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mother!
mother! (2017)
1 day ago via Rotten Tomatoes

UNFUNNY GAMES - My Review of MOTHER! (3 Stars)

Alternate Review Titles: DARREN'S REPULSIVE BABY, BIBLICAL ABORTIONS, and OH BROTHER, WHAT ART THOU?

When I was a student at UCLA Film School, we all had to make a 15 minute, non-sync sound Super 8 film as our introduction to filmmaking. The assignment was called Project One. My opus was called "Nobody's Hunting Ground" and it was literally about one person's 15 minutes of fame. It was my nod to Andy Warhol's famous quote, something that is now true in this age of social media.

The Story: An elderly woman walks into a grocery store, shoplifts a candy bar, and suddenly finds herself famous. For the next 15 minutes, she's hunted down by a pack of masked, arrow slinging dancers. I used the drum break from Adam and the Ants, "Antmusic" during the big attack scene. A montage of dancers leaping across either side of the frame was my homage to the audition sequence in ALL THAT JAZZ. When the poor woman is felled by an arrow, one of the dancers takes off her mask, puts it on the woman and becomes the new "It" person. Now it's her turn to be famous for 15 minutes.

It's a classic example of new filmmaker overreach. It looked pretty, but it felt overstuffed, with too many ideas and metaphors splattered across the screen and almost no attention paid to its main character. It was a time when I thought I really had something to say about the world around me, but I hadn't really lived enough of a life to recognize that my message about fame was pretty silly. Dancers! Masks! Arrows! At the very least, I should have been asked to direct the SATAN'S ALLEY segments in STAYING ALIVE, but Sylvester Stallone wasn't about to give that up to a dumb kid.

I say all of this to put MOTHER!, the new film from Darren Aronofsky, into perspective. A quasi home invasion thriller wrapped up in an allegory about creation, God, the Virgin Mary, Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, and the environment! Throw in a little ROSEMARY'S BABY (the poster is a direct lift from that film's iconic advertising) and I started to think that Aronofsky was going back to his roots as an excited filmmaker who wrote a script in 5 days and simply allowed literally everything to spill across the pages. He clearly wanted to pay tribute to some of his favorite films (REPULSION, the aforementioned BABY, THE SHINING, to name a few), to talk about the patriarchy, loss of control, the damage we're doing to the earth, the perils of a mob mentality, and, and, and...stop Darren Aronofsky! Calm the fuck down and save something for your next film!

The marketing campaign for the film has told you very little about the story, so I'll do the same. A husband (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) live in a secluded mansion. He's a poet and she's spending her days renovating the house, which, in the opening, has risen from the ashes. Don't ask. The couple have reached an impasse in their marriage, rarely having sex and his impotence manifesting itself via writer's block..oh...and also via the fact that they don't have sex anymore. We never learn their names, nor do we of any other characters, so I'll use the actors' names. They're reached such a dead end, that she sometimes just sits there watching him not write.

One day, a knock on their door brings them Ed Harris, a stranger who is a fan of Bardem's writing and has mistaken the place for a Bed & Breakfast. Bardem inexplicably lets him in and invites him to stay as long as he wants. Note to self: Feed someone's ego and you'll get two hots and a cot. Lawrence understandably remains cautious, especially when Harris goes on endless coughing jags. Soon enough, Harris is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who obnoxiously pushes her way into the house, barging into rooms she's told to steer clear of and inserting her opinions despite not being asked. Had Harris and Pfeiffer been wearing white gloves and carried golf clubs, I would have thought some cool Michael Haneke home invasion thriller ā la FUNNY GAMES was in store, but Aronofsky has far grander ambitions. When it becomes clear that Harris and Pfeiffer have no intention of leaving, the movie builds on that and goes off the rails with violence, noise, and....bald rudeness!

I'll say no more of the story, but yes, it's crazy, audacious, and packed with one outrageous image after another. I had so many feelings as it unspooled - excitement that something so far removed from a comic book universe got made by a major studio, thrills that Michelle Pfeiffer got to explore her obnoxious side for the first time since HAIRSPRAY, amusement that not only is everything but the kitchen sink thrown into this story, but...come to think of it...the kitchen sink is almost a major character unto itself!

