Reality Bites (1994)

If there’s any one clear enemy that Gen-X kids rallied against in the 90s it was “Phoniness.” It was as if the entire Slacker generation had taken Holden Caulfield’s tirades against “phonies” as gospel instead of mocking the blowhard for his own vapid narcissism, creating a kind of low-effort religious movement that worshipped Authenticity as the main driver of counterculture. Any artist in search of a self-sustaining paycheck was labeled a sell-out. Any bozo who debased themselves by wearing a suit was a corporate clown. Anyone caught caring especially deeply on any topic at all was a sucker & a loser, at least in the eyes of Generation Apathy. That anti-phonies mindset made Gen-X especially difficult to pander to as a movie-going audience, since any studio actually caught putting an effort into marketing to that demographic had already committed their intended audience’s cardinal sin: putting effort into anything at all. So, the few times that Hollywood did openly pander to Gen-X sensibilities mostly produced flops – both critically & financially. While “indie cinema” flourished, Slacker Era studio pictures like Empire Records, Airheads, and Reality Bites were slapped aside as phonies by the Gen-X audience they were actually aimed at, only to gradually gain cult status among younger viewers who foolishly looked up to that generation as The Cool Kids.

Speaking as a foolish Millennial myself, I’m highly susceptible to being charmed by these big-studio attempts at X-tremely 90s Gen-X pandering, which is why I recently gave Reality Bites a shot despite its contemporary critical dismissal. It’s easy to see why this film in particular was such a target for claims of corporate phoniness, while goofier titles like Empire Records & Airheads were merely forgotten as trivialities. It’s just so achingly sincere as a romantic comedy in a way that just does not jive at all with Gen-X apathy politics. Reality Bites tries to have it both ways in “giving voice” to a generation that only wants to eat pizza, watch syndicated television, and smoke weed out of half-crushed soda cans while also committing wholeheartedly to a traditional romantic triangle plot. Because all three participants in that central melodrama are such Apathetic brats, it’s difficult to care at all about who ends up with whom as the story shakes out, which I’m saying even as a product of the Radical Empathy generation that eagerly followed in the Slackers’ footsteps. Reality Bites is terminally phony, but only because it can’t find a proper way to marry genuine heartfelt emotion with the who-cares slackerdom of its target demographic. In the attempt, it amounts to nothing at all, just wasted time.

The one saving grace of this big-studio Slacker facsimile is the charm of its Ultra 90s cast. If nothing else, Winona Ryder is always some baseline level of delightful, apparently even as a privileged brat with no sense of morals, goals, or an internal life. Jeanine Garofalo & Steve Zahn are likewise adorably chummy as her pizza-loving, couch-dwelling roommates, so much so that you wish the movie were solely about that trio’s friendship so you could spend more time in their smoky living room with them, just hanging out. Instead, the film details a romantic rivalry in which a greasy go-nowhere musician (Ethan Hawke) and a yuppie corporate stooge (Ben Stiller) play tug of war with Ryder’s confused heart – a literalized conflict between Authenticity & Phoniness. I’ll spare you the reveal of which undeserving beau she chooses in this review, but know this: the movie would have been vastly improved if it didn’t care about that romantic conflict at all. Reality Bites pretends to be interested in the static ennui of a generation with no sense of ambition or enthusiasm for participating in established social norms, but it quickly bails on that inert navel-gazing to instead dive headfirst into the normiest bullshit I can possibly think of: a potentially flourishing young woman wasting her time on two bonehead men who don’t deserve a second’s pause.

Directed by Ben Stiller around the time when he was producing much more successful Gen-X comedy with The Ben Stiller Show, Reality Bites does make some admirable motions towards actively mocking its own Slacker sensibilities instead of merely pandering to them. Stiller was genius to cast himself as the nexus of this sarcastic, self-effacing humor. As a suited network exec for an MTV-parodying cable channel called In Your Face Television, Stiller positions himself as a money-grubbing goon who literally peddles youth counterculture for cheap payouts. Ryder’s character is an amateur documentarian who interviews her immediate social circle about their post-college ennui as a self-satisfying art project, which Stiller turns around to sell to his network as a slapstick comedy mutation of The Real World. This line of generational parody brilliantly goes one level deeper in the end credits, when Stiller’s network exec bozo turns the love triangle drama that drives the film into a scripted Gen-X soap opera. If Reality Bites were ever going to speak directly to its intended audience, this self-parody would have to have been way more pronounced & exaggerated to mean much of anything. As is, it takes the romantic lives of the privileged brats it lightly ribs very seriously, so unfortunately all that registers is its tragic phoniness as a corporate product.

