Halloween Kills

Posted October 17, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

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It’s difficult to judge Halloween Kills, since it’s the middle film in what’s going to be a trilogy (the capper, Halloween Ends, starts filming in January for release next October). What’s more, this trilogy, under the stewardship of director David Gordon Green and his writing-producing partner Danny McBride, looks as if it’s going to be all about fear and its destructive or self-destructive variations. Green and McBride (joined on the script here by Scott Teems) are devoted to this idea, often to the point of straining credulity. People in the movie act stupidly all the time, but not because they’re stupid — they’re afraid. The problem is, they’re still doing dumb-ass stuff and we’re still going “Oh, come on.” It doesn’t matter why characters do stupid things; they’re going to read to us as stupid people, and we’re going to wonder why we’re spending time with them, unless it’s a farce, which, despite some ridiculous moments, Halloween Kills is not.

David Gordon Green is going to take his moment in the Halloween franchise’s history to instruct us (literally, the theme is spelled out near the end) on fear and its sociopolitically deranging aspects. As such, Halloween Kills will be more interesting for horror academics to nosh on than for humble horror fans who just want a good scare. (Which, as original director John Carpenter assured us forty-three Halloweens ago, we’re all entitled to.) The academics will find great meaning, for instance, in two couples here — an interracial couple and a gay couple — who are butchered by series superslasher Michael Myers. Do they die for their “sins”? I’m going to guess not. Michael, you see, represents fear, and fear in the form of violent bigotry kills such couples. If Green didn’t actually intend that, I’ll be annoyed. But also relieved.

There was a psychiatrist in Green’s previous Halloween movie whose baffling actions worked better as subtext than as text. As subtext, we could see why Green wanted to go there. As text, it made no sense. And Halloween Kills is loaded with stuff like that. I guarantee you someone with a hearty appetite for symbology will read all sorts of jolly things into the movie, which prove it’s really about [insert grand concept here]. But if you’re just hanging out and being told this story, there’s way too much stuff that makes you go “Wait a minute.” 

A big chunk of the film has to do with an enraged mob, led by original 1978 near-victim Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, credible as a muscleheaded twerp), which eventually drives an innocent person to their death. For a reel or so, suddenly we’re in bargain-bin Ibsen or Arthur Miller. Now, I can nod coolly and claim to find all kinds of subtextual merit in this sub-subplot — Michael/fear turns people into killers — but my honest response while watching was “This is fucking stupid.” Is there going to be a whole third movie of things like this? Halloween Kills picks up the minute Halloween 2018 left off, so franchise heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is sidelined due to injuries incurred last time. Having read the script, Laurie knows exactly what Michael is and why he (fear) must be Faced and Defeated. She talks about this frequently, when she’s supposed to be concentrating on not bleeding out from the stitches she’s ripped. 

Almost as frequent are the gory deaths; every so often, Green snaps awake and brings someone into Michael’s path so that he can end them brutally. Corpses are always being happened upon, causing fear and grief. The mob rises, carried by the simplistic slogan/chant “Evil dies tonight!” Laurie convalesces with Deputy Hawkins (Will Patton), who gets a couple of flashbacks detailing his mishaps with Michael on that night in 1978 and the cop who offers to cover it up — suddenly we’re in small-town Sidney Lumet. Green stops the narrative dead so the cop can lay out what their official story is going to be. Again, this is yet another illustration of PTSD persisting for decades — the deputy is still miserable about his brush with Fear forty years later — but it feels dangerously like a sidetrack.

Halloween Kills is so obsessed with fear that it defines the actions and fate of everyone onscreen; how ironic that the movie packs so few scares. Green’s Halloween films may be the only movies ever made that concern an unstoppable killer butchering people but aren’t really horror movies. His first attempt worked because his concept was fresher then, but now it isn’t, and he has his work cut out for him on the next one. Halloween Kills isn’t hackwork by any means; the craft is high, the violence blunt and punishing, some of the performances believably rattled. (MVP for me: Robert Longstreet as the grown former bully Lonnie, who has a beer-scented, stubbly authenticity about him; he seems to have stepped out of a late-‘70s Stephen King book.) I can even respect what Green is trying to do with these films in theory. But in practice … oof. Green meditates on fear; John Carpenter inspired it.

