Vice(1/6/2019)

When I heard that Adam McKay was following up his 2015 The Big Short with a biopic about Dick Cheney I thought it sort of made sense but also didn’t make sense at all.  On one hand it was obvious from his last movie that McKay was transitioning from making broad comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights to making overtly political satires, so in some ways a Cheney movie seemed like a logical evolution of that, on the other hand who the hell wants to make or see a movie about the W. Bush administration in 2018?  That seems like a bad idea firstly because those years were hell and no one wants to relive them, secondly because enough time probably hasn’t passed to really bring anything new to the story with hindsight, and thirdly because with Donald Trump in office a lot of the awfulness of the Bush years almost feels quaint by comparison.  Truth be told, despite Bush’s slightly better tact and decorum than the current white house occupant, he was in fact pretty terrible and a lot of the worst aspects of modern Republican politics were very much alive when he was in white house as well and a reminder of that might be in order.

Vice does skip around in the timeline here and there but generally the film follows the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his time as a hard drinking your adult in Wyoming to his time working with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) in the Nixon white house through to his time as a house representative and as a Halliburton executive until finally landing on the role that would make him infamous to history as the vice president to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).  Along the way we see him interacting with his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) and daughters Mary Cheney (Alison Pill) and Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe).

Let’s start with what is clearly Vice’s strongest and most talked about element: Christian Bale’s performance in the lead role.  Bale is a 44 year old Englishman who has very recently been in good enough shape to play Batman who is here playing a noticeably overweight American politician who was at his most famous between the ages of 59 and 67 and he has made is so that you don’t question this at all.  Bale has clearly done one of his trademark absurd weight gains for the role and he’s presumably using a lot of makeup but there is clearly a skill in managing to bring everything together and making these transformative elements still feel human.  Obviously Cheney isn’t the most emotional of characters, especially not in this telling of his life, so you don’t exactly get to see Bale doing any real “Oscar clip” scenes but he does adopt the voice pretty effectively and is generally quite good in the role beyond the obvious physical transformation.

The downside of this is that Bale going above and beyond the call of duty as much as he does kind of makes some of his co-stars look bad in comparison.  In particular I’m thinking of Steve Carrell, who certainly manages to make himself look reasonably like a young Donald Rumsfeld, but who seems completely incapable of changing the sound of his voice for this or any other role.  That seems particularly odd in this role given that Rumsfeld, Mr. unknonwn knowns, is probably most famous for using language to slink out of accountability and just generally feels like should be more complicated than what we see here.  Also probably more complicated than what we see here is the real George W. Bush, who Sam Rockwell depicts as being not just an easily manipulated personality but as someone who borders on being “special needs.”  You don’t really see a lot of Bush in the movie, which is partly by design given that the film is very much of the belief that Cheney was calling the shots through that whole administration, but when he is on screen Rockwell’s performance rarely rises above the level of SNL impression. Amy Adams fares better as Lynne Cheney, in part because she isn’t burdened with doing an impression of an overly familiar face, but the movie doesn’t give her a ton to do either, it’s basically a typical “long suffering biopic wife” role with some kind of contradictory hints that she might be a sort of Lady MacBeth behind his rise.

The film’s view of Dick Cheney will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Bush years.  Back then the theory was always that Cheney was the real brains behind Bush and that he was driving events largely out of greed for oil and in service of Haliburton and other oil contractors.  Given my political leanings I don’t necessarily doubt this narrative but I’ve always assumed it was basically unproven speculation and simply reenacting it in a movie like this doesn’t exactly seem like confirmation.  I might have preferred a documentary that goes into the records and really tried to prove what it going on here.  Instead what we get is something more along the lines of The Big Short: a fourth wall breaking satire which finds amusing ways to lay out political facts that uneducated viewers might not be aware of.  That approach worked well in The Big Short, in part because the financial system is legitimately complicated and it felt less condescending when really simplified metaphors are offered for it and partly because that raucous tone generally fit that story a bit better.  That was a movie about a class of people so drunk off of profits that they refused to see that they were heading for disaster, so all the irreverence kind of fit the mood.  Vice tries to do the same but doesn’t realize that it’s kind of telling the opposite story, that of a master manipulator who was very much seeing the big picture and was allegedly in control the whole time.

