keep things lively. It’s also a pretty satisfying narrative — I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie that so thoroughly tied up everything into nice neat little bows. I suppose that’s at least kind of appropriate given the hero’s condition.

The action element is mainly reserved for the second half, when Chris has to deal with the people out to get him. This isn’t one for adrenaline junkies — it’s not a nonstop fight-fest like, say, a Bourne movie — but there’s a suitably violent climax nonetheless.

Shooting!

In some respects The Accountant shouldn’t be a good movie. It treats autism as a superpower, which is both inaccurate and turning into a cliché; but it doesn’t do it so egregiously that it feels entirely tacky. The whole side story with the FBI also feels kind of clunky, though at least eventually goes somewhere — whether that somewhere is relevant and clever, or pointless and daft for the sake of a twist, is up to your own judgement. Same goes for the other major final-act reveal.

Yet, for all that, it’s kind of fun. Not in the obvious jokey way that, say, Guardians of the Galaxy is fun, but in the way that it provides decent characters, decent thrills, decent action, and a thorough set of conclusions that put pins in everything, including things you didn’t even think needed tying up. There may be points in the middle when you come close to rolling your eyes and almost wanting to give up on it, but by the end it’s all pretty satisfying.

4 out of 5

The Accountant is available on Sky Cinema from today.