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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 STORIS), 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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Jojo Rabbit — 2/10

JOJO RABBIT (2019, Taika Waititi)

George Carlin said you can joke about anything; it just depends on how you construct the joke. Anthony Jeselnik explores these boundaries by ensuring that his ostensibly offensive jokes take aim at deserving targets — for example, in this joke (“My grandmother was so racist she told us Santa Claus was black, so that when we found out he didn’t exist it wouldn’t upset us so much”) the target is the racism of the elderly, not blacks or Santa Claus.

So, yes, I think you can joke about the Holocaust, and I think Waititi knows this. The problem (and for me, a particularly huge problem) is that although the targets of his jokes in this movie are Nazis and Hitler, the jokes aren’t funny enough or smart enough to counter the very palpable sense of softening cuteness applied to said Nazis. Sam Rockwell’s character is a notable example of one of the heroes of the movie — saving two lives in noble sacrifice, proving himself to be a hell of a cool SS commandant. As for the lovable little scamp at the center, he spends the majority of the movie spewing some of the most abominable anti-Semitic hatred you could imagine (most of it right to Anne Frank’s face, and the rest of it in dialogue with his imaginary friend, Adolf Hiter), just so we can pat ourselves on the back for approving of his eventual enlightenment that Jews aren’t so bad after all.

One of the supposed saints in his life is his mother (played with uncharacteristic confusion by Scarlett Johansson), who never tries even remotely to cure her son of his loathsome views. She’s secretly working to aid the Jews and rebel against the Third Reich, but never does what a good parent would actually do — and set an example for her son or challenge his venomous hatred. Her ostensible defense is by shielding him from her actions she’s protecting him, but first of all it doesn’t protect him, and secondly that’s not a good reason to passively encourage the sweeping enthusiasm of Hitler Youth. As for the kid’s imaginary friendship with Der Fuhrer, Waititi’s broad, hammy performance is pitched at a shrill and detestable level — his anachronistic sense of humor is aimed at making a mockery of Hitler, which is better than praising him of course, but also defangs one of the most evil war criminals in human history, as if he’s just a goofy figment of your imagination — whew! Glad he isn’t a real person committing genocide! That would be terrible.

And that’s the general tone of this misbegotten Wes Anderson clone: a mushy, sweet, twee satire of WWII atrocities drained of any violence (except one tastefully hidden recognition of a major character’s death) or acknowledgement of the repugnant traumas suffered by my ancestors. And since it isn’t funny (Rebel Wilson is particularly obnoxious in her clueless scramble for a comic register), we’re left with not much to grasp. Thomasin McKenzie is quite good and acquits herself of a role that basically amounts to waiting for the help and rescue and friendship of a pre-adolescent Nazi, and Waititi continues to display a sharp eye for wide-angle frames and editing that understands where comic timing should hit. It’s just that with a script this dour, none of the technical skill can save it. When the end credits roll in the colorful red-and-black font of the SS, it’s almost as if the Holocaust was actually nothing worse than a misguided David Bowie needle drop.

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Pain and Glory — 8/10

PAIN AND GLORY (2019, Pedro Almodóvar)

When director Salvador (played by the consistently great Antonio Banderas, shifting out of his late-period DTV action movies to deliver yet another hard-working performance of intelligence and tenderness) tells a former actress of his that a particular movie plays better now than it did 30 years ago, she tells him “It’s your eyes that have changed. The film is the same.” Almodóvar just turned 70 years old and is finally working like a filmmaker polishing his last chapter: patient, ruminative, and reflective. In that scene he’s challenging the notion that movies can “age well” or feel dated. His acknowledgement that works of art are static, and their impact can only be felt in relation to the relative association with its audience — and their particular life circumstances — is key to understanding the connection between a filmmaker’s relationship to cinema, and his relationship to himself.

