- Breaking Bread on the 25th Anniversary of Big Nightby Bill Ryan on April 9, 2021 at 11:53 AM
In the 25 years since Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night” was released in 1996, there has been, in America, a great upsurge of movies and television shows revolving around the world of restaurants, chefs, and fine dining. Tucci’s film, which he co-wrote with Joseph Tropiano and co-directed with Campbell Scott (who also appears in the film as a somewhat odd car salesman), about the final days of a struggling Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey, run by two immigrant brothers—businessman Secondo (Tucci) and brilliant chef Primo (Tony Shalhoub)—was certainly not the first such film. Outside of America, there had already been, just in the decade or so before, Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo,” Alfonso Arau’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” and Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” (and depending on whether or not you wished to count such a thing, Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and & Her Lover”)—but it certainly seems to have opened the floodgates. Since then, there has been no shortage of film and TV shows that deal not just with cooking, but the life struggles of those who cook at a high level, including films like cooking-as-a-metaphor-for-Jon-Favreau’s-film-career “Chef,” but also reality competitions like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Top Chef.” The common thread in a lot of these post-“Big Night” products is how difficult it is to succeed, not just as a chef, but as a professional, as a person. “Chef” was seemingly born out of Favreau’s foundering creative spark after his unlikely move from independent cinema to the world of studio blockbusters. “Top Chef” is at least as much about who goes home, and when, and for what reason, as it is about who finally wins the season. Because, of course, “Big Night” is about a restaurant that shuts down, a restaurant that fails. The film takes place over the course of a few days, as Secondo tries to find a way to keep his and Primo’s flailing restaurant, Paradise, from going under. Despite Primo’s genius, the restaurant is doing anemic business due to the fact—at least according to rival, but avuncular, restaurateur Pascal (Ian Holm)—that the chef is too precious about his food and is unwilling to make any concessions to what American customers unfamiliar with Southern Italian food at its purest might want to eat. Indeed, when Secondo suggests to Primo that they maybe take the expensive and unpopular seafood risotto off the menu, Primo thinks they could replace it hot dogs. “They might like that,” he says. In a last-ditch effort to save their business, Secondo, with Pascal’s help, sets up an invitation-only dinner party at Paradise, at which will be a journalist to cover the event, because, so Pascal has promised, his friend, the great jazz bandleader and singer Louis Prima will be making an appearance. So the stage is set for a mostly light, occasionally romantic, and very funny comedy, but one grounded in everyday realism, and also fraught not just with the suspense inherent in seeing if Secondo’s plan will pay off, but also with subplots that the audience knows will eventually blow something up—specifically the revelation that Secondo is cheating on his girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver) with Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), who also happens to be Pascal’s wife. Needless to say, every one of these people will be at the party. Twenty-five years on, “Big Night” holds up like gangbusters. As funny, and as filled with wonderful, charming performances as the film is—Tucci and Shalhoub are both basically perfect, Holm acts like a wild imp throughout, Driver effortlessly gives the kind of performance that used to be called “winning”—it is nevertheless infused throughout with an unavoidable melancholy. There’s a terrific shot, just before the dinner party gets started, just before the real night’s work kicks off, of Cristiano (Marc Anthony), the Paradise’s busboy and waiter, stepping outside, into the dusk, to smoke a cigarette, and the camera lifts up into the air to show the emptiness and quiet of the New Jersey street. This cuts to a pan down the long table and its simple, elegant glass-and-silverware, white napkins and tablecloth, before tilting up to Secondo, Primo, and Cristiano, standing together, dressed for work, all to the strains of Matteo Salvatore’s gorgeous “Mo Ve’la Bella Mia Da La Muntagna.” The shot sets up a rather intense feeling of anticipation for the party about to begin (somewhat counterintuitively, given the gentleness of the two shots), but also feels ineffably sad. Somehow, perhaps, the audience knows what’s to come. Another thing that “Big Night” has now taken upon itself, without asking for the responsibility, is the weight of our current existence, from roughly March of 2020 until now (but hopefully not too much longer). For one night, Paradise looks not merely like the greatest restaurant anyone has ever been to, with its dancing and drinks and timpano, but could ever hope of ever going to. But in the end, it still shuts down. As restaurants all over the country and the world have shut down, not through any fault of the owners—and despite Secondo’s many faults, I’m not sure one can blame him or Primo for running a restaurant that went under for being too good—but because customers have had to stay home simply because they didn’t want to catch a disease, or to give it to others. And while options for restaurant pick-up and delivery options have been abundant, with the fast financial uncertainty of any given household being what it is, one is more likely to have McDonald’s delivered to one’s home than risotto from the best Italian restaurant in your town. As many people’s most recent experience of sitting down for a nice meal in a nice restaurant withdraws further into memory, revisiting “Big Night” now brings with it a wistfulness for a world that we all, at our most pessimistic, fear may be gone for good, at least as we once knew it. You watch the dinner party now, and they’re all sitting so close together. Who could have ever imagined something like that would one day be something we remembered, rather than experienced all the time? “Big Night” closes with one of the most poignant final scenes of, at minimum, any film of the 1990s, if not even beyond that. After everything has blown up, and Louis Prima didn’t show (he was never going to), and Paradise is about to be gone forever, the party’s over, and it’s very early in the morning, Secondo walks into the kitchen. Only Cristiano is there, and Secondo begins making eggs for both of them. In one unbroken shot, he finishes, adds a big chunk of bread to each plate, and wordlessly the two men begin to eat. Then Primo, with whom Secondo has recently fought terribly, arrives. Secondo puts half his eggs onto another plate, adds bread. Cristiano leaves them alone, and the two brothers sit together, and, still silently, eat their breakfast. Just the two of them, jobless, keeping within their own circle, their own household. As content as their current circumstances will allow. "Big Night" is now available to stream on Paramount+.
