Madeline's Madeline

 

Cast: Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker

Director: Josephine Decker

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a work of pure narcissism. And yet, all works of art are narcissistic extensions of their creators to varying degrees. The titular character (played by revelatory newcomer Helena Howard) may be a teenager at a New York theater company, but she’s so keenly aligned with Decker’s sensibilities that the fusion is never hidden from the audience. The notion that artistic creativity (not to mention risk-taking) can converge with real life experiences is at the center of the film, which purposefully veers away from traditional storytelling in order to conjure a state of emotional/psychological instability.

In a way, Howard’s breakthrough performance as a prodigy struggling with mental illness of some sort achieves the very thing Decker is attempting to capture aesthetically. But much like in real life, the messiness of glorifying the artist means there’s an insularity to Madeline’s Madeline which makes it frustratingly uneven. That filmic subjectivity— taking elements of the coming-of-age narrative and splintering it into emotional fragments—is fully on display here. The line between reality, art, and dreams is blurred; as are the edges of the frame shot in hazy hues. Decker’s roving camera is often so close to the actor’s faces as to produce claustrophobia. The soundtrack is layered with heavy breathing, out of sync dialogue, and clattering noise. Whether or not this works for particular audiences is up for grabs, but there’s no denying Decker’s commitment to purging Madeline’s psyche through cinematic techniques.

The film’s central dynamic rests between Madeline and her mother, Regina (Miranda July), whose relationship is complicated, to say the least. Then there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker), the theater director who seems to be steering her experimental play into the realm of Madeline’s personal life. The film’s central line, “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor” is spoken by multiple characters and recurs throughout; preparing us to take everything we see as subjective experience. When Madeline takes a scalding iron to her mother in one of her outbursts, for example, we are led to believe that it was either a dream or a projection of violence in order to impress her theater director. This kind of tension exists throughout Madeline’s Madeline, but there are times where Decker’s ambiguous posturing threatens to derail the emotional honesty of her film.

Near the climax, Madeline has a breakthrough of inner clarity in which she reenacts the supposed attack on her mother, and the unbridled energy of Howard’s performance absolutely sells the moment. For once, Madeline is not in control of her performative gifts. For once, the feeling of rejection from Regina is laid bare. Decker probably would have been wise to end her film there, but like her lead character, she just can’t help herself. Therefore, the finale; in which Madeline and her theater troupe retaliate against Evangeline by prodding her with cat masks and choreographed dance numbers in the streets, feels like the easy way out.

Of course, this wild explosion of artistic creation is meant to signify Madeline’s advancement, but it sidesteps the film’s more troubling questions. For one thing, she is still a child, and by extension, a narcissist. She cares only for her own thoughts and feelings. Evangeline, and to a lesser degree, Regina, are disparaged and then brushed aside. How could Madeline fulfill her artistic ambitions if her mother wasn’t at all supportive? Likewise, without Evangeline, she would have no artistic outlet at all. By fully embracing Madeline’s ego-driven mania, Decker understands the personal power of art, but also its limitations. And yet, for all its stylistic boldness and feral intensity, Madeline’s Madeline ultimately leans into art as therapy clichés instead of seriously dealing with a young woman’s disorienting coming-of-age.

Bad Times at the El Royale

 

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Jim O'Heir

Director: Drew Goddard

Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The titular setting for writer-director Drew Goddard’s latest genre exercise is a brilliant creation; full of garish wallpaper, kitschy carpets, neon signs, and a retro jukebox providing the film’s Motown-heavy soundtrack. Goddard is also a smart enough writer to infuse the hotel with an eerie atmosphere of past ghosts withering under the reign of Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the Mansion murders. Essentially an Agatha Christie-style mystery weaving a variety of characters together while also riffing on the structure of every post-modern thriller since Pulp Fiction, Bad Times at the El Royale boasts terrific performances and a cheeky premise, but ultimately veers off into goofy blood-splattered nonsense. It’s too bad, since Goddard has ambition and style to spare.

The film opens in 1969, where the El Royale is now a deserted wasteland when it used to be a bustling gambling hub. Run almost entirely by an awkward bellhop, Miles (Lewis Pullman), who gives each guest a prolonged pitch about the site’s iconic history straddling the California-Nevada border; the hotel has the vibe of being slightly out of time, which translates to a newly arriving group of strangers. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a femme fatale with a secret (Dakota Johnson), a soul singer en route to Reno (Cynthia Erivo), and a traveling vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), who all turn up one night for shelter. Of course, these are stock characters with ulterior motives, and Goddard initially has fun teasing out information about each one of them.

Once a hidden corridor running along one side of the hotel is discovered, Bad Times at the El Royale shifts from chamber drama into voyeuristic neo-noir, punctuated by moments of violence. Nothing is as it seems. No one can be trusted. Two-way mirrors provides moments of tension and ample excuses for Erivo to belt out doo-wop a cappella hits. As the camera snakes between rooms, we get pieces of each character’s backstories and how they ended up at the hotel. This gambit—complete with chapter breaks—is novelistic but also frustrating, since it stalls any sense of narrative momentum. In trying to deepen his character’s inner lives via flashback, Goddard loses the thread; forgetting that all we need to know is already being telegraphed through his very game cast of actors.

Once Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering cult leader, Billy Lee, enters the fray, Bad Times at the El Royale almost completely falls apart. Despite excellent turns from Pullman, Bridges, and especially Erivo, Hemsworth’s wannabe Manson clone takes over the film in a way which speaks to its larger issues as a self-critique of macho cruelty. This is exemplified in a scene where Erivo’s African American singer calls him out by saying “I’m bored of men like you” after he forces the remaining guests to indulge in a game of Russian roulette-style barbarity. The moment feels like Godard’s half-hearted concession to the #meToo movement, but plays somewhat embarrassingly since Hemsworth’s cult hippie eats away most of the third act’s running time.

Truthfully, Goddard may have gotten carried away by the success of his genre-defying previous feature, Cabin in the Woods. That was a film which actually subverted expectations while also being an entertaining horror comedy. Bad Times at the El Royale is too enamored by its own sleight-of-hand narrative gimmicks to be fully satisfying as either pulp trash or a stylish exercise. The hotel is a marvelous setting, but being trapped there for 140 minutes begins to feel like another kind of audience subversion; i.e. boredom.



22 July

 

Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Øigarden, Isak Bakli Aglen, Maria Bock, Thorbjørn Harr, Seda Witt, Ola G. Furuseth, Hilde Olausson

Director: Paul Greengrass

Running time: 2 hours 23 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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If there was ever any doubt, the 2011 Norway attacks by Anders Behring Breivik that left 77 people dead was an unspeakable atrocity. The killer, a stone-cold sociopath (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) stockpiled weapons, disguised himself as a police officer, and gained access to an island where a Workers’ Youth League summer camp was being held. The subsequent aftermath, where Breivik was treated humanely by the Norwegian government while victims mourned the loss of loved ones, is the real aim of director Paul Greengrass’s retelling. Before we get there, however, there’s 40 minutes of goosed-up exploitation cinema to wade through. If United 93 was Greengrass’s visceral attempt at pummeling audiences into submission concerning an American tragedy, then 22 July cheaply uses a real-life Norwegian catastrophe as a soapbox for simplistic moralizing. 

During the film’s opening stretch, the film cuts between Breivik loading bombs and weaponry into an unmarked van and various high school students innocently enjoying themselves at summer camp. Using his typical hand-held shooting style, Greengrass ratchets up the tension by using standard movie suspense tactics, such as an ominous score and scenes where characters tearfully deliver speeches moments before death. All the while, Breivik prowls through the forest in wide shots reminiscent of a Peter Berg action thriller as he indiscriminately mows down victims fleeing for their lives.

