Vesper (2022)

I was a few minutes late to my screening of the dystopian sci-fi cheapie Vesper, so I missed the opening scroll that explained exactly which doomsday scenario its few scattered characters had survived.  According to Wikipedia, the film is set in “The New Dark Ages,” triggered by bio-engineered plants & viruses that escaped from the lab and into the wild, mutating the Natural world that scientists were attempting to save from Climate Change.  Basically, in the near future we take the “Hack the planet!” messaging from Hackers a little too literally.  Whatever table-setting paragraph I missed at the start of the film didn’t end up mattering too much, though, since its interest in old-fashioned sci-fi worldbuilding does not stop there.  Vesper is essentially a feature-length worldbuilding exercise, one that invests all of its energy in exploring the lush, biohacked landscapes of its Apocalyptic Vegetation futureworld, with little attention left for the characters who have to hack their way through it.  And for a certain type of hardline sci-fi nerd, that escape to an intricately detailed otherworld is going to be immensely satisfying no matter what happens there.

Plot-wise, this is a Young Women in STEM story. The titular Vesper is a plucky teen who’s incredibly gifted at biochemistry, stubbornly determined to biohack her way out of the Biohack Apocalypse.  Camping in the woods between a petty-dictatorship barter town run by her creepy uncle and an aristocratic “citadel” with a “No Poors Allowed” sign posted to its gates, Vesper is a fairly typical YA heroine: the only freethinker who’s ruggedly independent & smart enough to rescue her dystopian world from its downward spiral.  She’s more of a video game avatar than a fully formed character, since her main function is to lead us through the overgrown vegetation and crumbling urban infrastructure of the “world of shit” she calls home.  There are plenty of contemporaries to Vesper‘s style of low-key, lived-in sci-fi, from the surreal vegetative mutations of Annihilation to the violent Natural reclamation of urban spaces in The Girl with all the Gifts to the analog sci-fi throwback of Prospect.  Only this movie exists in this specific world, though, so it’s more important that Vesper give us the full guided tour of her far-out greenhouse creations than it is for her to stir up meaningful drama with her dying father, her creepy uncle, or her fellow scrappy rebels.

Vesper can feel a little humorless and drawn out at times, but it’s shrewd about inspiring awe & disgust with limited resources.  This French-Lithuanian production was shot in an uncanny English dialect as a bid for wide international appeal, but I’m not sure that it ever had a chance to make it beyond a few festival raves & VOD streaming deals. Its detailed worldbuilding impulses are tied to such a literary sci-fi tradition that it was never going to fully break out of its nerdy niche, at least not without giving its Wilson volleyball drone sidekick a bunch of James Corden-voiced one-liners (as opposed to the defeated wheezings of Vesper’s dying father).  Its ambitions are super admirable, though, and it accomplishes a lot creatively even if its distribution has been limited.  Shot without artificial green screen environments, Vesper explores a lived-in, tactile dystopian world that should be a major draw for anyone who’s at all nerdy about world-building and practical effects.  It feels vibrantly alive – brimming with mutated plant tendrils, radioactive glow worms, and A.I. creatures made of vintage medical equipment.  You just won’t find much of that vibrant life in the drama or dialogue.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

I am once again living without a car.  It hasn’t been a traumatic life adjustment or anything, but it has limited how much of the city I can conveniently access without it feeling like an epic journey.  It’s also made me realize, once again, how few legitimate movie theaters are currently operating in New Orleans proper.  Ever since most theatrical screenings were exported to the Metairie movie palaces in the 1990s, there have been precious few cinemas operating in the actual city.  I can only name three currently running, and if you’re biking & bussing around the center of town, only two of those are easily accessible; most nights for me, the original uptown location of The Prytania might as well be on another planet.  So, in these dark days when the ludicrously cheap AMC A-List subscription service is miles of interstate out of reach, I am relying heavily on the programmers at The Broad & The Prytania at Canal Place to keep me air conditioned & entertained.  Thankfully, they do a kickass job.

