Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

The Matrix Resurrections

December 25, 2021

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There’s a whole bunch of plot jibber-jabber in The Matrix Resurrections, as there was in the previous three films in the series, but at least this one is a bit more emotionally readable. Lana Wachowski, one-half of the Wachowskis who engineered the Matrix franchise, has said that her impetus for going back to the Matrix well was the deaths of her parents. She wanted them back, and she put that yearning into a story in which everyone moves heaven and earth to get Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the heroes of the earlier movies, back together and in charge of the resistance against those who would misuse the Matrix.

I have very little understanding or recall of what happens scene for scene in The Matrix Resurrections, but the elation of having these two back cuts through the murk like a foghorn. Even if, like me, you were never sold on the brilliance of The Matrix, some part of you may respond to the characters’, and Wachowski’s, gratitude that Neo and Trinity are still up for a fight, though this movie takes a while to re-acquaint Neo and then Trinity with reality outside the Matrix. In the matrix, Neo, or Thomas Anderson, is a rich and betrophied videogame designer, whose game The Matrix was a big hit. Thomas happens across Trinity in a coffee shop, except she’s now Tiffany, married with kids.

There’s a fair amount of meta snark here. Thomas faces doing a belated sequel to his original Matrix game trilogy, because if he doesn’t, Warner Brothers will find someone who will. There’s some talk about how originality is dead and entertainment rehashes the same stories endlessly. Wachowski is on thin ice here, but the strong thread of feeling — which we’re told here affects people more than facts — carries us through. Wachowski talks about the dangers of submitting to a comforting fiction (the Matrix, with its taste of steak) while submitting to a comforting fiction; this isn’t hypocrisy, it’s an honest assessment of what we often want and need from art. If the first Matrix films were really about the trans experience (although the sequels kind of got bogged down in set pieces), this one is about making a self out of one’s own, or others’, creations.

The pertinent question here might be, How is it as a Matrix film? I doubt it’s possible to go back to the relative simplicity of the first movie and disregard the convolutions larded on by its sequels (the way, say, David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel did), and Wachowski acknowledges that on some level. A lot of clutter has to be thrown in the path of Neo and his new band of acolytes before Trinity figures things out and re-assumes her role; it’s significant that it’s a choice she must make for herself, a subtext unlikely to win the movie fans among conservatives. (As much as she must have wanted to, Wachowski doesn’t have time here to include scuzzy incels appropriating her red-pill-blue-pill metaphor. There is, however, chit-chat about binary ways of thought and living, and how those are truer to a machine’s view of humanity than to the reality of it.)

Back in 1999, The Matrix felt like a brutal-cool riff on the old themes of individuality vs. oppression (we didn’t yet know the story had deeper meanings for Lana and Lilly Wachowski; Lilly chose to sit out this film). I wasn’t terribly wowed at the time, but in hindsight it emerges as one of an accidental run of movies in that year grappling with reality and our role in it. It makes more sense in its 1999 context as a sharp, sickly-green pre-millennium vision than as the start of an increasingly bloated franchise. The Matrix Resurrections ultimately can’t go home again, and Wachowski knows it; there’s a streak of melancholy running through the film, but intertwined with a streak of hope that the elders of cool, Neo and Trinity in their black-on-black get-ups, still have something to teach us, and that there are younger warriors willing to go to the brink to rescue their wisdom. And if you’re looking for a review that tells you how the new Morpheus is, or how bad-ass the fights are, you took the wrong pill.

Godzilla Vs. Kong

June 13, 2021

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The cartoonist Sergio Aragonés once pointed out something in an interview that has stuck with me for some thirty years. He said that when Superman in the comic books was rendered less realistically and more cartoonishly, he could pick up a tall building by its corner and we could believe it. In later years, Aragonés said, when Superman and his surroundings were depicted with more physical realism and you could see all his veins and muscles, all the bricks in the building, we could no longer believe in such a feat — we would assume the building would just crumble apart. Aragonés’ insight applies as well to movies, which can depict the unreal with surface realism — you can see all the details — but lose something in the realm of fantasy and imagination.

Who ever wanted to see a realistic King Kong or Godzilla? Kong as realized by Willis O’Brien in the 1933 film has a rough-hewn magic that inspires glee and fear, sometimes both at once. The Godzilla, or Gojira, of some of the goofier Toho films was clearly a man in a suit, and accordingly had a human vibe. He was the kind of monster we felt close to, sorry for. All of that is lost in Godzilla Vs. Kong, in which the title opponents are of course created in computers. And boy, you can see all the details. Nothing is left to the imagination — at least as it applies to the damage the titans do to each other. Humans, on the other hand, die as afterthoughts, as gnats in what they thought was their narrative, but which instead belongs to the bestial and gigantic. And when the titans clash in the middle of Hong Kong, buildings are atomized, blown apart into coffee-cake crumbs, scattered like drops of mist. 

We’re told the city has already been evacuated, but that hardly matters. What we’re seeing is vast destruction, and the assurance that there’s no human toll is the sheerest hypocrisy. The fact is that we didn’t care fifty or sixty years ago if there were people in the buildings Godzilla wrecked, and we don’t care now. The problem is that even the buildings are rendered here with the utmost realism. So this sort of narrative handwaving is less convincing now than when the buildings were obvious cardboard. These are made to look like real creatures in real space destroying real objects. The cartoonish quality of a vintage Toho monster mash is gone. The fun, for me, is gone.

Does the story really matter? Demian Bechir plays an arrogant tech moneybags who believes the Titans — Kong, Godzilla, and the critters Godzilla fought in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters — threaten humanity’s status as the planet’s alpha, its apex predator. So he has built Mechagodzilla to kill them. Godzilla and Kong don’t get along at first, but ultimately they join forces against Mechagodzilla, and truly when you distill this thing down to a brutal synopsis it sounds like something you’d see on a 22-minute episode of the ‘70s Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon. And it would have been more entertaining there. Instead, Godzilla is charmlessly ugly, and Kong is always unhappy and riled up, and Mechagodzilla is this clangorous mess of steel, and there’s no exhilaration in it except for one moment when Kong and Godzilla roar at each other.

Godzilla Vs. Kong made money against all odds, so there will be more movies in this “MonsterVerse” franchise (which also includes 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the latter of which I missed). This might be the time for me to tap out of this series, though. The look of most of them is grim, gray, drizzly. (Kong’s milieu, though, is naturally sunnier and more colorful — the bits I’ve seen of Kong: Skull Island seem to bear that out.) Everything is drab now — the Bond films, superhero films, and giant-monster films. They’re depressing to look at and to spend any length of time in. So I’ll stick with the old monsters. Even the black-and-white monster films have a sharper visual pop than the dishwater dregs of Godzilla Vs. Kong. 

Oxygen

May 16, 2021

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If Oxygen, which started principal photography in July 2020, isn’t the ultimate quarantine film, I don’t know what is. There are flashbacks, but most of the movie is a matter of one actress, Mélanie Laurent, alone inside a cryogenic pod with nobody to interact with except voices. Oxygen is an American-French co-production, and is showing on Netflix in a dubbed English version or in its original French with subtitles, and I heartily recommend the French — you get the benefit of Laurent’s legitimate emoting (in English, Cherami Leigh substitutes the voice, and is directed to sound somewhat whiny), as well as Mathieu Amalric as MILO, this film’s HAL, an implacable AI who frequently points out, with neither malice nor mercy, just how much air Laurent’s character has left.

Laurent, as a woman named Elizabeth Hansen, wakes up in this cryogenic pod with no memory of how she got there, where she is, or where she’s headed, if anywhere. I say “a woman named Elizabeth Hansen” not because I don’t know what she does for a living but because we share Liz’s disorientation. We learn her situation along with her, and Christie LeBlanc’s script, a one-time Black List entry, stays close to Liz’s terror and rage to live. As directed by horror neo-maestro Alexandre Aja, who was originally only going to produce, Oxygen manages to change up its visuals and pace often enough so that its claustrophobic milieu doesn’t present as too tedious. Besides, when you have a futuristic pod that can be sweetened by CGI to jazz the eye, you’re already one up on something like Buried or Open Water.

