The Northman — 9/10

THE NORTHMAN (2022, Robert Eggers)

A dirty, snowy, muddy, bloody epic that had me giggling in constant surprise at the audacity on screen, followed by an ear-to-ear grin leaving the theater exhausted and adrenalized. Eggers has used the same Scandinavian legend on which Shakespeare based Hamlet, but handed off half the writing to an Icelandic poet, whose sensibility meshes beautifully with the weirdo behind THE WITCH and THE LIGHTHOUSE. 

It’s an art-wankery GLADIATOR, full of guttural screams, complex oners, oversized dialogue (“these wounds came from a hungry blade,” “I will gorge on the blood of my enemies,” and a pre-attack monologue worthy of Inigo Montoya), and fantasy flourishes that involve a floating Ethan Hawke, a blind witchy prophetess played by Björk, an ashen ghostly sword-keeper, a heavy metal Valkyrie, and very keen pregnancy radar. The ballsy tricks up Eggers’s sleeve are too numerous to mention, but let it be known that Skarsgård breaking his nose while beating a Viking to a pulp with his own face is like the 8th-grossest thing to happen as well as the 19th-craziest scene. 

We all know how this plot goes by now, but to draw the kind of nuance around Amleth’s backstory like this (maybe the dead king wasn’t so great? Maybe Mom has a good reason for shacking up with the murderous uncle?), to give Ophelia/Olga a parallel arc underlining the Oedipal themes (Taylor-Joy delivers a brazen performance that, with little screen time, manages to give life and dimension to a role that in lesser hands would just be a token love interest) lends the revenge plot more emotion and depth. The Viking detail is rigorous, well-researched (WTF is that field hockey game “knattleikr” holy shit), and immersive. It’s shot on 35mm film, color-graded beautifully, scored perfectly, and it’s a case of studio notes (“make it shorter and more entertaining!”) helping to balance out a filmmaker whose predilections lean towards a slack pace and confusing tangents. That all adds up to a dream scenario for me and I had high expectations that were nonetheless exceeded. A hell of a good time at the movies.

Note: Apologies for the utter lack of prolificness from this blog. I won’t bore you with the myriad reasons, but I don’t expect to return any time soon to frequent and regular reviews. That said, THE NORTHMAN was good enough (best film released since 2019 I think) to motivate me to publish this. Get yourself to the theater!

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Being the Ricardos — 5/10

BEING THE RICARDOS (2021, Aaron Sorkin)

Horrific opening act nearly torpedoes the entire thing, but a couple of sharp sequences and heroic performances rescue this from the basement. It’s still Sorkin’s worst effort — both as writer and as director — and I should have seen it coming after his effusive interviews with David Fincher last year at the Director’s Guild (Fincher talked to him about CHICAGO 7, and he talked to Fincher about MANK). Sorkin was so in love with MANK that it was only a matter of time (just a few months, it turns out) before he tried to make his own MANK and of course it’s nearly as lame and boring.

Insular (and incestuous) in its fascination with old Hollywood, and full of some strawman potshots (at HUAC, stuffy TV execs, and corporate sponsors), Sorkin’s uninspiringly competent biopic tries for a sort of STEVE JOBS-esque structure (one week of production of one episode of I LOVE LUCY, which allows for flashbacks galore) and tries to impart a message about inclusiveness, feminism, and the complexities of marriage. All very admirable, and by the time Kidman faces off against a well-fleshed-out Bardem backstage in the climax, the energy works. There’s even a subtle callback to one of SPORTS NIGHT’s greatest episodes: the discovery of the white shirt revealing infidelity. But the entire thing is still swamped by its biopic smugness — the indulgent performances by Desi’s band, the re-creation of famous sitcom moments complete with Kidman’s creepy-good mimicry, and the writers room standing in for What It Means To Be Creative In An Unjust World. Sly, low key MVP is J.K. Simmons, giving probably his best performance since OZ.

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The Matrix Resurrections — 4/10

THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (2021, Lana Wachowski)

A typical Wachowski big swing full of personal themes about identity, illusion, and the struggle for individuality in an increasingly anonymous world. But it’s a very atypical Wachowski effort in that the action is weak, and whatever might look cool about it is basically saved for the last 20 minutes, spending the first two hours on mind-numbing exposition and muddy narrative wheel-spinning.

New characters are introduced only to stand around in intricate costumes without getting their own story arcs (so much wasted potential in young-Morpheus-as-an-agent; and in Jessica Henwick’s Bugs), while too much focus lands on NPH’s sniveling villain and Jada Pinkett Smith’s terrible performance drowning in even more terrible old age makeup. Even Keanu Reeves is barely trying, looking sullen and lost and waiting for a green screen so he can stand in front of it waving his hands around like Dr. Strange. Only Carrie-Anne Moss delivers a real performance with a beginning, middle, and end — yet her chemistry with Reeves is still forced and unmoored. I don’t think any of us expected something as galvanizing as the original MATRIX, but I would have at least taken another CLOUD ATLAS instead of this half-assed meta-STAR-WARS.

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Don’t Look Up — 8/10

DON’T LOOK UP (2021, Adam McKay)

Bleak, scathing, and consistently hilarious, DON’T LOOK UP has yielded unsurprisingly polarized reactions. NETWORK was beloved upon release, BAMBOOZLED was decidedly not (and both continue to have mixed reputations to this day, to differing degrees — Spike’s masterpiece still has some catching up to do compared with Lumet’s canonical screed), and I’m not even sure what people (or myself) think of Burton’s MARS ATTACKS, which shares some DNA with this as well. 

But something else I’d like to place into context with this is the work of Edgar Wright, especially stuff like HOT FUZZ and THE WORLD’S END, each of which use form as a comic punchline. The former satirized Michael Bay’s hyper-edited, coverage-saturated style to hilarious effect (and, to a lesser extent, so did THE HANGOVER III, which is still my favorite of the trilogy specifically because of how it styled itself as an action movie for a joke); the latter mimicked John Carpenter’s body horror and sci-fi tricks and mined them for laughs. 

Adam McKay’s latest, which is easily his funniest film since STEP BROTHERS, isn’t quite as great as the genre titans I mentioned earlier, but it does use form as a satirical tool — and I credit editor Hank Corwin for that. This is the guy who cut NATURAL BORN KILLERS and THE TREE OF LIFE, so he knows his way around an edit bay, and what he does here is sort of a mish-mash of the Roland Emmerich disaster movie structure (rapid montages of across-the-globe reactions) and some Bay’s-ARMAGEDDON bombast. He even takes from himself, mixing media a la NBK to generate a grating, maximalist tone that works in unison with the material. (Another way to say that is, for a movie about a comet that’s going to lay waste to the whole planet, obliterating everything in sight, the style cranks its volume up to 11 and blasts everything it can — from Trump to TikTok to cable news and everything in between). 

So to complain that the editing here sucks, or the direction is all disjointed, seems to me like complaining that Dirk Diggler’s song “Feel the Heat” in BOOGIE NIGHTS is really bad music. Uh… yes? That’s the point? Doesn’t mean you have to like it — and I totally get people responding to this like nails on a chalkboard — but at least admit that’s what it’s going for. It isn’t like this is anyone’s first rodeo behind the camera. Corwin and McKay are not idiots; they just have controversial taste.

Anyway, what seems less controversial is how good DiCaprio is at playing a believable character as straight and making it hilarious (he isn’t in too many scenes with his co-star from THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but whenever he is, Jonah Hill works perfectly as the asshole-Jared-Kushner-blowjob-dickhead-Don-Jr.-moron foil to the corrupted, beta hero that is Leo’s Dr. Mindy. J-Law is a little less versatile but makes the most of Kate’s obsession with the Pentagon official who stole money from her for free snacks, and all the other supporting roles (especially Chalamet’s religious, snarky, skateboarding zoomer) provide big laughs. 

It isn’t fun — it’s even depressing — to be confronted with the realities of a political machine beholden to capitalist overlords (Mark Rylance’s high-pitched, toothy Elon Musk villain is the one clangy note I wish had landed better); a populace that turns to rioting once they hear the truth; a social-media-obsessed society that reacts with IDIOCRACY levels of self-owning instead of reasoned takes; and anti-science attitudes by clickbait television that have led not only to the rise of MAGA and tepid response to climate change that inspired this screenplay in the first place, but also to the diastrous pandemic response that was happening during filming. But don’t hold all that against Adam McKay. Hold it against the United States.

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The Power of the Dog — 6/10

THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021, Jane Campion)

As usual, the warning that there’s spoilers here. By now you should know to read reviews after seeing the movie, not before. (That would be like watching a behind-the-scenes doc before seeing the thing).

