Cocaine Bear

Posted March 19, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, horror

cocaine bear

A movie like Cocaine Bear has to do what it says on the tin, and it does. A big bear gets into a fumbled stash of cocaine out in the woods, and it kills people. The film is a horror-comedy — full of blood and guts, but somehow the director, Elizabeth Banks, keeps the proceedings as light as possible. She doesn’t want to bum us out or, particularly, to gross us out (although there are several nasty, messy kills, not all of them at the hands — er, paws — of the bear). She wants to entertain us. Set in 1985, when the actual events that inspired the movie took place, Cocaine Bear is short and, yes, kind of sweet. Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden make most of the characters likable by giving them identifiable quirks and needs. Even the piece’s real villain, drug dealer Syd (Ray Liotta in one of his final roles), has recognizable resentments and fears. 

This is notable, because Cocaine Bear, of all movies, did not need to go the extra mile to flesh out the characters, thus making us care if they wind up as bear scat. It could just as easily have coasted on its absurdist premise and fed stick figures into the powdery maw of the beast. But the script sets several groups in motion, sometimes at cross-purposes, all heading towards the bear. Even the tourist couple whose troubles kick the movie off seem to have a history in back of the film and a hoped-for future in front of it. Once the threat is established, we get to know the threatened. Sari (Keri Russell) is a busy nurse who goes looking for her teenage daughter in the woods. Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) go looking for the cocaine, at Syd’s command. A park ranger (Margo Martindale) and wildlife activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) get involved.

Most of this goes like a shot. Banks attends to the humans and their plot threads, almost at the expense of the bear, who just wants a quiet place to scarf down some cocaine and a side order of severed leg. Banks’ amused affection extends to the bear (who, it turns out, has kids). The bear’s scenes are achieved with a computer, but the movie doesn’t feel like a CG demo. Some tense sequences have little to do with the bear at all, such as the standoff between Daveed and a cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) standing atop a gazebo. The cop seems to be there to bring a cute, foofy little dog into the movie (don’t worry, no harm befalls her). You might question why the dog is there, as well as the other cop who looks after her, but there’s a payoff later, and Banks pulls it off without undue throttling of our heartstrings. Banks has described the movie as “the bear’s revenge tale” — the actual cocaine bear didn’t kill anyone — and the movie believes in redemption. The park ranger and her hypothetical love interest are handled a little cavalierly and cartoonishly, but no matter how warmly Banks paints the characters, the deaths in a movie like this have to come on schedule. 

Cocaine Bear has the structure of a slasher movie (the ‘80s), though it owes a lot to the animals-attack subgenre of the ‘70s, which were essentially proto-slashers with Ungentle Ben or whatever else (birds, bees, frogs, rabbits — yes, rabbits, I’m not kidding) menacing the dwindling human population. The it-is-what-it-is title has drawn comparisons to Snakes on a Plane, though this film doesn’t depend for most of its effect on seeing it with a packed and snarky audience on opening night. I have now seen two out of three Banks-directed films (her Charlie’s Angels reboot from 2019 was well-meaning but kind of null), and this one sticks with me for its unstable but winning mix of heart and gore. The tone is a very tricky needle to thread, but Banks does it. And the box office has rewarded her: Cocaine Bear made $3.8 million on its fourth weekend in theaters despite having been available to stream since March 14. That’s word of mouth: “Hey, you gotta see this, it’s fun, I’ll go see it again with you.” Banks, an amiable working actor for decades, has earned this modest triumph.

Oscar Night 2023

Posted March 13, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: oscars


For us fans of Everything Everywhere All at Once, it was an embarrassment of riches. Even those of us who love Jamie Lee Curtis didn’t expect her to prevail over Angela Bassett, yet there she was, posing with her trophy alongside co-star Ke Huy Quan and then Michelle Yeoh and then “the Daniels,” who won for writing, directing, and producing the multiversal comedy-drama-whatsit. The fecund playfulness of the night’s most-honored film was about the only bright spot in an otherwise bland, dignified, somewhat tight-spirited ceremony. Ironically, for haters of EEAAO, the show will live in infamy; for the rest of us, we were glad it won, but little of the show itself is likely to stick with us.

Hosting for the third time, Jimmy Kimmel presided over a sober-sided, respectable evening. The subtext was, We’re not going to let The Slap happen this year. And it didn’t. But the Oscars need that underlying buzz of this-is-live anxiety to thrive and to draw viewers. Every few years, something unanticipatable and awful needs to happen, to keep people hooked. Kimmel didn’t host last year, but the first year he hosted, 2017, was also the year the wrong Best Picture winner was read out. Oddly — perhaps not, because nobody blames the host for mishaps like that — Kimmel was asked back the following year, then stayed home for a few seasons. Anyway, Kimmel acquitted himself solidly, his jokes neither sharp enough to invite wayward palms nor bad enough to stink up the joint. He set the tone, and the tone was, Let’s go easy this year.

