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Climax (2019)

I honestly have no idea who could enjoy Climax. I have watched dozens of movies where I knew it wasn’t for me but I could at least fathom some appeal to a select viewer. Climax is the rare film where I cannot even fathom any person enjoying it, because to even attempt to enjoy it on its fever dream level it purports would only lead to disappointment. I don’t think it’s even possible to enjoy this movie, and maybe that’s even some subversive point from writer/director Gaspar Noe. Is the very act of titling a movie called Climax with no climax itself a post-modern jape? Is that it? I’m confounded by this monotonous experimental triviality.

The plot: a Parisian group of dancers is practicing in an old school building one 1990s wintry night. One of the members spikes a bowl of sangria with LSD. The dancers unwittingly get high, freak out, and lash out, leading to one long sordid night of tumult. That’s it, folks.

Firstly, Climax is incredibly, unbearably, crushingly tedious. It’s 97 minutes that could literally be condensed into a music video for a three-minute song as far as substance is concerned. Apparently Noe was working off of a five-page script (note to readers: typically, in screenwriting terms, one page equals one minute of movie), so it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of this movie feels empty. The first six minutes or so are watching boring interviews of the various dance troupe members answering mundane questions. It’s still difficult to attach impressionable personalities or points of distinction for them beyond the superficial (Tall Blonde, Girl with Glasses, etc.). After that it’s an extended dance sequence, then about twenty minutes of chit chat where the dancers are improvising, and then we have another extended group dance, and then we get to the fateful spiked punch. What I’ve just described is the first 45 minutes of the movie, also known as half of the film, and it could have all been removed without missing a beat. That’s a serious storytelling problem. Oh, I hear others preparing the defense, the movie is intended to be an experience and not a story. If that’s the case I need more of an experience. Noe described the first half of Climax as a “roller coaster” but it feels more like the long wait in line and then the brief five minutes of actual activity. Even the opening dance sequence, while energetic, is less than extraordinary. It’s not exactly a sequence that would wow me any more than a deleted scene from a direct-to-DVD Step Up sequel.

Climax fatally errs by, of all things, restraint. I could accept the slow buildup, the tedium, and even the paper-thin characters if, and that’s a big if, Noe was able to pull out all the stops with his freak-out finale and just went bonkers. However, it’s not quite the same when we don’t also experience the hallucinations and madness befalling our dancers. Instead we watch them pace around and scream, cry, sometimes writhe, sometimes fall down, sometimes fall down and writhe, sometimes fall down and writhe and cry, and that’s about the extent. It can be downright embarrassing to watch especially as Noe’s penchant for tracking shots makes the performance takes so agonizingly long. There are brief moments of unpredictability where the dancers become violent and paranoid, but these are fleeting and we’re back to watching people we don’t care about scream about imaginary things. Imagine if Noe let the audience in on these personal, psychedelic, and monstrous drug trips. Imagine how much more visually alive that would be and also how much more it would connect us with the characters, perhaps linking their hallucinations to personal traumas and anxieties. I’ve had friends discuss going along for the ride with Climax, but what ride does it even offer? The final ten minutes consists of a confusing upside-down camera angle, a scathing red light, and more antic writhing on the floor with the occasional sexual copulation. At that point, I had long lost any interest to even attempt to decipher the screen.

None of these characters matter, so I kept waiting for the eventual bad fates to fall upon them as the movie ramped into its horror section but Climax doesn’t even do this. I was expecting things to get progressively worse and take on a tragic momentum of escalating mistakes. I was expecting something and all I got was an extended music video where the extras had taken over, trying to convince me that their little spheres of drama were worth following (there were not). The little moments of conversation between the characters feel like you’re eavesdropping on normal, ordinary, and boring people but also people without clear indication for character arcs, ironic reversals, or any of the sort of contexts that can make people interesting in narratives. There’s just no potential here for the characters and nothing that amounts to satisfaction (oh the ongoing irony of its title, I know). Here’s how bad Noe miscalculates: at the very end, we discover which character was responsible for spiking the sangria, and it’s treated like a big reveal, except this was never an important mystery and I didn’t even recognize the culprit. It didn’t matter because the mystery never mattered and the characters especially never mattered.

Noe has been a cinematic provocateur ever since his first film, 2002’s Irreversible, began with a grueling, graphic nine-minute rape scene. He seems more drawn to pushing button so he might devote an entire movie to a floating spiritual perspective (Into the Void) or shoot a love story with un-simulated sex including graphic 3D use of said parts (Love). He’s not exactly the kind of man who wants to tell a simple story in a simple way (though I would argue a majority of his stories are pretty simple). So, if it’s all about technical bravura and showmanship and pushing the envelope, then let the man be judged on those grounds, and he is found wanting with Climax. The long swooping camerawork can be impressive as it tracks all over the confines of this building but the positives are weighed down by the banality of the visuals. Far too much of this movie is simply following people walk down corridors. There aren’t key, striking visuals to sear into your memory and it feels like Noe’s heart just isn’t in this. There’s one scene where a dancer, goaded by an angry and accusatory crowd, starts stabbing herself in the face. I was expecting something far more graphic or bloody or consequential, but it’s like a shrug. It feels like he’s even bored by the assignment of directing his own movie and just keeping the camera running so he can cross the 90-minute finish line and call it over.

I come back again and again to the question of how it is even possible to enjoy Climax. I think, even if you were to be overly generous, Noe’s film just cannot measure up on any artistic or entertainment metric. If you’re eager for a crazy, trippy, immersive drug-fueled experience, get ready for something more akin to standing by and holding the hair of your friend while they vomit into a toilet.

Nate’s Grade: D

Parasite (2019)

Parasite is the latest from award-winning South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host, Okja) and it won the prestigious Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. The filmmaker has never settled down in any genre and often goes for broke when it comes to embracing whatever genre he is dabbling in and then subverting, accelerating, and broadening that territory to show an audience what a master can do with these storytelling parameters. No movie under Bong Joon-ho’s guidance is ever limited by its genre. Needless to say, I’ve been highly anticipating Parasite, even more so since the critics started bandying about terms like “masterpiece.” Simply put, Parasite is a miraculous movie.

We follow the Kim family who live in a scummy basement apartment on a filthy street known for public urination. They scam free wi-fi off their neighbor and badly fold pizza boxes for little money. They’re barely hanging by on the outer edges of society when opportunity comes knocking. A rich family, the Parks, is in need of a new English tutor for their teenage daughter, and Ki-woo Kim (Choi Woo-sik) has the connection. He will pose as a college-educated English teacher, recommended from his friend, the departing tutor. He gets the job and sees further opportunity, eventually scheming to get each member of his family hired; sister Ki-jung Kim (Park So-dam) as an art therapist for the Park’s troubled son, father Ki-taek Kim (Song Kang-ho) as the personal driver to the family, and mother Shung-sook Kim (Jang Hye-jin) as the housekeeper and personal assistant for the family. The Kim family gains further leverage as they worm their way inside this house, but there are secrets that will force them to readjust how far they are willing to go to service this bourgeois family and keep their good lies rolling.

Parasite just unfurls with such natural ease, building and developing outward, building its characters, their problems and deceptions, and then, like that, it effortlessly turns gears toward another tone, and you weren’t even aware it was happening until after the fact. Bong Joon-ho’s film is so exact and impeccable and calculated that the pieces are move in tandem like a well-oiled machine. The synchronicity is so amazing that I often had to acknowledge how effectively the movie had surprised or satisfied me. There isn’t a wasted moment in the 130 minutes here, which begins as a fun con game between one family of shady grifters working their way inside a rich family’s trust. From there, the movie gets even darker, more mysterious, outlandish, and even more mournful and delightful. There are moments of slapstick comedy that had me howling, divine sequences of tension that felt ready to explode, and regular emotional punches to the system that reminded you that despite everything these are still people capable of great suffering and great feeling. Parasite is a rare movie that works on near every level, each facet of filmmaking operating at such precision that it blends together to create a masterwork of tone and tenor that is universally accessible, brimming with menace and glee.

