220px-The_Wind,_2019_Theatrical_Release_Poster

[As is my wont, I’ll be spoiling everything. Although as you will see, I’m not the only one doing that…]

The Wind is a psychological horror western. The opening scene tells you that this is not going to be a light movie: Elizabeth Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) emerges from her remote cabin, covered in blood and carrying a stillborn baby, while two men stand solemnly outside. The scene then cuts to the men burying the baby and its mother, who is missing a portion of her head. 

There is no dialogue in this scene; just three grim-faced people and two corpses, and the howling wind in a harsh and desolate landscape. The first lines don’t come until the next scene, when one of the men—Elizabeth’s husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman)—tells her that he and the widower Gideon (Dylan McTee) will be gone for a few days, leaving her alone in her cabin. Elizabeth hardly responds to this, instead simply repeating “How did she get my gun?”

Elizabeth tries to go about her daily routine, but is constantly on edge. As she’s hanging laundry, she is attacked by wolves, forcing her to retreat into the house and shoot the wolves through the door. Or are they merely wolves? The scratches on the door seem awfully high, and strangely fit the shape of a human hand. Later, she finds a goat carcass with its side ripped out—and then encounters it again; seemingly healed and oddly threatening.

The film soon turns into something like a montage of flashbacks and flash-forwards, explaining how Elizabeth found herself in this situation. It moves around so much that I’m not going to try to summarize everything in the order the film shows it. I’ve seen some reviews that complained the flashbacks were confusing, but I didn’t have too much trouble following which scenes related to which. And even when I did, the disordered structure sometimes—with a big exception I’ll address later–makes the gradual revelations more interesting and powerful. It does, however, make the film hard to summarize.

Briefly, what seems to have transpired is this: Elizabeth and Isaac lived alone in their remote cabin. At some point, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, but he was stillborn. They make a grave marker for him with an “S” for “Samuel” carved in a stone. Later, Gideon and his wife Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) showed up, and although Isaac thinks them a bit “funny,” he and Elizabeth invite them over for dinner, where it quickly becomes clear that Gideon and Emma don’t really get along very well.

Emma has some strange ideas about the plains, which eventually become a superstitious fear of them.  She also has a great deal of admiration for Elizabeth and Isaac, both for their toughness and their kindness towards her and Gideon. 

Emma soon falls “ill”—meaning pregnant—and begins to behave strangely. At one point, she’s in such a state of fear over some unseen threat that Elizabeth advises Gideon to tie her to the bed. Emma reads from a mysterious little pamphlet about demons of the prairie, which includes the names of various such spirits. She also hints, ominously, to Elizabeth about her expected baby’s name, asking her to guess it. Elizabeth guesses “Gideon” and then “Samuel,” but neither is correct. After she guesses “Samuel,” Emma says “I’m not a monster.” This is probably the most significant point where the non-linear structure works in the film’s favor—we find out after this scene that Elizabeth’s stillborn was named Samuel. (The name Emma has in mind is, of course, Isaac.)

More strange things happen; both in the present and in the past. Emma believed there was “something out there” at night, and in the present, alone in her cabin, Elizabeth feels the same. An old preacher (Miles Anderson) arrives briefly, and Elizabeth hosts him for breakfast and then allows him to stay in the opposite cabin, telling him not to answer the door for anyone after dark.

Naturally, he arrives back at Elizabeth’s door in a panic that night, screaming that there is “something out there.” Elizabeth, despite her own advice, lets him in, and he asks her why she stays here, since she knows of the evil presence that haunts the land. He then says “Surely Emma would have…” and this horrifies Elizabeth, since she never mentioned the existence of Emma to him. At this point, the man turns into a glassy-eyed monster, and Elizabeth flees the cabin in terror, finding the preacher’s body on the ground the next day.

Elizabeth is increasingly haunted by visions of Emma, or rather, Emma’s corpse-like ghost, appearing to her and saying, “Lizzy, where’s your gun?” She is further disturbed when, on finding Emma’s diary, the entries seem to hint that her child was fathered by Isaac.

Finally, Isaac returns, finding Elizabeth on the verge of a breakdown and contemplating suicide. He tries to comfort her, but soon begins to argue as she insists on the existence of an evil presence. He finds the same pamphlet about demons that he had previously burned, and becomes infuriated with Elizabeth, ultimately tying her to the bed just as she advised Gideon to do to his wife.

As Isaac and Elizabeth fight, she cuts herself free of the ties with a shard of glass and…

Okay, folks, here’s the Big Spoiler! At least, I think it is. I pretty much figured it out five minutes in, when it was clear just how dark this movie was, but anyway…

In a flashback, we see that the pregnant Emma was behaving strangely one night, screaming wildly in the rain, and Elizabeth shot her after wrestling her gun away from her. In the present, as Isaac realizes this, Elizabeth struggles free of her bonds and stabs Isaac in the throat, killing him.

She stumbles out of the cabin, and into the field, and here we get the flashback that made the least sense to me—the reverend, back in his kindly preacher persona, handing Elizabeth the pamphlet about demons. I have no idea when or where in the timeline this was supposed to have occurred. In any case, the film ends with Elizabeth lying wounded on the empty plains.

So, that’s the bare-bones outline, but I’m not sure how useful it is. I said at the beginning the disordered narrative didn’t confuse me too much, but as I wrote this, I realize maybe that isn’t completely true. There were actually a couple scenes where I didn’t know the chronology. That is, I thought I did when I watched it, but thinking about it some more, I’m now not sure they occurred when I thought they did.

There is clearly supposed to be a strong unreliable narrator component to this story. Is Elizabeth just making all this up because she’s paranoid? Does she kill Emma because she’s jealous that she is having a child, and hers died? Or because she suspects Emma is having an affair with Isaac? And if the latter, is she right, or is she imagining all of it? Are any of the supernatural elements real, or are they all just in Elizabeth’s head? Isaac seems to think so, although it seems very hard to account for most of Emma’s behavior by chalking it all up to Elizabeth being crazy.

At one point, Elizabeth is shown reading to the pregnant Emma from The Mysteries of Udolpho, the classic Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe. I suspect this is actually a sort of double-reference: it’s both a nod to the tale itself, and also to Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s satire of Gothic fiction, whose protagonist imagines herself to be in such supernatural tales as Udolpho, though in fact she is not. I think something similar is supposed to be going on in The Wind. 

There were definitely moments when I was worried it was going to turn into It Comes At Night all over again. (Spoiler Alert: In It Comes At Night, nothing, in fact, comes at night.) But ultimately it wasn’t that; not quite. It’s much closer to The Haunting, where it’s truly ambiguous whether there are supernatural beings or if the heroine is just suffering from some combination of grief and serious psychosexual disorder. You could make a case either way, really.

I happened to stumble across this movie completely by chance while checking for some other film at my local theater. I saw the combination of horror and western and was immediately intrigued. Then I started reading the reviews, which described it as a revisionist western with a female lead, a spare, tight script, lots of long silences that say a lot, and gorgeously desolate landscapes that give an overall feeling of isolation. Some also alluded to the way the story is gradually (some complained too gradually) revealed through flashbacks.

All of this could also describe Jane Got a Gun, which is one of my favorite films ever. I absolutely love movies in remote desert settings, and female protagonists are also a plus. The element that differentiates this from Jane, of course, is that it’s a psychological horror flick rather than a romantic thriller. And psychological horror with unreliable narrators is very much my cup of tea.

I know not many of my readers are gamers, but there’s a term from gaming lingo that fits almost perfectly here: modding. At its most extreme, modding is when people build essentially a new game using the underlying assets—physics engines, graphics, music, etc.–from some existing game, often completely changing the plot and tone. The Wind is about what you would get if you did a horror mod of Jane Got a Gun.

