Dragged Across Concrete — 6/10

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE (2019, S. Craig Zahler)

Zahler’s MO across his first three features is firmly established and reliable: he takes his time establishing character, paints a bleak world of unjust randomness, and watches as the carnage begins. Unfortunately with this one, the returns have diminished a bit — the script is so mannered and obvious that the characters feel more like mouthpieces than ever.

The actors (many very good) still fumble over clunky syntax that would read much better on the page. Conversations feel like reactionary op-eds rather than natural dialogue. And the stabs at colorful character development come across more forced than ever — I’m thinking of Vaughn saying “anchovies” whenever he’d ordinarily curse; Gibson always estimating probabilities as percentages; and the worst offense is a sadistic tangent establishing Carpenter’s brief role as a mother with postpartum depression solely to make sure her peril during the bank robbery carries weight. Do we need to know a woman is a new mother with a baby sock in her pocket to value her life?

Aside from the script’s relative inability to translate smoothly to the screen, Zahler’s other strengths still come through in valuable ways. He makes the political topics thorny. Race is an issue until it isn’t. Dirty cops aren’t easily demonized nor valorized. The jokes land. He even shows restraint with the gore in places his earlier films never did. (Granted, it’s still graphically violent, but I can imagine a much worse cut from the two-years-ago-Zahler of CELL BLOCK). I’m a fan of Zahler’s tone, pace, and world view. If some succeed better than others, that’s okay – as long as a financier is willing to grant him the ability to exhibit a bloody two-plus-hour exploitation drama every couple years, without the interference of a studio or test audiences to water it down.

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Us — 7/10

US (2019, Jordan Peele)

Bang-on entertainment, thanks to Peele’s gift both for writing clever dialogue that manages to inject humor all the way through a harrowing narrative, and for throwing all kinds of wild shit at the screen to keep you on your toes. What he doesn’t quite do here is let all that shit congeal into a streamlined thesis. There’s some major subtext about slavery and the underclass (handcuffs=chains), keeping up with the Joneses bougie satire (“he has a backup generator!”), and of course the overwhelming realization that we’re the bad guys both as a nation (“We’re… AMERICANS!”) and as individuals (the hall of mirrors, the doppelgängers, etc.). But introducing ideas isn’t the same thing as hashing them out, and the movie may be a bit too busy trying to entertain the cheap seats to really nail down the meaning at its core.

I knew we were in for some studio interference right away — the film opens on a slow zoom in on a tube TV (framed by VHS tapes like “The Right Stuff” and “The Man With Two Brains“) showing a commercial for Hands Across America 1986, then cuts to an ad for the Santa Cruz boardwalk. When the screen is dark, we see the reflection of a young black girl watching said TV. In the next shot, that girl is now standing in front of a carnival game while her dad wins her a t-shirt. And what does Universal think we need? A graphic informing us this is Santa Cruz, 1986. No shit? Thanks, that wasn’t clear yet.

Luckily Peele is smarter than the studio, so his movie gets more challenging as it goes along despite the repeated attempts to bring everything to the surface enough to make sure this thing wins the box office (it will). And he’s got another stellar cast running the show — Lupita Nyong’o is unbelievable in a dual role and by far the best thing about the entire endeavor. Winston Duke is no slouch either, and Heidecker and Moss have some fun too. An insistent but effective score works in concert with bold sound design and it all makes sure that the machine runs as a smooth, enjoyable thriller. It’s nice that Peele always has something on his mind. I just wish he’d gone through one more draft to mold it into a real earth-scorcher.

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Ash Is Purest White — 6/10

ASH IS PUREST WHITE (2019, Jia Zhang-ke)

Only the second Jia film I’ve seen, so I can’t speak to this film’s references — oblique and explicit — to such works as UNKNOWN PLEASURES, STILL LIFE, or MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART. But much like the one I am familiar with, A TOUCH OF SIN, it’s a formally confident exploration of Chinese society filtered through specific characters and their artificial dramas. Whereas SIN was ultimately optimistic (though it condemned the nation’s oppressive treatment of laborers, it celebrated its capacity for tradition and creativity), this one feels sadder and more poignant. It’s also less interesting, if only because the idea of “the passage of time” is an element explored on the reg throughout world cinema.

