Captain Marvel

 

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Clark Gregg, Lee Pace

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck 

Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Within the ever-expanding, box office-bursting, decade-plus journey of the Marvel cinematic universe, do we really need yet another origin story? Well, the truth of the matter is Captain Marvel exists mostly to prime salivating fanboys for the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame, in which Carol Danvers (aka Vers/Captain Marvel) will presumably go head to head with finger-snapping supervillain Thanos. However, for all the cynicism laced into these corporate products, there’s something pleasurable about directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 1990s-set romp; right down to cheesy needle drop music cues and obvious jokes about dial up Internet and Radio Shack. There’s some convoluted cosmic business involving Vers training with her Kree mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) in order to do battle with an alien race known as the Skrulls, but that more or less comprises the film’s opening 20 minutes.

Once Vers crash lands on earth through the roof of a Blockbuster Video circa 1995, she casually glances at a VHS copy of The Right Stuff before teaming up with Samuel L. Jackson’s government agent Nick Fury (aided by uncanny de-aging tech) in order to stop the imminent Skrull invasion. Boden and Fleck’s screenplay, co-written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet, uses its feminist-leaning messaging bluntly; which may offend those wanting more scenes of Vers smiling while kicking ass. To wit, there’s even a nifty scene where a scuzzy dude on a motorcycle asks her for a smile, and she responds by stealing his bike and peeling off; set to the blaring sounds of 90s alt-rock band Hole. All of this brings us to Brie Larsen; who takes a rather impossible role and delivers a performance full of wit, humor, earnestness, and (yes) emotion. Another critical aspect of Carol Danvers’s backstory; leaked out gradually through flashbacks and memory spurts, is that her emotional velocity often overcame her ability to think rationally. She’s spent a lifetime getting knocked down and ridiculed (as a child by her father, in the military, at bars teeming with sexists), and the early moments with Law’s overseer are key in terms of implementing this gendered messaging. The arc of her character, therefore, is simple yet empowering; that she must befriend and accept her emotions as her greatest strength in order to become the powerful hero humanity deserves.

In terms of plotting and execution, Captain Marvel is decidedly middle of the road (as is the case, sadly, with the majority of these movies). There’s a chase scene set on a train involving a shape-shifting Skrull (and one limber old lady) that’s kinetic and well paced, and the buddy cop banter between Larson and Jackson works well enough. Ben Mendolhlsen also shows up as a Skrull named Talos, and what at first appears to be yet another rote villain role for the talented actor becomes something more nuanced, humorous, and surprising. However, the intergalactic space battles and third act where Danvers (now fully transformed into Captain Marvel) flies through ships like a human photon blast, are par for the course; the kind of rubbery pre-visualized CGI action beats which may give audiences what they expect, but diminish the film’s stronger attributes.

Speaking of which, the film’s best section involves Danvers making a pit stop to visit her former Air Force friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), and their quiet scenes together, mostly involving the bond they once shared, is truly something we haven’t seen in a Marvel film before. It’s a bold move; since most audiences will probably want Danvers to snap out of her amnesia-ridden state and just start exercising her powers, but the fact that Boden and Fleck actually invest time in this female friendship is noteworthy.

As Captain Marvel moves towards its inevitable climatic showdown (and setup for Avengers: Endgame), we get a cute cat, more jokes about slow CD-rom drives, and even a fight scene scored to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” Even if the film ultimately adopts the studio house style and only adds a few new (or in this case, retro) wrinkles to an existing template, Larsen’s intelligent determination, emotional pathos, and photon-blasting hands are more than enough to maintain balance in the MCU. Just don’t ask her to smile more.


Transit

 

Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Barbara Auer, Matthias Brandt, Sebastian Hülk, Emilie de Preissac, Antoine Oppenheim, Ronald Kukulies, Alex Brendemühl

Director: Christian Petzold

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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In films like Barbara and Phoenix, German writer-director Christian Petzold mined past atrocities for subversive effect, and his latest film Transit, plays like a political noir wrapped in an anachronistic setting where past and present collide. An adaptation of Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel of same name which focused on the authors’ escape from Nazi Germany to France, Petzold’s version uses time elliptically; almost as if events are taking place in an alternate-historical reality.

The narrative centers on a technician named Georg (Franz Rogowski), who carries the final manuscripts from a famous author who committed suicide into the safe zone of Marseilles. Georg hopes to flee to America but doesn’t have papers, and much of the film’s knotty plotting comes down to the implication of his hinted Jewishness. Within the world of the film, references are made to internment camps, but ethnicity is largely sidelined in favor of economic disparity. Of course, it’s not a stretch to link the two, and part of the brilliance of Transit is how it utilizes the modern-day milieu and then strips it of contemporary signifiers such as cellphones and computers.

Georg’s initial aim was to return the dead author’s manuscripts to his wife for a sum of money, but things take a turn once he becomes land-locked in Marseilles awaiting the approval of his transit visa. Through fluid editing and compositions shot through reflective surfaces, Petzold conjures a feeling of being stuck in a loop, as Georg continually gets trapped under layers of government bureaucracy. In the meantime, he strikes up a fatherly relationship with a young immigrant boy named Driss (Lilien Batman), and keeps having odd encounters with the hauntingly beautiful Marie (Paula Beers). Eventually, it’s revealed that she’s actually the deceased author’s wife, who keeps hoping her displaced husband will return. Georg and Marie’s meetings are baffling at first, but eventually their courtship becomes heartbreaking since both of them have been dehumanized. What Petzold is ultimately after is the idea of personal worth, of the ways in which the state strips away the identity of those deemed “less than human.” Like his Holocaust drama Phoenix, he does this not by using obvious allegory, but by suggesting that past transgressions are often filtered through historical generational trauma.

The indefinite time period where Transit unfolds makes the film intoxicating, as Petzold never betrays the noir signifiers by thumbing his nose at genre. At the same time, the picture’s ambiguity create a disorienting effect; as it’s never quite clear where the danger is coming from or even what the larger implications of the story are. By assuming the identity of the dead author, Georg essentially becomes a stand-in for all nameless refugees seeking escape. Meanwhile, an unseen narrator infiltrates the narrative as Georg begins reading the deceased’s novel; further highlighting the ways in which storytelling (unreliable or otherwise) is crucial to shaping our notions of history.

Transit could be labeled Kafkaesque in how it destabilizes the protagonist (who remains caught in a pile of red tape), but this also works similarly for the audience because it masterfully exploits our understanding of 21st century displacement. With the rise of Neo-Nazism and the deportation of immigrants on the rise, another period film about the Holocaust (however noble), might not carry the same weight since historical amnesia tends to set in. By giving us a speculative timeline and characters who are constantly shifting, Petzold cannily shows us that no matter what decade we find ourselves in, fascism is always poised to take center stage.




