automata

automataAutomata, a bit of Spanish-Bulgarian science fiction from 2014, begins in familiar territory. A post-apocalyptic world. A monolithic city with the remains of humanity huddled inside. A vast, radioactive wasteland. And, naturally, sentient robots.

Many films have made these components work. But despite some talented actors, dramatic scenery, and the best of intentions, Automata does not manage to bring its vision fully to life. After a strong start, Automata falls into the trap of easy sentimentality and loses its way.

***

Automata is set in 2044, after the world has effectively ended. Humankind has been reduced to a only few million, living in fortress-like cities and served by ROC Corporation’s Pilgrim 7000s–humanoid robots designed for protection and manual labor. The robots operate under two immutable protocols: They cannot cause harm to any living thing, and they cannot repair or modify themselves or any other robot.

And then, one is discovered making its own modifications.

Insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan is assigned to find out who broke the robotic protocols and enabled the robot’s new ability. His search leads him deep into the remains of society’s underbelly, where he encounters dirty cops, dirtier corporate enforcers, child assassins, robotic sex slaves, black market “clocksmiths,” and, eventually, evolving, self-determining robots.

***

automataVisually, the cityscape is very much Blade Runner, right down to the rain, but without all the teeming people. The depopulation aspect spoke more to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, while the dull cubicle apartments hearkened back to Brazil.

Yet despite its obvious derivativeness, Automata’s worldbuilding is pretty good. The aged machinery, the old cars, and the ancient tech all contribute to the weariness of the world. What is left is either industrial and dirty, with monolithic structures and walls, piles of garbage, or a bleak, dusty wasteland. The culture is adapted to the conditions without becoming outlandish. The slang seems unforced, with the bulky robots nicknamed “clunkers” and the radioactive desert called the Sandbox.

But Automata is less successful with building its characters.

***

automataThe cast, overall, is overqualified and quite good, but many of the roles are flatly written or simply stock-types, too underdeveloped to be fully alive.

Antonio Banderas stars as Jacq Vaucan, an insurance investigator sucked into the heart of a mystery. He is as brooding and mournful as ever, bringing a believable jadedness to his character. Dylan McDermott is threatening, cynical, and wasted as the corrupt cop, Wallace. Robert Forster plays Jacq’s supervisor Robert Bold believably as a worn-down but still compassionate company man. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen plays Jacq’s pregnant wife, Rachel, with convincing frustration and fear. Melanie Griffith, on the other hand, fails to convince as the robot-altering clocksmith, Doctor Dupré, with her baby voice and painfully slow delivery. She is more credible as the voice of the modified robot Cleo. 

The remaining cast is filled out by Tim McInnerny, Andy Nyman, David Ryall, Andrew Tiernan, Christa Campbell, Bashar Rahal, and, surprisingly, Javier Bardem. The actors’ talents far outshine the scopes of their roles.

***

automataAutomata’s plot also has problems. The film wants us to believe it is deep, but it is more stylish than substantive. The story builds steadily until Jacq leaves the city and enters the desert with a group of robots. From there, the plot loses its focus enough that at a reasonable 109 minutes, Automata felt padded. The long, sweeping scenes of desert and sky, the multiple flashbacks to the sea, the lingering close-ups of automata, all add length without contributing any needed development of the characters or story.

For all the visual grandeur, Automata is far less philosophically nuanced than Ex Machina or even Chappie. The robots are credited with incredible intelligence that far outstrips humanity’s. Unfortunately this intellect is expressed in soppy platitudes like, “Surviving is not relevant–living is,” and in creepy human-robot interactions that fail to highlight the intelligence of either species. Characters frequently toss out the idea that someone thought a robot was alive, but the implications of a living robot are addressed in a cursory, melodramatic way. The idea that the automata have become autonomous remains unexplored. The attempted religious overtones are not supported by the underlying themes, and the predictable action and sentimentality of the ending feels lazy rather than revelatory.

***

Automata is no classic, but it is not entirely a waste of time. While the plot is thin and the story stretched, the film is still quite beautiful. Banderas turns in one of his reliably lovely, melancholy performances, and the supporting cast is polished. In the end, I enjoyed it for what it is–an average film that wants to be more, but never does figure out how to get there.

Dark City

dark city Dark City, Alex Proyas’s 1998 follow-up to his legendary The Crow, is an ambitious, overfull classic in its own right. I had not seen it since it was a new release on VHS, and wondered about how well it would hold up twenty years on. It did not disappoint.

Dark City remains gorgeously noir, infused with cyberpunk and steampunk elements as well as touches of horror and romance. Although its inspirations are often obvious, it twists them together into an ambitious homage that provided its own inspiration to later films.

“I feel like I’m living out someone else’s nightmare”

The story moves at a fast pace, opening in the middle of a mystery and immediately taking a series of sharp, strange turns. The only difficulty I have with it is a too-sentimental conclusion.

John Murdoch wakes up in an unfamiliar apartment with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He doesn’t know the murdered woman he stumbles over, or who the people chasing him are. With the help of a mysterious psychiatrist, Murdoch begins to piece together what has happened to him.

He discovers that the world is run by the Strangers, alien creatures who inhabit dead humans and psychically control the city and everyone in it. The Strangers reconfigure the physical world every night–and the population, as well. People are changed out for each other, their memories stolen and reassigned, their social roles and relationships altered. It is all a grand experiment. The Strangers want to understand what it is to be human.

But part of the experiment has gone wrong, and now Murdoch has the same psychic powers as the Strangers.

“The city is ours. We made it”

Dark CityProyas’s highly stylized vision is a wonder to behold. The effects are familiar now because they have been used in many films since (most notably The Matrix, which even filmed on some of the sets used in Dark City, and Inception–I’d even say Doctor Strange felt its influence). But they are still effective, and carry the story along rather than overwhelming it.

Beside the special-effect wonders of a city in motion through frangible time and space, more traditional techniques are just as vital to the film’s style. This is where the impact of film noir on Proyas’s work truly shows. Lighting is used to great dramatic effect, with fragments of jewel tones standing out sharply from the dull, dark world, mimicking the bright fragments of memory the characters try to hold on to. Light is constantly framed and limited by swallowing darkness. The smoky nightclub, the shadowy pool, the bright but dingy automat all contribute to the interplay between the seen and unseen.

“A cure for their own mortality.”

Dark CityWith the exception of Rufus Sewell’s John Murdoch and Colin Friels’s Detective Walenski, the performances are all also highly stylized in a way that highlights the unreality of the situation.

Murdoch awakens in confusion and panic, while Walenski slowly comes to his realization–but their actions and reactions make sense as they discover the instability of the world and their memories of it,

Kiefer Sutherland’s Doctor Schreber already knows what is going on, and he is played with a strange, strained, out of breath speech pattern that manages to convey the moral agony of the man. Jennifer Connelly’s Emma is acted entirely at a remove, as if her very real passions were being felt from a distance. William Hurt’s Inspector Bumstead shares Emma’s distant affect, with the undercurrent of knowing there is more to his life but unable to remember it.

But the Strangers are the most stylized of all. Visually, the alien hosts are constructed from a multitude of cultural references, from Nosferatu to Bat Boy, with a dash of the dying, unhelmeted Darth Vader for good measure. Their physical sameness reinforces the idea of the insectile hive mind driving them.

“The only place home exists is in your head”

dark cityDark City won both the Saturn and Bram Stoker Awards in 1998, and was nominated for the Hugo. But then it sort of slipped away from wider recognition. It barely earned back its production cost, but the film’s lack of box-office success belies its resonance. While hardly the first film to present a world where reality is an illusion, Dark City did it with an emotional center that still connects.

That much, I remembered.

 

Ghost Stories

ghost storiesGhost Stories is a low-key movie that blends the supernatural and the mundane into a genuinely eerie episodic tale. In structure Ghost Stories is a loose anthology, with the traditional three short stories surrounded by the framing story. But instead of tying everything neatly together, the framing story becomes more and more disjointed until it finally falls apart entirely. What is revealed is frightening, but not in the way you would expect.

Ghost Stories uses all the trappings of traditional supernatural fare, with revenants, wild devils, and irresistibly spooky places creating the chills. There are well-placed jump scares, but no blood and little violence. It doesn’t need it. The fine cast and mysterious episodes are quite terrifying without any gore.

“Like everyone else I presumed you were dead.” “How do you know I’m not?”

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories begins with Phillip Goodman, a professor who has devoted his life to debunking claims of the paranormal. He is summoned to a remote seaside caravan by Charles Cameron, a fellow debunker who disappeared many years earlier. Cameron gives Goodman three cases he has not been able to disprove, and challenges him to show that the cases can be explained as ordinary events.

The first is a night watchman at an abandoned asylum, tormented by the ghost of a young girl. The second is a teenaged boy who ran into the Devil on a lonely road. The last is a successful businessman haunted by a poltergeist, who may be his wife who died giving birth to a monstrous child.

It soon becomes clear that Goodman is somehow connected to these cases. For him, that is the scariest thing of all.

“No frayed edges, no loose ends, all straight, all smooth”

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories is full of strange cuts and stutters in the visual flow, building the sense of unreality. The colors are rich but diminished by a wintery, overcast light. Scenes are set in desolate, run-down places full of trash and broken things, or in spaces so sleek and spare there is no human warmth to them. The atmosphere these techniques create is one of loneliness and threat, with no safe place to run to.

The film loses some of its sharp edge when it borrows too obviously. Ghost Stories lifts the rushing-over-the-ground effect straight from Evil Dead, and the tearing of the fabric of reality is a familiar trick from multiple films. Still, though, the obvious cribbing can’t weaken the overall sense of dread.

“I don’t want anyone thinking there’s anything wrong with me”

Ghost StoriesThe film is written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, based on their play of the same name. Nyman also stars in it as the brittle, troubled Phillip Goodman. Martin Freeman plays the overachieving businessman Mike Priddle, with his usual likability buried under arrogant cynicism. Alex Lawther is heartbreaking as the fragile, terrorized teenager Simon Rifkind, while Paul Whitehouse is effectively blunt as the beleaguered watchman Tony Matthews.

Watching these characters suffer as they try to understand their experiences is as disturbing as the horrors themselves. 

“The brain sees what it wants to see”

Ghost Stories sets itself in the vast grey area between supernatural phenomena and a mind’s tricks on itself to craft its sad and spooky narrative. Objective truth doesn’t matter, here. The twist in the tale makes the anthology’s conclusion a moral tragedy. But it doesn’t lessen any of the fears–real or imagined.

Mandy

MandyMandy isn’t the kind of movie that can be ranked on a scale of good to bad. It it horror? Action? Satire? There is too much of everything going on to pin it down. It has a seventies-style murder cult. It has early eighties Satanic monsters. It has timeless, Z-grade movie revenge fantasy. And it has Nicholas Cage in a star turn, chewing the scenery to shreds with unwavering passion and enthusiasm. And still, so help me, this goofy, dreamy, blood-spattered mess pretty much works.

“So, what you hunting?”

Mandy is at its heart that old story of love and revenge. It begins with Red smoking, scowling, and cutting down a tree with a chainsaw. He returns home to his girlfriend Mandy, who is oblivious to the world as she creates her fantasy art. In a tidy bit of foreshadowing, Red wants to move away from their isolated house in the woods. Mandy wants to stay.

It isn’t long before the leader of a religious cult notices Mandy and becomes fixated on her. Naturally, the cult summons a demonic biker gang, captures Mandy and Red in their isolated house in the woods, and does some very bad things. Unfortunately for the cult, killing Red isn’t one of them. They make the mistake of leaving him wounded, bereaved, and alive–which sets the stage for vengeance, mayhem, and a whole lot of Nicholas Cage grimacing like a maniac.

“Bikers and gnarly psychos”
mandy
A quiet night at home

The cast does a remarkable job with some very strange material, and the performances are balanced between the absurd and the sublime. Nicholas Cage is the center of the film as  as Red, muttering and screaming in anguish, in pain, in battle, pulling out all the stops in a riveting orgy of overacting. 

In contrast, Andrea Riseborough turns in a beautifully underplayed performance as Mandy. Riseborough resembles Shelly Duvall in The Shining, and her Mandy seems to exist half in this world and half in her own imagination. Her flattened inflection is hauntingly realistic when she speaks–which makes her mocking laughter all the more devastating when she lets it out.

mandy
Gotta have a religious cult

Linus Roache plays Jeremiah Sand, the charismatic cult leader, with the depraved mania of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. His Jeremiah is intense, crazy, dangerous, and musically-inclined, just like Charles Manson. Also like Manson, his followers refer to their victims as “pigs”.

