Provocateur director Gaspar Noé has put a waking nightmare on screen with his newest movie Climax. The film is unsettling, nauseating, confusing, and, in the end, a singular viewing experience that only Noé could unleash upon the world. The director responsible for the equally singular Enter the Void – which I revisited as the second part of a double feature with Climax, a night I won’t soon forget – uses nihilism the way Bob Ross used happy little trees, often and with great satisfaction. There is no lesson to be learned here. Climax isn’t exploring any deeper truths about the human condition. Noé’s only goal seems to be to shock and disorient his audience. In that way, Climax is a complete success.
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Hip-hop artist, music producer, teacher, and political activist and agitator Boots Riley has new talents to add to his resume: screenwriter and director. His electric film debut, Sorry to Bother You, announces a fresh and singular new voice in American cinema. The movie uses biting, politically charged satire to comment on a myriad of social justice concerns. Riley skewers issues like race, class, labor rights, toxic capitalism, and selling out with an outlandish and exhilarating premise that gets stranger with every passing minute. I can sum the movie up with one word: bonkers. The last time I used that word to describe a film I wrote about was over three years ago. The inventive science fiction (for lack of a better term) feel and unique sense of humor Riley employs in Sorry to Bother You makes it the first bonkers movie event since Mad Max: Fury Road.
The title says it all. The grand finale for the Netflix original series Sense8 is called Amor Vincit Omnia, the famous Latin phrase that translates to Love Conquers All. If you know anything about the series, you know how well that phrase describes the show as a whole. It’s a fitting title for the last adventure in a series about extraordinary human connection, empathy, and above all, love.
For the purposes of this review, I’m treating Amor Vincit Omnia as a standalone movie, instead of an episode of television, because that’s really what it is. The series, while critically acclaimed, didn’t garner enough viewers for Netflix. The scope of the show required a larger-than-usual budget for the streaming service. The huge costs and small audience caused Netflix to cancel Sense8 after two seasons, consisting of 23 episodes.
With his new film Annihilation, director Alex Garland is attempting bold, exhilarating science fiction that is on par with a master of the genre, the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. The science fiction films that Tarkovsky made used fantastic settings and circumstances to explore the human condition. His film Solaris is a meditation on grief and acceptance that takes place on a fictional planet with mysterious powers. Stalker involves characters who wish to travel to “The Zone,” a place that contains a room that can fulfill a person’s innermost desires. Annihilation also uses a cosmic, head-trip scenario to examine human fears, mostly our collective fear of being wiped out of existence. Garland is masterful at creating a mood of existential dread and using a sci-fi backdrop to employ glorious, overwhelming imagery, but his movie never really gets below the surface of its premise.
If you want to find the most polarizing film of 2017, look no further than Darren Aronofsky’s baroque experiment in psychological horror, mother! (which after this point, I’ll refer to simply as Mother). This is a movie that’s impact I suspect will diminish on a second viewing. Unlocking the secret at Mother’s core, which will probably come at a slightly different point for just about everyone seeing it, robs it of some of its power. Aronofsky has made pure allegory here, using an extreme dream-logic aesthetic that is nothing if not simultaneously hypnotic and terrifying.
There are few better experiences on this earth than being changed by a piece of art. It eventually wears off; that’s part of what makes it so special. The fact that it doesn’t last makes you appreciate all the more how rare and wondrous an occurrence it is. That’s just what happened to me with A Ghost Story. This is a transcendent film, amazing and unique. It’s a quiet examination of loss and grief, but on a cosmic scale.
Sometimes a movie comes along that defies any kind of deep intellectual interpretation. It simply unspools its crazy internal logic before your eyes and dares you not to get caught up in the madness you’re witnessing. Swiss Army Man is that movie. It takes the concept of magical realism and twists everything you think you know about narrative expectation into a pretzel. For ninety minutes, I could not believe what I was seeing. I was so caught up in what would happen next, the full joy of the experience didn’t hit me until it was all over. Part of that was never being able to predict where the script was going.
The guys who wrote and directed that script, Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert (credited jointly as “Daniels”), establish within the first ten minutes that Swiss Army Man would be crazily, stupefyingly original. When the hero rides a farting corpse like a jet ski to escape a deserted island, I knew the writers were issuing a cinematic challenge. I’ll admit, I was hesitant at first. I can enjoy potty humor as well as anyone, at least in limited doses. But when Hank (Paul Dano) investigates the dead body that washes up on the desolate beach where he's stranded, all that happens at first is the farting. I wondered if that would be the extent of the writer-directors’ imagination. Then came the aforementioned riding of the corpse like a jet ski, with Hank pulling on the dead man’s necktie like a throttle for increased speed. Challenge accepted.
The Neon Demon is an odious and hateful movie. It traffics in a base misogyny that masquerades as high art. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has tried to complicate the issue of that misogyny by populating his movie with an almost exclusively female cast. The fact that the women who are punished and degraded in The Neon Demon suffer their fate mostly at the hands of other women doesn’t make it any less troubling.
To counter this baseness, Refn collaborated with two women on the script, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. In an interview with The Evening Standard, Refn intimates that he wanted to work with a woman on this new script because of his perceived issues with writing female characters. “I always set out wanting to make films about women but it always ends up being about men. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to write them.”
In the same interview, Stenham acknowledges Refn’s reputation for treating the women in his movies poorly. “He’s got a lot of stick for doing films some people think are violently misogynistic. So he approached me with the idea of doing something different.” His choice of collaborators on this project doesn’t give the impression that he’s trying to grow as an artist when it comes to his female characters, though, which I think was the intended effect. Instead, it feels like cover for Refn to indulge in an even more extreme misogyny than what’s been found in his previous work.
My initial reaction to Charlie Kaufman’s new film, Anomalisa, was to call it his most solipsistic work yet. The central character, Michael, is a famous self-help author who has a little problem with the way he relates to other people. While watching the film, I interpreted his problem (I don’t want to spoil this central plot point of the movie, so I’ll try to dance around it) as a way for Kaufman to explore one man’s narcissism. His rather unique inability to connect with those around him seemed like a study in self-absorption. Then I did some homework on the movie.
The screenplay is an adaptation from Kaufman’s own 2005 play, written for a unique artistic endeavor called “Theater of the New Ear.” It was a series created by musician and film composer Carter Burwell, and it was an attempt to bring to life the old live action radio plays of the 1930s and 1940s. The actors were seated at desks on stage, reading their lines while a live orchestra and foley artist created the music and sound effects. When I came across the pseudonym Kaufman used for his play, Francis Fregoli, everything clicked into place. Solipsism and narcissism aren’t what Kaufman is really interested in here, after all. I’ll let you decide if you want to Google Fregoli Syndrome before seeing Anomalisa, but I don’t think knowing the secret would irreparably spoil the movie. Rest assured, he uses the device to explore his trademark preoccupations: existential dread, personal isolation, and general unease with society at large. As is the case with every other work Kaufman has crafted, there are many layers to Anomalisa. It’s a difficult, thought provoking picture, and one that you’ll wrestle with long after you’ve seen it.