Monday, March 29, 2021

Sons and Daughters: MINARI and THE FATHER

There’s something tender and tenuous at the heart of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, embodied in the central presence of an adorable little boy (Alan Kim) with a heart condition that could lead it to stop beating at any moment. He’s the son of recent Korean immigrants to the United States, where they’ve recently moved to Arkansas chasing the dreams of a father (Steven Yeun) who hopes to become a farmer. That his wife (Han Ye-ri) isn’t exactly on board is part of the family tension here, and the son and his sister (Noel Kate Cho) seeing it all gives the film an added layer of innocent curiosity, and impish bemusement. This isn’t the standard immigrant tale of the cliches that your head might autofill—no hardscrabble urban life or tenement tensions. Here is a small, intimate, closely-observed picture of family life and farm chores, loneliness and isolation, big dreams and comfortable homeland traditions. There’s something quintessentially American about this construction, some Steinbeck to its run-down farm home and acres of fields, and the honest toil it requires and toll it takes to make do and get by. The tensions here are not drawn out in easy ways a more familiar approach would take.

The film is small and sensitive, quietly imbued with a generosity of spirit in its wide open spaces. Here we sit with the plucky youngster’s medical issue, or the honey-coated small-town prejudices that threaten to spill over, or the plight of a wily mother-in-law (Youn Yuh-jung) flying in with her stubborn ways and fragile body and only sort of what her grandchildren think they want in a grandmother. This is a young family, and we see their growing pains—the displacement, the disagreements, the cross-purposes. Chung is a patient and compassionate filmmaker, whose great insight is to view each character’s perspective with understanding. We see the ambition of the father and the reticence of the mother, the tough exterior and sly glow of the grandmother, the chipper ups and downs of the children's lives. Best of all, the film doesn’t build to false crises or manipulative plot turns; it resits expectations in a pleasant way, always a little bit better than the movie you fear it might become. Instead it gently sits by as lives are lived, and a family puts down roots. No wonder a central metaphor is a divining rod; they're looking for a purpose to bring them together and guide their paths through the enormity of their potential. 

On the other end of family life is Florian Zeller’s The Father. It’s about an older family—an aging patriarch slipping into dementia (Anthony Hopkins) and his middle-aged daughter (Olivia Colman) who tries to help him as what was once clearly a formidable intellect disappears. He lives in his own flat in London, and his daughter needs to hire live-in help. Or maybe he’s moved into her flat, and she needs to hire day help. She’s married. Or maybe divorced. Or maybe moving to Paris. To the old man, every day seems much like the same. And some days are the same day. Time seems to loop back in on itself and he meets events coming and going. And one day, early in the film, his daughter walks in played by Olivia Williams instead. (That not only are her looks almost, but not quite, Colman’s, but the performer’s name is, too, adds to the layers of confusion.) Details shift. Connections drop. The man’s forever looking for his watch or tea, puttering around, opening doors that are sometimes leading to slightly different rooms. He’s living his own personal Exterminating Angel, that classic surrealist Buñuel film in which a dinner party’s guests are forever getting ready to, but never actually quite, leaving the house.

Zeller’s subtle filmmaking, and sharp script adapted from his play, with laser-focused characterization and casual glimpses of shifting context, puts us in the man’s state without ever quite leaving a grounded family drama; we can catch glimpses of it through the confusion, with just enough sense of the facts on the ground that we can track the events' logical progression. But he can’t keep up, and so retreats into his confusion, faking, or maybe just barely, understanding sometimes, other times breaking down in a fog. Hopkins work is raw and unfiltered, haltingly disappearing into this haze. Colman’s heartbreak and love reads in every gesture. The movie is achingly unflinching in its evocation of this terrible moment, where the curtains are about to be drawn on his life, and his family waits in a pendulous sense of duty and uncertainty, watching him slip away before he’s gone. His fear is palpable, as is his mortality. This is a picture of familial love at a moment of tested strength, and painful to consider. Yet this is also, in its way, a gentle film, kind to its characters even in its terrifying immediacy and sorrowful contemplation.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Features Creatures: LOVE AND MONSTERS

