Archive for January, 2019

Film Review: Venom

January 24, 2019 Leave a comment

Venom (2018; Directed by Ruben Fleischer)

You’d probably have guessed going in that a movie focusing on Marvel Comics’ Venom – a chaotic evil alien Symbiote who possesses the bodies of helpless human hosts and has mostly served in the past as an antagonist (ans sometimes ally) to Spider-Man – would be a dark, brooding, graphically violent, horror-tinged affair (Venom was co-created in the 1980s by Todd McFarlane, who later created that most oppressively goth of superheroes, Spawn). What we get instead from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer is one of the most deliriously bizarre buddy comedies ever made, bursting unbidden out of the limp body of a fairly average Hollywood action blockbuster. Venom‘s star Tom Hardy veritably possesses this movie like the titular Symbiote, his dual role as both Venom and Eddie Brock, the down-on-his-luck Bay Area investigative reporter whose body and mind is parasitically occupied by the ravenous extraterrestrial creature, turning an unremarkable vehicle into something altogether more entertaining and singular.

Venom comes to Earth as a glob of black-coloured sentient goo, transported onboard a rocket shuttle sent on a scientific exploratory mission to deep space by the Life Foundation and its founder and CEO, Carlton Drake (a miscast and wasted Riz Ahmed). A visionary medical and tech boy-wonder zillionaire in the mould of Silicon Valley bro-tycoons and preening, spaceship-building Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Drake claims to have as his aims the curing of cancer and improvement of overall human health, but his true goals are more sinister. Brock, a maverick muckraker who rides a motorcycle and dresses like he never got out of college, is for some reason tasked by his boss (Ron Cephas Jones) to lob softballs at Drake in an interview. Of course, Brock instead asks Drake hard questions about rumours of dangerous human trials at the Life Foundation, armed with secret info gleaned from legal documents stolen from his lawyer fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams on autopilot), whose firm is representing Life Foundation in a wrongful death suit. Brock’s actions get him fired, cost Anne her job as well, and end their relationship.

Drake’s spacecraft with the Symbiote samples has meanwhile crashed in Malaysia, and although most of the samples have been recovered, one gets loose and hops from host to host on its way to San Francisco. Months later, Brock can’t get work and is in a bit of a downward spiral when he gets a call from the morally conflicted Life Foundation scientist Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who wants to give Brock an inside view of the horrifying things going on in Drake’s labs. Inside the facility, Brock has a meet-cute with the Venom Symbiote, and the fun really begins.

Clawing his way above the expensive morass of silly plot leaps, dodgy CGI, and unremarkable action sequences, Hardy makes Venom something notable with how he plays Brock as a frantic and frustrated passenger driven by Venom’s boundless, socially-unacceptable appetites. Hardy also voices Venom (though he does not motion-capture the creature, a pure CG creation), characterizing him a leering, every-hungry id lurking beneath Eddie’s ego and often bursting violently to the surface (Hardy claims to have drawn inspiration for their interactions from Ren & Stimpy, which is really funny). After compelling Brock to devour frozen tater tots and garbage-bin chicken pieces in a frantic search for sustenance, Venom’s oily black goop-tentacles thrust out of his host’s body to subdue the armed thugs Drake has sent to retrieve the Symbiote, while Hardy plays Brock’s reactions as amazed and alarmed and apologetic to the Life Foundation minions.

This scene is utterly hilarious, by the way, in the comic interplay of the helpless Brock and the confident-in-violence Venom, who acts as a sort of ever-present devil on Brock’s shoulder. Hardy’s Venom voice is strange and twisted and side-splittingly funny as it bursts unbidden into Brock’s head, especially when stating his mutilating intentions towards hapless humans: “Pile of bodies, pile of heads!” Brock/Venom flee Drake’s henchmen on his motorcycle through San Francisco’s hilly streets afterwards, the movie’s best action scene due to the continued developing relationship between Symbiote and host. Brock and Venom’s scenes together remain the movie’s highlight, Hardy’s performance one supremely quirky and kooky decision after another: seeking out the help of his ex Annie and her new doctor beau Dan (Reid Scott) at a gourmet restaurant, for example, an overheating Brock cools down in the live-lobster tank and snacks on a live crustacean.

Venom is, as mentioned, pretty unremarkable and even below-average outside of whatever the heck it is Hardy is doing at any given moment, but the symbiotic double-act overcomes the film’s paint-by-the-numbers thematic messages (Drake lectures about environmental degradation) with unexpected metaphorical possibilities. The most compelling and entertaining internal two-selves tug-of-war in a CG blockbuster since Andy Serkis played conniving Gollum and pitiful Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hardy’s Brock/Venom invokes everything from Sigmund Freud’s id/ego/super-ego psychological theories to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia to pervasive queer coding, the latter which sparked an enthusiastic Symbrock shipping community that is convinced (largely because of a scene in which Venom possesses Anne and kisses Eddie to re-enter his body) of a homosexual attraction between Venom and Brock.

It’s hard to say definitively if Venom is fully behind this last angle or not. Certainly, it shouldn’t be put past Hardy, often a gleeful trickster figure of an actor, to lean into such a subtext. The movie does openly state that Venom’s embrace of Eddie Brock as his preferred host on Earth is down to the Symbiote feeling a kinship with Eddie as a fellow loser. The script (by Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel) develops their relationship as a process of growth and acceptance of each other and of mutual moral behaviour: Eddie learns that he can have a world-improving purpose after his journalistic career implodes due to his own ethical lapses, and Venom is converted to a certain fondness for Earth and humankind while being convinced to only treat certain bad people as a ready source of food.

