TV Good Sleep Bad: “Firefly and Blake’s 7”

Elwood and Lackey are back from an extended hiatus and aiming to misbehave with a new episode of TV Good Sleep Bad! This time around they’re talking about Joss Whedon’s tragically mishandled Firefly and the cult British space opera Blake’s 7.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

J.J. Abrams ends the Skywalker saga with a hot but entertaining mess

The circle is complete. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker finds J.J. Abrams returning to the trilogy he kicked off five years ago, and the result is…a hot mess, to be honest.

Admittedly, two and a half hours isn’t a lot of time when you have to introduce three new humanoid characters and a few highly-merchandisable non-humans, re-introduce two legacy characters, resolve two films’ worth of dangling plotlines, and provide some sort of tribute to the late Carrie Fisher. So Abrams wastes no time in establishing the basic plot, which boils down to the search for Emperor Palpatine‽ (interrobang required), who has…returned…somehow (cue a million diehard fans crying out in rage at Abrams for pilfering the now-decanonized pre-Disney EU for ideas).

Abrams’ strong points are developing characters and establishing mysteries, which is why he was a great choice to kick off the sequel trilogy. His weak point is resolving those mysteries; ask fans of Felicity and Alias if they thought those series ended satisfactorily. (For the thousandth time, Lost doesn’t count because by the time that show ended, he had zero creative input.) So you can probably see the problems coming a parsec away.

Predictably, the things’s a mess. The narrative lurches from set-piece to set-piece, each one more heavily laden with fan service than the last. Rey, Kylo Ren, and Palpatine all now have nearly godlike proficiency in the Force, making their altercations feel like superhero battles. The now-requisite climactic dogfight-in-space, pitting the scrappy Resistance against an impossibly huge fleet of Ginormous Star Destroyers, lacks a sense of true stakes.

As for Skywalker‘s relationship with its predecessor, Rian Johnson’s contentious (but excellent) The Last Jedi…well, Abrams clearly doesn’t approve of Johnson’s twists and subversions and walks them back as much as he can. To his credit, he manages to squeeze out two or three genuine surprises and manages to make them work surprisingly well. It would have been nice if he had rolled with the changes, though.

Now, you may get the idea that I hated this film, and that’s far, far from the truth. Yes, it’s very uneven, with too many scenes eliciting eye-rolls or groans. Yet the scenes that work work exceptionally well. A lot of it comes down to the sequel series cast, with Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac holding things together brilliantly. (Sadly, Kelly Marie Tran gets short shrift, garnering less screen time and fewer lines than Abrams’s Lost buddy Dominic Monaghan.)

The new additions shine as well. Keri Russell and Naomi Ackie squeeze sparks out of their scenes with Isaac and Boyega, respectively. Richard E. Grant is such an obvious to play a First Order/Imperial officer that one wonders why it took so long to get him into a Star Wars movie. Also, D-O is adorable.

The legacy cast doesn’t fare quite as well. Carrie Fisher’s scenes feel isolated and detached from the rest of the proceedings (which is understandable, as they were cobbled together from Force Awakens and Last Jedi outtakes). Mark Hamill gets one lame scene. It’s great to see Billy Dee Williams again, even if he doesn’t actually do a whole lot.

Abrams’ direction, while somewhat pedestrian (he’s certainly no stylist), at least keeps the energy level high enough to prevent the audience from noticing the glaring plot holes until they get home from the theater.

As the (apparent) official close to both the sequel trilogy and the larger Skywalker saga, The Rise of Skywalker just about does the job. It can’t help but disappoint, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

Ultimately, though, 2019 will be remembered as the year of The Mandalorian; so if you don’t mind, I’ve got a date with Baby Yoda.

Starring Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams. Directed by J.J. Abrams. 141 minutes.

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Two

The Brink, Empathy Inc., Malicious, Clara’s Ghost, and the Short Trip to Hell short film program.

Mainline

Short Film Program: Short Trip to Hell

Page One

Abunch of actors in a zombie movie are attacked by actual zombies, and then they get into a huge fight because the survivor who has the best head on their shoulders is a redshirt extra that certain people consider themselves above having to listen to. (The extra is black and the people who don’t like him are white, so I’m detecting a bit of a metaphor here.) It was entertaining enough, I guess, but I had a bit of difficulty trying to remember it a couple days afterward.

Stay

A coven enacts a human sacrifice ritual to summon a demon and one of the witches enters a sexual relationship with it, and a lot of bodies pile up before she realizes it really isn’t into commitment. Pretty damn funny, actually. If you’ve ever heard/read me use the phrase “gnarly cock of Satan,” I’m pretty sure it appears in Stay.