Love and Monsters is a post-apocalyptic creature feature lark with the tone of a PG-13-ized Zombieland. But Dylan O’Brien is no Jesse Eisenberg, if you catch my drift. When he, looking as he does like his photo should be in the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog, jokes about not being in shape, or affects an aw-shucks shyness of an in-his-head loner, it doesn’t exactly land. Nevertheless, the movie just doesn’t give him the scaffolding to be convincing, so I won’t place all the blame on his shoulders. The movie has this weightless, airless, derivative bent that never sparks to life. Maybe the problem is the tone, a light la-di-da hand-waving the end of the world as we know it that lands differently today than it would’ve, oh, thirteen months ago or so. It kicks off with a jokey expositional voice over that quickly lets us know that, some years before the start of the story proper, radioactive chemicals rained down on our planet and turned all the bugs and lizards into big monsters. Watching a chart fill up the loss of 95% of the world’s population hits a bum note for how it is glossed over and shrugged off. Oh, well. We pick up with O’Brien, having spent several years in a bunker where everyone else is a couple. He misses his pre-apocalypse girlfriend (Jessica Henwick) and decides to trek across the monster-filled land to find her hideout. This takes him through a variety of episodic encounters with said monsters—drooling mega-ants, massive frogs, towering snails—and a survivalist (Michael Rooker). Director Michael Matthews, in his Hollywood debut, gives the critters a slick look — somewhere between cheap 50’s B-movie chintziness and Spiderwick Chronicles YA semi-real gloss — and serves up Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson’s slight screenplay with rote professionalism. But it also reminds one of so many other, similar, better movies, that it’s never more than underwhelming.

Even simpler, yet easily more satisfying, a monster movie is writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson’s Monster Hunter. It’s a spare, stripped-down, no-frills, effective and efficient tale of action and survival. Anderson has always been expert at making more out of less, building out suggestions of baroque worlds and staging plots of sincere simple genre vision. Once again starring his wife Milla Jovovich — the capable anchor of his flagship franchise, Resident Evil — this new based-on-a-video-game fantasy actioner finds a military unit searching the desert for a missing platoon when, zip-zap-zoom, an other-worldly lightning storm sends them to an alien landscape. There they must battle enormous creatures — swarms of enormous spiders laying gross parasitic egg sacks, or gigantic gnarly lizards of one dinosaur variety or dragon-like others — and find a way to get back home. That’s really all there is to it. Jovovich’s soldier makes a quick study, adapting her combat to fight back the beasts, getting an assist from a mysterious monster hunter (Tony Jaa), whose lengthy getting-to-know-the-interloper sequences play out like John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific was transposed to a pulp sci-fi paperback’s painted cover. Eventually, we circle back to the sand pirates (led by Ron Perlman, whose gravely voice, stony face, towering physique, and earnest affect are always perfect for this sort of thing) who made an appearance in the cold open, as the line between this world and ours grows perilously thin. The hectic monster battles are fun, and Anderson knows his way around quickly sketching an immediately understandable nonsense world. The picture is a neat, short, economical little big movie that’s exactly what it promises and no more.

Friday, March 19, 2021


How appropriate that Zack Snyder’s vision for Justice League ended up being a long, melancholy, mournful, patient, troubled and yet ultimately hesitantly triumphant movie about resurrections. There’s a Superman who died in the climax of 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and will eventually be revived with alien magic. There’s an ancient pact between man and gods due to be restored in order to combat an alien invasion. There are heroes who once had hope who will find their reasons for fighting again. Elsewhere there’s a dying teenage hacker robotically revived by his scientist father, and a speedy young man hoping to restore his father’s good name. There’s even the villain’s plot: to unearth antique terraforming machines long-buried and bring about devastating world-changing power to prepare the way for fiery apocalyptic inter-dimensional conquerors. There’s something curiously moving about all of these images and statements and motifs of death and rebirth, about parents missing children, mentors losing pupils, lovers separated by loss, defenders drained of their will — and at every step the slow work of building coalitions to protect and save. That it was all there, before he left the project due to a family tragedy, before its initial 2017 release buried those ideas under reshoots and reedits by Joss Whedon that made it into something poppier and emptier and deeply confused, makes this restored and completed cut not only a total improvement in every way, but something of a resurrection itself.  

