Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (2017)

10. Detroit

It would seem Kathryn Bigelow has embraced her status as a director who handles controversial subjects in a gritty, close-up fashion. “The Hurt Locker” would tackle the War in Iraq. “Zero Dark Thirty” was about the hunt for Osama bin Ladin. After that, Bigelow would re-team with journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal to handle another hot button topic: Police brutality. In order to examine this very contemporary concern, the filmmaker would turn to the past. “Detroit” would directly adapt the Algiers Motel Incident, which also happened in the middle of the 12th Street Riots. Amid yet more controversy, “Detroit” would be ignored by audiences and garner few awards.  

It is July of 1967. A black club is raided by the Detroit Police Department, the suspects lined up on the walls outside. This spectacle triggers a riot and the National Guard is deployed into the city. Tensions between the predominantly white cops and largely black inner city population continue to rise. In the middle of this chaos, a group of people gather in the Algiers Motel: Larry Reed, lead singer of R&B group the Dramatics; his friend and bodyguard, two white teenage girls that follow them, a Vietnam veteran named Karl Greene. When one of the hotel residents jokingly shoots a starter pistol out a window, the police are brought in to investigate. What follows is an hours interrogation, in which belligerent cops antagonize and torture the black witnesses. Soon enough, people begin to die.

Much like “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow and Boal attempts to adopt an objective view point in “Detroit.” They present just the facts as accurately as they can. The film even ends with a disclaimer, admitting that some parts of the story had to be fictionalized. (A statement few biographic films find necessary to include.) So Bigelow's film adopts numerous viewpoints, a clear protagonist never quite emerging. The goal here is to put the audience in that hotel in 1967, to make them feel like they've lived through this horrible tragedy as much as the people who were there did.

This even extends to the film's visual design. As in her last three films, Bigelow adopts an on-the-ground style of direction. There's frequent handheld shots and some rough zooms, attempting to capture a documentary sense of actually being there. This is effective at putting the audience in the place of the cast, further helping create a tense and grim atmosphere. Yet it sometimes makes the film hard to follow. Bigelow occasionally employs shaky cam, the camera spasmodically moving around and making it difficult to tell what is actually happening. I understand why Bigelow made this choice but it's a little annoying. Luckily, this doesn't happen too often.

As the title implies, “Detroit” is not solely about the Algiers Motel incident. It shows the origins of the riot. It presents the violence in Detroit at the time as a symptom of greater racial injustice. The film begins by explaining how the changing times led to a largely black population in inner city locations like Detroit. From there, the rising tension between the races is shown through petty acts of racism, through a cop murdering a black man he assumes to be a mugger. We get a real sense of the time and the place, a world where the horrific violence that occurred could happen the way it did.

“Detroit,” obviously, is not a feel-good movement. (Which is likely a reason for its commercial failure.) It's quite a punishing cinematic experience. The situation is dire to begin with, a group of black men at the mercy of a clearly unhinged group of white police officers. As they force them to stand along the wall, their tactics rise to psychological torture and plain physical torture pretty much immediately. There's multiple beatings, threats of murder, sexually menace towards the women. The most upsetting sequence involves the motel residents being forced to prayer and sing hymns, their voices choked with tears and cries of agony. It's a horror film of sorts, dread-filled, intensely unpleasant, with a nervous tension that never lets up.

Bigelow's camera is unflinching. The portrayal of these violent, awful events is stark. Every punch, blow, and slam sends a shock through the viewer. The bloodshed is graphic and intense yet the violence is not gratuitous. Instead, it is grounded in sea-sick realism. Bigelow's treatment of violence has remained the same throughout most of her career. She's always quested for realism, to make the audience feel the weight of these violent acts. In “Detroit,” she achieves this goal perhaps better than any of her other films. You certainly don't feel excited or invigorated by any of the graphic acts in “Detroit.” Each one is draining to experience, each one is startling. Just like in real life.

The motivation behind these bracing depictions of violence was largely responsible for the controversy surrounding “Detroit.” Bigelow's docu-drama, some would say distant, approach to showing this horrible, historical abuse was questioned. Was she shining a light on a racist system? Exposing the horrible abuse black individuals have suffered at the hands of white authority figures? Of course she was. But in 2017, when the news is constantly full of stories of police brutality, when we hear every day about how awfully the black populace is treated by the system, was being reminded of this useful? It's really up to history over whether “Detroit” will be judged as a powerful statement about the police brutality or, as one reviewer put it, “trauma porn for white liberals.” I don't see it that why but my opinion probably doesn't matter so much in that regard.

If “Detroit” has a definite flaw, it's the lack of perspective we get into its characters' lives. By focusing so intently on one time and place, we don't learn much more about everyone than what's shown during those tense hours inside the hotel. The focus is strictly on documentation, an attempt to recreate everything as it happened as closely as possible. Which does not leave much room for genuine personality. There's no examination of anyone's inner life. Aside from Larry Reed, we don't learn anything about the other's dreams, aspirations, or doubts. While Bigelow's presentation could not be more expertly intense, it would've been nice to spend some more time with the rest of the cast before driving them fully into hell.

“Detroit” is long, running about two and a half hours. That lengthy run time probably would've been better spent exploring the lives of everyone involved. Instead, Bigelow adds an extended epilogue onto the end of the film. We see the court case that followed the incident at the hotel, the murdering cops getting away without being charged for any crime. From there, we see Larry find some sort of personal serenity with what happened. I somehow feel that, if documentation was Bigelow's primary goal, she perhaps should have ended the film as soon as everyone left the hotel. Otherwise, it feels like we're getting an incomplete look at a much bigger picture.

Another trend Bigelow continues from her last few films is avoiding well-known name actors in the cast, relying primarily upon character actors. The closest thing to big stars in the movie is John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes and Anthony Mackie as Karl Greene. Boyega does well in the part, playing someone deeply conflicted about what role he's playing in these events but ultimately hoping to help people. Mackie, meanwhile, shows a quiet defiance in the face of terrifying odds. Algee Smith, as the de facto protagonist of the film, spends most of his screen time in various traumatized states. He's very good at it and certainly does what he can to give the audience a more developed character. I also liked Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever, as the two young women tossed into this awful situation.

Yet the performance in the film that makes the most of an impression is in an antagonistic role. Will Poutler is terrifying as Philip Krauss, the vehemently racist police officer that is responsible for all the violence that follows. Poutler, a fine mist of sweat on his skin throughout most of the film, seems to delight in the power he has. The hotel situation gives him a chance to unleash some sort of sadistic tendency and he relishes in it. Poutler is perfect as the banally evil face of authority, someone happy to get away with the most awful shit imaginable. Ben O'Toole is similarly impressive as another officer who seems more amused and excited by the power he wields over this group of imprisoned, frightened people. 

