Monday, August 29, 2016

Quick Critique: David Brent: Life on the Road

So, I’ve never been a fan of cringe comedy. Most of what’s pushed out there and labelled as ‘comedy’ usually makes me embarrassed or annoyed rather than make me laugh. It’s quite interesting, then, that I’m actually a really big fan of the UK version of The Office, the mockumentary office-based sitcom from 2001-2003 that launched the mainstream career of one Ricky Gervais. If I were to guess on the roots of its success, it’s likely due to its characters and setting. You feel like you know these people; self-important but unaware David Brent, likeable but frustrated Tim, similarly frustrated but playful Dawn, even Gareth! And while they certainly contrived moments for comedy (all sitcoms do), it just fit in more naturally with the setting and allowed the show a sense of gravity.

Gervais decided to revive his own character from the show, Brent, in a series of admittedly funny guitar teaching skits on YouTube, and now he’s got his own spin-off movie divorced from everything else from The Office. While the faux-documentary style is still there, and even brief snippets of an office, the plot focuses on Brent, 15 years after he was fired, trying to make it as a rock star by organising a tour around local venues.

The reason I brought up The Office is because what made Brent work there is that he was surrounded by such strong characters. I wouldn’t even call him the heart of the show (Tim and Dawn were), even if he’s the most memorable character. Having the well-intentioned but socially clumsy and narcissistic Brent get into incredibly stupid scenarios to prove his own greatness isn’t nearly as entertaining when they’re not at the annoyance of characters we care about. You also run the risk of focusing too much on Brent, which gets a bit much (it’s why his shorter YouTube skits work a lot better). And yeah, the worst stuff in Life on the Road mostly focuses on Brent on his own doing something try-hard and stupid.

It isn’t unsalvageable by any means, however. This film crew seem as cruel as the last, eagerly awaiting horrific embarrassments from the clueless Brent to get on film. While it takes a while to get going, some of the antics can be quite funny.  There is one other character in it outside of Brent who feels fleshed out, Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey ‘Doc Brown’ Smith), who adds a lot of levity to the larger-than-life Brent and actually has a (albeit predictable) arc. You buy their friendship.

The highlight is easily the songs. They’re nearly always hilarious and fit the character so well. They’re actually pretty fun to listen to and the lyrics are a hoot in how obliviously offensive and really naft they are; they truly reflect on the menial, unexciting life the lead has. It works why the audiences would react negatively to them (some of their reactions are pure gold), but I’d honestly buy the soundtrack I enjoyed them so much.

Probably the most tacked on part is the more emotional elements. While it was a nice continuation of Brent’s character, and it really does make him more sympathetic than he ever was in the show, a lot of the time they fail to hit when they need to. This is especially problematic at the end where everything just piles on with no real build up. I just don’t buy anything that happens within the last 15 or so minutes.

Overall, David Brent: Life on the Road may interest you if you’re a fan of The Office or Gervais work as a whole. It’s not completely horrible, and while it’s a bit too flatly directed, and inconsistent in its jokes and tone to let the script make up for that, it does have some hilarious moments and it doesn’t feel too forced a continuation of this character’s story. If you’re not a fan, you’ll likely cringe your way through it.


Friday, August 19, 2016

Quick(ish) Critique: Nerve

One of the leading semi-trends in Hollywood’s endless crusade to appeal to young morons is this kind of ‘technophobic’ subgenre. Modernising these usual horror and thriller tropes and attributing them to the tech-savvy social media generation. And mostly they suck, probably because they’re written who have no understanding of how the internet and teenagers coalesce.

And it’s not as if these ideas can’t be utilised into great stories-Black Mirror is a great example of this, but it’s intentionally designed to analyse how human desires and predilections are what makes these advances so dangerous.  Most of these movies just want a broader ‘Social media is evil because _’ message, which gets washed away by how mind-bogglingly stupid the characters in Unfriended are, or…I don’t know in Friend Request. With all that in mind, even with its hilariously bad trailer and gimmicky premise, Nerve is honestly not that bad.

