Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Man Rehearses Machine: GRAN TURISMO

We’re so used to stories of man versus machine that there’s something peculiar about landing in a story that’s man merging with machine. That’s the uncanny element that made Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi debut District 9 such a sensation, and his followups Elysium and Chappie so divisive and confounding. To see a human swallowed up by something alien or robotic, and to emerge the other side something altogether transformed, treated as ambivalent, and maybe even net positive, is a head-scratcher. Thus I find Blomkamp’s filmmaking alternately compelling and off-putting, especially as he takes such potentially cold ideas—all the more so when they’re juiced with viscera-splattering action sequences—and slathers on sentiment and quasi-pointed uplift within their mechanical hearts. There’s really nothing else quite like it, for better or worse.

Somehow, though, in stepping away from sci-fi, one can find his personality still fits in a based-on-a-true-sports-story like Gran Turismo. Car racing is already a story of man melding with machine to do something greater than either could alone. This one adds the wrinkle of the eponymous video game. The narrative is loosely formed around real events in which the makers of the game convince Nissan and Playstation to bankroll an experiment by which the world’s best Gran Turismo players would get the chance to compete as real race car drivers. The movie casts its lead as a cute fresh-faced gamer and aspiring racer (Archie Madekwe) with a blue-collar dad (Oscar Nominee Djimon Hounsou) and mom (Spice Girl Geri Halliwell) who have their doubts as he leaps at this chance to live his dream. As we follow a pretty standard rise-fall-rise underdog story—would you believe the rich career drivers aren’t keen to share the track with an untested joystick jockey?—the young man is trained by an expert (David Harbour), boosted by a corporate climber (Orlando Bloom), and dogged by self-doubt.

The racing scenes are well-shaped and photographed for quick-paced car stunts. But the real charge in its heart comes from the way it allows the lead’s video game knowledge of tracks and tires to come in handy in real life. That’s the Blomkamp touch, letting the simulated dynamics of the game—down to the digital flourishes that visualize his memory of routes and alerts—turn into a thrill and an asset, as a real winner emerges from a melding with the machines. Even the real doubts, typified by a moving scene in which Hounsou and Halliwell watch a wreck on live TV and register the shock and uncertainty with only their eyes, fade in the midst of the momentum of the formulaically effective plotting. It’s selling a fantasy of man melding with machine that any number of gamers will find flattering, and makes for a sturdy car picture, a la such diverse pictures as Grand Prix and Ford v Ferrari and Talladega Nights, redone in a fresh coat of paint.

Friday, August 11, 2023


The art of film appreciation is, to paraphrase Fritz Lang’s classic sci-fi silent Metropolis, a handshake agreement between the heart and the mind. We can find much to intellectually assess about any given picture, but inevitably the heart takes over, too. Thus it is that I think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a good movie, but one for which my enthusiasm is muted. Whereas Meg 2: The Trench is a bad movie, and yet it’s one with which, I must admit, I had a certain amount of fun. It comes down to this. Mutant Mayhem, the umpteenth Ninja Turtles project, is a good version of a thing I’ve never much cared about, and for which my ceiling of potential enjoyment is apparently much lower than the average audience. Meg 2, on the other hand, is a giddily stupid sequel that never once thinks it’s doing anything else but serving creature feature silliness larded up with all sorts of cheap paperback thriller plotting. Neither movie asks to be taken seriously, which is all for the better. They’re flip sides of the same goofy coin: putting silly characters and sloppy monsters on the big screen for us to gawk at and laugh with and walk out reasonably pleased. I imagine anyone willingly buying a ticket and walking into a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem or Meg 2: The Trench will find exactly what they hope to see there.

Ninja Turtles is an animated feature that redoes an origin story for the ubiquitous amphibious karate teens. It’s a formulaic superhero tale that twins a toxic ooze catalyst for both heroes and villains. The latter is Superfly, a clear nod to blaxploitation down to the rumbling, street-tough Ice Cube voice performance. He’s a mutant bug who rallies his slimy siblings to steal lab equipment with the goal of assembling a machine to wipe out mankind. Luckily, the pack of plucky adolescent kung-fu tortoises in the sewers below have decided to surface and think they should stop him. They’re a gangly, likable bunch—largely indistinguishable but bubbling over with authentic teenage awkwardness, slang, and bravado. Anyone even vaguely aware of kids programming over the past four decades will recognize the shape of their style—the headbands, the ninja weapons, the love of pizza, the rat father. (He’s Jackie Chan now, and gets some appropriate fight choreography to match.) There’s something comforting enough to the fresh coat of paint slapped on a sturdy, predictable plot engine. Never once is the outcome in doubt. Of course the turtles will discover their powers and live up to their potential, while the bad guys will be defeated in a slam-bang fight downtown, and bigger baddies will lurk in the shadows to be teased in a mid-credits scene. But at least it looks neat and the squeaky cracking turtle performances have a real teen energy going. It’s nice to see them animated with a Spider-Verse-style scragginess, down to the wiggly penmanship, expressive line work, and layered visual jokes. It has a rat-a-tat rambling to the dialogue, and sequences stuffed with quick-witted gags and gooey sentimental heart you’d expect from a collaboration between Seth Rogen and a co-director on Mitchells vs the Machines. This might be as good as these turtle movies get.

