Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead are a tactile duo, crafting thought-provoking, effects-driven, genre-defying features filled with big ideas on a micro-budget. Their last film, Spring, which can only be described as a “romantic body horror” and was a favorite for many who sought it out after its 2014 Toronto Film Festival debut, failed to find much of an audience among the general public but solidified the partnership, who had previously collaborated on 2012’s low-budge horror flick Resolution, as a pair for cinephile’s to keep a close eye on. Rather than pulling in the reins, the creative partners have gone even bigger with The Endless, a heady science-fiction-slash-horror—slash-cult-thriller-slash-sibling-drama that’s ambitious to a fault. Read More
Watch enough movies and they all start to look the same. Prescribing to an Ebertian view, that’s because they are the same, just with the details swapped in and out. Stereotypes and movies seem to be kin in this way: they’re developed from commonality. Like it or not, there’s a lot of bad smelling French folk, and it’s hard not to find a recent sci-fi movie that doesn’t stink.
Transcendence was borne from a growing fear of technological advancement and artificial intelligence. Really, it asked the right questions. The only problem: Wally Pfister was the one to raise his hand. Somehow he turned a good concept into I Spambot, a joke of a movie. Johnny Depp transforms into a computer and subsequently takes over the world. From nothing, he grows tentacles and conquers death, quite literally reviving people from the grave, even at one point building himself out of dark cyber-matter. The whole “is he a computer?” question hinged on figuring out whether Captain Crack still had any emotions. Except, no one really gave a shit. Whatever Pfister was going for, he failed miserably. Transcendence was so monumentally bad that no one could figure out who the joke was on.
Neil Burger’s Limitless wasn’t bad; it was just a nothing film. A mansion built on an eroded mountain slope is set to crumble. Anyone who’s ever opened a Psych textbook knows that 10% brain theory is a crock of shit fallacy. So … Bradley Cooper can take a pill that makes his brain more effective? College kids have a name for that: Adderall. At least he didn’t grow any tentacles. Limitless, just like its premise, was limited from the start. What happens when a human can use 100% of its brain? Well, apparently, Transcendence.
Lucy is a Luc Besson lucid dream. You don’t realize it isn’t real until halfway through. At the start it’s more of a nightmare.
The French director decided to expand the transhumanistic concept Transcendence garroted with a desk chair. “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%,” reads Lucy’s tagline. When they’re so blatant about a putrid concept like this, it’s tough to figure out if they can access their brain at all.
For what initially seemed like a brainless film, Scarlett Johansson felt like a good fit. The jury’s still out on whether she’s any good as an actress. As the eponymous Lucy, she goes from dumbfounded to unbounded in spurts. Her green eyes are a window into what appears to be a great big void. Caught in a massive scheme, she’s accidentaly drugged by Asian drug lords with “CPH4,” a brain-activating powder the kids are going to love, her mind starts to explode and her eyes circle the color wheel. Besson loads her brain like a phone charging: as she gets access to more and more brain power, her percentage flashes on screen.
She goes from 0-100 like Jason Statham in Crank. When her body intakes the drug, she starts seizing up. Besson throws in insert shots of cells splitting and blue energy surging through her bloodstream. Then she starts to float. All of a sudden she’s on the ceiling, tweaking out. None of it is remotely possible, though it’s made not to feel surreal.
Reprising his exact role in Transcendence, Morgan Freeman serves as Lucy’s resident cerebral professor. At the podium, he waxes about the cerebellum like he’s unveiling a new iPhone. What happens when the brain reaches 20% usage? 100%? Freeman, concerned, says there’s no way to tell.
With movies like Transcendence and Limitless getting more and more common, common sense seems to be going out the window. Things explode because they have to, else why would anyone care? Humans are given unfathomable powers—impossible even. Unnatural is made out as normal as an excuse to throw in big effects. Characters have endless capabilities. Don’t think about it. Eat your popcorn and be entertained by crazy CGI and bad writing. When did we turn into Androids?
I’m not sure quite when it clicked that I’d been duped. Besson’s got the uniquely weird French sense of humor that lends well to the satirical. Les Français always seem to be good at making fun of themselves, but they’re way better at making fun of everyone else. Lucy’s a truly awful adventure/sci-fi film. Seen through the lens of a bizzaro comedy though, it’s the funniest film of the year. It might just be the best superhero movie in years. Lucy is 86 minutes of eloquent parody.
Lucy’s powers quickly become insane. With a frenetic, hectic pacing, Besson fits in references to ET, Transcendence, Limitless, Inception, Planet of the Apes—basically any sci-fi movie that’s ever hit the big screen. She reads minds, steals memories with one touch; feels no pain; mind-controls German Shepherds; stops time and speeds it up; hacks into every cell phone, TV, computer; detects cancer and travels at the speed of light. She is limitlessness embodied, everything Transcendence should have been.