Here's where the movie lost me. It's ridiculously repetitive. You can only take Jennifer Lawrence screaming "Stop!" so many times as the world crumbles around her. She's so inert most of the time that her impotence to what's happening becomes frustrating and unbelievable. In fact, the film is such an allegory that it forgets to provide any believable moments or character motivations. Since when do poets amass such huge followings in the United States? At what point do you just start bonking people on the head with a frying pan when they go into rooms you've declared off limits? In what world does Kristen Wiig take such a baffling role? Ok, the last question isn't fair, because she's built a career around unexpected choices, but she does some totally ridiculous shit here.

After a while, I felt like we were watching the same scene unfold over and over again. Lawrence screams at everyone, more apocalyptic stuff happens, and she screams again. It's a brave performance, as is Bardem's, as they both Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes the shit out of their characters. Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoot everything from Lawrence's point of view. She, and we, observe little snippets of conversations, but are left out of so much, just like in Polanski's film. They frame sequences so obliquely to keep the audience off balance. Unlike Polanski and Haneke, who built menace so masterfully, Aronofsky acts like a school kid who can't wait for all hell to break loose. He exuberantly fills the frame with so much stuff that it's often hard to stay afloat. He's a director in full command of his vision and clearly had a studio behind him willing to jump off the ledge with him.

I love his spirit, but wish he had used a little more discipline and restraint. There's a great home invasion film inside a jumbled mess with a laid-on-thick approach to telling us we're killing this earth, a surplus of Garden of Eden machinations, and just a skosh too much God. Aronofsky has made his own Project One. It simultaneously deserves to be seen, vilified, adored, torn down, built up...stir, shake, and start all over again.

Brad's Status
Brad's Status (2017)
2 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

MIKE'S WHITE PRIVILEGE - My Review of BRAD'S STATUS (3 1/2 Stars)

It would be really easy to roll one's eyes at Mike White's midlife, white male crisis film, BRAD'S STATUS, but it's so well-made, so beautifully realized, so wonderfully performed, that it's better to just surrender to its many charmless charms. Yes, we've perhaps sat through enough "white privilege" movies to last a lifetime, (FALLING DOWN anyone? Any film where George C. Scott bellows?) but White seems acutely aware of what he's doing and frequently calls his character out on his unhealthy mindset.

Ben Stiller plays Brad, a Non-Profit Executive living in Sacramento with his loving wife Melanie (Jenna Fisher, charming but criminally underused as she literally phones in her performance) and their smart, composed, college-aged son Troy (Austin Abrams). Worried about how they're going to pay for Troy's tuition and endlessly comparing his life to those of his more financially successful college friends, Brad embarks on a tour of East Coast universities with Troy. It gives him plenty of time to feel bad about his life, told with an ample, perhaps too ample, amount of voiceover. It works here, however, because on the surface, Brad has a pretty great life, but his spirit seems to have died along the way. It's so easy to look at your friends' glorified Facebook lives and feel you're coming up short, and Brad seems paralyzed by it.

His friends include White himself, as a gay filmmaker whose home graces the cover of Architectural Digest, Luke Wilson as a hedge fund magnate who flies around in private jets, Jermaine Clement as a retired tech millionaire who lives an idle Maui life with his two girlfriends, and most prominently Michael Sheen as Craig Fisher, a Washington insider, TV pundit, and best-selling author,. In Brad's head, he's the failure of the group, and the proof is that he no longer gets invited to group events, such as White's lavish wedding.

Anyone, like me, who has ever sat alone at home on a Saturday night while looking at your friends' glamorous posts can identify with the sinking feeling Brad has that he no longer matters. Is it foolhardy? Probably, but it's also very human. The grass is always greener on the other side. The lives of others, however, are usually much more complex than what they publicly present.

Most of the film takes place during two college trips father and son take. They hit a snag when Troy misses his Harvard interview, snapping Brad into action to play "daddy/savior". He calls on his old friend Craig, who teaches at the school, perhaps to prove to someone/anyone that he matters, or maybe that he even exists. Yep, this movie hammers home, bluntly and perhaps too often, that Brad faces an existential crisis.

In lesser hands, BRAD'S STATUS would have been insufferable, but Mike White mines the discomfort, every minute feeling of hopelessness, every perceived slight, and allows Stiller to deliver an uncharacteristically measured, still performance. It reminded me of William Hurt's wonderful turn in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, in that both seem almost emotionless on the surface, but every now and then they show a deep well of sadness or feeling underneath the facade. Stiller's moments, much life Hurt's fantastic smile at the very end, feel well-earned and well-wrought.

