Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

Posted September 18, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, fantasy, one of the year's best

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It might be amusing to think of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s idea of a superhero movie — specifically, an X-Men movie, albeit one that begins in a mental hospital and sidetracks to the strip clubs of New Orleans. Amirpour made a splashy debut eight years ago with the moody vampire indie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and followed that with the determinedly cultish cannibal dystopia The Bad Batch. Now she returns with a drifty, digressive fable about Mona Lisa Lee (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman with mind-control powers. She escapes from the facility she’s locked up in, and falls in with erotic dancer Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), who sees how Mona Lisa’s powers can be used to make money.

Some may find Mona Lisa a somewhat thin work dramatically. Aside from a limping detective (Craig Robinson) on Mona Lisa’s and Bonnie’s trail, not much happens. But I think Amirpour means the movie not as a neon-noir narrative (although it is that) but as a commentary on how capitalism drives people to self-debasement. It’s not that Bonnie dances for money, or that Mona Lisa’s power is put to work hypnotizing passersby into draining their bank accounts at an ATM and handing the cash over to her. These things are presented as what must be done to survive. It’s when Bonnie gets smug about it, literally letting twenties and fifties rain on her, that we see she’s become part of the system that holds her down. 

Bonnie has a young son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), who views her as toxic and can’t wait to get away from her. Charlie dances off steam in his room while trash metal blares, and he’s a pretty good artist. He represents the creative urge to run away from the corruptive world and do art in solitude; he’s the hero of the piece, if anyone is. When Bonnie brings Mona Lisa home, Charlie hits it off with Mona Lisa. He doesn’t agree with how his mother is using her. He would rather watch TV with Mona Lisa or draw her — either keep her company or honor her with art. He doesn’t want anything from her. Weirdly, a skanky drug dealer named Fuzz (Ed Skrein), who helps Mona Lisa at a couple of points in the film, looks like predatory trouble but seems to be legitimately taken with Mona Lisa. He only wants a kiss from her, which she gives, knowing that’s all he wants from her. 

The movie is candy-colored and doesn’t press too hard on our nerves. Mona Lisa is potentially dangerous, but she’s not interested in killing anyone; at most she gets people to maim themselves in the leg, even a mean cracker who abuses her in the mental hospital. She only wants freedom, and we want her to have it. The movie is low-stakes but engaging and, with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Midsommar) on board, gorgeous. Other than a trio of dirtbags who corner Bonnie after she has used Mona Lisa to empty their wallets, most of the hostility towards Bonnie or Mona Lisa comes from other women, interestingly. Amirpour, though, lets us understand where that anger comes from. 

Hudson comes through with a sharp turn as a woman whose worldview has been whittled down to the hustle. Bonnie is only a vivid supporting character, though; Jeon Jong-seo takes the lead, and acts largely with her eyes, pools of melancholy in a blank face. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of the fantasy premise. We don’t know where Mona Lisa’s power comes from or what she plans to do with it once she’s on her own. She’s mostly an avatar of innocence used for corrupt ends, and Jeon conveys that with no fuss. And Amirpour remains a director to watch, picking up scraps of genre and pasting them into funky collages that share elements with a lot of things but aren’t really like anything else. 

Speak No Evil

Posted September 11, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: foreign, horror, thriller

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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 dick. They would rather die a slow, brutal death than be seen as stuck-up and rude.

Carmen

Posted September 4, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best, romance

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Ah, Natascha McElhone: It’s been a long time. This wonderful actor has kept busy on TV in recent years, but I find it’s been two decades since I saw her in a movie, the underrated Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris. Now McElhone assumes the center and title role of Carmen, a gentle and attentive film in which her character loses a dead old identity and gains an exciting new one, as well as a community that values her. There are certainly less pleasant ways to pass an afternoon than watching McElhone’s Carmen find peace and joy. Best of all, it unfolds on the beautiful island of Malta, given the glow and hue of Heaven itself by its writer-director Valerie Buhagiar, herself of Maltese heritage.

