Mike Cahill’s Bliss presents the concept of utopia/dystopia through a simulation, as it follows Greg Wittle (Owen Wilson), who, after accidentally murdering his boss for firing him, is “awakened” through his acquaintance with Isabel (Salma Hayek), after she gives him a drug that makes the simulated world he lives in falls apart. When Greg wakes up from the simulation (known as the “BrainBox”), he cannot remember his life before entering it since he did not take enough “blue crystals” inside the BrainBox. Elements from the simulation start to affect his perception of the real world, which blurs the line between what is real and fake inside Greg’s mind. The film was lambasted by critics, with one calling it “the worst kind of open-ended sci-fi movie.” While it is true that its ending leaves many questions unanswered and the overall “world” of the film was not properly pieced together, Bliss is a decent effort from a rather divisive filmmaker and is probably the most inoffensive film you’ll see all year.
There’s nothing flat-out terrible about Bliss, other than the fact that most of the concepts presented to the audience are terribly undercooked. Many contradictions involving the BrainBox, especially with the “real people” and “Fake Generated Persons” (FGP), are present, particularly the idea of killing a “real” person inside the BrainBox, not knowing if they will die in real life. It could’ve been interesting to explore those ideas, yet the film is only focused on finding the “blue crystals” that will bring Greg and Isabel’s mental state back to normal. There’s a lot of exposition surrounding the crystals, yet we still don’t understand why these damn things are so important. The film tries to focus too much on the “little” details rather than the big picture. It’s fascinating to see how someone can become too “sucked in” by the fake world of the BrainBox if they don’t take enough “blue crystals,” but that idea seems secondary compared to the time the audience spends trying to find them for…not much.
Mike Cahill does draw a compelling parallel to the blissful (no pun intended) utopia of the “real world” and the monotonous, corporate-ruled dystopia of the BrainBox that seems a little too close to the society we’re living in. The most interesting part of the simulation is when we see where Greg is “working,” at a “technical difficulties” division, where employees needlessly repeat the same sentence (“I’m sorry you are having technical difficulties…”) over and over again, like robots who are only in it for the “money.” It’s a simple (but effective) critique of the capitalist society that treats human beings like “numbers” or “machines,” designed to do repetitive work until they either get out of the rat race or have a burnout. Expanding that idea to a feature film instead of focusing on these stupid crystals would’ve probably made a better movie, but alas.
Even if most of the elements presented to the audience are never properly fleshed-out, Bliss is a completely harmless watch, mostly due to the terrific lead performances from Owen Wilson & Salma Hayek. Wilson gives a rare (and enjoyable) dramatic performance as Greg and shares great chemistry with Hayek’s Isabel, who gives the most compelling portrayal of the film. Notable cameos of Bill Nye and Slavoj Žižek are both welcomed and lots of fun to watch.
If Hayek and Wilson’s dramatic synergy weren’t enticing enough, Bliss wouldn’t have worked as well as it did. While many ideas presented are interesting enough, none of them are as suitably developed as they should be; with many lines of dialogue contradicting these said ideas, there’s nothing about Bliss that feels completely terrible. It contains an undercooked script filled with untapped potential sure, but everything is still straightforward to follow since its script decided to focus on the most simple “detail” of its world.
There’s nothing wrong with having a simple-minded, middle-of-the-road sci-fi film to distract you for 104 minutes, containing interesting concepts and good actors giving decent performances. While some could hate the fact that most of what was initially set-up will never pay off during its ending, as Cahill prefers to choose “the easy way out,” you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time with Bliss. You might forget about it in a few hours. Still, it will literally do nothing to you while you’re watching it and after watching it, which is obviously better than a terrible moviegoing experience. If you’re curious enough, give it a go. You may not regret it.
Bliss is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video
Resort to Love Review | Clichéd, Yet Compelling
Never did I expect to be compeled this much in front of a Hallmark-lite production, but here we are.
Right from the get-go, it’s clear that Netflix’s latest production, Resort to Love, doesn’t much care about quality. Its aesthetic emulates the glossiness of a Hallmark, or Lifetime Original, and its plot is so unfathomably clichéd to the point where you can easily guess everything that’s going to happen a couple of minutes after the film started. See if you can guess where it’s going: one year after her fiancé, Jason (Jay Pharoah), breaks off their engagement, singer Erica Wilson (Christina Millan)’s career takes a nosedive and is now sent lounge and wedding singing at a resort in Mauritius. Lo and behold, that resort is also the place where her ex-fiancé is getting married (what a coincidence!). Erica, who still has feelings for him, starts to develop a friendship with Jason’s brother, Caleb (Sinqua Walls), which starts a will they/won’t they quasi-love triangle, akin to a classic Hallmark production. What happens next? Whatever’s your first guess is probably right (or not).
