Saturday, 30 July 2022

I Know What You Did Last Summer

Hurled into production after screenwriter Kevin Williamson scored a box office hit with Scream, director Jim Gillespie's I Know What You Did Last Summer is a far more routine pass at a late 90s slasher. The film is content to idle forward, slowly ticking off the remorseful teens who ran over a night-time stroller then tipped his bleeding body off a pier, so as not to disturb the bright futures they saw immediately ahead of themselves. Structurally speaking, I Know is the anti-Scream in that it deliberately thwarts the audience's natural desire to speculate on the identity of the killer. Roseanne vet Johnny Galecki plays Max, a nerdy snooper who displays all the hallmarks of a suspicion magnet: he's nursing an unrequited crush on Jennifer Love Hewitt's Julie; he's a whipping boy for the male contingent of her friendship group; and, crucially, he spots the teens acting suspiciously following the car crash incident that sits at the centre of the piece. 

Rather than string the audience along using this Max character, Williamson's script, an adaptation of Lois Duncan's 1970s young adult book, quickly jettisons him. The impulse behind this decision has a sense of deconstruction to it - this most likely suspect is now off the board and, surely, all bets are off if innocent bystanders are themselves being murdered? Unfortunately this writing flourish doesn't then pave the way for a startling new revelation that could be intuited from a close examination of the film's opening act. If Max, this unconnected but axe-grinding witness, has been slain then who could possibly be taunting this group? Naturally suspicion falls on the bashed-in body they dumped in the drink. This new framing implies a supernatural element in the film, one seemingly borne out by the Fisherman killer's ability to fill a car boot full of crabs feasting on a bloated teenager, then perform a full spit-and-shine service in the minutes between Julie discovering this nautical horror and her attempts to then reveal it to her beaten-up friends. 

The Fisherman killer's taunting goes beyond a simplistic, tit for tat revenge. Indeed the complete failure of any of these characters to thrive following that fateful night seems to indicate that the piece itself is acting against them. I Know is surprisingly prim in that sense. Williamson denies these characters the lives they dreamed of, hammering them back into small-town routine or, in the case of the most virtuous character Julie, having her unconsciously sabotage her chance at escape. There are even notes that imply that this is a just, tormenting, punishment being enacted from beyond-the-grave - Ryan Phillippe's image obsessed rage case has his good looks fouled (but not ruined) by a ghostly hit-and-run driver while Sarah Michelle Gellar's Helen has her beloved hair trimmed into a neat bob while she sleeps - but this spectral swirl ends up terminating in the dull den of a middle-aged man, grasping at his own straws. In the end this Fisherman killer is an unheralded aside who jumps through hoops to excuse these teens of their inciting crime.  

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Thor: Love and Thunder

Star quality can be difficult to define. What is it that makes an actor appealing in a way that goes beyond the deliberately simplistic confines of brand-first filmmaking? Is above-the-title billing even a consideration that can be applied to the modern Marvel machine? Since Robert Downey Jr's departure there seems to have been a concerted effort to tidy away the idea of a bankable, middle-aged, leading man. The unending Disney slate preferring, instead, to offer up a hyper-caffeinated production line of poppy neophytes - a sort of The Mickey Mouse Club for big-screen action cinema. Whatever the desired destination, Taika Waititi's Thor: Love and Thunder presents an interesting case study in silver screen allure not 10 minutes into its runtime. We get a Chris-off: Chris Pratt versus Chris Hemsworth. Pratt, recently seen in the excretable Jurassic World Dominion and a veteran of several streaming-only also-rans, seems better able to communicate the snappy (and increasingly dull) impatience that underlines the majority of the interactions in this four colour universe - he's a living embodiment of Joss Whedon-style scripting then. Pratt offering himself up as a mouthpiece for the frustrated point-scoring that has, undoubtedly, burrowed itself deep into the series' DNA - a tick that refuses to be dislodged. 