Venom, then, is perversely a species of novel of education as well as a buddy/romantic comedy, albeit with more biting off of heads. Given the general level that comic-book superhero movies have managed to ascend to on an artistic level, it’s far too hacky and formulaic in most of its elements outside of Hardy’s work to be good enough. It’s a movie that seems not to have learned any lessons from nearly two decades of superhero movie successes and failures. Indeed, especially as the credits roll to the strains of Eminem ridiculously rapping out the plot of the film in the title song, one comes to feel that the ghost of 1990s big-budget B-movies is undeniable. But Tom Hardy, in his audaciously eccentric split performance, makes Venom something weirder, grander, funnier, and infinitely more interesting.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Aquaman

January 21, 2019 Leave a comment

Aquaman (2018; Directed by James Wan)

Aquaman represents a golden opportunity to reconsider and discard an unfortunate habit of critical description whose demise is desirable. In an overdue gesture of belated enlightened sensitivity to those pervasive stigmas around mental illness that corporate-marketed public awareness campaigns tell me must be confronted and defeated (especially if it means larger quarterly profit margins in the process), I shall never again describe a movie with particular silly or unpredictable elements as crazy, nuts, unhinged, bonkers, or insane. Movies cannot be mentally ill, and it’s insensitive and even a little mean to real people struggling with those sort of conditions to suggest that a movie is mentally ill just because, oh, I don’t know, it happens to feature an octopus playing the bongos.

I don’t mean to congratulate myself for becoming woke on this point nor to suggest that this self-discipline represents any sort of sacrifice, but its timing, admittedly, is not auspicious. Giving up on the descriptive crutch of calling a movie insane just as one sits down to write about Aquaman is a bit like giving up alcohol before a comprehensive Scottish whiskey distillery tour. What else is one to do without it, after all? To reach for more neutral adjectives, then: James Wan’s Aquaman is wild, goofy, ridiculous, and ambitiously messy. It’s bad in the ways that every DC Extended Universe (DCEU) entry has been bad (with the blessed exception of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman): excruciating and unrevealing dialogue, overwrought and dull mythological exposition, stunted thematic and character development, insensible casting, stiff performances, and saturating CG action scenes with gigantic scale but zero real emotional stakes.

But unlike the leaden bores of Zack Snyder’s Superman-centred films (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Justice League), Aquaman is just woolly enough to manage to be fun, despite the flaws of its construction as cinema. A defining feature of the Snyderverse movies is that they really, deeply hate comic books, but Wan’s Aquaman (Snyder and his wife Deborah are executive producers on it) just loves comic books to bits, in all of their sophomoric, splashy, stilted, frothy, multicoloured glory. It would be wise to cultivate that sort of fondness for superhero comics at their pulpiest and most ludicrous if you’re going to make a movie about a goofball trident-wielding Prince of Atlantis, and Wan (best known before this for helming horror potboilers and the seventh Fast & Furious flick) gleefully does.

It also helps to have Jason Momoa starring as the titular hero of a movie given to such a tone. An impressively-proportioned actor of limited range but almost boundless infectious charisma who just seems chuffed to bits to be doing anything at all, at any time, really, Momoa is just unorthodox enough as a movie star – the long hair and goatee, the tattoos, the Native Hawaiian ancestry, the casual, un-self-conscious bro-ish ease – to be a proper fit as a superhero who, despite the screenplay’s many safe-minded attempts to skew his narrative towards convention, is inherently unorthodox in comparison to other genre figures.

Aquaman, whose real name is Arthur Curry, is a young man caught between two worlds, the son of a humble Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the runaway Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). The lighthouse keeper finds the queen on the rocks one stormy night and nurses her back to health, and the unlikely couple fall in love, sharing a few blissful years and bringing forth Arthur before Atlantean soldiers arrive to bundle her back to her betrothed Atlantean king beneath the waves. She fends off these troops (in the first and most memorable of the movie’s many, many fight scenes, perhaps made all the better by incongruously featuring Nicole freakin’ Kidman kicking undersea grunt ass), but realizes that she must return to Atlantis to keep her landlubber family safe. She promises to come back to them, but Arthur understands through his contact with Vulko (Willem Dafoe), a trusted advisor to Atlantis’ rulers who secretly trained the boy in the use of his Atlantean powers and combat techniques, that she was later executed for the treachery of bearing him as her son.

Arthur nurses this hurt at home in his Maine coastal town (where they apparently have Maori lighthouse keepers now; a brave new world), taking care of his dad but occasionally venturing out into the world’s oceans to superhero it up in a seemingly random manner. We see one such venture at the movie’s start, as Arthur foils the pirating of a Russian submarine by a strike force led by a father-son commando duo (Michael Beach and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) but in the process makes a revenge-minded archenemy in the form of Abdul-Mateen’s David Kane, nicknamed Black Manta. Soon after, Arthur is sought out by undersea warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard), who demands that he claim his birthright to the throne of Atlantis in order to prevent his currently-ruling half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) from forcibly unifying the kingdoms of the seas, declaring himself Ocean Master, and launching an apocalyptic war against the surface world in retaliation for decades of pollution and sealife hunting.

This is already pretty needlessly complicated, but Aquaman‘s plot only gets more so. Intricate Atlantean power politics and militaristic combat traditions are broken up with smoothly-transitioned flashbacks to Arthur’s training by Vulko, to Atlantis’ glorious history, and to heavy-handed but quickly-forgotten environmentalist criticisms of industrial-capitalist civilization’s awful damage to the oceans of the world and the preponderence of life that dwells in them. Meanwhile, Arthur and Mera travel to the sandy Sahara and to sparkling Sicily and to the deepest trench in the ocean on a video-game quest for various magical objects, namely the Trident of Atlan which when wielded by the one true king, etc., so on, you know the rest if you’ve read Arthurian legends or even seen the first Thor movie. They also, of course, fall in love along the way, which is a bit awkward seeing how Mera is betrothed to Orm and all, and even more awkward because they basically have no spark together at all, to be honest (Heard is kind of a blank, but her red wig looks great and that’s not faint praise because wigs are hard).

