Wednesday, April 27, 2022


"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:

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:

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


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


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


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.

Monday, April 4, 2022

This Anti-Hero Sucks: MORBIUS

People were down on Morbius since it was first announced, as if the idea of making a mid-tier Spider-Man villain the star of his own debut, disconnected solo movie was patently ridiculous. When superhero comics are strip-mined for every part that might make a movie or TV show, because they’re currently the only projects making huge bucks at the box office or drawing big audiences to streamers at a reliable rate (or so they say), one can’t exactly be surprised that a Marvel character who’s a living vampire wouldn’t make some executives’ pocketbooks perk up. This has to be especially true of the folks at Sony, who are riding high off the success of two Venom movies, which also spun non-Spidey stories out of that comic’s web of side characters. When fanboys scoff and meme about this particular movie, as if other Marvel movies aren't commercially minded brand decisions, well, they certainly are capable of massive cognitive dissonance.  

So here we are with Morbius. Shrug off the negative hype and see it for what it is: a decent little programmer, an unfussy little monster movie that plugs into the woe-is-me, tortured-creature thing that works well enough for it, even if it’s drowning in overfamiliar plot moves. Director Daniel Espinosa knows a thing or two about making derivative B-grade studio fare classed up with some fine casting and cleanly-cut action. His space-station-set sci-fi chiller Life is a cramped little Alien riff, and his Safe House lets Denzel Washington run circles around Ryan Reynolds in shaky bruising violence. Are they cliche genre pictures? Certainly. But they go down easy because Espinosa makes the elements play like well-oiled machines. So he knows how to make Morbius bubble to life with some attention to component parts—the tragic backstory, the fatal flaws, the dogged detectives, the arch-rival, the doomed lover—and casts well enough. The picture crawls to sufficient life, ambulating the cliches into something like minor popcorn pleasures.

The film finds Dr. Michael Morbius, genius inventor of cool blue synthetic blood, hard at work on a cure for his rare blood disease. One thing leads to another and, whoops, he’s a vampire now, sucking down his own invention until he sniffs out the superpowered benefits of the real thing. Jared Leto is awfully convincing as an aloof creep, who sometimes does good work, but also has everyone who is aware of him side-eying his decisions. His monster posture and pained expressions are a perfect camp match to his lunging for his blood bags and sucking them down like a Capri-Sun. The supporting cast includes Jared Harris as a conflicted older doctor, Matt Smith as a friend and fellow patient who turns villainous, and Al Madrigal and Tyrese Gibson as FBI agents hot on the trail of a rash of vampire attacks. Gee, who could that be? All involved elevate their stock material ever so slightly through sheer will, screen presence, and knowing how to sell the silliness.

The whole thing is too small to build to any real spectacle., but that’s almost refreshing in its dim, short, simple way. The basic story beats are hit with a steady plunk, and build to a reasonable one-on-one vampire fight. Along the way, effects like rippling sound waves and tendrils of supernatural senses pop in neat-enough comic book poses. And in the end, I did sorta care to find out if Morbius would get to save his love interest (Adria Arjona) from a fate worse than death and stop the villain from giving vampires a bad name. There’s some genuine poignancy to his dilemmas, and you can feel the better monster movie straining to get out. 

The screenplay may be a pileup on the trope highway, but there’s some actual feeling and imagination in its creaky premise. It’s worse the more it tries to be a standard modern superhero movie—never more so than its dire end-credits scenes nonsensically teasing surreally forced connections. And yet that’s what the people say they want? (Leave before you can see them unless you have morbid curiosity.) It’s better when it’s own little thriller, leaning into its own preoccupations, doodling in its own world. And it’s certainly a better bit of junk cinema than so many others of its ilk that mistake a traffic jam of cameos and references to a story. You know the ones.

Sunday, April 3, 2022


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.