Wonder Woman

Recommendation: YES

Summary: A US born British spy by the name of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands off the coast of a hidden island inhabited by Amazons. Hearing his tales of a war without end (World War 1), Diana (Gal Gadot), an idealistic princess, decides to help Steve return to London with crucial intel on a deadly chemical weapon if he in turn will point her in the direction of the front so she can hunt down Ares, whom she believes is responsible for corrupting the minds of men and prolonging the war. Lessons are learnt.

Here we are, witness to the first unqualified good film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It is a shame that the most drastic about face I have witnessed in recent history had to be surrounded by the relative shittiness of the internet. Rest assured that there is no conspiracy here, no campaign against men. Women only screenings did not end the world, nor were they the responsibility of WB, so you can stop blaming them for it. That Wonder Woman was a film directed by a woman is not the most significant nor sole reason for its incredibly warm reception.

The answer to why we suddenly have a well received film in the DCEU is a bit simpler than that. Director Patty Jenkins (of Monster fame) is someone who understands that Wonder Woman as a character is an embodiment of love and compassion. Patty Jenkins isn’t David Ayer, a person whose filmography to date largely revolves around the “coolness” of self destructive or poisonous masculinity, or appeals to violence and power (that said, End of Watch is a genuinely good and character focused aesthetic experiment). Nor is she Zack Snyder, a Randian Objectivist who writes his worldview into characters diametrically opposed to it.

I would get into Suicide Squad, but its failings are so numerous and its production so troubled that I can’t rightly tell what is a result of Ayer’s philosophy and approach as a story teller, and what is resultant on, for example, Ayer being forced into completing the screenplay in 6 weeks, or the reshoots, or Trailer Park being hired to recut the film.

So let us discuss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) for a moment and contrast its approach to that of Wonder Woman. BvS takes cues largely from The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in which a Randian Batman eventually takes on a non-Randian Superman, who is rendered as a stooge for the government (because you are either smart enough to believe in ethical egoism, or you are a self sacrificing slave to an overreaching government). In BVS however, Batman is consumed with a rage and desire to prove himself a capable actor with agency and an ability to affect change from without, refusing to cooperate and uncaring of the fate of those he goes up against, as long as his ends are met. Superman is a pouty, put upon, selfish and capricious person of mass destruction. Snyder frames him in glorious, approaching iconic compositions, saving people and averting catastrophies, but forever with a scowl on his face. There’s an inherent disconnect between what the Words Say about how Superman is the best most altruistic of actors in this universe, and his actions that suggest he is doing so reluctantly out of a misplaced sense of obligation that both his mother and ghost father say he shouldn’t feel.

They are then pitted against each other in what the film insists is a battle of opposing ideologies, but in reality is Snyder taking two toys infused with his Objectivist world view, and smacking them together in a climax that is in no way climactic, and much less so when a second, tacked on climax fails to dazzle with so much CGI nonsense. Whatever good BvS brings to the table outside of Snyder’s penchant for framing beautiful compositions, is snuck in at the periphery (see Holly Hunter’s character trying to hold Superman accountable for acting unilaterally with no oversight in and outside the United States), and then too only at the level of individual scenes.

But Wonder Woman offers an uncluttered, focused, self contained narrative with a simple thesis that it explores at both the level of character, and a higher thematic level. The film makes it its business to posit that displaying love and compassion for your fellow man in the face of their shittiness is the one thing for anyone ever to strive for, no matter their origin. And it is this singular focus on its thesis that makes Wonder Woman an at times profoundly humane film watching experience. Wonder Woman, unlike the DCEU version of Batman or Superman is a character worth deifying. She is a character who will do what is right because it is what she ought to do, and this is no better exemplified than in the film’s stand out set piece, the No Man’s Land sequence. It has the most effective use of speed ramping to suggest the physicality and grandeur of comic book splash pages since Snyder’s own 300. It highlights the strength of Diana’s moral character through action rather than speechifying. It is a sequence in which the rousing score inspires awe rather than beating us over the head with a suggestion of unearned poetry. And it’s the most damned super hero-y sequence I have seen in a movie since, I don’t know, the bit with the train in Spider-Man 2. This is a movie that is operating on a level of quality in all domains that far exceeds anything the DCEU has offered to date. And Wonder Woman continues to operate at this level of quality until its obligatory CG nonsense climax.

And it’s also so adorable and affectionate about it’s characters. From the young Diana play acting at being a warrior with a look of wonder on her face, to the playful chemistry between her and Steve Trevor, there’s a genuine interest in the inner workings of its characters and the struggles they are facing. Even the rag tag group of misfits (a la, Captain America’s Howling Commandos) have moments hinting at an inner life. The actor turned spy who couldn’t make it big because of his race, the braggart sniper with what is fairly evidently PTSD, the opportunistic Native American smuggler who only does what he does because his people have been displaced by Americans and it’s his best option for making a living. All of this is handled so deftly that the complexities of these character arcs are set up, delivered, and paid off in relatively little screen time. This is a big budget event movie where the small, quiet scenes are just as powerful as the bombastic ones because they are all in service of character or theme. And when a movie can have you in rapt attention at a character playing the piano and singing out of key because of what it means for that character in particular, then it is doing something right.

It is this focus on characters that helps turn a functionally invincible one like Diana into an interesting one, even if almost every physical challenge she faces is trivial. Where Wonder Woman succeeds and BvS, or even Man of Steel failed is in establishing Diana’s core values and beliefs (that man is inherently good), and challenging it at every turn. Dramatic tension is maintained throughout the movie by playing Diana off against everything that surrounds her, including the characters that are ostensibly there to support her. What happens when push comes to shove and none of her compatriots believe in her conviction that Ares is the one pulling all the strings? What happens if she was wrong all along? Does it matter more or less if she keeps going? And how funny can we make a woman walking around early 20th Century London carrying a sword and a shield?

Okay, so turning Man of Steel into a fish out of water comedy may not have worked out as well as it did with Wonder Woman (owing in large part to the fantastic chemistry and performances of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine), but the main thing is the fish out of water-ness cuts both ways when it comes to the film’s drama, and this is something that the dramatically inert Man of Steel could have used. As she goes on her journey, she learns about the cycles if warfare and oppression of indigenous peoples, the existence of racism, the horrors of PTSD, to name a few things, and the film is refreshingly honest about its depiction. It doesn’t gloss over any of it, but simultaneously doesn’t get bogged down in the dour tone of BvS. “Yes, humans are shitty,” the film intones, “but that is not justification enough to turn your back and stop fighting for what is good and right. Not when there is still love in the world and a chance for a better future.” And this is a far less ugly message than what any of its contemporaries have managed to convey.

Alien: Covenant… Increasingly familiar

Recommendation: NO

Summary: Colonists find their ship hit by solar winds, leaving their captain toasted and the rest of the crew unwilling to reenter their cryosleep pods lest they befall the same fate. The acting captain, a man who believes his religion makes him untrustworthy in the eyes of the crew a mere 10 years after a devoutly religious person was part of the crew of the most expensive space expedition to that point, gives into popular demand to investigate a much closer, possibly hospitable planet rather than travelling their years long journey to their actual, safe destination. Due to terrible safety protocols, things go wrong.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the bat:

  1. Alien: Covenant is not a good film
  2. Alien: Covenant is not a good Alien film
  3. I prefer Prometheus to Alien: Covenant

If Prometheus is what happens when you take a slasher film and hurriedly retrofit it into a “thinking person’s science fiction film”, Alien: Covenant is what happens when you go the other way.