A big deal is made in the script how Arthur’s half-caste identity makes him an ideal King of Atlantis, and how he must be proven worthy before he can grasp the golden Trident. Aquaman, though, doesn’t show any sort of growth or transformation in Arthur Curry, though he broods on the meaning of mercy after his lack thereof later nearly gets him killed at the hands of the vengeful Manta. He comes into his own because the movie needs him to, and not for any other motivated reason. There are plenty of important personal connections to drive him: to his father, to his mother, to Mera, even to Orm. They’re all in the movie but they aren’t linked, aren’t used to build any impact or thematic or character crescendo. This is a common DCEU problem, and Aquaman does not solve it.

What it does solve is the creeping joylessness of DCEU movies. Aquaman is a wild time, its action scenes just massive and layered and richly imagined enough to work, from Arthur’s sub fight to his gladiatorial combat with Orm to a chase and fight in a sun-dappled Sicilian hill town between Arthur and Manta, Mera and Atlantean guards to the epically detailed climactic undersea battle sequence. The design and CG work on the underwater world of Atlantis and of its allies and rivals is tremendous and comprehensive, and Wan doesn’t skimp on giving his audience long, lavish views of its hugely expensive splendour. You could say that Aquaman is not only structured like a video game and feels like a video game, but looks like one too, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s a damned cool-looking video game that you sure as hell want to play.

None of this, however, quite gets at how fundamentally, astronomically weird Aquaman is. This is a movie in which Jason Momoa has a “shining” telepathic moment with a whale. This is a movie that casts arthouse mainstays Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, and Patrick Wilson as sub-marine aristocrats in shiny fish-scale armour. This is a movie with Dolph Lundgren riding a giant seahorse. This is a movie whose secondary villain, despite being named after a ray, dons a black-painted suit with a wasp-head helmet that shoots plasma rays out of its red eyes. This is a movie whose score, by Rupert Gregson-Williams, includes not only cornball hopscotch-strings cues during one of Momoa and Heard’s strained moments of romantic-comedic relief, but also an absolutely literal non-ironic “dun-dun-dun!” sting phrase after Wilson’s first utterance of the words “Ocean Master” (the funniest moment in the movie, including all of its intentional jokes). This is a movie that uses the twinkly bits of Sigur Rós’ powerful “Saeglopur”, but not the mighty, dynamic swirls of deep sound of its extended climax, and puts it in entirely the wrong place in the film. This is a movie with a goat reaction shot. This is a movie with a titanic crab-kaiju leviathan creature voiced by Julie Andrews. I’m no longer allowed to say this movie is insane, but good gravy, is it ever way, way out there.

Maybe, though, that’s why it mostly works. Aquaman is horribly flawed and insufficient in dozens of ways, and yet it still might be the second best post-Christopher-Nolan DC superhero movie after Wonder Woman (which, admittedly, is not saying much). Aquaman leans into the nonsensical frippery of its comic-book source, its pop-history synthesis of classical mythology and Arthurian legend and marine biology, its fevered imaginative urge to show us strange and fanciful shit that we’ve never seen before. Is Aquaman, properly speaking, a good movie? Of course not. Will you have a ball watching it? Can’t say that you won’t.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Outlaw King

January 19, 2019 Leave a comment

Outlaw King (2018; Directed by David Mackenzie)

It’s fascinating to watch Scottish director David Mackenzie’s earthily epic narrative telling of the initial stages of early-14th-century Scottish monarch Robert the Bruce’s largely successful wars of resistance and independence against the English crown in comparative contrast with its much more famous historical counterpart, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning biographical epic of contemporaneous Scottish rebel warrior William Wallace, Braveheart. Outlaw King operates partly as a parallel story to Braveheart: Wallace is mentioned a few times in the first act, and his execution by the English is constructed (somewhat inaccurately) as an impetus for the Bruce’s own rising, so that if one was so inclined it would not be difficult to imagine that previous narrative of medieval Scottish-English warfare taking place somewhere just out of frame.

This makes Outlaw King a sequel of sorts to Braveheart, a sequel-in-spirit more than an intentional continuation. But to a greater extent, it functions as a corrective text, setting straight the story that Mel Gibson turned into such a self-serving Hollywoodized myth in 1995. Robert the Bruce was made an equivocating fence-sitter in Braveheart, whose doubting-Peter unwillingness to commit to Wallace’s rebellion cost Gibson’s mud-splattered paladin of freedom his life in a Christ-like sacrifice (Gibson has always loved those, which is why he literally filmed one a few years later). History tells us, of course, that despite swearing fealty to the English Crown and pledging not to take arms against it, Robert did eventually commit and accomplished what Wallace could not: Scottish independence from England, maintained by his descendants for centuries. He was the one actually called “Braveheart”, not Wallace; after his death, his heart was transported at his request to Southern Spain on Crusade by his right-hand man Sir James Douglas and, according to romantic poetry sources at least, tossed symbolically into the midst of battle against the Moors. But he did what he did as a more complex, compromised, and flawed figure than Wallace, or at least than Gibson’s absurdly lionized version of Wallace.

