One of the previews that screened before last night’s Boston premiere of Blade Runner 2049 was for next year’s monsters vs. robots actioner Pacific Rim Uprising, an inevitable if somewhat tardy sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 original. Based solely on this trailer, it’s evident that Uprising centers on the son of the first film’s protagonist, alludes heavily to that first film, and possibly just revamps the plot with slightly louder explosions. I was reminded, regrettably, of Independence Day: Resurgence, which gave off a similar reek of franchise desperation.
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Free Fire. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Prolific director Ben Wheatley followed up 2015’s High-Rise with Free Fire, another film about the disintegration of a boxed-in mini-society. Both efforts are similar in this sense, observing a group of strangers forced into close quarters, casting us as the voyeuristic witnesses on a direct descent away from normalcy. Both films begin methodically, High-Rise introducing a futuristic all-inclusive living complex and Free Fire peeping in on an arms deal in an abandoned warehouse. And both can only ever end one way: in chaos, loud and bloody.
But it’s still remarkable how different these two films are, despite the apparent similarities and the fact that both were crafted by Wheatley (with co-writer Amy Jump) in the span of a single year. Free Fire justifies itself in the approach, heavily drawing on Reservoir Dogs-era Tarantino to convey vital information through seemingly innocuous dialogue as much as visual staging. Words do all the work here, with snippets of conversation managing to develop characters and propel the narrative at the same time. The arms deal brings buyers, sellers, intermediaries, muscle-for-hire and assassins-for-hire into a confined space, but before the guns come out it’s dialogue that each party attempts to weaponize.
I recently watched Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz for the zillionth time. This was partly to assuage my excitement for Baby Driver, Wright’s latest, and partly because the discovery of a commentary track by Wright and his buddy Quentin Tarantino was too good to pass up. Usually commentary tracks feel slight, strained, straight-up unnecessary; Wright and Tarantino have a casual chat that’s nearly as bonkers as Hot Fuzz itself. The pair share a vast encyclopedic knowledge of film and music, and throughout the course of the commentary they discuss nearly 200 films — basically everything besides Hot Fuzz — and if you’re thinking someone should write out that list, well, yeah: reddit.
Their knowledge is enviable, yes, but it’s not nearly as enviable as the fact that both writer/directors manage to make movies that are unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Baby Driver, it should be stated at the outset, is unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Wright, like Tarantino, has fresh ideas that swing for the narrative fences, and like Tarantino he also has the prowess to actually achieve his vision. This time around the vision is something people are calling a “car chase musical”, which seems only half-accurate because it doesn’t quite do Baby Driver justice.
There are two kinds of sports movies: underdog stories and everything else. The former category is vastly larger than the latter, likely because that’s sort of the archetypal narrative in any genre. The very first shot of Star Wars is a tiny Rebel ship fleeing a massive Imperial cruiser, and yet we know instantly which one we’re going to root for. In terms of sports movies this translates to Remember the Titans, The Longest Yard (not the remake), Rudy, Miracle, The Bad News Bears (not the remake), Chariots of Fire, The Hustler, A League of Their Own, Major League, Breaking Away, Slap Shot, Rocky, Hoosiers, Moneyball, and so on and so on.
One might easily claim that Jerry Maguire, Eight Men Out, The Natural, Field of Dreams, Raging Bull, and other sports movies that don’t fit comfortably into the underdog narrative are more admirable for finding a way to avoid it, but really all of the movies listed above are pretty great (but not the remakes). The question is not “in which category does Eddie the Eagle belong?” because Eddie very definitely belongs with the Underdogs; the question is whether Eddie’s story cuts it to the degree that the old hat storyline takes a backseat to the overall journey.
Just now I googled “Tom Cruise best roles”, “Tom Cruise worst roles”, “Tom Cruise best movies” and “Tom Cruise worst movies”, partially because I’m interested to see where his role as Mitch McDeere in The Firm lands and partially because my boredom has reached carrying capacity. I found, unsurprisingly, that the internet does that thing where it reaches consensus about certain things being “good” and certain things being “bad”, which in this case is sometimes inarguable (A Few Good Men = “good”, Far and Away = “bad”) but sometimes weirdly unearned, as with the endless praise heaped upon Edge of Tomorrow or Cruise’s role in Tropic Thunder. The former is a fairly fun movie and the latter is a fairly funny movie, but to say that these number among Cruise’s best seems a stretch. Again, the common consensus surrounding mediocrity doesn’t exactly come as a shock.
What was surprising, though, is that not a single article or top ten list included Mitch McDeere or mentioned The Firm at all. “Good” and “bad” are complicated, sure, and you might even suggest that the overarching opinions of the internet’s burgeoning culture commentary is at fault for this, too, as if to say “those other guys didn’t claim The Firm to be a great Cruise movie, so we won’t either.” But not a single one mentioned The Firm. No outliers buried in a list to satiate the unconfessed desire of a film blogger, no mention of Mitch McDeere even in reference to another role. It’s like The Firm never registered as a Cruise flick. Putting aside common consensus and inescapable truth (Far and Away = “bad”), that just seemed strange.
Today is May 11th, 2016, the 132nd day of the year. In those just-over-100 days a small little company called Disney — heard of it? — has made more money than any single company has any earthly right to make. Not since the Dutch East India Trading Company has a multinational firm held such widespread influence. Disney’s always been a successful company, sure, and even if they had fiscal years of lesser oomph they always had sheer name recognition to fall back on. In a bygone era every kid knew about Disney; today, though, we’re headed toward the era where every kid knows only Disney.