Filling in the rest of the characters are Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouere, and Hayley Saywell as cult members, Bill Duke as Red’s well-armed friend Caruthers, and Richard Brake as a psychic drug maker with a pet tiger.

“You’re a special one, Mandy”
mandy
Enough said

For all its weirdness, Mandy is a deliberate, artful piece of movie-making. Each component supports the precisely off-kilter whole.

Live action is interspersed with psychedelic animated segments, turning Mandy into a spacey and hallucinogenic experience. The pacing of the entire film is slow, with elongated scenes and fantastic imagery that make watching it feel like seeing a video for a concept album. The music certainly helps build that feeling, with a dirgelike opening song and a creepy synthesiser soundtrack.

The dialogue manages to be off the cuff, over the top, deadly serious, and pure pulp snark nearly simultaneously. There is plenty of intentionally garbled mysticism tossed in from all directions, creating an air of ironic self-importance and pseudo-profundity. Characters veer between deep thoughts and bad jokes and back again.

The whole film feels at once familiar and alien, using recognizable references to other horror/thriller movies but giving them a very wry twist. In addition to the hints of Charles Manson, there are the Black Skull bikers that look like cousins to the Hellraiser crew, an image like the vampire boy at the window in Salem’s Lot played in reverse, and a location named Crystal Lake.

Mandy is the kind of film that flatly dares you to try to categorize it.

Oh, Mandy
mandy
More than enough said

Mandy’s strange vision is hard to process. The action doesn’t really start until nearly three quarters of the way through the movie, when Nic Cage’s Red is covered in blood and coked to the gills, with a crossbow and a battle axe in hand. There are stagey, cartoonish kill scenes any slasher film would be proud of, spectacular and cheesetastic gore, and one of the oddest chainsaw duels I’ve ever seen.

But I enjoyed this movie far more than I ever thought I would. Mandy is a tour de force for Cage, and a hell of a ride for the rest of us.

 

ghoul

ghoulGhoul, the new three-episode miniseries from Netflix, generates its chills with a blend of tried-and-true tropes borrowed from multiple well-known films and a dash of modern dystopia. While the derivative nature of the scares is a downside, Ghoul political dimension provides a different layer of darkness. Overall the film is a predictable but effectively-done horror movie, with an engaging cast and plenty of well-placed gore.

“False sense of patriotism that seems to be spreading through the country.”

Ghoul unfolds in a near-future India that has fallen into fascism, with secret prisons, brutal re-education, enforced political orthodoxy, and questions of how religion impacts patriotism.

The story centers on Nida, a young Muslim woman training to be a government interrogator. Her father refuses to toe the political line. She turns him in, choosing patriotism over faith and family. Soon after, she finds herself assigned to a secret interrogation center where the arrival of a dangerous new prisoner sends the whole command structure spiralling into chaos and death.

Nida is played with great sincerity by Radhika Apte. S. M. Zaheer is her stubborn, seditious father. Manav Kaul is sympathetic as the drunk and troubled Colonel Sunil Dacunha, the man in charge of the prison. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s Lieutenant Laxmi Das is convincingly twisted as Dacunha’s duplicitous second in command. And Mahesh Balraj brings a creepy stoicism to the monstrous terrorist Ali Saeed.

“The ghoul shows as the reflection of our guilt.”

ghoulAnyone who watches horror movies will recognize plenty of familiar tropes. But an old story told well is still worth watching. And I think Ghoul tells its old story well.

The film is atmospheric, with a haunted house vibe that uses the desperation of The Blair Witch Project, the industrial oppression of Alien, and the paranoia of The Thing among its many inspirations.

Visually, the decrepit prison setting where Ghoul happens is also very familiar. Built as a bunker against nuclear attack, the site is of course not in any official records. But the film adds a few extra details that ramp up the totalitarian mood. Black-painted windows disguise night and day. Exterior shots of brutalist architecture reinforce the heavy-handed repression at work in this society. The incessant rainfall outside the massive buildings produces its own claustrophobia.  Everything is bleak, dull, and colorless, except for the stunning splashes of red when the monster is revealed.

