Monday, May 27, 2024

Beyond Fury Road: FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA

Furiosa is an unhurried adventure epic to Mad Max: Fury Road’s cannon blast actioner. Together they form quite a pair. George Miller’s 2015 revisiting of his post-apocalyptic Aussie wasteland was an instant classic, with his hero Max riding that Fury Road with the imperious Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a warrior truck driver for a nasty desert despot who’s decided to free the villain’s harem and flee to her homeland. That film was an all-out road-rage chase picture that barely lets its foot off the gas. Miller’s endless invention found more ways to wring suspense and energy and righteous violence out of jerry-rigged, tricked-out vehicles than even his Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome—though no slouches in the action department—ever suggested possible. But now we’re borne back into the past for Furiosa’s origin story. Immediately it’s clear this movie will take on a different pace, with a structure of sturdy chapter designations letting us know we’re in for something with the weight of an epic—a story of sprawling biblical dimensions, a biographical excursion, a story of a girl’s survival across decades of duty and despair, and a gripping tale of vengeance long in the making.

The movie’s telling has a classical widescreen elegance—all Lean and Leone stretching across the desert in expressionistic CG embellishments—and a hard-charging action eccentricity, with Miller’s usual dedication to details of his world colored in quickly and casually. And it has that heart-felt attentiveness to vulnerability and consequences that give each act of violence such horrible heft, and each clever reversal in favor of an underdog such vivid satisfaction. It starts with Furiosa as a child (Alyla Browne) stolen by bandits from a verdant oasis. She takes a vow of silence to protect her friends’ and family’s hidden home, though it dooms her to stay in the villainous clutches of the brutal biker tribe lead by Dementus (Chris Hemsworth, breathing a menacing squawk of a voice through a prosthetic nose). He rides in a rumbling chariot pulled by two snarling motorcycles, and his ragtag gaggle of reprobates rev engines around him. There’s a Miller villain if ever there was one. The movie follows his attempts to consolidate power in the Wastelands—bringing him into conflict with one Immortan Joe, Fury Road’s despot with scraggly blonde hair, wild eyes, and a toothy mask. As war for resources in this corner of the dystopic post-civilization Outback escalates, Furiosa grows. She hides out in one camp, then another, making tenuous allies and proving her worth, all the while biding her time to get her revenge. She’s surrounded by oddball characters and dangerous deviants in a world tearing itself apart in the wilderness. Through her eyes, it becomes a movie about a society in free fall, and the indignities of chaos and injustice that accrue and explode.

This war for control of the Wastelands is clearly the crucible that forms Furiosa’s steely heroism. But rather than proceeding apace to a foregone conclusion, this is a movie that’s alive with possibility and entirely invested in her survival and development. An early scene in which she witnesses her mother tortured to death is shot in an extreme close-up as a reflection in her watery eye—and that sets the tone going forward. Here’s a girl who’ll see unimaginable horrors and, though they will become a part of her, they will not break her. Later, there’s an extended sequence—one with a lengthy chase sequence behind, around, aboard, on top, and through an enormous tanker truck attacked by Rube Goldberg machines (one imagines this is also Miller proving he can still pull off what made the last picture so great)—finds young adult Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) making an ally of one of the Immortan’s drivers (Tom Burke). Together they find a kinship as kindred caring hearts made hard through the needs of survival. They connect on a human level in an inhumane environment. And yet this tenderness is inevitably subsumed by the need to fight—to emerge from flames holding a machine gun, or racing off on a motor bike cradling a broken and bleeding limb. (The action is as gripping as it is patiently distributed.) Miller finds time for these grace notes of cool and caring alike, in a film equally interested in iconography as it is in morality and motivation. It imbues the transformations of its title character with a deepening emotionality—coloring in the implications that were in Theron’s gaze last time with all this new understanding born from excitement and tragedy. Out of the darkest times, new hope grows.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Child's Play: IF and I SAW THE TV GLOW

John Krasinski’s IF is a miserable, infantilizing family film that disrespects children and adults in equal measure. It’s advertised as coming to us “from the imagination of…” the Office actor turned writer/director. If his Quiet Place movies, workmanlike horror pictures with modest charms, were enough to convince you he had one, here’s reason to doubt. It’s sloppy, sentimental hogwash about Imaginary Friends abandoned by children who grew up and forgot them. One girl (Cailey Fleming) encounters some of them corralled by a tired, impish ringleader and caretaker (Ryan Reynolds). She’s sad because she has to live with her grandma (Fiona Shaw) while her dad (Krasinski) undergoes surgery for an unnamed ailment. For all we know, he merely has a terminal case of whimsy, what with his few scenes eventually petering out with limp quips and smirking self-satisfied pauses for laughs or tears that never arrive. Since the girl’s mom died of implied cancer in the opening montage, it’s understandable that she’s leery to see her dad in the hospital, and amazing she doesn’t get more exasperated by mild japes like dancing with an IV bag on which he’s placed googly eyes, or when he hides in the closet and pretends to have escaped out the window with a ladder of bedsheets. She reacts to this struggle by retreating into her creativity. Or does she? It’s all a bit too simple to be this fuzzy.

