Thursday, December 31, 2020

30 Favorite New-to-Me Movies of 2020

 
30. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959, Ed Wood)
29. Dial Code Santa Claus (1989, René Manzor)
28. Convoy (1978, Sam Peckinpah)
27. A Cry in the Dark (1988, Fred Schepisi)
26. Cradle 2 the Grave (2003, Andrzej Bartkowiak)
25.  Down in the Delta (1998, Maya Angelou)
24. Three on a Match (1932, Mervyn LeRoy)
23. Blood on the Moon (1948, Robert Wise)
22. Into the Abyss (2011, Werner Herzog)
21. Set it Off (1996, F. Gary Gray)
20. Train to Busan (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)
19. Flaming Star (1960, Don Siegel)
18. Hangover Square (1945, John Brahm)
17. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, John Ford)
16. The Petrified Forest (1936, Archie Mayo)
15. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999, Anthony Minghella)
14. Beat the Devil (1953, John Huston)

13. Blue Collar (1978, Paul Schrader)


12. The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci)


11. Night Moves (1975, Arthur Penn)
10. Personal Problems (1980, Bill Gunn)
9. The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)
8. A Perfect World (1993, Clint Eastwood)
7. 3 Bad Men (1926, John Ford)
6. The Chase (1966, Arthur Penn)
5. To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks)
4. Chameleon Street (1989, Wendell B. Harris, Jr.)
3. A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
2. Two for the Road (1967, Stanley Donen)
1. One Two Three (1961, Billy Wilder)

Friday, December 25, 2020

Out of Body: SOUL

Pixar’s Soul is an unusually perceptive family movie about finding meaning in life. It dares to say life’s purpose is not to cultivate a great talent or have the perfect family or find true love. A good life is simpler than that. How rare it is to find any Hollywood movie resisting the  determinism of easy goals and cheap sentiment? This is a movie boldly pushing off into existential waters, directly confronting matters of life and death, and finding a satisfyingly artful and, well, soulful approach to those mysteries. What a neat trick. It starts with a New York City middle-school music teacher (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of being a jazz pianist. Although it’s clear he has the ability to communicate to his students some of the wonder he feels when getting lost in great music, vibing with talent when he’s in the zone, he has bigger dreams. Years of nights and weekends gigging in small clubs, or getting rejected by the bookers and bands thereof, is finally about to pay off when a jazz legend (Angela Bassett) invites him to join her quartet. Too bad, then, that on his way home from their meeting, he dies. Unlike Coco, the cavalcade of color and music and family togetherness that was Pixar’s prior sojourn into the afterlife, this film sends its lead to a cold and sterile place, an enormous glowing white light in total blackness, and a moving sidewalk going up, up, up. Where on Earth the score was full and jazzy with arrangements by Jon Batiste, here it's Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with swirling New Age synths and spare melodies. Body-less, souls are glowing pale blue blobs led around by geometric modern art profiles. It’s a clear contrast to the bustling, realistically rendered world he’s reluctantly leaving behind. Our lead most desperately wants to escape. You can’t blame him. He falls off the path—through a dazzling variety of squiggly visuals—and lands where souls are trained to be sent down into babies. They must find their spark, a ticket out of this theoretical space and into the world below. This, he thinks, is his ride back to his body.

The stage is set for a typical Pixar plot: hurrying and scurrying around and through barriers and setbacks on the way to a clear goal, while playing loop-de-loops around the logic of a fantasy world. Our lead even gets paired up with a mismatched reluctant buddy, in the adorably aggravating figure of a soul that doesn’t want to be born (Tina Fey). (She’s the source of most of the comedy here, a kind of gentle rat-a-tat patter of silly quips and sparing cutaway gags.) Even so, the most pleasant surprise is to find that the film’s progression isn’t mere formula. Or at least, not completely. Writer-director Pete Docter (Inside Out, Monsters, Inc.) and his co-writer-director, playwright Kemp Powers, instead find through the conceit a means by which to explore the small things that make life worth living. The film tumbles back to earth with a supernatural premise of trying to rekindle a spark in a lost soul. There, resisting a grand thesis, or deadening satire (the afterlife’s bureaucracy has none of the rigorous rules of prior Pixar realms), the movie situates itself lovingly in small interpersonal moments. A teacher guiding a promising pupil. A barbershop bustling with friendship and connection. A mother who just wants the best for her son. A musician who hopes to live up to his potential to connect with a crowd. Because the animation is so warmly textured and fluidly developed, and the writing has such a keen ear for the music of the moments, there’s a remarkable sense of life bustling and bursting. It’s smooth, but takes the usual bops and bumps of this kind of parable; it draws favorable comparison to It’s a Wonderful Life for its otherworldly assist. And yet it doesn’t end with everyone improved supernaturally. It finds quiet contentment in warm memories and simple steps toward a brighter future. Here’s a family film with flights of fancy and eye-popping visual invention that finds its greatest astonishments in the ordinary details of real life.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Down to Earth: WONDER WOMAN 1984

If Wonder Woman 1984 was the first Wonder Woman, I doubt we would’ve gotten a second. I sat stupefied as it got worse by the scene, so fundamentally misunderstanding the appeal of the first movie it made me wonder if that one was actually as good as I thought at the time. I’m sure it is, but, still: imagine everything you enjoyed about the first movie. Now imagine a movie with none of that. It does have Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, the Amazon in exile sworn to save humanity from itself. But this time, instead of a clear line to a distinct villain, she’s fussing around in the margins of an obvious parable. There’s a con man (Pedro Pascal) pretending to be a tycoon with slicked-back blonde hair and garish suits. He wants to steal a magic rock on which he can make wishes. Before he can go full Midas, Diana, in her day job as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, and a mousy co-worker (Kristen Wiig) make wishes on the rock, not knowing they’d actually come true. For Diana, it means a reunion with her long-dead pilot love (Chris Pine). For the other woman, it means becoming an accidental supervillain. (Isn’t that a Brad Paisley song with LL Cool J? Ha.) So the movie involves Wonder Woman investigating a magic rock. Look, that’s not in and of itself the problem, and anyone who says it is better look long and hard inside themselves about the Infinity Stones. The main issue is mild action sequences which generate no suspense, little energy, and, worse still, no wonder. It loses Diana’s character to a curiously passive and simple plot, which somehow takes the stupidest thin ideas and makes them endlessly confused. Why not just grab hold of the magic for yourself and wish the whole movie's worth of problems reversed, or the movie itself over and done with? We’re ahead of her the whole time. It's not every day you see a fantasy arguing we should all dream a little smaller.

After working so well with epic earnestness of the kind you could find in Richard Donner’s Superman, writer-director Patty Jenkins is here going for a Richard Lester vibe, but she overshoots Superman II and ends up closer to Superman III. It has comedy that falls flat, romance that remains unconvincing (the hoops it jumps to get Pine back never satisfy), and a plot that just never sparks to life. WW84 has enormous events — a huge wall popping up in the middle of Egypt (an unusual tone-deaf sequence), nuclear arsenals accumulating, and improbable global catastrophes in the making — that don’t seem to matter much. It stages a confrontation in the White House, but doesn't have any real interest in 80's politics like it did World War I last time. It has a winking tone that at first is a colorful comic book cartoon — I enjoyed the opening action beats: an Amazonian Warrior Challenge and an 80s mall rescue — but grates quickly. So brightly lit and simply staged, it veers away from playing up the secretive God qualities of its star, and instead leans on her rudimentary action figure qualities. She’s posed and weightless, and so is the story which clunks and clatters along. The villains are introduced as comic relief and never work themselves up to real threats, even when the world is ostensibly on the line. Part of the problem is their plot grows both predictable and takes forever to get anywhere. Jenkins and her team want to try something different, and I can admire the attempt to swing away from a temptation to follow the standard bigger, louder, darker, and more overstuffed superhero sequel template and harken instead back to something more contained, and vaugely Silver Age DC. For how expensive it is, it feels cheap and, though it does some globetrotting, it feels so small. It’s almost literally the version we would’ve gotten in 1984, when the sadly underwhelming likes of Supergirl or Red Sonja were all you had for strong women in capes, and studios weren’t betting an extended universe of interconnected spinoffs on them.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Hello, I Must Be Going: TENET

In Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, backwards run sequences until the mind reels. It’s a time travel thriller, but not like you’re thinking. It’s about a magic box that can reverse the chronology of an item—or a person. Reverse entropy, they say. Inversion. The plot concerns a secret agent (John David Washington) recruited to stop a snarling Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) from reversing the flow of time for the entire universe. That’d destroy everything, one reluctant ally (Elizabeth Debicki) is told simply and slowly. She considers it for a moment and solemnly intones: “including my son.” It’s this collision of high-concept headiness and laughably simple personalities that sink the film, which is simultaneously one of Nolan’s most logistically jaw-dropping and emotionally flimsiest. (It’s also a narrative convolution, running backwards and forwards at the same time, and dazzling as much as it is deliberately obtuse.) For as much as he’s gotten a reputation as a cold technician, it’s not until confronted with a movie like this — which has none of the tragic backstory or family sentimentality or rule-setting exposition that some critics have dinged him for in the past — to see how essential those are for the Nolan formula. Here without that rooting interest or well-sketched setup, it’s rather empty, though all go-go-go M.C. Escher timeline. Cause and effect are ruptured in boggling ways. There are stunts and combat and strategizing, with some elements of the action behaving unusually: a bullet hole filling up as the ordnance flies back into the barrel; tumbling fisticuffs that cartwheel with unnatural grace as one combatant flies backwards when they should be ahead; a car zipping the wrong way through traffic after rolling back over from a crash, windows reconstructing as tires squeal in reverse. I found myself wondering what it’d be like re-edited in Memento style.

