What Social Life? – Movies 2014: August

The beat goes on:

  • Croc (2007) – Dir. Stewart Raffill
  • Thale (2012) – Dir. Aleksander Nordaas
  • Snowpiercer (2014) – Dir. Bong Joon Ho
  • Godzilla Raids Again (1955) – Dir. Motoyoshi Oda
  • Lucy (2014) – Dir. Luc Besson
  • The Hunt for Red October (1990) – Dir. John McTiernan
  • Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) – Dir. John Carpenter
  • Shock (1946) – Dir. Alfred L. Werker
  • The Raid (2012) – Dir. Gareth Evans
  • The Raid 2 (2014) – Dir. Gareth Evans
  • Escape From L.A. (1996) – Dir. John Carpenter: Killer ending, rest of the movie’s pretty bad, though.
  • Fantomas II: Juve vs. Fantomas (1913) – Dir. Louis Feuillade
  • Batman Begins (2005) – Dir. Christopher Nolan
  • Mars Attacks (1996) – Dir. Tim Burton
  • The Conversation (1974) – Dir. Francis Ford Coppola: Favorite for the month.
  • Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013) – Dir. Lars Von Trier: Ugh, this movie.
  • Lisa & the Devil (1974) – Dir. Mario Bava
  • Dracula 3000 (2004) – Dir. Darrell Roodt
  • The Dark Knight (2008) – Dir. Christopher Nolan
  • Jug Face (2013) – Dir. Chad Crawford Kinkle
  • You’re Next (2013) – Dir. Adam Wingard
  • World’s Greatest Dad (2009) – Dir. Bob Goldthwait
  • The People Under the Stairs (1991) – Dir. Wes Craven
  • Men In Black (1996) – Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld
  • Bellflower (2011) – Dir. Evan Glodell
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Dir. Christopher Nolan

Total: 26 (YTD: 130)

No unifying theme this month. Re-watching The Dark Knight trilogy was primarily intellectual exercise. Since Rises, I’ve come away from other people discussing those movies feeling like certain criticisms (“too dark,” “humorless,” and especially the parts about that interrogation scene being “pro-torture” or whatever) just rang false. Wanted to see if my original takeaways held up in hindsight (yes and no).

Movies from this year: caught Snowpiercer close to its final week (if not the actual final week), at the Alamo Drafthouse in Kalamazoo. If I were to get down to it, the venue was better than the film itself (and it should’ve been at the prices they charged), but I appreciated how much Bong Joon Ho drew upon Terry Gilliam in making it. The kids singing about freezing to death, Chris Evans slipping on a fish, the way nothing about the train adheres to any spatial logic, just these patently absurd visual moments. There’s a sense that, even to its super-serious lead, hardly anything about this situation registers as real. This also proves its undoing, since the ending is just total arm-flailing nonsense.

Kind of like Lucy, the other theatrical release I caught in August. Besson fucking about with stupid premises has been a pretty big money-making enterprise for him, and here he uses psuedoscience (the “humans only use 10% of their brain” fallacy) to remake the bits from Akira where Tetsuo murders people and horribly mutates. Lucy even threatens cosmic implications as Scarlett Johansson sands off her attempts to pass for a party girl in favor of a Terminator-esque scan-and-act mode, which in turn gives way to a cold, alien goddess handing down edicts for mankind to follow. The rest of it, though? The Asian drug cartel has moments–the leader washing blood off his hands with bottled water–but is only a plot mechanic (and a racist one at that), as is Morgan Freeman explaining things, and the French cop? No real need for him at all. And, while everything which Johansson does is loony, her performance is too restrained to really carry the film. She needs other personalities to bounce off her, and Besson doesn’t commit to that, so the film just peters out.

A lot like this post.