From my perspective, “Detroit” is an expertly assembled film. Bigelow wanted to produce a specific reaction in the viewer, one of intense discomfort and distress. I would say she largely succeeded, creating a deeply unpleasant but unshakable motion picture. The underwhelming reaction that greeted “Detroit” might just be a case of a good film at the wrong time. (And, perhaps, a black filmmaker should've told this story.) It is not an easy movie to watch nor one I especially want to revisit. It's certainly flawed too, with some simple mistakes in the writing department. Yet “Detroit” makes an impression, portraying an ugly patch of history with an unblinking eye. [Grade: B]

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Director Report Card: Alexandre Aja (2016)

7. The 9th Life of Louis Drax

As someone who has been following Alexandra Aja's career for a while, I've seen one or two odd projects come across his IMDb page. There was that “Pet Sematary” remake, which is finally being made by an entirely different group. For a while, Aja was attached to a live action adaptation of classic anime “Space Pirate Cobra.” So when I saw something called “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” crop up as in development, I assumed it would be another one of those weird, unrealized project. In fact, the project would actually end up going before cameras, becoming the director's first non-horror film in quite some time. Despite being based on a reasonably well regarded novel by Liz Jensen, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” would attract almost no attention when it came out last year.

Louis Drax is an especially accident prone child. He has suffered nearly fatal accidents almost every year of his life, from being electrocuted when he was a toddler to having his ribs crushed as a baby. On his ninth birthday, he falls from a cliff into freezing waters. The shock seemingly kills him, before he receives and falls into a coma. Inside his own head, Louis constructs a fantasy world. It's made of his memories, primarily of his parents' troubled marriage, and clearly fantastical elements. In the waking world, his mother Natalie bounds with Dr. Pascal, the physician watching over the boy. When his father's dead body surfaces in a cave, a mystery starts to emerge.

From its opening minutes, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” hits you over the head with its quirky tone of magical realism. The first shot does an old-fashion iris out on the protagonist as he falls before an intentionally artificial green screen. The opening credits are done in a hand-written style, with various animals and critters illustrated around them. The score, which is trying so hard to sound like something from a Jean Pierre Jeunet movie, plays overhead. The entire first half of “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” feels this way. The montage devoted to Louis' history of injuries has that same energy, attempting to come off as eccentric and charming. Drax's dreams are full of whimsical elements, like a seaweed monster that sounds like Tobin Bell in “Saw” that he tells his life story too. It's all straining to capture a very specific tone that a hundred other movies have done better.

The first half of “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” is characterized by this quirky-for-quirkiness' sake atmosphere. The second half, however, makes a largely unexpected lurch towards mystery. Suddenly, the film is preoccupied with who is sending a series of threatening letters. Once the death of Louis' father, Peter, is introduced, the film becomes a full blown murder mystery. It's such an odd tonal shift, to go from whimsical to serious. It's almost like two completely different movies were awkwardly bolted together. Moreover, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” is not especially compelling as a mystery. The conclusion is easy to figure out. The clues do not add up in an interesting way.

It must be said, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” attempts to reconcile these two vastly different approaches. This solution is equally awkward as the divide itself though. There is no interior logic to the movie's magic-realism. The fantastical touches are not limited to Louis' dream sequences. Instead, Dr. Pascal starts to experience strange dreams too. He begins to practice automatic writing and sleepwalking. This thoroughly unexplained plot development reaches its ridiculous conclusion when Dr. Pascal is hypnotized, Louis speaking through him somehow.  Why or how does this happen? The movie does not explain it. It's just suppose to be magic, I guess, which is a good example of how sloppy the writing is.

In his horror pictures, Alexandra Aja often showed a fantastic and flashy visual sense. This is certainly on display throughout “The 9th Life of Louis Drax.” During those fantasy sequences, he gets to indulge in some of his most unusual images yet. Such as Louis floating through the water, approaches by the seaweed monster. Or a later sequence where glowing jellyfish circle him. However, the director's approach to the scenes in the waking world are less impressive. The hospital scenes are often washed-out and overly glossy. It's not flat, just unappealing.

I have no idea what attracted Alexandre Aja to this material. We can assume the filmmaker was hoping to try something else, to flex his directorial muscles a bit. However, there are times when you can definitely tell that “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” was directed by a horror filmmaker. That seaweed monster is certainly a bizarre touch and even stars in a jump-scare nightmare. There's another moment, a possible homage to DePalma's “Raising Cain,” were Louis leaps up in his bed suddenly. Louis' shrink seems to be a horror fan too. He decorates his office with giallo posters and Universal Monsters action figures. Even when handling a project outside horror, it would seem Aja can't help but from including a few callbacks to his usual genre

From one angle, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” would seem to be a movie about parenting. Bad parenting, that is. Louis' mom and dad fight constantly. His father, a former MMA fighter, has a temper. His mom, meanwhile, seems especially traumatized by the constant injuries her son has suffered. More than once, the boy retreats into his room. During a key scene, he types loudly on a typewriter in order to blot out the sound of mom and dad at screaming at each other. Louis resents all men, for the way the gender at large has mistreated his mom. Despite these scenes, the movie doesn't seem to be making any sort of solvent point about parenting or gender.

That is until the deeply dumb last minute twist. To top off its weird shift into murder-mystery territory, Jensen and actor-turned-screenwriter Max Minghella throw in a twist that is, honestly, offensive. Spoiler alert: Louis' mom has Munchhausen-by-proxy. She's been responsible for all of his injuries and even murdered her dad, events shown in the kind of revealing montage common to hacky thrillers like this. At that point, the movie takes a 180. The loving mom is abusive, the abusive dad is loving. Not only is this twist borderline misogynistic, boiling down to “bitches be crazy,” it is not a fair or realistic depiction of a troubled marriage. A complicated issue like this deserves a more nuanced take than this half-assed, black-or-white bullshit.

Yet even this is not the film's biggest problem. The truth is Louis Drax is simply not an appealing character. He likes to murder his pet hamsters, the filmmakers mistaking animal cruelty for a likable quirk. (Louis' parents don't seem to find this behavior distributing.) He has a smug side, frequently mocking or belittling the grown-ups around him. This becomes especially apparent in the overbearing narration Louis gives, which plays over most of the movie and explains every last thing about its themes. Aiden Longworth, a child actor with a number of credits, is not a strong enough actor to overcome these writing flaws. In fact, Longworth's delivery is often irritating and overly broad.

Aside from its unappealing lead character, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” has a supporting cast of equally mixed quality. Jamie Dornan gets top-billing as Dr. Pascal, the coma expert brought in to work on Louis. Dornan's performance seems uncertain at, confused by by the material as much as the audience is. Aaron Paul, as Louis' father, has a few good moments. His interaction with Aiden Longworth is the only time the boy's performance seems genuine. However, Paul also plays the character as a soulless, raging monster at times. Sarah Gadon's performance as Natalie at least succeeds in making the audience feel sorry for her, even if it too rings false. Barbara Hershey has a small and somewhat cartoonish appearance as Louis' bitchy grandmother. Oliver Platt plays Dr. Perez, Louis' psychologist and the most likable person in the movie. This is mostly thanks to Platt's easy-going charms as a performer.

I didn't totally hate “The 9th Life of Louis Drax.” There are some clever touches. The sequence where the seaweed monster leads the boy into a cave is nicely spooky moment, once again suggesting Aja's experience in the horror genre. As mockable as the decision seems, a seaweed monster as the inner mentor that Louis explains his story to is certainly an interesting idea. (How it plays out, in a moment involving a thuddingly obvious bedtime story, I am less fond of.) There's also a scene in a Chinese restaurant featuring some really tasty looking food. I liked that.