It’s a film that surprises and exhausts in equal measure. There are those wild visual flourishes, so convincingly done — although it did, on occasion, remind me of Bob Saget’s America’s Funniest Home Videos doing fun rewind montages — I barely could process them, but appreciated their effective  crescendos. Elsewhere there are agents rappelling up a building or spinning a sailboat or crashing a plane or maneuvering through a series or airtight vaults or hanging off the side of a moving firetruck to hop between cars. That’s all thrilling stuff. Would that there was any reason to hold onto the inventiveness other than sheer admiration for its construction, its impressive scope, its grounding sense of tactile reality even as the effects slip sense away. When you get past the scrambled visual conceits, the movie underneath is too straightforward to care about overmuch. There’s the protagonist and antagonist, sparsely characterized, fighting over a MacGuffin. It’s strikingly photographed globetrotting, with the hero and his partner in spies (Robert Pattinson) dashing and capable in slick suits and big action beats. The pounding score, booming bass, and enormous images have a Pavlovian effect—it’s exciting, and kicks up the energy of seeing a great Christopher Nolan movie, even if it doesn’t exactly reach those heights. By the ramp up to the enormous climactic action sequence, I was rather worn out. I found myself thinking about how thrilling it was to see Inception a decade back, and could understand why the temptation to make a whole movie out of that one’s hallway fight must’ve been tempting.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Travelers' Treks: THE TRIP TO GREECE

Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series has become one of modern moviegoing's most reliable pleasures. What a comfort and joy to return to these journeys following Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as versions of themselves on some new sightseeing and dining tour around a European country. They started in 2010 in England, went to Italy in 2014, found their way through Spain in 2017, and now find themselves in Greece. Each installment builds on loose, clever, absorbing conversations and patiently teased out accumulation of character details. Regular travels with these blokes gets only more enjoyable with each wonderful entry, as their focus on history—global, writerly, personal, ancient—feeds an ever more bittersweetly charming interest in fleeting pleasures and enduring truths, the mortality of man and meal, the lasting effects of work and art. All along they talk and talk and talk. These are literate, cultured dialogues, peppered with impressions and resentments, pop songs and poetry. I could listen to them for hours. In fact, by now, I suppose I have.

The gents at the center maintain a crackling chemistry, bantering easily, slipping into a similar frame of reference, steeped in knowledge of the classical world, lovers of literature, fluent in 20th century pop culture. At each stop, they’re given gorgeous food lovingly prepared and photographed. Around the table and behind the wheel the words chatter and clatter, clash and build, jest and jab. It’s a procession of rambling travelogue Dinner(s) with Andre, deep and shallow, fascinating and facile, learned and light. They get along—but are informed by the public personas which dovetail and diverge in interesting ways, needling Coogan for trading his comedian roots for his Hollywood and award-circuit aspirations, while Brydon eagerly chirps along his “light entertainer” reputation. As funny as they are, alone and together, there’s always a sense they really care — care about their trips, their passions, their understanding of history and culture, their careers, their families, their friendship. How refreshing, and how beautifully understated it is, to be around people of intelligence and complication for a time.

Last time had, appropriately enough, overt Quixote references, which are here fittingly traded for a structure related to Odysseus’ winding way home. As the camera makes its way after their vehicles across picturesque landscapes—verdant forests, vast fields, beautiful blue waters, rolling hills, impressive ruins—or parks at their tables in all manner of restaurants, the men are most excellent company. As the series has grown, it's endlessly enjoyable to watch the repetitions and variations, jocular accruals of recurring bits and in-jokes and a lovely circular logic of a friendship deeply felt and convincingly expressed in all its complications and charms, equal parts companionship and competition. The familiarity of this dynamic, and the constant breathtaking backdrops, make the films familiar and comfortable as the best long-form stories while maintaining distinct pleasures. That these films have been happening for ten years now only enhances the sense that they’re about the passage of time—and this new one most of all. It’s a movie about the past piling up behind an ever-shifting present, big life events and modern reference points the fleeting backbeat to a tour of modern life perched on antiquity. In The Trip to Greece’s quietly moving final sequences, there’s a confrontation with mortality—a sudden shift of mood that plays fair with the audience’s connection with these characters and understanding of their lives. I hope we can keep traveling with them as long as they’ll let us.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Dance Revolution: THE PROM

If nothing else, The Prom is a testament to the irresistible power of a great schmaltzy Broadway finale. For even though the movie loses its way for most of the second act, when the cast finally gathers as a group to belt out their big cathartic final number, the confetti flying and everyone getting their happy ending and a few bars to contribute to the whole, I teared up, tapped my toes, and felt pretty good about the whole thing. Based on Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin’s chipper stage musical of recent vintage, the movie has been directed by Ryan Murphy, whose usual gonzo go-for-broke faux-camp artificial wildness (the reason his TV work’s promising potential is usually sooner (Glee) or later (American Horror Story) driven off a cliff) is tamped down by the fact he’s not the writer. That’s why his work on The People vs. O.J. Simpson and Pose is his finest to date; he’s a talented technician when he has someone around to keep the narrative consistent. He loves bold colors and broad performances, a camera that glides on greased tracks to push in, fly back, or spin around characters, poking at touchy subjects with a heavy handed light touch in a style that stops well short of the apoplectic opulence of a Baz Luhrmann, but cuts quick and flashy enough all the same. Here the material is his sunniest, most cheerful, most actually optimistic instead of the not-so-hidden cynicism undergirding his previous trips back to high school. It has big “It Gets Better” energy. Perhaps it is because the satire is so mild, and largely contained in the outsized presence of a quartet of Broadway has-beens and never-weres at the center. Here’s Meryl Streep and James Corden and Andrew Rannells and Nicole Kidman — an odd combination — swanning into small-town Indiana hoping to soak up some free rehabilitating social media buzz by coming to the loud defense of a lesbian student (Jo Ellen Pellman) who won’t be allowed to go to prom with her date. The sneering down-the-nose condescension of the stars is good for a laugh, as they steal focus while declaiming that this scene isn’t about them, and the movie sometimes forgets it isn’t, too.

