Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Period Piece: HAPPENING

Let’s start with the title. In France it’s L’Événement, most directly translated as The Event. That thunks down with a vague sturdiness, a noun—singular, direct, simple, immovable, object. For English-speaking release the title becomes Happening. Shorn of the article it takes on a doubled meaning. On the one hand, it could still play the noun: an occurrence, or the act of occurring. On the other, it could play a verb: to occur, to become, to chance. Now it’s something in the process of happening—not distant past, but inescapably present. In any case, here’s a movie about a young woman and what happens to her, and through her. It’s a movie set in the past, but told in a sharp, unblinking present tense. Fittingly, it’s about a literature student, who might appreciate the deceptively complicated title of her story, and the tension its telling wrings from tenses.

But what is the event, the happening, of the title? Is it the one-night stand that happens before the film begins? Is it the pregnancy that unluckily resulted from this first-time, one-time affair? Is it when she discovers her period is three weeks late? Is it when she seeks to quietly find a way to procure an abortion? Or is it what ultimately becomes of her? The movie is set in 1963, a time when abortion was not only illegal in France, but carried with it a potential punishment for the woman who would seek one. A knowledgeable, slightly older woman tells our lead that, worst case, she should hope the hospital will mark it down as a miscarriage. Otherwise, if the doctor writes “abortion,” she’ll go to prison. With these the stakes, it is no wonder there’s extra unease in this girl. Anamaria Vartolomei plays her with timid confidence, her big expressive eyes darting, watering, glowering, haunted. She’s struggling to find a way to avoid letting one mistake—one event, one happening—determine the course of her life. She checks her body—examines herself, feels unknowable to herself, out of control as what she once saw as her future possibilities threaten to slip away.

We see her studious potential—speaking capably in class, and hoping to be a teacher or a writer or both. We see her hanging out with friends or meekly eying cute guys at a dance club pounding early-60s rock. And all throughout, there’s that growing sense of dread within her. You can almost see the walls of her potential futures shrink and foreclose as possible solutions and choices are closed off. One doctor flat out tells her: “you have no choice.” You can’t even talk about this option. A friend to whom she timidly asks a hypothetical—what if you go too far and become pregnant?—quickly brushes her off. Don’t even joke about that. Another doctor offers her an injection that’ll encourage menstruation. (Why it doesn’t work is a grim surprise.) All along, she’s drawn inevitably to an underground solution—hoping against hope for a name or a number that’ll get her an off-the-record procedure. If that can’t work out, she just might have to take matters into her own hands. The movie counts up the weeks since her last period—a looming deadline underlined by the film’s anxious plucked-strings score.

Here’s a movie whose value is not in the general shape of the story—abortion testimonies aren’t uncommon—but in the great specificities it brings. (In centering so richly this one young person’s experience, it’s the retro Gallic cousin to the great, expertly empathetic modern American indie Never Rarely Sometimes Always.) Too often, in contemplating a time when abortion was illegal—and, oh, how sad to watch this movie from Spring 2022 in the United States, where we are on the precipice of being thrown back into that uncertain, dangerous state by those who prioritize a potential life over a present one—we drape these stories in euphemism and buzzwords. Here, instead, is an experience, an undeniable dilemma and personal decision made all the worse by the cold cruelties of the state denying this woman that choice. It’s far more dangerous that way. Not that the people in charge care. Here’s a movie that looks and looks and looks. (No coincidence, surely, that one scene finds these literary students decide a particular author’s prose is “all about the gaze.”) It has a pinprick precision and minimalism of a tight short story, or a memory. The value is in its willingness to see and recognize.

Sparse and simple, the movie sketches side characters in a moment, builds out emotional terrains with a glance, or a telling, lingering, observant extra frame. Writer-director Audrey Diwan keeps her camera tight on Vartolomei’s face, body, legs, shoulders. She sees the weight and the worry, the gravity and the concern, as the girl pokes and prods at her possibilities, and stares at herself in the mirror with growing discomfort. The movie may play some standard tricks of the usual sad, small character piece, but its focus is strong, and admirable, and wholly compelling. It is aesthetically circumspect—unafraid to be unblinking, but restrained enough to tilt and pan to preserve some dignity amidst its harrowing and revealing long takes of exposure. And it’s narratively narrow. The story has little room for asides, and the ensemble exists as a variety sampler of ways the silence shrouding what should be a legal and accessible procedure manifests in interpersonal interactions, how an unwillingness to look at this happening can leave so many endangered in the dark. This movie is a little window of light into this darkness—and perhaps its most upsetting idea is the slow realization that we’re watching something of a best-case scenario given the circumstances. She has no other choice.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Much Ado About Nothing: DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS

The thing about telling a story in a multiverse is, if you’re not careful, one can start to feel that if anything is possible nothing matters. That’s a dangerous feeling to let loose in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is already starting to feel like so many cliffhangers and time travels and parallel universes leading nowhere. And so it is with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the latest MCU chapter that’s rolled off the factory line with all the usual interlocking elements and pre-fab parts. It’s a sequel to the first Strange, which introduced us to the Benedict Cumberbatch wizard superhero in charge of calediscospic reality-bending spells. (That one had some novelty to its light show spectacle, but stuck pretty safely to a basic origin story form.) The new movie has to also follow up on Avengers: Endgame’s series’ breaking Thanos snap, Spider-Man: No Way Home’s cheap cavalcade of cameos, and WandaVision’s largely successful sitcom pastiche that exploded out into the same old same old. It has elaborate CG action and smirking quips and endless self-referentiality as it ties up loose ends from other projects while teasing new ones for future projects. It’s another corporate comic book widget in the cross-promotional machine. It continues its newly adapted innovation in colliding action figures together with the ability to hop around through possible worlds to do whatever. When we see infinite possibilities across infinite worlds, guided there by super-powered magic that can do whatever the plot decides, it can start to feel limiting. Why care about the fate of the world when it’s all so up for grabs?

The knock on these pictures is that they’ve gotten so samey in look and tone, guided by bland aesthetics and timid stylists. The few slightly more distinctive works still get sanded down around the margins to fit into the whole project’s approach. Even blurring between cinematic universes with the last Spider-Man just felt like more of the same. To judge them on a critical level starts to seem like a useless task of making small comparisons and slight contrasts. I kinda like some; I really don’t others. Some have better action; others have funnier supporting parts. Whatever. Maybe the reason the trailers and end credit teaser scenes get the bulk of the press is that even the good ones are constantly promising the really good stuff is coming up next. That is not not the case with our journey into the multiverse of madness, but at least it actually uses its conceit to justify getting an actual director with a style and vision and tone all his own to control the chaos. And they actually let him do it some of the time! It makes for a sprightlier, wigglier, more distinctive puzzle piece in the larger overall picture, even if in the end I was still asking, “Is that all there is?”

It has Sam Raimi in the director’s chair, the beloved cult filmmaker behind the Evil Dead horror pictures—gonzo gore goofs, later echoed in his masterpiece, Drag Me to Hell. He became the creative force behind the first Spider-Man movies in the early aughts. Those are largely great because he knows how to give weight to effects and stage images iconographically with memorable staging. That also gives emotional heft to genre characterizations. Peter Parker’s plight is never more moving than when Raimi stages his connection and separation from those in his life and those he’s trying to save. Think of some of those images: the upside-down kiss in the rain; the lonely walk away in the graveyard; the crowd catching the wounded hero on the train. Raimi knows how to do this sort of thing well, and right away Doctor Strange 2 feels like the work of someone who’s in that sort of control. The camera moves decisively; the characters stand in the frame with dimension; the fluid expression of action makes each gesture pop. It’s actually appealing to the eye. As the movie goes on, Strange enters the Multiverse where there are multiple versions of several characters, some weird filigrees of comic book nonsense, and cockeyed jolts of absurdity and violence. Sure, when anything can happen, nothing much matters—but Raimi’s allowed to slip loose from canon and just mess around. It’s still a big empty bauble of nothing, but at least it’s more engaging in the moment from sheer do-it-cause-we-can nothing.

Screenwriter Michael Waldron (whose Loki is one of the high points in recent MCU projects) lays just enough track for Raimi’s inventiveness. It starts with a nightmarish introduction, then proceeds to a bittersweet wedding from which Strange must leave to fight a giant tentacled eyeball and save a multiverse-hopping teenager. At this point I was feeling pretty good; Strange’s melancholy is poignant, and then he swoops down the concrete canyons in shots that carry the same velocity as Maguire’s Spidey. The action makes some clever use of powers—portals and conjurings and the like—before kickstarting its plot by settling into a groove that makes light use of turgid dialogue sequences as mere pretense to hop around. Turns out the teenager is a new character imported from the comics, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), with an uncontrollable universe-puncturing punch. She’s instantly lovable—both underdog, lost and without an understanding of her powers, and overdog, knowing more about universe-traveling than Strange. That gives them a fun dynamic, and it holds the anything-goes plotting together.