I seem to recall “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” sitting on a shelf for a while. It's easy to see why. Not just because the movie isn't very good but also because it was pretty hard to sell. When released last September, I can't recall a single soul talking or writing about it. Having seen it now, it's definitely a misfire for Aja. The exceedingly muddled script lets down a filmmaker with some strong visual ideas or one or two clever conceptions. Aja's next movie, an awesome sounding crocodile thriller called “Crawl,” sounds like it'll return him to more comfortable territory. I don't think “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” will damage his career much, since so few people seemed to have actually seen it. [Grade: C-]

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Death Wish (2018)

A remake of “Death Wish” has been circulating for years. In 2006, Sylvester Stallone said he wanted to make one. By 2012, director Joe Carnahan took on the project, with the hopes that Liam Neeson would star. After the studio insisted on Bruce Willis, Carnahan exited the film. Eventually, Eli Roth would sign up to remake Michael Winner's cult classic. Why someone would remake “Death Wish” is a question nobody seemed to ask during this long process. As the countless knock-offs suggests, anyone can make a vigilante movie. Clearly, the name recognition was the only thing separating this “Death Wish” from any other similarly themed films. Moreover, the cultural climate could not be more inappropriate for such a project. The studio seemed at least vaguely aware of that last factoid. After shifting the release date around several times, the remake was dumped into theaters this past March.

Roth, along with a team of other writers, would completely rewrite Carnahan's script. The former director is still given sole credit due to wacky WGA rules. Roth's “Death Wish” is a fairly loose remake and is even further disconnected from Brian Garfield's original novel. Paul Kersey's wife is still killed during a violent home invasion. When the police fail to quickly find the perpetrators, he takes the law into his own hand. Other than that, Roth makes many changes. Kersey is now a surgeon, instead of an architect. Rather then punishing random crooks, he's specifically after the men who killed his wife. (His daughter still winds up in a coma but, thankfully, the sexual assault is skipped.) He's also given a rascally brother. There's also the token updates to the story, involving the internet and talk radio. 

The “Death Wish” films have always been reactionary fantasies, stoking urban fears about ordinary (usually white) people being threatened by (usually ethnic) criminals. The idea of a single man taking the law into his own hands, firing guns at people he deems evil, has been thoroughly de-glamorized in the era of George Zimmerman and ten thousand mass shootings. Eli Roth shows some signs he was aware of this. The remake limply attempts to “play both sides,” showing debates between pro- and anti-vigilante people. He also makes several of Kersey's allies and rescues black, which does little to deflect the story's uncomfortable racial connotations. It's all rather half-assed, as the glorious bloodshed Kersey reaps makes it clear what Roth thinks on issues like violence-as-justice, standing your ground, masculinity, and the proliferation of firearms. 

Then again, assuming Roth has any political convictions may be a mistake. His prior attempts at social commentary were closer to trolling than salient points. (He also throws in some satirical elements, like an intentionally ridiculous gun commercial, further muddying the waters.) However, we do know Roth likes horror movies and that's very clear in his “Death Wish.” The home invasion scene is played for more tension than expected. He throws in plenty of explicit gore. A moment that's, admittedly, luridly entertaining involves a crushed head. There's even some  “Hostel” style torture, when Kersey uses his knowledge of human anatomy to interrogate a crook.

Despite a desire to assume 2018's “Death Wish” has some deeper point, it's really just another mediocre Bruce Willis vehicle. Most of the film plays like an undistinguished, modern action movie. There's a “John Wick”-style shootout in a night club, a moment that at least builds decently. Most of the action scenes are not that inspired, Bruce diving around gunshots before returning fire. The climax is especially disappointing, the final bad guy getting blown away without much fanfare. The most colorful moment involves a bowling ball being unexpectedly weaponized. Roth relishes in the gory aftermath – of course he does – but doesn't seem to have much zest for actual action choreography.

Bruce Willis has slummed his way through so many lame action movies. I don't know why I expected “Death Wish” to be any different. There's the briefest glimmer behind his eyes, in the early scenes with Elizabeth Shue and Camila Morrone as his wife and daughter. Once Paul Kersey becomes a vigilante, Willis shuffles into his stale stoic action hero routine, appearing visibly bored. The supporting cast does feature Stephen McHattie loosing his shit in one scene, Dean Norris complaining about doughnuts, and Vincent D'Onofrio playing baseball. In fact, D'Onofrio is the only actor in the film that's having much fun at all. He even gets some chemistry out of the otherwise wooden Willis.

2018's “Death Wish” doesn't have the campy or sleazy thrills of the various sequels. (If that's what you're after, rent “Death Kiss” instead.) Nor does it even come close to capturing the original's grim atmosphere. It keeps a lot of the problematic undertones of the older films but even those are softened in odd ways. I've seen some outraged reactions to the film, who perceive it as racist or a reflection of Donald Trump's America. Ultimately, the new “Death Wish” is not worth any sort of passionate response. It's a fairly dull, largely uninspired motion picture. It doesn't even feel that much like an Eli Roth film, the director clearly operating in a work-for-hire mode. One or two moment stands out but, overall, it's an utterly forgettable experience. They don't make 'em like Michael Winner did anymore and that's probably a good thing. [5/10]

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Director Report Card: Larry Clark (2018)

9. Marfa Girl 2

The modern age seems to be both the best and worst time to make independent films. On one hand, quality cameras have gotten so affordable. Online avenues makes releasing a movie easier than ever. At the same time, it's becoming increasingly difficult to put together budgets for movies and to actually get them seen, as the market is flooded. Yet, somehow, Larry Clark is still getting new movie's funded. (That his movies are made for almost nothing probably has something to do with that.) Yes, American independent cinema's most incorrigible pervert is still making movies, despite his sleazy obsession with teens seeming more politically incorrect in our modern age of sensitivity. Four years after “The Smell of Us,” Clark brings us “Marfa Girl 2.”

Larry Clark made the first “Marfa Girl” in 2012. The film was released independently through Clark's website. (A brief theatrical release would follow in 2015.) At the time, Clark talked about wanting to make a trilogy of movies following these characters in small town Texas. Due to its unique release strategy, “Marfa Girl” is probably the most obscure movie the director has ever made. That almost nobody saw the first one apparently did not discourage the filmmaker. Clark would film this little demanded sequel last year. It was officially released at the start of this month.

“Marfa Girl 2” seemingly picks up two years after the original, looking into the lives of the same characters. Disaffected teenager Adam is now 18. He has fathered two children with two separate women. Donna, mother of one of Adam's kids, picks up her ex-husband, Miguel, from prison before quickly leaving town. Adam lives with his mom and Inez, his girlfriend and mother of his other child. While Adam is happy to smoke pot and skateboard all day, he's pressured into getting a job. Meanwhile, the titular Marfa Girl is raising a child too. The problem is the kid is the son of Tom, the psychotic border patrol cop that raped her at the end of the first film. Every time she looks into the toddler's eyes, she sees the face of her rapist.

The original “Marfa Girl” stuck out in my mind as being more dream-like and relaxed than most of Clark's films. That's about all I remember about the movie too. The sequel doesn't forgive those unfamiliar with the first, as it dives right back into the same group of characters. However, certain things remain consistent throughout all of Clark's films. The director's obsession with sex and youthful people behaving badly is always present. As is almost expected by this point, the movie opens with shots of the protagonists laying in bed, the camera leering at their nude bodies. The sex lives of Adam and Miguel takes up most of the film, the run time filled with countless scenes of graphic, sweaty coupling. Clark makes sure to include plenty of full frontal nudity of both genders as well.

