Reminiscence (2021)

I watched Reminiscence on the Friday night before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, knocking out our power & internet service for weeks.  In any other context, the film might have landed as low-key escapist entertainment, but that particular weekend afforded it an eerie magnetic pull on my attention.  A sci-fi noir starring Hugh Jackman & Rebecca Ferguson as its incongruously gorgeous leads, Reminiscence splits its time between near-future Miami & New Orleans.  Both fictionalized versions of those cities are decorated with constant street flooding, like a modernized urban version of Vienna.  It’s like a Gulf South remake of Chinatown where there’s too much water instead of too little, a stomach-turning preview of what Climate Change will inevitably do to my beloved home city, likely within my lifetime. 

Maybe I wouldn’t have watched Reminiscence in the lead-up to a hurricane had I known about that submerged urban setting, but I’m glad I did.  It’s a surprisingly solid movie, especially considering its ice-cold reception in theaters.  Jackman stars as the owner & operator of a machine that tricks the human brain into reliving & re-experiencing memory in full sensory detail.  It was created as an interrogation tactic for police investigations, but over time became a commercial form of therapy for post-apocalypse urbanites, then a form of dwelling-on-the-past addiction.  His business gets by okay until he is hired by a mysterious femme fatale (Ferguson), who hires him to help remember where she lost her keys . . . which of course leads him to becoming entangled in a larger, lethal political conspiracy.  Luckily his partner in time (Thandiwe Newton) has his back, since he’s in way over his head, especially once he falls in love with his mysterious client . . . or at least his selective memory of her.

The biggest hurdle for most audiences to enjoy Reminiscence is going to be its shamelessness in collecting every possible trope of classic noir in its modern action sci-fi shell.  You pretty much know exactly where the film is going at all times, even if its scrambled timeline & false-memory rug-pulls confuses the path it takes to get there.  Beyond that predictability, its broad-strokes noir homage overextends itself to the point of parody in Jackman’s constant, overbearing narration, where he gruffly whispers things like “Time is no longer a one-way stream.  Memory is the boat that sails against the current,” and “Memories are just beads on the necklace of time.”  I’m going to choose to believe that the film knows how funny & outdated these overwritten turns of phrase are, the same way that a lot of classic noir could be darkly hilarious & absurdly wordy in its own day.  I half-expected Jackman to complain, “Of all the memory joints in all of Sunken City, this dame walks into mine”, but that sadly never came to be.  I wonder if the film might’ve been more immediately popular if its humor was more readily recognizable & self-aware, but I’m glad it plays it straight.  It’s funnier that way, intentional or not.

If Reminiscence feels overly familiar, it’s not necessarily because it’s paying homage to vintage 1930s noir; it’s because its exact style of homage was already hammered to death in big-budget sci-fi of the late 1990s.  Titles like Strange Days, Dark City, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, and Gattaca have already tread this exact ground before, although maybe not with as much (suspiciously clear) water flooding their urban settings.  And even all of those movies owe a recognizable debt to Blade Runner‘s visionary estimation of sci-fi noir in the 1980s, putting yet another been-there-seen-that barrier between this genre-mashup and its 1930s source of inspiration.  Luckily, genre movies don’t have to be The First or The Best to be worthwhile; they just have to be memorably entertaining on their own terms.  I can pretty confidently say I’ll remember the experience of watching Reminiscence for a long time coming, if not only because the hurricane flooding that hit Louisiana that weekend echoed a lot of the imagery of the submerged New Orleans onscreen.

-Brandon Ledet

Missing Link (2019)

Laika has already earned a lifetime pass with their spooky stop-motion gems Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings, but it’s not going to be much of a lifetime if the animation studio doesn’t start pulling in more money. As beloved as those titles are among movie nerds and very specific budding-horror-fan children, none have really broken through to genuine box office success. The studio has essentially depended on the money its CEO Travis Knight has inherited from his Nike co-founder father Phil Knight, who is technically Laika’s owner. That sneaker money won’t keep them afloat forever, and Laika is desperate for a hit to become a self-sustaining enterprise. That might explain why they stepped slightly outside their usual spooky, Halloween-flavored children’s media realm to produce a cutesy comedy about a goofball yeti. The gamble did not work in a financial sense, but the resulting movie was still about as solid as you’d expect from the studio – who are maybe too high-brow & visually polished for their own good.

