It Follows

it-follows

One curious charge I’ve seen leveled at It Follows, even in some favorable reviews, is a reference to “style over substance.” There’s an implication in this phrase the film lacks thematic depth in favor of superficial camera tricks. Film critics who use it seem to imagine movies (or any artform, really) as this battle between the story being told and a checklist of tics the artist simply indulges in, with story having to win out or else the film is a failure. This is a simplistic and, in the case of a movie like It Follows, dangerous way of looking at films, as the story is precisely in the way David Robert Mitchell arranges his film. Consider the devices he uses, and the mood he elicits: scenes of quiet, suburban Detroit sprawl broken by someone running from something. A stationary shot of a group of teens gathered, parsing out their next move while a background figure moves towards them–is it the It which is following Jaime (Maika Monroe) or some bystander going about their business? The pulsing, industrial score from Disasterpeace when It appears. Water from pools and Lake Erie as an ominous motif. The way boys leer at girls (Jaime especially), curious, infatuation and lust in equal measure. How the camera swivels around in 360 degrees as It draws closer to its prey. Anxiety is the invisible force which drives It Follows.

Primarily, this anxiety is sexual. The most obvious is STDs: after getting intimate during a date, Jaime is drugged and bound by the man she’s with, who proceeds to explain how he’s “passed it on” to her. “It” being a mysterious, shape-shifting entity which walks after the people carrying its curse until it catches and kills them. Once It’s passed on, however, It goes after the most recently cursed person, killing them before returning to their predecessor. Jaime is urged to have sex and buy herself some time. Unrequited suitor Paul is game, but she’s ambivalent about his advances; bad boy across the street Greg may not have as much emotional attachment–seen flirting with Jaime’s sister Kelly or checking out their friend Yara–but his prospects of passing It on seem more likely. Social pressure and sexuality shown as fluid, intense things.

Monroe plays Jaime as quiet, assured yet internal. Pre-curse, she lounges in the pool, content with being. Chats in her tight-knit group are comfortably chummy, most of the talking comes from the others. Once It pursues her, she becomes withdrawn, terrified of this thing which could take the form of anyone. She bars the door to her room. Her peers are skeptical–It is visible only to its prey–going along with her story more to keep her calm than because they believe. It’s only during a close call, what they see as Jaime’s hair yanked by an invisible hand, they grasp the situation. Mitchell toys with how the same phenomena is perceived differently, especially in how It will take different forms depending on who It pursues and who sees It. Reality becomes splintered. Relative.

The social fabric itself takes on this quality. Detroit is shown unstuck in time, teens reading e-readers while riding in 70s muscle cars. Homes don’t appear to have been redecorated since the 60s while modern architecture looms in the skyline. Phones are mainly of the corded variety and televisions still have antennas. Match cuts cycle neighborhoods between decay and pristine, death and rebirth, reality and dream (or rather, nightmare). Adults either ignore problems or shift blame. After Jaime’s dropped in front of her house, half-clothed, by her date, police are called; incredulous, the officer taking her statement asks “So it was consensual?” Greg’s mother watches this from the living room, casting judgment. Yara relates how her parents made her fearful of going south of 8 Mile Road. Jaime’s own mother doesn’t seem concerned with the whereabouts of her daughters, or their well-being; they return the indifference by keeping her in the dark about their situation. Mitchell never allows anything to feel right, because the teens never feel right. Their anxieties are shrugged off. No one wants to talk about It. The kids are left to figure this out on their own.

Pillars of Eternity

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Obsidian’s kickstarted throwback to the Infinity Engine games is a unique, lopsided affair. Rather than drafting an everyman/woman into a save the world plot–though traces of one show up over time–Pillars of Eternity sees an immigrant looking for answers when s/he gains mysterious powers after stumbling across an ominous ritual. They can peer into a person’s soul, or even speak to those of the dead, see lives and memories no longer remembered. A Watcher. Often, the game assaults players with scenery-screwing purple bursts, usually followed by a prompt to “reach out” to a soul, discover its owner’s story(s). The price is steep, though: sleeplessness and nightmares plague the Watcher, memories of past lives bleeding together. Madness approaches. Answers must be found, a cure gained–and if not, revenge–so the Watcher seeks out the man responsible for the ritual, who by all appearances seems unaware and unconcerned with this side effect of his own, shrouded crusade. This embroils the Watcher in the nation of Dyrwood, crossing with various cultures and subcultures, native and foreign agents acting in their own interests.