And the reveal comes quickly. Unlike the graveyard-dwelling, corpse-eating demon of pre-Islamic folklore, the ghoul in Ghoul is a demon of vengeance summoned in retribution. It takes the form of the last person whose flesh it ate, but here it teases out confessions of guilt before it attacks.

“Finish the task, reveal their guilt, eat their flesh”

ghoulGhoul is written and directed by Patrick Graham with inconsistent levels of subtlety. The dialogue is at times very formal and stagey, with power struggles and plot turns telegraphed far in advance. The plotting is slow, grim, and pointed. Terrorism and political orthodoxy are major themes, as is suspicion of any display of faith. If there was any doubt about the point Graham was aiming at, the pile of pulled gold teeth and a crematorium should remove it. The three episodes could have easily been trimmed to two hours. The padding betrays its origins as an intended feature film.

It is still creepy as hell. The slowness, the obvious references, even the predictability of events do not diminish the skill of the cast and the strength and style of the storytelling. Ghoul may not break any new ground, but it is a solid reminder of why stories like it continues to be retold.

evolution

evolutionThe odd and resonant Evolution is a beautiful and seductive slice of art-house horror. Written and directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, the French-language film circles around its central mysteries without addressing them directly. Its elusive nature is one of its greatest strengths. Evolution left me wondering what the rest of the story could be, but it was satisfying all the same.

***

Evolution is told through the point of view of Nicolas, one of several young boys being raised on a barren, rocky island. The island is populated solely by the boys and their respective mothers, and the nurses and single doctor of the island’s clinic. The boys all resemble each other, as do the mothers, as do the nurses. Their lives are a monotony of the mothers taking the boys to the sea, washing them, dressing them, feeding them, medicating them. At intervals the boys are brought to the clinic. While the boys are allowed to play they are not permitted to swim.

But Nicolas does swim, one day, and sees what he believes is a boy’s body tangled among the rocks far beneath the surface. His mother brushes Nicolas’s story away as imagination after she investigates. But her denial only raises Nicolas’s suspicions, and he begins to doubt what he has been told. His experiences at the clinic deepen his misgivings about what is happening to him and the other boys. A sympathetic nurse reveals some of the secrets of the island’s inhabitants, allowing Nicolas to recognize that his mother has been lying to him all along.

***
evolution
Nicolas, Mother, and Stella

The cast is tiny, with the focus almost entirely on only three actors. Their restrained performances carry the film easily. Max Brebant is fascinating as the main character, Nicolas–a strange, impassive child who conveys emotion with blinks and sharp intakes of breath. Julie-Marie Parmentier plays the character known only as Mother with the kind of cool, dutiful, detached affection reserved for other people’s pets. And Roxane Duran portrays the kind nurse, Stella, who actually does love Nicolas–although we can only speculate why.

***

Evolution is also an incredibly subtle film, and watching it is like watching a dream unfold. The dry landscape of the island is grey and stark, while the world beneath the sea is rich with color and life. The film moves slowly, and with a finely-controlled sense of what will be left unknown. There are lingering scenes of the ocean, closeups of the characters’ pale faces, repeated, ritualized scenes of the children’s daily routines and of the women taking lanterns to visit the sea at night. The susurrus of the sea, the crunch of feet on sand and gravel, and the murmur of soft voices make up the soundtrack, with only the barest synthetic tones added to certain scenes.

evolution
The clinic

But the film is also ripe with nightmare images. There are shelves full of malformed fetuses preserved in jars. The dim and decayed hospital where the boys waste away drips with water and sagging paint. Food is grey and muddy, and looks as if it is filled with worms.  Even blood takes on a greenish tone when it is spilled.

And the distortion of reproductive roles creates powerful discomfort. There is the bizarre birth ritual enacted by the mothers, the rapt faces of the nurses as they watch and rewatch a film of a caesarian section being performed, the experiments on the boys that echo the way male seahorses carry their young. The intimate interactions between the boys and the women around them are not exactly sexual but are still deeply uncomfortable to watch.

***

Evolution haunts me as a blend of folklore, fairy tale, and exquisite body horror. At first glance it seems a superficial story, but Nicolas’s naivete underscores how much more to this film lies below the surface. This is not a case of an underdeveloped plot stretched to movie length. Evolution is instead a rich, convoluted tale which we can only glimpse through the eyes of someone who is unaware of the bigger picture. It is artful, and disturbing, and quietly horrifying. I highly recommend it.

Ant Man and The Wasp

Ant Man and The WaspAnt Man and The Wasp is very much like its predecessor–a lightweight, likeable Marvel Universe flick that is still essentially a throw-away. It has the same cast as the first movie, the same tricks, and a little bit of story arc for an audience to invest in. Ant Man and The Wasp does introduce some potentially interesting new characters, but it is ultimately an exercise in getting from the first Ant Man to whichever Marvel blockbuster Scott Lang is meant to show up in next.

Some Minor Spoilers Ahead

The usual suspects are all back.  Paul Rudd is still charming as Ant Man, but he isn’t allowed to be as warm and funny as he was in the first movie. More emphasis is placed on his dad skills this time around. Evangeline Lilly continues to be intense and hyper-competent as Hope, while Michael Douglas continues to be snarky and arrogant as Hank Pym.

Michelle Pfeiffer joins the cast as Janet van Dyne, in a role so predictable I wonder why she did it. We also get Laurence Fishburne as Bill Foster, an old frenemy of Hank Pym from their SHIELD days, and Hannah John-Kamen as Ghost/Ava. I truly hope she gets her own movie someday. The perfunctory overview of her origins and her relationship with Foster raised a whole lot of questions I would like to see answered.

Despite the star power of the main characters, the secondaries are the real interesting ones. Michael Peña’s Luis owns every scene he is in. Randall Park is great as the awkward FBI agent Jimmy Woo, while Walton Goggins is cheerfully sleazy as black marketeer Sonny Burch. Unfortunately, T.I., David Dastmalchian, and Bobby Cannavale were given far less to do than in the first Antman–and the film suffers for it.

Stay On Target!

Overall, it’s a strange mix of too little and too much.

The plot comes across to me as flat and perfunctory, with the characters moving through the script without truly believing any of it. The action is solidly done but meaningless, since only some of the characters rise enough above caricature to make it worth caring about their outcomes. Which is a shame, because the cast is certainly capable.

Piling on that weak foundation are too many problems for any one of them to really matter. We are presented with a dangerous new antagonist in Ghost, a quest to bring the original Wasp out of the quantum realm where she has been trapped for the last thirty years, a persistent probation officer, and a wanna-be crime lord looking to steal Hank Pym’s discoveries. In between all that, our hero is doing his best to be a good dad to his daughter, despite being an ex-con superhero currently riding out house arrest.

The incredible shrinking quantum lab is pretty neat, as is giant Ant Man wading into the harbor to retrieve it. Scott Lang’s suit issues are an effective running gag, and the giant ant hanging out in Scott’s apartment is good silly fun. But the fun stuff isn’t enough to lift Ant Man and The Wasp above its issues.

What Bugs Me

I wanted to like Ant Man and The Wasp. I like the actors, I like the characters, I like the gimmicks. But the whole film ended up being less than the sum of its parts. Once again, Marvel puts Ant Man into a cotton-candy movie that is fun while it lasts but no longer–and, this time, less entertaining than it should have been.

they remain

 

they remain
Is this really happening?

They Remain is an unusual horror movie in that it is not actually horrific. Instead it is creepy, and quiet, and very, very weird. Considering it’s source material is Laird Barron’s short story “–30–”, I’d be disappointed if it weren’t.  This is a slow, meandering movie that seems to exist outside of time. Rather than a story of otherworldly monsters and rites, They Remain gives us barely any story at all. What we witness instead is the slow decay of two people left alone for too long.

The Plot Thickens

Two scientists have been assigned to search for…something…in an area deep in woodlands where a murderous cult was once active. Rebecca Henderson as Jessica is a cool and methodical biologist, while William Jackson Harper as Keith is a more wary and guarded field researcher . They have been sent into the wilds by their unnamed company on a three month-long mission. What they are hoping to find is never made clear, although it is tied to the cult’s decades-old activities.

The cult’s murders were investigated decades earlier, but Jessica hints that much of what they did is still unknown. Their limited outside contact taunts them with rumors of other terrible things that have happened in these woods more recently. They find evidence that terrible things may have been going on here for centuries. Nothing is definite. All their tests and data cannot confirm anything. They run experiments, but their findings lead nowhere.

they remain
Bad choices

As the days drag on the scientists’ sense of isolation becomes suggestive and overpowering. Keith and Jessica begin to feed each other’s suspicions and fears. They see things, hear, things, dream things that cannot be rationally explained. They come to believe what they see, hear, and dream–but are their perceptions flashbacks or hallucinations?