As it’s been released Vice has become one of the year’s most divisive films.  Some people really seem to hate it, in part because its satiric tone can come off as glib, and I agree with that to some extent.  There are also just a lot of really little things in the movie that bug me like how it just sort of skips past what got Cheney into politics in the first place with a cut forward in time and I also hated a monolog delivered by Cheney towards the end which might have seemed interestingly provocative in another movie but which made no sense in the movie its attached to which overly contradicts everything that he’s saying.  I also just flat out didn’t find the movie particularly funny despite sort of admiring some of the audacity on display.  Certain parts of the movie do work, which combined with how interesting Bale’s performances was keep me from really hating the movie as much as some people do.  That said, I do think that by and large the movie is something of a failure.

** out of Five

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Beautiful Boy(11/29/2018)/Boy Erased(12/1/2018)

At the 2018 Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals two movies premiered that will likely be forever linked: Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased or the “white boys in trouble” movies, as they were dubbed by certain personalities on Twitter.  Are these movies really comparable?  Well, in essence one is about drug abuse and the other is about gay conversion therepy, those are fairly unrelated topics.  One wonders if they’re both simply being linked because they came out around the same time and have the word “boy” in the title.  Maybe, but then again there are some other similarities.  Both films are set in the early 2000s, both are based on memoirs written by journalists, both end with title cards giving statistics about their respective issues, and both ultimately end up being more about the relationships between their respective white boys and their families.  Whether or not the connection is ultimately forced and whether or not it’s fair to either film I think I’m going to run with it anyway, partly because I’d rather not write full reviews of both films, and partly because this link has been pretty well forged in my head whether it’s fair or not.

Beautiful Boy is based on the memoir of the same name by David Sheff (Steve Carell) and another memoir written by his son Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) and focuses in on the elder Sheff as well as his ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan) and current wife Karen (Maura Tierney) as they try to help the younger Sheff through a debilitating addiction to crystal meth that he has fallen into.  Boy Erased on the other hand is told more from the perspective of its titular boy, an eighteen year old named Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) who lives in a particularly conservative area of Arkansas and is the son of a Baptist preacher named Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman).  Shortly after Eamons goes to some sort of Christian college events transpire which result in him admitting to his parents that he might be gay, which they do not respond to well and enroll him with an organization called Love in Action run by a guy named Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) which seems to want to pray away the gay.

Let’s start with Beautiful Boy, which is probably the film of the two I was anticipating more in part because it was directed by Felix Van Groeningen, who made the 2012 Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown which managed to really bring a lot of pathos to the lives of a pair of really interesting people.  I certainly wouldn’t call his latest film poorly directed but I’m not really sure he was able to bring the same magic to this movie.  What he does do well here is give a pretty good sense of what these characters lives have been like over the years.  Little touches like the way he decorates Nic’s room and the way he picks locations do paint a bit of a picture and the occasional flashback scenes are done pretty effectively.  He also does a pretty good job of directing his ensemble.  Timothée Chalamet gives a fairly strong follow-up performance to his work in last year’s Call Me By Your Name and his general cherubic demeanor makes for an interesting contrast to the rather gritty situation he finds himself in.  Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are also quite good as his maternal figures.  I’d say the weak link is actually probably the star, Steve Carell, who is an actor who I’m frankly starting to wonder might not have range to be a dramatic actor.  His casting makes perfect sense on paper but something about the guy’s voice just makes it very hard for him to blend into a roll and I just really didn’t care for his presence here.