And, like most video game mods, it’s kind of rough in places. In particular, the acting here is pretty uneven: Gerard is fairly good, Zukerman (who reminded me a little of Humphrey Bogart) is good, Telles is decent if a little wooden, and McTee…

Well, I’m not going to say he’s a bad actor. Maybe he was following his directions, or maybe the scenes were shot in a hurry, but the upshot is that his line readings are really flat. At first, I wondered if maybe this was deliberate, but I don’t think it is. However, he’s not in it that much.

Wind+Demon+cardThe cinematography, on the other hand, was great. I know some reviewers, who apparently have the attention spans of espresso-drinking hummingbirds, thought it was “boring” and “slow,” but I personally can’t get enough B-roll of the wind howling over desert hills or shutters creaking in the twilight. The film’s only 86 minutes long, for heaven’s sake. And this demon pamphlet! This may sound silly, but seeing it in the trailer was what ultimately convinced me I had to watch this movie. I haven’t seen such creepy drawings in cinema since the sketches at the beginning of The Mothman Prophecies.

Also, there’s a bit of a behind-the-scenes mystery here, in that some people claim this is a remake of a 1928 silent film, also called The Wind, based on a 1925 novel of the same name. I haven’t seen the 1928 film, nor read the book, but seemingly they are also about a woman in a relationship that goes disastrously wrong, and who is driven mad by the howling wind on remote prairies. The demonic element, however, is not mentioned in the synopses of the earlier works. If anyone has seen/read either of these, I’d be interested to know what you think.

Now then, let’s get to the heart of the matter: Did I like this thing or not?

I love unreliable narrators and ambiguity in horror. It’s one of the coolest tricks in storytelling, in my opinion.

But, having seen and written quite a lot of deliberately ambiguous stories by now, I’ve come to realize there’s a dark side to this technique. And no, I don’t mean the dark side that unreliable narrators usually turn out to be bad people.

It is very easy for ambiguity and unreliable narration to become the last refuge of a bad storyteller. Does your plot not make a whole lot of sense? Are your characters’ motivations maybe not so clearly defined, even in your own mind? Hey presto! You can just introduce ambiguity and unreliable narration and suddenly, these flaws disappear. It was supposed to be like that all along! It’s not that your plot doesn’t make sense; it’s that it’s “ambiguous” and “raises questions.” 

I know this because I myself have been guilty of it in some of my short stories. I thought I was so clever for doing it; but I think in reality this can easily become a subconscious crutch a writer leans on to avoid having to actually flesh out the characters, or iron out problems with the story.

And don’t get me wrong: when it’s done well, there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of realizing you’ve been reading or watching a different story than you thought you were. The gold standard for me is The Repairer of Reputations, but there are plenty of other examples. 

But like anything that’s so effective, it’s really hard to do it well. Put a single foot wrong, and you make a mess of the whole thing. The Wind does a lot of things right, but it makes a few mistakes—the big one being that it seems so weird from the outset that you’re already primed to be on edge and question what you’re seeing. It walks up and kicks you in the gut and says “All right; maggots! This is a dark and terrifying movie you’re about to watch!”

The best horror doesn’t do that. It seduces you at first. It presents itself as a normal, even borderline cliché story that you’ve seen a thousand times before. And only then, once you think you know what you’re dealing with, does it start to mess with your mind.

I think this is the unarticulated problem at the root of all the complaints about the non-linearity of the plot. The problem isn’t that it’s out of order as such, but that it starts off with a scene that is gruesome, unsettling, and ambiguous. The audience immediately starts asking questions, and—the film not being willing to provide any easy answers—starts speculating about what exactly happened here. And they know, given how grim the tone is, that anything, however horrible, is a possibility.

If you’re planning to pull some twist on the audience, you don’t want them asking questions at the beginning. You want them thinking they’ve got it all figured out, and then you start to slowly make them realize that they don’t.

All that said, this isn’t a bad movie. It’s bold and different, and many of the individual scare scenes are quite well done. There was one jump scare that got me; and I’m pretty hardened against such things. 

And the atmosphere! I know I went on about it already, but these bleak deserts just never get old for me. If anything, I wish the filmmakers had given us more of these windswept plains, let us hear more wolves baying in the distance, until we can’t help but believe that yes, of course there is something evil out there—how could there not be? An extra ten minutes of that at the outset might have made the whole thing work better.

I guess I’d say I was disappointed with the film, but that’s only because I think there’s potential here for something really awesome, and this only scratched the surface. It’s so rare to get a film that even tries to do some of these things, though.

The Wind is not a film for everybody. There’s violence, one (totally unnecessary) sex scene, a childbirth scene that’s gut-wrenching to watch, and a ton of disturbing images. (It’s not exactly shown onscreen, but the film strongly implies how Elizabeth removed Emma’s infant from her after her death.) I have a very strong aversion to films with violence against women, which made some scenes tough to watch.

But if you can stomach all of that, and you like creepy, unsettling psychological horror in harsh, barren settings, it’s worth a watch.

vox lux
Ah, dear readers, I have not been entirely forthright with you. For I saw Vox Lux before A Star Is Born. But I had to see the latter to know how it stacked up against the former, because the two films, released almost simultaneously, have drawn many comparisons.

And indeed, there are some striking similarities: both films are about a young woman who meets someone who helps her achieve musical stardom. Both films feature a fan being attacked in a restaurant for asking for a picture with a famous person. And both concern a star who, despite all their professional success, has demons of their own to battle.

When it comes to critical reception, of course, there’s no comparison: the critics loved A Star Is Born; they were lukewarm on Vox Lux. Likewise, at the box office, Star demolished Vox, by a score of approximately $432 million to $874,597.

And despite the superficial resemblance, they are very different kinds of films about very different things. In fact, part of the reason for the success of A Star Is Born could be that it’s easy to describe and summarize. What kind of a film is it? A romantic musical drama. What’s it about? A couple of musicians who fall in love while their careers are headed in opposite directions.

Meanwhile, what kind of film is Vox Lux? What’s it about?

Eh, well… we’ll get to that later. If you’re a regular here at Ruined Chapel,  you know that I like to take my time in these reviews. I view them rather like legal cases in which I have to slowly build the evidence for my final argument. And if you’re new to Ruined Chapel, you’re about to get a quintessential demonstration of what I mean.

Vox Lux begins with a school shooting in the year 1999. A lone gunman walks into a music class and opens fire. A 13-year-old girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is shot in the neck, and many of her classmates are killed.

Right off the bat; I have to say this opening is effective and disturbing. It’s clearly modeled on the Columbine attack, but nowadays, when we have become all too familiar with mass shootings, it evokes the horrors of many different atrocities. The setting is powerful, too; the idea of a sleepy, rundown little town being shattered by an attack on its children is… unnerving. Unnerving and all too real.

In the aftermath, we see Celeste crying with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) in the hospital, learning, slowly, to move on her own. Finally, with Ellie’s help, she performs a song they have written together, at a church vigil. It opens with the lyrics:

Hey, turn the light on
‘Cause I’ve got no one to show me the way.
Please, I will follow
‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say

This is the chorus:

So teach me. Show me all you’ve got
And in your words, I will be wrapped up.
Speak to me, you’re my last hope
And I will say nothing and listen to your love.

I’m honestly not sure what’s supposed to rhyme with what here. “Got” with “up”? Or “up” with “love”? Or is it an an A/B/B/A rhyme scheme, where “got” is supposed to rhyme with “love”, and “up” with “hope”?

At any rate, these lyrics seem generic, banal, and trite. Which, to be clear, is a compliment, since that is how most real-life pop lyrics are.

Celeste quickly catches the eye of producers, and goes off to New York City (complete with a shot of the pre-9/11 skyline) to begin recording and to meet with a publicist (Jennifer Ehle). While the publicist tries to keep the young singer from getting her hopes up too high, Celeste’s manager (Jude Law) encourages her, and reminds her, as a way to keep her confidence up during recording sessions: “Imagine you’re alone, dancing in your room.”