This complicated antihero profile (emphasized by the title card of Mackenzie’s film, which inserts a slash between “outlaw” and “king” to gesture at Robert’s dualized nature) marks Outlaw King‘s Robert the Bruce, played by Chris Pine, as a cultural figure of the moment, with all the good and bad associations that entails. In retrospect, Braveheart was the last gasp of a more traditional and soon-to-expire version of Hollywood historical fiction that almost entirely jettisoned the history for the fiction (the film’s depiction of belted plaid kilts in medieval Scotland remains the gold standard for period anachronism onscreen, for my money). Outlaw King is the reflection of the same sort of cultural view of the Middle Ages that Braveheart trafficked in, one characterized by violence, dirt-bound poverty, ritualized superstition, and brutality par excellence, what Umberto Eco classified as “Barbaric Age” medievalism and what Shiloh Carroll has called (largely in reference to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its hit companion TV series Game of Thrones) “grimdark” medievalism. This more grim and realistic depiction of the medieval era (where “realism” generally means plenty of mud) is offered as an overcompensatory corrective to the colourful, scrubbed-up, ren-faire version of the chivalric Middle Ages derived from medieval romance poetry, which influenced films set in Medieval Europe for a long time; look at the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938, for example, which does not at all seem to be in the same contiguous reality as a much later medieval film like Outlaw King.

Although possessed of a greater level of historical fidelity than Braveheart, Outlaw King still understands the Middle Ages, or at least the warfare in their midst over political power and dynastic succession carried out by feudal society’s war-drilled aristocrats, as a consistently dirty and bloody affair, with none of the trade and agriculture and prosperous plenty and feast-day revelry that characterized much of pre-Black Death High Medieval Europe. To be frank, though, if the barbaric terms of grimdark medievalism did actually apply anywhere on the continent in that era, it was surely in Scotland, with its almost constant warfare both intercenine and inter-state, the latter mostly with the England of King Edward I, known as the Hammer of the Scots for his forceful victories over and pitiless treatment of his country’s northern neighbours.

Outlaw King‘s avatar of that brutal reality is not Edward I (Stephen Dillane of Game of Thrones plays him here as a rusting iron fist) or even his more weak-willed and thus more desperately cruel son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), later Edward II. No, the grimdark ambassador is clearly Robert the Bruce’s lieutenant Sir James Douglas, played by a quite nearly feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a canny killer of enemies, a prolific fornicator, and a vicious berserker on the battlefield. Outlaw King‘s battles and skirmishes and slayings are prodigiously gory, full of mutilated bodies and bursts of red mist, and Taylor-Johnson’s the Black Douglas is ever at its blood-pumping heart. Outlaw King includes a rendition of the infamous Douglas Larder episode of the Wars of Scottish Independence, in which Douglas and his men-at-arms infiltrated his home seat of Douglas Castle and ruthless assaulted the English garrison that holds it, ambushing and slaying men as they prayed in the chapel (as an applicable side note, James Douglas’ great-great grandsons, the elder of them the 6th Earl of Douglas, were the fatal targets of the infamous “Black Dinner”, the model for George R.R. Martin’s centerpiece of grimdark medieval violence in A Song of Ice and Fire, the Red Wedding).

But Outlaw King is, after all, about the outlaw king, Robert the Bruce. Played by Pine (surely now established as the most able and gravitas-ready of the Chrises) as a plain, pragmatic, and conflicted moral man who leads more by example than by inspiration. He dutifully lugs his taxes to the English king’s agents but is persuaded to embrace rebellion by a popular riot at the display of the executed William Wallace’s severed arm. He is gentle and loving with his daughter Marjorie (Josie O’Brien) and gives space to his intelligent and strong-willed arranged bride, Irish aristocrat Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), until she is ready to love him and come to his bed. He is kind and familiar with servants. He is thoughtful and sensitive but determined in adversity, and not boastful in victory. On the cusp of the turning-point Battle of Loundon Hill which forms the film’s climax, he digs strategic ditches alongside his men, and instead of full-lunged exhortations about freedom, his pre-battle pep talk to his troops eschews all the standard appeals to personal and ideological motivating factors in favour of bloody-minded directness: you’re here, now fight and fight hard.

Though still an idealized and glorified figure in many ways, the earthbound directness of Pine’s Robert the Bruce defines the film around him. This is a tremendously pragmatically-minded film, primarily concerned with the grim acceptance of unwavering necessity of action compelled by events, history as action and reaction. When Robert commits his most antihero of acts, the sudden, shocking stabbing of his rival John Comyn (Callan Mulvey) at the altar of a church where they were meeting under supposed truce, this cold-blooded murder is couched as being a snap decision of necessity driven by Comyn’s explicit statement of his intent to reveal Robert’s incipient disloyalty to the English authorities. Although the Bruce claims the mandate of the Scottish people upon his coronation, his rebellion against the English is not defined by fidelity to high ideals but by basic hardscrabble survival. Director David Mackenzie gained wider critical notice with 2016’s Hell or High Water (also starring Pine), a film about men driven to outlaw extremes by moral objections to wider injustice. Outlaw King doesn’t universalize Robert the Bruce’s struggle for an independent Scottish throne and, despite personal grievances between him and the English leaders, doesn’t turn it into a vendetta either. The real Robert the Bruce was ambitious and power-hungry, and Pine’s version isn’t not like that, though not too openly.

