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 Na├»ma (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.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Do They Really Want to Love Forever? STRAIGHT UP

Straight Up
is a romantic comedy most satisfyingly unusual. It’s poised and witty, a torrent of snappy repartee between a central couple whose compatibility is sparkling and clear. That’s not exactly unexpected, though of course it’s been so long since anyone could pull even that much off that it’s a delight to see it can still be done. The hook, though, is where the unexpected sets in, and where the movie becomes a delicate tightrope dance across modern sexual politics and categories. Because it believes deeply in its lead characters, and really sees them in all their earnest searching, it barely steps wrong. The film’s young writer-director James Sweeney, making his debut feature, stars as an obsessive compulsive gay man whose persnickety self doubt (and repulsion to bodily fluids) has made it difficult for him to find a meaningful emotional or physical connection. Inexperienced and frustrated, he’s happy and surprised to discover sparks flying when he meets a charming young would-be actress (Katie Findlay). The two quickly discover compatibility. They share a clever sense of humor and similar cultural reference points (from Gilmore Girls to Halloweentown), and have bubbly banter that rat-a-tats with dizzy screwball pacing which flirts easily between good-natured agreement and gently irascible debate. The only problem, the young man supposes, is that up until very recently he thought he was gay. She, too, seems similarly out of step with the sexualized dating of their social scene, and is happy to take it slow. Why, this pairing might just work out for the best. As the two well-drawn and sympathetic characters navigate their flowering relationship, the movie finds an easy rhythm to its development, with people trying to make a life together as they also try to find themselves. It’s willing to think outside the box and explore sexual orientations in its fluidity, and finds wry asides with a supporting cast of one- or two- or three-scene ringers (Tracie Thoms, Betsy Brandt, Randall Park). Brimming with charm and gently prodding insight—and some satirical elbows thrown against modern mores—Sweeney makes a most auspicious debut. Filmed in pastel colors and well-staged in a boxy aspect ratio, its tender textures and fastidious design—look at the just-so sets, well-chosen bookshelves, and those two sequences of sharply used split-screen— match the just-so attitude of its outwardly poised protagonists, all the better to watch as they struggle to actualize their best lives. Think watercolors painted with hints of Wes Anderson and Gregg Araki, used to make a new film all its own.