After Yang’s Transient Melancholy

I struggle to find an apt way to review After Yang. I am used to being too overwhelmed by a film to make good sense of it in words, and I often overcome that problem in time. After Yang, however, presents an altogether different challenge: weeks after viewing it, the film is still a brick wall for me. I simply cannot parse it, and I can only hope to express myself lyrically rather than through critique. The following is an attempt at such an expression. Forgive me if I lose you.

Courtesy of A24

Imagine, if you will, how it must feel to be Yang—a technosapien, a product of man designed to walk and talk like the rest of us. The scientists struggle to understand him, even though he’s nearly human. He’s humanoid, certainly, but he was built with a purpose—to be a companion, a guide to a young child. Specifically, a guide to a young, adopted Chinese child struggling with their cultural identity. But that isn’t the extent of his usefulness, no. While humans might like to pretend that technosapiens are mere property, indistinguishable from any other household appliance, the truth is that they have personhood which extends far beyond their stated purpose. Personhood, in fact, that goes against their purpose.

Much of the film’s perspective on Yang is relayed in flashbacks, seeing as though Yang’s death is the film’s inciting incident. Through these flashbacks, so much is revealed about who exactly Yang was, and why his existence even mattered at all. A recurring narrative device in the film is the discovery of a sort of black-box that stores all of Yang’s memories. Since Yang has been decommissioned and it is almost certain he will not operate ever again, Colin Farrell’s character Jake begins to parse through these memories. Of course, they’re not exactly like human memories—they’re three-second videos from Yang’s POV, recording whatever Yang thought was important enough to store forever. By the film’s own admission, Yang is one of only a few technosapiens granted the ability to gather memories like this. He is different.

These memories read very objectively. Yang stares at a girl that he likes. Yang goes to a concert with the girl. Yang stares at his face in the mirror. Yang stares at his family. These are the events as they happened, precisely as they happened, with no middleman to relay the story in a different tone. One might think there is little room for interpretation in these memories, but Yang would disagree. He chose these memories. What he looks like. Who he loved. How he loved. Not all of us are blessed with retention that concrete.

Why these memories? Because Yang understood his personhood to be more than just his purpose.

This isn’t to say that his adopted little sister, Mika, means any less to him. Quite the contrary. The film makes it clear that Yang spends more time with Mika than her own father. The entire family dynamic is… strained. Constricted by some unspoken rule. There is no avenue for love between these four—father, mother, daughter, technosapien. A strained marriage, an adopted child, and a half-human in the middle of the human experience. Mika finds the cracks in Yang’s design—she calls out his instinctual espousing of Chinese fun facts, as though it’s a funny quirk. Yang, ever the android, feels stung by the observation. As though calling out his lack of personhood is a deathly blow.

When memories of Yang are shown from beyond Yang’s perspective, the mood is substantially different. In Yang’s crystal clear memories, the aspect ratio is full-frame. In all other flashbacks, though, the film defaults to the usual cinematic ratio. The full-frame almost suggests a greater sense of clarity and objectiveness in Yang’s perception. But fragile human memories are as fickle as the rest of reality. A peculiar editing quirk is present in many of these flashbacks—before a character says a line of dialogue, the line will often play in voiceover just before, in a slightly different tone. I think this represents two things—the fragility of human memory, and the ability of humans to feel conflicting emotions over the same sentiment.

Incidentally, as these flashbacks go on, Yang begins to act in this exact same way. Think first, then speak. He has become fragile, as humans are. He is not merely machine. He is man.

The transience that Yang experiences is contextualized later in the film with the reveal that Yang was housed by another family before Mika’s. This family, similarly, had an adopted Chinese child, and Yang stuck with the family as the child grew up. As time goes on, the mother becomes sick, and her biological daughter—to whom Yang grows romantically attached—is killed in what is implied to be a car accident. Yang’s memory is wiped after this. He doesn’t recall any of these events, yet… they influence him. The woman from his memories that he would see in-between caring for Mika is a clone of his former lover. He feels inextricably drawn to this love for reasons he does not understand. He feels misplaced, like he is missing something, for reasons he cannot comprehend.

