The worst thing you can do in a movie review is explain the plot of the movie and then throw in a comment or two about whether you liked the movie. So these reviews just skip past that part about the plot. Also, we do what we can to keep our reviews reasonably spoiler-free, so you can browse freely!
The wrong way to watch Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of the 1946 novel Nightmare Alley is by reading the book first. Because then you’ll be one of those tedious “the book was better…!” people. Instead, just watch it as the elaborate period piece it is, none the wiser as to the missed opportunities and pulled punches. In fact, you should probably stop reading here, because I made the mistake of reading the book so this is a review by one of those tedious “the book was better…!” people.
When David Cronenberg adapted James Ballard’s car crash fetish novel, Crash, he made a movie about a bunch of weirdos I couldn’t possibly understand. Mainly because they seemed like nonsense ideas rather than actual people. Do actual people bond over recreations of famous car crash fatalities? Is there really a shadowy underground network that stages these things and then they all have sex with each other after they’ve evaded the cops? Are Rosanna Arquette’s leg braces supposed to somehow make her more or less hot? And do Canadians really say “penis” and “semen” when they’re doing dirty talk? Watching Crash was like accidentally stumbling into a Reddit group for some fetish that I never knew existed.
I’ve spent decades denigrating the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre as artless trash. I’m not sure when I first saw it. Probably in college, sometime around 1990. That was also the last time I saw it. Since then, I’ve seen Tobe Hooper’s other movies. I’ve rewatched Invaders from Mars, Lifeforce, Eaten Alive, Funhouse, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel in the last few years, and they’re all varying degrees of horrible (the conventional wisdom about Poltergeist, which is still great, is that Spielberg actually directed it). It’s been my assertion all along that Tobe Hooper is a terrible director, and although there might be something raw and effective in his first movie, it’s artless trash.
We can’t be letting city-slicker criminals murder kids out in the woods. It’s just not right. Fortunately, there are salt-of-the-earth outdoorsman types doing their part, some of whom are even ladies! I consider this a subgenre in thrillers. Movie about criminals in tracts of wilderness going up against people who are better than them at camping and whatnot.
For instance, Those Who Wish Me Dead, a thriller directed by Taylor Sheridan, a square-jawed TV actor who apparently had a drawer full of scripts.
I don’t mean to belittle dumb movies. Some of my favorite movies are dumb. But Godzilla vs. Kong is steeped in a special kind of concentrated studio inanity. It stinks of dumb. It is the most profoundly stupid “vs.” movie since Batman vs. Superman. It’s not even worthy of Syfy’s Animal X vs. Animal Y movies, which can at least pretend they’re being deliberately campy. Godzilla vs. Kong is so profoundly dumb that it doesn’t even know it’s dumb.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A haunted older cop on the verge of retirement teams up with a hot-tempered young detective to hunt down a creepy celebrity playing a serial killer who likes a bit of a flourish in his crime scenes. In The Little Things, Rami Malek as Brad Pitt is as fascinating as ever, Jared Leto as Kevin Spacey is unintentionally hilarious, and Denzel is Denzel. John Lee Hancock’s last movie, The Highwaymen, told its story from a unique angle, using a couple of seasoned actors doing their thing, in a period piece with a lot of keenly observed detail and some gratifying gun porn. So what happened here? Hancock’s ham-handed script and even more ham-handed direction — you couldn’t edit a car chase any worse than this movie’s excuse for a car chase — make it hard to just enjoy the cast. It’s quite the turgid movie that doesn’t come alive until Jared Leto is onscreen, but that’s just because he’s so darn unusual. But, hey, at least something interesting is finally happening. I call it the Crispin Glover Effect.
The Little Things is such an aimless mish-mash of cop vs serial killer tropes that it only keeps you guessing because it’s unclear what it’s even trying to do. Is this a buddy cop movie? Is it a horror movie? Is it a homicide procedural? Is it a mystery? A thriller? A parody of James Patterson? Something that Morgan Freeman passed on? How about none of the above by virtue of all of the above? When the Obligatory Shocking Final Twist thuds into place with all the grace of a body rolled into a shallow grave, it turns out you were watching something else entirely. The Little Things is ultimately a story about how the police sometimes have to cover their asses because, well, they’re the police and we should really cut them some slack if they can’t be bothered to follow rules and stuff. Hey, John Lee Hancock, try reading the room. Or alternatively, try paying closer attention to what made David Fincher’s masterpiece tick. Because this Seven is barely a Two.
The premise of Emerald Fennell’s #MeToo era power fantasy is that all men are rapers. Hardly a provocative statement these days, and certainly one women have earned the right to indulge. But Promising Young Woman isn’t done yet. It further supposes that they can be shamed into comeuppance. And if that doesn’t work, by golly, things might have to get drastic!
There’s indisputable value in these reversed power fantasies, especially as they break free of their exploitative roots. Coraline Fargeat’s lurid lovely Revenge and Jennifer Kent’s achingly poignant The Nightingale are recent examples of how women have wrested control of rapesploitation from the vulgar filmmakers who used to cash in on it. Enter Promising Young Woman with its bubbly “I want to play, too!” approach. But it’s facile premise that men just need to be shamed isn’t exactly thrilling, and more to the point, it’s egregiously out of touch with reality. Brett Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life, and regardless of what did or didn’t happen with Christine Blasey Ford, he outed himself as an entitled frat boy who doesn’t have the disposition to be a Supreme Court justice. But Promising Young Woman supposes a world where his tantrums would have ended his judicial career, and if that didn’t do it, then by golly, it just takes the martyrdom of some promising young woman. Roll the title card, which will read “The End” in a curlicue font.
At least it isn’t as embarrassingly bad as Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas, which takes a similarly facile approach to its indictment of rape culture (the rapers in Black Christmas don’t even need their positions of power and privilege, because they have magical black goo). Fennell shoots Promising Young Woman with a candy-colored enthusiasm and a lively cast. Carey Mulligan has a grand time playing a self-assured vigilante of shame with literally no fucks to give. It’s nice to see her flexing confidence when she so often plays frail characters pulled along by the plot. She and Bo Burnham, towering above her at 6’5″, make quite the couple. Burnham’s effusive charm is a real joy to watch, and it’s easy to see how he fosters the kind of trust it took to make Eighth Grade with Elise Fisher. Otherwise, Fennell squanders several talented actors in thankless roles. That’s how you’re going to use the wonderful Sam Richardson?
The big finale, which will be spoiled if you watch trailers, is especially ridiculous for its attempted last-minute twist, which feels like a cheat instead of a twist. Fennell would have you believe that Carey Mulligan’s character — called Cassie, but listed in the credits as Cassandra in case you didn’t get it — was one step ahead of everyone else all along. Which might make for a fun grrl power fantasy, but it’s not much of a contribution to any conversation about rape culture, the #MeToo movement, or even revenge thrillers.
I’m Your Woman and Shadow in the Cloud are both fantastic genre movies, but they’re also special for how they’re uniquely about a woman’s perspective on the frustrating limitations of a man’s world. And they’re each written and directed with a very specific twist where no man could go.
Did no one explain to Christopher Nolan that the premise for Tenet is absurd? I don’t mean that as a criticism. I’m just being descriptive. Plenty of solid sci-fi works from an absurd premise. And to Nolan’s credit, it’s an exciting premise. When it’s introduced, the undeniable pull of Tenet is “how the heck is he going to make a movie out of this?” It almost sustains the two-and-a-half-hour running time.
But as that running time stretches out and contorts, it becomes increasingly clear that Nolan is taking it all very very seriously. He will not be fooling around. He will not admit there’s a fundamental but fascinating silliness to what he’s doing. Even the carefully practical visuals can be silly. But it’s a silliness in which the guy telling the joke doesn’t know it’s a joke. He gives it no levity, he has no sense for the cadence of a joke, he leaves off the punchline. It dawns on you he doesn’t realize the joke is a joke. He’s telling it as if it were data.
Tenet belongs with someone who understands absurdity. Like the Coen brothers, or Charlie Kaufman, or the latest generation of Spanish language writers and directors. Nolan should have at least let someone explain to him the concept of the absurd, and maybe even humor. I can’t remember a single light-hearted moment in Tenet. It is ponderous with the weight of its seriousness.
Consider the lead actor. John David Washington is ponderous with the weight of his own seriousness. But he doesn’t have his father’s gravitas. Denzel Washington has built a career on the way he holds a gaze. John David Washington has his father’s gaze, but none of its depth. He just reads as blank. Nolan’s movies need the drive of a Heath Ledger or a Matthew McConaughey. They need someone to inject a little passionate chaos into the meticulous plotting. Tenet barely offers the soothing reassurance of Michael Caine. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo that feels like its there out of a sense of obligation (Nolan’s to Caine or Caine’s to Nolan?).
Even the spectacle in Tenet feels too tightly controlled and dispassionate. The airplane doesn’t break, none of the trucks flip ass-over-teakettle, the battle scene declines to bother with enemy soldiers. Honestly, I have no idea who we were fighting during the big battle scene. It’s as if someone started the Call of Duty match before anyone joined the other team. Sure, it’s all spectacular, cinematic, and characteristically bombastic. No one makes me long for an Imax screen like Nolan. I love how cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures Nolan’s precise art production, burnished colors, and clean lines. Can cinematography be brutalist? But beyond the usual Nolan spectacle, the only thing on offer in Tenet is a premise that folds in on its own lack of self-awareness.
I have a soft spot for fat Russell Crowe. The younger slimmer Russell Crowe was a total badass, but now that he’s older, bigger, and more sedate, he’s sporting an avuncular gruffness. Instead of trying to impress everyone with how tough he is, he resorts to the burnished charm of a guy who used to be tough. As Dr. Jekyll in Universal’s ill-fated Monsterverse, or the token white guy in Man with the Iron Fists, or the crazy uncle in The True Story of the Ned Kelly Gang, his grizzled teddy bear quality has served him well. Watch him considering himself on Google, and you’ll see that Shane Black pegged him perfectly as a soft-boiled detective in The Nice Guys.
But Unhinged, an awkward and uncomfortably mean-spirited thriller, wants to pretend it has cast a Romper Stomper as its villain. It wants a scary and tough Russell Crowe, one so badass that he can rampage across a city murdering and raging because a lady honked her horn at him. But what it gets is a fat, sweaty, wild-eyed Trump voter whose unhinged pyscho schtick is as unconvincing and inconsistent as his Southern accent. He’s less Max Cady and more John Goodman shouting about what you get when you fuck a stranger in the ass. Same performance, totally different tones.
In addition to its casting misstep, Unhinged has boatloads of dumb throughout. The Ford logo on the front of Russell Crowe’s truck conspicuously hidden by a grill because Ford Motor Company probably doesn’t want their product associated with psychos. Random car wrecks as if the production had to spend its car wreck budget or lose it. A kid’s Fortnite strategy invoked as the way to defeat an attacking psycho. An out-of-nowhere comedic one-liner when the bad guy is ultimately defeated. The final lesson learned after all the murder and mayhem being “don’t honk your horn or it might make someone mad”. Then, finally, a breathy ladysong cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper over the end credits. Why Don’t Fear the Reaper? Who knows.
It’s all so tasteless and exploitative. “He could happen to you,” the tagline pleads, imploring you to tap into your fear that some psycho could flip out at any moment and make your life a living hell of inept cops, overacting, and plot contrivances. Urban thrillers are increasingly implausible in this era of cell phones. Poor movies like Unhinged have to struggle comedically with the question “why don’t you just call 911?” Meanwhile, it careens wildly into horror movie territory, playing crassly on the trope of the vulnerable young woman stalked by a psycho. For a movie that plays more artfully with that trope, with fascinating performances by the victim and stalker, check out Alone, directed by John Hyams. Alone knows that actors can pick up where plot contrivances leave off. Unhinged just leaves us all dangling.
Greyhound, a Tom Hanks movie about an ill-fated destroyer captain trying to protect merchant ships from German U-boats in World War II, isn’t terrible because it’s historically loose and absurdly indifferent to realism. Actual World War II submarine combat would be a snooze-fest for people who watch Tom Hanks movies. Even more boring would be the perspective of the destroyer, which drives around and listens to the ocean and sometimes hucks giant bombs into the water. Destroyers aren’t even the ones getting shot at. So no one can blame a filmmaker for wanting to Hollywood it up a little, with submarines and destroyers firing broadsides at each other as if they were in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. With U-boats with actual wolves painted on their conning towers. With German captains prank calling the Allies to make wolf howling noises. Because wolf packs, you see. Not every submarine movie can be Das Boot, and not every submarine movie should be.
It’s also not terrible because Hanks seems to be phoning it in. He spends most of the movie passing orders down a chain of command, often over a literal phone. I suspect he’s trying to sound officious when relaying messages, but he instead sounds like someone doing a bad imitation of how robots are supposed to talk. That Mr. Rogers movie must have really taken it out of him. But Hanks’ flat performance actually works in the context of the movie, because this isn’t Sully. This is a guy who seems like he’s not very good at his job. Regardless of the historical incident, Greyhound portrays its hero as someone uncertain and morose who’d rather be somewhere else as German subs kill all his dudes. We can infer from some unnecessary scenes with Elizabeth Shue as his…daughter?…oops, nope, I called that wrong. We can infer from Elizabeth Shue as his soon-to-be-bethrothed where that somewhere else might be. The script does wag its finger at some plucky British destroyer captains who have a tendency to wander off, but it mostly comes down to a guy who can’t control his fleet and feels really bad about it. No wonder he talks like a robot.
What makes Greyhound a terrible movie is that it has no sense of how to be a movie. It has no structure. It is a series of poorly shot and edited action sequences, all indistinguishable from each other, separated only by brief scenes of Tom Hanks forgetting breakfast or being kind to a seaman or asking for his slippers. Then it’s right back to a bunch of random swooping CG of ships breaking through the waves shooting at something, intercut with Tom Hanks giving an order, quick shots of markings on navigational charts, and sometimes a little screentime for one of the younger actors to look scared or confused. Dramatic music explains that this is all very exciting, very tense. But because Greyhound has no idea how to tie it all together, and most conspicuously no idea how to integrate CG with live action, it just feels like a rough cut of a pitch for a movie. If you’re going to Hollywood it up, you have to know how to Hollywood.
You’d think Jon Stewart would know better. But then you watch Irresistible and you realize he doesn’t. As a director and writer, Stewart seems sadly out of his depth in this facile misguided political comedy. I use the term comedy loosely, since the jokes are flatter than the Wisconsin farmland where they die with a thud. The humor includes lots of Steve Carell leaving the frame and then — ha ha! — having to return to the frame. Or Carell making a lewd gesture and then — ha ha! — realizing an old lady has seen him do it. Or Carell just nattering haplessly. Is Carell doomed to play Michael Scott for the rest of his career? Can we please get more stuff like his canny interpretation of Donald Rumsfeld in Vice?
Irresistible is the story of a small town mayoral race in rural America, Heartland, USA. That’s the title card. No joke. “Rural America, Heartland, USA.” The election captures national attention as it draws big time political operatives played by Carrel and Rose Byrne. Carrel’s supposedly savvy political operative routinely forgets people’s names. As he flies into Wisconsin to recruit a candidate, he’s reading the Wikipedia page for Wisconsin. These seem like the opposite of savvy, but it just goes to show how desperate Irresistible is for laughs. Byrne stands around looking blonde, brittle, and inanimate, presumably doing a Kellyanne Conway impression. Mackenzie Davis scores the most thankless role as a blushing farmer’s daughter who gets to be the voice of indignation in the third act when one of the campaigns — gasp! — dares to run a dirty attack ad.
But where Jon Stewart really disappoints, and where he should definitely know better, is in the strained political element of Irresistible. I’m not sure there’s a message here. It feels like an attempt at a sweetly optimistic political fable from the time of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Why does it make a point of opening on the morning after Trump’s election? What is it doing here and now, in these cruel times? What does it have to tell us about anything contemporary, or even relevant? “Democrats are getting our asses kicked because guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you,” Carrel tells the salt-of-the-earth lily-white rural voters standing in front of the town’s boarded-up storefronts. You can all but feel their economic anxiety. It’s all so naive, glib, and sickeningly saccharine.
And worst of all, at a certain point, Stewart decides he wants Irresistible to be about something else. It’s as if he realized he didn’t have a point, so he changed his mind to make the movie about that thing instead. A sudden plot twist is a weird way to deliver a pandering and sanctimonious lecture about the election process, but I’ll give it credit for one thing. It reminded me it’s time to re-watch Michael Ritchie’s brutal and timeless 1972 political procedural The Candidate. So thanks for that, Irresistible.
There’s a point in these movies, usually fairly early, when the protagonist should really just call the police. You know the movies I’m talking about. The ones where a bad decision leads to a violent thriller. A Good Woman Is Hard To Find, an Irish “bad decision leads to a violent thriller”, sets itself up nicely enough. We meet the lead character, we understand just enough about her to understand her first bad decision or two, and then things get underway. At which point she runs roughshod over about five or six times when she should really just call the police. She doesn’t, of course, because that would cut short the running time.
Once you accept that the script simply won’t allow for calling the police, you’re in pretty good hands because Sarah Bolger carries the movie far more capably than her pretty looks might suggest. As she navigates the downward spiral of bad choices, she wears her vulnerability well, looking tired and wan and terrified. And when it comes time for the pay-off, courtesy of a handful of absurd contrivances, she gets where she needs to go with steely-eyed clarity and strength. A Good Woman Is Hard To Find (I suspect the title is simply a matter of Flannery O’Connor being an awfully Irish name) is directed with bursts of audacity and far too many drone shots of Belfast, but it’s ultimately about watching Bolger carry a mediocre script. A good woman might be hard to find, but as long as you’ve found an actress as good as Bolger, your movie will be fine.
My concern about any follow-up to Turbo Killer, Seth Ickerman’s music video for Carpenter Brut’s song Turbo Killer, is that it will include people talking. At which point, it might collapse back into the soil from which it was grown: the B-movies from the 80s that were mostly bad, but colorful and sometimes fascinating, but still mostly bad. In other words, Beyond the Black Rainbow, or Mandy. Which are colorful and fascinating, but missing entirely the distilled power of Turbo Killer’s appeal. Colorful and fascinating — this usually includes self-indulgent — can only get you so far. Once people start talking, once characters start developing, once room is allowed for drama and decisions and actors, once time slows and four minutes turns into forty minutes and then ninety minutes…at that point, style is not enough. At that point, you’re investing in a story instead of riffing on a feeling.