Frustratingly, more like AMERICAN BEAUTY than BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, though neither is a very neat analog. It just takes great cinematography (Wegner is so versatile! Her lo-fi work on ZOLA and IN FABRIC was appropriate for that material, while this is more like KELLY GANG), a terrific score, and subtly forceful direction and applies it to a story that doesn’t necessarily deserve them. With up to three potentially gay characters here, all are implied to be hugely problematic — Bronco Henry seemingly groomed a teen Phil and molested him in a sleeping bag; Phil himself is a huge asshole; and then there’s Peter, the goth twink who’s a burgeoning psychopathic killer (given how long he was planning his scheme, asking about anthrax and cutting a hide off a sick cow long before the rope thing shows some extreme forethought). Why can’t any of these guys just be as nice and sweet as the cute straight couple?

Golden Globe nominations mean less than nothing; they’re a deranged media concoction with more political gladhanding than merit. But it’s telling that of the four main actors, only Plemons was not nominated, and he gives the movie’s best performance — he absorbs abuse from his brother and allows himself only minor pleasures to escape his sad existence (note how he breaks away from his adorable dance with his new bride just to tell her how happy he is not to be alone anymore, though he still can’t bring himself to sob). And Campion sees fit to jettison this fascinating guy for the second half of the film, so we can get the ol’ “mean macho cowboy is only toxic because closeted” plot. No shade on Cumberbatch’s performance (the archness of his early dialogue is justified by the mask he takes off once he’s alone with Peter), but he’s still dead before he can self-actualize, so we’re left with the murderous young hero protecting his alcoholic mom. Scene by scene this is all effectively handled and pleasant to look at and listen to, but in narrative features (especially ones adapted from novels), story still matters.

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Licorice Pizza — 9/10

LICORICE PIZZA (2021, Paul Thomas Anderson)

In the opening shot, some teenage boys are primping in a high school bathroom when a few rapscallions vandalize a toilet behind them — it explodes in a shocking boom, followed by spraying water and the giggling cries of “cherry bomb!” before everyone runs out. Instantly we’re thrown back to a time where a loud bang going off in a school could never be a shooting — never a real bomb, no violence threatened whatsoever; just some punks being cheeky. 

In the next scene, the heroine Alana walks against a sea of students breezing past her. She’s going in one direction, the world is going the other way. Anderson is so gifted at conveying character with visual shorthand like this that you almost don’t notice it. But he’s a wizard and the rest of the movie relies on these first two piece of information — we’re in an idealized past, looking at two people who stand out among the crowd. 

Under the loose guise of a rom-com, PTA molds this slice-of-life story with gloriously non-formulaic twists and turns. Random decisions and coincidences lead our characters down new life paths, as we go from the world of child actors to waterbed sales, from political campaigns to pinball arcades. Each new chapter creates another element of timing that keeps our romantic leads apart from each other; timing is always an issue (not just the age — Alana is a decade older than Gary — but also the appearances of new partners and friends) as we wait for fate and maturity to hopefully lead these two together once and for all.

None of this is particularly new ground for PTA: the Valley has been a part of most of his films; child prodigies have existed in MAGNOLIA, unusual romances in PHANTOM THREAD, and scary dudes with a house in the hills in BOOGIE NIGHTS. But delirious entertainment is nothing new for him either, and every scene here crackles with joy and energy, bolstered by Anderson’s well-honed craft. The threat of violence lingers, especially if you’re thinking about how the ’80s of BOOGIE NIGHTS ruined the party of the ’70s — there’s the creeper patrolling the campaign headquarters, the runaway truck careening gasless down the hill, and any number of jealousies that could lead to pain. But this is a rom-com at its core, so this never gets ugly: it, like Gary, just has a face full of pimples, oversized ambition, and a sweet politeness that ensures its success.

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Last Night In Soho — 6/10

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021, Edgar Wright)

While dancing in her room early on in the movie, Thomasin McKenzie bumps the record player so it starts skipping. The music is thrown out of rhythm and out of time, coinciding with the first of many occasions where we realize McKenzie sees visions of her dead mother. Here’s Wright, as usual, telling us how to watch his movie — uniting the elements of music, time-hopping, and ghosts.

It’s also in the first act when the greatest sequence takes place: McKenzie’s first dream of Anya Taylor-Joy, confidently striding through a nightclub turning heads and making waves — not only are the mirror shots beautifully synched to the production design (a staircase with multiple vertical mirrors each contains a shot of the pajama-clad McKenzie opposite the one version of Taylor-Joy), but also the appeal of ’60s London is alive in a Richard Lester-style cocktail of pop music and costumes. 

This all makes the movie’s ultimate descent into SUSPIRIA-esque giallo disappointing, because Wright isn’t as good with horror as he is with genre satire. Like with SCOTT PILGRIM, it becomes in itself a bit of a skipping record, repeating a chorus over and over but never getting underneath the grooves.

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Dune: Part One — 3/10

DUNE: PART ONE (2021, Denis Villeneuve)

It’s basically STAR WARS, but well-directed.

It’s also basically STAR WARS, but zapped of any fun whatsoever, a joyless dirge shackled to the weight of its dense source material, as boring as BLADE RUNNER: 2049, but without any of Roger Deakins’s pretty pictures. Fidelity to the book will likely win this some favors with the fans, but that will not win over anyone new to this story — there are reasons some things are novels and some things are movies, and the two art forms often have little in common; so the choice to take something evocative in description and interiority and try to cram it into a 3-hour visual medium, reliant on voice-over and pregnant pauses, is already fighting a losing battle.

It isn’t without some merit: Hans Zimmer’s score is haunting in a creative way, utilizing bizarre sound effects, chants, and unique instrumentation to lend even the dullest of scenes a fresh angle. Villeneuve works his ass off with every set piece, making the most of the story’s scale: tiny humans on a vast desert wasteland, monstrous sandworms (though LOL at people outrunning them) and imposing spacecraft backgrounding small faces and delicate accessories. Although the lighting and color Fraser offers is nothing compared to what Deakins may have done, visuals are not the downfall of this — it’s the storytelling, which is so heavy with portent and morose pomposity that the stellar cast is dragged under the surface, unable to breathe. Chalamet does the best he can with this proto-Skywalker/Neo hero figure (it isn’t his fault he’s too scrawny to be believable when out-muscling larger fighters), and Ferguson, Isaac, even Bardem/Zendaya/Rampling (in smaller roles) are serving the tone the best they can. And Stellan Skarsgård, as Jabba the Oil Slick, is almost as gross as he is in NYMPHOMANIAC. But the lugubrious pace, leading to brain-liquefying levels of boredom, is just too inert to generate interest in the characters, so all the sacrifices and emotional payoffs slide off like nothing. And after all this dusty, narcoleptic world-building, we’re at “just the beginning.” Bring on Part Two, the fans will say. But if this is supposed to be escapism, all I wanted was to escape from the movie.

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The French Dispatch — 9/10

THE FRENCH DISPATCH (2021, Wes Anderson)

An explosive burst of joy and energy so dialed-in, so exactingly designed, that even mild continuity errors (and one enormous one) stick out because your eye is so glued to every detail on screen. A film this packed with information both visual and narrative does feel like it’s from a different era — a pre-pandemic shoot that was never concerned with any kind of distancing protocols; humans are stacked on top of humans in a dizzying choreography of motion and stillness. 

While the two-dimensional movements (straight horizontal and vertical camera glides) will be familiar to any audience used to Anderson’s picture-book style, now we get a new device reminiscent of the Mannequin Challenge from a few years back: actors pretending to exist in a freeze frame, their arms unsteadily shaking while their faces lock into an expression. It’s part of a forced analogue ingredient worthy of a period piece like this — modern cinema is capable of special effects that will literally freeze a frame and let the camera (or certain actors) move within it, but Anderson would rather let things play out theatrically (like the stage play set at the barracks) or switch media entirely; just like when an action sequence becomes animated (when its content would seem out of place — both budgetarily and visually — if shot in live action) with the throwback look of hand-drawn 20th century flipbooks. 

Okay so all this formal mastery is one thing, but does it deliver substantially? Hell yeah it does. With a three-part structure (plus prologue and epilogue), it projects a cohesive vision of the ways humanity — that is to say, humanism, love, and the mutual respect of bonded relationships — works itself into the cold institutions of our penal system, the fine art market, capitalism, socio-political revolt, and crime (i.e. kidnapping and ransom). Each act becomes a love story in spite of itself, until the final scene — a wake for a character sketched as a merciless brute (he’s named Howitzer like an artillery gun and he fires people for crying) — is unexpectedly moving, as it galvanizes an entire press room of reporters to tell stories and remember fondly their late boss’s dedication to journalism. 

Easily Wes’s most laugh-out-loud funny work since at least THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, this is packed with great stand-alone jokes — but it also inspires consistently surprising work from its towering cast. I doubt anyone went to see NO TIME TO DIE a few weeks ago and thought “Man, I wish I was seeing Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, and Jeffrey Wright in a different, better movie,” but if they were, they got their wish this week. Anderson devotees will be happy to see all of his usual company (Murray, Schwartzman, Wilson, Swinton, Brody, Norton, Dafoe, Revolori, Ronan, Huston, etc.) return, even if in tiny roles, but the addition of faces like Chalamet, Del Toro, and Lyna Khoudri ensures every character leaps off the screen. This may be the most complete movie Anderson has delivered: assured of its message, mature in its delivery, confident in its construction, and simply joyful in its surface pleasures. On a textual level it’s a celebration of art, writing, cooking, and creativity in general — but on a meta-level the fact that it exists as such a wholly successful entertainment is its own testament to cinema as a continually vibrant medium.

