Monday, February 24, 2014

Milla Jovovich: God's Own Avatar (+ Laymen's Guide to the Resident Evil Series)

No modern actress has spent more time running in slow motion while firing guns backwards than Milla Jovovich, which considering her start as a neo-hippie musician with a small part in Dazed and Confused (1993), reflects cosmic levels of disillusionment. And I love her, from a safe distance. She's the female post-modern Brundlefly (i.e. Jeff Goldblum) slowly dissolving into CGI replication, from hauntingly gravitas-endowed folkie to warrior queen of the Uncanny Valley -- fighting for her last shreds of un-pixelated humanity with a world-weary sequel-after-sequel determination.

I didn't seek them out, but the first four Resident Evil films have been all over Syfy lately, usually on Saturday afternoons, and I've secretly enjoyed them in a half-asleep lollygag. Repeat viewings don't make the films better, but nor do they get any worse and sometimes that's better than being good in the first place. Having the violence spread between an array of intercut commercials is awesome too. Nothing beats seeing corrupt corporate goons machine gunning civilians / smash cut to the new Mitsubishi Turbo. The pulse of the afternoon advertising blocs entrains to the throbbing din of Milla's battles, creating a symphony of post-modernist random meaning generation.

Mee-la YO-vo-vitch, as her name is pronounced, plays a character with many clones and lives enough for an afternoon of multiple person play, and considering the amount of blue screen this poor woman has to slog through, that she keeps it all real and engaging remains quite a feat, especially considering English is not her first language, or French either. She was born in the Ukraine, wherefrom a genetically superior breed of humans seems to flow, like a 'wirgin spreeng.'

I still listen to her The Divine Comedy-- a 1994 album, equal parts Kate Bush, Arthurian bard, Nordic alien-hybrid, and Jane Birkin, and purer than a crystalline decanter full of airy Scotch--but it came out ten years ago. Does she even have time to pick up a guitar now, with so much zombie blood on her hands? I wish she would. The zombies have suffered enough, and my heart has too -- it needs her swoosh of a voice and 'tick-tock through the medieval graveyard' tromp pop to swain and swillow through the once-more wood.

She gave us only one other musical document, when she quietly plays and sings at a party and tries to light a joint and misses by a few inches to hilarious effect in Dazed and Confused (1993). That lighter may have missed the target but even with this small, mostly dialogue-free part. she established herself indelibly as one of those hauntingly perfect hippie-style goddesses that stir feelings deeper and more ancient than mere attraction, closer to the vicinity of chaste courtly love, wherein the main desire is to be her champion in a joust. The film didn't need her to be great, but with her it was able to break through, like a midnight sun, and it was a great echo of similar moments in films like Marianne Faitfhfull's a capella cafe "As Tears Go By" in Godard's Made in USA (1966).

Bigger movies beckoned, as they will when beautiful, talented, otherworldly girls present themselves and talented Frenchmen take notice their muse hath come. First, there was Luc Besson, commencing with The Fifth Element (1997) to weave Milla into existence from a chunk of raw material into 'the perfect being' and allowing her to speak her own (self-invented) bizarre language. She made a great savior of the universe, we wanted her to save us and so felt guilty and ashamed when she found our dirty little genocides on the historical microfiche she scanned. People mainly remember the crazy orange hair and Gautier white tape suit, but she was never objectified in it - she was more Pris than Rachel, and Besson clearly felt that same courtly joust vibe we did and it carried over to Bruce Willis' cubicle-dwelling cab driver.

In Luc and Milla's next film together, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), she continued the savior angle and evinced great androgynous schizophrenia. You can all but feel some Old Testament-style God rattling her ossicles with shouted orders like an impatient, sugar-addled schoolboy. I know the feeling: every third autumn I become a supernaturally enlightened Taoist monk crazy man: power flows through me and all is love and holy light. But that light has a price, it's difficult to slow down for the normal unconscious and asleep people, but one must, otherwise they think you're merely manic. And one must not give away all one's money and possessions to the first needy homeless man along the road, lest the next one stab you when you can't provide the same for him. Milla gamely and bravely lets that same level of crazy flash across her beautiful features. She takes it all very seriously, commits fully and dangerously, which annoyed the unconscious and asleep critics, used to highbrow roles like Joan being played demure and ladylike and gimme an Oscar-ish. And Milla is too busy foaming at the mouth as the visions and auditory hallucinosis overtake her. For Milla, committing never means being placid or lady-like; she'd rather encourages us to wonder if maybe France was saved by the novelty of her androgynous holy girl madness. The French, unlike Americans, have a great sense of humor when it comes to their own mortality, and they worship gamins in a way America still hasn't grown up enough to understand.