The crux of the ostensible emotion is the group of CG creatures wandering melancholically without their former children—creatures that only the girl and Reynolds can see. They all look like Monsters, Inc rejects and have big name cameo voices that rarely register as such, while they mope about doing nothing. The movie wants us to think it’s sad that they’ve been forgotten and should be reunited. But they aren’t real characters and never do anything for anyone. Ah, maybe they reawaken an inner child of some grump for a moment of two. But to what end? It’s best scenes—anything involving Shaw, a dance number to Tina Turner, the girl’s eventual tearful, spit-flecked bedside breakdown—feel dropped in from a better movie, one without its cloying contradictions and flat staging. Here’s a movie that tries to be an ode to youthful imagination being a balm for troubled times. Instead it bumbles its way into saying that we should never grow up and put away childish things. It’s arguing in favor of a permanent immaturity. Why? Because it’s a cheap hit of feel-good when confronting adult emotions is too difficult. Yeesh. We’re not exactly a society overcrowded with maturity.

Ironically, IF’s opposite is likely playing in the theater across the hall in a big enough multiplex. Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow is a slow, entranced nightmare about getting trapped in childhood nostalgia. It conjures a fuzzy, bleary vibe and rides its off-kilter tremors to an odd, grotesque ending. The intimate movie follows two isolated, disaffected adolescents in the late-90’s getting hooked on a weird television program about psychic teenage girls fighting phantasmagoric monsters. Clearly a blend of X-Files, Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? it’s easy to see why a freakish blend of kid-friendly plotting and woozy creature design airing late at night would mesmerize a young teen. These two kids seem especially prone to getting drawn into such an enveloping fantasy. One is a quiet, awkward, friendless 7th grade boy (Ian Foreman, though he grows into narrator Justice Smith) whose mother (Danielle Deadwyler) is dying and father (Fred Durst) is distant. The other is a lonely 9th grade girl (Brigette Lundy-Paine) from an abusive home. She introduces him to the creepy show, and is totally into its lore, such that it starts to become the architecture of her fantasies of running away. He's scared and hooked in equal measure. As Schoenbrun gives the interactions between the teens the kind of goosebump intimacy of lost souls connecting in their brokenness, the camera’s slowly mesmerized imagery lends a grainy, hushed suburban dreaminess and creeping dread.

It speaks directly to people who allow their adolescent obsessions to overtake their personality and identity, replacing satisfying adult pursuits with increasingly hollow simulacra of real experience. It becomes a way to avoid inner truths. Suddenly, a childish idea grows and darkens and inflates in complexity and importance. A key scene is when, late in the picture, so spoilers ahoy, our lead re-watches the show as an adult and finds something almost embarrassingly quaint. All that for this? This new view rattles and echoes off a maybe-imagined reunion that devolves into a darkly dreamy magical-realist monologue. How sad when love of a TV show seems to hide what you'd express as something truer about your identity than you’re ready to admit. And how frustrating to be unable to let that childhood comfort fantasy go. The movie’s mood is so intensely focused on the hypnotic tremors of this cultish entrapment bleeding between fantasy and reality that the final moments of the picture—clangs of hallucinatory violence followed by embarrassments, deflating and awkward—bring some kind of cringing reality crashing in. It’s about an inner hollowness that can never be filled so long as you’re chasing the unattainable—nostalgia, television, your adolescent understanding of your future, or your adult longing for youth. It’s ultimately a hazy movie feeling like a half-remembered nightmare slowly leaving your head after waking on the couch in the middle of the night, bathed in the TV glow.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Playing Doubles: CHALLENGERS

In Challengers, director Luca Guadagnino puts his usual obsessive attention to sensual detail to use in a hard-charging sports picture twisted around a juicy relationship drama. Its first shots find sweat dripping in slow-motion off the faces of its main competitors—one-time friends who are now rivals in a tournament. One (Mike Faist) is a wealthy tennis pro; the other is a struggling wild card (Josh O’Connor). When they were teenagers, they both had a crush on the same rising tennis star (Zendaya). Their paths merged and diverged over a decade. One dated her. The other married her. An elaborately structured screenplay volleys between timelines, stretching what a lesser effort might make the climactic match across all two-hours of the film while sketching in the details of their criss-crossed, intertwined romantic lives. Guadagnino makes of this his usual tale of romantic obsessions and lustful appetites marveling at what the human body can do. His camera drinks in the physical beauty of his stars, while his style swoops and zooms and cuts with an ecstatic aesthetic. It has the precision scrambling chronology, snappy dialogue, and the techno-momentum of a pulsating Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, which lends the film some of the surface cool of The Social Network. It also has talented young actors effortlessly embodying suggestive body language in a screenplay of crackling dialogue that bops and zips with repartee that might as well be tennis balls.

Guadagnino’s investment in sexual tension has the film sizzling and throbbing on a different wavelength. His films are always attuned to an intimacy of touch and the suspense of lingering looks—one doesn’t make the yearning romance of Call Me By Your Name or the tingling pool-side thriller of A Bigger Splash without a keen sense of physical and emotional textures. In Challengers, that’s all compounded the sheer physical exertion of a sports movie sends pulsing energy through its teasing, tense love triangle that wraps itself into knots of jealousies and frustrations that are professional, romantic, and athletic all at once. Each sizzling interaction plays like a dramatic volley across the net, complications arising with the regular sensation of a serve and a score. Zendaya plays a steely ref between the competitors, complicated by her own thwarted career aims sublimated into her husband’s. For their part, the guys are complicated, fascinating figures, too—by turns preening and pathetic and always carrying a capacity for physical prowess. Here’s a movie about three fascinating people driven by their appetites—for each other, for winning, and for whatever success feels like. They end up manipulating themselves as much as others. The way the characters shift and share and shame across the run time, refracted through the competition animating the sequences, are finely-tuned drama. When Guadagnino goes hard on the style—taking his camera on a tennis-ball-view or slowing down to watch every rippling muscle twitch or secret speechless message—it takes the sensational drama all the farther. It’s entirely an invigorating, enlivening experience. Where most modern melodramas trend toward the plodding, here’s one that dances.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Fear Itself: THE BEAST

Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast is a nesting doll narrative full of resonances fit for an age of anxiety. He’s done this playfully serious structuring around free-floating modern fears before. His Nocturama is a tensely shaggy hangout with a group of disaffected young bombers hiding out in an abandoned mall after a violent protest—captured by capitalism even in rebellion. His Zombi Child is a boarding school drama wrapped around voodoo flashbacks that tie together into a double-knotted story of immigration and isolation—twice over lost to oneself even as one is drawn even deeper into oneself. The Beast is hooked into a modern sense of foreboding and unease manifesting as eerie stasis and passivity that makes dangers, real or imagined, no less possible. It’s wrapped in a bevy of sci-fi conceits. It’s 2044. Some undefined apocalypse has left the streets of Paris largely abandoned, with stray animals wandering about, and passerby wearing clear air-filtering masks. Léa Seydoux stars as a woman who submits a request for promotion to her Artificial Intelligence overlord (Xavier Dolan’s voice) and is told she must undergo an emotional purging. Hooked up to a pseudo-spiritual machine—a vat of goo and wires that’s one part Minority Report and one part Cronenberg—that’ll prompt her to relive past lives and purge her centuries acquiring human softness.

As it begins, the movie quickly settles into a romantic tragedy straight out of Henry James. It’s a flooded Paris of 1910 where a the owner of a doll factory sneaks up to the edge of an affair with a dashing stranger (George MacKay) she meets at an art show. From the near-future interludes to the birth of Modernism—she sees avant garde paintings and is overseeing her product’s transition from porcelain to plastic—she’s stuck in a period of technological and emotional transition. (It also cues ideas about the creation of art as reflection and population of interior spaces, matched in time with an embodied A.I. “doll” played with impressive impassivity by Saint Omer's Guslagie Malanda.) Seydoux navigates serenely yet quiveringly across times with a slippery double role, playing the subterranean romantic yearnings and curiosities as her stuffed-shirt husband drifts away in favor of a pretty and serious flirt. The movie kicks into even higher tension in its second half as the double role adds a third. Now we’re in 2014 Los Angeles where the period piece stylings are rawer within our modern memory. This section deals with the burbling impending violence of MacKay as a vlogging incel stalker (a sadly familiar type) while Seydoux is now an aspiring actress disaffectedly ensorcelled in the labyrinthine gig economy of bad commercials and empty housesitting, only freed from routine by lonely websites, lonelier pills, and somehow loneliest crowded nightclubs. If the Jamesian story is about the pain of denial and the dangerous sparks of new possible connection, the Hollywood one is about the creeping dangers of the lack of connection.

In each time period, Seydoux and MacKay are on a collision course, sometimes romantic, but always fraught with contemporaneous fears and foibles. What form does society give to its unanswerable conflicts, its grinding prejudices and self-fulfilling prophecies? What, after all, is the beast? (A key line has to be an advertising director on a green screen set asking his actress: “Can you be scared of something that isn’t there?”) Here are two parallel plots that play out back to back, with the futurist frame dance between. Their implications and tensions and uncertainties circle, echo, and collapse. Bonello plays each genre almost entirely straight, but their juxtapositions accumulate and resonate. At times fleeting glitches filter in, lingering oddness even before Josée Deshaies’ cool digital frames might suddenly be pixellating, or skipping, or repeating, but just rarely enough to surprise each time. (Pity anyone seeing it streaming instead of theatrically or on a disc for the doubt they’ll have about whether these intentional choices are wi-fi troubles.) Here, in triplicate, is a woman and a man on a doomed loop of trauma reincarnated. Here, human fears feed human foibles and the inevitable dooms of our own, or others’, making. All one can do is scream as old anxieties are reborn anew and expressed afresh—familiar faces in new forms, every beginning fraught with the knowledge that this, too, shall end.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Point and Shoot: CIVIL WAR

A tense provocation, writer-director Alex Garland’s Civil War has sequences of frightening violence wherein the logic of action movies is turned inside out to make us root for the shooting to stop. Our lead characters are photojournalists courageously and recklessly charging after the action. The bullets fly and we flinch with them as the action charges ahead. We see bloodshed as intimate, personal—bodies hanging in an abandoned car wash, piled in mass graves behind farm houses, pulled apart by machine guns. The movie imagines a near-future America devolved into sectarian warfare, rebel troops amassing outside Washington to take on a fascistic president who has, in his third term, disbanded the FBI and shoots protestors. This isn’t the queasy-making romance of a lost cause, or a wishful thinking, that’s been burbling up with Civil War nostalgia for 150 years. If the United States were actually to fall into an all-out second Civil War it would look like this—balkanized, radicalized, individuated, dangerous and unpredictable. It’d be three backwoods guys with AR-15s guarding their local gas station. It’d be a random militia holed up trying to overpower and execute soldiers. It’d be insurgents storming the capitol.