Be warned, if you were at all even the slightest bit interested in finding out why the Engineers created us and why they wanted to destroy us, prepare to be disappointed. That plot thread is hurriedly swept aside in a flashback in an attempt to course correct towards being more closely connected with the Alien franchise. But people hated Prometheus! Isn’t a course correction towards the rest of the franchise a good thing? Let’s take a moment to remember what else was part of the Alien franchise:

  • Alien 3
  • Alien Resurrection
  • AVP
  • AVP: R (I don’t remember what the R stood for, but it was probably Requiem or something equally terrible)

And let’s also take this moment to remind ourselves of a slow, ponderous science fiction film that Scott directed that wasn’t looked upon kindly until a few years later:

  • Blade Runner

Ultimately, what I am trying to say is that in the grand scheme of things, people don’t know shit; neither the authors, nor the audience.

And that is evident in Alien: Covenant. The ponderous core of Prometheus has been swapped out for that of a sleazy thriller, one that operates in the vague neighbourhood of Alien (complete with a condensed recreation of that first film in what passes for Covenant’s third act) after taking a detour through 80s slasher territory. People do stupid things for the sole purpose of delivering gory kills for the audience to enjoy, there is a lurid sex scene that gets bloodily interrupted, and the alien itself, far from being an unknowable walking metaphor for violation and sexual assault, is nothing but a bad special effect. They even managed to do the alien POV shot worse than it was done in Alien 3. Think on that.

Save for some two scenes of body horror (neither of which entirely approach the heights of the cesarean scene from Prometheus, though the first one gets close), the film is almost always better when the aliens are not on screen. In an Aliens movie. Prometheus at least had the good fortune of being distanced somewhat from Alien so it could be its own weird slow burn thing.

But aside from the aforementioned body horror and some effectively atmospheric gothic production design, Alien: Covenant is a film that puts on a show of being a horror film without actually committing to it. Everything else good about it comes as part of its past life as a Prometheus sequel. And all of its grandiose and “literary” discussions of the relationship between creator and created were better suited by Prometheus’ more consistently considered pacing. Sure, I did not think Prometheus got it right, but it sure as hell was better built to get it right than Alien: Covenant.

The one (two?) saving grace(s) of Alien Covenant is Michael Fassbender. This time playing a new Synthetic named Walter and returning as the creative and unhinged David, Fassbender electrifies the screen with his winning take on the uncanny valley. Affecting an American accent in something of a Lance Henrickson impersonation, Walter is a character that impresses in his coldness and restricted affect. And he is the perfect foil to David, a creature designed with a desire to create and understand. No better is this weird undercurrent of “humanity”, for lack of a better term, seen than in the film’s opening, a prologue introducing us to David’s first few hours. So much of the contempt between creator and created is suggested through reactions and body language as David prods and pokes at Peter Wayland’s insecurities about his mortality to see how far he can push and get away with it.

And then we have the scenes where the two synthetics interact. These sequences are crackling with an uncomfortable yet captivating “Platonic homoeroticism” while the two explore each others boundaries and try to seduce each other to their way of thinking. It really, really makes me wish the movie jettisoned the Alien connection altogether and became its own psychosexual thriller. But the aliens, creatures created out of unconvincing CGI, are the main draw, and Covenant: These Two Gay Robots are Totally Amazing would not a winning investment make.

And so we have part homoerotic thriller, part mad scientist movie (that totally robs the mystery of and defangs the Xenomorph), and part movie that dresses in the discarded skin of a gothic thriller by way of 80s slasher. A movie with no idea what to do with itself for an audience with no idea what is actually good for it. It’s time to put this franchise to bed before anymore damage is done to one of Cinema’s most iconic horror creations.

Monster Fest – The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Director: André Øvredal

Yes (Cat lovers/owners be warned though)

Summary: A father and son team conduct an autopsy on an unidentifiable, naked woman found half buried at the site of a multiple murder. Things go wrong.

 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe opens in a location it will never revisit. It is the site of a bizarre multiple murder that has the town’s Sheriff puzzled. He’s even more puzzled when his men find a half buried naked corpse in the basement, with seemingly no connection to the murders. One of his officers informs him with a mix of cheese and solemnity that there were no signs of a break in, in fact there were signs suggesting the murder victims were trying to break out!!!

The opening is ominous in a couple of ways, the most worrying of which are signs of a screenplay rich in cliche. It is just as well then that director André Øvredal has the good sense to focus on the more unique aspects of the premise, most obviously the whole autopsy thing. Speaking of, the film shifts to an underground location filled with aged rooms and tight corridors. This space is framed in a particularly claustrophobic way. While we’re being introduced to the setting of the remainder of the film, we are also being introduced to two of its three primary characters. It is reasonably standard stuff. The father is struggling to get over the death of his wife, the son wants to leave town and avoid following in his father’s footsteps, but the performances are strong enough to sell it. There is jokey verbal sparring and a sense of mentorship that underlies most interactions, making the relationship and by extension the characters feel lived in and authentic.

And then the third major character is rolled through the door. Yes, the Jane Doe corpse is a character in her own right. The way she is filmed, the way the editing gives her reaction shots to the bizarre goings on, make her feel aware and consciously manipulating her surroundings despite her entirely still and expressionless exterior.

But it’s her internals that drive the mystery of the film. The autopsy sequence fleshes out the father and son characters, while piling unlikely finding upon unnervingly unlikely finding. The autopsy is approached and filmed in such a clinical way that every new reveal stands in much stronger contrast to the natural order of things. They build upon each other and lead to a climactic finding that is deliciously creepy. And the excellent sound design, including a slowly growing storm and a malevolent and teasing radio slather the atmosphere on thick. It is almost Lovecraftian in its lack of cohesion with human rationality.

And then things hit the fan, and the film shifts tactics from building tension to delivering scares. Here’s where the problems start to raise their head. While the first half of the film was a slow burn relying on incongruence, the second half is a haunted house picture that’s a little too eager to go bump in the night. The longer the film goes on the more reliant it is on highly telegraphed jump scares. The screenplay justifies it as a malevolent force toying with its victims. It’s trying to rattle them and make them suffer rather than trying to kill them. But The Autopsy of Jane Doe gets dangerously close to becoming a one trick pony. An opening is created in a surface, a character looks through it, a few seconds of silence before BOO a face pops up into frame.

It takes a genuinely tense elevator sequence and a build up to a cliche ending that is viciously subverted for The Autopsy of Jane Doe to regain its footing. This is one of a few movies that attempts to explain what the malevolent force is without reducing its level of threat. And that’s because the characters still don’t know 1) if they can defeat what they are up against, 2) if they are even right about what it is. And it’s a fun way to end a reasonably smart single room supernatural thriller.

The end of the world all over again

No.