Many critics felt that this was Milla's vanity project, that she had Besson wrapped around her finger and that she was out of her depth and Besson was letting her get away with it. But that's crap, my brothers. The turf is hers by right. For me, there was the sense that she's perfect for the role because of her courtly chaste love-inspiring beauty and grace, ala the loyalty she inspires as the perfect being in The Fifth Element. Messenger was the culmination of a slow build of global devotion. We were ready to storm castles in her name. On the other hand, the film couldn't help being a solid downer, with Milla's terrible bowl haircut and being sold out by the Dauphin in the name of diplomacy and caution and everyone in the French and English armies look so alike it's hard to know who to root for or what's going on. A third is that Milla plays Joan as such a schizophrenic, replete with eye twitches and brown outs, it's hard to know whether to root for her, join the fight, or move to a different table and hide behind a menu. But her notion of God's intervention is so like an alien abduction that it's all looney tunes enough to make one wonder why Besson felt the need to show the royal court scheming and intrigue behind her back at all. Why not just stick with what she sees and feels, so that the betrayal seems to come out of nowhere? The court stuff is a well-photographed bourgeois super snooze compared to Milla's wild jerky eyes and the awesome grey mud and blood.

Ancient Aliens enthusiasts such as yours truly love to contend that benevolent Nordic aliens and fifth dimensional projections from Arcturus have intervened at key moments in our history in order to keep the spirit of a free democracy alive. A Nordic 'angel' appeared to Washington at Valley Forge to convince him to keep going, there's the mysterious storm saving Washington DC from the British in the War of 1812, the surge of storm waves sinking the Spanish fleet for Elizbeth I, and Joan's spirit guide/life coach might well be the same weather-controlling Nordic angel. Recent theories on 'star children' as a newly emerging race of genius ESP children sent here to lead us into a brighter tomorrow might actually play out if one such star child kept her ESP brilliance into adulthood, and was charismatic and enough of an innate showman to genuinely lead an army to victory. I already know her initials: MJ

The idea of Milla as someone to fight for in a gallant Arthurian way (rather than as some obtainable 'prize') has continued into a long and financially lucrative collaboration with current husband, director Paul W.S. Anderson. So while we're here, let's take a gander at the entirety of the RES series, bearing in mind the importance of rock bottom expectations and intercut car commercials:

Resident Evil 
(2002) **1/2
Before it slides into overtly first person zombie shoot-em-up number punching this first film offers an elaborate set-up that promises better things: the Umbrella underground facility is laid out in impressive vertical tracking shots; the uncertain allegiance of the 'Red Queen'--and her projected image of a young girl with an evil (i.e. British) accent--and her gassing all the employees to prevent spreading; Alice waking up in a bath tub with amnesia with a "property of Umbrella Corp." stamp on the inside of her wedding band and slowly remembering how she got there in little expository flashes; the impeccable Michelle Rodriguez as a SWAT team member; the laser grid slicing up SWAT guys, etc. Alas, it's important (to someone) the movie match the feel of the game, so director W.S. Anderson makes sure the Red Queen exposits like announcing the mission of each new Raccoon City level, and each new floor has a new monster or challenge. Anderson gets so hung up on perfecting the MATRIX-cam tracking Milla's slow mo kicks at mid-air pouncing zombie dogs that he forgets any kind of narrative momentum. Still, if Milla's kiss with Michelle Rodriguez had gone on for a few seconds longer, that film would be an enduring classic. Still, it's no worse the fifth time as it is the first.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse 
(2004) **1/2
Bonus points for picking up right where the last film left off, with the zombie plague spreading all through Raccoon City, and for turning one of Alice's old SWAT buddies into a giant killing machine programmed to keep the peace. There's a fascinating moment where this shambling freak massacres a whole SWAT team surrounding a strutting black dude (Mike Epps) who isn't even scratched because as we learn from the monster's video game-like monitors, he's unarmed and hence deemed a civilian, a wry statement right up there with the one in Angels and Demons, on how carrying a gun is much more likely to get you killed than save your life. The cast here includes Jared Harris, late of Mad Men, as a doctor who has a cure and will help our locked-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-gate heroes escape (these including cop hottie in black boots Jill Valentine played grandly by Sienna Guillory [below]) if they find his daughter (Sophie Vavasseur) who happens to be the source model for the Red Queen hologram. So there's layers here, people!

