Angry Robot

Life

Perhaps I’m spoiled by the character development that good TV can produce by virtue of its ample running time, but I’m noticing a pattern of movies too eager to burn through their first act. They want to get to the jumps, scares and high-drama hijinx the second act will provide, so they plow through the exposition and character development. For the viewer, at first this seems good: hey, we’re getting right to the meat and potatoes! But the problems come home to roost well into the second act, where mid-explosion the viewer thinks, yeah who gives a shit, and checks her phone.

I wanted to like Life, really I did. I love horror; I love sci-fi. So by the same combinatory logic that drives public interest in peanut butter cups and sporks, I’m willing to give any horror sci-fi a watch, even if said enterprise is perhaps fatally indebted to a more famous predecessor in the genre. A diverse crew of space explorers retrieve alien life from an otherwise empty vessel; said alien life proceeds to massacre the crew one by one like they were teens at Camp Crystal Lake. Yep, that’s the plot of Life and Alien. There are differences: Life has a near-future, near Earth orbit setting, aboard the International Space Station, where the crew (that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Renolds) is retrieving samples from a Mars probe. While Alien is really, really good.

As you’ve probably figured out from the first act of this review, Life hurtles through its opening scenes, eager for its alien creature to get busy. It does get busy, but the underdeveloped characters are little more than food. If that’s all you want from Life, great, but I’m looking for something more.

Okja

Bong Joon Ho’s latest is perhaps most similar to his 2006 picture The Host: it’s a genre-bending, CGI-heavy creature feature. But the similarities end there. In an attempt to rejuvenate her shady multinational agribusiness’ moribund image, CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) launches a heavily stage-managed contest in which 10 enormous “superpigs” are distributed to local farmers across the globe. Ten years later, South Korean entrant Okja is the clear winner – but Mijo (An Seo Hyun), the granddaughter of the local farmer in charge of the pig, isn’t willing to let her go just yet.

The script veers from pastoral contentedness to slapstick to full-tilt effects-heavy action, but at heart this is a grand social satire in the tradition of Network, Dr. Strangelove or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Bong tries to get a few jabs in at the animal activists led by Jay (Paul Dano), and asshole celebrities get a punching bag in the figure of Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), but the largest target by far is the Mirando Corporation and its attempts to gussy up its cold-blooded greed via the sundry tools of modern PR. The comedy is broad and occasionally falls flat: some scenes feel like failed improv. And the social satire isn’t the most ingenious ever put on screen. But the action is first-rate, and – crucially – the creature is exceptionally well executed; so much so that the scenes between Mijo and Okja are completely believable, and form the healthy emotional heart of a wide-ranging, ambitious, and risk-taking film.

Baby Driver

An action-musical-romance this time instead of an action-comedy, Edgar Wright’s first solo writing credit is a fun, hyperactive pastiche that falls down in the romancy bits but excels almost everywhere else. Music-obsessed driving savant Baby (Angel Elgort) lends his virtuoso wheelman talents to a series of increasingly dangerous heists planned by Doc (Kevin Spacey), to whom he owes money. After Baby meets Debora (Lily James), the proverbial waitress with the heart of gold, he wants to get out – but crime keeps pulling him back in.

The plot sounds a little weak, and it is. But that’s not the draw here. Rather, Wright brings his montage game to new heights. The car chase scenes have bullet-fast editing timed perfectly to the music, and the music selections are all tight and form a soundtrack even greater than its parts. It’s the non-moving parts that need an upgrade. The macho criminal posturing dialogue is kept more or less entertaining by a deep selection of supporting cast, including Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx and of course Spacey. But the boy-meets-girl stuff is not up to code. The movie takes itself increasingly seriously as it goes on (common with most Edgar Wright films), and the dullness of the romance is an increasing drag that the action bits struggle to carry. (Indeed, the film is weak on female roles in general.) However, the driving scenes and the soundtrack are powerful enough to make this film worth seeing – even if it seems like it is doomed to be the B picture to Drive when the inevitable double bills of “Soundtrack-Heavy Driving Movies Featuring a Brooding Near-Mute Hunk” start showing up.

The Devil’s Candy

The Devil's Candy Poster

From the writer-director of The Loved Ones, Sean Byrne, The Devil’s Candy is a lean, nimble and nasty take on the haunted house genre.

Hip metalhead couple Jesse and Astrid (Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby) and their metalhead teen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) get a nice house for cheap – because the previous owners met a violent, metalhead end. Jesse is an artist, and the new house gives him lots of studio space to become ensorcelled by Satan and paint inverted crosses and horrific beast faces and suffering children – including his own daughter.

If you think you know where this plot is going, you probably don’t. The Devil’s Candy is much less beholden to stale conventions than the typical entry in this genre. Even better, the characters are real, non-generic people, brought to life by a talented cast, and the craft – including the direction but also notably the sound design – is top-notch. A must-watch for those with the stomach for it, and if you have to ask if you do, you probably don’t.

Logan

Certainly the most depressing, possibly the most emotionally powerful superhero movie ever made, Logan recasts two signature X-Men in a bleak future western about familial bonds in an uncaring world. This is the superhero movie Cormac McCarthy would make.

It’s 2029, mutants are near-extinct, and The Mutant Formerly Known as Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is driving a limo to pay the medical bills of self-described nonagenarian and Alzheimer’s victim Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). When a nurse seeks Logan’s help taking the lab-raised mute mutant child Laura (Dafne Keen) to the Canadian border (bonus points for casting Canada as Utopia again, American filmmakers!), he must decide what he’s going to do with the rest of his life, which may not be that long.

If that sounds grim, it’s because it is, although the despair is leavened by four setpiece action sequences that – by virtue of this film’s R rating, a first for the franchise – are more skull-stabbingly true to the Wolverine character than anything he’s done before. Part Western runaway slave story, part poignant family road trip, the film explores the parent-child relationships between several sets of characters, and shows the anger produced by our families, both biological and non-, may be overpowered only by the rage that comes when they are threatened, the rage born out of love. The film is both a reminder of the versatility of the men-in-tights genre and a moving swan song for one of its most beloved and perfectly cast characters.

Free Fire

I tried to describe this film to a friend. “It’s set in the 70s, about a arms deal gone wrong. A bunch of crooks are in a shootout in a big warehouse for basically the entire movie. Hey, I’m making it sound pretty great.” It’s the latest film from director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High Rise). It’s a decent film best understood as a black comedy in the Tarantino vein, and it does manage some deliciously dark laughs, but it falls short of the significance of most Tony Scott films, let alone QT. (Tony Scott directing a reboot of The Hateful Eight might be the closest analogue.)

The film’s biggest flaw is that it moves into action mode a good 15 minutes too early, not having had enough time to fill out any of the largish number of characters, which wastes a capable cast (Brie Larson, Cilian Murphy, Armie Hammer). One finds oneself not caring which ones lived or died, which one could describe as suboptimal from a dramatic perspective. It’s definitely watchable with some great, funny moments, but life’s too short.

The Dirties

The Dirties Poster

My post today is an endorsement of The Dirties, the first film by Matt Johnson, the dude from the interview I posted yesterday. I liked what I read, and I respect the opinion of Radheyan Simonpillai, so the missus and I checked it out last night. It’s the best Canadian film I’ve seen in a while (since Incendies maybe? Room and Brooklyn don’t count), one of the best found-footage movies I’ve seen, and the most refreshing directorial debut I’ve seen since Primer. It approaches a tough topic (school shootings) with a unique tone. It’s on iTunes and YouTube. Here’s the trailer.

Lynch Fest: Blue Velvet

If Elephant Man is about spectacle, Blue Velvet is about mystery. It’s essentially a film noir narrative, deviating from the norm by putting a young college student in the detective role, allowing a coming-of-age story to shine through now and then. Needless to say, as the opening foreshadows, the world our youth discovers beneath the surface is a dark one.

I’ve seen this film so many times already there’s very little for me to say about it, but what I noticed this time was how good the dialogue is. There’s a part where McLaughlan and Dern are having their first conversation, McLaughlan looks at a house they’re passing and says, “I used to know a kid who lived there, he had the biggest tongue in the world.”

The film is not without its spectacle, of course. The images in the opening alone would overpower a weaker film, to say nothing of the severed ear in a field, the frequent song breaks, using a lamp for a microphone. But it’s all hung over this mystery plot, which is eventually brought together in a somewhat conventional way. (Not that it makes a ton of sense; I can’t figure out why Frank is dressed as “The Well Dressed Man”.) If there is an epic battle throughout Lynch’s career between spectacle and narrative, narrative won this one – but will eventually lose the war.

Incidentally, Lynch says the ending came to him in a dream. “The dream gave me the police radio; the dream gave me Frank’s disguise; the dream gave me the gun in the yellow man’s jacket; the dream gave me the scene where Jeffrey was in the back of Dorothy’s apartment, sending the wrong message, knowing Frank would hear it. I don’t know how it happened, but I just had to plug and change a few things to bring it all together.” (pulled from here, originally from the interview book Lynch on Lynch)

Also from that page is the Pauline Kael quote: “This is American darkness – darkness in color, darkness with a happy ending. Lynch might turn out to be the first populist surrealist – a Frank Capra of dream logic.” But American darkness was going to get a whole lot darker.

Lynch Fest: Elephant Man

This was fascinating for various reasons. It’s a classical narrative, but it still features a few dream-logic sections. It was nominated for eight Oscars, rare for Lynch films, and you can see why, as it features an outsider hero who gains a place in society. At the same time, it is about spectacle. Lynch compares two modes of spectacular presentation, with Merrick put on display in both the freak show and scientific contexts. Later, he is put on display to society, and while he is given a voice in this context, the question of exploitation still lingers. Viewers of the film are, of course, implicated in this exploitation.

