Sunday, October 25, 2020

Daddy's Home: ON THE ROCKS

Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks could be called a sitcom farce if it had some more pep in its step. As it is, it’s slow-drip farce, a low-key look at a middle-aged married woman with doubts (Rashida Jones) and her rascally womanizing father (Bill Murray) who flies into town and encourages her doubts in order to spend time with her. It’s sweet, sad, and sentimental as the two of them tool around New York City trying to figure out if her husband (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her. Like a minor B-side to Coppola’s great father/daughter picture Somewhere—where there a womanizing movie star father is slowly, potentially, pulled out of his ennui by taking care of his daughter for a while—this new movie finds the push-and-pull of a warm but contentious familial relationship a source of strength and consternation. Coppola is such an astute observer of human behavior, and finds a dreamy specificity in her pin-prick precise production design, so perfectly right it looks tossed off and casual. Because of this, her airy and breezy approach to a situational comedy of this sort looks easy. It has the cheery rhythms of repartee at half speed, a lived-in prickly warmth between a charmingly disappointing —or disappointingly charming—father and his slightly stressed daughter, whose insecurities surely must come, in part, from her dad’s approach to women. “You can’t live without them,” he says, “but you don’t have to live with them.” He says it not like a punchline, but as a bromide the old fellow has surely dusted off one too many times before. The whole project balances on this sparkling smallness, on subtle turns of phrase and shifts of mood. Here’s a portrait of love, aging, and family that’s sweet and sad. Without pressing down too overtly, it becomes a deceptively light domestic drama hidden just under the quotidian daily routine and dilemmas—drop offs and pick-ups, lunches and dinners, RSVPs and random catch-ups, babysitters and cabs—and the naturally paced development about what lesser hands would escalate to unreal crescendos. Coppola’s a sharp filmmaker, and here finds a generously slight picture of uncomfortably comfortable middle age, its discontents, and its pleasures. No wonder a key recurring image is that of a gifted watch, for the older you get, the more you realize the greatest present you can give someone else is your time.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Earthbound: OVER THE MOON

Over the Moon is just not as good as one would want. Director Glen Keane was the lead animator on such hand-drawn classic characters of the Disney renaissance as Ariel, Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan. His last feature work for the company was designing Rapunzel for Tangled, a project that began its life as a traditionally sketched film and ended up the studio’s first CG princess musical. Of course, now basically no one is making well-financed hand-drawn animated films—even Ghibli is hard at work on some computerized feature—which meant Keane jumping over to Netflix gave some hope that they’d opened their bank vault for a return to form. Alas, it’s not. It’s another painfully generic-looking CG family feature, in which a girl goes to the moon with a few plucky cute sidekicks and meets glowing fantasy beings and a lunar princess and they sing and dance and the colors are nice and, gee, isn’t it sweet that it all resolves the young lady’s emotional issues?

How is it that animation—a fantastical art that, by its very nature can show us literally anything its creators dream up—has calcified into such a restrictive form? It has a limited palate of plot concerns and a shallow tool box of visual tricks. The exception is the top end of the scale, where you have a company like Disney or (their own) Pixar that will still pour hundreds of millions of dollars to innovate technology for light and movement—adding depth and nuance and some personality to their computer animation—and everyone else, for the most part, is trying to chase their style but at much lower cost. It all looks fine, but so similar, sliding off the brain the instant you see it. The top tier can be striking—the inner glows of a character like Moana or the dazzling colors of Coco are something else—but everyone else goes for these plasticine character models and blandly vibrant picture book light and color displays. Even so, anyone not at the top (your UglyDolls, your Scoob!s) is just making stuff where the plots are thinner, the characters simpler, the music chintzier, the emotions easier.

I don’t really mean to take this larger critique of the whole form out on Keane’s directorial debut, which is a totally watchable and pleasantly boring formulaic animated picture. But it’s just the proverbial straw that broke this animation fan's back. (At least Dreamworks Animation’s so-so Trolls World Tour, for all its enervating cliche, still had me saying, wow, look at those textures!) Larger critiques of the state of the modern family animated film aside, I hardly remember this particular picture less than twelve hours later—the characters are stock, the plot is standard, the songs are unmemorable. (I hope that last claim doesn’t come back to bite me.) Despite admirably featuring a cast of Chinese characters, a setting rooted in that tradition, and a cast of that background, the movie itself is nothing we haven’t seen before a gazillion times before. It wore me out.

Friday, October 23, 2020

American Idiot: BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM

The vulgar genius of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, the backwards foreign journalist hailing from a broad stereotype of a third-world country, who first appeared in the early-aughts comedy interview series Da Ali G Show before starring in his own hit film in 2006, is in getting people to expose their subterranean ugliness. His first film found him meandering America, skewering our country’s hypocrites’ morals and mores by revealing all sorts of prejudices. He surgically targeted the obtuse and the unsuspecting, who time and again revealed supreme patience, albeit in their patronizing attitudes toward other countries by, say, believing that a Kazakh would drink water out of a toilet. Still others were all-too eager to nod along with his endless stream of misogyny, anti-Semitism, and eagerly dance as he giddily fiddled with their own xenophobic assumptions confirmed. All that, a deep commitment to a cracked improv character, and an instant-classic comedy catchphrase machine, too? (You can still faintly hear the “My wiiife”s and “high-fiiive”s echoing across the culture.) How lucky we were to have a movie, however uneven, that brought this concoction to us, with elaborate dirty Candid Camera scenarios that escalated to the wildest gags and can-hardly-believe-what-I’m-seeing-or-hearing moments of high-wire tension and explosive laughter. That he did it again, with the less iconic, but no less outrageous Bruno, a flamboyant razor’s-edge confrontation with homophobia, is a feat of gonzo comedy chops. I’m glad he’s out there doing his thing.

Alas, the problem with Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is that Americans don’t have much ugliness hidden anymore. It’s all out in the open. A joke of this surprise sequel is that, no matter how extreme Borat goes, some individual is ready to happily accept him into the fold. Why, even walking into CPAC in a Klan hood gets him a few puzzled looks, but hardly an uproar. We live in a time where stupid political stunts — the faker the better — are the right wing currency, and a social media environment where a lie is a good as the truth and the optics, no matter how strained, are trotted out like actual substance. Truly, the political discourse is as debased as it has ever been. How is Borat to compete? This time around, he’s in disguise as an American most of the time, in a transparently fake fat suit and sloppily pasted jowls and facial hair. He says it’s because he’s too well known, an amusing meta commentary on the dozen years of speculation on how he could possibly follow-up his previous film’s unexpected jolts. His shtick is still funny, but more scattershot, and gains welcome novelty from inventing a new character. This time he’s brought his daughter along. She’s an exuberant match—game actress Maria Bakalova sloshing around a similarly phony accent, and eager to match her father in extreme prejudice, gross-out gags, and preposterous miscommunications. They make quite a pair.

Though the movie as a whole —sloppily photographed and slapped together for an authentic guerrilla style—hangs together less than one would hope, there are a handful of big, cringing laughs to be found here. There’s a squirming sequence in a Crisis Pregnancy Center in which a straight-faced evangelical pastor studiously avoids obvious implications of incest in order to affirm “God’s plan.” (Of course he doesn’t know the “baby inside her” is a tiny plastic cupcake topper.) There’s a debutante ball in which the old men slobber along with Borat’s objectification of the daughters. There’s a dress shop where the owner doubles-over in overly-accommodating laughter when Borat asks for the “no means yes” section. And it culminates in a much-buzzed about sequence in which the daughter gets an interview with Rudy Guliiani that ends in him asking for her phone number as he lays back on a hotel bed with his hand down his pants. For every riotously hilarious stunt, there’s a lot of downtime and setup, or a misfiring disgusting detail. (The joke of a crowd staring in horror at a dress drenched in menstrual blood was beyond me.) And it’s never exactly clear what the film thinks it’s exposing. That a right-wing protest will cheer a racist song about wanting Obama locked up and injected with the flu? Of course they would. So the movie doesn’t have the shock value, or the novelty. But it does have the perversely appealing Borat, whose elaborate burlesque of Otherness and rampant resistance of progressive values finds some strange sweetness at times. He comes by his ignorance honestly, and actually does want to learn and improve himself, however circuitous and perhaps futile the route. It makes the resolutely ignorant of our country look all the worse in comparison. Its final joke is on them.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Start Making Sense: AMERICAN UTOPIA

