Sunday 27 August 2023

Apple TV's Invasion review

This show is the definition of the slow burn.

There’s a saying about the military: it’s 99% boredom and routine, and 1% sheer terror. 

Invasion gets the first part right. 

That statement is hyperbole (and framed the way a teacher I had would). Nevertheless, a maxim in modern Hollywood is that you have to get to the Promise of the Premise FAST. Streaming presents us with a bajillion shows to pick from, so if you don’t catch the audience quick, they’ll click. 

Admittedly I sometimes don’t bother with a show that doesn’t grab me until/unless someone (or several someones) recommends it. And if something doesn’t intrigue me, if I don’t feel trust in the show runners right away, I will click away. That’s far from fair, and all on my deteriorating attention span. 

In light of that, Invasion’s somnambulant pacing is defiantly radical. Movies today are faster paced and include more cuts than in the 1980s, partly because they had to splice physical film back then, and now it can be done digitally; Fury Road had ten times as many cuts as The Road Warrior, for example. It can be too much, yet here the more lackadaisical pacing just didn’t work for me.

It follows 4-5 different character journeys, switching between storylines that (mostly) intersect towards the end. Some are far more engaging than others. Sam Neil leads one stream (which got me to tune in), but it's a Sean Bean fake out.

There one minute, gone the next

It doesn’t help that the show is dark. It’s shot with naturalistic lighting, and the aliens (when they finally appear) are only seen at night or in dim interiors. This accentuates the menace of the unknown, but also frustrates. 

Maybe they did it because their FX budget couldn’t withstand daylight. Honestly, that’s fair, you have to work within the production limits you’ve got. The show looks very good, at least what you can see of it. 

With the exception of one character thread that follows a Japanese aerospace prodigy (all in Japanese with subtitles, which was frustrating because I wanted to also draw while watching), everything is viewed from a plebeian POV. We see people trying to manage their day to day lives in the midst of (somewhat vague) chaos. There is no rah-rah 'Ride of the F16’s'. This isn’t Tom Cruise or Will Smith type alien butt-kicking fare, it’s far more naturalistic, following ordinary people. It’s more brooding and moody than explosive and energetic, which can be wonderful when done right.

By far our most capable cast member

The leads are far from paragons of virtue; they’re warty and flawed. Great to have nuance. Unfortunately, they’re not likeable or compelling, and they make some painfully dumb decisions, all to amp up tension (admittedly very common in horror films). That came at the cost of empathy: I started rooting for the alien monsters. 

The climax smacks of both Independence Day and War of the Worlds, the grand daddy of all alien invasions. 

I suspect Invasion succeeds or fails based on whether or not you like the characters. It’s well produced and well acted. The dialogue is naturalistic and worked well enough for me that it wasn’t distracting. 

Unfortunately, while it has many of the elements I like, the slow pace and unlikeable characters made it a swing and a miss. 

Sunday 13 August 2023

Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse review

Hands down the most radical, unrestrained, gobsmacking, visually creative animated film I’ve ever seen.


Other than the first one.

Watching Across is like main-lining pure creativity. It’s a kinetic, visual cacophony of cinema marvels. 

On the downside, it’s exhausting. Innovative approaches are jam packed into every frame. It’s so radically different, it overwhelms.

All kinds of sweet gee-jaws, evoking printed comics, saturate the film: half-tone dots shade character faces, colours are shown with slight off-register, scenes morph from 3-D backgrounds to beautiful pastel paintings. Characters change colour based on mood. People from other dimensions may be made of paper, scratchy scribbles, or LEGO. Frames are dropped from character movement, creating a staccato jerkiness that gets across the idea of watching moving pictures. Trips between universes are accompanied by kaleidoscope FX rainbows. Visual representations of emotion, and sound effects, punctuate important moments. 

The direction is as kinetic and super-powered as the heroes, spiralling around and through them (in the case of the villain), then pulling back for serene scene setting long shots. 

Across relentlessly pushes the boundaries of animation, taking the medium to infinity and beyond.

Pixar films are beautiful, but they’re not radical. This? This is radical artiste experimentalism in pop-culture packaging. 

Unfortunately, you can have too much goodness. The movie is over two hours long; shorter, discrete episodes might be more enjoyable for my limited attention span. I wanted to freeze frame and have captions (the dialogue can be hard to catch at time, it’s so rapid fire). 

Story wise, Across doesn’t hold back; it pummels the audience with The Multiverse’s kitchen sink. 

Thankfully, Verse movies are grounded in authentic character moments. Without them, it might just be a gorgeous way to induce an epileptic seizure. Miles is an endearing lead, and the Morales’ family dynamic equally so. Even the villain has his charms. And Spider-Gwen is well matched with Miles. The other bajillion Spider-men (including an Indian one) are icing on the Spider-cake. 

The film relentlessly barrels towards its no-holds-barred… To Be Continued. 

Which is fine by me, I don’t think I could have taken any more in one sitting. 

The story isn’t tight, but the characters and the visual spectacle are so incredibly enthralling it doesn’t matter.

