Long Shot — 7/10

LONG SHOT (2019, Jonathan Levine)

They’re not necessarily “intangibles,” but the elements that make this a great deal better than your average studio rom-com might be overlooked. First of all, there’s the visual style Levine brings — one that he keeps building on from each feature to the next: there’s thought to lighting and camera placement that isn’t exactly Edgar Wright-level directing but meaningful nonetheless. Kinetic camera movement when the story calls for it, depth to a lot of the frames, and an appealing color palette. One touch I love in particular is the first time Rogen walks up to Theron — his eyeglasses reflect the string of gaudy lights at the fancy party they’re at, and become more prominent the closer he gets to the object of his affection. There are literally stars in his eyes when he looks at her.

Also, the rhythms of this deserve some love. Comedy obviously depends a lot on timing, and probably the reason I was laughing so hard so often here is rhythm. Note editor Evan Henke’s previous credits (OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY, THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY, THE INTERVIEW, EASTBOUND & DOWN) and they all crackle with jokes that land precisely due to timing. One I’m thinking of here is after a serious of hilarious juxtapositions of powerful female politicians with ugly schlubs (Princess Di and Guy Fieri, Kate Middleton and Danny DeVito, J-Law and a potato in a teal windbreaker, etc.), Levine and Henke let just enough running time lapse before they throw in one more corker (Angela Merkel and Adam Duritz!) — complete with the red X — that goes off screen as quick as it came on and leaves you gasping for breath. I could list dozens more jokes that work like that, but you need to see for yourself if you haven’t already.

One element that definitely won’t get overlooked, however, is Theron’s performance. Proving once again that there’s nothing she can’t do, pivoting sharply from FURY ROAD to ATOMIC BLONDE to TULLY to this, Theron melds physical comedy with weighty emotion to generate a three-dimensional heroine that doesn’t rely on anyone else to succeed. Just watch the way she grips the handlebars outside the situation room when she’s stumbling on molly to handle a crisis. What Theron knows better than most actors is that when your character is high, your motivation is to look sober. She knows when to overplay and when to underplay, and every aspect of this performance is a joy to watch.

When the movie falters, it’s because the pizza dough can’t quite match the sauce and toppings. Levine tries too hard to appeal to all the quadrants, forcing Jackson (giving a characteristically strong supporting comedic performance) to be a Republican and stump for “hearing out both sides.” It veers way too far into fantasy land — giving us an America where a woman with scandals like these could be successful (we wish, we wish). I like how the script was retrofitted to encapsulate Trump times (Andy Serkis as a disgusting offspring of Steve Bannon and Ailes/Murdoch; Bob Odenkirk as a hilariously image-obsessed “acting president,” etc.) but as real as the romance may be, the vision of politics here is more absurd than real life and that’s hard to do. At least with THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner’s fantasy was old-fashioned and wishful thinking, but it got the bones right and took policy seriously. This takes the relationship seriously and treats the subject matter as a riff. Still, my face was so wet from laughter tears that maybe I’m spending too much time on the drawbacks. This movie is a riot.

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Shadow — 8/10

SHADOW (2019, Zhang Yimou)

A juicy melodrama with Shakespearean gravity, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for an aging master with three decades of experience behind him. Comfortable with pseudo-fantasy elements in historical war movies (in everything from HERO to THE GREAT WALL), Zhang is also likely engaging in some political commentary that a doltish American mind like mine is incapable of penetrating. But ignorance of the context is barely an impediment to appreciating everything else that works here — characteristically gorgeous compositions, a luscious, nearly all-grey color palette, forceful camerawork from Zhang’s longtime DP Zhao Xiaoding (Oscar nominee for HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), and two soulfully committed performances from real-life married couple Deng Chao and Sun Li.

