Thursday, November 8, 2018

Too Spooky!

Movies, TV: Suspiria, Overlord, The Haunting of Hill House, Apostle

Those who read this blog regularly know I have a horror-boner. I gleefully wait each year for the weather to get colder, the leaves to change color, and all the **~spoopy~** pop culture to ramp up around Halloween. This year, I've had the pleasure of seeing some really interesting--albeit not perfect--movies and TV shows within the horror genre and I'm doing an extra-long entry to review them all.

***

Suspiria (2018)

Ever since I found out that one of my all-time favorite horror films, Dario Argento's blood-soaked Suspiria, was being remade by Luca Guadagnino, the director of my favorite film of 2017, Call Me By Your Name, I was waiting with baited breath. I knew that even if Luca fumbled the remake, it would no doubt be visually stunning.

I was not wrong on that count. 2018's Suspiria, clocking in at a hefty 152 minutes, is a visual feast--some of it yummy and some of it so very yucky. Set in 1977 Berlin, the film takes place at the Tanz dance studio where a group of "mothers", including Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) oversee a dance company of talented young women. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is the latest little swan to join the group. Susie has essentially run away from her strict Mennonite family in Ohio and banks on her untrained, but raw, natural talent to get her a spot in the company and when Blanc sees her dance, she's in.

She quickly makes friends with Sara (Mia Goth), who tells her that one of the students, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), recently left the company under unusual circumstances. The official story is that Patricia joined an underground group of political radicals. But the audience knows that, in fact, she became convinced that the dance studio was run by a coven of witches. She reveals her paranoid fears to a therapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (also played by Swinton).

As Susie's incredible talent becomes apparent to Madame Blanc, she is offered the leading role in a production of a piece titled Volk. Blanc takes a special interest in Susie and trains her outside of normal hours. She also "transmits energy" to Susie (and other dancers) by laying her hands on them. Susie also experiences intense, bloody nightmares filled with images of the feminine: naked female bodies, panties, and blood alongside things like worms. The way the dreams are filmed reminded me of that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when they're riding the boat through the tunnel.



Suspiria is a maximally creepy, art-house flick up until its climatic final act when it goes from pleasurably Sadien (think: a bloody ritual involving naked women in a dungeon), to over-the-top, to silly in about 10 minutes. And then there is an epilogue that focuses on Klemperer, whose subplot never truly meshes with the main plot in a meaningful way. The final 20-ish minutes of the film made me lower the grade from the whole movie from an A- to a B. Which I know is still a good grade: Suspiria is bold, creepy, and atmospheric enough that even if aspects of it were ridiculous, the overall product was enjoyable and very "on brand" for the kind of movie I like.

Would I recommend the film? Maybe. Folks who like horror movies, feminist art, and/or slightly pretentious art house films will likely appreciate what Guadagnino was going for here. If you think of cinema as a form of "art" rather than "entertainment", you'll probably be willing to give it a shot. If you're a fan of the original film, you *might* like how Guadagnino has expanded the plot to encompass contemporary political events in 1978 and also the haunting legacy of Nazism. Or you might think he ruined an otherwise good thing. Personally, I felt that it was 2.5 hours and 12 bucks (plus popcorn) well spent, but it's not a movie I'm going to rewatch.

Grade: B

***

Overlord

Speaking of Nazis...

Have you ever wanted to watch a movie that had the revisionist WWII history of Inglourious Basterds with the nasty torture of Hostel and a dash of The Re-Animator, but not as good as any of those movies? Well, I give you...Overlord.

I would have never paid attention to this movie if it wasn't for its exceptional trailer, which showed American soldiers infiltrating a secret Nazi laboratory to the screech-singing of AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" (seriously, watch it. It's a good trailer!). And also the title on the poster and all the promotional materials is in a really creepy, Nazi-esque font. So, I chose to see this movie based on a font, is what I'm saying. I'm very well-adjusted and normal.


Overlord is...not great. But not terrible either. Basically: right before D-Day, a bunch of American soldiers are dropped into France and tasked with blowing up a Nazi radio tower housed in a church. Along the way, they find a woman who is trying to protect her younger brother while also being forced to sexually gratify a commanding Nazi officer, Dr. Wafner (played by Pilou Asbaek--the dude who plays Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones). Lead by the slightly foolish, but good-hearted Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the crew beats the shit out of Wafner and infiltrates the church, only to discover, uh, "unchristian" things to say the least---like sacs of blood and guts and a still-alive head/spine with no body.