Thematically, this makes Pillars more a piece with the Fallout series. Members of Obsidian previously worked on the series at Black Isle Studios, and the developer returned to the franchise in the spinoff Fallout: New Vegas. The Courier, New Vegas‘ wild card protagonist, and the Watcher have similarities: both have multiple-choice pasts alluded to in branching dialogue segments, survive should-have-been-fatal encounters, then set out to equalize their situations. Fallout has always been about the struggle of societies to organize, to build and flourish, about who or what gets destroyed in the process of progress. Deserts, half-abandoned villages, and junkyard cities created the feeling of Wild West lawlessness. This sensibility informs Pillars of Eternity‘s pre-Renaissance Europe-inspired fantasy world. Dyrwood is experiencing a cultural upheaval: there’s an influx of foreigners and the rise of a science known as animancy (involving the understanding and harnessing of souls), both promising great advancements. At the same time, a blight threatens the land, rendering Dyrwood children “Hollowborn” (soulless, zombie-like creatures). Tension brews, often erupting in violence against non-natives, animancy researchers, or even practitioners of minority faiths, blamed for the country’s woes. Rendered in the fixed, dispassionate-god language of the isometric perspective, the effect is chilling. The first (small, rural) town players arrive at displays a massive tree, from which hang various men and women deemed undesirable. It’s here the Watcher meets his first two story companions: Aloth, an elf (and fellow immigrant) suffering split personalities, and Edér, a war hero who has become a pariah in his own community.

Though he served Dyrwood, Edér is a member of a religion which fronted the opposing army in the war he fought in. Despite his loyalty to nation, and the long history of peaceful cohabitation of his congregation in Dyrwood before the war, fellow countrymen turn on him and other practitioners. Rubble, corpses, and bitter memories remain. Edér’s story is steamrolled by the march of history, which peddles hegemony in service to politicians shoring up their influence. Personal and cultural voice is silenced.

Other characters and situations reflect this culture war: an ogre used as a scapegoat in an heiress’ abduction; back and forth dialogues between party members over historical events simmer with nationalist pride; individuals manipulate the debate over animancy for profit. In character creation, with both the Watcher and hired adventurers used to bolster ranks, Obsidian rethinks the process to bolster theme. Sliders adjusting body proportions are out, selections of social, racial, ethnic, even religious makeup are in. Each contribute their own attributes and skill bonuses which carry over to dialogue and exploration, emphasizing the role in role-playing. The Watcher isn’t intended as a mere avatar, but an individual, scrambling like everyone else to prove they matter.

Furious 7

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Furious 7 peaks early when black ops nasty Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) attacks swaggering fed Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), as part of a scheme against the Fast/Furious crew. James Wan shoots the fight in inky blacks and cold blues, circling around the two brawlers. Hobbs uses his mass to soak up Shaw’s attacks before delivering body blows and a Rock Bottom. Shaw compensates with ferocity and trickery, kicking up tables and chairs while aiming for Hobbs’ extremities, attempting to cripple his larger opponent. The fight’s memorable but inconclusive, Shaw escaping while Hobbs is injured saving a colleague. From there, Wan has to escalate, adding in the loose car physics and elaborate, multistage setpieces of Fast 5 and 6 when Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and friends (or family, as the film keeps reminding) globe-hop to get back at Shaw for killing one of their own.

There’s a meaner film teased here, with a couple fights occurring in sickly green/yellow-hued rooms with spinning vent fans in the background, reminiscent of the Saw films Wan launched. Shaw, himself looking to square up with the crew after his villainous brother is crippled in the previous film, opens the Fast films up to darker political themes: the cat-and-mouse game ropes in–through garbled plot nonsense–a network of baddies consisting of a warlord (Djimon Honsou, sadly given little to do but scream at thugs), a henchman with a Muay Thai skillset (Tony Jaa), and a Jordanian prince. Hints of a shadow war pop up, fought by Kurt Russell’s chummy/menacing Nick Fury stand-in Mr. Nobody, the specter of Cold War/War on Terror policies now keeping a firm eye on the multicultural, L.A.-set Rat Pack. Furious 7 pulls back from some of its more unsettling implications, though, happy with spectacle (parachuting cars onto mountains to spring a renditioned hacker) and sentiment (a subplot involving Paul Walker’s character, at least partially rewritten as a slightly-incongruous sendoff following the actor’s death, is given much dramatic weight, as is the rekindling romance between Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Michelle Rodriguez’s amnesiac Letty). It’s a finely incoherent popcorn prospect, but the frayed edges and dark corners left unexplored remain the most enticing.

