For the past seven months or so, I have been engaged in writing weekly reviews of theatrical releases (Hollywood titles) for The Asian Age. The film society I represent and help run, Lightcube, was approached by the paper to help with the content for its Cultural Section and two of us volunteered to boot up. The initial couple of weeks were difficult and we needed to be led by-hand by the editors, since our languid, contemplative writing style – largely cultivated by the limitless geography of an online page that spoils us all at one time or the other – didn’t quite fit in with the paper’s straight-shooting strategy. We have since resolved our differences, and the assignment has remained enjoyable. Apart from the usual, natural inferences from a proclamation of this sort: absence of editorial intervention, freedom to develop a style, the privilege of an honest opinion – there are valuable lessons too. Some of these, below:
- In newsprint, one must write with the certainty of a glass smashing against the wall.
- To extend the analogy, the critical voice must function with the specific brevity of a dollar-store hitman revealing his recruiter’s name right before he is thrown off the rooftop.
- Criticism in the papers is a form that must function in awareness of a history that exists entirely outside of the page it is printed on, or even, of the film which is its object. As a result, the film that concerns it must exist in its eyes, ‘after the fact’, or ‘as a consequence’: cinema’s been around for a hundred years, and ‘as a consequence’ of this, the film, too.
- This enables the critic to employ the ‘givens’ of cinema: iconographies, genres, narrative habits, tropes, clichés – to construct a lineage or even more significantly, a vocabulary he may now share with his reader, and the film to be illuminated by the light of a movie screen.
- It also helps the critic deal in shorthand, definitives, flourishes, etc.
- Since all criticism is ultimately about ideas, the real challenge of landlocked newspaper columns is not a volume of ideas, but their density.
- As a result, the process of their assimilation assumes grave significance - a critic (as I presume, a writer of any sort) must cultivate an intimacy with his toolkit (for me, a thick diary wrapped in flesh-coloured textured paper, a needle-point ball pen; material attributes that lend meaning to the ritual) and a strict routine (mostly: Friday morning show: sparse population, mostly lovers; a place to sit, the position of the diary, the tenor of typing, etc.)
Excerpts from a few reviews below; full versions here.
The Vatican Tapes (Mark Neveldine, 2015)
The Vatican Tapes seems to labour under a yearning for authentication; it is the sort of ghost story that must validate its own stature by prefixing the central narrative with a fabrication: ‘…this is a true story’. To this effect, it employs various tools that do not automatically belong to an ordinary, dime-a-dozen possession drama: snippets of television interviews with Vatican priests, video-replay monitors, an elaborate archive of the antichrist’s activity and straight up in the opening, an invocation of papal authority (‘Pope Francis has admitted that there is a devil.’) While these inclusions are all well-intentioned, a horror film works best when it remains unmindful of the implausibility of the events contained within it – when it seeks instead to first address an entirely presupposed criticism, it has doubled-over into the trap.
Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)
There is still ambition in how Reed, Russell Carpenter (his cinematographer) and the film’s VFX team imagine sequences of its super-shrunk hero negotiating different terrains up-close: there are chase sequences inside lawn-grass, a paragliding jump from a plane, a heist that begins inside a water-pipe, etc. As a result, there is a serious consideration of the physical laws that govern motion inside these diverse environments; there is also an interest in textures and surfaces, and therefore, in the level of detail with which they are rendered or recreated. This is a useful loan from Pixar’s animated films, which also feature miniature-sized characters moving through various settings – but the influence of Disney (which owns both Pixar and Marvel) writs its influence even larger on the film: in the final showdown, the hero and the villain engage in a pint-sized duel atop a moving toy-train; we witness the entire affair from the perspective of the only child present in the film, Lang’s daughter, Cassie.
Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015)
First-timer Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect 2 is a teen-drama with profound life-lessons and capital-t themes: characters learn to let go; or fall in love; or grow up; or discover their voices, etc., but one that is distilled through – very curiously – a late 90s, early 00s, Anna Faris-tone of self-reflexive, absurdist parody. As a result, irony abounds, nothing is sincere. Each scene cancels itself out, each moment of sentimentality is summarily deflated and nothing is really meant to mean much. Consider a brief moment in the final third of the film: Fat Amy (written as an obviously politically incorrect stereotype; played by Rebel Wilson) has an epiphany around nighttime campfire. She is in love with a guy who she had turned down earlier in the film, so she decides to act on the impulse. She gets up, declares her intention to be with him and begins to make a symbolic, meaningless run, which is promptly cut short when – a concealed booby trap scoops her up and leaves her suspended in mid-air. This is a perfect metaphor for the writing in the film, which organises a big, dramatic event only to eventually convert it into a gag.
Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
Pixar’s roster is full of films that exhibit their interest in the rendering of diverse environments (a filmography which therefore resembles the studio’s animators’ personal bucket-list): there is water (Finding Nemo), the sky (Up), the space (Wall E), dusty valley (Cars) and normal, suburban houses (Toy Story). Traditionally, the greatness of Pixar’s animation resides in the photorealism of their animated universes; in the manner in which these retain the physical laws of the actual world. The reason Inside Out is a remarkable departure is because it sets itself inside an environment that is entirely imagined – the human mind – and then sets to invent a governing logic completely indigenous to it. This allows Docter and his team to create sequences of startling (and on occasion, disorienting) imagination: one such, set inside a facility that abstracts/deconstructs thoughts and therefore, causes our protagonists to lose their shape, become formless and almost disappear, is a standout. But there are others: scenes set inside Riley’s subconscious, in her imagination, atop her train of thought, or on a studio lot where dreams are produced by a movie-crew - are excellent examples.
Entourage (Doug Ellin, 2015)
Television, by nature, is a reservoir of mythologies – (successful) shows and series usually have a considerable run, often lasting many years (or more poetically: seasons). This allows them to cultivate an autonomous fictional universe with indigenous logic, icons, rituals, running gags and of course, personalities. I suspect the major audience for a film like Entourage – the section that it is made for – are the existing fans of the show, individuals well-versed with the rules of this universe. As a result, the manner in which the film is constructed (and therefore, the experience of watching it in a theatre) is identifiably tribal: a movie for those who can finish its lines for it – and strangely ceremonial, in that it feels like watching TV in public.
Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)
This single line isn’t the only instance – the film employs strategic imagery to actually extend Claire’s theory: operators in the control room watch hordes of faceless, anonymous people roam around the park’s premises en masse on multi-screen displays; or when a great white is devoured whole by a super-gargantuan water dinosaur, the same public goes silly with awe. The manner in which director Colin Trevorrow frames their collective daze is interesting: they sit in front of a giant glass-screen that causes their faces to flicker. They could very well be watching a film, much like us. It is in moments like this, when the film is self-reflexive, nearly confessional, that it is at its best.
The Age of Adaline (Lee Toland Krieger, 2015)
The first and the final ten minutes of The Age of Adaline – a completely whack amalgamation of b-movie science and cross-generational romance – are dense with ultra slo-mo sequences set in outer space. These are overlaid with monotone narration that declares the premise of the film scientifically plausible. It is a routine that belongs to the crudest tradition of movie sci-fi: a booming, omnipresent voice that validates the existence of the film’s universe from the outside (a technique appropriated from the newsreel).The film’s decision to adopt this method is significant, since it helps the title exhibit an age-old belief resident in American film: sequences of grand cosmic occurrence and scientific advance exist ultimately to service the littlest, most particular of human tendencies; to love, and be loved.
Maggie (Henry Hobson, 2015)
In the lack of any real event (but with a runtime to fill), Hobson devotes his skill instead to genre-based iconography: overcast, dingy skies; damp-wood, lightless interiors; extreme-close-ups of Marguerite's eyes, cheeks, fingers, toes and whispered, deathly-sounding proclamations. These result in an ironical fetishisation of the very genre he is trying to lament, but atleast accounts for the relentless atmosphere of death and grief that rests heavily on the film.
Poltergeist (Gil Kenan, 2015)
Late into the final third of Poltergeist – a remake of 1982’s horror classic about real-estate sharks and vengeful television signals – a little boy sends a drone-mounted camera on a trek through the netherworld: a realm of lost, wronged, pissed souls lathered in ectoplasm. The camera floats through this ‘space’, relaying to the boy (and to the adults who surround him, and in turn, to us) what it sees on its merry jaunt through the ghost-world. This is a sequence of remarkable imagination, particularly in how it provides the mythical, nearly always invisible area of housing-horror movies: the actual portion of the house colonized by ghosts – a physical, material form. Therefore, characters can (and do) navigate it, jog through it, touch it and film it.