So where does this go right where the others went wrong? Well, Nerve uses its social media gimmick (in this case, an open source app that allows watchers to set dares for players) to actually say something. The way we desensitise ourselves around the internet is insane, and people have died doing really stupid memes (for no money, unlike this movie). The rules are well laid out and make sense, the pacing is careful and deliberately thought out and there is some legitimate tension in the few of the set-pieces. I even laughed at some of the comments left on the app-it’s so accurate to shithead anonymous commenters in real life! I wish they provided more stuff like that

So the message of this movie is basically ‘these platforms can get out of hand and could lead to some serious consequences’, just told in a flashy, over the top setting. Which is great. While the characters are pretty broadly written, they fit their roles fine and are there to get the social commentary across. Until the end, the message is pretty downplayed for the high octane fun of the dares, so it doesn’t seem preachy or overwrought.

Also, the characters are actually smart in places and come up with creative solutions. I like how they address the police in this situation, it’s not something left up in the air. While I question how the main solution for the Nerve game, it does make sense within the confines of what has been set up, so I’ll let it slide. It’s a cool enough idea.

I’d probably praise this movie more…if the climax wasn’t such a hot mess. I can’t exactly say why without spoiling it, so just trust that all the careful rules and set-up pretty much get thrown out the window for an exciting finale. One of the characters who floats around for most of the film is frustratingly underdeveloped and plays a huge role in the finale, also his get-up made me think he was going to ask if the Warriors were gonna come out to play. 

It's so out of place!

Also there are some technical issues (a lot of the camera work outside of the phones is shitty), and the cast aren’t that strong. Overall, however, I was surprised by this film, which is not something I say a lot lately. It’s not amazing by any means, but it’s social savviness, clever structure and attention to detail make it worth seeing despite some tepid characterisation, hokey acting and a terrible final act. Check it if the premise sounds interesting…if you dare.

(God, did I really just end the review like that?! I am the worst…)


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

My Problems with: Star Wars and Legacy

“The Force Awakens is a carbon copy of A New Hope!!!!”
Everyone and their dogs

Okay, not really breaking new ground here. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens takes a lot of plot threads from the series’ originator Star Wars, later subtitled ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’. There’s not really a huge discussion to be had about that-you either were bothered by it or you weren’t-but what has interested me is the comments from James Cameron saying it lacks imagination even compared to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Cameron was just lumping all of Lucas’ movies together in a blanket statement, or perhaps he genuinely enjoys the much maligned prequels, I don’t know. But it got me curious enough to rewatch them for the first time since pretty much they came out to see if they were as bad as popular culture has said they are.

They are.

He's after telling someone he murdered children, and he looks like
his mom wouldn't allow him to buy a cookie.

I’m not gonna elaborate further, because you can’t put a letter into a Google search without coming across some guy’s rant on the fucking Star Wars prequels. However, I decided to look more at this idea of ‘originality’ and, if you put the generic ‘Chosen One’ angle aside, the Star Wars prequels do have somewhat of a more original story than The Force Awakens does.

Hear me out, here.

One of the things that strikes everyone about The Phantom Menace it is that it’s about…tax disputes. Later on you find out it’s part of an incredibly silly conspiracy to get more power to Chancellor Palpatine, but think about this. The instigator for the events that lead to the war in Star Wars started because of tax disputes. No way we can reflexively push that idea onto reality, can we?!

Also what was interesting about TPM is that it doesn’t really have a protagonist, not a clear one anyway. You could say it’s Qui-Gon Jinn, especially as he’s played by arguably the most bankable actor in the cast in 1997. Except that he doesn’t…really…do anything? After the opening, he dicks around Tatoine until they finally get off, fights Darth Maul, meets the Jedi Council and waits around for the battle to get started until he dies. He has as much forward drive in the story that Padmé does, or baby Anakin, or Obi-Wan stuck on the ship for the painfully long Tatooine sequence, or Jar Jar. Maybe Jar Jar Binks is the protagonist.

