Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
In hindsight, Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld was an uncomplicated affair. Sure, the premise required a bit of explaining — there’s a Wild West theme park staffed by lifelike robots, offering full immersion for wealthy tourists looking for romance or violence — but the plot was deceptively simple and the characters were drawn without a trace of ambiguity. The humans were the heroes and the malfunctioning robots were the villains. As we’ve detailed in our Writer Series on the works of Crichton, lots of good science fiction operates in exactly this way: classic stories playing out in strange, unfamiliar settings or time periods. No matter how unsettling the concept, how futuristic the design, how far-off the entire experience feels, Westworld is still a movie about a killer robot. And this is hardly groundbreaking, even in 1973, considering that the very first robot in cinema (from Houdini’s 1918 silent serial The Master Mystery) was already wreaking havoc on its human overlords:
In some ways, Killer Robot Cinema (evermore an acceptable genre classification on Motion State) has progressed a great deal since 1918. The murderous machines went from stacked-and-spraypainted cardboard boxes to sleek metal automatons to, finally, looking just like humans, which is presumably the pinnacle of droid design both in fiction and in real life. In some ways, though, killer robot cinema has hardly moved an inch. Humans are still playing God, still inventing advanced A.I. in robot form, and those robots are still turning around and killing them for it.
Continue reading Face Off: Westworld (1973) and Westworld (Series)
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 The Sting. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
In many instances a film is like a con: it wants to hook you, it wants to make you personally invested in the outcome, and it wants you to walk away with a smile on your face and slightly less in your wallet. If the endeavor is a success, there will always be enough to suggest that the artist — the film artist or the con artist — knows a truth that you do not. If the endeavor is unsuccessful, the feeling of being cheated will linger and frustrate.
If we apply this analogy to today’s film industry, of course, then the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be considered the most ambitious long con in Hollywood history. But things weren’t as complicated in 1973, and that year produced arguably the least-complicated Best Picture winner ever in George Roy Hill’s The Sting. A complex plot, high stakes for hardnosed characters, themes of friendship and honor amongst thieves — these elements are all there, but they’re intentionally deployed to the background of a filmgoing experience that’s less concerned with a moral message than a good time.
Continue reading The Sting (1973)
One of the things that soured Age of Ultron, the second Avengers outing, was all of the hard work apparent in the film. Pretty much every movie you watch is the result of hard work, of course, but in Ultron all of the moving and shaking afoot in the past and future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe severely impacted the present, i.e. the actual movie you’re watching right now. Excepting the occasional moment of levity (the Mjolnir party game) or well-drawn action scene (Hulk vs. Hulkbuster), it felt like hard work just to get to the end of Ultron as a viewer. Director Joss Whedon never struck the same natural flow he found in his original Avengers movie, and he seemingly left the MCU because he’d rather work from a place of inspiration than from a blueprint strategy designed to perpetuate a larger narrative. In our original review we posited this as no coincidence when the Avengers themselves begin referring to their superheroism with workplace terminology, to their “jobs,” to the “endgame;” Ultron even has an absent-husband subplot featuring Mrs. Hawkeye that seems a better fit in Death of a Salesman than a Marvel flick.
But Ultron‘s in the past, right? We’re here for the new one, Infinity War, featuring everyone who was in Ultron and everyone who’s had a solo Marvel outing since then, plus a few new characters, plus an occasional cameo from the MCU’s ever-expanding backlog. As such, the first order of business (more workplace terminology!) is to issue a SPOILER WARNING to anyone who has not yet seen Infinity War. Motion State assumes no liability in your reading past this paragraph!
Continue reading Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Our Take Two column offers second opinions and alternative angles on films and TV series reviewed elsewhere on Motion State. Head here for our original review of Casino Royale.
We’ve done a fair bit of writing about James Bond here at Motion State. From the wonky “continuity” to an increasing need to indulge a wider audience to shitty henchmen to the way writers get away with writing the same damn movie all over again, 007’s bases are more or less covered. Heck, we even spun a conspiracy theory about Bond and Star Wars that only broke recently, now that the tables are turned and Star Wars is suddenly the more prolific franchise of the two. Double heck: we even wrote about Never Say Never Again, the “unofficial” Bond adventure featuring a plot primarily involving deep tissue massage and jazzercise. Despite the advice of the title, I’m supremely confident saying never again on that one.
The thing we’ve somehow avoided discussing is the music of the Bond franchise. Excluding franchise themes written by John Williams — Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, etc. — Bond is arguably the film series in which the theme music is most inextricable from the mere notion of the franchise itself. You pick the theme out in an instant and you wouldn’t mistake it for anything else. When I hear the words “James Bond” the first thing I think of is this:
Continue reading Casino Royale (2006): You Know My Name
There were a number of factors that prevented me from rushing out to see You Were Never Really Here on opening night. First was the weather, which is not really an excuse at all if you’re a New Englander like me. The second factor was the review snippet plastered on the poster that referred to the film as “Taxi Driver for a new century.” Do I enjoy Taxi Driver? I do. Do I enjoy “modern updates” to ’70s classics like Westworld, for example? Occasionally, yes, I do. But this kind of explicit tailcoat-riding is either lazy marketing or inadequate criticism or, likely, both. I don’t think I saw Interstellar because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!” and I didn’t see Annihilation because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!“, but I do know that I enjoyed those movies primarily for how not-2001 they both were.
But this, too, is a weak excuse. Two big preventatives: firstly, in a move most unforgivable and piteously ironic for someone who purports to point out “inadequate criticism” in the first paragraph of this very review, I had never before seen anything directed by Lynne Ramsay. People had gently suggested this oversight as something I should reconcile tout suite. “Start with Ratcatcher,” they said, recommending Ramsay’s feature debut. “Start with We Need to Talk About Kevin,” they said, recommending her 2011 effort. I’m a bit of a completist in this regard, watching one movie by the Coen Brothers and then suddenly finding myself rewatching them all. Maybe my appreciation of You Were Never Really Here would be heightened if I first paid my dues to Ramsay’s previous films, no?
Continue reading You Were Never Really Here (2018)
In the climactic finale of Annihilation, there is a moment in which a shape-shifting alien bioclone with burning arms lovingly embraces a charred corpse in a lighthouse that has been struck by a meteor and overtaken by a mutated blight that threatens all life as we know it. Go ahead and read that sentence again if you have to. I dare you to try to come up with something so outlandish, so unsettling, so straight-up weird, much less deploy it at a crucial moment in a multimillion-dollar motion picture production. We live in a time where pretty much every sci-fi film with a budget this size (about $40 million) ends one way: explosions. The scripts all contain the same line: Big CGI Thing bursts into CGI flame. Heck, explosions probably typify the finale of most Hollywood films, sci-fi or otherwise, and the scripts for their inevitable sequels all contain the same line: Bigger CGI Thing bursts into bigger CGI flame.
But Annihilation goes a long way to assuaging the bitterness now associated with what the Hard Sci-Fi genre has threatened to become, and writer/director Alex Garland might just be the beacon of hope in this regard. It was already clear that Garland’s a formidable painter, but it’s still special to see a wider canvas filled with such vibrant colors. His debut directing gig Ex Machina knocked it out of the park (and is in some senses a superior film), but with Annihilation he gets more characters, more locations, more visual effects and more freedom to tell the story his way.
Continue reading Annihilation (2018)
Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
“Writing about the Coens — and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas — is a sure way of looking like an ass” — so says David Edelstein of New York Magazine in his original review of No Country for Old Men. There is duality to these words, a twin truth, that simultaneously drives and stays my critic’s pen at this very moment. One, Edelstein is absolutely right. Two, I am already quite accomplished when it comes to looking like an ass.
Despite the fact that most everything from the Brothers Coen seems intentionally built to endure traditional long-form critical analysis, maybe some bite-sized stream-of-consciousness notes on the relationship between two of their most celebrated films — Fargo and No Country for Old Men — will net more insight into how the Coens evolved (or devolved) as filmmakers in the decade between those efforts. Maybe we’ll stumble on a few of those Big Ideas before choosing to ignore them altogether. Maybe we’ll be responding in kind to scripts that are often episodic, meandering, content to leave ostensibly-vital plot threads hanging. Or maybe we’ll just look like asses.
Continue reading Face Off: Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007)
I arrived late to the party for The Shape of Water, having finally caught the movie a few weeks ago after months and months of dodging reviews online. Guess I’d better add my voice to the fray, huh? Maybe a piece on how writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s creativity allowed him to get away with a smaller budget…but, no, someone’s already written that. How about an article detailing the Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired genesis of the film? Damn, that one’s been up for three months. Use of color in the film? Been there. Political subtext? Done that. Seems a movie as rich as this should have a surplus of accoutrements on which to festoon my opinions, should have that pliability typical of great films allowing for different readings, interpretations, criticisms, attitudes and judgments.
The irony, in a way, is that explicit analysis of The Shape of Water is sort of counter to the themes of the film. More than that: forcing words onto Shape, which thrives largely on sight and feeling, might actually be detrimental to one’s enjoyment of and identification with the message at hand. Despite having seen the film only recently and only once, I suspect that removing the words entirely — watching it with the volume muted — wouldn’t take anything away from the overall experience. It might even heighten it, highlighting just how different “words” and “communication” actually are.
Continue reading The Shape of Water (2017)
There’s nothing quite like a good movie villain. If we’re talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, maybe you read this statement another way: there’s nothing quite like a good movie villain, anywhere. With the exception of Loki and a few other superbaddies, the MCU’s well-documented track record for weak villains has been the franchise’s persistent shortcoming. In much the same way as the villains of the Bond franchise became less and less interesting with each progressive installment, by this point you basically know what you’re getting in the Antagonist Department. At worst, the MCU gives us a paper-thin doppelgänger for the hero, a bland apocalypse-seeker with vague motivation, or whatever the heck Christopher Eccleston was supposed to be in Thor: The Dark World. At best, the MCU just gives us Loki for like the fifth time.
And then Black Panther came along.
Continue reading Black Panther (2018)
Of the nine Best Picture nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, four of them — that’s a healthy 44% — address predatory love. Okay, maybe only three if you don’t include The Shape of Water, though, technically, yes, the protagonist is in love with a literal predator. Down to 33%, which is still a higher percentage than you’d expect from American awards season. Though I suppose Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is never really about rape, only using that (as it used a number of other social issues) as a springboard for dramatic explorations of entirely different social issues. So, okay, fine: 22%.
That leaves Phantom Thread and Call Me By Your Name, both of which are absolutely, inescapably, 100% concerned with “love” that’s mostly characterized by dominance on one side. I should state that I put “love” in quotations because there is, of course, an easy rebuttal to calling such a thing love at all. I should state that jokes equating Shape of Water‘s fish-man to Thread‘s obsessive Woodcock or Call Me‘s way-too-old Oliver have zero business in a serious discussion of this topic. And I should state that I’m a white American male in my late-20s, admittedly a category not known (at the moment, anyway) for our prowess in deft handling of sexual abuse talks. Maybe I have zero business here along with fish-man.
Continue reading Call Me By Your Name (2017)