The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Posted June 26, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, cult, overrated

unbearable

Some of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is likable and emotionally rich enough to be worth watching, but it’s depressing how it declines from being a good Nicolas Cage movie to being a bad Nicolas Cage movie — after fighting off the bad movie for about its first three-quarters. Cage plays a fictionalized version of himself, the over-the-top “Nick Cage,” an actor still beloved despite having toiled, out of financial necessity, in direct-to-video cash-grabs for over a decade. Unbearable Weight sets him up as a man serious about his craft, whose time as a Hollywood must-hire may have come and gone. 

For any of us who feel great affection for Cage as a person and great respect for him as an artist, the premise — he’s so desperate for cash he’ll appear at a rich guy’s birthday party — is just saddening. But then Nick gets to his destination and meets the birthday boy, Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), and when they’re together the movie can get away from its dumb-ass plot. That plot has two CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, both poorly used) recruiting Nick to keep an eye on Javi, who they believe is the head of a lethal drug cartel. The plot also involves the kidnapping of not one but two teenage girls, and we’re shown their tearful fear in what’s supposed to be a quirky comedy. 

But when Cage and Pascal are just hanging out, the movie is gold. Pascal radiates kindness and warmth; his Javi is just the sort of superfan Nick and his battered ego need. Halfway across the planet, in a well-appointed mansion, Nick’s work genuinely moved this weird, soft guy who may or may not be a druglord. I recognize that if movie studios made their products according to my wishes, they’d have all gone bankrupt long ago. But I cannot express how dispiriting Unbearable Weight gets when it drops the Nick/Javi bromance and lurches into action-comedy mode. By the time the excessively boring car chase rolled around, I had more or less emotionally checked out. It had become apparent that what I valued in the movie wasn’t what its makers — director Tom Gormican and his co-writer Kevin Etten — valued.

And so we get a scene with Nick in disguise as some ancient drug dealer, in make-up that makes him look like Al Pacino playing a latter-day Frank Serpico. We get shootouts and Mexican standoffs. We shrug as the CIA agents are completely thrown away without a backward glance. We may not be very impressed by the meta aspects of the script, all of which have been done more cleverly elsewhere, including in the Cage-starring Adaptation, whose ending did what Unbearable Weight does but with the intent of showing how pat and empty that expected Hollywood “climax” had become. I don’t think we’re meant to take away anything comparable from this movie, though. Or maybe we were, before the presence of Cage and Pascal softened its edges. When you have guys with the warm rapport they share, you don’t want them to be in a cold satire about how the dream factory they believe in so devoutly is a corrupt sweatshop dictated by money. You just want to see more of them. I wouldn’t mind if this were the first of several Cage/Pascal team-ups.

I don’t know whether the very ending is just soggy or a comment on soggy endings, but either way it doesn’t leave us with much. It’s hard to say where Unbearable Weight will fit into Cage’s general portfolio, though it’s sad that it couldn’t do what it tries so hard to do, which is to put Cage back in the sort of wham-bam box-office hit he used to have. What a Hollywood ending that would have been — the great actor comes in from the cold and gets the standing ovation (just as he does in the movie). Instead, it barely cracked the top five its opening weekend, and hemorrhaged money soon after. Maybe Cage’s Con Air and Face/Off days are behind him, but these days his work in smaller things like Joe or Mandy or even Pig (I didn’t care for it but can respect it as the kind of blues riff Cage gravitates to) is where you’ll find the Cage worth loving. We find him only intermittently here. 

Morbius

Posted June 20, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comic-book, horror

morbius

You never know which movie will attract the derisive affection of the internet meme lords. Take Morbius, an unadventurous and dull movie based on a character in Marvel comics. Since Sony owns Morbius, this isn’t considered an MCU movie like, say, Dr. Strange or Thor; it belongs to the same universe that spawned Venom, and at one point our troubled hero, Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto), jokingly identifies himself as such. Anyway, the internet hates Leto and hates lazy-looking wannabe franchises like Morbius, so the movie became a target for ironic social-media memes. Apparently someone at Sony noticed that Morbius was being talked about, albeit with a gibe and a sneer, and decided to re-release the film, hoping for gobs of those ironic ticket sales. It didn’t get them — its re-release take was substantially less than the cost of a small house — and it shuffled morosely off to DVD shortly thereafter.

What we find here, after all that, is a not-bad, not-good, not-much-of-anything time-waster in which Jared Leto, against all odds, does not make me want to throttle him. He’s swift and mordant as Dr. Morbius, who has a rare blood disease and develops a formula that turns him into a “living vampire.” Morbius so happens to have invented artificial blood, which he can drink in lieu of real human blood, but its effects don’t last long and soon he’s swooping around New York City as a swirling purple cloud. Just like a bat does. See, the formula comes from bat DNA, and … ah, hell, nobody ever went to these movies for scientific rigor. And when Morbius’ similarly afflicted old friend Milo (Matt Smith) takes the serum, he becomes a monster who doesn’t care at all if he has to kill to survive. 

