Crimes of the Future
Crimes of the Future has been touted as David Cronenberg's return to body horror, with comparisons to earlier work like Videodrome, Scanners, and eXistenZ dominating the conversation. It's easy to see why: his newest film penetrates the flesh of humanity in a near future in which our organs no longer play by the rules, as if evolution is wreaking vengeance for our attempted tyranny over the natural world. The main axiom of Videodrome, "long live the new flesh," might actually be better applied to Crimes of the Future, in which the new flesh that has started spreading within us is perfectly suited to an industrial wasteland of the 21st century. Just as compelling as these connections to Cronenberg's past work, though, are the more implicit echoes that are less consumed with bodily trauma: for example, the grimy minimalism of Shivers (1975), the clinical non-sexuality of Dead Ringers (1988), the literariness of Naked Lunch (1991). Whether intentional or not, Crimes of the Future plays like a self-referential endpoint for Cronenberg's favorite thematic and formal motifs, uniquely updated for the 2020s and its discussions of climate change and bodily autonomy. How strange it is, then, that it also ends up being one of Cronenberg's most guardedly hopeful films.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
As a historical romance between two women set on an island in Brittany, Portrait of a Lady on Fire sounds like standard prestige-picture fare: a stately tale of burning desire and repression, with unsubtle parallels to our own time. But even if Céline Sciamma's film teems with lustful glances and pointed critiques of marriage and patriarchy, it's infinitely more interesting, sensuous, and arresting than that description makes it sound. With its overt feminism and depiction of the burgeoning identity of a young female artist, the film inevitably conjures recent fare like The Souvenir and Greta Gerwig's Little Women, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the most compelling and quietly radical among them: an enigmatic film about the battle waged between realism and expressionism.
Ad Astra suffers from an identity crisis: it's a visceral, sometimes jaw-dropping piece of genre cinema, ricocheting from action to sci-fi to horror, in the guise of a ponderous male melodrama. This is a common ailment for movies desperate to prove how important they are, as if weighty backstory and solemn voiceover narration automatically lend a film greater value. It's a shame that Ad Astra feels the need to obscure its propulsive, exciting vision through pseudo-profound rambling about the nature of man in an unknowable universe; if the film had embraced what it truly is, it could have been a thunderous success.
Warning: major plot spoilers below!
In February 2017, in the unfathomable first months of Trumplandia, Jordan Peele's Get Out was released to nearly unanimous praise. Here, many critics said, was a film disturbingly indicative of where we were at as a country: simultaneously fetishizing and fearful of black culture, our social institutions engineered to segregate and oppress, with even supposedly progressive ideologies like white liberalism complicit in the exploitation of black manhood. It was indeed the bold, stylish introduction of a vital new voice in American cinema, and it reiterated what fans of Night of the Living Dead have known for years: the most audacious social and political ideas can be smuggled into the horror genre with relative ease and tremendous power.
Certain Women is the kind of movie that seems simple on the surface, but beyond the most obvious narrative level, its scope is almost limitless. This is director Kelly Reichardt's typical approach, to express complex ideas and social mechanics through stories that feel low-key and tranquil at first glance. Old Joy (2006) follows two estranged friends as they reunite on a hiking trip, but the growing rift between them speaks volumes about class inequality and notions of responsibility in American life. Wendy and Lucy (2008) observes the relationship between a woman and her dog, but it's one of the most shattering portrayals of how financial hardship can affect and endanger the bonds we hold most dear. Even Meek's Cutoff (2010), a pseudo-Western in which a band of travelers becomes lost and faces mortality in the arid Oregonian desert, is closer to the observational cinema of Chantal Akerman than a survival drama. Now, Certain Women, a triptych of stories following women living in modern-day Montana, is so reserved and open-ended in its storytelling that the stakes feel low at times, but that imperturbable surface hides a firestorm of emotions and ideas.
Most American movies about motherhood seem obligated to portray it as a blissful, transcendent experience: your life as a woman doesn't truly begin, these movies seem to imply, until you've had a child. While that may ring true for some mothers, it ignores the vast number of women for whom parenthood is an ambivalent, anxiety-ridden, life-defining ordeal, or who felt pressured (by their partners, by society) to have children in the first place. Mainstream comedies like Knocked Up and Waitress, ostensibly about unwanted pregnancy and the pressures facing first-time mothers, inevitably end with the realization that parenthood is what these characters wanted all along, the ultimate vocation that will give their life meaning. Even something like Bad Moms (not surprisingly) avoids commenting seriously on the trials of motherhood in favor of a generic, "let loose and live a little" vibe, in which the stresses of nine-to-five jobs, indifferent husbands, and upper-crust PTA boards can always be solved by finding a sitter and indulging in a night of debauchery.
Provocation without a point, Piercing represents the worst tendencies of wannabe shock auteurs whose main reference point is earlier, better movies. Writer-director Nicolas Pesce (whose previous feature was 2016's Eyes of My Mother, a formally different but thematically similar wallow in the motivations of murder) turns Ryū Murakami's 1994 novel into a sleazy tribute to giallo movies (and by extension Brian De Palma movies), slathering the screen with splitscreen effects, bold yellow titles, and a brazenly artificial setting populated with miniature sets. Meanwhile, the soundtrack blares with music lifted from earlier giallo movies like Deep Red and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, the groovy off-kilter melodies of Bruno Nicolai and Goblin accompanying the sadism. It all makes for an eye-catching diversion, but after a while the emptiness and pomposity of Pesce's approach become more irritating than involving.
Under the Shadow
Tehran, sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s: the Iran-Iraq War is in full effect, with Saddam Hussein’s air forces bombing Tehran mercilessly in an effort to shatter morale. The details of the war are hardly exposited, which is fair: for the citizens caught in the middle, there was no logic or historical context, only two countries with longstanding animosity trying to weaken the other and reclaim land.
The title instantly poses associations with the well-trodden genre: where are Western’s figurative cowboys and Indians? Do we find a civilization lurching uncomfortably into modern times? Is there frontier justice, a sense of a moral code being written spontaneously in blood and sweat and dust? All of these things might be detected in Western, but it soon becomes apparent that the deeper meaning of the title is geopolitical. In a tiny Bulgarian village, perched on the border between the “West” of Europe and the “East” of Turkey (and, across the Black Sea, Russia), notions of nationalism, wealth, and masculinity are ready to combust.
Blade Runner 2049
Replication plays a major role in Blade Runner 2049, not only in the centrality of its replicant characters—uncanny androids who have developed (or learned how to imitate) the human capacity for rebellion—but also in its status as a sequel to 1982’s influential sci-fi neo-noir. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner envisioned a near future bathed in neon and obsessed with simulacra, smuggling themes of affect and reality into a pulpy story of a grizzled “blade runner” tasked with eliminating troublesome replicants. Those themes might not be as profound as Blade Runner often makes them out to be—the question of what it means to be human is posed in a broad, cursory manner, more of a plot device than a thematic exploration—but the film is a stylistic masterwork, offering a chaotic, cyber-dystopian world that has become entrenched in our pop-culture consciousness.