Joker

 

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry

Director: Todd Phillips

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

Joker.jpg

At the very least, Todd Phillips’s Joker deserves points for embracing the kind of nihilism rarely seen in mainstream superhero cinema. This is an even scuzzier installment of the already scuzzy Zack Snyder-adjacent DC universe, with all of humanity’s most sadistic qualities placed front and center. However, the unrelenting grimness ultimately becomes numbing rather than novel. What Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver fail to grasp is the emotional, psychological, and narrative depth of the 1970s cinema they are shamelessly aping (i.e. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy). There was a purpose to the desperate loneliness of a Travis Bickle or the social ineptitude of a Rupert Pupkin. These were lone male figures representing a microcosm of the sociopolitical forces at work during those specific decades, whereas Phillips’s vision of a middle-aged white sociopath is tame by comparison. For all the controversy surrounding its release, Joker is surprisingly coy about actually confronting the political signifiers and racial elements hanging on the fringes. Instead, the film’s faux-edginess becomes laughable.

When we first meet Gotham’s future arch villain, it’s in the form of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a loner toiling away in a trash dump fashioned after 1980s-era Manhattan. Acting as a clown performer twirling signs on sidewalks and entertaining sick children in hospitals, Fleck is a skeletal ghost who feels lost amidst the city’s filth and crime. He visits a therapist, jots down observations in his diary, and takes medication for a disorder which includes uncontrollable laughing. Fleck is also an aspiring stand up comedian, idolizing late-night TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, just in case we missed the blatant The King of Comedy connection), but his material consists mostly of awkward cackling and knock-knock jokes.

During these early opening moments, we are asked to play along with this supposed character study of a troubled man with delusions of grandeur, but there’s really no psychological insight being gleaned here. As played by Phoenix with all manner of goofy tics, Fleck is little more than a cartoon postcard for “mental illness” if all the specifics of that term were removed as to be practically meaningless. If viewed as unintentional comedy, Joker works in fits and starts; seeing as Phillips’s direction consists mostly of long shots of Phoenix brooding/freaking out accompanied by horror music cues. However, if taken straight (which is surely the intention), the film falls apart under the weight of its own solemnity.

There’s a sickly mother (Frances Conroy), and a friendly neighbor (Zazie Beetz), but the film is oppressively relegated to Fleck’s point of view. As such, our anti-hero finds his inner clown prince after gunning down a group of Wall street assholes who accosted him on the train. Filmed like a Death Wish-esque revenge encounter, the murders are framed as an act of noble desperation, but there’s very little suggestion that we should feel implicated for enjoying this moment of violence. Phillips isn’t a director who can handle contradictory elements working in tandem, and so whatever dangerous ideas the film may be dealing with are handled in the broadest of strokes. For example, by setting the film in a vaguely 80s time period and amping up the comic book pulpiness, any genuine parallels to real-world concerns (political protests, incel ideology, reactionary violence) are conveniently neutralized. In fact, Joker would have been more incendiary had it actually taken place in the present day, without allusions to billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and his son, Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson). Hell, we even get the obligatory fan-service death of Bruce’s parents at the hands of a masked henchman.

Much of the film’s obvious flaws will be offset by praise for Phoenix’s technically dazzling performance, but it exists inside a vacuum surrounded by a film that doesn’t know what to do with his off-kilter energy. Phillips is either uninterested or incapable of channelling his lead actor’s derangement into the overall aesthetic of his film, and aside from impressively grubby set design, there’s nothing remarkable from a filmmaking standpoint going on here.

If taken as a gritty origins story, Joker feels cobbled together from pieces of superior movies dealing with male anxiety and societal rage, and if viewed as a comic book entry, Fleck’s transformation into a psychotic agent of chaos is anti-climatic. Since no emotional or psychological stakes have been built up over the course of the film, the ending lands with a complete thud. Perhaps a little intentional macabre humor would have helped (ala Jack Nicholson’s incarnation in Tim Burton’s Batman) or even a demented satisfaction in seeing anarchy reign supreme. Sadly, Phillips wants us to take all of this oh, so seriously. We are meant to be shocked and repulsed by the mayhem (and we are), but the film misses an opportunity to complicate our feelings regarding Fleck’s actions. The most shocking thing about Joker is just how listless and unimaginative its messaging is. There’s no clear perspective on the issues it’s dealing with. It exists simply to prod and provoke with no substantive argument, like a clown mask-wearing protestor holding up a sign which reads “This shit be dark, motherfuckers!”

Ad Astra

 

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland

Director: James Gray

Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

Ad astra.jpg

Most films about the near future envision a world where resources have been depleted, capitalism has expanded outside our solar system, and the human race are doomed to repeat the same mistakes beyond our universe as they did on earth. James Gray’s science fiction drama Ad Astra is part of this cinematic lineage, and yet, there’s something touching about its ultimate message. For though the film gives us a world grappling with near extinction, its scope remains intimate; focusing on stoic astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) as he navigates governmental red tape en route to interplanetary missions.

For Roy, such missions are little more than “punching the clock” type jobs, complete with inane psych evaluations and techno-babble. However, something inside him awakens when he learns that his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), an iconic figure who was long thought dead after his expedition to Neptune went awry, may still be alive. Roy’s superiors tell him his dad is setting off catastrophic energy that’s spreading throughout the entire universe, causing major power outages and destruction on earth and neighboring planets. Of course, their notion of sending Roy as a convoy in order to talk Cliff down from his anti-matter tinkering is foolish from the outset, seeing as how much of his internal issues stem from the estranged relationship with his father.

Though there’s an envoy tagging along with Roy on his quest, including Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and a small shuttle crew, this is ultimately a single-minded venture into the unknown. There are wry jokes about the capitalist structures thriving in the near future economy, including airline space travel to Mars (which involves a $125 pillow and blanket option) and outer space Subway ports, but Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross mostly keep things in the sober register. As such, Ad Astra may feel slow and ponderous to audiences expecting Gravity-level thrills or trippy psychedelic passages, ala 2001: A Space Odyssey (to which Gray’s film owes an obvious debt), but there’s a minimalism here which works in the film’s favor. Comparisons to the works of Terrence Malick will also undoubtably be made, as much of Roy’s inner thoughts are dictated via hushed voiceover narration. However, these monologues lack the flowery poeticism of Malick’s oeuvre, and are mostly there because Roy is such a reclusive character.

Like he did with his previous picture, The Lost City of Z, Gray presents a central figure with unwavering ambition who nonetheless reveals cracks of self-doubt as things become more bleak. There’s something both foolish and brave about Roy’s dedicated passion to make it to Neptune, which mirrors Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist from The Lost City of Z, who similarly used the exploration of an unknown area of the world as a journey of self-actualization. Roy is ultimately faced with a less than favorable picture of his father, bolstered by revelations from Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a Mars native who sneaks him onto a Neptune-bound shuttle. From here, Ad Astra becomes an internal expedition in which our central hero must deal with his daddy issues; culminating in a meeting between father and son that Pitt and Jones play with surprising subtlety.

James Gray has never been a flashy auteur, and there are times when his detached visual style threatens to become monotonous, but Hoyt Van Hoytema’s cinematography does wonders on what must have been a limited budget for a studio project of this size, and Gray is a smart enough filmmaker to latch onto Pitt in closeup for a large percentage of the running time. If his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tapped into the laidback charisma of his movie star image, then Ad Astra goes deeper into that persona to unlock something more vulnerable. Pitt’s performance here is more muted than much of his past work, and yet his line deliveries and facial expressions tell an emotionally wrought story.

If the third act goes a bit soft; complete with a literal father/son outer space wrestling match and a tacked on ending (let’s not even get into poor Liv Tyler’s role as Roy’s long-suffering lover), then it only highlights a beautifully meditative film that could have been great had it ended with more existential mystery. Still, the idea of human love being the reason for not disappearing into the inky blackness of space is something most dystopian science fiction don’t have time for, and for that alone, Ad Astra is pushing beyond genre and into the realm of sincere humanist drama.

IT: Chapter Two

 

Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff

Director: Andy Muschietti

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

IT.jpeg

Why anyone would attempt an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1987 classic novel It (aside from a long-form streaming miniseries) is beyond this reviewer, and yet, director Andy Muschietti has taken it upon himself to do just that. Even the 1990 miniseries felt truncated at 3 hours, as King’s sprawling narrative encompassed everything from childhood trauma, small town mythology, to that titular clown terrorizing the inhabitants of Derry, Maine. 2017’s revamped It was a crowd-pleaser and box office phenomenon, riding on the coattails of Stranger Things and other 80s ephemera, and as such, felt mostly like fan-service. Another problem was how the film strained to tap into the richer thematic material inherent in King’s novel, as it could barely handle operating as a mainstream horror movie.

With It: Chapter 2, something fascinating has occurred in that it takes all the hokey elements from the first installment and blows them up to the point where the end result is nothing short of epic schlock, and that’s a good thing. Taking place 27 years after the first entry, It: Chapter 2 nods towards mental illness, childhood damage, and omnipresent guilt, but doesn’t really have the time to invest in such themes; racing through its nearly 3 hour running time at a fever pitch. Still, there’s a playfulness here which gives everything an almost late 80’s Tim Burton vibe; cemented by the returning Bill Skarsgaard as Pennywise, whose take on the iconic character is like a ghoulish version of Ren & Stimpy on a Tales from the Crypt bender. Meanwhile, the human characters have all been given simplistic traits defining them in the most basic ways, but since there are so many plot threads and the film has to hit all of them with reverence, the lack of psychological insight isn’t really a problem.