The problem here isn’t the acting; although Milo is given the sort of boilerplate villain dialogue you can instinctively recite along with him, Matt Smith commits to it, and so do Adria Arjona as Morbius’ lab associate and Jared Harris as the doctor who’s been trying to treat Morbius and Milo since they were kids. Harris’ clinic for this rare blood disease, by the way, is in Greece. I wondered why Greece, since it isn’t really a plot point, and in any case the Greece scenes were shot in England, like the rest of the movie. Wondering about this probably distracted me from the plot intricacies, but the key template here is the Marvel-comic one where someone good becomes powerful and has to stop someone bad who becomes powerful. Now and then the film makes gestures towards meaning when Morbius agonizes over the violent mercenaries he had to kill and swears never to do it again. This seems sort of wan and beside the point when the Deadpool movies, for instance, have its hero slaughtering willy-nilly, and nobody ever seriously pretended Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine never used those sharp pigstickers of his lethally.

Milo seems to have been made a killer solely so that Morbius can be blamed for it by two ineffectual cops. Prior to gaining his powers, Milo doesn’t seem the type to flip over into the ultimate evil, but he flips, all right, with no moral shading or regret. Milo is supposed to represent the untrammeled nastiness Morbius could sink to if he doesn’t watch out. I would’ve cut out the middle man and made Morbius himself the shadow that haunts him; why else turn a vampire into a superhero? Morbius has a poor chance of getting a sequel, even though they try to set one up with the reveal of a freshly vampirized character with whom Morbius will duke it out in Morbius 2: Electric Morbaloo. Again, the movie is only bland and unpersuasive, and would have disappeared without a trace if not for the jolly internet memes that snarkily celebrated it, as though it were a lovably inept thing to be cherished, not chastised, for its flaws. 

Screwdriver

Posted June 12, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, thriller

SCREWDRIVER

The minimalist drama/thriller Screwdriver, which starts doing the festival rounds this week, maintains a low, vibrating level of tension for almost its whole running time. Most of the tension is in the face of lead actress AnnaClare Hicks, who invests her character with vulnerability tied into self-hating anxiety. Hicks plays Emily, a young woman from down south whose marriage has suddenly fallen apart. Not knowing what to do, she takes a train to California to stay for a week or so with Robert (Charlie Farrell), a guy she remembers from high school. Robert is married to hard-charging corporate lady Melissa (Milly Sanders); she works at a pharmaceutical company, he does psychological research. It’s not long before we begin to suspect this couple have more on their agenda than simply giving Emily a place to bunk.

Screwdriver is essentially a three-hander — Emily’s estranged husband puts in a brief appearance — that might work just as well as a play. It’s sufficiently cinematic, though; director/co-writer Cairo Smith uses the wide, wide frame to convey Emily’s isolation in her hosts’ well-scrubbed home (between this and the recent Watcher, you may get the impression that white decor hides suffocating repression and control) and, here and there, disorienting jump cuts. Emily is left home alone a lot of the day while Robert and Melissa are out at work (another link to Watcher). When they return home, they seem very interested in Emily — as a person, or as a project? Melissa keeps pushing orange juice (drugged?) onto Emily, while Robert runs psychological games on her in his office.

The performances dovetail together organically; Charlie Farrell, who resembles a cross between Tom Cruise and Bradley Cooper (and uses some of Cruise’s unctuous speech patterns), provides a seemingly laid-back buffer against Milly Sanders’ high-strung, passive-aggressive Melissa. Then they seem to switch roles — he’s menacing, she’s nurturing. All of this reads to us like a concerted effort to keep Emily unsure of her perceptions, her allegiances, her very self. They seem to want to control her — early on, the forbidding Melissa discourages Emily from leaving the house or smoking — and it seems they’ve done something similar in the past. Emily may not be the first wayward young woman they’ve tried to “rehab,” but she may be the last.

Smith and co-writer Mia Vicino keep things ambiguous. The work we hear so little about, other than teasing bits of conversation about some trouble at the office, could be the root of the couple’s treatment (grooming?) of Emily. Or it could have nothing to do with this weird dynamic we watch taking shape. The shrewdly cast Farrell smuggles in a (timely) critique of Cruise and his involvement in Scientology; his patter sometimes has a familiar “Matt, you’re glib” cadence. There’s a fair amount of anti-God talk, steering the fundie-raised Emily towards a different conception of a supreme being. Ironically, the couple find it very important to emphasize to Emily that she’s free and is, in fact, her own god. Of course, they also set themselves up as the authority figures who tell her this.