The Dark Knight

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Quietly, assuredly, Christian Bale gives a fascinating portrait to Bruce Wayne’s moral and spiritual crisis in The Dark Knight. Last time around, fatherly confidante Alfred (Michael Caine) warned Bruce he was “getting lost in this monster”; Bale seems to have run with this line. A year on, Bruce has subsumed every facet of his life into the War on Crime/Corruption: through his company and CEO/gadgeteer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), he fakes merger talks with an exec who launders mob money, in order to get a look at their finances; he arranges a fundraiser for district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), apparent savior to Gotham, through his high society connections; of course, as Batman, he pummels mobsters and helps the police get around pesky jurisdiction laws. This obsessive-compulsive, dominant behavior plays out in the (mostly) improved fight scenes: fists guarding his head, Bruce directs attackers to his ribs, catching them with elbow counterattacks before using them as human battering rams. Gadgets are always placed in advance of actual need. Bruce, then, is an extension of Bale the actor, compartmentalized in body language and vocalization at all times (going into a Terminator mode when a thug gets in his way en route to a costume change). He’s a performance put on to distract everyone. Bruce will let the mask slip in the presence of his tiny social circle–a chuckle when Alfred gives a well-timed “told you so”, or expressing fears to friend/would-be lover Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). The rest of the time, though? He’s in control.

That is, until a psychotic clown shows up and starts blowing everything up.

Throughout the film, Christopher Nolan defines Bruce by his relationships to the men around him: he looks up to Alfred and Fox, trusts Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), appointed as head of Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, and wishes to be Dent (not least of which because he is the preferred rival for Rachel’s affections). Then there’s the Joker (Heath Ledger): a conniving, nasal-voiced madman who frustrates any attempt to pin ideology onto him, shifting the goal posts (and his origins) depending on who he is having a conversation with–chaos the sole motif. He has no civilian identity, either, nothing human to tether him. The Joker is what awaits Bruce if he loses to the monster.

Tellingly, the Joker is the only person, other than Alfred and Rachel, Batman loses his cool with. In a fluorescent-lit interrogation room, Joker tells him both Harvey and Rachel have been abducted and will be murdered. Rage boils over. The Bat smacks the clown’s head against glass, then starts punching him harder, harder. Hans Zimmer’s electric, buzzing score raises in pitch. Batman’s “one rule”–the oath against killing–might be broken. Earlier, when Gordon is shot, Batman breaks a mobster’s legs before realizing he’s going too far; the only thing stopping him in that interrogation room is a time limit. The result is tragic: Rachel dies; Harvey becomes scarred, vengeful Two-Face.

Outside those moments, Bruce tries to understand, if not empathize, insisting on figuring out Joker’s motives. Given another chance to break the rule, he saves the villain from death, saying he should be “in a padded cell,” preferring laws which grant leniency to the mentally ill over vengeance. This follows on from two previous strands: the affinity Bruce has for the poor and downtrodden in Batman Begins, and the way he steps in to save one of Joker’s henchman (a paranoid schizophrenic) from enhanced interrogation. Mistakes made and lessons learned, he sets about mending the damage–preventing SWAT from killing hostages and buying time for Gotham citizens to choose empathy over the Joker’s dog-eat-dog worldview.

Unfortunately, by this point, Bruce’s compounded anger and fear–of losing himself, his love, his humanity–lead him to cross a number of lines. Aside from the vigilantism and torture, he’s engaged in kidnapping and spied on Gotham citizens. By the time he’s foiled Joker and caught wind of Two-Face’s murder spree, there’s no turning back. Violence and terror have reached a fever pitch. Only one option for de-escalation: let the monster win, then cast him out.

No, I’m Not Tired, I’m Resigned to My Fate

Comics news of late? No, definitely not getting into that. It’s horrible. And it’s just going to be the same drumbeat.

fatale-24

Fatale #24
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Writing by Ed Brubaker
Published by Image

Fatale has been, if nothing else, smart. The three distinct arcs for the series–and the one-off fillers which took up a bit too much of the series’ middle run–have all been about male gaze. Josephine, the supernatural femme fatale, has powers boil down to seduction, yes, but this largely plays on an aspect of masculinity which is already there: desire to control and possess. Josephine goes skinny dipping before the issue’s climax, and an older acquaintance reminds her “I’m still a man.” The next page shows sharks, circling Josephine as she floats on the ocean surface. Sean Phillips casts this image similarly to the night swimming Josephine does in the L.A. arc, itself a play on romance comic imagery, pulling back to reveal the predatory nature of watching Josephine’s private moments. Themes of sexism are tied to historical corruption throughout the series: crooked cops and mobsters in the 40s, Hollywood exploitation in the 70s, or even further back to Inquisitions and Crusades, where men in power abuse and destroy those they’ve kept beneath them–particularly women. The tenth issue ended on Josephine asserting her own sexuality, only for this bodily ownership to be turned back on her later by serial rapists and musicians (among others) projecting their demons onto her. Since this is working solely from tropes, though, Phillips and Ed Brubaker do not conceive any end to this horror, only an escape. To no longer be noticed by men. Cynical, self-defeating, but perhaps enough for a single life.

caliban-5

Caliban #5
Art by Facundo Percio
and Hernan Cabrera
Writing by Garth Ennis
Published by Avatar

A plotline which revolves around decoding the remnants of an alien history. Men altered into homicidal beasts by chemicals and parasites. Vast collections of incomprehensible objects and animals. Human bodies reduced to fragile playthings for cold, pitiless monsters. Everything in Caliban moves from the freakshow setup of Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus, but brushes off the idiot box twists and returns to something desperate, panicked. The rapidly dwindling cast of survivors cook up plans for dealing with a possessed/mutated crew member–this time a spacewalk to get the engines running for the alien ship they’re stranded on–only to find they cannot outmatch their enemy. Garth Ennis, as always, moves the script at a rapid clip, powering through exposition with sidebar translations met with gruff annoyance at attempts to explain the obvious. Facundo Percio is fine with the crew, faces all expressive with grimaces and forlorn head-hanging (the ship captain, despairing the death of a lover two issues prior); he stumbles, though, in the actual carnage. Aliens are shown with basic, impersonal designs, while violence is depicted in flat, static handholds, forcing Ennis to sell the moment with pained screams. Even mangled, still living persons do not appear to suffer. It actually works better to cut these bits out, altogether, showing the arrival of a horrible thing, then the reaction of survivors to what it does (crew member Malik cradling sobbing technician Nomi as everything gets worse). Perhaps a streamlined edition is in order, focused solely around humans struggling to process the inhuman?

Batman Begins

Confidently, I remembered most of Batman Begins beat for beat. The one aspect I did forget, though, subsumed by the momentum of Christopher Nolan’s latter Bat-films, was how tentative it was. Large patches of dialogue are clunky, sounding like meddlesome studio notes–beyond the Wayne Tower employee explaining the significance of Ra’s al Ghul’s stolen microwave emitter repeatedly during the final showdown, there’s also Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne asking for clarification of obvious points throughout the opening act (Liam Neeson says he can become “invisible,” and he responds “Invisible?”). The choppy editing of fight scenes doesn’t help, either. Initial goings suggest Nolan is aiming to put audiences in a position of weakness: fights play out first from Bruce’s POV, when he’s outmatched during his training; when he becomes Batman, we then see criminals and cops reacting to, and attempting to process, this predatory, almost supernatural figure, glimpsed fleetingly and leaving broken bodies (the sequence where Batman surgically strikes Scarecrow’s gang in Arkham Asylum, then escapes Gotham PD, is the film’s best). The climactic showdown, where Bruce confronts the genocidal would-be father figure aboard the hijacked remains of his real father’s public transit system, is where Nolan’s choices betray him. Unwilling to show even a complete attack chain, the fight is simply a mess which ends on a false punishment note.

So what makes Batman Begins successful, despite such huge, fundamental mistakes for an action film? Breaking down Bruce Wayne. Nolan and co-writer David Goyer introduce the man at his lowest point: grubby, imprisoned, fighting random thugs, and most of all angry. Flashbacks reveal not only his parents’ murder and the resulting fragile emotional state, but a narrowness of vision. When the mugger is scheduled for early release, in exchange for testimony against a crime boss, he fumes at this, even when the killer expresses genuine regret. This almost leads him to assassinate the man, before getting a rude awakening to how crime and class intersect. A childhood friend (Katie Holmes) who lacked the insulation of billion dollar inheritance shows him the crime bosses and ruling class pals who profit off a system which creates more abject poverty, the kind which leads to similar tragedies he endured. Shocked and in need of new purpose, he wanders the globe, training with al Ghul’s ninja clan in the ways of vigilantism. Their solution, however, rests on wiping out the poor and the downtrodden. Disgusted, Bruce blows up their HQ.