Everybody Knows

 

Cast: Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Jaime Lorent, Ricardo Darín, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Carla Campra, Eduard Fernández, Elvira Mínguez, Roger Casamajor, Sara Sálamo, Sergio Castellanos, Ramón Barea, Marianella Rojas

Director: Asghar Farhadi 

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Over the course of an exemplary career, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has perfected the domestic melodrama. However, the particular reference points of the genre; (i.e. sensational plotting, big emotions, and stereotypical characters) don’t exactly apply to the Farhadi brand because he’s always been after something more humane. His latest class consciousness thriller, Everybody Knows, allows him the rare opportunity to move away from the tightly restricted areas of Iran and embrace the wide open vistas of Madrid, Spain. The film still deals in usual Farhadian themes—betrayal, familial secrets, economic disparity— but this time the emotional lives of his characters aren’t operating inside an oppressive societal regime. Instead, the early sections of Everybody Knows maintains a light, sun-dappled tone; following working-class farmer, Paco (Javier Bardem), and his ex-lover Laura (Penélope Cruz), a woman of higher social standing who travels from Buenos Aires with her children to attend the wedding of her sister, Ana (Inma Cuesta).

Laura’s family is warm and boisterous (evidenced by the dancing/wine-guzzling wedding ceremony), but also bitter about their fortune being whittled away by her alcoholic husband. The small-town gossip spreads like wildfire as the film’s title suggests, implicating not only Paco and Laura’s past romance, but also the shocking disappearance of one of Laura’s daughters. This plot turn is unsurprising only because Farhadi has used this trick before in his devastating 2015 film About Elly, and the manner in which the family’s buried secrets trickle to the surface is also par for the course. In pictures like The Past and The Salesman, Farhadi managed to couch blunt symbolism and emotional rawness under the template of geographical, socioeconomic, and political specificity; coming off much denser than the usual garden variety melodrama. Unfortunately, Everybody Knows eschews this kind of subtlety; in part because the larger geographical canvas of Spain makes the proceedings less claustrophobic than the director’s Iran-set melodramas.

Whatever the case, Farhadi leans into the genre elements more forcefully here; getting caught up in narrative machinations involving the kidnapped teen, ransom money, and foreboding text messages. Of course, the actual answer to the mystery is never meant to be dramatically satisfying in a Farhadi film. Indeed, it’s the moral quandaries and class divisions which fuel his flawed characters that ultimately matters. However, too much time is spent moving Paco and Laura around like plot chess pieces to bother with the inner turmoil of their shared history, though Bardem and Cruz are infinitely watchable. By the end, it’s clear Farhadi has allowed the obviousness of his symbolism (escaping pigeons, a crumbling church) to overwhelm the emotional power at the heart of his story.

Everybody Knows has the shape and structure of vintage Asghar Farhadi, but lacks the searing humanism which earns its sentiments by actually engaging with the ugliness of human nature. This time, the soap-opera elements which have defined the filmmaker’s work are used not as entry points into the moral contradictions of his characters, but rather, as screenwriting contrivance.

Climax

 

Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaia Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibe, Ashley Biscette, Vince Galliot Cumant

 Director: Gaspar Noé

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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When it comes to extreme cinema, there are few modern voices as brazen as French filmmaker Gaspar Noé (aside from Lars von Trier, natch). His 2002 psycho-thriller Irreversible had two sequences worthy of the extreme pantheon; one where a man’s face is smashed to pulp by a fire extinguisher, and the other being the infamous rape scene filmed in one long, grueling shot. Then there was 2009’s Enter the Void; an out-of-body sensory experience where the camera was literally a floating POV traveling through the neon-lit hell of Tokyo, and yes, the lens at one point goes directly into a woman’s vaginal canal. With his latest button-pusher, Climax, Noé is up to his old tricks once again with arguably the best unintentional comedy of 2019 so far; a wildly overwrought descent into madness which plays like a Eurotrash version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò directed by a fleet of drone cameras.

To his credit, Noé does seem to understand the absurdity of his premise; setting his film entirely inside a grungy rehearsal space circa 1996, set to the throbbing sounds of EDM music. Populating these small quarters are a series of annoying archetypes who, when they aren’t dancing up a storm, are entertaining philosophical discussions about such things as the finer points of rimming. Truthfully, the film does contain one truly extraordinary sequence; an exuberant opening dance number where each performer gets a chance to strut their stuff with fearless physicality, and Noé is smart enough to capture this deranged ballet in one long continuous take. However, as soon as the rehearsals end, we are forced to endure long stretches of dialogue which consist mainly of racially and sexually diverse dancers talking shit and hoping to score in more ways than one. This inane banter is all set-up, naturally, for Noé’s predictable swerve into the nightmarish abyss. Someone, it seems, has spiked the sangria with LSD.

Part of the problem with Climax is the lack of characters to really invest in. Once the bad times start rolling after the acid kicks in, there’s very little reason to care about what happens to any of these poor souls. The film is mostly an exercise in extremes which reaches levels of comedic absurdity. Some of the personalities do come through, however; such as Romain Guillermic’s swaggering ladies man, Sofia Boutella’s bi-curious choreographer and big-boned DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile), who has a memorable moment chewing on a blonde wig once the drugs take flight. Ultimately, the film is less interested in the psychology of its performers than in the ways performance and movement can break down social order. As the dancers start “tripping”, Noé’s roving camera follows their spastic movements, hallucinations, euphoric freak-outs, and awful behavior in a voyeuristic manner suggesting that we too, as the audience, are under the influence. In a way, the film becomes a more ominous version of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where a group of wankers are unwilling (or unable) to leave their geographical space as the world closes in on them.

Unlike Buñuel, however, Noé lacks satiric imagination, and therefore the one-note maximalism of Climax starts to grow tedious, even as sequences where someone is set on fire or a woman punches herself in the stomach to abort her unborn baby play as comedic highlights. What’s supposed to be shocking and disturbing comes off more desperate than anything else; a telling example of a filmmaker making his name on shock tactics early in his career being pigeonholed into providing minor tweaks to the same formula. For some provocateurs, it can work over the long haul, (see von Trier’s masterful meta-commentary The House That Jack Built), but in this case, provocation without actual ideas can feel a lot like drinking the spiked cinematic sangria. Noé urgently wants us to come away with a visceral sense of shock and awe, but what’s really left after all the bodies stop twitching, is a soft tickle in the funny bone.

High Flying Bird

 

Cast: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Anyone expecting a nuts and bolts sports movie with underdog motifs and come-from-behind victory laps will be largely baffled by Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird; a film which digs into “the game on top of the game.” Of course, this comes as little surprise given the director’s track record for setting up familiar story beats and then pivoting away to explore other ideas. Along with screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), Soderbergh has taken themes of technology, wealth, and sports negotiations and placed them within the context of white capitalist power structures. In that sense, High Flying Bird is more about endemic racism than characters dealing with an NBA lockout.

The film centers on agent Ray Burke (André Holland), who is vouching for young NBA draft pick hopeful Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) amidst a stalemate between team owners and the Players Association. The former is represented by Kyle MacLachlan’s invisible mustache-twirling villain and the latter by Myra (Sonja Sohn), who seems to have the players best interests at heart. There’s also Ray’s assistant (Zazie Beetz) running her own game against the system, as well as a smug exec played by Zachary Quinto, who’s constantly reminding everyone how their jobs are in jeopardy due to the lockout. With a very sharp script by McCraney, whose heightened dialogue is reminiscent of the works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, High Flying Bird initially positions itself as a modern take on fighting against the powers that be, but that would ultimately be too easy a position (however understandable) for the film to take. Instead, Soderbergh and McCraney go one step further; showing how Ray’s attempts at breaking the rules in order to start a revolution would have consequences that not everyone, including people of color, would be on board with.

