Morgan (2016)

Ever since Anya Taylor-Joy made her grand entrance as a name to watch in her stunning, starring role in The Witch (Swampflix’s 2016 Movie of the Year), she’s continued to be a compelling presence in modern genre cinema. Perhaps typecast for her wide-eyed, witchy visage that appears as if she just stepped out of a Victorian oil painting, Taylor-Joy has continued to dwell in genre cinema corners ranging from the Gothic horror vibes of Marrowbone & The Miniaturist to the highly stylized modernist thrillers Split & Thoroughbreds. I’m unsure if that reflects her personal taste in choosing roles or just the range of options being made available to her, but it seems constant to her career path stretching back even before her name became synonymous with The Witch. The same year The Witch was released to wide audiences, Taylor-Joy starred as the titular character in a more mainstream production that made much less of a splash. The sci-fi horror Morgan, directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott, was largely dismissed in its initial run as merely being an obvious, Hollywood-style rehashing of the superior work Ex Machina, perhaps rightfully so. As hyperbolically negative as I find the film’s general critical reputation to be, I somewhat understand that dismissal and can mount no defense of the mediocre-at-best thriller as some great lost work worthy of reclamation. After recently falling in love with Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence all over again in the BBC miniseries The Miniaturist, however, I did find Morgan worthy of a revisit, if not solely for the merits of her performance.

Like Ex Machina, Morgan is a Turing Test thriller where an outside party is hired to determine the commercial viability of a femme A.I. creation in captivity at a remotely located science facility. Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, and Jennifer Jason Leigh round out an over-qualified cast of scientists & staffers assigned to this A.I. experiment, but they mostly amount to archetypes who hang around to get slaughtered once things inevitably go wrong. Only two characters really matter in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular, dangerous A.I. creation and Kate Mara as a corporate “risk management consultant” hired to assess the artificial creature’s commercial viability. A very human-like creation with a recent history of violent episodes with the staff, Morgan presents two ethical questions the movie only pretends to wrestle with: “Is her advancement of technology worth the risk of her potential violence?” and “Is she a person or is it property?” These very basic sci-fi concerns are mostly just time-wasters in the lead-up to the film’s true payoff: Morgan’s escape & horrific slaughter of every human that held her captive, even the ones she once considered close friends & family (as much as an A.I. creature could). These horror genre leanings are reinforced by the sci-fi lab’s locale in a spooky Gothic mansion & a few last-minute, telegraphed twists that are much more concerned about in-the-moment thrills then they are philosophical ponderings. Morgan’s main concern is an attempt to be coldly creepy, and it’s something the movie often pulls off well thanks to the seething animosity that binds Mara & Taylor-Joy’s performances.

As a sci-fi horror about an A.I. creation that escapes captivity & erupts into bloodshed, Morgan doesn’t offer much of interest that can’t be found elsewhere. As a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting range, the film does feature some deviating touches in performance that feels like a far cry from her more typical modes in The Miniaturist & The Witch. Although often cast in spooky genre fare, Taylor-Joy typically plays a traumatized, delicate victim, batting her giant doe eyes to convey innocence in a world ruled by evil (deceptively so in Thoroughbreds). Here, she’s allowed to be fierce & dangerous throughout, even opening the film in a vicious lunge to tear out one of her captor’s eyes. Taylor-Joy plays Morgan with the brooding anger of a teenage girl who’s been wronged and stripped of her agency, expressing a quiet, violent anger halfway between explosive emotional outburst & cold, machine-like calculation of who exactly to strike. You can even sense this atypical use of her screen presence in her costuming, which forsakes her usual period-specific garb for a modernist sweatpants & hoodie combo – the comfy outfit of a pissed off teen locked in their room by parents who Just Don’t Understand. Her striking looks are intensified by a cold makeup effect that almost renders her silver, as if she’s in black & white while the rest of the film is in color. It’s a different approach to how her appearance & talents are typically deployed in genre films and that deviation is largely what makes Morgan a worthwhile watch. As a Hollywood companion piece to Ex Machina the film could only suffer through comparison, but as a demonstration of explosive teenage anger from a compelling actor who doesn’t often get to express it, it finds a way to feel worthwhile.

You’re unlikely to walk away from Morgan with any intense interest in whatever follow-up project Luke Scott has in the works. The film is competent enough to get by as a passable sci-fi horror diversion about a Killer A.I., but it’s ultimately nothing special in terms of style or texture. The takeaway is more the question of what other sides of Anya Taylor-Joy’s abilities as a performer are we not yet privy to this early in her career. I appreciated seeing her as a teenage killing machine here, but I’m even more excited by what that indicates about what she might be able to unleash in future roles. It’s a career worth keeping a (gigantic, doe-like) eye on, to say the least.