I ended up seeing seven out of the ten Best Picture nominees (how’d you do?). Most of the movies in which I had a rooting interest got something to take home, though The Banshees of Inisherin now has the same number of Oscars as Elvis (zero, sadly). I was happy to see Ke Huy Quan and Brendan Fraser win, though in terms of Oscar-season narrative they were sort of the same story: comeback kids after years in the wilderness, pointing out the comeback and the wilderness whenever feasible, until one got tired of hearing their eager, grateful, tremulous voices and wondered if they would burst into tears if denied the Oscars they so clearly wanted. They got verklempt anyway. Jamie Lee Curtis, who looked genuinely surprised to win, was more affecting. She’s having a hell of a third act.

I wasn’t a fan of the new All Quiet on the Western Front, and though I rejoiced that it lost Best Adapted Screenplay to Sarah Polley and Women Talking — how are you gonna give Best Adapted to a movie that so widely misses the mark set by Erich Maria Remarque’s classic? — I kept grumbling as it picked up various other prizes, including one for Best Score. The most memorable part of that score is that “whonk whonk whonnnk” thing it does whenever war things are about to happen, sounding like Hans Zimmer’s pet goose. But Sarah Polley, once the tiny little girl Terry Gilliam almost got killed on Baron Munchausen, now has an Oscar for writing one of the year’s quiet triumphs. Women Talking is fine drama, maybe not great cinema, but good theater. Polley is intelligent and emotionally attentive, and she will make more good-to-great films; that future, with her win, got more likely on Oscar night.

Do I have to watch Elvis or Avatar 2 or the prestigious vomit-fest that is Triangle of Sadness? Nobody’s telling me I have to, so I’m gonna pass. The low-key shocker of the night, though, is that Spielberg’s The Fabelmans went home with bupkis. Once upon a time, an autumnal Tribute to the Magic of Movies by perhaps Hollywood’s most successful director/producer in history, with sentimental nods for Judd Hirsch and John Williams as well as for Spielberg, might have cleaned up. Not this time. The Oscars — I don’t mean to sound ageist — may be becoming a youngster’s game. Were they ever gonna make the 91-year-old Williams, the 87-year-old Hirsch, or the 76-year-old Spielberg creak their way up to the stage one last time? 

The downbeat tone of this year’s Oscars might owe to Hollywood’s essential insecurity, now more than ever. As Kimmel pointed out, 2022’s top ten box-office winners were all sequels or franchise movies. Something as stubbornly original as EEAAO seemed like the thing to reward, even though Hollywood doesn’t really understand it. Spielberg is out, the Daniels are in. And though it’s easy to cave to cynicism and say the Oscars are more about rewarding a campaign narrative than a work’s given qualities, it does appear that the good guys mostly won this year — even All Quiet makes war look grim and not fun, unlike Top Gun 2, with its invisible enemy from Somewhere, Planet Earth. That sequel, incidentally, lost Best Song, apparently composed by Lady Gaga in the highest anguish in her basement. I dig Gaga, but man, couldn’t she just have said “Here’s a song I wrote for the money”? (I for one would’ve respected that more.) When Gaga gets all dolled up to sit in the audience but then dials it way down to take the stage, something’s off. Bring back the Oscars where Gaga comes out looking like beef or a Blaupunkt car stereo. Give us back our ridiculous, our Monday-morning water-cooler gossip, our Oscar legends. 


Posted March 5, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, remake


Concluding Oscar catch-up: Living is a precise and compassionate reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 drama Ikiru — one of his less typical masterpieces, away from samurai or Shakespeare or noir. Both films tell the story of a bureaucrat, stricken with stomach cancer, who finds it in himself to cut through the red tape and leave something behind. Living is set around the same time as Ikiru was first released, which makes it a period piece where Ikiru wasn’t. Both films unfold less than a decade after World War II, and each society — Living takes place in 1953 London — deals in ways large and small with the lingering shock and horror of the war. In a place that has been bombed near to oblivion, what difference does one playground make?

One act, one word, of kindness, it is said, can make an immeasurable difference. The bureaucrats in this story — inspired by a Tolstoy novella — take the news of their impending deaths with a kind of numb stoicism. In Ikiru, there’s a startling moment when the protagonist exits his doctor’s office and steps out onto the sidewalk; all noise disappears from the soundtrack, until a truck comes roaring into the frame. There’s nothing quite like that in Living, which has been directed by Oliver Hermanus with a subtlety bordering on blandness. Hermanus may have figured, “I’m not even going to try to out-direct Kurosawa.” So, although gracefully lighted (by Jamie D. Ramsay), the film screens in the boxy old Academy ratio. The movie almost apologizes for itself by way of its modest scale and style.

