Alien: Covenant is a notch better than Prometheus, maybe two, but it still leaves much to be desired. The main problem, for me anyway, lies not within the film, but outside it. My main complaint is this: I am no longer afraid of the Xenomorph and its many manifestations. Oh sure, I am going to lose my shit for a moment at a jump scare (they are named that way for a reason), but even facehuggers and new-born chestbursters don’t do it for me anymore. I might suffer from what Mr Thirith calls Alien fatigue. Continue reading
It’s rather surprising to realize that Steve Jobs is a Danny Boyle movie. Boyle’s trademark is kinetic energy – his camera wants to move, to jump, pan and zoom and sometimes go wild (remember how Trainspotting hit the ground running all those years ago?). His biopic Steve Jobs, however, shows you two hours’ worth of talking heads. That is what you get when the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin.
Comic book = tragedy + time?
There’s a scene roughly halfway into X-Men: Days of Future Past that is a great example of CGI used to do a setpiece scene that is witty, exhilarating and tells us something about the character involved. It is definitely one of the best standout scenes in all the X-Men films and a contender for the top spot. It also sadly highlights how perfunctory the rest of the film is – it’d stand out even in a good X-Men movie, but in a humdrum one it’s almost sad to see.
I was prepared to like Days of Future Past. I’d had a tiring day and was looking forward to some action and excitement with charm and likeable characters. While Marvel’s mutant chronicles aren’t at the top of my list of favourite superhero movies, it’s usually been fun visiting with Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine and the gang, not least because of the cast these films have. When has it ever not been enjoyable watching Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen playing off of each other? I was also a surprise fan of First Class, which, while still a disposable popcorn movie, upped the charm and personality with the likes of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. McAvoy can be too smug by half, but in the right role he is charming – and Fassbender is one of the most interesting actors of his generation, capable of immense charm too but always with an intensity coiled just underneath the surface, ready to explode. In First Class, he took a character we’d seen many times before and made him scary, something that McKellen’s Magneto, for all of McKellen’s acting chops, had never been.
You’d think that Days of Future Past would have it made: not just those crazy kids Stewart and McKellen, but also McAvoy, Fassbender – and, as a trump up their sleeve, Peter Dinklage. Has there ever been more personality, charm and charisma in a superhero movie that didn’t star Robert Downey Jr.? However, charm is worth little with a script as leaden as that of Days of Future Past. The plot would be fine – it’s overblown and complicated-yet-simple in the way that superhero stories often are, but that can work well enough – but the dialogues are dull, clunky and preachy. There’s always been the latter element to X-Men, but usually they made it work (as in X-Men 2‘s “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” scene), but in the latest film in the series it never feels like there’s much of an underlying reality to be preachy about. The result of anti-mutant bigotry in Days of Future Past is one of those generic, bland yet tacky post-apocalyptic scenarios that feels like bargain-store Terminator. The executors of this future, the Sentinels that apparently are a mainstay of the comic books, are ominous enough in their design and animation, but watching them kill their way through a bunch of C-list mutants that we haven’t established any relationship with feels utterly empty.
As the film’s subtitle suggests, Days of Future Past uses that most overused of sci-fi tropes, time travel, and soon we’ve got Wolverine in the funky ’70s. That should make for a sense of personality, no? Sadly, that’s exactly the answer: no. The film does pick up somewhat, but a number of decisions by the writers that could be interesting work against the film: young Professor Xavier, played by McAvoy, is deep in a depression, Fassbender’s Magneto has lost the intensity that was constantly lurking under the surface in First Class – and Wolverine has become the most balanced, mature character on the screen. Yes, he still has a number of fights and quips, but they’re subdued. All of these could work as character development, but they don’t: Wolverine comes across more as apathetic than as reasonable, Professor X is dreary much of the time, and Fassbender tries to imitate McKellen, which may work in a talkshow but doesn’t work for the character – Fassbender and McKellen both have very different energies and performing styles, and neither the script, the director nor the performer manage to make Days of Future Past‘s Magneto into a very interesting missing link between the young Erik Lehnsherr and the old one. And Peter Dinklage, that master of smart snark? It’s nice that his role is not just a different take on, say, Tyrion Lannister, only in a suit and with a moustache, nor is he cast in any way for his stature, which is commendable. However, his part is underwritten and lacking in personality, making one of the main antagonists of the film pretty much a non-entity. There’s also the usually reliable Jennifer Lawrence, and her performance is fine, making her the one character who’s visibly got a stake in the events of the film, but there’s little here that we haven’t seen in First Class, making her scenes suffer due to diminishing returns.