Also, whereas SIN told three different stories, this one stays rooted to Zhao Tao’s magnificent heroine Qiao — and Zhao plays her with sensational force, vulnerability, and often understated boiling emotion. She doesn’t get any huge scenery-chewing awards bait moments, but the cumulative effect of her breaking down throughout decades — while maintaining traditional honor and stubborn loyalty — is the best thing about the film.

If the text is Qiao’s continual sacrifice and graceful aging, the subtext is China itself reckoning with change. Therefore Jia frames dozens of terrific shots with Zhao standing still in front of awesome, dwarfing images of the country: imposing mountains, stone buildings, dark villages, gaping crowds, and a train platform where a car, carrying a life that could have been, chugs further and further away from her. As the narrative lurches from 2001 to 2006 to 2017, we hear of the rising water levels at the Three Gorges Dam, the end of mining towns and expulsion of their work forces, and ultimately we see a doctor attempt to connect with his patient on WeChat (followed by a key character’s exit made through mobile text). But these signposts take up a lot of time that could have been spent on ramping up our interest in Qiao and Bin instead of coasting to an airless final half hour. Perhaps the non-climax is the point, but just because our lives tend to peak early, that doesn’t mean movies have to.

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Triple Frontier — 7/10

TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019, J.C. Chandor)

A red-meat Dad movie engineered for the algorithm that puts this on the front Netflix page for fans of NARCOS and THE HURT LOCKER. Come for the U.S. Special Forces tactical ops, with rifles, headshots, jeeps in mud, foot-chases through Peruvian barrios, and duffel bags full of cash, and stay for the anti-political procedural that barely pays lip service to forgotten former soldiers (the tight shot of a leaky faucet in an un-sold condo in the foreground, with blurry Ben Affleck’s subdued and desperate realtor in the background, says all you need to know) and instead delivers a two-quadrant heist thriller with the chops of John Rambo.

Boal and Chandor’s script dots every i and crosses every t, even going so far as to introduce conflicts that amount to nothing (Affleck’s suspicions of Isaac’s informant), while surprising us with conflicts we didn’t know were coming (why it smells like paint, a ridge too high for mules, etc.). By the time it gets to the chopper ride through the Andes, it has built so much tension that we’re privy to a suspense sequence for the ages — so heart-pounding you almost won’t notice the gorgeous shot of the sunlight bathing our heroes at their most uncertain moment. The lack of real subtext, and the hesitation at making a more profound point to this madness (a charge some levied at Boal’s ZERO DARK THIRTY script as well), keep this 2-hour punch from landing in the stomach, but a fine anchoring performance from Oscar Isaac and intelligently staged combat by Chandor (a chameleon whose MARGIN CALL, ALL IS LOST, and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR all exercise vastly different muscles) make it well worth your while regardless. Just let’s please never speak about Charlie Hunnam’s attempt at an American accent ever again. It must be dropped into a chasm and buried with snow.

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Climax — 6/10

CLIMAX (2019, Gaspar Noé)

If you’ve seen Noé’s I STAND ALONE, you know the ghost of Albert Camus loomed over its amoral story of an alienated French butcher. And the following trilogy of existential hellscapes like IRREVERSIBLE, ENTER THE VOID, and LOVE called to mind Sartre, Heidegger, and everyone in between who contemplated the ontological conundrums of a hostile and indifferent world. Now, with CLIMAX, it’s the ghost of Friedrich Nietzsche who rubber-stamps a boiling nightmare inside a deserted dance academy that might as well be the prison of the mind.

Nietzsche books (along with other existentialist tomes and tapes of movies like TAXI DRIVER and Fulci’s ZOMBIE) adorn the shelf of the unidentified bookcase in the movie’s second sequence, a montage of interviews with our dancers. One of those dancers is a woman who states that her life motto is, to exactly quote Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Cut to the masterful single-take dance sequence that kicks off the Worst Rave Ever, after which the gay black DJ summons his fellow outcasts from all walks of life and says “God is with us.”

