Movie Reviews

  • Hate Across America: On the True Nightmare Underneath Jordan Peele’s Us
    by Nick Allen on March 25, 2019 at 7:38 PM

    “We’re Americans.” That’s the identification offered by Red (Lupita Nyong’o) to her inquisitive and terrified doppelgänger Adelaide, the former appearing at the latter’s summer home with bulging eyes, a voice she has not used in decades, and a profound anger. As Red sits with her own family, which look like a bizarro version of Adelaide’s, she wields her weapon of severance—a pair of golden scissors—and clues viewers into the execution event at the center of Jordan Peele’s “Us.” As we learn about the purpose of The Untethering, and where Red truly came from, “Us” becomes an American nightmare about our divisive selves taking over. That very line of dialogue could have been an alternate title for Peele’s sophomore film, but it speaks to something that’s very pertinent about “Us” across its many interpretations. Aside from the plethora of pop culture references—Hollywood films, American punk bands, Luniz’s “I Got Five On It”—there’s something strictly American about “Us.” Within Peele’s premise the idea that inside of every American in 2019, whatever you believe in, is a sense of resentment. Peele’s screenplay is more literal, imagining that with the thousands of miles of abandoned tunnels and passageways mentioned in the credits, all Americans have a hateful version of themselves under the surface. As a filmmaker whose imagination feeds equally off symmetry and open interpretations, the bookending shots of “Us” tell the whole story. There are many pop culture references in the movie, but the most important is front and center in the first shot. Surrounded by VHS copies of “C.H.U.D.” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” a TV plays an ad for Hands Across America. It speaks of the true event in 1986, in which millions of “Good Samaritans” would hold hands and “tether” themselves across the country, in an effort to fight homelessness and to show a sense of unity. The reference is an excellent deep cut from Peele, in part because Hands Across America failed, such an act then buried and forgotten within American pop culture. Peele makes a doppelgänger for Hands Across America in his last shot, the scariest image in the entire film. After killing their above-ground selves, tethered individuals get in line and join hands, peacefully. United they stand across rolling hills, a silent majority in MAGA hat-red jumpsuits. This is Peele’s version of an apocalypse, and one of the most disturbing images post-2016 about the expansiveness of hatred that prevails over America.    For a movie that’s initially about the fear of recognizing your immediate selves, the meaning behind the tethered is a true Rorschach test (with reference to the film’s teaser poster) that’s open to many interpretations. Maybe to you it’s obviously about class, or the underprivileged, or the impact different generations, or our nation’s overall history. But in my eyes, the film’s final twist, about the switched lives of the two young girls, is the most revealing. It becomes clear in the last few minutes that being born in the tethered does not mean you are without empathy. As Red’s full life story is revealed, we see that hatred like hers can be learned, that it can fester and be radicalized. To be tethered like Red became as a little girl is to be trapped in a claustrophobic space of swallowed fear, disorientation, and anger. It is a terrifying way to live. As Peele explains his idea of horror in Shudder’s excellent black horror documentary “Horror Noire,” “When I think about the fears that we deal with, I think that anything that we suppress as people, anything that we push down and hold deep, is going to explode. It’s gonna come out in a nasty way.” The final act of “Us” presents a life of subsisting on purely those feelings, and we then witness such an unnatural, disturbing way of existence become weaponized and organized. Peele’s last twist has an incisive quality that’s incredibly emotionally abrasive—the loss of compassion for our main hero Adelaide, slamming next to a new understanding of the immense pain Red has inside of her. Peele then blows up that sense of tragedy on a massive visual scale, juxtaposing those life stories with an overwhelming spectacle of hate. “Us” argues, if not proves, that Hands Across America could only be achieved nowadays by values that are antithetical to love. The sentiment has excellent timing—it is assuredly inspired by the 2016 election, while coming with a profoundly sobering warning for the 2020 elections. I see the bare white walls of the tethered and I think of those whose ideologies are steered by what they are afraid of, or the politicians and talking heads who stand in front of exaggerated crowd numbers and evangelize about imposing threats, caravans, leading to wars against info, creating conspiracies against institutions as broad yet vital as critical thinking. I see the hostility within the tethered, and I think about the recent study that was recently published by the Washington Post related to how the counties that hosted a 2016 rally for our current president saw “a 226% increase in reported hate crimes over comparable counties that did not host such a rally.” In Peele’s previous film “Get Out,” a lovable TSA agent came to the rescue of his friend, and Peele spared movie audiences another image of an incarcerated black man. But “Us,” which is poised to become one of the most important horror titles in film history, offers Americans no such reprieve. Peele’s vision reckons with a force that feels unstoppable in America, especially if those who choose empathy lose their grasp of it. To quote former Nixon and Trump advisor Roger Stone: “Hate is a more powerful motivator than love.” &nbs […]

  • Five Episodes of The Twilight Zone to Watch After Seeing Us
    by Brian Tallerico on March 25, 2019 at 12:37 PM

    After his Oscar-winning success with “Get Out,” Jordan Peele could have done virtually anything. Not only did he produce another Oscar winner in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” and prep his brilliant sophomore feature in “Us,” he resurrected one of the best TV shows of all time in Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” which premieres in April on CBS All Access. With stars like Kumail Nanjiani, Steven Yeun, Adam Scott, and Sanaa Lathan, and collaborators like Ana Lily Amirpour and Glen Morgan, Peele steps comfortably into Serling’s shoes, updating “The Twilight Zone” for a new generation. And yet one does not need to wait until April to jump into Peele’s vision of “a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity” as “Us” shares DNA with Serling’s creation too. In many ways, “Us” feels like the thematic connective tissue between “Get Out” and Peele's "Twilight Zone" reboot. You can create your own path from “Us” to “The Twilight Zone” with five classic episodes of the series. “Us” hinges on a terrifying proposition that would have made Serling smile. The Wilson family, led by Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide and Winston Duke’s Gabe, encounters their doppelgängers, shadow versions of themselves. Treading lightly in the world of spoilers, “Us” becomes a commentary on how we are our own worst enemy (I almost prefer to spell it “US,” as in “United States”). Man’s capacity to destroy itself and unwillingness to reckon with its own flaws is a consistent theme of Serling’s vision. Peele adds a racial element to this construct, whether it’s the literal ownership of black bodies in “Get Out” or an episode of the new season of “The Twilight Zone” about a racist cop. He's said that “Us” isn’t directly about race, but with its story of an uncovered past that has remained hidden until it's dangerous, it is certainly about the issues that we are unwilling to reckon with as Americans until it's too late to do so. Consider the path from Peele's dark comedy work in “Keanu” to the hybrid of “Get Out” to the horrific “Us” to his upcoming take on “The Twilight Zone,” and it looks like a brilliant series of determined, considered steps by Peele, leading to a stunning career. Rod Serling held up a mirror to society, asking us to look at stories of the impossible and see the relatable. Almost six decades later, Jordan Peele has picked up that reflective surface, and through his film and upcoming TV show, asked us to see ourselves in a new way. Watch these five episodes to really see how they reflect each other. 1. “Mirror Image” Peele has admitted to a direct inspiration from Serling’s vision, telling Rolling Stone that “Us” was inspired this episode specifically, one that the new director loved as a child. In the episode, written by Serling, Vera Miles (of “Psycho” fame) plays Millicent Barnes, a 25-year-old woman at an isolated New York bus station. She asks the attendant when the late bus to take her to a new job will arrive and he tells her that she’s asked three times already. She's confused. The bathroom cleaning lady tells her she’s been in there twice. She knows she hasn’t. And then, through the open door, she sees herself sitting on a bench in the station. The connection between “Mirror Image” and “Us” is obvious, and Peele tells RS, “It’s terrifying, beautiful, really elegant storytelling, and it opens up a world. It opens up your imagination.” 2. “In Praise of Pip” The house of mirrors that young Adelaide wanders into in the terrifying opening of "Us" recalls the climax of “In Praise of Pip,” in which Jack Klugman’s father searches for his son amidst a maze of reflective glass. It also has echoes of the way Peele plays with alternate realities. Pip is the name of Klugman’s son, one who is serving in the war and is about to die. Klugman imagines seeing him at a carnival and runs after the boy that he knows will never return. 3. “The Parallel” An episode that also feels like it inspires Peele’s upcoming episodes in the reboot entitled “The Comedian,” this season four chapter features an astronaut returning home only to find that things have changed ever so slightly. The picket fence that lines his house wasn’t there when he left. He’s now a Colonel when he left a Major. And then he learns that no one has heard of JFK. Of course, “Us” takes place very much in our own plane of reality but the bulk of its horror comes from something like an alternate one suddenly overtaking reality. Serling loved alternate universes, and “Us” contains a little of that DNA. 4. “Person or Persons Unknown” Alternate realities arise again in this episode about a man who wakes up to find that no one recognize him at home or at work. It’s almost like the inverse of a doppelganger as the man goes not from one to two but from one to zero. 5. “Shatterday” The ‘80s reboot doesn’t have as many classic episodes as Serling’s original but this series premiere stands out. In the Wes Craven-helmed chapter, Bruce Willis plays a man who calls home and hears his own voice pick up the other end. To read Jessica Ritchey's list of the most unforgettable "Twilight Zone" episodes, click her […]

  • Aidy Bryant Carries Hulu's Shrill
    by Allison Shoemaker on March 25, 2019 at 12:36 PM

    There’s a moment near the end of “Annie,” the first episode of “Shrill,” in which our heroine is subjected to yet another microaggression, the latest in what seems like an unending string. The first—the first we see, anyway—comes from the same woman, Tanya, a trainer who tells Annie, unprompted, about the skinny person inside her just dying to get out. But by episode’s end, Annie’s done some soul-searching. She is, as she winningly tells her roommate, quite possibly feeling herself. She puts on a new dress that’s insanely flattering, ditches a guy who treats her badly, stands up to her boss, and seems to have reached a new phase in her life. She’s happy! She’s confident! She’s being kinder to herself! And then Toned Tanya strikes again. As Annie walks away, she’s still got that feeling-herself smile on her face, but it’s different. It’s not forced or fake, but there’s an effort required to keep it there. She’s still feeling herself, but it’s a feeling that requires sheer force of will to maintain. Annie’s life is about a hell of a lot more than her body. The world often has other ideas. The same can be said of “Shrill,” Hulu’s new series loosely based on Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. It’s about Annie’s life, what she wants and who she loves and how she feels about herself. It’s also about her body—her fat body—and how the vessel that carries her around the world affects the way she’s treated by the people she encounters. It’s possible that, like me, you’ll leave “Shrill” wishing more time had been spent on stories in which Annie’s body doesn’t take center stage. It can be frustrating, but it’s perhaps unavoidable. Most of the world can’t wait to make it all—health, love, writing, sex, buying coffee, being late, walking down the street and minding her own business—about her body. That’s part of her life, too. How could “Shrill” not do the same? Luckily, “Shrill”—created by West, Bryant, and showrunner Ali Rushfield—has a not particularly secret weapon. It knows that its protagonist contains delightful multitudes, and that the actress playing her does, too. Annie ("Saturday Night Live'"s Aidy Bryant, incalculably valuable) has a lot on her plate. There’s her job, working as an assistant calendar editor at “The Thorn,” a Portland-based publication that’s a bit like your local alt-weekly, “The Daily Beast,” and “Time Out” had a baby. There’s her love interest (Luka Jones), for lack of a better term, who won’t buy a second pillow for his bed (“I’m your pillow”) and makes her leaves through the back door. She’s got a roommate and best friend (Lolly Adefope) who’s supportive, and who (most fortunately) unblushingly says the hard things. There’s her boss (John Cameron Mitchell), a renowned journalist and something of a queer icon whose recognition of Annie’s talents doesn’t prevent him from treating her like garbage. There are her parents (Julia Sweeney and Daniel Stern), two kind people who love her but who have very different methods of showing that love, one more pleasing than the other. Most importantly, there’s Annie’s own mind. It works feverishly. Mostly, it’s on her side, but the world puts a lot of really bad data out there for her analysis. In Bryant’s hands, that mind is on quiet but unceasing display. The impression created is one of a person accustomed to not pressing her pain, anger, and joy on anyone else; it’s always tucked away. Yet Bryant lets the audience in on those moments. Of “Shrill’s” many successes—and there are many—it’s this that’s the most striking. The series takes full advantage of Bryant’s comedy chops, and Annie’s jokes always emerge directly from whatever big emotions or ideas she’s processing at the moment; it allows her plenty of dramatic work too, but even the weightiest scenes don’t abandon Annie’s wry, casual sense of humor. She’s a fascinating character, played by a fascinating performer, and Bryant makes “Shrill” worth watching all by herself. But she’s far from the only reason to give this series your time. The cast is uniformly excellent—Mitchell and Adefope are standouts, but Jones does yeoman’s work in making a pretty terrible guy almost likeable—and the world in which the characters move is every bit as engaging. “Pool,” the series’ fourth episode, is particularly striking in this regard. Credited to writer Samantha Irby and directed by Shaka King, it sees Annie the much more comfortable and confident Fran visit a “Fat Babe Pool Party,” an idyllic scene populated by fat women in gorgeous bikinis, flowing sheer caftans and some seriously fabulous sunglasses and headwraps, drinking frozen margaritas and dancing without anything resembling self-consciousness. King captures the event in beautiful candy colors, lending the episode—or that piece of it—a feeling of tranquility and Oz-like wonder echoed in the face of a woman who floats blissfully past the camera on a bright pink inner tube without an obvious care in the world. Of course, cares intrude, as they always do. “Shrill” admirably bypasses a lot of what you might call “Talking About Bodies 101”—there’s no discussion of whether or not it’s acceptable to use the word fat, no teary monologue about when food became a crutch, none of that. Annie’s own hangups get explored, but so do the wrongheaded notions of others. That tension reaches its height in the relationship between Gabe, Mitchell’s character, and Annie. Gabe, a gay man, knows what it’s like to be treated as an other, judged, dismissed, and often hated for who you are. Yet it doesn’t stop him from saying things like “healthy bodies, healthy minds” to his employee when she arrives late for a “forced fun” biking event, implying that her tardiness is linked to her fatness, and that her fatness is an indication of inherent inferiority of mind and person. And then “Shrill,” ever smart, always pushing past the first question to the next, allows him to be both wrong and right about the way Annie conducts herself at work. It’s more interesting, and more like life, to allow people to be awful and right, wonderful and wrong, abusive and tender, loving and selfish. To see “Shrill” as a body positivity show and nothing more is like seeing Annie as nothing but a fat body with a fat woman’s struggles. To write damaging people as mustache-twisting villains who are always wrong, or protagonists as valiant heroes whose goodness never falters, is to ignore the lovely or insidious ways such people can affect others. It’s easy to brush past that stuff, but it’s a hell of a lot less interesting. A smile can be even more compelling when you know the work required to keep it alive. […]

  • Larry Cohen: 1941-2019
    by Peter Sobczynski on March 25, 2019 at 1:00 AM

    Since the creators of B-movies generally do not have such luxuries as famous actors, familiar properties and large budgets to work with, they have to rely more heavily on an ingredient that is just important but much lower in cost—a great idea. Not just any great idea, of course, but the kind of idea that makes you stop in your track and think “Man, I’ve gotta see that.” The problem is that, in many cases, even if they do manage to beat the odds and come up with that killer idea, they don’t always have the resources or talent to do it justice.  One B-filmmaker who never had that problem was Larry Cohen, who passed away this weekend at the age of 77. He may have never had the same level of name recognition as such contemporaries as George Romero or John Carpenter, but his films, in which he took often outrageous premises and built upon them with witty dialogue, incisive social commentary and colorful characters, were among the best genre films of their era and continue to pack a punch today. Cohen was born on July 15, 1941 in Manhattan and from a young age, he developed a fascination with movies. In an interview I did with Cohen a couple of years ago, he professed a special fondness for the films produced by Warner Brothers during that era. “It was a great studio—they had really ballsy movies and political movies … They were shot at a fast pace with a lot of action and fast talk, as opposed to MGM movies, which were a lot slower and more luxurious. He began his career as a writer for television, first by writing for such shows as “The Defenders, “The Fugitive” and “Rat Patrol” and then by creating such shows as the 1965-’66 Western “Branded” (sorry fans of “The Big Lebowski”) and the 1967-’68 paranoid sci-fi saga “The Invaders.” Watching the shows that he created today, one can actually see the ideas and conceits that Cohen would embrace throughout his career—especially in the mixing of standard genre tropes with sly commentary about what is going on the real world, including the blacklist and the Red Scare—coming together in distinctive ways that set them apart from a lot of what was going on in television at that time. He then began to make the move into writing feature films in 1966 with “Return of the Seven,” a largely forgettable sequel to the hit Western “The Magnificent Seven,” “I Deal in Danger” (1966), a spy film comprised of the first four episodes of another series he co-created, “Blue Light,” and the psycho artist horror film “Scream, Baby, Scream” (1969). Later in 1969, he would come up with what would prove the first great example of his kind of audacious storytelling that would eventually become associated with his name. In “Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting,” on which he cares a co-writing credit with Lorenzo Semple Jr., Cathy (Carol White) arrives from London to live in San Francisco and immediately meets and falls in love with the seemingly nice and clean-cut Kenneth (Scott Hylands). She soon becomes pregnant but then begins to discover that Kenneth is deeply disturbed and elects to not only break up with him but to have an abortion as well. Some time passes and Cathy has now married a rising politician and given birth to their child when Kenneth turns up again with a shocking demand—Cathy must kill her baby to even the scales for having aborted his child. Channeling real-world concerns into a thriller framework, this was a truly startling screenplay (one that almost certainly would not pass muster today) and if the execution did not quite do it justice—although the screenplay required a daring test pilot of a director to do it justice, Mark Robson, fresh off the success of “Valley of the Dolls,” was strictly United material—it certainly promised better things to come in the future. "Bone" Like so many screenwriters, Cohen tired of directors messing with his material and finally moved into the director’s chair in 1972 with the bizarre dark comedy, “Bone.” As the film begins, Beverly Hills couple Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten) and Bill (Andrew Duggan) interrupt their latest round of bickering when they discover a strange man (Yaphet Kotto) on their grounds and invite him in, assuming he is an exterminator. The man, Bone, isn’t and takes the two hostage but soon discovers that his captives are not as rich as they appear to be. Nevertheless, he sends Bill to the bank to get more money and threatens to do great harm to Bernadette if he doesn’t return. While in line, Bill gets distracted by a sexy young woman (Jeannie Berlin) and decides to abandon his wife. While all this is going on, Bernadette gets increasingly drunk, seduces her captor and launches a plan for them to murder Bill and collect his insurance money. Making the most of what were presumably limited resources, Cohen devised an ingenious work that tackled racial, sexual, and class concerns in a manner that pulled no punches and got great performances from his cast to boot. Although closer in tone to something like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?” than anything else, the film ended up being sold more along the lines of a straightforward exploitation movie—one wonders what the typical grindhouse crowd must have thought when they encountered this instead of the usual junk that they were presumably expecting. Cohen was then contacted by Sammy Davis Jr., who wanted to do a film where he was the central character for a change, and the idea of doing a contemporary version of the Warner Brothers gangster films of the Thirties came up. When Davis couldn’t pay for the script for “Black Caesar” (1973) due to tax trouble, Cohen ended up selling it to American-International Pictures and wound up directing the film as well with Fred “The Hammer” Williamson in the lead. Charting the rise and fall of Tommy Gibbs (Williamson), who begins as a kid struggling to survive on the streets of Harlem, becomes the head of the black crime syndicate and wages a war against his enemies that leads to his downfall, the film was fairly conventional in its structure, Cohen added any number of twists that are still startling to observe today—in perhaps the most infamous bit, the adult Tommy gets the drop on the racist cop who beat him as a child when he was doing shoeshines on the street, smears the guy’s face with shoe polish and forces him to sing before beating him to death with a shine box. These wild bits, coupled with Williamson’s undeniable screen charisma and a driving soundtrack by James Brown, helped make the film a hit and AIP clamored for a sequel despite the fact the central character had definitively died.  Needless to say, that didn’t stop Cohen and by the end of 1973, he had “Hell Up in Harlem” in theaters with Williamson again in the lead. Like most rushed sequels, this is a relatively undistinguished programmer but it does contain one magnificently inspired sequence in which Tommy chases an attacker through the streets of New York that seems to end when his quarry eludes him and boards a plane taking off for Los Angeles. That doesn’t stop Tommy—he boards the next flight to L.A., spends the next few hours flying out and lands just in time to finish things up at the baggage claim at LAX. "It's Alive" Not wanting to be pigeonholed solely as a blaxploitation filmmaker, Cohen made his shift to the horror genre where he would achieve his greatest fame. His first effort there, and one of his most famous films, was “It’s Alive” (1974), in which he took one of the squirmier premises in screen history—a woman gives birth to a monstrously deformed baby that slaughters anyone unlucky enough to cross its path—and embroidered upon it with a narrative that managed to make its so-called monster somehow sympathetic in the manner of Frankenstein’s Monster, presented some extremely pointed commentary regarding the pharmaceutical industry (who devised the pills the mother took that presumably caused the mutation and who need the child killed in order to cover up their culpability) and included moments of jet-black humor as well as well as impressive contributions from makeup maestro Rick Baker and famed composer Bernard Herrmann. Completed in 1974, the film was released by a regime at Warner Brothers that did not get it and thus the film only received a limited release. Three years later, the film was re-released with an inspired new ad campaign (“There is only one thing wrong with the Davis baby. It’s alive.”) and became a box-office hit that would inspired two Cohen-directed sequels, “It Lives Again” (1977) and “It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive” (1987) and a 2009 remake that was so bad that Cohen claimed that the head of the studio that made it actually apologized to him for it. From this point, Cohen embarked on a series of wildly ambitious films (especially considering the low budgets that he was working on) that continued to join together familiar genre tropes with increasingly pointed social satire and commentary. In “God Told Me To” (1976), he tackled religion with a story of a New York cop (Tony Lo Bianco) trying to solve a rash of bizarre violent crimes perpetrated by people who claim that God told them to kill and stumbles upon a cult whose leader (Richard Lynch) inspires some startling revelations about his own past and possible connection to the increasingly bizarre happenings. “Q-The Winged Serpent” (1982) involves a giant flying serpent that is flying around decapitating New Yorkers and a small-time crook (Michael Moriarty) who happens to discover the beast’s hiding place and tries to trade that information to the police in exchange for a big payday. “The Stuff” (1985) was a broad satire target crass commercialism and corporate indifference in telling the tale of a brand new dessert treat, known as The Stuff, that sweeps the country and turns those who eat it into addicts. An industrial spy (Moriarty) hired by the now-struggling ice cream industry investigates and it turns out that the Stuff is a living parasitic organism that is essentially eating the very same people who are eating it—a minor fact that those selling the substance seem blithely unconcerned with in their quest for profits. In “The Ambulance” (1990), a comic book artist (Eric Roberts) investigates the disappearance of a woman he just met—after collapsing on the street, she was picked up by an ambulance but never made it to any hospital—and uncovers the expected mad and elaborate conspiracy. Among genre movie fans, the films that I have just cited, with the possible exception of “The Ambulance,” are justly famous, not only for the films themselves (which expertly blend the comedy and horror genres with style and ease) but for the stories regarding their productions. In “God Told Me To,” there is a scene in which someone dressed as a policeman begins to shoot up New York’s St. Patricks’s Day parade. Considering the number of elements that would be occurring, there was no way that he could possibly get the required permits to film during the actual parade and recreating it would cost far too much money. Instead, he just took his actor—a then-unknown Andy Kaufman, just to add to the weirdness—and stuck him into the parade and filmed without any permits. As for “Q,” that film came about when Cohen was fired from another movie that he was directing, a big-budget adaptation of the pulp classic “I, the Jury” and decided to conceive another movie to do instead—not only did “Q” beat “I, the Jury” into theaters, it cost only a fraction of that film’s budget and wound up being a bigger hit to boot. "Full Moon High" Although these horror/satire hybrids would be the films that he would become most associated with, Cohen would occasionally change things up with unexpected forays into different types of filmmaking. “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover” (1977) was an ambitious biopic that centered on the 40-year career of the former FBI director (Broderick Crawford) but which also served as a corrosive look American history during that time. Although the budget limitations are a little more obvious this time around, the film hit more than it missed. “Full Moon High” (1981) was a sweet-natured comedy in which Adam Arkin plays a teenager in 1959 who is bitten by a werewolf while on a trip to Romania—rendered ageless by this attack in addition to the usual side effects, he returns to his old high school 20 years later to reenroll, this time posing as his son. Although it had the misfortune to come out in the midst of a mini-glut of werewolf movies (that included “The Howling,” “An American Werewolf in London” and “Wolfen”) and disappear from view, it remains a charming work that suggests what the later “Teen Wolf” might have been like if it was actually good.  Cohen then returned to his early thriller roots with two 1984 films that he shot back-to-back. In “Special Effects,” Eric Bogosian plays a filmmaker driven mad by a massive flop who accidentally films himself murdering a one-night stand (Zoe Lund). After discovering a lookalike (also Lund), he elects to make a movie about the dead woman utilizing that footage but when it gets destroyed, he becomes convinced that he needs to recreate it. In “Perfect Strangers,” a Mob hitman (Brad Rijin) discovers that a young, pre-verbal boy has seen him committing a murder and is ordered to kill the kid but before he can, he finds himself getting into a relationship with the boy’s mother (Anne Carlisle). “Wicked Stepmother” (1989) was another overt comedy but one perhaps better known for its own oddball behind-the-scenes story—after filming for a couple of weeks in the title role, star Bette Davis suddenly left the production  and rather than shut everything down, Cohen rewrote things so that her character would suddenly change her appearance so that the rest of the part could now be played by Barbara Carrera. Although it would become harder over time for Cohen the director to get work—especially since the studios were now specializing in expensive versions of the B-movies that he specialized in—he still found work as a screenwriter and his name turned up on the screenplays for such films as “Best Seller” (1987). “Maniac Cop” (1988), “Body Snatchers” (1993,” “Guilty as Sin” (1993), and “Cellular” (2004). Of his work as a pure screenwriter during that time, his best-known project is probably the 2003 hit “Phone Booth,” a thriller in which a fast-talking publicist (Colin Farrell) with a messy personal and professional life impulsively answers a call at the last phone booth in New York and finds himself targeted by an unseen sniper who threatens to kill him if he attempts to leave. Cohen originally pitched the basic idea for the film to no less than Alfred Hitchcock but it was abandoned when they could not conceive of why the guy would have to remain in the phone booth.  Cohen’s final film as a director was “Original Gangstas,” an entertaining blaxploitation revival that brought back some of the genre’s greatest icons—including Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier—to kick some young punk ass. However, while he wasn’t doing anything new, his legacy continued to flourish. A member of an informal club of genre filmmakers known as the Masters of Horror, he would go on to direct an episode of the horror anthology series by the same name in 2006. He had reportedly been working with JJ Abrams on a project anthology series for cable television.  "Q: The Winged Serpent" His oeuvre returned to the spotlight in 2017 with the release of “King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen,” a wildly entertaining documentary in which Cohen looks back on his crazy career and which features additional testimonials from friends and coworkers as well as a slew of mouth-clips that will make you want to see the full features immediately. Among students of the genre, Cohen’s influence as a storyteller cannot be denied. Of course, any discussion of the works of Larry Cohen at this site cannot conclude without mentioning an anecdote that Roger and others would often cite. In 1982, “Q” screened at that year’s Cannes Film Festival under the original title “The Winged Serpent.” As those who have seen the film know, the movie is largely dominated by a brilliantly out-of-left-field performance by Michael Moriarty, the kind that might have earned awards had it not been included in a film where giant creatures tear the heads off of topless sunbathers. Anyway, after the screening, there was a luncheon and the following conversation was said to have taken place between Samuel Z. Arkoff, the B-movie legend who produced “Q,” and film critic Rex “Myra Breckenridge” Reed. REED: Sam! I just saw “The Winged Serpent!” What a surprise! All that dreck—and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty! ARKOFF: The dreck was my idea. A great story, of course, but the genius of Cohen—and I do mean “genius”—was that he took concepts that others could have easily reduced to dreck and transformed them into witty, provocative works that pushed all the right buttons. As a filmmaker, Larry Cohen was a true master—not necessarily of horror alone. For film fans who have long sparked to his offbeat output, his passing will prove to be a great loss.  &nbs […]

  • Hooray for Historic Chicago Female African-American Mayoral Contenders Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot
    by Chaz Ebert on March 22, 2019 at 8:02 PM

    In an historic twist, Chicago will elect its first African-American woman Mayor, 100 years after a series of violent race riots tore the city apart. When the recent Chicago mayoral race began to heat up, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the primary election would culminate with two African-American women as the final contenders out of a field of about a dozen, destined for an April 2nd runoff. Either Toni Preckwinkle or Lori Lightfoot will become the first black female mayor in the history of my hometown. Both candidates are smart and capable women, and I believe both are sincere in their desire to improve our city. However, I am supporting Toni Preckwinkle because she has the experience to hit the ground running a big complex city facing financial challenges and violence. She has balanced county budgets of several billion dollars-eliminating budget deficit gaps of over $400 million dollars; created the CountyCare program for Medicaid-eligible residents, provided new educational and ecological opportunities as president of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and reduced the number of children tried as adults and the population in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, among her many other notable achievements.  Chicago's first female mayor, Jane Byrne, was elected in 1979, and served until April of 1983. Chicago's first African-American mayor, Harold Washington, was elected in 1983 and died of a heart attack while in office in 1987. Both before and after their terms, Chicago was ruled by mayors named Richard Daley, one was the father, and the other was the son. In the last 64 years, there have been only two other elected (not counting the acting) mayors besides them: Mayor Michael Bilandic, who lost the office to Mayor Byrne after a fierce snowstorm when it seemed that he couldn't get the streets plowed fast enough. And the current Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who shocked everyone with his decision not to run for another term.  Their election is coming exactly one hundred years after one of the most racially brutal chapters in Chicago history: the race riots of 1919. The riots occurred from July 27th through August 3rd, killing 38 people—23 black, 15 white—while injuring over 500. Though roughly 25 riots reportedly occurred during the period known as “Red Summer” that year was reportedly the worst on record. I was born and raised in Chicago and I still live here and care deeply about its future. When I first began traveling internationally back in the 1970's, I was surprised to learn that the gangster Al Capone was one of the first persons associated with Chicago's image. This was not good. Especially when the truth is that Chicago is one of the most American of cities with so much to offer in terms of its people, its neighborhoods, its transportation system, its friendliness, cleanliness and 26 miles of beachfront running alongside Lake Michigan on both the north and south sides of the city.  So you can imagine how pleased I was when Michael Jordan and the Bulls were winning six championship rings, or when Oprah Winfrey was broadcasting from here, and even when my very own Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were bringing news of movies from their balcony on "At The Movies."  Carl Sandburg's city of  the big shoulders started gaining a rehabilitated image. We have young people like Chance the Rapper trying to make a difference, but in the last few years I have heard more about the number of people, especially children, dying by gun violence. I am hoping that our next mayor will help to resuscitate our reputation of a world class city. And I want them to work with our Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth to bring more federal dollars to our city.  We have world-class architecture,  jazz clubs and cultural institutions such as the Art Institute, the Lyric Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Navy Pier, South Shore Cultural Center, the Field Museum of Natural History, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, the American Writers Museum, Jane Addams Hull House Museum, the Driehaus Museum, the Museum of Broadcast Communications and many many more. Of course we have many colleges and universities like the University of Chicago, DePaul University and College of Law, Northwestern, Loyola and many good city colleges. We have a wealth of hospitals and medical centers, and the world's number one physical rehabilitation center, the Shirley Ryan Ability Center. Our churches and synagogues and mosques constitute quite a dedicated religious community. But we need to do more to provide opportunities to residents on our south and west sides.  No matter whom one supports, it is impossible to deny the momentous and meaningful nature of the mayoral decision itself, and you can feel the current of electricity running through the city as you discuss this historic decision at the bus stop, at coffee shops, on the streets or at the office. Though I am throwing my support behind Toni Preckwinkle, I am thrilled and proud to have this choice of two women candidates who I think will do everything they can to fulfill the promises they are making on the campaign trail to uplift this city and all of its residents. I have no naive thought that they will be magicians, but I do have hope that they will come prepared to address the issues so near and dear to all of us: safe streets, reduction in gun violence and deaths, good public schools, affordable housing, accessible health care,  meaningful employment for city residents, partnership with the business community and community organizations,  maintenance of utilities and infrastructure, continuation of the cultural institutions that attract international tourists, and just the joy of being part of such a thriving hub of humanity.  Nine years ago, Ms. Preckwinkle became the first woman elected as the President of the Cook County Board, and has been a tireless champion of affordable housing. Earlier in her life, Preckwinkle spent a decade as a high school history teacher, and spent two decades as Alderman representing the needs of her community. She worked in the Department of Economic Development during the Harold Washington Administration, and as County Board President, she has expanded access to health care for 350,000 people. Among her stated priorities as mayor are ensuring a $15 minimum wage, preventing school closures, investigating various unsolved murder cases suspected to be hate crimes against transgender citizens, quadrupling the city's investment in small business microloans, replacing all water lines that may contain lead, and creating the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. Ms. Lightfoot recently served as President of the Chicago Police Board from 2015 to 2018 and was also a partner at the Mayer Brown law firm. With her role as chair of the Police Accountability task force, she conducted an in-depth analysis of the Chicago Police Department and issued a detailed report of her findings in April 2016. Other notable titles she has taken on have included Assistant United States Attorney in the criminal division and the Interim First Deputy of the Chicago Department of Procurement Services. She shares Preckwinkle's desire to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and investigate hate crimes. Lightfoot also  believes in legalizing cannabis, abolishing ICE, eliminating food deserts throughout the city, implementing mayoral term limits and addressing gun violence as a "public health crisis." It is interesting to note that neither Ms Preckwinkle nor Ms Lightfoot were born in Chicago: Preckwinkle is from St Paul, Minnesota, and Lightfoot is from Ohio. But what they both have provided me, above all else, is an indefatigable hope for the future at a time when it is in distressingly short supply. I must admit too, that I am hoping that as women they will bring a deep wealth of caring and empathy. One primary example of this was demonstrated after the horrible tragedy in New Zealand when a terrorist killed fifty people in a mosque. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand was there on site comforting the survivors and their families, providing hugs and assurances, exhibiting a level of compassion so deep that it was felt around the world, and then getting down to the immediate business of gun control, changing laws in six days, so that an act like that would be much more difficult to carry out in the future.  Yes, we need more women in these governing positions, and on April 2, Chicago will have one more. *revised 3/25 […]

  • Happiness and Artifice: The Performances of Julianne Moore
    by Max O'Connell on March 22, 2019 at 12:14 PM

    Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) comes to the dance club frequently. She loves the music—‘70s and ‘80s pop ballads and disco hits—and dancing, but after 12 years of being divorced, she’s constantly looking over her large-framed glasses, trying to be noticed. Tonight, she will be. She catches the eye of Arnold (John Turturro), who approaches her slowly and awkwardly. She notices him, but doesn’t immediately warm, until he jokes about her looking happy. Gloria laughs, but her response has a stop-start rhythm, as if she’s deciding in the moment how much she wants to reveal and recognizing only there and then how truthful she’s being. “Sometimes I am,” Gloria smiles, bouncing around a bit as if weighing whether to let the rest out. “Sometimes I’m sad.”  It’s simple, but in her laugh and her slight shifts in expression, Gloria simultaneously shows amusement at her suitor, genuine attraction, and years’ worth of loneliness. It openly acknowledges the nuance that comes with aging—knowing that much of life has passed her by and that while she’s experienced plenty of joy, she’s also not totally satisfied that this is it. She finishes: “Like everybody.” Julianne Moore is one of cinema’s greatest laughers, and one of its greatest criers. She seems to have an almost superhuman control over her facial muscles, breaking out laughing or bursting into tears so quickly that it takes a viewer by surprise and sears itself into their brain, no matter how many times they’ve seen her unmistakable, tooth-bearing guffaws and sobs. Yet she’s also one of the best actors in the world in terms of communicating her feelings to an audience while plausibly hiding them from those around her, maintaining an artifice of happiness. Often, it’s because she’s navigating a restrictive or hostile world. Sometimes she’s just trying to protect herself or those around her from being hurt.  Her latest film, Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria Bell,” is a rather faithful remake of the director’s 2013 Chilean film, but it’s still largely a pleasure to see another story of a woman trying, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to find a measure of happiness and a moment of truth in her life, all while dismissing the things pointing to trouble until she can’t anymore. These five films best exemplify Moore’s extraordinary range and the richness of her body of work. 1994: “Vanya on 42nd Street” An army brat, Moore and her family moved frequently in her youth, and it caused her to learn to adapt to her environment at a young age. According to Moore in an interview with T Magazine: “I would change, depending on where I was. I would go to one school and everyone would dance one way and, then, at a new school, you’d notice that no one picked up their feet when they danced. You’re like, OK—I’ll shuffle my feet like them.” After initially considering a career as a doctor, she was encouraged to pursue acting, graduating with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Boston University (that location evidently didn’t rub off on her, if her uncharacteristically shaky “30 Rock” accent is any indication).  Moore got her first major role on the CBS soap “As the World Turns,” playing the twins Frannie and Sabrina Hughes; while the work may not be frequently cited by her fans, it hinted at her ability to perform in heightened realities in which she’s required to make hairpin emotional turns. This served her well early in her career, from her entertaining supporting turns in erotic thrillers good (“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”) and bad (“Body of Evidence”) to her breakout role in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” in which she drew attention for an argument with her husband (Matthew Modine) while nude from the waist down. The scene is as notable for her gradual emotional unburdening, starting from an artificial, “yes dear” pitch before growing more irritated and letting out a painful, furious confession, revealing a lie that protected their marriage for years.  It’s a spectacular scene, but the best of her early, pre-stardom/greatest actress of her generation roles is in “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Andre Gregory’s experimental adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” began work in 1990 and was rehearsed and performed for three years before Louis Malle shot it as his final film (Altman cast Moore in “Short Cuts” after seeing her perform it live). As Yelena, the young wife of an aging and ailing professor (George Gaynes), Moore gives a thrillingly counterintuitive performance, expressing herself in a way that suggests someone trying hard to soften her feelings so as to protect herself or others. When the curmudgeonly Vanya (Wallace Shawn) comes onto her, she lightly pats him and laughs in a way that’s not dismissive, but gently rebuffing, subtle enough that it could be easily misinterpreted or dismissed. It’s a gesture that Moore returns to and reworks several times throughout the film, trying protect a man’s feelings while remaining firm in her conviction. And yet, Moore’s Yelena is not a happy woman trying to keep the peace, but an unhappy one trying to keep herself together despite her admittance that “this is not a happy home.” Her care for her husband, his adult daughter Sonya (Brooke Smith) and those around her is genuine, but it’s also a mask for her own pain, a role she fulfills to keep going. A key scene with Sonya sees another unburdening, a confession that she married for love but it was “not real” before discussing the girl’s potential love with Larry Pine’s Dr. Astrov. Moore speaks with the assurance of a much older woman, her voice low but warm, her face and body language receptive as she wishes for her stepdaughter’s happiness and laughs matter-of-factly at her own unhappiness. It’s only when she’s alone that she mask slips, briefly, and she’s no longer forced to adapt. It’s a mere 20 seconds of unfiltered emotional honesty, but the shift is so sudden and stark from her carefully managed act that it feels like ages before she’s forced to compose herself again. One witnesses a lifetime’s worth of sacrifices and compromises in those 20 seconds, and a whole future filled with them. 1995: “Safe” If her work in “Vanya on 42nd Street” is unconventional, Moore’s performance in Todd Haynes’ 1995 masterpiece “Safe” is wholly unique. Moore’s Carol White is introduced as a sweet-natured cipher, someone who goes through life passively and blankly. In a passionless sex scene, she’s entirely receptive without conveying disappointment; when trying to order food or change her hair, she appears to have difficulty determining A) what she wants, and B) if it’s OK for her to have it, her voice going to a higher pitch that communicates submission and lack of comprehension. She’s someone who inhabits her role as a homemaker without apparent enjoyment or pain, satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Her physical and psychic breakdown, then, plays as if her body is rebelling in a way her mind cannot. That breakdown is nothing less than astonishing to behold, with Moore somehow finding a way to physically manifest symptoms that defy description for an environmental disease that utterly baffles everyone around her. Moore’s coughing begins as simple reaction to smoke before turning into a bizarre, sobbing hyperventilation; her panicked gasping in the middle of a party appears to be a body rejecting air rather than trying to take more in. One can see both physical deterioration and the total horror and confusion one must feel experiencing an entirely new disease. What’s more troubling, however, is her continued recessiveness while feeling her body fail; Carol apologizes for her nosebleeds and aches in a voice that suggests guilt for putting others through her illness. She suggests a feeling or a thought, only to shut down at the slightest rebuke or bit of questioning; when she and her husband attend a meeting on MCS, she introduces herself, only to look to him with fear and the expectation that he’ll be able to explain to others and to her what’s happening. By the time “Safe” reaches its terrifying conclusion, Carol has found a new place and a new vocation as a true believer in a self-help cult, but one with no semblance of self. Her new home is its own grotesque palace, a world that suggests she is to blame for her health and unhappiness (indeed, suggesting that her unhappiness may be partly to blame). In her final scenes, Moore speaks to others with the same vacant friendliness that she displayed earlier in the film, but only the setting (frugal rather than materialistic) and her appearance (blotchy and sickly rather than made up) have changed. Moore delivers Carol’s birthday speech as someone who’s finally been given the floor to express herself, but finds she has nothing to express but the inarticulate stringing together of motivational slogans and secondhand sentiments. She’s jumped from one repression to another, desperately telling herself “I love you” with the hope that it’ll bring something rather than the glassy unhappiness that she’s forever doomed to live out. Her despairing blankness suggests she’ll never even know what’s wrong. Though Moore belatedly won an Oscar for solid work in the Alzheimer’s drama “Still Alice,” there’s no question which portrayal of illness is more singular.  1997: “Boogie Nights” The same year that Moore made “Safe,” she co-starred with Hugh Grants in the pregnancy comedy “Nine Months.” Many of Moore’s roles from this point forward would explore the idea of women addressing the fraught emotions that come with family and motherhood, whether it’s dealing with the grief of losing a child (“Children of Men”) or the difficulty of experiencing the distance that comes with children growing up (“The Kids Are All Right,” “Gloria Bell”). Others films still see parenthood as pathological, be it something to pursue (her hilarious work in “The Big Lebowski”) or pervert (“Savage Grace”). Moore’s best maternal performance came in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 porn industry epic “Boogie Nights,” in which the loss of one child is substituted with the adoption of many others that never quite fill that painful absence. Moore’s most famous scene as porn star/matriarch Amber Waves is likely her sex scene with Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, not yet a coked up, cocky superstar, but rather a gifted but nervous kid who’s not yet sure of himself. The way Moore seamlessly shifts from motherly concern (reaching out and stroking Dirk’s chin, her voice going up on “are you alright, honey?”) to clumsy acting (an affectless “this is a giant cock!”) to real desire is something to behold, with the actress perfectly underlining in one scene how Amber’s roles as loving mother, semi-inept creative and talented sex worker blend together. Much of “Boogie Nights’" success is in its recognition of how these seemingly contradictory roles aren’t contradictory at all, and how Amber’s co-workers could clearly come to love and trust her as any kid would their real mother. The way she guides Dirk back to the scene in between takes, reassuring him all the way that he’s doing great, shows how any milieu can become a family, no matter how unlikely. It makes Dirk’s temporary rejection of her during his spiral all the more painful. That said, “Boogie Nights” recognizes how societal expectations that these roles be mutually exclusive can hurt someone like Amber, not to mention how the overall atmosphere of excess can help give powerful figures ammunition against her. Every scene in which Amber tries and fails to reconnect with her biological son is a deeply painful one, whether she’s strung out on coke and booze and losing control (watch her wobble uncertainly as she tries to assert herself when on the phone with her ex-husband) or holding herself together as her ex attacks her in front of a judge for her career choice. The latter scene shows her trying like hell not to show outrage, raising her voice slightly only to collect herself again, showing clear knowledge that the slightest slip-up can keep her from ever seeing her son; the smash cut to a sobbing Amber is all the more powerful because of it, with Amber no longer able to hold back as she realizes she never had a chance. If Moore’s final scene is less hopeless than the ending to “Safe,” it’s just as sad in its own way, with Amber staring at herself in the mirror with weary resignation, knowing that this makeshift, artificial family is all that she has, and it’ll never be enough. 2002: “Far from Heaven” Moore has spent much of her career playing people in unsatisfying relationships and marriages, ranging from explosively guilt-ridden (“Magnolia”) to neglected (“The Kids Are All Right”) to religiously conflicted (“The End of the Affair”). Those performances are all rich in their own ways, but they pale next to her second Haynes collaboration, the Douglas Sirk-inspired “Far from Heaven.” Like Carol White before her, Moore’s Cathy Whitaker, a 1950s Connecticut homemaker, is a picture of conformity. Adopting the heightened acting style of Sirk’s melodramas, Moore appears perfectly poised and gorgeously made up, performing as if she were in an advertisement for the bliss of suburbia. One can see small cracks in the façade at key moments—her eyes seem to flash with recognition when her friends talk about how frequently they have sex with their husbands, suggesting that she doesn’t much at all—but she seems perfectly happy with her lot in life. Cathy, however, becomes far more aware of what’s eating away at her soul, beginning her learning of her husband Frank’s (Dennis Quaid) repressed homosexuality. Her initial reaction is one of incomprehension, with Moore stopping in her tracks after catching him with another man and searching herself in the elevator, her eyes conveying someone realizing her life is a lie. Moore spends much of the rest of the movie trying to maintain the illusion that nothing is wrong, whether she’s masking her discomfort with her husband’s drunkenness or plastering on a smile as her friend (Patricia Clarkson) questions her about a new bruise the day after. The latter scene sees a woman’s defenses slowly breaking down, her eyes swelling and her hand coming to her face after Clarkson leaves, as if anyone seeing her sorrow will make it real. Someone does see: Dennis Haysbert’s sensitive black gardener Raymond, with whom she falls in love. Moore’s gradual warming to him—from friendly but a bit patronizing to total, unself-conscious comfort—is a marvel to behold, her body language growing more open, her smiles less broad but more natural. The film tracks a woman gradually realizing the passion she’s been missing and the person who could be right for her, only to make it impossible for the two to get together. Moore spends so much of the film hiding or denying her feelings that watching her face glow with yearning as she confesses her love is truly heartbreaking, her face freezing back into a forced smile as she recognizes her best chance at happiness being ripped away. If “Safe” follows someone escaping one constrictive role only to dive into another without realizing it, “Far from Heaven” is the story of a woman who realizes how limited her life has been, only to be kept from truly breaking free. 2014: “Maps to the Stars” Still, it's a better fate than what awaits Moore’s character in David Cronenberg’s hilarious, horrifying Hollywood takedown “Maps to the Stars.” Moore has had a few opportunities in her career to play villainous or morally compromised figures, some manipulative but sympathetic (“Savage Grace”), some callous and calculating (“The Hunger Games” series), and some just cartoonish (“Carrie”). She earned the most acclaim for her work as Sarah Palin in “Game Change,” but Danny Strong’s script never takes enough interest in what makes the reactionary Palin tick for Moore to dig in beneath the superficial impression, with all humanizing details ultimately coming off as disingenuous. “Maps to the Stars," on the other hand, is Moore’s best portrayal of an essentially venal figure, a haunted woman whose deep insecurities and superficial charm can only temporarily obscure her selfishness and capacity for cruelty. Moore’s washed-up actress Havana Segrand initially engenders some sympathy, introduced with a look of abject horror on her face as her therapist (John Cusack) pushes her to relive what she believes was abuse at the hands of her more famous mother. Her vulnerability becomes more overwhelming whenever she encounters her mother’s ghost (Sarah Gadon), with Moore’s demeanor shifting to wide-eyed terror (further exaggerated by how exhausted she looks throughout) and confusion as she’s simultaneously confronted with painful memories and remembrances of her own failures. At the same time, Havana’s deep neediness makes her perfectly pathetic. Moore runs through her to-do list as if she’s begging for help from her assistant (Mia Wasikowska) and leans into conversations with her agent like someone who’s trying and failing to hide how desperate they are for validation. She plays Havana as someone who’s in constantly in the throes of both psychological abuse and self-degradation, plausibly hurt by those around her without recognizing how much she contributes to her own unhappiness. Moore and Cronenberg recognize how Havana’s as rotten and artificial as anyone else in Hollywood, however, with the actress barely concealing how insincere Havana’s interest is in anyone but herself. Some of it can be picked up at how flippantly Moore delivers lines about her housekeeper having “like 40 kids,” or how she speaks to Wasikowska during their initial interview as if she’s doing her a favor, or how she barely hides her disinterest in Robert Pattinson’s limo driver (until he admits he’s a fan). The film’s funniest scene, in a laugh-catching-in-the-throat way, sees Havana’s immediate shift from shock to cravenness upon learning of a rival’s tragedy, her open-mouthed horror changing to sticking her tongue through her teeth as she plots stealing a comeback role; still, that’s nothing compared to how cheerfully she dances immediately after, celebrating and taking the opportunity to reassert control over her assistant all the while.  If “Maps to the Stars” takes the character’s unhappiness and the emptiness of her lifestyle seriously, it also posits that maybe someone like Havana, who immediately takes to berating those beneath her once she’s back on top, doesn’t deserve happiness. At any rate, Havana Segrand, Carol White, Yelena, Cathy Whitaker and Amber Waves have spent their lives taking on and tossing out roles forced upon them by circumstance, barely getting a moment to consider whether or not it’s what they want. Whether they’re luckier to know it or remain totally oblivious, no one can say. […]

  • Sunset
    by Simon Abrams on March 22, 2019 at 12:13 PM

    Unlike most costume dramas, "Sunset"—a moving Hungarian character study set in Budapest during 1913—isn't a movie you can easily get lost in. The movie's disorienting and visually austere style takes some getting used to: dark, but warmly lit hand-held cameras draw viewers' attention beyond the immediate foreground (almost always in focus) towards the camera frame's out-of-focus background. That kind of showy, subjective camerawork is a little daunting (Can't I decide where I want to look for myself?). But I have to admit: by consistently denying viewers an objective God's eye of events, writer/director Lászlò Nemes ("Son of Saul") also immediately establishes his movie's character-driven, low-key tense atmosphere. This is the world according to Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), an emotionally withdrawn young woman who struggles to understand and re-join a (high) society that she was never really part of. Irisz's point-of-view is sometimes a little stifling, and more than a little disorienting—but it's also rather powerful.  In that sense, your interest in Irisz's story depends on your willingness to feel your way around Nemes' visually elaborate, dialogue-light movie. Nemes and his team of collaborators—especially cinematographer Mátyás Erdély—put a lot of effort into choreographing and arranging Irisz's story (as it was scripted by Nemes and co-writers Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier). And it shows in the way that Irisz, from her very first scene, struggles to assert control over her own story.  When we meet her, Irisz is already in a haze. An array of women's hats are presented to her, but she's not really interested in any of them. Irisz suddenly remembers why she came to this department store (which bears her estranged family's name): she's looking for a job. "You should have said so before," an employee sneers as she fetches her supervisor. This introductory scene is a good table-setter: things just sort of happen to Irisz, so she has to constantly struggle to re-orient herself to the customs and niceties of the upper-class. Her parents have died under mysterious circumstances, so their department store is now run by strangers (to Irisz): Brill (Vlad Ivanov) and Zelma (Evelin Dobos), both of whom are only as cordial to Irisz as they need to be. Brill and Zelma do not have a position available for Irisz. They are also clearly intimidated by her; they often fidget and try to avoid her. And, when they can't avoid her, they make a big show of showing her off at social functions, if only to preemptively stop their neighbors from gossiping. Irisz often has to insert herself into situations whenever she is not welcome (and that's often). She insists on asking unsolicited questions and refuses to be dissuaded, either by well-intended advice or inexplicable violence. Everybody tells her the same thing: there's no reason to dig up the past. Your parents died and your brother—the one that you never knew you had—is a disgrace. There's no fortune or security here in Budapest. Stop asking questions and go back to Trieste: this is not your world and you are not welcome here. But Irisz never considers going home and is therefore constantly threatened by unwelcome scrutiny and exclusion.  Thankfully, Irisz's story—determined as it is by her refusal to accept things as they are—is commendably presented without much hand-holding. She's not a prototypical feminist or an ahead-of-the-curve standard-bearer because she lives in a constant state of uncertainty and is therefore not particularly introspective. Instead, Nemes simply asks us to join Irisz as she struggles to be (and to see) more than she's allowed. So we follow Irisz, waiting in a constant state of low-level panic and hoping that whatever happens next isn't as bad as it seems. Nemes' suggestive, impressionistic approach takes some getting used to, but "Sunset" is worth the extra effort. […]

  • Dragged Across Concrete
    by Brian Tallerico on March 22, 2019 at 12:09 PM

    The cops-and-robbers genre is typically one that feels more accelerated than others, complete with quick cuts, witty dialogue, and narrative time jumps. S. Craig Zahler’s “Dragged Across Concrete” asks does it have to be? Extremely purposefully decelerated, even more so than his very deliberate “Bone Tomahawk” and “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” this brutal, ultra-violent film feels like an extension of Zahler’s work as a novelist, where he can work at a different pace than most filmmakers are forced to do. He takes 158 minutes to cover narrative ground that someone as kinetic as Edgar Wright would do in about 25. And the result is a film that often feels like Zahler’s most assured to date. Self-indulgent? Oh yeah. A provocation? You bet. But it’s difficult to ignore the craftsmanship and performances in “Dragged Across Concrete” simply because you don’t like some of its darker themes or feel like it’s too long.  Casting Mel Gibson as a kinda racist cop who longs for the days before political correctness is clearly a provocation in and of itself. And yet Zahler and Gibson don’t lean into that aspect as much as you may expect. Gibson does his best film work in years as Brett Ridgeman, a cop on the cusp of his 60th birthday and perpetually scowling. In their opening scene, Ridgeman gets a little rough and a little racist as he and his partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are working a drug bust. Their bad behavior is filmed by a neighbor, which leads to a suspension and an incendiary scene in which Gibson, Vaughn, and their chief (played by Don Johnson) discuss the PC state of the world. Does Zahler agree that political correctness is hampering police work? Is he presenting or endorsing? He’s tantalizingly vague even as Lurasetti proclaims he’s not racist because he orders dark roast on MLK Day. Zahler’s provocations continue in a scene that follows in which Ridgeman’s wife (Laurie Holden) talks about how she was once a liberal but the crime in their heavily black neighborhood has made her racist. Zahler is working a classical road here narratively—a man who feels cheated by life and goes to extremes to correct the bad hand he’s been dealt—but he’s lined that road with hot topic land mines. Ridgeman believes that he’s at a point where stopping the drug trade doesn’t matter as much as doing it in a PC way, so he’s going to stop playing by the rules. He then gets a tip about a money exchange that he can rob, which means retirement and moving his wife and daughter to a safer neighborhood. Meanwhile, Zahler introduces us to another iconic character from the potboiler genre—the ex-con jumping from being behind bars to the criminal assignment. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) comes home to find his addicted mother has been working as a prostitute to make ends meet, and he too is going to change his predicament. So Zahler presents us with a black young man and a white old man who are both going to commit crimes to change their luck. Is he asking us to compare the two? Obviously, at least a little. And yet “Dragged” never feels like a “We’re all the same” moral message movie. It’s a character piece—take whatever themes from it you choose, but don’t expect them to be highlighted or underlined. We also have to talk about the way Zahler uses women in his films, this one in particular. They are all victims who need to be protected by the men in their lives or worse—brutally abused and murdered. Early in the film, Anthony suggests the world changed when men started saying “we’re pregnant” instead of “she’s.” Is it just a funny line? A character detail? Or does Zahler agree? And one could really argue, no spoilers, that this is a film that asserts that women shouldn't go back to work after having babies. Again, the line between commentary and misogyny feels razor thin in a way that I find fascinating but will almost certainly offend some people. Whether or not you can roll with Zahler’s provocations is one thing, but it’s impossible not to admire how he’s developed as a filmmaker. His framing here, shot by his regular collaborator Benji Bakshi, is beautiful. Everything looks confident without calling attention to itself in a way that a lot of Tarantino and Leonard acolytes often do. Most of “Dragged” is shot in low light, especially the final hour, but Zahler has a great sense of space and blocking, which helps keeps the film engrossing. And he draws a fascinating, world-weary performance from Gibson, who reminds one how good he can be with the right material. In every way, “Dragged Across Concrete” feels like it’s trying to challenge you. It’s a little racist, a little sexist, almost aggressively slow—we watch Vaughn eat an egg salad sandwich in what feels like real time—and incredibly violent. It is a great lost Elmore Leonard book that’s been slowed to a crawl and updated to reflect the impact of political correctness and smartphones on characters who used to be able to operate in the shadows. In a sense, it pulls the classic, tough cop characters from great fiction and drags them across the concrete, leaving everyone bloody and battered. You will feel it too.&nbs […]

  • Relaxer
    by Simon Abrams on March 22, 2019 at 12:08 PM

    I don't know if you can get on the same wavelength as "Relaxer"; you're either with this grimy slacker comedy or you aren't. I like "Relaxer" a lot, possibly because it is what high-school age me thought American indie cinema was like. Adenoidal drop-out protagonists, over-determined scatological humor, an oppressive dream-like mood—"Relaxer" takes me back to my adolescence (I was a teenage misanthrope!). I was reminded of the hilariously crass Gen X indie comic books of Chester Brown ("Ed the Happy Clown"), Dan Clowes ("Ghost World"), and Joe Matt ("Peepshow"), as well as the sad-sack antihero protagonists of early movies by Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise") and Richard Linklater ("Slacker").  Which is weird, because "Relaxer" isn't really like those comics or movies. Instead, "Relaxer" is a light, but moody comedy about an irredeemable loser who is too unwell to save himself. Imagine a deceptively optimistic comedy concerning a neurotic fish who's slowly circling his unwashed, slow-draining aquarium.  "Relaxer" follows Abbie (Joshua Burge), a scrawny oddball who refuses to leave a ratty, over-stuffed leather couch—he says it doesn't belong to him—until his snotty older brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) says he can. Unfortunately, Cam won't let Abbie get up until he's completed the latest in a series of bizarre dares/challenges, all of which involve eating or drinking too much, too fast. So when we first meet Abbie, he's about to vomit and/or urinate after drinking (most of) a gallon of milk. Soon after that, Cam gives Abbie an ultimate, final challenge: sit on the couch and defeat level 256 of "Pac-Man." The year is 1999, the place is suburban Michigan, and the rest is mostly immaterial. According to Potrykus, Abbie represents his own long-held fantasy of dropping out of society just to play video games. Watching "Relaxer" does not, however, feel like having a bad nightmare. It's more like a detailed stress dream, one that you just have to get out of your system, no matter how grim and unbearable it may seem in retrospect.  After all, Potrykus' jokes are never really on Abbie—they're just about Abbie. Abbie's completely unhygienic: he rarely wears a shirt, so we often get two eyes-ful of Burge's sweaty, acne-covered chest. Abbie's also too weak-willed to take care of himself. And he doesn't really have any friends, except for Faygo-swilling burnout Dallas (Andre Hyland) and fair weather acquaintance Arin (Adina Howard).  But wait, there's more: Abbie's dad is in jail, but Abbie wants to visit him—after he wins $10,000 from a "Nintendo Power"-sponsored contest (hosted by disgraced competitive video game player Billy Mitchell). Abbie also thinks he might have psychic powers. He is pretty much as incompetent and unlikely to survive as his brother Cam says he is. Which is funny since, in the movie's press notes, Potrykus says that his earlier comedies are "cold and dark," like Cam and his worldview. I've only seen "Buzzard"—which features at least one all-time great sequence (Bugle Treadmill!)—but I can see similarities between it and "Relaxer." Cam's borderline nihilistic point-of-view defines Abbie's world, even if Abbie refuses to let his brother's apparent obnoxiousness bring him down.  "Relaxer" is not as grim as it sounds. Potrykus clearly loves Abbie, though I suspect it's because he, and the audience, already know that Abbie is useless ... we just want to believe he's not. That sort of magical thinking is the key to enjoying "Relaxer," a comedy about wish fulfillment. Which strangely makes a lot of sense since, generally speaking, a lot of DIY/maker culture looks like modern-day alchemy (for more on DIY culture's ties to the supernatural, I highly recommend Peter Bebergal's recent non-fiction book Strange Frequencies).  If you believe you can do something impossible, then your quest to hack the code of everyday life can be a spiritually fulfilling reward unto itself. Abbie's quest to beat "Pac-Man" (and win money, and be self-sufficient, and reunite with his dad) isn't at all spiritual, but that's what makes it funny—he has the patience of a saint, without any other saint-like qualities. Everyone else in Michigan may be scrambling for their bunkers because of pre-Millennial fears of the Y2K bug. But Abbie will succeed no matter what happens—because he knows he will. Even if he has to bury himself in sweat, debris, vomit, feces, urine, and, uh, is that snow? I can't honestly recommend "Relaxer" to most readers, but if you like this kind of thing, you'll probably love it. […]

  • Out of Blue
    by Nell Minow on March 22, 2019 at 12:08 PM

    Writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz famously said that the difference between movies and life is that movies have to make sense. The arc of a storyline with a beginning, middle and end, with actions and consequences, is itself a way of imposing order on chaos. Crime is a disruption of the order we attempt to impose through law, and we resolve that tension by finding out who, and, if we can, why. Sometimes, though, there is a meta-take where the answer is that there may be no answer, or the answer doesn't matter, and the quest for resolution only brings more chaos. “Out of Blue,” adapted by director Carol Morley from the 1997 Martin Amis novel Night Train, has a self-consciously artsy screenplay with meta air quotes around its air quotes. He sets the quintessential quest for truth, a murder mystery, in the context of literal questions about the nature of the universe, or, more accurately, universes. If some astrophysicists believe that there are an infinite number of universes with every possible variation of our lives occurring simultaneously, then how much can it matter whether we find the answers in this one? If Schrödinger’s Cat can be both alive and dead at the same time in the sealed box, is there even a murder to solve? Detectives arrive at the scene of a death at an astronomical observatory. The body on the floor was an astrophysicist named Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer). “One of the Rockwells?” someone asks. Yes, the daughter of a prominent family led by a former POW turned electronics magnate named Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan) and his wife, Miriam (Jacki Weaver). Their twin sons went into the family business, but Jennifer became a scientist who looked to the stars for answers. “The catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe,” she tells a small group of students just before her death. We will hear her again, in flashbacks, describing her search for the “dark heart” that will reveal the secrets of black holes. She cautions that we are not the center of the universe, and an epigraph before the film tells us that we should not think of ourselves as living in the universe but the universe as living in us. The detective investigating the death is Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson), a recovering alcoholic who says that she cannot remember anything about her past before she joined the police force. In case we cannot figure out that this means she is dedicated investigating the details of other people’s lives but not her own, Amis gives us a character to explain that to us. The same with the parallels between a detective following clues to solve a crime and a scientist following clues to test a theory, and the references to masks and personae, all of which are more than made clear by the film itself and then unnecessarily explained to us by its characters. That happens a lot in this film, where what may have worked in literary prose comes across as pretentious on screen. The central concern about who shot Jennifer Rockwell is resolved pretty quickly, which means “case closed” for the police department. But Hoolihan wants to know why, and so she keeps looking. A female detective with a man’s name, who is told by another character she should look more like a woman, and takes pride in her reputation for never showing any queasiness or emotion at a crime scene suddenly starts getting dizzy. Is she investigating what happened to Jennifer or what happened to her? Weaver is a standout as a mother who at first natters on about Jennifer as a baby until her sorrow leaves her nothing but the truth, and Jonathan Majors as Jennifer’s colleague shows impressive ability to convey a great deal in his few scenes. Hoolihan finds it suspicious when his response to learning of Jennifer’s death is not “How?” but “Why?” And yet, that is where she soon finds herself—in both senses of the term. The problem with giving us a mystery and then telling us it does not really matter is that we end up wondering whether that message itself really matters. In “The Big Sleep,” a likely influence on Amis for both the novel and the film, director Howard Hawks and author Raymond Chandler knowingly left one of the murders unsolved because the real story was about the detective, not the crimes. Perhaps in one of the alternate universe versions of this movie, the characters come across as human beings acting out of understandable motivations. But the version in this universe tries too hard to both be a part of—and comment on—the genre of crime stories, and does not succeed at either.&nbs […]

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