The whole thing is a scotch-taped jumble of spectacles and sequences with these characters bopped around. But Raimi shapes their plights with unusual angles, jack-in-the-box surprises, and rug-pulling under cameos. It invites a multiverse of possibilities and then just messes around, with consequences loose. There are unbelievable moments of fantasy violence—people, including some Big Names, skewered or shredded or halved or exploded—and squiggly cartoonish nastiness—gibbering undead, plucked retinas, snapped necks, and extra eyeballs. That’s fun as far as that goes. But, really, what we’re looking at is a fun Raimi movie constantly swallowed up or upstaged by the generic Marvelisms around it. I’m so exhausted with movies whose motivations come floating in from other movies, and are not resolved by the end but paused instead. And the ways in which fan-favorite characters like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Wong) are used to close off and/or tie in to other entries are transparently cramping their fullest utility here. The strong current of personality running through the filmmaking is almost enough to divert attention from these typical grating elements in the moment. It’s only when the end credits start, and you can sit there thinking back over the events of the movie, that dissatisfaction fully settles in. Was that really all there was? Fittingly, the last line: “It’s over!”

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Liam Neesons: THE MARKSMAN, HONEST THIEF, BLACKLIGHT, THE ICE ROAD, MEMORY, and
ORDINARY LOVE

The moment that indisputably made Liam Neeson an action star is the phone call in 2009’s Taken. That junky, xenophobic little action thriller, lifted entirely by the spectacle of a prestige actor slumming it, has that one great memorable moment in which the star commands total attention and gravitas. He’s playing a special agent whose teenage daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers while on vacation in Paris. He gets one of the abductors on the phone and, in a low growl, says those infamous words:

"I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I         don't have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a         very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now         that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

Remembered as an ultimate steely action movie threat of promised retribution—a short speech and statement of purpose—it, more than anything else, opened the doors for Neeson’s next fifteen years of action movies. He was immediately able to play dozens of tough old guys who still know how to muster up the ability to kick in some teeth and survive chases and shootouts. But watch the scene again and notice that it also taps into what the best of those pictures find: his sadness. You can see the fear and doubt on his face, the deliberate weighing of words that are as much about talking himself into action as they are scaring the bad guy. He takes one heavy pause, a slow blink, as he steels himself for what he hopes won’t have to come next. He’s tired, but determined. When he asks the villain to “let [his] daughter go now,” you really feel that he hopes that will be the end of it.

It’s because Neeson is so tall, broad-shouldered, and has a voice so paradoxically soft-spoken while in a gravely tenor, that he makes obvious sense as a heavy threat. He speaks softly and carries a big stick, moving with a slow but inexorable gait laden with potential violence. But it’s that sadness in his eyes, the ways his brow and chin draw down with a resting reluctance, that make him so sympathetic, too. In the best thrillers of this stretch of his career, like A Walk Among the Tombstones or The Grey or Non-Stop or Run All Night, he’s played alcoholics, disgraced cops or retiring robbers, suicidal workingmen, grieving fathers, and sullen widowers. (And that this string of melancholy action pictures began shortly after the sudden death of his wife adds an extra layer to the downbeat mood.) In each, the power comes, not merely from the action itself—though it can be quite well done—but from the mournful weight to the violence. You can feel it, because he’s so clearly affected by it. He enters the pictures sad, and the dutiful action unspools cautiously, reluctantly, forcefully. The spectacle adds weariness to his stance, and his slow-speed pursuit of justice. Or is it simply something to numb the pain and stave off the end?

This was exciting at first—an injection of soulfulness into what could be routine genre elements care of a star finding new corners of his persona. But the last couple years have seen Neeson’s action movies themselves feeling sadder and more tired. (Hey, aren’t we all?) In The Marksman, he’s a rancher on the southwestern border who protects an undocumented teenager who crosses the border onto his property, hunted by cartel guys and border agents. The reluctant protector is written as a flat Clint Eastwood type. In fact, he’s so creaky and terse one imagines that part was written for Eastwood. (Writer-director Robert Lorenz has worked with Clint as a producer, and his only prior directorial effort was the elderly Eastwood vehicle Trouble with the Curve. You do the math.) Neeson inhabits the role uneasily, but gets off some good semi-earnest sentimentality in the part, and is given some functional suspense sequences. But the movie’s entirely muddled on a political level, and the story isn’t good enough to call that ambiguity, or distract from its incoherent messaging. Neeson can’t save this one. But he’s on some better ground in writer-director Mark Williams’ Honest Thief, which at least has a clever conceit. In this one, he’s a prolific mysterious bank robber who’s fallen in love, and so decides to turn himself in, but the government agents to whom he confesses steal his enormous cash pile and set him up for a fall. That’s neat, and the movie’s eccentric ensemble of quirky bit parts goes a long way to keeping it from falling too flat, but the plot is executed with a sluggish trudge that takes a long time going where we always think it will.

Neeson then re-teamed with Williams for Blacklight, a movie that also has a healthy distrust of law enforcement. In this one, Neeson’s an FBI fixer who is drawn into a larger understanding of a conspiracy to murder a progressive politician. He then has to help stop them before they hurt more people. In the opening scene, an Ocasio-Cortez kinda-sorta lookalike is killed in a hit-and-run, and soon an investigative journalist and a whistleblower are imperiled by nefarious Deep State death squads led by a sneering agent (Aidan Quinn) who casually talks about quashing protestors. (This one squirmingly feels the tenor of the times in spots.) The whole thing’s at once too hyperbolic and too chintzy, full of nearly provocative ideas for which it loses nerve, cavernous nowheres where the plot’s detail and dimension should be, and the Neeson character is almost superfluous to the plot’s mechanics. The picture wants pseudo-70’s paranoid style, but is shot in an overlit textureless digital smear in Melbourne doubling unconvincingly for D.C. I wish its style and substance was as wild as its ambitions. But at least those movies are not as perilously thin as Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Ice Road, in which Neeson’s ice road trucker gets entangled in some shady shenanigans. There’s nothing real or convincing about anything, from character to location to action. And it even has Laurence Fishburne around loaning just part of his natural gravitas to the proceedings!When they can’t make a truck chase across a frozen river exciting, you know the movie’s gone wrong.

It’s starting to feel like the Neeson: Action Star project is just about out of steam. The feeling is all through his latest, Martin Campbell’s Memory. Though it has such a good idea for him to play, that makes it all the more disappointing it’s just another middling thriller built from off-the-shelf parts. (And from a director who successfully rebooted James Bond twice! Alas…) Here Neeson’s a veteran hitman succumbing to Alzheimers. What a frightening prospect! There’s a chilling moment in the middle of the picture where the guy’s refused to follow through on an assassination of a 13-year-old girl. That night, he has a nightmare in which he kills her. The next morning, her death is reported on the news. Wait, he thinks, did I? Or didn’t I? The movie plays on the terrible ambiguity, but only for a moment. Turns out he didn’t, so he spends the rest of the movie fighting his slipping mind as a supporting character to the larger investigation carried out by a detective played by a stringy-haired, slumped-shouldered Guy Pearce. The sheer tonnage of routine shoe-leather and rote shootings weigh down the potentially clever ideas at its center, and bury the actors—even Monica Bellucci as a dastardly real estate mogul—in a blandly developed conspiracy that’s too-easily unraveled for us in the audience. Once that’s sorted, then it’s just a glum matter of hoping the characters can figure it out in time.

As thrillers of this ilk have been diminishing returns for Neeson, his most satisfying movie of the past few years is a straight drama: Ordinary Love. The story it tells is ordinary, and it is tender plain-spoken simplicity that gives it power. Here’s a movie about an aging couple (Neeson paired with Lesley Manville). They’re comfortable with each other, so much that even their slight tensions and disagreements can be shrugged off. They go for walks. They grocery shop. They watch TV. They trade chores. There’s an unspoken absence. The mantle photos show a daughter they don’t mention for quite a while. You get the sense she’s dead before they ever make reference to her grave. Like any couple of this sort, they’ve accumulated quite the history, and it sits unspoken on their shoulders, weighing in on every exchange. This makes a fatal diagnosis a cruel puncture to their clearly hard-won comfort. The movie follows matter-of-factly the aftermath of this diagnosis as a course of treatment is decided upon and inevitable emotional and interpersonal struggles arrive from heavy potential outcomes hanging over their heads. The screenplay from playwright Owen McCafferty gives these actors space to explore the ideas inherent in this situation, with Manville providing such a heartrending quivering in her stiff upper lip, and Neeson’s facility with grief and sadness is refined in a film of pinprick specificity. Somehow he’s looped back around to this sort of picture being the refreshing change of pace. How satisfying to see a picture so small, so plain, and yet carrying a lifetime of feeling.

Stargazing: THE LOST CITY
and THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT

Hey, it’s another sign of life for an endangered genre at the multiplex: an original romantic comedy. It’s an old-fashioned treasure hunt adventure, too. Three in one! The Lost City is a rare breed indeed, an original—in that it rips off its inspirations instead of remaking or rebooting or existing in the same cinematic universe as them—star-driven picture that coasts entirely on the charm of its leads. It stars Sandra Bullock, a beloved actress who made it big with romantic comedies returning to the genre after more than a decade away, as a beloved author who made it big with romance novels returning to publish after many years away. Neat trick, that. Unfortunately the comparison isn’t mined for much, as the movie’s instead interested in tromping through some familiar motions. The author’s popular series is best known for a cover model (Channing Tatum). When their joint book tour is quickly interrupted by a villainous billionaire (Daniel Radcliffe) kidnapping her thinking she can help him find buried treasure on a remote tropical island, the handsome lunk hopes to rescue her and prove he’s more than a pretty face.