One such dissenter comes in the form of Bill Duke’s Bronx gym coach, who has been around the block several times over and has more of a long game view of the situation than Ray. At one point, he even asks the question “why set it up, if it isn’t going to last forever?” which underlines the dichotomy of reforming a system built upon wealthy whites profiting from a largely African-American sport. On the other hand, the film is also smart about showing how the allure of fame, money, and popularity can trap young black athletes into following the rules set up by this institution. This struggle, personified by Gregg’s green NBA prospect, is bracketed by interview scenes with real-life players talking about the personal and professional challenges that come from signing to the league.

This being a Soderbergh joint, there’s also another layer which permeates the ways in which the characters interact with their environment. Specifically, the film was shot entirely on an iPhone (like last year’s psycho-drama Unsane), and this filmmaking freedom acts as a counterpoint to how media can signal change by putting the power back into the hands of black athletes. To wit, there’s even a one-on-one game between Erick and another NBA hopeful that’s captured entirely on a phone, uploaded to the Internet, and spread across social media like a wildfire. The idea of players taking to the streets or gyms in order to gain traction against corrupt patriarchal greed is telling, and Soderbergh’s aesthetic choices—sharp angles, floating dolly shots, rigid camera pans—mirror a world where information comes in trending bursts.

Eventually, Ray’s scheme to upend the system by giving players more creative and financial power makes High Flying Bird a subversive sports movie which entertains through crisp filmmaking, snappy dialogue, and fine-tuned performances, but also nails the disturbing nature of an economic system based on racial injustice. There’s even a Chekhov's’s manilla folder containing a “Bible” given to Erick by Ray in the film’s opening moments; and its eventual reveal, set to the sounds of Richie Havens, is the kind of punctuation more rousing than any game-winning buzzer beater.

Velvet Buzzsaw

 

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Natalia Dyer, Peter Gadiot, Daveed Diggs, Tom Sturridge

Director: Dan Gilroy

Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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If writer-director Dan Gilroy had his way, negative responses to his latest satire/horror thriller Velvet Buzzsaw would inevitably be destroyed in a mixture of splattered paint and gushing blood, because taking down something this thoroughly mediocre would involve a level of elitism not unlike the film’s central character, critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal). Similar to the dated satire of news journalists as vampires in Gilroy’s 2014 film Nightcrawler, Velvet Buzzsaw is here to announce how the art world is a farce championing commercialism over the purity of outsider art. All of this brought to you by the cynical cash cow that is Netflix, of course.

Truthfully, there’s a nifty idea here in regards to art taking vengeance on exploiters, but Gilroy never trusts the lunacy of that premise. Instead, most of the picture spins its wheels making obvious points about art dealers while trotting out a variety of clichéd character types. Along with Gyllenhaal’s glib critic, there’s world-weary gallery owner, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), struggling gallery employee Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Daveed Digs as a local artist, Toni Collette in a bad blonde wig, John Malkovich as a former alcoholic painter, and young receptionist Coco (Natalia Dyer), who, in one of the film’s decent gags, keeps finding dead bodies. From a visual standpoint, Gilroy’s streamlined aesthetic has a certain efficiency, even as the self-conscious filmmaking (complete with a shot where the camera glides through a glass of champagne), never fully leans into its B-movie potential.

Eventually, Josephina discovers a bunch of abandoned paintings following the death of a neighbor, and seeking a way to break into the art world club, brings them to Rhodora, who starts selling at a fever clip. The paintings themselves are pastoral depictions of trauma, but naturally, the rich salivate over their supposed brilliance all the same. Gradually, a supernatural presence unleashes itself upon those who merely hope to profit from the artwork, veering Velvet Buzzsaw into the realm of camp horror. A little of this absurd bloodletting goes a long way, but since the characters here are all cartoons placed against art installation backdrops, there’s very little investment in their demise. Gilroy has manufactured his film to be a joke that’s also in on the joke, but there’s only so many gif-worthy images one can pull out until the whole thing collapses under the weight of low-hanging fruit.

At one point, Gyllenhaal’s snobby critic (who becomes increasingly unhinged during the final act in that very particular way of Gyllenhaal going unhinged these days), bellows “the admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated!" to a young artist. The line is a form of Gilroy critic-proofing his own film, all but admitting that Velvet Buzzsaw is purposeful trash. Therefore, what could have been a pulp answer to Ruben Östlund’s The Square (with shades of David Cronenberg’s lacerating Maps to the Stars), instead turns into a smug Black Mirror episode (minus the tech phobia) where pissed off paintings become Freddy Krueger. Which begs the question. Why debate the merits of art, the rights of an artist, or even why dealers are obsessed with finding the next big thing (aside from financial gain) when the answers are this self-defeating?


The Wild Pear Tree

 

Cast: Dogu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir, Bennu Yildirimlar, Hazar Ergüçlü, Serkan Keskin, Tamer Levent 

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Running time: 3 hours 8 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There’s a scene near the beginning of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree where the film’s central protagonist, disillusioned writer Sinan (Dogu Demirkol) stumbles upon an old crush (a sublime Hazar Ergüçlü) while strolling past a massive tree. The scene plays out casually; allowing the passive-aggressive dialogue between these two people with a shared history to flow with the rhythms of a realistic conversation. The role of language has always been important in Ceylan’s films, but his use of elegiac visuals (at one point, the camera even pulls away to bask in the sunlit leaves softly rustling in the wind), de-emphasizes narrative structure; highlighting how language can form the basis for personal, political, and moral ideals.

Ceylan has crafted talky anti-narratives before in films like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Winter Sleep, and The Wild Pear Tree continues in this tradition by being less a coming-of-age story concerning a young writer and more about how lives are molded by time. Centering on Sinan’s aimless intellectual (who comes across like the Turkish version of Llewyn Davis from the Coen Brothers’s Inside Llewyn Davis), as he returns to his hometown after graduating from college, the film initially situates itself as a commentary about young ideals pitted against old world values. This includes the strained relationship he has with his father Idris (Murat Cemcir), who harbors an addiction to horse betting. With a degree in Literature and a newly finished novel (described as a genre-less “meta autobiography”) that he hopes to publish, Sinan is gradually revealed to be a self-involved bore, and this is a crucial point. Whereas a character like Llewyn Davis was presented as a romantic cynic, Sinan’s idealism stems from the naiveté of youth, and yet, his anger remains at least somewhat sympathetic.

