Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Reviews from gulag: Yes, it's early in the year to be falling behind

It turns out influenza is real, and not merely a historical anecdote, and can be profitably compared to a hangover that lasts a week and a half.  If I feel better now, I think the lion's share of the credit goes to the 4K release of Aquaman.  However, before I got sick, I watched not one but two piece of shit new-release movies, and I might as well log the stupid things while they still maintain their tenuous grip on my memory.  So!  Here's some short(ish) reviews of 2019's Greta and The Wandering Earth.

GRETA (Neil Jordan)
Greta is probably not the least fun version of itself it could possibly be, yet, ironically, it's hard to imagine it going any worse than it did without it becoming more enjoyable in the process, either by being actually enjoyable-on-purpose, which is self-explanatory, or by going completely batshit crazy, and therefore becoming enjoyable-on-accident.  Instead, it aims directly for mediocrity and gets stuck beneath it: it is the very ideal of slick, bland, indifferent semi-competence, as applied to a pair of genres that by their nature were never going to reward any of those things.  Greta, of course, stands astride two equally disreputable forms: in plot, it's a 90s-style stalker thriller that gradually (and very inelegantly) shades into the plot of a 90s-style serial killer thriller; yet it's a 90s-style thriller that's been pitched in the register of full-on post-Golden Age hagsploitation, taking on a famous and good actress of advancing years and giving her a howling psychopath to play with.  And, look, I know I'm making it sound good.  But that's the baffling pity of Greta: it really ought to be at least kind of great, and it should have been really easy.

So, our heroine-victim this time is Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz), a naive college student recently arrived in Manhattan and living in a spacious apartment with her BFF Erica (Maika Monroe)—and we know she's naive, because one day she goes out of her way to find the owner of a handbag she found on the subway.  (Her natural kindness, offensive to New Yorkers like Erica, is explained by her upbringing in a small Massachussetts town called [checks notes] Boston.  Yeah.  And I realize I'm still making it sound fun!: I'll concede, this is Greta's most sustained flirtation with the kind of overt terribleness that, if the whole script had been like this, might've made it bad B-movie funny; but instead, it just kind of sits there, a mangled fact inside an inert screenplay.)  Anyway, this purse, it turns out, belongs to our hag, Greta (a rather well-preserved "hag" in the form of Isabelle Huppert, who surprised me by being fully fifteen years older than I thought she was, and whose presence might be an even bigger disappointment for you if you watch a lot of movies from Europe, which I personally do not).  Greta is an old French-American immigrant who lives alone, nursing an estrangement from a daughter in Paris; perhaps it's worth mentioning that Frances is still grieving over a dead mother herself, insofar as the movie itself mentions this, over and over.  Somehow drawn to this seemingly-kind older woman, Frances becomes her friend—that is, until she realizes that Greta set the whole thing up, and has been setting bags all over New York, bait for young girls that she can imprint upon and make her own.  Unfortunately, Greta doesn't take her rejection well, and isn't at all willing to take "go away" for an answer.

We get to this point so quickly it barely even makes sense, and the abiding impression of Greta's dysfunctional first act is that it is doing everything wrong, beginning with casting that demands Moretz dial down her natural Hit-Girlness to play an earnest rube from (sigh) Boston, and requires Monroe to play the living embodiment of the term "basic white girl" (and I kind of hate that term) in ways that make her feel like a robot programmed by other robots for expositional dialogue.  But it's broken in pretty much every mechanical element of its screenplay, too, never moreso than in its first half hour or so when it's smooshing Greta and Frances together in awkward scenes without the slightest chemistry between the performers, then tearing them apart with a reveal so lazy you momentarily assume it's something the character did on purpose.

This laziness, in fact, persists throughout the whole film; if it's less lazy than the first act turn, it's only by default, because nothing could be worse than Frances stumbling upon a cupboard full of identical purses because Greta asked her to grab a plate.  The upshot is that Greta is remarkably bad at being a thriller villain, and it's only through Frances' tremendous ineptitude as a thriller victim that Greta gets as far as she does.  The film, very occasionally, does find the right image or mood to give you a sensation of encroaching threat, notably in a scene where Greta is gifted the power to literally teleport—and, frankly, she needed the help of a superpower to seem remotely menacing—and in a bit where Greta prances over a useless Scatman Crothers type whilst he dies.  But mostly it's a movie that completely fails to conjure much tension out of its theoretical pressure-cooker, even in the expected ways: one of the things you might assume about Greta is that it would use gender to its advantage, because nobody would take Frances' claims of a harmless old woman stalking her seriously.  Yet Greta tips her hand publicly almost immediately, and even winds up getting arrested for assault at one point, only to get out off-screen; it's only screenwriting bullshit of the very thickest kind that keeps her in the game at all past the halfway point, let alone into the depths of the third act.

I said the film takes its cues from the 1990s, which is true in a lot of respects, starting with its maker (Neil Jordan, most famous for The Crying Game, decided to take on this trash, presumably out of a desire to have the kind of fun with it that never shows up in the product).  It's 90s all over in its presentation of protagonists who are immensely wealthy and live in the same apartment complex as Friends but still have, in Frances' case, a waitress job that she can be accosted at.  And it is 90s as fuck with its monumentally queer subtext that does absolutely nothing but annoy you by refusing to just be the Goddamn text.  Being "about" a lesbian incest rape fantasy in every possible way except being literally about it, Greta would improve by leaps and bounds if it simply were about what its dumb mom stuff stands in for: a college girl who'd dallied with a possessive older woman.  If nothing else, "angry former sex partner" is just a cleaner foundation for this kind of stalking plot; meanwhile, it would have forced the film to do something more than barely pretend to care about establishing Greta and Frances' relationship in the first act, rather than race through the scenario it does have in the span of three scenes.  Plus, there's no doubt that just-being-gay-already would be vastly more entertaining than being gay-coded in outdated ways that the movie doesn't even bother terribly insisting upon.

But of course can't just-be-gay.  Hell, it ain't straight, either.  With all due respect to asexuals, it's nothing at all.  It's unwilling to commit to sleaze or to camp or to "serious" suspense, or to any particular mood outside of individual scenes—usually just portions of individual scenes—to the point that during a particular gore shock (the only one, really), you're likely to credit it for pushing against its PG-13 limitations.  Later, however, you'll realize that for some reason the movie actually was rated R, and it's just not using that rating to do anythingAnd this contributes to that 90s vibe, too.

But above all it feels 90s in the way that a lot of post-Silence of the Lambs movies felt of their time: the way it uses extremely vague and meaningless gestures toward artfulness as an ineffective disguise for the profound emptiness it holds in its heart.  Consider, for example, those infinity shots in Frances' elevator, or Seamus McGarvey's excruciatingly dull color-leeched cinematography, or Huppert's prestige-burning participation generally, or the heavingly-cliche inability of our heroine to use overwhelming (or even adequate) force when she has the advantage, or, of course, the offensively absurd dream sequence that comes from nowhere and goes right back, after wasting five minutes of our time doing nothing interesting, either visually or with the characters, in some of the most inexplicable padding I've ever seen.  The closest Greta ever gets to being a film of its time is in a "twist" (a "twist," that is, in the sense that it attempts to trick us, and, because it puts in a nominal effort, I guess we have to pretend we were indeed tricked), which asks us to reevaluate the potential of a side character that the film assumes we dislike, mainly because it's made her dislikable, and for whom it has had no use whatsoever until right now—except, of course, to serve as an ugly stereotype and, I guess, "comic relief."  Greta's obnoxiously disingenuous, in this and many other regards; but worse, it's passionless.  Ultimately, it's pointless, and a few nice scenes of Huppert frolicking amidst gruesomeness just don't cut it.

Score: 4/10

THE WANDERING EARTH (Frant Gwo)
Does "Chinese Roland Emmerich film" entice you?  I'll be straight with you: hell yes, it enticed me.  That The Wandering Earth is presently the record-holder for the biggest opening in China definitely sealed the deal.  It's a shame that while we've finally arrived at a point where American weekend numbers actually do serve as something of a seal of acceptability, The Wandering Earth hearkens back to the days of the 2000s and early 10s, when you'd look at very successful films and their profitability would merely perplex you.  And make no mistake, The Wandering Earth's success is extremely perplexing, not in the way that one of China's previous record-holders, The Mermaid, was a weird movie that nevertheless found its way to the top; rather, The Wandering Earth is perplexing in that you really can't understand what was supposed to have been appealing to the Chinese audience, or to any audience, because you spend a lot of the movie saying "but this is basically just a slightly less broken-down version of Geostorm," and it's difficult to comprehend even a "better" version of Geostorm making any money whatsoever.

Maybe it's just all in that premise, and whatever else, Wandering Earth has a killer premise, the kind of premise that you suspect originated in a hard speculative fiction novella that the film's screenwriters warped out of recognition and which you'd love to read: in the future, the sun is going to expand and swallow the Earth (by "future" I mean "near future"; obviously, the sun will eventually kill our world); hence, the United Earth Government that's been established to handle the crisis has done the obvious thing, which is to begin the relocation of the Earth to Alpha Centauri.  The main plot picks up seventeen years into this thousand year journey, as Earth crosses paths with Jupiter.  Yeah, that's amazing.

And everything that's amazing about Wandering Earth stems directly from the fantasy metal album covers its premise conjures in your brain, which is to say not much of it's amazing, but it does have some extremely cool cosmic vistas of city-sized rockets pushing the Earth across the void, and of the skies of our frozen world filled from horizon to horizon by the angry red eye of Jupiter.

Everything else is, well, everything else.  Mostly it comes down to our heroes, Liu Qi (Qu Chixiao), a callow teen, and his absent father, Liu Peqang (Wu Jing), who's spent Qi's whole life aboard the spaceship that serves as Earth's navigational control center.  There are many, many other characters in Wandering Earth, including Qi's sister/"sister," Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), and the comic relief half-Australian, Tim (Mike Sui); these guys are almost important, but there are, like, twenty others of varying degrees of narrative impact.  This is perhaps why reviews of Wandering Earth have decided to be kind of quasi-orientalist about it and infer that this is some expression of Chinese culture, that Wandering Earth is "about the collective"—alternatively, they can't even tell the other twenty apart, and have decided "collective" will cover it, though in their defense Wandering Earth does indeed fail to make this easy, what with everyone spending most of their time in gray life support suits.

Still, either way, this wasn't the read I got on it at all.  Irwin Allen movies are actually sometimes about "the collective."  This, on the other hand, is a very, very bog standard movie about a kid chosen one and his fucking dad, alternatively bland and shrill in its tenor, and bouncing from cliche to wholly non-functional as the mood takes it.  Now, it's true that it also happens to be swarmed with a very large and uneconomical supporting cast, but while these individuals don't really present as "characters" in their own right, neither do they manifest as symbols for larger processes—maybe when we get the addition of groups of non-Chinese characters, in the very end, and the world heaves toward the heroic finish line.  Mostly, though, these folks are always nothing more nor less than functional nodes strung along a connect-the-dots story which takes Qi, his sister, and his grandfather (and, if we must, Tim) on the road from the Earth's underground habitats to its frigid surface, in order to undertake a no-hope mission to keep Earth from plowing into Jupiter.  This is a mission which is complicated by events in Qi's father's plot aboard the spaceship, which involve various homages and/or thefts from other sci-fi films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and WALL-E... and these are really terrible.

Meanwhile, although it's never hard to follow the very basic plot of Wandering Earth, it is an absolute wreck as a storytelling vehicle, and often ugly to boot in its smeary videography.  We can start with its mangled tone, something that probably doesn't cross cultural barriers well, like the way that Duoduo is a more-or-less grown woman (the actor was sixteen or seventeen), but shrieks and cries and swings her moods like she were a five year old.  (The other comic relief is not better, per se, but at least it plays: I mean, I understand Tim's function, even if—outside a vomit joke that's so gonzo it forced a laugh out of me—the film's caricature of a white guy is also nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying.)  But "bad comedy" is at least keeping with the whole "Chinese Emmerich movie" thing, and it's hard to be too mad at a movie for simply being what it is.  So when I say it's "bad at storytelling," I mean it's bad at advancing information that allows you to grasp what's actually happening within its story, like the way it fails to clarify Qi's relationship with Duoduo until something like the eighty minute mark, or the way that individual shots almost always play as mystifying whenever the action becomes more complex than "character A walks to mark B."  The climax, in particular, is an implosion of completely illegible filmmaking, with somewhere between a half-dozen and one dozen characters (eventually becoming hundreds of characters) all performing various tasks, and while it's always very clear what their ultimate group goal is, every individual goal within the sequence is completely, totally opaque, often devolving into nothing but vague video game-like images of human objects running inside tunnels and screaming about duty and stakes and never so much about their individual, concrete jobs.  Now, I say the climax is like this, but the whole back half is pretty much like this, with every possible relationship, whether global or local, always in question: this is true of its geography as much as it is its characters.

Given that Frant Gwo's direction is almost headache-inducingly inept on a shot-to-shot basis, it's no tremendous surprise that his world-building and atmosphere are mismanaged, too; it was probably too much to hope that a frozen-over Earth would not eventually get kind of dull, but it does, and perhaps sooner than you'd think, with the skyscapes alone able to save it.  As for what society is like on this post-apocalyptic voyage into the unknown, Wandering Earth simply does not care beyond the first ten minutes and an inciting incident that gets Qi and Duoduo out onto the ice.  What we do see is pretty lousy: it's a cramped rec room that sort of gestures at the idea of "subterranean cities" without ever feeling like more than a room in any old building—Wandering Earth is not "low-budget," even by American standards, but often does look and feel like it is—while Qi and Duoduo's brief interactions with their world are (of course) played for uneasy laughs that don't come.  Though I guess the inflatable ball thing that's introduced in the first act and plays a significant role in the last is a modestly funny visual.

Ultimately, it's bewildering in the worst ways a movie can be bewildering, and it's tiring, too, which is another way of saying "boring."  And boring is the last thing a movie about a literal spaceship Earth ought to be!  But there it is.  I would kill to see the contemplative version of this movie, that really digs into the speculative weirdness of the concept.  That was always a never-going-to-happen, regardless of which cinematic culture it came from, but I don't think I should have to threaten freaking homicide to get the good action-adventure version of this goofy-great idea, either.  It's a real damn shame, and Wandering Earth must stand as my biggest disappointment of 2019 so far.

Score: 3/10

6 comments:

  1. Yeah, Greta was a huge disappointment at every level, even with little nuggets like that Boston angle just BEGGING to be Bad-Good gems.
    For my money, the gleaming tower on bad movie hill this year so far has been the killer kid movie The Prodigy, which is probably still not the craziest it could be but definitely goes for it in ways Greta never managed to.

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    1. The Prodigy really just kinda came and went, late winter horror in the classic sense.

      Looking forward to Us, though. I mean, practically anything would be better than last year's big spring horror, A Quiet Place.

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    2. I'm greatly looking forward to reading your thoughts on Us when they come. I think it definitely grapples with some of your pet themes, even if it doesn't have the tremendous clarity of vision that Get Out did.
      As you may have noticed, I'm not doing contemporary reviews at the moment, but I did enjoy Us quite a bit as a well-constructed horror flick, and it's about seventeen severed heads and shoulders above A Quiet Place.

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    3. I have noticed, and it's a bummer, though you doubtless have your reasons. (Industry job, perhaps?)

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    4. It's a combination of not wanting to alienate potential podcast guests/job opportunities and not wanting to have to drum up something to say about stuff like fucking Dumbo, which I'm probably going to be dragged to.

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    5. Turns out it's entirely possible that I'd have been better off catching up on Dumbo than Us. And if I don't get to see Shazam soon I'll lose my total superhero shill cred.

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