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


I didn’t think I’d want to see Totally Under Control. Why, I thought, do I want to relive how COVID-19 spread through the United States as the government, from our bloated egotistical leader on down, flailed, denied, downplayed obfuscated, and lied? I lived it. I am living it. And then there’s director Alex Gibney, whose documentaries are so sturdily constructed, well-researched, simply framed. He makes films so frequently, and so frequently journalistic and of-the-moment, that they tend to pile up like so many unread issues of The New Yorker. Yeah, yeah, I think, I’ll get to that at some point. Yet I pressed play anyway, and I’m glad I did. Perhaps its the immediacy of this subject that gives this one such momentum. It picks up with the novel coronavirus exploding in China, an ominous storm on the horizon as our nation sits unprepared and unworried. With his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, Gibney marshals a staggering amount of information into a comprehensive timeline of disaster and despair, fear and floundering. Here is 2020 as we lived it, all the new unfolding at once, brought together, with clear context and comprehensive facts. It runs just over two hours and yet flies by, an outpouring of information strung along like a disaster narrative. We see all the instantly-memorable news footage — the overflowing hospitals, the cringing press conferences, the viral videos — and copious talking head interviews with doctors and scientists fresh from the front lines. In every moment there’s a vivid sense of instant history — yes, the viewer thinks, that’s how it felt. It’s like inhaling an entire year’s pandemic news feed in one bracing go. There’s great value to its bringing together of all of this so-very-recent history all in one place. Put it in the time capsule. The closest comparison I could think of is Charles Ferguson’s 2007 Iraq War doc No End In Sight. We rarely get these methodically enraging just-the-facts present-tense journalistic assessments of an unfolding disaster. The ironic title is a bitter sting. Even with vaccines and a better president, it’ll be a long way to go until we can say this disease is under control.

Alexander Nanau’s Collective is a similarly harrowing view of an unfolding disaster, but it’s intimate and deliberate, burrowing inward and growing all the more expansive for it. This documentary is about the process of reporting out a story, tracing the tendrils of corruption and deception, lies and greed, stretching through government and private business until it literally chokes out lives. The film is flat-faced horrifying and precisely constructed — a fly-on-the-wall closely-filmed document hurtling down the dark corridors in which its subjects attempt to shine some light. It fits right in with the Romanian New Wave films of the last decade and a half — films of sociopolitical vision, mordant humor, and expansive understanding (like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; Police, Adjective; and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) pin-pointing misery and its causes in the hushed tones of bureaucracy or paperwork in achingly personal moments of crisis. Those are vivid fiction, though. This is real. We follow a team of sports reporters who find themselves well positioned to report a massive scandal involving Romania’s hospitals. It begins with a fire in a nightclub. Some concertgoers are killed in the inferno. Several are rushed to the hospital with horrible, but recoverable, burns. Then they die, too. How could this happen? The answers start with diluted cleaning products and soon spiral to implicate the highest levels of power in systemic corruption. It becomes a group portrait of these diligent journalists looking to expose a nation’s deepest wrongs, and a vision of what it takes to confront cabals of rotten power brokers working only for themselves. It has to be a collective action to bring a spotlight on our world's darkest places.

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.

Monday, December 21, 2020

How It Hurts Me Inside: SMALL AXE

Filmmaker Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a collection of five feature-length films, might be his most impressive work to date. And he’s no slouch, responsible as he is for the brutal historical drama 12 Years a Slave and the exciting Chicago crime and corruption thriller Widows. This latest project is both wide-ranging and narrowly specific, encompassing a variety of moods and situations in an exploration into the lives of West Indian immigrants in London across a number of decades. It’s of a piece with his filmmaking interests in bodies in spaces — with everything from Cynthia Erivo’s tense running in Widows to Michael Fassbender’s wasting away in Hunger or swinging full frontal Shame, McQueen is a director who wants to put on screen bodies and what they can do in relation to what they reveal about character, and what it says about the spaces they’re allowed. His work is about bodies commodified, objectified, enjoyed, adrift, expressed — but above all else: alive. Here, across five separate stories with related thematic interests, we see immigrants taking up space in a land of white hegemony used to relating to these othered bodies as colonizers, and therefore still leery about seeing them as equal neighbors.

What elevates this project above McQueen’s other accomplished works is the way this interest is allowed its loosest expression, with an observational warmth and interpersonal beauty as actors’ behaviors guide a loving camera, which turns a well-worn eye on injustice without lingering in the pain. Its emphasis is on catharsis, on righteousness, on the frustrations and setbacks and wrestling with the mess of life. It’s that mess that makes of race relations the stuff of drama here, but modulated effectively, sometimes as foreground, sometimes as background, sometimes as implication. Roughly speaking, the five movies break down into: two films of a community built by rising up in opposition to or apart from a White culture (Mangrove and Lovers Rock), one about a Black man who hopes to change a racist system from the inside (Red, White and Blue), and two about Black men forged in the cauldron of racist systems (Alex Wheatle and Education). That they work together — as one expansive mural portrait of a time and a place and a people — and separately — as stand-alone works with varied topics and approaches — is part of the pleasures herein.

In Mangrove, culture creates connections, and walls off those who’d view those creating this culture with suspicion. Hence the tension. The film is about a restaurant which, due to its all-black patrons, draws the ire of Notting Hill police. It’s the 70s. A protest against law enforcement’s prejudicial treatment of this establishment ends up turning chaotic as the police apply their brutal bludgeoning tactics. Accused of provoking a riot, the owner (Shaun Parkes) and a handful of Black Panthers (including Letitia Wright—appropriate casting, that) are put on trial where they must face the unblinking and unthinking prejudice from the system that started the whole problem in the first place. An early scene of a raid at the restaurant lingers on a ladle clattering on the floor; a scene during the trial hangs behind a jail cell door as an unfairly accused man screams as he’s locked away for contempt after trying to point out the flaws in the judge’s approach. How galling what's considered equally expendable. The film’s a blood-boiling work of docudrama, so clearly arranged and carefully paced, and so attuned to the theatrical flourishes and grand opportunities for speeches and rhetoric in a captivating hot-button trial. (One wonders how anyone involved in the flat and broad and dull Trial of the Chicago 7 wouldn’t feel embarrassed by the comparison.) In these scenes, the protestors and the law are divided by the architecture and furniture of the courtroom. Their neighborhood oasis is invaded by suspicion. They’re simply fighting for the right to be left alone.

It’s this subtext that carries over into Lovers Rock, which contains a swooning immediacy and intimacy in group dynamics. Taking place entirely at an underground dance club in 1980, a tight, sweaty, and close quarters house party, the film finds its cast hiding away from the racist established party halls that wouldn’t have them. Set to a booming playlist and a jocular DJ, the movie finds a perfect encapsulation of how a shared set of cultural consumption — music, food, and slang, lovingly captured in process and effect— can knit a group closer together. When Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” starts, the crowd erupts with pleasure and delight, immediately slow-mo chopping along with goofy grins. Later, the electrifyingly falsetto “Silly Games” makes for a great slow-dance groove so intoxicating the group just keeps singing it even after the record stops spinning. The lilting attempts at the high notes and steady shuffle of feet is beautifully amateur, with a wondrously spontaneous outpouring of connection. Here’s a group safe and away from the cares of their days — although, of course, there are tremors of disjunction and disagreement spilling into the margins. But for these fleeting moments, they’re lost in the music, and in each other. McQueen, true to his interests, films bodies in close proximity to each other, capturing unspoken connections, slow grinds of seduction, and soft sweet flirtations. All the while the music thumps away until the early morning denouement. In a year that kept us apart, what a thrill to watch a movie capture this feeling of togetherness.

But if those two features are about community inside out, Red, White, and Blue takes an outsider in. Here John Boyega plays a scientist in 1983 who decides to change careers after he witnesses police attack his innocent father. Rather than fight that system from the outside — we saw how difficult that can be in the first film — he goes right into it. He signs up for the police academy with all good intentions, and we watch as he makes some progress before his hope erodes. Boyega plays a finely tuned arc that never tips its hand. He gives his character room to make believable well-intentioned decisions and strategic errors alike, never falling into overly proscribed preconceived ideas. It plays with the iconography of the policier with its matter-of-fact distance and just-the-facts crispness to the staging. But it’s enlivened by a sense of determination, and a sly humor to the outrageous absurdities of departmental racism. (It also doesn’t pass up the meta wink inherent in the scene where Boyega tells a buddy he wants to join “the Force.”) There’s a driving urgent collision between his desire to change the system while those closest to him worry the system will change him first. Set against the context of the other films in this grouping, McQueen makes it clear the degree of difficulty in approaching institutionalized bigotry of this, or any, kind, from any angle.

It’s an idea that reaches a culmination in the final two features in the project, which are the shortest, smallest, and most intently focused on the experience of one individual. In Alex Wheatle, the title character is a young man sentenced to prison for his role in a 1981 protest. There we watch the casual cruelty of incarceration as it shapes this man’s perspective. It’s among the most interior of these pictures, and McQueen brings his usual psychological immediacy to watching the situation’s toll. It’s a perspective that carries over into Education, a tightly drawn drama exploring 1970s trends in education that caused a disproportionate number of Black students to be siphoned off from mainstream schools into institutions of special education. Both these shorter features are as naturalistic as the others, but take on a shorter lens, a grainier closeness to the subjects, and watch as the sledgehammer subtlety of bureaucratic prejudice weighs heavily on those under its control. It’s responsive without being reductive. Taken together with the other works, McQueen has built up a portrait of a people and a place, a study of contrasts, collisions, consequences and contexts for which people cry out for justice. Its empathetic specificity is its individual strength, and its wide lens builds complexity into its cumulative power as a story of prejudice and perseverance.

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.