When asked how he would like to re-enter the Hollywood workforce, Harrison Ford sat pensively on his agent's black leather casting couch before bellowing, "I think in my younger days I really killed it doing disinterested narration voiceovers." A frantic memo was sent to the Disney hivemind - execute :Operation Jack London: we have our codger - . Suddenly, as if called forth from the Skynet compound itself, casting directors, production assistants, and CG animators emerged from their frost-dusted ice lockers with the fine-tuned vision and coldly calculated compulsion of an A.I. cavalry.
*beep-boop* make the 1890's Yukon mailman a Jamaic-I mean-French Black guy for token diversity *beep-boop* all human antagonists are ugly or have mustaches *beep-boop* main character is a good boy fren who is doin me a frighten *beep-boop* shoehorn preachy theme about the shortsightedness of greed despite production originating from one of the world's highest grossing media conglomerates *beep-boop* convey all emotional intentions through invasive score *beep-boop* drinking is sort of bad *beep-boop* dog is not gay *beep-boop*
Thanks to the magic of modern CG animation, in just a few months we have been given awful-looking cat humans and, now, stupid-looking human dogs. What will we see next on the Disneys? Yes, I already forgot the five new Disney remake/reboot/franchise trailers that preceded THIS ADAPTATION OFA BELOVED AND CLASSIC PIECE OF LITERATURE THAT HAPPENS TO BE IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN UTILIZED AS A PRIMER FOR HARRISON FORD'S UNNECESSARY AND UNWANTED RETURN TO THE INDIANA JONES FRANCHISE.
After hitting the big time playing Frodo in Peter Jackson's seminal LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, most will have only caught Elijah Wood playing bit parts in movies like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and SIN CITY since then. He's had the fortune of cashing in big on acting early in life and moving into production (MANDY, THE GREASY STRANGLER) while raising the profile of smaller, indie productions (MANIAC, I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE). Mr. Wood is a talented actor with good taste and fervor for outsider film, but in the plethora of independent productions that come out every year, they can't all be zingers. COME TO DADDY is by no means a terrible film, but it's nothing to call home to mother about. Director Ant Timpson is noted for producing THE GREASY STRANGLER and TURBO KID, both films that juggle humor and violence to different tonal ends. Inspired by witnessing the passing of his father, Timpson wanted to pay homage to his dad's memory with this story of a father and son's ill-fated attempt at reconnecting after an estrangement many years prior.
Wood plays a Skrillex knockoff hipster invited out to his father's remote beach house. There he is greeted by an antagonistic drunkard, played as grisly and poker-faced as could be hoped for by the always intimidating Stephen McHattie. After a very PARASITE-esque second act rug-pull, we are strung along through a series of bizarre and violent interactions, and there is where the fabric of the film begins to tear. While first seeming to be a skewering of shock gore genre conventions, the film starts to wallow in it, and it's not just viscerally unpleasant, the whole tone becomes much more darker and almost mean-spirited. I was reminded of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS in that the violence portrayed is so "edgy" that only an adolescent boy could really appreciate it. It's crass and largely functions as a poor placeholder for plot and characterization for the last half of the film. Any mystery is briefly dispelled by exposition without any impact, and we're rushed on to the next bit of shock/schlock. So when the cartoonish brutality comes back around to this intended sentimentality, this fond farewell to a father from his son feels like shoving a Snickers bar in a knife wound - neither aspect is enjoyable.
With that said, COME TO DADDY still delivers an entertaining time if not solely for Wood and McHattie's anti-chemistry. Despite the association with THE GREASY STRANGLER, the film is not nearly as grotesque or obnoxious, and for however little sense the plot makes, it eventually gets somewhere. Timpson and Wood said outright at the premiere that the movie is for a niche audience, and that is undeniable. I can appreciate that it's the director's debut, and he clearly had good intentions. I just wish that he would have workshopped the film a bit more as it tries to do many things but only fully succeeds at being unpleasant.
This year marks the first time I've made the effort to watch all of the Academy Award nominated feature length documentaries. Of the five nominees, FOR SAMA looks to be an assured winner, more so than any other movie in their respective categories. It should be noted that both FOR SAMA and its complementary competitor THE CAVE concern the relentless assault of the Assad regime and the Russian military on the citizens of Syria as they try to cobble together makeshift hospitals to combat the wave of death and violence that is decimating their homes and way of life. Both documentaries are gut wrenching at times, evoke deep feelings of empathy for the Syrian people, and come highly recommended, but FOR SAMA manages to craft the horrors of the last several years of the Syrian civil war into director/subject Waad Al-Kateab's personal journey of hope and despair as she starts a family in a time and place where families are literally being torn apart.
Her husband Hamza, a doctor and rebel activist, is usually the subject of the camera, and we follow their relationship from its start as Waad began filming for this documentary at the beginning of the Arab spring in 2011. Indeed, their coming together was a by-product of the war, and any sense of normalcy in their burgeoning marriage was marred and distorted by the air strikes that desolated the city of Aleppo over the course of several years. As one would expect, it's a powerful look at the difference a few dedicated people can make in the face of brutal oppression, but it is also a testament to the horrors of war and, sadly, a global apathy and antipathy towards the dispossessed. These are all the most surface level observations one can glean from the documentary, but it took me several weeks to process some of the broader implications from the film concerning the greater socio-political reality that Syria and the rest of the world face.
