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Blinded by the Light
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Serenity not to be confused with the "Firefly" spin-off movie, is a bizarre and enthralling experience. For every great new entry into the McConaissance, our favorite naked bongo-playing actor has to give us an equally bad flick from the shadow realm to maintain balance in the universe. In the same few months he gave us Moondog in Harmony Korine's The Beach Bum, Matthew McConaughey must have still been vacationing in the Bahama's where he ran into Steven Knight and said "alright, alright, alright" to whatever the director pitched to him in a tequila/prozac-induced stupor.
Get a load of this. McConaughey is trying to catch a large tuna fish named "Justice", but he can hear his son talking to him in his head. Then his ex-wife, Anne Hathaway, asks him to kill Jason Clarke (because who doesn't want him dead, amirite? he sucks, and he's in everything). A whole bunch of questionable stuff happens, then McConaughey finds out that his life is weird because he's a video game character. Then he breaks out of the matrix, and I'm not sure but I think he's actually a ghost in the afterlife which is a fishing RPG his son made to deal with his death. The boy codes his abusive stepfather into the game to get McConaughey to kill him so that the boy can get up the courage to actually kill his stepfather in real life. And they do, I think, or something. We live in a society.
I have many questions, like, since it's a video game, did the boy code his father's character to be a gigolo for Diane Lane so he can pay his fishing employee? Did the boy make his mom a NPC so Clarke could beat her naked with a belt? Did the boy code his father's character to get naked and jump off a cliff so he could reenact the album cover of Nirvana's "Nevermind"? Did he code his father to bang his mom from behind while she cries? I guess recontextualizing a neo-noir as a metanarrative that bends the rules of time, space, and consciousness can get messy quick, but at least it makes more sense than "Lost".
I would highly recommend this one if you love the bizarre movie making missteps of Collateral Beauty or The Book of Henry. It's like "tonal insanity" is a film-genre at this point. I doubt the Coen brothers could even write a line as fitfully absurd as, "You fish for one tuna, man. It's a tuna that's only in your head." Pure Gold.
Every once in awhile, even your favorite directors are bound to put out a dud. Jarmusch has had a few from my perspective. I wasn't much a fan of The Limits of Control, and even Paterson underwhelmed me. But this is the guy who gave us Down by Law and Only Lovers Left Alive, so I know that he has the capacity to do better. The Dead Don't Die is more of a disappointing movie than a bad one. Individual elements like Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding Scottish mortician or Iggy Pop grunting for coffee in full zombie regalia really make this blasé Romero riff watchable and, at times, amusing. But make no mistake, any social commentary is toothless, the plotting is lazy, and this existential zombie hang-out is just a little too despondent to sit alongside more quick-witted zom-edy films like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. Which begs the question, was he trying to make a movie this dumb, or is this just what gets made when Jarmusch goes on vacation with his favorite character actors?
The biggest sin here is that Bill Murray and Adam Driver don't seem as fully committed to being small town cops reacting to a zombie epidemic as much as Steve Buscemi is to being a one-dimensional Trumpster fire. The periphery is more interesting, and there's not nearly enough of it. Instead, we get post-career-renaissance Murray breaking the fourth wall, almost in protest to how boring everything is. One can meander and still have fun with this premise, but the environmentalist fantasy politics and "old hipster who doesn't like phone tech" perspective shits the whole bed. It's like Jarmusch is acknowledging the political subtexts of (his overt focus of homage) George Romero's ...of the Dead series by using them either as a simplistic preachy flavor or a post-modernist punchline, and I'm not sure which one is more off-putting. Better luck next time, Jim. Like I said, it's worth a watch - it's just not a good movie.
I thought everyone already decided Hilary Duff isn't allowed to act anymore? It's only natural that the mouseketeer eventually escapes the horrors of the Disney channel for greener pastures, like portraying famous murder victim Sharon Tate. The Tate murders were 50 years ago this August, and independent filmmakers have been making the most of the tragedy with several films over the last year. Besides Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we had one of Mark Kermode's least favorite films of last year Wolves at the Door, Charlie Says with Dr. Who as Charlie Manson, and then this unnecessary thing called The Haunting of Sharon Tate. If Blumhouse productions wanted to option a sensationalized depiction of the Tate murders complete with idiotic jump scares, I doubt it would be as inventively boneheaded as this one.
One would think the biggest problem is that it takes this tragedy and turns it into a popcorn flick, but it also takes a somewhat poignant look at Tate's wistful optimism and burgeoning career then tries to turn it all into a sPoOkY gHoSt StOrY. This could be an interesting experiment in tone, but then they decide to literally go into an alternate dimension of poor taste where Tate and her fellow victims escape captivity and brutally kill the Manson cult assailants, and everyone is happy in the end. I mean, there's exploitation, and then there's just shitting all over the memory of the deceased, and this movie definitely crosses that line. It would be totally egregious if it were made long ago, but I guess they thought 50 years was enough wait to capitalize on the tragedy. Just baffling. Anyway, it somehow won best director, best actress, and best horror movie at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. I'm guessing there weren't any other movies in competition this year.
Leaving the ninth feature film of every turn of the century junior high boy's favorite director, Quentin Tarantino, I felt as I did after watching his last several films. It was fun and well done mostly because it reminded me of all the films that influenced him. The director is always one to proudly display how much of a film nerd he is, and this time around he has passed up the grind-house stylings to pay homage to more mainstream fare. It's a refinement hinted at in Inglourius Basterds and expounded on in The Hateful Eight that I think he's reached some sort of stasis with finally. That, and he's just unabashedly displaying his foot-fetish at this point.
