Sunday, January 31, 2021

Wasted Potential: PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

The more I think about Promising Young Woman, the less I think of it. The picture is a clever, even vital, concept driven straight off a cliff. This debut feature from Killing Eve writer Emerald Fennell is a bubblegum poisoned pill, a movie so surface cutesy that its dark dark dark implications get gnarlier as they grow, and more than it knows. The film stars Carey Mulligan as an isolated, directionless millennial crossing 30 single, living with her patiently worried parents, and working at a coffee shop. Nights she spends in clubs and bars pretending to be drunk until a “nice guy” tries to take her home. Then, when she’s faking passing out on a couch or bed while the guy slobbers and gropes, she’ll sober up real quick and scare the living daylights out of him. This high-risk intimate PSA is her only real passion. Her best friend killed herself after a frat house rape was caught on tape, and went unpunished. This one-woman one-on-one scared-straight program is her way of getting her friend’s justice. Or so she thinks. The movie plunges into edgy territory as it intermingles a heroine’s righteous indignation and her self-destructive impulses, her sympathetic victimhood and queasy nastiness. Even when the picture feints at hope, you get the feeling it’s short-lived. Sure enough, the movie goes darker, driving its tone deeper into despair — foot-on-the-gas Thelma and Louise style — in a climax of spectacularly upsetting hollow catharsis, at best one of pyrrhic satisfactions. The shame, then, is how empty it feels, a film choppy, flat-footed, and scattershot, a shallow provocation chasing empty thrills and cheap twists masquerading as sociopolitical nerve.  

The movie is riven with inner contractions. It flattens Mulligan’s character—denied an inner life—and reduces the ensemble around her (no matter how astute the casting) to stock types. The film even makes Mulligan, a poised and sharp actress, an awkward fit, wobbling unconvincingly in a revenge plot that never quite pops off until it’s too late. It wants to make her the unambiguous hero of the film—those guys have it coming to ‘em, after all, since they’re on the precipice of date rape if she was actually drunk. But it also gives her moments of spectacular cruelty toward other women where they’re allowed to twist in psychological terror until the film, and its lead, pull back the rug and say, ah ha, you were fine all along, you dope. There’s an old college classmate (Alison Brie) set up to believe she’s been raped, when she wasn’t, and a straw-man college administrator (Connie Britton) who is made to think her high school daughter has been kidnapped and dropped into a frat party, when she wasn’t. Into our lead’s single-minded behavior appears a seemingly actual good guy (Bo Burnham) who our hero thinks she might be able to make a future with. Why her single-mindedness drops for him is never clear.  (And why she doesn’t know about a central reveal from the jump is pretty weird, as well.) And by the end, it makes her a fool, too, though it also tries to tell us her ultimate revenge succeeds. It wants it both ways, spending an entire movie telling us the whole system is corrupt and blind to women’s needs (not untrue) and taking that to its logical extreme, and then resting its entire climactic twist on the assumption that, I dunno, maybe the system might do it right for once? It ends up a moral crusade that’s morally bankrupt, an exploration of toxic dynamics (complete with a jabbing use of the Spears song) that's just plain toxic itself.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2020























1. Da 5 Bloods
2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
3. American Utopia
4. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
5. Soul
6. The King of Staten Island
7. Nomadland
8. The Photograph
9. The Vast of Night
10. Small Axe

Honorable Mentions:
All the Bright Places; All Together Now; The Assistant; Bad Education; Beastie Boys Story; City Hall; Collective; Corpus Christi; Dick Johnson is Dead; Driveways; Emma.; The Empty Man; Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds; First Cow; The Forty-Year-Old-Version; Fourteen; Gretel & Hansel; Greyhound; Hamilton; Happiest Season; The High Note; I’m Thinking of Ending Things; The Invisible Man; Kajillionaire; La Llorona; Let Him Go; Lost Bullet; Marc Maron: End Times Fun; On the Rocks; Premature; Run.; Shirley; Sophocles in Staten Island; Sound of Metal; Straight Up; Totally Under Control; The Trip to Greece; The Way Back; What the Constitution Means to Me 

Other 2020 Bests

Other 2020 Bests

Other 2020 Bests

Cinematography (Film):
The Forty-Year-Old Version
The King of Staten Island
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The Painted Bird
Wendy

Cinematography (Digital):
American Utopia
Da 5 Bloods
The Invisible Man
Shirley
The Vast of Night

Best Set/Art Direction:
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Gretel & Hansel
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Mank
Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Best Hair and Makeup:
Black is King
Da 5 Bloods
Emma.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
The King of Staten Island

Best Costumes:
Black is King
Emma.
Gretel & Hansel
Mank
The Photograph

Best Stunts:
Bad Boys for Life
The Invisible Man
Lost Bullet
The Old Guard
Tenet



Best Sound:
The Invisible Man
Lovers Rock
Soul
Sound of Metal
The Vast of Night

Song:
“Double Trouble” — Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Feels Like Home” — All Together Now
“Husavik” — Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Jaja Ding Dong” — Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Queen Bee” — Emma.

Score:
Da 5 Bloods
Emma.
The Photograph
Soul
Wendy

Effects:
Greyhound
The Invisible Man
Mank
Underwater
The Vast of Night

Screenplay (Adapted):
Emma.
Greyhound
The Invisible Man
Nomadland
Shirley

Screenplay (Original):
Da 5 Bloods
The King of Staten Island
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The Photograph
The Vast of Night

Best Editing:
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Da 5 Bloods
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Nomadland
The Vast of Night

Best Animated Film:
The Croods: A New Age
Onward
Soul
Trolls World Tour
Wolfwalkers

Best Documentary:
American Utopia
Collective
Dick Johnson is Dead
Totally Under Control
What the Constitution Means to Me

Best Non-English Language Film:
Corpus Christi
La Llorona
Lost Bullet
Wasp Network
Zombi Child

Best Supporting Actress:
Chant√© Adams — The Photograph
Ellen Burstyn — Pieces of a Woman
Miranda Hart — Emma.
Justina Machado — All Together Now
Sierra McCormick — The Vast of Night

Best Supporting Actor:
Chadwick Boseman — Da 5 Bloods
Bill Burr — The King of Staten Island
Michael Martin — Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Rob Morgan — The Photograph
Shaun Parkes — Mangrove

Best Actor:
Ben Affleck — The Way Back
Bartosz Bielenia — Corpus Christi
John Boyega — Red, White and Blue
Delroy Lindo — Da 5 Bloods
Lakeith Stanfield — The Photograph

Best Actress:
Jessie Buckley — I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Frances McDormand — Nomadland
Elisabeth Moss — Shirley
Kristen Stewart — Happiest Season
Anya Taylor-Joy — Emma.

Best Director:
Eliza Hittman — Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Spike Lee — Da 5 Bloods
Steve McQueen — Small Axe
Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross — Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Chlo√© Zhao — Nomadland

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Busy Town, Busy People: CITY HALL, CITY SO REAL, PRETEND IT'S A CITY, and HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON

 “…to those who sneer at this my city…I give them back the sneer and say to them: Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” — Carl Sandburg

Among the many things the pandemic has changed for us is the city. Gone, for now, is the fun hustle and bustle of a metropolis. And gone is the sense of community when the act of getting groceries or going to the theater is suddenly fraught with the potential for perpetuating a crisis. (What those who feel no sense of social responsibility, those who’ve been gathering together in tight indoor spaces flapping their bare faces to the wind, feel about this is beyond my understanding.) Into this void step recent documentaries that remind us what it’s like to live in a city, to be surrounded with diverse interpersonal encounters, to mix with people across all manner of walks of life as a matter of course. That might also remind us to build awareness of the cooperation needed to survive.

In Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall, the master of the epic documentary of place and process—with such classics as High School and Juvenile Court among dozens more—now turns his camera on Boston. Filmed over the course of 2019, we see a four-hour picture of all the various tasks and responsibilities local government must accomplish. True to Wiseman’s form, there’s no explanatory text or contextualizing interviews. He gives us generously portioned—and subtly shaped—looks into a variety of situations. Meetings of all sorts form the backbone as we walk through negotiations, ceremonies, constituent Q&As, social services, parks and sports. Some recurring personalities emerge. The mayor—then Marty Walsh—is often around. But we also see community gatherings and various local leaders doing the humble work of keeping a sprawling urban environment running with maximum cooperation and minimum fuss. There’s joy to be found in its quotidian frustrations as we see people really trying to do good work, and others trying their best to maneuver around obstacles of one sort or another.

Watching the movie unfold we see the citizenry in all their rambunctious, and potentially fractious, diversity. How can one city manage to serve them all? And yet it does, however imperfectly. Here’s a movie that restores your awareness of how much goes quietly right every single day, and how much unspoken trust we actually have to have in one another in order to run an even partly functional society. The traffic lights change. The buses run on schedule. The employees of the city show up to work in offices flashy and humble alike. One scene that plays like a microcosm of this larger truth is bulk trash pickup day, a long sequence in which sanitation workers toss improbably outsized items into the back of a garbage truck. The gears grind and the rubbish is, somehow, amazingly, compacted. Every time they pick up another piece, you might think, how is this sturdy chunk of furniture going to fit? And yet, one watches in amazement as it does.

Over in Chicago, Steve James’ City So Real hops neighborhood to neighborhood in intimate portraitures of everyday life from barbershops and restaurants to dinner parties and fundraisers. Collectively, it becomes something like a comprehensive panoramic snapshot of modern (well, pre-pandemic, at least) life in the Windy City. He filmed it during the 2019 mayoral primary, using campaign events, debates, clashes, and canvasing as a guide to take us through the various social strata of his home city. Here, in this metropolis with rich working-class roots, coupled with a complicated history of corruption, we find a window that’s also a mirror. James has done this for his city many times over by this point, from Hoop Dreams’ young basketball players and The Interrupters’ community activists to Life Itself’s biography of quintessential Chicagoan Roger Ebert and America to Me’s deep dive into a high school. With this new project, we get to take a wide-ranging tour of the city with a knowledgeable guide able to communicate clearly about what, and who, should be seen.

