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3 Stars default Movies

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) has less color than the original, but more of everything else

I appreciate that Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is not attempting to copy Dario Argento’s horror classic, per se, but the association immediately pitches a number of disappointments to get over.

First, its avoidance of the original’s vivid, lurid color is so aggressive as to be a punk rock statement. The creative choice sets up a dramatic late-film widening of the color spectrum, but perhaps the early desaturation goes too far. Even in a scene where two characters are talking during the daytime, it’s so dark you can barely see their faces. Before you say “you should have seen it on the big screen”, I would counter that this and the also infamously dim Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night” were produced for small screens by Amazon and HBO respectively.

Mia Goth in Suspiria
“Ah, Lacan”… mirror stage. Mia Goth in Suspiria (2018)

Second, it’s curious that the plot of movie made in 2018, about female artists and witches, would revolve around a male character. But again, this is a deliberate creative choice, and without spoilers, I would invite you to pay close attention to first-time actor Lutz Ebersdorf’s performance as the psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer. Still, I felt the movie was trying to have it both ways: putting a feminist spin on witchcraft tropes, while still portraying them as either frequently nude beautiful young women or as shrieking cackling harpies.

It may have less color than the original, but it has more of almost everything else: it’s more political, more gory, more fragmented, and more like a copy of Cahiers du cinéma come to life. If it’s not enough for a character to sigh “Ahhhh… Lacan”, the film is positively scattered with Lacanian mirrors, so much so that I continuously marveled at how the camera was hidden or erased.

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3 Stars Movies

No escape from the tyranny of continuity, in Avengers: Endgame

There is no escape from the tyranny of continuity. Like daytime soaps, superhero comics exist in a quantum state of constant churn and perpetual stasis. Characters are introduced and die and un-die, relationships form and split and reform, villains are defeated and rally and are defeated again. Excelsior, and collect your pocket change to spend at the newsstand next month, true believer!

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) was the apotheosis of comics’ perpetually open-ended narrative, in movie form. It was a painful experience for any humanities student, or indeed anybody who loves novels and cinema. How quaint to expect a classical narrative, now that popular entertainment movies have become what Martin Scorsese has called a series of sequences. Avengers: Infinity War was 2+ hours of hors d’oeuvres before a long-promised fancy dinner. At about 18 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe series by that point, one began to wonder if we’d ever get to the main course, let alone dessert. It can’t be coincidental that the best episodes are the few that managed to wriggle free of the bonds of the larger umbrella story, particularly Black Panther, Ant-Man & The Wasp, and Thor: Ragnarok.

That Anthony & Joe Russo’s Endgame is so drastic an improvement over Infinity War that new corporate owners Disney must have issued a memo on Micky letterhead, reading “OK, good job, kids, but make sure the next one has a plot”. Its classical structure plot is so startlingly unfamiliar for anything with Captain America in it, that if anything, it’s almost too simple, like a video game. Our heroes discover they have to do five specific things to prepare for a confrontation; they do those five things; they have that confrontation; there’s a wound-licking denouement. Bingo: it’s a movie!

Avengers: Endgame
Like much of the movie, this is a striking image. Avengers: Endgame deserves credit for its relatively complex villain (relatively for the genre, I must stress). But I just can’t get over the invitation to take this stuff seriously.

I loved Marvel Comics as a kid, but was more of an X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil kind of guy. I always thought The Avengers were lame, and instinctually steered away from the likes of Captain America long before I ever learned the word jingoistic, from Iron Man before I learned the word asshole, and from Thor because — I mean, come on, seriously? So it’s been a struggle for adult-me to take the cinematic Avengers characters semi-seriously enough to enjoy in live-action form.

Of the six original movie Avengers, only one is female and all are white. We can place the original whitebread Marvel Comics in the context of the 1960s, but what’s the movies’ excuse? Even years later, when the franchise has finally cultivated a deeper bench of female characters, it insultingly limits most of them to a single contrived hero shot. And to get specific with one head-scratcher I just can’t get over: when Brainy Hulk and Rocket Raccoon go on a special mission to Norway to re-recruit an incapacitated Thor, is it A) sexist, B) moronic or C) both that they ignore the last living Valkyrie warrior? She may have, you know, been useful. I mean, at least two of the official Avengers don’t even have superpowers (unless you count being really good at archery as super).

Avengers: Endgame
The women of the Marvel Universe deserved more than a single hero shot, which plays as a contrived “insert girl power moment here” sticky note in the screenplay. Especially since one is the last surviving Valkyrie warrior (a god!) and another is the most powerful superhero of any gender.

Speaking of, can we talk for a moment about how Hawkeye is totally let off the hook for going around the world summarily executing bad guys, without due process? Black Widow literally just stands there and watches him behead somebody. These are supposed to be heroes, with an aspirational moral element. That there wasn’t even a tossed-off line like “we don’t do that anymore” makes me suspect that a chunk of Hawkeye’s story was cut out of the final film, or that the filmmakers lost control over the many character arcs they had to juggle, or most worryingly, that they just thought it was super cool.

Griping aside, I have serious praise for Robert Downey Jr. for delivering some of the finest acting yet in any Marvel movie. His portrayal of a broken Tony Stark early in the film is almost uncomfortably real.

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3 Stars Movies

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2 traps superheroes in motels and courtrooms

The Incredibles 2 sure went down easy when I saw it in a theater a few months ago, but it suffers on rewatch on the small screen. And needless to say, it was shortly rendered wholly obsolete by the best animated superhero movie of all time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

While the real (and best) story is of course the Parr family’s shifting dynamic and gender roles, the surface plot doesn’t hold together. For an animated family movie about a superpowered quintet, the stakes are weirdly low, and perhaps a little too abstract for little kids to grasp. The surest giveaway that its target audience skewed slightly older than Disney/Pixar’s wheelhouse is the subplots granted to the adult parents and teenage daughter, but no material for Dash, whom I would think little kids would most identify.

Instead, most of the narrative conflict revolves around some vague business about superheroes being outlawed, which seems inconsequential when the Parr family is nevertheless allowed to operate as a black ops team under government supervision. Public sentiment never turns against them, so there’s nobody to convince that superheroes are pretty great, actually. This plot point is likely a kid-friendly response to the story arc of the Marvel superhero movies (particularly Captain America: Civil War), but how many little kids worried about Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack’s legal status?

Rather than draw from contemporary Marvel movies for inspiration, I wish Brad Bird had instead cribbed from 1960s Marvel print comics. Forget the government or law, and instead borrow from Spider-Man the idea of a hero working for the common good even when the public distrusts him, or crib from the Fantastic Four a more cosmic setting. An adventure on an alien planet or in another dimension would be more fun than courtrooms and motels, while still allowing for the movie’s real themes: Elastigirl coming into her own, and Mr. Incredible learning to share in the nurturing and caregiving of their kids.

But of course, you can always rely on Pixar’s fine craft even when they are not at their best. The visual design and animation is superb, and the voice casting is perfection. Holly Hunter, Craig Nelson, Jonathan Banks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sarah Vowell all fully own their characters. I just wish all of this had been in the service of a movie that would stand for generations, like the best of Disney and Pixar’s works.

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3 Stars Movies

Geneviève Bujold fights the medical patriarchy in Michael Crichton’s Coma

Coma movie poster

A thriller set among medical professionals, with just enough scientific accuracy to temper its science fiction, and a craven corporation perverting science for profit? If only Michael Crichton’s Coma had been set in an amusement park, it would have been the most Michael Crichton movie ever.

More than just a dry run for his hit TV series ER, it’s also strikingly feminist — in some ways more than a similar thriller would be today. Not for nothing does an inciting incident involve an abortion subplot. Even Crichton’s own Westworld (1973) barely included any female characters at all.

Geneviève Bujold plays an accomplished female surgeon who discovers and exposes a criminal conspiracy. She is unable to break through the dismissive armor of the establishment bureaucracy, or even her mansplaining boyfriend (Michael Douglas) — an interesting character in that he is not so much an antagonist but an obstacle to her aims.

She is left to battle alone against an entrenched medical patriarchy that stymies her with variations of “don’t rock the boat”, “you’re being hysterical”, and “take a valium”. Even a sequence in which she removes her stockings is no sexy striptease, but rather a symbolic shedding of constraints in her pursuit of the truth.

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3 Stars Movies

Liam Neeson has a rough ride in The Commuter

The Commuter

I’m still laughing about the running joke of the Metro North running up the 4/5/6 line in Manhattan. Best comedy of 2018! If you find yourself on the Metro North Hudson Line, Make a quick stop in Beacon for a burger at Meyer’s Old Dutch Food & Such, honestly one of the best I’ve ever had.

Speaking of New York City verisimilitude, most Columbia students dress like J. Crew or Banana Republic catalogs. Gwen clearly goes to NYU, and Mike should have been instantly suspicious.