The bigger problem with this movie is just that it tells a very very familiar story.  There isn’t really much of a novel hook to Nic Sheff’s addiction narrative, its patterns of recovery and relapse and recovery and relapse is more or less the same one you hear from most stories like this both in movies and in real life.  The one and only reason why Nic’s story is being brought to the screen and not the several other stories like it is that Nic’s father is a freelance journalist who’s in a position to write a book about his experiences trying to get him help.  That point of view is perhaps something that sets the movie apart just a little given that most movies about his subject matter would be told primarily from the point of view of the addict rather than the parent, but it’s still fundamentally the same story.  Frankly I probably would have liked to see a bit more from Nic’s point of view, particularly early on because the movie never really delves into what drove him to start using meth in the first place.  The film does suggest that David was a little too tolerant when he first found out that Nic was “experimenting” and that treating Kurt Cobain like a hero might not have been in Nic’s best interest, but outside of some vague talk about “filling a void” the movie really sidesteps that aspect of his journey.

Boy Erased is another case where the story being told might not be the ideal test case.  There was a movie earlier this year about gay conversion therapy called The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which certainly had its merits but which I thought was sort of fundamentally flawed because it was being told from the perspective of a girl who was kind of aloof and never really believed in the ideas behind the camp she was sent to and that made her immune from the worst of what this kind of therapy had to offer.  Boy Erased at least seems to be avoiding the same mistake at first, Eamons does seem to be a lot more at risk of being affected by the toxic philosophy at play, but his stay at this camp ends up being surprisingly brief and he ultimately sees through it all and comes out of the experience relatively unharmed.  The focus seems to be less on the camp’s psychological torture and misguided worldview than on their general incompetence, namely their strange fixation on inherited family traits and at one point on the spelling errors in their manuals.  Where The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes gay conversion therapy seem like little more than a rather lame summer camp, this makes it look like a poorly run night school.  I wouldn’t have expected it at the time but somehow Deadpool 2 has managed to be the angriest movie about this subject despite only tackling the topic allegorically.

One of the commonalities between the two films is that both seem to be about as interested in the respective boys’ relationship to their family as much as they are in the boys’ actual problems.  In the case of Boy Erased this sort of makes sense insomuch as being forced into a situation like this would almost certainly strain familial relations, but the movie is also a little unfocused on this front.  The real Jared Eamons (whose real name is Garrard Conley) clearly has fairly mixed feelings about his parents and vice versa but the film might have benefited if it had taken a stronger stance on the subject on his behalf because you’re really not feeling a whole lot by the end.  It doesn’t help that neither Russell Crowe nor Nicole Kidman seem to really understand the characters they’re playing, frankly neither actor has felt more Australian than they do here trying to play Arkansas Baptists.  The focus on familial relationships is even more central to Beautiful Boy and is perhaps more problematic.  The decision to have the whole story minus a handful of scenes be told from the father’s point of view rather than the son’s seems like a bold idea on paper but I don’t think it really leads to any overly unique insights and it also kind of just means the more passive character is given the stage for most of the movie.  Parents love to think they’re more important to their grown children than they really are and there’s a certain narcissism in taking a story about someone else’s pain and making it all about yourself, which is kind of what happened with Beautiful Boy.

So were these movies really all that comparable in the end?  Well when I started this I felt like it was a bit of a stretch, and in some ways it was, but ultimately I don’t think it was to off-base.  The fact that they’re both based on memoirs is probably the bigger link than the fact that they’re both about “white boys with problems.”  So if they are comparable which one is better?  Well, that’s a little trickier.  On a fundamental level I think Beautiful Boy is the better made movie.  It has a cleaner narrative and overall it probably develops its characters better and is generally more competently made.  Boy Erased by contrast is a lot messier and is less effective in bringing you on its central journey, but it’s also less familiar and brings up issues that feel less like total clichés.  That movie is trying to say something even if it’s saying it clumsily while Beautiful Boy just feels like a sort of glorified after-school special without much to really say beyond “drug addiction really sucks for all involved.”  That having been said I find both of these movies to be pretty inessential and I wouldn’t recommend either.  These aren’t offensively bad movies but they also don’t really do anything to really set themselves apart and really work.

