The Train to Busan is a superior zombie movie. Just as in Shaun of the Dead, the zombies are a metaphor for how city-dwellers are all too often desensitized by the selfish, uncaring and ravenous demands of modern life. Unlike in Shaun of the Dead, however, everything in The Train to Busan is played out with an horrific, all-too-serious realism. The story follows a fund manager who has to rediscover his humanity and learn to care about (not to mention work with) others if he is to survive… and if he is to save his young daughter. The zombies are mindless but inexorable – they keep coming until our group of protagonists is whittled down to only those who are prepared to look out for each other. Then they have to start sacrificing themselves if any are to survive. Is it worth saving the old? Not really. Is it worth saving the high school lovers? What about the working class guy (he really does have no manners, even if he is useful in a fight)? What about the little girl? Surely she’s simply holding them all back. Or is she humanity’s hope for the future? In the end, when the survival of the species is at stake, is any single person really worth saving over another? Well worth a look. 8 out of 10 from me. Currently free to view if you’re an Amazon Prime member.
Get Out is a cracking movie. A black guy’s white girlfriend takes him to see her parents. She’s neglected to tell them that Chris is black. Oops. Still, the parents seem like well-meaning white liberals (even if they are implicitly racist in trying to talk to Chris about the things they assume would typically interest a black guy). And the parents also have a couple of black staff working for them in their big house. And those staff are acting veeeery weirdly, as if they’re brutalised prisoners or something.
It’s an extremely tense and unsettling opening and, in and of itself, an interesting comment upon the white liberal elites of the US. Then it turns out that the parents are having a large group of friends over. The friends turn out to be creepily solicitous, as if they want something from Chris. Are they looking to enslave him somehow? Or is there something even more twisted going on?
Get Out keeps you guessing all the way through. In that sense, we’re looking for clues and trying to interpret things, even though there’s no actual dead body or crime scene. It’s disorienting and unnerving to say the least. The most innocuous of actions and phrases ends up becoming symbolic, portentous, distorted and/or corrupted. It makes you scream with sheer dread, even though everything appears so normal… too normal… hyper normal!
Chris goes out on the veranda for a sneaky cigarette during his first evening at the parents’ house. When he comes back in, the mother (who is a therapist) regresses him through a mixture of suggestion and hypnotism without his permission. She takes him back to when he was a child and his mother was murdered. The next morning, he doesn’t quite remember the session, but he feels there is something wrong, very wrong.
You don’t want to watch, but you can’t drag your eyes away as the viewer. It’s like you’ve been mesmerised too. And, in a way, we voyeuristically have been. We are as complicit and exploited as the players of the piece. We feel thrilled and guilty at the same time. The film turns you inside out.
Get Out is American gothic at its best. Its so steeped in Americana that it’s impossible for (even the dullest of viewers) to watch the film in a purely superficial way. It’s like you’re watching or experiencing all of black American history up to the very moment.
And even when we’ve had the big ‘reveal’ moment, the tension doesn’t abate. Perhaps there simply isn’t any escape for a young black guy like Chris? There isn’t anything stupid or gratuitous about Get Out. Indeed, there is surprisingly little gore. The true horror is psychological, philosophical, social and moral, rather. As a result, it’s a film that’ll stay with you for a very long time, if not forever. But you’ll be a better person for having seen it. It score 10 out of 10 from me (a first).
A young driver gets himself in debt to a crimelord (Kevin Spacey – very good) and has to be the getaway man on various bank robberies. The driver has tinnitus, so always listens to music to drown out his ear-problem – meaning the audience watches the robberies and chase sequences set to ironically chosen tunes, and the proceedings have poetry and pop culture in equal doses. It’s fun and we get swept away by the artistry of it all – forgetting about all our moral objections to what’s going on. The film is very clever in pulling this off – and has a cracking first half as a consequence.
The driver (‘Baby’) then has to start contending with fairly unstable members of various ‘crews’ (e.g. Jamie Foxx) chosen by the crimelord. Baby’s new girlfriend (who works in the local diner) is unfortunately dragged into this world of double-cross and murder. These are the wages of Baby’s sins and transgressions.
The film’s plot-shape then becomes that cliched and moralistic tale of ‘you can’t escape the law’. If you’ve seen Carlitto’s Way, it’s the same vibe as that: ‘One last big job and I’ll be free of all this.’ Now, that plot-shape is classic to the Hollywood thriller genre, but it doesn’t quite resonate with a British audience in the same way – since we know criminals DO get away with it just as often as they don’t (e.g. The Great Train Robbery). The second half of Baby Driver, then, is all a bit too trite, predictable and lacking in artistry. The final fight scene against the baddy is pretty awful. The baddy comes back too many times. (NOT REALLY A SPOILER, COS THE FOLLOWING SCENE DOESN’T ADD THAT MUCH) Baby is at pains not to kill the baddie (absolutely not credible, cos the innocent girlfriend is about to be killed), so shoots the baddy in the leg, meaning chance and circumstance have to decide the baddy overbalances and falls to his death. It’s just silly, forced, directorially intrusive and out-of-synch with the first half of the film.
