Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie

Posted May 21, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary


Michael J. Fox has always had a surplus of nervous energy. If you picture him in his iconic roles, like Alex P. Keaton or Marty McFly, you don’t recall him at ease. He’s generally bustling, pacing, his body trying to keep pace with his brain. It now seems, some 32 years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, that Fox’s tremors and lurching movements were forecast right from childhood, where, in re-enacted flashback, he’s often shown as running around, dashing off to the candy store by himself, refusing to be contained. The documentary Still shows, among other things, that Fox’s gradually worsening symptoms are a kind of nightmarish funhouse-mirror parody of how he comported himself in health. 

And now Fox has to learn how to move more mindfully and cautiously. He trips and falls, and often breaks bones. The disease has slowed him down by force, while it has strengthened and sped up his spasms. Medications help, but do not completely quell his involuntary motion. There is no cure, and Fox does not expect to see one in his lifetime. Parkinson’s patients — according to Fox’s own foundation, which has raised almost $2 billion for research — generally live ten to twenty years after diagnosis. Fox was diagnosed at age 29, while most patients get their dx past age 60; he will be 62 next month. So he is at least doubly an anomaly in this realm. Who knows, he may yet live to see a cure. 

As long as Fox can be assured there will be one, though, one suspects he’d be all right with not benefiting from it himself. He is, after all, notoriously optimistic. And that extends to his early days as an actor, when he spent years in obscurity waiting for something. Something turned out to be Family Ties, which made him famous as a pint-sized, restless comedian, the breakout star of a sitcom that was supposed to be about the parents. From there he took off in the Back to the Future franchise and thereafter, for the most part, circled the runway. He was seldom the problem in his films (he was terrific in Casualties of War); the material just wasn’t there for him. He returned to TV (Spin City) and, a couple years into it, decided to go public explaining the symptoms he had more and more trouble hiding.

Still combines the re-enactments, sharply chosen clips from Fox’s filmography, and Fox himself sitting and addressing the camera, or going about his family routines and physical therapies. Fox has retired from acting, but at heart he’s still an entertainer. In a candid moment, Fox is greeted by a passerby, turns to engage her, and falls. He waves away her concern, and redeems the mishap with a warm joke. I think the instinct for the laugh, for the audience love, runs so deep in Fox that it may be a large factor in keeping him together. He’s got to go out and be with people; he can’t just curl fetally into bed and die. 

Besides, Fox has a devoted family who don’t want to lose him any time soon: four kids and his wife and rock Tracy Pollan, who is another large factor in keeping him together. Pollan has been with Fox through the assholery of celebrity, the diagnosis, alcoholism, everything else; he’s aware he hit the lottery with her, and he is lost for words when asked her impact on his life — mere English seems inadequate for the task. “Clarity” is what he comes up with finally. It says a lot for one word. Still brings us closer to Fox as he contends with how his body has forced his mind to adapt. It doesn’t turn him into inspiration porn. It keeps a respectful distance from what must be a certain degree of daily indignity for him. It leaves him where we want him to be: walking towards sunset on a beach, surrounded by family. It’s a cozy profile that invites empathy more than sympathy.

Evil Dead Rise

Posted May 14, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

Screen Shot 2023-05-14 at 4.20.33 PM

Here’s the thing about the Evil Dead franchise. It needs Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams the way the Alien franchise needs Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Without those characters and those actors, you may have in-name-only franchise sequels with gnashing xenomorphs and unruly deadites, but you don’t have the heart and soul. In the first three Evil Dead films and three seasons of Ash Vs. Evil Dead, Campbell and director Sam Raimi gradually leaned into knockabout comedy, until the stories were informed as much by the Three Stooges as by The Exorcist. 

Campbell comes on for a quick aural bow in Evil Dead Rise, and his out-of-patience voice on an ancient record snapping “It’s called The Book of the Dead for a reason” conveys more of the old Evil Dead spirit than anything else in the film. Here, we’re in a condemned old apartment building in Los Angeles. We meet our hero Beth (Lily Sullivan), a guitar tech, her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), a tattoo artist, and Ellie’s three kids. Ellie’s husband is out of the picture, while Beth has recently discovered she’s pregnant. Writer-director Lee Cronin kicks back and lets the women marinate in their sorrows for a while, just as though any of this is going to matter much once the evil dead barge in.