Aesthetics-wise, there’s a lot to admire here. The film’s soundtrack is peppered with some pure 90s car-cassette gems, including the 5-star Lisa Loeb classic “Stay,” which it popularized with a tie-in music video (sadly, a dead artform). Ryder & Garofalo’s costuming is distinctly College Grad 90s chic, which is a pleasure in itself. However, the movie’s strongest asset is its VHS camcorder-style cinematography meant to mimic Ryder’s D.I.Y. documentary project, a vivid visual texture achieved by a young Emmanuel Lubezki of all people. The thing is, though, that you can get those same camcorder vibes from Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape without having to hang out with total dipshits for 100 minutes. Nothing is good enough to survive the contrived, dispiriting dirge of this film’s love triangle conflict: not Lubezki’s spectacularly Authentic camerawork, not Stiller’s astute Gen-X self-parody, not even Ryder’s consistently stellar on-screen charm. Reality Bites isn’t a total waste of time, but it’s also not much of anything at all. It’s ultimately stuck between two disparate sensibilities—the romantic & the apathetic—and thus ultimately panders to no one. This is one of those cases where the Gen-X kids were right to shrug it off, of which there are many since their collective impulse was to immediately shrug off Everything.

-Brandon Ledet

First Reformed (2018)

Sometime in the mid-2000s, back when I would do this kind of thing regularly, I found myself at an outdoor punk show at a squat/co-op in the Marigny, waiting to see a traveling hardcore band called Talk Me Off. One of the opening acts, the only one I honestly remember, was not another noisy rock act, but rather a slideshow and a political sermon. I sat in the warm, boot-stomped grass listening to a lengthy spiel about an environmental activist group’s successes in deforestation protests, patiently nodding along with the local punks who were gracious to not nod off entirely. I was mentally transported back to that oddly booked punk show this week while watching Paul Schrader’s latest directorial effort, First Reformed. Like the environmentally-minded slideshow enthusiasts who did their best to keep a gaggle of riled-up punks’ attention that night, First Reformed offers an admirable political sermon about modern humanity’s responsibility in the face of world-devastating climate change, but in an entertainment medium that’s not especially useful or interesting. Both Schrader and those real-life activists made a worthwhile political point in their respective sermons, but they did so in such bizarrely niche settings that they were essentially preaching to the already-converted. Given the audience & the delivery in both settings, it all just felt like wasted effort.

Hawke stars in First Reformed as Reverend Toller, an alcoholic holy man in crisis. His crisis of Faith is slightly different from the usual Silence of God anxieties expressed by Bergman & Scorsese in the past. He’s more worried here about whether humanity deserves God’s forgiveness for what it’s done to a planet in peril. He preaches to a tiny congregation in a historical church in Albany, New York that has become more of a souvenir shop than an effective religious institution. Cedric the Entertainer costars as the pastor of a nearby, nondenominational megachurch that is much more successful in reaching people (and making money), but also fearful of alienating its patrons with substantial political rhetoric. The politics of modern religion weigh on Reverend Toller’s mind with great anguish as he counsels a young mother from his delegation (Amanda Seyfried), who is afraid she is losing her husband to radical environmental activist causes. Long, drawn-out theological discussions about what Earth will look like in 2050 and what responsibility Christian leadership has in challenging political apathy to the world’s gradual destruction eat up most of the film’s runtime, often in hideous digital photography close-ups. Occasional bursts of violence or slips into supernatural mediation will disrupt these theological & political debates, but for the most part the film is an environmentalist tirade that alternates between being a frustrated call to action and a gradual acceptance of humanity’s impending doom.