Bill Nighy, as this film’s new dying bureaucrat Mr. Williams, doesn’t have that neurosis, it seems. He doesn’t see himself as being in competition with Takashi Shimura, who played Kurosawa’s fool turned hero; Nighy came up in the theater, where if you think too much about the greats who once sparkled in the role you’re currently playing, you go nuts. So he just approaches Mr. Williams as a man whose juice was squeezed out many years ago, and whose dire diagnosis gives him license to shake the tree a little. But just a little. At first, Mr. Williams contemplates ending himself before the cancer does; then he spends a night out with a guy he’s just met, drinking and singing. In the cold light of day, he realizes that a trio of ladies who’ve been bouncing off the bureaucracy in hopes of getting a playground built point down a more difficult but rewarding path. 

Adapting Ikiru, one of his all-time favorites, Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t give Mr. Williams too much of an obvious Scrooge arc. Pre-diagnosis, Mr. Williams isn’t particularly unpleasant or domineering, just, as one of his underlings says, “frosty.” And he only thaws maybe a couple of degrees. I imagine some of the people who deal with him once he starts taking the playground seriously might find him prickly, but the fact that his demeanor doesn’t change much adds layers to the performance. Mr. Williams is using his polite but iron imperviousness to get something done instead of to stonewall something getting done. His actions change radically, but he’s still the same dyspeptic geezer nicknamed by his young former worker Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) as “Mr. Zombie.”

Nighy fills out a hollow man who begins the movie in general sadness, is given something to be really sad about, and takes it as an impetus to run counter to his entire career. But the sadness remains, and persists. So do we. It’s a very Kurosawa concern, and Ishiguro honors it: life is just people navigating their private sadness. No exceptions. No one here gets out alive. Ikiru is tough stuff in the Kurosawa mold because it’s bracingly wise about human frailty; so is Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day), though in a different mode. Kurosawa was much more acerbic, even withering, about the salaryman ethos of the bureaucracy. His office drones would turn you down gruffly. The ones in Living hem and haw and smile politely, but it comes to the same. The new movie doesn’t have any real malice towards the city-hall blockers. They’re all part of the same sad system, and the only one who can short-circuit it for a little while is going to die soon. 

The Whale

Posted February 26, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, aronofsky, art-house, drama


Continuing Oscar catch-up: Brendan Fraser is as heartbreaking as you’ve heard in The Whale, an overly literary indie drama in which he plays Charlie, a morbidly obese shut-in and professor biding his time until a heart attack takes him. Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own 2012 play, and directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream), the movie makes its themes (societal rejection, self-loathing, redemption through helping others) very plain — it seems to be written to teach in a college course. It also made me shed a few tears — I may as well be honest about that. That’s due more to the acting, not just Fraser, than to the frequently on-the-nose writing or the unobtrusive but sometimes overbearing direction. 

Regardless of my qualms about his style or compositions, Aronofsky has created a space where Fraser and the supporting cast — Hong Chau as visiting nurse (and more) Liz, Sadie Sink as Charlie’s estranged daughter Ellie, Samantha Morton in a vivid one-scene bit as Charlie’s bitter ex-wife Mary, Ty Simpkins as drifting missionary Thomas — can sink their teeth deeply into the dramatic red meat Hunter has written for them. Hunter has structured the scenario in a way that seems intended to impress an unseen English professor, but the scenes he writes, mostly two-handers as combative as a ping-pong match, give the actors something to say, do, be in relation to each other. The character of Thomas, for instance, doesn’t make a lot of literal sense, but an actor can find nooks and crannies in it, and Ty Simpkins helps Thomas make emotional sense to us. The movie is in part about running and hiding from an angry, disapproving society, and Thomas advances that theme.

If only the characters, as written, did more than advance themes. The Whale is set in the early days of the 2016 presidential race, to explain, I suppose, why nobody in the movie calls 988 on Charlie, who is quite obviously purposely eating himself to death. Everyone implores Charlie to go to the hospital, as if that would do anything but delay the inevitable. Charlie is a self-made martyr, wallowing in a self-created misery he thinks he deserves, and he wants to die but refuses to until he ascertains that, despite being out of her life for eight years, he has managed to sire a daughter who will rise to his assessment of her as “amazing.” (As written, again, she isn’t that amazing; Sadie Sink makes something wounded and spiky out of her, creates a girl who would like to care but feels it would just lead to more pain.) Charlie is gay, or bi, and torpedoed his marriage when he fell for a male student (of age, we’re told, a night-school pupil older than usual college age). Nobody in the movie has a problem with his sexuality, they just rue the wreckage it created of his family. But the origin of Charlie’s self-annihilating guilt lies elsewhere. 

I don’t want to think too much about the reserves of anguish Fraser had to tap into for his more intense scenes, stationary but still lunging for understanding and honesty. Fraser goes through the wringer here, choking and wheezing and sweating and vomiting. Saddest of all, perhaps, are the moments when Charlie giggles, and Fraser lights up as brightly as he always has, and we see the man capable of simple happiness that Charlie used to be. There’s a wispy suggestion that we’re only seeing Charlie’s body the way he sees and experiences it, and that everyone else sees something else. Fraser transcends the literariness of the concept and the literalizing physicality of the special make-up; we see that Charlie would be a wreck even if he were built like Jack LaLanne. 

Fraser didn’t need to go this far to prove himself as an actor. For many of us, he’d done that more than a quarter-century ago; even in his goofball comedies for kids, he exuded smarts and sensitivity, and millennial fans of his Mummy respond at least as much to Fraser’s generous-hearted portrait of a brave, well-meaning heroic lunk as to anything else. Really, if you think of Fraser’s career as a continually surprising continuum, there’s not much here we haven’t seen before, other than a couple of despairing moments. The Whale essentially is Fraser, the way the play is designed to position Charlie as the earth orbited by various angry moons. It exists to show him off, to serve as his comeback the way Aronofsky’s The Wrestler served Mickey Rourke. Fraser has earned the applause he has gotten and may yet get on Oscar night. And he lifts up his collaborators so they can shout and snarl and shine, too. Ultimately we come away from The Whale warmed by the openness of heart and spirit Fraser brings to it. He gives us a Charlie who has given up on himself but still believes that “people are amazing” — and shades the portrait with the tragedy of a man who refuses to include himself in that judgment.

Top Gun: Maverick

Posted February 19, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, sequel

Screen Shot 2023-02-19 at 9.49.43 AM

Continuing Oscar catch-up: Nostalgia can exert a powerful magnetic pull. The first Top Gun, from 1986, never won my heart, but Top Gun: Maverick felt like coming home, in a weird way. There’s no reason in the world it should have worked, but it does. Maverick was put together by a bunch of craftspeople — not necessarily artists — who are very good at what they do, and who know what works, damn them. Two and a half cheers, then, for an entertainment that delivers on its promise (and never even thinks to pretend to be more). It tickled the same part of my brain that lights up whenever the radio plays ‘80s songs. 

I don’t know why we care about Maverick (Tom Cruise) and his arc from rule-bucking perpetual captain to teacher and leader of an elite squadron of pilots. But we do. I don’t know why we care about Rooster (Miles Teller), one of those elite flyboys, whose father (Anthony Edwards in the original movie) flew with Maverick and died, and who is sore at Maverick for holding back his career. But we do. I don’t even know why we care about the mission, which involves dropping bombs on some secret uranium plant in some country somewhere — North Korea? Canada? who knows? — and then skedaddling at dangerous speed before the deadly counter-attack. But we do. It’s the architecture of the thing as much as the plot details. It’s built to please — all quadrants. That’s what it does. That’s all it does.

Cruise has been a star now for forty years. Gravitas has gathered around his jowls and the thickening of his nose, but he sounds pretty much the same — the pitch is the same, anyway, though the words don’t come gusting out in an impatient rush any more. This older Maverick thinks a little before he talks. The mantra in the movie is “Don’t think, just do,” which seems at odds with the shrewd businessman Cruise seems to have become. (His own “do, don’t overthink” period was from 1989 to 2004, let’s say.) What Cruise has to sell here, though, is his image as a doer — the crazy cat who does his own stunts, climbs up skyscrapers, jumps out of planes and chats with us on the way down. What he does is old-school movie-star acting, which is fine for Top Gun, and he knows just how much self-deprecating comedy he can allow at Maverick’s expense without damaging his credibility as a leader of soldiers. And he has aged into someone who at least looks like he could instruct and command. That’s not something we could have guessed from the first Top Gun, where his hot-shot callowness was sort of the point.

Of the neo-Blackhawks on Maverick’s team, only Rooster and another guy, the arrogant, toothy Hangman (Glen Powell), really register. The ranks are more diverse — there’s a woman, some pilots of color — but it’s still essentially a triangle of white guys, aping the Maverick-Goose-Iceman dynamic in the first one. Speaking of Iceman, Val Kilmer is back, and his quiet presence gives his scene some substance. Iceman also brings some homely reality to this franchise, a sense of mortal threat that comes not from enemy fire or malfunctioning jets but from one’s own mutinous body. It’s not a narrative beat you’d expect to encounter in most blockbusters of this stripe. But the scene is played so honestly and with such direct access to sorrow and humor that it transcends its surroundings. The dialogue isn’t telling us much — Iceman tells Maverick to go get ‘em, basically — but it’s still a three-minute great drama, supported by a lot of aerial zooming and shooting and whizzing. Whatever it takes. 

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Posted February 12, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, overrated, war


Continuing Oscar catch-up: Edward Berger’s bleak adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front is there, I suppose, for people who need periodic reminding that combat isn’t a game. Technology and a more elastic R rating have made it possible for movies to put us right next to young soldiers getting their heads blown off or their bowels slashed out, their blood spurting or misting, steaming in the cold winter air. This All Quiet (the book’s 1930 adaptation won a Best Picture Oscar, and the new one is nominated for that and eight more) certainly doesn’t skimp on the misery and filth of trench warfare in World War I. It is not, nor is it intended to be, “entertaining,” though Berger and cinematographer James Friend occasionally give us the reprieve of natural beauty to counteract the gore-saturated mud and ruined flesh.

I respected the film’s commitment to the unpleasantness of the endeavor, but like Sam Mendes’ 1917 it unfolds at a bit of a remove. We spend most of our time with one soldier, 17-year-old Paul Baümer (Felix Kammerer), but find out very little about him other than that he enlists with a few friends, one of whom is blown to hell almost as soon as he hits the front line. Paul and the others are fed by wartime rhetoric and propaganda, of which the ugly realities of war disabuse them. The point of the story might be to show the process of a young warrior’s disillusionment. In Remarque’s book and the 1930 film, Paul goes home on leave and confronts a schoolmaster who has no idea what actual war entails now — the bombs, the tanks, the flamethrowers, the gas. There’s nothing like that in Berger’s film, nor does it get into how soldiers who go home physically unharmed still carry the inner scars of war with them, as the book did.

The movie is a technical achievement, I guess. What pleasure can be derived from it comes from its craft and its performances; newcomer Kammerer gives us a Paul alternately numb and terrified, and he doesn’t falter during a key scene involving Paul and a lone French soldier he encounters in a bomb crater. Berger succeeds at framing the battle scenes as death panoramas criss-crossed with horror and rage — soldiers drop dead everywhere you look, and we wonder how anyone managed to get out of it alive. A sense of futility sets in fast. What neither the book nor the 1930 film knew at the time, of course, was that the World War was only World War I, that there was an even ghastlier sequel coming. Berger is working with that knowledge, and tries to drum up our sympathy for boys who were lured into the meat grinder by nationalist populism. He adds a subplot not in the book involving higher-ups negotiating for an end to the war; he invents a character, General Friedrichs, who resents not having the glorious military career his ancestors did, and orders Paul’s regiment to carry out one last attack on the French before the armistice takes hold.

Things like that did happen, but by his additions and omissions Berger pulls focus away from what should be a study of the breakable human soul in wartime. So the movie just ends up striking us as a brutal account of the Realities of War, and doesn’t make much impression otherwise. If we’re supposed to feel the existential horror of Paul turning into a merciless killer and then realizing the import of what he’s done, only Kammerer’s performance conveys a little of that. This All Quiet seems to have lost track of the story’s point. The relentless physical awfulness of this particular war has been dramatized far better before, most recently in Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. And even the theme of “Hey, the German soldiers were people, and they suffered too” was signed, sealed and delivered in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. I’m afraid Berger’s film wants to be great but is only occasionally even good. It seems to have been made now solely because the technology was there to make it.


Posted February 5, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama


Continuing Oscar catch-up: Todd Field’s Tár seems like long, dry homework — it’s a character study of a great artist, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who may not be such a good person, and it tips the scales at two hours and thirty-eight minutes — but it’s well put-together, with spaces left open for interpretation. It’s an art object about art, and whether a person who can create or at least facilitate art also owes society good personal behavior. Tár is a revered conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic; she has a book coming out, and she’s about to complete her Mahler project by conducting his Fifth Symphony. 

Then, slowly and then briskly, her life falls apart. Tár, it turns out, has a habit of having affairs with young, smitten musicians, and one of them, named Krista Taylor, has recently killed herself. Legal attention soon follows, it comes out that Krista is far from the only musician to drift into Tár’s orbit, and Tár is “cancelled.” There’s foreshadowing early on, when Tár teaches a class and is at odds with a student who doesn’t respect Bach’s reputation as a womanizer. The student’s response to flawed artists is as valid as Tár’s — most of us choose which real-world actions are dealbreakers for us when it comes to the artists we love. One point of the movie might be that saying there are no dealbreakers can be as limited as saying, yes, there are dealbreakers, things we can’t forgive.

Todd Field keeps a lot of things ambiguous. Tár of course denies any wrongdoing on her part, and she could be lying or she could be on the level. Past a certain point it doesn’t matter. Her name is connected publicly with grooming and sexual predation, and it becomes poison. Most of the film, though — I’d say the first two hours — has little to do with “cancel culture” other than occasional omens. While we wait for Tár’s house of cards to riffle to the floor, we study Tár, a somewhat arrogant and fairly high-strung woman who seems like what can happen when a high-school music nerd gets some power and gets drunk on it, then accustomed to it. 

Tár has a wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), who plays in Tár’s orchestra, and they share a small daughter, Petra. One day, Tár comes to see Petra at school and pays an intimidating visit to a girl who’s been bullying Petra. Tár assures the kid that she will “get her” if she doesn’t leave Petra alone, and nobody will believe the kid if she tries to tell anyone. This seems like a key moment, almost the sole reason Tár is even given a daughter in the film. Here we see a menacing, will-to-power side of Tár that perhaps young, trusting musicians also saw. Aside from this scene, and one other in the film’s final act, Tár doesn’t seem overtly abusive. She is smart and talented, and other smart and talented people in major cities put her on a pedestal — she’s a woman and gay and excels in a career traditionally dominated by men. Tár has taken advantage of all of that — or maybe she hasn’t. We get glimpses of evidence that, to us, seems inconclusive. It may also seem that way to the Berlin Philharmonic, but Tár has become radioactive and must be cast out regardless.

I don’t think Tár means to say much about the supposed “woke mob” thirsting to ruin the lives of artists by falsely accusing them of salacious deeds. It may have interested Todd Field as a sidebar issue he wanted to explore in the downfall of an artist, but I don’t get the sense that he’s decrying anything. The ambiguity about whether Tár is actually guilty as charged can provoke literal-minded debate, but I suspect Field has a good deal more to say about the creators we lift up and tear down, not limited to churlish-sounding Fox News editorials about woke hysteria. We’re given enough clues, both by the allusive script and by Cate Blanchett’s brittle, richly detailed performance, to deduce that Tár is probably guilty as sin; if not of driving Krista Taylor to suicide, then of other casualties left bleeding on the side of Tár’s road to glory.

That road leads far away from her humble origins as a kid named Linda Tarr. That may sound like a bridge too far in terms of a diagnosis of Tár’s disease. Ah, an artist is driven to the top by the fear of dying anonymous and obscure in her home town. In an alternate universe, is there a Linda Tarr who stayed and maybe taught piano lessons and was never given the opportunity — the rich white privilege — to follow her darkest impulses? Would that person have been happier? Is Tár truly happy? We never see her uncomplicatedly happy. The narrative is full of little hostilities Tár commits — the mini-arc having to do with Tár’s neighbor and her ailing mother shows us how unused she is to normal social exchanges. Tár doesn’t crowd our emotions; it lets us respond how we will. A note of caution, though: the price Field pays for his nonjudgmental, emotionally arid approach is a certain emotional recoil on our part. The movie is intelligent and artful. And we don’t finally give a damn about Lydia Tár or what happens to her. 

To Leslie

Posted January 29, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama

to leslie

Playing Oscar catch-up: To Leslie is the sort of small, honest drama that Oscar attention is meant to rescue from oblivion, so it’s a shame that Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nomination has gathered a scent of scandal (as I write this, the Academy is looking into whether the grass-roots campaign on Riseborough’s behalf played by the rules). Apart from all that, this is a glum but focused story about Leslie (Riseborough), an alcoholic who frittered away $190,000 of lottery winnings six years ago, alienating many friends and abandoning her young son. Now she drifts from bar to bar, getting evicted from her motel room and going to stay with her now-grown son (Owen Teague), who soon shows her the door as well. She goes to stay with exasperated former friends Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root), and that works out about the same.

Leslie seems incorrigible, but she just needs to catch a break, and she lucks into a room-and-board job at another motel run by Sweeney (Marc Maron), a kind-hearted loner who somehow sees the potential in her. She almost blows that, too, but Sweeney is patient. To Leslie isn’t the miserablist wallow in bad vibes that it may sound like. Just as it’s honest about the ways some people mess up their lives, it’s also honest about people who pull out of the tailspin and do what needs doing, and that’s Leslie’s story. This isn’t the kind of soul-grinding indie drama that leaves the audience with no hope; the script by Ryan Binaco knows there are as many successes as failures in the realm of addiction. 

The secret of Riseborough’s performance here is that she keeps a spark of Leslie’s former, clearer self glowing, even if only dimly during Leslie’s darkest hours. We sense what Leslie has thrown away, and when Riseborough acts opposite the great Allison Janney we get duets of loathing and self-loathing. Leslie and Nancy used to be friends until Nancy watched Leslie drink away most of her humanity. “How mean are you?” Leslie asks Nancy, who still not only holds her grudge but grips it with white knuckles. But Nancy isn’t mean, just heartsick at what happened to someone she loved and, somewhere distant inside, still does. But these are West Texas women with no talent for prevaricating, and Nancy can’t help coming off as bitter, even cruel.