Thus, we get Bullock and Tatum—also a welcome sight, having just returned to our screens with Dog a few weeks ago—traipsing through the jungle together. It’s Romancing the Stone with a blander coat of paint. The writer thinks highly of her cleverness, and the model is always a step behind but trying so admirably to think things through. He’s just slow on the uptake, and she’s slow to realize she’s falling for him. That old thing. Though the stars shine brightly, proving all over again why they were so appealing in the first place, the project’s way too blandly directed and formulaically scripted to ever really get off the ground. Car chases and shootouts hit their marks, and the banter is slathered on with a first-draft brush—then augmented with tons of off-screen ADR, the last refuge of filmmakers who’ve discovered far too late their scenes need more lines that almost sound like jokes. That’s all pretty pro-forma stuff, but the pretty island scenery and predictable melting of affections through a scampering adventure really do work at some basic level, if only for the charming Movie Stars enjoying the chance to do that increasingly rare thing.

A potentially far richer Movie Star text of a high-concept comedy is The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Too bad it stays shallow. It stars Nicolas Cage as Nicolas Cage. He plays an actor who once won an Academy Award and starred in action blockbusters, but now a couple decades later fears he’s making nothing much of note. Does the actual Cage think that of his lesser direct-to-video efforts of late? (He still gets the occasional wild pitch lead in a hallucinogenic horror movie like Mandy or a taciturn indie drama like Pig.) The film makes some effort to be about the idea of Cage more than the true man himself. His wife (Sharon Horgan) and daughter (Lily Sheen) in the picture are nothing like his real-life family. And his professional frustrations seem to be responding more to a tabloid image than anything real. (He’s fittingly haunted by a waxy de-aged ghost of his younger self.) But of course, if any actor would play a loose self-portrait balancing image maintenance with gentle self-critique it would be Cage. After all, he’s the one who describes his own process leading to wild and unpredictable performances in everything from Moonstruck to Face/Off as “experimenting with what I would like to call Western Kabuki or more Baroque or operatic style of film performance. Break free from the naturalism…” As for if he goes over the top, he once said: “You tell me where the top is and I’ll tell you whether or not I’m over it.”

The movie has a fun hook anyway, even if it eventually loses the fun. Cage is hired to attend the birthday party of a Spanish oligarch (Pedro Pascal). Once there he discovers he’s fast friends with the guy. Too bad, then, that the CIA recruits the actor to spy on his host. The movie’s then bifurcated between pleasant and appealing buddy comedy—Cage humbly cedes most of the charm to Pascal’s giddy enthusiasms, while he provides the thawing reaction shots and sweet-natured stumbling—and a painfully generic action picture. The bad guys are stock types, the chases and explosions are flat, and the mystery is a stop-and-start nothing. Whole subplots are dropped or elided at times, too, with some comic relief suddenly turning up dead and others disappearing for large swaths of run time. This is almost certainly a movie hacked apart at some point in its development. It leans way too hard on its meta winks without going all the way into speculative loop-de-loops a la Being John Malkovich’s head-spinning. Why quote the great Con Air theme song in the opening scene if not bringing it back in a rousing encore by the end? And why make a movie in love with Cage movies without engaging in what makes them great? Or what makes any movie great, for that matter? Early on it has a character disparage being “forced” to watch silent classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as it gave them “anxiety” to dislike it, and it’s later a sign of character growth when another learns to love Paddington 2 without much reasoning. This results in an oddly small movie, so in love with its star’s willingness to play himself that it forgets to do anything with that willingness. It needed someone behind the camera who’d be as willing to go hurtling over the top with him.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Bloodline: THE NORTHMAN

"Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death." - Beowulf

There’s something tough and believable and ancient in writer-director Robert Eggers’ latest film, the red-blooded, thunderously entertaining The Northman. It’s set in the harsh, brutal world of Vikings, and on the road to revenge, which is harsher and more brutal still. Sure, it has shaman and visions and a warrior who catches a spear mid-flight and tosses it back at his enemy. But its potential Conan appeals are situated in a great sense of reality. If it weren’t such a gleaming work of modern craftsmanship, and harkening back to the great epics of Hollywood’s golden age with its pomp and circumstance in massive landscapes as backdrops to human dramas, one could almost imagine the camera had been plunked down in the year 900. As such, it continues Eggers’ anthropological commitment to historical verisimilitude in vivid genre trappings. Here the thrones and the boats, the swords and the helmets, all have the look of authenticity, and real care given to photographing them in all their textures and design. And Eggers co-wrote with Icelandic author Sjón, together crafting a narrative that plays fair with the historical record even as it’s a work of impressively imagined synthesis. We notice the attention to detail, matter-of-factly presented rigor, and that’s how Eggers grounds the fantastical in a material believability of the past. The film has the weight of a real time and place, and uses it as a stage for its bloody spectacle as a warrior prince (Alexander Skarsgård) is betrayed by a villainous uncle (Claes Bang). The young man flees into exile and slavery from which he vows to avenge his father (Ethan Hawke) and free his mother (Nicole Kidman). Yes, indeed, the film asks: what if Beowulf was also Hamlet? (The prince even shares a name, Amleth, with one whose rotten Denmark  is said to have inspired the Bard.) Turns out the answer is awfully satisfying.

There’s a thrilling sturdiness to the film’s inspirations, and not simply the look and tone of the picture that unfurls historicity. Although Eggers’ films have thus far been well-researched period pieces, they just as importantly draw on a literary tradition from the times. Because they play tonally and structurally like stories from the period in which he’s setting his films, they feel all the more real. It’s not that they’re true stories of a bygone time; it’s that they feel like stories of that bygone time. His debut The Witch drew its woodsy colonial folklore fears from contemporaneous journals. He followed that with The Lighthouse, a two-man oddity which matched its turn-of-the-20th century setting by being a boxy black-and-white modernist freakout in squared-off silent-horror aesthetics. It’s only natural, then, that The Northman is built from the bones of Nordic legends and Old English epic poetry. Its dialogue—spoken in gruff barks and silky growls by a game cast—is built on the sturdy syllabic construction of Seamus Heaney’s translations. Its sense of lineage and honor is all knotty myth. Its structure, though, is pure five-act Shakespearean. It builds beautifully and ponderously, each new act slotting in the next step on the road to inevitable conflagration. It’s at once familiar and strange; like the past, they do things differently there, even if we can recognize the composite materials. It earns our investment by believing fully its own, in confident steady style that rumbles like thunder and proceeds at a deliberate pace.  

Along the way, Eggers conjures battle sequences and murky magic in striking measures. Action plays out in elegant lateral tracking shots through frenzy and violence. An enchantment in the world sneaks in through vividly imagined ambiguities—a prophesying, pale, blind Seeress (Björk); a fortune-telling skull; a woozy psychedelics-induced ritual, and a vision of Valhalla. And the throughline of revenge carries us through a long, bruising and bloody picture set against staggering natural beauty of fjords and fields, cliffs and volcano. The scenes unfold with a heaviness, a bold booming in the bass as details accumulate and our hero gets closer to his goal. The enormous vistas fill up their foregrounds with ominous plotting and intimate vengeance. The project thrillingly splits the difference between folk tale and folk horror, epic poem—brusk kennings and brute strength thematic construction—and family tragedy. It’s a film about blood and bloodlines, about passing on the honor of one’s names and gains, and maintaining in the face of so much wild danger. Not uncritical of the violent impulses, by the end, with its moonlit massacres, lava-dodging swordfights, and love with a beautiful young woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) who just might represent a better future, it clearly inhabits the intoxication and futility of revenge—the nobility and gnarliness of Viking life, and the wonder that anyone survived to tell the tale.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Mere Universe:
EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE

There’s little wonder why the multiverse is a concept everyone’s all in on these days. Who wouldn’t want to imagine there’s a slightly better version of reality just outside our reach? That’s clearly the juice giving the little sci-fi action dramedy Everything Everywhere All at Once its buzz. The picture has a mainstream Marvel-sized hook animating its wiggly, fanciful character-based scamper. With the likes of the latest Spider-Man, Marvel is just using the idea of parallel universe-hopping to smash their action figures together—and cross-promote, of course. Here co-writers and co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert use the comic book conceit as a stage for some great performers to act out while the style around them goes wild. It’s a hodgepodge movie of fun and varied styles. But it goes on and on, and achieves less and less. For all the giddy befuddlement and constant whimsical invention, it’s ultimately in pursuit of nothing more than a greeting card’s worth of insight and sentiment. Some audiences will walk out dazed, thinking they’re not smart enough to get it. They may be right. But others of us may catch on quick, and feel the grinding repetitions, and the gnawing void of nothingness at its center—sometimes literally visualized, a convenient metaphor.

