Aquaman (2018)

There are two distinct, directly opposed routes to take in adapting Aquaman to the big screen. My preferred angle would be to lean into the inherent absurdity of the character’s underwater superheroics, having deliriously over-the-top fun with the various sea creatures & Lisa Frank waterscapes that environment invites. The lesser, cowardly route would be to poke fun at that absurdity, to make Aquaman a gruff macho bro who wouldn’t be caught dead swimming with dolphins in bright superhero tights (at least not with a smartass quip about the indignity). The confusing thing about the DCEU’s Aquaman film is that it chooses both of these routes, embracing & rejecting the inherent silliness of Aquaman lore in what has to be the most perplexing mixed bag experience offered by a blockbuster since . . . the last film in the DCEU. Aquaman is a film that deals only in extremes. Its soundtrack must feature the ethereal beauty of Sigúr Ros and the obnoxious corporate party anthems of Pitbull, nothing in-between. It has to take the regal lineage & mythology of its underwater sea kingdom dead seriously and feature a cutaway gag of an octopus playing the drums. It has no qualms exploiting the cartoon energy of its setting as if it were an underwater Ferngully or an extended version of the “Under the Sea” number in Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it also feels compelled to cast Jason Momoa in the titular role as the broiest bro who ever bro’d, lest Aquaman come off as an uncool seafaring pansy. In the hands of an over-the-top Asian action spectacle craftsman like a Steven Chow or a Tsui Hark this all-over-the-place quality might have felt controlled & intentional, but coming from an American studio (with negligible influence from Furious 7 & Dead Silence schlockteur James Wan) it mostly plays like a confused jumble of self-conflicting ideas.

Jason Momoa puts in the exact same Aquabro performance here that he delivered in Justice League, except now there’s more of it. So very much more. Instead of popping in for an occasional, cute bro-liner like his much-memed “My man!” in the previous film, he’s asked to anchor a sprawling mythology about the regal lineage of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, which is on the verge of civil war. Legitimate actors Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson admirably play the material straight as if there were actual stakes to this middling franchise entry and it wasn’t just a lavishly expensive, underwater episode of Wishbone. Momoa’s jockular, beer-pounding frat boy has a much more difficult time of it, especially in scenes where he’s asked to generate genuine chemistry or pathos with the sleepwalking Amber Heard (in one of history’s all time worst big screen wigs). It’s a shame that the mythology is so inert & self-serious, both because Momoa’s sex-idiot boytoy persona struggles to carry the weight and because the various underwater creatures that define the world are so pitch-perfect in their absurdity. Aquaman is packed to the gills with mighty sea horse steeds riding into battle, mounted laser sharks roaring in ferocious defiance, stingray-shaped submarines zipping around like underwater UFOs, a pissed-off Nicole Kidman hurling tridents in Burning Man drag, etc. I was often bored with the villain’s quest to become “Oceanmaster” (whatever the fuck that is), the hero’s search for the almighty trident McGuffin that would stop him, and the overall conflict of “uniting the two world’s” of Land & Sea, but every time I was about to give up on the movie entirely some mutated Lisa Frank monstrosity would emerge to reel me back in. For every shot of Momoa mugging to pure-cheese guitar riffs in embarrassing attempts to transform Aquaman into a badass, there’s equally weighted flashes of pure nerd-ass shit that accepts the character for the uncool goof that he is. I have no idea what to make of the result except to say that it’s exhausting.