Also suggested: don’t scrutinize the script too closely from a scientific angle, as some have done to their chagrin; don’t focus too much on the measurements and numbers (twelve years, 42,735 miles, etc.). Oxygen works mainly on the emotional/experiential level, trapping us in close quarters and treating our thirst for information with a maddening slow drip of data, not all of which may actually be sound. This is now two basically-one-location films in a row for Aja, who last bedeviled us with the alligator-in-a-flooded-basement thriller Crawl in 2019. On the evidence, Aja likes a challenge; even his first film to gain international notice, High Tension, runs on a huge twist that invalidates everything that went before it (…or does it?). Here he has a cramped space and essentially one face (Liz’s may-or-may-not-be husband, played by Malik Zidi, turns up on occasion), and we are invited to consider every line and pore in Laurent’s visage more closely than she might be comfortable with.

It’s tasty, savory meat for an actor, and Laurent rips into it, by turns despairing, hopeful, mordant, credulous or skeptical. (The role was previously attached to Anne Hathaway and then Noomi Rapace, either of whom would have done brittle magic with it.) When a future book is written about sci-fi movies that run on a specific trope I’ll not mention here, Oxygen may sit near the top of the list due to Laurent, who finds the terrifying weirdness in it. The trope has been done (and even used as a twist) innumerable times, but Laurent’s prickly humanity sets it apart. Meanwhile, that great reptilian actor Mathieu Amalric, fresh from giving Riz Ahmed a hard time in Sound of Metal, keeps offering data without comfort, sounding at times like a bored functionary. “Would you like a sedative?” MILO keeps asking, like an insistent date-rapist, and Liz instinctively refuses.

I enjoyed Oxygen while periodically feeling the pull and pinch of boredom, a perhaps unavoidable trap of such a confined narrative. I suspect, though, it works better viewed alongside its siblings in Aja’s portfolio, which is heavy on genre stuff, than viewed in and of itself. It’s artier than some of his others (Horns, the Hills Have Eyes remake, and so on) but still contains shards of wincing auto-violence: nobody’s around to violate Liz, other than a persistent syringe, so she has to mangle herself, yanking things out of her body and then painfully re-inserting them. Aja can sardonically spotlight the penetrative, eros/thanatos pain that powers so much horror with only a cast of one. I don’t think Aja needs to challenge himself again on this how-small-can-I-go? level. He’s done all anyone can. As it is, he probably wants his next film to unfold during Mardi Gras.

Tenet

January 24, 2021

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There’s a guy, brave and smart. We’ll call him the good guy. Watch now as we point him in the direction of the bad guy. The bad guy wants to make everything die. Why? Because he’s the bad guy. The good guy, being the good guy, must stop the bad guy. This, sincerely, is all you need to understand Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It’s also the basic bones of your choice of spy tale, including the Bonds. But, as with many of those spy stories, that good guy-bad guy skeleton is all you take away from Tenet. That’s fine; not every movie needs to be Tarkovsky. Tenet is perfectly readable and enjoyable as the “ride” Nolan wants you to go along for.

Of course, people will want to hang analytical ornaments all over it, wrestling with what this or that symbol or word really means. Let them, but if you value your sanity, follow them not too deeply into the weeds of interpretation. Someday, I hope long after I’m gone, someone will sync Tenet to a deep-cut Pink Floyd side — Atom Heart Mother, maybe — and the world will end, folding in on itself into an origami chicken that pecks itself to death. On a certain level, Tenet can and will be taken as a higher-math mind trip, though one that, like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, relies for its humanizing element on the trope of a mother-and-child reunion. Here, the trope is somewhat cauterized by the casting of Elizabeth Debicki — whom Warner should be looking at to play an Amazonian rival of Diana’s in a future Wonder Woman film — as the mother.

About a head taller than most any man with whom she shares the frame, and with no attempt by Nolan to cover by putting the men on soapboxes, Debicki has the equipoise to shoulder Tenet’s emotional weight without herself becoming bathetic. Her Kat Barton at least has recognizable human motives, unlike the protagonist (John David Washington), puckishly named only as The Protagonist. T.P., as I’ll call him in the interest of saving space, is a CIA agent charged with the mission of preventing a Thing (McGuffin, bomb, worldkiller, whatevs) from getting into the hands of the Bad Guy (Kenneth Branagh). The complication: the Bad Guy can access the future. So T.P. and his new bestest buddy Neil (Robert Pattinson) go back and forth between the back and the forth in pursuit of the Bad Guy. Most of this is only an excuse for Nolan, whose gleeful little inner child playing with trains really shows himself here, to indulge in massive set pieces involving squadrons of crew, an actual plane ramming into an actual building, many millions of dollars, and Kenneth Branagh doing a muted version of the Bond villain he’s always thirsted to play.