As Sinan flounders (even bombing a teacher’s exam that may have secured him a job somewhere in the east), the prickly relationship between him and his father rises to the surface. Meanwhile, his mother (Bennu Yildirimlar) seems to berate Idris for his irresponsible behavior while also holding onto her romanticized past memories of him. However, the family drama here is only part of Ceylan’s ultimate aim; as the film takes digressions involving politics, religion, and literature where Sinan finds himself wrapped up in lengthy conversations with old friends, acquaintances, and in one extended scene, a famous local writer (Serkan Keskin). In a way, the film’s stylistic flourishes—long takes, tracking shots, jarring jump cuts—often detach us from Sinan’s endless moaning; luxuriating in the open vistas and sun-kissed landscapes which he takes for granted.

The Wild Pear Tree is loose and meandering, but never gratuitous. One could reduce the thematic message down to the role of male ancestry and which sins are inherited from father to son and which ones are learned, but that would assume the film is primarily about Sinan’s coming-of-age. There are allusions to political upheaval in Turkey (represented most clearly during a phone conversation Sinan has with a friend in which they laugh about the beating of a student protester) as well as how the tourist industry has affected the economy, which gives the film a broader contextual scope. The density of the conversations here (both in terms of content and how long Ceylan allows them to transpire) and the impressionistic visuals lend The Wild Pear Tree a powerfully cumulative effect. Therefore, the film’s final image can be read in multiple ways— etched by melancholy, despair, and hope— landing with indelible force because we have spent so much time with these characters. Sinan’s morose worldview, too, comes into greater focus. By the end, even he seems haunted and touched by the passage of time.



Glass

Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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M. Night Shyamalan has always been a charlatan. Taking any of his films seriously (yes, even The Sixth Sense) is actually doing the writer-director a disservice, since he works firmly in the register of the B-movie. 2000’s Unbreakable was low-key and ponderous, but also undeniably goofy. The Village was a disastrous in-joke about his penchant for plot twists. Lady in the Water was a deconstruction of how a writer of kitsch campfire stories could actually be the savior of mankind (played, unsurprisingly, by Shyamalan himself). His 2016 hit Split, wherein James McAvoy portrayed a multiple personality serial killer, delayed its true intentions as a belated sequel (and villain origin story) for Unbreakable, where a grumpy Bruce Willis showed up in the final shot. Shyamalan’s latest project, Glass, is the climax of a trilogy; converging story threads from two films separated by some 16 years into one unwieldy genre clash. Whatever one ultimately thinks of Glass, you have to hand it to Shyamalan; the guy is doing whatever he wants with a mixture of ego, earnestness, and self-aware humor.

The films begins where Split left off, with Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) going through a variety of his personalities while terrified cheerleaders huddle chained together inside an abandoned warehouse. Enter David Dunn, aka “The Overseer” (Bruce Willis) who is still doing his under the radar crime-fighting thing throughout Philadelphia, except now under the guise of a security company, co-led by his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his Unbreakable role). Dunn sleepily (or is it just Willis’s somnolent acting?) locates McAvoy’s super villain (aka “The Horde” or “The Beast”) and has a pushing/punching mini fight with him while freeing the shell-shocked teen girls. Shortly thereafter, both are caught by the authorities and thrown into a mental institution run by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a gaslighting psychiatrist bent on convincing superheroes they are simply mentally unwell. Dunn’s locked chamber is fitted with water cannons (his kryptonite), while Crumb’s cell is padded with strobing lights which cause him to switch personalities whenever they flash. Obviously, this last bit is merely a ploy in order for McAvoy to launch into his acting exercise at a fever pitch, and a little of this thespian mugging goes a long way (especially when the other actors are so sedated), but the gimmick starts to wear thin by the film’s midpoint.

Dr. Staple’s aim is to pit rationalism against faith, and Shyamalan believes so strongly in the strength of his scattered ideas (it’s the power of cinema, get it?) that the middle portion of Glass plays like the kind of self-reflecting lesson about believing in the power of magic not seen since the days of Lady in the Water. Of course, there’s a third character in this insane asylum triangle; Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price (aka “Mr. Glass”) the brittle bone disease comic-obsessive who was revealed as a master supervillain during the climax of Unbreakable. In a stroke of perversity, Shyamalan chooses to have the titular star of his movie remain heavily drugged, twitching, drooling, and not uttering a word for the first 70 minutes. Meanwhile, Dunn’s son is trying to convince Dr. Staple that his pops is just a curmudgeonly good samaritan, while Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the captive set free by the Horde in Split, and Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) seek their own methods in trying to liberate the captives.

The way to read Glass in which it isn’t a complete misfire is the idea that disappointment is crucial to Shyamalan’s sense of misdirection. In setting up expectations for a certain kind of movie, he goads the audience into thinking they are getting a small-scale comic book retort to the MCU, when in actuality, there are two separate genres clashing together here; the superhero film and the B-movie psychological thriller. While the film doesn’t work in the traditional sense—with its clunky dialogue, uneven pacing, and laughable contrivances—when has a Shyamalan movie ever worked in the traditional sense? Some will see his observations about comics (complete with cringe-worthy meta dialogue and dated references) as being some 20 years behind the curve, but the world of Glass (like Split and Unbreakable before it) doesn’t take place in the real world. In a way, Elijah Price’s masterplan (involving a villain team-up, institution jail break, and showdown in a parking lot) is yet another misdirection practical joke. There’s even a wink towards a spectacular fight atop a skyscraper between Dunn and The Horde, but if one thinks that’s ever going to happen, one hasn’t been paying attention to Shyamalan’s career.

There are simple pleasures to be found in the film’s aesthetics—gliding camera work, odd angles, striking lighting choices—and Jackson in particular gives a neurotic, wounded performance during the film’s final third. However, if the whiff of a climax; complete with multiple rug pulls involving shamrock tattoos and a dangerous puddle of water makes one laugh in disbelief, then that also infers Shyamalan has ever been able (or willing) to let go of his dopey tendencies. The man has always been a charlatan. His films operate snugly in the realm of pulp. When, in trying to diagnose the problems plaguing our heroes and villains, Dr. Staple says, “My work concerns a particular type of delusion of grandeur”, she is, of course, talking about Shyamalan’s self-mythologizing ego. Having faith in yourself (despite personal failures like The Village, The Last Airbender, and The Happening) is the real superpower, and thinking the anti-superhero therapy session Glass would provide any other insights is like expecting a twist ending where none exists.



If Beale Street Could Talk

 

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry

Director: Barry Jenkins

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

This line, spoken by Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) while visiting her lover Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) at a prison visiting area, is at the heart of Barry Jenkins’s swooning adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk. The film’s understanding of Baldwin’s prose and ideological constructs informs the aesthetic choices (from characters looking directly into the camera), to the way emotional breakthroughs are delivered through literal and figurative obstacles. Above all, Jenkins (by way of Baldwin) gets at how America’s prejudices often obliterate the integrity of authentic love.