- Home Entertainment Guide: April 2021by Brian Tallerico on April 9, 2021 at 11:53 AM
10 NEW TO NETFLIX "At Eternity's Gate""Croupier""Get on Up""Insidious""Legally Blonde""My Fair Lady""Philomena""The Pianist""Savages""Saving Private Ryan" 10 NEW TO BLU-RAY/DVD "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar" Josh Greenbaum's comedy was delayed thanks to COVID but found a very receptive following when it was released on VOD earlier this year (and you really must read Sheila O'Malley's gift of a review, linked above). It feels destined to become even more popular now that it's more widely available, including this very strong Blu-ray release. Some of the PVOD era pandemic releases have been given relatively minor physical releases, probably because studios are pushing more to pure digital plans, so it's nice to see the wonderful characters of Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristen Wiig) given a lavish Blu-ray treatment complete with a commentary and deleted scenes. People love this movie and that love is only going to grow. Buy it here Special FeaturesAudio Commentary with Director Josh Greenbaum, Writer-Actor Annie Mumolo, and Writer-Actor Kristen Wiig"Barb & Star: Making Life a Little Brighter" Featurette"Barb & Star: Casting in Paradise" FeaturetteBloopersDeleted Scenes"Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar Fashion Show" Piece Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch "Defending Your Life" (Criterion) I miss Albert Brooks. The wonderful writer/director/actor isn't nearly as active as he used to be (his last film was 2005's "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" and he's only directed seven in total), but he leaves a nearly unimpeachable resume, including classics like "Modern Romance" and "Lost in America." I would hold this 1991 gem up against any of his films. It's a brilliant imagining of what happens after we die that's honestly encouraging and uplifting about how to live better lives before we do. Brooks is great as a guy who discovers that the afterlife features a sort of purgatory wherein one has to examine and defend the choices they've made. It's funny and ultimately powerful stuff. Buy it here Special FeaturesNew 4K digital restoration, approved by director Albert Brooks, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-rayNew conversation between Brooks and filmmaker Robert WeideNew interview with theologian and critic Donna Bowman about Brooks's vision of the afterlifeNew program featuring excerpts from interviews conducted in 1991 with Brooks and actors Lee Grant and Rip TornTrailerEnglish subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearingPLUS: An essay by filmmaker Ari Aster Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch "Earwig and the Witch" In 2014, the film world was shattered to learn that Studio Ghibli would halt production on original films. Following the release of Hiyao Miyazaki's masterful "The Wind Rises," it felt like the end of an era. Much like the retirements of Michael Jordan or Steven Soderbergh, this one was short-lived. Hiyao Miyazaki is working on a new feature, and his son released what is canonically the first SG film since 2014 last year in his third film, "Earwig and the Witch." The first 3D-CGI film in the Ghibli library, it was met with pretty mediocre reviews, but that hasn't stopped GKIDS from giving it a nice Blu-ray release. Being a huge Ghibli fan, I'm conflicted on "Earwig," torn between the part of me that can see its notable flaws and the one that is just so happy to have the Totoro brand back in business. Buy it here Special FeaturesFeature-Length StoryboardsCreating "Earwig and the Witch"Interviews with Japanese Voice CastTrailers & Teasers Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch "Gattaca" In 1997, audiences didn't really know what to do with Andrew Niccol's "Gattaca." It had major stars in it like Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, but it felt more like an arthouse drama or even an old-fashioned noir than a blockbuster. Critics mostly liked it, and some fans found it before long on VHS and DVD, but it feels like a film that has become timelier and more beloved over the nearly quarter-century since it came out. This month, it's dropping in a 4K steelbook edition that's a beauty (look at that cover art!), and remastered from the original negative in a way that really enriches its smart, deep color palette. I forgot how gorgeous this film is, using shadows and light in a way that blends its science fiction and noir sensibilities in a riveting manner. I'm not sure the ending lands, but there's so much to like here, and it seems like a film that was truly ahead of its time. Buy it here Special FeaturesNEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM FROM THE ORIGINAL CAMERA NEGATIVEHDR PRESENTATION OF THE FILMENGLISH DOLBY ATMOS AUDIO TRACKDeleted ScenesBlooper ReelWelcome to Gattaca Featurette Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch "Godzilla" Fans of the new Monsterverse are falling in love with the big guys over the title in "Godzilla vs. Kong," now in theaters and on HBO Max for a couple more weeks. It's actually the fourth film in this series, which rebooted back in 2014 with Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla," still my favorite of the modern flicks (although I like "Kong: Skull Island" and "GvK" too; not so much "King of the Monsters"). There's something to the grandeur of Edwards' approach that hasn't really been matched in the kitschier sequels, and it's even easier to appreciate the way Edwards plays with perspective and light in this new 4K release. Let's hope "GvK" gets a 4K release as strong as this one down the line too (although a few more special features would have been nice). Buy it here Special FeaturesHDR PRESENTATION OF THE FILMDOLBY ATMOS AUDIO TRACKMONARCH: Declassified The Legendary Godzilla Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch "Monster Hunter" The latest from "Resident Evil" director Paul W.S. Anderson was released to a surprisingly receptive audience in December of last year, a great example of people just needing something mindlessly fun at the end of the longest year ever. I get that. I don't agree that "Monster Hunter" does that kind of escapism well, but I would never take that kind of fun away from people who need it, especially in 2021. And so here's the 4K release of a movie that definitely should be watched in the highest HD quality possible. Do with it what you will. Buy it here Special FeaturesHDR PRESENTATION OF THE FILMDOLBY ATMOS AUDIO TRACKDeleted ScenesThe Monster Hunters: Cast and Characters - FeaturetteMonstrous Arsenal: Weaponry in the Film - FeaturetteFor the Players: From Game to Screen - Featurette Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch "The Mortuary Collection" It may be on Shudder now but this is the kind of fun indie horror movie that I really enjoy watching find a bigger following and so thought its upcoming physical release deserved a shout-out too. Ryan Spindell wrote and directed this horror anthology flick that owes more to '80s masters like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi than most films of the age of "elevated horror." With some remarkable practical effects, Spindell merges classic cautionary tales with modern sensibilities. It's just fun, and the Blu-ray is pretty loaded, including over a dozen featurettes, a commentary, and deleted scenes. Buy it here Special FeaturesDirector's Commentary14 Extensive Behind-the-Scenes SegmentsIn-Depth Conversations with Director Ryan Spindell, the Actors, and Crew Deleted ScenesAnd More Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch "News of the World" Paul Greengrass directed this four-time Oscar nominee that was released in theaters briefly back in December before a PVOD release and now gets a physical one (these cycles are getting so incredibly small and one wonders if they will return to "normal" or if this is the way it is now). Tom Hanks is phenomenal (as usual) as a Civil War veteran who travels the country reading the news to locals. He stumbles upon a girl who had been taken by the Kiowa and tries to return her to her family. Riveting and elegiac, it is one of the best films by Paul Greengrass, and that's saying something. Buy it here Special FeaturesFEATURE COMMENTARY WITH CO-WRITER/DIRECTOR PAUL GREENGRASSDELETED SCENESPARTNERS: TOM HANKS & HELENA ZENGEL - Witness the successful (and very fun) working relationship of movie veteran Tom Hanks and newcomer Helena Zengel.WESTERN ACTION - Explore the creation of NEWS OF THE WORLD's most exciting and challenging scenes.PAUL GREENGRASS MAKES NEWS OF THE WORLD - A look at how director Paul Greengrass assembled the very best filmmaking team to realize a lifelong ambition of making a western.THE KIOWA - Filmmakers explain why the authentic representation of the Kiowa was so important to them. Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch "Secrets and Lies" (Criterion) One of my favorite Roger Ebert statistics is the fact that he gave Mike Leigh ten 4-star reviews out of a possible 11 times. That's a stunning accomplishment, and the best track record for any filmmaker I can find. One of those 4-star reviews was for his 1996 drama that arguably became his most popular movie, landing a nomination for Best Picture. Roger loved the film so much that he put it in his Great Movies collection only a few years after it was released, writing, "'Secrets & Lies' (1996) reveals a filmmaker who works with the most delicate precision to achieve exactly what he desires." It really is a perfect distillation of the way Leigh works, with actors that never feel anything less than genuine, blending Leigh's storytelling with the notorious freedom he gives his ensembles to build characters. It's a joy to see it join the Criterion Collection, and I hope more Leigh films follow. Roger would likely agree. Buy it here Special FeaturesNew 2K digital restoration, approved by director Mike Leigh and director of photography Dick Pope, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-rayNew conversation between Leigh and composer Gary YershonNew conversation between actor Marianne Jean-Baptiste and film critic Corrina AntrobusAudio interview with Leigh, conducted by film critic Michel Ciment in 1996TrailerEnglish subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearingPLUS: An essay by film programmer and critic Ashley Clark Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch "Soul" The film that seems destined to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (even if my vote would go to "Wolfwalkers"), Pixar's latest has had a unique journey in that it barely got a theatrical release and has been available on Disney+ for months now at no extra cost. With the Mouse House pushing so much to their streaming service, I was worried that they would cut ties with their incredibly strong legacy of physical releases with top-notch video/audio quality and special features. Luckily, that doesn't appear to be the case yet as this month's excellent 4K release of "Soul" proves. Commentary, deleted scenes, and a 4K quality that's simply better than streaming. This is the way to watch this movie. Buy it here Special FeaturesDeleted ScenesAudio Commentary Not Your Average Joe Astral Taffy Pretty Deep for a CartoonInto the Zone: The Music and Sound of Soul "Soul," Improvised Jazz Greats Now streaming on: Powered by JustWatch