It’s a sprawling series—stretching over five episodes—that encompasses the usual litany of the city’s issues: gentrification, police brutality, gun violence, economic inequalities, and local corruption. But it’s also a picture of a resilient people attempting, and often succeeding, to live side by side in that struggle together. This comes into sharp focus in the final episode, filmed during the summer of 2020 and all of its fraught pandemic protections and protests for racial justice. The camerawork, always a close and real style, takes on added urgency, and the interviews, largely outdoors, take on new tensions. But underneath even these complications we can see the soul of a proud city reflected in its best citizens yearning to do right by each other despite the best efforts of the worst.

Then there’s New York City, the star of two recent personality-driven documentary series. (If there’s a more photographed city than NYC, I don’t know what it’d be.) Pretend It’s a City finds Martin Scorsese following author, humorist, and all-around delightful crank Fran Lebowitz. It’s named for her advice to annoying tourists who gum up the sidewalks by gawking when they should be walking. It’s a city, she grumbles. People live here. They have places to go and people to see. Although, to hear her tell it, she can take or leave most people. Her fabulously cutting wit is often funny, as evidenced by Scorsese’s delightful laughter erupting in most scenes. She discusses the big topics of contemporary city life—helpfully segmented into episodes titled “Cultural Affairs,” “Metropolitan Transit,” and the like—as well as larger complaints and concerns about the world as a whole. Scorsese did this once before, in the relatively trim 2010 movie Public Speaking. What that 80-minute feature had in pithiness, this miniseries expands and luxuriates and can’t get enough. Here’s a project devoted to nothing more than the sheer pleasure of hearing a thoughtful person speak intelligently and humorously about matters of literature, society, and politics. That doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with her, or find her every stance an easy-to-grok assertion. It’s better than that: a chance to engage with a prickly and particular personality, sometimes nodding and smiling in concurrence, or sometimes carrying on little debates with her in your mind as you wait for her to slyly toss her next verbal grenade. She has love for what her city can be, and deep disgruntled complaints about all the ways it falls short.

Less irascible, but just as idiosyncratic is How to with John Wilson. This documentary series on HBO pushes against all possible definitions and assumptions that collection of signifiers put in your head. He’s a man with a camera. He wanders the city taking what must be endless amounts of footage. A people watcher par excellence, he narrates in a light, casual, unassuming tone a montage of continual surprise as he chases down the smallest of observations. These quotidian ideas build, in turn, to an accumulation of humanity in all its quirks and foibles. Take, for instance, a moment where he insists people conclude small talk with a tap on the arm. Surely, one thinks, there won’t be clips of that. But then there are. Over and over we see a conversation on the street or in the park or near the subway end with a gentle farewell tap. It goes on and on and the mind reels at Wilson’s ability to capture and synthesize. He reminds me of Bill Cunningham’s street fashion photography in his ability to find the striking in the everyday. But that’s not all. His winding, discursive episodes—part video essay, part memoirist visual diary—are too clever to be just a catalogue of behaviors. Often his narration will arrive matter-of-factly at a punchline of sorts, a flatly stated claim that’s given a surprisingly just-so visualization, some cockeyed perfect illustration in the form of a visual pun or goofy joke, or, even funnier once it’s lulled you into its rhythms, a counterpoint undercutting him.

Unlike so much television these days, it asks you to hear and see at the same time. You can’t be glancing up from a phone or laundry basket and get the full effect. He also interviews people, weaving them into his patter. He's able to disarm or discombobulate with his flatly presented simple questions. This takes us through a variety of eccentrics and interests—he’s talking everything from scaffolding, conspiracy theories, furniture preservation techniques, split checks, and, most randomly, a device a circumcised man invented to try to regrow his foreskin. (That last guy’s almost too eager to share.) Here’s a dryly funny and critical, but also warm and humane picture of life in the big city, aware of the full scope of our differences and commonalities. There’s something profound about his approach simply in its willingness to take in so much of his surroundings. Through his droll, intuitive shot selection, he’s sifted his images to help us notice things we might otherwise overlook. When he connects with a spring breaker on a beach and discovers depths in his shallowness, there’s a reminder that there’s always more to discover about the people and places around us. Wilson’s most moving episode is the last of the first season, in which COVID hits and he is forced to constrain his wanderings. It becomes the most interior and personal, as his whole urban environment is narrowed down to an attempt to cook the perfect risotto to leave for his elderly landlady as shelves empty and ambulances roar by. Again we see the beauty in the little things against the backdrop as enormous as a city.