From the outset, If Beale Street Could Talk uses a fractured narrative which dips in and out of Tish’s recollections. Her pregnancy with Fonny’s child informs the structure, not to mention familial strife, even as Fonny remains in prison awaiting trial for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). Though he insists he didn’t commit the crime (and has various witnesses attesting to his alibi), the justice system is set up to incriminate African American men for simply living in a certain geographical area. During an early scene, Tish admits being pregnant to her mother, Sharon (Regina King) and father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), which creates a palpable sense of tension in the room. Tish’s body language is cautious, hesitant, and expecting the worse; she is, after all, young and unmarried, with the father of her child in jail. When her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) stands up and gives her a vote of confidence, things lead to an extraordinary sequence where Fonny’s judgmental mother (Aunjanue Ellis) attempts to use the Bible to shame and condemn, only to be beat down (literally) by Tish’s family unit. It’s a moment of startling pain and empathy; reaffirming the idea that no matter the hardships, we all need each other in order to survive.

As he did with Moonlight, Jenkins is working in an impressionistic register; informing scenes with a melancholy sweep which gives us an emotional headspace in which to internalize the narrative. The dreamy aesthetic works both as a shorthand for love’s unpredictable ebb and flow, as well as conjuring an almost displaced sense of time. Rather than using stylistic flourishes as empty posturing, however, Jenkins situates the lyricism as a means for tapping into darker, more uncomfortable truths. For example, a shot where Sharon arrives at an airport in Puerto Rico is filmed in a tableau bursting with color and slow-motion, emphasizing the mother’s stern determination to save her daughter’s situation. The very next scene, however, upends this by showing her fidgeting uneasily with a variety of wigs in order to appear more confident. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and King (who is sublime throughout) absolutely nails the combination of desperation and pathos.

There are other times where the film achieves this kind of balance, such as a long conversation between Fonny and old school buddy Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). While things begin jovially, the discussion takes a somber turn once Daniel begins talking about his time in prison. His admission of white men being the devil and his irrevocable trauma for what he’s endured locates the sense of hopelessness African Americans feel while navigating a system built to subjugate them. Therefore, Jenkins’s film is not only a tragic love story, but also a portrait of the dehumanization (physically and spiritually) people of color experience through America’s racist systems.

At times, If Beale Street Could Talk traffics in stereotypes (Ed Skrein’s racist cop, Diego Luna’s saintly Hispanic waiter, and Dave Franco’s woke Jewish realtor come to mind), but such archetypes simply reinforce the different forces swirling around Tish and Fonny’s romantic courtship. There are evil forces in the world, and benevolent ones. There are also innocent forces, as evident in the birth of Tish and Fonny’s child, who wails at a world ready to devour him. This duality; of tragedy and hope—where the father remains unlawfully caged while the child roams freely— is central to Baldwin’s mix of cynicism and conviction. For his part, Jenkins honors this ideology while also making something that feels very much his own; full of life, love, and heartbreak.

The Favourite

 

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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No one is ever going to accuse Yorgos Lanthimos of selling out and going Hollywood, but his latest effort, The Favourite, is probably the closest he’s ever come to making a crowd-pleaser. With a streamlined script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, the Greek auteur’s penchant for meandering storytelling (as seen in films like Dogtooth and The Lobster) has been reigned in, though he certainly doesn’t skimp on the arty flourishes. With flashes of anachronistic costuming, foul-mouthed dialogue, and comedic detours, The Favourite is mostly an off-beat lark, though what’s most surprising here is just how much Lanthimos actually shows empathy for his characters.

Taking place in the early 18th century, the film follows the gout-infested, childish Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest friend and secret lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who has survived multiple horrors in order to arrive at Kensington Palace seeking employment. Upon learning of the Queen and Sarah’s clandestine romantic relationship, Abigail hatches a scheme to seduce the Queen as a power move to climb up the royal ranks. What follows is a lively, if surprisingly straightforward (for Lanthimos), three-way costume/character drama. There are elements of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship in the modernized banter, and even Albert Serra’s tragicomic The Life and Death of Louis XIV in the depiction of silly wigs and deteriorating bodies. However, Lanthimos doesn’t completely trust the screenplay’s subversive streak and occasionally gets in his own way; using a variety of low-angle camera placements, fish eye lenses, and showy whip pans.

The aesthetic garishness of The Favourite is only mildly annoying, seeing as how the film really exists as a showcase for three sublime performances. Colman pouts, whines, and acts like a spoiled child, but there’s a heartbreaking sense of arrested development as we learn little snippets of her past; including why she keeps 17 caged rabbits in her bedroom. A scene where she gorges on cake in between bouts of inconsolable tears is both disturbing and funny, which is exactly the tone Colman strikes throughout. Weisz, meanwhile, probably has the film’s most deliciously mean-spirited dialogue, and she delivers it with swaggering confidence that we later learn is somewhat of a mask for the genuine feelings she has for the queen. Stone uses the familiarity audiences have with her screen presence to disarming effect as she plots, schemes, and undergoes the movie’s most satisfying character arc. Nicholas Hoult’s supporting turn as young minister Robert Harley is also worth noting as the lone male figure with prominent screen time; a powdered dandy with power who underestimates all three women and becomes, in a nice gender reversal, something of an emasculated pawn.

The Favourite features a twisted love triangle which also happens to include a waging war with France, increased taxes, and broader issues lurking just outside the confines of the royal court. Lanthimos seems most interested in the private tug-of-war between the three women, which includes a “sex positive” queerness angle which plays refreshingly matter-of-factly, but after an intriguing buildup, the film refuses to push into unexpected territory during the third act. Perhaps it’s a compliment that Lanthimos doesn’t embrace his inner weirdness as an alienating construct like much of his past work, but instead, trusts his actors to provide most of the engagement. However, just when you think he may be going for softball ending, the final shot refracts everything we’ve seen into a nightmarish hall of mirrors; reinforcing the notion that when it comes to power, human beings really are grotesque animals.

Vox Lux

 

Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott

Director: Brady Corbet

Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There’s a potentially provocative idea at the heart of Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, visualized during the opening moments in which a school shooting massacre launches the career of a girl who survived the incident. There’s something perverse about the collision of pop culture and violence, and the way in which Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) pen a song in memory of their slain friends which becomes an anthem for a grieving nation. As Willem Dafoe’s omnipresent narrator explains, Celeste changes the “I” to “we,” in the song’s chorus; reconfiguring personal pain as universal. The tune turns into a chart-topping hit, thrusting Celeste into pop stardom guided by her scuzzy manager (Jude Law). However, the notion of pop culture’s relation to mental illness or national tragedies is never fully explored, and instead Vox Lux becomes a rather thin pop star in decline narrative; complete with a grown up Celeste (Natalie Portman) struggling with alcoholism and the trappings of fame.

Structured in three parts with foreboding titles like “Prelude 1999,” “Act I: Genesis 2000-2001,” and “Regenesis 2017,” Vox Lux takes a lot of time going nowhere while saying nothing particularly of interest. By framing Celeste’s introduction into celebrity culture around the wide-ranging tide of history (911 is mentioned fleetingly), and a present day terrorist attack where the assailants don masks similar to ones used in one of Celeste’s early music videos, Corbet ends up replicating the very things he’s denouncing. Vox Lux is about the emptiness of the pop culture machine and how people who become famous at an early age never mature emotionally beyond that point, which is exemplified by Portman’s grating performance as a star in meltdown mode. Taking on a generic New Jersey accent and flailing about with calculated gestures, Portman’s acting here is unintentionally hilarious. Meanwhile, the film’s commentary on the superficiality of celebrity is laughably self-serious (complete with Dafoe’s philosophical narration and Scott Walker’s thunderous score), without any satirical humor to offset the somber tone.

