Monday, August 28, 2023

Landscape with Invisible Hand.

Sunday was National Cinema Day, so Boston Common was a little more crowded than usual for a Sunday when I was seeing stuff that was not a big new release. Indeed, when I was printing out my ticket for the first movie of the day, I could hear the folks at the next kiosk debating which three movies they would see that afternoon and which they might have to pass on. Apparently a lot of people planned to take maximum advantage of $4 movie day.

It makes me wonder what the sweet spot for movie pricing is, a bit - clearly people enjoy going to the movies and will do it enthusiastically when it's really cheap, no matter how often you hear people say that it's just as good at home, and in terms of matinees, I kind of wonder what the max is for all those folks who come when a matinee is $4 but not when it's $10. Seven bucks? Six?

It made for a surprisingly decent crowd, although it was sort of amusing that both my first movie of the day (Last Voyage of the Demeter) and this had a couple red-band trailers, since the MPA says it's "rated R for language and brief violent content", even though it's based on a young-adult novel. It's potentially a pretty light R, except that there's a suicide, which isn't something I'd spring on a twelve-year-old going into a PG-13 movie, but the language seemed pretty mild - certainly less cussing than was in the Dumb Money preview.

(Fortunately, I was out of there way before this happened. Reading that bit reminds me of how, back when I worked at a downtown theater in Worcester during college, studios would open anything "urban" on Wednesday rather than Friday so that the gangs would kind of spread out rather than all coming on the same night. Not that this was necessarily a gang thing, but what happens when you get everyone going to something at the same time when you don't really have to.)

Anyway, I really liked this one, and I'm sorry I didn't catch it earlier so I could write this post a week ago when it had more than three screenings left (although, hey, it may run Thursday afternoon!). I would imagine that it will be on-demand in a couple weeks, though I don't know how quickly Amazon puts things from MGM on Prime (yes, an MGM logo on a non-Bond film! And an Annapurna one, though I had it in my head that Skydance absorbed them).

Landscape with Invisible Hand

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2023 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

A fun list to make on Letterboxd, for those who enjoy doing so, would be "crazy-sounding description doesn't get into half of how weird this thing is". Landscape with Invisible Hand would definitely be on that list, a movie that seemingly starts out with one satirical target but quickly branches out, winding up delightfully, seemingly randomly, weird even as it hits what it aims at square.

That initial description focuses on how, in 2031, aliens known as the Vuvv made first contact with humanity and soon completely upended the economy with their orbital manufacturing of everything from high technology to 3D-printed food. For teenage artist Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), that means even a lawyer like his mother Beth (Tiffany Haddish) can't find work; for new classmate Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers), it means her family has been camped out under an overpass until Adam impulsively invites them to stay. They fall for each other pretty quickly, and Chloe suggests they do "courtship streaming", because apparently the Vuvv being asexual creatures who reproduce by budding makes them especially fascinated by human romantic relationships - and they'll pay to watch.

It's a setup rife with potential to talk about kids broadcasting even the most personal aspects of their lives on social media before they've got the slightest idea of what that means, craving the approval of entities that really cannot see it as anything but entertainment, but writer/director Cory Finley, adapting a novel by M.T. Anderson, has already shown signs of having other fish to fry, quickly sending the movie careening in other directions. One could probably, if so inclined, see the Vuvv arrival on Earth as a sharp metaphor for colonialism, even if Finley seldom has anybody using those words. Mostly, though, it's a fierce critique of the damage economic inequality does, with the Vuvv's arrival turbo-charging the movement of wealth to the few who are increasingly isolated from the majority of the people. There's a moment where Adam responds to his mother talking about appealing to what's in a Vuvv's heart by saying he doesn't know if they even have a circulatory system, and it's a good sci-fi joke, but it hits a little better because it speaks to how merely terrestrial billionaires so often only seem to see everyday life for those who have to consider a budget as aggregated abstractions.

It's impressive how on-point this all is, actually; it's not unusual for the bits of a science fictional world created to illustrate one point to make one wonder how that could change without others also doing so, or to contradict others, but this film's world holds together really well. Things from the how the Vuvv mess with human education to how they appropriate local art in the finale probably screams colonialism, for instance, while the ways people attempt to toady to their oppressors or resist also scans, as well as the fact that these two responses are played off each other. It's one of the more far-ranging yet coherent bits of world-building you'll see in this sort of film.

And yet, that doesn't come at the expense of the sheer oddity of it. The Vuvv themselves and every bit of the world built to accommodate them are just amusing to look at without ever feeling entirely like a joke, right down to their methods of literally talking with their hands (or flippers, as the case may be). Each of Adam's paintings that serves as a chapter title is both funny and plays into him actually being a talented artist, and there are darkly comic jokes lurking around the edges of a lot of scenes. It's a thoroughly off-kilter world able to induce nervous laughter at every turn.

And, at the center, there's Asante Blackk, who is able to play Adam as a smart and self-aware teenager but not one who has a lot of adults' words put in his mouth to make a point. He's funny and solid and also able to make a viewer believe that the hero of the piece is just immature and volatile to lash out or freeze when it's not going to help at all. He's got a nice chemistry with Kylie Rogers as Chloe, but they also play as teens new enough at all this that their initial attraction can hit some major bumps. There's a number of nifty performances around them, from Tiffany Haddish and Josh Hamilton as the pair's single parents, to Brooklynn MacKenzie as the kid sister who feels like she could easily have her own story of defiantly navigating this future, to William Jackson Harper dropping in for a few scenes and making both his presence and absence felt.

Finley has done a couple other things since his first feature, Thoroughbreds, but this still makes for a nifty follow-up, offering another pair of teenagers in the middle of the sort of world you almost have to be a psychopath to survive. It's just weird enough to not be to everybody's taste, but manages that in a way that seldom feels off-target or like it's sacrificing what feels real about its young protagonists to make a point.

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