Why Stop Now? – Movies 2015: March

  1. Die Hard (1988) – Dir. John McTiernan
  2. Focus (2015) – Dir. John Requa & Glenn Ficarra
  3. Birdman (2014) – Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
  4. Nightcrawler (2014) – Dir. Dan Gilroy
  5. Kindergarten Cop (1990) – Dir. Ivan Reitman
  6. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001) – Dir. Shûsuke Kaneko
  7. Chappie (2015) – Dir. Neill Blomkamp
  8. Moon of the Wolf (1972) – Dir. Daniel Petrie
  9. Bullitt (1968) – Dir. Peter Yates
  10. Dog Soldiers (2002) – Dir. Neil Marshall
  11. Beyond the Black Rainbow (2007) – Dir. Panos Cosmatos
  12. Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) – Dir. Masaaki Tezuka
  13. Run All Night (2015) – Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra
  14. eXistenZ (1999) – Dir. David Cronenberg
  15. Superman II (1980) – Dir. Richard Lester
  16. Minority Report (2002) – Dir. Steven Spielberg
  17. animal (2014) – Dir. Brett Simmons
  18. Mission: Impossible II (2000) – Dir. John Woo
  19. Deadly Instincts/Breeders (1997) – Dir. Paul Matthews
  20. Bay of Blood (1971) – Dir. Mario Bava
  21. Cat Run (2011) – Dir. John Stockwell
  22. Godzilla (2014) – Dir. Gareth Edwards
  23. Armour of God (1986) – Dir. Jackie Chan
  24. V/H/S: Viral (2014) – Dir. Nacho Vigalando, Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Justin Benson & Aaron Scott Moorhead
  25. In a World… (2013) – Dir. Lake Bell

YTD: 51

Deep Blue Sea

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Part sci-fi horror, part disaster flick, all bullshit, Deep Blue Sea is the only worthy entry in the sub-sub-sub-genre of Jaws-knockoff B-movies. It’s also one of the few of these movies which doesn’t force feed audiences a human villain: Susan McCallister (Saffron Burrows) may toy with forces she shouldn’t, making smart sharks–capable of formulating an on-the-fly escape plan accounting for weather and air traffic–through the offscreen magic wand of genetic tampering, but she’s not malicious, merely driven. Notably, she only endangers herself and others inadvertently, and only when she thinks there’s something to salvage from her Mako shark-protein Alzheimer’s research. The only threats are the Makos and the sinking research station caused by their havoc. They push the research team and corporate executive deciding their fate (Samuel L. Jackson) towards increasingly desperate measures to survive and escape.

While Renny Harlin is able to construct some genuinely tense shark attacks, layered with pitch-black humor (an aside where LL Cool J’s chef has to fight his way out of an oven turned on by a Mako’s thrashing), Deep Blue Sea‘s biggest thrills come from subverting expectations. A heroic speech, delivered by Jackson, is interrupted, the star unceremoniously bisected. Other expected heroes, including a fidgety nerd, get similarly torn apart. The film finds its center with Carter, an ex-con turned shark wrangler played by Tom Jane. Carter is shown pre-disaster as a risk-taker, swimming in open water with the sharks; after things go wrong, he throws himself into danger to buy the others more time. In another film, he’d be presented as the group’s best chance before becoming fish food pre-climax, prompting the nerd’s ascension to protagonist. Here, Carter’s masculinity is underscored by quiet observance of his surroundings and a fierce determination. If he can’t trick a shark, he’ll simply grab its snout (a sensitive area), flip around and hold on for dear life. Like LL, or the sharks, he refuses to wait on genre.

Grand Theft Auto Online: Heists

grand-theft-auto-online Rockstar obviously put a great deal of effort into its much-delayed “Heists” expansion for Grand Theft Auto Online. Aside from goodies (the usual additions to clothes, cars, and weapons; a new “Adversary Mode” which references bits from movies, GTA-style), the Heists are meticulously structured: gather your crew, perform setup missions where you attain key equipment or eliminate potential threats to the heist’s success, then move in on the latest score. Players perform various roles, sending them all over an AO, working separately together for a common goal. It’s a bit too meticulous, though. Unlike the GTAV heist missions, any moving part’s failure dooms the entire operation, even in the setups. A low-level, expendable gunman gets put down by cops or Merryweather Security? Mission failure. Restart. Where other GTA Online missions allow some wiggle room for player screwups–and thus dramatic tension–Heists have to go off exactly right or wrong.

There’s also a failure to account for the GTA player base: lobbies often take half-hours to fill, due to a strict 4-player structure and bored players leaving (sometimes even during the mission, causing failure. Restart. More waiting). Not to mention players deliberately fucking about, waiting outside a car everyone needs to pile into or leaping to their deaths or deliberately blowing a stealth segment. Mission failure. Restart. Reckon they’re giggling to themselves, denying everyone else any opportunity for fun (even if it’s at their own expense). Co-op storytelling is a noble experiment, but a little fluidity would go a long way.

“A cloud appears above your head A beam of light comes shining down on you”

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Anyone thinking Run All Night is another Taken would definitely be wrong. There is a connecting theme between the two, that being Liam Neeson as a father whose past as a violent professional estranges him from his family. Taken is a power fantasy, though: Neeson as father knows best, barreling through waves of enemies (mostly foreigners) with little to no distinctive identity. The emphasis is always on Neeson’s skill once the action begins. By contrast, Run All Night presents Neeson–portraying Jimmy Conlon, a burnt out mob hitman, living on the compassion of his boss and friend Shawn (Ed Harris)–as ragged and tired. He’s estranged from his son Michael (Joel Kinnamon), haunted by his various assassinations, and already on shaky grounds with his associates (due to being a drunk) before he ends up killing Shawn’s only son to defend Michael. This puts Jimmy and Michael in the crosshairs of Shawn, crooked cops, another hitman, and an honest detective trying to bring them all down. Throughout the film, director Jaume Collet-Serra uses every opportunity to hurt Jimmy: bruises and cuts mark up his heavily-lined face (on display courtesy Martin Ruhe’s photography); a bad fall causes him to limp for the rest of the film; bullet wounds late in the third act are met with searing winces and struggled movement; every chance to plead for his son’s life falls on ears too grief-stricken and power-mad to listen. Every fight is hard won, victory even eliciting surprise. Neeson is capable, but always fighting from a position of weakness.

Collet-Serra toyed with his star as underdog before, in Unknown and Non-Stop. He even deploys a similar, techno-thriller language here. Camera movements are in gridlike zooms and pans, following along New York streets and rail lines. Plot points are communicated and setpieces transition on screens of data–CCTVs, smartphones, network television. The hitman sent to whack the father/son duo uses a hands-free phone (intercepting police chatter) and a night-vision eyepiece to track them (a shootout in a darkened stairwell, lit by gunfire and tech, could easily have come from The Terminator). Grids even permeate dialogue in one recurring exchange between Jimmy and Shawn: “We’ll cross that line together.”  For an old-school mobster like Jimmy, technology is another disadvantage, something everyone else has over him. Ironically, it plays the greatest part in the younger Conlon’s salvation. Jimmy is merely a facilitator, keeping Michael alive long enough for justice to prevail–the real dramatic weight in the mending of a broken relationship, tied directly to the father confessing/letting go of his sins. Even saving the day, Neeson finds his particular set of skills are no longer enough.

The Expected “Virtue” of Awards Season Approved Idiocy

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Birdman is essentially two movies. The more interesting of them is watching a Broadway production come together from the perspective of a man whose life and sanity are falling apart. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a former movie star–beloved for, and shackled to in the public consciousness, a superhero franchise–trying to energize his career by writing/directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan’s troubles are well underway when the film begins: a daughter just out of rehab (Emma Stone) who is distant when not trading barbs with the old man, a notoriously difficult method actor (Edward Norton) undercuts him at every turn, and the superhero Riggan portrayed so long ago is following him around, talking to him in a voice only he hears. Also, the actor may or may not have telekinesis.