Which they do, possessing Ellie and then others. There’s a fair amount of nastiness involving the de-souled Ellie taunting Beth about her being a “groupie slut” and carrying an extra soul for Ellie to eat. I’d just as soon not get into the implications of that second bit.* And it’s weird to complain that a horror movie gets us to care about people, but this was a family I didn’t particularly relish watching as they suffered, bled, grieved, bled some more, and literally almost drowned in blood. We never “cared” about Ash — we liked the guy, but to enjoy him getting bashed around we had to keep some detachment from him. Ash didn’t really have feelings. He was a slapstick figure at the center of a horror-fantasy series.

But here, and also in its grim predecessor from ten years ago, there’s no slapstick, no “Klaatu barada nikto,” no fun. These are realistic people with real pain over real problems. Turning deadites loose on them is like kicking a dying puppy in the face. Now, that kind of nihilistic cruelty to characters can work, and has worked many times, in good horror. And none of those horror stories were called Evil Dead. But now here we are. You can no longer be guaranteed a rowdy good time with this franchise. It has become rancid, humorless, toxic. Apart from the spasmodic, shambolic, cackling-witch behavior of the possessed, the tone of these latter Evil Dead films is so different they don’t even seem part of the same series. 

The two leads, both from Australian TV and film, work strenuously and honestly as sisters with all sorts of brittle feelings between them. They aren’t the problem here — the conception of the film is unappealing, and they do what they can within it, maintaining some dignity in circumstances that mitigate against dignity. The movie itself doesn’t work hard enough to deserve them (the kids are all great too). The gore level is off the chart, leading comics artist and horror buff Stephen Bissette to opine that this might be the bloodiest movie ever to pass with an R rating. It may well be. Maybe if it’s demonic blood it doesn’t count as real blood. That’s fine; to me, this doesn’t count as a real Evil Dead film either. 

*All right, I will here. The movie basically says the fetus has a soul, a classic pro-life stance. 


Posted May 7, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized


Here, perhaps a month or two early, is the Nazi-bashing action flick we’ve been waiting for. Sisu may not be as nostalgically nourishing as the upcoming Indiana Jones coda might be, but it’s certainly gorier, with a properly sadistic sense of humor about the various grisly ways in which Nazis beef it. Named after the Finnish expression for grit in the face of overwhelming odds (among other things), Sisu is refreshingly simple. A Finnish gold prospector, Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tammila), discovers a rich deposit and stows the heavy nuggets in his backpack. Korpi gets waylaid by some retreating Nazi soldiers, who steal his gold. Korpi, though, has a reputation as a hardy and merciless fighter — he’s dubbed Koschei, or “the immortal.” Korpi wants his gold back and the Nazis dead.

Is Korpi actually immortal? He gets shot, hanged, bashed around, and generally ill-treated, but he keeps on ticking. He’s been compared to Rambo, but is possibly closer to a slasher icon like Jason. The movie remembers how much uncomplicated fun it is to root for an unstoppable bad-ass against Nazis, who are not humanized in the slightest here other than a motivational speech given by their leader (Aksel Hennie), who sees the writing on the wall. The Nazis will lose and they will be hanged, and Korpi’s gold might buy them a way out. But even this Nazi is a cold cod, calculating and brutal. He may be shrewder than the others, but writer-director Jalmari Helander doesn’t warm to him. He’s a Nazi and must die.

Which isn’t really a spoiler, not in a movie like this. We go to Sisu to see our guy wreck shop on a bunch of fascists, and he does. Korpi also has a dog, but you shouldn’t worry about him. In general, Helander wants us in a chipper mood as the hero sets about his mission. There’s a group of captive Finnish women in one of the Nazi tanks, and we gather they are there for the same reason Sean Penn kidnapped a Vietnamese girl in Casualties of War, but the movie doesn’t rub our faces in their suffering. Soon enough, these women recognize Korpi not as their savior but as their inspiration, and Helander gives them a heroic widescreen shot worthy of Tarantino. Fuck around with the Finnish, the movie says, and find out.

The action is absorbing and easily readable; the kills are, almost without exception, fierce and gory. The carnage isn’t unpleasant, because it’s mostly visited upon Nazis; it’s not long before we figure out that whatever damage Korpi takes isn’t going to slow him down much. And one Nazi comeuppance in particular is engineered to get a full-throated audience response, and likely has. Sisu is enjoyable but a bit thin. I liked it, but it is what it is and that’s all it is. Which is fine, but the same down-to-business aesthetic that gives us a cracking action flick in 90 minutes also doesn’t have much time to fill out its characters, even the heroic ones. There’s one among the Finnish women who seems braver than the others, but we learn nothing about her, and scarcely more about Korpi himself.

