Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Back at Kendall Square: My Zoe and Blithe Spirit

Is it fair that, every time I see a new movie with Julie Delpy, I check IMDB to see if it's time to check in on Jesse and Cecille yet? No. I do not do this when I see something with Ethan Hawke, after all. What's up with that?

(This time, though, we are kind of due for a new one at Sundance 2022 if they follow the 9-year-intervals, though I'm willing to give them a Covid mulligan.)

At any rate, it made for an interesting "sci-fi/fantasy at the boutique house" double feature, even if Kendall Square has kind of stretched toward the mainstream more in the last six months. My Zoe was not exactly a fun surprise - folks with kids may want to avoid this, especially if they've been through a divorce - but it was an interesting one. I grumble a lot about science fiction that reduces big ideas to the sort of story that doesn't require that sort of imagination, but this clearly seems to do the opposite, starting from the mundane (if awful) and doing a what if without the end trying to force it into some contemporary way of thinking.

It was also my first time back at the Kendall since the state started allowing concessions (or the cities; I'm not sure exactly where the mandate stands), and I'm kind of not a fan. Not so much for being more paranoid about whether or not the folks in the other seats are wearing their mask from moment to moment, although that's not great, but for how inconvenient it seems to be. I'm not fully removing my KN-95 to snack, just trying to pull the bottom forward and sneak stuff up, but that works a whole lot better with a straw than a handful of Reese's Pieces or popcorn. It makes each bite more of a production than necessary, at least if you're trying to minimize mask-off time. As much as I know concessions are what really pays the bills at theaters, I'm tempted to buy some candy and just pocket it to eat on a socially distanced bench next time. Or go with Pocky.

Attendance was peculiar, too, in a way that might just be time-of-day and might be something more. I was pretty close to alone for My Zoe at 1:15pm, but had a fair amount of company for Blithe Spirit at around 4:30pm. It was Sunday, so maybe people were just slow getting going, or Blithe Spirit picked up people who would be going to a 7pm-ish show if there was one, but the curious thing is that the latter is available on various SVOD platforms for less than what Landmark charges for a single ticket. I've been pleasantly surprised to see that there are some people willing to come out for the theatrical experience even with stuff available at home and it making more sense to stay there. I've got no idea how that plays out when people are vaccinated and theaters are no longer considering an audience of 12 a win, but it soothes my "this is going to kill theaters" worries a little.

My Zoe

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 February 2021 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run, DCP)

Come for the science fictional premise, stay for the brutal means by which Julie Delpy gets you there, although I'm not exactly complaining about that. Movies like My Zoe are so often focused on the ethics of an innovation as to make the science separate from the everyday life that it will eventually impact. Instead, the ugly divorce and lingering torture that follow are precisely articulated enough that one may forget the two recognizable names in the opening credits who will play a big part in the film's back half.

Delpy plays Isabelle, an immunologist living in Berlin, sharing custody of her seven-year-old daughter Zoe (Sophia Ally) with her British ex-husband James (Richard Armitage). At first glance, they appear to be handling it well, but they squabble over making up days with Zoe when work takes one out of town or when the other can't accommodate their changes of plans. That's before Zoe's seemingly innocuous cold suddenly develops into a neurological emergency. The hospital stay brings out their best and worst in equal measure, and eventually pushes Isabelle to seek the help of Thomas Fischer (Daniel Brühl), a geneticist she met at a conference several years ago whose controversial work has pushed him to set up shop in Moscow rather than the more tightly regulated European Union.

Delpy waits for the moments when Isabelle and James are at their rawest to lay bare why their marriage fell apart - and make no mistake, Delpy and Richard Armitage sell the heck out of what a disaster of a couple they were in ugly, convincing fashion - but those details aren't what matters. The almost clinical detail of managing the separation is what's important; it's painful and seems to make even simple things require a checklist five times as long as necessary, and even as it seems to enrage Isabelle and James it keeps them on track. It provides structure to what's initially a movie about how marriages collapse and how unexpected tragedies can be hell. It's a painfully honest look at how, while kids are wonderful themselves, the responsibilities and societal expectations that come with them can twist a person in ways that aren't totally healthy, too say the least. These two aren't good for each other, but they can't not be a part of one another's lives.

That twisting is how Isabelle can wind up mad-scientist mad with grief, even if Daniel Brühl's Thomas is the one who can't resist the temptation she presents to his ego. There's a bit of Victor Frankenstein to him, for sure, but he and science itself are not self-starting dangers here, even if they are all too willing to do what someone like Isabelle wants. It's fascinating how consuming this quest gets, with Gemma Arterton grounding scenes (and arguably the whole movie) as the sensible person who keeps getting pulled in further because she can't not be: She's too close and it's too relatable. The steady, realistic perspective serves Delpy well here, too; the audience is in the right mindset to appreciate the clinical detail and seeming mundanity of research compared to the convenience and ease presented by more action/horror-oriented sci-fi.