At least it’s an actor’s showcase that’s not totally swamped by its concept. To the extent it hangs on to some understandable, and moving, ideas, it finds them in its cast. The solid center is Michelle Yeoh, the martial arts powerhouse—everything from Police Story 3 to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to a James Bond movie—who is introduced here as a harried proprietor of an aging laundromat. She buries her usual steely resolve and glamorous confidence in a disgruntled melancholy rut. It’s a good reminder that she does putting-on-a-false-front and indescribable-yearning as well as anyone. Her business is strained, her small apartment is stuffed with homey clutter, she’s being audited, her ailing father (James Hong) has flown in from China, her wishy-washy sweetie husband (Ke Huy Quan) is contemplating divorce, and her grown daughter (Stephanie Hsu) has brought her girlfriend (Tallie Medel) home. Yeoh and the others sell the early down-to-earth scenes’ introductory plate-spinning as the characters’ complications stir, culminating in the group turning up for a meeting with a frumpy auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis) in a dreary cubicle. The cast sells the initial complications with heart and spirit—it’s a sly Sundance comedy bristling with fine character details and dilemmas, a story of first-generation immigrants and marriage and mid-life crisis and family stress and small business owners and a drive for acceptance of oneself and others. There’s much to admire in its setup.

But soon the hurry-scurry anything-is-possible of the hook erupts, and then starts to wear thin. Everything goes wild—everywhere, all at once—when Yeoh’s husband suddenly snaps to attention, inhabited by a warrior from Alpha Universe with a cryptic message. (Here’s where Quan’s performance, his first leading role since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, proves every bit as formidable, charismatic, and shape-shifting as Yeoh’s.) The screen fractures. Suddenly we’re in two worlds, and told the fate of all possible worlds hangs in the balance. Doubles of others are crawling out of the woodwork, converging on their divergent prey at the behest of a mysterious (and sassy) inter-dimensional supervillain intent on hunting Yeoh down. (She has her reasons.) This kicks off a flurry of capable action and attempted comedy that rarely lets up, as Yeoh hops through the skills and memories of all manner of possible hers. She’s a movie star, a chef, a sign-spinner, a martial artist, a maid, a woman with long, wiggly, frankfurter-shaped fingers, and a rock. In the process, though the meek laundress never leaves the IRS building, the action grows wilder and more elaborate as office supplies and stylistic surprises become weapons, gags, or, often, both. There’s some fun to be found as it hops around, and in its glimpses of other worlds the filmmakers clearly enjoy mixing up the look. I quite liked their Wong Kar-Wai-inspired step-printed tale of missed opportunity amid the neon lights of a theater district, and the flattest, driest jokes subtitled from the canyon of silence amid some stones. But I couldn’t shake the question of why, if this movie could go anywhere and do anything, it chose to limit itself to repetitive silliness. The joy of its invention grows thin when it finds no new notes to play after a while.

The Daniels, still best known for the beguiling bodily contortions and room-smashing dance moves of the “Turn Down For What” music video, if not the grotesquely cute ambulatory corpse fantasy Swiss Army Man, make full use of their visual imaginations. Bodies flip and flail, fantasy erupts and contracts, aspect ratios shrink and grow, and characters become doubled, tripled, quadrupled in personality and fashion sense. Along the way, the actors somehow never quite lose the throughlines that make their characters tick. (The noticeable affection between Yeoh and Quan goes a long way there.) It grounds the proceedings in something understandable, even while a concept that can go anywhere and do anything slowly reveals its genre constraints. The movie’s not interested in radical mind-sharing like the Wachowskis’ Sense8 or souls adrift in time and space like Cloud Atlas. But nor is its spirited, monotonous kung fu acrobatics interested in dumb chops and kicks. (The movie adores them to excess, gilding them with glitter and blood, even unto some tasteless anal retentive gags.) Instead, it’s an everything bagel of genre tropes pushed to the brink and emotionally narrow. As it drags on and on well past the two hour mark, finding only endless repetition of its bag of tricks, it draws to a climactic flourish of mawkish sentiment and bumper sticker philosophizing. Sure, it’s theoretically sweet to see the fate of the universe comes down to learning to love and accept friends and neighbors, and appreciating the life you have instead of the dreams you don’t, and just hugging your daughter and accepting her girlfriend because it’s the right thing to do. But for all the half-imagined sci-fi rigamarole, and the admirable work of a fine cast, you’d think it’d find conclusions that are as clever as they are self-impressed.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Old Magic:
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE

I basically liked Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, but I feel a defensive crouch is necessary to broach the topic. Need I rehearse the litany of complaints the Fantastic Beasts movies have received? Many say they’re shapeless, strangely paced, full of narrative dead ends and inscrutable motivations. I agree. They have little of the sprightly British boarding school structure of the Harry Potters to which they are ostensibly prequels. Certainly true. The big villain of these pictures has accidentally been a revolving door of casting—a misjudged twist gimmick in the first, and off-screen allegations after the second, resulting in three different actors across three films. Irritating. And their creator, J.K. Rowling, has eroded the goodwill she got from writing an instant-classic work of children’s literature by spending most of her public statements of late transmitting bigoted anti-trans messages. Frustrating would be an understatement. (One hopes that, generations hence, that’ll be biographical detail and not active annoyance.) I can’t defend that, or any of the above, and I won’t. But I’ve had more of a good time than not sitting in the world these movies create. There’s the sheer pleasure of its fantasy gewgaws and the sturdy craftsmanship of its many collaborators, and, gee, even the story starts to threaten to get somewhere interesting.

While the early movies felt like so much stage-setting, this one actually starts to take off. Maybe it’s because Rowling’s screenplay was given a co-writing assist from Steve Kloves, who so smartly adapted the original novels into the wonderful films they became. Here the evil Grindelwald, fresh from committing his Crimes in the last one, continues gathering his forces to fight against tolerance of muggles. (Maybe they’ll get there in the next one. If there is a next one.) The wizard supremacist hopes to exploit weaknesses in the electoral system of worldwide magic high council or something. Only Professor Dumbledore (Jude Law) and his trusty zoologist buddy Newt (Eddie Redmayne), with some allies new (Jessica Williams) and old (Callum Turner, Dan Fogler), can sniff out a way to stop him. Maybe. They hope. It’s a little confusing, deliberately so to confound Grindlewald’s ability to see the future, a convenient excuse. ((The funniest confusion has to be a long sequences near the beginning in which Dumbledore explains why he can’t do something, then he proceeds to do it in the finale, and, when questioned, basically shrugs.) But the actors are swanning about the elaborate bits with appropriate sprightliness. They seem to know what they’re doing. There’s a lot of globe-hopping, creature-admiring, spell-casting zipping around—from an underground German torture pit with a multi-limbed critter’s tentacles stabbing out of the dark, to a mountaintop village erupting with enchanted obstacles. It’s all in service of trying to prevent a sclerotic bureaucracy from accidentally, through a combination of cowardice and corruption, letting an egotistical fascistic cult leader take over their democratic norms. When one wizard pontificates about “the peaceful transfer of power” and dithers over charging Grindlewald for his crimes, the allegory is pretty clear.

Along the way, I most admired the work of Wizarding World vets. A franchise is so much more than one person, after all. This one remains an extended victory lap for people who brought Potter to such vivid life, and as such has constant reminders of the craft that made it so appealing. Director David Yates has a patient eye for the fantasy filigrees and takes all the murmuring about hidden secrets and wizard politics very seriously. I don’t always follow it, but it clearly means something to someone, and plays like it could. When we see the Berlin Ministry of Magic with its brutalist structures and severe members, or a Bhutan temple decked out in enormous flags on rope bridges and towering staircases for an international magic election, there’s fun to the peeks into new corners of this world beyond Hogwarts. (Once more, brief stops at the old school renew its status as one of the great created locations of moviemaking.) Yates marshals the returning behind-the-camera talent to their usual high standard. This is a series with an admirable consistency of style, look, and feel. Production design from Stuart Craig gives each location, new and old, the requisite sumptuous detail—spinning with both old-fashioned appeal with its early-20th-century setting and the neat floating flourishes of magic life. The costumes from Colleen Atwood are neat, too—crisp and cool, flowing and vintage, for muggles and wizards alike. The lush orchestral score from James Newton Howard swells and fanfares with its own invention as it teases around John Williams’ iconic themes sparingly. It’s all of a piece with a fun, familiar world. Sometimes that’s enough.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Quick Trip: SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2

Would I have liked Sonic the Hedgehog 2 when I was 11 years old? Certainly. The whole thing feels built from a checklist of everything an 11-year-old would love. It has: a plucky boyish hero with a bit of an attitude, space critters in different primary colors and with complementary abilities, magic portals, little robots, big robots, video game sound effects, lasers, explosions, fast cars, swimming pools, flatulence, a music montage of home-alone misbehavior, baseball, volleyball, skateboarding, Rube Goldberg machines, a treasure map, ice cream, magic birds, a ruined wedding, secret agents, improbable gadgets, impenetrable lore, video game logic, an avalanche, a hidden temple with booby traps and ancient magic jewels, biplanes, golf carts, a mountain tavern where tough guys have dance-offs, non-threatening military men who say things like “My God!” while staring at clouds of special effects, and a cast that includes Jim Carrey returning to wacky mode as the villain while everyone else is either comic relief or standing around to cheer the heroes on. All of the above is presented brightly and plainly, with total earnestness and jokes only a fifth grader would enjoy. The only problem is that I’m not 11 any more.