In particular, I’ve been loving the repertory programming at The Canal Place Prytania in recent months.  The Rene Brunet Classic Movie series at their uptown location is the closest thing this city has to a solid rep scene, so it’s been cool to see that NOLA TCM energy flow downriver to their new outpost.  If anything, the downtown location has been much hipper in its curation, including the Wildwood series—a “weekly celebration of daring cinema”—and, more recently, a month-long program of anime classics branded “Anime Theatre.”  I had just caught up with Akira and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie in the few months before the Anime Theatre series started running, and I very much wish I had held out to catch them for the first time on the big screen.  I just never would have assumed the opportunity would present itself so conveniently (except maybe as a glitchy Fathom Events stream out in the suburbs).  Luckily, though, there was still one major blind spot that series could fill for me: the 1995 cyberpunk classic Ghost in the Shell, which was a real treat to see projected big & loud with a fired-up audience of downtown weirdos.

It’s a stain on my honor that I watched the live-action Scarlett Johansson remake of Ghost in the Shell years before seeking out its animated ancestor.  Worse yet, I apparently enjoyed that remake at the time, faintly praising it as “Blade Runner-runoff eye candy” with “a deliriously vapid sci-fi action plot.”  In retrospect, I’m surprised to see how much of that Blade Runner DNA flows through the original film’s synthetic veins.  I assumed the live-action version borrowed a lot of Ridley Scott’s neon-noir imagery as lazy shorthand, but it turns out the anime version of Ghost in the Shell sets a lot of its own moody, “What is humanity anyway?” introspection on the same neon-lit, rain-slicked streets of future-Tokyo.  There’s plenty of RoboCop influence at play here too, not only in the ultraviolence exacted by Ghost in the Shell‘s cyborg law enforcement leads, but also in the first-person POV framing of those cyborgs booting up in a cold, blue world.  The movie was plenty influential in its own time too, to the point where you could argue that The Matrix was actually its first live-action remake – right down to its green towers of binary code.  Watching Ghost in the Shell for the first time felt like finding a crucial, missing piece of a larger genre puzzle.  It helped contextualize other genre works I already love by fitting them into an infinite continuum of sci-fi visual language.

It’s also just gorgeous.  This is brain-hacking cinema of the highest order, much more low-key & philosophical than I expected based on its most lurid imagery.  Yes, these badass cyborg women strip down into flesh-tone body suits before digitally cloaking themselves in reflective pixels, but they look amazing doing it, blurring humanity & technology in the medium itself.  Ghost in the Shell was at the forefront of mixing digital animation with traditional hand-drawn cells, conjuring a new, glitchy spectacle out of their interplay where most future productions would only see cost-saving measures.  It’s through those digi animation experiments where the film manages to feel like its own weird thing despite all the convenient comparisons swirling around it.  The future-world body horror of seemingly human parts opening in segments to reveal the fabricated machinery inside is mirrored in the human/machine hybrid of the film’s animation.  It’s a tension in technique still echoed in contemporary anime, whether thoughtfully in films like Belle or lazily in films like Fireworks.

If I’m not spending much time recapping the themes or plot details of Ghost in the Shell, it’s because I assume most cinema obsessives have already seen it.  This was a behind-the-times educational experience for me, which is pretty much how I always feel when watching classic anime.  The only relatively unique aspect of my Ghost in the Shell experience was the opportunity to see it projected big & loud, thanks to the downtown Prytania.  It was the closing film in their Anime Theatre series, but their kickass repertory programming is marching on into spooky season with their upcoming line-up of Kill-O-Rama double-features, pictured below. In a city with a relatively small cinema exhibition scene, that kind of thoughtful, adventurous curation is invaluable.

