A Quiet Place — 7/10

A QUIET PLACE (2018, John Krasinski)

A nerve-wracking theatrical experience, given that so much of the multiplex is filled with bombastic noise, and this thrives on silence for so long. Jump scares are heightened because of the added sensory deprivation, and the 90-minute runtime ensures that no time is wasted, as suspense builds and rarely lets up. Krasinski the director proves to be a clever craftsman (as an actor, he’s merely solid), using quick visual cues to set up the world and show evidence of a lot of things that happened off screen. But some of the unspoken traits raise more questions than they answer — why are they barefooted, when moccasins or soft slippers would be just as quiet and more protective? Why does nobody ever have to sneeze? Why not cover the loud hardwood floors with carpet or old clothes?

Unfortunately, as effective as the silence is, the film continuously undercuts it with a heavy dose of original score, draping almost every scene in needless instrumental music. Imagine how great the iPod dancing scene would have been if that were the only music in the movie? Also, Krasinski’s and Blunt’s fears of being unable to protect their children — the main theme of the movie and its reason for existing — come off like an argument for helicopter parenting; if not, at least it will encourage such behavior in those who emerge shaken from this experience. But those flaws aside, this is still a fiercely tense piece of entertainment: intelligent, jolting, and proving that original stories work when you go back to the basics of what make movies movies — off-screen space, on-screen reactions, composition, and, of course, audio.

 

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You Were Never Really Here — 8/10

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018, Lynne Ramsay)

Sifting through a bowl of jelly beans at his agent’s office, freelance thug Joe (a frightening, committed, explosive bottle of coiled rage in the hulking, scarred body of Joaquin Phoenix) says he likes the green ones, but can’t find any. Eventually he fishes one out, and instead of popping it into his mouth and savoring that which he adores, he smashes it between his fingers until it turns into sugary crumbs. Everything in Joe’s life, whether he loves it or hates it, will be destroyed if he has any say in it.

And that begins with Joe himself, who displays suicidal tendencies throughout (we’re introduced to him holding a plastic bag over his face — a pastime that flashbacks prove has lasted for decades). But he turns that self-hatred outward and funnels it into his job, which is the muscle that breaks up sex trafficking rings, usually by beating guys to death with a hammer to the face. He is theoretically on the side of moral righteousness, but wherever he goes, death follows: bloody, brutal, painfully brain-splattered death.

Ramsey’s previous film, 2011’s near-masterpiece WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (her film titles need a little editing, don’t they?) was one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve had in a theater. It does as much with its form and rhythm as with its story, which is still pretty intense (a fractured-chronology peek into the life of the mother of a teenage mass murderer). Seven years later, she hasn’t changed her tune; this is a very disturbing watch, one that ensures its audience leaves with sweaty palms and elevated body temps. Audio is key, and that includes both foley effects and soundtrack — the latter of which mixes ’50s sock-hop ballads with Jonny Greenwood’s brilliant score: it’s piercing, percussive, shrieking, and pulsating. The same can be said for Ramsay’s movie overall: the story is both thin and obtuse, but you feel the tone in your gut. Plants have sickening payoffs (like when Joe removes the glasses from his pretending-to-be-sleeping mother), and cycles of childhood violence do permanent damage. But it’s all about the form. Tight close-ups, gorgeous lighting, jagged cutting (the out-of-sync cuts in Joe’s siege on the brownstone is a thing of horrific beauty), silence-shattering bangs, blood and guts dripping and spraying onto porcelain and skin. There’s nobody who makes movies like she does, and if it means we have to wait 7 years every time, I’ll take it.

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Blockers — 6/10

BLOCKERS (2017, Kay Cannon)

It’s hard to buy this idea: that three parents would freak out so wildly that their high-school-senior (age 18!) daughters might be having sex on prom night; enough to torch heaven and earth in an attempt to stop them. What, if they’re stopped they can’t just do it the next night? But somehow BLOCKERS mostly overcomes this insipid premise (not to mention shabby, indifferent direction) by sheer force of will — of the actors and the punch-up writers, who stock this thing full of laugh-out-loud jokes.