Finally, after watching the characters degrade under the weight of uncertainty, They Remain explodes in violence and a terrible sense of having made the wrong choices. It is a disturbing note to end on–there are no explanations, let alone answers. We, and the characters, are as lost as when we started.

How? What? Why?
they remain
The nature of things

They Remain is beautiful to look at. Much of the running time is filled with close shots of the sky and trees and mossy, fallen trunks, and of Keith staring into the distance as he sits alone in the forest. The events take place from September to November, so we get to watch the leaves turn.

The connected white geodomes Keith and Jessica live and work in  stand in sterile contrast to the otherwise natural setting. But bits of the natural world also turn up out of place, from wasps and swarming ants to flowers suddenly blooming. The sense of vague but growing unease is deepened with dreamy, slightly discordant background music and clipped, brittle, sometimes overly formal dialogue. The effect is one of distance. Everything is presented at a remove. We are not allowed to connect with the characters or their experiences. If they reach any conclusions, we are not privy to them.

What Remains

They Remain is undeniably offbeat, and off putting. The bleak mood it produces reminds me very much of Event Horizon, but without the grandeur or horror elements. Slowly growing madness and obscure cosmic influences are not easy to portray on film,  but I think writer/director Philip Gelatt’s decision to keep the plot, cast, and effects to a minimum for the most part succeeds. In the end I enjoyed it, and am still thinking about it, but I can’t say I liked it. They Remain is not a great movie, but a good enough one–the kind you watch simply to be weirded out.

cargo

 

cargo
Into the unknown

Cargo begins with so much potential. A zombie plague. A family struggling to survive. The wilds of rural Australia. A top-notch cast to bring it to life. It packs a real emotional punch inside a small story. And then…it loses momentum and falls back on several common stereotypes and sentiment to fill in the gaps. Cargo is a good movie, but it should have been better.

Some small spoilers ahead

Set in an Australia ravaged by a zombie-creating virus, Andy, Kay, and their infant daughter Rosie, are struggling to find a safe haven from the end of the world. When Kay is attacked and infected they must change their plans to get her help. But she turns, attacks, and infects Andy before they find any, and he is left alone to save Rosie before he also turns into the undead.

cargo
Family is where you find it

Martin Freeman is his sincere, exceptional self as Andy, a man out of his element and trying to keep his family alive. Suzie Porter is a great match as his wife Kay, strong and determined and brave in the face of inevitable disaster. And newcomer Simone Landers is completely convincing as Thoomi, the young Aboriginal girl trying desperately to save her own father before she joins up with Andy and Rosie.

The small cast is filled out by Bruce R. Carter and Natasha Wanganeen as Thoomi’s parents, and David Gulpilil as the tribal elder Daku–the Clever Man. Kris McQuade, Anthony Hayes and Caren Pistorius are other struggling survivors.

Cargo is all about family

Cargo is not actually scary–the effect it produces is more unsettling and sad, with some very striking monster reveals. But as an addition to the already-loaded zombie genre it works, and works pretty well.

Some of the strongest scenes in the movie are the early ones between Andy and his wife, as they struggle to make increasingly urgent life and death decisions, first as healthy humans and then as infected pre-zombies. The later development of a family bond between Andy and Thoomi is also surprisingly touching and believable, if at times throwing a heartbreaking amount of emotional weight onto the child.

cargo
Other monsters

Cargo also chooses to touch on major social issues like racism, funding cuts to resources in aboriginal areas, and environmental concerns about fracking. Given the characters involved, it makes sense to be aware of the issues even if they are not dealt with in depth. There is, after all, a zombie apocalypse going on.

However, the other side of acknowledging the issues is turning them into cliched plot devices. The racist, survivalist gas-line worker and the Aborigines shown as noble savages are reduced to stereotypes, and cheapen an otherwise compelling plot.

And another thing…

Unfortunately, with such a small cast and limited focus, Cargo’s 105 minutes prove too long to spend on telling the story. In between genuine character development and forward plot motion, the pacing lags. There are too many long shots of Andy trudging through the outback with his daughter strapped to his back and slow-motion scenes of Aboriginal warriors destroying the undead. While the scenery is beautiful, less of would have been enough.

But there are also some wonderful details.

The government-issue medical kits are a great, grim touch, with their basic fact sheet, wristband timer, mouthguard, cuffs, and spring-loaded spike for ending it all. The variations on the old zombie theme are bizarre and intriguing, with the copious, sticky pus and the need to hibernate in the dark. And the carrot and stick trick is brilliant, if a bit overwrought at the end.

Carrying on

The real strength of Cargo is the intimate drama of it, and the 2013 short Cargo was based on was as tightly put together as anyone could wish. Stretching it to feature length required some padding and diluted the raw power of a man’s determination to save his child. In the end Cargo is a movie that, while beautifully made and touchingly acted, ends up being less than it should be because it thought it needed to be more.

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is polished and sleek, a fine demonstration of the well-oiled machine that is Disney. The cast is talented, the effects bright and shiny, the story exciting enough if a little too long. But I think Solo would have been so much better if it weren’t about Han Solo at all.

No new hope, here (just a few spoilers)

Solo is amusing, but it doesn’t offer any substance. It’s just lightweight summer fare–superficial and forgettable. This is no sin for a summer movie, but as an addition to the Star Wars franchise it should offer something more. Solo: A Star Wars Story has nothing to emotionally invest in–and that is the fatal flaw. The core saga gives us characters we can care about–passionately. This second outing into A Star Wars Story-land can put on the trappings but lacks the foundations.

It’s too determined to show us all the references from the original trilogy. While it’s fun to see Han meet Chewie and Lando, the familiar scenes can’t carry the whole movie.

The dialogue is often simplistic and obvious. And yet despite all the exposition, there is no insight into how Han Solo developed into the reluctant hero we know and love. We have only the overemphasized statement that he is a good guy. This shortcut reduces him to a cartoon cowboy and not much else.

This is not the scruffy nerf-herder we’re looking for

Solo largely suffers from the same problems that bothered me in Rogue One–good actors with far too little to work with.  While entertaining in the moment, this is not a movie I will go back to. There is no emotional growth here–Solo’s Han is, was, and always has been. Why should we care about his backstory?

Solo: A Star Wars Story
A new Han

Alden Ehrenreich is the younger Han, and he is genuinely likeable in the role. But he seems to be doing nothing more than a broad imitation of Harrison Ford’s smirk and swagger–and I know Ehrenreich is capable of better. And while young Solo should resemble the older character, it’s really hard to watch Solo: A Star Wars Story and not wish they had just CGI’d in Harrison Ford.

Emilia Clarke is also likeable as Qi’ra, but she fails to convey any heat with Solo or any cold calculation with Dryden Voss. She’s sweet, and we are told she is dangerous. Her threat just doesn’t come through.

Lando Calrissian is a wasted character, for all Donald Glover’s suave moves. But Glover gets points for showing more emotional connection to Lando’s droid, L3, than Han does to Q’ira.

Woody Harrelson’s good-natured performance as Beckett can’t save his character from being a straight-up plot device. It’s particularly galling when Beckett’s death is milked mercilessly to show that Han really is a good person, even when he shoots first.

Paul Bettany as Dryden Voss is probably the most believable actor in the film. Bettany brings a certain convincingly dangerous psychopathy to his crime lord, and is lucky enough to simply be killed in combat. And Thandie Newton’s Val is a brief, pleasant surprise who is also allowed to die with her dignity intact.

So, what’s left?

Solo: A Star Wars Story is ultimately, for me, an empty suit of a film that puts well-known characters through predictable paces with no payoff for either them or a nostalgic audience. Which is a shame.

A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi created many, many lifelong fans. Sixteen years later, the next trilogy introduced another generation of fans to the Star Wars universe. And now we have Episodes VII and VIII, with IX on the horizon, and maybe we should let the current generation become enamored of their trilogy in peace.

So perhaps that’s the deeper meaning of Solo hidden in the gravity well: it’s time to finally let Luke, Leia, Han, and Obi Wan rest, and let the saga continue without constantly looking backward for slick, flashy, and forgettable content fill up space.