The Mitchells vs the Machines

The Mitchell family


A cross-pollination of Deadpool and The Lego Movie might result in The Mitchells vs the Machines, a mad, meta-referential animation full of smart ideas and packed with enough jokes for repeat viewings.

It’s refreshing, also, for a big Hollywood movie to be such a hymn (if hymns can be this busy) to weirdness. That’s largely down to co-writer/director Michael Rianda, who makes clear in the exit credits – with a big picture of his own family tagged “the real life Mitchells” – that this is a personal project.

Perhaps idiosyncrasy is a better word than weirdness, let’s not get carried away, because in the telling of a story about a teenage movie-mad girl called Katie, and her scrappy but loving family, there’s nothing out-and-out oddball going on. Katie just wants to go away to college and be with “her people” – fellow students on a moviemaking course – and her parents (and similarly idiosyncratic little brother) are reluctant to let go. Normal family stuff, in other words.

This family are an everyday, just folks kind of unit, a paean to the shabby, the make-do, the everyday, the exact opposite of so many airbrushed lives to be found on Instagram, through tricked out with all the bells and whistles of the Instagram age.

So, that’s the Mitchells, what about the machines? They arrive when dad Rick (voice: Danny McBride), mum Linda (Maya Rudolph) and brother Aaron (Rianda) are driving Katie (Abbi Jacobson) to university and the singularity occurs. Thanks to infernal dabbling in AI by tech magnate Mark Bowman (Eric André), the machines suddenly become supersmart, stop obeying orders from humans and set about rounding up the entire planet’s population, with the intention of firing them off into space.

Suddenly the Mitchells aren’t just driving Katie to California, they’re on a mission to save the planet (and rediscover their special family bond), with Katie’s almost insane optimism and wildly creative mind as their secret weapon. Actually, they all seem to have a secret weapon when it’s really needed, even the dog.

You could watch this film at half speed and still miss stuff. It is so packed with detail, and not just in the writing. The animation style is almost psychedelic in its fizziness, and drawing on social media for its influences as much as other movies, it’s erupting with stuff busting out all over the frame – emotions becoming visible in the shape of a heart or flowers, overlays as if a face-change app or a cat-face app had been suddenly switched on, and then off again just as quickly.

“Who would have thought a global tech company wouldn’t have our best interests at heart,” opines mother Linda at one point, thus completing the journey of tech in popular culture from good guys to out and out villains – 2013’s The Internship to 2021 and the arc is complete. If I were Mark Zuckerberg I’d be very nervous, even though the tech honcho himself isn’t portrayed as a bad guy, reinforced by the fact that Eric André is providing his voice, but the message is clearly that the whole thing is out of control and someone needs to do some restraining. If not the government, then… a suburban family.

Monchi the mutt
Monchi has his own superpower



Animated movies of yore managed to get by OK when no one had any idea who was voicing Cinderella, or Snow White or the Lady and the Tramp. Even so, there are some standouts here – André is well chosen, as said, so is Danny McBride as the dad, one moment vainglorious, the next crestfallen, McBride gets it all just right. And Olivia Colman is nicely chosen as the voice of the app that’s controlling the singularity – named PAL (reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL) – though maybe a touch too larky here and there. She’s meant to be dangerous, not silly.

John Legend and Chrissy Teigen send up their “we’re too-too perfectly, almost sick-makingly perfect” social media personas as the too-too perfect neighbours of the scrappy Mitchells, just an instance of the pop-culture references (Furbies, YouTube, theme parks) that keep on coming. As do the jokes, which pile on top of each other in Lego Movie style (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of Lego Movie fame, are the producers), to such an extent that you might want to hit the pause button occasionally. But for every one that flies by unnoticed, there’s another that will get the shoulders shaking.

We all rely far too much on tech, but this clever film goes way beyond observing that everyone’s hunched over a screen these days to make the observation that tech has already taken over, even without a singularity. And that the future won’t be the way we think it is. It isn’t a Terminator T-3000 we need to worry about, but smart washing machines and toasters all talking to each other – another great joke opportunity exploited brilliantly.

Funny, clever and saying something that’s worth saying, this has got to be the best animation of the year.




The Art of The Mitchells vs the Machines – get the Kindle book at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







The Father

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins


There’s a very watchable YouTube video in which, playing the publicity game, Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster discuss his most recent film, The Father, hers, The Mauritanian, and in between share a few memories of The Silence of the Lambs, among other things. During the half hour Zoom call Foster asks Hopkins, in so many words, about his “process”, how he approached his character in The Father, what preparation he did.

“None… really,” says Hopkins, blowing what’s left of Method acting out of the water with a couple of words. They’re even more impressive once you’ve seen the film, which is not an easy watch, be warned, unless you’re the sort who cheers along to the sight of one man at the end of his life losing everything he has thanks to memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s… it’s never exactly specified.

There have been films on the subject before, and they tend to yank great performances out of people. Julie Christie in Away from Her and Julianne Moore in Still Alice spring to mind. But they were both younger people. Hopkins is now in his 80s. Losing your marbles is one of the daily worries for people of his age – “being an old guy now I was able to easily fall into it” he half-jokingly puts it in the Zoom call.

It’s a gruesome, harrowing, awful fate and the brilliance of the script (adapted from Florian Zeller’s play by Christopher Hampton) is to put us right inside the mind of the person falling to bits. He’s become the camera, in essence. His daughter, Anne, is played by Olivia Colman one minute. Then the next she’s played by Olivia Williams. One minute the new carer – the latest in a long line – looks like Imogen Poots, the next it’s Olivia Williams again.

It’s confusing and, of course, it’s meant to be. That’s what he’s experiencing. Where does Anthony (as his character is called) live? Is it in his splendid mansion flat, or does he now live in his daughter’s place? The venue switches, abruptly. Why does Mark Gatiss keep turning up, a supercilious sneer (no one does it better) on his face, to bully the old guy? Is Rufus Sewell a son, a son-in-law, some other relation? Why is it chicken for dinner every night? Is Anthony’s doctor’s surgery really situated in the same building as his place, or his daughter’s place, or wherever he lives?

interviewing the new carer
Imogen Poots as the latest carer


And Anthony’s obsession with his watch. He’s mislaid it. Again. He must have it. It’s of prime importance. It’s never stated baldly, nothing is, but time is now exceedingly precious to Anthony, that much he does still know. And the watch, at least, is in his control.

If forgetting is awful, The Father’s other grim observation is that it brings with it another danger – suddenly remembering again, as Anthony does when, in a sudden moment of near clarity, he recalls his other daughter, the one who died. That’s why she never comes to visit.

It’s a film with awards-bait written all over it. Everyone in it is good, Williams, Colman and Poots particularly, but it’s Hopkins’s show and he gets to run the full gamut of emotions, from booming fury (no one better at that than Hopkins), to flirting boyishly with his new carer (Poots), to abject whimpering misery, crying on a nurse’s shoulder for his mummy.

Hampton (or Zeller, not sure which) has written Hopkins’s lines to a semi-theatrical rhythm, which suits his delivery brilliantly. There’s also the script’s occasional theatrical tendency for one actor to reiterate what another has just said – I have no idea why theatre does this – but then, like Michael Haneke’s Amour (a close cousin), this is a stagey film, set largely in the confines of several rooms.

The “Kafka problem” – how to tell the reader/audience that the unreliable narrator is unreliable without being ham-fisted about it – has been sidestepped thanks to the age of the central character. Dementia and therefore unreliability go with the territory.

“I feel like I”m losing all my leaves,” weeps the distraught Anthony at the end of what has been a powerful drama offering little in the way of comfort. I wanted to stop watching and at the same time couldn’t.




The Father – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021






Locke

Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke

 

Steven Knight’s movie track record so far: when he only writes (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) very good; when he also directs (Hummingbird), not so good. For his latest film, Locke, he directs, and the results are enough to make you forgive Hummingbird, the misguided attempt to inject soul into Jason Statham.

 

Because Locke is very very good indeed. And it’s so simple, a high-concept piece – perhaps what you’d expect from one of the brains behind the quiz format Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – which simply sticks a man in a car and has him drive and answer phone calls, drive and answer some more. One man, one car, some voices coming over the bluetooth hands-free, that’s it.

 

That man is an engineer – an expert in concrete slab bases – who has had an erotic dalliance a few months earlier. Now, as a result of that night of drunken passion, he’s about to become a father; the mother is down in London, crying, desperate and lonely. His wife, unawares, is at home about to watch the football with his sons. She’s cooking sausages and has bought in “that German beer you like”. Meanwhile, his underling back at the vast project he’s overseeing is wondering where the hell the boss has gone on the night before a crucial and huge “pour” of liquid concrete.

 

All this is established in the first few minutes. Over the next 90 minutes we watch Locke deal with all that – technical details to do with concrete, rebars and shuttering, the fallout from his absence at work, the increasingly desperate mother-to-be in the birthing unit, the wife and family at home – in what could very easily be a radio play.

 

If it were we’d be denied Tom Hardy’s performance as the softly spoken Welshman Ivan Locke, a man in a white shirt with graph-check pattern, pullover, untrendy beard, who has dedicated his life to the eminently practical – the concrete, in fact – partly, we learn, as a way of coping with the memory of his drunken, wastrel father.

 

If the father – whom Hardy addresses in angry soliloquy – and his backstory threaten to break the otherwise straight-ahead linear thrust of Knight’s urgent film, he’s the only real distraction, and Hardy’s subtle change of gear in these moments shows he appreciates this danger too.

 

It’s Hardy’s film, obviously, the emotions moving across his face like clouds scudding across the moon. But the voice talent lined up to punctuate Locke’s long night-drive of the soul are uniformly believable too. I particularly liked Olivia Colman as the needy Bethan, mother of Locke’s child, and Andrew Scott as Donal, the slightly feckless Irish concretist with a liking for cider.

 

Steven Knight spoke at the screening I was at. There were only about 40 of us and he had bothered coming out to say about half a minute’s worth, so he must be proud of the film. He told us it was an experiment shot back to back ten times in eight days (or was it the other way round?) – “then we edited the best bits together”. Thanks to the restless editing (by Justine Wright) and the cinematography (by Haris Zambarloukos), which turns the blurred motorway lights, passing cars and brightly reflective windscreen into a metaphor for Locke’s rushing mind, we’re as good as in the car with him. Is the mild mannered gent going to hold it together, or erupt? Is he, in his distraction, going to crash the car? Read on…

 

Locke – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014