FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #131 – “Anon” (dir. Andrew Niccol), “Avengers: Infinity War” (dir. Russo Bros.)

Poster for "Avengers: Infinity War"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a spoiler-filled dive into Avengers: Infinity War, the culmination of a decade of superhero films and Daniel-skepticism about them. Will this be the villain and ending that can finally satisfy him? Stay tuned! But first, we check out a new film from writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, In Time), which may finally answer the question of whether Netflix can take on a sci-fi film from an acclaimed director or franchise for some other reason besides…not being very good (01:04:43).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Anon" (2018 film)

FilmWonk rating (Anon): 6.5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Avengers: Infinity War): 7.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:52] Review: Anon
  • [17:33] Spoilers: Anon
  • [28:05] Spoilers: Avengers: Infinity War
  • Check out Glenn’s review of Infinity War, as well as his Ten Years Ago retrospective of Iron Man, which came out a decade ago last week.
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “A Lot to Figure Out” and “More Power”from the Avengers: Infinity War score by Alan Silvestri.
  • CORRECTION: When discussing the real-world versions of the technology featured in Anon, we misspoke when referring to the technology known as “Deepfakes“, suggesting that the software is capable of replacing human faces in real-time – that is not accurate (yet). The process involves substantial GPU power and has to be rendered over the course of hours. For now. You really want to lose your minds over the potential implications of such technology, check out Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron‘s article on the Lawfare blog, “Deep Fakes: A Looming Crisis for National Security, Democracy and Privacy?”
  • Check out Buzzfeed’s Deepfakes video of President Barack Obama featuring Jordan Peele, here.
  • We referenced the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope – we first read about it in a discussion on TVTropes, but the term was coined by Jonathan McIntosh – you can check out his video breakdown of the term on YouTube.

Listen above, or download: Anon, Avengers: Infinity War (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)


Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe” – An odd bit of erotica

Two seconds. That’s how long it takes for Amanda Seyfried’s breasts to appear in this film, and as she begins a wistful voiceover about what it means to be a prostitute, it is with this first artfully lit shot that Atom Egoyan’s Chloe (a remake of a 2003 French film) presents itself with decidedly European sensibilities. But while the Europeans might decry my American puritanical sexualization of the female breast, I must confess that this shot (and many similar ones that followed) put me somewhat on guard. There are few things that take me out of a film faster than the feeling that I’m being manipulated by the screen. If this were a film about gargantuan fighting robots, I could certainly ignore the feeling, but Chloe strives for a good deal more. As it went on, I was forced to decide whether I was watching a thoughtful and emotionally complex exploration of sexual obsession and jealousy or being titillated just for the sake of it.

The premise is certainly a provocative one. The Stewarts are a pair of well-off professionals whose marriage is gradually drifting apart – David (Liam Neeson), a college professor, is friendly and semi-flirtatious with every woman he meets, and his wife Catherine (Julianne Moore), a doctor, is becoming increasingly insecure and jealous. From the outset, we are as much in the dark as Catherine about her husband, as she becomes more and more suspicious that he’s cheating on her. She finds a friend and confidante in an escort named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), whom she hires to try and seduce David.

“I usually meet the client directly,” starts Chloe.

“I’M the client” declares Catherine.

And indeed, nearly all we see from this point on is through the interactions between these two women. As Chloe recounts her various encounters with David, Catherine insists she spare no detail. These graphic recollections are nothing new in cinema (they reminded me a great deal of Mike Nichols’ 2004 film Closer), but they still rang true for me. They spoke to the secret shame shared by private detectives and their cuckholded clients alike – when you’ve been betrayed by someone you love, you want to know every last disgusting detail.

It is this obsession that the film and its actors convey so effectively. The plot takes a number of rather predictable twists, but I really can’t fault it for this. As Catherine watches the destruction of her marriage, she gradually realizes that it may be her own mistrust and jealousy that precipitated its end. By the final act, the film only seems predictable in the sense of people being reliably self-destructive, and Julianne Moore proves to be the tragic heart of this film, turning in a performance that is both fearless and believable.

But what an enigma is Amanda Seyfried… This is an actress whose work I’ve nearly always enjoyed, who often elevates lesser films with her performances. But for the first half of this film, her line delivery is nearly as flat and devoid of character as porn star Sasha Grey in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. As she recounted the vagaries of life as a high-class call-girl, I just didn’t buy it. And while her performance certainly improves in the second half, it’s balanced out by some rather preposterous character twists (for which I place equal blame on the screenwriter).

This is certainly an ambitious film, and its successes manage to stay a bit more interesting than its failures. The film looks great, featuring some gorgeous cinematography from DP Paul Sarossy. It delivers a fantastic performance from Moore and solid supporting work from Neeson. And perhaps most importantly, despite the absurd lengths the film goes to in order to destroy its characters, it delivers a few remarkable relationship insights. I have to think that if only something had elevated the character of Chloe, I wouldn’t have been left to ponder whether this film is exploitative or gratuitous. The film strives for something like Closer but becomes something more akin to Heartbreakers. The result is something worse than one, but better than the other, and fascinating nonetheless.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Karyn Kusama’s “Jennifer’s Body” – The Devil’s in the Details

Megan Fox has something very much in common with her Transformers co-star, Shia LaBoeuf – they’re both strangely off-putting. LaBoeuf’s awkward reception can likely be attributed to being this generation’s geeky answer to Bruce Willis, but it seems to decrease as his acting prowess is steadily demonstrated. Conversely, Megan Fox has done very little to distinguish herself from any other honeypot on-screen, but from her vast array of tattoos and various attempts at being “edgy” to her public bickering with Michael Bay, she’s has done a fair amount to deserve a chilly reception off-screen.

Amid the scuffle of forced and angry celebrity, we’re presented with Jennifer’s Body, the latest outing from critically-polarizing Juno scribe Diablo Cody and Æon Flux director Karyn Kusama. Megan Fox plays Jennifer, a sultry teenage sexpot-cum-succubus who is working her way through the boys at her high school…killing and eating them in the process. Her friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) works to uncover the truth and stop any more boys from being killed – including her boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons).

Diablo Cody has once again shown her talent for whimsical character names and gratingly awkward teenage dialogue. Within the first ten minutes, we are treated to the following phrases:

“You’re just jello that you can’t go. Admit it! You’re just green jello!”
“You are so lesbi-gay.”
“Cheese and Fries!” [think “Jesus Christ!”]
“It smells like Thai food in here… Have you guys been f*cking?!”

And yet, as in Juno, if you can overlook the momentary twinges of painful repartee and hipster sensibility (which frankly didn’t bother me much in that film), what shines through is a fairly smart and amusing genre-straddler. The characters, some of which are in the film for the sole purpose of being killed, are much more fleshed out than most horror films would bother with these days. We’re treated to several none-too-elaborate, but nonetheless solid performances from Johnny Simmons (Hotel for Dogs), Kyle Gallner (“Veronica Mars”), Adam Brody (“The O.C.”), and Josh Emerson (I Love You, Beth Cooper). J.K. Simmons probably should’ve stayed home; he and Amy Sedaris are largely wasted in their minor adult roles.

Then there’s Megan Fox… About all I can say about her performance in this film is that it was one-note, but effective. There isn’t much to this character, and yet I can scarcely imagine anyone else playing the part. I suppose I must concede that Fox’s performance was passable, if utterly undemanding, but in spite of what the the posters might say, the real star (and indeed, the most prominent character) of this film is Amanda Seyfried. This is an actress whose work has steadily improved since she first caught her break as the dumbest of the Mean Girls, and went on to give a very effective turn on “Veronica Mars”. In this film, her character subscribes to the usual teen cliche of “hot girl + glasses/uncombed hair = plain girl”, but Seyfried continues to bring all of her signature likeability and earnestness to the role.

-“Our library has an occult section?”
-“It’s very small.”

As Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead have demonstrated, an effective blend of horror and comedy can make for a groundbreaking and fantastic film. This film may not reach the same levels of brilliance as either of those films, but it mostly succeeds at what it sets out to do.

It plays freely with the conventions of horror, often managing to surprise the audience by playing on the typical direction and storytelling. The film doesn’t overly rely on jump scares, and establishes an effectively frightening ambiance to several scenes. There was one shot in this film in which Megan Fox looked absolutely terrifying, and the camera lingered on it just long enough to make certain that the entire audience was squirming in their seats. Nonetheless, the film’s appeal to the horror genre is unfortunately limited to just a few strokes of directorial aptitude. Once it begins to delve seriously into the rules of its world, the film throws itself firmly back into the realm of teen comedy.

I had to laugh at a scene toward the end in which Megan Fox was hoisted out of a pool by her invisible wires and harness to hang limply in the air, and the following exchange ensues:

Chip: “She can fly?!”
Needy: “She’s only hovering!”
Jennifer: “Do you have to naysay everything I do?”

What ensues is a myriad of nonsensical demonic combat and subpar wire choreography, but it’s all largely immaterial. By this point in the film, if you haven’t erupted in laughter several times, you’re probably not the target audience. This is a film that is unafraid to tackle the connection between painfully generic indie rock and the occult. A film that will gleefully present us with a scene of awkward teenage sexuality (rendered with alarming accuracy), and then cut back and forth to a boy getting brutally murdered. A film in which a scene of abduction and human sacrifice unfolds with all the subtlety of a “MadTV” sketch, but is nonetheless played for ample hilarity.

This was a fun film – just as laughable as the majority of the franchise horror films that will appear over the next few weeks, but not nearly as insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Or check out the red-band trailer at Shock Til You Drop (NSFW).