I’m a bit late on this one, but considering I revisited Shaun of the Dead last week, let’s just say I was channeling my inner Ed, eh?
8/21: Europa Report (2013)
Prometheus failed, in part, because its sensationalist tendencies took away from the genuine thrill of bald discovery. Few films in recent memory have burst with such wonder and fear of the unknown (and in equal measure) than the first 25 minutes of Ridley Scott’s science fiction odyssey. At the very least, Europa Report maintains that commitment to scientific discovery through the end.
When a team of scientists and engineers embark on a mission to probe the ice of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, for signs of life, things don’t exactly go according to plan. Equipment breaks, crew members die off, and yes, even hints of intelligent life are teased. Europa Report’s cast of semi-familiar faces is like a retread of European-turned-American villain types: Sharlto Copley’s emotionally distraught engineer; Mykael Nyqvist’s stony chief engineer; Anamaria Marinca’s headstrong pilot. Expect to see these faces cast as the next generic euro trash baddie in a summer blockbuster near you. This is a talented cast, but a film so committed to scientific discovery leaves little in the way of characterization or cohesive pacing.
Or stylistic consistency, for that matter. Found footage seems like another thing to do now in contemporary populist cinema, like post-credit stingers or Zack Hemsey imitations. Much like my problems with Chronicle — I guess I’m bringing up a lot of dislikes here — Europa Report wants to have its found footage cake and eat it, too, conveniently shifting not just out of the onboard dash cams and helmet feeds but switching to full-on cinematic string-pulling with rises in the score, abrupt cuts for tension, even expressionist uses of distortion and feedback. Far be it from me to define “how” anything should or shouldn’t be used, but where’s the sense in found footage where there’s a line between diegesis and “reality?”
For what it’s worth, Embeth Davitz, Dan Fogler, and Isaiah Whitlock Jr. all comprise a shuttle planning team that would probably make for a more interesting film.
8/22: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
As Roger Ebert notes in his revisiting of Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 screwball comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night is an extremely autobiographical picture for the director — if not directly than very indirectly so. He writes:
Adultery was the great subject of many of Ingmar Bergman’s films and much of his life. He was married five times, and not very faithfully…
Perhaps it only speaks volumes of my own familiarity with Bergman, but this sharply written, quick-witted romantic comedy took me by surprise. Yes, Bergman’s construction and visual acuity isn’t as tight and assured as it would become in his later masterpieces; Bergman employs at least one tracking shot on the unfaithul Gunnar Björnstrand that seems uncharacteristically sloppy. What’s truly remarkable here is how the stereotype of Bergman’s sour interiority (at least as it exists in my mind’s eye) is still on display in such light material. Smiles’ penultimate dinner sequence, in which Eva Dahlbeck and Margit Carlqvist plot to swap lovers, sees its director find his way to heightened reality and dark psychology in a purely visual manner, with slow tracks in and expressions cloaked in chiaroscuro. Knowing, in hindsight, that Bergman’s masterworks The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries would both come but two years later now seems both impressively humbling and completely expected from such a limber auteur.
8/23: The Producers (1968)
The UW Cinematheque and WUD Film wrapped their Ebert tribute series this summer with one of the late critic’s favorites. To crib, once again, from the critic:
The movie was like a bomb going off inside the audience’s sense of propriety. There is such rapacity in its heroes, such gleeful fraud, such greed, such lust, such a willingness to compromise every principle, that we cave in and go along.
I must agree with Mr. Ebert here. Beyond The Producers’ amorality, I was taken by its pure subversiveness. Mel Brooks’ ability to completely and utterly undermine any kind of value system whatsoever never feels like this musical comedy is biting the hand that feeds it. Instead, it’s making an absolute glutton of itself, chowing down while winking at us all the while.
8/24: Shaun of the Dead (2004)
George Romero obviously popularized the notion of “zombie flick as sociocultural critique.” While Edgar Wright’s feature length debut isn’t as revelatory as a Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead borrows from Romero’s tropes while incorporating a rom-com sensibility in its escalation of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s dead-end “zombification.”
Frost’s pot-smoking, Time Splitters 2-playing fuckup of a roomie is clearly more far gone, but Pegg’s Shaun is headed down a similar path should he fail to change his ways. In its self-actualization of the latter and sacrifice of the former, Shaun of the Dead reunites its unlikely hero with his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield) and chains a zombified Ed to a game system in the shed. Perhaps some of us really are better off with our unsavory friends dead and buried. Erm, metaphorically speaking of course.