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.

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Locke (2013)

2016 #83
Steven Knight | 85 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

“Tom Hardy goes for a drive and makes some phone calls” is the plot of this film, which is often mislabelled as a thriller. That’s not to degrade its thrillingness, but rather to say that if you’re expecting a single-location single-character phone-based thrill-ride like Phone Booth (which I love) or Buried (which I’ve still not seen), you’re not going to get it. In reality, Locke is a drama about a man dealing with some woes that are both everyday and life-changing, but as a film it’s been made in an unusual and interesting manner.

To be more specific, the story concerns Ivan Locke (Hardy), the foreman on a huge construction site in Birmingham, and the only character on screen for the film’s entire running time. As he leaves work one evening, he’s stopped at some traffic lights. He indicates left… but, given some time to think about it, turns right. (Shades of Doctor Who season four there, but I don’t think it’s deliberate!) As he drives down the motorway for the next couple of hours, he makes a series of phone calls that completely change his life.

I could give you some indication of what those calls are about, but I think the less you know, the more entertaining it will be. As writer-director Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Hummingbird, Peaky Blinders) says in his audio commentary, part of the idea was to construct a movie where the lead character’s big decision — which usually comes near the end — actually occurs at the start, and the whole movie deals with the repercussions of that. Locke deciding to turn right rather than left isn’t just a decision about the quickest route to his destination, but about heading to a different destination, and in the process turning his life upside down. Another part was to tell a story about an ordinary guy dealing with events that aren’t going to change the world, aren’t even going to make the papers, but are a big deal in his life. Something like this could happen to any of us, and how would we deal with it?

I’d argue that Locke is Tom Hardy’s most unusual role to date: a total everyman. I mean, unusual for him. As such, it’s probably the best demonstration of his genuine acting ability: he’s got psychos and outré characters down pat, but playing an understated, fundamentally good, normal bloke? That’s a big change of pace. What’s so remarkable about Ivan Locke is his sheer unremarkableness. He’s a softly spoken guy, a friendly guy, a nice guy; as we learn at one point, he’s the only contractor who’s ever submitted paperwork to the council not just on time but early — he’s that kind of guy. And on this night, he’s decided to be completely honest with everyone; honest to a fault, in fact, because sometimes it just makes things worse. As Knight says in that commentary, what happens to Ivan is “an ordinary tragedy, and Ivan’s solution to the problem is the thing that makes him exceptional”.

Throughout this, however, is the issue of Hardy’s chosen accent… It’s Welsh, or meant to be Welsh, chosen to be working class but not harsh, with fewer preordained associations than some working class accents have. I thought it was… iffy, shall we say; and certainly people unfamiliar with the Welsh accent are all over the place in guessing where it’s from. However, looking on IMDb, Welsh people seem quite happy with it, so… Either way, you do get used to it (or I did, at least), so that as the film goes on it grates less often. Hardy’s too busy acting up a storm for it to matter, anyway. He’s a captivating performer when he’s given the space and character for it, and while I dispute the assertion (made in the special features) that he’s the only actor you could spend 80 minutes watching like this, it’s still a rare gift.

The rest of the cast appear as voices only on the other end of the phone, and in their own way are quite starry — faces that you may recognise, mainly from British TV, in even some of the smaller roles. Not that you see their faces, so, you know, you might have to look them up, or watch the making-of. Some of the performances err a little towards radio acting for me, which is kind of understandable seeing as how that’s basically how they were recorded, but there are particularly good turns from Andrew “Moriarty in Sherlock” Scott, as one of Locke’s underlings who has to step up to the plate while his boss is on the road, and Olivia Colman, who is always brilliant so that should be no surprise. Having just seen her play an ultra-capable woman recently in The Night Manager (which I’ll cover in my TV round-up this Thursday, incidentally), this is distinctly different. As if we needed to know she had range!

One of the people Locke talks to is his dad, which is noteworthy because his dad is dead. This isn’t a fantasy movie, and he isn’t having hallucinations either — he’s just imagining talking to him, for specific reasons that become apparent. These chats seem to be the film’s most divisive part for viewers: some people think it’s forced and terrible, others think it makes for great monologues. I hew towards the latter. Partly, it seems to stem from whether you believe people talk to themselves in the car or not. Here’s an apparently-uncomfortable truth for people who think no one does that: they do.

Other ridiculous criticisms include that it should only be a radio play, or a stage play, and that it’s completely uncinematic. It’s true that it could function on radio, but you’d lose an important aspect: that what we say with words isn’t always what we say with our face, which is particularly true when we’re on the telephone and the person we’re talking to can’t see our face. The film uses this contrast more than once. As for the stage, stage plays don’t allow for close-ups, and — voices aside — this is about what’s happening on Hardy’s face, not with his whole body. And in either form you’d lose all the photography of nighttime motorways, which have their own kind of hazy beauty. For a movie about someone making phone calls, it is intensely cinematic.

It’s also in real-time, more-or-less (it lasts 80 minutes, and near the end Locke says he’s been driving for a little over two hours — that’s near-as-damn-it, isn’t it?) I’ve discussed before how I like real-time narratives — it’s why I was initially attracted to 24, and why I’m very interested in forthcoming spin-off 24: Legacy while seemingly everyone else is busy stomping their feet and bawling like a baby because they want more Jack Bauer. I digress. Part of the beauty of Locke is that we’re locked in the car with this guy experiencing what he’s experiencing as it unfolds. There is no escaping it, only limited control over it. The fact he’s driving towards something is a very clear metaphor here, emphasised by occasional shots of his GPS showing the fixed track he’s on, and the fact he speaks to his dad — i.e. his past — in the rearview mirror. These could be heavy-handed metaphors, but they’re pitched about right in my opinion: you’ll probably spot them (which is always nicer than feeling you’ve missed stuff), but you’re not battered around the head with it.

