Movies are uniquely suited to building worlds by letting you listen and watch. Traditional exposition is a crutch. Wasted time that could be spent showing me something, letting me catch something in the dialogue. I’m already watching the movie, so I obviously want to be here. And if I’m watching, I’m listening. A movie should take advantage of my attention. It should value it as much as I do. It should reward me. It should appreciate that I decided to be here.
There aren’t many movies that appreciate my attention as much as Prospect.
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Although the 1977 horror movie The Car belongs in the killer car genre, the template was Jaws. Move Amity from a coastal town into the desert. Change the shark to a demonic driverless car. Otherwise, pretty much everything else is the same. A small-town sheriff, mysterious casualties, Fourth of July celebrations interrupted by a public attack, an old man with unique insight enlisted for a third act hunt, and everything resolved by an explosion. The Car ended with the car vanquished. Or did it? The credits played over footage of the car driving around a city. Hmm. So it wasn’t buried forever in a desert canyon?
That’s where I come in.
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Judy Greer’s initial appeal was her girl-next-door beauty, straight out of Central Casting into the fantasy waitress role in Adaptation. But as she’s segued from girl-next-door to soccer-mom-next-door, her real appeal has emerged as something else. A quirky but earnest zeal. Sweetness and light, offset by just the right amount of crazy behind the eyes. When she smiles, it’s equal parts maternally beatific and ex-girlfriend lunatic. “You’ll never see these again!” she screeches as she rips open her blouse on Arrested Development.
So far, 2018 has dropped her into a handful of thankless roles. The mom in 12:17 to Paris, the mom in Ant Man and the Wasp, the mom in Halloween. I’m sensing a pattern here, along with a waste of her unique appeal. Fortunately, there is also this year’s Adventures in Public School, a lightly profane but affably Canadian coming of age comedy that gets Greer better than any of the expensive Hollywood nonsense that cast her just because she’s pretty.
The movie opens with a voiceover about the cosmos. Ugh. It seems our protagonist will be a gratingly self-aware precocious teenager written by a gratingly self-aware screenplay writer. Fortunately, our protagonist is played by the immensely likable Daniel Doheny who scrubs any grating self-awareness from the script and replaces it with sincerity. He plays a homeschooled teenager who longs to experience public education, much to the chagrin of Greer as his fiercely helicopter mother. The two of them are wrapped in a mother/son bubble of socially awkward obliviousness. They would be creepy if they weren’t so cute. When she realizes he’s on the verge of a sexual awakening, and probably about to lose his virginity, she steals into his room one night. “Let’s do it now, together, and get it out of your system in a safe and responsible way,” she tells him while they lie in bed, face to face.
“Do what together?” he asks. It doesn’t occur to him what occurs to us because their world revolves around their bond, where nothing is inappropriate because everything is well-intentioned.
“Rebel,” she says. For the next day’s homeschooling lesson, they will practice swearing. Greer will later produce a joint for the two of them to smoke together. “A supervised first try,” she calls it, taking the first hit. “Ooh, it’s burny,” she says. Then, giggling, “It’s Bernie Sanders.” It fits her so well that I can’t tell if it’s improvised. Director Kyle Rideout and his script are in love with Greer’s zeal. His movie is built around it. It thrives on it. It is fueled by it. Although it fancies itself a denizen of Napoleon Dynamite territory, Wes Anderson adjacent, Greer gives it something more. And because Doheny adroitly matches her quirky zeal, their relationship relocates it into the same territory as Eighth Grade. Adventures in Public School doesn’t have the heart, insight, or celebratory joy of Eighth Grade — what movie does? — but they’re still of a piece, exploring the interaction between a child finding his way and a parent trying her best to find the impossible sweet spot between helping and letting go. This is where Judy Greer belongs. Take note, Hollywood. Moms can be more than pretty actresses delivering their lines.
