The Nest (2020)

The Nest avoids beating a dead horse, but it does bury one. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In this second feature from director Sean Durkin following the 2011 debut showstopper Martha Marcy May Marlene, Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) and his wife Allison (Carrie Coon) move their small family to Rory’s native England from suburban New York, in their fourth move in a decade. Like WW84, this is a mid-eighties period piece, and at first theirs appears to be an ideal Reagan-era nuclear family, with teenage daughter Sam (Oona Roche) and ten-year-old son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) getting along in the way that siblings rarely do. We ultimately learn that the truth is a little messier (Allison was a single mother to Sam when she and Rory met and thus this is a blended family) and that this artifice is purely for the sake of creating a perfect impression to the outside world despite the reality being perfectly normal. The family is fine as it is, but Rory needs it to be more perfect, and like most of the facades that Rory spends so much time building, it’s an unnecessary gilding that endangers the foundation.

When proposing that they return to England so that Rory can go back to work for his old boss Arthur (Michael Culkin), Allison asks him if he’s hiding the truth about the family’s financial situation, with the implication being that it wouldn’t be the first time. Discussing the move with her mother (Wendy Crewson), the older woman tells her to simply trust in her spouse—”It’s not your job to worry, let your husband do that”—and Allison, mirthfully but sincerely, teases her that this is a worrisome ideology. When Allison and the kids arrive at their new home in England, they discover that Rory has rented a positively gigantic mansion, which has grounds on which he promises to build a six-stable barn for Allison’s horse Richmond and promised future stallions and mares, with the implication that Allison can one day resume equestrian instruction, which had been her occupation prior to Rory’s repatriation.

What plays out is, essentially, a dramatic version of the Simpsons episode “You Only Move Twice,” as each member of the family succumbs to negatives in their personal and social lives in their new environment. The long distance that the family must commute into London (it’s a little under an hour’s drive from Surrey to London in 2020 and was likely longer 35 years ago) wreaks havoc on their previous unity, which fell into place with ease in their earlier suburban life. Rory insists his children attend the best private* school, which results in Ben being bullied extensively and Sam spending time with a rougher crowd of local kids, presumably in rebellion against being expected to socialize with her fancypants classmates. Ben and Sam also drift apart, as Ben clings to Sam when their parents are away because the large, empty house frightens him. The house itself also immediately becomes another millstone around the struggling family’s collective neck as it’s too large for them to even furnish, although this doesn’t stop Rory from boasting at parties about their “farm” and the intent to purchase a “pied-à-terre in Mayfair” (a very chintzy part of London’s Hyde Park area) while Allison expresses discomfort with this; whether Rory’s dishonest or delusional, she’s still troubled, as well she should be. Things come to a head when a business deal that Rory is pushing Arthur to sign off on is rejected and Allison’s horse falls ill and collapses while she’s riding him; she has to go to a neighboring farmer for help (i.e., to put Richmond out of his misery) and, because Rory has allowed the phone bill to lapse, he’s unable to let her know that he’s spending the night in London, leaving Allison alone to bear the brunt of it all. The stress drives her to a point of dissociation, in which she declares that everyone in her family has become a stranger to her.

There’s nothing wrong with The Nest. In fact, it falls into my sweet spot of “woman on the verge.” Narratively, the film is solid, as the screenplay deftly weaves in good bits of foreshadowing early on that come into play later. When we first see Rory and Ben interacting, the two are playing soccer with one of Ben’s young friends, and although Rory wins, his son declares that he did so by cheating, demonstrating that Rory doesn’t let anything stand in his way, even when the opponent is his son and the stakes are as low as backyard bragging rights. We also get to see Allison in her element as a horseback riding instructor, where she deftly and calmly handles both the beasts and her clients, collecting their payments without wheedling or the slightest hesitation. She’s better at her job than Rory is at his, and although he’s no Gordon Gecko, he is a member of that deplorable group of eighties businessmen who turn money into more money by moving it around and for whom the impending deregulation (you know, the one that allowed wealth aggregators to plunder the economy of Western society and destroy the middle class) is a cause for celebration.