I won’t fault any of the actors: to my mind, it’s clearly the script that is lacking. The characters are written so flatly that they practically rely on audiences bringing their feelings based on the earlier films and the comics to the table – which means that Days of Future Past may work for the fans who care deeply about Wolverine & Co, but other than that there’s little here that is engaging. It’s not the inherent silliness of the proceedings, nor is it the seriousness that the real-world context and doom’n’gloom of the scenes set in the post-apocalypse try to invest the film with: both of these can work, as they did in, say, Iron Man (which embraces the silly, adolescent energy that superhero comics can have) or The Dark Knight (which makes the grimdark grittiness work). What this film needs is someone with the skills of a Joss Whedon at writing the self-awarely operatic dialogues that the most enjoyable superhero comics have, at balancing the grandiose and the intimate, at injecting much-needed personality and wit. There’s little of that to be found in Days of Future Past, and the wittiest scene is the aforementioned CGI setpiece that works entirely without dialogue.
As it is, I’ve never been enthusiastic about the X-Men films. I’ve liked a number of them well enough. However, in principle I could be a fan; I very much love Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men arc, and while his own contribution to the X-Men movies hasn’t exactly been great, someone with his sensitivities could make a huge difference to the films. I hear that Brian K. Vaughan is done working on the Under the Dome TV series – perhaps he could take the potential in this big, crazy, dysfunctional family of mutants and misfits and make their dialogue crackle with wit and energy? In any case, I hope that the makers of X-Men: Apocalypse watch the “Time in a Bottle” scene and understand why it sparkles, while too much of the rest of the film is dull.
I’ve seen both of the main winners at this year’s Academy Awards, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave – and I came away from both of them feeling just a bit underwhelmed. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those “Why the Oscars suck!” posts, not least because I don’t really feel particularly invested in them to begin with. What I want to talk about instead is this: expectations.
With 12 Years A Slave, I went in expecting to be as much bowled over as I was with Hunger and Shame. I was stunned when I caught Hunger on TV a couple of years ago; his visual language and his storytelling, combined with Fassbender’s amazing performance (is the guy ever any less than very good?), struck me as something I’d never seen. Shame built on this, engaging me both emotionally and intellectually in a way that’s rare in films. 12 Years A Slave is by no means a bad film, in fact it’s very good, a beautiful example of moviemaking craft on all fronts – but it didn’t stun me. It felt less unique than McQueen’s previous films.
Gravity, too, is an exquisitely crafted film. It’s been criticised for being (allegedly) thematically shallow, all spectacle and no substance – which I don’t agree with. No, my beef with Gravity is this: I watched the trailer on a large screen in HD, and it pulled me in, evoking a real dread of floating in outer space, untethered, with nothing there but stars that are trillions of miles away. It’s not that the film itself didn’t summon this dread, but it didn’t build on it: basically the thing I liked best about the film was already there in the trailer. More so, actually, because it was distilled into two minutes. It doesn’t help that I’m not a big Sandra Bullock fan, finding her bland rather than relatable, but mainly my disappointment was similar to what I felt after 12 Years A Slave. I was disappointed, not because the films were bad, but because they didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, meet my expectations.