The film’s final act involves Celeste’s return to her home town of Stanton Island for a concert. There’s a forced reconciliation with her estranged sister Ellie (still played by Stacy Martin) and her daughter Albertine (played by Raffey Cassidy, aka the young Celeste). There’s an extended scene where mother and daughter go to a diner where she berates a fan, and a throwaway line of dialogue mentioning a car accident settlement and racist tirade, but for the most part, Corbet steers away from anything resembling psychological depth. His real aim seems to be to approximate the kind of disposable narrative arcs regarding celebrities which have become commonplace. To that end, the climax is an extended concert where Portman robotically dances, thrusts, and belts out generic pop bangers flanked by glittery, sci-fi inspired backup dancers. Corbet wants to thumb his nose at pop culture’s brutality and the “branding” of American life, but sadly, he lacks any real understanding of how pop music actually functions in society.

Vox Lux is the kind of anti-poptimist vehicle which is just as vapid as say, the angle of A Star is Born, where pursuing one’s artistic dreams is all that matters. As a distillation of how pain, tragedy, and self-destruction is good for pop branding, Vox Lux is banal, glib, and condescending; adopting the same signifiers it’s seeking to condemn. At one point, the young Celeste says, “I don’t want people to have to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.” By contrast, Corbet also doesn’t want people to have to think too hard. He just wants them to feel bad.

Roma

 

Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Fernando Gregiaga, Daniela Demesa, Carlos Peralta, Nancy Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The introductory shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is minimal yet ostentatious. The frame is fixed on a cobble stone street as water sloshes back and forth, creating a mirror which captures a plane flying overhead. As the camera tilts upward revealing a maid cleaning dog feces off the driveway, the image becomes a microcosm of the ways in which the film will straddle the line between authenticity and wistful impression. It’s the kind of opening salvo only a filmmaker of Cuarón’s caliber could pull off, and yet it emphasizes his tendency toward affected formalism. In films like Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón proved his ability to stage mind-boggling tracking shots and uninterrupted long takes, and Roma is filled with this kind of showboating, albeit in a more minor key.

The story here concerns the maid from the opening image, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works for the family of Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a mysterious man who is constantly away from home. The man’s wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and their children live in luxury, but the absence of the patriarch haunts nearly every scene. Cuarón frames the narrative through the perspective of Cleo, though we do get a sense of the family’s point of view, which is further complicated by the film’s detached aesthetic. Cleo is often dwarfed in compositions, looking insignificant amongst the spiraling staircases of the family home, and in one particular shot, appearing as a tiny speck in the frame while watching a martial arts training session.

Cleo is basically a surrogate mother for the children, and the performance of first time actor Aparicio is a tremendous feat of natural mannerism, facial expression, and gesture. When she has to deliver more emotionally fraught scenes late in the film, she is also fully believable, but Cuarón thankfully doesn’t overburden her with melodramatic hysterics. Instead, Cleo represents a somewhat angelic symbol of servitude and class division, which Cuarón often captures through stunning visuals; such as one key shot where the camera floats upwards revealing a throng of maids hanging clothes on rooftops of lavish homes stretching far into the distance.

There’s melodramatic elements to Roma, including familial infidelity, but Cuarón’s studied aesthetic approach keeps sentimentality at bay. The formal tics on display, such as how the camera moves slowly across rooms in rigid pans, is almost comical, but perhaps that’s partially the point. Even though the film gets all the period appropriate details right— the 1970s clothing, home decor, architecture, bustling Mexico City streets—the way the camera takes everything in feels somehow removed from reality. The crisp black and white cinematography is gorgeous, but it’s also the vision of someone accessing their memories and presenting an evocative version of these recollections. This makes Cleo’s station in life all the more helpless, as if she’s not fully in control of her own story. In this way, Roma can be read as an auto-critique in which Cuarón is questioning his own privilege while also paying tribute to the woman who raised him.

Without an auteurist reading where Cuarón is infiltrating Cleo’s story in order to comment on his own guilt, Roma might play as a film where the main character is a hollow cipher. The picture lacks a sense of spontaneity and lived-in authenticity, even as all the visual details ring true. This push and pull between honoring this woman and making her into an angelic symbol creates a fascinating dynamic, foregrounded by an aesthetic which tries to overcompensate for Cleo’s lack of an inner life. However, the film works as well as it does because of Aparicio’s unforced truthfulness. Despite Cuarón’s ornate precision, Aparicio grounds everything. She is the voice worth listening to. Hers is the life worth caring about.


Widows

 

Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Lukas Haas, Matt Walsh, Kevin J. O'Connor, Michael Harney

Director: Steve McQueen

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Steve McQueen is a renowned visual artist, and if he wasn’t already an Oscar-winning director, he’d be doing just fine on the art gallery circuit. The austere manner of his filmmaking; with those precise compositions, intricate mise-en-scène, and artful posing of actors within the frame, has helped him gain traction as a legitimate auteur with films like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave (for which he netted that Academy Award). When word leaked he would be adapting a 1980’s British miniseries and trying his hand at the heist genre, there were reasons to be worried. Would McQueen forgo genre excitement by luxuriating in self-serious political metaphors, or could he actually let rip with a popcorn crowd-pleaser?

Well, the answer is a bit of both. What’s noteworthy about Widows is that McQueen has indeed made a commercially-minded film that also doesn’t skimp on his artistry. There’s a heist involved, but the movie really isn’t about the heist. There is action, but this is not primarily an action picture. Instead, McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn focus more on the collision between modern day Chicago politics, class division, neoliberal racism, and the inner lives of the characters. It’s apparent during the opening moments that this will be a different breed of thriller as scenes of Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson) passionately kissing in bed is cross-cut with a getaway gone wrong where Harry and his team of criminals die at the hands of police. From there, the focus shifts to the men’s spouses struggling to survive after the fallout, including Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose clothing store is seized by bookies due to her husband’s debts, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), an abused woman encouraged by her mother (Jacki Weaver) to sign up for an escort service catering to affluent men.

McQueen and Flynn’s screenplay sets up a large network of characters, shows us their allegiances, and then methodically allows the plot to move forward with a series of vignettes highlighting some particular form of sociopolitical unrest. Crucial power players include Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss hoping to get out of the game by running for political office, his sociopath brother (Daniel Kaluuya) who doles out punishment in menacing fashion, and their immediate competition, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hopes to continue the dynasty of his racist father (Robert Duvall). When Jamal shows up at Veronica’s home informing her that Harry robbed $2 million from his campaign fund and that she has one month to pay back the debt, she locates one of Henry’s notebooks with details of a planned heist and decides to take matters into her own hands.

