3 (out of 4)
In a year when several earnest movie actors readily acquired financing to inscribe their directorial mark – John Krasinski (A Quiet Place), Paul Dano (Wildlife) and of course Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) – Jonah Hill was not the one I was betting on as an artist in waiting.
Endorsed by the mainstream art house distribution cred of A24, Mid90s is a succinct if slight debut principally for its consideration of an unfettered and guileless realism. Hill's explicit millennial backdrop screams brazen nostalgia but the near-contemporary scenery is an incidental template for character development and cultural observations. The film bears surface similarities to Boyhood in this regard even if Mid90s lacks the timeless immediacy of a coming-of-age classic.
Hill's film rests on his confidence in an assortment of young performers, all of whom do not fail him – the slim story is boosted beyond mumblecore pretensions by the lifelike acting. Hill’s conception prudently resists a wistful lens and the naturalism is imperative to Mid90s as a way which to view the impressionable stages of adolescence – peer pressure, social acclamation, nasty habits – in addition to the best and worst of formative experiences. Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is astonishing as our pubescent protagonist and his bliss and frustration quickly become our own.
I was a good little boy at age 13 but the ensemble of teenage characters Hill has gathered are a wildly authentic bunch. The family of our young lead Steven is on the sidelines because that’s how every fresh teen wants to keep it; Katherine Waterston is mom and Lucas Hedges plays the older brother. Seriously injuring yourself, misunderstandings turned to jealousy, succumbing to your friends' most damaging traits are the grotesque pangs of the experience Mid90s has to offer – the general ambiguity in tone is a further positive, provoking nurture vs. nature arguments and speaking to the confused perspective of early teenhood. Mid90s forgoes proper narrative scope but its concerns are relatable and its performances are plausible.
The widescreen-averse 4:3 frame evokes home movies but the stark compositions scrub all sentimentality. All that keeps the reminiscence relevant is the needle-dropping soundtrack – a fun collection of choice hip hop singles from the genre's finest era intermingled with generation-appropriate alt-rock tracks. It's a pleasing time capsule on its own but even the grooviest of playlists shouldn't supplant original material from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross invoking their wizardry a la The Social Network. In all there are '90s references aplenty but the miniature story remains soundly universal even removed from its titular framework.
3 (out of 4)
Drew Goddard's praiseworthy pastiche The Cabin in the Woods was a cunning, subversive debut – his follow-up similarly revels in straying off expected paths, this time with respect to comic thrillers and neo-noirs. The writer-director saunters down more mature avenues past his meta mayhem, selling us a second feature on a bigger promise of rejuvenating originality. Bad Times at the El Royale is damn near an equally absurd blast of untamed postmodern genre fireworks but it doesn't manage to exceed the limitations of imitation. Goddard has merely swapped out slashers for Tarantino flicks.
Rather than skillfully cater to middlebrow, Reddit-tier self-awareness and smug parody, instead this film is populated by original, complex and memorable characterization without sarcastically making light of archetypes. The plot is a bit flimsy given the formidable length but the runtime's easy passin' even when the story warrants it least. The Hitchcockian obsession with voyeurism – Goddard sure has a thing for two-way mirrors – is the one dominant shared trait between Cabin and Bad Times, and both films are embellished by a level of thematic scopophilia.
But my oh my does Goddard have Quentin’s intentions firmly at heart: there are chapter titles, overlapping and fragmented nonlinear storylines, satiric needle drops, bombastic monologues amidst smoothly detached discourse and occasions of criminal violence. It's far from Pulp Fiction but nearly all of Bad Times' pivoted motivations and twists of fate have their own purpose. Caught at the border of greatness between Nevada and California, Goddard's sophomore song and dance is an ambitious yarn – a full and overdone fable fashioned for acute escapism by its systematic unpredictability and the commitment of performers known (Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson and Christ Hemsworth) and unknown (Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman). Hamm's sleuthing spy posing as a vacuum cleaner salesman and Erivo's struggling songstress are enthralling in their portions of the story. On the other hand Hemsworth's third act arrival as pedophile cult leader isn't as narratively invigorating as you might think.
Goddard principally invokes scintillating situations and novel conflicts whilst expanding his capabilities as a visually instinctive talent. In the 1970s setting, the ironically fitted pop songs provide whimsical undertones in the eccentric atmosphere, but select soul samples only sometimes yield the precise ambiance. With his influences so bare it's not quite enough to confirm the value of Goddard's own attributes despite how handsomely orchestrated and persistently intriguing Bad Times is in its most bewitching passages. The multifaceted vantages across simultaneous events, capricious plotting and optic fastidiousness nevertheless deem El Royale well worth a visit.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Damien Chazelle hasn’t set forth one false step as a burgeoning filmmaker. Following critical and popular breakthroughs as sublimely exhibitionist as Whiplash and La La Land, the youngest Best Director Oscar winner in history finally forgoes involvement in writing to offer his first film not to originate directly from his own inspiration. First Man is not just a customary biopic, however; Chazelle’s fervor regarding everything cinematic, in addition to his admiration for Neil Armstrong's attributes, emits the auteurist fumes of his proven prolific qualifications.
Returning to the cinema vérité camerawork of his unassuming debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench – the lo-fi musical romance prototype for La La Land, which remains his most visually and emotionally accomplished film to date – Chazelle exhibits First Man with many fewer degrees of obsessive directorial control than his recent films. Linus Sandgren's cinematography is vibrating and voluptuous, employing documentary-style footage to implement handheld intimacy and authenticate 60s-era textures. But a lessening of sheer scrupulousness in favor of palpable realism is precisely why this take on history is so dynamic and Chazelle's sensibility towards the spectacle of space travel is so idiosyncratic. He outdoes Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Dunkirk) at not only the sentimental challenges of impactful interstellar epics but also in aerial photography, sound design and properly presented IMAX 70mm photography. The 33-year-old director comes away from his most Hollywood-trimmed, awards-oiled film yet looking like the next Spielberg (predictably one of the producers) rather than another haughty brewer of above-average blockbusters.
Ryan Gosling’s borderline autistic impassivity couldn’t be any better suited for someone as painstakingly insular and disciplined – Gosling's still too much of the Goose we all love instead of the first man himself, but the film still confirms he and Chazelle are a godly cinematic pairing. Claire Foy continues to make 2018 her year – following phenomenal work in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane and with her incarnation of the Dragon Tattoo Girl around the corner – as Armstrong’s resilient wife. Foy and Gosling are an onscreen couple of rare verisimilitude and the drama they are able to impart from Josh Singer's script supersedes his other historical awards fare like Spotlight and The Post. Singer sensibly portions personal sacrifice over jingoist history.
First Man's model of the extravagance and magnitude of the space race is crystalline, with every relevant curiosity and danger from the bygone era of scientific exploration included. Fifty years later the skepticism towards NASA’s value at taxpayer expense is practically the same. In relation to the revival of space movies, Ridley Scott (The Martian), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) and Nolan were unable to grasp at anything remotely sympathetic or human in their depictions of "real science." Whether it's bland humor, simplified and shoehorned exposition or emotional ploys, they all floundered artistically despite technical prowess. Chazelle's strategies in First Man are so subdued, straightforward and realistic that the clichés of the typical historic Oscar-bait can't weasel their way in and spoil things. Wearers of tinfoil hats might protest, but even though Chazelle's so polished at fiction his vision of the real world and the moon landing (the one that Kubrick didn't direct) is credible and unmistakable.
With America’s feat as a forgone conclusion, Chazelle’s focus on the absurd and terrifying risks of Armstrong’s position aligns First Man with the unifying themes of his filmography – the honor of exceptionalism at the expense of personal and familial tranquility. Like Armstrong himself, Chazelle is a considerate and prudent risk-taker, even when exercising his highest budget on his safest and weakest mainstream film thus far. First Man is a great film regardless because Chazelle's universal attitudes transcend biography and domestic triumphs. His rapid assimilation as master of multiple genres and his expert assemblage of music (the wonderful long-time partner Justin Hurwitz), editing and performance is a surplus of evidence to Chazelle's own comfortable cinematic dexterity.
2 ½ (out of 4)
I’ve alluded before that the Marvel Mouse has critics under its gloved thumb, but maybe Venom really is a case of a broad schism between audiences and reviewers. Venom is decent across all spectrums and a Tomatometer as low as modern DC trash and less than half of the MCU's worst is puzzling once you see the movie for yourself.
Of course Sony's output of capeshit isn't what you'd call a respectable track record, let alone the features they produce otherwise. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was a blessing for the early days of contemporary super-cinema but Ghost Rider, Spirit of Vengeance and the pair of amazingly inept Spider-Man rehashes do not indicate competence on behalf of the studio. Venom's 100 million dollar budget is stingy given the clear necessity for elaborate visual effects. And the PG-13 rating is a little lenient considering heads are chomped on scene by scene – this film isn't exactly designed to be fun for all ages, although vulgarity and gore for the sake of it a la Deadpool or Logan admittedly wouldn’t have improved anything. Those details plus Tom Hardy's confession that 40 minutes of his favorite bits were pruned from the film portended that Venom was set up to suck.
That said, while it breaks no mold in superhero structure (third act clashes between CGI monsters, Bible-referencing villains, quips aplenty), Venom is not painfully self-aware, tastelessly violent or cringingly unfunny. With a classic origin story at its disposal, actors as adept as Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams at the forefront enhance the weakest lines of dialogue and the conventional genre clichés. The synergetic relationship between Hardy’s Eddie Brock and the gooey alien symbiote Venom becomes an antihero duo just distinctive enough to extol. The action is alright, the pacing is swift and, most advantageously, Hardy's caliber of dramatic acting and equal ability for brusque charm is weirdly well-suited for a disgraced reported dealing with a parasitic host that fits his body like a glove, merges into his conscious mind and transforms him into a voracious villain with or without consent. Nobody will be missing Topher Grace's role in Spider-Man 3 and you won't be thinking of Hardy's other brush with the superhuman as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
An unusual tonal confluence, some rough editing, a climax that makes the titular virulent invader out to be the good guy and a pointless post credits stinger ultimately leaves Venom in the realm of merely satisfactory superhero movies. But the memorable blend of supernatural horror and B-movie sci-fi molds Venom into something more gratifying than it was foreordained to be.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
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The Absolute State
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