Garland doesn’t worry overmuch about how we get there. The movie starts years into the conflict as we get the sense the war is drawing close to a climactic point of desperation. Dialogue has some free-floating allusions to past massacres, controversies, and realignments. We get the gist. The screenplay never announces the policy positions of its combatants, although a reasonably intelligent viewer could pin down the overarching particulars of the state of play. Instead, it stirs up its political intensity with immediacy of intent. It communicates clearly and directly, and with great force, ideas about the hell war puts all people through, and of the complicated natures of the specific people who make their mission the witnessing of it. This is a bleak vision of how some people are just waiting for an excuse to revel in chaos, and the movie plays it off with a throughly muddled sense of rooting interests. Of course we want our main characters to survive; that’s movie logic. But by stripping out actual specific policy or parties, we see only the tension between chaos and order. Stopping for speeches or debates that lay out the stakes might serve to soften the walloping dread and loud gunfire of sectarian violence and its rippling collateral damage. It’s a portrait of society in free fall, a little nervous about how plausible it could be.

Garland has often been a filmmaker interested in the fragility of the human body. Look at the time-warping drugs of Dredd or zombified rage that can infect from merely a drop in 28 Days Later. Or see the blurry lines between man and nature in the haunting alien landscapes of Annihilation and between man and machine in Ex Machina. With Civil War, Garland takes that investment in how fragile people are and pushes further into how that fragility is inextricable form the systems and institutions we build. It finds that larger perspective in sticking small and personal amidst the national ramifications. It’s confined to a picture of photographers dutifully witnessing while getting a charge out of following along—and it makes them vulnerable, too. Some (Kirsten Dunst) are disillusioned about the value of their job; her slow bleeding-out of conviction is a marvelously controlled and subtle performance. Others (Wagner Moura) gets a sick thrill out of the danger. Still others (Stephen McKinley Henderson) are tired veterans of the business, while a young newbie (Cailee Spaeny) gets a shock to her system as she enters the fray. All of them are shaken and stretched, with their fragility drawn out to the movie’s sick, cold conclusion that’s as inevitable as its central dialectic: guns and cameras are both point and shoot. The power of a still image is juxtaposed with the moving image—weaponizing a grainy freeze frame silence in the flow of clinical digital filmmaking to feel the etching of history and the foreshortening of context in each stuck frame—as it creates a tension between its creation and the chaos that breeds it. We’re left with the empty pit-of-the-stomach worry, and the wonder at what’s more powerful than fragile people rushing into history with a gun and a camera shooting in tandem—revolution written with or driven by a photo op.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Crash of the Titans: GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE

Each installment in the ongoing Hollywood Godzilla series is a little worse than the one before it. Ten years on, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla looks all the better for its thundering portent and heavy sense of scale. He shoots with mystery and mass, letting the real terror of an enormous creature seep through each frame of its monster movie paces. Its direct sequel, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is a little less realistic in its dimensions, but the overstuffed apocalyptic mood gives a fine pulp jolt to its escalating cast of kaiju overshadowing an efficient cast of scientists and soldiers. Both are about families caught in the wake of these creatures’ paths, which gives just enough emotionality to hang on the shattering potential of such a monster mash. That’s the main inspiration that keeps writer-director Adam Wingard’s contributions connected—aside from the set dressing and proper nouns that knit the cinematic universe together—to the character strengths of its predecessors. Though finding some sentimentally in King Kong expert Rebecca Hall adopting an adorable deaf Skull Island orphan (Kaylee Hottle), his Godzilla v. Kong was generally cartoony. It’s drifting toward the outsized and preposterous, but enough of a colorful smash-em-up to be diverting. Give me a giant ape and a giant lizard fighting a giant robot and fill it up with a neon sci-fi light show and I’m reasonably satisfied, I guess. 

Wingard leans into the dumb cartoon qualities even further for the new Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. We’ve lost whatever felt even tangentially real or threatening in the earlier entries. Now it’s CG animation for long stretches as Kong meanders through the Hollow Earth fighting big wolves and munching on enormous worms, and Godzilla plays the burly kaiju bouncer for the world’s major cities, cliff jumping off Gibraltar or curling up in the Coliseum. Hall and Hottle return to wander down in search of a distress call from deeper into the Earth’s core—taking comic relief conspiracy theorist Brian Tyree Henry and swaggering veterinarian Dan Stevens for the ride. And then, once everyone’s assembled amid the special effects of a Hollow Earth within the Hollow Earth, a rumbling wrestling tag-team erupts when an evil big monkey riding an evil big lizard take on our eponymous monsters. It’s basically an effects reel staged with reverse shots of actors reacting. That the movie is essentially passable nonetheless says something about the enduring appeal of these beasties. When Kong picks up a Mini Kong and uses it as a club to smash other monster apes, there’s a certain lizard-brained appeal. Ditto the appearances of Godzilla collecting radioactive power-ups to fuel his big finale fight. But there’s no suspense or intrigue or awe—or any believable thin genre characterization to care about—left when it’s all pitched at the most extremely broad Saturday Morning level, with nothing to provide us but cartoons collapsing through skyscrapers.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2023



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Asteroid City
2. Killers of the Flower Moon
3. Oppenheimer
4. The Holdovers
5. A Thousand and One
6. The Boy and the Heron
7. Past Lives
8. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
9. How to Blow Up a Pipeline
10. Magic Mike’s Last Dance