Bonus Points: Some of the big money from the first film's box office shows up in large scale scenes along the wall built to keep the contagion from spreading and there's some natty wall-climbing CGI demons, a motorcycle through a stained glass window, and a big final brawl between Umbrella's top two killing machines, flanked by cool troop helicopters, and an interestingly Teutonic corporate villain (Thomas Kretschmann). Anderson seems to figure out some of his own weaknesses and gives up trying to be the action movie Kubrick and the film opens up a result. Never underestimate breathing room, and enigmatically evil children.

Ultraviolet (2006) - *

Then, in between Resident Evil films, this...  The feeling of flop sweat pervades, with nary a single interesting fight or character or uncliche'd moment and every actor glazed over with enough slick CGI 'make-up' to cause viewers to wonder why they didn't go full CGI animation as they'd clearly feel more comfortable. Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, a hack who clearly has some mojo magic that convinces money to throw itself at him (he also wrote the dismal Salt and wrote and directed the underrated but still pointless remake of Total Recall)more than anything this film, along with the Charlize Theron movie version of Æon Flux from the year before, serves almost to make W.S. Anderson Walter Hill by comparison.

Resident Evil: Extinction 
(2007) - ***
The contagion has spread all across the world by this installment - and Alice rides across the Road Warrior-inflected deserts of the American southwest in search of answers before coming to the rescue of a band of hearty young survivors (including Ali Larter) who in the film's best scene are attacked by a murder of zombie crows. Meanwhile a crazy industrial scientist spies on Alice from satellites and prepares his own magic invulnerable monster formula. It ends on a pretty wild cloning note, to become the best in the series up to that point, perhaps because it's directed by Russell Mulcahy, an Aussie behind such 'hits' as Highlander and The Shadow, and way more grounded and skilled as a storyteller and director of actors than Milla's husband, series overseer Anderson. Bonus points for a joint lit in a very moving moment by a SWAT survivor from the previous installment (Oded Ferhr) whose dimly smug smile annoyed me in the previous film but is finally put to good use in his moment of stoner triumph. 

Resident Evil: Afterlife
(2010) - ***
The series was on a roll now and Anderson steps back up to the plate, as if inspired by the lurch forward in quality delivered by Mulcahy in Extinction. It's inspiring to watch a director like PWSA slowly learn from his mistakes and criticism to deliver sequentially better work. Offering much more than the usual slow-mo 3-D shoot-outs and zombie hordes, there's a weird aircraft carrier finale involving monsters and freezer tubes; a hundred Alice clone attack on a Japanese corporation; a crash landing on a roof reminiscent of Escape from New York; cool trilobite-style gem-studded mind control devices; a gigantic axe-wielding monster, and detailed attention to continuing human story lines from the past films. It all adds up to the best entry in the series, not sure if it's still based on the video game by this point but if so, must be some game! I'll stick with the films, though, my wrists can't take too much excitement, too many years typing this shiite, and before that, Atari, and before that DOS programs for the TI-94A.

Speaking of age, after eight years of playing Alice for husband Anderson, and having born unto him a child, Milla actually looks substantially older and wearier than she did in the previous entry. Less and less are the CGI airbrushes able to disguise her slightly curled down nose, weakening chin, crow's feet. I mean this only as a high compliment. The younger girls here are airbrushed to near Maxim levels as part of Umbrella-Disney Corps continued process of filling in the Uncanny Valley with a billion CGI-make-up smoothings.

Despite wildly uneven, even cheap CGI and a dim grungy look (CGI is always easier when you don't have to worry about shadows or contrast), I give Afterlife high marks because it seems at times made by a John Carpenter fan, with a solid stretch of the action--from Alice's crashy rooftop landing onwards; low-key, naturalistic acting with Ali Larter, Boris Kodjoe, and Kacey Clarke to the from the ominous simplicity of some parts of the score to the idea of trying to escape from both a prison and a city rolled into one place: San Francisco. At one point I swear I could hear Kurt Russell hissing "Maggie, he's deadcome on."

BY NOW, 2010, the 'under siege' zombie narrative, with a ragtag dwindling group of survivors dealing with an external threat, was an inescapable cliche within the genre of horror, with the ultimate deadly serious and self-important Walking Dead series being the official last nail in the empty coffin. The arc of banding together with fellow survivors after the apocalypse is comforting to fantasy-retreated loners, of course, the types who watch these films over and over, and if Anderson doesn't quite get to the deadpan layered satirics of Verhoeven's Starship Troopers or basic rules of film (as opposed to PlayStation) at least he's really run with the whole insidious corporation angle until it hums almost meta. If you think I'm off the mark here, see if you can get a few minutes into Ultraviolet and Afterlife will seem like Citizen Kane.

Resident Evil - Retribution 
(2012) ***1/2
As with all the installments, RETRIBUTION continues immediately where it left off from the first, backwards in slow motion across the under-attack aircraft carrier until Alice wakes up from falling overboard and into a suburban idyll mirroring the one at the start of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. Herein Alice is married to Oded Ferhr and they have a deaf child who Milla must hide from the invading undead--seemingly on a loop--until she slowly realizes it's all part of a weird sprawling simulation-lab underwater lair. Explaining too much of the plot loosens it's 'anything can happen in billionaire corporate black box research, cos' vibe so I'll say no more except to recommend you see it with headphones blaring, at night with the lights off, on a big home screen, without your judgmental friends or lovers around, who are bound to snicker at the terrible video game upgrade exposition ("your mission: collect all the pink circles and escape to the surface--good luck!").

The story line manages the return of all Alice's allies and other avatars from past films: Sienna Guillory, Michelle Rodriguez and the always vaguely familiar Boris Kodjoe, not to mention the bad guy from the previous film is now on Alice's side and sends super spy Ada Wong (Binging Li) to her rescue. There are new monsters and old and I appreciate that Anderson has the good taste to make the simulations real, rather than just some Matrix or Sucker Punch bit of nullification and as with the third the idea of all the dead Alices from past 'simulations' adds an eerie metatextual edge, positing the viewer as just as much the evil Umbrella, bringing suffering Alice avatars into the world (3 for a quarter?) to vent your pent-up teen angst through. Milla seems game for these new roles within roles, though I'm not crazy about the leather bustle. Is Anderson abusing her like Welles did Hayworth for some imagined transgression? It just doesn't look comfortable, or particularly practical unless, like the western gunfighters did, you use belt holsters.

A bit like the Beckinsale-Wiseman Underworld series, there's a sense that the married director-star filmmakers are like hey, whatever we do the critics are gonna hate it but the fans are gonna see it over and over - so let's please the fans, layer it with detail only multiple viewings will bring out, and not worry about pleasing the bored second stringer critics, already resentful they had to see this Friday afternoon in the multiplex (as I had to) instead of in a press screening (which films like this never give, smartly).

Thus it is perhaps that filmmakers like W.S. Anderson, who began as tired hacks with a formulaic video game-based franchise, become, in a sense, slowly improved, along with the digital technology they use, through a decade of experience, benefitting from the rare opportunity of getting to work again and again with their same people, needing to find new things to do to keep their fanbase intere$ted. And I love that the big final battle is almost all women on both sides, and yet it never feels like some sexy catfight but a genuine dangerous showdown. Keep up the good work, ladies!

Milla's done other stuff, some of which I've written about:

The Fourth Kind (2009)
Milla gets to make grave diagnoses.... Resident Evil's Alice has filled her with holy power so she can say, "Something is going on, there's something strange going on in Nome" and have it ring with menace, or "conversion phenomena is something not a lot of people understand," implying she does! She understands less as time goes on, but is still miles ahead of the spooked and reactionary sheriff... or is she? A tense stand-off and a violent knife murder seemed shuffled in to keep you from nodding off and Milla's blamed for everything! Milla's haunted eyes are beautifully lit, so we can contemplate her hybrid status as we go along, and realize yes, Virginia, aliens are among us, and some of them are very, very adorable." (full piece here)

A Perfect Getaway (2009)
I loved PERFECT GETAWAY, but my expectations were rock bottom as I think I was confusing it with reviews I'd read of TURISTAS! (more)

Faces in the Crowd (2011)
Milla witnesses a murder from the infamous 'melancholy slasher,' gets knocked out, and wakes up with face blindness; her husband is soon being played by an array of different actors, changing with each shot; her clique of cool girl friends don't change much (and one of them,Valentina Vargas, steals all her scenes as a lady so badass she says of one night stands: "when you wake up and don't know for a minute where you are or who is sleeping next to you - I live for that!") but half the time Milla doesn't even see herself in the mirror, and when you're as hot as Milla that's tragic, but even scarier is that if the murderer came into her house and said he was her husband she wouldn't even know he wasn't. And Milla expertly evokes that horror, showing the end result of a life in films that has not been joyous. She's fought and dealt with horrors for quite awhile. She's scrappy, but by now hasn't she paid her dues? Dear God, please give your favorite avatar a nice warm rom-com break, and a chance at another album.

And if you do nod lissen... den to hell mit you!

1 comment:

  1. I think you may be a tad harsh on ULTRAVIOLET. Sure the plot and dialogue are dumb as dirt, but it all almost works a silent movie. Just turn down the volume or, better yet, put on the music of your choice and enjoy the mayhem. Love how the action sequences are orchestrated. Hell, Milla rides up the side of a skyscraper on a motorcycle fer crissakes! How you can not enjoy the audacity of that?


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