3 1/2 (out of 4)
If you thought We Need to Talk About Kevin was a psychological marathon mindfuck, writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s violent, beautifully enigmatic neo-noir You Were Never Really Here somehow manages to be even more disorienting and fascinating whilst navigating a fairly straightforward thriller plot.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is an ex-military gun for hire, doing jobs on the sly while he takes care of his elderly mother. A sucker for asphyxiating himself and prone to PTSD flashbacks and haunted memories of childhood trauma and past hits, Ramsay and Phoenix’s combined effort places us right in the shoes of a brutish outsider, whose next assignment is to rescue a Senator’s daughter sold into prostitution.
Even if you wanted to accuse You Were Never Really Here of being a work of style over substance, you’d be overlooking a lean, winding narrative, not to mention the film's perfection on so many technical levels. The film's entire sound design is a marvel of meticulously crafted ambiance. Jonny Greenwood’s lucid electronic soundtrack (reminiscent of Trent Reznor's effect on David Fincher’s recent output) is a welcome extension of original scoring beyond every Paul Thomas Anderson film since There Will Be Blood. In fact, Phoenix’s raw method acting is nearly as impressive as his work in The Master, and supported by Greenwood’s ethereal vibrations, YWNRH feels as close as we’ll get to a PTA horror film.
The sound editing and mixing become a symphony of Lynchian atmospherics when the score takes a break, and choice diegetic pop songs (Rosie & The Originals' "Angel Baby" specifically) paint purposeful swatches of irony and black humor on a film that largely radiates unsettling and chilling darkness. The cinematography, as well as the film’s perplexing structuring, obscures even the most easily explainable moments. This constant unease has you leaning into every stylistic change, soaking in all of Ramsay's unpredictable movements in conception.
Disquieting, densely puzzling and callously exhilarating, You Were Never Really Here made waves at last year's Cannes and the film's effect lives up to its reputation. Furthermore, as it is only her fourth feature in two decades, YWNRH cements Ramsay as a director worthy of close scrutiny.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Is it the blockbuster event of the age or a sure sign of the degeneration of popular culture? Surely your investment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe prior to Avengers: Infinity War will factor into one's enjoyment of the 19th installment in the mega-franchise. But even if the lesser characters, internal references and extraneous fan service play no part in processing this third Avengers film, the massive culmination of Disney’s powerhouse property is more than worth its weight in absurd and unapologetic entertainment value.
With the "final" Avengers movie awaiting us in one year's time, it's a little dubious to praise slightly bolder choices for a film series that could put anything onscreen, turn a profit and still have audiences clamoring for more. Yet credit must be given to the Russo Brothers' ability to ease realism and brutality into the steady stream of colorful fun bit by bit with the Captain America sequels Winter Soldier and Civil War. The pair of directors tested out the multi-hero mayhem of Infinity War with the latter and so far have only improved Marvel's output in regards to kinetic action and tonal smoothness. The Russos Two are now leagues away from the days of Community's paintball episodes, but even with budgets upwards of 250 million and too many characters to count, their ability to balance heightened drama and mischievous cheek is as deft as ever.
Like trying to keep two dozen or so plates spinning from your various appendages, Infinity War is not just a work of filmmaking acrobatics – it's a feat that makes the highly anticipated team up of the original Avengers feel simple, streamlined and safe. Without Whedon’s touch in making every character interaction pop – Age of Ultron, campy and perfunctory as it may be, is still one of the stronger MCU films – Infinity War delivers the crossover goods nonetheless. The film doesn’t just ration out screen time, but mix and matches its characters like the world’s most inspired ten-year-old rearranging his action figures into action sequences. For as much as the scale of these films has only furthered with each expensive installment, this is the first Marvel film that feels resoundingly spectacular in scope. There's enough planet-hopping to call it a space opera and every scene transition is a 'back on the farm' refresher – like the best team-up movies, every hero gets a moment in the sun even as they're spread out in various corners of the threatened universe.
The primary Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor [sorry Hulk]) are all separated. Tony Stark becomes entangled with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange on an alien craft, Thor's people are destroyed before he is intercepted by the Guardians of the Galaxy – largely Rocket Raccoon and Groot – and Steve Rogers regroups many a minor Avenger to Wakanda where the battlefront on earth takes place. Without getting into the Infinity Stones (which have been integrated by several McGuffins throughout the MCU), if the big bad Thanos gets his hands on all six of them, he then wields the godlike ability to wipe out half of all life at random, his recipe for bringing stability to the cosmos. Josh Brolin's purple spaceman villain is treated to maximum screentime in order to understand his character and feel his threat, which services the finally formidable stakes, meaning that in showcasing our countless heroes (who've already gone through their necessary development), there's not a moment to spare or a second of boredom. After a first act of expositing and reintroductions, there’s nothing but grandiose capekino as the film manages to satisfy numerous nerd fantasies while perfectly whetting the appetite for what should be a colossal finale.
But even with certain departures from Marvel's worst habits (underdeveloped villains, hit-and-miss quipping) in Thanos and humor arguably better than Whedon's films, these factors of Disney's formula are what hold back Infinity War from true pop culture greatness. The pivotal emotional relationship between Thanos and adopted daughter Gamora is the film's weakest element, and the jokes, while frequently gleeful, are injected with such frequency that the obvious appeal to casual moviegoers is stifling. That said, this preposterously enjoyable superhero epic is a cornucopia of blockbuster thrills – it's like the biggest season finale of all time with a gut punch of a cliffhanger to boot. The movie’s huge bummer of an ending is just fodder to fuel the hype of diehards and ever pique the interest of normies, but I respect the absence of any hope for our heroes as we leave the theater – Kevin Feige knows we’ll be back all the same.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Andrew Haigh hasn't lost a step this decade. After two distinctly different meditations on relationships and time in the homosexual hookup of Weekend to the long-delayed crisis in marriage of 45 Years, Haigh – seemingly wise beyond his years at age 45 – returns with his finest film of the decade in Lean on Pete.
On the surface, it's a classic tale of a horse and his boy. Charley, played by the young and utterly promising Charlie Plummer, lives alone with his sleazy yet loving alcoholic father (Travis Fimmel). Charley locates his passions in helping gruff Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi) take care of a half dozen racehorses. Earning money while traveling with jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) for local races, Charley can’t help growing attached to an older quarterbred named Pete.
Working as scenic Midwestern odyssey as well as a harrowing and hushed tragedy, Lean on Pete pulls no punches. Yet the blistering emotions that arise from its story aren’t at all tainted with sentiment or schmaltz. On paper, the film's more devastating moments might appear manipulative – onscreen, every pivotal moment is punctuated and improved by intuitively beautiful direction.
Utilizing selective long takes in key scenes in addition to stunning wide shots and superimpositions – particularly in the film's substantially spacious second half – Pete is visually transporting yet understated. Especially in low lighting and even in its bleakest passages, Haigh’s film radiates uncommon warmth.
Propped up by superb acting and gentle yet potent cinematic power, Lean on Pete rises far above its innate simplicity – it's as terse and true as a classic folk song.
3 (out of 4)
As star, co-writer and director of A Quiet Place, it’d be too easy to praise John Krasinski as a rising talent. First off, the story was written by his fellow screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, and there just ain’t enough dialogue that wouldn’t have been part of the rough draft. And as consistently suspenseful as the film is, Krasinski excels more in convincing us he’s a real dramatic actor than a blossoming filmmaker. In short, this movie would have been hard to fuck up.
With a monster movie premise this elemental and a screenplay so trim, not much can or does go wrong in terms of rewarding the target audience of A Quiet Place with exactly what they’re looking for. The drama of a family surviving a post-apocalyptic hellscape plagued with sound-sensitive creatures writes itself. Krasinski and his real wife Emily Blunt star as parents of three who lose their youngest son in the film's brutal opening scene. Years after, the couple decides the best way to protect themselves and their remaining children from gruesome deaths is to bring a screaming newborn into a world where noise gets you killed.
As entertainment, the tension is frequent and visceral once the story takes hold. Even though it goes in the expected directions, it's gratifying to see a film sustain a prolonged and effective climax for a good 40 minutes. A Quiet Place work best the faster it moves, as Krasinksi's film can then momentarily prevent the urge to stick your finger through the script's numerous plot holes.
In a genre as diluted as horror, it’s hard not to get excited when something remotely superior to garbage comes along (Truth or Dare anyone?), yet the critical masses couldn't help but overpraise A Quiet Place despite its qualities. The relative absence of sound legitimizes jump scares for more respectable intentions, but there is not enough emphasis on silence or interesting scoring and sound design. As new parents themselves, Krasinski and Blunt lend their characters some identifiable gravitas – and the child actors perform well also – but the characterization and emotional beats of A Quiet Place are flimsy and unsubstantial. There’s the obvious underlying allegory for parenting at the film's center, but these family themes are old hat with character traits this simple.
Still, an ingeniously succinct ending – even though it leaves room for potential sequels – left me pleased with what was left to the imagination. With no clear backstory or rules of acceptable noise, it's best think as little as possible about A Quiet Place in order to enjoy the fullness of its copious excitement.
3 (out of 4)
Writer-director Aaron Katz returns to the realm of murder, mystery and movie-isms – not unlike his nifty 2010 neo-noir Cold Weather – under the florescence of LA in Gemini. After premiering at South by Southwest in March of 2017, Neon distributes this elegantly glib thriller over a year later.
Katz can do plenty with next to nothing as shown by his inventive, prodigy-film-student intuition and adept screenwriting, but with Gemini he really shows his sharp eye for atmospherics and his attuned ear for show-stopping soundtracks. Composer Keegan DeWitt's hyper-modern score is primed with chopped vocals and trap beats, coalescing in a vaporwave vibe that heightens the film's neon-drenched ambiance and keeps Katz' slight but ever so intriguing plot unfolding nicely.
Lola Kirke – who had recently enough shown unlimited potential as Tracy in Mistress America – is a wonder to watch as Jill, assistant to the popular actress Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). In what seems like a supporting role at first, Kirke becomes our lead when Heather appears to be murdered and Jill is the primary suspect – John Cho also stars as the detective on the case.
With its well-devised gotcha twist, Gemini's slender narrative is more than worthy of the film's lush aesthetics, serene locales and respectable acting repertoire. Still, Katz' directorial arc seems to be on the brink of more significant, ambitious works to come. Working through clichés in order to revive them, Gemini furthers Katz as a natural and studied filmmaker with a knack for well-timed humor, sparingly conjured suspense and plausible yet engrossing mystery elements.
2 (out of 4)
Even with the writer behind the Pitch Perfect trilogy at the helm, little of Kay Cannon's feminine voice makes it through Blockers' uninspired screenwriting by the inexperienced Kehoe brothers.
Formerly titled The Pact, a story about three high school senior girls coordinating the loss of their virginity on prom night is overshadowed by the angle of suspicious and overprotective parents attempting to cockblock their decisions. This latest Goldberg/Rogen produced fare – which uncharacteristically doesn't star the lovable stoner and face of the pair – got a pass from critics for its supposed maturity, but Blockers falters in its sex comedy aims and in resonating emotionally or thematically.
All of the film's star power belongs to John Cena and Leslie Mann, while Ike Barinholtz single-handedly holds the film together as the odd duckling of the three parents. Playing an estranged father trying to reconnect with his shy, secretly lesbian daughter (Gideon Adlon), Barinholtz has solid timing and respectable dramatic range, making him the only stand out against his one-trick pony co-stars. Cena's hulk with a soft heart routine and Leslie Mann's typically shrill, blissfully unaware maternal role she's done so many times before amount to minimal laughs and ideological confusion for the sake of "comedy." Barinholtz' character is the voice of reason in the story and his elevation of the material is constantly undone by Mann and Cena's one-note performances and one-dimensional characters.
The biggest lack in Blockers is the amount of attention paid to the sexually curious trio of teens at the film's center. There may be candor in the way the movie depicts each young lady's carnal goals, from the desire to get trashed in order to get it over with in the case of the crass athlete (Geraldine Viswanathan) to the naïve blond ringleader (Kathryn Newton) just trying to make it the perfect evening with her long-time boyfriend. Adlon's blooming lesbian is stuck with a fat fedora-toting loser but she actually longs for a quirky Asian girl – this subplot is pathetically simplified for being the most SJW factor of the film. Nevertheless, the teenage side of things is obviously the most fascinating facet of Blockers.
With no tact in drawing satire or insight from the film's generational gap, the parent's overblown attempts to curtail their kid's prom night makes for easy marketing and a repetitive film. The gags get stale quick but the humor resists the low brow and becomes more digestible as the film wears on – but the third act's emotional beats are also so predictable you can feel them forming before they actually occur. The general entertainment value and a grade school lesson on feminism raise Blockers to the ranks of watchable even though the whole project is so hit-and-miss that I cringed as often as I laughed.
To keep it brief...
Sorry to Bother You,
Leave No Trace
the first installment of a monthly series:
The Absolute State of /tv/