Archive for the ‘adaptation’ category

They Remain

February 18, 2018

theyremainA slow-burn psychological thriller like They Remain requires patience. It seems to be more about mood and paranoia than about plot or easy scares — kind of like John Carpenter’s The Thing but more minimalist, if that’s even imaginable. Most of the movie is a two-hand exercise, showcasing two actors — William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson — as scientists and former lovers who spend several weeks in an isolated woodsy area, measuring this and that, reporting on their meager findings. The woods, precisely photographed by Sean Kirby, amount to a third character, although we meet a sardonic pilot who interacts briefly with the scientists while picking up some evidence. The area is of interest for two reasons: animals are acting oddly, and the site was once home to a murderous cult. They may have left unfound corpses in the woods; some of the cult members may still be out there somewhere.

Ah, yes, Out There Somewhere, that time-honored horror trope. They Remain, adapted by writer/director Philip Gelatt from a story by Laird Barron, takes pains to maintain its ambiguity. Aliens? Demonic possession? Minds cracking under stress and isolation? We’re kept in the dark for a long time, and despite the film’s small footprint on the afternoon, it feels like a long time. The pace is obviously glacial for a reason, and achieves what Gelatt is going for, a meditative freak-out that runs partly on the scientists’ experience of boredom and repetition. Its ornery long-take rhythm may attract a small cult audience that zones out blissfully on draggy sci-fi (2001, Solaris, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Blade Runner 2049).

Might this have been happier at half the length as an X-Files episode? The scientists, particularly the man, get more and more fearful — the story is told through his eyes, so the woman becomes more and more suspect. Given that these characters could be of any color (or gender — they could be former gay male or female lovers), are we to place much importance on the identities of the male as African-American and the female as Caucasian? One could engage in quite a chunk of racial theorizing if not for the possibility that, like Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, the best actor for the role also happened to be black. Whether the various racial subtexts were or weren’t placed there, instead of cropping up on their own, we can’t quite help viewing the relationship and its attendant conflicts and rapid devolution through this filter, even though the text yields no drama about, or even acknowledgment of, the man’s race.

There sure is acknowledgment of the woman’s gender, though; at one point the man unleashes an existential howl of “Bitch!” The text, elusive as it is, doesn’t seem to disagree. But here I am, calling the movie a “text,” three times now. An artsy patience-tester like They Remain (named for some association with It Follows?) seems to demand to be read. The mood is all, and Gelatt is on point there, weaving a tapestry of curiosity and dread out of its Malick-esque visuals and its oddball score (by Tom Keohane) — he tries to make this underpopulated, one-location movie cinematic. The quietude is sometimes broken, too, by the characters’ nightmare visions of the cultists drifting around the trees and performing barely-glimpsed offenses to decency.

The land itself seems to be demonic, infesting its inhabitants with bad self-annihilating vibes. The soil contains secrets and mysteries, among them skeletons a hundred years old. We could say this cursed earth is America itself, built on the bones of the indigenous and the captured, and the text …. There we go again. Could They Remain be after something so banal as a built-on-Indian-burial-ground story, wrathful ghosts pitting black against white, woman against man, even in the hermetic context of a remote laboratory in a field? It’s worth asking why Carpenter’s Thing, which theoretically should attract lots of academic woolgathering, seems to exist completely outside of interpretation. Carpenter just said “These guys don’t trust each other” and that was that. The image of a black man and a white man facing each other with affable nihilism at the end of The Thing, with neither us nor them knowing who was human, doesn’t seem to mean anything outside of itself. That sort of thing sure seems to mean something in They Remain. But what?


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

November 19, 2017

Valerian-and-the-City-of-a-Thousand-Planets-(France)-1-FullI can’t quite bring myself to convince you that the entire two hours and seventeen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are worth sitting through for Rihanna’s appearance some eighty minutes in. Soon enough, she becomes a blue blob and later turns to dust. But she’s fun while she lasts, as a shape-shifting performer named Bubble who helps the titular hero, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), rescue his captured partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). For twenty minutes or so, Rihanna is a suavely fierce nonactress adding some welcome grit and personality to a mix that includes far too many aliens and special effects, far too little humanity.

Valerian is great-looking but awful, a combination that has sadly become the stock in trade of the once-impressive Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element, Lucy). Those who found The Fifth Element a jocular piece of futuristic excess but a bit on the empty-calorie side won’t find much to plug into here; the meaning of the movie is simply to get Valerian and Laureline from one hectic, shiny set piece to the next, barely stopping for a breath or even a scenery-chewing villain performance from the likes of Gary Oldman (who brightened Leon and Fifth Element). Here we get only the grouchy Clive Owen as our heroes’ commander, who gives orders to wipe out an entire species of alien pearl farmers, one of whom stows away in Valerian’s body after dying.

Look, I could go on discussing plot points to prove I saw the film, but you’ll just have to trust me. Valerian has tons of plot but no real story to speak of; our heroes hurtle to and fro to get justice for the aliens, and that’s all there is to it. The movie is so pointlessly eventful and convoluted, though, that it feels more complicated than it is. It doesn’t help than DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry or presence; DeHaan has a gruff dudebro voice like Keanu Reeves’, only without Keanu’s soulfulness, and Delevingne often just seems vaguely inconvenienced, glassy-eyed with indifference for the material. (The two have matching hollow pouts, and they both have arrogantly unmusical voices.) DeHaan does bestir himself when trading lines with Rihanna, though that just serves to prove he has a pulse. Her boss, called Jolly the Pimp, is given a naughty twinkle by Ethan Hawke, but he’s not around for long, either. (I tend to think Hawke opened the script, saw his character’s name, and signed on just on the strength of being able to play a character called Jolly the Pimp.)

What we get here instead of interesting humans is a flock of CGI aliens (the one voiced by John Goodman is amusingly stern) and various scenes of the heroes’ spaceship streaking heedlessly through space, or through trippy environments, and for minutes at a time we might as well be watching animation demo footage unconnected to any context of any interest. Valerian may be welcomed as eye candy by kids and by aficionados of controlled substances, but it offers nothing for someone who merely buckles in for a good time at the movies. Besson also no longer knows what to do with interesting humans when he has them. Rutger Hauer is tossed aside after punching his time card for what our British actor friends call a cough and a spit role; Herbie Hancock is in it, mostly seen as a hologram scolding the heroes. An international cast mumbles stale dialogue in person or as the voices of aliens.

The overstuffed yet empty Valerian is nothing new, of course; we’ve been getting this sort of flatulent, pricey “entertainment” for decades, and it’s not going to end any time soon. Every so often a Get Out or a Wonder breaks out, because it scratches a previously neglected itch, or it speaks to people. Valerian and its ilk speak to no one, although they are engineered to appeal across continents, languages, cultures. Everyone understands things blowing up. Yet you have to drive out of your way for an hour to see, say, a French film for grown-ups (Valerian is based on French comics), while plastic junk like this blurts onto 3,500 screens in America — then slinks off after nine weeks having made back a fraction of its cost. Its failure in America (and in general, worldwide) would be encouraging if we didn’t still get a hundred movies like it every year.

Blade Runner 2049

October 8, 2017

br2049There’s a lot to say about Blade Runner 2049, the long-gestating sequel to the 1982 cult classic, but here’s my initial thought: see it, don’t see it, but know that something like this — a downbeat, two-hour-and-forty-four-minute, expensive (anywhere from $150 to $185 million), R-rated work of art — will not come along again any time soon. (Especially because its opening-weekend take was “only” $31 million, which is thought to be disastrous.) Eccentricities like this will be lost in time, as someone once said, like tears in rain. More than once, I was stirred by an image or a subtly broken line reading or the thunderous, doomy soundtrack. It’s a little baffling, though, how little of it has stayed with me — except in isolated shards of sound or picture.

