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Wednesday
Apr132016

The Invitation (2016)

The Big Chiller

The Invitation may spawn a new horror sub-genre: the Support Group Thriller. Karyn Kusama's latest film, about a dinner party that devolves into mayhem, is so unnerving you'll need friends close by to keep each other from climbing the walls in panic. Like an idiot, I watched the film at home, and found myself pausing six times in the first hour to pace in and out of the living room. I got some water. I told my wife (more than once) that my nerves were shot. I tried again. And again. And again.

I

Couldn't

Sit 

Still.

This sounds silly, especially if you watched the trailer and thought, "Terrific. An art-house version of You're Next". Or if you asked yourself the question my wife posed to me: "Why don't those people just leave?"

At its core, The Invitation is a drama about broken relationships, grief, and reconnection--and the lengths to which people will go to heal. Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi explore the extremes at which rage can manifest, from bottled-up social anxiety, to the kind of all-consuming sorrow for which dead bodies are the only elixir.

Lesser movies spend twenty minutes setting the table, and the remaining eighty flipping it over. The Invitation reverses those proportions, focusing on character dynamics and building tension as several mysteries hang in the air. By the time the somewhat predictable third act rolls around, we're fully invested, rooting for characters to live, rather than ticking off the splatterific deaths of two-dimensional meat puppets.

About this party: Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) receive an invitation from Will's ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), to visit their former house, which Eden now shares with David (Michiel Huisman), the man for whom she left Will two years ago. The place looks mostly as Will remembers leaving it, except for three key details:

1. The living room is filled with Eden and Will's closest friends, who haven't been together since before Will moved out.

2. Eden looks radiant and healthy, an eerie change from the gaunt, frazzled mess that eloped to Mexico with David after the divorce.

3. All the locks on the house are now inside.

The party is also down one friend, and up two newcomers who seem to know the hosts a little too well: a coked-up-looking hippie girl (Lindsay Burge) and a dead-eyed giant (John Carroll Lynch) who barely speaks unless activated. It doesn't take a cineaste to know that Will's distrust of his ex, her new friends, and this soiree is well-founded. But I love that Kusama does her damnedest to play the misdirection game. Could it be that Will is imagining the sinister cues he's picking up on? That maybe the divorce, and the tragedy that led to it, have driven him insane?

Fortunately for us, Kusama, Hay, and Manfredi don't pull a fast one ("It was all in his head!"). Instead, they weave a complicated tapestry that sees Will slipping into madness during an event that is, itself, mad. I'm going crazy trying to avoid spoilers here, so let's take a breath and talk about filmmaking.

The Invitation feels desperate in the best possible way. It is the work of a team that believes no one will give them another chance to shoot precisely the movie they want to make, with a high-quality cast, and with the time and budget to make as visually and dramatically satisfying a horror film as possible. Kusama, cinematographer Bobby Shore, and composer Theodore Shapiro conspire to give us a series of dreamy images and meticulous compositions that enhance the screenplay's numerous set-ups and pay-offs. One springs to mind:

During a moment of tension between Will and David, we see John Carroll Lynch's character at the left of the frame. He's cropped and obscured by shadow, but the meaty, unclenched hand dangling at his side is unmistakable. Like a Western in which only the audience knows the entire saloon is armed to the teeth, our innate mistrust of this guy subtly elevates the tension in the focal point of Kusama's frame.

To be fair, I'm not sure how effective The Invitation will be on younger audiences, who might go in expecting, frankly, You're Next. This is a movie about adults going through non-sexy, complicated adult things. I wouldn't blame a teenager for pulling up Twitter somewhere around minute forty, after precisely zero characters have been stabbed and ten characters have listened to a monologue about regret. I would expect the adults to be enraptured, though, and wrestling with how their own life experiences might compel them to respond to a situation that escalates emotionally instead of viscerally.

Sure, the film opens with a jump scare and ends on a very chilling image, but The Invitation's true, raw-nerve energy comes from being knocked off balance early on by a protagonist who can't trust what he sees (or remembers) and a nemesis that's rooted in ideology (a much trickier and terrifying catalyst than revenge, sport, or even supernatural evil). This film demands company, discussion, and analysis. Just make sure you know where the exits are, and which side the locks are on.

Sunday
Apr102016

Aeon Flux (2005)

Resurgent

Reincarnation is real, at least for movies. And I don't just mean thematically: I'm talking about movies being brought back from the dead as other movies.