There’s a simple pleasure to be had watching a con artist at play, so there’s even more amusement when we’re watching a family of con artists all spinning lies in tandem. The process of escalation is so clean and believable in the world’s universe, with the first family member using their position of influence to manipulative the family into hiring the next family member, even if that means scheming to get rid of the Park family servant already occupying that desired position. The Park family matriarch is all about personal recommendations and using a tight circle of trust; however, the Kim family exploits the obvious loophole of what if the initial link in that chain is untrustworthy him or herself? Initially I thought the movie was going to be watching this one family worm their way into the lives of the rich and powerful and take over, and while that is true to a certain extent, the movie is thankfully even more than that. Still, the con aspect alone is highly entertaining and so naturally plotted, with each new addition feeling organic from the last. There are natural complications that provide new challenges for the family of con artists to maintain their shifting covers and having to think on their feet, and there isn’t a moment relating to these antics where Parasite is not completely compelling and darkly funny even as it veers into extremes.

If you’re thinking that the Kim family is the obvious target of the movie’s parasitic titular allusion, slow down, my friend. While the Kim family is more obvious about their deceptions, the Park family too is filled with the deception of civility, kindness, and graciousness. At first, we laugh at them because of a general naivete that allows the Kims to flourish. As the Kims successfully roust different servants, they are routinely dismissed without much thought. Some of these people have been with the family for years and otherwise have spotless records, but all it takes is one whiff of impropriety and the Parks are already scrambling to cut them loose, usually very unceremoniously and immediately, with the misplaced idea that this will somehow be the “nice” and “respectful” way of handling a dismissal. They’re so quick to turn on people they feel are disloyal or incompetent, but really, it’s the disloyal aspect, that they can be manipulated so easily by the Kim family’s suggestions and assertions. Never once do Mr. and Mrs. Park ask for their servants’ side of the story; they accept the accusations with minimal evidence are gung-ho about removing their formally trusted help as if they have been waiting for these moments.

The movie becomes a parable of exploitation and the consequences of avarice, and I’m going to do my best to dance around some significant spoilers that reshape the film in its second half. At one point the Kims have all made themselves at home in the luxury of the Park estate while the family is away on a camping trip. It’s carefree wish fulfillment, lapping in the excess, and then over a drunken family dinner, Mrs. Kim says that if she had this kind of money that she would be as nice as Mrs. Park (appears). For her, money is like an iron and irons out all the problems of life, and as a family that has constantly been hustling for their next dollar, to be free of cares and worries would be the ultimate luxury. However, there is naturally more to this estate and the Park family, and the movie takes some dark turns into a battle over status and how far people will go to protect what they feel belongs to them. This is acted out in very personal ways and also in larger metaphorical waves, which adds to the overall class warfare satire. What starts off as a spiky little con comedy becomes something deeper and more challenging, expanding its targets to indict everyone jockeying for position in a system that seems corrupted to a fault.

Even as the Kim family is scheming and conniving, there are still moments that remind you that they aren’t these smooth, amoral con men of the movies and are real human beings with real feelings and real insecurities. There’s one moment Mr. Kim overhears his boss casually talking about him, and it’s very complimentary except for one admission. Apparently, Mr. Kim has an odor to him that the rich man finds to be rather unpleasant (he describes it like an old radish). No matter the suits he puts on, no matter the politeness and charm he manifests, no matter his skills when it comes to being a dutiful driver, no matter the gaps that Mr. Kim feels he is surpassing, there will always be something innate to him that stops him from being accepted and integrated in this cherished, cordoned-off land of the rich. His very smell is offensive to the noses of the rich, and this is something so personal, so nasty, that it genuinely wounds the man and we feel for him. Bong Joon-ho asks his audience to embrace all sorts of uncomfortable positions, taking characters you found despicable and asking to see them as real human beings capable of great loss and shame. It stops the movie from feeling like it’s treading into cartoon territory even as its violence and physical comedy ramps up in the second half. It never loses a sense of its soul.

Ki-woo Kim asks his father, after several setbacks, what their plan is next, how they will persevere against the latest setback. Mr. Kim answers that his trick is to never have a plan, because plans will inevitably fail. This is a nice character moment but also an insight into a perspective that leads to what I would argue is the emotional climax of the movie, where Ki-woo pledges to save someone through an elaborate and years-in-the-making plan. In that moment, is he rejecting his father’s philosophy and driving forward on what will be at minimum years of hard work to reach his goal, which is motivated through reclamation and salvation rather than personal gain? Or is the very fact that he is committing such an elaborate plan an act of folly he knows will never materialize because that is the nature of plans? I love that the film leaves you, the viewer, to determine whether this assertion is optimistic or pessimistic and how that paints the film’s message.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is another showcase of how Bong Joon-ho is brilliant at visually communicating his wonderful stories. The editing is so tightly precise to maximize tension and comedy, and sometimes both simultaneously. The photography is gorgeously composed with the use of space in the frame excellently communicating character relationships. The geography of the home is nicely utilized to ratchet up the tension of escaping around corners and hiding around furniture. There are moments that just made me want to applaud the filmmakers for their top-level craft.

Parasite is an effortlessly impressive movie that blends tones, insights, and entertainment to create one of the more unique and pleasing film experiences of the year. Bong Joon-ho once again shown himself to be a masterclass filmmaker who can tackle just about any subject and any genre and make it sing. I’d advise to avoid specific spoilers to maintain the surprise factor; however, this movie is so well executed, so astonishingly developed with precision and attention given to each of the characters and their individual whims and problems, that even knowing every single plot beat in this movie will not diminish the enjoyment factor. That’s because Parasite is a rare movie that is so sumptuously put together, so seamlessly calibrated, that to watch the movie is to simply sit in awe of how talented the filmmakers are at weaving their tale. Parasite is definitely one of the best films of 2019 and worth tracking down where able.

Nate’s Grade: A

Auschwitz (2011)

I’ve been waiting years to finally see Uwe Boll’s take on the Holocaust. It was originally filmed around 2010 but never got a home release, making me scan the Internet for a chance to see a German movie that nobody in the world seemed to want to see. I’m not surprised it took almost eight years to finally see this movie, which was widely available on YouTube in its entirety, uncut, for over a year. If you’re curious, dear reader, you can easily see it for yourself, though I might caution you against that. It is, after all, the harsh reality of the Holocaust, and it is, after all, Uwe Boll, a filmmaker not exactly known for subtlety and tact in his career. I was worried that Boll’s Auschwitz (even that phrasing seems unduly unkind) would be a disservice to the men, women, and children who perished in that horrible atrocity. I’m relieved that Boll seems to have his mind on higher ambitions than exploitation, though I don’t know how well the academic intent translates.

It’s less a movie and more of an educational special on the practices of a concentration camp and the mentality of the people sentencing others to their doom. The opening four minutes consist of Boll speaking directly to the camera, switching off talking in German and then English three times, setting up his rationale for why he would tackle a filmed recreation of an Auschwitz gas chamber. He says that young people today do not know about the Holocaust and the concentration camps and are in need of a powerful reminder (more on this later). What then follows is about six minutes of Boll interviewing various German teenagers over what they know about Hitler, WWII, the Holocaust, and the systematic eradication of European Jews. After that, Boll’s film goes into a 35-minute live-action recreation of life at a concentration camp, leading dozens of people to their deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. After that, Boll returns to his interviews with real German teens, interspersed with archival footage from WWII. That’s the whole movie, amounting to a little over 68 minutes long, not meeting the typical minimum.

