Tag Archives: sci-fi

THE TRAGEDY OF JANUARY: UNDERWATER, THE TURNING, AND ALTERNATIVE Options to view in ARTHOUSE THEATERS, Part I

Kristen Stewart is not having it in Undrwater.

It’s truly a thing to witness, this turn into the New Year. December, as its wont, always brings with it the tradition of releasing Oscar contenders right until Christmas Day, many good, some not so good, and among them, caught in the middle of the shuffle, a small roster of arty films that will probably barely make a dent in box-office but still manage to have enough of a magnetic pull to bring in an audience.

And then, the second January comes ringing, the moment the ball drops, the confetti whirls, people embrace and exchange toasts and wish each other a Happy New Year, something odd happens. Like the
slight left twist that happens almost at the halfway mark in Bong Joon-ho’s savagely funny Parasite, we start witnessing the arrival of Dumpster January. Dumpster January doesn’t even have the subtlety to wait perhaps a week into the month to suddenly release its toxic gases into a movie theater near you and blind you with its terrifying badness. It’s weird, how that happens – and positively schizophrenic.

From movies like Clemency and Portrait of a Lady on Fire the movie parade takes a screeching halt and begins serving you with sheer garbage of the likes that should never, ever been seen, or rented, but deleted and forgotten, forever.

It’s as if movie studios had no idea how to market a movie that perhaps had ambition but didn’t find a test audience gullible enough to sell. Or perhaps the movie was so terrible that it got shelved for a few and quietly “placed” in a few multiplexes without any warning whatsoever. Think of this as the crap stores mark down to bargain basement prices when they decide to go into “Everything! Must! Go!” mode, and there you are, the unsuspecting client, walking into a nightmare that looks somewhat promising on the outside but reveals all its flaws before you’ve even set foot in your house. And now, there you are, face reddening, blood boiling, realizing you bought a defective product and there are no returns.

So imagine the same for movies. While Little Women and [the aforementioned] Parasite still play to packed houses, you check in to watch something new, easy, maybe an okay thriller or a cheap comedy. Take… Underwater, for example. Here we have a movie that stars Kristen Stewart with a platinum Eton cut. It’s in the realm of sci-fi/horror and it tells the story of a crew of scientists manning a drilling station located off the Marianas that encounter some unsavory creatures with a taste for human meat, and why not, really. It’s almost guaranteed that the moment a crew gets the task of exploring into some remote area of the globe shit has to hit the fan, and then we have the law of economy in which one by one, the
entire cast goes bye-bye in often gruesome ways.

I’m not too much a naysayer of the genre since Alien basically created it and its sequel, Aliens, solidified it. James Cameron managed to flip the haunted house in space concept into a war movie with two bad-ass women (Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and the all-but forgotten Jeannette Goldstein as Vazquez) kicking serious ass. Even Cameron’s follow up, The Abyss, managed to add a solid dose of spiritual gravitas as it delved into life after death topics mixed neatly into a Close Encounter’s cocktail to pretty
sharp effect.

Underwater is what happens when the same story sinks right to the bottom of its own idea and never recovers. Station in danger, check. Outside menaces, check. Cast of disposables starting with the black
guy, of course – necessary: we all know the black guy has to get it first and must never survive past go. Kristen Stewart in her underwear, eh—if it can sell, bring it. The Bill Paxton funny guy that you secretly want to meet a nasty death (and actually applaud when it happens), check. And while I’m at it, let’s talk about TJ Miller who in Underwater subs for Paxton without the actual ability to be funny. Can TJ Miller actually act? Yes? No? Quizas, quizas, quizas? Or does he simply exist to repeat the same dead shtick in movies over and over and over again, expecting cheap laughs while the movie whirls all around him? If all a character’s demise can do is inspire you to go to the concession stand and order a second round of popcorn… then that basically sums up my reaction to Miller.

Underwater is… well past bad – in fact, so bad it just ate at my skin like a sudden onset of eczema. Its only good set piece is the very beginning with Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth. After that the movie implodes (pun not intended) First of all, it starts with a promise of aural menace that I liked, but other than that, it implodes, never to recover again. You can’t see a fucking thing throughout the entire mess even when scenes are dimly lit (which are few and far between), so good luck trying to know what on Earth is going on. Characters have no time to interact. It’s one calamity after another and people trying to find some kind of plausible safety, and then, those humanoid creatures. No, I’m not really spoiling it, of course this would be a creature feature because it is a blatant rip off of other creature features and these are I think equal parts sock and arms. Look, I don’t know what the fuck they are. And then, the
Lovecraftian touch which adds nothing to the plot and leaves you wondering if maybe you were better off doing your taxes at home.

Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard in The Turning.

What do you do when you present a horror movie that tries its best during the first few minutes to be something a little above average and then falls flat on its face? I just came out of hating Underwater, and now I have the chore of having to write another paragraph or two about another January release. This time, it’s Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning, a movie that per its title should tell its audience that it is a remake, or visual transition of the Henry James’ novella The Turning of the Screw, itself made into a chilling adaptation by Jack Clayton in 1961 called The Innocents with Deborah Kerr in the lead. That movie is worth seeing and it pops up rather frequently on TCM, or FXM, so if you have a chance, go see it.

[And for anyone seeking quality cinema in these dog days where nothing clicks and you have to wait until March to see the first of the Sundance releases (and hope they are worth it), check Clayton’s extremely brief but important cinematic filmography, which began with the Oscar Winner for Best Actress Room At the Top (with Simone Signoret), The Pumpkin Eater (with Anne Bancroft, also Oscar-nominated), Something Wicked this Way Comes, The Great Gatsby, and his last film, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne with Maggie Smith In one of the better performances of 1987, totally overlooked by the Academy that year. ]

Back to The Turning. And before I start proper, a word to young nannies everywhere: if your job description includes a giant house, creepy kids, and a housekeeper that has a penchant for outdated hair and frosty demeanor, just go elsewhere. Get a certification in coding or a degree in something you can definitely use for your future. Heck, wait tables if it’s really that bad. It really isn’t worth your time to wander into a home that is so pregnant with mood and things that go bump! in the night that you feel like you are physically walking eyes wide open, into a horror story in which you will guaranteed see something weird, or perhaps, not survive. I of course am going for the bigger picture here–how many times are we going to see a young blond thing put herself into a situation where she is all but losing her fucking mind just because there is a paycheck attached to it and the rest is ‘occupational hazard?’

Sadly, the studio system keeps churning these things up, and I’m not going to even describe or get into detail of what takes place because while it somewhat sticks to the novella… it’s pretty much dead on arrival. Nothing works here, even scenes meant to scare come with a sense of ham-fisted insincerity, and all Mackenzie Davis, excellent in Terminator: Dark Fate and Blade Runner 2049 can do is overact and play damsel in distress and telegraph to us that perhaps she herself, like Eleanor Vance and many other horror movie protagonists, has some ghosts of her own. While that element would definitely make for an interesting development, it never does more than announce itself and then… the movie ends?

That is when yours truly did a serious, “What the fuck?” and just sat there, gaping, wondering… where did the movie go? Is-is there perhaps something I missed? Nope. Credits, end, we know nothing more. A total, colossal waste of time and money. Highway robbery masquerading as cinema.

Ah, hell.

Look, just don’t. The movie won’t last into the first week of February and by then we will have another onslaught of garbage thanks to the multiplex mentality and the dumbing down of cinema. Really: rent or watch The Innocents for a better take on the novella. Or read the book — it is decidedly complex and a great read.

ALTERNATIVES:

Opening January 24 is Bertrand Bonello’s intriguing zombie horror – coming of age psychodrama Zombi Child, which premiered last year at the New York Film Festival. You can find the review here.

Also opening on January 29 are two more New York Film Festival standouts — Kantemir Balagov’s searing drama Beanpole, Russia’s entry into the the 92 Academy Award for Best International Picture, and The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio’s ultra-violent, powerful drama that tells about the fall of the Costa Nostra. You can find the reviews for these two films here.

A Small Town Prepares for War in the Neo-Western BACURAU

[Image from Cinevue]

BACURAU. Country: Brazil / France. Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Screenwriter: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Language: Portuguese, English. Cast: Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Karine Teles, Antonio Saboia, Sonia Braga, Udo Kier. Runtime: 130 minutes. A 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate Selection. US Premiere: October 1, 2019. US Release Date: January 1, 2020.

Mostly Indies rating: B+

Bacurau will come to many as a welcome left turn for director Kleber Mendonça Filho who last hit the American theaters with his cry of outrage called Aquarius in which Sonia Braga bravely fought unscrupulous real estate developers from taking away her house. Thematically, the story of Bacurau is basically the same, but this time, the setting that both directors (Juliano Dornelles co-directs where before he served as production designer) place the setting in a forgotten little place in the middle of nowhere, where the land stretches forever, and people live in harmony together, celebrating life and loss with sensual bravado. It’s a place that more often than not won’t be found on the Google map, but one that developers — again, those pesky bad guys — are eyeballing for future development.

The place is Bacurau, and Teresa (Barbara Colen) arrives just in time to learn that the village’s oldest denizen, Carmelita (Lia de Itamarca) has passed away at 94. The town, far from mourning, is celebrating — all except Domingas (Sonia Braga), the town’s doctor who also serves as the town’s Earth mother. But that’s not the plot point… if anything, this only serves to introduce its quirky characters and their sense of extended family. What introduces the plot proper is the arrival of a shlubby mayor running for office who treats the villagers of Bacurau with incredible condescendence, and conveniently fails to supply the place with the necessary elements to allow the villagers a dignified life.

Once he leaves, the pressure starts to mount: two motorcyclists (Karine Teles and Antonio Saboia) arrive to town, seemingly just touring the land. However, they will bring a sinister plot just behind when it is revealed that they are part of a group of American renegades led by Udo Kier (who hams it up big time as if he were in a B-movie) looking to hunt people for bloodsport. Their arrival signifies a turn for the violent when some of them go rogue and in one chilling moment commit an act of murder so heinous, so horrifying, that I’m glad that the directors stuck to their guns and kept it, if in fact to punctuate that these aren’t your average killers and that Bacurau is set for an epic battle against pure, psychopathic evil.

If you can get past the clunky dialogue that was given to the actors playing the Americans — and it is truly, unequivocally awful; I’ve never seen such talk even in bargain basement grade F movies — Bacurau can be wicked fun. You will love how the village joins forces to combat these human invaders (the movie throws in some flying saucers as distraction, which add some comic relief). Let me just say, it gets messy in Bacurau. Very messy. There’s an approximation to the type of movies Tarantino or the Coen brothers tend to make, complete with a killer scene in which a two villagers creatively dispatch two Americans while in the nude. [That scene received a huge explosion of applause at the October 1 screening at the Alice Tully.] Sandwiched within the madness is a terrific showdown that takes place between Sonia Braga’s character and Udo Kier’s. You keep waiting to see what in the world will happen, since he’s come to lay his claim and anyone who saw Aquarius knows she’s not afraid of confrontation. It all reaches a critical pitch, and serves its story of the old, the traditional, the historic, preserving itself against the new, with a kind of zeal only seen in the craziest of Westerns.

OKJA

OKJA
USA
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Runtime: 120 minutes
Language: English, Korean

Mostlyindies grading:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Netflix controversy aside (which hasn’t hurt the company one bit, sorry, Cannes Film Festival purists), Bong Joon-Ho’s too cute entry, Okja, is a piece of prime sirloin steak cooked to perfection, with just the right amounts of A1 sauce, spicy, and brown sugarey to render it equal parts datkly funny with elements of the broadly sentimental and still convey its rather direct social message to an audience apt to forgive its excesses and overtones of maudlin. The premise is criminally simple: a young Korean girl befriends a lab-created pig meant for mass human consumption, and when corporation comes calling, they both go on the run. The corporation, run by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, who delivers her hilarious over-the-top villainy with deadpan ferocity), has created a number of super pigs (i. e. giant porcine creations) that have the sole purpose to Feed the World and thus save humanity from hunger. While she sugarcoats her intentions with almost cartoonlike cuteness, the intent is clear. Her company intends to bank good cash on the sale of mass pig meat aimed at mass consumption.

What Mirando doesn’t even guess is that Mija, the Korean farm girl in question, has befriended Okja, the pig that has been entrusted to her father, and in doing so, she’s established a strong bond of communication that no one in the meat-producing industry would understand. When Mirando’s comes calling in the form of super-nerdy Dr. Wilcox (Jake Gylenhaal, having a blast with his off-the-wall turn as an emasculated, high-pitched scientist in the Bill Nye vein), let’s say that the plot goes full steam ahead, and soon we’re whisking Mija off to Seoul and then to the US in search of her pig while at the same time, animal activists led by  Paul Dano seek to unveil Mirando’s real intents and expose them for what they are.

For the most, Okja delivers like fast food made to perfection, juicy and rich and addictive. I can’t really say there is anything wrong about the film other than it may not be intended for younger audiences due to some scenes of implied carnage — a scene where we see an entire farm of pigs in an abattoir, ready to be turned into meat, might not be suitable for kids. All in all this is a perfect children’s movie, one that delivers the message in a way that isn’t too horrifying but rather straightforward; everyone plays their part almost as second skin, and if you can get past the CGI creation and oversimplified plot antics, this is really almost two hours of popcorn fun with a well-intentioned heart at its center.






ON DVD: LIFE

LIFE
USA
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Runtime:103 minutes
Language: English

Grade: B+

When Life came out I stayed away believing the critics and those who ‘know cinema’ that this was a pile of dreck dressed in sleek science-fiction, a cheap monster picture with an all-star cast that was barely a poor man’s Alien. Now that it’s begun its second life on DVD I can view it, and state my opinion: I don’t call this site mostlyindies for anything; once in a while I will venture out of my league, sit back, sip something soothing, and let Big Budget assault me with whatever it has. And I have to say, Life is nothing that I expected. If anything, Life is quite the solid little chiller.

Which is not to say it’s an instant classic, but did anyone really thing that for example, Fantastic Voyage was ever going for anything other than special effects and Raquel Welch’s torpedo boobs? Of course not. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet, buy that cheap little potboiler that is sitting on the shelf at your newsstand, and read the heck out of it not expecting anything  but solid entertainment and Daniel Espinoza’s Life is pregnant with it. You know the drill: space mission en route to some distant part of our space encounters Something Miraculous — in this case, a cell similar to what we have seen on our own Mother Earth — that well, proves to have a life of its own, pun intended. Let’s just say that whatever happens from the moment that this little cell gets discovered very well seals the fate of the entire crew and again, Life does not disappoint (even when, despite the bloodshed, it keeps the nasty levels of gore to a bare minimum).

What Life does have going for it is suspense and a muscular plot that does not stop for tangents or even character ruminations. Okay, perhaps once it did, but who really took notice? Did you? Not me — I was at the edge of my seat anxiously awaiting when the Next Big Thing would happen and boy, did this movie deliver! Perhaps it’s almost too predictable for its own good — I mean, is it any surprise that this life form that suddenly springs into action when rudely awakened from its slumber with an electric prod no less will eventually turn  the tables on the cast and reduce them to brisket? Is it any shock to see that the law of economy, in which a cast of about six or seven gets reduced to basically two, and the last to go are  always, invariably, white/Caucasian? Who didn’t see the deaths of the more ethnic people coming? Was anyone surprised? With the exception of a certain cast member, who decided to take a small part because of scheduling conflicts, it pretty much went as expected without deflating, and I think that says a lot about Espinoza. So, good on him and the movie’s creators for this slice of delicious visual pizza because it worked on all aspects and didn’t let up one bit, down to the very end.