Aeon Flux entered the world as a series of shorts on MTV's Liquid Television in the early 90s. Animator Peter Chung envisioned his dystopian-future action series as a parody of brainless blockbusters: the titular heroine is a leather-clad, gun-toting warrior fighting her way up the food-chain of an oppressive technocrat's regime. As enticing as this might have sounded to mass audiences, Chung subverted expectations by making Flux a gangly, grotesque dominatrix-type in a carnival-mirror world that shunned conventional beauty while embracing the trappings of fetishism.

Flux's early adventures were practically wordless, and saw the butt-kicking hero die at the end of every mission. The shorts became popular and began to evolve, eventually becoming a half-hour show with dialogue and stabs at continuity. Though the satire had taken on something resembling narrative substance, few people would have expected it to become a multi-million-dollar action movie, starring one of Hollywood's most beautiful and accomplished actresses.

Yet that's precisely what happened in 2005, when director Karyn Kusama teamed up with Academy Award winner Charlize Theron to bring Aeon Flux to the big screen. With this combination of casting, cult name-recognition, and the popularity of The Matrix franchise (which, it could be argued, was inspired by the original show), few could have predicted that the film would so thoroughly bomb critically and commercially. I don't know where my head was at when I saw Aeon Flux in the theatre, but I remember liking what Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi pulled off. The global marketplace and I didn't agree, however (surprise, surprise), and the vanished almost instantly, destined to be forgotten beyond the realm of trivia.

Or should I say, "forgotten by some"?

Fast forward eleven years to my recent revisiting of Aeon Flux. Yes, the movie feels very of-its-time, boasting loads of techno-scored shoot-outs and balletic martial-arts displays. But it is also alarmingly contemporary, specifically in its similarities to Veronica Roth's Divergent Series. I'll preface this by saying that I have no proof that Roth lifted elements from, or is even familiar with, the TV show--much the same way I am forced to accept the public record of Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, who claims to have not heard of Battle Royale when constructing her particular brand of YA blockbuster. But to paraphrase Bill Maher, I don't know it's a fact, I just know it's true: one cannot watch Aeon Flux and the three (and counting) Divergent films without wondering if there was some hard-core cribbing on Roth's part--or if Kusama's film has simply been cosmically resurrected in a far more commercially viable form.

For the sake of argument, I'll just leave this synopsis here and let you decide:

Four hundred years in the future, Earth is a wasteland. The remnants of civilization have walled themselves into a technologically advanced city that is controlled at the very highest level by scientists. As it turns out, the entire population is the result of a highly sophisticated engineering program, designed to reverse the effects of a genetic disruption that nearly ended mankind. A resourceful young woman rises through the ranks of those who would stand against the totalitarian tide. War ensues; revelations about the first natural childbirth in centuries become a major plot point; and the story ends with thousands of people setting out to face whatever lies beyond the wall.

Sorry, I forgot to specify which movie I was describing--the one that came out in 2005, or the film series that began in 2014. It doesn't matter, because their synopses are identical.

The resulting films are not so similar. Aeon Flux was ahead of its time, conceptually, and has an emotionally intelligent core. Flux's nemesis, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas), is not a two-dimensional bad guy; that distinction belongs to his brother, Oren (Jonny Lee Miller), who sees genetic manipulation as the ultimate means of control. Trevor's motives transcend power, and I won't go into them here. The Goodchilds' program is littered with moral quandaries, and it's easy to understand why someone would want to bring them down. Hay and Manfredi make a strong case for Trevor's vision, though, and they allow Aeon Flux to stray into philosophical musings between the wire-work-and-demolitions extravaganzas--much like The Matrix; less so like the Hunger Games and Divergent films, which spend this precious time on gender-swapped Betty-and-Veronica love triangles. 

Time is key to appreciating Aeon Flux. Granted, much of the credit I'm about to bestow likely has to do with the fact that the film died on the vine, but it's refreshing to see a self-contained story that's under an hour-forty-five, and which isn't preoccupied with building four-part trilogies or cinematic universes. Sure, there's a bunch of goofy stuff in the movie (the assassin with hands for feet, the persistent Intro to Naval Gazing eye imagery in the set dressing, etc.), but it comes and goes, and I won't have to worry about it coming around again in hour five-of-nine. The filmmakers hit their points and move on. Then the story ends.

