Trying too hard

A fast-talking saleswoman (not Fiona) persuaded me to get the Sky movie channels, which means we’ve been able to catch up on a bunch of things we couldn’t be bothered seeing at the cinema. The generally unsatisfactory nature of the product discovered would allow me to congratulate me on my good judgement in giving it the go-by, except now I’ve gone and seen it, haven’t I?

What’s the name of the latest Ridley Scott sequel? — I want to say ALIEN VS PROMETHEUS — I will admit it doesn’t have P’s awful dialogue or nonsensical/stupid behaviour by characters. It just about makes sense as narrative. Except why open with a long, tedious discussion about the origins and purpose of human life — the central concern of the previous film, you may recall — if you’re never going to bring it up again? The ending is memorably horrible, I have to give them that, but the big silly fighting on a spaceship action climax doesn’t belong in this genre at all. What is this film supposed to be?

A friend asks: “Are the bodybuilders back?” I get a sudden false-memory flash: an arena full of the musclebound hearties, all furiously pumping iron. Why not?

But MAYBE I regret not seeing this on the big screen because Scott’s use of 3D, already assured, improved radically in THE MARTIAN (a terrific film, imho) and I can’t help wondering what it was like third time around.

ATOMIC BLONDE is dripping with style, but shall we say, somewhat overdone? As in, the titles identifying time and place (eighties Berlin) are not only in a dayglo spray-can font, but they spray on to the screen via animation, and there’s a spraying SOUND as they do so. Big long take fight scene which is really multiple takes stitched together digitally but impressing nonetheless. Charlize Theron essays sexy English accent and speaks in a whisper throughout. But has no opportunity to hit the emotions as she does in FURY ROAD. Nor does anyone else. The emotional flatline means that nothing feels surprising — we sure don’t care about the mission, and though there ARE plot twists, they carry no weight. The punch-ups are seriously ouchy, but there seems to be one every ten minutes, and they don’t lead to anything that feels like a development or paradigm shift. That’s as near as I can define what makes this slick thing seem so pointless and ugly.

IT has a similar problem. Set-piece after set-piece with almost no forward momentum. One of those films where an interesting director (Cary Fukunaga) quit ahead of shooting. Funny how creative differences always lead to creative sameness. The kids are all really good. Some dread is created, or it was for us, before repetition sets in. Yes, we get it, it’s about fear, but WHAT about fear? A lot of the problems may be in the source novel, but its the filmmakers’ job to solve them — they can’t be accused of being over-faithful to the letter of Stephen King’s doorstop (described by one critic at the time as five tons of crap in a three-ton crate). What insight into fear does the movie want to give us? And what supernatural rules does Pennywise the Clown follow? And what made anybody think having him turn into a giant spider was a good idea?

My personal aesthetic analysis: clowns can be scary, as we know, and if you take them out of the circus you get an added dissonance because they’re all dressed up, sureally inappropriate to their setting. A man looking out of a storm drain is scary, if he acts like he has a perfect right to be there. A similar kind of eerie out-of-placeness is created. He could be the modern equivalent of one of Magritte’s bowler hat guys. BUT — a clown in a storm drain is, again, trying too hard.BABY DRIVER is undoubtedly the best thing we saw. Edgar Wright reminds us that his stylistic paintbox contains more than just fast cutting — really lovely long take credits sequence. “You can see why they hired a choreographer,” exclaimed Fiona. The cast is terrific. Ansel Elgort (literally, Ansel the Gort) should be a star, although THAT NAME. Was there already a Captain McGlue in Actor’s Equity?

Only quibble is the ending, which literally takes five years to happen. One doesn’t like protracted endings. I somehow felt something problematic coming during the climax — a built-in indecision about who is the baddie (there are two candidates with better claims than the guy the settle on for their climactic confrontation), whether this should be a tragedy (I just don’t think the story has any weight if it isn’t) and if so, what is the hero’s tragic mistake (it seems to have happened before the movie starts, which isn’t the best approach)?But there’s such a wealth of film-making brio on display — maybe on a re-watch the ending won’t bother me so much. Why it bothers me now is partly because the rest of the film is so strong, and partly because it’s so symptomatic of the focus-grouped narrative soft-soaping that holds illimitable dominion over modern Hollywood. Like, we will never again have an ending that takes things further, or hits harder, than we expected.

To prove me wrong — what new films SHOULD I be seeing on cable?

7 Responses to “Trying too hard”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I saw Baby Driver and regretted seeing it. It’s like a 90s’ post-Tarantino film made for teenagers. In the current era, it brings out the white entitlement hidden and unquestioned in Tarantino’s work and that of his ilk. It’s set in Atlanta, a city with a majority African-American population and yet you hardly see that in the film. Jamie Foxx plays the Michael Madsen role in Reservoir Dogs which yes, is a real big help in that regard.

    And the ending reminds me of the conversation I had with Toshi Fujiwara about “Fake Happy Endings”. In the Golden Age, every happy ending we saw was fake, mandated by studio, deliberately unconvincing, mocking (especially in Sirk). But he noted that in modern Hollywood, such endings are done straight with little real irony, because the sentiment is now earnest and real, namely the sentiment of wanting to be liked.

    Among recent movies, Paul Schrader’s FIRST REFORMED is easily the best. I don’t want to call it a comeback because I happen to like some of his recent stuff (I even liked The Canyons beaucoup). But it’s one of his best films. And it’s got an ending that is ambiguous in every sense of the word.

  2. John Seal Says:

    Der Hauptmann (The Captain) and As Boas Maneiras (Good Manners) are probably the two best films I’ve seen this summer (or this year, for that matter).

    Don’t know if they’ll make it to cable, though.

  3. I’ll watch out for them on the big screen.

    Wright has an enthusiasm for film technique which I find appealing, but no evidence of political consciousness. A friend was really offended by what he saw as conservatism in Shaun of the Dead, which had entirely elluded me. But he was probably at least somewhat right. It IS the only zombie plague film ever in which the authorities restore order.

  4. I have been a subscriber to Sky Cinema for many years although I often think I would be better off renting movies online or buying the odd Blu-ray. Although there is a daily premiere most of the movies are pretty terrible.

    Out of the current crop of ‘mainstream’ films available I can recommend “Thor Ragnarok” (which reminded me, in part, of a 30s screwball comedy), “Annabelle: Creation”, (which is much better than “The Conjuring 2”) and “American Made” (which is genuinely amusing, despite the liberties it probably takes with history and its light treatment of what is a rather serious subject).

    The foreign language movies that appear every Thursday are often the most interesting movies of the week, I’ve enjoyed lots of them.

  5. I would contend that Alien: Covenant is a film that actively hates its characters. Why else have someone so stupid that they lock someone in a room with an infected person, even before they explode; then break quarantine after another person has been killed; then slam a heavy door on their leg, presumably breaking it; before shooting a gun indiscriminately around the interior of a landing ship until it explodes, burning them alive whilst the alien STILL escapes!

    It is full of gloriously dumb characters even by the standards of Prometheus, and while I hate it as an Alien movie (and even as a sequel to Prometheus, so it fails on both ends!), I kind of love the contempt with which Ridley Scott seems to be approach the antics as a black comedy of how worn out the tropes of the series are (the alien extendable mouth smashing through the back of someones head and through their own mouth like a quick jack in the box moment; the rack of cryogenically sleeping colonists hanging like racks of frozen meat in a meat locker, before literally becoming that, and so on). The closest thing this film gets to other Ridley Scott films is perhaps to his winkingly grand guignol Hannibal film.

    “an arena full of the musclebound hearties, all furiously pumping iron. Why not?”

    Would Tetsuo II: Body Hammer be a good substitute? :D

  6. Yes, the bodybuilders are verging in Tetsuo territory.

    Both Prometheus and Covenant seem to be elaborate machines for punishing the characters horribly for trying to figure out their existence. Like Scott, at however old he is now, sees the greatest existential threat being the desire to ask questions.

  7. I also think it is a bit about the dangers of an imposed classical education on a ‘perfect, blank’ initial creation producing genocidal megalomaniacs with delusions of grandeur, maybe only enabled in their bizarre proclivities by the (dull, generic, with no interior life, just practical dreams about log cabins, or pre-loaded generic religious traits) hero characters who get taken in by their high brow references seeming profound, at least for momentarily long enough to get co-opted into the maniac’s grand plans!

    They’re ersatz characters in some senses, especially David, but really everyone else and the film as a whole.

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