The Killing of a Sacred Deer — 6/10

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017, Yorgos Lanthimos)

It’s either the best mediocre movie you’ve ever seen, or the worst masterpiece. Has Lanthimos’s reliably sharp eye for composition and movement, his unnerving ear for sound design, and that off-putting atmosphere of dread that manages to be unsettling and wildly gripping at the same time. Even more Kubrick-inspired than THE LOBSTER (this one is all THE SHINING and EYES WIDE SHUT), morbidly funny and deeply disturbing, and the cast is absolutely aces. Barry Keoghan, who I just discovered a few months ago in DUNKIRK, is fascinating — he and the eerily intelligent Raffey Cassidy are as good as Farrell and Kidman, both of whom know exactly what kind of movie they’re in and they serve it well.

But somehow the whole never equals the sum of its parts. What’s the point of this? THE LOBSTER had a clear goal, and some ripe social institutions it was dissecting. SACRED DEER starts off with a cut-open body during a surgery, but we don’t know what the organ is. Similarly, the film seems to be peering inside something, but it’s not clear what we should take from this dark, sick fable. Maybe I’m just too dumb to get it — but despite the upper class trappings, the parental warnings, the superficial/materialistic facades, and the impotent doctors, everything feels like a signpost of something; they aren’t organic themes lucidly explored. Kidman’s Anna has different motives in every scene, her character merely fitting whatever needs the plot requires at the time. Silverstone’s weird, desperate single mom has one good scene, but she’s a key that Farrell refuses to utilize when it seems really important. The humor is grisly and dry, but right after a sick joke there will be a scene that it takes utterly seriously, so you’re never sure how far inside its cheek this movie’s tongue is. You’ll be never less than glued to the screen, but you may be scratching your head when it’s over. And for a film with a more grounded, simplified world than THE LOBSTER, that’s surprising.

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The Meyerowitz Stories — 7/10

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (2017, Noah Baumbach)

In the first scene, Dustin Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz has red scrapes on his face from what he claims is an incident with a dog. (“You should see the other dog.”) By the third act, Ben Stiller’s Matthew has gone from clean cut to bloody-nose and face-scratched, standing next to his red-knuckled brother Danny (a terrific Adam Sandler). The wounds that start with the father end up on the sons. We survive the worst of it, but we’re all a little scarred (even if, like Jean, those scars are on the inside).

Feels a little like Baumbach starting to repeat himself a few too many times, but when the dialogue is this good and the neuroses this real, it still works. Plus, admit it — you always kinda wanted to see THE SQUID AND THE WHALE with the characters grown up 20 years later, right? Mix that in with some ROYAL TENENBAUMS and you can predict where this is going and how you’ll feel about it. You may not be ready for just how good Stiller is in the requisite emotional breakdown scene, but you also won’t be ready for just how bad Hoffman is. The biggest drawback here is the alarmingly distracting line readings from a confused Hoffman — he looks like he’s just hoping he remembered the dialogue, so he rushes to the end of the take before he screws up, without internalizing any of it. Baumbach’s script nails how family members talk past each other without connecting, but when Sandler or Stiller have to play off an actor unprepared for this style, the results are dispiriting. Halfway through, when Harold undergoes a major life change, Hoffman’s performance settles down a bit and he’s more in his element. But those first 40 minutes or so are rough going.

Still, the running joke of Baumbach cutting away from a scene mid-rant is both superficially hilarious and a wry comment on his own repetitiveness. This guy’s daddy issues make Spielberg look positively healthy. But the joy is on the fringes — Emma Thompson’s superb capturing of a hippie New York Jewish mom; the hungrily pretentious student films (TRAMPS’s Grace Van Patten cleverly avoids a lot of teen girl clichés here); the floundering gasps at humanity when dealing with hospital staff. This may only appeal to a select class and personality type, but it’s never dishonest.

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 – 7/10

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017, S. Craig Zahler)

In poker, a reliable tell is that acting quickly is a sign of weakness. If someone takes their time before shoving over your bet, it’s much scarier than if they snap-jam. This, experts say, is because when you’re lying you want to get it over with quickly. The truth — you can sit with that a little longer. It’s more comfortable. BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 takes its time, and that exudes not only confidence and strength, but a certain degree of admirable honesty.

The film runs over two hours, but never feels slow. It also never feels hurried, much like its protagonist. Vince Vaughn’s hulking, quietly raging Bradley (don’t call him “Brad!”) thinks for a few seconds before responding to almost anything anyone says. You can tell he’s going over possible moves in his head, then settles on the most rational one. Bradley is smart, but he isn’t egotistical. He can box, but won’t brag about it. He never lays a hand on his cheating wife; he just destroys her phone and then breaks his hands punching her car into pieces. It’s a fascinating character study, and Zahler takes his time in the first hour making sure we do all the studying we need in order to follow Bradley’s measured descent into hell, step by step — and that we care so deeply about it.