Carmen has spent most of her life looking after her brother, a dour priest at an ill-attended church. When he dies, another priest is sent for, as well as his sister who will look after him; there’ll be no place for Carmen at the church any more — or so everyone thinks. Carmen hides away in the building, sneaking into the confessional box and listening to the church members’ sins. Instead of sitting in judgment, Carmen offers the people advice, and they take it gratefully. It’s not that Carmen ever leaves the church; it’s that she casts off her former thankless role in it and tries on a new persona, one that may also be capable of love with a young pawn-store owner (Steven Love).

Buhagiar is said to have based Carmen’s story on the life of her aunt, but guessing what events in the film have real-world analogues won’t do much for us or for the movie. Past a certain point, aside from a detour with Carmen on a boat with a less than gracious host, what happens to and for Carmen is what Buhagiar and we want to see happen. The overriding vibe of the film is warmth, from its star and from its setting. After watching ugly people fight each other amid junk and debris in last week’s Samaritan, I was really ready to spend time with Natascha McElhone learning to smile again with a preternaturally soothing backdrop. Soothing — that’s the word for Carmen in general. The complications in the plot (including the new priest’s sister, who shows up at the church before he does) are easily overcome. The film believes in its happy ending(s), so we do too.

This friendly daydream of a movie should be seen by some of you folks who’ve been wanting something like it — it doesn’t have a rating, but I’d put this at PG at most, possibly even G. It’s set in the ‘80s but could’ve been made in the ‘50s. If you can’t stream it later this month, it hits DVD in October. But if you can find it on a big screen within a reasonable drive, Malta will not disappoint you. Neither will McElhone.

Carmen doesn’t say much; she’s not used to speaking (which I guess is what makes her a good listener). So McElhone does much of her work with her expressive face, sometimes her hands or body language. The movie feels like a gift offered to McElhone in kindness, and she reciprocates by conveying a deep kindness herself, made deeper when Carmen finds out she deserves some kindness too. In a lesser movie, Carmen would leave the church altogether, but we see here that, although a lot of her life supporting her brother was drudgery, a lot of it engaged her and gratified her. So why shouldn’t she stay and be herself within the church, improving it from there? The movie is far from Catholic propaganda; from what we see it doesn’t matter what faith, if any at all, is practiced in the building. It’s all about the community seeking wholeness there.

Samaritan

Posted August 28, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, one of the year's worst

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Once upon a time, two superpowered brothers lived in rainy, poverty-stricken Granite City. Samaritan, the good one, fought for peace and justice. Nemesis, the bad one, was full of hatred — for the normal humans who’d called them freaks, and for his brother. One night, the brothers fought each other, and there was a big kaboom, and everyone thought they were both dead. But a little boy named Sam (Javon Walton) thinks Samaritan might still be alive, in the form of Joe Smith (Sylvester Stallone), a recluse who just so happens to live in the building next door.

Samaritan is a simple-minded superhero flick that offers no solution or reason for the grinding poverty it shows us. Someone on the news is literally cut off before she explains why unemployment and evictions are high. It’s just something that happens in the big city, where a lot of those, y’know, urban types dwell. To cover its ass, Samaritan gives us a blonde, Viking-looking gang leader, Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), who stokes working-class resentment (for his own ends, of course) and wants to follow in Nemesis’ footsteps. Still, a lot of those, y’know, urban types work for Cyrus — including little Sam, at first. But Joe stands tall and points the way that others should go — to redemption or to Hell, their choice.

Stallone keeps his end of the bargain. He’s playing the ancient trope of the still-powerful old-timer drawn back into the fray against his better judgment, but he plays it simply and well. Joe just wants to be left alone in his apartment to tinker with things he finds on his trash-collecting route. Stallone makes us feel Joe’s weariness alongside his growing impulse to do for the city what he does for watches and toasters. One’s focus shifts immediately and gratefully to him whenever he’s around, and he even sells a flashback moment with him de-aged to look like, say, Nighthawks-era Sly. He’s the reason most people will bother with this and stick with it (though the other actors, particularly Dascha Polanco as Sam’s harried mom, aren’t bad).

It’s the nihilistically grungy backdrop, like Hobo with a Shotgun or RoboCop without the satire, that sticks in the craw. Granite City is full of misery, and full of mobs of people easily swayed to chant Nemesis’ name and then Samaritan’s. Such soil is fertile for the seeds of fascism, as is the soil of a lot of superhero power fantasies. I wouldn’t be — don’t want to be — going here if Samaritan were any fun, but largely it isn’t. The action is PG-13 brutal but dumb; half the shots we see bad guys take from Joe look like they’d be fatal. After too many macho things like this, in comics or in movies, I can see why old issues of Wonder Woman are so gratifying to me. My favorite version of Wonder Woman (there are many) is so powerful she can afford to be kind, even to her enemies. I’ve read stories where she says of that month’s baddie, “I know what in this person’s life turned them towards mistakes. I’m going to see that they get help.” 

But that sort of thing probably lies beyond a movie produced by as well as starring Sylvester Stallone, whose presence sometimes makes Samaritan seem like Cobra for teenagers (actually, Cobra was always for teenagers). There are honest, hard-working moms harassed by their landlords, and there are low scum who kill without a thought; there’s no middle ground, even though Joe’s whole arc rests on the possibility of redemption and the war, as Joe says, between good and bad in the same heart. I guess that depth of understanding only applies to white male heroes and the little boys who idolize them. There’s a female character who runs with Cyrus’ gang, having been “rescued” by him from living in a car at age eight. Joe kills her with a bomb. Apparently her crisis wasn’t as valid as Sam’s or Joe’s.

Fall

Posted August 21, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: thriller

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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.

Day Shift

Posted August 14, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, comedy, horror

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J.J. Perry is a martial artist, fight coordinator, and former stunt person/stunt supervisor. So it doesn’t surprise me that Perry’s first film as a director, Day Shift, is a zesty tribute to all those disciplines. Jamie Foxx’s Bud Jablonski, a vampire hunter posing as a pool cleaner in L.A., strides into one vampire nest after another, loaded for bear, and the vampires don’t take Bud’s invasions lying down. No, they come at him whirling and kicking and chopping, and Bud puts them down with various weapons and techniques, though just barely. Vampirism, it seems, confers lots of violent skills upon the vampire other than just biting, and Day Shift is there to showcase them all.

It’s a fast, furious Saturday-afternoon time-killer, but how is it aside from the mayhem? The script, by Tyler Tice and Shay Hatten, comes up with sly ideas like a vampire hunters’ union, whose codes and rules make it hard for a firecracker like Bud to make a living. So he’s been working on his own, making far less money, until he needs a quick infusion of cash to make sure his ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) and daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) don’t take off for Florida — he needs to cover the costs of Paige’s tuition and braces. As a plot motor, it’s a bit dusty — we’re to believe Bud has gone all this time keeping his real job a secret from his family — but we go along with it to get to the good parts.

The union stuff gives Bud an unwanted partner — Seth (Dave Franco), a union bean-counter assigned to observe Bud, who’s applying to get back into the union for more money, to make sure he follows all the rules. Bud doesn’t, of course, and the premise that Seth is Bud’s babysitter doesn’t last long. Seth exists solely as a wimpy foil for Bud’s go-for-broke, hammer-headed methods. Foxx and Franco make a mildly amusing team, though I would’ve liked to see more of Snoop Dogg, who has a few scenes and makes them count as Big John, a respected vamp-slayer. For that matter, I was ready for more of Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Heather, Bud’s mysterious neighbor. In some ways, the characters and worldbuilding in Day Shift seem to lay groundwork for further stories, like John Wick (co-writer Hatten worked on the third John Wick and is attached to the next two).

Bud frequently storms enclosed spaces, the better for he and his vampire prey to bounce off the walls. The vehicular stunt work is particularly well staged, composed, and edited. Sometimes when a master of another film vocation — say, special effects or cinematography — ascends to the director’s chair, they focus on their thing and forget most of the other things that go into making a movie. That isn’t the case here. J.J. Perry seems to respect the moth-eaten plot motor of Bud doing battle with monsters for the sake of his little girl, and the scenes that don’t involve stunts don’t seem rushed or half-assed. Day Shift feels like a movie made by a craftsperson who may have gotten tired of watching inept directors disrespect the arts of stuntwork and fight choreography by slicing it into a thousand unviewable pieces in the editing room. You can see what’s going on here, and that’s a relief.  