Snyder’s vision of the DC universe, it’s clear to see, is dark and alienating in many ways. His 2013 Man of Steel takes the last son of Krypton not as uncomplicated superhero, but as the alien being he is. (Henry Cavill’s otherworldly handsomeness helps there.) It takes him seriously, and sees that he's a little scary, as it scrambles the usual take in what, after decades of superhero movies' samey bright quips and weightless consequences-free spectacle, stands out as unusually weighty, destructive, calamitous. It has a certain power. Similarly, Snyder’s grim versus followup snapped into clearer focus for me these days. After the year we’ve had, is there any doubt a real Superman would not exactly unite our divisions? I wrote at the time that that film is “intent to imagine a worst-case scenario superhero world, in which they’re…vigilantes viewed with suspicion, fear, and worship, and who nonetheless must muster the energy to save the planet.” I called the movie cynical and heavy and curdled, and I don’t think I’d change my mind about those adjectives, but I would change my mind about that being a bad thing. Maybe it’s just the passage of time, or the tenor of the times, but I found myself, in revisiting the Snyder-verse over the last few weeks, sympathetic to and engaged by his attempt to try something different. After all, we have so many superhero stories that go the same route over and over and over again — hitting the same beats, making the same poses, telling the same moral lessons while ignoring areas of culpability these larger-than-life figures would have in something like the real world. Why not try to spin a new myth out of old symbols? Snyder is a powerful image-maker for good and for ill, but in this new cut of Justice League he puts some of his finest filmmaking to use clarifying and extending his vision for this comic book universe.

His Justice League assembles in a film full of typical Snyder touches: obvious symbolism, thick layers of atmosphere, slow-mo poses and vivid pop art combat, moody music and acrobatic violence, terse exposition and pulp poetry, flashy comic book fashions and rippling physiques. But its very idiosyncrasy is what makes it so compelling, and its excess so watchable. He’s using the language of blockbusters to muscle in his mythmaking, to pour out his heart into these squares of hectic collisions and languidly drawn emotions. It’s outsized — every frame squared off by cinematographer Fabian Wagner in tall boxy IMAX aspect ratio — and sometimes corny — like a robot-man envisioning the economy as an enormous bear and bull fighting — but it’s always clearly springing out of a singular, complicated vision with its inconsistency and eccentricity earnestly displayed. Here’s a boy trying to save a girl in a slow-mo sequence agonizingly stretched until it’s almost romantic. Here’s an army of Amazons fighting against a marauding alien, their queen's voice quaking as she tries to warn her exiled daughter. Here’s a grieving reporter in a soft heart to heart with her dead fiancé’s mother. Here’s a father and a son grappling with catastrophic change, a source of connection that nonetheless drives them further apart. Here’s the heir to Atlantis brushing off his birthright. Here’s the solo vigilante forced to admit he needs some help. It all builds to calamitous action, and that’s satisfying enough as those things go — and probably the best Snyder’s ever done it — but it’s the long build up — nearly three whole hours of it — devoted to characters and their tentative connections forging and accruing that’s most interesting.

That’s not to say it all works. The thing stretches to just past four hours and hits some of the same thinness that structured the first theatrical cut. The gloopy animated villain and his world-ending plot is never quite as sharp as the best of its genre competitors', and some side characters get lost in the shuffle. (I found the fleeting appearance of an unbilled surprise pretty much a whiff, and a newly shot nightmare at the end of the epilogue a bummer of a conclusion that probably should’ve gone post-credits as it spoils the mood of the main story’s resolution.) And it’s still in some way playing grab-bag with the standard tropes. But the superhero genre provides us so little majesty these days, it’s satisfying to watch Snyder get there. It put me in mind of Ang Lee’s Hulk and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboys and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Mans, movies of this kind that have big CG spectacle and swinging action and popcorn plotting that somehow manage to be personal and eclectic visions, about real human emotions buried under the spandex and shining through the actors’ intimate moments between slam-bang high-speed collisions. He poses his performers iconographically, and they all fit the parts well. Jason Momoa is an ideal charismatic reluctant Aquaman; Gal Gadot is still a fine Wonder Woman; Ezra Miller is good comedic relief Flash; Ray Fisher does swell robo-soul searching as Cyborg; and Ben Affleck’s Batman has never been better. Snyder has them bring out flickers of humanity in the grinding exposition and explosions. The whole long picture is evocative, exciting, exhausting, and always distinctive. Even when it’s silly, or soggy, at least it’s sincere. It’s exactly what it wants to be — a thunderous cracked fantasy of a fallen modern world that maybe, just maybe, can be temporarily solved by restoring something we love.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Fresh Prince: COMING 2 AMERICA

