Friday, November 27, 2020

Mind Meld: POSSESSOR

Call Possessor a sci-fi thriller and a gory horror movie. It’s a queasy dissociative episode, or a woozy nightmare of mental slippage and extreme violence. You could also approach it as a cautionary tale about letting a gig economy subcontractor job swallow you whole. Here’s the sophomore feature effort from Brandon Cronenberg, whose work will surely be compared to his father David’s oeuvre, what with its cringing, squishy attention to fragile bodies in use and abuse. (One wonders what it’s like growing up with a last name that has become synonymous with body horror. Was a cheery rom-com ever in the cards?) In its steely gaze and slippery hallucinations — bodies melting and reconstituting like wax figures, faces worn over faces like slightly oversized nearly-lifelike rubber masks, double-exposure double-takes layered over mirrors — it recalls those earlier films, true, but also feels of a piece with the twisty and twisted, yet studiously dispassionate, works of Alex Garland, and not only because it features a supporting turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh in a matter-of-fact scientist role not unlike her role in Annihilation. It has that same ice cold digital surface building to spasms of disturbing knife-twisting, literal and abstract. 

This film slithers in on gliding shots that get pinned down like butterflies under glass as it is perched precariously on the border between sex and violence (an early sequence cross-cuts from a shot of lovemaking to one of a knife slipping into flesh), and between maintaining one’s identity and forging a new one. It stars Andrea Riseborough as a near-future hitman who is contracted by a high-tech company that’ll inject her consciousness into an unsuspecting victim who will be near the target. Maybe it’s a waitress. Or a friend of a relative. Whoever it is will carry out the murder, after which their body’s hijacker will unplug from their brainstem by blasting her way out the back of the skull with a pistol packed on her person. It’s gnarly, nasty stuff, and leads to a situation where the frazzled professional killer’s latest host (Christopher Abbot) might just not go quietly. The movie moves slowly, patiently twisting the knife and finding ever-gnarlier implications to explore. The violence can only be described as prone to geysers, and is often disturbingly clinical. Even with fair warning, I was still surprised to find myself squirming in my seat away from the screen at its most literally eye-popping moments. But even more disturbing is its attention to the ways in which its characters are totally lost in webs of psychic surveillance from tech companies both subterranean (like the killers) and legit (their latest target is a CEO (Sean Bean — and isn’t there a fun meta layer to casting him as a man whose impending potential death drives a plot?) whose devices snoop on people’s private moments to better know their brands). Its central figure is totally lost in her job, losing focus, and maybe her mind, in the violence she does to others lives, and the blowback that rattles hers. It’s a gooey, messy business in a carefully controlled film.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Better Not Cry: HAPPIEST SEASON

Happiest Season, like any good grownup Christmas comedy, is a fizzy charmer leavened by the acknowledgment that, to adults, holidays can be just as much about family tensions and microagressions as togetherness and good cheer. So it is with the Caldwells, whose middle daughter (Mackenzie Davis) invites her serious girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) home to meet her parents (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen). The problem: dad’s a conservative mayoral candidate and mom’s an equally clenched socialite. So they’ll have to be introduced as roommates for the time being. Thus kicks off a Christmas week in the closet, which of course draws out fault lines in the women’s romantic relationship as a simmering backdrop to the twirl of social engagements and similarly fraught emotional sniping and jostling between the other grown daughters (Mary Holland and Alison Brie) back in the nest. Here’s a movie that knows that grown people back in their hometown, under the roof of their childhood home, can all-too-easily revert to bad habits and adolescent pettiness. The combination makes the movie thoroughly cozy —fireplaces and sweaters and scarfs and snow-dusted small-town shops and sidewalks — but also tremulously prickly—as eggshell-walking sensitive as its leads need to be to navigate the stresses of the week. Like that great Jodie Foster picture Home for the Holidays, if not quite on that level, here’s a movie that’s full of types in interesting combinations, and generously proportioned to give each their due. The cast (down to small parts for Ana Gasteyer and Aubrey Plaza) enlivens the drama beyond the formula so much that, even when the screenplay leans into some mild farce, a wacky best friend (Dan Levy), and big speeches, it nonetheless rings true. The movie sparkles with good laughs, and amusing scenarios (the kind that only occasionally tip over into sitcom broadness). It benefits greatly from the chemistry between all involved, and by treating their dilemmas with the weight they require while not letting it deflate the whole soufflé on the rise.

