Bad Times at the El Royale — 6/10

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018, Drew Goddard)

Plays like a demo-version B-side of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS — it has the same voyeuristic puppeteering, the things-are-not-what-they-seem artifice, deconstruction of a theatrical genre, and apocalyptic finale with moralizing overtones — but despite some dazzling set pieces and visuals, it falls a little limp overall.

The questions posed by CABIN’s weird, twisty premise were answered in hilarious, shocking ways — and those answers provided a commentary on horror films at large. The questions posed here aren’t even answered much at all, and don’t end up having anything to say about post-Tarantino noir (which isn’t even much of a genre to deconstruct). There are two McGuffins: a bag of money and an incriminating film reel, but they don’t serve to underscore the rot of the characters. In fact, the specter of Watergate, Vietnam, JFK’s assassination (?), sexual assault, and racism all drape over this plot, but they are just window dressing for a pseudo-HATEFUL EIGHT third act that culminates in a religious scene lacking any emotional resonance.

Before that deflated conclusion, though, there’s a lot to enjoy here: Jon Hamm hams it up with a terrible southern accent (an issue quickly resolved one scene later) and even plays on his MAD MEN persona… a pre-credit prologue with Nick Offerman teaches the audience that they’re essentially watching a stage play on a fake set… a star-making out-of-nowhere lead performance from Cynthia Erivo makes you eager to see what she does in Steve McQueen’s forthcoming WIDOWS… Seamus McGarvey’s exacting compositions behind the camera continue to prove that the DP of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, ATONEMENT, and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is one of the most underrated in the business (not to mention keen on 35mm!)… the heavy dose of Phil Spector hits on the soundtrack both place the film in a distinct era and lend it a populist but sinister character… and Chris Hemsworth has the misfortune of being cast in the film’s worst role (a cult leader with a pedestrian weakness and nothing clever to do or say) but relishes the physical needs of the performance and manages to acquit himself wonderfully.

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A Star Is Born — 6/10

A STAR IS BORN (2018, Bradley Cooper)

Just as Cooper pitches his voice down an octave to play Jackson Maine (and it’s about three octaves south of Rocket Raccoon), this iteration of the timeless tragic love story about fame and alcoholism is pitched at a lower level of melodrama. Where the Cukor version was full of big-show 1950s manipulations, this one is marked by an element of restraint and “cool,” despite its maudlin DNA and big-ballad sap. For that, it’s an easy sit: surface-level pleasurable, not annoying, and likable in a shaggy-dog way — all qualities you could also apply to Cooper himself in this movie. As both an actor and a director, he has made a cheap-seats belter; a massive crowd-pleaser that is guaranteed to make huge amounts of money, and is such a surefire lock for Best Picture that even the wrong envelopes will contain its title as well.

But as every mom in the building exits their matinee screenings into blasting sunlight, wiping buckets of tears off their faces, it’s hard to shake the ultimate skimpiness of this product. Sure, it provides a hit soundtrack with a few solid gold songs, a breakthrough performance of unimpeachable quality from Lady Gaga (I can’t see how the seasoned, decades-trained actresses who lose to this relative rookie in February can complain too much), and fierce supporting work from Sam Elliott (his red-eyed face as he backs up his car away from Jackson is the most affecting shot in the movie), but is it really saying anything at all?

First of all, the alcoholism storyline, omnipresent in all the versions, I imagine (I haven’t seen most of them), is both clichéd and muddled. Is it all on Jack, as his brother argues? Or is it Not His Fault, It’s The Disease, as his wife does? Either way, as long as Cooper looks cool both in his sweaty cowboy hat holding a glass of gin or on stage with a guitar, it’s all good, right? Also, if the movie is a condemnation of fame both as a weapon of separation (the bullshit British manager character, totally false and one-dimensional) and a corrupt enemy of art (Ally’s sellout pop hits and SNL performance), then why am I watching two characters who don’t even contemplate that issue, or question why they’re so eager to be famous? Ally isn’t at her happiest when she’s with Jack; it’s when she’s showered with Grammys (barely an award, but apparently the be-all-end-all of artistic recognition) and watching her own face projected to an amphitheater of adoring fans.