Ike Barinholtz steps out of his supporting career (having been a great bench player in NEIGHBORS, EASTBOUND & DOWN, and SNATCHED) and wrestles the spotlight here in an ensemble of capable comedians. While John Cena manages to confidently exhibit — and then cast aside — his terrible acting chops while being super hilarious many times over, and Leslie Mann mostly curbs her instincts to overdo every scene, it’s Barinholtz who takes a joke of a character and infuses him with sadness, regret, determination, confusion, and an overflowing genuine adoration for his child. His one sincere monologue gets a jokey punchline, but he doesn’t play it for sarcasm or overacting laughs; he takes it seriously and it pays off about 30 minutes later when he just stands there looking at his daughter.

The teens are impressive too, especially Geraldine Viswanathan as Cena’s gleeful, intelligent daughter with razor-sharp line delivery. But a subplot involving a PINEAPPLE EXPRESS reunion of Gary Cole and Gina Gershon feels shoehorned in, and a bro-standoff involving Cena and a keg of beer is juvenile humor far beneath the movie, coming off as a desperate attempt to lure the teenage ticket buyers. Kay Cannon, the hilarious writer of the PITCH PERFECT movies, is making her debut behind the camera here and the results are sadly familiar to the Apatow school of comic filmmaking: plop the camera down, let actors improv, then hack together the best takes the best you can, continuity and visual creativity be damned. But Apatow movies are funny, and his disciples Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg are too, so the fact that the latter pair produced this makes a lot of sense — ultimately maybe it doesn’t matter that the premise and direction are crap; it’s a delivery device for jokes, and the jokes land hard.

 

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Ready Player One — 4/10

READY PLAYER ONE (2018, Steven Spielberg)

I used to bag on Twitch and its users, because who in the world would waste their time watching someone else play video games? Well, joke’s on me. At least on Twitch they’re real people and it’s free to watch. I just paid money to see READY PLAYER ONE, which is fictional people playing a video game.

If robots had guts and innards, this movie would be what you’d see if you cut one open — a lot of ones and zeros crammed into the frame in a disgusting and tasteless barrage of noise. Alternately dazzling and boring, it’s a thin, surface-heavy children’s film masquerading as a meditation on pop culture nostalgia and the dystopian vision of a future dedicated to VR consumption. It’s so packed with shit that think-pieces are more interesting than the movie itself, which feels overly conflicted — not by profound design, but just because it’s a sad and cynical chassis bolted onto a crowd pleaser.

Zak Penn and source novelist Ernest Cline’s screenplay is unbelievably inane, over-explaining everything at least twice, just to make sure the cheap seats get the point. Conversations are repeated, characters are lectured to about things they just saw and heard, almost as if neither writer trusted the director (and why would they? What has this Spielberg guy ever done of note?) to communicate anything visually. But the fact that Steven left in all of this repulsive dialogue just shows how much he was checked out of this. A key line that I’m sure all the fanboys and hot-take crickets highlight is about Halliday being a creator who hated his own creation. Clearly that resonates with Spielberg, who finished principle photography on this in 2016, then let post-production run rampant for a year (IMDb lists 627 visual effects crew members) while he green-lit THE POST in February 2017. He prepped it, shot it in the summer, cut it in the fall, and released it in time for Oscar season. Then while Meryl Streep was doing the rounds, he must have trudged back into the mix bays to watch final looks of this hot garbage, give a few notes, and then daydream about working with Tom Hanks yet again.