Introducing, Selma Blair

Posted October 3, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary, one of the year's best

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As a young actress, Selma Blair developed something of a reputation for being willing to do just about any awkward or potentially thorny thing onscreen. It spoke to her honesty as a performer — we felt she didn’t do it for the attention (in her notorious red-box scene in Todd Solondz’ Storytelling, for instance) but because that was what the character did, and she was being paid to play that character. Within reason, Blair was just going to go for it, perhaps feeling she owed it to the woman she was playing to convey some sort of truth, even in a farcical construct like The Sweetest Thing

In Introducing, Selma Blair, the actress calls on the same candor to pull us into her misery following her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. Yet even when her body buzzes with pain or her speech becomes halting, Blair can usually summon her self-deprecating wit. Somewhere in Rachel Fleit’s sensitive documentary, Blair says her English teacher told her she had the makings of an actress, not, as she’d initially wanted to be, a writer. But there’s a warm clarity and humor to her language, even when she has trouble enunciating or finding the words. She could have been a writer, and still could be, if she wanted. This, after all, is a woman who begins the documentary self-satirically vamping like the past-it star Norma Desmond and ends it by floating face-down in her pool like the luckless screenwriter Joe Gillis. 

Blair is ready for her close-up, after a career that, in recent years, hadn’t rewarded her efforts. She allows Fleit access to her in her despair and pain and hope; in her hospital beds and tentatively riding her beloved horse again. (Blair’s sense of self is generally too astringent to make the movie a shameless tearjerker, but I felt a hard lump in my throat when Blair tearfully asked her riding trainer if she would adopt Blair’s horse if Blair didn’t make it through stem-cell therapy.) The narrative, for those who have dealt with the maddening ups and downs of real as opposed to Hollywood disease, can get tense at times. Time is a factor: Blair must undergo the stem-cell transplant ASAP or risk permanent brain damage. She bids a temporary (she hopes temporary) farewell to her young son Arthur and her ailing mother and heads in for grueling chemotherapy.

Here and there, Blair sardonically comments on the level of drama the disease and its undignified symptoms (imbalance, brain fog, speech bumps) have brought to her life. I wonder if her snarky self-awareness (a Gen-X icon through and through) helped her see that the role of Selma Blair, anguished MS patient, was a plum and complex role a lot of actresses might jump at. I’m not suggesting that was the impetus for the documentary; I believe Blair when she talks about feeling good that her struggles can bring comfort to others unsteadily walking a similar path — people like Christina Applegate, Blair’s costar in The Sweetest Thing, who went public with her own MS diagnosis in August. I would much rather have seen Blair acting, and only acting, these struggles in a good movie than enduring them for real. So would she have, I’d wager, but here we are.

Occasionally Introducing, Selma Blair (not sure why that comma is there) reminded me of the recent videography Val, which contrasted footage of a young, hot-shot, suave-talking Val Kilmer with the wounded man he is now. Blair’s movie doesn’t engage as much with her celluloid past, although it’s a painful irony to watch her moving with balletic grace in pre-MS clips and then witness her post-diagnosis trying to navigate stairs. We get bits from, I guess, her best-known films: Legally Blonde, Hellboy, Cruel Intentions. It was The Sweetest Thing, though — a rare-in-its-day female gross-out comedy, years before Bridesmaids or Girls Trip — that really showed me to what extent Blair was up for disregarding her pristine features and getting knee-deep in the risible muck of dysfunction and embarrassment. Any time Blair did something like that in a movie, I felt grateful she implicated herself in the eternal mess of being a person — didn’t stand aloof from it or deny it or soft-soap it. And she performs the same service here.

Cruella

Posted September 26, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, prequel

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It’s entirely possible that the less real estate 101 Dalmatians and its various iterations occupy in your emotional neighborhood, the more you may feel free to enjoy Cruella, a live-action prequel unveiling the origins of one Cruella De Vil. She was born Estella, was orphaned as a girl, then fell in with a couple of Dickensian child grifters. Eventually she grows into Emma Stone, who dyes her natural two-tone hair a less showy deep blood-red and goes to work for the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a fabulous and malicious fashion-design icon. Cruella is about how Estella becomes Cruella, though tonally it’s unstable and off-putting, and it doesn’t seem directed so much as assembled.