261-auschwitz-stills-1-2362x1575As someone who has worked in education for ten years now, I can reaffirm that a distressing number of young people have a general ignorance about the Holocaust. I suppose part of this is inevitable with the passage of time; the more years pass the less people can get to know survivors and veterans of the war. As it recedes into the past it becomes less pertinent and in some ways less real for many people. This is the reason why I personally include Holocaust texts in my school curriculum to check the knowledge level of students and build upon it, to make sure something this dastardly would not be forgotten. The early interviews Boll conducts (in what appears to be a bathroom?) appear to have a slippery sense of what the Holocaust was about as well as the cruel realities that befell those Hitler found as sub-human. But the latter interviews involve different students who have an amazing command of the Holocaust, even citing centuries-old incidents of anti-Semitism. If Boll’s intent is to show that his movie is needed why include interviews with students who are clearly not ignorant of the subject? That seems self-defeating, even if I’m pleased that there are articulate, intelligent students out there.

The biggest discussion piece will be on Boll’s extended live-action recreations of the atrocities of Auschwitz. Recreating the crushing reality of the Holocaust is a delicate subject, trying to find a line to maintain respectful voracity to what the people suffered through and steer away from exploitation thrills that highlight the perverse depravity for titillation. Stanley Kubrick famously said to make a Holocaust film that would do justice to the events would make it unbearable. Boll said in a 2010 Vice interview that he didn’t want a narrative to dull the impact of his intents, citing Schindler’s List and The Pianist as fine films but flawed because they attempted stories. Ignoring that both as personal accounts, I think Boll misses the importance of narrative, a device that makes the horrors of history more palatable for viewing because of an accessible entry point. We focus on a character and their experiences, their character’s journey, and how the events impact and change this person, which provides a rooting interest to maintain watching. The other unfortunate reality of purposely removing a narrative is that it makes the recreations seem constructed merely for their shock value. They exist not in the larger realm of a story but as events meant to convey the horrific reality and nothing more. I think this was a misstep.

Boll has handled real-world violence and genocide before, from school shootings (2003’s Heart of America) to mass shooters with god complexes (the woe begotten Rampage series), to the genocide in Darfur (2009’s Attack on Darfur), and the results have been decidedly mixed. His heart may be in the right place but rarely do his message movies succeed at their ambitions. The messages often get lost amidst the exploitation elements or Boll goes overboard to wake up his audience, leaning into the suffering in a manner that can come across as indulgent. This too happens with Auschwitz, as it seems Boll is unable to restrain himself with a subject as well known as the factory of death. One could argue restraint dilutes the memory of those who died, but again it becomes a delicate balancing act to veer away from being pornographic.

Boll’s recreations are solemn and affecting. You can certainly feel his reverence for the topic and his desire to do right. The onscreen depiction follows a group arriving at the death camp, being separated, lead to a gas chamber, where the collection of women, the elderly, children, and the disabled choke to death on the fumes of poison gas. We then watch a handful of prisoners gather the dead, shave their heads, pull out their teeth, transport their clothes and shoes, and then dispose of the bodies in the ovens. It’s impossible to watch the recreations of these panicked deaths and not feel something, especially when Boll includes innocent young children in the mix. It’s horrifying and Boll films the reality of these scenes in an admirable docu-drama style. The nudity is not played for titillation but as a means of showcasing the vulnerability and humanity of the victims. It’s not shied away from but Boll’s camera doesn’t make a point of finding it either. Granted, the close-ups, especially once the gas hits, seem to predominantly feature the pained grimaces of women, but I’ll chalk that up to Boll viewing distressed women as more emotionally powerful. The people featured during these sequences are also admirably ordinary. These people look like who you would see walking down your street. They don’t look like models who were hired because their nude bodies would be something the audience would desire. There are children and they too are seen with the same vulnerability in the nude, though I’m sure the inclusion of naked children will sabotage any noble intent for some viewers.

However, Boll’s inclinations can get the better of him, like the majority of his more high-minded “message movies” that can transform into pulpy genre fare. There are moments where Boll just goes too far, chief among them the baby murdering sequence. Of course this was a reality of Auschwitz and other extermination camps because the Nazis had no need for babies. One of the most startling details in Elie Wiesel’s famous novel is his recount of watching babies hurled into a pit of fire, as it would naturally traumatize anyone for life. But just because it happened doesn’t mean it needs to be given inordinate attention. There’s a difference between unflinching and simply gratuitous. A child is held in the air and we see another SS officer point a pistol at the baby’s head. Rather than cut away and imply the ensuing violent death, Boll purposely stays within the scene, watching the muzzle flash and the CGI blood spray lightly (thankfully that’s the extent of whatever gore is applied to this scene). This happens three times and each time Boll makes sure we know this gun is firing at this baby’s head. Once gets the point across but three times is just excess. The same can be said for the gas chamber sequences. There are two, one presented at the very start of the arrival at Auschwitz, intercut with the people disembarking from the train and lining up. It’s unclear whether this is a flash forward but the faces seem different. Also, I have no interest in re-watching it for further study. That means in the course of 35 minutes we endure two groups of people asphyxiating to death. Here’s another instance where a lack of narrative is harmful. Without a story, without characters, this presentation is just nameless innocents suffering. What does the second sequence provide that the first lacks? It’s indulgent, and indulgence built upon human suffering is just bad.

Boll’s limited budget also constrains his ambitions. He filmed Auschwitz simultaneously as he filmed two other movies, a third Bloodrayne film and a bizarrely conceived satire of this same movie, Blubberella. Even for a workaholic like Boll, making three movies at once is insane. This might be why the live-action segment only amounts to 35 minutes and involves minimal dialogue. There are only three credited actors including Boll himself as an SS guard (the symbolism of director as participant seems ripe for dissecting). There is one extended sequence where two SS officers discuss mundane small talk, hammering home the banality of evil. But it’s right back to another gas chamber sequence from there, the director’s true preoccupation. The Auschwitz camp was half the size of Manhattan. What we see onscreen is a pittance. It feels so incredibly small. It makes me wonder why Boll felt the need to draft off the name recognition of Auschwitz. This setting could have been any concentration camp as the gas chamber outcome was not unique to Auschwitz, and that is really the only thing visualized with these recreations. It’s not life at the camp, the struggles of survival, it’s only a quick march to a painful death. There’s no reason this had to be Auschwitz.

Even with misgivings, I do think there can be an academic value to what Boll has put together. Written accounts and stories are a valuable tool, but sometimes a visceral and visual demonstration can bring to life history for people in powerful and valuable ways. This movie could rattle people and stay with them years after viewing, translating the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that is blunt, direct, and reverent. However, Boll’s yearning for profundity comes into direct conflict with his schlocky, exploitation-loving impulses, which pushes him to prolong the onscreen misery in the name of “staying true to how it was.” Without a narrative to provide a foundation, the movie becomes an uneven documentary with bouts of strained intensity. I wouldn’t judge this movie as harshly as Boll’s Rampage films. I sense his noble intents. There’s even a maturity with the filmmaking that I don’t think a younger Boll would have found. Ultimately, Auschwitz is more supplemental teaching tool than movie, and to that end it might do some needed good, proving that even Uwe Boll can make the world a little better.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuaron won a bushel of Oscars for his last groundbreaking project, 2013’s lost in space epic, Gravity, and one of the most daring and innovative filmmakers working in cinema had what every artist craves — cache. He could do whatever he wanted with his earned credits. And so Cuaron told a personal story about growing up in Mexico City, a love letter to his own nanny. Roma follows the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) for most of the year 1971, through her ups and downs and the loping rhythms of domestic life. This review is going to come across sounding far more critical than I intend. It’s mostly because I’m trying to deduce why my own experience with Roma was not the rapturous, transformative experience that my fellow film critics have sang. It’s a good movie but I’m trying to pinpoint why it kept me from fully engaging, or what within me stopped from engaging further. I think it stems from the central intent of the film and its overall perspective that proves too limiting for my tastes.