I’m not sure what movie greenlighting algorithm has prompted animation studios to believe that yetis are what children are salivating to see on the big screen at the moment, but it was a decision that paid off nicely for DreamWorks & Universal – who recently had sizeable hits with the CG-animated shrugs Smallfoot & Abominable, respectively. Laika, of course, was the only studio of the trio to outright flop in this endeavor, doubling their usual production budget on what appeared to be a surefire hit and only earning 1/5th of it back at the box office. Their mistake was being the one studio who actually gave a shit about animation as an artform – pushing their usual combination of tactile stop-motion wizardry & CGI-smoothed touchups to create a one-of-a-kind globetrotting adventure. Casting overgrown man-child Zach Galifianakis as a buffoonish sasquatch who takes figures of speech as literally as Amelia Bedelia was their only attempt to bridge the gap to what most modern animation studios do in their globally-exported box office hits – a real “Zendaya is Meechee” kind of decision. It wasn’t enough.

Thematically, Missing Link makes for a lighthearted companion piece to the recent stop-motion arthouse bummer This Magnificent Cake!. Both films use traditional slapstick humor to satirize the absurdity of historical colonialism, although Missing Link’s approach to the material is much sillier than it is traumatizing. Hugh Jackman voices a self-proclaimed “famous” monster hunter (the one nod to the studio’s typical horror bent) who attempts to earn the respect of legitimate big-game hunters by capturing creatures like The Loch Ness Monster and, yes, Bigfoot. Galifianakis voices that living Bigfoot specimen, a sweetly non-confrontational beast who longs to find more creatures of his own kind so he can stop living as an ostracized misfit. The pair team up to help each other’s causes. The yeti is a crude New World goofball searching for purpose & a sense of Home in his Old World ancestry, while the monster hunter learns just how harmful his self-serving, globetrotting colonialism is to everyone he touches. The mistake the movie made was in having themes or a point of view at all. It probably would have made much more money if they had just animated Galifianakis singing Meghan Trainor karaoke or some other such horseshit.

Missing Link is very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema. It sucks to have to focus so much on the film’s financial failure in appraising its worth as art, but that failure is very much a part of its story. This is Laika reaching out as far as possible from their niche spooky-stop-motion corner of children’s media to welcome in a wide audience, and the most they got for the effort was a token Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature (which I fear will just automatically defer to whatever microwaved Disney or Pixar sequel it’s up against this Sunday). It’s not their strongest work, but it manages to be their most accessible while still maintaining a unique, technically marvelous visual style and an admirably pointed worldview. I wish it had been enough of a smash success to fund more weirdo, spooky outliers like Coraline or Kubo, but instead I’m left worrying that their sneaker money is going to dry up any day now.

-Brandon Ledet

The Greatest Showman (2017)

“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?”
“Do these smiles look fake?”

One of my favorite recurring SNL characters in recent years was Andy Samberg’s portrayal of Hugh Jackman: The Man with Two Sides. The joke was essentially that Jackman’s public persona was bizarrely bifurcated between his gruff performances as a muscled-out action star and his more delicate, fanciful performances as a man of the stage. 2017 might have been the year when the Two Sides of Hugh Jackman both reached their most absurd extremes. Early in the year, Jackman’s long-running lone wolf/tough guy act as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise got so somber & manly in Logan that the film could easily pass as an adaptation of a late-career Johnny Cash ballad. Jackman then followed that grizzled performance up in December with the silliest, most frothy performance in his entire musical theatre career. Jackman stars in the movie musical biopic The Greatest Showman as an eternally chipper P.T. Barnum, whom the movie posits as the inventor of modern showbusiness. The Greatest Showman is less remarkable for contrasting Logan as an exercise in pure, unembarrassed musical theatre than it is for contrasting it as a disingenuous, 100-minute-long commercial where the product being sold is joy. Just as I cried a solitary, manly tear as Logan toyed with political exploitation & deep-seated daddy issues, I also totally bought into the joyful, bullshit product Jackman peddles in The Greatest Showman. He’s a very talented salesman, no matter which one of his Two Sides is doing the talking.

