Saturday, March 11, 2023

Jurassic World: 65

It may be a slow slog through a prehistoric jungle, but at least Adam Driver is there. The premise behind 65, named after how many millions of years in the past it’s set, finds a spaceship pilot crashing on Earth on the last day of the dinosaurs. He’s all set to off himself in despair until he realizes there’s one other survivor: a little girl (Ariana Greenblatt). Together they have to trudge across the wilderness, dodge a few dinosaurs, and get to the escape pod before the asteroid hits. Not a bad idea. In practice, the movie is sluggish and sparse, with a meager number of dino-related suspense moments and lots of slow-boil, largely dialogue-free, character interactions as the glum Driver and the girl—who don’t speak the same language—inevitably learn an ad hoc way to communicate and, wouldn’t you know it, care about each other. Driver is one of our finest actors, and though the movie gives him little to work with verbally or contextually, he’s able to use an expressive physicality that allows him to glower and smolder and sink into grief far more believable than what’s on the page. Imagine, say, a Tom Holland in the role, and I don’t know if it works as well. No offense to him.

It’s through Driver's performance—moving in a slow-motion, underwater sadness—that it becomes clear the movie is yet another modern genre effort that’s an extended metaphor for depression. His character is in a state of mourning for his home life—filled in with flashbacks—and in despair over his crashed fate. Only the glimmer of duty in protecting and caring for another person keeps him barely invested in staying alive and moving forward. No coincidence, then, that writer-directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (cashing in on their big hit Quiet Place screenplay) have set the stage at the end of one era in our planet’s history and beginning of the next. By the time the movie arrives at its fiery conclusion, with asteroid pieces raining hellfire down on the prehistoric landscape as our characters make their last-minute attempt at escape, there’s something potent about the idea of a desperate climb out of one’s sadness—it’s either the end, or a new start. I just wished, for a movie about a spaceman trapped in dinosaur times, there were more use of that tension throughout. There are a few fleeting moments of effective creature feature skill—a tyrannosaurus rex ominously illuminated in the night by a lightening strike, a few jump scares with snarling teeth and looming claws—but the movie strangely underplays its own high concept. All the more accurate for its aims to make us feel Driver’s disappointment, I suppose.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Taking Another Stab: SCREAM VI

Scream VI works on two levels, as befits an entry in this series of slasher meta-commentaries. The first is as a bloody mystery, a cast slashed to gory bits one by one as a way of ruling out suspects until a grand splattery finale reveals all. The second is slyer, as a movie about characters who are really tired of being in this series. When Jenna Ortega, a survivor from the last one, turns to her sister (Melissa Barrera), a fellow carryover from 5, to fatalistically ask when, or if, she can simply be a normal person again, I felt that exhausted sadness. She’s over it. Later, a victim bleeding profusely from the abdomen will turn to look practically straight down the camera and mutter, “fuck this franchise.” Oh, not this one, per se. In the world of the Screams, their real slaughters have been regularly turned into the series-within-the-series of Stab movies. Its a neat ouroboros, sometimes too neatly fan-flattering, here turned into something like a lament. The movie’s world is ever more full of costumes and posters, having thoroughly commodified the traumas our characters drag around with them. Talk about intrusive thoughts. Their whole world is intrusive, and this movie is sharp enough to realize, in our modern moment, the internet facilitates that. It hasn’t just made pop culture fandoms louder; it’s made true crime and conspiracy theories part of them, and a form of social currency among the know-nothings who flatter themselves amateur truth-tellers. It’s its own brand of hell those caught in the center of tragedy can’t escape.

