Need for Speed

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Dangling inside a souped-up Ford Shelby Mustang, hooked to a helicopter flying over a cliff, drag racer Tobey (Aaron Paul) keeps his passenger Julia (Imogen Poots) calm by asking her “What color are my eyes?” This results in the two amusedly arguing over whose are bluer, marking a development in their relationship (and later romance). It’s a moment which could have teetered Need for Speed into twee territory, if director Scott Waugh and screenwriters George and John Gatins hadn’t consistently built up these two–and the larger group they work in–as equals with genuine camaraderie. Operating first out of a struggling body shop, the crew are a bunch of blue-collar specialists who complement one another. They move as a unit, demonstrated early on in a rural street race: Tobey as the lead driver and figurehead, backed by an eye in the sky, a mechanic, a techie monitoring the race, and a second driver serving as both protege and ringer. Trust is implicit. When the upstart is killed by a sneering trust-fund dickhead, who pins the death on Tobey (resulting in a two-year stint), it takes hardly any effort to bring the band back together for a cross-country revenge trip doubling as attempt to enter a prestige drag race. Julia at first seems an interloper; a condition on which Tobey gets to use the Mustang he borrows from an impressed benefactor. Tobey is reluctant at first, but won over (curious, even) by her confidence, communicated in Paul’s infectious smile and David Carradine cool when conversing with her. While not attuned, initially, with the group’s jargon or the way they play loose with the laws of physics, Julia more than proves herself capable. She assists with a mobile refuel, makes keen observations about various players (challenging the masculinity of a Hummer-driving bounty hunter working for Tobey’s 1%-er rival, Poots delivers the phrase “inferiority complex” with a posh pinky wag serving as a double entendre), and readily takes the wheel when needed. Rather than undercutting, or even threatening, the others, she becomes a new, key component to the whole.

Here, Need for Speed comes dangerously close to James Cameron’s 80s oeuvre. The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss highlight inclusive collectives with natural gives-and-takes. If a member falters, the others pick up the slack. If the group’s existence is threatened, an individual sacrifices him/herself to keep the others moving. This trait runs throughout Need for Speed, but is notable in two scenes: first, a lengthy detour in Detroit from the cross-country plot, so the crew can rescue a crew member from a humdrum office job. Superfluous as the scene is–largely it becomes an excuse to show off Campus Martius and Woodward Avenue via car chase (with accurate State Trooper vehicles and uniforms, to boot)–it speaks to the unwillingness of Tobey’s crew to go on this personal crusade without one of their own. Later, when an attempted hit on Tobey leaves Julia injured, the group rallies to ensure her safety and recovery–importantly, she isn’t used as a prompt to reignite the revenge quest. All that matters is the group. This theme is so resonant, even when it ends on franchise-setup, Waugh’s film preserves its integrity.

The Apocalypse Only Inspires Ennui

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Guy Pearce on a kill quest to get back his car. A couple revelations of underlying motives aside, this is all there is to The Rover‘s plot. Abducting the younger brother (Robert Pattinson) of one of the thieves, Pearce plays Eric, a traumatized survivor of global economic collapse, with a single-mindedness communicated entirely in his middle-distance stare. Nothing wavers in The Rover. Director David Michôd holds the frame on every shot, whether Pearce is driving down a highway, asking about his prey’s whereabouts, or murdering the latest person in his way. Also telling how many of Eric’s conversations end up being two people talking past one another: in an opium den, he asks “Have you seen my car?”, to which a woman replies “What’s your name?”, eliciting only “Have you seen it?” Eric is also a quick trigger finger, blowing the brains out of a random soldier attempting to take away his only lead (amongst other murders). Dialogue and violence are both stunted exchanges between selfish people, encapsulating how broken this world is. People are introduced laying about their homes or what passes for businesses, waiting for something, anything to break the tedium–the apocalypse only inspires ennui. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Eric reveals the fate of his wife to another soldier, to the latter’s disinterest. The confession is erased moments later by a couple gunshots. Michôd toys with the idea Pattinson’s talkative, emotional (possibly slow) captive might be the only person left who can relate to Eric: he prompts conversations unrelated to the plot, sings, even uses pleasantries, the last vestiges of civilized behavior. Momentarily, Eric even shows flickers of humanity. That there are only flickers accentuates how doomed civilization is.

