Archive for June 2018

π

June 24, 2018

pi-2Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut π, which observes its 20th anniversary on July 10, follows in the tradition of other artsy first films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man, and E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten. It’s short — mercifully short, we might say, while acknowledging its ornery brilliance — visually harsh, shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white that eventually rubs sandpaper-like against the eye. And it is entirely devoted to its own vision, its own interiorized world. It’s probably not coincidental that anguish and mutilation are on the menu in all four of these movies; you have to be a certain kind of viewer to want to watch them very frequently. Of the four, though, π seems the most interested in the world outside itself, even if only fleetingly and fearfully.

An exacting artist, Aronofsky has made only six films since this one — Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), Noah (2014), and mother! (2017). Many have been polarizing, and I was probably in the minority when I declared the frantic fable mother! the great American film of its year. Aronofsky’s art does not always work for me — I found Requiem and Black Swan pompous and conceived in bad faith — but he consistently takes such chances, swings so hard for the fence, that I can absorb and even respect the two out of seven films that didn’t land for me. π is a workout, no question, and not for everyone, but it has intellectual and spiritual fervor, and even when it stops dead for some mystical exposition, at least it assumes our intelligence (though also our patience).

The movie follows Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematical savant who thinks numbers are everything — are in everything, explain everything. He lives in a crappy, ant-infested apartment with a rickety computer he calls Euclid, which he uses to try to game the stock market. Instead, it spits out a 216-digit number, which Max disregards; then various folks ranging from Hasidic Jews to Wall Street agents descend on him. They all want what he knows; he doesn’t even know what he knows. This aspect of π is sort of a wry indie rewrite of the standard detective story, where the scruffy gumshoe is menaced by people wanting the MacGuffin or the dingus or whatever. Max is a gumshoe of number theory, and the MacGuffin is in his head. Then again, so are paranoia and migraines and, in the notorious but abbreviated climax, a drill bit.

The soul of π, though, isn’t in its thriller tropes (there’s a hectically-staged chase scene that’s as boring as any other chase scene) but in the scenes with Max and his old friend Sol (Mark Margolis), a math warhorse who got a little too close to the flame of numerical truth and had a debilitating stroke. Margolis is 78 now and has always looked 78, even 20 years ago in this film, and we believe him as an exhausted old man who has forsaken math obsession; we also appreciate seeing him as something other than a cold-blooded mobster. The two men sit and talk quietly in Sol’s equally rumpled apartment while they play Go or Sol feeds his fish. It’s top-drawer stuff, and proved that Aronofsky wasn’t just some hip hotshot but an artist engaged with his characters’ emotional readings. (Margolis has gone on to appear in almost every Aronofsky film since, like a lucky charm, except for mother!)

Max is surrounded by people, benevolent or very much otherwise, who want something from him; aside from Sol, the only person he has time for is a little Chinese girl who loves to throw calculations at him. She reminds him, I guess, of a time when his particular strange acumen might have been fun. Enjoyment, relaxation, a rare computer chip — people keep offering Max things to pull him away from his own obsessions, his own head. But he can’t, and won’t, be distracted. He is the damaged loner as outlaw artist, a theme Aronofsky has returned to again and again, or has at any rate lived in his own life. Coming back to π after his subsequent pieces puts them all into perspective — even the hornéd beast mother!, which I would gladly recommend on a double bill with π if it wouldn’t make you come after me with a drill.

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Annihilation

June 17, 2018

annihilationThe legitimately unnerving sci-fi horror film Annihilation is, of course, about more than its events. It uses alien life and mutation to reach a sidewise view of human alienation and depression. Which may not make it sound like a hoot and a half, and it isn’t — the movie is humorless in a way that tends to inspire either derision or protectiveness. I fall on the protective side: Annihilation is the real deal, doing what science fiction and horror are supposed to do, speaking dark truths about our condition while planting seeds of dread in fertile imaginative soil.

Its writer-director Alex Garland, liberally adapting a novel by Jeff VanderMeer with elements of Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” and other works, also gave us 2015’s Ex Machina, which probed artificial intelligence and the lack of humanity of the humans who develop it. One might conclude Garland doesn’t like us as a species very much, but I think he values our flaws, which make for good drama. Annihilation is informed as much by the disease-sympathizing ethos of David Cronenberg as by anything else; in Cronenberg, a disease that kills a human is only trying to live and thrive. The alien atmosphere, a rainbow barrier known as the Shimmer brought here by a meteor, makes odd and colorful tangles of the landscape and mutates the local wildlife. “It’s not destroying,” says biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). “It’s making something new.”

Lena’s soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has come back from the Shimmer seemingly an empty husk, soon hemorrhaging badly. Kane has been MIA for a year, and Lena volunteers to accompany a group of scientists into the Shimmer. The mission is to reach a lighthouse struck by the meteor and come back — if they can come back — with some data. The team, led by psychologist Jennifer Jason Leigh, is all-female; much has been made of recent distaff reboots of sausage-fests like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 11, but Annihilation sort of gives us a stealth all-woman The Thing. (Gina Rodriguez’s paramedic, Tessa Thompson’s physicist and Tuva Novotny’s geologist round out the group.) Some of the wild and elaborate redrawing the Shimmer does to humans rivals the taffy-pull aesthetic of Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking effects for The Thing with a side order of H.R. Giger’s tortured biomechanics.

So, yeah, Annihilation may be made out of used parts, but it’s Garland’s thematic emphasis that sets the film on its own track. Lena has spent a year wallowing in grief, deflecting the advances of a colleague she eventually sleeps with. The inclusion of this man (David Gyasi), from the strict perspective of “moving the plot forward,” seems extraneous, but emotionally it feels right. Portman’s Lena is sometimes prickly even in the relatively happy flashbacks we see of her with Kane; she isn’t a natural hero or an easy one, and all her teammates also have demons — addiction, self-harm, bereavement, cancer. Annihilation is partly about self-annihilation and all its forms, and what this means for the cast is that they all get to tear into complex, wounded female characters. Needless to say, the film also passes the Bechdel Test eight ways to Sunday.

Is the movie also anti-human, casting us metaphorically as invaders who deform everything around us? (Remember The Matrix and its humans-as-virus speech, or countless others.) As I said, I think Garland prizes us warts and all; you can’t tell stories about the intersection of humans and AI, or humans and alien life, without the humans. Garland, though, also wants us to consider the hopes and dreams of the interloper, the tumor, the invasive depressive thought, the non-belonger who shapes its surroundings until it belongs. The movie illustrates the difference between xenophobia and understanding. It is human, I suspect, to fear the other, to the point of kidnapping and jailing the other’s children, perhaps. Annihilation and its themes appear loudly relevant right now, but in truth its concerns will always apply and it will be evergreen.

The Night of the Virgin

June 10, 2018

night-of-the-virgin-film-review-spainish-564x264The gleefully repulsive Spanish horror-comedy The Night of the Virgin is what used to be called a party movie. You put it on late in the evening and watch all your friends either dig it or file out ashen-faced one by one. The virgin of the title is Nico (Javier Bódalo), barely out of his teens, who goes to a New Year’s Eve party looking to shed his V. He encounters Medea (Miriam Martín), a mysterious woman who has about three decades on him. Medea takes Nico back to her scummy, cockroach-infested apartment, and she wants to do something about his virginity, all right, but nowhere near in the way he expects or wants. There is, for example, a goddess named Naoshi who must be appeased.

Up front I should mention that the version of The Night of the Virgin that did the film-festival rounds for a couple of years ran almost two hours (and a common complaint was that you could feel the two hours). The version that I saw, and that will presumably be hitting video-on-demand soon, weighs in at about fifteen minutes shorter, though it looks to these eyes no less grotesque. Various bodily fluids still become buoyant, ready for their close-ups. Director Roberto San Sebastián and scripter Guillermo Guerrero may or may not be digging for metaphorical gold here — who knows? Most of it seems like a roughhouse gorehound reversal of that well-worn exploitation trope the violation of the virgin, who here is male. “Evil Has No Gender,” the tagline informs us.

This is the sort of film with character names like “Chica Vómito,” “Sodomita Pasivo” and — of course — “Sodomita Activo.” For all that, the sex in the film (in this cut, anyway) isn’t particularly graphic; and for all the liberal use of “maricón” to describe our hapless, horse-faced young protagonist, the movie seems driven by an absolute horror of hetero sex. No, the main event here is the volume of gouts, shpritzes, puddles and Pollock drip-painting of dark, syrupy blood, accompanied by comedically precise foley work on the various assaults on the flesh — enough wet squelching sounds to keep David Lynch chipper for days. The action is mostly limited to Medea’s ghastly apartment, the drama essentially a three-character play (Medea’s ex-boyfriend, played by Víctor Amilibia, makes an appearance about halfway through, eventually beseeching Nico through the locked door to sacrifice his virtue for the greater not-so-good).

What can make an antic splatterthon like The Night of the Virgin bearable and even fun despite its icky unpleasantness is some evidence of irrepressible personality on the part of its makers. When I saw Bad Taste all those years ago, could I — or anyone — have predicted that Peter Jackson, the man responsible for its farcical carnage seemingly inspired by Monty Python’s “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days,” would go on to become Tolkien’s obsessive film liaison with a row of Oscars on his shelf? Likely not, and the same goes for Guillermo del Toro, who took his own golden boy this past winter. Oliver Stone got his start with the z-budget horror Seizure. And so on.

That’s not to say that Roberto San Sebastián will be invited to the Dolby Theatre in the next ten years — but it’s also not to say he won’t. What he brings to the slimy party here is a certain sportive sadism. I’ll be curious what else San Sebastián does, what else interests him — is The Night of the Virgin the debut of a new genre star, joyfully coating the squares with bodily goo, or is it a calling card for someone who, having gotten the chaos and gunk out of his system, would now like to adapt Ibsen or Murakami? Again, I’m not sure if the events or uglinesses here are meant to represent anything larger than themselves, the way the pre-Black Knight spurts of blood through armor in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac indicated a need to strip the heroism out of the Arthurian legend, but I’m pretty sure this will be the only review of The Night of the Virgin to mention Bresson.

Death Wish (2018)

June 3, 2018

deathwishThirty years ago, Bruce Willis had to prove to the world that the Motown-crooning jokester from Moonlighting could anchor an action movie — Die Hard, of course. These days, Willis has the opposite problem: he now has to prove he can do things other than action, and his career in the last decade or so has been depressingly long on worthless straight-to-video shoot-‘em-ups. Which brings us to Death Wish, a surprisingly fine and effective reboot of material first published by novelist Brian Garfield in 1972 and filmed, with Charles Bronson, by director Michael Winner in 1974. Playing Paul Kersey, now a Chicago surgeon whose wife (Elisabeth Shue) is killed and daughter (Camila Morrone) rendered comatose by home-invading burglars¹, Willis indeed proves that Willis the actor — intermittently on view in movies like Looper and Moonrise Kingdom — is still with us.

This Death Wish was directed by Eli Roth, whose Hostel movies and The Green Inferno have given him a rep as a gorehound bro he doesn’t really deserve. I always think there’s more going on under the hood of his exploitation-throwback movies than many critics give him credit for, and in this film he works conscientiously; during a montage of Kersey learning how to use the gun he’s stumbled upon, we also see gory clips of what bullets do to flesh and what must be done to close the wounds. The Death Wish series headlined by Bronson got nastier and eventually more outlandish, to the point where its excesses are beloved by fans of bad grindhouse (“They killed The Giggler, man!” yells a punk in Death Wish 3). Roth takes the material back to basics, giving us a vigilante who at first can’t even fire a gun without hurting himself.

Just because Roth takes a responsible, pro-family stance here, and stages some of the violence to bring out the clumsy desperation of non-supermen trying to shoot each other in close quarters, doesn’t mean he doesn’t deliver some cathartic bloodshed. Some of the killings are abrupt, others are worthy of vintage Fangoria, and one punk goes out with his face twisted in a comic-horrible rictus of agony. The blood splatters out like crimson branches, pools under spasmodic bodies; brains leap out of a skull that’s just been flattened by a car. In general, Roth successfully walks the hair-thin line between drama that takes respectful measure of the effects of violence and good old all-American exploitation.

Radio jocks all over the city take sides on Kersey the “Grim Reaper” and invite their listeners to do likewise. Dateless neckbeards in basements post YouTube tutorials on how to clean guns or wipe out data on a laptop. Kersey himself, in one of the script’s wittier throwaways, becomes an internet meme. (Joe Carnahan is solely credited with the screenplay, which had an uncredited once-over by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.) The punks, as always, are carefully ethnically mixed, and there are actors of color in doctor and cop roles — though I presume we’re not yet ready for a black Paul Kersey. (In the ‘70s, we were, and blaxploitation flicks obliged us.) Eli Roth may not be making a rabid reactionary potboiler, but he’s also not making a movie that’s going to challenge mainstream expectations, or grapple with the complex, heartbreaking causes of urban violence.

Willis lets himself smile and shed tears, as if grateful for the company of real actors. His Kersey is smart but vulnerable, haunted by the memory of his brutal father, chagrined by his ne’er-do-well brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) who keeps turning up asking for loans. D’Onofrio may be the best thing in the movie, making the brother self-justifying but decent, alluding to some crime (probably minor) he has on his record. Death Wish stays slick but gets a little tired and predictable as it heads for the finish line. Still, Roth maintains a sharp control, giving us, near the climax, a quiet slow camera track towards Kersey’s house that in its undemonstrative ominousness recalls (and ranks with) vintage John Carpenter. Someday Roth will apply his horror-movie instincts to material that can make them sing, and he will make a classic. As it is, Death Wish is far better-wrought than it could have been, or deserved to be.

¹Many will be relieved that, unlike in the original Death Wish and its vicious first sequel, there are no rapes we have to watch or even hear about.