Sunday, April 28, 2019

Out There: HIGH LIFE

That’s cruelty, says the daughter (Jessie Ross). Her father (Robert Pattinson) replies, What do you know about cruelty? He’s lived it. We’ve seen, deep in his past, he’s perpetrated it: a dog dead in a stream; a child bleeding into the earth. We’ve seen he’s later been the victim of it: one on a crew of death-row prisoners sent into space on a suicide science mission, a one-way state-sponsored ticket to a black hole with a fertility related side-mission. This has been his life. From what we see, cruelty is all he’s known. His daughter, however, had known only him. He’s been to her a man of patience and kindness, tender and hushed, cultivating a bright young woman and a verdant garden alone. Of the initial con-air space flight, the man and child are all that’s left, all that's life. They survive, and yet the man, especially, as the girl is an infant for most of the film, carries with him the knowledge that they’re a dead-end, drifting in solitude and silence to a black hole with no hope of long-term planning or furthering their humanity. 

Because Claire Denis’ film is, in her typical style, hauntedly elliptical and vividly tactile, High Life accumulates hypnotic power from this scenario. She cuts between the isolation of man and child, and the steady decline of the mission that ultimately brought them to this loneliness. It can be sensual, even gross — a film of any and every fluid that can spring forth from the human body — yet within a sterile setting, with long clean corridors and crisp sci-fi suits and screens steadily splattered with the residue of its ensemble’s tensions. There’s a doctor (Juliette Binoche) who seems to be channeling penance for her infanticide past into an unethical attempt to force procreation amongst her fellow prisoners. There are men and women (Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, Gloria Obianyo, Ewan Mitchell, Lars Eidinger) trying desperately to control their bodies to control their futures, to control their garden to control their environment, knowing that it might all be futile as they’re stuck with their urges in a box steadily shooting through the stars. It moves forward; they go nowhere. Silence can be overwhelming. Dissolves become decay. The film’s mood sits here—slow, upsetting, penetrating deep into the throbbing background hopelessness of it all, the fleshy needs and spiritual bankruptcy of its characters. Precariously balanced between new life and inevitable death, between hope and despair, between connection and separation, the movie ultimately builds to a breathtaking final sequence of shots—brilliantly simple, with a mesmeric and thematic power that lingers. It answers the questions raised about how to raise a new generation in the wake of our mistakes, and about whether it’s worth plunging forward into the unknown alongside them, with a startling clarity and beautiful ambiguity. There they go. Shall we follow?

Friday, April 26, 2019

Finale Countdown: AVENGERS: ENDGAME

An endless cascade of encores and exposition, Avengers: Endgame is a thunderously melancholic machine most of the time, where the quips seem a little wan and the action visually slipperier yet more grandiosely apocalyptic. I suppose it's befitting a Universe that went through a culling last time, when purple baddie Thanos (CGI muscles and glob with the scowl and growl of Josh Brolin) snapped half the population to dust. This one's about the survivors trying to move on, while the remaining Avengers decide to live up to their name. It takes comic book leaps of disbelief as they do, eventually, after a long uneven buildup, and the movie's best moments are eruptions of satisfaction. Its worst are the sort of drooping anonymous action clutter and terse box-checking that so many of these devolve into. It also has a sloppy central sci-fi conceit that's basically successfully hand-waved in the moment, but makes less sense the more I think about it. Luckily, it is diverting, and, despite its runtime, provides very little to think deeply about later. The three-hour movie is stuffed with scenarios, a large-scale victory lap for an eleven-year project of culture-conquering moviemaking enshrining comic books as the prime fantasy of our time. We've gotten lost in them. Here we get to see every original main character (Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson, Renner, Ruffalo) and a host of cameos (which Marvel commands thou shalt not spoil), revisit settings and conflicts, and go down memory lane, even as we hurtle once more to an inevitable showdown with the forces of darkness. The difference is that this one doesn't tease an open ending. There is not even a post-credit scene. The thing is, for once, embracing, more often than not, a spirit of finality for the whole thrust of the franchise. Sure, it leaves itself plenty of heroes and story potential for the future, but it works as a big, satisfying climactic splash page in its fever-pitch, effects-heavy, character-clogged frames in battles royale. At its best, I found myself glad I sat through the whole twenty-movie project in order to feel the small nods to and charming echoes and reversals of situations past. At its worst, I found myself puzzling over its enormous smallness, its undeniable scope and ambition curtailed and constrained by the formula and flat style, even at this pseudo-endpoint. Literally dozens of stars are isolated in their mix-and-match green screen poses, personalities to bounce off each other, action figures for directors Russo brothers and the usual MCU scripters and producers to assemble at will. It doesn't quite gather the zing or zest that enlivened last year's surprisingly nimble and large Infinity War. Luckily, the familiar faces have enough charisma and the plot has enough forward momentum and how'll-they-wrap-this-up? curiosity to make it all a decent popcorn multiplex time. I left as stupefied and overstuffed and vaguely pleased as after a fast food feast.

