Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Mixed Metaphors: BLONDE and DON'T WORRY DARLING

Marilyn Monroe has always been treated as, to borrow a phrase from Rodgers and Hammerstein, an empty page that men would like to write on. This is certainly the case with every public figure who passes from famous to iconic. But for Monroe, whose objectification has long obscured her individuality, it’s denied her participation in her performances. She’s too much the image: the legs, the cleavage, the billowing skirt, the tasteful nudes, the mole, and, yes, the blonde hair. Her genius as a performer, perpetually underrated by some critics and reclaimed by other (smarter) ones, was typified in films such as Some Like it Hot or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She’d somehow play both the oblivious sexual object and the shrewd self-presenter as she subverted sexist expectations of those attempting to define her. And yet when she’s trapped in the cultural memory we are so often left with the shallow glamor and the sordid details. From made-for-TV biopics (1980’s Marilyn: The Untold Story) and the occasional prestige big screen effort (2011’s deadly dull My Week with Marilyn), the beats of her life are somehow placed on a pedestal of reverence even as such slobbering lends easily to condescension and objectification. Even when she died, as Elton John would remind us, all the papers had to say was that she was found in the nude.

Now here’s Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, which, like Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, is interested in a mid-century icon as the icon, attempting to excavate in a freewheeling, loosely (or, in this case, tangentially) factual way, but feeling right about how they moved through the culture. But unlike Luhrhman’s glitzy, heartfelt montage, which has a palpable love for Presley every second, Dominik is largely skeptical of what Monroe did, and what was done to her. The movie has a blitz of montage and mix of style—varied colors and ratios and CG flights of fancy that trade off with a cold logic—that could only look slow and tame compared to Luhrmann (or Oliver Stone at his most manic), looks at Monroe from a cool remove. She’s Norma Jeane abused and exploited and rendered hollow by a culture that looks only at the surface, and a personality that grinds itself into traumatized dust. She’s played by Ana de Armas in a state of fret and worry, really only alive on screen or in bed. Her voice slippery and tremulous, pulsing with breath and anxiety, she fidgets and darts her eyes, looks up from underneath the makeup and hair done in a perfect simulacrum and steps into the spotlight, before retreating into the shadows again—or forced into yet another abusive situation. She’s beaten, raped, forced to have an abortion, run through a meat grinder of casting couches. All the time, she clings to the men in her life—a procession of famous men (Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio, Adrien Brody as Arthur Miller, Caspar Phillipson as JFK) who think only they really get her. The her she sees on the big screen, the one we all love, she doesn’t recognize herself in there.

Dominik has previously done good work exploring American myth-making. His The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a great late Western, casting a critical eye on the consequences of living out a life of disreputable legend, and, in its brilliant final sequences, what happens to those left after that life has gone. Similarly, his Killing Them Softly takes traditional crime movie tropes and makes them into a grubby mirror of capitalist self-congratulation, a talky swirl of potent political cynicism. With Blonde, adapting a Joyce Carol Oates novel that has a passing resemblance to reality, his vision of Monroe is troubled by superficial confusion. It’s interested in surfacing the real ugliness of parts of her life, and eliding any pleasure or control she may have had. Typical of the film’s interest in her films is a scene set in a theater playing the last scene of Some Like it Hot—with its hilarious final line chirped out with perfect timing by Joe E. Brown and wide-eyed reaction from Jack Lemmon. Dominik doesn’t let us hear any laughter from the crowd. Instead there’s eerie silence followed by sped-up footage of rapid-fire applause. Blonde creates a vision of Monroe’s stardom as nothing but product, served up to the masses in a va-va-voom wolf-whistle package. Watch the cross-cutting of the woman getting a—ahem—hand from a fella in a theater while the roaring waterfalls of the trailer for her film Niagara gush forth on the screen.

You can’t say the movie’s not boldly trying out its ideas. It’s lousy with thin Freudian analysis—the words “mother” and “daddy” are murmured here more often than in a Tennessee Williams play. Her mom (Julianne Nicholson) is cranked up near Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest levels (though “Get! In! The! Bath!” is no “No! Wire! Hangers!”), and pop is a black and white glamor shot that haunts her. (Echoes of familial tension are doubled by a CG fetus slowly twirling in amniotic fantasia.) It's perhaps perversely resistant to entertainment or nostalgia, dripping as it is with classic movie clips digitally altered to place new people in old shots, and copious period detail. Here Hollywood is shown as a suffocating spectacle that wraps Norma up in increasingly tight framing and sun-dappled faux-grain that cinches in just as her stardom expands. Her chaotic upbringing and tumultuous affairs are also grim—she never enjoys sex, and even the men who worship her body fall flat when getting access to it. JFK lounges with disinterest on the phone while she leans over his lap; more baroque configurations of bodies earlier in the film are blurred and bleakly mechanical; powerful men invade her and use her and think nothing of her. Here’s a stark movie that revels in its misery, and avoids all hero worship and vicarious success of the True Hollywood Story. Instead, it’s a burning Babylon of a city, with wildfires, broken women, and madmen whose suits buy them respect they don’t deserve. It’s a young woman with a tear running down her cheek. But Blonde isn’t interested in anything more that gorgeous misery. It just hurts. In doing so, the movie does the exact same thing it laments—turning her pain into its own narrative from which to profit. That leaves, no matter its intriguing qualities, its ambitions beyond its reach.

But at least it has reach, which is more than one can say for Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. It, too, wants to interrogate the prison of pining for mid-century femininity. Too bad it’s just a slice of Swiss—thin, cheesy, full of holes. This misfire wants to be a mysterious mind-bender of a picture in which an idealized 50’s suburban community is slowly revealed to be Up To No Good. (Gee, where have were heard that before?) Because it’s 2022, that means it starts like a bad episode of The Twilight Zone and ends like a typical episode of Black Mirror. Florence Pugh stars as a seemingly happy housewife who cooks and cleans and shops and takes ballet lessons and hangs with the other neighborhood women. It’s a company town where the men drive off to the plant and are in constant admiration of their boss (Chris Pine). Pugh starts to suspect something’s up with the men’s double-talk and the other weird sub-WandaVision breaks with reality revealing that everything’s pretty empty in this existence. She’s literally trapped behind glass walls or cracking open empty eggs. Get it? But the free-floating symbolism never adds up and a potentially interesting stew of topical and philosophical ideas get buried in the movie’s long, slow trudge—flat declarations, muddled revelations, confused supporting characterizations, perplexingly fuzzy world-building.

The irritating lack of specifics here—everything’s burnished and polished and vacant—make the eventual revelations feel all the more inadequate. It’s the kind of dull thriller that one thinks back through with full knowledge of the twists and finds it even more lacking. If that’s what’s going on, then it makes even less sense, one thinks. You could probably talk for hours with your friends about every nagging loose end of confused sub-twist, but, gosh, how boring would that be? The movie does have Pugh giving it her all, even with as inconsistent a scene partner as Harry Styles as her husband who loves getting down to business on her, and also endlessly twirling on stage for his buddies. And Pine is perfectly sinister as her foil, a masculinist phony clearly cultivating a cult of personality—he’s like a few prominent poisonous alt-right faux-intellectual men you might think of. But the movie clicks into its most interesting ideas right as it all falls apart, and makes such a hash of its conclusion that one feels all the more intently the waste of time it took to get there. Sure, kids these days might not’ve seen—and here’s a warning that if you’ve seen the following you’ll start to glean this one’s twists—The Stepford Wives or The Truman Show or Pleasantville or The Village. (They should, though!) Even they might smell this one’s meager second-hand nature.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Darn Ya: SMILE

Horror movies love a good supernatural infection, although it plays admittedly extra unsettling after our pandemic experiences. We know all too well how frightening it is to know you might seal your doom without even knowing until it’s too late. You’ve already let it in. That’s been the fright of The Rings and It Follows, even the Things and so many expert chillers past. Now it’s back again in Smile, a fine horror effort from debut director Parker Finn who proves his facility with dread and effective creeping suspense. The film is about a psychiatrist (Sosie Bacon) who witnesses a patient’s suicide and is soon convinced she’s being stalked by an evil entity hoping to drive her to the same fate. This thing’s signature is giving people, both real and hallucinated, stranger and memory, the creepiest smiles—an eerie glowering wide-eyed Kubrick stare combined with a toothy grin. This evil also manifests as distant whispers of her name in the dark of night, and the occasional unlocked door when she’s home alone. (Would you believe her seemingly supportive fiancé, shallow sister, dry therapist, and caring boss don’t believe her?) That’s standard spooky stuff, but done with enough commitment to silences on the soundtrack and empty spaces in the frame to raise the hairs on the back of the neck with regularity. As the lead (with the help of her cop ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner, honorary Scream Queen)) starts researching more and finds she’s simply the latest link in a long chain of witnesses to violent death meeting their own a week later, the film’s trajectory is clear. She’s done everything right, and has been infected all the same.