In 1988, Prince Akeem of the small fictional African nation of Zamunda came to America, hoping to find a wife. It resulted in an amusing-enough culture-clash comedy that benefited from a star turn from Eddie Murphy at the early height of his powers, and the big budget Hollywood gloss that makes any even halfway decent comedy from the days of shooting on film look just a little bit better than the digital non-style style that passes for big screen comedy these days. Now it’s the latest 30-year-old comedy to get a belated sequel in Coming 2 America. Although this time it’s shot bright and flat like a sitcom, returning screenwriters Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield (with an assist from Black-ish’s Kenya Barris) have retained the original charms while dialing back some of the raunch and retrograde gender politics. Director Craig Brewer (not for nothing a better director than the original’s John Landis) finds a mellower key for a surprisingly sweet goof that flips the dynamics in clever ways.

It finds Akeem is now King of Zamunda, but without a male heir. In this male-dominated monarchy, that might cause some trouble about lines of succession, even though his hyper-competent and confident daughters are clearly some fine royal specimens capable of leading. For one thing, they’re all excellent fighters — his oldest is even The Old Guard’s KiKi Layne, so you know she can take care of herself. Still, the King’s hopes for a son are answered by the revelation that he fathered a son off-screen during the last movie. Surprise! (His best friend (Arsenio Hall) vaguely remembers the details.) So the movie’s about a thirty-year-old from Queens (Jermaine Fowler), with mom (Leslie Jones) and uncle (Tracy Morgan) in tow, turning up in the palace somewhat ready to claim his place in the royal family. (Some Princess Diaries crash courses might apply.) Though it threatens to become a loud romp, the movie is more interested in a mellow, low-key vibe, letting family dramas just sentimental enough ring out in a comic key surrounded by some good gags, and even a few musical numbers.

The cast keeps it as pleasant as the design of Zamunda — in retrospect a Wakanda spoof avant la lettre — is pleasing to the eye. They’re decked out in Ruth E. Carter’s finest patterns and styles, a little Black Panther here, tribal patterns, flowing fabrics, and elaborate jewelry there. That these comic performers carry out their silly little bits of business and amusing patter in this stunning wardrobe adds to the charms. Above all, it’s nice to see Murphy back in a comedy that plays to his strengths. It’s a perfect blend of the wilder energy of his early roles and the gentler family fare he aged into. There’s some impish sparkle in his eyes (especially in his under-makeup multiple roles reprising the barbershop jokesters from the first film), and a comfortable fatherly cuddliness to his paternal interests in the plot. And it’s poignant to see his dawning awareness of a need to push back on the patriarchy that forces him to ignore his wonderful daughters in favor of a son he barely knows. Yet best of all, perhaps, is his willingness to cede some of the spotlight to Fowler’s Prince Lavelle Junson of Queens, an appealing performance that’s in a slightly different register from Akeem. He plays the culture clash here, bringing a New York swagger to the formality of the palace. He gets a more earnest rom-com plot as he’s torn between a stunning princess (Teyana Taylor) from neighboring country Nexdoria (maybe too lightly treated for being run by a peacocking warlord (a game, energetically goofy Wesley Snipes) and his child soldiers), a match that might make good political sense, and a more relatable court stylist (Nomzamo Mbatha), who might be better for him personally. It's serious, but cute.

