It Follows

It Follows - Maika MonroeRemember the Scream movies? What was billed at the time as a series of knowing, witty take-downs of the slasher film genre, full of self-referential jokes and a spiralling plotline of ludicrously solemn fatalism, now looks like an arrogant attempt to speak on behalf of a genre and a generation, a nauseating spectacle that managed to pander to and sneer at its target audience in equal measure. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows similarly tackles genre tropes, but without snarky citations. Instead, it sets out an intriguing premise (a slow-moving demon-thing, in multiple human forms, ceaselessly pursues any individual carrying its sexually transmitted curse, which can only be passed on to another person through sexual intercourse), and sticks to it. The film builds a distinctive atmosphere, bathes it in a throbbing, nagging electronic score, and never punctures the mood with the leavening hijinks that are routinely wedged into anything aimed at a teenaged audience. And since movies so rarely frighten me, I’m always happy to admit when it happens: It Follows is really scary. It has a plot like a ghost story told at an unusually mean-spirited sleepover, the sombre tone of a classmate’s funeral, and it lingers in the mind like a malicious rumour.
It FollowsSo, while the Scream films had their cake and stabbed it in the neck by both mocking the silliness of teenagers in horror films and marshalling a cast of very silly teenagers, It Follows has a real feeling for its protagonists’ anxieties. While Scream (you can probably tell I hate those movies, and this is, I promise the last time I’ll use them as a strawman, or even mention them at all…) wrote out the “final girl” trope in big crayons, because it just seemed, like, totally stoopid that horror films should enshrine psychosexual terrors in popular culture, It Follows takes the trope seriously: if slasher movies have traditionally punished the promiscuous and heroised the virginal, this is one film that wants not to mock but to find out why. It takes the stigma and anxiety of teen sexuality and blows it up to a full-on horror trope in its own right. Of course, plenty of horror movies are about teen sex and the punishments that come to its practitioners from primitively moral killers. But It Follows reifies that sexuality into a deathly contagion: victims are confronted with a lethal double standard, sex is what gives them the curse, but also what staves it off.
It Follows A lesser horror film would have made easy mistakes: creating some ancient mystical motivation for the curse; featuring parents or other authority figures; wisecracking sidekicks; pop soundtrack. It Follows creates an atmosphere and then maintains it, without undercutting or subverting the tension. There’s a close-quarters sensuality to many shots that puts us right next to our central subject, Jay Height (Maika Monroe).
vlcsnap-2015-08-16-22h52m41s56 vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h01m24s167 vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h13m11s75 Note, for instance, the early scene where she observes the critters from her backyard swimming pool, and makes the easy decision to drown an ant on her arm: hands are prominent in many shots, too, a poignant rendering of a world both perceived through, and jeopardised by, the necessity of touch. This is not an unusual neorealist technique to create a sense of immediacy, but it is absolutely the right choice for this film: aligning us with Kelly makes it all the more frightening, since whatever is coming for her must also be coming for us, and we don’t get to observe her from a safe distance. We scan the environment for approaching death just as she does, and the often shallow focus frustrates that task; rarely has often screen space been so actively weighted with dread.
It FollowsOne strange aspect of the film is its placement in time. Musically and thematically, it’s in conversation with the 1980s. The TV screens seems to show only 1950s science fiction B-movies. This is probably a deliberate strategy to avoid pinning the film down to a specific temporal location, but it also shows us how genres cyclically (50s, 80s, now) latch onto the things they find unnerving (commies/conformity, sex/knives, sex/intimacy). It does mean that a film that clearly wants to talk about young people now, is devoid of the iconography of social media. And yet, it is fundamentally a film about sharing.
vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h02m30s62 vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h04m08s18Probably more profound than the film’s metaphor of sexual stigma as a killer curse is the way characters react to the threat, by having sex in order to share their fear. For some in this film, without giving too much away, knowing a potential partner is scared is an opportunity to exploit their sexuality, while others have an altruistic wish to take on the curse on behalf of a friend. But it’s a complicated picture, and ends with a couple unsure of what they’ve done or how scared they should be, anxious that everybody be as cursed as they are, and knowing that they can never be free, just threatened together. It’s a film not about why we hide our shame, but about why we find security in sharing it with someone, anyone else.

Jurassic World: How to Train your Dinosaurs

[Note: I wrote this quick review of Jurassic World a couple of hours after seeing it on opening day while on holiday in the Philippines. Then, things got busy, and I never got around to finishing it off and publishing it. So, here it is, limping along behind the zeitgeist, but hopefully of interest to some people. In the meantime, the film has munched on box office records left, right and centre, but I had little sense at the time that this was a truly blockbusting event unfolding in that nearly-empty auditorium on a scorching hot afternoon. Maybe the big audiences were shelling out to see it in 3D (in the Philippines, 3D tickets are double the 2D asking price), but since Jurassic World was a post-conversion job, and I’ve never seen a post-conversion 3D movie that wasn’t pointless, I opted for old school flat screens, thanks very much. The real story about this film’s money might be how it has grossed almost a fifth of its box office in China, an extraordinary and unprecedented amount: could it have implications for the sequel? Perhaps a full-blown subplot for Chinese-American geneticist Henry Wu, the only returning character, now taking on a somewhat villainous air? But seriously, let’s get this thing reviewed…] 

The short version of this review goes something like this: it’s OK. It’s not quite a sequel, not quite a reboot: it’s too reverent a tribute to the original film to be considered a restart to the JP franchise, and closer to the wave of slightly embarrassing 90s nostalgia that’s going around at the moment. As such, it plays disappointingly safe, but it’s at least sticking with a winningly watchable formula of building up a magnificent system that will gradually deteriorate into chaos and carnage as the film progresses. That’s always as alluring as building a beautiful, intricate sandcastle while tingling in anticipation for the moment the tide will come in and fuck with it. I’m sure most of us love to watch other people’s nice things get safely, fictionally annihilated. The first half of the film builds a nice sandcastle of plot threads, character arcs and spinning plates (hey, you’ll accept the premise of genetically engineered dinosaurs, but you can’t handle a couple of mixed metaphors?), with the insistent promise that the water will soon be trickling into the moat and knocking down some turrets.
Jurassic World Mosasaur. Yes, I think it's a Jaws reference.At the centre of Jurassic World is a great idea: we’ve passed the point where dinosaurs are a marvel and a novelty. We’re now at the stage where audiences are getting a little bored, and certainly have settled for the commoditisation and confinement of the dinosaurs. This is a neat pre-emptive strike against the charge no doubt coming from snarky moviegoers that we have seen all of these spectacular attractions before. The franchise has no new tricks to compare to that first flush of digital dinos from 1993, so its plotting turns that fatigue of spectacle back on its audience. But enough about the plot. Let’s cut straight to the dinosaurs. We don’t have to do an hour of world-building around here.Planet of DinosaursThe Jurassic Park films are not really part of an ongoing narrative, so much as variations on a trope, a history their various protagonists are condemned to repeat. They might also be seen as developments in what Bob Rehak calls a micro-genre of special effects, where particular modes of spectacle might circulate in popular culture independently of their framing narratives: each new Jurassic Park movie speaks to other depictions of CGI dinosaurs, most notably the franchise’s own “canonical” representations of the big lizards. Kristen Whissel has referred to visual effects emblems, the recurring motifs embodied by particular kinds of visual effect (the digital crowd, for instance) that carry a lot of the meaningful weight of a film’s thematic import. For Whissel, CGI creatures are always too alive, too much in constant motion, and “overcoded” to “compensate for their ontological differences”, i.e they have an excess of vitality to make up for their lack of human or organic qualities, using algorithmic gesticulation to cover up their lack of actual lifeforce. The vfx dinosaur is one of Whissel’s emblems, signifying the imminent threat of a monstrous (scientific), apocalyptic overload, but its meaning has changed over time. Since at least the release of Jurassic Park, digital dinosaurs have come to stand in for notions of scientific hubris and the Frankensteinian terrors of creatures created by man in defiance of God and his deific ilk. Dinosaurs did not serve these symbolic functions at the hands of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth and others in the many variations on the “Lost World” theme (adventurers discover a plateau, island or other isolated space where a zone of prehistory has been preserved against millions of years of evolution), which were more like the fantastical return to a prehistoric repressed than a prediction of a corrupt technoscientific complex overturning the natural order. The “bad science” version of filmic dinosaurs is undoubtedly inspired by the Jurassic Park movies’ use of genetic engineering as a McGuffin, but I like to think it is also an outgrowth of the proliferation of CGI; somehow the increasing facility for conjuring creatures on a computer stirs up issues of simulation and representation that parallel the concept of cloning. In that sense, we might conceivably read Jurassic World as a film about the problem of creating a spectacle that won’t run away from its creators and mess up all their hard work. But in case you were curious about how much the digital technologies had progressed since Jurassic Park III in 2001, I’d say they’ve been refined a lot, but little has fundamentally changed except for the almost total replacement of animatronics with CG, and using motion capture to allow actors to perform the roles of some the dinosaurs. Some the CG is also pretty coarse in places, especially in all of the shots involving the giant aquatic mosasaur, a big misjudgement of scale and perspective.
Jurassic_Park_sam_neill_T-REXJurassic Park (1993) is a difficult nostalgia object for me. I saw it in the first week of its release in 1993 and was bowled over. I can distinctly remember the prickly heat, the palpable tension in the cinema as the T-Rex sniffed out Alan Grant and the kids as they backed up against their overturned Jeep. Coincidentally, I was working at a Chrysler/Jeep showroom at the time, and remember trying to apply the Jurassic Park promotional stickers to couple of Cherokees: harder than it looks. I can recall the way the velociraptors were built up as a chilling offscreen threat, and that their eventual attack was seat-clenchingly frightening. But the film has diminished for me with every subsequent viewing. I can still admire its technical properties, and I still use it as an example in my teaching to illustrate how a visual effects set-piece can be structured. Compared to today’s summer blockbusters it is impressively patient, not just in the build-up to the collapse of the park’s systems and the ushering in of dinosauric mayhem, but in the construction of individual set-pieces (that T-Rex attack is long, and most of it involves calmly waiting for the pitter-patter … sorry, PITTER-PATTER of enormous feet. But I find Jurassic Park‘s technological discourse far too schematic and obvious: scenes where characters sit around tables and argue about the merits of cloning are infinitely less eloquent than the visual interventions in that debate by the dinosaurs themselves. In a world of climate change, economic meltdown and Tweeted beheadings, the idea of genetically engineering dinosaurs as an ethical tipping point for humankind now seems rather quaint.