Calling The Greatest Showman a biopic is a little misleading. I’m not sure Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum shares much in common with the real-life showman outside a name and an affiliation with the popularization of the traveling circus. The revisionist narrative the film peddles is just as surreally artificial as its nonstop barrage of green-screened backdrops. Barnum begins the film as a working-class upstart whose belief in the American dream (and skills at lying to bank lenders) catapults his family from rags to riches as he unknowingly “invents” modern show business (think Vegas variety show). His “aha!” moment that transforms a failing wax museum packed with dusty curios to a lucrative enterprise of populist entertainment is a decision to exploit the local outcasts & physically disabled as tourist attractions, essentially inventing the profession of “circus freak.” The Greatest Showman often attempts to posit Barnum’s relationship with his disenfranchised employees as tenderly familial, but it’s much more convincing in the stretches where he profits off their labor, yet locks them out of the visibility of the high-society circles they afford him access to. The film’s moral lies somewhere in celebrating your inner (and outer) weirdness instead of desperately wanting to be accepted by the snobbish hegemony, a lesson Barnum supposedly learns several times throughout (by way of gaudy, pop-minded showtunes, of course).

There are dual romance storylines that distract from The Greatest Showman’s Let Your Freak Flag Fly messaging and overall value as a crassly populist spectacle. One involves Barnum repeatedly ignoring his wife (Michelle Williams) and children in his blind pursuit of high society respectability, something that falls a little flat if not only because his wife’s inner desires are left vague & unclear. Early on, Barnum sings passionately about his dream of creating the ultimate form of entertainment, while his wife’s only expressed desire is that he share that dream with her and allow her to tag along. A second, interracial romance among Barnum’s employees (Disney Channel vets Zack Effron & Zendaya) is a little clearer in its place in the story, though it’s ultimately just as inconsequential. Neither romance is nearly as satisfying as the time spent with Barnum’s stable of “freaks,” whose determination to be visible & respected while being themselves is the most convincing thread in the film’s overall sentimentality. I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re “Not scared to be seen” in the Oscar-nominated tune “This is Me.” The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film (the bizarre vocal dubbing of the cast’s sole little person is especially egregious), but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.

The debut film from director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman was likely a movie-by-committee proposition, very much in the tradition of blatantly commercial movie musicals like Moulin Rouge & Xanadu. It proudly wears that populism on its ruffled sleeve, though, directly calling out potential critics as “prigs & snobs” before they even have a chance to file a negative review. Barnum goes even further by calling the entire profession of entertainment criticism inherently hypocritical, as he becomes morbidly fixated on a “critic who can’t find joy in the theatre.” That insult stuck with me, not because it was especially insightful as a look into the practice of art criticism, but because it made clear exactly what product this obnoxious, crass, overlong, deeply silly advertisement was trying to sell me: joy. I greatly respect The Greatest Showman for the honesty of its populist spectacle & out-in-the-open commitment to artifice. I also believe that, besides maybe Barnum himself, there are few hucksters who could have sold its joy-product more convincingly than Jackman, even if he was outshined by the circus performers’ storyline and could only employ one of his distinct Two Sides in the task.

-Brandon Ledet

Logan (2017)

I don’t like Wolverine.

This has been a topic of much contention with my fellow comic book nerds for a long time, but there are a host of reasons why he doesn’t appeal to me as a character. First, it’s never made much sense to me that Professor X has a spot on his peace-oriented team for a man whose powers and enhancements make him a perfect assassin or soldier. I’ve also never seen myself reflected in Wolverine the way that I see aspects of myself in Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost (under Joss Whedon’s pen), and (especially) Beast; nor do I see something I could aspire to be in Wolverine the way that I did and do in Storm’s serenity or Nightcrawler’s happiness in spite of a lifetime of abuse. I certainly understand the allure of a character without a past and the desire for redemption (although the importance of this desire was intermittent), but Wolverine never worked for me as a character.

