FilmSpace: Bird Box; The Front Runner; Welcome to Marwen

Film critic Calum Cooper looks at some of the week’s additional cinema releases, including the infamous Netflix original Bird Box, a biopic on the rise and fall of Democrat senator Gary Hart, and the latest film from veteran Robert Zemeckis.

Bird Box – ★★☆☆☆

Bird Box is a Netflix hybrid between A Quiet Place and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening that has taken the internet by storm. Not because the film itself is especially good or bad, but because of a challenge first promoted by Twitch to play video games blindfolded, as the characters in this film have to navigate the world in the same state. Very rapidly this challenge has gotten out of hand, with challengers now attempting dangerous tasks blindfolded, from tattoo artistry to driving cars. It’s times like this when I wish I could revoke my membership with humanity.

But enough about the challenge. How is Bird Box as a film?  Starring Sandra Bullock as a woman named Malorie, the film opens with her leading two young children to a boat, where a safe haven supposedly waits for them down the river. They are doing this blindfolded, with a box of birds to alert them to unwanted presences. This is because a mysterious entity arrived five years ago, and the mere sight of it is enough to cause someone to commit suicide. As a result, the human race is all but extinct. The film interweaves two stories – Malorie’s treacherous blindfolded journey to this safe haven, and the beginnings of this epidemic as told through flashbacks.

I joke that it’s a mix of two separate movies, but there actually is some ingenuity to this film’s premise. It taps into our age old fear of the unknown, but uses it to showcase the building effects of paranoia. Much of the film takes place in a house with complete strangers mistrusting each other. Yet all share the fear of what is out there causing mass suicides. As a result, there’s a definite sense of atmosphere to the picture, particularly once it’s paired up with long shot takes to showcase various deaths, or close quarters cinematography to display fear on the characters’ faces even when blindfolded.

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Unfortunately, I found the film pretty dull as a whole. I don’t want to compare too much, but A Quiet Place, which omitted sound rather than sight, worked because it focused on a confined group of characters. More specifically it was a family, meaning we understood the dynamics of the group right away, and it gave each character something more to lose than just their lives. Bird Box features a rag tag band of about eight or so characters that have no immediate relation or connection, which is way too many for such a limited amount of time.

They’re all played by great actors, from Lil Rey Howrey to Danielle Macdonald to John Malkovitch. But the script does them no favours. Far too many scenes involve the actors talking in exposition and explanation, while their characters, with the exception of Bullock’s Malorie, remain flat and underdeveloped. Outside of assigned tropes such as the asshole, the novelist or the old lady, I can’t tell you anything about them.

Furthermore, the progression of events feels needlessly baggy. So much time is spent with characters explaining theories or being set up to die that the pacing hinders the otherwise competent atmosphere. I appreciate the film’s resistance to CGI, but other annoying techniques, such as misplaced comedy, undercooked metaphors, and spraying the camera lens with water or mud during more intense moments, took me out of the experience. It seems more occupied with delivering short term anxieties via separate sequences, like driving a car blind or two births occuring side by side, than refining the overall product to leave a lasting impact.

Maybe I’m being unfair, as it is a neat concept. Either way, the film evoked few emotions out of me, outside of fleeting moments of trepidation. There’s plenty to enjoy in terms of its craft, but I can’t help but feel a better screenplay would’ve gone a long way here.

The Front Runner – ★★☆☆☆

To fully express my opinion on The Front Runner, I’d like to tell you a story. I was a keen history student back in my Largs Academy days. During my Highers, I once got an essay back that wasn’t as well marked as I thought it ought to be. My teacher explained to me that while I had gotten everything historically right, I did little to explain what can be learned from it. In other words, I had little to no analysis, and so hadn’t properly answered the question. Enlightened, I never made that mistake again.

I bring it up as I apply the same criticism to this film. It has all the pieces necessary to make a fascinating biopic on an intriguing individual. But, it’s all narrative over analysis, and the analysis presented isn’t that deep or as well thought out as it should’ve been.

Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is the centre of this biopic. He was a popular Democrat Party Senator in the 1980s, so popular that he was seen as the front runner for the Democrat nomination in 1988. However, some journalists go prying and find that Hart may potentially be having an extramarital affair with another journalist, Donna Rice. Printing this story despite it being a mere rumour, we watch as this once guaranteed future president’s campaign comes crumbling down.

It’s curious timing for this film, seeing as we now live in an age where a narcissist, sexual predator, and all around nincompoop can lose a vote by three million and still win the White House. But I’ll leave the politics to the political commentators.