I’ve avoided using the word “cult,” because, although that seems to describe the ultimate villain here, there’s enough evidence that it possibly isn’t and that Smith and Vicino may have very cleverly caught us leaning the wrong way. Once I let go of that option and started focusing on the drama actually in front of me, the narrative played more smoothly (and more chillingly). Among other things, Screwdriver says that it really doesn’t matter who’s behind the process of rewiring Emily’s head; we can see it happening, and AnnaClare Hicks somehow communicates a woman progressively broken, with the shards pricking her on the inside. Smith keeps his camera on Hicks’ face, monitoring it for changes in temperament and emotional temperature. Screwdriver is a small, underpopulated thing, and a little more sense of Emily’s life before might have helped, but it’s sharp and memorable. And it all leads to one of the most intensely, frighteningly ironic images I’ve ever seen at the end of a movie.

Watcher

Posted June 5, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: thriller

Screen Shot 2022-06-05 at 5.06.39 PM

Chloe Okuno’s debut feature Watcher is a relationship drama disguised as a thriller. By that I mean it isn’t governed by twists and turns. What you think is going on is pretty much what’s going on. It does thrill, though — or, more precisely, it chills. The plot is more or less a way into Okuno’s thoughts about a woman being infantilized, dismissed, and not believed when she raises a red flag; this last may resonate with many abuse survivors who just watched Amber Heard demonized and disregarded in front of the whole world. Watcher’s protagonist, indeed, is a young blonde actress, Julia (Maika Monroe), who from some angles bears a faint resemblance to Heard. None of this, obviously, is intentional. It’s just an accident of timing. But it demonstrates that Okuno’s themes were concerns long before the Depp/Heard trial and will continue to be.

Julia has moved with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman), who’s in marketing, to Bucharest, Romania, where his firm has a big account. Their new apartment is spacious if a bit featureless. Francis is gone all day and late into the night, while Julia drifts around the apartment and the neighborhood. It isn’t long before Julia notices the figure of a man staring at her from a window in an apartment building across the street from hers. This unsettles Julia, but nobody takes her very seriously, because the mystery man isn’t doing anything — until he starts seeming to follow her, turning up in the same places she does. But does that only mean they both live near each other and were bound to cross paths eventually? 

Meanwhile, a local serial killer dubbed The Spider has been going around the area decapitating women. For a while, Okuno gets some electricity out of ambiguity — we’re not sure if Julia is on the money or just paranoid. And this may be the rare sort-of-thriller informed as much by Lost in Translation as by Rear Window. Julia doesn’t speak Romanian, though she’s trying to learn, and when her husband rattles on smilingly to colleagues in unsubtitled Romanian we’re put in her uncomprehending and resentful position. Julia’s being in a city where she doesn’t know the language or the customs adds layers to her unease, as in countless other Americans-abroad thrillers. Many of the Romanians she meets do in fact speak English, but she’s constantly apologetic about making them conform to her linguistic needs, as though she felt like a white privileged American who should just shut up and, as she says at dinner with Francis and his Romanian co-workers, let the adults talk. But the tropes of a thriller dictate that she can’t shut up, and Okuno lets her be heard. Which is no guarantee she’ll be listened to.

The mystery man eventually makes himself known, in the ghoulish person of Burn Gorman, whose scowl could sour a gallon of milk. Gorman plays a man living with and caring for his sickly father; he occasionally people-watches out his window as a break from his routine. There’s a scene where he shows up at Julia’s apartment with a policeman, claiming that Julia is the one who has been stalking him; I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the scene has the quality of a legitimate nightmare Chloe Okuno has had or perhaps lived. The horrible thing is, his story does seem plausible considering that Julia’s fears have led her to do some dumb things like recruiting a Romanian tough she’s just met to knock on Gorman’s door. You can be a victim and still not be “perfect” or capable of three-dimensional chess. Okuno keeps us strongly linked to Julia’s emotions, and Monroe invests her scenes with fear, anger, hurt, and finally triumph.

But we return to why this isn’t really a “thriller” in the way some will expect. Such viewers may take the ending as anticlimactic. Shouldn’t there be twists? Ghosts? Weirdness? But that’s not what interests Okuno, who gains our trust as a distinctly female voice making a slow-burn chiller whose chills arise from the old trope of not being believed — specifically, a woman’s not being believed. We expect the finale to go on a few minutes longer, but Okuno flicks out the lights on the right image, I think. Anything that might have followed the climactic action would have been beside the point. The point is, they hear her now.

