A Connecting Principle

Synchronic

by Hope Madden

Has it really been three years since filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead took us on the UFO death cult head trip that was The Endless?

It’s hard to tell with these guys. They really like to play with time.

Another riff on the same theme, Synchronic is a sci-fi fantasy about parallel dimensions and time travel—plus bath salts.

Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are best friends and NOLA paramedics, each facing his own existential crisis. Dennis can’t seem to move past the fear that he’s settled: for his wife, his job, his life. Meanwhile, Steve—whose existence of work, drink and women long ago ceased to have meaning—gets a medical diagnosis that has him rethinking everything.

So far so ordinary, but if you’ve seen anything these filmmakers have done (and you should see everything), you know something seriously weird is coming.

The film’s conceit is a fascinating one, and every grisly crime scene offers a curious clue that may eventually help Steve solve a mystery that gives him purpose and redirects his bestie. Benson, who writes and co-directs, offers plenty of opportunity for mind-bending action and wild set pieces.

He and co-director/cinematographer Moorhead cut back and forth through time to keep you guessing as to the mystery developing, but what’s left underdeveloped are the characters.

Two of the filmmakers’ previous three efforts focused on a pair of men linked through time and experience to the other—best friends in Resolution, brothers in The Endless. This kind of relationship has proven a beautiful anchor for their trippy plots, but Synchronic doesn’t invest enough time or attention to Steve and Dennis’s characters.

Both Mackie and Dornan are solid enough, but their chemistry is weak. The time-worn friendship is more discussed than exposed. Worse, Synchronic is the first of the filmmakers’ movies to lack a robust sense of humor. And it is missed.

The result is a sometimes dour though mainly melancholy effort that feels far less original than it really is. Synchronic is clever, to be sure, and at times quite touching. But for filmmakers who’ve until now positively dripped with inspiration, it feels like a step backward.

Going on a Trip

The Wave

by Brandon Thomas

For a split second there in the early 2000s, Justin Long seem primed for stardom: Jeepers Creepers, Dodgeball, Drag Me to Hell and Live Free or Die Hard. His nervous charm mixed with casual handsomeness made him instantly relatable. The Wave might not be a major studio movie like the aforementioned, but Long brings his classic charisma with him to this trippy sci-fi comedy. 

Long stars as Frank, an attorney for a large insurance company. He’s about to have the best day of his career after finding a way for the firm to avoid paying out a large policy. To celebrate, Frank and a co-worker (Scrubs’ Donald Faison) go out on the town where they eventually find their way to a house party. At this party, Frank is reluctantly introduced to a new drug that turns his world into a living hallucination. With his job, marriage and life on the line, Frank races around town attempting to undo the mess caused by the drug. 

The Wave walks a fine line between various genres. For most of its running time, the film resembles many mainstream comedies from the last two decades. Long plays the kind of lovable chump that wouldn’t feel out of place in the latest Judd Apatow flick. He’s a dirtbag, but a pretty harmless dirtbag. For a time, avoiding the wrath of his overbearing wife seems like Frank’s biggest obstacle. But only for a time.

The movie switches gears fairly seamlessly into a more sci-fi realm as the severity of Frank’s situation becomes more apparent. Visual effects play a large part, but director Gille Klabin also gets a lot of bang for his buck with simple in-camera effects. Frank’s jumps through time are more often than not sold through basic edits. Not only does this help keep the “weird” more grounded, but it also keeps the audience in Frank’s shoes as these strange things continue to happen to him.

The film threatens to stall when it begins to veer into a message about fate, the decisions that people make and where that leads them. The theme is muddled and never does more than distract from the fun core sci-fi elements. Primer this ain’t, and rightly so. 

The Wave has aspirations of telling a complex story about good people who make bad decisions. While that message never quite lands with much impact, the movie is still a moderately fun sci-fi romp.

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Spare Parts

Alita: Battle Angel

by Hope Madden

Cyberpunk comes to the big screen in the form of a post-apocalyptic roller derby. I would not have guessed that’s how it would go.

Alita: Battle Angel is, among other things, director Robert Rodriguez’s best film in years. That isn’t saying a lot, but the truth is that the filmmaker does more with dystopian YA heroine tropes than most recent directors have.

In a terrestrial wasteland in the shadow of a sky city eternally out of reach, one kindly scientist (Christoph Waltz) scrounges a scrap heap looking for cyborg parts. He rebuilds something he finds there—something that reminds him of his own lost daughter. Though Alita (Rosa Salazar plus motion capture magic) has no memory of who or what she was, her instincts oscillate between earnest adolescent and battle-honed killer.

Based on a Manga series about a bounty hunter, Alita concerns itself more with the themes of today’s young adult franchises: empowering young women to be true to themselves, stand up to authority, own their own destiny, and only crush on boys who love you for who you truly are.

All fine lessons. A stocked supporting cast including two more Oscar winners (besides Waltz)—Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly—elevate the sometimes threadbare dialog with sheer will and undeniable talent.

The film also showcases the latest cinematic tech wizardry at the disposal of co-scriptor James Cameron, wielded by Sin City’s visionary helmsman.

And it looks great. Better than the trailer makes you think it looks. The ruined city, the cyborg monstrosities, the action—all of it commands attention and refuses to be dismissed.

If nothing else, Alita absolutely marks a departure from the filmmaker’s traditional style. Indeed, it looks more like something Cameron would make: glossy and epic versus edgy and idiosyncratic.

There is nothing especially groundbreaking or memorable, however, about the film. There is nothing inferior about it, either. It pushes some boundaries in terms of content as well as movie experience and it entertains from start to finish. It’s Hunger Games with a more likable protagonist, Ready Player One with a plot.

It’s forgettable, cool looking and fun.





A Very Merry Unbirthday

Happy Death Day 2U

by Hope Madden

Two years ago, writer/director Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day managed the unexpected. It took an immediately tiresome premise—Groundhog Day meets Scream—and generated enough audience good will to entertain.

This was mainly thanks to Jessica Rothe, whose performance was funny enough to be simultaneously likable and detestable, and whose character arc mostly felt earned. (Bill Murray’s are big shoes to fill.)

Well, Rothe is back for a second helping of death day cake, as is Landon, who again writes and directs. Can the pair keep the story fresh for a sequel?

Why, no. Thanks for asking.

Where the original was a funny slasher with a SciFi bent, the sequel is a standard Eighties romcom with an occasionally morbid sense of humor. Think Real Genius, only dumber and more tedious.

Or Zapped. Remember Zapped?

Tree (Rothe) believes she’s broken free of her murderous time loop by killing the person who was out to kill her—and learning some hard-won life lessons in the meantime.

She was wrong, though, because the truth is that her boyfriend Carter’s (Israel Broussard) weird roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) has gotten all Timecrimes in the college lab and that’s what caused the loop. In fact, it’s causing another loop into a parallel dimension.

Everyone from the original is back and almost the same as last time (because this is a parallel universe). Any new character who is not white joins Ryan in the lab. Nerds – another sad Eighties theme that won’t stay dead.

Slapstick humor (Oh, this blind French thing is enough to make your brain bleed) and dumbfounding gaps in logic follow. A list of what does not follow: tension, horror, laughter.

Seriously, though, if you haven’t seen Nacho Vigalondo’s 2007 mindbender Timecrimes, you should definitely do that instead of going to HDD2U.

Oh! You know what else is great in that SciFi/time loop/horror neighborhood? The Endless.

The point is, if you are in the mood for some genre bending SciFi fun, you won’t find it here.





Fright Club: Best SciFi Horror

Science Fiction and Horror are cousins—creepy, often slimy cousins. Cousins with pustules, often.

There are so many utterly brilliant options to pick through that our omissions are bound to frustrate and upset, but whether your horror comes from the lab, from space or from the space/time continuum, when you watch these five, your neighbors will hear you scream.

5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director Dono Siegel was the first filmmaker to bring Jack Finney’s Cold War nightmare to the screen. He wouldn’t be the last, maybe not even the best, but what he did with this eerie alien tale tapped into a societal anxiety and quickly became one of the most influential and terrifying films of its time.

Doc Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is just home from a short trip when he’s inundated by patients swearing their loved ones are not their loved ones at all. Sure, they look the same and have all the same skills and memories, but there’s no warmth, no passion.

With this, the fear that our very nation could be overtaken by an outside force – Russians, say, for terrifyingly immediate sake of argument – working its way through not by force, but by quietly taking over each and every person in one town, then spreading from town to town to town.

It’s the kind of insidious evil that fuels contagion horror, infestation horror, even demonic horror. But Invasion of the Body Snatchers spoke to a society’s deepest fears and became a touchstone for all SciFi to follow it.

4. The Fly (1986)

After a couple of interesting, if un-medical films, the great David Cronenberg made a triumphant return to the laboratory of the mad scientist in his most popular film to date.

But it’s not just Cronenberg’s disturbed genius for images and ideas that makes The Fly fly; it’s the performance he draws from Jeff Goldblum.

Goldblum is an absolute gift to this film, so endearing in his pre-Brundlefly nerdiness. He’s the picture’s heartbeat, and it’s more than the fact that we like his character so much. The actor also performs heroically under all those prosthetics.

He and Geena Davis make the perfect pair, with their matching height and mullets, and their onscreen chemistry does give the film a level of human drama traditionally lacking from the Cronenberg canon. Atop that, there’s the transformation scene in the bathroom – the fingernails, the pustules – all classic Cronenberg grotesquerie, and still difficult to watch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BzwxJ-M_M0

3. Timecrimes (2007)

This one is nutty, and absolutely required viewing for anyone with an interest in space/time continuum conundrums.

Writer/director/co-star Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) mocks our desire for control and our fear of the doppelganger with a very quick and dirty trip through time. So much can go wrong when you travel just one hour backward. The less you know going in, the better.

An always clever experiment in science fiction, horror and irony, Timecrimes is a spare, unique and wild ride.

2. The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 SciFi flick The Thing from Another World concocts a thoroughly spectacular tale of icy isolation, contamination, and mutation.

A beard-tastic cast portrays a team of scientists on expedition in the Arctic who take in a dog. The dog is not a dog, though. Not really. And soon, in an isolated wasteland with barely enough interior room to hold all the facial hair, folks are getting jumpy because there’s no knowing who’s not really himself anymore.

This is an amped up body snatcher movie benefitting from some of Carpenter’s most cinema-fluent and crafty direction: wide shots when we need to see the vastness of the unruly wilds; tight shots to remind us of the close quarters with parasitic death inside.

The story remains taut beginning to end, and there’s rarely any telling just who is and who is not infected by the last reel. You’re as baffled and confined as the scientists.

1. Alien (1979)

Director Ridley Scott’s other masterpiece, Alien, traps a crew aboard a rickety, dark, workingman’s spacecraft with the coolest monster perhaps ever.

After a vagina-hand-sucker-monster attaches itself to your face, it gestates inside you, then tears through your innards. Then it grows exponentially, hides a second set of teeth, and bleeds acid. How much cooler could this possibly be?

Compare that to the crew, and the competition seems unreasonably mismatched. The sunken-chested Harry Dean Stanton, the screechy Veronica Cartwright, the sinister Ian Holm, the mustachioed Tom Skerritt, even the mulleted Sigourney Weaver – they all seem doomed before we even get to know them.

Much ado has been made, rightfully so, of the John Hurt Chest Explosion (I loved their early work, before they went commercial). But Scott’s lingering camera leaves unsettling impressions in far simpler ways, starting with the shot of all those eggs.





Family Recipe

Kin

by Hope Madden

I’m no cook. If it’s not on Chipotle’s menu, I’m not eating it. And yet, I feel like I understand certain things that don’t go together, say Captain Crunch cereal and goat cheese, meatball subs and tuna, ice cream and hair.

That’s kind of the experience to be had when watching Kin.

Advertised as an adolescent SciFi adventure where a ‘tween finds an intergalactic gun and all his problems are solved (nothing tone deaf about that storyline), the film is much more than that. And also much less.

Eli Solinski (Myles Truitt) is an adolescent outsider, missing his mom and trudging through his dad’s chores and disappointment. His older brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor, or as I like to call him, Handsome Seth Rogan) comes home from a 6-year prison stretch, and things go quickly to hell in a handbasket thanks to his old associate, Taylor (James Franco).

Filmmaking brothers Jonathan and Josh Baker start off with traditional angsty teen drama. They quickly warp it into a gritty, mid-budget crime thriller, with a little charm thanks to Franco’s characteristic weirdness: badly cut mullet, unexplained puffy coat, women’s shoes.

But then it turns into a road picture with antics and a sort of tragic take on the cycle of poverty, crime and bad decisions. By this time, we realize that Truitt doesn’t have much hope of establishing a character, as he may, indeed, have no idea what film he’s in.

Reynor fairs slightly better. He’s likable and vulnerable. To pull the role off, he’d also have to be believably corrupted, which is where Reynor falters.

Zoe Kravitz is Milly, the stripper they befriend. Let’s not even get into it.

The strength and honest conflict in the film is really the relationship between the two brothers and the inevitable, depressing conclusion their lives together will lead to.

But, wait. Don’t settle into that just yet, because there’s an over-the-top, high-octane climax headed inexplicably and irreversibly toward you. And remember the whole SciFi nonsense they threw at us in the trailer? Well, it finally finds its resolution in the last five minutes of the film—a plot twist that is so mismatched with the tone of the film leading up to it, it truly feels like a whole other movie just came knocking on the door because it was lost.

Dude, all we wanted was beans and rice.





Checking In?

Hotel Artemis

by Hope Madden

In a world where the U.S. government stops supplying bottled water to Flint, Michigan residents while international asshats Nestle are allowed to increase their pumping of clean water from just 100 miles away…

Well, that may not have been the inspiration for Hotel Artemis—the inspiration was probably that cool hotel in John Wick—but it is the kind of social disaster that will lead to the Mad-Max-like rebellion that backdrops writer/director Drew Pearce’s crime thriller.

Los Angeles, 2028, and the bloodiest riots the city has ever known have broken out over the privatization of water. With the police very, very busy, it’s a perfect time for a bank heist. But timing isn’t everything—skill helps—and soon a trio of wounded nogoodnicks are headed to the one place they can safely receive emergency care: the exclusive, subscription-based, criminal-only hospital, Hotel Artemis.

It may have a staff of only two—the nurse (Jodie Foster) and the orderly (Dave Bautista)—but it is chock full of high tech medical equipment, old-school security and strict rules. It may also be the best place to ride out these riots. Unless the tensions inside the hotel reach the same height as those outside.

It’s an intriguing premise, one rife with tense and bloody opportunity. A collection of bad people is trapped in an enclosed, retro-seedy space hoping to survive the storm.

If the story intrigues, the cast convinces. Jodie Foster nails the wearied, accepting, down-to-business Nurse. Though the dialog throughout is not as savvy as Pearce thinks it is, Foster delivers it beautifully and her physical mannerisms are even more convincing.

Bautista charms as her tender strongarm. Sterling K. Brown does no wrong ever, here again radiating an intensity that mingles sadness, obligation and moral authority.

Luckily for the entire ensemble, Pearce is more invested in character development than action. He creates a moody tension inside the walls, exacerbated by the explosion of rage and violence outside.

All of which hits fever pitch when LA crime boss the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum as Jeff Goldblum) shows up wanting to break the rules.

Pearce and his top-to-bottom impressive cast deserve credit for sidestepping expectations and instead crafting a contained, absurd-yet-believable drama. Things get away from the filmmaker when he tries to complicate the plot with backstory, and there are two minor side plots that serve as little more than a distraction.

It’s also an awful lot of tension-building with little in the way of a final release. But Pearce and team have done something remarkable in the summer months: delivered a fresh, imaginative, original film.





KITT, Meet Stem

Upgrade

by Hope Madden

It’s a setup you’ll recognize. A man, doing man’s work, brightens when his wife arrives. Oh, they are really in love. Let’s just do this one thing before the romance, OK honey?

Minutes from now, she will be dead, he will be damaged, and eventually his suicidal melancholy will fuel revenge.

From Death Wish to John Wick to Death Wish (again), it’s a premise that never goes out of style and never, ever surprises.

Credit writer/director Leigh Whannell and star Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation) for keeping you entertained for 90 minutes.

Marshall-Green plays Grey. While all the rest of the world relies on technology to drive them around, buy their eggs and dim their lights, Grey’s in the garage listening to blues on vinyl and rebuilding a Trans-Am.

After the aforementioned tragedy, Grey reluctantly turns to a Cyber Victor Frankenstein type (Harrison Gilbertson, a little over-the-top), who implants a chip to help repair the physical damage.

What happens from there is like Knight Rider meets David Cronenberg.

Right?!

Whannell freshens up the technophobe dystopian narrative with a few fresh ideas, a silly streak and serious violence.

This is the guy who wrote Saw, after all. Those who are surprised by the inspired bloodshed probably haven’t seen his canon.

Marshall-Green shines when he’s not morose and lovelorn, but rather tentatively administering “justice.” His physical performance and the action sequences are enough to keep you interested; the strangely comical tone rewards you for your time.

Aside from Betty Gabriel (always a joy to see her), the performances around Marshall-Green are serviceable: the devoted mom, the icy mercenaries, the boundlessly loving wife. Luckily, this is Marshall-Green’s show. Though he struggles (as does Whannell) with the emotional bits, he’s more than at home with the goofy and the violent.

Long live the flesh!





Pretty Vacant

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

by Hope Madden

Oh, the fish out of water tale. What if X found itself in Y: a mermaid in New York City, an American werewolf in London, an alien in Croyden? What hijinks could arise!

Elle Fanning is that alien, Zan, and Croyden is a suburb of London that was, in 1977, thrashing about to the strains of the burgeoning and decaying punk rock scene.

When Enn (Alex Sharp) and his fanzine-writing mates stumble into an alien house party, believing it to be a punk show after party, Zan abandons the strict duties of her visit to experience life on Earth.

Who better to bring Neil Gaiman’s short story to the big screen than Hedwig himself, John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus, Rabbit Hole)? Directing, as well as co-writing the adaptation with Philippa Goslett, Mitchell strives to complete Gaiman’s 18 pages with punk attitude, coming of age angst, romance, political asides and style.

He’s only marginally successful on any of those counts.

Punk rock seems a perfect vehicle for the central themes of conformity versus individuality. What the film needs is a little punk rock. Instead, it offers knowing lip service (and next to no music) in service of an all-too-earnest love story.

The brightest light glimmers from Nicole Kidman as grand master on the scene, Queen Boadicea. Patroness of the dingiest club, bondage artist and the dying spirit of an era not meant to age well, she relishes every ridiculous line and delivers perhaps the film’s only truly honest dialogue.

Fanning captivates, as is her way. All the joy, curiosity and misunderstanding she can muster create a character who becomes far more than simply the first hot girl to pay attention to Enn.

Sharp performs solidly as the wallflower everyman, although that is part of the problem. Scribblings, safety pins and zines aside, Enn is just a middle-of-the-road sweetheart. The film is not about the outsider at all, though it pretends to be.

It pretends a lot of things, sometimes very colorfully and often entertainingly, but without a raucous atonal tune to push it forward and with a fairly lukewarm crisis to overcome, it fails entirely at embodying the punk rock themes it proposes.

Oh my God, this movie is a poseur.

What would Hedwig think?





I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of May 28

One big and underseen film for you to grab with both hands this week. Annihilation is brilliant, terrifying and entirely satisfying. Watch it!

Click the film title for the full review.

Annihilation