There were moments of divine absurdity that had me thinking Aquaman might be the best film in the DCEU (a low bar to clear, but still). They were usually followed by 20 minutes or so of excruciating boredom before that pleasure resurfaced, choking on the flood of narrative glut. My disinterest in Momoa’s bro-flavored charms might have been what sunk my appreciation of the film to an extent (although I wouldn’t fault anyone for prurient interest in watching him get wet for three hours). Mostly, though, I think my inability to fully embrace the film’s live action cartoon energy resulted from its own half-commitment to its over-the-top, nerd-ass tone. When the evil sea creatures of Aquaman off-handedly cite land-dwellers’ pollution of the ocean as a reason to declare war, I couldn’t help but think of the more fearlessly committed overfishing politics of The Mermaid or the birds’ rights activism of 2.0, Asian blockbusters that are unembarrassed of their ludicrous premises. Aquaman, by contrast, constantly apologies for the frivolity off its underwater Ferngully by having a mugging macho class clown reassure the audience that everything onscreen is a joke and the hero is actually super cool, not nerdy at all. You can feel James Wan pushing for weird surreal touches in the background but the cultural monolith of the modern superhero blockbuster has a way of smoothing everything out into a routine monotony. The result is a picture at war with itself, like so many power-hungry Atlantians. A few years ago I might have rated this film a half-star higher for the moments of unbridled goofiness that do shine through the studio system muck, but I’m just finding the weight of this genre too exhausting to afford much more of my energy. A version of Aquaman that was an hour shorter and entirely relegated to the underwater sea creature civil war might have been something truly remarkable, but franchise filmmaking requirements constantly pull it out of the water so that another macho man can mug for the camera in all his heroic buffness and the repetition of the schtick is getting punishingly dull.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

If asked in 2001 to envision what John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to his break-out debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch might look like, it’s doubtful anyone would have conjured the tender orgy of 2006’s Shortbus or the morbid melodrama of 2010’s Rabbit Hole. Most predictions of a John Cameron Mitchell career trajectory would likely have been closer to his fourth & most recent feature How to Talk to Girls at Parties: a jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. Like with Velvet Goldmine, it’s proven critically divisive for its efforts, particularly in its wild tonal swings & willingness to indulge itself in the novelty joys of its setting as its whims dictate. That may not be an approach that earns unanimous praise form professional critics, who tend to overvalue logical storytelling & tonal control in assessments of films’ supposedly objective value & success. It is an approach that’s much more in line with Hedwig than any of Mitchell’s other subsequent works, however, and it feels great to have him back in his original role as a raucous, unapologetically queer prankster, a musical theatre provocateur.

Three idiotic teenage boys on the early British punk scene fail to balance their political ideals with their raging libidos. They preach anarcho, egalitarian sensibilities in their notebook doodles & fanzines, but also overcompensate for the embarrassment of their virginity by openly leering at their female comrades & grotesquely referring to them as “proper gash.” These juvenile punk scene fuckboys are shaken out of their sexual & ideological comfort zones by the arrival of body-snatching space aliens, who conveniently blend right in with the out-there weirdos who already populate their social circle. From there, the film evolves into a double-edged fish-out-of-water comedy. The boys learn sexual empathy & autonomy in their first meaningful interactions with the opposite end of the gender spectrum, not realizing that they’re fraternizing with beings from another planet. For their part, the aliens challenge their own sexual & autonomous norms by living like humans for a weekend, not realizing that the punk rock sample population they’ve chosen to emulate are far from the norm. This sci-fi culture clash can manifest in exchanges as profound as intergalactic fertilization & internal revelations of evolving sexual identity or in humor as minor as awkward phrases like “Do more punk to me,” & “How do I further access the punk?” The tone can alternate from absurdist comedy to sci-fi & sexual body horror and back again multiple times within a scene, even occasionally venturing off for a musical theatre emotional burst to break up its typical punk scene soundscapes. It’s a total mess but also a consistent, highly specific joy that’s even inaccurately conveyed by its inevitable 1:1 comparison with Velvet Goldmine. It’s a singular novelty worth cherishing both for and despite its faults.

As soon as the horned-up teen-virgin punks unwittingly invade the brightly-colored lair of the visiting alien colonies, it’s obvious they’re in way over their heads. Even if they find the sex they’re looking for, the aliens’ butt-plug high heels, glowing sphincter lights, sack-shaped hammocks, and high-tech sex swings suggest a dayglo S&M universe far beyond the naïve punks’ comprehension. How to Talk to Girls at Parties’s best quality is how well it replicates that same in-over-your-head pleasure in its audience. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance to tastefulness. The miracle is that the spell is only occasionally broken by a stray clunky punchline or choice in choppy music video frame-rate before you’re made to feel drunk by delirium-inducing indulgences all over again. All of John Cameron Mitchell’s films have merit, but they’re only ever this enjoyable when they’re clearly having fun. This is the filmmaking equivalent of bedroom-dancing; Mitchell’s best asset is his ability to amuse himself as if no one else is watching. I imagine this film will find the right 2010s teens and steal their hearts the way Hedwig stole minded in early aughts, critical consensus be damned. The earnestness, unashamed silliness, performative rebellion, and sexual id are all too potent for the film to not break through to someone. I’m jealous of whoever gets that experience with this film, as seeing it made me nostalgic for when I did the same back in ’01.