That’s to be expected from director Craig Gillespie, whose previous film, I, Tonya, had similar themes and similar problems. Gillespie again can’t resist aping Martin Scorsese and swooping his camera through crowded rooms while the soundtrack is infested with period needle-drops. Cruella is supposedly set largely in the ‘70s, so we get the Stones, the Clash, Supertramp, the Doors, etc. As compellingly odd as it is to hear a Clash song in the middle of a Disney film, what people like Gillespie don’t get about the way Scorsese uses needle-drops is how the music emerges organically and emotionally — it’s not just there to make the movie cool. Cruella too often feels like a bunch of music videos glued together. It seems made to be thrown on the TV in the background of a party.

That’d be a stylish party, though, and if the movie launches a thousand Cruella Halloween costumes and drag queens next month, it will have done some good work. Truth to tell, a snarky, punk-goth riff on a Disney villainess sounded fine to me; I was a big fan of the Mouse’s previous toe-dip in this pool, Maleficent (though I missed the sequel). Full of pain and nuance, Maleficent more than redeemed the antagonist of Sleeping Beauty. But Cruella, though grounded in grief and poverty, is never less convincing than when it wants you to be sad — it’s just irrepressibly hosting its own outré costume party, although we don’t feel invited. Stone does put across a late-inning monologue directed at a fountain that represents her dead mum, but otherwise the movie’s conception doesn’t allow her or Thompson to transcend cartoonishness.

Here and there, Thompson does share the fun she’s having, swanning around in diabolically smashing outfits while everyone around her recoils in abject fear of her, and in some moments Stone’s conniving Estella/Cruella appears to be taking notes from the Baroness. (Or Stone from Thompson.) The level of craft is as high as Disney’s pockets are deep (one hears murmurs of a $200 million budget), but there was probably a firm ceiling on how arch and camp — on how gay, let’s not dance around it — Cruella could get without losing track of its bottom line. So it’s this sort of semi-closeted thing (though it boasts, in John McCrea’s fashion-shop owner Artie, Disney’s first “originally created openly gay character”) that doesn’t trade in nearly enough fun outsider queer-coding for a cult audience and isn’t legitimately queer enough for people who relate to Cruella and her cadre to be interested in it.

Even with all its weaknesses I might’ve cut Cruella some slack if it didn’t seem to play itself out at the 60-minute mark with over an hour left to go. A MacGuffin pendant is involved, leading to a tired twist. The style of the film comes on all Punk Sounds of the ‘70s, but the narrative is purely corporate story-meeting, with a lot of unacknowledged weirdness to unpack — we’re supposed to be jazzed that one sociopathically ambitious queen bitch is being replaced by another, who will go on to make dresses out of puppy skins? There’s no way an endeavor this costly is going to end on an ambiguous note or even in a way that closes off sequels. Nor does it want to go whole-hog into celebration, ironic or otherwise, of Cruella’s baser qualities. Cruella herself would find the movie dull and obvious, a wannabe punk decked out in Hot Topic.

@Zola

Posted September 19, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, comedy, cult, overrated

zola

Not everything needs to be a movie. That’s not to say that the legendary 2015 Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King doesn’t seem like — and play in our minds like, when we’re reading it — a movie-god-given piece of natural cinema material. It has everything: sex, violence, and, as Zola says in the first tweet, a story “full of suspense.” Zola’s common-sensical voice is loud and clear; it carries us through, and we can hear it in our heads, with its heartbeat-monitor spikes of disbelief and outrage. What I’m getting at is that Zola’s thread is almost a perfect little movie in itself. Imagining the story’s excesses, we collaborate, make it funnier to ourselves.

It gives me no pleasure to opine that @Zola, the movie director Janicza Bravo and her cowriter Jeremy O. Harris have made from Zola’s story, feels somewhat redundant. The actual film before us can’t compete with the mind-movie we made when reading the thread. (Maybe a viewer is better off going into the film cold.) I really didn’t want it to be this way. I was rooting for @Zola to be a disreputable but electrifying bonbon of sin and hyperbole, something along the lines of Spring Breakers or The Rules of Attraction in its mash-up of art and exploitation. And Bravo, who has a strong eye for trance-out color and movement, at first seems the ideal filmmaker for this tale. 

Part of the thread’s appeal, I think, is that its narrator (Taylour Paige) is Black and her companion, a sex worker here named Stefani (Riley Keough), is white. Stefani is also a hot mess who drags Zola into a hard-bass netherworld of guns and lust. Zola is essentially an observer on the side as Stefani, her pimp X (Colman Domingo), and her hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) make everything ridiculously worse. We hear some of Zola’s tweets as narration, though they may lack the tartness and surreal listen-to-this-shit humor they had in our heads. Taylour Paige is fine as Zola but somewhat inexpressive, ceding the movie to Riley Keough’s dumpster-fire Stefani, who talks like a dumb white chick’s idea of how Black women talk, gleaned from tabloid talk shows.