Friday the 13th Part 2

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John Carpenter’s Halloween became the structural basis of the slasher. Friday the 13th attempted to codify its subtext into a repressive morality tale. Part 2 goes even further, locking in character types and their fates. Mrs. Voorhees out of the picture, Jason gets his turn. He first removes the previous film’s final girl, Alice, in an eerie prologue sequence, then goes back to Crystal Lake and reenacts the previous film. Many characters and situations in the film double for those in part one: the archery fakeout is replaced with a flirty slingshot gag; the two-dudes-one-girl trio driving down the road in a pickup not only act like the similarly-introduced, Kevin Bacon-led kids, but physically resemble them; new final girl Ginny is in a relationship similar to the one Alice had previously with camp owner Steve (the slashers still hadn’t gotten about to making “virgin” a prerequisite, it seems). The impression given is Jason, hidden away in the wilderness, had been observing mommy dearest, and is simply imitating her actions–perhaps even trying to outdo her, spearing two horny counselors at once when it comes time to repeat the arrow kill. That Jason mimics his mother’s sexual dysfunction and seeks her approval, even building a shrine to her, suggests an Oedipal complex. Too bad for Ginny: she attempts to use her child psychology lessons, by play-acting as Mrs. Voorhees, to calm the psycho before her. It doesn’t go well.

Some Much Needed Personality

Stray Bullets: Killers #7
Art and Writing by David Lapham
Published by Image

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A sunny day of baseball. A young couple–Eli and Virginia–watching a game and excitedly talking about the boy’s acceptance into art school. Later, they drive through Baltimore, stopping to visit the girl’s old friends at an electronics store. This leads to them witnessing violent crime firsthand, and begins to unravel a loving, if rocky, relationship. David Lapham’s patience and craft as a storyteller built to this moment. He’s spent six issues criss-crossing the lovers’ histories and their 1987 present, exposing neuroses and a raw, emotional need for someone to care for them, scars and all. Now established, Lapham shows what could make such potent love break. Virginia is sucked back into a criminal life she left behind out of sentimental obligation–her friends gunned down, she turns to an unstable mobster acquaintance–dragging Eli (begrudgingly) into that world. Shocked by the violence he’d only previously known from Virginia’s stories–after watching a pedestrian, unrelated to the crime, get shot and die in the process–Eli cracks. He even unleashes insults at Virginia he otherwise wouldn’t have uttered. Violence and bad pasts intrude via happenstance, tainting what seemed a pleasant present. Lapham hammers this point in his closing page: with the same page-wide, three-panel layout as his opening. Where Virginia and Eli were shown close together and talking, the last page has them in a car, silent, a bullet hole in the windshield dividing them. Innocence and guilt are fluid, nebulous concepts in Stray Bullets: Lapham cares more about the human cost of crime.

Batgirl #35
Art by Babs Tarr and Maris Wicks
Writing by Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher
Published by DC

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With a color palette of reds and oranges, aspect-to-aspect panel transitions, and emphasis on hip, humorous dialogue, Batgirl has become a testing grounds of sorts for DC. An attempt at capturing the lighter inflections of Marvel’s mild quirk comics–Hawkeye primarily, but see also recent volumes of Young Avengers, Daredevil, and Ms. Marvel–to break up the dreary monotony of the New 52 lineup. No sign of the baroque, 90s-Image grotesques to be found here, let alone the tough guy posturing meant to evoke Batman from the Nolan films or the Arkham video games (minus the individual variations of those productions). In fairness, this in itself is only a small step further from Gail Simone’s tenure as series writer: the New 52 “voice”, as it were, was kept at arm’s length in favor of traditional tights ‘n fights storytelling. Brendan Fletcher and Cameron Stewart’s script doesn’t deviate: there’s a slightly different status quo introduced (Barbara Gordon/Batgirl moved in with new roommates, in Gotham City’s more “cool” neighborhood), a threat is introduced (topical issues of identity theft and hacking are referenced), which Batgirl gets to dispatch with her skillset.