The Batman

Posted May 29, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comic-book

Screen Shot 2022-05-29 at 2.20.04 PM

An odd and troubling report regarding The Batman: it puts some viewers to sleep. Why? It’s not boring (though, at four minutes shy of three hours, it is incredibly long) or particularly soothing. I think I may have solved the mystery. It’s dark — literally, visually dark — and everyone whispers all the time, and there’s also the ever-present patter of rain. The goddamn thing may as well be a $200 million sleep app. Deep into the second hour, a nap started sounding softly appealing to me, too. But I stuck it out, and I can testify this is a masterful though sometimes punishing piece of filmmaking. I don’t know that it says much of anything; its thematic threads all tie into a narrative web interrogating different responses to trauma. Not that this is new, even in the context of a Batman story.

One thing I approve of: we don’t have to watch, yet again, the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which leaves their son Bruce an orphan who dedicates his life to fighting crime dressed like a bat. The movie kicks off when Batman (Robert Pattinson) has already been making his nightly rounds in Gotham City for two years. He works closely with Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), one of the few honest cops on the force. Mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) controls everything, with the help of his consigliere the Penguin (Colin Farrell). There’s also Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), who steals the mob’s booty. And, oh yes, someone styling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano) is going around killing corrupt people in high places.

Enough convolutions for you? This Batman is unconnected to any previous Batman film; it unfolds in its own private Gotham, as did 2019’s Joker. The director here, Matt Reeves, has by now proven himself a force in genre filmmaking; he oversaw two of the recent (and best) Apes films as well as Cloverfield and Let Me In. Reeves knows from spectacle — as if Batman didn’t have enough tsuris, there’s a climactic flood — and he also knows when to let the movie (and us) breathe. A few of the whisper-duets go on a bit; Pattinson and Kravitz have a sort of mopey rapport unbroken by any humor, and they whisper at each other a lot. (When Paul Dano finally shows up as the Riddler, we’re grateful for the theatrical goofiness of his acting; Colin Farrell’s transformation is impressive, but he essentially just plays a thug.) But despite the bombastic fireworks, Reeves is most comfortable with quietude and brooding. Hell, The Batman has probably the first rock song in a Batman film since Me’shell Ndegeocello and the Smashing Pumpkins perked up Batman and Robin, and it’s Nirvana’s morose “Something in the Way.”

Reeves, it should be noted, assembles a lot of other people’s ideas and themes into this mammoth package. The movie is a triumph of craft and design, but original it ain’t. The Riddler’s class resentment is borrowed from The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane; the idea of Thomas Wayne not being a particularly great man has been around. The Batman also continues these movies’ apparent tradition of overpacking the story with villains and, worse, providing a motive behind the killing of Batman’s parents. Once more, from the top: the whole point of Batman is that he wants to prevent anyone else from being a random crime statistic. Emphasis on random. Batman exists to impose his own sense on a world where your parents can just be shot in an alley for no reason at all. But that’s my Batman, not Reeves’.

I’m not sure how much more serious a Batman film can get. The Dark Knight Rises had seemed to be the pinnacle of high-minded adaptation of pulp, but The Batman makes it look like Batman Meets Scooby-Doo. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was serious but also purposeful and a little show-offy and had humor, even jokes. The Batman seems legitimately depressed — it shares its young goth hero’s moods. That in itself is an interesting wrinkle that sets it apart. Sometimes there’s serious tonal dissonance; a shot of Batman jogging through a crowded precinct hallway is clunky and awkward in a way I’ll probably come to cherish in memory. Perhaps the wittiest thing Reeves does with this Batman is to present his habit of appearing and disappearing wordlessly as an emo dude showing up at a party and then skipping out without saying goodbye. Then he goes to his cave and listens to Nirvana and writes deep thoughts in his journal. This is possibly the first Gen-X Batman. 

The Righteous

Posted May 22, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, thriller

Righteous

You’ve heard of cringe comedy? The first half or so of Mark O’Brien’s heavy spiritual/psychological thriller The Righteous is cringe drama. That’s not really a put-down. In scene after scene, O’Brien’s camera stares at people clumsily working through grief or uncertainty, and never averts its gaze. One or two times, I had to look away from the unrelieved anguish. It may not sound like a giddy night at the movies, but The Righteous is honest about intractable despair and fear in a way few films are, and it has an ace in the hole in that longtime reliable acting wizard Henry Czerny as Frederick Mason, a former priest whose guilt and sadness more or less animate the story. 