And how confidently the movie knows its lead characters' hearts. The proceedings are attuned to their shifts of feeling and desire. It knows keenly the way an off-hand comment can cut like a knife, a new situation can throw new light on a person you thought you knew. Stewart, especially, enters the picture as the outsider, and the way she gingerly tries to ingratiate herself with the family and do right for the woman she loves, even as she questions her (and their!) priorities, is written across her every gesture. (Stewart is truly one of the finest performers of her generation for how casually she holds the screen and communicates a scenario, even without a word.) I was invested in the emotional complexities at hand, even as the movie does its best to use them as grist for the feather-light touch it uses to draw them out and tie them up. Ultimately, the film plays fair by its characters while wearing its heart on its sleeve. And writer-director Clea DuVall not only gets great dynamics out of the cast, and paces out the comedic and dramatic bits with fine timing, but helms it all with high gloss and Christmassy production design and needle drops. It’s refreshing to find any studio comedy (albeit rerouted to Hulu in another of this year’s endless necessary schedule shuffles), let alone the rare Christmas one, that works this well at a human level. It’s broadly appealing and appealingly specific.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Down to Business: MULAN

Disney’s first Mulan is a great androgynous adventure musical. The 1998 film about a brave girl in ancient China who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army is vibrantly animated with fun songs and terrific action sequences, cut with generous comedy and a commitment to being a casually open-minded argument for gender fluidity. It’s fantastic. Now here’s the inevitable live-action remake, because Disney appears determined to regurgitate every one of its animated classics. At this point, I wonder if the studio has a mandate to filmmakers requiring each remake to be twice as long (or more) and half as good (or less). You have to admit the consistency, at this point, is amazing. Some have merit, but none best or equal their inspirations. For a while, Niki Caro’s Mulan looks like it’ll hold its own. Done up like a fantasy — with a new side-villain in the form of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li), and talk of Mulan filled with “chi” as if it’s The Force — it’s painted in vibrant reds and greens and oranges borrowed from the Zhang Yimou palette. The film follows the broad outlines of the original, with Mulan (Yifei Liu) flunking a matchmaker’s test before stealing the armor, sword, and conscription scroll of her old man (Tzi Ma) and heading off to boot camp. The characterization is efficient, and the early camp scenes with likable fellow soldiers have a pleasant crackle. And who doesn’t like a good training montage? The score, too, has some nice melodic references to the memorable songs that have all been excised here, along with the dragon sidekick, in favor of aping the historical epics that are better done when its a Yimou or Tsui Hark.

That’s about the extent of the call-backs, though, and, while I much prefer the attempt to deviate somewhat from the original (far better than the soulless carbon copy of The Lion King that disgraced our screens last year), the attempt has nonetheless removed its sprightly energy, and its sense of character-based cause-and-effect. Instead we have beats hit and lessons learned, with clunky exposition (or paraphrases of missing song lyrics) and clumsy speechifying reducing the dramatic stakes instead of heightening them. Secrets are revealed when the movie needs them, not when they make the most dramatic sense. Gentle romantic tension between Mulan in drag and a male soldier is strangely tamped down, and the movie consistently elides the original’s gender fluid undercurrent. It’s also, one coy nighttime dip aside, strangely unconcerned with the actual bodies involved. (Why bother transcribing an animated movie into on-screen humans if you’ll put less attention to the physical form?) And because the film is a more somber affair, it really starts to drag in the back half. Most of the comedic relief has been removed. It has too few action sequences, despite kicking up some mildly Wuxia-adjacent energy in its better moments—and despite casting Donnie Yen and Jet Li in choice supporting roles, only to have them stand around in fabulous costumes instead of, you know, getting in on what they’re among the best in the world at. The cast is so great, one wishes the movie was at their level. The movie is totally functional, but often empty, too often missing a reason for being beyond the cash at hand.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Road to Ignition: UNHINGED

