I’m just gonna throw this out there at the onset: Up until only a few days before I watched it, I thought Netflix’s newest comedy release, “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (not to be confused with “A Song of Ice and Fire”) was centered around a fictional singing competition. Granted, I’ve seen about three full episodes of “American Idol” in my lifetime. So chances were low I’d know about an annual singing competition across the pond, one that’s essentially the Olympics of music with Cirque-du-Soleil-level production values, origins dating back to before 60-year-old Simon Cowell was even born and the ability to boast about introducing ABBA to the world.
Lo and behold, the Eurovision Song Contest is very much a thing—and a wonderfully weird thing at that. And in the best moments of its overlong, overstuffed, but occasionally engaging story, “Eurovision Song Contest” matches the wonderful weirdness of the real-life competition that it’s effectively serving as a pseudo-tribute to. Think “Talladega Nights’” frivolous portrayal of NASCAR, with a few dashes of sincerity.
When James Gunn introduced a blue-skinned Dave Bautista to the moviegoing masses with “Guardians of the Galaxy” in 2014, it was clear from the eminently quizzical Drax’s first quip that the director had found a diamond in the rough—a mass of muscle with a mouth, a penchant for nailing deadpan comedic timing and the occasional pulse of deep-seeded vulnerability.
Bautista maybe didn’t possess the raw charisma of fellow WWE-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson, but there was a novelty to his versatility. It made too much sense that Hollywood would stumble over itself trying to attach the foundling movie actor to big-name projects, whether it be the implied threat of his size or the inherent potential for physical comedy that directors toy around with. “Guardians of the Galaxy” had Bautista making triumphs of that juxtaposition through Drax.
Six years later, that movie (and, to a slightly lesser extent, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) is the only one to get the Bautista Balance™ right. The 51-year-old actor has been cast as goons and he’s been cast as slapstick machines; more often than not, he’s been a go-to choice when a movie needs some one-dimensional brawn. The greatest irony is how, among a certain section of cinephiles (this critic included), Bautista’s most well-regarded performance is a (very) brief dramatic turn as Sapper Morton, the loner replicant attuned to the philosophical who is dispatched by Ryan Gosling in the opening minutes of “Blade Runner 2049.” For how little Bautista is on screen in “2049,” his sensitivity (pre-wrecking-ball mode) is vital in foregrounding the emotional scope of Denis Villeneuve’s epic.
Around the midpoint of “Babyteeth” – a bold and unruly directorial debut awash in impulsive ferocity fit for an early-summer release, even if not in cinemas – its two protagonists, Eliza Scanlen’s Milla and Toby Wallace’s Moses, sway drunkenly to a song being crooned at a sparsely populated club, lost in the ambiguity of their relationship and also reveling in it. She’s 16 and wearing a wig (one that makes her look 15 years older) to cover a shaved head indicating serious illness; he’s 23 with tattoos on his hand and under his eye. We’re long past the point when basic cinematic language has first raised red flags in our mind about that age difference, but “Babyteeth” subtly points out the temporality of this strange attraction—the camera fixes on a nearby karaoke machine, briefly lifting the moment’s luster and suggesting an artificiality to the authenticity of it all. Sometimes, the movie suggests, that’s the best we can possibly hope for.
Australian director Shannon Murphy’s first feature is the latest entry into the canon of stories about coming of age while coming to terms with the deadly clutch of sickness, although “Babyteeth” is more eager to take that contradiction to task than the heart-wrenching “The Fault in our Stars” or idiosyncratic “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” “Babyteeth” cooks up heart-wrenching and idiosyncratic moments of its own, to be sure. But what makes this an invigorating iteration of the sick-teen-girl-meets-a-guy tale is how willing it is to get on the ground level with its characters and embrace the kaleidoscopic states of being – of enduring – that they represent. Cliches are twisted and feelings are complicated, resulting in a reinvigorating new take on familiar material.
If one of our favorite conversations to have as movie-watchers centers on which character actors reign supreme of the Sam Elliotts and Bill Paxtons of the world, maybe it’s time to start talking about character directors. Which filmmakers most consistently blend a screenplay’s tonal specificity with the right actor so that a protagonist’s energy bends the movie to their thoughts, words and actions?
Here’s one for consideration: Judd Apatow, who’s made a habit of jump-starting the intermediate phases of actor’s careers by calibrating his movies to the unique charismas of Seth Rogan, Steve Carrell, Amy Schumer and other comedy acolytes. His latest muse and partner: The heavily tattooed and square-jawed Pete Davidson, who at 26 might just be graduating from SNL mainstay to major big-screen presence with Apatow’s sensible and enjoyable new dramedy, “The King of Staten Island.” Although the film is more effective as a fictionalized testimonial of Davidson’s own life up to this point (he shares writing credit with Apatow and Dave Sirus) than a story with three complete acts, its leading man’s frenzied aura is put fully on display in what might be the most platonic movie Apatow has made to this point in his career.
“The King of Staten Island” follows Davidson’s Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old denizen of the titular New York borough who’s been stuck on first gear in career, love and life ever since his firefighter dad died when he was young enough for the event to be foundational to everything that would come later. Content with lighting up a joint while everyone else in his life is getting a move on in theirs – his sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), is leaving for college; his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei, marvelous), has started seeing someone new; and his lady friend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), wants to be more than friends with benefits – Scott maneuvers his days with grim resignation, and Davidson’s lanky 6-foot-1 frame makes a perfect vessel for Scott’s coiled-up potential. There are occasional suggestions that lingering grief may push it from being a defense mechanism to an excuse for self-harm, but Scott’s otherwise comfortable talking about the uncomfortable things—so long as it’s on his terms.
He wavers between moody, buoyant and aimless (as does the movie), but newfound motivation will bloom behind his deadpan gaze when Margie divulges the new guy she’s seeing is a firefighter just like his dad was. Scott’s wary at the news. He’s happy for his mom moving on, but he’s now got to compromise keeping up with the new relationship without feeling like he’s forgetting his father in the process.
The deft cross-stitching of pathos and crude humor that makes an Apatow movie an Apatow movie is very much apparent in the construction of “King of Staten Island,” a movie of confrontations and reckonings that spark when Scott’s antipathy starts to resemble antagonism. Although Apatow’s sixth feature is comparatively light on his trademark absurdity, filling those spaces is a bittersweet earnestness that has plenty of room to stretch its feet mostly without feeling like an awkward companion to the jokes that tend to come at a spitfire, improvisational-like pace (one hilarious early scene sees Scott and his stoner friends arguing about the ethical and legal merits of tattooing a 12-year-old kid who’s attracted to the ink). “Staten Island” is absolutely one of the funniest movies that the first half of 2020 has brought us so far, and the jokes tend to be thornier than the movie’s drama, especially when filtered through subtle thematic undercurrents of mortality and budding recklessness.
The film’s performances, meanwhile, are its real strength, especially when it comes to Davidson and Tomei, and the latter’s ability to curl a grimace or lob a retort with a New York flavor that makes it impossible to look away. Powley’s Staten Island drawl provides its own magnetic pull, and Bill Burr is a necessary emotional metronome as Margie’s new squeeze; he’s low-key and explosive precisely when he needs to be.
The thing that should be noted about “King of Staten Island” is how personal a story it is for Davidson. In fact, it’s practically his own story. The actor’s real-life father was a firefighter who died in 9/11, so it’s attractive to think of the project as a self-referential piece of therapeutic moviemaking, similar to what last year’s “Honey Boy” represented for Shia LaBeouf. More than being a great actor for Apatow’s sensibilities, it’s easy to see (and easier to understand) why Davidson feels so invested in the performance; when Scott yells “When am I gonna get my break?” there’s a quiet sorrow that may very well connect character and performer.
And yet, “King of Staten Island” never demands our attention more strongly than when Scott tightly shuts his eyes and steps on the gas on a crowded highway before swerving out of the way of disaster at the last second. The scene teases a movie with a stronger bite than Apatow has perhaps ever made; instead, it only loosens its jaws over the next two hours, albeit with plenty of R-rated humor to hold us over.
The movie’s origins may also be why it feels like we’ve arrived at an inevitable place when, in the movie’s overlong final stretch, the film dials down Scott’s coarseness for something much triter and pulls back on the crass for Hallmark-ready sympathy. In one long stretch where Scott rediscovers himself as an adopted child of a fire station, “King of Staten Island” feels like something totally un-Apatow-ian: a redemptive journey where nothing is learned so much as the air around current knowledge is cleared up. There’s nothing distractedly baffling here (Apatow is too smart a filmmaker to trip over himself), but “King of Staten Island” just barely allows us to catch a whiff of the release of frustrations that Scott has kept pent up inside. That’s about as much as we can expect as far as narrative or character development, which in this movie are practically one in the same.
That doesn’t make for an unsatisfying conclusion so much as an indefinite one. Apatow and Davidson trade the microscope for the telescope as “King of Staten Island” zooms out of Scott’s internal anguish to examine an uncharted future in the film’s final moments, which somehow feel like an abrupt ending even after 135 minutes. But there’s nowhere in the movie where its origins are more apparent. If this is a mirror of Davidson’s own experiences, the final shot that sees Scott quite literally looking up and on to a brave new world is as self-reflective as any scene that has come before it.
“The King of Staten Island” is rated R for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images. It’s available to rent on digital platforms now.
Starring: Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr
There’s a solid chance you’ll be reminded of yesteryear’s college admissions bribery scandal – and the strange swirl of unbelievability, irony and contempt that came with it – when watching Cory Finley’s exceptionally nuanced “Bad Education,” which premieres on HBO Saturday night. Some familiar questions might also resurrect themselves as the real-life history of embezzlement by Hugh Jackman’s corrupt Long Island school administrator is uncovered (don’t worry—that’s not a spoiler so much as the “how” and “what’s next”) in a community where affluence is practically the high school mascot. How could they even consider this? Haven’t they got it easy enough? What’s the end game?
The answers aren’t so simple. And the parts of the story that are even less simple is what Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky are interested in—the ethical thicket that leads people like William Singer, Lori Loughlin and Jackman’s Frank Tassone to take advantage of systems that are practically begging to be taken advantage of. “Bad Education” is a white-collar caper loaded with moral ambiguity – though the film itself isn’t morally ambiguous – lifted up by marvelous performances and powered by a surprising amount of thematic depth that makes Finley’s “Thoroughbreds” follow-up as enticing to pick apart as it is satisfying to watch. The dollar amount of Frank’s misdeeds numbered in the millions, but that figure isn’t the end-all, be-all as you’d normally expect from these stories. Continue reading →
Michael Winterbottom does his best Adam McKay impression with “Greed,” an abrasive pseudo-documentary about the global domino effects of corporate-caliber hubris that the English writer-director mostly encourages us to witness lightheartedly until turning the tables on his own satirical tale with implications so real and immediate that you wonder why he didn’t focus his storytelling lens on them in the first place.
Instead, “Greed” is largely motivated on Richard McCreadie’s rise to power as a pompous, fiscally-dubious retail mogul, using the guise of interview-gathering to revisit portions of a life that has always sought the cheapest way to get the most lucrative payout. The movie echoes “Vice” and “The Big Short” with its time-hopping structure and journalist-detective character of Nick (David Mitchell), who works to piece together an explanation of how expertly McCreadie has gamed the system so as to afford a destination birthday in Greece that features the construction of a gladiatorial arena and a live lion (yes, the metaphor only gets more astute as the movie goes on). The fourth wall remains structurally intact in “Greed,” and its educative tangents are cohesive and coherent enough, but the fact these scenes are so scant makes me wonder if a straight documentary – and a straighter filmmaking agenda – might have been more effective. Continue reading →
Bullets zip, buildings go boom and wise-cracking crackles in “Bad Boys For Life,” courtesy – once again – of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s snarky Miami detectives who have a penchant for the destructive when they’re not looking to loft a vulgar dig at the other. Maybe you didn’t need to be reminded of what the “Bad Boys” series made its name on when it bowed in 1995, but then again, maybe you did—especially considering it’s been a whopping 17 years to get from “Bad Boys II” to this latest entry. After all, “Rush Hour,” another buddy cop action-comedy franchise at least partially inspired by “Bad Boys’s” authority-defying antics, pumped out three movies in almost half that time.
So, yeah, it’s been a while – as in, the industry’s reliance on old-school action fare has completely changed – since we’ve seen Smith’s Mike and Lawrence’s Marcus battle South Florida crime, typically while laying waste to heavily-populated areas and creating anxiety for Joe Pantoliano’s twitchy Captain Howard, who also returns for a third trip around the action spectacle sun. And while director Michael Bay, who helmed the first two installments, isn’t applying his bombastic touch this time, co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilaal Fallah (styled as Adil and Bilall) do their best impression of him with another series entry that’s high on powder-keg testosterone and higher on its body count. Continue reading →
“Marriage Story,” Netflix’s newest offering that finds the life-traipsing of writer-director Noah Baumbach at his most soulfully devastating, begins with a pair of monologues from the couple at its center played over scenes from a marriage. You may remember snippets from the trailers – she loves that he’s brilliant, he loves that she’s brave – but some details are missing. Who are these things being said to? Who are they being said for?
The questions are answered early. And, well…it’s complicated. But if you think those mirroring floods of compliments are Charlie and Nicole at their most honest, prepare to be emotionally walloped by “Marriage Story”—one of the very, very best movies of the year.
It isn’t a spoiler to say “Marriage Story” ends with divorce, but this is largely, and marvelously, unlike most divorce movies you’ve seen. It’s certainly not like Baumbach’s own “The Squid and the Whale,” a thornbush of a film in which every other caustic remark rocketed between members of the Berkman family is intended to do maximum damage. In the story of Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, whose mutual vow to keep an initial, seemingly amicable separation free from the tentacles of lawyers is doomed from the start, Baumbach trades in causticity for the infantile inexperience of two people navigating new waters of love and life as they become uneasy participants in contemporary structures meant to pit them against each other. It’s a key choice by Baumbach that Charlie and Nicole aren’t out to make enemies of themselves, and it’s not just for the sake of their son. The auteur is exploring something more heart-wrenching and universal: If we give ourselves completely over to another, what could possibly be left of us when they’re no longer by our side? Continue reading →
You haven’t met a family at the movies this year that’s easier to hate than the chronically self-righteous, self-serving Thrombeys, who shamelessly leech off the wealth of patriarch Harlan – a successful mystery writer – and for whom the suggestion of creating something with their own hands seems more like cruel and unusual punishment than a gentle nudge towards individual autonomy. The movie’s stunning carousel of actors (among them Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis and Chris Evans) fills their shoes with exaggerated greed and understated villainy, but this family’s mask of superiority also indicates something deeply ingrained—a resentment for all things unfamiliar, and for those who enter their cavernous country mansion without permission.
At the start of Rian Johnson’s caustically funny and cleverly-constructed “Knives Out,” the Thrombeys are grieving Harlan’s death. The evidence seems to indicate he committed suicide the week before, just as he had turned 85 at a party attended not just by his family, but also his nurse, Marta (a great Ana de Armas somehow still in the breakout phase of her career). A week later, the police are back for another round of questioning, this time accompanied by man observing from a distance: Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, fiendishly good and spilling words like molasses with a southern drawl). Suffice to say, the case may not be an open-and-shut affair as previously thought, and Johnson, working from his own scrupulous screenplay, continues a career-long mission of leaving his mark on well-worn genres while thematically elevating them to new levels. Continue reading →
In a recent episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church – infamous for putting its hateful ideology on shameless display at the funerals of U.S. servicemembers – discusses liberating herself from the beliefs that had indoctrinated her into an isolated worldview of faux moral righteousness.
The way Megan Phelps-Roper puts it, emerging from the dangerous cocoon of the church was a “devastating” exercise in isolation in and of itself—isolation from everything she had known and from the family that had taught her. The cognitive dissonance was world-shattering, and what followed was the start of a lifelong journey to piece together a new perspective.
“How could we have possibly believed that we alone had had the one true answer, and to believe that everyone else was wrong?” she says. “There was just this special kind of shame and humiliation, and this reminder to me of the need for humility and how we see the world and other people.”
Taikia Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” knows all about the discomforts of changing your entire worldview. Large stretches of it are spent dwelling on the the solitude of being stranded in a moral No Man’s Land, though you’d be forgiven early on for thinking the director of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Thor: Ragnarok” has no intention of broadening himself beyond the sanitized sentimentality of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. The Kiwi auteur is a sucker for pathos here, and it’s best exemplified by the transformation of Roman Griffin Davis’s adorable Jojo, who has exactly the kind of face Pixar storytellers will search for when they begin making live-action movies. Continue reading →