But first the good and the exquisite. Roma is a lusciously photographed and composed movie that brilliantly recreates the time and place of Cuaron’s childhood with stunning black and white photography (Cuaron serves as his own cinematographer for the first time). There are moments that are stupendously put together, pulled directly from Cuaron’s impeccable memory. Sometimes these even stem into the surreal, like a forest fire that features a man in holiday costume singing to himself while life and the flames rage on behind him, the chaos of the moment centered on a beautiful focal point. There’s an extended sequence of a car trying to park down a narrow driveway that becomes a symbol of unchecked manhood. There’s a riot that feels like it is being captured live, even though your brain tells you it’s the work of hundreds of people all coordinated to bring about Cuaron’s vision. There’s even a subtle (maybe not so subtle) nod to Gravity at the local movie theater. There is one family relative who garishly hangs the heads of dearly beloved dogs from the past as if they were hunting trophies. It’s a peculiar and striking detail and something that carefully tells you more about a side character. Then Cuaron cleverly cuts to the current canine being pet, establishing the connection of present and future as well as past and present, an achingly affecting theme throughout the film, trying to better understand our beginnings and the people who impact us.

You can tell he has great affection for the women often responsible for the upbringing of children in rich homes. Cleo is the main character of Roma and given humble life by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio. She’s very passive and selfless to a fault, but her actions demonstrate the care she has for the family she works for, especially the younger children. The emotional thrust of the film is Cleo’s unexpected pregnancy. She’s single, young, and worried it might cost her employment. It’s a difficult decision and the would-be father, a friend of a cousin, seems to want nothing to do with this new responsibility. There’s a moment late in the film, filmed in Cauron’s signature long takes, that breaks your heart, forcing the audience into Cleo’s position where she is struggling for meaning as an agonizing reality sinks in. Aparicio shows that she is more than capable of communicating larger emotions when given the opportunity.

And yet, I kept waiting to be truly transfixed, and waited, and ultimately I found myself enjoying Roma but more as a lyrical long form memory piece from someone else’s life than as a functioning drama. This is a love letter to Cuaron’s childhood nanny (it’s dedicated to her by name) and it’s a recreation of his childhood memories, which makes it deeply personal and lovingly realized from the basis of plucking fully formed moments and bringing them to startling life. The visual arrangements, movements, and bustling activity of life feel beautifully reconstructed. The problem starts to be that the movie feels like a series of moments rather than a larger story, and the argument for many will be that this is by grand design, that Cuaron is intending to comment upon the nature of life and memory through the smaller details, the kind that find their sticking places in our senses, and I do not dispute this intention. However, the end result can approach feeling like watching someone else’s dream of their past, a collection of home movies. The entry point for an audience member is going to be narrower because we didn’t live these memories.

Roger Ebert said that cinema was an empathy machine and with the right storyteller an audience should have no problem being able to experience a plethora of emotions and experiences from a wealth of characters in an array of circumstances and settings. The added problem with Roma is that Cuaron purposely chooses an outsider perspective but also choosees to film it as an outsider. Cleo is an outsider presence, which is a good starting point for drama and contrasts. She’s an indigenous Mexican, working poor, and the family member who isn’t really family. She floats through different communities feeling like she doesn’t fully belong, reminded of what sets her apart and unable to fully immerse herself in her surroundings. She’s left her family, her old way of life to move into the city and be a surrogate parent, and when she becomes pregnant she has to question her commitment to having her own child. The character of Cleo has great potential for human drama, though Cuaron seems to idealize her and hold her as a romantic symbol of his childhood, like he’s trying to do right by her legacy and memory. She’s a little too simplified, a little too selfless, and a little too opaque for the lead of a movie.

Being an outsider is a good starting point for a story, allowing insight and criticism. This perspective is nullified by Cuaron’s storytelling and filmmaking choices to make the audience feel like a passive observer. Cuaron favors long wide shots that keep the viewer at a relative distance, both literally and figuratively. We’re soaking in all the details of the scene but those details are set dressing and visual compositions (Cuaron even imported his family’s old furniture). We don’t delve deeper into this realm because we are observing it from afar, from the added distance of time. It’s like a museum piece of a middle-class Mexican family’s life, safe for consumption and minor consideration before an audience is free to move onto the next exhibit. There’s a compassion that almost feels clinical, like the artist too afraid to spoil their art. I have no doubt how meaningful the movie is personally for Cuaron but he curiously forgoes the tools to make it more accessible, more open to others to empathize, and more meaningful for people who unfortunately didn’t have a Cleo.

Roma is a gorgeous movie that is handsomely made and lovingly dedicated to the people who often go unseen and undervalued in a lifetime. It’s elegantly photographed and often has the feel of a living dream built from Cuaron’s childhood memories. It’s well intentioned and with obvious artistic flair. However, when it was all done, all 135 minutes, I felt surprisingly unaffected. It’s a movie of moments, some of them vivid and others lyrical, but the outsider perspective and filmmaking choices made it hard to find an entry point and to fully engage in Cleo’s plight and the characters as a whole. So much more attention seems to be placed upon recreations of time, place, and people that were meaningful to Cuaron, but that doesn’t make them meaningful to me without added efforts. Roma is a quality movie with quality production and an okay story that holds back the intended reach.

Nate’s Grade: B

Border (2018)

Border is a hard movie to describe without giving away key parts of its plot. Ostensibly this Swedish film is about Tina, a customs agent with a genetic deformity who can literally smell fear. She’s bedeviled by another man, Vore, who looks to have the same genetic deformity she has, which unleashes a flurry of gnawing questions over whether the two have some deeper connection, who might be her real family, and whether this genetic deformity is really what she’s been lead to believe. The movie is from the writer of Let the Right One In and takes a very macabre and understated look into a fairy tale realm bleeding into our own world. The movie is mostly grounded and benefits greatly from its lead actress, Eva Melander, who gives a rousing, nuanced performance under heavy prosthetic makeup. Tonally, it feels like the darker impulses, which can get extremely disturbing, are at odds with some of the other competing storylines, like her gradual self-awakening and the potential romance with Vore. Nothing will prepare you for how weird things will get including an awkward sex scene that defies belief. Border holds out a bit too long with its pertinent information, delaying the mystery without enough clues to tease things out in a satisfying manner. Afterwards, the remaining reveals reflect more on the cruel depths of Vore and less with Tina’s response. It makes an uncomfortable direction feel like it’s meant more as provocation. Ultimately I think I needed more from the story and characters to better meet out the aims of its genre-defying vision. It’s definitely a different movie and will register for those looking for dark, adult fairy tales.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Blue My Mind (2018)

I cannot overstate how much I simply hate this movie’s title, Blue My Mind. It bothers me so much. I have an antipathy toward puns as humor in general, but to name your movie a pun is a startlingly bad decision. Who let this happen? Who let a horror movie, without any sense of humor, have a pun-laden title? Whoever did this should be fired, and if it’s writer/director Lisa Bruhlmann, then she should have her final grade revoked (the finished film served as her thesis work for her film school). Blue My Mind is another in the burgeoning sub-genre of pubescent transformative features. The Canadians struck rich gory glory with the Ginger Snaps series where young women turned into werewolves. This Swiss movie replaces the werewolf story with a mermaid, which brings to mind an unsettling re-creation of Splash as bizarre body horror. It’s too bad that Blue My Mind feels like the first draft of its freaky concept and proves ultimately unsatisfying.

Mia (Luna Wedler) is 15 years old, the new girl at a new school, and anxious to fit in with the cool kids, chiefly the mean queen Gianna (Zoe Pastelle Holthuizen). Mia is also undergoing some very radical changes. She’s craving salt water, eating the fish out of her parent’s fish tank, and noticing that her toes are starting to merge together with webbing. She’s confused and angry and desperate to hide her secret from her friends and family.

In a movie built upon the concept of girl-turns-into-mermaid, you would think there would be a lot of creepy and fascinating body horror episodes. It would be the primary conflict and primary secret. For far too long with Blue My Mind, the mermaid transformation is kept as an afterthought to a docu-drama approach to rebellious adolescence more akin to a Thirteen than David Cronenberg. Horror has long been parlayed as a metaphor for the strange and confusing time of puberty, having one’s body morph and change against your will, feeling like an outsider, a freak. The coming-of-age model also works as a vehicle for some unconventional urges, as demonstrated as recently as last year in the visceral French horror film Raw, about a young woman finding her sense of self awaken with cannibalistic desires. Both Raw and Blue My Mind (the title still makes me hurt on the inside) function as sexual awakenings linked to monstrous appetites, both literal and figurative, that the women don’t know how to control or if they should even attempt to. The genre dabbing is what separates both movies from their ilk. This is what makes Blue My Mind all the more frustrating because the mermaid aspects are poorly integrated until the final 20 minutes, and even then it’s sadly too late. It’s like the filmmakers decided that their one unique element wasn’t so special after all.