-Brandon Ledet

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Does a bad ending, or even merely an unsatisfying conclusion, ruin a movie? I go back and forth on this a lot, sometimes within works with the same creators and producers. I considered last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane to be one of the best movies of the year, and I really love 98% of Super 8, both of which suffer the same issue of a tonally inappropriate ending for a movie that was thematically about something other than, you know, stupid Cloverfield monsters (in the case of the former, at least it was justified by the retitle). Both of them are movies that I recommend to others with the caveats that they are nearly perfect but fail in a major way that, depending upon your consideration of the subject, may ruin your overall filmic experience.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of these contentious films. I sat in the theater in a completely enraptured state watching the film’s first two hours, but in the film’s final moments, those joyous feelings turned to ashes in my mouth. My roommate walked out of the theater exultant, but I was underwhelmed. But before we get there, a quick synopsis.

Surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) has a well-ordered and successful life, as demonstrated by the sumptuous home he shares with his loving wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, fifteen-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and elementary-aged Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also has a secret and unusual relationship with teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan), which he keeps from his family and lies about to his anesthesiologist partner Matthew (Bill Camp). He meets with the boy clandestinely at a diner and buys him gifts, ranging from simple ice cream cones to expensive watches. Stephen eventually reveals this relationship to his family, although he lies that he met Martin when the boy’s father died suddenly; in fact, Martin’s father was a longtime patient of Stephen’s, who died under mysterious circumstances. Stephen’s family falls under the influence of Martin’s charms, especially Kim, but each member of the family begins to fall victim of an inexplicable paralysis that seems to be of Martin’s devising.

There’s a lot going on in this film, and there’s so, so much to love, especially in its small moments of subtlety and intricacy. When I told him that I had seen it, Brandon asked if the film was as Kubrickian and giallo-inspired as he had heard; although the fingerprints that underline Kubrick’s influence are all over the film, there’s no real giallo influence that I can discern. I didn’t happen to catch The Lobster, but I am told that the emotional distance evident in dialogue and the lack of inflection that the actors use in Killing is a commonality with director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous work. I’m not sure how that stylistic choice fit with his earlier film, but it’s a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.

Beyond the overt characterizations, there’s a lot of subtlety that will no doubt provoke discussion and inspection. Kim’s recent first menstruation is mentioned on two separate occasions, including once as a point of pride for Stephen when talking to his work colleagues following a formal speech; what’s to be made of that? Early in the film, Stephen and Anna engage in some slightly kinky hanky-panky (all edited and filmed with the same dispassionate camera work as every scene) in which Anna lies down inverted on the bed (with her head at the foot of the bed and vice versa) and pretends to be a patient under anesthesia; when Kim later attempts to seduce Martin, she assumes this same position, implying that she possesses a knowledge of her parents’ sex lives that is both incomplete and inappropriate. Every relationship possesses an animalistic charge but lacks intimacy, except for Stephen’s mentorship (for lack of a better word) of Martin, which is initially framed as potentially sexual and abusive but ultimately proves to be something equally primal but much, much worse. It’s not absent from the film, however: after foiling an unsuccessful seduction attempt on the part of Martin’s mother (one scene wonder Alicia Silverstone), Stephen later returns to their home in a rage when Martin’s true intentions are revealed, and he threatens/promises to “fuck [Martin] and [his] mother, like [Martin] want[s],” so he is at the very least aware of this tension and how it could appear, but his understanding of the motives are all wrong.