One particular student comes into focus, Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), who delivers a speech about what he would do if he was Prime Minister shortly before the massacre. Meanwhile, the actual PM, Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) is evacuated after a bomb planted by Breivik detonates outside a government building in Oslo. The rest of the film pivots into a blunt drama juxtaposing Viljar and Breivik; with the former learning how to walk again due to his gunshot injuries, while the later espouses his bigoted, though ideologically muddled, views.

During the third act, July 22 transforms into a courtroom procedural where family members of the deceased are forced to endure Breivik’s prepared statements while Vilijar undergoes rehab, laughably edited in montage like something out of the Rocky franchise. Greengrass may want his film to open up a dialogue about how and why someone like Breivik exists, but July 22 ends up coming across morally facile. The characters here feel like chess pieces for a political warning rather than human beings who actually suffered through this tragedy. The catharsis, therefore, is cheap. What is the point, after all, of dramatizing such a heinous event? There is little utility, whether artistic or political, in Greengrass’s approach here; rendering his film as yet another dramatic thriller trivializing actual human suffering.

First Man

 

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Ethan Embry, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian d'Arcy James, Brady Smith, Philip Boyd

Director: Damien Chazelle

Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s meteoric rise is a curious case. His feature debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, showcased a cineliterate fondness for John Cassavetes and Jacques Demy, while his obsessive jazz drama Whiplash revealed a knack for propulsive editing and egotistical male protagonists. Of course, his bonafide breakthrough, La La Land, set its sights on reviving the MGM Hollywood musical while netting him a Best Director Academy Award in the process. At just 33 years of age, Chazelle has been likened to a wunderkind in the Steven Spielberg mold (though his films bare little resemblance to the king of pop cinema), leading him to attempt the most prestigious of all genres; the biopic.

Interestingly, Chazelle has chosen to forgo slick populist entertainment which usually wins Oscars in favor of an intimate drama about American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). Shot in a grainy, hand-held visual style not unlike early 70’s films, First Man demythologizes the American space program by shedding the jingoistic DNA of similar space flight pictures like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. Tactile in its technical details while shaggy in plot, First Man is closer to the films of Christopher Nolan and Terrence Malick than Spielberg or Ron Howard.

Of course, Chazelle doesn’t have the anti-narrative poetry of Malick and lacks the discipline of Nolan on his best days. Still, Josh Singer’s spare screenplay does give him apple room to probe the mind of Armstrong as a man of few words whose reluctance at playing hero is telegraphed early and often. As played by Gosling in his patented stoic mode, Armstrong is taciturn and glum, but also obsessively driven; (i.e. a standard Chazelle male protagonist), and though the actor excels at capturing Armstrong’s inwardness, he fails to truly make us forget we are watching a performance. Call it the curse of being Gosling, but he’s just not someone who can effectively disappear into roles. Singer’s script also doesn’t do the film any favors by leaning too heavily on the biopic crutch of the dead child. The tragic death of Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter before he joined the NASA Astronaut Corps was certainly a major turning point in his life, but Chazelle’s insistence on using flashback and hallucination in which the child is consistently foregrounded begins to feel like the kind of lazy cliché he was probably hoping to avoid.

Meanwhile, Claire Foy gives a wonderfully raw performance as Janet Armstrong, but like most movies fixated on the lonely American male, her role is severely underdeveloped. Essentially at wit’s end due to her husband’s dangerous job and emotional vacantness, Coy is forced to cycle between a few basic modes; concern, tenacity, and warmth, but does so effectively. Other NASA contemporaries pop in and out, most notably Ed White (Jason Clarke), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lucas Haas), but this is ultimately Armstrong’s story. As such, it is a film unusually obsessed with process and procedure, not to mention grief.

Once the Apollo 11 reaches the surface of the moon, Chazelle treats us to images both awe-inspiring and eerie, but the real strength of First Man is its somber detachment from myth-making. Instead of pop culture pandering, the film reveals the terrifying reality of these endeavors (not to mention the human cost) where made-made vessels essentially sent human beings out into the vastness of space, possibly to die. Only a misguided moment on the moon’s surface which ties back into Armstrong’s anguish over the loss of his daughter feels like the kind of Ron Howard-esque swing into sentimentality Chazelle had otherwise been successful at curbing. In that moment, First Man feels like typical Hollywood awards bait. Otherwise, this is the rare prestige bummer movie where our American hero is sad and muted rather than gregarious and flag-waving.


Venom

 

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Ruben Fleischer’s frenzied take on one of Spiderman’s most iconic adversaries is essentially a romcom between spiraling hard-nosed reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and a gooey outer space mollusk speaking in gravelly tones. The idea of a man attempting to reconcile with a voice in his head and a “parasite” inside his body has all the trappings for sublime body horror/Lovecraftian weirdness, but Venom actually plays more like an early 2000’s comic book movie elevated slightly by Hardy’s goofy comic abilities. 

Through a flurry of early montages, we learn that Eddie Brock is a Vice-style investigator with his sights set on tech billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who is killing poor people throughout San Francisco via human trials wherein alien symbiotes bond with human hosts. Eddie gets the scoop by stealing confidential legal documents from his lawyer girlfriend, Anne (Michelle Williams), goes to Drake’s company for an interview to entrap him, and is quickly fired for his actions. There’s also a scientist working for Drake played by Jenny Slate whose mostly on hand to allow Eddie access to the compound’s quarantined zone where he inevitably bonds with the powerful alien life form.

If Venom’s first half is cluttered and plodding, then the middle section where Eddie and the creature become entangled does manage to find a comedic rhythm. This has little to do with Fleischer’s direction, which ranges from pedestrian to downright incoherent, and is entirely due to Hardy, who channels Nic Cage by way of Elmer Fudd with a riotous physical performance. A sequence where Eddie interrupts a lunch between Anne and her new surgeon boyfriend, Dan (Reid Scott), by chewing on seafood and immersing himself inside a lobster tank, is a prime example of an actor taking bland material and punching it up with all manner of tics, spasms, and funny faces.

The romcom elements of Eddie and Venom’s love-hate relationship is humorous for awhile, but Fleischer never settles on a consistent enough tone for this material to work over the long haul. Moving at a dizzying pace, Venom eventually descends into parodic CGI vomit; including a climatic duel between our anti-hero and a rival symbiote with all manner of Zack Snyder-esque crashing, punching, and explosions. It’s about as thrilling as watching the homeless population writhe in agony as tentacled globs swirl around their intestines while an Elon Musk analog twirls his imaginary mustache.

There’s a sense throughout Venom that Hardy is steamrolling his journeyman director into taking the standard comic book narrative into loopier territory. But the actor’s dedication in leaning into the material’s trash/cult curio potential is ultimately a moot point, seeing as this is still a major studio release taking place inside (or just outside) the MCU. As such, it cannot fully embrace the Sami Raimi Darkman vibes existing at the edges of a rather dull origins story. Instead, Fleischer settles more for Ghostrider/Daredevil vibes, with Hardy’s mumbly, spastic, tater tot-munching slapstick delivering in between dull swaths of plot exposition and deafening action sequences.







The Sisters Brothers

 

Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed

Director: Jacques Audiard

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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The longing for sensitivity inside the soul of lawless men has been at the center of writer/director Jacques Audiard’s filmography for years. Just look at the piano-playing delinquent in The Beat My Heart Skipped, the hardened prisoner looking for spiritual awakening in A Prophet, or even the soft-spoken Sri Lankan refugee turned badass in Dheepan. These are all men hiding in the shadows who still desire something close to happiness.