Despite not looking at all related, Stiller and Abrams play off of each other so perfectly. You believe Abrams' quiet observations about his father, his mortification when "Dad" insists on intervening. You get the feeling that Troy loves his father but has no idea how to get him out of his funk. Shari Raja excels as one of Troy's friends, a Harvard student who sees right through Brad. Their big scene together, while obviously providing the schematic counterpoint needed to let the audience know that Mike White knows Brad has champagne problems, works so well because Raja prevents her character from being too strident. It's the gentle wake-up call Brad needs.

Another surprise is Luke Wilson, who, with one brief scene, fills his character with reserves of feeling I haven't seen in him before. Clement, best known for his work on FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS, gets a laugh just by the silly way he enjoys his carefree lifestyle. I wish White had given himself more to do, because his character, who is described as getting gayer as he gets more successful, would make for a great movie on its own. Sheen deftly navigates that thin line between being cluelessly humble bragging and condescending.

Mark Mothersbaugh contributes a tense, spare score which perfectly captures Brad's frame of mind. It's melancholy, twisted, and a great reminder of how unsettled Brad feels from start to finish. As a whole, White has upped his game as a director here. He's helped quite a bit by cinematographer Xavier Grobet's clean, unfussy work. I felt like we went on a complete journey with our title character. Nothing gets tied up into a little bow, but just like Stiller's precise performance, the film goes from A to C instead of railroading through the entire alphabet. It's not a grand film. It's small. But it deals with issue I suspect most people have come up against. Sometimes, that's enough to make for a thoroughly satisfying filmgoing experience.

It
It (2017)
9 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

DANGER THINGS - My Review of IT (4 Stars)

I came into this version of IT a stranger to the book and 1990 miniseries. I knew that it was about a killer clown and involved a bunch of kids, so I expected a light, somewhat sanitized horror film along the lines of POLTERGEIST, with a little STAND BY ME and GOONIES thrown in for good measure. What I got in return was a genuinely scary, well-acted, visceral scare-fest which perhaps takes on too much story, but proved to be a totally fun ride. Did I mention I jumped out of my seat about 6 times?

Director Andy Muschietti (MAMA) and ANNABELLE writers Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman along with TRUE DETECTIVE's Cary Fukunaga have adapted the first half of Stephen King's giant novel from 1986. The second half, of course, has already been greenlit; an obvious move considering the giant success it saw on opening weekend. Set at the end of a 1988 school year in Derry, Maine, IT follows a group of teenaged outcasts who each face some serious personal problems.

At the beginning, we meet little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) and his stuttering older brother Bill (a terrific Jaeden Lieberher) who apply wax to a paper boat to be played with outside on the rainy neighborhood streets. When the boat sails right into the sewer, an unfortunate meeting with a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, son of Stellan and brother to Alexander) sets the story in motion. Much like the opening scene from Episode 1, Season 1 of THE WALKING DEAD, this sequence puts a kid in real, bloody peril and kicks off the film with a strong pronouncement that it's definitely not for children who can't handle a LOT of intense violence and scares.

Skarsgård makes an incredible first impression with his sweet eyes, odd tics, and Swedish accent that throws you completely off balance. Just watch the way his head shakes when he says, "I'm Pennywise, the dancing clown". Yikes! It's horrifying and the stuff that would have given me profound nightmares as a kid. Oh, who am I kidding? I'll have nightmares now and can honestly say I will never go near a sewer for the rest of my days.

A month after the inciting incident, we meet the rest of the kids, which include:

Stan (Wyatt Oleff), the Jewish kid and Rabbi's son who is failing at his Bar Mitzvah preparations (is there anything more terrifying than failing at becoming a man?)
Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a sheep farmer's son who can't stomach the violence inherent in his work
Richie (Finn Wolfhard), a hilarious smack talker. Wolfhard you'll recognize as Michael from STRANGER THINGS. They hide him behind Coke bottle glasses, but his presence, despite a really good performance, in another Spielbergian, 80's story in which little kids ride around on bikes, is a little distracting.
Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the girl everyone wrongfully dismisses as "loose" but who, instead, has a very real, very dark family life
Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the pudgy, bullied New Kids On The Block-lovin' newbie with an endearing crush on Beverly
Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the kindly kid with an overprotective (and very creepy) mother

One by one, Pennywise appears to these kids in a series of extremely frightening set pieces. As a child, I was always afraid of the basement, a creepy painting, a dank tunnel, an empty storage room, and bullies. Muschietti faces these head on, taking his time, building fear and suspense and using silences effectively. The appearance of a floating red balloon before Pennywise's entrances reminded me of the dread-filled bouncing ball from MARATHON MAN. Stan fears a Modigliani-esque painting of a woman, and Muschietti has figured out exactly what's scary about it -her crooked face, dead eyes, and completely silent focus.

Eventually, our kids, nicknamed THE LOSER'S CLUB, band together to confront Pennywise. Along the way, they face a group of bullies who have their own agenda. Again, I was impressed by how far this film goes in drawing real blood. It's often brutal and provides real stakes for our heroic gang. GOONIES always annoyed me because I never felt a real sense of danger. The tone was just a lot of screaming. Here, each child has some tough things going on in their lives, so Pennywise's appearances have real (ahem) bite.

With this many characters, the story often becomes a little unwieldy. IT has a generous running time and the filmmakers have taken great care with each character. Sure, at times, it's a bit overwritten, with kids speaking with an adult awareness (like in STAND BY ME), but it eventually builds to something quite touching and the children give mostly natural, unfussy performances, so all is forgiven.

Muschietti is working with a great cinematographer here, Chung-hoon Chung (THE HANDMAIDEN), and this film is very well directed. Sure, it's pure Spielberg, but even he never got this vicious when children were involved. This style of filmmaking is refreshing in this age of quick cuts and lack of nuance. It's paced like the classic 80s movies it emulates, and that's a very good thing. The last act is a bit overblown and filled with a lot of CGI, just like every blockbuster suffers from these days, but at least you care about what's happening to these people.

Now let's talk about Pennywise. Skarsgård makes a big splash here. In the clips I saw from the miniseries, Tim Curry plays him louder, broader and with a thick New York accent. It came across as a little vaudeville, Jimmy Durante schtick. Brazen but not haunting. In the new film, despite the fact that Pennywise isn't given too much back story, his presence is bone-chilling at times. Whether he's bursting out from another body, baring his teeth, jumping out unexpectedly, posing like a dog, erupting with crazy crab claws, shaking wildly, or doing his hokey dance, you just can't take your eyes off this creation. Just his voice gave me goosebumps. In the second chapter of the book, we fast forward to years later when our kids have grown into adulthood. With all of the trauma they suffered as children, I can't wait to see how fucked up they are when IT returns in a couple of years.

The King of Comedy
14 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

GOOD, OLD-FASHIONED, ALL-AMERICAN FUN - My Review of THE KING OF COMEDY (5 Stars)

Since Jerry Lewis died on August 20, it seemed only fitting to rewatch the 35th Anniversary screening of THE KING OF COMEDY on Labor Day. Having been raised watching him on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethons every year on that holiday, I thought it fitting to honor him by revisiting what I feel is his greatest acting achievement.

Initially a box office bomb and largely ignored by critics, this prescient film directed by Martin Scorsese and written by the late Paul D. Zimmerman, a former NEWSWEEK film critic, is right up there with NETWORK and A FACE IN THE CROWD in predicting the onslaught of crazy or untalented people achieving fame and power. Sound familiar in this age of social media stars and Presidents? I also think it's Scorsese's best film and Robert DeNiro's greatest performance to date. It also brought us a blazing, unforgettable performance by Sandra Bernhard in her debut. Did I also mention it's one of my favorite, squirm-inducing, funcomfortable, funny/sad anti-comedy comedies of all time? Since I wasn't in the game of writing movie reviews when it was first released, I thought it appropriate to take a stab at it now.

DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring standup comic who lives with his mother and makes money as a messenger in NYC. He idolizes Jerry Langford (Lewis), a Johnny Carson-esque late night talk show host, and dreams of a slot on his show as a ticket to instant stardom. God forbid Rupert should pay his dues and go to every open mic night available. Instead, he practices his appearances on the show in his basement, complete with cardboard cutouts of Langford and guest Liza Minnelli. Every now and then, his daydreams get interrupted by the voice of his mother (a hilarious cameo by Scorsese's own mother), instantly reminding us of Rupert's place in the world. We don't know yet if Rupert is talented or not, in fact we won't know until a scene near the end, but his corner-cutting entitlement predated so many Hiltons, Kardashians and Trumps.

When we first meet Rupert, he's outside Langford's studio along with a throng of autograph hounds. When Jerry enters his limo, a crazed fan jumps in after him. That would be Masha (Bernhard). Langford, adept at clocking a stalker when he sees one, immediately gets out and comes face to face with Rupert. From inside the limo, the frame freezes on Masha's hands pressing against the window, aching to make contact with Jerry. Ray Charles' "Come Rain Or Come Shine" plays on the soundtrack: "I'm gonna love you, like nobody's loved you/
Come rain or come shine" - so eery in this context. It's such an indelible image of obsession and one in which I knew we were in for a masterful filmgoing experience.

Seizing the moment, Rupert parts the crowd, shepherds Jerry to safety and then climbs into the limo himself. He uses him time just long enough to convince Jerry to listen to a tape of his material. Never mind that he hasn't recorded it yet, Rupert takes Jerry's condescending brush-off and uses it as invitation to much more subversive actions.

Scene after scene shows Rupert trying to infiltrate Jerry's offices, but he comes across the expert deflection of a knowing receptionist or Cathy Long (Shelley Hack in a cunning, astute performance), Jerry's Development Rep. Masha also schemes to get a love letter to Jerry, but also gets the cold shoulder. In one amazing sequence, Masha chases Jerry down the street, but gets turned away at his revolving office door. Eventually, Rupert and Masha team up to kidnap Jerry, allowing Rupert to appear on his show and for Masha to have some personal time with her prey.

What works so well in this fairly straightforward, simple story is the tone. It's meant to keep you in a constant state of queasiness. Scorsese, with his cinematographer Fred Schuler, locks the camera down most of the time so that we're forced to sit still with our main characters...the better to make you squirm. Things only get zippy when we're out in the New York streets. Lewis himself directed one of those scenes in which we watch Jerry walk to work. With calls out from construction workers and cab drivers, Jerry has a little spring in his step. A woman at a phone booth stops him to praise him. Jerry thanks her but demures when she asks him to talk to her nephew on the other end of the line. Turning on him instantly, she yells, "You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!" And that, in a nutshell, is the brilliance of this film. The journey from top to bottom, and vice versa, can be very short.

At one point, Rupert reunites with his high school crush Rita (Diahnne Abbott). She sees him for what he is, but can't resist an offer to go to Jerry's with him for the weekend. Unbeknownst to her, they weren't invited. Jerry's dead-inside reaction to this home invasion speaks volumes. In scene after scene, Lewis plays against type. Gone is the wacky clown, replaced by years of knowledge of the exact toll celebrity can have on a person. It's an astonishing, scary, unforgettable performance. A prisoner of his own fame, Jerry can do nothing but be numb to the atrocities on display.

Rupert is a delusional, entitled, lazy dreamer. He was decades ahead of social media stars who made fortunes by posting a picture of their breakfasts. DeNiro has never given a performance that's anything like this. He's constantly gesticulating and unwilling to take no for an answer. He's dangerous. Who would have imagined that 35 years later, a Rupert would become the leader of the free world?

When we finally get to see Rupert's act, done in one incredible single take, it's mediocre at best. Sometimes mediocrity is celebrated. Oh what the hell am I saying? This country has a history of putting mediocrity on a pedestal. It explains Twenty One Pilots.

I look at THE KING OF COMEDY as TAXI DRIVER's funnier but just-as-ugly little brother. Two delusional men find fame by committing crimes. They both go after ideal but disinterested women. One does it to save an innocent soul while the other is completely self-serving. On second thought, which one is the darker film?

There's too much to unpack, but I want to point out some details that get me every time:

-Rupert eyes the ceiling of Jerry's waiting room. It makes the weary receptionist look up. He notices and then asks her, "Is that cork?" Probably the best use of insipid small talk in a film since NASHVILLE.
-Masha's entire head shaking wildly when she goes on one of her tirades
-Rupert standing in front of a giant audience photo as he fantasizes about his big debut
-The guy imitating Rupert behind his back, sending a signal to Rita that she's having dinner with a schmuck.
-The never-ending mispronunciation of Rupert's last name (Pipkin, Pumpkin, Pupnik)
-Members of The Clash in the scene where Masha yells at everyone, calling them "street trash"
-Masha's reprise of "Come Rain Or Come Shine". Funny how Bernhard's career after this film always included a little comedy and a little singing.
-Masha casually tossing the wine glass away.
-Masha clearing the candlelit table as everything comes crashing down. They threw in cat noises just to make it even funnier.
-Masha's one-sided conversation with Jerry, telling him, "I want to be black" and then doing an adorable yet frightening Tina Turner imitation.
-Rupert asking Cathy, "Are you speaking for Jerry?" Makes my skin crawl.
-Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, a legend, smash cutting to the Jerry Langford show logo right after Masha strips down to her underwear and says that she and Jerry are gonna have "Good old-fashioned, all-American fun!"
-Masha hauntingly blowing a kiss to Jerry. She's crazy scary.
-Rita proves she's just as susceptible to the glow of fame when she steals a little box from Jerry's house. She's supposed to be the saint of the story, yet even she can be bought.
-The announcer cheerily chimes, "Rupert Pupkin, everybody! Rupert Pupkin!"
-The line: "Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime."

I kept thinking about NETWORK and A FACE IN THE CROWD when watching THE KING OF COMEDY this time. How ahead of their time these films were, and what would a prescient film made today look like? Would we be predicting the end of fame? The end of mediocrity? A return to hard work and talent? If only.

Beach Rats
Beach Rats (2017)
16 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

AB-SOLUTION - My Review of BEACH RATS (3 Stars)

If you're gonna do a movie about a young, gay man struggling with the closet, you had better bring something new to the table or else risk a DTD Rating (Done To Death). Writer/director Eliza Hittman has style to burn and a knack for getting natural performances from her cast, but I'm not convinced she's saying anything new. BEACH RATS feels like the result of a Larry Clark/Terrence Malick/Andrea Arnold summit meeting, with the main power point presentation being called, "How Can You Be Gay While Still Being Able to Play Handball With Your Totally Useless Stoner Buddies?"

While not breaking new ground, Hittman makes an instant star out of her leading actor, Harris Dickinson, an English actor, who, of course, nails his Brooklyn accent. Aussies and the English always do great American accents, but not the other way around. Discuss. Dickinson plays Frankie, who lives in a messy house with his slyly observant mother and rebellious little sister. He cruises online to hookup with men, and I couldn't help but wonder what year this movie is supposed to take place. Everyone has smart phones and take a lot of selfies, so it must be present day, but the website he uses seems fresh out of 2009. Think Chatroulette for gay guys who mostly want to get high with each other. I would think that if you're a closeted gay guy, you'd use Grindr instead of a site on a home PC that's open discovery by your Mom or pesky sister or deadbeat friends. Just sayin'. Maybe this was a script Hittman had laying in a drawer for years and nobody said anything about updating it. Or maybe Brooklyn kids be like kicking it old school, know what I'm sayin'?

Either way, we follow Frankie and his buddies around as they get high, play handball, and...did I mention they get high? A lot? Frankie has an underwear model's body, a dewy complexion and fill lips, all of which make him desirable to just about anybody. He's got abs, people! He's straight out of an old Calvin Klein ad or Fiona Apple video.

Frankie has his eye on a girl named Simone (Madeline Weinstein), who he seems to use as his beard. More often than not, he meets guys online and has sex with them in remote seaside cruising areas or cheap motel rooms. With Simone, he pretends to be too high to have sex or he'll treat her badly on purpose while still maintaining his cover. Through it all, Dickinson finds a quiet sweetness to his role. When he apologizes to Simone, for example, he approaches her with sincere kindness, even though we know he's still using her. It's quite a tightrope he walks with his performance, and he skillfully succeeds.

While not strong on story and at times repetitive, BEACH RATS feels real. Frankie is too cool to ever really panic, even when he's close to getting caught. He keeps his cool, because he's been so immersed in straight culture he doesn't seem to know any other way. He's always telling guys that he doesn't even really know what he likes, and you believe him.

Things get a little darker in the final stretch, but Hittman keeps the dangerous elements at a believably low boil. Too low for some. At the screening I attended, the audience just wasn't having this film, especially its abrupt, somewhat unresolved ending. I personally appreciated where this film leaves its characters. Dickinson shows us something new in Frankie's eyes as he looks at something previously discussed in an earlier scene. We feel a slight shift, and for me, it's enough.

Hitman doesn't go for cheap theatrics. An early encounter with a older man leads to an awkward reveal later on, yet Hittman doesn't ramp up any false drama. Frankie keeps his cool, because he's used to playing things that way. Bit by bit, the film strips away Frankie's masks and tries to find the real guy underneath. Hitman and Dickinson succeed beautifully, even if BEACH RATS feels like, as one person I know put it, "the best gay movie from 2009 that somehow got made today".