If they had JUST got him to work!

Or, just throwing it out there, maybe it’s this universe itself?

A lot of the Phantom Menace, and the next two movies, are really driven by uncovering a plot to overthrow the authority of the Galactic Senate and in doing so covertly undermining its authority by having the secret instigator use the failed rebellion as a way of gaining a stronghold in power. These films are surprisingly political in nature, way more so than the original trilogy or The Force Awakens.  What made the Empire so powerful was due to the institutional failings of this previous system and using certain countermeasures against it to allow a dictator to gain full control. Adding to the fact that Palpatine’s main motivation is to gain legitimacy for a long-thought dead ideology, and it’s like David Icke wrote this.


I mean, looking at it like this, the prequels actually have a really interesting framework for a thought provoking and compelling political narrative. Then you watch the movies and realise that none of that potential was fully realised, but while they do not work as a whole, there was a spark of creativity to be gleamed here. Especially the first one, as the next two seem to be a bit more ‘Star Warsy’ in tone (hell, they even have very clear protagonists in Obi-Wan and Anakin, not that movies weren’t going to focus on the latter falling to the dark side, of course).

So let’s go into that-where did that spark of creativity come from? And by asking that, I mean ‘What can I assume gave that spark etc.’ instead of just looking up what actually probably motivated it, because where’s the fun in that? It’s not like George Lucas’ intentions have everrrrr been misconstrued on the internet before.

Ah, Georgey, I still loves ya!

So it’s pretty well known that Lucas was inspired by old science fiction serials. One of the biggest sources was Flash Gordon, as he wished to remake that property for a contemporary audience (and we eventually got a Flash Gordon movie in the 80s and it was *glorious*). So grandiose space operas with large, oppressive villains and plucky, resourceful heroes, basic good vs evil adventure stories. Sweet, I can get behind that. And lots of people did!

But that was then (and 1980 and 1983). Times had change. Lucas had changed, as you do in over a decade and a half. He wanted to expand upon what he could do as a filmmaker. On top of building this world more expansively with new technology, the story needed to take on that extra dimension, otherwise you run the risk of it becoming stale. 

To find what I believe the solution was, I turn to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, another…’beloved’ revival of a franchise Lucas made popular. The Indiana Jones series had similar creative origins to Star Wars-popular adventure serials that Lucas grew up on, though Jones wore its influence way more in its sleeve. In comes Crystal Skull, and the addition of the fucking alien stuff is an expansion of this as Indy is now roaming around in the 50s. The populist fantasy is more geared towards science fiction instead of pulpy postcolonial adventure fiction, which is based more in the mystical. So alas…aliens.

Unrelated Flash Gordon image (seriously, this movie is awesome)

To move back to prequels (as they, you know, came out before Crystal Skull…), I think the same logic kind of applies there, but in terms of what kind of science fiction people were watching in the 50s and 60s. Movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes, amongst many others, were heavily influenced by the politics of their time.

Lucas appears to try to ‘mature’ Star Wars by making the conflict more about dodgy tax deals and widespread conspiracies. Instead of having the broad science fiction adventure feel of the original trilogy, the prequels become more about how personal motivations and political machinations that took down a Federation and created an Empire. Let me point out, again, that none of this means the prequels are good, just that they have an interesting framework.

I cannot forgive movies with these stupid assholes

Is it possible that this is pure unfounded speculation on my part? Of course, but Star Was is based on these sci-fi narratives that Lucas grew up on, so it makes sense that they would try to mature the same way the genre matured when he was growing up. This is where The Force Awakens comes back into play.

So Lucas has no direct control over a main Star Wars movie for the first time in nearly four decades. Reigns have been handed over to (and we’ll just use the director for simplicity’s sake) J.J. Abrams, who is 20 years Lucas’ junior. So, by going by this train of thought, what defined science fiction in the way that pulp adventure did in the 30s/40s or political subtext did in the 50s/60s when he was growing up?

Well…Star Wars.

Star Wars, as a series, has always been defined by legacy, both within the movie’s narrative and the framing of how these stories are told. And it has been a victim of its own legacy, felt by Lucas when he tried to take the prequels in an entirely new direction. This is seen in just about every way people react to new material that comes out about it-it’s almost trapped by the image it itself has created.

The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie that harkens back to a genre that Star Wars helped redefine. And sure, its alleged derivative narrative could more be down to cynical corporate handling and the need to franchise this shit than out of keeping with the nostalgic naval gazing, but I think this was inevitable. I also think it doesn’t hurt the movie (despite this being ‘My problems with’…).

Going back to what Cameron said, I don’t think the film lacks the imagination he claims it does. I quite enjoyed how The Force Awakens took elements from the series and helped modernise them, just like how Lucas did in 1977. Having more ‘original’ ideas does not automatically translate into an original film. The Force Awakens’ biggest success in my eyes is taking a revival I was initially cynical towards and imbuing enough heart, charm and interesting ideas and set-ups that I sincerely cannot wait to see what happens to Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and all the other new cast, as well as the old, in future movies to come.

What is this person's parentage?! The answer probably won't
surprise you.

Sometimes imagination and ambitious ideas are not enough to make great films; sometimes the simplest concepts and sticking to tradition wield the best results. In terms of Star Wars, it may stagnate itself if it continues being a tribute to the altar it created, but trying to brush it down because it sticks too closely to A New Hope is reductionist and really takes credit from what truly impressive a feat it was. Keeping to legacy isn’t always a bad thing, so hopefully Disney can expand passed this pitch and we get our generation's Empire Strike Back without…getting another Empire Strikes Back.

Or not. Maybe the entire legacy of Star Wars is to make a major conglomerate rich enough to buy most nations 6 times billions of dollars. Perhaps that’s its greatest takeaway.

Lord Mickey-rise.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Quick Critique: The Neon Demon

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a beautiful young model trying to make it in Los Angeles. Befriending a make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), she is soon caught up in the glamourous world of modelling. However, as her career continues to grow, she becomes the object of obsession by many and envy of Ruby’s friends Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote).

The Neon Demon is the latest film of colour-kaleidoscope-and-80s-music-bent maverick Nicolas Winding Refn. His penchant for sleazy but stylised fare is on full force here, as from the opening frame after the credits you are transported into an uncaring and transcendent world.

From thereon out, it’s a setting of image and false grandiosity lead by the naïve but confident Jesse. While her characterisation can be a bit flat in places, it’s Elle Fanning that truly lifts up the lead into something noteworthy. Jesse is inexperienced but not stupid, ambitious but not greedy, a woman cannibalised by the industry she wants to take a part in, but entirely of her own doing. Her character does her purpose admirably as she takes on a dark but enticing reality.

Refn’s usual penchant for coloured lighting and cinematography is here again, but is more muted compared to Only God Forgives. If there’s one thing no one can deny about The Neon Demon, it’s absolutely stunning. Lighting and shot framing is used perfectly to capture the symmetrical beauty and ugliness of the narrative, and not a single shot fails to land. While the occasional camera glare can be irritating, it never takes away just how much work went into making the shots gorgeous.

What may lose people is the story, as it’s a pretty straightforward ‘innocence seduced’ story with a pretty dark turn I won’t go into. Honestly, I think the lack of narrative weight really works here. The focus is on society’s obsession with beauty and the narcissistic need to consume and own it, even when it’s from other people. It’s a really modern and uncomfortable take on the topic, and it gets across what it needs to pretty well. Jesse is an object of desire from everybody in the film, even herself in a way, to the point where people almost react irrationally to it. The lengths this goes to…well, go and see it to find out.

The Neon Demon is a brilliantly realised and executed outing from Refn. It’s stylish, insightful, shocking, gross, dark, bright, and everything you could want from an exploitation tribute from a masterful filmmaker. While it certainly isn’t for everyone, and the ending does drag out a tad, it’s one of the best films of the year and well worth the look see.  A true beauty that hides true horror underneath.