Monday, May 31, 2021

Girls Trip: PLAN B

I miss movie theaters. It’d be a shame if only the biggest product gets placed there as the release schedule shows tentative signs of approaching normal sometime soon. When calling up a new streaming title, I still find myself hitting play thankful for the convenience of a new movie on my TV — it has certainly made these many months somewhat more bearable — but wishing I could see it large and loud with a crowd of like-minded strangers. Watching a movie like the Hulu debut Plan B — a small raunchy teen comedy that charmingly works out a tough social issue — might not at first seem the obvious place to make this point. One could easily see it playing like a sitcom special episode. But watching it build to big laughs and squirming sight gags that would surely have a crowd erupting, before defrosting its sweet sentimental core with gentle surprise turns, and then cutting to black with a laugh and a booming end credit song that’d guarantee you walk out grinning, made me yearn for the communal experience. I think it’d play even better with the rolling amusement that might overtake a crowd on the right wavelength.

The movie itself, the directorial debut of actress Natalie Morales from a screenplay by a couple iZombie scribes, is one of the better in a recent run of R-rated teen girl buddy comedies. That’s a welcome corrective to the years of boys being boys — though nothing close to full return to the freewheeling days of pre-code larks or screwball farces of Hollywood’s Golden Age that consistently let women run the show. The best of this new batch has to be 2018’s Never Goin’ Back, a dopey, easy-going, low-stakes, gross and silly stoner comedy about two teenage girls just trying to scrape up enough money to afford a better future. Also good, the transparent Superbad riff that is 2019’s Booksmart, with some huge laughs as its good girl protagonists try to cut loose on the last day of school. The least is probably last year’s HBO Max release Unpregnant, which stretches broadly to find its forced road trip wackiness — it’s for anyone who’d watch the brilliant drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always and ask where the laughs are. Still, Plan B, with its fine wide screen and loud poppy soundtrack, is in good company as it finds a crackling friendship chemistry between the anxious yearning of studious Sunny (Kuhoo Verma), who bristles under the expectations of her strict mother, and free-spirited Lupe (Victoria Moroles), who clearly uses her anything-goes exterior to cover up some roiling insecurities of her own. They throw a typical teen parents-are-gone house party at which Sunny has an ill-advised, and super fast, hookup with an unexpected partner. The next morning, she discovers she probably should go get a Plan B pill. Good thing she has such a good friend to help her.

Their mad dash through the byzantine rules and regulations around birth control — especially in small town South Dakota, where the movie sets its scene — involves the girls sneaking off on an impromptu trip to the nearest Planned Parenthood, over three hours away. If you’d think that along the way the girls would grow closer together, encounter a revolving door of eccentric supporting roles, have harrowing near-catastrophes that turn into larks at the last second, and learn deep truths about themselves, you’d be correct. There’s nothing surprising on that level. But the movie has a nice spirit to it, and takes its cues from the clever, but not too clever, banter between its leads. Verma and Moroles feel genuine in their bubbly teen angst, and comfort in the way their personalities fit together like the best high school friendships. They genuinely seem to like each other, talking about boys and music and parents, and even when misunderstandings or secrets burble up the conflict between them its structure requires, there’s never that false sense of irreparable separation. You just know they like each other too much to give up. The movie’s also refreshingly even-handed in its treatment of sex. It knows that it’s a source of anxiety for young people, no matter their interest, experience, or activity. But it also has the maturity to acknowledge the full complexity of the matter without acclaiming or denigrating—it’s positive and realistic, squirmingly awkward and generously frank. And it’s totally fair about consequences in a way that isn’t a scare tactic or a hand-waving. (That it also has a really gross scene with an intimate piercing painfully torn is a sign the movie isn’t entirely in control of its comedic impulses.) But above all, Morales ensures the movie has the slick shine of a studio comedy and a steady focus on the buzzing eventfulness of its plotting and the buoyant charms of its leads. I bet it’d play really well to a crowd.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Escape from Vegas: ARMY OF THE DEAD