Audiard’s latest film, The Sister’s Brothers, is an odd one. A darkly comic western following the journey of titular brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) as they track down a man responsible for creating a formula for easily detecting gold, the film nonetheless fits squarely into Audiard’s fascination with lonely men looking for a way to escape their loneliness. It also should be noted that Reilly bought the rights to the 2011 Patrick deWitt novel upon which the film is based, and is credited as executive producer. This means there’s a level to which his talents as a character actor— that mix of social awkwardness and sadness—is perfectly suited to the role of Eli; a man who simply wants to finish one last job and be done with the business of killing altogether. On the other hand, his brother Charlie relishes the opportunity to kill insofar as it offers him a big pay day and plenty of booze, which likewise fits Phoenix’s brand of loose-cannon acting.

The Sisters Brothers follows a parallel narrative track, switching between Eli and Charlie’s exploits with that of the mark they are following, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Once Warm teams up with John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man originally sent to capture him, the film moves into more introspective territory. As played by Ahmed with a soft gaze and sober intellect, there’s a homoerotic subtext to Warm and Morris’s relationship which also reads as a larger allegorical statement on the possibilities of an undiscovered country. Though there are violent interludes, shoot outs, and drunken shouting matches, The Sisters Brothers is an uncommonly cool-headed film. One might even call it gentle.

Still, this being an Audiard joint, there’s no shortage of nihilistic consequences for the actions of selfish men. In the film’s third act, things take a tragic turn as the two narrative tracks converge. Warm’s utopian idea of a society presaging socialism is a melancholic take on the eventual collapse of democracy, with the greed for gold ultimately trumping everything. All the while, Reilly and Phoenix play off each other wonderfully as polar opposites trapped in a geographical space which makes sensible life all but nonexistent. When a character asks Eli why he continues to put up with Charlie’s dim-witted recklessness, he simply stares off and mutters, “He’s my brother.” It’s a simple yet powerful sentiment which informs the film’s unexpectedly tender ending, which may be the most lyrical filmmaking of Audiard’s career. However, even this climax is tinged with despair because we know that for the Sisters brothers, it’s a feeling that ultimately won’t last.

Hold the Dark

 

Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, Riley Keough, James Badge Dale, Julian Black Antelope, Tantoo Cardinal, Beckham Crawford

Director: Jeremy Saulnier

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Jeffery Wright, the consummate character actor who often improves scenes merely by showing up, is given a rare central role in writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller, Hold the Dark. Wright has a knack for both outlandishness and subtlety; imbuing his characters with off-kilter tics, or in the case of his infamous role in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, a sense of tenderness. As Russell Core, a wolf tracker/author, Wright brings a quiet soulfulness to a character which on paper exists mostly as a cipher. It’s a pity then, that the film itself fails him, since Sauliner’s take on William Giraldi’s novel of the same name (adapted by friend and co-actor Macon Blair), is mostly a laughable dirge into the abyss. Brutal violence in the Alaskan wilderness has never felt this pointless since last year’s Wind River.

Sauliner’s gifts up until this point have been in maintaining a mood of intense dread punctuated by moments of shocking violence. Both Blue Ruin and Green Room showed how humans pushed to their breaking points (psychologically and physically) could be capable of heinous acts. These films used gore not to titillate the audience (ala the work of Quentin Tarantino), but rather, to reveal the messiness of how real violence often manifests itself. Truthfully, there are stretches during Hold the Dark; particularly a tense extended police shootout, where Sauliner achieves this sublime fusion, but such moments are fleeting. On the whole, the director’s penchant for obvious metaphors and blunt formalism makes Hold the Dark silly in its brooding self-seriousness. Once the thematic goal is laid bare (spoiler alert: wolves are just a metaphor for the savage evil of humanity!), Sauliner’s film falls apart under the weight of its own ridiculousness.

Without moments of levity, humanity, or even comprehensible behavior, it’s difficult to engender much empathy for the kind of soulless archetypes trotted out here. The initial narrative involves children going missing from a small Alaskan town. Wright’s echo-friendly tracker is brought in by Medora Slone (Riley Keough), to hunt the wolf which apparently killed her son. Medora’s husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), is fighting in the war in the Middle East, introduced by stoically gunning down a bunch of foreigners before brutally stabbing one of his own. Medora speaks in hushed whispers, wears a weird mask at one point, and stumbles around naked. Vernon, meanwhile, is sent back home after being injured and almost instantly goes on a sociopathic killing spree. Of course, the entire wolf tracking episode is a red herring, with the narrative shifting into a ham-fisted treatise on America’s bloodlust for violence.

Medora and Vernon are such blank slates that whenever the focus moves away from Core (which is more often than expected), Hold the Dark feels like bland miserablism for its own sake. As things near the predictably bleak and bloody conclusion, Sauliner mistakes his rather straightforward genre exercise for something more profound. Had he played into the material’s ludicrousness (complete with Inuit curses, slasher masks straight out of The Strangers, and arrow attacks), then Hold the Dark could have been a clever midnight movie riff. Instead, Sauliner wants to make big statements about humanity, which is too bad. A world-weary Jeffery Wright hunting down mystical wolves could have been much more meaningful.

Mandy

 

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Bill Duke, Richard Brake, Line Pillet

Director: Panos Cosmatos

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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If writer-director Panos Cosmatos’s previous feature, 2012’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, was an hallucinogenic pastiche of the films of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, then his latest plunge into 80’s Astro lamp psychedelia, Mandy, should have fanboys tripping big time. Though superficially a revenge thriller in which Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) must avenge the brutal murder of his lover, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), the film is much more concerned with pop-cultural artiness than streamlined genre thrills. Though set somewhere in the California wilderness circa 1983, the film could just as easily take place within the pages of Heavy Metal magazine.

During the film’s opening stretch, Cosmatos allows us to spend time with Red and Mandy as they lounge around their quiet home. Red is a blue collar worker who cuts down trees, enjoys a good smoke, and indulges in Eric Estrada knock-knock jokes, while Mandy comes off like a former D & D fanatic lost in her horror/fantasy paperback novels. Cage and Riseborough have an easygoing chemistry which helps humanize characters who could have come off like accessories amidst Cosmatos’s over-determined visual style. Set to the synthy drone of late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score and filled with neon reds, pink/white hues, and protracted slow zooms, Mandy is retro wankery that somehow overcomes its influences.

Once cult leader Sand Jeremiah (Linus Roache), enters the picture, things take a turn toward the twisted. Mandy is kidnapped by the cult, forced to take a potent drug cocktail, and endure a druggy monologue about sexually enslaving women. During this sequence, Cosmatos overlaps imagery with a variety of cross dissolves; saturating the frame with pinkish hues at a delayed pace. The scene ends with Jeremiah revealing his flaccid member, to which Mandy howls in mocking disgust; emasculating the leader’s messiah complex. Here and elsewhere, the film is commenting on the absurdity of the male ego and the ludicrous lengths it will go to get what it wants. At the other end of the wounded masculinity spectrum is Red; a former alcoholic who witnesses the vicious murder of his partner and must inevitably go on a mission of vengeance.

Along with the death cult, there’s a ghoulish biker gang recalling a mixture of Hellraiser and Mad Max who have been warped by a hallucinatory strain of LSD. Of course, Red gathers a variety of weapons in order to embark on his killing spree, and one key scene has him meeting with an arms dealer (Bill Duke, chewing scenery), who fills him in on the fantastical exposition regarding the demonic roving bikers. From here, Mandy transforms into a ultra-violent riff on male loneliness; complete with a scene in which Cage, clad in his underwear and swinging a bottle of whiskey inside a bathroom, has an emotional breakdown. Though this moment may appear locked into the meme-worthy pantheon, Cage actually melds his live wire outrageousness with notes of primal sadness. As the film moves on, his performance becomes more mournful and heartbreaking. Sure, there are the obligatory “big” set-pieces; like a chainsaw duel which ends in a particularly satisfying geyser of blood, but the film becomes more emotionally resonant as we witness Red falling deeper into the abyss.

Mandy is a phantasmagoric cinematic experience; slow, hypnotic, violent, and melancholy. Cosmatos’s excessive formalism will not be to everyone’s tastes, and there’s a sense in which some of the experimental notes of Beyond the Black Rainbow have been excised for a more straightforward revenge narrative here. Still, Cage holds the entire thing together as a man purging the hate in his heart only to lose his soul completely. Ultimately, we are locked into his blood-soaked face and white bulging eyes as he stares off into oblivion. Resurrected in retribution. Lost in grief.




Damsel

 

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Gabe Casdorph, Joseph Billingiere, Robert Forster

Director: Nathan Zellner, David Zellner

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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David and Nathan Zellner have long been tweaking expectations; from the darkly comedic riff on childhood mental illness that was Kid Thing to the obsessive fairy tale of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Often compared to the Coen Brothers (not just in terms of the familial pairing), the Zellners have quietly built a name for themselves on the indie circuit by couching melancholy behind deadpan quirk. Their latest film, Damsel, also arrives with a meta take on a specific genre; in this case, an attempt at deconstructing the Western by showing the foolishness of the male ego by switching up narrative mechanisms at the half-way point. The results are admirable, if contrived; playing like a protracted sketch in which the Zellners have nowhere particularly compelling to take their atypical premise.

Robert Pattinson stars as Samuel Alabaster, a dim-witted wanderer who strides into a small town with a miniature pony named Butterscotch in tow. He’s looking for a man of the cloth to officiate his wedding to his true love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), whom we glimpse only briefly in flashback during a rather spirited dance sequence. The pastor in question, a vagrant named Henry (David Zellner) is a drunken mess, lying prostrate near the ocean when Samuel approaches him with an offer he can’t refuse. Thus, the two men set off on a journey through the wilderness to find Penelope, whom we later discover has been taken captive by brothers Anton (Gabe Casdorph) and Rufus Cornell (Nathan Zellner), or so Samuel claims. As played by Pattinson with a deluded kind of earnestness, Samuel is the type of dandy who makes big romantic proclamations, but whose grip on reality emerges as teetering on the edge of mania. In this way, the Zellners cleverly unmask the inanity of male pride and the Western’s themes of honor and dignity.

Damsel makes an abrupt tonal shift around the half-way mark once Wasikowska’s fiercely independent fiancé gets involved, leading to a sequence of tragicomic violence which moves the film into more uncertain territory. However, for all of Penelope’s reserve and quasi-feminist speeches, her character is ultimately a hollow cipher on hand to represent an ideology. Though there’s a welcome revisionist streak as the film shifts to the female perspective, the Zellners don’t know what to do narratively since they haven’t fleshed out the character of Penelope beyond broad brush strokes.

Despite gorgeous widescreen cinematography, an evocative score, and game performances, Damsel feels underdeveloped to the point of superfluousness. The film points out the inherent sexism and racism of the old West (and many classic Western films, generally), but then botches the second half twist by not fully investing in the interior life of Wasikowska’s one-note crusading heroine. Sure, she’s a “damsel” who doesn’t need saving, but does she want, and more importantly, who is she? The film, much like real life, doesn’t seem to care.







The Predator

 

Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Yvonne Strahovski, Jake Busey

Director: Shane Black

Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Shane Black has spent his entire career trafficking in wisecracking machismo; from writing the screenplays for 1980s action movies like Lethal Weapon to ironic 1990s deconstructions of the genre such as Last Action Hero. His directing work includes 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and 2016’s The Nice Guys, two films which traded on audiences having a working familiarity of his career in Hollywood. His connection to the Predator franchise is also more than simply casual; having starred in a bit role as radio operator Rick Hawkins in the original 1987 film. Known for razor sharp dialogue, elaborate crime plots, and male camaraderie, Black’s latest directorial effort sees him tapping into some of that same cinematic mojo. For all its over the top gore and knockabout comedy, The Predator is mostly about male posturing under the guise of surviving planetary alien invasion.

The Predator has a plot (perhaps too much plot), but like most films of this type, the plot doesn’t matter. Things begins in earnest when a Predator space vessel plummets to earth and crash lands deep in a Mexican forest. Enter black-ops American sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, channeling Colin Farrell by way of Charlie Hunnam), who discovers the downed ship and naturally steals some of the scattered alien tech. For some reason, he ends up shipping the stolen equipment to his estranged ex-wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) and autistic son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), and since the kid is “on the spectrum”, he quickly decodes the alien language. If this setup sounds ludicrous, Black doubles down on the inherent goofiness of his central conceit by having Quinn deemed mentally unstable and placed inside a van en route to a high-security facility. On board, there’s a predictably rag tag group of misfits, including Tourette vet Baxley (Thomas Jane), Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), an officer with suicidal impulses, and Keegan-Michael Key as the comic relief sidekick Coyle, among others. In classic Shane Black fashion, these are vulgar-mouthed delinquents who are all stereotypes right out of 80s action movie pantheon. Whether or not this ironic bid for nostalgia to a simpler time where “men could be men” is to one’s liking is debatable, but there’s no denying Black’s absurdist thrill in harkening back.

Of course, there’s also a cocky research agent, Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), who basically enters and exits scenes with a resume of quippy one-liners, and a civilian scientist, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), eventually joining up with Quinn’s escaped group of self-described “loonies”. Black lets many scenes play out with ping-pong dialogue and self-referential bits of humor which more or less works in the hands of such a game cast. Occasionally, he injects doses of graphic violence and standard action beats into the narrative whenever the Predator shows up, accompanied by Henry Jackman’s throwback score, which liberally borrows themes from the original film.

At a certain point, once a larger Predator is introduced, things completely loose all sense of narrative coherency. At times, the film seems edited to within an inch of its life; with characters disappearing and reappearing at will without so much as a single thought to geography or time constraints. However, Black’s propensity for midnight movie thrills; complete with inventive kills, loopy pratfalls, and rambling comedic tangents, keeps The Predator from trailing off into tedium. There’s something comforting about a movie which gives you that thing sorely lacking in big action projects these days; a sense of ludicrous showmanship.

The Predator isn’t the least bit suspenseful or terrifying, but Black’s aims here seem to be more inward-looking. There’s a knowing sense of pessimism, even with the inclusion of some half-baked emotional beats involving Quinn and his autistic son, that permeates the need for these damaged soldiers to strike out against not only evil alien invaders, but also their own government. This is perhaps the film’s most crucial element, since Sterling K. Brown’s vainglorious agent essentially becomes the de facto villain. Therefore, behind the movie’s nonsensical framework about space aliens ravaging our planet, there’s an anarchic attitude about the role of masculinity just waiting to be disemboweled, scattered limb from limb, and strewn throughout the jungle.

