Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

Glass Onion

January 8, 2023

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If, like me, you had the means to watch Glass Onion but for whatever reason had been procrastinating, I advise you to jump on in. This franchise, which began with 2019’s Knives Out, is shaping up to be a perfect delight. (You don’t need to have seen the first movie to follow this one.) The films take their cue from Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the sharp, drawling detective at their center, whose raciocinative acumen narrowly tops his keen sense of fashion. Here, Benoit goes to a private island owned by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who has sent out puzzle-box invitations to a murder-mystery party he has planned. Of course, the plot is a bit more complicated; the preceding sentence is not to be trusted fully — it describes what happens but, of necessity, omits a lot.

The first sequence introduces us to all the suspects, who know Miles from back before he was really Miles Bron. (Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed Glass Onion as well as Knives Out, assures us that Miles’ similarity to Elon Musk is coincidental.) There’s governor Kathryn Hahn, model/fashionista Kate Hudson and her assistant Jessica Henwick, masculinist YouTuber Dave Bautista and his girlfriend Madelyn Cline, scientist Leslie Odom Jr., and former Miles associate Janelle Monae. We’re led to believe any of them might have a motive for killing Miles. That may well be, but Benoit Blanc suspects the truth is more tangled.

Stories like Glass Onion are hard to review without spoiling them, so that’s about all I’ll say about the goings-on. I would chat a bit about the small pleasures tucked away in the margins, but that would give away all the jokes — the Benoit Blanc films are as much comedies as mysteries. So what’s left? I can praise how it’s told and the tools used. Johnson (who got his start in features with the neo-noir Brick) writes and directs these movies with grace and wit; his camera follows the lead of the script, every move and pan in place to support — or buttress, if you will, a word favored by our courtly Benoit — the tale. And since that tale gets a little convoluted, with an extended flashback, Johnson knows that absolute filmmaking clarity is vital to our understanding.

Glass Onion cost $40 million, a pittance in Hollywood terms today, but has a posh, expensive look. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who’s been working with Johnson since Brick, lights the characters warmly as contrast with their cold glass surroundings. His burnished images, wedded to Nathan Johnson’s rich, old-school score, take us to a comfortable past when money was still spent on divertissements for grown-ups and no expense was spared to make everything and everybody look good. If nothing else, the Benoit Blanc movies have an effortless style (wherein a ton of effort goes into making it all seem effortless) that a viewer of a certain age can take in without feeling insulted or visually tricked. The puzzle boxes may look implausible in real space, but these movies tweak reality ever so slightly. It’s still recognizably our world, but with charming little filigrees like a gag-inducing throat spray that presumably offers protection against COVID (the film is set in the first few months of the pandemic). 

Daniel Craig was always a better actor than James Bond allowed him to be. Anyone who knew that will be happy to see him amiably flourishing post-Bond as the suave master detective who, at a loss between cases, sits in his tub playing online mystery games with celebrities associated with mysteries. Craig lifts up anyone he’s sparring with, too; Edward Norton sprinkles some intellectual insecurity onto his not-Elon Musk, and if Netflix had allowed Glass Onion to play longer in theaters the film might have done for Janelle Monae what its predecessor did for Ana de Armas. Monae is terrific, fully popping, at last, as a movie star. All the actors here, really, seem snuggled by the warm camera eye. These movies know that even if a character is an irredeemable murderer, that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun to watch.

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

November 6, 2022

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Every so often a movie comes along that makes one feel like a real Grinch for finding fault with it. This time, that’d be Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Weird Al, who capered around on the margins of ‘80s MTV pop with song parodies (and accompanying video parodies) of acts like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Weird Al’s takes on popular songs, gentler than Tom Lehrer and goofier than Mad magazine’s resident song parodist Frank Jacobs, were good-natured enough, and also skilled enough, that pop stars came to see a Weird Al parody as a sign they’d made it.