At his most excessive, Clark's films do not feature the most likable characters. “Marfa Girl” did a little better in that regard. Sadly, the director backtracks hard with the sequel. Adam has developed into a prick and a slacker. There are several long sequences of him arguing with Inez, the two screaming profanity at each other. The teenager of the last movie has grown into an obnoxious adult, his face now speckle with ugly acne and a wispy mustache. Instead of taking care of his damn kids, he'd rather skateboard, fuck, and hang around his house. There are other scenes of profane arguing in the film, Miguel casually hitting Donna when she annoys him and attempts to flee. This behavior does not endear the cast to the audience.

Usually, Clark's movies are about teens heading down paths of self-destruction, their excessive behavior destroying their sense of self and sometimes their lives. There's a lot of that behavior in “Marfa Girl 2,” of course. However, the film does seem to be about Adam slowly getting on the path towards maturity. At his mother's insistence, he gets a job as a bricklayer. He finds the work tedious and backbreaking but does it anyway. The boy faces the consequences of his actions throughout the film. After ignoring and mistreating Inez, she leaves him for Miguel. By the end, it seems this boy might finally be turning into a man.
Yet the most obvious consequence of everyone's actions – parenthood – often proves the hardest to accept. Adam more-or-less ignores his kids. We never seem him interacting with either of his sons throughout the film's brief runtime. It seems his mom, with her parrot usually perched on her shoulder, does most of the parenting. Donna abandons her offspring early in the movie and Miguel doesn't seem to have much time for the kid he had with the same woman earlier. At least Marfa Girl has a good excuse to feel ambivalent towards her child. Unlike the boy, we frequently see her interacting with the toddler. Which may just be an excuse for Clark to indulge in more scenes of the actress hanging around naked or semi-nude. But at least these scenes connect more with the theme of parenthood.

The first “Marfa Girl” was characterized by making its titular location as much of a character as any of the cast members. The sequel pulls back from this. There's only one sequence that really pays attention to the town, when Clark flashes over the neighborhood in fast-motion. Otherwise, his camera is focused on the nude bodies of the cast. In intimate scenes that are frequently shot with handheld cameras, we see the actors go about their days. Hanging around their homes and, of course, having lots of sweaty sex. This adds to the sense of gritty naturalism that has been Clark's trademark from his earliest movies. If nothing else, the aimless scenes of Adam wandering a train yard or Miguel playing guitar at a party give you an idea of what life in Marfa may be like.

As much as “Marfa Girl 2” is about maturity and creating a naturalistic sense of place, Larry Clark the Shockmeister just can't resist himself. Just as the first movie ended with a graphic rape and a murder, the sequel also concludes with two acts of shocking violence. The infanticide is totally unnecessary and comes off as the lame attempt to shock that it is. But at least it ties in with the rest of the film's story. The bloody cliffhanger that ends the movie, while it might tie into the themes of Adam facing the consequences of his action, really comes out of nowhere narratively. Having seen all of Clark's movies, I can tell when he's actually invested in something and when he's just trying to shock you. These moments are more empty provocations, ending an aimless but not awful movie on an especially sour note.

“Marfa Girl 2” is also really short. The film only runs seventy-five minutes. The first film ran close to two hours. That's because the story, with its conflict between Adam and Tom, had more meat on its bone. The sequel has to fill out its run time with mostly unrelated subplots. Miguel's subplots don't have much to do with the main story. Despite that, many scenes are devoted to him and his affairs. Never mind that Marfa Girl, the woman the movie is named after, is given even less to do. The first movie was arguably padded out with scenes of Adam's mom or his girlfriends. Yet those scenes at least characterized the town. The filler scenes in the sequel seem to exist mostly to expand the flimsy run time.

The first “Marfa Girl” was largely inspired just by Clark being captivated by the non-professional actors that he cast in the film. Most of these performers were brought back for this sequel. (Notably, the only one of the actors to have credits outside Clark's two films is Indigo Rael, who plays Donna and has appeared in about a dozen different things.) As per usual, how the performers look are more important to Clark than their acting abilities. Mercedes Maxwell, who plays Inez, remains a largely flat and catatonic performer. Adam Mediano squanders his natural charm by playing Adam as a whiny asshole for most of the movie. Drake Burnette, the Marfa Girl, obviously has some talent but is shackled by a script that isn't very interested in her character's inner life.

I'll give “Marfa Girl 2” this much: It has a better soundtrack than the first movie. The original was largely silent, with the little music that did appear being irritating chiptune. The sequel at least has more variety. Jonathan Velasquez, who previously appeared in Clark's “Wassup Rockers,” plays Miguel. He's also a talented musician. Acoustic guitar music and songs fills out the soundtrack of many scenes. While none of the songs are exactly memorable, at least they provide some of the slower scenes with an upbeat energy. Again, it adds to the homemade aesthetic that Clark has been seeking out for so long.

“Marfa Girl 2's” ending could be read as either a cliffhanger or a blunt conclusion, depending on whether or not Clark decides to continue the series. I don't think anyone, even people who sort of liked the first one like me, were exactly begging for this sequel. Since it got made anyway, it's entirely possible Clark might go ahead with a “Marfa Girl 3” eventually. As with “The Smell of Us,” “Marfa Girl 2” represents Clark spinning his wheels in his own excess, just going out and shooting things and weaving together a story because he enjoys it. I'm sort of glad there's still room for his perverted visions in this world but also wish he could muster up some urgency, some zest, instead of the same old shocks and dick shots. [Grade: C]

Monday, November 19, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

In our franchise-driven modern world, only abject failure can totally derail studio's plans for a long series of big budget blockbusters. The “Harry Potter” series is one of the few sure-shots Warner Brothers has, so they'll never let it end. So what if the first “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” received shrugs from both critics and fans? It made a lot of money and not a soul will dare say no to J.K. Rowling's ridiculously ambitious five film plans. Not even fans and culture-watchers protesting because an accused wife beater is starring in the sequel could put a dent in it. So “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” – that title, others have observed, is a bit like “The Joy of Cooking: Judgment at Nuremberg” – is another hugely budgeted, hot nerd property that not many people were actually excited about.

I was sort of a fan of the previous movie. I liked the fantastic beasts, at the very least. I couldn't have given less of a shit about the impending wizard war or whatever it was. As the subtitle indicates, that's exactly what the sequel focuses on. Evil wizard Grindelwald escapes custody and heads to Paris, building his forces. The Ministry of Magic wants Newt Scamander to help hunt the would-be dictator down, even though he's a zoologist. Soon, most of the first movie's cast is caught up in a chase across Europe, old loves and secret identities coming up along the way. Everyone is seeking Credence Barebone, that orphan kid from the first movie that turned into a CGI destruction cloud at the end.

“The Crimes of Grindelwald” is, simply put, a bunch of convoluted bullshit. This movie's plot is not easy to follow. The sequel is more-or-less a collection of subplots, each one competing for screen time. You need a mental flow chart to keep track of who everyone is, where they are, and what they're after. The script is needlessly flabby. Before heading into the last act, a character goes into a lengthy flashback, explaining his backstory. Immediately afterwards, a second character launches into another origin-expounding flashback. The movie makes a lot of baffling decisions like that. Someone says one thing but later events contradict them. The film devotes precious screen time to developing minor characters it just kills off later. Meanwhile, important stuff – like a hero being convinced to go over to the dark side – is left completely off-screen.

