FIRST LOVE (2019, Takashi Miike)
Fans frequently lament that TRUE ROMANCE ended up being directed by Tony Scott instead of its superstar author, Quentin Tarantino. (While I’d have been curious to see QT’s vision, the existing film happens to be Scott’s best and a giddily rewatchable blast). Nobody has ever wondered, though, what it would have been like had it been directed by Takashi Miike, the Japanese gore-hound behind AUDITION and ICHI THE KILLER. Now we have the answer to a question never asked, and the answer is: pretty damn good.
Not only did Miike and writer Nasa Makamura clearly have QT’s debut story in mind when crafting this (which is about an innocent civilian and a reluctant prostitute on the run from pursuing mobsters and crooked cops, while carrying a bag full of drugs), but even the costume designer paid tribute: our hero Leo basically wears Clarence’s outfit — light jacket over button down, over white t-shirt, and blue jeans. (For a fun comparison, check out this and this). Luckily, the movie is way more Miike than it is Scott or Tarantino, making the entire story feel fresh and gonzo-bananas, especially in the back half.
After some clumsy setup (the intro of Leo as a boxer and sad sack informed of a terminal brain tumor; Monica and her drug habit and hallucinations; and the double-crossing yakuza plot about Chinese enemies and the dirty cop planning the heist), the story kicks into overdrive once weaselly mobster Kase (Shôta Sometani making a strong run for 2019’s Best-Or-At-Least-Funniest Supporting Actor) makes his move. Then Miike gets to ramp up the action as well as his trademark blood-and-guts (does anyone like decapitations and dismemberments more than he does?), but with a heavy, heavy dose of laugh-out-loud humor.
An unexpected level of depth comes when Leo has to reckon with his mortality. His existentialist thesis (basically summing up Camus by proclaiming that once death is imminent, we can really live and create our own reason for being) is echoed in dialogue by many of the other players here, so we get lines like “everything is… fucked” and “everyone is fated to die,” and “morning light is not suited for the wicked.” Unfortunately the script provides a pointless and contrived twist (doubled-down on with an annoyingly redundant and unnecessary flashback to something we just saw 45 minutes ago) that undoes a lot of this for no good reason, but at least it motivates a nearly 10-minute epilogue keeping things going well after the climax. The final shot zooms out, and underscores the fact that in the tragicomedy of life, characters are just two more extras in a vast and indifferent world, disappearing behind anonymous white doors that pepper a harsh urban landscape.
AD ASTRA (2019, James Gray)
A slow, ponderous, deadly serious drama packed with self-consciously profound voiceover and interrupted occasionally by bursts of exhilarating action and stimulating set-pieces — it seems like it shouldn’t work and shouldn’t make sense, and during the experience it kind of doesn’t. But reflecting on what’s at stake in this, and what kind of observations Gray is making about our human condition, both today and tomorrow, makes this interesting, affecting, and something I actually liked despite my hesitation to recommend it to anyone at all.
The key line is Pitt saying “We’re all we’ve got.” There’s a frightening existential truth in discovering — even after traveling 2.7 billion miles to Neptune — that there may not be any other intelligent life in the galaxy, and humanity has to rely on itself to progress. The opening crawl tells us that in the near future we look to the stars (it helpfully explains that “ad astra” is Latin for “to the stars”) to save us, but apparently that’s just mankind’s folly. When there’s no God, no aliens, and no reason to exist, then we turn inward and explore human relationships, family, and the soul. Hence Pitt’s perma-watery eyes through his space helmet (in zero gravity, tears don’t fall down your face, so those watery eyes are a scientifically accurate detail) as he contemplates what, if anything, is worth saving.
Gray proves increasingly focused on this aspect of the theme, so the other stuff feels like window dressing. You would be excused for thinking the rover chase on the moon, the baboons, and other incidents were studio-mandated entertainment to distract from the sobering philosophical hand-wringing. But while they’re brilliantly executed (Van Hoytema’s reliably gorgeous photography is on par with DUNKIRK and INTERSTELLAR), those incidents don’t seem to matter much to the story, which really wants to boil down to Pitt and Jones: a son grappling with his father’s issues. To the point where voiceover lines like “we suffer the sins of the father” are annoyingly redundant. In his best film, THE LOST CITY OF Z, Gray sent a father and his son so deep into the Amazon jungle it felt like outer space. Here, space is both literal and metaphorical, the universe is just as hostile, and all you care about coming away from it is the humanity at its core.
HUSTLERS (2019, Lorene Scarfaria)
One shot early in the film says it all: Lopez, covered in fur and perched on the roof of a building, opens up her coat and motions Wu to sit beneath her — literally under her wing — as she begins the mentorship (and mother-daughter relationship) that sets off the narrative. And despite Wu being protected and wrapped up, she still has Lopez’s lit cigarette dangling above her head, burning ashes ready to fall like the sword of Damocles at any moment.
I wish Scafaria had taken the time and care to craft more striking images like that one — one of the few truly cinematic moments that shows rather than tells, in a movie that tells us a lot (too much, as it were — it’s hard to do constant voiceover as well as Scorsese does it). The other reason I wanted more of that is that the nature of Lopez and Wu’s bond is one of the more nuanced and provocative areas of the story, but it’s often sublimated in favor of the crowd-pleasing pizzazz. Strippers, and sex workers in general, are paid (partly, of course) to fake genuine interest and defray the true financial motivation of their companionship (see Soderbergh’s double feature of THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE and MAGIC MIKE for more on the economics of sex work). So it’s natural for Wu to question Lopez’s earnestness towards her. But the movie doesn’t give us enough of Lopez’s interiority to develop that ambiguity, telling virtually everything from Wu’s perspective, and relying on Stiles to deliver not only exposition but character development too.
Wu is every bit up to this task, and does a tremendous job in a performance that’s bound to be overshadowed by Lopez’s superstar buzz (think Ethan Hawke in TRAINING DAY). CRAZY RICH ASIANS proved Wu has the goods; this proves she has the range. Lopez, though, deserves all the hype. She uses her notorious celebrity and diva wattage to the character’s advantage, but doesn’t betray the role at all — when she has to be vulnerable she is, and it’s hard to imagine another actress who could summon the cyclone of boss-bitch power the character requires. The rest of the movie follows her lead, with wall-to-wall pop music (no original score) and forceful momentum, but the consequence of such a style is that the themes are rendered shallow, a BIG SHORT-lite Wiki summary of the 2008 financial crisis, flattening the issues and skating over everyone’s crimes.