Zahler’s directorial debut, BONE TOMAHAWK, was also lengthy, but equally rich with character study. By the end, an overwhelming emotional scene has you tearing up just minutes after you’ve seen a man split in half with a hatchet, his guts and entrails falling out onto a cave floor. For much of BRAWL’s runtime, I was sure I wouldn’t be as choked up during this, as I wasn’t feeling Kurt Russell-level depths of empathy. But then a phone call scene happens, and damn if Zahler didn’t do it again. Even more odd is that this scene, too, comes after some of the most unpleasant, hideously gory images you’re likely to see on the big screen in a reputable movie theater. Rarely has a filmmaker combined such a keen ability to generate pathos and nauseating exploitative gore in the same reel, let alone the same movie.

Part of what’s so striking about Zahler’s work is his all-encompassing existentialism. The best shot in TOMAHAWK is an ultra-wide set to the line “This is where we are,” underscoring the indifference of nature and the universe to the pathetic travails of man. Here, he gives Bradley a dose of Sisyphus during his prison stint. In one funny but unsettling scene, new inmates must wait in an interminable line to surrender their belongings. And once they reach the front, there’s a good chance the prick behind the window will send them back to the end again, forced to roll the rock up the hill one more time. Despite the giant cross tattoo on the back of Bradley’s bald skull, God doesn’t exist in Zahler’s universe. It’s up to the characters to create their own moral centers and act on behalf of them. It’s a cruel world, love is fleeting and ephemeral, and we must take action. Camus would be proud.

The visuals in BRAWL are a step ahead of TOMAHAWK, but I’m still not sold on Zahler as a visual storyteller. His dialogue is exceptional, and his control of actors is impressive (Carpenter, Johnson… all the small roles here are memorable and well-modulated), but I’m not sure a few cool angles and contrasty images signify great direction. Also, his obsession with gore is starting to feel unnecessary — if some viewers have to watch through closed fingers, what’s the point? The backbone of his storytelling is there; why rip it out and show it to us?

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American Made — 6/10

AMERICAN MADE (2017, Doug Liman)

A fun throwback to mid-90s Scorsese-lite ripoffs, where you expect a fast pace, big needle drops, freeze-frames, candid voiceover, and a dedication to glamorizing excess before ripping it all away in a moralizing third act. The problem is that GOODFELLAS is already as perfect as that genre’s gonna get, and everything from BLOW to NARCOS has just been varying degrees of entertaining superficiality.

The points Liman is making about capitalism’s rotten consequences, and moreover the gruesome ways the government used and exploited its operatives as mere cogs in the war machine, are valid and sobering — but not necessarily profound or unique. What makes this film watchable and mostly breezy fun is Tom Cruise, and by now that shouldn’t be surprising (both that it’s true and also that I’d be the person to point it out). Cruise remains one of this country’s greatest movie stars and finest performers, even if his recent choices haven’t lived up to an incredible run from the ’90s and early ’00s. The guy is undeniably magnetic, but he also finds creative line readings and comic facial expressions to expand the material and deepen its impact. If you respond to him as much as I do, this is clearly worth your time, but you’ll forget most of it within three days and start itching for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 6 next year… and hopefully a reunion with Spielberg or PTA or De Palma down the line for another jolt of real magic.

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mother! — 8/10

MOTHER! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)

Sports journalist Max Kellerman was on TV the other day making the point that Colin Kaepernick is out of the league, ironically, due to the very thing he was criticized for protesting. He sat out the National Anthem because of systemic, institutionalized racism in American culture, and it turns out the on-balance racist institution that is the NFL ownership has punished him for it. I bring this up because much of the hatred of MOTHER! that I’ve seen online is a reaction to the same criticisms Aronofsky is making of humanity at large.

There are many things this film is a parable, metaphor, or allegory of, and in ways it’s a Rorschach test for ideology — whatever you want to put on it, Aronofsky has given you fuel to do. But it’s clear (from NOAH, at the very least) that he has some arguments to make against Christianity and its poisonous effect on its fervent followers. (Even going back to REQUIEM, he’s long been wary of the lies we tell ourselves to avoid the harsh truths about the human condition). Aronofsky makes no bones about showing just how much people hate when their core ideals are challenged and how blindly they’re willing to follow that which makes them feel safe or valuable. As a work of art, MOTHER! is anything but a safe narrative with a conventional, feel-good sense of calm and seductive cajoling. It’s a bitter, mean-spirited, wide-eyed attack on the sleepy complacency that infects much of conventional cinema, and of conventional thought as well.

Not that everyone who hates this movie is objecting to its unlikable assault on expected narratives — certainly you’re welcome to despise this thing for any number of reasons. But the control it has over its manipulation of audience expectation, emotion, and reaction is pretty astounding. The pace is expert, the removal of all safeguards is well-calculated, and the conclusion is both shocking and inevitable. This thing is crazy fucked-up, and it’s pretty great for the most part.

One way it masterfully engages the audience with its protagonist is that every shot is one of Jennifer Lawrence, either close-up, following from behind, or framed center-punched so you can’t look away. If it’s not, it’s her point of view. Only until one explosive moment, minutes before the end of the movie, does it finally — and justifiably — break that dogged insistence. Through her eyes we see a story about artistic obsession, environmental collapse, jealousy, the paradox of creation and destruction, and all sorts of probably-Biblical references that I’m too ignorant to understand (I’m in the bottom 1% of all people in terms of knowledge of that book, so what do I know from Bibles). And even if you can’t groove on those themes, it’s hard to deny just how visually acute this thing is shot and edited — the descent into madness that happens in this house is a gorgeously orchestrated slippery slope, so you can hardly pinpoint what’s really so different between two housewives sharing a glass of lemonade and a literal war zone.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming — 6/10

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017, Jon Watts)

A group of high school students is on an elevator ascending the Washington Monument in D.C. The elevator breaks and the monument begins to crack. Spider-Man races to the rescue with the help of his AI computer-suit voice “Karen” giving him directions. Meanwhile, inside the elevator the terrified teenagers are told by a tour guide: “don’t worry, you’re safe,” and immediately Karen tells Spider-Man something like “They are not safe at all.” It happens one more time for repeated comic effect — the human tells the teens one thing, then the computer reveals the opposite truth to the superhero. Science and artificial intelligence, built by billionaire weapons developer Tony Stark, are always far more accurate than the fallible, gullible blue collar humans. And that eerie realization makes this film unintentionally but deeply, deeply misanthropic.

The theme extends to the villain, too. Michael Keaton’s Vulture is a blue collar construction foreman whose career is destroyed by Stark, who just wants to keep unknown alien power stones out of the hands of people too dumb or untrustworthy. And indeed, once Keaton and his goons attain the weapons, they use them for evil. The good guys are the rich scientists; the bad guys are the poor working stiffs. Don’t rely on the goodness of mankind: rely on technology, money, and intelligence. That’s the only thing that will save us.

Luckily Watts doesn’t even really seem to realize how disturbing and capitalistic this movie is — he revels in the glee of Spider-Man being the one superhero freed from adult darkness, trafficking in typical high school shenanigans. And that’s where this movie shines. Holland is terrific; not only his American accent but his Marty McFly-like voice as he struggles with a crush (on the wrong girl, of course — Laura Harrier’s Liz is a dud compared to the sardonic appeal of Zendaya’s MJ) and with earning the respect of his idol Iron Man. Whenever the film takes place between the school walls or Aunt May’s apartment, the comedy is in high gear. But when Keaton and Downey (and third-billed Jon Favreau, for some reason) drag it down into predictable CG Marvelness, it just turns into yet another interchangeable entry in this ongoing, super-expensive television series.

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Good Time — 7/10

GOOD TIME (2017, Josh & Benny Safdie)

I was going to kick this off by saying “spoiler alert: they don’t have a very good time.” Then I realized I also started off my HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT review by pointing out that title’s irony as well. As it turns out, much of what I wrote after that could apply here — for better and for worse. On the plus side, this one is nearly as gritty and realistic, possibly even more invigorating and sweaty, and looks just as closely at the people we want to turn away from or ignore. But on the downside, it does all that without quite the same sense of verisimilitude.

Not to say the lead performance isn’t just as terrific as Holmes was — in fact, after a few sterling turns over the last several years, this is the best Pattinson has ever been. He doesn’t command the screen by chewing the scenery, he commands it by becoming the scenery. The Safdies, loosed from the long lenses needed to sneak the docudrama shots from HKW, are now able to burrow deep into the faces of their characters, which means a lot of tough, unflinching close-ups of a con man whose ability to seduce his marks makes him queasily compelling. And Pattinson sells that brilliantly. Just listen to the change in his voice and speech pattern when he tells Crystal about the connection they have, just to convince her to stay with the car. Demonic.

But we aren’t the marks here — the Safdies tell us from the jump what Connie is like: the opening scene has him breaking his brother out of a therapy session; literally tearing this young man away from a place that could help him… and later in the film, it’s exaggerated when Connie attempts to break Nick out of an actual hospital. We’re watching one guy in need of help, forever tied to someone who actively deflects said help. The biggest lie Connie tells in a film full of them is to Nick in that opening scene — in the elevator, when he says “I love you.”

And in a nicely subtle subplot of injustice, the Safdies explore just how much punishment people get for trying to be nice. Piling on that is the realization of the fates the film’s two primary black characters at the hands of the police. There’s no good news here, and not much optimism. Once again, they look where the rest of us don’t, and what they find there is a little bit of humanity and a lot of torture. This time around, there’s more of an on-track narrative and fatalistic ending, and maybe one not-so-believable performance (Necro, as Ray’s drug-dealing buddy), but this is still an effective, stinging drama about the dirt under the fingernails that scrape on society’s chalkboard.

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