Weird, starring a game and enthusiastic Daniel Radcliffe as Al, makes no bones about being a complete farcical fabrication. That’s part of the joke, that Weird Al (who wrote the script with the movie’s director Eric Appel) can’t even tell his own story straight. The plot touches on the usual rise-and-fall tropes and clichés of rock-star biopics, which prevents it from being as wild and, well, weird as it could have been. In real life, Weird Al’s parents were supportive, with his father holding the exact reverse philosophy that the movie version of him does — that it’s important to do what makes you happy. So I’m not sure why Weird Al turns his dad into a forbidding, violent grouch who works in a factory and only later reveals his true colors. In 2004, Al’s parents both died in a tragic freak accident in their home, and we wouldn’t expect that to be covered in what’s supposed to be a comedy — but if you know that background, you might wonder why his parents are in the movie at all being portrayed as glum killjoys. Why not rub against the grain of the usual biopics and have the old man fantastically, unrealistically supportive of his son’s unusual goals?

Weird Al’s path eventually crosses that of Madonna (well-played by Evan Rachel Wood, who nails Madge’s insouciant narcissism), who wants him to parody her song and give her the “Yankovic Bump.” They become romantically involved, which is funny for about a minute, but not when it goes on for scene after scene and leads to a dead subplot involving Weird Al superfan Pablo Escobar. (Even if this premise hadn’t been addressed in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it wouldn’t be all that funny here.) A good chunk of the film finds Weird Al behaving like a jerk twisted by the goblins of success, which we all know is Al’s self-deprecating goof on the actuality of his being a nice, normal nerd who’s only weird in his music. But it doesn’t make it less annoying to watch, because we know he’s scheduled for a wake-up call and comeback. Weird plays too slavishly by the rules of music biopics — there aren’t many surprises. Rainn Wilson does come through with a sensitive turn as Dr. Demento, the radio DJ who inspired and launched Weird Al, but even the good doctor gets an awkward moment where he stammers that he never had any kids and wants to adopt Al (in real life, Dr. Demento and his wife — she passed in 2017 — were childless by choice), but Al demurs. There’s discordant father-figure stuff throughout Weird that gives one pause.

Radcliffe throws himself into whatever each scene requires, and he’s often fun to watch, but the performance doesn’t really cohere. He’s playing a goofball variation on Weird Al that seems to shift from scene to scene. Weird is the feature directing debut of Eric Appel, who has worked on various comedy shows and on Funny or Die projects. On the evidence here, he should probably stick to short-form gags; the movie is predictable and borderline dull, poorly paced and, if I’m not mistaken, badly sound-synced during several performances. (Radcliffe sang the songs live but was later dubbed by Yankovic.) I like Weird Al a lot, don’t get me wrong, but my hunch is that people’s fondness for him (and for Radcliffe) is rubbing off on the rather inept movie. Stick with it through the end credits, though, for a new Weird Al ditty (“Now You Know”) that roasts movie-fed mythology far more efficiently than the film preceding it.

The Munsters (2022)

October 2, 2022

 

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Why does everyone have their knives out for Rob Zombie’s The Munsters? It may be his most endearing feature film. Zombie, of course, is notorious for his grubby grindhouse exploitation throwbacks (The Devil’s Rejects, 31, etc.), but The Munsters is a PG-rated mad-lab goof full of dad jokes and neon colors. You’ll know within the first five minutes if it’s for you, but I took it as a relaxing, cornball Halloween party of the sort I might seek out when I’m sick, as a bowl of cinematic chicken soup or orange sherbet. It sparked warm childhood feelings, and I’m not all that big a fan of the show (The Addams Family has more going on). 

My hunch is that Zombie made this movie — a passion project for a couple of decades — for kids secondarily, and for himself as a kid primarily. There’s even an autobiographical element. The Munsters is a prequel of sorts, outlining how Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Lily Munster (Sheri Moon Zombie) met and how they came to live on Mockingbird Lane in Hollywood. Lily, who hasn’t had much luck on the dating scene, happens across the newly-created Herman at a Transylvanian dive where he’s setting his awful puns to punk-rock music. She sees him onstage, and it’s eternal love; she visits him in his dressing room, and the feeling is mutual. What we’re watching is the courtship of Sheri Moon and Rob Zombie through a Saturday-afternoon, groovie-ghoulie filter.

