Love, Death & Robots Vol.2

ldr2bThe first season (or ‘volume’ as Netflix would have it) of Love, Death & Robots, an animated anthology show apparently curated by David Fincher, remains one of the highlights of everything I’ve ever seen on Netflix. Its eighteen shorts were so varied in subject matter and animation style that, while there were some duds amongst the average and the great, there always seemed something worthwhile in each instalment. 

One never knows how popular a show is on streaming services, or how decisions are made regards greenlighting more seasons, especially with something as intrinsically weird as Love, Death & Robots, but the news a second season (ok, ‘volume’) was getting made filled me with joy. So news of this second volume getting dropped this month was pretty exciting, although that was tempered by disappointment at there being just eight episodes this time around. I guess this is due to production issues from the Covid pandemic and quite understandable, and news of a volume three coming presumably means that the original second volume has been split into two to facilitate dropping episodes now before a fickle public forget all about the original.

As was the case with the first volume, there are hits and duds even amongst just eight instalments, but again at the very least each is visually arresting. There is still a suspicion that the show is more of a tech demo from animation wizards let loose than a properly scripted anthology like The Twilight Zone– the series it most closely resembles- indeed it reminds me a great deal of the Japanese anime Genius Party films. Even the best episodes feel like the scripts need more polish, but as in the first volume, their advantage is their brevity; I think the longest is just 17 minutes and some run just about 10. Ironically, that’s possibly also a disadvantage, as the brevity means a lack of context and character is a weakness common to all. Once the ‘wow’ factor of the visuals drops, one realises there is often little else.

But what visuals. This show is constantly gorgeous, endless eye-candy. Some of the photo-realistic animation hints at where genre film and television may eventually go, with impossible vistas and pretty convincing… what do you call them, synthetic thespians? I guess its mostly motion-captured performances anyway but goodness, the tech has moved on since that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie amazed me years ago. What I tend to enjoy most though are those incredible vistas, the impossible places, the sense that I’m watching what could easily have been branded ‘Metal Hurlant / Heavy Metal’ and it would have just fit perfectly (albeit the branding meaning nothing to most Netflix punters). I loved that magazine back in its 1970s heyday, and this just looks like the mag transformed into this new medium (that mags weakness, artwork over narrative, is carried over too).

And hey, we even get a Christmas episode this time around, a cautionary morality tale reminding kids to be good or Santa’s presents might not be what they’re expecting/hoping for. That ones quite fun and typically gorgeous. 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

I was rather surprised how successful this was, and how much I enjoyed it. Something of a sequel and reboot for the franchise, following the original three films starring Noomi Rapace and the Western remake of the first of that trilogy,  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by David Fincher that starred Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. Phew, that’s seems a little complicated looking back on it- and rather symptomatic of the state of the film industry these days. Its enough to make this latest film seem rather cynical.

Which does hang over the whole enterprise. Based on a book by David Lagercrantz, in turn based on characters in the original book series by the late Stieg Larsson, the whole thing is an attempt to extend the original book series and films beyond it- a little like James Bond books and films running far beyond the passing of Bond creator Ian Fleming. Characters can so easily gain an immortality of their own far beyond that of original creators, and while it may have noble intentions there is always a sniff of opportunism and money-making in things like this. Its also rather true that in this film, and possibly the original book, there seems a concious intention to shift away from the dark character-based intensity of the Larsson originals and towards a larger espionage/James Bond thriller vibe- perhaps a little like the Jason Bourne franchise. It does feel a little incongruous for Lisbeth here to be drawn into a thriller about a program that can seize control of the world’s nuclear arsenals and leave the world ransom to armageddon- it really does feel more like the plot of a Bond movie.

Which might be a good thing, I don’t know. I certainly quite enjoyed it, because it did seem to be stretching the character a little  and pushing the boundaries- but does it do that too much? I guess that’s more a question for die-hard fans of the Larsson originals to ponder.

Taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander here is Claire Foy, which really seemed a bit of a stretch to me when I became aware of the casting but I have to say it works quite well. There’s a few peculiar moments where Foy seems to suddenly channel the Queen from Netflix’s The Crown (an occasional inflection of her voice, or flash of her eyes, sometimes) but on the whole she’s really intense and surprisingly successful, She manages the physical moments very well too- certainly a far cry from Little Dorrit.