By the end, she’s swiping her way through time like she’s on an iPad. This movie has dinosaurs. At one point, she witnesses creation itself. None of it coheres, but it looks gorgeous. Nonsense platitudes about life and death are thrown in like the shots of zoo animals humping tossed in for fun. Freeman and Johansson babble about ones and twos and science—complete gibberish. ScarJo de-materializes and turns into a pseudo-Tomb Raider. Then she turns into a computer. A character asks what she’s doing and Freeman replies that she’s “searching for life and matter.” Obviously. Besson’s film is the Condescendence to Pfister’s Transcendence.
Lucy is a masterpiece of mockery and wit, made Hollywood by gorgeous, over-the-top CGI and Johansson’s and Freeman’s hilarious self-depricating work. With a first act that’s egregiously terrible, Lucy is one big trap that never fully lets you in on the gag. Shot in Taipei, Paris and New York, Lucy is stunning, unpredictable and laugh out loud funny. All of this packed in at less than an hour and a half, you leave the theater refreshed and giddy. What a shocker: a French guy made a movie that doesn’t stink.
“Under the Skin”
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson
Of the many masters of cinema, Stanley Kubrick bulges out an esoteric monolith; an unbound vision of dystopian tomorrowland. Knowingly or no, he redefined cinema and still has a hulking influence over modern pictures. He started making movies in the age of Hays Code, a totalitarian, aggressively Calvinist model of censorship that restricted the depiction of such things as “pointed profanity”, “any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette”, “illegal traffic in drugs”, and other horrors like “white slavery” (…). According to the master himself, these stringent policies ruined his 1962 adaptation of the controversial novel Lolita, a source riddled with sexual affront unsuitable for the likes of pre-Vietnam War gentleladies and gentlemen.
With censorship regulations lifted in 1968 (noticeably congruent to the proliferation of public access to the actual, and horrific, goings on in Nam), Kubrick led the charge into uncharted territory, stringing sex, violence, and gore like beads onto the necklace of cinema’s rebirth. Visually striking tableaus of the “dark side” came to define his conclusively arresting work as he quickly became a maestro of these newly unregulated waters. Only four years later, he released what is still considered one of the most disturbing and controversial films to ever hit the market, another adaptation: A Clockwork Orange. Heralded as a celebration of the nasty side of human nature, Clockwork was a whole new bag and met mixed response from the critical and filmgoing community. Even critic Godfather Roger Ebert dumped on it. Lasciviousness, sadism, and sexual perversion went on to define many themes that ebbed throughout the pantheon of Kubrick’s work and the many, many filmmakers who he influenced.
Jonathan Glazer‘s latest, Under the Skin, has drawn much early comparison to Kubrick’s work, most notably, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The similarities aren’t difficult to unearth as his work often feels like straight homage, if not strong stylistic replication. And when it’s not busy being magnificently inaccessible, Under the Skin‘s powerful visual topography and mundane scene work provide the audience an unnaturally vague stethoscope to cull their own meaning from Glazer’s work. His is a film that could be interpreted six ways to Sunday and still wouldn’t have one sound, “definitive” reading. It’s a tone poem for the sci-fi nutcase, a probing of what it to be human, ineradicably captured through the eyes of an alien.
Like Clockwork, Under the Skin unfolds in parabolic fashion with the rise and descent of our “heroine” – a mysterious seductress from another world. She’s not as uncouth as Alex but her victims are just as many. Glazer’s brazenly obscure opening sequence details our unnamed seductress in the belly of her inception. She’s pieced together with the wardrobe of casual victim the first, practicing newfound pronunciation, perfecting an English accent like Neo downloading Kung Fu. Wearing a Scarlett Johansson skin suit, the world is her oyster.
But Glazer refuses to walk on eggshells around his audience, nor does he yield to the straight-forward demands of the mass consumer. His work lives in a world where Kubrick is king, where pop sensibilities drown alongside the arbitrary family that surfaces in the film’s midst. It’s a film of coincidence and self-discovery, told through parabolic symbolism and vague iconography. We craft our own meaning around the uncertain infrastructure he’s presented. Reality is Inception limbo. We build, we destroy. Spin the top to make sure it’s all real.
Johansson is in increasingly common adroit form, an apt femme fatale that serves as protagonist and antagonist both. Knowingly dressed down so her natural beauty can shine through, she doesn’t quite put in the caliber of career-topping performance one would hope for in such a one-woman-show. As her character pulls a reverse “Shining”, becoming increasingly tapped into the meaning of the human struggle, Johansson is afforded more opportunities to perform a killing blow but never manages quite the venomous sting one would expect. She plays her character like a living Venus Fly Trap. Cloying helplessness flows into a dastardly come-hither dance. She snares us all.