Czerny became known internationally for his indelible performance as serial child abuser Brother Lavin in 1993’s Canadian TV movie The Boys of St. Vincent and its sequel. Here he plays a different breed of tormented man of the cloth. Frederick was a priest until he met and fell in love with Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), whereupon he left the Church and married her. They adopted a daughter, who has recently died. The two stay in their remote house, silently grieving; to blow off steam, Frederick sometimes goes out to the yard and works on disassembling their daughter’s swing set. One night, a young man, played by Mark O’Brien himself (he also wrote the script; this is his feature debut as a director after several short films), shows up outside Frederick’s house, injured and lost. 

Despite Ethel’s misgivings, Frederick offers the man — who gives his name as Aaron Smith — shelter for the night. Soon, Ethel spends time with Aaron and quickly grows fond of him, perhaps seeing him as filling the void left by their daughter. The Righteous has only seven speaking roles, but they’re all there to make points about how the effects of past sins ripple outward forever. In the first scene, Frederick, laid low by guilt, beseeches God to punish him. Aaron, it begins to seem, has been sent to deliver on that prayer. I’ve seen The Righteous described as a horror movie, but that description possibly suggests a more literal apocalypse of blood and demons than it is. Instead, the movie is shot in crisp black and white, and its chills are rhetorical (indeed, the movie would work well on the stage) and subtle. The apocalypse happens in whispered conversations between people buffeted by uncanny forces they can’t control or understand.

Like practically everyone in Canada, O’Brien must have seen and been scorched by The Boys of St. Vincent (though he was only eight when the film first aired), so when he had written a former priest sunk under the weight of sin, I would guess Henry Czerny was his first choice. Czerny is the guy you want for square men with twists and loops in their nature; the angular Clark Kent/Morrissey features of his youth have settled into the grays and lines of painful wisdom. The Righteous is probably the biggest role he’s had for a while, and he excels at putting across Frederick’s soul implosion. When Frederick tries to smile, he looks false and genuinely alarming, like an alien attempting to mimic human expressions; when someone tries to compliment Frederick, he responds with what I can only call a visceral scoff. His self-disgust is fierce but held just underneath the surface, held with great and graceful aplomb by this open-hearted actor.

As an actor, O’Brien holds his own with the master, giving Czerny something real and potentially sulfurous to sniff and respond to. (The two played father and son in the 2019 horror-comedy Ready or Not.) As a filmmaker, O’Brien lets his camera linger on Czerny as often as possible. If the director falters here, it may only be due to budget. We hear that Frederick is subject to visions, fugues. Not a lot is done with that angle, though it does serve to handwave away some of the overtly supernatural stuff we see. More than once, Frederick is shown waking up, and more than once I was confused as to whether that meant he had only dreamed the previous scene. It may not matter in the literal sense; by the end, we understand we’ve been watching one man’s inner war on himself, and everything else we’ve witnessed is sort of up for grabs. Czerny enlists in this war with all the restraint and subtextual power he’s always had, and O’Brien does everything he can to give Czerny a battlefield worthy of him.

The Northman

Posted May 15, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's best

northmanTwentieth-century softies like me may experience a film like Robert Eggers’ The Northman as a contemptuous but invigorating slap in the chops. Life was hard in AD 895, and every frame of the movie is there to show it, in all its magic-hour, snow-flecked beauty and all its torn-flesh, bloody-mud-puddle ugliness. Like Eggers’ two previous films — The Witch and The Lighthouse, both of which I adore — The Northman devotes itself to recreating a time long past, along with its moods, attitudes and details of day-to-day life. It would be easy indeed to parody The Northman, with all its shrieking madmen and howling to the black sky and chanting in the Old Languages. But Eggers offers up this material so earnestly, and with such carefully crafted art, that to lampoon it would feel callow and vile.

I’m about 75% on board with the film — it runs a bit long, and we start to feel it with about half an hour left to go — but I’m glad it was made, and I hope its poor showing at the box office won’t put Eggers in movie jail. This is the sort of expensive, excessive fantasia that sniffs around in deeper, darker nooks of cinema largely forgotten about and lifts the art form. The Northman is loud, with a brooding score and metal clashing against metal, but it has more in common with silent film than with anything else around. Based on the legend of Amleth (which in turn spawned Hamlet), it seems to want to take us back to the beginning of drama, or at least the birth of many tropes. It tells the most elemental of stories, the one about the son avenging his father, and grafts a lot of pagan strangeness and gore onto it.

Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is out to get his stinky uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murdered Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and married his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). For years, Amleth grunts and growls and readies himself for the moment when he realizes his oath: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Amleth’s entire life becomes about that, after which, he guesses, he’ll just kill himself or something, because his life will no longer have purpose. Amleth does pursue a brief interest in the young sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who proposes another level of purpose to Amleth’s life. But mainly his fate seems to be mired in rage and pain and blood. It may take a little bit before a viewer recognizes that Amleth as presented here isn’t really the hero, just the protagonist.