Independence Day: Resurgence is what is wrong with contemporary blockbuster cinema. At least western blockbuster cinema.
We pick up 20 years after the end of Independence Day. The aliens have been thwarted, earth has adapted their technology into ours, the world’s nations have come together in much the same way Ozymandias hoped the giant space alien squid would do at the end of Watchmen, with a combined world wide Earth-Space Defense Force. I suppose in that way the pandering to China feels more organic than in something like Transformers 4.
Jeff Goldblum is now an adviser to the earth-space defense force, one they don’t ever listen to, but I guess the title counts for something. There are human outposts throughout the solar system, and it’s at the lunar outpost that we blow a hole through a non-hostile alien ship and leave ourselves unprepared for the alien onslaught to come.
Independence Day: Resurgence has a wonderful cast: Jeff Goldblum, Charlotte Gainsbourg, William Fichtner. It then elects to do nothing with them. It has a breathtaking sequence that eclipses anything the original manages, then becomes much much smaller. It is goofy and amiable, not taking itself too seriously, then invests much energy in Poe faced mythology and franchise building. Independence Day: Resurgence is not so much the disaster film with sci-fi trappings of the original as is a cynical game of moving pieces into place for sequels to come.
Aside from that there are weird technical issues you would not expect in a tent pole feature. Some cuts result in poor communication of the flow of time, ending up temporally confused and confusing. Actors fail to meet eye lines. CG effects do not feel like they belong in the world, like they are weightless and without substance (a complaint that also applies to the transformers films).
But the biggest sin… Other than Jeff Goldblum, there is nothing that Independence Day: Resurgence does that other big CG laden movies cannot provide. What made Independence Day novel in its time was its sense of scale. It was more massive than its contemporaries. Now a days, a big, loud, flashy blockbuster is old hat. Anyone with the budget can and will do that. So what does Independence Day: Resurgence offer? Nostalgia? Perhaps. But then the movie looks and feels so much different due to the change in visual design. The incorporation of alien technology in our technology and building design makes it feel more like a generic futuristic film than a film that takes place in the same universe.
Independence Day: Resurgence may be less insufferable than a Transformers, but it is a beast with no identity of its own. It is content to do everything that other films are doing without offering anything unique. It is just another big, loud, waste of time that is too busy thinking of the future to focus on the present.
ID4 was a big film. ID: R is the shadow it cast.

WB Just Fragged Itself

No. Not worth the frustration at a missed opportunity 

What have I got myself into? It’s 6 o’clock and I’m on my way to watch Suicide Squad, a movie that by all accounts has been mangled by extensive reshoots and a superfluous licenced soundtrack. I’m on a train and the guy in front of me keeps turning to his friends across the isle, saying “hello” and thumping his seat so loud it is drowning the music I am listening to. It’s important to note that he was originally sitting with them before moving to a smaller seat that could not accommodate all of them and then feeling insulted that no one followed. He throws an open and full bottle of water at them in indignation, drenching my legs in the process. He seems pleased with himself.

I shouldn’t let this and a number of other insignificant (though still salient) inconveniences stand in the way of me engaging with Suicide Squad on its own terms (whatever “its own terms” could mean for a movie that is part of a hurriedly conceived shared universe counter to a rival studio’s ambitious experiment). I am just trying to keep accountable to myself to try and look past anything that could colour my perception of the film. That thought is derailed as I catch a glimps of self-satisfied train guy, now reunited with his friends, reaching over and tweaking an unfortunate’s nipples and stroking their chest. At least he is having a good time.

I’ll also admit that I am not so fervently lost in the supposed majesty of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) that I preoccupy myself with conspiracy theories, following the money back to Disney rather than acknowledging the considerable flaws of the DCEU’s offerings thus far. I am, also not too proud to admit that there were things about Man of Steel and Batman v Superman that I did like despite not liking them as a whole.

So, with that in mind, let me be upfront, lay my cards on the table. Here’s where I stand going in:

  • I like Amanda Waller
  • I like Harley Quinn
  • I hope Killer Croc is as scary as he was in the opening to Arkham Asylum
  • David Ayer’s movies to date have been about violent, hyper-macho men’s relationships to each other as they do violent, hyper-macho things
  • WB has no idea what it is doing
  • Live action DC movies deserve better stewards
  • I am willing to bet Assault on Arkham is the better Suicide Squad movie
  • I don’t want this to be as bad as the critical consensus suggests

After dinner and a coffee, my friends and I make our way to the theatre. It’s a tiny, foul smelling place. There are holes in my seat and not enough leg room to allow people to pass. Four or five people trip down the poorly maintained stairs on their way to their seats. It hasn’t been too long since release. This does not bode well for Suicide Squad’s takings. It is also a full house. This confuses me until I remember we’re not in VMAX so we don’t matter as much to the theatre chain.

And then it begins. A garish, neon lit, hyper stylised flurry of cuts scored to a simultaneously aggressively pandering and culturally irrelevant licenced soundtrack serves as an introduction to three of the film’s key players, one of its identities, and its primary flaw. The third character we are introduced to is Amanda Waller. Her introduction serves as a means of introducing us to the film’s key players. A second time in the case of Harley Quinn and Deadshot. After this sequence, we watch as the group is assembled, giving us a run down of their abilities in a more show don’t tell kind of way. And it’s this third introduction to the film’s characters that feels like the one David Ayer had the most hand in constructing. Things don’t look good. But the third set of introductions feel so natural and slide by so quickly that I start to get swept up in the “rhythm” of the film before I realise the first act ends without anything actually happening.

Nothing happens in the first 30 minutes of the film because the first 30 minutes of the film are three, stylistically different attempts to do the same thing.

I slump in my seat and groan. The only thing that establishes any sense of context for the film’s narrative is Amanda Waller mentioning that Superman is dead, placing the film some time after the end of Batman v Superman.

This doesn’t particularly inspire confidence, and also serves as an augur for upcoming frustrations. Some of them are due to the reshot material being haphazardly inserted into Ayer’s original cut, some of them are due to Ayer’s own quirks. But the thing that is most evident at the current moment is that Suicide Squad is a film that’s in two minds about what it should be. One is a quip heavy and flashy feature length trailer, the other a more menacingly toned and character focused actioner (the sort of thing that is David Ayer boilerplate).

And now here I am watching a film with three styles and three rhythms. It frustrates me that one of these styles feels so much stronger than the others. The darker material is more assured, better staged, and less contrived feeling. That’s not to say the hyper-stylised stuff is terrible. It’s not. It gives the film a kind of anarchic, barely holding together energy that also fits well with the theme of the movie. At times Suicide Squad feels more kinetic than Batman v Superman and Man of Steel, with its own set of visually dazzling sequences. It’s just that it’s not David Ayer’s cup of tea and you do begin to see the facade start to crack when he tries for dark laughs without the flashy editing of a trailer company to obfuscate things. When he tries to do funny all by himself, it feels forced and half baked. They’re attempts to lighten the mood and give the film an identity all its own without consideration to context or character. And given they take up space without expanding narrative or character all that much, they make the remainder of the film pull double time to flesh out the world and the cast.

 

It doesn’t work.

 

I think to myself “why, WB, why would you do this? Why would you allow David Ayer to create his workprint, get him to reshoot and create a more comic workprint, and then hire a trailer making company to cut the two different cuts together without consideration for narrative continuity or structure?”

They panicked, that’s why. It still doesn’t answer why they didn’t just release either David Ayer’s original version, or the funnier version instead of frankenstein’s monstering the two of them together.

Are they trying to aim for a Guardians of the Galaxy type hit? All the “quirky” humour and attempts at getting disparate, self-interested people to wax poetic about how they now feel like a family definitely hints at that. But here’s the thing. Guardians of the Galaxy cared about its characters. The jokes came from a place of truth about the characters. It was purpose built from the ground up to be what it was. Suicide Squad wasn’t. The audience laughs anyway.

With so much of the film taken up by dead weight, the bits that do work better aren’t as strong as they could have been. It does get better as it goes along, in that its more conventional, generic strengths are more evident. The characters start palying off each other more ogranically. The focus on getting a thing done and then going to do the thing keeps the narrative relatively simple. And as the film nears the final act, there are fewer and fewer moving parts to confuse things. Though there’s still a little something missing. That something is the characters.