It's not all mundane, of course, but Delpy is really clever with how she deploys the futuristic or weird bits. She keeps the audience in familiar territory for most of the first half - it feels maybe a couple years into the future if that when such things aren't really important - but then the script says something like "Isabelle crumples the iPad" and it's both an emotional moment and a signal that it's time to go further. She and her team make Dr. Fischer's waiting room unnerving in a creative way without busting the budget or hopping genres. It is, arguably, less eccentric than some of her comedy work, but really excellently deployed.

I'm not sure about the coda - I feel like this would be the thing other filmmakers spend the whole movie exploring and it's like four minutes - but there's an honesty to it you maybe don't get in anything but a glimpse. The situation it presents is weird but may not be fifty years from now, and it sits in the middle of all of the uncertainty that came before as much as it defies those feelings. It undercuts what one may feel the movie's theme should be, but in doing so acknowledges that these are people, not philosophical points.

It means that My Zoe is not really the film that one expects or that it seemingly should be at either end, but it's smart and raw in how it defies that conventional wisdom. A lot of science fiction looking for respectability does itself no favors by reducing world-changing ideas to the questions people deal with every day, but Delpy's on the right track by starting from those questions and following them wherever they might lead.

Also at eFilmCritic

Blithe Spirit '20

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 February 2021 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

You probably don't get more than a minute or two into Blithe Spirit before the flashy colors, imminent broad slapstick, and maybe slightly exaggerated sound effects tell you that this movie is going to work hard to make you laugh. That is no bad thing - it beats the cases when filmmakers seem determined that any comedy that occurs should seem unintentional - but something like this could occasionally do with being sly as well. All that obvious effort means that even randomness has a hard time catching one by surprise.

It opens with writer Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) having a devil of a time adapting the first of his series of mystery novels into a screenplay. Second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) is supportive - and eager to move into a new social circle - but not the muse that his first was. The pair join another couple (Emilia Fox & Julian Rhind-Tutt) for an evening out watching spiritualist Cecily Arcati (Judi Dench), which inspires Charles with a new angle, though he'd want to learn more about the tricks of the trade first. But when they arrange a private seance with Madame Arcati, it's accidentally too successful - Charles's deceased first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann) manifests for Charles, and when he's not looking like a lunatic for talking to someone only he can see, neither woman is terribly happy about the presence of the other.

Director Peter Hall has spent a good portion of the past decade or so making television that falls in the same general category as Blithe Spirit - stories set in 1930s Britain with fine Art Deco houses and practical yet striking fashions, where all of the upper-class people in the main cast are free-spirited and educated enough to speak frankly and wittily while the servants who support such a life seem comfortable and not ill-treated in their stations, backed by a peppy soundtrack that is decades away from having a synthesizer or electric guitar involved - and why not? It's just familiar enough to imagine oneself in the situation and just far back enough to be a fantasy. Here, he and the producers do a nice job evoking that sort of fantasy version of the 1930s, with a sprawling house that seems well-suited to the widescreen photography and a pleasing combination of idleness and energy. For movies like this, the particular story being told is less important than the mood, and this one does a very good job of getting the feeling right.

Part of that is freeing the cast up to be less naturalistic than they would be in contemporary productions, but not everyone is quite able to hit that target. The heck of it is that the two actresses who seem most comfortable going broad, Isla Fisher and Leslie Mann, don't get much chance to play off each other, as the latter is playing a ghost that the former can't see. They are individually a lot of fun as society and flapper ladies who seem just sincere enough in their fondness for Charles to smooth over how demanding and oblivious they can be. Dan Stevens, on the other hand, has the raw tools for this sort of thing (consider how he just dives into this sort of chaos on Legion), but is never quite able to see his character defined precisely enough for the triangle to work: Charles is too willing to do whatever will create the most chaos, and Stevens never quite gets a personality out of it the way Fisher and Mann do. Dench does the job asked of her well enough, but Madame Arcati seems to be conceived of as too sincere; there's a sadness to her that is nice work on Dench's part even though the movie would probably be better with Arcati an outright fraud frantic at having actually succeeded in piercing the veil.

The direction also often feels one gear too slow, like the banter would really pop if they were exchanging it without pause, but instead there's just enough time for Charles guy to realize that he looks like a nut yelling at empty air so that it looks weird when he keeps doing it. It also highlights how either Noel Coward or the person adapting his play seems to be making it up as he hopes along, and stuff that would work if they were just zipping along to the next joke flops when the audience has time to try and reconcile it with the last scene. There are bits that occasionally seem like something may come out of them, like just how much Elvira being Charles's "muse" actually entailed, but then the movie will get pulled in another direction, and they're increasingly jarring as the film goes along.

It's often enough the result of following the jokes and sparing no effort in selling them to more or less work, especially with the spiffy production and nifty cast. Blithe Spirit misfires often enough to be frustrating, but works just enough to counter that for an hour and a half or so.

Also at eFilmCritic

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