Less successful, and very surprisingly so really, is Sylvia Hoeks as Camilla Salander, the main villain of the film and sister of our heroine. Hoeks was simply brilliant as Luv in BR2049, a really quite complex and nuanced character/performance but here she does seem to simply be a blonde Luv, reprising that role alarmingly in what feels a one-note performance. In Hoeks defence, I suspect it’s more the limitations of the part as written, leaving her little else to really do with it, but its similarity to her character in BR2049 is really disappointing. When I saw her name in the credits my interest in the film was raised considerably as I’ve not seen her in anything else other than BR2049 and I was really curious to see her possibly surprise me, but alas, no, this really is just more of the same.

I gather the box-office returns from this film were quite poor so we are unlikely to see Foy reprise the role in future installments. Perhaps the intent to reboot the series into another film franchise with yet another cast was perceived as cynical and ill-judged, and  got the rewards it deserved.  For myself, the quality of the film (it’s a pretty successful, albeit routine, old-fashioned thriller, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that in a cinema swamped by superhero caped crusaders etc) seemed pretty decent and I found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected. It does make me wonder if sometimes films such as this might be budgeted too highly – I suppose the purported budget of $43 million might seem fairly low in the great scheme of $150 million blockbusters but its returns of just $35 million (with marketing costs etc the film must have been a bit of a bomb financially) would suggest the market simply isn’t strong enough to support films budgeted like this.  If this is indeed the case then its an unfortunate state of affairs, and possibly suggests this kind of thriller might in future be relegated to Netflix/Amazon productions- which is a little sad, to consider that traditional cinema is no longer the place for thrillers like this.

Love, Death & Robots (2019) Pt.1

Well I never saw this coming- its strange in this Information Age when something just drops suddenly (in this case, on Netflix) as if from nowhere, and it just amazes. Love, Death & Robots is a sci-fi anthology series of eighteen animated shorts ranging from just six to seventeen minutes in length, with a list of producers that includes David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club etc) and Tim Miller (Deadpool) and some of the very best animation studios from all around the world. As its an anthology show each  episode is seperate so they can be watched in any order, which is an approach I’ve taken. I’ve watched three episodes and while the stories may not be groundbreaking, the visuals truly are- this stuff is jaw dropping, frankly, especially in 4K and Dolby Vision, which helps those visuals leap from the screen. So anyway, here’s my take on this first three-

dsr2“Beyond the Aquila Rift”: I started with this one because the synopsis -a space crew wakes up from cryo-sleep to find they’ve gone way, way off course, seemed intriguing and the art style from the image alongside the synopsis looked like pretty sophisticated photo-realistic CG. Well, that image didn’t lie- this looks pretty phenomenal and features the first graphic CG-animated sex scene that I think I’ve ever seen. The sex, it seems, is a common theme that runs throughout the Love, Sex & Robots anthology – this is clearly some kind of love-letter to the 1970s Metal Hurlant magazine (and later Heavy Metal), the series as visually opulent as the artwork featured in that magazine in its prime. I watched this thinking back to that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie (which I always had a soft spot for). It was a reminder that that last years Amiga 500 is this years ZX Spectrum, because time marches on and so does CG animation. We’re still in Uncanny Valley territory but its really impressive and the design work leaves it looking like a Mass Effect movie (no bad thing that, and I suspect there is going to be a videogame-visuals trend in some of this series). As for that story, well, its based on a sci-fi short and while its twist hardly startles, I did appreciate some of the touches in the direction and visuals- indeed, at the end the big reveal is gently teased through use of light and shadow in a very clever way, the lighting catching parts of a character’s form to suggest one thing before the horror unfolds as it moves further into the light. This episode is one of the longer ones, and while it pushes the limits of its story, its short enough not to out-stay its welcome, thankfully minus any padding- likely due to the cost per second of all that rendering time, which may benefit the series as a whole. Anyway, having dabbled, I was hooked. Seems Love, Death & Robots may dominate my weekend- I followed this episode with…

dsr1“Three Robots” : Based on a short story by John Scalzi, it features our three titular robots enjoying a tour through a post-apocalyptic landscape, apparently on a holiday checking out the sights of what humanity left behind. Visually it’s in a similar photo-realistic vein as “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, but has a gentle humorous vibe rather at odds with the desolate scenery littered with skeletons. This is a much shorter episode and benefits from this – even at this point I’d suggest that the way the series just lets episodes runs their natural course without arbitrarily setting a minimum of 20 minutes, say, is one of its biggest strengths. This episode is really quite fun with a nice twist that left a smile on my face.

