Synchronic

2019 | dir: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead | 103 m

Almost invariably, time travel films incorporate some issues of causality into their plot. Essentially, there's some event in the past that influences the characters in the present / relative future and it turns out that the characters in the future were actually the ones who were actually responsible for the later events. And almost invariably, the character who is most directly affected by those past events is usually revealed to be the one that caused them initially. This is a well-worn trope in the time travel genre, and like most tropes, the fun isn't in recognizing it, but in seeing how the author/creator finds unique ways to deploy that trope within the worlds they've created.

Synchronic is no different. Which is to say, it's very different. But still the same.

It's time travel, so admittedly, there's going to be some head scratching. The best advice I can give when engaging with any story involving time travel is to quote the late, great Hunter S. Thompson: "Buy the ticket, take the ride..."

Synchronic is the fourth feature film from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, and one of the few movies I was truly looking forward to in 2021 (and in 2020, but the less said about that particular historical period, probably the better). Not just because I'm a sucker for a good time travel film (or even a bad one), but because Moorhead and Benson have established themselves in the indie film circuit as men of a visionary nature and a distinctive voice. I was hooked immediately after watching their debut, Resolution, last year and was similarly impressed/enamoured with their follow-up to their follow-up movie, The Endless, and their just plain follow-up, Spring. Though Resolution and The Endless have roots reaching deep into the fertile soils of both science fiction and horror (I couldn't help shake the feeling after watching Resolution and The Endless and Ari Aster's Hereditary and Midsommar in the space of a couple months last year that I was witnessing a new age in horror), the dominant genre seems to be science fiction. This is a genre that, like fantasy, requires that rare combination of Big Ideas and Big Imagination and the willingness to, as the character Eames from Inception might have put it, "dream a little bigger, darling."

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Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

2009 | dir: Patrick Tatopoulos | 92 m

I always had the impression that Rise of the Lycans was a misfire in the Underworld series fueled by the loss of Kate Beckinsale. Maybe I was barely paying attention, but the advertising of the film definitely led me to believe that Kate was in the film, and when I discovered she was replaced by someone who looks pretty similar (Rhona Mitra), that I had lost most of my interest in going to see the prequel. The same thing happened in the previews of the film Doomsday, also starring Mitra and mistaken for Beckinsale, except that I couldn’t pass up Doomsday in theatres and was happy to revisit the film fairly recently to appreciate what a ride it was (and Mitra kicked a ton of ass in that film). This was my first viewing of Rise of the Lycans and I’m still not quite sure why this film exists. Didn’t we cover most of the ground here before in the previous two films? 

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always

2020 | dir: Eliza Hittman | 101 m

In an effort to piece together a somewhat coherent top ten list for 2020 movies this year, I embarked on a short journey to watch a few critically celebrated films that I may had missed. This project had me putting on Never Rarely Sometimes Always, an especially impactful film both written and directed by Eliza Hittman whose tale chronicles the journey of two teenage girls making their way to New York city “to seek out medical help after an unintended pregnancy.” And I can’t tell you why – because I had zero exposure to any element of the film save for the high Letterboxd user ratings and the poster of the film – but I went in expecting a bit of a quirky, if dark, comedy. It does not take long for one to realize how far my expectations strayed from the end product, and I’m happy again that my expectations were upended and the film I did take in was quite thoughtful, emotional and poignant.

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Ghost Rider

2007 | dir: Mark Steven Johnson | 114 m

Without any kind of initial explanation, I have a soft spot in my memory for Ghost Rider and a hesitation to really say anything negative about the film, but damn, this movie is bad. While revisiting Nicolas Cage in the starring role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, I had an inkling that I would discover something new about the film, and if not new, then something to grasp onto that could elevate this film and redeem it. Unfortunately, it’s not the case: this might be worse off today than when I initially saw it over a decade ago.