Chris Hemsworth does something completely different. There's very little sense that he's concerned with seeming cool or even credible within this specific Summer blockbuster context. It's not even that he's behaving above the material, he's simply apart from the myth-making we've been trained to expect from the live action Disney floppies. With that in mind, Hemsworth's performance as the oblivious himbo secretary in Ghostbusters: Answer the Call seems to have become the actor's calling card. Hemsworth, likely recruited for that film because of his then-recent Marvel ascension, revealed a genuine instinct for absurdist comedy; one that seems to be completely at odds with his muscular movie star looks. If anything his fluency in pure nonsense adds an extra layer of bafflement to his strapping performances. Watching Love and Thunder, it was difficult to not be constantly reminded of Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam's post-Monty Python projects - Ripping Yarns or Erik the Viking; Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - pieces in which expensive spectacle operates as a sight gag rather than an invitation to gasp. Collectively, these works all revolve around deluded maniacs who, it is eventually revealed, have their heart in the right place. At this point, Hemsworth's Thor has had his peculiarities exploded. The odd farcical aside has become the totality of this character. Broadly, Hemsworth's Thor is an invincible superhero who combines the moulded physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger with the good-natured psychosis of a Michael Palin. 

Sunday, 3 July 2022

Top Gun

At least initially, Top Gun presents as a defiantly shallow experience. The story of Tom Cruise's Maverick, a Naval hot-shot who encounters a top-secret Soviet aircraft, is told with the glossy visual language of an MTV music video. The plot hinges on a relationship between this young man and an older woman, Kelly McGillis' Charlie Blackwood, a civilian instructor at the TOPGUN Naval academy with Pentagon-level clearance. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.'s screenplay describes Maverick in far younger terms than would be appropriate for a serious-minded military thriller. There's still something of the frat-boy pugilist about him and his desire to transform every encounter or relationship into a kind of game; an opportunity for Maverick to flash his boyish smile then come out on top. This coping mechanism comes under attack when Maverick is recruited for an elliptical wargame that requires heated de-briefs from dangling love interests in front of an audience of chilly peers. 

Sport is stressed again, this time in structural terms. Maverick is the small-town star graduating to a college-level arena in which everyone is just as skilled as he is. How will he cope? By sleeping with his professor, of course. Eventually, a creeping doubt in his own abilities and an acute identity issue begin to pick away at this Maverick. Characters within the film begin to address him not by the super cool call-sign he self-identifies with but by his less exciting civilian name. This penetration of Maverick's deliberately constructed carapace is doubly troublesome for the young man because his family name carries its own weight. Grins becomes grimaces; exposing imperfect teeth. Maverick's father - Duke Mitchell, a Vietnam era pilot, perished in such a way that all records of his passing are sealed and stamped confidential. Maverick's true name, Pete Mitchell, initially registers as a kind of invective, deployed to undermine, before eventually - after Maverick learns the heroic truth of his own father's death - conveying a liberating and transformational power. Maverick's acceptance of this less obviously flashy persona allows him to become a more complete dogfighter. 

Director Tony Scott and cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball employ the commercial beauty of car adverts to bolster an artistic intent that wavers (knowingly) between softcore pornography and a seat-of-your-pants reportage. Male bodies are lovingly appraised, noting the pinkness of their sunburnt skin or the ripple of a flexed muscle. The actors are transformed into products, as adoringly photographed as the F-14 Tomcats that batter in and out of frame during the airborne battles. A clear constant across all Scott's work though is the desire to glimpse (then project) secret moments of genuine expertise; be that Denzel Washington's wounded bear act in Man on Fire or a tight close-up of a pistol ejection port being put through its paces by a dead-eyed Mafiosi in True Romance. Top Gun's opening credits are built around supersonic jets landing then taking off from a frigate at sunset. We don't follow the peeling aircraft though, we stay with the people hustling and prepping for the next influx. The sequence even accounts for the idea that, for these Signal Officers, there's a sense of monotony to this task. They've done it many times before. Scott and Kimball then, assisted by Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber's edit, draw out the tiny, dreamily focused moments in which these men add flourish to their actions. We see them break - ever so briefly - from a well-drilled discipline to display anachronistic, human, moments amongst all the cold military machinery.