- Voyagersby Christy Lemire on April 9, 2021 at 11:52 AM
A group of gorgeous young people give into their most primal urges on a decades-long, interplanetary journey in “Voyagers.” And if that sounds like sexy Lord of the Flies in space, well ... it is. But despite the familiar nature of the themes writer/director Neil Burger is exploring, his film still offers plenty of tension and his trademark visual panache. Similar to his “Limitless” from a decade ago—the film that showed the world Bradley Cooper was a serious actor and not just a pretty face—Burger tells a story about what happens when people tap into their heightened, true selves, for better and for worse. Instead of taking a drug, though, they eliminate one from their systems: a daily drink they refer to as “The Blue.” These astronauts think it’s a vitamin supplement to fortify them for the long haul, but it actually evens them out and suppresses negative tendencies like jealousy and rage. It’s supposedly all for the greater good, though, in Burger’s streamlined, sci-fi tale. In a near future, Earth has become uninhabitable because of climate change, drought, and disease. Scientists discover a new planet for humans to colonize—trouble is, it takes 86 years to get there. So they breed a crew of brilliant cadets who will board the ship and eventually procreate during the trip, with the ultimate goal of having their grandchildren start over in this brave new world. They include level-headed Christopher (Tye Sheridan), inquisitive chief medical officer Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead), who’s clearly going to turn villainous based solely on his intense eyes and chiseled cheekbones. The only seasoned adult on board is Richard (a tender and grounded Colin Farrell), who’s played a crucial role in raising these astronauts from their earliest days and wants to see the mission through, even though he knows he’ll die during the course of it. Burger efficiently establishes the rhythms of this place and the roles the crew members play in it. They are busy and bustling but peaceful as they work together in their matching, midnight blue T-shirts and joggers to make repairs, grow food, and keep themselves fit. Part of their daily routine is a trip to the mess hall fountain to pour themselves a slim glass of a blue beverage they believe is for their overall health. But when Christopher and Zac begin questioning its benefits and stop drinking it—and then advise others to do the same—a thrilling sensory awakening occurs in all of them. Reminiscent of the drug montage sequences in such films as “Requiem for a Dream,” Burger depicts in zippy and vibrant fashion the rush of experiencing pure emotions for the first time: the joy of running down a hallway, the exertion of playfully wrestling in the gym or—in time—the pleasure of touching a member of the opposite sex. (Apparently there are no gay astronauts on this mission.) A geyser erupts, pupils shrink and expand, arm hairs stand up on end—the kind of imagery you’ve seen many times before to suggest a symphony of sensations. But the dark strings in the score from composer Trevor Gureckis suggest this reverie cannot last, and a ship that once seemed full of boundless discovery and possibility tightens with claustrophobia and paranoia. (Chilean cinematographer Enrique Chediak makes this sleek, singular location feel both expansive and constricting, forcing you to hurtle through the hallways as if you, too, are being chased by angry, horny teens.) Going off The Blue allows the astronauts’ true personalities to reveal themselves, resulting in a tried-and-true, nature-versus-nurture debate. As the cadets grow more confident and curious, issues of free will and consent also come to the forefront. But Burger doesn’t really dig into these topics too deeply; rather, he seems more interested in keeping the story moving along at a sprightly clip as characters turn on and attack each other. Burger also directed the first “Divergent” movie, which “Voyagers” resembles with its attractive actors and futuristic, YA-friendly premise. Within this crucible, the kindhearted but boring Christopher emerges as a natural leader seeking to protect his crewmates and maintain some semblance of civilization. He’s the Ralph figure, if we may continue this Lord of the Flies analogy—and Zac clearly becomes the swaggering, antagonistic Jack as his impulsivity and cruel streak take hold. At one point he even says to the others: “Anyone who wants to follow me can. I’ll make more food.” He’s chilling in his depravity and in his cool ability to lie and spin events to suit his narrative, but there’s not a lot of complexity there. Depp, as Sela, keeps her wits about her amid the mayhem but gets little more to do than serve as the beautiful woman they're both fighting over. And the by-the-book Phoebe (Chanté Adams of “Roxanne Roxanne”), who’s constantly being shushed when she tries to argue for reason, functions as the sadly put-upon Piggy figure. But if Burger were interested in telling a truly relevant and thought-provoking story, it would have been cool to have her be in charge, or anyone besides these two simple, male archetypes he’s whipped up in his own lab. Now playing in theaters.
- Slalomby Tomris Laffly on April 9, 2021 at 11:52 AM
Perhaps the most disquieting aspect of “Slalom,” a heartbreaking tale of awful sexual exploitation that contains numerous tough-to-watch scenes, is how predictably its story plays out between a vulnerable and impressionable young girl and an abusive someone in a position of power that she looks up to. But its foreseeable nature makes it neither unimportant nor hollow. On the contrary—by telling a story we’ve all heard a million times before (and perhaps even experienced first-hand to some degree) plainly and bravely, Charlène Favier reaches something urgent and devastating with her feature debut, sensitively written by Favier and Marie Talon. When we first meet Favier’s central character, the 15-year-old Lyz (Noée Abita), she is rigorously training in the cold, stomping the ground in rapid steps that simulate the motions of skiing. In the backdrop are the majestic, snow-clad French Alps she can’t help but glance at longingly, even when her coach curtly asks the ambitious rookie to step aside and not be in everyone’s way. In these tone-setting opening moments of her powerful, meticulously calibrated film—and many other similarly intricate scenes that follow—the filmmaker stays close to Lyz’s receptive face, as well as her magnificently deep and wide eyes that still linger in a territory of childlike innocence, capturing her insatiable desire to make it to the top and to be seen for who she is in the process. In that regard, “Slalom” rhymes with the likes of Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” and Joyce Chopra’s “Smooth Talk,” in telling an age-old story of youthful mental and emotional hunger, sadly susceptible to abuse in the manipulative hands of grown-ups. In the case of the talented loner Lyz, whose life lacks sufficient adult guidance with an absent father and a caring but self-centered mother, Catherine (Muriel Combeau), that predator ends up being no other than her overpowering ski coach Fred (Jérémie Renier). At first hard on the inexperienced high-schooler in the exclusive ski club famous to raise leading professional athletes of the country, Fred changes his tune in time, designating Lyz as his new star trainee, buttering her up with confidence-boosting compliments and motivational pats on the back. Well, they are at least supposed to be motivational, but audiences will be quick at picking up on his subtly inappropriate physical contacts and longer-than-necessary, domineering glances towards Lyz. There is also all the constant, carefully planned grooming that confirms our most demoralizing suspicions about Fred—improper talks about the beauty of Lyz’s menstrual cycle, constant praises to heighten her sense of pride, and so on. So when the unspeakable sexual abuse scenes arrive, filmed with a sense of toughness and unforgiving veracity—sometimes just a little too close to exploitation themselves—you will recognize that you’ve been cringing all along, hoping to somehow avoid seeing the inevitable. And you will also realize that you’ve been several steps ahead of the young girl, who can only respond to the atrocity thrown her way in utter shock. Lyz’s silently emerging perception mixed with a side of stubborn denial is all too damning to witness: while she was busy feeling a crushing disappointment towards her mother who starts a new job away and a new romance to boot and winning her competitions one by one, Fred has been sinking his claws deep into her somewhere behind the scenes. Delivering an unforgettable breakthrough performance, Abita is phenomenal in pitching Lyz on the slippery slope between an adult wannabe and a little kid, boldly wearing even the smallest nuances of her character’s rapidly shifting emotional world on her resolute face. The young performer is similarly impressive in her difficult abuse scenes with Renier, transposing Lyz’s out-of-body state on to the screen with bone-chilling depth. A regular of the Dardenne Brothers’ world of realism, Renier deserves no less credit for portraying a textbook predator with startling accuracy. Both actors sell their excruciating dynamic extremely well—it’s thanks to them that “Slalom” often feels like a psychological thriller in following Lyz’s downfall and suffocating fight to get back up. What also contributes to the spine-tingling sensation of “Slalom” is Favier’s kinetic, almost magical fervor behind the camera. This is especially evident with the high-speed ski scenes, cleanly choreographed and lensed by someone with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the sport and the isolating psyche of competitive athletes yearning to perfect it. But beyond the fairy tale-worthy cliffs and powdery summits of the French Alps, what Favier really captures is an all-too-common female coming-of-age tragedy with an insider’s clarity. And she doesn’t stop there, somehow managing to wholly build two additional female characters in supporting roles. In due course, she allows Catherine the time and space to grow in her role as a single mother. She also gifts Fred’s increasingly suspicious wife Lilou (Marie Denarnaud) a compelling storyline as she both confronts and genuinely worries about Lyz. When Lyz finally learns the empowering sway of the word No the hard way, you will somehow hear the voices of both women in her self-assured echoes. Now playing in virtual cinemas.