I also became distracted by the nature/nurture question that the film never addresses: if the first generation of cloned dinosaurs had no parents, how did they learn all their behaviours? Why are these beasts not utterly delinquent? Were they reared with puppets, like condor chicks in captivity, and if so, when can we have an entire movie about that, please? In Jurassic World, Chris Pratt’s theories on how to raise and train velociraptors dips a toe into the idea of humans’ parenting responsibilities towards their surrogate monsters. But still the creatures show few signs of having been raised in captivity, despite the films’ half-hearted subtext that zoos may be creating unreal impressions of the natural world: as one character says, “you don’t want reality, you want a simulation you can control.” The dinosaurs we are shown in these films are always perfect specimens. I wanted Jurassic World to have more of a feel for the mundane realities of zoos. The smells, the cramped enclosures, bored animals, sick animals, mentally ruined by lifetimes of confinement. There’s a little energy behind that idea but not enough: the tech and the facilities at Jurassic World are all state of the art and implausibly advanced. In turn, Jurassic World feels very tightly honed, and near-phobically avoids innovation or surprise. This is a movie about chaos which has no chaos about it. This is why Colin Trevorrow was a good choice – his calling card, Safety Not Guaranteed is a faux-indie movie about shambolic, unsettled characters that is very tightly formulaic despite its quirkily fantastical ending.
Jurassic World Zara i-really-didnt-have-this-coming
I get mixed messages from Jurassic World, especially by the time we get into the pteranodon attack on a mass of soda-guzzling, tourists, which has such a maniacal glee to it that could have been guest-directed by Joe Dante. Are the crowds in the park some super rich elite? Are we supposed to delight in their hubris being punished? The film assures us that corporate and military types inevitably conspire to fuck things up for everyone else, and that they deserve their toothy deaths, but what about the visitors? Are we meant to applaud their destruction along with their bratty offspring? One particular character, whose only crime seems to have been not thinking children are awesome, suffers a ridiculously protracted and baroque death, fought over by a series of beasts. It’s either evidence that a subplot in which she did something monstrous was cut out, or the film really wants us to see what happens to women in heels and skirts who lack a maternal streak: a cautionary example for our heroine, who at the same moment is finding her protective heroine persona.
Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World - Look, she's also holding a flare! I also wanted to see the filmmakers explore, for instance, how our understanding of dinosaurs, and their cultural reception was changed by their de-extinction. But here I go again, complaining that a film does what it wants to do and not what I want it to do. OK, fair point: the film’s response might simply be that humankind would quickly accept as mundane reality their new co-existence with dinosaurs. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that by the fourth film in a series we should be expanding the ideas and developing the themes instead of repeating the same cyclical narrative of the park’s attractions being fought over by the same corrupt and vested interests. Another thing nagged me, especially given the global audience to which the film must surely be addressed, and from whom it will draw most of its revenue: how did the JW owners get away with hiring so few local workers? There’s little sense of this park being an actually situated location on South America. Oh, and Chris Pratt riding through the woods with raptors is the new Shia Labeouf swinging through trees with monkeys. Finally, it’s worth noting that for all their emphasis on digital spectacle, when you really need a dinosaurs to die, affectingly, in close up, you call the animatronics dept. The end. I’m done complaining about blockbusters that are adequate to the task but unable to cut loose and thrill.
Jurassic-World-Raptor-Bike-Chase Chris Pratt

345-Word Reviews: Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives Ryan GoslingFollowing the popular and critical success of Drive, Ryan Gosling reteams with director Nicolas Winding Refn for a film that is both more and less of the same: more vengeance, torture, blows to the head, and less movement, less dialogue, less significance. From its stately depiction of a neon-and-bokeh Bangkok (shot by Eyes Wide Shut‘s Larry Smith), to its hyper-Freudian, return-to-the-womb conclusion (cribbed from George Bataille’s Ma mère), Only God Forgives is a great-looking but stilted drama, painfully obvious, studiously enigmatic, and boringly sadistic.  Continue reading

Gravity: The Weight of Water

Gravity Sandra Bullock

[This post contains spoilers for Gravity, but since I seem to be the last person in the universe to see the film, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem…]

By the time I got around to seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, so much had already been said. It received rapturous reviews, then a bunch of criticisms of its scientific plausibility, then prompted, or at least chimed with, talk about space debris, roused the obligatory Oscar “buzz” (i.e. somebody somewhere thought it might win a couple of awards), and generally came on like an end-of-year blockbuster that showed the summer how thrills and spectacle should have been handled. So, while I feel like I want to write a little something about the film, I’m not too keen to burden you with a retread of opinions you might already have found elsewhere.

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345-Word Reviews: World War Z

World War ZNeither the calamity that its troubled production might have led you to expect, nor the triumph that its $250 million price-tag should lead you to demand, World War Zed offers a number of delights. This is a globalised disaster movie, told not from the perspective of bedraggled survivors who end up turning on each other in a desperate fight over dwindling supplies (the genre template laid down by Romero, and canonised most recently in The Walking Dead comics and TV series), but through the lens of a UN-led operation to find a solution to the zombie pandemic sweeping the planet. This omniscient overview sometimes dilutes what should be a terrifying vision of a world falling apart, because it gives an unwarranted sense of control over events, and the film plays out in a doggedly linear hop from one country to the next along a thread of tangential clues.

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345-Word Reviews: Man of Steel

Man of Steel flying

The critical orthodoxy has it that Man of Steel is a fine, pastoral origin-story for S******n, before it descends into an overlong, overloud finale. I agree with the second part of that assessment, but I barely noticed any modulation between soft/hard, fast/slow, quiet/LOUD in this movie. The trailer promised a morose, contemplative superhero, thoughtfully bearded, in search of himself. But, after a tacky cod-medieval prologue on Krypton, we get three minutes of shoe-gazing before S******n’s stripped to the waist, on fire, plucking workmen out of a blazing oil-rig. So much for the build-up. Continue reading

Things You Need to Know About Le Mépris

Le Mepris Poster Brigitte Bardot Jean-Luc Godard[BLOG IN PROGRESS. I started this post hoping it might be of benefit to my students. As much as I love the film, I know it can be off-putting to non-film specialists, and to plenty of other people unfamiliar with Jean-Luc Godard‘s style of filmmaking. I intend it to be an ongoing post, and will add to it periodically, so if you have any thoughts about the film, or anything you think that viewers need to know about Le Mépris in order to get maximum interest from it, leave a comment below with your ideas and suggestions. In particular, I’d like to hear from anyone who found this post useful in getting to grips with the movie: what did you find most helpful or informative?]

