Review: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” examines a city and a friendship through the lens of identity

There are many moments in Joe Talbot’s new film, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” in which serene sequences you expect to be able to sink into – the focused painting of a windowsill, the playing of a piano, the beginning of a life-affirming speech – are shattered all-too-early, interrupted by reality. And reality, in this movie, is a thing to reckon with at every street corner; its most enticing versions are manufactured, or else the ugliest of situations are dressed in bright optimism destined to burn out before we’d had a chance to prepare for it.

The film is one of the more hopeful stories of hopelessness I’ve ever seen. It’s stuffed with a Wes Andersian air of whimsy and engrossing shots of a city mired in gentrification, but also brimming with an urban melancholy spray-painted on the walls of commercial manifest destiny—though you wouldn’t know it by the pair of best friends at the movie’s center, its beating heart. Continue reading →

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Review: Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is madness served with a side of sunshine

I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt so guiltily vindicated by a movie as with the final act of Ari Aster’s sun-bleached, dread-dripping “Midsommar,” a film that bears its blood weight in flower petals and doesn’t leave you forlorn so much as utterly disarmed.

I should have expected as much. After the writer-director burst into our consciousness with last year’s swervingly subversive “Hereditary,” I should have remembered that the best method of preparation for his follow-up, by comparison a movie whose terror comes from a much more personal place, would probably be not trying to prepare for it at all.

This time around, Aster’s destination is completely, and masochistically, at odds with his methodology, a project with so much tonal juxtaposition that it’s a bit of a miracle it ends up working as well as it does, even if it takes some time adjusting to its contours.“Midsommar” is a movie about inevitability, the not-so-sweet period of denial about eventual loss and refusing to anticipate its arrival; the feeling we’ve all had that we’ll do anything to stave off an apocalypse – be it death or breakup or the execution of insidious acts – before the worst kind of realization sets in that you can’t even delay it a moment. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Murder Mystery’ is one of the most Neflixy Netflix movies yet

[An edited version of this review was initially published on The Playlist, and can be viewed here.]

 

What most people might expect to be a source of endless riffing – or, at least, what I expected – in Netflix’s “Murder Mystery” is something the movie never really acknowledges, let alone uses as a punchline. Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, America’s eternal schmuck and its ageless beacon of beauty, playing a couple of 15 years? “Surely there’s gotta be some joke in there,” I kept thinking to myself over its 100ish minutes.

There isn’t, and in a movie that uses nimble meta fingers to play around with Agatha Christie tropes in contemporary Europe, I’m not sure whether the hesitancy to poke fun at “Murder Mystery’s” most eye-catching detail is a result of restraint or a missed opportunity to dive further into the goofier personality of a movie that has too many of them to ever feel cinematically unique.

Essentially, that mystery defines watching “Murder Mystery,” an experience that’s perhaps as amusing as we should expect, given its platform and lack of real surprise. Netflix has ushered in a world where the decision of what new movies to watch is as low-stakes as ever, and if “Murder Mystery” – a movie with lots of homicide and a couple on the run from the law in a foreign country – is triumphant about one thing, it’s its complete absence of stakes. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Booksmart’ braves the wilds of high school in Olivia Wilde’s directorial bow

If there’s one thing to take away from “Booksmart,” Olivia Wilde’s rambunctious and unexpectedly tender directorial debut, it’s the assurance that these high school comedies will never feel outdated. There isn’t a more appropriate canvas for filmmakers to paint loss-of-innocence stories than the final, unsure, panic-inducing hurrahs of high school, but the template feels more malleable than ever.

Leave it to John Carney and Greta Gerwig and Greg Mottola to prove as much, their respective efforts united only by their timelessness.

Like engaging in questionably legal or sexually awkward adventures for the first time with people we only thought we knew before, the act of watching a high school story is a special kind of communal movie-going experience. We’re all drawn together by the shared lack of knowledge and preparation over just what the hell we were getting ourselves into that characterized those last few days of teendom; the raw truthfulness goes hand-in-hand with the “Yep, been there” weary-but-sweet nostalgia.    Continue reading →

Review: Theron stunningly powers ‘Long Shot,’ in which politicians try to act their age

There’s a lot of unsubtle implication in “Long Shot.” So very many will be turned off by it. I rather think it works in its favor.

The comparable presence of things said and unsaid – many times they’re one in the same – powers the movie’s comedy, its sweet core and the unexpected veracity of its progressive commentary, which provides the political rom-com a greater degree of substance than initially expected to the first third of that trifold description.

The movie is funny. Really funny. And the high levels of enthusiasm forming the foundation of its jokes and romance over roughly two hours, the stuff that makes watching “Long Shot” akin to peering into a warped alternate timeline of our own political reality, ensure the movie is simultaneously a time capsule of starkly 2019 window dressing and an evergreen suggestion of accountability on the part of those whose steady gaining of influence correlates with a slow drying-up of conviction at the well of power. Continue reading →

Review: In ‘The Favourite,’ Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz battle for adoration

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest work, politicians squawk and squabble, insult and chastise, demean and decry. It’s a time of war, but personal status and desire are much bigger priorities than frontline strategy, and a royal palace that increasingly feels populated by childish personalities rarely puts country first.

Lanthimos and Co. probably weren’t expecting or intending for “The Favourite” to have so much in common with the American political hellscape of 2018, but this delightfully deranged retelling of power struggles in 18th-century England makes for eerie and enticing comparison. During an age when it’s become increasingly difficult for satirists to make hyperbolic sense of our world, “The Favourite” –  a period piece “Mean Girls” with layers of complexity – smashes us over the head with (mostly) historically accurate allegory. Continue reading →

Review: Cinema’s iconic alien hunter deserves better. Maybe that means putting him to rest.

Something was always going to give.

The space-time continuum splintered when it was announced, seemingly a decade ago, that Shane Black would helm the next installment of the unquenchable “Predator” franchise.

On one hand, you have a nostalgia-fueled auteur responsible for two of the smarter comedy-mysteries of the 2000s. On the other, he’s taking on a sci-fi property in freefall correlating with an insistence to stay bound by shackles of self-seriousness. Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Juliet, Naked,’ a delightful (if unfinished) updating of the love triangle trope

We all have idols. Human monuments – whether in the public’s consciousness or merely our own individual headspaces – who we venerate in blogs or by internal means.

But in those obsessions, do we ever stop to monitor ourselves, and consider how we believe they influence the world don’t mirror how they perceive themselves? Have we ever thought about what we’d say if we ever met them, or worse, if they alleged our perceptions are off-target?

That’s one of a few simultaneously interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts explored in Jesse Peretz’s “Juliet, Naked.” It’s also arguably its most interesting, interweaving adoration and comically exaggerated (or perhaps not?) reverence, though the one Peretz spends the least amount of time deconstructing. Continue reading →

Review: Boots Riley announces his presence with authority and absurd satire in ‘Sorry To Bother You’

There’s a moment early in the third act of Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” when the writer-director crosses a line.

It’s not the line, but only because there are several borders to increasingly absurd territory over the film’s runtime. It’s not completely non-sequitor, because anything less might stall the plot’s exponentially batshit crazy momentum.

And you can’t quite argue against it, because it’s a plot development that might hue quite close to normalcy—at least that’s what we come to believe after spending some time in Riley’s head. Continue reading →

Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ brings humanity to one of cinema’s biggest running gags

“You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself. But please don’t hurt each other.”

Tommy Wiseau has become known to say that when appearing at screenings of his 2003 disasterpiece, “The Room.”

Now, after 14 years, it’s near impossible to get through “The Disaster Artist” – Wiseau’s biopic and the story behind the greatest worst movie ever made – without laughing, crying, smiling, recoiling or having any other kind of visceral reaction.

For a film that radiates irony through the very fact that it was made, and made very well, that experience must bring it all full circle for Wiseau and his cult hit to rule all cult hits. For years he was the butt of a joke, sometimes even in on it. But thanks to James Franco, his story is now an unexpectedly inspiring one, a seemingly hyberbolic but very real ode to reaching for the stars – even if we can barely lift our arms above our head. Continue reading →