Lean On Pete — 9/10

LEAN ON PETE (2018, Andrew Haigh)

An emotional haymaker so blindsiding you’ll stumble woozy from the theater, wondering where that uppercut came from. Haigh’s fourth feature is unlike WEEKEND (I haven’t seen GREEK PETE; has anyone?) or 45 YEARS, though like the latter film it’s a literary adaptation, and it shows — mostly in the ramshackle narrative that lurches from incident to incident, deftly introducing supporting characters and tossing them aside in episodic, merciless fashion. But its singular focus on Charley (a galvanizing performance from Charlie Plummer combining na├»ve joy with vulnerable, aching melancholy) gives it a propulsive drive, even when you have no idea where it’s going.

Stylistically, Haigh knows his camera isn’t the main attraction here, so he wisely avoids sizzle, but he still manages a lanky, silky visual scheme involving long dissolves, slow focus racks, and tender close-ups. He shoots Plummer low in the frame, the extra headroom exploring both the big sky of the rugged Northwest USA and the relative smallness of Charley and his place in the world. A nearly invisible score (of low drones and sleepy chords) puts the boy-and-his-horse story at the forefront, two ambling souls wandering vast plains and looking for a connection and survival. Pete isn’t a metaphorical horse representing liberty or otherness; he’s an animal who just wants a job to do and to please those who take care of him. And when you put it like that, so is Charley.

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The Endless — 6/10

THE ENDLESS (2018, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead)

COHERENCE meets THE SACRAMENT in a low-fi/sci-fi mindfuck, that turns out to be a stealth sequel to RESOLUTION. If not a sequel, then at least some sort of B-side. RESOLUTION followed Mike and Chris, and had Aaron and Justin (the directors, playing brothers with the same first names they have in real life) as cameo characters for one scene. THE ENDLESS follows the Aaron and Justin part of the story, checking in on Mike and Chris for one scene. All four characters are played by the same four actors in both films — in this case, it’s problematic because Moorhead isn’t a good actor, and the film suffers when it relies on him to emote.

In following the Justin and Aaron characters this time around, the filmmakers delve into the UFO cult introduced in the first film, which serves as a bit of a red herring — yes there’s supernatural shit galore, but like with their previous (and best) feature SPRING, it’s really an opportunity to focus on a human theme. SPRING was a plea for sincerity in a cynical world, while THE ENDLESS is a meditation on how our choices can result in us living in a dead-end loop; a meaningless existence. The way out of this Sisyphus-ian boulder-roll is to own your actions and respect your relationships. I like how committed these guys are to their world view, and there’s a propulsive energy to this narrative. Wide-angle fisheye lenses and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio create arresting visuals in a nearly exclusively exterior location, intentionally disorienting and often striking. But it goes so far into its own wormhole of philosophical metaphors that it often comes off as a confused jumble of cool ideas with a lack of clarity. Still, even when they come up short, Benson & Moorhead never fail to deliver a weirdly compelling watch, well worth thinking about on the drive home and for days to come.

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A Quiet Place — 7/10

A QUIET PLACE (2018, John Krasinski)

A nerve-wracking theatrical experience, given that so much of the multiplex is filled with bombastic noise, and this thrives on silence for so long. Jump scares are heightened because of the added sensory deprivation, and the 90-minute runtime ensures that no time is wasted, as suspense builds and rarely lets up. Krasinski the director proves to be a clever craftsman (as an actor, he’s merely solid), using quick visual cues to set up the world and show evidence of a lot of things that happened off screen. But some of the unspoken traits raise more questions than they answer — why are they barefooted, when moccasins or soft slippers would be just as quiet and more protective? Why does nobody ever have to sneeze? Why not cover the loud hardwood floors with carpet or old clothes?

Unfortunately, as effective as the silence is, the film continuously undercuts it with a heavy dose of original score, draping almost every scene in needless instrumental music. Imagine how great the iPod dancing scene would have been if that were the only music in the movie? Also, Krasinski’s and Blunt’s fears of being unable to protect their children — the main theme of the movie and its reason for existing — come off like an argument for helicopter parenting; if not, at least it will encourage such behavior in those who emerge shaken from this experience. But those flaws aside, this is still a fiercely tense piece of entertainment: intelligent, jolting, and proving that original stories work when you go back to the basics of what make movies movies — off-screen space, on-screen reactions, composition, and, of course, audio.

 

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You Were Never Really Here — 8/10

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018, Lynne Ramsay)

Sifting through a bowl of jelly beans at his agent’s office, freelance thug Joe (a frightening, committed, explosive bottle of coiled rage in the hulking, scarred body of Joaquin Phoenix) says he likes the green ones, but can’t find any. Eventually he fishes one out, and instead of popping it into his mouth and savoring that which he adores, he smashes it between his fingers until it turns into sugary crumbs. Everything in Joe’s life, whether he loves it or hates it, will be destroyed if he has any say in it.

And that begins with Joe himself, who displays suicidal tendencies throughout (we’re introduced to him holding a plastic bag over his face — a pastime that flashbacks prove has lasted for decades). But he turns that self-hatred outward and funnels it into his job, which is the muscle that breaks up sex trafficking rings, usually by beating guys to death with a hammer to the face. He is theoretically on the side of moral righteousness, but wherever he goes, death follows: bloody, brutal, painfully brain-splattered death.

Ramsey’s previous film, 2011’s near-masterpiece WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (her film titles need a little editing, don’t they?) was one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve had in a theater. It does as much with its form and rhythm as with its story, which is still pretty intense (a fractured-chronology peek into the life of the mother of a teenage mass murderer). Seven years later, she hasn’t changed her tune; this is a very disturbing watch, one that ensures its audience leaves with sweaty palms and elevated body temps. Audio is key, and that includes both foley effects and soundtrack — the latter of which mixes ’50s sock-hop ballads with Jonny Greenwood’s brilliant score: it’s piercing, percussive, shrieking, and pulsating. The same can be said for Ramsay’s movie overall: the story is both thin and obtuse, but you feel the tone in your gut. Plants have sickening payoffs (like when Joe removes the glasses from his pretending-to-be-sleeping mother), and cycles of childhood violence do permanent damage. But it’s all about the form. Tight close-ups, gorgeous lighting, jagged cutting (the out-of-sync cuts in Joe’s siege on the brownstone is a thing of horrific beauty), silence-shattering bangs, blood and guts dripping and spraying onto porcelain and skin. There’s nobody who makes movies like she does, and if it means we have to wait 7 years every time, I’ll take it.

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Blockers — 6/10

BLOCKERS (2017, Kay Cannon)

It’s hard to buy this idea: that three parents would freak out so wildly that their high-school-senior (age 18!) daughters might be having sex on prom night; enough to torch heaven and earth in an attempt to stop them. What, if they’re stopped they can’t just do it the next night? But somehow BLOCKERS mostly overcomes this insipid premise (not to mention shabby, indifferent direction) by sheer force of will — of the actors and the punch-up writers, who stock this thing full of laugh-out-loud jokes.

Ike Barinholtz steps out of his supporting career (having been a great bench player in NEIGHBORS, EASTBOUND & DOWN, and SNATCHED) and wrestles the spotlight here in an ensemble of capable comedians. While John Cena manages to confidently exhibit — and then cast aside — his terrible acting chops while being super hilarious many times over, and Leslie Mann mostly curbs her instincts to overdo every scene, it’s Barinholtz who takes a joke of a character and infuses him with sadness, regret, determination, confusion, and an overflowing genuine adoration for his child. His one sincere monologue gets a jokey punchline, but he doesn’t play it for sarcasm or overacting laughs; he takes it seriously and it pays off about 30 minutes later when he just stands there looking at his daughter.

The teens are impressive too, especially Geraldine Viswanathan as Cena’s gleeful, intelligent daughter with razor-sharp line delivery. But a subplot involving a PINEAPPLE EXPRESS reunion of Gary Cole and Gina Gershon feels shoehorned in, and a bro-standoff involving Cena and a keg of beer is juvenile humor far beneath the movie, coming off as a desperate attempt to lure the teenage ticket buyers. Kay Cannon, the hilarious writer of the PITCH PERFECT movies, is making her debut behind the camera here and the results are sadly familiar to the Apatow school of comic filmmaking: plop the camera down, let actors improv, then hack together the best takes the best you can, continuity and visual creativity be damned. But Apatow movies are funny, and his disciples Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg are too, so the fact that the latter pair produced this makes a lot of sense — ultimately maybe it doesn’t matter that the premise and direction are crap; it’s a delivery device for jokes, and the jokes land hard.

 

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Ready Player One — 4/10

READY PLAYER ONE (2018, Steven Spielberg)

I used to bag on Twitch and its users, because who in the world would waste their time watching someone else play video games? Well, joke’s on me. At least on Twitch they’re real people and it’s free to watch. I just paid money to see READY PLAYER ONE, which is fictional people playing a video game.

If robots had guts and innards, this movie would be what you’d see if you cut one open — a lot of ones and zeros crammed into the frame in a disgusting and tasteless barrage of noise. Alternately dazzling and boring, it’s a thin, surface-heavy children’s film masquerading as a meditation on pop culture nostalgia and the dystopian vision of a future dedicated to VR consumption. It’s so packed with shit that think-pieces are more interesting than the movie itself, which feels overly conflicted — not by profound design, but just because it’s a sad and cynical chassis bolted onto a crowd pleaser.

Zak Penn and source novelist Ernest Cline’s screenplay is unbelievably inane, over-explaining everything at least twice, just to make sure the cheap seats get the point. Conversations are repeated, characters are lectured to about things they just saw and heard, almost as if neither writer trusted the director (and why would they? What has this Spielberg guy ever done of note?) to communicate anything visually. But the fact that Steven left in all of this repulsive dialogue just shows how much he was checked out of this. A key line that I’m sure all the fanboys and hot-take crickets highlight is about Halliday being a creator who hated his own creation. Clearly that resonates with Spielberg, who finished principle photography on this in 2016, then let post-production run rampant for a year (IMDb lists 627 visual effects crew members) while he green-lit THE POST in February 2017. He prepped it, shot it in the summer, cut it in the fall, and released it in time for Oscar season. Then while Meryl Streep was doing the rounds, he must have trudged back into the mix bays to watch final looks of this hot garbage, give a few notes, and then daydream about working with Tom Hanks yet again.

Because none of this feels like a work that’s been mulled over by a strong artist for very long. Why does every major character happen to live in Columbus, Ohio? Why can’t Art3mis solve the game herself, being clearly as skilled as Wade? Why does the third act have our white hero being driven to the slums by his black chauffeur? Why do the Asian characters have accents if they live in Ohio? How did the second-biggest tech company in the world get where they are staffed with nothing but idiots? Why is the entire third act basically an expensive episode of Scooby Doo? Is the reason nearly the entire cast is British or Irish (Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, Ralph Ineson, Susan Lynch, Clare Higgins…) that it was filmed in London? If so, why doesn’t it take place there?

As for the pop culture touchstones, the movie wants to eat its cake and have it too — it says that the people who will own the world will do so based on their trivia knowledge of movies like BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE SHINING (while tossing in some random TERMINATOR 2, JURASSIC PARK, and Mario Kart stuff), but then urges them to put down the controllers for two days a week because, as it says twice (par for the course) “the only thing that’s real is reality.” Oh, fuck off, man.

 

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Unsane — 7/10

UNSANE (2017, Steven Soderbergh)

Very early on in this air-tight psycho thriller, the female protagonist Sawyer enters the office of her boss at a new job. The establishing shot is of the photos on his desk — a wife, a family. Then the older, more powerful man sits her down and proceeds to brazenly hit on her, inviting her to a convention in New Orleans with just him, for two nights (“At the Hyatt!”) before she excuses herself. This scene comes after we’ve already heard her on the phone ordering a client around with an assertive tone — her co-worker thinks it’s a man she’s talking to, but Sawyer quickly points out it’s a “she.”

Gender dynamics continue to play a role throughout UNSANE, Soderbergh’s fourth success in a row, during what’s turning out to be a fruitful, compelling late period (following his masterful TV show THE KNICK, last year’s crackerjack LOGAN LUCKY, and the recent HBO miniseries — and techno-forward app experiment — MOSAIC). In fact, gender is virtually what it’s all about. Sawyer even gets her name from her grandfather. Throughout her life, which we learn a lot about in swift exposition, despite the entire movie taking place in less than a week, dominant men have exerted force over her, and the gaslighting is just beginning.

Not that female nurses and administrators don’t play a part too, and not that she doesn’t have male allies (Jay Pharoah is a standout), but the pattern is men closing in on Sawyer. Watch how deftly a surprising Matt Damon plays his detective character — in just a minute or two of screen time he rushes through his lines with so much fear-mongering and mansplaining that you wonder if he’s as dangerous as the stalker she’s complaining about.

Credit to Bernstein and Greer’s screenplay for tightly setting everything up on the quick. When Sawyer calls her mom at the beginning, she sings praises about her boss despite having just endured the gross come-on. That clues us in to why mom isn’t aware of David, and how much Sawyer is really keeping to herself. And this wouldn’t be a Soderbergh film if it didn’t come down to the corruption of American economics — in this case, health care, and how hospitals run insurance scams just to stay afloat. All of this is packed into an unsettling, disturbing, 98-minute pot-boiler shot on an iPhone 7 with ingenious compositions, editing, and movement. Even the shaky American accent Claire Foy struggles through doesn’t distract from a powerhouse lead performance, and while the plot resolves itself without any real unpredictability beyond the first hour, Soderbergh proves once again how comforting it is to give in to someone who knows what the hell he’s doing. By the time the suspense climaxes with a showdown in a disorienting blue padded cell, the maestro has shown that there are no constraints he can’t work within.

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