Archive for July 2022

The Lost City

July 31, 2022

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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

July 24, 2022

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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

July 18, 2022

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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

July 10, 2022


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

July 4, 2022

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“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?