Thursday, July 29, 2021

Life's a Beach: OLD

M. Night Shyamalan’s Old has the simple parable power of a Twilight Zone-style conceit, the cheap one-location resourcefulness of a low-fi 50’s sci-fi B-movie, and all the potential stiffness that that could imply. And yet it has an eerie affect through nothing more than suggestion and contemplation of a genuinely horrifying idea if you approach it at the level of earnestness its filmmaker did. What would it be like to live a lifetime in an afternoon? How would your mind race and scramble? How would your anatomy betray you? What would you do with the time given to you? Seeing life dimming as sunset draws near gives you a painfully clear metaphor. The clock is always ticking. So it is with the characters here, a few families and a handful of others driven to a secluded beach by their hosts at the tropical resort where they are vacationing. Once there it’s soon enough clear that the kids are growing up right before their eyes. And then the adults start greying and wrinkling and, well, what else could be happening? They’re aging too fast! Thus goes this nutty thought experiment with Shyamalan’s usual preoccupation with creepy shivers and familial sentimentality. But he’s also here up to subtextual freakiness with squirmy ideas and twisted implications. The movie may not cohere as well as Shyamalan’s best work, but it’s gross and propulsive and never flags in its fluid focus.

On the one hand, it has the trauma of aging from the view of parents who see their cute offsprings’ entire childhoods fly by. (Don’t wish your life away, the mother ironically warns before the beach.) On the other hand is the perspective of adolescences transmogrifying youngsters in practically a blink, so that a 6-year-old mind is broiling in hormones of a 15-year-old body. That’s messed up. The film never quite pushes as far as it could into depravity — Shyamalan’s just not that kind of horror filmmaker — but it’s plenty unsettling as the paradoxically claustrophobic beachfront becomes the site of a cataloging of all the ways aging can turn your body against you: tumors and dementia and seizures and heart attacks and broken bones and blindness and so on. As the day continues, the adults are in rough shape, and the children are thoroughly rattled. (Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie do good work playing stunted kids caught between ages, foreign in their own bodies.) Looking at them, it’s clear growing old is scary stuff. Sure, the movie has them behave in some clunky ways and dialogue can grow creaky and the progression of events sometimes wobbles. But one could easily hand wave that by asking if you’d handle being trapped in this situation any better. How would you even begin to reason your way out of this dilemma? You’re getting older by the second! I suspect there is a purposeful disconnect from the expected behavior. Do you think Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps and Rufus Swell, among others, would behave this awkwardly and unnaturally, all together and in the same pitch and register, for no reason? They’re lost in the melancholy and confusion of passing time as it rushes past. They hardly recognize what they’ve had before it’s gone.

There’s something bordering on chintzy to the premise and execution, but just when I found myself squinting to comprehend its sometimes-flimsy leaps, Shyamalan would win me back by hooking into the tingling emotions jolting the odd mystery of the piece. By the end, of course there’s a solution to all this. And though it wraps up the events with a tight semi-silly but workable conclusion, it doesn’t exactly satisfy (and also clangs a bit against the tenor of the times — I wonder how it’ll play a decade hence). But the journey there is so persistently off-kilter, adrift from convention, with characters totally at a loss to describe what they’re seeing or to understand a way out. Who can’t relate? And Shyamalan matches the confusion with a sincerity attuned to that state: with long takes falling into jittery handheld shots, 360 degree pans that blur and smear, a lingering on bodies in ways that matter-of-factly clue us into shocking changes by revealing a curvier hip or a freshly bulging belly. The shot framing our group of characters through a decomposed rib cage is typical of the attention to highlighting the potential for decay in all of us, the bars that hold us captive. Even when scripts get thin, Shyamalan remains a filmmaker with a distinct visual sense and a finely honed sense of space and storytelling within the wide screen. To see a movie that could’ve easily been disposable or even unworkable on the page lifted to intriguing and compelling and downright interesting through sheer force of filmmaking makes me wish we had more directors working at this level.


Regard a recording of a musician at work — movement and sound inextricably tied, plus the magic trick of seeing beautiful melody and rhythm plucked out of thin air, and the artist-magicians who conjure it up despite, or maybe because, of their problems. How cinematic. The best music documentaries give us a sense of being present with the art form as it is expressed — and the very best help us hear what makes it interesting. Although the greats in the genre are fine works of style and function on their own terms, there are plenty more that are hardly better than actually spinning the record or pulling up to a concert. But since the live show has been rightfully paused of late, it’s made it not quite so bad that the past couple years we’ve been drowning in these films. I bet the fans of the artists so chronicled don’t mind. If music be the food of love, play on, and all that. It’s no wonder Questlove’s Summer of Soul, which bounces with high spirits between retrospective and contextualizing interviews and long excerpts from footage of a 1969 summer concert series in Harlem with a star-studded lineup of Black musicians, has struck a satisfied nerve for some audiences. In these long, slow, frustrating days that are what we hope might be the end of our current epidemic, just the sight of a huge crowd of people gathered anxiety free to get transported to a place of pure delight through the charisma and style of the people there to play for them is a delight. That the movie might overreach in some of its claims — the concert was, contrary to the subtitle, televised — doesn’t diminish Questlove’s high-energy treatment of the standard talking head style. When a music doc is really cooking, it makes the best of the charisma of performance and interplay with audience. It makes a musician look good.

The artists, too, must love that treatment, since they’ve so often been guiding these projects as an extension of brand management and reputation burnishment. Take Taylor Swift, whose busy 2020 included two documentaries. The better was the pre-pandemic Miss Americana, Lana Wilson’s relatively open look at the process of Swift developing Lover after the comparatively less well-received Reputation. (An unfair knock, I’d say. There are, as the kids say, some real bops on that record.) Throughout, the backdrop of These Times In Which We Live play out, and force her to confront her fear of going the way of The (Dixie) Chicks if she gets too overly political. We see the pressures to open up — and stand up. And we see how it adds stresses to her professional and personal circles. But we also see an artist at work, noodling through melodies and lyrics with casual professionalism, flowing talent, and steely determination. It’s the kind of carefully crafted drops of personal revelation and behind-the-scenes machinations that makes for an interesting watch. Her Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, coming on the heels of the first of her surprise lockdown-made albums last fall, is more straightforward—a cozy, simple performance of a solid album interspersed with some brief comments about each track, clearly a way to do an intimate concert for her fans in a way that’s impossible at the moment. Taken together, the two films are a fine picture of a few years in the life of an interesting pop figure. Unlike, say, Demi Lovato’s YouTube doc Dancing with the Devil, an awkward blend of harrowing detail and glossy remove which presents candor as a value in and of itself while being edited so slickly and choppily that it’s hard to think about anything but the packaging, Swift has opened up in ways more akin to the usual pop star realism.

Similarly, and even better, is R.J. Cutler’s Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry. It’s a fly-on-the-wall as the teenager emerges from her childhood bedroom with some powerfully catchy hooks and moves toward stardom with a winning reluctance. Within baggy clothes and behind rolling eyes, she’s every bit the reluctant rock star, overflowing with obvious talent and yet skeptical of the hoops through which she’s jumped. The film shows her parents as cautious and supportive, her older brother as protective, and Eilish herself a lively, excited, sarcastic, surly, and altogether real young person. Surely that’s good for the brand. But it also feels real enough. It preserves a sense of authenticity even as she’s pulled into concert tours and music videos and Grammy awards. It has tons of footage of her testing talents at a young age, her giddy bewilderment as her songs catch on, and her hard-working drive that can send her limping backstage with an ice-pack, or leaning on the emotion her young audience pours back at her. See, too, her mix of pop star posturing and starstruck fawning when Justin Bieber’s people reach out for a potential collaboration. Come to think of it, this film is a more earnest version of the Biebs’ Never Say Never, a similar look at a turning point that took a teen from a young person’s social media phenom to a global sensation. Eilish's doc, true to its title, presents a blurry sense of sudden ascension, and the tensions it creates, a push-pull in the life of an abnormally normal star-on-the-rise. Somehow she’s still coming across as relatable and real despite the skyrocketing trajectory of her stardom. As a picture of a new star, it’s an interesting document. No matter where she goes from here, it’ll be an engaging marker of this moment in time.

At the other end of a career is Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Tina, an authorized biography interviewing Tina Turner about the trials and tribulations of her career. We also hear tape of 80’s conversations she had with Kurt Loder when he helped write her autobiography. She’s always present, but the movie does a good job making it more than a long self-narrated career retrospective. (Not that I would’ve minded that, necessarily. Spike Jonze made a good version of that form with the surviving Beastie Boys for last year’s fun Beastie Boys Story.) For Tina, we pause at all the hits and see great footage of her in concert and TV appearances at every stage of her career. The film deftly weaves in an understanding of her challenges and assets, contextualizes her talent in the business of the time, and watches as she rises from professional and relational struggles to become a self re-made woman. It touches upon her experiences with domestic violence without lingering on unseemly details and crafts a fine sparkling uplift out one of the great singers finding her voice as a singer and an independent woman. It’s fast-paced and full of well-chosen archival footage (among the highlights has to be an interview promoting her great villain turn in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome where she discusses the angry man in her past while Mel Gibson sits silently next to her) and knows to let the songs play. They speak more than anything else can. When she struts up to the microphone and pours every ounce of her grit and perseverance into her singing, you don’t want to be listening to anyone else. She earns the legend status the awestruck movie takes as its underlying thesis. We don’t need another hero, indeed.

Another in the what-a-career style comes from Edgar Wright, that most inventive and original of filmmakers, he of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and other visually zippy and creatively cut genre fare. He’s a big fan of the oddball underground rock band Sparks and sets out to tell us why they’re great. He does so through The Sparks Brothers in a relatively standard style, with talking heads (of critics and fans and bandmates and contemporaries) and tons of archival footage, with a chronological stop at each and every one of the band’s albums for discussion about the hit singles, underperforming disappointments, sonic experimentation, or oddball genre swerves. They’re a band that turns falsetto loops over sharply ironic lyrics on albums that run the gamut from glam rock to proto-punk to early synth. They’ve had eccentric chameleonic abilities to anticipate shifts in sound, while simply following their creative bliss. This sometimes puts them ahead or behind the times—or way off on their own doing their own thing.. This has left them the status of having incredible longevity despite being, for most people, a name they might’ve heard once or twice, or a novelty song they might distantly remember more than a going concern. As a whirlwind fanboy tour, Wright does a good job introducing the world to why these guys are of note. It’s clear Sparks has passion and creativity and originality and it’s fun to see them emerge from the underground cult status to something like a mainstream spotlight. As a movie, it’s pretty standard stuff. Even Wright’s cute touches are less inventive than his wont, tending toward the trendy animate filigrees and recreations that clutter so many modern docs. (I did like best how he credits each member of Duran Duran in their interview as just one Duran each.) But it did make me cue up a couple Sparks albums on Apple Music afterwards, so there you go.

My favorite music docs, if you follow the trend, tend to be the ones that, through context or focus, attention or expression, teach you how to understand what you’re hearing, not didactically but sensorily, opening up new ways of comprehending what might’ve ear-wormed pleasingly without a second thought to the complexity. And in doing so it brings the artists into a more revealing light. So it is I’ve probably most appreciated Hulu’s McCartney 3,2,1, a short series of six half-hour episodes shot in evocative black and white, the better to focus in on every note in the sound mix. Loosely organized, each part finds Paul McCartney in conversation with record producer Rick Rubin as they play back tapes of Beatles cuts and solo stuff. As they run, he talks about inspirations and collaboration, the decision behind certain choices of instrumentation and intonation, and approaches a seemingly genuine humbleness when he half-embarrassed, half-proud admits that he’s grown into a fan of his own work. The production might lean a little heavily on Rubin’s starstruck wonderment at some of McCartney’s tales and tidbits, but, hey, I’d would be doing the same, too, wouldn’t you? The show lets these classic songs come back to life. I’d never really heard the bass line in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” until all of a sudden Rubin pulls it out of the mix and lets it live alone in all its crunchiness. Or felt how fast the guitar rushes through its lick in “A Hard Day’s Night” until McCartney explains its speed. (If these bits of trivia have been told before, I hadn’t heard them.) I savored every note of this doc, and could’ve watched another three hours easily. Sometimes you just want to hear one of the greats talk about his work. We’ve never before had so much access to our biggest stars—it’s nice to see some of these music docs put that to good use.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Ready Player Dumb: SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY

From the time news of Space Jam: A New Legacy’s concept leaked, the comparison to Spielberg’s Ready Player One was inevitable. After all, both films from Warner Brothers involve video game worlds wherein a cavalcade of cameos from all manner of Intellectual Property (that joyless term) make appearances. But Spielberg’s film, for all its fluid spectacle and zippy formula, was often interested in the interplay between the airless echo chamber of the digital noise and the flesh-and-blood relationships withering on the other end of the virtual reality encasements — leading to a climax where pushing the button to delete the whole shebang seems a tempting prospect, and the hero ultimately coasts to a detente where the artificial culture is paused now and then to give our brains a break. No such reprieve is in store for the Space Jam sequel, a noisy and desensitizing blitz of branding and corporate braggadocio. Sure, it’s the sequel to a movie that was a similar calculation, but the smallness of the studio’s 1996 thinking the old beloved Looney Tunes and the surging popularity of the NBA would make sweet synergy seems almost quaint when confronted with where we are now. New Legacy finds LeBron James, as himself, sucked into the WB server at the behest of an evil algorithm (Don Cheadle, of all people) that wants to blackmail him into using his celebrity to boost old studio product. The computer offers him a chance to be in a Batman or a Harry Potter or a Game of Thrones, but when the star refuses, the servers zap him into a digital netherworld, and kidnaps his son (and eventually not only his family, but all their social media followers?). From there, the movie becomes endless noise and motion that congeals into one bland hyper-capitalist sludge — eventually culminating in nearly an hour of faux-cartoon pseudo-basketball that’s basically impossible to follow as it’s surrounded by a crowd of distracting random audience members and played by inscrutable video game rules.

So James must play this nightmare game to win their safety. And for some reason he teams up with Bugs Bunny. And to fill out the team, Bugs recruits the other Tunes, who are running wild through other WB movies in the vast solar system in the studio’s archive. Why? Because the movie wanted to insert them into old projects to remind us what they own. (That it’s a string of decidedly adult-oriented properties — Austin Powers, The Matrix, Mad Max, Casablanca, Rick and Morty — is beyond strange for an ostensible kids’ movie; at least DC is represented by Paul Dini-style animation and George Perez panels.) “Stream it now on HBO Max!” goes the missing ad. But why the Tunes? Because of the original Jam, I suppose. There’s little reference to it otherwise, and the Looney Tunes have been lobotomized, and removed of all wit and soul. They’re cheaply, roughly, blandly animated, so they don’t look quite like themselves — imagine if Disney trotted out the Muppets and they were moth-bitten and falling apart. The Tunes are made to say things like “haters gonna hate” and “well, that happened” as if they’re the idiot reaction shot comic relief in a subpar youth-baiting studio fantasy. (A low point has to be Daffy Duck sputtering that the villain is “a son of a glitch.”) The slapstick they’re given is, at best, dull copies of better gags from shorts gone by. And, worse still, they spend part of the movie as dulled CG versions of themselves, the better to have Porky Pig rap, I guess? Worst of all, though, is how meaningless and empty the movie is from first frame to last. It plays like one of those dead-eyed belated sequels cooked up for an unrelated Super Bowl commercial — a fate befallen E.T. and Edward Scissorhands of late. A New Legacy, funnily enough, has nothing new, and ends up ironically agreeing with its villain: a studio mercilessly exploiting stuff it owns and brands it can acquire to remind us of all the better original things they once did. And trick as many people to pay for it as possible.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Fighting with Her Family: BLACK WIDOW

After a decade spent hanging around the movies of other heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow gives Scarlett Johansson's action hero a movie all her own. It’s set between Civil War and Infinity War, but the best part is you don’t really have to know that. The movie is, as far as these things go, pretty self-contained, token Avengers references aside. It’s also smaller and with a bit more of a hard edge to the action; when people fall, they might break a leg, or at least take some ibuprofen and wrap a bandage before bouncing back into the fight. We knew Black Widow is a defector from a secret program of brainwashed women assassins. This story involves her discovery that her old captors (led by a glowering Ray Winstone) are still up to their nasty tricks. To help put a stop to them once and for all, she’s pulled back into the life of her sister (Florence Pugh) and parents, father a Russian super solider (David Harbour) and mother a scientist (Rachel Weisz). That they aren’t her real family, but were a family of Soviet spies given to each other as a cover story and then tearfully separated decades prior, makes this one weird reunion. This emotional spine of betrayal and reconnection gives slightly better than average rooting interest to her endeavors, and a desire to see the group actually find a way to belong to one another again helps to give some small amount of tension to the superheroics that are the inevitable endpoint here.

Because it takes a step back, and finds a potentially complicated globetrotting plot quickly and legibly sketched, there’s room to find nice character moments. The prologue is given over to a scene of childhood happiness torn asunder; later we’ll find room for an awkward family dinner as the years melt away to prickly banter around the table. It’s sweet, especially because the rest of the movie — think The Americans by way of Bourne with sci-fi Marvel touches, a comparison which wouldn’t surprise me to hear was on screenwriters Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson’s cork board — is wall-to-wall action that’s about as good as Marvel can do it. The acrobatics and strategy play out comprehensibly, and the steady escalation of stakes and scale allows it to be the rare MCU property that gets a good climactic workout instead of mere repetitive CG glop. Director Cate Shortland leans into the strengths: the talented stunt team and her excellent cast, who bring satisfying personality to the scenes between chases and flips and kicks. What can I say? I cared about this family. Best in show has to be Florence Pugh, who has great plucky and teasing little-sister energy in her scenes with Johansson, and proves herself adept at navigating a role that’s equal parts comic relief and setup to a new hero we’ll definitely see return. That’s part for the course. But because the movie feels so tight, even at its just-over-two-hours runtime, the familiar never overstays its welcome, and finds a far more satisfying subtext — about autonomy and control — and backstory for Black Widow than what was only hinted before. If we have to have Marvel dominating our discourse and our screens, at least this entry is one of the better ones.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

In Between Days: SUMMER OF 85

The French know how to make coming-of-age movies better than anyone. A recent example is Summer of 85, which has a deep vein of feeling to mine beneath its bland title. François Ozon writes and directs the story of Alexis (Felix Lefebvre), a teenage boy who becomes fast friends, and more, with David (Benjamin Voisin), a handsome slightly older boy. Against the picturesque backdrop of a seaside village, the boys become intimately intertwined in one another’s lives, and yet, because of the ill-defined boundaries of their love, and their inability to explain to anyone else what the nature of their budding romance might become, they are isolated together. This helps breed the intensity of their bond, but also sows the seeds of a great sadness were they ever to fall out, especially as the intensity of affection slowly gets lopsided. (That the film keeps bouncing back in time from a teased tragedy helps sell the bittersweetness of the happy times on display.) 

The movie covers just a few weeks of summer work and play in the sun and sand, long languorous evenings out lingering larger than home and parents. (The folks have their own issues, fairly or unfairly projected onto their sons.) It captures the push-pull of adolescent relationships, especially in the sun-dappled whirlwind fleeting qualities held in the very grain and light of its frames. Here there’s rush and regret, obsession and awkwardness, intensity and shyness, the frenzy and the melancholy, the sugar-high of new sensation and the lingering sting of a loss. There’s natural fresh-faced openness to the performers who physicalize the ups and downs of their six-week encounter, and Ozon, always so good at conjuring the intangible through the physical, baring feelings through bodies, poses them in the frame with an unforced naturalism and a casual beauty. And the film is covered in well-chosen voice over from Alexis, who pours out his perspective from a stormy reminiscing remove. He says he was in love with him. Or at least, as much as he knew about the word at that time. And that makes all the difference. We feel that distance, which makes the surging sensation of a well-chosen montage — the best cinematic use of Rod Stewart, perhaps, a feat then double-underlined by an especially poignant reprise — line up all the more tremulously against the cold reality of time gone by. This coming-of-age is not so much about growing into a different person, as it is forging ahead a little older and wiser after one sudden crash of a teenage summer. It's a film that knows teenagers see every new feeling as the most important they’ve ever felt.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Out of Sight: NO SUDDEN MOVE

