Tag: Rose Byrne

Sunshine (2007)

Astronauts head out to restart the sun in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Cillian Murphy (Robert Capa), Chris Evans (James Mace), Rose Byrne (Cassie), Michelle Yeoh (Corazon), Cliff Curtis (Searle), Troy Garity (Harvey), Hiroyuki Sanada (Kaneda), Benedict Wong (Trey), Chipo Chung (Icarus), Mark Strong (Pinbacker)

Spoilers: Last act surprises are discussed here. Although they did put them in the trailer at the time as well

What would we do if the sun decided to pack it in? To be fair, probably not build a bomb the size of Manhattan out of all the world’s fissile material and then fly it up to the Sun in a huge spaceship to jump start the sun’s core. Because that idea is pretty much like trying to restart a volcano with a match. To be fair, Professor Brian Cox (for it was he) did come up with an actual concept that did work – something involving a Q-Ball in the sun, whatever the hell that is – that the film never mentions. But then who really cares about the science, we only care about the simple idea of restarting the sun’s engine with a massive nuke. That’s an idea I don’t need a staff pass at the Large Hardron Collider to understand.

Mankind’s final fate is in the hand of a team pulled from across the world’s space agencies, with Professor Robert Capa (played by Cillian Murphy as a figure inspired heavily by Brian Cox himself in looks and style) as the boffin whose job is to blow the bomb when the time comes. The mission, Icarus II, is under the command of Captain Taneka (Hiroyuki Sanada), with engineer Mace (Chris Evans), pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) whose job is to maintain the oxygen garden, psychiatrist Searle (Cliff Curtis), navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) and second-in-command and comms officer Harvey (Troy Garity). Entering the final days of the mission, near Mercury, the crew discover traces of the first missing mission that carried the first payload to restart the sun, Icarus I. Deciding two payloads are better than one, the crew divert to intercept – and of course from there everything slowly falls apart into increasing chaos, destruction and horror.

Boyle’s film was marketed as a sort of slasher-in-space – which to be fair it only really becomes in its final act, as the crew accidentally take on board captain of Icarus I, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), a man driven mad by proximity to the sun, deluded in the belief that it is God’s will that mankind perish with the sun. In fact for the bulk of its runtime – and its primary themes – are really about the psychological impact of prolonged isolation in space with only a small group of people for company (a heightened submarine claustrophobia), the dangers and damage that obsession can cause and the moral complexities that emerge when the fate of mankind is literally in the hands of eight people.

With an intelligent script by Alex Garland, Boyle’s film is smart, superior sci-fi which asks searching questions of how we might respond in the situations this crew are thrown into. How quickly would you make decisions about who is expendable and who is not when you are mankind’s last chance? How quickly would you be willing to sacrifice yourself? What moral qualms would you feel if the fate of the one was balanced against the many? And how are all these feelings heightened by the intense claustrophobia and isolation of prolonged space travel, interacting with the same few people day-in and day-out in a ship of which every inch you would be intimately familiar within the first few months of a mission lasting years?

It’s a wonder more people don’t go crazy in the film. Boyle’s film makes excellent use of the terrifyingly awesome, good-like power of the sun. Its rays are so intense at the range of the ship, that any exposure over about 2% of its full strength is lethal. But there is something about its mighty power, its all-consuming presence, that draws characters too it like moths to a flame. Psychiatrist Searle (impressively played by Cliff Curtis) already seems to be becoming slowly a slave to an obsession with our star, his skin peeling from too many hours in the ship’s solar observation lounge. Pinbacker (a curiously accented performance of intense insanity from Mark Strong) lost his mind in sun worship, his mind seemingly snapped by coming face-to-face with the powers of the heaven compared to the mini-presence of man.

But it’s that presence of mankind that drives the mission, and lies behind all decisions. Hard-ass engineer Mace (Chris Evans, very good) seems like a jerk, but he simply applies Spock’s maxim of the needs of the many to a logical extreme (correctly) objecting to every course of action that invites unknowns into the equation that endanger the mission. And Mace doesn’t hesitate at any time in the film when asked to balance his own safety against the success of the mission. Each crew member – with the exception of Harvey – places their own survival a distant second behind the completion of the mission, and the film is littered with moments of self-sacrifice and self-imperilment.