Searching

 

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Roy Abrahmsohn, Gabriel D. Angell

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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With the advent of social media, technology has given us a way to create mini narratives; fashioning our lives as a series of images, video files, and text-based “updates”. Therefore, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to utilize this trend for cinematic purposes, seeing as how narrative information can easily be dispensed through computer-based montages. Aneesh Chaganty's Searching begins with this in mind; stringing together a variety of pictures, videos, and other media depicting the childhood years of Margot (Michelle La). This provides a decade-long prologue following Margot as she grows up while dealing with her mother, Pam (Sara Sohn), who is diagnosed with and eventually passes away from cancer. Even though this introduction is effective in distilling thematic information, it’s also presented like a cloying Hallmark commercial; complete with twinkly piano music accompanying mawkish home video footage. Whether one sheds a tear or experiences a gag reflex is subjective, but it’s clear Searching wants audiences to feel something.

Or does it? Aesthetically, Chaganty’s film is similar to other tech-based experiments like the Unfriended series where the entire story takes place on a computer screen, but rather than lean into the horrors of what may be lurking on the Internet, Searching draws its dramatic thrust from B-grade thrillers and old fashioned murder mysteries. Margot's father, David (John Cho), is set up as a seemingly caring dad who misjudges his relationship with his daughter. Once she goes missing after attending a study group, David launches into full on sleuth mode like an iChat Sherlock Holmes; attempting to track down his daughter through Gmail, Facebook, Tumblr, and other chat sites.

Initially, Searching seems to be commenting on how technology allows us to hide our pain behind digital avatars, but honestly, the film is mostly a rousing digital age procedural. As David teams up with tough-minded Detective Vick (Debra Messing), the film’s first two acts serve as a virtual investigation where a distraught father follows a series of cyberspace clues. Was Margot some kind of criminal? Was she kidnapped and her identity stolen? Can David trust his brother Peter (Joseph Lee) who seems to be harboring a dark secret? Why is Messing’s detective so psychologically fragile? How many typing mistakes, spelling errors, and deleted messages will David be guilty of?

Searching takes some wild turns in the third act as red herrings pile up like glitchy load screens. Less time is dedicated to David’s inner turmoil and more to twisting genre tropes and gotcha! surprises. While this shift into mystery/thriller cheesiness may strike some viewers as disingenuous, it’s actually the most gleefully entertaining aspect of the film. If the previous two acts had operated more in this heightened thriller mode, then the deliriously absurd climax may have landed more forcefully.

As it stands, all of the late rug-pulling maintains a tonal lunacy sadly missing from the film’s more sentimental setup. All the while, John Cho registers looks of concern, shock, fear, disgust, and panic as he furiously toggles menus and screens within screens. It’s the kind of thing which used to be judged as “phone acting”, a notoriously difficult task of reacting and responding to nothing and no one. But perhaps Cho wasn’t told what type of film he was starring in; a film which requires melodramatic theatrics, not authentic father-daughter bonding, in order to sell its delightfully cornball finish.





Tully

 

Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Elaine Tan, Lia Frankland, Asher Miles Fallica

Director: Jason Reitman

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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As a treatise on the barbarity of motherhood, Jason Reitman's Tully might be a spiritual cousin to Darren Aronofsky's polarizing Mother! Of course, Reitman's style is less bombastic and more middlebrow, and yes, no babies are devoured (spoilers!) in this tragicomedy about a depressed mum, but the connections are there. 

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is very pregnant during the opening scenes of Tully, and Reitman makes sure her enlarged belly is prominently featured in closeup. She's also extremely devoted to her son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who may be on the spectrum. Jonah's teachers constantly refer to the kid as "quirky", because, well, that's something consistently lobbied at screenwriter Diablo Cody (teaming up with Reitman again here for the third time after Juno and Young Adult).

To her credit, Cody has fashioned a more complex protagonist than expected, and unsurprisingly, Theron gives a fearlessly committed performance. The problem is that aside from Marlo, there are no other characters which remotely feel like human beings. Marlo's husband, Drew (Ron Livingston) is the prototypical overworked sad dad who spends his down time playing video games. Her wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), and sister-in-law, Elyse (Elaine Tan), are caricatures of upper class ignorance. And then there's the titular Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny brought in to balance out Marlo's hectic lifestyle who remains strangely upbeat at all times. Something, as they say, seems to be amiss here.

Tully tries very hard to comment on postpartum depression and the ways in which women often lose their identity when they become mothers, but Reitman isn't a subtle enough filmmaker to pull this kind of thing off. Cody's dialogue, meanwhile, is less arch than in something like Juno, but just as contrived. As magical-realist flourishes begin cropping up, along with annoying motherhood montages, Tully begins showing its cards as a gimmicky narrative en route to the predictable character epiphany. Had the film trusted its characters (fleshing out the supporting players would have helped) and in turn, the audience, then Reitman may have been able to truly say something about the link between mental illness and child-bearing. The fact that Marlo probably shouldn't have had children in the first place is broached, but ceremoniously brushed off. The film's happy ending feels false. Marlo's maternal problems are real, but in the end, Tully treats them as little more than wish-fulfillment from an unreliable narrator. If Marlo was indeed a English Literature graduate as she claims, then she should have written herself a better script.

Support the Girls

 

Cast: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James Le Gros, Lea DeLaria, Dylan Gelula, Zoe Graham

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The dichotomy between the professional and personal has always been a staple of writer-director Andrew Bujalski's filmography; from the struggling thirty-somethings of Beeswax to the idiosyncratic nerd culture featured in Computer Chess. His previous feature, Results, was an attempt at making something more mainstream while also getting at his growing sociological interests, and it proved he could straddle both worlds. With Support the Girls, this transition is complete in a film which hits the appropriately crowd-pleasing beats while also examining the plight of working-class Americans. 

Taking place over a single day and set mostly inside a fictional Texas Hooters-influenced restaurant called Double Whammies, Support the Girls is sensitively empathetic towards its female characters while rendering the men completely ineffective. Lisa (Regina Hall) is the restaurant's manager and reigning mother hen; gathering her flock of young bartenders and waitresses into her embrace while also practicing tough love. Her crew includes the annoyingly upbeat Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), lethargic but loyal Danyelle (a scene stealing Shayna McHayle), and newbie Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), who tries a bit too hard to be "sexy". Then there's regular customer Bobo (Lea DeLaria) who both flirts with and protects the girls from lecherous men, and sleazy owner Cubby (James Le Gros), who bitches to Lisa about her hiring tactics, seeing as Double Whammie's diversity policy keeps a quota on women of color. After all, there's a male-driven, beer-swigging clientele to please. 

The hypocrisy of a "family-friendly" establishment catering to a mostly male demographic of sexist creeps is not lost on Bujalski or indeed, his characters. Even if some of the naive waitresses step outside the lines of decency (a car wash fundraiser almost turns into a "Girls Gone Wild" type fiasco), Lisa is always there to right the ship. This is a strong-willed, intelligent woman with a caring heart and no-nonsense attitude, and Hall is absolute perfection in the role. She brings such warmth, humanity, and quiet dignity to the part that one almost forgets it's performative. Lisa feels true. Real. Tactile.

As she transverses a series of micro-aggressions, it becomes clear that the issues at Lisa's low-wage job (an attempted burglary, a broken cable signal) are merely windows into a larger problem. Women are undervalued. Women are used as sexual objects to be co-opted by companies hoping to capitalize under the guise of entertainment. Women of color, of course, have an even tougher road. Hall's chemistry with McHayle is particularly inspired; showing the sisterhood of two black women over-performing in an environment catered to men who casually (or not so casually) discriminate against them. That Bujalski anchors these themes in characterization rather than didactic speeches or on-the-nose compositions, is telling. This isn't just a small snapshot of America in some distant roadside diner. This is America. We need more strong women like Lisa, and less white male privilege. Support the Girls triumphantly hits this feminist-leaning message, but does so without so much as raising a pitcher of cheap beer, and that's no small accomplishment.  