Babs Tarr gets to flex the most muscle: page compositions depicting smartphone-era sensory overload are paired with the rubber-face rom-com antics of an Archie comic: the second and third pages have Barbara, hungover from an atypical night of partying, stumbling out of bed at the behest of a friend’s text (represented as a variant of the word balloon), before an embarrassing encounter with a guy she made out with the night before–complete with exaggerated grimace and tiny lines to indicate surprise. Like the Mild Quirks, the new Batgirl uses modern parlance and self-awareness to hang on older, more instructive models of superhero comics. This shows off moral/ethical considerations without judgmental tisk-tisking. It also allows wiggle room for DC to get some much needed personality back into circulation.

The Passive-Aggressive Method to Swallowing Your Soul

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Oculus’ opening minutes are a vanilla ghost movie, with forlorn expressions and ominous lingering shots of the film’s centerpiece prop, a mirror housing a demonic presence. Creep scares where objects in reflections are different than reality. Entirely expected. Then, Karen Gillan hijacks the mirror and sets up a Do It Yourself science experiment to prove supernatural influence before destroying it, and the film veers wildly into Christopher Nolan territory. Space and time intertwine in disorienting ways, Gillan and her puppy-eyed, confused brother (Brenton Thwaites) find themselves not only facing off against an unseen tormentor, but reliving childhood trauma, where the mirror exerted malevolent influence over their parents–a series of events which culminated in the father killing the mother, and Thwaites’ younger self being institutionalized for killing the father in self-defense. The two timelines collide, adult Gillan or Thwaites wandering into a room to find their child selves (or vice versa), making them feel small. Gillan’s methodical safeguards and Thwaites’ learned, rational explanations for the paranormal become quaint attempts to control forces which defy reason and will not be contained, simply because their power lies within the deepest recesses of the subconscious.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan depicts the entity as a needler. It mutters insults to the mother in the father’s voice (“What did you say?”, she asks, to which he responds, “Nothing”); later, it accentuates and distorts a c-section scar she self-consciously notes when looking at her reflection. The mirror sows doubt amongst the siblings by offering alternative explanations for its actions, such as when cameras used to document its activities instead show them moving objects themselves previously seen shifting of their own volition. Outside observers become unable to see the truth the siblings know, because the entity (like any abuser) hides the bruises and has an excuse handy to deflect blame. Appearances kept, it continues to harass and bully until, unable to take anymore, the abused (tragically) attempt to strike back. This lurking horror revels in causing pain and misery without every physically acting against anyone. It knows full well society can, and will, find a way to blame the victims.

Friday the 13th

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A perfect illustration of why, for all its subsequent imitators, Halloween has never been bested at the slasher game. Friday the 13th is beautifully shot–Sean Cunningham lingering on Barry Abrams’ deep-focused wilderness with slow pans and Carpenter-copying POV shots–but slapdash in every other way. Halloween built its tension specifically off informing the audience who Michael Myers is and his proximity to his victims. Pamela Voorhees, however, spends most of the film as an unseen, unknown presence. A dramatic twist paying off mentions of a drowning which began Camp Crystal Lake’s tragic history. Cunningham is able to mine this for the occasional, unpredictable shock–as when a post-coital Kevin Bacon notices blood dripping from the bunk above him, just as an arrow pierces his throat from beneath the bed–but suspense is downplayed in favor of piling coincidences and inconsistent characterization. Pamela unseen reads as an implacable bogeyman, able to slither into the right place at the right time; once viewed, she becomes a mumbling split personality, as incapable of controlling her impulses as the horny teens/twenty-somethings she despises (the “Sex is Death” trope, codified here from Halloween‘s unintended subtext, is incoherent just based off this and throwaway dialogue between final girl Alice and camp owner/boyfriend Steve). It becomes no wonder son Jason, despite not appearing in the film as the hulking murder machine most know him by, became the series’ standout figure.