Honorable Mentions:
Afire; All of Us Strangers; Anatomy of a Fall; Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Barbie; The Creator; Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3; The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes; The Iron Claw; The Killer; Knock at the Cabin; May December; Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros; Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One; Napoleon; Our Body; Poor Things; Renaissance; Showing Up; Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour; The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and Three More); You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah; The Zone of Interest

Other Bests of 2023

Other Bests of 2023

Best Cinematography (Film):
Asteroid City
The Iron Claw
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
Poor Things


Best Cinematography (Digital):
The Creator
The Holdovers
Magic Mike’s Last Dance
May December
John Wick Chapter 4


Best Sound:
John Wick Chapter 4
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
The Zone of Interest


Best Stunts:
The Iron Claw
John Wick Chapter 4
The Killer
Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One
Napoleon


Best Costumes:
Asteroid City
Barbie
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Killers of the Flower Moon
Poor Things

Best Hair and Makeup:
Asteroid City
Barbie
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3
Killers of the Flower Moon
Poor Things


Best Production Design:
Asteroid City
Barbie
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
Poor Things


Best Effects:
Asteroid City
Barbie
The Creator
Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One
Oppenheimer


Best Original Song:
“Camp Isn’t Home” — Theater Camp
“Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven)” — Asteroid City
“I’m Just Ken” — Barbie
“Live That Way Forever” — The Iron Claw

Best Score:
Asteroid City
Knock at the Cabin
Oppenheimer
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Best Editing:
Asteroid City
The Holdovers
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer


Best Adapted Screenplay:
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
The Zone of Interest


Best Original Screenplay:
Asteroid City
The Holdovers
May December
Past Lives
A Thousand and One


Best Non-English Language Film:
Afire
Anatomy of a Fall
The Boy and the Heron
Godzilla Minus One
Our Body


Best Documentary:
Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros
Our Body
Renaissance
Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour


Best Animated Feature:
The Boy and the Heron
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget
Elemental
Robot Dreams
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse


Best Supporting Actor:
Dave Bautista — Knock at the Cabin
William Catlett — A Thousand and One
Robert De Niro — Killers of the Flower Moon
Robert Downey, Jr — Oppenheimer
Ryan Gosling — Barbie

Best Supporting Actress:
Emily Blunt — Oppenheimer
Hong Chau — Showing Up
Scarlett Johansson — Asteroid City
Rachel McAdams — Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
Da’Vine Joy Randolph — The Holdovers

Best Actor:
Leonardo DiCaprio — Killers of the Flower Moon
Paul Giamatti — The Holdovers
Cillian Murphy — Oppenheimer
Joaquin Phoenix — Napoleon
Jason Schwartzman — Asteroid City

Best Actress:
Lily Gladstone — Killers of the Flower Moon
Margot Robbie — Barbie
Emma Stone — Poor Things
Teyana Taylor — A Thousand and One
Michelle Williams — Showing Up

Best Director:
Wes Anderson — Asteroid City
Christopher Nolan — Oppenheimer
Alexander Payne — The Holdovers
A.V. Rockwell — A Thousand and One
Martin Scorsese — Killers of the Flower Moon

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Borne Back Ceaselessly: TENET (70mm Re-Release)

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is forever a present-tense movie where its now meets the past. Talk about a temporal pincer movement. Here I am, in late February 2024, having just stumbled out of an IMAX theater where I saw Tenet on 70mm in its limited re-release. I’d seen the movie only once before, when it was freshly on 4K Blu-ray in late December 2020. But I feel like I’ve now really seen it for the first time. For a movie about heists moving forwards and backwards in time simultaneously, that seems fitting.

After my initial viewing I wrote: In Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, backwards run sequences until the mind reels. It’s a time travel thriller, but not like you’re thinking. It’s about a magic box that can reverse the chronology of an item—or a person. Reverse entropy, they say. Inversion. The plot concerns a secret agent (John David Washington) recruited to stop a snarling Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) from reversing the flow of time for the entire universe. That’d destroy everything, one reluctant ally (Elizabeth Debicki) is told simply and slowly. She considers it for a moment and solemnly intones: “including my son.” 

Yeah, that line’s still a clunker. But on a second viewing—and one on such a massive scale—it gets swallowed up in the massive machinery of the thing. I almost felt it as a small pang of the personal in the middle of the impersonal grinding inevitabilities of societal collapse. 

When first reacting to Tenet I wrote that it’s “simultaneously one of Nolan’s most logistically jaw-dropping and emotionally flimsiest.” I don’t agree with my past self’s math there. If anything the logistically jaw-dropping elements are even more apparent, stark and enveloping. Here it’sall go-go-go M.C. Escher timeline. Cause and effect are ruptured in boggling ways. There are stunts and combat and strategizing, with some elements of the action behaving unusually: a bullet hole filling up as the ordnance flies back into the barrel; tumbling fisticuffs that cartwheel with unnatural grace as one combatant flies backwards when they should be ahead; a car zipping the wrong way through traffic after rolling back over from a crash, windows reconstructing as tires squeal in reverse. 

This time, rather than straining against what I once took as the flimsy strains of emotionality within, I now found myself drug into the undertow of the sensation of all that dazzling craftsmanship and felt the animating melancholy under that surface chill. And the cool logic of its time travel convolutions are all the more compelling for the intuitive logic of it all. Why did I, along with the common critical refrain of late 2020, insist that the movie is convoluted or confusing? Maybe it just takes a second look to smooth out those wrinkles. The movie is nothing but logical, laid out on clear time travel tracks that need just a bit of mental energy to sort out—a bit of story problem graphing in the margins of your mind as the car chases and shoot outs rattle your senses. 