Because none of this feels like a work that’s been mulled over by a strong artist for very long. Why does every major character happen to live in Columbus, Ohio? Why can’t Art3mis solve the game herself, being clearly as skilled as Wade? Why does the third act have our white hero being driven to the slums by his black chauffeur? Why do the Asian characters have accents if they live in Ohio? How did the second-biggest tech company in the world get where they are staffed with nothing but idiots? Why is the entire third act basically an expensive episode of Scooby Doo? Is the reason nearly the entire cast is British or Irish (Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, Ralph Ineson, Susan Lynch, Clare Higgins…) that it was filmed in London? If so, why doesn’t it take place there?

As for the pop culture touchstones, the movie wants to eat its cake and have it too — it says that the people who will own the world will do so based on their trivia knowledge of movies like BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE SHINING (while tossing in some random TERMINATOR 2, JURASSIC PARK, and Mario Kart stuff), but then urges them to put down the controllers for two days a week because, as it says twice (par for the course) “the only thing that’s real is reality.” Oh, fuck off, man.

 

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Unsane — 7/10

UNSANE (2017, Steven Soderbergh)

Very early on in this air-tight psycho thriller, the female protagonist Sawyer enters the office of her boss at a new job. The establishing shot is of the photos on his desk — a wife, a family. Then the older, more powerful man sits her down and proceeds to brazenly hit on her, inviting her to a convention in New Orleans with just him, for two nights (“At the Hyatt!”) before she excuses herself. This scene comes after we’ve already heard her on the phone ordering a client around with an assertive tone — her co-worker thinks it’s a man she’s talking to, but Sawyer quickly points out it’s a “she.”

Gender dynamics continue to play a role throughout UNSANE, Soderbergh’s fourth success in a row, during what’s turning out to be a fruitful, compelling late period (following his masterful TV show THE KNICK, last year’s crackerjack LOGAN LUCKY, and the recent HBO miniseries — and techno-forward app experiment — MOSAIC). In fact, gender is virtually what it’s all about. Sawyer even gets her name from her grandfather. Throughout her life, which we learn a lot about in swift exposition, despite the entire movie taking place in less than a week, dominant men have exerted force over her, and the gaslighting is just beginning.

Not that female nurses and administrators don’t play a part too, and not that she doesn’t have male allies (Jay Pharoah is a standout), but the pattern is men closing in on Sawyer. Watch how deftly a surprising Matt Damon plays his detective character — in just a minute or two of screen time he rushes through his lines with so much fear-mongering and mansplaining that you wonder if he’s as dangerous as the stalker she’s complaining about.

Credit to Bernstein and Greer’s screenplay for tightly setting everything up on the quick. When Sawyer calls her mom at the beginning, she sings praises about her boss despite having just endured the gross come-on. That clues us in to why mom isn’t aware of David, and how much Sawyer is really keeping to herself. And this wouldn’t be a Soderbergh film if it didn’t come down to the corruption of American economics — in this case, health care, and how hospitals run insurance scams just to stay afloat. All of this is packed into an unsettling, disturbing, 98-minute pot-boiler shot on an iPhone 7 with ingenious compositions, editing, and movement. Even the shaky American accent Claire Foy struggles through doesn’t distract from a powerhouse lead performance, and while the plot resolves itself without any real unpredictability beyond the first hour, Soderbergh proves once again how comforting it is to give in to someone who knows what the hell he’s doing. By the time the suspense climaxes with a showdown in a disorienting blue padded cell, the maestro has shown that there are no constraints he can’t work within.

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Isle of Dogs — 7/10

ISLE OF DOGS (2018, Wes Anderson)

Unmistakably Anderson in every frame, a two-dimensional talking mobile from the juvenile mind of Max Fischer, the camera panning straight left and right, 90 degrees up and down, center-punched compositions, details overflowing. It doesn’t even move so much as it fizzes like a glass of Sprite, where you have to count every carbonated bubble before it pops into the air.

With anthropomorphized dogs getting most of the dialogue and characterizations, the film threatens to lose any grip on humanity, but with its imperialist villains who use their power to exile and poison those less fortunate (dogs=immigrants), some decent analogies can be made to tie this back to a real-world examination of moral decay. But Anderson doesn’t want to dwell on that regardless — this is an opportunity to play in a colorful sandbox fantasia of a movie, where he wants nary a note of music, word of narration, or second of reaction timing to be out of place.

And just when you think he’s leaning too far into hermetically sealed and mathematically perfect, there’s a warmth to the boy-and-his-dog relationship. Cranston’s voice performance is terrific here; he arcs his Chief to begin as gruff and heartless, monotonous and mean — then he gradually shifts to dynamic volumes, different pitches, and pauses that reveal the emotions underneath. It’s a full fledged three-dimensional character doomed to be underrated because Cranston’s face isn’t on screen. McDormand is also pretty great as the English translator of the Japanese news, using that “I’m reading this and trying to be impartial” voice, hurrying but not rushing. The same goes for Courtney B. Vance’s actual narrator, like he’s telling a serious bedtime story to his son. And it’s through these narrative voices (not the Japanese characters, who don’t get subtitles) we get to hear Anderson’s delightful lines like “It’s a distant uncle’s worst nightmare!”

I’m not sure it all ever congeals, though, to something deeper than its surface pleasures, which are plentiful. Anderson’s “flighty period” is his entire career, and occasionally you yearn for either some heavier boots anchoring his feet to the soil, or a little more muscle to the punches. His lightest films (though this one has plenty of dark layers — the entire premise is dystopian and there’s real danger for a lot of characters) like THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX and THE DARJEELING LIMITED almost lift off like a hot-air balloon, and they disappear into the sky by the time you leave the theater. I admire everything about how this guy crafts a movie in every single stage of production, but I think he’s capable of a 4-movement symphony one of these days, not another expertly produced twee pop song.

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Annihilation — 8/10

ANNIHILATION (2018, Alex Garland)

In Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar’s 2001 ghost story THE OTHERS, Nicole Kidman’s character, having long waited for her soldier husband to return from war, finally sees him when she’d given up hope — but he isn’t the man he was when he left, and in that sequence AmenĂ¡bar makes a quietly powerful comment on war: how it changes us, how its casualties are not just the deaths and injuries suffered in battle, but also the families it destroys in the process.

I thought of that during an early scene here, which has a similar narrative function, and while Garland isn’t necessarily making an anti-war statement (though I think that’s part of it), he’s definitely saying something about the tragic changes people make, and the inevitable loss of people we once knew. This theme is very nicely explored throughout the movie, cogent and clear. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mysteriously callous Dr. Ventress says that she thinks the person who started this mission won’t be the person who ends it. She says it’s in our nature to self-destruct; that we are driven by a biological impulse towards entropy, regardless of decisions we want to make. Portman’s protagonist Lena professes this to her students: that at a cellular level everything exists in order to live, to change, and to die. And in some remarkably un-sexy pillow talk with hubby Oscar Isaac, she says that aging — and genetic breakdown — is God’s mistake.

Given that all this is on Garland’s mind, it makes the sci-fi thriller aspects go down easier. Everything we see is really just a metaphor for this existential autopsy of the human condition and our inability to stop the progression of how much we change. We are always mutating, always dying. Relationships fail, careers stall, diseases kill, and addiction cripples. Why not explore this within the genre of an ARRIVAL-style descent into the unknown, with nods to 2001? One absolutely terrifying sequence serves the template well, offering up what I saw somewhere described as “pure nightmare fuel” (not hyperbole). And the balls-out climax at the Lighthouse may lack a bit in terms of effects wonder, but the creativity of vision and unique turn of events won me over. Finally, a small, quiet shot totally knocked me out: it’s just Portman setting down a glass of water, and what happens to the liquid and container, mirrored so many times earlier by cellular graphics, took my breath away. This is a giant leap forward for Garland from the annoyingly dumb EX MACHINA, and proof that he (and Paramount, who are on a bit of a courageous tear) is brave enough to trust his audience, refuse to cajole us, and go down with the ship if he must. My hat is off.

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