If Foxx wants a bubble-headed, action-oriented franchise, he’s got one here. As long as they bring all the folks back, especially Snoop, I’ll watch. But is L.A. — hell, the world — really so infested by vampires that an actual union of vampire killers is needed? It’s a funny idea, one that may get fleshed out in sequels, and a vamp bigwig called El Jefe (Dracula?) is mentioned but never seen. Sometimes vampires seem to outnumber humans here. The big bad here is Audrey (Karla Souza), who wants a world where humans worship vamps as gods. But has she really thought it through? If vampires feed on humans all the time, where will their worshipers come from? Or their meals? Zombies chow down on people with no thought for long-term consequences because, well, zombies aren’t big on thinking, but you’d think vampires would be more savvy. 

Prey

Posted August 7, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, prequel, science fiction

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The well-loved Predator (1987) pitted Arnold Schwarzenegger and a cadre of tough guys against an ugly alien hunter with superior technology. After several sequels over the years, the franchise notes its 35th anniversary with Prey, an action-thriller set in 1719 among mostly a Comanche tribe as they attempt, more or less feebly, to contend with this merciless E.T. warrior. It takes Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman raised as a healer but yearning to be a hunter, and her loyal dog Sarii to defend the tribe against the Predator as well as some human predators (some French trappers).

Some have called Prey the best Predator film since the original. I may not be the best judge of that — Predator 2 (1990) eludes my memory, I fell asleep on Predators (2010), and I missed The Predator (2018) and the Alien Vs. Predator duology. But I’ll take their word for it. Sharply and succinctly directed by Dan Trachtenberg, from a meat-and-potatoes script by Patrick Aison, Prey establishes its conflict with no fuss, gives us a hero straining against the role 18th-century Comanche culture dictates for her, and doesn’t skimp on the action. It’s brisk old-school entertainment, and what it’s doing on Hulu and not on a big screen near you is beyond me.

Then again, Hulu offers the choice to view the film in a version dubbed in Comanche, which feels right. Not that there’s much chat anyway. The French trappers, mainly scum and Predator fodder, speak in French subtitled in French, so I guess it doesn’t matter what they’re saying. The one exception speaks Comanche to Naru and provides her with firepower other than her bow and her tomahawk. Why do I mention all this? I guess because the film’s setting (it was filmed in chilly Alberta, Canada) and polyglot nature reminded me of some of the better spaghetti westerns, especially those by Sergio Corbucci. 

I hasten to add Prey doesn’t share much besides aesthetics and a certain people-talking-past-each-other vibe with Corbucci. But I’m glad of any current movie that evokes him. I’m also glad to make a better acquaintance with Amber Midthunder, whom I might’ve seen in one TV show or another; here she takes the screen effortlessly and builds rapport with us immediately. Naru makes a fine no-frills heroine, though she’s made a bit too flawless. Other than the hunting training she works on by herself and doesn’t always come naturally to her, she doesn’t have a streak of impatience or something a young, energetic hero would have to unlearn. Of course, in such an action-centered movie this comes with the territory.

Naru takes some hits and losses, but her dog isn’t one of them, which is fine with me as a frequent visitor to the Does the Dog Die? website. Generally, Prey doesn’t want to bum us out too much. It’s a zippy Saturday-matinee creature feature. The apparent randomness of its setting (there is talk of setting further Predator movies in various other eras) allows for some subtext that isn’t stressed too much. What I admire most is that the film prizes Naru’s smarts above all else. Sure, she’s brave, loyal and independent, but she’s also a quick study, and she notices things about the Predator’s techniques that help keep her and others safe. She’s a great hero for this moment — not tough so much as resilient. 

The Lost City

Posted July 31, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, comedy, romance

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Sandra Bullock seems legitimately depressed in the early scenes of The Lost City. She’s playing Dr. Loretta Sage, a bestselling romantic-adventure novelist whose archaeologist husband died five years ago. Since then, Loretta has barely left the house, and she’s no longer feeling the Romantic Adventure — she’s thinking of retiring her Romantic Adventurers Lovemore and Dash, which would be a bummer for hunky but doofy model Alan (Channing Tatum), who poses as Dash on the covers of Loretta’s books. Anyway, Bullock has been altogether too grim in recent years, what with Gravity, Bird Box, and The Unforgivable, so I was worried about her demeanor here until I remembered the film was following the familiar Romancing the Stone template, where the novelist must break through her emotional hindrances and embrace, well, Romance and Adventure. As it is, I don’t think Bullock even laughs until almost the end.