If you come to this movie expecting something from the director of Blue Ruin and Green Room, and from the writer of I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, you will be bitterly disappointed. If you don’t, you will be merely disappointed. Either way, you will sit through a slow and meandering thriller [sic] that flirts with mysticism and biology, but eventually wanders out into the wilderness with no place specific in mind. Director Jeremy Saulnier and writer Macon Blair seem curiously uninvested in this adaptation of a novel. Hold the Dark plays out as if it were thrust onto a director and writer who don’t quite know what to do with it. It lurches along like something based on a book that doesn’t lend itself to a screenplay.
The story and tone live in the same latitudes as a Scandinavian crime potboiler, but minus clarity or focus. It begins intriguingly enough. A woman calls upon a naturalist to track down the wolf that killed her son. He’s ambivalent about the whole thing, and he even has ulterior motives for answering her call. As you’ll discover over the course of two hours plus a little change, the movie isn’t even about this.
Jeffrey Wright is one of his generation’s greatest actors. So why is he spending so much time playing characters who are mostly just confused? His role in Hold the Dark is too similar to all those hours in Westworld he spends not knowing what’s going on. Compare this to Wright in A Single Shot, also a slow dark thriller about violence in remote rural tracts, in which he’s devastated because he knows precisely what’s going on. At times, it’s not even clear whether Hold the Dark is about him. At times, it’s about whatever is going on with Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgard, who are the opposite of confused, but aren’t inclined to share with the rest of the movie what they know.
The real standout moment in Hold the Dark is an encounter between James Badge Dale and an actor named Julian Black Antelope. Dale is a typical outsider sheriff you find in movies, policing people he can’t possibly understand, but not for lack of trying. He is compassion and justice in a situation where compassion doesn’t help and justice doesn’t exist. Antelope is an aggrieved Native American left to wither in a backwater village. He looks like Christopher Lee and he’s even got a touch of Lee’s imposing presence. Hold the Dark explodes into life during their scene, and here you can see Saulnier bringing in the poignance of Blue Ruin and the cruel bite of Green Room. The exchange between these two characters belongs in a better movie.
Taylor Sheridan wrote and directed Wind River, which is what Hold the Dark feels like it’s attempting. Both movies try to express how different it is in the remote northern wilderness. How the air and land and people are of a piece, and none of those pieces fit neatly into the modern world of cities and multiculturalism and social safety nets. Both movies are punctuated by bursts of horrifically plausible violence. Both movies have important points to make. But only one movie manages to bring together its characters with its setting and its themes. It’s not Hold the Dark.
Baoz Yakin’s last movie, Max, was about Kate Mara saving a disabled dog. When the name of the movie is also the name of the dog, you know what you’re getting. Fun for the whole family, assuming the whole family enjoys saccharine animal movies. But now he’s made this bloody burlesque? Don’t be fooled by the prosaic title. Boarding School is a delighfully macabre coming-of-age freak show, in which each development is weirder than the next.
The key to this horror show is Luke Prael, an aburdly pretty child actor whose prettiness was one of the running jokes in the movie Eighth Grade. But he’s no joke here. Although he’s a bit stiff, he’s admirably fearless. He needs to be since Boarding School plays subversively with gender identity and sexuality. This isn’t the Spielburg/King homage you might expect when the title card says, “The 90s”. It’s dressed to kill at sleepaway camp. It wants to let the right one in. This stuff can be dicey when it involves kids. It can be even dicier when the kids have serious disabilities. And even dicier still in a movie about murder, ghosts, monsters, vampires, Nazis, and Will Patton’s malevolent smirk.
Patton’s having a great time in Boarding School, and he’s squarely in the “giving no fucks” stage of his career as a character actor. He affects a pinched voice and an old coot demeanor. Such weird choices given the Dickensian cruelty of his character! But because the payoff comes down to conversations and decisions, weird works. Any ol’ horror movie about the demented principal of a scary boarding school can culminate in gratuitous bloodletting. Boarding School certainly isn’t shy about gore (a throat-slitting scene is uncomfortably memorable). But Yakin has been writing long enough to know that blood and fire are no substitute for conversations and decisions. And he writes well enough to ask, “Why not both?”
Extinction starts out as an alien invasion movie. As one of the invadees, Michael Pena plays a family everyman. It’s nice to see him as something other than a Hispanic sidekick, comic relief, or a comic relief Hispanic sidekick. Lizzy Caplan plays his wife. It’s nice to see her as something other than a token female playing thankless second fiddle to a male lead. Hopefully I’ll get to see that in a movie soon, but until then, I watched Extinction.
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If a movie can’t be good, at least it should be pretty. And if it can’t be pretty, at least it should be memorably gaudy. That’s where Terminal lives. This trite flash of neon noir plays like a community theater version of Sin City. The dialogue is the sort of oh-so-self-aware wordplay that an actual playwright might have written when he was still learning to write plays. The story is a mostly conventional femme fatale fable with precisely the unexpected twist you expect; the only reason you didn’t see it coming was because it’s all just made up at the end. Surprise! Every enthusiastically lit set looks like a first pass at concept art, drawn by someone whose only exposure to film noir is The Matrix. Shadows and fog not included.
But the appeal of Terminal is that its cast of accomplished actors is dedicated enough not necessarily to pull it off, but to at least give it a real go. Simon Pegg with the beard and brow of a Tsarist Russian intellectual; Max Irons as the slow witted and square jawed patsy; Dexter Fletcher and his unabashed mutton chops playing a vicious East End thug. Mike Meyers dons fake teeth and meanders through a couple of cameos. But above all else, Terminal offers Margot Robbie gamely reprising her Harley Quinn character, mad as a hatter and happy to slather on the make-up and gruesome grin to prove it. She’s nothing if not committed, and despite the dopey dialogue, cheap sets, and comic book visuals, she’s fascinating to watch. If Robbie can find her own Tim Burton, she’s guaranteed a career of caricatures as riveting as Johnny Depp’s. I, Tonya for the serious recognition with an occasional Terminal to show she’s still happy to come out and play.
I wear glasses. I would not survive in the wild. I would be one of the last to see a predator coming. My weak eyes would be culled from the genetic pool. Humanity would be stronger for it. But that’s not how humanity works, at any level. Whether it’s the near-sighted, the simple-minded, the infirm, the sickly, or even the completely shattered, our capacity for empathy compels us to value all human life. The religious traditions that knitted this into our civilization fall away, yet we still feel it keenly. It is a fundamental part of humanity. We believe more in being alive than being strong.
Chloe Zhao’s The Rider is a laconic yet lyrical expression of this idea, found in the barren expanse of South Dakota, among people who have the audacity to sit on top of a thousand pounds of brutish flesh that don’t want to be sat on. It bears a structural similarity to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke’s character, beset by age, injury, and exhaustion, can no longer do what he’s been doing all his life. His resolution is tragic and perhaps relatable, but facile. Might as well jump, The Wrestler eventually concludes.
The Rider knows the question of survival isn’t that simple. You can contrast the two movies by their relationship to staples. They’re the opening in The Rider and a turning point in The Wrestler, but each making a point about the limitations of the flesh. Both movies are about entertainers who wrestle brute strength into submission as a form of showmanship. But whereas The Wrestler belongs in the world of contrived stagecraft, The Rider situates itself alongside a very different world, an older world, a world that lives in the land, with a relationship to history and nature. The scene of Brady extending his hand to a panicked horse, a gesture combining empathy and dominion, puts him in a tradition going back through the Comanche, the Spaniards, the Mongols, the Macedonians, all of whom built empires on the backs of their powerful horses. But we don’t do empires anymore, at least not with cavalry. Horses, like cowboys, are a relic.
Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, a vicious sneer at the lack of empathy among the rich, uses horses as a metaphor. Actual horses are barely in the movie. But Zhao, who obviously appreciates the seemingly indomitable power of these beasts, isn’t interested in metaphors. She’s interested in truths. Before I saw The Rider, the only thing I knew about it was that it starred Rodrigo Santoro, who I’ve seen most recently as Thandie Newton’s cowboy love interest in Westworld. Or so I thought from looking at the poster. Boy, did I feel silly. To understand Zhao’s lack of interest in metaphors, to understand her approach to the usual trappings of moviemaking, acting, and even storytelling, to understand that The Rider is about inveterate truths that define humanity, you need look no further than the cast list.
Whenever a teacher is giving a lecture in a movie, you can bet the subject of the lecture is relevant to the movie. No writer or director worth his salt is going to have someone droning on in front of a class about something irrelevant. Here is the opportunity to invoke something erudite from literature or physics or biology. But during the couple of classroom scenes in Hereditary, I didn’t quite understand what writer/director Ari Aster was getting at with specific references to Greek tragedies. He had yet to show me what he was doing.
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Does cinema need an homage to the excesses of 70s rapesploitation? Because that’s precisely what first-time writer/director Coralie Fargeat has done in this formulaic throwback to utter trash like Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and others I’d just as soon not name (Spanish horror director Adrian Bogliano is responsible for a particularly egregious one in 2004). Her debut movie, Revenge, suggests it’s time to make rapesploitation fun again.
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Thumper begins as an artsy look at the life of high school kids with all their social media and first loves and difficulties in school and casual drug use and absent parents. Leads Eliza Taylor and Daniel Webber positively glow as a young couple, ablaze with bright blue eyes and radiant smiles. But Taylor doesn’t quite fit. She’s got too much presence to play a high school student in a movie about the travails of vacuous youth. Beneath the self-assured sexuality of a young Kathleen Turner, there’s something maternal about her, something with the wholesome midwestern quality of a zaftig Reese Witherspoon. She has gravity beyond her years, or at least beyond the years of the character she’s playing. She’s as out of place as a 22 Jump Street character. Thumper knows just what to do with this disconnect.
Writer/director Ross Jordan has a background in MTV docudrama, which presumably informed this movie’s starting point. But Thumper doesn’t stay where it begins. By the time it has strayed into conventional territory, dragging a trail of cliches behind it, it has at least come in from a new direction. The cast can handle the familiar beats, with Pablo Schreiber charging ahead. When Taylor’s character asks him if he’s a shepherd, he demurs to deliver a small speech about the disaffected lower class, tinged with just the right amount of racism to sound real. But Schreiber is a shepherd here. Without his presence, Thumper probably wouldn’t work, and Jordan’s cliches would sink instead of skipping across the surface. Schreiber is an actor in the middle of a fascinating career, spanning crime thrillers and arthouse comedies, action schlock and serious drama, TV and movies. Come to Thumper for its attractive blonde leads, freshly imported from Australia (it’s a real hoot to listen to Taylor and Webber in interviews, accents in full bloom). Stay for the Schreiber.
Mickey Keating wants us to know he’s seen Taxi Driver. Well, at least the shoot out at the end. In Psychopaths, a new low for the most uninteresting horror director working today, he restages a snippet of the brothel shootout, shot for shot. He also wants us to know he’s seen Audition. Well, at least the torture scene at the end. But Martin Scorsese and Takashi Miike understand that something needs context to be truly horrific. The ends of Taxi Driver and Audition wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without the rest of the movie laying the groundwork. Which is why those scenes are at the end and not merely edited in at some random spot. Keating apes, without understanding, to such a degree that his movie is barely even a movie.
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There’s only so much you can do with characters lost in the woods stalked by a malicious supernatural presence. At some point, the presence is just going to kill them or drive them mad. Now the story is over. GG.
But Adam Neville’s novel, The Ritual, realizes this. So after subjecting its lost characters to brutality, exhaustion, and terror, it does something different and a little silly. It goes from scarily horrific to absurdly horrific. If you were to turn it into a movie, it would feel like two different movies. Maybe even a bait and switch. Which explains why the adaptation of The Ritual, just released on Netflix, is completely uninterested in the second half of Neville’s novel. What’s left is competent, but mostly unremarkable. There’s only so much you can do with characters lost in the woods stalked by a malicious presense.
The script leans a little too hard into exploring the main character’s psyche, which is problematic when he’s the least interesting character. At least Rafe Spall is pretty good at doing least interesting. And director David Bruckner visually manifests his psyche in some strange set pieces. If you look at The Ritual as a creature feature, it does what it needs to do, despite a forced attempt to live up to the title. But if you’re looking for a lively twist or an unexpected payoff, you’re just going to have to read Neville’s book. The woods in this adaptation are well trodden and entirely familiar.
Oh, the stress of life in an upper middle class family! It’s the stuff of horror movies, I tell you! The cringeworthy Better Watch Out plays it straightish and comes out poorly, partly for the weak cast. A young psycho takes his babysitter hostage and gore ensues. A far better example is McG’s over-the-top style and lead actress Samara Weaving’s unwavering commitment in the very tongue-in-cheek and just horrific enough The Babysitter. I suppose you could put Get Out in this category as well. All is not well among the comfortably affluent! But by far the best example is the wickedly funny Mom and Dad.
Writer/director Brian Taylor was half of the Nevaldine/Taylor duo responsible for the Crank movies and the Ghost Rider sequel. Their absurdity showed an unabashed self-awareness, from the writing to the editing, and everything in between. If you didn’t want to see Jason Statham attaching jumper cables to his nipples, you could go watch a Transporter movie. If you didn’t want to see Nicholas Cage peeing fire, you could go watch a Spider-Man movie. These guys were doing action movies on their own terms: bold, energetic, ridiculous, and juvenile. But most of all energetic.
Brian Taylor’s first solo project, as writer and director, is Mom and Dad. It’s a sort of latter day version of The Crazies, but with a subversive subtext about the frustration of parenthood. Before the crazies arrive, Taylor wants you to know he’s here to observe the way each generation falls out of touch with the next. “Would you mind not Facebooking when we’re driving together?” the aggrieved Selma Blair asks her snotty daughter in the car on the way to school. “It’s the only time we have together.”
“Facebooking?” her daughter mutters derisively.
Before you groan when I tell you Nicholas Cage is in this, let me point out that the problem with Nicholas Cage is movies that don’t know how to use him. That’s not an issue with Mom & Dad where his tics and outbursts and random bodyjerks are a perfect fit. What if Nicholas Cage was your dad, his midlife crisis in full bloom? And then what if what happens in Mom & Dad happened? Now we’re talking the stuff of horror movies. To Selma Blair’s credit, she keeps up.
Before Louis CK cemented his legacy as the guy who whipped out his dick, he had a great bit about his kids being assholes. This frank insight into the frustration of parenthood was nearly unique. Who calls their kids assholes? Who does that? Mom & Dad, a keen and energetic jolt of social satire, does that and then some.
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If you like ponderous emo Westerns that consist largely of tearful goodbyes and somber burials to teach characters Valuable Life Lessons that culminate in a career Indian killer redeeming himself by disemboweling a racist during a standoff that pits Federal authority against property rights, look no further than Hostiles!
It’s not enough that the script is a facile examination of the brutality of the American West and the treatment of Native Americans. Hostiles is sometimes even shot ineptly. In one conversation between Ben Foster and Christian Bale, the camera is positioned in such a way that it looks like Bale is talking to a tree. He might as well have been, given how the cast is squandered. Writer/director Scott Cooper has made a career of squandering talented actors. Jeff Bridges stuck in a schmaltzy country music yarn in Crazy Heart, then Casey Affleck and some other people in the forgettable Out of the Furnace, then Johnny Depp in vampire make-up to play mob informant Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, and now a cavalcade of solid actors putting on period garb to play characters who talk about their feelings while Christian Bale whisperacts hard enough to nearly pop that vein under his eye.
Cooper seems to have been watching The Searchers. He seems to think he’s written a Blood Meridian. He seems to think he’s shot a Revenant. No such things have happened. At the end of the movie, during the eighth or ninth tearful good-bye, Christian Bale says a tearful good-bye to Rosamund Pike. Then she gets on a train. Then he waits for a bit before getting on the same train. You know that awkward moment when you say good-bye to someone but then realize you’re both going the same way, so you futz around to kill time and let the other person get ahead? It’s like that caught on film. At least it looked that way. What probably happened is the character made some sort of decision, or maybe he got on a different train, or maybe the editing was just screwy. But if a movie can’t even sort out the departing schedules of its main characters, it’s got a long way to go before it conveys any Valuable Life Lessons about how racism was/is bad.