There are three major surrealist passages in the film, at the beginning, climax and end (excluding the Fellini-esque return to the freak show in the second act). The beginning expresses Merrick’s birth trauma through slow dissolves of slow motion elephants and closeups of his mother screaming, with expressive and disturbing sound design of course. The climax occurs when Merrick watches a play: his ultimate triumph in the film is to assume the position of spectator rather than spectacle. Rather than show the staging of the play in detail, Lynch again shifts to slow dissolves, semi-abstract closeups of stage action details, and slips in a shot of Merrick’s “owner” in a cage. It’s a beautiful idea; Merrick’s victory over the antagonist is purely imaginary, through the art of spectacle. The final passage is right at the end of the film and represents Merrick’s death, which visually mirrors his birth as it returns to the closeup image of his mother. Instead of elephants, we have the night sky and a long dissolve to white.

So in the most intense moments, Lynch turns to surrealism, but leaves the rest of the plot to a more conventional telling.

The Social Network

The Social Network does what it does to perfection – it makes a thriller out of a heap of code. It pays attention to the details. It treats the characters even-handedly.

But it fails at one big thing. The big topic is of course Facebook, and the site is far from a main character in this story. We catch glimpses only; the odd screenful. The blue glow on Zuckerberg’s face as he writes code.

A few months back a few private IMs of Zuckerberg’s circulated. One contained the following:

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask.
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don’t know why.
Zuck: They “trust me”
Zuck: Dumb fucks.

Another went as follows:

Zuck: So you know how I’m making that dating site
Zuck: I wonder how similar that is to the Facebook thing
Zuck: Because they’re probably going to be released around the same time
Zuck: Unless I fuck the dating site people over and quit on them right before I told them I’d have it done.

These show how restrained Sorkin and Fincher actually were in their depiction of the man. I mean, it’s just the kind of black humour all of us practise in private with our friends. But it’s the sort of thing that can become public all too easily nowadays, thanks to this brave new world we live in, thanks to services like Facebook.

Facebook and its ilk have changed how we communicate, what we mean by friendship, what we consider public and private, what we know about each other. They have changed our society fundamentally.

The film does not explore this at all. It does present the simple irony of a friendless man creating the world’s largest social networking site, but that’s it.

So it’s a real missed opportunity. The direction they did take this project – a docu-drama thriller, along the lines of All the President’s Men – also steers the ample public discussion of the film almost exclusively towards the issue of its veracity. Is that what the characters were like, is that the correct sequence of events, etc. There is some consideration of morals and ethics, but the techology’s impact on society gets next to no attention.

Does that make it a bad film? I’m not sure. On the one hand, I don’t believe you can criticize a film for not being something it didn’t try to be. On the other hand, if the significance of the subject matter is lost on the creators, how good a job did they do?

Avatar

I thought King Kong was amazing in the theatres. When I watched it at home on DVD, I lost interest halfway through. It felt sagging, bloated. Dark Knight blew my mind on Imax, but when I got it home the dialogue felt wooden and speechy, the structure confused.

You see where I’m going with this.

Avatar, in the theatre, in 3D, is an experience I’d recommend to anyone, even though it may well result in headaches and exhaustion. Your optic nerve gets a real workout. The visual richness of every frame is heightened by the 3D in a way that makes my other 3D experiences – Final Destination, Up, Ice Age 3, Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Slave Chicks) – seem like cheap parlour tricks. It wasn’t just action (although there was plenty of that), there was beauty, wonder. My Avatar-mates and I all admitted to tearing up at some point during the proceedings.

The sheer CGI-ness of the thing is also overwhelming. This film is essentially set in the Uncanny Valley, yet as a tale of exotic adventurism, of failed conquest of the irrational, of getting outside your body and putting on a new skin, it certainly works. By the end of it, the humans were the ones that looked weird. Avatar will be a legendary drug movie for some time to come. (And no, I’m not saying I was high seeing it, although I kind of felt like it after.)

But will it be celebrated as much as some of the more gushing reviews would have you believe?

In order to answer that, we’d have to answer my opening question: which is the true experience, the 3D Imax blowout or watching it at home on DVD or even Blu-Ray? The practical answer is the latter experience, as ever since VHS took root, home theatre revenues have dwarfed theatrical box office. If a movie is the sum of all its viewings, Avatar’s cracks will show up. Its stock, underdeveloped characters, its all-too-angelic indigenous peoples, its blunt allegory, its “Unobtanium”. I’d say it’s the worst Cameron script, which isn’t really much of an insult, but still.

But if we are allowed to be idealists, optimists, to judge a movie in the best possible light in which it can be seen – which for Avatar involves kooky glasses – we might well see it as a glowing blue planetful of awesomeness.