Friday, April 5, 2019

He's Got the Power: SHAZAM!

Shazam! is just plain fun: a sweet and sentimental superhero movie that wears its metaphor lightly, but meaningfully. It’s built not out of sour self-importance or snarky quips, like so many clogging up our multiplexes and monopolizing our culture. Instead, director David F. Sandberg and screenwriters Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke root this DC fantasy in the kick kids get out of such stories, the way they’re both power trips and places in which misfits find belonging and makeshift families. It’s literalized here by making its hero an awkward, oft-runaway foster teen (Asher Angel), abandoned by his mother when he was very young and ever since desperate to find her. Instead, not long after the film begins, he finds himself drawn into an inter-dimensional portal where the ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) — dying, and therefore in need of a champion to channel his magic and continue his legacy of protecting the planet from spooky supernatural monsters — gifts him his powers. Say his name and — SHAZAM! — the boy becomes a man (Zachary Levi), muscled in a stereotypical red supersuit, cape and all, and with a gleaming dimpled grin and square jaw, practically a living superhero. His nerdy new foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) geeks out, vicariously living through his new superfriend. “What are your powers?!” he squeals. They proceed to test it out in a charming experimenting-with-newfound-abilities sequence that’s the best of its kind since Raimi’s first Spider-Man. The movie proceeds with a bounce in its step, since superpowers can, after all, be fun. The movie capably maneuvers between modes — a special effects charmer with ominous undercurrents in one moment, then flitting easily between family comedy and heartfelt family drama. It manages to feel both fantastical and grounded in the reality of a boy’s desires. They have a blast exploring his potential — jumping, punching columns, zooming around, shooting electricity from his hands. They’re simply two kids messing around, trying to determine how to fit this new normal into their daily lives and solve quotidian problems, even as we know a super-threat lurks on the horizon.

This all dovetails with their emotional needs, not just as adolescents craving acceptance and attention while trying to figure out how to maneuver in society, but as, in the case of our lead, a boy trying to find family after formative abandonment. The filmmakers have great fun playing with this idea visually, playing up the boy’s discomfort in his own skin as something exaggerated in the adult form, while the enthusiasm for the newfangled abilities bubbles out in immature goofiness. He likes that, for once, people seem to like him. Even if he’s outwardly confident, he still knows deep down he’s pretending to be something he’s not. As the movie develops toward the inevitable climactic confrontations with the glowering villain (Mark Strong) — a grown-up version of the teen’s problems with family and connection, an evil reflection of a possible future — it never loses its charm, perched between the soft-spoken recessive teen and the outdoor-voice chest-puffing bravado of his other self. Of course he must rise to the occasion, and the movie is the rare superhero movie to grow better as it goes along, gathering up rooting interest and character detail that doesn’t evaporate into CG clouds, but extends through the whiz-bang, zip-zoom action. In fact, it grows and complicates, rooting its conflict in character, while knowing that the origin story tropes and superhero formula, done well, provide their own comforting familiarity. The movie is modestly scaled, but exciting, and lovingly emotional, even when fighting globs of computerized monster effects. It’s because its focus on family, and on close personal relationships between recognizably human individuals who have hopes and dreams and warm conversations in cozy homes, that the stakes feel so real. I even got a little misty eyed at a key moment of surprising family unity near the end. This hero doesn’t have to learn how to save the world. He just has to save his world.