It’s this humanistic core to the film, of accepting the world is it and that mankind must be preserved within that, which leads to some of the film’s more weighted points around faith and religion. The film has little time for anything away from pure science, and an interest in higher powers and staring too closely at the bright light, is mixed in heavily with a dangerous fundamentalism that eventually leads to the film’s only spiritual figure Pinbacker becoming a psychopath determined to follow what he sees as God’s plan at the cost of all human life. It’s not a subtle picture of religion – and the film could have balanced it with at least one of these characters expressing some faith in some sort of religion on the ship or gently questioning how humbling being this close to the face of God might feel. The film has no time for that.

But then I suppose this is really a psychologically intense mission film, a sort of big-themes action sci-fi that is the sort of ideas based film you wish was made more often. Boyle’s direction is pinsharp as always, and the moments of dreamy awe and shattering power of the sun (as bodies are vapourised, parts of the ship crumble) or the freezing vastness of space (as one character discovers to their cost) provide a series of haunting scenes. Shooting Pinbacker with a juddering out-of-focus intensity – intended to ape the feeling of starring directly at the sun – is effective in making the character chillingly unknowable.  This moments work very well, as does the superb cast which has not a weak link among them (Cillian Murphy in particular anchors the entire thing extremely well). Sunshine is a thought-provoking and blistering science-fiction film that manages to balance big themes and ideas with horror house jumps and haunting moments of tension.

X-Men Apocalypse (2016)

Oscar Isaac destroys something else (again) in misfire X-Men Apocalypse

Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: James McAvoy (Charles Xavier/Professor X), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/Mystique), Oscar Isaac (Apocalypse), Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy/Beast), Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert), Evan Peters (Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver), Tye Sheridan (Scott Summers/Cyclops), Sophie Turner (Jean Grey), Olivia Munn (Psylocke), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler), Alexander Shipp (Ororo Monroe/Storm), Lucas Till (Alex Summers/Havoc), Josh Helman (Colonel William Stryker), Ben Hardy (Angel)

Where do you go with a franchise when you are on at least your second timeline (maybe more, who knows?) and earth-shattering destruction has been done so many times before? At one point in this movie, our young heroes head to the cinema to watch Return of the Jedi – with a genre savvy conversation following on whether the third film in a franchise is always the worst. You’d like to think if you were going to pop such a hostage to fortune in the third film of your franchise, then you’d be busting guts to make this film as stand-out as possible. Doesn’t happen.

It’s 1983. Charles (James McAvoy) is still running his school with Hank (Nicholas Hoult). Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence – looking for every single second as if she is only there by contractual obligation) is saving mutants left, right and centre on the underground. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is living incognito in Germany with a wife and daughter. All that is about to be thrown into chaos when Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, trying his very best to make an impression under piles of make-up), the very first mutant, rises from imprisonment after thousands of years. The most powerful mutant in history, he decides the world is ripe and ready for the taking.

In X-Men: Apocalypse, not only is more not more, but the film churns out emotional character and relationship beats, covered to exhaustion in other movies. One glance at Magneto’s family and anyone who has ever seen a movie is going to know they are not long for this world. Raven and Charles no sooner appear in the same frame than you know the two of them are going to struggle to reconcile their past with their different viewpoints. We’ve seen it all before – and you feel, in the slightly disengaged performances, that the cast have had enough as well. Even Apocalypse, for all his world-altering power, basically has the same agenda as every mutant villain this franchise has ever had before: Mutant Superiority. 

Around these familiar plot beats, we get action that also feels culled from before. The film culminates in such earth-shattering destruction you really feel it should be more exciting, but instead it feels tediously familiar. How many times have we seen cities devastated like this? It’s such a cliché that the millions of people who must have died in the planet-wide obliteration that consumes the final third of the film don’t even merit a mention. It’s like the world treats this global destruction with the same meh that you feel a number of the film’s viewers do. 