dsr3“The Witness”: With this very short episode, it’s clearly all about the visuals rather than anything like a story- it’s basically just a chase scene, but one that is just simply jaw-dropping visually, really cementing the Heavy Metal feel of the series. Written and directed by artist Alberto Mielgo it’s possibly a glimpse of the future of animation- lovely touches like dodgy focus, blooming exposure, camera crash-zooms and jitter, almost as if Mielgo got himself a virtual go-pro and shot some scenes from inside a computer simulation. It has a tactile, you-are-there feel, how frantic and energised it is. I expect most people get distracted by the semi-nudity etc but I was swept away by the setting, the buildings etc. Its breathtaking, frankly- not photo-realistic but somewhere between that and hand-drawn anime. Reminded me of one or two of the better Animatrix shorts. I haven’t seen Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse yet but this did seem similar to that in style from what I remember from that film’s trailer.

So Love, Death & Robots seems pretty solid so far. Really enjoying it.

The Age of Adaline (2015)

ada1Run for the hills, guys, this one isn’t for us. The Age of Adaline is a thoroughly condescending love story, I appreciate that as its deliberately fashioned as an adult fantasy/fairy-tale  I should perhaps cut it some slack, but really, this kind of stuff is just really nauseating. A beautiful young woman, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is involved in a car accident in the mid-1930s which through a miracle of chance leaves her ageless, staying 29 years old for the remaining decades of the century while her family and freinds age around her. In order to hide her immortality, she changes her name, job and home every decade- only her  ageing daughter knows the truth and shares her secret. Adaline’s only other companions in life are her beloved dogs; other than that, she stays distant from the people around her to avoid creating ties of friendship and love which might reveal her ageless condition over time.

The fact that the guy she eventually falls in love with is a handsome hunk and an internet millionaire with a father, WIlliam (Harrison Ford) that himself once loved Adaline back in the 1960s when he was a young man, just raised my blood pressure and indignation. I know, I’m some kind of spoil-sport and should be more of a romantic. But this stuff is as patronizing as Pretty Woman, the epic film that delivered the modern myth that prostitutes are good girls deep-down who will be rescued/marry a millionaire someday.

The Age of Adaline is frustrating, as it could have been something much more- it wastes its central conceit, that it might have had something to say about living a life of eternal youth in a world that has to be distant, of watching freinds and loved ones, human and canine, age and pass away. Of what that might cost an individual emotionally and intellectually. Humans are a social animal, we like to belong, have attachments- what happens when you take that away and are forced to live forever in such a world/life?

ada2Instead it just maximizes the typical feminine wish-fulfillment of Adaline one day finding her True Love and that he turns out to be both wonderful and fabulously rich, and with added benefits (Harrison Ford as a father in law and ex-love, every woman’s dream).

As if living forever wasn’t good enough. Cue the ‘deep and philosophical’ lesson that True Love having been found, she can then become mortal again through another accident of chance and live a normal life like the rest of us (albeit one of beauty and riches). I appreciate its a romantic fantasy, but really, there would be a more important lesson had the True Love been a poor guy with a heart of gold, or a guy overweight and balding (beauty deeper than skin-deep). Instead she ends up with it all, the American Dream writ large.

You may well be wondering what on Earth I was doing watching this. Well, I came upon it on Netflix, noticing that it featured Harrison Ford. Call me a fool, but I come of that generation where Harrison Ford appearing in a movie meant something, or promised the possibility of something decent. Yeah, maybe that old Hollywood ‘Star system’ isn’t wholly dead and buried, and knowing most of Ford’s filmography I should have known better, but anyway, I gave it a shot not knowing what the film was about. As it was, it was mildly enjoyable and the central premise promised much (although, as I’ve said,  it actually turned out to be a different movie to that). I still remember with fondness the David Fincher film The Curious Case of  Benjamin Button and it did, for a while, seem to be going that way… you know, an adult fairy-tale with a moral, life-affirming and poignant and all that.

The film isn’t a total loss. Harrison Ford is actually quite good, and I was impressed by the casting choice for his young-man flashbacks, Anthony Ingruber, who looked like young Ford and coupled with Ford dubbing his voice, actually worked very well and might have suggested an alternate approach to the recent Solo movie. Ingruber’s similarity to a young Ford/Han Solo/Indiana Jones was quite startling. The music score by Rob Simonsen, is as might be expected, rather manipulative but its well-written and emotionally engaging, somewhat akin to early James Horner, certainly elevating the film, with rich strings, piano and chorus. The production design is very good, the period pieces convincing.

So my issues with the film are really its politics/life-lessons about giving up immortality for love and finding a true love that is fabulous and wealthy. Maybe I’m just a grouchy old bugger, clearly this nonsense isn’t intended for me. On the surface this film was well-crafted I guess but thinking back on it, ugh, its just nauseating and condescending. One for its target audience, certainly, but cynics like me should stay well away.

 

Se7en (1995)

se7enSe7en (Blu-ray)

There’s not really much to be said about Se7en (is it ‘Seven’ or ‘Se7en’ anyway?)– it is David Fincher’s dark masterpiece, a film up there with the very best films of all time.

Having recently watched Fight Club due to enjoying the first season of Mr Robot (which shares much of its themes and content with Fincher’s film), it was no doubt inevitable that I’d then be reaching for this particular blu-ray. It is a dark, mesmerising thriller, so perfect it almost hurts. Well, I say perfect but it does go a little off the rails towards the end… did I just write that? It feels like a sin… no, it’s just that after the finer-executed, intense ‘sins’ we see created earlier in the film, the ‘lust’ one feels forced somehow. It doesn’t work, it pales compared to the others, almost descending into some standard melodramatic potboiler/horror mash-up, but it’s easily forgiven, as everything else in the film oozes perfection. Maybe that ‘lust’ sequence, and the casting of Spacey, maybe, just maybe is the film bending to more mainstream genre conventions, I don’t know, but other than that, this film is truly great: thats Great with a capital ‘G’. The acting, the photography, the make-up, the music, the art direction… it’s a dark, twisted work of art, superior film-making indeed, and almost perverse perfection.

The rain never ends. There is seldom any sunlight, or any warmth. The city feels like a city of the damned, as if its denizens are souls trapped in some circle of hell from which there is no escape. A feeling of dread pervades everything; there is never any inclination that anything remotely like justice or hope or salvation is even possible here. There is a feeling that we are watching a film from the ‘seventies, where characters seem like real people and their world is as real as ours, when anything is possible, even a bad ending, an inconclusive ending, a disturbing ending.  It’s a scary thing. It’s never anything remotely like an ordinary contemporary thriller (except maybe during that aforementioned ‘lust’ section).

Its like a bad dream, one returned to everytime we rewatch it. Watching this film I often think back on Alien 3 and its own horrible flawed beauty, and wonder what Alien 3 might have been had Fincher been left to make it unmolested by the studio suits. After the failure of Alien 3 (a film I always liked, even the ‘faulty’ original cinema cut),  Se7en had an incredible impact, a sense of revelation, vindication. Here Fincher seems to be in control over everything, and the results show. Yes it’s all style and atmosphere but…to criticise the film for that, almost feels like missing the point- it’s so integral to the piece, the atmosphere is actually one of the films characters, like the production design is in Blade Runner.  Se7en is something very close to perfect.

 

Fight Club (1999)

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“The things you own end up owning you” – I think he’s seen my DVD/Blu-ray collection…

Oh boy- Fight Club is 17 years old this year. That’s really scary. I remember seeing it at the cinema, it was an amazing experience. I came out thinking I had just seen something new, something important. But 17 years ago? Where have all those years gone?

What is perhaps scarier is that it must be eight years or more since I last watched it. A film as good as Fight Club deserves to be watched at least once a year. Which raises a question: which films deserve to be re-watched at least once a year? If nothing else, re-watching really great films every year helps give a sense of perspective. You realise how bland current stuff is when you are constantly re-watching the really good stuff. So which films are that good they deserve to be re-watched every year;  Jaws? Citizen Kane? Ben-Hur? The Godfather? Fight Club? Well, Fight Club might be a contentious one. I’m a fan of the film and count it within my fifty great films list but it always had its detractors from Day One. God knows this film has it’s haters.

So anyway, I’ve now watched my previously never-watched blu-ray copy (yep, its one of those) of Fight Club. Now, I remember it being a good film, indeed a very good film, but really this thing just blew me away. Its funny and yes its violent and it’s full of both juvenile and insightful politicising and it’s dark and visually astonishing. I mean really, it’s so cleverly constructed/art-directed and filmed- anarchy and the decay of society has never looked so beautiful and horrible. Its like a work of art, of counter-culture. Or maybe it’s the very thing that it screams against. Its product (the irony of my disc copy being a ’10th Anniversary edition” not lost on me).

This dark, subversive satire is as sharp and brutal now as it was back in 1999- perhaps even more so, as the world we live in now is arguably much worse than the one in which Fight Club was originally made and set in. Yes, the film is a document of the world on the eve of the new millennium, but there’s nothing more telling that Fight Club is a pre-9/11 film than the finale with those skyscrapers being blown up and collapsing. There’s all kinds of things happening and being said in Fight Club that seems to have added meaning now. It almost feels like watching  different film, like it’s been loaded with all sort of additional baggage since 1999, there’s so many more reasons to flinch and mutter WTF? as the ways society and the world has worsened since 1999 informs the film.  And thats just above all the anti-consumerism stuff that’s as pertinent now as it ever was, particularly as the gap between the rich and the poor in society widens (“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact”).

This film has such great dialogue- whether you agree with its commentary or not, Fight Club must be the most quotable film outside of a Tarantino flick. The cast is brilliant. Pitt and Norton have never been better, and Helena Bonham Carter a revelation. She’s great in this.

There is such a raw energy to the film. Yes it’s a mainstream Hollywood film starring Hollywood A-listers directed by a major director for a major studio, but it feels like an indie, like guerilla film-making on some higher level than we’re used to. Some of the shots are as audacious as ever, some of the CGI a bit more dated than I expected, but on the whole it remains a spellbinding piece of work. Afterwards the question inevitably lingers, whatever happened to David Fincher? He never made anything as bold as this again. Well, not yet, anyway- I guess there is always hope.

Gone Girl (2014)

gone1Gone Girl is a fine thriller, elevated no end by Rosamund Pike’s great performance which in most other years might well have been awarded an Oscar- she’s that good. On the face of it, the premise of the film is fairly simple- revolving around the mysterious disappearance of Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike) and her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) who increasingly begins to fall under suspicion of her possible murder. There is of course an inevitable twist but surprisingly this comes mid-way through the film, from which point the film almost becomes another film entirely. Its a good film but due to its nature its one I can’t discuss freely without heading into spoiler-territory.

The only point I can really make is regarding the film’s soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. David Fincher has seemingly become infatuated with ambient soundscapes in his movies (the pair having scored his last three movies now) and while it might serve Fincher’s purpose, I suspect you could run this film minus any of its music score and not notice any difference at all. Its that kind of score. Which is all well and good, but I prefer music that’s almost a character in the film; scores like Poledouris’ Conan The Barbarian or Hermann’s Vertigo or even, for a more recent example, Zimmer’s Interstellar. Music that is an integral part of the film and its sense of character- Reznor’s score here is more of a drone with the odd bit of tune hidden away in its mix, and is pretty much redundant. It is what it is. But the fact that Fincher seems to be more in favour of this style when his earlier films had such great scores as Goldenthal’s Alien 3 or Shore’s Seven or the Dust Brother’s Fight Club… well its rather disheartening.
gone2And really that’s my biggest beef with Gone Girl- Fincher himself. This is the guy after all, who directed Alien 3, the unfairly-maligned result of a troubled production that is a beautifully-shot elegy on death, moody and stark with great performances, wonderful music, great photography and sets…. its a great failure. Its got balls, and is easily the most interesting of all the sequels to Alien. This is the guy who directed Seven, as brutally dark a film as you’ll ever see, a fascinating thriller that’s pretty much the definitive serial-killer movie. Again, great score, great performances, beautifully shot, a film, again, with balls. And then of course we have Fight Club, one of the boldest, mind-bogglingly ballsy movies to come out of Hollywood, ever. The very least you could say of these movies is that Fincher was pushing the envelope, and proving himself something of a maverick director. If Alien 3 failed, it wasn’t really down to Fincher, and the workprint version at least hints at what might have been had the suits left him alone. His next two films were great, classic films.

I’m not going to suggest that his subsequent movies weren’t any good, I’m a big fan of Zodiac in particular, but Fincher seems to be settling down to a routine of thrillers that are competently made but nowhere near as bold as his early films. He seems to be mirroring the career-trajectory of Ridley Scott, whose own best films can easily be argued to be his first three, from which he himself settled into often pedestrian fare.

Gone Girl is a good film, but I have the feeing it would be just as good a film with anyone else directing it. Fincher should be making films only he could make. He should be making a Dune or Rendezvous With Rama or his own Unforgiven, by which I mean a genre film that turns things on its head and says something new. I don’t think his last few films have, and though I’d like to think his future projects will, at the moment that’s getting a little dubious. The promise of a Fincher film used to excite me, but that’s worn off now, sadly.