As a narrative, it’s kind of all over the map. It takes detours in its wandering focus — whether on a reunion with a former actor, a dalliance with heroin addiction, flashbacks to a formative youth and a complicated mother, chronic health problems, and most notably the return of a former lover — but uses these loose strands to weave a life that isn’t easily summed up or turned into a simplistic message. Instead it lends memories a dreamlike quality, finds ways to turn experience into quasi-fiction (“the neighbors don’t like you talking about them”), and comes to terms with the fact that we can’t return to the past but we can embrace it with the wisdom that can only come from the present. This is a colorful, heartfelt piece of work directed with classical strength and pulsating with sloppy, endearing brush strokes.

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The Lighthouse — 7/10

THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019, Robert Eggers)

A dissertation on entropy disguised as a visual adaptation of a Decemberists song. When we first see the faces of our two protagonists, they stop and stare right into the lens, holding a pose like one of those old-west photographs where proper people had to sit for half an hour just to get a selfie. They then make their way into the lighthouse and begin a laborious structure that includes night shift, day shift, cleaning, hauling, and rule-following (the manual says no drinking!). By the end, more shit has hit the proverbial fan than you could ever anticipate in a two-hander that basically plays like a comedic stage play: Waiting For Captain Godot.

Other than the entropy through-line, and the general investigation into stir-craziness / loneliness-to-madness, it’s hard to figure out just why Eggers even wanted to make this movie. If anything it’s a braggadocious actors’ exercise, giving Dafoe and Pattinson the meatiest roles they’ve ever had, which they justify ably. Pattinson comes off a bit worse, mostly because of an uneven accent, high degree of difficulty with his arc, and the high standard he’s set recently with stuff like GOOD TIME and THE LOST CITY OF Z. Dafoe, on the other hand, is absolutely stunning. He gets to play his Ahab parody with full-gravel voice, under-lit face like a ghost-story raconteur, and never ever breaks character.

Eggers doesn’t just plop his camera down and rely on the performances. He squeezes them into a 1.19:1 (silent film era) aspect ratio, visually cramming these guys together more than even their living conditions indicate, and punishes the soundtrack with a relentless foghorn and the implacable crashing of waves against the unforgiving rocks that surround them. He drains them of color by shooting with 35mm black-and-white film stock on a century-old lens, focus often getting the best of Eggers and his cast. The ghost of Kubrick vaguely haunts the proceedings, with aspects of 2001, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and especially THE SHINING peeking into this sea shanty world. The result is a peculiar spirit, a spiked punch of a movie that looks and sounds like nothing else this decade or beyond — much of it is impenetrable and little of it is revelatory, but it’s a thing to behold nonetheless.

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Gemini Man — 7/10

GEMINI MAN (2019, Ang Lee)

You will not see this movie. In fact, you can’t see this movie. To do so, you must be lucky enough to live near one of the 14 screens around the country that are exhibiting it in 3-D at 120fps. (And even then, those 14 screens are only capable of projecting a 2K image, not the 4K in which it was shot. This article from Polygon explains further.) Here in Los Angeles, today (Thursday Oct. 17, the seventh day of its release) is its final day on one of the screens (Arclight Hollywood) that’s showing it as intended. The movie has been a box office disaster and my showing on a Wednesday evening had a total of 5 people. If you do watch something called “Gemini Man” in middle America, or at home on video, you’ll be seeing a third-generation approximation of something that mildly resembles the movie. Like ordering a cheeseburger and only being served a photo of it.

I mention this not to sound elitist, or to criticize the inherently exclusionary nature of a movie that exists without the means to properly exhibit it — but to underscore that the presentation of it really IS the content. If I were to analyze this strictly on its narrative function, it’s a pretty bad DTV sci-fi thriller with cardboard characters, lousy dialogue (was “everyone hates cilantro” ever going to be funny without Smith’s delivery?) and a tired sub-Frankenstein morality theme about playing God with DNA. The plot is riddled with holes (if Smith is retiring, why does Owen need him to be killed? Just because he found out Dormov’s file was spiked, doesn’t mean he’s going to bother finding out why — this is why he’s retiring! Also, if Dormov was just a molecular biologist and not a terrorist, why did four of Lassiter’s hitmen fail to take him out?) and the structure follows in the wake of dozens of similar predictable actioners of the last 30 years: ex-military assassin has trouble with his One Last Job, and then gets a bounty on his own head by a private weapons firm getting high on its own supply. It really took David Benioff to write this?

