Day Shift

Posted August 14, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, comedy, horror

dayshift

J.J. Perry is a martial artist, fight coordinator, and former stunt person/stunt supervisor. So it doesn’t surprise me that Perry’s first film as a director, Day Shift, is a zesty tribute to all those disciplines. Jamie Foxx’s Bud Jablonski, a vampire hunter posing as a pool cleaner in L.A., strides into one vampire nest after another, loaded for bear, and the vampires don’t take Bud’s invasions lying down. No, they come at him whirling and kicking and chopping, and Bud puts them down with various weapons and techniques, though just barely. Vampirism, it seems, confers lots of violent skills upon the vampire other than just biting, and Day Shift is there to showcase them all.

It’s a fast, furious Saturday-afternoon time-killer, but how is it aside from the mayhem? The script, by Tyler Tice and Shay Hatten, comes up with sly ideas like a vampire hunters’ union, whose codes and rules make it hard for a firecracker like Bud to make a living. So he’s been working on his own, making far less money, until he needs a quick infusion of cash to make sure his ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) and daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) don’t take off for Florida — he needs to cover the costs of Paige’s tuition and braces. As a plot motor, it’s a bit dusty — we’re to believe Bud has gone all this time keeping his real job a secret from his family — but we go along with it to get to the good parts.

The union stuff gives Bud an unwanted partner — Seth (Dave Franco), a union bean-counter assigned to observe Bud, who’s applying to get back into the union for more money, to make sure he follows all the rules. Bud doesn’t, of course, and the premise that Seth is Bud’s babysitter doesn’t last long. Seth exists solely as a wimpy foil for Bud’s go-for-broke, hammer-headed methods. Foxx and Franco make a mildly amusing team, though I would’ve liked to see more of Snoop Dogg, who has a few scenes and makes them count as Big John, a respected vamp-slayer. For that matter, I was ready for more of Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Heather, Bud’s mysterious neighbor. In some ways, the characters and worldbuilding in Day Shift seem to lay groundwork for further stories, like John Wick (co-writer Hatten worked on the third John Wick and is attached to the next two).

Bud frequently storms enclosed spaces, the better for he and his vampire prey to bounce off the walls. The vehicular stunt work is particularly well staged, composed, and edited. Sometimes when a master of another film vocation — say, special effects or cinematography — ascends to the director’s chair, they focus on their thing and forget most of the other things that go into making a movie. That isn’t the case here. J.J. Perry seems to respect the moth-eaten plot motor of Bud doing battle with monsters for the sake of his little girl, and the scenes that don’t involve stunts don’t seem rushed or half-assed. Day Shift feels like a movie made by a craftsperson who may have gotten tired of watching inept directors disrespect the arts of stuntwork and fight choreography by slicing it into a thousand unviewable pieces in the editing room. You can see what’s going on here, and that’s a relief.  

If Foxx wants a bubble-headed, action-oriented franchise, he’s got one here. As long as they bring all the folks back, especially Snoop, I’ll watch. But is L.A. — hell, the world — really so infested by vampires that an actual union of vampire killers is needed? It’s a funny idea, one that may get fleshed out in sequels, and a vamp bigwig called El Jefe (Dracula?) is mentioned but never seen. Sometimes vampires seem to outnumber humans here. The big bad here is Audrey (Karla Souza), who wants a world where humans worship vamps as gods. But has she really thought it through? If vampires feed on humans all the time, where will their worshipers come from? Or their meals? Zombies chow down on people with no thought for long-term consequences because, well, zombies aren’t big on thinking, but you’d think vampires would be more savvy. 

Prey

Posted August 7, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, prequel, science fiction

prey

The well-loved Predator (1987) pitted Arnold Schwarzenegger and a cadre of tough guys against an ugly alien hunter with superior technology. After several sequels over the years, the franchise notes its 35th anniversary with Prey, an action-thriller set in 1719 among mostly a Comanche tribe as they attempt, more or less feebly, to contend with this merciless E.T. warrior. It takes Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman raised as a healer but yearning to be a hunter, and her loyal dog Sarii to defend the tribe against the Predator as well as some human predators (some French trappers).