Yet, the movie feels quite entrancing. From the opening sequence where an artist invites Erica to a “listening party” and destroys his album so the world will never hear it, Steven K. Tsuchida’s film has a strange aura of anti-conformism. Most films of this stature will start with innumerable clichés, and end with innumerable clichés. Resort to Love doesn’t do that, and builds up Erica’s arc first. There’s this great (and completely random) scene in which she sings Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive as a sign for the audience that she’s gotten over Jason’s rejection and has started a better life in Mauritius. The camera starts to widen to a more blissful aesthetic, as neons fill the frame and the song starts to dictate its intercutting to scenes of Erica enjoying the Island. Right then and there, I knew the film would be different than previous Netflix productions of the same vein, most notably Falling Inn Love (which also stars Christina Millan).
Millan brings much-needed heart to her performance as Erica and shares terrific chemistry with its male counterparts. At first, her portrayal seems contrived in typical emotional beats we’ve seen long before, but as she lands in Mauritius, there’s this clear shift in personality that makes her character more compelling than when we first meet her in New York. She’s more jovial, carefree and starts to have fun with Jason and her fiancé, Beverly (Christiani Pitts), who is completely impervious to the fact that they were previously engaged. This makes for predictable, albeit hilarious comedy where Millan plays with Beverly’s cluelessness and calls out Jason to great advantage. Once Beverly (obviously) finds out about Jason’s previous engagement, there’s an even funnier scene that I won’t dare spoil that had me in stitches.
However, that scene reverts to a more Hallmark-friendly screenplay once it gets into a more dramatic, or dare I say, sentimental mood. It doesn’t get haphazardly sentimental, or emotionally manipulative as most Hallmark films do, but is on the cusp of being exactly like one. Heck, it starts the exact same way as a Hallmark film does: in the middle of a conversation where expository dialogue will fill in the gaps on what we missed. Then we have the overarching conflict that the protagonist will have to confront. She’ll ultimately succeed and fall in love again…of course…not with the one she initially was in love with. That’s always how those films end and Resort to Love doesn’t want to change that formula.
And that seems fine for the most part. There’s nothing wrong with doing something so terribly clichéd if the core of your film is somewhat enticing enough. And for Resort to Love, that seems perfectly fine. Millan, Pharoah, and Walls are all great here, bringing legitimately funny comedy to the table and building upon human relationships that seem not only completely palpable but plausible to the viewer. That makes the viewing experience particularly enjoyable for the skeptical in me who thought this would be a chore to sit through. And guess what? While the story isn’t perfect and steals many tropes from other romantic comedies, it still doesn’t make it terrible. Sue me.
Resort to Love is now available to stream on Netflix.
Old | Dumb Fun in the Sun
M Night Shyamalan’s creative career was cursed from the moment he was hailed ‘the next Spielberg’. Such a title was only going to be met with disappointment. His early films, The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002) were a trio of enticing, original supernatural thrillers that offered enough intrigue to match such a lofty title. Since then, the ride’s been a little rockier. In the late 2000s, a string of weaker offerings left a lot to be desired. Notably, Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) were horrific for all the wrong reasons – and the less said about his ‘airbending’ effort the better.
Yet, a recent renaissance in his ability to tell original stories has sparked fresh excitement. And, next to maintain the thrills is Old. Although lacking the spine tingling bite of his earliest attempts it’s another example of why we should welcome his contribution to modern cinema.
Part horror, part thriller, part goofy comedy – the film depicts a rough day on a secluded beach for a group of characters who begin to age rapidly as the day progresses. Oh, and it goes without saying – they can’t escape. Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, it is an adaptation in the sense that director and writer Shyamalan found a concept and went in his own twisted direction with it.
For all parents with young children a day on the beach can often be plagued by horror and heat, as screaming children, sticky sand and warm drinks provide more stress than serenity. After watching Old, I’m sure parents will be dreaming of crowded shores, as a family’s idyllic stop in paradise descends into disaster.
Anchoring the story is a family of four, the warring parents played by Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps). Both Bernal and Krieps have already carved a magnificent dramatic career and their acting chops offer the majority of the emotion and dramatic pull that the screenplay sorely lacks. A selection of actors take the role of their rapidly ageing children, Trent and Maddox. Perhaps the standout sequences are carried by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie – who harness their rapid growth and sudden hormones of teenagerhood with confidence and believability.
With much to owe to the zany execution of the The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), much of the unique concept is delightful to watch on screen. A strong sequence in the middle of the film see’s the ageing effects of the beach in full effect, and this was a genuine treat. It felt like an early morning pitch meeting fuelled by caffeine, in which all plot possibilities were stuck to the storyboard and from that day, never left.