Whatever medieval historians might think of the species of social and military realism represented by movies like Outlaw King, there’s something convincing in its understanding of this particular conflict later enshrined as a national struggle as a nasty species of rural gang scuffle, a glorified street battle with swords and mail and lances and horses. It’s hardly a great film despite its handsome production and firm performances, but Outlaw King is a step away from the chest-beating of Braveheart and just maybe, in spite of its dominant grimness, towards a more honest and nuanced representation of the Middle Ages on the big screen.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: A Quiet Place

January 17, 2019 Leave a comment

A Quiet Place (2018; Directed by John Krasinski)

A family-under-siege horror-thriller, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place pits a familial unit of savvy survivalists against sharp-eared monsters that pounce and kill viciously at the smallest sound and have thus devastated human civilization. This simple and potent premise provides ample fodder for a series of taut and sometimes ingenious sequences of tension and nervous peril, as one might reasonably expect from the genre. But it also fuels clever “what if?” world-building, canny visual storytelling, and themes of nuclear-family unity, sacrifice, and reproductive determination that might have been dubbed “conservative values” in some halcyon time before that political/cultural movement’s collective embrace of the glaring embodiment of everything they were supposed to be fighting against exposed the blinding hypocrisy at the heart of that buzz phrase.

A Quiet Place is mostly but not entirely wordless, in light of the predicament facing the family of characters that feature in it. Though some words are mouthed and full-volume speech enabled by masking sounds like a cascading waterfall, most of the information in the film is communicated either visually or through the use of American Sign Language (ASL), which the Abbott family is fortunate enough to know in this situation due to their teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) being congenitally deaf. Although the ASL gestures were subtitled upon the film’s theatrical release, the version I streamed did not have any, but very little information was lost without them. For those familiar with ASL, A Quiet Place must be especially rewarding, like silent films would have been to expert lip readers: full of nuance and peculiarities of expression (much of which was developed for the film by Simmonds, who is herself hearing-impaired and fluent in ASL) that would not be evident to non-ASL-sign-speakers.

Holed up in their farmhouse and rural environs, the Abbotts maintain some measure of semi-normality amidst elaborately cautious practices that keep the sounds that the living of their lives generate to an absolute minimum to avoid attracting the blind but acutely-hearing monsters that dwell in their vicinity. Father Lee (Krasinski) has an engineering/techie background, and spends his time scanning shortwave radio for morse-code word of other survivors, maintaining sophisticated early-warning systems and crisis failsafes, fashioning cochlear implants for Regan (which will prove important in ways he could not have imagined), and teaching his jumpy son Marcus (Noah Jupe) rules and practices of survival, life, and manhood. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s real-life wife too) cooks dinner in an oven in the floorboards, quietly does laundry, maintains the family medical supplies (she was once a doctor), gives Marcus a measure of school-like education, and prepares for the arrival of the child that she carries inside her and will soon deliver into a dangerous milieu that will instantly and aggressively seek to strangle its cries. Regan acts out like a rebellious teenager whose angst is compounded by her inability to throw vocal tantrums and slam doors, but she is also just more haunted and self-flagellatory than the others about the trauma that looms large in the family’s past and that they blame themselves for in their own ways: the loss of their youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward) to a monster, as depicted in the film’s opening sequence.

The Abbotts move around barefoot along marked paths – by sand outdoors, by paint on the creaky wood-floored farmhouse – to avoid making noise, have strung lightbulb chains around the surrounding fields that turn from white to red by the flick of a switch if danger is near, and even play Monopoly with cloth boardgame pieces to dampen even the slightest sound. But circumstances will nonetheless conspire to alert the creatures to their presence despite all of their care: namely Evelyn’s inconveniently-timed labour contractions and a pesky nail on the basement stairs.

A Quiet Place is an expert example of a bottled thriller, surprisingly so given that it’s in the hands of genre neophyte and previously undistinguished director Krasinski. He benefits greatly from the intelligent foundations provided by the script by Brian Woods and Scott Beck (which Krasinski rewrote), and even more from Marco Beltrami’s pulse-quickening score and Blunt’s showcase performance mixing petrification with dogged, competent determination (she was nominated for that ultimate horror-acting honour, the MTV Movie Award for Most Frightened Performance, formerly and wonderfully known as Best Scared-as-Shit Performance; MTV’s cultural relevance has dwindled away to next to nothing over the past decade, but their shamelessly goofball movie awards will always be a highlight of the entertainment calendar). Her final moment in the film’s closing shot is pure, triumphant badassery. Fuck ’em up, Mary Poppins.

Truly, though, A Quiet Place is a wonder of sound design, which Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn (an Oscar winner for the sound on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong) use dynamically and keenly to build tension, reveal character perspective, and amplify moments of terror and catharsis, pressure and release. The muffled sounds of the Abbotts’ movements demonstrates their tiptoeing existence; the total silence of deaf Regan’s perception places the audience into her head and sensory world; the emergence of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” when Evelyn shares her earbud and a slow dance with Lee is a comforting embrace of sonics in a sometimes unsettling dome of quiet. The harsh sharpness of loud, sudden sonic intrusions into the Abbott’s secure soundproofing of their lives instantly communicates the immediate danger those sounds represent, the catastrophe they portend.

A Quiet Place mostly presents as a straightforward and engaging potboiler, but political implications are never too far away. Krasinski himself (a Democratic Party donor) conceived of the premise as a metaphor of sorts for the importance of moral acts in the face of persistent horrors and injustices in America’s Age of Trump, an argument against keeping your head down and hoping merely to survive the chaos around you. There is a certain resonance to this effect in A Quiet Place, an echo of our unpredictable and often dangerous reality that compels silent compliance and avoidance of drawing notice rather than confronting the horrors that lurk in the margins, always waiting to pounce on the vulnerable.