Maybe we should have been made to worry about the dog after all. Korpi seems at least to like the dog, and that makes him relatable. And maybe Helander is like me and wants to watch a fun movie without having a panic attack over whether a dog is going to snuff it. So if I were making this movie, I’d do the same, and as a dog aficionado watching the movie, I approve, but as a critic I gotta say taking the dog fully out of the equation leaves us with nothing to worry about as regards Korpi. He’s immortal, and apparently so is his dog. (Horse lovers, though, might want to give Sisu a wide berth.) He has no flaws, no weaknesses, nothing his enemy can use against him. You just wind him up and point him at the Nazis and watch him chew his way through them. Even Indy was afraid of snakes.

Scream VI

Posted April 30, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

scream 6

“How are you still alive?” someone says, near the end of Scream VI, to someone who certainly seemed to be Ghostface fodder. The question would almost be funny, if it weren’t so frustrating, because we’re not sure why anyone in the movie is still alive, nor why some others are dead. One person takes a deep slash to the arm and is seen, not much later, using the arm as though it were untouched. Sometimes these discrepancies between those who should be dead but somehow aren’t, and those who suffer similar or even lesser damage but expire anyway, are due to changes made during editing, preview screenings, or even filming; sometimes, though, it’s just lazy screenwriting, and that explanation fits Scream VI best.

“Fuck this franchise,” someone else says — yes, these movies are as meta as ever — and that quote shows more relevance with each new sequel. The Scream franchise is three years shy of its 30th anniversary at this point, but that’s to be expected in the horror genre; hell, Halloween was 40 years old the last time it got rebooted. But the particular whodunit emphasis of this series means that each new entry has to up the ante and devise ever more convoluted motives for the killer(s), and by now the reveals have become rote, boring. Well, we know the killer can’t be Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the sole hangover from the 1996 original film. Nor, probably, is it the sisters Sam and Tara Carpenter (Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega), especially since Ortega has a Wednesday fanbase now, and Paramount isn’t going to lose any factor they have left to put butts in seats.

Other than that, the masked Ghostface could be anyone, taunting our protagonists over the phone in that same insinuating growl through a voice modulator (though actually voiced, since day one in this series, by Roger L. Jackson). And when I say anyone, I generally mean anyone new to the series. That narrows it down nicely. The movie also brings back Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), Ghostface survivor turned driven FBI agent. Why? To jazz the longtime fans, which now means those who were around in 2011 to see Kirby’s last Scream appearance. The one thing I freely enjoyed here is Gale Weathers’ baffled reaction to Kirby, whom she remembers as the high-school kid she was in 2011, being in the FBI now: “You’re, like, a zygote.” I get it, Gale. 2011 was five minutes ago for us Gen-Xers but 12 long years ago for the young’uns. 

Is the merciless passage of time the only thing the Scream films have to scare us with now? Certainly the murder scenes are no more interesting or impactful. It’s just stab, stab, stab, though the killer does grab a shotgun at one point; hey, it’s New York City. Horror films of late have benefited from the MPAA’s lax attitude towards gory violence, probably at least since The Passion of the Christ and surely since 2008’s Rambo. What once would have obliged a slasher flick to go out unrated, or with a self-applied X, or later with an NC-17, now coasts by with an R rating. So in Scream VI, people take a few more knife thrusts than you expect, or we’ll glimpse a bit of intestines peeking out. It was said after Columbine that movie violence would get more restricted as a result (indeed, Scream 3 in 2000 was a casualty of that), but these days Americans don’t care if kids are shot in school, so the movies are back to being bloodthirsty.

Anyway, the older sister Sam is the daughter of OG killer Billy Loomis (a de-aged Skeet Ulrich keeps turning up in Sam’s hallucinations), but at this point it’s clear she’s not going to take after him. The series, under the tutelage of directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, has decided to be about putting the past behind us and embracing the future, which is very noble and “live, laugh, love” and all that, but looks awkward draped over what started, in Wes Craven’s and Kevin Williamson’s able hands, as a gory, nasty thriller. Well, the nastiness is gone and the gore feels thin and inconsequential. In the first two Scream movies, the self-referencing felt sharp and added to the fright and the fun. Now it just feels tossed in there because it’s a Scream film. Like the directors’ previous Scream film last year, it doesn’t sting us or stay with us. It’s just pausing on its way to becoming content on Paramount+, where it will submerge into the back catalog and seldom be heard from again. 