It’s possible to make Locke sound like the most boring film ever — “a man drives home from work while talking on the phone, mostly about methods of pouring concrete”. Obviously, that undersells it massively. Hardy has never been more compelling, the supporting cast are so much more than “voices on the phone” (listen out, too, for Tom “Spider-Man” Holland and a midwife voiced by Alice “Sightseers” Lowe, who’s apparently Steven Spielberg’s favourite character), and the visuals are hypnotically compelling to boot. Even though it didn’t quite convince me to go the full 5-stars, I’d rate this one a must-see.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Locke is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Hummingbird (2013)

aka Redemption

2015 #67
Steven Knight | 93 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

HummingbirdSteven Knight, the writer of Eastern Promises and Peaky Blinders — and, latterly, writer-director of “Tom Hardy driving on the phone” thriller Locke — made his directorial debut with this Jason Statham thriller that isn’t.

The Stath plays Joey, a soldier who did something terrible in Afghanistan that landed him in a mental health unit in London awaiting court martial, from which he escapes into homelessness. Running from some attackers, he stumbles into a plush flat that’s vacant for the summer. Using his ‘borrowed’ wealth, he strikes up a friendship with Cristina (Agata Buzek), the nun who runs his old soup kitchen, gets a job with Chinese gangsters, and sets about finding out what happened to his friend from the street.

Outlined as just a plot, Hummingbird might sound like your standard Statham action-thriller. It really isn’t. Knight’s focus is primarily on the relationship between Joey and Cristina, two people who are both lost, struggling with events from their past, trying to help people, in search of something. It’s a bigger acting challenge than Statham usually has to face. To be honest, he’s probably not wholly up to the task, but he makes a good fist of it. Buzek has a more striking arc, in some respects, and navigates it subtly but successfully. The crime storyline, in particular Joey’s investigations into the fate of his friend, are a frame on which to hang the development of these people.

Sad StathamThe film’s problem, perhaps, is that it slips a little between two stools. It’s certainly not action-packed enough to appeal to a good deal of Statham’s fanbase — the one or two instances of him kicking ass are very much asides. On the flipside, it may not commit to the character drama fully enough to satiate the needs of that kind of viewer. However, for anyone at peace with those two apparently-disparate styles — like, well, me — Hummingbird will be a more satisfying experience.

4 out of 5

Eastern Promises (2007)

2009 #32
David Cronenberg | 97 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Eastern PromisesArguably most famous for his horror films of the ’80s (though a couple of his ’90s efforts could stake a claim), director David Cronenberg widened his appeal somewhat with the excellent crime thriller A History of Violence. Here he reunites with star Viggo Mortensen for another grim tale, switching the bright searing heat of the American Midwest for the rain-drenched nighttime streets of our fair capital.

Despite some similarities in plot and theme, Eastern Promises failed to engage me in the same way as the earlier effort. Perhaps this is because it plays tag with its central character, beginning with Naomi Watts’ do-gooder nurse before shifting focus to Mortensen’s mafia chauffeur with nary a blink. It’s an unusual transition, and consequently it’s hard to tell whether it’s skillful writing or a fortuitous accident that it comes off seamlessly. One theoretical screenwriting argument would have it that the film is actually all about Christine, the baby, and that’s why it works, but that feels a little too pretentious to engage with now.

Tied around the baby’s fate, screenwriter Steven Knight factors in some appropriately dark elements, like white slavery or the relocated criminal underworld that currently operates in the UK. Though these are handled with a certain amount of care, they’ve been covered in greater depth elsewhere (the excellent miniseries Sex Traffic, for example) and here are reduced to pawns in a different tale. This isn’t necessarily inappropriate, but remembering the detail from other such dramas can leave the topics’ inclusion here feeling lightweight.

Elsewhere, the screenplay suffers from some awkward dialogue exchanges and barely credible logic contrivances being used to jump-start the plot. Most of these come from Watts’ character, who seems too competent for much of the film to pass off as a naïve fool at its start. This may be Watts’ fault, playing her as intelligent when a naïve approach might render her actions more believable, but it seems cruel to lay the blame with her as she’s very strong all round. Armin Mueller-Stahl also gives his typically accomplished turn in his typically key supporting role.

Mortensen’s Oscar-nominated performance is the focus, however. Apparently thoroughly immersed in the role, he gives a distinguished performance throughout and is central to what are by far the film’s most memorable moments: a nude steam baths fight, which has become justifiably infamous (I suspect for the “nude” part, but it’s the “fight” that deserves it), and a game-changing twist, that I sadly had ruined in advance, though there are plenty of clues scattered along the way.

By its end, Eastern Promises has the feel of the first part of something bigger: while the story of the baby is resolved, many others are left open. Unresolved threads aren’t always a problem, but it feels like Cronenberg has more to say in this world. So it’s nice to know a sequel is possibly in the works, because Eastern Promises has the potential to be a Hobbit to some Russian mafia epic’s Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, a similarly low-key follow-up would be just as appropriate.

Though it failed to capture me as much as A History of Violence, possibly due to too-raised expectations, Eastern Promises has the potential to grow with repeated viewings. And either type of continuation would be most welcome.

4 out of 5

Unfortunately, plans for a sequel ultimately fell apart in 2012. Some more details can be read here.