Beautiful Boy: ** out of Five
Boy Erased: ** out of Five

 

Summer, 1993(6/24/2018)

The always sarcastic marquee at my local arthouse showing the new Spanish film Summer, 1993 had a special comment on one side which reads “Not about ‘Exile in Guyville’” in reference to the 1993 Liz Phair album of that name and on the other side it reads “I was listening to ‘Siamese Dream’ a lot that that summer” in reference to the Smashing Punpkins album of that name.  That joke marquee isn’t really referencing anything in the movie itself (which is entirely disinterested in popular music) but more about that strange way that references to the summers of various years almost always conjures up certain nostalgic images whether or not your own experiences had much of anything in common with the popular perception.  Case in point Bryan Adams managed to sing very plausibly about his magical coming of age experiences in the “Summer of ‘69” despite the fact that simple google searches reveal that he was actually only ten years old that year so he probably didn’t actually buy his first real six-string at the five and dime and play it until his fingers bled that year.  The year 1993 is of course no exception, when I saw the title of the movie I was also instantly thinking about grunge music and Michael Jordan even though I was six years old that years old that year and was probably spending a lot more time listening to the “Little Mermaid” soundtrack than I was listening to “Vs.”  Of course that would theoretically prove to be a bit of a boon when it comes to looking at Summer, 1993 the movie as it eschews the notion that the “summer of” construct is owned by teenagers as it is also a movie about people who were six or so in 1993.

Summer, 1993 begins with a woman named Marga (Bruna Cusí) and her husband Esteve (David Verdaguer) adopting their niece Frida (Laia Artigas) and moving her from Barcelona to their home somewhere in rural Catalonia after Frida’s mother dies and hope to raise her alongside their own slightly younger daughter Anna (Paula Robles).  That is pretty much the entirety of the plot summery for this movie as it is very much a movie about observing people rather than really relaying a plotline.  There is a subtext to be discovered in that it becomes clear that it was three letters that took Frida’s mother to her final resting place, which is probably the main reason this is set in 1993, but this only really comes up in something like four or five scenes and the movie doesn’t really come out and explain it explicitly until a very well rendered conversation in its final moments.  Instead the movie remains largely in the little girl’s point of view and continues to follow her through her many mundane days across that summer mostly oblivious to the social and political situation that her mother’s death represents instead observes her as she’s going through typical kid stuff as she slowly adjusts to her new life.

Summer 1993 is a tricky one because I get what it’s trying to do and when I step back far enough I can admire that, but the process of actually watching it was a bit rough.  I hate to use the B-word about an art movie but if I’m being honest there was only so much of watching these kids do a whole lot of nothing particularly special without finding it all a bit dull.  This has been something of a quirk in my taste, a lot of filmmakers seem very interested in letting their cameras observe kids being kids but it’s something that doesn’t really work for me except for a couple of very specific situations where it works very well.  Last year’s The Florida Project for instance, worked like gangbusters for me but that looked at a childhood that was very unique and really examined how that kid’s messy family life affected her in a way that this movie intentionally avoids and other movies like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood tends to move more quickly from year to year rather than focusing in on one rather mundane summer.  This one actually reminded me more of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but not the interesting parts of it like the dawn of life sequence or the magnificent camera work or ethereal nature that made it interesting, more like an extended version of the somewhat dull sequences of kids playing that sort of made that movie not entirely work for me.  And if watching kids play aimlessly is going to make a Terrence Malick movie dull you can probably guess this one didn’t really stand a chance.  Still, I don’t want to be too dismissive of it as it does in theory at least do a pretty good job of showing with subtlety a major adjustment in this family’s life, shame it also had to be so boring.

** out of Five

Wonder Wheel(12/10/2017)

Alright, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: being a Woody Allen fan is not very fashionable at the moment.  This of course stems from the accusation of child abuse that occurred in the early 90s, which was litigated and dismissed at the time but which suddenly came back into the conversation thanks in part to a rather vigorous campaign on the part of the Farrow family starting in late 2013 and which has been brought back into the conversation in the wake of the #MeToo campaign despite there being no new allegations.  Frankly Allen’s past has never had much bearing on my interest in his movies, partly because I’m decidedly on Team “Separate Art From Artist” but also because the case against him is far from ironclad and there seems to be no indication that he’s some sort of serial offender.  Given a choice I’d be happy to avoid talking about all of this altogether but in recent times he has been using his filmmaking to comment on his past controversies, and specifically his relationship to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, often in slightly coded ways.  His last film, Café Society, ended with someone contemplating an affair with someone who would be his aunt-in-law and his 2014 movie Magic in the Moonlight ended with a man much the senior of a younger woman deciding to go through with a relationship with her despite all logical reason not because the heart wants what it wants.  I don’t have a problem with Allen exploring his controversies on scree but I’m honestly surprised more people didn’t pick up on these themes until now but they’re certainly picking up on similar themes in his newest film Wonder Wheel.

The film is set in the 1950s in and around the famous Coney Island back when it was still a pretty relevant attraction.  At its center is a woman named Ginny Rannell (Kat Winslet) a waitress at a Coney Island clam bar who’s married to a carousel operator named Humpty Rannell (Jim Belushi) and who lives in an apartment right in the middle of the island above a loud shooting range but with a view of the titular Ferris wheel.  This is a second marriage for both Ginny and Humpty, and Ginny has a twelve year old son from her previous marriage who is kind of disturbed, has a compulsion to start fires, and does not get along at all with his hardass step-father.  At a certain point Ginny started having an affair with a lifeguard/aspiring philosopher named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who actually narrates most of the film.  Things are really set off when Humpty’s twenty-something year old daughter from his previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), turns up on their doorstep desperate for a place to stay.  Carolina had apparently run off and married a gangster when she was young, something her father has not forgiven her for, and after a while with this unsavory person she found herself in a situation where she appeared to be snitching on him and because of this she’s on the run from hitmen.  Eventually they kind of make the situation work, at least until Carolina runs into Mickey and a strange love triangle commences.

So, this is a movie where a guy starts out sleeping with a 40-some year old woman and ends up falling in love with her 20-some year old step daughter… gee, I wonder what attracted Woody Allen to that scenario.  Truth be told I’m not one hundred percent sure Allen intended for this to be a metaphor for his own tabloid scandal some twenty years ago.  That whole story is very much on the forefront of cultural commentators these days but I don’t think it as much as the forefront of his own mind as a lot of people might think it would be.  That said, as an outside observer it’s pretty hard to not see the movie that way and he must have been aware of the similarities on some level even if only sub-consciously.  If it was intentional it’s a little disingenuous as there are clear differences between the two scenarios most notably the fact that the man in this situation is Justin Timberlake, a guy who is about twenty years younger than Woody Allen was when he started his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and Juno Temple is about ten years older than Previn was.  What’s more the step daughter in in Wonder Wheel is one hundred percent absent from the life of the Timberlake character before he falls for her and there’s zero question as to whether he played any kind of parental role in her life.  Of course the other little wrinkle to this interpretation is that the love triangle at its center does not exactly end well, and if Allen does mean for it to be any kind of allegory it does not necessarily speak well of his own actions.

Truth be told, all of that doesn’t really matter, as the bigger problems with the movie are largely unrelated.  The problem really isn’t the story so much as the writing.  The movie is very talky, which I suppose could be said about most Woody Allen movies but the dialogue is particularly heightened here.  I think Allen is very intentionally trying to make this seem like a stage play with the way most scenes only involve two or three people and who they’re pretty willing to tell rather that show at certain points.  The exposition here is really lazy, characters just monologue off their entire backstories for the first third of the movie and they seem to verbalize a lot of what they’re thinking and feeling rather than letting the audience intuit it.  In other, more comedic Woody Allen movies this wouldn’t have been as conspicuous but this movie is pretty serious and somber, there aren’t really laughs to distract from that kind of thing.  There’s also a certain theatricality to the performances here, particularly from Winslet, who manages to really make a lot of this material work better than it might have.  Juno Temple is also pretty good here but the male actors don’t fare as well.  Jim Belushi, who doesn’t have the same background in dramatic theater that Winslet does generally fares worse with this material but it’s Timberlake who is particularly miscast.  I get why the idea of casting Timberlake might have made some sense; he’s about the right age, he has the look of a life guard, and he’s also attractive enough to make sense as the love interest for two different women, but his character is supposed to be this sensitive intellectual and that is very decidedly something Timberlake cannot pull off.

If nothing else Wonder Wheel certainly looks better than pretty much anything else Woody Allen has ever made.  The film, like his last film Café Society, is the product of a special deal he signed with Amazon Studios which has given him much larger budgets to work with than he’s used to.  This one cost about $25 million to make, which isn’t a huge budget in the grand scheme of things but is huge for him.  The dude has only made three movies since the 70s that have grossed more than that in theaters.  You can certainly see the budget on the screen.  There’s a ton of period detail and Coney Island is recreated effectively and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro beautifully captures the light of the wonder wheel shining into the characters’ apartment.  I do however wonder if this huge budget is part of the problem though, like Allen knew this kind of financing was not going to last so he pulled the one script set in 1950s Coney Island out of his files and rushed it into production before his last opportunity to make something this expensive went away.  Obviously the guy has been accused of using first drafts before, and I’ve usually felt that was unwarranted but I think it’s true with this one.  That’s a shame because all told I really wanted this thing to be great and to prove Allen’s doubters wrong, but it just isn’t.

Alien: Covenant(5/21/2017)

5-21-2017AlienCovenant

Having original opinions can be lonely sometimes.  That’s especially true now that we live in the era of the bandwagon and the pile-on when it comes to the popular opinion on movies.  Maybe I’m just being wrongly nostalgic but I feel like there was a time when opinions about movies used to spread a bit more organically whereas today it seems like consensuses are basically built by instantly posted reviews by critics two days before a movie comes out and are then either confirmed or slightly tweaked after a weekend of tweets.  There might be a backlash sometime around a week after the film comes out and maybe a backlash to the backlash the next week but for the most part the die seems to be cast for a movie pretty fast and if you’re on the outside of the consensus you can easily find yourself in a pretty lonely place.  One movie that got pretty cruelly shot down in this environment was Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus, a prequel to the 1979 classic Alien which sought to expand the series beyond its horror roots and use it as a platform to examine scientific and philosophical ideas.  It also had a couple of plot holes and script problems, and as such it was quickly torn apart by the consensus.  Personally, I rather liked it.  I could recognize its problems but felt like they were more than outweighed by its visual grandeur and ambitious storytelling and while the film does have other defenders they’ve been pretty well drowned out too by the sometimes kind of nasty wave of negativity that hit the film. Now four years later Ridley Scott has come out with a follow-up called Alien: Covenant and it may well rekindle all the arguments that raged around the previous prequel.

Despite what the title may suggest, this is very much a sequel to Prometheus and picks up about 15 years after that movie’s conclusion.  We are once again following a rather ill-fated space voyage, this time of a colonization ship called The Covenant which is headed for an uninhabited planet which could serve as a base for a new society.  At the film’s start everyone on board except for the android Walter (Michael Fassbender, playing a different robot from the one he played in Prometheus) is in stasis when a sudden accident hits the ship killing a handful of the sleeping colonists including the captain.  The rest of the crew is woken up and needs to immediately stabilize the ship.  With that done they suddenly realize that they are actually close to another planet that may well be an inhabitable alternative to the planet they were initially headed to.  Deciding that they need to explore this world before they think about waking up the rest of the colonists the new acting captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to lead a landing party despite the objections of his second in command Dany Branson (Katherine Waterson).  When they land they suddenly realize that this planet has had other visitors previously and strange things happen when they run into a mysterious black substance on the ground.

Prometheus was in many ways a pretty bold movie.  It was Ridley Scott rather defiantly making the statement that Alien was a series that wasn’t defined by Xenomorphs so much as it was defined by an aesthetic, at least when Ridley Scott was making it.  Scott proceeded to use that world and aesthetic to explore what humanity is willing to do in order to find the meaning of life.  While doing that, it also proved to be kind of clumsy when it sought to also be something of a monster movie.  Critics certainly seized on the movie’s questionable moments and used them to dismiss it, which is a reaction that was on one hand understandable and yet on the other hand a bit dismissive.  In many ways it felt like the film was being punished for its pretension and for the raised expectations that it had elicited with its promising trailer and highbrow title.  For the sequel Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox seem to have realized that and done everything they could to signal that this is in fact a very much a monster movie.  It’s put the word “Alien” in the title and it has a xenomorph front and center in in pretty much every advertisement for the movie.  However, despite what the title would have you believe this is still very much a sequel to Prometheus in terms of storyline and also tries to retains many of its sensibilities while also functioning as a monster movie and the results can be rather schizophrenic in terms of tone.

Prometheus ended with what appeared to be the creation of the first xenomorph through the combination of an Engineer and a squid-like monster that was implanted into the Noomi Rapace character and removed using a medical station.  This is pretty much ignored if not re-coned out of existence by Alien: Covenant and we are instead given a new interpretation of how the xenomorph came to be.  This is the most Prometheus-like element of the movie.  I don’t want to give too much about this away but let’s just say that it involves a mad scientist, interesting imagery and Percy Shelly quotes.  Prometheus was also plenty pretentious but it seemed a little more earnest about it, here it almost kind of just feels like the new writing staff is a lot less interested and are just doing their best to throw a few philosophical ideas because that’s considered to be part of the franchise now.  That isn’t to say that a couple of these ideas aren’t without interest, but they seem weaker and they sometimes clash with some of the more base genre elements that are here as well.  These genre elements are… alright.  There’s certainly some nicely gooey looking gore here and a few interesting set-pieces, but a lot of them seem like they should be a lot more exciting in theory than they actually are.

The movie certainly isn’t as suspenseful as Alien, not by a long shot, and it also isn’t anywhere near as thrilling and action packed as Aliens.  In fact the Alien movie is most reminds me of might actually be Alien 3.  Like that movie this tries to go back to the “one or two aliens versus multiple humans” but less effectively than the original, and like that movie it does have a few decent kill scenes, and like that movie it has a slightly undercooked but potentially interesting element of character study.  Needless to say, that isn’t the Alien movie you want to be compared to but to be fair it is better than being compared to Alien: Resurrection or one of the Alien Vs. Predator movies.  Ridley Scott does remain a solid craftsman and the movie does share a lot of the solid design work and cinematography that made Prometheus work as well as it did even if they don’t seem as fresh and interesting this time around, but it also carries over that movie’s tendency to have its characters do remarkably stupid things to get themselves killed, and frankly I think this movie is way worse in that regard.  In many ways it’s a movie that just carries over a lot of its predecessor’s flaws while also minimizing a lot of its strengths to almost be the worst of both worlds and it’s only through Ridley Scott’s skill and hutzpah that it isn’t a much bigger disaster than it is.

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Elle(12/25/2016)

12-25-2016Elle

During the 2010s I started a funny little personal movie-going tradition: making sure to go to a very decidedly non-yuletide movie on Christmas day.  Christmas has of course always been a big movie going day for me (I don’t need to travel for holidays and my family never makes a big deal about it anyway) and somehow Hollywood has consistently managed to supply me with movies to see on the day that are either downright perverse or at the very least contrary to the usual Christmas fare.  Last year my Christmas movie of choice was The Hateful Eight, and previous winners of the honor include Mr. Turner, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and True Grit.  This year I may have outdone myself, in part Hollywood was a little stingy about their releases this year (although Silence would have been an ideal choice had Paramount not decided to platform it slowly), so I instead I went to the arthouse to see noted provocateur Paul Verhoven’s French language rape-revenge film Elle which if nothing else can definitely be said to be pretty far removed from what most people would consider ideal holiday entertainment.

The film focuses on Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a divorced middle-aged woman who runs a video game development studio in Paris.  In the very first scene of the film a masked man breaks into her hope beats and rapes Michèle in the middle of the day.  That scene is shocking but perhaps not as shocking as the reaction she seems to have to the incident, which is to say she seems oddly undisturbed by it.  She doesn’t go to the police and dismisses the concept of doing so, not out of trauma but because she says it’s “not worth the trouble.”  This isn’t to say she invited the attack or that she is completely undisturbed by it, but the burning anger and trauma you expect doesn’t exactly emerge.  Meanwhile she continues through her daily routines while trying to figure out who her attacker was and prepare for a potential second attack.

The attack at the beginning of the film is not representative of the most common forms of sexual abuse, and the film makes it pretty clear over the course of its runtime that Michèle is not a typical person and her reaction to the attack is not meant to be typical either.  The movie is not really in dialog with the various social and political conversations about rape that have been occurring recently and is really meant to be more of a wild character study.  Michèle is indeed the most interesting aspect of the film.  She’s a character who, attack or no attack, is characterized by a sort of sarcastic remove from her surroundings born of previous traumatic experiences.  She has minimal respect for most of the people in her life from her silly bourgeois friends, to her immature and disrespectful co-workers, to her wacky mother, to her dimwitted son, to his clearly unstable pregnant fiancé.  She’s not exactly wrong in her assessment of any of these people, and yet you get the impression that even if she surrounded herself by a higher caliber of companions that they too would prove unworthy of her high standards.  One could imagine a version of the movie not involving rape which could have a nice bitter little dramedy about a badass chick who manages to rise above the lesser fools bringing her down, and in some way that is what the finished film ended up being but the whole rape thing makes all of this a little harder to comfortably pull off.

This multiplicity of side characters is actually one of the film’s problems.  There are a lot of mediocre white Frenchmen in this woman’s life, perhaps to provide the film with some suspects for who this masked rapist might have been.  It’s one thing to believe that this one woman would be a strange person with a strange background but it’s a little harder to understand why so many of the other people seem to also be so strange.  It could perhaps be said that the film takes place in a sort of heightened world in general but it does get to the point where characters start behaving in ways that are just too strange to connect to and that is especially true of the film’s third act where Michèle’s rapist is revealed and she begins to deal with him in ways that are reminiscent of Liliana Cavani similarly provocative The Night Porter, a classic of provocative cinema which itself left me a little bewildered with its characters’ unusual behavior.  Human reactions to trauma are of course complex, but I wonder if they’re ever really quite as complex as authors and filmmakers like to imagine them being, especially when they’re intentionally trying to dream up wacky scenarios like this.

Elle was directed by Paul Verhoven, a filmmaker previously known for satiric action movies like Robocop as well as sexually charged Hollywood thrillers like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.  He hasn’t had a ton of luck in the 21st Century as he’s a little too Hollywood for Europe and too adventurous for modern Hollywood.  Elle certainly shows some elements of his usual style (including a perverse little acting decision by a cat), but I’m not sure this movie was really the best use of his particular set of skills.  Verhoven is more of a satirist than a provocateur; he’s more interested in finding ways to make his wacky sensibility palatable to the viewer in inventive ways than he is in shoving outrageousness into the viewer’s face.  I can only imagine what something like this would have looked like in the hands of someone like Lars Von Trier, Catherine Breillat, or Gaspar Noe.  I don’t know, this movie is in some weird place where it presses too many buttons to be comfortable but no enough buttons to feel like this really exciting bit of boldness and the end movie just feels kind of strange all around.  I’d like to be able to get on some soapbox and declare that I didn’t like it because of some high-minded principle but really I just think it kind of fails itself in a number of ways and the overall mix just didn’t work for me.