On October 12, Eliud Kipchoge broke the previously unbreakable 2-hour barrier in the marathon, finishing in 1:59:40. He did this thanks to the inexorable march of technology: laser-guided routes, aerodynamic pace-setters, foam-padded Vaporfly shoes, a schedule programmed with ideal weather in mind, and other carefully constructed aides. But he did it, and nobody else can — especially nobody as old as he is (his age is listed as 34, but most experts agree he’s actually around 40). Technology does not make achievements less impressive – they just move the goalposts. Ang Lee has been doing this for years, and his previous film, BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK used a similar visual presentation.

The effect is wholly immersive — the HFR provides a hyper-real image, the 2K (or 4K if you’re lucky) provides extra clarity and crispness, and the 3-D is, well, 3-D. Lee’s characters are directed to look right into the lens. When glass explodes, the shards fly out into the theater in a way that improves on all 3-D tech in the past, even AVATAR (though, since James Cameron is always on the vanguard of tech, this movie proves that AVATAR 2 is going to look absolutely phenomenal). Even the simple exposition of a spade tattoo on the inside of characters’ wrists is achieved by Lee framing those wrists over the shoulder as they reach away from the 3-D camera. It’s hard to imagine this movie existing apart from its tech, and that can be extended to the content as well — it’s a movie about cloning, and the de-aging effects on Smith’s face are better than any we’ve seen before (makes me curious to see how effective it is in THE IRISHMAN). So the centerpiece sequence (a chase in Cartagena, Colombia) is not only an incredible piece of action cinema (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and LIFE OF PI might be enough to make you forget that Lee is a superb director of clean, electrifying action dating back to CROUCHING TIGER all the way through the punishing war flashbacks of BILLY LYNN), but the technology allows it to also include Smith fighting Smith, with good enough 3-D and FX layering that you’ll believe the tire marks on old Smith’s cheek the rest of the movie did come from the spinning motorcycle wheel that threw him over a car.

The streaming wars are about to heat up. Disney+ is 4 weeks away, with Apple TV+ and others not far behind, in an effort to steal Netflix’s thunder. And the noise from this has most viewers claiming that streaming is the enemy of the theatrical experience. That just isn’t true. Streaming is the enemy of cable TV. Nobody hates Netflix more than Dish and Comcast. Because home viewing is home viewing, and there are only so many hours you spend on your couch and only so many dollars in your wallet to pay for the content. The enemy of movies are movie theaters. As cinema keeps evolving because of said inexorable technology march, theaters need to keep up with it. There’s no other way to get the experience. But alas, AMC multiplexes can barely show a 16:9 digitally shot comedy without poor luminosity from its projector bulbs, bad masking at the wrong aspect ratio, and failing to enforce rules against using cell phones or excessive talking. I doubt I’ll ever stop going to the movies. But if I do, it won’t be because of technology. It’ll be because of people refusing to accept it.

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Parasite — 9/10

PARASITE (2019, Bong Joon-ho)

Fuses the class-conscious social commentary of SNOWPIERCER with the comic tone of OKJA and creates a wholly original, consistently surprising dark comedy that is Bong’s most complete and satisfying movie to date (in a career that boasts an already-impressive batting average). Bong’s eye has never failed him, and it’s no surprise he meticulously storyboards every shot — this thing is composed masterfully, utilizing vertical space and movement to underscore every point about the haves and have-nots.

When the Kims leave the Parks, they are always moving down: down stairs, down a hill, ducking under things, with the camera tracking down to follow them to the slums. Even their living room has a front window that looks upon the street — but since they’re in a sunken flat, their view is an ankle-level shot of the outside. This contrasts with the Parks, whose house is shot with crisp wide-angle masters, the staircase on the right side, a spacious living room in the foreground, and giant open kitchen in the background. But look out for the dark space receding behind the kitchen, down the stairs, to the danger that lurks below.