Deng’s predicament is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA, as he plays a shadow for the dying military commander of a tenuous kingdom led by a foolish, hubristic king. Fans will also catch whiffs of Wong’s THE GRANDMASTER and Woo’s RED CLIFF in these proceedings, but what Zhang brings to the table is his peerless storytelling — the first hour is a gripping chamber drama set mostly in the Pei palace, before the much-discussed and rehearsed duel launches an action-packed back half. Rather than tossing some swordplay and arrow-shooting as chum to the masses, Zhang makes sure all of his action is motivated by the story: the duel, the Princess’s self-actualization, the siege on Jing, and the final reckoning for our protagonists. It’s all a fatalistic consequence of a plot that concerns itself with existential questions — is our identity forged by what we do or where we come from? Is an artist (represented here both by the furious zither-strumming and the balletic martial arts) born or trained, and can you fake it? Finally, do we love each other because of history, or can we fall in love by going through the motions of another?

Just because the action isn’t stylistic for style’s sake, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fucking bonkers cool. The locations and choreography would often be just enough, but Zhang throws in one of the weirdest weapons I’ve ever seen: bladed umbrellas that serve a duel role as gun and shield. Add to that the overhead shots of yin-yangs (a consistent metaphor made explicit by discussions of masculine vs. feminine), the alluring secret passage behind the palace walls, the voyeuristic stone holes, the banners and daggers and masks and robes that mark a distinct place and time, and you’ve got an exceptional entry to the Chinese period piece that reminds us the Fifth Generation isn’t ready to pack it in just yet.

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Avengers: Endgame — 7/10

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (Corporate Overlords, 2019)

Obligatory spoiler warning: this will have them.

Ever accidentally answer your phone when a random number pops up, and it takes you a while to figure out if the voice on the other end is a person or a robot? As technology progresses to the point where the organic and synthetic merge, where the line blurs between what’s human and what’s machine, we enter an age of undefined identity — a smeared grab-bag of things that bounce around in our consciousness to distract us from the existential horror that everything dies, nothing matters, and there is no purpose or reason for any of it. People are cyborgs, countries are companies, and money is authority. And what are movies, TV shows, or comic books? Is there a difference? Is ENDGAME the series finale of a 3-season fan fellatio where every 6-8 episodes it rinsed and repeated its digital tornado of gravity-defying light-show stunts and snarky gags? If ENDGAME is a movie, an Airbus A380 is a bicycle.

Most of the 21 episodes that preceded it were mediocre, monotonous just-okay-factories. Enough effort went in to prevent all-out disaster, but little artistry went into creating something profound. There’s not even much point in critically analyzing them; they’re post-analysis — they’re self-reflexive arguments for their own fan appreciation. But now that the story has been finalized to some degree (they’d never fully kill the golden goose), that horizon has yielded a few real benefits. Structurally, this has a shape: although the middle hour (collecting the stones) drags, it’s its own act. The first hour, getting the band back together, is full of solid laughs. The third act does contain the obligatory CG noise casserole (set in a bizarre green screen non-world of ill-defined terrain and murky-clouded skies) but it also takes death seriously, for a change. While Bruce and Mohawkeye (seriously, Renner’s lost-a-bet haircut must be seen to be believed) mourn Natasha, everyone mourns Tony with the gravity of a war’s real cost.

The pace is slow enough to register shot compositions and actor’s performances. For the first time, I can see a thespian garner acclaim for work in Marvel — Robert Downey Jr. reminds us that he used to be great before he became a hero. And Paul Rudd and Chris Hemsworth understand comic timing and that shouldn’t be taken for granted. There doesn’t need to be much action in this movie — it has maybe the least amount per minute of screen time of any other Marvel I can think of, because it does wrestle with character, even if it forgets that they’re also comic book superheroes (the failure to let Natasha’s Black Widow do anything remotely manipulative or devious is a criminal sin, and most of the other superheroes are just warriors without unique powers — beyond maybe Ant-Man and Hulk).