This movie, which minds its language and only floats a couple of jokes that’ll go over kids’ heads, is surprisingly good-hearted coming from a director who’s built his empire on profane nihilism. Far from being a sell-out, Zombie’s The Munsters takes him in a polar opposite direction, and it reads to me as a risk. After all, fans of the Munsters TV show will likely hate it, as will Zombie fans who just want him to do the gore-drenched adventures of the Firefly family over and over. It will appeal to a slim Venn diagram encompassing people with no strong feelings about the show and people who’ve been waiting for Zombie to change his pitch up a little. Well, he does; it’s loony and doofy, a full-color Mad magazine parody as well as a heartfelt tribute — Zombie very obviously loves these characters, and I responded to that. You may or may not. Like I said, you’ll know soon enough whether it’s a comfy chair you can settle into or a torture chair.

The script is pretty episodic; the plot motor has an obscure character, Lily’s ne’er-do-well werewolf brother Lester (Tomas Boykin) — who only appeared in one episode of the show — sucker Herman into signing over the Transylvanian castle owned by Lily’s vamp father the Count, aka Grandpa (Daniel Roebuck). That explains why they move to Hollywood (along with Herman catching a bit of a horror host on TV and figuring he could do that, too). I found the story didn’t matter (did it ever matter on the show?). I was content to hang out in the tacky haunted-house sets with a cast that seemed fully into it. Even the usually dour Richard Brake camps and vamps it up in two roles here; I was happy to see him smiling and cackling and departing from the sullen bad-asses he’s played for Zombie.

Zombie shares that spirit. I felt him having fun in his best previous efforts (The Devil’s Rejects is some kind of grotesque masterpiece and easily the pinnacle of his greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic), but this is a different flavor of fun; again, it’s a colorfully wrapped gift from adult Rob Zombie to young Bobby Cummings, who cut his teeth on Famous Monsters and Aurora monster model kits and, well, The Munsters. I can’t put it any other way: The movie made me feel good. Do I want a Munsters franchise from him? Probably not, assuming Netflix would even let him anyway (although the performances, particularly Jeff Daniel Phillips as the dense but jolly Herman and Daniel Roebuck as the caustic Count, are amiable enough to warrant revisits). I’d rather see him move on to other things that light him up, perhaps even an original idea that doesn’t involve the Munsters or certainly the Fireflys. 

Day Shift

August 14, 2022

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J.J. Perry is a martial artist, fight coordinator, and former stunt person/stunt supervisor. So it doesn’t surprise me that Perry’s first film as a director, Day Shift, is a zesty tribute to all those disciplines. Jamie Foxx’s Bud Jablonski, a vampire hunter posing as a pool cleaner in L.A., strides into one vampire nest after another, loaded for bear, and the vampires don’t take Bud’s invasions lying down. No, they come at him whirling and kicking and chopping, and Bud puts them down with various weapons and techniques, though just barely. Vampirism, it seems, confers lots of violent skills upon the vampire other than just biting, and Day Shift is there to showcase them all.

It’s a fast, furious Saturday-afternoon time-killer, but how is it aside from the mayhem? The script, by Tyler Tice and Shay Hatten, comes up with sly ideas like a vampire hunters’ union, whose codes and rules make it hard for a firecracker like Bud to make a living. So he’s been working on his own, making far less money, until he needs a quick infusion of cash to make sure his ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) and daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) don’t take off for Florida — he needs to cover the costs of Paige’s tuition and braces. As a plot motor, it’s a bit dusty — we’re to believe Bud has gone all this time keeping his real job a secret from his family — but we go along with it to get to the good parts.