There’s the adult Bill (James McAvoy), still dealing with guilt over the death of his younger brother at the hands of Pennywise, while Bev (Jessica Chastain) is involved in an abusive relationship, which echoes the cycle of abuse from her father. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) is the one person who remained in Derry his whole life, obsessively pouring over the town’s history in hopes of unlocking the secret to vanquishing the killer clown for good. Riche (Bill Hader) is a stand-up comedian masking his homosexuality, Eddie (James Ransome) has gone from a neurotic momma’s boy to a neurotic man-child, and then there’s Ben (Jay Ryan), who still feels like a lonely fat kid even as he’s now flashing chiseled abs and an unfortunate goatee.

The tale of these self-proclaimed “losers” forced to return to their hometown does contain possibilities for nuanced character drama, but Muschietti is more interested in trotting out a Grand Guignol hall of mirrors horror extravaganza. Nothing here is really scary (the heavy use of CG diminishes the creepy factor in most scenes), but the idea of these characters confronting their inevitable deaths (whether at the hands of Pennywise or simply through natural causes) is the film’s main frightening obsession. As the characters grow older and forget their pasts, the reality of death creeps in, even taking one of them in the process, as the adult Stan (played by Andy Bean) kills himself instead of returning to Derry and unleashing all those horrific recollections.

Throughout, Muschetti winks at Hollywood co-opting passion projects. Bill visits a studio set where one of his novels is being made into a movie, and has a humorous encounter with Peter Bogdanovich as a put-upon filmmaker. King himself also shows up as an antiques store owner poking fun at his own penchant for writing bad endings (a complaint widely lobbied at It). All of this will play either as self-effacing or pandering, depending on one’s position on such things. Of course, the narrative through-line must eventually involve the losers combating Pennywise in one final duel. More than simply an otherworldly visitor wrecking havoc, the evil clown is the embodiment of small town bigotry, hate, and violence; foregrounded by a brutal homophobic murder during the film’s opening moments.

The best thing that can be said about It: Chapter 2 is that it realizes it can never reach the scope or depth of the source material. Instead, Muschetti and company have concocted a haunted house horror romp which plays like Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners with a dash of Beetlejuice mania. It’s ultimately a film which acknowledges its corniness and embraces schlock as a badge of honor. That it aims for an emotional reaction by the end is something of a misstep (with only Hader bringing more than one dimension to a mostly wasted cast), but for the vast majority of its running time, It: Chapter 2 is about as subtle as a gigantic clown with spider legs, and that’s a very good thing indeed.





Luce

 

Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo

Director: Julius Onah

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

p16738944_v_v8_aa.jpg

The best thing that can be said about Luce, Julius Onah’s adaptation of J.C. Lee’s Off-Broadway play, is that it taps into thorny issues regarding racism and class. However, it’s also a film which uses the blanket of uncertainty in order to hide the fact that it has very little to say. The stage origins are upfront and can be useful in dictating subtext, but here, the subtext is the text; with every character acting as a mouthpiece for the unfolding mystery. No one here behaves logically, which would be fine if the film was creating a heightened fantasy universe, but it also purports to be showing us the way we live now. Ultimately, the movie teases fascinating dichotomies only to throw up its hands to exclaim “What do YOU think?”, which isn’t necessarily boundary-pushing. On the contrary, it comes across more as lazy filmmaking.

The film begins with high school star student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), turning in an essay to one of his teachers, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). Writing in the voice of philosopher Frantz Fanon, who advocated violence against colonialism, Luce positions himself as a dangerous alarmist to his teacher, even as he claims he was simply completing the assignment. What transpires is a series of incidents, monologues, and heated conversations which poke at our expectations but fail to truly cohere. As an adopted immigrant to white upperclass parents (played by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, respectively), Luce is the model for the American dream; an upstanding, successful, well-spoken, and ambitious young man of color who overcame childhood horrors. His paper could be considered an edgelord-style troll, but Wilson believes there are more nefarious intentions at work, cemented by her discovery of a bag of illegal fireworks inside his locker.

Luce is an investigation of identity, privilege, and racial prejudices, but it also doubles as a character-based thriller. Harrison effectively mines the titular character’s ambivalence by using his facial gestures and body language in order to throw us off the scent, and his scenes opposite Spencer are often gripping. Still, at nearly two hours, the film is much too schematic to keep us in suspense; especially when the dialogue feels arch to the point of frustration. There’s only so much skilled actors can do with material this stagey, and even though Roth and Watts have a few impactful moments as the two bewildered parents, their perspectives seems more like a prod at white privilege rather than actually something which grabbles with the complicated nature of adoption-based parenting. The fireworks scenario nods towards school-based violence, and there’s even a rape culture angle involving one one of Luce’s fellow classmates, Stephanie (Andrea Bang) who may have been sexually assaulted, but these threads are mostly red herrings. Instead, the film is content to toss out hot-button issues while failing to provide rational character psychology.

There are solid performances here, and clearly Onah wants to challenge us, but there’s a difference between a director withholding information and having no clear idea what his film is actually trying to communicate. Despite the impassioned arguments and reactionary rhetoric, this is a film trapped inside conceptual ideas rather something grappling with authentic social problems. Of course, cinematic license can be a powerful tool in reflecting truth; and even if we acknowledge cinema as a magic trick, one can still hope for something which brings concepts down to earth. Sadly, Luce mistakes Twitter-style reactions to race and class with actually telling a coherent story.







The Mountain

 

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Jeff Goldblum, Udo Kier, Denis Lavant, Hannah Gross

Director: Rick Alverson

Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

MV5BNTFmMGE0YTEtNTZmMC00N2VlLTk5MDMtYjMwMGE3MmRlZWVlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjI3NDAyNg@@._V1_.jpg

The films of Rick Alverson have always prided themselves on a kind of erasure. The Comedy and Entertainment were both confrontational works which purposefully alienated audiences because character depth, narrative, and clarity were left out completely. Many filmmakers use ambiguity in order to conjure a mood which ties into an overall thematic construct, but Alverson isn’t interested in that. His films are boldly anti-narrative and anti-clarity; meaning that for him, standard narrative structure is a lie created by a certain system of thought. His most ambitious project yet, The Mountain, doubles down on this concept to hypnotic effect. It’s a film likely to frustrate and baffle many, but here again, Alverson is testing the complacency of how we process stories.

The film takes place in 1950s Upstate New York and follows Andy (Tye Sheridan), an introverted loner who lives in the shadow of his strict figure skater instructor father (Udo Kier) while haunted by the loss of his mother to an institution. Early on, Alverson submerges us into Andy’s headspace; holding on wide shots where he stands placidly in a hallway or cleans an ice rink. Once Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Wally Fiennes comes along looking for a portrait photographer for his lobotomy patients, he zeroes in on Andy as the ideal candidate. What initially follows is a strange student-mentor road movie where Andy and Dr. Fiennes travel to a series of asylums, and we expect (as per narratives of this kind) that this relationship will either grow deeper or break apart. Instead, Alverson’s film becomes more obtuse as it goes along, offering little in the way of satisfying character arcs or closure. However, the vision of 1950s America as a landscape where quiet desperation gradually gives way to despair is captured brilliantly.

Working with cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, Alverson shoots everything like a rigid painting, with characters artfully posed within the frame. When the camera does move, it’s usually a slow dolly pushing in on objects or people like a creeping fog. Robert Donne’s eerie score guides the turgid pacing, reinforcing this idea of postwar America as a breeding ground for psychological anguish. The performances, too, are of a piece with Alverson’s vision. Sheridan slumps his shoulders and holds his head down, often refusing to make eye contact with others, and despite minimal dialogue, he creates a deeply sympathetic character. Meanwhile, Goldblum strips away his innate kookiness as a man obsessed with his work but also tortured by it, as we only get his charisma in fits and starts. There’s a disorienting menace to Goldblum’s work here which he rarely gets a chance to exercise, and as the film moves away from his relationship with Andy into a subplot involving weirdo Frenchman Jack (Denis Lavant), we start to see the cracks in Dr. Fiennes’s calm facade.

The material involving Lavant’s unhinged father and his institutionalized daughter, Susan (Hannah Gross) takes The Mountain into uncharted territory, where many will claim Alverson loses the thread. However, the scenes between Gross and Sheridan are heartbreaking in how they tap into the idea of two damaged souls seeking solace. This subtle emotionality is counterbalanced by the high wire lunacy of Lavant, who feels like he’s beamed in from another planet, but this juxtaposition is purposeful. Jack is no more sane than those being prodded in Dr. Fiennes’s invasive procedures, and by extension, Andy’s grip on reality is slipping. The film’s third act reaches towards madness and despair, but there’s also something transcendently beautiful about the final frames.

The Mountain doesn’t end with an overriding message regarding mental illness or unhealthy relationships, but it does show us how one’s sense of reality can be skewed. As Andy snaps photos of the institution patients deemed “unwell”, there’s a genuine statement about representational art going on here. Alverson’s removed aesthetic is inviting us into this conversation too, since we are always looking to connect emotionally or intellectually to a work of art. This is best summed up by a drunken Jack monologue where he tells Andy, You look confused. What confuses you? Art? Art is a thought for which there is no other form in the whole wide world. For Alverson, narrative and closure are smoke screens. It is not the job of art to tell a coherent story where connections are explicitly understood and we all walk away feeling like we got the entire picture. By contrast, art opens a window for us to think, argue, and dissect, and The Mountain spreads its arms to such connections and then willingly pushes us off the cliff.







