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Locked Down

Posted January 17, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

We all knew it had to happen, and it happened surprisingly quickly: A feature film from a major mainstream studio (albeit one with a relatively microscopic $3 million reported budget) with a star-studded A-list cast, entirely developed, produced, set, and shot during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bad news is that it was written by Steven Knight, who previously inflicted the thrice-double-damned Serenity (2019) abomination upon us. The good news is that it was directed by Doug Liman, the underrated action filmmaker who previously gifted us with The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow. The aforementioned cast includes such names as Anne Hathaway, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley, Mindy Kaling, Mark Gatiss, Stephen Merchant, and Dule Hill.

Quite the mixed bag we’ve got here, and quite the untamed wilderness these filmmakers are breaking into. Let’s take a closer look.

Our stage is set in London, just after Boris Johnson tested COVID-positive. This is the story of Paxton and Linda, a married couple respectively played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway. The two were on the rocks before the pandemic, and so much time in lockdown has actively driven them even further apart. Yet they’re still stuck in the same house together, because of the lockdown. On top of that, Paxton just got put on furlough and the financial strain forced him to sell his prized motorcycle.

As for Linda, she’s still employed with a huge international conglomerate. In fact, she’s the CEO of the UK division. And at the twenty-minute mark, she has to tell a bunch of her valued co-workers that they’re all laid off. Via Zoom call. So, yeah, she’s not exactly in a great place now either.

In summary, Paxton and Linda are both reduced to hazardous bundles of anxiety with nothing and nobody else to take their frustrations out on. So they’re driving each other crazy in a toxic feedback loop. It’s like the two of them want to part ways on good terms, but their mental states in a time of global crisis make that exceedingly difficult.

Anyway, long story short, Paxton’s old boss (Malcolm, played by Ben Kingsley) runs a delivery service and he’s just picked up a new client for extremely high-value parcels. Trouble is, the new client demands drivers without a criminal record and Paxton got a minor conviction several years ago. Yet Malcolm is so desperate for drivers that he’s willing and able to get Paxton the job under a new name and a clean identity.

Meanwhile — to make another long story short — Linda’s company was responsible for staging a massive event at Harrod’s, with an outrageously expensive diamond as its centerpiece. Then the lockdown happened, the event was cancelled, and the diamond is stuck between safe houses. So, why not steal the diamond, sell it off, give half the proceeds to the NHS, and use the rest of the proceeds to help their laid-off friends and loved ones?

That’s right, folks: We’ve got a COVID-era diamond heist. Kinda. Sorta.

See, the heist doesn’t really factor into the plot until the third act. Until then, the film is more or less about the characters getting gradually squeezed in such a way that stealing the diamond appears increasingly easy and walking away from the opportunity gets increasingly hard. So it’s really more of a character-driven romantic dramedy.

The good news is, the film legitimately is both dramatic and comical. It certainly helps that the cast is so impressively overqualified that even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them Zoom call cameo roles make a lasting impression.

But really, the two most prominent cast members by a wide fucking margin are Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway. Their chemistry together is on point, Ejiofor’s got more than enough angst and charisma to burn, and Anne Hathaway is ON FIRE here. No joke, she’s got at least two or three monologues in this picture that are goddamn barn-burners.

Put simply, Paxton and Linda are two tired people looking down the barrel of middle-age burnout. Life hasn’t worked out the way they wanted, their wild younger days are taking their toll, and they’re in the terrifying process of re-evaluating their lives, trying to figure out who they want to be and what they want to do moving forward.

In ordinary times, all of this would be mundane stuff that would make for a tired and mediocre film. But in the COVID era, the pandemic has heightened all these issues to a terrifying and unprecedented degree.

The question of fate versus free will — whether it’s a higher power shitting all over us or whether we make our own problems — takes on a whole new dimension in a time when humanity is threatened by climate change and a highly contagious plague. The question of what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives takes on greater urgency with the knowledge that any one of us might not live to see the end of this, and hundreds of thousands are already dead.

It’s bad enough to see the rich getting richer while everyone else gets poorer. But to see it happen during a pandemic that disproportionately affects the poor and middle class… well, imagine seeing that while you’re in a position to steal a diamond worth three million pounds.

Yes, the film does go into all the various minutiae about Zoom calls, wearing masks, stocking up on toilet paper, and all the other COVID-era quirks that umpteen internet videos and late-night comedians have already rendered passe. Yes, this film is utterly useless as the kind of escapism so many of us so badly need right now. And yet, I have to give the filmmakers credit for finding all the creative ways in which COVID-specific quirks elevate what would otherwise be an unremarkable picture.

Seriously, this is a time in which everyone is wearing masks and gloves, everything is shutting down, nobody’s on the streets, and keeping distance is encouraged. What better time to make a goddamn heist movie?!

And yet, for all the pathos and character drama going on, I must emphatically stress that this is also a comedy. Because really, it has to be. For one thing, this is a story about two wildly unqualified people playing amateur thieves for a take worth three million pounds. There’s no way to play that completely straight.

For another thing — again, as numerous internet videos and late-night comedians have already pointed out — there is so much about the COVID era that’s darkly humorous. Please forgive me if I don’t elaborate on the point, but it feels like we’ve all been commiserating and chuckling over the same gallows humor for the past ten months.

The difference, of course, is that the same tired jokes are being delivered via world-class actors with dialogue that flies right off the page.

I realize that Locked Down won’t be everyone’s cup of tea right now. I know we’re all sick to death of living in something that should’ve damn well been sorted out by now (and pretty much is, in a select few nations) and I’m sure there are a great many among us who aren’t ready for a lighthearted film about the COVID pandemic. That’s totally fine.

But personally, I had a delightful time with this movie. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it makes quite a few solid artistic statements that could only be possible during the COVID times. Hell, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway are more than enough to make the film worth anyone’s time.

It’s not a masterpiece — the plot certainly thins in places, and a lot of wonderful actors are underused — but in a time when any collaborative artistic endeavor has been made borderline impossible, even the bare minimum is quite an accomplishment. This one gets a recommendation.

Outside the Wire

Posted January 17, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Netflix recently announced an initiative for 2021, promising a new original film every week through the coming year. It might be fair to wonder how Netflix could possibly keep such an ambitious release schedule when none of the Big Five major studios could do as much even before the pandemic. At a guess, it might help that Netflix doesn’t seem interested in throwing $200 million at a lavish tentpole release and praying for billion-dollar grosses.

In recent blog entries, I’ve already said my piece multiple times about how mainstream films are getting polarized into microbudget indie films and too-big-to-fail franchise tentpoles. This business model destroyed 20th Century Fox after their humiliating Marvel losses and their ballooning Avatar sequel costs. MGM is going belly-up (again!) after the pandemic kept their latest $250 million Bond movie from release. And it looks like Warner Bros. might be next to go, after a string of failures put them over $150 billion in debt.

Hollywood desperately needs to make mid-budget movies again, and it looks like Netflix is making that happen. The unfortunate downside is that this will most likely mean more Netflix original films like Project Power and Enola Holmes — highly ambitious movies whose reach far exceeded their grasp. Of course I can’t say for certain if another ten or twenty million dollars would’ve gotten either film to where they wanted to go, but both films nevertheless have a frustrating sense of untapped potential for some ineffable reason.

The latest example — and the first of the new 2021 initiative — is Outside the Wire.

Our stage is set in the year 2036, out in Ukraine. The Russians are trying to reclaim the nation, but there’s a local resistance movement to maintain Ukraine’s independence. The Russians are assisted by a local warlord named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), who’s applied his vast army of Krasny terrorists into blowing up the Resistance with the backing of Moscow. However, there’s reason to believe that Koval has recently gone rogue, slipping his leash to chase after nuclear missile silos left over from the Cold War.

In the other corner, the Resistance has the backing of the USA, who of course sent Marines and aerial drones to fight off the Russians and the Krasnys. I might add that the Marines also have automated soldiers — goddamn autonomous bipedal AI robot soldiers — affectionately called “Gumps”. There are Russian Gumps as well, but they’re fewer in number and considerably less advanced.

Our protagonist is Lt. Thomas Harp, played by Damson Idris. He’s known as a preternaturally talented drone pilot who’s never actually set foot onto any battlefield or fired a gun outside of basic training. Shit hits the fan when Harp makes a snap judgment and fires a drone strike — long story short, he disobeyed orders to rescue 38 soldiers, killing two Marines in the process. Understandably, this makes him a pariah among his comrades. As penance, Harp is deployed to the frontlines at Ukraine, where he’ll see actual combat up close.

Enter Captain Leo, played by producer Anthony Mackie. For the duration of Harp’s probation, Leo will be Harp’s commanding officer. The kicker: Leo is a highly classified top-of-the-line android, specifically designed to be the ultimate combat soldier and/or field diplomat as needs demand. Yes, this purely artificial AI is so advanced that he holds the rank of captain, and nobody else in all the armed forces — save for a scarce handful cleared to know of his true nature — is any wiser.

So, let’s take a step back here. On one side is the drone pilot who believes that emotion leads to biases, hesitation, errors in judgment, and so on. On the other side is a soldier who places tremendous value in human emotions, literally built from the ground up to recognize and display emotion, either for purposes of combat or to win hearts and minds. It’s the human who says that it’s better to be coldly logical, and it’s the robot who says the world might be a better place if we all had more empathy. That’s an intriguing subversion, and it’s genuinely compelling to watch the two switch positions as the plot unfolds.

See, this is a movie about an artificially intelligent robot designed to be the perfect soldier. It’s also a movie about a human character who finds himself completely out of his depth, with no information beyond what his superiors think he needs and no choice to do much of anything except obey orders. As such, it should come as no surprise that Leo may not be 100 percent reliable. Even so, the reveals and plot twists play out in some neatly compelling ways, with some welcome surprises here and there.

There’s some genuinely good stuff in here about the nature of AI, particularly with regards to the topic of automated soldiers and remotely piloted drones in modern warfare. The film also has some elegant statements about the nature of collateral damage and the question of how many innocent lives could be deemed an acceptable loss in time of war. I might add that latter question is made even more potent by virtue of the transgression that got our protagonist in this mess to begin with.

But the film’s most central theme is in the ugliness of war. From start to finish, this movie is heavily preoccupied with the notion of war as a thing that has to be lived to be truly understood, and only those on the frontlines can ever truly know the toll that war takes. It’s an admirable statement, but the film just can’t sell it.

When you get right down to it, this is still a sci-fi movie with CGI robots. It’s a movie with heightened action sequences, physically impossible stunts, and laughably outrageous kills. (One character gets a flag javelined right through the sternum. Fucking seriously.) The central crisis involves a four-color archvillain trying to achieve world domination through stealing nuclear weapons. The film is being headlined by a name actor whom we all know and immediately recognize as Captain freaking America.

There’s a Hollywood sheen baked into the very premise of the movie, and it undercuts the film’s message at every turn. The filmmakers go on and on about the real-life horrors of war, trying to show it to us in gritty “cinema verite” detail, and they just can’t sell it. The setting and presentation are nowhere near immersive enough to make anyone forget that we’re watching a work of near-futuristic science fiction.

What might be even worse is the shitshow of a third act. It’s nothing short of embarrassing to see all the contrivances, improbabilities, and out-of-character actions thrown in to get the plot where it needs to be and keep the runtime within two hours. At the point when the Plot Convenience Fairy straight-up brings a character back from the dead during the climax, I pretty much gave up.

Yet even for all its numerous flaws, I can’t bring myself to hate Outside the Wire. The two central lead performances are great fun to watch, and I truly respect the ambition on display here. I appreciate the creative twists and turns here, even those undone by the subpar writing. The film works well enough as a breezy two-hour sci-fi suspense actioner, but it clearly tried — and failed — to be so much more.

If you want a film that does a far better job portraying the horrors of battle, the hard decisions to be made in wartime, and the place of remote drones in modern warfare, I’d strongly recommend Eye in the Sky from back in 2015.