Category Archives: Featured

Us (2019)

Jordan Peele’s Us is nothing short of exceptionally entertaining horror. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as the mother and father of a prototypical American family, Us joins a long tradition of doppelgänger horror while still emerging from that tradition into definitive modernity. Like Peele’s debut Get Out, the American Dream — as a white-picket-fence fantasy and as a dark reality — is crucial not only to the implicit themes of the film, but to the reason both films are scary in the first place. Yes, Us has a preponderance of classic horror moments, from jump-scares to home invasions to creepy coincidences foreshadowing a coming threat. But these tropes become entertaining again only in context of a strong underlying assertion that speaks to something in our everyday life, and while Us may not speak as explicitly as Get Out, the potency of the film is drawn from a similar source.

That aforementioned line of doppelgänger-narrative-as-horror is an interesting one, and one that makes perfect sense for Peele’s sensibilities as a writer. It’s a premise that’s been used for terrifying stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dead Ringers, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and a number of unsettling works from David Lynch. Last year’s venture was Annihilation, which played with the doppelgänger motif in a supernatural way. It’s elementally creepy, the idea of meeting yourself. The question it raises is as existential as it gets: if that’s me…then who am I?

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Captain Marvel (2019)

In 2017 The Last Jedi ignited a culture war between lovers of Star Wars on the one side and…well, lovers of Star Wars on the other side. This war was ostensibly borne of debate over the film, praise versus criticism, and there certainly is a battlefront of this war that does engage in genuine discourse over Jedi. There’s another front, of course, comprised mostly of warriors fighting with a willing blindness to the merits or pitfalls of the film as a film; some people just despise Jedi for puerile personal reasons, some just defend it simply because it’s Star Wars. This is the Ultimate First World Problem, such hatred and ire thrown about over the seventh sequel to a space fantasy from 1977. But intentionally or not, a particular faction of “critics” revealed themselves during this war. We’ll call them the Shitboys, because they’re mostly boys and they mostly shit on everything.

The Shitboys are that splinter cell of Jedi-haters that conspired to sink the Rotten Tomatoes score of the film by flooding the internet with bad reviews. They sent death threats to director Rian Johnson from the safety of their mother’s basements. They made cute little petitions that proposed Disney literally remake the movie they just released. Eventually, they shit the same shit over Black Panther, actually claiming that white males were becoming a marginalized group in Hollywood. Once the rest of us stopped laughing/crying and once Panther walked home with billions of dollars and a few Oscars, the Shitboys regrouped and set to work on Captain Marvel:

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Destroyer (2019)

I was pretty darn excited by Destroyer just prior to watching Destroyer. The fact of a female-led, female-directed crime film with such noir grit would’ve been enticing enough. That female lead, of course, is Nicole Kidman, which always helps in the Excitement category. But frankly director Karyn Kusama was even more of a draw, coming off her last effort The Invitation. While not altogether a classic, Invitation stuck in the mind for its slow-burn tension and creepy performances. It was almost a suburban spin on a haunted house tale, Ice Storm meets Amityville Horror, accomplished with confidence by Kusama on a comparatively small budget of $1 million. Destroyer upped the ante, left the suburban mansion for the L.A. streets, but the fact that it was still an original thriller was mighty exciting.

And I was even pretty darn excited by Destroyer just after watching Destroyer, because the ending was a deft twist with a songlike quality only hinted at elsewhere in the film. But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Destroyer while I was actually watching Destroyer. As an upstanding member of the critical community, of course, I must admit, reader, that in entering the screening for Destroyer I simultaneously expunged every bias while still expecting, honestly, based on advertising, to be destroyed.

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Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

I went to the Tate Modern in London once. Modern art is easy to shit on, the philosophy of experimentation and willful disregard for tradition seeming to some haphazard, easy, cheap or just plain juvenile. That day at the Tate somebody had left a crumpled-up brochure on the ground, dead center of a pristine exhibit hall, and visitors would occasionally encircle it with hushed regard as they mistook it for art. It was the most surreal thing in a museum of exclusively surreal things, watching a piece of trash receive such vigilant appreciation.

Velvet Buzzsaw grips that inherently satirical premise and throttles it bloody. There’s a scene that almost recreated my day at the Tate verbatim, except it’s a dead body in a pool of blood that museum-goers believe to be a cutting-edge installation. Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to Nightcrawler is on Netflix now and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs as critics, agents, curators and artists in the world of high-end L.A. art. When a mysterious artist’s work begins to gain posthumous acclaim, the sales and monetization of that work result in supernatural consequences for those involved.

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Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking Alita: Battle Angel to be a new movie by James Cameron. It gives off his scent in more ways than one, but primarily in the union of completely gangbusters special effects and a completely lackluster script. Cameron’s credited as a producer, though, not that the title of “producer” can actually ever have one single definition. Based on the manga series Battle Angel Alita, the film adaptation is in actuality directed by Mexico Trilogy and Sin City helmer Robert Rodriguez, the guy who once claimed his approach as “Mariachi-style” — in which “creativity, not money, is used to solve problems.” There’s an immediate discordance between that approach and the mere notion of James “Titanic” Cameron, and Alita very clearly exhibits the latter’s big-budget sensibility at the expense of an underdog’s incumbent creativity.

Which is a shame, because that’s ostensibly what Alita is about. The title character (played by Rosa Salazar) is a spunky cyborg with a mysterious past, brought back to life by kindhearted scientist Ido (Christoph Waltz) in a war-torn world all but discarded by the elite who reside on a giant floating city in the sky. “Lower” and “upper” class are literalized, and promise of ascension to that higher world is enough leverage to get anyone to do anything. The setup is nearly verbatim to that of Elysium, with an impending reckoning between the rough-and-tumble Earth-dwellers and those nasty domineers above. But the reckoning never happens, despite a colossal amount of exposition pointing in that direction, and apart from a useless cameo (more on that in a second) we never even glimpse one of those nasty domineers.

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Aquaman (2018)

The superhero genre is not, in fact, a genre. Adapting comics to film has become a billion-dollar industry in the past decade, and the movies comprising that industry have certainly been typified by a familiar formula. Marvel movies are with few exceptions fun but mostly mindless. DC movies are with few exceptions Marvel movies with all the fun wrung out. Those exceptions usually end up being the best of the bunch, but the point is that the “superhero genre” — while technically an applicable term for things grouped by subject matter — is more a “superhero formula” applied across genres. There’s action-thriller, action-comedy, action-adventure, sci-fi action…heck, when’s someone gonna make a superhero rom-com or a superhero road trip flick? Or a super-workplace melodrama devoid of any action whatsoever?

That ain’t Aquaman, an action movie that feels like someone took three of the other action movies we just described and crammed them into one package. Starring Jason Momoa as himself, Aquaman is DC’s most eye-popping blockbuster in quite some time, more reliant on world-building and flashy set-pieces than Wonder Woman or the feeble Justice League, which is sort of saying something. By and large this world-building is thorough and these set-pieces are inventive. If you’re sensing a big huge HOWEVER looming on the horizon, then this review is evidently as predictable as Aquaman.

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Prospect (2018)

Detail is king in Prospect, the debut feature from writing/directing duo Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl. There’s little to latch onto in the opening minutes that could be called “familiar” outside the general setup: two human characters, father and daughter, in a ship floating through space. But the young girl is writing in an alien language, her father is administering a strange drug, and the process they both engage with to launch their pod down to the surface of a nearby planet is about as complicated as the entire mission in First Man. There’s a device that the father holds in place and continuously winds like it’s a jack-in-the-box, though its purpose is never actually articulated.