The images appear to be charged by the post-human energies of spirits and fae. The shadows and scents of femininity seem to reduce these crude, brutal men to animals, and the women, dealing with this off-the-scale-toxic masculinity, are in danger of becoming inhuman wretches themselves. Queen Gudrún, for instance, certainly comes across as vindictive and cruel, but to what extent have the culture of 895 and its sickening rules (rape is no big deal, it’s part of every king’s victory lap) made her that way? There are other men, though, noncombatants, fools, he-witches, who have wiser heads — until they lose them to someone with a hotter head, plus a sword. The Northman seems simple, or simplistic, until we start turning it around and peering at it. 

The sensibilities we see in the movie are very remote from ours. We could almost be watching aliens. Sometimes the film has a harshly musical Icelandic vibe; Eggers recruits the Icelandic poet Sjón as his co-scripter here, and puts Björk in majestic electrocuted-penguin garb as a character called the Seeress. As I said, the narrative begins to drag a little, but the compositions and the colors of night and the cast’s dedication to exploring long-gone behaviors — all of this is first-rate. The Northman might be my least favorite Eggers project, but that means nothing — oh, it’s only a B+, or maybe even an A-. Eggers goes big here, and uses paints he hasn’t used before. His three films feel alike, in that they could all unfold in the same uncanny, demon-haunted universe at different times, but they’re also very distinct accomplishments. Eggers is still a major reason to stay interested in whatever movies are becoming.

River’s Edge

Posted May 8, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama

rivers edge

When River’s Edge opened in America (35 years ago on May 8), reviewers and columnists chased it around like cartoon reporters waving their mics at a murder suspect. They probed it for social meaning, decided it was a commentary on the affectless kids of baby boomers (meaning, the kids of the columnists). For those of us of the generation in question, the movie was “John Hughes Goes to Hell.” It took the ethos of The Breakfast Club — “When you grow up, your heart dies”— and ramped it up. The kids in River’s Edge were born with dead or broken hearts. Generation X nodded in recognition, then probably moved on to Beverly Hills Cop II later that May as a palate-cleanser. To a greater or lesser extent, we looked at the kids in River’s Edge and said “Yeah. We know kids like this. Sometimes we are kids like this. This isn’t a social commentary, this is a snapshot.” The boomers really didn’t want to hear that.

The shock of River’s Edge isn’t that it shows kids who either kill or respond to death numbly; it’s that it shows those things in an American movie. Screenwriter Neal Jimenez and director Tim Hunter are commenting, if anything, on what we usually expect young American protagonists to do, how we demand they respond. The situation here, which Jimenez based loosely on a 1981 murder case, is that one of the film’s teenagers, Samson (Daniel Roebuck), has strangled his girlfriend, for no explicable reason — meaning, with no clear motive. “Motive,” in this movie’s terms, is a fake thing that other movies do. What Coleridge called Iago’s “motiveless malignity” holds sway here. As for the other kids, for a long while nobody is sure what to do, how to respond — except for one — and the body lies out in the open, uncovered, unmoved. 

The conflict arises not from the authorities trying to prove Samson did it — for he admits to the murder to practically anyone who will listen — but from the ethical struggle between two of the other boys in this group, Matt (Keanu Reeves) and Layne (Crispin Glover), over what should be done about Samson. Layne proposes that they all close ranks around Samson, hide him, whatever. His reasoning appears to boil down to “She’s dead — we can’t help her. He’s alive; we can help him.” Matt isn’t so sure; like the others, he has a flicker of conscience and consciousness, which can either be extinguished or fanned into flame. We’re not too surprised when Matt goes to the cops fairly early on. Even 35 years ago, Keanu Reeves projected a basic kindness. But even Matt doesn’t act quickly enough for the police’s liking. Most of the adults in this movie are essentially ghosts of movies past, insisting on the clearcut morality and narrative rigidity that are irrelevant in the gray and tangled world of River’s Edge. 

The film has a hell of a lot under its hood, and not all of it was intentionally placed there, but some of it clearly was — the whole doll motif, for instance, linking a dead girl to hollow objects of male desire or destruction. I guess Matt’s new girlfriend Clarissa (Ione Skye) is supposed to be the living, breathing exception to all that, but she’s a little blank. (Someone like Allison Anders could step forward to tell Clarissa’s story.) We learn nothing about Jamie, the girl Samson killed. She’s literally just a naked body to be argued over. We never hear her speak, only briefly see her alive in a flashback, moments before she’s killed. 

My hunch is that Hunter and Jimenez are getting at something more elemental and distressing than just “these kids today” or “adults suck.” The passage of 35 years has made River’s Edge feel more timelessly tragic. Other than a few bits of score that briefly make the movie sound like a banal ‘80s thriller, it has aged very, very well. Its lineage proceeds from skid-row cinema to the JD flicks of the ’50s to Herzog’s Stroszek to Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue — Hopper is rather famously in River’s Edge, by the way, as a one-legged freako and possible killer who isn’t even the craziest galoot Hopper played in 1986. Hopper’s presence links this movie to his earlier portrait of bottom-dog life in numbed-out America. A double feature of Out of the Blue and River’s Edge is contraindicated unless under strict supervision.

I should probably deal with Crispin Glover here. Throughout River’s Edge, Layne is meant to be the “leader” who decides for everyone else what’s going to be done and tries to enforce it. Glover’s relentlessly externalized and stylized performance says that he thinks Layne is a cartoon, so he plays him without any human shadings except fear and the will to power. He’s basically the Joker to Reeves’ wounded stoner Batman. I could entertain arguments pro or con Glover’s performance, but ultimately it just doesn’t seem organic to the piece. What happens to Layne doesn’t matter to us, and maybe it’s right that it shouldn’t matter. And maybe Glover, to his credit, sensed that, and made Layne a cartoon devil to indicate that the character isn’t human on the same level as Matt and the others with still-alive morality. The effect, though, is to leave the movie lopsided. (Pauline Kael, in her negative review, put it succinctly: Glover is “giving an expressionist performance in a movie that’s trying to be ‘real.'”) You can tell that Matt and the others capitulate to Layne because it’s in the script, not because he’s persuasive or intimidating.

Samson sits next to his victim, a teenage Frankenstein not knowing why that flower petal didn’t float. We gather that murder made him feel alive, for a while, but then the adrenaline wore off and he resurfaced to a reality where everyone around him was dealing with the consequences of his action, so he didn’t have to. Layne is cut from the same cloth as those who want to protect rapists, because why ruin this young man’s future? Matt, who is almost comically courteous to Clarissa even post-coitus, is of a quieter but stronger fabric. Layne will speak for the soul-dead living; Matt will let the dead speak for herself. Like Out of the Blue, River’s Edge is depressive but piercing — it stings and leaves a bruise.

Jackass Forever

Posted April 24, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy

film_JackassBees

The “yarbles,” as Anthony Burgess termed them in A Clockwork Orange, take quite a bit of punishment in Jackass Forever. It’s as though this franchise, which is now over two decades old, were refuting possible charges of toxic masculinity by batting those balls right out of the park. It may take massive ones for Johnny Knoxville and his coterie of giggling loons to do these painful stunts, but that doesn’t guarantee those organs any kind of asylum. Their neighbor to the north is also involved, being punched, hockey-pucked, flattened, slathered in bees, and, in the movie’s terrific opening number, dressed up like a kaiju laying waste to a whole city. The last thing I would call the Jackass movies is masculinist, since the family jewels are shown to be fragile, goofy, in constant danger of injury or insult.

Knoxville, who recently turned 51, has said that Jackass Forever will be his final dance with this series. We’ll see. For one thing, the previous entry, Jackass 3D, which dropped twelve years ago, had the tone of a good-bye to all that, and I responded to it as such. The new movie feels like a bit of an addendum, proving whatever the Jackass crew feels necessary to prove — that they can still do it, mostly. Though maybe not for too much longer: the movie is also something of a passing of the torch, welcoming, for the first time, a few newcomers, including Rachel Wolfson, the first female Jackass. New blood was needed, since one member, the late Ryan Dunn, wrapped his Porsche around a tree in 2011 and another, Bam Margera, fell off the wagon and was fired. That and, well, how many more times can Knoxville get in the bull ring and come away breathing?

The thing about the Jackass stunts, especially in the movies where there’s a budget for them, is that this lowbrow, roughhouse stuff that takes two minutes to watch and guffaw at required God knows how much prep, planning out, and paperwork (the insurance policies alone must make for dense bedtime reading) to pull off without killing someone. As it is, an inch here or there may have made the difference between a Jackass walking off the pain and being carried off in a bag. Pain and peril aren’t the only gremlins the Jackasses must face; bodily fluids of all kinds burst forth, arcing in the outdoor sun. I’m sure someone has already written at scholarly length about the various violations to the (mostly male) body in the Jackass series and the wastes constantly pouring out of it. The body is squeamish, revolting, unreliable, and, we see here, aging. The gray-maned Knoxville can no longer bounce back as fast as he once could.

Will the franchise continue? I can see why Rachel Wolfson and the other newbies (including comedian Eric André, pumped to hang with these guys he grew up watching on TV) wanted to be a part of the dumbass festivities. The attitude among Knoxville, Steve-O, Wee Man, and the other OG Jackasses is camaraderie born of shared agony. Someone like Danger Ehren (who takes by far the most shots to the yarbles in Jackass Forever) may rage against his cackling brothers (and sister) in stupidity, but nobody gets away unscathed; everyone gets a turn inside the cannon or the poop-filled porta-potty or the dark room that may contain a deadly snake. 

The frequent laughter on the set as one or another Jackass gets pig semen dumped on him or gets his meats beaten with tiny boxing gloves isn’t mean-spirited. To endure one of the aggressively gross or dangerous set pieces and survive, walk it off (or get hosed off), and come back for more is to be embraced into a small subculture of masochists and ninnies. But maybe the real secret to enjoying what Knoxville and his team have wrought is that they don’t seem to be doing all this to entertain us; they do it, as they always have, to entertain themselves. I couldn’t do it. Respect. 

X

Posted April 17, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, overrated

x

A work of art or entertainment can have a lot on its mind and under its hood, but if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, and no amount of sophisticated subtext is going to make you like it. Which brings us to Ti West’s X, a nasty retro slasher film, set in 1979 and indebted to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as to a number of ‘70s porn flicks. X conflates sex and violence in an almost comically obvious way; it’s about a small crew of porn filmmakers who go to a remote location and get picked off gorily one by one, but not before they’ve plied their trade. So in a way, the movie is a meta commentary on the fuck-and-die motif that distinguished (if that is the word) many slasher flicks in the ‘80s. It feels almost as if West intends it as a minimalist distillation of slasher and porn tropes: Here, this is what all those gross-out and skin flicks were getting at all along.

I suppose part of the meta joke is that X doesn’t really deliver either as horror or as sexploitation. West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett stage the porn-making scenes unimaginatively, and the murder scenes, when they eventually come, follow suit. X is a slow burn, though it starts with a flash-forward to the police nosing around the bloody crime scene, as though West were saying “Yes, the first half of the movie is a lot of talk and hanging out, but don’t worry, gory stuff is coming.” And it does, but I found I didn’t care about the victims any more than I cared about the psycho fodder in, say, Friday the 13th Part 3. 

The camera really only has eyes for Maxine (Mia Goth), a young porn actress with ambitions of being a star, whose freckles seem to come and go depending on the scene. Maxine is set up as the Final Girl, but she’s not especially likable or smart or … anything, really. Maxine’s psyching herself up in a mirror is perhaps a nod to Boogie Nights, and if we remember that film we know that X’s setting in 1979 is heavily ironic: Home video would soon turn porn into what it always really only was, jerkoff fodder, and the concept of porn “stars” more or less died. (I think the last adult-film performer whose name crossed over into mainstream consciousness was Stormy Daniels.) So Maxine is heading for a future in videos with titles like Dirty Texas Sluts, Vol. 17. 

We can tell that Ti West wants X to be taken more seriously than the rotgut splatterthons whose aesthetic it plunders. That’s apparent in the first half’s sense of melancholy, its tonal lip service towards the sadnesses of age, the lost freedom of youth. A lot of the film seems to meditate on the sexual frustration of an elderly woman, Pearl, who with her husband owns the property where the porn crew are filming. Maxine finds Pearl’s sexual (and, it appears, bisexual) neediness pathetic and disgusting, and the movie seconds her. One can’t really divide the audience’s sympathies in what’s supposed to be a slasher throwback; you end up cancelling out any sympathy. I won’t say horror movies should be nice, or even politically correct, but if we’re to care about a character it’d help if that character didn’t invite our disdain, either by ageist bigotry or by murderous brutality. In brief, the movie’s take on sexuality among the elderly is that, however gently Pearl’s longing is framed, codger sex is creepy and gross. 

In a movie where people are pitchforked, fed to a gator, and generally roughly treated, we search in vain for a warm heart. But, whatever West’s intentions, X comes across as a cold exercise rather than a hot, blood-red shot of the strong stuff. Cold and unfeeling. You can’t ask us to think about an old woman’s feelings of hopelessness and then push us to root for her messy death. Whatever West is trying here doesn’t ultimately land, maybe because West himself doesn’t seem to care about any of these people. (Regardless, we are told that a prequel film, Pearl, is already in the can.) Anyway, something is seriously amiss with the tone. Some viewers will find it a spicy hit of cruel fun, while others will feel a little rubbed raw, not to mention disappointed and bummed out. There are actual pornographic horror films, with a budget for gory effects and everything. Any of them, in their simple, mercenary eagerness to please, might set on the stomach a bit better than X.