Here’s a movie about survivors threatened once again by the Ghostface Killer, this time in New York City, with yet another villain’s elaborate plot to draw blood from the old familiar tropes. They’re menaced by the ghost of sequels present. It’s tense and twisty and violent and funny, and well-paced, balanced, and framed. It stands comfortably with the best of the series, albeit without the late Wes Craven’s human touch balancing mean-spirited cleverness with genuine feelings for its victims. Still, this one’s very best moments—of tender connection, of honest emotion, of sisterly bonding or genuine first-blushes of romance—hook into a similar place. Returning directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick redeem the worst routine dissatisfying notes of their previous attempt at sequalizing the once-dormant franchise by using this effort to turn their newer characters from stock repeats into something closer to understandable individuals. (Even the legacy characters who appear (namely Courtney Cox and Hayden Panettiere) and the fresh faces (Dermot Mulroney, Liana Liberato, and Jack Champion) step into something closer to believable focus akin to the series’ Craven efforts.) The movie runs them back through the machinery of its punishing plot, and wrings enjoyment out of it, even as it sees the whole slasher cycle as a curse its characters are doomed to relive every few years until the box office appetite for these cools off again.

Sunday, March 5, 2023


All hail junk movies! This has been a particularly good couple months for low-expectations genre pictures. If the health of the movie industry, and theatrical distribution, can be measured in the sheer number of simple, passably diverting matinee programmers, then 2023 is already looking up. It has given us, variously, killer robots and missing persons and bad flights and a drugged-up bear. Are these great movies? No. But they deliver on their modest promises, and sometimes that’s exactly enough.

Take M3gan, for instance, a killer robot movie pulled off with some panache. It stars Allison Williams as a workaholic toy designer who gets custody of her orphaned niece. To cheer the child up, she brings home a prototype of her latest device—a life-sized A.I. doll in the form of a tween with dead eyes and blonde bangs. The expensive toy takes its programming to protect her new owner a little too seriously. Soon it’s slipping loose from the bounds of its algorithms and hunting down snarling dogs and sneering bullies. There’s not even an iota of suspense as to where it’s all going—it’s a robot-amuck slasher in form, and a cracked Amblin family story in mode, with a bit of arch genre play in its tone. But the telling is fun, with committed performances, particularly from Williams’ frosty yuppie, her cute, sympathetic ward, and the eerie smooth gestures and seamless contortions of the dancer-like stunts from the eponymous robot. There’s even a soupçon of Silicon Valley cynicism to her tech giant’s willingness to crash through ethical concerns to get M3GAN to market. They’d wish they hadn’t, if they live to tell the tale. You couldn’t claim the movie is a fount of originality, but it does precisely what it sets out to do and does it well enough. That’s a fine matinee.

The latest all-on-a-computer-screen movie is Missing, yet another in what could be on its way to its own neat little sub-genre. The best of them remains 2015’s spooky haunted-Skype-call Unfriended, which is exactly as unsettling as the internet and its effects on our young people can be. This new one comes from the screenwriters who brought you the desktop thriller Searching, a movie with John Cho, in a fine performance, stretching credulity by having an improbable number of tabs open and FaceTimes running while looking for his vanished daughter. Leave it to Missing to get a better balance, partly because its Gen-Z lead (Storm Reid) is the one looking for her MIA mom (Nia Long), and partly because everyone knows this is an overheated mystery. It’s mostly compelling all the way through, as Reid clicks around through Gmail accounts and TaskRabbit prompts, scrolls through TikToks and Snapchats and Venmos, and stumbles onto some pretty lurid twists that are pleasingly shocking. And there’s a moderately clever resolution, too, that uses the logic of its technological screen-based gadgetry for a fine finale.

In Plane, Gerard Butler plays a pilot who’d make nervous fliers in the audience feel a little bit better about their next trip. After all, if the guy flying the plane would go through all this to save his passengers, then surely he can safely get you to Detroit on time. The movie finds Butler’s study blue-collar professionalism well-matched for a simple thriller. His plane gets hit by lightening, and he miraculously lands safely on an obscure island ruled by brutal pirates who’d love to have some hostages. Tough luck. The movie then devotes itself to hoping the passengers can dodge violent dangers while the pilot attempts to call help and repair the vehicle for an emergency escape route. The picture itself is merely functional thriller mechanics in style and pace and script, but the professionalism on screen makes it work. Butler is a believably sturdy man of action, a regular guy who can stumble through a fist-fight with the best of them. He’s weary, but worthy. The others in the cast support well, from the anonymous growling villains (a touch stereotypical, perhaps), to the passenger with a shady past willing to help take up arms (Mike Colter), to the guy in the command center back home (Tony Goldwyn). It’s one of those movies that barely feels like its working, but doesn’t not work either, and then has me thinking “go-go-go!” by the time the thing’s about to attempt take off.

