Archive for the ‘thriller’ category

Lou

September 25, 2022

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It’s tempting to say that the idea of Allison Janney as an action hero would be tough for any movie to live up to, but Lou tries very hard. Lou (Janney) is a scowling loner who lives off the coast of Seattle with her loyal dawg. (The dog survives; the movie never really puts that in doubt.) She acts as a grouchy landlady to Hannah (Jurnee Smollett) and her little daughter Vee (Ridley Bateman), who live nearby. Problem: Hannah’s ex-husband Philip (Logan Marshall-Green), a psycho who used to be with the Special Forces, kidnaps Vee, spiriting her across the rainy, perilous island towards a symbolic structure, with Lou and Hannah in hot pursuit. 

We know Lou’s no pushover even before she angles into a shack inhabited by two of Philip’s armed associates and dispatches them ruthlessly, one with a broken and sharp soup can. For this scene and at least one other, Allison Janney was trained by martial artist and fight coordinator Daniel Bernhardt, who did likewise for Bob Odenkirk on Nobody. Those who liked Nobody for its transformation of someone not known for action into an ass-kicker will probably want to give Lou a day in court. It is, of course, the sort of story that only speaks in the broad vowels of pulp, but pulp isn’t illegal — why fight it? 

The script (by Maggie Cohn and Jack Stanley) ties together a lot of psychological/thematic threads neatly and, I thought, gratifyingly. The reason for Philip’s psychosis, we eventually gather, opens him up for some sympathy. But he’s no less scary for that, and possibly scarier, because the illness we’ve diagnosed in him will not be readily cured, the rage perhaps never appeased. The narrative threads, on the other hand, knot together in ways that strain credulity. By the end, I was wondering if the kindly ol’ island sheriff (ol’ dependable Matt Craven, a “hey it’s that guy,” Canadian division) was somehow connected to the shenanigans as well. Heck, everyone else seems to be. But if you want starkly believable plots, you’d do well to avoid the “thriller” section at the video store.

Yes, I did say “video store,” which is a too-cute way of saying that Lou unfolds in late 1986, when Reagan is on the box denying any such thing as an exchange of weapons for hostages. An episode of Only Murders in the Building this past season posted a weirdly funny riff on the whole Iran-Contra Affair, too. Why this enduringly shameful chunk of recent American history is rearing its clean-cut Oliver North head now is a question I don’t feel qualified to answer. But it engages nicely with the backstories of some of the characters. It also takes the story out of the realm of cell phones, and when our heroes are trying to reach civilization and have to do it via sketchy walkie-talkies, we might sympathize with writers whose movies would be five minutes long if anyone had a working phone. Not that this rainy, windy island would be within service anyway.

Allison Janney is not the new Michelle Yeoh, or even the new Cynthia Rothrock, but the moves she’s added to her toolbox work for her character even in quiet, noncombative moments. When you’ve been trained to execute maneuvers that can kill someone, you carry your body differently. That was evident with Odenkirk, who trained for two years and definitely had the vibe of someone who could end you efficiently and then move on to the next aspiring corpse, and sometimes had it just sitting there. The key to the performance is the moment when Lou, posing as a frail ol’ gal named Martha who just wants to come in out of the rain, ever so slightly overdoes the frail-ol’-gal mannerisms. Janney is a great actor, but Lou, despite her other skills, is not, quite. (Or she may have been once, but living in isolation for so long has rusted those particular gears.) So Janney acts badly in character, and it’s as though Lou had such contempt for her stupid opponents that she doesn’t bother to make her “performance” realistic. These idiots deserved to die, and didn’t deserve Lou at her peak of imposture. Lou is low-nutrition thriller babble, but it’s often fun, and it has Allison Janney, for Pete’s sake.