…there are agents rappelling up a building or spinning a sailboat or crashing a plane or maneuvering through a series or airtight vaults or hanging off the side of a moving firetruck to hop between cars. That’s all thrilling stuff. 

And within that logic, there’s that buried emotional core, contained in a glimpse of a future you’s freedom leaping into the ocean, or the hint of a beautiful friendship that may be ending with a violent abrupt foreshortening in the present, but the future will fill in the past. I found myself curiously moved by the movie’s consequences—rending cause and effect with regret, only to be joined again my the insistence of the montage, and its characters’ motivations. 

I came away from a first viewing with sheer admiration for its construction, its impressive scope, its grounding sense of tactile reality even as the effects slip sense away. This time, the sense was present. It’s perfect movie sense, one image and sound after the next building a persuasive fantasy vision of a twilight world, where time’s running out, and where the future grows dim but for the valiant efforts of those who hold out that dim distant flicker of hope. It’s strikingly photographed globetrotting, with the hero and his partner in spies (Robert Pattinson) dashing and capable in slick suits and big action beats. The pounding score and booming bass has a pavlovian effect—it’s exciting, and kicks up the energy of seeing a great Christopher Nolan movie… The me of 2020, with all the sociopolitical anxieties that assumes, and the lonely, isolated, individual TV viewing it implies, doubted it was a great Nolan film. The 2024 me, back in the world, in a crowded theater, before an enormous screen, and surrounded by massive sound, is sure it actually is. I felt like I met myself in the middle distance between then and now, on my way back to realize it then.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Coen South: DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS

Now that they’ve both made a movie without the other, we know exactly what each Coen brother brought to their 40-year filmmaking partnership. Joel took the somber philosophizing, precision image-making, and stark contrasts for his Tragedy of Macbeth. Ethan took the sprightly, irreverent, and capering plotting with oddball characters and eccentric details for Drive-Away Dolls. Smash the two together and you’d get a typical high/low, light/dark, serious/sentimental, exaggerated/realist Coen collision—a Big Lebowski or Serious Man or Raising Arizona or, you get the picture. Taken separately, we have an almost scientific accounting for the exact proportions each brought to the style. It’s even there in the literary sources within—Macbeth obviously springs from the Bard, while Dolls teases Henry James. Of course that means Joel does the spare koans and quotable soliloquies, while Ethan is clearly the side-winding sentences and idiosyncratic personalities. They each have a distinctive flavor that tastes better together, but separately make for fine filmmaking all the same.

Drive-Away Dolls is the self-consciously goofy side of the Coens, here represented by an erratic Elmore Leonard looniness of a caper that’s quick, slight, silly and strange, and full of clockwork naughtiness, cheerful vulgarity, and matter-of-fact sex and nudity. It’s a backwoods road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee on the eve of Y2K in which two squabbling lesbian besties (Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan) slowly fall in love while accidentally ferrying some pretty wild contraband a few goons are desperate to retrieve. Ethan Coen, co-writing with his wife Tricia Cooke, who also serves as editor here, is out to make a small, scrappy, bisexual B-movie and does it with dashed off delight and grinning desire. Every scene stretches for a punchline, every line chewed off with cynical charm and sneakily sentimental romanticism. He shoots simply, and juggles a small ensemble for maximum snappiness, with tight closeups and terse two-shots. It flatters his loquacious low-lifes and allows for a matter-of-fact build-up of specifics, from a basement make-out party set to a Linda Ronstadt record, to the mismatched thugs who sometimes sweet talk and sometimes punch their way to information, witty pleasantries and conversational roundabouts spiked with danger. (The ultimate MacGuffin reveal is a similar shock, equal parts John Waters and Carl Hiaasen and Burn After Reading.) Each scene is the sort of snappily delivered, sleepily paced oddities that let the figures on screen fizz and pop.

It’s a movie that loves its cast in that way, indulging a certain cartoony exaggeration and gleaming naughtiness. Qualley as a confident sexual dynamo brings a swaggering Texas accent through a Bugs Bunny smirk—her mouth goes off at such an angle that she might as well be chomping a carrot. Viswanathan makes a perfect slowly seduced foil of a friend as her buttoned-up partner in accidental crime. She’s all tight and poised until she eventually unwinds with a good kiss. Their chemistry is prickly and flirty—a center of the whirling chaos and satire that’s nicely off-kilter and inevitably lovely. The rest of the cast—a who’s who of one (or few) scene wonders including Colman Domingo and Matt Damon—is game for the regular bursts of violence and vulgarity, quickly sketching their silly, flimsy types and spicing them up with just enough exaggerated style. And Coen spices up his shaggy script with psychedelic flashbacks out of Roger Corman’s The Trip, references to classic novels and outsider artists, and a beating heart of genuine romance underneath a giggling cynicism. It may not get close to the heights of a Coen classic, but it’s a shaggy good-time genre groove.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