What Social Life? – Movies 2014: September

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A paltry list this time. Missed out on two new releases (Frank and The Guest) I was looking forward to, due to a combination of time and location (neither played within an hour’s drive from me), amongst other concerns. Slow month all around.

  • Blood Glacier (2014) – Dir. Marvin Kren: English dub
  • Weeds, Season 1 (2005) – Created by Jenji Kohan
  • C.H.U.D. (1984) – Dir. Douglas Cheek
  • Open Grave (2013) – Dir. Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego
  • The Shadow (1994) – Dir. Russell Mulcahy
  • Speed (1994) – Dir. Jan de Bont
  • Locke (2014) – Dir. Steven Knight
  • Jaws 3 (1983) – Dir. Joe Alves
  • Dust Devil (1992) – Dir. Richard Stanley
  • Legendary (2013) – Dir. Eric Styles
  • Only Lovers Left Alive (2014) – Dir. Jim Jarmusch
  • Blade (1998) – Dir. Stephen Norrington
  • The Reeds (2009) – Dir. Eric Cohen
  • +1 (2013) – Dir. Dennis Illiadis
  • Supercop (1992) – Dir. Stanley Tong
  • Ghostbusters (1984) – Dir. Ivan Reitman – TV edit
  • The Rover (2014) – Dir. David Michôd
  • Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) – Dir. Takashi Shimizu

Total: 18 (YTD: 148)

“They’re All Over Detroit”

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Much of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive feels insulated and self-absorbed. Adam, a vampire played by Tom Hiddleston, is depressed by American cultural stagnation (calling humans “zombies”) and the decay of once-great Detroit. He sits in his home, composing ambient music and waxing nostalgic over guitars. He has a gofer (Anton Yelchin) procuring rare items and gets blood from a doctor (Jeffrey Wright) taken to calling him “Faust.” Adam’s antique obsession, dour mood, pale skin and Robert Smith hairdo mark him as a hipster. Even when his more flamboyant, optimistic wife Eve, played by Tilda Swinton, arrives, it only briefly snaps Adam out of his funk: their night life consists of drive-by sightseeing of decrepit buildings. Jarmusch’s ground-view staging and Yorick Le Saux’ photography easily classifies the film as ruin porn. Even when Eve pontificates on the inevitability of Detroit’s revival (“There’s water here”), the emphasis remains on the Motor City’s dysfunction. They steer clear of the revitalized downtown or even the bohemian sections of the city, wallowing in Adam’s self-pity and the past, until Eve’s ravenous sister Ava arrives to throw their life in chaos (depleting their blood supply and killing Yelchin). Deprived of creature comforts, the lovers leave the country and revert to type; ironically, this makes them come alive, after witnessing a young woman singing in Tangier. Jarmusch, ultimately, posits urban decline and hipsters as the result of self-destructive consumerism, powered by nostalgia.

Speed (And Other Considerations)

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Speed is, above all else, a journeyman’s movie. Jan de Bont was a DP who had worked with directors as wide-ranging as Ridley Scott, John McTiernan, and Paul Verhoeven before landing the big job, and it was for a movie pitched as “Die Hard on a bus.” Tellingly, de Bont hasn’t directed anything memorable since.

None of this takes anything away from Speed, at all. In fact, this informs the film’s greatest attribute: de Bont, the stunt and effects teams build organically around the bus gimmick. Once the bomb is armed, and Keanu Reeves’ earnest, adrenaline junkie cop is on board, every setpiece plays like a how-to for keeping a bus above 50 mph in various levels of L.A. traffic–freeways, gridlock, and an under-construction interchange get their moments in the spotlight–all requiring on-the-fly thinking and a great deal of luck. Weight, momentum, fuel level, all practical matters are factored in. Speed stealthily pulls off the procedural blockbuster a year before Michael Mann’s Heat. Punch ups and a cast of memorable personalities fill out the script: the passengers, Sandra Bullock especially, match surfer-cool Reeves with with dry, cynical humor about their situation; Dennis Hopper’s meticulous, mugging bomber would’ve made a great Joker. Textbook as it is (a couple circular pans aside, de Bont favors impersonal lock shots), there’s a consideration here sorely lacking in, say, The Avengers and its billion-dollar franchise ilk. Where those films could benefit from logistical thinking, they instead cover up their action with busy CGI and fast edits. If nothing else, journeyman filmmakers should at least be interested in process.

Accidents in the Course of “Destiny”

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In the 40 minutes it took for Destiny to install onto my PS3 hard drive, I got to look at a lot of pretty artwork. It detailed worlds of ships and alien spheres, floating rock formations and vast cities half-abandoned to terraformed nature. When the game finally boots up, players are given a choice of three races to portray–plain humans, mutated humans who resemble elves, and machines curiously divided into two genders–then are sent out, in spaceships lifted from the Star Wars prequels, to fight aliens in the ruins of a great human diaspora.

This being a Bungie joint, the plot is more Joseph Campbell than Octavia Butler. Like their Halo franchise, Bungie slots player avatars into the role of a hibernating super-soldier, revived in humanity’s darkest hour (reduced to a picturesque city one only sees as a skybox from a tower hub, between quests). You are a chosen one (ironically one of many, since this is an online multiplayer game) to save the empire from a “Darkness” fronted by three shades of bloodthirsty alien hordes. They seek to destroy the Traveler, a machine god which spurred the acceleration of human evolution (and holds the key to stopping the evil). There’s even an A.I. sidekick (voiced by a bored-sounding Peter Dinklage) for exposition, comic relief, and key to all the locked doors and deactivated tech–a walking monomyth device.

Lore established and universe primed, players are thrust into total war. Destiny‘s society, like Halo‘s before it, gives pride of place to combat and scavenging: kill aliens, collect bounties and valuable minerals, bring them back and get better gear to help kill more aliens (and collect more bounties and minerals) (there is a currency system, but it’s largely made irrelevant by quests which offer the same rewards as hoarding money). Story missions get all the pomp and circumstance (complete with a rousing soundtrack and Dinklage assuring you everything is important), but each planet’s Patrol segments are littered with barely-disguised fetch quests, meant to get back a piece of tech or gain some tactical insight into the enemy. Grunts are put through punishing firefights to help their superiors make incremental gains.

Curiously, though, there is no evidence of a rigid, militaristic hierarchy on Earth. Soft-spoken beings with important-sounding titles (i.e. “the Speaker) are on hand to say what needs done, but this never gets harsher than a strong suggestion. MMO quest mentality is taken for granted, the developers anticipating players willing to go into battle simply for the promise of better gear. Here is where Destiny finds its place and its fun.

Players drop into their battlefield from orbit. They wander around a bit, marvel at colossal structures, get into firefights. Other players may ride over a hill, then rush in to assist in eliminating enemy forces. This may lead to one party inviting another to join a “Fireteam,” to keep working together on whatever problem is to be killed. Just as often, players will simply tag along until paths diverge. Calms between setpieces allow for reloading, friendly actions mapped to the D-pad (if you don’t have a headset to help build camaraderie). A community of loose affiliates facing annihilation, ready to split up at any time but will back each other up–more utilitarian than heroic.

Unfortunately, this aspect only seems to be an accident of an efficient, online shooter design which borrows liberally from World Of Warcraft and Farmville. After all, Bungie’s emphasis remains on rote dynastic struggles, appeals to vague ideals, nonexistent plot, sturdy soldiers of fortune wiping out those different from them, and dangling hooks for sequels/DLC. Capturing anything resembling human in their space opera, let alone exploring it, never seems close to the front of their thoughts.