It’s the small moments in which this film proves its great worth, but paradoxically that same sparsity and minimalism in its ending left me unsatisfied as the credits started to roll. Even if you don’t make the immediate connection to the myth of Iphigenia, which is mentioned overtly in a scene wherein Stephen meets his children’s principal to investigate possible causes of their bizarre malady, the phrase “sacred deer” is bound to ping some mental connections for anyone with a familiarity to Greek mythology. Even with that knowledge, there is still an expectation for some kind of explanation for Martin’s apparently supernatural abilities, which never comes. This absence is less disappointing than one would expect, but the film still feels somehow incomplete in its final moments. Perhaps that was intentional; perhaps the evocation of feelings of incompleteness (not necessarily dissatisfaction) was the point of the film as a whole. I’d have to give it another viewing before I could say for sure, but for now, I’m left as cold as the icy blues of the film’s color aesthetic and Kidman’s eyes, although the buoyancy of the film’s choices before its final frames lifts my overall estimation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Dead Calm (1989)

Recent previews of Hugh Jackman’s upcoming P.T. Barnum film, in which his wife will be played by Michelle Williams, bothered me in the pit of my stomach. The fact that actors age but their love interests are not allowed to is not news, but this is the first time that it’s happened between someone who I consider to be of “my generation” (Williams is six years older than I am, but she’ll always be Jen on Dawson’s Creek to me) and someone I consider to be of the generation that came before (Jackman is 12 years older than Williams and was, in my mind, an “adult” in the X-Men movies when Williams was still “my age” or thereabouts). Of course, this never really bothered me when I was a kid watching Dead Calm, in which leads Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman (playing his wife) are a staggering twenty years apart (Kidman even turned 20 during production!), likely because they were always from the “before” generation. Looking back now, it’s a little distracting, but that doesn’t make the film any less thrilling, creepy, and well-done.

The film opens at Christmas, when Australian Naval Officer John Ingram (Neill) detrains to find that his wife and child are not present on the platform to welcome him home. He is approached by two police officers, who take him to see his wife Rae (Kidman) in the hospital, where she is recovering from a traffic collision that took the life of their toddler son. Some time later, John has taken Rae out on their yacht, the Saracen, to recover, although she is still haunted by the image of their son as he flew through the windshield. Their calm life at sea is disrupted by the arrival of Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane in the role that won him international attention), who rows straight into their vessel from a ship he claims is sinking and unable to be salvaged, not to mention full of the bodies of his shipmates who have died of botulism. Suspicious of this story, John goes to investigate, only to discover a scene that implies Hughie may be lying, an inference that is backed up when Hughie awakes and absconds with both the Saracen and Rae, leaving the bereaved woman to fend off the madman.

This is a taut movie, full of lingering shots of the vast and empty ocean that serve to demonstrate the depth of Rae’s isolation as she is trapped aboard the Saracen and her attempts to retake the ship in order to rescue John, who is trapped aboard the other sinking vessel. John, too, must fight to keep the ship on which he is trapped afloat long enough for his wife to free herself from Hughie’s machinations and save her husband from drowning. For the first 80% of the film, all of the sound is completely diagetic: the beeping of the radar, the lapping of waves against the hull, the gentle lull of ocean winds; it’s only when John is trapped in a failing air pocket that the standard orchestral score that audiences associate with thrillers comes into play.

There’s also a great inversion of the “damsel in distress” motif that was the de facto modus operandi of thrillers of the time (and before, and, to an extent, since). Rae is no pushover, as she has to use her feminine wiles to gain his trust, and never for a moment does she let her fear overwhelm either her survival instincts or her devotion to rescuing her husband. The damsel of the film is technically John, as he is the one who is in need of rescue, although he is more active in his attempts to save himself than this type of character usually is, as he works bilge pumps and restores engine operations in order to stay alive. The choice to show the couple as a pair of loving, respecting survivors of a horrific accident–we actually see their son fly through the air after the collision, which is followed by more subtle horror as the police tell John that the boy survived the impact but died before the paramedics arrived–contrasts the “dead calm” of the ocean and the Ingrams with the trauma at the beginning of the first act.