The majority of this movie is Mia acting out to try and fit in with her new pals. They smoke, they skip school, they shoplift; they’re your classic bad influences that a typical bourgeois family would disapprove. Mia’s parents don’t understand why she’s acting out and what has happened to their little girl. There’s some tension over whether Mia is their biological child considering what she’s undergoing. This curiosity pushes Mia to investigate her family’s history but it too is left incomplete, another dangling interesting idea unattended. A solid hour of this movie is simply Mia sneaking behind her parents back, experimenting with her new friends, and testing her boundaries. It’s effective, though there are moments that hint at something more that’s never developed, like her sexual predilections that take on an extreme variety. There’s a scene where the girls trade choking each other out for an oxygen-deprived euphoric high. If I was being generous, I’d say it was connected to Mia learning to enjoy not breathing through her lungs and setting up a transformation for gills. But I’m not that generous. It comes across as a dangerous kink that tempts Mia but then is forgotten. Much of this hour hinges on the audience caring about the relationship forming between Mia and Gianna, and I couldn’t because I think the film was too indecisive on what Gianna represented. She’s not a terribly complex character but what does she mean to Mia? Is she a genuine friend, a figure of sexual desire, a cautionary tale, a rival? Blue My Mind seems to emphasize a sexual awakening for Mia and attaches Gianna as the recipient of those confused feelings. If these two were meant to serve as the key for audience empathy, we needed more scenes with them developing as characters rather than repeating rote rebellious teen hijinks.

When Bruhlmann does focus on the mermaid transformation, the film is inherently fascinating and consequently aggravating, as you imagine what a better version of this premise could have afforded. There is some wonderful makeup prosthetics to reveal Mia’s skin peeling from her legs, leaving behind shiny black gamines that reminded me of Under the Skin. When the boys catch a glimpse of her hidden physical afflictions, they assume she has some STD and slut shame her. She takes scissors and personally slices the membranes fusing her toes together, and I had to cover my eyes it was so squirm inducing. The final transformation is a bit underwhelming until you remember that this was a student film that managed to get an international release. The technical specs are very professional, especially the sun-dappled cinematography by Gabriel Lobos. Bruhlmann captures the internal feelings of her characters very well in a visual medium, relying upon Wedler to do a lot of heavy lifting that the screenplay refuses to perform. You feel her revulsion with herself and yearning for connectivity, something universal for every teenager struggling to claim their sense of self in an indifferent world. Fortunately Wedler is an impressive young actress that might break your heart, if only her character was allowed to open up to the audience better. It’s a movie that toys with ideas, moods, and purpose.

Blue My Mind is a story about a young girl turning into a mermaid against her will and the movie decides that this is a secondary story element. The implementation of metaphor in horror is a common storytelling device to communicate the horrors of the everyday. Throw in the coming-of-age self-discovery angle, as well as a sexual awakening, and it’s tailor-made for some strange transformations that excite and terrify the protagonist. It’s just that Blue My Mind takes its metaphor a little too absentmindedly. By putting the mermaid body horror in the background rather than the driving force, the film mistakes our interest and pushes forward a group of characters not ready to handle that level of scrutiny. I feel like Blue My Mind wastes the potential of its premise and the acumen of its actors. This movie could have been better and instead it settles for the familiar even amidst the weird and fantastic. Blue My Mind isn’t as bad as its painful title but it certainly won’t blue you away.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Revenge (2018)

Can you tell a rape-revenge movie from a feminist perspective? The lazy storyteller or analyst would say movies like I Spit on Your Grave are feminist because it involves a wronged woman wrecking righteous vengeance on her almost-assuredly male attackers. However, if you’ve seen I Spit on your Grave, or its remake, or any genre thriller where rape is treated as the inciting incident, you’ll know these movies are hardly feminist. The protagonists typically exist to be objectified, then traumatized, then transformed into sadistic killers. It’s not exactly the most nuanced or dignified portraits of sexual violence. French writer/director Coralie Fargeat attempts to give this tired trope a feminist spin with Revenge, a thrilling, grueling, wildly bloody good time. It’s a thriller with real bite.

Jen (Matilda Lutz) is enjoying a vacation with her boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens), who also happens to be a married family man. She’s lounging around in a deserted bungalow for Richard’s hunting getaway, a regular vacation he shares with his other pals Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede). Jen makes herself at home and Stan, in particular, lusts over her. While Richard is away, Stan attacks and rapes Jen. Richard offers to set her up with a new life in another country but Jen refuses, demanding to go home. She runs off and is pushed off a cliff by Richard. Miraculously, she survives, and from there the three hunters try to track her down and cover up their misdeeds.

It’s a simple story but Fargeat has an uncommonly sharp command of her craft, knowing what exploitation elements to double down on and when it’s best to show restraint. This allows Revenge to unfold with a natural sense of pacing and direction while still achieving a high level of thrills and satisfaction. I appreciated that Jen doesn’t suddenly become an expert merchant of death. This isn’t like 2013’s You’re Next (though the final act starts to dip into that film’s black comedy of absurdity) where the damsel ends up secretly being a highly-skilled and highly-trained warrior. In Revenge, the self-entitled creeps think they have the upper hand throughout, constantly underestimating the resourcefulness and will power of Jen. Very early in the second act, the three men are on the hunt for Jen, so the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse thriller with each new set piece being its own engrossing mini-movie, adopting varying degrees of tone. There’s a lovely A-to-B-to-C sense of progression to the plot as Jen confronts a new set of obstacles, all the while being hunted by three cocky sexual predators. There’s great joy in rooting for a worthy underdog and also watching villains robbed of their own joy.

Revenge easily taps into our desire to see justice befall some very bad people, and maximum carnage ensues. This is an outstandingly gory movie and the first I can recall in quite some time that genuinely forced me to avert my sight. Fargeat’s camera gets you up close and personal to gashes and seeping wounds, enough to see layers of tissue and fat, and her camera lingers on the bodily destruction, forcing us to squirm in discomfort. It’s highly effective and yet doesn’t feel gratuitous. When the camera dwells on Jen’s wounds, it’s about her perseverance and strength. When the camera dwells on the wounds of the gents, it’s about the extent of their outlandish punishment. There is a hallucinogenic series of gonzo, gory kills meant to goose the audience for extra fun, and it had me laughing after the third daffy dream sequence-within-a-dream sequence. The final act ramps up the bloodletting to an almost comic degree. Characters are literally slipping and sliding on the floor from the copious amount of blood spilled.

This is a gruesome movie to watch but Fargeat knows what an audience wants to see and squirm over and what they don’t. This is typified in how the rape is portrayed. For the beginning of the first act, the camera seems to adopt the perspective of voyeur, often perfectly framing portions of Lutz’ body, notably her posterior. The men take turns leering at her but so has the audience at this point. It affects us to the male gaze. Then an increasingly agitated Stan harasses Jen. This uncomfortable sit-down is excruciatingly tense because we’re waiting for him to pounce, but it also has an effective power because it illustrates the daily minefield women experience deflecting the unwanted attention and affections of men. She’s desperately looking for safe ways out of the conversation that still save the man’s ego, a tricky navigation so as to not upset one’s toxic masculinity. The ensuring rape happens off screen as the camera leaves the scene with Dimitri who even turns up the TV volume to drown out Jen’s panicked screams. For anyone who’s sat through these kinds of movies, they often glorify the horror of the rape and can readily cross a line into icky intentional titillation. Leaving rape off screen is practically admirable.