The Pope’s Exorcist

Posted April 17, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

popes exorcist

If you plan to see The Pope’s Exorcist, may I suggest you preface it with a viewing of William Friedkin’s 2017 documentary The Devil and Father Amorth? The Friedkin film isn’t much as a movie (it’s streaming free with ads on Tubi), but its long centerpiece containing footage of a purported real exorcism is worth a look. It conveys the frustration and boredom as well as the drama and fear evoked by the ritual, and it shows us the then-91-year-old Father Gabriele Amorth at work, starting off by literally thumbing his nose at the devil and then exorcising, steadily and patiently, for however long it takes. And the result isn’t a Hollywood triumph, either. The victim, Cristina, has undergone nine unsuccessful Amorth exorcisms, including the one we see, and for all we know she suffers to this day.

Father Amorth gets his Hollywood close-up in The Pope’s Exorcist. Hell, he’s even played by Russell Crowe, here chowing down on his favored meal of late, a nice ham sandwich. Crowe must have seen the same footage of the real Amorth, because he gets the man’s sometimes goofball sense of humor and a degree of unflappable calm in the face of demons. I think the actual Amorth might have laughed heartily at this film’s depiction of him as an action exorcist, kicking down doors and investigating an ancient corpse’s stomach. And Crowe, who seems to have eased into this B-movie camera-hog stage of his career, enjoys himself. Too bad we can’t really share the fun.

We probably shouldn’t look to most exorcism movies for physical realism. But this movie doesn’t even gesture towards plausibility. People are supernaturally flung into walls with a force that should kill anyone, and they just groan a little and get up; one woman gets her head slammed onto a bathroom sink hard enough to shatter it, and somehow her skull doesn’t follow suit. This is all caused by Asmodeus, a demon whose ultimate goal is to possess Amorth and infiltrate the Church. The demon starts off in the frail body of a little boy who hasn’t spoken since seeing his father die a year ago. His mother and sister have accompanied him to an inherited Spanish abbey, which we gather was the site of a lot of evil. The demon, apparently there waiting, takes over the kid and demands a priest. They send in a wet-behind-the-ears fellow, and the demon roars “Send another priest!” I liked that a lot, but there’s nothing else here as good.

So this younger priest joins forces with Amorth against this demon, who taunts them with visions of the women they sinned against. I can see how this could have been treated as a feminist wrinkle in the movie’s premise (God is cool, the Church is shady), but in practice it’s bloody, highly sexualized women bashing celibate men around, and it brings up tonal and thematic questions this frequently dumb movie doesn’t have the wherewithal to answer. Maybe the director, Julius Avery, and the five people credited as writers on this thing have made an unconscious indictment not only of the Church but the toxic masculinity that powers it and commits so much evil behind closed gilded doors. We chew this over; maybe the movie is more thoughtful than we’d assumed. But then it’s back to the demon pretending to be a woman biting the head off a bird.

It’s not every movie that suffers in comparison to not one but two William Friedkin exorcism movies. The Exorcist, of course, is an enduring ornament on the gnarled tree of horror. And even The Devil and Father Amorth, for all that it feels like a DVD extra that probably wouldn’t even have gotten the small release it did if Friedkin’s name weren’t on it, has that blandly filmed ritual with a growling, obviously pained woman at its center (possessed or psychologically/neurologically wounded? the movie leaves it open), creating the drama the one-take filmmaking lacks. The Pope’s Exorcist is dramatic bordering on melodramatic, but it doesn’t take any of its own concerns seriously, the way you definitely felt Friedkin and William Peter Blatty did on The Exorcist. This might as well be an Evil Dead film a week early. 

Inside (2023)

Posted April 9, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama


To the question of which actor we’d most be willing to sit with solo through a 105-minute movie, Willem Dafoe is as fine an answer as any. The deep-dish survival thriller Inside casts Dafoe as Nemo, an art thief who gets dropped off by his cohorts via helicopter at a deluxe New York penthouse, whose owner, a high-end art collector, is away on business. Nemo is there to snag three Egon Schiele works; after finding two, he tries to skedaddle, but the place’s security system locks him in, and his cohorts panic and leave him. For the remainder of our time with him, Nemo tries to dig, whittle, smash, unbolt, or otherwise dismantle his way free, when he’s not singing to himself, fixing appetizing meals of raw, soggy pasta, spying on a cleaning lady, or starting to lose touch with reality.