As you would expect, it's all an excuse for him to make fake trailers, commercials, insert modern actors into old films, and insert himself back into the world of his childhood. As he was six when his mother and he moved to Los Angeles, his earliest memories would be infused with the mise-en-scene of this movie's setting, making it, possibly, his most personal film world and work to date. His hauntological prerogative has been consuming his output since he began making films, which is fine in my book as I don't think the man has much to say, philosophically speaking. Coming in as his most understated effort since Jackie Brown, this was closer to a hangout than a structured narrative. If there is one thing you can get out of the film, it is total period immersion, which, if we're being completely honest, is not terribly interesting if you are looking for something to happen.
The film centers on the career trajectory of Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and his working friendship with stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they go about their day-to-day responsibilities in and around Hollywood. Their characters bring to mind many leading men of the time, forced to adapt to the changing fashions and whims of the industry to stay relevant after the golden years of TV cowboys and war films gave way to spaghetti westerns and biker flicks. Dalton's neighbor is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and as we all know what happened to her, most of the tension rests on whether or not the infamous Charles Manson family will get involved with our characters or not. Since I don't want to give away any of the later act events, I will simply say that the movie isn't really about that historical incident so much as it is about actors and acting.
As Dalton struggles to find a future in the industry and wrestles with his mid-life crisis, Booth wanders about the periphery of LA, languishing in the scenery. Aside from being a right-hand man, the irony of his character is that he's a bit of a real-life cowboy in any situation he enters, walking the walk where Dalton must be coddled and assured by others of his worth. Then on the other side of town, we have Tate, the proto-pixie dream girl traversing the town, carefree, and wide-eyed. We get to see her casually going to see one of her latest roles in a theater as she hasn't fully risen to wild stardom, and she gets to see the people she entertains. It's a subtle and surprisingly touching sequence that many have called a love letter to the late actress, and it's certainly more tastefully done than that abysmal Hillary Duff film The Haunting of Sharon Tate.
As there's still some flourishes of extreme violence, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an unmistakably Tarantino film. Whether you can dig that is entirely up to your specific tastes, but be warned this isn't a politically progressive film or profound in any sense. It's basically a celebration of the past and, as the title suggests, a fairy tale about a dirty, florid, and sometimes glamorous time since come and gone. Now let's just get that Tarantino Star Trek movie up and going, huh?
Somewhere between The Wicker Man and Zardoz sits Midsommar, Ari Aster's follow up to his acclaimed horror breakout success Hereditary. While the introductory sequence suggested Midsommar would be as oppressively miserable as its predecessor, I was pleased to find that Aster managed to balance the darkness with plenty humor, absurdity, and some gorgeous visuals. In fact, it's almost as if he took my major criticisms of Hereditary and actively worked to ameliorate them. Chief of those criticisms was that the supernatural elements usurped the drama, elements that are here left ambiguous or explainable by natural events. Also some of the odd, stilted performances that gave me flashbacks to any of Shyamalan's dreck are no longer present or at least couched in language barriers and communal isolation.
Any review of this film will have a problem with spoilers as it's hard not to mention the movies I name dropped at the beginning. Anyone who has seen Robin Hardy's original The Wicker Man (much less Cannibal Holocaust or any other horror film) will not be surprised by much of the plot. A group of collegiates go to a remote commune populated by a nature cult and get picked off one by one as they naively assume their little anthropology trip is a completely benevolent setup. At the surface level there's some creepy things happening, some decent practical gore effects, and people hyperventilating and screaming like it's The Devils or Possession. It even surpasses Climax in hallucinatory simulation with a hefty helping of magic mushroom-infused warping effects. Much like Zardoz, usage of alien-like cult behavior and eye-popping visual design add to the already disturbing and sometimes confusing (if you live under a rock and have never seen any sort of magic/religious ritual) proceedings.
However, away at this remote commune in the Swedish countryside, the movie's characters are dealing with a lot more than being assimilated into a hive mind or eating pubic hair pies. Florence Pugh plays a young woman, Dani, whose entire immediate family has recently and suddenly died. Her boyfriend Christian, played by Jack Raynor, is emotionally absent and mostly self-centered, reluctantly bringing her along on this trip to Sweden, more than anything, out of guilt about her loss. As the trip progresses, their relationship reveals itself to be toxic and one-sided as Dani often suffers from panic attacks due to triggering events. She withdraws and internalizes these problems and blames herself when confronting Christian about his lack of mindfulness between them. Of all the brutal sequences in the film, this is probably the most disturbingly accurate portrayal of such a relationship as I've seen lately. It's hard to watch, and it eggs us on into celebrating Christian's demise and Dani's self-actualization.
This is another one of those clever things that make Aster's films stand out from most Blumhouse productions and other cheap horror fare. There's some real exploration of what it is to suffer and feel helpless, especially around those who you're supposed to trust and be loved by. Dani is asked, "When Christian holds you, do you feel as if you are home?" It's a difficult thing to deny when your life revolves around this other person. At the same time, the fate that befalls Christian isn't warranted, and it holds up a mirror to the audience. If we gleefully accept the film's violence as justified retribution for emotional failures and wrongdoing in relationships, we have failed to glean any sort of meaningful lessons from a movie that is fundamentally about the relative nature of empathy and the harmonious balance between all life that humans should be striving towards.
There's also some really goofy WTF moments, and whether you're looking for a weird trippy movie, or a slow-burn 70's style horror, or a deep look at how to be better humans, there's something there for everyone. Everyone, that is, except for morons who think creepy little dolls and loud noises are scary.