Sunday, April 19, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 9

What I watched last week (titles link to trailers):

Daredevil: Season One (Marvel/Netflix)
Fast & Furious (Justin Lin, 2009)
Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015)

5 Thoughts:

1. It Follows is at least the best new horror film I've seen since The Cabin in the Woods, and maybe even since The Blair Witch Project, which was 16 years ago. (Related news: I don't tend to see many horror movies, as most of them are so poorly reviewed.)

I spent a solid day thinking about it, but not really in terms of story, which is rather simple, but more in terms of mechanics. Apropos for its title, the unsettling dread of the movie really does follow you, at least for a time. The next day, a friend asked me if it was scary, and I almost didn't know how to respond. It really comes down to how you define the word. There really aren't any moments in the film where you'll jump or scream, but the film devises a way of just maintaining a steady, mounting pace of unnerving you, and it's a feeling that really doesn't dissipate when the credits role. 

There's a brilliant style of cinematography in the film. Most horror films thrive on what you can't see just off screen--corners, darkness, stairwells, shut doors… anything to create a space of unknowing. Not only does It Follows NOT do that, but it goes so far in the opposite direction that it's like a magician emphatically displaying the emptiness of something. "Nothing to see here!" It Follows mostly takes place during the day, and often outside (though with virtually no direct sunlight, which is a nice artistic touch), and the camera frequently does complete 360 degree turns to show us the entire surrounding, and its apparent safety net. It's this illusion of fake safety, which virtually no other horror films attempt to create to this degree, that makes the proceedings so terrifying. 

It Follows will likely be remembered as a true classic in its genre. 

2. Two weeks ago I watched the first three Fast & Furious films, and wrote about how they tried a lot of things that mostly didn't work. But what did work about them was the trial and error process. Each film taught us something to do, and something not to do. The first film worked in the creation of a dynamic where the ties of family intersect with illegal racing, but failed in the recycled Point Break plot. The second film succeeded in plot (send these guys on a job), character interplay (the buddy cop dynamic), and stunts (increasingly insane), but utterly failed in losing the family atmosphere and casting power of the original. And then the third film just taught us everything not to do. 

Fast & Furious (2009's 4th film in the series) and Fast Five (2011's 5th entry) are where those lessons really started paying off. The Fast & Furious movies are one of the only franchises that have gotten noticeably better with time because they spent four movies figuring out what works, and then once they did, they made three more movies basically only doing those things. Writing it like that, it sounds so simple, so why is it so seemingly unique to this one franchise? 

Fast & Furious is basically just a better version of the first film, without the plot stolen from Point Break. It was a good back to basics move for the franchise, and it ended in a way that was effective in giving a new status quo to the franchise. Then Fast Five is really where it became the most fun franchise in Hollywood. I do have a bit of a difficult time with the climactic chase scene where the two mustangs drag a giant safe through the streets of Rio, because it so gleefully ignores every law of physics, but whatever. These aren't movies you see for their relationship to reality, and you just have to make a conscious decision to not let the absurdity distance you from the fun. 

3. There's a 20-ish minute sequence in Batman Begins, from when Bruce Wayne returns from the orient to when Batman makes his debut and brings down Carmine Falcone (before the movie changes gears and gets into the Scarecrow poisoning the water plot), and Netflix's Daredevil is basically a 13 hour version of those twenty minutes. I mean that in the best possible way. As with Batman Begins, we don't see the hero in full costume until the climactic moment where he's ready to take down the crime lord for good, and everything prior is about how we get to that moment. Daredevil meanders a bit, as most shows do, but it keeps its eye on the prize because it knows what the prize is. It knows the payoff moment it's building towards, and it knows the key beats on the way there. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sucks because it has no idea what it's doing or what it wants to be. With Daredevil, there's never any question. 

And on that point, Daredevil is also notable for what it doesn't try to do. The indefensible 2003 film attempted to tell the entire Elektra story, along with having both The Kingpin and Bullseye play major roles. You can't do that in two hours, or at least not well. But the new iteration, which had 11 more hours to play with, still opted to leave Elektra and Bullseye on the bench. It was the right move. 

4. The biggest thing that's so immediately refreshing about Daredevil is that it's clearly a show meant for adults. One review I read (and I honestly can't remember which one it was) pointed out that this is likely the first major superhero movie or television show not attempting to sell lunch boxes, and I love that point. Marvel's movies depend on multiple viewings by 14-year old boys for their grosses (and therefore need 14-year old boys legally allowed to shell out for tickets), and Agents of S.U.C.K. has to follow the content restrictions of network television. Daredevil has no such problems on either front, and it takes advantage of that. This is a very violent show, and as Grantland's Alex Pappademas put it, "It reacquaints the comic book genre with pain and bodily consequence." But more than that, Daredevil also reacquaints the comic book genre with character deaths that aren't inserted for mere shock value. The characters who die here (which is about a third of the main cast) do so because playing in this world ought to realistically lead to death a fair amount of the time. It never feels like the product of a more ulterior motive than that. 

5. Some Daredevil pro/cons:
Pro--Vincent D'Onofrio is legitimately great as The Kingpin (which he's never actually called). 
Con--The Kingpin/Vanessa relationship felt way too rushed and ridiculous. Not from his end, but from hers. 
Pro--I really liked the actress who played Karen Page.
Con--I'm much less enthusiastic about the actor who played Foggy Nelson.
Pro--The series gets better in its middle and final thirds.
Con--The series' first third is its weakest. 
Pro--The amount of beatings Daredevil takes felt refreshing for a superhero flick.
Con--The amount of beatings Daredevil takes make his ability to walk by the series' end seem wildly unrealistic.
Pro--The cinematography and production design of the show were great.
Con--It needed a better score and theme music.
Pro--It hugely raises the hopes and expectations for Marvel's next Netflix series.
Con--That next series, A.K.A. Jessico Jones, is being created by the same person who wrote the screenplays to all five Twilight movies. 

We'll see where it goes from here. 

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