The sequel is undeniably leveled up in some ways from the first hit movie based on the classic Sega game starring the eponymous blue super-speedy hedgehog. That one somehow stranded Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) as a passenger on a road trip with a human cop (James Marsden) and his fiancé (Tika Sumpter) for most of the way, though the glowing-portal action sequences and Carrey’s literal mustache twirling like it was 1994 again were reasonably enjoyable. It’s now bigger and louder and more stuffed with character and incident and running around. (Though weirdly Sonic still isn’t consistently using his super speed to its most effective escape potentials.) But it’s also just more of the same, cartoony effects in a formulaic story scurrying around for a couple hours while the score pounds and the subwoofer rumbles before we all learn a valuable lesson about teamwork. Director Jeff Fowler once again does sturdy work framing the live-action and animation, keeping things bright and quick, moving right along. It goes down painlessly. Passable at best, it’s perhaps most interesting for how the first Sonic movie, released February 2020, was the last big blockbuster before the pandemic, and now the filmmakers have managed to make the sequel during it and released as we are hoping to near its end. (Ah, that just leaves war and weather on the apocalypse bingo card.) That gave me the bittersweetly empty feeling that, hey, the world might be ending, but at least we got two reasonably okay Sonic movies. But, you know what they say, you can’t be 11 again.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Siren Song: AMBULANCE

I’ve never been disappointed in a Michael Bay car chase. Even when the movie around it is one of his lesser pictures, there’s nothing like the way he films the grit of the road, the burning rubber, the squealing turns, the crunching crashes, bone-rattling speeds, spraying debris, and geysers of fire and explosions. He takes low angles with a moving camera that goes faster and closer than you’d think possible, hurtling beyond or behind or spinning between the moving elements, filling the frame with light and motion, cutting so fast you just barely get your bearings. Think his debut Bad Boys or its outsized sequel sending cop cars careening through one obstacle after the next, or his sci-fi escape actioner The Island flinging a literal ton of construction equipment off the back of a trailer to slice apart vehicles crossing their concrete-slamming trajectories. Is it any wonder, then, that his enormous Transformers movies are something like an apotheosis of this style? What better protagonists than the cars themselves, all oil and spark and motion contorting around fleeting human interests. There’s always something exhilaratingly mechanical about Bayhem, where flesh and blood meet the cold logic of parts and gears—animated by the passion for obliterating the senses in aesthetic reverie of all of the above.

His latest, Ambulance, is an answer for anyone who ever wondered what an all-chase Bay movie could be. After a brisk setup, the action starts and never lets up. Just a few minutes in, I found myself asking: is this one of Bay’s very best efforts? The rest of the movie just keeps answering: yes, yes, yes. Somehow it flies by, but never loses its rooting interests, every image a gleaming, forceful work of propaganda for itself. The story hits the ground running, with an unemployed veteran (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), in need of lots of cash after his insurance denies coverage for his wife’s surgery, secretly meeting up with his bank robber brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) for a loan. Turns out, the criminal bro is just about to leave with his crew on a big heist, but they do need a driver. So off they go. This is cross-cut with an introduction to a paramedic (Eiza Gonzalez). We meet her saving the life of a little girl impaled on a railing that rammed through her mother’s car in an accident. The jaws of life spark, she cries as the EMT grips her hand, then the camera drifts down from high above the ambulance like a guardian angel as they spirit her toward the nearest ER. (Maybe it's the movie equivalent of the early pandemic days, when people would bang pots and pans out their windows in tribute to first responders.) You can tell right away that Bay’s giving this material an extra fluid grace, and some real tenderness, too. We also saw a glimpse of the brothers as children in an intuitive wordless flashback at the start, two innocents wandering down a sun-dappled Los Angeles street. All this sentimental rooting interest is sketched in with hard-charging shorthand in immediate gripping visualization. We get it instantly, the better to care just enough as the action picks up speed.

The bank robbery goes badly, a cop is shot, and the brothers escape by hijacking the ambulance that arrives for him. (Guess whose.) The rest of the movie, then, is in the same vein as Jan de Bont’s Speed or Tony Scott’s Unstoppable—wow, that’d be a triple-feature to make you hyperventilate—as a vehicle just can’t stop, can’t slow down, is always on the move. The movie doesn’t merely zoom by; it smashes, careens, swerves, drifts, and dips. We’re taken on a tour of LA at top speeds, as law enforcement assembles (Garret Dillahunt wrangles the team of cars and trucks and guns and helicopters with gruff cowboy charm) and the ambulance keeps eluding their grasp. (One imagines the screenplay could’ve been written by driving around town wondering: what would it be like to go really fast through here, or what if a car fell off that?) Bay goes all in on blue-collar process, balancing the cops’ procedures with the robbers’ clever quick thinking. He trusts his actors to sell the immediacy of the moments. Gyllenhaal is a live-wire, while Abdul-Mateen is sturdily in-over-his-head, and Gonzalez is probably Bay’s best heroine, capable and steady and thinking, defined entirely by being professional and skilled while never drooled over. We want her to survive, while the movie does a tricky two-step in keeping Gyllenhaal more purely villainous while letting Abdul-Mateen remain relatively more sympathetic. We want them to escape for his sake, but clearly see someone needs to stop them. It’s a situation out of control.

This is brute-force exhilaration and industrial-strength sentimentality wedded together in Bay’s typical eye-popping frames zipping past in pulse-scattering editing. The appeal, then, is entirely in the way the variables keep spinning around them all the way through the explosive ends. The camera is swooping and swirling, freed to hurtle along every which way, flying top-speeds along highways and under overpasses and around tight corners, peering up at the concrete canyons or spraying through puddles and fires. This is Hollywood action impressionism, a work of blurry momentum and movement in which each image is crystal clear and every shot swarms with visual interest, cut together in a smear of sparks and sounds. This is Bay at his most indulgent and yet contained, more of a piece with his early films (he winks at them in the early going as characters name-drop a couple) than the gargantuan spectacles of shape-shifting cars from outer space. He’s still excessive, but his excess (aside from a cartel gangster subplot that rides an awfully thin line of stereotypes) is committed to amping up the concept and the characters—its as out of control as its central vehicle and the guys behind the wheel. We’re hanging on for dear life like the hostages in the back. I watched it with the realization that the 57-year-old director has now passed from being a shock of the new, through a high-gloss studio pro, into something like an old master of the form.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Say Gay: BETTER NATE THAN EVER and ROTHANIEL

The bigotry inherent in Florida’s Republican “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, recently signed into odious law, is in the central premise of restricting schools’ ability to even reference the existence of LGBT+ people as if they are definitionally inappropriate subjects, using vague language that would allow any aggrieved parent to sue teachers directly with accusations. It operates from the assumption that denying youth information about same-sex affection will stop them from developing it. This is further underlined by the bill’s proponents’ and defenders’ falsely claiming with drooling insistence that anyone opposing the measure is inculcating victims in what some still stubbornly believe is a lifestyle choice instead of a simple fact of life. Just when those of us who recognize that romantic and sexual desires are complicated and fluid elements of being alive—even beyond labels of gay, straight, and between—thought that concept had finally lodged into mainstream understanding and acceptance—to look at all reputable polling over the last decade, it has!—these backwards-looking revanchist culture warriors are on the march. Emboldened by the political ugliness unleashed by the worst among us of late, they’re eagerly hoping to reverse the gains of the open-minded plurality and impose their cruel policies and prejudiced views on us all, by any anti-democratic, minority-rule measures they see fit.

Not content with their victorious stuffing the courts to the point where they’re about to end a right to safe, legal abortion in this country, they’re moving in multiple federal and state cases to restrict discussions of race and LGBT+ issues, and making noise about pulling back on interracial marriage and birth control, too. Scary times. These conservative activists—some usual confluence of moral panic, internet trolls, moneyed distraction, and rank prejudice—wish to ignore those who make them uncomfortable. But ignoring people doesn’t make them disappear or die out. There’s that other old homophobic trope—that new gays aren’t born, but recruited. They might be confusing that with right-wing reactionaries. (One must be carefully taught that way of thinking.) Ignoring those ugly ideas hasn’t made them disappear either.

In light of this, what can the movies do? After all, that’s where Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the difference can be made, after employees raised concern that the studio, Florida’s largest employer, stayed uncharacteristically silent about the legislation. Previous CEO Bob Iger at least knew it was better business to say the right things from time to time, and would advocate for humane policies and against inhumane ones, so long as they didn’t ask the company to, say, raise wages for their theme park employees. Chapek instead said they’d stay neutral on attempts to erode civil rights materially and focus on “creating a more inclusive world...through the inspiring content [they] produce.” (Never mind the creatives who later divulged how the corporate brass asked them to downplay gay characters in some projects of late, I suppose.) The symbolic gesture isn’t nothing, and it’s true that representation of all kinds in a good movie can shine a light on oft unseen peoples or circumstances, invite empathy for others, and point people toward possibilities they’d never before understood. There’s magic there. It can’t materially improve conditions, but maybe creates a way of thinking that could help someone feel accepted. A fight for a better world can’t happen only through some well-intentioned movies without actually pushing back on the laws and politicians preventing that better world, or dragging us back toward constricting corruptions of public goods.