Meg 2
is objectively worse, but I sure didn’t mind it in the moment. Imagine a simpler, dumber Deep Blue Sea and you’re onto something. Jason Statham returns to outwit enormous prehistoric sharks that’ve eluded capture at a scientific outpost meant to contain them. There’s a slog of exposition up top, a lot of soggy business about an ensemble trapped in dive suits on the ocean floor in the middle, and then a chomping spectacle at a beach resort that ends things on a toothy grin. Along the way we get gun-toting villains with a duplicitous boss out of a bad Michael Crichton rip-off, as well as a tentacled deep-sea beastie and eel-like lizard things slithering around making extra variables for the sustained climactic action. I could describe all the flimsy characters and simple interpersonal dynamics and cheap attempts at emotional investment. But really all the movie has going for it is a brisk pace and a willingness to just go for it. The director is Ben Wheatley, who usually does unsatisfying indie horror movies—though his best was winking feature-length shoot-out Free Fire, and his worst was a dismal, instantly-forgotten remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca for Netflix. Here he gets a chance to make a studio budget (boosted by an international co-production with Chinese backers and actors) colorful and bright and dripping in off-screen PG-13 gore. It’s so stupidly diverting I only wished it was even stupider. A little extra excess—and yes, I’m really saying a movie culminating in Statham stabbing a prehistoric jumbo-shark through the mouth with a broken-off helicopter propeller should be more excessive—could’ve made Meg 2 a classic of its kind. It’ll have to settle for agreeably crummy B-minus movie status instead.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Center Stage: THEATER CAMP

If Theater Camp doesn’t become a Drama Club classic, it’ll be another bad sign for the future of movies. It may not be an exemplar of the form, but its shaggy, underdog affection for its characters and milieu makes it all the more charming. I can’t image anyone who is now or has ever been a theater teen who’d be anything but charmed. As satire, it’s knowing, but very gentle. It comes on like a grainy mockumentary, setting up the eponymous locale as a financially strapped institution perched on the precipice of foreclosure. Its owner (Amy Sedaris in a whirlwind cameo) is in a coma, leaving the task of running the summer to her wannabe influencer son. (When told about the budget for “straight” plays, he earnestly asks what a “gay” play is. “Musicals,” the stage manager answers.) The staff is well-meaning, but silly at best and pretentious at worst. Honestly, their curriculum leaves a lot to be desired, too. But for all the above seems set up for mockery, the movie finds only sweetness. Everyone means well. Conflict is easily patched over. And even the unlikeliest participants will have their moment to shine.

The plot itself is developed sketchily, in scenes that play out as loose skits—goofy classes, camp complications, personality quirks. The adults get the bulk of the work, with the kids largely confined to reliable reaction shots. And despite starting their summer off with a long list of productions, the movie quickly focuses on just one. It narrows into a reliable old format—the let’s-put-on-a-show-and-save-our-beloved-space musical. Within that format, the movie finds an amiable, amusing approach that suits the affection it finds around every corner. It simply loves these ragtag theater kids and their teachers. There’s no interpersonal drama amid the campers, and the main problems the adults face are 1.) insufficient and/or misplaced confidence in their own talents, and 2.) outside financial problems from money minders who just don’t get artists’ goals. That doesn’t seem so difficult to overcome with some sparkles, jazz hands, original music, and a theatrical flair.

The loose, improvised feeling and communal spirit shine through the movie’s insistence that the show must go on. The fact that the main cast—Ben Platt, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin—are also the co-writers (and also, in Gordon’s case, co-director) is surely what gives the project its pleasant sense of hanging around. And in the end, when it leans entirely on the audience buying the transformative power of theater, well, the magic of the stage got to me, too. When one character lets his inner drag queen into the spotlight, and another bravely comes out as straight, as everyone takes the stage for a rousing group number celebrating their favorite summer spot, why, it’s almost like Theater Camp has room for everyone.