In some ways I think those expectations weren’t entirely fair, if fairness indeed comes into the matter. If I hadn’t seen and been so receptive for that particular Gravity trailer, the actual film might have wowed me more thoroughly. If I hadn’t been stunned by Hunger and Shame, I might not have expected 12 Years A Slave to be stunning in that particular way, and this in turn might have allowed me to appreciate it more for what it was rather than being disappointed at what it wasn’t. Then again, without the trailer I might not have gone to see Gravity to begin with; I might not have gone to see 12 Years A Slave at the cinema just because of Chiwetel Ejiofor (no doubt a great actor, but I don’t go to the cinema just because of a particular actor).
How many films could I have appreciated more if it hadn’t been for very specific expectations? And how do you manage your expectations anyway? I’m not sure I could, or would want to, watch a trailer and go, “Yeah, fantastic trailer, but I’m sure the film won’t live up to it. I’ll go and see it, but ho hum…” I want to be enthusiastic about things, I want to have that feeling of anticipation – and when such expectations aren’t just met but surpassed, it feels amazing. If anything, the problem may not be how much I expect but how specific my expectations are.
Anyway: sometimes when I rewatch films that underwhelmed me the first time, I enjoy them all the more the second time around. I’m sure that in a couple of years’ time Film Four will show 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, just in time for Cuaron and McQueen’s latest works – and if I go to see them expecting to be just a bit disappointed and underwhelmed, perhaps I’ll come away enjoying them all the more.
Back to the Roots
I have a confession to make: I was underwhelmed by 12 Years A Slave.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is extremely well made. It’s beautifully shot, the acting is impeccable, and I would go as far as to say that Steve McQueen’s latest may just be the best, most accomplished slave narrative on film. My problem with it is that I was entirely bowled over by his earlier two works, Hunger and Shame. Especially the former of these took me completely by surprise, its style amplifying its story to an almost unbearable extent, and Shame, while perhaps not being quite as immediately striking (no shit mandalas in this one, for one), was similarly effective. 12 Years A Slave deals with what I’d consider a historically more major issue, but the film didn’t surprise me. In fact, it felt weirdly predictable.
Not every film has to be surprising, and I can’t think of anything that 12 Years A Slave does wrong, but I came out of the film thinking that I’d basically seen a more cinematic, nearly perfectly executed version of the early episodes of Roots. There’s absolutely room for such a film, but McQueen being the director made me expect something, well, more, or perhaps rather something different. I expected something more unique – and I want to stress that this is my problem more than the film’s. However, I came away thinking that McQueen could have done more with what’s unique about the story he’s working with.
The big difference to other slave narratives is that the film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, was born free in the USA and abducted into slavery. This is touched on in 12 Years A Slave: Northup, as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, holds himself differently from his fellow slaves, he sees himself as separate from them for a long time. His situation, from his perspective, is immediately wrong to him in ways that the other slaves’ situation might not be in his eyes. This is alluded to occasionally throughout the film – but it is of much less interest to the film McQueen has made than the shared reality of what being a slave must have been like. There is clearly a purpose in depicting this universal reality, but I couldn’t help wanting more of what made Northup’s story different as much as what made it universal.
Does 12 Years A Slave deserve the accolades it gets? Absolutely. It is, as I have mentioned, a beautifully made, engaging film. It just isn’t the surprising, unique work that I expected from McQueen.
Little lust, less caution
It’s time for some superlatives: to my mind, Michael Fassbender is one of the most exciting actors of his generation, and Steve “Not that one!” McQueen is one of the visually most accomplished directors making films these days. Not many people could make fecal mandalas on prison walls intriguingly beautiful, but McQueen managed this with a deceptively effortless grace in Hunger, his film about Bobby Sands’ death. Not coincidentally, the other main strength of Hunger was Michael Fassbender’s electric performance.
Fassbender and McQueen seem to bring out the best in each other, since their 2011 film Shame is yet another movie with amazing visuals and a brave central performance that serves the film’s story perfectly. On paper it sounds like festival fodder: Shame depicts a sex addict’s descent into his personal hell after his sister, with a whole set of issues of her own when it comes to relationships, comes to stay with him. Yet in the hands of its director and star, and with the more-than-capable help of Carey Mulligan, Shame doesn’t feel like it’s pandering to a particular audience, doing its own thing instead, and to great effect.