Danny Collins (Dan Fogelman, 2015)
The biggest, even radical accomplishment of the film is in how it resolves the crisis for its lead character. Unlike, say, The Wrestler, which features a romantic, impractical return to the ring for the rejected protagonist, Danny Collins sees its rockstar make peace with his own widely circulated, saleable brand-image, if only for the larger well-being of his family.
Playing it Cool (Justin Reardon, 2015)
Romantic comedies do not generally make this a point of discussion – seeing as how the old adage of everything being fair in love goes – but Playing it Cool displays a special accomplishment here: it features an excellent scene where the writer’s best friend finally dismantles his convenient cover of self-pity and helplessness to instead comment, ‘You are so self-absorbed.’ Lesser romantic films are never as truthful about their leads. They spend their runtimes valourising those in love, but the fact of this movie’s lead character’s profession: a writer, who falls in love for the purpose of research – helps it examine just how selfish and self-aggrandizing being in love can be.
Furious 7 (James Wan, 2015)
A group of characters who define themselves largely through martial nomenclature: ‘chief’, ‘captain’, ‘leader’; divide themselves into specialist positions: the drivers, foot soldiers, spies, technicians; drop off into ‘enemy’ territories with parachutes from choppers and finally, mutter battlefield-slogans to each other: ‘a war is coming’, ‘I don’t have friends, I have family.
Dragon Blade (Daniel Lee, 2015)
Jackie Chan permeates through diverse commercial arrangements – international co-productions, Hollywood funded brocoms, Chinese blockbusters – as some sort of an establishment figure; an ambassador, so to say. In his most well-known films, he plays state-figures: cops, mostly; emperor’s warrior; a fighter trained in the shaolin-traditions – and protects national treasures (sculptures, medallions, paintings, the ambassador’s daughter) from an overt threat that results from an external, foreign influence. In this, Chan’s figure recurs throughout his filmography as a political cipher – an individual that an entire country, an economic superpower uses to distill and explain its attitudes towards globalization.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, 2015)
Movies these days seem increasingly tailored for a younger audience: teenagers, young professionals – and therefore, there are various stories of redemption, reclamation and rebirth, but this one’s not one of them. It establishes as its central premise the terminal nature of life and the finite nature of available time, thereby making it contingent upon its ageing, elderly central characters to fulfill their wishes: of love, company, legacy and dignity – before they die.
Chapplie (Neil Blomkamp, 2015)
The film’s purpose is spelled out in through instruction-manual, didactic scenes (Yolandie says to Chappie: ‘You are what you are inside’, Ninja compares a dead dog and a living, eating one to illustrate how survival is difficult in the world outside), but this isn’t a problem, because Chappie is operational only as a fantasy that pretends on the outside to be a heavy-set, science-fiction drama. This is operative knowledge for a film that discusses as its major themes the difference between interior and exterior surfaces, the deceit of appearances and transhumanism (and therefore, the futility of container-bodies).
Love, Rosie (Christian Ditter, 2015)
Take, for instance, the scene where Rosie, an eighteen year old holds her newborn against her chest for the first time. There is a shallow-focus, advertising-imagery montage of her smiling, feeling her maternal urge rise, but instead of granting its audience the experience of witnessing the transformation of its lead character, it places a convenient text-super: ‘five years later’. This is meant to represent change, and evolution, but the real challenge, I suppose, is to actually show it – to let your actor perform it, to let your story tell it.
The Boy Next Door (Rob Cohen, 2015)
It is nimble and interesting – a tract-housing drama conducted through the most traditional, classical event in film: people looking at each other through open windows. The lead pair talks about The Iliad (campy dramas always aspire to high-art; a character may be a painter, or there is a murder in the museum). There is shared curiosity between the leads, temptation, the film gets racy – but then relents too easily by letting its leads consummate their stillborn relationship.
Taken 3 (Olivier Megaton, 2015)
A lot of the film, for instance, is really about Bryan Mills (but really, Liam Neeson; the actor-character split hardly visible, considering Mills is all physiognomy, not performance) wading like a specter through an urban jungle - concrete roads, parking lots, glass office buildings, high-rise penthouses, shopping mall toilets, elevator shafts, CCTV camera images, hi-fidelity microphones – all booby-trapped, placed to ensure his capture. Neck strained out, as if he slept badly last night; back erect like a wooden plank; the weight of his overly long upper body balanced by two feet straddling outwards; face in a constant lament – much of the pleasure of the Taken series comes therefore from Neeson and how he is filmed walking, turning around quiet, suspect wall-corners or casually slapping a tango to get a word or two out of him.