If you’re going to stage a zombie outbreak and are looking for some sociopolitical resonance, you could do worse than Las Vegas. Seeing hordes of zombies milling about the slot machines or mindlessly shuffling down the strip isn’t exactly a stretch. It’s a pretty clear escalation of Romero’s use of the mall in Dawn of the Dead. Why are they there? Well, it’s what they’re used to. But really, what Zack Snyder proposes in his newest film, Army of the Dead, which, name aside, is not an extension of his remake of the Romero picture from nearly twenty years ago, is that it’d be a really neat thing to stage a heist movie inside a zombie movie. He's right. (So was Yeon Sang-ho, whose okay sequel to his great zombie actioner Train to Busan coincidentally used the same premise last year.) So why does it have to have a metaphor at all? He creates a rough future — shooting it with a smudged bleary digital paleness; ironically there are even some fleeting dead pixels in some dark scenes that had me thinking my TV was on the fritz — in which Vegas is the source of a zombie outbreak. An early scene with a speeding car accidentally smashing head-on into a military convoy transporting Patient Zero from Area 51 is a splashy start. (Car crashes are just so cinematic, no?) The city has been walled off, Escape from New York style, and is, in fact, about to be leveled with a nuclear bomb in order to stop the spread. That leaves just a few days for a casino owner (Hiroyuki Sanada) to get a team of mercenaries into his abandoned vault and rescue his money. It’s up to a mournful tough guy (Dave Bautista) to gather his forces and execute the plan.

Snyder knows what he’s doing, making a movie retrofitted from borrowed genre parts, an ambulatory homage that doesn't push too hard on anything but gore. He brings some slow-mo and needle drops and complicated world-building. But here even the lore of his take on this sort of world gathers lightly and in the margins. He’s making what might be his simplest movie. The movie gathers up some unfussy men-on-a-mission exposition in its open act, introducing a big cast of potential zombie chow to arm up and go in. Bautista is a soulful center to this thin pulp, and the fun mix of personalities around him puts Omari Hardwick next to Ella Purnell next to Garret Dillahunt next to Tig Notaro and lets their various energies crackle well enough. Then the movie spends its time plunging headlong into an extended Aliens homage the rest of the way through as the machine guns and strategy play out against hordes of dangerous undead. As bullets splatter the decomposing dead walkers, and the blood in general gathers to such ludicrous geysers that one grenade down a corridor appears to result in a gush of chili against the wall, it’s clear Snyder is enjoying the brutal goofiness inherent in his approach. 

That aside, the action is mostly hectic instead of visually striking, with Snyder, one of our last big budget visual stylists, making some of his blandest functional shots. A Romero or Verheoeven or Carpenter would’ve pushed harder on the style and satire, too, the bright lights city going to set its soul on fire. But Snyder, for all his excess and action, has some hint of a softie in him, making a movie ultimately about broken families mirrored in both humans and monsters, and with Bautista approaching the mission mostly as an excuse to repair a relationship with an estranged daughter. (Those inclined to read autobiography here will find that relationship extra poignant.) So it may be so much reanimated thrills from its inspirations, but it has just enough motivation and good structure to its hook to work at a sturdy popcorn level nonetheless.

Thursday, May 20, 2021


Somehow certain film series get affection from me simply by hanging around long enough. I didn’t much care for the Saw movies as they came out — they’re grimy and gory and deliberately unpleasant in a lot of ways, not scary so much as gross and unrelenting — but as the years go by without them, I sort of miss their singular charms. I recall with fondness some of the intense traps — its villain Jigsaw was good about forcing people to saw off their own hands or swim through a pool of used needles or dig around in a corpse’s guts to free themselves — and memorable twists. I can appreciate the ugly precision of its best executed designs. They certainly did their thing and did it with more cheap thrills than the uglier imitators that oozed out afterwards. Now the whole thing has been revived with Spiral: From the Book of Saw, a film that stars Chris Rock as a beleaguered detective confronted with a Jigsaw copycat killer who is busy ensnaring crooked cops in new traps. The opening scene has a policeman known for lying on the stand — or so the filtered voice in a pig mask warbles out of a dusty tube television — hanging by his tongue in a subway tunnel. If he cuts it off, he can avoid the oncoming train. Devious, no? The movie immediately sinks into the flimsy slime of the familiar Saw style.