While Christian Bale retains the physique of Patrick Bateman, the vainglorious, murderous WASP he portrayed in American Psycho, Nolan codes Bruce in working class terms. He spies on targets while wearing ratty coats and baseball caps, assembles his arsenal and constructs the Batcave in jeans and T-shirts, and bicker banters with Cockney-accented Alfred (Michael Caine) on everything from mask construction to daytime hobbies. When Bruce does dress upper, Bale goes into a smirking, preening vaudeville mode, a chandelier-lit mockery of privilege. Notably, his public return to Gotham (and Wayne Enterprises) involves helping a secretary practice golf, disrupting a CEO’s get-even-richer dealings. As Batman, he doesn’t randomly attack petty crooks, but specifically targets authorities (mobster Carmine Falcone; crooked judges and cops who have to swear to him; the abusive, greedy doctor who becomes Scarecrow). He networks with a blue-collar Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Nolan’s Bruce Wayne follows an edict: wipe out corruption in the halls of power, level the playing field, allow opportunity to spread. Crime will dwindle as a result. Bale, Nolan, and Goyer redistribute a fascistic, 1% icon into a figure of bleeding heart populism, then drop him into a class war conspiracy in a rain-drenched, Blade Runner inspired ghetto. This core, considered ideal powers through Nolan’s awkward transition to blockbuster filmmaking.

The Raid 2

The Raid 2 uses its budget upgrade to expand on the human fragility which underscored its predecessor. Claustrophobic hallways are traded for spacious scenery and lavish interiors, often shot in bird’s eye view, actors taking up only a tiny portion of the screen. Fights become bigger, juggling multiple combatants across multiple locations (including a car chase with three distinct layers). Even the threat is much more overwhelming: this time out, rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) goes undercover into the Jakarta mob, entrenched with local police and at an uneasy truce with their Japanese counterparts. A Big Business/Big Government venture with its own internal, arcane logic around which it revolves. It’s a system too big for one man to dismantle. There’s even a suggestion all that’s really happening is a managerial shakeup.

In that sense, The Raid 2 plays out as much a companion to Johnnie To’s Drug War as a followup act to The Raid–straightlaced agent of the law (and piety, Rama holding fast to his Islamic faith when offered booze) up against a criminal enterprise consisting of large personalities. Director Gareth Evans makes Rama an incidental player in the gangster drama, protecting (possibly enabling) a duplicitous heir until ambition turns to bloodshed. Otherwise, his role becomes dispatching foot soldiers and three elite assassins (each with themed weapons). Despite the often massive scale of fight scenes (i.e. the prison riot), not only is everything clearly defined, Evans even makes them intimate, personal. Beyond the requisite bloodletting and bone-breaking, character beats are woven into action (“Baseball Bat Man” signing to his sister “Hammer Girl” before a fight; Rama slowing his roll against the main Assassin for their second bout, to better study an enemy which got the KO last time). The larger machinations are left to their own devices, probably to be reset; Rama’s real concern lies with his familial obligations (a wife and baby son at home, a brother to be avenged). It’s through this tension between indifferent forces and personal desire a portrait emerges: uncomplicated as he is, there’s a ferocity in Rama’s Silat martial arts style with elbows, knees, repurposed weapons turned back on his enemies, anything which will do more damage to others than they can do to him. The Raid 2, then, plays like Gareth Evans’ thesis on corruption and bureaucracy: one shouldn’t hope to annihilate it, only to outlive it.

Still Making the Wrong Choices, I Sit Down and Write About Comic Books Again

San Diego Comic Con happened recently. I remember reading the reports out of it, but none of it stuck. I’m sure some nice comics, movies, or something or other will be coming towards people.

