Archive for the ‘overrated’ category

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 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. 

X

April 17, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

CODA

March 20, 2022

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The well-meaning CODA, which has unexpectedly pulled into the lead in the race for the Best Picture Oscar, seems designed to make skeptics feel like bullies. It’s about a family — mother, father, son, daughter — in which all but the daughter are deaf. The father (Troy Kotsur) and his kids Leo (Daniel Durant) and Ruby (Emilia Jones) go fishing for a living — the film is set in Gloucester — while the mother (Marlee Matlin), worried about bills, just seems to want to sell the boat. Looking for a gut elective her senior year of high school, Ruby drifts into choir, partly because singing is something she enjoys doing while flinging fish, partly because she’s crushing on choir kid Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). 

The presence of the Shaggs’ immortal record Philosophy of the World in Ruby’s room shouldn’t fool you. Ruby doesn’t seem to have a passion for music; the plot just dictates that she enter an art her family can’t share her experience of. (The script, by director Sian Heder, proposes a couple of ways deaf people can enjoy music, but still has the mother ask Ruby, “If I were blind, would you paint?” Well, Mom, for starters, visual art can also be tactile; and a movie about such a family developing ways to process their daughter’s expression sounds a lot more interesting than CODA is.) Eugenio Derbez, huge in Mexico and slowly penetrating American film for the last decade, gets to play the plum role of the choir teacher who’s a checklist of traits: impatient, arrogant, a terror to unserious students but a believer in Ruby’s talent. He tells her not to try to sing pretty. She sings pretty anyway.

An exercise in irony, CODA makes a big ally show of putting deaf characters on the screen, casting actual deaf actors, and establishing the parents as sex maniacs, which goes so far in the other direction from the standard depiction of disabled people as sexless that it’s kind of crude and campy — but the movie isn’t really about them. The movie shouts it out loud: Deaf people — it’s like they’re people or something! They get drunk and high, they boink, they get in barroom fights. The one thing they can’t do, apparently, is make a living without Ruby as their free interpreter. Intentionally or not — since it centers Ruby and her dilemmas — CODA ends up saying: Deaf people — what pains in the ass! Ruby’s loyalty to her family threatens to derail her destiny as a great singer (even though that destiny was unknown to her during the first 16 years of her life). Now, a lot of movies have set up the conflict of the talented kid who needs to get out of the small town, the house, the needs of his family. The family, though, usually isn’t three-quarters disabled. Having your young lead resist leaving home because she can’t abandon not one, not two, but three disabled family members is, I’m sorry, overkill. The deaf people in this movie are unavoidably plot obstacles on the cute abled kid’s path to glory.

The tone seems off: the family seems selfish for not wanting Ruby to go; Ruby seems selfish for wanting to go; then Ruby seems selfish for not wanting to go. The emotions of the story feel unresolved, almost ignored. Do the parents and the brother come up with some other way to have a hearing person on board? (According to the movie, they need ears aboard because the father and brother can’t be relied on to pay attention to the flashing alert lights on the boat. Deaf people: they get into such wacky mix-ups! Anyway, this is a dramatic distortion of a real 2003 case: google “Coast Guard Cites Deaf Boater.”) Does Ruby still want to leave for Boston when her sweetie won’t be going? And does anyone who’s seen a movie before doubt what the outcome of Ruby’s audition will be? The acting here is aces across the board, and it’s nice to see a majority-disabled family in a movie who’s also working-class. But the movie didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about Deaf culture (except for the mother delivering a brief speech, which Matlin sells beautifully, about how she’d wanted the newborn Ruby to be deaf — which flirts with emotional complexity far, far beyond this film). It’s a movie about a cute kid who wants to go off to Fancy School in the City. The deafness is very much incidental.

@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. 

Nomadland

February 28, 2021

nomadlandThere’s a Facebook group called “Capitalist Dystopia Stories Rebranded as Heartwarming Bullshit.” It provides links to news bits like the recent one in which a seven-year-old girl is selling lemonade to help pay for her brain surgery. I don’t know how we got to be a society that isn’t horrified by this. Anyway, stuff like that may help explain why the more I think about Nomadland the angrier I get. The movie is beautifully made (though not “poetic,” as many will tag it, so much as pictorial). It’s also heartwarming bullshit. Taking off from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, Nomadland gives us a community of good earthy folk who live in vans and RVs, roaming the country, taking temp work. This is the nicest movie about homelessness, financial despair and human frailty you’ll ever see.