The Art of Self-Defense

 

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots

Director: Riley Stearns

Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

p16530318_v_v8_aa.jpg

Deadpan irony used to be a hallmark of cinema during the 1990s (think Slacker, Clerks, the works of Jim Jarmusch, and any number of angst-ridden indies like Reality Bites). They usually centered on a lonely male protagonist floating through a depressing existence. There was inevitably a female love interest (mostly there to reinforce the nerdy male’s journey of self-discovery) and occasionally, our sad American man got the girl and fulfilled his dreams. Writer-director Riley Stearns’s The Art of Self-Defense uses many of these tropes and attempts to invert them by centering his story inside a karate dojo where toxic masculinity thrives. The film’s time period is never explicitly established, but one can surmise from the clothes, blocky computers, and lack of cell phones, that we are squarely in the realm of the early 90s.

The obvious connection here is to 1999’s Fight Club; David Fincher’s epic satire about consumerism and the toxic American male, but The Art of Self-Defense lacks the daring of that film in that it never really implicates the audience. We are invited to dismiss account auditor Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), as a pathetic loser early on, and then revel in his eventual rise to douchey masculinity. There’s a lone female character here too, Anna (Imogen Poots), a children’s karate instructor stuck at the bottom of the dojo’s patriarchal hierarchy, and while Stearns attempts to subvert the idea of her being a simplistic love interest, she’s nonetheless little more than a thematic signpost. The film’s central dynamic rests in the push and pull between Casey’s meek loner and the uber masculine studio sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a man who rules with a chauvinistic iron kick.

Eisenberg is ideally cast as a socially awkward introvert looking to become what intimidates him, but the character is just a construct. His search for meaning is brought about after he’s mugged and brutally beaten, and the sensei’s no-nonsense masculinity is an appealing way to harness his hidden rage. Soon after joining the dojo, Casey is getting custom-made yellow belts, switching from listening to adult contemporary to metal music, and refusing to pet his dog for fear of coddling him. Nivola has fun rattling off Stearns’s arch dialogue and Poots delivers some fleeting moments of genuine emotion, but the problem here is one of tone. Many will claim a Yorgos Lanthimos influence, what with the way characters speak in a flat monotone, but the film more closely recalls the early work of writer-director Neil LaBute, whose In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors were stark examinations of toxic masculinity with a satiric edge.

However, The Art of Self-Defense never really complicates our feelings toward the subject matter in the way LaBute’s best films did. Instead, Stearns seems content to coast on purposefully stilted comedy interrupted by moments of grisly violence. Since the tone remains at a constant flatline, the instances of brutality feel ineffectual, but more importantly, predictable. We know exactly where this story is going, and Stearns doesn’t trust us to take the narrative in more transgressive directions.

Ultimately, the film’s dissection of what it means to be a man is no more insightful than the things its poking fun at, and seems especially galling given how it attempts (rather feebly) to place the power back into the hands of the disenfranchised female character by the end. There’s no legitimate point of view on this material and no real insight into these characters, and if we simply accept the fact that the whole thing is allegorical, then The Art of Self-Defense is about as provocative as a blunt-force kick to the groin.




.



Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

 

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

Once-Upon-Time-Hollywood-Movie-Posters.jpg

It was the end of times. It was the beginning of times. It was, to put a finer point on things, the year the culture shifted. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood locates the demise of square-jawed Old Hollywood and the birth of the more dangerous breed of 1970s New Hollywood. In many ways, this is the writer-director laying out a staggering culmination of his pop culture obsessions (blaxploitation, kung fu movies, corny 50’s TV shows, spaghetti westerns) while making his best work since 1997’s Jackie Brown. It’s a surprisingly elegiac film from a director known for juvenile posturing and shock tactics, carrying a thoughtfulness rarely seen in his back catalog.

Of course, the guy hasn’t gone completely square, but the conservative nature of the film (those damn hippies!) and fondness for classic pre-60s ephemera means that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood carries a surprisingly fragile heartbeat. No one would ever accuse Tarantino of being an emotional filmmaker, but the central friendship between fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is keenly felt throughout. In fact, the entire film can be read as a metatextual commentary on Tarantino himself; a guy who brazenly burst onto the scene in the early 90s with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; two movies which shook up the sagging American movie industry. Now 56, Tarantino is no longer the hip youthful juggernaut, but the middle-aged auteur watching the industry shift yet again under the weight of streaming algorithms.

Much of the film’s early section involves lavishly recreated areas of the Sunset Strip as characters speed around corners in their cars while blasting various pop hits. In the purview of such scenes are the long-haired hippies and young female wastrels hanging at bus stops or rummaging through trash cans. It’s a heightened vision of neon signs and iconography, but Tarantino is smart enough to simply luxuriate in these details. As per usual, he’s in no big hurry to hit plot points or push the narrative along.

Dalton and Booth are both fictional characters, and yet the world of kitschy Hollywood TV shows and B-movies they populate did exist. However, as he’s demonstrated to varying degrees in all of his films, Tarantino isn’t after realism or authenticity. He is a supreme lover of movies, and his particular geekdom gets the full treatment here, from reproductions of cheesy commercials to the western TV series Dalton is shooting in which he portrays a snarling villain. From Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, to Inglorious Basterds, the world of a Tarantino film only factors in modern day relevance or historical veracity insofar as it relates to other movies and how those things can be inverted through his very distinct lens.

Dalton could be a stand-in for Tarantino, particularly in a scene in which he picks up some method acting tips from a precocious 8-year-old (Julia Butters) after relating a story about an aging cowboy who suffered an injury. As Dalton begins to break down, we are invited to laugh at his self-pity, especially because Butters rattles off some feminist-leaning wisecracks, but also because it represents Tarantino’s feelings about himself. He’s now the fading star on a comeback trail; the one who no longer has a place in our more progressive age. Whatever the case, Dalton and Booth’s exploits are occasionally interrupted by a secondary storyline, where the real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) lives next door to Dalton with her famous filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and trusted pal/former lover, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). This thread generated most of the early buzz regarding Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, with speculation that Tarantino was making his epic Manson family movie, and while that aspect does factor into the overall plot here, it’s not chiefly the director’s concern.

This is a good thing, because Tarantino’s gifts have always been in writing and characterization. While Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood doesn’t have the crackling pop-culture heavy dialogue of something like Pulp Fiction, it does emerge as a more subtle writing accomplishment. Instead of giving Robbie a juicy monologue, there’s a fascinatingly self-reflexive moment where she goes to a screening of Tate’s 1968 film The Wrecking Crew and reacts along with the crowd. Watching Robbie as Tate watching the real Tate onscreen is some kind of strange magic trick; suggesting decades of celebrity culture through the prism of voyeurism. For all of Tarantino’s strengths, his characters rarely feel like real people, but here, there’s a mixture of genuine emotional investment and artificial movieness. It’s the last film since Jackie Brown in which the characters feel like they have their own voices rather than just being mouthpieces for Tarantino’s arch sermonizing.

Of course, the two storylines here must converge, and the film’s final 45 minutes will be divisive in how it handles real-life tragedies and over the top violence, but had the previous two hours not been as thematically rich, the historical revisionist finale may simply have played as yet another cheap Tarantino shock tactic. However, there’s an attempt at auto-critique here, as evidenced by a scene of the Manson clan arguing inside a car where one member exclaims “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder. My idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!” Touché, Mr. Tarantino.

The violence in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ends up being physical, sure, but the film is ultimately more interested in a spiritual violence that permeates when one generation is pushed out to make way for a new one. Dalton and Booth’s touching bond (exemplified by DiCaprio and Pitt’s self-aware, brilliant performances) strains against the tides of the changing times but persists nonetheless through a haze of hippie smoke, dashed dreams, and alcoholism. Tarantino may be lamenting the sociocultural shift from Old Hollywood into the psychedelic era of drugs, activism, and political upheaval, but he’s not necessarily saying the previous generation was operating in reality either. One could accuse Tarantino of nostalgia pandering, but what he’s really after is this idea of how pop culture has been filtered down by the counterculture. It’s all a dream if it never happened, with Dalton and Booth limping off into the sunset, kind of like a midlife crisis.




Midsommar

 

Cast: Florence Pugh, Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Wilhelm Blomgren

Director: Ari Aster

Running time: 2 hours 27 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

MIdsommar-PosterRes-1500x2120.jpg

With just two feature films, writer-director Ari Aster has proven he can weave troubling tales of psychic damage, familial grief, and cultish terror. The idea of mass hysteria, and how it connects to the hysteria within the self, is a major component to Aster’s latest creation, Midsommar. Whereas his previous film, Hereditary, was mostly a self-serious dirge into the abyss until letting loose for a Rosemary's Baby-esque finale, Midsommar doubles down on the folkloric horror tropes. It also, rather surprisingly, uses a heavy dose of dark humor to lessen the blow of some of Aster’s more attention-grabbing flourishes.

The film begins in a similar tonal place as the first half of Hereditary, with our central character, Dani (Florence Pugh) dealing with a horrific family tragedy. Her deep anxiety is channeled onto her longtime boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who is emotionally detached and looking for a way out of the relationship. His pack of douchey grad-school friends are no more sympathetic, including Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Their plans are to visit rural Sweden to observe a commune’s summer solstice festival in hopes of writing their graduate thesis’s on the subject, and Christian invites Dani to tag along more out of guilt and obligation than anything.

The film’s opening stretch is dread-inducing, with Aster employing many of the same stylistic tricks used in his first film; (long tracking shots, fancy camera movements, discordant music swells, dimly lit compositions), but once the group arrive in Sweden, Midsommar opens itself up to a pastel-colored visual palette. We know from the outset that these smiling flower people are up to something, and Aster doesn’t really try to hide that fact. Instead, the film becomes a fascinating case study in male privilege. Dani, still reeling from tragedy, can sense right away that all is not well here, and yet all of the men rationalize obvious red flags by appealing to their anthropological studies and cultural ignorance. Meanwhile, Dani continues to feel isolated from the group as well as herself.