We, as a species, have created an industrial mechanism that has reached a bleak homeostasis with how we inflict hatred and violence on ourselves. The gist of recent Syrian history consists of Bashar al-Assad refusing to relinquish his ruling power in the face of true democratic will then turning the full force of his and his ally Russia's military might on his own citizens, including chemical warfare. After years of this assault, the country's major cities have been reduced to rubble and the populace lives in extreme poverty, which leads me to the question: what the hell is there left for him to preside over? Is he committing genocide and inarguably the worst war crimes perpetrated on civilians since Nazi Germany for anything but the principle of power? It certainly can't be for economic prosperity as the country has spiraled into a wartime economy of human trafficking and black market trade. I'm sure all of those "defense" contractors and manufacturers must be doing well. Selling bombs and sarin gas is big money.
Then there are the other entities whose involvement complicated matters or came too late. Daesh co-opted portions of the rebellion, stepping in with militant aid for the rebels and providing the Assad regime with some much needed plausible deniability of democratic legitimacy. Obviously a 20-something female documentary film maker who seeks government accountability isn't going to benefit much from an Islamic caliphate. What FOR SAMA really hammers home, however, is that even with a bevy of on-the-ground footage of children being mangled and murdered in these air raids, the U.N. and other western powers were still incredibly reticent about intervening in any way as if this was an evenly matched civil war and not some horrifying massacre by a crazed despot. After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, I guess Syria just didn't have the economic incentives to make it worth our benevolent intervention. We sure did pull a 180 degree turn when chemical warfare came into the picture, but I imagine the estimated 400,000 casualties and the 6.5 million internally displaced refugees of Syria would have said "too little, too late" if they had a voice at all.
But such is the way of the world now. Cartoonishly villainous men who get off on the relentless pursuit of power spread austerity and death over their land and people. This violence that perpetuates itself over the span of decades leaves broken people seeking refuge anywhere someone isn't blatantly trying to kill them. Those people are blamed for disrupting this or that way of life, taking what they don't deserve, and labeled a threat to people just like them who would have done the exact same thing in their situation. Then those cartoonishly villainous men are lionized and emboldened by the subsequent collective unrest as they claim to bring unification against the encroachment of their own consequences. No wonder we live in a state of permanent political trauma and desensitization as it's easier to put a bullet in someone than instill them with a sense of compassion. Anyway, I'm sure a golden statue at a prestigious industry awards ceremony will gloss over the traumatic images of the depths of human suffering, so congrats Waad and Hamza on your movie.
Devotees of famed art house director Terrence Malick will find a renewed faith in the filmmaker's often touted genius after three feature-length meditative marathons on the beauty and ennui of rich, white people amidst decadent problems. TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and SONG TO SONG sure did look good, but they didn't add up to what most folks would consider a satisfying cinematic experience - more like a triathlon in tedium without much of a discernible plot and a lot, I mean a metric crap-ton of people mumbling and/or spinning around. I think it's still safe to say that if you couldn't stand THE TREE OF LIFE, you'll be having difficulties accessing A HIDDEN LIFE as well, but if you're like me and like to immerse yourself in three hours of majestic emotional grandeur this might just be your long, slow cup of joe.
Set in the first half of WWII, the film is based on the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who defied his conscription to the Third Reich and was imprisoned as a conscientious objector and traitor. You can easily guess what happens to him as the film doesn't really make it past 1943, so the tragedy and travesty of his situation should come as no surprise to any casual purveyors of history. Here Malick's elliptical and naturalistic style of editing mixes with Jorg Widmers keen Emmanuel Lubezki inspired camera work to complement instead of obfuscate the subjects of the film. This method fits the tone and flow much better than in Malick's last three outings because it lends intimacy and confrontation instead of finger-gagging you into unremitting apathy. Don't get me wrong, I like all of Malick's output, but A HIDDEN LIFE is truly something special and will probably rank up there with his best works, not to mention his more accessible. At conclusion, I sat in the theater until the credits ended with about five other strangers as we slowly collected ourselves and let our tears dry. It was a good cry.
This year's equivalent to EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT is an auditory and visual hallucination of child soldiers somewhere in the Colombian jungle. The elliptical method of storytelling is strong with this one, and we aren't really given much context for why there are child soldiers out in the jungle holding an American doctor as prisoner, but the overt references to "Lord of the Flies" and "Heart of Darkness" make it fairly apparent there's some sort of war going on. Ascertaining who with or why purposfully frustrates the viewer, so we are left to focus on the characters themselves and their actions. There's a whole lot of intended metaphorical substance behind this sensory experience to do with the self-socialization and with Latin American history in general, but I'll let you sift through that yourself since I'm still unpacking it as well.
Perhaps even more enticing than the gorgeous visuals, chaotic beauty of the mountainous jungle, and skin crawling body fascination from all the mud and fire is the method of casting development they started months before shooting. Evidently they took about 20-30 Colombian kids to location and set up camp. They received acting lessons and military training each day until they were whittled down "Survivor"-style to the core cast of eight. Their methodized acting translates impeccably well to the screen as, aside from the artifice of presentation, it's somewhere between Come and See and a "Kony 2012" documentary. Add on Mica Levi's (UNDER THE SKIN, JACKIE, MARJORIE PRIME) minimalist score to the fracas and it is nothing short of a psychedelic experience. Also, it's a compelling commentary on the desperate scenarios that fuel the global migrant crisis, if you're into that sort of thing.
Adam Sandler reprises his real-life role as an actual actor in UNCUT GEMS, the Safdie brothers' anxiety-ridden, feel-bad crime thriller follow-up to their anxiety-ridden, feel-bad crime thriller GOOD TIME. I'm honestly amazed that they got the level of distribution they did with this film, but I can't imagine Sandler and Kevin Garnett's egos would have been satiated by a two week limited run in select theaters. This trailer played everywhere from the Frozen 2 pre-movie trailers to ESPN, and perhaps inviting general audiences to this Cassavettes riff on 70's Scorsese by way of Friedkin was destined to sour the butter in their 15 dollar popcorn buckets. For anyone who did see HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT or GOOD TIME, they know what they're in for with this story of a jewelry broker/gambling addict as he attempts several of the riskiest gambits of his life in quick succession, hoping to redeeming himself financially and in reputation. As I mentioned William Friedkin earlier, the movie starts in a not-so-subtle homage to the opening sequence of THE EXORCIST at a large scale, desert mining operation with the location font straight out of that classic horror staple. Then we get some 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY stargate visuals, and next the movie literally goes through Sandler's colon to begin our story.
Yes, that is some dark comedy to say the least, but waiting and searching for the bleak humor (if you can call it that) to come is not recommended for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. This movie violently jams you in the back of a car and takes your clothes at gunpoint. This movie creepily stares at you undressing from behind a closet door. Perhaps most terrifying of all, this movie forces you to listen to The Weeknd. I can't recommend it to everybody, but it is a manic and thrilling experience paralleled only by PARASITE this year. As for Sandler's performance, it's in a different world from anything he's done since PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. He's an unsympathetic sleaze who takes advantage of everyone around him in some hell-bent compulsion to be at the center of attention while accruing as much wealth as possible (and the character he plays isn't much better *rimshot*), but for some reason you start to root for him to make it all the way through and triumph. By the third act I was mesmerized and sweating. It's a bizarre way for Sandler to reintroduce himself to serious cinema, and I imagine that it's equally jarring for the sportsball fans who showed up to see Billy Madison step in a toilet and yell incoherently at elderly people.
If Florence Pugh wasn't already on my short list for best actress from her exhausting and sublime performance in MIDSOMMAR earlier this year, her turn as Amy in LITTLE WOMEN just shot her to the top of whatever list of good actors I don't actually keep. Sure Saoirse Ronan is great as always, and Laura Dern just won the Golden Globe for her supporting role...oh yeah, and...Hermyoney...was in the movie...too. But Pugh manages to turn the most objectively annoying character in the movie into a wonderfully complex study of sisterhood. If she were the only leg the movie had to stand on it would be entirely adequate. However director Greta Gerwig assembled an amazing cast including everyone's favorite twinkie emo boy Timothy Chalamet, and I couldn't believe I was looking at Bob Odenkirk from "Mr. Show" in a heartfelt Hollywood adaptation of a classic piece of semi-proto-feminist literature. It truly is the BerenstAin universe at this point.
After turning out one of the finest movies of 2017, LADY BIRD, Gerwig had some great expectations to top it, and I can't say I'm terribly surprised to see she exceeded those expectations and decimated them. This is easily one of the most moving and universal stories put to screen this year. It kind of ticks me off that I have to wait months at a time to see something as good as this, and when it comes out there's about four or five other films released the same week that absolutely kick me in the gut. Movie distributors need to take a leaf from Gerwig and learn a better sense of pacing. I get pretty ticked off by time jumping narratives, but for some reason the way LITTLE WOMEN unfolds is so optimally timed and perfectly accents the juxtaposition of the girls' adolesence and their burgeoning adulthood. Now let's see if Gerwig can handle a STAR WARS spinoff or maybe a 7th phase Marvel movie. That'll be a true testament to her skills as a filmmaker.
As time marches on, fewer and fewer of us remember what life was like before the internet. Those of us who were around back then can attest to the fact that American life was quite a bit more slow-paced. There was still media bombardment, in albeit a subtler way, but one could avoid cultural desensitization and the resultant ennui much more easily if they wished. I suppose one of the biggest differences was that people were naturally a little more physically active and could concentrate for longer amounts of time. Experiences seemed to mean more because every moment and accomplishment wasn't immediately set in the context of a global existence. Maybe it was a little more solipsistic or maybe just unfettered by the full scope of reality. Myopic and fractured as the current socio-political, cultural, or spiritual experience can be today, the Information Age blasted an LED spotlight on every secret garden or Walden and made sure there was a trash can and toilet to accommodate all of the unsanctimonious tourists disrupting the quietude with their camera apps unmuted, and so it seems there aren't so many sacred spaces left to hide in anymore.
Perhaps that's why we watch, say, a French period-set romance film like PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE. Something deep in our individual DNA or collective subconscious knows that stillness is good for us. I remember a time long ago when I admonished a friend of mine for excitedly telling me he was going to see the latest TRANSFORMERS flick, he responded by telling me a refrain we've all heard many times before: "I work hard all day, my life is in shambles, and please...for once, FOR ONCE can I PLEASE just go out for a nice night at the movies, buy some popcorn and a coke, and just...shut my brain off? If I could turn back time and ask him some loaded rhetorical questions in response, they would be: Do you practice zen meditation at a D'n'B rave? Do you smoke PCP during a poker match? Do you blow up your house while gardening? As P-Funk used to say, "If you don't like the effects, don't produce the cause."
Just take a minute if you have it to imagine the world before television, films, automobiles, and phones. It must have been incredibly boring by you or I's standards, but if humans are exceedingly talented at anything it would be in finding ways to keep ourselves amused. We would probably play card games, make a hallucinogenic poultice, sing, master painting, or fall in love with a member of our own gender. Now just imagine if you were a woman, considered property or soon-to-be property, with absolutely no rights except those afforded by your social status. Imagine how boring life would be, subject to the whims and wills of men who live a city, a country, or a world away from you. Sounds like a decent starting point for a sensuous, existential narrative fiction analysis of the female psyche that transcends ideological bounds and probes the deepest recesses of emotion and aesthetics.
It seems so easy to romanticize or fetishize PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE not just because it fits the bill of a meditative work with all of the necessary components needed to wow an audience at Cannes, but because it is a terribly romantic work that fetishizes its own period production, actresses, and philosophical weight. I couldn't and wouldn't look away from the stark, perfectly framed/lit/acted/coded shots of actresses Noémie Merlant (Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (Héloïse) for a second, pathetically wishing I could watch their world far past the film's run time. It seems easy to cynically call the movie another idyllic trip through a progressive past that never occurred, but who need's that noise? I've been fortunate enought to find a small crack in reality where divine light shines through and blights my face with cold excitement. This movie is a portal into a world where books, paintings, modest baroque architecture, and the unstoppable forces of nature converge to give you that stillness that you lack in your day to day life.
Marianne and Héloïse, for a brief moment, exist in a microcosm of divine feminine magic where they make the rules and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Yes, they bicker; yes, time is running out for them; yes, life laps them in bounds as they seek meaning and try to latch onto something they don't even know exists yet. This is the horrific beauty of cinematic truth - that the objects, the people, the essences, and the hopes that we fixate upon become ourselves in the quiet course of tragedy. If we weren't guarded by the manic principles of nihilism, we would be overwhelmed with feeling anytime we heard a song. Not in some brobdignagian, nuclear explosion of thought, word, and deed, but in this stillness that our species has forgotten. In the dark flourescent light of you computer screen or phone, open your vocal chords and break the silence of your aching soul, then listen to the beautiful, joyful hush that follows it.
I'll admit that I've had my problems with Shia LaBeouf in the past (due in no small part to the fact I can never remember how to spell his last name) especially because I think he's an annoying actor who takes annoying roles. Evidently, even Shia has had problems with Shia LaBeouf, and HONEY BOY is one of the ways he's gone about fixing those problems. The film is an autobiographical depiction of he and his father's business dynamic during LaBeouf's fledgling years as a child actor. He employed his father (played by LaBeouf) a recovering alcoholic and former rodeo clown, as his handler while living on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The movie jumps between his younger years (played by Noah Jupe) with his father then to his adult years (played by Lucas Hedges) when he has fallen into a lifestyle of alcoholism as well and entered rehab after a legal incident.
The film is unflinching in portraying the emotional hardships and grey areas that the nagging circumstances of child stardom drive the boy and his father into. The power dynamic of fatherhood is nearly inverted while the daunting realities of substance abuse pervade their lineage and create seemingly insurmountable psychological barriers between them. These become catalysts for a metatextual rumination on how even our most authentic behaviors can be cathar-cissistic psychotherapy or menial performance art, learned or inherited by the tragedies and trauma that sculpt our personalities. There's a little something here for everybody, and it's no great stretch to call the film therapeutic.
Those uninitiated to director Peter Strickland's BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO or THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY may find IN FABRIC a good access point to his dark and subtle humor as well as his alienating use of the mundane as suspense. The movie is a Gialli-inspired "horror" film about a dress...that murders people. Yes, I know you're already having flashbacks to Quentin Dupieux's RUBBER (you know, the one where a tire rolls around and makes peoples' heads explode?). It is similarly played straight-faced by a dedicated cast of some of Britain's finest character actors like Gwendoline Christie, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Julian Barratt.
The real star of the show is Strickland's mainstay actress, Fatma Mohamed who plays a vampiric, robot/mannequin store clerk. She's like a synthetic amalgam of Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper from BLUE VELVET, equal parts entrancing, disturbing, and giggle-inducing. As for the novelty of a killer dress, the movie takes it time, but it seems to be more focused on the terrors that domesticity and middle age hold for the working class. As I mentioned, the true horror and most unsettling aspects of the film arise from how mundane every facet of the characters' daily lives are. From consumerism to dating to just eeking by at work, we're conditioned to accept the meager and the mediocre, and existential dread is, for some reason, really funny when you stalk it with a disembodied dress then kill it.
Anyone who says that this is the worst movie of the decade is clearly displaying either an ignorance of the majority of major motion picture releases or is simply engaging in hyperbolic vitriol because CATS is some of the lowest hanging fruit in theaters right now. Yes, it's gross to look at. Yes, it's a sonic pummeling. But no, CATS is far from the worst movie of the decade, much less the year. Any bad movie lover will be disappointed to find that it's a gawdy, confusing, and relentlessly obnoxious Broadway music adaptation...so it's your standard, completely normal Broadway musical adaptation. Please forgive my casual disregard for the medium, but I think it's safe to say that all things Broadway are for a fading, niche group of enthusiasts at this point. I'm sure those people will all go see this adaptation without much complaint.
I'd like to point out to anyone calling out Tom Hooper's CATS for the admittedly weird CG design of the characters that strolls down to the uncanny valley is hardly a far cry from what I normally see and feel every time I watch a superhero movie. Something is off. It looks unreal. I'm looking at nothing, but my eyes tell me that something is there. From the visual clutter of TRANSFORMERS to the de-aging of characters in a movie as fine as THE IRISHMAN, I have a hard time chastizing one and forgiving the other. It all looks like fake crap to me because I know it's not there. Compare this to hybrid visual composites like KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS or the "Dark Crystal" netflix miniseries where it's obviously practical motion captured crafted materials enhanced by computer graphics. I think most people can ease into the unreality of those more because it isn't trying to sell the authentic reality of it at all. Be actually fantastical, or get outta my face with that ish.
With that said, furries will yif for joy with all of the weirdly fetishistic posing and writhing going on here. I never thought I'd see Judy Dench splayed and kicking in any context, much less as a cat person, but I actually found Rebel Wilson and James Corden less repulsive with all of the extra hair. Idris Elba is obviously having a lot of fun doing his best cockney Wesley Snipes impression, and the rest of the cast are committed enough that at the very least the movie isn't terribly boring. I couldn't wait for it to end, but the same could be said of a lot of films I sit through. I think ultimately that the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber speaks for itself, and there is no denying the craft and years of onstage refinement that did most of the heavy lifting before it all culminated in this box office disaster. I just don't think it deserves all of the hate it's gotten. It's not so bad it's good. It's not so bad it's horrible. It's just bad.
One of my favorite movies as a child was DROP DEAD FRED. Aside from the fact that I had horrible taste when I was a small person, Phoebe Cates is hot, and what child doesn't want an unholy hybrid of Jim Carrey and Doctor Who wreaking havoc in their life with whacky hijinks? This is only relevant because I'm pretty sure DANIEL ISN'T REAL is just a gritty remake of that critically panned, spastic cult classic. Just try subbing out the fart/booger kids comedy aesthetic with a synth-infused VHS horror atmosphere à la PHANTASM, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, or HELLRAISER, and that would mostly approximate what we have here. Surpassing similar attempts at capturing the retro-horror vibe like BEYOND THE GATES and THE VOID, DANIEL ISN'T REAL is an efficacious, if not a fair bit cheesy, exercise in psychological thrills and body horror. The poster preamble "From the producers of MANDY" is probably enough of a selling point for fans of last year's phantasmagorical Nic Cage schlockfest to give it a watch at the very least.
Perhaps the most surreal aspect of the film lies not in the scenario or visual design but rather the presence of Patrick Schwarzenegger. With both Arnold's facial features and Bobby Kennedy's hair, his mannerisms and vocal inflections come straight out of an uncanny abyss of famous genetics, and it's difficult to disregard this fact every minute he's on screen. Granted, he's still rather amateurish in the acting department, but his screen presence is undeniable. I'm guessing we'll be seeing more of him in future genre outings. For now, the film seems custom made for him and Miles Robbins - two skinny, dapper, emo, poster boys of Hot Topic-branded white privilege. It's so freaking cusp-of-college, pretentious snotty rich kid chic that I can't stand it: it's too real! And yet, it isn't.
Anyway, Luke (Robbins) decides to free his imaginary friend/alter ego from the dollhouse he resigned him to years before when his mother's psychosis takes a turn for the worse. Daniel (Schwarzeneggar) is an ace in the hole for unlocking Luke's potential poon-tang prospects that await a sadboi such as he which makes for some really creepy scenes of Ahnode Juniah brooding and leering like a pervert vampire over our protagonist as he totally scores with some hawt, arty alt-chicks. When Daniel starts taking over Luke's body for even more chaotic depravity, Luke starts losing his grip on reality, and some really trippy horror fantasy stuff happens. It looks cool, it's compelling enough to keep your attention, and you can tell a lot of passionate work was put into the set design, makeup, and script resulting in a film that has no right being as good as it is. It's light fare for seasoned horror vets, but a few sequences would have scarred me for life if I'd done a double feature of this with DROP DEAD FRED when I was a little guy.
Perhaps the greatest surprise that KNIVES OUT has to offer is that Ana de Armas is pretty much the lead role despite the plethora of marketing material that barely mentioned her presence whilst the movie's main sociopolitical merit badge was a pro-immigration agenda. I guess you have to sneak stuff like that in when you've got the family Thanksgiving weekend on lockdown for your opening week and still want everybody's conservative uncle to buy a ticket. Seeing as the film centers around a squabbling family populated with disparate political views, there is no arguing over the genius timing of the release. It's just unfortunate that since the movie forsakes the central murder mystery for a character-driven examination of capitalism's corrosive effects on the civic core of America, its commentary doesn't have much conviction to it. Since the promised "murder mystery" is all but solved by the end of the first act, for the rest of the run time you get what director Rian Johnson is best at (for worse or better): Subverting Expectations™.
I would hazard to say that Johnson should stick to this tier of filmmaking after wizzing most of the good faith Disney had with the Star Wars fandom down his leg. This is probably the best network television movie money could buy. Almost the entire cast is recognizable, and they say their lines like they're getting paid to do it. Aside from some edgy content it is mostly family friendly. It has about as substantive a critique of American politics as any given episode of "Saturday Night Live". And it's long enough that Meemaw can get in a nice nap before Captain America gets corn chowdered in the face. For fans of "Murder She Wrote" and "Matlock", I'm sure it's a thrilling two and a half hours because it's a distended episode of one of those series with Daniel Craig as Hercule Poirot by way of Foghorn Leghorn.
Up until now you might have thought that this was negative review of KNIVES OUT. Yet I actually thought that the movie was completely acceptable. In fact, it might be the okayest movie I've seen in literally weeks. I chortled several times because some of the dialogue and plot were clever. And even though it was too long, it wasn't as boring or cheesy as FORD V FERRARI. But let's be real here, KNIVES OUT hardly needs my tepid praise to ensure that everybody and their aptly named son "Ransom" will be at a screening near you. Suffice it to say, you shouldn't count me amongst the many people lobbing wads of gelatinous accolades upon KNIVES OUT.
See kids, this is why you shouldn't use Tinder - you might end up shooting a police officer in self-defense on the way home if the date doesn't go well. It's ironic too that this was the movie we watched before hand. With that said, please put any "Bonnie and Clyde" notions out of you mind even though that may be the single point of reference in just about every promotional write up and review of QUEEN & SLIM thus far. Bonnie and Clyde robbed banks and murdered people while Queen and Slim defended themselves against an authoritarian goon who assaulted them in an illegal traffic stop, forcing them to go on the lam for fear of reprisal from a corrupt police system that has historically been a tool of racial and class oppression. With that aside, I'm hesitant to call QUEEN & SLIM an outright crime drama. It's a romance film first and a road trip movie second, but there happens to be an inciting incident that could be misconstrued as a crime by anyone who enjoys the taste of fresh leather footwear.
As this ill-fated date turns into a race to escape the long arm of the law, Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya wrestle with their faith, societal perspectives, music tastes, hopes, dreams, personal history, cultural history, other people's perceptions of them, and each other as they come to terms with the dark reality that faces them and learn to appreciate the bits of life they had taken for granted. The film often stops to remind us that the stupidity of youth doesn't solely lie in making wrong bad decisions because sometimes bad decisions are the most worthwhile. At first I found myself scratching my head at why the runaways would stop at a bar for a dance and a drink or detour to a cemetary to visit a loved one's grave when cops are hot on their trail, but in this hyper-real fantasy, the filmmakes brazenly refuse to fall prey to the conventions of such a scenario. These people want to live in love, not live in fear, and there are plenty of other films that shove the latter down our throats.
There's also quite a bit of humor in the surrounding characters. The dialog with everyone they run into doesn't languish in existentialism or wallow in their misfortune. Queen's uncle is an echo of Dolemite himself, but he's an Iraq war veteran too. It's easy to forget in some movies that other humans aren't just characters. Real humans are much more complicated, and these subtleties can and will touch the surface in a good film. As far as the socio-political statements that this shares with BLINDSPOTTING, THE HATE U GIVE, and IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, it's there, but I can't help but feel that this is less a biting critique of America's racial unrest as it is a complex celebration of modern Blackness in all of its glory and tragedy. Needless to say, QUEEN & SLIM is casually one of the coolest films this year.
Before I get started, are any of my friends or contacts Nazis? Anyone? No? That's surprising; nobody has the chutzpah to proudly declare themselves amongst the ranks of some of the 20th century's most heinous war criminals, and they're too chicken to call themselves a proponent of one of the most hateful ideological plagues mankind has yet concocted? I'm surprised because the tenets of the National Socialist German Workers' Party aren't a far cry from white nationalism or white supremacy, yet the prevalent narrative in American discourse declares the latter two as acceptable enough viewpoints that they should be given a fair shake in today's marketplace of ideas. I just wanted to make sure I'm not offending anyone because espousing the wishful eradication of non-white peoples is evidently as debatable a subject as whether or not your high-schooler should be able to casually buy military grade assault weaponry.
I guess what I'm really getting at is that there is a reasonable way to traverse our political realities - and indeed even reasonable answers, yet more often than not we defer to propaganda, reactionary hot-takes, and incendiary personalities over the cold rationality of common sense. It's only too easy when we've brainwashed ourselves into thinking that homogeneity breeds prosperity, power justifies itself, and oppression and misfortune are just a relative rite of passage that anyone perceivedly less than us deserves to be bludgeoned with as they wake up from the nightmare of the "American Dream". I might be getting a little tangential here, so to reign it all in, I couldn't help but ask when all of this Trump-era emboldened racist crap popped up, "Don't you remember who the bad guys were in INDIANA JONES?"
Evidently something similar was going through Taika Waititi's mind when he conceived of his latest film JOJO RABBIT. Set in the last days of WWII Germany, the film follows a 10 year old boy named Johannes, an ardent member of the Hitler youth who lives with his mother while his father is away at war. He has a very active imagination including an imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi), and he follows the party platform and ideology as well as any 10 year old could unfortunately hope to. When he discovers his mother has been hiding a Jewish teenage girl in the house (Thomasin McKenzie in another great turn after LEAVE NO TRACE), thanks to this unwanted guest who becomes a stand-in for his late sister Jojo has to grapple with a direct empathic affront to his naive but bigoted worldview.
Yes, it's a simple enough setup with an aesthetic and tone not too dissimilar from Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM if he had just added, y'know, Nazis. While it maintains the childlike mindset's playfulness with a typically clever script from Waititi, there are a few rug pulls that bring into stark relief the tumult and tragedy of the setting. Despite it being a fairly straightforward comedy script with pratfalls and farcical elements, it still manages to work in drama, tragedy, and poignant visually thematic elements that would seem forced or out of place in other films that would try to set up that many emotional goals. The very subject matter also might seem tasteless if handled improperly. After all, the Third Reich were monstrous killing machines aided by a complacent, if not complicit, general public. Making them out to be anything less than that or even worse - innocuously amusing - would just be irresponsible, but I think Waititi has managed that tightrope act here.
But like any heartfelt plea to the better nature of those xenophobic hate-mongers who may or may not hold public office, a movie like this can only hold up a mirror to those who wish to see the best of themselves in the world. Let's hope there's a little common sense left in this country before we end up like Germany did not so long ago.
Calling all TWILIGHT fan girls and boys. If you've ever lusted after seeing your favorite fantasy vampire boyfriend Edward's pale buttocks, have I got a movie for you! I know his presence in Stephanie Meyers' supernatural teensploitation franchise is ancient history at this point, but I think it's important to recall Robert Pattinson's humble beginnings, especially considering how far he's come along in the world of cinema. You will notice from a lot of write-ups that he has been declared "one of the greatest actors of his generation" after his performance in Robert Eggers' THE LIGHTHOUSE, and I have no intention of denying him of the title. I'll let his upcoming performance in THE BATMAN determine whether he'll go the way of Christian Bale or remain a respectably pretentious art-house obscurities-only darling.
Making a follow up to 2015's THE VVITCH would be no enviable task. While I'm sure there is a vocal minority that call it overrated and boring, few can deny just how much the film stood out from almost every horror film (besides UNDER THE SKIN) in the decade preceding it, and it was a harbinger of a new generation of fresh psychologically and philosophically thrilling genre releases - many of which emerged from the same A24 production studio. Also undeniable is the precise and painstaking eye for production design and period immersion that Eggers infused his debut with. With his use of early 20th century cameras, lenses, and film, THE LIGHTHOUSE recalls a bygone era of filmmaking that owes much to the films of Dreyer and Murnau. This makes sense considering that the director was slated to make yet another adaptation of NOSFERATU, but I'll gladly admit I was relieved at the announcement that this would be his sophomore release instead. But that is not to say this period set story of cabin fever on a North Atlantic island isn't without its modern sensibilities, as several of the textures, film treatments, and lighting schemes brought to mind the more contemporary offerings of E. Elias Merhige's bleak and oppressive experimental horror BEGOTTEN.
Aside from Eggers meticulous rendering of his dark vision and Pattinson's magnetic and compelling screen presence, the bright beacon at this towering accomplishment of a film is Willem Dafoe's performance as a barnacled old sea dog. Addled by poor nutrition, alcoholism, and years of isolation, Dafoe's rambling light keeper is borderline incoherent yet eloquent in his own way through several epic, spine-tingling monologues that I'm certain sit among the finest performances in his career. The chemistry that he and Pattinson forge through each other's characters makes for a fascinating and demented good time. The claustrophobic atmosphere is heightened by the 1.19:1 aspect ratio, and you can almost smell the farts mix with the ocean spray and coal smoke.
As for the story itself, elements seem to have been taken from several real world occurrences like the Flannan Isle lighthouse keepers' vanishing in 1900, the ghost legends surrounding Seguin Island's lighthouse, or the Smalls lighthouse incident of 1801 where one of the keepers died in a freak accident and the other kept their decomposing body for the remaining duration of his watch. Just as Eggers culled from diaries and folk tales written around the time of the Salem witch trials for THE VVITCH, that same dedication and priority is taken regarding the historical dialect and mechanisms of daily life asea so long ago. There's also a whiff of H.P. Lovecraft's mysterious reverence to "the deep ones" and the cult of Dagon from "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", though this representation is more non-specific than your standard evil mermaids and the sirens of Greek mythology. A primordial, pagan-like devotion to an unnameable force grips the characters and entrances them, but whether it's the booze, the fact that many lighthouse lens mechanisms of the time were set in mercurial suspension, or Neptune himself, one thing is for certain: the insanity of THE LIGHTHOUSE is easily translatable and sits with MIDSOMMAR and CLIMAX as one of the most harrowing cinematic experiences of the year.
I feel as though I've ranted ad infinitum about movies that are "inspired by real events" as the post title card in LUCY IN THE SKY purports the proceeding film to be, so I won't beat the point to death. In this instance, director Noah Hawley and his co-writers culled from the real life story of disgraced astronaut Lisa Nowak and the love triangle that drove her incontinence cross-continent on a 900 mile trip to attempt the kidnapping of her astronaut lover's girlfriend. Obviously, there are some major dramatic and thematic embellishments that seem to be at the heart of many of the negative reviews for this movie, but I personally wouldn't care to see LISA IN THE CAR WITH DIAPERS. The real events often don't have as much artistic flair to them. That's why movies are remarkable, and real life just kind of happens all the time. With that said, this review was "inspired by a real movie".
I'm just your every day, average Joe, and like most people I went to the theater to see Natalie Portman in another tour de force performance in a prestige vehicle that would serve as further affirmation of this year's trend for smart, entertaining, and well made space dramas. Instead, I got LUCY IN THE SKY, and buddy, let me tell you, I wish I had been on some of the Beatles' cryptically referenced hallucinogen of choice for this one. Chalking up another bizarre entry in her filmography after VOX LUX, Portman plays a bona fide corn pone ass-tro-not coping with the immensity of the cosmos and the insignificance of Earthly life after one eye-opening space walk from a space station in a space suit in outer space. That's about as "science fiction" as this sci-fi flick will muster so don't be expecting laser blasters, mysterious signals from another planet, or aliens. This is sci-fi in the sense that normal science exists and the story is fiction, but this story could have taken place in nearly any setting if not for Lucy's space-induced insanity - the most ludicrous aspect of the film according to "real life" astronaut Marsha Ivins.
People, namely specialists with extreme technical expertise who have trained their bodies and minds to physically traverse the atmosphere and Earth's outer orbit in advanced technological dirigibles don't go nuts because they went into outer space. People go nuts because the movie they're watching changes aspect ratio about 15 times in the first 30 minutes. I'm a huge Peter Greenaway fan, and he would often create structural and stylistic events in his films to remind the audience that they are watching a movie and to comment on the medium and how we process visual information. Here the aspect ratio changes to reflect Lucy's emotional state as a very baseline stylistic decision, like a comic book or a trailer for a 90's dark comedy. It's like Hawley saw the moonwalk scene in Damien Chazelle's FIRST MAN and said, "Hey that's cool, maybe I should do that the entire movie!"
If only the movie's sins ended at the undulating letterboxes. In this alternate-dimension NASA, astronauts are high-functioning alcoholics who occasionally go for runs and almost never do anything scientific. Jon Hamm plays a believably boozey ladies' man in just about any movie or TV show he's in, but do they really expect me to believe that one of the only people qualified to go into outer space passes out on his Huston Space Center office couch with a brown bag full of warm PBR tall boys under him? The "southern" characterizations of the always wonderful Ellen Burstyn and especially Portman seem to come right out of an R-rated version of the "Reba" sitcom, and it reeks of cosmo-Hollywood caricaturism. This is a lot of nit-picking, I know, but the minutiae adds up to a stylistically unfocused, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, and ultimately bogus journey of self-discovery and feminist actualization, solidarity, and resistance (a blatant thematic intent that certainly comes up short of its goal).
I will say this however, the parts of the movie that aren't obscured by arbitrary black frames are beautifully shot. Between this and SERENITY, 2019 has the "high cinematography with hare-brained drama" genre down pat, and LUCY IN THE SKY should sit nicely next to your blu-ray copy of THE BOOK OF HENRY.
"Why so (self-)serious?"
Todd Phillip's JOKER is exactly what I expected it to be. It's a great showcase of Joaquin Phoenix' acting prowess as he delves into a character and contorts himself emotionally and physically, becoming a distillation of our morbid and troubled times. It's also Phillips' attempt to capture the magic of Martin Scorcese's 70's output, namely THE KING OF COMEDY and TAXI DRIVER, then releasing it in a modern sociopolitical context to comment on mass shootings and the Occupy movement...and failing to say anything of substance about those things. Well what did you expect? It's still just a comic book movie and a somewhat boring one at that.
If you ran the slow motion sequences (which mostly consist of Phoenix grooving on the steps from THE EXORCIST to your favorite 60's cuts) at regular speed, the film would just barely hit the 90 minute mark, but OH NO you're gonna watch him dance and you're gonna like it! It's supposed to be poignant too, so make sure you wallow in Arthur Fleck's "mental illness" and sympathize with him, not for the fundamentals of his character but rather because of the society that victimized him to the point of becoming a homicidal maniac. This is not to fault the storytelling here because it is as plausible a scenario for creating the iconic Joker character as any you will find. However, what it says of mass shootings and their correlation to a certain demographic (one that I happen to be a member of) is the equivalent of a Fox News anchor chiding mental health services for the Las Vegas massacre. Uh, yeah, there's more we could do for people struggling with psychological issues, but handing out more pills and scheduling extra therapy sessions has nothing to do with how anyone outside of active military, much less a suicidal compulsive gambler could stockpile 23 rifles, 15 of which were outfitted with bump fire stocks. Obviously, this issue is more complicated than one movie could attempt to address, but it makes Phillip's nihilistic (and I rarely use this word unless I mean it) take that much more pretentious - and to some degree exploitative. Knowing that you can market something because it's sure to rustle some jimmies requires a modicum of social responsibility, and here it is executed joylessly and largely without any true insight into its broader implications.
But, hey, it is directed by the guy who gave us THE HANGOVER trilogy, so that's no big surprise. If I wanted to see a violent, conflicted anti-Hero played by Joaquin Phoenix teeter on the borderline of sanity, I'd just watch YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE again. But even as a Batman spinoff film, I can't help but think most genre fans will be bored and leave the theater a little more depressed than when they came in. As for the fear that this movie will spur something like the Aurora theater shootings hearkening back to the release of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, I'm doubtful that this film will serve as anything more than a leaking tap to the building frustrations of those who were already planning some violent public demonstration.
It is always exciting to see what the Frenchies decided was film of the year as it never fails to be a better pic than whatever the Hollywood menagerie showers with a critical accolades come Springtime. Little did I expect Cannes Film Festival to award the prestigious Palme D'or this year to a director who has been one of my least favorite filmmakers...until now. Bong Joon-ho's English film debut, 2013's SNOWPIERCER, struck me as overrated and dumb while 2017's OKJA was cartoonish and ham-fisted. It didn't help that he'd relegated two of my favorite actors, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, to cringe-inducing career-low sideshow performers. Besides that, I just couldn't vibe with his grotesque and bumbling concoction of family-friendly cuteness, ultra violence, and quirky humor. It reeked of trying too hard and failed to land with me at every turn. With that said, let me be the first and most surprised person to say with no reservations PARASITE is easily one of the best movies I've seen this year.
However, there's the other genetically engineered super pig in the room: PARASITE has an awful lot in common with last year's Palme D'or winner SHOPLIFTERS. Putting aside that the former is a Korean production and the latter was Japanese, both films follow the lives of a poor family as they struggle on the fringes of society, running cons and scams to get by in a callous world. They are held together by their honest love for one another, and their example is set juxtaposed to the neglectfulness of a consumerist society that allows so many to fall through the cracks in the first place.
But the main way that Joon-ho one-up's his award-winning predecessor is with an incisive sense of humor suffused in each character, a humor that is immediately, physically translatable despite the language barrier. It works here so well precisely because it's reigned in and understated throughout the film, making the more manic parts hit harder - such as when Park So-Dam apathetically lights a cigarette on a lidded toilet spewing flooded sewage out the sides. The class conscious themes that have pervaded Joon-ho's science fiction offerings up to this point are given a much greater sense of immediacy and relatability as we watch this struggling family elbow their way into the good graces of a rich, privileged, and naive family. Beside the obvious "haves vs. have-nots" one would expect from this scenario, there's clearly an exploration of the structures that relegate people into servitude and poverty for generations, not just by the wealthy elite but by the pervasive mechanisms of misfortune that are maintained by the working class as we claw at each other's throats for short-term gain.
Believe the hype, PARASITE is well deserving of the praise it has received thus far. It's tense, hilarious, and poignant, and I'm forced to genuinely re-evaluate this director's output knowing that he knocked it out of the park this time.