Also, as a piece of titanic pop culture destined to cement its place in box office history, it knows that its wokeness will be discussed regardless. So it forces a scene where every female hero in the series’ history lands together on screen without motivation or warning, to band together in battle. It also lets the old white guard pass its gifts on to minorities — Thor passes the Kingdom of Asgard off to Tessa Thompson, while Captain America hands his shield over to Anthony Mackie. Blink and you’ll miss the flash frame of Kevin Feige holding a “Diversity! Inclusivity!” sign above Stan Lee’s head. These transparent deferments to the current climate are admirable but clumsy, yet perhaps the most that a gargantuan franchise like this can afford. All around the world, people are seeing this thing, so it isn’t really just a movie, for better or worse. You can point out that the script doesn’t allow for narrative information to be communicated without dialogue; that the messages don’t challenge or confront us; that the frames rarely look as kinetic and artistic as a comic book panel, despite its influences. But what’s the point? The Russos are not De Palma. They shepherded untold amounts of traffic and scheduling, they gave a couple of their COMMUNITY pals some cameos (Ben and Shirley show up, but what, Abed was too busy?), and they allowed global audiences to forget for three hours the bottomless pit of despair that is the real world. That isn’t heroic, but it doesn’t happen every day.

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Her Smell — 9/10

HER SMELL (2019, Alex Ross Perry)

At one point in the second act, Elisabeth Moss turns towards her prey and glares, eyes hunting, while she stalks forward almost licking her lips with anticipation of the meat she’s about to devour. It’s such an effective prowl that when Eric Stoltz compares her, ten minutes later, to a lioness, it comes off as redundant.

Moss’s performance is everything to this movie — it’s a huge, chewy, brave, show-stopping star turn that Perry asks a lot of. He gets it. Not only is Moss pretty much the center of every scene; she also has to carry the burden of being a believable rock star with such gravitational force that lamb after lamb is sucked into her orbit, despite every wicked barb unleashed from her filthy gob doing its best to repel. She gets a lot of clever one-liners and handles them with grace, but even the clangers of dialogue that pop up every once in a while (“suckling at the teats of my success!”) are no obstacle for her. It might be the most ferocious acting I’ve seen on screen since David Thewlis in NAKED, and those who know me will realize that’s about as high as praise gets.

Structurally, this is surprising and impressive — Perry breaks it up into five clean, real-time acts that last 20-30 minutes each. If you don’t know this going in, the first one is a disorienting, seemingly never-ending backstage nightmare. Finally when act two begins in the recording studio, you almost expect its half-hour barrage. The third sequence can only go downhill from there and ends in a literal curtain close. All three of these acts are shot with a swirling camera in constant close-up, almost nauseating with restlessness and colored like the cracking old paint of a stale punk club, lit with fluorescent-sucking, low-ceiling drabness. It’s form following content, an off-putting visual style wrestling with its horrifying protagonist. But it all pays off with act four, the beginning of possible redemption, where Perry locks his camera down with placid contentment, bathing Moss with backlit sun and even providing the first (and only) exterior shot of the entire movie. It’s here when things slow down enough to let Moss play a piano solo to her daughter, stripping Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” down to an aching confession, desperation to connect dripping off the screen. Scene of the year so far, I think.

And part of what makes this towering movie so great is its refusal to send big messages — it has an addiction/rock bottom/redemption plotline we’ve seen far too often, complete with the foreshadowings of death and a cute little girl to jerk tears. But it never uses those clichés as a shortcut to proselytize. This isn’t a soapbox about awful people. It’s a depiction of a tortured artist that doesn’t pull punches or manipulate sympathies. It shows us a period of the 1990s when pop-punk girl bands like Elastica, Veruca Salt, and L7 could be on the cover of Rolling Stone, because guitars, bass, and drums still sold out clubs. And it reveals just how much human beings are always performing, whether a camera is there or not. Thank goodness Perry and DP Sean Price Williams brought their A-game camerawork to this one, to capture Elisabeth Moss becoming a monstrous star, playing a monster who used to be a star, always performing.

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Under the Silver Lake — 8/10

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2019, David Robert Mitchell)

An intoxicating oxymoron foisted upon an unsuspecting audience, this is both a hilarious satire and a dark, rotten gaze into an existential void; it’s both a loving ode to cinema’s glorious past and a rebuke to the nerds who obsess over the details of those movies (and pop songs alike). It’s tender yet violent, superficially shocking yet profoundly intelligent, and manages to be an all-out gas to watch — sparkling entertainment that is increasingly rare among like-minded indie auteurs so desperate for relevance they forget how to dazzle.

Central to the success of this high-wire act is Garfield’s layered performance: physically comic, faintly sinister, oblivious, rude, relatable, and pathetic all at once. He’s always communicating to the audience even when his character takes no action, like a Camusian antihero whose inner monologue is made visual by Mitchell’s critical gaze. And the tapestry over which Garfield lingers is modern-day Los Angeles, a city memorialized in dozens of the hard-boiled noirs this movie tips its hat to, yet reminding us this is Hollywood itself — a place where hipsters dine on tabletop gravestones of former movie stars, and failed actors turn tricks to pay the bills. Driving-and-following sequences are shot and cut (and scored) with direct fidelity to Hitchcock, and the gimmick is that if you catch the reference you’re the butt of the joke. Garfield is also the anti-Tom Cruise in a daylight EYES WIDE SHUT, having dangerous near-sexual encounters with every woman he meets, but rather than wearing a tuxedo and flashing a medical badge, he’s wearing pajamas to a party and slurping milk from inside a corner market fridge.

If Mitchell really wanted to make the point that ROOM 237-style conspiracy theorists are insane losers, then it doesn’t really make sense to have Garfield’s pursuits yield results — that said, there’s some question over just how reliable his experiences are; every loose end that isn’t tied up (the mask-wearing naked woman who climbs out of his cupboard, the songwriter incident that has no consequences, the pirate who’s never explained) is something that Garfield saw or heard about throughout his quest and could just be dreaming of later on. And whether these things happen or they don’t, it’s still true that he’s an aimless young man searching for a pattern in a meaningless void of a world — surrounded by a populace obsessed with pop culture, paranoid over privacy and security, burdened by financial concerns, and largely focused on work. The less things make sense in this wild march towards a reckoning, the more they ring true.

By the way — I just barely resisted bumping this up to a 9 thanks to two of the best tracks off R.E.M.’s Monster hitting the soundtrack at significant times. And one of them results in Mitchell’s cheekiest Easter egg: when Garfield impulsively dances to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” it’s hard not to think of the story of its title, which brings me to quote this lede from the New York Times circa 1997:

Over the course of a decade, it evolved from an incomprehensible utterance during a quizzical crime to the possible measure of a news anchor's unraveling to a kernel of kitschy folklore, memorialized as the title of a popular hit by the rock band R.E.M.
''Kenneth, what is the frequency?'' became more than just the question that Dan Rather, the CBS news anchor, said he was asked during an attack in 1986 that some detractors unfairly dismissed as apocryphal. It became a nonsensical oddity and an unsolved mystery: Who said it, and why, and what ever happened to him?

And sorry, Jeremy Bobb, I won’t be persuaded that Michael Stipe didn’t write that one himself.

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High Life — 5/10

HIGH LIFE (2019, Claire Denis)

Or, Claire Denis’s Blue Material.

It’s hard to imagine a more pretentious version of a movie about a dozen horny death-row inmates and one mad scientist hurtling in a giant lego piece through the cosmos towards the oblivion of a black hole. But then again, this is Claire Denis — she is old, seasoned, and will never make a movie that isn’t overflowing with big concerns about humanity. However, when Juliette Binoche is speed-walking down a spaceship corridor holding Robert Pattinson’s joy juice in her hand, rushing to make it to a turkey baster in time so she can knock up a sleeping girl, one’s thoughts drift not to the concepts of procreation or life amidst futile existence, but instead to the image of George Kennedy running through the rickety aluminum sets of the fake sci-fi film in Albert Brooks’s MODERN ROMANCE, with director James L. Brooks watching on worried about the foley effects of the floor.