The plot deftly balances their pomposity with chipper prom prep and the small-town dilemmas of being gay in a conservative area, albeit with some recognition that the town wouldn’t homogeneously be opposed (Keegan-Michael Key is a warm-hearted theater-loving principal in contrast to the clenched PTA president, Kerry Washington). The first hour flies along with buoyant good spirts and toe-tapping numbers—a dancy promposal roundelay past lockers and bleachers; a clandestine closeted love ballad; a giddy getting-ready song in an unrealistically bustling mall; a wide-eyed tribute to the transportive and transformative ability of a great Broadway show. And it all reaches a great, sympathetic Act I climax that’s one of those beautiful win-but-lose send-em-to-intermission buzzing numbers. Unfortunately, most of the good songs are in that first hour, and the rest is a drag of tedious character beats that forces one to realize the characters are thin stock types, and the balance of Broadway divas to small-town teens goes a little awry. What are we to make of mean popular kids changing their homophobic ways just because an actor sings jokes about the Bible at them in a food court? It’s a cute number, but elides complications, and builds up the movie’s gleaming theatrical falseness. Still, we’re on our way to a great finale, and the cast is so high-energy, hoofing it well and selling corny theater punchlines. And the heart of the matter remains such a lovely open-faced introductory star turn from a young actress playing a likable girl whose struggles with being out and ignored in her cramped Indiana town resonates through the second act doldrums. I left humming the good songs and remembering the good times. Like a troupe of theater kids, it means well and has a good time, even if it's annoying sometimes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Staying In: SONGBIRD

Is the first movie made during the coronavirus epidemic of 2020 exploitative bad taste filmmaking? How could it not be? Although I'd argue it's always too soon for a bad movie, and never too soon for a good movie inspired by a current event, given how impossible it appears for the worst of us to take this crisis seriously, or do even the smallest of mitigation steps, it might be hard to watch a pandemic lockdown thriller which has a scene wherein the main romantic couple is about to be kept apart by draconian quarantine rules and the guy shouts “to hell with the rules!” That’s the gist of Songbird, a cheap genre effort filmed over the summer. It gets its narrative engine out of people who’ll do anything to be together or scrape by in the face of dystopian stay-at-home orders, which include quarantine camps where those who break the rules are sent to die. It’s set in (an imaginary, one hopes) fourth year of COVID, where the world seems abandoned and pretty much done for. Yet, if only for the sake of thriller mechanics, hope might be in there some where. Two young folks — a delivery guy (KJ Apa) and a (totally understandable) shut in (Sofia Carson) — are in love over FaceTime and hope to get black market immunity passes. His boss (Craig Robinson) buys them from a wealthy sleaze (Bradley Whitford), a lucrative enough idea that the rich man’s worried wife (Demi Moore) is almost okay with his affair with a live-streamer (Alexandria Daddario). The latter’s nonstarter music career has a fan in a wheelchair bound vet (Paul Walter Hauser) who moonlights as an amateur drone pilot. Meanwhile, a nefarious garbage man (Peter Stormare) leads HAZMAT troops for the department of sanitation. 

The whole thing is pretty predictable as far as it goes, with writer-director Adam Mason borrowing cynical topicality to add some interest to a typical low-budget, here-today-gone-tomorrow picture of this size and type. It doesn’t not work. There are some cleverly imagined touches — an app that scans for fever and uploads the stats to the health department; a UV disinfectant box for deliveries — that are fine extrapolations on worries from half a year ago (my, how so much has changed, even though so little has changed). The cast is talented enough to imbue some urgency to their pro-forma plights. And the filmmaking has an occasional charge of rudimentary chase-scene excitement. Just as often, though, it’s a clunky little picture. I found myself admiring it mostly as a series of logistical puzzles, noting how the film has been written and filmed to avoid scenes with more than one actor, and even scenes with a few generally only has one unmasked, or has one in an over-the-shoulder shot that could’ve easily been fudged. So it’s boring. Isn’t that ultimately more disappointing? If it was more exuberantly bad taste, it would’ve at least been something more than its destiny as a title mentioned at least in passing in every history of this time in showbiz.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

On the Road Again: NOMADLAND

Fern lives out of her van. “I’m not homeless,” she insists. “I’m houseless. There’s a difference.” She does build occasional community around herself, but even then she just as often floats on the margins at truck stops, and RV parks, and national parks, in addition to whatever odd jobs she picks up throughout the year we follow her. There’s the seasonal help at an Amazon fulfillment center, the maintenance at a park, the help in a kitchen. She drives from Nevada to Arizona to the Dakotas. She meets people who are also on the road for a variety of reasons — they’re off the grid, impoverished, retired. They’re largely friendly, and contain multitudes. Money is tight, but Fern rarely seems to mind. She keeps to herself, exchanges pleasantries, hangs out with some good buddies. She shows off her van—how she’s built room for a bed, and counter space, and storage for the bucket she uses as a bathroom. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland sticks close to her, building a plainspoken portrait of this life on the road. A nomad, Fern roams the highways and backroads of American landscapes, dwarfed by mountains, deserts, cliffs, and rolling hills dotted with tiny restaurants, gas stations, and laundromats. In this role, Frances McDormand’s commanding charisma still draws in people (a cast of mainly non-professionals who fill out the authenticity of these places), but is recessive, inward, transactional, tight-lipped oftentimes. It’s clear she’s holding the world at arm’s length distance, though she’s capable of surprising when her words lift into poetry, quite literally in a quietly astonishing moment when she recites a sonnet from memory to help a young man’s love letter to the girl he left at home. We hear she’s lost a husband; their town, having rested on a now-defunct factory, disappeared, too, in the recession. And so here she is, alone yet not alone.

