THE ROUND-UP: Spring and Summer (Part 2)

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. This is where we came in.

image-w1280 (1)

Sword of Trust (Lynn Shelton)

No underdog indie was more conceptually promising for 2019: a warm comedy about our age of alternative facts, juggling the insane delusions of American life and the likable citizens who believe them. Thus we get the story of a heartland pawnshop owner, his shiftless employee, and a lesbian couple who decide to make a quick harmless buck off conspiracy theorists who listen to YouTube charlatans. Lynn Shelton has skills no cinephile should take for granted, including a hilarious, empathetic ear for the ways that people will talk in circles to hide their flaws before succumbing helplessly to honesty. This is the kind of comedy without punchlines, or even setups—just delicious friction. But the shagginess comes at a cost: Sword of Trust goes poof at exactly the point when it should be the strongest. If its destination is the heart of American delusion, it never gets there. Instead, it arrives in the realm of traditional sitcoms, with a twist and a resolution that are both tidy and palliative. And neither “tidy” nor “palliative” are 2019.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

image-w1280-8

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam)

Terry Gilliam’s famously cursed film was a fantasy twenty years ago, a tragic and promising “what if?” from a great director who had yet to make anything unworthy of the name. After a two-decade string of false starts and rewrites, the real thing arrived at Cannes to an unimpressed response. Amazon Studios abandoned it under litigious circumstances, and its ultimate release barely registered as a blip in American theaters. So if the hype and counterhype have cancelled each other out, you’re in the best state to glean what you can (and should) from this long-suffering passion project—especially since the Quixote we have is informed by years of frustration with the film industry. In fact, the film is so self-reflexive that it’s tempting to see its flaws as baked into its identity: an act of tilting at windmills full of doubt and lacking sense, but unwilling to concede. In truth, its flaws are much more mundane. The buddy chemistry doesn’t gel, the taste for excess is underfunded, the humor is inconsistent at best, and even by Gilliam standards, it lacks the narrative shape needed to turn its ballooning symbolism into catharsis rather than exhaustion. But its insistence on bringing chivalry into the film industry is not without resonance. And its most enchanting moments, which treat the real and the imagined as a game of three card monte, back up its case that part of tilting at windmills is treasuring the triumphs you can.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

image-w1280 (2)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

The latest find from A24 is visually busy and narratively choppy enough to feel like a string of music videos, just truncated and spliced together. The hook is there, but directorial tics are clogging its heart and taking the place of complete dramatic immediacy, which obscures the valuable things it has to say: first about the legacies of black culture and art, then about the dilemma when money is the only claim to a home and you don’t have any. It hurts to be lukewarm on any movie whose climactic line is as graceful and pained as “you don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” So in the interest of optimism, I’ll note that the last time I was lukewarm on a debut film about black bohemia in San Francisco, the director’s second film was Moonlight.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

image-w1280-9

Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)

In which Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron use dopey movie love to bridge the uncanny valley in a world where tech and organic matter have become intriguingly interchangeable. Does that conflation refer just to their world, or to ours? Take it as far as you like. The plot is a mess by the end, and sci-fi rules mean the same character can get not one, but two annoying death scenes. But the look and feel of this relatively humble tentpole are compelling. It recalls the days of Raimi’s Spiderman or Del Toro’s Hellboy, when blockbuster IP valued not just zazz but a visual personality.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

image-w1280-10

Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov)

The narrative that emerges steadily from this documentary’s impressionist footage is solid: a mini-epic about different ideas of modernity, tension between neighbors, and a principled stance towards living off the land. But the film’s implied insistence on an invisible camera—that is, that there isn’t a crew right there deciding how to frame it all—gives this trip to the edge of western civilization a cause for ambivalence. Ironically, the narrative of Honeyland feels more distant and self-consciously constructed than it might if the presence of filmmakers were openly embraced. Set it next to, say, Paris is Burning (a classic LGBT documentary whose restoration was a rep-house highlight of the summer), and you’ll see how much more gregarious a doc can be when it feels like the audience isn’t just watching someone else’s world, but truly being invited into it.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

image-w1280-11

Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)