Though using this long-familiar horror trope of curse-stalked protagonists well enough, Smile is also playing with the recent en vogue horror use of the trauma plot. It lets us know the lead hasn’t recovered from her mother’s death decades earlier, and that’s haunting her, too. The movie plays fair with that metaphor and uses it with some degree of subtly, if cynically drawing to a downbeat conclusion. That stuff is more standard fare, but falls flatter than the stock shivers. What does work, though, is the way it hooks into a kind of pandemic-era dread, matched with other recent horror efforts like David Prior’s The Empty Man and David Bruckner’s The Night House. The former’s sinister whispering keys into a feeling of psycho-social contagion, a dreadful subliminal ugliness that’s unleashed without our knowing and yet tugs at the tides of our moods and consciousness, poisoning our communities into ever-darker thoughts. The latter’s grief metaphor is paired with an architectural ambiguity where shifting nighttime shadows become subtle specters in corners and crannies. Though Smile’s the least of these three pictures, its steady frames and looming doom, and its clear-eyed sense of mental unraveling prodding by traumatic events, places it in the same head space. It’s enough for an effective cold chill on a fall night.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Characters Welcome: PEARL and CONFESS, FLETCH

Ti West’s Pearl is an unusual horror prequel, and all the better for it. The movie follows a few weeks in the life of a young woman who’ll grow up to be the elderly woman partially responsible for the deaths of the cast and crew of an indie porn film in X. That enjoyable 70s-set slasher homage was a fine return to form for horror filmmaker West, who here takes his tale back to 1918 and settles in for something with less gore and violence—although, oh, yes, there will be blood. It’s more of an unnerving character piece about an odd young lady having a tough time. In that sense, it’s less a slaughterhouse and more in line with a Carrie adaptation’s adolescent confusion winding its way to bloodshed, or Lucky McKee’s cult favorite May, about a disturbed woman whose attempts to make friends get uncomfortably surgical. Pearl (Mia Goth) is hunkered down on the family farm, avoiding the flu pandemic with her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) and stern mother (Tandi Wright) while her husband (Alistair Swell) is off fighting in World War I. There are verdant fields and saturated gingham patterns at play in the frames—a pleasant sight, but one ominous with loneliness and isolation, too. The movie does fine, broad strokes work that can be filled in with squirming specificities of character.

She feels stuck, and the film acutely sees the pain in the smiles she fakes for family and friends. She just wants a way out. Maybe stardom as a dancer, like in the picture shows she loves so much, is her ticket? Shame, then, that life conspires to keep her down, although her off-putting neediness and grindingly pathetic obliviousness can’t be much help. Still, she blames everyone but herself, and slowly starts to think she’d be better off without them. West, co-writing with Goth, digs into the oddities of this broken woman’s psyche, and follows on her dark path papered over with obvious falseness of Americana Pollyanna psychopathy. The screen is wide, the colors lush, the music swirling with Herrmann-style romantic strings, and the lighting bright and overpowering. There’s a gleam to the look and a glint in Goth’s eye as the poor lady starts to crack. The film’s high point is not the few bloody axings or slow-motion self-destruction of this cramped family unit, but a high-wire, close-up, one-shot monologue in which Pearl finally unburdens every nook and cranny of her conflicted emotional storehouse to an unsuspecting friendly ear. It’s a nervy, unsettled, bleakly funny, and even empathetic scene that goes on and on. We somehow care for Pearl, in all her raw vulnerability, even as the long speech winds on, digging herself deeper into a whole lot of trouble. We know her so well by then it’s hard to look away.

But for a character who’s a much more pleasant hang, check Confess, Fletch. Writer-director Greg Mottola—whose Superbad and Adventureland are also pleasant hangout comedies—once more proves not every character-based movie needs trauma to excavate. (How refreshing.) Fletch, the star of a series of dry, sly mystery novels by Gregory Mcdonald, is an ex-investigative journalist whose appeal sits squarely in how effortlessly at ease he feels bumbling into any situation, even as danger and disorder escalates. He’s just an appealing personality in a shaggy genre package. Here, played with rumpled charisma by Jon Hamm, he’s on the case of some missing paintings, which may or may not be related to an abducted Count. There’s also a murder Fletch didn’t commit, but the facts keep stubbornly implicating him anyway. This tangled web grows to involve art dealers, an Italian heiress, a few shady rich folks, a countess, a couple of cops, a yacht club security officer, and a loopy stoner. The screenplay provides eccentric characters and sequences with a charming straight-faced silliness. The repartee sparkles with wit, and the clues assemble with intelligence, while Fletch unflappably stumbles into deeper and deeper trouble while barely breaking a sweat.

It’s a character-driven comedy, in that it’s all about conversation and relationships and adult foibles and has an interesting person drawing us along through it all. He’s the sort of guy who thinks he can talk his way into or out of any situation, and probably can. He was played by Chevy Chase in two 80s adaptations, who gave the concept his own layer of smarminess. Luckily, Hamm knows he can’t out chase Chevy on that terrain, and so leans into a relaxed confidence that’s totally appealing. Here’s a movie that knows how to have a good time, giving a fun presence smart speech and a compellingly complicated mystery told so low-key that it’s more about the fun energies of a pileup of character actors (Roy Wood Jr, Kyle MacLachlan, Annie Mumolo, John Slattery, Lucy Punch, Marcia Gay Harden) circling each other until the solution half-accidentally resolves. Mottola wisely keeps this chill movie at jazzy remove, a sort of brushes-on-snare shuffle to the rat-a-tat dialogue and sparkling fizz to the complications. Fletch always has some trick up his sleeve, planning out contingencies and doling out fake names to wriggle wherever the next clue, or escape, might be found. It’s a cool pleasure to pass time with a movie that so generously lets us enjoy this enjoyable character’s company and try to think a few steps ahead with him.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

All Hail: THE WOMAN KING

There’s a special thrill in seeing an old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle that uses a familiar vernacular in the service of new ideas. The Woman King delivers what you’d expect from a historical epic of its kind: wide shots and stunning vistas, well-considered period detail, negotiations between nations, courtly intrigue, battlefield strategy, warriors in training and on the attack. But its perspective and its telling breathes with life where so many others fall dead behind cliche. By setting its tale in the African nation of Dahomey, at a time when their impressive all-woman fighting force known as the Agojie fought back against invading tribes and white slavers alike, the movie takes on a power and a force that complicates the standard narratives. When an African leader waves his hand dismissively at a Portuguese envoy’s tales of European warfare and declares that those “tribal” disputes mean nothing to him, there’s a pleasing reversal. What a welcome corrective to centuries of stories wherein the entire continent of Africa is mere backdrop for Western adventurism. But the film itself wears this lightly and with earnest exploration. As a moving and compelling human-scale story, it makes the politics of its moment come alive, as when the King of Dahomey (John Boyega) debates with his council whether or not to continue selling their captives to the slave trade, or when painful legacies of violence are brought forth through new potentialities embodied in fragile found families.

The film centers the story of its women fighters with a sense not merely of gawking at spectacles of violence, or of admiring musculatures in action, but of flesh and blood and real human feeling. It helps that Viola Davis is in charge, using every ounce of her considerable charisma to play the general of these fearsome troops, and every bit of her richly textured emotive performance to imbue her character with an entire life of struggle and hard-fought power in each gesture and glance. There’s never any doubt she’s in charge as she grounds her strategy in a sturdy sense of moral fervor and a cleverness in negotiating royal considerations. She leads troops full of fascinating figures—a teenager (Thuso Mbedu) abandoned by her father for refusing all suitors, a spiritual confidant who skillfully wields a staff and spear (Sheila Atim), a seemingly fearless commander who can withstand a cutting blade or a broken bone with barely a flinch (Lashana Lynch). The sense of camaraderie and strength the group generates embodies a form of sisterly empowerment and collective action. Davis’ general gives them a clear sense of purpose through sacrifice—solidarity through unwavering unity. They stand strong in the face of tough odds.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood presents this with walloping action and impressive scale. But she’s also keenly attuned to the interpersonal dynamics and in who these characters are as people. This lends lively depth, and intense sympathetic interest to the plot’s developments. She’s one of our great directors of intimate, humane dramas—with such great romances as Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights. Here she brings her generosity of spirit and sensitive understanding of relationships to warriors building bonds and training to break bones and spill blood. Her prior picture, the atypical comic book actioner The Old Guard, was a fine first round with such things. This new one is one of her best films yet—alive with specificity in every role. The Woman King is not merely about who will win the battle—although that’s certainly powerful rooting interest, and the finale is a satisfying act of rebellion against the slave trade—but in who these fighters are. There’s as much attention to the combat as to characters discovering themselves, alone and together, building connections and mending deep psychological wounds. It’s a film about scars. Davis’ character says every great warrior has them. The camera lingers on a few now and again, even as the actors play out the metaphor. They’ve each found new purpose, turning the scars of their past into the fuel for their warrior fires, and finding friendship and determination in a matriarchal force with which to be reckoned. This, too, is a thrill.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Stuck:
BEAST, PREY, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL, and BARBARIAN

To see a thriller lately has been to dip into the psychic ripples of our very early pandemic days of isolation, of survival alone or with our closest family groups. Even as that feeling recedes into our memories, it’s a potent one sitting not too far from the surface, ready to be activated, even if only as a byproduct of standard thriller tropes. Take, for example, Beast, a jungle survival movie in which Idris Elba has to protect his daughters from a wild lion. Its suspense and sympathy rests solely in wondering how they’ll get out of this one. On safari, the girls were meant to grieve their dead mother. Now, they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with a prowling predator ready to pounce. There’s instant emotional investment playing on that sense of abandonment, with no one on the way to rescue. The family has to stick close, be clever, and do what they can to survive. Director Baltasar Kormákur, whose mountain-climbing Everest and freighter-hopping Contraband and boat-sinking Adrift have proved him a reliable practitioner of travelogue tension, here keeps up the sense of landscape and scale, the better to make the characters feel all the more trapped and alone. The screenplay is economically structured, introducing each element on the way into the jungle that we’ll need to see them out: poachers, a pride rock, an abandoned school, a tranquilizer gun. The fun, then, is seeing Elba as the ultimate family man taken back through those variables, and ultimately willing to run toward a lion and punch it in the face if it means his girls make it out alive.

Also out in the wild is Prey, a spin-off of the Predator series. In this one, the franchise’s usual extraterrestrial big-game hunters land a few hundred years ago in the territory of a Native American tribe. It’s a neat conceit, and one that finds a resourceful young Comanche woman (Amber Midthunder) best situated to puzzle out how to defeat the enemy. Unlike the team of commandos in the first film, or the other groups who’ve encountered this villain since (like L.A. cops in Predator 2, an assortment of stranded killer stereotypes in Predators, and Giger’s Aliens in Alien vs. Predator), this hero quickly runs out of backup. It’s a good thing Midthunder has a solid presence, holding the screen with a smolderingly believable toughness in the face of bewilderment. She’s enough to carry the movie ever so slightly above its thinness. If you remember director Dan Trachtenberg’s first film, the claustrophobic trapped-in-a-bunker-with-a-doomsday-prepper 10 Cloverfield Lane, he’s skilled at stranding a character in a rough spot, twisting the tension, and then resourcefully finding everything at hand to throw at the problem. Here, though, the effects are a little flimsy—simply presented CG blood and dismemberment wears out its welcome sooner than later—and the plot becomes so much running around until the inevitable. That’s true to the spirit of this franchise, though, and at least it’s found an adequately inventive new lane for it to explore.

Then there’s Orphan: First Kill, a much-belated sequel to 2009’s Orphan, which remains among the most emotionally distressing horror movies of this century. That one, from expert pulpmaker Jaume-Collet Serra, found 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman playing a manipulative, murdering orphan adopted by a well-intentioned, emotionally-fragile family. The little girl then systematically takes apart their lives—often figuratively, but eventually literally, too. Part of the disquieting fun is seeing the child actress slowly becoming evil beyond her years, finding just the right buttons to press to make her new parents really hurt and truly squirm. But where do you go from there, and after all these years? Director William Brent Bell (who heretofore has given us such deflating horror pictures as The Devil Inside, the found-footage movie that infamously pointed audiences to a URL in lieu of an actual ending) takes the story backwards in a prequel that strains credulity. 

Fuhman returns to play the young lead again, with a pint-sized body double, tons of forced perspective, prosthetics, lifts, and other tricks. Now 25, she’s playing the effort of appearing much younger, so it’s cognitive dissonance running in the other direction. We pick up with her escaping an Estonian mental facility, and then making her way to the States by impersonating the long-missing daughter of wealthy WASPs. It seems to be setting up more of the same, cooped up in a dim mansion in the middle of winter. Luckily Julia Stiles, as the mother, meets the cracked energy of the project with her own tightly-wound wickedness. The whole thing doesn’t quite work, or live up to its predecessor. And how could it, really, with the missing shock of surprise and novelty? But it manages to be suitably strange. I didn’t much like it, but I also won’t forget it.

The best crowd-pleasing horror movie in quite some time, however, is Barbarian. It’s a pleasurable piece of lowbrow appeal. It plays out like a journey down a dark tunnel, with trip-wires springing surprises with such unexpected regularity that it manages to catch you off-guard every time. The premise is an instant grabber. On a dark and stormy night, a nervous young woman (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb. (Mistake number one.) There she discovers that the house, the only habitable one in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood, has been double booked. The man staying there (Bill Skarsgård), recognizing the fear factor, goes out of his way to appear harmless. She enters, reluctantly, on guard, ready to bolt when needed. She just has to figure this out and find a place to stay. That’s already plenty for a suspenseful little movie, a cautious walking-on-eggshells night between two strangers, both gingerly avoiding calling further suspicion or danger upon themselves. But of course there’s something darker going on here. The home’s basement is definitely a place you don’t want to end up. I dare not divulge what happens from there. Even mentioning a third character, played by a recognizable comic character actor given his best role in years, feels like it’d spoil the fun. 

Writer-director Zach Cregger's prior experience in sketch comedy surely honed his flair with unfurling a shock, and selling each zig-zagging sequence’s feints toward conventionality before doubling back with details that are exceedingly gross, compellingly tense, and bleakly funny all at once. Though it’s built out of standard elements—dank corridors and creepy rooms and shambling human monsters out of a Wes Craven picture—its telling is so enjoyably inventive. Even as the style—carefully composed shots and slow, deliberate camera moves—plays it straight, the story runs circles around expectations. Even in the final moments it’s still pulling off surprises, with the sick thrill of a storyteller getting away with getting another one over on you, even after you should know better. Treating even the darkest of scares as pitch-black punchlines makes this a great ride. No matter how unpleasant it gets, it’s fun to be stuck in it and discover where it goes.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Bully Pulpit: HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL.

We’re swimming in phonies these days. Watch the pundits duly reciting talking points in defense of truly ridiculous and patently false premises—like, say, that the 2020 election was stolen, or that it’s normal for an ex-president to lie about returning topic secret documents he snuck into his golf resort—and you have to wonder if even they believe the preposterous things they’re saying. That tension has always been at the sleazy center of the televangelist, a push-pull between genuine religious sentiment and a straight up con. It seems as good a place as any to drill down into the sludge of disingenuous holier-than-thou demeanors that are so irritating in our culture. That’s the vein of hypocrisy and sympathy that The Eyes of Tammy Faye mined in its biopic stylings of a true scandal, ultimately finding the humanity in its lead’s good intentions. It’s also the richly hilarious terrain of the ongoing HBO comedy The Righteous Gemstones, a satiric, vulgar, and preposterous Southern Gothic King Lear in a tacky megachurch that’s somehow lovable, too. (That’s the Danny McBride special, I suppose.) And it finds perhaps its most literal expression of late in Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. Writer-director Adamma Ebo, expanding a short of the same name, makes a movie that splits its time, and sometimes even its scenes, between a flat digital parodic mockumentary and a more nuanced and compelling character drama unfolding in stark grainy scope.

Switching between these two modes is the story of a couple desperately spinning artifice to get out of a calamitous series of revelations. Preening pastor Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife (Regina Hall) have closed their big Atlanta church following revelations of sexual impropriety on his part. Now they’re planning an Easter Sunday comeback, complete with a carefully stage-managed semi-confession and plea for PR redemption. Thus the camera crew following them around, catching grinning smiles hiding the panic behind their eyes. These scenes are full of frantic spin and empty braggadocio. They’re in full prosperity gospel mode, a greedy sermon building a monument to their own material success and calling it God’s. We’re meeting them past a scandal that has left them with only five members, and struggling to get the message out that they’re on the way back. But what we see of their flailing in front of the camera from these angles is all artifice slipping away. We’re presented standard ideas about materialism—a tour of an expensive wardrobe, a fleet of sports cars, two enormous golden thrones—and hypocrisy, like slipping out an expletive when stepping in gum. There are also surface glosses of mindless sermons. We never get a clear sense of their religious beliefs, beyond one blatantly homophobic speech setup for an ironic disjunction. Nor do we see if there’s any real missionary zeal beyond their need to be set apart as the focus of donations and attention.

That’s why the “real” scenes within the movie are a such a relief. Away from the self-conscious performances-within-performances of the faux-doc style (and in practice, that stuff is sitcom simple anyway), Hall and Brown are allowed to let their characterizations breathe. Hall, especially, is quite good as a woman clinging to a sinking relationship, trying to see her way toward staying, even, and despite, the deep pain that’s still there. The movie never quite tips its hand with the full details of the pastor’s indiscretions—just hints that he’s wooed young men with lavish gifts, and one semi-seduction scene that’s full of squirming suspense. So it’s difficult to ultimately judge for what he’s asking to be forgiven. Characters hint that they know more than we do, and the couple themselves certainly won’t confess on camera. But the scenes without the doc conceit let the implications linger, as they characters drop the act and talk frankly. They sing along to hardcore rap, explore sexual dysfunction, and cringe as they can’t prevent confrontations with the truth of what they’ve done from slipping out in conversation with former congregants in ways both shady and sharp. Hall sells the tough edges of resolve, the stubborn denial of trauma, and the uncertainty of potential forgiveness. Brown, for his part, is a fine unreflective peacock of a preacher, also skating just one slip from doom. The actors lift the script beyond the routine. If the movie’s halves cohered as well, and with as much depth and nuance, as its leads' performances, it’d really be something. So it’s two approaches to the same material in one film. Shame only one’s nearly worth it.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Tale Spin: THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING

George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing is stories within stories within stories. It’s about a woman—a professor of narrative, no less—who gets caught up in a fantasy story of her own. On a trip to a conference in Istanbul, she takes a neat little blue glass bottle back to her hotel room. There she discovers her souvenir contains a djinn who promptly offers her the customary three wishes. Being a learned reader of myths and fables, she wisely demurs at first, all too aware that stories about wishes are always, as she says, “cautionary tales.” And so he sets out to win her trust by telling her tales of his life. She’s bound to this mythical being through the rules of his existence, and drawn deeper into his spell by the magic of his stories, and his willingness to hear hers. The latter are more familiar—an imaginary friend, an illness, a faded relationship. Tilda Swinton plays her with a sturdily mousy fragile determination, as she explains how she’s settled into the disappointments and satisfactions of her life with what she claims is contentment. That’s her story, at least.

His stories are where the fantasy takes flight. Idris Elba plays the djinn with a stone-faced rubbery surrealism, literally smoldering from the ears or fingertips at times as he lounges in a hotel robe in our present, while spinning phantasmagoric narratives of his past. Miller brings these tales alive with vivid imagination casually deployed. (It’s worth remembering the man who gave us Mad Max and Babe and Happy Feet loves framing his stories as legends and fables remembered and recounted.) These sequences swoop into imagined histories populated with interesting faces and off-hand unreality—swirling spells, a stringed instrument that partially plays itself, a spider-wizard who hatches from the head of a guard, an ostrich-man whispering secrets into a genie’s ear. They cross ancient sex and violence—battlefields and bedrooms—to find the djinn constantly close, and yet so far, from the release of freedom in the midst of their fantasy melodramas. Somehow these kings and queens and warriors and slaves and bards can’t quite get to that third wish that will let him go. In these twisty narratives, Miller finds an earthiness, a sensuality to the images, a mythopoeic scope to the pronouncements, and a beguilingly sly dark humor to the whimsy of it all that keeps us drawn in while on edge. How much of this is to be taken at face value, and how much is mere seductive doodling around the edges of our collective memories of epic poetry past?

It’s compellingly drawn out on that razor’s edge of disbelief, enough to invest in while resolutely meta-textual, teetering its way toward an earnest outcome. That’s fitting considering the audience for these tales within the film itself. The professor listens eagerly. We’ve seen her semi-solitary existence, enlivened by books and the occasional colleague. She lives for the ways these ancient modes of storytelling reverberate and resonate even in our more scientific age that’s dimmed their spirits. Here she’s met her match for personifying the magic of fiction. Forget wishing; maybe that’s enough. They’re each Scheherazade by way of Joan Didion—telling stories in order to live. Miller brings out this connection between the central pair. They both need the fictions—or are they their realities?—to exist for each other. Come to think of it, it’s also how they exist for each other. (The possibility that it’s all in her head is held out in a tantalizingly unresolved ambiguity that remains plausible throughout without undercutting the sentiments within.) The tellers, and the tellings, have power.

Isn’t that an immortal truth of stories? We create them. They exist as long as they are passed along, and by our telling and retelling of them, they keep something about our humanity alive long after we depart. How poignant, then, to watch an embodiment of stories brought forth anew into our world—and see that he might survive despite modernity’s ambient distractions’ best efforts to sap his strength. He explains himself without demystifying his magic. If nothing else, his audience of one remembers why she loved such a thing—deeply, truly, beautifully. The longing at the movie’s core is for a fantasy’s freedom, to be heard and understood and loved. And it’s in the curious place within each of us that always yearns to be satisfied by a story well-told.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

How High: FALL

All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, as the old saying sometimes attributed to Jean-Luc Godard goes. Fall says, how about two girls and a decommissioned radio tower? The movie is very simple, but only a little stupid. It thrills in its way to the possibilities of low-brow cinema’s charms. It’s about a pair of young women (Shazam’s Grace Caroline Currey and Runaways’ Virginia Gardner) who love to go rock climbing like that guy in the vertiginous documentary Free Solo. There’s an accident in the first scene, reminiscent of Vertical Limit’s opening deadly mountain climbing mishap. A year later, they decide to shake off their mourning by climbing a 2,000 foot antenna in the middle of the Arizona desert. Seems like a bad idea. Their trip up is bad enough, each rusty prong and rattling screw reason enough to make staying put on solid ground look the better option. They don’t see that, though. The movie shamelessly serves up those insert shots and sound effects of groaning metal for us, the better to twist the suspense. Even if you haven’t seen the previews, you know they’ll be stuck at the top. Indeed, when the last few hundred feet of ladder inevitably break away immediately upon contemplating their return journey, we’ve been set up well to squirm. The stakes are transparently obvious: we hope they don’t fall. The curiosity driving the movie forward is also totally plain: how will they ever get down?

The big screen vertigo of it all is a sweaty-palmed, lizard-brained use of a theatrical release’s scale—so much so I was glad a few of the effects shots in this cheap programmer are a smidge dodgy, the better to prevent me from completely succumbing to my fear of heights. Sometimes director Scott Mann and his co-writer Jonathan Frank try to gin up extra complications by having some rote interpersonal conflict wedged into discussions of survival strategies, but those moments are mercifully brief. The movie never loses sight of the young women’s plight. It stays perched on a sliver of metal with them, the ladies huddled just below a blinking red light warning away aircraft. You know that’s high. The project works its little premise for cheap thrills—with plenty of time to contemplate the dangers, wonder about the upper body strength required for some of the women’s feats, and consider how cold they must be in shorts or leggings and low-cut shirts. The slim story complicates, and resolves, with a fine sense of B-movie surprise, the kind that had me chuckling at its willingness to just go there. So it all adds up to a decent time at the multiplex—a simple hit of tension and release. There’s no stretching for metaphors or larding up flashbacks or leaning overly hard on sentimentality. It just looks down with knee-shaking wooziness and wonders how in the world they’ll get out of this one.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Shooting Stars: THE GRAY MAN and BULLET TRAIN

Netflix’s latest big attempt at making a summer blockbuster is The Gray Man, for which they’ve recruited Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of Captain Americas 2 and 3 and Avengers 3 and 4. Those were huge financial successes, so I can see why the streamer thought their directors would be a good choice to helm an action spectacle the company hopes can compete with the usual warm-weather multiplex fare. A problem, though, is that the Russo brothers are comedy directors, and you can tell in their leaning on light quipping attitudes and a reliance on medium shots and close-ups. They started in sitcoms and never quite shook it. The best moments in Avengers: Infinity War, far and away their most enjoyable Marvel effort, are all the characters-in-a-room stuff, and the way it builds to satisfying character entrances and exits that even leave room for the audience applause the way a filmed-in-front-of-a-studio-audience series would. Their sense of spectacle is entirely farmed out to effects people pinned in by the lack of decisions—a flattening and deadening of space and place, the better to slot in their swarms of indistinguishable enemies. That means it’s better when it’s outer space or Wakanda than when they just set generic power contests on a wide open parking lot or civic center.

That their newest feature has distinguishable characters in something like real-world places serves their talents well. It’s a Spy vs. Spy setup with Ryan Gosling defecting from a covert assassin job and subsequently hunted by an unhinged rival assassin, played by Chris Evans. The Russos know they’re dealing with two marquee Movie Stars, and shoot with all due reverence. The men are shot from flattering angles, in perfect dramatic lighting, and spring into action in fluidly faked, CG-assisted prowess. And each role plays to the actors’ strengths. Gosling gets his earnest smolder, his underdog confidence. He’s been able to dial that in one direction (Drive) or another (First Man) or another (La La Land) throughout his appealing lead roles. Here he’s every bit the capital-s Star. On the other hand, Evans gets a gum-chewing character turn, cranking his Captain America gee-whiz can-do attitude into a malevolent Team America villainy. There’s some actual crackle to their antagonism. Then their world is filled out with choice supporting turns for familiar faces filling familiar roles for this genre. There are potential Deep State allies (Billy Bob Thornton and Ana de Armas), shadowy suits (Jessica Henwick and Regé-Jean Page), a girl in danger (Julia Butters), and an elder statesman with important information (Alfre Woodard). They’re all talented enough to be a little bit memorable but otherwise just exactly what they need to be to keep the shootouts and chase sequences flowing.

It’s all of a piece—a little samey, totally artificial, everyone written at the same de rigueur canted angle toward seriousness. Which is to say that it’s a blockbuster whose relationship to the world is only other blockbusters. To the Russos, and their screenwriters and craftspeople, the high-stakes shoot-‘em-up globetrotting is all about the real world and real stakes only insofar as we can glimpse them through a mirrored simulacrum—pointing backwards and through the Bourne movies and Bond pictures and so on and so forth. Sure, there’s something pleasingly frictionless about an entirely phony chase in, around, and through a train running down tight turns on cobblestone European streets. Cars flip and spin, sparks fly, bullets careen, and the leads shimmy away from rampaging computer effects. (It’s a little bit clever some of the time, too, like when Gosling uses his reflection in passing windows to guide his aim into the train.) It’s a weightless charge of motion and faux-danger.

That’s the case with all of the action scenes here. They have the form and pace of excitement, but are of mere passably diverting interest. I didn’t exactly have a bad time watching it, though. Its cliched convolutions and obvious developments, acted out by pros who could do this in their sleep, is, as the kids might say, totally smooth-brained. It slips right off the old dome painlessly and without interrupting one with anything worth thought or reflection. That’s right in the Netflix mode these days, as their plummeting stock price has resulted in the board room making noise that they want to cut back on expensive auteurist art pieces (sorry to Baumbach, Scorsese, Coens, Campion, etc.) and instead focus on these time-passing mass-market baubles. As far as their efforts there go—think Red Notice or The Adam Project—this one’s at least thoroughly fine.

A little better than fine is Bullet Train. This one’s a glossy theatrical studio picture with Brad Pitt in the lead. Now there’s a Movie Star. He knows how to hold the frame’s attention without even seeming to try. (His oft-commented upon blend of character actor charm and matinee idol good looks is one of modern movies’ great constants.) Here he’s a reluctant gun for hire who won’t even take his gun with him now that he’s taken some time off to work on himself. Wearing a bucket hat and glasses, talking almost exclusively in therapy speak—“hurt people hurt people”—he has easy, shaggy charm while cutting an odd figure for an action movie. But then again the whole movie is full of such figures. Based on a pulpy Japanese novel, the movie puts Pitt’s mercenary on a speeding bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. The mission: get on board, take a briefcase full of ransom money, and get off at the next station. If you suspect it won’t be so easy, you’d be right.

On the train are hitmen and schemers in a variety of styles and quirks. The cast is loaded with familiar faces and voices—Brian Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Joey King, Logan Lerman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Sandra Bullock, Bad Bunny, and a few fun cameos, too. Each is given a splashy title card announcing their name, a scattered assortment of quick-cut flashbacks, and one or two whimsical character details. (One is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, for example.) I’ve seen this movie’s manic post-modern approach referred to as if it was in the late-90s and early-aughts trend of snarky post-Tarantino, post-Ritchie crime pictures. But I think we should remember that that was twenty to thirty years ago, and in this case counts as a throwback. I didn’t mind that too much. The movie’s eccentricities fly by as quickly as its speeding set.

The result is a Rube Goldberg machine of an action comedy. Every actor and prop introduced circles back around at least once for another payoff, some expected and some surprising. The straight line simplicity of the main plot, one MacGuffin and one Final Destination in perpetual motion, is interrupted by a jumble of obstacles in each train car, some recurring irritants and some a constant danger. Meanwhile the story curlicues with unexpected doubling-backs—sometimes cutaways within cutaways or long montages that build backstory for a sudden reversal or reveal. This results in some enjoyable scrambling, separating or delaying effects from causes or vice versa. It’s all quite clever and pleased with itself, and the movie bounces along with the music of comedy without quite the words to make it really sing. It’s a constant juggle of witty cutting and awful violence—a kind of cold karmic comeuppance for its largely disreputable and dangerous cast of characters.

Director David Leitch has made this jocular mood for bloody combat cleverness his stock-in-trade. After co-directing the dizzying choreography of John Wick, he’s given us the likes of Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw. He shoots action brightly and legibly and knows how to frame with and hold for impact. But those pictures all have a rather flippant bravado, charging hard at action while characters skip across the implications. They leave a high body count behind them while twisting out of spectacular slam-bang dangers. Any respect for human life is gone, the better to gawk at all the ways bones snap and vehicles crash. Bullet Train might be Leitch’s best post-Wick effort simply for giving in to that breezy carelessness entirely. It treats the smacks and thuds and stabs as staccato punctuation—literal punch lines—for sleazy characters ground under by twists of fate. Pitt floats above it all, desperately trying to talk it out, and inevitably pulled back into violence. That he survives any of his attackers' onslaughts is almost an accident. And all the while he keeps bemoaning his bad luck. I guess it really is all in how you look at it. As far as violent distractions go, this one at least starts at a fast pace and never lets up.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Picture Perfect: NOPE

Writer-director Jordan Peele’s latest feature, Nope, starts with a scary bit of monkey business. The taping of a fictional 90’s sitcom co-starring a chimpanzee is violently interrupted by the sudden snapping of said animal costar. We see, mostly hidden behind the set’s blood-splattered sofa, the unmoving legs of a presumably mortally wounded cast member. The chimp sits, almost bewildered at its own actions, nudging the unmoving body. Then it turns and looks straight down the lens, as if seeing us, the audience, aware of our presence observing this awful spectacle. Wait, you might think at this point, isn’t this a movie advertised with the promise of a UFO? This chimp is, indeed, narratively superfluous to that core idea, but is also a key to the whole thing. This unsettling moment, brought back in a longer flashback late in the picture, has a connection to the backstory of a minor supporting character. But it’s also priming us to see this as a movie about people’s attempts to control the uncontrollable, in doomed attempts to capture the wilds of nature by taming it within the images we are used to.

As great as Peele’s previous pictures are—and Get Out and Us are certainly deserving of their critical hosannas and box office appeal—they do love plainly presenting, even openly declaiming, their allegorical intents. A thrill of Nope is its wide open spaces in look and story—big blue skies against a western backdrop, and plot and character and theme left with evocative implications. It’s a film of images about images. It’s rich in negative space, literal and figurative, it can fill in with sublime suspense and awe, and room to plant ideas and connections and deepening understandings to grow in the viewers’ minds. It’s a movie, then, about the futility of bringing the unimaginable down to earth through our capacity to document it. Peele is confident enough in his filmmaking, his concept, and his cast to let scenes play out with relaxed rhythms that slowly constrict into pinpoint tension, and for ideas to slowly amble until they’re suddenly crystal clear. It’s evident Peele is solidly one of those filmmakers with such a sure hand that, no matter where he takes us, we can trust he’ll make it worth our while.

The film’s grounding in the interplay between the moving image and lived experience is immediately apparent. Set on a ranch in rural California, it follows siblings (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) who’ve just inherited the property after the death of their Hollywood horse wrangler father (Keith David). They know about artifice, and the power of the camera, and respect for wild creatures, having inherited those, too. This is knowledge that should serve them well as they continue the family business. (They claim their ancestor was the unnamed jockey in the first moving picture experiments.) But what’s that in the clouds above? It sure looks like a UFO. The siblings know immediately they need to capture it on film. This self-reflexivity, a movie about moving images, is the engine for a thrilling genre piece—a work of process for how one goes about trying to get an elusive shot, and a work of horror-adjacent sci-fi enchanted by the tantalizing prospect of a big unknown lurking beyond the realm of the possible.

Peele frames many great shots of looking, staring, or averting one’s gaze, with the tall IMAX frames extending beyond characters’ fields of vision, a human face or form one small element in a towering blue expanse. The movie, though small in cast—Brandon Perea, Steven Yeun, and Michael Wincott are the only others of note—and limited in location, has a grandeur of intent and a towering mystery as we watch the skies. As the film slowly unspools its secrets, Peele crafts sequences with hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck tingling suspense from nothing more than waiting for an element of the image to shift, to reveal new information or for the inscrutable UFO to emerge again.

In the vastness of the movie’s frames, riffing on Western iconography while inviting some vintage Spielberg by way of Carpenter comparisons, Kaluuya and Palmer are given compelling and charismatic characters to inhabit. The sibling interplay is full of loving teasing and real affection, but also the kind of prickly carefulness that can creep into grown familial tensions. There’s a charge from their contrasts. He’s thoughtful, slow to speak, with outer strength covering over his emotional pain. She’s excitable, making schemes within schemes, prone to rattle on and on in good times and bad. We can read all sorts of backstory in what’s not said between them, and the film’s final moments are a satisfying snap as their connection is suddenly drawn tight.

Peele builds to a simultaneous crescendo of character, theme, story, and style, and suddenly the mystery of it all is solved with answers that retroactively make every stray detail and detour lock into place. Peele’s honed his craft to make, if not his most powerful movie yet, his tightest and least immediately obvious in a still-entertaining package. Here’s a movie about our modern tendency to want the enormity of our world’s traumas reduced to the size of a screen—to process through gawking spectacle instead of crying through catastrophes. Instead of bringing us closer together, it can pull us further apart. So here’s Nope, with its grieving siblings confronted with enormous problems beyond the terrestrial norm. Can they survive long enough to get a picture? Maybe. Will that give them control over the situation? You can answer that in a single word. Guess which one.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Winners and Losers:
THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER and THE PRINCESS

A few dozen movies and TV shows in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe of colorful heroes and interconnected can-kicking narratives has basically nothing to do with anything recognizably human. It goes all the more awry when a project wants to nod back in the direction. Hence Thor: Love and Thunder. He was heretofore one of the MCU’s most consistently entertaining characters—his appearances in first two Shakespeare-by-way-of-Jack Kirby entries (or vice versa), his goofier Guardians of the Galaxy-lite Ragnarok, and best-in-show appearances in multiple Avengers pictures. Star Chris Hemsworth always provides him an appealing gym-bod arrogance in an oblivious goofball beneficence, a boisterous buffoonery that can still kick out the action when called upon. But that force of personality alone can’t lift a movie completely miscalculated from the jump. This new Thor movie is a near-stupefyingly ill-considered collection of inanities and tropes broken up by the most rankly manipulative sentiments.

Writer-director Taika Waititi, whose distinctively silly style from early genre-benders like What We Do in the Shadows worked well enough for Thor last time, shamelessly trots out cheap buttons to push. Here there’s a supporting character with cancer—nothing specific, just “cancer”—that’s used as mawkish motivation when it’s important and dropped entirely for antics when not. (As fine an actress as Natalie Portman is, she can’t get something from nothing.) Here there are kids in danger—kidnapped and held in a dark cave by a murderous villain who himself is motivated by the senseless death of his only child. We see the latter in a raw moment of mourning in a stark prologue. Christian Bale, as the grieving father, is almost too good at making us want to see him succeed in taking out his anger on the gods who remain indifferent to the suffering of the common man. The movie’s endless violence, indifferently handled seriousness, and badly calibrated humor merely prolongs the suffering for us all.

After all, the movie’s villain pokes holes in growing MCU blindspots, problems that have reached a nadir here. When the heroes skirt past consequences in order to continually churn new installments, nothing matters. The life of a normal person must be terribly unsettled—to be at the whims of these larger-than-life super-beings. How awful. Love and Thunder is an especially cluttered and confused outgrowth of this problem. It’s flatly imagined and deadened by its blunt pathos steamrolled by the studio’s house style of weightless gloop, bad blocking, and cheap wisecracks. Waititi opens his movie with a character angry when gods laugh at his pain, and then makes a movie in which characters constantly laugh off pain—giggling at dangers and hand-waving murders. This flippancy is self-defeating. It robs the potential for real character depths—not that the movie’s dull repetition of previous Thor arcs, like learning humility and forging a makeshift family, is anything to mine for such—by treating everything with the heaviest-handed light touch imaginable.

Somehow both thin and overcomplicated, the story takes forever to get nowhere, and grates with its wildly uneven stumbling through inscrutable digital noise and incomprehensibly cheap staginess. (There are whole sequences where it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what to what effect to whom.) It gathers up the requisite cameos, crowds the sloppy frame with little moments for a dozen characters to shuffle on stage, get off a joke that flops, and limp away. Even an evocative villain, and a potentially witty foil in a fatuous Zeus (Russell Crowe in a lisping Grecian accent), are used for little and, ultimately, naught. Of course the gods must be crazy—and careless—to kick off the story of a man who wants revenge on them. But the movie lacks the courage of its premise’s convictions, completely refuses to engage with its implications, and feels all the emptier and annoying for it. The villain is inadvertently proven right. This is nihilism togged up as forced frivolity. It says, yes, the gods don’t care, the world is devoid of hope for mere mortals, but, hey, at least Thor joked around with his pals before the love of his life kicked the bucket to inspire him.

Better heroism with a sense of style and perspective can be found in The Princess, a 20th Century Studios movie ignominiously sent straight to Hulu. (Sheesh, is it a bummer than Disney has turned that once-great studio into a feeder for its streaming services. Even a modestly received theatrical run still boosts a movie’s profile more than these straight-to-digital premiere.) It stars Joey King as a princess whose castle has been taken over by snarling villains. Their leader (Dominic Cooper) wants to marry her and take her kingdom. He’s locked her in a tower and menaces her parents and younger sister in the palace below. Good thing she knows how to fight back. This R-rated action flick, overseen by Vietnamese director Le-Van Kiet, becomes a rollicking rolling action sequence bursting with kicks and punches, whips and chains, tumbles and tangles as she has to fight down the tower, through layers of goons, to save the day. It’s neatly composed and briskly choreographed, rarely pausing for breath, or much psychological complexity.

But its simplicity is its own asset, allowing it to focus narrowly on its strengths. It sure has personality, and the kind of bristling no-sweat casual feminism that its premise implies. King is a fine physical presence and fits the demands of the hard-charging role, playing up the exertion and panting effort of each move. And the supporting cast—key sidekicks for both good (Veronica Ngo) and bad (Olga Kurylenko)—is well-chosen in complementary skills with neat bladed weaponry and reasonably believable relationships to the leads. Here’s a movie that’s perched on the point where a teenage feminist fairy tale—The Princess Saves Herself in This One—meets vertical action levels—Die Hard meets The Raid. It knows what it wants to do, gets the job done, and leaves quickly before outstaying its welcome. The result is a slender and modestly satisfying genre effort.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

If He Can Dream: ELVIS

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is made with an energetically heightened reality that bursts through the cliches of the rock ’n roll biopic and the overfamiliar caricature that is its subject. It restores life and vitality to both, making something enormous and earnest and enveloping. This is a perfect match of filmmaker and subject. Luhrmann has a brand of cinematic theatricality in which wall-to-wall music covers a visual feast. Every shot is a riot of movement and color, frames are filled with flashing lights and flashy design, and every performance is goaded higher and higher until most gestures are big and broad. Elvis Presley, for his part, was a shock to the system. He defined the mold that continues to mint music stars as part of a wave of midcentury entertainers who began to scramble ideas of race, sex, and gender for the mainstream. His life, too, was as outsized as his stardom. Every facet of it has passed into iconography and a cartoon of fame: his mansion, his marriage, his movies, his scandals, his eccentricities. The modern version of celebrity culture is yet another element of our world he was at the right place and time to pioneer. This movie is a huge, swaggering tour of the familiar stages of Elvis’ life and career. It goes on for nearly three hours and doesn’t dig deeper into arcane trivia or thornier contradictions. But what it does instead is recreate the sensation of the shock of the new, and the societal and showbiz tensions the shaped and destroyed him. Luhrmann’s excesses match this mood, and this project: to build a shining monument to an icon of Americana—and to see how the darkness surrounding his becoming swallowed him whole.