But A Quiet Place is hard to pigeonhole politically and likewise features definite conservative themes. Perhaps due to his B-level film career trajectory or perhaps due to certain old-fashioned centrist ideological convictions, Krasinski has sometimes gravitated towards nominally right-wing or at least more traditionally-themed productions: romantic comedies, family dramas, even a pulpy, militaristic dramatization of the 2012 attack by Islamic militants on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya (which became a cause célèbre on the conspiracy-minded, rabidly anti-Clinton American Right) that was directed by glistening pop-art USA-chant propagandist Michael Bay (one of A Quiet Place‘s producers). A Quiet Place is certainly no MAGA affair, but it does focus on a white rural nuclear family with demonstrated religious faith, gestures at traditional monastic asceticism (they are surnamed the Abbotts, after all), and even nods at pro-life sentiments with Evelyn’s pregnancy and labour in spite of the extremely obvious dangers that a wailing infant presents in a situation where any sound summons instant-eviscerating hunters.

Like a lot of genre films that present building, consecutive scenarios of frightening peril, A Quiet Place features at least a half dozen moments that could be nitpicked. “Why are you doing that?” and “That is NOT a good idea” escapes the mouths of the audience as surely as nervous gasps or constricted breaths, no doubt. But these moments of perceived, detached enlightened perspective (we know what to do even if the characters don’t) are part of the fun of horror-thrillers like A Quiet Place, too, especially when they are as well-conceived and executed as this movie ultimately is.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Incredibles 2

January 4, 2019 1 comment

The Incredibles 2 (2018; Directed by Brad Bird)

14 years may have passed in our world since the release of Brad Bird’s expert Pixar-produced animated superhero film The Incredibles, but for the titular family of semi-secret Supers (as superheroes are known in this world), not even five minutes have elapsed. The Incredibles 2 picks up exactly where the first film left off, as the Parrs suit up to battle the massive burrowing machines of the villainous Underminer (voiced by Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger) which threaten their city of Metroville. But the film also picks up on other teased threads at the conclusion of that much-praised prior installment: awkward eldest daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) getting up the nerve to ask out her classmate Tony Rydinger (Michael Bird), the unpredictably emerging superpowers of baby boy Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), and the passage of laws outlawing Supers from using their powers openly, for the safety of society.

The confrontation with the Underminer does not exactly go swimmingly, with more than a little architectural collateral damage resulting despite the best efforts of matriarch Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet and her speedster brother Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and ice-blasting family friend Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). The mole-ish villain also manages to escape after a fight with super-strong patriarch Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). The whole costly affair simply confirms for government officials and law enforcement that Supers must remain illegal, lest further catastrophes follow.

But in its aftermath, the Parrs are approached by corporate telecommunications heirs and tycoon siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who in tribute to their late superhero-supporting father want to fit the generally less-destructive Elastigirl (studies have been done and data compiled to support that conclusion, to Bob’s ego-disappointment) with a body-camera and record her heroic acts as part of a PR campaign to rehabilitate the image of Supers and get them legalized again. In an inversion of The Incredibles, then, Helen goes out to recapture her youth and don the supersuit while Bob holds down the fort in their well-appointed DevTech-provided home (only the tip of the iceberg of the film’s flashy Mid-Century futurist design). They each face challenges, Helen from a mind-hypnotizing terrorist called the Screenslaver who may be more than he seems to be, and Bob from Violet’s boy problems, Dash’s math homework, and Jack-Jack’s barely-manageable explosion of super-abilities.

Like its predecessor, The Incredibles 2 builds both its conflict and its humour on this contrast of the concerns of domestic family life with the elaborate Super fantasies of its action sequences. Conceived and executed by the masterful Brad Bird, these latter scenes are of course prodigiously exciting (heightened immensely by Michael Giacchino’s pulse-quickening Bond-esque score), dense with furiously clever details and gags; the focus on Elastigirl and her far more, well, elastic abilities jacks up the speed and dynamism, especially during a motorbike pursuit of a runaway monorail. The portal-opening powers of a supporting Super (and nervous Elastigirl fangirl) named Voyd (Sophia Bush) also open up possibilities of movement and change that Bird takes full advantage of during the climactic sequence on a runaway yacht.

That said, the best action scene (certainly the funniest, at least) in The Incredibles 2 might well be Jack-Jack’s running battle in the family’s backyard with a feisty raccoon. Jack-Jack’s emerging powers also draw in one of the first film’s truest oddball delights, the inspired, eccentric fashion designer to Supers Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird himself), who babysits him and fashions a suit and supporting tech to allow the increasingly harried Bob to handle his little ball of (sometimes quite literal) explosiveness. One is left feeling that there is too little of Edna Mode, but whether the character would work so well in larger doses is debatable.

Other elements of The Incredibles 2 are worthy of positive note. There are numerous fine voice performance moments, not only from the long-underrated Hunter as the to-the-forefront Helen, but also from the historian and public radio broadcaster Vowell‘s distinctive and more-layered work with Violet to Nelson’s hilarious insomniac readings of baby-calming talk to Isabella Rossellini as a Supers-friendly ambassador. Keener is always good, but especially notable is Bob Odenkirk as her character’s sales-pitching brother, his persuasion-talking gestures and mannerisms (so familiar to fans of his work as Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) so lovingly and accurately rendered into CG animation by the world-class Pixar animators.

Still, despite its copious entertainments and fine craftsmanship displaying the technological advancement in computer animation since 2004’s The Incredibles, one is left feeling that this sequel is a lesser product in comparison to that species of modern classic. The Incredibles rendered the Parrs’ relatable human anxieties into their thematic struggle with a fanboy-turned-resentful-supervillain and expanded those ideas into larger political questions (which some critics read as reflecting Nietzschean principles or even Randian Objectivism) about the place of the individual in relation to society. The Incredibles 2‘s political ideas are instead expressed most notably in a single soapbox-ascending dinner table argument between Bob and Helen: should they teach their kids that they ought to obey laws, no matter how unjust they may find them to be, or to resist and even break those laws if they think it right to do so?

If this is Bird’s core political dilemma this time around, however, it is not productively or effectively incorporated into the film’s narrative or thematic development. Supers are outlawed, but Elastigirl’s heroism slowly wears down public opinion until it comes to support repeal of their ban, with a twist in the villainous plot to uphold that ban to be overcome by family superpower collaboration. Bird stabs fitfully in other directions, too, as Helen and Evelyn discuss the glass ceilings of sexism in their respective professions. Most egregiously out-of-touch on Bird’s part is a rant from the Screenslaver villain (ultimately a fake-out figure, but I shan’t go and spoil) about our contemporary society’s hypnotic enslavement to digital screens, which comes across as not only a bit of a fuddy-duddy old man complaint but also a fairly hypocritical one coming from a crafter of intelligently-crafted but fundamentally diversionary entertainment that will, by design, itself play on millions of those bemoaned screens.

The Incredibles 2 is supremely, even occasionally transcendentally, diversionary, but unlike its predecessor never really rises above that level. Following a commercial and artistic dip in Tomorrowland, Brad Bird returns to the totalizing visual and motion control of animation, and The Incredibles 2 is frequently an impressive demonstration of his confident and sometimes even audacious mastery of that medium. But Tomorrowland also displayed a grandstanding pedantry that wore thin very quickly and bogged down Bird’s clockwork inventiveness and big-dreamer optimism. The Incredibles 2 overcompensates on the ideas score, megaphoning a political argument or two but consigning the content of those arguments to background colour rather than enfolding them productively into the story’s core conflicts. This is quite often an extremely fun and unquestionably well-made movie, but recent, real blockbuster high-points (especially in the artistically expanding superhero genre) are more adept at trojan-horsing more resonant ideological and emotional concepts into that carnival-ride package. The Incredibles 2 is set in a fashionably old-fashioned fantasy world, but it’s also subtly old-fashioned in relation to our real world, and it shows.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2018

January 1, 2019 Leave a comment

The best films of 2018 grappled with the unsettling valences of an uncertain and sometimes hostile world, and found empathy, solidarity, progress, and tempered hope in cinematic art. The pinnacle highlights of the filmic year are a varied bunch, reflecting majoritarian trends in big-budget blockbusters and arthouse film as well as singular curios.

The new African-American film renaissance continued and strengthened in breadth and commercial and artistic power this year, following from 2017’s Best Picture Moonlight and surprise hit (and my top film of that year) Get Out. The year’s highest-grossing film in the U.S. and Canada (and second highest-grossing worldwide) was written and directed by an African-American, featured an almost exclusively African-American cast, and thought compellingly about contemporary and historical issues facing black people globally. It is hardly alone on this list, either, with an enervating animated superhero movie and a hyper-inventive, politically-conscious comedic debut joining it (to say nothing of other important African-American films released this year, like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, to name just a couple).

Superhero movies continued to dominate the box office and the Hollywood release schedule, but these films continued to expand in new creative directions that portended a brighter future for an oft-artistically-maligned genre. The streaming revolution proceeded apace, with format giant Netflix bypassing traditional theatres by releasing a dizzying variety of new original films, including no less than four of this year’s top ten films below. In between, there were varied glories: a fingernail-biting documentary about a death-defying rock climber; an animated picaresque about the destabilizing madness of the internet and maintaining healthy relationships in the face of separation and division; a viciously black-comic satire of screwball authoritarian power struggles; an aborted anthology western series turned into wonderful anthology western movie; a belatedly completed and released final film from one of movie history’s true masters. And standing above them all, a poetic black-and-white masterpiece about family and togetherness under pressure in 1970s Mexico City from one of our greatest living film artists. A fine year at the movies, and these are its finest moments.


1. Roma (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

“[Roma] is one of the year’s truly remarkable films, but it would be so in any year, at any point in the career of a filmmaker who, if he is not the world’s best at the moment, has vanishingly few challengers. […] Roma may be shot in only two colours, but it feels like a rainbow. It is also a masterclass in the application of film technique and its constituent elements in anticipating, elevating, and amplifying emotional beats. […] For Alfonso Cuarón, film is a rocket-ship of immersive perspective, hurling his captive audience into a reality unlike their own but entirely familiar and sympathetic too, with every measure of distance and time on the journey a vivid, moving landscape of fleeting eternity. Given this, Roma is his magnum opus, and a great, soulful machine of film.”

Review – 30 December 2018


2. Sorry to Bother You (Directed by Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You is an incredible film. This is meant in more than one sense of the word: the writing/directing debut from rapper/political activist Boots Riley is a work of dazzling quality and of originality and imagination, a film that announces itself confidently as one of the best of its year before it’s even done being viewed. But it’s also incredible, an audacious fever-dream of contemporary American capitalist culture, society, race relations, and labour economy that must be seen to be believed. […] [Sorry to Bother You] is far wilder and stranger and greater a movie than is really possible to summarize[…]. To simply call it a satire of American capitalism, labour, and race, of media and art and activism, is likewise inadequate. It absolutely is that, and is frequently uproariously hilarious in that role. But Riley cultivates and grows a world altogether bizarre and fantastical, a portrait of lively, humane urban depression which might be labelled magic realism if not for the hard edge of perfunctory absurdism and vicious political commentary that comes with it.”