The movie takes a hard look at these marginalized people, not to pity or persuade, not to explore or explain, but simply to witness. Zhao, whose previous films include settings on a reservation (Songs My Brothers Taught Me), or the ranch of an injured roper (The Rider), has become quite the chronicler of the modern-day American west, seeing with lyrical clear-eyed specificity the rhythms and pleasures, the struggles and psychology of folks left at the edge of society by happenstance or choice. Or both. Her camera floats with an observational eye for casual detail, for flukes of behavior, for cracks into wellsprings of emotion in the closed off and taciturn, for pale natural light and natural beauty. (One wonders how this preoccupation and style could possibly translate in Zhao’s next planned feature, an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Here with McDormand’s effortlessly natural performance she finds a figure equally interested in inhabiting the tangible qualities of a person rarely given the space in our society to be the center of attention. There’s nothing overwhelmingly dramatic to the incidents here, and no false narrative engine. There's simply the patient accumulation of fleeting acquaintances, employment, and sights. It imbues humanity in every frame, and reminds us that everyone has worth.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Getting Out: RUN.

You’d think a child abuse thriller would be irreconcilably icky at best, downright exploitative at worst, but writer-director Aneesh Chaganty’s Run. is too smartly constructed to fall into those traps. It’s a film about Munchausen by proxy, the mental health problem in which the afflicted deliberately makes another person sick in order to care for them. In this case it’s the mother (Sarah Paulson) whose wheelchair-bound teenage daughter (newcomer Kiera Allen) is not as afflicted as she appears to be. Those pills she’s fed? The diseases and disorders with which she’s struggling? Side-effects of her mother’s disorder. This is a fascinating and horrifying situation on its own, the sickly intermingling of motherly love with blinding cruelty, and the twisted intimacy of the effects. Anyone who saw Erin Lee Carr’s Mommy Dead and Dearest, an excellently absorbing and horrifying documentary about the most famous recent case like this, is familiar with how nasty and upsetting this problem becomes. But Chaganty’s more inspired by thrillers of the Hollywood persuasion, and approaches the dilemma as a crushing escape room for our young heroine to explore and attempt to flee. The actresses expertly bring the emotional underpinnings as messy subtext to the film’s gripping situational suspense. It takes a tremendously potent psychological problem and views it exclusively from the view point of the young girl who slowly comes to realize what her mother is doing to her, and then must piece together a plan to shake off her isolation and deprivation to freedom.

The film methodically reveals her obstacles and watches her throw herself against them. It boils its complicated emotional terrain down to its pure imperative: run. Chaganty sets the film at a methodical yet quick pace, flying through patient setup and efficiently tightening the suspense to maximum tautness with each new escalation. Each step gives us a new question. How does the girl maneuver her wheelchair from one place to the next? How does she research the pills without her mother noticing? How does she get out of a locked second-story bedroom? How does she get a passerby’s attention? It goes on like this, each sequence answering a new complication in clever ways. And Chaganty’s filmmaking, freed from the screen gimmick that sunk his otherwise promising sub-Unfriended debut Searching, here is pure and simple style—you could look at it with the sound off and know it was put together by someone who knows where to put the camera, how to cut around legibly to sustain the sense of suspense in a space, how to push in to capture an emotion or pull back and avoid over-emphasizing a dramatic decision. It’s confident, edge-of-the-seat stuff built out of how tricky and personal the stakes are every step of the way.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Mind Meld: POSSESSOR

Call Possessor a sci-fi thriller and a gory horror movie. It’s a queasy dissociative episode, or a woozy nightmare of mental slippage and extreme violence. You could also approach it as a cautionary tale about letting a gig economy subcontractor job swallow you whole. Here’s the sophomore feature effort from Brandon Cronenberg, whose work will surely be compared to his father David’s oeuvre, what with its cringing, squishy attention to fragile bodies in use and abuse. (One wonders what it’s like growing up with a last name that has become synonymous with body horror. Was a cheery rom-com ever in the cards?) In its steely gaze and slippery hallucinations — bodies melting and reconstituting like wax figures, faces worn over faces like slightly oversized nearly-lifelike rubber masks, double-exposure double-takes layered over mirrors — it recalls those earlier films, true, but also feels of a piece with the twisty and twisted, yet studiously dispassionate, works of Alex Garland, and not only because it features a supporting turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh in a matter-of-fact scientist role not unlike her role in Annihilation. It has that same ice cold digital surface building to spasms of disturbing knife-twisting, literal and abstract. 