As the story gets further out of control (this is paced beautifully, by the way, constantly ramping up the stakes and the insanity much like many of Bong’s earlier features), we start to see all the ramifications of Korea’s widening wealth gap: the poor are trapped within the walls of the rich, inextricable from their lives and fates. The wealthy hold their noses at the stink of the poor, a stink caused by their own sewage flooding the houses of the slums below them. But they also can’t live without them — they need them as tutors, as drivers, as cooks, and as therapists to flatter and cajole them and their spoiled children. It all culminates in a whopper of a final scene; the last shot knocked the wind out of me. Interesting that this won the Palme d’Or a year after SHOPLIFTERS did the same — both are about a morally dubious poor family, but where Kore-eda approached the material with earnestness and more than a little sap, Bong comes at it with a chef’s blade: cynical, brilliant, and not a single punch pulled.

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Joker — 6/10

JOKER (2019, Todd Phillips)

When protagonists in comic book movies appear shirtless, it’s often to show off their toned abs and bulging pecs, proof not only that a high-priced Hollywood trainer has chiseled a hero out of clay, but also that the character is capable of great feats of superhuman strength and stamina. Joaquin Phoenix is often shirtless in JOKER, but Phillips’s camera gazes upon this scrawny torso for entirely different reasons. When Phoenix leans forward, we see his spine poking out of his back like some kind of mammalian crustacean. When he leans back, we see every individual rib outlined by his sunken belly. The point, of course, is that a character who is this malnourished and empty in his physicality is also malnourished cerebrally. And while it may be a reductive comment on mental illness, movies get a lot of mileage out of visual shortcuts into characters’ minds. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is a skeleton under wrinkled skin, with no muscles to fight with, no guts to take responsibility with, and probably no heart to feel with.

Phoenix, by the way, is sensational in this role. It’s not just his physical transformation — in the second scene, he starts in close-up by cackling his soon-to-be trademark wail, and we seriously can’t tell if he’s laughing or crying. His face grimaces in pain, but his throat hacks up guffaws. We soon learn it’s part of a medical condition, but the central thesis of the character has been established — he can’t distinguish between comedy and tragedy, and every time he turns his face into a smile, there is sinister anguish driving it. If this is the best in a long line of great cinematic Joker performances, it’s because Fleck is the center of every single scene. It’s two hours of a disintegrating arc, where actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger appeared for brief flashes here and there, signifying a terrifying menace but always supporting the centralized Batman story. Here, Bruce Wayne is a child in two brief scenes, and it’s Fleck who determines the fate of Gotham City.

There are interesting and entertaining aspects of JOKER aside from Phoenix’s stellar turn, but their force is mitigated by a lot of Phillips’s dumbed-down hand-holding. He shows his cards by casting Robert De Niro as the talk show host, indicating the Scorsese films he’s cribbing from (mostly TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY, but also CAPE FEAR a little). Scorsese’s tormented antiheroes are given contemplative weight, whereas Fleck in this film is treated with maximalist shock value, the bursts of gory violence looking like cosplay instead of coming naturally from the material. Also, the twisty story points are then repeated by editorial choices that hammer home what’s already obvious, as if the audience is full of idiots.

This kind of simplified, shallow storytelling is frustrating coming from a director who has improved a lot lately, when his focus has been on more serious, action-oriented movies. THE HANGOVER PART III and WAR DOGS showed visual sophistication that was lacking in his earlier work, and the latter (also Scorsese lite, riffing on THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) took a firm position on America’s gun problem. Here, the gun issue — as well as mental illness and the health care system in general — are just given lip service but not investigated. It’s barely a John Oliver monologue, let alone a serious argument.

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First Love — 7/10

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.

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Ad Astra — 7/10

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.

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Hustlers — 6/10

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.

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The Nightingale — 5/10

THE NIGHTINGALE (2019, Jennifer Kent)

Kent’s sophomore feature is not a horror movie, like THE BABADOOK, but perhaps this is a meaningless semantic distinction. There are no supernatural elements, no creatures, no serial killers, and no jump scares. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a horrifying movie. On the contrary, this is one of the most sadistic, bleak, cruel, ugly motion pictures you’re bound to see all year. There may be no Monsters, but there are plenty of monsters — i.e., human beings.

