Sunday, April 22, 2018

Reviews from gulag: That is not dead which can forever lie

Admittedly, the past few months have been a little spotty: between work and personal obligations, and an unfortunately-mania-free depressive episode that feels like it's gone on for about four straight months, I've let Kinemalogue lapse into a weekly (bordering on biweekly) update schedule.  In the process, I missed the chance to talk about a bunch of stuff from last year back when it was still relevant.  Hence, it's mostly in the spirit of spring cleaning that I dump this first batch of short reviews for a bunch of movies that you probably only vaguely remember by now, and which I found so terribly interesting I didn't even bother writing about them at the time.  Am I selling it?  Anyway, today's reviews are for Marjorie Prime and Call Me By Your Name.

First up is by some significant margin the best of the items in the basket of unattended films I'll be dealing with over today and tomorrow, and the only reason I don't say "the best film from last year that I saw but didn't review, period," is because while I will eventually have to write about T2 Trainspotting (or, as it might have been titled by non-assholes, Trainspotting 2), I expect to do that in the context of a Danny Boyle retrospective, rather than in a lumpen review of various film-shaped objects.  Therefore, this one, which alone amongst this group actually did deserve something more thoughtful, is Michael Almereyda's adaptation of Jordan Harrison's play, Marjorie Prime.

The idea of a sci-fi play, by itself, already strikes me as somehow incongruous, even though there's clearly nothing but the silliest possible prejudice underlying this reaction—the genre of science fiction that deals with the offloading of human labor (physical or otherwise) onto artificially intelligent servants (fully-sapient or otherwise) began with a play, after all, namely Karel Capek's R.U.R., which—amongst other things—exported the very word "robot" into the English language.  Prime nobly extends that lineage one more time, finding a new task for our silicon friends to perform, and a stranger one: Prime posits the existence of an artificially-intelligent adaptive program, designed to keep the elderly company and help them retain their grip on their memories as they head, inexorably, toward the void.

Such a program, called a "Prime" (which seems ass-backwards, but I can accept this fictional branding of the software as an intentional irony) has been deployed to assist Marjorie (Lois Smith) as she fights her losing fight with Alzheimer's.  To this end, Marjorie and Marjorie's helpful, almost over-supportive son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) have set up the thing's holographic interface to resemble and sound exactly like Marjorie's dead husband Walter (Jon Hamm) as he was, around four decades earlier.  Marjorie's daughter and Jon's wife, Tess, is distressed by the whole situation, and (perhaps inevitably) can only look upon the automaton with the face of her late father with suspicion and a little bit of disgust; but she acquiesces anyway, because there is little else that even seems like it could help.  This "Walter Prime" tells Marjorie stories, all day, every day, intended to remind her of her past; but what's obvious from the very start is that Walter Prime can only know what he's been told by the living, and, indeed, the first conversation we find ourselves privy to between Marjorie and Walter is the key to unlocking what Marjorie Prime is actually interested in, when Walter spins the yarn about their very first date together, and Marjorie says it would be better if they'd gone to see a repertory showing of Casablanca.  (At this point, I forget exactly what it was they actually saw, so let's say it was, oh, Billy Madison.)

It is something of a miracle that Marjorie Prime manages to escape the heavy gravity of the basic Black Mirror premise which it resembles, and (more to the point) even the Black Mirror episodes which it specifically resembles.  (Take your pick, because it specifically resembles two of 'em, namely "White Christmas," which is also about Jon Hamm's ghost in a machine, or "Be Right Back," which is the one where Domnhall Gleeson plays a robot designed to replace a departed loved one, and who is therefore given license to act with even more awkwardly-miscalibrated emotion than he usually does.  Anyhow, they even use a pullquote on the poster that mentions Black Mirror, and ewww, that is some straight-up pandering, bandwagoning shit right there.  But damned if it isn't fair.)

But for starters, then, it's a miracle that Marjorie Prime itself never feels too much like a TV show—or like a filmed stageplay—despite an easy majority of the film taking place in a single location, and the vast majority of it taking place indoors (with the entirety of the action in any of its locations amounting to people talking to and often just at each other, or even effectively talking to themselves).  The very worst thing you can say about its aesthetic is that it sometimes trips over itself to be more dynamic, with tracking shots around the house that don't really justify themselves beyond proving the thesis, "this is an actual house and not a set."  But even these moments are relatively rare, and not especially distracting; the general impression is that of a very staid chamber drama, but an immaculately precise one.

As this is somewhat the case for many Black Mirror episodes, as well, the miracle that truly distinguishes Marjorie Prime (besides, I guess, the fact that it justifies its runtime, something only about half of Black Mirror's episodes actually do) occurs because Marjorie Prime is not pantswettingly terrified of the technology it imagines.  In fact, it doesn't even really care about the technology that much.  Instead, it finds it an interesting tool, and a starting-point for what it really wants to be, which is an examination of human families (which are rarely fully functional in the movies, and this is no exception) and, even more ambitiously, human memory itself.  It's a faculty that's awfully fallible in the first place—as the screenplay dutifully explains, what we remember is not any event itself, but the last time we remembered it, a copy of a copy at best—and one that's much more ephemeral than we'd like to admit.

In the process, it makes for a terribly upsetting depiction of a family dealing with Alzheimer's, essentially by default—you likely already noticed that the cast list is almost unfairly stacked in the movie's favor.  Smith (reprising her role from the stage, and, at 87, legitimately old as fuck) obviously steals the show.  But the show does not end with her, and Robbins and Davis each get at least one hunk of red meat of their own to chew on here.  Hamm, on the other hand, might not; but Hamm, in giving a semblance of life (though no more) to the first and most often-seen of the several not-all-that-intelligent artificial intelligences we meet, is also possibly giving Marjorie Prime its single most technically adept and interesting performance, managing the very subtle, philosopher-bait distinction between "computer you can talk to" and "person" with outright uncanny ease.  At this point, I'm on the edge of spoiling things; so let's just say that, in its final coda, it fully embraces its sci-fi conceit at last, in a way that is at once whimsical, darkly hilarious, and (I think) at least as insightful in regards to the humans that it's always been about as it is to the dumb ol' AIs it wasn't.

Score:  8/10

Spoiler alert on this one: relatively high

Is there ever cum in heterosexual romance flicks?  Assuming that There's Something About Mary doesn't count, nor the several documentary warehouses of heterosexual romances that drive the majority of traffic on our Internet, the answer is "of course there isn't, creep."  Yet, somehow, this seems unfair; it's not like it's less cum-driven, even if the quantities are, on average, halved.

Anyway, there's cum in Call Me By Your Name—not that much, really, but more than usual, and the first time you see it, it's a nice little grace note, so far as cumshots go, a pearl necklace you could take home to mother, if you wanted (director Luca Guadagdino has called his R-rated romance a "family-oriented film," either because he's a disingenuous European or because he's a moron or both)—but as it proceeds, Guadagdino and his screenwriter/secret co-director James Ivory, adapting Andre Aciman's novel, seem just bound and determined to give cum a bad name after all, as well as the teenage boys who produce so much of it.  While the scene I'm thinking of—involving, as I'm sure you've heard, the violation of a certain apricot—probably wants to be a metaphor, or something like that, what you're focused on instead isn't its narrative or thematic meaning, nor even the cum, which is, you know, whatever, it's cum, but rather the fact that our teenage hero just tosses his used apricots right on the floor of a bedroom in his family's rented vacation house in Italy, like he's never even heard of ants.

Here's the thing: this is a deeply inappropriate note upon which to begin a review of Call Me By Your Name, not so much because I said the word "cum" seven times, but because while this scene is probably Name's single most salient and memorable and infamous feature, it also makes Name sound weird and interesting.  And while it does pass the time, I guess (honestly too much of it), this movie isn't weird at all, except in two admittedly major ways: first, the way that this scene and scenes like it just keep trying to thread the needle of presenting young Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) as a proper romantic lead and as a naturalistically-awful late adolescent boy, which frankly hurts Name a great deal, given its very obvious movie-movie goals; and, second, the way that the plot revolves around a gay coming-of-age element that is handled without any Big Coming Out, as such—to the extent that it's a credible reading of the film that Elio's dad (Michael Stuhlbarg) has gone out of his way to give his son the gift of a first lover, his dad's former student Oliver (Armie Hammer), staying with the family during their working sojourn in Italy (dad being some species of archaeologist).  And this is tremendously refreshing, as it allows for a gay romance to be played, if you'll pardon the phrase, more-or-less straight (it's even somewhat willful, as Name is an 80s period piece).  But it is never any more important than the confused and bruised feelings it brings out in Elio himself, in which we are invited to share.

And share in them we do, at least when it comes to that all-important central relationship (and, indeed, Elio's relationship with his mom and dad, although very much backloaded, is itself a wonderful thing, too; but of course it makes sense that a kid trying to find his own identity in the world would only admit he needs his parents when he really needs them).  So: Call Me By Your Name is well-acted (by Hammer especially, whose infinite gentleness as Oliver makes the older man seem like the prey here), is often awkwardly funny, sometimes it's even dreadfully moving, and it's quite pretty, to boot, thanks to the sun-blasted southern Italian fantasia it exists in, thanks to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom.  (It has a tendency to be noticeably badly-edited, but this is no deal breaker.)  The real inestimable pity, then, is that even though it has set itself unmistakably upon the most heartrending romantic melodrama possible, it consistently takes its eyes off the prize.

What Name does instead is ruts, in both senses of the term, and it does it a lot: it ought to go without saying that the last thing I want to see in my gay romance is my gay virgin enthusiastically, yet soullessly, pumping and dumping some girl.  Nevertheless, this is a thing that happens in this movie, existing for no obvious reason whatsoever except, I imagine, to prove Elio's bisexual bona fides.  Whoopty-shit.  (And the young dear isn't even granted the dubious honor of serving as an emotional prop for Elio's pain, rendered almost literally as nothing but a lithe, well-photographed thing to put a cock in; in other words, this human woman with lines and enough apparent importance to be given screentime is also granted less narrative significance than Elio's fucking apricot, and also, arguably, less agency, because nobody ever gives the apricot dialogue, apropos of nothing apparent, to forgive Elio for his exploitation of its feelings).  And what this does to the structure of Name's romance—clearly by total accident on the part of everybody involved—is to punch a giant hole in the illusion of its two star-crossed lovers, and reveal their tryst for what it kind of obviously would be in boring old reality, which is some stupid child's stupid first crush, that, mind you, he also had the good fortune to consummate.  It is a trenchant (and frankly contemptuous) reminder that life isn't actually over when Armie Hammer must take his leave of you, though I might understand why it would seem that way.  And hell—this might even be a lesson worth relaying in a movie whose emotional payload didn't completely depend on us believing that it is.  Indeed, given that managing anything even slightly less would necessarily be a waste of 135 minutes of your time, Name comes awfully damned close to being exactly that.

Score: 6/10


  1. I'm really sorry to hear about your depressive episode! These times, they are tough. But I'm always happy to see your reviews whenever they arrive.

    That first paragraph of your Call Me by Your Name review has maybe the best description of porn I've ever seen, by the way. And I'm glad you liked Armie Hammer's performance as much as I did! I feel like most people gravitated toward Chalamet and Stuhlbarg and ignored the gentle, subtle work that Hammer was providing.

    The movie is still incredibly underwhelming though, but whatcha gonna do.

  2. As Godard said, every film is a documentary of its actors. Some more than others, though, amirite?

    And yeah, Hammer's pretty great in it.

    Anyway, it's just life and my particular neurological cobstruction, though living in the pre-apocalypse definitely doesn't help. But there's no need to worry, it's low-grade depression, and will likely clear up slightly as the weather stops dicking us around here in Pittsburgh. Now when I'm 40, that's when the teeth will gnash and the wailing will begin again.