Unhinged is a road rage thriller partially built out of what’s broken in a particular kind of modern American white man. It’s also a movie with some nifty car crash sequences that director Derrick Borte clearly took time to crunch and shatter with real heft and oomph. Too bad, then, that the movie only works in fits and starts. At its center is the glowering villain played by Russell Crowe, perhaps exorcising his own reputation for a short fuse. He’s been in full-on character actor mode for at least a decade now, and it suits him. Here he’s a tower of solid bulk, menacing as his voice tumbles down to a growling grumble. Behind the wheel of one of those enormous pickups with an engine so loud it’ll rattle your windows when it drives by, he stares down a woman (Caren Pistorius) who dares to honk at him and demand she apologize. She doesn’t, nor should she have to, but he takes that as provocation to ruin her day. The whole thing runs barely 80 minutes as he stalks and chases—when it’s in lean Duel mode it’s a thing of junky concise effectiveness. To pad the runtime, however, the screenplay by Carl Ellsworth (Disturbia) turns him from a run-of-the-mill psycho into a burgeoning slasher villain. In the opening scene we see him murder his ex-wife and her new husband, burning down their house and going on the run. It’s brutal stuff. Later, he’ll take detours from the chase to tie up, torture, intimidate, and kill a variety of his road rage victim’s closest allies. He wants to make her hurt. It’s a nasty piece of work—especially as he’s declaiming his own victimhood, declaring women to be the ruin of his life.

He’s a white middle-aged misogynist, shaking with violent potential simply because he feels life hasn’t given him what he was owed. And, of course, he lacks all introspection that would allow him to take some stock of his own actions as a cause of this perceived lack. All he needs is a red ball cap to complete the sociopolitical insight. That the movie spins him up into larger-than-life while letting Crowe fill in his pathetic rage is a strange mix. It works, but only sometimes. If the movie was just a few degrees more perceptive and gutsy — instead of just clodhopping and nasty —it’d be up there with the Terry O’Quinn classic Reaganomics thriller The Stepfather. The movie is a blunt, bludgeoning instrument—effectively covered, briskly plotted, efficiently acted in broad genre types, but still clumsy in its unfolding. There are too many reasons for it to take detours or let the foot off the gas. It’s rare that a mere 80 minutes feels draggy, but there we are nonetheless. It serves up just enough fun car bits and a committed central performance that I wished it had more to offer. But if you want to see a cop car t-boned and pancaked by a big truck, here’s the movie for you. Or you can just see that in the trailer.

X-Hausted: THE NEW MUTANTS

It must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time: spin a cheaper, low-key X-Men spin-off by extending the early body horror teen drama moments at the beginning of the 2000 movie that began the whole franchise. Remember the early scene of Anna Paquin coming into her powers? She kisses a boy and he starts having a seizure. The veins in his face bulge. He collapses as Paquin screams in fear and confusion. It’s easy to see why The Fault in Our Stars’ Josh Boone could convince the powers that be at Fox (at the time) that a feature length version of that could be effective. So here are The New Mutants, arriving after a complicated release date shuffling that left the project effectively an orphaned afterthought. Now no longer a promising offshoot of a going concern, the Disney acquisition of its parent company has left it a weird one-off, an abandoned what-if, a castoff misfire, a dead-end. At least it didn’t happen to a good movie. Here Boone gives us a quintet of moody mutant teens cooped up in a mysterious asylum where the lone employee (Alice Braga) claims to want to help them discover their powers. It’s a small, evil mirror of Professor X’s academy. Here the burgeoning mutants are afraid of what might be lurking in their bodies and minds. There are group therapy sessions — like a boring Breakfast Club where occasionally someone lights themselves on fire or disappears into another dimension or something — and plenty of down time as the movie lazily winds its way to a half-hearted CG climax. Along the way, the young actors are given stiff lines and soupy accent work—leaving usually reliable performers like Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy traipsing through exposition with painfully clunky squeaks and quips. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with the movie that plot or character or setting wouldn’t have fixed. The whole thing is an exercise in futility, like a bland pilot for a show that won’t get picked up, or a comic book experiment that’s bound to get cancelled a few issues in. The figures don’t pop; the mood never picks up any atmosphere; the filmmaking is functional at best—all close-ups and medium shots. The set is simple and spare; the movie's one location never feels like a real place, or makes sense as the pressure-cooker it should be. The effects are modest and ineffectual. Even the best visual ideas — creepy Slendermen attackers who swarm near the end, a glowing blue psychic sword — are rendered with a been-there-done-that groan of complacency. If this monotonous slog to nowhere is the best this once-great series could give us, I’m more than ready to put it out to pasture and let some new blood rethink its path forward.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Out There: FIREBALL: VISITORS FROM DARKER WORLDS