As obsessed as Rowling's script is with explaining shit, it also leaves other moments needlessly vague. A major character appears about 100 minutes into the movie, with little explanation for why he's important. Afterwards, my friend and an angry woman in the audience explained to me that this guy is the inventor of the Sorcerer's Stone. Oh, that's a great idea, randomly introducing a character late in the new film that was last mentioned fifteen fucking years ago. Another seemingly pivotal plot device is introduced silently and then not brought up again until the final minutes. There's a lot of moments of unnecessary fan service in the movie. Such as a totally superfluous visit to Hogwarts. Or the role a young Dumbledore plays in the story, which is mostly ceremonial. Or how about finding out Voldemort's pet snake used to be a lady? If you think that information is going to be important, don't worry, it won't be.

The sequel has so much bullshit going on, that you'd think the attempts to leave room for interpersonal relationships would be admirable. Yet it mostly ends up being more noise, more nonsense that keeps the film from having any sort of steady story. So we meet Newt Scamander's brother, who is engaged to his old high school crush. (Their relationship is further established in yet another fucking flashback.) This isn't Newt's only romantic entanglement, as Katherine Waterston's wizard cop from the first movie is brought back. Don Fogler's Jacob and Alison Sudol's Queenie also return, even though they contribute little to the plot and have no real reason to be there. She does something extremely unfair to him but the movie does not treat this as a violation. Instead of humanizing the material, these stories just clog things up further.

“The Crimes of Grindelwald” isn't just hard to follow in a narrative way. This is David Yates' sixth film set in J.K. Rowling's wizarding world, and I imagine he's contracted for more. You'd think he would know how to shoot this stuff by now. Yet “Fantastic Beasts 2” is often visually murky. The opening sequence, devoted to Grindelwald escaping his flying prison transport, is incoherently cut, the camera jerking back and forth between events without much context. While none of the other action scenes are that badly handled, they frequently have a rushed and unstable feeling to them. Was Yates on a hurried schedule or does he just not give a shit anymore? I'm honestly leaning more towards the latter.

Despite getting the subtitle to himself, Grindelwald does not make the greatest impression as a villain. (His crimes, which extend to breaking out of jail and killing some people, are not exactly extraordinary either.) He spends most of the movie sulking around rooms, dictating plans to his various henchmen. Grindelwald's philosophy is that wizards are superior to humans and should take over the non-magic world. Despite that, “Crimes of Grindelwald” isn't really about this conflict. The film could've expounded on the way fascism rises, how it can convince otherwise reasonable people. Grindelwald's reasoning, that regular humans are about to create a new World War even more devastating than the last, is seductive. (He displays this prediction via magical vape.) This just ends up being another ingredient in the story's overstuffed stew. The film also implies Grindelwald could've prevented the Holocaust, which is certainly in questionable taste.

Despite the overwhelming amount of bullshit in the movie, occasionally “The Crimes of Grindelwald” does present an interesting moment. The first film shined when focusing on Newt's love of weirdo, magical animals. Though this stuff is totally superfluous to the plot, similar moments are a highlight of this film as well. There's a neat scene where Newt tames a wild kelpie and a reoccurring role for a Zouwu, a giant feline monster that maintains some charmingly cat-like qualities. (A scene devoted to very toyetic baby nifflers is less enchanting.) The romantic drama between Newt and Tina, another character who might as well not have been in the movie, is largely unearned. However, there is a cute moment when the two meet at a magical hall of records and resolve their problems via awkward flirting.

In fact, Newt Scamander really doesn't have that much to do in the film, despite ostensibly being the protagonist. Eddie Redmayne continues his twitchy, eccentric act from the first installment. He plays it up to largely diminished returns. Johnny Depp does not make an impression as Grindelwald. He speaks in that phony rock star accent and silently broods, seeming massively bored. Alison Sudol, charming in the first movie, gets the most strangled subplot in this movie, rubbing her character of any motivation. Zoe Kravitz is similarly left without much to do, despite the importance the film treats her with. Jude Law being cast as young Dumbledore was greeted with much hype. Law has a twinkle in his eye in his few scenes, comparable to Richard Harris' portrayal of the character. But that's about it.

“The Crimes of Grindelwald's” status as a cog in a franchise machine could not be more obvious. It leaves the fates of several characters up in the air, along with lots of other dangling subplots that can be resolved over the course of three more movies. The film's final scene is an especially ridiculous cliffhanger. My investment in the “Harry Potter” universe has always been loose at best. So many of the callbacks and references to series' history mean nothing to me. Yet even outside of its status as the latest entry in J.K. Rowling's saga, the second “Fantastic Beasts” is a shockingly incoherent experience. The plot is an utterly tangled mess, the action scenes are poorly handled, many of the narrative decisions are truly asinine, and the actors are left with almost nothing to do. The result is one of the least enjoyable big studio movies I've seen in recent memory. [4/10]

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2018) Part 1

33. Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle
Gojira: kessen kidô zôshoku toshi

The response to the first animated Godzilla movie, “Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters,” was largely negative. At least in the American fandom, very few people seemed to actually like the movie. However, Toho's deal with Polygon Pictures and Netflix to produce an animated trilogy was clearly set in stone from the beginning. Less than a year after the Japanese release of “Planet of the Monsters,” and only a few months after it came out in America, the second film was released. “Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle” was released in Japan on May 18th, with its stateside Netflix release following in July. No, the original Japanese subtitle – which translate to something like “Battle Mobile Proliferation City” – is no less awkward. Though it does sound less like a “Star Trek” spin-off

Following the events of “Planet of the Monsters,” Haruo and the rest of his team are stranded on the hellish remains of the Earth. Haruo is rescued by a strange humanoid girl. The others soon encounter her twin. The sisters are part of an entire underground civilization. The telepathic humanoids coat their weapons with nano-tech metal. This metal is derived from the remains of the original MechaGodzilla. In fact, what was once MechaGodzilla has become an entire city. Haruo and his team soon realize they can use this technology, that has evolved over the centuries, to defeat Godzilla.

“City on the Edge of Battle” picks up right where Polygon's first “Godzilla” movie left off. This is a problem because, in the months that have passed since I saw it, I had forgotten almost every about the earlier film. The events of the first anime “Godzilla” movie were not especially compelling and did not linger in the mind. However, the creators of Polygon's trilogy are clearly really invested in this stuff. Their second kaiju flick follows from the first almost as if this was a television series and not a trilogy of films. If “Planet of the Monsters” didn't make much of an impression on you also, I'd recommend re-watching it before diving into “City on the Edge of Battle.”

Right from the beginning, I was disappointed in Polygon's decision to create their “Godzilla” films with that ugly, cel-shaded, CGI animation. In the second film, this still proves super distracting. The limitations of this style is most apparent during several of the action scenes. When the evolved humans or robots are leaping around, things sometimes turn a little choppy. The long dialogue scenes, of which there are many, feel even more stiff and unnatural when delivered by such artificial looking characters. Once again, I wish Toho and its associates had just made these films with traditional animation, instead of this unappealing half-way point between full-blown CGI and the usual anime style.

I will give “City on the Edge of Battle” this much: It is slightly better than “Planet of the Monsters.” The introduction of a technologically primitive but psychically advanced race of humans is interesting. They call themselves the Houtua. They speak telepathically, in a way that crosses all language barriers. Despite that, the twins quickly begin to pick up on English by the end. Though the Houtua appear to be human, their bodies have evolved in the thousands of years since Earth was abandoned. They have a strange powder on them with healing capabilities. Some of the characters suspect they may have insect heritage, which is a somewhat nonsensical idea. The Houtua put a cool, sci-fi twist on the many primitive civilizations that appeared through Toho's original “Godzilla” flicks.

The first movie was overly invested in its own convoluted mythology, confusing and boring the viewer. Some of the contributions to the lore made in part two are more interesting. Aside from the Huotua, we also learn that all of Earth's biology has evolved to imitate Godzilla, its reigning species. However, the mythos and self-involved back story remains crushing. Eventually, a conflict between the regular humans and the Bilusaludo, another alien race accompany them, emerges. The Bilusaluo believe they should fuse with MechaGodzilla's nanotech, an idea that disgusts the humans. Meanwhile, the Exif – the other humanoid aliens – are searching after a minor MacGuffin. This stuff isn't just boring. It's actively annoying.

The mythology being perplexing and the plot being uninteresting would be one thing. An interesting cast of characters might have redeemed these things. Sadly, the heroes and villains have not grown anymore interesting since “Planet of the Monsters.” Main hero Haruo, for one example, remains boring. Haruo is motivated by a singular desire to destroy Godzilla that borders on obsessive. He believes Earth belongs to humanity and it should be reclaimed from Godzilla. I was wondering if “City on the Edge of Battle” was going to make Hauro an Ahab figure, with Godzilla as his white whale. But, no, that might've been interesting. Instead, the film is soon absorbed by the excruciating conflict between the humans and the Bilusaludo.

As I mentioned last time, Polygon's “Godzilla” series features more in the way of traditional anime tropes than expected kaiju movie tropes. Look no further than those Houtua twins. They are named Miana and Maina. One is immediately enamored of Haruo, showing a child-like personality, while the other is grouchier and tougher, more of a proud warrior type. They both have really cute designs too. In other words, they are cute girls with genki and tsundere personalities, exactly the kind of characters otakus will want to buy resin statues of. It's also suggested they might have a crush on Haruo, who is already receiving romantic attention from pilot Yoko. Anime revolving around bland male heroes, surrounded by attractive women who love him is a trope unto itself.

No stereotype is more associated with anime than giant robots. Don't worry, “City on the Edge of Battle” has that covered too. The terrestrial mechs from the first movie get an upgrade in this one. They are retrofitted with wings and renamed “vultures.” Much of the second half of “City on the Edge of Battle” are devoted to these flying robots. There are many long sequences showing them flying through the air, testing their agility and weapons. During the climax, they turn their laser cannons on Godzilla. Still, the vultures get so much screen time that you feel like the directors are far more interested in them than Godzilla.

Yes, the king of all kaiju has about the same amount of screen time here as he did in the first episode. He basically shows up for a few scenes here and there before becoming the focus of the climax. What makes this frustrating is that Polygon's take on Godzilla is truly impressive. The design has really grown on me. Godzilla's rough angles, wolf-like snout, and jagged skin makes him look more like a mountain than ever before. His powers are more destructive than ever, as his atomic breath has evolved into a giant annihilating ray. As cool as he is, Polygon's Godzilla is still largely lacking in the personality he usually has.

Most of “City on the Edge of Forever's” advertising was built around MechaGodzilla. The first movie teased Gojira's mechanical double with a few brief glimpses. The plot is built around the robot dinosaur's existence, as its remains provided the nanobots that become so integral to the plot. They even made a toy of him. You might think all of this is leading up to a big fight between Godzilla and the anime MechaGodzilla. A version of Godzilla's mechanical foe made from nanobots sure would've been interesting to see. But it's all one big tease. The credits roll on “City on the Edge of Battle” without MechaGodzilla himself actually appearing on screen. This is yet another Godzilla movie where the king goes without fighting another giant monster.

The score for “City on the Edge of Battle” is provided by Takayuki Hattori. Aside from scoring “Planet of the Monsters,” Hattori previously composed the music for “Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” and “Godzilla 2000.” Though Akira Ifukube's iconic theme is conspicuously absent, Hattori's music still has that classical Godzilla-feeling. There's definitely a novelty to watching an animated film that still sounds so much like a typical Toho Godzilla film. Hattori, however, tries to add some flair to the soundtrack. There's at least two scenes where a techno song plays, a very odd and distracting decision. Hattori also throws in some wailing rock guitars from time to time. A J-pop song plays over the end credits, which is pretty easy to ignore though.

Much like the first part of the animated Godzilla trilogy, “City on the Edge of Battle” ends on a cliffhanger. Aside from that, the film hints that other monsters may appear in the next installment. (Which came out in Japan earlier this month.) The presence of mystical twins and the Houtua worshiping a giant egg seem to suggest Mothra may appear. Ghidorah, meanwhile, is name-dropped after some melodramatic build-up. Seeing these iconic adversaries brought to life in animation might've been exciting if the first two parts of Polygon's “Godzilla” trilogy weren't so underwhelming. A slight improvement over its predecessor, thanks to some intriguing sci-fi ideas, “Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle” is hugely self-important, derivative, and even manages to lack the cheap thrills associated with the kaiju genre. [Grade: C]

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Director Report Card: Wes Anderson (2018)

9. Isle of Dogs

Dogs do not have the best history in Wes Anderson's films. Poor Buckley the Beagle is squished by a car in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” A three legged hound is struck with a newspaper in “The Life Aquatic.” Guard dogs are knocked unconscious, or possibly poisoned, in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Most traumatizing, poor little Snoopy was killed on-screen with a stray arrow in “Moonrise Kingdom.” (To show the director has no pet bias, he also depicted a house cat getting tossed out a window in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”) Despite this history of canine slaughter, Anderson wanted to assure the world that he really loves dogs. It's right there in the title of his newest feature, his second film made with stop-motion animation. “Isle of Dogs'” title is a pun, which took me far too long to get. The director's latest was met with critical praise and criticism earlier in the year.

In a near future Japan, a strange virus has swept through the islands' dog population. Amid fears that this “snout flu” could spread to a human population, all canines are exiled from Japan. Every dog is placed on a trash-covered small island. The dogs have created their own society there, fighting for scraps. A stray named Chief leads a pack of quirky dogs, trying to survive. That's when they see a human boy crash a home-made aircraft on the island. His name is Atari Kobayashi, the adopted son of Kenji Kobayashi, the politician and corporate leader that pushed the dog ban through. Atari is looking for Spots, the dog guardian that was granted to him after his family died. Though they can not understand each other, Atari and Chief's pack work together to find Spots. Meanwhile, intrigue builds in Japan, controversy surrounding Atari's actions.

The visual symmetry present in Wes Anderson's work is so well known, that it's practically a meme by this point. Set entirely in an artificial world, “Isle of Dogs” allows Anderson a chance to totally indulge his visual quirks. This is, in many ways, a gorgeous film. The first image that comes to mind is a scene of the dogs, hiding in a cave made of glass bottles. The canines are silhouetted against walls of brilliant colors, light shining through them. That's just the first moment that comes to mind. Another fantastic scene involves Chief and Atari being separated from the rest of the pack, who end up going through a mechanized trash disposal plant. That Anderson-esque style, so hard to describe but immediately recognizable when seen, could not be more apparent in that moment.

