Her Smell — 9/10

HER SMELL (2019, Alex Ross Perry)

At one point in the second act, Elisabeth Moss turns towards her prey and glares, eyes hunting, while she stalks forward almost licking her lips with anticipation of the meat she’s about to devour. It’s such an effective prowl that when Eric Stoltz compares her, ten minutes later, to a lioness, it comes off as redundant.

Moss’s performance is everything to this movie — it’s a huge, chewy, brave, show-stopping star turn that Perry asks a lot of. He gets it. Not only is Moss pretty much the center of every scene; she also has to carry the burden of being a believable rock star with such gravitational force that lamb after lamb is sucked into her orbit, despite every wicked barb unleashed from her filthy gob doing its best to repel. She gets a lot of clever one-liners and handles them with grace, but even the clangers of dialogue that pop up every once in a while (“suckling at the teats of my success!”) are no obstacle for her. It might be the most ferocious acting I’ve seen on screen since David Thewlis in NAKED, and those who know me will realize that’s about as high as praise gets.

Structurally, this is surprising and impressive — Perry breaks it up into five clean, real-time acts that last 20-30 minutes each. If you don’t know this going in, the first one is a disorienting, seemingly never-ending backstage nightmare. Finally when act two begins in the recording studio, you almost expect its half-hour barrage. The third sequence can only go downhill from there and ends in a literal curtain close. All three of these acts are shot with a swirling camera in constant close-up, almost nauseating with restlessness and colored like the cracking old paint of a stale punk club, lit with fluorescent-sucking, low-ceiling drabness. It’s form following content, an off-putting visual style wrestling with its horrifying protagonist. But it all pays off with act four, the beginning of possible redemption, where Perry locks his camera down with placid contentment, bathing Moss with backlit sun and even providing the first (and only) exterior shot of the entire movie. It’s here when things slow down enough to let Moss play a piano solo to her daughter, stripping Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” down to an aching confession, desperation to connect dripping off the screen. Scene of the year so far, I think.

And part of what makes this towering movie so great is its refusal to send big messages — it has an addiction/rock bottom/redemption plotline we’ve seen far too often, complete with the foreshadowings of death and a cute little girl to jerk tears. But it never uses those clichés as a shortcut to proselytize. This isn’t a soapbox about awful people. It’s a depiction of a tortured artist that doesn’t pull punches or manipulate sympathies. It shows us a period of the 1990s when pop-punk girl bands like Elastica, Veruca Salt, and L7 could be on the cover of Rolling Stone, because guitars, bass, and drums still sold out clubs. And it reveals just how much human beings are always performing, whether a camera is there or not. Thank goodness Perry and DP Sean Price Williams brought their A-game camerawork to this one, to capture Elisabeth Moss becoming a monstrous star, playing a monster who used to be a star, always performing.

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Under the Silver Lake — 8/10

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2019, David Robert Mitchell)

An intoxicating oxymoron foisted upon an unsuspecting audience, this is both a hilarious satire and a dark, rotten gaze into an existential void; it’s both a loving ode to cinema’s glorious past and a rebuke to the nerds who obsess over the details of those movies (and pop songs alike). It’s tender yet violent, superficially shocking yet profoundly intelligent, and manages to be an all-out gas to watch — sparkling entertainment that is increasingly rare among like-minded indie auteurs so desperate for relevance they forget how to dazzle.

Central to the success of this high-wire act is Garfield’s layered performance: physically comic, faintly sinister, oblivious, rude, relatable, and pathetic all at once. He’s always communicating to the audience even when his character takes no action, like a Camusian antihero whose inner monologue is made visual by Mitchell’s critical gaze. And the tapestry over which Garfield lingers is modern-day Los Angeles, a city memorialized in dozens of the hard-boiled noirs this movie tips its hat to, yet reminding us this is Hollywood itself — a place where hipsters dine on tabletop gravestones of former movie stars, and failed actors turn tricks to pay the bills. Driving-and-following sequences are shot and cut (and scored) with direct fidelity to Hitchcock, and the gimmick is that if you catch the reference you’re the butt of the joke. Garfield is also the anti-Tom Cruise in a daylight EYES WIDE SHUT, having dangerous near-sexual encounters with every woman he meets, but rather than wearing a tuxedo and flashing a medical badge, he’s wearing pajamas to a party and slurping milk from inside a corner market fridge.

If Mitchell really wanted to make the point that ROOM 237-style conspiracy theorists are insane losers, then it doesn’t really make sense to have Garfield’s pursuits yield results — that said, there’s some question over just how reliable his experiences are; every loose end that isn’t tied up (the mask-wearing naked woman who climbs out of his cupboard, the songwriter incident that has no consequences, the pirate who’s never explained) is something that Garfield saw or heard about throughout his quest and could just be dreaming of later on. And whether these things happen or they don’t, it’s still true that he’s an aimless young man searching for a pattern in a meaningless void of a world — surrounded by a populace obsessed with pop culture, paranoid over privacy and security, burdened by financial concerns, and largely focused on work. The less things make sense in this wild march towards a reckoning, the more they ring true.

By the way — I just barely resisted bumping this up to a 9 thanks to two of the best tracks off R.E.M.’s Monster hitting the soundtrack at significant times. And one of them results in Mitchell’s cheekiest Easter egg: when Garfield impulsively dances to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” it’s hard not to think of the story of its title, which brings me to quote this lede from the New York Times circa 1997:

Over the course of a decade, it evolved from an incomprehensible utterance during a quizzical crime to the possible measure of a news anchor's unraveling to a kernel of kitschy folklore, memorialized as the title of a popular hit by the rock band R.E.M.
''Kenneth, what is the frequency?'' became more than just the question that Dan Rather, the CBS news anchor, said he was asked during an attack in 1986 that some detractors unfairly dismissed as apocryphal. It became a nonsensical oddity and an unsolved mystery: Who said it, and why, and what ever happened to him?

And sorry, Jeremy Bobb, I won’t be persuaded that Michael Stipe didn’t write that one himself.

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High Life — 5/10

HIGH LIFE (2019, Claire Denis)

Or, Claire Denis’s Blue Material.

It’s hard to imagine a more pretentious version of a movie about a dozen horny death-row inmates and one mad scientist hurtling in a giant lego piece through the cosmos towards the oblivion of a black hole. But then again, this is Claire Denis — she is old, seasoned, and will never make a movie that isn’t overflowing with big concerns about humanity. However, when Juliette Binoche is speed-walking down a spaceship corridor holding Robert Pattinson’s joy juice in her hand, rushing to make it to a turkey baster in time so she can knock up a sleeping girl, one’s thoughts drift not to the concepts of procreation or life amidst futile existence, but instead to the image of George Kennedy running through the rickety aluminum sets of the fake sci-fi film in Albert Brooks’s MODERN ROMANCE, with director James L. Brooks watching on worried about the foley effects of the floor.

It seems that throughout the past 70 years of film history, French directors as disparate as Bresson and Besson have injected existentialist thought into both their overreaching dramas and their genre knock-offs. Why go on living if the only end is death? What is the purpose of continuing life in the face of such universal indifference? Denis doesn’t so much answer this question as she does pose it in unique fashion, jumping around chronologically to investigate the incipience and future of the relationship between Pattinson’s character and his baby daughter. And in doing so, she turns her gaze not outward into the galaxy, where trillions of stars shine casually around this floating box, and black holes loom with matter-sucking light, but inward towards the human body — gashes and stitches in a forearm; secretions of sweat, semen, and blood; the muscles and moles of a naked back; Rapunzel-length hair; the mocking of a voice and the squeals of an infant. Denis does not evaluate or opine on any of these — she presents them coldly and dispassionately, and tells her story the way she wants to tell it. Luckily for us, her tone and pace and compositions are so hypnotic that this is a super easy sit — I could have watched another hour of it — and it goes down smoother than both her better and worse films like TROUBLE EVERY DAY and BEAU TRAVAIL.

But Denis succeeds more when she’s lightening up, such as in her fine romance FRIDAY NIGHT. Here, she turns dour and pompous, utilizing risible dialogue, multiple rapes, a couple murders and suicides, and some animal cruelty for good measure (“What do you know about cruelty?” Pattinson asks his child). So it’s hard to argue that we aren’t supposed to be taking this movie very seriously. But then somehow Denis spends a great deal of time on the dark, solitary “fuckbox,” where people go to masturbate on something that looks like the mechanical bull at Saddle Ranch.

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — 6/10

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2018?, Terry Gilliam)

The question mark after the year above indicates natural confusion — Gilliam has been trying to make this movie for about 30 years, with all kinds of peaks and valleys (Johnny Depp as Toby, John Hurt as Quixote, a documentary about its troubled production released 17 years ago, etc.). It has a copyright 2017 in its credits, a 2018 premiere date at Cannes, and finally an American theatrical release. But does stamping a year on this even matter? It’s clearly a career summary for the already-notoriously-insane Gilliam, who sees himself as both Toby and Quixote, and thus turns Toby into Quixote over the course of the epic arc.

The script does feel like it was mainly penned 20 years ago — some elements are stale and outdated, even though it’s also a somewhat faithful adaptation of Cervantes. There’s innkeepers and prostitutes, scorned lovers, dreams of giants, escaped convicts, and loads and loads of imagination. But characters like Olga Kurylenko’s Jacqui (cringe-inducing horniness) just don’t work regardless of their allusions to the text, and the result is a big, sprawling movie that is by turns breathtaking and sloppy.

By now you should know if you like Gilliam. I generally don’t. He’s rarely boring, but every movie he makes is a manic bouillabaisse of Fellini-esque-apades. Much like the grating BRAZIL, spastic TWELVE MONKEYS, or trippy FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, this thing is stuffed to the gills with clutter. Every frame looks like the production designer exploded in a microwave. The colorful costumes are amazing, the set decoration fussy and impressive, and the locations genuinely outstanding. To look at this movie on the big screen is to see something bold and unusual. But it also makes your eye dart everywhere on the screen, as it’s both compositionally ugly and often rich and striking. One frame belongs in the Louvre, another belongs in the trash can of a hoarder’s garage.

Adam Driver makes the movie cruise by, however, with a committed physical performance showing his trademark exasperation and passion. Pryce is properly funny and annoying, as Quixote is supposed to be. The two of them serve as complimentary Gilliam avatars: creative and existing outside the lines, but also shrill and exhausting. And while this may be one of Gilliam’s more alluring movies overall, the fact that as a director he’s tilting at windmills anyway makes an adaptation of Quixote kind of redundant.

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Sunset — 5/10

SUNSET (2019, László Nemes)

Once again shooting exclusively in his patented follow-cam, Nemes has utilized his claustrophobic style to much different effect. With SON OF SAUL, what started off as a harrowing, nearly unwatchable exercise in cinematic torture became more understandable as it went on, despite maintaining its grip as a nightmarish descent into the Holocaust. But somehow SUNSET starts off alluring, then becomes increasingly frustrating, myopic, and self-satisfied.

Perhaps what made SON OF SAUL such a perfect match of form and content was that a singular point of view and feeling of an unbroken pursuit fits well with an amusement park ride through the hellscape of Auschwitz — that is, if your style is visceral, it feeds off built-in stakes and a story predicated on action. SUNSET takes an opposite mode: it’s a mystery, and mysteries beg to be tempting and revealing. Nemes does neither. He gives us no reason to care about Irisz or her family secrets, nor does he show much interest in the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He just dangles a few soft-focus glimpses of chaos in the back of his narrow-depth-of-field lens, instead making Michael Mann jealous with the amount of time devoted to the back of his lead’s neck and ears. As Irisz, Juli Jakab (not to be confused with the actress who plays the countess, Julia Jakubowska; I bet those call sheets were annoying) holds down the fort admirably, but is given very few notes to hit. We are only sure of what she wants when she asks so many questions, but then doesn’t do much with the info she gets anyway.

Nemes is more interested in his beautifully constructed camera movement (it’s so impressive how things and people in the scene are only revealed when Irisz’s gaze turns to them thanks to movement by someone else in the shot) than he is in conveying any sort of coherent thesis. It doesn’t matter who Kalman is, what is happening to the girls who get sold, or why this anarchist group is uprising against the royalty. All that matters is we see things through the eyes of the protagonist. And when this protagonist is so focused on muddled pursuits, we’re left adrift in the Danube.

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The Beach Bum — 7/10

THE BEACH BUM (2019, Harmony Korine)

As close to a standard entry as you’ll get into a genre like stoner comedy from Korine — which is to say not standard at all. First of all, his name is Harmony, and he writes by retreating to a houseboat in Key Largo with nothing but Taco Bell, Mountain Dew, and Cuban cigars, ODing on all of them until he gets in the zone and pumps out a fever-dream script like this. Secondly, if you’ve seen his stuff before, you won’t be surprised that this particular LEBOWSKI riff contains lots of nudity, drugs, and booze; a surprising death; a more surprising amputation; and makes this all just part of the wallpaper. For the vast majority of audiences for whom this isn’t their thing, they’re going to despise it. But I admire Korine’s commitment to this tone, and color me entertained to boot.

There’s a plot, but this is far more of a simple character study than anything. Hardly a scene goes by that doesn’t exist to further develop and observe Moondog, played to dizzying excess by McConaughey in a role he was born for — this is the most McConaughey that’s ever been McConaugheyed on screen and he laps up every last bit of scenery. But it isn’t just showy — there’s a real method to the madness. In an early wedding scene, Moondog can’t even remember his new son-in-law’s name, yet he delivers a surprisingly poetic toast. Korine wants to make sure you know that what matters to Moondog isn’t the details or even the here and now: it’s the art beyond, and the hedonistic pleasures within. He later descends fully dressed into a pool, but makes sure to keep his joint above water. This is a guy who prizes what he prizes — he can dunk himself to near drowning, he can crash a car, and he can literally and figuratively burn money… but he keeps his weed alive, he always smiles at his wife, and he knows how to write a damn poem.

There’s a limit to how much you can wring out of this. It isn’t Homer or even Keats. Moondog likes to talk about living to have fun, and keeps things calm and cool. His philosophy of sucking the marrow out of life isn’t novel, though it’s certainly fun to watch — and along with reliably neon-slick photography from Benoit Debie (fresh off CLIMAX, but reeking of SPRING BREAKERS), it’s gorgeous too. You’ve also got Zac Efron nearly stealing the entire movie with a brief turn as a Manic Pixie Dream Douchebag, the kind of guy who rocks out to Creed, has frosted hair and Venetian blind stripes shaved into his facial hair, and mugs disabled seniors. He’s good enough to make you almost forget that Jonah Hill and Martin Lawrence are also doing stellar work. But this is McConaughey’s movie, and since it spends just as much time on self-aware scenes like Moondog watching a decade-old video of himself reading poetry as it does on big plot moments, it takes a performance that’s equally self-aware, dedicated, physical, and hilarious to sell it.

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Hotel Mumbai — 7/10

HOTEL MUMBAI (2019, Anthony Maras)

When an American tourist has to be told three times he can’t order beef at a restaurant in India, it might be seen as a throwaway moment of levity at the dawn of an impending nightmare. But it’s another sly move by director and co-writer Maras to thread together the concepts of religious ignorance and unspeakable violence. The opening shot is a gorgeous backlit vista of the Arabian sea as a boatload of Islamic terrorists cruise towards Mumbai, listening on their earbuds to their Pakistani leader reiterate how great God is, and how heaven and Allah await their dutiful souls upon completion of this jihad. Maras makes no bones about it — the fundamental (and fundamentalist) backbone of this terror is religious fervor; but subsequent scenes involving human beings struggling to connect with one another show the partially trite but also inarguably truthful observation that when we find common ground, or recognize a shared humanity amongst an Other, it can quell the instinct towards hatred, fear, and brutal attack.

One of the hostages is a bigoted, rich white woman who assumes that anyone speaking Arabic is a terrorist — but while a Russian capitalist barks at her with rage, our heroic Sikh waiter (Dev Patel, engendering untold levels of sympathy and believability) approaches her with a desire to connect with a universal appeal. It would be nice if all intolerance could be healed with reason, but the facts of this story show that won’t happen any time soon. The bulk of this movie is not scenes of rose-colored hugging and learning — it’s a virtually unparalleled and lengthy recreation of many devastating hours of bloody carnage. And Maras does not shy away — he doesn’t revel in blood spatter or graphic gore like a Zahler or Timo Tjahjanto, but he takes the responsibility of depicting the senseless and ugly murders with clear eyes and realistic physics. His visuals are handheld but not Greengrass-volcanic; edits only happen when they need to, and the geography of the hotel makes sense in every scene. This is a remarkable piece of sustained action cinema, loathsome as it may be to endure.

Rather than ignoring the terrorists completely or granting them any sympathy, he makes the smart choice of revealing that these are corrupted humans: they do feel anxious before the attack. They aren’t merciless robots. They worry about their families’ financial security, and they can be swayed into mercy by their moral code as well. But they’ve been poisoned by the kind of hateful religious fanaticism that Maras knows is at the core of true evil. Similarly, the hostages and victims are not all saints. Some are dicks, but can still do nice things. Some are kind-hearted, but make mistakes. Good people do bad things and vice versa. It’s part of human nature, and as such, the loss of this humanity makes this unending nightmare of terrorism so depressing to contemplate. It happened 11 years ago, and the only reason you’re forgiven for forgetting Mumbai is that in that past decade, this has happened so, so, so many more times. This is who we are. There’s no justifying the massacres; there’s only making sense of their consequences, and that’s what movies can do. Even the flawed ones, and this film is among them (the emotional moments are as manipulative as they are tear-jerking; the contrivances feel overly slick at times; pregnant wives at home in fear are cheap methods of developing sympathy; etc.), can contribute to our coming to terms with the violence that mankind can do, and reminding us of the sloppy, complicated shades of grey involved in being human.

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