It speaks to how much we can trust Werner Herzog’s perspective that when he makes a documentary about meteorites and it becomes an intermingling of the spiritual and scientific it feels exactly right. We know he’s not proselytizing or imbuing hard fact with squishy woo-woo sentiment. His soothing voice and great eye, not to mention his wry humor and patient inquisitive style, draws us naturally into his deeper contemplation. It’s a state of total openness to the universe and its natural wonders. He’s fascinated by what we can know, but he’s just as drawn to to the limits of what we can know. He’s been on a roll with these deep dives this decade—cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), death row (Into the Abyss), the internet (Lo and Behold) and more. Now, for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, he speaks to people who have spent their lives studying space debris that falls to earth. (Who else but Herzog would ask so simply if people get hit by them often, and not mean it entirely as a joke?) With Cambridge scientist Clive Oppenheimer as his guide and host, Herzog examines notable craters, places where, over the centuries, temples were erected, museums were established, great research took place, and striking art was made. He takes us to labs in Arizona, the Pope’s summer residence —where a notable observatory is run by a Jesuit geologist—and a Norwegian jazz musicians micrometeorites hobbyist collection. He takes us to a tiny Mexican town where the dinosaurs’ fatal blow was struck—only Herzog could call a place “so godforsaken it makes you cry” without sounding insulting. They drop down into caves Mayans thought were entrances to the underworld. He takes us to rural France and Mecca, Antartica and Africa. He’s a man of the world. 

Throughout, staying mainly off camera or delivering his mellifluous pondering as voice over, he emphasizes how extraordinary it is that these chunks of outer space fall to our planet. In fact, they fall all the time, often just dust in the wind, drawn down through the vagaries of time and space to land in what quite literally might be your backyard. Some of the grandest mysteries of all creation softly dropped around us. But in his typical way, he’s just as interested in how these mysteries change our humanity—our recognition that we’re part of something bigger. He knows these celestial objects have shaped how we think about ourselves, and beyond ourselves. And he’s also a terrific guide to these thoughts, entertaining little jokes and asides, per usual, and focusing his camera on interesting details every step of the way—a grinning museum patron, a crumbled shack, a ritual, a clip from Deep Impact. Herzog presents a world that is broad and interconnected, where any one fascinating subject seems to open up endless avenues for wonder.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Fly Away Home: THE PAINTED BIRD


Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird is a feat, above all else, of cinematography and commitment to tone. For it is a bleak story of misery and abuse that runs for nearly three hours in essentially uninterrupted grimness. Only the matter-of-fact beauty of its painterly filmic black and white photography — a scope landscape filled with stormy shadows and pale light dancing in the gorgeous grain — provides a spark of hope in this darkness. It is a litany of calamity — ugly, intimate, personal — on the margins of a grinding historical tragedy. Adapting the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński, it follows a story of a young boy (Petr Kotlár) who is lost, abandoned and adrift in struggling war-torn villages of eastern Europe during World War II. He moves from miserable vignette to more miserable vignette, finding adults at every step consistently misusing him. They mock him, sell him, hit him. He sees violence, torture, and sexual exploitation. He’s even buried in the ground with just his little head poking out above the surface, the better for birds to pick at his scalp while he screams and cries. It’s not always that intense, but it’s all disturbing to one degree or another. Each tableau of human misery is exquisitely photographed and artfully designed, cut and framed in long, languid takes to emphasize the matter-of-fact horror of each moment. It’s unflinching and unsparing, though it’s also carefully arranged such that it’s easy to step back and marvel at the technique and shake ones head at the procession of terrible events that befall this painfully sympathetic vulnerable innocent. Kotlár gives a tremendous child performance, with intensely pensive eyes and an ability to hold a blank face, perfect for maximum Kuleshov effect. He is surrounded by terrific experienced actors — Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsagård, Barry Pepper, and more. But even their more famous visages, sprinkled throughout the film’s endurance-test length, hardly puncture the brutal and brutalizing mood. It’s an endless line of unimaginable physical and emotional pain strung along with the austere beauty of a borrowed Euro-art-house style that connects it to similarly pensive patient devastations a la Bergman or Tarkovsky. Theirs were enlivened by a sense of discovery, thoughtfulness, and humanity. Here, instead, is a film solely focused on the evil that men do. “Isn’t that awful?” is about the extent of its ideas, however masterfully conjured the images.