That’s because Blade Runner 2049, like its dour predecessor, is a bitter tone poem about humanity’s pros and cons rather than an adventure or a mystery. It continues the vision of the hellish dystopian city that the first film practically invented, and expands on it somewhat, taking us further out from the slums of L.A. (Master cinematographer Roger Deakins nurtures beauty where the first film found mostly ugliness.) In both cases the plot doesn’t matter as much as the thematic and visual heaviosity the plot makes possible. The mission of the protagonist — K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant whose job is to find and retire previous iterations of replicants — is defined mainly by where the plot needs him to be. A buried skeleton has been found, and markings on the bones determine that the owner of the skeleton was (A) a replicant and (B) pregnant. K must wipe out all evidence of this birth, including whoever the child is.

If you’re paying all that much attention to the plot, you may sit there getting annoyed at the movie for making you pretend not to have guessed the film’s big twist long before the movie pulls a mild fake-out by saying “Nope, that twist isn’t true,” but then it turns out to be true anyway. (I think.) That sound you hear is Blade Runner 2049 brutally dismantling about half of the Blade Runner fandom’s most earnest theories, but it slyly leaves intact the biggest one of all — that the first film’s anti-hero, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a killer of replicants, was himself a replicant. Deckard was never a source of laughs (except when he posed as a dweeby inspector to gain backstage access to a replicant he was hunting), but when Ford appears well into the second hour, he brings some dry levity with him. Before that it’s mostly the po-faced adventures of Ryan, the Boy Who Isn’t a Real Boy. Gosling holds the screen capably, occasionally giving it up to livelier, usually female presences like Robin Wright as K’s hard-bitten superior officer and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, a fearsome replicant who seems to have stepped out of a Frank Miller comic — Ronin, maybe.

Ronin, of course, like about five million other things, was heavily influenced by the original Blade Runner. The sequel wisely gets the first film’s iconic visuals out of the way quickly, and it doesn’t feel like a fan film but like a legitimate addition to canon. Like other films directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s hushed and long and will put considerable pressure on some viewers’ patience. But I enjoyed its meditative tempo, and the way it uses violence is as upsetting as in the first Blade Runner but not as freaky and mean-spirited. The general tone of the original was fear and rage blended into a melange of futuristic noir; the tone of 2049 is sadness, loneliness, largely due to living in a society ruled by privilege and hubris. Everyone is walled off from everyone else, one person literally; the movie ends up saying that humanity isn’t all that important if artificial intelligence can create a better humanity. Cool story, bro! But as an experience of severe imagery and soundscape, 2049 delivers. Someday on Blu-ray it will be the go-to movie for the attuned to float around in for almost three hours, getting stoned on the bitter and doom-laden toxic mood.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 17, 2017

apes-1_1And so the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy comes to an end. I hope it’s the end, anyway — not that I haven’t immensely enjoyed and admired all three of these films, but this one just puts such a perfect period on the saga, not an ellipsis. The ending also, if you want it to, neatly feeds into the previous Apes pentalogy. Part war flick, part western, part prison escape picture, and all high-powered blockbuster, War for the Planet of the Apes borrows from a lot of sources but shuffles them into its own wounded deck of complex and subtle emotions. It runs on the melancholy power of its co-writer/director, Matt Reeves (who also helmed the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). If you forget the metaphorically robust but somewhat campy original Apes movies and let War take you where it’s going, it’s quietly devastating.

Most of the movie, indeed, is quiet, and the grand finale of explosions nevertheless has a layer of sadness underneath it. War picks up a few years after the last one left off. Caesar (voice and digitalized physical performance by Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes against the brute forces of humanity, finds his (figurative) crown growing heavier by the day. A rogue faction of soldiers, led by a bald crackpot known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), lays down some hot death and claims the lives of Caesar’s wife and elder son. Caesar permits himself little time to mourn before taking off in pursuit of the Colonel, accompanied by a few die-hard friends/soldiers who insist on going with him.

The film isn’t very “plotty.” The script by Reeves and Mark Bomback leaves room for character moments. It’s much more important that we discern exactly how Caesar fears becoming like his former, bitter right-hand ape Koba, and how he might actually resemble Koba, in terms of unquenchable rage. There’s also room for various characters, good and bad, painted in tones of gray; even the Colonel is given a backstory that explains, though doesn’t justify, his bullet-headed ruthlessness. These new Apes films have never fallen into a facile “apes good, humans bad” formula. Some apes are not good (some of them have defected to the human army, where they’re derisively called “donkeys” and commanded to help out in combat against the apes), and some humans are not bad (there’s a mute little girl who’s both a callback to and a bridge to the first two original Apes films).

War is pure megabudget cinema done right; Michael Seresin’s lush photography and Michael Giacchino’s epic, emotive score make the case for this being the kind of emotionally gratifying summer blockbuster Steven Spielberg no longer makes. Serkis can rest assured he’s added a great, conflicted hero to the pantheon, and there’s a terrific comic-relief performance from Steve Zahn (of course) as an easily frightened ape who calls himself Bad Ape — am I crazy or is Zahn channeling Elisha Cook Jr.? The movie has taken some flak for being predominantly male, which it is, except for its Newt-like orphan girl and the fact that Caesar’s orangutan adviser Maurice is voiced/performed by a woman, Karin Konoval. That seems backward in the summer of Wonder Woman, but one movie can’t address all inequities.

It’s probably enough that the paranoid Colonel wants to build a wall — not to keep out apes but to keep out other humans. Caesar may be Willard to the Colonel’s Kurtz (a line of graffiti just comes right out and name-checks Apocalypse Now) — and at least the Colonel doesn’t scrawl anything as obvious as “Exterminate all the brutes” — but he’s not a numb killer like Willard. He feels himself sliding into that territory, but when the moment of truth comes, he does not kill. “It’s a hard heart that kills,” shouts the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (another of this film’s influences), but despite everything that the world has thrown at it, Caesar’s heart has not hardened. War is about mercy and empathy, which makes it a nicely organic anti-war film.


June 25, 2017

wilsonTwenty-five minutes into Wilson, the movie gets real. That’s when Laura Dern shows up, as the ex-wife of the titular character (Woody Harrelson). As David Lynch has known for the past thirty years, having Laura Dern in a film is one hell of a feather in its cap. Here, what threatens to become a merdiste tragicomedy with an irredeemably obnoxious protagonist turns on a dime into something worthwhile. Dern’s character Pippi once got pregnant by Wilson, but gave the baby up for adoption after she left Wilson. Seventeen years later, Pippi and Wilson are sitting across a table from their daughter Claire (Isabella Amara), a bullied and sardonic teen whose contempt for her vacuous rich adoptive parents is barely concealed.

While Harrelson gives his all to Wilson’s rocky emotional journey, it’s Dern whose stare of ineffable anguish makes us feel what it might be like to meet one’s almost-adult child. A simpler actress might play the joy or the heartbreak, but Dern gives us the whole cornucopia of confusing, conflicting feelings mostly without dialogue. Wilson was directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), but it’s primarily a Daniel Clowes film; as with the earlier Ghost World and Art School Confidential, Clowes wrote the script based on his episodic graphic novel. In the novel, Pippi mainly has the same deadpan-antagonistic personality everyone else in the narrative does. To appreciate how a great actress can elevate a character, I can only recommend reading Wilson and then seeing the movie.

I don’t want to kick Wilson too hard, as it’s the sort of small human-scaled drama (with comedic or absurdist elements) we never see in theaters anymore; it cost $5 million and grossed $653,951 in 311 theaters, which does not bode well for the future of films like Wilson. Still, the central narrative conceit of Wilson the graphic novel, which Clowes carries over into the film, was easier to swallow on the page. Clowes structured the novel as a series of bleak blackout skits, one per page; sometimes years passed between anecdotes, so that at the end of one page Wilson is looking out the window at the lights of a police car, and at the beginning of the next page he’s doing time for the kidnapping of his daughter. A movie structured like this could work, has worked, but Wilson doesn’t. For instance, when Wilson returns to his dead father’s storage unit after three years in prison, and finds all the stuff still there, we’re wondering who was paying the unit’s rent all that time, and if nobody was, isn’t there a whole show about people who bid on the mostly unseen contents of abandoned storage units? In California, where Wilson is set, this happens by law after only three months of nonpayment.

But then we wouldn’t be musing about such things at a more involving movie. Wilson is well-acted from top to bottom; aside from Dern and Harrelson, Judy Greer is typically fine as Wilson’s dog-sitter who becomes something more, Margo Martindale has a sourly funny date with Wilson, and Mary Lynn Rajskub has a scene of startling anger at Wilson that’s like a thunderstorm clearing out a foggy, humid night. Generally, Wilson belongs to the women, even though we can’t quite work out why women who look like Judy Greer and Laura Dern would sleep with a balding, scruffy misanthrope like Wilson. (Again, in the novel these women aren’t drawn flatteringly at all. Neither is Wilson, and Harrelson is an almost exact match for some of Clowes’ renderings of Wilson.)

Why does Wilson catch a beating from a couple of fellow inmates for being his usual cluelessly opining self, and then a couple of scenes later, people from various different prison cliques (blacks, neo-Nazis) all seem to like him? Why does the movie seem to take place in a weird universe that jumbles together technology from past and present, so that people pull up Yelp and Google on their phones but a private investigator uses a computer with a floppy drive, and Wilson takes a picture with an Instamatic with a flash cube? These things stick out but seem to call attention to themselves gratuitously, much like Wilson’s haphazardly stacked paperbacks; he fancies himself an intellectual but we glimpse potboilers by Leon Uris and Janet Dailey. Is Clowes even condescending to Wilson’s reading habits? Who knows? But again, I do endorse Wilson for Laura Dern and the other women thrusting their fists against the posts of Wilson’s — and Clowes’ — cynicism.

Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017

wonderwoman2Towards the middle of Wonder Woman, when the central heroine Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) is running through the no-man’s-land (ha) of a battlefield and deflecting hundreds of German bullets, either you recognize the subtextual power of this image or you find it a typical bit of superhero-movie action. I’d submit the latter is not the most productive lens through which to view Wonder Woman, here as well as its earlier iterations. This ideal of strong femininity has always been greater than the sum of her parts. I could say that the movie has its flaws particular to its status as a superhero film inside a larger superhero narrative, but it doesn’t matter. Wonder Woman is an indelible symbol of sane female compassion against nihilistic male violence. She didn’t make the cover of the first Ms. magazine for nothin’, and this fourth movie of the DC Extended Universe (after Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad) stands well on its own and will gather deeper relevance than any other superhero flick.

Gal Gadot does what’s needed as Diana; the role is bigger than she is, but she gives Diana’s heroism a nice underlayer of sadness and regret. Diana has lived all her life with the Amazons on what we used to call Paradise Island, hearing about war (and its author, Ares) without knowing it. War soon invades the idyll of the island in the person of American pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), with German soldiers in hot pursuit. It’s late in World War I, or, as Trevor calls it, “the War … the war to end all wars.” The retrospective irony of that phrase is bitter, as is Diana’s realization that there isn’t just one convenient supervillain to blame for war. Ares whispers in our ears; we take it from there.

Diana carves a swath through the German army, seeking only to defend or to deflect. She isn’t a stone killer, just as she wasn’t in the cheesy but beloved TV series with Lynda Carter, who could knock thugs or Nazis for a loop but preferred to be strong to be kind. Diana is, of course, a warrior, trained as such by her fierce aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) against the wishes of her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Wright and Nielsen, both 51 and seemingly still peaking physically, show us what power without masculinity looks like. Diana takes a bit from each woman. She will fight, but only when absolutely necessary. For the most part, her strength is hidden behind fake glasses and under a gray uniform, much like that of Superman.

Wonder Woman may be part of the doom-laden, ugly, “dark” and gritty DC film-verse, and by virtue of unfolding during one of the more costly and grotesque wars it certainly has its grim moments. But its director, Patty Jenkins — who helmed 2003’s excellent Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster and hadn’t directed another feature film until now — brings a refreshing clarity to it, a productive mix of gravitas and winking. At certain times, the movie seems very aware of being a cultural lightning rod with a lot of eyes on it. At other times it forges ahead swiftly (Wonder Woman runs two hours and twenty-one minutes but goes by fast), uninterested in anything outside itself and its musings about the nature of war and the nature of mankind.

As has become a tradition with superhero films, there are too many villains, though our time spent with them (including an uber-proto-Nazi played by Danny Huston and a mad mutilated genius named Dr. Poison played by Elena Anaya with a half-mask recalling Jack Huston in Boardwalk Empire) is agreeably pulpy. Pulpiness is sort of baked into the concept; Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston was working out ideas about femininity — seeing no reason why a strong woman couldn’t also be submissive, he contrived to put Diana in bondage in a bunch of the powerfully idiosyncratic feminist-cum-fetishist comic-book stories of the ‘40s. The movie’s Diana is briefly restrained, but not a lot of Marston’s thoughts inform the film, which is fine; Wonder Woman is bigger than he is, too. Lynda Carter can wear her, or Gal Gadot, but ultimately she belongs to all girls and women, a symbol of gentle power that can’t help but endure. Or persist.


May 7, 2017

alena-jpgThe Swedish horror drama Alena, out on American DVD this week, is an awfully slow burn. Normally I’m behind that, but this movie makes its earlier countryman Let the Right One In seem like an explosion in a chimpanzee factory. It feels a bit padded out, perhaps because it was: It began as a 59-minute piece for Swedish TV, then got expanded a bit to feature length. Despite that, I recommend it to fans of Let the Right One In: the sullen, angsty mood is well sustained, the performances are on point, and the movie applies artsy touches to scenes that could have been sleazy retro exploitation. Well, they kind of are anyway, but it’s amusing to see them accomplished with Bergmanesque somberness.

Amalia Holm carries the movie as the eponymous Alena, a disturbed teenager who’s just been transferred to a ritzy boarding school. There she swiftly runs afoul of resident bully Filippa (Molly Nutley), the school’s star lacrosse player, whose rich dad contributes a lot to the school’s funding. Not only is Alena a potential threat to Filippa’s standing on the team, she also attracts the cool loner Fabienne (Felice Jankell), whom Filippa wants for herself. The level of same-sex yearning here may satisfy those who enjoyed Lost and Delirious and The Moth Diaries, though those films were helmed by women and Alena was directed by a man, Daniel di Grado, who seems to have jettisoned almost every male character except a fleetingly seen kid and the lacrosse team’s easily intimidated coach.

What tips Alena into the neighborhood of horror is its treatment of a mysterious character from Alena’s past — Josefin (Rebecka Nyman), who follows Alena everywhere and who is, to say the least, more than first meets the eye. Josefin seems to bring violence whenever she shows up, especially in a potentially icky scene in which another of Alena’s classmates is confined in a locker room with Alena. Is she real, a ghost, or simply Alena’s mind luxuriating in her guilt? Could be all three, though the rules of her influence on her surroundings are murky.

The movie takes its time, creates its own chilly world run by female angels and demons. Alena is both, and Amalia Holm’s performance is properly uningratiating. She makes Alena an avatar for repressed, abused youth, like Carrie White in all her iterations, or Angela Bettis’ May. Innocence of a sort is represented not by the film’s namesake but by the rich Fabienne, who doesn’t care about Filippa’s mean-girl games and who appreciates Alena’s gauche outsider aura, complete with chopped-up hair dyed black, which might be a nod to Swedish goth-geek goddess Lisbeth Salander in either of her iterations.

Alena on some level is a compilation of tropes and influences, a calling card for its first-time cowriter/director. It won’t dazzle anyone with its originality. But it’s a sturdy, carefully wrought calling card with considerable feeling for its wounded subjects, and that’s not nothing. Di Grado has a sense of compassion for these troubled girls, even the destructive and conniving Filippa. Eventually the movie leans more heavily towards drama than horror, which is fine; it’s just the characters facing up to the consequences of their actions. The horror derives from pain and grief reaching from the past into the present.