Saturday, September 30, 2017

Universal’s already cursed Dark Universe

It was inevitable that the success of Marvel’s superhero universe would spawn others from other studios. When Universal made it clear they were going to jump into it with a monster-verse it seemed like a really great idea. As this plan has rolled out and revised with the failure of each film slated to be the « start » of the Dark Universe, it seems clear that modern Universal studios hasn't a clue what they are doing.

It can be argued that Universal started the whole connected film series thing and already had a universe of films starting from 1923’s Hunchback of Notre Dame up to 1960’s The Leech Woman - which is quite a long run. While not all those films were classics, to say the least, many of them were and quite a few more were good, fun films. They were doing mash-ups before the word was invented and relating sequels and combining storylines in ways no one else had thought of doing. Those ideas ran their course, the pubic opinion of them changed and the loosely related series was abandoned… until recently.

They remade Dracula with Braodway heartthrob Frank Langella successfully in the 70s but in the 2000’s they came back in force with the Mummy series starring Brendon Fraser and seemed poised for another long run with their remake of the Wolfman in 2010 - which had so much potential but in the end turned out to be something like the original Hulk movie but with werewolves. They did many of the right things - the victorian setting, the makeup by Rick Baker was astounding - and then replaced it mostly by lame CGI. The film had the look but not the soul of a classic gothic horror film worthy of their legacy.

It got much worse with Dracula Untold - which will not be spoken of. These films, first stated as the start of the new series of gothic horror classic updates were so bad they were quickly dismissed and all hope was set on the 2017 version of the Mummy, another flop in most senses. They had done this before… why are they so off-base now?

I think the decision to go CGI in the Wolfman says a lot. Apparently, marketing wanted CGI because you know, the kids like that sort of thing - even thought film did not need or call for it. Kids want to see good movies, they don’t really care how the monsters are made, just that they look cool and work in the film. The attempt to modernize the old stories for today’s audiences isn’t a bad one, though the gothic victorian nature of the source material does limit how modern it can be and still work. Already having decided to keep the stories in the past they were sort of stuck with that idea, but even that could have been handled by setting a new film, let's say the Mummy, in today’s world then re-introducing the other characters in present day later on… most of them are immortal monsters after-all! There is so much opportunity and life left in these old stories that even going back to original stories and novels and simply updating them could have been fantastic.

Another problem is the idea these creatures are « like superheroes ». Yes, they have amazing powers, sure enough - but the rules and origins of those powers are literally in another universe than those of Marvel’s line up. Plus, they need to be frightening, not heroic. They need to be creepy, not funny. The Fraser Mummy series was light hearted and worked, but keeping that formula for the rest of the classic line up is just not tenable, in my opinion. Don’t be chasing Disney’s audience, create a new one based not on wholesome family faire but scary and with their gothic sensibilities intact. They don’t have to be R-rated, super violent or sex filled, just add enough of that stuff to keep modern cinephiles on their toes. Keep the elements that made these movies work in the first place and stop thinking of them as action films with creatures that in almost no way resemble their origins. The lore of monsters is not about action and more about what we fear, a way to point out it’s often we who are the monsters and the creatures, our victims. Create NEW monsters that fit into this new horrifying world and don’t rely solely on known properties. The biggest problem with the current crop of Universal Dark Universe flicks is the complete lack of risk they take with them.

Oddly, the best updated gothic horror films are not coming from the old studio. If the trailers and advance reviews of The Shape of Water pan out. Guilermo del Toro, more than anyone else with this new film, added to others like, Crimson Peak, Pan’s Labyrinth or even Mimic, shows he knows exactly what works and how to produce the films Universal should be. His films expand the gothic horror sensibility to today, take risks and mange to touch, inform and scare the pants of us that I am afraid none of the Dark Universe will even come close to doing.

Universal has a done a great job presenting and restoring the old films, I wish they could apply some of that talent to producing new ones.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Ex Machina (2017) directed by Alex Garland

This is another example of an independent smaller budget film out-doing pretty much all the larger budgeted films made recently. made for only 15 million, the movie still manages to have spectacular, realistic effects that enhance the story and so natural looking you easily forget they are effects at all. 

Spoilers Galore:

When a programmer (Caleb) in a Google-like company wins a contest to spend a week with the companies reclusive genius owner (Nathan) he is flown to a remote location where he learns he is there to determine if the latest attempt at artificial intelligence has achieved consciousness. 

The AI is housed in a super realistic android, complete with facial expressions and the ability to cross examen her interrogator in ways that make him question his own humanity. 

Convinced that the AI (Ava) is not only conscience but in love with him, he hatches a plan to help her escape only to discover she has been in cahoots with Nathan as part of the test. Unfortunately for Nathan, Caleb had anticipated he was being watched and did the steps to make the escape possible while Nathan was passed out drunk the day before. So Ava is able to exit her small living area, conspire with another android whom Nathan has been abusive to and they kill him and lock Caleb into the complex… leaving him to die, presumably. 

This is one of those films that inspires conversation and keeps your attention with interesting characters and ideas over action. It’s a true hard sci-fi film that succeeds on almost every level. The acting is great and while the character of Nathan is a total douche-bag, you don’t particularly want him to die. Caleb is, of course, very sympathetic and leaving him trapped in the compound alone makes sense from Ava’s point of view since if he was to escape as well, the world could find out what she is. It’s a cruel decision a standard « Hollywood style » would never go near. 

The ending is (probably deliberately) ambiguous. Ava is in the real world and we have no idea what comes next. 

I find it hard to believe she would be able to walk around free for long, however. The owner of a Google-like company, no matter how reclusive he is can’t just disappear without someone coming to look for him sooner than later. Caleb might have had no family or girlfriend, but he did have friends at work, an apartment to pay for and was well known to have a won the competition to the compound -so after being a couple days late coming home, plenty of people would have insisted the police go looking for him. Once there, they would have seen the other robot models, maybe the videos of what happened and Nathan’s dead body. Possibly Caleb would be able to hang on long enough to be saved. Food and other supplies must be delivered there on a regular basis as well - so maybe AVA is less cruel than originally appearing to be. It’s also a little too far to think that while looking real, that Ava would feel real as well. You might buy that the special skin covering can move like the real thing, but a little more hard to believe it would be warm, humid and have all the rest of the characteristic real skin have. 

I would have liked to have some indication as to why Nathan drank so much as well. He didn't appear to be simply alcoholic but had something driving him to it. Loneliness? Guilt about what he was creating? Some indication that he was more than just an unpleasant egoist might have added more humanity to the film.

Still, the film is amazing, complex and thought provoking. Well worth seeing. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Arrival 2016 directed by Denis Villeneuve

Before going into Arrival, it might be best to watch this Channel Criswell post on Denis Villeneuve since it's a great example of his filmmaking style.

As the much anticipated/dreaded Blade Runner sequel looms on the horizon, I thought a little review of the director's last film might be in order.

I have been a fan of Denis Villeneuve since 2010's Incendies and this film only reenforced my opinion of what a good director he is. He took an obscure (for the non science-fi literary public) short story and expanded it into a huge storyline driven by very personal, intimate details. 

The story itself  can be boiled down to a simple "alien ships suddenly appear on earth and a team of people try to communicate with them". What grows out of that simple premise shows how human nature responds to dramatic unknown events but also posits that how we think of time and space is not necessarily how aliens might think of those concepts. In fact they have a completely different way of experiencing the universe. The main character, a translator has to come to understand the aliens by learning how to think like them is our window into that new world. 

The film made about 200 million dollars world wide on release, basically the budget of any of the Marvel superhero films but only cost about 40 million dollars - making it a financial hit. This is important because Villeneuve, while showing us some amazing effects and telling a story that is world-wide in its scope - keeps the whole thing intimate, personal and lets us enjoy the mystery of what is going on without having to be distracted by complicated action sequences to bring in a "wider market share". To be frank, the. arrival of aliens on the planet should be interesting enough without having to add needless explosions. In reality, anything smart enough to get here would likely be smart enough to destroy us in a heartbeat. There is military tension and intrigue but it's secondary to the thing that really draws you into the scenario - why are the visitors here? what do they want?

I won't spoil too much but we do get a decent, if not slightly ambiguous answer to those questions and, since this film has some time warping elements to it, there is a paradox that's a little too obvious that the film relies heavily on for it's conclusion. These things are easy to forgive as the lead up and ultimate resolution are so thought provoking and satisfying. 

A slower film that is a definite must-see with solid performances and some beautiful effects work that doesn't overpower the story. 

(Cinematic has excellent coverage on the effects in issue 150)