Google+ Followers

Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: Life

Life (2017): Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, directed by Daniel Espinosa.  Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya.  Running Time: 103 minutes. 

Rating: 2.5/4

            Life, a new entry in the monster-horror-in-space genre by Daniel Espinosa, has a title and a trailer that hints at an at least somewhat-poetic exploration of the nature of life itself, how radically different life from another world could be for us, and what inherent dangers there could be in establishing first contact.  This, at first, made it sound like it could succeed as a spiritual sister to last year’s superb Arrival.  Alas, it does not. 

            The film opens with the team stationed in the ISS preparing to receive a probe returning from Mars.  Once received, they begin to examine tiny samples of soil from the planet, searching for incontrovertible signs of life beyond Earth.  They find it rather quickly, a single-celled organism that begins to grow and develop rapidly once they find the right atmospheric gases to “activate” it.  Dubbing it “Calvin,” they watch as it quickly grows from a single cell into a small, amoeba-like creature with arm-like appendages.  At first assuming it to be harmless, things start to go south very, very fast when the creature attacks the lead scientist studying it, escapes from its cage, kills a crew member, and soon has them facing the ultimate survival dilemma; if they escape the station and return to Earth in order to preserve their own lives, they risk the creature jumping on board and potentially risking all life on the planet.  If they stay to keep it contained, their lives are effectively forfeit. 

            It’s about as solid a setup as you can get for this sort of intended pulse-pounder, and to its credit, this is a solidly-made film (for the most part).  There is some excellent cinematography, especially in the beginning, where the camera floats and drifts and even flips upside down alongside the crew in zero gravity.  The score is functional, if a bit by-the-numbers, and the editing and pacing fit the sort of tone the film is going for. 

            Sadly, it all starts to come to pieces by the end.  The script is barebones to a fault, hinting at a larger story about some sort of Committee (and we know none of the background of the probe and samples and why now of all times they anticipated finding life from Mars).  Keeping the audience in the dark about the larger picture is perfectly fine when handled well, but the meat of the main story isn’t enough to carry itself, and the tidbits from the larger story we get almost feel like they could have made a more interesting movie. 

            Much of the shortcomings in the horror aspect of the film come down to the resident monster.  Calvin is certainly an intriguing, octopus-esque design, but there are too many odd occasions where the point of view switches to “Calvin Vision” to show what the monster sees, and at a certain point in its development it gets what is definitely a face of some sort.  Part of the thrill of seeing this sort of threat from an alien life form lies in the mystery of what it is and what it can do; keeping the design ambiguous and unlike anything from Earth, as well as having us be as ignorant as the crew as to Calvin’s whereabouts, would have done much to keep the film afloat. 

            What rescues much of film from itself are the performances- the characterizations of each crew member are as skeletal as the narrative, but they commit enough to their performances to *almost* make up for it.  In the case of the lead scientist, Ariyon Bakare actually manages to create the only real emotional arc in the entire film, which involves the film’s best bit of visual storytelling. 

            Life is by no means a bad film- in many aspects and in many scenes it’s quite good- but there’s ultimately nothing here that hasn’t been done before in other, better movies, so unless you are an obsessive completist for this particular horror sub-genre, I would probably recommend saving your money for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Circus, A Camera, and Ryan Gosling: How Joko and Klaas Punked the Golden Camera

            It has not even been a month since the Flub to End All Flubs at the Oscars last month, when the presenters for Best Picture were given the wrong card, read it in spite of their confusion, and for a moment everyone thought La La Land, the assumed favorite, had indeed won, until it was revealed halfway through the acceptance speeches that, in fact, the winner was the indie-underdog everyone had wanted to win, Moonlight.  It was awkward, painful, terrifying, and spectacularly funny all at once, creating enough genuine TV drama to last an age. 

            Normally (read; in a non-Trump world) this sort of event would carry a glow about it for weeks afterwards.  But, since we are no longer in a world where rules of any sort apply, barely 8 days went by before another major awards show fell victim to their own missteps, leading to another spectacular fail on live TV that also, funnily enough, centered around La La Land.  It hath been deemed…Gosling Gate.   

            Every year it goes by almost entirely unnoticed in the English-speaking world, but for Germans, the Goldene Kamera (Golden Camera) is basically the Oscars meets the Golden Globes.  For German-speaking media it is THE awards event that wraps up each year in film and TV.  As is the nature of these things, it’s usually about as exciting as the Oscars, with about as many surprised up its sleeve.  But this year, with the Oscars seemingly ready to run away with the title of Best Live Error of the year, two German comedians decided to one-up them (and everyone else). 

            Let’s start by going through the moment as it occurred. 

            It was Saturday, March 4th, in the Messe in Hamburg, where the Goldene Kamera was being broadcast live by ZDF, one of the core TV channels in Germany.  Hosted by Steven Gätjen, things kicked off at 8:15 and went fairly normally at first.  Then, about 1 hour 45 minutes into the program, Gätjen transitioned into presenting the award for Best International Film, announcing that it would be going to La La Land.  A montage from the film followed- Gätjen even allowed himself a joke at the Academy’s expense, saying he could present the award “without an envelope, and you can all cheer for more than 8 seconds”- and after informing everyone that the Director and Producer of the film could not attend the show to accept the award, they had been able to arrange for Ryan Gosling to accept the award in their stead. 

            And with that, the screen behind him on the stage opened, and out of the backstage shadows stepped…..not Ryan Gosling.  The person- whoever it was- walked up, shook the moderator’s hand (you can see his surprise, and even hear him say “interesting…”, in the video below), took the trophy, and proclaimed himself- in terrible English- to be Ryan Gosling, and that he wished to dedicate this award to Joko and Klaas.  After which he promptly turned around and hurried himself off the stage.  The moderator made a banal joke about how they’d just gotten a sample of the best of German satire.  The Germans in the audience had about the same expression on their faces they’d have had if the man, instead of speaking, had simply let rip a minute-long belch into the microphone.  Meanwhile the foreigners in attendance, particularly Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell, just looked utterly lost, as if they suddenly realized they were a long, long way from home, with no way back.   

            Clearly, something had gone very, very wrong.  But what, exactly?  Who was that man pretending to be Ryan Gosling, and who the hell are Joko and Klaas? 

            That second part is easier to answer, so let’s start with that.  Largely unknown outside of Germany but widely known within, Joko and Klaas are the comedy duo behind the popular sketch comedy show Circus HalliGalli (which has been on-air since 2013), where all sorts of celebrity guests appear to take part in their antics.  They’ve long held a reputation for iconoclastic button-pushing, like one hot-potato game they play where the loser has to post something in terribly poor taste on their Twitter page (and aren’t allowed to hint at it being a joke).  But until now, their impish pranks have usually been fairly limited in scope, like dressing the most well-known Rom-Com actor in Germany in Santa getup and setting him loose on the unsuspecting customers of the Berlin Christmas Market. 

            This, though, was something bigger.  Thankfully, my job of explaining what they did at the Goldene Kamera and why has already been done for me; during the next aired episode of Circus HalliGalli, they featured a two-part mini-documentary documenting how that non-Ryan Gosling made it to the stage and why he dedicated a Goldene Kamera to them.  And it’s…..well…..just watch (these videos come with English subtitles). 

            Hooooooooly shit.  There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s break down the ways this plan SHOULD have failed miserably, but didn’t, and what it reveals about not just the Goldene Kamera, but ritzy awards shows in general:

            First, a dozen people succeeded in convincing the producers of a major awards show that they represented a company (that didn’t exist) and a huge Hollywood star (they’d never met)….and only because no one apparently ever tried to check within the industry if the company in question actually existed. 

            Second, these same people sought cover by making fantastically arrogant demands to ensure no one blew their cover before or during the show….and not once did they receive any pushback on a single one of them. 

            At the show itself, partially through luck and partially due to their list of demands, the double was able to effectively run the gauntlet of an entire arena’s worth of backstage staff and security, where one long glance could have been enough to end the game right there…..and no one, even one of the main producers of the show sitting directly behind the stage, ever took that glance. 

            Then, much like the Oscars flub the week before, once the lights were up the error was revealed almost instantly….but in the heat of the moment, the on-stage presenter either didn’t realize what was happening, assumed it was planned, or was just plain confused for enough precious seconds to allow the double to take the trophy, at which point it was effectively too late to do anything. 

            The double and his team then managed to re-run the gauntlet again and get out of there, prize and all….because apparently no one was ready to alert security at any level to apprehend someone just booking it out of the building with a trophy in their hand. 

            Finally, and this is perhaps the most damming (or hilarious, or depressing, depending on your point of view); by just hinting at the possibility of having an A-List Hollywood superstar take the stage at their show, Joko and Klaas got the higher-ups to select La La Land as the winner of a major award that, had they not pulled this stunt, may very well have gone to another movie entirely. 

            That last one is probably the most disturbing part out of all of this.  The technical and logistical systems of setting up bigtime TV shows and bringing in guests always have flaws, ones that remain invisible until they are finally noticed and exploited, at which point they are usually closed for good.  It’s safe to say a trick of this exact nature will never be possible at the Goldene Kamera again, and this particular stunt couldn’t succeed at something as endlessly scripted and re-scripted as the Oscars.   

            But the fact remains that, across the world, the events and organizations that claim to represent the “best” of mankind’s artistic output really just act as rubber stamps for what a select group of non-artists deem to be “the best.”  And a head manager deciding arbitrarily to give a film a trophy by fiat simply because they could land a big name on their stage for 45 seconds is a particularly pungent example of that, making the blatant nakedness of it as revealed by this prank all the more disheartening. 

            And of course this is by no means limited to Germany.  That the Oscars are endlessly (often pathetically) political has been a running joke for a long time now, and both the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (which select the Golden Globe winners) are constantly belittled for effectively selling their votes to the highest bidder- estimates on the total amount spent by various studios competing for Oscars regularly run into the hundreds of millions, with one expert estimating about $10 million to be the usual cost of winning Best Picture BBC. 

            Is that sort of nonsense really any different than what happened at the Goldene Kamera?  I doubt it, and honestly, it may be quite a bit worse from an ethics standpoint. 

            The hard truth is that, while regular celebration of human achievement is in principle a good and noble and necessary thing, the specific laurels we have conditioned ourselves to treat as the most meaningful are often given out in ways that are overwhelmingly arbitrary, unfair, and not at all connected to trying to identify the “best” in anything, film or otherwise. 

            And yet, for all the weight and real-world influences that awards shows do have- like convincing a studio to finance Movie A over Movie B solely based on what they think will bring in a rack of shiny, golden men- does any of this really matter?  Most Germans don’t seem to really care about #Goslinggate that much.  The media company in charge of the event certainly has its tie in a knot over the whole affair- they very quickly announced their intention to sue to get the trophy back.  But most others, at worst, think it was a hilarious egg on the show’s face, perhaps done in poor taste, and leave it at that. 

            Internationally it seems to have made even less of a splash; Ryan Gosling, to my knowledge, has so far said nothing about the whole fiasco, and for all I know may not be aware it even happened.  That said, the award is, in fact, currently listed on the Wikipedia page for accolades won by thefilm, so it IS still, at least at the moment, official. 

            I will leave it to you to draw what conclusions you want from this.  As for myself, I clearly still need to work on reminding myself that logic and sanity no longer exist in the world, and for all the crazy imaginings I can conjure for the next few years, they obviously still aren’t nutty enough, because reality is still finding ways to outpace me. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: Logan

Logan (2017): Written by Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green, directed by James Mangold.  Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Richard Grant, Boyd Holbrook, and Stephen Merchant.  Running Time: 137 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            One of the easiest ways to make someone my (fairly young) age feel vastly older than our years is to remind them that it was nearly 20 years ago when Hugh Jackman first hit the big screen as the Wolverine in the very first X-Men movie.  In time this casting proved to be every bit as pitch-perfect as Patrick Stewart’s and Ian McKellan’s as Professor X and Magneto.  And since that moment, one of the running gags surrounding the franchise and its comically zig-zaggy fortunes has been the remarkable lengths to which each and every entry into the current canon has gone to include at least a cameo of Jackson, if not outright starring him. 