Amidst pagan rituals and white robe-wearing hippies, one can sense Midsommar situating itself as the ultimate breakup film. Christian and Dani are obviously on the verge of ending things, and yet neither can accept the fact that it’s over. Dani’s piercing guttural screams, which come early and are repeated often, become the film’s heartbeat. There is no hope of mending things. There is no escape.

Aster’s triumph here is his ability to meld our anxiety as viewers to Dani’s fears. In some ways, the film is about a woman staking a claim to her autonomy. In a performance of raw nerves and searing emotion, Pugh taps into the same kind of anguish as Toni Collete in Hereditary, and yet we are never afraid of her. She always remains fragile and empathetic. As things steer into the realm of grotesquerie and horror, Pugh grabs the film by the throat and takes center stage. She is the real deal.

Shot by by Pawel Pogorzelski, Midsommar is brightly sun-drenched, which makes the inevitable descent into madness all the more disquieting. Using a combination of static shots and elaborate crane moves, Aster and his team of set designers and art decorators have created a truly authentic world here. The film takes its time; showing us a set of strange rituals from the standpoint of clueless Americans and then ratchets up the dread as the situations become more bizarre and violent. Even as the film is methodically paced and interested in stillness, Aster doesn’t skimp on the gore and melodramatic outbursts. Some of the film’s most indelible images are of extreme physical violence, but they are inexorably tied into the visceral nature of Dani’s emotional and psychological state. One of the most powerful sequences occurs near the end when Dani is overcome with tremendous pain, grief, and anger; wailing like a banshee as female members of the commune mimic her every movement and scream. In this one moment, the physical and the metaphysical become intertwined. As troubling as it seems, this may be the first time Dani has felt this fully alive.

Superficially, Aster has conjured a folk horror movie ala The Wicker Man, but he also taps into the anxieties of trying to process trauma. The scares come from a feeling of claustrophobia, of being disconnected from reality (cleverly visualized in some subtle psychedelic drug tripping scenes), and not feeling at home within yourself. During the heightened fire and brimstone finale, heavily aided by The Haxan Cloak’s gorgeously haunting score, Dani comes to a realization both liberating and terrifying. Pugh’s face during the final shot says volumes. It is the visual representation of the pageantry of pain; with the realization that the cure might be going through the flames and coming out a monster.




The Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Mike Epps, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Finn Wittrock, Maximilienne Ewalt, Thora Birch

Director: Joe Talbot

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

google.com embedded.jpeg

Holding onto the memories of childhood is a central component in the alchemy of nostalgia, and Joe Talbot’s debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, understands the difference between holding on and letting go. The film is steeped in a heightened atmosphere of sun and fog; with Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography presenting San Francisco as both dreamlike and harsh, favoring hazy visuals which accentuate the whimsical tone. However, Talbot isn’t simply after pat nostalgia here, as the rallying cry against gentrification and the state of the urban black experience remains a central theme. The film is a high-wire act; part droll comedy, part tale of male friendship, and part downbeat ode to a disappearing way of life. Mostly, The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels alive and malleable in a way few films do, even on the independent scale.

When we first meet our mismatched pair of friends Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), they are waiting at a bus stop across the street from a preacher standing on a milk crate ranting against the ills of modern society. Meanwhile, a Hazmat crew rummages the area cleaning up after an unspecified toxic situation. Fed up with all the commotion, Mont and Jimmie hop onto a skateboard and decide to hightail it into the city rather than wait for the bus. This is San Francisco.

The sight of two grown men skateboarding down city streets is undeniably humorous, but the film also seems aware of this. There’s something about these two friends which strikes one as juvenile, and yet there’s a genuine intimacy there. The harkening back to youthful dreams isn’t simply immaturity, though. There’s real pain, regret, and sadness here too. These are two men trapped in a physical, mental, and emotional space which resists authentic change. Once the thread is introduced of Jimmie taking trips into the city so he can touch up the paint on the exterior of his childhood home which his family lost possession of in the 1990s, it’s clear there’s more going on here than simple nostalgia.

Jimmie is under the impression that his grandfather built the house in 1946, back when many Japanese residents were relocated to internment camps. A myth around the “first black man in San Francisco” took hold, crystalizing Jimmie’s belief that he has a moral right to the house, even if it is now owned by a white woman (Maximilienne Ewalt), who irately throws fruit at him whenever she spots him fixing the window trim. The notion of families being destroyed and split apart because of institutional racism is one of the main thrusts of Talbot’s film, but these ideas are presented lyrically rather via soapbox messaging. The extraordinary performances also help, including newcomer Fails as a young man unable to break free from being pushed out of his true home. A scene where he visits his embittered father (Rob Morgan) has a legitimate awkwardness which requires a quiet sensitivity from the actor, and there’s an equally heartbreaking moment where he runs into his mother on the bus which speaks to the character’s feelings of abandonment. Majors has a splashier role as the aspiring writer dressed in ‘50s era business clothes, but he never overreaches with a character who could have easily been twee, bringing an off-kilter rhythm and unique line delivery to his scenes. Mont is also caught in state of arrested development, but he exudes such sincerity that his co-dependent relationship with Jimmie never reads as unhealthy.

Eventually, an inheritance dispute arises which leaves the Victorian-style home in a limbo state, and naturally, the two pals move out of Mont’s dad’s (Danny Glover) cramped space and into the house. Using a form of “squatters rights”, along with the ideological justification of ownership, Jimmie and Mont begin acting out an urban fairytale in which two low-income black men are living freely in one of the city’s most expensive (and almost exclusively white) neighborhoods. There’s a subplot involving some of Jimmie’s old friends who gather talking shit outside Mont’s dads spot and a tragic circumstance surrounding that group, as well as a thread involving Mont struggling to write a play which will eventually come full circle, but narrative momentum is not the main concern here. Instead, the idea of letting go of the past and forging ahead, even as others around you seem to deny the very existence of that past, is at the heart of the film.

The elegiac finale; which takes on the tenor of a dream caught in the swirl of pensive reality, suggests there’s no true home for someone like Jimmie. This displacement, which mirrors the displacement of countless African Americans in San Francisco and other major cities, is perfectly summed up in a late scene where Jimmie counters the complaints of a white woman (Thora Birch) on the bus with You can only hate San Francisco if you love it. What a bittersweet statement, and what a beautifully bittersweet film.

Pasolini

 

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli, Riccardo Scamarcio, Valerio Mastandrea, Adriana Asti, Maria De Medeiros 

Director: Abel Ferrara

Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

MV5BMDA1YTcwNDYtOTkzZi00MDhmLTg1M2MtYWYwNDllN2RjZTc3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjI3NDAyNg@@._V1_.jpg

The biggest surprise regarding Abel Ferrara’s film about the final days of master Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) is just how meditative it is. Given Ferrara’s track record with portraying the excess, grime, and shock of the human condition in films like Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, and Welcome to New York, Pasolini is notable for treating its subject with a lack of exploitation. This is a measured portrait of an artist; focusing more on Pasolini the man than Pasolini the director, though Ferrara understands there’s actually no distinction between the two. Pasolini’s work came from his soul, body, and mind, but the actual process of creation was often mundane. This is one of the great triumph’s of Ferrara’s film; it views the artistic process as ordinary and never devolves into worshipful biopic clichés.

Pasolini isn’t structured like a traditional biopic (there are no flashbacks or “greatest hits” demo reels here), and in terms of the filmmaker’s actual output, very little is broached. There are a few scenes of Pasolini putting the finishing editing touches on Sálo and then subsequently responding to controversy surrounding the finished film, but Ferrera seems more interested in the natural rhythms of the director’s daily life. Pasolini’s interactions with family members and friends have a loosely naturalistic feeling, with the domestic details being what matters, not whether they are driving the plot.

In one moment, Pasolini is putting on a record during a family dinner to lighten the mood, and in the next, he’s responding to hostile reporters regarding his political views or cruising the streets for young male prostitutes. Of course, we know that Pasolini was viciously murdered after a night of cruising, but Ferrera never uses his subject’s sexual predilections as fodder for lurid sensationalism. Instead, Pasolini’s death comes suddenly; emphasizing the tragedy of a life cut short before his time. Rather than using his death as a plot device in terms of foreshadowing, Ferrera eschews pat moralizing to land on a more sobering note.

Truthfully, Ferrera doesn’t completely abandon Pasolini’s cinematic preoccupations, but he gets at them in a more interesting way than most biopics. Large sections of the film are dedicated to visual interpretations of Pasolini’s unfinished novel “Petrolio”, which are filmed with a mixture of Pasolini’s hand-held style and Ferrera’s own trashy aesthetic. A special nod is given directly by casting Pasolini’s former collaborator and lover Ninetto Davoli at the center of these sequences, with visual cues involving orgies and stilted performances further extending the homage. However, at no point does one get the impression that Ferrera is simply copying Pasolini’s stylistic flourishes.

Obviously, Pasolini would not work as well as it does without Dafoe, who holds the center of the entire production with a subdued, layered performance. Speaking fluent Italian and looking very much like the iconoclastic filmmaker, the actor goes beyond mimicry to inhabit the presence of the man. Ferrera wisely shoots many scenes in closeup, resting on Dafoe’s weary face as he jots ideas in his notebook or scans the darkened alleyways for companionship. There is never a moment where Dafoe is not fully believable in the role, and he refuses to play Pasolini’s final moments for maudlin sentiment. Like the film surrounding him, the performance is surprisingly nimble in navigating various modes without ever standing on a soapbox.

Some may view Pasolini as a disappointment since it doesn’t offer the traditional catharsis found in most movies of this kind. But then again, Pasolini was never a traditional artist, and his work always seemed removed from mainstream acceptance. Ferrera acknowledges this truth by making a film which honors Pasolini’s legacy without ever bowing to commercial sensibilities, which feels exactly right. Artists working within the same troubled society as us ultimately provides more hope than the typical addiction/recovery/rebirth narrative we often get saddled with. In that sense, Ferrera’s deeply felt film proclaims what we’ve known about Pasolini all along; genuine art is dangerous.





MA

 

Cast: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans, Dante Brown

Director: Tate Taylor

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

MV5BMTA2MjA3ODU0NjBeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDE3NTQxNDcz._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,631,1000_AL_.jpg

Ma, the latest horror thriller from the Blumhouse brand is trash, but what kind of trash is it? The trailer promises meme-worthy sensationalism or at the very least, a creepy slice of pulp, but Tate Taylor’s film sadly offers neither. This is one of those cases where the casting of Octavia Spencer in the titular role as a mentally unstable woman harboring a painful past is really the only thing worth mentioning, since the script by Scotty Landes may as well have been written by one of the dim-witted teen characters populating a good portion of the running time.

The story centers around Maggie (Diana Silvers) returning to the hometown of her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), as she fits in with a group of fellow high schoolers. Soon they are attempting to score booze from the adult townsfolk, happening upon Sue Ann (Spencer) walking her dog near the local liquor store. Hesitant at first, Sue Ann eventually buys them the goods, but later rats them out to the local authorities by giving away their drinking hub. This sets in motion a series of events in which she convinces these underage kids to party in her basement, opening things up for a series of drug-addled high school ragers. Going by the nickname “Ma”, Sue Ann provides the party spot under the condition they don’t go upstairs. To say she’s up to something is an understatement.

But what exactly is this kindly, though seemingly lonely, older woman up to? Well, to say that Ma is harboring secrets is besides the point, since the film spends its first hour alternating between scenes of the teenagers reciting painfully wooden dialogue with Ma working at a vet clinic while obsessing over her new “friends” via social media. Once flashbacks of a young Sue Ann enduring high school bullying and assault back in the 1980s start rolling in, the film’s laughable conceit becomes clear. From this point on, Ma goes from being dull to offensive; using sexual assault in order stigmatize victimhood as a path toward mental illness. If one were being generous, you could say the filmmakers have good intentions here by showing how such experiences at a young age can warp a person’s self-worth and cause major psychological damage, but demonizing Ma as the defacto villain is beyond misjudged.

Spencer’s cunning performance allows for more nuance than would normally be afforded such a reductive character, but what is the point if the film she’s trapped inside is so inept on nearly every level? Taylor’s direction is clumsy, the teenage actors unbearable, and the aforementioned script is a hot mess of detours and laughable coincidences. Of course, the B-movie potential of the film’s central idea could have been wildly entertaining and possibly even subversive had Sue Ann simply been able to exist as a person in the world rather than being used a pawn for plot machinations. There’s even a dark “secret” she’s hiding upstairs (a thread introduced early which pays off limply during the ultra-violent finale), but the logistics surrounding her actions are so baffling that the whole thing comes off as a lame red herring.

Additionally, Ma could have leaned into political signifiers by embracing its racial elements—Sue Ann was seemingly the only black person at her high school and there’s even a token black kid in the present day teenage group—but the film is afraid of such implications. Taylor and company could also have just made a loopy genre movie giving an Academy Award winner the freedom to be deranged while using social media, but too much time is spent on high school romance, Luke Evans’s douche bag dad, and Maggie’s overprotective mom to truly lean into the Spencer show. In the end, Ma is little more than a half-baked revenge story in which a victim narrative is used as fodder for psychosis topped off with a weak social allegory. As such, audiences are better off drinking alone than spending any time with this scare-free, tonally confused turkey.














John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum

 

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston

Director: Chad Stahelski

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

p14568731_v_v8_ab.jpg

Director Chad Stahelski leans even further into the mythology and creative action sequences of the improbable John Wick series with John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum; a self-aware riff on the absurdity of modern action cinema where Keanu Reeve’s retired hitman takes a beating and keeps on killing and killing, and then when he’s finished killing, he kills some more.

The attempt to top the meticulously crafted mayhem of the first two films is alive and well right from the outset, which picks up exactly where John Wick: Chapter 2 ended with our hero fleeing for his life after killing an influential crime lord. Meanwhile, Winston (Ian McShane) provides his old friend a grace period window before he’s “excommunicado” from the criminal safe space of the Continental hotel, even as the bounty of $14 million on Wick’s head mounts. During the film’s first 30 minutes, Stahelski and his talented team of stunt performers unleash some dazzling set-pieces; like a knockabout knife/hatchet fight that goes from playful to grotesquely comic, and a scene set inside a horse stable which features some unexpected equine weaponry. All the while, Reeves looks convincingly exhausted as he throws out the occasional deadpan one-liner in between imaginative kills.

While this opening stretch of John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum is breathlessly paced and excitingly choreographed, there’s a sense in which the franchise is starting to spin its wheels. Whereas the second film expanded the goofy assassin lore and added a few wrinkles to Wick’s backstory, Parabellum merely pads out the running time with over-extended plot mechanics and nonsensical detours. For instance, while it’s nice to see Halle Berry onscreen as an ex-assassin who owes Wick a favor, her character is so underdeveloped that when she abruptly vanishes from the film, you forget why she mattered to the story in the first place. Perhaps the most interesting new addition to the cast is Asia Kate Dillon as the Adjudicator, a no-nonsense messenger for a shadowy group known as “The High Table” who comes in to stir up the natural order. Her purposefully flat line delivery and steely gaze gives the film an arch tone which is welcome amidst all the blood-letting and shotgun shells to the noggin.

The baroque world-building of the series continues to both intrigue and annoy; some of the High Table material feels half-baked, for example, while Lawrence Fishburne’s underground homeless hitman lair feels almost secondary here. Still, the goings on at the Continental remain self-aware as ever, especially the keen performances of Lance Reddick and Ian McShane as the hotel concierge and manager, respectively. As far as John Wick himself, it almost feels like the character is a cartoon at this point, with Reeve’s innate charm and comic timing not being well utilized in this entry.

Of course, audiences come to this franchise for the action, and on that front, Parabellum delivers the goods. The variation from gun-based action to swords, knives, and martial arts (complete with several performers from The Raid films showing up for glorified cameos), is a step in the right direction, though the movie’s last half does drag a bit. There’s only so many set-pieces with variations on punch, kick, shoot, stab (repeat) that can be staged before everything begins to feel rote, and the inclusion of testicle-biting dogs and a sword fight blanketed by mirrors simply feels like minor tweaks to a formula that’s beginning to grow repetitive.

It’s no big surprise that at the end of John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum, our hero is left for dead as the criminal underworld tries to readjust. Leaving things open for a fourth chapter is a no-brainer, but it also presents an interesting challenge for the filmmakers. With each absurdly graphic dispatch, Wick grows more weary and defeated. How long can he keep this up? Is the entire population of New York secretly assassins? Where will our intrepid killing machine go next, Canada? As the franchise expands the mythology and attempts to top the previous action set-piece, the specter of John Wick as a man who lost everything he loved bent on revenge, dwindles. He’s essentially become a prop in his own films now, dwarfed by choreography, shattered glass, hacked limbs, brain splatter, and the need to exceed expectations.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

 

Cast: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko

Director: Terry Gilliam

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

456a319950599bb7d0d17041d10df9f6.jpg

Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens with a title card that reads “25 years in the making—and unmaking.” It’s a wry commentary; referencing both the film’s torturous production history and thematic ideas embedded into the finished project itself. Its the kind of thing a filmmaker like Gilliam does well; using a preexisting text (in this case, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote) and creating a dialogue with it. The idea of who owns art, how it should be translated, and the cyclical nature of stories is central to Gilliam’s take on what many believe is an unadaptable book. Instead of attempting the impossible, Gilliam chooses to use the novel’s heroic archetypes and graft his own sensibilities onto the framework. It’s a clever touch, and one that benefits from the director’s usual freewheeling style and manic quirkiness.

Don Quixote is played, in a winning bit of casting, by Jonathan Pryce. As it turns out, Quixote isn’t the iconic Cervantes character after all, but a poor cobbler named Javier discovered by egotistical director Toby Grummett (Adam Driver) while scouting for his student film. After a period of 10 years, Toby returns to Los Sueños to helm an expensive Quixote-themed commercial commissioned by his boss (Stellan Skarsgård), who wants to sign a contract with a Russian-led vodka company. During this early stretch, Toby is portrayed as an apathetic sell-out going through the motions, out of ideas and leaking money by the day. He’s a man caught inside a corporate machine which has strangled out any hints of creativity; a feeling Gilliam himself is well aware of over the course of his rocky career in Hollywood.

Burnt out and in desperate need of inspiration, Toby takes a motorcycle from the set and heads off in search of the town and villagers from his student film. What he finds is dispiriting; with former cast members either having died from illness, given into madness, or in the case of Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), a fetching teenager whom Toby had promised to make into a movie star, moving into the realm of escort service. Perhaps most tragic is his encounter with Javier, who so fully embodied the role of Quixote in the student film that he became deluded into thinking that he was, in fact, the legendary character. From there, the young director hooks up with the deluded Javier and the two venture off on a madcap quest where Toby unwittingly takes on the role of Sancho Panza.

Of course, Toby is a stand-in for Gilliam, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote doesn’t simply work on a meta level. There are elements taken directly from Cervantes’s novel—Javier’s delusions of seeing windmills as giants, women cursed with beards, a knight covered in mirrored armor—but Gilliam takes these familiar episodes and alters the context, blurring the line between reality and artifice. This really comes into focus during the film’s final act, where our heroes end up inside a castle with inhabitants cast as whores, peasants, damsels, and royal knights dressed in period appropriate costumes. Toby suddenly takes on the mantle of noble savior swooping in to save Angelica, who is engaged to a wealthy misogynist Russian thug, and consequently, Gilliam seems to be playing this adventure yarn straight. Javier embodies the sacrificial lamb trope and Toby is exalted to hero status, but is the film really becoming the very thing it’s playfully satirizing?

Vanity and self-worship is a trap, one that Toby and by extension, Gilliam are not immune to. There’s a possibility that Gilliam is questioning his place within the cinematic pantheon here, using iconography from his past work and commenting on it (much like Fellini did in his later years). Like most of the filmmaker’s projects, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has an odd rhythm and often gives in to self-indulgence; with inconsistent pacing, hit and miss visual gags, and several scenes where characters simply yell over one another. Still, such criticisms can also be read as reasons for Gilliam’s legitimate artistry. He’s a filmmaker always taking chances. Always throwing ideas at the wall. Constantly pushing himself to complete his vision, even if it takes 25 years, and there’s ultimately something hopeful about that.




Long Day's Journey into Night

 

Cast: Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang, Lee Hong-Chi, Zeng Meihuizi

Director: Bi Gan

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

8b3592aaffa38a53d14daccc2f5a02ee.jpg

Chinese director Bi Gan is only 29-years-old. His 2015 feature-length debut, Kaili Blues, was a major hit with critics and adventurous cinephiles, but remains mostly unseen. Exposure outside arthouse markets may still elude Gan with his followup Long Day’s Journey into Night, but it’s not for lack of ambition. Words like “virtuosic” and “audacious” will likely be tossed around here, and for good reason. This is a film which could only have been made by a young filmmaker enthralled by his cinematic heroes and willing to attempt technically daunting feats.

Moody, languid, and haunted by a sense of loss, Long Day’s Journey into Night is essentially an epic noir split down the middle into two very distinct halves. Initially, we are introduced to a former casino manager named Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) who returns home to Kaili for his father’s funeral only to find himself caught up in locating Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei), a mysterious woman he once had an affair with back in the year 2000. Gan switches back and forth in time showing us glimpses of a relationship which, in noir tradition, could never truly survive. There’s also some clear Wong Kar-Wai worship here; what with Hongwu’s hard-bitten voiceover narration and hazy visuals of a world out of time, but Gan succeeds in capturing a hallucinatory vibe all his own.

All of this is to say that Long Day’s Journey into Night is a movie about how cinema can crystalize images and sensations. Gan isn’t shy about flaunting his influences, and there’s a self-reflexivity at work here which comes full circle around the film’s final hour; a 50-minute single take meant to be watched in 3D. Even as Hongwu ’s search for Wan continues spiraling; with his memories fractured and his life in shambles, the final act becomes less about the character’s inner struggle and more about our collective need to embrace the moving image as a means to an end. Using a combination of drone footage, Steadicam, and digital compositing, Gan pulls off a remarkable feat here; riffing on Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Tarkovsky in the process. While just as mind-boggling as something like, say, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman, Gan resists the urge to showboat in the same self-aggrandizing way because he’s clearly a young filmmaker raised on the love of cinema.

The idea of characters dreaming in movies and therefore, movies as dreams, is a central preoccupation of filmmakers; Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Terry Gilliam, Hitchcock, and many others have dabbled in such subject matter. During the final set-piece, Hongwu is trapped inside his own subconscious; leading us through realms of dream logic which mirror the real world only in theory. The film’s central idea is that dreams (like memories) are simply projections and only seem to offer us meaning. Hongwu’s life is a mess, and even if he found his long-lost love in the present time, what would that actually change for him? Multiple realties can exist, and as such, multiple choices with multiple outcomes. Long Day’s Journey into Night doesn’t so much answer Hongwu’s probing questions as it points him towards embracing the unknown. Kind of like the magic of the movies, if that even still exists.

Under the Silver Lake

 

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

Under-the-Silver-Lake-Poster.jpg

It’s no great secret that filmmakers have a long-standing fascination with Los Angeles as a haven for grimy mysteries and conspiracy theories. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell, whose arthouse horror sensation, It Follows, was itself a pastiche of older films (particularly 80s slashers), has taken that fascination to its apex with sophomore effort Under the Silver Lake. For here is a picture which burrows so far into retro-fetishism that it eventually becomes a kind of post-postmodern take on LA’s obsession with itself. Sadly, the film also fawns over its own construction in a way which starts out humorously before dovetailing into an ideological muddle. While this might play for 19-year-old stoners who read into the film’s odd detours with geeky obsession, the rest of us will simply prefer to rewatch Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, Mulholland Drive, or any number of B-movie noirs Mitchell is attempting to emulate.

Our Philip Marlowe-lite hero this time is Sam (Andrew Garfield), a 33-year-old unemployed drag who spends most of his time moping around his apartment, dodging his landlord due to overdue rent, getting drunk, and spying on young beautiful starlets who flood in and out of his purview. Soon after meeting a stunning blond with a fluffy dog (Riley Keough), he becomes obsessed with her, which is further exacerbated when she abruptly goes missing. What follows is a shaggy dog mystery where Sam attempts to decode the clues found in pop tunes, old vinyl records, 70’s issues of Playboy magazine, and lavish hipster parties in order to track down his ingenue. There’s a dead billionaire, squirrels falling from the sky, a dog killer on the loose, and even an old rich songwriter who mocks our protagonist by claiming pop culture is "all silly and meaningless", which is an apt description for the film itself. The whole thing plays like a Thomas Pynchon novel mixed with The Big Lebowski and the work of David Lynch as directed by Nicholas Ray. The only thing missing is a scene where Sam looks directly into the camera and chides the audience for not getting all the references.

This is not to say Mitchell doesn’t have his own aesthetic. His work with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is often effective; particularly in regards to capturing the golden wooziness of Silver Lake. However, despite Garfield’s best efforts to create a more earnest character as things slide into sub-Lynchian oddness, Sam is a prototypical slacker who not only punches children in the face in one scene, but also obsesses over young women in a way not dissimilar to our current state of “problematic men” hiding behind a nice guy persona. This makes the film’s trips down conspiracy theory rabbit holes all the more galling since we are supposed to root for Sam’s low rent sleuth as he chases down one MacGuffin after the next.

The notion of subliminal messages in pop-culture and that playing a vinyl record backwards, for instance, could produce a drug-addled epiphany is nothing new, and Mitchell’s failure to grasp the dopey humor in his conceit makes the film’s last half feel overly ponderous. While there are plenty of satirical gags (especially during the first act), one gets the sense that underneath the golden age references, Mitchell wants us to take all of this seriously. It’s one of those cases where a talented filmmaker is trying to concoct a cult classic rather than allowing such a descriptor to be grafted onto the work years later, possibly after midnight screenings under the influence. In that sense, it’s a weirdo lark made by someone who isn’t actually a weirdo, but merely playing at weirdness. Worst of all, it’s a film absolutely bereft of intellectual curiosity to even out all the self-regarding nonsense on display.

Under the Silver Lake does eventually lead somewhere, although its labyrinthine plot, which also features a crazed conspiracy theorist (played by Mulholland Drive’s Patrick Fischler, natch) and a lame climax involving a hippie underground cult, is purposefully anti-climatic. The point isn’t the destination, of course, but the hazy journey, and yet Mitchell flails to keep us interested in a wobbly narrative which drags on for 139 minutes. There may be a reading of the film involving the monopolization of “geek culture” (just look at those cash cow Marvel movies) and how it’s now a part of the greater entertainment industry, but Mitchell never investigates these ideas; only introduces them to scatter to the wind like a puff of bong smoke. The main drive here is artifice; how things look and sound (the score by Disasterpeace, for example, clearly evokes Hitchcock-era Bernard Herrmann).

This is all well and good, provided one desires a film without tension, stakes, or a melancholic streak underpinning all the nuttiness. It’s not enough to simply act and talk like a classic noir (or neo-noir), you must prove your existence beyond pastiche. This is a trick Brian De Palma mastered during the 1980s by taking obvious visual and story beats from past directors (mainly Hitchcock) and then reapplying them for that decade’s sleazy aesthetic. Mitchell doesn’t seem to have any grasp on the current culture—no 33-year-old hipster would ever dance to an R.E.M. song without irony—and his stabs at nostalgia feel just as contrived. Therefore, Under the Silver Lake is a lot like trying to decode hidden messages on the back of old cereal boxes; maddening and a waste of time.

High Life

 

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, Ewan Mitchell, Gloria Obianyo, Scarlett Lindsey, Jessie Ross, Victor Banerjee

Director: Claire Denis

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

p16481822_v_v8_aa.jpg

Director Claire Denis has always been fascinated by the bleaker aspects of human nature, and yet her films have equally fixated on the possibility of love and hope. In features like Trouble Every Day, White Material, and especially Bastards, Denis offered a myopic view of the human race laced with moments of optimism, and her latest project, High Life, certainly fits into that template. Those expecting a Robert Pattinson-starring sci-fi thriller with elaborate special effects and high concept plotting will likely stumble out of the film utterly baffled. However, for those already initiated into the cult of Denis, her elliptical style and sparse visuals will feel of a piece.