Compared to “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” whose style was undeniable but not especially memorable, “Isle of Dogs” is brimming with personality. Take a look at the maquettes used to bring the characters to life. Both the humans and dogs have faces full of quirky attributes. Atari's teeth are jagged, not the uniform smile you usually see in animation. The American transfer student, and Atari's biggest fan, has a head full of frizzy blonde hair. Each of the dogs have elements unique to them. Like piercing blue eyes, descriptive tags on their collars or bodies, or notably pink snouts. You can tell a lot about the characters just by looking at their faces. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a director as detail orientated as Anderson would shove so much information into his cast's designs.

Of course, Anderson's symmetry doesn't end with his visual approach. “Isle of Dogs” has a script partially cut in two. The story of Atari's adventure on the titular island plays out at the same time as the events on the mainland, as different forces try to support him or hinder his mission. The story splinters from there, with Chief and Atari going in separate directions from the rest of the pack. Yet “Isle of Dogs” never looses its fleet-footed, quirky sense of humor. Such as in scenes involving the robotic dog minions the villains send after the heroes, a ludicrous element that just gets funnier the more the movie builds on it. Or that trademark of Anderson's humor, his awkward and dryly funny dialogue. The dogs talk in the same manner as Anderson's usual human characters, speaking in precise sentences about gossip and past jobs.

As funny as “Isle of Dogs” is, it's also a deeply melancholic film. As he usually does, the director weaves in his dry comedy with themes about loneliness and the difficulty of connecting with people. A major theme in “Isle of Dogs” is loyalty. The Japanese setting wasn't picked just because Anderson really likes it, though that doubtlessly played a big role in his choice. The film directly compares a dog's loyalty to a samurai's. Following the death of his family, Atari was paired with Spots. When he first talks to the dog, his words make the animal cry. Later, Spots admits he loves the boy very much. Atari returns that loyalty later when he seeks Spots out. The film extends the idea of a “boy and his dog” story into some very unusual places but the central idea – that one would lay down his life for the other – remains intact. And is as touching as it always is.

Of course, love is not always easily gained. Opposed to the other dogs in his pack, all of whom came from loving homes, Chief was a stray. He feels ostracized from the others because of this, though they rarely seem to mind. A heartbreaking moment has him relating a time he was briefly adopted, which quickly ended due to his tendency to bite. This is a fairly direct example of how some people push affection away, without even really realizing it. Yet acts of kindness – an old woman sharing some hibachi chili, a boy giving a dog a bath and a biscuit – can reach through that defensiveness. Other “strays” appear in the story. Such a pack of deformed dogs, former experimental test subjects that have literally been tossed away like trash. The other dogs fear they are cannibals but, once you're familiar with them, they deserve love just as much as any other living thing.

In the wake of “Isle of Dog's” release, a controversy arose over the film. Many complained that the film's approach to Japanese culture was fetishistic and diminishing, an example of a white filmmaker treating a whole country as nothing but an exotic fantasy land. “Isle of Dogs” definitely feels like a film made by an American Japanophile. (Or “weeb,” if we're being crude.) The film makes sure to check-off many cultural cliches about Japan: Sushi, samurai, Shinto temples, robots, woodcuts, sumo, haiku, some minor nods towards anime. Anderson stops just shy of including a kaiju. Anderson's handling of the location probably could've been more nuanced. This is definitely the work of an outsider, looking in at a world as an exotic location. Yet “Isle of Dog's” world is also a fantasy, clearly not set in our world or any existing world, so it's equally difficult to take accusations of cultural appropriation too seriously.

This crowd has also criticized another element of the film. All the Japanese characters speak in unsubtitled Japanese. This is obviously a deliberate choice that connects with the film's thematic concerns. Naturally, a dog and a human can actually understand each other. There's always a wall of translation separating them. There is a device that seemingly can translate from human-to-dog but the audience never sees it work. That absolute clarity is never guaranteed between the characters makes the loyalty and love they show to each other even more significant. Not totally understanding but loving anyway. This is made clear in a key sequence near the end, where a heartbreaking and touching remains untranslatable.

As with his live action joints, Anderson and his team assemble a phenomenal cast. For the voice of the main pack of dogs, he mostly calls upon regular players of his. Edward Norton is hilariously nit-picky as Rex, the most democratic of the dogs. Bill Murray is nicely muted as Boss, the most cautious of the main dogs. The (ironically) catty Duke is perfectly suited to Jeff Goldblum's typically eccentric delivery. Bob Balaban's King has a pampered side but mostly functions as a calming force for the pack. As Chief, Bryan Cranston – who, least we forget, has some voice-over experience – projects a gruff side that slowly defrosts as the story progresses. He ultimately becomes an unlikely but lovable hero.

Being such a high caliber project, Anderson is able to fill even the smaller roles with recognizable names. Greta Gerwig, who has somehow never worked with Anderson before, is fantastically determined and prickly as Tracy Walker, the exchange student. Tilda Swinton is also impressively funny in the small role of Oracle, a pug that claims she can predict the future but merely watches TV. Harvey Keitel has a small but important role, bringing some real sorrow to the part of a bereaved elder dog. It's a shame that Scarlett Johansson wasn't given more to do, in a cute but simply functionary role as the former show dog that Chief falls in love with. Even a simple translator role is played by an immediately recognizable Frances McDormand. Being unsubbed, the Japanese cast doesn't feature too many familiar names, though Yoko Ono appears as a character named Yoko Ono. And, of course, Ken Watanabe is there.

Alexandre Desplat returns to score the film, his fourth collaboration with Anderson. Drawing upon traditional Japanese instruments, such as taiko drums and fue, he creates a score that sounds darker than his usual works. There's a percussion driven urgency in much of Desplat's music here, adding to the film's overall sense of tension. This is aided by ominous vocals and battle-ready bugles. Anderson doesn't leave as much room here for his usual sixties Britpop song picks. Only The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band's “I Won't Hurt You” is used, though the soft and meaningful song makes an impression. The score also quotes several classic Japanese films, using portions from “Seven Samurai” and “Drunken Angel's” scores.

I was probably predisposed to love “Isle of Dogs.” Wes Anderson has made some of my favorite films. Naturally, some of my favorite people have been dogs. And I'll admit I went through a bit of a weeb stage myself. I understand why some people have a problem with the film but I think it's a shame that the controversy overshadowed the actual movie to a degree. It's a frequently hilarious, oddly touching, and visually gorgeous motion picture. Though awash in Anderson's trademarks and undeniably the work of his distinctive voice, it still feels noticeably different from his previous eight features, providing a more compassionate outlook. Hey, I guess he really does love dogs after all. [Grade: A-]

Friday, November 16, 2018

Director Report Card: Shane Black (2018)

4. The Predator

Usually when an actor directs a sequel to a film he appeared in, it's a case of a weary star being lured back with a chance to direct or a lead becoming the shepherd for the series that made him a star. It's very unusual for a minor player from the first movie to come back to write and direct the fourth movie. Then again, Shane Black was primarily a screenwriter when he appeared in the original “Predator.” In fact, Black returning to make a new “Predator” seemed like a slam dunk at the time. This hype was up-ended a few weeks before the film's release when a controversy, surrounding a bit part in the film being played by a registered sex offender, emerged. And then the very mixed reviews started to come out. Going into “The Predator,” I began to worry that this would be another “Iron Man 3,” where Black put his personal stamp on an established series and fucked it all up in the process.

In the depths of space, one alien ship chases another. The pursued ship, piloted by a rogue Predator, heads to Earth. He crashes and attacks a troop of black ops guys, led by Quinn McKenna. McKenna is the only survivor and ends up with some of the Pred's special equipment. Soon, McKenna is detained with an entire group of mentally unstable soldiers. But not before sending the alien tech to his wife and autistic son. The Predator was also captured and quickly escapes. It turns out he's being pursued by another warrior from his home world, a deadlier and more advanced one. McKenna, his son, a biologist who specializes in alien organisms, and a group of self-declared Loonies are caught in this interplanetary conflict.

As he did with “Iron Man 3,” Black makes no attempt to disguise his trademarks while working within an established franchise. The heroes are smart-asses, hard guys with mental health issues who have a bond. There's also a precocious kid, who naturally has a connection with the lead tough guy. The film is set around a holiday, though Black subs out Halloween for his preferred Christmas. That last choice may be the decision of Black's co-writer: Fred Dekker, the beloved but rarely utilized auteur behind “The Monster Squad” and “Night of the Creeps.” You can see Dekker's influence in other scenes, such as Rory being bullied at school. Or the genre-savvy characters, who do things like point out that the Predators don't actually live up to their names.

My biggest concern about Black directing “The Predator” was his tendency towards convoluted plotting and a complete disinterest in following established lore. Luckily, “The Predator's” plot is totally straight-forward, save for a few plot holes. Black doesn't totally fuck up the series' mythos either. In fact, the additions he makes to “Predator” lore are pretty compelling. The species' habit of collecting trophies from their prey is given another purpose. In their efforts to make themselves more effective hunters, the Predators have begun to genetically alter themselves. The primary antagonist, the Ultimate Predator, has the armor, blades, and cloaking device built into his massive jacked body. This seems like a logical extension of the species' technology. The film is set before the events of “Predators” and seems to show the beginning of the inter-species conflict that installment was about. We also see a prototype for the Predator hounds, who are much more canine-like and cuddly here.

I don't know how good Fox executives are at learning from their mistakes. However, it's definitely significant that the studio has never tried to make another PG-13 entry in the “Alien/Predator” franchise since 2004. “The Predator” is gloriously gory. The expected dangling, skinned corpses appear early on. The renegade Predator tosses people through the air. He tears a whole truck load of guys apart with ease. The Ultimate Predator is similarly adapt at dismemberment, blowing enemies apart or easily eviscerating them with his claw. There's even some alien-on-alien violence, plenty of green blood being spilled.

However, “The Predator” has a fairly serious problem in the editing department. There's a rushed, incoherent quality to some of the action scenes. Moments that should be important – like a major character comically, accidentally blowing his own head off – go by so quickly, they could be easily missed. Another moment has a child casually killing someone, without much attention being drawn to it. Other times, the editing seems to confuse or disguise simple plot points. In one scene, the characters are in an RV. In the next scene, they each have their own cars. A dog seems to play a significant role before vanishing after a key moment. The final fight also features a character suddenly appearing and disappearing. It seems to me that Shane Black or whoever wanted to get “The Predator's” run time as tight as possible ended up cutting out some important details in the process.

Or maybe “The Predator's” post-production was rushed in general. Many of the special effects are perfectly serviceable. The practical creature effects are all fun. The CGI frequently functions believably, even cleverly. Such as when dripping blood reveals a cloaked Predator. Other times, however, the CGI leaves a lot to be desired. The CGI on the Predator Dog varies from decent to shaky, depending on the scene. A moment, where the Ultimate Predator grabs a soldier and bites his head off, looks overly artificial. A dismembered body flying through the air near the end is awkwardly green-screened. There's a lot about “The Predator” that suggests sloppy re-shots and re-editing.

I've read people complaining about the editing and the effects in “The Predator.” Yet the element that seems to bother people about the sequel the most is its treatment of autism. McKenna's son, Rory, is identified as having Asperger's. He's sensitive to loud sounds, speaks in an overly specific manner, and is socially withdrawn, leading to him being bullied. None of that seems especially egregious. However, “The Predator” eventually piles on that old chestnut about autism being magic. Rory is gifted with technology and computers, easily learning how to use the Predator tech. Eventually, the movie drops the bombshell that autism isn't just neuro-divergence. It's the next step in human evolution. While I'm sure the filmmakers meant well, and Jacob Trembly is fine in the part, they end up playing into a lot of dehumanizing stereotypes about the autism spectrum.

While many of “The Predator's” problems are hard to ignore, the likability of its cast goes a long way.  I was worried Boyd Halbrook, best known as one of the villains in “Logan,” was going to be one of those boring, pre-fab Hollywood leading men. However, he proves to be quite charming as Quinn McKenna. Halbrook adapts well to the typically caustic sense of humor all Shane Black protagonists must have. (I do wish Yvonne Strahovski, as McKenna's long suffering wife, was given more to do. She disappears half-way through the movie and isn't seen again.) I also liked Oliver Munn as Dr. Bracket. Munn is equally quick with a comedic one-liner as she is during the action sequences.

The group of PTSD-afflicted soldiers, the self-proclaimed Loonies, that help McKenna could've been easily annoying characters. Yet they prove surprisingly likable as well. Thomas Jane's Baxley is not a very flattering depiction of Tourette Syndrome. However, his mental trauma is taken seriously. The bond he forms with Coyle, played by Keegan-Michael Key, is also interesting. Borderline homoerotic, the two share a special bond and struggle with their trauma in their own ways. Trevante Rhodes, as Nebraska, has a heroic streak despite his suicidal tendencies. Augusto Aguilera's Nettles also shows an interesting child-like quality, along with a more erratic side.

Some have complained that “The Predator” is too flippant. This is not an unfair criticism. The hyper-profane dialogue becomes a bit much at times, especially with Jane's sprouting random swear words. Everyone is cracking jokes, no matter how serious things get. Probably the most embarrassing moment in the film occurs when the lead character has to suddenly go to the bathroom. There's a plot reason for this but it definitely feels unnecessarily crass. Still, a lot of the jokes in “The Predator” work. Such as Munn accidentally hitting herself with a tranquilizer gun, the attempts by the men to win over the female scientist, and a scene where the guys debate on whether or not they should follow the hero.

While Black didn't seem very interested in the “Iron Man” lore, he obviously loves the “Predator” franchise. There's quite a few callbacks and references in the latest sequel. Henry Jackman's score makes sure to incorporate many of the classic themes from Alan Silvestri's beloved original soundtrack. Jake Busey appears, playing the son of Gary Busey's character from “Predator 2.” There are cheeky homages to the original's most famous lines of dialogue. This stuff is a little corny but far more charming than the attempts to set-up a potential sequel. That final, belabored scene goes on far too long and ends with an underwhelming reveal.

It's already clear that “The Predator” is a divisive film. Some hardcore fans of the franchise have dismissed it. Others have loved it. Such a mixed response is actually totally fitting. “The Predator” does some things really well. It puts a clever spin on the series' mythology, features some likable characters and actors, and definitely has its charming moments. At the same time, the editing and special effects are inexcusably bad at times. Some of the writing decisions are practically tasteless. If nothing else, I find it more interesting than “Predators.” Though definitely a bit of a mess, I would still consider the latest “Predator” an entertaining hundred minutes at the cinema. [Grade: B]