Maybe Chapek was thinking about Better Nate Than Ever when he mentioned projects showing “a more inclusive world.” The newest straight-to-Disney+ live-action family movie—the sort of thing that would’ve played in theaters back in the days of Max Keeble’s Big Move or Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, though it’s smaller and thinner and more in line with the Disney Channel Original Movies of the time—is a cute comedy about a flamboyant middle schooler with big Broadway ambitions. The theatrical boy (Rubey Wood) hears about auditions for child actors to play in an upcoming stage adaptation of Lilo & Stitch so, when his parents leave him with his butch brother (Joshua Bassett) for the weekend, he sneaks off with his best friend (Aria Brooks). They get to the Big Apple, where luckily they run into his estranged aunt (Lisa Kudrow, funnier than the material deserves) who reluctantly helps him stay for his chance at treading the boards. Much prolonged silliness ensues.

The movie never quite says gay, but it’s all over the broad sitcom antics—the squeaky-voiced boy loves Designing Women in addition to show tunes and constantly undercuts the heteronormativity of his lumbering brother. (When older bro glowers that it’s unfair his younger sibling can sleep over at a girl’s house, their father admits, Nate’s not going to get in trouble with that.) And it’s in the wide-eyed naive showbiz stardust sparkling over everything. So it’s a sweet little movie with its heart in the right place—even if its corporate synergy says everyone is equal…in that they’re able to experience the magic of Disney. (Surely not a coincidence there’s a live action Stitch in the pipeline, natch.) Even the setbacks are bright and buoyant and no underdeveloped sadness can last. Writer-director Tim Federle—of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series—gives the thing an up-tempo glossiness and squeaky-clean simplicity. There are modest musical numbers, some gentle joking, and an ending calculated to give the kids who’ll see themselves in such a picture the self-esteem boost needed. I wasn’t entirely unmoved to see this plucky kid succeed. I’m glad it exists for those who’ll find in it permission to be themselves.

For those of us wanting more introspection engaged in the thorny difficulties of exploring one’s sexual orientation, and of coming out—to oneself, as much as to family, friends, and the world at large—there’s Jarrod Carmichael’s latest stand-up special: Rothaniel. In it, the 35-year-old comedian, perhaps most famous for The Carmichael Show, his excellent three-season multi-cam comedy on NBC from a few years ago, reveals that he’s gay. That drops early in the hour. The rest is a reckoning. He arrives there after a winding preamble about his family secrets, including the affairs of both of his grandfathers and his father, with the attendant sense of betrayal and complicity he felt in holding that in. He goes on to unravel how various family and friends reacted to his revelation. The hour covers a lot of ground: his internalized homophobia, how his sexuality interacts with his Christian faith, how he senses friction from some family members. Even loving responses can feel cold when it’s wrapped in layers of disappointment, distance, or confusion. He tip-toes up to explicit confessions, crosses lines and then slips back, a little embarrassed he waited so long, or divulged so much, but recognizes the complicating factors of social structures and family expectations that constructed his closeted years. This isn’t easy.

It is personal material, often going stretches without punchlines, amusing only for Carmichael’s natural easygoing charm. He has the same sitcom brilliance in his delivery he did on his show, shades of Lear (Norman, not King), that let him get away with provocative political needling without losing the aw-shucks, All in the Family, real talk, just-having-fun thinking-out-loud magic trick. Somehow it’s also still so real and immediate and raw, a sense of an unfolding personal extemporaneous working-out of deep emotional pain and promising release. The balancing act wobbles and teeters at times, but never quite steps off. And he never loses a sense of the audience reaction. He plays to them even as he slips into impromptu therapy. And he has a killer last line in his back pocket the whole time, even as you might wonder where he’s going. Even as he might be, too. He knows it’ll land, even if he’s not sure where he will. He talks himself into a more truthful language of his being.

In this way, Carmichael turns in on himself as he comes out. The filmmaking by director Bo Burnahm emphasizes the effect of the spotlight in intimate closeups as the intensity of the bulbs cause a heat that fades colors and washes out the background into a milkiness. The camera also draws attention to Carmichael’s posture as he speaks, sometimes even interacting with a largely unseen crowd that’s rapt and a little off-balance, sometimes shouting out questions or affirmations at him. He sits in a folding chair, often leaning back, other times shrinking into himself, slouching, his hand sometimes running over his face and neck or teasing his collar in a nervous fidget. He’s the center of attention, suddenly his full self in the public eye for the first time. It’s the opposite, then, of Burnham’s excellent mad musical comedy of indoor pandemic creative expression Inside; you could call this Out. Carmichael’s not sure what he’ll do there, but the very fact of speaking the truth about himself creates a power, and a permission, to grow into the man he is before our eyes. And maybe that’s what scares the people who, as George Eliot once wrote, “would have every man's life ordered according to a particular pattern, and…are intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them.” In this special, a man explains an existence that can’t be ignored.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Work Out: THE BUBBLE and RIEN À FOUTRE

Wasn’t it stupid to try to make a big movie during a pandemic? So says Judd Apatow’s The Bubble, a big Netflix movie made during the pandemic. Aside from that central uneasy irony, the whole thing’s a bust. It’s a long, loosely-structured would-be comedy with really only the animating anxious confusion of life during COVID and free-floating anger at a flailing studio system hanging the shambles together. The picture takes place in a palatial hotel in the English countryside in the pre-vaccine phase of our current crisis. How strange to see that time so far in the rearview already, and yet still we muddle on. Nonetheless, it forces the fictional studio in this movie, in the midst of mounting the $100 million-budgeted production of the too-chintzy-to-believe Cliff Beasts 6, to lock its cast and crew in an isolation bubble. There’s a lot of wincing goofiness at the top as the cast assembles in masks for temperature tests, nasal swabs, and a two-week quarantine. And then they’re off, with sequences alternating between broad goofs on Hollywood egos and studio politics in front or behind the scenes, and even broader chafing against the COVID protocols on the other.

There’s much silliness made out of clashing actors—pompous leading men (David Duchovny), mumbling self-serious thespians (Pedro Pascal), ditzy leading ladies (Leslie Mann), lifestyle-brand floggers (Keegan-Michael Key), flailing aged ingenues (Karen Gillan), and a social media star (Iris Apatow). That last one has to be the funniest, with Apatow’s younger daughter nailing the spacey cadence and passionless dancing of a zoned-out TikTok influencer. (That her manager mom is played by the equally zonked-out, wide-eyed Maria Bamford makes perfect sense, and made me wish the she was in the movie more than her fleeting appearance. Maybe the whole movie should’ve just been about them? Hey, still could do a spin-off, right?) There’s also Fred Armisen as an indie director failing in a franchise, Peter Serafinowicz as the harried producer, Kate McKinnon as the heartless executive, and a host of other bit roles filled out by interesting or amusing presences like Maria Bakalova, Rob Delaney, and Daisy Ridley. Much is made out of safety zones, face shields, and positive tests, but just as much tepid farce about cooped up celebrities and harried crew members falling into hook ups and drug use and so on. Any sense of life outside this bubble fades fast, leaving the wasn’t-that-a-time material stale and distant and empty.

Apatow is always at his best with character portraits—Knocked Up, Trainwreck, The King of Staten Island—and less adept at the problems of the rich—This is 40. Yet strangely he’s done a great look at showbiz loneliness before in his best film—Funny People. Maybe it helped that it was set in the world of comedy, from stand-ups to writers to movie stars. He understood how to communicate the loneliness of life in this kind of success, and the yearning for a big break from those on the lower rungs. Here, in The Bubble, there’s no such understanding of how these enormous spectacles are actually made—scenes in the green screen spaces or with special effects handlers are weird guesstimates, scenes of the movies-within-the-movie don’t even rise to the level of convincing satire. and there are few attempts to make the characters people instead of caricatures. That leaves the movie with empty farce that does nothing but remind you that there’s still a novel virus tearing through our world and an unfunny movie about the problems of a bunch of fake people in rarified circumstances isn’t making the comments it thinks it is.

That’s not to say it’d be too early to make fun of Hollywood excesses against the backdrop of a global pandemic that’s still killing thousands a day. But the movie’s too scattershot to land its punches with any verve, and the screenplay is so dramatically inert and tepidly shot that it’s two pretty flat hours that crawl by. Besides, the characters are so excruciatingly thinly drawn that there’s nowhere for it to go, anyway. When the leading lady has her hand shot off by an overzealous security guard, well, I guess that’s just par for the course. There’s no sense of escalation to the silliness, so by the time we get there, it’s just one more thing. I don’t doubt Apatow’s genuine dissatisfaction with the soulless Hollywood machinery churning out stupider product in the midst of a fraught time. However, the movie isn’t built to bolster that claim, instead finding at most mild amusement as his cast of personalities bounce off of each other, and then frittering away any attempt to add it all up. This manages to make Apatow’s movie simultaneously a howl of frustration and a whine of privilege. The extent to which the movie’s aware of that fact is dialed up and down seemingly at random. How frustrating. It asks: how dare a studio give these people a lot of money to make something this stupid at a time like this? Ditto.