Aeon Flux is not a great movie, but it's not terrible, either. It's a perfectly middle-of-the-road slice of sci-fi that occasionally aspires to more than it should and, in the process, attains moments of genuine loveliness. That it was under appreciated in its time and has since been reincarnated as an empty-headed teen soap should not be held against those who tried to make it more than a twelfth-generation Xerox of The Matrix. Not everyone gets to come back as a butterfly, and sometimes dead really is better.

Monday
Apr042016

I Saw the Light (2016)

Abraham The Drifter

Like it or not, conventions exist for a reason. We praise filmmakers who subvert expectations, especially those working in genres that invite a reliance on narrative tricks. Biopics (and their black-sheep cousin, the "Based on a True Story" flick), are the biggest offender: no matter how disparate one historical figure's journey is from another, you can bet both stories will be shoe-horned into a crowd-pleasing, three-act structure on their way to the silver screen. Sure, these movies have become as abundant and tiresome as comic-book tent poles, but I felt downright wistful for their familiarity while watching writer/director Marc Abraham's I Saw the Light.

Full Disclosure (Part 1): I knew nothing about Hank Williams going into this biopic. Coming out of it, I still didn't understand why he was such a transformative figure in the world of country music--and that's a problem, considering the movie is ostensibly about that.

Full Disclosure (Part 2): This review feels like cheating. I saw I Saw the Light under circumstances that shaded my perception of what the film is, what it could have been, and what it should have been. I attended an advance screening with a bona fide Hank Williams fan, and was treated to a Q&A with Abraham and star Tom Hiddleston. These three shared anecdotes that my mind's eye translated into a series of criminally un-depicted vignettes; imaginary deleted scenes that revealed Williams' fractured character and tumultuous relationships more effectively than much of what made the final cut. In other words, barring these insider insights, my review (and understanding) should be much shorter.*

In the Q&A, Abraham said he doesn't like biopics because they're too predictable. He didn't want I Saw the Light to be a traditional cradle-to-the-grave story about a drugged-up musician who died in his prime. By skipping past Williams' formative years, though, and fast-forwarding through the decade that the screenplay does focus on, Abraham robs the audience of context. One moment, Williams is getting married in a gas station; two scenes later, he and his wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), are sharing a meal with a toddler who, it turns out, is Audrey's daughter from a previous marriage. If this crucial information was included in a brief, drawl-heavy exchange somewhere, I missed it.

The screenplay glosses over similar pillars of Williams' biography. From his odd relationship with his mother (Cherry Jones), who pops in and out of the picture, never aging or evolving; to his pills-and-booze addiction; to his selectively chronic back pain, which stemmed from undiagnosed spina bifida occulta; to alleged physical abuse toward Audrey; to the very foundations of his professional career--I Saw the Light is a narrative disaster. The film plays like a two-hour "Best of" YouTube compilation of a six-hour movie.

Despite all that, I recommend this film. In fact, Hank Williams novices (myself included) should probably see it twice: first for the overview, second to make the overview make sense. The screenplay is a huge problem here, but two things make it surmountable:

1. A charismatic lead performance by Hiddleston.

2. Gripping 4D cinematography from DP Dante Spinotti.

As I said before, I don't know Hank Williams from Adam, but Tom Hiddleston deserves credit for pouring such heart, soul, and research into this part. He performed all of Williams' songs for the movie, and created a unique, natural-looking physical cadence. The downside is that I saw more homework than character in Hiddleston. The actor's drive is so self-evident and electrically all-consuming that it wears out an already fragile movie that is ill-equipped to contain it.

As a result, I can only say that Olsen and the supporting cast fare well.** Given the choppiness of Abraham's screenplay, it's hard to tell what many of these characters want (beyond purely surface concerns) or who they are as people. I can't recall if Bradley Whitford, for example, was a record producer, the head of a label, a co-writer, an agent, all of the above, or none of the above. He's the first person we see on screen, for some reason, and we're told through clumsy dialogue that he and Hank are dear friends--even though his character is as sporadic and vague a presence throughout the film as Williams' mother.