-Brandon Ledet

Vicious Lips (1986)

I love Z-grade exploitation cinema as an artform.  The Roger Corman method of cranking out low-budget, high-concept features over a single weekend with a sleep-starved crew is the exact kind of behind-the-scenes underdog story that always wins my heart.  All you really need to make a successful genre picture is a good marketing hook, some pocket change, and enough film-geek enthusiasm to power through a hectic shoot.  At least, that’s the fantasy.  The reality is that making movies is almost impossibly hard no matter the scale of production, and it’s a miracle that any movie reaches completion.  While Corman can pen a memoir titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime with a straight face, there are plenty filmmakers who’ve adopted his same run-and-gun shooting style and fallen flat on theirs.  From what I’ve already seen, Albert Pyun is totally capable of completing quick-shoot pictures on the cheap, at one point whisking rappers like Silkk the Shocker & Ice-T off to Slovakia for one-week productions like the urban crime drama Corrupt.  His career is also littered with what-could’ve-been near misses, though, like the 80s new wave space opera Vicious Lips.

Vicious Lips is the exact kind of underdog story I love to champion.  Shot in seven days on an outstretched $100,000 budget, it fits snugly in the Roger Corman exploitation mold.  Except, Corman always finds a way to package his most chaotic productions (Blood Bath & The Raven most notorious among them) into something resembling coherence, reportedly never losing a dime. Pyun completely biffs it here.  Dream sequences, flashbacks, and an extensive second-act hangout all reek of financial & creative desperation in the editing booth, struggling to mold Vicious Lips into a complete feature.  It’s a shame, too, since the movie has a killer hook.  The titular Vicious Lips are a space-traveling New Wave band (performing the songs of real-life New Wavers Sue Saad and the Next) who go on an intergalactic road trip for the gig of a lifetime, with only a stowaway rubber-mask monster to get in their way.  It’s impossible to describe without making it sound more fun than it is.  Despite the band’s bubbly 80s mallrat aesthetics and the much-needed adrenaline injection from Milo the Venusian Manbeast, the movie barely drags itself across the finish line.  It’s barely a movie at all.

Vicious Lips starts with almost enough manic MTV editing to distract from its overall incoherence.  Unfortunately, on the band’s journey to their career-making gig at The Radioactive Dream, the film literally crash-lands on a desert planet and rots in the sun.  All of the drag makeup, glitter, pleather, and teased wigs of the music video opening are still on full display, but the band essentially just hangs around a cardboard spaceship set waiting for more production funds to come through.  Those funds never arrive.  Milo and a few thriller-video zombies chase the girls around the spaceship’s “hallways” for a bit to burn off some pent-up energy, but we’re stuck in that sunlit sandpit for a really long time without much to do except wait.  It’s a hack observation to say any Z-grade schlock resembles a sexless porno, but this particular low-budget novelty does have an exact porno corollary in New Wave Hookers – a film that, despite its own myriad of faults, at least maintains a sense of momentum & purpose from scene to scene.  Once The Vicious Lips finally get back on “the road”, the movie cruelly cuts back to earlier scenes of their impromptu desert vacation in wistful montage, dragging us back into total sunburnt stasis for a second near-eternity.  Vicious Lips should be an inspiring story of a renegade film shoot pushing beyond near-impossible conditions to make gorgeously transcendent schlock. Instead, it plays as a cautionary tale about not going into production if you don’t have all the time & funding you need to complete a picture.

There’s no reason to be too hard on Pyun here.  It’s not his fault he was working with scraps.  Besides, he’s already been punished harshly enough for his hubris.  Vicious Lips failed in theaters, was dumped direct-to-VHS outside the US, and was essentially considered “lost” until Shout Factory released it on Blu-Ray in 2017.  There’s a lot to be charmed by in its 80s MTV revision of 50s Space Age kitsch, from the main character’s birthname Judy Jetson to the half-baked futurism of its three-tittied bar wenches, “sonic bloomers” lingerie, zig-zag shaped cigars, and glowing guitars. It’s cute; it’s just also inert.  It’s probably less useful for me to drag this already little-known film’s name through the mud that it would be to recommend watching its more successful equivalent Voyage of the Rock Aliens instead.  Still, it does help illustrate the limitations of the one-week-shoot Corman model.  Those run-and-gun schlock productions are the stuff of legends when they’re pulled off well, but they are frustratingly dull when they fail to cohere.