I think that this is mostly because, despite his meager origins, the character of Wolverine evolved into a straight white male power fantasy, especially among the more self-pitying members of the nerd subculture of the eighties and nineties. Macho Wolverine gets the girl, takes no shit, and leaves his enemies shredded to ribbons: he’s the ultimate enviable hero of the platonic nineties nerd before Hollywood came along and turned comic books and superheroes into the hottest trends on Earth. Following this popularity explosion, the character was inescapable, which is probably my foremost issue with him. Don’t like Angel, or Jean Grey, or Psylocke? No problem: there are plenty of Marvel comics without them, including long periods of time in many X-books. Don’t like Wolverine? You’re out of luck, bub: try to find an X-Men comic from 1985 to 2014 where he’s not a presence (give or take an Excalibur here or there), and if you turn to another Marvel book for a Wolverine-free reading experience, you better not want to check out Avengers, or New Avengers, or even Power Pack. It’s essentially the same reason that, despite my long and storied love of Star Trek, I don’t like Data (a crucifiable offense in many circles): both he and Wolverine are such pets of vocal fans and some creators that they become the entire focus of what is supposedly an ensemble, to the detriment and derision of other characters*. You can even see this in the way that he was not only the de facto star of the X-Men films in which he appeared, but also got his own film franchise.

That franchise reaches what claims to be its final film in the recently released Logan, a gritty neo-western masquerading as a superhero film. The plot finds the titular Logan (Hugh Jackman) caring for an aging and increasingly senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with the help of Caliban (Stephen Merchant) in the Mexican desert in 2029. The combination of a cataclysmic event and genetic suppression has rendered them among the last mutants on Earth, until Logan is drawn back into the world of heroism by Gabriella (Orange is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez), a woman who begs him to help save a child named Laura (Dafne Keen) from Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetically enhanced mercenary. Their redemptive road trip also features appearances from Eriq La Salle and Elise Neal as world-weary farmers who provide shelter for the group.

My apathy and weariness about Wolverine aside, this is a good movie. Sure, it makes no logical sense within the confines of the different timelines that the other films in this franchise have provided without a conspiracy theory board of newspaper clippings, post-it notes, and red string, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t care anymore, so why should you? The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.

This is not the Sentinel-ruled technicolor hell of Days of Future Past, nor is it the candy-coated “corrected” timeline in which Jean, Scott, and Hank are alive: this is a dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. This film has been in development for a while and takes a great deal of inspiration from graphic novel Old Man Logan, but it is particularly fascinating that the first X-film released following the election paints such a realistic picture of a dark future in comparison to the optimistic ending of Days of Future Past, which was released solidly in the middle of Obama’s second term, when the tide of freedom and progress seemed to flow ever-forward.

Logan never becomes explicitly political, however, instead allowing this interpretation to emerge from its subtext. This is, first and foremost, a story about a retired, past-his- prime gunbladeslinger who has long since lost what little place he had in the world before being brought back in for one last stand. You’ve seen this movie before, but dressing it up in these clothes puts a spin on the material that is fresher than I expected, in the same way that Winter Soldier was reinvigorating as both a government conspiracy thriller and a superhero flick. I’d love to see more movies like this, to be honest: James T. Kirk and Company as the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai, Black Widow having to Die Hard her way out of a building, or, hell, even Steve Rogers trying to save the old community center from being torn down to make way for those awful condominium/shopping center hybrid abominations.

Where the film doesn’t work for me is in its insistence on defining Logan’s little group as a family. The discovery of the genetic connection between Logan and Laura and the latter’s decision to help her does not necessarily an intimate connection make, and Xavier’s “This is what life looks like” moment rings falsely sentimental for the character, given all that we’ve seen him do and accomplish over the course of these films. For such a bloody and violent flick (which, make no mistake, Logan is), a fair amount of the emotional resonance that the film seeks to create works, but the occasional references to Laura and Xavier as Logan’s family work better when they’re subtle (like when he passes them off as his father and daughter) than they do when characters explicitly state that they are family. That aside, however, this serves as a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman’s contribution to the franchise, especially if you’re  willing to forgive stilted dialogue and the occasionally unearned moments of pathos.

*Here’s the part where I admit that I love the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, despite my general apathy towards the character; although Wolverine is the title character, WatX was much more of an ensemble piece that gave every character plenty of development and attention. He’s also cast in an unusual role as the reluctant leader with the atypically angsty Cyclops serving as the team’s loner. The show also has one of the darkest storylines ever constructed for what is ostensibly a show for children; it’s definitely worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond