Scream (2022)

Posted April 10, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

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The best reason to watch Scream, the fifth in the meta-horror franchise, is to see the gravitas that has gathered in the acting styles of Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette. All of them were in their twenties or early thirties when the first Scream hit big in 1996, and they have endured through each sequel since, though there hadn’t been one in eleven years before the new one. The addition of wrinkles and wisdom has done interesting things to the characters. Campbell, as perennial survivor Sidney Prescott, has a certain hard-won grace in the face of horror. Cox’s intrepid reporter Gale Weathers has become much less of a satire of tabloid journalism and more of a real, abashed person (her book about the original Scream case has led to movies and assorted mayhem). And Arquette imbues the once-goofy Deputy Dewey with a survivor’s sardonic bitterness.

Actually, the best reason may also be the only reason. This Scream starts the slasher ball rolling in Woodsboro once again, with the cloaked, Munch-faced killer Ghostface turning up and doing damage. There are, as usual, a cast of suspects, including Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), daughter of the original film’s co-killer Billy Loomis. (A de-aged Skeet Ulrich appears as Billy in Sam’s febrile daydreams.) Back in Scream 3, which is where the series pretty well began its descent, the plotting reminded me of nothing so much as Murder, She Wrote by way of the CW. Which is valid, I guess, because a lot of the early slasher flicks (including the very first Friday the 13th) might as well have been dusty murder mysteries retooled for the ‘80s slasher craze. Still, the plottier and whodunit-er these things get, the further away they break from true fear. 

And that’s part of the problem with the new Scream. My theory is that if your brain is engaged in who could be the killer, it becomes an exercise, and whenever a character is killed you just say “Well, they can’t be the killer.” However, the right director can bring a humanity to the proceedings that makes us care, and that’s what the late Wes Craven did in the first two films, anyway. Craven was able to stage horrific violence and sadism, but in person he was unanimously said to be a kindly professor type, and so we felt the pain and fear in Craven’s violence because he felt it too. If you don’t care about the human beings getting slaughtered, it’s just special effects to be viewed neutrally. Some of the brutality in Craven’s best Scream entries was exceptionally gory and nasty, but it hit all the harder because, say, Drew Barrymore was allowed to establish an instant rapport with the audience (and her character’s fate was legitimately shocking at the time). We cared. Here, the gore is even nastier — I continue to be surprised, not necessarily in a bad way, by how much splatter the MPAA lets movies get away with nowadays — but we don’t care. At this point, it’s just “Cut back to more Neve Campbell, or hurry up and get to the killer reveal.”

In 1996, I was already more than a little old for the impact Scream had on teenagers at the time. I took it as a terrific homage; teenagers took it on a different, more direct level. The metafictional aspect of it was like a big welcome sign to the millennial audience, but the grisly kick of the horror sealed the deal. The first two Screams (they really should have stopped there, but they couldn’t, and they won’t — a sixth Scream is already pencilled in for next year) occupy a very specific part of late-‘90s American pop-cultural real estate, when Gen-X was starting to get the keys to Hollywood in a second wave after the class of ’94. Original scripter Kevin Williamson is an early Gen-Xer, and Gen-X irony is all over Scream and Scream 2. The tone of the new Scream is like a faded photocopy of that irony. This time the concepts of “legacy sequels” and “elevated horror” are roasted, in the era of the Halloween reboot and the rise of the indie studio A24. But I think it’s safe to say that when a series reaches its fifth go-round, it can no longer afford to be snarky about tropes that make money. Its cultural critiques are no longer well-taken, and this corporate concern stopped being a goof on endless slasher clichés and started simply putting them to work quite a long time ago.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood

Posted April 3, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: animation, drama, fantasy, one of the year's best

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The key to Richard Linklater’s deft reverie Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood comes early, when Linklater’s young avatar of memory, the Houston fourth-grader Stan, gives a show-and-tell presentation for his class, leaving out the “show.” Stan talks about walking down the street and encountering a robot with attached wires reaching up into the sky. Stan is what they used to call an imaginative boy, and the world events of the late ‘60s are filtered through his brain, which teems with pop culture. The big news story, apart from Vietnam, is America’s attempt to land a man on the moon before the Russians do. Stan imagines himself part of the process; he tells us (in the adult voice of Jack Black) that NASA, who’d built their lunar module too small for a grown man, recruited Stan for a top-secret preliminary trip to the moon.

That, of course, is based on a daydream common among Linklater, who was around the same age as Stan in 1968 and 1969, and many other kids. Apollo 10 1/2 flips between Stan’s moonshot fantasia and the actual launch and landing. By the time Neil Armstrong is leaving footprints where there were none before, Stan is asleep on the family couch. He’s done it already (if only in his head). What’s fun about the movie — which is as amiable as most of Linklater’s work — is that we often forget and mix up reality with fiction. The adult Stan is an engaging narrator, and Linklater threads Stan’s story with enough convincing nostalgic details that the narrative of Stan’s flight is just one more thread alongside playing with baseball cards in the garage or getting free ice cream cones at the parlor where Stan’s sister works.

Linklater also adds a stylistic brushstroke to make the real and the imaginary visually equal. As with his Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), Linklater has mapped a layer of rotoscoped animation over the live-action footage he shot. The result looks a bit like some of the Marvel comics Stan would’ve been leafing through back in the day, though probably not TV cartoons of the time, many of which had cheap, basic animation. In a way, Apollo 10 1/2 is a movie both of its narrative moment and of its moment of release. A divided and fraught country is united by a common absorption in the moon shot, though even then — as we also saw in Summer of Soul — people were questioning the government’s spending billions on the space race when it could be helping humans here on the ground. Now the American race is run by competing billionaires, but the objection among many remains largely the same.

One amusing and rather prominent thread is the sheer amount of danger that parents blithely subjected their kids to, because nobody knew any better. Linklater doesn’t look back on this in horror; he shakes his head mildly and chuckles. This director may have the soul of a Gen-Xer (the movie that got him noticed is literally called Slacker) but he’s actually a late boomer, just old enough to be there at the moment when nostalgia surfaced in the culture for real. Stan rattles off all the hits on TV — particular emphasis here on Dark Shadows and all the kids rushing home to see it — as well as reruns of older shows like I Love Lucy. It was the start of seeing pop culture as a continuum, where the same box that brought you Cronkite also gave you the Three Stooges, where visions of the past, present and future seemed to mingle and converse. As they do here. 

Linklater uses all that Netflix money for a near-constant stream of needle-drops, ranging from Pink Floyd to Hugh Masekela to the Monkees, who are also seen on The Johnny Cash Show and given a little time as the focus of Stan’s sisters’ crushes. As in Dazed and Confused and other films, Linklater wants to evoke a period, a mood. Somehow, he manages to avoid tonal or behavioral anachronisms. Everyone talks and acts the way you remember or assume they would have in 1968, or 1976, or whenever. The storytelling, as I said, is convincing and smooth, the pacing just short of a blur, which may reflect how Linklater remembers that time. It’s a lovely film, really, full of good tunes and hope and excitement and the awe of the dream-dappled night sky.

Oscar Night 2022

Posted March 28, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: oscars

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And here I thought I’d have very little to write about this year’s Oscars. At least it looked a bit more like a typical Oscar show, after last year’s weird COVID-deformed ceremony. There were the usual bumps and awkwardnesses, but there always are. I figured the big take-aways would be Troy Kotsur’s signed acceptance speech (which was amazing) and the much-cherished-on-social-media detail of Zack Snyder’s Justice League winning the Best Cheer Moment (or whatever) for “The Flash entering the Speed Force.” 

Then Will Smith entered the Speed Force and got upside Chris Rock’s head for cracking a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head (she has alopecia). I spent a while thinking it was just a bit.

Truthfully, I was almost expecting Smith, when he went up to collect his Best Actor Oscar, to chuckle and say “Y’all thought I really smacked Chris, didn’t you?” But the longer and weirder his speech got, the more I realized it wasn’t a bit. All that exchange getting muted on American TV should’ve tipped me off, though that could’ve been part of the bit. (When I caught the uncensored footage on Twitter from Japanese TV, that’s when I knew for sure.) 

Where do I fall on this? Rock was being a prick. Smith lost his shit. I don’t think either one deserves a parade for his actions. But when your life partner has been living with alopecia for years — often a painful and traumatizing illness to treat and deal with — and along comes some asshole to snark about their head … I’m sorry, I can’t bring myself to condemn Smith. An offense had been rendered, and it needed to be answered. (It occurred to me during Smith’s harrowed “protector” speech that there may be something direr wrong with Pinkett Smith than just alopecia. We don’t know.) Wherever you fall on this, though, it was a powerfully strange moment, probably now part of the canon of “whoa” Oscar events already. 

As for the reason we were all supposedly there, eight of the categories were awarded before the show proper started, were taped, and were aired during the course of the night. Dune ended up with a good armful of technical awards — I guess I have to see it now. Jimmy Fallon will now have to introduce his bandleader as “Oscar winner Questlove.” The Power of the Dog may be the rare movie to win Best Director and nothing else. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t have to fret about not being there to complete his EGOT (his wife has COVID so he sent his regrets), since he lost Best Song to Billie Eilish, who now has a GO and just needs an E and a T. Prior to the Slap Heard ‘Round the World, the most emotionally fraught moment belonged to the puppy Jamie Lee Curtis was holding while memorializing Betty White. The puppy did not enjoy the lights and the noise one little bit and just wanted to quiver in his blankie. This might also describe Rami Malek.

The stuff the Academy thinks will pull in more or younger viewers — the fan-favorite “awards,” jettisoning almost a third of the awards from the live broadcast — are always beside the point. The Oscars are supposed to be overlong and clunky and corny, with lots of things to complain about. I would say it’s the rare Oscar-watcher indeed who watches the show with unconditional love and no roasting the outfits or the scripted presenter banter or the bathetic acceptance speeches or Sean Penn. Penn wasn’t even there, I don’t think, but earlier in the week he made a big show of announcing he’d smelt his Oscars if the show didn’t invite Volodymyr Zelensky to speak. Uh, Sean, I think the guy has two or three bigger fish to fry. 

The three hosts (Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall, Amy Schumer) were fine, and Schumer gracefully nodded at the elephant in the room — someone had to. The thing everyone will possibly still be talking about as you read this, though, will be a man defending his wife’s honor. Really it’s a classic movie moment. If you saw it in a movie you’d applaud Smith. But during this night about movies, about illusion and bullshit, came a moment that was very real. Approve of it or not, it was a clarifying belt across the chops, and a reminder that real, flawed humans make these films. Some wondered why the Academy didn’t disqualify Smith, or have him arrested. I didn’t wonder. That slap is the biggest thing to happen to this creaky-ass ceremony in years. The Academy better send Smith and Rock big fucking gift baskets. 

CODA

Posted March 20, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, overrated

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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.

Licorice Pizza

Posted March 6, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

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When you Google Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Licorice Pizza, you get a list of questions people have asked about it. The first question, amusingly, is “What was the point of Licorice Pizza?” The point, since you may have been one of many who asked, is to ramble and stroll, sink into the vibe, tone, flavor. The movie is set in 1973, but is largely unlike Anderson’s ‘70s epic Boogie Nights. There’s no sex (though there’s some crude talk about it) and the porn is limited to a glancingly seen newspaper ad. In part, Licorice Pizza is an affectionate and fairly nonjudgmental study of attitudes and personalities that possibly could only have thrived in the early ‘70s. The more one thinks about it later, the larger and more enveloping Anderson’s vision comes to seem. 

On the most basic level, it’s a study of two young denizens of the Valley, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twentysomething Alana Kane (Alana Haim) as they learn how to navigate the adult world. Some adult world: most of the grown-ups in it are either cases of arrested development or people charged with serving them and enabling their childishness. Gary may be a minor but he’s already a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood hustle, dining out on his tiny acting resume and leaping for whatever get-rich-quick scheme lands in his view: selling waterbeds, opening a pinball joint. Alana goes along with him, hitching a ride on his ambitions, since she doesn’t seem to have any. The two bicker and hang out — it’s a classic hang-out movie. 

Licorice Pizza is structured as a tall tale of youth in the land of dreams; it’s loosely based on the memories of Gary Goetzman, who grew up to produce films by Jonathan Demme and then by Tom Hanks. The movie’s Gary has a lot of drive but is also still awfully immature. However old she is (maybe 25, maybe older), Alana is hardened in some ways but soft in others; she still lives with her parents and her sisters (all played by Haim’s real family; she and her sisters form the rock band HAIM). Gary seems pointed towards legitimacy by way of working for himself, while Alana drifts into volunteering for closeted politician Joel Wachs. Gary wants, and Alana, who doesn’t know what she wants, settles for being wanted. When they’re together, they breathe the same warm air and mingle spiritually, platonically.

Oh, but Anderson sets a lot of pieces moving around the central couple. The San Fernando Valley we see in Licorice Pizza is a mostly safe playpen for aging actors (Sean Penn as a macho-idiot actor based on William Holden), crazypants producers (Bradley Cooper personifying rich white privilege as superproducer Jon Peters), an oil embargo and the resulting crisis (gas at a whopping 55 cents a gallon! To be fair, that’d be $3.48 now), plus odd details like an atheist Jew attending a shabbat dinner, or the mysterious guy with the 12 shirt who turns up a couple of times. (A Google search will bring you various theories about the 12 guy.) Licorice Pizza at times seems like a spaghetti bowl of unfinished threads, though this isn’t the sort of movie that likes its sentences trimmed and brought to a halt. It’s a moment, an eternal summer, a slice of (licorice pizza) life.

Anderson isn’t Mark Twain; persons attempting to find a plot in this movie will not be shot, though they may be disappointed, even flummoxed. Movies are so expensive, and such a risk now, that we aren’t used to a film that just eases itself into a jacuzzi alongside its characters and digs their energy. But that’s generally been Anderson’s M.O. Shaggy movies like this and Inherent Vice are content to capture a mood, the conflict or harmony of personalities. Haim gives one of the great natural, nothin’-to-it performances, almost innocent in her transparency. Sometimes, actors who are primarily musicians (Courtney Love is another) just give the audience everything without coyness or reserve. Hoffman, who from some angles bears an eerie resemblance to his father Phillip Seymour Hoffman, embraces new experience with all senses open and alive. If you don’t agree early on that these two are worth following wherever they wander, maybe the movie isn’t your thing. I was happy to be in their company in a time and place where bad or worse things were going on unchecked (the casual racism, sexism and homophobia of the day) but random magic also wafted sweetly in the night breeze.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

Posted February 20, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

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Have the people who made Netflix’s new Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever used a chainsaw? The tool wielded by Leatherface (Mark Burnham) cuts through flesh, bone, wood, and metal with magically equal ease, like a hot knife carving an ice-cream cake. Not bad for a weapon that’s been literally sitting plastered up inside a wall for years. If, however, you’ve used an actual chainsaw to cut actual objects, you’ll know this thing is more akin to a lightsaber or Excalibur — a pretty funny concept, if only the movie weren’t so dour and unpleasant. Yes, I know a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film has every right to be unpleasant, but I mean its mood as much as its content. Tobe Hooper’s original was hell on earth to shoot, yet it has an artful, almost playful vibe. The new one feels bitter and miserable, with a side order of red-state resentment of entrepreneurial urban zoomers that I can’t tell if the movie sympathizes with or is just exploiting.

This movie, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, is a direct sequel to the original film and disregards any other sequels/prequels/remakes. It’s been fifty years since the donnybrook at the ol’ Texas house, occupied by Leatherface and his family of cannibals. The family is never spoken of here; we’re told Leatherface went to live at an orphanage (implying he was a very large teenager in the original film, which still puts him at least in his sixties here) and has stayed there for years, cared for by a very forgiving woman (Alice Krige). But the aforementioned zoomers roll into town, having bought up property to auction it off. The kids say they own Krige’s house. She disagrees. The cops come, she has a heart attack, and Leatherface — who presumably has been peaceful all these years — crushes that olive branch in one beefy fist. 

The gory kills — the MPAA must really have grown lax about movie violence over the last decade or so — may be the only thing keeping us connected to the film. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an angry film — angry at well-to-do zoomers, angry at the bank, angry at killers who are still out there somewhere. Taking another page from Green’s Halloween, the film brings back the original’s Final Girl: Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré, in for the great Marilyn Burns, who passed in 2014), who escaped Leatherface and went on to be a Texas ranger obsessed with hunting him down. What’s weird is that we’ve been half-rooting for Leatherface, because the rich kids are mostly annoying and we feel bad he lost his caretaker, and then Sally comes in and talks about him like a mad dog who must be put down. Olwen Fouéré sells Sally’s righteous fury, pulling us over some of the dumber stuff Sally does, like insisting Leatherface acknowledge who she is when she should just be shotgunning him into the next phase of existence.

That’s a bothersome little detail. Sally must figure or hope that if she has to die, she might as well die while killing Leatherface, and if he doesn’t know her, he’ll at least know she was the one who killed him. But this is a horror movie, so she isn’t guaranteed that kind of send-off or closure. This Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers no one any slack except maybe a redneck handyman (Moe Dunford) who acts like a red-hat stereotype until he develops some shadings of sympathy. The kids, except one (Elsie Fisher, from Eighth Grade) who survived a school shooting, are obnoxious in ways that will sting unexpectedly. These little pricks call the cops to kick a disabled old lady out of her home — tell me again why we shouldn’t revel in their chainsaw vivisection?

Other than a brief bit appearance (played by Burns) in 1995’s awful Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, we haven’t seen Sally Hardesty in almost fifty years. A movie with more curiosity about what she’s been up to might have been nice. It could have centered Sally more, played up the death-match angle. Instead, we get a bunch of little snots for Leatherface to turn into fine red mist, while Sally stomps around on the film’s margins, finally thrown away like blood-soaked trash, like almost everyone else here. And this sequel dares to evoke the original film’s masterful final shots without having a thousandth of their impact. It doesn’t convey freedom and hysteria, it conveys helplessness and grief. The whole movie is like that — depressing, despairing. 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Posted February 6, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, murray christmas, sequel

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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 Stanton 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 Power of the Dog

Posted January 30, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's best, western

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It’s been a while since I saw a movie that catches us leaning the wrong way as far as The Power of the Dog does. That could be due to the source novel, by Thomas Savage, but a lot has to do with the film’s master writer-director Jane Campion, who keeps things becalmed and subtle, even nuanced. In outline, The Power of the Dog sounds like a number of other stories, but it is its own story, and Campion uses its tropes and our expectations to tell it mainly through visuals and through the tiniest gestures and reactions. The movie requires patient attention, otherwise its mini-explosions might look like a lot of nothing on the screen.

We’re in Montana 1925, at a cattle ranch owned by brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). Soon enough, George meets and marries widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who has a teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) readying himself for medical school. George’s money sends the boy, Peter, to college. George is kindly but doesn’t have much going for him other than that and his money, and he knows it, and so does Phil. Boy, does he ever. Phil is one of those brilliant rats we meet all the time in fiction, practically never in life. He’s intelligent — a product of Yale — but also mean as a scorpion, the kind of guy who always wants to tell the destructive truth the way he sees it, which is of course darker than most others see it. He may also be one or more of the following: a bigot of all stripes, a deeply closeted gay man, a potential murderer or rapist.

Campion’s steady hand and Jonny Greenwood’s anxious score combine to create a highly unstable, almost insecure film. Everyone else in the movie seems focused on Phil, afraid of him. But should they be? Cumberbatch weighs in with a portrait that can be studied in many ways, and will almost certainly play radically differently if viewed a second time. We gather that Phil, who initially mocks Peter’s effeminacy, has something in mind for him, but what? Clues surface here and there, involving Phil’s one-time mentor Bronco Henry, who apparently taught Phil the ways of ranching as well as several other things. Bronco Henry’s name is enunciated with almost as much reverence as Randolph Scott’s in Blazing Saddles. But the saddles here don’t blaze, and while we have our distrustful eye on Phil, someone else might be taking advantage of our distraction. 

Phil might well be a bad man who is not only a bad man, and the frame is otherwise filled with folk who are neither good nor evil but just flawed, weakened by life and its indifferences. George is about as understanding as any man circa 1925 can be expected to be; he takes the labor of women and men as his due, without malice. Rose has her private miseries that she has taken to dipping in liquor. Peter may or may not be gay — the question of his sexuality seems less relevant as the movie goes on — but there may be gaping holes in his good nature, put there in large part when he discovered his father dead, a suicide. Peter recounts this trauma without much feeling; it’s Kodi Smit-McPhee’s moment of triumph. Peter, we see, may grow up into another Phil. Phil certainly seems to think so. If he can be for Peter what Bronco Henry was for him, he might have a purpose — or he might become a monster.

The Power of the Dog can thus be debated long into the night — the characters’ paths not taken, the dramas interrupted. After several things we’re led to expect to happen don’t happen, we realize we have little idea where the movie is taking us, yet we trust Campion to take us somewhere, and she does. Campion excels at tension between people — largely between men and women, but not always. Here it’s tension between one person and everyone else, but most everyone takes a turn creating that tension. We gather that the mix of these particular personalities and all their painful baggage is combustible, though, in this movie’s terms, quietly combustible. We see that what happens is inevitable yet far from predictable, except maybe when we think back on it. 

Don’t Look Up

Posted January 23, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: satire

dont look up

Some things are too big for most people to worry about. We’re all going to die at some point, but it’s possible to know that and still go about one’s day. If we were told, as the people of Earth are told in Don’t Look Up, that a comet will come and wipe us all out in half a year, what would we do? Writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) thinks some of us would face it — few of us, really — but most would be short-circuited into denial or avoidance. It’d be too big to think about. But Don’t Look Up is more of a satire of the media presence and politics of recent years than a lampoon of humanity’s response as individual humans. Outside of a few flashes, the movie doesn’t deal much with how other countries, cultures, peoples are coping with the comet. The barbs fly mainly at America.

Two astronomers who aren’t especially media-ready — Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) — discover the comet and figure out its trajectory and ETA. The president (Meryl Streep) blows it off until she needs a wag-the-dog diversion, at which point we send up some nukes at the comet. Other complications happen; the administration privileges monetary gain over human life. Eventually everyone has to look up. The movie has become something of a flashpoint, though its buzz has faded in the last couple of weeks. Some viewers come away shocked, others get angry, and I’ll bet a good number have the same response I did: “Well, yeah. Of course.”

Of course talk shows would absorb and then dismiss an existential crisis, pivoting with relief to coverage of a breakup between two pop stars. Of course Americans would have a divided, largely unhelpful reaction to it. Of course politicians would lead from the polls instead of from their consciences. Of course our pop-culture-fixated, meme-addicted media would trivialize it, just as it trivializes anything else it touches. Anyone who’s endured the last two years and paid a modicum of attention will find very little in Don’t Look Up surprising or controversial. So it’s probably not going to change a lot of minds. The red-hat-wearing anti-vax contingent isn’t going to see a movie like this anyway, and if they do, they’ll fold their arms and turn to stone, letting the film’s appeals to rationality bounce off of them.

It’s well-made, to be sure, played just a hair shy of farce, and the large cast (including Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, and Jonah Hill) come to play. Ron Perlman makes the most out of his few minutes as a belligerent war veteran picked to lead the assault on the comet. Lawrence and DiCaprio yell and suffer a lot. Everyone is committed. But the satirical gunfire becomes scattershot. We are not, after all, culpable in the existence of the comet, the way it certainly can be argued we are culpable in the human impact on the climate, or culpable in the prolonging of the pandemic. The comet has nothing to do with us; we didn’t create this monster. McKay is more interested in showing how the responses to the crisis — the government’s, John and Jane Q. Public’s, but mostly the media’s — are dictated by fear or greed. Which is valid, I guess, but don’t stop the presses.

The problem with movies that satirize “the media” is that they manage to forget they’re part of “the media.” Would that be the same “media” that Adam McKay worked for weeks at the end of last year, angling for that Oscar? “The media” obligingly created a gotta-see-it buzz around Don’t Look Up, first around its stars and then around the “controversy” (as if anything in this polarized culture weren’t “controversial”). In making Dr. Strangelove, still the undisputed champ of American satirical cinema, Stanley Kubrick largely ignored what “the media” would say; he focused on the donut, the government, not the hole. McKay focuses on the hole, the media, and then decries the void.

The French Dispatch

Posted January 16, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, comedy, murray christmas, wes anderson

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 want 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 sinks 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.