The highest grossing documentary of 2019 is an interesting construction of a different sort. Right from the opening shots, it looks and moves so much like a contemporary doc that it’s startling to know that it’s all footage from 50 years ago; even the B-roll of crowds takes on a crisp, uncanny quality of time travel. By using only a resurfaced trove of old video and audio (with a little animation to connect the dots), this retelling of the moon landing limits or at least changes its approach. It doesn’t have much in the way of context, subtext, suspense, or psychology. What it has is awe: images that can’t possibly be real, but are. At its best, it renews wonder in an achievement that subsequent generations, mine included, might see in a history book without feeling the magnitude. So if the film doesn’t really humanize its subjects, apart from marveling at the calm in their radio chatter, it’s because it insists that this particular non-fiction deserves to be mythic—and that mythic undertakings are most useful when they belong to a collective.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

THE ROUND-UP: Spring and Summer (Part 1)

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. Noteworthy recaps of 2019 moviegoing begin now…

us

Us (Jordan Peele)

Us may indeed qualify as a sophomore slump, but it’s one from a smart filmmaker upping his craft. Viscerally freakier than Get Out but less fully-fleshed, this spooky allegory for materialism makes you accrue at least a little heart for both the consumers and their “evil” twins. It’s about class, certainly, and it’s shrewdly about race insofar as class makes race less of an issue. The problem is how it trips over its mythology. The demented details of Get Out all gloriously added up; here, you get a twist that oscillates between making kind-of sense and no sense at all the harder you think about it. Part of me wants to feel cheated at any sucker punch that raises more questions than it answers. Another part of me knows that any movie that can sustain this balance for two hours—humor and frights, unpretentious genre kicks and on-target satire—is a genuine tonic. Sobering sidenote: it’s currently the only film in the top 10 grossers of 2019 that isn’t a sequel, a comic book adaptation, or a Disney live-action remake.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

transit

Transit (Christian Petzold)

A risky, daft, and ultimately rewarding concept: the script for a World War II thriller transposed to our own not-too-distant present, allowing old-fashioned story tropes, 21st century politics, incipient fascism, and narrative incongruity to nag away at you. The plot—about escaping Europe as stormtroopers descend, needing letters of transit, and choosing between romantic love and greater principles—finds its most obvious parallel in Casablanca. But doing it as a period piece would have a sense of removal, no matter how urgent the subtext. In telling this type of story straight in what is empathetically not a period setting, nor a logical 2019, Petzold’s film reconstitutes a vein of cinematic myth into a modern faceless anxiety. (When two people walk through the background of one scene, you wonder if they’re extras in a movie about the Terror, or simply a couple that happened to be passing by during the shoot). As always, Petzold is a solid storyteller. His weakness, as in his last film Phoenix, is formal blandness. The dystopia-is-now spirit of Transit cries out for a more uncanny treatment. Godard visited Alphaville with less.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

the-dead-dont-die

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)

Presaged by a midnight movie trailer with the easiest jokes of Jim Jarmusch’s career, this all-star zombie parody shambled into the summer under the question of whether it would actually be as fun or as shallow as advertised. The answer, happily, is “sort of” to the former because “no” to the latter. Its po-mo goofs are indeed too easy, not to mention protracted, and like a good hipster it comes with a willfully half-assed posture to undercut how it has serious ideas on its mind. But the ideas are there, and even when it goes for laughs, its vision of apocalypse Americana isn’t so easily brushed off. In this context, the indulgences and indie comedy readymades—deadpan reactions, pop culture expertise, celebrity meta gags—register as paralysis in the face of rapid decay. “This isn’t going to end well” goes the movie’s dry refrain, as narrative threads keep getting killed off before they can go anywhere. Well before the end, it’s stopped feeling like a joke.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

toy-story-4

Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley)