Frances McDormand anchors the plotless, anecdotal film, but her role has been shaped by writer-director Chloé Zhao to make her the anchor — it’s an actor’s delight, a silently strong hero who stoically suffers. Zhao is known for filling her movies (previously, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) with nonactors “playing” themselves, and with the exception of McDormand and David Strathairn as Dave, a quietly unstable fellow nomad, that’s how Nomadland is cast. McDormand plays a woman named Fern — the name isn’t far off from “Fran” — and her last name starts with “McD.” So is McDormand also playing herself? Let’s say she seems to be behaving as Fern, just inhabiting Fern with as few frills as possible. After a while it seems to be an exercise in how much of herself she can suppress.

I’m as hooked into Amazon as anyone, but the movie’s wishy-washy depiction of Amazon warehouses as places that give our kind nomads a nice paycheck or two stuck in my craw. See, the film unavoidably says, Amazon doesn’t exploit desperate Americans — it helps them. Thank God for the largesse of our corporate overlords! Will you be requiring anything else, sirs? The people in Nomadland, though, aren’t defined by the work they do. They all seem to have opted out of the rat race. Many are out there in their vans because the economy cast them off, but we hear a lot more often from the nomads who just can’t get used to sleeping under a roof, in a soft bed. They want to live under the stars with others of their tribe. So the movie really has no political or economic consciousness at all. Taken to its logical conclusion, Nomadland could be saying that all homeless are homeless by choice; they’re just not built for house living or careers.

Fern sits and talks with real-life nomads playing versions of themselves. Two examples of this are of monumental tastelessness. One woman, Charlene Swankie (named only as “Swankie” in the film), plays a scene in which she has a headache and confides that she has cancer and hasn’t been given long to live. The actual Swankie is healthy, and the movie mixes fact and fiction in this sort of strange way, asking a nonactor to pretend she has a mortal illness. The other example finds nomadic guru Bob Wells getting choked up as he tells Fern about his son, who committed suicide. As it happens, that tragedy did in fact befall Wells. But it takes us out of the movie (is his story real or scripted? we wonder), as Swankie’s feigned illness also does.

Chloé Zhao has no anger in her about how the country has failed these nomads, how it uses them up and denies they exist. She’d rather just groove on the serene vibe of a group of outcasts sitting together around a fire, being each other’s family. As drama, Nomadland is pretty null; the emotional crescendo comes when we gasp at Dave accidentally dropping some of Fern’s cherished dishes. Yet Fern’s anger at Dave gets the movie to snap into focus for a moment — suddenly, McDormand has a professional actor to play off of, and she lunges at the opportunity while scrupulously staying within the cramped bounds she sets for Fern. But as far as we can see, there isn’t anyone scary out in Nomadland or violent or mean. Nobody ever seems in trouble. Everyone looks after each other. It all seems very nice. If the film gets any award traction it’ll be due to the current moment’s collective yearning for community. But let’s not be numbed to the cold realities of being nomads, or the larger society that has, through economic or social pressure, ejected them. Nomadland comes close to saying whatever happens to drifters and vandwellers is okay, because they have each other.

Saint Maud

February 14, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-02-14 at 6.53.03 PMEvery couple of years, a little oddity emerges from the indie-cinema beat and gets lionized as the next great thing to happen to horror. Generally these films are scrupulously calibrated and express the drive and obsession that a young filmmaker — in this case, Rose Glass, a British writer-director about thirty — feels about a story or a theme. What they don’t express is true fear. Glass’s feature debut, Saint Maud, meditates on a lonely young woman burning in shame. Once known as Katie, a bit of a wildcat, she has changed her name to Maud, shifted her nursing emphasis from hospital to hospice, and given herself over to God. At this point, I’ve seen so many somber art films about the rigors and torments of faith that a movie just amiable and matter-of-fact about Christianity (and no, not one of those awful belches of propaganda that usually star Kevin Sorbo or Kirk Cameron, either) would be genuinely radical and unique.

Saint Maud follows its lead (Morfydd Clark in a tremulous, detailed performance) as she tries to take care of her client, former dancer Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), struck down by lymphoma and approaching the end. Maud tries to get Amanda to hand it over to God, but Amanda isn’t biting. She fears the void but is reasonably sure there’s nothing else for her. Amanda’s doubts make Maud’s own misgivings flare up. Aside from a few people who seem to exist only to anger Maud, the movie really only has these two characters, and once Maud cuts herself out of Amanda’s orbit, it’s just Maud, and Jennifer Ehle’s serenely mordant vibe is badly missed.