World-building is the key to good science-fiction, whether that world is wholly foreign or just slightly askew from our own. The level of detail present in Prospect has garnered comparisons to Moon and even to Star Wars, both of which are high praise indeed. It’s evident from the very start of Prospect, though, that we’re diving even deeper into unfamiliar territory, making the film of stronger kin (visually, at least) with indie sci-fi like Automata, Young Ones, Monsters or District 9.

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The Birdcage (1996)

Art ages. The second a book hits the shelf, a movie hits the cinema, a painting hits the exhibit or a song hits the radio, that art is in some ways locked into that time period forever. Maybe as time passes that art ages poorly and is sentenced to oblivion — like, say, a racist Donald Duck cartoon or two — regardless of whether it was deemed appropriate or entertaining at the time of publication. Maybe as time passes that art does the opposite, somehow seems more fitting for the current time rather than the time in which it was published, which can often be a hallmark of good sci-fi art (like the original Westworld movie) or good political art (like the V for Vendetta comic) or both (like 1984). But sometimes it’s not so simple. Some art — like The Birdcage — remains both a product of its time and perfectly fit for the future.

This is not an automatic compliment, even in the case of a film as funny and as culturally significant as this one. It’s impossible to rewatch Birdcage — pitched as a somewhat innocent laugh-a-minute comedy and little else — and not think about how the same movie would be made today, what might be changed, what might be emphasized or removed entirely. Today, discussion of the movie must start and end with the way gay or bisexual characters are represented in the film.

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The Favourite (2018)

I never much expected Yorgos Lanthimos to become a great filmmaker. He was always a very good filmmaker, and it must be noted that we’re reserving the term great here for someone truly deserving of the moniker, as in one of the all-time greats. Nowadays great gets bandied about a lot. Is Ridley Scott great? From time to time, sure. Maybe we weigh the greatness of Blade Runner against the decidedly-not-so-greatness of Alien: Covenant? Is Francis Ford Coppola great? He definitely was. Does he get a lifetime pass for Godfather and Apocalypse Now? Is Wes Anderson great? No, he’s not. Stylish, yes. Symmetrical, very. But a mere few living filmmakers are transcendently, naturally, consistently great. Surely it’s a malleable and transient label, fit to be removed, re-earned, reconsidered. And surely — as The Dude would say in that movie by the great Coen Brothers — it’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Lanthimos isn’t yet one of the all-time greats, but watching The Favourite I did think, for the first time, that he might just have it in him someday. Such a consideration might have been questionable after his previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an overly melancholy tale featuring a creepy turn from Barry Keoghan, one cool shot of a descending escalator, a Funny Games-esque climax and a whole bunch of monotone dialogue. It wasn’t a bad movie, and it might even be a pretty good movie. But the cold design of Sacred Deer made it impactful but never resonant. Maybe it was just so different than The Lobster, the previous effort from Lanthimos, which was a darkly funny and much more inventive film.

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Shoplifters (2018)

It would have been easy for Shoplifters to glamorize the criminal acts of its central characters. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film follows an impoverished Tokyo family surviving on a hierarchical system of thievery, nicking small items where the opportunity arises or, more frequently, setting out on an express mission to steal that which they need. The setup, of course, is worlds away from the heist genre, but it’s still refreshing to experience these criminal acts for what they actually are: desperate, thrill-less acts devoid of meticulous planning or grifter’s luck. And if there is any thrill in stealing shampoo and ramen noodles, it’s a thrill that quickly sinks into the pit of one’s stomach, weighed by the immorality of it all.

Shoplifting — or crime, more broadly — isn’t really the main focus of Shoplifters, anyway. This is a movie about family, and the family in focus happens to sometimes commit criminal acts. For the first chunk of the film, we might almost leave it at that. We spend as much time at home in quiet moments with the members of this family as we do in the “action” of their thievery, although it quickly becomes apparent that both are survival tactics. Fulfilling the role of Family Member, in many ways, provides much the same life-giving sustenance as does the role of Thief.

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