The union stuff gives Bud an unwanted partner — Seth (Dave Franco), a union bean-counter assigned to observe Bud, who’s applying to get back into the union for more money, to make sure he follows all the rules. Bud doesn’t, of course, and the premise that Seth is Bud’s babysitter doesn’t last long. Seth exists solely as a wimpy foil for Bud’s go-for-broke, hammer-headed methods. Foxx and Franco make a mildly amusing team, though I would’ve liked to see more of Snoop Dogg, who has a few scenes and makes them count as Big John, a respected vamp-slayer. For that matter, I was ready for more of Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Heather, Bud’s mysterious neighbor. In some ways, the characters and worldbuilding in Day Shift seem to lay groundwork for further stories, like John Wick (co-writer Hatten worked on the third John Wick and is attached to the next two).

Bud frequently storms enclosed spaces, the better for he and his vampire prey to bounce off the walls. The vehicular stunt work is particularly well staged, composed, and edited. Sometimes when a master of another film vocation — say, special effects or cinematography — ascends to the director’s chair, they focus on their thing and forget most of the other things that go into making a movie. That isn’t the case here. J.J. Perry seems to respect the moth-eaten plot motor of Bud doing battle with monsters for the sake of his little girl, and the scenes that don’t involve stunts don’t seem rushed or half-assed. Day Shift feels like a movie made by a craftsperson who may have gotten tired of watching inept directors disrespect the arts of stuntwork and fight choreography by slicing it into a thousand unviewable pieces in the editing room. You can see what’s going on here, and that’s a relief.  

If Foxx wants a bubble-headed, action-oriented franchise, he’s got one here. As long as they bring all the folks back, especially Snoop, I’ll watch. But is L.A. — hell, the world — really so infested by vampires that an actual union of vampire killers is needed? It’s a funny idea, one that may get fleshed out in sequels, and a vamp bigwig called El Jefe (Dracula?) is mentioned but never seen. Sometimes vampires seem to outnumber humans here. The big bad here is Audrey (Karla Souza), who wants a world where humans worship vamps as gods. But has she really thought it through? If vampires feed on humans all the time, where will their worshipers come from? Or their meals? Zombies chow down on people with no thought for long-term consequences because, well, zombies aren’t big on thinking, but you’d think vampires would be more savvy. 

The Lost City

July 31, 2022

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Sandra Bullock seems legitimately depressed in the early scenes of The Lost City. She’s playing Dr. Loretta Sage, a bestselling romantic-adventure novelist whose archaeologist husband died five years ago. Since then, Loretta has barely left the house, and she’s no longer feeling the Romantic Adventure — she’s thinking of retiring her Romantic Adventurers Lovemore and Dash, which would be a bummer for hunky but doofy model Alan (Channing Tatum), who poses as Dash on the covers of Loretta’s books. Anyway, Bullock has been altogether too grim in recent years, what with Gravity, Bird Box, and The Unforgivable, so I was worried about her demeanor here until I remembered the film was following the familiar Romancing the Stone template, where the novelist must break through her emotional hindrances and embrace, well, Romance and Adventure. As it is, I don’t think Bullock even laughs until almost the end.

That doesn’t mean she isn’t entertaining, though. The Lost City is the sort of bubbly, unchallenging studio plaything that some of us may receive gratefully in these harrowed times. Will I watch it again? Maybe not; not when I can rewatch Romancing the Stone or, for that matter, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it’s a mild mood enhancer if you just hand yourself over to it and say, Okay, movie, do your thing. There may be long stretches where you forget the official plot and just roll with the gently funny rapport between Bullock and Tatum. I liked that Loretta is still too fogged up by grief to notice that the younger, dishy Alan seems to be crushing on her; I liked the movie’s nods to LGBTQ+ representation in the persons of Bowen Yang and Patti Harrison as satellites publicizing Loretta’s book. The movie feels somewhat canned but is also good-hearted. The only significant blood we ever see is part of an abrupt joke I won’t spoil.

So this is an old-school adventure, with caves and underwater tunnels and, as advertised, a lost city on a remote island, a city that skunky billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe) wants to discover. To that end, he kidnaps Loretta, figuring she can translate a bit of parchment that might lead to the city and its possible treasure. Wanting to establish himself as Loretta’s hero, Alan follows, and the two are soon bumbling through the jungle, doing battle with leeches and sharing a hammock that really only fits one. The awkwardness with which Loretta extricates herself from the hammock while trying not to awaken Alan is an example of the unnecessary but welcome gestures towards realistic discomfiture sprinkled throughout the film. Alan is always jumping into derring-do situations and finding himself not up to the task. This isn’t a cruelly gritty deconstruction of adventure, though, so we simply read it as comedic misadventure. 