 

 

 

American Animals

 

Cast: Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, Jared Abrahamson

Director: Bart Layton

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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The true story at the heart of Bart Layton's American Animals should have been relegated to a fading news headline, as this fiction/nonfiction hybrid centered around the stealing of rare books from a Kentucky college’s library gives us four white young men smugly attempting to atone for their sins. Structured like a heist thriller using actors portraying the criminals in question with cutaways to the actual people who committed those crimes, American Animals isn't interested in the murky line between fact and fiction. Nor does it investigate the mythologizing of the lonely American male. Instead, Layton's main aim here seems to be a low-rent Rififi homage, and on that level, the film is a failure. Beyond that, it's existence feels utterly pointless.

The basic premise is this: bored college friends Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) hatch a scheme to heist some rare books; including Audubon’s The Birds of America and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species from the Transylvania University library. These are aimless dopes who hope to conjure some transcendent life experience, because smoking pot and ditching class just isn't cutting it anymore. They watch heist movies like The Killing and Reservoir Dogs, build mock dioramas and meticulous blueprints of the library, and get drunk on the possibilities of pulling off something so audacious. Upon realizing that they'll need more firepower, they bring in two friends, Chas and Eric (Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson) to round out their crew. All the while, Layton cuts to interviews with the real-life perpetrators and other family members. Sometimes, the actors interact with their non-fiction counterparts during the "fictionalized" parts of the story. Sometimes, the various people involved have different recollections about how everything went down.

The stylistic gimmicks employed throughout American Animals only highlight the film's disingenuousness. If this is a story about deluded privilege or the instability of memory, then Layton refuses to coalesce these themes satisfactorily. If the sight of the real Spencer, Warren, Chas, and Eric staring into the camera at the recollection of traumatizing a helpless librarian during the botched robbery is supposed to be cathartic, then the film edges towards exploitation. If the music video-like montages set to blaring pop tunes are purposefully evoking the empty promise of the Tarantino generation, then maybe American Animals is onto something? The scene where the petty criminals mistreat the female librarian (played by Anne Dowd) and then cut directly to the real-life men looking remorseful, however, roundly disproves this notion. 

American Animals offers up a possible path of redemption for stupid young men who one time did a stupid thing. If these were people of color who pulled the same crime, there certainly wouldn't have been a movie made glorifying their bumbling ineptitude, and they'd probably still be in prison. It's a sad irony which American Animals seems completely unaware of, too enamored with its faux-heist signifiers and Eroll Morris-lite pretensions to grapple with yet another story humanizing bored white criminals.

 

 

BlacKkKlansman

 

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Paakkonen, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson

Director: Spike Lee

Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Contrary to rumor, Spike Lee's latest political jab at American complacency, BlacKkKlansman, is not a return to form. In fact, an argument could be made that his last two films, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Chi-Raq, were both extraordinary works from a filmmaker at the top of his game. However, it's been quite awhile since Lee has crafted something which connects with a wider audience, and in that sense, BlacKkKlansman could put him back in the cultural zeitgeist. 

Based on “some fo’ real fo’ real shit,” as announced during the opening credits, Lee's film is an adaptation of African-American police officer Ron Stallworth's 2014 book Black Klansman, and details how Stallworth infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan during the 1970s as an undercover agent. Lee is working in a far more audience friendly mode here than in some of his most incendiary works; fashioning Stallworth's story as a police procedural drama. The results, despite the tough subject matter, are surprisingly light-footed. Even the film's opening featuring Alec Baldwin spewing hate speech backdropped by a screen projecting racist propaganda, exudes laughter at such fumbling ignorance, even as the rhetoric remains depressingly familiar.

At first glance, BlacKkKlansman is a droll caper where Colorado Springs' first black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) teams up with white Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in order to slip into the good graces of the local KKK chapter. Though Lee plays much of this absurd true story as comedy, the parallels being drawn to present-day America are bracingly serious. The Black Power movement is shown most powerfully in a scene involving Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) giving a stirring speech to a group of student protestors, and then later when elderly activist Mr. Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounts the story of a horrific lynching. These sequences are marking a clear link to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is counterbalanced by the sight of the KKK dutifully going about their bigoted business, foreshadowing the alt-right. Lee also is making statements about the way blacks have been perceived through popular culture, critiquing blaxploitation films of the era and clips from Gone with the Wind and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to hammer home his points. In this way, BlacKkKlansman can be read as a companion piece to his great 2000 satire Bamboozled, which also took aim at racist entertainment throughout America's history.

For all of its topical power and subversive humor, BlacKkKlansman ultimately lacks the cathartic release of Do the Right Thing, and it doesn't quite have the satirical boldness of Bamboozled or Chi-Raq. But perhaps Lee's attempt at courting the widest possible audience is shrewd, since America's ability to heal racial wounds since he first broke on the scene in the late 1980s has become even less likely. For all the buffoonish laughs at the KKK's expense (including a game Topher Grace as the polite face of racism, David Duke), BlacKkKlansman is also making the case that the danger was real then, now, and for the foreseeable future. When outspoken activist and girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) asks Ron whether he's down for the liberation of black people, one can sense Lee turning the question back on the audience. When the KKK hold an induction ceremony inside a church and screen The Birth of a Nation for a salivating crowd of bigots, Lee uses parallel editing to show black protestors listening in rapt attention to yet another appalling lynching narrative. When Ture addresses the crowd by claiming "You must define beauty for black people, and that’s black power”, Lee focuses on closeups of various audience members, their features lit starkly against a black backdrop, their faces floating like beautiful portraits. It's a startling effect, and one that highlights the film's interest in media representations of race.

Even if BlacKkKlansman climaxes with Ron and Flip taking David Duke down a few notches, this happy ending is drenched in irony. Budget cuts, destroying evidence, and steering public consciousness away from the Klan meant that this ideology could fester. In a controversial move (this is a Spike Lee joint, after all), the film ends with footage from last year's Charlottesville riots, and the subsequent death of Heather Heyer. The gut-punch is brutally clear. Yes, racism still exists, and yes, radicalized racists are to blame for such attacks, but Lee is also pointing a finger at apathetic liberal America. In essence, BlackKkKlansman ends with the same message as Lee's 1988 musical-drama School Daze where activist Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne) screams at the top of his lungs, "Wake up!" The question is, will we, as a country, actually listen? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blindspotting

 

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Wayne Knight

Director: Carlos López Estrada

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Carlos López Estrada's Blindspotting is a well-meaning PSA masquerading as a movie; tracking a lifelong friendship between buddies Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) in gentrified Oakland. The two friends are portrayed as guys who would probably have nothing to do with each other had they not grown up in close proximity, and their passive-aggressive banter is often loose and funny; displaying an authentic shorthand. However, this central dynamic is about the only thing that clicks here, aside from a few stylistic flourishes recalling the early work of Spike Lee. Otherwise, Estrada's film is clumsy and didactic; attempting to combine drama, comedy, and hip-hop into something which wants to make serious sociopolitical points, but ends up playing like an angry rant without a pulpit.

The problem here isn't intent, but execution. Clearly, the filmmakers have their hearts in the right place, and there's obvious merit in examining the rise of gentrification, police violence, and white privilege; particularly in the melting pot of Oakland. But there's something misguided about a movie which tries to wrap its arms around a wide range of topics without ever bothering to locate the humanity at the core of these issues. Collin is a convicted felon on the last few days of parole; and the idea that, as a black man, he'll never be able to change the prejudices greeting him in the outside world, is a provocative hook to hang your film on. Additionally, Miles is a white Hispanic guy with a knack for violent mood swings, which is a powder keg formula for dealing with unacknowledged privilege and macho posturing, but Blindspotting mostly treats these threads as comedic fodder. It's only near the end, during a heated argument in an alleyway after Miles flips out at a party, that the consequences of their friendship is even remotely dealt with, and by that point it feels like a writer's ploy for emotional manipulation.