This film slithers in on gliding shots that get pinned down like butterflies under glass as it is perched precariously on the border between sex and violence (an early sequence cross-cuts from a shot of lovemaking to one of a knife slipping into flesh), and between maintaining one’s identity and forging a new one. It stars Andrea Riseborough as a near-future hitman who is contracted by a high-tech company that’ll inject her consciousness into an unsuspecting victim who will be near the target. Maybe it’s a waitress. Or a friend of a relative. Whoever it is will carry out the murder, after which their body’s hijacker will unplug from their brainstem by blasting her way out the back of the skull with a pistol packed on her person. It’s gnarly, nasty stuff, and leads to a situation where the frazzled professional killer’s latest host (Christopher Abbot) might just not go quietly. The movie moves slowly, patiently twisting the knife and finding ever-gnarlier implications to explore. The violence can only be described as prone to geysers, and is often disturbingly clinical. Even with fair warning, I was still surprised to find myself squirming in my seat away from the screen at its most literally eye-popping moments. But even more disturbing is its attention to the ways in which its characters are totally lost in webs of psychic surveillance from tech companies both subterranean (like the killers) and legit (their latest target is a CEO (Sean Bean — and isn’t there a fun meta layer to casting him as a man whose impending potential death drives a plot?) whose devices snoop on people’s private moments to better know their brands). Its central figure is totally lost in her job, losing focus, and maybe her mind, in the violence she does to others lives, and the blowback that rattles hers. It’s a gooey, messy business in a carefully controlled film.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Better Not Cry: HAPPIEST SEASON

Happiest Season, like any good grownup Christmas comedy, is a fizzy charmer leavened by the acknowledgment that, to adults, holidays can be just as much about family tensions and microagressions as togetherness and good cheer. So it is with the Caldwells, whose middle daughter (Mackenzie Davis) invites her serious girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) home to meet her parents (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen). The problem: dad’s a conservative mayoral candidate and mom’s an equally clenched socialite. So they’ll have to be introduced as roommates for the time being. Thus kicks off a Christmas week in the closet, which of course draws out fault lines in the women’s romantic relationship as a simmering backdrop to the twirl of social engagements and similarly fraught emotional sniping and jostling between the other grown daughters (Mary Holland and Alison Brie) back in the nest. Here’s a movie that knows that grown people back in their hometown, under the roof of their childhood home, can all-too-easily revert to bad habits and adolescent pettiness. The combination makes the movie thoroughly cozy —fireplaces and sweaters and scarfs and snow-dusted small-town shops and sidewalks — but also tremulously prickly—as eggshell-walking sensitive as its leads need to be to navigate the stresses of the week. Like that great Jodie Foster picture Home for the Holidays, if not quite on that level, here’s a movie that’s full of types in interesting combinations, and generously proportioned to give each their due. The cast (down to small parts for Ana Gasteyer and Aubrey Plaza) enlivens the drama beyond the formula so much that, even when the screenplay leans into some mild farce, a wacky best friend (Dan Levy), and big speeches, it nonetheless rings true. The movie sparkles with good laughs, and amusing scenarios (the kind that only occasionally tip over into sitcom broadness). It benefits greatly from the chemistry between all involved, and by treating their dilemmas with the weight they require while not letting it deflate the whole soufflé on the rise.

And how confidently the movie knows its lead characters' hearts. The proceedings are attuned to their shifts of feeling and desire. It knows keenly the way an off-hand comment can cut like a knife, a new situation can throw new light on a person you thought you knew. Stewart, especially, enters the picture as the outsider, and the way she gingerly tries to ingratiate herself with the family and do right for the woman she loves, even as she questions her (and their!) priorities, is written across her every gesture. (Stewart is truly one of the finest performers of her generation for how casually she holds the screen and communicates a scenario, even without a word.) I was invested in the emotional complexities at hand, even as the movie does its best to use them as grist for the feather-light touch it uses to draw them out and tie them up. Ultimately, the film plays fair by its characters while wearing its heart on its sleeve. And writer-director Clea DuVall not only gets great dynamics out of the cast, and paces out the comedic and dramatic bits with fine timing, but helms it all with high gloss and Christmassy production design and needle drops. It’s refreshing to find any studio comedy (albeit rerouted to Hulu in another of this year’s endless necessary schedule shuffles), let alone the rare Christmas one, that works this well at a human level. It’s broadly appealing and appealingly specific.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Down to Business: MULAN

Disney’s first Mulan is a great androgynous adventure musical. The 1998 film about a brave girl in ancient China who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army is vibrantly animated with fun songs and terrific action sequences, cut with generous comedy and a commitment to being a casually open-minded argument for gender fluidity. It’s fantastic. Now here’s the inevitable live-action remake, because Disney appears determined to regurgitate every one of its animated classics. At this point, I wonder if the studio has a mandate to filmmakers requiring each remake to be twice as long (or more) and half as good (or less). You have to admit the consistency, at this point, is amazing. Some have merit, but none best or equal their inspirations. For a while, Niki Caro’s Mulan looks like it’ll hold its own. Done up like a fantasy — with a new side-villain in the form of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li), and talk of Mulan filled with “chi” as if it’s The Force — it’s painted in vibrant reds and greens and oranges borrowed from the Zhang Yimou palette. The film follows the broad outlines of the original, with Mulan (Yifei Liu) flunking a matchmaker’s test before stealing the armor, sword, and conscription scroll of her old man (Tzi Ma) and heading off to boot camp. The characterization is efficient, and the early camp scenes with likable fellow soldiers have a pleasant crackle. And who doesn’t like a good training montage? The score, too, has some nice melodic references to the memorable songs that have all been excised here, along with the dragon sidekick, in favor of aping the historical epics that are better done when its a Yimou or Tsui Hark.

