The Battery

We chose a movie pretty much completely at random and ended up with The Battery.  I sort of glanced at it and thought “It may as well be titled “Yet Another Zombie Movie”, except IMDB says this one won a whole whack of awards, so let’s see what’s up.”

This is a tough one to review.  I simultaneously like it and dislike it.  It is simultaneously cliche and unique.  It is Schrodinger’s movie.

I went into the movie not sure what to expect.  I like post-apocalyptic movies, which zombies fall into, but there are a lot of really bad zombie movies out there and a majority of them tend to lean in that direction lately.  The whole genre is getting a little played out, too, so even if you come across a good one it tends to be a bit ho-hum.  But then the first half of 28 Days Later, where he’s wandering around a desolate landscape trying to piece together what happened, is probably my favourite movie sequence of all time.  I’m usually willing to take a risk if it might mean experiencing something like that again.

The movie started with a notice about all the bands that are featured within the film.  My immediate reaction was “Oh no.”  It wasn’t too bad because they at least tried to weave it into the story with the headphones being a part of the plot, but there were way too many sequences where they did nothing but showcase music for 5 minutes (with wistful cuts to zoomed-in shots of insects on flowers), and it started getting tedious.

The actual story started off fairly well with lots of scavenging through empty neighborhoods for supplies, but I was having a lot of trouble getting a sense of timescale from the movie.  All of the houses were empty, but pristine.  There were no real signs of panic or struggle.  One protagonist had a bushy and unkempt beard like he hadn’t shaved in over a year, but the other didn’t have a hint of stubble around his sculpted facial hair.  Lawns and road-sides were freshly manicured.  I had the idea that the apocalypse had literally just happened, but then the characters started talking about how they’d been moving around for months.

I was disappointed with the lack of worldbuilding.  It’s usually my favourite part of disaster movies – what happened, and why?  There’s absolutely no explanation, not even a glossed-over one.  I guess zombies are just so familiar now that it seems like a waste of time to try to explain them, and I don’t necessarily fault them for just skimming over it, but I still missed it.

Then we had a three minute scene where they enjoyed brushing their teeth after looting toothbrushes and toothpaste from a house.  It started out pretty great and you could feel how awesome it was for them to experience clean teeth again after an extended period of neglect, and it was a powerful scene with good silent acting going on.  But then it kept going.  Okay, we get it, it feels good, and they miss the comforts of their old life.  No, seriously.  Move along now.  Jesus christ they’re still brushing.  …  Oh my god, really?

There were a lot of little moments like that, where there was a good idea behind a scene, and interesting themes to explore behind a scene, but then it was dragged out until all the power behind it was lost.  Even during the dragged out scenes, though, the acting remained good – which becomes very impressive when you discover that the movie had a budget of $6000.  Suddenly the manicured lawns and lack of mess make sense (as does, to some degree, the unnecessary scene padding…).  The movie didn’t remain confined to a single room or cut budget by having wooden actors or a 20 dollar camera that shakes all over the place, and the result is quite watchable and doesn’t even really feel low budget.  It’s really only the writing to blame, which has little to do with budget.

There are decisions like displaying Mickey’s loneliness and longing for female companionship through having him sniff and then pocket some panties.  It’s pretty creepy but it could be a way to display how desperate he is for human contact.  Then he decides the best course of action is to masturbate to a female zombie that is attempting to break into the car to kill him.  What the fuck.   It’s one thing to have him be a whiny twat who constantly puts the group in danger because he wants to pretend everything is the way it used to be.  Masturbating to a female zombie… that’s just a mind boggling character development decision.  It would be one thing if it actually factored into the plot a bit more but nope, it happens, it’s not really considered exceptional (they have a good laugh over it…), and it’s never mentioned again.  Then his reaction to being told to fuck off by the only living female they encounter is to whine about it for the rest of the movie and put them into even more danger by trying to deny it.  This is great character development for a character we’re supposed to hate, but not really all that great for a character we’re supposed to feel sympathy for.  I felt a lot more sympathy for his companion, who had to put up with all the whining as well as deal with all the dangerous situations the whining thrust them into, all for the sake of having any companion at all.  Maybe that was the point and he was the only character we were supposed to root for…

It does have some good moments though and, despite the bizarre character choices, I did enjoy watching it.  I’d like to say that the good moments outweigh the bad… but honestly, it’s probably more accurate to say the good moments outnumber the bad.  The bad moments are so bad that, unfortunately, they end up colouring the whole thing, resulting in the conflicted rating I’m giving it.  I’m just going to give up and give it every single tag, instead of trying to decide on just one… but I decided not to give it the “Kind of shitty” tag, which suggests it wasn’t all that bad!  I like that the zombies were not the main focus of the film, and yet it wasn’t the same old plot of “Humans are the real threat” (well, for the most part).  The focus was on the character development and the progression of relationships under duress.  I’m not even sure I would classify it as “horror”, but I guess there is no category for “Mildly unsettling and thought-provoking disaster movie, with some tension”.  I do think the movie hit on the themes it was attempting to hit, and it did a decent job of it too.

Would I watch it again?  Probably not… but is it worth watching once?  It’s not on the top of my list of recommendations from the zombie genre, but it’s worth checking out if you happen to spot it.

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Divergent

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction, survival fiction, to some extent military fiction, and I loved The Hunger Games which Divergent gets a lot of crap for copying. I actually saw the trailer for the movie (which I wasn’t really interested in, to be honest) and saw the magical words “based on the best selling novel” and was like “hmm. I should look that one up.” Even if it was just a cash-in ripoff of the success of Hunger Games, I should probably still enjoy it right?

I’m going to put a bottom line up front here: teen and “tweens” will love this book. For the rest of us, it’s just too god damn dumbed down to extract any real entertainment out of. I may have rolled my eyes here and there during Hunger Games, but I never felt like it was actively insulting my intelligence. Divergent… oh my god I felt like I was losing IQ at points.

One of the things I love the most about dystopian fiction is the worldbuilding. What is this world? Why is it dystopian? How did it get this way? Was there a purpose behind making it this way? How are the people coping with their circumstances?
Divergent has almost no worldbuilding. This is the first book in a trilogy (another glaring sign of cashing in… does it need to be a trilogy or are we just hoping to sell 3x the books?) but even if the rest of the series builds the most amazing world, it’s TOO LATE. That shit needs to go in book one, people. The civilization is broken into several factions, and it never explains why. Why do we have these factions? Why were they formed? What is the purpose? There’s a sniff here and there that, hey, maybe there IS actually a plot reason for these factions and it’s not just all pulled out of an ass, but the book doesn’t bother to explain anything to you until a couple of snippets near the end. The main character even explicitly states that she never paid attention in history, to give us a convenient out for not explaining anything.

Speaking of which, the book is in first person present tense, which is a point of view that I loathe. I hated it in Hunger Games and it’s one of the few things I feel really limited the ability to tell the story of that series. In a surprise twist, the POV is probably one of the things that didn’t irritate me about Divergent. I didn’t detect any sloppy mixed tense, and it was effectively used to ramp up the action scenes without losing too many opportunities to advance the plot due to the awkwardness of needing the main character to be present to show the reader every single development.

The problem is, it was probably effective because this book has no god damn plot to advance. The entire plot is “Tris switches factions and goes through hazing rituals for 400 pages”. Then there’s actually a bit of plot in the 10 pages of a war at the end, which is supposed to get you to buy in to the rest of the series. There’s no real background, no worldbuilding, and no real character development either. It’s just Tris going through ordeal after ordeal and trying to survive to make it to the next one, with no clear indication as to why. And also heavy allusions to High School social bullshit (with very one-dimensional bullies), to make sure the kids can relate to her.

The character development was a real issue. We see each and every thought Tris has, and she becomes more and more unlikeable with each one. She comes from the selfless faction, so she’s constantly beating herself over the head with how selfish she’s being now that she’s in a new faction and if she was back home she’d be doing all these selfless acts instead and prostrating herself in front of everyone instead of trying to advance herself. When I say constantly, I mean constantly. She does not shut up about it. Just shut up. Augh. But then she has dizzying bi-polar flips to completely different personalities. She’s flipping between self-loathing to angst to spite to psychopathic rage and then right back to self-loathing (and then incredulousness when she scores first place in everything. How could this be when she’s so bad at stuff?!?). And she’s as thick as molasses in winter, unless the situation dictates that she out-smart everyone by being super clever all of a sudden. Then she will be super clever and amaze everyone. Then she will wonder why everyone is so amazed because she’s so awful at everything how could be they be impressed!??

At one point she asks a stupid question about what’s going on and the reply is “I can’t wait until you finally catch on”. I wrote a note next to it saying “Me too.”  If you ever find yourself reading a book and the main character says “I open my mouth to object, but I can’t.  He’s right.”, and you find yourself yelling “OF COURSE HE IS RIGHT YOU STUPID BITCH”, the character might not be well written.

The characters are all one-dimensional and feel unnatural because they only display character traits when it is necessary to advance the scene (whether or not it makes ANY GOD DAMN SENSE based on past scenes involving that character.  Al?  What the fuck was that, besides a transparent attempt at subverting the expected to elicit shock). The book attempts to use the same “hook” the Maze Runner did of trying to not tell the reader anything about what’s going on, in the hopes it keeps you curious enough to keep reading to find out. What that means is, Tris flips between being completely oblivious and missing the obvious when they want to tell the reader something without “telling” Tris… and asking very pointed and clever questions to try to get to the heart of things, only to be told “I’ll explain later.” It’s infuriating, and it feels completely contrived from start to finish.

And then there’s the romance. The rating of this book plummeted so much during those pages, let me tell you. Before that it was a mediocre but at least sort of interesting attempt at a story that I could see the younger readers really enjoying. The romance heated up and it became porn for 12 year olds. Oh they’ll love it, because it’s perfectly and very pointedly targetted at that age where they’re desperate to know anything about sex and this is a likely parentally-approved route to reading about it (no sex takes place oh goodness no they just cuddle and kiss no sex nope). But it suffers from the same character development flaws as the rest of the book. These characters are not acting naturally, they’re acting in a way that is carefully designed to appeal to a younger audience. Add to that Tris’s ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING obliviousness every single time her boyfriend is on screen (gosh they kissed last night and now he’s ignoring her at breakfast how could this be she thought he loved her he must actually hate her she wants to cry this is so awful because there couldn’t possibly be any other explanation for him not wanting to reveal to everyone in the military compound that they’re in love since you know he’s kind of the leader of the group and boy I don’t see any problems with this news getting out do you? Nope he must hate her now well fine then she hates him too. Oh wait he was acting that way to hide that fact that he loves her because if everyone else found out they might think there was bias going on oh my god he’s soooooo smart she loves him so much for being so smart ~*~dreamy sigh~*~)
… okay I got carried away but ugh. ugh. I don’t even care if this is an accurate portrayal of how teens think. It was tedious.

It gets a lot of crap for copying Hunger Games, but I actually didn’t feel it was much of a rip-off for most of the story… but at the end it veered down a path which is dangerously close to copying plot points word for word. I’m not sure what I think of that, and I’m not sure I will bother delving into book two to find out how Divergent (heh heh heh) it is, because I cannot stand the thought of sitting through another book of Tris’s tortured thoughts and self-flagellation over her lover boy.

In short (yes I know it’s too late for short): I feel like it’s a carefully engineered attempt at cashing in on popular-genre-of-the-week. It doesn’t feel genuine to me. This book was not written to entertain, it was written to sell. It’s unfortunate.

[edit] Now having finished reading, I read some more stuff on the internet and it seems like the author is actually quite young.  I could be wrong about it being deliberately written to appeal to a juvenile audience… it might just be working out that way due to the age of the author.  I bet if young adult dystopia wasn’t “the thing” right now, though, no publisher would have come within a mile of it, much less the movie deals.  But thanks to genre-of-the-week they were all over it like ants in a pop can on a hot day…

Turbo

We’ve been taking a lot of sinus decongestants and I kinda wanted to do something completely effortless… so I watched some animated movies!  I haven’t really been keeping up with the animation scene, but today I watched two relatively recent ones: Turbo and Despicable Me 2.

Despicable Me lived up to its predecessor in that it had supervillains hatching ridiculous plots, crazy ray guns and gadgets, and low IQ minions.  All the humour was spot-on, and the plot was dumb, but enjoyable mostly because the timing of the writing was excellent.

Turbo was terrible.

The interesting thing about that is that it follows a very familiar “underdog” formula.  A down on it’s luck [blank] falls on hard times and decides to follow its dream of [blank], making new friends and learning valuable moral lessons along the way.  In this case the [blank]s are “snail” and “win the Indy 500”.