All Artificial, No Intelligence: ARGYLLE

Is this just what movies are going to be now? I sank in my seat as I asked myself that question while the deadening Argylle played out on screen. I dreaded the answer as my pessimism grew. The image was bright. The sound was loud. And I was entirely bored. The thing is just so phony I could hardly believe it as it grew worse by the second. The picture opens with an exaggerated goof on spy movie tropes as Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) chases a bombshell villainess (Dua Lipa) down twisty Grecian streets while his partners in espionage (John Cena and Ariana DeBose) press buttons and sip coffee. Dua Lipa is on a motorcycle doing tight turns and Cavill is sailing over rooftops in a jeep. There’s not a single shot that doesn’t look sloppily green-screened or like the actor’s face hasn’t been plastered on a stunt person or the digital recreation thereof. The dialogue is all tinny and the scenario entirely prefab. At least when it cuts to Bryce Dallas Howard playing the author of junky spy novels, revealing this prologue was a scene from her latest book, one can briefly entertain the notion that the exaggerated falseness was the point. But then scenes of Howard’s quote-unquote normal life proceed with the same blatantly chintzy computerized backdrops and, as the movie progresses, not a single location appears real in any meaningful sense. Every sequence—dialogue and action alike—is shot with the same bland sloppiness as the opening. It gets less forgivable every time it shows a glitchy face-replacement or cartoon cat effect. When you can’t even get a real cat on set, or at least make a convincing digital double, something’s gone awry.

The movie ramps up into more silliness—dragging through 140-some minutes of plot structured as nesting dolls of stupid twists—as the author is entangled in real espionage as warring spies want her to write the next chapter of a real case. The supporting cast—Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Catherine O’Hara, Bryan Cranston—gamely props up the silliness by snarling and chewing on every scrap of interest the dialogue manages to provide. (Not much; this is a movie that’s constantly, loudly grinning and nodding at its own misplaced sense of cleverness.) But with all this talent and potential, the movie is totally dead on arrival for its aesthetic sins. It’s a part of a mind-numbing trend of visual despair that finds the complete erasure of real things in head-scratching preference for the ugly fakery of pure digital mush. Real and talented performers are stranded with not only a nonsense plot pushed along by scenes of mindless exposition, but in entire worlds of falsehood. I’m sure it doesn’t help that every shot, every line, every concept, every twist is so totally overplayed and thoroughly cliched. It’s cluttered with noisy snark and pounding pseudo-ironic needle-drops and misfiring comedy and redirecting twists that all collide to undermine each other. In the end, Samuel L. Jackson spends half of the climax watching a Lakers game, and the other half watching a slow download’s progress bar, and that’s the fun part. Who cares about a floating CGI fortress blowing up in animated flames while our flimsy heroes speed off in a fake getaway boat into an unreal sunset? It’s witless fakery all the way down.

Used to be you could suspend your disbelief in a high-concept adventure movie because at least the cars and boats and landscapes and animals were real. And real things blew up in beautiful fireballs. And the effects served the story instead of feeling like a rich frosting that’s totally replaced the cake. Now we have this nadir of current trends, with a 200 million dollar movie from deep-pocketed studios, a name director, and a cast that’s cumulatively EGOTed, and it barely looks like a movie at all. It’s over lit, overwrought, computerized nothing. Not even scenes of people in a field or on a roof escape a completely disconnected physical space in front of computer-generated backdrops that make old-fashioned studio rear-projection look believable. Director Matthew Vaughn’s earlier works, like vulgar alt-superhero comedy Kick-Ass and the super-violent double-oh riffing Kingsman movies, are also hyperbolic and over-cranked works of excessive style in action and violence. But at least those have a kind of swirling CG coherence grounded in something pulpy and filmic. With Argylle it’s all frictionless digital blandness. For a big-budget spy movie, it doesn’t look expensive, or glamorous, and the action isn’t clever or exciting. It simply goes on and on, completely and totally alienated from reality and cinema alike. Of course it makes its main characters’ favorite song the new zombie Beatles track—they swirl down the same cultural gutter, amalgamated simulacrum of culture we used to enjoy. We’re in a time where cultural products can be all artificial, no intelligence.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Past Lives: THE ZONE OF INTEREST

Writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s project is taking sub-genres that have hardened into particular closed modes and pushing out the walls until we see them from fresh angles. From these unusual perspectives he keeps us somehow entranced and alienated at the same moment by the way the films, so simultaneously stiff and slippery, get away from the expected. There’s his gangster movie drilled down into intimate interior discomfort in Sexy Beast, the ghostly return of Birth refracted through haunted confusions and chilly melodrama, and the alien visitation of Under the Skin that pulses and squirms under haunted tactile exploration and bodily ambiguity. Now we have The Zone of Interest, a Holocaust movie kept entirely within the life of an Auschwitz commander and his family. We see the camp’s smokestacks, guard towers, and barbed wire just over the family’s brick fence that walls them off from the systematic murders with which they’re inextricably tied. Certainly we can load the outside edges of the frame with the weight of historical context on our own, but it’s the muffled hints of screams and shouts and gunshots on a near-constant distant background hum that really sell the horror we can’t see. He won’t let us forget. He makes the images deliberately still and ugly, the camera locked down in frames that are so transparently digital, photographed by Łukasz Żal with harsh lighting accentuating the hard-edged realism of the pixels. He makes us watch naturalistic domestic scenes, stuck with them as blood runs colder. Our only glimpse of life outside the family is shot in photonegative, fitting for a world turned upside-down.