I could quickly tell that Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s American Utopia is among the greatest of concert films. Plenty capture a performance, record an event, pin down a moment in time for us to return to again and again. When working near the peak of the form, a concert film gives the impression of a night of entertainment with a particular production. Here we have that and more. By the end, I felt I’d seen the show in person myself. It helps that the event itself is a masterwork in which the legendary Talking Heads frontman puts other aging stars’ greatest-hits tours to shame. Here he’s imagined a fully thought-through theatrical experience. The set is simplicity itself: three walls of chains and lights like bead curtains draped around a bare stage. Byrne and his small backing band and dancers are dressed alike: barefoot in well-tailored blue-grey suits. (They look like preachers ready for a baptism, or maybe Moses on Holy Ground.) The instrumentation is guitar-based, eclectic — especially percussion of an impressive variety — and worn on the musicians with marching band-style rigs. They have maximum mobility to leap and dance — moving with a loose-limbed geometric precision to the driving funky pop rhythm, symbolic and surrealist lyrics, and trance-like repetitions filtered through Byrne’s dense kaleidoscopic vector of all world music. They play some hits — “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House” — that you’d recognize from Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (a perfect concert film). They play some obscurities. They play a cover or two. His stage patter is earnest, a little oddball, a little cornball, a smidge political, and that’s just right. It’s held together sonically — the music, though drawn from a multiplicity of Byrne’s projects is played with a consistent groove and beautifully modulated mood — and visually—the simple staging and costuming drawing attention to the community formed on stage and in the theater. The film, joyfully alive, gathers its ecstatic energy there.

For that’s where the production, and Lee’s framing of it, reaches its greatest heights. Lee, who has made good concert films in the past (Freak, The Original Kings of Comedy, Passing Strange), here makes his finest one. His camera is always perfectly placed, never obtrusive even when moving, always capturing flourishes of movement. It’s edited fluidly, never distracting and always enhancing the movement of people and lights on stage. Sometimes we see silhouettes or half-lit visions of the audience bopping along, lost in the moment, feeling the music. They’re totally transported—and so are we. Byrne, as a figure of pop music, has a voice all his own, a distinctive tight lilt that soars in unexpected curlicues or cracks out in driving staccato. His figure—thin, open, somehow clenched and loose in the same moment, almost alien in his movements—is instantly recognizable, even hypnotic. And yet he’s unfailingly generous on stage, paying tribute to his collaborators, holding attention while becoming one of the group, moving in the freedom of precision, isolated but together. Lee captures all of this, seeing the stage as a vessel for all of this great music, great communion with the creative energy of the moment. I found American Utopia to be as close to a religious experience as cinema gets. It’s a great concert captured exceptionally well, that’s true. I was tapping my feet and clasping my hands and bobbing my head and humming along, even all alone in front of my television. But it also has the feeling of a transcendent humanist revival meeting for faith in others, in connection, in imagination, in compassion, in contemplating deep questions, and giving yourself over completely to the power and release of great music. Somehow Lee captures this live experience feeling waves of love from the audience to the stage, from the performers to each other, and everyone in the room to the experience they’ve collectively had together. I felt I’d had it too.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Form a More Perfect Union:
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME

In this precarious moment for our democracy, how refreshing to hear someone speak about our Constitution and mean it. We’ve had our fill of prevaricating mendacious allegiances sworn to this document by those who wish to insincerely view it as an inerrant talismanic source of originalist interpretation, when they see it as a convenient carte blanche ticket to roll back rights. What a breath of fresh air — almost dizzying in its openness and honesty — to hear Heidi Schreck tell us what the Constitution means to her. Director Marielle Heller, whose deeply and sensitively compassionate films like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Can You Ever Forgive Me? are casually radical character pieces interrogating familiar ideas from unusual angles, filmed Schreck’s one-woman show What the Constitution Means to Me. It’s an extension of Heller’s interests in intimate personal stories and the responsibilities we have to one another. Schreck’s theater piece is a work about the successes and failures of the American project, about the patterns of abuse and the potential for progress in the life of her family and the life of our country. The two creative voices work well together, Heller choosing exactly the right camera placement, cuts, pans, and pushes to unobtrusively emphasize and draw the eye, as Schreck’s masterful monologue slips quickly and logically between time and topic, building a persuasive argument that the Constitution, for all the flaws of interpretation and implementation over our history, remains a vital tool for reviving and providing basic rights and the means to add to them.

To do so, she begins by recreating a speech she gave over twenty years prior as a fifteen-year-old entering an American Legion oration contest in pursuit of scholarship money. (The simple set, naturally, is a wood-panelled room with veteran's portraits lining the walls and the stars and stripes framing a simple podium.) The assigned topic was the title of this project. She chipperly inhabits her adolescent self, beaming broadly as she recreates this experience, boundless enthusiasm sliding between earnest and put on, as she cheerfully praises our founding document and its incredible bedrock importance for protecting Americans. Occasionally, she steps out of her past self and talks to us as a middle-aged woman living in 2019. She comments, adds context, extrapolates. Sometimes she discusses Supreme Court decisions or other relevant case law. Other times she talks about her family history, in particular generations of women who pushed against expectations, lived difficult lives, and suffered hard-fought battles for their rights. As she continues, the distance between her youthful enthusiasm and her modern perspective grows—and yet she never loses sight of the potential in the document that is her topic. The show expands—builds arguments, tells stories, even briefly adds other voices (though it remains a one woman show) —and Heller chooses well when to cut away—letting Schreck catch her breath or allow us brief close-ups of audience members as implications or emotions land with them. It’s not all serious business, despite subject matter as intense as the danger of domestic abuse and the very fate of our country, as Shreck’s charming demeanor is learned and casual, breezily funny, whip-smart crackling with research rigor, and always real. It’s a righteous sermon and a dazzling debate, a wrenching personal statement and an earnest call to political engagement. In the end, she’s built her case that our country has a strong foundation, and we not only need to push to expand it, but also vote to keep it.

Don't Tell Mom the Boogeyman's Back:
A BABYSITTER'S GUIDE TO MONSTER HUNTING

Older kids know that becoming a babysitter is a portal to power, an important first step into a larger world. So of course it only makes sense that there could be a secret order of babysitters sworn to secrecy and pledged to protect their innocent charges from the Boogeyman. That’s the charm of A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, which is imbued with the tween energy of getting some measure of control over your life, while still bound by the duties of being a kid. It stars Artemis Fowl’s Tamara Smart as a plucky math whiz teen who’d rather be at the cool kids’ Halloween party instead of watching her mother’s boss’s son (Ian Ho). Still, it pays well. And mother said she must. So off she goes, gathering the necessary sheets of instructions from the cold, persnickety mother (Tamsen McDonough) — swanning about dressed as an Ice Queen, the irony not lost on our hero — and seeing the kid safely off to bed, despite his hesitations and stories of vivid nightmares. Shame, then, that the Boogeyman (Tom Felton, looking like a glam Tim Burton castoff, or like something out of the classic DCOM Don’t Look Under the Bed) arrives and carries the tot off to a dream-harvesting underworld. This is where our hapless babysitter is introduced to the noble secret monster-hunter cause, by way of a super cool older girl (Oona Laurence). She swoops in a motorized scooter wearing a leather jacket and slick cotton candy hair perfectly coifed. She knows all the tricks, and so the two girls zip around tracking the gently designed beasties that lead the way to the villain’s lair, with stops at a basement laboratory, the aforementioned Halloween party, and the Art Deco home of a silent-film star turned witch (Indya Moore). Scripted by Joe Ballarini from his own children’s book of the same name, the whole thing is fast-paced and cute. It is carried along with gentle buoyancy, adventurous without being overwhelming, and possessed of only the mildest of creep factors. It’s a kids picture and knows it. Director Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl) brings the lively Goosebumps by way of Spy Kids style, with sharp blocking, sparkling fantastical sets, and zippy action. She also coaxes the sweetest, appealing performances out of her young cast, steering hard into their likability, and the bouncy young person’s adventure of it all. It’s an all around charmer.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Birds & Bees Movie:
AMERICAN PIE PRESENTS: GIRLS' RULES
and YES, GOD, YES

Pity the sex comedy, that endangered species, done under by getting caught between a resurgence of puritanism in Hollywood productions, and the free-wheeling permissiveness available on any social media platform. Add to that the increasing disappearance of mid-budget films and the migration of once-proud genres into distended projects for streamers, plus the tricky social climate, and it’s no wonder studios, let alone filmmakers, are more likely to not even bother. Nonetheless, when we get a rare good sex comedy, like 2015’s Magic Mike XXL or 2018’s Blockers, it succeeds with a broad-minded kindness, centering desire and consent without losing the inherent silliness of interpersonal fumblings and foibles. They’re celebrations, not merely objectifications, of this normal aspect of life. No room for the snickering juvenile leering of the old frat house yuckers and locker room droolers like Revenge of the Nerds or Porky’s, films which were cheap, cruel, and exploitative, even back in their own day, and have aged about as well as a raw egg in the summer sun.

