Monthly Archives: October 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer — 6/10

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017, Yorgos Lanthimos)

It’s either the best mediocre movie you’ve ever seen, or the worst masterpiece. Has Lanthimos’s reliably sharp eye for composition and movement, his unnerving ear for sound design, and that off-putting atmosphere of dread that manages to be unsettling and wildly gripping at the same time. Even more Kubrick-inspired than THE LOBSTER (this one is all THE SHINING and EYES WIDE SHUT), morbidly funny and deeply disturbing, and the cast is absolutely aces. Barry Keoghan, who I just discovered a few months ago in DUNKIRK, is fascinating — he and the eerily intelligent Raffey Cassidy are as good as Farrell and Kidman, both of whom know exactly what kind of movie they’re in and they serve it well.

But somehow the whole never equals the sum of its parts. What’s the point of this? THE LOBSTER had a clear goal, and some ripe social institutions it was dissecting. SACRED DEER starts off with a cut-open body during a surgery, but we don’t know what the organ is. Similarly, the film seems to be peering inside something, but it’s not clear what we should take from this dark, sick fable. Maybe I’m just too dumb to get it — but despite the upper class trappings, the parental warnings, the superficial/materialistic facades, and the impotent doctors, everything feels like a signpost of something; they aren’t organic themes lucidly explored. Kidman’s Anna has different motives in every scene, her character merely fitting whatever needs the plot requires at the time. Silverstone’s weird, desperate single mom has one good scene, but she’s a key that Farrell refuses to utilize when it seems really important. The humor is grisly and dry, but right after a sick joke there will be a scene that it takes utterly seriously, so you’re never sure how far inside its cheek this movie’s tongue is. You’ll be never less than glued to the screen, but you may be scratching your head when it’s over. And for a film with a more grounded, simplified world than THE LOBSTER, that’s surprising.

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The Meyerowitz Stories — 7/10

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (2017, Noah Baumbach)

In the first scene, Dustin Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz has red scrapes on his face from what he claims is an incident with a dog. (“You should see the other dog.”) By the third act, Ben Stiller’s Matthew has gone from clean cut to bloody-nose and face-scratched, standing next to his red-knuckled brother Danny (a terrific Adam Sandler). The wounds that start with the father end up on the sons. We survive the worst of it, but we’re all a little scarred (even if, like Jean, those scars are on the inside).

Feels a little like Baumbach starting to repeat himself a few too many times, but when the dialogue is this good and the neuroses this real, it still works. Plus, admit it — you always kinda wanted to see THE SQUID AND THE WHALE with the characters grown up 20 years later, right? Mix that in with some ROYAL TENENBAUMS and you can predict where this is going and how you’ll feel about it. You may not be ready for just how good Stiller is in the requisite emotional breakdown scene, but you also won’t be ready for just how bad Hoffman is. The biggest drawback here is the alarmingly distracting line readings from a confused Hoffman — he looks like he’s just hoping he remembered the dialogue, so he rushes to the end of the take before he screws up, without internalizing any of it. Baumbach’s script nails how family members talk past each other without connecting, but when Sandler or Stiller have to play off an actor unprepared for this style, the results are dispiriting. Halfway through, when Harold undergoes a major life change, Hoffman’s performance settles down a bit and he’s more in his element. But those first 40 minutes or so are rough going.

Still, the running joke of Baumbach cutting away from a scene mid-rant is both superficially hilarious and a wry comment on his own repetitiveness. This guy’s daddy issues make Spielberg look positively healthy. But the joy is on the fringes — Emma Thompson’s superb capturing of a hippie New York Jewish mom; the hungrily pretentious student films (TRAMPS’s Grace Van Patten cleverly avoids a lot of teen girl clich├ęs here); the floundering gasps at humanity when dealing with hospital staff. This may only appeal to a select class and personality type, but it’s never dishonest.

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 – 7/10

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017, S. Craig Zahler)

In poker, a reliable tell is that acting quickly is a sign of weakness. If someone takes their time before shoving over your bet, it’s much scarier than if they snap-jam. This, experts say, is because when you’re lying you want to get it over with quickly. The truth — you can sit with that a little longer. It’s more comfortable. BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 takes its time, and that exudes not only confidence and strength, but a certain degree of admirable honesty.