That doesn’t mean she isn’t entertaining, though. The Lost City is the sort of bubbly, unchallenging studio plaything that some of us may receive gratefully in these harrowed times. Will I watch it again? Maybe not; not when I can rewatch Romancing the Stone or, for that matter, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it’s a mild mood enhancer if you just hand yourself over to it and say, Okay, movie, do your thing. There may be long stretches where you forget the official plot and just roll with the gently funny rapport between Bullock and Tatum. I liked that Loretta is still too fogged up by grief to notice that the younger, dishy Alan seems to be crushing on her; I liked the movie’s nods to LGBTQ+ representation in the persons of Bowen Yang and Patti Harrison as satellites publicizing Loretta’s book. The movie feels somewhat canned but is also good-hearted. The only significant blood we ever see is part of an abrupt joke I won’t spoil.

So this is an old-school adventure, with caves and underwater tunnels and, as advertised, a lost city on a remote island, a city that skunky billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe) wants to discover. To that end, he kidnaps Loretta, figuring she can translate a bit of parchment that might lead to the city and its possible treasure. Wanting to establish himself as Loretta’s hero, Alan follows, and the two are soon bumbling through the jungle, doing battle with leeches and sharing a hammock that really only fits one. The awkwardness with which Loretta extricates herself from the hammock while trying not to awaken Alan is an example of the unnecessary but welcome gestures towards realistic discomfiture sprinkled throughout the film. Alan is always jumping into derring-do situations and finding himself not up to the task. This isn’t a cruelly gritty deconstruction of adventure, though, so we simply read it as comedic misadventure. 

The Lost City is the sort of amiable, star-centered bonbon that used to make modest-to-surprising profits in a more lenient age for movies. Sadly, it may not have cleared enough to call for a sequel, but it’s done well enough in the new COVID landscape to be noted as a moderate success. As an “original” story not involving superheroes that seeks only to amuse, it has its place. That it feels a little thin and forgettable may come down to the general lack of imagination that went into the action set pieces; they always seem to boil down to our heroes being chased by gun-toting henchmen, and even the climactic erupting volcano doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it should. Still, the reveal of the true buried treasure confirms the film’s devotion to tweaking dusty old tropes, and if there are no Loretta & Alan adventures in the future, I hope at least to see Bullock and Tatum hanging out again. They make this ride worth it.

 

He’s Watching

Posted July 24, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

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When COVID first knocked on our doors, people responded to lockdown in different ways. Some binged TV shows; others baked bread. Jacob Estes (Mean Creek, Don’t Let Go) and his family made a horror movie, mostly in and around their L.A. home. He’s Watching casts Estes’ kids, Iris and Lucas, as the leads, playing lightly fictional versions of themselves. Iris and Lucas are stuck at home while their parents are in the hospital, laid low by a virus far deadlier than COVID. The kids hang out, getting on each other’s nerves as young siblings do. Then something else starts getting on their nerves. Demon? Ghost? Neighborhood stalker?

Estes sustains a creepy, mysterious tone for roughly the whole running time, using only what’s at hand, along with a few special effects. For the most part, He’s Watching transcends its origins as the Estes’ version of baking bread, letting us share in the thrills. The third act feels as though a little air leaks out, as the kids become supernatural detectives hunting for an explanation for the odd omens and objects that keep being left around the house. The movie verges on plot-centered here, and the plot isn’t the most effective part of He’s Watching. It’s the dimly lit atmosphere that conceals as many horrors as it may reveal. The kids, too, are natural actors; Estes and his wife Gretchen Lieberum (who cameos in the film as a couple of apparitions) should be proud.

