Friday, June 28, 2024


“Some of them want to use you / Some of them want to get used by you / Some of them want to abuse you / Some of them want to be abused”
— Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

“This were kindness?”
The Merchant of Venice (1.3.154)

For anyone worried that Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos was drifting to the mainstream with his awards feted, and surprise box office hits, The Favourite and Poor Things, here’s Kinds of Kindness to most fully expose that bleeding heart of darkness within his works. Not that those other films aren’t wild with vulgarity and explicitness, too, but they were packaged in aesthetically pleasing historical intrigue or flights of fancy, respectively. Kindness is colder, slower, less immediately narratively legible, and without even the slightest hint of appealing character motives. That’s what makes it so compelling, too. One watches it trying to figure it out, and it's structured to keep slipping away. It’s fitting that it begins by blasting the iconic driving synths of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” as the movie is about people used and abused, in darkly comedic and deadpan absurd stories in which everyone is looking for something, and in which reality seems to take on the logic of an inscrutable dream. Lanthimos pins down his characters in clinically precise widescreen frames, and then spins out the surreal plot turns, scripted with his Killing of a Sacred Deer co-writer Efthimis Filippou. He does so with an unblinking, mannered realism, dialing back the style and coaxing underplayed reactions just when the stories are aching for excess.

As the characters wriggle their ways through the emotional and physical pain of their plots, the movie becomes a caustic acid bath of cynicism, watching toxic people give into base impulses, and work their wicked ways. The film is made up of three short films, each nearly an hour long and starring the same ensemble. Each tale would undoubtedly test the patience at feature length, each take a sick joke inside a sick joke that starts strange, grows even stranger, and then ends on its bleakest, gnarliest punchline. The first finds a businessman (Jesse Plemons) totally controlled by his boss (Willem Dafoe) and the old man’s mistresses (Emma Stone and Margaret Qualley), down to the food he eats and whether or not his wife (Hong Chau) will get pregnant. When he finds himself doubting his commitment to his latest grotesque task, his life instantly changes for the worse. The second story finds Plemons as a police officer whose wife (Stone) has been missing at sea. It’s odd enough that in his grief he invites their friends (Qualley and Mamoudou Athie) over to watch their sex tape; odder still is how he reacts when his wife is eventually discovered. Lastly, we find Stone and Plemons looking for a Chosen One at the behest of a cult leader (Dafoe) and his wife (Chau). It becomes a sort of desperate ritual as it goes on.

In each story, the cast is so good at inhabiting these extreme situations of sex and violence with shrugging acceptance that the bubbling surreality is played out quite naturally—subtext and text dancing with extreme literalness, down to the black-and-white flashes of dreams and visions that mingle with their mindsets. These characters are constantly doing acts of a selfish sort of kindness, casually blowing up lives, behaving as dangers to themselves and others. If this were kindness, who needs cruelty? Here’s a movie with a pretty low opinion of human behavior that’s as darkly upsetting as it is grimly funny, in a preposterous string of circumstances held in the grip of skilled filmmakers making each moment count. Lanthimos using the same faces in new roles uses each switch of the narrative to recombine them into dynamics of freedom and control, power and submission, responsibility and individualism. These characters keeps slamming into illusions they’ve created to make sense of lives spiraling out of control—often of their own doing. The bruising absurdism of each accumulates into the sickest joke of all: sometimes the only kindness is to give into the absurdity of your circumstances and hope for the best.

As an aside—how wild is it to think back to 2010, when Stone’s Easy A was a satisfying comedy that confirmed her a star and Lanthimos’ nasty, explicit Dogtooth got a surprise Academy Award nomination for foreign-language film. Imagine telling us moviegoers back then that those two would bring out the best in each other.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Some Grief Shows Much of Love: GHOSTLIGHT

Ghostlight is a small movie about the redemptive power of theater, and about the powerful effects Shakespeare’s words continue to have in our modern lives. This independent feature emerges from the Chicago theater scene, and as such carries with it a distinctive regional flavor—a directness of approach and an earnest truthfulness in its clear emotional ideas. It’s about a construction worker (Keith Kupferer) who accidentally gets involved in a tiny community theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet. He didn’t mean to get wrapped up in a production so poetic and emotional, especially as it cuts against his usual gruffly taciturn blue-collar bottled-up demeanor. But the ragtag group of friendly misfits (led by Dolly de Leon and local Chicago actors) that make up this little troupe so quickly accepts him and cares for him and enjoys his presence that he just can’t bring himself to stay away from this new community. We slowly get the sense that he’s grieving, as his relationship with his stressed wife (Tara Mallen) feels strained with unspoken sadness, and their daughter (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) is a troubled teen who is pulling away from school, and her own theater dreams, in a spiral of sadness on top of her typical adolescent angst. Writers and directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson draw out the family’s troubles in a slow, withholding style, letting us slowly understand the contours of their disfunction as it relates to grief and tragedy. Ah, so that’s why Romeo and Juliet, of all plays, was chosen for this function in the film, we can consider, as the classic play’s themes of love and loss start to draw some emotional parallels with this family’s life.

That might be too simple or convenient, and the rougher edges around the filmmaking’s humble style direct our attention to the obvious screenwriting tricks at play in teasing out these connections. But the earnestness and sincerity of the filmmaking’s focus on these three main characters often overpowers objections. These three actors, clearly drawing upon their actual familial comfort with each other—how often do a husband, wife, and daughter trio get to play that dynamic on screen?—have the kind of honest interactions that sometimes feel painfully unrehearsed and raw. We see genuine halting, stumbling emotional pain, and we see the painful love struggling to reassert itself in the messiness of mourning. The dialogue might sometimes fall on the side of obvious, but the acting carries across the purity of purpose. That helps the film avoid potential overreach as it finds some honest sentiment in the ways this sad dad’s newfound acting interest might help him process his undiscussed feelings, and draw the family closer together. This isn’t a movie that concludes theater heals all wounds and fixes all flaws. This is a movie that says the deep resonant human truths within Shakespeare’s words can be reinvigorated anew in the hearts of each person willing to give themselves over to that power. It can reawaken bottled up feelings, and force you to confront them in a safe space. That’s what gives the movie’s final moments such power and force, to find a father looking off into the wings, seeing a silhouette in the ghost light, and finding some mysterious, transformative closure.

Friday, June 21, 2024

What They Gonna Do: BAD BOYS: RIDE OR DIE

When Belgian filmmaking duo Adil & Bilall made 2020’s Bad Boys for Life, they did so in the shadow of Michael Bay. He’d directed the first two Martin Lawrence / Will Smith buddy cop actioners in his distinctive style of crass comedy and loud, excessive, explosive spasms of car crashes, gunfire, and fireballs. They’re abrasive, eccentric crowd-pleasers, and their charms have only grown as respect for Bay’s craft has grown as being satisfyingly distinctive and reliably his own in an increasingly homogenous Hollywood blockbuster landscape. How could Adil and Bilall’s film compete with that accrued affection? That they nonetheless pumped out a sleek and muscular movie of shiny surfaces and jokey banter and genuine camaraderie between appealing performers in charismatic star turns was a credit to their skill. But now that they’re back for Bad Boys: Ride or Die, they’ve balanced the scales. It’s fun to see a franchise shift its center of gravity, now half Bay’s and half the new guys’. With Lawrence and Smith as the fulcrum, the style of these pictures has evolved a comfortable late-period energy, leaning even further into the ages of its leads while refining a swooping and fluid mode of pushy camerawork that’s distinctive from Bay’s, while still borrowing some of his best tricks to maintain series’ stylish continuity. That they take a few moments of Bay’s drone camerawork from his latest, and under-seen, Ambulance is a good example of beneficial inspiration. That they structure the movie to give each and every character in the ensemble a satisfying action moment is a sign of affectionate generosity to provide a good time.

With all the style to get carried up in, and affection for the people to power it, does it really matter what the plot of the picture is? At least it’s fun and complicatedly uncomplicated. The Bad Boys are in trouble again and have to shoot their ways out while busting each other’s chops before getting down to business and busting heads instead. They’re on the run after being framed by a crooked cop, so they have something extra charged to prove this time. I’m sure it helps energize the plotting that all involved do, too. Meanwhile, Smith has cranked up his stardom to a megawatt power he hasn’t utilized since his heyday—no doubt trying to remind audiences why they loved him and to forget recent contretemps. Lawrence always takes this series as a chance to renew his most energetic comic speed runs of insults and non-sequiturs. This one gives his character an early near-death experience that gives him a kind of zen Holy Fool energy that crackles in fun new ways off Smith’s posturing toughness. And the directors themselves are fresh off a project that was nearly completed before being deleted and slandered by Warners’ CEO to get the company a tax write-off; no wonder they’re flinging that camera around with a vigor and vitality to amp up every moment for maximum visually-pleasing impact. The action sequences and dialogues alike are given a charging forward momentum and are given glamorous surfaces from the velvety sunsets to the gleaming explosions to the neon-glow-in-the-dark strip club presided over by a scene-stealing Tiffany Haddish performance that swaggers out on a neo-blaxploitation register. The movie hits all the pleasing action notes you’d want and keeps love for its characters center frame—a heightened, goofily-humored, fast-paced, violent pleasure.