It’s hard to think of a horror movie antagonist more villainous than Sam Clafin’s Lt. Hawkins — an incompetent soldier with a bilious temper, and zero moral compass. He and his cronies (those around him act more like victims than colleagues, as he uses his authority and intimidation tactics to order people around, shaming them into following commands) spend most of the movie raping women left and right, and murdering black people and small children. Whenever you think Kent isn’t going to go there, she goes there.

So why are we putting up with this barbaric nightmare for over two hours? That depends on who you are — if you need a movie to draw an analogy between the 19th century colonialism that led to British imperialists slaughtering the Aboriginal peoples of Van Diemen’s Land during the Black War / Tasmanian War and today’s genocidal atrocities committed by governments East and West, then Kent’s got you covered. But if you want to see an aesthetically brave, nuanced film with good performances and material that challenges previously held beliefs, this is not the movie for you.

Aisling Franciosi and Clafin are fine as two of the three leads, but newcomer Baykali Ganambarr struggles to appear natural. This is his first credit as an actor, and although he has a certain presence, there isn’t a scene in here where you don’t catch the man behind the character trying to “Act.” His amateur performance constantly takes you out of the movie, even when the narrative begins to follow the road-movie buddy formula of two people who just can’t stand each other at the start but grow to form a bond and respect by journey’s end. (It doesn’t help that there’s a thin layer of Magical Black Man / Noble Savage Syndrome to Ganambarr’s character too). As for Kent’s filmmaking choices, the dearth of score or stylistic touches (aside from repetitive, inert dream sequences) makes it naturalistic, but not very interesting to watch — and the 4:3 academy ratio works in disharmony with the Tasmanian wilderness as opposed to in service of it.

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Hobbs & Shaw — 6/10

HOBBS & SHAW (2019, David Leitch)

The more serious the FAST & FURIOUS movies are, the worse — generally. As series producer and now head writer Chris Morgan’s stories have ballooned from the franchise’s POINT BREAK-meets-street-race-culture beginnings to its current iteration as cartoonish MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE-level super heroics, the best ones (FURIOUS 7, this one) have also been leavened with a sense of humor. The more they can wink at the audience, the easier it is to digest a sequence where The Rock almost pulls a helicopter out of the sky with his bare hands and a chain.

Thanks to Johnson’s friendship and frequent collaboration with Kevin Hart, and Leitch’s resume as director on DEADPOOL 2, we get a couple of amusing supporting roles by Hart and Ryan Reynolds (the latter’s face when he expresses delight at the closed diner was maybe my biggest laugh of this movie) and a well-established and effective frenemy relationship between Johnson and Statham, who is as funny (and good) here as he’s been in anything since SPY.

The plot makes almost no sense, but it’s also refreshingly skimpy and simplified, so that leaves room for just 130 minutes of insane stunts, ludicrous CG setpieces, and wry wisecracking. I do miss the days when summer blockbusters were this (relatively) lean, superficial, and weightless, but still entertaining and graceful. I saw this almost a week ago and can barely remember any specifics (except some weird changes during a climax that lasts 30 minutes in movie time but covers night to day and sunlight to rainstorm) but even if it evaporates like water in August, it goes down just as easily.

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Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood — 9/10

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD (2019, Quentin Tarantino)

The title alone promises some Sergio Leone references, a fable-like storybook of a bygone era, and movie stars. Say what you will about Tarantino, but he’s never been guilty of failing to deliver on his promises.

Revved up and purring like a 1960s muscle car, this oily machine of a movie defies convention as much as it owes to its strict genre roots: it’s about Spaghetti Westerns and looks like one, without remotely following their formula. It has a violent climax like a giallo-drenched exploitation film, but has so much more on its mind than the Argento classics QT loves. And it tells a story the public knows all too well — how Charles Manson and his cult of young hippie girls came to a brutal intersection with Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate on a fateful night in 1969 — while a) sidelining Tate and Polanski in order to focus on their neighbors; and b) fictionalizing the home invasion to a degree I won’t get into here due to spoilers.

Those neighbors, by the way, happen to be a wildly entertaining creation known as Rick Dalton and his stunt-double-slash-personal-assistant Cliff Booth, played by two of the biggest movie stars (maybe the last movie stars?) our generation has seen. DiCaprio absolutely devours his role, giving Dalton an actorly insecurity; raw, unbridled talent; and some Dirk Diggler-level hubris. Pitt, on the other hand, coasts on movie star charisma because he isn’t playing an actor — he’s playing a man whose job is it to make an actor look good. (The film begins with a black-and-white behind-the-scenes promo reel about Pitt confessing to carrying DiCaprio’s load, and ends with a climax where his on-set job becomes his real-life job as well). What a combo this becomes: one is a live wire of rage, sadness, and hopeless isolation; the other is a best friend who oozes cool in every situation, be it confronted by a fight-thirsty Bruce Lee or a creepy near-kidnapping by unhinged cult hippies. Many of their interactions are played for laughs, but try not to feel the gut-punch of a mini-movie-within-a-movie where Dalton befriends an 8 year-old costar, expresses existential doubts, experiences professional failure, then redeems himself. It’s hard to think of a 20-minute stretch more earnestly satisfying, and more warmly written in Tarantino’s considerable career.

Speaking of Tarantino’s career, it’s been a joy to see him wrestle with the meaning that movies have given him. Whether his films are expressly about cinema itself, refer to cinema, or have nothing to do with the movies — and are merely enjoying the feeling they give him — it’s hard to deny that they aren’t all to some degree about the power the medium has over a viewer and the culture at large. Maybe that’s why it took until his 9th film (if you count KILL BILL as one, if you count DEATH PROOF as a whole, if you don’t count shorts, etc.) to make a movie set in Hollywood, at the end of an era, about the end of a life as we know it, and about how the process of being put on film is in a way ascribing eternal life to a subject — we can both be resurrected and made immortal when our image is burned onto celluloid.

RESERVOIR DOGS contained a spiraling flashback where an undercover cop learned how to do his job by learning how to act, and in the process the theatrical performance becomes the mode by which the filmmaker unveils the story. PULP FICTION is about (among many other things) a failed TV actress from a canceled pilot who is literally resurrected from the dead. DEATH PROOF is about a movie stuntman with an indestructible car who can only be harmed once he is taken out of that vehicle and assaulted by a gang of would-be victims — one of whom is an actual stuntwoman who is both acting and coordinating stunts behind the scenes. And INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is about the power of celluloid itself to be used as a weapon in a filmmaker’s fantasy of changing history — where cans of film burn down to trap and murder Adolf Hitler, an ending far more just than reality provided.

All that is to say that in HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino is doing nothing new for him, but placing pet themes in a context that lends a degree of melancholy and nostalgia to them. This movie is a way to make Sharon Tate and her unborn child timeless, much the way the performance she gleefully and proudly observes in a half-full theater will live on forever. An era 50 years gone is made vibrant and tactile thanks to production design, costuming, and art decoration that breathes odor and texture. Tarantino goes toe-to-toe with his own fetishes and comes down with the right foot forward: in a city where the sun rarely doesn’t shine, where people come from all over to make a new life and be paid to entertain, there’s an optimism about the movies. What becomes of things on film? They become larger, brighter, better looking, and take on a meaning to themselves. Actors don’t die; their characters do. Violence on screen isn’t destructive; it just helps us make sense of a violent world. Movies don’t cause us to behave the way we do in the real world — movies reflect the difference between the way we do behave and the way we wish we could. That’s how they’re both a fantasy and a mirror. Once upon a time… in Hollywood.

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Spider-Man: Far From Home — 6/10

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019, Jon Watts)

Admirably fleet-footed and amusing, with a plot that’s often a step or two ahead of the audience, this is both a typical SPIDER-MAN movie (my favorite superhero since childhood, thanks to the spritely, comic tone of its stories and the cleverness of its writing) and a fine addition to a redundant MCU. Jake Gyllenhaal makes a meal of his role here (what else is new?), and touches like the Whitney Houston-drenched tribute video give a sly sarcasm to a franchise that desperately needs levity.

