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


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:

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:

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

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Birds & Bees Movie:

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

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

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

Thursday, October 8, 2020


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

Sunday, October 4, 2020


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

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