If that post-apocalyptic fever dream of a world seems far-fetched, consider how many of the blockbusters busting the block this year were preceded by that little star making an arc over the Magic Kingdom. Zootopia, for example, which is an animated film about talking animals, is currently hovering above the $930 million mark at the global box office. It is already the highest-grossing animated Disney film ever in China, surpassing even the likes of Frozen and The Lion King, and is in general doing work at the box office as few animated films have done before. Ever.
Frantic is such the quintessential Roman Polanski movie that you’ll swear you’ve seen it before. As with Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant and What? before it, Frantic subsists entirely on a sense of dread that grows steadily following an initial oddity. The tagline is “Danger. Desire. Desperation”, which could easily be the tagline for a sizable cross-section of Polanski’s filmography. That said, only one of those three words — “Desperation” — actually feels accurate within the context of the movie, and even the title Frantic is a bit misleading. This isn’t the only kind of film Polanski is capable of, but the series that do fit the mold are less frantic and more foreboding, less manic and more pulsating, less overtly dangerous and more subtly sinister.
And a lot of them concern an American Abroad, a topic which for some reason seems to lend itself particularly well to the horror genre. Films like Jeopardy, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Hysteria derive a palpable sense of dread from the American Abroad in much the same way; the films based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books and tense thrillers like Straw Dogs and Sorcerer benefit from the same fish-out-of-water vibe, too, while others like The Yakuza use the trope even more explicitly. Of course the whole American Abroad thing is also a hallmark of shitty potboilers like Deception or the slightly-better Lizzie McGuire Movie. Did you know there’s a movie called Shaft in Africa? There’s a movie called Shaft in Africa.
Any cook will admit that having delicious ingredients doesn’t necessarily make for a delicious meal, even if you are faithful to the recipe. The most masterful chef can combine a snazzy main course with cool, exotic sauces and side dishes, pepper in some flair, and tie it all together with pristine presentation — but if the temperature isn’t just right, or if just one of the ingredients has started to turn, or if the sous-chef finally makes his move by sabotaging his tyrannical chef’s best meal, well, at least those would be reasons. Sometimes it just doesn’t taste good. Questions arise: why didn’t the dish work? Didn’t we follow the recipe to the letter? Did you freeze that thing overnight like I told you to? When does one traditionally bring their extended metaphor to a close? Now?
Havana had all the ingredients. Sydney Pollack’s previous film Out of Africa walked home with Best Picture and a cartful of other Academy Awards; Robert Redford, longtime Pollack collaborator, was back for his seventh (!) go-round under Pollack’s guidance. Right there you’d think success would be imminent. Of all the famous Director-Actor partnerships, Pollack-Redford is perhaps the most dynamic, the most unexpected, the one that results in classics that span more than one genre. The pair met as actors on the low-budget 1960 film War Hunt, as recounted by Redford in his tribute to Pollack in Time following the latter’s passing, wherein Redford uses the term “kindred spirits”. The success of the adventurous Jeremiah Johnson, the thrilling Three Days of the Condor, the intimate Electric Horseman and the epic Out of Africa would all support that claim.
It would have been a bummer if a woman with a large hat had been seated in front of me at the IFFBoston screening of Disorder. I regrettably do not speak French (working on it!) and so Disorder‘s English subtitles are pretty vital to the enjoyment of the film. If a lady with a large hat, perhaps inspired to wear such a thing by The Great Train Robbery or that episode of Sesame Street, were to get comfy in the seat in front of me, there’s a chance that those subtitles might have been obscured. I’ve yet to develop social courage or an extendable giraffelike neck (working on it!) and so, yeah, that would have been a bummer.
But, actually, no: Disorder would have been every bit as powerful without the words. Plot-wise there’s nothing too out-of-the-ordinary, and in fact the synopsis runs the risk of sounding heavily clichéd when it’s written down on paper. Vincent, a French soldier fresh back from Afghanistan, has taken a job at a private security company and been tasked with protecting the beautiful wife of the shady rich magnate. His PTSD interferes with this, but when the beautiful wife becomes a target it’s up to Vincent to save her. This admittedly sounds uninspired, but thankfully Disorder is crafted with care and creativity such that synopsis takes a backseat to style.
Having just finished and thoroughly enjoyed The Night Manager, I thought I’d know more or less what to expect from High-Rise. This is due largely in part to the sexy sexualization of Tom “Sexy” Hiddleston, who stars in both and is also sexy. I assumed his character in High-Rise to be the sterling yuppie with the isn’t-it-perfect life structured in service of the concealment of darker, truer impulses. In Night Manager Hiddleston’s attractiveness is essentially made into a plot point; so too, probably, would High-Rise note the perfection of the specimen before delving into a personality far less desirable. A six-pack and a violent extreme, per American Psycho, per marketing stills like this:
But High-Rise isn’t sexy for very long. The prologue is a glimpse of the messy future, wherein Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing seemingly resorts to making food out of the dog, making paper airplanes out of the electricity bill, and making a ramshackle life in the husklike ruins of the tower block. It is suspiciously unsexy. Then again, though, resorts isn’t the right word: Laing has very definitely chosen this. He’s in a sort of hell and is more or less enjoying it.