Gaga herself likes to investigate the concept of fame as a two-headed beast — her first two albums were The Fame and The Fame Monster, and two of her biggest hits are “Paparazzi” and “Applause” — but the script here doesn’t allow for such introspection. It just shovels in a few platitudes about “telling your truth out there” and being who you are, or whatever, and that’s all anyone in 2018 wants to hear. This is the 5th cinematic telling of this story, but it’s very much about 2018: in an era of both social media likes/follows and of hit TV shows like The Voice, American Idol, and America’s Got Talent, it’s never been a surer bet to release a slick Hollywood sugar-bomb giving every shower-singer and YouTuber with an Instagram page some hope that maybe she too will be able to get on stage and make everyone shut up and pay attention to her voice and one-of-a-kind songwriting chops. If everyone is a star just waiting to be discovered, then who’s left to buy a ticket to the show?

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Private Life — 9/10

PRIVATE LIFE (2018, Tamara Jenkins)

A fantastic argument in favor of form over content. It proves that a movie can contain subject matter that I either have zero interest in sitting through, or world views I actively disagree with, and still be massively affecting because of how skillfully it is presented. What Jenkins has done with this funny, acerbic, deeply honest indie dramedy is create two believable, likable adults and put them and her audience through hell because none of us have any choice in the matter. Or do they?

I wouldn’t have expected a modern fertility comedy starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti to end up as a treatise on the Myth of Sisyphus, but by the time this couple is continuing their struggle for the Nth time, it becomes obvious that that’s the vision of the human condition Jenkins believes in, and it strikes home with a thunder. For a few specific reasons, I wasn’t exactly eager to watch a story about a couple in their 40s first going through IVF, then hunting for an egg donor, then sweating the egg donor’s retrieval, more IVF, more money down the drain, and painful scams by hillbilly young women serving as phony surrogates. (People I’m very close to shouldn’t even be reading this review let alone watch the movie). But with each passing scene of exacting composition, shrewd cutting, and swelling, multi-dimensional performances, it became clear I was watching something exceptional regardless.

Jenkins peppers her movie with a lot of striking, memorable dialogue, but she also knows when to be quiet and let images do the talking rather than take a This Is Us approach and deliver every bit of exposition through conversation. One great shot that tells us Sadie isn’t staying with Rachel and Richard anymore is just Richard silently deflating her air mattress. And of course that isn’t the only thing in the room being deflated. Another great touch is when Sadie is taking a psychological test to qualify her for being an egg donor, and they ask the woman a question: “Do you ever feel like smashing things?” Cut to Richard and his brother smashing a racquetball on the court. Here, Jenkins is (not so?) subtly showing that standards for women’s sanity are much higher than those for men, yet also puts everyone in the same boat. All in one cut. And in the long game, it’s amazing how Richard and Rachel’s fostering of Sadie mirrors all the stages of parenthood they hope to actually have, sped up and made metaphorical: feeding their young daughter, then having frank birds-and-bees talk, then sending her off on her first date, then taking her to college. It’s 18 years in 18 weeks, and when that all hits home by the end it’s almost too much to bear. And it makes the final sequence all that much more astounding.

Note: You can’t see this movie in theaters, because every screen is too busy showing cartoons and comic book franchise bullshit. In the ’90s this would have had a healthy theatrical run. In 2018 it was released on Netflix, proving furthermore, for better or worse, that modest-budgeted American stories for adults are finding their homes far more often on our television screens than in our theaters.

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Mandy — 4/10

MANDY (2018, Panos Cosmatos)

Full of shit in all sorts of fascinating, novel ways. It’s not often you come across a director so visionary, so singular and unique, and also so terrible at the same time. Usually movies and styles this idiosyncratic are also good, so it’s some sort of achievement that this manages to be crap unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Not to say that it isn’t a huge pile of influences: there’s a lot here from Hooper to Carpenter to Lynch to Ken Russell to Rob Zombie, and if you melt all of that together, put it in a bag and shake it around, you could squeeze out this trippy bore. But the familiar ingredients have never quite been cooked in this manner, so I was constantly questioning what might happen next, and constantly apathetic about the trivial, insipid answer.