It’s a movie of two halves ultimately: one good and one bad. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely, but a tad disappointing (especially if you’ve read all the rave reviews in the press). It scores 7.5 out of 10 from me.
There’s been a furore about the issue of Scarlett Johansson playing the lead in the movie version of the classic Japanese anime story Ghost in the Shell. Some critics say that casting a white Hollywood star in the role (just as Matt Damon was the lead in The Great Wall and Tilda Swinton was the sensei in Doctor Strange) is cultural appropriation, or ‘whitewashing’. But it’s not actually that simple, because Scarlett plays a human brain in a synthetic body (a body that is non-racially specific and unrealistically augmented) in a racially mixed future society. One of the key messages of the film is that under the skin we’re all human. It’s an essentialist message. Added to that, there’s a similar intertextual message if you look at other recent Scarlett Johansson films e.g. Under the Skin, Lucy, etc. At the end of the day, I’m not entirely sure which side of the argument I come down on, but it’s perhaps a shame the ‘issue’ is putting people off going to see the film at all, since there is no doubt this is a thought-provoking film.
So what’s this high-concept scifi movie actually about? Well, Scarlett wakes up and finds that scientists have saved her from death by transplanting her brain from her dying body into a synthetic body. She is now expected to work for the government (as secret service) since they kind of own her. Turns out, of course, that she’s being used by unprincipled parties. Ultimately, she has to break free of their control, which sees her branded as a dangerous terrorist. All hell then breaks loose.
The special FX are stunning. There are some lovely scifi ideas, many of them incidental. The world is intricately imagined and delicately described. And we do care about the characters.
There are other themes I could explore (feminist, child-soldier, alienation, etc), but it’s probably best to leave these for you to discover for yourself. So, Ghost in a Shell scores a respectable 8 out of 10 from me.
Chris Pratt is brought out of suspended animation by a computer error. There’re still 90 years to go before his ship will arrive at the new colony. There’s no way for him to re-enter suspended animation (the first contrived plot point). Of the 5000 passengers on the ship, he’s the only one who’s awake. A year goes by and he’s all but suicidal. He’s ‘saved’ by falling in love with one of the sleeping passengers (the comely Jennifer Lawrence, who’s left video diaries which he’s watched over and over again). No longer able to resist, he brings her out of suspended animation, robbing her of her future on the new colony. It’s an interesting moral dilemma that he’s been wrestling with, and he can’t bring himself to tell her that he’s responsible for her waking up (rather than it being down to a computer glitch). A romance blossoms between them, only for her then to discover the truth. The fallout is believable – Pratt and Lawrence work well enough together on-screen.
But then the plot starts to intrude once more. A crew member of the ship is awoken by accident – and he explains a lot of plot for us (including, yet again, the impossibility of re-entering suspended animation – almost as if the movie is so embarrassed by it that it overdoes its explanation). The original computer error has now become a mission critical cascade failure. The engine needs to be flushed and rebooted, but the door is jammed (an even more ridiculous plot point, given how hyper advanced the technology of the ship is). Needless to say, Chris and Jennifer rush around and scream a lot… and save the day. Phew. They then live happily ever after (albeit only with each other for company).
Look, the good things about this film are the SFX, the moral and existential issues and some of the acting. It’s such a shame the film didn’t confine itself to a deeper study of such things, really. It’s such a shame that Hollywood feels a need to insert a hackneyed, well-worn set of things that they label plot. A missed opportunity, but an interesting one. Scores 7 out of 10 from me.
Hidden Figures is based on the true story of the black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the 60s to enable manned space travel. These women were treated like a ‘secretary pool’, given a dress code and segregated toilets (a long way from where they actually worked). They also couldn’t use the communal coffee supply. They weren’t allowed to put their names on reports, even if all the work was theirs. Yet the racism within the NASA of the time was institutional rather than personally enforced. Watching the movie, we find most of the white characters likeable (if not admirable), making it hard for us to square that with our feelings about how the black women are treated. The film cleverly manages to weave race issues and social themes with the dramatic narrative about the US’s ‘space race’ with Russia. There are many levels of juxtaposition that make this movie so insightful that you can only be enlightened and enriched by watching it. There can be no doubt it’ll win multiple Oscars. It scores 9 out of 10 from me!
A young man wins a high-level IT competition to spend a week with the world’s leading tech guru on his country estate. It turns out the guru wants our hero to test a cyborg that he’s built, to see if the artificial intelligence is truly ‘sentient’. The movie is then organised via a series of film-recorded ‘interviews’ between our hero and the ostensibly female cyborg. However, there are periodic power-outages and the film recording fails, at which point the cyborg tells the hero not to believe anything the tech guru says. Ultimately, the hero begins to fall for the cyborg and agrees to help her escape her prison!
This storyline bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot of the madam in Westworld, of course. A lot of the visuals are also strikingly similar. Ex Machina pre-dates Westworld by a couple of years, of course. Nuff said.
If you’re a scifi fan who likes movies with the thoughtful vibe of Moon, then you’ll love Ex Machina. A must-see, with clever plot twists throughout. It’s a 9 out of 10 from me.