Archive for June 2020

The Invisible Man (2020)

June 28, 2020

mossinvisibleman Catching up: Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, I can’t help feeling, was robbed of its shot at becoming a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller that makes audiences scream happily. (As it is, the film, whose release was stunted by COVID-19 and the closure of movie theaters, still managed to scare up a decent amount via streaming and at drive-ins.) The Invisible Man is tethered to its strong lead performance — it’s probably unthinkable without Elisabeth Moss — and it’s a bit mechanical in the way that thrillers great or small can be. But I would be dishonest if I said it didn’t make me flinch and gasp. No doubt about it: the movie works. And it works on a nasty personal level; it exploits our awareness that women are gaslighted by abusive men all the time, to perpetuate and add to the abuse.

Moss is Cecilia, stuck in a suffocating relationship with wealthy scientist Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She plots her escape, spirited away by her sister (Harriet Dyer) and delivered to the safe home of her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), also a cop. The distraught Adrian kills himself, or so he wants the world to think. In reality, he’s using his beefed-up invisibility suit — he’s some sort of optics genius — to stalk Cecilia and ruin her life bit by bit. Nobody, of course, will believe Cecilia — not her sister, not James or his college-bound daughter, whose tuition Cecilia is paying for out of the money Adrian willed to her. We recognize fairly quickly that Adrian is contriving to alienate Cecilia from everyone else so that he can control her, in ways obvious and not so obvious.

Made for relative couch change ($7 million), The Invisible Man doesn’t indulge in an abundance of special effects, like Hollow Man or even Memoirs of an Invisible Man. There’s a scene where Elisabeth Moss is held aloft by her invisible attacker that might’ve been better conceived, and her subsequent being tossed around the room is needlessly crude; what was needed, I think, was a way to take us intimately inside her experience, to be worthy of the quieter, more dread-ridden moments. That writer-director Whannell actually has some integrity to betray, by way of the more flamboyant clashes, speaks well of the rest of the movie: it earns its Big Moments but doesn’t really need them. Most of the terror here works on dark, elemental levels — someone is after me but nobody will help me. Some of the emotional work, with Moss’s performance gaining power as Cecilia becomes more frightened and frustrated, is first-rate and lifts the thrills considerably.

Some of this description, of course, may read a bit stiffly because I’m trying to write around the twists. I can say that The Invisible Man has its technical ducks in a row, with Stefan Duscio’s sleek photography consorting well with Benjamin Wallfisch’s richly ominous score (though I wish Wallfisch hadn’t leaned so much on the deep rattling honking he used on Blade Runner 2049 at times it reminded me of the punitively ghastly score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the repugnant Gone Girl). This is the sort of suavely composed thriller that would’ve been not only a big hit but a water-cooler topic in a better time. The premise may be techno-pulp, but most of the movie stays with Cecilia’s choking feelings of helplessness. You may wonder what she could possibly do against her torturer.

In its last act, The Invisible Man almost lost me. It gets too plotty, introducing elements that seem to add little but padding, not to mention impatience on our part. The nobody-will-believe-me theme gets a vigorous workout, but all it leads to is gunfire and a shit-ton of “wait a minute” incidents. How convenient, for instance, that someone who has been careful to isolate and delegitimize Cecilia should leave so many people around to support her side of the story. The climax is enjoyable in an empty, guilty way, like a candy bar. But Elisabeth Moss shepherds us through it all; she stays connected to the basic nightmare of a woman with a bad ex-boyfriend in a perfect position to make her life hell. Cecilia’s ultimate act is, as written, something of a betrayal of her character, but the way Moss plays it — as the only act left to Cecilia — it isn’t. The Invisible Man is a reminder of how high a conventional thriller can be lifted with the right star, whose performance, like Betty Gilpin’s in The Hunt, deserves better than cruel fate allowed.

The Hunt

June 21, 2020

thehuntAlmost every character in The Hunt is crap. The exceptions are a skittish private-jet attendant and “Snowball” (Betty Gilpin), so nicknamed by the rich elites who are hunting her. The Hunt has had a long and winding road to distribution. First slated for release last September, it ran afoul of commentators who, of course, had not seen it; their objection was to the premise, wherein wealthy leftists kidnap and hunt “deplorables” — Trump supporters — for sport. (As it is, the movie finally limped into theaters in March, just in time for COVID-19 to shut theaters down. It hit VOD a week later, and now is finally on DVD.) There’s more to the film than that — but not much more, disappointingly. It’s a sleek, short, well-wrought horror-thriller with buckets of gore, and a sharp performance by Betty Gilpin that deserved far more notice.

“Snowball,” or Crystal, has been chosen along with eleven others to be the prey while well-armed, somewhat trained richies play predator. Crystal turns out to be a smart cookie who fought in Afghanistan, and as such has a much better chance of survival than her fellow captives. Is she a deplorable? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? I don’t think so. The Hunt is better than The Oath, a dark comedy from 2018 that probed the current political bifurcation (I couldn’t get through that one), but it’s really a defense-and-retreat thriller first and political commentary a distant second. Almost everyone is an easy stereotype of virtue-signalling lefties or cap-wearing, bigoted righties. Crystal, the exception, is so shrewd about defense and retreat that the director, Craig Zobel, and writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof seem to have given her a sneak peek at the script.

In short, the movie is on nobody’s side except Crystal’s, and Gilpin rises to the occasion. Crystal keeps wanting a cigarette and never gets one; if she ever did, she’d be a perfect John Carpenter hero, someone of few words and hard action. Gilpin scarcely smiles, except ruefully, mordantly. She gives Crystal a certain southern-style wit, and she doesn’t ask to be liked. She gives us, against all odds in a taut but gimmicky thriller, a true feminist hero, and one notable thing Zobel does right is that he never tells us where Crystal does stand politically. We get to know all we need to know about her. She feels real to us. The other characters, not so much — particularly Hilary Swank as the HBIC of the elite hunters, pompously kept offscreen or with her back to us for half the movie. Swank does what she can with Andrea, a CEO with her own vengeful agenda, but Andrea isn’t really credible as a person. Whoever trained Swank and Gilpin for their king-hell battle royale in Andrea’s tasteful rented kitchen can take a bow, though.

The Hunt is weakest when it dips its toe in the waters of satire; the characters are simply too sketchy and rudimentary. It can’t touch the Clinton-era satires The Last Supper (1995) or Citizen Ruth (1996), which succeeded for reasons other than being on “the correct side.” Nowadays, those films (especially Citizen Ruth, which boasted its own great performance via Laura Dern) would be knocked on Film Twitter for both-sides-ism — or no-sides-ism, which amounts to the same thing. The Hunt would like to be a throwback to those small but thorny films, but its expertise lies with staging violence (some of the actors you expect to be around for at least a few reels are gorily dispatched early on) and with giving Betty Gilpin the breathing room to create, in the midst of this crisp but callow cartoon, a real human being.

Da 5 Bloods

June 14, 2020

da5bloodsAt this point, I would sit for two hours of Delroy Lindo just monologuing into the camera, and maybe so would you after watching Spike Lee’s epic new adventure-drama Da 5 Bloods, in which there are at least three such monologues. Lindo, easily the film’s MVP, bites hard into his role as head-scrambled Vietnam vet Paul, bringing the frightening intensity familiar to those who first noticed him in Lee’s Malcolm X, Crooklyn, or Clockers. He carries this long and bruising film the way Paul totes a backpack full of gold: shakily enough to remind you of the character’s vulnerability, but steadily enough to point up his strength — and his dangerousness. It’s a large-scale performance, forceful and heartbreaking, and right now I honestly can’t see anything or anyone standing between Lindo and a Best Actor Oscar. It’s his to lose.

The film he’s in would justify its existence for enabling that performance even if it were otherwise junk, and it certainly is not. I very much enjoyed Lee’s previous feature, BlackKklansman, but that was deft entertainment and Da 5 Bloods is closer to art — impassioned, sometimes rough around the edges, a little explicit in its dialogue from time to time, but heartfelt and built out of guilt, trauma, and Marvin Gaye songs. (Gaye is almost the film’s unofficial co-composer; Terence Blanchard offers a rich, sweeping orchestral score.) I’m not sure if it’s meant to heal any wounds incurred in the Vietnam War or any rifts between Americans and Vietnamese — though one character seems designed to augment Gaye’s and the film’s message of love — but it doesn’t have to. It gives black vets as well as Vietnamese heirs of the pain we caused there a voice we don’t often hear.

Lee and Kevin Willmott reworked a white-focused script called The Last Tour (which Oliver Stone was once going to direct), and it isn’t just black skin mapped onto white characters — the story and its tensions seem to have been rethought from the ground up to speak to specifically black angers and torments. The story concerns four black vets — Lindo’s Paul, Clarke Peters’ Otis, Norm Lewis’ Eddie, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin — who return to their old horror grounds in Vietnam for two purposes: to find the remains of their squad leader “Stormin’” Norman (Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks) and to dig up a trunk full of gold bars they’d found in a downed CIA plane back then. These are the plot things — and Boseman is electrifying as the good soldier who sometimes has to keep his men’s rage in check — but what matters to us is the journey of Paul and his grown son David (Jonathan Majors), a teacher who comes along in part to reconnect with his dad and also to keep an eye on the old hothead. The other three vets get brief bits here and there, but Da 5 Bloods is really about a reckoning not only between father and son — a common theme in Lee’s work — but between guilty survivor and the memory of the dead.

Never a shy director, Lee more or less lets his story and characters speak for themselves. Among several powerful moments is a flashback in which the soldiers hear over the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. has just been assassinated; it’s turned into demoralizing propaganda by the real-life broadcaster “Hanoi Hannah,” and four of the five almost falter in the face of it, but Norman pulls them back from self-defeat. Norman’s climactic scene might read on the page as a bit too pat, but the acting involved is first-class and earns the wet eyes the scene pursues. Lee is still doing his weird double-dolly shot (though thankfully only briefly here), and I don’t know why he feels the need to capitalize every word not only on social media but, here, in subtitled Vietnamese or French. But this is still an ambitious achievement (using at least three aspect ratios — why let Wes Anderson have all the fun?) with as much love expressed for movies as for the young black cannon fodder who left their blood and bloods over there.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

June 7, 2020

starwars9And so we return one final time to the Skywalker family. After Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, we are told, there will be no more stories told about the spawn of Darth Vader and their various friends, spawn, and acolytes. With this, I officially lose interest in the Star Wars franchise; even back in 1983, when I thought Star Wars was over, I couldn’t find any hunger for the comics or the “expanded universe” novels or any of the other things Lucasfilm devised to keep the brand a going concern until George Lucas revisited the saga sixteen years later. So the multimedia Joseph Campbell rewrite will have to chug along without me.

This last go-round neither disappointed nor thrilled me; it just exists. There’s always something going on, and that’s part of the problem: there’s never not something going on, no pause for breath, no beauty or poetry. We ain’t got time for that now. The Final Order, a bunch of bad guys led by the Big Bad Guy, the resurgent Emperor Palpatine, plans to subjugate or destroy every planet everywhere. The Good Guys leap to the rescue — identity-crisis Jedi in training Rey (Daisy Ridley), rash pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). Meanwhile, good-bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants to save Rey from Palpatine. His deal is as tangled as ever.

Some thematic relevance could be teased out of the previous entries, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). The latter, which I consider the best of the new trilogy, dripped some poison into the ears of the faithful. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), like Achilles, renounced the heroic code; he literally tossed his lightsaber over his shoulder in disgust. Well, we’ll have none of that now, not with non-entity J.J. Abrams (who made the first of the sequel trilogy) at the helm. Abrams’ insight seems to be that the fans want endless lightsaber duels and shoot-outs and spacecraft looping around. Some of the action has a shoot-the-works electricity, but the special effects are as hectic, busy, and essentially insecure as anything in Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Abrams strains so hard not to lose our attention that, through sheer narrative vehemence, he loses it anyway.

There are some pleasures. I felt it would be churlish to try to make out the seams in Carrie Fisher’s performance — cobbled together from unused footage — as General Leia. I was grateful for however much the moviemakers could give me of her. Billy Dee Williams, as the returning Lando Calrissian, comes through with a suave turn that helps to remind us that acting was once possible in these things. (Adam Driver just about sprains something trying to make something real out of Kylo Ren’s nightmares of conscience, but he did better under the tutelage of Rian Johnson, a real director, on The Last Jedi.) The young trinity of new stars sprint this way and that, hopping from world to world, in search of a McGuffin called “the wayfinder” that will lead them to the lair of Palpatine. This dark emperor is as boringly eeeeeevil as ever, and his connection to one of the heroes feels underdone, as if Abrams and his writers were wincing and hoping the parallels to a similar revelation in The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t strike us as too blatant.

We’re frequently reminded of the stakes — this needs to happen or the bad guys will be very bad and everyone will die — yet the demands of fantasy on this budgetary level guarantee there are no real stakes. People die but come back one way or another; the total outcome is never in doubt. Here and there, a bit of business tugs at the old nostalgic feelings or packs a sidewise punch: Daisy Ridley’s teardrop falling on Carrie Fisher’s (or a double’s) shoulder; a droid, cowed by past abuse, who declines a human’s touch with a prim but slightly panicked “No, thank you.” Even old Luke returns as a force ghost, reassuring Rey and us that he was wrong and it’s important for good to stand up to evil. That point is made here in the most generic of ways; it doesn’t risk resonating with the world we live in, which even Lucas’ goofball prequels at least tried to do. That much-derided “deathstick” bit in Attack of the Clones, for instance, at least tried to engage with human frailty outside the franchise, albeit in a laughable dad way. Nothing like that here.