Strange Vistas


Furie movie poster

For a brief moment, the Vietnamese action-drama Furie promises to create something different: a criminal underbelly where vovinam-fighting women control crime syndicates while followed by faceless, ineffectual henchmen who only act as cannon fodder.

It mostly, sort of, delivers on that promise, but only in the most half-assed of fashions, while quickly defaulting to more standard setups.

Ngô Thanh Vân stars as Hai Phuong, who we meet in some village in the middle of nowhere, beating a guy with a brick for a $100 debt. The introduction establishes that she's tough, but not invincible (there's an assignment that she has to escape), nor heartless (she doesn't hit her quota for the day because she gives some people a chance). We also learn she doesn't do this out of greed, but to support her 10-year-old daughter Mai, barely, buying $0.10 worth of food at a time in the market to cook on their crumbling river-side shack. She tries to avoid unnecessary fights, hiding when a drunk comes by to scream at her instead of chopping him up for bait. She is mostly trying to keep to herself, ensuring her kid stays in school, focuses on her studies, and has more options than Hai Phuong ever did.

Until a day when, after she gets distracted at a local market, some people kidnap Mai and flee to Saigon.

This happens at exactly the 30-minute mark. It's the first sign that we have been #sydfielded once again. The movie will then follow her around Saigon, reaching out to old contacts (who can't help), tracking down the people who took her daughter. She learns that she is in a race against time, and has only hours before her kidnappers butcher Mai her organs (because of course she stumbles upon a massive, well-organized organ trafficking ring around 60 minutes in).

Using a known structure of well-established beats is not a problem in and of itself. The Invitation made it work. What matters, though, is what you do between the beats. And Furie doesn't do nearly enough.

While it adds some autochthonous flavor during its first 30 minutes, Furie quickly forgets about it. For the rest of its run, it is content with biding its time until the next beat, cramming whatever filler it can find on the gaps. Some of this works, like her attempt to reconnect with an old colleague at a club. However, most fall on the category of “add disposable family melodrama, so people are free to go pee before the climax.” It's not filler; it's background information!

It is the laziest portrayal of organ trafficking, by the way. The one where the kidnappers cram children into a train for transfer into some dismantling facility. Let's disregard the fact that you can't keep organs around on the freezer for later use like ground beef, nor sell them to the first rando who shows up as if we were all compatible. The movie already established in its first 30 minutes that kidnappers can move kids between cities just fine by using the public bus system. Why have an elaborate network to ship them around by train in bulk, which requires you to avoid authorities at every stop? Why not just use the public bus system, as they did earlier, or rent their own minibus and move them a few at a time?

Because you can't have a climatic showdown inside a minibus, dummy.

Fridge logic would be forgivable if the movie had stuck to its guns and remained centered on killer women, from Hai Phuong, to her boss in the village, to the various ladies managing otherwise shady enterprises in Saigon. But the movie introduces a handsome male cop, who initially seems just going to be an ineffectual foil. Instead, he keeps swooping in at the last minute, looking cool, acting as if he's saving the day. After Hai Phuong has already both done all the research and knocked out 99% of the opposition. And the movie plays this with a straight face.

Or it would be something you handwave if the action is spectacular. But while it has its moments, the camera is often too close to the players, and there are only two scenes where the choreography surprises you.

Furie was what it took for me to appreciate The Raid II's “more is more” excesses. Gareth Evans benefitted from directing a sequel to an already successful film, but both Raid movies brought a clear intent to surprise the viewer that Furie could have used. Instead, it's content with sticking to tired structures and being a lower-budget distaff Ajeossi, without any of Bin Won's charm or style.

#veronicango #levankiet #vietnam #furie #action

Hermana Muerte in Veronica

You know what? No.

We're not doing this.

It takes Verónica an entire hour of dragging its feet before it finally did something unexpected. A whole hour before it found its own voice, said something of its own, then lapsed back into boilerplate.

Before that it was as entertaining as a teenager watching the classroom clock waiting for recess. Waiting for the 30-minute bell so it could give us a scare while wasting a fun character in the Hermana Muerte, someone whose one good line is the main salvageable thing one can scavenge from under the caked layers of trope make-up.

I've written and thrown away a couple of thousand words about Veronica, trying to find 400 which I didn't write better before, when I was dissecting how Under the Shadow got all Syd Fielded.

I hate repeating myself. If your movie is nothing but a different dress on the same skeleton propping up so many other films, if you are so unimaginative that a movie about a Spanish high-schooler with an Ouija board follows the same exact beats as movies about a besieged Iranian mother and her child or a bunch of soldiers fighting ghosts in future Moldova, I can't be arsed to do anything but rant.

Originally published in my old blog

#veronica #sydfielded #pacoplaza #sandraescacena #consuelotrujillo #horror

Shideh holding her daughter in Under The Shadow

For fuck's sake, stop cargo-culting Syd Field, people.