A new streaming movie that’s actually about what it feels like to work for a living these days is Belgium’s small, well-observed flight attendant drama, Rien à foutre, which can be translated as Zero Fucks Given. With a title like that, and the copious stories lately about belligerent passengers refusing to, say, wear a mask to prevent the spread of disease, you’d think the movie would be a wild, vulgar affair. Going in I was thinking it’d be something like Pedro Almodovar’s deliriously fizzy airplane comedy I’m So Excited by way of Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging’s pandemic satire. But the movie is actually a sensitive little character study about a lost young woman, adrift in the air and on the ground alike as she tries to make do. It’s mostly a pre-pandemic story—though everyone’s in masks in the final scene, a bittersweet way of marking time, to be sure. Its consistent mood of now-what? is spot on.

The focus is simply on sketching the contours of one woman’s life, and finds no build to any false conflict or cheap revelations. No Sundance sentiment or workplace sitcom here. There’s something real and lived-in at the center of the picture. The flight attendant works for a budget airline and is lost to a grinding routine—airports, drinks, clubs, and one-night stands, dating apps and Instagram. She’s making enough money to get by, and she dreams of someday getting better routes to more glamorous destinations, even as she smiles and sells drinks and manages passengers and tries to hit her quotas. She’s not unambitious, but she’s uninterested or unable to achieve liftoff. Even when her supervisor essentially forces her to apply for a promotion, she’s a little put off. She’s happy the way she is. Or, maybe not happy, but it’s what she knows. Even the corporate hoops are mere inconvenience, until they’re not. There are moments where her face fills the frame as a smile passes subtly, slowly from genuine to fake, and you feel her world shift underneath her.

Credit star Adèle Exarchopoulos, then, for keeping the movie aloft. Though filmmakers Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre, working from a screenplay they wrote in collaborations with Mariette Désert, bring a ring of specificity to attendants’ shifts and downtime alike, it’s the lead who lifts it to the level of engaging throughout. Fittingly, they keep the camera in tight close-ups and medium shots on her expressive face and body language, precise and casual, beautiful and troubled. Exarchopoulos, who made such a memorable presence as a hungry teenager in the lesbian coming-of-age drama Blue is the Warmest Color nearly a decade ago, here again makes a compelling center of attention. She appears to be good at her job—she listens, she’s polite, she endures demands and insults with some grace. But she also drinks—sometimes too close to flights—and has no interest in maintaining relationships. Friendships are restricted to her co-workers and seem to last just the duration of any given stay. Romances are ordered up on apps for a few hours at a time. Eventually, she ends up back home with some family for a while, and we get some added insight into reasons why she feels particularly at a loss to move on. There’s real sadness there. But also love.

And it’s not like she’s only miserable, exactly. Here’s a movie that understands the complicated feelings many young people have today about their work and their seemingly stalled pathways forward. She seems to get pleasures from her lifestyle, and can like her job from time to time, but there’s also that indescribable sense that there’s no clear way to get more out of it, or to escape these cycles. Exarchopoulos, enlivening a quiet charisma sinking under a facade of pleasantries or a layer of sleepy depression, knits these details together into one convincing portrait. By the end, she feels like a real person we’ve gotten to know, and the movie’s lack of resolution or even easy ambiguity feels like we’ve just left her, she and we still wondering what’s next. In a time when employees are looking for work to give them not only meaning and money, but dignity, too, here’s a movie about a woman slowly realizing she’s worth more than they, or she, might think.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Spare Parts: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and X

And now our most recent cycle of horror reboots comes for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 genre landmark. The 2022 iteration, called Texas Chainsaw Massacre (drop the article, close the space), ignores all other attempts to continue the original story in order to claim status as a real continuation, like David Gordon Green’s Halloweens. It catches up with Leatherface, the hulking masked brute wielding the murder weapon of the title, who is about to unleash terror once again after decades sitting dormant. You see, instead of youths in a van stumbling into a murderous family’s house in the middle-of-nowhere Texas, there are social media influencers coming to his small dead-end Texas town in hopes of revitalizing it. Easy targets, no? Director David Blue Garcia, from a screenplay in part by Fede Alvarez and collaborators who did the excellently vomitous Evil Dead reboot, uses the premise to stage a predictable slasher picture that never gets out of the shadow of its vastly superior inspiration.

It puts in a slick effort, though. Too slick is more like it. The new cast (like Sarah Yarkin, Elsie Fisher, and Jacob Latimore) is quickly characterized as troubled and idealistic youths. They’re waiting on a bus of tech investors and streaming stars to help them buy up the town, in the process accidentally displacing the unfortunate Leatherface. Eventually they’re joined by returning final girl Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouere), grey-haired and ready to fight, having evidently taken her lifestyle cues from Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie. (Isn’t it more than a little depressing that such thrilling survivors are constantly shown in these sort of follow-ups to be stuck in place waiting for a sequel well into their elderly years?) Garcia directs the ensemble through a routine number of slaughter sequences, with tons of splatter and viscera, including sloppy disembowelments and spraying decapitations, often carried out with bloody convincing and coldly detailed makeup effects that are certainly a mark of talented craft. But attempts to update its premise are laughable. One guy live-streaming Leatherface declares, “if you do anything, you’re cancelled, bro.” And there may be no more sad commentary on the drop from the original than a final moment riffing on the iconic back-of-the-pickup-truck gasp of cathartic laughing screams that trades it in for a Tesla self-driving into the sunset with its passenger staring helplessly back.

But these filmmakers run into the same problem that all who attempt to follow up the original eventually encounter. Their movies inevitably feel just like movies. Turns out, each new Massacre emphasizes all the more that Hooper’s original isn’t merely a movie, but an unreplicable nightmare. It’s a deceptively crafty work of extreme low-budget ingenuity that resulted in something that plays, to this day, as a work of filmmaking that feels less like a movie, and more dangerously real, with judicious gore, perfectly amateur performances that are plain and raw, and implied terrors so upsetting just outside the frame that the whole picture plays as if its jagged edges threaten to tear loose from the sprocket holes and burn away before our very eyes. Its smallness and its suggestion, combined with its seemingly unaffected naturalism and rough-hewn design, make it so purposely rough and unformed that it truly does feel like anything’s possible. There’s real danger in it. This latest attempt is simply a proficient gore machine, running through the motions, gliding easily down a path the original tore open. It is too neatly packaged to feel truly dangerous.

Far better to find inspiration in the raw materials and do something else. Take X, writer-director Ti West’s return to horror after a decade away. (He’s done lots of television episodes and one Western in the interim.) This effort is a neat genre exercise from an early practitioner of the throwback artisanal horror pictures that are all the rage of late. It’s also a good reminder that West is one of the better filmmakers with knowing how to do long-fuse horror. He takes a simple situation, populates it with a fun cast, and then gives it a few predictably unpredictable variables, drawing it out until, inevitably, the whole thing tips over into inescapable frights. His 2009 House of the Devil finds a babysitter falling into a Satanic plot. His 2011 The Innkeepers has two front desk clerks confronting their hotel’s possible haunting. He trusts his audience to like hanging out with his leads as the films wind their way to the genre’s demands. It’s no different with X, which sends a van of youths into rural Texas in 1979. How Chainsaw Massacre of them. They’re a group of amateur filmmakers planning to rent a guest barracks from a crotchety, ill-tempered elderly farmer and his confused wife. There, unbeknownst to the old couple, the group will shoot what they hope is their ticket to the big time: a pornographic feature called The Farmer’s Daughter. One would see the potential conflict on the horizon right away, even if the movie hadn’t started with a sheriff pulling up to the bloody aftermath of a mass murder on that very property before flashing back 24 hours. We know where this is going.

The film’s conceit locates the intersection between grungy horror and narrative porn, two types of variably disreputable filmmaking bubbling out of the midcentury indie film markets, built on teasing suspense, suggestive editing, and goading audience reactions with sudden explicit reveals. They each, in their eye-popping way, make use of what Berkeley film professor Linda Williams calls “the frenzy of the visible.” They’ve also long had the most, ahem, robust amateur scenes. Especially in the 70s’ regional cinemas (from whence we get Hooper as well as other horror-makers Romero and Craven and Raimi), both genres found purchase in the extremes of mainstream acceptability or just beyond—and, in retrospect, that both had viable theatrical models at the time is almost unbelievable to consider from their current cultural position. Back then, ambitious filmmakers could scrounge up a shoestring budget, and find their rough-hewn howls of creativity speckled with real ingenuity driven by a desire to grab attention. That’s what makes a breeding ground for greedy hucksters and thoughtful artists alike, bound together by exploitation concepts, dubious financing, and corner-cutting illegalities, ultimately becoming the foundation for the boom of American indies in the decades after.

