Love and Monsters
Many would argue that every film is made up of pieces from films that came up before it; taking three or four bits of separate entities and mixing them together to make something new. Whether you fully subscribe to that or not is up to you, but Michael Matthews’ Love and Monsters is a film that somewhat awkwardly fully shows itself to be that. At the very least, it does provide a new twist on the killer-asteroid premise that once showed up in numerous mindless summer blockbusters. In this film’s near future, humanity successfully shoots down the lethal large space rock just before it strikes Earth. Unfortunately though, the missiles deployed for this rescue mission rained chemicals onto the planet, creating instant Godzilla-esque mutations in all cold-blooded animals. It was from there that about 95% of humanity was killed by the creatures, we’re told, with the survivors left to survive a Quiet Place-ish existence in isolated bunkers. After an exposition opening, we pick up seven years after that nuclear event, where Joel Dawson’s (Dylan O’Brien) tolerance of being separated from former girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) is about up. Aimee’s bunker is a week-long journey by foot, and nobody — including someone as skittish as Joel — could likely avoid being eaten for that long. But he sets out anyway.
Faultily attempting to tap into reservoir of wit in the vein of being Zombieland with big bugs, screenwriters Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson still are seemingly going for a territory that they’ve dabbled plenty in: YA adventure. The thing is, neither really succeed in delivering anything too consistently compelling or affable for this lovelorn doofus to do. They do give him companions: Joel is saved from a giant toad by an ordinary dog, who sticks by his side from there, and he’s taught the basics of monster-killing by a grizzled old man (Michael Rooker) and a spunky little girl (Ariana Greenblatt) whom he happens upon and accompanies for a while. There’s a solidly humorous and poignant interlude involving a talking robot, which shows him photos of his dead parents and provides a C-3PO-like rundown of the myriad ways that Joel might still perish. But Joel’s quest is no less anecdotal than that sounds, and keeps serving up bland variations on scenes from other movies — everything from Tremors to Stand By Me. Even Mav1s, the robot, looks a whole lot like WALL-E‘S Eve with its similar digital facial expressions.
Love and Monsters does provide some chuckles and charms in spurts and shows one glimmer of inspiration that appears toward the end, when Joel — foreseeable spoiler here — finally does reunite with his beloved Aimee, who’d previously been seen only in quick flashbacks before that. Those snippets of their relationship barely established them as a couple worth caring about, and what initially happens when they meet again suggests, for a moment, that Joel might have been somewhat delusional about what their teen romance meant, especially given all the years and carnage since their last tender kiss. That’s a pretty bold direction for a YA film that’s working from the unthreatening appeal of O’Brien, and if nailed properly could tweak the convention of finding love in the midst of death. But it doesn’t, really. It’s just a sham of sorts, as the third act winds up hinging on a wholly dopey development involving an Australian yacht captain (Dan Ewing) who shows up as a potential rescuer and romantic rival. It was before that third act when the film was already teetering, but it’s there that the film fully falls aback. While not wholly dismal, Love and Monsters still feels lost in shallow wit and the disposable dopiness that grows in its third act.
Love and Monsters is available on VOD
Max Winkler’s Jungleland is a movie that does more than just take its title from a Bruce Springsteen song; it’s a film that embraces melodrama and cliché not unlike a classic song from the Boss, engrossing itself in the rebellious spirit and heartbreaking thoughtfulness that comes from his works. It’s three central characters are out of casting 101 — the emotional boxer, his volatile brother, and the girl who gets between them — but Winkler and his team lean into some of the familiarity so much that it starts to find some compelling details. Charlie Hunnam stars as Stanley, a jittery loser who has pushed the boundaries of the law a few too many times, and has even gotten his brother Lion (Jack O’Connell) banned from the world of traditional boxing. This means Lion has to fight in bare-knuckle brawls in dingy rooms, but Stanley is always there cheering him on (and betting on him often). It’s one day after a key fight goes very wrong, that it looks like Stanley may have run out of ways to please the crime lord (Jonathan Majors) to whom he is in debt, but he gets one more chance: He has to take a girl, Sky (Jessica Barden), across the country and deliver her to another villain on their way to a $100k fight in San Francisco. The boys soon realize they are basically agreeing to be human traffickers to save their souls, and things get even more complicated when a romance starts to bloom.