The Bloody Ballad of Squirt Reynolds

A bunch of years ago I saw a short film called, I think, The Ballad of Stumpy Sam. It was a musical horror-comedy set at a summer camp and the main song told the story of the titular slasher that plagued the camp. This is pretty much the same thing, but in this case the slasher is called “Squirt Reynolds” because he wears a Burt Reynolds mask. It’s probably a lot funnier if you haven’t already seen the Stumpy Sam film. I do hope the big cowboy hat is a reference to the “oversized hat” Norm MacDonald wore while playing Reynolds, um, I mean Turd Ferguson, in the SNL Celebrity Jeopardy skits.

Brace Face

A local girl wears one of those big awkward headgear things, presumably to keep her braces in place, so of course the local asshole kids make fun of her. It turns out she doesn’t actually wear braces. The actors playing the parents give their characters a sort of conservative-1950s-Jesus-freak vibe, giving the entire production a bit of a campier feel than a straight-up synopsis of the action would suggest.

The Daughters of Virtue

More retro religious zealot antics, although this time the aesthetics invoke the late ’70s and early ’80s. A quintet of seemingly upstanding, God-fearing ladies turn on one of their members when it turns out her friend’s husband has been bending her over the barrel and showing her the fifty states. It really didn’t do much for me, except for the final shot.

Quiver

If someone were to make a tutorial video on how to summon the Cenobites without the assistance of a Lemarchand Box, it would probably look a lot like Quiver. Which makes it sound like I should have liked it, but ultimately, it did nothing for me.

The Chairman

I tend to feel that short films are best when they’re condensed and focused; pretty much the opposite of The Chairman. It’s got something to do with psychics and conspiracies, and corporate shenanigans, and advertising. The protagonists are a telepathic father taken hostage by a shadowy business combine, and his equally telepathic daughter. The suits are driving the daughter to suicide for some reason, because they need the father to make mental contact with her and convince her not to, which he refuses to do because he doesn’t want to give the bad guys what they want. At least that’s what I think is going on; I had a hard time following it. It would probably have been a lot better at feature-length.

Mainline

When I say “condensed and focused,” Mainline is what I’m talking about: one actor, one room, a lot of Bob Loblaw about time travel. As with The Chairman, I wasn’t entirely sure why the character was doing what he did—something to do with eliminating paradoxical doubles left over from previous time-travel experiments—but the story was so laser-focused, the atmosphere so intense, it didn’t really matter to me.

Oxford Coma

You ever see someone get killed with punctuation? Easily my favorite of the program.

The Brink

The Brink

The Brink isn’t so much of a movie as a loose framework for first-time director Jonathan Lin to hang a series of action sequences on. The action sequences are genuinely remarkable, particularly the third-act set pieces that take place on a boat in the middle of a fucking typhoon. Unfortunately for me, I found the material not involving people beating the shit out of each other less than compelling. It’s really hard for me to accept a cop as “heroic” when he’s as reckless and ruthless as The Brink‘s protagonist—and his attitude towards his job, which places him squarely to the the right of Donnie Wahlberg’s character on Blue Bloods, did little to endear me to him. So I didn’t find the overall experience a pleasurable one, but there’s clearly an audience for this sort of thing, so.

China. Directed by Jonathan Li.

Empathy Inc.

Empathy Inc.

Yedida Gorsetman serves up science-fiction and social commentary in equal measures with Empathy Inc. Zach Roditas stars as a disgraced financial advisor who sees a shot at redemption when a college friend gives him an opportunity to invest in a new tech startup—a VR experience that allows the rich to walk in the shoes of the disadvantaged. Could it be that things aren’t what they seem? Insightful and thought-provoking, Empathy Inc. examines the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, and comes to the conclusion that even the most well-intentioned attempts to work within the capitalistic system can be corrupted. Gorsetman has more to offer than a sermon, delivering memorable images in crisp monochrome; the cast, including Roditas, Kathy Searle (as Roditas’ wife), Eric Berryman (as his college buddy), and Jay Kleitz (as the developer of the technology). Not to be missed.

United States. Directed by Yedidya Gorsetman.

Malicious

Malicious

Michael Winnick’s tale of a young couple plagued by an evil spirit taking the form of their stillborn daughter isn’t out-and-out bad, but neither is it particularly memorable—it provides a bland viewing experience, and much of it slips out of one’s memory within a couple hours of viewing. Winnick borrows his one effective moment—you’ll know it when you see it; it involves the phrase “you don’t”—feels copied wholesale from the Blumhouse/James Wan playbook; not even Delroy Lindo can elevate this material. If there’s not much to say about this one, it’s because there’s so little there.