The past infects Yang, drives every action, motivates every word, yet… he doesn’t see it. He is incapable of seeing it. And does that matter? Who he is now is the only person he’s ever been, regardless of what he has forgotten. He is not a computer whose hard drive you can just wipe clean. He is more than just a technosapien. He is not quite human, but he is alive. Filled with emotion and regret. Not like you or I, but just enough like you or I to justify his personhood. Through all of this strife, through every experience he has ever had, he has become more human than any of us could aspire to be.

He had a life. That should be enough.

After Yang premieres in theaters on March 4 with a limited release as well as being available on Showtime same day.

My rating:

#80 – High Life

I’d rather sink into the Earth after I’ve lost you than to sit around and grieve once you’ve gone off into your destiny.

This week, we continue our Robert Pattinson showcase talking about Claire Denis’ film HIGH LIFE.

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#79 – Good Time

The place where are now, it can be a lot of fun if you let it. You’re gonna have a good time.

This week, listen to our actor’s spotligght on Robert Pattinson, starting with the Safdie Brothers film GOOD TIME.

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“The Sky Is Everywhere” Review – An Overdramatic Mess

Josephine Decker’s films have always had so much incredible style embedded into them. Her latest film “The Sky Is Everywhere” is no exception. But the benefit of her incredible style is not to be had here, and the problem lies mostly in the script, based on the YA novel of the same name by Jandy Nelson who also pens this film’s pages. There is a lot in this film about the grief to be had with the loss of a loved one, and how it can spiral the lives of those left behind. Sadly, other films have tackled this subject and most of them do it so, so much better.

Taking place after the sudden death of her sister due to heart arrhythmia, Lennie Walker (Grace Kaufman) is free-falling trying to find a way to continue on. Lennie attempts to keep going but already has a lot on her plate. She’s a talented first-chair clarinetist with prospects for Juilliard, and the loss of her sister brings her inability to continue playing music with a tremendous amount of grief on her shoulders. Her grandmother Fiona (Cherry Jones) and Uncle Big (Jason Segel) are here to pop their heads in every now and then but become the punching bag for Lennie at this difficult point in her life. She’s also trying to juggle the romantic feelings she has for her sister’s boyfriend Toby (Pico Alexander) and with the new kid in town Joe (Jacques Colimon), another talented musician at her school.

Courtesy of A24/Apple TV+

While on paper, a lot of that can sound very endearing and simple enough as a formula for a good narrative. And with Decker’s direction at hand too? It sounds too good to be true. But if there was ever a mismatch of talent and abilities, it’s “The Sky Is Everywhere”. The film has a good look to it, although suffers a very digital sheen, with only color and solid movement to redeem it. Decker’s style, as said is very prevalent but is really the only identifier of her hand in the film. With musical notes bouncing through the screen and knocking over students in the hall, scribbled on the screen text message effects between Lennie and her friend Sarah (Ji-young You), and the forest literally coming to life and crashing down in the Californian forests. The gathered effect is beautiful but doesn’t belong in a film of this low effort and quality. It turns from being a wonderful visual storytelling device to being something that can be viewed as trying too hard to stick out and be different.

The main problem lies not necessarily with the direction of Decker, but the writing of Nelson. Rarely offering anything to dig into and reflect upon, but being upfront and loud about the characters’ emotions and thoughts. There is little time given to show which leads to these actors having to tell everything instead. The side-plots with Lennie and her rivaling clarinetist, her late sister’s boyfriend confusing and wildly inappropriate romantic embraces, and reveals for just about everything tragic that you can make happen to your characters over-stuff the film and it is just too much. It’s laughable during large chunks, which should not bode well for a film that is nowhere near being intended as a comedy.

The film feels overall juvenile, amateur, and not very well thought out. The film maybe could have done a bit better had it gone through more minds in the adaptation process to work out all of these kinks, and find a different director to punish with having this in their repertoire.