Written by Denis with long time collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, High Life favors a fractured, poetic mode of storytelling giving us bits and pieces of narrative; often via single haunting images, brief flashbacks, or seemingly throwaway lines of dialogue. When we first meet convict Monte (Pattinson), he’s attempting to fix something outside a rickety spacecraft (which looks like a floating matchstick box) while a baby cries alone inside an onboard room. The space travel bureaucracy which got him there—along with a crew of fellow prisoners—is never made explicitly clear, even as Denis gradually unspools plot information by jumping around in time. Even the team’s initial mission remains vague (something about identifying and researching black holes), compounded by the fact that the crew remains oblivious regarding the length of their voyage, which will theoretically last longer than their lifetimes.

Before Monte and the baby were the lone survivors, we learn that the passengers, including convicts Tcherny (André Benjamin) Boyse (Mia Goth), and doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), among others, were basically being used as government test subjects. As Dibs collects semen samples and cross-pollinates them with female eggs (doing so even while the participates are heavily sedated), High Life starts to feel like a Darwinian nightmare. There’s a common idea in space travel films that the inky void of the universe drives people mad, but Denis is offering the notion that human society—with its moral rules and governmental mandates—is the thing which ultimately damages the psyche.

The line between acceptable cultural mores and animalistic desires fuels much of the middle portion of the film in a way which creates an unsettling tension. A chamber known as the “fuck room” is introduced, where passengers can go purge their pent-up sexual longings, including mad doctor Dibs, who straddles a sybian dildo in one harrowing sequence which Denis films like a crossbreed of Aliens and Nymphomaniac. Characters talk in hyper-literal proclamations and whispered half-sentences. Sexual violence erupts. Everyone onboard, including Monte, are deeply flawed and possibly dangerous. Denis refuses to offer us easy answers or even a moralistic hero to connect to, though Pattinson’s impressively coiled performance helps to act in some respects as the audience surrogate.

Most films about space offer platitudes of optimism about the human race (remember Ridley Scott’s The Martian?), but High Life poses troubling questions about the future of mankind. Denis is only using the vastness of space to investigate how we live on Earth, and yet, the film’s climax is quite possibly one of the more hopeful endings in recent memory. This is because Denis sustains such an intense mood of dread throughout that the transitory possibility of hope becomes almost overwhelming. One suspects things will crescendo on a dispiriting note based on all which came before, but Denis upends expectations, even as the final image contains several interpretations.

High Life is ultimately a moving film because it takes our stubborn willingness to keep on existing and defining what makes us human seriously in a way few science fiction films do. Denis would probably even scoff at the term “sci-fi”. To her, High Life exists in the same genre as her films Beau Travail, Bastards, and Let the Sunshine In; probing the blurred line between hope and despair, love and disdain, life and death.



Avengers: Endgame

 

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Frank Grillo, Winston Duke 

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Running time: 3 hours 2 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

p15366809_p_v8_af.jpg

Warning! This review contains finger-snapping fan service spoilers!

There’s no longer any reason to launch a passionate rebuttal to the multi-billion dollar franchise that is the MCU because these movies are essentially critic-proof. Some are entertaining (Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain Marvel), nicely diverse (Black Panther), or even delightfully goofy (Thor Ragnarok), but over the course of 22 films, one thing has remained unchanged; these are assembly line products made for the fans. Now, with Avengers: Endgame, we have the most unwieldy fan-film ever made; a 3-hour behemoth in which nearly every character who has appeared in one of these movies shows up (either in cameo form or with more built-in stakes) while our remaining superheroes deliver the death blow to purple space goblin Thanos (Josh Brolin), keeper of the six Infinity Stones.

If one recalls, Thanos snapped his fingers at the climax of Avengers: Infinity War and eradicated half of the world’s population, including many of the MCU’s most beloved heroes such as Black Panther, Spider-man, Doctor Strange, and nearly all of the Guardians of the Galaxy. The early moments of Endgame sees the remaining Avengers—including Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) dealing with the cosmic fallout. Somewhere within this gargantuan series of video game cutscenes is an intimate movie about grief, but naturally, Endgame merely nods at deeper themes. There’s also probably an actual movie in here too, but at this juncture, that’s an irrelevant observation. Narrative, character, and pacing are out the window; replaced by a series of big moments, wacky one-liners, and epic brand management. The performers are game, and obviously no expense was spared in terms of budget, but perhaps the spoiler-adverse culture can rest easy because Avengers: Endgame is not really something that can be spoiled. Sadly, there are few genuine surprises here. Just a lot of stuff happening. Constantly. For a very, very, long time.

Sure, a few key characters die off, many are brought back to life via some Back to the Future meets 1978’s Superman time travel shenanigans, and there’s the inevitable massive duel with Thanos and hordes of CGI creatures, but in the end, Disney has succeeded in swallowing its own tail. Working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo have fun with the quantum realm elements (powered by Paul Rudd’s Ant Man), turning the middle portion into a time travel heist where the Avengers must go back into the timelines of previous MCU movies and retrieve the Infinity Stones before Thanos does. Even as this section features clever reshuffling of events allowing our heroes to interact with their past selves, it plays more as a testament to corporate synergy than inspired storytelling. Some will view it as rewarding fans who have spent over a decade of their lives inside this universe, while the rest of us will see it clearly for what it is; just another way for Disney to monopolize its own product, repackage it, and sell it back to us.

For all of Infinity War’s flaws (and they were many), it was a film which actually dared to bum out its audience. Of course, the cynics already knew that the disintegrating core characters still had contractual obligations for more films, and yet there was still something thrilling about ending on such a downer note. Endgame course-corrects, but goes too far in the other direction, attempting to pump up the somber stakes and sentimental nonsense to the point where the effect becomes numbing rather than rousing. With the MCU’s most interesting characters lost to the finger-snapping void, we are left with sweeping arcs for bores like Captain America and Iron Man, both of which already have had multiple stand-alone movies. Why, for example, is Captain Marvel (Brie Larsen) reduced to a glorified cameo here? The film has an explanation, but it’s a lazy one; something about saving other planets in peril and whatnot. Since we know she’s the only one more powerful than Thanos, the writers must concoct a reason for her absence from such universe-altering events, and it isn’t the least bit convincing. Meanwhile, Thor is reduced to a one-joke punchline as a slacker/online troll who has “let himself go” chugging beer while showing off his drooping gut, but the gag feels like a fanboy construct for a new TV sitcom.

After all this time setting up a shared universe over the course of 11 years, Endgame ultimately comes down to white guy saviors with Messiah complexes. It’s no mistake that even though the final CGI-vomit battle features nearly every MCU character getting a chance to fight against Thanos, the film centers its emotional axis on the self-sacrifice of Tony Stark and Cap’s decision to travel back in time and give mortality a shot with his lost love. Just what we need more of in our popular culture; white men of a certain age proving they aren’t self-involved assholes when in actuality that’s exactly what they are. That’s probably why Iron Man’s final tearful goodbye to Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow, remember her?) rings so hollow. It’s just another sad rich dad playing his redemption card. Sorry, Mr. Stark. You’re still a colossal douche bag and no amount of finger-snapping will change that fact.

Avengers: Endgame lacks the spark of imagination which draws us to superhero stories. Instead, it exists as an impressively mounted advertising campaign; a cultural monolith feeding off our collective desire to drink the Disney Kool-Aid. While all of this may sound incredibly cynical, just think for a moment of this corporation’s own cynicism in repurposing their various products over and over simply to cannibalize the market. By appealing to the masses through decades of comic books, toys, and superhero iconography, Marvel has essentially made something for no one; a hulking ad continuing the homogenized “house style” which seems to run on an expensive algorithm. In the face of such things, film criticism is irrelevant. Dissenting voices will always lose. Capitalism; which is exemplified by long-running serialized storytelling and extended universes, will always win.



 

Her Smell

 

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Eric Stoltz, Cara Delevigne, Amber Heard, Eka Darville, Lindsay Burdge, Virginia Madsen

Director: Alex Ross Perry

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

elizabeth-moss-smell-poster.jpg

Alex Ross Perry has been both praised and criticized for making films with irredeemable characters. From the navel-gazing leads of The Color Wheel, to the egomaniacal NYC writers of Listen Up Philip and manic/depressive central figure in Queen of Earth, the writer-director has never shied away from the messy side of human nature. However, to say he goes out of his way to write “unlikeable” characters or revels in abrasiveness is a misunderstanding of his work. In fact, Perry would probably say he’s just writing what he’s drawn to; the complicated aspects of living on this planet and being forced to deal in close proximity with others. Perry never thumbs his nose or looks down on his characters. Only presents them, flaws and all, and asks us to wrestle with their behavior.

In his latest and most ambitious project, he’s cast Elisabeth Moss (in their third collaboration following Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth) as a snarling, coked up frontwoman of a grrrl riot trio. Many will see this as Perry’s most aggravating creation yet; a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, if you will, treating herself and everyone around her like human waste. Her Smell is a film which uses the rock star narrative usually reserved for asshole men and then gives us a female behaving badly.

When we first meet Becky Something (Moss), she and her bandmates have just finished a rousing set and retired to the confines of the venue’s dingy back rooms. Working with regular cinematographer Sean Prince Williams, Perry captures a feeling of roving claustrophobia as the camera follows Becky (often in long Steadicam shots) as she stumbles, slurs, gets high, and throws out witty insults. The self-destructive nature of the behind the scenes rock star life is nothing new, but there’s something hypnotic about Perry’s approach here. The other bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der (Gayle Rankin) are clearly at a loss in trying to curb Becky’s erratic behavior, and their manager, Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz) seems only concerned insofar as it impacts the bottom line. As the camera swirls and pushes in for closeups, scraping strings and detuned guitar feedback permeates the soundtrack; giving everything a disorienting atmosphere of unpredictability.

Perry throws us into this chaotic situation without context and then draws it out for as long as he can. When we do get backstory, it’s delivered via old camcorder recordings of Becky (often holding her baby) during a more sober period of her life. For the first hour or so, Her Smell is a psychological nightmare in which Moss unfurls a volcanic performance that might have been a bridge too far had she not been so adept at Perry’s loquacious dialogue. Much of the conversations here come off like smutty prose; as if Becky and her minions are rehearsing for a night of Shakespearean musical theater with the amps turned up. Moss’s uncanny physicality informs Becky’s manic energy which is always in performance mode, as we rarely see behind the curtain, even as her mother (Virginia Madsen) often shows up to reveal small cracks in the facade.

Moss will rightfully receive accolades for her work here, but as the band’s bassist, Deyn is actually the heart of the film acting as the audience surrogate. If Becky is loud and unruly, Marielle is more internal and calm. The way Deyn sits back and quietly takes in the tragedy occurring all around her is subtly devastating, and her scenes opposite Moss have an aching soulfulness missing from the rest of the film.

There’s a marked shift that occurs in the final third which is, in many respects, a bold move for Perry. As someone known for exposing the noxious undercurrents in human behavior, the move toward serenity comes as something of a shock. With Becky entering a period of sobriety at home, the camera becomes locked down, the compositions last longer, and the once anarchic tension of the film dissipates. Aesthetically, it’s a noble risk, and there are some nicely rendered moments of domesticity in this section, but it also takes the film into more predictable territory. Perhaps Perry learned a lesson from co-writing the script for studio project Christopher Robin, since the narrative here starts hitting the self-recovery beats of many rise and fall rock star stories. While this shift hinting at a “happy ending” certainly gives the film more widespread appeal, and even makes Becky’s awful behavior more understandable given the nature of her addictions, it also feels like Perry pulling back on what he does best.

Her Smell is a profoundly visceral experience confirming Perry’s gifts at balancing morbid humor with psychological horror movie theatrics. Had he burrowed even deeper into the black hole of Becky Something; exposing the 90’s alt-rock scene as a bunch of drugged-out posers pretending to not be excited about landing on the cover of Spin, and the film may have truly lingered as a companion piece to Penelope Spheeris's incisive The Decline of Western Civilization. Instead, it’s just another story of an asshole musician (albeit a woman this time) going off the rails and then coming back again for one more song.




Peterloo

 

Cast: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, David Moorst, Rachel Finnegan, Tom Meredith, Karl Johnson, Tim McInnerny 

Director: Mike Leigh

Running time: 2 hours 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

MV5BMGM0NDRiMDktYWQzOC00OWEzLTg2ODctM2M0MzNkNTdmNGU3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODE1MjMyNzI@._V1_.jpg

The 1819 massacre in Manchester which killed 15 and wounded hundreds when cavalrymen began shooting and trampling workers demanding political reform is a sad chapter in British history. To that end, there’s very few filmmakers more equipped to bring such an event to the screen than writer-director Mike Leigh, whose impressive body of work has consistently shown sympathy for the British working-class. Even if his concerns more adroitly address modern blue-collar life, Leigh’s period films such as Vera Drake and Mr. Turner have taken historical context and narrowed the scope to focus on intimate relationships. His latest film, Peterloo, favors a long view take on the organizational elements of the suffrage movement while sacrificing the personal aspects. Therefore, the long-winded speechifying and monologues (of which there are many) are interesting only in a broad sense. Overall, the film lacks the sense of righteous indignation this story truly demands.

Part of the problem here is Leigh’s decision to introduce a sprawling cast of characters without bothering to flesh them out beyond broad strokes. There are extremists, moderates, and those unsure where to place their trust, and if there’s a lead character here, it might be the arrogant Henry Hunt (Rory Kinear), a charismatic speaker who many hope will sway the masses. Mostly, the film sets up these clashing perspectives and then runs in circles with a series of meetings held in secret. Rarely do we get any insight into the inner lives of these people, which makes the tragic conclusion feel all the more removed.

Leigh does illustrate the ways in which the elite are abusing the lower class, and scenes of magistrates dressed garishly in extravagant rooms while complaining about the poor are one-dimensional yet effective, with Magistrate Rev Etlhelson (Vincent Franklin) in particular shouting into the void like a buffoon. However, such moments are repeated so often that the film begins veering into the realm of satire without the bite needed to fully land its comedic punch.

Working with cinematographer Dick Pope (who also shot the gorgeous Mr. Turner), Leigh successfully channels the look of the era, but there’s something unusually flat about the compositions here which makes one long for the wildly unpredictable tenor of early films like Meantime and Naked. Peterloo is meticulously staged and well-meaning, and even if the climax is handled with a sure-handed verisimilitude, there’s very little in the way of meaningful catharsis. Since the film is presented as such an exacting history lesson, this moment of chaotic violence is probably supposed to jar the audience into shock and awe, but it works only in the technical sense. Leigh never invites us in. Never bothers to open us up to these people aside from their ideologies. Never presents their zeal and anger at a broken system from an emotional perspective.

Peterloo is a misfire, but it’s parallels with modern day issues of militarized law enforcement and economic inequality are alarmingly familiar. Had Leigh invested these themes with the same kind of intimacy and personal anguish of his past work, then this could have been yet another rousing call to action. Instead, the film lacks the one thing any type of political reform needs to be successful; the plight of the individual.




Dragged Across Concrete

 

Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Jennifer Carpenter, Michael Jai White, Laurie Holden, Don Johnson, Udo Kier

Director: S. Craig Zahler

Running time: 2 hours 39 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

81ryeU08+vL._SY679_.jpg

Dragged Across Concrete is not for the faint-hearted nor the politically correct. The writer-director, S. Craig Zahler, has been down this road before with Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, both of which were apolitical films interested in the mechanics of violence and human apathy. Here, Zahler takes the mundanity of American life and heightens the particulars; setting his film in an unspecified city while following stereotypically grizzled characters as they combat poverty, crime, and bigotry. Every so often, an act of violence happens abruptly; emphasizing the ways in which idealized thinking is absurd when it comes to dealing with such things on a daily basis. Zahler’s aim here is to probe this division; calling into question liberal think-pieces about racism and violence penned by those existing in a place of privilege. Of course, this makes Dragged Across Concrete a have-it-both-ways kind of genre exercise; reveling in “politically incorrect” dialogue while also revealing our sick cultural fascination with violence.

When we first meet detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson), and his partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), they are using excessive force while arresting a Hispanic drug dealer. Naturally, a civilian captures the entire encounter via cell phone, leading to the two men’s suspension, much to the dismay of their superior, Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson). Meanwhile, African-American ex-con Henry (Tory Kittles), is released from prison and instantly struggles to provide for his disabled wheelchair-bound son, which mirrors Ridgeman’s multiple sclerosis-plagued wife, Melanie (Laurie Holden). Zahler spends much of the film’s first act cutting back and forth between the cops’ dealing with their suspension and Henry’s entrance back into the world of crime. There’s a deep-seated cynicism and macabre wit to Zahler’s writing which gives his actors time to rattle off snappy lines or simply react to situations without the need for moving the plot along. To that end, we are constantly shifting our allegiances as the film confronts us with the ugliness of human nature while also endearing us, to a certain degree, with characters we might ordinarily find reprehensible.

One could read Dragged Across Concrete as a right wing fantasy for the good old days when men spoke their minds without fear of repercussion, but that would also infer Zahler is actually interested in politics. Truthfully, the film seems to exist more as a paean to the time where art could be disreputable and provocative, which brings us to the casting of Gibson, whose own career trajectory aligns with Ridgeman in how character and actor have been pushed out of the spotlight (rightfully so) for deeply problematic behavior. For what it’s worth, Gibson’s performance here as a man doing dirty work inside the gutter of a society who no longer respects him is both disturbing and vulnerable. He has a nicely weathered chemistry with Vaughn, who tamps down his usual motor-mouthed shtick as a guy who doesn’t acknowledge his own privilege (he has an African-American girlfriend, which of course, means he’s not racist).

Zahler uses the framework of a typical action thriller; wherein the two out-of-work cops attempt to rob drug dealers, and morphs it into a boldly subversive take on the genre. Nearly 90 minutes in, and new characters are still being introduced, including Euro killer, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) and a struggling mother, Kelly (Jennifer Carpenter), who returns to her bank job after maternal leave. Such tangents give the film a more expansive scope; and when the moments of brutal violence occur, they pack a wallop because Zahler has taken the time to slowly introduce us to this world and the people populating it. When Ridgeman and Lurasetti eventually find themselves in a stand-off with the drug dealers, the action is paired down and methodical, stretching out into a nearly 30 minute suspense set-piece. Meanwhile, Henry’s scrappy ex-con eventually engages in a tenuous alliance with Ridgeman, which leads to a brilliantly prolonged scene where the two men simply drive and occasionally check their rearview mirrors. Its theses exacting details which are usually left on the cutting room floor in other films that Zahler luxuriates in.

Dragged Across Concrete confirms Zahler as a studious maker of trashy genre entertainment which is unusually attune to the rhythms of middle class life. His vision is nihilistic and unsparing, but also not without humor or pathos. There’s a trolling element to the ways in which the film wants to prod liberal idealism, but it’s also never endorsing the repellent behavior of its characters. More than simply an empty provocation, Dragged Across Concrete is epic pulp; a slow-paced, tense, talky slice of genre filmmaking which revels in its dichotomies.