-Brandon Ledet

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Annihilation (2018)

More than once in the past week, my roommate has asked me what I was going to be doing this past weekend, and I said I was going to see Annihilation, and each time he asked “What’s that?”, to which I replied “The adaptation of the book that your sister gave me for Christmas in 2016.” Which she did! And I loved it! So much so that I couldn’t stop talking about it, and another friend got me the follow up novel Authority for my birthday a few months later, and I bought my own copy of Acceptance almost immediately after and finished that too. I was so excited when I heard that Alex Garland of Ex Machina fame would be directing the film of the book, and that the person I cast in my head as the biologist, Natalie Portman, would be playing the lead. Of course, there are valid concerns about the whitewashing of her character given that she’s part Asian (no specific nation of origin is given), but it’s also a piece of information that the reader doesn’t get until the second book, which had not been published at the time that Garland read Annihilation and started working on his script. If you’re curious, I imagined Angela Bassett as the psychologist, Michelle Rodriguez as the surveyor (a character who’s aggression and distrust was put on the paramedic character in the film but had a role on the team that was more like Novotny’s character’s) and Battlestar Galactica‘s Grace Park as the anthropologist (a character that is, for all intents and purposes, absent from the film). Those absences, changes, and additions should give you some indication of how far this film strays from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, but does that matter?

What makes a good adaptation? Is it a strict, lockstep adherence to the source material, ignoring the differences between the languages of film and prose? Can an adaptation’s value be measured as a quantifiable variable of pragmatism in the choices of what to include and exclude when translating to the screen? Is it the ability of the film to evoke the same emotional resonance or invoke the same themes as the original text, even if it has to take a different route to bring the viewer to the same place as the reader? Films that try to maintain a one-to-one textual match often don’t work; for all its other faults, David Lynch’s Dune adaptation, for instance, attempted to translate the internal monologues of multiple characters to film, which creates a muddled mess in the movie despite this being a common element of prose fiction. With regards to pragmatism, something like Watchmen (at least the director’s cut, although I know not everyone agrees) makes good choices with what it chooses to include while excising some subplots from the text that would interfere with the pacing of the film (like the extended pirate comic storyline) and updating other plot elements to remove the need for plot lines that can be easily removed without changing the overall tone (such as changing the psychic squid monster in the finale to something more grounded and closely related to the characters). And with regards to adaptations that are more loose but occupy the same rhetorical space, something like Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story would be a strong example, at least for me personally. I read the book no fewer than 30 times in my childhood and a dozen more since then, and I’ve seen the film innumerable times. Author Michael Ende hated the film version; it essentially adapts only the first half of the book, removes one of the challenges that Atreyu must face in order to get to the Southern Oracle, reuses the first “gate” as the Southern Oracle itself, and makes other changes. But they are both ultimately perfect fantasy stories for little bullied bookworms, creating a place for them to expand the horizons of their imaginations, regardless of the differences between the two texts.

Let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible: if you’re looking for a close adaptation of the novel, you’re not going to find that here. This is A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel. Garland has admitted that he thumbed through the novel and took only the most noteworthy elements and concepts—a government-backed all-woman expedition makes its way beyond an incomprehensible barrier into Area X, a place of strange mutations of both flora and fauna stemming back to an unknown catastrophic event—and made a standalone film without the intention of revisitation in future films. In a way, this is noteworthy in that it acts as the antithesis of current studio mandates, which prioritize franchise building over creating complete and whole narratives within a single film, even going so far as to split individual books (like The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay) into multiple films. It’s for the viewer to decide if this is to the detriment of the film and its source material or not, but those of you hoping for an adaptation of the entire Southern Reach trilogy should manage your expectations now. And hey—that’s okay. The narrative conceit in the novel that all of the characters are nameless and identified only by their occupations, which works so well on the page both as a method for giving the reader the space to imagine each character in the way they see fit and as part of a larger theme about the absence not only of knowledge but perhaps even the possibility of comprehension, simply wouldn’t work on film. That’s not a fault of the film so much as a fact that must be accepted about the difference between different forms of media, and as such I can’t detract from the film because of it.

In the interest of full disclosure (and as a point of solidarity with my fellow book readers), I’ll attempt to describe the biggest changes. Spoilers for the film and the book series through the end of this paragraph. In addition to surface changes, like making the biologist (herein named Lena) ex-military and her husband (who is given the name Kaine) an active duty sergeant while removing this characteristic from the surveyor or increasing the number of explorers (there is a fifth member of the expedition in the novel, but she chickens out before they breach the barrier’s perimeter and never makes it into Area X), there are some pretty major changes. The nature of Area X is made much more explicit; throughout the trilogy, there is much discussion about whether or not Area X is mystical, extradimensional, or extraterrestrial in origin, and Acceptance strongly implies that the catalyst was at least somewhat supernatural in nature, given the role played by the two members of the Seance and Science Brigade and their experiments in the lighthouse. Again, the need for a more explicit explanation for the events is a consequence of the nature of film language, and isn’t a de facto negative. When a filmmaker sets out to make a single narrative out of the first book in a series with no intention to adapt the sequels, this is the more sensible tack, even if it runs the risk of alienating readers. But it is quite a shock to see the lighthouse consumed in flame at the end of the film if you’ve read Authority or Acceptance, in which the lighthouse and the revelations therein are pretty vital to understanding the overall mystery (insofar as it can be understood). By its very nature, this removes the significance of the fact that the psychologist grew up around the lighthouse and knew the keeper (who was mutated/duplicated into the Crawler, an important figure in the Annihilation novel) as a child, as well as her personal connection to Area X. The Crawler and its writing, which could rightly be called the most important part of the novel, is completely excised, removing the religiosity of the novel through the erasure of his sermon-like screeds. The fact that the biologist’s husband (‘s duplicate) lives through the end of the narrative, and that Area X is “defeated” instead of continuing to expand (so much so that the point of view characters in Acceptance end the novel attempting to find their way back out without knowing if there even is an “out” anymore, or if Area X has consumed the whole world) are also major changes. These omissions will likely be the most contentious issues with the film for readers of the books, but this still works for me as a “broad strokes” approach. Also gone are the hypnotic suggestion elements from the novel (in which all the expedition members submitted to psychological preparation for their journey, including post-hypnotic triggers to ensure that they make it through the barrier without being driven to madness, but which also makes the presence of the psychologist more sinister, as she exercises other psychic controls over the expedition, to which the biologist’s mutations make her immune). For me, the strangest change was making the biologist more likable and personable, but this is again a concession for the medium, as the original character and her motivations would be harder to communicate in a visual form.