It seems that throughout the past 70 years of film history, French directors as disparate as Bresson and Besson have injected existentialist thought into both their overreaching dramas and their genre knock-offs. Why go on living if the only end is death? What is the purpose of continuing life in the face of such universal indifference? Denis doesn’t so much answer this question as she does pose it in unique fashion, jumping around chronologically to investigate the incipience and future of the relationship between Pattinson’s character and his baby daughter. And in doing so, she turns her gaze not outward into the galaxy, where trillions of stars shine casually around this floating box, and black holes loom with matter-sucking light, but inward towards the human body — gashes and stitches in a forearm; secretions of sweat, semen, and blood; the muscles and moles of a naked back; Rapunzel-length hair; the mocking of a voice and the squeals of an infant. Denis does not evaluate or opine on any of these — she presents them coldly and dispassionately, and tells her story the way she wants to tell it. Luckily for us, her tone and pace and compositions are so hypnotic that this is a super easy sit — I could have watched another hour of it — and it goes down smoother than both her better and worse films like TROUBLE EVERY DAY and BEAU TRAVAIL.

But Denis succeeds more when she’s lightening up, such as in her fine romance FRIDAY NIGHT. Here, she turns dour and pompous, utilizing risible dialogue, multiple rapes, a couple murders and suicides, and some animal cruelty for good measure (“What do you know about cruelty?” Pattinson asks his child). So it’s hard to argue that we aren’t supposed to be taking this movie very seriously. But then somehow Denis spends a great deal of time on the dark, solitary “fuckbox,” where people go to masturbate on something that looks like the mechanical bull at Saddle Ranch.

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — 6/10

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2018?, Terry Gilliam)

The question mark after the year above indicates natural confusion — Gilliam has been trying to make this movie for about 30 years, with all kinds of peaks and valleys (Johnny Depp as Toby, John Hurt as Quixote, a documentary about its troubled production released 17 years ago, etc.). It has a copyright 2017 in its credits, a 2018 premiere date at Cannes, and finally an American theatrical release. But does stamping a year on this even matter? It’s clearly a career summary for the already-notoriously-insane Gilliam, who sees himself as both Toby and Quixote, and thus turns Toby into Quixote over the course of the epic arc.

The script does feel like it was mainly penned 20 years ago — some elements are stale and outdated, even though it’s also a somewhat faithful adaptation of Cervantes. There’s innkeepers and prostitutes, scorned lovers, dreams of giants, escaped convicts, and loads and loads of imagination. But characters like Olga Kurylenko’s Jacqui (cringe-inducing horniness) just don’t work regardless of their allusions to the text, and the result is a big, sprawling movie that is by turns breathtaking and sloppy.

By now you should know if you like Gilliam. I generally don’t. He’s rarely boring, but every movie he makes is a manic bouillabaisse of Fellini-esque-apades. Much like the grating BRAZIL, spastic TWELVE MONKEYS, or trippy FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, this thing is stuffed to the gills with clutter. Every frame looks like the production designer exploded in a microwave. The colorful costumes are amazing, the set decoration fussy and impressive, and the locations genuinely outstanding. To look at this movie on the big screen is to see something bold and unusual. But it also makes your eye dart everywhere on the screen, as it’s both compositionally ugly and often rich and striking. One frame belongs in the Louvre, another belongs in the trash can of a hoarder’s garage.

Adam Driver makes the movie cruise by, however, with a committed physical performance showing his trademark exasperation and passion. Pryce is properly funny and annoying, as Quixote is supposed to be. The two of them serve as complimentary Gilliam avatars: creative and existing outside the lines, but also shrill and exhausting. And while this may be one of Gilliam’s more alluring movies overall, the fact that as a director he’s tilting at windmills anyway makes an adaptation of Quixote kind of redundant.

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