I could do without the slavish adherence to formula, however, which necessitates all the braggadocious CG effects, the save-the-world-and-get-the-girl narrative, and slightly hypocritical subtext about corporate takeovers. It also continues to waste Marisa Tomei. But this is perfectly keen and inoffensive entertainment — a taller order than you’d expect, these days.

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Midsommar — 3/10

MIDSOMMAR (2019, Ari Aster)

A clumsy cross-breeding of grief-trauma relationship drama with ghoulish cult-horror, Aster’s sophomore feature is even less moored and more haphazard than HEREDITARY. Had he cared enough about his characters to ground their adventure in relatable conflicts, then the audience might have cared about their fates — instead, every human here is little more than an idea on wax paper. This goes both for the gang of grad student morons venturing into this WICKER MAN-meets-THE SACRAMENT hellhole, and the brainwashed community who inhabits it. Why do the cult members all know exactly what to do, when to do it, and how? If this Midsommar event happens once every 90 years, where does all the experience come from? And if the elderly do what they do at age 72, then why wait 90 years?

As for the Americans, too much of our heroine Dani’s arc is tied up in her toxic relationship with Christian, one of the saddest excuses for a cotton ball I’ve ever seen on screen. No credit to Jack Reynor (who apparently left all his considerable acting skill in the memory of SING STREET), who manages to have both the presence and consistency of a cup of ranch dressing at Buffalo Wild Wings, while also being subjected to a narrative that does him no favors. The only way you can argue that his and his buddies’ flailing failures in Sweden make any artistic sense is to contextualize the entire plot as a feverish day dream in which Dani endures the punishment of a coven of witches in order to metaphorically purge an emotionally abusive boyfriend from the wreckage of her bereaved, quickly orphaned soul. And if that’s the case, then we spend way too much time with weirdos in white muumuus.

Aster’s vision isn’t altogether distasteful — occasionally there’s a bravura shot, like the one that pans past the protagonists to detour towards a pictogram banner telling the story of a woman who cooks a meal made of pubic hair and period blood for her lover, to then emerge from the other side to see the protagonists walk away from it further. This is heavy-handed, but it works both as foreshadowing and creative storytelling. Unfortunately Aster can’t ever lighten his touch, and each scene is smugly constructed with desperate, attention-seeking camera work. Perhaps the best analog is in the scene where the commune members grab giant wooden hammers to finish off the already maimed elders. If this movie is the broken, blood-oozing corpse on the ground, Aster is the hammer coming down to make sure that the smashed skulls and protruding eyeballs turn into a flattened halloween mask of loose skin to be dragged across the dirt.

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Late Night — 5/10

LATE NIGHT (2019, Nisha Ganatra)

Emma Thompson is fantastic, a fresh reminder of how great she’s always been, and how unfair it is that she’s a rare treat instead of an annual one on movie screens. She and John Lithgow, just as great in a much smaller role, are the best — and two of the only — reasons to see this slapdash Jay-Leno-Wears-Prada sitcom/romcom. In fact, the ‘com’ is overstating it a bit — there are very few jokes at all here, as Kaling’s script is far more concerned with hitting formula beats (albeit in a fresh way — all the genre conventions with regards to a love story are repackaged here with two women: one the boss and the other an underling) than it is with making you laugh.

Thankfully, while you’re busy not smiling much, Thompson is imbuing her Ellen Degeneres-styled TV host with several dimensions, both barbed and vulnerable, and she makes you ignore the absurdities of the manufactured plot (in 30 years, she never tried being herself on screen?) and the lack of solid gags (the one lynchpin monologue joke Kaling’s character is so proud of was ripped off wholesale from George Carlin 25 years ago). But the production is also strangely incompetent — poor sound mixing, continuity errors galore (drink a shot every time Thompson lights a cigarette during one conversation), and barely functional blocking make the whole thing feel like a Hulu original that somehow clawed into theaters on the strength of Thompson’s performance.

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