A bit of personal context here: I am in no way familiar with Ghost Rider, his origin, cast of supporting characters or history. The Ghost Rider comics I bought in the early 90’s were purchased because of a killer cover done by Adam Kubert on an 1992 issue of Sprits of Vengeance (link here) where Venom is hanging upside down in the sewers, holding Ghost Rider’s flaming skull wrapped up in a chain. I probably went onto buy a dozen or so Ghost Rider comics, read them, bagged them into the collection, and ignorantly forget them moments later.

Ghost Rider is quite a visually striking character and that holds true in this film (for the most part). Wrapped in biker leathers, his skull ablaze in eternal flame and speeding forth on a badass motorcycle with flaming wheels, Ghost Rider is - at least on the visual scale - a fun character to watch. Johnny Blaze (in this film, at least) inadvertently signs a deal with the devil (really Mephistopheles here) that would cure his father’s cancer and in return, hand over Johnny’s soul. Of course, in true genie fashion, the deal comes true, but the devil ensures his father dies the very next day anyway. Johnny, now knowing how serious this is and understanding that the devil can take his loved ones at any time, just leaves, isolating himself for a couple of decades and leaving his sweetheart behind without answers.

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Pulse

2001 | dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa | 119 m

Wow, I can’t recall the last time that I felt so much dread and unease in a horror film, but here we are with Kairo (Pulse), having me double check the shadows in my room and not only making sure that the doors in my apartment are closed, but also that they don’t have any red tape around them. Suffice to say I didn’t turn on my computer until the next day, in the safety of sunlight. We follow our characters as they navigate strange occurrences, including sightings of a recently deceased friend and a truly creepy website. Everything is driven forward by having as much information as the characters themselves: easily relatable as I never found myself questioning their behaviour: with a belief that ghosts don’t exist, who wouldn’t investigate strange markings on the wall of a friend’s home, or start asking around about how to rid yourself of some malware? These characters are never entirely sure what they’re dealing with, and the audience is given barely anything more, which I think makes the journey all the more terrifying. Everything is beautifully framed in the colour-drained world and the ghosts’ movements and appearances are slow, deliberate and unsettling. Although I found the end of the film to a little unsatisfactory, it doesn’t add much to overall criticism of the movie. I find myself wondering what it would have been like to watching this film twenty years ago, as I recall the internet being a much more unkempt and mysterious utility with limitless potential, and yes – for someone who wants to believe – a reasonable habitat for the supernatural.

Underworld Evolution

2006 | dir: Len Wiseman | 106 m

Immediately, we abandon the slick confines the original’s city, mansions and underground settings for the (somewhat) blanket openness of Eastern Europe. The story picks up just where we left off as well, with Selene and Michael on the run from the aftermath of the mayhem before, including the (spoiler for the first film) slaying of Victor. I'm just about fully on board with Evolution delving deeper into the lore of the “Vampire-Lycan” war and appreciative that it ties a number of strings together, including our main vampire played by Kate Beckinsale all without feeling like story beats and characters are just done for the sake of being convenient or filler.  

I mentioned in the previous film that there were very few (if any) human characters present, which has been rectified in Evolution. Rectified, because I need to see how our vampires and werewolves perform in the face of your average human, which helps craft this world’s reality against our own. There's a scene early on where Michael is chased into the woods by a group of humans – as he resists the urge to feed on them – and Selene comes out to the rescue; we’re treated to some supernaturally wonderful powers of movement and abilities that – from the perspective of those humans and to an extent myself, the viewer – is truly terrifying. Those powers don’t show up when vampires are fighting other vampires because presumably, they’re being used all the time and the film is showing us the normalized action. It was a fun scene to watch and I wish there was more of that stuff in the film. 

The other world building that goes on is fun: early on we see a cleanup/investigation crew dispatched in an attempt to unravel what happened in the first film’s events, and an amusing scene where a giant vampire bat learns how to use a computer by drinking the blood of another vampire. Quite handy indeed! One of the few things I remember upon seeing this over a decade ago was a steamy sex scene and am happy to report that the scene is still just as steamy, although their (that is, Selene and Michael) romance feels a bit empty. The film does deliver in a decent quality, gory action scenes, although some of the logic and reasoning of the characters and plot leave a little bit to be desired. I found myself chuckling quizzically every so often, but I guess that comes with the territory as Evolution attempts to layer on complexity via backstory, when the strength of the first film was very much on being straightforward and heavy on style. 