That cultural shift is what makes the curiously evergreen American Pie franchise such an oddity. What began as a quaint, comparatively innocent, cringingly raunchy comedy of teen embarrassment back in 1999 begat a long line of sequels and direct-to-video spinoffs that never quite recaptured the strangely naive vulgarity of the original. Here we are, two decades hence, with the ninth: American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules. Unlike the first of the series, which follows a group of senior guys hoping to get some experience before college, this one is about some young ladies. About time there’s a better gender balance here, some might say, if hopelessly inclined to pin their progressive hopes solely on the optics of their lowest-common-denominator entertainment. (I’m thinking of the memorable tweet which jokingly described this tendency thusly: conservatives want to lock up their enemies, while some liberals ask for more women guards.) Regardless, this new Pie bakes up nothing more than another batch of flailing sub-sitcom farce and cringing gross-out gags in this tired franchise. In brightly lit, indifferently staged medium shots, director Mike Elliott (one of Universal’s stable of DTV sequel helmers, having tackled the fourth Scorpion King and second Blue Crush) has characters endlessly discuss who is doing what to whom and who wishes to put what where. It’s an endless torrent of profanity, innuendo, and sexual slang. The movie knows the words, but it never once indicates that it knows the feeling. Here are characters who so mechanically discuss desire that their antics are entirely disconnected from genuine human experience. It then sends them through a gauntlet of extreme humiliations—take the opening, in which a nice girl wedgies herself on the top of a fence, falls into a mud puddle, gets a prophylactic stuck in her throat, and falls out the second story window. It wants to be open-minded enough to focus on female desire, but instead finds non-stop punishment. It doesn't let them off easy. At least that’s par for the course for this execrable franchise.

Much better at putting us in the mind of a young woman is Yes, God, Yes. It’s the directorial debut of Karen Maine, who had a story credit on Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, the 2014 Jenny Slate-starring indie rom-com about a woman falling in love while waiting for an abortion. That movie, so sweetly frank, gently funny, and warmly understanding of its characters, is the better picture, but Maine’s new feature shares some of those same qualities. It stars Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer as a student at a Catholic high school. Her stirrings of desire rub up against her upbringing’s expectations. Set in 2001, it’s a story of AOL chats and Titanic on VHS, of whispered rumors among friends and faculty, and a casually stern priest (Timothy Simons) policing the boundaries of expected behavior. Most of the film takes place at a four-day retreat sponsored by her school. There she finds herself lost—feeling alone even in the group, since others are admitting their struggles and sadness and she can’t quite bring herself to admit the feelings with which she’s wrestling. Take an early scene in which the handsome senior football player (Wolfgang Novogratz) greets the group. The camera cuts in tight on his hairy, muscular forearms. Then it cuts back to Dyer, as her eyes flit and stare. An apt period-appropriate pop song pounds onto the soundtrack: “Genie in a Bottle.” It’s clever. The movie admirably sticks to her viewpoint, and the film is quiet and soft, even a little slow, even if some scenes seem to end abruptly. It never quite reaches a good climax. And I wanted more follow through on some character beats. But the sense of space and place is sensitive and its keen understanding of the lead’s alienation and inner conflicts is tender. Would that that grace be extended to some of the supporting characters, who are either casually complicated, or tossed aside for a point. Compared to something similar like the great Miseducation of Cameron Post, and its warm understanding for even its antagonists, this small, slightly more comedic take can’t compete. For how well it knows Dyer's character, it loses nuance around the side characters. Worst is a wise old biker who actually speaks the words “You should check out colleges on the east and west coast” as advice, as if our main character’s dilemmas are uniquely midwestern. So it could be a better movie, but its commitment to close-up portraiture of a particular experience is admirable.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Bloodsuckers: VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX

Finally, a vampire movie that knows Dracula is a novel about real estate. In Vampires vs. the Bronx, a compact little teen-friendly horror movie from sitcom alum Oz Rodriguez, vampires are real and they’re gentrifiers. As a trio of young teens bike around drumming up support for a block party to save their local bodega, dark-suited investors swoop in to buy out local buildings at top dollar. If the proprietors promptly go missing, well, that’s just a sad coincidence. Besides, maybe they’ve just up and gotten themselves absorbed into the suburbs. The film has a scrappy underdog appeal, as the kids are hardly believed, and thus must sneak around and gather evidence or, if comes to worst, fight off the evil themselves. The central trio is well cast and appealing, with Jaden Michael (Wonderstruck), Gerald Jones III, and Gregory Diaz IV playing both believable blustering bravado and in-over-their-heads young-as-their-years sympathy. They have a sense of righteous indignation to save their neighborhood, whether it be from bloodsuckers of an economic or literal sense. They’re surrounded by a cast of memorable faces—a little bit Do the Right Thing in its panoramic portrait of a neighborhood’s regulars filled out with authentic unknowns and well-chosen recognizable performers like Zoe Saldana, Method Man, and Chris Redd. But, like Joe Cornish’s terrific public-housing vs. space-invaders picture Attack the Block, the political point in this movie is wedded to a style of pure genre, lightness and heaviness held in fine proportion. The movie is a low-key charmer, and an exercise in unfussy tropes and tricks. The thing just plain works. The sleek scope frame pulsing with the rack focus and deep shadows, the crackling lights, squirmy effects, and slick asphalt play up the very real danger of the supernatural forces swirling in business suits. As villains, Sarah Gadon and Shea Whigham are two perfectly pale character performances, blonde and white and gliding, sticking out but without raising suspicions in this neighborhood as they play like one kind of villain to hide the deeper, darker evil they really are. After all, the locals are already plenty suspicious without having to add the vampiric truth. When one of the boys tries to warn his mom away from taking a meeting at the developers’ office, shouting that he’s a bad man, she wryly replies: “Of course he is; he’s in real estate.”

Sunday, October 4, 2020

This is the End: DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD

In Dick Johnson is Dead, cinematographer/documentarian Kirsten Johnson, whose 2016 cine-memoir Cameraperson is one of the great modern masterpieces of the form, confronts inevitable age old old age questions. What does it mean to lose a parent? And what does it mean to die? She does this with charm and high spirits in a cleverly experimental, yet tenderly, achingly personal way, by casting her own octogenarian father to star in fatal tableaux: sprawled at the foot of the stairs, bleeding against a mailbox, thumped on the head by a falling widow-unit air conditioner. It’s a film about its own making, reflexive with scenes of makeup artists, stunt men, boom mikes, and more moving the necessary pieces into place. It’s also a film of home movies, scenes of Johnson, her father, and her children vacationing, baking cake, playing games, and singing songs. Stitching the two together is a patchwork of memories shared and memories made. She moves him across the country, takes him to the doctor, or to visit an old crush. Along the way, they confront mortality in the way we often do when speaking to beloved family members of a certain age: glancingly, carefully, aware of the deep wells of fear and finality that can be summoned up by staring too long into the lonely abyss. Alas, as Elizabeth Bishop reminded us, many things seem filled with the intent to be lost.