There’s a clear parallel between Reverend Toller’s voiceover narration here and the similarly structured sermons Robert De Niro delivers in Schrader’s early-career script for Taxi Driver. The difference is that Toller’s righteous, dangerously violent theological stance actually has a worthwhile point to it, while Bickle’s misanthropy was coded as vile moral decay. Toller shares many of Bickle’s self-destructive tendencies, barely covering up his declining health with gallons of hard liquor & Pepto Bismol as he limps towards making a grand political statement at the film’s cathartic end. There might a figurative correlation between his failing body and the continual desecration of the planet, but for the most part his deliberately poor health recalls the self-destructive martyrdom that runs throughout Taxi Driver as well. Toller also shares Bickle’s unseemly sexual repression (a very common theme in Schrader’s writing), but doesn’t allow that guilt to express itself externally in as pronounced of a way. The main difference between them is that Bickle’s “cause” was mostly an excuse to enact male rage in a society that he found despicable for (to put it lightly) questionable reasons, while Toller’s own moral anguish about humanity’s negative impact on the planet actually as a point. The agreeability of the moral outrage makes the approach much less distinct & engaging in the process, leaving only room for the audience to nod along in recognition. The comparison also does First Reformed no favors in that Scorsese directed the hell out of Taxi Driver, capturing one of the dingiest visions of NYC grime to ever stain celluloid, while Schrader’s vision only escapes the limitations of its digital cinematography in two standout scenes (you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em) and the production design choice of a really cool, eyeball-shaped lamp.

It’s probably safe to say that Schrader is well aware that First Reformed is “a little preachy,” but I think it’s worth questioning who, exactly, he’s preaching to. I can’t deny the truth of a character pleading that the Earth’s destruction “isn’t some distant future. You will live to see this,” but it’s likely to safe to say that the arthouse cinema crowd who will turn out for this picture in the first place already knows that. Reductively speaking, First Reformed is two good scenes & one great lamp, all tied together by an agreeable political sermon. That’s not going to do much to grab the attention of anyone besides the people who already support your cause, no more so than dragging our slide projector out to a late-night punk show. Without Travis Bickle’s moral repugnance making his physical & mental decline a complexly difficult crisis to engage with, Reverend Toller’s unraveling feels like a much less interesting, less essential retread of territory Schrader has explored onscreen before, even if the political anxiety driving it this time is more relatable.

-Brandon Ledet

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

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fourstar

There’s an alternate universe where Noah Baumbach’s films, with their manicured Wes Anderson visual palette and ensemble casts of talented actors both early & late in their respective careers, are a populist hit. In the universe we do live in, however, Baumbach’s films are more consistent crowd-splitters. Titles like The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young, and Mistress America look like cutesy indie dramas from the outside, but harbor a strong, corrosive hatred for their own characters, revealing Baumbach to be much more of a misanthrope than he appears to be. The recent comedy Maggie’s Plan is an interesting window into this alternate timeline where Noah Baumbach’s works are actually the smart, breezy farces they’re advertised to be instead of comedic exercises in pitch black misanthropy (which I also enjoy just fine). Starring & directed by Baumbach collaborators (Greta Gerwig & Rebecca Miller, daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller), Maggie’s Plan is not at all a cutesy indie trifle. It still pokes fun at its characters and indulges in morally & emotionally uncomfortable romantic scenarios. It just does so without tail-spinning its audience into frustrated hatred of every personality presented onscreen. The film is much more interested in the complicated plots of Old Hollywood farces and the general quirks of human folly than tearing down the self-absorption & self-destructive ego of modern ennui. I can’t say it’s exactly a better film for it, but it’s certainly a kinder & more enjoyable one.

Greta Gerwig stars as a young East Coast Academic who wants to become a mother under her own terms, a plan that involves a sperm donation from a crazy-eyed hipster who’s made a career for himself as a “pickle entrepreneur” (just about the most Brooklyn thing I’ve ever heard of). The plot is disrupted when Gerwig’s protagonist falls passionately in love with another East Coast Academic™, played by Ethan Hawke, (whom I somehow confused for Kevin Bacon for the opening few scenes). The problem is that he happens to be a married man. The dangerous sensation of this blossoming affair combines with several possible love triangle plots to threaten an eyeroll-worthy romcom yarn, but Maggie’s Plan is much smarter than anything I feared it might become. Instead of the complications of single mother pregnancy and the moral dilemmas presented by romantic jealousy, the movie tackles the ways love & desire are messy, with outcomes that cannot be controlled and the way romantic partners, especially men, can take their significant others for granted, treating them almost like an employee without giving it any thought. There’s no will-they-won’t-they series of missed connections and tangled misunderstandings here. Miller’s farce is much more about the way characters uncomfortable with loosening control over their messy personal lives have to learn to let go and let life happen naturally than it is about who they’ll be sleeping with by the time the credits roll.