I exaggerated, of course, when suggesting that Dante Spinotti delivered "4D" cinematography, but not by much. He brings the same boiling-over intensity to I Saw the Light as he did to Heat and L.A. Confidential, almost literally dousing his compositions in 50s southern sweat. In many scenes, Hiddleston's Williams looks like a zombie: gaunt, doped-up, and yet possessed of the kind of otherworldly energy that would later compel people to accuse rock 'n roll of being the Devil's music. At other times, such as the opening a cappella performance of "Cold, Cold Heart", Spinotti renders Hiddleston/Williams as beatific pop angel so powerful that light shafts take on the appearance of illustrative flourishes. Even when Williams is at his worst, Spinotti makes Hiddleston (and, by extension, the movie) look gorgeous.

But there's enough artifice in biopics, even those that shy away from the mantle. A well-crafted frame is no good if what's contained within it doesn't make sense. All of the mania involved in the Hank Williams phenomenon, for example, is contained within Hiddleston's performance. At no point did I get the feeling that any of his audiences were watching something phenomenal, something breathtakingly new. Unfortunately, there's a parallel here that extends far beyond the screen.

*For an in-depth discussion on some of these insights, check out Episode 129 of the Kicking the Seat podcast.

**Wrenn Schmidt deserves a least an honorable mention. In her brief third act scenes, she gives backbone to what might have otherwise amounted to a disposable-girlfriend character.

Wednesday
Mar232016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Battle of the Sentient

Should I review Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as a comic-book movie or as a film? Maybe as the load-bearing beam of a quarter-billion-dollar business decision?

My film-critic conscience can't help but paraphrase Agent Smith in answering, "Two of these options are legitimate. One of them is not". Yet here I am, stranded in a social-media/nerd-culture wasteland where pop art is judged more on its popularity than its art--where objectively awful blockbusters become subjective touchstones for an increasingly unimaginative and undemanding audience. Comic-book-movie fans are the worst, so grateful to be catered to by corporate interests that they'll praise mediocrity and line up early for repetition. "Hey, man," the argument goes, "at least we live in an age where they make awesome comic book movies!"

Like most things, "awesome" is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, The Avengers: Age of Ultron had some of the best special effects ever projected on a movie screen. Yes, it employed a top-notch director and skilled costumers who turned four-color printed characters into flesh-and-blood 4k marvels. They even got award-winning thespians to take on these iconic roles! It's almost as if a company with more power than Thanos was cutting massive checks or something.

Never mind that the film had zero stakes and less logic. Never mind that we saw the same character and story dynamics play out as they had for nine previous films ("Oh, no! We've got to overcome our differences/believe in ourselves and stop that [death ray] [bomb] [CGI army] from blowing up [New York] [London] [Made-up-European-Country]!"). As long as Hulk smashes things and Tony Stark says something snarky, all is right with the world. Besides, if we don't encourage everyone we know to see every capes-and-quips flick multiple times, the movie studios might not let us see them anymore.

Fandom is, of course, fickle: four two-plus-hour Michael Bay films involving CGI robots smashing each other to pieces while their human counterparts look on in cartoonish awe equates to irredeemable trash. As do Sony's "off-brand" Spider-Man films and the wilted lettuce of DC's Green LanternThe Dark Knight Rises exists in the shadow of a legit (according to most) masterpiece, so it gets a pass--kinda. But slap the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" stamp of approval on anything, and every imperiled-by-a-laser city is the first imperiled-by-a-laser city, by God!

What does any of this have to do with Batman v Superman?

Everything.

After 2013's financially successful but critically dubious Man of Steel, Warner Bros handed the keys to its DC Comics kingdom to Zack Snyder--thus kicking off a desperate game of catch-up with Marvel Studios, who'd already enjoyed a half-decade lead. MoS wasn't the game-changer execs had hoped for, which is why some (including yours truly) suspect they shoehorned proven box office commodity Batman into the sequel. Interest grew when it was announced that the Caped Crusader would get top billing in the alleged Superman follow-up, and went through the roof when DC revealed plans to introduce fellow Justice League heroes Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. A veritable avalanche of incredulity followed: "Wait, Lex Luthor is the villain? And Zod is back? Is that Doomsday in the trailer? Hold on, there's a Darkseid rumor?"

At the beginning of this year, we were treated to a trailer for Suicide Squad (DC super villains team up to...save the world?) and footage from the Wonder Woman stand-alone film--along with casting announcements for the Justice League team-up and other spin-offs. Warner Bros had adopted Disney's pre-fab marketing model wholesale: announcing a road map assures audiences that they're buying into one big story,and that skipping one or two movies would put them at a disadvantage when trying to follow movies six and seven. The difference is, of course, that Disney had record-breaking brands like Marvel and Star Wars to back up their gusto; Warner Bros had a comics-movie gravy train that showed no signs of slowing down. Sure, $250 million* is a lot to sink into a single film, but the audience is guaranteed--especially if the studio is confident enough to put two more movies in the can before anyone's seen it.

Right?

Not so fast, Barry Allen.

The fundamental problem with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the that filmmakers got so caught up in laying the ground work for a DC Cinematic Universe that they overlooked the fundamental need for a coherent, interesting story. Long-time collaborators Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong reunite to deliver a sufficiently dour yet magnificently rendered tale of gods and men. Unlike Amir Mokri's wheat-tinged palette for Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice is soaked in rain and dust and angst. The first half of the movie feels "grown-up" and "important", like a gritty, brand-name successor to Snyder/Fong's Watchmen.

The aesthetics' ability to hold BvS together withers in the first five minutes. The problem isn't that we're walked through yet another filmic representation of billionaire orphan Bruce Wayne's (Ben Affleck) origin story, but that he escapes a cave full of glowing-eyed bats by levitating to safety. This is the first of four "gotcha" dream sequences, and the last of any kind of spoiler-y information I will provide--just setting the stage for the kind of audience-jerking Snyder and co-writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer have in store for you.

Because I'm bound by studio request (and a pre-screening video from a fidgety Zack Snyder himself) to not ruin BvS for fans, I will talk about the plot in terms of its numerous movie-morgue sources, each of which were patched together by five-year-olds playing "Frankenstein".

If you've seen the trailer, you know the film's broad strokes: Bruce Wayne witnessed the climactic fight in Man of Steel, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) defeated the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon) before he could use his giant squid-ship to remake Earth in Krypton's image--but not before leveling half of Metropolis. One of MoS's biggest critiques was the relentless 9/11-style imagery in the last act. Snyder revisits that in the sequel from a different vantage point, as Wayne dashes through the city, working to rescue people from his collapsed office building. He looks to the sky and silently vows that his alter ego, Batman, will do something about this otherworldly menace.

Eighteen months later, we meet tech billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), whose people uncover a large chunk of kryptonite in the Indian Ocean. He wants to harness the mineral into a weapon against Superman, but must cut through a senator's worth of red tape to get it into the U.S. Thanks to some good ol' fashioned terrorism, female-hostage leverage, and mind-trickery that our heroes, sadly, fall for way too easily, Luthor successfully pits Superman against Batman in a fight to the death. Oh, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) arrives just in time to help fight the monster from The Amazing Spider-Man, in a climax borrowed from Spider-Man 2. The ending is straight-up Star Trek 2 (pick your version), topped with a pre-cut-to-black Inception reference (perhaps as a nod to executive producer Christopher Nolan).

The movie is two-and-a-half-hours long,** so you're right to expect a dozen more subplots thrown in to lend an air of legitimacy (aka "epic scale"). It's all filler and red herrings and set-up for more movies that we may never see. At one point, BvS stops dead in its tracks to give us three minutes of post-credits-style stingers for Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. Between this nonsense and the artsy fartsy dream sequences (two of which are also allusions to sequels), it's apparent that the creators of Dawn of Justice needed to sleep on their myriad ideas and come back to the table with something resembling an actual story.

Snyder and company had that story, in the form of Frank Miller's groundbreaking graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which turns thirty this year. It's full of political intrigue, 9/11-style imagery, and a battle royale between the Last Son of Krypton and an over-the-hill Batman. Snyder, Terrio, and Goyer lift dialogue, visual motifs, and whole scenes from TDKR, mistaking those components as the heart of the material. Miller was ahead of his time, crafting a layered story about ubiquitous, manipulative media; cunning political buffoons; and the nature of insurgency in the face of overwhelming state power. These are mere filigree on the buckling frame of the overwrought painting that is BvS--interesting details that get shaved off in the last hour to make way for a monologuing villain and a mindless, leaping Thing That Must Be Stopped.

Besides great writing and a cinematic approach to visual storytelling, The Dark Knight Returns made waves because it was unlike any of the thousands of bland superhero comics that had come before it. Miller revitalized the elements that made these characters iconic by asking, "What would these supernaturally resourceful creatures do in the real world? How would the real world react to them?" The resulting mini-series shattered sales records and helped promote comics as a bona fide art form (before TDKR and Watchmen, the most popular "graphic novel" was probably Lady Chatterley's Lover).

Batman v Superman does nothing to advance the form, or even make a case that DC needs to make more films like it. It feels front-loaded with Stuff That's Worked Before, cynical mathematical calculations meant to pique interest just enough to win a stellar opening weekend:

Ben Affleck = Award-winning actor/director who says he's very proud of the work he did on this film.

Jesse Eisenberg = Oscar-nominated actor who played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network--a role that, on paper, easily translates to the sniveling, egomaniacal genius Lex Luthor.

Gal Gadot = Actress from the mega-popular The Fast and the Furious series, playing the first top-tier female superhero in a feature film. Plus, she's getting her own movie after this! To not support BvS is to stand against equality (or something)!

More propaganda, more illogical spaghetti. Affleck is very good in BvS, but the pride-in-this-project thing must be taken with a quarry of salt: remember when James Cameron said that Terminator: Genisys was the best Terminator sequel?

I'd had high hopes for Eisenberg after seeing him in my favorite film from last year, The End of the Tour. His character was super-smart, highly insecure, and downright conniving in the face of anyone he perceived as powerful. The actor's performance in BvS is an embarrassing-to-watch hybrid of the Zuckerberg character and The Joker--all giggly affectations, stammering, and singing***

As for Gadot, I would love to see her take on Wonder Woman in a more substantial film. Her brief screen time in BvS is a highlight. I anxiously await the fan edit that cuts around the Superman elements and provides a Wonder Woman-and-Batman-undercover mini-thriller. But there's nothing here that women should be particularly proud of. As Wonder Woman, Gadot fights a CGI monster while wearing an objectification-ready outfit; one can also see this kind of thing, in mercifully abbreviated form, by putting on any of Xena Warrior Princess' six seasons (or watching The Avengers, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or...).

And what of Superman? Once again, Henry Cavill makes the most of a nothing role. The Man of Steel is still on a grim-and-gritty hangover from Man of Steel, moping about the film in an existential crisis that makes him far less interesting to watch than Batman (perhaps another reason for losing top billing). A shame, since Cavill exhibited great presence and a gift for comedy in last summer's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Superman character is also wildly inconsistent, showing deep affection for a particular person in one scene, and then exhibiting Spock-like detachment in the middle (yes, literally the middle) of a grand-scale human tragedy. I don't expect BvS to be airy, but it's so oppressively humorless that there's no thrill, no contrast, when the title characters engage each other. It's just two soft-headed, depressed lunkheads beating the shit out of each other while destroying (again) the city they supposedly love.

Batman v Superman won't be DC's last comic-book movie, but I suspect its inevitable under-performance will make Warner Bros reconsider who they let play with their toys. On one hand, I hope I'm wrong: it's never good when the work of talented people (including  the legions of carpenters, lighting technicians, digital artists, etc.) is jeopardized by poor box office results. On the other hand, there's no reason those same artisans shouldn't be put to work on a project that actually lifts the genre out of the cinematic ghetto. Snyder has made another loud, incomprehensible mess that dresses like a film but doesn't act like one--a movie so long, violent, and thematically grim that its balance sheet will likely sting from lack of repeat business, family business, and repeat family business.

But it's a comic-book movie. In the minds of far too many indiscriminate fans, that makes Dawn of Justice bulletproof.

*This figure doesn't include marketing, which some estimate could jack the price past $400 million. Why can't we have free college again?

**There's no post-credits stinger, so it's okay to duck out an pee when the lights come up.

***Not a typo.

Friday
Mar182016

Allegiant, Part 1 (2016)

YA(wn)

It’s a good thing I didn’t write about Insurgent last year. The sequel to 2014’s Young Adult hit Divergent wasn’t awful, but it offered too little new material to warrant another two-plus-hour movie, much less inspire a review. The third film, Allegiant, is more of the same. Fortunately, I’ll only need to repeat myself once.

In the last five years, we've seen too many movies about dystopian futures in which a Chosen teenage girl must rise up to defeat a fascist menace—usually while deciding between two cute boys (one hunky and brooding, the other dopey-looking and squirrelly). Divergent offered a smart and compelling alternative to the bloated and confused (now, thankfully, dead) Hunger Games pictures, while also fitting comfortably within the genre. Author Veronica Roth stood out by layering mystery, politics, and science fiction into her plot, and creating a protagonist in Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) whose humility is genuine; whose romantic relationship is focused and understandable; and whose adventures take place primarily within the Matrix-like confines of a virtual world: Tris is literally a video game heroine, rather than a heroine who fights like she’s in a video game.

If you’re unfamiliar with the first two films, here’s a little background:

In Divergent, the tyrannical Jeanine (Kate Winslet) oversees a post-apocalyptic Chicago where people are divided into strictly defined factions (workers, scientists, warriors, etc.). At the end of the film, Tris and hunky ex-instructor Four (Theo James) incapacitate Jeanine and lead a small band of misfits to freedom in the nuclear wasteland beyond the city’s electrified wall. In InsurgentTris and company return to Chicago and incite a revolution. After killing Jeanine, much of the freshly awakened populace sets out to find freedom in the nuclear wasteland beyond the city’s electrified wall.

The third chapter opens with Four's mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), assuming control in the new power vacuum. She orders the remnants of the military to keep people from leaving the city, and orchestrates public executions of anyone remotely connected to Jeanine’s regime--including Tris’s brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort). Tris, Four, and the rebels escape into a sprawling, radioactive desert marked by downed satellites and blood-red rain.

The group stumbles upon a city-oasis camouflaged by digital mirrors and protected by armed drones. Turns out Chicago is a centuries-old petri dish created by the nuclear holocaust’s sole survivors, a cabal of scientists dedicated to reversing the effects of a global genetics war.1 Each Windy City refugee is assigned a role in the metropolis’s hierarchy—except for Tris, who draws the attention of David (Jeff Daniels), the facility’s director.

David reveals that Tris is the Doubly-Chosen One, the first human in two hundred years to have pure DNA. He brings her before a leadership council to obtain permission to further explore Tris’ potential.2 It’s not a spoiler to say that our rebel heroes eventually return to Chicago and wind up leading a revolution against their previously unseen puppet masters—or that the film ends with much of the freshly re-awakened populace setting out to find freedom in the nuclear wasteland beyond the city’s electrified wall.

I enjoyed Allegiant, but it has a lot of problems. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone outside the target demographic. The special effects often don’t support the ideas that inspired them. It’s pointless to set up an immersive 3D surveillance system, for example, if the dramatic payoff is tainted by dodgy CGI. What should be awe-inspiring moments for the characters become beacons of mockery for the audience. Same goes for the love story, which often interrupts the story-story's momentum, solely to produce trailer-ready shots of the attractive leads kissing. And the attempts at humor are as intrusive as they are unfunny.

Allegiant doesn’t need humor. This is dark material that, were it not shoehorned into the crowd-pleasing YA model, might have made for a timely and serious two-part sci-fi thriller. Instead, we’re now six hours deep into half-considered ideas, doe-eyed drama, and cut-rate special effects. Hot-button topics like genetic modification, technological addiction, propaganda, and even vaccination are deployed at the highest level of high-concept, only to be either discarded or shaped into McPatties of plot convenience.

It’s a shame, too, considering the stars’ apparent investment in the material. Woodley and James make the increasingly ridiculous and repetitive elements3 entertaining; James, in particular, has more going on behind the eyes than Allegiant's script requires of Four. Watts sells the conflict of a revolutionary who suddenly finds herself at the helm of the power she once railed against. Daniels plays a sufficiently insidious bureaucrat whose inviting demeanor almost explains away Tris’s borderline-criminal naivete in the second act.

Watch Daniels in the last ten minutes, though, as his character loses the upper hand. Something in the actor’s face suggests that he—in real time and in real life—knows he hasn’t seen the last of Tris and her friends. Lucky me, only one of us is obligated to show up for the next movie. If you don’t see a review of Allegiant, Part Two: Triumphant (or whatever they’ll call the “last” one) on this site next year, just know that either the target audience finally came to its senses—or I did.

1 In case you’re wondering, no, Khan Noonien Singh does not make a cameo appearance.

2 In case you’re wondering, no, the council does not tell Tris that they sense much fear in her, or that fear is the path to the dark side, that fear leads to anger, that anger leads to hate, and that hate leads to suffering.

3 The Divergent series now has as many mind-control climaxes as Star Wars has Death Stars.