Toy Story 4 would have to do a lot to justify its existence after the perfect finality of Toy Story 3, and if it doesn’t, it’s at least a fun, lively, sufficiently thoughtful use of two hours. There’s something poetic as well as merchandisable in its view of mundane objects animated by emotional fetishism. And this time around, the franchise’s running metaphor of facing up to change feels aimed at adult issues more than children’s. But fatigue, dispersion, and dramatic wonkiness have set in when the new finality is both the series’ most drastic and its least convincing. Not that you can fully trust them to stick to finality, now or ever.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

GRETA

Greta (Neil Jordan)

Guilty pleasure? If your reason for doubling back and renting a movie is to see Isabelle Huppert as a psychotic manipulative bitch-queen, you have nothing to feel guilty about. What’s guilty is psychodrama with such laziness towards both psychology and drama: too bland to be camp, too silly to be anything else, and utterly reliant on hack thriller stings. Porting Madame Huppert’s appeal to the American multiplex is a nobly fiendish idea, but she seems shockingly adrift in a role tailor-made for her. But then, so does everyone else. And the line “I’m like chewing gum” is the definitely least spine-tingling stalker threat in many a moon.

✬✩✩✩✩

*****

Domino

Domino (Brian De Palma)

A test: how many virtues can a movie lack and still have auteurism draw you in? Domino is by no means a successful film. In fact, of the twenty-plus De Palma films I’ve seen, I’d venture this is his worst. The cast looks undirected. The leads need more charisma. The story has holes punched out. The geopolitical context feels tacky. And the staging can be awkward, sluggish, or downright careless, which is odd, because even when he’s not winning over critics with tastefulness or coherence, De Palma can usually be relied on for brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces. But if it doesn’t deserve blanket defense from the faithful, it doesn’t deserve knives out either—and certainly not any of the despondent cinephiles wishing for retirement. Instead, look at the De Palma staples and the way they’ve shifted in the 21st century: the technocratic voyeurism, the games with an audience’s sympathy, and the reawakened leftist concerns of an unreconstructed baby-boomer. After a troubled production, Domino essentially went straight to video, and I can’t imagine that the original cut, reportedly about an hour longer, would fix it. But I’ve returned to it in my mind a lot more than a great many more polished and sensible new releases. Which means I failed the test—or passed, as the case may be.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

once-upon

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

A wealth of potential meaning(s) here, in spite of the shambling structure. It makes sense that Tarantino’s latest spawned a hot summer’s worth of hot takes, since it’s nothing if not two hours and forty minutes of thinkpiece material; you could say “problematic”, “tender”, “reactionary”, “indulgent”, “self-aware”, or “but then again…” depending on what you focus on and for how long. In addition to a western about westerns and a nostalgia piece about nostalgia, it’s an attempt to answer a question: how do you do a love letter to a town and an industry with so much to be cynical about? The film’s details are emotionally attuned to what Hollywood gives and takes from its inhabitants, what it offers its fans and requires them to believe. The mode may mutate. John Wayne will give way to Clint Eastwood. Movies like Valley of the Dolls will fall into style and then out of it. Innumerable bits of pop arcana will be forgotten by everyone except insiders and obsessives. But Hollywood will always be here, beautiful and ugly. Did Tarantino grow up? Never. But even people who don’t grow up can’t help but grow old.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

THE ROUND-UP 2018: Virtual Fantasies

As I prepare to call it a day on 2018, the Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for films that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive on this blog. I present highlights here—let the lightning round begin.

Ready-Player-One

Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)

No futuristic dystopia that includes the phrase “corn syrup drought” is blind to its own irony. And somewhere between Spielberg’s characteristically wonder-tinged regard for a brave new world and such cheeky hints of parody, this movie-within-a-video-game-within-a-movie ends up as the most preposterously goofy film of 2018—but one carrying a lot more than goofy films normally do. Its tribute to the “the fans” is to make them the heroic center of all the blockbuster tropes they’ve flocked to, which is both more and less than they (we?) deserve. But video games, even more than blockbusters, face an uphill battle in being seen as personal. So cheers to the heart that Ready Player One looks for and finds in the machine. You have unlocked Mark Rylance.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

sorrytobotheryou

Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)

