Sunday, June 26, 2022

If He Can Dream: ELVIS

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is made with an energetically heightened reality that bursts through the cliches of the rock ’n roll biopic and the overfamiliar caricature that is its subject. It restores life and vitality to both, making something enormous and earnest and enveloping. This is a perfect match of filmmaker and subject. Luhrmann has a brand of cinematic theatricality in which wall-to-wall music covers a visual feast. Every shot is a riot of movement and color, frames are filled with flashing lights and flashy design, and every performance is goaded higher and higher until most gestures are big and broad. Elvis Presley, for his part, was a shock to the system. He defined the mold that continues to mint music stars as part of a wave of midcentury entertainers who began to scramble ideas of race, sex, and gender for the mainstream. His life, too, was as outsized as his stardom. Every facet of it has passed into iconography and a cartoon of fame: his mansion, his marriage, his movies, his scandals, his eccentricities. The modern version of celebrity culture is yet another element of our world he was at the right place and time to pioneer. This movie is a huge, swaggering tour of the familiar stages of Elvis’ life and career. It goes on for nearly three hours and doesn’t dig deeper into arcane trivia or thornier contradictions. But what it does instead is recreate the sensation of the shock of the new, and the societal and showbiz tensions the shaped and destroyed him. Luhrmann’s excesses match this mood, and this project: to build a shining monument to an icon of Americana—and to see how the darkness surrounding his becoming swallowed him whole.

The result is a rock opera and historical panorama that sells the intensity and immediacy of Elvis’ impact and the titanic complicated edifice of his legacy. Shot like a diamond-studded kaleidoscope’s view, this three-hour music montage flows from one number to the next, chopped and remixed and covered and tracked, amped up, stripped down, or played straight. When it lingers on a specific performance—his first big break winning over an audience with his rhythmic wiggling on stage; a triumphant comeback with lush orchestrations and pounding crowd-pleasing stamina—it is electrifying. So often these musical biopics tell us a moment was important by assuming we’ll know it was by the recognizable hit covered by its lead. Here, Luhrmann actually makes us understand 1.) how much hard work it takes to make that sort of impact, and 2.) why his subject was a huge deal. Austin Butler plays Elvis with pretty looks and expert timing, often drenched in sweat on stage, hair flopping, legs twitching, hips plunging. We feel the exertion of putting on a show, and also can get swept up in it. All the smash-zooms in on screaming young women—partly hollering for their fresh crush, but also in surprise at the reaction they’re having—and erupting crowds in dizzying editing or split-screens doesn’t come across as parody, but genuine live-wire enthusiasm. You’d think 2007’s great poison-pen satire of the sub-genre, Walk Hard, would’ve killed these stories dead. But watching Butler come alive on screen, inhabiting the appeal of this star so fully and convincingly, one might realize it’s worth grinding through all the bad versions of these movies just to get to one this remarkable.

In Butler’s compelling performance we see anew why Elvis became who he was. He’s surrounded by Black artists as he grows up, but his whiteness gets him chances they don’t. This is partly why he courts controversy from the segregationists of the time—and one wonders how the racists right-wingers of our time won’t see themselves in the portrait of sniveling politicians complaining about how he’s exposing their white children to ideas of blackness. He’s a white man performing rhythm-and-blues, a bridge between jazz and country as he helps forge a whole new style on the backs of those who get less credit, less fame, less money. But he’s a racially ambiguous figure over the radio, and in live performance is also playing on some unspoken androgynously provocative visual appeal. He’s a hip-thrusting young man at once forceful and smooth, pulsing staccato guitar strumming with loose-limbed pleasure in his own talents, singing in a sensitive baritone timbre from soft, delicate features. (A great evocative moment finds a nasty senator’s teenagers in front of the TV, lost in desire for this new figure of lustful interest.) Subsequent rock stars would blur these lines in more overt and outré ways; but here’s a movie that restores the sexual and racial fault lines of his times in order to bolster its argument for why his stardom was such a lightning rod.  