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While the film makes solid usage of Hugh Jackman’s acting abilities, in spite of his rather silly wig, and its grainy lighting and cinematography to recreate the 80s setting, its focus is totally split. Half the time it seems to be serving as a scathing towards journalism’s voyeurism, and where the line between private and public lives should meet, if at all. The other half seems occupied with Hart’s character and whether or not his behaviour, however shady, should be forgiven or held to the highest moral standard.

These are interesting ideas individually, but the film spends so much time jumping back and forth between these arguments that it fails to make a strong case for either of them. In the process, it completely wastes its talented cast, including Vera Farmiga and J.K. Simmons, and makes what should’ve been riveting, complex questions with no concrete answers a dreary watch. It tells us what happens, but never really explores personal or national ramifications, or long term consequences, especially given where we are now politically.

That’s not to say the film is a complete flop. There are moments of potential, even greatness, scattered about here and there, a particularly solid scene being one where Gary Hart flubs his answers to questions, all but confirming his infidelity. The dialogue can be very sharp at the best of times, and every actor does the best they can with the material. Yet, as I said, there simply isn’t enough attention towards what it’s arguing.

The Front Runner isn’t awful. It’s not even that bad. But it fails to make any kind of compelling case with its material. Honestly, a film about Donna Rice and how the scandal affected her private life probably would’ve been much more captivating. But as they say, judge something for what it is not what it isn’t.

Welcome to Marwen – ★★☆☆☆

Robert Zemeckis has one of the most colourful filmographies of any director. With classics like Back to the Future, Contact, and Forrest Gump alongside innovative technical achievements like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he’s truly left his mark on cinema. His movies can be inconsistent quality wise, but at least they’re never boring. Welcome to Marwen is another case of this. There’s a lot to like, but it’s far too wishy-washy to do justice to its solemn tale.

Based on a true story, we open on a stunning animation of plastic dolls in the middle of WW2. This is however only the imagination of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell). He was once a talented artist who happens to enjoy wearing high heels. He’s savagely beaten by white supremacists because of this outside a bar, to the point where he no longer has any memories of his previous life. As a coping mechanism, he has built a model town in his home, a fictional Belgian village in WW2, where he takes photographs of different dolls, with each photograph telling a different story. Each doll outside of his own is based on a significant woman from Hogancamp’s life, with the Nazi officers representing the thugs who beat him.

The story of Hogancamp is a tragic one that no one should have to be subjected to. The film uses this event and explores it through fictional stories based around Hogancamp and his dolls, all of which tie in to what’s going on with Hogancamp psychologically. I get what the film is trying to do, and I respect it for that. It’s serving as an exploration on trauma and how easily it can consume someone’s life.

It’s a suitable concept, but it’s not the only merit the film has. The animation that brings the dolls to life is fantastic, and Steve Carell is also very good in the central role, displaying an admirable balancing act between icy fear and loving fascination for what he does or has lost. There’s even some effective cinematography, with many shots filmed at a distance to emphasise detachment.

As it’s all manufactured to force the viewer into emotional submission, there’s a lack of organic matter to its messages. It feels designed to collect the tears of the most lachrymose via mechanicalised sentimentality, which is a disservice to Hogancamp’s inspiring story.

However, what lets this film down is its brittle script and tone. For such a serious subject matter like PTSD the film concentrates on being whimsical far too much. Saccharine music is repeated over and over, as Carell gazes upon his handiwork, day to day life, and eventual crush in the form of Leslie Mann, with nervous curiosity and happiness. He even talks to himself and his dolls, which everyone around him, including complete strangers, just accepts because gosh darn isn’t that just so quirky?

I hate sounding cynical, as maybe Hogancamp really was like this, but it feels forced and clichéd. It undermines the interesting story, and its forlorn undertones, because it’s too busy trying to be upbeat rather than truly dissect the themes on display, many of which feel shoe-horned in anyway. The characters around Hogancamp are very bland, and the dialogue often spells out what the characters are feeling rather than let the audience experience the emotions visually. As it’s all manufactured to force the viewer into emotional submission, there’s a lack of organic matter to its messages. It feels designed to collect the tears of the most lachrymose via mechanicalised sentimentality, which is a disservice to Hogancamp’s inspiring story.

But perhaps it’s my heart of tar that’s at fault here. If simple, feel good material with a strange twist is your idea of entertainment, then more power to you. Personally though, I’ll stick to Back to the Future re-runs.

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