“The Sky Is Everywhere” is currently playing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.

My rating:

“Red Rocket” — Houston Cinema Arts Festival Review

I was able to catch Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” this weekend at the 2021 Houston Cinema Arts Festival, with a Q&A from the indie filmmaker along with his wife/producer, and a few of the local cast members. What followed was 128 minutes of incredible comedy, amazing performances, and some great cinematography. It was an incredibly fun experience, and it was also very fittingly the Texas Premiere of the film.

Simon Rex stars as Mikey Davies, or Mikey Saber XXX, has been in the adult film industry in Los Angeles for the last 20 years. But once he falls out on hard times, he takes a bus back home to his Gulf Coast hometown of Texas City to shack up with his wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother. He goes around reminiscing around his old stomping grounds and bringing up stories about his various films and experiences to anybody who will listen. And the whole time, trying to find his ticket back to the life he loves so much. According to Baker, Simon Rex was always who this movie was going to be made for, having experience in the adult film world himself early on in his career made it a no-brainer.

Courtesy of A24

What this film does differently from every other film about kids who want to just get out of a dead-end town and start over, this film goes to somebody like Mikey and people like Lexi who, when times get hard, they went back home to start over. And it also shows how hard it is to start over. Mikey makes several attempts to get a job locally to help out Lexi and her mom, but once they find out about his previous “experience,” they’re quick to turn him away thinking it would be bad for business. Something that shows that while sex work is an incredibly valuable industry in the world, it does leave a nasty taste in the mouth of civilians as Mikey would say.

But representation for sex work was also very important for making this film. There were even 5 different consultants within the sex work industry brought on in the pre-production process to make sure there wasn’t anything that was casting bad light towards the industry and sex workers as a whole. And that kind of headspace is something that has been important over Baker’s career “Starlet,” “Tangerine,” and “The Florida Project.” Making sure that films like these have been able to represent sex work in a way to chip away the stigma that surrounds it.

But while Mikey is sort of trying to start over, he spends a great deal of the movie trying to find his next way back into the industry. Because deep down, that’s what he loves. He loves being in the action, he loves having sex, and he loves making porn out of it. Maybe he’ll try and bring Lexi back into the game, or maybe he’ll see somebody and target them into coming with him. “Suitcase Pimp” is what he’s referred to, always finding a way to manage the women he gets with and finagle them into his world.

And boy is he good at it. He’s incredibly funny, handsome, and too charismatic for his own good. With a small bucket to pull from in terms of population, he finds his ticket back. A 17-year-old high schooler, Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who is about to hit her 18th birthday. It’s perfect for him. He’s even surprised how easy it is and expresses that with his neighbor/friend/ride Lonnie (Ethan Darbone). And that’s sort of how a lot of this movie is, it’s easy. An easy-going story with barely a hitch until the last quarter of the film. Mikey does very well for himself by selling weed out of the Donut Hole. Perhaps it could have been shortened a hair, but it was very well edited by Baker himself and well written with Baker’s now four-time collaborator Chris Bergoch.

What this movie does better though than a lot of the technical aspects of the film, is something that has been appreciated from Baker’s entire career. He is very good at using local talent around to help the films come to life. Crew is often limited, and the cast picked from the streets, particularly in the case of Lonnie and June (Brittney Rodriguez) who were found just flipping burgers or walking their dog. That in part comes from their ability to portray these characters, but in how Baker can direct actors who have never done any kind of professional acting before. And it helps not just fill the movie with people who look like they live in Texas City, because they do, but it just makes every interaction seem that much more authentic and real.

“Red Rocket” initially premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to great reception and is scheduled for release by A24 on December 10 just in time for the awards circuit to start heating up. And for a few categories, it might just have a shot.

My rating:

#6 – Uncut Gems (ft. Jordan Brown)

Summary

Justin and Zach finish their series on Adam Sandler by talking about Uncut Gems with first-time guest Jordan Brown!

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