But enough digital ink spent on those who are already familiar with the source material. Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Portman), an ex-military biologist now working for Johns Hopkins, whose active military husband Kaine (Oscar Isaac) disappeared one year prior on a classified mission. When he suddenly reappears one afternoon with no explanation of his whereabouts or even how he made his way home, their reunion is cut short when his organs fail. En route to the hospital, both Lena and her husband are taken by black ops military personnel; she wakes up in the headquarters of the Southern Reach, a clandestine government organization set up to investigate the nature of Area X, a location bounded by a shimmering barrier that is expanding and consuming more of the surrounding climes bit by bit, and within which bizarre mutations occur at an accelerated pace and from which no survivor other than Kaine has ever returned (at least according to the Reach itself; the post-expedition lives of survivors and “survivors” is an integral part of the later novels). The next expedition is set to breach the boundary soon, led by psychologist Gloria Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and staffed by physicist Josie Radik (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and geologist Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny). Lena joins the expedition in order to find out the truth about what happened to her husband. Inside Area X, all five women are confronted by threats that are existential to them as individuals and members of a species that will not survive if Area X continues to expand.

The book’s unnamed protagonist, identified only as “the biologist,” has different motivations in the novel. Herein we learn that she cheated on her husband and she sets out to make things right by investigating the nature of Area X, but in the novel she is a withdrawn scientist whose oddities make it impossible for her to maintain employment that requires frequent interaction with other people; her fascination with Area X is piqued by her husband’s bizarre return and the apparent changes to his personality (which unfold over several months before he dies, as do all the other members of his expedition, all of which occur before the events of the novel), but which grow because of her fixation on ecosystems in miniature. This change makes her more relatable (with allowance for your mileage to vary) but also less interesting; her motivations are, for lack of a better term, pretty basic.

Since seeing the movie, I’ve had discussions with a few friends who also read the books and saw the movie. One agrees with me, that the film is less interesting than the books on a couple of levels, but allowances made for the language of film mean that it would have to be different, and the differences work for him as they do for me; another friend is annoyed that what he considers to be more “weird fiction” has been reduced to a pretty standard sci-fi story. I think that this is where the difference lies for me: although I wouldn’t call this movie “brave” like many reviewers have, especially given the above-mentioned reduction-to-baseness of both themes and character motivations, I would also never call it “standard” anything, despite the simplifications and changes to the plot. I’m not put out that we’re given an explanation of what Area X is or how life is changed within it, despite the fact that I’m usually annoyed or upset when existential Lovecraftian horror is reduced to something so banal that it is essentially devoid of everything that made it distinct (ahem). I guess why Annihilation still works for me while other works were diminished by being brought closer to earth is that this allows for greater characterization and a different kind of emotional investment.

I mentioned before that the lack of identifying names or characteristics in the source material thematically mirrored Area X itself: Area X and its interior are described in detail, but we’re never told anything about what the women in the expedition look like. Above and beyond the lack of names being enforced by the agency coordinating the breaches into the “shimmer,” this also puts us more firmly in the mind of the biologist, as she is completely disinterested in her compatriots and is invested only in the science of the region. As a reader, the currency of your imagination is to be spent on giving life to Area X and its beautifully deadly terrain and inhabitants, and using any iota of that brainspace on the members of Expedition 12 is wasted; in this way, the reader becomes the biologist, with a professional detachment that grows more clinical and distant as the plot unfolds (or unravels). Again, that’s something that simply wouldn’t work on screen, and by giving the biologist and her fellow explorers more depth (this one’s a recovering alcoholic, that one lost her daughter to leukemia, this one’s a cutter, that one’s dying of cancer), Garland changes the theme from that of emotional distance and disconnection, and perhaps the innateness to humanity of that feeling, into a focus on the (perhaps innate) tendency toward self destruction. That compulsion may, and sometimes does, overtake us while in the guise of something more clinically defined, but rebirth requires the complete destruction, the annihilation, of the self that existed before, down to the cellular level. It’s a change, but one that works to create a great piece of media in spite of its distance from VanderMeer’s novel(s).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Supernatural Romantic Tedium of Anomalisa (2015) & Schizopolis (1996)