But then the whole film has a weary sense of inevitability about it, of going through the motions. The plot makes little or no sense. Apocalypse is awoken by a cult we never hear from again, the whole film takes place in a few days, barely enough time to build up any sense of peril – but also somehow too short a time for the vast number of comings-together of different characters to feel natural. Characters from past films are thrown in willy-nilly, often for no real reason. So from the first scene we have Moira MacTaggert and Havoc back from the first film, then Quicksilver is back to repeat his bullet-time action from Days of Future Past (saying that, this sequence, as Quicksilver rushes to save people from an exploding mansion to the tune of Sweet Dreams, is the most vibrantly enjoyable moment in the film). We even get Stryker back, a character who becomes more and more of a cartoony villainous idiot each time he appears.

In between these points, the film frequently misses its beats. Apocalypse’s assembled group of mutant followers are assembled with such casual indifference (Apocalypse basically seems to pick up the first four mutants he meets) that their characters and motivations barely register. Obviously we know Storm is destined to be a goodie, so we get a few seconds of establishment that she is basically a goodie. Magneto gets his painfully predictable backstory (Michael Fassbender is by the way totally wasted in this movie, forced to repeat the same notes over and over again from the last two films). The other two barely make an impression – other than perhaps Olivia Munn’s unbelievably fanservice costume.

But it also makes more serious errors. A hideously distasteful moment sees Magneto destroy the whole of Auschwitz in a rage. There is, quite frankly, something more than a little stomach turning about the site of a real atrocity – where millions died – being blown away on screen like any other major landmark. Even more disgusting to have it serve as a shallow, over-exploited “he feels pain because he was in the Holocaust” moment. Other times in this series this link has worked – here it manifestly doesn’t.

About the only thing that really works here is the darker interpretation of Charles – McAvoy making it clear that events have made Xavier far more willing to go to dangerous ends to protect his family – and there is a neat replay of the first conversation between Xavier and Magneto from the very first film in the franchise, with the stresses all changed to show that their positions have developed in a far different way in this new timeline. But that’s the only real moment that feels new.

But I’ve still got a certain affection for these X-Men movies, and this isn’t the worst one they’ve ever made (that’s always going to be X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but it’s up there. It somehow doesn’t feel special, more like a film that had to be made for legal and financial reasons, rather than because there seemed like a decent story to be told, or something unique to be said. The rushed plot and lack of engaging characters make more sense when you think about it like that. It’s nothing special at all, and seems to pass in front of your eyes and then just as quickly out of your memory.

Troy (2004)

Brad Pitt sails into history and legend as Achilles in the misunderstood Troy

Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Cast: Brad Pitt (Achilles), Eric Bana (Hector), Orlando Bloom (Paris), Diane Kruger (Helen), Brian Cox (Agamemnon), Peter O’Toole (Priam), Rose Byrne (Briseis), Saffron Burrows (Andromache), Brendan Gleeson (Menelaus), Sean Bean (Odysseus), Julian Glover (Triopas), James Cosmo (Glaucus), John Shrapnel (Nestor), Julie Christie (Thetis), Garrett Hedlund (Patroclus), Vincent Regan (Eudorus), Nigel Terry (Archeptolemus), Trevor Eve (Velior), Tyler Mane (Ajax)

VERSION CONTROL: Some films are just vastly superior as Director’s Cuts. Troy is one. The longer cut of Troy,I can assure you, is a richer, deeper, more enjoyable film. So watch that one. I’m also spoiling The Illiad. For those who worry about such things.

When I was younger I loved the Greek myths. I had two or three books of them and I read them over and over again. I practically grew up knowing the whole story of the siege of Troy in intimate detail. This helped feed my love for sweeping epic films, with big casts, spectacle and themes. So it probably won’t surprise you to hear I love Troy. That I’ve seen it dozens of times. It’s the film I wish had existed when I was a kid, because I would have watched it again and again. I know it’s not perfect, but I can forgive it almost anything. 

In Ancient Greece, a peace treaty has finally been agreed between Sparta’s King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) and Priam (Peter O’Toole) of Troy. Priam’s sons Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) are in Sparta to seal the treaty – only for Paris to fall in love with Menelaus’ unloved wife Helen (Diane Kruger). When they elope – despite Hector’s fears for the harm it will cause Troy’s people – Menelaus’ ambitious brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox) sees his chance to cement his hold over the last corner of the Mediterranean by conquering Troy. But to do so he’ll need the help of the greatest warrior in Greece, Achilles (Brad Pitt), who cares only for his legend and hates Agamemnon. 

Directed with an old-fashioned grandeur by Wolfgang Petersen, mixed with an unflinching look at the blood and guts of war, Troy is a grand, cinematic epic that looks fantastic. The production and costume design are spot-on, and there is a great mixture of the “real” and the “special effect” in what you see on screen. It’s also got some cracking battle and fight choreography. The sword fight choreographers worked overtime on this one. The film embraces the grace and style of Achilles – he’s not the largest or strongest, but he has a pace, speed, intelligence and ruthlessness that allows him to duck, sway and constantly be one step ahead of his opponents. It doesn’t shy away from the brutality of his violence, and the camera never forgets the fallen.

It’s a film that understands the impact of war. It makes us care about many of the characters – and frequently shocks us with senseless, sudden deaths, or devotes time to the grief of those they leave behind. Our hero Hector has an almost tortuous-to-watch lengthy build up to his final fight – and then the camera gives us a moment or two when he is fatally wounded to see the light start to go from his eyes before Achilles delivers the killer blow. It’s a film that moves the viewer, that excites us with action while letting us grieve the cost of war.

The script is also a reasonably decent adaptation of elements of Homer, remixed with a modern (God-free) twist – as if this was the “true” story legend has been spun from. The script is put together by Game of Thrones’ David Benioff, and has his recognisable mix of epic scope and noble principles, clashing with realpolitik.

So why was Troy rejected by so many people? Why was it so misunderstood on release? It’s a mis-sold and partly mis-cut story struggling to embrace its own implications. Maybe I’m reading stuff into it, but I feel like this is a different film than the marketing or filmmakers seem to have understood. 

Firstly, Achilles is (at least for the first two thirds) effectively the film’s villain. He has no interest in people, only a sociopathic wish to be remembered as a great warrior. He’s ruthless in combat and slaughters indiscriminately. He’s temperamental and emotionally stunted. Contrast him with Eric Bana’s Hector: a devoted family man, who values the lives of the people of Troy first and foremost. Hector is effectively reimagined from the source material as a very modern man – the audience surrogate, the hero we can relate to, compared to the greedy, rapacious Greeks.

The struggle the film has is its biggest star plays Achilles – and it doesn’t want to compromise his box office appeal. So it tries not to draw too much attention to this contrast, and avoids passing too much judgement on Achilles. So we struggle when Achilles and Hector fight – anyone with any sense is surely rooting for the guy with a wife who just wants to see his kid grow up, rather than the sociopath, even if he is played by a super-star. All the characters hammer home our distress at Hector fighting Achilles, by the fact all of them reckon he’s got no chance. There are moving farewells for Hector with his father, wife and son. Hard to sympathise with Achilles when he slays the film’s most sympathetic character and drags him in the dirt right?

Achilles only starts to develop humanity (and become a modern hero) when he hits rock bottom after killing Hector – and is shamed first by Priam’s humbling, controlled pain (a tour-de-force from Peter O’Toole) then by his slowly developing love for Briseis. From this point , Achilles fights specifically to protect others – and finally puts aside his longing for immortal fame to try and save Briseis from the slaughter of the sack of Troy. The film’s slightly muddled unwillingness to condemn Achilles earlier, and its desire to celebrate him at the end, muddies the water. But there is a clear character arc slowly developing of Achilles becoming a humbler, more humane man.

As Achilles doesn’t look that good opposite Hector, the film turns Agamemnon into a ruthlessly ambitious, vain and greedy tyrant (played with a lip-smacking, roaringly enjoyable style by Brian Cox). Agamemnon (like many of the Greeks) is a modern politician – he wants to fashion the Greek city states into a single nation (sure one under his control, but it’s a more modern idea). The film, however, uses him to make Achilles desire for lasting fame feel more sympathetic. We all hate hypocritical politicians and cowardly bullies, right? And we all prefer the romance of the individual fighter uninterested in worldly affairs, right? Ergo, says the film, if we don’t like Achilles because we prefer Hector, we can also like Achilles a bit more if we don’t like Agamemnon. It’s clever structure in a way – but because the film doesn’t completely commit to it, it gets a bit lost in the telling.

The film’s attitude to Agamemnon is reflected in its favouring of Trojans over Greeks. While the Greek commanders squabble, or engage in political chicanery, the Trojans have an old school nobility. The film is enamoured with Priam. He’s played by Peter O’Toole in his grandest style (and O’Toole, though he can’t resist a bit of ham here and there, is very good). But Priam is in fact a naïve idiot, who makes a mess of everything. He’s incapable of accepting the realities of the world – his decisions lead to disaster at every turn. He may be overtly noble, honest and full of integrity – but like Ned Stark in Game of Throneshe’s completely out of his depth in Agamemnon’s ruthless world. Achilles may call him a “far better king”, but by any modern standard, Priam is in fact a terrible king, who makes all his decisions based on his regard for the Gods, rather than a claim appraisal of the situation.

These two reasons are why the film struggles. The film despises the Greeks but wants us to love Achilles – while at the same time having him kill without compassion, including our main audience surrogate character. It wants us to aspire to the romantic ideals of Priam and the Trojans – even while it demonstrates time and again that these ideas are hopelessly misguided, and completely wrong. It goes part of the way to accepting these contradictions, but it can never quite bring itself to villainise Brad Pitt, or condemn the noble Peter O’Toole.

I like to watch it my own way, balancing these contradictions – and I think if you do that (like watching the TV show The Tudors if you accept what the show can’t: that Henry VIII is the villain) then the film is really rewarding, full of interesting ideas and packed with cracking scenes.

It also allows some wonderful performances. Brad Pitt is, I suppose, an odd choice for Achilles in many ways – and he seems a bit bound in by his 1950s-Hollywood-Epic-Transatlantic accent. But he really looks the part, and I don’t think he’s afraid to let Achilles look bad – and he sells his conversion into a more heroic figure. Eric Bana is terrific as Hector – warm, engaging, hugely admirable. He has a world-weary tiredness to him – while Pitt’s Achilles is as cold as marble, Bana’s Hector looks like he has the cares of the world on his shoulders, tired already of the violence and horror he has had to endure.

There are tonnes of excellent supporting performances. Sean Bean in particular is so good as the wry and infinitely wise Odysseus you will be wishing they had made an Odyssey sequel so you can see more of him. Cox and O’Toole are rather good (bless, they are clearly enjoying themselves) as flip sides of the same coin. Byrne is affecting as gentle Briseis. Brendan Gleeson makes a fiercely bullying Menelaus. I’m not sure Saffron Burrows has ever been better than here. James Cosmo and Nigel Terry shine in smaller roles.

Poor Orlando Bloom struggles with a part that is hugely difficult – Paris is basically a spoilt coward. The film makes great play of Helen (a pretty good Diane Kruger in a near impossible part as the most beautiful woman, like, ever) being attracted to Paris precisely because he’s more of a romantic, and not interested in violence – but he tends to come across more as a thoughtless playboy, who lands everyone in trouble. It’s tricky for Bloom as this is the purpose of the film – and in many ways he’s very good casting for it – but that’s partly because he’s not the most persuasive of actors. He has a slight redemption arc – but I’m not sure Bloom as the presence to really sell it. 

