The only thing worse than never getting your happy ending is having it within your grasp and realizing you cannot accept it. To see salvation and turn around knowing it would be a lie is the type of heartbreaking choice that many people often have to make in order to keep on going. It’s the decision that separates man from monster: an admission of remorse, guilt, and regret. Our actions cause ripples that affect countless others we haven’t met yet or never will and while that truth allows some to sleep at night, the rest wonder what nightmares the collateral damage of their deeds endure as a result. You could say that the only thing separating those two groups is love. Knowing love is to understand its power and its pain. I say all this because its’ exactly what’s at the heart of A.J. Edwards’ new film Age Out, his impressive, contemporary follow-up to The Better Angels, his poetic portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood.
From the get-go Age Out (which played the festival circuit under the title Friday’s Child) is just as visually striking as The Better Angels, but it’s also grittier and more grounded — the Malickian quality is still there (especially since Edwards did work with Terrence Malick on multiple projects early in his career). Tye Sheridan takes the reins of Age Out, lending complexity and soul to the role of Richie, a Texas teen who grew up in foster care, and who struggles at age eighteen to understand what he’s supposed to do with the rest of his life now that he’s “aged out” of the foster care system. With his second film Edwards adopts more narrative rigor, a choice that may not always be to the film’s benefit. On the surface Age Out plays with a pretty conventional conflict as its protagonist veers back and forth between two worlds: the petty crime and cheap thrills of his pal Swim (Caleb Landry Jones), and the ritzier social circle of Joan (Imogen Poots), a grieving young woman he meets by chance. Still, continuing what he did with The Better Angels, Edwards’ Age Out is ravishingly impressionistic with Colin Stetson’s vibrative, pulsating score and Jeff Bierman’s deeply saturated cinematography making an experience that can be quite immersive, while also making Richie’s life seem as wondrous as it is difficult. This young man may not be another Abe Lincoln for Edwards, but he has a lot of heart, beating just below his dark surface.
I never thought that I would ever wish/hope for some cats to be hit by a car, but Tom Hooper has made a movie that does just that — for whatever it takes for the experience to end. As violent as that may sound, Hooper’s Cats offers its own horrifying hideousness. Based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (somehow) smash-hit 1981 musical of the same title (that was also its own adaptation, adapting T.S. Eliot’s book of cat-based poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats), this sung-through musical concerns the antics of a feisty group of felines in early-20th century London, on the eve of the Jellicle Ball. And that’s all you really need to know, because the plot of Cats is wholeheartedly pointless, if even existent. But then there’s the matter of the Digital Fur Technology. Involving this film, much has been made of the amount of time, effort and money (the whopping ninety-five million dollar budget) that has been spent on transforming some of the most recognizable stars in the world into their feline avatars. Perhaps Hooper and company expected it to look something like the photorealistic creatures of 2019’s The Lion King, but the effect here is truly repugnant, essentially a Snapchat filter created by David Cronenberg.
The cats have ears and whiskers and tails, but human faces, hands and feet. Some cats are furry, some are discomfortingly shiny and smooth. Some cats wear actual fur coats on top of their own literal fur coats, others do not. There’s no rules, nothing about the designs make sense, and for some reason, I don’t really care enough because everything around them is so incredibly dull. The cast is pretty wide ranging, one notable role is the one of Macavity, a role that is transformed from the theatrical production to something bigger and is played by Idris Elba. Screen and stage legends Judi Dench and Ian McKellen also appear, and they bring professionalism and dignity, even dressed as cats (but their solo numbers aren’t exactly the greatest.) In a plot twist for the ages, Jason Derulo actually provides maybe the highest point of the film by doing a cockney accent to play the oversexed Rum Tum Tugger and delivering a decently tolerable number (the film’s blank horniness is something to behold and possibly disturb throughout). Another notable role is the one of Grizabella, most known as the character who gets to belt out the musical’s most iconic number “Memory.” She’s played by Jennifer Hudson, and on paper Jennifer Hudson singing “Memory” sounds golden, except it’s not here. Hudson violently sobs throughout her performance and in all feels like she’s from an entirely different movie, knocking the tonal balance of the film to pieces. (There is also a new song made just for the movie that’s penned by Taylor Swift, who’s in this movie, and Lloyd Webber, and its completely unremarkable, as is Swift’s performance)
To be honest, I have a hard time figuring out how this musical was even notable in the first place on the stage, but it is pretty clear that the stage show version does have more simplicity to it. From the single set, a single premise and each cat singing their song. The physicality is easier to hone because you can see every stitch on the costumes and the flash of color in the face paint. Hooper’s adaptation is hideous, rendered in half-baked CGI, and crucially he even fails to remember that the focus should be on the performers. His pervasive handheld camerawork and unnerving closeups distract the focus from the dance choreography. Cats, in the end, is a testament to not knowing when to say when, and proof that theatre and film can co-exist happily. But not every stage show needs to be adapted into a film, and the art forms are distinct anyway, offering different kinds of things to the audience. To think of the money wasted in creating this monstrosity is to wonder if we really deserve nice things at all, or if the roadkill is nowhere to be found and if hell is empty, and all the Jellicle cats are here with us.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
There are plenty of ways in which Bi Gan’s new film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, resembles a superhero blockbuster. It’s got a epic runtime of two-hours-and-twenty-minutes, just a tad shorter than the last Avengers movie. If you saw it in theaters, it requires 3-D glasses for a specific section of the film. And upon its release in China in 2018, it broke box-office records, earning more money in pre-sales than any of the year’s other biggest hits. And not shockingly this movie didn’t exactly have the same impact here in the United States, probably because Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an esoteric piece of avant-garde storytelling that will likely require multiple viewings for audiences to untangle. The movie centers on three characters: Luo (Huang Jue), a man haunted by his youth; Luo’s long-lost lover, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei); and a childhood pal named Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi), who was murdered. Roughly twenty years after Wildcat’s death, Luo tries to find Qiwen again and dig into the mystery of what happened between them decades prior. But any simple explanation for what’s going on is never offered. As the movie progresses, its meaning becomes more elusive, and its narrative strands (somewhat stubbornly) refuse to tie together.
Like Bi’s previous film Kaili Blues, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a surreal reverie set in Guizhou, but it’s a major step forward for him in terms of budget, star power, and sheer scope. You can describe everything that happens in the movie without ever spoiling the experience at all. The film unfolds through mostly baffling storytelling, with scenes that aren’t meant to be pieced together into a linear narrative. Instead, you soak in Bi’s gift for stark imagery: the first half of the film is spent visiting beautiful locations and is filled with long, slow shots of things like a glass rattling across a table as a train rumbles by. In the film’s second half, the action coalesces in the most bizarre way. Luo decides to see a movie by himself, so he enters a ratty theater and puts on a pair of 3-D glasses. (It’s the signal to the audience, who sees this in the theater, to prepare for the film’s 3-D finale.) The last shot of the movie is a fifty-nine-minute unbroken take that follows Luo through several dreamlike environments as he encounters much of the film’s cast and travels through locations such as an abandoned mine shaft and a run-down prison. It’s an incredible feat of choreography and visual audacity that’s astonishing to behold, even though it’s as enigmatic as the rest of the film. After you see that final shot, you might wish that previous seventy minutes be cut down just a little bit, but at the same time it’s a film that’s so aesthetically driven that its just great to see it thrive. Deeply evocative and hypnotic, Long Day’s Journey Into Night sees Bi Gan taking his sophomore effort into a fascinating application of filmmaking innovation and leaning into expressionistic ends.