Archive for the ‘overrated’ category

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.

Roma

January 27, 2019

roma Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, considered the front-runner among the eight films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, comes pre-packaged with all sorts of hype about how personal and autobiographical it is for Cuarón and how artfully it has been realized. Every frame of the film could be isolated and hung on a wall, and maybe that’s what should be done with it. Roma is a beautiful boring movie. Cuarón’s laborious technique gets between us and the emotions we’re supposed to be drawing from the screen. What’s sad is that, after the accolades and awards, a fair number of people who actually sit through the thing may feel they’re the ones at fault, not refined enough to appreciate such a monumental work. To such viewers I can only say, It’s not your fault.

In outline it’s a nostalgic sketch set in 1970, when Cuarón was eight or nine, based on his family’s life in Colonia Roma, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City. The movie is dedicated to the family’s maid back then, named Cleo here and played (well and honestly) by novice actress Yalitza Aparicio. Cleo works for an educated, professional couple, whose relationship is on the rocks, and their four kids. She gets pregnant by a ne’er-do-well who, when she tells him the news, ditches her in a movie theater; the drama between them is upstaged by the far less fancy film showing on the screen (La Grande Vadrouille, a French war comedy) — my attention kept wandering to it. At least the movie within the movie moves.

Most of Roma is photographed (by Cuarón himself) in long shot, in lengthy takes. Some of the press has identified various aesthetic reasons for this, but it just keeps everything at a literal distance from us, and there’s a practical reason for the glacial pace — Cuarón wants you to see Roma in massive 70mm, the film fetishist’s preferred format (well, that or 16mm), and when you compose and edit for an image that large, the cuts can’t come too fast and furious or the movie will make everyone throw up. Meanwhile, on the home screen, which is where most of us will see Roma, it just feels pompously, pointlessly long. “Why are we watching Cleo walking this whole goddamn way,” I would gripe to myself, or “Oh goody, another slow pan across nothing much happening while yet another airplane passes meaningfully overhead.” There’s a scene where Cleo goes to find her slimy baby daddy at a martial-arts training class, and I swear we have to sit through what feels like 45 minutes of a bunch of guys doing wrathful martial-arts poses before we get to the point of the scene, which is him saying he wants nothing to do with the baby. The scene could’ve unfolded in a Burger King bathroom, but that wouldn’t have been as visually, Oscar-baitingly impressive.

I’m sorry; this all sounds harsh. Roma is, for me, a failure, but one on a higher level than a superhero movie or romcom that fails. It swings for the fences and whiffs, a big whistling whiff, but at least it swings. It’s not a cowardly bunt, and the emotionally transparent Yalitza Aparicio sustains us through a lot of it, with Marina de Tavira picking up slack as the family’s sad and angry mother. Roma has its too-facile plot points, like the revelation immediately preceding Cleo’s water breaking, and the dramatic sequence following it is blunted by, once again, Cuarón being extremely artful and clever with the camera placement. The water breaking is part of the film’s rampant water imagery, starting with the opening titles, with a window reflected off wet floor tiles — the movie is visually grandiloquent before it’s two minutes old. Every director has a polished nostalgic turd like this in them, and Roma is Cuarón’s. Now, perhaps, he can stop telling us what an artist he is and return to proving it.

Bohemian Rhapsody

December 9, 2018

Bohemian-Rhapsody If we agree that movies — even documentaries — are not the first place to look for the unalloyed truth, the question then becomes, What story are we being told? To what ends are the facts being bent? The answer may explain why a movie is a runaway success, like Bohemian Rhapsody, the most lucrative musical biopic of all time, which takes the thorny persona of Freddie Mercury and gentles him into what he says, in the film, he doesn’t want to be: a cautionary tale. Better to say that Mercury, safely dead for the better part of three decades, is now ripe for autopsy and a moviemaker can try to divine by his entrails.

The narrative being pushed here is one of a boy, Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), who as the movie begins has already Americanized his name to Freddie. After a while he will legally change his last name to Mercury, cutting himself off from his Farsi roots. Freddie is bisexual but falls in love with one woman, Mary (Lucy Boynton). Despite his later life consisting of a blur of male partners, Mary remains his one great love. With his band Queen, Freddie reaches the stars but emotionally wallows in the gutter, until his AIDS diagnosis humbles him. He grovels his way back to the band (with their hetero lives, their wives and children), and the movie ends on the sweeping up note of Queen’s triumph at 1985’s Live Aid concert.