Revenge is a cut above its genre ilk thanks to its strongly developed suspense sequences. Each set piece or confrontation presents itself in a memorable and different manner, requiring our heroine to use a different set of survival skills. Fargeat has a terrific sense of space, allowing the audience to understand the distances between the two participants. This allows the tension to simmer and boil as directed. Take for instance that bloody finale, which has an extended and very tense portion that revolves around two characters literally chasing around a circular hallway trying to get the jump on one another. That sequence doesn’t work without crisp editing and a proper sense of space. The director also knows when to draw out a scene with long takes and a wandering camera that makes you nervous about what’s going on where we don’t see. There are some wonderful moments of anticipatory dread to amplify the suspense. Fargeat’s smooth camerawork and sense of pacing allows the suspense to nicely develop, as she draws out the dangers for Jen and finds organic complications per scenario.

The actors ably perform their parts and Lutz (Rings) is a future star-in-the-making. A lot of physical acting is required from her and she is highly persuasive in every moment. Her happiness early on is infectious, her discomfort is grueling, and her desperate escapes feel frantic and wild, more a realistic human being fighting for their life than as some slick movie character coasting on a divine sense of cool. Her second half onslaught of titular vengeance still manages to keep the character grounded and mortal; she suffers setbacks and grievous injuries during these fights too, yet she endures. The other gentlemen give strong performances displaying different degrees of toxic masculinity, entitlement, and hapless weasel-ness when exposed. Stan, who previously had been enjoying his turn as an unpredictable threat in preparation to raping Jen, becomes a big blubbering weakling. Belgian actor Kevin Janssens reminded me a lot of a younger Aaron Eckhart. The movie is certainly elevated a few notches thanks to the actors giving you strong rooting points.

Revenge is a grisly, gory, and wild genre movie that will appeal to fans of indie thrillers but also extend behind that loyal clientele. Writer/director Coralie Fargeat demonstrates an innate understanding of not just the genre but the mechanics of suspense as well, engineering and executing terrific suspense sequences while keeping her familiar narrative fresh. I loved her attention to details (not just the gory ones) like the fact that Jen has these pink star earrings for the entire run of her vengeance. Fargeat understands this genre and its audience but also brings an empathetic, feminine perspective to our heroine’s awful plight. I was impressed how grounded this movie remained with its characters even as they were losing a blood bank’s worth of inventory. Even if you are more on the squeamish side when it comes to blood and gore, I’d recommend Revenge as an above average thriller that only becomes more satisfying in execution.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Raw (2017)

Justine (Garance Marilliier, looking like a Gallic Rooney Mara) comes from a family of vegetarians and veterinarians. She’s entering a famed veterinary college as a legacy and her big sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is already established among the school hierarchy. The incoming students are mercilessly hazed and Justine is forced to eat meat against her will. This moment unlocks a secret craving within her that consumes her. She starts looking at her fellow students less as dinner dates and more as dinner.

For the first half of Raw I thought I was watching a French nouveau version of Carrie. The first half of the movie is dominated by the pressures, and in particular, the cruel hazing from the upperclassmen at the college. The hazing is extreme, rampant, and omnipresent, with every older classmate throwing around his or her sense of privilege and bullying the freshmen candidates. It’s the kind of harassment and abuse we’ve seen in other stories relating to fraternities and sororities where institutions of power abuse others because they were abused and so on and so on, normalizing the cruelty. However, those are organizations that are elective and enclaves among a larger campus. With Raw, it appears that every upperclassman is part of this system of hazing, meaning there is no escape if the young candidates want to continue their education. The professors seem complicit in their negligence, and Justine even has one professor who hilariously criticizes her for doing too well in class. He says her good scores are depressing the other students, possibly making them become worse doctors. The overall impression of this scholarly environment is one of sickness and exploitation. There’s even a culminating “class picture” where they are bathed in buckets of (pig?) blood. With this sort of build-up, I was anticipating that when Justine got her crazy cravings that the movie was going to set up some tasty just desserts for these sadistic upperclassmen. I was looking forward to these mean people getting killed and eaten to service Justine. Perhaps that’s the American version of what this movie would become, or my own preferred version with the established first half, but that’s not the movie Raw ends up becoming.

Stuck somewhere between body horror and weird compulsion, Raw falters trying to stake its own territory. It’s definitely structured like a coming-of-age/sexual awakening story except said awakening is connected with cannibalism. That’s an excellent starting point for some cringe horror but Raw gets too lost in its dreamlike atmospherics. We explore rave-like revelries, hedonistic escapades, and the allure of the unknown. The best part of the film is the deterioration of Justine’s inhibitions as she gives in to her inner carnivore. There’s an obvious carnality metaphor here (college is a time for experimentation) and there’s a clear entertainment factor in watching a meek character assert herself. Her character gets lost in the oblique mystery that leaves a lot of unanswered questions and unclear motivations. One minute our heroine is rejecting the pressure of her peers and the next she’s nibbling on a severed finger. Her downward spiral doesn’t feel adequately developed as she’s immediately caught in the swirl of campus hazing. The progression feels phony. Outrageous things happen without a tonal grounding, and so it feels more like David Lynch dream logic. I could better accept this drifting quality if the movie had more plot to offer. At the halfway mark, once big sis makes her major personal reveal, the movie generally stalls. The plot doesn’t advance, the characters don’t really deepen, and we’re getting variations on the same things from before. The body horror elements don’t fully feel integrated as well. Justine has breakouts of hives and rashes, presumably from eating meat, though this comes and goes. She doesn’t ever seem too fraught over what she may be becoming, but maybe that’s just being French.

Writer/director Julia Ducournau certainly has talent and a natural way of handling her actors, but her film debut is just trying too hard. The constant crimson color scheme is heavy-handed to convey the protagonist’s frayed state of mind. The symbolism is also just as obvious. The suppression of darker, more animalistic desires is an intriguing concept, except several of the jumps in character development, or debasement, happen while Justine is unconscious. This provides a “what did we do last night?” air of mystery but it also hinders the character growth on screen. It’s like the movie is trying to have Justine sleep through her character development. It’s too bad because there are fascinating pieces and ideas that emerge like flotsam in the wake of Ducournau’s tale. The second half has the potential to become a bizarre sisterly bonding story. How far is each sister willing to go to help the other and to cover up for her actions? Will there be a rivalry when they target the same man? These kinds of questions could have further explored their relationship, but alas it was not to be. You’ll never know how the sisters are supposed to feel for one another throughout the movie. The characters are pretty thin to begin with and then Ducournau introduces a new element to provide added dimension and then lets it slip away. Back to shock value and obvious metaphors.

Here’s an example how Raw gets too caught up in the sensations of the moment, the allure of its images, which admittedly are a key part to horror. There’s a scene where Justine is dancing in front of a mirror. She’s wearing her sister’s clubbing dress, an article of clothing she had earlier been disdainful over. Now she sways to the beats of a rap song and applies lipstick to her pert lips. She then gazes lustfully at her reflection and leans into the mirror, kissing it and herself. And then she does this for another minute, going in for like four more kisses, as if one wasn’t sufficient. We get the idea pretty early, about Justine’s emerging new self, her carnal cravings, and yet Ducournau keeps going, convinced that redundancy is required to satisfactorily convey obsession.

Raw is also somewhat notorious on the festival circuit for its shock value. Reportedly people were fainting or leaving in droves from the content of the movie. I think this hyperbolic response is overblown. There is a fair bit of gore in the movie but it’s almost all animal related. If you’re an animal lover, watching corpse after corpse might be too much. I certainly averted my eyes more than once during a dog carcass autopsy. The human gore is surprisingly minimal though bloody. By far the most squirm-inducing part of Raw didn’t involve cannibalism at all but a homemade Brazilian wax that gets a little too close for comfort for all involved. At least I now know what my tolerance level will be like for the eventual European coming-of-age horror film set at a waxing station.

While watching Raw with my friend Ben Bailey, we would occasionally turn to each other after a shocking or gratuitously exploitative scene and say, “It is a French movie.” When characters strip for casual nudity, or start chowing down on human remains, or frolic in blood-soaked clothing, we’d say, “It is a French movie.” This turned into a game, ultimately with us imagining a climax involving a cannibalistic ménage à trios. “That,” we remarked, “would be the ultimate French movie.” Raw is a seductive and intriguing movie that has enough surface-level pleasures for devoted horror hounds. Unfortunately, it feels like the least interesting version of this story and premise. There are interesting pieces here to be certain. I just wish someone else had assembled them.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Great Wall (2017)

thegreatwall-607875The Great Wall is the most expensive film in Chinese history and the first major co-production between an American film studio and a Chinese-owned studio. While Matt Damon is the name above the title, it’s filled with recognizable Chinese stars, like Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, and pop star Lu Han. China’s most renowned action filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, serves as the director. It has the look and feel of a Hollywood special effects epic but it’s very much a Chinese film in ownership and execution, perhaps marking a new synergy of East meets West blockbusters. With a whopping budget of $150 million, the same as the last Star Trek movie, it looks like a typical Hollywood big-budget epic with visual spectacle and sweeping vistas. It’s up to the viewer whether a majority-Chinese production successfully imitating Hollywood middlebrow action spectacle is a brave step forward or just another source for mediocrity.

In the 11th centruy, traveling European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) are looking for black powder, an explosive substance that’s worth serious money back home. A mysterious feral creature attacks them and William cuts off the beast’s hand, taking it as a trophy. The Nameless Order, Chinese military officials stationed at the titular great wall, capture them and want to know exactly how these foreigners were able to defeat this beast. Legend states that long ago a meteor crashed to Earth, and with it came a horde of green monsters with big teeth lead by a queen that psychically controls her thousands of attack drones. Every 60 years the creatures emerge searching for food for their ravenous appetites. The Imperial City must be protected at all costs and that is why the wall was constructed. Lin Mae (Tian Jing) is thrown into command when her male superiors are killed, and she relies upon her unexpected Western allies to throw back the evolving horde of monsters.

nejpkz1u4osxmr_2_aAs the first major big-budget collaboration between studios in China and the United States, The Great Wall feels like something that would have escaped from the 1990s era of tentpole filmmaking, and it’s clearly a paycheck film for all involved. Now that doesn’t condemn in either regard. There’s a certain charm to the relatively dumb sci-fi action movies that started being prepped with steady regularity in the 1990s when advancing special effects made it possible for hordes of CGI monsters to thwart. There’s an obvious point of engagement that crosses all translations: man versus monsters. The film even somewhat admirably knows its own ridiculousness and embraces it. I was reminded of the go-for-broke silliness of Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies like National Treasure’s positing that maybe, just maybe, there’s a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. This feels like the biggest budget Asylum movie you can imagine, and that in itself is not necessarily a problem. However, because of the mechanical nature of so much of its storytelling and the safe territory it resolutely occupies, The Great Wall is a mediocre monster movie that aims right down the middle for cross-continental mass appeal and nothing more. I’m almost certain that Damon had to have been paid $20 million dollars to justify his participation. The actors and the director go about their business in a professional manner but you feel the lack of passion. It’s a film looking to appeal to the most people and losing any sense of distinction.

Credit director Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) for keeping the film on life support, providing just enough action variety and pleasing visuals to stir an audience awake. The monsters are introduced very early into the film, around the twenty-minute mark, and their CGI horde definitely presents a worthy challenge. In fact they feel too overwhelming in their numbers. Early on we see that the ferocious creatures, which closely resemble the Ghostbusters demon dog painted green, are hard to kill outside of a straight shot to their shoulder-eyes (they have eyes on their shoulders… because…). The first creature that successfully scales the wall takes out a slew of Chinese warriors. If one of these things is that hard to kill, how in the world can a limited number of people, even with high ground, defend against a sea of a hundred thousand? The mismatched numbers deflate the stakes and lessen the tension, which isn’t helped from subpar characterization. The world building is certainly hazy (Why do they come out once every 60 years? Why do magnets affect them? Why all the effort for small food supplies?) and some of the elements feel inserted just for their “cool” factor. A group of female warriors bungee jump off platforms to spear the monsters, but why is this necessary when we’ve already seen that China has fiery projectiles that are far more effective? It is cool though.

Thankfully a movie with little going for it other than spectacle at least knows to vary up its action sequences. Each encounter with one of the monsters is structured differently. The best sequence may be William and Tovar navigating through a blinding fog and relying upon the sounds of whizzing arrows to alert them to approaching hungry monsters. It provides some fun tension and pop-out moments. There’s a beautiful sequence commemorating a fallen friend with the launching of hundreds of floating lanterns. The concluding sequence involves our remaining characters climbing to the top of a pagoda lined with stained glass. As the characters rush up flights of stairs, the screen is lovingly diluted with colored shafts of light, which also add extra visual flourishes when the monsters begin to leap through the glass level by level. Yimou’s use of color has always been a hallmark of his career and it translates even into the color-coded amour of the different divisions of the Nameless Order. They look like ancient Power Rangers. While lacking a great deal of overall tension due to its predictable nature and dull characters, there are fleeting moments of suspense drawn out in individual action set-pieces. The overall movie is generally unremarkable CGI carnage reminiscent of a too-late Lord of the Rings rip-off, and yet there’s at least a general professionalism to its unremarkable CGI carnage.

image18Early on the movie was hit with accusations of whitewashing, and given Hollywood’s recent track record with the likes of Exodus, Aloha, and Gods of Egypt, it would be entirely conceivable that producers felt Damon needed to be a white savior role. That’s not the case at all and in fact the Chinese forces are shown to be flawless specimens. Damon’s character is the out-of-place European (complete with hard to place accent) who represents selfish and arrogant Western attitudes. He’s routinely awed by the ability and precision of the Chinese warriors, who dutifully sacrifice for the greater good and safety of others they will never know. They are symbols of power, teamwork, courage, strength, and dignity. The lessons can be rather blunt (a woman… in charge?!). The portrayal of the Chinese forces is so honorable and so empowered that they come across as boring moral paragons without an ounce of traceably human nuance. They don’t come across like characters so much as interchangeable warriors, and so when they start dying one-by-one their sacrifices ultimately leave little impact. It turns out that the non-Chinese actors, Damon and Pascal, supply the most interesting characters because their roles are allowed personality, basic moral ambiguity, and inner conflict beyond a sense of duty and the requirements of achieving that duty. The Great Wall drafts off Damon’s worldwide star power to teach him a lesson about Eastern values. It certainly presents China and Chinese characters in a very positive perspective, but being so broad sanitizes their humanity and transforms people into boring paragons.

Given the pedigree of those involved, it’s completely expected to be underwhelmed by the end results of such an expensive East meets West collaboration. The Great Wall is ultimately too safe and stately to satisfy beyond generic genre thrills; lowering one’s expectations is highly advised in order to properly appreciate the goofy action spectacle. The Great Wall of China being constructed to protect from a horde of ravenous, possibly extraterrestrial monsters is certainly a silly premise, but the movie doesn’t pretend it’s anything than what it is, a large-scale monster movie with a sense of fun. It’s not soaked in deconstructive irony or meta commentary. Instead, The Great Wall is a straight-laced action spectacle that treats its absurdity with conviction. It’s not much better or worse than other empty-headed big-budget action cinema from the Hollywood assembly line, but is that progress? Is making an indistinguishable mediocre B-movie a success story?

Nate’s Grade: C

Elle (2016)

elle_ver2It’s been a long time since director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) has directed a movie, a whopping nine years since Black Book (my favorite title is the original Dutch – Zwartboek). In fact Elle is only the second movie of Verhoeven’s since 2000’s Hollow Man. Cinema needs more movies from men like Verhoeven. He’s famous for his penchant for camp and over-the-top violence and sex, but it’s his subversive streak, dark satire, and willingness to push an audience into squirmy situations that are missed most. Elle is a hard movie to describe and a hard movie to sell. It’s an uncomfortable viewing and that’s much of the point that Verhoeven wants to push the viewer into an uncomfortable world of a woman who makes others uncomfortable.

Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged professional woman who, in the opening scene, is raped on the floor of her home by a masked intruder. She tries to brush off the attack, refusing to report it and go to the police. She returns to her normal routine, which involves berating the employees at the video game company she runs, having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and asserting barely passive-aggressive control over her ex-husband and her adult son. Once Michele starts receiving taunting messages from her assumed attacker, she assess who in her life’s orbit may have been her rapist and how best to unmask their identity. There’s also the matter of vengeance.

elle-isabelle-huppertElle starts as a sneaky who-dunnit mystery and then blossoms into an engaging character study. Our first image of Michele is lying on the floor and being sexually violated by her attacker. It’s harrowing and upsetting and your sympathy instantly allies with the victim. However, the rest of the movie does not portray Michele with even the faintest glow of a halo. She’s a venom-spewing bully who sabotages the happiness of others around her and is having an indifferent affair with the husband of her best friend. Michele also runs a video game company that profits from the exaggerated sexual violence of the video game industry. She even lectures a programmer that the distressed cries of a rape victim should be louder and more orgasmic. Everything after the initial rape scene makes us question whether this character is worthy of our sympathies, and then that makes us question whether we should be ashamed to deny a rape victim sympathy at even a basic human level of empathy. There’s a happy moment where everything appears relatively settled, and she just can’t help herself and has to sabotage it with real ramifications with someone she genuinely cares for. It’s just her nature. It’s a complex crucible of self-reflection and it makes the movie an intriguing a unique experience to sit through.

About the half-hour mark, Michele becomes even more absorbing, and that’s when it’s revealed she’s the daughter of a notorious serial killer. As a young girl, she “assisted” her maniac father dispose of bodies into a large fire, and a picture of her looking dead-eyed and covered in ash is famous in French culture. There’s a lingering question of what her culpability was. As soon as this connection was revealed, my interest in Elle increased two-fold. It explains why she felt she couldn’t go to the police because she didn’t want the exposure, and certainly there would be a bitter few saying she got some sort of cosmic justice. Her relationship with her elderly and ailing father becomes its own mystery, and I started looking for parallels between Michele’s relationship with her father and her relationship with her screw-up adult son. Was she manipulating him like her father had done to her? Is her son’s penchant for not fitting in the adult workforce a sign of something more troubling? Is his temper and possibility for violence a hidden bomb thanks to grandpa’s DNA? I was even more observant and looking for connections.

The problem Verhoeven’s movie is that its story engine only takes you about two acts forward. From early on, the two things hanging over Michele are the prospect of finally coming face-to-face with her father one last time and discovering the identity of her rapist. Verheoven plays into the mystery thriller elements by populating Michele’s world with suspects that could secretly be her attacker. There’s the guy at her job that seems to loathe her and find her unworthy of her position. There’s the guy at work that has a little too close of an affection for her. There’s her friend’s husband, angered by being rebuffed when Michele ends their unfulfilling affair. There’s her neighbor’s husband who Michele covets and fantasizes over, who seems aware of Michele’s feelings. As the plot progresses and her attacker sends more messages, we get clues to the identity and who among our band of suspects is eliminated from contention. Then we find out and the movie has like a solid half hour left. That’s because the movie goes in an unexpected direction but one that makes enough sense knowing Michele as a character. Not all of the storylines hold the same level of interest, like Vincent’s one-note baby mama (Alice Isaaz), though you do understand why he might be attracted to abrasive women. The same with Michele’s mother (Judtih Magre) who seems too comically wacky as a sugar momma. Not all of the characters in the story’s sphere are worthy of the attention they receive, however, how Michele responds to them is worth our attention. The other storyline, a sense of closure with her father, is resolved around the same time in another unexpected manner. It’s a bit deflating and after both mysteries are resolved the movie feels like it’s abandoned its sense of direction. You’re waiting for the film to wrap up any moment but it keeps going, a tad too long at 130 minutes. It’s a small grievance but I definitely started feeling a sense of impatience during the final twenty minutes.

There’s a surprising amount of dark humor to be had with Michelle’s caustic view of other people and her genial manipulation of others. There’s an award and dark comedy that comes from the interactions, which seems counterproductive or downright tonally unforgivable given the above admission of how rape-y the film comes across. It’s a squirming comedy, the kind that makes you laugh under your breath to break the tension of people behaving badly. Even the prospect of laughing given the serious subject matter somehow makes the film even more uncomfortable. The older ladies behind me in my theater were already chattering about how Elle was not one of the better movies they’ve come to see. To be fair this was after like the fourth rape scene.

Huppert (Amour, The Piano Teacher) is in every scene of the movie and she unleashes a performance destined to leave you talking. She’s 63 playing 50, which is usually the opposite of how Hollywood movies operate (if the women are even allowed to get to 50). Michele is a beautifully flawed and complicated canvas and Huppert seems to relish in her brusquely dismissive demeanor. She’s constantly testing the people in her world, mostly men, and sizing up the women. There’s a reason that she seems to revel in stomping out the happiness of the men around her whether it be an ex-husband, her oafish son, the husband of her best friend she’s having an affair with. Michele refuses to be defined by her trauma but she is still processing that, and Huppert is agile at showing the cracks in Michele’s armor to provide clues as to what is most important. She doesn’t care what we think of her and that adds a thrilling quality to an already bracing performance.

isabelle-huppert-en-elle-_816_573_1411039Does the movie cross a line into being tawdry exploitation? Because of the nature of its storyline and the past films of its director, it would be easy to slap the title of high-dross exploitation film onto Elle, but I don’t know if it applies fully. I cannot think of a more rape-y movie that I have ever seen. Full trigger warning to those out there, there are like six different rape scenes in the movie, though some of them are fantasy and some of them are violent role-playing, but all of them are disturbing. At its core, Elle is about power and even though our opening impression of Michele is one of victim it’s a title she does not want. She is seeking to punish her rapist, and when the identity is revealed, she transforms the power dynamic and reclaims a sense of her sexual autonomy. Does consenting to abuse and enjoying it undercut the abuser’s power or reconfirm it? I can’t say whether this is any less exploitative than say 1974’s The Night Porter, another movie about trauma where the victim and victimizer indulge in an unhealthy sexual relationship that blurs the lines between sadomasochistic role-playing and fetishizing personal abuse. I feel like there’s enough substance in the characterization and the wide berths that Verhoeven allows free of judgment to classify Elle as more than exploitation, or to classify it as a reclamation of the exploitation film, an exercise akin to what it feels like Michael Haneeke (The White Ribbon, Funny Games) does that I inevitably can’t stand.

I can’t quite grasp what about Elle spurred Verhoeven out of a nine-year absence from filmmaking (he experimented with a 53-minute farce in 2012 whose script was crowdsourced, so I’m discounting that). On the surface, I would make the connections to the film’s extreme sex and violence, staples of Verhoeven’s Hollywood career. But that’s too easy, and there’s no shortage of extreme sex and violence in other stories. What was it about Elle that drew the Dutch filmmaker out of seclusion? I think it was another opportunity to be subversive, this time in the realm of art-house French cinema. Verhoeven has always enjoyed proving people wrong, exploring our baser instincts, and telling damn fine entertaining movies for adults. His subversive streak is renewed with a rape thriller that also happens to be an incisive character study of a very nasty woman who had something very nasty done to her. Audience loyalties and sympathies are consistently in tumult, shifting and being tested by new information and the mounting evidence of Michele’s treatment of others. Huppert gives a calculated, fierce performance right down to the end, pushing the audience into more uncomfortable reflection and uncomfortable laughter in the face of despair. I think this is why Verhoeven hopped back into the director’s chair and even re-learned French so he could communicate with a French film crew. He wanted to push an audience, upending their expectations about power, sex, and subjugation. Elle is downright elegant as it goes about its business, the business of forcing viewers to think critically and question their personal discomfort. It’s not exactly an easy movie to watch at times but it is a hard movie to forget.

Nate’s Grade: B

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