- Thunder Forceby Sheila O'Malley on April 9, 2021 at 11:52 AM
"Thunder Force" takes place in current-day Chicago, where the citizens struggle in the aftermath of a 1983 cosmic-ray blast, which turned sociopaths and criminals into lethal villains wielding deadly superhero-like powers. They are called "Miscreants" by the cowed and helpless populace. The Miscreants have wreaked havoc ever since, and regular human beings are powerless to stop them. Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer), best friends in grade school and then estranged for many years, team up to combat the Miscreants, using a genetic soup-formula developed by Emily over a painstaking years-long process, which can be injected into "regular" people, giving them superhero powers as well. Written and directed by Ben Falcone, "Thunder Force" is also a kind of genetic soup, a mish-mash of different genres: buddy comedies, buddy dramas, girl-power superhero movies. With such powerhouses as McCarthy and Spencer at the helm, it's a surprise that so much of the film is inert, rote, conventional. When Lydia and Emily come back into each other's lives after childhood, Emily has risen to the top of her field as a geneticist and CEO of her own company. Lydia works a forklift. When Emily doesn't show up to the high school reunion, Lydia is devastated, and goes to Emily's gleaming corporate offices, determined to drag her friend back to the party. This is their childhood all over again: Emily was studious, Lydia was a bruiser. It worked in childhood, but not so much as an adult. Lydia is told not to touch anything in the offices, but Lydia does, accidentally injecting herself with half of the superhero-genetic formula, the one that will make someone super, super strong. Lydia did not sign up for this, and neither did Emily. Emily is enraged, but there's nothing she can do. She takes the other half of the genetic formula, the one that will make someone invisible. Then comes the training montage, as they both get comfortable with their new powers. Meanwhile, a mayoral race heats up in Chicago. One of the candidates is nicknamed "The King" (Bobby Cannavale), and he is an openly evil thug, strutting around in suits that make him look like he stepped out of a Damon Runyon story. The King is in cahoots with the Miscreants, one in particular, named Laser (Pom Klementieff), whom he sics on his perceived enemies. Lydia and Emily name themselves "Thunder Force," go on a couple of trial runs, before setting their sights on taking down The King. Lydia gets side-tracked by a flirtation with a half-Miscreant named Crab Man (Jason Bateman), who has no visible superpowers, unless you call awkward crab-pincer arms superpowers. All of this is very standard and none of it is particularly interesting. Watching CGI-generated McCarthy and Spencer flipping and twirling through the air attacking their enemies is not my idea of a good time. What is my idea of a good time, however, is watching them develop a relationship, watching them make each other laugh, watching them act together. They're great together. That's the draw, the two of them. There's not enough of it. By comparison, "The Heat," where McCarthy played a volatile unpredictable FBI agent partnering with the prim-and-proper rules-following Sandra Bullock, used specific genre scaffolding mainly to let the two actresses run wild within that structure. Every scene features goofy schtick, and the crime they investigate is somewhat irrelevant. The only game in town is their chemistry as actors. "Thunder Force" doesn't allow for that. The best moments in "Thunder Force" are actor-generated, the loosey-goosey "riffs" in between hurtling plot points. McCarthy has one very funny riff on Joe, the guy in accounting, and the button of the moment is Spencer's deadpan response. There's one long sequence where McCarthy does an imitation of Jodie Foster in "Nell" and nobody in the room has seen it and they all think she's gone insane. There's a fun bit when Spencer tries to say "Thunder Force" and make it sound badass, with coaching from Lydia. Bateman's dry humor is present in every moment, and his gift is in playing things totally straight, especially in beyond silly moments when he attempts to pick up his martini glass with crab-pincers. There's one recurring bit where McCarthy and Spencer, encased in superhero armor, try to pull themselves out of a tiny purple Lamborghini. The whole movie stops to watch them laboriously extricate themselves from the automobile. "Thunder Force" needs more of this. Taylor Mosby is very good as Tracy, Emily's brainiac daughter, a Stanford graduate at 15, and now in charge of her mother's lab operations. Lydia barges into Tracy's life, and assumes the role of a laid-back aunt. There are some nice mother-daughter scenes as well, where Emily wonders if she's been too hard on her daughter. Both were taunted about being "nerds," and the family mantra is: "I'm not a nerd. I'm smart. There's a difference." The movie comes to life any time the actors are given space to mess around. It's just not enough to hold the whole thing together. On Netflix today.