Clark performs heroically, free of self-consciousness, worrying at her flesh or kneeling on popcorn kernels (ouch, but using Legos might’ve been funnier). For her part, Rose Glass takes the dread and anguish with the utmost seriousness, as if afraid to be unworthy of Maud’s stations of the cross. Glass creates a dour, foreboding mood that nobody is really allowed to tease — not even Ehle, handed this potentially juicy role but then finding most of the juice has dried up. In Saint Maud, I can tell what I’m supposed to be responding to, but it feels tepid and frequently-told one way or another. As Maud’s visions get weirder, the quiet material takes a Nestea plunge into loud horror; the film was distributed by A24, which also gave us the work of Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, and A24 would probably like you to think of Saint Maud as the next Hereditary or The Witch. The film has already inspired comparably caffeinated songs of critical praise; I wish I’d seen the same film they did, but the one I saw, frankly, feels twice as long as it is, and it’s only 84 minutes long. The one I saw is almost punitively dreary and grim; even an anecdote of casual sex, which should be an occasion to get some fresh air and acknowledge the power of pleasure, just ends in casual rape.

Rose Glass brings some verve and emotional vividness to the narrative. It’s not a bad movie, just glum and unengaging. Maud’s story just feels too familiar; it spends a lot of time competing with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (another A24 film) for the championship in tragically repressive religiosity, and then towards the end it’s as though First Reformed turned into The Exorcist. Yes, it’s likely imaginary, but the tonal damage is done. The true horror lies in watching a miserable loner spiral into madness, which is well-covered ground by now anyway, but the lapse into the often-tacky visual vocabulary of genre horror just shatters the spell.

Glass has talent and sensitivity, but a lot of potential drama in the material just slips through her fingers. And we get back to my earlier point: where’s the fear? Is there anything in Saint Maud that truly scares Glass? Sometimes, at good and bad horror movies, you might get one scene that truly feels sweated over, something that emerged from a genuine nightmare. But Glass doesn’t seem disturbed by her subject; she doesn’t seem to feel one way or the other about it. The story is just an excuse for slow-burn scenes with Maud trudging through her lightless existence until she finally goes completely around the bend. Does Glass feel anything at all about Maud? I didn’t.

Mank

December 6, 2020

mank-1David Fincher’s Mank is a real Christmas-tree ball — shiny as hell and just as empty. The most human thing about it is that it derives from a screenplay by Fincher’s late father Jack, although the son may have inadvertently shown up the father by mounting on a large scale a story that has been written to fit in a shot glass. And like a shot, the script is clear, bitter and numbing. It’s talky and weaves politics into its portrait of ‘30s-‘40s Hollywood; it’s acrid and unsentimental, and could have made a fine comedy. But it doesn’t warrant the treatment it gets from Fincher, who, it seems, knows only one way to deal with a given story: throw tons of technique and grim-faced style at it. Sometimes it has worked, but in a story about a stumble-drunk screenwriter?

Gary Oldman has rumpled humor to spare as Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, best remembered for co-writing (or writing solo, some say) Orson Welles’ directorial debut Citizen Kane. Oldman waddles into a scene, drawls some drunken bitter nonsense, and takes his swaying leave, sometimes not by choice. It’s a plum part, and Oldman relaxes into it, never asked to express much besides affable cynicism. He gives an entertaining, person-scaled performance in an enormous vacuum. Fincher frames this as a deathless Hollywood tragedy; the gleaming black-and-white (and pompously widescreen) compositions by Erik Messerschmidt create nothing so much as a coffee-table book of images of actors immaculately framed and lighted.

And for what? Even a scene between Mank and a suicidal friend who has Parkinson’s is curiously cold, as if directed by an android who had to extrapolate the emotional tone the scene was supposed to have. (The scene is contrived and false anyway, loosely based on a man who actually outlived Mank by over a decade.) At least Mank doesn’t look like a sickly green latrine, like Fincher’s last feature Gone Girl six years ago, but both films left me in a terrible mood. Fincher has in the past directed films I’ve enjoyed (Se7en, Zodiac), but I don’t trust him or his motives, and I wouldn’t trust him around anyone I care about. His work has become shifty and sleazy, and he tries to win us over not by appealing to our common humanity but by frigid razzle-dazzle. I had hoped that Mank was far enough outside his shadowy-thriller wheelhouse that it might surprise me, but as it is, Fincher does film-monk stuff like the cigarette burns that used to appear in the corner of the theater screen to signal a reel change, or sound design that even in exterior scenes makes everyone seem recorded on a soundstage.

The movie’s jumpy time scheme, of course, is a tip of the hat to the famously nonlinear Citizen Kane, which has a small amount of cool calculation in it, but also tremendous passion. This supposed hatchet job on William Randolph Hearst actually spends almost every second trying to understand him and humanize him. Charles Foster Kane’s great man of mystery is peeled layer by layer. But Mank is a different sort of movie, one that shows you a man and says that’s all there is to him. Mank drinks and occasionally writes (and engages in the writer cliché of lying amidst a clutter of crumpled script pages), and gets into mildly witty badinage with whoever he finds standing next to him, and that’s all. He has no shadows, no depths. Everyone else can read him better than he can read them.

Fincher’s deepest sin against the gods of cinema here: he actually shows us the girl with the white parasol. Yes, there’s a bit when Mank has his assistant (Lily Collins) read aloud Mr. Bernstein’s story, one of the great achievements in writing for the screen, in no small part because, like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” it invites you — no, compels you — to see it in your mind’s eye. Welles knew that no actual girl in a white dress with a white parasol that he could film would carry half as much imagistic weight as your own personal vision of that girl, that symbol of the things of this world that snag our attention and stay in our memory forever. And along comes David Fincher to kill the butterfly and pin it to a board, giving us a banal pretty image of that girl. Who asked him?

Joker

January 19, 2020

joker-sequel-officialWatching Joker belatedly, I understood quite clearly why it got so many Oscar nominations. For what it is, it’s gorgeously assembled, with a ragged jewel of a performance by Joaquin Phoenix at its center. The problem is, well, what it is. Joker is set in Gotham City (read: New York City when you hate it; Metropolis is New York City when it’s energizing and teeming with good culture) circa 1981, and garbage is rotting on the sidewalks in its saggy tons. Joker got eleven Oscar nods, and it deserves eight of them. The grimy, soul-grinding milieu is realized with all the talent and vision $62.5 million can buy (while we realize that a movie like this not connected to a superhero franchise would have to make do with a fraction of that bankroll), and yet aesthetically the film is built to caress the eye and ear. The first half hour or so, establishing damaged wannabe-comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) and his uncompromising misery, is top-shelf filmcraft.

Unfortunately, there’s still an hour and a half to go, and Joker ends up repeating itself and lap-dancing its same handful of nihilistic points again and again. Even Phoenix eventually runs out of tricks until we can’t distinguish Arthur’s actual behavior from the iconic, narcissistic behavior (that now-famous stairway dance) in his head. We sit and diagnose Arthur: he’s a mama’s boy who suffered childhood abuse that may have rattled his brain to the point that he emits paroxysms of inappropriate laughter. The way Joker ties into the larger Bat-universe is fairly stupid; Bruce Wayne’s moneybags father Thomas (Brett Cullen, replacing Alec Baldwin and essentially doing Alec Baldwin) is an insensitive jerk, a tough-on-crime elitist who calls poor people “clowns” and is running for mayor. How is he connected to Arthur? Well, he is but he isn’t. It’s that kind of candy-ass movie, toying with big plot moves and then rescinding them.

Despite the supporting cast doing more or less what they’re asked — including Robert De Niro as a talk-show host Arthur fixates on — the movie is handed to Phoenix, and he does amazing things with his physique and voice. He commits fearlessly, and it’s a shame that people have to sit through, ultimately, a failure of a movie to see the performance. Phoenix triumphs over the material — who couldn’t? The material seems to have been conceived for him to triumph over it. The talk about Joker’s biting big chunks from Martin Scorsese, specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, is a little overblown. If anything, Joker shares more DNA with Abel Ferrara’s 1979 Driller Killer, in which the cold reality of the mentally ill being dumped onto the streets due to lack of funding was more disturbing than the gory drill-killings. Same goes here: again, if someone wanted to make a real drama about such issues that had nothing to do with DC Comics, it’d have to be made for couch change. Sadly, it doesn’t much matter that the topic is addressed in a big hit, because it isn’t really addressed so much as made into background.

An army of talent has been marshaled here to fashion a beautiful piece about a pismire. It’s loaded with artistry without itself being art, and the primary reason is that Todd Phillips, its nominal director, isn’t a director. Oh, he knows how to get usable footage for fake-outrageous mainstream comedies like the Hangover trilogy. But he can’t really shape material so that it means something or earns the horrible associations it may dredge up in some viewers, and it keeps backing away from anything truly explosive. Like The Dark Knight Rises, it demonizes protest (what the hell drugs was Michael Moore on when he praised this thing for its politics?) and finally takes no stand. It just takes this rambly, inchoate semi-narrative about a fractured psyche and pushes it out there on a toxic exhaust cloud of irony. I don’t usually pick on movies for violence they may or may not inspire, but Joker is the sort of interiorized, subjective work that doesn’t show Arthur’s life for the rancid squalor it truly would be; it just tries on the kinds of grim and gritty pirouettes and outfits that appeal to real Arthur Flecks. But, unlike a true work of art (like those two Scorsese classics) that would drive me to its defense, Joker is all pose. It says nothing about Arthur or his victims or his brutal world. Nothing.

Crawl

September 29, 2019

crawl Acting in the roving-alligator thriller Crawl could not have been remotely fun. The poor leads — Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper as a daughter/father pair trapped in a flooded house along with several king-size gators — spend most of their screen time in a filthy, rusty, submerged crawlspace, and the atmosphere looks like a petri dish for tetanus, triple-E, you name it. Crawl is mercifully short at an hour and 27 minutes, but the cast and crew spent weeks in these conditions. Aside from the usual bugaboos about being devoured or drowning, the movie works our fears of the disgusting basement, where things are spawning and living without our knowledge and certainly without our consent. At least your basement doesn’t host gator hatchlings — unless, like the folks here, you live in Florida.

A Category 5 hurricane is screaming towards land, and our heroes — Scodelario as a driven varsity swimmer and Pepper as her tough but loving dad — reunite, along with the family dog, in a house soon battered by winds and menaced by rising water. (The levees are gonna break, too.) Aside from a couple of cops and a trio of dumb looters — all gator fodder — Crawl is a two-handed exercise, much like director Alexandre Aja’s international calling-card slasher film Haute Tension (High Tension). There’s surprisingly little art here, though, just pulpy jolts arriving on schedule. And we don’t feel nearly as much for the daughter or the father, however compellingly enacted, as we’re clearly meant to. This is Low Tension. We simply aren’t convinced that meaningful lives (other than the obvious snacks tossed to the gators to pass the time) are at stake, not even the dog’s.

That said, Crawl does pass muster as a minimalist B-movie with money and resources unavailable to its ancestors of the drive-in (Eaten Alive, Alligator, etc.). The alligators are just alligators — they don’t stand for anything, and they may as well be sharks or lions or zombies or werewolves. Aja uses close quarters and an external apocalypse to distill the story down to two people against — well, the elements, death, inner demons. The father is still nursing wounds from when his marriage fell apart after the two daughters grew up and moved away; the daughter puts eternal pressure on herself, straining to live up to Dad’s meant-to-be-inspiring assessment of her as an “apex predator” (like an alligator, natch). There’s a mother around somewhere, remarried, absent from view. A sister is glimpsed briefly via phone. The daughter has been made a swimmer so that she can swim fast and hold her breath, so as to outpace the gators and endure long periods underwater (if she were a couch potato and heavy smoker the movie would be even shorter). It’s all narratively a little convenient (the script is courtesy of brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who perpetrated John Carpenter’s nadir The Ward).

But if you stop expecting Crawl to transcend its low goals as a beer-and-pizza Saturday-night rental, it’s a decent crappy time, if a little slick and soulless. The characters’ flaws add nothing to the stew; they’re just plot points. Aja falls into a repetitive dread-and-release pattern, but he’s awfully good at it. Crawl is empty but undeniably well-wrought. What it’s missing, for me, is the sticky-floor grindhouse vibe it could have had, given its Florida setting. (It was shot mostly on a massive soundstage in Serbia, and it feels like it.) Perhaps that vibe is gone forever; legitimately attained in the 20th century, it can only be imitated and paid tribute now. In years past this would’ve been a regional Z-budgeter filmed on Earl Owensby’s acres in North Carolina with Vic Morrow as the dad and Claudia Jennings as the daughter. Might’ve been more disreputable fun then, too. Crawl is fun once or twice removed.