The movie sets up a potential with fresh ideas in the same old Saw, especially as we cut from the explosive splatter of the opening to Rock’s undercover cop doing a tight, funny two-minute riff on Forrest Gump. Although his presence in the lead turns some of the clunkier scenes into something out of a Saw parody, he brings a real investment in the gnarled ideas intertwined with the gore. His character is shunned by his colleagues for having turned in a crooked cop more than a decade ago. He’s still finding dead rats left on his desk. Now he and his new partner (Max Minghella) are on the trail of clues left by the mysterious killer. Even his ex-cop father (Samuel L. Jackson) thinks they’re in over their head. What’s smartest about Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger’s screenplay is the way it makes the cops a deplorable bunch; we can understand where the sense of righteousness that powers the killer’s murderous impulses comes from. Even Rock, who is presented as the most honorable of the bunch, thinks nothing of breaking a suspect’s leg and then taunting him by poking at the bone while taking a selfie. Enlivening the ideas is the casting, the best novelty the picture has to offer. Rock looks like a fan enjoying sinking into the tropes, elevated with his simmering stone-faced smirks. And here’s the answer to the question you might not’ve asked: What if Samuel L. Jackson was in a Saw movie? “You want to play games? Let’s play games,” he snarls, calling the unseen killer his favorite four-syllable profanity.

Without these leads, this would be a far less worthy entry, as most of it is standard Saw stuff. The movie never quite lives up to its promise, despite a steady steam of nasty murder traps springing regularly — one killer cop gets his trigger finger pulled off; another goes missing only to have his tattoo delivered to a colleague in a gift box with the message “Am I getting under your skin?” — and the thrust of the picture gutsily saying the only thing scarier than a serial killer is a crooked cop. The investigation proceeds with clunky pacing, and the filmmaking, from series regular Darren Lynn Bousman, is jumpier than the meager shocks it has to offer. There’s little dread or horror here, and it's hard to work up an interest in the characters when most supporting roles are thinly drawn types. Even the potential sick catharsis of the revenge killings is occasionally underplayed by belated shorthand backstory explaining their issues. Both the ideas and the characters are often ill-served by the overripe old fashioned made-for-TV movie melodrama of the screenplay — including such confidently silly choices like a flashback in which a character is meant to be read as younger because their baseball hat is now backwards and his dad has sprouted a mustache. It’s par for the course for the franchise, which prizes its three-card-monte convolutions and nesting-doll backtracking. But who said cheap horror efforts adding a bloody beating social heart have to be tidy or sensible? To see the Saw series is to seesaw from squirming highs to spelunking lows. It comes with the territory, and in the uneven wobbling this one arrives at a potent finale. As the full picture emerges, the knotty vengeance rests on sharp understanding of cops' prejudices, and scratches certain itches. The final scene is a storm of reveals and guns and hidden double-layers in a trap that’s pulled with a sick logic. And that’s almost enough.