Review – 1 December 2018


3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an out-of-left-field triumph. It is unquestionably the best animated film of the year, likely the best comic-book superhero movie of the year, and maybe the best comedy of the year, too. Frankly, this exciting, innovative, hilarious, and moving film ought to be in the conversation for one of the best films of the year, period. […] If Into the Spider-Verse was only saturated with visual astonishments, dotted with breathless action sequences, and consistently blessed with impeccable comic timing, it would be a fun and noteworthy rainbow-candy trifle that would still earn plaudits for its sheer energy and joy. But what makes it a great cinematic experience is how it tells an involving, potent story with beautifully-pitched emotional beats for even its minor characters, all while acting as an effluent visual summary of the Spider-Man character and of comic book history alike. […] This movie acts on the the superhero genre, on feature animation, and indeed on Hollywood movies as a whole like the bite of a radioactive spider: it injects them with new powers and possibilities, and if we’re lucky, none of them will ever be the same.”

Review – 17 December 2018


4. Free Solo (Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin)

“Imagine, if you will, a remarkable, history-making, trailblazing human physical achievement, like the moon landing or the climbing of Mount Everest or flying across the Atlantic. Now imagine that achievement, this feat that no living person has done before, being filmed in real time, from numerous angles visual, emotional, and psychological. […] Free Solo is an impeccably crafted documentary narrative, giving a rounded perspective on [free climber Alex] Honnold’s peculiar history and personality and how it relates to his nigh-on suicidal free climbling goals. In doing so, the film provides some of the best insight one could ask for into the psychology and mental processes of high-achievement athletes. […] This film details, with skill and intelligence and finally with transcendent spectacle, how and why Alex Honnold could do this remarkable thing. Free Solo shows us what it means to him to free climb El Capitan, and that gives us some idea of what it should mean to us.”

Review – 23 December 2018


5. Annihilation (Directed by Alex Garland)

“Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation […] picks up the great science fiction tradition of utilizing a fantasy encounter with an utterly alien form of life to shed harsh and revealing light on flaws in the human condition. […] Annihilation is ambiguous about the errors of human natures, however, presenting their self-sabotaging stasis as both a danger to people and a resistant, protective armour, especially in contrast to the unpredictable and threatening constancy of change represented by the film’s mysterious alien presence. […] What makes Annihilation special beyond its expert refraction of genre tropes and visual imaginings, however, is also what made Garland’s previous film special: it renders complex and difficult moral and existential questions about human choice and intent in simple, resonant terms without surrending their inherent complexity and difficulty.”

Review – 20 October 2018


6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)

“The Coen Brothers’ Netflix streaming-series-turned-anthology-film is at once a deconstruction of the Hollywood western and a sincere homage to the genre, all while remaining indelibly and profoundly Coens. […] These vignettes range from wacky send-ups of generic tropes to exquisitely-wrought parables of human want and drive to wordy chamber pieces to cause-and-effect escalations with tragic dimensions. But they always retain an internal logic of momentum and direction, a force and counter-force progression of choices and events unmoored from moral consequences and judgements of cosmic justice; indeed, they often brazenly thumb their collective noses at the sense of a moral order. […] They are all entertaining, involving, amusing, or moving in some way or other; we as viewers are always engaged and trusted, never condescended to but forever respected and given space to consider, to interpret, maybe to understand.”

Review – 23 November 2018


7. Black Panther (Directed by Ryan Coogler)

“The triumph of Black Panther is that it’s […] an exciting action-adventure movie, a visually and politically detailed and compelling demonstration of onscreen world-building, and above all a nuanced and conflicted exploration of black experience, black unity, and the spirited debate about the best path of correction for the uniquely terrible legacy of colonialism, slavery, and oppression faced by people of African descent, from the centre of their (of all of our) continent of origin to the poverty-stricken housing projects of America. […] Black Panther is a muscular and potent blockbuster that confidently and firmly claims a position of great strength for African-derived peoples without sacrificing a thoughtful, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful vision of the complexities of their society, culture, and civilization(s).”

Review – 18 February 2018


8. The Other Side of the Wind (Directed by Orson Welles)

The Other Side of the Wind is probably Orson Welles’ most famous unfinished film, and was conceived and semi-executed by Welles self-reflexively and self-reflectively as a celluloid metaphor for the the themes and frustrations of his career, for his bemusement at his place in film history and at film history itself, and for the magic and the deceit of the movies. […] The resulting finished product is part dated time capsule, part living, electrifying reclaimed masterwork, and all Orson Welles. The Other Side of the Wind takes Welles’ trademarked winking masked-autobiographical artistic themes and runs them to dizzying extremes. […] This film is a deceptively ambitious closing statement on a remarkable, turbulent career in filmmaking, a masterpiece about reaching your end with your self-critical faculties firing at all cylinders but with your legacy in doubt and ultimately in the hands of others, who will inevitably betray you in ways both small and large, unintentional and malicious, sadly unjust and entirely deserved. It’s a film about failure and tragedy, and it’s a gigantic, inspiring success.”

Review – 26 December 2018


9. The Death of Stalin (Directed by Armando Iannucci)

“Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.”

Review – 5 December 2018


10. Ralph Breaks the Internet (Directed by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston)

“[Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s] surprisingly powerful climax blends emotional and thematic arcs with notable visual invention in the animation in an impressively cohesive manner. In this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes a strong point about unhealthy behaviour in relationships, about how poisonous possessiveness is driven by insecurity and fear of change and uncertainty. […] Crucially, the resolution in the conflict at the heart of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship in this movie is achieved not through accommodation and sacrifice on the female side of the equation, but through behaviour adjustments and psychological checks on the part of the male side, through the acceptance, albeit one tinged with melancholy, of uncertainty, lack of security, and separation from the ones you love.”

Review – 28 December 2018


Categories: Film, Reviews