If there’s a list of films featuring depressing sex, Shame is definitely in the top 5 (other candidates would be 28 Grams and Blue Valentine – a threesome between those three movies would probably create the sad sex singularity that effectively ends the world because no one would ever procreate naturally again). Strangely, though, for all the joylessness of Brandon’s sexual misadventures, there’s a genuine joy to watching a film as confidently handled, visually entrancing and perfectly acted as this.
P.S.: Some reviewers and bloggers accused Shame of homophobia, as during his climactic (no pun intended) long night’s journey into hell he gets a temporary fix by getting a blowjob in the underworld of a dungeon-like gay club, the argument being that McQueen depicts gay sex as the absolute lowest point in Brandon’s odyssey towards some sort of happiness. To my mind, those reviewers ignore that while the encounter is demeaning and joyless, the same is true for practically each of Brandon’s sexual encounters. The scene is followed by an extended threesome with two (female) prostitutes, which is arguably more aligned with generic male fantasy, yet this menage à trois is presented as no less demeaning, nor any more enjoyable. There is nothing in the blowjob scene to suggest that it’s to be read as worse for the character than what happens before or after it. If McQueen had wanted to show gay sex as the worst option for a sex-addicted straight man, surely a director as in control of his material as him would have found a more effective way of showing this, wouldn’t he?
Don’t take the Shuttle to Eden Lake.
Here’s a complaint. I do like a good horror movie. I think that it can tell me something about human nature by putting its characters into a difficult or even impossible situation of life and death. Many stories do that, sure, but a horror movie takes the direct route to our subconscious and starts digging. It seems to know exactly where to dig, and how deep. What happens to the characters on screen seems to refer to us personally.
I have to admit that the last decade or so of horror movies has set me at odds. I’ve seen Hostel and Saw, and those are just slasher porn. That’s something I don’t mind seeing once in a blue moon, but I really prefer characters I can care about, because it makes that movie just that much scarier and memorable, while stuff like the Saw series, Hostel and many others are, well, disposable horror. They can be watched and then forgotten. There are two horror movies that have stuck with me because they are abysmally bad not because they are such bad horror movies, but because they try to be more than just horror movies and become ruthless and sometimes careless about their characters, and even reveal some latent racism.
The first one is a British flick called Eden Lake. It is a disgusting film, steeped in sexism, racism and overall misanthropy. The fact that it tries to sneak out of its responsibility makes it also a cowardly film. Here’s the first half of the plot from Eden Lake in a nutshell. (And don’t get me started on spoilers – here’s a movie you really shouldn’t see.) There’s that couple, Steve and Jenny, who plan on spending a few quiet intimate days on the shore of Eden Lake, in the midst of a large forest in Buckinghamshire, England. Steve plans to propose to Jenny. On the way to the lake, they stop at a roadside inn, where there are parents who verbally abuse their kids and then stare Steve and Jenny down when they look at them in frowning disbelief. They get out of there and camp at the lake shore. It would be a great love getaway for them, if it weren’t for those kids with their boombox and their dog. It’s almost a sideline when those kids hassle another kid who is in the woods collecting insects. They spit, gloat, shout, smoke, drink beer and feel provoked when Steve tries to tell them to keep it down a little. The kids trail off, but slash a tire of Steve’s car. Now Steve is provoked, while Jenny tells him to let it go, change the tyre and leave. Back in the village, they come across the home of the leader of the kids’ gang, Brett, and Steve jumps to the occasion to confront Brett, but finds himself in an empty home, with Brett’s dad coming home from work or a beer run. Dad isn’t pleased that his offspring has punched a fist-sized hole in his front door, and wants to shout at him some. At that point, it struck me that maybe dad has been doing time: beer, tattoos, mean attitude, cruel towards children, especially his own son, who is busy imitating his old man’s behaviour. The movie doesn’t tell, and that is all the psychological depth or motivation you are going to get from this flick. Steve escapes over the roof of the house. Back at the lake the next morning, the couple realize that a bag with their car keys has been stolen. They have to walk back, but come across the kids, and Steve inadvertently kills their dog. Escape scenes follow in which Jenny and Steve have to hide from the knife-toting gang. Eventually, they get their car back, but crash it, which leads to a sequence where Steve is taken captive and tied to a tree stump with