Speak No Evil

September 11, 2022

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The Americanized title Speak No Evil only really makes sense after you’ve watched the film; the original Danish title is Gæsterne, or Guests, which has some of the same deadpan wit as the movie itself. Either way it’s a creepy and needling thriller that takes the premise of something like 1981’s Neighbors — these people seem hostile and strange, but we must maintain our politesse — right up to the edge of horror and then pushes it over. Directed by Christian Tafdrup, who has a reputation for social commentary, Speak No Evil would fall apart if its protagonists were crass and unconcerned with hurting others’ feelings or with being seen as insensitive. It’s the movie’s observation of mores and behavior that makes it so unsettling and, in the end, such a sharp knock in the chops.

It may go without saying that the lead couple, Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), are upper-middle-class; they can afford a vacation in Tuscany, and only a little while later they can afford to travel to visit a Dutch couple they met in Tuscany. The Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), seem warm and welcoming at first. But almost right away, they start transgressing good manners. Louise has said she’s a vegetarian, yet Patrick practically forces her to nibble a piece of beef he’s just cooked. There are other weirdnesses, and when we look back on the script, by Tafdrup and his brother Mads, we may realize just how tight it is, how many details are there right from the start. If Bjørn had been less laid-back about Patrick taking the pool chair, the movie would probably end there.

It doesn’t, and after a while we may also realize that Bjørn is an ideal mark, if that’s what he is. He isn’t just polite; he finds himself drawn to what he perceives as Patrick’s wilder existence. How right Bjørn’s instincts turn out to be is one of the dark jokes of the movie, which unfolds with an elegant malevolence, heightened now and then by ominous rumbles and stabs of Sune Kølster’s score. (The way the music sometimes surges up, seemingly apropos of nothing at all onscreen, is yet another way Tafdrup keeps us disoriented.) At a certain point, we may think Bjørn and Louise — and their little daughter Agnes — are in the clear, but their hosts lure them back in. Back into what, though? Are Patrick and Karin not just eager hosts, if a little unconventional? Are we not betraying some class prejudice towards them (their house is nice if a little small and cluttered) as well as some ableist bigotry because they have a little son, Abel, who was born without most of his tongue?

Well, it’s that sort of thinking that Christian Tafdrup wants to incinerate, or at least to throw back in our faces. Like many effective horror-thrillers, Speak No Evil is not remotely nice — in its universe, giving people the benefit of the doubt leads nowhere good. The acting is natural and pulls you along on a leash of credibility. Van Huêt and Smulders are particularly adept at making Patrick and Karin seem misunderstood; their customs are just a little different, that’s all. Right? They’re so nice, and they’d be so sad to see you go; why would you want to hurt them by leaving? Nobody wants to say no, nobody wants to look like a jerk. They would rather die a slow, brutal death than be seen as stuck-up and rude.

Fall

August 21, 2022

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Gene Siskel once said about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, “I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to know.” I feel the same about Fall, a taut, excruciatingly tense thriller about two climbers stuck at the top of a 2,000-foot-tall TV tower with no way to get down. The perilous situation has been faked so well that I almost want to believe the two actors, Grace Caroline Currey and Virginia Gardner, were actually up that high and doing all those crazy climbing stunts. But only almost. It was still most likely a nightmare to plan and shoot, and depending on how squeamish you are about heights, it may be a nightmare to watch. 

The “human element” is set up without fuss. Becky (Currey), Hunter (Gardner), and Becky’s husband Dan (Mason Gooding) are mountain climbing when Dan falls to his death. Almost a year later, Becky is existing in grief, and Hunter pops in to talk Becky into another adventure. The TV tower beckons, out in the middle of nowhere, and the plan is to climb it, scatter Dan’s ashes from the top, and face down any demons of fear Becky has. Becky eventually says yes, because it would be a short movie if she didn’t, and the two friends take off for the tower, which turns out to be much rustier and more structurally iffy than it looks from the ground.

Fall was directed by Scott Mann, who wrote it with Jonathan Frank, and it helps that he makes the leads smart and resourceful. Becky and Hunter make the most of the little supplies they have, using out-of-signal phones, a drone, and a “life hack” that I hope doesn’t get impressionable viewers electrocuted. The physical challenges of the women’s ordeal are sobering and convincing, their responses to those challenges often ingenious. We feel we’re in good company, and we come to care about the impetuous Hunter and the heartsick Becky. There are a few twists in store, too, one of them not actually connected to the situation at hand. Some may consider it unnecessary, but it allows us to breathe a little and it adds some shading to Becky and Hunter’s friendship.