With the exception of Harley Quinn, Deadshot and El Diablo, none of the characters are fleshed out beyond the broadest of stereotypes. Captain Boomerang’s defining traits are he’s a bloke. Just an Aussie bloke. With fancy boomerangs. He robs banks. Killer Croc isn’t scary or at all intimidating. He is reduced to a series of African American stereotypes. He dons a hoodie, replies monosylabically in ebonics, and when granted a request by Amanda Waller, he asks for a TV to watch hip hop music videos. Enchantres is the Oracle from 300, except at full speed. And Slipknot only exists to fulfill the one purpose he had in the comics… which I suppose it isn’t fair to ding the film for.

So when the film demands that you spend time with and root for all the characters, does ridiculous things like show them bonding in the 3rd act and expecting you to believe they’re a tight family unit now, and asks you to care when any of them die, it doesn’t work. Things either feel forced, or hokey and untintentionally comic.

Speaking of unintentionally comic, a consequence of the mashing together of the two cuts is that narrative beats now need to take place in exposition dumps. Some of them are so obviously expository that it honestly sounds like the characters have stepped out of the film and are reading a summary of the screenplay to the audience. They don’t laugh at this, though. They also don’t find it incongruous that a 6313 year old witch would unironically say “you don’t have the balls”.

I leave the theatre after the obligatory end credits stinger. It serves no purpose other than to show us once again how justice is dawning. Two of my friends didn’t care to wait, nor did the majority of the audience. I don’t know what this says about their patience by film’s end. It might just be the fact it’s not a Marvel branded film. I’m frustrated by the mess it ended up being. It’s not unwatchable, actually quite a bit easier to get through to the good parts than Batman v Superman. That doesn’t stop me from shuddering as I am reminded of the fact Rogue One has befallen a similar fate.

I also wonder what we can expect from modern tentpole cinema when everything is trying so much to grow a franchise that they spend valuable screentime sowing the seeds of future entries that they don’t bother focusing on making the current film a strong experience. I just want to go home, forget about comic books and shared cinematic universe movie projects and just go to sleep. Modern cinema doesn’t seem content to let me.

Captain America: Civil War – Continuity Lockout

Yes (If you have an investment in the MCU and remember story elements from previous movies)

No otherwise

13 movies in and the MCU is only getting harder for those not invested, or in some way informed about, to care about and follow.

This is the new world we live in, where franchise film making is ever present to the point that Universal is giving their stable of movie monsters a shared universe reboot, and even James Bond movies are slave to carving continuity where there should be none.

Yet where Bond, Universal, and more recently, DC have failed, Marvel have (through tight control and strict formula, with its own problems) managed to create a juggernaut that, at the best of times feels like a lived in and fully realised world. They have done to the silver screen what continuity driven television, or for that matter, what Super Hero comics have been doing.

While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily a good thing either. By virtue of being big, expensive things that take time to make and come out between instalments, having such a heavy reliance on narrative beats from close to a decade worth of movies will necessarily make following the MCU a difficult and potentially onerous task for the casual film goer.

This is where Captain America: Civil War stands. Plot elements and character beats from previous movies all come together to drive a rich character story, that just so happens to be layered upon a middling narrative. It feels like the least casual watch friendly of the MCU movies, actively demanding a knowledge of the MCU as a whole to fully appreciate all that the film has to offer. While certain of the MCU movies (Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, for example) could rightfully be criticised for serving as glorified advertisements for future instalments, the majority, and in fact, the best of the MCU could stand alone as their own entertainment. Take a look at Guardians of the Galaxy, or even at Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

That said, while other MCU movies serve the dual purpose of serving to set the pieces for succeeding films, while also developing their own characters, the two Captain America sequels have been tasked with a triple purpose of setting the board, developing Cap, and remixing and recontextualising the events of the MCU to keep things fresh. Winter Soldier pulled the rug out from under us regarding the nature of SHIELD and past events of the MCU (think back to the scene in Iron Man 2 where the government attempted to gain control of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit technology and shudder at the realisation that it was Hydra pulling the strings there).

Herein lies the problem with Civil War. Having a larger number of pieces on the board to violently shake around, the majority of the film’s forward momentum is dedicated to reaching back into the past and messing with it. The film’s actual stand alone plot, while delivering a villain that is more complex and sympathetic than the majority of MCU villains, relies on screenwriting tricks and narrative contrivance that almost sinks whatever good will I had for Civil War as a stand alone piece of entertainment. Imagine if you will The Joker’s level of omnipotence, without the implicit and sometimes explicit understanding of The Joker more as a narrative device than as a character in his own right, and you are getting close to the problem with Civil War’s villain and narrative arc. That Civil War has in any way a compelling villain compared to the larger MCU says more to damn the quality of villains of this franchise than to praise Civil War’s.

So as a stand alone film it is the weakest of the Captain America movies, and among one of the weaker all around MCU entries. That’s not to say it is completely devoid of merit. The action scenes are more competently staged than those in The Winter Soldier, though they may come across as superfluous at times and are hampered by the ugliness of the digital format, and the third act actively narrows the conflict down to what works best and ends up as a vicious, personal climax rather than the exhausting and pointless escalations to 20 minutes of CGI Armageddon that was for so long the MCU house style. Still, without a baseline investment in the MCU and its goings on, Civil War comes dangerously close to being a tedious, nothing movie.

Civil War’s plot is kicked off by a mission to tie up some loose ends introduced at the end of Winter Soldier that goes horribly wrong, resulting in civilian casualties. This sets in motion one of the grimmest, most emotionally charged films in the MCU. The Avengers are faced with an ideological struggle, that creates fractures in their unity , and leads to the titular “civil war”. The “war” in question is much smaller in scope than what I have been lead to believe its comics namesake, with the battles being mostly those of words. Positions are set up and countered, there are appeals to emotion and authority, and it is ultimately bruised egos, psychological distress, and stubbornness that lead to the fists flying and men falling from the skies. There’s rich character interaction going on here, and the emotional and ideological wrestling is much more interesting than the film’s strides to be political. It doesn’t really have much to say about the validity and morality of extrajuduicial and extragovernmental foreign interventionism beyond what the characters themselves bring to the table. The third act jettisons all pretence of Civil War being a political thriller in the vein of Winter Soldier to focus solely on small scale emotional stakes.

Tony Stark is once again pro-registration and Steve Rogers is anti-registration. Stark’s stance is informed by the guilt and previously implied PTSD he suffered at the hands of his hubris and the harm and destruction it precipitated. It has cost him his relationship with Pepper Potts, has led to the events of all three Iron Man movies, and to the destruction and loss of life that Ultron caused. He cannot seem to keep himself in check, and believes UN oversight will be able to keep the collateral damage low.
Rogers, on the other hand, has witnessed first hand what unquestioned adherence to authority can result in. SHIELD was a front for Hydra, that almost led to their victory and millions and millions of deaths. The possibility of allowing Hydra or another such organisation prevent the Avengers from acting in the best interests of Earth is something he cannot abide. Thinking back even further to Captain America: The First Avenger, Rogers knows what it’s like to have an overwhelming desire to help and be unable to act due to the chain of command deciding they have a better, more politically friendly use for him.

Civil War in general is at its best when it is pairing up and squaring off its characters. Sam Wilson and Bucky Barns are effectively two of Captain America’s best friends, trying to see who is the secret actual best friend. Black Panther and the film’s villain are men driven by vengeance. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are two leaders on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. The Vision and Scarlet Witch are two beings struggling to deal with a world that fears their awesome power and potential for destruction in different ways.

The film sings along without having to dedicate too much time to developing character or introducing their positions because the remainder of the MCU has done most of the heavy lifting for it. And this is the crux of the problem. Civil War is at its best when it is an experiment in franchise film making, allowing it to be a conversation as much with its audience as it is with its franchise history. But its reliance on its franchise history makes it one of the most alienating mainstream movies I have seen in recent history. These are not Easter eggs to be enjoyed by the franchise faithful, these are the basic building blocks of the film’s worth as a piece of entertainment.