When the film is being light on its feet, there are moments which bring to mind the heightened satire of something like Spike Lee's School Daze. A rapid-fire sequence where Miles uses his motormouth to try and sell used curling irons to a black salon hits the appropriate absurdist laugh ratio, for example, and there's a dream sequence which utilizes Collin's aspiring rapping skills to surreal effect. However, the other instances where Collin launches into his spoken word monologues feel laughably out of place since they effectively kill whatever sense of verisimilitude Estrada may have been going for. Likewise, the punching down gags aimed at gentrified hipsters feel dated at this point, as jokes about green smoothies, goat cheese, and tall bikes have been going on for well over a decade now.

Worse, though, are the botched attempts at making serious statements; like a scene involving a child picking up a gun, which feels manufactured despite its real-world parallels, and especially Collin's encounter with the cop (Ethan Embry) he saw shoot an unarmed black man earlier in the film. Instead of a complex and unnerving resolution, we get Collin rap-splaining his emotions as the tortured officer looks on with tears streaming down his face. If it wasn't so earnestly pitched, you might accuse the film of self-parody, as Collin explains to not only the cop, but also to the audience, just what the term "blindspotting" actually means.

Blindspotting will likely be praised for its ambition, but this is ultimately a shapeless film crammed with too many ideas and not enough access points. Diggs and Casal do their best to sell us on this tumultuous friendship, but Estrada shows a lack of confidence in the audience by placing speechifying above nuance. Spike Lee can often get away with this kind of thing, but unfortunately, Blindspotting is closer to the confused tonal machinations of She Hate Me than the buzzing topical anger of Do the Right Thing.

 

   

 

    

 

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

 

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Beth Ditto, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein

Director: Gus Van Sant

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The self-help biopic has its upsides; namely, the need to emphasize the hard road to recovery when it comes to addiction. However, the downsides are obvious; the anti-climatic life story, the major epiphany which frames the subject's change of heart, the life lessons laid out in monologues set to a generically uplifting score. Gus Van Sant's Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a dramatization of the life of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), contains both the standard clichés of the addict biopic as well as sympathy towards its flawed characters. It's a film unusually interested in the methodology of recovery and the need for self-love; using a splintered narrative in order to cover as many bases of Callahan's life as possible. The results are uneven yet moving.

From the outset, it's clear Callahan is an alcoholic, and by shifting around in time, Van Sant is able to explore the various means by which he eventually starts seeing this truth within himself. Interspersed with scenes of Callahan drinking alone or trying to hide his illness from others are moments of him addressing a lecture hall from his wheelchair-bound position. Eventually, we learn that a booze-drenched night joy riding with new buddy, Dexter (Jack Black, perfection in basically two scenes) climaxes with a horrific car crash into a telephone poll at high speed. While Dexter walks away with only a few scratches, Callahan is crippled for life below the chest. One would assume such a devastating turn of events would curb his drinking, but in many ways, this only deepens the dependency. It's only after his inability to reach a bottle of vodka on top of his fridge that he decides to reach out to Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically a group leader named Donnie (Jonah Hill, cast against type).

True to form, Van Sant seems more interested in group dynamics than overarching themes, and the scenes set inside A.A. are overflowing with humane observations and eccentric types. What the film lacks in narrative momentum it more than makes up for in observational humor and pathos; including Beth Ditto as an outspoken redneck and Kim Gordon bickering with Udo Kier like an old married couple. Hill provides a loose, bohemian vibe as the concerned father/guru of the group (which he affectionately calls "piglets"), and the scenes between him and Phoenix in which they casually chat about recovery are some of the film's sharpest. Less successful are Van Sant's decisions to include animated versions of Callahan's cartoons into the proceedings as he begins developing his artistic voice, and Danny Elfman's jaunty score is also a problem; crassly laid over nearly every scene in order to boost the story's inherent sentimentality.

Callahan eventually develops a relationship with a physical therapist, Anna (a doe-eyed Rooney Mara), but the film is less about her impact on his recovery process than in revealing the need for self-reflection and more importantly, self-forgiveness. In the end, Phoenix's coiled physicality gives way to a surprisingly unshowy performance; this is someone whose life has been destroyed by addiction, and the actor registers Callahan as so lost inside his own self-loathing that not even extreme physical impairment can alter his lifestyle choices. Even a sequence in which he sees a vision of his mother who long ago abandoned him plays sympathetically because of Phoenix's sincere commitment to the moment.

For his part, Van Sant hop-scotches all over the place--sometimes confusingly, sometimes cleverly--but the film's mosaic-like editing scheme feels emotionally true to the story of a man caught in a state of circular denial. Sometimes, all we have is a communal space in which to defend ourselves or lay our fears bare, and for all its flaws, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot understands that sober platitudes come with a heavy cost.

 

  

Zama

 

Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Nahuel Cano

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a man waiting. Waiting as a functionary for Spanish royalty. Waiting to file incident reports. Waiting for a letter to be written requesting his transfer out of Asunción, Paraguay and back into the cosmopolitan environment he calls home. Waiting, as he does in the opening scene, staring out across an open body of water donning a powdered wig, fancy hat, and sheathed sword. If this is seemingly a man of great importance, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama implies otherwise. Never before has the horrifying face of colonialism been this sadly deadpan. Diego may be waiting for the tide to turn (i.e. safe passage out of the wild and back into modern Spanish society), but the inherent racism of his business in Paraguay will not simply vanish. For all its dense ideas about slavery and violence, Zama often plays like a droll comedy in which the waiting man must continue waiting as bureaucratic red tape piles up.

Like in her previous films La Ciénaga and The Headless Woman, Martel uses class distinctions in order to draw out oblique thematic connections. Her camera is steady, often unmoving. The compositions are unfussy, yet the details packed into every frame are many. The tone isn't inherently comical; but her characters, especially Diego, are pompously deluded. The narrative is slipstream, fragmenting scenes and stretching out our understanding of time. 

Diego's desire for transfer and the way he continues holding his head high after being ridiculed, passed over, and threatened with physical violence is part of the film's darkly comedic eccentricity. Cacho is absolutely wonderful in the role; fully inhabiting the vanity of someone uprooting another culture's way of life while layering in shades of regret, world-weariness, and social ineptitude. You might even feel bad for the guy if he didn't represent such monstrosity. Martel brilliantly displays the effects of colonialism by featuring slaves and natives going about their business in the background of shots where aristocrats perform pencil-pushing duties. In a way, they are just as unimportant to these colonizers as the horses, ostriches, birds, and in one bravura sequence; a giant Llama, which straddle into view. 

As Diego's chances of escaping the hell he brought upon himself becomes even less likely, Zama takes on the atmosphere of dazed nightmare. During the film's final hallucinatory stretch, one is reminded of Radu Jude's Aferim!, João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, and to some extent, Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent. Diego's stature, once proud and upright, becomes slumped. His white wig and clean-shaven appearance disappear, replaced with a gnarled beard and thinning hair. Martel frames Diego against the vastness of rock formations and trees, making him appear small and insignificant. As he ventures deep into native land with a pack of roving soldiers, the elements of this other world overtakes his senses. The group's apparent mission, to kill a revolutionary named Vicuña Porto opposed to Spanish rule, starts feeling like a fool's errand. Is Porto already dead, or is one of Diego's fellow travelers (a scene stealing Matheus Nachtergaele) actually the revolutionary incognito? The film never makes this clear, but one thing is certain; power and dominance are empty posturing.