Velvet #6
Art by Steve Epting and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Writing by Ed Brubaker
Published by Image

velvet-6

I’m not sure if Velvet is considered the B-title for Ed Brubaker’s Image run, but that would be an accurate assessment. Where his horror noir Fatale continually pushed and prodded against the structure it laid down from the first issue, Velvet has settled into an ordinary rhythm, like Saga or any number of other Image ongoing series. The directional flip of panels from the first issue–where action followed a right-to-left progression which opposed the left-to-right reading format it operated in, creating tension–has been filed off while the comic goes with the usual paranoid thriller trappings (this issue, Velvet Templeton goes to black ops allies hidden in the porn shops and sex parties of London’s Soho district). This becomes largely a showcase for Elizabeth Breitweiser’s coloring, her favorite red/blue combination oozing into the rainy nightlife as Velvet walks amongst a crowd of punks and perverts. She carries Steve Epting, who’s traded in compositional tension for a more rote stylization (circular inset panels detailing Velvet’s list of suspected double agents). It also means she’s carrying the series, since Brubaker’s scripting is leaning solely on genre savviness.

Teen Titans #1
Art by Kenneth Rocafort and Dan Brown
Writing by Will Pfeifer
Published by DC

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While this is yet another reboot, Teen Titans #1 dispenses with proper introductions. Instead, Will Pfeifer and Kenneth Rocafort deliver a single action scene to show off the abilities of the Teens–Red Robin, Wonder Girl, Beast Boy, Raven, and Bunker–as they battle techno-terrorists who have hijacked a bus full of kids on their way to a military-industrial complex lab. This should be a great way to start a series. Rocafort even has a couple nifty sequences (such as a collage piece detailing a terrorist shoving a child to the back of the bus, then out the door), but there’s little here that’s surprising or captivating. The lead terrorist is a faceless anarchist, a collection of stock ideals masking a who-gives-a-shit mystery. There’s no establishing shots to show how close the bus is to its hijacker’s intended destination, so tension is zilch, even while Rocafort’s wide panels and herky-jerky layouts continually stress forward movement. For a spotlight issue, it’s also surprisingly disinterested in process, the Titans doing little more than showing up and throwing bad guys off the bus (Pfeifer’s underrated Aquaman run found creative uses for the underwater superhero’s powers). Red Robin coordinates the rescue from a laptop, then swoops in to save a hostage, and another Titan is sent ahead for the finale, yet there’s no sense of purpose, thought, or even the spontaneity associated with teenagers. Instead we get drab heroics and villainy. Something which just exists.

Also: Wonder Girl’s tube top outfit is ridiculous.

Ragnarok #1
Art Walter Simonson and Laura Martin
Writing by Simonson
Published by IDW

ragnarok-1

Open the comic, watch Vikings get slaughtered by trolls and a wolf the size of an office block. Turn the page and see a lone god, Thor, standing above this fray on a hilltop being obliterated by lightning, as he stares down a serpent which spans two pages. The next spread, the panels get narrower, the lightning grows dimmer, until finally there is a long strip of black. Welcome to the end.

Simonson’s return to Norse mythology goes to the place his acclaimed run on Marvel’s Thor comics never could. Humanity’s gone and the gods are dead, leaving behind a barren, blue landscape dotted with the occasional ruin, the world a flicker of a shadow of its former glory. The remaining populace consists of elves and monsters, cutthroats scrabbling for immortality and pleasure at the end of history. The Road Warrior by way of a Fumito Ueda videogame. We’re introduced to elf assassin Brynja, tasked by a metallic demon with killing a god again before he can be reborn–in exchange for her daughter’s eternal life. Simonson’s linework is loose, often sketchy, Brynja’s traveling party becoming part of scenery which is fading into mist. What “countless” casualty Avengers comics could ever hope to top this?

Veronica Mars

Showrunners really shouldn’t be allowed to direct the movies spun out of their TV shows. Enjoyable as it was, Joss Whedon’s Serenity was a lens flare eyesore, while Rob Thomas’ Kickstarted revival of Veronica Mars never works up the courage to be a real film. Constructed around a “where are they now” premise–there’s even a 10-year high school reunion the eponymous (former) high school PI wants to avoid–the film saunters. Occasionally, it scratches at the loftier ideas the show hit on, but only as a reminder to fans already inclined to watch the thing.