We are made to sympathize with Rory to an extent, as we’re told about his lousy childhood, including social exclusion and mediocre educational opportunities (which is what prompts him to overcompensate with the enrollments of Ben and Sam), although his mother, while cold, isn’t entirely unreasonable. She accuses Rory of never reaching out to her, and he retorts that she never called him, either, but we in the audience have no reason to disbelieve her complaint that Rory moved so much that she lost track of him. Ben is ten years old at this point and we’re told that this face-to-face reunion between Rory and his mother (orchestrated so that he can ask her for financial assistance) is the first time she’s been made aware that he’s married or that she has a grandson. However, while Rory’s story is tragic, it’s tragic in a classical way, as the ultimate cause of his ruination is not the change in broad social trends, or the dissatisfaction of his family as they overcome their culture shock and become accustomed to this new old world, or even his own poor handling of his emotions in the workplace (he’s allowed to have a lot more outbursts, consequence free, than would be allowed in a contemporary office). It would also be reductive to say that Rory’s life falls apart because of his greed, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s most accurate and honest to say that Rory’s loss comes equally from his unerring adherence to using the successes of others as the yardstick against which he measures himself, even when he could live comfortably within his means, and his devotion to the “fake it until you make it” ideology that has become even more common in the intervening decades. In his attempts to emulate success as part of a campaign to acquire the wealth that he craves and plays at having, he overextends what was likely a perfectly reasonable income, because he thinks that he deserves to have access to the same playground.

As Arthur tells Rory at one point, the latter has mistaken his coincidental success (that is, being in a rising tide that lifted all boats) for genuine intelligence and aptitude, which is simply untrue. He even tells the younger man that striving for a sudden, imminent payday to put paid to all of his current woes is foolish, as he should be striving to build something for himself over time instead of impatiently demanding his success now now now. And this is where the film missteps for me on a conceptual level, as it apparently presents Arthur’s advice about what Rory should do as a kind of blanket truth, when it isn’t. What Rory even does is kept deliberately obscured with industry buzzwords that ultimately mean nothing, and neither he nor Arthur are actually productive; they simply maintain the paradigm of ownership of the means of production and acquire wealth by buying and selling that labor. In case you forgot, labor creates all value, so make sure to write that one down somewhere that you see it every day. Allison’s manual labor that she performs for the neighboring farmer is the only work that we see anyone get any emotional satisfaction from, which isn’t a bad storytelling point, but Arthur’s presentation of the idea that a living wage can be earned simply by living within one’s means, delivered from the last point in Western history when upward social mobility through hard work actually was possible (before it was brought to an end by the very deregulation that Rory worships), misses the mark, although it’s possible that this was intentional and I’m being dense about it.

Like I said, there’s nothing “wrong” with The Nest. The performances are great, as Law effectively plays a man whose charm is so powerful he’s managed to convince even himself that his delusions are true, and he’s magnetic and contemptible in equal turns. You wouldn’t be able to accept a lesser actor in this role without thoroughly hating him, and that’s a testament. He’s also possibly the only actor who has ever managed to make BVD briefs look sexy, and at nearly 50 to boot. Similarly, Carrie Coon’s Allison is pitch perfect (and she’s proper fit, as one of Sam’s rude teenage friends notes). Each interaction contains the perfect amount of emotional distance and intimacy, and Coon is fantastic. By the time she really starts to fall apart, she’s held it together with such aplomb for so long that the audience feels her every revelation with empathetic exhaustion. I also like that there’s no beating around the bush about what the family’s problems are: there’s no infidelity (if anything, the couple’s sex life is the only thing about which they both remain passionate through the entire runtime), and all of the family’s anxieties stem entirely from Rory’s pathological obsession with money.