Some have called Prey the best Predator film since the original. I may not be the best judge of that — Predator 2 (1990) eludes my memory, I fell asleep on Predators (2010), and I missed The Predator (2018) and the Alien Vs. Predator duology. But I’ll take their word for it. Sharply and succinctly directed by Dan Trachtenberg, from a meat-and-potatoes script by Patrick Aison, Prey establishes its conflict with no fuss, gives us a hero straining against the role 18th-century Comanche culture dictates for her, and doesn’t skimp on the action. It’s brisk old-school entertainment, and what it’s doing on Hulu and not on a big screen near you is beyond me.

Then again, Hulu offers the choice to view the film in a version dubbed in Comanche, which feels right. Not that there’s much chat anyway. The French trappers, mainly scum and Predator fodder, speak in French subtitled in French, so I guess it doesn’t matter what they’re saying. The one exception speaks Comanche to Naru and provides her with firepower other than her bow and her tomahawk. Why do I mention all this? I guess because the film’s setting (it was filmed in chilly Alberta, Canada) and polyglot nature reminded me of some of the better spaghetti westerns, especially those by Sergio Corbucci. 

I hasten to add Prey doesn’t share much besides aesthetics and a certain people-talking-past-each-other vibe with Corbucci. But I’m glad of any current movie that evokes him. I’m also glad to make a better acquaintance with Amber Midthunder, whom I might’ve seen in one TV show or another; here she takes the screen effortlessly and builds rapport with us immediately. Naru makes a fine no-frills heroine, though she’s made a bit too flawless. Other than the hunting training she works on by herself and doesn’t always come naturally to her, she doesn’t have a streak of impatience or something a young, energetic hero would have to unlearn. Of course, in such an action-centered movie this comes with the territory.

Naru takes some hits and losses, but her dog isn’t one of them, which is fine with me as a frequent visitor to the Does the Dog Die? website. Generally, Prey doesn’t want to bum us out too much. It’s a zippy Saturday-matinee creature feature. The apparent randomness of its setting (there is talk of setting further Predator movies in various other eras) allows for some subtext that isn’t stressed too much. What I admire most is that the film prizes Naru’s smarts above all else. Sure, she’s brave, loyal and independent, but she’s also a quick study, and she notices things about the Predator’s techniques that help keep her and others safe. She’s a great hero for this moment — not tough so much as resilient. 

The Lost City

Posted July 31, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, comedy, romance

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Sandra Bullock seems legitimately depressed in the early scenes of The Lost City. She’s playing Dr. Loretta Sage, a bestselling romantic-adventure novelist whose archaeologist husband died five years ago. Since then, Loretta has barely left the house, and she’s no longer feeling the Romantic Adventure — she’s thinking of retiring her Romantic Adventurers Lovemore and Dash, which would be a bummer for hunky but doofy model Alan (Channing Tatum), who poses as Dash on the covers of Loretta’s books. Anyway, Bullock has been altogether too grim in recent years, what with Gravity, Bird Box, and The Unforgivable, so I was worried about her demeanor here until I remembered the film was following the familiar Romancing the Stone template, where the novelist must break through her emotional hindrances and embrace, well, Romance and Adventure. As it is, I don’t think Bullock even laughs until almost the end.

That doesn’t mean she isn’t entertaining, though. The Lost City is the sort of bubbly, unchallenging studio plaything that some of us may receive gratefully in these harrowed times. Will I watch it again? Maybe not; not when I can rewatch Romancing the Stone or, for that matter, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it’s a mild mood enhancer if you just hand yourself over to it and say, Okay, movie, do your thing. There may be long stretches where you forget the official plot and just roll with the gently funny rapport between Bullock and Tatum. I liked that Loretta is still too fogged up by grief to notice that the younger, dishy Alan seems to be crushing on her; I liked the movie’s nods to LGBTQ+ representation in the persons of Bowen Yang and Patti Harrison as satellites publicizing Loretta’s book. The movie feels somewhat canned but is also good-hearted. The only significant blood we ever see is part of an abrupt joke I won’t spoil.