The film frames the actors unflatteringly, with no sense of posing for a camera, in blocking that feels pseudo-documentarian. But it never once feels unplanned—the details of dust and teeth and water and snow and fog are so potent and poetically evocative of the unspoken. Glazer will occasionally let a black screen or quotidian detail linger—flowers blooming in the mud. This pushes against endurance, reminding us we’re trapped as witnesses in this historical nightmare. The spare, plunking, droning Mica Levi score further enhances that feeling of total envelopment in this ice-cold moment. Within, we see the daily struggles of family life—kids, parents, co-workers, bosses. A mother (Sandra Hüller) wants to build a nice place for her children, a garden, a birthday, a day at the lake. A father (Christian Friedel) hopes to get promoted. A sudden shift in bureaucracy threatens to transfer him away from his domestic comfort, and there the narrative logic of watching a movie might threaten to take over and cause you to root for him to figure this out and keep his family together. And yet the inescapable fact of what, exactly, his job details works to prevent that rooting interest. Such casual monstrosity, such normalized cruelty, such mechanical, technical terror, right next door: it’s all so routine. One day he dictates a letter to an architect, starting it with a tossed off “Heil Hitler, etcetera.” He speaks with his wife about their perfect family home. By night, the light of the crematorium illuminates his daughters’ bedroom. More than just an embodiment of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, this becomes a film looking down the dark corridor of history and listening to the victims’ screams echoing across time and space.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Talking Head: GET ON YOUR KNEES

Early in Get On Your Knees, writer-performer Jacqueline Novak casually mentions that she used to write poetry in college. Based on the dense, surprising tangle of allusions and images in the 90-minute monologue that follows, she’s still writing it. In this case, it’s in the form of a one-woman show that’s an exhilaratingly literate example of the form. Neither stand-up comedy nor straight up lecture, Novak stalks the stage with an easy stride talking through a coming-of-age. Her footsteps’ pacing matches her rapid linguistic stylings. Thoughts tumble with studied casualness, barely keeping up with her delivery as if she’s just thinking of these writerly phrases. She looks casual—jeans and t-shirt—but in her grinning, bookish preparation, it’s clear she’s thought carefully about how to phrase these ideas and how best to present them. (A knowing detail comes when she describes not only reading Nabokov as a girl, but wanting to be seen reading Nabokov as a girl.) It’s no wonder this is a captivating monologue on stage, and the movie does well to capture its spirit. (That director Natasha Lyonne cultivates a similar aw-shucks candor in her own on-screen career makes for a simpatico pairing.) The camera tracks and pans as the spotlight roams, barely keeping up as Novak’s mind, and ours, are racing. She packs in literate references and spins elaborate metaphors—stacking quotations and adjectives until her points are vividly clear. It’s a look at an active mind spinning along and inviting us to join the ride. 

And now I see I’ve done a good job avoiding the animating idea of the show, something about which Novak certainly couldn’t be accused. She gets to the point in disarmingly direct, honest inquiry. She’s here to talk about genitals and her youthful explorations thereof, specifically as she learns to relate to the male anatomy. It’s a concept full of symbolic and experiential import, and she’s eager to draw out theory and anecdote. And yet she deploys this subject matter so intelligently and cleverly with good humor and bracing candor. She’s neither careful nor apologetic. Her presentation is so breezily, candidly, smilingly, matter-of-factly open about potentially vulgar material in witty paragraphs written and performed with a total command of her language and its effects. She expresses such simultaneous depth of feeling, lightness of touch, and frankness of spirit that it feels simply free, never grossly edgy for the sake of it. The show is ultimately an argument in celebration of human anatomy and the awkward, difficult, pleasurable things we expect it to achieve—the ways in which it is central and futile, fumbling toward profundity and intimacy and constantly falling short, except for the fleeting, beautiful moments of real connection. In expressing her particular intellectual and physical insights, she gives us a vulnerable, verbose, articulate work that’s carnal and emotional and expressive all at once. It’s sweet and sensitive—with a bit of a bite. It takes familiar ideas and erects new, personal insights, building blunt poetry out of it. There’s no wonder the movie’s triumphant climactic cut to credits is scored with a booming pop flourish that echoes that idea—“Like a Prayer.”

Monday, January 1, 2024

25 Favorite New-to-Me Movies of 2023

25. Ernest Borgnine on the Bus (1997, Jeff Krulik)
24. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964, Terence Fisher)
23. Shopping (1994, Paul W.S. Anderson)
22. Dolores Claiborne (1995, Taylor Hackford)
21. Age of Panic (2013, Justine Triet)
20. Lost and Delirious (2001, Léa Pool)
19. Light Sleeper (1992, Paul Schrader)
18. The Delta (1992, Ira Sachs)
17. The Last Run (1971, Richard Fleischer)
16. Grey Gardens (1975, Albert and David Maysles)
15. Once Were Warriors (1994, Lee Tamahori)
14. An Unmarried Woman (1978, Paul Mazursky)
13. Mister Roberts (1955, John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy)
12. The Cotton Club (1984, Francis Ford Coppola)
11. Theodora Goes Wild (1936, Richard Boleslawski)
10. Don't Bother to Knock (1952, Roy Ward Baker)
09. La Soufrière (1977, Werner Herzog)
08. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005, Cristi Puiu)
07. Wavelength (1967, Michael Snow)
06. Caught (1948, Max Ophuls)
05. Safe (1995, Todd Haynes)
04. The Letter (1940, William Wyler)
03. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, Peter Weir)
02. Summer of Sam (1999, Spike Lee)
01. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais)