Friday, June 25, 2021

Now This is Zooming: F9

It’s now common knowledge that the Fast & Furious series has become something of a superheroic fantasy. It began as a simple street racing thriller. Now this is a group of films in which multiple people have had perilous falls safely broken by the hood of a car, and a rollover accident down the side of a mountain rarely amounts to more than a brief need to shake your head and carry on. It’s a tangle of call backs and retcons, a comic book soap opera of knotty gearhead melodrama and splash panel surprises. It’s gone so far and away over the top that it’s still there even as it dips ever so slightly back to just plain over the top. That at their best they remain legible mission movies — a diverse ensemble of heroes assemble to go to the place and fight the guys to get the things before the countdown clock reaches zero — is part of their charm. The latest is F9, and it manages to be super satisfying on both levels, even if it’s no threat to the title of franchise best. (Maybe the fact this big crowd-pleasing spectacle will be the first such picture for many a vaccinated audience member this summer will help ease that distinction.) The whole endeavor has proven to be a sturdy, well-oiled machine. We get the thrills, personalities, effects, and stunts you’d expect as the gang gathers to once again drive real fast to save the world from nefarious international baddies bent on messing stuff up for everyone real bad or something. It’s nice to see them again, and in a movie a little more worthy than the last couple. The series once again balances its complicatedly simple plotting with earnest Hallmark card sentiment, genuine affection for its characters, and old fashioned serial cliffhanger motivations. It’s a good time, if you can grin at the sight of a car swinging across a chasm on a rope stuck to its front tire or deploying an enormous electromagnet or rocketing into the air on a jet engine. It’s the ninth one. Aren’t you ready for that by now?

Par for the course the movie takes our usual players — Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese, Ludacris, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel — and returning recurring supporting players and adds a striking woman (Anna Sawai) and muscle man (John Cena) and cameos (fresh and familiar) to scurry around a new glowing gizmo MacGuffin. It also brings in an estranged sibling heretofore unmentioned and a scene from six movies back gets retconned for the second time. But it’s all for the sake of the fast paced action ramped up and amped up with careening variables and whiz-bang complications. So it’s just plain fun. The outsized action is capably staged by returning director Justin Lin, responsible for most of the series’ high points thus far, who lets the movie in on the grinning joke and satisfaction without letting it get too self-amused. It’s just as often letting characters shake their heads at where they’ve ended up as we might be in the audience. Lin knows what the fans want is a story that delivers on genuine affection for its family of friends who make up our plucky heroes, and sends them through their paces making cars do things they never could. He also provides some flashbacks — a number throughout, and they’re aptly more a textural piece with the series’ earliest entries — to smooth over belated connective tissue and ground the characters’ self-awareness to understand the escalation their lives and talents have undergone without ever quite puncturing the reality, so to speak. It’s all just too fast to have time for anything but good times. It careens past its sometimes-dodgy exposition with high spirits and smash-bang, thrillingly ridiculous action craft. Unlike, say, the sometimes overly schematic Marvel movies, this is a series that matches its characters’ sense of flying by the seat of their pants and making it up as they go along, improbably surviving. That they keep getting away with it is a huge part of the fun.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Back in Action: NOBODY and WRATH OF MAN

The lizard-brained appeal of the shoot-‘em-up Nobody is a little misjudged. It stars Bob Odenkirk, the great sketch comedian of Mr. Show turned wry and soulful character actor star of Better Call Saul, as a suburban family man in a rut. An early montage shows us his daily routine of coffee and commute and office work filling spreadsheets. His wife won’t sleep with him. His son doesn’t respect him. Day after day. This is interrupted by a pair of semi-bumbling thieves who break into his home and steal just a few trinkets. Feeling emasculated for failing to stop the robbery, he roams the city looking for trouble, eventually beating up some shady characters on a city bus with surprisingly adept combat moves. Turns out he’s a former secret agent retired in protected obscurity. Also turns out he just beat up some guys connected to a Russian mobster, who sends dozens of anonymous goons after him, leaving this humble middle-aged dope no choice but to send his wife and kids away while he goes full John Wick. (That the screenplay is from Wick scripter Derek Kolstad should be no surprise.) The result is a movie in which a mid-life crisis of masculinity is solved by violence—waves and waves of shootings and stabbings and all sorts of things to make a faceless, personless baddie’s body go splat. I’ll admit the action, staged by director Ilya Naishuller (whose previous actioner, the woozy POV-shot Hardcore Henry was repellently violent), takes on a passable jolt, and the dumb retribution logic plays out with some dopey spirit. But I couldn’t shake the fact that the whole amoral shape of the thing was like someone traded American Beauty’s portrait of male-pattern ennui’s sex fantasies for violence, then dropped the clumsy satire for overplayed needle drops and self-satisfied slow-mo. Odenkirk is smartly restrained and underplayed throughout, though. And the shoot outs and explosions and car wrecks have a stupid satisfaction to them. But the whole arc of the picture — better living through mass murder — leaves a nasty aftertaste.

Far better to see a movie that knows how deadly serious its pulp plotting is. I’d be loath to say a thriller as unremittingly dark and unsparing as Wrath of Man is a moral work, but it has a code and a perspective that understands there is no such thing as good violence or a righteous kill. It’s too stark and unflinching, lean and mean, to be anything but impressed by the emptiness with which it leaves every character involved. There’s something ominous to its undertow, crisp crime plotting that will be drug under by its poisonous grasp. Here men’s schemes are what opens that Pandora’s box. They’re pitiless; their crimes run cold; blood oozes and splatters like tar. It stars Jason Statham in one of his chilliest performances, his tight musculature crafted into a stone-faced determination. He’s a new hire at an armored truck company that has recently been targeted by a team of robbers who blocked off a road, blew out the side door, and gunned down the drivers. Statham is silently hyper-confident, keeps to himself, and seems to be way more talented than the job requires as the movie’s introductory passages draws him into his co-worker’s world of jargon and joshing. You can tell he’s up to something. As the movie steadily widens its scope, sidestepping to show us other groups of men, we see this armored truck depot is the hub of criss-crossing plots: two teams of thieves looking for a big score, a man-on-the-inside working to help one of them, some cops who may or may not be onto something. And Statham? He’s on his own, out for revenge. You can tell when he calmly, precisely guns down some potential robbers without breaking a sweat, and then follows it up with the faintest flicker of disappointment. These weren’t the thieves he was looking for. The movie’s unflinching grimness and deliberate forward motion matches Statham’s, as his vengeance works itself into mythical, or perhaps Old Testament, dimensions through the dark rumblings of fatalism, the taciturn brutality of its sparingly deployed concussive violence, the score full of low, slow strings and thunderously rolling drums.

The film untangles its deceptively knotty plot with razor-sharp simplicity and focused tension. Revelations drop into  a sturdy structure that thuds each new variable into place with equal parts inevitability and surprise. Moving backwards and forwards in time, and moving in different groups of dangerous men on a direct collision course with each other, the heat steadily builds to a boiling point, spilling over in a clever and tragic escalating climax. The way there finds in its long set-up and clockwork payoffs a merciless logic and calculated futility. We get the sense all of these guys need to take action in response to their circumstances (they were wronged, or greedy, or bored), but know deep down all this danger won’t get them much of anything in return. It’s a fallen neo-noir world past saving, but something must be done anyway. The big ensemble of enjoyable character actors (Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett, Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Eastwood, and on and on) keep the personality on a low simmer, the kind of hard-bitten pulp dialogue that curlicues with just enough flair, a mixture of hollow macho posturing and gruff molasses-drip dialogues of heavy seriousness. The film matches this tone with its own self-seriousness: chapter headings, drawings of snakes and devils in the open credits, a well-deployed use of a gravely Johnny Cash lament in a violent montage, restraint in patient wide-shots and smartly withheld reveals. But that seriousness finds a good match in the mood and craft of the picture, which imbues what could be affectations with a level of tightly controlled artfulness that elevates what could in lesser hands devolve to mere shoot-‘em-ups. Here every shot counts, and hurts.

That it comes from writer-director Guy Ritchie marks potentially a new era in his filmmaking. After all, he began in the 90s as part of the post-Tarantino fast-talking genre movie crowd, with jumpy and jumbled crime pictures like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels that rattled chronologically and pictorially. Those early films of his are energetic and youthful, but also empty, callow contraptions. His exercises in style were then well-served as directorial eccentricities in massive Hollywood branded blockbusters — two Sherlock Holmes, a Man from UNCLE, a King Arthur, an Aladdin. He often enlivened what duller hands would’ve turned out perfunctorily, taking his quick-cut flashiness and scrappy chatter to glossy spectacles. With Wrath of Man, he’s come full circle with a sense of an aged master, older and wiser, confident in his narrative chops and control of tone. He entrusts a thick layer of menace to a talented cast and crew of ace craftspeople. Every shot is well-judged and clear. Every sequence is economical and thrilling. He rarely goes out of his way to accomplish in two shots what could be done in one. Thus it becomes an exercise in control, taking his interest in underdogs and rivalries, ambition and deception, fatalism and determination, and drawing them out in a mechanically impressive scrambled chronology told with an atypically heavy pace. It’s a two-hour crescendo of sustained suspense and dread, promising and delivering clever realizations and anyone-goes violence. It builds. It escalates and modulates. It finds new depths to dig as it wrestles with the darkness at the heart of these men’s plans, the way wrath animates yet hollows out everyone around it. Here’s a film that look on the evil men do — in so many forms — and feels sick from the weight it carries, before exploding outward in intense genre thrills.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Human Boys from the Deep: LUCA

As gentle and lovely as a seaside breeze, and as fragile and fleeting as a summer friendship, Pixar’s Luca is a magical animated movie. So many American animators claim Miyazaki as an inspiration, but here’s the rare film that proves it in action. In ways reminiscent of the Japanese master, director Enrico Casarosa (of the short La Luna) and his talented team have made a film aware to subtle shifts in character dynamics, legible to even a small child, but stirring in the detail, compassion, and earnest emotion, with which it’s carried out. And it’s one with nature, keyed into the dappling sunshine and soft tides, the waves lapping the beach and the drops of dew and rain slowly dropping on cobblestone streets. Within these sights, the story follows a timid young sea monster (Jacob Tremblay) who is curious about land. He falls into a quick companionship with a slightly older sea monster boy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who, shockingly to our young protagonist, lives in an abandoned lighthouse in a bay overlooking a charming cliffside Italian village. When out of water, these sea creatures look human, and the boys have fun learning to play like people do. Flipping their fins got them this far. Sure, the villagers in a small-town mid-century Italian paradise — with exquisite rustic architecture and period detail from crackling radios to apt movie posters — hate the mythical beasts of the sea, but they have gelato and bikes and plenty of pasta. The boys are going to like it here, if they can stay. Dazzling Pixar craft makes the movie a consistent stunner of light and movement as the boys try on life in this new place. The look of the film is a soft cartoony embellishment that’s rounded and cozy, befitting the swooning picturesque setting and sophisticated simple wackiness motoring the plot.

The picture remains causal and loose as far as these types of stories go, with the goals and stakes relatively small, but oh-so-big for those involved. The boys think they want a Vespa. They must avoid the younger boy’s parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan), who figure out blessedly quickly what’s happened. They all must hide their identities and thus even the tiniest splash of water, no small feat by the beach. With Pixar’s typical clockwork plotting and mad-scramble climaxes done up here in a beautifully underplayed mood, the movie navigates a sweet whimsy. There’s strong melancholy in swift and impactful moments that never loses the overall childlike wonder, with soft but strong laughs and rubbery cartoony gags stretching the adorable character designs in fancifully well-designed slapstick. When a daydream finds a herd of wild Vespas roaming the countryside, or a bike crash ends with a halo of fish swimming around one’s head, or an eccentric uncle from the deep goes on about whale carcasses, the movie shows off its fantasy with quick shorthand strokes. And it has good fun watching the boys scramble around water to avoid capture, though of course the surly cat named Machiavelli smells something fishy. A fast friendship with a sweet underdog girl (Emma Berman) is a good sign; that her dad is a one-armed fisherman is maybe less so.

The consistent charming invention on display always returns to the boys’ shifting emotions, plugged into their perspective to an attentive and sensitive degree. Despite potential dangers and disappointments, the movie keeps things in perspective. This sunny and well-paced movie is always tenderly attuned to the dynamics of friendships, with the boys’ giddy good-natured playfulness, brash inquisitiveness, and nervous energies making for a fizzy boyish chemistry. And their evolving understanding of themselves and those around them makes this the rare coming of age story that understands such a process happens not all at once, in one momentous summer, but by testing and attempting, by forging new connections, stepping safely out of your comfort zone, discovering new talents, and learning how to be yourself. That Luca arrives at the same well-earned bittersweet teary-eyed character beats by the end that you’d expect of Pixar’s best should be no surprise. But it’s all the more impactful for slipping in naturally and honestly as an outgrowth of getting to know these characters, springing out of their smallest shifts of mood and maturation. The result is as bittersweet, sunny, and satisfying as a perfect summer day.

Friday, June 11, 2021


At a moment when so many feel isolated, disconnected, left behind by the vagaries of a difficult year and a stratified society increasingly emphasizing everyone-for-themselves lonely responsibility, here’s a story of a neighborhood. It’s disappearing, in the process of getting priced out by gentrification, and in danger of losing its distinctive personality. That’s New York City for you. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton musical In the Heights tells this story, inhabiting the world of Washington Heights, where the Latin music flows  in melodious Spanish lyrics and salsa rhythms, and the food simmers as the people dream—some yearning for escape up the ladder of success, while others find comfort in the world they and their neighbors have built for themselves, a little bit of their home countries carried over into their American dream. The movie adaptation, scripted by the stage production’s co-author Quiara Alegría Hudes, is as broad and generous and alive as it is specific and well-observed. It’s a constant delight in its unfolding, a musical that leaves you feeling for the characters as much as humming the tunes on the way out.

All told, it builds to a moving expression of communal spirit and togetherness in a fountain of color and movement and dance, bringing each member of the cast to center stage for winning spotlight. The story — textured and swirling — takes place during a heat wave, and circles the concerns of a wide ensemble of characters. We meet Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young bodega owner who hopes to return to the Dominican Republic someday. He’s crushing on the pretty young stylist (Melissa Barrera) who enjoys her gossipy co-workers at the salon (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, and Dascha Polanco), but would prefer to be a fashion designer. Usnavi’s business-minded best friend (Corey Hawkins) is interested in the cute college girl (Leslie Grace) back for the summer visiting her entrepreneur father (Jimmy Smits). Elsewhere is the undocumented teenager (Gregory Diaz IV) and his alcoholic father (Marc Anthony), a sweet elderly woman (Olga Merediz) who plays abuela to the entire block, and a snow-cone vendor (Miranda) who harbors a resentment of the ice cream truck. They’re all interconnected, even when they don’t want to be.

As the intersecting dreams and dramas play out against the sizzling sidewalks and easy flow of the hip-hop merengue, the musical numbers strut out in broad, bold studio style, a modern Arthur Freed slick spectacle with a little break-dancing here, a little Gene Kelly there, a little Busby Berkeley everywhere. Director Jon M. Chu brings the sense of movement and space that made his Step Up 3D so beautifully expressive, and commits, with that series’ choreographer Christopher Scott, to showing the full glory of dancers in perfect synchronicity and deeply felt emotive power. Here a community pool becomes a glorious watery number Esther Williams would recognize, the side of a fire escape becomes the site of a couple so in love they could float up the wall, a subway becomes a tunnel of ghostly memories, and an apartment courtyard becomes a “carnaval del barrio.” The best numbers go on and on and I felt I could revel in their joyous eruption of togetherness for hours. The movie succeeds by tapping into the show’s empathetic imagination, proudly sensitive and sentimental befitting its pounding backbeat, but wise to cast a somewhat hard-edged eye on the limits of the American dream. After all, this neighborhood is slipping away, but the traditions will live on for those who dare to keep them alive. This movie loves this place and these people too much to let it go away unnoticed, and throws a massive block party of a musical to celebrate. What a well-timed ecstatic burst of a lively tribute to the restorative power of community connections.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

I Know I Am, But What Are You? A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX


Here’s a dizzying philosophical chin-scratcher of a documentary. A Glitch in the Matrix is about “simulation theory,” the somewhat popular wondering that asks if all of existence might just be a sufficiently advanced computer program. Director Rodney Ascher has experience ceding a feature-length runway for conspiracy theorists to take off. His Room 237 gives uncritical space to amateur analysts of Kubrick’s The Shining to air their pet unsubstantiated claims — it’s about genocide, or a faked moon landing confession, or all sorts of squint-and-you-almost-see-it delusions prattled on and on. His The Nightmare is about sleep paralysis — with bird-walking detours into the occult or paranormal — and starts to feel like the sort of pseudo-horror that could be a kind of gooseflesh inception for the very condition it purports to expose.   So his latest hears out some guys — and they’re all guys, which seems an unspoken commentary of its own — who are convinced to some degree that, yes, we’re living in a simulation. Ascher puts their voices in obvious digital avatars, video-gamey caricatures with computerized visages who hold court on their ideas of our false reality. (That they’re gamers and sci-fi nerds is clear; that they’re all varying degrees of religious or spiritually contemplative is maybe a key to why these ideas converge.) The documentary starts off seeming stupid, maybe even dangerous. After all, if you start to convince yourself that nothing — and, more importantly, no one — around you is real, then what does that mean for your interpersonal behavior, your sense of self, your sense of responsibility to others? (We get clips from Rick and Morty and YouTube conspiracists, the better to emphasize the solipsism this might breed.) One guy even asserts that there’s no way a simulation could possibly be running seven billion completely unique consciousnesses. The film is full of digital spaces — video game footage, comic panels, film images — winking at and inhabiting the worlds-within-worlds, dreams-within-dreams vertigo this perceptual hall of mirrors opens up.

But the more Ascher lets these guys talk, the more he, and they, start to acknowledge the ideas’ potential for crackpot wanderings and destabilizing conclusions. Of course plenty of other cultural influences filter into the mix: Phillip K. Dick writings, Minecraft, Chris Ware comics, Plato’s allegory of the cave, and, obviously, The Matrix. Clips are deftly woven, and expert thinkers wisely chosen, to bolster and balance the core guys' thought experiments. This is smart context to keep things in perspective. The main subjects all describe moments of dawning awareness that sound like dissociative episodes, semi-dreamlike and pseudo-spiritual, and yet are also able to think practically about what these potential revelations mean to them. One admits he’d hate to fall back on the simulation theory if it was really his excuse for his own mind’s inability to grasp the full complexity of others’ existences. And one voice, we discover, in the film’s most skin-crawling, haunting passage, took his journey into the theory too far — his voice has been recorded from prison. And yet even there, Ascher isn’t pushing too hard on the theory — either for or against. He’s structured the film well to confront the theory directly, entertaining the hazy philosophizing of his thoughtful, troubled subjects, contextualizing them where necessary, addressing counterpoints and plunging head-on into the ambiguities of how we try to explain the world to ourselves. This is Ascher’s best movie because he’s willing to confront his subjects’ free-form conjecture—but it still comes up against the unknowable, albeit provocatively. I found myself intrigued and amused, suspicious and disturbed. But really, the question should be: if yes, what then? Of course they have no good answers; maybe that’s the glitch.

Saturday, June 5, 2021


Barry Jenkins is a filmmaker whose images are sensuous, with his cinematographer James Laxton’s light pulling softly and clearly at the details of people’s faces and bodies, pictures cut together with flowing intuitive poetry. But they’re not weightless in their beauty; they’re heavy with meaning, a substance that is the style. His best achievements — the intimate character study Moonlight, the more expansive relationship heartbreaker If Beale Street Could Talk — use their beauty to bring into vivid relief the soft-spoken, slow-rolling interpersonal dilemmas of the people it puts on screen.The velvety texture of his vision, smooth and speckled, would point to inspirations from Wong Kar-Wai and Claire Denis even if he didn’t name them as such in interviews. It’s something of a shock to bring this aestheticized approach into the tropes of slave narratives for The Underground Railroad, a more than 10-hour adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name. The images are unfailingly beautiful, a painterly prose scrawled with Malickian asides attuned to the rhythms of nature and soulful contemplation, even as the subject matter is grim and gory. One of the first shots is of blood hitting a wooden floor, afterbirth mere cuts away from being buried in a garden. The sprawling and epic historical drama — so long and rambling that it can afford to be drawn intimately and unevenly in broad strokes and pinpoint precise portraiture alike — is full of such fraught and freighted imagery. Here, after all, is the birth of our nation, its original sin, buried with the intent to ignore, but springing up fruit from the poisoned tree. Jenkins is nothing if not aware of the power of his images.

The central focus is on the personal trauma of its characters — a catalogue of slavery’s dehumanizing forms — and the tendrils it snakes through society. Jenkins frames his center of attention with loving weight given to her studied expressions. She’s Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave run away from a plantation, northward bound. As her episodic journey takes her through various States — and various states of freedom — she finds herself navigating a variety of responses to White Supremacy. There’s a genteel town where Black and White live side-by-side in a tenuous acceptance. There’s a town where a White couple appears to be helpful to Black plight, but have nefarious ulterior motives. There’s a town where a kindly couple is willing to hide runaway slaves, but only to a point. There’s a prosperous town run entirely by Black people — the series’ high point, featuring some of Jenkins’ loveliest sun-drenched images, the better to signal the power of hope, some compelling speechifying from the cast, and the looming threat of White violence from those in the next town over. At each stop, Cora sees society forming and reforming around the voids left by prejudice, violence, and despair — the damage, the potential, and the inescapability of certain destruction. The story cuts backwards and forwards in time, exploring characters’ histories, their families, and the cycles of pain they endure—while finding time for oases of love and connection, too.

The ramifications of slavery — the long-lasting physical and emotional toll, and its generational traumas — are written across every painful picturesque image. An early scene gives us a point-of-view shot from a man being burned alive, the image blurring, blinking. Jenkins spares us the worst of the violence by taking us inside. Somehow it hurts all the more. It’s a signal as to his interest in enlivening history through literary accumulation of empathetic detail. It extends to the entire rambling narrative and expansive ensemble. Among the panoply of supporting characters, the most poignant and fascinating has to be a young Black boy (Chase W. Dillon) who tags along as the assistant to a slave catcher (Joel Edgerton). Well dressed, and with a poise beyond his years, he carries with him the complicated ways one can react to a dehumanizing state. He’s won some degree of safety, and yet his interactions with the people around him, White and Black alike, carry an ambiguity as to his ultimate allegiances. That such complication is carried in the boyish face — held so eerily placid, even inscrutable — says so much about the ways in which the systems of oppression warp and linger in one’s behavior. Jenkins’ visions of humanity keeps this in sharp focus, staging his patient shots that look straight ahead without flinching as character’s ravel and unravel.

It’s full of decisions: strong and bold. Though the many hours are sometimes a jumble of incident — pokey in the way to which all prestige miniseries these days, even ones with craft of this high level, succumb — it has enough track to provoke and compel, to lose you and win you back over and over. For every striking, compelling moment, there is a languorous, aimless downtime that will come slowly back into focus. By the end, the totality is an enormous and overwhelming whole, rough and rattled despite the patience and beauty on the surface. My biggest point of contention is with Jenkins’ boldest stroke: carrying over Whitehead’s novel’s central metaphor literalizing the Underground Railroad not as a covert trail of safe houses and brave rescuers, but as an actual train chugging along buried deep beneath the ground. He takes it seriously, and has his characters treat it as fact. There are moments of eerie allegory as this sunken place subway avant la lettre comes puffing out of the darkness, staffed by kindly mysterious people of color willing to lend an ear or disappear. (It also rhymes unexpectedly movingly off the first episode's credits' surprising blast of OutKast: “you can’t stop a train.”) But just as often its metaphorical presence strikes me as less interesting than the historical truths it intends to express symbolically. Besides, when Jenkins digs deep into other moments of sideways historical invention, he does so with a specificity and attention to psychological detail that needs no too-clever fantasy to sell its intensity. Still, I’m grateful for his efforts to bring something like honest to goodness filmmaking worth wrestling with to our TV screens, a Decalogue of slave narratives yearning to be free from the ordinary tropes with which we’re sometimes numbed. This is filmmaking that’s alive and provoking, dense with allusion, alive with intriguing figures, heavy with electric pessimism and hard-fought slivers of grace and hope.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Sympathy for de Vil: CRUELLA

Director Craig Gillespie’s energetic follow up to his swaggering true-crime I, Tonya plays out a rollicking rivalry between fashion designers in 70s London. One is an old fashioned grand dame Baroness (Emma Thompson) used to ruling the scene by any means necessary. The other is a prickly proto-punk misfit who gets a job as an underling, but all along is gunning for the older woman’s throne. There’s fun to be had here, as Gillespie keeps the pacing quick and camera fluid, catching sumptuous production design and snappy performances. That it happens to be a quasi-prequel to 101 Dalmatians is simply a fact of what elements get projects green lit in Hollywood these days. As such it suffers from some belabored backstory and a need to make everything connected. Who needed to know about Cruella de Vil’s unhappy childhood? However, the rest of the picture is such a feast of fashions and attitude that I hardly cared. It works best when it leans away from the need to provide token psychological underpinning to such a classic Disney villain — the standard formula in many of what Bob Iger so inelegantly coined “brand deposits” — and leans into giving us more of her beautiful wickedness. The result is great actors are swanning around in fabulous costumes and chewing every bit of snazzy scenery in sight. That it would be an enjoyably outsized glossy period melodrama drifting on a confident hodgepodge style and a soundtrack grooving on loud hits of the era without the cute references to an animated classic is a good sign.

The movie finds the most fun when it sticks with its charismatic cast colliding. Stone makes a good theatrical villain-in-the-making and Thompson a fine foil. There’s always been that underlying sarcasm, the self-satisfied smirk, underneath Stone’s work and here (as with the cunning schemer she played in The Favourite’s prickly palace intrigue, a role also scripted by this film’s co-writer) she can cut loose against Thompson serving her finest looking-down-the-nose casual cruelty. As Cruella enlists the help of longtime friends and flunkies (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser) to help her plan elaborate revenge plots to get one over on the older woman and make herself a name in the fashion world, there’s a capering heist quality to the film’s best set pieces. She shows off her designs — all color-coded to match her natural shock of black-and-white hair — in elaborate prankish stunts, upstaging the fuming Baroness every step of the way, and provoking her potentially homicidal wrath. This tension is joined by a dash of twisty family drama that’s just over the top enough to fit the bill. But the focus is never pulled from the core contest of wills between two stubborn women jockeying for power. And that's where all the fun is. The more the project feints toward character study, the falser it feels; I could do without the cloying voice over and the attempts at making us feel sorry for Cruella instead of serving up what’s sure to become the marvelous whirling dervish of monstrous high-class privilege. Better to let the ladies plot and plan and fight. Unlike the 1996 live-action remake of Dalmatians, which gave Glenn Close similar excuse to cut loose with a howling well-dressed villain, Cruella, cut free from most constraints of a straight remake, has the ability to let Stone grow into that enjoyable cackle, taking a sudden chill the more she's prepared to take her rival down.

Thursday, June 3, 2021


To watch A Quiet Place Part II is to realize that the premise behind A Quiet Place had only about enough to sustain that movie’s run time. The novelty of monsters attracted to sound — hence the title — ravaging the world and a tight focus on the plight of one small family to stay alive by making as little noise as possible did make for an exciting watch. But once you know the solution — and it’s not not the one from Mars Attacks! — the air goes out of the balloon a little. Where do they go next? Well, this time the surviving members of the family carry their monster repellent as they try to find a new safe place, but it only works when the plot allows it. But that’s really the answer to why anything happens in this sequel. The whole thing ends up an exercise in decisions made simply to extend the suspense. Why do they stop at the hideout of a lonely Cillian Murphy? To make us wonder if he’s trustworthy. (They don’t even know his 28 Days Later post-apocalyptic bona fides.) Why do they split up? The better to cross-cut between two, and sometimes three, little missions. Why do they need to go to a place to get a thing to another thing? To try to save their little corner of the world, of course. It’s what dad would want, the daughter says. Fair enough.

That this flimsy construction works at all has to be a tribute to director John Krasinski (here taking over scripting duties as well, in his spare time when not living on screen but for one extended flashback). He proves a perfectly fine button-pusher of a filmmaker, stringing his characters and his audience along through one moderately effective suspense sequence after the next. There is nothing else to it. (There was nothing else about the first one either, although I do enjoy Wesley Morris’ take that it’s a horror movie about White fears of cancel culture, ha ha.) Here there’s a baby in a box and oxygen dipping. There’s the son (Noah Jupe) with his leg in a bear trap. There’s a deaf girl (Millicent Simmonds) off on her own. There’s the looming threat of nasty others lurking somewhere out there. Maybe they’re by a crashed train or an abandoned boat. And there are those monsters, too, sometimes stalking unnoticed in the background of one of the film’s handsome longer takes. It’s all too elemental to entirely ignore. Of course you don’t want a slimy thing bursting out and chomping on the sweet kids doing their earnest best to play notes between scared silly and steely resolve. Giving the movie over to them, with Emily Blunt and Murphy playing support is a smart move. They’re easy to care about, and Krasinski knows how to play the child-in-danger card mercilessly.

There’s real pressure-cooker qualities to the cross-cutting that works up a decent head of steam in the back half, even if I could feel the grinding gears and clunking mechanics moving the pieces into place. Why’s he standing there? Why’d she stop over here? Why can’t he take a few more steps? Why does the monster hear this but not that? To keep the movie going, that’s why! If anything the delay dealt the movie by the pandemic — it was one of the first big movies pushed, due to its spring 2020 date, and now gets to be one of the first big movies welcoming us to something like back to the multiplex — served to make the whole thing marginally more believable. (It also lends the opening flashback to the last normal moments before the monsters arrive a certain poignancy.) After all, it’s a straight-faced slightly-silly thriller about a mysterious critter that’s actually pretty easy to avoid, but people are just out for themselves and not thinking about sharing this information or even using it effectively if they do know. A solution that humanity nonetheless hasn’t figured out how to implement effectively? Yeah, sounds about right.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Being Bo Burnham: INSIDE

Bo Burnham had a rough year. No rougher than anyone else’s, but rough all the same. Like so many of us, he’s had time alone inside to think deeply about the state of the world, and himself. But unlike many of us, except Taylor Swift and a few others, he had the opportunity to turn it into his work. All that free time to compose and write and record. He’d already proven himself a talent to watch, turning silly songs (closer to the tradition of Tom Lehrer’s noodling social satire and observation than Weird Al’s parodies) that made him YouTube famous into something like a full-fledged comedy career he then pivoted into filmmaking. His directorial efforts, like Tamborine, a Chris Rock set with the stand-up special innovation of having good cinematography, and Eighth Grade, a small empathetic film about young teen angst, proved Burnham the rare YouTuber to grow a cinematic mindset. But 2020 gave him only things to worry about, canceled his plans, derailed his decisions, put everything on hold. So say we all.

So here’s Inside, Burnham’s new feature: a tribute to the influence of anxiety. He writes, directs, shoots, edits, performs, and stars. It’s an endlessly self-reflexive thing, preemptively self-critical and performatively nervous about its own narcissism. He tells us he’s been working on it for over a year, a collection of silly songs with a persistent undertow of fear and darkness. He opens by examining his own impulse to create — snarkily jabbing at himself as he asks why anyone needs comedy at a time like this. He wears his concerns on his sleeve: racism, climate change, income inequality, and the unnamed pandemic that is the reason he’s stuck in this little box. The whole film takes place in one room. He films it creatively, using elaborately simple lighting tricks, color filters, aspect ratio play, superimpositions, silhouettes and shadow. But there’s always a sense he’s trapped. He stages his tall, lanky frame so we don’t know if he’s big or the room’s small — both, probably. It’s inventive, capturing a window-to-wall one-room claustrophobia that’s recognizably 2020.

He traps himself in this small space, or in picture-in-picture stacks for sharp parodic riffs on digital media forms like reaction videos and Twitch streams. One moment of direct-to-camera address starts as chipper influencer speak but grows ominous through the uncommented use of a sharp knife as a prop with which he gestures. Sometimes amid all this formal foolery he sings the sort of light songs — like an extended bit about “White women’s Instagram” — that made his name, although his songcraft here, with shades of the late Adam Schlesinger (the chameleonic pop genius behind That Thing You Do and Music & Lyrics), is better than ever. And often there’s a bitterness sneaking in through negative self-talk, circling existential concerns. He sings about turning thirty, about having potentially problematic jokes from his youth, about the calamitous social dilemmas surrounding him, about thinking the world’s ending or maybe ending himself. But really, he wonders, should he really be the center of attention here? He asks that overtly several times, even as he puts himself on display. The picture is revealing in more ways than one. For a few numbers, he performs in his underwear; other times he leaves in dead air or flubbed lines. Even so, you have to think about the fact he decided to leave them in. And what he didn’t. It’s still all a show.

It’s both a finished product and a doubling-back on itself to be about its own making, surely mimicking the process of reflection and reassessment many of us have fallen into of late. If this endless self-reflection starts to make one wonder if his hand-wringing is all a bit overdone, a doth-protest-too-much worry about his privilege and status and narcissism, it’s undercut by a seemingly honest reflection of an artist in the middle of a mental crisis. He’s thinking about all the boxes we’ve built for ourselves, as among his new tunes here are hypnotic carnivalesque ballads in the personified voice of the Internet, or dripping poison odes to Jeff Bezos and soliloquizing about Silicon Valley’s profit-driven destruction of our societal capacity for mental health. (That his new work is streaming now on Netflix is just another irony stacked on top.) This world brought him, and us, so much. But at what cost? And now we’ve been inside for too long. What will we do when we get out? The key to Inside achieving escape velocity away from mere pity party is recognizing that we’ve all lost our minds to some degree over the last 15 months, and a full return to pre-pandemic life feels daunting as the world still confronts so many crumblings both global and personal. It’s like Tom Lehrer sang: “we’ll all go together when we go.”