Never mind that the real Mercury wasn’t diagnosed until 1987; that would just end things on a bummer, and bummers don’t make almost $600 million worldwide. Bohemian Rhapsody certainly doesn’t take aesthetic risks comparable to those of its namesake single; it’s a bog-standard rise-and-fall-and-rise music biopic, and whatever affection has attached to it is pretty much the work of Rami Malek, whose resemblance to Mercury is passable — the actual Mercury had a kind of Christopher Reeve butch handsomeness interrupted by the extra teeth crowding his mouth. The way Malek’s syllables undertake the perilous journey around the fake choppers he wears is a little distracting, but a quick check of video of Mercury himself reveals that’s pretty much how he talked, right down to the frequent sucking on the front teeth.

Malek obliges the movie’s preferred narrative by enacting young, hungry Freddie, then success-sodden, druggy-orgy Freddie, then humbled Freddie ready for greatness, having suffered and renounced the catting around. He does all of this with sufficient facility, but Bohemian Rhapsody is probably better suited for people who haven’t seen this basic story a hundred times. The difference is the music, and I wonder if part of what accounts for the strong box office is that people are using the movie to see “Queen” in concert. The singing is Mercury’s, as is the band’s playing, taken, I assume, from live tapes of the era, so people might also want to hear the music in movie theaters with reasonably good sound systems as a communal event, framed by biographical re-enactments with the guy from Mr. Robot.

I’d hate to think it’s the message that’s driving repeat business. And that message? If you’re from an immigrant family, and on the queer spectrum, you can have it all, but don’t get too far above yourself. Show respect for your ma and pa (both followers of Zoroastrianism, which teaches that to be gay is to be demonic), tell your one-time white hetero female lover that she’s the love of your life (to hell with you, Jim Hutton, the lover who nursed Mercury until his death), and basically reject whatever sweaty, glittery, outlaw energy made people want to make a movie about you in the first place. Oh, and the press — enemy of the people! — is a mob of barking, salacious freaks who just want to know who you’re fucking, and gays around you will sell you out to them. “I’m not going to be anybody’s victim, AIDS poster boy or cautionary tale,” says Freddie, blithely unaware of the movie he’s in and what it turns him into.

Suspiria (2018)

December 2, 2018

When director Luca Guadagnino says that his film Suspiria is less a remake of than an homage to Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, I believe him. The new Suspiria takes the preceding movie’s basic premise — a young American woman (Dakota Johnson) arrives at a German ballet school, and supernatural shenanigans follow — and goes very much its own way. Guadagnino doesn’t attempt Argento’s virtuosic reveries of over-the-top bloodletting. His film is gory — Suspiria ’18 pushes the boundaries of an R rating ever further — but he doesn’t try to replicate Argento’s specific showstoppers. Instead, he gives us violence rooted in pain and fear. I suppose Argento’s Suspiria is a sanguinary art bauble, high on its own color and soundtrack and ominous mood, not built to evoke more than spooky fun; Guadagnino’s Suspiria, with a straight face, works nothing less than the Holocaust into its dark fable.

This will irritate some, no doubt, but Guadagnino is using the language of cinematic horror to inquire into the horrors real humans are capable of. I could go on in this vein, but I’m doomed to be honest and say that this Suspiria has so much under its hood the vehicle barely moves. It idles for two hours and change before ramping up to Vin Diesel extremes in its last act (there are six, plus an epilogue), at which point the art-house crowd may bolt for the exit and the horror-flick crowd may have followed Morpheus into the land of dreams. Guadagnino and his screenwriter David Kajganich meditate on the Germany of 1977, a country afraid of its own shadow and scarred with the wall that abuts the ballet school. What this has to do with witches (who are rumored to run the school) isn’t clear, though I think the witches take power from collective shame and guilt.

Dakota Johnson continues to be a tabula rasa who could, in theory, be a canvas for art in an art-soaked movie like this, but isn’t. As a dancer she’s up there among a bunch of professional dancers; as an actress, she shares a lot of scenes with Tilda Swinton as the school’s matriarch (and, swathed in latex, a couple of other roles). Swinton, as always, keeps her cool, though as the movie ratchets up to a pitch of hysteria not unlike that of Hereditary, Swinton meets a fate similar to Toni Collette’s in that film. The movie is flooded with images of bodily mutilation, and after a while one stops charitably seeking subtext in the agonies of the flesh and begins to find it all just … ugly. Guadagnino’s horrors are aggressively grotesque, but also easy to shake off; when Argento at his peak used violence, the set pieces tended to leave us a bit dazed, wondering what had hit us, and it had a pop-art pizzazz. It becomes clear that Argento’s occult dread came from a different, purer section of the horror playbook than Guadagnino’s does — it isn’t tied to historical atrocities in a way that commands us to make the connection.

Guadagnino’s fixation on the supposed horrors of aged, deformed female flesh starts to make Suspiria look schlocky and reactionary. The hero of the movie is not the bland Johnson’s Susie Bannion, who in any case isn’t what she seems to be; it’s the ancient psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer, a man wounded by the Holocaust and dedicated to finding out why his patient (Chloe Grace Moretz; the movie sorely needed more of her), after speaking of witches at the ballet school, disappeared. Klemperer, as whoever cares knows by now, is also played by Swinton, who under the cloak of make-up allows Klemperer a quiet decency. The rest of it is chaos. Some will engage with it strongly enough to revisit it several times; I found it a chore to get through once, and not just because of its distended running time. It’s unpleasant; it’s not entertainment, but its art is mostly on loan.

The Christmas Chronicles

November 25, 2018

santakurtNetflix’s The Christmas Chronicles lasts, with credits, one hour and forty-four minutes, of which fifty-three minutes are worthwhile. You’re way ahead of me: those are the minutes featuring Kurt Russell as Santa Claus (he prefers “Saint Nick”), a robust, not quite jolly old elf who oddly seems to fit right in with Russell’s recent run of hirsute cowboys and rough workers with a surplus of chin and/or lip fur. (Not to mention the global twinning of Russell now having played bearded heroes of the North and South Poles.) Russell plays Santa with absolute integrity, which in this context means he plays Santa as Kurt Russell playing Santa, which is the only reason most people of legal age would want to watch this. And he delivers.

Sadly, Russell shares the movie with two irritating kids, chipper believer Kate (Darby Camp) and her sullen teenage older brother Teddy (Judah Lewis). They’re bummed because their firefighter dad died on duty, this is their first Christmas without him, and their mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley in an utterly thankless role) just wants them to get along. Because Teddy no longer has a father figure, he’s drifting towards crime (he and his buddies literally steal a car for a joyride at one point). Teddy needs to be bitter and cynical so that, of course, he can relearn Christmas Spirit over the course of the movie, but that could have been accomplished without all the grand-theft-auto stuff that can’t help implying that single women can’t raise boys without disaster.

On Christmas Eve, these kids, led by Kate, find themselves in Santa’s sleigh, where they startle him and he lands them somewhere in Chicago without his reindeer or his magic hat. If he doesn’t get these items back soon, there will be no Christmas cheer, by which the movie means no presents. I kept waiting for the film to break out the old platitude that Christmas is about more than presents, but nope. It’s about presents and also about the other dude of the day — at one quiet moment in the adventure, Kate and Teddy pause outside a church and sadly reflect that they haven’t been since their dad died. Which, I guess, means their mother hasn’t brought them? So we’ll blame her for her kids being godless, too!

It’s probably useless to come at The Christmas Chronicles with politics, though there is that odd moment where Santa, denying that he actually says “Ho ho ho,” grumps “It’s just a myth. Fake news.” That’ll date the movie in a bad way, not that Netflix cares, nor its uninspired director Clay Kaytis (an animation guy who graduated to jodhpurs and megaphone with the Angry Birds movie). A good deal of the film is an excuse for elaborate CG effects, which have no magic; even a long look inside Santa’s toy bag is a multilevelled vision of card catalogs and conveyor belts of gifts — it’s like Terry Gilliam without a brain. At least Sofia Coppola’s A Very Murray Christmas had some soul (and Bill Murray).

Russell tries his damnedest, though. In a sequence that will justify the movie for some, Santa jams in a prison cell with some surprise ringers whose identities I won’t spoil (a hint: if the movie had any wit it would’ve stranded Santa in Jersey). Russell himself takes the lead on “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” and he’s in good voice, busting out his old E moves (Elvis, of course, first recorded the song sixty-one autumns ago). Now, having Kurt Russell get his Elvis on, as well as winking at some of his past roles (“Big trouble,” Santa intones), will tickle some of the audience, including yr. humble scribe. And I can’t feel sad for Russell being in a movie that’s unworthy of him in general, because he lifts all his scenes so effortlessly, bringing his own cool party with him and inviting us to join in.

I also liked the way Russell plays the many scenes in which Santa knows various folks’ childhood dreams and hopes. His Santa is a little irascible, given the circumstances, but also good-hearted. This isn’t one of Russell’s challenging performances, like those in the underrated Miracle or Dark Blue. Here, he reminded me of Jeff Goldblum, who can also get artsy and serious, but whose natural charisma is such that you can be content just watching Jeff having fun being Jeff. And the same is true of Kurt. For fifty-three minutes.

Hereditary

September 3, 2018

hereditaryA strange bird, Hereditary is. This shrill and unhappy supernatural drama starts off as a sort of psychological character study and ends up in the wild hinterland of sulfur and vile spirits. Much the same, I suppose, could be said of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, to which Hereditary has duly been likened, but the more useful comparison might be to Darren Aronofsky’s genre-smashing, audience-polarizing mother! I deeply admired that film’s art and intensity while admitting I didn’t have a great time at it — not all art is meant to be entertaining. Is Hereditary another case of a wooly bully of cinematic expression, destined to dazzle the elites while displeasing the mundanes?

In this case, I have to stand with the mundanes. Director Ari Aster, making his feature debut, wants to bowl us over with Hereditary. He reaches into a big dusty box and hauls out every trick he can find — there’s one embarrassingly “look, Ma, I’m a director” shot that puts a character upside down in the frame as she runs, and then the camera follows her and rights itself. It’s a disorienting shot, and it calls attention to itself needlessly, as so much else does in the film. I could go spelunking thematically and justify the narrative quirks, but I don’t want to. It’s an effectively made bad movie. It plays fast and loose with logical expectations, but not in a way that especially illuminates anything other than its own facile twists.

For the longest time, the movie seems to be about Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist whose mother has recently died. Annie had and has a fraught, complicated relationship with her mother, and she’s well on her way to raising two neurotic kids, the brooding stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) and the morbid Charlie (Milly Shapiro), even though her husband and their father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is usually a soothing source of calm. The movie starts to seem as though it’s concerned with the derangement of grief and trauma, especially when Annie meets a fellow in bereavement, Joanie (Ann Dowd), who teaches her how to contact the dead.

There’s more than a hint of “The Monkey’s Paw” here, and Pet Sematary and all the other spooky pop culture that advises us not to mess with the occult: “Sometimes dead is better.” Eventually, as the omens and freaky scares add up, it becomes clear that this is all the movie is going to be about; and yet it touches on annihilating despair, and asks its cast (particularly Collette, but also young Alex Wolff) to lower themselves into an emotional meat grinder in a way that the film, I say, does not earn. I did not need to see a sad body part seething with ants on the side of a godforsaken road in the morning light, and I came to resent Hereditary and Ari Aster for making me look at it for no reason other than effect. Speaking of effects, there are a few scenes featuring the fakest-looking swarm of flies I’ve ever seen in a movie. Another scene involving a screaming character engulfed in flames is just high-pitched stupidity, as is another scene in which someone flips out in a classroom.

I called Hereditary effective, which it is; an incident at about the half-hour mark pulled a loud gasp out of me, and not only because the hopes we’d placed in an intriguing character were suddenly cut off. Ari Aster has some chops, but he uses them to make us feel, well, bad — on edge, more irritated than frightened. At two hours and seven minutes, the movie dawdles at a few points, including an early shot that tracks into one of Annie’s impossibly detailed miniature houses until it comes to a stop in Peter’s bedroom — his real bedroom. Is Annie’s art relevant to the movie thematically or narratively? No, it’s meaningless, and so is she. Pretty much anything we came close to caring about in the film is thrown away for the insipid climax, during which a character opens her mouth and cheese falls out — “Give us your knowledge of all secret things. Bring us honor, wealth, and good familiars.” At which point the viewer is either rapturous at having been so bamboozled or heading for the sweet release of the exit. Some will love Hereditary. I understand why, but I don’t understand them.