The Lost City is the sort of amiable, star-centered bonbon that used to make modest-to-surprising profits in a more lenient age for movies. Sadly, it may not have cleared enough to call for a sequel, but it’s done well enough in the new COVID landscape to be noted as a moderate success. As an “original” story not involving superheroes that seeks only to amuse, it has its place. That it feels a little thin and forgettable may come down to the general lack of imagination that went into the action set pieces; they always seem to boil down to our heroes being chased by gun-toting henchmen, and even the climactic erupting volcano doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it should. Still, the reveal of the true buried treasure confirms the film’s devotion to tweaking dusty old tropes, and if there are no Loretta & Alan adventures in the future, I hope at least to see Bullock and Tatum hanging out again. They make this ride worth it.

 

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

June 26, 2022

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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. 

Jackass Forever

April 24, 2022

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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. 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

February 6, 2022

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SPOILER ALERT:

It’s useless to deny it: near the end of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, when the spectre of Harold Ramis stepped in to help save the day, it got a little dusty in the room. Soft and warm where the original 1984 Ghostbusters was sharp and cool, this legacy sequel is all about continuing the work of our elders and honoring their memory — doubly so, since it’s directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original’s director Ivan. So it’s made with palpable love and nostalgia. I fell for it while not being all that interested in the story: it’s Gozer again, setting ghosts on the loose, this time in a rusty town in Oklahoma. 

Taking the Ghostbusters franchise out of an urban environment (even the unpopular 2016 Ghostbusters, which I liked, unfolded in New York City) isn’t as jarring as I would have thought. The new setting of Summerville gives us nifty places for ghosts to hang out: a spooky mine (whence came the metal that built the haunted building in the ’84 film), a dilapidated farmhouse once owned by the recently departed Egon Spengler. Egon’s ignored daughter Callie (MVP Carrie Coon) heads to the house with her two kids Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), who takes after her grandfather in her fixation on science. Throw in Paul Rudd as a geologist/summer-school teacher, who develops a snarky but genuine interest in Callie, and you have a recipe for a gentle, good-hearted comedy with more emphasis on family ties than on loud laughs.

As everyone knows by now, the surviving three original busters — Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson — turn up at the climax to finish their business with Gozer. Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz appears before then, fielding a late-night call from Phoebe. At first, Ray is hostile about Egon, but when he learns Egon has passed, he softens and saddens. I’m probably the only one who remembers the moment in Blues Brothers 2000 when Elwood Blues gets out of jail after 18 years and finds out, at a respectful distance from the camera, that Jake has died and nobody told him. I reflected on that here, when Aykroyd yet again must convey mourning for a fallen comrade. He doesn’t owe us this kind of thing, but it gives Afterlife some texture and emotional shading.

Unlike 1989’s Ghostbusters II, which re-introduced our heroes struggling to entertain at kiddie parties, this sequel puts the old-timers pretty much where we want them to be after all these years. (Oddly, Murray’s iconic character Peter Venkman has not only left ghostbusting but science itself, though Venkman always seemed like the type who shrugged and nodded at a quasi-scientific career because the work seemed easy.) Meanwhile, the young new cast, including a motormouth self-named Podcast, sometimes edges the movie closer to another ‘80s movie that followed Ghostbusters a summer later, The Goonies (though, thankfully, it’s not nearly as loud and obnoxious). Whenever possible, Reitman apes the slick aesthetic of his father’s film — Rob Simonsen’s music bites big chunks from  Elmer Bernstein’s original score (with the help of Bernstein’s son Peter: more family ties!); Eric Steelberg’s cinematography tries for László Kovács’ dynamic lighting, big on horizontal lens flares bisecting the frame.

Carrie Coon is wonderful throughout as a frazzled but sarcastic mother on her uppers, and when Zuul takes over her body she seems ready to take off into orbit as the possessed Sigourney Weaver did in the first film. But Reitman, perhaps trying to bring the movie in at not too much longer than two hours, turns her into a terror dog too soon. I’d like her to return for more Ghostbusters, if there is any (if there should be any). Ditto Mckenna Grace, who carries on the recent tradition of female ghostbusters. (Finn Wolfhard doesn’t register much except as the driver of the old Ectomobile.) But this film puts an effective period on the saga, for me at least. Unless the writers can come up with something other than riffs on the original, I’m afraid the bittersweet nostalgia of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the sort of thing that can only work once.

The French Dispatch

January 16, 2022

french dispatch

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is that rarity, a disappointment that I feel I need to see again. By now, we all know how polarizing Anderson’s dollhouse movies tend to be. They’re immaculately designed, obsessively symmetrical; they’re boxes within boxes, each packed in a ruthlessly tidy fashion. But generally the stories have a strong throughline, a sturdy narrative arrow with some emotional resonance. The French Dispatch feels like it came out of the bottom drawer of Anderson’s desk. It’s a trio of tales, bracketed by front and end matter; it’s about journalists writing about artists, or at least about people who express themselves in some way — through painting, manifesto, food.

One of the segments, the one about the manifesto, I couldn’t tell you much about. You see what I mean when I say I need to watch it again. The French Dispatch is about a titular newspaper — the film’s full title is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — that reports on happenings in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé for the enjoyment, I guess, of the millions of Francophiles in Kansas. The newspaper is inspired by The New Yorker, particularly the magazine’s self-regard as The Magazine. All the best writers write for the French Dispatch, and the paper’s editor (Bill Murray) keeps trying to whittle their pieces into shape. The writers all love and tolerate him. He dies early on — like so much else here, we’re not asked to feel one way or the other about it — and what we see is the contents of the final issue of the paper.

But none of it really took hold and commanded my attention. The first story involves an artist (Benicio del Toro) who is also serving a life sentence for murder. The second follows Dispatch reporter Frances McDormand as she gets caught up in a student protest and its players. The last has to do with the kidnapping of a little boy and a police officer who’s also a chef — most of the characters have different facets to them. Technically, the filmmaking is gorgeous, with alternating black-and-white or color photography by Robert Yeoman in two different aspect ratios. It’s all very cleverly worked out. The problem is a pit that Anderson has been edging towards for a few movies now, and in The French Dispatch he topples right into it — there are just too damn many characters.

At this point, being in a Wes Anderson movie must be a terrific feather in an actor’s cap, and a lot of them come work with him over and over. But nothing in this movie will show you why. The teeming mass of actors here rarely get a moment to give us a reason to care about them; people like Edward Norton and Elisabeth Moss and Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe pass through, hardly even getting any lines. (The bulk of the movie is narrated by the stories’ writers anyway, further limiting the characters’ opportunity to speak for themselves.) Anderson veteran Saoirse Ronan turns up as a character credited only as “Junkie/Showgirl #1.” The impression you get is that Wes Anderson has joined the elite cadre of directors who can compel a four-time Oscar nominee to play Junkie/Showgirl #1. Well, good for him. Not so good for us, or for Saoirse Ronan.

And yet … I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Anderson’s prior films, so I’m willing to give The French Dispatch the benefit of the doubt; a second viewing, knowing what it is going into it, may not be amiss. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the movie doesn’t drill down and tell one particular person’s story. Maybe the movie is about storytelling itself, about who tells stories and who hears or reads them. The main character is the Dispatch. The style of the film is the style of the writers. The writers are self-centered to a degree that they make the stories about them — they think they have to make the stories worthy of being told by them. Running through the film is a sneaky little critique of the whole New Yorker magazine-of-record aesthetic and ethos. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s both nostalgic and timeless. It didn’t stick to me — this time — but I wouldn’t dream of discouraging anyone, especially Anderson followers, from seeing it. Just know what you’re in for.

@Zola

September 19, 2021

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.