Crimes of the Future **1/2
Léa Seydoux, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart in Crimes of the Future
It’s been a good 20 years since David Cronenberg has directed anything this quintessentially old-school Cronenbergian, full of bizarre world-building and unsettling body horror. That’s bound to please his oldest fans, while reminding me that I like Cronenberg better when he adds a little more humanity to his outrageousness. In an unspecified future, humans have lost the ability to feel pain, while some individuals have begun evolving new and unusual organs—individuals like Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who teams with partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) to turn the mysteries of his body into performance art. Cronenberg fills out the setting with bureaucrats (Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart) policing these changes in human development, and an activist (Scott Speedman) cheering on the new flesh, and it’s all appealingly weird enough when the story is reveling in stuff like a “breakfasting chair” made out of bones. But the social satire isn’t particularly well thought-out, drifting between the consequences of environmental collapse and a spelled-out-in-so-many-words subtext of “surgery as the new sex” that allows for plenty of instances of icky horniness. I’m not saying it’s not kinda fun just letting the madness—like Stewart’s earnestly twitchy performance—wash over you. It simply comes off as superficially transgressive rather than discomfitingly thought-provking, the kind of thing a 79-year-old veteran should have gotten out of his system by now. Available June 3 in theaters.
I’m not convinced that the two parts of director/co-writer Martin Bourboulon’s story really work together, even though they're somewhat effective individually. From the dedication of the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Expo of 1889, we flash back three years to widowed engineer Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris)—already famous for his work on the Statue of Liberty—applying to create the work that will be the Expo’s centerpiece. At that same time, he reconnects with Adrienne (Emma Mackey), an old flame who broke his heart some 20 years earlier and is now married. Another level of flashback explores that initial romance, though the story is more interesting during the 1886-1889 timeline as the tense triangle unfolds, with Bourboulon finding effective insert shots of tense hands and even a threatening stirring of a cup of tea. Meanwhile, there’s some interesting stuff about the politics and logistics of the tower’s creation, combined with Eiffel’s unique vision for the tower as a national symbol, all of which makes it feel like a feat not just of engineering, but of individual will. That those two stories seem to run mostly parallel is fairly disappointing, despite the fact that the tragic love story generates some head, particularly in a scene where Eiffel and Adrienne share a dance. The historical drama adds some interesting detail, but the whole package lacks the same kind of precise construction design Eiffel would have demanded. Available June 3 in theaters.
Fire Island ***
See feature review
. Available June 3 via Hulu.
Hit the Road ***1/2
Kino Lorber Films
Hasan Majuni and Amin Simiar in Hit the Road
Ah, the family road trip—that rite of passage that insures that almost everyone will drive each other crazy by the end of it. Writer/director Panah Panahi—son of legendary Iranian director Jafar Panahi—takes that basic notion and turns into one of the most deeply affecting dramas of the year. Oldest son Farid (Amin Simiar) is driving the car carrying his father (Hasan Majuni), mother (Pantea Panahiha) and younger brother (Rayan Sarlak), but it soon becomes clear that it’s no mere happy-go-lucky family outing; they’re headed for the border to smuggle Farid, out on bail for an unspecified infraction, out of Iran. Very occasionally, Panahi introduces elements that suggest a suspense thriller about whether the family will escape detection, but that’s not really the focus here. Instead, it’s about a family dealing with the typical chaos of a long trip stuck together, especially when a high-strung kid is involved, all undergirded by the realization that this will likely be their last such time together. The performances are sensational, particularly Majuni’s as the grumpy dad, who shines in a hilarious but lovely scene by a river, trying to give some last words of wisdom to Farid. It’s poignant, perceptive and funnier than almost any conventional comedy you’ll find. Available June 3 at Broadway Centre Cinemas; June 10 via SLFSatHome.org.
Hollywood Stargirl ***
It feels more than slightly like an auto-critique of the 2020 Stargirl
feature when Stargirl Caraway (Grace VanderWaal) responds to the screenplay premise described by aspiring screenwriter Evan (Elijah Richardson) by observing about the female lead’s relation to the male lead, “So she’s only in the story to help him?” Evan counters that “she’s got her own story to tell,” and this feels like a similar corrective from the original adaptation of Jerry Spinelli’s novel, with its focus on a troubled boy falling for a quirky girl. Here, Stargirl and her mom (Judy Greer) relocate from Arizona to California, and Stargirl tries to make connections in her new city. Julia Hart returns as director and co-writer (with her husband Jordan Horowitz), now fully committed to making Stargirl a fully-realized character dealing with melancholy and loneliness, which VanderWaal captures without completely abandoning Stargirl’s idiosyncrasies. Sure, she also serves as a muse for others—not just Evan and his brother Terrell (Tyrel Jackson Williams), but a grumpy neighbor (Judd Hirsch) and a one-time singer-songwriter (Uma Thurman)—and this sometimes feels as much like a showcase for VanderWaal’s musical talents as for a narrative. But Hart has a firm grip on restrained, appealing performances, and building this sequel around figuring out who Stargirl is on her own without being a device in someone else’s story. Available June 3 via Disney+.
Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story ***
Music documentaries can sometimes turn into unfocused delivery systems for performance footage, but directors Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern turn their exploration of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival into a mini-lesson about the fascinating history of its host city and its music. There is history about the festival itself, of course, with founder George Wein and festival director Quint Davis on hand to provide details about its origins out of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, its first incarnation in 1971, and how the 2005 festival helped inspire hope post-Hurricane Katrina. We also get plenty of interviews with participating artists at 2019’s 50th festival, and it can start to seem a little fragmented when everyone from Ellis Marsalis to Jimmy Buffett to Pitbull makes you wonder what the “jazz” part of the festival’s title actually means. And that’s where we do learn a lot about the Big Easy’s place as a cultural melting pot, the unique musical forms that emerged from it, and why everything from funk to hip-hop to gospel can be part of the same artistic family tree. As musician David Shaw says of New Orleans, “It’s not a music business city; it’s a music culture
city,” and getting a firm sense of why that’s the case—all while reveling in great music—makes the movie, like the festival, as much about the whole city as about whoever happens to be on stage. Available June 3 in theaters.
Credit to writer/director Chloe Okuno for opting not to make yet another one of those “it’s about trauma” psychological horror-thrillers, but despite tapping into something primal about the experience of being a woman in this world, she kind of fluffs the landing. Maika Monroe plays Julia, who is relocating to Bucharest for her husband Francis’ (Karl Glusman) job, unable to speak Romanian and with no particular plan for how to spend her days. She soon finds too much time occupied with worrying about the man who appears to be watching her from an apartment window across the street, and maybe even following her around the city. It would be a gutsy move indeed in 2022 to have Julia simply be hysterical and paranoid, so it’s clear something is going on. That leaves most of the burden for the movie’s success on Monroe’s performance and Okuno’s ability to evoke a free-floating sense of dread, and both of them do an effective job conveying what it’s like to live in a perpetual state of anxiety that someone might want to do you harm, while the world around you doesn’t even speak the same language. Once it’s time for the screenplay to answer questions, however, it’s considerably less intriguing, and pretty muddled about its antagonist’s nature and motives. Watcher
finds fertile artistic ground in gendered violence; it just doesn’t know how to harvest what it’s planted. Available June 3 in theaters.