Neither woman seems to learn much from their experiences, though, and the movie arrives at a stop without having really arrived at an end — or a point. @Zola appears to advise viewers not to trust crazy white women, who are too padded by privilege to feel the sharp edges of the danger they get themselves in. (It’s the whiny, insecure Derrek, also white, who makes the worst mistake and almost gets everyone killed.) The film doesn’t put much stock in Black men, either. We’re aware we’re getting a subjective account (and Bravo puts the movie on pause to let Stefani control the narrative briefly), the purpose of which is to show the wisdom and resilience of a Black woman. No problem there, except that it tends to keep Zola at a remove. In this chaotic, candy-colored universe of sin and stupidity, Zola is the one keeping her head while all around her lose theirs. She’s watching and relaying the story; she’s seldom truly in it. 

Everyone else on screen is flawed, hilariously (Nicholas Braun kept getting unanticipated laughs out of me) or frighteningly (Colman Domingo’s stealth-African X loses his fake American accent when he’s angry). Zola isn’t. She has no quirks, no likes or dislikes, and when you get right down to it she exists in her own plot to save the infantile white people from the savage, street-smart Black men, who will get money out of your carcass any way they can, whether pimping it or murdering it. Can a movie written and directed by Black people be prejudiced against Black people? Not consciously, maybe. And I don’t doubt that Bravo and Harris must have responded to the wild tall-tale aspect of @Zola; I don’t presume classist bad faith on their parts — again, not conscious. Bravo is eminently worth watching as a director; the movie at its pure-cinema finest is like a neon mandala. But, man, does this film give off some discordant vibes. 

Kate

Posted September 12, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure

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Slicker than goose shit, Netflix’s #1 trending new film Kate is stylishly brutal and will probably be praised in some quarters accordingly, but it leaves us wanting more. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is laconically terrific as Kate, an assassin who gets poisoned and spends the remainder of the movie, and the rest of her shortened life, searching for the yakuza higher-up who gave the order. Kate kills her way through Japan, coughing and injecting herself with stimulants to keep going. Even just this far into the review, film titles may have popped into your head: John Wick and the Crank films and DOA (either version) and many others.

In and of itself, Kate is smoothly pieced together, but it simply echoes too many of its ancestors to earn a place among them. It’s probably best for fans of Winstead and of gnarly action — the fight choreography is quick and vicious, and the digital effects augment the carnage (Kate takes out one poor sap by shoving a knife through his lower jaw up through the bridge of his nose). Segment by segment, the movie keeps us going, like those stimulants, but ultimately it winds down, and our interest with it. Kate is provided with a damsel in distress, teenage Ani (Miku Martineau), whose uncle is a yakuza bigwig; her father had earlier been killed in front of her by sniper Kate, though Ani doesn’t know this.

Shooting and stabbing her way up the ladder of the Japanese underworld, Kate needs to keep the whiny Ani alive, and every time we see Ani, we’re reminded of how false this relationship feels, how roughly it seems forced into place. Thank God Kate’s maternal instincts aren’t awakened by Ani — Kate feels bad for getting Ani’s dad’s blood all over the kid’s face, but that’s about it. When Kate takes scissors to her hair in a restroom, she comes out looking a bit like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. The script, sadly, doesn’t give Winstead much to call her own. Kate is professional and pained and vengeful. She doesn’t have time to be anything else. For the sake of a cool visual late in the film — when Kate should be almost dead — she comes out, loaded for bear, smoking a cigarette and backed by numerous yakuza. Sorry, is this the same woman we’ve seen coughing in every scene and, pre-poison, jogging and parkouring up alley walls? There’s no reason for her to put more toxins in her body and mess up her respiration other than Rule of Cool.

Which, I suppose, will be enough for some. It’s probably an homage to Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer or Hard Boiled, or any number of films where an assassin blithely sucks up some nicotine before rolling up their sleeves and aerating dozens of foes. But Kate has too many moments like that, where we figure something’s there because someone (maybe director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, or writer Umair Aleem, or both) thought it’d look awesome. It does, kind of, but in all the old ways. Filmed in Tokyo, Bangkok, and L.A., Kate is full of decadent neon and Japanese hip-hop and densely packed nightclubs. There’s also an evil gay assassin (played by the musician Miyavi, the obsessed sergeant in Unbroken) who fights well enough but, jeez, why the yellow/pink peril?

It’s not as if the movie had anything to say about sexuality. Kate takes a rando to bed (contemptuously tossing a wad of cash on the nightstand), and if not for this guy, she wouldn’t get poisoned. Nothing he says to her strikes us as witty or persuasive enough to score with her, so why does she bother? Then again, we never ask why James Bond or other male assassins pause to savor the touch of a woman; maybe she just needs to work off some nervous energy. God knows she doesn’t have anyone else in her life, other than Woody Harrelson in a handful of scenes as Kate’s handler Varrick. (Is his first name Charley?) I wasn’t aware Harrelson had entered the stage of his career when he pops in for extended cameos in empty-calorie actioners; he probably does it better than Bruce Willis does at this point, but that’s not saying much. As with Winstead, his professionalism is appreciated, but one wants to be watching either of them in anything else.

Little Vampire

Posted September 5, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, animation, comic-book, foreign

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Sometimes we want a movie that isn’t going to make us worry too much, and the amiable French animated all-ages fantasy Little Vampire falls squarely in that category. It’s good-hearted and has abundant charm, though not a lot seems to be at stake (no pun intended). Essentially it’s about friendship and finding one’s way, packed with enough monsters and goth beauty to keep fans of (early) Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro happy for a while. At times it feels like a pilot for a TV cartoon, as indeed it was, in 2004; it began life as a comic by Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) and has nothing to do with the books of the same name that spawned a 2000 comedy (with Jonathan Lipnicki) and its 2017 animated remake.

Aside from the comics, all of those adaptations, including the 2004 series, seem to take the vantage point of the human boy who befriends the vampire boy. Here, the vampire boy is front and center, going back to the comics’ perspective. We begin with Pandora and her little boy pursued by the arrogant Le Gibbous, who wants to sacrifice them to a giant monster. They’re saved by the skeletal Captain of the Dead, turned into vampires, and taken to a big house full of monsters. The house is hidden from Le Gibbous by a magic dome, and no one can leave. After a while, the Little Vampire gets bored and meets an orphan boy by way of doing his homework — which takes him out of the Captain’s protective dome.

There’s always something to look at, and the narrative never stops moving; occasionally the film pauses to take in the spectral elegance of the Captain’s pirate ship floating across the sky, but mainly Little Vampire is paced and structured to hold kids’ attention. Sometimes I was reminded of Adventure Time, whose menagerie included vampires and other beasties. The imagination on view here is playful, prodigious. The monsters, including a Frankenstein’s-monster-like critter named Marguerite (voiced by Sfar himself), aren’t really scary — they’re ooky and spooky in the Addams Family mold, the sort of mischief-loving ghoulies any right-minded kid would love to hang out with.

Sfar and cowriter Sandrina Jardel have plenty of affection for all their characters (well, except maybe the giant slimy behemoth at the beginning). There’s a happy ending for just about everyone, and that’s never in doubt. And again, if you’re in the mood not to be challenged or stressed out by what’s meant to be a slight, friendly light-dark fantasy (the vampires don’t kill, they steal blood bags from the hospital), Little Vampire may just be your cup of ichor. Sometimes we can tell where the animation has to cut corners, and sometimes we see where the money went. There’s some fine swashbuckling between the Captain of the Dead and Le Gibbous. Sfar and his team originally envisioned a digitally-animated feature, but they ran out of money, and had to fall back on traditional cel animation, which has (there’s that word again) considerable charm.

If this feature does well enough to justify it, I’d be glad to see a streaming series along these lines and revisit this family of misfits and monsters. I won’t mind if Sfar dials down the fart and poop humor a notch, but this branch of Sfar’s creativity has powered 52 episodes of French TV. It could well provide fertile ground for another series. There’s unspoken personal pain in it, too: Sfar, who lost his own mother when he was four, has created a reality in which the young hero gets to live with his ageless, immortal mother for all time — along with all sorts of weirdies that seem designed to give kids from 8 to 80 the giggles.