She grants her father immortality the only way she can: through her art. He comes alive in this film, an interesting and charming man doting and delighting while his faculties slip and fade. Captured on film thusly, he’s always there to be remembered. And yet her best moment of grace as a filmmaker, and as a daughter, come in the film’s most fanciful moments—some of pure spirituality and whimsy, and the last a deeply moving privilege. She casts him in heavenly moments—sequences of ecstatic afterlife shot in color and slow-mo, in fantasies of restoration, reconnection, and resurrection. Dancers wear over their heads large cut-out-style black-and-white photos of his idols, or dearly departed ones. Confetti falls. How grand to imagine a moment of pure ecstasy that surmounts the pain, the fear, the loss. And how moving, then, to end the movie by staging a funeral, one he can watch from the back door, like he’s Tom Sawyer seeing how deeply he is loved, and how kindly people will remember him when he’s gone. The final moments of the movie reach beyond the film’s warmly nervous conceit and surreal touches into this deep well of simple human beauty. Such a gift.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Other People: THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME

Hell is, as Sartre tells us, other people, and that’s certainly the source of evil in Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time. Here’s a litany of human ugliness and violence consistently inflicted on and by a couple families over the course of a couple decades in small-town backwoods Appalachia in the middle of the last century. It’s just about as far north as you can take a Southern Gothic tale—the eccentric misery without the humid atmosphere. Based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who also narrates in a nice honeyed tone that gives a layer of slightly wry literary gravitas to the dark goings-on, the film contains murders, suicides, poverty, con men, serial killers, animal cruelty, trauma, and madness, all drenched in a self-righteous pseudo-religiosity that’s the cause of and solution to their problems. Campos, whose films like his previous Christine or early breakout Afterschool have similar interests in violence and mental unravellings of one sort or another, treats the procession of this narrative with a grave seriousness. He regards his characters with the squirm-inducing attention to their terrible fates that one associates with a butterfly pinned in a display case. Lol Crawley’s elegantly textured cinematography, all blasts of sun and evocative shadow in a CinemaScope-sized frame, gives a tony prestige to the images, even and especially as the nastiness accrues. The cast is uniformly haunted: wide stares, pale skin, curling lips chewing over every gnarled line with pulpy accent work. There’s a WWII vet (Bill Skarsgård) scarred by his experiences and trying to start a family with a nice lady (Haley Bennett). There’s a creepy photographer (Jason Clarke) and his wife (Riley Keough). There are two different slimy preachers (Harry Melling and, later, Robert Pattinson). There’s a cop (Sebastian Stan), a devout young woman (Mia Wasikowska), and a couple of troubled orphans (Tom Holland and Eliza Scanlen). These lives collide in mostly tragic ways over the course of two plus hours, gaining a dreary monotony as each new sequence becomes a waiting game to see which character will exit the murdered and which will walk out the murderer. Either way, blood will be spilled. Few of the human characters walk out alive, and even a few of the animals end up strung up. In the end, it becomes a slog of fine filmmaking put toward a simple idea repetitively asserted: if hell is other people, then the devils are among us.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Choice: NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS

Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a great political film because it’s only personal. It’s a character study that uses that lens to be about inequalities and oppression, about casual sexism and the grinding impoverishment of our young and vulnerable. The film sits squarely on the shoulders of a troubled teenager (Sidney Flanigan) who is 17 and pregnant. She hasn’t been for long. She doesn’t want to be. She shouldn’t be. We don’t know how it happened, but it’s clear it shouldn’t go on. She hasn’t the resources. She hasn’t the support. And yet there’s no way for her to get a medical procedure that’d enable her to move on with her life. Shot with a quotidian beauty and realist patience, Hittman, whose previous films like Beach Rats and It Felt Like Love similarly carried a tremulous sense of marginalized lives and quiet desperation, here makes her greatest film. It’s a patient, impeccably attuned character study that simply regards its main character’s plight. The girl recruits a friend (Talia Ryder) to accompany her on a savings-draining trip across state lines, out of Pennsylvania and into New York in search of the closest clinic that’ll help her without a parent’s signature. The two young women hang out, talk softly, wander aimlessly, and navigate red tape. At one point, loitering in the train station while they await an early morning appointment, they’re joined by a slightly older young man (Théodore Pellerin) who tries to befriend them, hangs out with them, shows them around a few blocks, and all the while has no idea the deep burden that is their purpose. He’s carefree in ways they never could be.

Hittman’s wise, soulful film is perched precisely on sensitive emotional pressure points, with the pretty dancing grain of its cinematography and the editing’s graceful pacing full of pregnant pauses that leverage the unspoken for great power. Hittman’s screenplay, exquisitely realized, is all about the spaces between the lines, the glances between the friends, the long, freighted tension around a family table, or in every softly spoken question from a social worker (Kelly Chapman) who sits off screen for the film’s centerpiece of patiently drawn emotional revelations. There the girl is quietly walked through an intake form that screens for abuse and neglect—a scene that sits square in close-up as she’s steadily, then unsteadily, then cautiously, then carefully, and so on, answers the questions one after another. It goes on and on and on, peeling layers and growing scar tissue in a sensitive cycle. Her face speaks more than her voice, a whole life backstory unraveling in subtext and dropped eye contact and subtle dancing tears. It’s a powerhouse, all the more effective for not going for melodrama or messaging. It’s a deeply moral vision of the consequences of blind right-wing sloganeering, emphatically empathetic as we stare into the face of one whose life choices have been made far more difficult than they should be. This is a powerful and humane expression of the value of a young woman’s life and decisions, and the casual callousness it takes to deny her what should be immutable.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Haley's On It: HEARTS BEAT LOUD, ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, and ALL TOGETHER NOW

Brett Haley films are nice. Not naive. Not simplistic. But kind and gentle in ways that demonstrate maturity and perspective. He’s a fine director of actors. He gets warm, humane performances that are generous, honest, and flushed with the charm of well-observed moments. Lately he’s had sitcom stars — Nick Offerman, Justina Machado, Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Armisen — and rising young thespians — Kiersey Clemons, Sasha Lane, Elle Fanning, Auli’i Cravalho — in the most tender, quiet, open-hearted, dewey-eyed star turns. They’re given the space to do the kind of deeply, casually felt character work in which these familiar faces don’t disappear into their roles, but inhabit them, drawing out a life by playing it uncomplicatedly and imbuing it with inner light. If these films—sweet YA adaptations, or just leaning into the tropes for structure’s sake—drift slightly into formula on the plot level, there’s something too honest about the performances to ring false. Like the acoustic indie pop all over the soundtracks, these films breathe with a feeling of comforting style, while textured enough to tease out rougher edges. These are the movies the post-Fault in their Stars teen dramas wanted to be, but so rarely were.

I first discovered his work with 2018’s Hearts Beat Loud, a story of a single father (Offerman) and his teenage daughter (Clemons) who bond over making music during her last summer before college. It sings with its simply dramatized scenes of characters’ connections, a give and take dynamic that’s pure and earnest, and builds with all the prickliness of these specific people. It builds to a moment of ecstatic musical release, and then a well-earned quiet, resigned, wistful denouement. The songs by Keegan DeWitt are wonderful, not too good that they’re unbelievable, but good enough to buy them as earning a small-scale local buzz. And the movie is low-key inhabited by a wise sense of parental perspective, willing to get caught up in a new project, but all-too aware of the looming empty nest. It’s a movie about conversations, softly played and sensitively staged, as characters try to bolster relationships. There are criss-crossing subplots made up of the characters' ensemble of friends and connections (this supplies a bounty of character actors in supporting roles), but the focus is so keenly on the leads and this one liminal moment in a perfectly aimless summer. It builds into a lovely little portrait of a space and moment in these people’s lives—a sense carried over into Haley’s two straight-to-Netflix films of 2020.

First up was All the Bright Places, a serious-minded teen relationship picture that finds a suicidal girl (Fanning) and a bipolar boy (Justice Smith) drawn into a tentative romance. They meet on the edge. And maybe, just maybe, they can pull each other back. Without steering into the gloopy sentiment—which could easily have turned the tricky subject matter dangerous—the movie posits the teens’ connection as both a saving grace, and a suspenseful pause. Fanning, especially, sells the carefully hidden raw-nerve of an image-conscious teen’s struggle to hide her anguish. The whole school knows her older sister died last year. It’s weird when it’s acknowledged outright, but weird to ignore it, too. Her parents (Luke Wilson and Kelli O’Hara) are only so much help. They’re grieving, too, after all. Maybe a sympathetic ear is all she needs. Yet the boy, too, needs more psychological help than a teen romance can provide. The movie is surface soft, but willing to touch the true discomfort of real adolescent trauma. And it’s willing to admit, in ways the John Green copycats weren’t always able, that True Teenage Love is not a syrupy panacea for whatever ailment is crafted into a narrative hook. It instead invests in conversations between teens, parents, teachers, and different combinations thereof, finding unexpected emotional honesty far more appealing than loud cliche.

Even better in that regard is All Together Now, in which there’s no teen romance to speak of. Our lead (Cravalho) simply has no time for that. She’s a hard-working high schooler with her heart set on a college application. She holds down multiple jobs and barely has time to say hello to her mother (Machado) before falling asleep. They’re barely making ends meet, so she has to contribute to the household income. Or rather, the fund for a household, since they are currently experiencing homelessness. Her mother is, luckily, a part-time school bus driver, so they can sneak into her empty one and catch a few hours of sleep each night before her early-morning shifts. This sort of quiet desperation, in which the girl is forced to slap on a happy face and stay busy-busy-busy because she wants to keep up appearances though she has nowhere to go, is charted as a quickly sketched process. We see the logic of her day, step by step. Here’s where she can casually borrow a shower, or part of a lunch. Here’s where she can stash her stuff for a few hours. Here’s where she can rest for a moment without gathering suspicion. It’s difficult enough being a high schooler, juggling friends, hobbies, jobs. Now add the emotional weight of her situation, the pins-and-needles precariousness of their plight. So when kind friends bolster her desire to audition for a performing arts college — what, you thought the star of Moana wouldn’t get a fine original song to perform here? — it’s nice, and we want her to succeed. But the movie isn’t about a pat happy ending. It finds moments of emotional catharsis, and a few big isn’t-it-pretty-to-think lucky breaks by the end, but leaves its final outcome tantalizingly open-ended. Its heart is in the painful connection between a struggling mother and daughter, whose tensions are based in poverty and constrained choices, whose words wound even and especially when love is at its toughest and most raw. Machado and Cavalho’s scenes together crackle with the immediacy of their present-tense crises while carrying unspoken years of baggage underneath every line. So even when a crusty old lady (Carol Burnett) lets her heart melt a smidgen or a drama teacher (Armisen) lends a kind hand or a friend offers a brief respite, there’s a sense that there’s no easy turnkey to solve this poor girl’s deepest dilemmas. It’s moving in what’s becoming the typical Haley way: drawing open emotional honesty out of stories lesser hands would’ve played for predictable surfaces and sentimentality.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Last Call: I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS

Charlie Kaufman’s exhilarating and exasperating I’m Thinking of Ending Things begins with a sustained sequence of skin-crawling social discomfort, and it only gets worse from there. It’s a brilliant nightmare. The film conjures a psychologically claustrophobic vice grip and proceeds to send it in twists, twists, twists. With each moment it tightens, almost unendurably, as the tension grows. The emotions are hyper-focused, but the details start slipping. At first it’s two people in a car, a long snowy trip. She (Jessie Buckley) tells us in voice over that she’s thinking of ending things. Not a great start. He (Jesse Plemons) is her boyfriend. They’re driving to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their far-off farmhouse. It’ll be her first time. So that is understandably tense. It’s worse when they get there—right at sunset, eerily quiet, snow threatening to turn into a blizzard, animals dead by the barn. Life’s hard on a farm, he says. Then there are the parents: awkward, nervous, needling, full of ticks, both over-accommodating and passive aggressive. It’s all a bit much. And this is before the young woman’s name starts casually changing, and then everyone seems much older all of a sudden, and how much time has passed? And wait, wasn’t she a poet? Or a painter? Or is that a physicist or gerontologist or cinephile? The longer we stay in this house, the cuts grow disjunction between details—a dog here, then there, then…where? Does it seem that the living room is also a hospital room, at the same time? Lukaz Zal’s chilly camerawork and Robert Frazen’s sharp editing are hyper-focused on Molly Hughes’ precise production design — every kitschy prop placed just so — but slips, elides. It’s like one of those nightmares where you’re in a familiar place that’s simultaneously unfamiliar.

It makes perfect sense, except when it doesn’t. It’s strange, except when it isn’t. In typical Kaufman fashion — screenwriter of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s clever reality-bending wiliness, and writer-director of the dizzyingly existential Synecdoche, New York — the film is a construct meant to jolt us into contemplation, making its rabbit-hole philosophical rumination vivid, tactile. The longer it goes on, the more we realize we’re trapped with these people, straining to figure them out, squinting to reconcile the slow drip of strange details, stylistic flourishes, strange in-jokes, dazzling monologues, creepy Lynchian asides, long dark roads to nowhere, Oklahoma!, Pauline Kael, horror movies, snow tires, milkshakes, A Beautiful Mind, David Foster Wallace, a shuffling janitor, rapidly aging parents, mental slippage, enervating couples’ arguments, stilted silences, and an animated pig. In the end it’s about the inevitability of age, decay, and death, the uncertainty of life, the strange dysfunctions we pass on to those around us, and the sad slow process of realizing we can’t ever really know anyone. The road there is obsessively detailed, the plot at once baroque and skeletal, the performances ice-pick perfect and tightrope dazzling, while the emotions get razored into the fabric of reality itself, leaving all frayed. And somehow the whole thing is both intuitive and inscrutable. In other words, it’s a Charlie Kaufman picture.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Closing Time: BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS

The party’s over in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The bar is closing down, reaching the end of the road, a dead end. By the end of the film, it’s clear so has its patrons’ lifestyle, and maybe something essential about the country, too. The film is a slice-of-life, set in the last day of a tiny dive tucked in a strip mall away from the glitz of the Las Vegas strip. Never has the term hangout movie been more appropriate. We start early in the morning, with one particular regular (Michael Martin) being awoken from last night’s stupor. He’s chummy with the owner, and proud that, though he’s an alcoholic, he “ruined [his] life before” he started drinking. He didn’t fail because he drinks; if that was the case, he says, that’d be sad. Instead he’s pleasantly buzzed, kind and gently irascible, prone to melancholy or fleeting irritation, sometimes drinking, sometimes reading, sometimes chatting, sometimes decorating for the closing festivities. As other regulars shuffle in throughout the day, the place fills with bar talk, and the film is chockablock with overheard conversations, characterizations painted with a flash of an exchange, backstories implied with a heavy glance or a twinkle in the eye. Directors Bill and Turner Ross, longtime cult-favorite documentarians of artfully edited verite and bewitching moods, have here created an enveloping experience, drawing on their nonfiction skills. Their earlier works turn observed events into swooning evocations of moments, an elevated fly-on-the-wall through soulful aesthetics. Here their specificity and artful eye is turned on a staged scenario. The patrons’ are recruited improvisers — some professional, some not — and the situation invented, but the conversations and behavior that follows is all observed. Eventually, drunken confessions and stumbling silliness accrues. There’s casual amusement here, of the people-watching, eavesdropping sort. And there’s great sadness too, of wasted potential, and soggy regrets.

It’s alive with the bustling energy of bar conversations, woozily dipping between delight and despair, and lingering on distinctive faces while the soundtrack clutters the talking with snatches of whatever is on the TV or jukebox at the time. The lively barfly energy mingles with a sense of inevitable finality. The carousing and philosophizing springs from similar sources of boozy doom. It adds up to a melancholic portrait of a particular stripe of struggling working class people. The characters—and, oh, are they characters— are veterans, factory workers, waitresses, plus stoner teens in the back alley and some old people inside who used to be them. There’s some talk of politics — this is set in 2016, after all — and generational strife. A couple guys in their late-20s or early-30s are making hay of boomer failures, expressing profound sadness that they’re coming in at the end of something, that the older folks have squandered potential and ruined it for the rest of us. But mainly there’s a sadness of a small, imperfect community passing away. There's little room for a business so small, no matter how much it means to the people there. What is lost when we can’t afford simple human contact? (Boy, is this movie timely.) Making community, making connections, doesn’t turn a profit. Here, everybody, as the Cheers theme goes, knows your name. They care. They know each other, or think they do. (Do they, really?) They recognize each another, and see themselves reflected in one another. But in the end, the morning rises on the next dawn and the bar will close its doors for good. The movie’s sadness extends not just to what’s lost, but what’s never been possible. Was this place and the community it made ultimately worthwhile? Was it an enabler? Both, I guess. We’re family, the drunks admiringly say, though some push back on that, including Martin who says, “I am someone you hang out with at the bar. I am not your family.” The party is over. In the harsh light of day, what’s left? As the song goes, “Is that all there is?”

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Time Keeps on Slippin': BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC

For all the ways Bill and Ted, they of the Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey, are like so many comedy film duos, there’s something singular about them, too. These SoCal teenage friends act like stoners but never toke, surfers but live inland, bros but never get nasty.  For all their dim-bulb energy, they’re surprisingly shrewd when they need to be. For all their slacker energy, they nonetheless can commit themselves to a big goal and see it through to the end. (Maybe that’s what being told you’re destined to save the world will get you.) Sure, they’re dopey, but they’re lovably dopey. After all, it’s not just any pair of best buddies who could’ve traveled through time for a history project or visited heaven and hell while joshing with death and take it in such stride. Their two blissfully silly movies from the late-80s and early-90s were carried along entirely on their goofball sci-fi charms, shaggy low-stakes treatment of space-time fatalism, and, above all else, that unrepeatable fortuitous chemistry from writing two amiably idiosyncratic characters and finding the exact right pair of actors to bring them to life. So even though Bill & Ted Face the Music is easily the least of the now trilogy of comedies starring those guys, it’s still capable of capturing some of their low-key cleverness and aw-shucks capitulation to whatever fate has in store for them. Destiny, after all, is always easier with a best pal along for support. Everyone involved is having a good time.

And so it is that when Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter step back into the roles for the third time, after three decades away, it feels like a pleasant reunion. Sure, they’re older, but you understand they’re basically the same people. Turns out they had some minor success with their rock band Wyld Stallyns, but have stalled out, now playing family weddings and open mic nights. It’s not clear how they have enough to support themselves, let alone their wives and kids. But they still love each other’s company and have each other’s back. Good thing, too, since yet another futuristic visitor (this time Kristen Schaal, playing the daughter of George Carlin’s character from the original) shows up and asks for their help saving the universe by playing one killer song. Only problem: they haven’t written it yet. This leads them hither and yon through some wispily sketched time travel ideas where they encounter various versions of their future selves while attempting to hop to a time in which they’ve already written the song. Director Dean Parisot and returning screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon have a good enough time goofing around with the idea. And the actors are still so winning as the leads that it’s hard to dislike the movie. Yet its best idea is giving the guys grown daughters (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine), who are pitch-perfect young-woman versions of the eponymous duo. They have the same charming chemistry and earnestly dewey dopiness. I almost wish the balance of the film was flipped, giving them more screen time and making their subplot — a jaunt through time to collect the Greatest Musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, and Mozart, for their dads’ band — the main attraction. How rare to do a Next Generation of a beloved cult comedy team and have it work so well, even if the film around it is a bit thin.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Now Streaming: HENRY GAMBLE'S BIRTHDAY PARTY and PRINCESS CYD

Now on Criterion Channel you can stream three films from one of America's finest working indie filmmakers. Chicago-based writer-director Stephen Cone draws intimate interpersonal dramas of our modern moment with the quiet specificity of people gently talking around big problems, perhaps broaching the subject with sensitivity or letting it steadily simmer unsaid. He tracks the subterranean desires of his characters, letting his performers surface them in flashes, or letting others go spelunking for them. These are wordy movies, flush with literate dialogue and studied silences, but they never feel less than real. Here's a filmmaker going for earnestness instead of cynicism, who understands his characters rather than cajoles them, who finds Big Ideas in Small Moments, casually, humanely, deeply felt. If you've missed out on his work thus far, it's high time to get caught up.

About his 2016 feature Henry Gamble's Birthday Party, a film set at a closeted Christian teen's eponymous gathering, I wrote:

Cone maps out the relationships amongst the characters with low-key Altman-esque flair...There’s some talk about politics and religion, fleeting and glancing references to sex, but it bubbles naturally out of softly coded conversations. Whether a closeted gay kid quietly wrestling with a crush, a student at a Christian college struggling with feelings of spiritual lapse, a middle-aged woman torn about the state of society (“You aren’t going Democrat on us, are you?”), or a mother softly nursing a strained marriage, these are real people subtly feeling out those around them, looking for likeminded compatriots. They just want someone to understand them, to connect with them without judgment. Cone treats cultural tensions and pressures as simply normal, and the tincture of gentle melodrama simmering underneath is humane.
His 2017 film Princess Cyd was one of my Top Ten of that year. I wrote:

Cone...crafts an intimate, sensitive dual portrait of these women [a teenager and her novelist aunt] as they enter into a dialogue, both spoken and unspoken, with each other over the course of their weeks together. His screenplay marries an open and engaged discourse – the sort of flowing, beautifully ordinary and rigorously intelligent language of a fine playwright – with a soft and supple eye for detail – the kind of attuned observation you’d find in the most perceptive and subtle of short stories. There’s a sense that these are real people in a film that never stoops to reduce them to easily digestible didactic drama...Cone holds this tension in the screenplay’s deft turns and in cinematographer Zoe White’s frames of sunny beauty, catching with deliberate off-handedness the features of their faces, bodies, clothes, neighborhood, friends and interests. There’s a touch of Rohmer in this beautifully contained, yet rich and full, meeting, of small ordinary shifts in perception, subtle moves between individuals pushing and pulling, closing gaps of empathy and opening new wounds. This is a movie so humane it’s full to the brim with compassion for its characters. It realizes a person is a work in progress, and watches lovingly as two very different women are changed in some small measure by their encounter with the other.

In re-reading my reviews, I find I was drawn to compare him to both Altman and Rohmer. Maybe add Demme to the list. He's an inheritor of the tradition of auteurs drawn to precisely detailed characterizations in films that flow as naturally as conversation. He's interested in who these people are, not only what his plots can tell us. He's interested in patiently drawn out scenes, not to showboat, but to study, empathize and emphasize. And he's generously able to let his cast inhabit the particulars with comfortable ease. The results are well worth discovering.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Songland: THE HIGH NOTE

The High Note is a fluffily charming movie that wraps you up in the warm pleasures of its plotting, with exactly the right proportion of predictable to surprising that keeps you interested. It’s two showbiz dramas in one — with an aspiring record producer (Dakota Johnson) trying to get a step up while she’s working as personal assistant to a singer (Tracee Ellis Ross) whose star might be on the decline if she doesn’t try something new soon. Then the whole thing is wrapped up in the embrace of a PG-rated vision of the industry, a showbiz fantasy with sparkling talents and pearly teeth, sweet coincidences, fabulous architecture, and, yes, as Aretha Franklin might say, great gowns. It’s the sort of movie where all the struggling assistant needs is the right sympathetic ear and the right moment — and where her thankless low-paying job still keeps her comfortable in a nice apartment. Besides, the star she’s working for is awfully gentle for a demanding celebrity. She has occasional barbs, but theirs is often a prickly friendship at worst. Even her manger (Ice Cube) is too warm to be threatening, even when he glowers at the young woman to stay in her lane when she criticizes a bigwig producer in the recording studio, overstepping her job title. It’s a comfortable drama, enough to invest in without worrying overmuch it’ll swerve into real pain. It’s a movie where the misunderstandings and disagreements feel just real enough to matter, and just light enough that they’ll melt away at the right moments.

It works because the screenplay by Flora Greeson is cozily built out of its mirrored showbiz tales—fading star meets rising talent, and maybe they can both help each other—and then further draws in elements of family dramas—that the leads are talented second-generation stars adds some extra-textual frisson—and romance while keeping things amusing and heartfelt. The younger woman starts falling for a sweet young singer-songwriter (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), with whom she has a Meet Cute discussion about The O.C.’s theme song. It’s one of those sequences so perfectly, simultaneously fresh and cliche that it’s worth a little swoon as the charming grins spring up on the actors’ faces. And the cast is the ultimate reason why the film works. One could imagine all sorts of lesser talents letting the movie potentially get bogged down in its plotty particulars. Instead, Johnson dances across each line reading with her voice flitting across the dialogue, deftly drawing out insecurities and flirtations, talents and frustrations. She moves with casual caution, wanting to do a good job, but also trying to lean in and get a leg up. Ross, too, is strong. She swaggers with a fine balance of down-to-earth and head-in-the-clouds, passionate about her career, but frustrated by limitations she’s feeling. Not the cold distance of a Devil Wears Prada, she’s often friendly, but capable of cutting with harsh angles. It’s a fine pairing. Director Nisha Ganatra (here much better served by this script than last year’s flat Late Night) gives the film a nice glossy shine, and knows how to trust her talented cast’s inherent charms to enliven the scenes. She’ll hold on a smile, let the bass rattle in the music (a well-curated playlist of decent originals and oldies), and let the chemistry brew. The result is invested in the relationships and plot developments, but has the patience to let them breathe a little. It understands the charm of letting Johnson and Ross sing along to “No Scrubs” while flying down a sunny L.A. street in a convertible, and the satisfaction felt when the characters find exactly what they need.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Scandaleuse: AN EASY GIRL