Even by herself, though, Riseborough conveys Leslie’s maddening discomfort in her own skin. Riseborough takes Leslie to almost rock-bottom and gradually lifts her again, without softening Leslie’s rage at those who gave up on her, including herself. What makes her turn worthy of notice most of all is its generosity of spirit. Riseborough always makes Leslie interesting. Leslie is smarter than she sounds, and very keenly aware of how thoroughly she tossed herself in the trash. There are a lot of lesser performances like this in fraught indie dramas every year. Riseborough gives Leslie mordant wit about what a dumpster fire she is, but not so much that she’s just cracking jokes about her failures. Leslie doesn’t like to talk much about the demons that brought her low. Riseborough shows us glimpses of them anyway.

Director Michael Morris doesn’t prioritize his star at the expense of the supporting cast — Maron is quite good playing a decent man, and Andre Royo has the sting of authenticity as Sweeney’s motel partner Royal, an acid casualty who likes to howl at the moon. The movie is underlit by design, until the final scenes, which have an almost tacky brightness that functions as one last humbling detail. It’s just humbling, though, not depressing. We’re not sure exactly what Leslie did in her lost years, but we get enough clues; when she’s still drinking, she hangs out in the bar and eyeballs men who might buy her a beer and a shot in exchange for her body, and we figure she has past experience at that, but we don’t have to watch her debase herself here. (One man perceives what’s going on with her and politely demurs.) 

I don’t feel qualified to assess whether Riseborough’s work is “as good as” that of her fellow nominees, or “better than” other actors who didn’t make the cut. The danger, though, is that the kerfuffle over her nomination will lead viewers to expect a flashier, more forceful turn than she actually gives. That would be unfair, as her work deserves to be assessed on its own merits away from popularity contests or pricey Oscar campaigns or, indeed, the performances with which she is in “competition.” All I know is that she made me believe in Leslie and care about her future, despite Leslie’s acting like a turd a lot of the time until she gets tired of looking in the mirror and seeing a turd. I wished Leslie well and felt better about her chances (and the chances of others like her) at community and purpose and happiness, perhaps for the first time. Highlighting compassionate acting like this, again, is what the Oscars do best.


Posted January 22, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cronenberg, cult, film noir, horror, one of the year's best, science fiction


On February 4, it will have been forty years since David Cronenberg’s Videodrome — his magnum opus about fantasy and control — emerged, like a rash, on theater screens and shortly thereafter withdrew its shingle and closed shop. In the decades since, it has been re-appraised as an important work on display in the Cronenberg museum of images and ideas. Taking the form of a classic noir, the film is less a whodunit than a what’s-it-gonna-do-to-me. The protagonist, Max Renn (James Woods, seldom moister or better), owns and operates a shady indie TV station that traffics in the obscure and the louche. Max is always on the lookout for harder content, and he finds it in Videodrome, a program consisting only of torture and murder (simulated or real? does it matter?). 

One of the great ironies of Videodrome is that the actual content of the Videodrome programming isn’t the problem — it’s not, in and of itself, harmful to the viewer. It’s just there to lure people — perhaps a certain kind of person not averse to violent fantasizing — and then the signal, which we’re told could just as easily be conveyed in a test-pattern screen, causes hallucinations and, eventually, death. The concept of salacious and/or violently stimulating content as a Trojan horse for something else is borne out by Cronenberg’s own movie, which attracts us with kink and splattery, suppurating Rick Baker special effects and then infects us with its virus of ideas — or at least an invitation to debate them. Unlike Videodrome, Cronenberg doesn’t want to hurt you, just provoke thought.

Following the rabbit hole of clues and sketchy figures, Max gets involved with Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), who gives advice on the radio by day and indulges s&m urges at night. Nicki is intrigued enough by what she sees of Videodrome to want to be part of it. For Max, she becomes the erotically entreating face of Videodrome, her lips bulging forth from the TV set from which many of Max’s head trips flow. Despite the wild and often unprecedented imagery he puts on the screen, Cronenberg has never been a flashy director, which suits his material just fine. If we’re to understand what Cronenberg is telling by showing, we need to see it, straight on and dead-eyed. No fancy cinematic footwork will do.

Other figures fade into the picture, like gangsters out of the noir fog — mainly media cult types, who study the effects of mass communication and either caution against it or weaponize it. Somewhere in the film’s second half, Cronenberg gets a little lost in the weeds of his own story’s implications. But that’s what makes it art. Cronenberg has famously said that you make a movie to find out why you wanted to make the movie. Videodrome, possibly, stays unresolved for us because it was unresolved for him, and how can something this visually and philosophically tangled be resolved? It can’t. It can only go out on a small frequency and reach the like-minded, who may perceive its unanswered questions as a void they feel duty-bound to fill with interpretation.

Cronenberg began with a disturbing childhood experience with a TV signal that was barely coming in; the (again) unresolved fuzz and hiss of a bad signal, he thought, could have been a dark and frightening program without enough juice to cut through the static. That’s not even a premise, that’s a vibe, and the original tone of young Cronenberg’s unease makes it into the movie. The sometimey signal of Videodrome seems to cast its malefic spell by what it conceals as much as reveals. Sweaty imagination pastes in what the eye misses. Videodrome has a lot to say about the bad romance between eye and brain, mind and body. Cronenberg has taken his childhood fear and built a world of conspiracy around it. Some of it plays as old hat — Cronenberg had just been down a similar paranoid road with 1981’s Scanners — and some of it is an excuse for Cronenberg and Rick Baker to do the Lovecraftian work of imagining the unimaginable. “Long live the new flesh” are Max’s final words, and Cronenberg’s artistic credo. The flesh Cronenberg shows us may be new, but it’s as flawed as the old flesh, because it’s ours. 

Terrifier 2

Posted January 15, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

terrifier 2

“I react to the brutality,” wrote Pauline Kael in her review of the brutal El Topo, “because I still associate violence with pain.” Well, Damien Leone’s Terrifier movies are decidedly not for Kael or anyone else who associates violence with pain. For horror-movie fans who respond to the protracted kills in these movies as flashy crescendos, the viciousness is (again in Kael’s words) a turn-on. Terrifier 2, which earned $10 million last fall against a $250,000 budget, ups the ante on the grisly shocks Leone dealt in the previous films in the franchise — All Hallows’ Eve (2013) and the first Terrifier (2016). The films are unified by the star of the show, the silent creeper/killer Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), but can be watched independently. The first Terrifier is a minimalist slasher that exists to send various characters to untidy deaths, but Terrifier 2 is some kind of ambitious work of art within the context of slasher sequels (it even, for Christ’s sake, boasts a musical nightmare sequence).

Art the Clown never speaks or even screams in pain, and when he laughs at his cruel works, he does it silently. He moves gracefully, even joyfully, and often reads as childlike. He’s much the best part of this series; he seems to wear an aura of nightmare logic around himself, bending the world’s reality to his designs. He does too many incredible things in these movies to be a realistic psycho; he seems supernatural, even immortal, and here we learn that he may have emerged from — or at least been predicted by — the sketches of an artist whose brain tumor drove him to madness and suicide. The dead artist left a bitter widow and two school-age kids: Sienna (Lauren LaVera), a gloomy teen who works for months on costumes in her room, and Jonathan (Elliott Fullam), who has a morbid interest in Art. The devilish clown zeroes in on these kids, sometimes accompanied by a little girl who shares his rictus leer and his worship of gore; she exists, probably, in Art’s imagination, or maybe not. The metaphysics of Leone’s movies are far from consistent or coherent.

The monstrous killer doesn’t seem to want anything from Sienna or Jonathan other than to kill them messily, which I felt missed a chance for the plot to be interesting instead of distended. (Terrifier 2 runs two and a quarter hours, a long time to indulge Leone’s bloody showmanship.) Still, anyone who cut their teeth on forbidden issues of Fangoria magazine in the ‘80s, cooing over the color photos of splattery massacres and (even cooler) how the effects were done, will recognize Terrifier 2 as the sort of over-the-top magnum opus we Fango kids always hoped for and seldom got because the MPAA always required horror movies to be whittled down to win an R rating. Terrifier 2 went out unrated, without major-studio backing, and wound up spending four weeks in the box-office top ten. That’s worth paying attention to, even if the film’s particular emphasis on surreally cruel mutilations and hackings requires a loud and receptive audience. If you’ve never heard of Fangoria, you are probably not among that audience.

Some have noted, here and in its predecessor, that Leone tends to linger on the agony of the female victims while giving male victims relatively quick and merciful deaths. I can’t deny that, and I don’t know the following for sure, but women/girls being stalked and slashed is a regrettable but inarguable trope of this subgenre, and by lavishing such attention and fake blood on those scenes, Leone may be (I suspect, perhaps too charitably) parodying or at least commenting on that trope. The violence here goes beyond misogyny; it’s often too cartoonish to be taken seriously, and it’s not truly intended to be associated with real pain. It’s the sort of horror comic, caked over with red crayon, that a spooky monster-loving little kid might come up with. Like Art himself, it seems innocent on some level. It appeals to the part of us that used to engage in verbal riffs on gross tortures when we were kids. Again, if you weren’t one of those kids…