United States. Directed by Michael Winnick.

Clara's Ghost

Clara’s Ghost (U.S.: dir. Bridey Elliott)

Bridey Elliott’s Clara’s Ghost doesn’t find much new to say about the personal lives of actors—turns out they’re totes fucked up; who knew?—but she doesn’t pull punches and much of her directorial début (she also wrote) is fall-on-the-floor hilarious. Bridey’s mother Paula Niedert Elliott stars as the titular Clara, a washed-up and somewhat unstable alcoholic actress who finds herself the target of a ghostly visitor (Isidore Goreshter of the U.S. version of Shameless) on the eve of a photo shoot…all to the consternation of her husband Ted (Bridey’s father Chris Elliott…you know, from the Letterman show) and daughters Julie (Bridey’s sister Abby) and Riley (Bridey herself), all of whom are also actors. The hilarity that ensues is dark indeed. The plot tends to stagger vaguely from set-piece to set-piece, and I wish Bridey had the courage of her convictions when it came to the ending. But fans of sardonic dysfunctional-family comedies such as Arrested Development should find lots to love here.

Larry Fessenden makes a memorable brief appearance, increasing the festival’s Fessenden Count to 2.

United States. Directed by Bridey Elliott.

Capsule Reviews: Happy Death Day; Moon; The Childhood of a Leader

Brief reviews of: Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day, plus Moon and The Childhood of a Leader

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day doesn’t look particularly promising on paper; it’s basically Groundhog Day for the Blumhouse set, and even cops to the influence in the dialog. But it actually works despite its script being a pile of college-dorm-life clichés. Christopher Landon keeps the pace brisk enough to outrun the script’s copious plot holes without exhausting the audience. Meanwhile, Jessica Rothe provides an exuberant and affable performance in the lead role of Tree (not kidding), a sorority queen-bee who finds herself reliving the day of her murder over and over again. I would have liked a bit more edginess and satire and a bit less predictability, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Special props to Phi Vu for delivering the line “So did you tap that fine vagine?” as if it were something someone somewhere would actually say.

Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken. Directed by Christopher Landon. 96 minutes.

Moon

Older Films

Moon

Sam Rockwell gets an entire movie to himself and the result is Moon, in which he plays an engineer and the lone crewmember of a lunar helium refinery. I felt director Duncan Jones could have done more with the script’s central twist (no spoilers but it’s very similar to a film released around the same time as Moon, that starred Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling as schoolteachers), but he does a great job of communicating the vast, awesome emptiness and solitude of the Moon, and I haven’t seen a better performance from Rockwell than this one. Also, Kevin Spacey gets to play the voice of the base’s controlling AI, a performance delightfully reminiscent of Douglas Rain’s outings as HAL.

Starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Benedict Wong, Matt Berry. Directed by Duncan Jones. 97 minutes, 2009.

The Childhood of a Leader

For his feature début in the director’s chair, American actor Brady Corbet—still probably best known for playing Peter to Michael Pitt’s Paul in the Funny Games remake—takes a Jean-Paul Sartre story and turns it into a two-hour-long temper tantrum…literally. British child actor Tom Sweet (apparently seven years old at the time this film was made) plays Prescott, the son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and his French wife (Bérniéce Bejo) living in France during the waning days of World War I. For the most part, it plays as a typical dark family study about unpleasant parents raising an unpleasant child, until the film’s final fifteen minutes take everything to a bizarre yet logical extreme. Featuring gorgeous cinematography courtesy Lol Crawley and a frightening disjointed score by pop star-turned-avant garde legend Scott Walker, it’s bloated and pretentious, but not easily forgotten.

Starring Tom Sweet, Bérniéce Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson. Directed by Brady Corbet. 115 minutes, 2015.

Capsule Reviews: Black Panther; Annihilation; Red Sparrow

Quick looks at: the latest MCU blockbuster; Alex Garland’s SF-horror mindbender; Jennifer Lawrence’s spy thriller

Black Panther

Black Panther

Nothing—not even the Second Coming or a collaboration between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-era Kanye and Kid A-era Radiohead—could live up to the hype Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was subjected to. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to. While it has the standard MCU flaws (too long, overly familiar plot, hero boring in comparison to the villain), it’s an exhilarating superhero-action spectacle.

The two secrets to its success are its fictional setting of Wakanda and the performance of Coogler’s muse, Michael B. Jordan, as antagonist N’Jadaka, a.k.a. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. The former is a vibrant Afrofuturist utopia so breathtaking that any scene not set there (such as a trip to Busan, South Korea, for a James Bond-ian caper) might as well be accompanied with a timer indicating how many more minutes we have to spend before we go back to Wakanda.

As for Jordan, a personality so charismatic he makes Tom Hiddleston look like Elmer Fudd, he brings extra dimension to a character already hailed as the MCU’s most complex and interesting villain. He owns this picture, which is nothing against this cast of thousands. A dream team like this is the only way Coogler could get away with relegating Daniel Kaluuya (Oscar nominee for Get Out), Sterling K. Brown (Emmy winner for This Is Us), and Danai “Fucking Michonne!!!!!!” Gurira to glorified bit roles. Let’s put it like this: when you have Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis in the same movie, and they’re the two actors you’re least excited to see in it, you’re in for something special.

Unfortunate, then, that the cast’s weak link is T’Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman—a decent actor in what I’ve seen him in, but here he finds himself outclassed by Jordan (no wonder “Killmonger Was Right” was such a popular meme in the week following Black Panther’s release) and Lupita Nyong’o. Then again, everyone seemed in awe of her CGI avatar in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, so maybe she’s always like that. One can hope.

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. Directed by Ryan Coogler. 134 minutes.

Annihilation

Annihilation

Ex Machina writer/director Alex Garland takes the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, mashes it up with Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” and produces the most psychedelically disturbing head-trip since Under the Skin. Natalie Portman plays a solider-turned-biologist who joins a four-woman expedition into “Area X,” a patch of land taken over by a supernatural “Shimmer” from which no one except Portman’s dying husband (Oscar Isaac) has returned. Inside the Shimmer they find a crocodile with the teeth of a shark, a hideous predator that howls with a heartbreakingly familiar voice, and all other manner of creepy imagery that would haunt my nightmares if I still possessed the ability to dream. Just don’t ask me to describe what’s in the swimming pool.

Garland has received a certain amount of flak for being less interested in the particulars of character and relationships than he is in the special effects. I don’t agree; I feel the dynamic between Portman and Isaac gets the exact amount of development it deserves. (Then again, I’m not entirely sure I accept the premise that one must necessarily be psychologically broken in order to want to take a potentially one-way trip to witness the unknown—but I freely admit I’m weird.) The supposed lack of character doesn’t hurt Portman, or Isaac, or Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the expedition leader in a career-best performance.

Awesome in the literal sense—as in, “it filled me with awe”—I can’t imagine it won’t have a high place on my “best of 2018” list at the end of the year.

Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Benedict Wong. Directed by Alex Garland. 115 minutes.

Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence reteams with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for Red Sparrow, a spy thriller that’s short on thrills or suspense but at least manages to be amusing in an over-the-top way…at least for a while. Sporting a tip-top Russian accent, Lawrence (Jen, not Francis) plays a prima ballerina who loses her livelihood in a fall but whose scummy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts, cosplaying as the Mads Mikkelsen version of Hannibal Lecter) finds work for her as a secret-service seductress. This involves a term at what Lawrence euphemistically calls “whore school”—sadly, it’s located in Sibera, not on Mallory Archer’s Whore Island—because apparently in Russia, giving a dispassionate blow job is a trade skill you need training for. It’s the sort of place where, if one of your classmates attempted to rape you and you fought the bastard off, Charlotte Rampling would show up and chide you for prioritizing your fantasies of bourgeois virtue over the needs of the Great Russian State. (Rampling doesn’t actually say bourgeois but you can see her almost literally choking the word down.)

Unfortunately, things get a lot less interesting once the action shifts from Whore School to Belgrade, where Jen is tasked with seducing an American case officer—Joel Edgerton at his Joel Edgerton-iest—into revealing the name of his mole in the Russian government. While the second half of the film has its charm—particularly performances by Sergej Onopko as a particularly vicious cleaner and Mary-Louise Parker as a half-drunk McGuffin—most of it isn’t stuff you haven’t already seen before in Atomic Blonde, with better music, and Bill Camp instead of John Goodman. It’s the sort of movie where you can see every twist coming at least five minutes before it happens. Indeed, you should be able to figure out who Edgerton’s mole is about halfway through the film—just use the Law of Conservation of Character.

It’s not an entire waste of time, but it is the espionage-thriller equivalent of empty calories, if you catch my drift.

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Jeremy Irons. Directed by Francis Lawrence. 139 minutes.

Capsule Reviews: Kedi; A Ghost Story; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Marjorie Prime

A Ghost Story, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and more

Kedi

Kedi

Turkey. Directed by Ceyda Torun.

I knew that Islam reveres cats, but Istanbul takes that reverence to a whole ‘nother level.

The documentary Kedi portrays the stray cats of that ancient capital as a dominating force. Director Ceyda Torun ostensibly focuses on seven such cats—Aslan Parçasi, Bengü, Deniz, Duman, Gamsiz, Psikopat, Sari—to keep things easy to follow, but they stand in for the city’s entire feline population as a whole. The cats’ influence on the day-to-day life of Istanbul seems to equal that of their human compatriots, and Torun gets some remarkable footage (much of it shot at cat level) as they beg for food at restaurants, steal fish from outdoor market stalls, commune with people at cafés and street-corners, come and go as they please, and generally be, well, cats. I’m in awe of the patience Torun must have exhibited during filming. “Like herding cats” became a cliché for a reason.

But, as enchanting as an eighty-minute-long cat video or a visual travelogue of Istanbul would be, Kedi isn’t merely these things. It occurred to me that in an American city, a population of strays this large and visible would be considered a public nuisance. Torun interviews a number of people whose lives intersect with the cats’ in various ways—phrases like “owners” or “masters” or even “human companions” lack accuracy when describing these relationships—and it seems like Istanbul’s residents (these residents, at least) regard the felines almost as fellow-citizens whose claim to the streets of the city is as valid as the humans’ own.

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story

United States. Directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara.

Casey Affleck dies and then becomes a cartoon-style ghost (a white sheet with two eyes painted on it) and stares at the changing world around him for an hour and a half.

About half this movie is really, really good. Mostly these are the bits where things actually happen. Unfortunately the other half is as dull as dirt, unless you’re the sort of person who fetishizes on spending five minutes watching Rooney Mara eat pie.

Also, I’m glad that Will Oldham showed up at the end of the second act to lecture the audience on the themes of the film, because I wouldn’t have been able to figure out what the movie’s about otherwise.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming

United States. Directed by Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau.

The Marvel creative team took an odd approach to Spider-Man’s first solo outing in the MCU: they made it as much about the Avengers (specifically, Iron Man) as it is about the friendly neighborhood web-head. The screenplay roots the origins of Michael Keaton’s villainous Adrian “Vulture” Toomes in the aftermath of the first Avengers film. The dominant relationship of the narrative is between Peter Parker and Tony Stark. In fact, Stark spends so much time in RJD’s patented “alpha-male-douchebag” mode that he effectively serves as the antagonist of the first half of the film.

It really doesn’t help that director Jon Watts doesn’t bring anything to Homecoming’s action and effects scenes that I haven’t already seen in a bunch of other superhero movies. Lots of herky-jerky camera work, incoherent CGI fight sequences, and the requisite footage of recognizable landmarks being destroyed. I hope everybody learns from Patty Jenkins’ work on Wonder Woman that it is indeed possible to construct an action sequence that’s both exciting and easy to follow.

Beyond that, I have a bunch of nitpicks that don’t really matter much. Tom Holland is the perfect Peter Parker—he’s Hollywood handsome but able to pull off geeky awkwardness; unfortunately the script places Parker at a STEM-oriented specialty school (even Flash freaking Thompson is a nerd here!), thus undercutting his outsider status. Was it really necessary to point out how hot Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is more than, say, zero times? Did the screenwriters really not realize how lame a certain supporting character’s last-five-minutes-of-the-film twist was?

The good news is enough works to make Homecoming worth watching even if it doesn’t exactly transcend its issues. I already mentioned Tom Holland. Michael Keaton delivers one of the year’s best performances, and I loved how the screenplay entwined his motivation with social commentary. Best of all, they got the tone of the non-effects and action sequences exactly right. Spider-Man works best as a local hero, keeping the streets of New York safe, and having a blast while doing it. Leave the world-saving to those whose powers, resources, and experience are more suited to the task. You know, people like Tony Stark.

Marjorie Prime

Marjorie Prime

United States. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins.

One of the programs I had for my Commodore 64 when I was a kid was “Eliza.” It was a conversation simulator, kind of like a chatterbot: you’d type in sentences, it would respond. The conceit was that Eliza was a “Rogerian psychotherapist” and you were its patient. “I am dissatisfied with my life,” you’d tell it, and it would respond “Why are you dissatisfied with your life?” It wasn’t really artificial intelligence; it just spat whatever you said back at you.

I kept thinking about Eliza while watching Marjorie Prime. The titular “Prime” is an AI and hologram set up to simulate a specific person—for example, your dead husband Walter, who when he was 40 looked exactly like Jon Hamm. The thing about Walter Prime is that he has the real Walter’s voice and good looks, but you actually have to teach Walter Prime how to be Walter, by telling him what Walter was like. This can be quite helpful if you’re Walter’s 85-year-old widow Marjorie and you’re suffering from dementia.

We’ve seen something like this before, in the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” and although Marjorie Prime isn’t as dystopian as “Be Right Back” it still exhibits a certain ambiguity as to whether the interactions Marjorie, her daughter Tess, and son-in-law Jon (respectively Lois Smith, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins) have with various Primes are indeed healthy. How creepy is it to watch an elderly parent talk with a simulation of a younger version of another parent? And while our experiences and memories make us who we are, how can someone recreate us when they don’t know the things we wouldn’t talk about? (That’s quite apart from the theory, discussed early in the film, that when we remember something we don’t remember the actual event but the way the memory went the last time we remembered it, which is why memory is so wonky.)

Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff, to be sure. However, the movie itself comes off as very actory and talky. I didn’t find this a problem, because Davis and Robbins put in career-best performances; I’m less familiar with Smith and Hamm, but they are excellent here as well. But Michael Almeryeda’s direction betrays the film’s roots as a stage play, which could alienate some viewers. Still, if you’re in the mood for a science-fiction film whose fantastical elements are so subtle you don’t realize you’re watching SF until someone throws a drink through Jon Hamm, give Marjorie Prime a try.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I also watched…

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, 2017). Two more times!

Christmas Vacation (dir. Jeremiah Chechik, 1989) And why is the floor all wet, Todd?

Capsule Reviews: Personal Shopper; Hounds of Love; Okja; What Happened to Monday; Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Capsule reviews of Okja, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and more

Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper

France. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Ty Olwin, Lars Eidinger, Anders Danielsen Lee, Nora von Waldstätten.

In case It Comes at Night didn’t slake your thirst for ambiguity, might I recommend Personal Shopper? Starring Kristen Stewart as a young American bumming around Paris, working as a PA to an obnoxious celebrity and waiting for her recently-deceased twin brother to contact her from beyond the veil—oops, I probably should have mentioned that the sibs are mediums—this film is harder to interpret than phone poll data for a special election in Alabama.

Stewart’s generally subdued approach to her craft serves her well here, manifesting in-character as disaffection and cynicism, and she particularly shines during a series of second-act sequences in which her primary co-star is an iPhone. This is actually a lot more gripping that it might sound. Indeed, without the supernatural element Olivier Assays (who previously collaborated with Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria) has crafted a canny and effective thriller. But the ghosts add an extra dimension, and their presence makes Stewart feel haunted in more ways than one.

I do have to say that the final act presents a puzzle that continues to confound well after the film ends, and that while I like the interpretation that seems to prevail among the film’s fans, there is something about it that just doesn’t feel right to me. It’s not something that bugs me a lot in the end, however.

Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love

Australia. Directed by Ben Young. Starring Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Currie, Susie Porter, Damian de Montemas.

The tendency for male filmmakers to draw a line between “feminine empowerment” and “cheap exploitation” probably existed before I Spit on Your Grave. Ben Young’s nasty psych-thriller Hounds of Love works squarely in that tradition but the feminism just about overpowers the prurience. The setup is very basic: a serial-killing married couple, John (Stephen Currie) and Evie (Emma Booth, of Netflix’s excellent Aussie import Glitch), operate out of Perth in the late ’80s (the setting allowing for a montage set to Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” one of the weirdest clichés to manifest overt the past couple of years). Their latest victim is Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a troubled teen with separated parents, who quickly realizes she needs to play her captors off each other to survive.

While several elements didn’t work for me—it seemed very weird that the killers would choose to target victims in their own neighborhood (they literally live two or streets away from Vicki’s mum)—what made the film was Evie’s characterization and Booth’s performance in the role. Evie is clearly damaged and disturbed but she’s also clearly a victim of John’s emotional and physical abuse. Vicki may be the film’s nominal Final Girl, but Evie is the character the audience roots for. I also liked how the relationship between John and Evie reflected dynamic between Vicki’s parents (note how much of an ass her father is).

Okja

Okja

United States/South Korea. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Ahn Seo-huyn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal.

In theory, any director could make a film about a young girl’s quest to save her genetically engineered pet superpig from the evil multinational globalcorp that created her (the pig, obviously, not the girl). But only Bong Joon-ho could make that film in this particular way. By turns adorable and cynical, idealistic and fatalistic, Okja is a damn-near-perfect examination of life under predatory capitalism, where the difference between life and death can be found in the margin between profit and loss.

Bong pulls off a truly awe-inspiring juggling act. Tilda Swinton slips easily into the villain position, a dual role as a ruthless yet charming corporate CEO and the less-charismatic twin sister she overthrew, backed up by an opportunistic corporate weasel (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) and a washed-up, alcoholic TV presenter (Jake Gyllenhaal). On the side of Good, Paul Dano leads a team of animal-rights activists who mean well but don’t always end up doing the right thing. But Ahn Seo-huyn provides the film’s heart and soul as Mija, whose bond with the superpig carries her through a whirlwind of exhilarating set pieces.

This is a lot for a film to take in, even a two-hour one, and it’s to Bong’s credit that he’s able to keep most of the pins in the air with grace. Gyllenhaal’s performance, an ugly mess of unnecessary hamming and funny voices, is the major flaw here, and yet he succeeds in lending genuine menace to the film’s most horrifying and heartbreaking sequence.

What Happened to Monday

What Happened to Monday

United Kingdom/France/Belgium. Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Starring Noomi Rapace, Marwan Kenzari, Christian Rubeck, Pål Sverre Hagen, Glenn Close, Willem Dafoe.

It would be hard to say no to seven Noomi Rapaces even in the worst of circumstances, and What Happened to Monday is surprisingly good. Set in a dystopian near-future where multiple pregnancies become more common, leading to rampant overpopulation, leading to laws limiting families to one child per, the film places Rapace in the roles of identical septuplets. Each named after a day of the week, the septs share a single legal identity (each one goes out into the world on her namesake day while the other six remain in hiding), a workable scheme until, as you can probably guess from the title, Monday goes missing.

It’s a lot of fun watching Rapace kick ass in seven different wigs, but what sets Monday apart is its commitment to its setting. Too many science-fiction actioners use their fantastical elements as little more than excuses to set up fights, chases, and explosions. Monday actually considers the difficult questions it poses. The Child Allocation Bureau and its supporters are evil, no doubt about that, with its policies bordering on eugenics. Yet the film consistently reminds the viewer about the overpopulation problem, and the final sequences explicitly address the consequences of nobody willing to make difficult decisions.

If all of that seems a bit heavy, you can always sit back and watch the characters hit each other, shoot each other, and blow stuff up. Rapace gets a number of impressive action sequences while never coming off as a superhero (or septet of them), the villains are suitably nasty, and Willem Dafoe gets some tender moments in flashbacks. Pity director Tommy Wirkola couldn’t convince Glenn Close to pick an accent and stick with it for the entire film; she’s been on a roll lately.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

United States. Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Mark Hammill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro.

The transition is complete. The Force Awakens reset the franchise, back to basics; Rogue One tested the boundaries of what a Star Wars film could do and be outside the framework of the Skywalker family saga. The Last Jedi progresses from these, in many ways inventing a new kind of Star Wars movie, one that acknowledges the Campbellian principles of the George Lucas films (and of Force Awakens by extension) while forging a new, modern mythic path, one more morally complex than we’ve seen in the series proper.

That doesn’t mean that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like Star Wars. Everything you expect from this movie, it provides: exhilarating space battles, thrilling acts of derring-do, explorations of the outer space and inner spaces of that galaxy far, far away. Poe Dameron remains the hotheaded wisecracker, Rey the plucky, determined seeker, General Organa the grave tactician, Finn the reluctant hero, Kylo Ren the uncontrollable villain, General Hux the rabid ranter. Nor does the film neglect to riff on the series’ classic set-pieces, most effectively when it places Luke Skywalker in the role of reluctant teacher, the very position he thrust Yoda into in 1980.

But the film also challenges (an observation I must attribute to Channel Awesome’s Rob Walker). New character Rose Tico serves as the Resistance’s conscience. Luke has become a tragic figure in the classical sense. Fan complaints about the hypocrisy of the Jedi become canon. Finn and Rose’s side-quest in Canto Bight becomes an indictment of the Star Wars class system.

To observe that The Last Jedi isn’t a perfect film feels like dredging up cliché, but it must be admitted. Rian Johnson doesn’t integrate his visual style as seamlessly with the series’ visual grammar as J.J. Abrams did. Benicio del Toro needs to reign in his twitchier tendencies. And, of course, like every other tentpole picture of the last couple years, it’s just too damn long.

Yet ultimately The Last Jedi is a triumph: for Johnson; for the cast, especially Mark Hammill and the late Carrie Fisher; for Kathleen Kennedy and Disney/Lucasfilm as a whole. It will likely stand as the apex of the new trilogy, as it’s hard to believe the Abrams-helmed Episode IX will surpass it. My heart will always lie with The Empire Strikes Back, but in realistic terms, The Last Jedi is as good as a Star Wars movie can get.

TV Good Sleep Bad, episode 15: “Two Episodes of Black Mirror”

One day the world makes sense, and then you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning you find out you’re actually living in the world of BLACK MIRROR, the series we cover in our latest episode.

For the fifteenth outing of TV Good Sleep Bad Elwood and I take on two episodes of Black Mirror, the British science-fiction series that’s giving new meaning to words like “prescient.” You go to bed one night in a world that makes sense, and in the morning you wake up only to find that you actually live in the world of “The Waldo Moment.”

Black Mirror: "The National Anthem"

In this episode, we discuss:

Black Mirror series 1 episode 1, “The National Anthem” (2011): A mysterious terrorist makes a bizarre demand of Britain’s Prime Minister: fuck a pig on live television or a beloved member of the royal family dies. Starring Rory Kinnear, Lindsay Duncan, Donald Sumpter, Anna Wilson-Jones.

Black Mirror series 2 episode 2, “White Bear” (2013): A young woman wakes up in an unfamiliar house with no memories except for some fractured visions of someone who may have been her daughter. Who is she? What happened to her? And why are all these people in masks chasing her? Starring Lenora Critchlow, Michael Smiley, Tuppence Middleton.

Next month: We get in the holiday spirit with Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas and The Star Wars Christmas Special.

TV Good Sleep Bad, episode 13: “Cyber City Oedo 808 & Danger Mouse”

Can Lackey survive the overdriven riffmongering of Cyber City Oedo 808? Can Elwood tolerate the slapstick antics of Danger Mouse? If they can’t, will the episode end early?

London, England*. And in a basement in moneyed Mayfair** lives the greatest guardian of cult television the world has ever known. Yes, Elwood Jones, the secret agent so secret that even his code name has a code name. And with his trusted assistant Daniel Lackey (code-named “The Jigsaw,” because whenever he’s faced with an episode of Buffy, he goes to pieces), he has delivered the thirteenth terrific episode of TV Good Sleep Bad!

* He actually doesn’t live in London.

** And if he did, he certainly wouldn’t live in Mayfair.

Special appearance by "that bloody duck."
Special appearance by “that bloody duck.”

In this episode, we discuss:

Cyber City Oedo 808 episode 1, “Memories of the Past” aka “Virtual Death” (1990): In the twenty-ninth century, three ruthless, hardened criminals are given the chance to reduce their sentences by taking on missions too dangerous for regular police. It’s up to these three antiheroes to save the 50,000 occupants of a massive skyscraper when the structure’s central computer puts the building on lockdown. But who’s controlling the computer?

Danger Mouse season 2 episode 6, “The Four Tasks of Danger Mouse” (1981): Baron Greenback kidnaps Penfold and issues an ultimatum to Danger Mouse: collect the ingredients for a powerful ritual the Baron wants to enact, or the hapless hamster gets it in the neck. But can even the world’s greatest secret agent claim a piece of the legendary Fog Monster of Old London town? And is television ready for a certain showbiz-obsessed vampire duck?

Next month: Bottom and Kindred: The Embraced.

My Months in Film: March through September, 2016

An overview of the last six(ish) months

So I’m back, apparently.

I didn’t expect the Gallery to remain shuttered this long: I made some genuine attempts in April and May to get back into the groove…and couldn’t get anything to stick. Real Life was kicking my ass, something had to give, and it was the film writing. I had burned out. I think my exhaustion even shows in the spring and early-summer podcast episodes. I’d been doing this for over five and a half years—starting all the way back in late August 2010 when I launched Forced Viewing—and during that entire time, I’d never taken more than a couple of weeks off from watching and writing. It even encroached on my vacations.

That being said, I never considered not writing about this year’s Fantastic Fest, though. So I was glad to discovered I still had my mojo, and it was great to get back into the rhythm of things. (Even after I caught a cold that turned into a bronchial infection that needed to be nipped in the bud lest it mutate into pneumonia.)

It looks like I have some time to seriously reconsider the future of this site and my film-writing hobby. I’m still determined that reviews will re-commence, at some point. I’d like it to be soon, but I can’t make any guarantees: things are still hairy busy in Real Life. My content schedule won’t be as punishingly aggressive as it was in the past; I’m thinking three movies every two weeks sounds reasonable. But we’ll see.

Anyway, thanks for your patience.

And to prove I haven’t spent the last six-odd months just twiddling my thumbs…here are the movies I watched during the hiatus.

Continue reading “My Months in Film: March through September, 2016”