That’s about the extent of the call-backs, though, and, while I much prefer the attempt to deviate somewhat from the original (far better than the soulless carbon copy of The Lion King that disgraced our screens last year), the attempt has nonetheless removed its sprightly energy, and its sense of character-based cause-and-effect. Instead we have beats hit and lessons learned, with clunky exposition (or paraphrases of missing song lyrics) and clumsy speechifying reducing the dramatic stakes instead of heightening them. Secrets are revealed when the movie needs them, not when they make the most dramatic sense. Gentle romantic tension between Mulan in drag and a male soldier is strangely tamped down, and the movie consistently elides the original’s gender fluid undercurrent. It’s also, one coy nighttime dip aside, strangely unconcerned with the actual bodies involved. (Why bother transcribing an animated movie into on-screen humans if you’ll put less attention to the physical form?) And because the film is a more somber affair, it really starts to drag in the back half. Most of the comedic relief has been removed. It has too few action sequences, despite kicking up some mildly Wuxia-adjacent energy in its better moments—and despite casting Donnie Yen and Jet Li in choice supporting roles, only to have them stand around in fabulous costumes instead of, you know, getting in on what they’re among the best in the world at. The cast is so great, one wishes the movie was at their level. The movie is totally functional, but often empty, too often missing a reason for being beyond the cash at hand.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Road to Ignition: UNHINGED

Unhinged is a road rage thriller partially built out of what’s broken in a particular kind of modern American white man. It’s also a movie with some nifty car crash sequences that director Derrick Borte clearly took time to crunch and shatter with real heft and oomph. Too bad, then, that the movie only works in fits and starts. At its center is the glowering villain played by Russell Crowe, perhaps exorcising his own reputation for a short fuse. He’s been in full-on character actor mode for at least a decade now, and it suits him. Here he’s a tower of solid bulk, menacing as his voice tumbles down to a growling grumble. Behind the wheel of one of those enormous pickups with an engine so loud it’ll rattle your windows when it drives by, he stares down a woman (Caren Pistorius) who dares to honk at him and demand she apologize. She doesn’t, nor should she have to, but he takes that as provocation to ruin her day. The whole thing runs barely 80 minutes as he stalks and chases—when it’s in lean Duel mode it’s a thing of junky concise effectiveness. To pad the runtime, however, the screenplay by Carl Ellsworth (Disturbia) turns him from a run-of-the-mill psycho into a burgeoning slasher villain. In the opening scene we see him murder his ex-wife and her new husband, burning down their house and going on the run. It’s brutal stuff. Later, he’ll take detours from the chase to tie up, torture, intimidate, and kill a variety of his road rage victim’s closest allies. He wants to make her hurt. It’s a nasty piece of work—especially as he’s declaiming his own victimhood, declaring women to be the ruin of his life.

He’s a white middle-aged misogynist, shaking with violent potential simply because he feels life hasn’t given him what he was owed. And, of course, he lacks all introspection that would allow him to take some stock of his own actions as a cause of this perceived lack. All he needs is a red ball cap to complete the sociopolitical insight. That the movie spins him up into larger-than-life while letting Crowe fill in his pathetic rage is a strange mix. It works, but only sometimes. If the movie was just a few degrees more perceptive and gutsy — instead of just clodhopping and nasty —it’d be up there with the Terry O’Quinn classic Reaganomics thriller The Stepfather. The movie is a blunt, bludgeoning instrument—effectively covered, briskly plotted, efficiently acted in broad genre types, but still clumsy in its unfolding. There are too many reasons for it to take detours or let the foot off the gas. It’s rare that a mere 80 minutes feels draggy, but there we are nonetheless. It serves up just enough fun car bits and a committed central performance that I wished it had more to offer. But if you want to see a cop car t-boned and pancaked by a big truck, here’s the movie for you. Or you can just see that in the trailer.

X-Hausted: THE NEW MUTANTS

It must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time: spin a cheaper, low-key X-Men spin-off by extending the early body horror teen drama moments at the beginning of the 2000 movie that began the whole franchise. Remember the early scene of Anna Paquin coming into her powers? She kisses a boy and he starts having a seizure. The veins in his face bulge. He collapses as Paquin screams in fear and confusion. It’s easy to see why The Fault in Our Stars’ Josh Boone could convince the powers that be at Fox (at the time) that a feature length version of that could be effective. So here are The New Mutants, arriving after a complicated release date shuffling that left the project effectively an orphaned afterthought. Now no longer a promising offshoot of a going concern, the Disney acquisition of its parent company has left it a weird one-off, an abandoned what-if, a castoff misfire, a dead-end. At least it didn’t happen to a good movie. Here Boone gives us a quintet of moody mutant teens cooped up in a mysterious asylum where the lone employee (Alice Braga) claims to want to help them discover their powers. It’s a small, evil mirror of Professor X’s academy. Here the burgeoning mutants are afraid of what might be lurking in their bodies and minds. There are group therapy sessions — like a boring Breakfast Club where occasionally someone lights themselves on fire or disappears into another dimension or something — and plenty of down time as the movie lazily winds its way to a half-hearted CG climax. Along the way, the young actors are given stiff lines and soupy accent work—leaving usually reliable performers like Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy traipsing through exposition with painfully clunky squeaks and quips. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with the movie that plot or character or setting wouldn’t have fixed. The whole thing is an exercise in futility, like a bland pilot for a show that won’t get picked up, or a comic book experiment that’s bound to get cancelled a few issues in. The figures don’t pop; the mood never picks up any atmosphere; the filmmaking is functional at best—all close-ups and medium shots. The set is simple and spare; the movie's one location never feels like a real place, or makes sense as the pressure-cooker it should be. The effects are modest and ineffectual. Even the best visual ideas — creepy Slendermen attackers who swarm near the end, a glowing blue psychic sword — are rendered with a been-there-done-that groan of complacency. If this monotonous slog to nowhere is the best this once-great series could give us, I’m more than ready to put it out to pasture and let some new blood rethink its path forward.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Out There: FIREBALL: VISITORS FROM DARKER WORLDS