So this is an old-school adventure, with caves and underwater tunnels and, as advertised, a lost city on a remote island, a city that skunky billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe) wants to discover. To that end, he kidnaps Loretta, figuring she can translate a bit of parchment that might lead to the city and its possible treasure. Wanting to establish himself as Loretta’s hero, Alan follows, and the two are soon bumbling through the jungle, doing battle with leeches and sharing a hammock that really only fits one. The awkwardness with which Loretta extricates herself from the hammock while trying not to awaken Alan is an example of the unnecessary but welcome gestures towards realistic discomfiture sprinkled throughout the film. Alan is always jumping into derring-do situations and finding himself not up to the task. This isn’t a cruelly gritty deconstruction of adventure, though, so we simply read it as comedic misadventure. 

The Lost City is the sort of amiable, star-centered bonbon that used to make modest-to-surprising profits in a more lenient age for movies. Sadly, it may not have cleared enough to call for a sequel, but it’s done well enough in the new COVID landscape to be noted as a moderate success. As an “original” story not involving superheroes that seeks only to amuse, it has its place. That it feels a little thin and forgettable may come down to the general lack of imagination that went into the action set pieces; they always seem to boil down to our heroes being chased by gun-toting henchmen, and even the climactic erupting volcano doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it should. Still, the reveal of the true buried treasure confirms the film’s devotion to tweaking dusty old tropes, and if there are no Loretta & Alan adventures in the future, I hope at least to see Bullock and Tatum hanging out again. They make this ride worth it.

 

He’s Watching

Posted July 24, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

hes watching

When COVID first knocked on our doors, people responded to lockdown in different ways. Some binged TV shows; others baked bread. Jacob Estes (Mean Creek, Don’t Let Go) and his family made a horror movie, mostly in and around their L.A. home. He’s Watching casts Estes’ kids, Iris and Lucas, as the leads, playing lightly fictional versions of themselves. Iris and Lucas are stuck at home while their parents are in the hospital, laid low by a virus far deadlier than COVID. The kids hang out, getting on each other’s nerves as young siblings do. Then something else starts getting on their nerves. Demon? Ghost? Neighborhood stalker?

Estes sustains a creepy, mysterious tone for roughly the whole running time, using only what’s at hand, along with a few special effects. For the most part, He’s Watching transcends its origins as the Estes’ version of baking bread, letting us share in the thrills. The third act feels as though a little air leaks out, as the kids become supernatural detectives hunting for an explanation for the odd omens and objects that keep being left around the house. The movie verges on plot-centered here, and the plot isn’t the most effective part of He’s Watching. It’s the dimly lit atmosphere that conceals as many horrors as it may reveal. The kids, too, are natural actors; Estes and his wife Gretchen Lieberum (who cameos in the film as a couple of apparitions) should be proud.

Among the more eerie aspects are what appear to be snowflakes, falling languidly outside and also floating around inside. I took it as a neat visual metaphor for whatever’s hovering in the air killing people. (We’re told children are immune to the virus — which was assumed of COVID, too, at first.) Ultimately, though, He’s Watching wears its pandemic cloak lightly; the virus only exists to explain why Iris and Lucas are alone at home, with no adults to help them. (We see quite a few of the dead grown-up neighbors; if there are any other living kids around, we don’t see them.) The real meat is the mysterious intruder and what he wants. Which, again, is chilling when he’s pursuing the kids; less so when they pursue him.

Still, what Estes, his family, and some game friends have done here is laudable, an achievement of sinister mood in a shiny L.A. house. The revelation of what did attract the interloper even has a satirical whiff about it. I got burned out on found-footage films a while ago, and He’s Watching is a late example, but its use of phone footage is well-judged. There may be a subtle chill in the footage, too. A lot of times we can’t tell who’s filming the phone clips we see, because both kids are in the shots. If not them, who? The movie answers by putting us in the position of an invisible creature staring at the kids. That might be the creepiest effect of all. 