Sunday, May 16, 2021


It’s a total fluke of Hollywood’s pandemic scheduling that brings to streaming this weekend two mid-budget studio thrillers with movie star turns for middle-aged actresses. That they both center on women drawn into strangers’ high-stakes dramas while suffering from their own near-debilitating flashbacks to past trauma is just another coincidence, I suppose. If only they were both terrific. Alas, Netflix got the short end of the stick there, having picked up The Woman in the Window as damaged goods when it was sold off to the highest bidder. (20th Century Fox made the adaptation of the bestselling mystery novel back in 2018 — we don’t even need to go into the even wilder story of how the author was later exposed as a habitual con artist and fraudster in a lengthy New Yorker piece — before getting acquired by Disney, which forced reshoots that delayed the release, at which point the theaters were closed and, well, here we are.) Even if you didn’t know it was a troubled picture, it’d be clear right away it’s a muddled one. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) and screenwriter Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) have been given a pretty junky piece of source material, a transparent Rear Window rip-off in which an agoraphobic child psychologist (Amy Adams) spies some suspicious behavior from her new neighbors. The filmmakers treat the set-up as an excuse to swoop through a creaky townhouse, peer out windows, and glide across dark rooms as reality gets slippery. Eventually we get a host of marquee actors (Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anthony Mackie, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry) cycling through Adams’ home as she gets increasingly confused about what, exactly, is going on across the street.

With hysterical accusations, devious deceptions, potential psychosis and psychopathy, and convoluted conflicts, every scene could, and maybe should, be an excuse to chow down on ham, but the film somehow never delivers on that potential. The actors stand around waiting for the main course that never arrives. The whole thing is routine as can be, with dark and stormy nights, and gaslighting suspects, and circular arguments, pile-ups of red herrings, and boy, I wonder if Hitchcock himself could’ve made Google searches a compelling source of thrills. The picture looks as dim and muddy as its plotting. Wright doesn’t even bring his usual stylish flourishes with any consistency, which makes for a curiously restrained and sleepy spelunking into bloated paperback surprises. At best it’ll throw a clip from a Hitchcock movie on our lead’s TV, which might be a cute tip-of-the hat if it wasn’t merely a reminder of how far craft has fallen in a case like this. Even the big twists just meekly peek out and slide off, one more shrug before you go. At least Adams, much better served here than by the dismal Hillbilly Elegy, for whatever that’s worth, gets to put the entire lousy picture on her shoulders and nearly carry it solo to the finish line. She inhabits every loose nerve ending and boozy pill-popping distraction as her character’s unraveling unconvincingly brings her closer to actually leaving the house.

Much better is the straight shooter Those Who Wish Me Dead. Its opening act is a bow drawn simply back; the next 75 minutes or so are a direct flight of an arrow to a fiery conclusion. There’s something admirable about its easy confidence and sturdy execution. The thing delivers where it counts. The story starts with a boy and his father (Finn Little and Jake Weber) on the run from bad guys (Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen) who want them dead. They flee to Montana, where you just know they’ll cross paths with the small-town cop (Jon Bernthal) and the troubled forest service firefighter (Angelina Jolie) whose introductions have been cross-cut with the rising action. Directed and co-written by Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water), with author Michael Koryta from his novel, the quick blooded tension rises fast. Soon enough, the film becomes a deadly cat-and-mouse game — machine gun hunters and their vulnerable prey — stalking through the woods. Shades of fairy tale logic, perhaps, with a little boy lost in the forest, wolves on his heels, a woodsman caught in a trap, and a beautiful lady by a lake who just might be able to help him survive. But the thing is too much a grizzled non-nonsense snap of a genre effort to push overmuch on its potential fable qualities. Instead, it rests on Jolie as an engine of redemption, a woman given a desk job, of sorts, after a deadly fire outcome that weighs heavily on her mind. Now there’s a rattled child who needs rescue. It’s easy to root for them.

The movie is short and simple, and all the more effective for knowing just how to lean on its best elements. It helps that Jolie, one of our great modern movie stars, has rarely had a straightforward starring role in the last decade—just four times above the title in live action and two of them were as Maleficent. She commands the screen and exudes competence, even in a role that’s so thinly drawn that there’s nothing else but her star power to generate interest. The plot itself, too, is built from stock parts, but Sheridan knows how to stage his thrills with brutal efficiency. The tension — close up threats against the wide open national park spaces — builds on a steady upswing as the various participants try to keep their cool and their control through strategies that eventually lead to gun fights and, by the end, a raging forest fire. There are efficient thrills to the sturdy brutality of its inevitable violence, the quickly sketched sympathy for the victims, and the consistently well-timed escalations of danger. If the movie still finds time for some loose ends — what’s in the letter? and did that Big Name villain just drive off after his one scene in hopes of a sequel? — there’s pretty much nothing important that isn’t driven to its logical conclusion. We don’t get solid mid-level star vehicles often enough any more. At least this one’s pretty good.