Outside of the performances, however, the whole thing feels very rote. Allison discovers that Sam has been smoking, but doesn’t confront her about it. Sam throws a rebellious teenage party when she’s supposed to be watching Ben. Ben discovers that his mother’s dead horse is starting to rise from the ground because it was buried improperly and has a little freak out about it (ok, maybe that last one is novel). There’s simply nothing new on the table, and a full throated denunciation of deregulated economics followed by a halfhearted commemoration of a time when a single breadwinner could provide–comfortably if not extravagantly–for a nuclear unit makes for a tonally confused film. Not to bring up Queen of Earth again, but that’s a film in which what’s being attempted here is successfully pulled off: a thriller where all of the violence is emotional and the tension comes from wondering who’s going to break first, and in what way. But where Queen made that work, Nest feels like a pale version that gets by solely on the strength of its performances and its cinematography (which is gorgeous), but which lacks the freakout that would take it to the next level.

*Here using the American definition of “private,” that is, a school which stipulates a hefty tuition and is not available to members of the general public and practices elitism and classism in practice even if it disavows it in theory. In England, the terms are reversed so that “public” schools in the U.K. meet this definition while their use of “private” generally correlates to the American “public,” i.e., state-funded. Yes, it is confusing.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Brian Raftery’s film criticism book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen has had many pop culture pundits gazing twenty years back to 1999 as a creative pinnacle of modern cinema. Frankly, I don’t fully buy the claim that the year was anything special, as many of the examples cited as phenomenal releases that year – Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Election, Audition, etc. – were not immediately hits upon release and took years to gain cultural traction as significant works. Every movie year is practically the same; most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift though the deluge to single out the gems. I’m sure in twenty years’ time, with enough breathing room to reflect back and grow into nostalgia for the modern era, someone could compile a long enough list of standouts to contend that 2019 was the best movie year ever. Or 2017. Or 2003. Or any other year. Still, even if I don’t fully buy Raftery’s thesis the way other pop culture nerds have seemed to, the mental exercise of singling out a particular year for collective re-examination has been fun, and it’s thankfully lifted the profiles of smaller, niche films that still haven’t gotten their full due as great works. I’ve seen this play out with movies I personally love in genres that aren’t always critically respected – especially femme high school cruelty comedies like But I’m a Cheerleader!, Jawbreaker, Cruel Intentions, and Drop Dead Gorgeous. I’ve also been pushed outside my own comfort zone to check out excellent titles I’ve overlooked, like The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I was thirteen years old when The Talented Mr. Ripley was first released, and I did not understand its appeal from the scattered snippets of it I caught at the time whatsoever, other than that it was a thriller made for grown-ups. In fact, I’ve often mixed the film up with the innocuous-looking The Thomas Crown Affair remake of the same year, likely because they both involve con artists named Tom doing sexy European crimes among high-society snobs. I do get it now, though. Despite being generally suspicious of the “[Year X] was a better Movie Year than [Year Y] or [Year Z]” mode of criticism, I’m happy this celebration of 1999 cinema has boosted The Talented Mr. Ripley’s profile, as it’s the exact kind of “movies made for adults” that people bemoan have disappeared from the big screen in recent years (at least in terms of major studio Hollywood productions). Story-wise, it’s no less sleazy than lowly genre films like Single White Female or Fatal Attraction, but it’s dressed up with enough handsome costuming, cinematography, and in-their-prime movie stars to convince you of its intellectual value as a night out at the Theatre. Plus, it’s got something going for it that too few Hollywood productions can boast now, in the 90s, or otherwise: it’s gay. Not undertone/subtext/implied gay either; this is a menacing thriller about handsome young men who love each other to death in an explicitly gay context, leaving no wiggle room for any other interpretation. Of course, because it’s Hollywood, there’s unfortunately no explicit gay sex onscreen, but you must take your minor victories where you can find them. If only I had clued into the seedy, sordid, sexual menace of the film’s surface pleasures as a teen instead of passing it over as a boring drama for boring adults; it might have been a decades-long favorite instead of a late discovery.

Matt Damon stars as the titular Tom Ripley, a piano tuner turned con artist who grifts his way into the upper class of the jazzy, closeted days of the 1950s. After costuming as a Princeton alumnus at a swanky NYC cocktail party, Ripley is hired to retrieve a millionaire’s spoiled-brat son, Dickie (Jude Law), back from his permanent vacation in coastal Italy. Dickie has been living it up on his father’s dime, all the while fucking any & every willing participant who crosses his path – including a socially compatible fiancé (Gwyneth Paltrow), a village full of naïve working class women, and also possibly a string of closeted boytoys from his college days (most notably including Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a grotesque frat-boy ogre). At one point he even vows to fuck an icebox, the hedonist, simply because he loves cold beer. If there’s any major fault in The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s that the who’s-fucking-who dynamics at play remain a little ambiguous, as there is somehow no onscreen sex in this incredibly horny movie. It’s all kept behind closed doors, mirroring the hush-hush extramarital sexuality of its temporal setting. Ripley himself, a supposedly dishonest con artist who elbows his way into a wealth class where he doesn’t “belong,” is the only character who is clear & direct about his intentions with Dickie, romantic or otherwise. He confesses, “I’ve gotten to like everything about the way you live. It’s one big love affair!” It’s difficult to give him too much credit for the virtue of that honesty, however, since the means by which he attempts to claim Dickie’s lifestyle & sexual charisma for himself quickly escalates from simple grifts to a complex web of lies – one with an exponential body count. Ripley is blatantly honest about being a liar, a forger, and an impersonator by trade, but he doesn’t quite let on how violent he’s willing to get to protect the believability of those lies once they inevitably spin out of control.

Thematically, there isn’t much going on in The Talented Mr. Ripley that you couldn’t find in plenty of other wealth-class thrillers. The way Dickie plays with other people’s lives like a spoiled brat with a shiny new toy and the incestuous in-circle politics wherein the ultra-rich all know each other (which is often the downfall of Ripley’s schemes) are common tropes in this setting. The unspoken cruising & spark of homosexual lust in a closeted past is of a rarer breed in pop culture media, but not totally unique either. If nothing else, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote this movie’s source material novel, also covered that territory in her work that eventually became Carol (and both adaptations feature Cate Blanchett!). Beneath its handsome, prestigey surface The Talented Mr. Ripley is essentially a genre film – a horny European-set crime thriller of a very particular type. Like with all great genre films, the exceptional achievements it manages to pull off are rooted in minor details & aesthetic choices, not in story or character dynamics. Seeing these particular young movie stars at their sexiest (Hoffman excluded) in gorgeous wealth-class locales is perhaps the most astonishing detail of all, as this is the kind of genre film that’s now relegated to small-budget indies & foreign pictures like Double Lover, The Duke of Burgundy, or Piercing in the 2010s. The other exciting quirks & details of the picture (like Dickie wielding “You can be quite boring” as the ultimate insult or Tom bludgeoning wealthy brats with tools of their own class – like boat ores & Grecian statues) can’t compete with that kind of bygone-era appeal. I can’t match the general enthusiasm for 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever, but I was at the right age then (as many of the Millennial & Gen-X critics writing this stuff were) to have enough nostalgia for the era to make The Talented Mr. Ripley an incredibly sumptuous example of its genre. Well, that, and the gay stuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Captain Marvel (2019)

She’s beauty, she’s grace, she can kick you into space.

Well, the first Marvel movie of 2019 is here. And, hey, it’s pretty good! Nothing that’s so exciting that it’ll melt your brain out, or anything, but Captain Marvel has finally hit our screens and damned if we aren’t glad to see her. Right? Right?

I don’t want to be down on this one. I really enjoyed myself as I sat in the theater and mindlessly absorbed a little nugget of Marvel product, which loudly and proudly is set in the 90s. Remember the 90s? There was a Democrat in office, the economy was essentially okay, we weren’t at war with anyone for a little while, and when the President got a blowjob and perjured himself about it, we all were in agreement that the office of the PotUS had been so thoroughly tarnished that no future President could ever sink lower (ha). But also, you know: AIDS, Hurricane Andrew (which goes strangely unremarked upon here despite the fact that a significant portion of the film takes place in 1995 Louisiana), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc. Never let your nostalgia get the best of you, is all I’m saying, but it’s no crime to feel a little warm inside when you hear the opening strains of “Come As You Are,” either.

It’s 1995. Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of the Kree Defense Force, a group of interstellar “warrior heroes” who keep the peace in the Kree Empire (the blue [mostly] aliens from the Guardians movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) by performing various acts of apparent valor, including rooting out cells of Skrulls, a race of green reptilian shapeshifters. She herself is a woman without a memory, à la Wolverine, only getting glimpses into a past she can’t recall when dreaming of a mysterious woman (Annette Bening). Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers attempts to learn more about herself using the AI ruler of the Kree, the Supreme Intelligence (Bening again, as we only see her from Vers’s point of view and it takes different forms for different people), without much success. After being taken captive by Skrulls and fighting her way free, Vers lands on C-53, better known to its inhabitants as Earth, where she immediately runs afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., before bonding with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and setting out to discover why the woman in her dreams seems to have had a life on C-53, including involvement with a top secret aerospace defense project. Along the way, she connects, or perhaps reconnects, with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). Opposing her is the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), but there may be more to his motivations than meets the eye.

A lot of the internet is pretty up in arms about Captain Marvel, and for the most part, it’s just trolling and various degrees of personal toxicity. And the problem with every dudebro out there who’s angry about the injustice of Captain Marvel/Vers (as I’ll refer her to remain spoiler free, if that’s even possible at this juncture) stealing a motorcycle from a man who told her to smile, as if a microaggression warrants grand theft, is that it leaves very little room to be critical of the elements that don’t actually work from a narrative perspective. Look, I’m not MovieSins; I’m not here to ring an annoying little bell just because the final mental showdown between two characters is set to a Nirvana classic from an album that we don’t actually see Vers hearing (although she had plenty of chances offscreen). But I have to admit that even I was a little tired of some of the pablum and the unwillingness to take risks that were on display here. Sure, there was some inventiveness with the subversion of both what we’ve come to expect from films in general and this franchise specifically, especially in regard to the villainous Skrulls and their true motivations, but that doesn’t mean that the storytelling itself is inventive, and that’s the issue here. We’ve seen the fish-out-water story before in Thor, but that doesn’t mean that this is inherently derivative. I remember walking out of that film way back in 2011 and being pleasantly and refreshingly surprised by it, and there’s a part of me that wants every Marvel movie to give me an equivalent rush, but that’s not a realistic expectation to have after ten years and twenty movies. Time makes you bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older, too. It may be that these movies are just as fun as they’ve always been and I’m just too cynical to enjoy them the way that I used to.

Because, hey, this movie is fun. There are a lot of great setpieces: a sequence of dodging questionably aligned federal agents deep in the heart of a research base library, a terrific train fight sequence featuring the best Stan Lee cameo to date (I’m more of a Jack Kirby stan, if we’re being honest, but even I thought it was nice), and others. But the main one, the big finale, was just a big CGI fest that tired me more than it thrilled me. Compared to the relative viscerality of the Independence Day-esque desert dogfight that came earlier in the film’s runtime, not to mention the undetectable de-aging of Jackson to make him the Fury of yesteryear, it lacks any concreteness and feels hollow; I’m glad to hear that other people found this to be exciting, but it just didn’t work for me. Admittedly, that’s always been the case with the MCU, as all of the films peak early, going as far back as Iron Man, where the best sequence wasn’t the toe-to-toe showdown between our “hero” and Iron Monger, but the more stunning and ground-breaking sequence in which Tony finds himself flying alongside two fighter planes. But still, there’s something about this movie that doesn’t quite sit right with me, and it’s not just that they didn’t have an appearance from Peggy, even though she was totally alive at this time and, per Ant-Man, still active in S.H.I.E.L.D. a mere six years prior, although that omission is a crime.

Still, it’s hard to fault a film for having a poor finale after a lot of fun beforehand. Fitting for a movie that is at least on some level about both Girl Power and The 90s, the comparison that kept coming to my mind was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It may just be that I rewatched the 1992 film within the past six months (and also watched it about 47 times over the course of a single summer once), but the aforementioned scene in which Vers steals a guy’s motorcycle reads just like the scene in that film in which original Kristy Swanson Buffy does the same after a rude biker asks if she “wants some real power between [her] legs.” It’s a sanitization of something, to make it more palatable for you to be able to bring your kids to see the new superhero movie, but it’s almost the same scene, and I genuinely enjoyed that the film evoked that rhetorical space in the era of its birth. Further, the sequence of Vers getting up over and over again, used as a shorthand about her past and her resilience in the face of limitations placed on her by a masculine culture, included one of her as a little girl stepping up to the plate and getting ready to knock one out of the park, which once again evoked the scene from the series finale of Buffy the show, during the title character’s famous “Are you ready to be strong?” speech (believe it or not, this is the best upload I could find of the scene; sorry). I don’t know if there was a subliminal attempt to invoke the memory of disgraced Avengers and Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon by summoning relevant images from both the beginning and end of the Buffy franchise, but if so, that’s a next level of synergy, and I’m impressed by the mad genius of it.

I’m hot and cold on this one. As it’s been out for almost a month now, it’s unlikely you need me to tell you whether or not to check it out, as your decision was probably made months in advance of its original release date. Larson is a terrific actress who’s really not given as much to do characterwise as someone of her talent could, but she’s effortlessly charming and magnetic, and her chemistry with Lynch and Jackson is very good. When it comes to integrating a child as a main character and instigator of plot, it also certainly works a lot better than Iron Man 3, where the character was so blatantly an audience surrogate that it almost derailed a film that is, outside of that plot detour, the best Iron Man movie (don’t @ me). And after quietly making his bones in the mainstream as a one-dimensional villain in a lot of hyped releases the past few years (Rogue One, Ready Player One, and that Robin Hood that no one saw), Mendelson brings a pathos to a scaly monster that you wouldn’t expect to find in a movie that’s as relatively flat as this one is. There are twists and betrayals, but they all seem rather rote at this point. And yet . . . and yet . . . I enjoyed this one. And you probably will, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

It’s a difficult era of my life to recall, but there was a time while I was alive when the internet was not a ubiquitous influence on pop culture & politics, but just something nerds in basements used to discuss nerd shit on nerdy message boards. Before the at-your-fingertips availability of sites like IMDb & Wikipedia, it was easier for false word-of-mouth information about movies to spread, which is how I heard weird urban legends about the production of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The lie I was told about A.I. as a kid was that it was a Stanley Kubrick film that the infamous auteur did not live to see completed, so it was taken over & “ruined” by populist filmmaker Steven Spielberg. I vaguely understand where this claim is coming from, as it’s difficult to reconcile the out-of-nowhere sweetness of A.I.‘s epilogue with the (out-of-character for Spielberg) brutally bitter, ice cold sci-fi masterpiece that precedes it. The truth, of course, is that Kubrick did not direct a frame of A.I. He held onto the rights for the project (an adaptation of a Brian Aldiss short story) for decades, but was frustrated with child acting & special effects limitations that made the task appear impossible. Kubrick essentially gave up on A.I., handing over the reins to Spielberg, who turned it into what I believe to be the most beautifully bonkers & traumatic work of his career. Kubrick’s influence certainly guided Spielberg’s hand through the project (with some spillover into his next project, Minority Report) and seemingly pushed him to creative heights as great as any of his earliest, most iconic blockbusters. The idea that Spielberg ruined the work of a deceased auteur is total bullshit, though, and I’m embarrassed that I initially believed it without seeing the picture for myself.

Watching A.I. now, well over a decade after the initial umbrage around its jarring epilogue, the film’s few faults seem microscopic in comparison with its towering ambition & technical achievements. What clicked most for me on my recent initiation to the film is in the tension between the warm Spielbergian concept & cold Kubrickian execution, which I suppose is what inspired the urban legend around its production history. It’s difficult to imagine a more Spielbergian narrative than a scientist (William Hurt in Icarus/Altered States mode) striving to “build a robot who can love” or “a robot who dreams.” Instead of filtering that concept through the childish, wide-eyed wonder of something like Hook or E.T., though, Spielberg leans into the scenario’s emotional terror. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a fairy tale about a machine who loves unconditionally, but receives nothing in return because he is considered a Thing, not a Person. Its many allusions to Pinocchio rely heavily on that tale’s horrors of body dysmorphia & crises of self, not its potential for storybook cuteness. Filtering that formula through a Blade Runner-inspired future of “real” people playing god with artificial minds & bodies opens the film up to a brutal adventure into philosophical dread & emotional torture. Spielberg is not at all afraid to twist the emotional screws here— stabbing, melting, dismantling, and psychologically torturing his robo-cast at every cruel twist in the story, a far cry from the “gee willikers!” sci-fi throwbacks of his 1980s work. He walks back those impulses somewhat in the epilogue, but the film has already dug too much of a wickedly cold groove at that point for the emotional damage to be undone. I’m always on the hook for Spielberg’s forays into sci-fi but I can’t remember a time a film of his has struck me more in its sheer audacity.

Haley Joel Osment delivers the performance of his career as the titular A.I. and the de facto Pinocchio— a childlike robot created to soothe parents traumatized by the declining health of their “real” son. When their human son snaps out of his life-threatening coma, their robo-boy no longer serves a purpose in the household and is essentially curbed as if he were a broken dishwasher. This sets off a never-ending quest to earn his “mother’s” love by becoming a “real boy,” something the audience knows is impossible, but the robot does not. Every line-reading of “I love you, Mommy. I hope you never die,” & “I’ll be so real for you,” is a stab to the audience’s heart, a feeling the film chooses to linger in at length. A.I. starts as a climate change parable, a traditional fairy tale set in a nightmarishly familiar near-future for yuppies. Once its central robo-boy is abandoned as obsolete technology, its vision shifts to a Blade Runner hellscape packed with a never-ending parade of sci-fi eccentricities: canine-shaped Tron bikes, an oversexed neon perversion of Atlantic City, a moon-shaped hot air balloon, a Ministry concert/right wing robo-torture rally, etc. Out poor, lost robo-boy is not built to survive these conditions, having been designed for intimate, domestic comfort. He finds comrades in fellow abandoned comfort appliances (most notably an animatronic teddy bear & a sex robot played a perfectly-cast Jude Law). Their help is mostly an empty gesture, though, as his ultimate goals of earning his “mother’s” love and becoming “real” are tragically unobtainable. Because of his programming, it’s a fact he never accepts and the audience has no choice but to watch him search in vain for peace that will never come.

There’s a clear sequence late in A.I. when the story logically comes to a (bottomlessly grim) conclusion and the movie seemingly ends. Everything after that moment has been picked apart & scrutinized for “ruining” the picture by so many people, to the point where its meaning has been widely misinterpreted & urban legends about its inclusion have muddled the film’s history. Personally, I think the ending is perfectly serviceable, even if mediocre; it only stands out like a sore thumb because of the near flawless 2+ hours that precedes it. Even on a technical level, A.I. is a modern wonder. Haley Joel Osment’s creepily convincing robotic acting digs under your skin, even as you feel deep empathy for his existential plight. The mixture of practical effects (including robotics work holdovers form the Jurassic Park crew) and CGI is remarkably seamless for a film this far in the past, amounting to an intoxicating visual experience. Even if the technical end were amateurish, though, I’d still be in amazement of how Spielberg can use his knack for emotional manipulation for evil here, creating a truly torturous experience out of his typical childlike wonder. The dismount may be subpar in comparison to the rest of the film, but the claim that the final ten minutes “ruins” everything that comes before it is ridiculous. Spielberg’s at his best when working in this rare mode of Not For Everyone sci-fi instead of his usual populist grooves. Claiming that he corrupted the genius work of another filmmaker is a disservice to what’s really going on here: a darkness & mastery of the form he’s not always willing to dwell in when afforded the chance. A.I. is a great glimpse at the genre-film master Spielberg could be if he weren’t so careful with his less emotionally complex crowd-pleasers. This is a work of obsessive, insular passion, even if it feels on the surface like Kubrickian coldness.

-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

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)




There’s a certain retro-futuristic aesthetic that sets neo-noir visuals to a sci-fi context that I definitely have a soft spot for, but I don’t know exactly what to call by name. Captain America: The First Avenger & Batman: The Animated Series are the only titles that fit in this particular genre that were especially successful financially, as most examples I’d group in with them were notoriously disastrous flops: The Rocketeer, Tomorrowland, Predestination, The Phantom, etc. Although I don’t know exactly what to call this subgrene (future noir? fart deco?), its tropes are as clear as day to me. It’s a pure style over substance formula that intentionally matches the exquisite art deco architecture & fashion of the 1930s with the hammy swashbuckling of old comic strips & radio serials; extra points are awarded if the plot involves robots, aliens, or time travel. Imagine the pulpy dime store version of Metropolis and you have a decent idea of what I’m getting at.

True to form, the 2004 visual feast Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow flopped hard at the box office, but stands as an immaculate example of the future noir/fart deco aesthetic I’m vaguely describing here. One of the first Hollywood productions filmed almost entirely against a CGI backdrop (which is more or less the current industry standard for summertime blockbusters), the film masks its almost instantly-dated visuals with the soft focus haze of the era it intentionally evokes. The film has a falseness to it that it emphatically embraces instead of shying away from. Its absurd use of lighting & extreme Dutch angles gives the film the same surreal comic book context that recently wowed me when I first watched Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. This “live action” cartoon landscape is thoroughly impressive, from its gorgeous/impossible architecture to its chintzy, child’s toy ray guns. It feels simultaneously old fashioned and newfangled and that exact air of self-contradiction is specifically what wins me over in this subgenre every damn time.

The film’s plot is set in an alternate universe version of the late 1930’s where an invading Nazi-esque threat invades US soil with gigantic laser-shooting robots & mechanical warbirds. Bold dame news reporter Polly Perkins (Gwenyth Paltrow, who has recently been growing on me thanks to her turn as the similarly-named Pepper Potts) follows this story down the proverbial rabbit hole, where she discovers a vast, world-threatening conspiracy that involves, among other things, dinosaurs, miniature elephants, and a gigantic Noah’s arc-type rocket ship. Her partner in this journey is a maverick airplane pilot (played by Jude Law in a goofy version of his Gattaca mode) hell bent on taking out our foreign invaders single-handedly like a true American. Will our two leads find love despite their stubborn, self-serving quests for independence? Does their potential romantic connection matter any more or less than saving the world? Do these questions matter at all in the face of the film’s towering attention paid to over-the-top visuals? Even if you haven’t seen the film I’m confident you can answer those questions yourself. The two leads are remarkably charming here, with a chemistry that only gets more potent as the plot rolls along, but they’re not at all what makes the movie a unique treat.

Critics were mostly kind to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow upon initial release, but audiences’ wallets were not. Even so, it seems almost criminal that the film stands as the only feature credit of director Kerry Conran. Kerry Conran is a fully functional auteur here, building a gorgeous, amusing world from scratch and it’s a shame to think we didn’t get to see how his work would’ve evolved along with CGI technology were it given the chance. I’ve tried to pigeonhole his sole film here into a hyper-specific subgenre, but that’s honestly selling the film’s idiosyncrasy a little short. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow might pull its visual references from long-gone eras of cinematic sci-fi, but I think its goals and accomplishments are much loftier than pure pastiche. At one point the film intentionally evokes comparison to the innovation of The Wizard of Oz, but that connection essentially stops at the novelty of its CGI backdrop. I actually think a better comparison point would be a more fartsy, less artsy version of what Guy Madden does. Just like with Madden, Conran’s visuals & ideas can be a little overwhelming to endure at feature length, but in isolation they each land with surprising success. I just wish there were more Conran-helmed visual feasts to go around, whether or not he continued to work in the fart deco subgenre I grew to love so much. Even those who don’t fall in love with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as a finished product are bound to recognize potential in its individual moving parts. Sadly, that particular world of tomorrow hasn’t yet arrived.

-Brandon Ledet