Get Away If You Can

Posted July 18, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, romance

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Both the poster and the very title of Get Away If You Can suggest that we’re in for a psychological thriller. On the poster, Ed Harris’ face looms menacingly over our protagonists, embattled married couple Dominique (Dominique Braun) and TJ (Terrence Martin). We might assume we’ll get a love-triangle thriller. In fact, it’s a drama in which the couple try to heed the title’s warning. But are they meant to get away from each other, or from the outside influences that want to pry them apart? Once you get used to what the movie actually is, it’s a low-key indie effort with a perfect, though probably metaphorical, ending. 

Dominique comes from Argentina, and has a sister there (Martina Gusman) who wants her to give up on TJ and his toxic-masculine family and come live with her on her ranch. TJ contends with his surly dad (Harris) and his chip-off-the-old-block brother (Riley Smith), who want him to give up on Dominique and come take over the old man’s tugboat business. All of this is in the couple’s heads when they set sail (on a sailboat bought by TJ’s brother with TJ’s money) for “the Islands of Despair.” Dominique wants to explore the islands. TJ wants to continue on to a warmer, less rocky environment, where he can surf and she can scuba dive. She gets out of the boat and sets up camp on the island, and won’t get back in the boat with TJ despite his pleas.

Get Away If You Can throws in flashbacks to break up the narrative (only an hour and fourteen minutes less the end credits). Each flashback does the work of establishing the angels (Dominique’s gentle but insistent sister) and demons (TJ’s selfish, hostile family) dictating the couple’s actions. A good portion of the film was shot on location on la Isla Róbinson Crusoe off of Chile, and the directors, who happen to be the lead couple themselves (they’re married in real life also), bring back a lot of gorgeous footage that makes the case for why Dominique wants to stay there. After a while, though, we understand that the island, like the ending, is a metaphor. The title turns out to be a well-meaning nudge, not a stern admonishment or, indeed, a warning.

Towards the conclusion, when Dominique grows a marijuana garden and goes around sporting a headband adorned with dank nugs, while TJ seems to have come to terms with the escape he needs, the movie proposes a castaway, Adam-and-Eve existence in opposition to living according to rich relatives’ wishes, whether paradisiacal or infernal. We’re not meant to take the couple’s choice literally, or subject it to logical scrutiny. We’re just meant to go with it, and the script (also by the directors) subtly works out why certain things don’t work for the couple while other things do. It’s not until Dominique rekindles her creative flame and TJ becomes one with the waves that the door is opened for the ending we want for them.

Is it bad to reveal that a movie has a happy ending? In this case, it may help a viewer get through the difficult early stretch when Dominique and TJ, still under thrall to their influences, seem to hate each other. But it’s just that they’re trapped in a frustrating stasis. Get Away If You Can ends up as a romance, not just a psychological drama (though that, too). You just shouldn’t expect a thriller — say, Ed Harris sends some goons after the couple to split them up, or the couple go through twists and turns and betray each other. It’s not that sort of film; coming as it does from a married couple, it emerges as a personal statement. Never a slouch, Harris delivers a grouchy turn visible even when he’s not around, in TJ’s cowed eyes; Braun and Martin enact a couple in love as well as at war. See it if you can. 

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Posted July 10, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult

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Befitting the wild-ass movie itself, I’m of multiple minds about Everything Everywhere All at Once, which speaks fluent jibber-jabber about alternate universes and “verse-jumping.” It’s about a hundred different things — nihilism, choices, motherhood, the bone-cracking clarity of martial arts — and so comes dangerously close to being about nothing. It’s ambitious as all get-out, and always has a sight gag or a fight scene to perk things up when the goings get too cerebral. It’s restless, relentless entertainment, which would be fine at an hour and a half, but EEAAO rambles and verse-jumps its way to two hours and thirteen minutes, less six minutes of end credits, and sometimes it seems a bit much, a bit aggressive and draining. 

And then, as if on cue, something happens like Jamie Lee Curtis playing a version of “Claire de Lune” on her piano with her toes, because her fingers are hot dogs, and one’s mood lifts again. Maybe a movie so tirelessly determined to show us things we haven’t seen before can’t escape being cluttered and shambolic occasionally, or even often; EEAAO reminded me of Terry Gilliam, but his better films, which have a better balance between honking nonsense and visionary bravado, so that one feeds into the other. I’m also tickled pink that the movie is one of the year’s great unexpected success stories, a genuine sleeper word-of-mouth hit with, wonder of wonders, Michelle Yeoh her own fabulous self front and center. 

Yeoh is Evelyn Wang, who runs a laundromat with husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). The laundromat is in trouble with the IRS, which, in the person of auditor Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Curtis), wonders why Evelyn has declared so many things as business write-offs. The IRS stuff seems unnecessary except as a part of glum, stressful reality we become desperate to escape (a further link to Gilliam). And we do, when an alternate-universe version of Waymond visits Evelyn to tell her that a mad version of their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) threatens the existence of the multiverse. I’m not going to explain how, or why; that’s the movie’s job. Evelyn suddenly knows martial arts, or she has hot dogs for hands, or she’s a rock talking with a rock version of her daughter in a universe where life didn’t happen.

Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, aka Daniels (Swiss Army Man), EEAAO isn’t all cold, clever pizzazz; some of it is legitimately moving, and gets at the specific pains of an Asian-American family in a more lateral and artistic way than it might have with a more conventional narrative. Pain and disappointment are passed down the generations; a giant, fearsome Everything Bagel becomes a symbol of anything life-annihilating or self-denying that consumes us from within. Some of this sounds heady, and then the movie pulls out the rug and gives us a sequence with various verse-jumpers each doing their own required weird thing in order to launch into the next universe. Interesting storage spaces are discovered for trophies. Googly eyes stand in for levity in the midst of the grim assembly line of life.

But. As I said before, a movie that can mean everything can also mean nothing, a paradox exemplified in-story, by Alpha Joy (called Jobu Tupaki) and her Everything Bagel. The movie suggests that the notion of everything — the uncountable number of universes and realities — can spook us into the numb but comforting embrace of nothingness, or nihilism. Thus EEAAO incorporates and comments on its own internal gremlins. As more people watch it, it’s going to be fun to read everyone’s interpretations of it — perhaps more fun than actually watching it. Again, it can get exhausting, and not just narratively; the amount of effort it must have taken to stitch this thing together gives me a headache just thinking about it. I admire it much more readily than I love or even like it. But the fact that movies like this can still be made — and prosper — proves to me that the eulogy for cinema can wait another few years. 

Crimes of the Future

Posted July 4, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cronenberg, cult, one of the year's best, science fiction

crimes of the future

“Careful, don’t spill,” whispers Viggo Mortensen to Léa Seydoux in one of the more outrageous moments of intimacy in Crimes of the Future. Marking a return to feature filmmaking after an eight-year hiatus for writer-director David Cronenberg, the movie could serve as a natural companion to a good number of his other films, especially Crash, which had a similar hushed, deadpan humor. In Cronenberg, people are driven restless by the war between their minds and their bodies — the Cartesian split, as he likes to call it. Here, climate change is making bodies into numb cocoons for unprecedented mutant organs. Long live the new flesh, indeed.

Mortensen and Seydoux are Saul Tenser and his artistic accomplice Caprice. Saul’s body has been developing new organs, which Caprice extracts and tattoos, as part of their performance art for a small but avid crowd. Cronenberg may be saying this or that about his own life as a subversive artist, but Crimes has more levels than that, some of which are accessible to those not Cronenberg and some of which are not. The movie, which is full of menacing machines with scalpels as well as mutilated flesh inside and out, can be taken as a Cronenberg art installation. Here and in many of Cronenberg’s other films, people transform, their flesh rebels alarmingly, and they view it as a beautiful evolution — they can either see it that way or go insane — while others recoil in horror. (Think of Jeff Goldblum excitedly rattling off theories while slowly disintegrating in The Fly as Geena Davis kept going “What is wrong with you?”) 

As usual with Cronenberg, his eroticism is less about the friction of bodies than the pulling off of societal restraints. “I’m not very good at the old sex,” says Saul to a creepy functionary (Kristen Stewart) smitten with him and his art. It’s this same woman, Timlin, who delivers the movie’s defining line: “Surgery is the new sex.” Those who have too literal a response to that premise — like actual car-crash survivors who had a beef with Crash — may tire of Cronenberg’s metaphorical game-playing. Cronenberg’s particular thematic emphases do make it tough for some to jump past what’s being shown and click into what’s being said.

Oddly, for all the carving and fondling of body parts, Crimes is sometimes, like Timlin, too enamored of its own ideas. The decade or two that Cronenberg spent away from the body-as-fallible-meat subgenre that he practically invented resulted in some interesting push-pull between Cronenberg and whosever story he was adapting. We took pleasure in his running stories about gangsters or psychiatrists through his filter. Crimes takes him back to the old gory days, for sure, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a summing-up, a greatest-hits album. Hey, some of those hits are pretty damn great, and they play well again here. But the pleasure of Cronenberg in the past few years lay in his making magic with material you wouldn’t expect him to forge in his own image. This material is as snugly fitted to him as that weird eating chair is supposed to be to Saul, but like the chair it occasionally moves clumsily and spills things. It gets talky and plotty when we’d like to hang out and dig the world-building. 

Still, if you’ve seen a lot of movies like this lately, I want to know which theater you’ve been going to. As much as this is patented Cronenberg Cinema, he’s also having a terrific time making it, and it often shows. Cronenberg loses himself in the sets in Greece; everything looks badly used, no vision of a shiny future but one full of numbness and grime. Even apartments look like some mad doctor’s castle laboratory. Using a strictured voice, Mortensen emotes largely with his eyes or with throat-clearing, and Seydoux, with her mischievous diastematic smile, makes a great partner in futuristic crime for him. Stewart, liberated in this nightmare world, creates a compelling woman out of little but nervous tics. Cronenberg is an actors’ director, as was obvious as far back as The Brood (1979), and by creating an artsy-bloody backdrop for them to play in front of, he gets performances and moments no one else can. Crimes might strike some of us fans as been-there-done-that, but what’s wrong with being there and doing that again? 

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Posted June 26, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, cult, overrated

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Some of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is likable and emotionally rich enough to be worth watching, but it’s depressing how it declines from being a good Nicolas Cage movie to being a bad Nicolas Cage movie — after fighting off the bad movie for about its first three-quarters. Cage plays a fictionalized version of himself, the over-the-top “Nick Cage,” an actor still beloved despite having toiled, out of financial necessity, in direct-to-video cash-grabs for over a decade. Unbearable Weight sets him up as a man serious about his craft, whose time as a Hollywood must-hire may have come and gone. 

For any of us who feel great affection for Cage as a person and great respect for him as an artist, the premise — he’s so desperate for cash he’ll appear at a rich guy’s birthday party — is just saddening. But then Nick gets to his destination and meets the birthday boy, Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), and when they’re together the movie can get away from its dumb-ass plot. That plot has two CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, both poorly used) recruiting Nick to keep an eye on Javi, who they believe is the head of a lethal drug cartel. The plot also involves the kidnapping of not one but two teenage girls, and we’re shown their tearful fear in what’s supposed to be a quirky comedy. 

But when Cage and Pascal are just hanging out, the movie is gold. Pascal radiates kindness and warmth; his Javi is just the sort of superfan Nick and his battered ego need. Halfway across the planet, in a well-appointed mansion, Nick’s work genuinely moved this weird, soft guy who may or may not be a druglord. I recognize that if movie studios made their products according to my wishes, they’d have all gone bankrupt long ago. But I cannot express how dispiriting Unbearable Weight gets when it drops the Nick/Javi bromance and lurches into action-comedy mode. By the time the excessively boring car chase rolled around, I had more or less emotionally checked out. It had become apparent that what I valued in the movie wasn’t what its makers — director Tom Gormican and his co-writer Kevin Etten — valued.