The physical and mental breakdown of the characters is exceptionally entertaining. Suspiria style, limb bending gore and Cronenbergian body horror take full advantage of the physical possibilities of this rocky trip to the shores. There is very little coherence, but this is where the film is at the height of it’s powers, as the often whiplash inducing shakey-cam captures the thrilling chaos and the silly set-pieces in equal measure. Darkly comedic and outrageously stupid, at times the concept clicked into place and captured the magic that Shyamalan is capable of.
It is this push for conceptual creativity that holds the film back just as much as it propels it, as plot direction takes precedence over depth and substance. Patchy doesn’t quite cover the expositional superficiality of the script. In an opening scene which mentioned ‘living in the moment’ and ‘enjoying youth’ a lot more than necessary – I could actually hear Mr Shyamalan screaming through the screen “have you got it yet? They are about to get Old!”
Particularly in the film’s final 15 minutes, where the screenplay crashes back to land with a bump – a studio driven, expositional ending of nightmares, which is probably the most horrific part of the whole thing. Old would’ve benefited endlessly if it tapped into the psyche of the experience – as the obsessive fixation on concept and plot see’s the weak dialogue get washed away in the sand.
Where the screenplay truly shines is on the surface. Go deeper into the waters of the writing and you’ll find there’s very little but coral and sand. Pushing the concept as far as the runtime will allow – it seems that Shyamalan is beginning to make his name as the fast-food Christopher Nolan. He takes the idea, extracts all the silliness and story he can find, ditching the style and substance in the process.
It simply succeeds as mindless fun. With more plot holes than grains of sand on the beach and moments that tiptoe into pastiche – we are welcomed into a world that is as paradoxical as it is parody. But, for the most part it stays on the right side of the shore, as many moments on the heat-soaked beach truly shine.
Forget McConaissance, it’s time for the Shyamasurgence – a true rejuvenation of original, silly big-screen entertainment. Perhaps the most typically Shyamalan film of all – the good, the bad and the cameo.
As Shyamalan as it gets – for better and for worse. Whose up for some dumb fun in the sun?
Zola | Sundance Film Festival London 2021 Review
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense”. These were the words at the beginning of an 148 tweet long thread on Twitter from @_zolarmoon on October 27th 2015. The incredibly long thread went viral shortly after being posted and not long later, Rolling Stone published an article interviewing some of the people involved. And now in 2021, after premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Zola, a film based on the twitter thread and the Rolling Stone article is being released.
Aziah “Zola” King was definitely right that it is a long story but it’s certainly full of suspense. The film sees Zola (Taylour Paige) working as a waitress when she meets Stefani (played by Riley Keough), a stripper who invites Zola on a trip to Florida with her boyfriend and mysterious roommate to make a lot of money dancing at high-end clubs in Tampa. What follows is a crazy, chaotic ride as Zola gets into all sorts of situations involving guns, prostitution and pimps as things start going wrong as she realises that she’s got in way over her head.
Janicza Bravo does a great job of bringing Zola’s Twitter thread to the big screen whilst still retaining some sense of it being told as if it were on Twitter and the original voice of the thread. Throughout the film there are constant sounds of notifications coming in, messages being sent, Tweets being tweeted- in fact every single time the film includes a direct quote or moment from the original thread we hear a tweet sound effect and it really helps give Zola its own unique style and to bring this crazy story to the big screen. Add in Zola’s narration throughout and the film has a really unique voice, much like the real Zola in the original Twitter thread.
After seeing the film, I immediately went and read the original 148 tweet long Twitter thread and unlike how I normally prefer to read a book before seeing the film adaptation I think with Zola it works much better to go in blind and then read the tweets because you’ll come out of seeing it and be so keen to read it in its original form and be taken aback by the wild story all over again.
Zola blends a few different genres with it being so darkly funny at times and incredibly suspenseful at others. The creepy and eerie atmosphere that the film creates keeps rising and getting stronger as the film goes on, resulting in a climax that is full of tension and has you on the edge of your seat.
There are a few moments where the mix of comedy and seriousness doesn’t quite land and you’re not quite sure if you should be laughing or not. But overall Zola is a really entertaining film. However, the highlight of the film is definitely the performances. Paige and Keough are both fantastic and help to carry the entire film. Watching them act and bounce off each other truly is incredible. Colman Domingo is also fantastic as ‘X’, Stefani’s pimp as he changes between American and Nigerian accents whenever trying to intimidate someone.
Zola is a wild journey, anchored by fantastic performances. The film manages to bring the chaos and unpredictability of the Twitter thread to the big screen in a really distinctive way, opening up a door of endless possibilities of what can be made into a film. If a Twitter thread can be turned into a film, anything can.
Zola is released in UK cinemas on August 6th.
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