In summary, it’s part domestic drama, in which a man tries to find out why his wife no longer loves him, and part meta-cinematic backstage dramatisation of the adaptation process, in which that man struggles with his job as a screenwriter on an American film of Homer‘s Odyssey. Filmed as the Hollywood studio system collapsed, Le Mépris is a meditation on the relationship between art and life, film and reality.
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The Miffy Movie

Nijntje de Film or The Miffy Movie

I admit it. This must seem like a strange review with which to begin (belatedly) the New blogging Year, especially after such a long hiatus. But I’m keen to get things going again around here, and to me this seems like as good a place as any to begin, because Nijntje de Film (or The Miffy Movie, as its English language title would have it) will always have a special place in my heart. It’s not because this is an especially profound or beautiful film, but because it was the first time I ever took my daughter to the cinema. Evie is nearly 15 months old. Miffy (or Nijntje, as they call her in her native Netherlands) has been around for nearly six decades. I knew I wanted to test Evie out at the cinema to see how she would respond, and this seemed like a good place to start; Evie doesn’t watch TV, except for the occasional hand-picked cartoon (Peppa Pig, Rastamouse and Disney’s Silly Symphonies have so far proven to be her favourites), but she recognises Miffy from toys and merchandise and, more importantly, Dick Bruna’s beautiful books. We’ve also taken Evie to visit the Dick Bruna house in Utrecht, so she can identify the little bunny on sight by now. Continue reading

345-Word Reviews: War Horse

My childhood is strewn with memories of animal movies: KesWatership DownPlague DogsStorm Boy, Ring of Bright WaterTarka the Otter etc. Invariably, these served as starter-wheels of grief, early encounters with death and loss. Things rarely ended well for these critters. Don’t worry, though: Steven Spielberg is not in the business of scarring children. His entry into the genre is Saving Private Horsey, which is ostensibly told from the point of view of a horse as it changes hands from one carer to another. Continue reading

345-Word Reviews: The Woman in Black

One of the more successful efforts to buff up the Hammer Films brand, The Woman in Black gives Daniel Radcliffe the role of the respectable gent given the challenge of focusing on his paperwork in a place of mystery and dread, surrounding by superstitious rubes who pop up to tell him he’s not welcome round these parts. Forty years ago, this part might have been played by Ralph Bates, but now its a vehicle for the ex-Potter to show whether he can branch out. Most of the film consists of Radcliffe, his lower jaw determinedly jutting out with the tension of it all, exploring a tricked-out, pop-up house filled with spooky Victoriana. The obligatory shots of pale faces peering mournfully out of upper-floor windows are also given a good airing.

The trappings of the abandoned 19th-century nursery (broken dolls, rocking chairs, staring-eyed portrait paintings, clockwork toys) have become the visual shorthand for uncanny terror, the return of a repressed childhood trauma none of us can actually remember. These are the hard, unhuggable toys invested with the memories of games with long-dead children (that the film is about dead young ‘uns only compounds the creepy connotations), superstitious markers of the end that awaits us all: we will be outlived by our stuff. There is potential shock built into the mechanism of a moving toy: haunted house movies are all about anticipating movement in inert things and, to paraphrase Chekhov, you know that the wind-up monkey automaton from the first act is going to spring into life before the last.

Scares are effectively engineered by James Watkins (director of chavsploitation outing Eden Lake), and I must admit that my buttons were successfully poked with a cold finger a few times, but we race so swiftly from one jolt to the next that there’s little modulation between quiet repose and skin-jumping shockery. Like any good ghost story, it sets up a contest between rational and supernatural interpretations of paranormal phenomena but, as usual, rational explanations, which tend to make for less unsettling horror movies, don’t stand a chance.