We’re not meant to ask why the cops don’t show up when the alarm initially goes off. This isn’t a beat-the-clock thriller. It’s constructed to force Nemo, a failed artist, to confront himself. Thus we witness Nemo’s devolution from crisply hyper-competent thief to shuffling, walking corpse who sings “I’m going to heaven on a hillside” over and over, looking like a bundled-up Howard Hughes. The script, by Ben Hopkins, based on an idea by director Vasilis Katsoupis, works metaphorically but draws yawns narratively; a viewer on Reddit opined that they were expecting a twist wherein Nemo was reduced to a work of performance art to amuse the penthouse owner and his buddies, but no such luck. The artsy doodles in the margins — the references to Schiele and William Blake, as well as the actual art (or copies thereof) on display — just feel like padding. If Nemo were just a good thief who had no particular artistic consciousness, this would be a very short movie.

Which may have been a better deal than what we get. Inside is not an altogether bad film, not with Dafoe girding his loins and throwing his then-65-year-old body into the challenge. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, Dafoe has practiced ashtanga yoga for decades and could most likely run laps around people a quarter his age.) It’s conceivable you could enjoy the film just on the level of watching Dafoe move around, change his posture as Nemo starts losing his bearings, grunt and whistle. It’s a full, and fully physical, performance, and it deserves to be in a better film. To change things up, the filmmakers start tossing in dream sequences or hallucinations in which Nemo is allowed to interact with a couple of people; this almost feels like cheating, though it may have been meant as a reprieve from solitude — for us as well as for Nemo. (At least Tom Hanks in Cast Away had to rely on a gore-painted volleyball for company.) 

Vasilis Katsoupis’ direction is too literal, and not poetic enough, to put across the movie’s ambition to be an art object itself. Given a reality that lingers on mundane problem-solving or physically plausible obstacles, we expect the narrative to be more nuts-and-bolts than it is; instead it slackens, loses its hold along with Nemo. It becomes a statement on how Nemo (Latin for “nobody”) is trapped in a world to which he doesn’t belong, which he can only consume parts of, or destroy other parts of on his way out. So basically Nemo is all of us, scooping beautiful fish out of an aquarium and eating it raw, or building tools while leaving a shambles of his surroundings. It begins to try our patience about forty minutes in, and it still has about an hour to go. I sighed a lot and was reduced to micro-scrutinizing Dafoe’s performance, as it became the only point of interest. To revisit the question up at the top: yes, we would sit with this man solo through a 105-minute movie. But maybe not this one.

Safety Last

Posted April 2, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, one of the year's best, silent

safety last

Last Saturday, April 1, Harold Lloyd’s famous Safety Last hit the century mark. Aside from a couple of low-key caricatures common in its day (they could be worse, but they still stick out to the modern eye), the film has aged beautifully — it goes like lightning and seems supercharged by creativity and by the comedy of physical logic particular to silent films. If a rope or a net or a flock of birds introduce themselves, you can be sure they’ll be getting in the way of our hero as he attempts to scale a tall city building. Even before the climax, Lloyd (playing a character called Harold Lloyd, though the credits name him The Boy) sidesteps or blocks or evades one spot of trouble after another, by luck as much as by ingenuity.

Harold Lloyd was perhaps the most relatable of the silent titans (Chaplin, Keaton) of his time. He repped the American can-do ethos, brightened by his eternal smile, meant to instill confidence in him, occasionally soured by anxiety. In Safety Last, Harold leaves his small hometown for the Big City (actually Los Angeles — the film inadvertently gives us a good peek backwards, at L.A. streets and storefronts the way they looked two years before The Great Gatsby was published). He leaves behind his girlfriend (Mildred Davis, who’d married Lloyd earlier in 1923), who expects he’ll send for her when he gets settled. A while later, Harold is a $15-a-week garment clerk in a department store, but pretends to have a management position. We accept he’s not trying to be deceitful out of any malign motive — he just wants her to think as well of him as he does of her. The credits call her The Girl, and she’s kind of treated as such.

The sexual politics there are a bit cobwebbed, as are the fleeting but still eyebrow-raising appearances of an overeager Jewish jewelry seller with bad, ratty teeth and a Black worker literally scared up the wall by one of Harold’s ploys. For the most part, though, Safety Last   I will remind you the film is a hundred years old — is good-hearted and simple. The really enjoyable thing about it is that it establishes the general pattern of Harold’s tribulations before the stakes become life or death. There’s a lengthy section where Harold’s girlfriend comes to his work for a surprise visit and he has to improvise, lord it over baffled coworkers, bribe and then rescind the bribe (‘20s and ‘30s movies are far more money-conscious and honest about class than any movie today) — he pulls out all his tricks. Before that, he’s accidentally whisked away by a towel truck and must make his way back to the store before the bell rings so he can clock in on time, and he moves heaven and earth to get there, culminating in posing as a mannequin, the act that so frightens his Black colleague. Harold is a chaos magnet; the chaos comes out of his wanting to fit into the capitalist machine. And that applies, as well, to him ending up dangling from a clock high up on a building.

That image is the film’s most famous, possibly American silent films’ most famous — I imagine everyone has seen it somewhere. The full effect of Lloyd’s achievement requires some contextual understanding. It turns out he didn’t do 100% of the stunts himself, and some camera trickery was used to make the clock seem higher than it was; nevertheless, Lloyd did more than enough, and could easily have been killed. These days, we just assume CG effects are involved. Even if Tom Cruise actually scaled the world’s tallest building for Mission: Impossible 4, the cables securing him to the surface were digitally whited-out. By and large, we know no such pizzazz was available to the makers of Safety Last. We can see it plainly: He’s up there.

Lloyd was inspired by watching steeplejack Bill Strother (who plays Harold’s pal and roomie) ply his trade, climbing a building, and he made sure to add a bunch of roadblocks to that vertical run. Every smaller, less dangerous obstacle we’ve seen Harold contend with builds towards the payoff of the clock. (And clock and watch faces have been a visual motif, too — Harold setting back the punch clock, prefiguring his turning the big clock’s hand back.) Time itself is the big city monster that drives and pursues Harold. Mortality and financial insecurity are in the air — World War I was fewer than five years in the rearview when the movie premiered, and the Great Depression was only six years ahead. That image speaks volumes about how America must have felt — on a disastrous precipice, the bloodbath of history still not fully dry, yet trying like mad to move up anyway. The fact that the movie is also, after a hundred years, still funny as hell doesn’t hurt.


Posted March 26, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house


Maryland has provided a gritty, grubby backdrop to productions ranging from HBO’s The Wire to the whole of John Waters’ portfolio, but it may never have looked so enchanted, so freshly peeled from a book of fairy tales, as it does in the experimental indie film Leda. Director/cowriter Samuel Tressler IV, who devoted five years of his life to the project, films in and around the woods and lakes and mansions of a Maryland that passes for Anywhere. The milieu appears to be timeless, though set in a world predating technology. The harshly gorgeous atmosphere (Nick Midwig did the largely black-and-white cinematography) reminded me of Kenneth Patchen’s bothersome verse “Come now, my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we’d be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest?”

Is anything planning to harm Leda (Adeline Thery)? She seems haunted in general. Her father perished in a fox-hunt accident; her mother fell ill and died before that. Now she drifts around her property, sometimes visibly pregnant, having upsetting visions mostly involving a swan, though an egg also puts in a few appearances, in perhaps the most ominous use of that object since Alien. In Greek mythology, of course, Leda was a Spartan queen impregnated by Zeus; in the form of a swan, he “seduced” her, we are often told, softening the reality of the encounter as rape. (Can consent be freely given to a god, especially one as legendarily concupiscent and sensitive to offense as the king of Mount Olympus?) 

Leda’s cousin (Nicolle Marquez) comes to stay with her and look after her. There is a man who does some picking up around the mansion, and perhaps more. Leda keeps passing into daydreams or nightmares usually having to do with water. She swims in, bathes in, washes with, and at certain points walks on the stuff. Sometimes she stays submerged for so long we hope the actress has good lungs. Such spoilsport thoughts may only occur to those of us who view the film in less than optimal conditions. Leda is ideally screened in anaglyph 3D — the sort that requires red/cyan glasses — with a stereo system that does justice to the enveloping sound process; it has been designed as an immersive art experience. I viewed it in plain ol’ 2D on my laptop and heard it through earbuds — getting the very least of the meat, you could say — but to be honest, this is how most people from here on out are going to watch it. And they’ll have to make do with the no-frills version I saw.

Leda is clearly an audiovisual riff, and a spectacular one; Tressler has an eye, an ear, and a soul for art. The narrative, though, such as there is, tends toward the abstract and sometimes into the opaque. We see the man on the floor scrubbing at a spot. This may or may not signify something other than itself. But the child inside us who’s being told a story wants to know who the man is and what his function in the story is — why is he here? (Eventually we find out, but he still seems like abstracted Man. His character name as per the credits is literally The Man.) It’s the rare but wonderful creation that satisfies on literal and metaphorical fronts; when someone pulls it off, it feels like a magic trick.

Samuel Tressler is not that level of wizard yet, but he’s got 85% of his ducks in a row here. He can set and maintain a hypnotic mood, either soothing or needling — by the way, did I mention the film has no dialogue or even narration? Not a human word is heard, though the nature-driven sound design, with all its raindrops dappling the serene surface of a lake, disqualifies Leda from being a true silent film. Anyway, Tressler goes a long way here on tone and visual/aural poetry. But some of the meanings seem still locked up in Tressler’s heart. This or that image may mean more to him than it could to us. Artists want us to see what they see, but sometimes they forget to set the scene, do the primitive foundational work of the tale told round the fire, and we get lost in a strange landscape that seems very routine and familiar to them, but…

Cocaine Bear

Posted March 19, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, horror

cocaine bear

A movie like Cocaine Bear has to do what it says on the tin, and it does. A big bear gets into a fumbled stash of cocaine out in the woods, and it kills people. The film is a horror-comedy — full of blood and guts, but somehow the director, Elizabeth Banks, keeps the proceedings as light as possible. She doesn’t want to bum us out or, particularly, to gross us out (although there are several nasty, messy kills, not all of them at the hands — er, paws — of the bear). She wants to entertain us. Set in 1985, when the actual events that inspired the movie took place, Cocaine Bear is short and, yes, kind of sweet. Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden make most of the characters likable by giving them identifiable quirks and needs. Even the piece’s real villain, drug dealer Syd (Ray Liotta in one of his final roles), has recognizable resentments and fears. 

This is notable, because Cocaine Bear, of all movies, did not need to go the extra mile to flesh out the characters, thus making us care if they wind up as bear scat. It could just as easily have coasted on its absurdist premise and fed stick figures into the powdery maw of the beast. But the script sets several groups in motion, sometimes at cross-purposes, all heading towards the bear. Even the tourist couple whose troubles kick the movie off seem to have a history in back of the film and a hoped-for future in front of it. Once the threat is established, we get to know the threatened. Sari (Keri Russell) is a busy nurse who goes looking for her teenage daughter in the woods. Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) go looking for the cocaine, at Syd’s command. A park ranger (Margo Martindale) and wildlife activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) get involved.

Most of this goes like a shot. Banks attends to the humans and their plot threads, almost at the expense of the bear, who just wants a quiet place to scarf down some cocaine and a side order of severed leg. Banks’ amused affection extends to the bear (who, it turns out, has kids). The bear’s scenes are achieved with a computer, but the movie doesn’t feel like a CG demo. Some tense sequences have little to do with the bear at all, such as the standoff between Daveed and a cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) standing atop a gazebo. The cop seems to be there to bring a cute, foofy little dog into the movie (don’t worry, no harm befalls her). You might question why the dog is there, as well as the other cop who looks after her, but there’s a payoff later, and Banks pulls it off without undue throttling of our heartstrings. Banks has described the movie as “the bear’s revenge tale” — the actual cocaine bear didn’t kill anyone — and the movie believes in redemption. The park ranger and her hypothetical love interest are handled a little cavalierly and cartoonishly, but no matter how warmly Banks paints the characters, the deaths in a movie like this have to come on schedule. 

Cocaine Bear has the structure of a slasher movie (the ‘80s), though it owes a lot to the animals-attack subgenre of the ‘70s, which were essentially proto-slashers with Ungentle Ben or whatever else (birds, bees, frogs, rabbits — yes, rabbits, I’m not kidding) menacing the dwindling human population. The it-is-what-it-is title has drawn comparisons to Snakes on a Plane, though this film doesn’t depend for most of its effect on seeing it with a packed and snarky audience on opening night. I have now seen two out of three Banks-directed films (her Charlie’s Angels reboot from 2019 was well-meaning but kind of null), and this one sticks with me for its unstable but winning mix of heart and gore. The tone is a very tricky needle to thread, but Banks does it. And the box office has rewarded her: Cocaine Bear made $3.8 million on its fourth weekend in theaters despite having been available to stream since March 14. That’s word of mouth: “Hey, you gotta see this, it’s fun, I’ll go see it again with you.” Banks, an amiable working actor for decades, has earned this modest triumph.

Oscar Night 2023

Posted March 13, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: oscars


For us fans of Everything Everywhere All at Once, it was an embarrassment of riches. Even those of us who love Jamie Lee Curtis didn’t expect her to prevail over Angela Bassett, yet there she was, posing with her trophy alongside co-star Ke Huy Quan and then Michelle Yeoh and then “the Daniels,” who won for writing, directing, and producing the multiversal comedy-drama-whatsit. The fecund playfulness of the night’s most-honored film was about the only bright spot in an otherwise bland, dignified, somewhat tight-spirited ceremony. Ironically, for haters of EEAAO, the show will live in infamy; for the rest of us, we were glad it won, but little of the show itself is likely to stick with us.

Hosting for the third time, Jimmy Kimmel presided over a sober-sided, respectable evening. The subtext was, We’re not going to let The Slap happen this year. And it didn’t. But the Oscars need that underlying buzz of this-is-live anxiety to thrive and to draw viewers. Every few years, something unanticipatable and awful needs to happen, to keep people hooked. Kimmel didn’t host last year, but the first year he hosted, 2017, was also the year the wrong Best Picture winner was read out. Oddly — perhaps not, because nobody blames the host for mishaps like that — Kimmel was asked back the following year, then stayed home for a few seasons. Anyway, Kimmel acquitted himself solidly, his jokes neither sharp enough to invite wayward palms nor bad enough to stink up the joint. He set the tone, and the tone was, Let’s go easy this year.

I ended up seeing seven out of the ten Best Picture nominees (how’d you do?). Most of the movies in which I had a rooting interest got something to take home, though The Banshees of Inisherin now has the same number of Oscars as Elvis (zero, sadly). I was happy to see Ke Huy Quan and Brendan Fraser win, though in terms of Oscar-season narrative they were sort of the same story: comeback kids after years in the wilderness, pointing out the comeback and the wilderness whenever feasible, until one got tired of hearing their eager, grateful, tremulous voices and wondered if they would burst into tears if denied the Oscars they so clearly wanted. They got verklempt anyway. Jamie Lee Curtis, who looked genuinely surprised to win, was more affecting. She’s having a hell of a third act.

I wasn’t a fan of the new All Quiet on the Western Front, and though I rejoiced that it lost Best Adapted Screenplay to Sarah Polley and Women Talking — how are you gonna give Best Adapted to a movie that so widely misses the mark set by Erich Maria Remarque’s classic? — I kept grumbling as it picked up various other prizes, including one for Best Score. The most memorable part of that score is that “whonk whonk whonnnk” thing it does whenever war things are about to happen, sounding like Hans Zimmer’s pet goose. But Sarah Polley, once the tiny little girl Terry Gilliam almost got killed on Baron Munchausen, now has an Oscar for writing one of the year’s quiet triumphs. Women Talking is fine drama, maybe not great cinema, but good theater. Polley is intelligent and emotionally attentive, and she will make more good-to-great films; that future, with her win, got more likely on Oscar night.

Do I have to watch Elvis or Avatar 2 or the prestigious vomit-fest that is Triangle of Sadness? Nobody’s telling me I have to, so I’m gonna pass. The low-key shocker of the night, though, is that Spielberg’s The Fabelmans went home with bupkis. Once upon a time, an autumnal Tribute to the Magic of Movies by perhaps Hollywood’s most successful director/producer in history, with sentimental nods for Judd Hirsch and John Williams as well as for Spielberg, might have cleaned up. Not this time. The Oscars — I don’t mean to sound ageist — may be becoming a youngster’s game. Were they ever gonna make the 91-year-old Williams, the 87-year-old Hirsch, or the 76-year-old Spielberg creak their way up to the stage one last time? 

The downbeat tone of this year’s Oscars might owe to Hollywood’s essential insecurity, now more than ever. As Kimmel pointed out, 2022’s top ten box-office winners were all sequels or franchise movies. Something as stubbornly original as EEAAO seemed like the thing to reward, even though Hollywood doesn’t really understand it. Spielberg is out, the Daniels are in. And though it’s easy to cave to cynicism and say the Oscars are more about rewarding a campaign narrative than a work’s given qualities, it does appear that the good guys mostly won this year — even All Quiet makes war look grim and not fun, unlike Top Gun 2, with its invisible enemy from Somewhere, Planet Earth. That sequel, incidentally, lost Best Song, apparently composed by Lady Gaga in the highest anguish in her basement. I dig Gaga, but man, couldn’t she just have said “Here’s a song I wrote for the money”? (I for one would’ve respected that more.) When Gaga gets all dolled up to sit in the audience but then dials it way down to take the stage, something’s off. Bring back the Oscars where Gaga comes out looking like beef or a Blaupunkt car stereo. Give us back our ridiculous, our Monday-morning water-cooler gossip, our Oscar legends.