Cosmatos seems to have dropped a giant book on color temperature in front of his DP, who decided that stocking up on red bulbs and overexposing the shit out of it would make everything look wild, man. And maybe it does. I have nothing against a movie that provides distinct pleasures when experienced on hallucinogenic drugs, but I do have a problem if the movie requires that medication to enjoy it. For audience members watching this sober, it is nothing but a slow, gory, self-important trudge. The intended jokes fall flat (“That was my favorite shirt!” and “Don’t be negative!” seem to come from two totally different characters and neither one works), and Cage does not help them land. For all the shots that amaze — like the close-ups of Roache and Riseborough dissolving into one another — the shot that says the most about this movie comes in the second half, when Cage is riding an ATV into the cult camp. His wheel gets stuck, and Cosmatos cuts to a tight insert of the rubber tire spinning, spinning, and spewing out the mud in which it is stuck.

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The Old Man and the Gun — 7/10

THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN (2018, David Lowery)

Somehow manages both to take place in the early ’80s and feel like it was made in the early ’80s. The high-grain super-16 photography, sloppily lit and medium-saturated with earth tones, brings you back to 1981 caper movies, but also to the Redford canon: everything from BUTCH CASSIDY and THE STING to SNEAKERS and SPY GAME. And even if he walked it back recently, it makes sense that Redford says this will be his final performance: it’s a summation and a coda, a wink and a smile.

On a scene-to-scene level, this is crisp and entertaining — it clocks in at a lean 93 minutes, skipping not only exposition but sometimes entire heists or major character changes. Lowery knows what we’ve already seen and what will or won’t surprise us, so he brushes past the chorus to gives us a new bridge or two. And the way information is revealed or suggested is playful, clever, and inspiring — much like its protagonist Forrest. Take the opening sequence: as Redford drives away from the bank robbery listening in on the police scanner as they put out an APB on his white sedan, he drives behind a fence being painted by a couple of kids. The kids slap some paint on the wood, then the camera continues moving to catch Redford’s now-blue sedan emerge and continue. Cute goes down a lot easier when it’s also functional.

In taking Redford (his PETE’S DRAGON star) and Affleck (his AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS and A GHOST STORY star) into this cat-and-mouse chase, Lowery is drawing a line from past to present. He’s doing the same with Spacek (who is sensational here), relying on our knowledge of her introduction in BADLANDS as the innocent lover of a criminal. And in pulling this cast into the present, he’s making a movie about time itself and how character is determined both by current action and by a series of actions throughout history. That’s how Redford’s image was developed, and it’s how Forrest lives his life — he doesn’t rob banks to secure a future, he does it because it’s in his nature. (As one line puts it: it isn’t about making a living, it’s about living).

And because of this existential definition, the movie turns to celebrating the chase rather than its result. One slightly clumsy line is forced on Affleck’s daughter — she says that once her dad catches the bad guy, it’ll be too bad because he won’t get to chase him anymore. Perhaps too on-the-nose, but the spirit is there. Time marches on, we get older, we make new friends, new lovers, children who know us and those who do not. And as the generations pass, some things remain constant: the things that thrill us, and the things that make us feel alive. Wait, am I describing A GHOST STORY or THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN? Pretty cool trick, David.

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Searching — 6/10

SEARCHING (2018, Aneesh Chaganty)

Has an opening ten minutes that goes for UP-level pathos, and while it may not reach Pixarian heights, the form does make it interesting. Producer Timur Bekmambetov has made a new career out of churning out movies that all take place on a laptop screen, and while this is no UNFRIENDED, it still uses the conceit to reveal information in interesting ways. We start on a Windows/PC laptop and see the Norton Antivirus software. First clue we’re in the past. As we lurch towards the present, the PC is replaced by a MacBook. Certain search windows and tools are further signifiers, and beyond that, the content of the folders and iMessages gives us a taste of what we really need to know.

This keeps the story entertaining, because it generates both tension and laughs (one huge one) out of things as simple as missed call notifications and text bubble ellipses or someone entering and leaving a chat. This isn’t a movie about technology in any pro-computer or Luddite scenario; it’s about parenting, and it simply uses modern communication as a means to dole out exposition craftily.

Unfortunately, as it goes along, it paints itself into a corner and the story becomes kind of stupid, and all of it is exacerbated by Chaganty’s unsteady tone and amateur desperation,  such as using either Cho’s worst take or not asking him for more, or piling on a heavy-handed, bombastic score. It also cheats on its own gimmick by escaping the laptop in favor of surveillance footage and TV news cameras. SEARCHING is a brisk, entertaining sit, and Bekmambetov knows what he’s doing with this genre, but it shouldn’t be a crutch for shaky screenplays.