I was a fan of the lost-at-open-sea thriller Open Water, to which Fall has been compared. But that film was somewhat limited by its setting, the relentless sameness of the ocean. Here, cinematographer Miguel “MacGregor” Olaso, shooting with an IMAX camera, brings out the beauty as well as the threat of the surroundings (the Mojave Desert) — the sky, the sun, the clouds, the occasional passing storm (more could’ve been done with the thunderstorm, although the small budget probably didn’t allow for it). Even at night, the lazily blinking light at the tip of the tower reveals, in red tones, and then conceals. Mann uses the scenes at night as another way for us to catch our breath and listen to the women talk.

I can’t say I wasn’t glad when Fall released me from its breath-stopping grip. After a while, the rising hopes, and hopes dashed, verge on a painful sort of nihilism — oh, no, this isn’t working either! — even though we understand it’s necessary to change up the problems and keep us interested. But there are enough elements here, other than the endurance test of the plot, to keep us aesthetically engaged. The performances, including Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Becky’s concerned dad, are human-scaled and effective. I will complain, however, that Lionsgate insisted that Fall go out with a PG-13 rating, meaning that a couple dozen instances of the F-bomb had to be redubbed (except one). I hope there’s an R-rated cut to come, with all the “fucks” intact. If any movie’s events justified foul mouths on the parts of their leads, Fall would be that movie.

Screwdriver

June 12, 2022

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The minimalist drama/thriller Screwdriver, which starts doing the festival rounds this week, maintains a low, vibrating level of tension for almost its whole running time. Most of the tension is in the face of lead actress AnnaClare Hicks, who invests her character with vulnerability tied into self-hating anxiety. Hicks plays Emily, a young woman from down south whose marriage has suddenly fallen apart. Not knowing what to do, she takes a train to California to stay for a week or so with Robert (Charlie Farrell), a guy she remembers from high school. Robert is married to hard-charging corporate lady Melissa (Milly Sanders); she works at a pharmaceutical company, he does psychological research. It’s not long before we begin to suspect this couple have more on their agenda than simply giving Emily a place to bunk.

Screwdriver is essentially a three-hander — Emily’s estranged husband puts in a brief appearance — that might work just as well as a play. It’s sufficiently cinematic, though; director/co-writer Cairo Smith uses the wide, wide frame to convey Emily’s isolation in her hosts’ well-scrubbed home (between this and the recent Watcher, you may get the impression that white decor hides suffocating repression and control) and, here and there, disorienting jump cuts. Emily is left home alone a lot of the day while Robert and Melissa are out at work (another link to Watcher). When they return home, they seem very interested in Emily — as a person, or as a project? Melissa keeps pushing orange juice (drugged?) onto Emily, while Robert runs psychological games on her in his office.

The performances dovetail together organically; Charlie Farrell, who resembles a cross between Tom Cruise and Bradley Cooper (and uses some of Cruise’s unctuous speech patterns), provides a seemingly laid-back buffer against Milly Sanders’ high-strung, passive-aggressive Melissa. Then they seem to switch roles — he’s menacing, she’s nurturing. All of this reads to us like a concerted effort to keep Emily unsure of her perceptions, her allegiances, her very self. They seem to want to control her — early on, the forbidding Melissa discourages Emily from leaving the house or smoking — and it seems they’ve done something similar in the past. Emily may not be the first wayward young woman they’ve tried to “rehab,” but she may be the last.

Smith and co-writer Mia Vicino keep things ambiguous. The work we hear so little about, other than teasing bits of conversation about some trouble at the office, could be the root of the couple’s treatment (grooming?) of Emily. Or it could have nothing to do with this weird dynamic we watch taking shape. The shrewdly cast Farrell smuggles in a (timely) critique of Cruise and his involvement in Scientology; his patter sometimes has a familiar “Matt, you’re glib” cadence. There’s a fair amount of anti-God talk, steering the fundie-raised Emily towards a different conception of a supreme being. Ironically, the couple find it very important to emphasize to Emily that she’s free and is, in fact, her own god. Of course, they also set themselves up as the authority figures who tell her this.