The result is a rock opera and historical panorama that sells the intensity and immediacy of Elvis’ impact and the titanic complicated edifice of his legacy. Shot like a diamond-studded kaleidoscope’s view, this three-hour music montage flows from one number to the next, chopped and remixed and covered and tracked, amped up, stripped down, or played straight. When it lingers on a specific performance—his first big break winning over an audience with his rhythmic wiggling on stage; a triumphant comeback with lush orchestrations and pounding crowd-pleasing stamina—it is electrifying. So often these musical biopics tell us a moment was important by assuming we’ll know it was by the recognizable hit covered by its lead. Here, Luhrmann actually makes us understand 1.) how much hard work it takes to make that sort of impact, and 2.) why his subject was a huge deal. Austin Butler plays Elvis with pretty looks and expert timing, often drenched in sweat on stage, hair flopping, legs twitching, hips plunging. We feel the exertion of putting on a show, and also can get swept up in it. All the smash-zooms in on screaming young women—partly hollering for their fresh crush, but also in surprise at the reaction they’re having—and erupting crowds in dizzying editing or split-screens doesn’t come across as parody, but genuine live-wire enthusiasm. You’d think 2007’s great poison-pen satire of the sub-genre, Walk Hard, would’ve killed these stories dead. But watching Butler come alive on screen, inhabiting the appeal of this star so fully and convincingly, one might realize it’s worth grinding through all the bad versions of these movies just to get to one this remarkable.

In Butler’s compelling performance we see anew why Elvis became who he was. He’s surrounded by Black artists as he grows up, but his whiteness gets him chances they don’t. This is partly why he courts controversy from the segregationists of the time—and one wonders how the racists right-wingers of our time won’t see themselves in the portrait of sniveling politicians complaining about how he’s exposing their white children to ideas of blackness. He’s a white man performing rhythm-and-blues, a bridge between jazz and country as he helps forge a whole new style on the backs of those who get less credit, less fame, less money. But he’s a racially ambiguous figure over the radio, and in live performance is also playing on some unspoken androgynously provocative visual appeal. He’s a hip-thrusting young man at once forceful and smooth, pulsing staccato guitar strumming with loose-limbed pleasure in his own talents, singing in a sensitive baritone timbre from soft, delicate features. (A great evocative moment finds a nasty senator’s teenagers in front of the TV, lost in desire for this new figure of lustful interest.) Subsequent rock stars would blur these lines in more overt and outré ways; but here’s a movie that restores the sexual and racial fault lines of his times in order to bolster its argument for why his stardom was such a lightning rod.  

That’s the benefit of Luhrmann providing a movie that’s gloriously artificial and reverently specific as it sloshes around. He’s so good at movies that drip performative sex appeal and sexual tension, of high-gloss spectacle, loud music that resonates in the chest, expressive complicated camera moves you can hardly take in at once, and emotional dynamics you can believe in an instant. He’s also fond of tragic romantics destroyed by the troubles of their times. In his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby we see swooning melodrama, preening showmanship, and bombastic glamour. That’s where he loads in the opulent period style, gilded cages remixed with anachronistic fervor. And locked in the center are these tortured beautiful people who want to love and be loved. Here it’s Elvis, who searches in his family and his lovers and his audiences and, yes, even his sneaky, villainous manager (Tom Hanks) for that approval, that what he’s doing matters and will last. He’s a sensitive and artistic young man taken in, lifted up and exploited by a charismatic scheming promoter into the life of an international superstar. Hanks acts chummily threatening from within layers of makeup and a fat suit, speaking with a marble-mouthed accent and wielding a cane with a snowman top. His narration flows through the picture as well, a frustrated unreliable narrator who can’t quite prove he’s not the bad guy here. He’s a clear contrast with Elvis, the business side of the singer’s show. Somehow, they need each other, even if it will leave them worse off, too.

The movie is totally swallowed up in Elvis’ life and times. It argues that, far from being the Singular Great Man, Elvis was a product of his culture and his collaborations, forged by forces beyond his control and the contributions of others. He’s constantly surrounded by family, friends, business people, audiences, cops, politicians, and hangers-on. In the few dark, quiet moments of empty solitude—stewing in a suite, or lonely in a spotlight on an empty stage—he’s surrounded by doubt. Here’s a celebrity biopic that vigorously sells the spectacle and excitement of such a life—and the fundamental unknowability of such a man, even to himself. What a show! What a cost.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Wrong Number: THE BLACK PHONE

There’s something particularly unseemly about a horror movie that dredges up deeply upsetting imagery and ideas only to let them wither without a scare in sight. I don’t mind, and even sometimes love, when this genre can be nasty, lascivious, mean-spirited. I can even excuse a poorly developed horror picture if it hits the right marks with enough pizazz. But to want us to care about the most vulnerable among us, in a grindingly simple scenario jerry-rigged with convenient outs and lazy logic to maximize syrupy sentiment over their pain, was too much for me. The Black Phone is unsuccessful, not because it’s too intense, but because it doesn’t know what to do with its bungled intensity. It should be better, given its potentially high-voltage concept. The movie traffics in imagery of brutally murdered children and an unfortunate mincing menace of a killer, and fumbles making from it frights of any sort, fruitful, frivolous, or at all.

It’s about a 13-year-old boy (a capable Mason Thames) who is abducted off his suburban street by a mysterious masked figure known around town as The Grabber. We’ve seen he drives a rattling black van, lurks in a billowy magicians’ outfit holding black balloons, and stares out of a devilishly grinning death head mask. (That it’s sometimes a frowning mask is a neat subtle touch that proves he has an underutilized flair for the dramatic.) The bulk of the movie finds the kid locked in a basement where a disconnected black phone occasionally rings with the ghostly voices of the kidnapper’s previous victims. (This is totally a Stephen King-like blend of childlike whimsy, suburban danger, and quotidian drama—ironic since C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay is based on a short story by King’s son, Joe Hill.) That should be haunting stuff, but director Scott Derrickson, who can certainly go for the throat, like with his career-best ghostly-snuff-film chiller Sinister, is here too much of a sentimentalist to let the unsettling ideas surface with any snap or bite. It’s ultimately as wispy and uninterrogated as the villain himself, played by Ethan Hawke with such vivid mystery that it’s a deflation to realize that he’s hardly a character at all. He’s just an obstacle in a movie where everything is exactly as simple as it appears.

The movie becomes a plain self-actualization parable wrapped in a simple A to B escape room mystery box, with each call giving the boy new objects and strategies to plot escape while his captor lurks around as a malevolent, but distant, presence. There’s also a queasy equivalence drawn between this criminal and the boy’s drunken abusive father (Jeremy Davies), with both eagerly using a belt as a whip. He goes from a home trapped in cycles of abuse to being literally trapped by a far worse figure of danger. This unsteady metaphor is further elaborated by the way the boy has a kind of psychic connection with his sister (Madeline McGraw). Her dreams seem to come true, and she prays for clues in her visions to save her brother. (It’s an excuse for fuzzy, fleeting flashbacks to the other victims from the sister’s perspective, a crass juicing of the underdeveloped story.) These twinned ideas of children in danger wobble with a melancholy that never quite activates. So it becomes a movie about a broken home and growing up, but shot through with a kind of lust for redemptive violence that doesn’t resolve well. We’re just waiting around until the dead boys drop enough hints for our lead to not just escape when he has the chance, but linger long enough to snap The Grabber’s neck, too. It’s sick, and not in a good way. It uses the deaths of children as mere impetus for a coming-of-age metaphor about responsibility for a final boy, and draws the deadening conclusion that an ability to create violence of your own—“standing up for yourself”—is a justifiable, and maybe even necessary, part of growing up. Now that’s scary.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Lab Rats: SPIDERHEAD

The animating tension of Spiderhead is in the friction between its surface and its undertow. The setting is an ocean front compound on a remote island, a research facility that looks more like a high-tech resort, with lots of wide-open communal spaces and clean architectural lines. It is photographed in bright, clean frames with lots of light and soft colors. The furniture looks like upscale Ikea, and the diegetic soundtrack is slick with all the smoothest jams of 80s pop rock. Ah, but the content and intent of this place is menacing, chilled with moral quandaries, and driving toward a bad end that’s inevitable from frame one. Here prisoners (like Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett) have volunteered to live as test subjects for a devious billionaire (Chris Hemsworth) who chummily lives among them. He’s fitted them with chemical packs on their backs which he operates from an app on his phone, able to dial up emotional states and biological urges with the flick of his finger. He runs them through tests—can he make them laugh at tragedy, find industrial waste beautiful, want to make love to an unappealing partner? This can’t be going anywhere good.