Thankfully, Kristen Bell’s semi-successful stint in rom-coms hasn’t diluted the raspy bite to her voice. As Veronica, she narrates with an often-dry, ironic commentary; actual dialogue consists of terse exchanges with her father, former classmates and friends, even would-be employers. Like other heroines of the Whedon milieu, she’s self-aware, too, a fact which, coupled with hindsight, works to Thomas’ advantage: drawn back to her  stratified California hometown to clear her ex, Logan, of murder, Veronica’s predicament is likened to an alcoholic in a bar. Like many addicts, Veronica knows from experience what embroiling herself in Neptune, CA’s class-conflict will result in, but compulsion gets the best of her. Soon, she’s making excuses and pleading for leniency, then ignoring calls from the law firm which offered her a job and brushing off a comfortably nice boyfriend before, finally, she rationalizes her decision to return to the life she swore off. Her ending monologue comes across comfortably resigned to this cycle of relapse, self-destruction, recovery.

If Thomas had stuck solely to murder mystery-cum-psychodrama, Veronica Mars the movie would’ve been fine, yet we live in the age of the franchise, the reboot, and the tacked on world-building. It’s not enough there’s already 3 seasons of foundation, audiences have to be prepped for more to come. Subplots are setup solely for sequel grist: a crooked Sheriff’s Department performing stop & frisks help frame a former biker friend of Veronica’s, which relates to a case her father is working on with “a man inside.” Half hour from the endpoint, these confluent events tease an obliterated status quo, leaving a minor character dead and a major one hospitalized. Resolutions are off the table, though, to be continued in a possible sequel or series reboot. Filler to prepare for an underwhelming slasher climax where Veronica gets to turn the tables on a killer (botched if only because it starts with her cornered then escaping and ambushing the culprit, diffusing any attempt at tension). This is where Thomas could’ve used an actual director: someone to chop off the loose bits, or those which would only please fans, and reconfigure the script until it was tight. Someone who would’ve extended that gritty, 80s Joel Silver sheen from neon-saturated nights into the sunny days the film largely operates in. Someone who would rather have one excellent sendoff to a cult hit than a meager mass of carrots saying, “Maybe there’s more to come.”

What Social Life? – Movies 2014: July

aliens-hicks-vent

And this is continuing:

  • Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – Dir. Michael Bay: Starting my month off properly.
  • From Russia With Love (1963) – Dir. Terence Young
  • Night of the Creeps (1986) – Dir. Fred Dekker
  • Goon (2012) – Dir. Michael Dowse
  • Slap Shot (1977) – Dir. George Roy Hill
  • The Prisoner:”Free for All”; “Dance of the Dead” (1967) – Dir. Patrick McGoohan; Dan Chaffey
  • The Moth Diaries (2011) – Dir. Mary Harron
  • Twin Peaks, Season 2 Eps. 2-3 (1990) – Dir. David Lynch; Lesli Linka Glatter
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – Dir. John Huston
  • Waltz With Bashir (2008) – Dir. Ari Folman
  • Prince Valiant (1954) – Dir. Henry Hathaway
  • The Jungle (2014) – Dir. Andrew Traucki: Another garbage found footage movie.
  • Blood Widow (2013) – Dir. Jeremiah Buckhalt
  • Tammy (2014) – Dir. Ben Falcone
  • Grown Ups 2 (2013) – Dir. Dennis Dugan
  • Alien (1978) – Dir. Ridley Scott
  • Aliens (1986) – Dir. James Cameron
  • Predator (1987) (again) – Dir. John McTiernan
  • Sleepaway Camp (1983) – Dir. Robert Hiltzik
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – Dir. Matt Reeves
  • Veronica Mars (2014) – Dir. Rob Thomas
  • Homefront (2013) – Dir. Gary Fleder

Total: 22 (YTD: 104)

One of the things I paid more attention to in July was lighting. Good lighting can make a film tactile. Lot of films don’t utilize this to its full capability: Tammy and Grown Ups 2 (most comedies, really) are adequate, I guess, but everything looks flat and monotone, like the lights used for the backgrounds don’t match the lights used for the actors; Veronica Mars: The Movie gets this right in night scenes, which have that urban, neon sheen which was a hallmark of Joel Silver’s 80s flicks, adding a level of danger even to talking scenes (i.e. Kristen Bell’s face being lit by streetlamps when she and Jason Dohring are driving across a bridge), but most the film is shot in the oddly blue-tinted daytime which marks a lot of TV dramas. Then there’s movies like Homefront or Blood Widow where it’s the best (technical) part of a crappy film (and Homefront overdoes it, sometimes saturating the screen with lens flare so you can’t see what a character is doing).