In the theatre, it's an overwhelming visual feast; I look forward to watching it again at home, in smaller (both screen scale and time) doses. 

There’s nothing else like it. 

Radical, energetic, barely controlled creative chaos the likes of which I've rarely seen, it's audacity and innovative ferocity is breathtaking to behold.

It's genius in motion.

Highly, highly recommended… albeit not for everyone. 

Saturday 5 August 2023

High versus low art in film: Lynch vs Spielberg smackdown!

Yin vs Yang

David Lynch is an exemplary film maker, but his work is not for everyone. Lynch's foray into blockbuster territory (Dune) was a bomb (I still love it's weirdness). He has difficulty raising large amounts of cash for his (personal) projects. 

Steven Spielberg is the opposite: the Main Man has his finger on the pulse of the people. His films are colossal blockbusters that have redefined cinema and summer movie going. Studios salivate to fund his films, and spend more, much more, knowing Spielberg is at the helm. 

A Spielberg flick is one of the surest bets you can make in Hollywood. And obviosuly he, too, is an exemplary filmmaker.

So... which is better? 

That depends on your point of view, and what you value. 

From a certain point of view, this article is true.

I’ve been lectured by professional writers that the best films are the ones that make the biggest box office. Studio execs no doubt largely agree: the Hollywood machine is a business, it has a bottom line, and they need to make oodles of greenbacks to fund their lavish lifestyles… and fund bigger and more spectacular films. 

And yet, it isn’t that simple. 

Award season exists, prestige films still get funded, despite studios knowing full well that, unlike Barbie, Women Talking isn’t going to be a global summer blockbuster. But so what?

Populist and elitist streams exist in cinema and they rarely meet. One leans  thoughtful and introspective, the other towards thrill rides and escapist fun. One is in danger of being pretentious, the other of pandering.

But every now and then, the streams cross and you get an instant all-audience classic.

Do what you shouldn't do?

Sometimes this is immediately obvious, as the film generates both box office and critical conversation over pie. Populist films are sometimes re-evaluated in the years, and decades, after release. The initial critical disdain for tropes, archetypes and action gives way to a realization that the film was superbly executed and speaks to the human experience on a level that wasn’t obvious on first viewing. 

Filmmakers like Lynch struggle to find broader recognition. While vetted at prestige film festivals, their sensibility doesn’t resonate with the mass audience. Sometimes, they find their place in genre cinema and successfully dwell on the edges of the industry. Others are ‘artsy’ or intellectual enough to be hailed by critics for eschewing the typical and titillating the elitist palate. 

And I get it. Professional critics prefer the different, because they’re drowning in mass produced typical. They become bug eyed, gollum-like creatures, gaunt and pallid from watching movies all day, every day. Like I did during COVID lockdown.

On top of that, I’m old enough to have seen multiple reboots of blockbusters past, I’m tired of it. Honestly, if you’ve seen ten superhero movies, you’ve seen them all. Same for some long running TV shows that are caught in an infinite franchise premise loop, endlessly recycling a mushy scene and premise puree.  

These are film flavours for the masses, visual equivalents to chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. And they’re great. But after awhile, people crave something… different. Rocky Road or Heavenly Hash.

You’re less likely to be truly surprised by a typical blockbuster than the most artfully crafted of art cinema (but there are notable exceptions that become event cinema, such as we've recently seen). Going off the beaten path will interest those tired of treading the same old same old, but that will annoy the majority who are looking for the well trodden path. We don't always want the unexpected.

Franchises have risen to dominate film and television during my lifetime. What’s a franchise? Take it as a simple outline of what happens… every time. A plucky gang of kids investigates paranormal mysteries and exposes them as frauds, for example. Familiarity is the appeal, so characters tend not to change. We’re not going to see Sherlock Holmes pivot to politics or become a tax auditor. People want him to be a detective, and so a detective he remains. Forever caught in amber, repeating the same loops. Westworld was as much a commentary on robots as it was on franchises and entertainment itself.

There’s a saying: people watch TV for character, and film for plot. I don’t remember a lot of plots from Star Trek, Fringe, Seinfeld (okay it was a kind of anti-plot show), or WKRP in Cincinnati. But the characters? Loved them. 

But.. what if you have a film franchise? 

How much did Indiana Jones change? Dominic Toretto? 

Is Ethan Hunt really any different now? 

They’re essentially huge budget TV episodes on gigantic screens. 

Elitist disdain for populist films compelled Spielberg to stretch into more niche, high brow works, in an effort to get that sweet, sweet elitist recognition. To be recognized by the chi-chi cognoscenti. 

On the one hand, I don’t think he should have felt such a pivot was necessary. Populist art ties into our common humanity, and to do that well requires every bit as much artistry and talent as the so-called high art. On the other, I’m glad he did, because he’s an interesting filmmaker, whatever he does.

The niche and the populist have their place and purpose, and entertainment would be lesser without both.

In this argument, there is no spoon. 

It's CGI, man!