The film carefully keeps the prisoners’ crimes as backstory to be doled out later, the better to front-load their inherent humanity. We see who they are without the distraction of that emotional scale-tipping, and when we hear their tragic circumstances and decisions that sent them here, we can all the more clearly understand that no one deserves to be forced into this system. It’s torture disguised as comfort. They’re threatened with return to a normal penitentiary if they don’t consent to each new dose. Some are starting to suspect they’d be better off leaving. That they stay is credit to their wickedly charming warden, an athlesuire-wearing faux-chummy tech bro who talks to them like buddies and co-conspirators more than prisoners. He makes them feel a part of the team, like they’re doing valuable work. Why, he’s wearing a pack of chemicals, too. Hemsworth, projecting a whirling confidence and slick shrewdness, plays him as a perfectly slimy brand of modern billionaire. As suspicions about this guy and his project grow, Teller dials into a stoic sorrow, slowly crumbling under the pressures of being made to feel against his will. He’s trying to drown out the sorrows of his past, unable and unwilling to forgive himself for what he’s done. Smollett, too, is keeping her distance from who she was, forging new connections in this gilded prison. (They’re warm to each other, humanity among the inhumane.) They thought they were doing good. But at what cost?

That this simple wire-frame plotting, courtesy Zombieland and Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick exercising unusual restraint adapting a heady George Saunders short story, plays out so effectively is the work of director Joseph Kosinski. (A fluke of pandemic scheduling means the film he shot over three years ago, Top Gun: Maverick, is ruling the summer box office while this project, made mid-pandemic, is ready for release mere weeks later. What a time to demonstrate his range!) He gives the film a restrained style—as slick as the tunes echoing from the compound’s speakers—gliding along and pinned down in surveillance angles doubling or tripling the views from the control room. He lets his characters squirm, lab rats stuck in a maze, while we can pick out the whole picture well in advance. He’s expert at building out the architecture of a plot in conjunction with its setting, housing the emotional appeals in handsome surfaces. Think the vast digital loneliness of Tron Legacy, the windswept empty landscapes of Oblivion, the crackling Arizona wilds' fire dangers of Only the Brave, the high-velocity aerial combat and cozy homefront of Top Gun 2. Here it’s the deceptive comfort wrapped around total heartlessness, victims cooped up and slowly driven mad. It keys into our reflective understanding that the government will willingly abdicate its responsibilities to care for citizens it sees as disposable. If it can privatize prisons, why not emotions and biological urges, too? Here’s a fun little thriller that sees that obviously bad idea to its logical conclusion.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Mad World: MAD GOD

In the beginning of Mad God, an eye is wide open in extreme close-up. In the end, it closes. This is an inversion, since what passes in between these shots is a pure, unadulterated nightmare. That it explicitly asks for our eyes to be open for these visions is a request that we stay alert to behold its wild imagination. It is a vision of decay and violence, of cycles of oppression and exploitation. It follows a small figure—wrapped in a thick coat and a tightly-fitted gas mask—making its way through hellish tableau and surrealistic dangers with only a crumbling map as a guide. This is a world in decay, disrepair, active conflagration, and brain-melting disorder and despair. It has been intricately and intuitively imagined by Phil Tippett, a long-time special effects wizard behind such memorable works as Star Wars, Dragonslayer, Willow, RoboCop, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and Jurassic Park. Here as writer-director-animator he’s made something of a stop-motion masterwork, pulling every trick of the trade over the course of several decades to build up this mad vision of a world falling to pieces.

This is a largely wordless excursion, an ink-blot test of wild mad visuals and sound effects. The images are murky and muddy, full of smoke and fog, fire and sparks. The detailed tableaux descend into dark depths and extend back into the frame in frightening shadows. It’s a post-industrial wasteland riven with war, with unseen crowds cheering dismemberments and clay figures marched into kilns. Scientists squish around in guts like butchers. Creatures are barnacled with seeping growths or slaughtered with whirring machines or sliced apart like a wriggling gym sock full of raw meat. There are a few human actors in the machinery of this place—notably cult filmmaker Alex Cox who pulls levers and peers deeply into the darkest recesses of the world. As the plot slowly comes into focus, it’s never the driving force. There’s no solving this world. Instead, this is for sure a movie you watch in disbelief, awed at the imagination it took to create these images, pulled along by its nightmare logic. I tried tracking the other artists and projects these images reminded me of: Hieronymus Bosch, the I Spy picture books, Saw, Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg, the Brothers Quay, all in a blender. Mad is right. This is a world distinctively its own. One can stare at it wondering if it is dream or premonition, history or haunting, fantasy or warning. All of the above. All it asks is an open eye.

Friday, June 17, 2022

A Buzz Flight: LIGHTYEAR

I should not have doubted the good folks at Pixar’s ability to go beyond. I walked into Lightyear, sold as a high-flying sci-fi adventure, fully prepared for a cynical brand extension. They’ve hyped it up as Andy’s favorite movie, a story of the real Buzz Lightyear character behind the figure he had in Toy Story. (That some entertainment writers have performed confusion about what that might mean is a sorry state of affairs. Anyone with half a thought can tell it’s an excuse to spin off in a new storytelling world as a separate action franchise.) If that makes it a bit of a prefab conception, well, so be it. The result is a clever and concise sci-fi spectacle with a big heart and a clockwork sense of story. Set in a distant future on the far-flung wilds of the galaxy, the movie finds Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans in full white-bread hero mode) responsible for an accident that maroons an enormous exploration vessel on an alien planet. He doggedly sets out to right that wrong by test-piloting fuels that will get them home, but each failed jump that takes only minutes for him is years for the people for whom he keeps trying. That’s a compelling emotional core, and the story team uses it well as grist for the gears of a tightly-constructed tale. By the time he’s reluctantly assembling a ragtag team to save them all from the evil Zurg and find their way to a new normal, it soars with the sputtering engines of experimental spaceships and whirring steps of robots, and zip-zap of laser guns.

The fun new crew of characters—Space Rangers and rookies, scientists and commanders, a villain with a surprising backstory, and an incredibly cute and helpful robot cat—are immediately lovable creations, imbued with some humanity in their stock positions. And the hurrying-around, getting-supplies, and making-plans of the story dovetails sweetly with the emotional journey on which it sends Buzz. It also manages to make a new character out of one we already loved. He’s the same but different. Buzz the toy’s identity crisis naturally isn’t present here. But director Angus MacLane and team manage to retain his sense of self-doubt mixed with loyalty and determination to protect his found family of friends. Although there are some subtle reuses of lines the toy speaks in the first Story—moviegoers of my generation and younger, who’ve surely memorized its script, will spot them—in new contexts, it’s entirely a new character journey to get involved in here. As Buzz grows in his ability, and responsibility, it’s exciting to see him become the hero he’s meant to be, a team player and a man who can make up for his mistakes. The others, too, learn and grow at just the right pace, as well. Somehow it feels familiar and fresh at the same time.

So, too, the look, which has a glossy fantasy sheen and whirring tech love in its pulp-paperback Cinemascope aesthetics. The animation is full of the typical expert textures and contours, sparkle and sparks, and something like soulful expressions behind the eyes. And in the vehicles and suits, every button and tool is expertly deployed and explained so we can understand the stakes and mechanics of the characters’ plans and problems. That makes it all the more enjoyable when turned loose to work, or not, in enjoyable action sequences that continue to inform character throughout. It’s altogether a skillful deployment of Pixar’s practically patented airtight plotting, where every bit is a logistical or emotional setup or payoff that clicks into perfect place at precisely the proper time for maximum audience satisfaction. It works because we care—quickly, easily, and fully—for the cast, and can get involved in the pleasing jumble of genre tropes expertly mixed and remixed for a new sensation. That may not end up the most moving or complicated of this studios’ insights, but it’s such bustling blockbuster fun, with nary a moment to waste, that it’s all the more enjoyable for being sharply done. If we’re going to have recapitulations and re-imaginations of brands we already know and love by heart, it might as well be this much fun, and actually reward our interest this well. By the time the end credits popped up, I was feeling like when David Letterman was blown away by his Late Show musical guest, saying, “I’ll take all of that you got.”