And so we get a scene with Nick in disguise as some ancient drug dealer, in make-up that makes him look like Al Pacino playing a latter-day Frank Serpico. We get shootouts and Mexican standoffs. We shrug as the CIA agents are completely thrown away without a backward glance. We may not be very impressed by the meta aspects of the script, all of which have been done more cleverly elsewhere, including in the Cage-starring Adaptation, whose ending did what Unbearable Weight does but with the intent of showing how pat and empty that expected Hollywood “climax” had become. I don’t think we’re meant to take away anything comparable from this movie, though. Or maybe we were, before the presence of Cage and Pascal softened its edges. When you have guys with the warm rapport they share, you don’t want them to be in a cold satire about how the dream factory they believe in so devoutly is a corrupt sweatshop dictated by money. You just want to see more of them. I wouldn’t mind if this were the first of several Cage/Pascal team-ups.

I don’t know whether the very ending is just soggy or a comment on soggy endings, but either way it doesn’t leave us with much. It’s hard to say where Unbearable Weight will fit into Cage’s general portfolio, though it’s sad that it couldn’t do what it tries so hard to do, which is to put Cage back in the sort of wham-bam box-office hit he used to have. What a Hollywood ending that would have been — the great actor comes in from the cold and gets the standing ovation (just as he does in the movie). Instead, it barely cracked the top five its opening weekend, and hemorrhaged money soon after. Maybe Cage’s Con Air and Face/Off days are behind him, but these days his work in smaller things like Joe or Mandy or even Pig (I didn’t care for it but can respect it as the kind of blues riff Cage gravitates to) is where you’ll find the Cage worth loving. We find him only intermittently here. 

Morbius

Posted June 20, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comic-book, horror

morbius

You never know which movie will attract the derisive affection of the internet meme lords. Take Morbius, an unadventurous and dull movie based on a character in Marvel comics. Since Sony owns Morbius, this isn’t considered an MCU movie like, say, Dr. Strange or Thor; it belongs to the same universe that spawned Venom, and at one point our troubled hero, Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto), jokingly identifies himself as such. Anyway, the internet hates Leto and hates lazy-looking wannabe franchises like Morbius, so the movie became a target for ironic social-media memes. Apparently someone at Sony noticed that Morbius was being talked about, albeit with a gibe and a sneer, and decided to re-release the film, hoping for gobs of those ironic ticket sales. It didn’t get them — its re-release take was substantially less than the cost of a small house — and it shuffled morosely off to DVD shortly thereafter.

What we find here, after all that, is a not-bad, not-good, not-much-of-anything time-waster in which Jared Leto, against all odds, does not make me want to throttle him. He’s swift and mordant as Dr. Morbius, who has a rare blood disease and develops a formula that turns him into a “living vampire.” Morbius so happens to have invented artificial blood, which he can drink in lieu of real human blood, but its effects don’t last long and soon he’s swooping around New York City as a swirling purple cloud. Just like a bat does. See, the formula comes from bat DNA, and … ah, hell, nobody ever went to these movies for scientific rigor. And when Morbius’ similarly afflicted old friend Milo (Matt Smith) takes the serum, he becomes a monster who doesn’t care at all if he has to kill to survive. 

The problem here isn’t the acting; although Milo is given the sort of boilerplate villain dialogue you can instinctively recite along with him, Matt Smith commits to it, and so do Adria Arjona as Morbius’ lab associate and Jared Harris as the doctor who’s been trying to treat Morbius and Milo since they were kids. Harris’ clinic for this rare blood disease, by the way, is in Greece. I wondered why Greece, since it isn’t really a plot point, and in any case the Greece scenes were shot in England, like the rest of the movie. Wondering about this probably distracted me from the plot intricacies, but the key template here is the Marvel-comic one where someone good becomes powerful and has to stop someone bad who becomes powerful. Now and then the film makes gestures towards meaning when Morbius agonizes over the violent mercenaries he had to kill and swears never to do it again. This seems sort of wan and beside the point when the Deadpool movies, for instance, have its hero slaughtering willy-nilly, and nobody ever seriously pretended Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine never used those sharp pigstickers of his lethally.

Milo seems to have been made a killer solely so that Morbius can be blamed for it by two ineffectual cops. Prior to gaining his powers, Milo doesn’t seem the type to flip over into the ultimate evil, but he flips, all right, with no moral shading or regret. Milo is supposed to represent the untrammeled nastiness Morbius could sink to if he doesn’t watch out. I would’ve cut out the middle man and made Morbius himself the shadow that haunts him; why else turn a vampire into a superhero? Morbius has a poor chance of getting a sequel, even though they try to set one up with the reveal of a freshly vampirized character with whom Morbius will duke it out in Morbius 2: Electric Morbaloo. Again, the movie is only bland and unpersuasive, and would have disappeared without a trace if not for the jolly internet memes that snarkily celebrated it, as though it were a lovably inept thing to be cherished, not chastised, for its flaws. 

Screwdriver

Posted June 12, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, thriller

SCREWDRIVER

The minimalist drama/thriller Screwdriver, which starts doing the festival rounds this week, maintains a low, vibrating level of tension for almost its whole running time. Most of the tension is in the face of lead actress AnnaClare Hicks, who invests her character with vulnerability tied into self-hating anxiety. Hicks plays Emily, a young woman from down south whose marriage has suddenly fallen apart. Not knowing what to do, she takes a train to California to stay for a week or so with Robert (Charlie Farrell), a guy she remembers from high school. Robert is married to hard-charging corporate lady Melissa (Milly Sanders); she works at a pharmaceutical company, he does psychological research. It’s not long before we begin to suspect this couple have more on their agenda than simply giving Emily a place to bunk.

Screwdriver is essentially a three-hander — Emily’s estranged husband puts in a brief appearance — that might work just as well as a play. It’s sufficiently cinematic, though; director/co-writer Cairo Smith uses the wide, wide frame to convey Emily’s isolation in her hosts’ well-scrubbed home (between this and the recent Watcher, you may get the impression that white decor hides suffocating repression and control) and, here and there, disorienting jump cuts. Emily is left home alone a lot of the day while Robert and Melissa are out at work (another link to Watcher). When they return home, they seem very interested in Emily — as a person, or as a project? Melissa keeps pushing orange juice (drugged?) onto Emily, while Robert runs psychological games on her in his office.

The performances dovetail together organically; Charlie Farrell, who resembles a cross between Tom Cruise and Bradley Cooper (and uses some of Cruise’s unctuous speech patterns), provides a seemingly laid-back buffer against Milly Sanders’ high-strung, passive-aggressive Melissa. Then they seem to switch roles — he’s menacing, she’s nurturing. All of this reads to us like a concerted effort to keep Emily unsure of her perceptions, her allegiances, her very self. They seem to want to control her — early on, the forbidding Melissa discourages Emily from leaving the house or smoking — and it seems they’ve done something similar in the past. Emily may not be the first wayward young woman they’ve tried to “rehab,” but she may be the last.

Smith and co-writer Mia Vicino keep things ambiguous. The work we hear so little about, other than teasing bits of conversation about some trouble at the office, could be the root of the couple’s treatment (grooming?) of Emily. Or it could have nothing to do with this weird dynamic we watch taking shape. The shrewdly cast Farrell smuggles in a (timely) critique of Cruise and his involvement in Scientology; his patter sometimes has a familiar “Matt, you’re glib” cadence. There’s a fair amount of anti-God talk, steering the fundie-raised Emily towards a different conception of a supreme being. Ironically, the couple find it very important to emphasize to Emily that she’s free and is, in fact, her own god. Of course, they also set themselves up as the authority figures who tell her this.

I’ve avoided using the word “cult,” because, although that seems to describe the ultimate villain here, there’s enough evidence that it possibly isn’t and that Smith and Vicino may have very cleverly caught us leaning the wrong way. Once I let go of that option and started focusing on the drama actually in front of me, the narrative played more smoothly (and more chillingly). Among other things, Screwdriver says that it really doesn’t matter who’s behind the process of rewiring Emily’s head; we can see it happening, and AnnaClare Hicks somehow communicates a woman progressively broken, with the shards pricking her on the inside. Smith keeps his camera on Hicks’ face, monitoring it for changes in temperament and emotional temperature. Screwdriver is a small, underpopulated thing, and a little more sense of Emily’s life before might have helped, but it’s sharp and memorable. And it all leads to one of the most intensely, frighteningly ironic images I’ve ever seen at the end of a movie.