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: The X from Outer Space (1967) on the We Love to Watch Podcast

I recently returned as a guest on the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss the adorably jazzy kaiju space adventure The X from Outer Space, as part of the show’s ongoing “Size Does Matter” theme month.

Aaron & Peter were kind to invite me back after previous discussions of Brigsby Bear (2017), Dagon (2001), The Fly (1958), and Xanadu (1980). It’s always a blast to guest on their podcast, since I also listen as a fan. Their show is wonderfully in sync with the enthusiasm & sincerity we try to maintain on this site (especially when covering so-called “bad movies”), so I highly recommend digging through old episodes & clips on the We Love to Watch blog if you haven’t already. And, of course, please start by giving a listen to their episode on The X from Outer Space below.

-Brandon Ledet

After Yang (2022)

Do you think Colin Farrell starts his workdays by looking in the mirror and declaring, “I’m going Lobster Mode on ’em”?  At the time, The Lobster felt like a significant departure for the pretty boy Irish actor, but he’s played enough emotionally hollowed sad sacks in the years since that Lobster Mode Farrell has become its own subgenre: The Beguiled, Voyagers, Widows, Killing of a Sacred Deer (obv), and now the sentimental sci-fi chiller After Yang.  I expected Farrell’s post-Lobster run to show off much more range in his new turn as a Serious Actor, but he only breaks out of Lobster Mode when he’s working in goofball genre films (see: Farrell going Penguin Mode in The Batman).  For the most part, if you’re casting Colin Farrell in a sincere drama, you’re going to get the same quiet, inward brooding with the same furrowed brow and the same gravely grumble of a voice he’s been delivering since he first worked with Lanthimos in 2015.  He’s good at it, but it would be nice to see him perk up a bit.

The gloomy predictability of Farrell’s performance aside, I was thrilled by After Yang as an ultra-modernist sci-fi picture . . . for its first half hour.  It leads with its best scene: a DDR-inspired opening credits montage where several families compete in an online dance-off in impossible, isolated photo-shoot voids.  It really gets the blood pumping, only to coast from there on waves of loneliness & grief.  Farrell stars opposite Jodie Turner-Smith as adoptive parents of a young Chinese girl (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja).  They are loving but inattentive, purchasing an android model (Justin H. Min, the titular Yang) as a babysitter & Chinese Cultural Ambassador, looking after their child while feeding her a steady stream of “Chinese Fun Facts.”  Most of the movie is concerned with what happens after Yang stops functioning and is effectively decommissioned.  Is he an appliance they should leave on the curb with the rest of their weekly suburban waste, or is he a legitimate member of the family deserving of a respectful burial?

Reductively speaking, this is the mawkish family-drama sci-fi of Bicentennial Man repackaged as a quieter, more cerebral meditation like Marjorie Prime.  My declining interest in its central story was more a question of genre tastes than artistic success, as director Kogonada only uses the thrills of future-tech paranoia as a starting point for a much calmer, less sensationalist conversation.  Farrell’s rattled patriarch starts the film skeptical of the inner lives of the clones & technosapiens that now live among traditional humans, a cultural conservatism that’s reflected in his life’s work cultivating & brewing authentic teas (in a future-world that’s converted to single-use packages of flavor crystals).  He pays shady characters to break into the deceased Yang’s memory banks, fearful that they’ll find spyware recordings of his family’s intimate moments, but instead he discovers that Yang was his own separate person with his own inner life.  Yang’s stored memories play like a film school thesis project from a young director who just saw their first Malick – collecting small, sunlit details from the world around him in a digital scrapbook that’s useful to no one else outside his head. 

That switchover from cybertech paranoia to lingering questions about the borders between humanity & its closest imitators is admirable, but it doesn’t leave much of a narrative drive to propel the movie across the finish line.  When it’s a seedy backroom thriller about A.I. surveillance, it has its hooks in my flesh.  After the switch, it’s just mildly melancholic & sweet, with about ten consecutive endings it quietly drifts past in search of a grander purpose.  It doesn’t help that Farrell goes full Lobster Mode in this instance, since his low-energy moping does little to fill the void left by the genre switch.  I had some hope in the opening minutes that Kogonada made the actor jump around to shake himself loose & awake with some DDR choreo, but he immediately regressed to his Lobster state in the very next scene.  At this point, I have to assume that’s exactly the performance he was hired to deliver, considering that he’s been reluctant to try anything else in recent years, at least not when the role calls for a Serious Actor.

-Brandon Ledet

Neptune Frost (2022)

At its best, cinema is honest artifice.  At its best, cinema is fiercely provocative & political.  It’s a shared dream; it’s poetry. Neptune Frost is cinema at its best.  The genderfucked Afrofuturist sci-fi musical is the kind of start-to-end stunner that feels so peerless in its fury & creativity that there isn’t a clear, pre-established critical language to fully discuss what it’s doing.  In genre terms, it triangulates unlikely holy ground between the communal-solidarity sci-fi of Bacurau, the dreamworld lyricism of Black Orpheus, and the “Hack the planet” online resistance culture of Hackers.  Otherwise, it’s untethered to tradition, using the digital tools of internet-era filmmaking to build an entirely new cinematic sensibility from scratch.  While so many genre filmmakers are stuck mining the past for retro nostalgia triggers, Saul Williams & Anizia Uzeyman are honest about the look & means of the moving image of the present, and as a result Neptune Frost feels like the future of sci-fi in the medium.

Neptune Frost‘s resistance to clear comparison or definition is integral to its design.  It boldly opposes every institutional structure it can hurl a brick at, from major oppressive forces like Capitalism, Christianity, and rigid Gender boundaries to more pedestrian concerns like Plot.  There are two lovers at the center of its loose, musical fantasy: a coltan miner mourning the loss of his brother and a non-binary traveler mourning their loss of place & community.  They find each other in the Rwandan savanna, and their love for each other combines with their hatred of modern civilization to create a new way of engaging with spiritual life & the physical world.  Other refugees & dissidents appear drawn to their subsequent political commune like a spiritual magnet, finding a way to collectively “hack” into the world’s computer systems from their remote locale through the power of their own hearts & minds.  Enough characters have names like Innocence, Philosophy, and Tekno that Neptune Frost feels like it should have a clear metaphorical guide to its scene-to-scene events, but I would be lying if I could say that I can make full sense of it (or that I’m even confident about my vague overview of its big-picture premise).  Since it’s all conveyed through music & poetry, though, it doesn’t have to make logical sense; it just has to be emotionally potent, and I felt every minute of it deep in my chest.

I do believe there is a clear guiding force to its political messaging, at least.  As much as it sets out to methodically undermine every single institutional structure in its path, it’s all filtered through a very specific disgust with the mining of coltan in countries like Rwanda, where horrifically exploitative working conditions are treated as a necessary evil to powering the world’s smartphones.  It’s openly confrontational about this trade-off, starting with a needless death in a coltan mine and referencing “Black-bodies currency” in its free-flowing song lyrics.  The beauty in its political subversion is in the way its savanna hacker commune turns the tools of their oppressors against them, using the community of online connection to overpower the systems that profited from its creation.  It’s a purely electronic mode of spirituality & political fury that feels more real & vital to modern life than the organized religions & pre-existing political movements it’s supplanting.  I don’t know that it offers a clear, real-life solution to the exploitation of coltan miners, but it does have a clear ethos in how online political organization is necessary to create meaningful change in the physical world, despite the exploitation that makes that connection possible.

The closest I’ve seen previous experiments in form approximate Neptune Frost‘s specific mode of political-resistance sci-fi euphoria was in the feature-length music videos Dirty Computer & When I Get Home.  I love both of those films for their boldness in pushing the medium to its outer limits, but I don’t think even they quite match Williams & Uzeyman’s far-out achievements here.  More importantly, they’re both relatively recent works, which means Neptune Frost is at the forefront of something new, something not yet fully defined.  It’s a thrill to behold, even with the uneasy balance between its political hopefulness and the real-world misery that drives its resistance to current status quo.

-Brandon Ledet

Crimes of the Future (2022)

He has not announced plans to retire, but if Crimes of the Future does end up being David Cronenberg’s final film, it would be an excellent send-off for the director’s career.  Just as A Dirty Shame registers as the perfect marriage between John Waters’s early-career transgressors and his late-career mainstreamers, Crimes of the Future lands midway between the sublime body-horror provocations that made Cronenberg famous and the philosophical cold showers he’s been taking in more recent decades.  It’s less of a complete, self-contained work than it is a loose collection of images, ideas, and in-jokes aimed at long-haul Cronenberg sickos.  It’s got all the monstrous mutation & fleshy, fetishistic penetration of his classic era, which makes it tempting to claim that the body horror master has returned to former glories.  It presents those images in the shape of his more recent, more talkative cerebral thrillers, though, as if to prove that nothing’s changed except that’s he’s grown out of a young man’s impulse to gross his audience out.  Crimes of the Future is the kind of film that’s so tangled up in the director’s previous works that it makes you say things like “‘Surgery is the new sex’ is the new ‘Long live the new flesh'” as if that means anything to someone who isn’t already a member of the cult.  And yet it might actually be a decent Cronenberg introduction for new audiences, since it’s essentially a scrapbook journal of everywhere he’s already been.

If there’s anything missing from Crimes of the Future that prevents it from reaching Cronenberg’s previous career highs, it’s not an absence of new ideas; it’s more an absence of narrative momentum.  Much of it functions as a dramatically flat police procedural, gradually peeling back the layers of a conspiracy theory that never feels as sharp or as vibrant as the future hellworld that contains it.  It’s a pure, playful exercise in complex worldbuilding & philosophical provocation, which are both major markers of great sci-fi no matter what narratives they serve.  Cronenberg essentially asks what our future world will be like once we inevitably accept the New Flesh mutations of his Videodrome era body horrors, as opposed to recoiling from them in fear.  He imagines a scenario where the pollution of accumulating microplastics in our bodies has triggered a grotesque evolution of new, mysterious internal organs that are hastily removed in surgery as if they were common tumors.  Meanwhile, our new bodies have essentially eradicated pain, making the general populace a depraved sea of self-harming thrill seekers.  A murdered child, an undercover cop, a network of paper-pushing bureaucrats, and a nomadic cult of proud plastic eaters all drift around the borders of this new, grotesque universe, but they never offer much dramatic competition to distract from the rules & schematics of the universe itself.

Crimes of the Future is at its absolute best when it’s goofing around as a self-referential art world satire.  Its most outlandish sci-fi worldbuilding detail is in imagining a future where high-concept performance artists are the new rock stars.  Viggo Mortensen stars as “an artist of the interior landscape,” a mutating body that routinely produces new, unidentifiable organs that are surgically removed in ceremonious public “performances.”  Léa Seydoux stars as his partner in art & life, acting as a kind of surgical dominatrix who penetrates his body to expose his organic “creations” to their adoring public (including Kristen Stewart as a horned-up fangirl who can barely contain her excitement for the New Sex).  Cronenberg not only re-examines the big-picture scope of his life’s work here; he also turns the camera around on his sick-fuck audience of geeky gawkers & fetishists.  It’s all perversely amusing in its satirical distortion of real-world art snobbery, from the zoned-out audience of onlookers making home recordings on their smartwatches, to the hack wannabe artists who don’t fully get the New Sex, to the commercialization of the industry in mainstream events like Inner Beauty Pageants.  Although it appears to be more self-serious at first glance, it’s only a few fart jokes away from matching Peter Strickland’s own performance art satire in Flux Gourmet, its goofy sister film.

I hope that Cronenberg keeps making movies.  Even five decades into his career, he’s clearly still amused with his own creations, when there’s big-name directors half his age who are already miserably bored with their jobs.  Hell, he doesn’t even need to create an entire new universe next time he wants to write something.  Crimes of the Future‘s plastic gnawing, organ harvesting, surgery-fucking future world is vast & vivid enough to support dozens of sequels & spin-offs.  It turns out you don’t even need much of a story to make it worth a visit.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Cube (2021)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss last year’s Japanese remake of the classic Canuxploitation sci-fi thriller Cube (1997).