That’s the benefit of Luhrmann providing a movie that’s gloriously artificial and reverently specific as it sloshes around. He’s so good at movies that drip performative sex appeal and sexual tension, of high-gloss spectacle, loud music that resonates in the chest, expressive complicated camera moves you can hardly take in at once, and emotional dynamics you can believe in an instant. He’s also fond of tragic romantics destroyed by the troubles of their times. In his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby we see swooning melodrama, preening showmanship, and bombastic glamour. That’s where he loads in the opulent period style, gilded cages remixed with anachronistic fervor. And locked in the center are these tortured beautiful people who want to love and be loved. Here it’s Elvis, who searches in his family and his lovers and his audiences and, yes, even his sneaky, villainous manager (Tom Hanks) for that approval, that what he’s doing matters and will last. He’s a sensitive and artistic young man taken in, lifted up and exploited by a charismatic scheming promoter into the life of an international superstar. Hanks acts chummily threatening from within layers of makeup and a fat suit, speaking with a marble-mouthed accent and wielding a cane with a snowman top. His narration flows through the picture as well, a frustrated unreliable narrator who can’t quite prove he’s not the bad guy here. He’s a clear contrast with Elvis, the business side of the singer’s show. Somehow, they need each other, even if it will leave them worse off, too.

The movie is totally swallowed up in Elvis’ life and times. It argues that, far from being the Singular Great Man, Elvis was a product of his culture and his collaborations, forged by forces beyond his control and the contributions of others. He’s constantly surrounded by family, friends, business people, audiences, cops, politicians, and hangers-on. In the few dark, quiet moments of empty solitude—stewing in a suite, or lonely in a spotlight on an empty stage—he’s surrounded by doubt. Here’s a celebrity biopic that vigorously sells the spectacle and excitement of such a life—and the fundamental unknowability of such a man, even to himself. What a show! What a cost.

Friday, June 24, 2022


There’s something particularly unseemly about a horror movie that dredges up deeply upsetting imagery and ideas only to let them wither without a scare in sight. I don’t mind, and even sometimes love, when this genre can be nasty, lascivious, mean-spirited. I can even excuse a poorly developed horror picture if it hits the right marks with enough pizazz. But to want us to care about the most vulnerable among us, in a grindingly simple scenario jerry-rigged with convenient outs and lazy logic to maximize syrupy sentiment over their pain, was too much for me. The Black Phone is unsuccessful, not because it’s too intense, but because it doesn’t know what to do with its bungled intensity. It should be better, given its potentially high-voltage concept. The movie traffics in imagery of brutally murdered children and an unfortunate mincing menace of a killer, and fumbles making from it frights of any sort, fruitful, frivolous, or at all.

It’s about a 13-year-old boy (a capable Mason Thames) who is abducted off his suburban street by a mysterious masked figure known around town as The Grabber. We’ve seen he drives a rattling black van, lurks in a billowy magicians’ outfit holding black balloons, and stares out of a devilishly grinning death head mask. (That it’s sometimes a frowning mask is a neat subtle touch that proves he has an underutilized flair for the dramatic.) The bulk of the movie finds the kid locked in a basement where a disconnected black phone occasionally rings with the ghostly voices of the kidnapper’s previous victims. (This is totally a Stephen King-like blend of childlike whimsy, suburban danger, and quotidian drama—ironic since C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay is based on a short story by King’s son, Joe Hill.) That should be haunting stuff, but director Scott Derrickson, who can certainly go for the throat, like with his career-best ghostly-snuff-film chiller Sinister, is here too much of a sentimentalist to let the unsettling ideas surface with any snap or bite. It’s ultimately as wispy and uninterrogated as the villain himself, played by Ethan Hawke with such vivid mystery that it’s a deflation to realize that he’s hardly a character at all. He’s just an obstacle in a movie where everything is exactly as simple as it appears.

The movie becomes a plain self-actualization parable wrapped in a simple A to B escape room mystery box, with each call giving the boy new objects and strategies to plot escape while his captor lurks around as a malevolent, but distant, presence. There’s also a queasy equivalence drawn between this criminal and the boy’s drunken abusive father (Jeremy Davies), with both eagerly using a belt as a whip. He goes from a home trapped in cycles of abuse to being literally trapped by a far worse figure of danger. This unsteady metaphor is further elaborated by the way the boy has a kind of psychic connection with his sister (Madeline McGraw). Her dreams seem to come true, and she prays for clues in her visions to save her brother. (It’s an excuse for fuzzy, fleeting flashbacks to the other victims from the sister’s perspective, a crass juicing of the underdeveloped story.) These twinned ideas of children in danger wobble with a melancholy that never quite activates. So it becomes a movie about a broken home and growing up, but shot through with a kind of lust for redemptive violence that doesn’t resolve well. We’re just waiting around until the dead boys drop enough hints for our lead to not just escape when he has the chance, but linger long enough to snap The Grabber’s neck, too. It’s sick, and not in a good way. It uses the deaths of children as mere impetus for a coming-of-age metaphor about responsibility for a final boy, and draws the deadening conclusion that an ability to create violence of your own—“standing up for yourself”—is a justifiable, and maybe even necessary, part of growing up. Now that’s scary.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022


The animating tension of Spiderhead is in the friction between its surface and its undertow. The setting is an ocean front compound on a remote island, a research facility that looks more like a high-tech resort, with lots of wide-open communal spaces and clean architectural lines. It is photographed in bright, clean frames with lots of light and soft colors. The furniture looks like upscale Ikea, and the diegetic soundtrack is slick with all the smoothest jams of 80s pop rock. Ah, but the content and intent of this place is menacing, chilled with moral quandaries, and driving toward a bad end that’s inevitable from frame one. Here prisoners (like Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett) have volunteered to live as test subjects for a devious billionaire (Chris Hemsworth) who chummily lives among them. He’s fitted them with chemical packs on their backs which he operates from an app on his phone, able to dial up emotional states and biological urges with the flick of his finger. He runs them through tests—can he make them laugh at tragedy, find industrial waste beautiful, want to make love to an unappealing partner? This can’t be going anywhere good.

The film carefully keeps the prisoners’ crimes as backstory to be doled out later, the better to front-load their inherent humanity. We see who they are without the distraction of that emotional scale-tipping, and when we hear their tragic circumstances and decisions that sent them here, we can all the more clearly understand that no one deserves to be forced into this system. It’s torture disguised as comfort. They’re threatened with return to a normal penitentiary if they don’t consent to each new dose. Some are starting to suspect they’d be better off leaving. That they stay is credit to their wickedly charming warden, an athlesuire-wearing faux-chummy tech bro who talks to them like buddies and co-conspirators more than prisoners. He makes them feel a part of the team, like they’re doing valuable work. Why, he’s wearing a pack of chemicals, too. Hemsworth, projecting a whirling confidence and slick shrewdness, plays him as a perfectly slimy brand of modern billionaire. As suspicions about this guy and his project grow, Teller dials into a stoic sorrow, slowly crumbling under the pressures of being made to feel against his will. He’s trying to drown out the sorrows of his past, unable and unwilling to forgive himself for what he’s done. Smollett, too, is keeping her distance from who she was, forging new connections in this gilded prison. (They’re warm to each other, humanity among the inhumane.) They thought they were doing good. But at what cost?

That this simple wire-frame plotting, courtesy Zombieland and Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick exercising unusual restraint adapting a heady George Saunders short story, plays out so effectively is the work of director Joseph Kosinski. (A fluke of pandemic scheduling means the film he shot over three years ago, Top Gun: Maverick, is ruling the summer box office while this project, made mid-pandemic, is ready for release mere weeks later. What a time to demonstrate his range!) He gives the film a restrained style—as slick as the tunes echoing from the compound’s speakers—gliding along and pinned down in surveillance angles doubling or tripling the views from the control room. He lets his characters squirm, lab rats stuck in a maze, while we can pick out the whole picture well in advance. He’s expert at building out the architecture of a plot in conjunction with its setting, housing the emotional appeals in handsome surfaces. Think the vast digital loneliness of Tron Legacy, the windswept empty landscapes of Oblivion, the crackling Arizona wilds' fire dangers of Only the Brave, the high-velocity aerial combat and cozy homefront of Top Gun 2. Here it’s the deceptive comfort wrapped around total heartlessness, victims cooped up and slowly driven mad. It keys into our reflective understanding that the government will willingly abdicate its responsibilities to care for citizens it sees as disposable. If it can privatize prisons, why not emotions and biological urges, too? Here’s a fun little thriller that sees that obviously bad idea to its logical conclusion.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Mad World: MAD GOD

In the beginning of Mad God, an eye is wide open in extreme close-up. In the end, it closes. This is an inversion, since what passes in between these shots is a pure, unadulterated nightmare. That it explicitly asks for our eyes to be open for these visions is a request that we stay alert to behold its wild imagination. It is a vision of decay and violence, of cycles of oppression and exploitation. It follows a small figure—wrapped in a thick coat and a tightly-fitted gas mask—making its way through hellish tableau and surrealistic dangers with only a crumbling map as a guide. This is a world in decay, disrepair, active conflagration, and brain-melting disorder and despair. It has been intricately and intuitively imagined by Phil Tippett, a long-time special effects wizard behind such memorable works as Star Wars, Dragonslayer, Willow, RoboCop, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and Jurassic Park. Here as writer-director-animator he’s made something of a stop-motion masterwork, pulling every trick of the trade over the course of several decades to build up this mad vision of a world falling to pieces.

This is a largely wordless excursion, an ink-blot test of wild mad visuals and sound effects. The images are murky and muddy, full of smoke and fog, fire and sparks. The detailed tableaux descend into dark depths and extend back into the frame in frightening shadows. It’s a post-industrial wasteland riven with war, with unseen crowds cheering dismemberments and clay figures marched into kilns. Scientists squish around in guts like butchers. Creatures are barnacled with seeping growths or slaughtered with whirring machines or sliced apart like a wriggling gym sock full of raw meat. There are a few human actors in the machinery of this place—notably cult filmmaker Alex Cox who pulls levers and peers deeply into the darkest recesses of the world. As the plot slowly comes into focus, it’s never the driving force. There’s no solving this world. Instead, this is for sure a movie you watch in disbelief, awed at the imagination it took to create these images, pulled along by its nightmare logic. I tried tracking the other artists and projects these images reminded me of: Hieronymus Bosch, the I Spy picture books, Saw, Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg, the Brothers Quay, all in a blender. Mad is right. This is a world distinctively its own. One can stare at it wondering if it is dream or premonition, history or haunting, fantasy or warning. All of the above. All it asks is an open eye.

Friday, June 17, 2022

A Buzz Flight: LIGHTYEAR

I should not have doubted the good folks at Pixar’s ability to go beyond. I walked into Lightyear, sold as a high-flying sci-fi adventure, fully prepared for a cynical brand extension. They’ve hyped it up as Andy’s favorite movie, a story of the real Buzz Lightyear character behind the figure he had in Toy Story. (That some entertainment writers have performed confusion about what that might mean is a sorry state of affairs. Anyone with half a thought can tell it’s an excuse to spin off in a new storytelling world as a separate action franchise.) If that makes it a bit of a prefab conception, well, so be it. The result is a clever and concise sci-fi spectacle with a big heart and a clockwork sense of story. Set in a distant future on the far-flung wilds of the galaxy, the movie finds Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans in full white-bread hero mode) responsible for an accident that maroons an enormous exploration vessel on an alien planet. He doggedly sets out to right that wrong by test-piloting fuels that will get them home, but each failed jump that takes only minutes for him is years for the people for whom he keeps trying. That’s a compelling emotional core, and the story team uses it well as grist for the gears of a tightly-constructed tale. By the time he’s reluctantly assembling a ragtag team to save them all from the evil Zurg and find their way to a new normal, it soars with the sputtering engines of experimental spaceships and whirring steps of robots, and zip-zap of laser guns.

The fun new crew of characters—Space Rangers and rookies, scientists and commanders, a villain with a surprising backstory, and an incredibly cute and helpful robot cat—are immediately lovable creations, imbued with some humanity in their stock positions. And the hurrying-around, getting-supplies, and making-plans of the story dovetails sweetly with the emotional journey on which it sends Buzz. It also manages to make a new character out of one we already loved. He’s the same but different. Buzz the toy’s identity crisis naturally isn’t present here. But director Angus MacLane and team manage to retain his sense of self-doubt mixed with loyalty and determination to protect his found family of friends. Although there are some subtle reuses of lines the toy speaks in the first Story—moviegoers of my generation and younger, who’ve surely memorized its script, will spot them—in new contexts, it’s entirely a new character journey to get involved in here. As Buzz grows in his ability, and responsibility, it’s exciting to see him become the hero he’s meant to be, a team player and a man who can make up for his mistakes. The others, too, learn and grow at just the right pace, as well. Somehow it feels familiar and fresh at the same time.