By setting his new movie in the 70s, West sells it partially as a tribute to the entrepreneurial spirt of low-budget moviemaking. The director in the movie (Owen Campbell) says he wants to do more than give the audience what they want, experimenting with the editing “like the French do.” (West obliges, by giving X some stutter-step transitions between scenes and a beautifully ominous split-screen music montage rising action just before things go from bad to worse.) This independent filmmaker brings along his girlfriend (Jenna Ortega) to operate the sound equipment. She didn’t know what kind of movie they’d be making, and is off-put, but also a little surprised how much she likes seeing the performances in front of the camera. The smarmy producer (Martin Henderson) just wants to strike it rich, and make his fiancé (Mia Goth) a sex symbol. The other performers (Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi) just want to celebrate something they enjoy, and enjoy sharing. West shows us the satisfaction they all take with the creativity, not just the physical act, of their art. They enjoy framing shots and talking ideas for new scenes. They own up with a frankness to their pursuits, and are eager to have their work seen by the masses. After all, they say, why not have fun before they’re too old. “To the perverts!” they toast after their first day of filming, in a sequence of cozy camaraderie that the film’s promised bloodbath drawing closer makes inescapably melancholy.

The back half of X is devoted to the backgrounded creepiness of the old couple escalating to deadly consequences. This results in a series of creatively gross murder sequences, with bodies penetrated by knives and pitchforks and nails and gunfire and…well, I won’t spoil them all. The effects are good gooey gore, with the makeup work on wounds, torn flesh, and fragmented bones cringingly well-done. And the ways West builds suspense and release with jumps and twists—some people die in exactly the way it looks like they will, while others have more sudden or surprising exits—are satisfying in a jolting horror movie style. The more we see of the elderly duo who are resentful of these beautiful young libertines and only grow more so the more they see of them—quite literally—the more it’s clear they’re acting out of deeply repressed or thwarted desires of their own. West pushes a bit too hard on the fright factor of the elderly—I’m not sure wrinkly skin and various dermatological issues are as inherently icky as the movie leans on—but their behavior makes them suitably, pathetically villainous. Everyone has their role. Overall, it’s a horror movie in love with being a horror movie, playing with tropes throughout. There’s evident delight taken in setting up a charismatic cast we hate to see slaughtered and then admire how the filmmaker pulls it off. It may be no less predictable or derivative for it, but the affection shines through every satisfying twist of the plot—and the knife.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Kids These Days: THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE
and THE FALLOUT

It’s a shame the bottom fell out of the theatrical Young Adult books adaptation cycle as it was moving away from supernatural and dystopian metaphors and into more quotidian lived experiences. If it’s valuable for teenagers to see their emotions and concerns blown out into allegorical genre dimensions—and, at their best, the Twilights and Hunger Games and Divergents of the world hook into those with a sugar-high power—then surely it’s also worth exploring those same mindsets in something closer to real life. Somehow it’s been eight years since The Fault in Our Stars found bittersweet love between teen cancer patients, and got big box office in return. The years since have given us just a handful of similar efforts to take something serious teens might face in their actual lives and put them on screen. As good as something like The Hate U Give—about police brutality—or The Miseducation of Cameron Post—set at a gay conversion camp—can be, the majority of mainstream teen screen stories are now cheap Netflix rom-com programmers or distended cable series with preposterous coked up shock value. Sure, kids these days also have their flood of digital noise on TikTok and Snapchat, but those can be as unreal, and mind-numbing. I miss feature films that treat a young adult audience as, well, young adults.

Luckily Josephine Decker brings us The Sky is Everywhere, a picture of a grieving teenager that creates a close emotional association with its lead’s mental state. Here an artistic, musical, creative teenager (Grace Kaufman) misses her recently departed older sister like a phantom limb. She aches for her presence. They’d been living with their grandmother (Cherry Jones) since the death of their mother some years prior. She asks her uncle (Jason Segel), her mother’s brother, if grief ever goes away. He looks at her warmly and answers: I don’t think so. Here’s a movie that’s honest about its situations, even as the screenplay, adapted by Jandy Nelson from her novel, loads itself up with YA turns of dramatic and romantic complications. There’s a cute new boy in school (Jacques Colimon). There’s her sister’s ex-boyfriend (Pico Alexander). There are friends to chat and classes to attend and futures to plan. It leaps between these peaks of teen drama and finds the shadow valleys of mourning between.

But what keeps the movie above the routine of such things is Decker’s commitment to visualizing her main character’s active mind. Like in her previous pictures—the loose artistic tension of Madeline’s Madeline and the stormy grit of Shirley—style follows from psychological cues. When the lead moves into her flights of fancy, colors are over-cranked, backgrounds can turn into dioramas, montage might become magical realism, flourishes of dance or poetry performance can fill the frame. Befitting her musical abilities, the score might be intrusive, or fade away. This makes for a movie that’s not overstuffed with quirk, but instead fancifully interior, an outpouring of precocious passionate imagination and surging adolescent curiosities and urges. It wisely meets its lead and its prospective audience where they are, and then, through its ability to add shading and texture to its side characters—Jones especially has a moving moment of perspective-bringing near the end—help them grow beyond.

Another new movie that’s a picture of teenage grief is The Fallout. A finely realized debut feature for writer-director Megan Park, heretofore best known for a role on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, the movie is less dreamy and sad than Decker’s. Instead, it’s teetering on an edge with depression and despair. But it’s so tenderly observed and warmly sympathetic to its characters that it understands all-too-well the difficulties they have readjusting to something like normal in the wake of a tragedy. One gets the sense in the opening scenes that it would be an appealing, low-key high school coming-of-age dramedy if not for the swerve into an unexpected awful event. Isn’t that always the case with these moments? It begins with a teenage girl (Jenna Ortega) talking with her sister (Lumi Pollack) and parents (John Ortiz and Julie Bowen), with friends and acquaintances and teachers (Will Ropp, Christine Horn). It’s the start of a normal day. She ends up in the restroom during class—avoiding class, really—and talks to a more popular classmate (Maddie Ziegler). That’s when they hear gunfire in the hallway. Screams. Slams. They hide. It seems to last forever, but then…that’s it. It’s over. They survived. Their school, their classmates, themselves, are now just another statistic.

The school shooting movie has, sadly, become something of a tradition now. It reflects the way this has been allowed to become a grim fact of life. In our politics, we hear an awful lot of whining about the supposedly deleterious effects of something like wearing a mask to go to school during a global pandemic. These complaints are usually coming from the same people who have never had anything meaningful to say about the far worse effects of getting shot to death in school. So here it is in the movies. Gus Van Sant’s floating camera in 2003’s Elephant and Denis Villeneuve’s grainy black-and-white 2009 Polytechnique make intense in-the-moment works of dread and violence. Last year’s Mass was a talky, probing look at parents grappling with deaths of this nature years later. Recent documentary Bulletproof shows the preparation for the possibility of such events—lockdown drills, kevlar backpacks or hoodies, potential classroom fortifications—as just another back-to-school routine, cut into its flowing montage of teacher trainings, band practices, sports drills, and assemblies. How sad that we’ve had over twenty years of reactions to mass deaths like these and protests against the very gun laws that encourage such destruction, and yet little has changed. What The Fallout brings to the conversation is not the violence, which is largely implied, but a softer touch and intimate detail, keyed into its leads’ numbed aimlessness in the aftermath.

Ortega takes center stage in tight focus for a character who is convincingly drawn. She expertly plays teen angst as a sort of normal acting out refracted through her vulnerable and raw post-trauma days and weeks as she claws back to a sense of self. There’s something convincing when she throws a thrashing little “God, mom!!!” flailing fit, and in the way she and Ziegler become friends bonded by their survival. They clung to each other as the chaos boomed outside; now they cling together to make it through. They’re contrasts—Ortega loose and swimming in baggy clothes, Ziegler clenched and poised in tight outfits as an Insta glamour princess—but connected. An early scene in which they text back and forth late at night is expert at conjuring that sort of intimacy—a flurry of closeups of eyes, fingertips, ellipses. And then they’re back to school, back to friends, trying to find their way in a string of episodic moments. By turning the mechanisms of a gentle Hollywood slice-of-teen-life style on the wake of a mass shooting, it makes a bitter sting of grief and hopelessness all the more affecting.

The film sees how the tragedy works its way through the community of characters, and watches as its impact shifts dynamics, closes off some old habits, and opens up new avenues of potential harm and growth alike. Bowen and Ortiz bring good detail to shaken, frustrated, and loving parents, while the other young actors sell a wide range of responses. Most telling, perhaps, are a few scenes where Ortega visits a sympathetic counselor played by Shailene Woodley. Aside from making viewers of a certain age feel old that this former Fault and Secret Life star has now aged enough to play one of the grown-ups, there’s an interesting disconnected connection Woodley and Ortega forge, with one’s insistence that things might get better personally, and the other’s looking at society around her with justified suspicions. I hope the potential young audience for this movie takes away some of these visions of humanity, and recognize something true in it.