00:00 Welcome

01:55 Drag Me to Hell (2009)
04:45 Evil Dead (2013)
10:30 Being John Malkovich (1999)
13:40 Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978)
19:30 Interview with a Vampire (1994)
26:00 The Overlook Film Festival
31:37 Spider-Man 3 (2007)
38:00 Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2022)

41:27 Cube (2021)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2022)

One of the stranger stories out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the selection of its opener.  Opening Cannes isn’t necessarily a marker of prestige, since the honor has been bestowed upon such disposable titles as The Da Vinci Code, Cafe Society, The Dead Don’t Die, and Grace of Monaco in the past.  Still, I was amused to hear that this year’s opener was a robustly budgeted French remake of the low-fi Japanese crowd-pleaser One Cut of the DeadFinal Cut was directed by Michel Hazanavicius, who’s been coasting for a full decade on the notoriety of winning a Best Director Oscar for The Artist.  Otherwise, it appears to be the exact kind of anonymous mainstream comedy that never gets exported outside France, so that Americans assume most of the country’s cinematic output is its small crop of high-brown art films.  Attempting to recapture the magic of One Cut of the Dead is a fool’s mission in any context, but there’s something especially absurd about an establishment filmmaker remaking it with real studio money and then getting the red-carpet treatment at the world’s most distinguished film festival.

One of the reasons it’s foolish for Hazanavicius to attempt replicating One Cut of the Dead‘s niche, low-budget magic is that One Cut‘s director Shinichiro Ueda has already championed his chosen successor.  Ueda has proudly boosted the profile of the low-budget sci-fi one-shotter Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes as One Cut of the Dead‘s adorable kid sister, lifting it out of the festival circuit into international distribution.  If it weren’t for that profile boost, the comparison wouldn’t do Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes many favors.  While One Cut of the Dead transcends its low-budget zombie comedy medium to become a film about the joys of all low-budget filmmaking, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has a lot less to say about the world outside its single-location microcosm.  It’s an impressive feat in circular-logic thought exercises and microbudget filmmaking, though, and it’s easy to see why Ueda was won over by its surface-level charms as One Cut‘s spiritual successor.  Selling the rights for the Final Cut remake was smart, but it’s nice to see Ueda’s still siding with D.I.Y. art projects on the other side of that paycheck.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes splits its 70min runtime between two rooms in the same cramped building: a ground-level cafe that’s closing for the evening and one of its baristas’ upstairs apartment.  In a self-creating paradox, the barista discovers that his computer monitor can see two minutes into the future through a lagging stream of the cafe’s security camera.  His future-self informs present-him of this two-minute loop, an anomaly that’s quickly discovered by a growing list of intervening friends who push past his fear & bafflement to test the limits of what the loop can do.  It turns out that two-minute future vision is essentially useless, and the more our bumbling time criminals stretch the boundaries of that frustratingly brief timeframe the more they trap themselves in a self-perpetuating loop of small-scale fate.  There’s some handwringing about the implications of contradicting the (very near) future they’ve already seen play out on the monitors, but for the most part the fun in the film is in watching them fail to expand the implications of this strange, isolated event into something bigger & more significant.

Of course, the only reason Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has earned any comparisons to One Cut of the Dead is that both films are structured as one-long-takes, testing the limitations of that gimmick the same way Beyond‘s knuckleheads test the limitations of the two-minute time loop.  In One Cut, the one-shot gimmick is a wonderfully concise summation of all the various restrictions of low-budget film production.  Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a lot less concerned about the authenticity of the gimmick, sloppily “hiding” its cuts in closeups on doors, clothes, and shadows.  It’s a smart way to draw attention as a D.I.Y. production filmed on smartphones, but I got the sense that maintaining the real-time progression of the time-loop experiments was more important than maintaining the illusion of a one-shot production.  In most one-shotters, the intended effect is to prompt the audience to ask, “How did they do that?” in stunned wonder.  By contrast, these two films make it blatantly clear how they accomplished the feat. One Cut proudly highlights its production mistakes as part of its inherent charm, and Beyond doesn’t waste much energy at all on hiding the creases between its shots.  Its time-loop conundrums are its main focus, so that its greatest strengths are in its writing instead of its framing.