The film runs over two hours, but never feels slow. It also never feels hurried, much like its protagonist. Vince Vaughn’s hulking, quietly raging Bradley (don’t call him “Brad!”) thinks for a few seconds before responding to almost anything anyone says. You can tell he’s going over possible moves in his head, then settles on the most rational one. Bradley is smart, but he isn’t egotistical. He can box, but won’t brag about it. He never lays a hand on his cheating wife; he just destroys her phone and then breaks his hands punching her car into pieces. It’s a fascinating character study, and Zahler takes his time in the first hour making sure we do all the studying we need in order to follow Bradley’s measured descent into hell, step by step — and that we care so deeply about it.

Zahler’s directorial debut, BONE TOMAHAWK, was also lengthy, but equally rich with character study. By the end, an overwhelming emotional scene has you tearing up just minutes after you’ve seen a man split in half with a hatchet, his guts and entrails falling out onto a cave floor. For much of BRAWL’s runtime, I was sure I wouldn’t be as choked up during this, as I wasn’t feeling Kurt Russell-level depths of empathy. But then a phone call scene happens, and damn if Zahler didn’t do it again. Even more odd is that this scene, too, comes after some of the most unpleasant, hideously gory images you’re likely to see on the big screen in a reputable movie theater. Rarely has a filmmaker combined such a keen ability to generate pathos and nauseating exploitative gore in the same reel, let alone the same movie.

Part of what’s so striking about Zahler’s work is his all-encompassing existentialism. The best shot in TOMAHAWK is an ultra-wide set to the line “This is where we are,” underscoring the indifference of nature and the universe to the pathetic travails of man. Here, he gives Bradley a dose of Sisyphus during his prison stint. In one funny but unsettling scene, new inmates must wait in an interminable line to surrender their belongings. And once they reach the front, there’s a good chance the prick behind the window will send them back to the end again, forced to roll the rock up the hill one more time. Despite the giant cross tattoo on the back of Bradley’s bald skull, God doesn’t exist in Zahler’s universe. It’s up to the characters to create their own moral centers and act on behalf of them. It’s a cruel world, love is fleeting and ephemeral, and we must take action. Camus would be proud.

The visuals in BRAWL are a step ahead of TOMAHAWK, but I’m still not sold on Zahler as a visual storyteller. His dialogue is exceptional, and his control of actors is impressive (Carpenter, Johnson… all the small roles here are memorable and well-modulated), but I’m not sure a few cool angles and contrasty images signify great direction. Also, his obsession with gore is starting to feel unnecessary — if some viewers have to watch through closed fingers, what’s the point? The backbone of his storytelling is there; why rip it out and show it to us?

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American Made — 6/10

AMERICAN MADE (2017, Doug Liman)

A fun throwback to mid-90s Scorsese-lite ripoffs, where you expect a fast pace, big needle drops, freeze-frames, candid voiceover, and a dedication to glamorizing excess before ripping it all away in a moralizing third act. The problem is that GOODFELLAS is already as perfect as that genre’s gonna get, and everything from BLOW to NARCOS has just been varying degrees of entertaining superficiality.

The points Liman is making about capitalism’s rotten consequences, and moreover the gruesome ways the government used and exploited its operatives as mere cogs in the war machine, are valid and sobering — but not necessarily profound or unique. What makes this film watchable and mostly breezy fun is Tom Cruise, and by now that shouldn’t be surprising (both that it’s true and also that I’d be the person to point it out). Cruise remains one of this country’s greatest movie stars and finest performers, even if his recent choices haven’t lived up to an incredible run from the ’90s and early ’00s. The guy is undeniably magnetic, but he also finds creative line readings and comic facial expressions to expand the material and deepen its impact. If you respond to him as much as I do, this is clearly worth your time, but you’ll forget most of it within three days and start itching for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 6 next year… and hopefully a reunion with Spielberg or PTA or De Palma down the line for another jolt of real magic.

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