Among the more eerie aspects are what appear to be snowflakes, falling languidly outside and also floating around inside. I took it as a neat visual metaphor for whatever’s hovering in the air killing people. (We’re told children are immune to the virus — which was assumed of COVID, too, at first.) Ultimately, though, He’s Watching wears its pandemic cloak lightly; the virus only exists to explain why Iris and Lucas are alone at home, with no adults to help them. (We see quite a few of the dead grown-up neighbors; if there are any other living kids around, we don’t see them.) The real meat is the mysterious intruder and what he wants. Which, again, is chilling when he’s pursuing the kids; less so when they pursue him.

Still, what Estes, his family, and some game friends have done here is laudable, an achievement of sinister mood in a shiny L.A. house. The revelation of what did attract the interloper even has a satirical whiff about it. I got burned out on found-footage films a while ago, and He’s Watching is a late example, but its use of phone footage is well-judged. There may be a subtle chill in the footage, too. A lot of times we can’t tell who’s filming the phone clips we see, because both kids are in the shots. If not them, who? The movie answers by putting us in the position of an invisible creature staring at the kids. That might be the creepiest effect of all. 

Get Away If You Can

Posted July 18, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, romance

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Both the poster and the very title of Get Away If You Can suggest that we’re in for a psychological thriller. On the poster, Ed Harris’ face looms menacingly over our protagonists, embattled married couple Dominique (Dominique Braun) and TJ (Terrence Martin). We might assume we’ll get a love-triangle thriller. In fact, it’s a drama in which the couple try to heed the title’s warning. But are they meant to get away from each other, or from the outside influences that want to pry them apart? Once you get used to what the movie actually is, it’s a low-key indie effort with a perfect, though probably metaphorical, ending. 

Dominique comes from Argentina, and has a sister there (Martina Gusman) who wants her to give up on TJ and his toxic-masculine family and come live with her on her ranch. TJ contends with his surly dad (Harris) and his chip-off-the-old-block brother (Riley Smith), who want him to give up on Dominique and come take over the old man’s tugboat business. All of this is in the couple’s heads when they set sail (on a sailboat bought by TJ’s brother with TJ’s money) for “the Islands of Despair.” Dominique wants to explore the islands. TJ wants to continue on to a warmer, less rocky environment, where he can surf and she can scuba dive. She gets out of the boat and sets up camp on the island, and won’t get back in the boat with TJ despite his pleas.

Get Away If You Can throws in flashbacks to break up the narrative (only an hour and fourteen minutes less the end credits). Each flashback does the work of establishing the angels (Dominique’s gentle but insistent sister) and demons (TJ’s selfish, hostile family) dictating the couple’s actions. A good portion of the film was shot on location on la Isla Róbinson Crusoe off of Chile, and the directors, who happen to be the lead couple themselves (they’re married in real life also), bring back a lot of gorgeous footage that makes the case for why Dominique wants to stay there. After a while, though, we understand that the island, like the ending, is a metaphor. The title turns out to be a well-meaning nudge, not a stern admonishment or, indeed, a warning.

Towards the conclusion, when Dominique grows a marijuana garden and goes around sporting a headband adorned with dank nugs, while TJ seems to have come to terms with the escape he needs, the movie proposes a castaway, Adam-and-Eve existence in opposition to living according to rich relatives’ wishes, whether paradisiacal or infernal. We’re not meant to take the couple’s choice literally, or subject it to logical scrutiny. We’re just meant to go with it, and the script (also by the directors) subtly works out why certain things don’t work for the couple while other things do. It’s not until Dominique rekindles her creative flame and TJ becomes one with the waves that the door is opened for the ending we want for them.

Is it bad to reveal that a movie has a happy ending? In this case, it may help a viewer get through the difficult early stretch when Dominique and TJ, still under thrall to their influences, seem to hate each other. But it’s just that they’re trapped in a frustrating stasis. Get Away If You Can ends up as a romance, not just a psychological drama (though that, too). You just shouldn’t expect a thriller — say, Ed Harris sends some goons after the couple to split them up, or the couple go through twists and turns and betray each other. It’s not that sort of film; coming as it does from a married couple, it emerges as a personal statement. Never a slouch, Harris delivers a grouchy turn visible even when he’s not around, in TJ’s cowed eyes; Braun and Martin enact a couple in love as well as at war. See it if you can.