I’ve avoided using the word “cult,” because, although that seems to describe the ultimate villain here, there’s enough evidence that it possibly isn’t and that Smith and Vicino may have very cleverly caught us leaning the wrong way. Once I let go of that option and started focusing on the drama actually in front of me, the narrative played more smoothly (and more chillingly). Among other things, Screwdriver says that it really doesn’t matter who’s behind the process of rewiring Emily’s head; we can see it happening, and AnnaClare Hicks somehow communicates a woman progressively broken, with the shards pricking her on the inside. Smith keeps his camera on Hicks’ face, monitoring it for changes in temperament and emotional temperature. Screwdriver is a small, underpopulated thing, and a little more sense of Emily’s life before might have helped, but it’s sharp and memorable. And it all leads to one of the most intensely, frighteningly ironic images I’ve ever seen at the end of a movie.

Watcher

June 5, 2022

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Chloe Okuno’s debut feature Watcher is a relationship drama disguised as a thriller. By that I mean it isn’t governed by twists and turns. What you think is going on is pretty much what’s going on. It does thrill, though — or, more precisely, it chills. The plot is more or less a way into Okuno’s thoughts about a woman being infantilized, dismissed, and not believed when she raises a red flag; this last may resonate with many abuse survivors who just watched Amber Heard demonized and disregarded in front of the whole world. Watcher’s protagonist, indeed, is a young blonde actress, Julia (Maika Monroe), who from some angles bears a faint resemblance to Heard. None of this, obviously, is intentional. It’s just an accident of timing. But it demonstrates that Okuno’s themes were concerns long before the Depp/Heard trial and will continue to be.

Julia has moved with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman), who’s in marketing, to Bucharest, Romania, where his firm has a big account. Their new apartment is spacious if a bit featureless. Francis is gone all day and late into the night, while Julia drifts around the apartment and the neighborhood. It isn’t long before Julia notices the figure of a man staring at her from a window in an apartment building across the street from hers. This unsettles Julia, but nobody takes her very seriously, because the mystery man isn’t doing anything — until he starts seeming to follow her, turning up in the same places she does. But does that only mean they both live near each other and were bound to cross paths eventually? 

Meanwhile, a local serial killer dubbed The Spider has been going around the area decapitating women. For a while, Okuno gets some electricity out of ambiguity — we’re not sure if Julia is on the money or just paranoid. And this may be the rare sort-of-thriller informed as much by Lost in Translation as by Rear Window. Julia doesn’t speak Romanian, though she’s trying to learn, and when her husband rattles on smilingly to colleagues in unsubtitled Romanian we’re put in her uncomprehending and resentful position. Julia’s being in a city where she doesn’t know the language or the customs adds layers to her unease, as in countless other Americans-abroad thrillers. Many of the Romanians she meets do in fact speak English, but she’s constantly apologetic about making them conform to her linguistic needs, as though she felt like a white privileged American who should just shut up and, as she says at dinner with Francis and his Romanian co-workers, let the adults talk. But the tropes of a thriller dictate that she can’t shut up, and Okuno lets her be heard. Which is no guarantee she’ll be listened to.

The mystery man eventually makes himself known, in the ghoulish person of Burn Gorman, whose scowl could sour a gallon of milk. Gorman plays a man living with and caring for his sickly father; he occasionally people-watches out his window as a break from his routine. There’s a scene where he shows up at Julia’s apartment with a policeman, claiming that Julia is the one who has been stalking him; I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the scene has the quality of a legitimate nightmare Chloe Okuno has had or perhaps lived. The horrible thing is, his story does seem plausible considering that Julia’s fears have led her to do some dumb things like recruiting a Romanian tough she’s just met to knock on Gorman’s door. You can be a victim and still not be “perfect” or capable of three-dimensional chess. Okuno keeps us strongly linked to Julia’s emotions, and Monroe invests her scenes with fear, anger, hurt, and finally triumph.

But we return to why this isn’t really a “thriller” in the way some will expect. Such viewers may take the ending as anticlimactic. Shouldn’t there be twists? Ghosts? Weirdness? But that’s not what interests Okuno, who gains our trust as a distinctly female voice making a slow-burn chiller whose chills arise from the old trope of not being believed — specifically, a woman’s not being believed. We expect the finale to go on a few minutes longer, but Okuno flicks out the lights on the right image, I think. Anything that might have followed the climactic action would have been beside the point. The point is, they hear her now.

The Righteous

May 22, 2022

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You’ve heard of cringe comedy? The first half or so of Mark O’Brien’s heavy spiritual/psychological thriller The Righteous is cringe drama. That’s not really a put-down. In scene after scene, O’Brien’s camera stares at people clumsily working through grief or uncertainty, and never averts its gaze. One or two times, I had to look away from the unrelieved anguish. It may not sound like a giddy night at the movies, but The Righteous is honest about intractable despair and fear in a way few films are, and it has an ace in the hole in that longtime reliable acting wizard Henry Czerny as Frederick Mason, a former priest whose guilt and sadness more or less animate the story. 

Czerny became known internationally for his indelible performance as serial child abuser Brother Lavin in 1993’s Canadian TV movie The Boys of St. Vincent and its sequel. Here he plays a different breed of tormented man of the cloth. Frederick was a priest until he met and fell in love with Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), whereupon he left the Church and married her. They adopted a daughter, who has recently died. The two stay in their remote house, silently grieving; to blow off steam, Frederick sometimes goes out to the yard and works on disassembling their daughter’s swing set. One night, a young man, played by Mark O’Brien himself (he also wrote the script; this is his feature debut as a director after several short films), shows up outside Frederick’s house, injured and lost. 

Despite Ethel’s misgivings, Frederick offers the man — who gives his name as Aaron Smith — shelter for the night. Soon, Ethel spends time with Aaron and quickly grows fond of him, perhaps seeing him as filling the void left by their daughter. The Righteous has only seven speaking roles, but they’re all there to make points about how the effects of past sins ripple outward forever. In the first scene, Frederick, laid low by guilt, beseeches God to punish him. Aaron, it begins to seem, has been sent to deliver on that prayer. I’ve seen The Righteous described as a horror movie, but that description possibly suggests a more literal apocalypse of blood and demons than it is. Instead, the movie is shot in crisp black and white, and its chills are rhetorical (indeed, the movie would work well on the stage) and subtle. The apocalypse happens in whispered conversations between people buffeted by uncanny forces they can’t control or understand.

Like practically everyone in Canada, O’Brien must have seen and been scorched by The Boys of St. Vincent (though he was only eight when the film first aired), so when he had written a former priest sunk under the weight of sin, I would guess Henry Czerny was his first choice. Czerny is the guy you want for square men with twists and loops in their nature; the angular Clark Kent/Morrissey features of his youth have settled into the grays and lines of painful wisdom. The Righteous is probably the biggest role he’s had for a while, and he excels at putting across Frederick’s soul implosion. When Frederick tries to smile, he looks false and genuinely alarming, like an alien attempting to mimic human expressions; when someone tries to compliment Frederick, he responds with what I can only call a visceral scoff. His self-disgust is fierce but held just underneath the surface, held with great and graceful aplomb by this open-hearted actor.

As an actor, O’Brien holds his own with the master, giving Czerny something real and potentially sulfurous to sniff and respond to. (The two played father and son in the 2019 horror-comedy Ready or Not.) As a filmmaker, O’Brien lets his camera linger on Czerny as often as possible. If the director falters here, it may only be due to budget. We hear that Frederick is subject to visions, fugues. Not a lot is done with that angle, though it does serve to handwave away some of the overtly supernatural stuff we see. More than once, Frederick is shown waking up, and more than once I was confused as to whether that meant he had only dreamed the previous scene. It may not matter in the literal sense; by the end, we understand we’ve been watching one man’s inner war on himself, and everything else we’ve witnessed is sort of up for grabs. Czerny enlists in this war with all the restraint and subtextual power he’s always had, and O’Brien does everything he can to give Czerny a battlefield worthy of him.