Behemoth

Posted August 29, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, one of the year's worst

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Peter Szewczyk (credited here as Sefchik) is a digital-effects artist who has worked on a few Star Wars films and Avatar. So in his feature directing debut Behemoth, we know the monsters and other effects will be first-rate. Unfortunately, everything else in this underpopulated mash-up of paranoid corporate thriller and trippy supernatural horror is second-rate at best. Joshua (Josh Eisenberg) is a father driven around the bend by grief and guilt over his ailing little daughter, whose disease may have been caused by the chemical company he used to work for. Along with a couple of friends, Joshua kidnaps a higher-up at the company (Paul Statman) and keeps him at a motel, hoping to force a confession: what poisoned his daughter?

This crime is all over the news, so it’s odd that the cops don’t bother to question Joshua’s wife Amy (Whitney Nielsen), who’s staying in a hospital room with their daughter. Instead, every time we hear from Amy, she lays a guilt trip on Joshua for not being there for his daughter. Meanwhile, Joshua’s friends give new meaning to the word “inept,” and an assassin from the company is closing in. There are also numerous hellish visions involving what seems to be a possessed goat, as well as sundry other beasties and Natural Born Killers-style strobe-cuts flashing gore-soaked demons and butchers. 

That last element seems to be where Szewczyk’s heart is. As I noted about Wishmaster, the directorial debut of practical-effects maestro Robert Kurtzman, such craftspeople who graduate to the director’s chair often focus on their specialty to the exclusion of all else. Behemoth gasses on a lot about the evils of corporations poisoning the land and our children, which is a valid topic for a movie if overdone, but then Szewczyk festoons it with monsters and grotesques. Is this corporation literally run by devils and ghouls? Szewczyk and his co-writer Derrick Ligas don’t really connect the theme and the plot, and frankly there’s not enough plot to power a feature-length film. The denouement further makes Behemoth feel like an extended (and bad) Twilight Zone episode.

At times, Behemoth wants us to think all the grody stuff is just in Joshua’s head. That suspicion intensifies when Joshua pops some of his friend’s MDA instead of painkillers (oh yeah, Joshua spends most of the movie contending with a bullet wound in his hip, despite which he manages to stand up and not bleed out) and hallucinates all kinds of gnarly phantasms — or are they hallucinations? There’s a story buried in there somewhere, but a lot more of it needed to be dug out of the soil. As it is, Szewczyk unearthed whatever bits would justify playing in his digital-monster sandbox but only got crumbs of anything that would have made the story meaningful, resonant. 

Some might be willing to go along with it just for the horned boogeymen, but a more concerning problem with Behemoth is that Peter Szewczyk is good at what he usually does, but simply isn’t cut out to direct. His actors listlessly chew the scenery when they’re not tossing off dead-zone line readings, and he has no sense of pace, so the movie feels much longer than it is. We’re often not sure what’s important and what isn’t (does the same actor play a newscaster and a motel manager? why? are they involved in the action or just a daydream?), and Szewczyk doesn’t seem to know, either. The narrative just grinds on unpleasantly but artlessly — except for those computer-generated nasties. They deserve to be in a better film, one that doesn’t rely so heavily on them to work, and then doesn’t work anyway. 

Val

Posted August 15, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

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Not long before the lights go down on the raw and somewhat depressing videography Val, its subject, Val Kilmer, in character as Mark Twain, offers a question — perhaps, for him, the question: “What are the words that heal a broken heart?” Kilmer, whose peak as a Hollywood actor probably ran from 1984 (his debut Top Secret!) to 1995 (Batman Forever), has lost a great deal in his life. He appears to us now as a rumpled but unbowed version of his younger self, humbled but also possibly delivered into a purer way of being. He no longer gets hired for big-ticket movies, but maybe he had outgrown them anyway. It’s likely Kilmer’s film career in the 2010s would have been fallow even without the cancer that took his voice in 2015.

Kilmer’s voice always landed quirkily on the ear anyway. His defining performance, for me, was in his second feature, Real Genius; his brilliant science brat Chris Knight had a way of making smarts seem sexy, witty, radical. His best-received turns, certainly including his possible peak as Doc Holliday in 1993’s Tombstone, ran off of Kilmer’s self-amused vibe of outsider cool as expressed in a vocal tone that stayed just this side of parody (a good number of his early performances all sound as though his dialogue has ironic quotation marks around it). This was a guy who was going to keep you at arm’s length out of necessity — nursing his own pains, starting with losing his younger brother when Kilmer was about to hang his hat at Juilliard — and it meant all the more when he showed you some vulnerability, as at the end of Doc Holliday’s life.

We certainly see his vulnerability in Val. The movie was assembled by directors/editors Leo Scott and Ting Poo from hours of video footage shot by Kilmer himself over the years — on the sets of Top Gun or The Doors or The Island of Dr. Moreau. The narrative flips back and forth between home movies of Kilmer (narrated by Kilmer’s son Jack) and newer footage of Kilmer talking slowly and painfully through his trach button, or fulfilling autograph gigs at conventions or screenings. Kilmer seems to perceive that his acting career is by and large over, supplanted by a sort of extended farewell tour where he scribbles “I’ll be your wingman” on Top Gun posters for fans over and over. Sometimes this turn of events saddens him, and sometimes he’s in a mood to see it as a tribute to the mark he’s made on people’s lives. Having lost nearly everything, he grapples his grown kids (Jack and Mercedes) unto his soul with hoops of steel.

Throughout Val — produced by Kilmer and his kids — we know full well we’re getting one side and one side only. The movie does soften one’s attitude towards him (if we paid any attention to the media’s pegging him as “difficult” in the ‘90s); we come to feel he’s earned some rest, some laurels to rest on. He keeps his creative hand in by doing paintings or cut-up scrapbook projects; Val is like one of his scrapbooks promoted to a “documentary.” Between this film and his 2020 memoir I’m Your Huckleberry, Kilmer seems to be ordering his legacy, in his standard eccentric-shambolic style. The floors of his place are littered with clippings, photos, memorabilia, many highlighted by Kilmer’s magic-marker scrawl.

As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody noted, the Rosebud of Kilmer’s life was his younger brother and early collaborator Wesley, gone far too soon at 15 — perhaps the artistic partner who understood Kilmer the best. It’s tempting though probably simplistic to diagnose Kilmer’s subsequent life and career as looking in vain for Wesley again. Regardless, Kilmer carried that sense of super-8-in-the-backyard playfulness to his film roles. Watching him in that oft-clipped Top Gun scene where he chops his teeth at Tom Cruise and then grins, we felt that whatever private joke this guy was having, we wanted to be in on it. He lured us closer; he never came closer to us, but made us feel it’d be cool to be included on his wavelength, even if he never quite brought us in all the way. In Val, we see him low and sad and sick, but it’s still only the face he wants to put forward. He remains, somewhat triumphantly, off in his own zone.

Pig

Posted August 8, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

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Frustrated viewers may pick apart Pig until there’s nothing left. Pig is one of those quietly opaque art-house wonders, in which volumes of meaning are meant to be expressed by what’s not said. But more often than not it just comes across as muffled and boring, despite Nicolas Cage’s implosive restraint in the lead. Cage plays Robin Feld, who lives off the grid in the Oregon woods with his beloved pig. The pig is great at sniffing out truffles, and Robin sells them to a Portland food supplier (Alex Wolff), whose business is in competition with his rich, shady father (Adam Arkin). Late at night, a couple of meth-heads break into Robin’s shack and steal the pig. Robin spends the rest of the film trying to get her back.

Pig takes the form of a mystery wherein Robin goes from place to place in the big bad city, questioning various people. The subtext here is that Robin, who suffered a grave loss that pushed him into solitude, is taking a tour through his past … which turns out to be the seamy, violent underworld of … the Portland gourmet-restaurant scene. If you think about that for a minute it sounds richly ridiculous, and since the movie itself is so dolorous and glacially paced, we may not feel generous enough to supply metaphorical analysis to it. The movie is decidedly not for the sort of moviegoers who stand out in the parking lot afterwards saying things like “Why did he do that?” and “Who were all those people?”

All those people are from Robin’s past life; they also represent something or another. They would have to, because the first-time writer-director Michael Sarnoski doesn’t seem to care about them as people. One scene between Robin and a baker is filmed entirely in long shot; we never even see what the baker looks like. This sort of pompously minimalist filmmaking makes me itchy. Pig, I think, is using its obscure milieu to represent the larger capitalist society that grinds up good people, sends them grieving into the woods, and steals their pigs. But the tone is dreary and sometimes off-putting, and the camera isn’t where it needs to be half the time. We can see what Sarnoski is going for, but the drab conception trips him up. It’s depressive and logy and, even at only 92 minutes, a tough sit.

Cage often does manic jazz riffs, but this time he limits the number of notes he allows himself. It allows Cage to focus, bear down. The pain radiates from Robin in muted waves; two beatings early in the movie leave his face smeared with blood, which he never bothers to wash off. We empathize even though the specifics of Robin’s inner anguish are only supplied to us piecemeal. I imagine Cage reading the artfully fill-in-the-blanks script and saying “I can do something with this.” What he does with it is probably worth seeing, though honestly he’s been far better, and the movie leans too heavily on him to hold itself together. A key moment near the end — even here, Sarnoski pretentiously cuts the sound — provides the catharsis for the whole creaky contraption, and with anyone but Cage it’d be a bad joke.

Some will succumb to the taciturn literariness of Pig, and others, like me, will grow restless. The narrative arrow couldn’t be straighter — Robin wants his pig back — but the filmmaking lacks urgency. I wasn’t feeling it, and I wasn’t buying it. It happens. I’m perfectly willing to concede that Pig is a work of art that just bounces off me for whatever reason. It’s certainly not the work of the usual anonymous shmoes. Sarnoski clearly cares about this story; I don’t at all doubt his sincerity. But the connection between art and us can be so delicate, so easily broken — or stronger than a steel cable — all depending on us. Ultimately, I think, the technique — recall that long shot of Robin and the baker — kept me at arm’s length, kept me from wanting to engage it as the sort of art that requires us to finish it. Some will finish it and come away with a compelling meditation on life. I came away with fragmented memories of Cage whenever the director got out of his way.

A Quiet Place Part II

Posted August 1, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

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John Krasinski, we might imagine, sat in his office chortling at all the headaches he put the characters through while writing A Quiet Place Part II. On the set, directing all the chaos, he may have chuckled even more. Krasinski had more fun, I hope, than we do watching the film — it’s grim and stressful and relentless, but comes off even more hollow than the first film (which Krasinski also directed and co-wrote). What is the deeper point of the story? Is there even more story to tell? Once again, we have the gnarly, chittering alien creatures, whose tracking of prey is based on sound. Again, too, we have Evelyn (Emily Blunt), her daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), her son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and her baby son. They hide and retreat from the critters, and Regan, who is deaf, figures out someone is sending a signal to any survivors.

Those Krasinski set pieces, including the genuinely frightening first reel that shows us glimpses of the ghastly first day of the creatures’ invasion, have a charge of sadistic cleverness. Krasinski likes to set several crises off at once, so he can cross-cut and bludgeon us into a motor response. A Quiet Place Part II is full of wince-provoking moments with people trying like hell not to make noise, but that only goes so far — maybe only as far as the first movie. We’re briefed on a major new weakness of the creatures, which apparently only a relative few people know about, or we’d be seeing a lot more folks availing themselves of that Achilles heel. As it is, human nature ruined the efficacy of any strategy based on that weakness, and a new character, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), has presumably seen hell out there — the few survivors have devolved into people “not worth saving,” he growls. 

Emmett will see the light, though, as sure as there’s Mom and apple pie. Regan, once again well-played by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, was a realistically flawed kid in the first film, but has blossomed into a genius who’s pure of heart in the sequel. She’s supposed to represent hope in the face of annihilation, an unfair burden for any character. Late in the film, we meet some of those people Emmett talked about, and they are indeed a scurvy, grotesque bunch — for a few minutes we seem to have wandered into a Rob Zombie movie about the Firefly family, except these psychos don’t swear (or talk). So, according to Krasinski, some survivors are smart and good, and some are little better than sociopathic animals. Since A Quiet Place Part II was in the can by summer 2019, well before the current slow-motion apocalypse, I can’t claim it’s saying anything about some of the dumber, louder conflicts of today. Krasinski does, in hindsight, seem overly optimistic that, presented with a solution to a lethal problem, most Americans would embrace that solution instead of many of them being absolute selfish oblivious dumbasses.

Anyway, a political read of either of these films does no good for the films or for us. They’re meant as mechanical nail-biters working off a cunning premise, though the more pared-down a story is, the harder our brains work to fill the silence with interpretation. Krasinski’s attempt at world-expanding here raises more questions than it answers; as the four refugees in the mall in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead found out, you do have to worry a little about the monsters you’re sharing your oasis with, but you have to worry a lot about the itinerant human dregs who stumble on your bunker and want what you have. Maybe that’ll be the premise of Part III, and Krasinski can throw in a bit about someone developing a vaccine against the creatures and half the population refusing to take it.