barbed wire. So far, it’s vintage horror, but there is that moment where Brett makes every member torture Steve. That violent moment is where my problem with the movie starts, and for two reasons. First, each member of the gang is egged on by Brett, but Brett seems very reluctant to torture Steve himself. And yet, Brett succeeds in making them do it. Later in the movie, there are numerous moments where any of the kids could have quit and run away. They don’t. Some of them are picked off and killed, some just disappear from the film without explanation. Brett is the charismatic leader who makes his gang do his bidding, but is a coward himself. That is an odd character build-up at best. Eden Lake shows a lot of graphic violence, but at the same time apologises for it by showing most of the kids being bullied into it against their will, while the bully himself is of two minds about his own orders. Once I subscribe to the violence in a movie, I don’t expect the movie to chicken out and apologise for it. If it does, the violence becomes gratuitous, the very thing it pretended to avoid. Eden Lake has no idea what its stance on juvenile gang violence is, but is all about exactly that. I don’t want to be confronted with torture and slice’n’dice scenes and then be told that, sorry, that is just the way it is with pissed-off idle teenagers today. Eden Lake would be well-advised to not fake any character motivation at all than to shrug its shoulders about the violence it shows.
The second problem is an ethnic one. The only character who seems eager to cut Steve’s face is the kid with African-American background, and he does not have any lines at all. Doesn’t it make you angry that the guy with the most inclination for violence is black? There is one other kid with a minority background, and that’s the bug kid with Indian background that the gang harassed earlier on. His name is Adam, and he is bullied into luring Jenny into a trap. He succeeds, and Brett says thank you by pulling a car tire over his head and setting him on fire. While one non-white kid is a mute slasher, the other non-white kid is a helpless nerd who is used as bait and then set on fire. Oh, and did I mention that there is a girl in the gang who apparently serves two purposes, namely that she can complain that Steve is staring at her boobs and later film all the violence with Brett’s cell phone?
Steve dies at some point, which leads to Jenny running, hiding or clutching the defensive weapon of opportunity to her copious cleavage. The camera makes a point of showing off her blood-soaked, gunk-stained cleavage in her bra-less summer dress. Now I know that the maiden lost in the woods is one of the oldest set pieces of horror stories, and I don’t have a problem with the female form, but the movie accentuates Jenny’s breasts from every possible angle so that I felt like a voyeur, a situation I don’t feel comfortable with. Jenny’s breasts are hardly the point of the last half hour of the movie, but while she has to slash her way back to safety, it sends a sexist message: have a look at Jenny disembowelling some juvenile delinquents in self-defense, but do not miss out on her capacious cleavage. And learn this: Jenny’s psychological dilemma seems to be that, as a teacher, she likes kids, but now must overcome her fondness by slashing some miseducated specimens.
If you think this review is full of spoilers, bear with me. Jenny finally finds her way back to the village and tries to get help from some people at a garden party who turn out to be the parents of some of the kids – and the very parents who verbally abused their kids at the roadside inn. The point here must be that in this village, there is not one single good person. Brett is also at the party, as if it was the evening of another day out with the gang. He is the one who tells everybody in the room what Jenny must have done: She is responsible for the death of some of the kids whose parents are at that party. And let’s not forget the dog, who apparently was one of a set of two bloodhounds. Do the parents question Brett how he knows who Jenny is? No, they start threatening Jenny and want to make her pay for killing their kids. They make clear that no-one will call the police, and one older guy, I think it’s Brett’s father, forces Jenny into the bathroom for a shower. The implications are obvious: we are going to give you a bath because once you are clean, we will abuse and rape you for what you have done to our offspring. (Note that the women seem to, if not to partake, then at least to greenlight, the gang rape the men in the room are about to commit.) The movie doesn’t show us any such scene, but cuts to Brett who is standing alone in front of a mirror, looking first at himself and then at his cell phone. Oh my god, is that remorse? No, of course not: he erases all the snuff files on his cell phone. The implications are also clear here: Brett erases all the traces of knowing Jenny and might, in all likelihood, join in the abuse. Here, the film fades to black, and the credits roll. For the last time, the movie chickens out of its own violent implications.
I have nothing against extreme violence in horror movies, or any other kind of movie, for that matter. Only here, in Eden Lake the unclear stance on violence sabotages the whole story, and it clearly weakens the characters who are off-the-shelf to begin with. Eden Lake has to suffer questions about its latent racism and sexism because it inserts these issues, but pretends it is not about any of them at all.
Some movies approach human nature by carefully describing and sometimes questioning all those things that may make us human. Horror movies zoom right in by undermining any certain answers to what makes us tick by taking away some aspect of a person: common sense, health, empathy, and twists that lead to something uncanny. Done the right way, that’s the source of a horror movie’s scariness. At a very basic level, Eden Lake left me stranded because I didn’t know what to make of the characters. There is precious little to go on to start with; if a movie undermines everything that it has set up, it cannot be taken seriously. If it also makes an issue out of questions of race and gender without somehow consciously taking position on them, it goes beyond lazy filmmaking and introduces questions about race and gender it feels it does not have to answer. There is no humanity in this movie: every single character either kills or is killed, sometimes both. That would be the key ingredient of film noir, but Eden Lake doesn’t seem to know that, either. There is a thin line between horror and disgust, and sadly, Eden Lake really only gets the second one right.
Shuttle is an American production, but with two British actors starring as baddies. It raises similar questions as Eden Lake: It’s about a group of young travellers who catch the red eye back from Thailand or somewhere. There is no bus and no underground, it’s raining, the airport is just too drab, and the next shuttle will be in a few hours. Help turns up: there is a private shuttle offering them a ride home for less money. The teens eventually accept. Big mistake. They get picked off one by one, only to find that the driver of the shuttle has to let the two girls survive, make them bleach their hair blond and stand in white high heels and white underwear in an empty subterranean garage, where an anonymous guy comes and has a look and decides which one of the girls is to his liking. The movie does not tell us who this man is but, once again, can he be anyone else but some perverted creep with a fetish for the very bright end of the colour spectrum? The audience is left with implications as to how that man will make use of the surviving girl; Shuttle, like Eden Lake, stops short of being consequent and veers away from the thing at the bottom of the rabbit hole. That’s cowardice. The last plot twist is that the driver takes some kind of twisted pity on the girl and, instead of delivering her into the serfdom of some fetishist, puts her in a box with food and kitty litter and has her delivered to Asia in an overseas ship container. She might get to live.
The end of Shuttle seems to suggest one of two things. The first one seems to be the driver’s perverted pity of deciding the girl’s fate by locking her up and hauling her halfway around the world after a torturous journey that will take weeks if not months and might very well kill her. The second implication is a more personal one, and I don’t have solid evidence that the movie really wants to purport this message, but it seemed to me that Shuttle, with its very last shot, tries to comment on human trafficking. See, the Western world seems to import a lot of Asian women for prostitution, which is so wrong, so why not have a Western girl shipped the other way around?
There are curious familiarities between the two movies. The driver from Shuttle is played by Tony Curran, who has starred in a movie called Red Road. Its director, Andrea Arnold, has directed another movie called Fish Tank, starring Michael Fassbender, who plays Steve in Eden Lake. Fish Tank is a good movie, and I can recommend it as a social drama, but there is also Red Road, which can be taken to be a very good horror flick, but it is certainly more than that. See it if you can.