Even with all the movies I’ve seen this year – and, yes, they have continued to come out amid a pandemic and cinema closures – I’m having a hard time recalling a louder audible reaction that exited my lips than when a CGI dolphin penis slaps the face of Nasim Pedrad’s lovelorn Wesley in Netflix’s new instant anti-classic “Desperados.”
On one hand, a movie is typically doing something right if it gets a visceral reaction from its audience, or at least achieving its intended effect. On the other hand, “Desperados'” intentions are suspect at best; this was a reaction induced not by narrative or cinematic ingenuity, but by my astonishment that a “comedy” that has limited its punch lines to *checks list* cultural stereotypes, shallow sexism, ostensible pedophilia and rampant vulgarity (and that’s just in the first 40 minutes) could find new depths to its baseless depravity in computer-generated dolphin genitalia. Whatever doubt there may have been up to this point that “Desperados” – a movie with tropes and turns that movies were making fun of 30 years ago – was largely trying to appeal to 12-year-old boys vanishes with a slap heard ‘round the world. The movie may as well have been written by 12-year-old boys.
In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new fraught-family drama, “The Truth,” a matriarch makes the decision to blast off into space so that she may never grow old, paving the road for an inevitable reckoning on emotional isolation when her daughter eventually comes to visit, having grown much older than she has remained.
Don’t worry, you’re reading the right review. While Kore-eda tends to keep his characters rooted firmly (physically, if not spiritually) to solid ground, “The Truth” – the filmmaker’s follow-up to the Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters,” and his first non-Japanese project – keys up a movie-within-a-movie concept to build a narrative nesting doll of mother-daughter relationships, effectively setting up the selective storytelling nature of filmmaking as a refraction point for the hashing out of real-world familial arguments stemming from murky personal histories.
The movie is as emotionally ambitious as it sounds. And against the backdrop of a style of filmmaking that can feel layman until it’s suddenly as lustrous as briefly gazing up into the cosmic infinite, “The Truth’s” central metaphor mostly pulls it off, especially as an observation of people whose stories are tied to the fake lives and tales of the movies. But there’s also an overabundance of characters, perspectives and tangents in the folds of Kore-eda’s latest, resulting in a tangle of unrefined arcs and an overall story that struggles to compromise between the overlap of interpersonal journeys and obvious destinations.
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.
Life’s cruelties are casual and reconciliation is rare in Bora Kim’s tender whisper of a drama, “House of “Hummingbird,” a kaleidoscopic collection of experiences so steeped in detail and specific insight that it borders on the autobiographical. It’s a wondrous movie that understands the power of drawing out the silence in an interaction and of punctuating it with a brief explosion of cathartic rage.
And Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) has plenty to be enraged about, even as she spends most of the time bottling it up inside—a silent maelstrom of adolescent confusion and passiveness. Taking place in Seoul in the mid-90s, “House of Hummingbird” enlists a temperate, observational caliber of filmmaking – almost as if Kim is reaching out to her protagonist as we follow Eun-hee through the motions of urban life in school and at home, in private thoughts and strained reflection. She doesn’t walk through her days so much as she withstands them; in ways subtle and not so subtle, she’s constantly made into a target by others around her, often to deflect their own shortcomings in an environment that places paramount importance on getting to college.
The thing that’s most impressive about “7500” – a new high-altitude thriller from German filmmaker Patrick Vollrath that’s as succinct as it is complacent – isn’t exactly something I’m jumping at the bit to praise. It’s not as much the specifics of the (lackluster) narrative or (dubious) subject matter that have left me wary, but the implications reflecting back on a director fashioning himself less as an artist and more of a technician. For his feature debut after spending the last decade in the realm of shorts (including 2015’s Oscar-nominated “Alles wird gut”), Vollrath has made a 90-minute action-drama about a hijacked plane that exists solely as an exercise in emotional and aesthetic restraint, de-pressurizing the high stakes you’d expect from its elevator pitch for the sake of seeking – and failing to find – some enlightenment about cross-cultural connection.
Vollrath’s unusual intentions are rooted – first via a hint, then by broad strokes – in the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, returning in his first leading role since 2016’s “Snowden” as the co-pilot of a Paris-bound flight targeted by Islamic terrorists (more later on that unfortunate element). The slick-voiced homeliness that has serviced the 39-year-old JGL well in some movies (“Brick,” “(500) Days of Summer”) and not so well in others (“Inception,” “Snowden”) is weaponized in “7500”; as Tobias Ellis, he’s as stoic as a monk as he greets the jet’s captain (spoiler: he won’t last long) and goes through the pre-flight checklist, offering little more than a chuckle when the final two passengers arrive moments before takeoff. In the context of the uniform he’s wearing, the strict attention to the job makes sense.
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
When Elisabeth Moss’s Shirley Jackson tells a living room full of fans that the next thing her character is writing is “a little novella I’m calling ‘None of Your Goddamn Business’” – coating the jab with delicious acidity – you can practically feeling yourself strapping in for another exhilarating performance from another exhilarating 37-year-old actress. As with “The Invisible Man” earlier this year, “Her Smell” last year and numerous other turns in the last decade, Moss delivers—in the way she leers and silently searches without ever betraying what’s going on behind her eyes. But she isn’t the only one cloaking hidden intentions.
In Josephine Decker’s beguiling, sexy and strange new movie, “Shirley” – about the famous 20th mystery author, and also much, much more – devilishness is a siren song. Sidestepping traditional biopic conventions, the movie is more invested in insight than fact; while “Shirley’s” narrative contours will be much clearer to the audience than Decker’s last movie, 2018’s triumphant “Madeline’s Madeline,” intentions are no less difficult to decipher (and the endeavor is no less intoxicating). Moss’s acting ability becomes more than just sheer attraction for a movie that fashions itself a thriller before taking on the trappings of psychosexual drama in a story of muse and artist, although the tale is less “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and more akin to something Edgar Allen Poe would have dreamt up. Continue reading →
“This movie almost destroyed me,” Guillermo del Toro confesses in his director’s message on the home video release of his 2006 masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” (“El laberinto del fauno” in the film’s native language). The statement is a bit startling for an auteur whose appeal is measured in the sheer confidence he holds in the beauty of his strange creations.
The words make more sense after you’ve seen the film. If there’s one trait that’s endured in the Mexican filmmaker’s nearly-20-year career of feature-length stories about monsters and passions, netherworlds and inner struggle, it’s how personal his movies seem to be; his emphasis on flawed characters, practical effects and melancholy via violence are the first indications. There isn’t always triumph for his protagonists, but we’re not usually left with a sense of ambiguity either. In that regard, “Pan’s Labyrinth” remains del Toro’s greatest work because it remains his greatest act of artistic compromise—the story is as much about the search for escape amid crisis as it is about the bittersweet acknowledgement that searching might not yield answers. That also makes it painfully relevant in 2020. Continue reading →