If you are making a low-budget movie, there are three fundamental things to keep in mind:

  • Keep your perspective tight,
  • Make it uniquely yours,
  • Less is more, so don't waste time with special effects,

These apply to any movie and any genre, but the more formulaic the genre tends to be (cough horror cough), the more having your own style counts. If your budget is tight and you don't have much production time, every choice you default to your genre's known tropes is a time you invite unfavorable comparisons. Speaking with a unique voice is fundamental.

The rest is laziness and habit.

Under the Shadow comes close. It's got a good grasp of technical basics, a unique setting – Tehran in the 1980s – and under-used mythology.

But it pays more attention to Field's structure than to its unique ingredients. It blindly follows a recipe, MacDonalizes its product instead of trying to cook a local dish with them. If Field's recipe isn't telling it how to use an item, well, let's chuck it into the pot with the rest. Blend them all, let structure sort them out.

Close is not good enough. Entertainment has been commoditized – there are more choices than time. You have to bring something to the table other than your autochthonous nature.

Shideh is a former medical student and home-bound mother. We first see her wrapped in a chador, sitting in a bureaucrat's office. She's a demure little thing, pleading to be let back into the college she's been banned from, unsure of her crime's specifics.

She used to be an activist during the revolution before finishing her studies. Iranian society does not look kindly on her independent thinking. The bureaucrat tells her, with a callous delivery, she is never going to study again. She should have kept her mouth shut and behaved.

We soon see Shideh back home, where it turns out she's neither demure nor eager to conform. She dresses in Western clothes. Her family owns a VCR, which she uses for Jane Fonda exercise tapes and so her daughter Dorsa can re-watch cartoons they can't get on TV. She fumes at what she perceives as her husband's lack of support, his unstated desire that she settled for being a housewife instead of bashing her head against society's walls.

And the city's under siege from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which was bombing and launching rockets against Iran's major cities.

Things were stressful even before the spirit arrived, which it does almost on cue at the 30-minute mark.

I keep having to bring this up. Too many scripts adhere to Syd Field's formula, treat it as blanks to fill in.

Field proposed that a movie should be split in three acts.

Act I is the set up, and on a regular 1'40” movie, it usually lasts half an hour. It has a plot point just at the end of its allotted time, a clash of cymbals to jolt your audience awake.

Act II is the confrontation. It's twice as long as Act I, so on our hypothetical movie it would last one hour. But that's too long to trust your audience's attention span, so you're going to need plot points at the 60- and 90-minute marks.

Act III is the resolution. It's just dénouement, some 10 or 15 minutes helping you come down from the big explosion that you got 90 minutes in.

Credits roll. Everyone goes home happy. The end.

Everyone but those who have learned to spot this pattern, because once you see it, you can't unsee it. You get a big moment, check your watch, tick the act as done, and know you have half an hour to kill until the next one.

Not knowing how to keep people's attention, writers settle for Syd Field's structure. They hide their personality as they let Field tell them how to act and talk and walk.

And Under the Shadow has Syd-Fielded itself into blandness.

If you feel I've spent too long on the introduction above, you have no idea how long the first half-hour of the movie feels. It sleepwalks until the requisite pivot, where it jolts awake for a moment, then it falls asleep again. It dribbles mythology, here and there, to pass the time.

By all rights, it should be singular.

Shideh feels alone, lacking support from her husband and her husband's family, and she finds herself in increasing physical isolation as everyone flees the city because of the Iraqi bombings. The windows are taped, in anticipation of an inevitable explosion. When the supernatural threat shows up, the first sign is a widening crack in their apartment ceiling, the external world trying to creep into their Westernized bubble. The djinn then manifests to Shideh as a floating chador, a visualization of the pious uniformity Iranian society wants to jam her into.

The ingredients are all there.

But these problems arrive on cue, and the movie doesn't know what to fill its time with. The script wastes opportunities and gets burdened by a late-movie focus on special effects that they can't afford.

When the spirit appears, Shideh sees it as cloak that moves as carried by the wind. Or it should. It appears to move with that plasticky fluency of CGI that not even the grainiest post-processing can help hide. It breaks the illusion, even more when you contrast it with the one moment of the movie where they use an actual cloth.

In It Follows, the main special effect is the casting. David Robert Mitchell aims to unsettle, so we don't get deformed beasts or glowing eyes. We get people. Odd, perturbed-looking people who may or may not be there. The lack of a “tell” on their appearance and the lack of that special-effect shimmer increase tension, as we never know who around the characters might be a threat.

Worse is how Under the Shadow squanders the opportunity provided by the setting. Shideh is besieged by the Iraqis, cornered and coerced by her countrymen, nudged into submission by her husband. Neighbors condemn her non-conformism with their stares until they need her medical expertise. She has a history of sleepwalking when stressed. Then her husband gets sent to the front lines.

On a better movie, we'd spend most of it wonder if the djinn's actions are all in her head. It could be disturbing as an Iranian The Babadook. If the script didn't take that away from us by declaring her sane, because Dorsa sees the djinn as well, and her observations match Shideh's. There's never a question that Dorsa might just be playing along, humoring her mother. The child knows what's going on before the mother admits it herself.