Celeste and Ellie travel to Stockholm, and, in a seizure-inducing sequence narrated by Willem Dafoe, begin sampling a sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll lifestyle. (There is also an interesting aside in the narration about how Stockholm became a center for the recording industry. The economist in me loved that; though I have no idea if it’s true.)

Celeste and Ellie party too hard, earning a rebuke from the manager, who grumbles “You kids are all the same.” After that, they jet off to Los Angeles to shoot a music video, and I have to pause here to say just how much I loved the establishing shot of L.A. at night–it radiates a sinister glow while the ominous heavy metal concert growls on the soundtrack. The ensuing strobe-light sequence nearly made me sick, but it was worth it.

In spite of the manager’s earlier warnings, Celeste sleeps with a heavy metal star after attending his concert. Lying together in bed, she tells him that the gunman who shot her listened to music like her lover performs, and tells him about dream she’s had ever since the attack, about going through a tunnel and seeing lifeless bodies inside. She also says she likes performing pop music because “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.”

Shortly afterward, she is seen bursting into the manager’s hotel room, to find him and Ellie sharing a bed. Celeste is horrified at this, on top of the panic she is already experiencing on hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center.

The narrator intones that Celeste’s loss of innocence mirrors our own. This seems like a pretty trite line–it’s the sort of cliché that gets used whenever people are writing about a period of upheaval. But keep it in mind for later. Meanwhile, Celeste films her music video, in which she and her accompanying dancers wear shiny golden masks. She soon becomes a sensation, much to her and Ellie’s delight, and exactly as the manager was so sure she would.

And so ends Act I. (Which was titled “Genesis”) Act II, “Regenesis,” begins with a title card informing us that it is now 2017, and then we see another shooting: terrorists in gold masks like those Celeste wore in her video attacking a beach resort.

The manager goes to see Celeste to tell her the news, and prepare her for a press conference to take place before the upcoming concert and debut of her new album, Vox Lux. Celeste is now 31, and is now played by Natalie Portman.

Let me pause here and address the question of why I watch and review so many Natalie Portman movies, which some readers may have been wondering about. It began simply enough when, as a Star Wars-loving 11-year-old, I saw Attack of the Clones in 2002 and developed a huge crush on Senator Amidala. That’s a pretty common story, I think; I’ve had a number of people tell me the only way to enjoy Episode II is to have a crush on a cast member.

As a result, I started to follow Portman’s career. And while the schoolboy crush may have faded after a while, I began noticing something about her choice of roles: they are wildly different from each other, and moreover, the movies she is in are wildly different from one another–and from most anything else.

Some actors are content to just play variations of the same basic role in the same basic film over and over again. Not Portman. She’s in westerns and dystopian thrillers and romantic road movies.

And here’s the key thing: her movies always give me something to chew on. Some of them are great, some of them are awful, some of them are a mixed bag, but all of them have something unusual. As I wrote recently about Jackie: the best thing for a reviewer is something that’s just freaking weird. And Portman seems to actively seek out the weird.

Vox Lux is a case in point: just when you think you’ve got Portman pegged as an elegant, restrained actress who brings fragility and delicacy to her roles, she goes and plays a hyperactive, drug-addled, alcoholic, narcissistic pop diva with a New York accent and a foul mouth. The manic is still there, but the pixie and the dream girl, not so much.

Celeste, decked out in a punk-y hairdo and heavy make-up that makes her look much older than 31, is something of a wreck, railing at restaurant employees and sniping with journalists. Ellie has been taking care of Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy) and has brought her to the hotel to see her mother. Celeste  treats Ellie with total contempt, before marching past the paparazzi to take her daughter to lunch.

Over lunch–or rather, before lunch, since they ultimately get thrown out before they can eat–Celeste gives a rambling monologue touching on, among other things, her belief that Ellie is poisoning Albertine’s mind against her, her disgust that her daughter learned about her recent break-up from gossip magazines, and most incomprehensibly, this beauty, ostensibly about modern marketing:

“Their business model relies on their customer’s unshakable stupidity. And deep down we probably sense that–their intimate knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator. It’s the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with every living thing that has some connection to the past… the past reeks too much of ugly old people and death.”

In short, Celeste seems rather unhinged. This is confirmed by more background that the narrator helpfully provides, saying that she is recovering from a recent episode of heavy drinking, as well as a car accident in which she injured a pedestrian.

The narrator also informs us that Albertine has been planning to tell her mother that she has recently lost her virginity. This news causes Celeste to lash out at Ellie when she returns to the hotel, viciously berating her sister for not taking better care of Albertine. Ellie tearfully reminds Celeste that she writes her songs, and threatens to reveal that fact to the public, but as Celeste says, “In this day and age, no one will care.”

Celeste then gives a bizarre press conference, in which, after perfunctory condemnations of violence and expressions of support for the victims, she says that, like the terrorists wearing her masks, she used to believe in God, too–when she was a child. The narrator adds the gloss that she speaks like the political figures of her era.

Afterwards, she goes to her hotel room, where she finds the manager embracing Albertine. She tells him to get away from her daughter, and dispatches Albertine with a note of apology to Ellie. She seems on the edge of a breakdown, as evidenced by her comment when she turns back and is surprised to see the manager still in the room: “Jesus Christ, I almost forgot you were there!” He tells her that Albertine wanted to see her father (presumably the musician Celeste slept with back in L.A.) but that he thinks that’s a bad idea.

She and the manager then snort drugs, drink whiskey, and finally stagger out of the room in an almost comical sequence. Celeste manages to somehow find her way to the convoy of vehicles transporting her to the concert. En route, she orders her driver to stop, and pulls Albertine out to the side of the road to kneel with her, in silent prayer, for “Everyone who’s suffering right now.”

They then continue on to the concert venue, where Celeste has another meltdown over… I’m not even sure what, to be honest. The manager ends up holding her in her dressing room, telling her to ignore Ellie, who finally makes him go away, and then cradles Celeste as she sobs incoherently about being “ugly”.

This ends Act II, and now begins the Finale.

I should mention that up to this point, the film felt very low budget–lots of handheld camera shots, and dingy, grimy interiors. Not Hollywood grimy, either; but the real thing–or so it felt, anyway. It gave the film an almost documentary-like feel.

The concert at the end is clearly where they spent most of their production budget. It’s a high-tech show with elaborate special effects and lots of extras. It seemed to me like a very good representation of a pop concert–which is to say, almost unbearable, as one who has never attended such a concert, or wanted to. Dancers in sparkling catsuits, lasers and pyrotechnics, flashing words on a huge screen, all while a synthesized voice shouts unintelligible lyrics. It looked like every Super Bowl halftime show that I’ve ever had the misfortune to glimpse.

Celeste’s performance seems to be a mash-up of allusions to real-life pop stars–she calls her fans “little angels,” she performs a song called “Firecracker,” and another one called “Private Girl in a Public World.”

And then the film just ends in mid-concert, after about twenty minutes of singing and dancing. Nothing happens after. The credits roll (in total silence) and the movie’s over.

Ah… well, actually; not quite. I omitted something. But it’s a spoiler. A big one. I, unfortunately, knew this spoiler going in, and didn’t get to experience the surprise for myself. And that’s too bad, because I would have liked to have seen it without knowing everything.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Think very carefully about whether you want to proceed beyond this point, because now we are going to get into the real meat of what Vox Lux is. If you want to skip that for now, just know that I think it’s an extremely dark film–especially the shocking violence at the beginning–and that it’s also a very, very interesting piece of social commentary, with great acting and writing. If you watch it, pay particular attention to the scene where Celeste has lunch with her daughter; it’s more important than it seems at first. Have fun!

==NOW ENTERING THE SPOILER ZONE==

(more…)

Lucy is about a woman named, in fact, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who gets tricked into carrying an experimental new drug for a gang in Taipei. When the drug is accidentally released into her body, it gives her superhuman powers as it unlocks more of her brain, gradually turning her into a seemingly omniscient being. And that’s pretty much it. Thanks for reading!

 

What? I need more words or it throws off the formatting of the poster? OK, gimme a minute…

The trouble with this movie is that it feels like there’s not much to it beyond the concept I outlined above. Which is a good concept, but also kind of thin. I like to imagine they filmed it and then realized they only had a forty-five minute movie.

As a result, there’s a lot of filler: clips from nature documentaries loosely analogous to what’s happening in the plot, a lecture by a professor (Morgan Freeman) who studies the human brain, lots of B-roll of Scarlett Johansson walking places in tight clothes, and an interminable car chase through the streets of Paris.

Car chases in general bore me. This one was especially bad:

Movie: Look, she’s driving the wrong way!

Me: Yeah, I see that.

Movie: No, see when you drive the wrong way, other cars come towards you! Look!

Me: Uh huh. Can they please get to the destination so the plot can advance?

Movie: …but see, also the police pursuing her are getting into these crazy wrecks because they too are forced to drive the wrong way!

I don’t mean to be too harsh. There are some good things in this movie–the opening twenty minutes are filled with tension when the gang kidnaps Lucy, as well as some delightful banter in the first scene between her and her boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbæk), who initially tricks her into delivering the drugs. Johansson and Asbæk are really good together.

The acting in general is fine; nobody is asked to do anything spectacular, but all the actors are competent. And the story, despite being based on a completely inaccurate idea that humans only use 10% of their brains, is well-told and clever.

It’s just way too padded out. At one point, about halfway through, Lucy has the main villain completely at her mercy and doesn’t kill him. This is after the guy has killed her boyfriend, kidnapped her, killed another prisoner in front of her, and sewn drugs into her stomach so she can act as an unwilling mule for him. And she’s already killed a bunch of his henchmen by this point, so she’s no pacifist. The only reason for her to spare him is because otherwise there would be no plot.

This story would’ve been much better as a one-off episode in a show like The Twilight Zone or something. It’s a nice concept, but not one that can sustain 90 minutes of screen time without any other elements thrown in.

I watched this movie because someone said it was like Ghost in the Shell. And there are some similarities: in both movies, Scarlett Johansson is turned against her will into a nearly-unstoppable super-human crimefighter. Also, the best scenes in both movies are the ones with Johansson and Asbæk together.

So yeah, it’s a fair comparison. But Ghost in the Shell has more interesting characters and a meatier plot with more twists and turns. Lucy is more like a first draft of a promising script that no one bothered to revise.

220px-Bandidas_(movie_poster)I happened to see the end of this movie on TV the other week. I’d never heard of it before, but I like Westerns, so I decided to watch the whole thing.

Maria Álvarez (Penélope Cruz) and Sara Sandoval (Salma Hayek) team up to get revenge on Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam), a sinister land baron who is taking control of huge swaths of Mexican land. In the course of the land grab, he murders Sandoval’s father, and nearly Alvarez’s as well.

Initially, the two women fight with one another about various petty disputes. (Maria is an unsophisticated farm girl, Sara is wealthy and educated.) But both want to avenge their fathers and help their countrymen, so they begin robbing banks to give back to the people, after training for time with a “retired” bank robber. (Sam Shepard.)

The fame of “las bandidas” grows, and eventually they team up with a detective named Quentin Cooke (Steve Zahn), after they convince him of Jackson’s immoral methods. The trio pulls off increasingly daring and complicated heists, until finally Jackson tries to flee the country by rail with all the gold from the bank of Mexico.

It seems hardly necessary to say it, but of course, the bandidas foil him, having learned to work together as partners, and respect one another as friends. They are a little disappointed when Quentin returns to the U.S. with his fiancee, but they still happily ride off into the sunset together.

It’s a fast-paced and funny film, with over-the-top action sequences and complicated bank robberies that don’t make much sense (e.g. where did Sara find the ice skates she uses in one heist?) but it doesn’t matter, because they are fun to watch, and Cruz, Hayek, and Zahn are all likable heroes.

A few times, the bickering between the two women does get a little tiresome–but the film moves so fast it’s hard to complain about it too much. The other thing that annoyed me was a scene where, to demonstrate his quick-draw prowess, the former bank robber shoots the hat off Maria’s head. I hate it when movies make it seem like guns are toys for doing magic tricks. Granted, this is an over-the-top action comedy, so it’s in keeping with the overall tone, but it still grated on me.

It was interesting to watch this so soon after writing this post about female characters. On the one hand, this film doesn’t shy away from cheesecake-y shots of the stars. If you want examples of “male gaze” in cinema, there are plenty in Bandidas. At one point, Maria and Sara dress up as burlesque dancers and pose sexily with Quentin. During their bank robber training, they do push-ups in a river while wearing low-cut blouses for… some reason.

But despite this, it never felt like they were being objectified. Sara and Maria aren’t driven purely by a desire to please men, and their friendship isn’t destroyed by their attraction to Quentin. They are fully-realized characters in their own right. The movie easily passes the Bechdel test–not only do they have conversations that are not about men, they even have one that’s about the rudimentary principles of gold-backed currency! (I propose a “Gambrel test”: do characters in a film have at least one conversation about economic theory?)

In short, the film seemed sexy without being sexist. At least, that’s how it struck me. It’s a lighthearted, somewhat cheesy Western comedy that never takes itself too seriously. It’s not a deep, thought-provoking film that you’ll think about for hours afterward. But it is a lot of fun while you’re watching it.

A_tale-of-love-and-darkness-poster
Image via Wikipedia

[I saw this film a couple years ago, but never posted a review. I will do so now, for no particular reason. 🙂 ]

I don’t feel fully qualified to review this film, because it’s in Hebrew, which I don’t speak. So I can’t comment on the actors’ delivery of their lines, or even on the script, since I’m basing it off of English subtitles that may not reflect the full meaning.

Even more significantly, Hebrew etymology itself is an important concept in the film, and I can’t be sure to what extent I grasped the word play that goes on. At one point, the narrator alludes to the fact that the Hebrew word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness, which is related to the word for forgetting. This leads me to suspect the title has more meaning in the original. (The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Israeli author Amos Oz, from which this passage is adapted.)

All that said, I’m going to do my best to review what I can, and let you know when I think my opinions might be colored by my ignorance of the language.

The film is told from the perspective of the young Amos Oz (Amir Tessler) and chronicles his experience growing up in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, which over the course of the film is partitioned by a U.N. Resolution and then falls into civil war.

This political element is mostly shown through glimpses and murmurs in the background, since Amos is a young child, and what he perceives first and foremost are incidents in his own family. His father Arieh (Gilad Kanana) and mother Fania (Natalie Portman, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay) are his main influences. Both are well-educated and, in their own ways, teach him about language and storytelling. His father, a scholarly and bookish man, frequently lectures him about Hebrew words and their interrelated meanings.

Fania is a more romantic type than her husband, and early sequences show her fantasies as a girl growing up in Europe. envisioning Israel as the “land of milk and honey”, to be settled by heroic pioneers. In keeping with her imaginative nature, she tells young Amos stories—some fanciful and fairytale-like, others more depressing and realistic, such as the story from her childhood of a Polish army officer who committed suicide as she watched.

Amos also overhears things he shouldn’t—such as Fania’s mother berating her, causing the younger woman to slap her own face in shame, or Fania telling another grim tale of her youth in Europe: a woman who committed suicide by locking herself in a shed and setting it on fire.

The film shows these scenes, as imagined by young Amos, and you can’t help feeling these aren’t healthy for a child to hear. At the same time, even if you didn’t realize that Oz grows up to be a writer, it becomes very clear in watching the film that this is his calling—everything in his upbringing leads him towards it.

Gradually, as the film wears on and political upheaval takes its toll, Fania begins to succumb to depression. It’s a grim decline, as we see her slowly wasting away, but the film does a good job capturing the pain and frustration seeing a loved one with a mental health disorder brings upon a family. (Even more heart-wrenching is the fact that the doctors prescribe sleeping pills and other depressants—at the time, proper treatment for such disorders was not widely available.)

Fania goes away to her sisters’ home in Tel Aviv, and there overdoses on sleeping pills. In the closing moments of the film, we see Amos as a young man, meeting with his father at a kibbutz. Finally, we see an elderly Amos writing the word “mother” in Hebrew.

The overall film is haunting and evocative, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Nicholas Britell that captures the gloomy mood of Jerusalem, which Oz at one point likens to a black widow.

I did have some issues with the cinematography. It has that washed-out gray/green palette that is way, way overused in films these days—especially those set in the past. I would have preferred to see it in the normal range of colors.

However, while this was a drawback, I did think it very successfully communicated one thing about Jerusalem: its age. Throughout the film, but especially in the shots of the winding, narrow streets that Amos and his family traverse through the city, I could practically feel the weight of all the accumulated history of this ancient place. The film conveyed the mystical power of its setting, and gave a sense of why it is so important to so many.

Again, I don’t want to comment too much on the acting, since I was reading subtitles rather than listening to the speech, but it seemed very good indeed. Tessler is the standout—he had to carry the immense burden of seeming wise beyond his years while still behaving like a normal child, rather than The Boy Who Is Destined To Become A Famous Writer. And he manages it splendidly from what I can tell.

Small moments, like the sequence in which Arieh is celebrating that all five copies of his new book have been purchased, and Amos later sees all five, still in their wrapping paper, at the house of an author Arieh knows (either a friend or relative; I couldn’t tell which), are what stick in my mind. The man simply closes the shelf lid over the books and gives Amos a look that says “we will not speak of this”, without uttering a word.

I went to this film expecting it to be a downer—I knew that it ended with Fania falling into depression and ultimately committing suicide—and for a large part of the second half, it did feel excruciatingly bleak. Watching someone sit silently in the dark, overcome with psychological torment, while her family members suffer in impotent grief, while perhaps true to life, is not a pleasant cinematic experience, and that’s how the film trends for some time. I was ready to write it off as an interesting picture that drowns in mental anguish in the second half.

And then something amazing happened.

I want to write about it, because I haven’t seen many others address it—but I also hate to spoil it. So I’ll make a deal with you: if you haven’t seen the movie, but think you might want to, stop reading now and watch it. Pay particular attention to the scenes of Fania’s stories—the drowning woman, the woman in the shed, the Polish officer. Then come back and read the rest of this. If you’ve already seen it, or just don’t care to but read this far and want to know it all, read on.

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A truly great poster! (via Wikipedia)

What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.

The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.

Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.

They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.

Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.

Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.

In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.

Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral.  Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.

At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.

The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.

It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.

The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.

But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.

As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”

I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting  works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.

I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.

Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.

So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.

Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.

WARNING: I AM GOING TO SPOIL THE WHOLE MOVIE. DON’T READ THIS IF YOU WANT TO BE SURPRISED.

Annihilation_(film)Annihilation tells the story of a biologist exploring a mysterious region called “Area X”, where the fallout from a meteor strike has enveloped the landscape. In the film’s first scene, we see the biologist (unnamed in the novel on which the film is based, but here called Lena and portrayed by Natalie Portman) being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, whose questions she can answer only vaguely, or not at all.

The film then flashes back to a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, and then forward again to a scene of the biologist  giving a lecture in her class at Johns Hopkins. (It seemed hard to believe she would have been giving a lecture on the basics of cells to pre-med students, but whatever.) After class, she meets a fellow faculty member named Dan, who invites her to his house for a party. She refuses, as she is still mourning the loss of her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac, and yes, apparently Kane is his only name)—a soldier missing and presumed killed in action. She stays home and paints their former bedroom, thinking of happier times.

Then her husband suddenly appears. She’s overjoyed to see him, but it soon becomes clear he is not well, and has no memory of what his mission was or how he got back. He begins to bleed from the mouth, and Lena calls an ambulance. En route to the hospital, they are intercepted by a SWAT team that drugs Lena and forcibly removes her husband from the ambulance.

She awakens in a holding cell where she is interrogated by a psychologist called Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually reveals that they are in a research station just outside of Area X—where Kane was deployed. He is dying, and Lena realizes the only way to find out what happened to him is to join the team of researchers about to deploy into the mysterious Aurora-like substance called “The Shimmer” that covers Area X.

The team consists of physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and medic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). They are led by Dr. Ventress. Ventress throughout seems cold and distant, and in early scenes has her hood pulled over her eyes like she’s Darth Sidious or something. She also sounds almost bored when describing to Lena how Area X will slowly grow until it consumes the entire planet. Leigh is a fine actress, so I’m assuming the director told her to deliver her lines in this awkward way.

After entering the Shimmer, Lena and her team awaken after a few days with no memory of how they reached the part of the jungle they are in, or of setting up their camp. Moreover, they discover that none of their communications equipment works, while Ventress lurks ominously at the edge of the camp, saying dismissively “Did anyone really expect our equipment to work?”

In other words, Ventress is pretty much the worst leader imaginable, and gives them every reason to distrust her.

The team makes their way into the jungle, trying to find the coast and the lighthouse that lies at the epicenter of the strange phenomena. At one point, they find an abandoned boathouse where they are attacked by a huge albino alligator.

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Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in “Annihilation” Image via IMDb

This scene really annoyed me, because when the creature attacks Radek and pulls her into the water, Lena immediately runs in after her, dropping her rifle. And then Sheppard and Thorensen follow suit.

Lena is supposed to have been in the army! I find it hard to believe she would just throw down her gun and blindly jump into the water. The fact that the others would do the same, leaving no one to cover them, is just inexcusable.

Miraculously, they rescue Radek, and then–despite inexplicably letting the gator get too close before firing on it–kill it and examine its corpse, discovering it is mutated, with teeth like a shark.

As they move deeper into Area X, they discover an abandoned army base where they find a video memory card left behind by the previous team–including Kane. On playing the card, they see a disturbing scene of Kane cutting one of his comrade’s stomach open to reveal his intestines writhing like a living creature. Later on, they find the remains of this unfortunate man, with strange vine-like structures radiating out from his skeleton and covering the walls.

Unable to sleep after studying the strange behavior of the cell samples, Lena joins Ventress taking the night watch. Ventress tells her that, in light of the disturbing footage, it’s a good thing that Lena didn’t tell the other team members that Kane was her husband. Ventress’s musings on the human urge for self-destruction are interrupted when a monster breaks through the perimeter and drags Sheppard into the night. Lena finds her remains the next day

After this, Thorensen grows (rather abruptly, I thought) distrustful of the other members of the team. She comes to suspect that Lena murdered Sheppard.

Now might be a good time to mention that all of this has been interspersed with flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s marriage as she thinks back on their relationship. First, she recalls their happiness together, but gradually, her thoughts turn to his deployment–and her infidelity with Dan during his absence.

She wakes from a dream of one such memory to see Thorensen holding a gun on her. In her escalating paranoia, Thorensen has found a locket of Lena’s with Kane’s picture in it, and realized he was her husband. She is now convinced that Lena, possibly working with Ventress, killed Sheppard, and ties both of them up, as well as Radek. She seems on the verge of slicing them open when the monster that killed Sheppard appears and kills her. (Eerily, the sinister beast growls in Sheppard’s voice.) Radek gets free and kills the monster, saving Lena and Ventress.

Ventress decides to press on, heading alone for the lighthouse. Lena and Radek remain behind in the ruins of suburb overrun by strange vegetation and trees that resemble human beings. Radek wanders off, apparently deciding to become one with Area X, leaving Lena to find her way to the lighthouse alone.

The lighthouse scenes were some of the best in the film–it’s a tower surrounded by human skeletons and strange glittering trees; a perfectly creepy set. Inside, Lena discovers a camera (which mysteriously still has power after all this time) that contains a recording of Kane giving a chilling speech that ends in instructions to “find Lena”. He then commits suicide with a phosphorous grenade, after which a doppelganger of him steps into the frame.

Lena enters a small hole in the lighthouse floor, leading to a strange catacomb structure where she finds the psychologist, who says some threatening stuff and then explodes into a dazzling display of light and strange alien forms.

I know a lot of reviews talk about how weird and trippy this scene is, but honestly, it was not nearly as weird as it is in VanderMeer’s book:

“Not a wall of light–gold, blue, green, existing in some other spectrum–but a wall of flesh that resembled light, with sharp, curving elements within it, an textures like ice when it has frozen from flowing water. An impression of living things lazily floating in the air around it…”

Weird lights as shorthand for the Great Unknowable Cosmos is a pretty common science fiction idea. I thought of this line from Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann:

I saw… only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”

I even fancied I heard the demonic pipings of some nameless flute on the soundtrack, another Lovecraft standard.

After the light show ends, Lena is confronted by a strange creature that resembles a person in an oddly-colored full-body suit. (Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking the special effects department gave up and said “Just send the stunt person in their mo-cap garb.”)

This creature fights Lena, prevents her from escaping the lighthouse, and mimics her every move. It’s a mesmerizing and well-choreographed dance-fight, although I couldn’t help thinking of this classic Marx Brothers routine.

The creature gradually starts to take on Lena’s physical features, creating another doppelganger. Lena–at least, I think it’s the “real” Lena–takes a phosphorous grenade from Kane’s pack and thrusts it into the creature’s hands. It explodes and Lena escapes as the creature and the lighthouse are engulfed in flames.

Flash forward to the interrogation chamber, where the man in the hazmat suit reveals that The Shimmer disappeared after the lighthouse was destroyed, and that Lena’s husband–or, the person who looks like her husband–has recovered. She asks to see him, and a flicker of The Shimmer is seen in their eyes as they embrace and the credits roll.

For all the talk of Annihilation‘s many influences–Apocalypse Now, Alien, 2001, everything Lovecraftian–it reminded me most of the video game Spec Ops: The Line. The scene of Lena gazing back at the flaming tower reminded me of a similar surreal shot in Spec Ops, and both game and film are driven by an ever-increasing uncertainty as to what is real amid mounting death and destruction. (Also, minor note, but Spec Ops was the first time I ever heard of white phosphorous.)

Annihilation is a solid sci-fi thriller. Portman and Isaac’s performances are the standouts, but everyone is good–in later scenes, Leigh makes up for her early flat line readings about the end of the world. There are a few truly disturbing scenes, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The special effects occasionally look cheesy, but for the most part they were decent. The soundtrack is a little weird. A strangely soothing stringed instrument crops up at ill-timed moments, but it wasn’t a major problem.

The script is likewise solid: the love scenes, Kane’s final message, and the very last line are the best parts, and there are only a few pieces of clunky exposition, including Lena’s opening speech to her class.

If you like science-fiction, horror, and especially weird fiction of the cosmic variety, this one’s for you.

And that’s my review. What are you waiting around for? Go on, shoo! Go watch the nice movie. There’s nothing to see below the page break, I promise.

Lena Got a Gun
Natalie Portman in “Annihilation”. Image via IMDb

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This is a really weird poster. It looks like they are all hovering in the sky like Mary Poppins or something.

I’ll skip my usual plot-point-by-plot-point synopsis for this one–I think most readers are already familiar with World War II. Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first days as Prime Minister in May 1940. Hitler’s armies are advancing through France and closing in on British forces at Dunkirk.

The film depicts Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Churchill’s predecessor as Prime Minister, and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) attempting to force Churchill to negotiate with Hitler. Churchill argues with them repeatedly, as the Nazis draw ever closer to Dunkirk, and the news grows more bleak by the day,

Churchill is on the point of giving in to the calls for negotiations when he makes a spontaneous (and apparently completely invented for the sake of the film) visit to the London Underground, where all the passengers he talks to are strongly in favor of fighting to the bitter end–bricklayers, new mothers, and children all are fiercely opposed to the idea of negotiating.

This is a major over-simplification of how public opinion works. I understand the scene was intended to convey that Churchill was in tune with the spirit of the people, but it just seemed ham-handed and unbelievable, which raises the question of why they bothered to invent the scene at all. Why make something up just to have it be the weakest part of the drama?

His faith in the British fighting spirit restored, Churchill makes his famous “We shall fight on the beaches”  speech to Parliament. The evacuation of Dunkirk he ordered is a success, and the film ends with Churchill receiving overwhelming applause for his resolve.

The plot may be a bit thin, and of course, like all historical dramas, is hampered by the fact that we know what’s going to happen, but the performances of the major roles are all quite solid. Oldman does a terrific job, portraying Churchill as a flawed, temperamental man, capable of brilliant oratory as well as moments of confusion and depression. Kristin Scott Thomas is also very good as Churchill’s wife Clementine, although it seemed at times like the writer and/or director didn’t know what to do with her.

The big problems with the film were immersion-breaking things like the scene in the Underground, or another scene where they are playing a film reel to brief the Prime Minister, and the images displayed are fairly obviously what you get if you ask for “stock footage of Nazis”. (Why would Churchill, at a briefing about Dunkirk, need to see footage of Hitler giving a speech?)

Also, the cinematographer applied that grayish blue washed-out color filter that apparently everything set in England is supposed to have these days. This is far from the only movie to do this, so I don’t mean to single it out, but this desaturation business is getting tiresome. Can’t we just have normal colors?

Still, this is one of those movies that hinges on the performances, and those are certainly good enough to make it enjoyable.

Valerian_and_the_City_of_a_Thousand_PlanetsThis movie is based on a French sci-fi comic series called Valerian and Laureline. I’m not sure why they didn’t just call the movie that, because Laureline (Cara Delevingne) gets at least equal screen time with Valerian (Dane DeHaan).

The film begins by showing the aforementioned “City of a Thousand Planets”–a massive space station where millions of species, including humanity, all coexist. This is followed by a lengthy sequence of primitive, peace-loving aliens frolicking on a beach and collecting pearls, only to be interrupted by missiles and burning spaceships falling from the sky. A few of them manage to seek shelter in a crashed ship, but the alien Emperor’s daughter doesn’t make it, and he watches in horror as she perishes in the fiery destruction of the planet.

Agent Valerian wakes up suddenly, having apparently just dreamt the apocalyptic scene. He and his partner (in both the romantic and professional senses) Laureline are assigned to retrieve a “Mül converter”–a small alien creature which Valerian saw on the doomed planet of his vision.

After much bickering and flirtatious banter, Valerian and Laureline arrive at a trans-dimensional market where a deal for the converter is being done. Along with a team of soldiers who looked like they were auditioning to be in a Borderlands movie, they get the converter and escape from the gangster who was selling it.

As they examine the creature, they learn that the planet Mül was destroyed 30 years before, although the details of this are classified. Mysteries!

On returning to the City of a Thousand Planets, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) informs them of dangerous radiation growing within the station. The Commander is attending a summit of the species on the station to discuss the threat, but is kidnapped by aliens similar to the ones Valerian saw in his vision.

Valerian gives chase, but falls into the supposedly deadly radioactive area himself. Laureline eventually manages to track him down through performing what I can only describe as “fetch quests” that are too complicated to explain here. She eventually finds Valerian, but is then captured herself by another type of alien, which then forces Valerian to rescue her, which is another fetch quest that involves watching a shape-shifting alien named Bubble (Rihanna) perform a pole-dance.

As Dave Barry would say, I swear I’m not making this up. But it might not be as bad as I’m making it sound.

Maybe.

Anyway, they eventually get back on track and manage to find their way to the center of the station, which turns out to be not irradiated at all. They meet the aliens who kidnapped the Commander Filitt , who explain that their world was destroyed when Filitt fired powerful missiles at an enemy ship, annihilating both the planet and the enemy fleet. He then classified the data to cover up his war crime.

The Emperor also tells them that his daughter’s spirit has been reincarnated in Valerian, which is why he received visions guiding him to this point, where the few survivors of the attack were taken in the remains of a damaged ship, and have since been working to build a new vessel that can recreate their homeworld. All they need is the Mül converter and a pearl–both of which Valerian and Laureline provide.

The kidnapped Commander–who has been unconscious to this point–awakens and Valerian and Laureline confront him for his crimes. Unrepentant, he defends his action as necessary for humanity and orders his personal robot guards–who, along with the rest of the military, have surrounded the alien ship–to attack and kill everyone.

Valerian and Laureline fight off the robots, and escape along with the remaining aliens. The Commander is left behind for the military authorities on the station to arrest. The Mül aliens part ways with Valerian and Laureline, leaving them to enjoy a romantic interlude while await rescue as the credits roll.

It’s a goofy, weird, often campy, but still fairly entertaining movie. Even if I hadn’t known it was based on a comic book, I probably would have guessed it–everything about it feels like a comic book, from the action scenes to the art style.

About that art style: there are tons of CGI shots in this movie. Sets, characters, backgrounds–huge swaths of it are digitally created. And it’s kind of obvious. In all but the most distant scenes, the graphics are, in my opinion, pretty fake-looking. There were some scenes that looked like Playstation 2 games.

If you’re a fan of high-quality graphics, this may be disappointing. But since the whole story felt like a whimsical comic book adventure anyway, I was able to write that off as just part of the style. Comic books are known for bold colors and fantastic scenery, not photo-realism; so I could live with it.

The acting from the two leads was nothing special, but it was mostly passable. A few of the bit parts (especially Alain Chabat, who plays a submarine pirate named Bob) are pretty well done, although they don’t get much screen time.

One final note for weirdos like me who are fascinated by movie weaponry: the mixture of guns in this film was very strange. Some of the soldiers seemed to have plain old AR-style rifles, like present-day Earth armies use:

obvious AR 15 is obvious

But other times, the weapons were a bit more bizarre:

fake sci-fi guns

(And yes, that thing Laureline has is a weapon, even though it looks like a bottle of water.)

I’m not sure why this was or if it was even a deliberate choice, but I found it odd. It instantly surpassed the question of why people are always getting knives in Ghost in the Shell as the big movie weapons mystery of 2017 for me.

Anyway, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is far from a great movie. It may not even be a good one. It’s simultaneously very weird and extremely predictable, which is kind of amazing in its way. But as a light bit of silly science-fantasy fun, it gets the job done. It’s more fun to watch something weird with a little new flavor than to just watch yet another installment in an established franchise.

Blade_Runner_2049_logo
Poster for “Blade Runner 2049”. Image via Wikipedia.

*WARNING: SPOILERS!*

The movie’s title is misleading. The term “runner” is way too fast-paced for this 2.75 hour science fiction slog. It’s much more of a “Blade Walker” or even a “Blade Crawler”. Scenes drag on, and the camera lingers on things like trees, ruined cityscapes, and statues of naked women long after the viewer has gotten the idea.

The film follows officer K (Ryan Gosling), an LAPD officer in the year 2049. His job is to “retire” (that is, kill) obsolete replicants–synthetic humans created by the Wallace corporation. The older models, leftovers from the Tyrell corporation, which Niander Wallace purchased, have no built-in expiration date, unlike the newer versions–which is what K himself is.

In the opening sequence, K retires a rebellious replicant farmer, after getting into a ridiculous fistfight with him. The director and choreographer really should learn that people can’t get punched in the face repeatedly and then thrown through a wall and just walk it off. (There’s an even more egregious example later.) Also, the whole fight happened because K inexplicably set his gun aside. Very odd.

Anyway, after K kills the replicant, he finds a box buried in the yard outside his house, beside a lone dead tree. This allows for some nice shots of K standing around in his coat, looking contemplative and brooding. Get used to this.

K then goes home to his apartment, to install some upgrades on Joi (Ana de Armas), his holographic companion, who he apparently has set on “sexy over-solicitous housewife” mode. She makes him an artificial dinner, instantly switches her appearance from among a variety of revealing outfits, suggests various things they can do for fun, and in general behaves like a parody of what 13-year-old boys imagine a girlfriend is like. It’s cringe-worthy.

The new upgrade allows Joi to accompany him outside–so now, rather than just being his sexy overeager housewife, she can be his sexy, overeager constant companion. They are celebrating this by pretending to kiss while frolicking in the rain when they are interrupted by a call from K’s boss, Lt. Joshi. (Robin Wright)  She tells him to come to the police station, where they are examining the contents of the box he discovered–the skeleton of a female replicant that died in childbirth.

I was really annoyed by this scene. Basically, it was the standard police procedural trope of “the forensic lab”–except it was Officer K who spotted all the key clues! He kept telling the forensic analyst to zoom in on stuff, and figuring out what had happened to the remains himself. It seemed hard to believe that he, an average replicant rent-a-cop, would pick up on clues the forensics person missed.

At any rate, this is an alarming discovery, as replicants are not supposed to be able to reproduce, and they fear that the discovery of one who did will lead to a replicant rebellion. Joshi orders K to destroy all evidence of this replicant and her child.

This leads K to the Wallace Corporation headquarters–a strange, extremely orange building that reminded me of some of the sets from The Mummy, except with shimmering water shadows on the wall for some reason.

The corporation seems to consist of just two people: Niander Wallace (Jared Leto)–a strange, monk-like character who speaks in nonsense sentences that are possibly supposed to make him sound smart, but in fact make him a comically obtuse guru–and his replicant secretary, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a femme fatale. It reminds me of a story I heard once about a company that employed only a lawyer and a secretary–their only job was to sue any companies who infringed on their corporation’s patents.

I frankly don’t know how the Wallace Corporation stays in business, with only two employees and a product line that exists solely to destroy other parts of the product line. Well, I guess there’s also a third product line designed to provide female companionship to the main product line.

I’ve heard of niche markets, but this is ridiculous.

Anyway, Officer K finds out from Luv that the bones are the remains of a replicant named Rachael, and hears some recordings showing she was once involved with another LAPD cop, Rick Deckard, the protagonist of the original Blade Runner movie. (That last part wasn’t included in the script, though I half-expected it would be, since this movie insists on spelling things out for the audience.)

At some point around here, K leaves the Wallace Corp. headquarters and gets approached by a prostitute, who has been sent to spy on him by a mysterious woman. It doesn’t mean anything at the time, but it will be important later on, so file that away. Also ponder this: why are there always so many prostitutes in these sci-fi and fantasy worlds? Seriously, it feels like one-third of every fictional economy is hooker-based.

Luv is sent by Wallace to destroy the bones and to follow K as he searches for Rachael’s child. The former she does with incredible ease, considering it means murdering the forensics expert in the middle of the police station.

Meanwhile, K is telling a (somewhat tipsy) Lt. Joshi about his childhood memories. They aren’t, of course, real childhood memories–he’s a replicant, after all, but he has implanted memories. He tells Joshi about one of the most vivid–a story in which he is hiding a small wooden toy horse from some other children. We flashback to scenes of him being pursued through a dark industrial maze, and carefully securing the toy in some shelves.

This scene–not the flashback itself, but the scene where K recounts it to Joshi–was one of the best in the film. Wright was terrific as the foul-mouthed and heavy-drinking but warmhearted Lieutenant. In this scene, she’s almost flirtatious, and has far better chemistry with Gosling than his holographic love interest ever does. It’s a pity she doesn’t have a larger role.

K returns to the scene where he first found the box of remains, and finds a date carved on the dead tree beside the grave–6/10/21, which was also carved on the toy horse he remembers from his childhood. He begins to suspect (bolstered by Joi’s reassurances) that he is Rachael’s child. He checks the birth records and learns that two children were born on that date with identical DNA–a boy and a girl. The girl died, but the boy was sent to an orphanage.

This was another scene that annoyed me. As they are looking at the strings of DNA, the various combinations of “G” “T” “C” and “A” are displayed and Joi comments that these four elements make up human beings’ “code”, whereas she only has two elements to hers. I liked this line, but I didn’t like that she then had to spell it out: “1 and 0”, she says, for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t know what binary code is. I suppose there are such people, but I doubt any of them would go to see this movie.

K (along with Joi, for no reason I can discern) decides to go to the orphanage, which is located in some sort of massive junkyard, where K’s flying police car is shot down by some group of bandits–who these bandits are is never explained. K fights them off and finds his way into the orphanage–a neo-Dickensian sweatshop of sorts, where he forces the cruel overseer to show him to an abandoned area that matches his childhood memory. There, he discovers the horse in exactly the place he remembers hiding it.

Somehow–it was not clear how, since we last saw his flying car being shot down–he makes his way back to his apartment, and from there finds Dr. Ana Stelline, a woman with a condition that forces her to live inside a glass chamber so as to be protected from all contaminants. She designs false memories for the Wallace Corporation to implant in replicants. She is a talented designer of memories, and on inspecting his (how she did this, I have no idea) indicates that it is real.

K then becomes inexplicably angry and consequently fails the replicant behavior test that they apparently give him after every mission. He tells Joshi this is because he successfully found and killed Rachael’s child. Joshi gives him 48 hours to either flee or try to pass the test again. So he…

He, um…

Ok, this is really kind of bizarre…

He goes back to his apartment, where Joi has brought in the prostitute from earlier. She has done this because she knows that he’s been wanting to sleep with her (Joi, that is). But, since she’s a hologram and all, it doesn’t go very well. So she sort of superimposes herself over the prostitute.

Except the superimposition doesn’t totally work, so there’s this bizarre blurring effect, kind of like when you watch a 3-D movie without the glasses on.

It’s creepy and hilariously bad and stupid and probably one of the worst romantic scenes ever filmed. And it’s worse when you put it in context. I mean, I get annoyed enough when my computer installs updates without asking my permission. If it started letting prostitutes into my apartment while I was gone, I would be even more upset. And then when you add in that K has just been given 48 hours to run away from the authorities, it seems even more absurd that he would spend 8 of them making love to his virtual assistant.

Ok, looking at K, it was probably more like 10 minutes, but still.

Oh, and the morning after, as she’s leaving, the prostitute makes a catty remark to Joi. That was stupid too.

K has the toy horse analyzed by some random character who exists only to advance the plot but still manages to be vaguely offensive during his brief screen time. The levels of radiation found in the horse lead K (and Joi, natch) to the blindingly orange ruins of Las Vegas.

After finding an abandoned beekeeper’s station and some statues of naked women in high heels–just another day at the office!–K finds his way to an abandoned hotel and casino, where he meets Deckard (Harrison Ford)

Deckard enters with one of the best lines in the movie: “You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now?” This is a quote from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, as K helpfully informs us, thus weakening the line immensely.

Deckard and K then engage in another ridiculous comic-book fistfight that serves no purpose to the story, but takes place in a casino lounge with various holograms of famous performers flickering on and off. It’s kind of cool, but it was done better in Dead Money.

After this is over with, they talk, and Deckard explains he left the pregnant Rachael behind and scrambled police records so they could not track the child.

This scene was another one of the film’s high points, thanks entirely to Ford’s acting. The dialogue is still awkward, and Gosling is pretty wooden throughout, but the gruff tones of the veteran actor make it compelling. As he was when reprising another of his most famous roles, Ford is the one of the few bright spots.

Meanwhile, Luv–remember her?–has killed Joshi and tracked K to Las Vegas. She and her men attack, capturing Deckard and badly injuring K. She also destroys the small device in which the Joi program is stored, effectively “killing” her.

Luv takes Deckard to speak with Wallace. And by speak with him, I mean have Wallace recite bunch of gobbledygook at Deckard in a dull, awkward monotone before finally producing a replicant of Rachael. Deckard gruffly responds that “her eyes were green.” I would say it’s absurd that they could get such an obvious detail wrong, but given the Wallace Corporation’s general ineptitude, it seems almost plausible.

Meanwhile, K has been rescued by some pro-Replicant freedom fighters–one of whom is the prostitute from earlier. They want K to kill Deckard before he can lead the Wallace corporation to his daughter. From this, K realizes he is not the child after all, and that Deckard falsified the records.

After a brief interlude with a giant pink naked holographic girl–just don’t even ask, ok?–K intercepts Luv and her men as they are transporting Deckard to… someplace… and, in a rather anti-climactic battle, K kills Luv and rescues Deckard. This scene takes place at night and underwater, so it’s not really a feast for the eyes.

Finally, K takes Deckard back to meet his daughter–Ana Stelline. K has realized that the memory was actually hers–she designed it and the Wallace Corporation put it in his brain. Deckard greets his daughter in her isolation chamber while K collapses in the snow outside and the credits roll.

It’s not a bad little plot, and might have made quite a good 90 minute or two hour movie. But the pacing is absolutely bad; not merely because it is slow–although it is definitely that–but also just because even with all that build-up, the final battle still seems rushed, confusing and unsatisfying. And we never see what becomes of Wallace himself, who is the main villain of the piece.

“But it’s not about the story!” say the fans. “It’s about the atmosphere! The cinematography!”

Ok, sure; but the atmosphere isn’t that great. It’s nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before in other films influenced by the original Blade Runner. I was struck, again and again, by how ordinary all of it felt.

As for the cinematography: it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as great as I expected from all the hype. That large parts of the film take place at night and in the rain doesn’t help–and frankly, as rainy noir-cinematography goes, there are much better examples.

The poster tells the story. Remember that article a few years ago about orange and blue in Hollywood movies? Well, those colors are out in force here–everything is bluish except Vegas, which is orange. (Compare the poster for 2049 above to the one for the original.)

And in the end, movies aren’t about cinematography. It’s just one tool that the filmmaker uses in service of the ultimate goal: telling a good story with good characters.

The story, as I have said, is not bad but it is also not remarkable, and certainly shouldn’t take this long to tell. And the characters? Well, there are a few good ones. Joshi and Deckard are standouts–I wish we could have had a film about the two of them working together instead.

K is probably the least interesting character in the whole thing, and that’s saying something. Joi–who is the de facto love interest–is also quite dull, since she exists entirely to serve K.

This brings me to another point: the film’s sexism. As I have said, there’s plenty of “male gaze”–besides the statues and holograms, there is a horrible scene where the camera focuses on a naked, newly-created female replicant who is immediately killed for no reason. (This should have been cut, not only because of the gratuitous nudity and violence, but also because it added nothing to the story and made the already overlong picture drag more.)

But even more significant than the sexist imagery is the fact that the women’s roles in the story are all secondary. Even Stelline, who is in a sense the central driving force of the whole plot, is shunted to the side to focus on the unremarkable officer K.

The irony is, it’s clearly a dystopian story, and the world they present could indeed be described as a dreadful dystopia for women in particular, where they are treated, with a few exceptions, as commodities. But the writers seem not to be aware of this. If they were, they could have explored that, rather than the story of officer K, the second-rate cop who wanted to bed his virtual assistant.

Blade Runner 2049 is the second cyberpunk film I’ve seen this year. The other was Ghost in the Shell. See that instead–it’s much better. You can even watch it twice in the time it takes to watch 2049.