I can’t believe how much I’ve actually written about this– but, for all its faults and its confused structure  I actually rather deeply love it. Maybe it’s tied in too much with my love for Greek myths. Maybe I love these all-star character actor epics. But I think it’s a film that puts a lot at stake for its characters – and really makes you invest in them – and that draws some fine performances from its cast and frames them all in a brilliant vista. It’s crammed with some terrific scenes. It never fails to entertain me. It’s almost a go-to film. I’ve seen it dozens of times and yet it never tires for me. I love it. In many ways it’s one of my filmic (forgive me) Achilles’ heels.

Spy (2015)

Melissa McCarthy takes on the bad guys in actually rather funny comedy Spy

Director: Paul Feig

Cast: Melissa McCarthy (Susan Cooper), Jason Statham (Rick Ford), Rose Byrne (Rayna Boyanov), Jude Law (Bradley Fine), Miranda Hart (Nancy B. Artingstall), Bobby Cannavale (Sergio De Luca), Allison Janney (Elaine Crocker), Peter Serafinowicz (Aldo), Morena Baccarin (Karen Walker)

Comedy is an unusual thing to write about, I often find. Unlike any other film genre, you know immediately whether it works or not, ‘cos if you ain’t laughing it probably ain’t working. Well the good thing is that Spy does work, as I certainly laughed. It’s actually a fairly well structured comedy, a smart parody of Bondish action films matched with the foul-mouthed crudity you get in the films from the Feig/Apatow stable.

Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is the cheery deskbound analyst who provides real-time data and intel to would-be 007 Bradley Fine (Jude Law). But after disaster strikes, Susan volunteers to go into the field to find out as much as she can about Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the daughter of a rogue arms dealer who is taking over the family business. Despite the concerns of her boss – and super-macho fellow agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) – Susan proves surprisingly adept at espionage, disguise and above all action.

What Spy does well is that it feels like it’s been written and shot with a bit of discipline, rather than the over-indulged and forced “improvisation” that so often blights these sort of comedies. It feels more controlled, and therefore easier to engage with – we are watching a group of good actors tell a story, rather than a gang of comedians showing off. I think this is helped by the fact that most of the cast are not natural comedians, but instead actors delivering gags with skill. Feig also shoots the film with zip and punch – most scenes don’t drag on indulging forced banter.

Melissa McCarthy is very  good as the rather sweet lead, torn between the role she has given herself in life, and her own desire to use her capabilities. Her character delivers many of the comic moments of the film, but she’s not the joke – instead she is shown to be brilliantly proficient both as the “eyes and ears” of Jude Law’s suave Bond-spoof role, and also as the woman in the field. McCarthy’s comic timing is matched with an affection for her character that makes her likeable and easy to empathise with. What she creates here is a genuine character who grows and develops as the film progresses.

The film’s real weapon is the strong cast of proper actors giving expert comic turns. Rose Byrne is hilarious as an imperiously bitchy, foul-mouthed villain who makes every line into a thinly veiled (and often not veiled at all) insult. Jason Statham gives probably a career-best performance as a ludicrously macho secret agent bragging incessantly about a string of unlikely sounding exploits, while being barely competent in the field. Who knew The Transporter could do such a neat line in self-parody? Allison Janney’s foul-mouthed, impatient CIA boss and Miranda Hart’s ditzy surveillance expert offer similarly rich comic roles. These actors know that the trick of real comedy is to deliver well prepared punchlines with controlled efficiency rather than crummy flights of fancy.

Spy also works because it has an actual story, and mixes this effectively with action and hi-jinks that feel like solid spoofs of Bondish films but are also genuinely entertaining in themselves. It’s a plot that stands (more or less) on its own, rather than feeling like a shoddy framework to hang rude jokes on. As such, the rude jokes complement by the plot (rather than crushing it) and most land with a genuine chuckle. It’s also lovely to have a film that places female characters so front-and-centre, not as props or as “sexy fighting women” (I’m looking at you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) but as confident individuals who know who they are and are not defined by their relationship to a man. McCarthy is terrific, as are the rest of the cast. This is a film you will definitely enjoy.