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The Last Duel — 7/10

THE LAST DUEL (2021, Ridley Scott)

“There is no right, there is only the power of men.” It’s a good line, because “men” in medieval times was a synonym for people in general, but here it’s quite pointed because a 21st century script is using it to specify the male gender — men (in the patriarchal society that exists both in the 14th century and now) have more power, and wield it to smother moral righteousness. 

Whether one credits that to Nicole Holofcener (an unlikely scribe for a Ridley Scott period epic) or Damon & Affleck (their first script together since GOOD WILL HUNTING, a fact you’d think would have gotten a little more press), it’s part of a very #MeToo dressing on this true story of rape, judiciary ambiguity, and crusades (both religious and personal). The other reference point you’ll likely see is RASHOMON, but whereas Kurosawa’s film presented three (well, four, if you include the woodcutter’s report) very different takes on an incident, this one has pretty much the same shit happening all three times, just with more details from whomever is the central point of view. (Not that there aren’t some differences — Damon is more of an asshole in his wife’s version; Comer takes off her shoes on purpose in Driver’s version, etc. — but basically everyone agrees on Damon’s litigiousness, the fracturing of his friendship with Driver, Comer’s protestations during the assault, and Driver’s complicity in everything). 

So what we have is less of a meditation on the unknowability of truth, or the he-said-she-said nature of rape accusations; instead we have a straight-up indictment of rape culture at large — how men get away with it, what happens to women when they come forward, and the heavy burden of proof. That the difference between Comer being potentially burned at the stake and Christine Blasey Ford being the subject of death threats and having her life essentially ruined is cosmetic: the results are the same, and it sucks. Scott and his writers tell this quite well, despite some heavy-handed dialogue where the subtext bubbles over into text a little too on-the-nose-ishly. What sticks is just how handsome the production is — thundering sound design (this is a MUST for the big screen: sensational foley effects, making the swords sound heavy, the horse hooves relentless, and the mud thick and cold), terrific costumes, and actual French/UK locations lending it acute period detail — and how awesome the performances are. Damon, Driver, and Comer are all excellent in the lead roles, with wildly different skill sets. Damon is petulant and hot-tempered, but principled and strong; Driver is an obnoxious playboy, smart and evil; and Comer is steadfast, curious, and unflinching. But you know who steals the show? Friggin’ Ben Affleck, having as much fun as he’s had on screen in over a decade — every eyeroll, scoffing laugh, and shit-eating grin is a delight, taking a small role and making it enormously entertaining. Where in the world has this actor been?

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No Time To Die — 6/10 [WITH SPOILERS]

NO TIME TO DIE (2021, Cary Joji Fukunaga)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The writing team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who wrote all five Daniel Craig Bonds (as well as the last two Pierce Brosnans) are clearly fans of the best Bond film to date (ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE), because the love theme that reflected one of the final lines of dialogue (“We have all the time in the world”) from that Lazenby effort is referenced here at the beginning and the end.

What made MAJESTY’S top notch Bond was its real-world stakes, especially with the CONTEMPT-like ending, revealing that these cartoon spies were people too. NO TIME is going for similar pathos — not just because it literally kills off James Bond (Craig definitely can’t get reeled in for any more paychecks this time), but because it also saddles him with a family (a would-be wife and an actual daughter) while heaping familial storylines all over every character: the relationship between Madeleine and Safin exists because her father killed his family; MI-6 is its own (dysfunctional) family with a cold father (M), a dead mother (M), and bickering siblings (Moneypenny, Q, and the new 007 Nomi). 

All of this self-serious family shit really puts a damper on things, because Fukunaga is a hell of a director, and the action here is creative, clever, and merciless. It feels big and expensive, an epic capper to a series. But it doesn’t seem to care about having any fun — the classic Bond touchstones (cool gadgets, bad one-liners, shaken martinis, globe-trotting, tuxedos, etc.) feel like homework to Fukunaga, dutifully dropping them in but more concerned with the grander myths of a character long past his sell-by date. Killing off Bond feels like a mercy homicide, ceding control of spy movies to all the franchises currently doing similar things way better (a lot of this comes off like a stale MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie), and without a character still mired in retrograde mid-century doldrums. 

There’s no earthly reason for it to be nearly three hours long. It isn’t just over-plotted; the dialogue scenes make their point again and again — the climactic meeting between Safin and Bond is an endless conversation that started putting me to sleep. It’s so long that by the end you’ve even forgotten about some of the best things — like Ana de Armas, whose firecracker Paloma is gone from the movie within an hour, leaving an entire feature length until the end credits. Seydoux is also very good, though, and she pulls off the final phone call scene with a high degree of difficulty. 

A lot has been speculated about who’s going to be the next Bond; many clamor for someone other than a straight white man. But perhaps the question should be why any more Bonds at all? Why not let this IP just go away, now that they’ve finally killed off the character? A resurrection would be going backwards. If you want a black spy, a gay spy, a female spy, or any spy that isn’t a womanizing, sexist, kind of racist, entitled psychopath as he’s displayed in most films between 1962 and now, just come up with a new character. For me, it’s a pretty good time for some things to die.

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Halloween Kills — 5/10

HALLOWEEN KILLS (2021, David Gordon Green)

I suppose it’s a testament to just how titanic John Carpenter’s genre-topping masterpiece was that it has spawned a 40+ year-long franchise with 11 movies and counting, with directors (Carpenter only did the original then peaced out) constantly rebooting and trying to capture anything like the bottle of lightning from 1978. But each sequel has had similar issues — Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 HALLOWEEN II had none of the formal genius of the predecessor, just more murders and worse music. Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II also upped the gore content and, while ambitious and personalized, failed to even match the mixed-bag qualities of his own first effort. Now, David Gordon Green’s take on the franchise has suffered a similar fate — his sequel to a pretty good initial try is more violent, busier, and louder than the 2018 entry, but it’s also more shallow and far less entertaining.

Green’s first film is mostly loathed, either because people didn’t groove to what it was going for, or they held it to Green’s standard from far different efforts like ALL THE REAL GIRLS or PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. But those takes are unfair: it’s its own thing, and has a lot to say about the cycle of violence, and evil being passed from the guilty to the innocent like a virus. This one too is loathed, and while these savage takes are a little closer to accurate, HALLOWEEN KILLS has some clever substance buried in between the desperately up-voted violence. I hate to be the person who thinks everything written after 2017 is about the Trump era, and I’m not really saying “everything” but this has some pointed narratives about disinformation and mob mentality. It’s about the stories we tell to each other, mostly fake, the masks we hide behind, and the danger (and actual harm) we cause when we repeat lies and turn our vengeance on the innocent because we want some phony version of justice. Just watch how many scenes are about stories being told (Tommy Doyle on stage in his introduction; the gay couple scaring the kids on the sidewalk, etc.) or about misinformed people passing along untruths like a game of telephone (“we killed Michael” “hey did you hear? They killed Michael” “Ooh yay Michael’s dead”). 

Unfortunately you can only put so much frosting on a bad cake, and this thing is stuck in second gear the whole time. Jamie Lee Curtis is relegated to basically a cameo (who knew Anthony Michael Hall would essentially have the biggest role in this ensemble cast?) and the rest of the performances are quite terrible. As was the case in 2018, none of the jump scares are scary, Green is bad at suspense, and no amount of brutal kills can make up for that. It’s also cynically ugly in that it trots out half a dozen characters who are survivors of Myers’s reign of terror, either from 40 years ago or 3, only to kill them all off one by one. I’m sure Green has at least one more in him (this ends with a cliffhanger, essentially) before he retires and somehow someone else picks up the baseball bat to take some more tired swings at a ball that was already knocked out of the park on the first pitch.

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Summer Roundup (in the fall)

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

WARNING: SPOILERS

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). 

However.

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.

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The Tomorrow War — 5/10

THE TOMORROW WAR (2021, Chris McKay)

There’s some poetic justice in the premise of this being about the future taking a giant dump on the present, in order to save it from itself. Because what we have here is an absolute giant blockbuster — the kind of Event Movie that used to come out on July 4th and be the water cooler topic for months. Burger King would sell cups with Chris Pratt’s face on it, kids would play with little rubber Whitespike toys all weekend long, and the cover of every magazine from Entertainment Weekly to Rolling Stone would have a new feature about this mammoth big-budget spectacle that you MUST go to the theater to see.

Instead, it’s just another tossed-off piece of content streaming to Samsung Galaxies via Amazon Prime Video, for some white kid in basketball shorts to listen to on his wireless Beats while he mindlessly scrolls Instagram and farts into a gaming chair from Staples.