How much of this is in Riggan’s mind is left up to interpretation. Alejandro González Iñárritu deploys Birdman‘s central gimmick–the appearance of having been shot in one take–to suggest reality, while at the same time denying it with special effects tricks (Riggan is introduced levitating in his underwear). The camera tracks the film’s self-destructive personalities on stage, backstage, and outside the theatre, floating in close for intimate heart-to-hearts. Keaton looks acid-fried as he Aaron Sorkin talks his way around problems as they arise. He never seems entirely there, either, often staring at something away from the people he’s talking to–in one instance looking up at a stage light during rehearsal with an actor he finds terrible, just before it crashes down on the man. Iñárritu toys with the idea Riggan’s pursuit is a need to be seen and accepted as an actor. On stage he goes into asides, speaking directly to the theatregoers, spotlight and camera both affixed. He could, in fact, be suffering from dissociation, “watching” events from outside his own body as a way of coping with the world’s indifference.
This brings us to the other side of the Birdman equation. Behind every conversation and interaction is a debate about art and legitimacy. Norton calls Riggan a hack, perpetuating “cultural genocide,” while a critic nurses her own vendetta against Thomson and his play. Iñárritu positions his film as a counter to the loud/stupid Hollywood machine, Riggan needing to shed childish fantasy from his performance in order to win the respect he craves (it’s suggested he use a real gun for the play’s climactic scene rather than an obvious prop). Ironically, these portions of the film are the most dishonest, showing the director’s hand as he sculpts a message about artistic expression trumping all. The critic, a one-dimensional snob who wishes to tank Riggan’s play with a scathing review (before she’s even seen it), plays exactly like the kind of easily-hurtled villainy preferred by the very Hollywood machine being criticized (compare her to a similarly obsessed food critic in Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille, complete with a switch to a fawning review upon seeing how “genuine” the protagonist’s expression is).
Iñárritu seriously posits the critic’s word could very well end the play at one showing, snuffing Riggan’s career once and for all, despite previews selling out. This scenario draws upon an idea of criticism which hasn’t been true for decades, if it ever was at all. If previews and opening night already sell out, how would a single bad review hope to tank an already anticipated event featuring big name actors (it certainly doesn’t in real life)? This model of thinking extends further: when confronted, Riggan tears into the woman, saying she “risks nothing,” only “writes on paper,” a dangerous misstatement (to say nothing of misunderstanding criticism as a vocation) to make in the age of superhero fanboys’ harassing and threatening critics over Rotten Tomatoes scores. By this point, we’ve trade one idiotic narrative for another, more awards-approved version. Birdman‘s stumble in these larger, cultural issues overtakes the more human view of damaged celebrities, because Iñárritu links them inextricably. For all those ruffled feathers, he defers to the machine with a chuckle.

Why Stop Now? – Movies 2015: February

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  1. Tron: Legacy (2010) – Dir. Joseph Kosinski
  2. The Congress (2013) – Dir. Ari Folman
  3. 88 (2015) – Dir. April Mullen
  4. Aberration (1997) – Dir. Tim Boxell
  5. Robocop (2014) – Dir. Jose Padilha
  6. The Last Exorcism (2010) – Dir. Daniel Stamm
  7. Inland Empire (2006) – Dir. David Lynch
  8. War of the Worlds (1953) – Dir. Byron Haskin
  9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Dir. Philip Kaufman
  10. Power/Rangers (2015) – Dir. Joseph Kahn
  11. Housebound (2014) – Dir. Gerard Johnstone
  12. Das Boot: Director’s Cut (1981) – Dir. Wolfgang Petersen

Year to Date: 26

Power/Rangers

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Joseph Kahn’s short experiment with franchising (as with his features) functions like guerrilla warfare. Power/Rangers dropped unexpectedly, and left those in its vicinity–primarily adults, curious about this latest take on something from their childhood–shocked and perplexed. Many seem to take it at face value, its grimdark tone and the often stilted attempts at “mature” dialogue (the F-bombs, James Van Der Beek’s insinuations Katee Sackhoff’s Pink Ranger is promiscuous, how an ethical question is posed about the Power Rangers as a concept but left to hang) all tonally consistent with similar, real-deal efforts like Christopher Nolan’s Batman or Michael Bay’s Transformers. Yet, little scripting/directorial choices tiptoe around the idea this is an Andy Kaufman-esque gag: the Black Ranger snorting coke and having threesomes; comic relief dimwits Bulk and Skull being junkies living in a trailer park; Green Ranger’s scowl and growl as he says “Who are you?”; the exaggerated blood spurts. Everything based on a juvenile sense of maturity. The impression I get is Kahn enjoying seeing how far he can go with a concept, while everyone else scratches their heads. Why else do a fan movie?

Meta-textual examinations aside, Power/Rangers is fun. Fights are blocked low and wide, absorbing the Rangers in their moment. The only times Kahn cuts away from the big picture is to emphasize gruesome kills (the Black Ranger seems especially fond of turning opponents’ weapons back on them, as when he stabs a gangster in the head with his own dagger). The rest of the film toys around with drifting camera motion and match cuts, surfaces touched by intrusive lighting and holographic displays, and a score composed of Sega Genesis beats. It begs the question of what we want and get out of adapting our nostalgia, then pushes those things to absurdity and revels.