The whole picture is uneven, with some jokes flat and a few conceits a tad under-cooked, but the project has enough charms that I found it hard to resist. Brewer keeps the tone on track, with the simple sitcom staging inviting enough emotional investment without stamping out laughs, which in turn keep the more serious geopolitical allusions at bay. This is a character piece, not a world building endeavor or cultural argument beyond the softly insistent gender balancing. The ensemble is on the same chill wavelength, resisting overt farce for something more relaxed, an amusing and amiable consideration of generational conflict wrapped up in semi-serious stakes for this never-quite-believable kingdom. It honors the original in its throwback appeal—a reminder of a time when a movie could be a couple good star turns, some funny supporting roles, and a simple high concept executed well enough.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Family Matters: LET HIM GO

The most frightening aspect of the exceptionally taut thriller Let Him Go is the bloodlust it whipped up in me. I can’t remember the last time I was so involved in one of these that I was on the edge of my seat rooting for the painful punishment of its villains. But there I was, by the end of the picture, hoping against hope that Diane Lane or Kevin Costner would get to that shotgun and blast Lesley Manville and Jeffrey Donovan away. This is a masterfully manipulative bit of moviemaking, the kind of clean, spare, simple story — a sort of mournful melancholy Magic Hour midcentury western — that gets its hooks in early and pulls tighter as the suspense simmers and you just know the only way out will be bloody. Lane and Costner bring a leathery goodness and low-boil righteous anger to their roles as rancher grandparents whose only child has died. His widow (Kayli Carter) remarried a man who, it is quickly clear, is abusing her. When the new husband suddenly up and moves to North Dakota, absconding with his new wife and her son, our leads’ beloved grandson, the older couple decides to track them down and make sure they’re all right. They’re so not. The abusive husband, turns out, comes from a whole family of abusers, a manipulative, controlling bunch held together under the domineering watch of a cruel matriarch (Manville), her creepy brother (Donovan), and her gaggle of large adult sons. When our sympathetic leads finally get their way to their grandson — the way there winding, and full of long sighs and pregnant pauses and weary pulp wisdom like “that’s all life is: a list of what we have lost” — it’s sadly apparent that the new in-laws are not about to let the grandson or her mother out of their sight. By the second half of the picture, it’s become a tense battle of wills between the new and old in-laws, and we’re on Lane and Costner’s side every step of the way. It’s clear they need to save their grandson and former daughter-in-law from the clutches of this awful family, but how to navigate such an extrication is trickier by the moment. As danger rises, it’s clear there’s no easy way to loosen these villains’ grip.

Thomas Bezucha writes and directs with a keen eye for simple, direct emotion, clear and crackling spare dialogue, and classic widescreen staging. He’s composing shots to tighten disconnection between our leads and their foes, or to allow the blocking to heighten the danger of encroaching ill intentions, while balancing the vast open spaces that make this mid-20th-century western landscape look every bit the inheritor of the traditional family feud western. And he trusts his cast to imbue the underpinnings and subtext of scenes with weight and pain, allowing Lane and Costner the easy empathy and tough decisions that the shark-like maneuvering and twisted logic of Manville and her brood lack. It’s a balance of control the cast plays out, confident and still, gentle with a spine of steel, inevitable in trajectory but alive in the moment. And it all serves the crisp plot that slides into place with a cast iron weight and a dried-meat snap. Bezucha builds the desire for revenge so achingly that it somehow uses the barest layer of sentimentality to crack open the most intensely felt rage. These sweet grandparents simply must be reunited with their grandson and save him from the cruelties of his new stepparent. Buzucha, whose previous films are the 2005 ensemble Christmas comedy The Family Stone, and 2011’s sparkling G-rated girls’ vacation lark Monte Carlo, usually does fine work with family dynamics. Here he adds Eastwood-inspired filmmaking: direct, plain-spoken, uncomplicated, and driven by a small-c conservative vision of domesticity and safety. It has a relaxed confidence of vision and bone-deep understanding of character that makes its grip all the tighter. Its gripping finale and explosive desire for a righteous reckoning is hard-fought and well-earned. This is a terrific, expertly crafted thriller.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Scare Tactics: THE EMPTY MAN and FREAKY

Due to the vagaries of 2020 releases and corporate rejiggering, Disney ended up barely releasing Fox’s long-shelved horror movie The Empty Man last fall. It was only in theaters with no promotion and no critic screenings in the middle of a raging pandemic at a time when most exhibitors were closed and the few that weren’t were mostly empty anyway. So of course it went almost entirely unremarked upon and certainly barely seen. That’s a shame. The movie is strong stuff, the feature debut of David Prior, previously a creator of DVD features who now proves himself a filmmaker of style and distinction. I hope he makes it a habit. The film stretches over two austere hours. It’s patient with widescreen compositions, understated sound design and softly insinuating score as it takes a standard missing persons setup and grows weirder and more haunted by the scene. In approach there are echoes of David Fincher or Ari Aster in the bold use of deliberate tone and exquisite punctuation of editing and titles. It’s the sort of picture that’ll boldly declare “Day One” during a deeply creepy extended, mostly unrelated, tone-setting curtain raising sequence that ends with the film’s name followed by the introduction of our main character nearly 20 minutes into the feature. Prior quickly conjures a thick, mesmerizing atmosphere in which the tingling possibility of the physically uncanny and psychically unwell grows heavier with well-earned portent.