What Glazer fails to capture of Kubrick’s cajolery is the subversive but populist appeal he purposefully built into the foundation of his work. No matter how out there Kubrick got, he maintained a semblance of mainstream magnetism. There’s a measure of esoteric relatability in Kubrick’s films that escape his many protege wannabes, Glazer included. Then again, Kubrick might be a master because of his unusual circumstance, his being a child of two eras of film. That he was forced to function within a box for so long, when he did broke out, he had all the tools and training to transcend generic storytelling tropes. In many ways, the cell of censorship made his blossoming that much more potent and purposeful. Glazer’s work is what happens when you start at Z and attempt to work your way forward.
No wonder then that In the Skin is a conflagration of human genitalia. Penises – flaccid and fully boned up – float towards the siren’s call of Johansson’s perpetually undressing figure. An explicit experiment on just how weird humans are in their natural state or a celebration of turn of the century carnal liberation, Glazer’s intentions are as masked as the occult figurines of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
For all its lurid obscurity, Glazer’s film finds potency rejuvenating the strange in cinema. Obscurity is his landmark, blurry ideology his send off. Under the Skin is sure to be the talk of cinephile’s niche circles like Enemy was last month and for good reason: it’s engaging, seductive and totally fucked in the head. It’s just enough to temporarily numb your psyche and challenge your assumptions of what cinema ought to be.
But even when you’re inevitably scratching your head as the credits roll, the repeated vignette of Johansson’s stripping down the runway will prove burned in your mind’s eye, captivating and near medicinal purpose enough to warrant the indie theater ticket price.
“Space Station 76”
Directed by Jack Plotnick
Starring Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Matt Bomer, Marisa Coughlan, Jerry O’Connell, Kylie Rogers
Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi
The 1970s were an age of looking towards the stars. From Star Wars to Star Trek, it was a decade of endless possibilities, a time that saw instant dinners, laser weaponry and hovercrafts around every corner. It witnessed the culmination of the space race, the end of the Vietnam War, and the birth of a new unchartered epoch in the suburban trenches of Americana. Mimicking the uneasy blend of conservatism and forward-looking gung-ho-manship that defined the generation, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Jack Plotnick has made Space Station 76 a soapy space opera; a smartly satirical smoothie of 70s manifest destiny – ripe with the impractical hopes of intergalactic expansionism – cut with the tedium of suburban ennui.
At the forefront of this final frontier are an unlikely cast of characters, each representative of the many uncertainties and insecurities of the era. There’s the boredom weary housewife, Misty (Marisa Coughlan), who spends her days slurping down Prosacs, “programing” the crew’s meal du jour, and occasionally sleeping around with Steve (Jerry O’Connell). When she’s not confessing her feelings to the on-board robotic psychiatrist, Dr. Bot – whose toy-sized presence and pre-programed wisdoms are always accompanied by fits of laughter – she mopes and gossips. An icon of post-50s feminine guile, her boozy, unscrupulous mannerisms are as sardonically iconic as her down-on-his-luck everyman husband, Ted, played by Matt Bomer.
Having never quite caught a break, and now sporting a clunky robotic arm – a perfectly retro-futuristic brand of low-budget prop – Ted is haunted by his lack of accomplishments, caught in a cycle of self-destructive lethargy lead by his penchant for illegal horticulture and unsure of his place in the world (er, universe). His emotional arc reflects the pathos of those who nervously straddled The Draft, haunted by the withering courage of a fresh faced soldier never to see a day in combat. He’s shaken but for all the wrong reasons.
Enter new co-pilot Jessica (Liv Tyler) who is at her core representative of the shifting winds of the feminism movement, a firmly competent and confident substitute for a traditionally male role. Striking up an affectionate relationship with Ted’s daughter Sunshine (Kylie Rogers, who looks adorable in a nerdtastic pair of specs,) long-gone sparks of tenderness begin to rekindle the purpose in Ted’s life.
Jessica’s maternal instincts juxtaposed against her inhospitable womb is an example of the tragic irony that Plotnick hits on again and again, to such great effect. But it’s Patrick Wilson, who plays Captain Glenn with startling sensitivity, that is the most outstanding of the bunch and the pinnacle of Plotnick’s satirical heights. As the gruff but gay commander, Glenn’s sexuality is a thing of great shame, something he keeps deeply closeted. Glenn’s stern persona is encapsulated in Wilson’s patriarchal mustache, a metaphorical affront to shield others from the shame he buries, a mask to disguise his bleeding soul. The arrival of Jessica, who doggedly seeks the true reason behind Glenn’s last co-pilot (and secret lover’s) sudden reassignment, sets him on a crash course with his own inner demons…and some asteroids.
The stocky sets, “pew pew” sound design and clunky CGI – that look like crafted on a circa 1976 computer – are as kitschy as they come but the human relationships they serve to frame always feel universal and timeless. Through satire, Plotnick has stumbled upon some brave new world. Bold and esoteric, he’s shown that one doesn’t need to look at the future from behind the jaded lens of an iPhone 5, that things may well be all the more interesting if we rewind the clock and only then begin to look forward.
Directed by Leigh Janiak
Starring Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway, Ben Huber, Hanna Brown
Thriller, Horror, Sci-Fi
In 1954, Colliers Magazine published Jack Finney‘s sci-fi horror serial The Body Snatchers. Since then, this fire starter novella has led to a handful of direct film adaptations (the latest being Oliver Hirschbiegel‘s 2007 The Invasion starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman) and dozens of spinoffs (John Carpenter‘s The Thing for instance.) But even more importantly, Finney’s creation all but gave birth to a whole subsection of genre: the infamous body invasion flick. In the years since, many filmmakers have employed this humble little niche market as an elastic stage to claim veritable scares by peddling harrowing practical visual effects and unsettling character shifts (in the best of cases) or CG sight gags and the banal formula of a group’s numbers mysteriously thinning (in the worst of cases). Director and co-writer Leigh Janiak though sees the genre as a chance to explore change on a microscopic scale, to prod just how absolutely horrifying it would be to see the one you love most temporally drained from their own body. Let’s just say, it’s not nice.
With the very talented Rose Leslie (Ygritte from Game of Thrones) and Henry Callaway at her disposal, Janiak prohibits an immense talent for directing her actors into believable territory, even under such inconceivable circumstances. From the opening montage where we meet newlyweds Bea and Paul undergoing matrimonial traditions like cake fighting (even though they forewent a real cake for cinnamon buns) and recounting the events by which they met (bad Indian food, it’s always bad Indian food!) to Rose’s fleeting misguided attempts to protect her husband from her extraterrestrial transformation (“They’ll never find you down here”) and through all the bumping of uglies in between, Leslie and Callaway sell the show as genuine.
Even on the heels of the more outrageous elements, their steadfast performances point to a unshaken understanding of their character’s respective head spaces. For the genre, it’s an uncharacteristically committed pair of performances and with Janiak jamming her cameras right in the midst of their personal space, we feel like we’re right alongside them, an equal victim of some inexplicable emotional violation.
That is really where the true horror of these kinds of body snatching stories lies. Worse yet than seeing someone shot by a laser beam or abducted by some ethereal blue beam, there’s something infinitely more jarring to standing witness to an individual’s personality being siphoned out of them. Janiak’s film engages this process in stages. After running into what seems like the only other two people living in a ten mile radius, couple Annie and Will (who Bea just so happened to share a summer love with in the way, way back of past childhood flirtations), Janiak presents a first taste of “off-ness”. Annie’s withdrawn, confuzzled and all around off. She’s stage one of a mental virus, the foreshadow of what’s to come.
Shortly after meeting them, Paul wakes in the middle of the night to find the spot in bed next to him abandoned and cold to the touch. With harebrained suspicions of infidelity, he charges from the house only to find Bea naked, disorientated and caked in mud. Upon bringing her inside, a patch of what appears to be bug bites around her crotchal region alarms him. It’s nothing to worry about, she pleads in unconvincing manner. Instead of slamming on the brakes and seeing whatever transformation to come take place overnight, Janiak picks at her plate like a sparrow to birdseed. Like a gas leak from the brainstem, Bea isn’t replaced outright so much as reborn one blink at a time, reinvented with each breathe drawn, re-imagined with every performance of normalcy.
Watching Bea recite milestone events from her own life into the mirror mimics an earlier scene where she practices a speech to get out of engaging in post-marital carnal relations but in the space between, she’s become more drained – more a shell than the filling. She’s lost another chunk of “Bea.” It’s the hollow spaces between the words, the falsity of her gestures, the empty recitation of loving remarks that imbues Honeymoon with such an eerie tautness. Bea being such an unreliable character, we never know what’s coming next and right up to the very last moments, we never really get a grasp on how much “Bea” is left in Bea after all.
And though Honeymoon may take place at a cabin in the woods, the camp has been left at home. Janiak’s take is fatally humorless, devoutly sobering. Instead of harping on frights, she’s left us with a steamy atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a butter knife and serve it at as a wedding cake. Even the hollowed out bride and groom toppers wouldn’t be missing.
As Bea and Paul’s deserted woodland homestead becomes an unwelcome chrysalis, we’re left with little more than the remains of an evaporating relationship. Like Bea’s special nightgown (though it’s more hoary than whory) that Paul finds in the woods after her disappearance, there’s chunks inexplicably missing, impossible to recover, chalked up to some pieceless puzzle. But even after everything, there’s still some inkling of connection left, some fleeting memory of what it means to care for each other.
Perhaps that’s her intent after all, to show us something beautiful only to take it away, leaving tatters and fragments of what it meant to be able to connect with someone, to tell them you love them and actually mean it. By the end, “Bea” is reduced to mumbling her twisted version of sweet nothings but I’m still not convinced that all is lost of the well-intending New York butterfly she once was. Even in her harrowing final act, there’s love or at least something masquerading as such.