It’s sort of a lot of plot for a ninety-three minute film to chew on, but Jungleland races ahead with the sinewy, tenderly feel of a ’70s throwback in the vein of Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby, with Winkler and cinematographer Damian Garcia finding a perfectly off-balanced milieu of tactile, working-class blues. Jungleland could be easy to write off as some flinty and familiar drama if you just take it on its surface, but the film sets out to shed its own skin. With the fantastic grandeur of Lorne Balfe’s horn-centric score, Jungleland draws its tension beyond the obvious raw and engaging disconnect between Stanley and Lion, and instead lives in the ever-constricting space between its three main characters and the respective clichés they’re each trying to lock into submission. That conflict is so palpable that it starts to reorient the gravity of everything around it and makes you theorize if casting Brits in all three lead roles was part of some meta strategy to accentuate how Stanley, Lion, and Sky are all at war with their own identities.
Some passages still — like the zilch of a scene where the crew visits Sky’s parents — are trite in way that suffocates that kind of thinking, but, thankfully, there are ultimately just a few moments where things flatline to the point that it feels like the characters are in search of a better movie. On the contrary, they’re each more enthralling on the screen than they are on paper because the movie and-or world around them is so determined to drag them down. It’s a dynamic that Winkler leverages in unexpected ways, none of them more surprising than how Sky’s whole “ruined girl with a heart of gold” routine gradually un-clouds into a suffocating portrait of inescapable misogyny. Similar to how Lion sports a rattail because he likes to exploit lowered expectations, Jungleland is willing to risk being written off because it needs you to lower your guard. In a country that insists everyone gets a title shot when most of them aren’t even allowed in the ring, Winkler engrosses us into a strange and rewarding story about three people who dare to punch above their weight class no matter what kind of beating they have to take for that audacity. They “try to make an honest stand,” Springsteen sings, “But they wind up wounded, not even dead.” Where the Boss’ “Jungleland” heard something bittersweet in that last refrain, Winkler’s claws at a devastating victory from the jaws of defeat, and finds a measure of transformative strength in the mere act of putting up a fight. Boasted from stellar work by Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell, Jungleland shines in its gruff, tender naturalism and narrative of shedding identities, almost to the point where it nearly escapes all its clichés.
Jungleland is available on VOD
Approaching space travel with eyes and spirit firmly tethered to the ground, Alice Winocour’s Proxima takes a sadly shrugging look at the impending separation of a female astronaut and her child. The former is Sarah (Eva Green), who’s chosen to partake in a yearlong mission to the International Space Station, which would leave her young daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle), struggling to adjust to what feels like abandonment. Their emotional journey — both tenderly and movingly performed — is the heart to the film, so much to the point that it suffocates the film’s side endeavors, including both Sarah’s sexist captain (Matt Dillon) and Stella’s preoccupied father (Lars Eidinger) who are so faintly drawn that they barely register.
With its detailed interest in the mental challenges and physical duress of prelaunch training, Proxima has authenticity to spare. Yet despite its visual beauty, the result can be dramatically deflating. Torn between the maternal and the cosmic, Proxima feels as unsettled as its heroine. And while the film’s feminist thrust is admirable, Winocour’s decision to sacrifice this for a sentimental finale brings even less feeling, not really ringing with much. As Sarah’s reckless last-minute actions jeopardize not only her lifelong dream, but the mission itself, they also disappointingly undermine the movie’s own thesis: that the demands of motherhood and high-stakes careers are not mutually exclusive. It’s an endnote that only keeps the film peddling into places of lost insight. Proxima, with its smooth, sterile nature, remains more locked into the ground, rooted in its dramatically faint touches and lost narrative threads.
Proxima is available on VOD