- Moffieby Odie Henderson on April 9, 2021 at 11:51 AM
“Moffie” is one of those films where you’ll get more out of it if you bring a specific nostalgia for, or firsthand cultural experience of, what takes place in its story. Director Oliver Hermanus employs the technique of purposely leaving all emotion out of the film, opting instead to attempt an evocation of Stanley Kubrick in feeling and Terrence Malick in visuals. Cinematographer Jamie Ramsay provides some strikingly pretty pictures, but Hermanus makes the mistake of thinking Kubrick was a cold and unfeeling director. This common assumption is not true; viewers feel for Wendy and Danny, for HAL and for Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle, the tragic figure of “Full Metal Jacket.” I bring up Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam drama because much of “Moffie” takes place in a brutal boot camp specifically designed to turn teenagers into heartless killing machines. The recruits are tormented by Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser), who is just as brutal as R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant though far less interesting. Most of his dialogue consists of screaming out the N-word and the homophobic slur the subtitles translate whenever the film’s title is uttered. Unlike “Full Metal Jacket,” however, these grunts are virtually indistinguishable outside of our protagonist, Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer). When one frazzled recruit suddenly blows his own head off with his rifle, I questioned whether I’d met this character before. Nicholas looks on with a dazed, emotionless expression on his face, which is how he spends about 90 percent of this film. He is such a symbolic, one-dimensional drone that even the rare tender moment fails to evoke much of a response on his part. Sixteen-year-old Nicholas enlists in 1981 to serve the two years of military conscription required for all White men. We are told of this requirement in the opening titles, but the press release explains why it is necessary: “the threat of communism and ‘die swart gevaar’ (the so-called black danger) is at an all-time high. But that’s not the only danger Nicholas faces.” I wish I had read this release before watching the film, as it would have given me the foresight that this movie had no intention of speaking to a viewer like me. I may have been able to better calibrate my expectation. When the press release implies that the oppressed minority is a danger to its oppressor protagonist, it’s clear that the film aims to speak to, and identify with, the oppressor. This is an intriguing path to follow, as Hermanus is a Black director casting his film in an explicitly White gaze. The two times Black characters appear, they are either being racially abused by the adolescent recruits or killed by Nicholas. Their suffering is the sole characteristic of their humanity. That first scene implies that “Moffie” will interrogate apartheid in some fashion, but it does not, leaving me to wonder why that scene exists if the film intends to show the military’s role in fomenting hatred; these kids have already learned it at home. The latter scene occurs once the film pivots to war movie mode, showing the fruits of the military training’s labor. I was more interested in asking the director about his choices than watching them play out, reminding me of Gene Siskel’s question about whether a documentary about the film would be more interesting than the film itself. But I digress. As “Moffie” opens, Nicholas’ family is celebrating the night before his leave. He is given a girlie magazine as a going away present, a symbolic gesture because he’s about to be trained in the South African ideal of a straight White man who thinks Blacks are inferior. It’s also a useless gesture, as Nicholas is desperately hiding his homosexuality. The other gents at this party wax nostalgic about their fraternal experience, a nostalgia that would stick in the craw of a film unafraid of offending its core audience. Everybody has to endure this government-mandated hazing, and if you survive, you’re truly a man’s man. That other danger alluded to in the press release I cited is “Ward 22,” an asylum for those who even remotely convey a thought or characteristic that can be deemed homoerotic, or are either caught or accused of being in flagrante delicto with another recruit. We also hear of the brutal beatings that befall anyone who exhibits gayness, real or imagined. Hermanus is quite successful at showing the irony present in the inherent homoeroticism of training exercises, impromptu Fight Club-style brawls and group showers—the lingering camera gives off a “Military Twinks for Apartheid” vibe—but it barely registers as a proper juxtaposition to Nicholas’ muted attraction to another recruit, Stassen (Ryan de Villiers). I was frustrated by the way the film pussyfoots around their brief, tender and ultimately unresolved arc, though Hermanus tries to justify this by giving us a flashback to Nicholas’ youth. This is the only peek into the character’s psyche that we get, and it proves that Nicholas deserved to be more fleshed out than he is. The scene shows just how deeply ingrained homophobia is in the culture, as a very young Nicholas is dragged out of a locker room by a grown man who has accused him of ogling another boy in the shower. Its harrowing power is almost destroyed, however, because the entire scene is scored to a mopey cover of Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.” Needle drops like this are the bane of my critical existence. “Moffie” is based on a beloved autobiographical South African novel by André Carl van der Merwe. I have not read the book, but based on the adaptation, I assume there is a lot of internal monologue about its main character, things that cannot be translated properly into film. The movie was a hit in South Africa before the pandemic struck, leading me to believe that it had what its audience craved. But a film with this incendiary of a title needed to have more to say about being LGBT in a hostile environment. Dick Gregory named his autobiography after the N-word because he said that whenever someone uttered the slur, “they are advertising my book.” Perhaps that’s a common thread with van der Merwe. I can relate to the titles of both of these works, but my sexuality and my Blackness are a package deal. “Moffie” asks me to set one aside, to identify with someone who shares my affection but would hate me otherwise, then does everything in its power to be an unsatisfying punishment for my attempt. Quite frankly, I resented that. Your mileage may vary. Now playing at the IFC Center and available on demand.
- Heldby Glenn Kenny on April 9, 2021 at 11:51 AM
This movie opens with three dirtbags and a young woman drinking beer in a car. The unpleasant scene cuts away when the dirtbag at the steering wheel tells the woman she isn’t going anywhere and rolls up the car’s windows. In the next scene, it’s years later, and Emma, a woman near middle age whose face is tight and drawn, is being driven by an overly inquisitive ride service guy to a remote house. An overhead shot gives an idea of its remoteness; the plot on which the house sits is surrounded by impossibly neat trees stretching out past the borders of the frame. As we’ve inferred that Emma is the same character who suffered the implied gang rape in the movie’s opening, we share, maybe, the unease she feels about being in this solitary place. This solitary place equipped with what appears to be a state-of-the-art security system. Which provides her with enough of a comfort level that she can take a swim before her husband, Henry, arrives. This getaway is meant to put some spark back into their troubled marriage. But sparks, or at least errant electricity, start holding more sway over them after the house is taken over by a seemingly all-seeing entity that instructs the duo (in a really feeble faux-creepy deep voice) to “Obey. Obey. Obey. Obey.” When the couple doesn’t, husband or wife get very nasty high-voltage shocks. What the house wants them to do is … a lot. As the couple goes into their bedroom, Emma reaches to open the door and the faux-creepy deep voice says, “Stop. A man should open the door for his wife.” So, Henry opens the door. The voice then says “Mrs. Barrett. Smile and thank your husband.” Apparently the force controlling the house is kind of a combination Emily Post and construction worker. “Could it in fact be … the patriarchy?” I thought as the movie’s premise made its very fast journey from mildly intriguing to utterly tedious. Don’t laugh. And here I will cease with the plot points. For the most part. I’m spoiler-conscious even when I’m panning. The actor playing Emma is Jill Awbrey, who also wrote the script; the directorial reins are handled by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. This is the third feature for the duo, whose last feature was 2017’s “The Gallows Act II,” which I did not much care for. How little did I care for it? I said that the movie’s finale was “a rancid misogynist cherry atop a sloppy concoction of tired jump scares.” While I am hardly so egocentric as to think that as a critic I have any effect on filmmakers whatsoever (and nor is it my ambition to), I am slightly struck that Cluff and Lofing here take on a project with what I’ll call a strong feminist component—from a script that they themselves have characterized in a press release, or something, as “empowering.” But their direction doesn’t live up to their noble aspirations—the goofy voice is matched by an eyeroll-generating figure of the malevolent human who stalks the house, wearing what looks like a tighter, ebony variation on the Michael Myers mask. In addition, the movie’s big reveal is shamelessly derivative of a big-ticket, socially conscious 2017 horror movie, right down to the damn production design. The acting is at a level you might expect if Hallmark Movies and Mysteries suddenly decided to “go dark.” (As it happens, the performer playing Henry, Bart Johnson, has at least one Hallmark picture to his credit, and honestly I was not aware with that when I formulated my observation. Honest!) And while I understand the anger that animates Awbrey’s script, anger doesn’t excuse its overall weak argumentation, not to mention its rampant plot holes. Weird, too, given the movie’s ultimate theme, that the scenario seems to take place in a world in which the police have finally been fully defunded—there’s not even a hint of a possible authority institution here. Now playing in theaters and available on demand.
- ABC’s Rebel Wastes Talent on Fictional Version of the Erin Brockovich Legacyby Brian Tallerico on April 8, 2021 at 11:47 AM
Erin Brockovich serves as a producer on ABC’s “Rebel,” a show built around her celebrated ability to navigate unjust systems in her pursuit of justice. As a Brockovich avatar, the great and still-underrated Katey Sagal plays Annie “Rebel” Bello, a vocal warrior for justice who has difficulty balancing her personal life and very public causes. It’s not a bad idea for a Thursday night ABC drama in the mold of “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” the latter on which creator Krista Vernoff was a credited writer on over two dozen episodes. However, the execution is another story. The second episode settles into itself and moves away some of the premiere's more egregious flaws, but it’s still a misfire, more content with being atrociously manipulative than using its characters and concept in a manner that feels remotely genuine or nuanced. Subtlety may not be the hallmark of Thursday night dramas, but there’s still a breaking point and “Rebel” hits it. Rebel has a lot on her plate. In the first scene, she confronts a corporate bigwig (Adam Arkin) about a heart valve that has apparently caused more harm than good, killing too many patients with its defects. Rebel is working this case against a major corporation from every angle, and there’s something interesting here about how hard it can be for David to take on Goliath. It takes more than just passion and commitment. Outside of the public eye, Rebel is pushing the widower of her best friend, an attorney named Julian Cruz (Andy Garcia) to take the heart valve case. She’s also visiting patients, including a dying woman named Helen (Mary McDonnell), and trying to get her gynecologist son Nate (Kevin Zegers) to help lead a study into the defects. Of course, even that’s not enough for an ABC melodrama. Rebel has two other children, superficially feeling like yin and yang balances to their mom. On the one hand, there’s the supportive Ziggie (Ariela Barer), a recovering addict who works with Rebel. On the other hand, there’s an attorney named Cassidy (Lex Scott Davis), who works with Cruz and is being wooed by her more corporate world father Benji (James Lesure). There’s a BFF/investigator that Rebel uses named Lana (Tamala Jones), and even a case of the week in the premiere about an abused woman who fought back against her husband with a knife. I almost forgot: Rebel has a husband named Grady (John Corbett), who may or may not be cheating on her. Heart valves, abuse, miscarriages, death, addiction, infidelity—it’s a lot, and it’s all handled with the same superficial sensibility. Yes, Erin/Rebel fights the good fight, but the fight is diminished when plot points are used to push and manipulate. “Rebel” also doesn’t trust its audience, and it often doesn’t make sense—too few reasons are given as to why Cruz wouldn’t take a massive heart valve class action lawsuit beyond manufactured conflict, for example (although that's given some depth in the stronger second episode). Dialogue and plot points seem like they’re actively working against the cast. These are talented people, especially for the state of network TV in 2021, and the cast is enriched even further by the addition of the always-great Abigail Spencer in episode two. To be fair, modern network TV has an increasingly desperate habit of overreaching in pilot episodes. It makes sense in an era of increasing choices through the prominence of streaming services, that network TV boardrooms are more desperate than ever to grab viewers quickly. But the righteous screenwriting here has all the depth of a tweet, lacking any real character detail or complexity. Everyone is good or bad, everything is black or white, all conflicts are obvious, all sides are easy to take. At one point early in episode two, someone has the nerve to ask, “Did you read that on a tea bag?” I may or may not have yelled something at the screen about the whole show being written on a tea bag. What Steven Soderbergh so brilliantly captured in his film “Erin Brockovich” is reduced here to an archetype. Sagal, Garcia, McDonnell, Spencer, and even the strong young cast (none of them stand out as weaknesses) deserved better. These are past and potentially future award winners. Someone should fight back against the writing on this show that leaves them so desperately searching for something real to play. That’s the real injustice here. Two episodes screened for review.
- Pure Human: Neil Burger on Voyagersby Glenn Kenny on April 8, 2021 at 11:47 AM
Back in 2002, the screenwriters, directors, and show runners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, now the masterminds behind Showtime’s series “Billions,” asked me to come to a screening of a new film they produced. I was interested, but at the time I wasn’t living right, and was weary, and tried to beg off. This leads into a long story in which Spike Lee figures prominently and which I’ll save for my autobiography. In any event, I was persuaded to see the movie, “Interview with the Assassin,” written and directed by Neil Burger, and I’m still awful glad I did. The faux-documentary, concerning an errant journalist who’s convinced he’s discovered the man who “really” assassinated John F. Kennedy, is a tricky, smart, harrowing and provocative piece of filmmaking. Subsequently I got to know Burger, a personable gentleman with a great eye and story sense. And while I’ve enjoyed all his films, which also includes hits such as the YA sci-fi entry “Divergent” and the big-brain-pharma cautionary tale “Limitless,” I’m especially excited when Burger’s working from his own ideas, which can yield such gems as the criminally underappreciated 2007 picture “The Lucky Ones.” So I was excited in late 2019 about “Voyagers,” an original sci-fi picture he had shot in Romania with a cast that features Colin Farrell, Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, and Fionn Whitehead. The picture begins familiarly: in the future, Earth has become uninhabitable. A ship will travel to a new home. The question of how actual people are going to be able to step on a habitable planet that’ll take so many years to get to is solved, in part, by making the ship’s own voyagers children. Farrell plays an adult who volunteers to look after them, knowing he’ll spend his whole life confined to the ship. Sheridan, Depp, Whitehead and an all-around excellent ensemble of young actors are the rest of the ship’s inhabitants. As they grow up, and discover things about their upbringing and their mission that they were not meant to know, at least not right away, conflicts emerge. So do power struggles. Things get ugly and then deadly. I spoke with Neil about the picture a couple of weeks ago. The conversation has been edited for clarity—but not very much, given Neil’s own clarity. I want to talk about “Voyagers,” and talk about your journey in film, as we call it. To tie in your journey in film and this specific film itself, which I like a great deal, this is the first film you’ve done from an original idea in a while, no? It is. Yeah, I mean the first couple I did—“Interview with the Assassin” was original. I wrote it and directed it. “The Illusionist” was based on a very short story that I expanded quite a bit, and wrote the screenplay. “The Lucky Ones” was an original idea that I co-wrote, and then I ended up just doing a bunch of movies in a row that other people had brought to me. And so yes, this is a return to working from an original idea. Some of the pictures you didn’t generate from your own ideas were franchises. I know from knowing you that during all this time you continued developing projects that you wanted to do, that you generated, but didn’t happen. How did you get equanimity in terms of work? Doing work that you can do and bringing your passion to it, obviously, and doing work that is closer to your heart but have that scale that needs a strong sort of studio backing. Did your attitude for this come from your background in ads, or how do you get the sort of serenity to move from project to project? And how did you make sure that you’ve got a personal one like “Voyagers” done? Well, I had done advertising, you know, shot commercials initially, but my background before that was as a painter. And so I very much had that sense of what I'm making being my own personal expression. But as you said, I was always working on different things, and some of them rise to the top and some of them are too difficult to get made, or the actors don't come, or they fall apart at the last minute. I do think it’s important to keep working. And I feel like everything I’ve done I'm incredibly proud of, and I felt actually a personal relationship to, even something like “Divergent,” which is about a young woman in this sort of dystopic future. I was completely with her and her journey was really meaningful to me, and I couldn’t have done it otherwise. I couldn’t have created a visual palette for it or anything else, let alone a narrative one, without feeling incredibly deeply about it. And at the same time, yeah, I'm always writing and developing things for me to do. It’s hard to get movies made. You see filmmakers who make one after another that’s just theirs and it’s a very rare, lucky thing, and certainly something I'm always shooting for. And I’m happy to have, again, gotten back to a place where I wrote and directed and produced this and controlled it. “Voyagers” has a very tricky plot, but a viewer might not realize watching it the first time, how so much of it is driven by the characterizations and what they represent. The first person we really get to know is Colin Farrell’s character who’s super interesting; he really does represent the dictionary definition of altruism, in that he’s getting on this ship and sacrificing a part of himself and his life in order to help these kids. And not to reveal any spoilers, but the best laid plans don't always work out. I'm wondering what the inspiration for that was. Yeah. I think Colin’s character, Richard, has a real sort of thematic function in the sense that he does represent goodness and selflessness and self-sacrifice. And that’s very much a theme in the movie—why should we be good? If we’re all going to die in the end anyway, why can't we just do whatever we want anytime, without regard to how it affects any other people? It’s a potent question, you know, that we all deal with in small forms or large forms all the time. Nations deal with it, individuals deal with it. And he represents the version of selflessness. He really gives to these kids and, as you said, he sacrifices, really, the rest of his life for their well-being. And it actually is the thing that throws the switch of the storyline, too. If he hadn’t gone, the mission actually probably would’ve been okay. Because as good as he is, he’s also human and what the kids pick up from him, include his secrets and his own doubts about the mission. They sense it, and it has an effect on them. And when they sense it, they started to lose their faith in him, and their trust in him. They think that he wasn’t telling them the full truth, which he wasn’t and isn’t. That’s the beginning of the collapse. There’s a point in the film where the male teens discover they’re being fed something to make their hormones less rampage-prone. It reminds one of the old days of seafaring and saltpeter. And after that there’s a lot of scenes that look at it in that nature versus nurture, and the old saw about boys will be boys, and the old saw about how life, more specifically sex, will find a way. And these are all huge issues. Was your initial inspiration the themes, the story, or the characters? Well, I started off with some images in my head, actually, some things that just kind of came to me, which is often the way it works with me. And the first one that came into my head was just these young people kind of slumped around the inside of a very tight spaceship, or that’s what I gathered it to be … but in some sort of futuristic setting. They were kind of almost looking like they were resting after the hunt or something like that, and kind of in a disheveled state. And then the next image was chasing this kid down this narrow hall and catching him and attacking him. Those images are in the movie, but when I thought of those, well, they came to me and I was like, “What is that?” And I sort of thought about them more, and I kind of began to tease it out into a narrative idea. So out of those images, like a small scenario, and then a story, and then I understood; to me, those images became about human nature in a vacuum. And about who are we at our core, when we strip away all of our cultural influences? Whether you can really do that or not is another thing, but the concept of doing that: do we have a core set of values, a core set of sensibilities? Who are we? Are we good? Are we bad? Are we just animals? Are we evil? Do we tend to the good? And so I wanted the movie to be an exploration of that sort of, as I said, human—is there such a thing as being a pure human? When you talk about the imagery, this brings me to the design of the film. You’ve got them in this space that has a lot of components to it, but by necessity it’s practically claustrophobic. And so your own sense of visual design—obviously in sci-fi there are lots of precedents for the large scale space travel, going from “2001” to “Silent Running” and beyond. How did you work on the design, and how was the design accomplished? You shot in Europe, yes? We shot in Romania because we needed really big stages. I wanted the ship to feel real. You know, there obviously are real plans for going on multi-generational space flight and they involve a whole range of different sort of ships. But basically it’s very expensive, and it’s very energy intensive and the weight is a huge factor: the heavier you are, the more fuel it takes. So we tried to sort of think about the ship as kind of confined and small. And that they only have the bare minimum on the ship for eating, for sustaining life. So that was my initial idea; that it would be tight and it would confined. It wouldn’t be like a shopping mall in space or something like that, which you see in other sci-fi films these days. It’s just not practical. I wanted a kind of minimalism with the design, and I wanted it to be believable, that they’re in these narrow corridors that lead to these cramped compartments, and that’s where they live, that’s where they’re stuck living. And I also had this idea—again, going back to the idea of human nature in a vacuum—they’re like laboratory rats. The voyage is an experiment in a sense. So I wanted the look of the thing to be very clean and minimal, and so I decided it’s all going to be white. It’s just going to be white walls and white floor and white ceiling, which is—for DPs they’re like, “Not white. Please don't give me white.” And I was like, “No, we’re doing white and we’re going to make it work.” The ship is a character, but not because it’s got sort of spooky backwaters or things like that. It’s a character because it’s so intensely minimal and confined. So I also wanted to highlight that human nature by its minimalism. And same with the design of what the kids are wearing; just simple blue sort of T-shirts and sweatpants. Right, it’s white and blue. Even the weapons are white, and you’ve got the blue light reflecting off the white, which maybe mollified your DP a bit. It did a little bit, yeah. In developing the story, did you realize that you’ve got something, potentially, in a sub-genre here, e.g., almost YA in space? YA sci-fi, which is where “Divergent” also landed you. Yeah, sure. Having done “Divergent” were you comfortable to take that flight? Well, it’s interesting because I have to admit that I wrote “Voyagers” so long ago, it was before “Divergent” and “Hunger Games” and things like that. And at the time I was like, “Uh, what a good idea.” But then as time went on I was like, “Uh, maybe I don't want to make this because now it’s being done,” and also there were more space movies that were being done, “Gravity” and things like that. And I thought, “Well, maybe this is sort of past its expiration date.” But when I did do “Divergent” I must say working with a huge group of young people was really one of the greatest pleasures, and one of the things I'm most proud of in that movie is that cast. So once “Voyagers” started coming around again and it was like, “Uh, somebody wants to make this,” I got excited about it again. What’s interesting about a genre movie like this is that you actually can go right at the themes we were talking about. I mean, you can really ask those questions outright, which in a way, in other stories, you can’t quite do. The theme sort of emanates. But here we’re going right at it. I really welcomed the freedom to be able to go right at those thematic questions. Tell me about the cast, because it’s pretty powerful acting from everybody involved. How did you assemble those folks? Well, I mean luckily they responded to the script. I think the first person we had on was Colin Farrell. He really responded to the humanity of Richard’s character and the idea of a guy that in a way is packing for eternity. And what are the most essential things you bring with you? How do you bring the library of Alexandria with you, or some version of that? What volumes from that go with you? And then Tye came on, and then I met Lily-Rose. She knocked me out. I think she’s so good in the movie. Yeah, she really has something. And Tye is such a solid actor. And Fionn Whitehead came on—they all came and they all auditioned. Isaac Hempstead Wright came in and he read for that part and it was like he had it, you know? And Archie Madekwe is a great actor, and Madison Hu—I mean they’re all so strong and it was such a pleasure because they’re wise and talented beyond their years. You can just point the camera at them and they are fantastic. I want to talk about Fionn Whitehead’s character, Zac, a little bit. Once he gets the first taste of power, he just turns, and it’s pedal to the metal all the way. And you don't let him get a soft moment after that. It’s very extreme and I'm wondering if you felt that, given the political situation of the time when you were shooting it, you had the license to just make such an outright villain? He becomes such a demagogic monster with almost no redeeming qualities. I think in maybe a different context that might have seemed excessive. Well, from Zac’s point of view, he’s been confined in this ship against his will, not really knowing anything else, with no control over his life. And he’s smart enough that he senses that there’s something wrong about that. Obviously we know there’s something wrong about that, but his particular circumstance he doesn’t necessarily know anything different. But he’s smart enough to know that there is something wrong there. And so once he gets a taste of control and of power—and I don't mean power over people, not immediately, but just a little control over his existence—he’s not going back. He’s going to eat what he wants, he’s going to have sex with who he wants, he’s going to do what he wants, and it just snowballs. But you’re right. The movie’s very much about fear and fear mongering and how fear can be used by people for their own ends to get what they want. And obviously we have seen that in the political context. When I wrote it, I’d written that character before the last few years of the political life, and I sort of saw it more as a cautionary tale against willful ignorance, against irrational behavior or against rationality. Suddenly it was meaning a whole new thing. It suddenly was not a cautionary tale, it was just commentary on what was going on right now. He was always that character, but it took on more resonance. There’s a moment where he knows he’s done something wrong, but he just chooses never to concede or to go back. And there are people like that. I love how in so many of your films you are able to have this sort of sneaky undercurrent of narrative that keeps you off-balance. There’s a component concerning a menace to the ship that we as audience members will find … open to question. Right, right. And of course at a certain point in the narrative you do get unavoidable echoes of Lord of the Flies, albeit with now you’ve got all genders in the ensemble, which creates, certainly a good amount of difference. Were you comfortable with that influence or did you try to steer away from it? I was comfortable with that. I love that book and I love the Peter Brook movie. It’s interesting, though, because whenever you do a movie about young people sort of acting out, or society breaking down you get the inevitable Lord of the Flies comparison. It is obviously related to that. It’s different though, if you factor in what they were reverting, which was clearly the cultural stereotypes of their time, of the British Empire, of war and of hunting, of being a man in society according to that code. In “Voyagers” it’s different in the sense that the kids they have no reference. So then it’s, again, back to this idea of what’s pure human. Who are we? What should we be doing? Do we act out? Do we grab somebody? Do we hit somebody if they make us mad, if we have that urge, or do we contain that? Those are sort of the things that I was interested in. I was also very much looking at “Das Boot” because I liked the confinement of that, and I always sort of saw this movie as, well, obviously not a submarine movie, but I liked the sort of quality that a movie such as “Das Boot” has—of forced confinement and the almost literal pressure cooker created by that. Those were some of the influences, but yes I mean the Lord of the Flies is there. And there’s even some direct references to lines and things like that. I just decided to go for it, and I thought it was a meaningful place to depart from, to step up from, you know? You’ve shot in Europe before, but Romania is probably new to you? It is. We hadn’t shot in Romania. We shot in Romania because Romania has enormous stages that were not being used. In a way, I mean, obviously people have been shooting in Romania recently, but nobody had really been using these stages at Buftea Studio for a while. And they’re massive—as big as anything that’s at Pinewood, and they were just dormant. We did a little bit of work on patching roofs and things like that, fixing up office space and dressing rooms. Again, it was supposed to be a small spaceship, but it’s still big and massive and has lots of things in it. So with stages 300 feet long and 100 feet high we could really get that done. "Voyagers" arrives in theaters tomorrow, April 9.
- The Powerby Simon Abrams on April 8, 2021 at 11:46 AM
A light touch doesn’t suit the heavy themes in “The Power,” a horror psychodrama that’s specifically concerned with sexual misconduct and then more generally about the abuse of (you guessed it) power at a London hospital. These social issues are obviously broad enough to still be prevalent, but “The Power” is set in 1974, as an opening title card explains: “Trade unions and the government are at war. The economy is in crisis. Blackouts have been ordered to conserve power, plunging the nation into darkness every night.” This prefatory text suggests a class-based understanding of what happens to Val (Rose Williams), a meek trainee nurse who’s studying “the connection between poverty and health” (her words) when she’s visited and possessed by a ghost at the East London Infirmary. Val’s topic of study is worthy, as is the filmmakers' focus on the many little ways that Val is pressured (both socially and professionally) to keep quiet about, uh, everything that happens at the hospital. Unfortunately, the Infirmary’s chain of command is often more interesting than the secrets that Val must keep under her nurse’s cap. And while systemic abuse is often overwhelming because of its universality, the inciting details of Val’s problems are too impersonal to be disturbing. So it’s not surprising that Val, being a meek but well-meaning do-gooder type, takes a moment to discover what’s really going on at the East London Infirmary. First she accidentally embarrasses her supervisor, the school-marmish Matron (Diveen Henry), who warns Val that she must follow the Matron’s instructions on how to wear her work uniform (skirt three inches below the knees) and when to talk to the staff doctors (pretty much never, since “they communicate above your level”). Val doesn’t break these rules willingly: she’s asked impertinent questions (ie: for her professional opinion) by the young and unusually warm Dr. Franklyn (Charlie Carrick). Franklyn’s status presents a credible damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t dilemma, the kind that often arises when you get contradictory instructions from two different bosses. So the hospital’s Matron punishes Val by assigning her to the night shift on her first day. That decision inevitably leads Val to discover something that may or may not be haunting the Infirmary. I say “inevitably” because “The Power” is a possession flick, complete with spastic heaving, disbelieving co-workers, and a frightened pre-teen who tries and fails to warn everybody about the dangers that (mostly) come at night. Most of the items on this formulaic checklist are used well enough, but none of them are surprising or so well-realized that they’re still compelling. In fact, the weakest parts of “The Power” are the ones where a dark, melancholy ambience is meant to carry the movie, especially when an invisible presence takes control of Val’s body and shakes her like a ragdoll. The most memorable of these scenes is the one where an unseen hand lifts Val’s skirt over her knees, which are presented from behind; a chorus of ghostly, Penderecki-esque moaning can be heard on the soundtrack, but it doesn’t add much to the sequence. I don’t know if that’s the image you want your genre movie to be remembered for, but it does stand out, if only for its sheer brake-tapping gentility. The rest of “The Power” isn’t as jarring. A lot of the dialogue, which is credited to writer/director Corinna Faith, is dry and insistent. Take for example any scene where Val’s colleagues talk about the above-mentioned pre-teen, Saba (Shakira Rahman). Saba, being a young person of color who doesn’t speak fluent English, is treated as an abstract thought problem by Val’s stereotypically prim and/or disengaged peers. Saba is also presumably who Matron refers to when she peevishly tells Val that “The connection [between poverty and health] is that people around here live like animals.” Even Terry (Nuala McGowan), one of the other night shift nurses, treats Saba as less than human. Referring to Val’s rapport with Saba, Terry smirks: “Will ya look at that? Snow White has a way with the animals.” These comments are so obviously wrong as to be waved away uncritically: even working-class people can become jaded enough to be cruel. That’s what a little power does, as the title suggests. Still, Terry’s “Snow White” crack is also basically accurate: Val’s character is simple enough to be reduced to her purity. She’s new, she’s determined, and she means well, so she’s ostensibly sympathetic. That’s enough to keep things going during the movie’s first half, which mostly concerns the hospital as a bureaucratic microcosm of competing personalities. But eventually, Val needs to be more than just a generic symbol of right-minded martyrdom, and she’s never allowed to become more than that. The circumstances of her suffering are too slight to register, making it hard to feel anything for Val beyond a general sympathy. That may be enough for already-invested horror buffs, but everyone else can sit this one out. Now available on Shudder.
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