When you think of filmmakers from the sci-fi or horror genre, the first thing that pops into your mind most likely isn’t a young female director. Leigh Janiak though is here with Honeymoon to challenge that assumption. Crafting a modern sci-fi/horror film actually worth remembering, Janiak showcases her razor sharp ability to cull great performances while demonstating a kingpin-level status of economic filmography.
With only a few weeks of shooting (many of which were under threat of rain), four actors and a tent-sized crew, Janiak has wrung all the best elements of a genre film out, rinsed and refused to repeat, offering a genuinely eerie, wholly engaging body snatchers narrative. From our review of the film,
“Though Honeymoon may take place at a cabin in the woods, the camp has been left at home. Janiak’s take is fatally humorless, devoutly sobering. Instead of harping on frights, she’s left us with a steamy atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a butter knife and serve it at as a wedding cake. Even the hollowed out bride and groom toppers wouldn’t be missing.”
Debuting in the midnight section of this year’s SXSW festival, I had a chance to speak with Leigh about where Honeymoon came from, the challenges of working on a tight budget, and whether or not she believes in aliens.
Firstly, I really enjoyed Honeymoon. What was your inspiration for writing this, I know you co-wrote it, was it mostly you that came up with the idea?
Leigh Janiak: Phil (Graziadei), my writing partner, we met when we were freshmen at NYU, a long time ago. When we come up with ideas, we don’t really keep track of whose idea it was first, our process is so intertwined. Basically what happened was, in 2009 or 2010, I saw Tanya Hardinger and Monsters within a couple months of one another. It jolted me out of a scriptwriting process, because we had been spending four or five years writing scripts, meeting people at production companies trying to break into the business that way. Seeing these movies inspired me. “With the next film we write, let’s actually make a movie.” If we don’t take things into our own hands, it’s going to be forever before we actually get hired to do a studio-level movie. You know, years and years and years. We went into writing Honeymoon with this idea that it was gonna be a contained genre movie, that we thought that we could get made. The idea itself grew out of this idea of exploring how something very familiar can become other, or monstrous. Picking this idea of a relationship and destroying it. Connecting to that, we thought about bigger budget ideas that we really loved, and the audience could understand. What we wanted to do was make this small, rounded, intimate version of that.
You work with such a small cast. There are four people credited working on it, but only two are you really dealing with for the most part. How does that effect the dynamic between yourself and the crew, and does it make it more of a collaborative effort between you guys?
LJ: Certainly. An interesting thing: Rose and Harry had met once before in London before they arrived on set. They got to set, maybe five days before production began. The three of us had about four days where we could maybe spend some time working together. I wouldn’t say it was rehearsal, it was more like talking through the characters, making sure we were all on the same page about where their head spaces were at certain points through the script, and really going through that process together which I think was invaluable. Rose approached Bea from a very outside perspective. Really analyzing who she was, how she thought Bea would react in a situation, there was a space between Rose the actress and Bea the character. Whereas Harry is very much more like method and he explored who Paul was from the inside-out. Initially that was a bit challenging, because when you only have two actors and they have such different approaches to their craft, you kind of have to negotiate that difference. But I think ultimately it ended up working really well with the dynamic of the characters because they are slowly drifting apart so to speak. It’s just such an intense environment when you have pretty much only two people the whole time. That took a lot of screen time for both of them and they really didn’t have a lot of down time. We shot six-day weeks so they didn’t have much time off, so the whole thing became very intimate. We all spent a lot of time together. I think it was very collaborative because of that and I just felt very lucky: they’re both so talented and they really elevated everything that they touched.
Their performances were undoubetly fantastic throughout the film. You haven’t yet released an official budget on this and probably can’t because it’s still in acquisition, but I think we can assume it was somewhat modest. Can you tell me some of the biggest challenges you ran into working on a tight budget?
LJ: Any time you’re making an indie movie, your biggest challenges are going to be time. Because you always want more time to shoot. We actually had a really nice schedule. We had 24 days which is a lot more than a lot of indie movies do. I felt that 24 days was quite comfortable except that we were shooting in North Carolina in the Spring, and we only had eight hours of darkness a night. Because we had so much night shooting, that became a real challenge. Instead of doing a twelve hour day, when we had our night work, we only had eight hours to shoot. That was difficult, because your schedule just shrinks a bit. The other main thing was that we had terrible rain, I mean it was horrible, it started raining maybe four or five days after we started shooting and then it didn’t stop for about two and a half weeks. The water levels rose, it flooded our docks, all of the roads to the cottage were completely muddy and my first VD was like pulling out his hair, we had no idea what we were going to do because we had some exterior scenes that we still needed to shoot. It was supposed to be a “happy, funny Honeymoon” and the rain just kept going. We got really lucky, because two days after we needed to get out of the location, the skies kind of cleared and we prescheduled this long shoot day where we started our night shooting at 6pm and shot all the way through the morning until like mid-afternoon so we could clean up our sunny outside scenes.
Seriously, you don’t usually hear about people complaining about not enough darkness. Before you mentioned that you grew up on horror movies. What were some of the movies that scared you and stuck with you?