So, too, the look, which has a glossy fantasy sheen and whirring tech love in its pulp-paperback Cinemascope aesthetics. The animation is full of the typical expert textures and contours, sparkle and sparks, and something like soulful expressions behind the eyes. And in the vehicles and suits, every button and tool is expertly deployed and explained so we can understand the stakes and mechanics of the characters’ plans and problems. That makes it all the more enjoyable when turned loose to work, or not, in enjoyable action sequences that continue to inform character throughout. It’s altogether a skillful deployment of Pixar’s practically patented airtight plotting, where every bit is a logistical or emotional setup or payoff that clicks into perfect place at precisely the proper time for maximum audience satisfaction. It works because we care—quickly, easily, and fully—for the cast, and can get involved in the pleasing jumble of genre tropes expertly mixed and remixed for a new sensation. That may not end up the most moving or complicated of this studios’ insights, but it’s such bustling blockbuster fun, with nary a moment to waste, that it’s all the more enjoyable for being sharply done. If we’re going to have recapitulations and re-imaginations of brands we already know and love by heart, it might as well be this much fun, and actually reward our interest this well. By the time the end credits popped up, I was feeling like when David Letterman was blown away by his Late Show musical guest, saying, “I’ll take all of that you got.”

Friday, June 10, 2022


Used to be, when you got to the Part 6 of your movie series it was a bunch of random nonsense with basically no one from the original involved. Now it has to be styled as a Grand Finale with as many original cast members as possible, and lots of talk playing at the idea that this convoluted culmination was a logical possibility all along. It weighs a movie down, forcing it to contrive moments like a character from 1 and 3 sitting down with a character from 5 and acting like she knew her when she was a baby. Okay. Used to be, when you made a dinosaur picture, you kept things fairly simple—somehow, dinosaurs have returned. And now people have to deal with that. You don’t even have to go back to Harryhausen or King Kong for that beautiful simplicity. That was enough for the first few Jurassic Parks. (To that point, Spielberg’s original remains such a paragon of tightly crafted and visually astute big budget thrills, that we’ve long since stopped hoping a sequel could ever match it.) Now, though, this prehistoric creature feature has to be engaged in deep lore, connected through a dozen little references, and building to a potential End Of Life As We Know It. Ah, apocalypse, that old standby of what feels like every blockbuster of the last dozen years. It makes a movie like Jurassic World Dominion overstuffed and, not under-baked, but so over-baked and under-stirred that instead of a smooth, tasty blend, you somehow taste every component ingredient as you chew it over.

The movie may be bursting with references and exposition, but the series, under the guidance of writer-director Colin Trevorrow, has written itself into a tough spot where it has to get weighted down to move forward. Last time, 2018’s Fallen Kingdom, ended with dinosaurs finally fully escaped off the island and becoming the ultimate invasive species worldwide. Quite a cliffhanger. This one picks up by handwaving it a little, skipping over that potential awesome spectacle by saying, eh, we got used to it for the most part. The truly troublesome herds are shipped off to a remote mountain research facility in Italy. It’s here that a science company is fiddling with dino DNA, having secretly engineered a plague of locusts to take out competitors’ crops. This is what catches the eye of the original cast members (Laura Dern, Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum) who are dragged back into this whole thing to investigate. It’s fun to see them, all in fine form, and quite a contrast to the other returning cast members, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard from these last couple. They play a raptor trainer and a dinosaur right’s activist, respectively, and in three movies have accumulated roughly a tenth of the rooting interest that the older cast got in their first scenes thirty years ago. The movie keeps the two casts on separate tracks for most of the movie, as the younger players are chasing after their kidnapped adopted daughter (Isabella Sermon). You may recall that last time they saved a little girl who was an experimental clone of a dead scientist. See how this series has gotten so convoluted?

The wonder, then, is that the movie roars out from under this weight and delivers some actual pulp thrill in its outsized spectacles. The screenplay by Trevorrow and Emily Carmichael may clunk along connecting dots and communicating mostly in undigestible expository dialogue instead of finding ways to communicate ideas visually. But the ideas for action are pretty good, and decently assembled. These include: super-locusts swarming some farm kids; raptors chasing vehicles through the streets of Malta; a cool mercenary pilot (DeWanda Wise) facing off against these terrifying giant lizards by land, sea, and air; and our heroes sneaking through labs, tunnels, corridors, and finally, a forest fire, dodging dinos all the way. Trevorrow is a much better filmmaker now than he was when he made the first Jurassic World, a movie that was more hectic, crowded, and busy than it was well-judged from a visual sense. In Dominion, these action sequences have some momentum and legible direction, pushing along the characters from one plot point to the next with a high-energy rumble and tumble, crash and splash, that matches the needs of the moment. If you just want to see some familiar faces run around with big dinosaur spectacle, well, here they are.

I didn’t have a bad time for most of the time, as I enjoyed the enormous effects of it all. But in the back of my head I was suspecting that I didn’t care about these empty figures and oversized stakes as much as I did the far smaller, simpler, clearer, and more gripping ones back in ’93. (That’s why the clone girl, as weird a swing as it may be for the series, is a more interesting emotional hook than the end of the world. Go figure.) Thus, each sequence works pretty well, and it’s carried along by its size and speed, but cumulatively lands with a thud. It is, in other words, a proficient and enjoyable time in the moment. I was happy to have seen it, even as I found myself walking out, the full impact sinking in, feeling like the Talking Heads, asking myself: how did we get here? This sort of blockbuster should someday feel as dated as the bloated epics at the end of the studio system in the middle of the last century—loaded with technical prowess of high artifice, with good actors playing at phony, and talky, outlines of real ideas against a backdrop of excess. Feels like maybe this could be the end of the line to this sort of thing. Guess that makes it a dinosaur, too.

Sunday, June 5, 2022


Screenwriter Alex Garland is steadily building a directorial career of high concept genre projects interested in showing misogyny as a social prison we desperately need to escape. There’s the tech bro compounds in Ex Machina and Devs, and the lonely toxic wilderness of Annihilation, all twisted around a need to control and objectify and watch as the victims either are subsumed or seek revenge. Chilling stuff. His latest goes one step further into making his meaning quite literal. It’s called Men. Enough said, right? It starts with a woman in mourning. She asked her husband for a divorce and he almost immediately jumped to his death. A shocking start to a movie, to say the least. She (Jessie Buckley) is off to the countryside, where she’s rented a house in a tiny village. She’s going to be by herself a while and recover. That’s the plan, anyway. Alas, the village is seemingly entirely populated by creepy men of one sort (insinuating landlord) or another (unctuous priest) or another (bratty teen) or another (naked drifter). She encounters them (all played by Rory Kinnear in a procession of wigs) one after another. This is not the trip she needs. Garland makes good use of the rural quiet and empty natural spaces. When a silhouette suddenly stands at the end of a tunnel and runs toward our lead—and us—it’s frightening. Same when the nude drifter is suddenly lurking behind her, peering unnoticed in a picture window, or when the priest somberly listens to her testimony of trauma and priggishly asks: you must ask, why you made your husband kill himself? Yikes.

The tension builds until a long, gory, completely fantastical climax. Here Garland’s tight, atmospheric little horror movie nosedives into allegory its metaphorical scaffolding can’t support. There are three great shivers-up-the-spine moments, but then it becomes a morass of soupy, bloody imagery that stretches itself in an elaborate symbolic gesture that makes a rather simple point early and often. It’s not difficult to clock its pseudo-religious folk horror intensions from the start. What happened to her husband? A fallen man. What does she do when she arrives at her rental home? Eats an apple from the tree. She’s surrounded by verdant garden imagery. So it’s a movie about sin and consequences, who begets them and who gets blame. I like all of that, but Garland never gets any deeper than the peel, leaving the core untouched. Once we’ve gotten the sense of Buckley’s emotional state, an impressively on-edge performance, and seen an increasingly unsettling creepiness in every encounter—both overtly upsetting and sinister underlying subtext—the ground is set for a fascinating freak out. Instead, Garland only provides a tedious unfolding of symbolism that’s, by the end, somehow both easy and inscrutable, as one toxic man births another and another and so on until the end of time. And then woman inherits the earth.

Leave it to David Cronenberg to make the truly upsetting, and atypical, horror movie of the moment, all the more unsettled for playing like a gross drama, never stretching for obvious scares. He hasn’t made a film in nearly a decade, and not one so overtly engaged with the body horror of The Fly or Videodrome for longer than that. This new work is a relaxed and confident idiosyncratic vision, an old master showing us how it’s done. Crimes of the Future is a sickly melancholy movie that looks about at our current states, imagines a dim, dirty, empty future, and feels queasy. We’re evolving to survive on trash, to digest garbage and call it sustainable sustenance. That’s quite a provocative thesis for this fascinating and disgusting movie, a picture of bodies in revolt, and revolting bodies cut open. In this future world, humankind has stopped feeling pain. This has led to surgery becoming a form of entertainment—“Surgery is the new sex,” one fan purrs—with performance artists willingly getting outré and novel plastic surgeries—new gills and folds and flaps and ridges—for the benefit of appreciative audiences. One scantily clad man whose body is covered in decorative ears dancing somberly to pounding club beats in a dank basement proscenium is typical of this new art scene. We meet characters who propose to shock people with an autopsy, and others who fear what all this messing with physiology might mean for human evolution. Either way, it’s a grim vision of attempting to control others’ bodies, and one’s own, and the futility of it in the face of biological inevitabilities and vulnerabilities. Maybe society is as doomed to decay as we are? How grim.

The best of the bunch in this future art scene is a performance artist (Viggo Mortensen) who is literally growing new and unusual organs inside his body, and then his surgeon (Léa Seydoux) cuts them out on stage. What an act! The surgeries, of course, happen without anesthetic, and with the use of a complicated mechanical sarcophagus that’s full of intestine-like wiring and run with a fleshy remote. The reception afterwards features the organ of the day on display. It gives new meaning to the typical artist small talk: so, what are you working on? It’s not difficult to see this as metaphor for Cronenberg himself—a master at contorting the human body for his horror films, here confronting the material that made his name, wondering if he has it in him to pull another out for our amusement. Mortensen grunts and coughs and moans, staggers and limps, is clad in black with a hood pulled low in public and a cloth over his mouth. He cuts a figure like one shambling straight out of a Universal monster movie. The sound of a fly buzzing sometimes follows him around—one wonders what this movie smells like. He’s fascinating because he’s not one simple metaphor—he’s an artist gestating new and unusual ideas, ripping himself open for an audience’s judgment; he’s an aging man whose body is changing in uncomfortable ways, a fact over which he has little control; he’s a tortured man who isn’t sure if he should change with the times. He has further entanglements that are unfolded as the movie proceeds, but the core is his artistic and romantic relationship with his surgeon. There’s a queasy scene where they bond, cuddled up, for some mutual self-harm. In a world without pain, what does it mean to feel?

Here’s a film full of rich and puzzling characters—a grieving father with some sick plans (Scott Speedman), a bureaucrat who wants to set up a new organ registry (Don McKellar), his assistant who is twitchily drawn to this underworld (Kristen Stewart). Throughout there’s a sense of a society in flux, fluid definitions of what’s expected and where to go next. All are in some kind of discomfort. Some take pleasure in that state. It’s a film of open wounds and tumorous growths, of slippery internal organs and gooey foodstuffs, of sticky drool and singed skin. It’s a gross world. People buy skeletal chairs that adjust their spines to better digest meals. They gawk in backroom surgery shows. Their bodies are who they are. It’s matter-of-fact, though by the end it’s small comfort to know some sights will still shock them. Cronenberg’s vision here is one of a future driven by this sense of biological change, a world caught mid-shift, where new generations may be inheriting the garbage of their ancestors and irrevocably changed by their bodies’ attempts to process it. What a haunting idea of sins of the old inescapably passed on to the new, physicalized and embodied by the grotesqueries we see. But what hope we find in the beauty of the human body, and its capacity to survive even this. By the end, the story is even edging toward an epiphany—man’s capacity to make peace with his body, and embrace what it needs. The film moves with Cronenberg’s typical icy deliberateness, the better to ruminate on these themes and wonder about these characters. It’s complicated and unresolved, alive to the protrusions and pustules of messy life.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Pride (Month) and Prejudice: FIRE ISLAND

It might seem like director Andrew Ahn’s style is easy until you remember how hard most other indie dramatists work to achieve much less effect. Ahn specializes in small dramas so effortlessly pulled off, so quietly accomplished and casually observant, that they never draw attention to anything but how their characters lives come to life before our eyes. It’s this sensitivity of his sensibility that surfaces small details of desire and frustration, insecurities and connection, as characters grapple with what it means to be themselves, and how to share that with others. His 2016 debut Spa Night is about a young, closeted Korean-American man (Joe Seo) who, in the wake of his parents’ restaurant going out of business, takes a job at a bath house. Ahn’s 2020 feature Driveways finds a woman (Hong Chau) cleaning out her late sister’s house, while her precocious young son strikes up an unlikely friendship with an elderly veteran next door (Brian Dennehy, powerfully understated in his final performance). In other hands, these premises could be obvious, played for cloying sentiment and clumsy messages. Ahn, though, sees these characters as people, not types, and the stories as rich with specific details of these particular circumstances. Informed by this earnest interiority, his deceptively simple visual style breathes with close-ups and insert shorts that bring his character’s perspectives and perceptions into clear focus.

What a treat, then, that he’s brought this sensibility to the warm Pride Month confection that is Fire Island. It’s a frank and bubbly gay romantic comedy plunked down on the eponymous beachfront off the coast of Long Island, and in the specifics of gay life in contemporary America. The movie begins with a big tip of the hat to Jane Austen, with a voice-over quoting the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Well, our narrator admits, not every man wants a wife. And so he’s off with his friends to spend a summer week on Fire Island, which has a long history of attracting gay men looking to have a good, uninhibited time this time of year. Once there, the movie becomes a modern riff on Austen, with its sparkling social comedy and darting social commentary. There’s even some Bach and Vivaldi to the score sprinkled in the soundtrack of dance pop.

The result is a charming movie about relationships and class, and the way the two interact in a romantic context. Our leads’ friend group is made up of scrappy working-class New Yorkers staying at a cozy little house owned by their older lesbian den mother (Margaret Cho). While there, they fall into potential romantic entanglements with rich Los Angeles guys staying in a mansion on the beach. Along the way, plenty of low-key, sharply drawn conversations about taste and race, sex and intimacy, and social media and social status are explored, teased out in a variety of contexts as characters mix it up in parties, dances, dinners, karaoke, and taxi boats. The party doesn’t stop, but bubbles along as people try to find themselves, and how to best relate to those around them, amidst the noise.

Ahn balances the dictates of a fizzy genre like the rom-com with his more realistic, character-centric approach. Luckily writer and star Joel Kim Booster gives the movie the material that Ahn’s style needs to shoot it like one of his dramas, an eye for the detail of a stolen glance, a sunset, a miscommunication. It gives real emotional heft to the usual rom-com tropes. Booster’s character is a fine Lizzie Bennett type, resolutely disinterested in a frosty L.A. Darcy (Conrad Ricamora), and more concerned with getting his shy and sweet best friend (Bowen Yang) a hookup with the Angeleno’s pal (James Scully). This sets in motion the whirling entanglements of a small town vacation, as the two friend groups keep crossing paths. There’s smartly underplayed tensions—funny micro-aggressions or petty annoyances—and barely-shy-of-sentimental romantic possibilities. A few choice subplots are developed just enough to color in supporting players’ ups and downs, too. And all along Booster’s screenplay sparkles and snaps with witty dialogue and warmly-developed characterization. 

It gets laughs by sliding past punchlines in a charmingly natural way, heightened without feeling overly performative. It is ever-so-slightly broad comedy springing forth from a relaxed and raunchy feel of reality. Here’s a movie that loves its characters and its world, even as it lets them be real, flawed, funny figures, and makes some perceptive drama from ideas about race, money, body image, and more. Still, this isn’t a message movie, and this isn’t an indifferently photographed comedy. It has a perspective, a casually, beautifully, observational visual sensibility, and it has a tight structure that drifts on its modern Austen vibes to celebrate its characters’ chances to let obstacles fall to the wayside as love finds a way.