The choice to cast Zane as the antagonist was also a stroke of genius, as his pretty boy looks and his apparent irrational behavior upon the event of his “rescue” make him seem initially sympathetic. Hughie seems more like a victim of sunsickness, malnutrition, and the survivor of a traumatic incident (like the Ingrams), until he reveals his true colors. His soft performance serves as a strong contrast to his violence once it erupts, and even after he shows his true colors, he’s so cute and harmless-looking with his dark lashes and puppy dog eyes that his spiral out of control is believable but even more unsettling. This is the role that garnered him great acclaim, and it’s not difficult to see why. Kidman is also a breakout here, and she’s phenomenal. Although he’s never gone on to have as much success in his career as Kidman, at least he was only typecast as “sinister hunk on a sinking ship” rather than marrying one (if we count SeaOrg). Aside from a last-minute fakeout that this movie should be better than, this is definitely one to catch.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood-starring thriller The Beguiled rings oddly like a synthesis of the defining aspects of my two favorite films from the director: the dangerously gloomy boredom of The Virgin Suicides & the playfully modernized costume drama of Marie Antoinette. The delicate visual beauty & intensely feminine modes of violence in Coppola’s The Beguiled plays directly into her most readily apparent strengths as a filmmaker. Even though she could have assembled this picture in her sleep, however, there’s a potency to its in-the-moment effect that makes it feel like a personal obsession instead of a more-of-the-same exercise. The question of the film’s overall effect isn’t whether it’s a great work or if it’s an indulgence in craft, but rather how it never existed before this year, why it’s arriving now. The Beguiled feels as if it’s already lingered in the ether forever, or at least as long as Coppola’s been making movies.

A Virginian school for girls struggles with the vulnerability & boredom of isolation during the American Civil War. Distant drums & cannons build tension in an otherwise serene soundscape of bugs, birds, and branches swaying in the wind. In this secluded pocket of peace, one of the younger girls discovers a wounded Union soldier in the woods. Despite being a firmly Southern, Confederate household, the women of the school take the soldier in and allow him to heal in their care. They purport this kindness to be an extension of their Christian charity, but their motivations are clearly more purient than that claim. As the women openly lust for the new, exciting, masculine sore thumb that invades their once quiet home, unspoken rivalries form and the atmosphere turns palpably violent. Suddenly, the distant sounds of war are dwarfed by the violent outbursts within their home, as the intimate presence of the enemy distorts their Southern belle reverie, giving rise to something much more menacing.

Before its violence becomes openly visible, the devilish fun at the core of The Beguiled is its barely-contained displays of lust. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning (a staggeringly powerful trio of talents) stare down the soldier’s gradually healing body with held breath & blatant thirst. Colin Farrell is objectified without apology under this scrutiny. An unconscious sponge bath scene in particular is gleefully overwhelmed with close-ups of the actor’s hips, thighs, and chest hairs. Farrell also holds his own as the de facto prisoner of his seven female wardens, manipulating rivalries among them as a cowardly power play to establish a permanent place at the school instead of returning to the war. He’s the sole male presence in the house, though, a soldier deep in enemy territory. Any brief battles for power he can manage to stage only lead to temporary gains, sparks immediately snuffed by overtly feminine means. After a while, those lustful stares look a lot less like an opportunity and a lot more like a threat.

There honestly isn’t much to The Beguiled in terms of narrative complexity or immediate cultural significance, so Coppola must carry its weight on the back of her visual craft. The film’s natural lighting & period setting fall somewhere between The Witch & Daughters of the Dust in terms of both costuming & cinematographic tone. The sights & sounds of Nature permeate every moment, so that when they’re disrupted by the echoes of war (whether inside or out of the house) the effect is consistently jarring. The fog rising from the forest floor mirrors the steamy tension between Farrell’s soldier & his wanting captors. The heat of them being trapped in an old Southern home together is apparent long before the tension explodes. I can’t pinpoint any qualities of Coppola’s The Beguiled that suggest an immediacy or a necessity for its modern presence, but Coppola’s sense of visual craft & the tension she stirs between her actors make it feel at least somewhat timeless. It’s not one of Coppola’s very best works as a filmmaker, but it does share enough of those films’ DNA to re-conjure their potency & solidify what makes her one of the most consistently rewarding directors around.
-Brandon Ledet