Steven Soderbergh’s small and satisfying No Sudden Move gets by on style and the sheer propulsive pleasure of plot. His filmmaking is so slick and precise that he can serve both at once. He’s a master of aesthetic detail — here a 50’s period piece shot with vintage anamorphic lensing and modern digital sheen — and of storytelling. Together the images pop with meaningful blocking and striking compositions, while the tight compelling story unfolds and unfolds and unfolds. The screenplay sets up an Elmore Leonard-style schemes-within-schemes Detroit crime caper that locates that town’s mid-century power structures: cops, cars companies, and mobsters. Then it watches as one little scam grows out of control simply because it pops off and cuts across all three lines of influence. We start with low-level criminals (Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Kieran Culkin) hired to help watch the family of an accountant (David Harbour) as he’s forced at gunpoint to go to the office and take some car component designs out of a safe. It’s not so simple. The intelligence of Ed Solomon’s screenplay, beyond the clever wit to the dialogue and clockwork connections between people, is to catch all the characters in the middle of their own complicated lives, with unexpected interpersonal variables and cross-conflicts. This is just one more thing to throw a wrench into so many plans. Soon we have murder and infidelities and home invasion and bags of money and calls up the chain of command. Everyone needs to get their hands on this problem, ostensibly to solve it to their liking, but really to try to come out a little richer. 

Along the way, we get a little wiser to the corruption floating through Detroit at the time, and Soderbergh sharply draws our attention to the futility behind the characters’ competing goals. They scurry around, and there’s always someone higher up to swoop in to wave a gun, to make new deals, or to propose a better scam on top of the other scams. It’s the kind of crime picture that can introduce new big name actors to step in with a complication an hour or an hour and a half into the proceedings and it feels like yet another pleasurable twist. The large, well-cast ensemble — also including Brendan Fraser, Julia Fox, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Noah Jupe, Frankie Shaw, Bill Duke, and more surprises throughout — expertly navigates the twists and turns by being locked in on their own particular duties and struggles. Some show marvelous in-over-their-heads exasperation, while others are rattled and sidelined, and still more think they’re in total control. Maybe. Maybe not. Some are too smart for their own good; others can’t even grasp how behind they are. There’s no sudden move out of this when the motor city’s most corrupt are out to stop forward progress. This trust-no-one caper is briskly, crisply entertaining on a scene by scene level as it adds up to yet another of Soderbergh’s pleasurable genre experiments, and a recapitulation of his oft returned-to maxim: “When the person in charge won't get to the bottom of something, it's usually because they are at the bottom of that something.”

Monday, July 5, 2021

Connection Lost: ZOLA and PVT CHAT

Two recent indie dramas, Zola and PVT Chat, build character studies with an unusually frank, open, and realistic understanding about sex and disconnection in our modern world. They’re both built from internet culture and as such have an understanding about the ways in which modern lives can become nesting dolls of fictions and identity. Sometimes it gives you control over your mind and body; other times it cedes that control to others. Our new ways of connecting with one another can breed new disfunction and separation, even from our true selves.

This idea becomes a quasi-comic semi-thriller for director Janicza Bravo, who wrote Zola with Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris. The movie, a mix of lurid based-on-true events and self-reflective humor, plays as tossed off and eccentrically personal as a Twitter thread. Fittingly, just such a viral story is what it’s based on. We meet our narrator Zola (Taylour Paige) as she meets her match: an energetic young woman (Riley Keough) who becomes a fast friend. Big mistake. She invites her on a road trip to Tampa where a weekend performing at a lucrative strip club will make them big bucks. Bigger mistake. It’s the past-tense of the narration — borrowed from the flurry of vernacular tweet speak and played off with buzzing alerts and time stamps in iPhone fonts — that gives the movie a gloss of wry melancholy, while the present-tense buzz of suspense and incident keeps the episodic one-thing-after-another on the right side of compelling. The story soon grows to include a pimp (Colman Domingo) and a boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and a host of strange Floridians in and around the sex work trade. The film is full up of the kind of off-beat detail and memorable personalities that imply dark emotional undercurrents and strange backstories simply by casting memorable faces and expert actors to inhabit them.