Elizabeth Banks directs Cocaine Bear with a cheerful disregard for the value of human life, and, all things considered, a fairly permissive and blasé attitude toward cocaine. (When one innocent kid admits to having sniffed a little, a motherly nurse says, “ah, you’ll probably be fine.”) It’s loosely—looooosely—based on a true story about a 1985 drug runner who dumped his stash in a state park, and then a mama bear got high on it. This telling makes her into a CG serial killer, which makes the movie a bit of a cartoony goofball slasher picture, with a wide range of buffoonish characters traipsing around until they’re inevitably mauled in a variety of half-suspenseful sequences. On one side you get the likes of Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson hamming it up with big comedy energy. On the other you have Keri Russel and the late Ray Liotta acting more or less like it’s a straight drama. Straddling both approaches are Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. They all are serious-ish, but know where the jokes are, and toss them at unexpected angles. I suppose they need all of the above to pull off such a strange mix, with sloshing sentimentality and pitiless gore and a queasily sliding morality. That it works at all in its base, dumb way is credit to Banks’ willingness to commit to the strange premise, and the workmanlike excellence of a talented cast and crew that you rarely catch condescending to the material.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Other Bests of 2022

Best Cinematography (Film):
The Fabelmans
The Northman
White Noise

Best Cinematography (Digital):
The Batman
Top Gun: Maverick

Best Sound:
Top Gun: Maverick
The Woman King

Best Stunts:
The Batman
Thirteen Lives
Top Gun: Maverick
The Woman King

Best Costumes:
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
The Northman
Three Thousand Years of Longing
The Woman King

Best Hair and Makeup:
Crimes of the Future
The Northman
Three Thousand Years of Longing

Best Set/Art Direction:
Armageddon Time
Crimes of the Future
The Northman
Three Thousand Years of Longing

Best Editing:
The Fabelmans
Mr. Bachmann and His Class
Thirteen Lives

Best Visual Effects:
Avatar: The Way of Water
The Batman
The Northman
Top Gun: Maverick

Best Score:
The Fabelmans
Turning Red

Best Original Song:
“Hold My Hand” — Top Gun: Maverick
“Naatu Naatu” — RRR
“Nobody Like U” — Turning Red
“On My Way” — Marry Me
“Stars at Noon” — Stars at Noon

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Fire Island
Glass Onion
Thirteen Lives
Three Thousand Years of Longing

Best Original Screenplay:
The Banshees of Inisherin
Crimes of the Future
The Fabelmans

Best Non-English Language Film:
Decision to Leave
Mr. Bachmann and His Class

Best Documentary Film:
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Mr. Bachmann and His Class
Three Minutes: A Lengthening
We Met in Virtual Reality
We Need to Talk About Cosby

Best Animated Film:
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Mad God
Strange World
Turning Red

Best Supporting Actor:
Paul Dano — The Fabelmans
Brendan Gleason — The Banshees of Inisherin
Tom Hanks — Elvis
Ke Huy Quan — Everything Everywhere All at Once
Justin Long — Barbarian

Best Supporting Actress:
Frankie Corio — Aftersun
Nina Hoss — TÁR
Lea Seydoux — Crimes of the Future
Uma Thurman — Hollywood Stargirl
Michelle Williams — The Fabelmans

Best Actor:
Austin Butler — Elvis
Colin Farrell — The Banshees of Inisherin
Daniel Kaluuya — Nope
Paul Mescal — Aftersun
Viggo Mortensen — Crimes of the Future

Best Actress:
Cate Blanchett — TÁR
Viola Davis — The Woman King
Mia Goth — Pearl
Zoe Kravitz — Kimi
Keke Palmer — Nope

Best Director:
Ron Howard — Thirteen Lives
Jordan Peele — Nope
Gina Prince-Bythewood — The Woman King
Steven Spielberg — The Fabelmans
Charlotte Wells — Aftersun

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2022

  1. Aftersun
  2. The Fabelmans
  3. Mr. Bachmann and His Class
  4. Nope
  5. Thirteen Lives
  6. Crimes of the Future
  7. The Woman King
  8. Elvis
  9. Kimi
  10. Turning Red

Honorable Mentions:
After Yang; All the Beauty and the Bloodshed; Ambulance; Armageddon Time; Avatar: The Way of Water; The Banshees of Inisherin; Barbarian; Confess, Fletch; Decision to Leave; The Fallout; Fire Island; Glass Onion; Happening; Lightyear; Mad God; The Northman; Pearl; Rien à foutre; Rothaniel; RRR; The Sky is Everywhere; “Sr.”; Stars at Noon; Strange World; TÁR; Three Minutes: A Lengthening; Three Thousand Years of Longing; Ticket to Paradise; Top Gun: Maverick; We Met in Virtual Reality; We Need to Talk About Cosby; White Noise; X

 Other 2022 Bests


For those of us who complain the superhero spectacles of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are getting rote and bland, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania acknowledges our complaints with the sight of a supervillain admitting, of the Avengers, “they all blur together after a while.” Credit director Peyton Reed, then, for trying to keep his Ant-Man adventures a little distinct. The first two had their chintzy cross-overs and obligatory mega-franchise stewardship, but also had some panache as flimsy heist movies in which people and objects shrink and grow in clever, silly ways. This one plunges headfirst into a relatively straightforward adventure. Paul Rudd’s eponymous hero accidentally gets pulled into the Quantum Realm with his daughter (Kathryn Newton), his superhero girlfriend, Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), and her parents (Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer). The movie’s just about a journey to an exit that takes them through weird landscapes and kooky designs—talking goo, living buildings, fuzzily CG’d big-headed robot flunkies—on a collision course with an exiled multi-verse hopping conqueror. That’s Jonathan Majors’ Kang, last seen in the pretty fun Season 1 of Loki. This variant of the villain hopes to use Ant-Man tech to escape his sub-atomic prison. The result is diverting enough, a straightforward adventure through computer effects. 

It’s what, in the olden days, might’ve been a stop-motion odyssey through loosely adapted Greek myths or recreations of Jules Verne’s deep dives. Here, though, this weekend matinee approach is given over to Jack Kirby creatures in a vaguely Star Wars-ian side-quest plot captive to the MCU house style of functional blocking and brightly-lit fantasy. It strands likable actors in warehouse-sized virtual environments and has them interact with ping-ponging zaps and splats. The stakes are simple and the emotions paint-by-numbers—Rudd wants to protect his daughter; the rest want to help; the villain schemes and steams. But I found the whole project pleasant enough, at least less of a calamity than certain recent Marvel jumbles. It’s all of a piece, a direct line from beginning to end with a coherent energy and a streamlined style. I especially liked the easygoing heroes’ contrast with the heavy charisma of Majors, who sells the antagonist with enough sturdy screen presence that I won’t mind seeing him pop up in a half-dozen more of these. And Reed is allowed a few fine visual gambits—from a clever no-man’s land of multiplying possibilities that leaves a gazillion Ant-Men swarming on screen, to a reasonably satisfying ant-ex-machina to save the day. Sure, the MCU projects all blur together, but this one’s hardly the biggest failure.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Love at First Slight:

Movies should more often be about beautiful people falling in love. It’s one of the most pleasurable plots cinema has to offer. When a movie can make you root for appealing celebrity performers twinkling with charm to finally get on the same wavelength to swoon and smooch, that’s a magic no effects can buy. I, like most who came of age cinematically in the 90s, have a particular affection for that era’s brand of romantic comedy artifice: high-gloss and high-concept, shot in big bright urban spaces and glamorously implausible apartments, and loaded up with reasonably clever banter and pop montages. When all of that is working at a decent clip, what more could you want? We don’t get that enough these days, especially in theaters where the comedy of any sort is a dying breed, and the rom-com leading the way out to the streaming services. That’s why last fall’s Ticket to Paradise was an oasis in this genre desert. How pleasant an afternoon to sit with an appreciative crowd and watch stars pantomime an inevitable slide in romance. Credit Netflix for trying to keep this sort of movie alive, I suppose, although a decent evening home is no substitute for the crowd when it’s a clear crowd-pleaser on screen. They have two new, prominent ones out now, and they each make for a good watch.

I had an amiable time with Your Place or Mine, the directorial debut of screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna. She’s the voice behind The Devil Wears Prada and Morning Glory, so she knows her way around a charming studio movie of this scale. It stars genre vets Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher as longtime pals who once, in their younger years, might’ve been more than that. They live on opposite coasts, though, and therefore have an entirely call-and-text based friendship. Circumstances contrive to get them to swap houses for a week—he moving into her LA home to supervise her teenage son while she’s crashing in his New York apartment during a business trip. As with Sleepless in Seattle, it makes the most of the continental separation to stretch this romantic tension. But by keeping up their phone chats—in perfunctory split-screen that could’ve used a bit more Pillow Talk cleverness— while settled in the trappings of the other’s routine, they slowly and unknowingly edge back toward their earlier romantic possibilities. Witherspoon and Kutcher can crank up the charm in their voices, even as their eyes sparkle and they slide through the genre’s usual paces. The result is cute and sweet and full of the usual cast of supporting eccentrics of clever friends, oddball neighbors, and other potential partners (Tig Notaro, Steve Zahn, Rachel Bloom, Zoe Chao, Jesse Williams, and more). This is a soft and comfortable version of this sort of movie, with just enough charm to keep proceedings pleasant.

There’s a bit more superficial edge to Kenya Barris’s You People, but it comes around to a satisfyingly sickly sweet sentimentality in the end. It’s the feature debut of the prolific sitcom writer best known for Black-ish, and treads some similar water angling into modern race relations while brushing past class. Co-writer Jonah Hill stars as a Jewish podcaster who falls for a Black Muslim costume designer (Lauren London). Would you believe meeting the parents becomes a rolling social satire once the couple decides to get married? This Apatowian riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner gets most of its comic energies here. Hill’s parents are cringingly well-meaning liberals who are so flop-sweat desperate to appear accepting that they circle all the way around to offensive. Played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny, they are devastatingly awkward in scenes that stretch their niceties to clumsy outrages on the regular. Even better are London’s parents. Mother Nia Long side-eyes like a pro and jabs with cutting quips. Her father is Eddie Murphy, who can still take a so-so line of dialogue into the stratosphere of hilarity through nothing more than sheer charismatic commitment. In a supporting cast full of funny people (every role, down to the smallest is cast with amusing figures), he’s the biggest reason to see the movie. His constant testing of Hill is a fine, funny skewering, from needling the young man about the title of a rap song to backing him into blustering corners by pressing about the specifics of books it’s clear Hill hasn’t read. The whole thing builds to the mistaken breakups and inevitable apologies and the lovey reconciliation. (And a dance party over the credits, natch.) It errs on the side of sitcom styling, and is gilded with stylistic tics in scattershot establishing shots, but has an ear for honest stumbling conversations that erupt in big punchlines at a good, regular clip. I could imagine a packed theater crowd rolling with satisfied laughter, and maybe sniffling a bit at the finale.

Sunday, February 12, 2023


Somehow Steven Soderbergh knew a perfect idea for a third Magic Mike movie would be to make it a sexier Step Up movie. After all, star Channing Tatum began his film stardom with the first in that dance-battle series, and his smooth moves have been a feature of the Mikes since their inception. Here’s a series about a frustrated artist. The first film found his dream of making custom furniture an increasingly appealing exit strategy from the world of Miami’s male strip clubs. That was a downbeat but buoyantly portrayed character study. The sequel freed Mike and his friends from the club, and allowed them to stretch out as dancers—albeit still with an edge—in a rambling road trip of self-actualization through male bonding and feminine pleasure. That was a freewheeling and effervescent character comedy, a fine extension of the first while finding a new mode in which to operate. It’s only fitting a third in this shape-shifting series would be different all over again.

Which brings us to Magic Mike’s Last Dance. This threequel is totally different in tone and mood from its predecessors. It’s more romantic, and sparklier with Hollywood artifice, a sweet- and soft-hearted tip of the hat to the same old fashioned put-on-a-show energy that drove a sturdy Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland picture back in the day (or the Step Ups, more recently). Mike is out of the game, gigging as a bartender, when a fabulously wealthy Londoner (Salma Hayek Pinault) hears rumors of his previous life. Impressed by his moves—she gets a slow, sensual private show—she hires him on the spot to choreograph a dance revue for a fabulous theater she’s getting in a divorce from her gazillionaire media mogul husband. Curtain’s up in a month. He’ll have a lot of work to do as he…steps up to the new challenge.

Soderbergh is expert at showing us people at work. It’s why he’s so well-suited to stories of heists and negotiations, attentive as he is to the surfaces of jargon and routine and planning, and the ways they reveal character. Here he gives us some of the casting and rehearsal and stage-directing process. But he’s mostly interested in the ways building this show brings out the best in Mike, in a movie that’s celebrating dance’s ability to make people feel good. There’s less of the male stripper milieu—almost not at all—and more of the razzle-dazzle of the sheer pleasure of bodies in motion. It’s a dance movie! There’s a troupe of talented dancers, characterized only by their signature moves, and assembled to writhe and roll to the rhythms of pounding pop. And it gets plenty sexy by the end, in a dance in the rain with a barely-dressed ballerina and Mike down to his tight briefs, a climax amid climax in a fun final act that’s devoted entirely to the show. It’s the way there that builds the anticipation with fizz and delight, as Soderbergh, with a good eye for the way light dances off faces and bodies can pose across the frame, builds a relaxed and mature movie that’s nonetheless as serious about its lightness as a middle-aged romance can be. That’s work, too.

Tatum and Hayek spark well together, each able to turn on smolder in close-ups and stretch out in long shots, as their characters’ incompatible compatibility pushes and pulls on the possibility of staging this one-night-only event. They’re surrounded by potentially stock characters quickly sketched and well-played with charm and believability—the cranky old butler, the precious teenager daughter, the stuffed-shirt ex-husband, the frumpy city worker, the crinkly old casting director, the feisty young actress. Because the movie cares about these people, and wants to see the power of dance bring them all together for a moment of release, the finale pays off big. I believed they’d all leave smiling because so did I.

Saturday, February 11, 2023


There’s an intensity borne from earnestness in the films of M. Night Shyamalan. In his latest, Knock at the Cabin, the world is ending. Multiple cataclysmic events are piling up. One family, on vacation, unaware of the lurking global catastrophes, are about to offered an awful choice with the claim that it’s the only way to stop what’s already starting. No devotee of M. Night Shyamalan will be surprised that Cabin juxtaposes apocalyptic stakes with the sentimentality of familial love. He’s as open-hearted a genre filmmaker as ever there was one, using his total control of the camera for total emotional sincerity in his high-concept stories. This can cause discomfort in some audiences—shrinking back from such nakedly earnest emotional appeals, in which characters plainly pour out their souls. But it makes for such fascinating movies! He believes in his fictions, and in characters succumbing to theirs. At his best, it makes for tightly-controlled, high-concept thrillers wound around moving motivations and implications.

His films care deeply about the strength of family bonds, the sincerity of belief, and takes seriously the spiritual dimensions of genre dilemmas. Consider the doubting spirituality in Signs, in which a broken man of faith must find within himself the power to protect his family against unknowable otherworldly threat. Or the children held back by the rituals of their protective parents as the community bands together against the evils lurking in the woods beyond in The Village. Or the grounded superhero fictions trembling with violent real-world implications for parents and children in Unbreakable and Glass. Or the way time inevitably pulls parents and children apart even as it binds them together in Old. In Cabin, the family unit—two husbands and an eight-year-old daughter—is besieged by apparent fanatics whose ominous behaviors are said to result from prophetic visions. These harbingers of doom plead with the family to sacrifice for the greater good. Wouldn’t we all like to think we would? But, when told they must choose among their family for a human sacrifice, that choice is immediately difficult to even begin to contemplate.