Between this and Source Code, has Vera Farmiga been typecast as Manipulative Conspiracy Lady on a Train?

I play a little guitar, and it might take me a moment to realize I’m looking at a left-handed guitar (it would be like looking in a mirror). Wouldn’t it have made more narrative sense for Mike to realize its purported owner is left-handed, but has a “normal” guitar? Nah, because plenty of lefties play right-handed, not the least being Jimi Hendrix. Never mind, it’s not worth worrying about this plot point, because it’s all worth it for setting up a pretty great fight scene.

Kinda dumb, but directed, shot, and edited with real visual flair. Exactly what I needed on a Friday night. The fragmented, time-hopping opening sequence deserves extra credit for overachieving within the genre.

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3 Stars Movies

Nicolas Cage descends into hell in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy

Mandy movie poster

Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is what you would get if you crossed Straw Dogs with Hellraiser, co-directed by Tarkovsky & Jodorowsky. Do you think Clive Barker saw this and said “hey, that’s my thing”?

It’s also the rare movie where Nicolas Cage’s customarily crazed mania is juuuuuust right for the material. Whereas his… performative performance (shall we say) was hilariously incongruous for Neil LaBute’s 2006 Wicker Man remake, here he is uniquely perfect for the part of a haunted recluse who loses his hard-won love and descends deeper and deeper into a phantasmagoric hell to enact his vengeance.

Thought experiment: at which point in the plot was calling 911 no longer a viable option? Don’t do drugs, kids.

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3 Stars Movies

Ocean’s Eight is a pleasantly diverting trifle

Gary Ross’ Ocean’s Eight is, like all Ocean’s films before it, a pleasantly diverting trifle. But its relative deficiency of zip and pizzazz makes me wonder if co-producer Steven Soderbergh positioned his own Logan Lucky as an act of sabotage. I found myself mentally compiling a wishlist while watching:

  • I believe it was intended as a plot twist that James Corden’s insurance investigator was chummy with career criminal Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), but it only reduced the stakes
  • nice to see Elliot Gould and Shaobo Qin, but a cameo from Julia Roberts would have been fun and fitting
  • speaking of cameos, I would have LOL’d if one of the hapless chefs Cate Blanchett was training had been Topher Grace
  • the insurance investigator could have been a female English star — how about Emma Thompson? Kate Winslet? Thandie Newton? (yes, thematically, it makes sense for the character to be a male antagonist, but it still seems like a missed casting opportunity)
  • I didn’t note one, just one, quotable line of dialogue (like “and then he’ll go to work on you” or “allllllll reds” or “did you check the batteries” or countless others from Ocean’s Eleven)
  • a score by David Holmes would have gone a long way

Some praise: Anne Hathaway was totally the MVP. As in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, she stole all the scenes, and elevated the material.

Some trivia: I was startled to hear an unmistakable sample of No-Man’s “Dry Cleaning Ray” repeated several times in Daniel Pemberton’s score. I’m a big No-Man fan, and this is a deep cut. I hope Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness were cut a check.

three out of five stars

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3 Stars Movies

Brian De Palma looks back over his career in the documentary ‘De Palma’

Brian De Palma is an under-celebrated director, responsible for some of the most stunning sequences in American cinema. Just to name four personal favorites of mine: the split-screen prom massacre in Carrie, the Langley heist sequence in Mission: Impossible, the Grand Central Station steadycam chase in Carlito’s Way, and even the failed spacewalk rescue in the otherwise not-so-great Mission to Mars.

Like his touchstone Alfred Hitchcock, he’s also fascinatingly problematic enough to fuel a thousand hours of analysis and debate. Instead, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary provides only a quick overview of his work, solely from one point of view.

In what appears to have been a single sitting, De Palma reminisces over his filmography. The feature-length running time allows only a few minutes to cover each work, reducing his observations about each to a bullet point or two. His stories range from the gossipy (Bobby De Niro wasn’t motivated to learn his lines for The Untouchables), to dismissive (of the criticism over his violent & scopophilic treatment of women), and ultimately philosophical (on knowing when to retire, with Hitchcock and Wilder as exemplars).

There is of course great value in getting such a notable and controversial filmmaker on the record, after his career appears to be complete. But this documentary’s scattershot episodic structure is too broad and shallow, without a central thesis to hang a movie on. It would be serviceable as a value-added-material featurette, but not as a standalone theatrical feature film.

three out of five stars

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3 Stars Movies

Avengers: Infinity War collapses under the weight of its own continuity

Like a teeter-tottering pile of mint-condition, unread, bagged & boarded collector’s edition comic books, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is quickly collapsing under the weight of its accumulating continuity.

Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War may be an edifying experience for the dedicated fan who’s seen all 19 or so preceding movies, and paid enough attention to the details to be able to follow what’s going on. But were it not for Tom Holland adding some levity as Spider-Man, and Josh Brolin as the relatively interesting villain Thanos (atypical for the superhero genre, to say the least), there isn’t much substance here beyond callbacks to previous installments and teasers for the next round of punch-punch boom-boom.

Picture the little kid coming to this for the first time. She is enamored by the idea of Spider-Man swinging through New York City, Captain America punching out baddies, and Iron Man fighting crime with his neato gadgetry. She has read and re-read her handful of comics, and is excited that her parents are taking her to the movie theater to see her heroes come to life on the big screen. Imagine how she feels when what she gets is more of a Wikipedia entry than a story.

It’s the same paradox that affects all indefinitely ongoing comics: the more pages that pile up, the more complex the continuity, the more impenetrable it comes, and before you know it the only people reading comics are grownups.

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3 Stars Movies

An Excerpt From the Sequel to Mike White’s Brad’s Status

An excerpt from the screenplay to Mike White’s forthcoming sequel to Brad’s Status, under the working title Get the &%#$ Over Yourself, Brad:

FADE IN:

INT. BRAD’S DEN – NIGHT

BRAD slumps in his sofa, staring morosely at his TV as the end credits of Mike White’s movie Brad’s Status scroll past. An array of remote controls are on a coffee table.

BRAD (V/O):

I was watching Brad’s Status, the movie Mike White made about me, but all I had to eat today was Pringles so I tried to pause it go grab a snack. But I accidentally clicked the regular TV remote instead of the AppleTV remote, and my system got all fouled up. I thought about how my more successful friends never use the wrong remote. I saw a copy of Middle Aged Bro Digest at a dinner party, and it had this whole article on how rich people get beautiful young women and men in bathing suits to operate their remotes for them. And provide sex and cocaine too, I assume.

TV REMOTE:

Don’t drag me into your midlife crisis, Brad. Look, it’s not my fault if you click one of my buttons and nothing happens because I’m not even on. You’re only using the AppleTV because streaming movies online makes you feel younger and “with it”, but I remember when antennae and co-ax was all you had.

BRAD eats a Pringle.

BRAD (V/O):

I think the cable TV remote hates me. When I was younger, more virile and idealistic, I didn’t care what any of my gadgets thought about me. But then I realized that was before AppleTVs and DVRs and whatever were even invented, and I could just watch a movie without having to keep track of all this crap. But that just made me sadder as I pined for a simpler time when I played hacky sack on the quad all day, with friends that respected me. I’m such a sad pathetic failure.

APPLETV REMOTE:

Check your privilege, Mr. Patriarchy. I don’t see what we have to do with your feelings of inadequacy. You can’t even tell which way I’m facing, which let’s be honest, is a sign of your mental decline.

ROKU REMOTE:

Hi guys! Long time no see! I saw on Facebook that you’re having a fun-looking party on Brad’s coffee table. I guess you just forgot to invite me, which is OK. Or NBD, as the kids say, right AppleTV? I’m sure you’re all busy.

TV REMOTE:

Not now, Roku. And you shut the &%#$ up, AppleTV Remote. NOBODY can tell which way you’re facing. I saw your Instagram selfie, looking all clean and shiny in a sunbeam on Brad’s coffee table, when EVERYBODY knows you’re always covered in gross fingerprints and lost in the sofa cushions.

BRAD (aloud):

Well, to be honest, it’s true that I did only find the AppleTV remote because I was cringing so much during Brad’s Status that I practically sank into the sofa too.

ROKU REMOTE:

This is fun! Are you guys talking about Mike White? I was a little troubled by Year of the Dog, but I loved Enlightened, and thought Beatriz at Dinner was one of the best movies of the year until it kinda went off the rails in the last few minutes. Did you ever wonder that maybe White has a better feel for female characters than male?

APPLETV REMOTE:

Zip it, Roku! Look, how about we all go out and get so drunk we say really embarrassing stuff and give Mike White more material for his next movie?

TV REMOTE:

&%#$ off. It’s so cute that you think movies are made just for you.

FADE OUT