In our initial discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, I asked Boomer how he felt the film’s tale of adulterous doppelgängers differed from the similar themes in Charlie Kaufman’s recent stop-motion drama Anomalisa. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh & (his real life ex-wife) Betsy Brantley play duel sets of doppelgängers who cheat on each other in existential searches for romantic passion, only to find more of the same in their “new” partners. To me, this “Love the one you’re with” messaging felt wildly different from Anomalisa‘s central conflict, in which a traveling businessman sees the entire world outside himself as one homogeneous personality except for the woman he’s currently cheating on his wife with, until she too is absorbed into the society of milquetoast doppelgängers that populate his life once the initial spark is gone. I asked Boomer for insight on this difference because I knew he’d be better at articulating it than I would. He wrote, “Schizopolis is a film about projection, but in a way that explores the various ways that multiple individuals categorize and compartmentalize their interactions between different people depending upon the intimacy (or lack thereof) of their relationship, the difference in their social classes and the power dynamic thereof, the emotional distance between them, libido, and other factors. Instead of Anomalisa‘s Michael facing the difficulty of seeing every person–strangers, his wife, his ex, his boss–as the same, Fletcher Munson’s interactions vary, demonstrating the dissonance between his words and his thoughts in his conversations with various people.” Those differences in varying social interactions & perspectives truly are essential to what distinguishes Schizopolis from Anomalisa. It still surprises me, though, how significantly the two works overlap in form to achieve their respective goals.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of both Anomalisa and Schizopolis is the crudeness of their visual forms. Shot with no solid script while palling around Baton Rouge, Schizopolis has a strikingly informal look to it, approximating the home movies & sketch comedy hybrid that defined the style of The Kids in the Hall. For its part, Anomalisa adopts the medium of stop-motion animation, which inherently has a kind of imperfect crudeness to its motions. Offsetting the leaps made in the medium by studios like Laika, however, this film intentionally shows the creases in its characters’ faces, calling attention to its own seams & artifice. Both films also dwell on the anonymity of utilitarian spaces & the empty babble of corporate speak. In Anomalisa, Michael’s depression is amplified by the doldrums of occupying a hotel room while away on business, with nothing especially exceptional about his transient spacial surroundings. The Baton Rouge office buildings & suburban homes Fletcher Munson drifts through in Schizopolis are just as unremarkable & devoid of personality. Munson’s job writing nonsensical speeches for the L. Ron Hubbard reminiscent cult leader of Eventualism & author of How to Control Your Own Mind is also reflected in the big speech on optimizing customer service efficiency (or some other empty form of corporate chatter) Michael travels to deliver. For two films about supernatural events in which bored businessmen drift into romantic entanglements with physical copies of their partners, Anomalisa & Schizopolis both make a point to keep their visual pallets anonymously bland & unassuming. They both seek to wring the supernatural out of the mundane, which requires the outlandishness of their premises to be rooted in visual monotony. The differences between their achievements have less to do with their respective visual styles than with how one story takes boredom with the hegemony as a freeing opportunity for irreverence while the other allows that boredom to fester into contempt.

As Boomer wrote in our initial conversation, “The biggest difference between the two films is in the fact that Anomalisa only gives us Michael’s point of view and insight into his particular problems with intimacy, communication, empathy, and humanity. […] Shizopolis gives us the points of view of several people, and highlights how each of them have their own problems with communication, which vary from person to person.” It’s arguable which choice of perspective makes for a more rewarding film, but being stuck in Michael’s head certainly makes Anomalisa the more uncomfortable watch. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh casts himself as a bland everyman. Anomalisa envisions a world where every man is bland. Not only is every character outside Michael’s head boring (and vaguely reminiscent of Michael Ian Black); they’re also an annoying, unremarkable sea of braying idiots with nothing unique to offer the world. I appreciate the bizarre accomplishments of Anomalisa from an emotional distance, but never truly fall in love with the film because it feels as if it should display just as much contempt for its villainous protagonist as he does for the rest of the world. Whether or not his perspective is the symptom of a chemical imbalance, the lack of empathy in Michael’s worldview makes him out to be an elitist monster who’s far more difficult to resonate with than Fletcher Munson’s more recognizably common suburban doldrums. Schizopolis is willing to examine its protagonist’s close-minded selfishness in its third act reversal of perspective that replays scenes through Mrs. Munson’s POV, while Anomalisa just dismisses Michael’s cruel boredom as “psychological problems,” as if they’re something universally experienced. The most perspective we get from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael’s titular love interest is a sweetly pathetic rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is played more for pity than it is for empathy.

As much as I prefer the deranged silliness of Schizopolis to Anomalisa‘s bitter people-watching, Michael’s climactic speech about customer service optimization does devolve nicely into a kind of dual mission statement for both films. He asks himself (and his audience) “What does it mean to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” in existential desperation, only to answer those questions with frantic repetitions of “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” These films approach that crisis and the oppressive mundanity of modern life from entirely different perspectives. Schizopolis searches for meaning in interpersonal relationships, finding its frustration with the ineffectiveness of language at truly connecting two human souls in a punishingly tedious world that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Anomalisa, by contrast, despairs at the punishing tedium of other people, who are just as uninteresting & personality-free as hotel room furniture. No matter which perspective you find more honest or worthwhile, it’s eerie how much these visually crude doppelgänger narratives overlap in form. Their supernatural romance dramas are rooted in two incomparable philosophies, yet they’re both staged in a common, tedious modern world setting with intentionally limiting means of expression.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Time (2017)

I had no idea who up & coming filmmakers The Safdie Brothers were before seeing their most recent collaboration, Good Time, at the cinema, but by the tail end of the opening credits I was already mesmerized by the talent of Benny Safdie in particular. It wasn’t the fact that Benny co-directed (along with brother Josh Safdie, who penned the screenplay) while also making the risky decision to play a mentally disabled thief in one of the central roles that won me over as a fan. It was actually Benny’s sound editing credit that most caught my attention. From the opening frames of the film it’s immediately apparent that the sound design, which heavily features a synth-soaked score from weirdo pop act Oneohtrix Point Never, is the film’s driving force, the main source of its tension & eerie beauty. In Good Time, even the beautiful things are deeply ugly and the way The Safdie Brothers drown their audience in a nonstop deluge of oppressive sounds is just as painful as it is divinely transcendent. Even if every other element at play were dull or uninspired, the film’s synthy soundscape would be enough on its own to push the film into the Best of the Year conversations, which is not too shabby for a couple directors who’ve seemingly come out of nowhere (i.e. documentary filmmaking).

Robert Pattinson stars as an irredeemable scumbag who lands his mentally disabled brother (Benny Safdie) in jail after a botched bank heist. Good Time mostly follows this despicable anti-hero down a complex labyrinth where he schemes to retrieve his brother from police custody. In his desperation he fails to plan ahead for future mishaps, barely evading police custody at every turn himself as he inches closer to retrieving his brother. Any shred of sympathy for Pattinson’s bank-robbing underdog is near-impossible to hold onto as he consistently steps all over old women, children, people of color, and the mentally ill in his single-minded quest to break his brother out. Occasionally this monstrously selfish mission is interrupted by tangents like a long monologue about the worst acid trip in history or an especially unhinged performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a wealthy heiress with a violent chemical imbalance, but Pattinson’s scumbag lead will only pay attention to those distractions for as long as it takes him to figure out a way to exploit them. Like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road, Good Time is composed entirely of a series of obstacles. There’s an intense moral conundrum at the core of the plot where you want to see the lead succeed in saving his brother from a prison system he’s not mentally equipped to navigate, but also want him to fail for the sake of the marginalized people he hurts along the way. There’s hardly time to wrestle with that conflict in the moment, however, since each obstacle pummels the screen in rapid succession with full, unforgiving force.

Good Time is essentially a mutated version of Refn’s Drive with all of the sparkling romance thoroughly supplanted with dispiriting grime. Filtering an old-fashioned heist plot through Oneohtrix Point Never’s blistering synths and the neon-soaked cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who also shot Queen of Earth) sounds like it’d be a blast, but The Safdie Brothers employ those electric lights & sounds for a much more grueling purpose. Occasionally, Good Time will introduce a stray element of dangerous fun, like an amusement park funhouse or a Sprite bottle full of LSD, but mostly the directors allow their documentary work to inform the tone of the picture. Good Time is defined less by neon glamor than it is soaked in the economy-driven discomfort of state-sanctioned psychoanalysis sessions or the cold glow of television-lit hospital rooms. There’s deeply uncomfortable sexual & racial context to most of the main character’s crimes, but there’s also an economic desperation in his acts of theft, kidnapping, and breaking & entering that inform his decisions to commit them. In one telling scene, he pauses to watch an episode of the 90s reality show Cops, which similarly repackaged systemic economic hardship as an entertainment commodity, only to be disgusted by the pain on display on the screen. Good Time aims to disgust & discomfort in that same way, offering all of the surface entertainment of a film like Drive without softening its real life implications with the fantasy of movie magic the way that the film does so well.

If nothing else, Good Time is an excellent case for each of its individual players as creative powerhouses to be reckoned with. Jennifer Jason Leigh has already established herself as an actor to beware in titles like The Hateful Eight & eXistenZ, so Robert Pattinson’s role here works much better as a breakout calling card performance (much more so than his own Cronenberg vehicle, Cosmopolis), as despicable as it is. The Safdie Brothers also stand a chance to make names for themselves as actors, writers, and directors in what has to be their widest release to date, especially in the brazen way they dare to punish their newfound audience. If Good Time works as a showcase for any one in element in particular, however, its effect is most heavily weighted in its attention to sound. Benny Safdie’s masterful integration of the tireless Oneohtrix Point Never synths in the diegetic sounds of Good Time‘s grimy crime world environments is truly one of the great marvels of the year, something that deserves to be experienced as big and as loud as possible.

-Brandon Ledet

eXistenZ (1999)

As I proudly count Videodrome as one of my all-time favorite films, I have no excuse for how long I’ve put off watching its kissing cousin, eXistenZ. Like how all Cronenberg horrors are driven by unspoken, cerebral fear, maybe I was subconsciously worried about seeing one of my most loved works lessened in its cultural update from cable television moral outrage to video game paranoia. eXistenZ even opens with a murder executed through an organic firearm made of bone & teeth, which picks up right where the flesh gun assassination conclusion of Videodrome leaves off. I wasn’t at all disappointed by my experience with eXistenZ, however. The film didn’t tarnish my appreciation of earlier Cronenberg works like Videodrome, but rather enhanced them by providing better context for the director’s career at large. Not only does a Cronenberg spin on the video game paranoia explored in less-horrific titles like The Matrix & TRON have an instant appeal to it, but eXistenZ also serves as a great bridge between the cerebral body horror of the director’s early career and the cold philosophical comedies he’s been making since the mid-2000s.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a hotshot virtual reality game developer who’s workshopping her greatest work to date, eXistenZ. The focus group testing of the game is disrupted when an assassination attempt is made with the aforementioned bone gun, leaving the developer/artist vulnerably injured. A marketing nerd played by Jude Law then finds himself operating as a makeshift bodyguard, whisking the developer away to safety while a vaguely-defined They (a paranoid conspiracy theory combination of both anti-gamers & gaming corporations) chase the pair down. Reality blurs as the two new “friends” delve into multiple levels of games within games to ensure the safety of both eXistenZ and its creator. There are no TRON-like digital landscapes around to give away what is “reality” vs what is eXistenZ, so the movie mostly amounts to a colossal mind fuck of Cronenberg needling his audience into a paranoid questioning of the validity of every character & every story beat. His version of a virtual reality future is much grimier & more organic than most similarly-minded sci-fi, works that tend to vizualize their own futurescapes with crisp lines & sanitized spaces. Cronenberg’s horrific vision is not the reality presented by the gaming systems, “meta flesh game pods” that plug into players’ spines through an umbilical chord & a puckered asshole of an outlet, or “bio-port” in the movie’s parlance. The writhing game pods, which look like gigantic human ears with clitoral nobs, make technology itself to be a literal horror, which really essentializes the paranoia films like The Matrix & The 13th Floor labor to communicate.

It’s interesting that no character in eXistenZ ever once says the term “video game,” yet we know exactly what medium Cronenberg is targeting. The glowing flesh cell phones & casual acceptance of virtual reality as a commonplace technology suggest a distant future where video games are a long-obsolete artform, but not so distant that the anus-like bio-ports & umbilical chord connectors that make gaming possible are acceptable to everyone. eXistenZ gleefully taps into the sexual taboo of female on male penetration, lingering on moments when Jennifer Jason Leigh has to lube up & enter Jude Law’s bio-port for stabs of psychosexual unease. Cronenberg sets up a fictional work where ours is “the most pathetic level of reality,” but the biological technology necessary to transcend it is a source of bottomless horror. Much like with Videodrome, he uses that bodily unease to open the film to metacommentary on the value of his own art. While Videodrome explores the violent & sexual urges titillated by a shifting media landscape, eXistenZ focuses on the nature of artificial realities created in individual movies, calling into question what qualifies as “real.” Characters detach from their in-game personas to critique the quality of the dialogue they’re compelled to say & what value a scripted sex scene has on their characterization. eXistenZ feels like the beginning of Cronenberg coldly playing with philosophical humor in conspicuously artificial environments, an aesthetic that became full fledged by the time he made more recent titles like Cosmopolis & Maps to the Stars. The joy is in watching him achieve that aesthetic through the technology-paranoid body horror tools of his earliest classics before abandoning them entirely.

From the continuation of Videodrome ideology to its dream logic sci-fi mindfuckery to the surprise of seeing a large chunk of the Last Night cast reassembled for a gross-out horror, I was always going to be predisposed to enjoy eXistenZ. It felt almost as if I were destined or scripted to watch & enjoy the film, a fate I delayed for as long as I could, but did not avoid indefinitely. As I’m wrapping up this review, I’m feeling a phantom itch where my bio-port should be, which is the exact kind of reality-questioning paranoia I hope to catch from all of my Cronenberg fare. If Jennifer Jason Leigh enters any room I’m in for the remainder of my life I’m going to let out an uncontrollable scream.

-Brandon Ledet

Anomalisa (2015)

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fourhalfstar

As is the case with virtually every project that has Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints on it, Anomalisa is an insight into the writer/director’s particularly idiosyncratic worldview and plethora of neuroses. The film tells the story of a lonely, mentally ill man (voiced by David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinatti to present a keystone speech at a customer service convention. Every person that he encounters along the way has the same face and speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan), including cab drivers, his wife and son, and even the former lover with whom he attempts to reconnect on his single night in town. When she revels how emotionally and irrevocably devastated she was by his departure, he finds temporary succor in the arms of a shy woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose face is scarred and who is attending the conference with her more extroverted and attractive BFF Emily. Although he contemplates leaving his family for her, in the light of day, she moves from anomalous to anonymous as she takes on the face and voice of everyone else. His presentation goes awry when he has a mental breakdown on stage, and he returns home as empty and incomplete as he was at the film’s outset.

The film is a technical marvel, a stop-motion animated feature that utilized 3D printing to create the many stages of facial expression across a sea of duplicate people, and the design and detail work on display is simply stunning. Michael Stone’s gradually building psychotic episode is beautifully telegraphed in a mirror-contemplating scene that sees his face revolving through a series of different faces, and an operatically composed dream sequence includes a moment where his countenance falls apart and reveals the framework underneath. Technically, the film is virtually flawless once you become accustomed to the world’s aesthetic (the line that separates the tops and bottoms of faces is distracting at the outset), and the concept of a world of interchangeable people is realized elegantly.

The narrative, however, leaves a little to be desired. As a peak into Kaufman’s mind, this is yet another story about a reprehensibly self-oriented and self-interested man whose outbursts this time around are rationalized as the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. Once again, an unsympathetic man is brought so low that we the audience cannot help but feel some empathy for his plight; we spend so much time with Stone alone and in an “unobserved” state that he becomes familiar enough that we’re willing to go along on his journey. Of course, his journey exists only in the literal sense, as, ironically, there is no self-discovery for a man who spends so much of his mental energy reflecting upon himself.

Stone is a man who: passively suggests hooking up with his ex, moments after she reveals that she spent the first year after he left her unable to get out of bed; has raised an utterly spoiled and ungrateful child whose brattiness is communicated in a scant three minutes onscreen; and considers leaving his wife and family for what he presumes would be a life of less self-loathing with an uncomplicated Midwestern woman (who has much more going on under the surface than he is willing or able to see). Although we’re living in a post-Don Draper world and it feel’s like the west is drowning in stories of this ilk, Anomalisa feels fresh, if only because of its unusual visual rhetorical space. It’s utterly impossible to like Stone despite his fundamentally broken nature, but the nature of the presentation goes a long way towards making him stand out from the Tony Sopranos and Dr. Houses of the world. It’s a third-person depiction of a first-person point of view, and this immersiveness saves the film from feeling too stale.

This should in no way be read as an indictment of Thewlis’s performance, which is fantastic. He’s not alone: Leigh also does great work here, playing Lisa’s vulnerability and tenaciousness in equal parts, giving life to a character that is ultimately much more human and endearingly honest than Stone. There’s an edge to her line-readings that gives Lisa a physical presence that could be felt even if there were no plastic bodies awkwardly humping each other on screen. Noonan embues each of the diverse characters he plays with variations on a theme, and his irascible cab driver and burned lover are standouts. Still, Thewlis brings a great dimension to the role of Stone, which also contributes to the effectiveness of the story despite its static narrative.

The story is really only tired in broad strokes, however, as the particularities of details are generally novel. Lisa is essentially the opposite of a manic pixie dream girl, a customer service team leader from Akron who lives in Emily’s shadow and considers herself stupid; her favorite food is scrambled eggs and her musical interests skew heavily toward Cyndi Lauper, but she is genuinely interested in improving herself and the state of her life. Her encounter with Stone changes him not at all, but she grows as a result of it, which is a narrative anomaly (no pun intended). The film is also quite observational in the way that it captures true-to-life moments in awkward conversations with eager service industry personnel (including phone reps, cab drivers, bellboys, bar attendants, and cashiers) and being forced to witness interactions between unhappy couples.

This all illustrates the film’s interest in drama but fails in its recapitulation of the comic elements. Much like last year’s Queen of Earth, there is a conscious meditation upon the way that living with or adjacent to mental illness is not the perpetually joyless experience that forms the narrative basis of most literary interrogations of the subject. It’s a rarely discussed observation of the human condition, that while some people are comic or tragic figures, most of us have varying percentages of both throughout our lives, and it’s not always easy or indeed necessary to categorize existence in such binary terms. That’s not to mention the other subtle jokes throughout the film; for instance, Cincinatti chili sounds intriguing and horrifying, and I appreciate the pride that the fictional Ohioans take in their bizarre concoction and their zoo. There’s also a lot to unpack about the fact that Stone’s breakdown stream-of-consciousness is interpreted to be critical of soldiers, prompting an attendee to shout about “supporting the troops,” especially combined with the hotelier’s framed George W. Bush portrait in Stone’s dream sequence.

Speaking of which, as the film largely sticks to a realism even if the point of view is warped, the surreality of Stone’s nightmare sequence is worth the ticket price alone, and is what I expect most people will be talking about long after seeing the film. It’s also the most recognizably Kaufman-esque part of the movie; the sea-of-interchangable faces conceit is present throughout and is obviously evocative of the restaurant full of John Malkovitches seen in Being John Malkovitch (and revisited in Adaptation), but Stone’s story doesn’t otherwise lend itself to Kaufman’s more eccentric imagery. In the dream sequence, however, there’s an exploration of space that is reminiscent of the half-floor in the office building from Malkovitch, and Stone’s attempt to escape through a sea of improbably-close desks is pure Kaufman visual flourish. There’s less Synecdoche, New York in the film’s DNA, which may be for the best, as this film feels less like a masturbatory ode about being a misunderstood and self-destructive artist and isn’t also largely impenetrable (individual responses may vary). That having been said, in defense of Synecdoche, none of Anomalisa’s images are as haunting as that film’s perpetually burning house, curling tattooed leaves, or infinitely recursive series of miniaturized metropoli.