Other than a couple of scenes with Branagh and Debicki on a yacht — and even those are contextually loaded with dread and foreboding — Tenet is always in motion, never catching its breath, always beating feet to the next big bang. The physics/metaphysics by which people can travel to next week or last week washed over me nearly unnoticed. It’s just details. I responded to Tenet as a gigantic tone poem of motion proposed and then rescinded, bullet holes sealing themselves up and bullets rocketing back into their chambers. (What happens if you get hit by a backwards bullet? It ain’t pretty.)

I came to realize, with this and his previous film Dunkirk, that Nolan seems to be leaving plot behind to focus on story, and to make story bend to the reckless will of cinema. And it’s true, some of the stuff here has never been seen before (on this scale) and will likely only be seen this once. The really zesty moments wouldn’t work in any other medium, and watching it on my laptop (with subtitles), I understood with a twinge of sympathy why Nolan was so adamant that Tenet be seen on big screens. This work has been designed to be viewed on an enormous canvas, and Warner and Nolan should have held it back until it was safe for audiences to do so. But it may also find a life as a Brobdingnagian cult film, an ambitious and pricey folly to shelve alongside Cloud Atlas and a few others. It means what you want it to mean, and I don’t want it to mean anything. It’s just a ride.

Possessor

October 4, 2020

posessor Surprises abound on the movie beat. If a filmmaker’s debut feature doesn’t do it for you, a second chance might be in order, and I thought Brandon Cronenberg, who bowed with the tedious and unpleasant Antivirus eight years ago, was still serious and sincere enough to merit further scrutiny. Cronenberg’s new one, Possessor, sadly confirms my earlier response. Cronenberg, whose father is the legendary director David, is certainly no dummy, and he doesn’t go for cheap thrills, or indeed any thrills. His work sure is gory, though, and the violence is crueler than it needs to be while not really engaging our emotions — just our gag reflex. People are always slipping and sliding on bloody floors, the soles of their sneakers squeaking around in puddles of gore. You can’t say Cronenberg romanticizes murder or death at all. It’s presented as a sticky, soul-scorching and repulsive experience.

Does this mean that Cronenberg has earned a third visit from me? I’m afraid not. Possessor is bleak and cold, out of touch with ordinary feeling. Like the recent She Dies Tomorrow, the film takes off from a premise of fantasy but isn’t moved to explore the premise’s nuts and bolts, preferring to study the humans involved and create a mood. The problem is that there are no humans in Possessor, and the mood is dreary and depressing. Andrea Riseborough appears as Tasya Vos, a futuristic assassin who jacks into another person’s consciousness and rides their body around, eventually committing murder. Tasya’s main problem is that the host bodies of this neural hijacking are supposed to blow their own brains out after the job is done, and Tasya can’t bring herself to do it. The first time she does it in the movie, she engineers a suicide-by-cop. Her second assignment that we see doesn’t go quite as smoothly.

“Andrea Riseborough is worth watching in anything” is a sentence I can no longer use after Possessor. It’s not her fault; after a certain point, she enters the consciousness of a corporate lackey (Christopher Abbott), and the wounded, numb-spirited Riseborough vanishes into the glowering Abbott, who never manages to suggest being puppeted by Riseborough or even by a woman. (You’d think a filmmaker with Cronenberg’s lineage would have more fun with the concept of a female assassin who finds herself with male equipment and using it on a woman. No fun to be had here.) Riseborough-as-Abbott commits double murder, again with far more sadistic relish than seems necessary given the no-nonsense demands of an assassin; then she loses control over the body, and the body heads for Riseborough’s family’s house. But Cronenberg’s morose, dead-affect treatment of all this aborts any pleasure we might take in the twisty plot.

I understand how unfair it is to compare an artist to his parent. But David Cronenberg, no less serious or contemplative, also brings an astringent wit to his work, as well as deft pacing. David Cronenberg’s films are often hushed and eschew false, easy climaxes, but they move, and almost despite themselves they entertain. His violence, too, is never just gross or off-putting; he usually approaches it with the air of a bemused scientist. The difference between David and Brandon can clearly be seen in the way both men direct Jennifer Jason Leigh. In Cronenberg pere’s 1999 eXistenZ, Leigh had the lead as a videogame designer on the run from her fans’ fatwa, and Cronenberg provided a fun and funky adventure for her, giving her eye-candy support with Jude Law. Cronenberg fils casts Leigh as the scientist who runs this whole secret-agent deal, and here she has the same flat affect everyone else does. It could be anyone in the role. Leigh just sits around in a dark blue room and mumbles bitter mumbo-jumbo. What a waste of a still-vibrant actor! Cronenberg’s punishment should be one screening of Heart of Midnight — Leigh’s equivalent of Vampire’s Kiss — and going to bed without supper.

It could be that Brandon Cronenberg somehow can’t get interesting performances out of interesting actors because he’s not an actor’s director. In that case, he should stick to short films of ideas and avoid grasping at emotional straws that just aren’t there. The only things holding me to Possessor were its unsavory brutality and the dread of more and worse. Now and then Cronenberg tries to employ the language of film to evoke disorientation, but it comes off like a student director playing with film stock or exposure levels. And, as with Antivirus, the movie has a clever premise but offers no clue as to why it was made. We don’t feel any passion behind it, no suggestion why this story needed to be told now in this way. We feel no horror or sadness at the killings, just nausea and distaste for the killers. My only surprise at Possessor was that I managed to sit through all of it.

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.

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.

Paradise Hills

November 3, 2019

paradisehillsEvery shot of Paradise Hills is otherworldly in its beauty. I’m not sure how it “reads” as a narrative, but as a visual work of art, a tone poem, and a riff on some familiar but evergreen themes it makes one stand and applaud. The 29-year-old director, Alice Waddington, hails from Spain and first made her mark with the eleven-minute short film Disco Inferno in 2016. The short is worth the 99-cent rental on Amazon; its story is a little baffling — it has to do with a “minion of hell,” dressed like a masked and sinuous spy out of Georges Franju’s Judex, trying to rescue an ingenue destined for demonic soul enslavement, or something — but it plays like a surreal silent film (except when it doesn’t), and it’s good preparation for the elliptical, allusive sights and sounds of Paradise Hills.

We wake up along with the confused Uma (Emma Roberts) in a remote island stronghold, a cross between a palace and a well-appointed girls’ prison. Young women, it seems, are sent here to be trained out of their troublesome quirks and habits. The society that produces these women — including Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), sent to become more skinny, and Yu (Awkwafina), sent to become less Awkwafina — is some sort of post-war Hunger Games dystopia/utopia, depending on whether you’re an Upper or a Lower (as in class). Uma wants out of the island paradise; she has a like-minded friend in pop star Amarna (Eiza González), who’s here apparently because she started making personal music frowned on by those in charge. Standing in her and everyone’s way is the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), whose habit of snipping thorns off rose stems is a bit too tidy a metaphor for her supervision of the girls’ re-education.

But honestly the plot (by Waddington and Sofía Cuenca, worked into a script by Nacho Villalongo and Brian DeLeeuw) is entirely irrelevant to the pleasures here. Paradise Hills is about creamy pink interiors and sun-dappled exteriors, all cloaking something immeasurably darker and uglier. It’s about the masochistic female fantasy of being persecuted for being oneself and shipped off to a strange place with other women, who together will rise as a sharp-toothed sisterhood against the oppressors. (There’s some of that, but not too much; as it is, the movie is never less exciting than when it tries to gin up excitement via chases, sneaking around, etc.) It’s also about loving ancient gothy films so much it hurts. It’s every bit as gleaming an act of cinema worship as Anna Biller’s odious The Love Witch, except that Waddington actually finds things to say about the things whose surfaces she and cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui photograph so indelibly. I can see Paradise Hills becoming a cult favorite among a certain type of dramatic teen — its sensibility is authentically female in every frame, asserting the power of its girls and women from the start, and denying that the structure of the patriarchy (and the women complicit in it, like the Duchess) has anything to offer them but chains. The movie doesn’t hate men, but it sure doesn’t have a lot of love for them either.

To which I say, good. A movie whose identification is completely with women and their experiences is particularly welcome now, not to politicize overly what should be a timeless empowerment fable and a grab bag of brightly-hued confections. The performances, I have to say, lean towards the artificial — common among directors with strongly visual instincts — save for Awkwafina, who is always radiantly, daffily herself, even in a more solemn context like this. But there’s literally always something great to look at; Waddington seems to have walked on set for each shot, tweaked the colors and decor 75%, and then called action. Most people will see Paradise Hills at home or even on their phone, not on the big shiny screen its visuals demand, and that’s a pity.

But the eye and the sensibility on view in Waddington’s work (I hope Disco Inferno comes as an extra on the eventual Paradise Hills Blu-ray) are not to be discounted. The movie is a glimmering calling card showing deep-dish promise; whoever scouted the amazing locations deserves a case of beer, and overall this is the most pictorially arresting sci-fi debut feature since Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. As for the animating story, I acknowledge that I’m not its ideal audience, though even some women, like Vulture’s Alison Willmore, have pooh-poohed it — “a dystopian princess fantasy,” she called it, with perhaps some unconscious racism under its hood. (Why isn’t Awkwafina the lead in this?) I am probably more forgiving and sentimental about the movie’s narrative and complaints than that. It works as a lavishly crafted daydream shading into nightmare. It started to lose me around the climax, but when it had me, it had me.

Riot Girls

September 22, 2019

riot-girls-scratch-gun-1092x667 Jovanka Vuckovic’s lively feature debut Riot Girls is set in 1995 and seems to be a war between the ‘90s aesthetic and the ‘80s ethos. The heroes dress like the grunge army and listen to bands like L7; the villains wear varsity jackets and blare a hair-metal anthem called “Danger in the Air.” The mohawks versus the mullets. The Southside Serpents against Cobra Kai. Riot Girls is also post-apocalyptic, which makes this an alternate-history dystopia. A strange illness has eliminated all the adults, and only the teens are left. (We’re not briefed on whether the teens will expire at a certain age.) This effectively clears the board of baby boomers and many Gen-Xers — I was 25 in ’95 and leaves the world in the hands of late-Gen-X and early millennials.

Really, though, all this just builds a world in which teens are in charge. It’s a premise, not the plot. Riot Girls focuses on two heroes: Nat (Madison Iseman) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski), girlfriends who live on the East Side of their emptied-out town of Potter’s Bluff (the evil jocks reign over the West Side). Nat’s cocky brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) has a habit of disabling West Side vehicles and raiding them for whatever supplies he can find; during one such foray, he’s captured, and Nat and Scratch ride off to the rescue. The grrl-power vibe of the piece has already been so firmly established that the script-flipping of the girls saving the boy doesn’t feel gimmicky — it feels like a necessary rejoinder. Jack goes off by himself impetuously, not listening to any of the girls around him, and the girls have to put things right.

The resemblance of Riot Girls to Riverdale in terms of emphasis and style (for instance, Celiana Cárdenas’ colorful cinematography) is most likely accidental; Vuckovic, previously the editor of the Canadian horror-film magazine Rue Morgue, seems to look to genre favorites like Massacre at Central High and Return of the Living Dead (whose signature song, “Partytime” by 45 Grave, underscores one scene). The script, by Katherine Collins, kind of proceeds from one situation to the next — the pile-up of familiar complications feels perfunctory. But Iseman’s soulful vulnerability and Kwiatkowski’s tough-girl Joan Jett deadpan (under which, of course, a soft gooshy heart beats) compel our interest and affection. Ultimately, the movie emerges as a girl-girl romantic adventure, with realistic gore that perhaps only a Rue Morgue veteran would insist upon. (The dark blood drips and spatters maybe a shade too convincingly for this teen fantasia.)

I’ve seen Riot Girls dismissed as disappointing and slight, which shows the weight of anticipation that can bog down the reception of any female-centered work. My guess is that the movie is offered as the kind of low-budget mid-‘90s Blockbuster rental that would’ve swum in the same waters as Hole’s Live Through This, Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Rafal Zielinski’s Fun, Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl, and Alex Sichel’s All Over Me. This movie would have fit in perfectly then, and may be at the spear’s tip of the inevitable ‘90s nostalgia (when the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Friends takes over the media for a solid week, as it did recently, something is happening).