LJ: It’s interesting, because I consider the genre that I like more than anything else to be sci-fi, more than horror. I have a lot of gaps in my knowledge of horror, generally, but it’s funny because my first horror movie I saw maybe in like 5th grade, and I was having a sleep-over party and I really wanted to have a horror movie because that’s what all my friends were doing, like people would be watching Chucky and I really wanted to compete with that, so my Mom said “I’m not showing a horror movie, you’re at our house.” It wasn’t just that we were a little young for it, but, what she did was she rented Psycho, which is like, way worse than any of those 80’s slasher movies, this is like 1988, 1989. She’d say “those are just slashing for gore! I’m gonna rent you Psycho” so that was extremely traumatic and awful. So those were the kind of horror movies that I began to appreciate, the Hitchockian or Palanskian, which I watched a lot in junior high and stuff. Those I still consider my biggest influences horror-wise, like Palanski for sure, Kubrick, even Hitchcock as well but I don’t really see that applying to my style. But I certainly do aspire to do more like Palanski and Kubrick and stuff.
You say that you’re more of a sci-fi person and even if it’s not ever explicitly stated in the movie, we’re led to believe that there are some kind of extraterrestrial creatures who are starting some inklings of an invasion or something. Did you do much research into alien life-forms, or did you talk to any people who maybe claimed that they had been abducted?
LJ: No, not really. I’d say that mostly I have a preoccupation with aliens, personally. Like I said, in really thinking about those bigger invasion movies, even things like Independence Day, it would always happen: there would be this big giant bang and suddenly all of the ships are overhead and everyone’s leaving. I love Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s one of my favorite alien-invasion movies because it does feel more grounded. I like the way Richard Dreyfuss’ character begins, it feels like he’s just going crazy and just with the dirt making the mountain, I love that shot so much. So, for Honeymoon it was really just trying to put myself in the position where most realistically we could capture that this began on a smaller, slower scale. In the movie, the idea is that Bea and Annie are thought to be first beginnings of this wider invasion .
The last project that you worked on was the Europa Report, even though you weren’t directing that, it also deals with life outside of what we know. Regardless of what you might refer to it as, do you believe in “aliens?”
LJ: I absolutely believe in them and in extraterrestrial life. Obviously, I don’t know what that could mean, it could mean a variety of things. Whether that’s a bacteria or arsenic-based life form, but I certainly believe that it’s naïve to not believe that there’s something else that exists.
Looking forward on your career, do you want to stick with the sci-fi genre or would you like to maybe try something new? What’s next on your plate?
LJ: We’re working on a few different ideas right and they are all sort of like walking this sci-fi, horror space. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t be interested in trying something else too, but I grew up reading sci-fi. The Wrinkle in Time books, are the first books that I really remember affecting me in a way, from then on I really became obsessed with thinking about how science can really affect narrative and open up imagination. Often in a terrible way, which I like to explore. I think that I’m going to stick with this genre, but it’s not like I have any kind of rule. If any other projects or ideas came up that I liked, I would obviously open to doing that too.
One of the things that you do really well in the film, both from a writing and directorial standpoint, is that you don’t really set out to scare us, so much as just create this really moody, really eerie atmosphere that’s anchored by these really well-written, fleshed out characters. That’s a really nice surprise in a horror or sci-fi movie because at this point we’re so used to shallowly-written characters and a jump-scare every fifteen minutes or so. With Honeymoon do you see this well written character drama as the response to this slew of horror characters that are so often under-written and under-developed? Is this your “solution”?
LJ: Definitely. For me, you can watch people get splattered across screen, starting from minute two to the end, and that’s entertainment, and it’s great and it does a very specific thing, but for me when I am just aiming for more is that creeping awfulness. I really just wanted to make as much as possible, the audience feel uncomfortable and bad, just that sense of incredible eeriness as you described it. To me, that’s achieved most easily if you can bring your characters in close. Let your characters interact with the audience and understand who they are, so it will mean more when they’re falling apart.
Are you actively working on a next project right now? Do you just have a lot of balls in the air?
LJ: My writing partner and I have two ideas that we’re really working on right now, and those are in the early stages. We’re not almost done with the script or anything like that, but definitely I’m hoping that one of those will become my next film. But hopefully sci-fi will open up a lot of opportunities since we’re also playing at Tribeca. We’re also exploring other projects as well.
Can you tell us anything about those two project ideas?
LJ: Not right now. I hate talking about things until I’m 100% confident in the iteration that it’s going to live in!
Directed by José Padilha
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Zach Grenier
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi
RoboCop tries to make communion between global politicking black satire and “ohhhh shiny” skirmishes but winds up not quite able to answer the many questions it raises. Regardless, the fact that this supposed actioner wants to stick its nose into moral territory and sniff around makes for a far more interesting experience than any paint-by-numbers shoot-em-up that I was expecting.
In the oeuvre of action movies, the RoboCop of yore was known for its balls-to-the-walls, blood ‘n’ guts characteristics so you’ll be surprised to hear that this 2014 remake is so light on action sequences that it makes The Lion King look violent (but let’s be honest, The Lion King is pretty violent). There are maybe two instances of what one would consider violence, both blaring shootouts sans a spot of blood, and an exposition-driven explosion of note. Other than that, most of the distressing PG-13 rated stuff takes place in a Clorox-blasted laboratory.
Beckon forth the stuff of Ethics 101. Global tech-giant OmniCorp is hellbent on getting their militant robots into the domestic market but have been blocked on all sides by liberal Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier) and his long-standing bill that outlaws the use of mechs in the land of the stars and stripes. They would feel nothing if they shot a child, Dreyfuss argues. How can we give unadulterated command to something that wouldn’t even feel an ounce of remorse if they blasted a baby in the face? It’s a half decent point you’re onto there Dreyfuss but one that is shied further and further away from as the revenge narrative is ratcheted up.
With the help of marketing fisher Tom Pope (a bearded but still baby-faced Jay Baruchel), Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) employs Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to help push Dreyfuss’s bill into fisticuffs with the introduction of a half-man, half-machine hybrid. Business barons as they are, they’ve found the wishy-washy nooks of the law and let exploitation take birth. But after breezing through a list of candidates, Norton doesn’t believe they have anyone fulfilling the mental balance needed for the job. I wonder who it could be? Let fly, the red herring in all its foreshadowing glory.
Enter incorruptible cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who has just caught the scent of a near untraceable top-tier gunrunner, Anton Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Following up on a lead, Murphy and partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) land themselves in the cacophonous din of a gunfight (and either it was the IMAX screening I attended or the gunfire sound editing has been cranked up to 11 but the blasts were near deafening). With Lewis left hospitalized with a handful of slugs lodged in him, good cop Murphy is all revved up for revenge. But, unbeknownst to him, he’s earned a hefty target on his backs from the watchful eye of the criminal underworld and before he can say “boo”, he’s blown into a limbless coma, becoming a prime candidate for what becomes the RoboCop experiment.
For all the character names scattered through the movie (and this review), screenwriter Joshua Zetumer deserves a hand for actually carving out a foothold for nearly all of them. Abbie Cornish as Murphy/Robocop’s wife is a little uncut but Keaton, Oldman, Williams and the rest of the supporting cast really get some actual characters to dig into. Even the villains of the piece are much more modern baddies, blinded by financial gain but not bogged down with diabolical cackles or announced plans of world domination. They hardly acknowledgement their own villainy, they’re just in it to win it. Unfortunately for them, so is RoboCop.
Each character is firmly engrained in the story and hard to leave out when talking about the piece. It’s a surprisingly ensemble piece for an action film and one that relies just as much on the characterization of the Dr. Frankenstein who created him as it does on the eponymous RoboCop. In such, everyone has their place. Making a world that’s so fleshed out and yet intimate is one of Zetumer’s many skills. Loose ends, on the other hand, are not.
In an age of drone warfare, secretive criminal tribunals and the National Defense Authorization Act (which affords Obama authority to kill a US citizen without due process), Robocop does seem ripe for the reboot. It’s a shame then that we don’t really see him (and by extension filmmaker José Padilha) grapple with the difficulties of dealing with morally gray areas. Rather, we’re given an ethical guide we’re meant to mock in Samuel L. Jackson‘s Pat Novak and a dubious puff of disapprobation in Padilha’s incisive glare.
As far as Robocop the machine-man, more than anything, his existence becomes a pitiable state of affairs; one stripped of choice, mellowed of free will and fine-tuned to acts of force appropriation. Seeing what’s left of the actual Alex Murphy is macabre and visceral (and may turn your popcorn bucket into a barf bag) but watching him drained of his remaining humanity is arguably more lurid.
Gone are the lampooning moments of levity that flowed from the originals, replaced with the likes of Batman-mimicking “Does it come in black?” For those seeking action-packed escapism, look elsewhere as RoboCop is more Frankenstein than Die Hard. Soaked and dripping with questions of determinism, spirituality, executive power, agency and identity that each find a pitfall or reaches the end of a rope, Robocop is a mash of hi-fi philosophy conveniently light on resolution.
Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Moises Arias, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Ender, a natural born strategist, waxes philosophy like he’s Sun Tzu. Taking “The Art of War” to its next logical step, Ender believes it’s not enough to understand his enemy. For him, truly understanding your enemy comes hand-in-hand with loving them. When you know someone well enough to predict their moves militarily, you glimpse into their soul. All at once, this zen of inter-connectivity gives Ender an upper hand in battle but also puts him in a constantly state of moral dread. He knows he can be a mighty conqueror the likes of Caesar but doesn’t know if he should be.
Based on the popular young adult novels by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game is built on a foundation of tough philosophical questions like these. Tackling ethical issues that date back to the dawn of fighting with sticks and stone and span to our current climate of piloted drone warfare, moral quandaries are given precedence in the film, but often come across as heavy-handed and poorly thought through.