But what God? Clearly the answer is Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, religious ecstasy, fertility, and, most importantly, ritual madness. The wine at this party is sangria (the source of the movie’s bizarre whodunit plot: who spiked the sangria with acid?) and the madness comes from its unrestrained consumption. Of course, in Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian, these acts are life-affirming — whether it’s part of the pleasure (we see dancers falling in love, laughing, having sex, expressing the freedom of movement, etc.) or the intense pain (self-flagellation and slicing, the kicking of a pregnant woman, infanticide, incest, and more chaotic horrors too nightmarish to discuss).

The problem here is that this reading, direct and obvious, feels like a college sophomore’s paper on Nietzsche’s Dionysian obsession, and Noé doesn’t really know what to do with it once the entropy begins. He turns his camera upside down and lets the relentless thump of the EDM soundtrack drive a punishingly tedious third act. This is not to say the movie is without its aesthetic merits — a magnificent camera placement on the ceiling looking straight down at a dance circle forms the shape of an eye, with the pupils being soloists taking turns contorting their bodies in gravity-defying beauty. The one sequence with any real editing (where the rest is a series of IRREVERSIBLE-style long-takes, the montage of two-shot conversations is rapid-fire by contrast) borrows the eye-blink black frames from LOVE, creating a separation between the communal joy of the initial dance with the confrontational, violent and torturous back half. By the end, you feel exhausted and spent (a fitting title?) but with little to show for your attention other than a few funny title cards (further shoving Noé’s existentialism down your throat, e.g. “Existence is a fleeting emotion”) and some committed performances. The movie hasn’t left my brain for two days and for that kind of reliable vitality I’ll always cherish Noé, but I wish he had managed to coalesce a concept of a movie birthed by Dionysus into a more three-dimensional thesis.

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2018 Year in Review

The seventh straight Year in Review, and by now I’ve been very consistent in publishing this way too late (always end of January!) with way too few interesting revelations, yet somehow seeming way too self-indulgent nevertheless. But tradition is tradition, even when it’s pathetic, so let’s press on! Once again, note that I saw “only” 83 feature releases in 2018, so these are my favorites among those. Definitely several candidates I didn’t get a chance to see (COLD WAR, LEAVE NO TRACE, ZAMA, etc.) so take this post with that ever-so-clichéd grain of salt.

2018 Top Ten

  1. BLACKKKLANSMAN — Last summer’s fiery, passionate work of art from one of America’s greatest living filmmakers still resonates with me more than anything I saw all year. Spike Lee didn’t just make us laugh, make us think, make us uncomfortable, and challenge our ideas about institutionalized racism, mob mentality, and police brutality — he also crafted a love letter to movies themselves using the tools of the cinema to argue for their power. This is the most pro-aesthetic, confident work of Lee’s career, and one of his five best movies ever.
  2. LEAN ON PETE — A rueful, sparse, earnest work of humanism that mixes the ugly and sad with the beautiful and the sympathetic. No other film of 2018 shredded me like this.
  3. PRIVATE LIFE — The least enticing subject matter possible somehow turned into a showcase for Tamara Jenkins and her cast: this is all-star writing and directing both on a shot-by-shot basis and as a display of tone-control. I know you have Netflix, so what are you waiting for?
  4. BURNING — Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong also put on a directing clinic, but the atmosphere here is unlike anything else you could have seen last year. And part of its charm is that I still can’t quite grasp its ephemeral mysteries that will forever be out of reach.
  5. LET THE CORPSES TAN — The one entry on this list I didn’t publish a blog review for, but it’s the third feature from Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, two of the most stylistic titans of elemental art cinema — just don’t mistake it for style over substance. Their imagery is pregnant with significance, communicating both aesthetic ideas and narrative information. This is a Neo-Spaghetti Western where, as in all their films, texture is king, and few genres are better suited to a bouillabaisse of dirt, blood, bone, meat, fire, rock, leather, metal, and hair. 
  6. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE — Punishing and unforgettable. Joaquin Phoenix is once again electrifying, but it’s Lynne Ramsay’s perfect orchestration that elevates this genre film to dizzying heights.
  7. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK — Gorgeous (maybe too gorgeous), but it’s the romanticism that turns a universally angering experience with American racism into a personally affecting exposé of the devastating casualties of a rotten system.
  8. ANNIHILATION — A bold, go-for-broke sci-fi curiosity that not only has a lot to ponder with regards to the inexorable loss that death and separation cause, but also contains the single most horrifying sequence in recent memory. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…
  9. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU — Funny, inventive, and clever, this is Boots Riley leaving no ingredient uncooked in a satirical soup that feels like the last meal he’s ever going to eat.
  10. WIDOWS — It took too long to get a new Steve McQueen film, but once we did, it was electrifying. It lives and breathes the city of Chicago, but gives actors room to be sensational and has a lot to say in barely over two hours of can’t-look-away screen time.

Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: Wasn’t able to make room for a surprisingly charming two-hander called DESTINATION WEDDING (giving Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder two of their best roles in years), the gut-wrenching French exploitation thriller REVENGE, Wes Anderson’s crispy-clean ISLE OF DOGS, the underrated A QUIET PLACE, or the Coen Brothers’ THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS.

And now, the requisite awards:

Best Director — Spike Lee, BLACKKKLANSMAN

Best Actor — Charlie Plummer, LEAN ON PETE

Best Actress — Viola Davis, WIDOWS

Best Supporting Actor — Bryan Cranston, ISLE OF DOGS

Best Supporting Actress – Sakura Ando, SHOPLIFTERS

Best Screenplay — BLACKKKLANSMAN (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee)

As usual, no Worst List, for all the reasons I’ve said over the years. It does feel like this year I was just shrugging at so many films that got huge acclaim — EIGHTH GRADE, SUPPORT THE GIRLS, BLACK PANTHER, A STAR IS BORN, etc. (I gave a 6/10 to all of those). And even MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT, which I think is the weakest of the six entries in my favorite franchise that exists… everyone finally started to click with it and it’s making other lists. I’m just way against the grain all around. And two films I actively hated (THE RIDER, CAM) are also being hailed. So in short, don’t listen to me. Feel free to comment below, and once again thanks for reading.


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If Beale Street Could Talk — 8/10

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018, Barry Jenkins)

Begins with a pregnancy announcement, then proceeds to let the entire movie swell like a kicking womb, life growing inside it until it can barely stand up. James Laxton’s vibrant colors and warm light make the entire thing glow with nearly unmatched romanticism (you could rip off worse people than Wong Kar-wai), and Nicholas Britell’s luscious score peppers falling autumn leaves of violin strings all over its characters. It’s hard to imagine a more human, adoring, soft, organic movie can be made about decades of oppressive, institutionalized racism tearing apart families, ruining lives, and damaging true love.

And sure enough, that social injustice is on Jenkins’s mind (though evidently not as much as Baldwin’s, who focused more heavily on it in his source novel) — his goal is to cultivate sympathy for a couple so likable, a relationship so pure, and a baby so desired, that the threat of losing it all becomes that much more painful. It’s the way Harlem in the ’70s breathes, the way Kiki Layne and Stephan James (two powerhouse performances that come out of nowhere from two unknowns) stare at each other, and the way Fonny’s false imprisonment doesn’t only separate the white authority from the oppressed blacks, but the way it fractures tenuous bonds between Fonny’s family and Tish’s, and between women like Sharon and Victoria. The collateral damage when people get arrested for being black is far-reaching and devastatingly permanent.

At times, Jenkins’s romantic touch pulls you out of the movie and turns the spotlight on the hardworking crew members: there’s the sculpting sequences filled with beautiful smoke; the way that all the costumes — even Fonny’s prison shirt — look like this is the first time they’ve ever been worn, so perfectly clean and new; and an ending that doesn’t grant catharsis — it merely exhales and fades out. But I’ll take a tone that leans in this direction over another “gritty” PSA-style lecture. It’s a joy to watch, even when it’s tough to confront.

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