Wolfwalkers

 

2020 | dir: Tomm Moore | 103 m

There’s something reassuringly captivating and enchanting about Wolfwalkers, the latest animated feature from Irish filmmakers Tomm Moore and Ross Steward, with Moore previously codirecting both The Secret of the Kells and the amazing Song of the Sea. Wolfwalkers had me engrossed from start to finish, and held my thoughts for days afterward. I’m always a bit hesitant to put on “kids” films when alone and as a result I can miss out on some really excellent films so in an effort to recognize the more positive sides of this turbulent year and not let some films slip by, I made a priority to watch the highly-rated Wolfwalkers, and would heartily recommend it to everyone.

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Tenet

2020 | dir: Christopher Nolan | 150 m

Despite the standard cliche, I don't remember ever literally being on the edge of my seat during a movie, but there are some movies that make me sit up a little straighter and pay very close attention. Tenet was one of those movies. I wasn't really all that surprised that I enjoyed Tenet; Christopher Nolan is one of my favourite directors working today (or really, ever), and I've been a fan of all of his movies to date. Nolan is one of the few modern directors who is able to effectively blend the auteur and blockbuster approach to craft films that are truly epic in scale but at their core are stories about people and that both pose and explore questions about the human condition in an intelligent way. In that way, Nolan is heir apparent to the original generation of auteur film makers who essentially invented the blockbuster like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. And like Spielberg and Lucas, Christopher Nolan is primarily concerned with telling original stories about larger than life events anchored with fully fleshed out human characters (and a fair amount of explosions).

That's one reason that I will gladly fork over my hard-earned cash for any film that Nolan puts out over whatever the latest made-by-committee Marvel or Star Wars movie that the Disney corporate machine churns out. I say this as a fan of both the MCU and Star Wars, but I would rather see Nolan try something new and fail than have to sift through another ten movies' worth of the Marvel formula or mull over the next chaotic Star Wars trilogy to find the one or two movies that really excel. At the end of the day, a movie directed by Christopher Nolan expects more of its audience than a great deal of independent films and outclasses the action of most action blockbusters. Any movie that crashes a real plane into a real airport for my entertainment while also exploring questions of free will and determinism is all right in my book.

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Possessor

2020 | dir: Brandon Cronenberg | 104 m

There seems to be a bit of marketing around this film that pushes it as the “uncut” version, which is usually reserved for home video releases and results in a rather dubious difference in content of the film. However, we’re talking about the Cronenberg family in this case, and the small theatrical run during this pandemic is perhaps allowing such a cut of film to grace the big screen. As I stumbled across snippet-sized details of Brandon Cronenberg’s latest film over the past few months, I absolutely tried to minimize how much I knew about the film going into it, allowing the poster to speak for itself. The Possessor Uncut disclaimer comes up on screen before the movie gets going, making me all the more aware that this should be quite the ride, and a ride, it was. There are boundary pushing images and scenes on display here, but at no point does this feel exploitative or irrelevant to the story and characters. You become acutely aware of when the camera would normally cut away, or show us a different angle, yet Possessor doesn’t let up. These scenes occur a few times throughout the runtime, with a consistency that allows us to appreciate how they advance our characters yet disturbs us in their increasing grotesque displays.

I’m amazed at how much comes across with so little in terms of exposition and dialogue; the way Cronenberg uses his characters and special effects here is a satisfying reminder of how efficient his father creates film. Possessor displays this economical filmmaking by trusting and allowing the viewer to follow along the conceptual premise of the film because it adheres to simple rules and leans into the emotional narrative of its characters. I’m tempted to say that this is a more accessible sci-fi film than many standouts in the genre, but the horror and extreme imagery will not be for everyone. I found myself shaking my head in wonderment numerous times, and as I was leaving the empty theatre I looked up at the credits and only had one thought: that was one hell of a film.