Friday, May 14, 2021


The non-musical, non-animal Disney animated movies sure are a strange bunch when you get right down to it. Where the song-and-dance spectacles fall into comforting patterns and rhythms with fine variation of tone and character within a consistently sturdy artistry, and the animal efforts generally have a lighter dance across comedy, even if some still dip into heavier emotions, these just spring off at odd angles. There’s the darkly uneven Black Cauldron and the rip-roaring pulp sci-fi Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the buoyant superhero lark Big Hero 6 and the smirking video game goof Wreck-It Ralph, the slapdash mania of Chicken Little and the zippy time-travel loop-de-loop Meet the Robinsons. Some are fun and eccentric; others are mystifying misfires. I suppose you can’t blame them for trying.

The latest, Raya and the Last Dragon, plays it safe. It at first acts like a Moana without the great songs. It, too, is about a headstrong only child of a noble king who must set out across the wilderness to save her people. What’s different here is that Raya — a plucky martial arts expert with a pleasant father — is responsible for a dystopian wasteland after a childhood mistake leaves a precious dragon stone broken and scattered among her country’s five warring factions. The magic jewel was the only thing protecting their lands from rampaging smoking, sparking, purple blobs that turn people to stone. Only by reuniting the pieces can Raya hope to restore the frozen victims, and maybe bring lasting peace to their people. It’s more adventure than princess movie, giving her no family conflict or a need for romance, only tasks to complete to save the world.

The film becomes more formula than narrative — fetch quests unfurled like video game levels, as Raya heists them one at a time, gathering allies along the way, with each new village a chance for imaginative production design and costumes. There’s a lake-town market with a thriving pickpocket economy, a warrior clan nestled in a snowy bamboo forest, and a towering citadel where a matriarchy of regal side-parts rules. This is an impeccably imagined space, an East Asian fusion that understands we’d love a good map, even as the plot within it is cobbled together from fantasy novels and anime epics (shades of Naussica and Mononoke, for sure), martial arts period pieces and side-scrolling adventures. The characters’ designs and weapons — like a sword that unfolds into a combination whip and grappling hook — are cool, Raya cuts a sleek look, and the dragons of old have a Chinese New Year appeal. There’s a bevy of supporting villains, each cartoon threatening in his or her own way, and more cute critters and kids than you'd expect. I was never less than involved in the look and flow and tone of the thing. But it never quite digs in to the emotions with the same tight grip Disney maintains at its best. Here, though, you’re never far from a striking frame, or an admirable beat of economically deployed subtext: a cut to an empty crib that explains a lonely warrior’s sadness without a word, a glance at a statue on a bridge that pings a character’s sad motivation, a soft look of suspicion exchanged between people who really should be friends but for old betrayals. Raya herself can be a bit of a cipher, but her world is bursting with life, characters, and a wisecracking comedic relief fantasy creature. You can see how a kid could get lost in its mythology.

Sunday, May 9, 2021


Every frame of The Human Voice can serve to remind the viewer that Pedro Almodóvar is a master filmmaker. That’s not to say that it’s a show-off style piece, but that it so perfectly, precisely and seemingly effortlessly whips up one of his trademark exercises in character and mood, with haunting elisions and casual complexity, a psychological realism nestled in a matter-of-fact theatricality. It has color — the most vivid reds and blues and greens this side of Technicolor, another Almodóvar constant — and melodrama, but it’s also contained and complicated by its necessarily constrained pandemic creativity. In other words, its an excuse to work with mostly one performer on almost entirely one set. Here, in a quick but sumptuous 30-minute film, loosely based on a Jean Cocteau play, Almodóvar finds a woman (Tilda Swinton) just past the verge of a breakup. Her lover has vanished, seemingly for good. He calls on the phone. She talks to him — a long, winding conversation of which we can only hear her part. It’s effectively a monologue. Almodóvar gives her all the space she needs to cycle through stages of romantic grief, and sets her against a literal sound stage. She swans through her sweaty emotional states in a handsomely adorned apartment and a fabulous wardrobe, but the camera pushes and pulls at the edges of reality as we see from certain angles that it’s a set, the windows opening up to an empty warehouse space, the ceiling missing, the better for a crane shot. The artifice of the moment only serves, however, to double down on the dizzying intimacy of the film. We’re suspended in this space with this character, as Almodóvar views her with the compassionate close-up detail for which he’s come to be known.

His camera’s interest in her, and the space of fashion and design, color and decoration, is both well-curated and filmed with a stunning clarity. I’m reminded that to see through his camera is to approach the feeling of seeing the world in all its beautiful detail that a great poem or dense Shakespearean prose or a perfect photograph can give you. Suddenly you feel more alive to the world, and everyone in it playing out their own deeply personal dramas. So it is that we’ve been invited into a space where Almodóvar, even though he’s working with less — run time, cast, plot, setting — gives us everything he has. It’s a fashion show, a coffee table spread, a brilliant actress showcase, a reason to sink into visually satisfying frames set to typically transporting Alberto Iglesias strings. And it’s of a piece with this period of Almodóvar’s filmmaking through and through. After his early films, riots of swirling plots and character, and an expansive maturing, in which those interests grew more haunted and interior even as they spiraled outward, he’s settled into a fabulously melancholy groove of late. His Alice Munro adaptation Julieta has lingered in my mind with a quiet power, and his Pain and Glory is an achingly restrained work of an aging artist tenuously confronting his past. This short is one more reason to appreciate this stage of his career — his ability to draw out evocative emotion with deceptively simple flourishes and unmistakably personal style. What a pleasure it is to see through his eyes.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Flight of Clancy: WITHOUT REMORSE

The only real shock of Without Remorse, a sleepy thriller with sporadic spurts of dutiful violence, is to realize we used to have this sort of movie at this scale all the time. Now to consistently see a new movie about some military guy off on a mission of revenge you have to go down to the direct-to-video space. I’d say it’s nice to see even a mediocre one of these done with a good fresh movie star, sleek production value, on a big screen, but Paramount sold it off to Amazon Video and now here we are. It’s a slick paperback thriller with undigestible exposition and brooding emotional simplicity, loosely adapted from a Tom Clancy novel, which means it’ll have a stew of geopolitical confusion, Deep State skulduggery, and paranoid might-makes-right special-forces plotting. It stars Michael B. Jordan as an ex-military guy who gets entangled in international conspiracy when veterans from his unit are suddenly murdered stateside. He’s attacked, too, but it leaves him merely wounded while his pregnant wife dies. That’s the kind of brute force inciting incident of which these sorts of stories are made. Of course he has to work with his old military contacts (Jamie Bell and Jodie Turner-Smith) and the Defense Secretary (Guy Pearce) to ferret out the connections between his wife’s murderers and various international ne’er-do-wells. 

The result is long stretches of darkly lit unhappiness interrupted only by, say, a fiery interrogation or routine firefights blankly staged with digital squibs. There are some twists and turns along the way, but the film is so digitally scrubbed and smoothly burnished and dully doled out that it was slowly lulling me asleep instead. It’s cold to the touch, never quite involving enough as emotion or action or intrigue. Director Stefano Sollima, whose Sicario: Day of the Soldado was at least stylishly unpleasant, and writer Taylor Sheridan, who specializes in the terse masculine genre mechanics that of course leads him to war and westerns and crime pictures, never quite unlock what makes this story, or character, tick. As a result they strand the hard-working Jordan without a chance to uncork his substantial charisma. There’s also that nagging sense one gets in a would-be franchise starter that the whole production is holding something back for the next one. Would that it would just kick all the way into high gear the first time around. By the time it gets to the end credits scene — in which Jordan somehow finds a Joseph Gordon-Levitt impression as he intones words that’ll mean something to readers of the source material — teasing a future Clancy-verse, I was out. It makes me yearn for the relatively convincing simplicity and gripping precision of the classic Hunt for Red October instead.

Saturday, May 1, 2021


We are in a moment that prizes the overnight success, the amateur who bests the pros, the wunderkind. Too often this robs us of recognizing the long, patient, apprenticeship which can deepen and strengthen an artist’s skills and appreciation for their chosen forms. Too often, too, we conflate hard work with good work; how frequently do you hear that putting-in-the-work and staying-on-that-grind is synonymous with working effectively or knowing your stuff? How frustrating for the youthful or even not-so-youthful and struggling artists to hear all their hard work must not be enough. Even monkish devotion to a chosen art is insufficient when confronted with those outside the fold.

Those are central tensions in The Disciple, a new film from Indian writer-director-editor Chaitanya Tamhane. It follows a young musician (Aditya Modak) studying Indian classical music at the feet of a master (Arun Dravid). The 24-year-old is good, but not great. He’ll admit it. He spends time doting, with two other students, on the old guru, literally sitting at his feet. The old man gives them advice. They play backing for his concerts, intimate affairs in small rooms where he’ll drone on in long melodious phrases that invite the listener to lean in and study the quavering of the notes in a contemplative, meditative state. As the film goes on, with these long, patient sequences of teaching and listening, the film itself teaches the viewer how to listen. By the end, I felt I could differentiate between the workmanlike skills of the younger singers, and what sets distinguishes the brilliance of the elders. He is a movie about a man with a single-minded pursuit of his goal, and the many obstacles and competing ideas that get in his way. He devotes himself to the history and the craft of this form, even as the world seems determined to marginalize and undervalue the hard work he’s put into it.

As such it’s a story about passion and obsession—a pursuit of artistic purity as a dogged, stubborn, quixotic quest. The young man practices. He listens to lectures, rarities on tape he cherishes as a connection to the past. We hear them as he does, on long rides deep into the night down city streets. His devotion to his craft, his sacrifice—putting off urging of others to look for other work to help support himself while he struggles—becomes nigh fanatical. He simply must be the best. His late father, we learn, was a similarly passionate, frustrated practitioner of this classical music. There are all kinds of stubborn psychological implications underneath the long, placid pace of the lengthy shots and scenes. He’s following a chosen path of artistic purity passionately, devotedly, and maybe a little blindly. When confronted by fans, critics, musicians who see their field from a different perspective, he has a hard time reconciling these divisions. Similarly, he can’t always reconcile his continual hard work with his seeming lack of progress.

Here is a moving, gently cutting film that’s honest about the emotional labor involved in scraping out a marginal career in an artistic pursuit. Its accumulation of detail is well-chosen, well-considered. We see honest moments in which the young man is prickly toward those who don’t share his vision, even those who share some elements of his interests. We also see scenes of isolation, where the only companion he has at night is the lonely glow of a laptop screen. At his most frustrated, he seems to be asking why can’t others see in him what he is trying to perfect, or why others can’t care even a little bit about the aspects of his art he sees as essential. (Shades of Llewyn Davis, there.) The film is as slow and patient as this musician’s journey, with simple framing, steady zooms, and inevitable chipping away at a dream. This is a movie about an art and a trade, and the intersections that ask so much. The work is a source of frustration and satisfaction. It builds him up, even as he grinds in place.

Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger is also a story of a striver, but its telling is brash and hustling, shot with a fluid Scorsesian swagger to its chopping pace, pushing camera, and energetic emphasis on inequalities. Where The Disciple finds its lead pining for a past structure for success and validation that seems to be slipping away from his generation, The White Tiger’s main character is an impoverished young man who looks at those exploiting his class and thinks, if you can’t beat them, exploit them. He (Adarsh Gourav) is a lower caste man who ingratiates himself into the lives of a wealthy couple (Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas). At first he’s thrilled to be one of their chauffeurs, but his close position to the rich family allows him a vantage point from which to see their privilege. They’re dripping in bribery and tax schemes, and no matter how nice they are to him, he’s still disposable. That becomes awfully clear sooner than later.

This inspires, in turn, our lead’s scheming and scraping, throwing his shoulder to the wheel of grubby capitalism to break out of his caste. Here’s a movie that deals with splashy scandal ruthlessly scapegoated, leveraged for merciless mutual benefit. Bahrani, whose earlier works are small observational films about American poverty—like the immigrant food truck operator in Man Push Cart, the orphaned children of Chop Shop, or the evicted families in 99 Homes—takes an emphatic approach here. His camera is often pushing or gliding, montage is quick and vigorous, narration is fluid and posturing. It becomes a bleakly entertaining, sometimes breathtakingly cynical picture of aspiration and wealth, looking at what this poor young man has to do to even try muscling his way into the upper class. It sees a society with a foundation of staggering inequality, understands the work and access needed to find a shallow success, and thinks that in a harsh world of winners and losers, even the winners are losers.


The Mitchells vs. the Machines comes from somewhere near the Joe Dante school of filmmaking, biting the hand that makes it, but with such grinning genre style that one sees how it could’ve slipped by unnoticed by the powers that be. It’s an apocalyptic family road trip movie, a rollicking crowd-pleaser of an animated action comedy, wrapping a biting anti-big-tech message in a hectic visual delight suffused with dense pop culture understanding. The thing’s a hoot and a half, moves like lightning, blasts across the screen with color, noise, and comedy, and dares to ask the question: should unregulated idiot tech bros be allowed to kill us all? (The answer is, unsurprisingly, nope.) That it was originally produced for multiplexes by one big technology corporation (Sony), and sold to another (Netflix) after pandemic-influenced scheduling woes, makes its message all the more ironic. 

The story could’ve traveled a usual path. It starts with a moody teen (Abbi Jacobson) heading off to college, forced to go by car from Michigan to California care of her well-meaning parents (Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph) who just want to squeeze in a little more time with her. There’s some typical family tension, some parents-just-don’t-understand posturing and kids-these-days grousing that plays fair enough with these common dynamics. There’s even some easy swipes at excessive screen time pulling apart family togetherness. Ah, but the backdrop happens to be a robot takeover as a dumb computer CEO (Eric Andre) immediately loses control of his new cell phone upgrade. It’s like Siri gone wild, sending swarms of robots to capture all the humans, except, somehow, the Mitchells. It’s up to them to save the world.

Produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), the movie has some of their zany zig-zag comedic patter, with loony unexpected sight gags, pleasantly goofy line reads, and frames chock full of wiggly interest. There’s a distinctive snap and crackle to its punchlines and slapstick, played out with energetic voice performances and a pedal-to-the-metal visual expressiveness. By the time you get to the army of evil Furbys, you know you're watching something special. But writer-directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe (who worked on the late, great series Gravity Falls) also provide a real beating heart of family togetherness behind the cartoony anything-goes action and wild plot turns. They also shepherd a distinctive CG animation style that makes the characters more textured and posed, like exaggeratedly proportioned stop-motion figures, make frames that move loosely in dazzling patterns and swoops with a nonetheless filmic sheen, and layer on 2D hand-drawn embellishments with flair, a la the eye-scrambling Into the Spider-Verse but with an eye toward meme culture. It’s a very modern creature stabbing at the center of the culture's tech-obsessed shallowness with a genuine human love and even-handedness at its core. All that and I laughed my fool head off, too. What a treat!