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BlacKkKlansman — 9/10

BLACKkKLANSMAN (2018, Spike Lee)

Spike Lee opened his 1992 masterpiece MALCOLM X with footage from the Rodney King beating. It set the tone for the rest of the film and placed it in a context. With BLACKkKLANSMAN, he closes the movie with footage from Charlottesville (exactly a year before this was released) — not setting the tone, but connecting obvious dots in order to continue a conversation between the film’s characters and its audience. All throughout his career, Spike has been talking with his audience, and it’s never a comfortable, cajoling debate — it’s contentious, illuminating, and often galvanizing.

What he does open this movie with is a phony propaganda film from 1957 starring Alec Baldwin as a George Wallace type, spewing bigoted bile while newsreel footage is projected across his face. Baldwin coughs and stutters, trying to get through the scene with several takes — here’s Lee showing that a guy like this has to choke through his own words to get this evil out; it’s so disgusting that a person can hardly stand to speak it in one breath. And throughout the running time, he continues to confront the audience with the everyday thoughts of terrorists — sure, we’ve all read speeches and seen ugly tweets, but to sit there for more than two hours hearing the Klan characters continually spew venomous slurs and explore their own hatred… it’s not comfortable or easy. And Spike is asking his white audience to just try to endure it for a little while, then imagine it for your whole life.

What’s it like to be confronted with this antagonism? Adam Driver’s character Flip says “I never used to think about [being Jewish]. Now I think about it all the time.” To be hated for who you are is to confront that identity, and make it part of your conscious self. So Flip goes back to his roots, just as Ron does with his — he’s not just undercover when he becomes part of the rebellious black student council of which his love interest is the president. He does stand for the liberation of his people. The more he thinks about it, the more he digs in. So for everyone watching who wonders why there’s a Black Lives Matter, they have their answer.

And words are easy enough to dispute with more words — you can hear the text of Baldwin’s speech at the beginning and argue with it. But Lee gets down to business and argues using every tool of the cinema he can: and the first act is awash with great set pieces. It goes from an empowering rally (Corey Hawkins in a one-scene performance is astounding) to an all-black nightclub where the revelers dance (“I believe, I believe, I believe I’m falling in love”) and show all aspects of their humanity. It’s a sensuous, sexy dance scene, photographed with velvet tones and mixed with adoration of the music. It’s easy to throw verbal darts at a straw man like Baldwin’s character (i.e. Trump) who says minorities are rapists and thugs; it’s another to explore the opposite in sound and image. These two sequences are where Lee’s indulgent tendencies (critics complain that he loves to take his time) pay off.

Never more confident in his directorial skill, Lee is every bit as blunt and didactic as ever — but he looks so good doing it. At one point, he draws out a long L-cut between scenes at the police station and then at a Klan meet-up. After Ron unmasks evil cop Landers, his colleagues say the police is a brotherhood and they look out for their own; Ron replies “Does that sound like any other group you know?” and we hear the gun shots ring out — for several seconds before Lee (and his career editing partner Barry Alexander Brown) finally takes us into the woods. We also get his signature dolly shot, another double-take-hug, and wouldn’t you know it, Isiah Whitlock Jr. saying “Sheeeeeit.” Lee quoting himself isn’t just doing his greatest hits; he’s putting a stamp on it. (There’s even an exchange of “Ya dig?” “Sho nuff”).

But this movie is about Ron Stallworth — it’s based on his memoir and focuses the problems of a nation onto his capable shoulders. In doing so, it takes him on a journey where he mirrors the black American experience over time. Stallworth starts out a slave (working the records room, stepping and fetching for white officers), then becomes (according to Patrice) a “house Negro,” and eventually a leader, an activist, and savior. Lee hasn’t empowered a black protagonist this optimistically since MALCOLM X, covering so much ground and appraising so much self-actualization. Denzel’s son John David Washington is tremendous in the role (after seeing enough of BALLERS, I had no idea he was this strong) and Lee is having all the fun in the world directing him. This is a work of immense exuberance, humor, pain, and anger, but it never has to shout too loud. Spike Lee is 61 years old. All he has to do is get out his paintbrush and our jaws will hit the floor.

 

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