And if you come into Civil War without the pre-requisite context? Why should you care about Tony Stark showing Steve Rogers his father’s antique fountain pens (aside from the fact fountain pens are amazing)? Would you even notice the dramatic reversal when it’s Steve who pulls an unconscious Bucky out of the water? Do you even know who General Ross is, and why he is particularly pleased to mention that the Avengers have no idea where Bruce Banner is? Why would Black Widow ask Clint if they are still friends?

And with a middling narrative holding together the remixing, referencing, recontextualising, and character moments, why would you want to sit through a film this long? It is a film of contradictions, trying to please too many masters. It attempts to be a political thriller when it is actually a character drama. It is a tense mystery film that pauses the mystery to deliver bombastic and mostly inconsequential set pieces. It is a film with a politically engaged message that doesn’t bother to think its politics through beyond what feels right to position its characters for a third act confrontation. It is a focused character study with an expanded cast of characters that mostly get overlooked.

Ultimately I enjoyed Civil War, but only because I took the effort to follow the MCU enough to understand its place in the modern cinematic landscape. Without my (admittedly flimsy) understanding of the MCU, I would have been entirely uninvolved, as my friend who saw it with me was. It is worth noting that he has seen almost every MCU film , and has enjoyed the majority of them. However, he engaged each one as a stand alone film.

The question then becomes, is it okay to critique a film for working within the conventions of contemporary mainstream franchise story telling, when it does so better than its competition? Is it okay to say that the 13th film in a long running franchise is not good as a stand alone product? What happens when keeping informed enough to enjoy the franchise becomes more of a chore, an obligation to a machine designed to synergise and push corporate product?

The aforementioned continuity driven television is becoming more and more a thing in this age of Netflix and DVR. Yet the way Netflix has changed the media landscape does not mean that all forms of media should follow this route. The reason Netflix works is because it facilitates binge watching. The medium facilitates the form. Netflix shows have their seasons produced to completion before being made available to the binge watching audience. There is no down time between episodes, only between seasons. A film franchise cannot indulge in this luxury.

But the fact it took 13 movies to get to this stage when the DCEU took 2…

Is it fair to blame Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Young Adult movie adaptations and the MCU for this trend?

#52FilmsByWomen 1 to 5

I’m taking up the #52FilmsByWomen pledge this year, and I thought I would also write about these movies after I have watched them. It’s one thing watching 52 films directed by women, it’s an entirely other thing to try and process them.

Keep in mind that I am ordering these films based on viewing order, not based on an assessment of their quality.

So here are capsule write ups 1 to 5!

1) A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night:
A visually dazzling black and white movie. Slow burning, dripping with atmosphere with not much in the way of narrative. It feels more like a series of vignettes set in the fictional Bad City (A city that lives up to its name). Though allegedly set in Iran, it is shot in California, adding to the bizarre otherworldiness of the film.
The titular Girl initially comes off as a quasi-feminist figure, protecting the victimised women of Bad City from the men who exploit them. Her character is coloured by her continued insistence that she is a bad person as well as her killing of a harmless vagrant for no given reason.
Unfortunately I do not have the context to be able to talk about the films A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night pays homage to, but I can say it is a striking feature debut and I look forward to more.

 
2) Honey Moon:
An unsettling and effective low budget character driven horror movie. The film is at its best when it is operating as allegory. It gets great mileage out of exploring the uncertainty faced by people when their romantic partner no longer appears to be or act like the person they remember them to be early in the relationship. Highlights can be found in scenes where one of the characters is rehearsing and memorising details of their previous life, as if they were trying to continue putting up a facade of what attracted their partner to them in the first place.

 
Unfortunately, the movie does fall over when it starts relying on more conventional horror techniques, veering into body horror and gore in the last leg, and stretching the allegorical premise too far.

 
Still, a well shot, tightly paced character study that bodes well for the director’s future.

 
3) Kung Fu Panda 2:
This movie is gorgeous. It looks absolutely stunning, is popping with style and colour, and has some amazingly staged action sequences. It is not necessarily as snappily written as the first Kung Fu Panda film, but still ends up a surprisingly mature exploration of PTSD and processing trauma. When it fires on all cylinders, it is an amazing piece of pop entertainment. In particular, the stylistic decision to have traumatic flashbacks and night terrors rendered in 2D, while “normal” memories and real life are rendered in 3D allows for one particularly gorgeous sequence when the 2D slowly transitions into 3D. It is story telling through form and elevates the movie above some of the other 3D animated family movies I have seen in complexity and competence.

 
I am honestly quite surprised that it isn’t regarded as fondly as the first Kung Fu Panda, and that so many people read Po’s struggling to come to terms with his trauma as a dumb character failing to see the obvious truth in front of him.

 
4) I Believe In Unicorns:
This film is definitely as twee as the title suggests. That said I was surprised by how honest and emotionally raw it was. It is a coming of age teen romance, and the real strength of the movie, other than its stylistic boldness, is the aforementioned emotional honesty. It really feels voyeuristic at times; I felt like I was witness to things too personal to be seen by me.

 
It is shot on 16mm with fantasy sequences shot on super 8mm. The stylistic playfulness is interesting at first, starts to become grating after a while in its utter tweeness, then veers into a surprising and dark place when the real world narrative does as well. The fantasy sequences trade heavily in stereotypically girly imagery (unicorn toys, glitter, sparklers), and serve to chronicle the main character’s desire for escapism, and her dawning realisation that her real life relationship cannot serve the purpose she wants it to.
Her prince charming, an older skater boy, is her ticket away from her depressing life taking care of her disabled mother. They initially bond over absent fathers, go on an ill advised road trip, and then their individual neuroses start revealing darker, more troubling aspects of each others personalities. She prods and pokes at his emotional scars and insecurities, inviting conflict, and he in turn lashes out with barely controlled anger and violence. Their previous, clumsy, playful exploration of their sexuality becomes more violent and desperate as the film goes on. It is a chronicle of two kids trying to play at being adults without the skills or knowledge to navigate the world, let alone each other’s company.

 
At this point I have hit what is probably the most personal, and most overtly “female” coded of the movies I have set out to watch this year. While it is stretched too thin, even at a brisk 80 minutes, its emotional authenticity more than makes up for it. Another promising feature debut.

 
5) Live Nude Girls Unite
A documentary by Julia Query and Vicki Furani that offers a unique and at times very personal look behind the curtain as the employees of The Lusty Lady unionise and fight for safer work conditions.

 
A well crafted film that is playful, angry, sad, and hopeful. It was a wonder to see the hard won battle to form America’s first Union for sex workers inspire sex workers across the country to challenge abusive work practices.

 
Julia and Vicki do a good job of quickly laying the groundwork by explaining the terminology behind unionising, as well as the situations that sex workers at various establishments found themselves facing. This frees up time for the film to focus on its characters as they deal with every loss and victory on the path to establishing a union. Each woman’s individual life experiences and circumstances are covered, and in the film’s short running time, they are all fleshed out, underlying the film’s thesis that sex work is just work, and sex workers are employees that deserve to be treated with the same respect afforded to employees in other industries.

 
Tangentially, Live Nude Girls Unite explores Julia’s relationship with her mother, a doctor who has dedicated her career to aiding prostitutes to lead a safer life. She is an incredibly passionate woman who is doing huge amounts of good with her efforts. Both Julia and her mother are striving to improve the lives and conditions of women in the sex industry, however Julia was not out to her mother about being a sex worker herself. The film gets a lot of human drama out of this, and things come to a head as they both find themselves presenting at the same conference about sex work.

 
In chronicling the struggles of the employees of the Lusty Lady, as well as the relationship between Julia and her mother, Live Nude Girls Unite explores the complexities of the sex industry, the women who choose to work in it, and feminism’s differing opinions of sex work and sex workers.

 

 

So that ends the first 5 capsules of my series. I am still sitting at 49 films on my list (and one of them is an anthology of 26 shorts, with only two of the shorts directed by women). In order to sample a wider range of voices, I have decided to hold myself to watching one film per director. That I am having difficulty identifying films directed by women, or finding a way to watch them legally with the limits placed on travelling to the far reaches of Sydney by my current living situation is something that frustrates and upsets me.

It is most definitely an unfortunate combination of my own inability to work up the effort and the limited market penetration of films directed by women, and had I the psychic fortitude to hunt these movies down, or the funds for that matter, I would have an easier time of hitting the 52 mark.

An adventure 14 years in the making?

So I saw Jurassic World a few days ago, and it’s finally processed that I have seen a 4th Jurassic movie. After the 14 year wait, it was somewhat surreal and heady an experience.

This isn’t going to be an easy thing to write. How do you unpack 14 years of expectations for a sequel to a movie you’ve seen 70 times over a 22 year period across 5 different formats?

Let’s do an obligatory plot summary, because that’s how these things go. It’s 22 years after the Jurassic Park incident. InGen has been purchased by Masrani Global, a megacorp of sorts, run by the son of a friend of John Hammond. Masrani have created and successfully run Jurassic World for ten years. There is now a whole generation of kids who have grown up not knowing a world before Dinosaurs (keep this in mind, I’ll return to it). In a bid to keep interest in the park high and increase profits, InGen create a designer dinosaur through gene splicing. Things go wrong, the dinosaur escapes and endangers the lives of everyone on the island.

Colin Trevorrow managed to land the gig of directing Jurassic World back when Brad Bird was still considered to direct Star Wars Episode VII. Being a newcomer with only a modest indie comedy under his belt, Trevorrow seemed like an odd choice for director. He insisted he was a huge fan of the material and paid his due respects, but other creatives have said that and churned out substandard product. The casting of a number of comedy actors also seemed somewhat strange, hinting at a potentially bizarre tone. Bizarre and uneven is ultimately what Jurassic World‘s tone is. It springboards from childlike awe and wonder, to the odd scene with suspense, to broad comedic jabs, to miscalculated and fetishistic mean spiritedness, with one kill in particular feeling like it wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie if it were played for horror rather than petty spectacle.

It’s not entirely horrible though, the blue colour mix was toned down considerably. All kidding aside, in one or two scenes, the Indominus Rex makes for an interesting antagonist, if one that never gets given its dues, having abilities introduced and never seen again. Seeing the park fully functional during the opening moments made me feel a giddy joy I hadn’t felt while watching a Jurassic Movie since Jurassic Park. An initial exploration of animal husbandry, and behavioural science, with subtle commentary on the practice of keeping animals isolated in captivity to the detriment of the animal’s social development hearken back to the discussions of the futility of assuming control over a complex system no human had any intimate knowledge of that took place in Jurassic Park.

Beyond these brief moments the script is painfully cheesy and flatly written, with characters embodying outmoded stock types rather than feeling fleshed out or in any way compelling. The screenplay’s shallowness leads to awkward moments where attempts to give characters depth only ends up making them spout alternately contradictory sentences at the screen. Masrani, for example, alternates between a carefree billionaire who doesn’t give a damn about Jurassic World being profitable, and a Scrooge who doesn’t want a kill order put out on a dinosaur endangering countless lives because it cost $26 million to develop. It is somewhat awkward in hindsight when Joss (I wrote a movie in which it is accidentally implied a woman states her infertility makes her as monstrous as The Hulk) Whedon was on point with the movie feeling 70s era sexist. In what was an attempt to come across as an adventure serial like Romancing the Stone, Jurassic World‘s gender politics is distressingly retrograde. Brice Dallas Howard’s Claire is a workaholic prig what don’t need no man, who spends the entire movie in high heals, and whose character arc involves her realising she should settle down with a man and maybe having kids isn’t a bad idea. The majority of Jurassic World‘s world building is done through telling, and it is plagued with scenes where characters talk plot points and exposition at each other, rather than engaging as believable humans. In light of action movies that do exceptional amounts of world building and story telling visually through action, such as John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road, it was disappointing to see such a clumsy approach to narrative. While Jurassic Park was guilty of this to an extent, it had the good sense to be witty and playful with its characters in its downtime, and often mined them for genuine pathos in the process.

Despite this, most of the principle players do a lot with what they are given. Chris Pratt does his best in a role that tasks him with being almost entirely serious, robbing him of the charm he displayed in Guardians of the Galaxy. Howard does her best to flesh Claire out into more than a stereotype. BD Wong and Omar Sy are magnetic, though criminally underutilised. Chief human antagonist, Vincent D’onofrio’s Hoskins is clearly having fun mugging for the camera as what amounts to a villain out of Captain Planet.

Now let’s get to the thing that bothered a number of Jurassic Park fans, the fact that the majority of the dinosaur screen time was created using CGI. For the most part, the CG looks amazing in terms of its rendering. There’s a level of texture and attention to detail that was not present in Jurassic Park, and anyone who says Jurassic World‘s CG is worse than Jurassic Park‘s would do well to watch Jurassic Park again. However, where Jurassic Park succeeded and Jurassic World failed is that it used its dinosaurs sparingly and for maximum emotional impact. Jurassic Park is 127 minutes long, and the dinosaurs are only on screen for 15 of them. Most of the dinosaur related mayhem takes place at night and in the rain, allowing for a certain roughness to the CG, something that you cannot get away with in harsh, bright, daylight. And while Jurassic World’s CG detail may surpass that of Jurassic Park‘s, there are times when animations feel a little bit off leading to Jurassic World falling further into the uncanny valley than the 22 year old film. With the increase in action comes an over exposure to the dinosaurs, making them feel more familiar and less threatening. As mentioned above, set pieces were created to create spectacle, rather than to elicit an emotional response, and it feels like a loosely connected series of scenes that looked cool in previz. The one scene where animatronics are clearly used turns out to be one of Jurassic World‘s emotional high points, a touching scene that mirrors the reveal of the sick triceratops in Jurassic Park.

Interestingly, there seems to be a slightly subversive quality to Jurassic World, as if it were a summer blockbuster that hated being a summer blockbuster. It plays up the inherent ridiculousness of a highly intelligent, genetically spliced together Frankenstein’s Monster of a dinosaur, and the audience demand for “Bigger, Louder, More Teeth”. There’s even mention of the Indominus Rex being put before focus groups to determine what it should be for maximum audience enjoyment. A character talks about how Jurassic Park was the real deal, and that product placement and corporate sponsorship is horrible. “Verizon Wireless presents the Indominus Rex,” Claire announces proudly, confirming she landed a sponsorship deal. Might as well go all the way and give the corporations naming rights for the dinosaurs after they took over sporting arenas, replies her co-worker, offering such choice options as “Pepsisaurus” (a thing that made me laugh, not because the joke landed, but because Gasosaurus is a thing).

Trevorrow has mentioned that he was inspired to go in this particular direction by the image of a teenage boy on the phone with his back to the glass of a t-rex enclosure, and to an extent the film follows through with its explorations of Hollywood triteness, and our increasing solipsism and disconnection from the grandeur of the natural world.

However, for all its lecturing about how people aren’t impressed by dinosaurs any more, only one character shows any disinterest. The majority of park goers seem thrilled to be there. The tropes it mocks (e.g. Claire being totally unprepared to travel safely in a dinosaur infested wilderness while dressed in fashionable clothing), it also plays straight (e.g. Claire running in heels for all of her screen time). It is stuffed full of product placement, including shots of vehicles driving that look like they were lifted out of car advertisements. What it makes passes at subverting, it also tries very hard to be. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. Jurassic World is a film without any unifying identity, trying to be too many things for too many people and never really succeeding at any one thing other than being the least terrible Jurassic sequel. And still being blue. For no discernible reason.

This is a movie aimed at people who have grown up with Jurassic Park being our Star Wars, while trying to service the needs of an audience that have not known a world of film making before Jurassic Park shook the world. Where Jurassic Park succeeded with sincerity and an overwhelming desire to please and engage its audience, Jurassic World is a cynical, undercooked commentary on itself as an action movie, a Jurassic Park sequel, and as a movie that was originally going to be about a gene spliced paramilitary raptor squad.

In a perfect world, Jurassic World would have leaned more heavily into its satirical and subversive elements. It could have made an excellent Paul Verhoeven movie. Instead, what we’ve ended up with is more Robocop (2014) than Robocop (1987).

5.5/10

interstellar

I went into Interstellar with mixed feelings. Prior to watching it, I had heard things ranging from Interstellar captured the spirit and feel of old hard science fiction novels (for ill and good), that the sound mixing was abysmal, and that the film was initially a Spielberg project that fell to Nolan to direct and ultimately fell apart in the home stretch as a result.

Ultimately, I think my feelings on the film can be summed up with the following:

“Saw interstellar. It wasn’t good or bad, but mostly bad.”

I enjoyed my experience looking at the film more than I did engaging with or listening to it.

Nolan works best at creating films that misdirect and create a sense of mystery. His movies seem to be vacuum sealed, having all sense of sentimentality sucked out before being packaged and released. We watch Memento, or The Prestige, not out of a desire to follow the emotional journeys of his protagonists. We watch to unravel the mysteries of his narratives; his protagonists serving more as tools to deliver clues and exposition than characters with emotional lives. Interstellar develops into a hard science fiction film with the promise of staying as such before evolving yet further into a meditation on humanist metaphysics and the nature of love as a thing bigger than us. This is a transition that the film, as a product of Nolan’s helming, cannot survive. Try as it might under the weight of an oppressive, and aggressively mixed Hans Zimmer score, the film cannot land its sentimental finale.

The film feels like a fusion of Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of Contact. It started off with an extended sequence set on a dying, anti-intellectual USA, struck down by a crop jumping blight. History books have been rewritten to push students away from science and engineering and into farming in a last ditch effort to produce food for an increasingly starved human population. There are hints of desperate military activity (a military drone flying aimlessly, brief mention of the US government attempting to bomb other nations out of existence so they can focus on only feeding US mouths), but the majority of the on Earth run time is set up for ultimately underwhelming emotional through lines that will get into spoiler territory, but if you’ve seen Contact, you may guess where the film is going in the end. It is in this moment that the film also begins setting up its more humanist underpinnings, as well as making more overt allusions to 2001. Humanity is pointed in the direction of an artificially placed wormhole by an unknown, possibly alien benefactor, gravitational anomalies that communicate in Morse Code and Binary in Interstellar, and the Monoliths in 2001.

The earthbound sections of Solaris served as a test of character, barring entry to all but the most dedicated. What lay in wait was a heady exploration of mankind’s interaction with itself, its neuroses, the unknown, and things much bigger than itself. In ways, Interstellar tries for much the same, while where Solaris was a sobering exploration of humanity’s inability to comprehend an intelligence that was entirely other and much vaster than it could handle, Interstellar posits in all seriousness that “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space”, that Love is a fundamental force, and that Love will direct and shape the course of human evolution. As a Spielberg project, I can imagine this would have been more successful. As a film that promises a hard science fiction romp through quantum physics and realistically rendered wormholes, it feels like a betrayal of the spirit of what preceded it.

Nolan approached the sound mix for the film in an incredibly deliberate way. He wanted the audience to experience moments in the movie as the actors in the scenes would have. This has lead to people complaining about diagetic and non-diagetic sound drowning out dialogue in an attempt to craft emotion. In the case of the diagetic sound of a space craft launch drowning out the dialogue, I can understand. However, there were moments when Hans Zimmer’s score was mixed so loud and so aggressively that it began to sound more like a wall of white noise than a film score. Nolan may have approached the film like an impressionist, but it seems like he didn’t quite understand that other films utilising impressionist sound design did not drown out the dialogue, and further did not feel the need to fill themselves with dialogue either. His supposed impressionist and “Experimental” film relies more on dialogue to fill in spaces than other such impressionist films, resulting in the problem of dialogue being drowned out in the first place. While it may not be an entirely successful film, Beyond the Black Rainbow utilises its visuals and score to create an utterly unsettling atmosphere of control and dread.

Interstellar‘s major thematic arc is the presence of Love as a fundamental force that can transcend time and space, and both Cooper (McConaughey) and Brandt (Hathaway) are motivated and guided by love to complete their mission. What comes across as a bit problematic is the film’s portrayal of this love motivated decision making. Brandt is motivated by her love for one of the initial astronauts sent to survey possible habitable worlds. She is given possibly the worst monologue in the film, and is ridiculed for even considering love as a factor in her decision making. However, Cooper keeps insisting on returning to be with his children, he lectures others on what a good parent he is, and the film goes a long way towards portraying his motivations and his love as admirable.

The film also felt weirdly episodic, as if 4 stories from a science fiction anthology were stitched into an unsatisfying whole. At 169 minutes, Interstellar is a long movie and its narrative being broken up into segments served to make the film feel longer and more disjointed than it needed to be. Editing and transition decisions near the film’s conclusion made it feel like the film was reaching a climax, before building to another climax, and then another climax, before finally coming to an end. A 3rd act twist and subsequent cross cutting between the mission and the film’s Earthbound characters served only to artificially heighten tension in an unnecessarily generic way rather than in one that foregrounded the film’s thesis about love. A section inside a tesseract reminded me so strongly of 2001’s finale that it drew me out of the experience. Of course, your mileage will vary on this.

As for what I enjoyed about Interstellar, it was really good to see a major Hollywood production make large use of miniatures (3D printed and exceptionally good looking), and being shot on film contrary to the increasing industry wide move to digital. It lent the film an appropriately old school vibe, which was kind of cool, really. The miniatures lent the film a physicality that is missing in contemporary sci-fi cinema.

The film was gorgeous to look at. The technical brilliance of the visuals alone is reason enough to watch Interstellar. A sequence involving approaching and eventually travelling through a wormhole is probably the film’s stand out, but that is not to say its other set pieces are any less visually appealing, even the ones I don’t feel landed narratively.

TARS and CASE were the best drawn characters and it was interesting to see a film explore non-humanoid robots, while addressing the concessions which would be made to allow humans to feel comfortable interacting with them. It reminded me of GERTY from Moon.

What I hope to come out of Interstellar is for Miniature use and practical effects to be utilised more frequently in Hollywood, and I hope that 3D printers will potentially make that viable again.

Gravity

Gravity is a movie that has to be seen in cinemas and in 3D if one wishes to get the best possible experience. As an active disliker of the current 3D cinema experience, I was originally sceptical. The friends I saw it with insisted, and I am glad they did. Never before have I ever seen 3D used so effectively as a dramatic device. Gravity does a lot to lend credence to the format.

There is a reason the 3D is so effective. Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) composes every shot of Gravity with such care and intent that it becomes so much more immersive a film than one would expect a 3D movie to be. Previous high water mark Avatar used 3D as a way to give its richly imagined world a “reach out and touch it” immediacy. Cameron painted the screen with lush visuals for the purpose of transporting the viewer to another world. He didn’t really use his camera, his 3D, or his visuals to add to the film’s narrative richness.

In Gravity, Cuarón utilises the entirety of his frame to tell his story. Events happen in the background that cause ripples that affect what happens in the foreground in sometimes catastrophic ways. Background events drive characters to perform actions. This deliberate framing makes full use of the 3D format. The added depth increases the audience’s immersion in the scene, and it is incredibly powerful to see something small happen in the distance, only to have it grow in scale and menace as it moves towards Sandra Bullock’s character, and by extension, towards the audience, in the foreground.

I can’t help but feel the affect of huge chunks of broken machinery careening towards the camera would be dampened by a 2D screening.

The attention to visual story telling extends to the way the characters interact. There isn’t much in the way of character development, and the screenplay spends little time in establishing them before all hell breaks loose. However, characterisation is strengthened by the way the characters act more than by what they say. A particular scene involves George Clooney’s character attempting to calm another down as he tows them across space. The dialogue in this scene feels forced. Based purely on what is said, what is meant to be a poignant scene that sets up an entire character arc would feel flat. Being in a space suit, Clooney cannot directly look behind him, and instead gives a concerned glance into a mirror attached to his arm, while maintaining his cool tone of voice. It is a tiny moment, but one that breathes personality into a character the way the words they say could not.

Cuarón’s previous film, Children of Men, is the more thematically rich film, with a much more meaty narrative. It also boasted some very impressive sound design and cinematography. However, the technical intelligence on show in Children of Men is nothing compared to what is to be found in Gravity. Being freed from the constraints of terrestrial, practical film making, Cuarón orchestrates some of the most amazing long take shots I’ve ever seen. Additionally, Cuarón often frames the audience as part of the action. Often during some of the most dazzling moments, the film cuts to a first person point of view shot of Bullock’s character. It is us and not just Bullock trapped in an impossible situation. It is us fighting for life in an alien, incredibly hostile environment. And it is us who experience the majesty of the images Cuarón subjects us to. We are participants in the action rather than passive observers.

The sound design is equally impressive. Space in Gravity is soundless, and this soundlessness is played for maximum tension. Collisions occur silently in the background while characters remain oblivious, focusing on more immediate concerns. It is haunting to see such large scale destruction without hearing it. Positional audio is also incredibly well utilised. This is particularly noticeable in the film’s opening, when we see the earth and hear a voice in the rear right. The voice slowly moves towards the centre and then to the left as the setting of the film slowly drifts into view. It speaks to the incredible immersive quality of good sound design when you are given a sense of your place in the scene before seeing any of the principle players.

Cuarón played with diegetic and non-diegetic sound in Children of Men. An early series of scenes features the main character standing next to an explosion and a secondary character taunting him about a ringing in his ears. The very next scene makes it obvious to the viewer that ever since the explosion, a ringing simulating tinnitus was part of the soundscape of the movie, and this ringing continues for another couple of scenes. This experimentation continues in Gravity. Sound will often, and deliberately cut in and out, whether it is diegetic or not. During sections of Gravity, when a character is expected not to be able to hear anything, all sound, including the film’s score, drops out, only to reappear when the character is expected to be able to hear again. It’s another technique that Cuarón uses to not just frame his characters within the scene, but the audience.

Away from the technical side of things, the screenplay isn’t great, but is light and has enough character to provide some laughs and get the audience rooting for Gravity’s characters. The performances are amazing, and both Clooney and Bullock excel in their roles.

The film moves at a brisk pace and is over in under 90 minutes. It definitely does not overstay its welcome, a problem I seem to be noticing with more and more of its contemporaries. It is a movie that knows it has not earned 2 and a half hours, and so does not try to be 2 and a half hours long.

I found Gravity to be the most intelligently staged film I have seen in a long time. It’s not weighty in its themes, but is a show of pure film making talent. It is also a film that concerns itself with telling a story and ratcheting up tension above being scientifically accurate. While it’s depiction of a Kessler syndrome is chilling, the actions undertaken in the film are impossible given the orbits and locations of the places the characters visit in their journey towards salvation.

A suspension of disbelief is strongly advised.

I found it a case where the film was so well made and so exciting, that real life implausibility was of little concern. I found myself in a similar situation with a particular sequence in Jurassic Park. The sequence in question was staged with such skill at building tension and excitement, that the discrepancy in the height of the T-rex pit when the car is eventually pushed over the edge was inconsequential. There are times when one shouldn’t let fact get in the way of enjoying incredibly well made fiction.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN

I do believe that something has been made of the fact that Bullock’s character is made to appear incompetent and reliant on the men in the movie to keep her alive. While this is true to an extent, it is moderated by context. Bullock’s character of Dr Stone is a civilian noted as mission specialist. She is on the mission because she has specialist understanding of the upgrades being done on Hubble. She was not an astronaut, she was not in the airforce, and she was given very minimal training (six months) in preparation for her mission. She is a medical doctor, a profession not generally known to be comprised of incompetent or unintelligent people. In fact, the entire mission required her to be there in space making very specific upgrades to Hubble, based on her research into medical technology.

Clooney’s character, on the other hand, is a seasoned Astronaut who has conducted a number of space walks. It is to be expected that if something were to go wrong, Clooney would be the one to remain calm, while Bullock would panic, having never been in that situation before.

Throughout the rest of the film, Bullock shows a level of resourcefulness and quick thinking that ultimately gets her back to earth in one piece. Had she been a truly incompetent character, she would not have been able to manage piloting a craft with controls labelled in Chinese. She would have died off before getting to that point.

On the other hand, there is the low oxygen hallucination scene where Clooney returns to magically explain to Bullock how to get out of her situation. This scene can be read as problematic, where even in death, the male character is required to move the action forward for the hopelessly disheartened female character. I will not begrudge anyone for viewing this seen as such. It was a point in the film, where just for a moment, Bullock was taken from being resourceful and quick thinking back to being reliant on a man. It was a bit jarring and undercuts her development into a powerful agent free from male intervention.

I tried rationalising this through the use of psychological schemas, but I was unhappy with the outcome of the exercise as it was still problematic. I shall explain the thought process for those interested.

Schema are mental frameworks used by individuals to reduce the amount of information the brain is required to process in day to day life. You can think of a schema as a script. You have a specific schema for ordering pizza, for example. You know what the transaction involves, and you act it out in accordance to the schema, or script, contained in your mind.

Applying this to the mission depicted in the movie, it is fair to say that Bullock’s character would develop a schema that had Clooney, as commander of the mission, being the source of information about what to do in emergencies. Thus, when low on oxygen, and with higher level cognitive functions presumably close to shutting down, her brain resorted to her schema related to this particular mission: New survival information will come from a commander as a commander is naturally more knowledgeable about what to do in this situation. This lead to the hallucination of Clooney that facilitated Bullock’s brain in making her aware that she herself knew of a solution to her current predicament. Ultimately, it was her own ingenuity that saved her life, but filtered through her schema that told her she should expect survival advice to come from a more experienced source.

All well and good until you realise Clooney is still a man! Her brain’s shorthand for the context of the mission involved a man being in a position of power over her, thus it is still a problematic scene.

So much for that fix, eh?