Zama is a major film from a major filmmaker. If, for the majority of its running time, Martel conjures a Kafka-esque vision of comic snubs and insults, then the ending feels strangely redemptive. Diego may still be waiting during the final scenes, but he has all but given up hope of returning home. He is a man waiting, sure. But waiting for what? Death, possibly. Or perhaps, lying peacefully inside a boat facing the sky, passage deeper into a geographical space he never once bothered to acknowledge beyond occupation.

Mission: Impossible- Fallout

 

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Alec Baldwin

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Running time: 2 hours 27 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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As a series of "how did they do that" set-pieces intricately constructed to match star Tom Cruise's unflappable hubris, Mission: Impossible- Fallout is a rousing success. As something which connects these intricately constructed set-pieces to a cohesive plot, relatable characters, or anything that would have us care about what's transpiring, however, the film all but hopes you'll be so god-smacked it won't matter. And yes, the Cruise think pieces about a billion dollar movie star risking life and limb for mass entertainment being an extension of his massive ego is accurate, and yet, such meta exercises are besides the point. What everyone really wants to know is whether this sixth installment in an improbably long running franchise delivers the goods in the action department. The answer to this question is yes, which will undoubtably be enough for diehard fans. Still, the film's style of maximalist spectacle threatens to topple under the weight of it's "holy shit" factor; relegated to stretches of boring plot mechanics simply there to set up the next massive action sequence. 

Just like writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's previous effort, Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation, this new one is built around our knowledge that secret agent Ethan Hunt will do anything to save the day. The insane stunts, practical effects, and daredevil action (of which Cruise throws himself into with aplomb like an aging Jackie Chan), are meant to wow us into a state of slack-jawed awe. Whether or not the exhausting 147 minute running time, plot mechanics concerning metallic plutonium spheres, and terrorist villains with names like John Lark and Solomon Lane have any traction is debatable. What cannot be debated, however, is that Mission: Impossible-Fallout is all about how awesome Tom Cruise is.

If Rouge Nation was a less inventive action picture than Brad Bird's fourth installment Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol, it did benefit from dialing Cruise's manic intensity back a few notches and introducing the series' first legitimately great character, Ilsa Faust, played by the physically nimble and charismatic Rebecca Ferguson. There was also the franchise's best pure action sequence; a prolonged motorcycle chase involving Faust, Hunt, and a bevy of stunt riders whizzing around cliffsides at maximum speed. Returning director McQuarrie tries to outdo himself here with a motorcycle race where Cruise zips towards oncoming traffic in Paris, but it lacks the tension of Rogue Nation's set-piece and looks dated in comparison with similar chase scenes from older movies; such as William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA.

The preposterous plot involves Hunt and his team, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) trying to keep the plutonium from terrorists bent on nuclear war. Ilsa Faust is back, switching allegiances at will, as is IMF boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), whose mostly on hand to babble exposition. New additions include CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) and brute agent August Walker (Henry Cavill), the later of which teams up with Hunt to retrieve the plutonium while acting like a dick. There's also a shadowy figure named The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a wealthy philanthropist secretly working with illegal arms dealers, and Sean Harris returns as the villainous Solomon Lane, whom Hunt captured during the finale of Rouge Nation. Of course, the plot doesn't matter, and no one is going to these movies for narrative cohesion, but Fallout is almost unbearably convoluted; full of double/triple/quadruple crosses and silly character decisions that stop the film dead in its tracks. Luckily, McQuarrie keeps things moving at a stealthy pace; with a brutal bathroom fight involving Hunt, Walker, and martial arts-chopping baddie (Liang Yang) and a nifty foot chase where Cruise does his patented open-palmed sprinting across rooftops emerging as highlights. 

Mission: Impossible-Fallout is a slick action film benefiting from practical effects and the sight of Cruise defying the aging process. The finale is undeniably spectacular; an IMAX ready helicopter chase intercut with a race against the clock bomb detonation. McQuarrie shoots everything cleanly and with finesse, but unlike George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, there's very little in the way of giddy kineticism here. Instead, the film is an expertly made object lesson in action filmmaking which never allows a sense of tonal dissonance to interrupt its blunt force. Meanwhile, the characters are constantly giving us plot information, but telling us very little about who they are or what they feel, lest their secret identities be revealed. Even Faust, the most interesting personality of the series, is relegated to a few nifty action beats and then, finally, a kind of creepy awestruck reverence for Hunt. In the end, everyone is a cheerleader for Hunt's “I’ll figure it out” mantra, which is both the familiar comfort of the MI franchise and its weakest attribute. This is a guy whose closest comrades end up bowing at his messianic feet, and Cruise, flashing that goofy grin in between painful grimaces, wouldn't have it any other way.

 

 

Unfriended: Dark Web

 

Cast: Colin Woodell, Stephanie Nogueras, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel, Savira Windyani

Director: Stephen Susco

Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Levan Gabriadze’s 2015 horror film Unfriended was, in many ways, a harbinger of things to come; distilling our screen-based obsessions into the realm of horror not dissimilar from scrolling through Twitter on a daily basis. There were supernatural elements and ludicrous kills, but Unfriended remains one of the most effective horror movies of the past decade because it cleverly used the digital framing device as a catalyst for scares. Stephen Susco's Unfriended: Dark Web utilizes the same computer-screen gimmick via Skype group chat, but gives us new characters and a very different tonal perspective. Since the majority of us watch content on our laptops nowadays, Unfriended: Dark Web takes our familiarity with toggling windows, running programs, and text chat messaging and then uses it against us. The film is by turns ludicrous, creepy, sensationalized, ripped-from-the-headlines topical, silly, and stomach-churning. Even as it spirals into complete nonsense by the end (with the actual tech becoming increasingly dodgy), Unfriended: Dark Web emerges as a legitimately vicious piece of work executed with genuine flair.

The plot concerns Matias (Colin Woodell), a laptop thief working on an app based around changing typed text messages into videos of American Sign Language so that he can better communicate with his deaf girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). During a group Skype call with his friends on "game night", Matias discovers a cache of horrific videos; most of them of the snuff film variety stored on the stolen laptop. The clips are shown briefly; with snippets of vile actions against young women depicted in grainy video quality. This makes the sense of mounting dread more palpable because Susco refuses to show us the totality of these horrifying sights, mirroring the way the characters also cannot take more than a few seconds at a time. As the shadowy owner of the computer begins making demands to have his property returned, a vast cyber network of wealthy sickos is unveiled operating through the dark web. Cryptocurrency, private chat rooms resembling an 8-bit Wolfenstein knock-off, and Greek underworld pseudonyms are trotted out; along with nonsensical plot twists and predictably dumb actions from the group of friends scrambling to make sense of the mayhem.

All of this, of course, is visually represented via moving windows and shifting screens, and while the technique isn't as novel as it was in the original Unfriended, Susco still manages a few nifty ways to engender claustrophobic tension out of the gimmick. It isn't a spoiler to say characters die in cruel and unusual ways here, but unlike the first film, Unfriended: Dark Web takes no pleasure in their demise. Beyond their overall bad decision-making and in one case, a rather aggravating political conspiracy dope, these are decent people trapped in a violently misanthropic situation. This is what ultimately makes Unfriended: Dark Web such an effectively nasty horror film; it gives us no way out, no means of escape, and no self-righteous pleasure in the sadistic deaths of millennials just hoping to hear that Macbook startup sound one last time.