There is a lot going on in Widows, and there are times when the narrow scope of the feature-length format limits some of McQueen’s ambitions. This is one of those rare instances where one wishes the film were even longer in order to accommodate the mix of intimate character drama and sprawling The Wire-esque narrative. Still, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt does wonders within the confines of the film’s running time; elegantly framing scenes through mirrors and planes of glass in order to give us multiple viewpoints of the action. Probably the most ostentatious shot has the camera locked down on the hood of Farrell’s car as he leaves a rally in a poor section of town only to drive a few blocks away to the wealthier district. As the camera slowly pivots, the class disparity is clear; as is the partly shrouded face of the black driver who must silently endure the white politician’s discriminatory rant. Such visual touches occur throughout, and are never used for showboating purposes, but instead to deepen the film’s overriding themes.

Once Veronica begins recruiting her team to pull off the $2 million heist, which includes Linda, Alice, and late arrival Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a ripped babysitter with a jogging streak, Widows leans into its genre trappings with satisfying results. There’s legitimate tension, for example, in the actual heist, even as the sequence itself fairly brief in terms of screen time, but the biggest thrills here are character-driven. The scenes where Henry’s Jamal and Farrell’s Mulligan face off are razor-sharp, Kaluuya’s dead-eyed stare and penchant for violence is chilling, and Davis conveys so much emotion through her face (from grief, confusion, anger, and finally, contentment) that Veronica emerges as a fully flawed woman worth rooting for. The film’s one major mistake involves a framing device with a significant character seen only in flashback who meets an untimely demise at the hands of police. It’s an instance where McQueen and Flynn are trying too hard to press timely political signifiers into an already busy narrative, and the emotional fallout of this thread feels awkwardly handled.

Rather than simply apply an arthouse aesthetic to a standard heist plot, McQueen fully commits to his commercial tendencies by buying into the narrative and most importantly, his characters. In this way, Widows lacks the kind of sniffy looking down on genre one often gets when prestige filmmakers try their hand at mainstream fare. There are important sociopolitical issues threading throughout Widows, but the film isn’t weighed down by their importance. Instead, the social context can be found by simply watching women fight back against a system built to keep them down, and maybe even having the balls to pull it off.




The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

 

Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Jackamoe Buzzell, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O'Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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A case could made that Joel and Ethan Coen are drawn to the western genre because it allows for the ultimate display of misanthropy. Tales of greed, revenge, loneliness, and brutal violence are key factors, as is the expansive vistas of America revealing death at nearly every turn. Though classic westerns often revel in the heroism of its grizzled heroes, the Coens have used such archetypes in order to plum the depths of cynical human behavior. Their debut, Blood Simple, couched western archetypes under the veneer of neo-noir atmosphere. Raising Arizona has the zany trappings of a stoner comedy, but with the widescreen Midwestern landscapes of a romanticized western. True Grit is actually a pure homage to John Ford and Howard Hawks which uses its status a remake to recontextualize western mythos. No Country for Old Men is a brilliantly pensive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy which views Modern America as more ruthless than the old west. And so on it goes. The Coens have always been fascinated by the ways in which the genre can speak to the fatalistic nature of our miserable existence, and their latest shaggy-dog anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is no exception.

Structured around six separate stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs refuses the revisionist angle, instead leaning into western tropes as a means for folkloric retellings. Though tonally divergent and varying in length, each vignette essentially hammers home the Coens career methodology; i.e. that human kind are a distrustful lot who will stab you in the back if given the chance. The universe is cruel, chaotic, and unforgiving, and though there are innocent souls wandering about, they are not immune to the marching tides of fate. In fact, death may even come for them sooner.

The idea of humanity as a scourge is given an ironic wink in the first story, where Tim Blake Nelson plays the guitar-playing, crooning gunslinger of the film’s title. Wandering into town while delivering deadpan monologues to the camera with mentions of nicknames such as “The Misanthrope”, the Coens lean into their silly, parodic side with quippy banter and extreme violence. It’s a 20 minute lark; funny and irreverent, but also oddly impersonal; with a washed-out visual look and fake-looking digital blood. In the second section, James Franco and Stephen Root show up for a slapstick joint about a bank robber with terrible luck, filmed like a Sergio Leone western and ending with a darkly ironic final line. It’s an effective short film, playing like a Twilight Zone-styled yarn, but much like the first story, there isn’t much here beyond a clever punchline.

Probably the most fascinating vignette is the third one where an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling) and his crotchety boss (Liam Neeson), travel the countryside in search of fame and fortune. Here, the Coens marry their patented solipsism with heartbreaking melancholy; resulting in something which resists easy classification, even if the ending is predictably nihilistic. From there, we get a disheveled Tom Waits as a gold prospector digging holes in search of gold, Zoe Kazan as a wide-eyed young woman in a caravan en route to Oregon, and finally, a pair of travelers stuck in a carriage (among them Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson) which plays almost like an Edgar Allen Poe short story. Since all of the tales set up characters with hopes or dreams (however fleeting) only to have them dashed through bursts of violence or twists of fate, there isn’t much emotional investment. Even the lone drawn-out section in which Kazan’s innocent traveler seeks a better life in Oregon is predicated on the same ironic climax, so the sense of richer world-building here feels even more perfunctory.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a hymn to the western in which death pervades every corner of the frame; sometimes in the form of a comical visual gag, sometimes under the guise of pathos for souls too kindly for this sadistic world. However skillfully conceived and wonderfully acted, this homage to western folklore, like most campfire stories, inevitably fizzles out into darkness of night. If the Coens are correct; that all of us are grasping for meaning in a meaningless existence predicated upon chance, then what is the point of storytelling in the first place? This is a question The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, much like Nelson’s wise-cracking titular wanderer, has no interest in. He’s more likely to shrug, laugh it off, and blow someone’s brains out.


The Other Side of the Wind

 

Cast: John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Susan Strasberg, Robert Random, Joseph McBride, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Edmond O'Brien, Lilli Palmer, Geoffrey Land, Peter Jason

Director: Orson Welles

Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind is an incisive look at one of our most brilliant auteurs wrestling with the new wave of late 1960’s art cinema. Taking elements of his 1973 mocumentary F for Fake and bleeding it into a meta-deconstruction of the Hollywood machine, The Other Side of the Wind deflates patriarchal power while also basking in its privileges. It’s a film which began production in 1970 and then stretched on for nearly six years; ballooning out of control even as Welles seemed to relish the idea of never completing it. It’s a work of madness that has, at its center, a wounded heart; the story of an aging patriarch desperately trying to stay relevant as the world he helped shape disappears behind him. It is the vision of the ultimate Hollywood classist fearing his demise at the hands of a more politically radical wave of new cinema, and then attempting to outsmart them all.

The basic premise is this: Jake Hannaford (John Huston) an iconic director is celebrating his 70th birthday while attempting to complete a film entitled The Other Side of the Wind. The picture in question is one of those erotic narrative-less works recalling late 60’s hippie drug culture (ala Easy Rider) with the arty pretensions of a Michelangelo Antonioni joint. Despite his cigar-chomping ego, Hannaford is afraid of the younger batch of Hollywood elite; including Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a filmmaker not unlike the real-life Bogdanovich, who at this time would have been riding a wave of success from The Last Picture Show. Out of money and missing his leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), who stormed off set after multitude abuses by the filmmaker, Hannaford’s aims are to leach funds from producers at the party, even if no one involved seems to have any idea what The Other Side of the Wind is actually about.

Structured like a shaggy hang out movie, Welles’s virtuosic techniques come together to create a disorienting atmosphere where multiple realities converge. As Hannaford encourages the press to film his birthday bash, we get bodies scurrying everywhere; with cameras in nearly every inch of the frame and lenses zooming. The effect is like a three-ring circus gone awry, predating reality TV and Internet culture. Once again, in both style and form, Welles was way ahead of the curve here, even as narrative coherency is mostly absent.

As someone obsessed with myth-making and his own status as a legend, Welles’s notion of cinema as one continuous loop of content is embraced with such gusto as to be prophetic. Throughout, the picture changes from color to black and white, incorporating a variety of film stocks and allowing bursts of light and motion to infiltrate the frame. Dialogue overlaps, the editing is propulsive and jagged, the score jazzy, and the use of montage breathtaking. The usual Welles technique of deep focus (in which the foreground, middle-ground and background are all in focus) are done away with altogether in lieu of frames-within-frames and compositions shot through refracted surfaces.

Throughout, we get long stretches of the unfinished Hannaford project where John Dale and an unnamed woman (Oja Kodar, Welles’s lover and co-writer) play a sensual game of cat and mouse. Phallic imagery abounds, as does psychedelic colors and an old man’s parodic vision of hippie youth culture. There’s a level of self-awareness here, exemplified by Hannaford’s arrogance in thinking he could really pull this kind of thing off, which extends to Welles’s grasping for relevance near the end of his career. And yet, sections of the Dale/Kodar film are ludicrously thrilling; including a bravura sex scene inside a moving vehicle, allowing Welles to achieve the rare carnal set piece which actually stimulates the senses.

Interestingly, the world Hannaford depicts onscreen is diametrically opposed to the one he actually inhabits. Though his party is filled with booze, cigars, and women, there is little chance of scoring. The only notable female character here, for instance, is a Pauline Kael stand-in played by Susan Strasberg, who is on hand to expose Hannaford’s inadequacies. In fact, he seems much more comfortable lording his power over men, including Bogdanovich’s Otterlake, and younger newcomers to the scene such as Dale. The self-destructive nature of Hannaford—his inability to complete the film while sabotaging working relationships and maintaining a god-like facade—is an intensely personal spilling of the soul by Welles, whom may have never completed another feature even if he had lived to tell the tale. In that way, The Other Side of the Wind has a haunting allure; a movie about creation, destruction, and self-loathing that works mostly because it remains unfinished.







Suspiria

 

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Running time: 2 hours 32 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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One could say, if they were being charitable, that Luca Guadagnino’s remake/reimagining/cover version of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria goes so far into its own direction as to be admirable. Whereas Argento’s film was an operatic fusion of dream logic and bright red gushing blood untethered to narrative coherency, Guadagnino’s take is downbeat, austere, and attempting to ground itself in reality. Argento used violence as an exaggerated series of garish images; a primal call to embrace the ludicrous exhilaration which the horror genre can attain. By comparison, the new Suspiria is self-serious nonsense made by talented people which fails to deliver on even the most basic horror movie level.

Having all the hallmarks of a passion project, Guadagnino’s film is overlong, meandering, and overstuffed with plot. Taking the skeletal narrative of the original and then diving into world-building isn’t inherently a mistake, but one has to parse through what the filmmaker has added here and question its existence. While it’s laudable Guadagnino refuses to ape Argento’s Giallo style (which would have been reductive), he nonetheless layers in pastiche of another sort. There’s a heavy Rainer Werner Fassbinder influence here; from the drab late 70’s Berlin setting to the use of crash zooms, but without the German wunderkind’s perverse humor and affinity for actors. Meanwhile, the fractured editing and kitschy post-production slow motion brings to mind the work of avant-garde filmmakers like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman. And if one is looking for less obscure influences, there’s a specific deep focus shot that’s ripped straight out of Brian De Palma’s Obsession. However, unlike De Palma, who often uses pastiche as a means for lurid entertainment value, Guadagnino seems almost terrified of entertaining the audience.

Suspiria is not a film about Susie (Dakota Johnson, purposefully affectless), the talented Mennonite dancer from Ohio who arrives at the Markos Dance Academy in Berlin, circa 1977. Nor is it about Susie’s relationship with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, purposefully morose), her tightly wound teacher. The role of witchcraft, so prevalent in Argento’s original, is also not that important here, replaced by Guadagnino’s interest in political machinations. The film is really about Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton again, purposefully old and boring), a psychiatrist whose wife went missing during the Holocaust, and whose used here primarily as a narrative device to represent past atrocities. In fact, Guadagnino spends so much time with Klemperer as he investigates tales of witchcraft at the dance academy, that Suspiria could have alternately been titled Senior Coven Sleuth: The Movie, but that would also require a film with a sense of humor.

Every once in a while, Guadagnino finds a particular image or sequence that works; such as an extended dance scene using jagged cross-cutting and bone-snapping grotesquerie. However, as viscerally effective as such moments are, they are never tied to anything remotely compelling from either a character or narrative standpoint. They simply exist, devoid of the one thing that a truly great horror film can achieve; a sense of psychic dread. Suspiria is too formally up its own ass to care about involving us in this way; its badge of courage rests in pivoting away from base horror signifiers and talking down to an audience wanting genre thrills.

As Klemperer’s investigation begins to take the focus away from Susie’s dealings with the witches, Guadagnino’s real obsessions start to take center stage. Klemperer’s personal misery is a thematic sign-post about never forgetting the horrible atrocities human beings are capable of throughout history, and this exposition-heavy messaging completely derails the film. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke’s slowcore music is also a problem; especially when he starts morosely crooning over montages which feel utterly disproportionate to one another. Yes, it would have been a miscalculation to try and emulate Goblin’s brilliant prog-rock score from the original, but the Radiohead singer’s contributions here feel overly ostentatious.

As Suspiria draws to a close; complete with a bafflingly laughable (not in a good camp way) finale where the blood finally starts gushing, the film’s interest in Nazism, political violence, half-hearted nods to feminism, and (gulp) old man confessionals regarding dead wives tips the scales into the realm of embarrassment. What this Suspiria lacks is sensuality, danger, psychological insight, and horrific imagery linked to the kind of terror which tingles the spine (no, Holocaust metaphors don’t really fit the bill). Instead, we get a turgid, scare-free Red Army Faction/Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking history lesson along with some leftover body horror scraps to nibble on. Sadly, the only spell cast by Guadagnino here is a steadily building sense of boredom.





Madeline's Madeline

 

Cast: Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker

Director: Josephine Decker

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Times at the El Royale

 

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

Director: Drew Goddard

Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

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

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



22 July

 

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

Director: Paul Greengrass

Running time: 2 hours 23 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

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

First Man

 

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

Director: Damien Chazelle

Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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

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

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

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

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