This is a confidently unsettled mood that matches the exhausted collapsing temperament of its lead character. James Badge Dale stars as the type of mournful lonely guy who’d get dragged into a mystery in these sorts of stories. He has a tragic backstory slowly unraveled for us, but from the instant we see him alone in a chain restaurant, sipping beer and sadly trying to slip the waitress a “Free Birthday Meal” coupon, we know that he’s a pitiable, sympathetic figure. And because we’ve felt the genre tremors and we’ve seen the mysterious going on in the opening — as, years earlier, three hikers meet a spooky fate lost in the mountains of Bhutan — we know that his friend’s runaway teen daughter is mixed up in some bad stuff. The movie takes on shades of Richard Kelly as an elaborate subterranean paranormal conspiracy starts to unravel, with the dark corners and quiet alleys Dale sleuths down getting him entangled with a rash of disappearances and suicides possibly connected to a creepy cult with a doughy wild-eyed leader (Stephen Root) who worship (or are maybe possessed by, or drawn to, or working for, or all of the above) the Slender Man-like figure of the title. It builds to unusual crescendos of shivery compositions preyed upon by heavy hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-tingling moments. It arrives at its scares earnestly, not in jumpy jack-in-the-box trendiness, but through stillness and insidious simmering unease.  

Another satisfying 2020 horror film lost in the pandemic shuffle is Freaky, a giddy jolt of a slasher riff that grafts a Freaky Friday twist onto the old hack-hack-hack kill-kill-kill tropes. It comes to us from Christopher Landon, whose Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U took Groundhog Day for a similar ride. All three are hugely enjoyable crowd-pleasers with exuberant set-ups and payoffs that know how to wring out a clever hook for all it’s worth. They have the tone of Craven’s Screams without imbuing the characters with those films’ teasing self-awareness. They can figure out the big genre conceits well enough, but don’t turn to each other and monologue about horror tropes. They just run through them energetically and enthusiastically. (One guy running from danger shouts, “You’re black! I’m gay! We are so dead!”) Where Freaky one-ups Landon’s previous pictures is in the gore, with several bloody shock moments of bodies cleaved in two or smashed apart. They’re of a piece with the slasher tradition, and deliver the did-I-just-see-that? gross-out glee of the genre’s best. And it somehow doesn’t tip the balance of what is a weirdly sweet and very funny teen comedy, complete with booming pop music and vibrant colors, surrounding the kills.

It has a mousy, unpopular, insecure high school girl (Kathryn Newton) nursing a crush, commiserating with two best friends, and dealing with family problems, and who finds all that taking a backseat to the main event: the serial killer (Vince Vaughn) who, through a simple use of a magic dagger, switches bodies with her. It gives Vaughn his best role in years, and he rises to the occasion playing a petite high schooler in his lumbering middle-aged bulk, convincingly matching the girl’s energy and able to play scenes opposite her crush or her friends in ways that aren’t condescending and track the emotional stakes. Similarly, Newton’s performance takes on a skulking dangerous swagger and, though it might stretch credulity that the maladjusted creep would have such a good sense of style, he seems to enjoy the easy access to vulnerable teens this great disguise gives him — and isn’t that all any slasher film villain wants? Like any good body swap comedy, it gets a lot of mileage out of its terrific lead performances, who take it seriously while understanding the lark of it all. And then the slasher beats get layered upon it, and the whole thing is a finely proportioned, sugary satisfying genre parfait. The film runs through its paces quickly and enjoyably, never swerving too far into the unexpected, but serving up the expected with style. Landon clearly enjoys delivering so thoroughly on a high concept premise, there’s no way he’d let it go to waste.

Saturday, March 6, 2021


Boss Level is only the third film in ten years from Joe Carnahan. As more a fan of his work than not, it’s frustrating that, of all his potential major projects that don’t get off the ground, this is his second in a row that’s basically tossed off and ignored. His last film, the loopy, uneven one-crazy-night crime comedy Stretch, was unceremoniously dumped direct to DVD just before its supposed theatrical bow all the way back in 2014. This new one — yet another Groundhog Day riff, this one with assassins at its core — has slipped onto Hulu with a shrug. Sure, it doesn’t work as well as his grimy Detroit cop thriller Narc or steely survival thriller The Grey does. It’s not even quite up to his cartoony guns-blazing action extravaganzas The A-Team or Smokin’ Aces. But there are car chases and sword fights that prove he still has a terrific sense of pace and space, cooking up overheated action in simple broad strokes across a wide frame. Yet the final balance is underwritten and too snarkily exaggerated to really land. It stars dependable man of action Frank Grillo as a ripped guy who finds himself in a time loop wherein he’s murdered by assassins. So many assassins. (It’s an eccentric ensemble which somehow accommodates both Michelle Yeoh and Rob Gronkowski.) Our lead starts his day with a machete swung toward his bed. If he survives, a machine gun tears up his apartment. If he survives that, he might be gunned down in the street or decapitated on an escalator. You get the idea. Eventually, he realizes it has something to do with his ex (Naomi Watts) and her dastardly boss (Mel Gibson). There’s also a subplot involving a moppet (Grillo’s actual son) who needs a positive male role model in his life. Turns out, the real Boss Level…is fatherhood. So the movie is stuck in two modes, outrageous flippant jokey gory violence on the one hand, sweet stuff about reconnection and growth on the other. The movie is far too bloody for the sentimentality, and far too sentimental for all the blood. It has flashes of teasing genre fun, but trudging through a wobbly smirking tone to get there is a bit much to ask.

Speaking of directors with careers I’m puzzling over: idiosyncratic French auteur Quentin Dupieux. He’s an original for sure. Read about one of his movies and you know it’ll be odd. The experience of watching one usually has identical pleasures to reading the log line. You hear Rubber is a bone-dry slasher satire about a sentient tire that rolls around exploding human’s heads. Watching the movie back in 2010 or so, the main thought I had was: yep, that sure is what this is. Ditto his most recent, Deerskin, a movie about a man who becomes a serial killer at the behest of his new jacket. Yep. That sure is what that is. I like his work in theory, but in practice it wears a little thin on my patience. Just now arriving on our shores in virtual cinemas is the most consistent fun I’ve had with his work: his 2018 film Keep an Eye Out. It’s a loony Möbius strip of a comedy set almost entirely in a police department office where a blustery detective (Benoît Poelvoorde) is taking a statement from a man (Grégoire Ludig) who found a corpse. The cop pecks out the statements on a clattering typewriter, casually smokes, and stalks the room, at least when he doesn’t step out for a family thing for a few minutes. The other officer in the room is a nice one-eyed dope. (Hence the double duty title, ha.) The film is one long digression, squeaking out to feature length, as an unspoken tension (the result of an early splash of slapstick violence imperfectly stowed away) simmers softly under flat-faced absurd roundabouts of dialogue. The pedantic detective keeps falling down rabbit holes of irrelevant questions and details as the suspect’s exceedingly boring story slowly develops. Flashbacks reenact the night in question, but even the characters in these past moments get tired of the immediate details and start having conversations bouncing off other elements of the film’s narrative. (We’re in a flashback, a man explains to a woman he won’t meet until later, which is our earlier.) Dupieux plays it straight, which makes it all the funnier as the casual silliness accumulates. As the spare plotting and simple staging backs itself into a narrative corner, the movie pulls back the curtain in a meta flourish that pulls the whole thing together in a most pleasingly nonsense way. The experience productively riffs on and extends from Dupieux’s interest in fictions and stories within stories and the exchange, the unspoken agreement, between a storyteller and an audience. And it’s just plain funny on a line by line basis, too. Take an early moment: when the suspect is asked how he could tell he saw a dead body if he’d never seen one before, he responds, he’s seen live bodies before, so he just compared.