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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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