So Riot Girls is both retrograde and progressive, which fits this polarized time. Vuckovic’s direction is assured, steady and earthy; the images and sound have a pleasing solidity. We may question, after the fact, the sociological details of the milieu (has every town and city split into factions like Potter’s Bluff?), but in the moment we just accept it as the reality. The story only seems political insofar as it sees the same flaws (and strengths) continuing into the next generation. There’s a whiff of Lord of the Flies about it, as well as a passing fragrance of The Chocolate War. In brief, Riot Girls, if novelized, might turn up on school summer-reading lists (and promptly be protested by the usual bluenoses) — if not now, then certainly in 1995.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

August 25, 2019

Godzilla_-King-of-the-Monsters--Final-Trailer-Warner-Bros.-UK-0-46-screenshot Look, who are we fooling here? Does anyone go to a Godzilla movie for the plot? Or the human actors? For years I’ve been agitating for a disaster movie that is all disaster, or a giant-monster movie that is all giant-monster destruction, and to hell with the pallid subplots about parents trying to track down their kids in the midst of the maelstrom or whatever. Such a movie would be a pure-cinema mammoth with no dialogue and no stars except the disaster or the monsters. Name me one moviegoer who said “Let’s go see that new Kyle Chandler monster movie!” I’ll wait.

I should’ve known Godzilla: King of the Monsters, despite its promising title, would not be the answer to my demands, but really Godzilla’s amount of screen time has traditionally always been scant; in the original 1954 Gojira, the big guy only showed up for less than nine minutes (out of a 96-minute running time). But by now, the footage of humans staring at screens or discussing what to do about the kaiju or having moral debates while cities burn is so. fucking. dull. I appreciate that they’ve tried to get terrific actors like Chandler and Vera Farmiga (playing a divorced scientist couple) and Millie Bobby Brown (as their daughter), and there’s some comic relief from a sardonic Bradley Whitford. But there’s so much pressure on a big expensive thing like this — from Warner Bros., from Toho, from its own fan base — that it can’t truly be surprising or inventive.

The suspicion is that the old-school Godzilla movies play better in nostalgic memory than they do in actuality. And at least the old man-in-suit throwdowns between Godzilla and, say, Ghidorah — his big nemesis here — were fun, in a goofball way, and easier on the eyes and ears. In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘R Treat), the fight scenes between kaiju are always shot at night or during terrible rain or snow storms, the better to hide the CG seams, and the design of the creatures is “dark,” grim, gritty, ugly, lacking the charm of the old critters. And when they fight, they take down skyscrapers by the dozen, and even though the movie takes pains to establish mass evacuation, so what? These are not real buildings with real people inside. The assumption that we care about loss of human life in these movies is hypocrisy. Of course we don’t. The height of true sadness here comes when Godzilla appears to be dead.

The trailers for these things are always electrifying. When the trailer for this film landed and we first saw Godzilla and Ghidorah racing at each other in the middle of a city, we shuddered and laughed and swore to catch it on an IMAX screen — I did, anyway. I’m sort of glad I didn’t bother. There’s Godzilla and Ghidorah and Mothra and Rodan and a few other beasties named Scylla or Behemoth or Baphomet or Dennis, and there’s forever the problem of showing action between really tall creatures on a really wide screen — either you have to pull way back, or go so close in you might as well be watching leather suitcases bashing into each other. (The O.G. Gojira occupied the squarish 1.37:1 aspect ratio.) Godzilla started out in black-and-white movies and, for all intents and purposes, has circled back there. The look of this film is gray with the occasional blast of colorful radioactive breath; the sound is bass-heavy, headache-inducing. It’s not a good time or aesthetically pleasing or even very exciting. There are two or three fantastic apocalyptic images (see above), but that’s about it.

At this point, I prefer off-the-beaten-path big-monster stuff like Big Man Japan or The Host or even Colossal. They don’t have the big guy’s name recognition, or the giddy buzz (which soon dies when you see the actual thing) of going to a Godzilla flick. But they have more interesting things to say, and therefore better things occupying our brains between kaiju rampages. This movie tells us that the monsters are vital to the survival of the human race because they maintain “balance,” even though they tend to destroy cities (Boston gets turned into an ashtray here). Their destructiveness holds our destructiveness in check. This is a bitter pill to swallow when we’re watching the Amazon rain forest die in real time, and our children’s future with it. Save us, Godzilla! But he won’t. No one will. And movies like this add to the delusion that there’s hope to be found in the rubble.