            His presence has certainly defined this phase of the X-Men world every bit as much as the character has, in turn, defined Jackson’s career, but alas, even the Marvel film universe can’t avoid the ravages of time, and we truly have reached the point where Jackman is simply too old to keep doing this shit.  Which means that this dark, grim, tightly-focused, and slightly-meta drama about facing up to aging and disappointment in a bleak, possibly hopeless dystopian future really is it; Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have come out for their final curtain call in roles that have defined them in the eyes of an entire generation of film goers.  And in a particularly poignant twist, it might just be the best X-Men movie they’ve ever done. 

            It’s 2029, and for reasons unknown, most of the old mutants have died and it’s been years since new ones were born, so everyone simply assumes they were a freak occurrence going the way of the Dodo.  Logan, clearly aging and dying in spite of the fact that his powers *should* make that impossible, scrapes by as a limo-driver-for-hire in Texas.  Most of his earnings go towards procuring medicines for Xavier, holed up across the border in Mexico with an albino caretaker.  Xavier is also rapidly dying, suffering from seizures that amplify his mental powers in frightening ways and make him a legitimate danger to everyone within a certain radius. 

            As far as Logan is concerned, they are the last of their kind, and fated to remain so, so he may as well try to make their passing as non-destructive as possible until Xavier is gone and he can blow his brains out with an adamantium bullet he’s been saving for just such an occasion.  This all goes up in smoke pretty quickly though, as a Mexican nurse brings them Laura, a young girl who possesses Logan’s power set (infinite regeneration, claws, and a vicious fighting style), begging their protection from the hired hit men of an unnamed corporate entity (led by a fantastic Boyd Holbrook as the film’s main antagonist) seeking to kill her. 

            In typical gruffly resigned manner, Logan takes the girl and Xavier North, seeking a location that may or may not be where the last of the mutants are gathering, including other children like Laura.  To say that they are seeking hope or some sort of salvation for the clear failure of what the X-Men should have been would be saying a bit too much, because this movie is not a pick-me-up, nor does it try to offer much hope.  It runs hard on themes of loss and failure haunting someone knowing they are near the end and that everything they did in their life may very well have been for nought.  Jackman’s Logan always hailed from the bitter side of pessimism, but even Xavier, famed eternal optimist, has been brought low emotionally by his failures and the ravages of his illnesses. 

            This is one of those comic book movies that almost isn’t a comic book movie- most of the dramatic weight and meaning to what Logan and Xavier say and do comes not from anything explicit on the film’s part, but rather from the assumed collective knowledge on our part that we are seeing the conclusion of a two-decade-long film partnership in its final chapter.  It’s an extremely rare set of circumstances to surround a movie like this, giving it a heft it otherwise wouldn’t have had, and often raising the film above its (admittedly fairly small) flaws. 

            And it certainly isn’t a perfect film- there are a few story shifts regarding the bad guys, what they do, and what they want that don’t entirely add up- but it commits so fully to its road-trip-dystopia atmosphere that it has a unique feel and character lacking in nearly every other recent entry into the comic book superhero genre.  It’s the first hard ‘R’ film to show us what people facing claws like that really would look like afterwards, but given how easily the movie could have banked on that to sell itself and excluded all else, like Fury Road it goes the needed extra step to ensure that every bit of fighting or action (and one very solid car chase) feels necessary to either the story or the development of a particular character. 

            While Jackman and Stewart give two of their best film performances ever, superhero movie or otherwise, we already knew they were awesome.  I suspect the truly lasting impact of this film will revolve around the revelation that is Dafne Keen as Laura.  Silent for nearly the entire film, she steals every shot she’s in it with her presence.  It’s easily a star-making turn for the actress and one that SHOULD guarantee a central part of her character in any future X-Men franchise.  It’s also rather depressing that a film featuring gifted children of color/minorities like the bilingual, Spanish Keen fleeing not to, but THROUGH the United States to reach safety from forces seeking to destroy them feels far more topical than it was probably meant to be when first conceived. 

            Logan might or might not go on to redefine what we expect superhero movies to be, but regardless of what comes next in the X-Men universe, if indeed anything does come next, it’s a powerful little film that does refreshing justice to the abilities of its cast and is definitely a must-see for anyone who grew up with this particular version of the X-Men.  With both this and John Wick 2 hitting theaters this early, the gauntlet has very much been thrown down for all other action movies set to come out in 2017, so to those next in line I say; your move. 

-Noah Franc