Practically, this is no worse than INDEPENDENCE DAY or any number of Roland Emmerich end-of-the-world disaster sci-fi FX pieces, complete with a comic relief character (Sam Richardson is always welcome, though I mourn the loss of Pratt himself in this role on Parks & Rec — I would love the alternate version of this with Pratt in Richardson’s role and whatever the talented answer to Jeremy Renner is in Pratt’s role) and a punching bag politician. 

It’s a heavy handed Message Movie about climate change, and saving the world for our children through action today (if it wasn’t obvious enough in the first act, the third act literally explains the cataclysm via thawing ice due to global warming), but its real passion is in its full-throttle CG extravaganza, and it really delivers on that front. Despite how corny the daddy-issues sentiment is, despite how boring the characters are, how predictable the plot is, and how mind-numbingly stupid some of the dialogue is, the aliens look cool as shit and they’re terrifying. They have two tentacles spraying out of their back, they shoot darts made of claws out of their bodies to kill you, their blood looks like vomit and their guts like boogers. I can’t stress enough how much work seemingly went into this movie in both production and post-production, and given its 2:20 length, epic scope, and enormous budget, it’s a special kind of shame that Paramount had to sell it off to Amazon, and while the reason must be mostly pandemic-related, it’s hard not to notice that it also happens to be very dumb, and so forgettably thin that there’s no way I or anyone who did anything other than love it will watch it again.

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F9 — 6/10

F9 (2021, Justin Lin)

Between March 12, 2020 and June 1, 2021, I saw well over a hundred movies, but every one of them was on a TV screen no bigger than 55″ and sometimes 42″. At those dimensions, when your wingspan is longer than the monitor, movies do become some version of glorified television. Not that the best ones I watched on my couch (Billy Wilder’s ACE IN THE HOLE, Fassbinder’s THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, Lee’s MALCOLM X, etc.) weren’t still unimpeachable masterpieces on the small screen, but there’s something about the scale of a movie theater that rearranges how your brain processes fictional storytelling — oversized imagery is easier to swallow, not harder. When two people NOT WEARING SEATBELTS! fly across a mountain gap in a souped up Dodge and flip over 25 times, coming out without a scratch, you just go with it.

There’s a reason summer blockbusters are synonymous with big, dumb, expensive eye candy. And with the effective return of moviegoing, some 15 months after the world shut down, there are few movies bigger, few movies dumber, few movies better suited to brain-drain than F9. It makes almost no sense any way you slice it, but Justin Lin is well aware of this, since it’s the fifth time he’s been in the director’s chair for franchise producer Neal Moritz. Meta jokes abound, suspension of disbelief is challenged more than you can imagine, and the cartoonishness becomes part of the text. 

The word “family” is uttered several times, but never by Vin Diesel. Charlize Theron lives in a fiberglass box with perfect makeup and high heels. Ludacris drives a car in space, mostly by stepping on the gas pedal, this after suffering the G-forces necessary to exit the Earth’s atmosphere without passing out or vomiting, having no astronaut training. The streets of London are deserted exactly when they need to be. And when you have to jump out of a fourth-story window, you can always count on a truck passing by to break your fall. There are two more movies left in this Meathead Mecca of a franchise, and by now it’s a fool’s errand to conceive of how the action will continue to strain credibility. All we have to do is wait for a summer, buy a tub of popcorn to shove into our gluttonous, privileged faces, and prey there’s no global pandemic standing between the IMAX promo and the moment we get to watch Michelle Rodriguez try to act. But if there is, and you wait 15 months to hear the ear-splitting sounds of nitrous-fueled V-8 engines, you will not be disappointed by the time the credits roll.

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First Cow — 7/10

FIRST COW (2020, Kelly Reichardt)

Opens with a dog and a young woman in present-day Oregon digging up two human skeletons in the woods. Reichardt spends more time on this sequence than you’d expect — at least twice as many setups and cuts — in order to draw your attention to what comes next: a gloved hand in Davy-Crockett-era 19th century Oregon Territory yanking mushrooms from the soil for cooking. This is boilerplate Reichardt: the stark presentation of images begging the audience to do the work. We end up where we start; you are what you eat; circle of living things, etc.

She then shifts gears away from the philosophical and spends about an hour establishing the friendship between a white frontiersman and a Chinese fugitive as they team up to steal the milk from the settlement’s only cow, and use it to bake “oily cakes” that they’ll sell for enough money to continue their journey. Outlaw-ism turns to capitalism turns to the establishment of everything that is America. To that end, this is a lot more fun to chew on during the drive home than it is to watch. In between the arresting opening and the typically abrupt, beautiful-but-ominous ending, there are a number of awkward and frankly terrible performances from non-professional actors (made worse by the commanding presence of the likes of Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner, bolstering perfectly fine lead work by Magaro and Lee). And I can’t remember a film with audio work this bad; so much of the dialogue sounds clearly ADR’d, with the foley work prominently forward in the mix to the point where it sounds like we’re watching a 1970s kung fu movie. Not the kind of shoddy craftsmanship I’d have expected on her seventh feature — but Reichardt is so good with composition, non-preachy dialogue, and small stories with grand ambitions that you mostly forgive these shortcomings. This isn’t one of her best films, but mediocre Reichardt is still smarter than your average bear, and you’ll leave the theater really wanting a donut.

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The Invisible Man — 7/10

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020, Leigh Whannell)

It’s telling that the most suspenseful sequence in this movie has nothing to do with invisibility — it’s the opening few minutes, when Moss is escaping her abusive husband in the dead of night. Because the premise of this umpteenth take on the Wells novel is something Whannell spitballed off the top of his head in a pitch meeting with Blumhouse and Universal (before it was fast-tracked into production and released less than 12 months after US and 19 months after UPGRADE): it focuses on the victim of domestic violence, and asks us to believe women. Seems like an obvious take, but one we haven’t seen before — the titular man is a villainous monster whose head we’re never in, and who we never see outside of the POV of Moss’s unhinged, gaslighted protagonist. He’s not just invisible because of his brilliant invention; his crimes are invisible to anyone who won’t sit right next to the wife, watching her life get destroyed.

Whannell takes that premise and runs with it, letting Moss carry the entire load and she really lets ‘er rip throughout this — sometimes a little too much (she behaves so crazily at times you can’t even blame everyone else for thinking she’s insane) — proving she has as much range as you’ll give her. And while Moss grounds the battered-wife angle, Whannell’s shoddy, first-draft-scented script provides his usual grindhouse pleasures. It’s gory, unsettling, and revels in B-movie atmosphere. Sure, the story doesn’t make as much sense as you wish it would, and some details are slightly risible (what kind of cop does a covert stakeout with the dome light on in his car?) but what you remember days after watching this is the uncommon degree of control over camera movement, off-screen and on-screen space, silence-as-a-weapon, and general tone of unease, all serving to deliver the goods in a movie that puts a new horror spin on the concept of how difficult it is for abused spouses to get justice, and just how much of the world seems dedicated to choosing the side of the invisible man.

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The Assistant — 7/10

THE ASSISTANT (2020, Kitty Green)

A stripped-down, narrow-focused short story about how moral conscience is systematically eroded and virtually criminalized by the machine of powerful companies and, specifically, film production. Less a product of #MeToo journalism than it is a careful tone poem existing on the outskirts of a job swimming in ingrained sexual harassment and exploitation. What Green, a documentary filmmaker whose CASTING JONBENET was a deeply weird meta-text, is up to here is defining an environment through detail — she uses precise editing, minimal score, and especially well-attuned sound design to drape you in the hapless charade of being an office grunt: note in particular the hum of fluorescent lights as their buzz is the only accompaniment to the first employee of the day in a lonely, dark office at the crack of dawn; the scrape of a metallic tissue holder as it’s slid dispassionately across a wooden desk; and a fork piercing the plastic wrap of a frozen supermarket meal-for-one.

What Green is not doing is biting off more than she can chew. No characters have names (they do in the credits, but not to the audience) in a self-conscious bid to decry the anonymity and de-personalization of the industry. And the decision to never see the face of the Weinstein-esque boss feels like a callback to films such as RAISE THE RED LANTERN, which centered on the kept wives of a Chinese lord, never bothering to give him a face either. This sets a low degree of difficulty, since Green doesn’t really have a responsibility towards storytelling, and while she clears the mark, unfortunately DP Michael Latham does not. This thing looks like cold garbage: as if wax paper was taped to the lens as a filter, wiping every frame with a low-contrast digital smear. There’s a way good cinematographers capture the banality of Kafka-esque offices. This is not BRAZIL or THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. It’s a documentary cameraman seemingly out of his depth, and the ugliness doesn’t seem to be on purpose.

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2019 Year in Review

My 8th straight one of these, and this time — thanks to the Academy pushing up its award show a few weeks (now it’s Feb 9 instead of late Feb or early March, per usual), it comes in the thick of Oscar season. And ironically, I find myself more disillusioned and annoyed than ever by how seriously people take the Oscars — they’re a joke of an award (okay, maybe not as much as The Grammys or Golden Globes) based not on merit but on an insular world where politicking and campaigning earn accolades; where ballots are filled out by secretaries and children, or by voters who don’t even bother to watch many movies. Ironic, I say, because as you’ll soon see, my top ten list is cluttered with this year’s Oscar contenders. It’s like I’m more in lock step than ever with a glad-handing body of back-patting industry insiders that I find routinely corrupt and pointless, despite the obvious career and financial benefits earned by its winners. This year, almost purely by accident, the same films who ran good campaigns for movies made by and for said industry insiders also happened to be exceptionally well-made, galvanizing works of art.

Anyway, with only some further ado — that being the annual caveat that I’ve missed a few well-regarded movies — the best of a strong year in film (so strong that I cheated 12 titles onto my top 10):

2019 Top Ten

  1. THE IRISHMAN — A heavy and mournful capstone on Scorsese’s titanic career, but one that also manages to be deft, playful, and wry nevertheless. It’s every bit the American epic it purports to be, and anyone who confronts what it says about capitalism, crime, Catholicism, and mortality will come away with a richer soul and a brighter eye. Deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the best works by Welles, Coppola, Hitchcock, and Hawks.
  2. 1917 — Poisoned by more bad takes than JOKER, this rich and stirring existential juggernaut fuses form and content into a tight, ticking-clock adventure that smuggles in a heartbreaking message about the fallibility of mankind, and the infinite losses suffered by soldiers at war that extend beyond losses of life — to those of love, friendship, family, and a oneness with nature. To emerge from the closing credits is to experience a release of tension and emotion unmatched by almost anything I’ve seen in 20 years. To then witness the smug and facile dismissals by elitist cinephiles (feel free to Google 1917 and “video game” for the ultimate in depressing laziness) is like an ice bucket challenge.
  3. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD — It may not be Tarantino’s most fleet-footed romp or his cleverest exercise in wordplay, but it could be among his most thoughtfully-considered treatises on the meaning of cinema, and the gap between what becomes of things on film and what the human condition is in reality — a gap that Tarantino wrestles with and presents with an optimistic adoration of art itself.
  4. HER SMELL — A shrill, off-putting opening act soon yields a bottomless depth of emotion and a character study drenched in rock-and-roll ethos, matched in every frame by a teeth-gnashing, fearless, once-in-a-generation performance by Elisabeth Moss.
  5. (tie) LEAVING NEVERLAND & APOLLO 11 — The former is a Sundance doc that only made it to HBO, but is a stinging contemplation of the true cost of sexual assault — the lifelong scars it creates and the snowballing effect of this particular series of assaults: because of the union between celebrity adulation, the abuse of power, and the familial cycle of violence. The latter is the flip side — an almost achingly optimistic ode to the goodness humankind can achieve when we work together with guileless competency. It’s a remarkable assembly of archival footage with peerless, transcendent use of music and editing, not only asserting the best of who we can be, but also highlighting just how far our empire has fallen.
  6. PARASITE — A clinic in film direction, both spatially and tonally, as Bong tops himself once again with this unforgettable razor blade against the cheek of class warfare. That most people can’t tell if it’s a comedy, a horror movie, a satire, a drama, or a fantasy is a testament to it just being a comet streaking through the sky.
  7. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE — A second viewing somehow made this more inscrutable, but that isn’t a drawback.
  8. UNCUT GEMS — More than just a neon-drenched disco ball of armpit-moistening terror, it’s also a study in exploitation of others and exploitation of the self. New York City calcifies and erodes Howard Ratner. And none of it works unless Adam Sandler is just that good.
  9. TOY STORY 4 — Against all odds, an unnecessary sequel that deepens the franchise’s reckoning with the loss of childhood, the tenuousness of identity, and the willful construction of community based on shared flaws and desires. Not to mention, on a technical level the animation is really outstanding — a feature unfairly ignored in year-end talk.
  10. (tie) PAIN & GLORY and SHADOW — Two features made by aging international auteurs proving just how good they are at storytelling and atmosphere. While Almodovar’s is soaking in color as a vivid memory of a life filled with both regret and invaluable adoration, Zhang’s is drained to a metallic silver, exposing the lack of vitality an identity crisis can cause. One is quiet and contemplative; the other is dynamic and tactile. Both are intelligent, neither should be missed.

Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: BOOKSMART, a visually assured debut from Olivia Wilde that remembers the jokes and delivers the honesty. KNIVES OUT is a screenwriting clinic and a stealthy indictment of 2019 America. And PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is a breathy romance that seems to have been recorded on a matchstick and set ablaze by its actresses. Check it out when it gets a wide release next month. (There’s also plenty to admire about another tier of Honorable Mentions, like FIRST LOVE, LONG SHOT, US, THE LIGHTHOUSE, and LIGHT OF MY LIFE. This was a good year for movies).

And now, the requisite awards:

Best Director — Sam Mendes, 1917

Best Actor — Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER

Best Actress — Elisabeth Moss, HER SMELL

Best Supporting Actor — Shôta Sometani, FIRST LOVE

Best Supporting Actress — Fatma Mohamed, IN FABRIC

Best Screenplay — THE IRISHMAN (Steven Zaillian)

As usual, no worst or bottom 10 list. Needlessly punitive, vindictive, petty, and self-owning. I don’t even seek out movies that have potential for such a bullshit list anyway. Even some films that are heavy contenders for most other top 10 lists (MARRIAGE STORY, LITTLE WOMEN, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, CLIMAX) are films I thought were perfectly fine if not pretty good, so I can’t even cry overrated. Again: this was a good year for movies.

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Little Women — 6/10

LITTLE WOMEN (2019, Greta Gerwig)

It’s fine. Builds up steam as it goes and finishes strong, mostly on the shoulders of an exceptional cast doing their damndest. But it’s still another theatrically staged, respectable adaptation of a popular novel, and no amount of self-conscious meta-analysis and chronology blending can make up for the just-okayness of the story.

Hard to believe someone under 55 wrote the joke in the first five minutes where a character’s dress catches a flame from a nearby fireplace, a man says “You’re on fire!” and she says “I know,” smiling and writing furiously, only to be told again “No… YOU’RE ON FIRE!” which she finally notices before a helpful bystander stamps it out. How many times have you seen that hoary old dustbox of a scenario played out in movies and TV? I’m setting the over/under at 23.

By jumbling the timeline, Gerwig is calling attention to her own authorship of the story, but also making parallels with her protagonist — Jo, of course, was a writer in Alcott’s original novel, but here she’s also writing the novel “Little Women,” turning the movie into an exercise in nesting doll art-imitating-life-imitating-and-so-on, which then makes Gerwig more of the main character than Jo. By the end, Jo’s interactions with Tracy Letts’s publisher Mr. Dashwood mirror the true-life partnership between Alcott and Thomas Niles, right down to the perceived dullness of the first few chapters (and subsequent confidence instilled by the teens who loved it). All this sweaty metaness really just comes down to writing what you know, with little to no imagination.

So the result is some nice costumes, some manipulative tear-jerking amidst hermetic, handsomely-staged period sets, letting out almost no air aside from the performances of Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh, whose chemistry is off the charts and who reach heights of such earnestness and fiery three-dimensionality you wish Gerwig had gotten over herself and Jo’s narcissistic fealty (either to source novel or life experience, respectively) and just made a new story about those two. Then we might have been spared the hilarious miscasting of Bob Odenkirk as not only a Civil War vet but also as Meryl Streep’s brother.

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1917 — 10/10

1917 (2019, Sam Mendes)

I’m as surprised as you are! This thing has so much stacked against it, both fairly and unfairly. It’s unabashed Oscar bait with can’t-miss subject matter (the unsung heroes of WWI); a show-offy gimmick of basically being a oner a-la the mostly reviled BIRDMAN (it’s actually a “two-er,” since midway through it cuts to black and opens back up hours later); and directed by Sam Mendes, who’s never made a great film, and whose last effort, SPECTRE, was, if not the worst Bond movie ever, a numbing and dour slog through obligatory IP so bereft of creativity you’d think it was directed by Shawn Mendes.

And yet! Remember that scene in OLD SCHOOL when Will Ferrell’s lifetime-moron Frank seemingly gets possessed exorcist-style and defeats James Carville in a debate? I think that’s what happened to Mendes. Something entered his body and orchestrated this titanic ode to the human condition, a philosophical treatise on the relationship of cinema to the battlefield, and a visceral experience so vigorously lachrymose it forced me to pull over to the side of the road while driving home from the movie theater, sobbing violently in my car like Tom Hanks at the end of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.

So let me start with a potential common complaint against this: i.e. the oner disease. Some critics so proud of their own ability to sniff out directorial arrogance have decided to categorically dismiss oner movies as showy and pointlessly distracting — and they’ll go into 1917 already hating it by design. But showy, by itself, isn’t necessarily bad. VERTIGO is showy, too. So what? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And what Deakins is doing here is the opposite of distracting; he puts the camera in impressively head-scratching places in order to give you the sense of time uninterrupted (making the mid-film break and time jump all the more jarring) — an amount of time integral to the hero’s journey and a key ingredient of the suspenseful, harrowing odyssey Schofield and Blake embark upon.

In film language, if edit points are periods, then a oner can be a run-on sentence, but Mendes and Deakins find a poetry in the lack of periods, one that eluded BIRDMAN and VICTORIA (and maybe even RUSSIAN ARK?) — such as images that combine wide compositions, silhouettes, close-ups, two-shots, and inserts, all in one fluid three-second move. Deakins also wisely shies away from conventionally beautiful exterior lighting — these aren’t sun-dappled fields and lush forests: they’re gloomy, cloudy skies overseeing white-washed trenches of dead bodies; foggy, flame-scorched woods, evidence of the ghosts of battles left behind — much like the name “Karla” scrawled on a bunker wall in chalk with a heart on it, a masterfully subtle touch of production design to remind us of the shared humanity of our enemies.

And yet even within this carefully ugly visual palette, Deakins will follow up a vision of despair with a painterly composition two seconds later, simply by tilting up his camera to frame a weeping soldier in front of a floral tree and babbling creek. As Malick did with THE THIN RED LINE, Mendes juxtaposes the indifferent, awesome beauty of nature with the terror of war, placing our species’ innately entropic tendency towards violence in an environment of harmony and quiet peace. The sense of loss is palpable both in Schofield’s individual experience and in the grander portrait of an epoch of human history where inconceivable displays of savagery exist alongside displays of distinctly unique courage.

Like classic Greek theater, this movie takes place within 24 hours, but encompasses life born, lived, examined, and extinguished — our heroes awaken in a calm field to march unknowingly to their perilous orders; Schofield himself drinks milk in the adolescence of his journey, then later, in his hardened future, passes it along to an infant in a delicate display of fatherhood (and glimpse of familial life he’s avoided and may never achieve). He learns of mercy and of randomness, of loss and regret, of triumph and of absurdity, and of the capacity of humans at their lowest to bond in art, community, and performance. A bloodied hand is thrust into the cavity of a bloodier wound; an airplane crashes through a two-dimensional painting of a house once occupied; a scavenging rat can be responsible for tripping a wire that buries men alive; an encroaching figure can be friend or enemy, and only darkness can mask his identity… these are the pieces of a tapestry that evokes no less than the continued struggle we endure in order to find meaning in a meaningless world: a godless universe that heaps untold amounts of tragedy on the unsuspecting and the undeserving, and asks us to continue rolling the boulder up the hill. If we save lives, are we delaying the inevitable or rescuing generations? The answer will evade us eternally, and we can only rest periodically, putting our head against a tree, and close our eyes to dream of what could have been.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — 5/10

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019, JJ Abrams)

[I’m going to spoil absolutely everything, in case you’re curious – consider yourself warned]

Ahhh, yes. That’s the Star Wars I recognize. With decades of throwaway kids movie after throwaway kids movie, it seemed clear this money-grubbing franchise dedicated more to disposable merchandise and tranquilizing children for two hours knew where its lane was. Then, starting in 2015, Lucasfilm accidentally made three actual good movies in a row: THE FORCE AWAKENS, ROGUE ONE (perhaps the best of the bunch), and THE LAST JEDI (easily the most challenging and artistic-minded one ever; as low as the bar was). I was fooled into thinking perhaps something might come of this. But then SOLO happened, and now the main-line episodes have wrapped up just like RETURN OF THE JEDI: a confused and desperate junkpile of lights and noises, appealing either to 8 year-olds or the 8 year-old brain inside the adults who have no interest in confronting any issue of substance.

There are brief instances in the screenplay where ARGO and BATMAN v SUPERMAN scribe Chris Terrio introduces his pet theme about the corruption of power and terrorism: a key line from Keri Russell (repeated later by Oscar Isaac) mentions that the Empire wins by making you think you’re alone; when actually “there are more of us.” One can extrapolate metaphors about how domestic terrorists (mass shooters, suicide bombers, alt-right Incels) are born; or even one about our current climate of Republicans vs. decent people. But even Terrio gets buried by Abrams’s larger concern, which is the difficult job of wrapping up dozens of disparate storylines in an ever-bloated universe, all while servicing fans like a greedy carnival barker. A creaky Billy Dee Williams is dressed up and shoved in front of the camera to spew some nonsense about how the real force was the friends we made along the way; cutting-room-floor footage of the late Carrie Fisher is retrofitted and CG’d into the story awkwardly; and cameos from Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford get to ghost-dad their way into cheesy goodbyes. It all reads like a massive corporation soothing its fickle and butt-hurt fanbase by petting its head, showing them their favorite toys, and letting them play for two hours without enforcing any rules, just so they can nap later this afternoon.

There are moments of earnest and earned humor (Abrams also delivered gags in FORCE AWAKENS that were the funniest parts of this whole franchise), and occasionally some terrific acting — especially from Adam Driver, who can say more with his face than any dialogue could convey. But there’s also cornball galore, and too many times where Daisy Ridley is saddled with green screen moments where she just scrunches up her face in fake-determination, hoping that whenever the VFX are finished her acting looks better (it doesn’t). The plot is characteristically ludicrous (grandpa Palpatine wants Rey to kill him; when she doesn’t he gets mad and tries to kill her, but then she kills him anyway; what?) and I couldn’t stop laughing when Poe is flying a spaceship and says he can see two human beings from miles away just clinging to a bar. It’s Lucasfilm’s fault for delivering a thoroughly mediocre theme park ride disguised as expensive entertainment. But it’s my fault for expecting anything better.

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In Fabric — 7/10

IN FABRIC (2019, Peter Strickland)

Like being told a dirty joke by the smartest art professor at Oxford. Strickland knows all the rules and has all the tools, but he doesn’t care about any of them. He kind of sets this in the ’70s (based on the telephones, TVs, and some of the wardrobe we see), but other characters (like Vincent) are present-day concoctions, or maybe out of the ’80s. He introduces story strands and lets them dangle, or becomes disinterested in them. There’s an abrupt gear shift that happens about 80 minutes into a 115-minute movie. Every scene that might have been scary or emotionally effective is smothered by a dry, wicked sense of humor that threatens to turn the entire charade into a screwball comedy or satire.

On the margins, these rule breaks are exhilarating (my favorite is the subtle change in a character’s recorded outgoing answering machine message, which changes from robotic to crying after a major incident), but the central narrative is left gasping for air because Strickland is so busy being cheeky. He throws a cabal of witches in with a laundry repairman who can hypnotize anyone into a catatonic state by reciting washing machine parts; plus a series of blind dates who use the same pudding coupons, officious bosses with uptight rules, pursuit of discounts, Christmas department store sales demonizing the consumerist zombies populating the holidays, and mannequins with pubic hair. I’m not sure any of it amounts to anything more than a fucked-up tone poem, a BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO take on giallo, or a bullshit fever dream about a killer dress, but it almost doesn’t matter when it’s this consistently funny, surprising, and weird. MVPs are three-fold: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, forever talented; Fatma Mohamed having to negotiate the hysterical dialogue Strickland forces down her throat; and sound recordist Rob Entwistle (unknown if he’s related to The Who’s bassist, but probably?) whose foley work and audio mixing highlights the violence of scissors, the flowing of silk, and the breathing of the damned.

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Uncut Gems — 8/10

UNCUT GEMS (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie)

Advance word on this movie has been building for over three months, at least since its premiere at Telluride and later Toronto. With all the warnings and salutations (“it’s a two-hour panic attack!”) it had built up such a head of steam that it seemed ready to absolutely explode onto screens in its public release this past weekend. And almost as a response to the hype, the movie doesn’t so much unfurl or unspool as it does detonate in every direction, leaving you gasping for air not only mid-film, but even as the credits roll. It’s that much of a blood-pressure coronary.

The Safdies’ two previous narrative features, HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT and GOOD TIME, also seemed to be building up to whatever this is: the momentum has been accelerating, following Safdie protagonists with increasing exercise and sweat. What Sandler is doing here is nothing short of a miracle, both for him and the movie — his Howard Ratner is a heaving zit of desperation, manically screaming at everyone, frantically spreading lies around faster than his own (and other people’s) money, trying to stay one step ahead of the doom that part of him knows he can’t escape. Watching Howard dodge collectors, berate others on the phone, chase after people, and pray for the results of sports games wildly out of his control is like watching Indiana Jones try to outrun the boulder rolling down the ramp at his back, but knowing that the only direction Indy can run is into a brick wall.

Sandler has been shouting dialogue for decades, both in his shrill comedies (BIG DADDY, HAPPY GILMORE) and his ventures into drama (PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES), because his face and attitude seem to invite mania. But the Safdies have given him a role that somehow requires even louder screaming and unchecked freneticism, resulting in Sandler’s finest work to date. He’s found a role that challenges his own tendency to yell, because here the material is more desperate than even Sandler’s need is to entertain. And not only does his anger and paranoia work as realistic and compelling, but his resulting sadness does too — when he’s crying upon mounting failures, or nodding his head to encourage someone to say yes to everything he’s asking for, the vulnerability is palpable and almost too much to bear.

The Safdies have elevated their craft, too. Visually, they’re now utilizing the lens of Hall of Fame DP Darius Khondji (SEVEN, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS), whose grain is somehow more beautiful than most people’s landscape shots. Even when he’s shooting a club in blacklight or darkness, Khondji highlights the orange sweatshirt worn by Lakeith Stanfield or the neon pink of Sandler’s shirt. The script pursues some themes explored by GOOD TIME as well, notably the tendency of its white male lead to exploit and take advantage of blacks in order to keep his own head above water (Howard has zero reservations, if he even has awareness, of where his jewels come from, nor how he sees professional athletes as chess pieces in his sports betting habit). From a mid-film centerpiece symphony of panic (a buzzed magnetic door that won’t open, a doctor calling with results, a poisoned fish tank, etc.) to the climactic basketball game, this is a movie you don’t so much watch as you get dragged behind it across pavement at 100 mph. Buckle the fuck up.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire — 8/10

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019, Céline Sciamma)

About as fresh a take on this well-worn material as you’ll get. We’ve seen dozens of rearview-mirror passionate affairs, in everything from BRIEF ENCOUNTER to BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY to CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (I love all three of those, for what it’s worth), and it’s to Sciamma’s great credit that she manages to build this movie from elements seemingly flown in from outer space nevertheless. It’s resolutely silent and score-free, so that the few brief musical interludes (a piano flirtation, a campfire choir, a symphony orchestra finale) hit extra hard. It earns all its power from either the movement of the camera or the lack thereof, including when it cuts to close-up and when it avoids faces entirely. Even moments that should read as heavy-handed (a girl gets an abortion while a baby’s hand holds her finger) somehow feel perfectly within the tone of the picture, assuredly directed and steadfast in its composition. And it isn’t just about a fleeting affair to be longed for; it’s also a pro-art essay on the relationship between creator and subject; a fantasy view on a world unburdened by both the gaze and physical control of men; and a tone poem where elements like fire, fabric, landscape, and oil become characters with life and vibrancy — contrasted with shots like the static-camera observation of food-prep where sliced mushrooms, green onions, cutting boards, a table, and a fireplace become still-life paintings from 250 years ago. It’s a movie that’s both still bleeding and one that’s a relic from a time none of us will ever experience.

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Marriage Story — 7/10

MARRIAGE STORY (2019, Noah Baumbach)

In the 1980s, an adolescent Noah Baumbach witnessed his novelist father divorcing his literary critic mother in Brooklyn. You don’t need to know this background to watch Baumbach’s 2005 dramedy THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, about an adolescent (Jesse Eisenberg) living in Brooklyn through the divorce between his two writer parents, to sense that there’s a lot of autobiography there — and it doesn’t matter, because great art takes specific details and makes them universal by appealing to larger audiences. In that film’s case, by telling a story about family in general, and about children coming to terms with the flaws of their parents.

Also in 2005, Baumbach married actress Jennifer Jason Leigh — whom he met in theater, and who made her breakthrough in the teen comedy FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH — and later had one son with her, before she served him in 2010, beginning a three-year divorce process that forced Baumbach to write 2012’s MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED in order to pay his lawyer. This is more information you don’t need to know in order to watch MARRIAGE STORY — about a director being served divorce papers by his theatrical actress wife (who made her breakthrough in a teen comedy), the toll it takes on their one son, and the burdensome cost of divorce layers (necessitating the director to take shitty hackwork) — because again, it’s plainly obvious how autobiographical it is. This time around, though, it doesn’t quite transcend the specifics and have the kind of broad universal effect SQUID had, or even his tremendous 2013 work FRANCES HA. It doesn’t feel like the way Marriage is, the way Love is, the way Divorce Happens, or What It Is To Be a Parent During a Separation in any universal way, more than it feels like what all those things specifically were to Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh. (By contrast, as poorly executed and painfully unfunny as it was, at least DOWNSIZING managed to turn Alexander Payne’s divorce drama with Sandra Oh into something greater than his own particular baggage).

So, despite the stellar turns from Johansson and Driver (and Dern, Alda, Wever, and Liotta, etc.), and the acutely realized moments of humor, sadness, and irony, maybe that’s why this didn’t quite land an emotional impact with me the way SQUID and FRANCES did, or even THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES. The choice to hide Driver’s anger entirely until he explodes during the centerpiece argument scene might make sense theoretically (Charlie is a man who has had to hide a lot of his emotions throughout), but dramatically it comes out of nowhere and fractures Driver’s character and performance in a way that seems contrived. Johansson, by contrast, is much more straight forward; she seems locked in and aware of who she is from moment one — and that makes her movie-long arc of finding her voice and asserting her individuality welcome and enviable. And even the tiny moments she has are pitch-perfect: like when she holds steady during an early conversation with Charlie until she crosses through a doorway into a room where she can be alone, and bursts into tears.

One more thing I want to address is that I’ve seen some social media coffee-housing that the divorce lawyers aren’t really the enemy here. Some critics are appalled that anyone would take away from this movie that Dern, Liotta & co. are bad guys. And yes, Dern is so good that she creates a likable character on charisma alone. But she isn’t a heroine gifting Johansson the justice that’s rightfully hers. According to Baumbach (in a Director’s Guild interview with Ben Stiller), the lawyers smother the real voices of this couple, and turn the divorce into simply dividing assets and competing against each other. And the centerpiece apartment fight is the two of them getting their voices back, and re-learning how to communicate between each other, since that was taken from them once the lawyers got involved. Clearly, categorically, Baumbach sees the lawyers as detrimental to the relationship between Nicole and Charlie, so if you want to argue that the movie doesn’t see it that way (which you certainly can), then the extent to which the lawyers aren’t enemies is the extent to which Baumbach failed to get his point across.

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Ford v Ferrari — 5/10

FORD v FERRARI (2019, James Mangold)

James Mangold’s 2005 Johnny Cash biopic WALK THE LINE was such a hoary compendium of musician-life clichés that it, along with its 2004 predecessor RAY, inspired Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan to make the hilarious WALK HARD, a lacerating satire of a genre that mightily deserved a good skewering. Marked by one-dimensional characters that only exist to serve or obstruct the protagonists’ goals, and by dialogue that talked down to the audience by bringing all the subtext up into the text, Mangold’s script was bad and condescending enough to propel WALK THE LINE to 5 Oscar nominations as well as a Golden Globe nod for Best Picture.

If ain’t broke — or if it IS, but nobody cares, then don’t fix it? Mangold, this time around, tapped GET ON UP and BLACK MASS writer Jez Butterworth to pen an equally crowd-pleasing and similarly dumbed-down screenplay that would also require its two titanic movie star leads to shoulder the load. Bale and Damon definitely rise to the occasion here: Damon, armed with a wavering Texas drawl, is nevertheless sturdy, confident, and summons the right amount of emotion; by contrast Bale is manic, funny, and wholly convincing as driver-mechanic Ken Miles. The movie might have been well-nigh insufferable without these guys.

Still, the audience has to endure being told everything that’s in front of our eyes, sometimes multiple times. After an establishing sequence underlining Miles as a daredevil rogue with as much attitude as he has talent, Mangold cuts to two suits on the sidelines who say, “He’s difficult… but good!” Not to be outdone, later on Damon’s Carroll Shelby witnesses Enzo Ferrari throw an un-subtitled tantrum in his box at LeMans, only to follow it up with “I don’t speak Italian, but he don’t seem happy!”

There’s also something a little hypocritical about a story that admittedly paints Ford Motor Company as a behemoth with bottomless resources (“we make more cars in a day than Ferrari makes in a year,” “I’ve got a blank check for you”) but then casts it as an underdog. Good old fashioned American ingenuity is gonna defeat those smug-ass Europeans! And because our heroes are a former driver-turned-maverick sports car designer and a loose-cannon Brummie mechanic, they get to take aim at Ford as a stand-in for Those Darn Bureaucrats. In perhaps the baldest spoon-feeding scene, Shelby goes to Ford’s office to answer to a failed attempt with his first run at LeMans. He says they had a good showing, “even with the wrong driver” (Mangold then cuts to Josh Lucas’s sneering Leo Beebe, responsible for kicking “the right driver” — Miles — off the team), “and decisions made by committee” (Mangold then cuts to three suits in charge of marketing)… it’s all a huge insult to anyone who’s been paying attention.

The racing scenes are capably handled, most notably in regards to sound design and mixing, and the 150 minutes are paced fairly well (definitely better than this overlong, redundant movie review). But it’s still a depressingly mimetic underdog sports movie with requisite reaction shots of the cheering son, upset villains in suits, and smirking heroes. I don’t think this is why they call it “Formula” One.

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Knives Out — 8/10

KNIVES OUT (2018, Rian Johnson)

It takes a special kind of confidence to draw so much attention to the exacting clockwork structure of your whodunit that you not only put the word “knives” in the title, but you stage a large portion of the interrogation scenes with the subjects framed around a massive prize-wheel-sized collection of various daggers. Luckily for Johnson, he justifies every ounce of that confidence with a script that manages to be both smarter than its audience at every turn (keep trying to solve it in advance and you’ll look like a fool) and humble enough not to be smug or arrogant about it.

But if this were just a fun Agatha Christie homage (and Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is the southern Cajun version of Poirot’s outsized Belgian accent), it wouldn’t cut as deep — no, this is a pointed rebuke to Trump’s America, an unsubtle attack on the self-righteous, entitled attitudes of wealthy, white-American blue-bloods who resent immigrant workers coming to take their jobs and their money. There’s a running gag about Marta’s origins (every time she’s discussed, nobody can remember which South American country she’s from: Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil…) and her stupid little Hyundai looks weak and pathetic, but she uses its narrow size to nearly escape the police in a car chase. The intelligent working class finds advantages in their disadvantages.

Since this is a talky, exposition-heavy script, Johnson’s dialogue has to do a lot of the character building, but it does so with clever panache most of the time (Collette’s Gen-X gold-digging widow “read a tweet about a New Yorker article about” the detective, but Curtis’s silver-spooned Boomer actually read the profile). It goes too far in one sequence, heavy-handedly showing the family debate politics in a redundant feud over immigration policy. The movie’s subtext already addresses this; why textually litigate it? Also, there’s a seemingly huge plot hole I won’t reveal but has me mostly worried that because Johnson’s so much smarter than me, it isn’t actually a hole but just something I wasn’t wise enough to solve. At least that puts me in good company with every other member of this cast.

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Doctor Sleep — 6/10

DOCTOR SLEEP (2019, Mike Flanagan)

Ewan McGregor plays grown-up Danny Torrance exactly like he should — which is as a cross between his compassionate but fearful and tortured mother Wendy and his alcoholic, violent and dangerous father Jack. Similarly, Flanagan directs this Shining sequel with two disparate DNAs: half is indebted to Kubrick’s one-of-a-kind classic, and the other is linked to King’s outsized imagination dependent on allusions both religious and supernatural.

Take the Overlook, for example. In King’s book of The Shining, it blows up, and a safe Wendy and Danny move to Florida. In Kubrick’s film, the Overlook thrives post-Jack’s-death, enveloping his spirit into the hotel with the rest. So what does Flanagan do? He starts off the movie with Wendy and Danny in Florida per King, but leaves the Overlook in tact, per Kubrick. (And that allows him to do all sorts of Kubrick cosplay, re-casting young Danny and Wendy [complete with identical voices], reshooting the big wheel, the carpet, the creepy girls, Room 237’s ghosts, the blood gushing from the elevator, and even the office Jack — and now Danny — sat in for job interviews; not since Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE has a modern film been so reliant on what Kubrick lent to the cinematic zeitgeist). Eventually, however, the unchecked impulses that have marred King’s later work (absent the merciless editing, edgy danger, and bone-dry humor of his early masterpieces like Cujo and Thinner) rear their heads here, and Flanagan can barely keep all the plates spinning together.

There’s the go-nowhere subplot of Danny (Dan, now that he’s an adult!) working in a hospice center and, along with an ominous cat, ushering the elderly to the afterlife (and granting the movie its title). There’s the relationship between Dan and Abra (her actual name! Short for Abracadabra for real!), a tweener with The Shining whose powers are vaguely superhero-ish — broadly powerful and undefined — in a way Danny never was in the earlier works. And strangest of all is the cabal of hippie vampires led by Rebecca Ferguson, who kidnap kids with Shining and use them as human vape pens to inhale their powers in steam form, which they keep in martini shakers in Ferguson’s RV. I guess they’re… “Vape-ires?”

Flanagan’s career breakthrough was the horrifying OCULUS, both visually scary and emotionally soulful in its examination of grief. But since 2016, he’s been working at such a rapid pace that his characteristic shtick (ruminations on loss and family dressed in horror-movie outfits) is starting to wear thin. In the past three years he’s released HUSH, OUJI 2, BEFORE I WAKE, GERALD’S GAME, the impressive 10+-hour opus THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (season 1, with season 2 forthcoming), and now this. Each one has a different take on grief and trauma, but each one is also photographed by Michael Fimognari, who is developing an annoying digital look drenched in soft blue low-contrast light, color-timed within an inch of its sallow life. DOCTOR SLEEP suffers from the same look, separating it even further from Kubrick and Alcott’s striking celluloid sight. And while he’s always careful to be faithful to King (GERALD’S GAME was maybe too faithful), Flanagan is so much more interested in the subtext that the movie lacks genuine scares. There are striking moments, but they’re devoid of unhinged danger. It’s slick, professional, and maximal, but doesn’t burrow into your brain. I never said that about Kubrick’s film, and I definitely never said that about any Stephen King book written through at least the early ’90s.

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The Irishman — 10/10

THE IRISHMAN: I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES (2019, Martin Scorsese)

When Frank Sheeran hears that his daughter was shoved by a local grocer, he marches down to the corner and kicks the guy out of his own window and then breaks his hand against a concrete curb with his shoe. But he doesn’t do this alone — he makes a point of bringing his daughter with him. And Scorsese directs this scene with one simple shot: the camera is planted on the street in wide angle, not moving. We see Sheeran and his daughter arrive at the market; Frank leaves her outside, enters the grocery, then we see the guy through the window, he gets rustled out by Frank, the glass breaks, loaves of bread go flying, and then the curb assault begins. Frank’s daughter is watching the whole time, standing in the exact spot to get the best view of a bloody, mangled hand by her own dad’s doing.

This unshowy but effective scene is THE IRISHMAN in a nutshell. Scorsese’s camera does perform its notorious gliding moves now and then, but his style is muted in old age. A far cry from the manic, staccato rhythms of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, this is a contemplative, often quiet film with long takes and subtly gorgeous compositions. And this shot says so much — Frank does not shield his children from his crimes, as much as he thinks he’s protecting them. He comes from a world where you pass along the ethics of this life. If you push a little girl, you get what’s coming to you. As for us in the audience, we’re Frank’s daughter — Scorsese has given us a front row seat to the violence, so we learn everything these people do. Everyone has secrets, but nothing is in the shadows.

Scene after carefully written scene, this heavy, titanic epic feels like a career stamp for Scorsese, who has made an instant American classic with the dexterity of CITIZEN KANE and the weight of THE GODFATHER. It looks into the heart of an executioner and finds a complicated life filled with regret, remorse, and betrayal. By going specific, it speaks universally. Taking place over about 50 years, it draws parallels between world wars and inter-gangland rivalry. Presidents of countries are like presidents of unions. Power corrupts, fractures friends and families, and leads to the unavoidable violence endemic to human nature. And those who survive are burdened with the scars their sins carved on their souls — they are on crutches, in wheelchairs, suffering all kinds of disease… their skin wrinkles, faces encrusted, limbs weak. These enforcers of justice in the mob try to play God by determining when people are killed and by what. But death comes for us all, by a bullet or by old age, and the longer we live with what we’ve done, the more we’re haunted by it. This is why Frank needs the door cracked open a little bit. He sits with his back to the wall. And because he lives on his schedule (and robs others of their own), he’s the one going into a funeral home and buying his own coffin — and even asking for a discount.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t zoom out even further and mention some meta-issues. Martin Scorsese recently published a brilliant, mournful, profound op-ed in the New York Times about the film industry at large. He’s right that it feels like this kind of film is becoming a dinosaur; an anachronism. Brad Grey was the head of Paramount until 2017. He made bold choices and gave great filmmakers rope to make artful Hollywood studio pictures. He green-lit Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION and Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER! He had a great relationship with Scorsese and after making films like SHUTTER ISLAND and SILENCE, he started on THE IRISHMAN. But his films started tanking. He got pushed out of Paramount, and died months later of cancer at age 59. Paramount then dropped domestic distribution rights to THE IRISHMAN in February 2017, and only Netflix stepped in to save the production (they also bought ANNIHILATION in December of that year).

Was Grey the last studio head who would take risks? Will the future be, as Scorsese says, “perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption, [lacking] something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist?” Perhaps. Most of you reading this won’t see this galvanizing cinematic wonder on the big screen: you’ll see it on your TV screen thanks to Netflix, the only company who would pay the $159 million price tag. Is it a feedback loop? More people watch this on Netflix, so Netflix does more of them and studios like Paramount don’t? Perhaps. And, even worse, perhaps that’s for the best. Last night, when I saw this in one of Los Angeles’ nicest theaters, the crowd was a disaster. The back row of dude-bros were a loud mess. Dropping beer glasses, threatening to beat up other audience members, and cackling at every gunshot. One of them had to be kicked out halfway through. If that wasn’t enough of a distraction, there were the dozen other people who couldn’t bear to go three and a half hours without pulling out their phone to scroll through emails, social media posts, or text their friends, thus blasting the rest of us with Apple’s bright blue light. As I’ve said before, the threat to cinemas isn’t technology or cinema itself: its people. You can blame Netflix, you can blame Marvel, you can blame economics itself. Our biggest problem is other human beings. THE IRISHMAN is a nice thing. Movie theaters are nice things. This is why we can’t have nice things.

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