First things first: Zombieland: Double Tap (2019) is worth a watch. With ten years’ acting experience and character familiarity on their shoulders, the four leads turn in better performances than last time, even if some (Emma Stone’s Wichita and Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee) are better than others (Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus and Abigail Breslin’s Little Rock—you can’t really blame Breslin, as the script treats her character as a MacGuffin most of the time). Speaking of the script, by Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick, now that there’s less need to spend time on worldbuilding and forming character dynamics, this second installment can get right to the conflicts and character arcs and zombie-bashing setpieces. And that’s where it falters.
James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), co-written with Ethan Gross, is a stellar (sorry) achievement. Occupying the space orbited by Sunshine (2007), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time (2016) (not Life’s Journey but the shorter version narrated by Brad Pitt), it succeeds where First Man (2018) fails, to symbolize one man’s traumatized state with the infinite void of space; and it stands in good contrast to Blade Runner 2049, which loaded the atmospheric gravitas onto various earthbound locations. The film also draws from Solaris (both 1972 and 2002) and Gravity (2013) for certain sequences. Brian Tallerico wrote a rave, as did Richard Brody. Pitt’s acting, the cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema), the production design (by Kevin Thompson), and the score (by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe) are all to die for. But it’s not a perfect film, knowingly eliding over its weak plot structure by deeming it “beyond the scope of this” film.
Weathering with You (Tenki no Ko / 天気の子 2019), Makoto Shinkai’s new feature, is a strange beast. The trailer conveys it well: stunningly beautiful, but with two plotlines that seem to be on different planes altogether, to the point where the trailer can’t find a way to put them together. Also, the characterizations are lazy archetypes and many points of tension are artificial. I still enjoyed it though.
Notes on an Appearance (2018), writer-director-editor Ricky D’Ambrose’s no-budget feature debut, runs an hour long but feels much longer, in both good ways and bad (the good and bad are mutually constitutive). D’Ambrose has made two shorts before, using them as experiments to prepare for Notes, and the thought and consideration that went into this film shine through.
You don’t need me to tell you that Angel Has Fallen (2019), directed by Ric Roman Waugh, is pretty damn shitty. The incoherent action sequences (edited by Gabriel Fleming), including one that’s so underlit as to be literally incomprehensible (cinematography by Jules O’Loughlin), is par for the course in today’s action blockbuster (or “blockbuster”) landscape, but you know something’s really wrong when even the dialogue scenes are confusingly shot. Secret Service agent extraordinaire Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) returns for another round of mayhem in this third installment of a franchise whose first installment was already inferior to another film released around the same time and with the same premise, White House Down (2013). I wish Jamie Foxx had gotten the threepeat treatment instead.
What if the titular protagonist of Constantine (2005) was a mixed-martial arts fighter? What if he was really, really good? What if he could burn demons with his bare hand? Writer-director Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자 2019) answers these questions we never thought we had.
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taiwan International Queer Film Festival.
My Days of Mercy (2017), Tali Shalom-Ezer’s death penalty lesbian rom-com written by Joe Barton, is a strange bird. The basic structure is very similar to Up in the Air (2009), with Ellen Page playing the George Clooney audience surrogate role, and Kate Mara as the Vera Farmiga outsider role. But whereas that film used its downtime to explore the depths of the Clooney character’s loneliness (with the help of Anna Kendrick), here the second focus is a serious, nuanced exploration of the aftereffects of execution by the state (with the help of Amy Seimetz and an adorable Charlie Shotwell).
Vampire films are inevitably an allegory for something or other, and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994) (which is told through an interview with a vampire), which Jordan wrote uncredited based on Anne Rice’s book and first draft, is no exception. Tom Cruise of all people plays the vampire Lestat, who turns Louis (Brad Pitt) out of loneliness, and saves the “life” of Claudia (an outstanding eleven-year-old Kirsten Dunst) by turning her as well—she becomes the daughter of the two men’s subtextual marriage. Strangely, Claudia’s also the only character with whom we can fully identify.
In our era of resurging fascism, Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid (and co-writer Haim Lapid) gives us Synonyms (Synonymes 2019), a primarily French film about the fascist prostitution of national identity. It’s an anti-bildungsroman, in which the protagonist starts off not knowing what he wants, and ends with the realization that what we wants can’t be found.
In the spirit of our political age, I watched three political documentaries about prominent liberal American politicians (I vote Democrat, for what it’s worth); hagiographies they may be, but they still evince various degrees of insight.