A sign of the times when surrealism has to try this hard to be freaky; even freakiness demands finesse, and Sorry to Bother You shows self-conscious strain from wanting to be the weirdest damn thing of the year. But I’m prepared to take it as a distinctly regional kind of surrealism: this is an authentic expression of the Bay Area, where freedom is both a gift and a curse, and where conflicting utopian belief systems—counterculture radicalism that’ll never go away, plus the charlatan uber-capitalism of Silicon Valley—have to jostle for space. Whatever its flaws, the plot makes the rambling of a strange man outside a BART station signify with righteous paranoia. These days, it should.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

incredibles-2

Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)

If Incredibles 2 is no Incredibles 1, it’s for basic reasons of dramaturgy: a plot that isn’t as suspenseful, jokes that aren’t as funny, and the juggling of two storylines with vastly different levels of urgency. But Brad Bird’s 60s retro-futurism is still immediately distinct, and he gets away with more heady provocation than anyone at Pixar. His sequel mulls over the meaning of superhero-mania in pop culture, not without a certain tinge of critical self-loathing. That it does so while still animating the best superhero action sequences of the year is just one reason that Bird is an all-American crank I’m happy to call our own.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

crazy-rich-asians

Crazy Rich Asians (John M. Chu)

As hearteningly progressive as wealth porn can get, and about 60% as funny. It makes the explicit, convincing argument that the East is already the new center of glamor and class-conscious fairy tales. And it makes the implicit, more intriguing argument that if you let ethnic outsiders fill every role in a Hollywood film, a gallery of stock rom-com characters—the wacky best friend, the party bro, the gay quipster, the snooty mean girl—constitutes a spectrum of humanity. Fie on it stuffy cinephiles may, but be fair and throw out half the screwball comedies of 1930s Hollywood.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

isle-of-dogs

Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)

If you’re wondering what a “political Wes Anderson film” would look like, it’s something like this: a genocidal war against dogs by people who prefer cats. And oddly, it kind of works, skating on charm and adventure, being somehow epic and miniaturist at the same time, and coming close to real-world commentary by demanding that when adults have clearly fucked up, it’s time to hand off the world to the young. To the extent that it all resonates, I don’t credit any newfound engagement with the outside world—Anderson’s recent discovery of historical pain is too glib in comparison to the masters he references. It’s more that in the awful year of 2018, even his toyland isn’t safe.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

wont-you-be

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville)

Morgan Neville has made documentaries about pop stars, Gore Vidal, and Orson Welles, and here he makes the case that a Presbyterian in a sweater-vest was just as iconoclastic, rabble-rousing, and status-quo-shaking as any of them. Morgan Neville’s stamp is expanding upon media nostalgia; his style a simple immediacy that touches on more than it explores. That is, the drawback of a film like this is that it shuffles through angles so quickly that you leave certain that the fuller, more interesting story is still out there. But it collates, sometimes beautifully, adult feeling to a world of children’s television too easily regarded as disposable.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Bohemian Rhapsody Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury)

Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer & Dexter Fletcher)

Artlessly scripted, never more so than when it tries to be artful, and apparently determined to make its non-musical scenes as generic as possible. It’s for the fans, sure, mainly by trying to improve upon concert footage by juicing it with Hollywood production values. If such an endeavor requires meeting kitsch with kitsch, rock on, but it should be emphasized that Queen’s kitsch appeal was never so bland: this is rock stardom Disneyfied. I didn’t know it was even possible to Disney-fy a scene where one man winks at another at a truck stop, which might be a sign of progress—socially if not artistically—until an evil, charisma-free gay svengali seduces Our Hero into PG-13 hedonism meant to shock your great-aunt without driving her out of the theater. Its handling of the AIDS era is a retrograde framework reaching for modern cred, and the film blunders into that minefield simply by wanting to be (what’s that phrase?) lightly likable. So if it’s tame hagiography of something everyone already likes, what’s the harm? Then again, if it’s tame hagiography of something everyone already likes, what’s the point?

✬✬✩✩✩

*****