Army of the Dead

May 23, 2021

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It’d be nice if Athena Perample got a career bump from Zack Snyder’s mediocrity at length Army of the Dead. A stuntwoman, Perample appears in the new zombie film as a character credited as Alpha Queen, and she slinks around hissing and looking fabulous in an undead Corpse Bride fashion. (Even the zombies are hotties in Snyderverse.) I’ve seen Army of the Dead described as being full of characters who could carry their own interesting movies, but are instead all stuck with each other in a boring movie. The Alpha Queen would be exhibit A. Are the alpha zombies the top of the hierarchy of zombies? Do they have a culture? Leisure activities? They’re said to be smarter than the usual “shamblers,” but are they building anything or just squatting on the dust of a dead world?

There’s little evidence that Zack Snyder cared all that much about the implications of a zombie society. Snyder isn’t a thinker; like Christopher Nolan, he works up to big, showy sequences, devoted to his jock-nerd idea of cool. I don’t think Snyder is without merit: he did well by Watchmen and made an accidental masterpiece with Sucker Punch, which I persist in considering unconscious art. But without a strong structure, his films tend to go by in a semi-sequential blur. They have no internal clock, no rhythm. Something happens, something else happens, and it’s all on the same emotionally null level. 

Army of the Dead is never more risible than when it asks us to sniffle over the fates of characters we barely know, even though Snyder has plenty of time to acquaint us with them. Hell, George Romero’s longest Dead film was only 126 minutes, and it was described as “epic” despite being confined mostly to one location. This damn thing runs for two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and though it mashes up the zombie genre and the heist genre — a group of hardcases are tasked with getting millions of dollars out of a Vegas casino before the whole zombie-overrun city gets nuked — it doesn’t even give us a montage where the players plot things out. Dave Bautista gets top billing as a mercenary (I guess?) who puts a team together to fetch the money, and again, as with Man of Steel, the connective narrative — when Bautista recruits various people (a safecracker, a hard-bitten expert at zombie warfare) — feels like placeholders. Snyder kind of just goes through them so he can get to the good stuff, when zombies bite folks real good and then get shot up real good. In both cases, blood sprays all over the place.

Army of the Dead is raring to be big and excessive, and the concussive deep bass and scale of it can be mesmerizing in fits and starts. Sometimes we look at the chaotic images and we lament the kind of zombie opus that George Romero was never given the budget to make. Romero would’ve known what to do with this cast, too. I like Bautista — his cartoonishly wide frame holds some tenderness — but Snyder doesn’t do much with him. A lot of the publicity has surrounded Tig Notaro being digitally ported in to replace accused sexual scumbag Chris D’Elia, but the movie neither gets the best out of her nor deserves it. We’re supposed to root for all these people because they’re not zombies, I guess, although the film sometimes seems on the verge of switching our allegiances around (hey, zombies have feelings too!) but ends up fumbling that too.

Snyder spent the better part of a decade in the DC Comics wilderness, making dour, overlong films nobody much enjoyed. Did he ever even like superheroes? He seemed more at home with the deconstructionist superhero valedictory Watchmen. I thought Sucker Punch was a possible unaware shiv in the ribs to the Comic-Con rules of cool — Snyder the naive satirist. But in Army of the Dead he’s back doing stuff seemingly calculated to make high-school boys exclaim “Badass!,” except this time nothing is skewered. The story is bloated and amorphous, and whatever targets it might have are murky. As in his Dawn of the Dead remake, Snyder isn’t using the zombie movie as a Trojan horse for social comment; even the crass irony of zombies feasting on Vegas schmucks and showgirls is threadbare and abruptly handled. Snyder just wants to get to the parts where hordes of zombies get their brains blown out, over and over. It gets old for us a lot sooner than it does for him. 

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

ChristopherNolan-TenetMovie-2020

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.