It speaks to how much we can trust Werner Herzog’s perspective that when he makes a documentary about meteorites and it becomes an intermingling of the spiritual and scientific it feels exactly right. We know he’s not proselytizing or imbuing hard fact with squishy woo-woo sentiment. His soothing voice and great eye, not to mention his wry humor and patient inquisitive style, draws us naturally into his deeper contemplation. It’s a state of total openness to the universe and its natural wonders. He’s fascinated by what we can know, but he’s just as drawn to to the limits of what we can know. He’s been on a roll with these deep dives this decade—cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), death row (Into the Abyss), the internet (Lo and Behold) and more. Now, for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, he speaks to people who have spent their lives studying space debris that falls to earth. (Who else but Herzog would ask so simply if people get hit by them often, and not mean it entirely as a joke?) With Cambridge scientist Clive Oppenheimer as his guide and host, Herzog examines notable craters, places where, over the centuries, temples were erected, museums were established, great research took place, and striking art was made. He takes us to labs in Arizona, the Pope’s summer residence —where a notable observatory is run by a Jesuit geologist—and a Norwegian jazz musicians micrometeorites hobbyist collection. He takes us to a tiny Mexican town where the dinosaurs’ fatal blow was struck—only Herzog could call a place “so godforsaken it makes you cry” without sounding insulting. They drop down into caves Mayans thought were entrances to the underworld. He takes us to rural France and Mecca, Antartica and Africa. He’s a man of the world. 

Throughout, staying mainly off camera or delivering his mellifluous pondering as voice over, he emphasizes how extraordinary it is that these chunks of outer space fall to our planet. In fact, they fall all the time, often just dust in the wind, drawn down through the vagaries of time and space to land in what quite literally might be your backyard. Some of the grandest mysteries of all creation softly dropped around us. But in his typical way, he’s just as interested in how these mysteries change our humanity—our recognition that we’re part of something bigger. He knows these celestial objects have shaped how we think about ourselves, and beyond ourselves. And he’s also a terrific guide to these thoughts, entertaining little jokes and asides, per usual, and focusing his camera on interesting details every step of the way—a grinning museum patron, a crumbled shack, a ritual, a clip from Deep Impact. Herzog presents a world that is broad and interconnected, where any one fascinating subject seems to open up endless avenues for wonder.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Fly Away Home: THE PAINTED BIRD


Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird is a feat, above all else, of cinematography and commitment to tone. For it is a bleak story of misery and abuse that runs for nearly three hours in essentially uninterrupted grimness. Only the matter-of-fact beauty of its painterly filmic black and white photography — a scope landscape filled with stormy shadows and pale light dancing in the gorgeous grain — provides a spark of hope in this darkness. It is a litany of calamity — ugly, intimate, personal — on the margins of a grinding historical tragedy. Adapting the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński, it follows a story of a young boy (Petr Kotlár) who is lost, abandoned and adrift in struggling war-torn villages of eastern Europe during World War II. He moves from miserable vignette to more miserable vignette, finding adults at every step consistently misusing him. They mock him, sell him, hit him. He sees violence, torture, and sexual exploitation. He’s even buried in the ground with just his little head poking out above the surface, the better for birds to pick at his scalp while he screams and cries. It’s not always that intense, but it’s all disturbing to one degree or another. Each tableau of human misery is exquisitely photographed and artfully designed, cut and framed in long, languid takes to emphasize the matter-of-fact horror of each moment. It’s unflinching and unsparing, though it’s also carefully arranged such that it’s easy to step back and marvel at the technique and shake ones head at the procession of terrible events that befall this painfully sympathetic vulnerable innocent. Kotlár gives a tremendous child performance, with intensely pensive eyes and an ability to hold a blank face, perfect for maximum Kuleshov effect. He is surrounded by terrific experienced actors — Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsagård, Barry Pepper, and more. But even their more famous visages, sprinkled throughout the film’s endurance-test length, hardly puncture the brutal and brutalizing mood. It’s an endless line of unimaginable physical and emotional pain strung along with the austere beauty of a borrowed Euro-art-house style that connects it to similarly pensive patient devastations a la Bergman or Tarkovsky. Theirs were enlivened by a sense of discovery, thoughtfulness, and humanity. Here, instead, is a film solely focused on the evil that men do. “Isn’t that awful?” is about the extent of its ideas, however masterfully conjured the images.

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.

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.