The upsetting concept is inherently claustrophobic—captives and captors alike stuck in one small cabin while considering one tragic end or another. Shyamalan shoots dialogue in intense close-ups, tightly held on faces in long, lingering looks that fully take in the humanity of all involved. It’s uneasy, a tremulous tension held in the uncertainty of outcome balanced on the certainty of the telling. There’s a quasi-religious fervor to the invaders. Led by Dave Bautista in a rumblingly sensitive performance—is there a better actor working today at looking a muscular threat while speaking in a gentle softness?—these mismatched dangers confess to sharing visions—or are they delusions? They talk with soft-spoken fervor of their mission, and plead for their victims to heed the warning and make the choice. The family is tied up for most of the movie, wrestling with that question. One husband (Ben Aldridge) is resolutely convinced these antagonists are full of it. The other (Jonathan Groff) is afraid they’re starting to sound believable. Their daughter (Kristen Cui) is adorable and instantly sympathetic—sizing up the situation without being precocious. She’s aware of the dangers, sheltered from the worst of it, and willing to trust in her fathers’ resolve. The film rests on the question of who to believe, and, once believed, what must be done. It’s about the strength of a family’s love in the face of the potential apocalypse, and the necessarily painful nature of sacrifice. It’s all written in their eyes.

This is one of Shyamalan’s saddest movies, suffused with an eerie melancholy. Almost immediately, the conflict kicks in and the film knows life can never go back to how it was—for any of them. The suspense is pushed along by escalating violence, but it’s carefully composed bloodshed, more suggested and more unsettling for it. The ritualistic nature of its killings are given a nasty pull of inevitability and gathering force. And yet the fanatics are so matter-of-fact and sorrowful about it—they cry and lament and choke back vomit—that it makes their fantastical story of impending doom all the more believable. It’s hooked into a vivid spirituality that’s a sincere belief in the potential redemptive powers within all of us—for connection, for reconciliation, for transformative love, and for self-sacrifice. That leaves a movie that’s tremendously unresolved, and ends on a note that may or may not allow space for triumph or release, since it’s committed to leaving its characters in traumatized grief no matter the ultimate outcome.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Hollywood is Burning: BABYLON

Damien Chazelle’s approach to Hollywood history in Babylon is right there in the title. He’s clearly winking toward Kenneth Anger’s gossipy book Hollywood Babylon, known for salacious rumor-mongering that cemented all manner of misinformation and falsehoods in certain corners of cinephilic imagination. Chazelle, like Anger, is interested more in the shock value, in the hurtling sensations of exposition and exhibition, than in getting the detail right. In this new three-hour epic of depraved farce and nihilistic sentimentality, Chazelle is piling on the excrement of scandal and sensationalism. It opens in the late 1920s, with an elephant pushed up a hill by a lowly assistant at the request of his hitherto unseen studio boss. We get an extreme close up of the frightened animal loosening its bowels. The sound design goes all in on the wet plops as enormous turds rain down onto the poor man below. Hollywood, the movie says in this opening sequence, is a lot of wading through muck to get to the top. It’s also, as we see in the next scene, with cavorting partiers engaging in kinky sex and snorting drugs and wailing to cool jazz trumpets, about having such a wild time it’s a wonder the movies ever get made at all. By the time the elephant literally crashes the party, distracting the revelers from the dead woman carried out the back door, it’s clear this is a movie about how sordid Hollywood can be. But Chazelle’s style, in its amped-up whip-pans and pretty people and pounding score and opulent period design and constantly forward-chugging montage, is so intoxicated with the slick surface pleasures of the movies that it practically says any human destruction or scatological peril in the cause of such spectacle is worth it.

This confusion results from a simplistic story—Singin’ in the Rain without the jokes—spread out over a long, rambling episodic structure—Boogie Nights’ plotting without the well-worn melancholy. The actors almost pull it off anyway. Amid a sprawling ensemble, Brad Pitt plays a Don Lockwood type floating along as a silent idol, drunkenly stumbling around behind the scenes until his cue when lights and camera assemble a perfect take where his eyes smolder and visage cuts through the chaos. Margot Robbie is a fresh-off-the-bus nobody who wiggles and winks her way to sexpot status as a silent comedienne. They’re connected by love and business to a striving Mexican immigrant (Diego Calva) who wants to work his way up to studio executive someday. The stars are burdened with tabloid melodrama lives, and that ends up taking their careers on the ups and downs you’d expect. Ultimately, the only smart characters opt out entirely. (Although, as also the only characters of color, they don’t always take that option by choice.) The others meet nasty ends of one sort or another.

Chazelle views the struggle of old Hollywood from the 20s through the 50s with a grand sweep and cynical eye. He clearly loves the movies—he’s an obvious case of millennial Turner Classic Movies and Karina Longworth love—and his film drinks in a period look, though it sloshes anachronistically from time to time. He also thinks he’s being clever re-staging some Singin’ gags—an extended bit with a talkie’s mic problems, for instance—but in a more protracted, profane way that’s lesser than the original. It’s all a mad jumble—loud and flashy and propulsive, but also thin and trite and tiring. That’s the strange paradox of the project. It’s at once a watchable display of pyrotechnic filmmaking, and a wearisome confusion. Chazelle’s as strong a talent as we’ve had debut in the last decade, as demonstrated in the false glamor of La La Land, the elegiacally technical First Man, and the hard-charging percussive Whiplash (still his best). Here he stages inventive and breathless sequences of excess—parties out of control, sojourns into boozy despair and snakebitten foolhardiness, and behind-the-scenes farce whipped up like Noises Off strung out and tweaked up. He has Movie Stars swanning about with broad vaudeville-by-way-of-Cassavetes performances in striking garb in enormous sets and flashy lights, all set to a booming, driving, jazzy score from his usual composer Justin Hurwitz (easily his best work). It’s all very capital-M Movie in a glitzy show-off display of technique. But his imagination behind the camera outpaces the writing, which dwindles off into the blank-headed pastiche of better pictures before circling the drain.

This confused push-pull is never more evident than the film’s ending. The final stretch—in which a gangster pitching a movie (a goofily committed cameo from a recognizable actor) takes an exec to a near-literal hell, conflating a trite addiction drama’s beats with the showbiz milieu as if moviemaking itself is a drug—finds its rock bottom in a literal geek show in improbably dank quarters. Then it pivots to a future reverie in which a character, years after surviving with his sanity by leaving the business entirely, goes to see the classic movie that the movie’s been aping all along, and, as he weeps at the wonder of it all, Chazelle’s film drifts into an ecstatic montage of “Hooray for Hollywood” proportions like Chuck Workman broke into the editing bay with one of his Oscar tributes. As the score works itself into a clanging frenzy, we see quick flashes of everything from Un Chien Andalou to Avatar. All the pain and abuse and bodily fluids behind the scenes, all the bodies ground up to feed the machine, all the contortions asked for the genius of the system, lead to this. (Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this?) The movie’s exaggerations and excesses add up to nothing but an argument that we might hate the process, but the final products can be transcendent magic. I suppose it’s fitting that this movie feels the same. I disliked a lot of it, and wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

Monday, January 2, 2023

25 Favorite New-to-Me Movies of 2022


25. Quigley Down Under (1990, Simon Wincer)
24. Less Than Zero (1987, Marek Kanievska)
23. So I Married an Ax Murderer (1993, Thomas Schlamme)
22. Witchhammer (1970, Otakar Vávra)
21. The Epic of Everest (1924, JBL Noel)
20. Hooper (1978, Hal Needham)
19. Cleopatra (1963, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
18. Mrs. Soffel (1984, Gillian Armstrong)
17. When Women Kill (1983, Lee Grant)
16. The Whole Shootin' Match (1978, Eagle Pennell)
15. The Willmar 8 (1981, Lee Grant)
14. Gerry (2002, Gus Van Sant)
13. Sweet Charity (1969, Bob Fosse)
12. Out of the Blue (1980, Dennis Hopper)
11. The Parallax View (1974, Alan J. Pakula)
10. Witness (1985, Peter Weir)
09. Insiang (1976, Lino Brocka)
08. Crossing Delancey (1988, Joan Micklin Silver)
07. The Newton Boys (1998, Richard Linklater)
06. Deep Cover (1992, Bill Duke)
05. The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale)
04. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
03. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)
02. Nights of Cabiria (1957, Federico Fellini)
01. Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)