Recent Movie Roundup 35
Would you believe I haven't done one of these posts since December 2019? Well, of course you'd believe it, because 2020 was what it was, and I personally haven't been in a movie theater since last February, and have no expectation of seeing the inside of one for some time. Not that I haven't seen movies during the last year (or even reviewed them). But something about cueing up Netflix for the evening just doesn't stir the critical juices the way sitting in a movie theater does. Still, there have been some excellent movies this year, especially when it comes to genre fare—I'm thinking, in particular, of the 2021 Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category, which is suddenly wide open. Several of the movies discussed below are ones that I wouldn't mind seeing on the shortlist.
The Vast of Night - Writer-director Andrew Patterson's debut feature is a nostalgia exercise on several different levels. For one thing, it's a period piece, set in small town New Mexico in the 1950s, full of old school touches like rat-a-tat dialogue, weird slang ("now we're making biscuits!" a character exclaims), and bygone hallmarks of the era such as human switchboard operators. And as if to draw attention to its period, its main characters—too-cool-for-school Everett (Jake Horowitz) and eager beaver Fay (Sierra McCormick)—are teenagers who are simply enthralled by new technology like radio and tape recorders, and eager for whatever comes next—in an early conversation, the two consider ideas like on-board navigation systems or smartphones, and wonder if such marvels could ever come to pass. Secondly, the whole thing is presented as an episode in a Twilight Zone-esque TV series. And finally—and to me, most charmingly—The Vast of Night is an alien abduction story, a genre that had a furious heyday in the 90s but today is almost entirely absent from pop culture.
And yet despite this multifaceted throwback quality, there's something so fresh and winning about The Vast of Night. A lot of this is down to the young stars, who combine youthfulness and maturity in a way that isn't often seen in modern depictions of teen characters. Everett and Fay are both clearly children—you see this in particular in the way that Fay, who is sixteen, is styled and portrayed like the child that that age still makes her, but Everett's outwardly more mature demeanor is also clearly at least partly a facade, grasping after something he doesn't yet have. And yet they've also shouldered adult responsibilities. Everett clearly enjoys his role as the town's resident AV nerd (more V than A, though, at that era and in the middle of nowhere), the guy who knows his way around electricity and radio and even moonlights at the local station, but also has dreams of getting out. And Fay is helping her single mother by taking shifts at the local switchboard, musing to Everett that if she gets enough experience under her belt, she might get a job at a hospital or a hotel, but that something like college is out of reach. As the movie begins, the two are sitting down to their respective jobs on a night when most of the town is gathered at the high school gymnasium to watch a basketball game, when Fay begins hearing a strange humming sound on her lines, and receiving calls from people who claim to see lights in the sky. She recruits Everett, and the two of them begin a rollicking investigation that takes them back and forth across town, whose impetus is partly childish glee, partly serious-minded journalism, and partly just the desire for something out of the ordinary to happen.
The most interesting thing about The Vast of Night is how unafraid it is of relying entirely on dialogue and sound effects. At certain points, it resembles nothing so much as a radio play, often following characters from behind in long takes in which they conduct lengthy, discursive conversations at a breakneck pace, or locking onto a single character's face as they deliver a monologue—or even, in one scene, as they listen to one, as when Everett listens to a caller at his station who claims to have information about the sound and the lights. It's not that Patterson can't do visuals, as he demonstrates in a showy long take that takes us through the town's empty streets, into the gym, through the ranks of audience and players, and back out the other side of the building into another empty street. But the effect he's going for—which feels essential for a movie trying to make something new out of the alien abduction genre in 2020—is mystery. He wants us to feel his characters' confusion, and their growing determination to figure out what's happening, as in an early scene in which the camera remains trained on Fay's face for nearly ten minutes, as she takes and makes calls on her switchboard, trying to get a picture of what's going on from fragments of information delivered second-hand by confused people. It's an approach that maintains the film's sense of excitement and newness long past the point where we realize that it is telling a very familiar story, and if it can't quite carry that impression all the way to the end—alien abduction stories only have a few possible endings, none of them particularly dramatic—then Everett and Fay will shoulder that weight, arriving at a conclusion that stresses both their determination to learn their world and participate in it as adults, and their heartbreaking youth.
Wonder Woman 1984 - The consensus that has built around Patty Jenkins's follow-up to her groundbreaking 2017 Wonder Woman is that it is dire, one of the worst superhero movies of the modern era. And honestly, I don't see it. To be sure, Wonder Woman 1984 is not a good movie. It's overlong, tonally confused, and gestures at too many ideas without quite knowing how to follow through on most of them. But the result feels, to me, less bad as it is spectacularly messy, and I can't help but wonder whether the extreme negative reaction to the movie doesn't have less to do with its specific problems (which are, to reiterate, extremely real) as with its failure to follow the expected beats of a modern superhero movie. To put it another way, there is very little that is wrong with Wonder Woman 1984 that wasn't also wrong with Aquaman, but that film, which had a straightforward lost-prince-claims-the-throne story, has been classed as dumb but fun, not an unmitigated disaster.
Catching up with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in the titular year, the film finds her living a solitary life as a museum curator by day, occasional superhero by night, but still mourning the loss of her love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) seventy years earlier. When Diana's new colleague, the frumpy, easily overlooked Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), asks for her help in authenticating an artifact, they and several others unwittingly unleash its power to grant wishes. Diana wishes for Steve's return. Barbara wishes to be sexy and powerful like her new friend. It quickly becomes clear that the wishes have a price—Diana, for example, begins losing her powers. But things really come to a head when entrepreneur Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), desperate to stay ahead of investors who have realized that his vaunted oil wells are bust, wishes for the power to grant wishes—and to demand whatever he wants in return. Before long, he's unleashed chaos on the world in his pursuit of more and more power, and of the ability to reach as many people as possible, so that he can grant their wishes—and extract his payment—on a global scale.
The result is the kind of apocalypse one doesn't tend to see even in this late stage of modern superhero spectacle, not a battle against tangible enemies but the inevitable consequence of heedless greed and unchecked desires. It's a rich idea, and very suitable to Wonder Woman, whose power is rooted in moral authority and a profound compassion towards others as much as it is in physical strength. But the execution is hopelessly muddled. We're told, for example, that Barbara has lost her kindness and warmth in exchange for the power she wished for, but the film has done so little to establish who Barbara was before making her wish that this claim feels unsupported—and eventually ends up sliding into that familiar canard, the idea that women who have power are inherently dangerous. Similarly, though the film tries to wring emotional resonance out of Diana and Steve's realization that she has to renounce her wish in order to regain her powers and save the world—and her sorrow over having to once again give up the thing that makes her happy for the sake of the greater good—it is hobbled by the way that the DCEU as a whole has kept Diana static over the course of the films she appears in. We know from Batman v Superman and Justice League that Diana never really got her groove back after Wonder Woman, and spent the twentieth century mourning Steve. So she can't achieve closure in Wonder Woman 1984, and the result is that she keeps repeating the same emotional beats as she has in several previous movies, to less effect each time. Finally, though Lord is meant to be a stand-in for the era's "Greed is Good" ethos, the failure to delve very deeply into what sort of wishes people might make—especially people who are powerless and suffering—can end up making it seem as if the film's message is a decidedly unheroic one, that trying to make things better will always lead to worse things down the line, so you might as well not try.
For all these problems—and really, I've highlighted only a few where there are many more to discuss—there's still something rather charming about Wonder Woman 1984, that cuts through its muddled ideas and slapdash script. The film's premise is so absurdly cosmic, so unlike what other superhero movies—which have either been relatively small-scale, personal stories or battles against evil on a global stage—have delivered that it's exciting just to watch it attempted, even if the result doesn't work. In some ways, it feels like the most purely comic book movie of the last decade—you can easily imagine this arc in garish four-color print. And along the way, we get some genuinely sweet moments, such as Steve's palpable glee at witnessing the wonders of the future, or a sequence in which he and Diana end up creating her vaunted invisible airplane. Diana's solution to the chaos Lord has created, using his mass communication system to appeal to humanity's better nature and remind them that facing up to reality is always better than wishing it away, is so ridiculously earnest, and so quintessentially Wonder Woman-ish, that it almost saves the entire movie even though it, too, is executed rather poorly. Wonder Woman 1984 doesn't work, but it understands its main character far better than many other superhero movies, and I might actually prefer that to a slickly successful movie that treats its hero as a generic fighting and punching machine.
Possessor - In its opening scenes, Possessor follows a young woman as she commits a vicious, bloody murder, then struggles to shoot herself, and then gets the arriving police officers to do it for her—but not before asking an unseen listener to "pull [her] out". In the next scene, we are introduced to Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin who achieves total deniability for her clients by possessing the bodies of people close to her targets, building a narrative of a spurned lover or a disgruntled employee, then committing suicide so that there's no one to question. But Vos is starting to experience difficulties in her work. Her kills are getting more brutal, she finds it difficult to focus when she returns to her own body, and when she returns home, to her estranged husband and young son, she finds herself fantasizing about violence. Vos's new assignment is to possess the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), the boyfriend of a tech billionaire’s daughter. Her assignment is to kill Tate’s girlfriend and her father, and then stage Tate’s suicide, but though she mostly achieves the first two (in a gruesome scene full of close ups of gouged-out eyes and spreading pools of blood), she falters at the end, and in the process damages the implant that grants her control over Tate’s body. The rest of the movie revolves around the two's struggle for supremacy, but more than that, it hinges on Vos's ability to admit her own nature to herself, and fully embrace it.