You don't give a protagonist who we might think is crazy an anchoring point like that. Resolving ambiguity that early only removes a source of suspense, and you could use a few of those.

Under the Shadow doesn't get going until it's too late. The mood-setting is fine when they get around to it, but by then, it's spent too long contorting itself into the structure corset someone thought they were supposed to wear. At least there's no jump scare at the end, just a wind reminding you that things aren't over.

Shideh is a nonconformist trying to survive in a society that tries to hammer her into a hole she hates. Under the Shadow, too much of a conformist itself gleefully bends itself into the shape of the hole it thinks it's expected to fit.

Originally published on my old blog

#undertheshadow #sydfielded #babakanvari #nargesrashidi #iran #horror

Spectral promotional photo

Ugh. It seems that Netflix movies are like software – you need to wait a few weeks after release for ratings to stabilize.

Spectral seemed like it would be fun, cheap entertainment. It had a 4 out of 5 rating, which I thought was optimistic, but hey, if it passed a Saturday night, then great.

It didn't.

It's not even that interesting to dissect as a movie, actually. It's a hair above the quality you'd expect out of Syfy. What is interesting is what it might tell us about Netflix' data-driven production approach.

The story of how Netflix decided to produce an American House of Cards is at this point well know, but just in case: with the massive amount of user ratings they have, and no small amount of machine learning, they noticed that people who like the original British series also liked Kevin Spacey movies (and, I would expect, David Fincher). They decided to put them together to target their viewers.

If you squint, you can see where most bits on Spectral came from. Bruce Greenwood is a good choice of inexpensive “that guy” slash authority figure. Emily Mortimer is popular in secondary parts, even if not recognizable by most since she's never had a hit. The set design is so obviously geared to people who liked Terminator 2's future aesthetic that I'm surprised Michael Biehn isn't in it.

Throw in other look-alikes like Discount Ioan Gruffudd and Dime Store Jackie Earle Haley, and you've got yourself a movie.

I wish they sourced better writers, though. You could make a fun B movie with these elements. The idea of Moldova as “future Iraq” is not bad. But it's written without a shred of finesse, filling in blanks on a screenwriting template. You can bet your entire paycheck on there being plot shifts at 30, 60 and 90 minutes. There's a token tough female character who they still manage to turn into both “audience stand-in who needs things explained to” and “human subtitle machine”. You can be 100% sure Bruce Greenwood is there so he can deliver an attempt at a rousing speech before the last charge. There will be a massive face-off – duh! – where we are supposed to feel sorry for the extras sacrificing themselves as a distraction so that Science Boy and CIA Girl can infiltrate the enemy.

From plot to characterization, the script puts in the least amount of effort to even show up.

Not to mention, its shifting, pidgin language identified on subtitles as [speaking foreign] is not nearly as bad as the dialogue you actually do get to understand. It's one of those movies where, after a while, I just can't help but yell at the screen.

For instance, when they encounter disembodied nervous systems near the movie's end:

“How do you know if they can feel anything?” “I can't...”

How about there being an entire nervous system with a brain in that vat there?

“... there are some things science can't answer”

It's a bloody central nervous system! And a spine! And a brain! Which science school did you go to?

I expect in the near future Netflix movies will be written and produced by a convolutional neural network. Maybe then their genre offshoots will get better than this leaky Markov chain.

You have to wonder what the fitness function will be then, though. Right now it's ratings telling them what to produce. Eventually, it may turn to you being engaged, because as long as you are watching Netflix, you are not watching something else. Every two hours they get from you keep you one step further from going to a different service.

If that becomes the case, when in doubt, the only winning move will be not to watch.

Originally published on my old blog

#spectral #action #brucegreenwood #emilymortiner #sydfielded

Dinner party at The Invitation

Will and Kira are driving to dinner. They were invited over by Will's ex-girlfriend Eden, who disappeared two years ago after their child died. They hit a coyote. Will, already tense from both conversation and expectation, finishes it off with a tire iron.

As far as a harbingers go, it's not a subtle one.

It also highlights my main complaint about The Invitation: you can't help but see the structure, hear the metronome tick. There's the initial omen with the coyote. It's followed almost immediately by a mention of Chekhov's dinner guest, a gun that surely won't be fired until the third act. There's Will's obvious unease at meeting his ex, accepted by the gaggle of old friends who are also there because of their shared history. The disturbing signs only he sees, which they can easily dismiss as manifestations of his discomfort.

Tick, the spike at 30 minutes in. Tock, the plot pivot at the one hour mark. Tick, the acceleration into the third act. Tock, the denouement.

It's a well-crafted suspense. I enjoyed the puppet show, but the wires were too plainly in sight. I'm still happy we're getting more of the slow-boil Blue Ruin-type movies. Karyn Kusama's reliance on structural crutches doesn't show anywhere near Saulnier's confidence, but maybe she's a late bloomer.

Originally published on my old blog

#karynkusama #jeremysaulnier #loganmarshallgreen #emayatzycorinealdi #suspendse #sydfielded