As with a lot of production elements, Aliens is king here. That shot of Hicks at the top, lit by dual sources (the emergency light and the lamp) is not only aesthetically pleasing, but the 360-degree coverage of actor and setting lends the scene an urgent realism which pulls the viewer in (“immersion,” as the PR people like to say)(and it’s not just this scene, either, it’s the whole movie, especially notable in the green-screened moment of Ripley and Newt on the platform as the reactor is ready to blow, lightning and fireballs light up both background and foreground. In great films, everything’s considered).

Even better: the red light used in this scene–where the xenomorphs get past the barricades–signifies imminent danger. Panic sets in amongst the cast as the motion tracker shows the aliens getting closer, closer, closer, before finally everyone looks at the ceiling panels in a horrific moment of realization. The lamp enters the frame as Michael Biehn climbs up to find out for sure. For a few, brief seconds, the blue dominates the frame, tension mounting as he (and we) face the unknowable, the inevitable. Biehn turns his head, and the red overtakes the scene again. Cue the aliens, climbing forward from shadows. Then the shooting starts.

Oscar Bait of the Apes

Rupert Wyatt’s sequel/prequel/reboot/remake Rise of the Planet of the Apes soared by focusing on a strong core idea. Caesar–as depicted by Wyatt, actor Any Serkis, and their team of CG animators–grew from frightened and frustrated youth to simian fascist Moses. Divided between two lineages, and ultimately disgusted with both, he forged a third way (in the process tearing up San Francisco). Unfortunately, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes goes out of its way to make this path drab, confused and sluggish. Matt Reeves directs the film as Oscar bait, camera pinned to every grayscale image and scored either to a somber 3-note piano tune or a 1-note drum beat. Serkis is still game, of course, towering upright over subordinates who challenge him, in the process inspiring awe from human survivors (Jason Clarke, Keri Russell) looking to restore a piece of civilization. Yet, the land conflict between humanity’s remnants and the burgeoning apes is instantly subverted, focus yanked away from Caesar and given to scarred, duplicitous underling Koba as he prepares to wage war. Dawn‘s people are shown being fearful, but ultimately really swell and nice if it weren’t for those damn dirty apes following the wrong leader–quite a reverse from Rise‘s use of a franchise mega-arc to pass karmic judgment on mankind’s cruelty. Reeves lingers on this mealy-mouthed interpretation as if he were making some profound statement, rather than sucking life from the image of a machine-gun wielding chimp riding a horse into battle.

Papers, Please

Lucas Pope’s bureaucracy simulator is also a lean character piece. Players learn little about the border inspector they play as, or the fictional dictatorship he serves, but what’s there implies much. Arstotzka is vaguely communist–there’s a labor lottery, a red eagle symbol, and distinctly Eastern Euro imagery–but more importantly it’s xenophobic. The regime rapidly overhauls and expands its immigration and border control policies in the face of crises both real and imagined, piling on the number of documents and rules the Inspector must keep track of every day within a strict time limit. People reduced to numbers being shifted, victims of political dick-wagging (if not outright malice).

In this regard, the Inspector’s no different: his primary goal is his family’s survival, their everyday expenses managed in the results sections between the soul-crushing tedium. Occasionally he’s confronted with a sob story pitting decency against duty, such as when a husband and wife try to immigrate–he has the correct permits, she doesn’t. Admitting her can result in citation for breaking protocol and perhaps docked pay–difficult enough to avoid without actively courting trouble. Even the rebel group seeking to “free” Arstotzka has to bribe and threaten the Inspector into helping them. Everyone’s operating on an assessment of risk/reward, often exposing hypocrisy and arbitrariness in deciding who “deserves” to be in a country and who doesn’t.