To describe it this way, however, is perhaps to make Possessor sound more plot-driven and purposeful than it is. When really, this is a film primarily interested in sensation—the long, wordless moments in which Vos pauses to experience the world through her hosts' bodies; the psychedelic process of transferring her consciousness; the copious violence, which never fails to zoom in on a shattered face, a pair of severed fingers, or a body reduced to so much meat by repeated knife blows. These scenes (especially the violent ones) can be so overpowering that it can be easy to miss that Possessor has a fairly thin plot, but this is also part of the clever game the film plays with the audience. We're used to stories about assassins that center guilt and a quest for redemption, so we look for a similar story for Vos, and read it into her behavior. That she is so alienated by her work seems to suggest that she's growing disillusioned by it. That she worries about being a risk to her family makes us think that she's looking for a way to stop. Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg further muddles matters by making it unclear, for much of the film's final act, who is driving Tate's body. When he arrives at his mistress's house after the botched murder, he tells her that he killed his girlfriend so that they could be together. Is he confused? Is Vos still secretly in charge? Or is there some bleed-through between the two personalities? Rather than offering concrete answers, Cronenberg delivers visuals, such as a scene in which Vos, as Tate and then as herself, has sex with Tate's girlfriend, or a later sequence in which Tate, wearing a disturbing Vos mask, replays previous scenes from the movie.
It's only when Tate himself makes the same assumption that the audience has been, and tries to threaten Vos's family in order to gain his freedom from her, that Possessor shows its full hand. Far from being alienated from her work, Vos is alienated by everything in her life that keeps her away from that work. Possessing Tate isn't a way of escaping her tortured conscience, but of play-acting the "solution" to Vos's own increasingly strained home life. It's a nasty revelation that leads to the film’s equally nasty (and bloody) climax. For a moment, that wrongfooting realization can make Possessor feel weightier than it actually is—looking back, it's easy to see that Vos's problem was actually the opposite of what we assumed it was. But by the time the credits roll, the film can end up feeling flimsy, all that violence and outsized emotion amounting to very little, just a bad woman getting rid of her last lingering bit of humanity.
Bacurau - If you've heard anything about this movie, which was one of the top Brazilian films of the last year and a festival darling, it's probably that there is a startling shift in the plot around halfway through and that you should go in knowing as little as possible. This, to me, feels slightly inaccurate. Bacurau isn't the sort of film whose plot twists suddenly, a la Get Out (a film that I found myself thinking about a great deal while watching). Rather, it is a movie that is constantly delivering small revelations, opening up its world in subtle ways until, by the end of the movie, what had initially seemed like a realistic setting now registers as quasi-fantastical. The film begins with Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returning to her home of Bacurau, a tiny village so off the grid that water needs to be trucked in on dirt roads, to attend her grandmother's funeral. The early scenes of the movie offer a mix of family drama and anthropological detail. The funeral is interrupted by the town doctor, Domingas (Sonia Braga), yelling imprecations at the deceased. Teresa uses the opportunity of being back home to reconnect with an old flame, Pacote (Thomas Aquino), a gangster trying to go straight. And in the hills, a criminal, Lunga (Silvero Pereira), is hiding out, for an unspecified crime that is connected to a new dam that has caused a water shortage for the village, while the Bacurau locals pledge not to turn him in.
To begin with, Bacurau feels like an interesting but familiar setting, a place that is both cut off from the world and yet also inevitably modern. The one room school has a flat-screen TV and an internet connection. The town's entertainment is to meet at the square in the evenings to watch videos on a big screen, MC'd by one of the locals. Writer-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles leave it to us to piece together the characters' relationships and the town's organization, offering little in the way of expository dialogue. This also serves the purpose of obscuring the ways in which Bacurau is different from what we might expect. Slowly, however, details creep in that are harder to square with our understanding of what small South American towns are like. The local church seems to be used mainly for storage. There is a casual acceptance of queerness. And when a local politician shows up in town, looking to buy votes in the coming election with a gift of expired food and secondhand library books (which he piles in front of the school from the back of a dump truck), the residents hole up in their houses and refuse to meet him. The more we see of the Bacurau community, in fact, the more its social organization feels slightly off from what we're used to (I found myself thinking of a kibbutz). The official's gifts, for example, are set out on a table for everyone to take from, but not before Domingas warns that he has also brought a box of psychiatric drugs, which she deems dangerous and habit-forming.
It's so interesting to try to puzzle out what Bacurau is and how it works, where its specificities, as a small town that has developed its own culture and traditions, end, and its more concrete deviations from reality begin, that it's almost frustrating when the real action kicks off. Our first hint that something is wrong is when one of the villagers observes a flying saucer following him home (though, as he later explains to Pacote, this was clearly a drone designed to look like a flying saucer; Bacurau is a film that wears its metaphors on its sleeve, and then complicates them by having its characters acknowledge them as metaphors). The next day, a pair of suspicious tourists drive through town, and several of the villagers are discovered dead. Then more bodies turn up, and the local cell service and electricity are cut off. It's clear fairly early on what is happening—in fact the viewers' difficulty in understanding it may have less to do with the opaqueness of the plot, and more with not wanting to believe that people could do something so cruel and dehumanizing, though of course history teaches us otherwise. What's startling and unexpected is, instead, how the villagers parse the sudden danger they're in, and how they show themselves prepared to meet it.
The twist at the heart of Bacurau turns out to be that we have seen this story before, but in a different time period and, more importantly, from a different perspective. The villagers of Bacurau may seem like ordinary 21st century people, but they are the same inscrutable natives who greet (or flee from) explorers and colonizers in many of the adventure stories we took in growing up. But this time, the story is theirs, and the crux of the movie is revealing how their entire society has been shaped to withstand the pressures brought to bear upon it by those same explorers and colonizers, and the institutions and nations that rose up in their wake. As the film draws to its end, we finally understand just how total Bacurau's estrangement from the world is. How, in the guise of an ordinary village that is simply far from anywhere and a little behind the times, its residents have created their own world, with tools to protect themselves from the outside. It's a fantasy of the colonized rising up to protect themselves from colonizers, but the even greater fantasy at its heart is the idea that the means of that protection is the ability to hold on to a cohesive communal identity, traditional ways of life, and the lessons of history. Bacurau's ending is triumphant not only because the villagers fight off the danger that threatens them, but because it reveals them as prepared—as so many of their ancestors weren't—to cope with the outside world without being swallowed by it.
- Synchronic - The trailer, the logline, the presence of Anthony Mackie in the lead role, and maybe even the title all combine to make Synchronic, from director duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, look like a time travel thriller. But though this is a time travel movie with, eventually, life and death stakes, for most of its run Synchronic is a remarkably laid-back story, whose focus isn't thrills or adventure, but the relationship between its two leads. Lifelong friends Steve (Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) have done almost everything together, from school to vacations to their work. The one difference between them is that Dennis has been married for most of his adulthood, with a teenage daughter and a new baby, while Steve is still living the life of a bachelor. Both men are vaguely dissatisfied with their choices, all the more so when Steve learns that he has an inoperable brain tumor and is forced to take stock of his life and choices.
Most of the first half of Synchronic is spent learning these things as the two men jaw and reminisce in between calls on their job as New Orleans paramedics. It's through those calls, however, that the film builds a sense of looming menace, as Steve and Dennis keep arriving at scenes of strange and improbable injury and death—a woman bitten by a snake that hasn't been seen in the city in centuries, a man impaled by a sword, a charred body with no apparent heat source. What ties the deaths together is a new designer drug, Synchronic. Benson, who is credited for the script, takes his time before explaining how the drug works and what it does, instead offering up long, wordless scenes in which the drug's users find themselves transported elsewhere—a lush forest, a swamp, a battle.
Things come to a head when Dennis's older daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) takes the drug and disappears. Steve, trying to buy up the drug’s supply before any other kids are hurt, encounters its designer, who explains that while adults can use Synchronic to peer into the past, younger people are transported to it, sometimes succumbing to misadventure and sometimes, as in Brianna's case, failing to return. It turns out that Steve's cancer allows him to experience the same effects as younger Synchronic users, and he proceeds to study how the drug works in order to figure out when Brianna is and how he can bring her back.
It sounds rather flimsy and contrived when you lay it out like that, and in fact it feels as if this rescue plot is not where Moorhead and Benson's heart lies. They're much more comfortable simply bouncing Steve through time—he ends up sharing a fire with a prehistoric man, or interrupting the rituals of a group of slaves who take him for a spirit—and letting him muse about time, life, and the realizations he's come to now that his own are coming to an end. Also running through the movie is the recognition that time travel poses unique challenges to someone like Steve, who is nearly lynched when he is transported to the early 20th century (though the film also acknowledges that things aren't great in the present, as in a scene in which cops arriving at a call mistake Steve for a criminal and hold him at gunpoint). Saving Brianna ends up feeling more like a crutch to justify the plot's existence, but the film's real interest is in Steve's own journey, and in his and Dennis's friendship. Even as the time travel plot heats up, the film keeps pausing to let them talk to each other, expressing the depth of their lifelong bond as well as their difficulty understanding each other's choices—Steve's envy of Dennis's family; Dennis's insistence that finding the love of your life doesn't mean living happily ever after. It's not a surprise when Synchronic ends not on Brianna's rescue, but on the affirmation of this friendship, and its centrality to both men's lives.