For a movie entirely about tactics, it’s lacking in tactical approach to philosophy as process. Socrates, famous for breaking down prejudices in order to reach universal truths championed the dissection of established beliefs through reasoning alone. To discover truth, he used critical analysis to better understand the world around him and the many false beliefs that dominated society at large. Here, Ender’s Game is philosophy as a means to an end, an “I told you so” of childish rashness rather than a contemplative, almost meditative, study. Rather than a thought process, here philosophy is a bat. Like Bonzo, you’ll want to be sure to cover your head from the beat downs to come.
Philosophical dissection of Ender’s Game aside, the film floats by on the freckled charm of Asa Butterfield (Hugo). Unlike his peers, Ender has a preternatural tact for foreseeing the consequences, good and bad, of his physical actions and a pension for using violence to prevent future violence. Butterfield does a fine job at conveying the dueling nature of Ender’s innocence and incessant scheming. At once aggressive and acutely aware of his dangerous aggression, Ender is a morally complex character – a suiting trait for the morally complex world he inhabits.
On Earth, 50 years have passed since a devastating alien attack almost wiped out the planet’s population. Like a post-9/11 America, tapestries hang in offices and homes alike, wallpapering sentiments of “Never Forget.” At the hands of the bug-like Formics, Earthlings faced their demise but managed a narrow victory in a play of much-celebrated battlefield bravado. One man, we are told, single-handedly chased the enemy off and ever since, Earth has awaited the return of their ruthless enemy, all the while training legions of child soldiers.
Picked as the last hope for humanity, children are utilized for their fast processing skills, unfaltering obedience, and gullible code of honor. Ender is chosen to lead not because of his tendency towards violence but because of his thought process within said violence. Never the one to start a fight but always the one to finish it, he’s not a sadist, but a tactician. For these qualities, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) sees Ender as the ideal candidate to lead Earth’s troops into the final battle with the Formic.
Joining Butterfield is a legion of youth actors that act little more than their age. Moises Arias as Bonzo and Hailee Steinfeld as Petra both do caricatures of the seething bully and flirty love interest but Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine is really the most reined in of these child performers. Her character is harmony, her performance refined, a nice counterpoint to the violent lifestyle that Ender’s profession has surrounded him by. She and bullying older brother Peter are the fulcrum points around which Ender measures himself. As Colonel Graff says, he needs to fall somewhere between them. He must harness both violence and peace – he must become a cocktail of serenity and rage.
As Ender trains to become a commander, he must undergo physical challenges that hone his motor skills and mental games meant to whet his battlefield acuity. In a turn of revamped Quidditch – except without brooms, magic, or gravity – the “launchies” spent most of their days training in an arena-based game of space dodge-bullet, where they earn points for blasting each other with stunners. Like Quidditch, the game can be won, regardless of points accumulated, if one team member passes through their opponents’ gate unscathed. Unlike Quidditch, this tournament has bearing outside the arena as the victor will go on to lead Earth’s army against the evil bug aliens. Perhaps this convoluted plot point is more an issue with the source material than the movie, but I’ve never heard of a Superbowl winning team captain going on to lead an army.
Why the young launchies must spend so much time pushing their bodies to the limit when all eventual warfare is exclusively done through drone command is never addressed. Nor is the fact that regardless of the grueling training, none of the launchies – all of whom are on one side or the other of the scrawny-to-chubby spectrum – seem to put on any bulk or shed any pounds. They’re all in the same physical shape as day one. Surely this has to do with the fact that the film employs underage performers, and you can’t quite push a 12-year old to shed pounds like Christian Bale, but oversights like this are noticeable throughout and work to diminish the sense of reality director Gavin Hood is working so hard to create.
As the film pushes towards a close, the inevitable last act twist is somewhat foreseeable but nevertheless cements the relative worth of the film. Barking out commands with the crackly voice of a teen in metamorphosis, Ender leads his troops to video-simulated victory after victory until a crushing reality is revealed: maybe it’s not a game after all.
In blurring the lines between video game violence and real world violence, Hood explores the hefty moral consequences of drone warfare, even when he’s being too clunky for his own good. While I admit to not having read the book, the ending comes out of left field, begging for a sequel and an impending franchise. There’s a delicate art to franchise building that used to revolve around worth but nowadays is left at the behest of the filmmaker. It’s as if a “what comes next?” cliffhanger is a necessity for any movie that costs over $100 million dollars. The question is: if you build it, will they come?
While the communist undertones, expressed here as the “hive mentality,” may be outdated now, many of the issues seen in Ender’s Game are even more relevant today than they were when it was written (i.e. drone warfare, bullying, surveillance, video game violence, child soldiers, etc.) However, Hood can’t help himself but to let them fly in your face, like the drilling of drones in the film’s finale, never really developing the ever-important why? behind it all.