In summation, One Cut of the Dead is a modern cult favorite, Beyond the Infinite Minutes is its adorable faint echo, and Final Cut is its flimsy plastic substitute.  It’s hilarious to see which one got the red-carpet rollout at Cannes, even if there is plenty precedent for that exact kind of cornball programming at the fest.

-Brandon Ledet

Moonfall (2022)

In Moonfall, the moon is a hollow “megastructure” that very nearly crash-lands into Earth (getting close enough to scrape a few mountain tops) before course-correcting back to its proper orbit.  It is the exact same moon-crash disaster epic that director Roland Emmerich would have made in 1998 had the script crossed his desk then, except with fewer movie stars filling out the ensemble cast; only Halle Berry & a brief Donald Sutherland cameo pass the Would Emmerich Have Cast Them in the 1990s? test.  As a genre, the over-the-top, over-budgeted CGI spectacle has continued past the 90s in the respective movie industries of India, China, and Korea, but Emmerich’s distinctly retro charms only recall pictures from its Hollywood heyday: Armageddon, Mission to Mars, The Matrix, Contact, Deep Impact and, of course, Emmerich’s own Independence Day.  Everything from the film’s shameless Lexus product placement to its astronaut hero’s anxieties over being an absent father are so distinctly 90s that it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’ve already seen half of it before on TBS, intercut with hours of commercial breaks and an unplanned afternoon nap.

Well, maybe not everything here would’ve made its way into the 90s version of MoonfallGame of Thrones‘s John Bradley is assigned the thankless task of modernizing the falling-moon disaster premise with some 2020s internet lingo.  Bradley plays a conspiracy theorist blogger & YouTuber, a self-proclaimed “megastructurist”.  We are told he is very smart, as he is the first civilian to deduce that the moon is crashing into Earth and that it is not a natural moon at all, but rather an alien-made megastructure.  Since he’s a cat-meme nerd who asks the question “What would Elon do?” for self-motivation, however, I retain that he is, in fact, very dumb.  Halle Berry & Patrick Wilson’s heroic NASA defectors agree with that assessment, and continue to poke fun at his absurd, idiotic conspiracy theories about moon lasers & the moon’s hollow core long after he’s been proven correct.  They’re right to do so.  Moonfall‘s premise is absurd & idiotic, and it was only written to set up the CGI spectacle of the film’s final act (where, spoilers, the mismatched trio stop the moon from falling). Thankfully, in the process it also sets up some beautifully asinine dialogue exchanges about the peculiar nature of our megastructure moon, a few of which I will transcribe below for your reading pleasure:

“You’re telling me that the moon was effectively the biggest cover-up in human history?”

“I told you! The moon was built by aliens.”

“You are the key to our moon’s knowledge.”

“We scanned your consciousness; you’re part of the moon now.”

Between Moonfall & Ambulance, it’s been a big year for vintage vulgar auteurs pretending it’s still the 1990s.  Michael Bay at least updated his schtick with modern drone camera tech; Emmerich simply stuck to his basics while committing to the biggest goofball premise he could find.  Sometimes, that nostalgia for Hollywood’s knucklehead disaster-epic past feels like a deliberate intent of the script, which laments several times that all of NASA’s moon shuttles are collecting dust in museums instead of standing by to heroically save the day (in case, you know, the moon decides to fall).  It’s much more likely, though, that Moonfall is just the Emmerich production machine on autopilot. Any byproduct nostalgia is an incidental result of how that rusty content mill differs from the MCU and Fast & Furious empires that have taken its place in the past couple decades.  Neither Emmerich nor Bay put in their career-best work this year, but there is still something reassuring about watching them do their usual thing in a post-superhero Hollywood.  All we need now is for Jerry Bruckheimer to produce a big-budget swashbuckler about the recovery of Atlantis to complete the cycle.

-Brandon Ledet