An Easy Girl is another one of those French movies about a young person on vacation with a sexually liberated older friend or relative. That’s as standard as it gets. But, just like the let’s-put-on-a-show musical or underdog-sports-success story or any number of standard movie plots, sometimes you just want to see a solid director play that subgenre’s hits. There’s a reason so many keep trying to make these. When they work they work. Here we find sixteen-year-old Naïma (Mina Farid) lazily enjoying the beaches of Cannes with her slightly older cousin, Sofia (Zahia Dehar). (Those with a passing knowledge of recent-ish French sex scandals might find some extra-textual interest in the casting of the latter.) Their ages are, of course, a time of life when a few years makes all the difference. The older girl loves sunning topless, ingratiating herself in others’ hangouts, and catching the attention of rich older men. One morning neither girl has the money to pay for their cafe breakfast, and the older one casually admits that she never brings money with her. She can always find someone willing to pay. And so the movie goes, as the younger girl is by turns suspicious or jealous of, drawn to and pulled away from her cousin. It’s never all that surprising, but director Rebecca Zlotowski (of the recent Natalie Portman picture Planetarium) gives the proceeding a beautifully photographed sensitivity. The camera loves the sun catching the ocean waves, or a drop of water sliding on bare skin. But it is also attuned to the subtle dynamics of this social scene, to the ways in which each girl tries to bury her feelings of inadequacy—caught out on a claim, or lost in a group dynamic. And Zlotowski is willing to slip in the sort of details even a slightly more single-mindedly ogling version of this sort of thing might not, like a pair of boat staffers slipping each other a knowing glance as their older male boss leads what we can only presume is, for them, just yet another pretty young girl on board. It’s a movie that picks a simple, familiar set of ideas, then lets its actors gently complicate even as the camera luxuriates. Those of us who are Francophile cinephiles will be happy to see it’s a perfectly fine example of its type. It’s exactly what you’d expect. Netflix, which purchased the film out of the festival circuit, warns viewers it contains nudity and smoking. As Orson Welles once slurred, “Ah, the French.”

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Weak Stream: MAGIC CAMP and PROJECT POWER

The latest Disney+ original is Magic Camp, a long-on-the-shelf theatrical castoff that was filmed three years ago, but plays more like ten. The thing would’ve been stale and behind-the-times even if it came out when it first was made. It stars Adam DeVine, from back when some thought he might turn a moderately appealing supporting turn in a couple Pitch Perfects, and starring role in an irritating Comedy Central show, into something like a leading man career. This was right before most big screen comedy stopped existing in any significant way, and also before his Jexi bombed hard. You can tell it’s a musty project is what I’m saying. Here he’s doing a milquetoast impression of the kind of role Jack Black would've turned down as a down-on-his-luck magician who agrees to be a counselor at a magic camp. (Think School of Rock if that was a bad movie.) He takes the job in order to compete with his much-more-successful rival, played with disinterest by Gillian Jacobs. There’s a lot of material about the campers that plays like mild sub-Disney Channel shenanigans and believe-in-yourself sentiment, and the stuff between the adults is the kind of half-amusing-at-best sitcom antics you might tolerate in syndication if you turned in a few minutes too early for the rerun you really wanted to see. (Remember that?) There’s a vague sense of low-key dissatisfaction radiating off screen, including Jeffrey Tambor, seen here pre-#MeToo allegations, who appears to be contemplating anything but the scene he’s in. No one really cares. It’s all flatly lit and sluggishly paced, with nothing engaging even threatening to happen at any point. The director is Mark Waters, whose good work on the Lohan classics Mean Girls and Freaky Friday shows he’s capable of more, but he’s clearly at the mercy of an undercooked, formulaic screenplay. (Anyone who’s seen Vampire Academy, a more recent effort, will understand how he’s not an elevator of subpar material.) The result is a big whiff. No wonder Disney held it back to quietly slip out into the streaming library of originals instead of making a big deal about it.

A little better, but not by much, is Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Project Power over on Netflix. It has a good premise. There’s a new designer drug flooding the black market in New Orleans. The little glowing pills give the user five minutes of a random superpower. We get early action scenes like one in which a glowering Jamie Foxx alternately flees and fights a desperate dealer who turns himself into a Human Torch. A little later, cop-on-the-edge Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in his second straight-to-streaming high-concept thriller of the summer, after several years away from movies—it’s good to see him) chases a naked bank robber who has turned himself invisible. Luckily the puff of paint from the cash bag keeps him somewhat noticeable. These are fun ideas. The movie bounces between its lead characters for the longest time—and quickly includes a third, an imperiled teenager (Dominique Fishback)—who are all on the hunt for something. It has a fine where’s-this-all-going? interest for a while. And the filmmakers tackle the project with a stylish approach much like their superior Nerve, the entertaining social-media truth-or-dare thriller from a few years back. There are canted angles and vibrant colors and hip-hop interludes—a pounding back beat and a saturated neon look freely mixing with a graffiti and wet-concrete local color. It’s a delight to see for a bit. But the movie gets slower and slower as it goes, each subsequent ten minutes feeling like twenty, then thirty. I checked the time counter thinking surely I’d been watching for hours and saw it’d been barely 50 minutes. Not even half done. The characters grow less interesting as it goes, and the intriguing concept is drained of interest by formulaic moves. It’s never as clever or appealing as it should be. By the end, Mattson Tomlin's screenplay has drawn together its various plot strands for increasingly boring action sequences with lots of hectic cutting and loud noises failing to gin up additional interest. What begins with a colorful blast ends with the typical blurry genre nothing.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Step Down: WORK IT

Work It is the sort of teen dance movie that would’ve been a modest theatrical hit and then go on to run endlessly on TBS or something if it had been released two or three decades ago. It’s not involving, exactly, but it’s thoroughly watchable, even if you let it fade into the background of your household chores. Just look over every once in a while for the dancing. It’s a chipper, inoffensive, amiable movie about putting on a show and finding yourself with a safe ensemble where even the antagonists aren’t all that threatening and the stakes are never too high. The cast is clean-cut and cute — in the just-aged-out-of-sugary-tween-adjacent-TV-roles sort of way — and have the moves for the choreography, which is athletic and impressive while held to a level just below a Step Up movie. (A shame those ran their course; that series was a lot of fun while it lasted.) The same middle-of-the-road, just-good-enough approach is also in Alison Peck’s screenplay’s simple plotting, which finds a plucky high school senior (Sabrina Carpenter) inadvertently letting her dream college’s admissions interviewer assume she’s on the dance team. Problem is she can’t make the dance team, and they despise her for messing up the lighting board at their last show. So she and her dancer friend (Liza Koshy) recruit a team of misfits and an initially-reluctant young dance coach (Jordan Fisher) to be an underdog new team that’ll hopefully solve every character’s little problems and maybe, just maybe, win the big competition. You know where it’s going even if you don’t.

That it is streaming on Netflix gives it the replay ability that would’ve been cable's key to cementing it in a young audience’s consciousness, without the theatrical boost that would’ve made it seem more legitimate. For movies like this, the delivery system collapses the distance between TV movie and the real deal. It looks and moves like an extended sitcom. Director Laura Terruso matches the material by keeping it brightly lit, digitally clear, and simply staged, which simply shows off the dancing and gives some space to the performers to bounce mild banter back and forth. There’s even-keel energy, over-enunciated dialogue, overwritten narration, and go-with-the-flow formulaic plot progression that never fluctuates off a middling baseline. It’s not much else. But there’s room to be charmed by movies like this, especially if you haven’t seen too many like it before. More often than not it’s pleasantly as good as it can be without being for me. Younger audiences might get into this more than I could, especially since (or is that “hopefully because”?) it’s much better than other popular Netflix Teen Movies like The Kissing Booths or Tall Girl. The cast is appealing and the dancing is good and that’s what this is all about.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Haunting of Ill House: LA LLORONA

The haunting in Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona (not to be confused with the decent Conjuring-verse entry based on the same ghost legend from last year) is karmic, and it's trauma. The big, dark, scary mansion that may or may not have vengeful spirits within its long corridors and dark corners belongs to an ailing Guatemalan general on trial for genocide. He’s elderly, ill, armed, and his mind is clouded. Outside, protests rage. Inside, his family and Indigenous hired help step cautiously. They’re troubled by his legacy, in a strained state as they reckon with the evil for which he was responsible, while acutely aware of the quotidian failings of a man to which they’re tied. The family is not sure how much to believe the worst, but clearly their staff does. It’s fraught. So of course there are strange sounds, eerie movements, people where they aren’t expected to be, and some in the house are more aware than others that something Wrong is here. It’s a horror movie, after all. But the haunting is born of unspeakable guilt and unbearable pain. It hangs heavy over the long, steady shots and hushed sound design, thick with political and metaphoric intent, excavating crimes, injustices of the highest order as a curse visited upon those mortal souls sick enough to carry them out. The cast of carries out this placid agitation, the kind of gnarled familial guilt where one averts eyes from the failings of an old man, only to look back when a crisis is at hand. Details — an oxygen tank, a drip of water, a new maid, a breath-holding contest — slowly accrue to the final crescendo.

