Fest Track On Sirk TV Film Review: SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST 2020 [Remote]

The essence of SxSW this year was rattled of course in the texture of the coronavirus but films are films and their perspectives are their own. In selecting films in the same way as approaching for interviews albeit remotely, an interesting cross section comes forth.

Cargo The texture of life and science in an interesting progression. Using this predilection, “Cargo” uses a style of metaphorical perception to show the essence of its characters. In reference to a certain mythology, the movie takes place on a space station that is a weigh station for souls on their way to reincarnation. While it moves in a sort of dance with existentialism, the film also speaks to the rigors or freedoms one feels within identity. The lead character is characterized as a demon by sorts but not in the way the Western world believes it to be. He is just trying to make sure balance is maintained as the masses are transferred at their time. The reflection on Earth of what his superiors per se would like him to do is both focused but undone. When an assistant finally arrives, their interaction is both stilted and oddly kinetic simply because she might be taking his lifeforce. In an odd way, the subway stop of the people is an interesting transgression on life but also what constituted the essence of worries, regrets and needs. The eventual transcendence of the lead character is understood but (like “Moon” starring Sam Rockwell) most of the film takes place in two rooms creating a claustrophobia that works for the loneliness at times it tries to cultivate.

Scales The essence of mythology is always an interesting texture. Shooting on a peninsula in Oman in black and white is a distinctly interesting progression and adds a degree of perspective to the proceedings of this film. The story follow a girl who as a part of the ritual of her village on the sea is fated as a baby to be given to the ocean for sea maidens to reclaim. While this is a test on an old wives’ tale, its structure within a Middle East setting is both universal and timeless. The film works well because it is both modern in a way and traditional. While the dialogue is sparse, the actions of the actors speak volumes specifically between the girl, afflicted from her youth with “scales” on her feet and the captain she eventually works with to learn a fishing trade. She is both part of a community and ousted from it, especially in regards to her parents (most specifically her father). Yet she is the salvation in many ways. The stark landscape of the desert rocks against the water are undeniably beautiful and one wonders of their starkness in color. But the black and white, especially on many of the night shoots, adds a sense of both foreboding and mystery (without the need for extensive special effects). However when meaning is needed, their explanation speaks volumes.

Make Up The notion of identity filters through this story of a girl who is existing in a natural but basic relationship and, by extension, world. What the film does through its use of claustrophobia in her domain is create a sense of both want and abandonment. She wants to be something darker or outside herself possibly. There are imprints of those ideas which are bathed in fingernails, perhaps a kind of succubus ode that she only needs to give herself into. When she decodes her ideas into what they truly need to be then the film understands itself. The psychology is simply one basked in dark streets but red velvet lit warmth. The texture of the colors alone plays to the reality of what Molly, the lead character, is. She feels safe in the breathe of her co-worker while her boyfriend leaves her cold (seemingly on his end as well since he becomes less and less interested physically in her). The performance of the lead actress keys into that sense of isolation without resolving to say exactly what is happening with her. As a result it feels like a coming of age reflected in a certain Lynchian ode to womanhood.

Rare Beasts The texture of happiness or what makes someone happy with themselves is not a straight line to traverse. Within this comedy of sorts, Billie Piper, who gained notoriety as a companion on “Doctor Who” (and was honestly one of the most fun sidekicks that character had in recent years) brings in both a nuanced and yet vivacious performance without losing track of her voice. There is a similarity to an earlier more independent piece in “Wild Rose” (which played SxSW in 2020) about a young girl finding her voice. While that was an interesting film (and another redhead) this is a much more mature film that has its best moments when it lets the characters sit. One specific scene between David Thewlis and the actress that plays Billie’s mom is undeniably tragic but truthful and told by simply looks. Piper’s timing is uncanny. Her romantic male foil played in specificity because of his foibles earns stripes but Piper is the bright light. The ending tends to play more metaphorical but doesn’t bow down to expectations. Like Olivia Wilde to a lesser degree (“Booksmart” played SxSW last year as well), there is a dynamic ear for music and certain flourishes. That said, parts of the film also seem inherently TV visually based in terms of set up, not to its detriment but to the possibilities. Piper’s voice also is integral as she wrote the script so the musings, especially those when she is walking down the street, speak candidly to the hiccups of life, which this film is not afraid of showing.

Red Heaven This documentary follows a group of people who undergo an experiment to isolate themselves for a year in Mars-like conditions to study how the isolation and approach of an actual mission would affect them. This means no internet and the responses from ground control to move back and forth across space at intervals of 20 minutes as it would on the Red Planet. The quarters are tight, no alcohol and outside time is limited and attained as it would if they were on Mars with space type HAZ-MAT gear. It is an interesting psychological exercise as the participants were chosen with the same criteria as the astronauts would be. The aspect of certain psychological traits including aversion and closeness is an interesting structure but not together unexpected. It would have been interesting to hear a little more of the German scientist’s thoughts in her own language since that is something even in a confined space that could be kept private. It is introduced in the beginning but not completely implemented. Also the delayed impact of the information of the terror attack in Paris to a French citizen involved in the experiment also integrates to a sense of detachment. All of the footage was taken inside the dome by the people inside so it has the texture of being what it is but also a specific fly on the wall concept (since it used some rigged cameras but also the people doing the interviews). It is a structure of a petri dish but one that will open eyes and reflect long expected perspectives in others.

IR Film Review: THE JESUS ROLLS [Screen Media]

Making a follow up to “The Big Lebowski” in any way, shape or form is an interesting quandary. Jesus Quintana, who just had a small ode in that seminal film, was seemingly a pervert who just lived to bowl and start trouble with his bowling alley competitors. While that ode 20 years ago happened in LA, this new tome, “The Jesus Rolls”, which John Turturro writes, directs and acts in, picks up Jesus getting again out of the joint 20 years later (how long he has been incarcerated we don’t know). He is picked up by his friend, played by Bobby Cannavale. From the get go, be assured that this is not “The Big Lebowski 2”. This is it’s own animal with less visual flourish, slightly darker humor to be sure and more subtle writing. Much of what Jesus and his cohorts do makes little sense but that, in short order, is part of the fun. Jesus as a character just seems to go on whatever path life takes him, despite the absurd, stealing cars, trying to have sex with women but also coming on to his best friend in Cannavale, not out of spite but just saying “you should try it!”. Whether stealing cars or staying in random people’s houses, Turturro plays the older Jesus as just a free spirit but with wrong values. Once in a while, it does elevate. What lets this work in many ways, even though her English accent is still very heavy, blossom is Audrey Tautou, the star of “Amelie” and “The DaVinci Code” who seems undeniable free as a happy, openly sexual haircutter who has never had an orgasm and doesn’t mind. She is just a free spirit in platform pink heels. Tatou is just a bright light despite Cannavale and Turturro’s characters in different ways being not the best role models. Cannavale, who has played his share of bad guys and unsavories, plays his character in many ways as an innocent which is charming in its own way and makes one think of his earlier work in films like “The Station Agent”.

The one thing that Turturro can also pull off is some good cameos though most of them are brief and just push the story along. Ones like Tim Blake Nelson and Christopher Walken as just one scene but bring a smile to your face. The most intrinsic overall is a multi-scene stint with Susan Sarandon which shows a depth and a Bull Durham angle that we haven’t seen from her in years though the resolution of the character is unusual and changes the story somewhat. Pete Davidson from SNL also shows up in a key role but again it is a fleeting character. But again that is the world that Jesus Quintana lives in. Even his mother, who has a great reveal and played by a cool actress completely fits into the story correctly. In essence though the heart still revolves back to Tatou’s character and her brightness which balances out the texture of Jesus’ smarminess which Turturro doesn’t tame down but also makes it as dimensional as he can. And yes he does bowl and he can roll.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: ONWARD [Pixar/Disney]

The creation of new stories especially from the talent at Pixar is an interesting evolving evolution. The new iterations of IP are the first per se of originals after the departure of John Lasseter. Even though his removal was warranted, and despite the presence of so many of the original creative people, there is a slight hole, however miniscule within the structure. “Onward” works well and bring in textures of mythology but within the context of a modern world. It is intrinsic but, despite the quest motif, almost seems smaller than one would expect. The story works well though maybe a slight more complicated that the usual Pixar but as always deals with some sort of loss that must be regained through the transformation and path of a character.

The story follows the texture of two brothers, one of which Ian (played by Tom Holland) is becoming a man. He lost his father before he ever knew him. Barley, his brother, (played by Chris Pratt) is a fun-loving almost D&D outsider who teases his brother but loves him in his way nonetheless. This is not our world. This is a magical world where winged horses fight over garbage like dogs and cats and homes are sometimes made of mushroom. But modernism has taken the place of magic…which of course is an apt metaphor. The brothers discover a spell that will bring their father back for one day but the initial try (because Ian hasn’t ever tried to use magic) makes it so that only the bottom half of their father is there. In order to restore them they have to find another crystal that goes in a wand to conjure up the other half. Only problem is that the resurrection spell for their father only lasts for a day.

The quest itself is fun but mostly bittersweet. Small gestures by the bottom half of the dad are so small but mean so much which is why Pixar has always been able to translate to multiple languages. Holland plays a variation on his characters that start off meek but find a small degree of confidence by the end. Pratt’s Barney seems much closer to him as a person, even with his van Guinevere, which is an ode to Pratt’s life in his early 20s when he lived in his van in Hawaii. Pratt seems to go off script a little which is great but it seems maybe the animators tried to bridge it at times.

The true magic of the quest and the connection is almost a circle as the film ends in an interesting conundrum of a loop which actually works quite well and is quite existential in a way that “Finding Nemo” was in a way. But the realization in the final moments is handled exceptionally and with poignancy that, despite any shenanigans with the brothers, comes out truly 3-dimensional and formed. “Onward” is a evolving perspective of Pixar in staying with its true mission of stories of redemption while still making it undeniably heartfelt and accessible.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE INVISIBLE MAN [Universal]

The narrative progression of an IP like “The Invisible Man” can take perspective elements on the notion of existence and what it means to be alive. In approaching it in the Blumhouse model, it forces the filmmaker to find that differing approach. Leigh Whannel, known for the SAW Franchise with James Wan, seemed to have figured out something very specific when he made “Upgrade” a couple years ago which premiered at SxSW. He spoke about the difference about having one car for a car chase instead of 10. Working with less makes you approach different things creatively. While this might seem restrictive for some filmmakers who have already made their name, it is also freeing (depending on financial responsibility on who succeeds monetarily with this frugalness).

“The Invisible Man” is much better than it has any right to be but that is because of the committed nature of Elizabeth Moss and Whannel knowing how to work with cinematic perspective for much of the movie without anything really being there…but also knowing not to pull the punches when need be. Despite any genre trappings, there is an emotional resonance with Moss. She gets tossed around but these kind of damaged personas that burgeon to a vicious streak at times make her perfect, giving her that character actor edge. She made “The Kitchen” work at points because she went for it. It is not that her character has abandon, she just fully commits to it. While some might point to an element of overacting, it is a style that works primarily well in these types of films…and Moss knows it.

One crucial point in the film, Whannel does something interesting between the trailer and the actual film which acts to a point of misdirect without even adhering to the big reveal…and it hits hard in that moment to audible gasps. The set pieces feel familiar but also original which is also helped by the fact that the story is set in San Francisco and Silicon Valley yet it was shot in Australia and near Fox Studios Sydney so it has that movie feel of being real but not quite. The continuation of what “The Invisible Man” actually is, of course, reflective of the times but doesn’t make it a matter of scolding, just a state of being. Moss’ character wants to escape an abusive relationship but it is coming to terms with both the mental and physical strain that resides in how she sees herself.

When the genre elements finally kick in, that sense of identity is nicely teetering, especially in one scene after a betrayal of sorts when she is sitting on the floor with a knife in hand staring at an empty room, ruminating on the aspect of why she specifically exists in this space. It may be exposition but it rings heartfelt which makes the next scene really take the fight to a more practical level and thereby makes it more intense. Moss again is great at these points selling them wholesale. The antagonist(s) themselves are fairly thinly drawn, but that angle of the story is not so much central as is the notion of paranoia and control which is very finely detailed.

“The Invisible Man” is an interesting reverse psychology exercise into the diatribe that permeates our times. From the opening credits that tease a noir in certain respects, this approach to the Universal Monster Universe is the correct one: lower budget, using story and acting instead of overarching effects and the essence of psychology which is what made the mid budget films of yesterday so compelling, Making something dynamic is not so much the sum of its parts, but that essence of work between the lines in that what cannot be seen often is scarier than what is right in front of you.

B+

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: GUNS AKIMBO [Saban]

The trajectory of high octane, almost video game mentality genre has its great moments. A couple years ago “Hardcore Henry” showed at Toronto Film Festival, the extreme levels from which a lot of ideas could flow. Ryan Reynolds’ upcoming “Free Guy” will appproach it from another perspective but one with more money and mainstream humor. “Guns Akimbo” is much more gritty but takes its point of view from similar approach. Daniel Radcliffe plays a mousy if not slightly passive game/code designer who trolls website with the implication that he will eventually be called on his miscredence. The overarching villain aspect of the piece is a form of Death Death Kill where opponents are set against each other in the real world trying to kill each other. The big winner is Nix, played by Samara Weaving of “Ready Or Not”, going full bore into a nightmare version of Tank Girl mixed with Harley Quinn. One can see glimpses of her uncle, Hugo Weaving in some of her viscosity. After “Ready Or Not”, this almost seems too archaic for her, though definitely powerful and comedic.

Ultimately the progression is about subverting expectations. Although some of plot twists start to play melodramatic so they can be ripped to shreds, the losses and stakes never really add up to much. The pace is fairly fast and furious. Some of the set pieces, especially a road race per se where Radcliffe can barely drive the car because guns are nailed to his hands, uniquely gratifying. These nailed hands is the main visual structure of the piece and Radcliffe embraces them as possible. When it was announced, the film was expected to played to its graphic novel beats. Radcliffe as always picks material not necessarily for the character itself but its concept within the world. Within the trinity trio of Harry Potter, he has been the one who has taken the most risks though Emma Watson has gone for bigger budget fare with varying success. The thematics here of identity and who we want to be and who we think we are definitely integrate into the story. The resolution is typical graphic novel style overload but undeniably entertaining with the set up ripe for engagement and continuation. “Guns Akimbo” is good fun with its tongue-in-cheek, a good sense of itself and a flagrant style.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE CALL OF THE WILD [20th Century Studios/Disney]

The aspect of making a book into film has to come from perspective of authenticity to the voice but also the focus from which it came. “Call Of The Wild” is an interesting conundrum since It is told from the perspective of the dog for the most part. Many movies of this sort overplay the ideal for schmaltz or have the dogs actually speak what they are thinking. This has become a progression of sorts in futility (though “My Dog Skip” still retains its intentions). “The Call Of The Wild” does it differently and, as a result, benefits from what would be seen as a more natural performance of the dog. The dog of course is not a dog at all but motion captured but the way it is done seems undeniable. There likely isn’t even a dog there but that illusion is fairly complete especially with the actors selling it, especially Harrison Ford. Now granted like Ryan Gosling who approaches acting the same way, Ford says much without doing a lot of things on screen and yet he conveys so much. What is interesting is that Ford’s character doesn’t enter fully until more than halfway through the movie.

As a result the audience connects with Buck as he is not just defined by one master but is by extension an elevated being of consciousness. Buck makes dynamic decisions with emotional resonance. His first owner shows his teenage years, his dogsledding days are his 20s and his time with Ford become his formative years where he can explore his own existence but also settle down. The scenery is beautiful and one understands why this appealed to Ford since this is more his scene. He feels perfectly at ease.  Despite his want to try to bursh off the metaphors, the idea of existentialism and the nature of being does resonate with him. One only has to look at his filmography to see this. He brings in those other characters we know without calling attention to them. A lot of the words he says in solitary about his son and wife in this movie eerily reflect at times Han Solo and his son Ben. And of course we will always see a grizzled Indiana Jones especially in his countenance but also in his reservation. But his performance especially the addendum enhances the story and doesn’t dominate it. The dog in fact saved his soul even if life for him is only fleeting. Buck as a character is fully formed and the subtleties of his emotions are perfectly rendered with both heart, humor and betrayal so it wonderfully works in context. This movie of course couldn’t have been made even 5 years ago. But this is a distinct step forward in terms of realistic portrayal with borderline natural behavior. It used the tech to  exceptional use for story purposes without losing the sense of the idea. “The Call Of The Wild” is not about spectacle. It is about the journey within that just happens to take place on a much larger mileau.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: FANTASY ISLAND [Sony]

After the advent of “Lost”, the notion of the mysterious island has been tinkered with but this metaphor, this trope of genre, has been in play for quite a long time. It is about taking the mythology and turning it on his head. “Fantasy Island” was probably original thought of as a straight reboot but audiences today don’t want the essence of a fantasy when the reality strays right below. They like the allure of the fantasy but tend to want to see the comeuppance so they don’t feel so bad about the state of the world or their own life. Jason Blum through his Blumhouse banner has found a way to make his type of horror films for a budget and yet use either his burgeoning IP or other IP and transform it with exceptional effect. He got ahold of “Fantasy Island” through Sony, much like the upcoming “Invisible Man” from Universal and changed the perspective.

Without giving too much, this Fantasy Island is about granting your wishes but also showing its consequence. While this might seem like having your cake and eating it too, the film does work on the level though seemingly in a strange college frat yet strangely compelling sort of way. This is why “Happy Death Day” and especially “Happy Death Day 2U “work so well is because it takes the 80s genre of horror per se, spins it with a little creative story structure (which doesn’t work some of the time but most of the time does) and pushes it back out.

The basic structure here still has Mr. Roarke…this time played by Michael Pena versus the now passed Ricardo Montalban. There is a secret to be kept but his intention is kept barely below the surface. Most of the characters from the kid who lost his father to war to a girl bullied in high school getting her revenge to two brothers from different mothers who just want to have a good time work well within their lane and especially when the lanes tend to mix. This type of film is not trying to be rocket science and, beyond a very basic explantation, doesn’t need to say how. The one anomaly is Maggie Q who is very good at genre stuff. She is good here but because of her recognizability, the tendency of the plot tends to get a little more obvious when she is around which might have not necessarily been the best idea since she deserves an action or horror remake all her own. Overall the film though maintains its pace while getting slightly sloppy at the end because all details can ride together…but “Fantasy Island” knows its audience, still wanting to give them scares but without creeping or goring them out too much.

B-

By Tim Wassberg