I am going to paste this quote out of Wikipedia (without checking to see if it’s properly sourced or anything first. I’m living dangerously!):
“For me, it was less about trying to make a racing movie and more about finding an underdog that I could really latch onto. I think that a snail is inherently an underdog. It’s smashed, eaten by people, the butt of slow jokes around the world. It just seemed loaded with obstacles. Obviously, the opposite of slow is fast, and that’s where racing came into the picture.”

That’s it.  That’s the extent of the writing in this movie.  “People like underdogs.  Snails are slow, and fast is the opposite of slow – let’s have a snail win the Indy 500!”  Usually the writing in these things is clever enough to hide the formula a little bit, but in this case the movie is like “eh, he gets splashed with nitrous oxide and that lets him move at 230mph.  The kids won’t realize how dumb that is, don’t worry.”  It also installed LED lights that leave a trail behind him, his eyes are headlamps, there are blinkers in his butt, a stereo he turns on by banging his eyes together, and an alarm he can’t figure out how to turn off.

It was really dumb, and this is immediately after I praised a movie which contains yellow minions wielding fart guns. It’s all about suspension of disbelief, man.  Of course a supervillain is going to have yellow minions and they’re going to create fart guns!  It’s a natural step in the progression!  Dumping a snail in nitrous is only going to result in a dead snail.  You could at least say it’s some sort of super experimental thing someone was working on in order to create a super car, but they just couldn’t get it working until whoops, a snail fell in and it looks like the formula only works when combined with living tissue!  See, I’ve already written a better movie, and it’s still really stupid.

This is all completely ignoring the fact that once he gains super magic racing powers and sets a world speed record, he is no longer the god damn underdog.

It wasn’t even just that, though.  All of the characters were terribly written, which is probably tied directly to the fact that no real worldbuilding occurs.  The snail colony at the beginning is full of non-characters who do nothing but belittle Turbo for having a hobby.  The only purpose for any of it seems to be to set up a transparent “never give up on your dreams” morality lesson (and maybe hopefully a “don’t bully people like those dicks are doing” lesson), except that in this case the dream is fulfilled by somehow gaining magic powers, which is maybe not the best lesson for the little ones.  The “working at the plant” joke was something that they clearly thought was pretty clever (evidenced by the long pause and camera pull-out to reveal the plant.  ho ho ho it’s a literal plant, get it?), but it was hollow because they didn’t spend any time doing any worldbuilding in the garden.  You realize why worldbuilding is so threadbare when you realize the movie is split between three different locations, none of which are lingered in long enough for any building to occur.  Just as we start to figure out who these characters in the garden are, everything is whisked off to a new location and we lose track of them.  The “racing snails” are hastily introduced about halfway through the movie, not developed whatsoever, then go with Turbo to the race and proceed to do absolutely nothing important or even interesting (my god how did they get Samuel L. Jackson in on this?).  The only character that has any development at all is probably the driver that Turbo idolizes, and that’s only because he turns into the villain so he’s there throughout all of these locations.  Then we have Turbo’s brother who spends the entire movie being negative as shit and completely unproductive (he witnesses his brother moving at 230mph and still does nothing but whine about what a waste of time it is to try to do anything with it), making you want to punch him in the face. Then he makes a crazy about-face at the very very end, just when everything seems bleakest.  Man oh man I did not see that twist coming.  I still want to punch him in the face.

You know what would have helped immensely?  Just cut the whole garden from the plot.  Start at the mini-mall with the racing snails as a diversion in the back.  Suddenly Turbo has a reason to be into NASCAR, he has a reason to want to be faster, it doesn’t take an amazing amount of serendipity for him to be randomly picked up by some guy who happens to race snails, we have more time to develop the supporting cast…. dunking him in Nitrous is still really stupid but the rest of the movie would at least support it better.

There’s a big difference between a plot that’s written to appeal to children, and a plot that’s dumped out because kids won’t notice the difference.  Your kids might like this movie… in fact they probably will like it.  But there are so many cleverly written movies nowadays that appeal to children, teach them things (without being sappy as shit), AND contain humour that still appeals to adults… that’s the standard that movies should be trying to reach.  Turbo is just an unfortunate cash-in attempt.