Monday, October 23, 2023

IFFBoston 2023½.02: Fingernails (and Foe)

I'd kind of opted against expanding the Letterboxd entry for Foe, what with it being a let-down rather than something to give whatever meager boost an "official" review gives it, but it wound up being such an oddly apt pairing with Fingernails that I decided to maybe give it another paragraph or two.

Both, after all, are films nominaly set in the future but featuring no cell phones or other evidence of the internet, which amuses me when I remember Stephen Soderbergh whining a few months back about how he hated making modern movies these days because having the internet in one's pocket makes it too hard to keep people from knowing things, which is sort of silly because, well, have you seen people in general lately? Or tried to quickly find something now that Google values ad revenue over usefulness and the internet is filling up with GPT-generated garbage? But, also, you can apparently just skip all this, because if sci-fi films feel free ignoring it, surely contemporary ones can too.

(I wonder, a little, if Soderbergh also laments how nobody smokes any more because of how useful that was in staging scenes.)

Of course, the science-fiction-ness of these two movies caused some bumps for me, as I am simply unable to watch this sort of thing without wondering what a given bit of world-building implies beyond the movie's tight focus, and get frustrated when a little thought reveals how contradictory various pieces are or how clearly it's being set up to prove the filmmaker's point. Both Foe and Fingernails have some interesting bits but the details don't work, and while some are able to just embrace the heightened reality in the spirit that's intended, I tend to figure that life is dealing with a whole bunch of aggregated details, and if you're just going to fudge those away, what can the story really tell you about the human nature it intends to explore?

That's at least partly, if not mostly, a me problem, but I do suspect that it causes these movies to land softer than they might, even if it doesn't set off alarms for everyone.

Anyway, welcome to IFFBoston 2023½! It's going to be a short-ish report, because out of the 12 movies shown, I got to four. I missed the first night because, on my way, I saw that it was sold out, and turned around to see Killers of the Flower Moon at the Somerville before Jonathan Richman took over the main room for the weekend. I dawdled too long after work to get to the first show of the second night, but made it for the second. It's not a huge deal; I've been seeing a fair amount of trailers for Eileen at both Kendall Square and Boston Common, although that's not necessarily any sort of guarantee these days (remember all those trailers for The Kill Room over the past couple months?). Fallen Leaves, meanwhile, was the latest from a filmmaker I've never really followed and described as a sort of thematic follow-up to his other work, so, eh.

More on the other three in coming days.


* * (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2023 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

I grow weary of art-house science fiction where the details aren't coherent but that's supposed to be okay because they ask big philosophical questions about being human, as if being human wasn't navigating a complicated world and the various details being thrown at a person. It's especially frustrating when the film has a weak twist near the end so that the audience doesn't have much time to contemplate its big ideas, or wind up finding themselves more focused on something else.

That's Foe, whose name suggests a thriller though the movie only occasionally cares to highlight any tension in its premise, and whose moments of world-building are kind of a waste of an effects budget for how little they matter. It is, far too often, boring even when it's not trying to avoid tipping its hand, and terribly unsexy besides: It's full of nude scenes where you can't help but notice how careful the camera placement is, and no real difference in energy between passionate and perfunctory sex.

It follows Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal), a couple married seven years, living on the farm the latter inherited but not working it - there simply isn't enough water for anything but the hardiest of GMO crops - and growing consensus appears to be that humanity's future is in space. Outermore Corporation is building an orbital habitat, and is in a tight enough partnership with the government that they will be able to draft Junior. But that's some time in the future; in the meantime, their representative Terrance (Aaron Pierre) will be conducting interviews and otherwise observing Junior so that an "artificial human" replica can be created to make sure Hen's life can continue as normal.

This all makes no sense, of course - for all the talk of there being no water, Hen takes a lot of showers and there's no apparent efforts at conservation, space stations are far more fragile a human habitat than even a hostile Earth, and none of the rationale for creating these artificial humans rings true, especially since Hen and Junior apparently have no choice in it. It's a long litany of "why are you even doing this?" But arguably the biggest sin is that all of this doesn't say anything particularly interesting about Hen and Junior, or their relationship. Their backgrounds are blank enough that it's hard to see what Terrance is upending, and if Iain Reid's book had any interesting ideas about the ethics of creating the sort of clone Terrance describes, director and co-screenwriter Garth Davis doesn't find that of much interest for more than a moment or two. The revelation that allows everything to snap into place happens far too late to play out in anything but the most superficial, obvious way.

The movie's got Saoirse Ronan, so at least that role is in good hands, although I wonder if her being a known quality leads a viewer to centering her too much. Paul Mescal's Junior has the potential to be as interesting a character, but he's established early enough as "just kind of a jerk" that the angst about being potentially replaced can be played very well but not hit home. Aaron Pierreis just kind of around, equal parts sinister and curious.

It might be interesting to give the movie a second go to see what knowing everything reveals. At least, it would if this was a better movie worth another two hours of time. But it's not.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2023 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus 2023, DCP)

On the one hand, I think you've got to have some pretty weird ideas about both love and biology for the premise of Fingernails not to feel like it's stretching its premise past the point where it's useful. On the other, Jessie Buckley is so dang delightful that I immediately went to look up what else she has been in. Get her in some romantic comedies that are as witty and quirky as this movie is at its best and ditch the faux-profundity that doesn't work.

She plays an elementary school teacher, Anna, who was laid off when her school shut down on short notice, and, though she winds up telling boyfriend Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) otherwise, she winds up taking a job at The Love Center, which not only administers the scientific tests that can determine whether two people are truly in love by running a test on their extracted fingernails, but offers classes to help couples deepen their bond before taking a test. She's instructed to shadow/work with Amir (Riz Ahmed), who has been creating new exercises based on romantic movie plots as scientific research, and it's not long before she starts to feel a spark. She and Ryan had a positive test early in their relationship, and not much has changed, but one can't help but wonder if maybe knowing that they are in love has allowed Ryan to start taking her for granted.

The movie works fantastically when it's a romantic comedy filled with sci-fi absurdity; director Christos Nikou and co-writers Stavros Raptis and Sam Steiner are especially good at finding goofy workplace humor bits that maybe would only show up at a place like The Love Institute, right down to Luke Wilson being a perfect little bit of casting as the boss - sentimental, optimistic, but also kind of sad. Just about every weird exercise at the Love Center meant to strengthen a couple's bond is enjoyably goofy, and making Ryan kind of a drip but not really a bad boyfriend allows for some deadpan moments at home.

There's really terrific chemistry between Buckley and Riz Ahmed, in large part because their characters don't quite seem like the perfect match, often caught a little unawares at something the other does but kind of delighted by it. Buckley practically glows at times, as she's meant to, with a wide smile and a way of curiously looking around but also focusing on the other person in a scene, but also seeming aware of when things aren't quite right. Ahmed's Amir is dryer, not quite as dry, smooth, and witty as he thinks, a smart fellow who gets a touch less composed the more time he spends with Anna. Jeremy Allen White hits the right tone as Ryan in terms of making him a man of his weird time and place but still kind of weird and not good enough; the way he takes Anna for granted because they're Certified In Love that feels more disappointing than mean, as it could.

The big trouble is that the film's built in such a way that its makers apparently expect the audience to take the weird premise of the Machine seriously, even when making big assumptions that require a little exploration. There are bits of it that seem like rich veins of satire - the idea that people will put themselves through literal torture to find love, that knowing something is true can make you lazy about it, or that people are essentially studying for the test - but the filmmakers seldom go for that. Instead, the counterintuitive test results get taken at face value, never leading to the idea that there's something in these relationships we need to take a closer look to see or hints that there's something off about the system.

The heck of it is, if they were keener on thinking their pseudo-science and world-building through rather than just taking it as what you need to tell this story, there's good material here: When the audience is wondering how the Machine can tell two people are in love with one another - as opposed to just individually in love - by looking at separate fingernails, talk about quantum entanglement. Really leverage that a lab test only gives you the data for one point in time more than the movie does. Or be really daring, and take the mentions that most results are negative but that an often indifferent couple like Anna & Ryan are positive to talk about what kind of love this thing is measuring and if maybe a powerful infatuation or a strong friendship may be more valuable, even if one doesn't call it "love".

indep There's some of that, but as with Foe, it comes too late to really be explored in depth compared to the time spent playing things out by the arbitrary rules that had been established. It leaves enough of the movie adrift to make one start wondering what they're even trying to say here, and why it's never as thought-provoking as the early going had been entertaining.

No comments: