Apologies for letting this blog lie dormant this year. I’ll try to catch up a bit with a few posts, this first one being a hit-list of films I saw over the summer (since my last review of THE TOMORROW WAR) but hadn’t published write-ups for. Fair warning that the ANNETTE review has spoilers. But you probably know by now that my reviews are written to be read after viewing the movie, not before.
THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, James Gunn) — 6/10
Basically just GUARDIANS with hard-R gore instead of cutesy sci-fi, which makes sense from the auteur behind the tasteless SUPER. Gunn is butt-hurt from being fired by Disney (though even that didn’t last long), so he went all-out with the blood & guts just because he could, but the joke is on him because literally *nobody* cares about Gunn as a director. Do you know anyone who’s like “I can’t WAIT until the next James Gunn movie?” It isn’t that he’s incompetent — as a craftsman he’s perfectly fine — but he will never get talked about as a distinctive voice the way filmmakers both better (Tarantino, Nolan) and worse (Snyder, Bay) are revered in the action franchise genre.
Speaking of Tarantino, there’s a lot of worship of QT here by Gunn, as if too many people told him his “Awesome ’70s Mix Tape” needle drops from GUARDIANS were great, so he doubles down on it for no good reason. Especially because John Murphy’s original score is excellent and requires no supplemental music. Murphy’s theme reimagines Beastie Boys’s “Sabotage” guitar riff by way of Girls Against Boys and provides a super-charged, muscle-car attitude to the montages and action scenes. It’s the kind of fire-spitting, low-fi cymbal-crash-plus-amped-up-bass you’d get from a guy who listened to a lot of Oasis’s “Fuckin’ In the Bushes” or something. Probably my favorite score since TENET.
As for the proceedings, they won’t surprise anyone — lots of superficial style with little grounding it (one “cool” shot shows a brawl between Cena and Kinnaman entirely through the reflection of a metallic helmet sitting on the floor); attempts at characterization that get nullified by the snarky, cynical tone; and a smattering of callbacks both to Ayer’s first attempt (through the few returnees: Davis, Kinnaman, Robbie, and the mercifully brief screen time for Courtney) and to GUARDIANS, with Stallone coming in for Vin Diesel/Bradley Cooper and Cena replacing Bautista, in a way. One more improvement: Idris Elba is much better than Will Smith in the straight hero role (though Deadshot is a cooler name than Bloodsport). Entertaining enough for gore-thirsty comic nerds, with an inspired kaiju in the colorful-starfish-armed-with-face-huggers invention, but thin and soulless the way most of these things are and seemingly always will be.
THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021, David Lowery) — 8/10
Some Christian allegorical symbolism that went over my head, as it usually does, despite so much of it being underlined so hard (Christmas, first line I think is “Christ is born,” sacrificial hero, nativity scenes, mother is supernatural, no father to be found, and final temptation) and a few fantasy elements that — although they’re thematically coherent — still left something murky in the interpretation (mine, at least).
But that’s about all the demerits I can grant this rapturous evocation of Arthurian legend. Lowery fully commits to the fantasy stuff, playing it remarkably straight-faced despite the humor in the dialogue (my favorite exchange: “Here and there.” “Here?” “No, mostly there. Here I’m just passing through.”) and it pulses all the richer for it. Dev Patel is subtle but magnificent as he fashions a simple arc from foolish, unreliable twit to curious rookie knight to selfless adventurer and finally to a face-off between cowardice and true heroism. I guess it doesn’t matter than the Green Knight’s “game” is actually some one-sided bullshit (it’s not a blow for a blow — Gawain’s strike against the Knight yielded no lasting damage, while the Knight’s threatened decapitation will end Gawain’s life should he submit to it); this is about how one unexceptional black sheep finds his purpose. Stunning to look at and deliberately paced (it moves like a dream, like when you’re trying to run in water, but with clarity of purpose unlike the “wouldn’t this be weird” dream silliness you might find in David Lynch), it’s also aggressively, unabashedly arty and I love that it got made.
PIG (2021, Michael Sarnoski) — 8/10
A study in loneliness and loss, filtered through the presentation of food as a means of identity. Chefs as cultivators of taste, ignored by their audience or actively abused by those they aim to provide for. Two incredible scene-of-the-year standouts (dinner with dad, and especially face-off with Derek) that explore what meals mean to those who consume and those who prepare, emboldened by truly outstanding supporting performances from David Knell and Adam Arkin.
If you ever wanted to know what JOHN WICK would have looked like with Kelly Reichardt in the director’s chair, this is pretty much it. A few too many plagiarism-level similarities in the narrative to its spiritual predecessor (retired loner with a famous reputation, son of the big-bad connects hero to villain, American muscle car is involved, loss of beloved pet, widower has tapes of his dead wife to remind him of her, etc.) but Robin Feld is more Nick Nolte than Nic Cage (who, by the way, is younger than Tom Cruise & Brad Pitt, and only 8 months older than John Wick himself Keanu Reeves), what with his grey, grizzly beard, hulking sadness, and low-voiced mumble. None of the mannered, manic tics we associate with Cage are evident, as he plays Feld with a resigned moroseness — a man with little to lose and nothing else to gain.
The search for the pig becomes Cage’s search for his own reason to plod on in life, well past his expiration date — both as a professional and as a husband — enamored only by the change he witnesses upon reemergence to the city (the loss of the drapes in the bakery is an improvement!) and desperate to find something to love. An empty mausoleum vault drawer where his name might appear someday is all that separates him from the living and the dead. He looks terrible to others (“do you need medical attention?”) but holds onto his principles (“Fuck Seattle!”).
Shame about its two biggest drawbacks. Alex Wolff, terrible in HEREDITARY, is slightly better here, but can’t muster the dramatic authenticity necessary for Amir to have an arc we care about. And then there’s that cinematography — muddy and underlit, painfully drab digital imagery, completely underserving material that could have been so much more evocative. (Compare it to Andrew Droz Palermo’s work in THE GREEN KNIGHT, which looks astounding — also luxuriates in darkness, but has the contrast and artistry to pull it off, plus everything you need to see is properly lit).
MALIGNANT (2021, James Wan) — 7/10
Wan’s gifts for action filmmaking (FURIOUS 7), gory violence (DEATH SENTENCE) and chilling horror scares manipulated by precise camerawork, compositions, and timing (THE CONJURING) all come together in a completely batshit blast of energy that overcomes its third act genre cliches by sheer force of competence and gusto.
It doesn’t hurt that Akela Cooper’s script is infused with righteous indignity against domestic violence (painted as the crime that wakes up even worse ones) and obstacles to the bonds of family (both blood-related and adopted). The entire thing could be read as a testament to female strength (both heroic and villainous) overcoming ineffectual male authority — the male detective is pretty bad at his job (doesn’t see the sketch artist’s work, refuses to follow leads, flirts too much with both co-workers and case witnesses), guards are hobbled by pacemakers, husbands are drunk and stupid — the men are literally parasites feeding off women’s contributions.
But Wan tempers the messaging in favor of maximalist shock, because he’s James Wan, and as such there’s no shortage of insane set-pieces. One foot chase through the Seattle underground is reminiscent of Pitt-Spacey in SEVEN, and a police station massacre later on makes the one in THE TERMINATOR feel like a pillow fight. Blowing curtains masking dark shapes, threats just out of frame, evil lurking above and to the side keeps your eye busy… this is the kind of kinetic direction that makes Wan much better than many of his peers (even the ones that take over his own franchises).
Annabelle Wallis fails to rise to the occasion in the lead role, seeming out of her depth the more she’s asked to do physically and emotionally, and Sister Exposition thanklessly gets some of the worst lines in the film. Even fake-Wanda-Sykes as the sidekick partner ends up with little to do. And as for the mysteries, an early Pixies music cue sort of gives things away (though giving Madison an iPhone threw me off). But with all of these shortcomings, the power of the material as well as a healthy dose of intentional humor (there are legit gags in the dialogue) keep this solidly above the bar. Plus, a few too many mainstream horrors have been PG-13 these days, playing too timidly with body count and menace. Nice to see Wan saying fuck-it and going hard-R again. Hide your kids.
THE CARD COUNTER (2021, Paul Schrader) — 4/10
One of the many terrible lines in this disappointingly blunt and clumsy script by a former master comes when Isaac and Sheridan are driving down the highway and Sheridan starts jamming out to some heavy metal music. Isaac shouts at him to “turn that shit off!” and Sheridan disgustedly replies, “Who are you… God?!?!”
Nobody would expect a Schrader script to be absent of religious references, and sometimes they’re transcendent — even in this film, the final Sistine Chapel homage is beautiful — but when shoehorned into dialogue like this it’s enough to roll your eyes out of your skull. Combined with the self-flagellation (both emotional and physical) and overwhelming guilt/redemption themes, this is classic Schrader material but calcified and dumbed down into a version that improves in no way on previous, much-better works.
And if the heavy-handed messaging about military torture at Abu Ghraib provides a pretentious framework to preach to us the dangers and ills of war and imperialism, the only way to emerge successful would be in the narrative text involving a traveling poker player — and somehow the script falls even flatter there. Both broad strokes and minute details ring false (Isaac has to mansplain to Haddish the drawbacks of being in makeup to a backer, even though she’s a backer; Haddish narrates the rules of Texas Hold’em to Sheridan as though she’s in CASINO ROYALE or voicing one of the many poker boom shows on GSN in 2005; final tablists arrive at the table with their chips already unbagged and stacked; TDs never color up at the end; there are no preflop all-ins-and-calls even though those dominate tournament endgames; etc. etc. etc.).
Isaac, for his part, doesn’t embarrass himself too much as an actor when playing poker. He actually shuffles his chips and holds his arms like a pro (though he shuffles slowly and sometimes doesn’t quite get it right — he could have used a few more weeks practicing it, but still I applaud the effort compared to Damon’s fishy work in ROUNDERS) but there are still some things consultant Joe Stapleton should have caught. He looks at his cards right after he gets them rather than waiting his turn to act; his character almost exclusively plays passively, check-calling his way to victory. (And when he calls on the river, he instantly turns over his hand which you don’t do; you wait for the bettor to show and then you table the winner). In the most hilarious hand, Isaac catastrophically turns pocket kings into a bluff after value betting flop and turn, but because he’s the hero he gets his opponent to fold. No explanation is given for why he vacillates between blackjack and poker (though voiceover at least acknowledges the essential gambling differences) — but I was hoping at least that there would be more blackjack given the title. Nope, it’s mostly poker (after one opening blackjack scene explaining how to count cards) so the title sucks too.
Anyway, even with Willem Dafoe’s 75-second cameo this doesn’t have enough performing power to overcome a script by a guy I didn’t think was over the hill after the very good FIRST REFORMED, but this irascible grouch isn’t even close to what he was in the days of BLUE COLLAR, TAXI DRIVER, or MISHIMA. This is some CANYONS-level dialogue, draped on a wire hanger of a story that only comes alive when it isn’t talking — the aforementioned Sistine Chapel shot, and explicitly the most successful player on Isaac’s WSOP Circuit tour, an American bro in a stars-and-stripes tank top whose rail keeps shouting “USA! USA!” whenever he wins. A great film could have supported this nicely cinematic evocation of a country that’s always forcing the W; in this one it just sticks out as the only (heavy-handed) metaphor that works.
TITANE (2021, Julia Ducournau) — 7/10
I wrote the following about RAW four and a half years ago:
“Worth seeing if you’re into disgusting body-horror dramas, because it has a lot on its mind and presents ideas relating to female sexual liberation, college hazing, and parental influence with fresh perspectives (and a keen camera sense). It can feel muddled at times (where is the faculty, and in what world does a vet school like this exist?) and definitely isn’t for everyone, but it leaves a bit of a bite mark on you.”
Turns out I could have almost the identical review of TITANE, with just a couple phrases updated for details.
The body horror here is dialed up even more, with motor oil oozing from nipples, and constant shots of tape marks on skin from the gender swap torture. With every scene, Ducournau is hammering home the violence perpetrated against Alexia by her own doing — motivated by fear, corrupted by male parenting, crippled by her mechanical sexual desires (themselves inspired by childhood trauma), and lashing out against a dominant patriarchy fueled by testosterone (not for nothing the screen time devoted to sweaty muscle-bound firemen dancing around in a rave like apes).
A little less muddled than RAW, and the fantasy elements integrated into the realistic world a little better, but I still didn’t quite feel it all come together with a snap the way the last scene wanted me to. But it’s extremely intelligent, both cerebral in its character study as it relates to gender issues universally, and in its visceral, visual shock regarding the contrast between flesh and metal — the constant push and pull between what’s organic and what’s machine.
ANNETTE (2021, Leos Carax) — 4/10
Conceptually, this is astounding. Opens with the image of a recording studio where the music is presumably realistic, then instantly breaks the wall by shedding the fictionalized justifications for the music, turning into full-on fantastical-musical performance as we stroll outside the confines of said studio and continue to address the camera (viewer), holding our attention and heightening our awareness that this is both a movie and musical theater.
As it burrows into the narrative, it becomes a treatise on the blurred lines between truth and performance — Henry confesses on stage to killing his wife (through tickling), and then later kills his wife. Meanwhile, Ann repeatedly dies on stage in her own opera, then actually dies. With life imitating art, it only makes sense that their entire lives are performances, staged conversations and songs sung for the benefit of the audience and each other. So then they create a baby, a child then exploited by the industry, a literal puppet to sing and dance (fly) for the audience to adore while the stage dad makes all the money. It’s all pretty savage and self-loathing, but coheres intelligently as a statement about lives as performance art — “all the world’s a stage,” writ through French existentialist cinema (with a dose of Christianity when the mob wonders “who will die for us?” with Ann gone and Annette retired).
There’s concept, and then there’s the experience of watching this film, which is truly excruciating. The music is hellish punishment for 140 minutes — like rejects from a community theater in Modesto practicing the choral parts of “Bohemian Rhapsody” until they die or go hoarse. It’s all a cappella arpeggios, shrill melodies on top of repetitive minor-key screeds. Absolutely unlistenable garbage, the antithesis of what makes music such a lovely human creation. Then there’s the ghastly abomination that is Annette, a marionette creepier than anything in TITANE, and almost a one-invention argument against the entire concept of babies in cinema. Combine this freakish concoction with Adam Driver’s obnoxious, arm’s-length performance — over-reliant on physical movement (because Carax rarely goes into close-up, choosing instead to frame every person within his elaborate sets and at an emotional remove) and a growing birthmark that works as a crude metaphor for Henry’s corrupted soul — and you’ve got an object that’s near torture to endure, but which occasionally leaves enough slack on the noose to contemplate just how clever and arresting its ambitions are. If only it didn’t look and sound like this.