As Zola falls deeper into the unfortunate and dangerous events of this wild weekend, the movie remains committed to her perspective — aside from one briskly funny side-step into an alternate version of events. Through freeze-frames and overlapping dissolves, Bravo highlights the woozy confusion and destabilizing falling sensation of getting so much further in over your head than you’d ever imagine. The dance between dark intent and light comedy adds to the wobbly tone — in a good way. And then Paige’s lead performance is so breezily wounded, both traumatized and above it all in a dazzling surface of openness and charm underneath which churns a self-flagellating what-did-I-get-myself-into? mixed with a how-do-I-survive-this? Throughout, constant selfies and posts, Vines and ads, flow through the character’s lives, building images to which they can’t or won’t conform. The movie explodes outwards even as it falls inwards. And wrapping its events in its telling somehow makes Zola’s plight more bearable even as it gets squirmingly suspenseful and ends abruptly. We know she’ll make it out; and we know she’ll reclaim the story — and her body — as her own.
Ben Hozie’s PVT Chat is more restrained, like its obsessive lead character. He is Jack (Peter Vack) a young man who makes his living gambling on internet blackjack. Between rounds, he cruises sex chats for cam girls. His favorite is Scarlet (Julia Fox), not just because she’s attractive and good at dirty talk, but because he finds himself wanting to have normal conversations with her. In a weird way, they start to play out like awkward dates. Sure, he’s paying for her time, but his addiction to the sensation starts to get conflated with real affection. She actually likes him, right? he wonders. As we follow him through his daily life — chatting with his landlord and a handyman; attending a friend’s art show; playing round after round of cards — he becomes increasingly interested on the moments he gets an alert that his favorite cam is live. The movie captures a sense of the digital and the tangible intermingling, where the unreality of a virtual connection starts to take on qualities that feel present in his life. One can feel the erotic potential in their relationship despite the fact they’ve never met; it’s clear memories of her still buzz in his head as the handheld shots follow along behind him down his routine New York City streets. We get a sense he might be a loner, but for how engaged and animated he is talking to this girl he’s never met in the flesh. Yet when a woman he knows in real life invites him over, he remains distracted. Why focus on the one he can actually be with, he seems to unconsciously decide, when he can chat with the one he can’t.

The movie is clear-eyed, and the performers trust their director and the material enough to expose themselves for the sake of the project. It’s unflinching, yet generous. It’s observant, but doesn’t exactly judge. It eventually opens up to take in Scarlet’s perspective, and seeing behind the screens from her side is a productive reminder that the connection and disjunction flows both ways. Their relationship is so transactional, despite the fact that they can push that aside in the moment. Their relationship is entirely intangible, computer-moderated, digital bits. And yet they’re in each other’s heads all the time. They share ideas about art, about life. He likes when she takes control; and yet it’s all verbal. He likes giving himself into her force willingly, even as he pries into her life and starts to think maybe, just maybe, he could actually find where she lives. That plot element dances on the edge of creepiness, and the movie knows it. The movie’s cheaply framed and presented realism underlines the blurred lines — emotional, physical, psychological, sexual — in these lives, and the actors complement the spare style with bare displays of their character’s obsessions and aimlessness. By the surprisingly bittersweet conclusion it’s clear that this is a connection that will need some distance to remain healthy, even if it means having to pretend there’s still that space where they can look and talk, but can’t actually touch.

Friday, July 2, 2021


One of the worst movies of this, or any, year is America: The Motion Picture. It’s an ugly, loud, obnoxious, endlessly puerile, painfully unfunny, repugnantly self-amused experience. The animated picture — stiffly composed in a style that appears copy-pasted from some unholy dated amalgamation of faux-anime and semi-Flash cheapness — is a broad goof on American know-nothing historical ignorance. It turns the revolution into a pastiche of half-remembered names and excessive comic book violence with bold-faced names turned into action figures smashed haphazardly together. Beginning with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) by werewolf Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg), the colonies’ revolution against the British is assembled Avengers style by dumb bro braggart George Washington (Channing Tatum). He wanders the land getting everyone from Samuel Adams (Jason Mantzoukas) and Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn) to to join the cause. Eventually Geronimo and Paul Bunyan show up, too. (The tone is set early when a group shot of founders at Lincoln’s funeral includes MLK and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Okay, that last one made me almost smirk.) This slipshod burlesque is an idiot’s tale told with facile fury and scattershot politics. It’s a queasy mix of lazy liberal bromides (a pile of AK-47s are wheelbarrowed in from Y’all Mart) and conservative bloodlust. At times it’s parodying blind American exceptionalism; other times it just is that. Sometimes it puppets its figures for left-wing critique; other times it’s the worst ahistorical points scoring. But I suppose some of this might go down easier if it landed even one good joke. Most of the time I sat there stupefied that anyone, let alone the marquee names attached, actually spoke the flat, nasty nincompoopery that passed for dialogue in its thinly sketched goofs.

To make matters worse, the movie lacks not only a sense of wit or perspective, but also anything approaching a good or even watchable aesthetic choice. The whole project from Archer alum Matt Thompson and Mortal Kombat screenwriter Dan Callaham has South Park flatness and JibJab movement. Its images are eye-meltingly unpleasant, down to the frequent face-exploding, blood-spurting gore, and the sound is a constant screech of noise and vulgarity. The politics in these awful drawings are roughly similar, a wild mess that’s neither here nor there. This is an unsteady, deeply irritating feature length mix of Adult Swim loopy edginess randomness and sub-Family Guy vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake choked in self-impressed referentiality. (Though, to call the movie sub-Family Guy is like calling a Porta Potty sub-outhouse. And that’s still too flattering.) The movie is as fruitlessly deranged as it is pointlessly exhausting, and as boring as it is convinced its excesses will be entertaining. Instead it’s a movie for anyone who thought the boisterously prejudiced Team America: World Police was too subtle and polite. Of all the problems we have as a country, a lack of vulgar folks willing to treat our history as a choose-your-own-adventure is not one of them.

Far better the dystopia of The Purge to, ahem, attempt a purge of our nation’s ills. In that world, you’ll recall, the New Founding Fathers decreed a yearly holiday where all crime (including murder, the warnings always helpfully remind) is legal. The movies have, at best, been a vibrant stew of high-minded allegorical social commentary smuggled and shouted through low-down exploitation thrills—even if it’s never quite as high or low as it could be. At least they have spirit. They have a keen understanding of the societal breakdown they display, how a free-crime night indulges the worst impulses of the worst among us, and inflicting the most pain on the most vulnerable. The prequel, The First Purge, showed us how the whole thing was manipulated by wealthy conservatives as a way to let the rabid white supremacists and assorted right-wing extremists in their base attack women, the poor, and people of color. Now, with The Forever Purge, the series takes us past the end of The Purge to find die-hard Purgers, calling themselves Real Americans and True Patriots as they mount flags on their trucks and load their machine guns, getting fed up with their limited hours of impunity and just keep the chaos rolling. One neo-Nazi grins at the sound of gunfire; that’s American music, he says. It’s a smart escalation of the stakes, since sunrise is no longer the safety it was in entries past. Now the danger goes and goes, and grows and grows. When will it end? (Maybe the Purgers will storm the capital.) This isn’t only a movie about survival, but about escape from the worst of us.

The movie shifts the setting out of the big cities and into a small rural Texas town full of rich white ranchers (Will Patton, Josh Lucas) and Mexican laborers (Ana de la Reguera, Tenoch Huerta). Eventually, as the rioters start hijacking the city, we follow a sympathetic group of innocents as they try to flee with their lives. There’s horror inherent in the premise, fitting the place the series started, though as it’s aged the scariest aspect is how plausible they’ve started to play, how thin the line between the rhetoric of the Purgers and our actual right-wing rioters and their enablers. There’s even an overt line late in the picture about the pro-Purge party watching the monster of their own creation and indulgence rampage out of their control. Scarily familiar. But Forever tilts more toward action sequences, away from the horror of jump scares and even dialing back on (some) of the gore. Instead the picture favors chases and standoffs and shootouts — the better to match the west of its setting. Screenwriter James DeMonaco, the voice behind every one of these movies, continues to modulate its ideas, build its world, and find new avenues to have it reflect urgent topical concerns while putting its stock characters, and our country, through the wringer. 

Director Everardo Gout dutifully stages the looming menace of the moment — motorcycles roaring up on a dark highway; a theater basement full of staked vampire cosplayers; a border wall as towering trap lit up by break lights — and keeps the proceedings fast-paced and frantic. By the end, Americans are trying to flee violence at home by crossing borders. Cities burn at the hands of folks fed a big lie that killing those who upset them will restore their old sense of hegemonic power. And in the middle a prejudiced rancher grows to respect the Mexicans as they help each other survive. (In action, that’s not quite as pat as that sounds.) Here’s a movie to match our precarious moment (all the more prescient considering its original release date was last summer). It somehow nurtures a small kindling of hope even as it finds increasingly dire reasons to despair. This is a series that makes its political points with shotgun satire and sledgehammer slogans. But, given the tenor of the times, that feels just about right.