In this careful, quiet simmer of a film, the palpable pain of the past ripples out into the present, working its way into cracks in the fault lines of race, class, gender, and age that spiderweb the fragile situation. The film’s perspective is often trapped in the home of this man, whose sickness was moral long before it was physical, as he stumbles and shuffles to an ending. Those keeping vigil over his last days — a queasy mixture of mourning and anticipation — are keenly ambivalent, but no less upset. Our sympathies lie with the protestors, not the man, and only sometimes his family. But Bustamante’s confident filmmaking challenges us to see with and through the art house horror trappings—the kind that come patiently in a slow drip that teases an audience with the line between reality and the paranormal—that with this tragedy in the past, the haunted ones, and the ones haunting, are his victims, and the weeping ghost deserves her dignity—and revenge. The women sitting veiled in the court room— a vision at once ghostly condemnation and corporeal witness—are the sight that lingers just as much as the maybe-spirit whose hair floats and whose wails pierce the night.

Friday, August 7, 2020

A Sitch in Brine: AN AMERICAN PICKLE

An American Pickle is perched on a premise of such delicate whimsy that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under the slightest weight. And yet it works because star Seth Rogen takes it just seriously enough, lending it a gentle humane grace in the midst of flimsy conceits. The idea is this: in 1919, Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant to New York City stuck living a hardscrabble Upton Sinclair life as a rat catcher in a pickle factory, falls, unnoticed, into a vat of brine. The factory is, coincidentally, condemned that day. In 2019, the vat is finally opened, and out pops the perfectly preserved man. The movie doesn’t care about why that happens; it winks at you, so you know the intent is for a fable and goes with that. It sets up what could be mere broad fish-out-of-water comedy, with the hardy, boisterous, bearded fellow, more used to manual labor and with memory of fleeing Cossacks still fresh in his mind, suddenly confronted by modern Brooklyn. (In fact, one similarly beardy hipster does compliment his style and asks if his clothes are vintage.) But what happens is slightly less schtick than you’d expect, as the film zigs into something slower, quieter, and low-key. The man is released into the care of his great grandson — his only living relative, and spitting image. 

Rogen does good work differentiating these performances, and finding warmly humorous rhythms in the disjunction between the two. One man’s bursting gregariously with a chewy eastern European accent and taking up space with ease. The other is seemingly shrinking behind his glasses and folding into himself with unexamined grief. The modern Rogen is a shy freelance app developer, lonely without any living relatives, comfortable in a small life. Good thing the old Rogen is similarly grieved, having lost his beloved wife (Sarah Snook) decades before he awoke, and missed his son’s and grandson’s lives entirely. The last living Greenbaums are now bridging a century together, and maybe, just maybe, can help each other move on. The screenplay by Simon Rich — as befits a humorist of his sort — has this bittersweet center, and then proceeds to be variations on a theme. What if the two Rogens got along? What if they didn’t? And what would social media think? The movie cycles between those three scenarios, each quickly developed and sometimes thinly sketched, but the central dual role enlivens the proceedings each step of the way. Director Brandon Trost—usually working as a cinematographer, many times for films with a Rogen connection—knows not to linger on the absurdities. This is somehow a soft-palate, quietly staged movie with a viral pickle business, a literal Twitter mob, and a circus of a court room scene within its modest framework, but always keeps the focus on the connection the men share. It’s ultimately a story of how comfortable the modern man’s life is, and yet how empty. He just needed to reconnect with his roots (religion, relatives) to bring new fulfillment to his days. And that strong idea, embodied by a fine performer, is just enough to hold the whole odd little movie together.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Wind Will Carry Us: THE HAPPENING

Then, one spring, a strange blight crept over the area, and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community; mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death.
    — Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”

An early image in The Happening: construction workers casually stepping off towering scaffolding, raining down, plummeting to their deaths. It really sets the stage. We’ve already seen a woman stab herself in the neck, and later will see a man splayed out in a field awaiting an approaching industrial lawn mower. Still elsewhere we will see a cozy suburban street with lush, verdant trees, and corpses hanging through their branches. These are indelibly frightening images, memorably staged and haunting in their lingering impact and implication. Here’s the deal with M. Night Shyamalan’s oft maligned The Happening, which merely had the misfortune of being released at a time when his artistic reputation was on a downswing — a nasty course correction from the “Next Spielberg” hype he’d been getting from his great early films like The Sixth Sense and Signs. That wasn’t fair. But The Happening is a good thriller, and an even better work of deep dread. It’s a vision of society suddenly falling apart, in which a damaging pandemic sweeps across the land and no one knows what to do or how to stop it. No one can weigh the risks, and no leadership emerges to contain the threat. There’s just a primal sense of escape, and even then despair. The characters are running, knowing it has to be futile. And yet they run anyway, even as the world falls down around them, as groups splinter and squabble over how to survive, as conspiracies bubble up as no one has enough information, as people turn cruel, selfish, and violent, sometimes out of desperation or fear, but scarier still, sometimes inexplicably.

When the film first arrived in 2008, and ever since, its loud detractors have scoffed at its twist. Spoiler: plants are emitting toxins that are causing people to kill themselves. Ha, they laugh, isn’t it funny to think nature is the big danger in this movie? But this isn’t a twist. It’s a reveal. (This is the case in more of Shyamalan’s films than his reputation commonly asserts, and leads to uncharitable readings of his other unfairly dismissed efforts, too.) Besides, can’t you do that belittling with every monster? Take the movie at its word, and it is scary, truly scary, to imagine a world of ecological horror, in which humanity is revealed once and for all to be at the mercy of nature and its wrath. Shyamalan sharply sees the terror of our vulnerability to nature’s whims. As our world reckons ever more acutely with the ravages of viral infection and climate change, here is a movie that grows only more unsettling. A scene where the fleeing humans race through a field, the wind whipping through the vegetation, is not about outrunning danger, but the overwhelming hopelessness of thinking you can. It turns something that can be normal and soothing — the noise of wind through leaves on a brisk day — and turns it devastatingly dangerous, an all-encompassing sense that we can’t hide from something we can’t see.

In Shyamalan’s vision, characters’ personal problems pale against the enormity and the unknowability of this scenario. So when the central relationship conflict between Mark Wahlberg (admittedly he’s not quite right for the role of a science teacher, but sells confusion and stress) and Zooey Deschanel (whose wide-eyed confusion matches the situation with the right befuddlement) doesn’t quite work, it’s at least partially because of course the larger trauma is overpoweringly the main concern. (And this is hardly the only effective horror movie with an undercooked subplot.) More evocative is John Leguizamo, who brings palpable real tension and pain when confronted with a danger he can’t confront, a situation he can’t control, for the benefit of himself and his family. All through the film are these sometimes absurd (the lions!), sometimes peculiar (the lemon drink!), sometimes recessive, quickly-sketched observations of all manner of people reacting to the unknowable dilemma. Some grow hysterical. Some say stupid things. Some go boldly in the wrong direction. Some are suspicious others want what little they have. Some have selfishness that brings others doom. Maybe they should try wearing masks? (You should.)

Shyamalan’s filmmaking remains controlled here. His camera is typically patient, with the great Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography catching the horror precisely, as shocking for elisions as it is for gore—think a chain of suicides the camera follows just out of frame, following instead the dropped gun as it passes from person to person. The suspense is set against James Newton Howard’s score going evocatively wild with simmering, swirling strings right out of a 1950’s sci-fi chiller. Maybe this is a Day the Earth Stood Still, scarier for having no interlocutor from the heavens to translate the moral. It's exactly as straight-faced a B-movie idea as that, flatly earnest about its points, using its concept to draw big fundamental horror about how little holds our modern human society together when you get down to it. When the film reaches its conclusion, a genre beat with ostensible safety leaving hints of the real danger lurking and lingering, ready to explode again, it’s totally clear this is a movie about how humanity’s short-term thinking and short-term memory will inevitably doom us. Even when nature fights back—revealing how we are literally killing ourselves by ignoring its warnings—we will too quickly race back to normal, inviting the danger’s resurgence.