Overall, Anomalisa is a great film that draws you into its headspace with compelling imagery. While the plot may not be as much of a technical masterpiece as its cinematography, its potentially played-out story is sufficiently fleshed out (again, no pun intended) that it will likely remain culturally relevant long after the genre of paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui has receded back into the ether from which it came. If not a masterpiece, then the film is definitively a cinematic experience that demands to be seen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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fourstar

One of the first things that will always come to mind with Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, is the William Castle-esque pageantry of its release. Framed as an Old Hollywood-style Road Show, the film was released one week earlier than its digital-version wide release date as a 70mm film print (a strip twice as large as was standard when film prints were standard) complete with an overture, intermission, and a full-color playbill. The Hateful Eight Road Show was a three hour long experience. Purchasing tickets more than a week ahead of time I got the distinct feeling of when you’re anticipating a band you love coming to town instead of a film. To tell the truth, though, the Road Show wasn’t as flashy or as exciting as you would expect, not even as over-the-top as the Grindhouse gimmick attached to Tarantino’s Death Proof release. The overture & intermission were blank spaces accompanied by music. The “extra footage” was, presumably, a collection of extended exterior & detail shots that helped establish mood. Watching the movie unfold on projected film was a nice touch for an homage to old-fashioned Westerns, but it’s a detail that could be forgotten once you’re immersed in its story. The best part of the Road Show was not how it punched the film up & made it more exciting, but how it slowed the proceeding down & let it breathe.

At one point in The Hateful Eight, Samuel L. Jackson’s balding, ex-military bounty hunter says, “Not so fast. Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down.” That seems to be the film’s M.O. in general. Tarantino is, of course, known to luxuriate in his own dialogue, but there is something particularly bare bones & talkative about The Hateful Eight. It’d say it’s his most patient & relaxed work yet, one that uses the Western format as a springboard for relying on limited locations & old-fashioned storytelling to propel the plot toward a blood-soaked finale. Depicting a (jokingly) self-described Bounty Hunter’s Picnic, the film follows the transport of a dangerous criminal (played by an especially feral Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the company of eight potentially dangerous men who are all snowed-in in in a small Wyoming cabin during a blizzard. Among them are Kurt Russell’s weathered bounty hunter, desperate to see her hang; Sam Jackson’s similarly-minded bounty hunter with his own payday to protect; Bruce Dern’s cantankerous Southern Rebel general who refuses to let go of the Civil War; Tim Roth’s “jolly good” rapscallion of a Brit; and the list goes on. As the plot unfolds it becomes apparent that one or more of the strange men are determined to set the prisoner free by leaving behind a trail of dead, which makes for a Western version of a mystery film like Clue or John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tarantino’s no stranger to genre mashups or liberal borrowing, but there’s a relaxed, unrushed pacing that started to emerge in his films sometime around Inglourious Basterds that’s getting its full due in The Hateful Eight.

Watching Tarantino’s films with the general public is always a little nerve-racking for me. The mashup of comedy & violence in his work builds a lot of nervous tension that leads to much-needed laughs, but I find a lot of audiences will laugh at disturbing moments designed to leave you more in abject horror instead of knee-slapping amusement. The Hateful Eight provides a wealth of opportunities for this discomfort. The audience around me laughed during shots of Jennifer Jason Leigh being beaten half to death by the men in charge of her transport. I found that more horrifying than amusing (despite her playing a cruel, heartless character herself), but Leigh’s immediate response to of spitting, shooting snot rockets, and licking up blood with a smirk were all very funny to me in a Jerri Blank kind of way and fell onto a silent room. Similarly, the copious amount of utterances of the word “nigger” in a post-Civil War America setting & an extended fireside tale of a rape & murder left me chilled to the rest of the room’s bizarre reactions. At least we could all agree on the excellent physical comedy gag of a door that wouldn’t stay latched? Tarantino knows exactly what he’s doing with this tension, something he plays up with decisions like ending the rape tale with a silent intermission or having characters puke blood in a grotesque practical effects display that alternates from funny to horrifying to funny to you get the picture.

So many details complicate the background & history of The Hateful Eight that it’s difficult to separate them from the film proper. The film’s screenplay was leaked online prior to production, so an infuriated Tarantino cancelled the film outright, then doubled back & staged a table reading before deciding to actually begin filming due to an overwhelmingly positive response. I mention this backstory because it bleeds into the film not only in its dialogue-heavy vibe, but also in the way Tarantino himself acts as a narrator, reading stage directions aloud during the film. The Thing vibes are inescapable in its snowed-in, no-one-can-be-trusted plot structure, but are also backed up & complicated by unused segments of Ennico Morricone’s score for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Then there’s the experience of the Road Show & the 70mm print, two features I cannot separate from the movie as a finished product. I also found myself thinking of its “Spend the holidays with someone you hate” tagline in the trailers, especially in Michael Madsen’s cowboy’s interrupted plans to spend Christmas with his mother & in a particularly uncomfortable rendition of “Silent Night”. It’s difficult to know when you’re enjoying The Hateful Eight or when you’re enjoying the experience & the lore of watching The Hateful Eight. It’s a confusingly engaging film in that way.

There are a few things that are remarkably clear about The Hateful Eight to me right now, though. It is an incredibly violent, misanthropic, lushly-photographed tale of a collection of vile ruffians murdering each other in such a flippant, nonchalant way that it leaves you with both nervous laughter and total disgust. In that way it’s classic Tarantino, so mileage may vary depending on how you already feel about his work. In this case, though, the pacing is slowed way down to allow the violence & the nervousness to soak in even deeper than before, leaving you with a particularly nasty, hateful feeling at the end credits.

-Brandon Ledet