Movies with this intimate of a narrative & limited visual scope obviously rely heavily on the strength of their cast to sell their charms and Maggie’s Plan is overloaded with talent. Gerwig does her usual thing, but with a much more endearing spin on her characters’ total lack of self-awareness. Hawke is perfectly cast as the smartest idiot in the room. They’re backed up by a long list of excellent bit players & single scene cameos: Bill Harder, Maya Rudolph, Wallace Shawn, Kathleen Hanna. And that’s not even mentioning Julianne Moore, who very nearly steals the show in an absurd caricature of European academic coldness. Of course, none of this talent would mean a thing without Miller’s superbly constructed script, which manages to feel intelligently assembled & well-considered in every moment while still working in punchlines as inane as “I don’t want you to have a baby with the pickle man.” There are a couple stray choices that make Maggie’s Plan feel distinct even as a small budget indie, including a time jump that completely upends its initial plot trajectory & a surprise over-abundance of 60s dancehall reggae on its soundtrack. It’s the cast Miller assembles and the ways her script arranges those chess pieces to craft a newfangled version of an Old Hollywood farce that makes the film worth a recommendation, though. It’s all intricately plotted stuff made to somehow feel like effortless charm.

It’s probably not at all fair of me to conjure Noah Baumbach’s name in this review, as Rebecca Miller has had a long, self-driven career long before recently joining forces with that divisive filmmaker. It’s likely that Gerwig’s presence is a lot of what recalls his work here. I really do think that anyone on the verge of liking Baumbach who finds his general misanthropy difficult to stomach would likely enjoy Maggie’s Plan, though. It’s just reminiscent enough of his storytelling style to draw the comparison, but so distinctly on its own wavelength that it won’t feel like an empty exercise for those who devotedly follow his career. I’m now curious myself to double back and watch some of Miller’s previous works to see if this is a vibe she’s always worked within. Maggie’s Plan at the very least proves her capable of turning small, familiar parts into memorably distinct, endearing pictures. It’s a lot rarer than it sounds.

-Brandon Ledet

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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fourstar

I hate Westerns. I really, really do. When I was a kid in rural East Baton Rouge Parish (and especially when we went to visit even-more-rural friends and family in St Helena), they seemed to make up the bulk of television outside of primetime; moreover, family friends who were fortunate enough to own more than ten videocassettes (which was how I defined wealth then, and, perhaps, now) still had a collection that was largely made up of Western cinema. The filmic depiction of the mythological Wild West, with its overwhelming anxiety about bandits, borderline racist depictions of native people, the uniform whiteness of the protagonists (which led me, as a child, to be unable to tell characters apart), and overall bland cinematic eye really turned me off. I can barely even stand to watch the Western episodes of The Twilight Zone, my favorite show of all time; when one comes on during Syfy’s annual marathons, it’s the cue for me to go outside and get some fresh air.

There are exceptions, of course, to every rule. As a rule, I loathe musicals, but I can see the merits in, for instance, the Heathers musical, which I saw both in New York and in Austin, and I am more willing to accept characters breaking into song in animation, which is already acceptable removed from cinema vérité (Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons most notably, but also more traditionally musical fare like The Little Mermaid). There are Westerns that I like, enjoy or otherwise feel something like fondness for; my grandfather loved Quigley Down Under and thus so do I, The Quick and the Dead is a fun movie, and Sergio Leone’s Westerns are cinematically engaging on a level that intrigues me. And, of course, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.

When The Verge did their write-up on 2016’s Magnificent 7 last month, they heralded its arrival in their headline: “behold, the progressive Western.” I didn’t see that review before I saw the film, but it was also the first thing that struck me about this film after I largely ignored the promotional materials. Although the film follows the structure of the original film (and, by extension, Seven Samurai), gone are the questionable and dated trappings of the old school Western, replaced with an easily digestible parable about capitalism and race dressed up in a gunslinger’s shoot ‘em up. And it’s pretty great!

Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is a corrupt industrialist who has his sights set on Rose Creek, a mining town in northern California. He and his cohort of morally bankrupt private detectives, thinly veiled versions of the Pinkertons who broke up strikes in the real West, roll into town and burn the facade of the church, telling the townsfolk that he will return in less than a month to purchase the last of their hard-earned land for less than half of its worth, and they can either fall in line or die. Shortly thereafter, widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and her friend enlist the help of warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) when he passes through town in pursuit of a fugitive. Although he is at first reluctant, Chisolm relents when he hears that the Bart Bogue is behind this transgression, he agrees to help Rose Creek defend itself.

In a plotline that has been homaged from The Avengers to Star Wars (so much so that most viewers likely think it’s older than locomotion), Chisolm recruits six more men to join him: rapscallion sharpshooter and gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw gunslinger Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), legendary New Orleans rifleman “Goodnight” Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Comanche wanderer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). The seven men come together (with Emma acting as a kind of alternate teammate in various situations) to try and teach the settlers of Rose Creek to defend themselves against Bogue’s imminent invasion.

I really enjoyed this film. Above and beyond the general thrill of a legitimately fun Western with clearly evil and less-clearly-good characters, I loved the subtext. Gone is the marauding bandito who terrorized the peasant village of the original, replaced by the face of true evil in every generation: avaricious capitalist men driven by their lust for and worship of material goods (and the power that they bring) with no regard for the cost of human life and dignity. Instead of helping to protect and serve the populace of Rose Creek from outside influence, the sheriff of the town has been bought and paid for by Bogue; the innocents who have entrusted him with their lives are mowed down by him for immoral reasons, just as we so often see the loss of life (largely of people of color) at the hands of modern police forces. The deputies of the town are amoral thugs with no sense of right or wrong, hired mercenaries with so much blood on their hands that they’ll never be clean; not only are they evocative of the Pinkertons but also of the PMCs used in Iraq and elsewhere, before and during the war on terror.

Standing in their way are a black man (given that the film is set in 1879 and the fact that Chisolm refers to living in Arkansas, he is likely to be a former slave), a Native American, an Asian man, and a Mexican sharpshooter (in one notable exchange, Vasquez remarks that there is no such thing as a “Texican,” illuminating the lie in the name given to him by others who sought only to steal the land and livelihood of himself and his people). Beyond these POC are other marginalized people, including a soldier with PTSD and an elderly man who has been declared useless by society. And a woman!

In a more traditional Western, Bogue would represent progress, the man bringing civilization to the “savage” western edge of the country, but here he is shown for who he really is, a corrupt monster who uses bullying and violence to make his mark on the world, and, ultimately, he is undone by a diverse coalition of men (and a woman!) who forsake old grudges (as seen in the interactions between Red Harvest and Jack Horne as well as Vasquez and Faraday) in order to prevent an evil reaping of innocent people. And, hey, it’s a surprisingly progressive film that you can probably get even your racist grandpa to watch. Check it out!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Sinister (2012)

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three star

Horror is one of those genres where you honestly don’t have to try too, too hard to succeed. Yes, it’s of course preferable that any film would stand out as a unique property that breaks all expectations of its context & genre, but it’s never that big of a deal when a horror film shrugs off that kind of ambition. With its own set-in-stone tropes & built-in audience, horror allows a lot of breathing room for films to just sort of coast on the long line of work that came before them. Innovation isn’t entirely necessary for each individual horror picture as long as they deliver a few basic elements: suspense, some good scares, maybe a memorably creepy creature or two, etc. As long as they play by the rules, all a passably decent horror film really needs to do is not drop the ball. In a lot of ways, Sinister is such a film.

There’s nothing really too special about Sinister. Ethan Hawke plays a “true crime” journalist who moves into the house of a slaughtered family in order to research his new book, some kind of In Cold Blood derivative. Of course, the house is haunted. Of course, the project drives him mad. Of course, there’s a Boogieman-type demon helming the entire horrid affair. Well, the film actually takes that last part quite literally. Known to historians as Bughuul & to possessed, homicidal little demon children as “Mr. Boogie”, The Boogieman is a real character in the film, orchestrating all of the haunted goings on from the protective distance of some super 8 films mysteriously discovered in Hawke’s attic. It’s curious that, since he exists largely in the imaginations & drawings of little children, Mr. Boogie isn’t represented here as I would’ve drawn him in my youth (a man-sized booger in a trenchcoat) but instead appears as some sort of Industrial Goth enthusiast in corpse paint. No matter. Despite Bughuul’s prominence in Sinister‘s mythology, he’s entirely nonverbal and doesn’t do much besides makes some guest cameos in the haunted super 8 films to look all goth-like & mean. The children under his spell do most of the heavy lifting & are much more effective at producing some great onscreen scares.

The haunted super 8 films that drive Ethan Hawke’s true crime journalist mad depict The Boogie Man’s child army calmly, methodically executing their respective families for the benefit of home video in a variety of unsavory ways: drownings, fires, lawn mowers, etc. These films are where Sinister excels most as a unique property, almost functioning as an old-fashioned horror anthology. There’s a lot of visual care that goes into depicting the projection equipment that screens the films and in other minute details (such as throats being slit in the reflection of Hawke’s glasses as we’re watching him watch a projection) that’s otherwise missing from the film’s more run-of-the-mill haunted house & creepy children formula. During these screenings the film’s sound design also takes on a special importance (including a kickass soundtrack) , reaching for some deeply unnerving vibes that can’t be accomplished simply through gore makeup & jump scares. Sinister may take a while to build up its own mythology & its central Nine Inch Nails Superfan villain may be a little underwhelming, but its haunted films concept is satisfying enough to make for a decent horror picture once the ball is finally rolling. Besides, creepy, murderous children are always an easy sell for fans of the genre, which allows the film to more or less coast.

-Brandon Ledet

Predestination (2015)

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fourstar

There has been a recent push to update the sci-fi genre in varied, interesting ways. While there have certainly been a few throwbacks to the traditional rocket ships & gunfire Flash Gordon adventure epics like Guardians of the Galaxy & Edge of Tomorrow, titles like Upstream Color, Under the Skin, Coherence, The Congress, and Beyond the Black Rainbow are searching for new territory for the genre to mine. They’re all unique works that can hardly be compared to one another individually, but as a group they feel like a refreshing revitalization of a genre that can sometimes get trapped within its own tropes & clichés. No matter how much I love these movies and what they’re attempting to accomplish, however, there’s just no denying the inherent draw of the sci-fi aesthetic of yesteryear. My favorite film from last year was Interstellar, not because it carved out new sci-fi territory, but because it felt authentic to old school sci-fi pulp you could read serialized in special interest quarterlies or hear in long gone radio plays. There’s a draw to this old fashioned sci-fi aesthetic that I’m glad to see hasn’t been left by the wayside in the wake of our recent crop of experimental exercises in the genre.

With its muted noir tone & a setting that spans from the 1950s through the 70s, Predestination firmly plants itself within this brand of sci-fi throwbacks. Based off of a 1959 Robert Heinlein short story titled “All You Zombies” (which was first published in an issue Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, the exact type of old school serials I’m describing), the film has an authentically old fashioned take on sci-fi as a genre. It is undeniably cheap & trashy in the way its twists & turns are revealed to the audience (some of those reveals are not nearly as surprising as the movie seems to think they are) but that potential flaw is severely undercut by its straightforward style of storytelling. On paper the movie’s plot about time travel, secretive government agencies, and self-fulfilling paradoxes wouldn’t add up to much of value, but the way the story is framed as a drunken, embittered bar patron spinning a yarn for the barkeep is a perfect, no-nonsense approach to material that is nothing but nonsense.

There are some typical sci-fi adventure aspects to Predestination, like virtual reality helmets, “time jumps”, and young girls recruited to be male astronauts’ “companions” (an idea that reminded me of the similarly pulpy Journey to the Seventh Planet), but they’re counteracted with more concrete, noir-influenced images like trench coats, smoke-filled bars, homemade bombs, and a fedora on fire. Just as the always-tricky time travel aspect of the story starts to get overwhelmingly intricate, it also boils down to a typical action movie plot of trying to prevent a bomb from going off and catching the bad guy before he gets away. Even the story’s peculiar play with gender identity, which you would expect to mark it as a modern work, feels old fashioned & outlandish as it’s dealt with here, but straightforward performances from the two leads Ethan Hawke & Sarah Snook anchor that aspect well, just like the barroom storytelling framing device anchors the movie’s outlandish plot.

Predestination is neither a wholly unique work nor an exercise in good taste. It is, however, an example of the virtue of sincere, traditional acting & storytelling and how those elements can elevate ludicrous material into something special. Although its major twists & reveals may occasionally be telegraphed, it’s fascinating to watch the film reach those conclusions in its own time and on its own terms. There’s a sci-fi tradition to its sincere pulp sense of tonal balance, but it’s a vintage tradition that’s unconcerned with the new territory the genre’s been exploring in recent years. I appreciate the movie the way that any audience can appreciate a great storyteller, especially a rapt audience in a late night barroom who has nothing better to do than listen to a good yarn that becomes increasingly more outlandish as it stretches on.

-Brandon Ledet