Now, I feel like Overlord had a TON of potential: Nazis, medical experimentation, a squad of racially diverse soldiers who overcome differences to do the right thing when it really matters. But the movie just kind of blows it on every count. None of the feelings you would associate with such a film--fear, disgust, irony--stick. Like, I'm watching a fuckin' head unattached to a body beg for death and I'm tempted to look at my watch. Something just isn't right about that.

All I can say is--if you want to see some Nazis get the shit beaten out of them, this is your movie. It's entertaining, kinda. But if you're looking for Nazi-murder catharsis and a good movie to boot, stick with Inglourious Basterds or Green Room.

Grade: B-

***

The Haunting of Hill House

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about this Netflix original series which has scared the poop out of many viewers, including this one.

Created by Mike Flanagan and based (very loosely) on the novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House is a 10-episode series that starts out very strong and kind of peters out near the end. In the summer of 1992, the Crain family moves into Hill House. Olivia and Hugh Crain (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas) are house flippers, excited to flip the hell out of this old, creepy-ass house and make a ton of money. What they don't plan on is RUINING THEIR CHILDREN'S LIVES FOREVER. Jesus! You move into a haunted house, what do you expect?

There are five Crain children because mom and dad Crain don't use birth control, apparently: Steven is the oldest (played as an adult by "hot Daario" from Game of Thrones, Michael Huisman). Shirley (I see what you did there) is second oldest (adult = Elizabeth Reaser); then Theodora (Kate Siegel--the director's wife!); and then the twins, Luke and Nell (Oliver Jackson-Chen and Victoria Pedretti). All of the Crain kids are affected by Hill House and the eventful final night there (the tragic events of which are slowly revealed over the series). But some are more affected than others...



The twins, Luke and Nell, suffer the most. Nell is plagued with sleep paralysis and mental illness as an adult--haunted by visions of a "Bent-Neck Lady" she saw in the house as a child. Luke is a heroin addict struggling to get clean and followed by a floating man in a bowler hat. The older Crain kids, Steven and Shirley, are haunted by different demons: skepticism and resentment. Steven never believed his younger siblings' stories of ghosts, yet wrote a book and made a fortune on their stories. Shirley, a control freak with martyr syndrome, opened a funeral home and made a living "fixing" dead people because she couldn't fix her family (or accept them as is). Middle child Theo (my fave character) is truly in the middle--she is a skeptic who struggles to take her more sensitive siblings seriously, but is also "touched" herself: she wears gloves all the time because she is able to sense emotions and information by touching objects and people with her bare hands.

So, like Hereditary earlier this year, The Haunting of Hill House is as much about family trauma, rage, resentment, and mental illness as it is about ghosts. But there are also a fuck-ton of ghosts.

The show got this horror aficionado to jump out of her seat (and scare her cat) multiple times. This show is no fucking joke: there are jump scares, as well as children in peril, suicide, animals dying, and tense family confrontations. I don't care who the fuck you are, you will be triggered. But that is why I love this show, in spite of its imperfections: it is relentless. It's not afraid to go there--into the deepest parts of your animal brain and fuck around with the machinery there.

Episodes 1-5 are excellent, especially episode 5. 6-10 are...less so. 10 especially is confusing and disappointing. But the overall package is pretty intense and legitimately scary. At least I thought so. I recommend this show highly, but with extreme caution: it's not easy for people triggered by jump scares, family drama, or dead kittens. You've been warned...

Grade: B+

***

Apostle

No, not The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall. Just plain Apostle is a desperately mediocre Netflix film which *sounds* super interesting--a man infiltrates a cult at the turn of the 20th century to find his sister, whom he believes has been kidnapped by said cult--but actually sucks. Starring Dan Stevens, who honestly is terrible in this role as a man trying to "fit in" to a creepy-ass cult, and Michael Shannon (pretty good as the charismatic leader), Apostle is just...ugh. It promises so much and delivers so little!

Stevens is Thomas Richardson, who travels to a remote island where a religious community has set up shop. He believes his sister, Jennifer, has been taken for ransom. He notices some creepy shit, such as the fact that the residents of the island leave bottles of blood outside their doors every night to be collected.

There's some dumb cult drama when one of the leaders finds out the son of another leader impregnated his daughter and straps the kid to a torture table and literally drills into his brain with a hand-crank. Believe it or not, this is one of the few *good* scenes of the movie.

When Stevens discovers What's Really Going On (tm) it's underwhelming and silly, throwing a supernatural curveball into a film that didn't really need it (cults are scary enough as is--you don't need otherworldly beings to make them scarier).

Sadly, I can't recommend this film unless you are morbidly curious. I found it to be a waste of time, made more disappointing by how cool the plot sounded.

Grade: C

***

Well, that's it for now! Horror lovers: Check out Hill House and Suspiria...if you dare! Everyone else: it's about that time to rewatch Home Alone or Elf, isn't it?


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

One Day At A Time

Movies: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy, a film which combines the memoirs of David Sheff (Beautiful Boy) and Nic Sheff (Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines), will have a familiar feel to anyone who has struggled with addiction or loved someone who has struggled with addiction. It is repetitive, crushingly so, cycling through the stages of Nic Sheff's addiction to crystal meth which involve use, heavy use, lying, criminality, ODing, repentance and begging for help, getting sober, and relapse over and over again. Experienced through the eyes of Nic's father, David, who comes to accept the fact that he can't help Nic, Beautiful Boy is not an easy film to watch.

While an epilogue at the end of the film reveals that Nic has been sober for 8 years, the events of the film itself do not follow a simple arc or "things get bad, and then they get good. The end." Rather, they present a more realistic portrayal of addiction to hard drugs and the slow draining of hope of both the person suffering from addiction and that person's loved ones. At one point, David Sheff talks to an expert in drug addiction who explains that the odds for long-term recovery from meth addiction are in the single digits.

You might think that this sounds like a bummer of a movie and, well, it is. It's also a deeply felt portrait of the unconditional love a parent has for their child, even when the child lies to them, robs them, and is in constant peril. It's heartbreaking. Led by powerhouse performances by Steve Carell, whose innate kindness and decency shine through as David, and Timothee Chalamet, who proves that his Oscar-worthy breakthrough in last year's Call Me By Your Name was not a fluke, as Nic, Beautiful Boy is a showcase for excellent acting.

Carell has the less showy, but more difficult job here as a father who is blindsided by the 180 degree turn his intelligent, bookish, music-loving, college-bound son makes seemingly overnight. David Sheff starts off as any parent of an addict would: hopeful, full of support, scouring the internet for information. But as Nic recovers, relapses, recovers, relapses, recovers, and relapses again, David has to face the three C's of Al-Anon: You didn't cause it, you can't control it, you can't cure it. When he does surrender, there is finally a sense of peace amid the chaos. He loves his son, but he can't save him.

Luckily, Nic Sheff got the help he needed and has been in recovery for nearly a decade, but many people who struggle with the disease of addiction--especially to hard drugs like meth--are not so lucky. Addiction is misunderstood and seen as a character failing, especially when people with substance use disorders do bad things, such as steal and lie, to feed their addiction. But the fact is, human beings--usually good humans--are there, underneath the fried nerves and disrupted dopamine receptors. Beautiful Boy does its part to reveal the humanity and suffering of the addict as well as family and friends of the addict.

Grade: B

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Star-Crossed

Movies: A Star is Born

Goddamnit, I didn't want to like this re-re-remake of A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga ad Bradley Cooper (also directed by Cooper in a very strong first outing behind the camera), but fuck it, I cannot tell a lie: A Star is Born is a good movie.

While the film has its schmaltzy moments and its tired cliches (for example: a man thinks he knows what's best for female protege), A Star is Born is saved by it's authenticity and sincerity. The chemistry between Gaga and Cooper is undeniable and the film's depiction of the ravages of alcoholism is so real that it's painful to watch.

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a country-rock legend who still sells out stadiums despite being somewhat washed up. Jackson is a drug addict and alcoholic who looks like he smells bad all the time. He has a handsome face hiding under gin blossoms and unkempt facial hair. He has a supportive, yet dysfunctional relationship with his manager and significantly older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott Sam Elliott-ing here).

After stumbling into a drag bar looking for more booze after a show, Jackson meets Ally, who sings "La vie en rose", showing off her unbelievable pipes. The two have an immediate connection and spend the night bar-hopping and getting to know one another. Jackson believes Ally has raw talent (she writes her own songs and plays piano as well), but Ally has been told repeatedly that her nose is too big to truly make it in our looks-obsessed culture.

When Jackson invites her to a concert and brings her onstage to sing a song she wrote ("Shallow", which has been stuck in my head since seeing the movie), it's impossible not to get goosebumps. Ally is catapulted into fame and mentored by Jackson, who is now her lover as well. He even gives up drinking as two go on tour together and fall deeply in love.

But, alas, A Star is Born is a tragedy. Ally signs on with a music producer, Rez (Ravi Gavron, excellent in a truly insidious role as the villain), who convinces her to change her entire look and put out shallow pop music instead of the deeply felt country songs she had previously been working on. These changes lead Ally to perform on Saturday Night Live and receive multiple Grammy nominations. Meanwhile, Jackson is drinking again and even more out of control than before.

The climatic scene where Jackson humiliates himself and Ally as he stumbles in full blackout onto the stage when Ally accepts her Grammy is beyond painful to watch--not just because of how Jackson behaves, but because this is Ally's moment and Jackson makes it about himself in the worst way possible. He's even worse than a Kanye stage-bomb!

His relapse leads him to rehab and once he gets out, it seems that things are on the mend: Ally love and supports him no matter what, even to the point of canceling her European tour to spend time with him. But evil Rez gets in Jackson's head, telling him that he will ruin Ally's life and make her into a joke with his pathetic addiction. Jackson takes what Rez says to heart and, tragically, takes his own life in an attempt to release Ally from the burden of being married to a washed up, alcoholic loser. Of course, the audience knows that Ally loves him more than she loves her musical career and his final act was not one of love but one of desperation.

When I think about what my "triggers" are in movies, I find that things like animals getting hurt or people getting hurt don't bother me as much as depictions of suicide do. I was just watching a TV show episode the other day where a character kills themselves and even though the character is a little shit, I found myself whimpering "No, no, no" as he put a gun to his head. Suicide, to me, is so deeply tragic because the person committing suicide is almost never in their right mind, yet they are often convinced they are doing to right thing--ending their pain, protecting others from dealing with them, etc--and they end up leaving a trail of agony and sorrow in their wake because, of course, the people who love them would do literally anything to keep them from dying. And I'm not talking about people with situations like terminal cancer or extreme old age, where assisted-suicide is a way to imbue their death with dignity. Jackson's death is so tragic because we know that his fears of being a burden on Ally are misplaced and that by killing himself he has now added to her pain instead of sparing her from it.

A Star is Born handles the subject of addiction very well: the cyclical nature of sobriety and relapse; the intense shame the addict often feels; the helplessness and anger of those who love them; and even the good times drugs and booze are connected with. I appreciated that the film elevated addiction above a simplistic after school special portrayal.

Although the film falls prey to some cliched and sexist tropes, I still felt that the genuine emotion and authenticity outweighed the cliche and maudlin drama. I left the film feeling satisfied, as if I had eaten a large, well-balanced meal and I'm still thinking about the movie a week later. If you are skeptical, I understand, and I advise you to give the film a chance.

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Random Stuff I Haven't Reviewed Yet!

TV, movies: Big Mouth, Operation Finale, Halloween

The title of the entry says it all: here are some movies and shows I haven't reviewed yet.

***

Big Mouth

Big Mouth is such an excellent, top-shelf show, it boggles the mind that some people have yet to watch it and, further, don't want to watch it because it's animated. I kind of get it because I don't watch animated movies for the most part (my knee-jerk reaction to them is "that's a kid's movie"). But trust me, Big Mouth is different. Created by Nick Kroll (and others), it's a show about the horrors and wonders of puberty. Kroll voices about half the characters on the show, with John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jenny Slate, Jordan Peele, Jason Mantzoukas, and Maya Rudolph rounding out an excellent voice cast.

Kroll voices Nick Birch and Mulaney voices Andrew Glouberman--7th graders and best friends going through puberty at different rates. Andrew is constantly bothered by the "Hormone Monster" (also voiced by Kroll), who pesters him to jerk off pretty much all the damn time. Meanwhile, Jessie (Jessi Klein), Andrew and Nick's friend, is bothered by the Hormone Monstress (Rudolph, doing hilarious voice work here), a female version of the Monster who insists that Jessie yell at her mom, steal lipstick, and cry a lot. Are you thinking that this show sounds bizarre and annoying at best, wildly inappropriate at worst? Well, you are super wrong because it is a GODDAMN GOOD show. And very sex positive. There's an episode dedicated to consent! And another dedicated to Planned Parenthood!


Big Mouth is easily one of the best comedies I've seen in a long time. It's stupidly raunchy, but in a nice way, which is the sweet spot for my sense of humor (case in point: The 40 Year Old Virgin remains one of my favorite comedies). It's also absurd, yet strikingly accurate in its depiction of the turmoil of growing up. Do yourself a favor and watch at least a few episodes of this wonderful show. But not with your parents or your children, ok?

Grade: A+ 

***

Operation Finale

I saw this movie a long time ago, so forgive me if I'm fuzzy looking back on it. Directed by Chris Weitz (yeah, the same dude who directed the original American Pie movie), Operation Finale is based on the true story of a group Israeli spies who, in 1960, tracked down, captured, and brought to justice Adolf Eichmann--the "architect of the Holocaust" and high-ranking Nazi official who managed to escape justice by fleeing to Argentina after the war.



Operation Finale is a serviceable, if not particularly memorable, film with strong performances by Ben Kingsley as Eichmann and Oscar Isaac as Peter Malkin, the leader of the group of Mossad spies who are tasked with bringing Eichmann to justice. There's much more talk than action as Malkin tries to get to know and earn the trust of Eichmann in order to get him to sign a confession to be transported back to Israel to face trial.

I'd recommend this movie to WWII buffs and anyone who loves a good Nazi-brought-to-justice movie, but otherwise it's not a must-see. Kingsley is, unsurprisingly, excellent as the sly, unrepentant Eichmann who is cruel even in his most helpless moments. And Eichmann's trial resulted in one of the most seminal books on WWII and the nature of human cruelty: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt.

Grade: B-

***

Halloween (2018)

Most things stay dead when they die. But of course, that's not true for Michael Myers, the masked killer who made his debut in John Carpenter's classic 1978 horror film. There's a reason the actors who play Myers are billed as "The Shape" in the credits of Halloween (2018): Myers is no simple serial killer. He is the Bogeyman. And in this reboot of the classic film, directed by (of all people) David Gordon Green, Myers is both a legitimate threat and also a symbol of trauma that refuses to die.

I'll say it right out the gate: Halloween (2018) is not that great of a movie. It takes everything excellent about the original film and...copies it. The tropes and cliches are reliably revisited, including the "babysitter-in-peril" and the "sexually-active-teens-are-doomed", and in some cases scenes from the original are essentially re-shot with a few twists to keep it fresh. Jamie Lee Curtis is back as the haunted Laurie Strode. Laurie is the world's most badass grandma who has been preparing for Michael Myers' inevitable return, much to the chagrin of her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer, always a delight). Karen is angry that she was raised to be paranoid and constantly afraid by her mother who lives in what is basically a compound, filled with guns, ammo, and a secret entrance to a basement. Karen's daughter and Laurie's granddaughter, Allyson (newcomer Andi Matichak), tries to bridge the gap between the two stubborn women while also navigating the social bullshit of high school and boyfriends.



When Myers breaks out of police custody on (of course) Halloween--specifically on (OF COURSE) the 40th anniversary of the events of 1978, Laurie is prepared. But are Karen and Allyson? Myers is not just out to get Laurie: he makes multiple pit stops to kill many unsuspecting people and to give the audience a bit of a thrill before the final showdown at Laurie's fortress of a house. But when he gets there, he not only faces his old nemesis...but three badass generations of Strode women. Points for feminism, I guess.

Halloween (2018) is a decent horror flick, but it's nothing special. Fans of the Halloween canon (?) will for sure love it and folks who are hard-core horror fanatics will likely also want to check it out if for no other reason than to see Jamie Lee Curtis kick ass. But other moviegoers are free to give this one and pass and focus on more original, scarier movies out this Halloween season.

Grade: C+ 







Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hands Up, Don't Shoot

Movies: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give, directed by George Tillman Jr. and based on the novel (which I haven't read yet) by Angie Thomas, was everything I expected it to be and much, much more. I expected a difficult, yet empowering film about a young, black girl's experience witnessing the death of her friend at the hands of a trigger-happy cop. And yes, that is the moment the plot centers upon. But The Hate U Give  (which is the first half of what Tupac said "thug life" stands for: The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone) also shows details and intersectionalities of black lives and black families that I had never considered before.

Though PG-13, The Hate U Give is very tense and a very difficult film overall. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, a revelation in this star-making role) is a high school student who lives in a black neighborhood but goes to a private school with (mostly) white kids. She constantly code switches between "Starr Version One": a girl who is comfortable with her blackness and loves her supportive black community, and "Starr Version Two": a girl who downplays her blackness to avoid attention at her high school. Starr V2 is friends with a white girl who constantly drops microaggressions around her and dates a white boy (KJ Apa, who plays Archie on Riverdale and is full-blown Archie in this movie as well: sweet and oblivious) who says "I don't see color". One of these two white kids actually ends up listening to Starr and learning, while the other sinks deeper into their own racism until Starr is forced to cut them loose.

Starr has a pretty good model for code-switching in her parents. Her mom, Lisa (a luminous Regina Hall), is more concerned about her children's safety than social activism while her dad, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) gives his preteen children the Black Panther's 10-point program and expects his kids to memorize it (there WILL be a quiz). Maverick also spent time in prison for selling drugs, after he willingly took the fall for neighborhood drug lord King (Anthony Mackie, quietly menacing). This is where The Hate U Give truly reveals what a brave and layered film it is: it points out that there is violence and oppression within the black community as well as outside of it. The film is deft and unflinching in its handling of the hard truth that sometimes people who live in difficult circumstances turn to illegal means to make money and while that is wrong and can destroy an otherwise loving community from within, there are reasons--logical reasons--behind it. The Hate U Give walks the most delicate tightrope of not excusing illegal and violent behavior while also not turning it into a cliche or an excuse to be racist against people who engage in such behavior.



The central moment of The Hate U Give is devastating. Starr has recently reconnected with Khalil (Algee Smith)--a childhood friend she used to play Harry Potter with--at a party. He gives her a ride home and they share a kiss even though Starr is hesitant because she's dating Archie Chris. As they drive, police lights flash at them and they're pulled over because Khalil failed to signal a lane change. Starr, having received "the talk" from her father at a young age, immediately puts her hands on the dashboard and complies with the cop's instructions, but Khalil does not--he argues with the cop and, crucially, when told to keep his hands where the cop can see them, reaches into the car for a hairbrush, and is fatally shot.

It's important, I think, that Khalil's choice to reach into the car is ambiguous enough that you can understand on some level why a cop--trigger-happy and maybe genuinely nervous--would shoot him. There's an incredibly important scene later on where Starr discusses what happened with her Uncle Carlos (Common, who is fucking amazing in everything) who just happens to *also* be a cop. Carlos explains from the cop's point of view what might have been going through his head: Was it dark? Could he see clearly? Why was Khalil arguing with the cop in the first place? Did he have something to hide? Again, The Hate U Give walks a tightrope here: ultimately, we know the cop could have deescalated the situation but instead chose to shoot first, ask questions later, most likely because Khalil was a young black man. If Khalil had been white, he could have done the exact same thing and lived--that's racism. But also this cop wasn't presented as a sociopathic villain who took delight in killing someone. Also a good choice for the film: there is very little focus on the cop (#115 as Starr calls him, since she takes note of his badge) at all in the film. The Hate U Give isn't about whether Khalil "deserved" to be shot (he didn't), it's about Starr's harsh, yet beautiful coming of age where she realizes she needs to use her voice to give Khalil's death some meaning and to fight the racism that she encounters daily and has been turning away from as a coping mechanism.

The Hate U Give is brutally honest in it's insistence that there are no easy answers. "The world is complex" says Uncle Carlos. He's right. "It doesn't seem very complex to me" retorts Starr. She's also right. The world is both black and white and also gray. Racism can't be solved JUST with riots and protests or JUST with trials and rule of law. It needs both. Both passion and anger, as well as boring policy changes and rules. Racism must be solved quickly--and slowly. White people need to understand racism. And so do black people. All of these supposed contradictions turn out not to be contradictions at all, but sort of a fucked up knot that we need everyone's help to solve.

Throughout the film, Starr has multiple conversations about "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone". Khalil tells her it means is that children who experience racism and hate grow up to go "wild" and violent. Starr's dad asks her what she thinks it means, and she says "I think it's more than just the youth". Basically, the hate black people of all ages experience at the hands of white people fucks everybody. But at the end of the movie, with both gang violence and police brutality looking down the barrel of a gun at Starr and her family, she realizes "It's the hate we give". The hate that comes from outside of communities and from within communities that harms everyone. I didn't see this as a cop-out (pun not intended) or a "but black violence too!!!" type of whataboutism, but rather a universal message that hate from one human to another always comes back to bite everyone in the ass. It's not a one-way street. It's not a two-way street. It's one of those fucking confusing roundabouts in DC where you can't tell where to turn off and if you pick the wrong street it's an extra 20 minutes added to your trip.

I recommend The Hate U Give to anyone and everyone. From my perspective as a liberal white person who strives to be good and not be racist, I can speak to people like me: you will be uncomfortable. You will be confronted with racism and prejudice inside yourself you didn't know existed. Your comfortable white, liberal attitudes about who is wrong and who is right might be challenged and, if you're willing to lean in to the discomfort, you just might emerge with a deeper sense of these issues and have more tools in your arsenal as an ally. The Hate U Give goes beyond pat storytelling with easy answers and clear heroes and villains and victims. Because black people aren't characters on a screen to help white people learn to be better. They're human beings who are being killed for no reason at all and it's wrong to look away or pretend otherwise.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Mandy; or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Nic Cage Going Apesh*t

Movies: Mandy

Panos Cosmatos' film Mandy is definitely heavier on style than substance, but if you're ok buckling in for a trippy, ultra-violent ride, it might not matter.



Mandy takes place in 1983 in the Pacific Northwest and is heavily influenced by the imagery and music of that decade. Imagine watching Stranger Things while on a really bad LSD trip and you get the picture. The plot is pretty simple: Nic Cage is Red Miller, a blue collar man living with his artist girlfriend, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Risenborough--who you might recognize from the devastating Black Mirror episode "Crocodile") in a cozy home in the woods. A few intimate scenes--pillow talk about favorite planets--help the audience invest in Red and Mandy's relationship before Mandy catches the eye of a creepy cult leader, Jeremiah (Linus Roache), and all hell breaks loose.

*spoilers spoilers spoilers*

Before I saw this film, I thought Mandy would be *abducted* by the bad guys and Cage would go on a rampage to save her. But what actually happens is that this cult kills Mandy in a violent way and Cage goes on a revenge-fueled rampage. On the one hand, I was pissed by the "woman dies to further a man's story" trope. On the other hand, the gruesome, senseless death and the many gruesome deaths that follow contribute to the nihilism of the film, which I think was the director's intent. It also gives Nic Cage all the more reason to go apeshit.

*end spoilers*

As good as Risenborough is, this really is Nic Cage's film. He finally found a movie worthy of his signature epic freakouts. There's a scene where he uncovers a bottle of vodka hidden in a bathroom drawer and oscillates between chugging it, pouring it on his wounds, and screaming incoherently. He does this while wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and tighty-whities--the scene is Nic Cage distilled to his very essence.

Some reviews have mentioned the "occult horror" feel of the film, and I agree. I wish the director had spent more time exploring the cult that goes after Mandy because there are a lot of unanswered questions there. But no doubt that whatever this cult's deal is, its members are influenced by something malevolent and otherworldly.

There's not much else to say about Mandy except that it's not going to be for everyone. The violence is gruesome, but in a cartoonish, Quentin Tarantino-esque way (minus the snappy banter). If you're sensitive to loud noise and garish lights, you might want to sit this one out or watch it on the small screen--it's quite intense in the theatre. But I think most people who make an effort to see Mandy probably understand what they're in for: an artistically trashy, vigilante-justice mindfuck of a film where Nic Cage screams into the void and engages in chainsaw-to-chainsaw combat. Oh, and there's randomly a tiger.

Grade: B+


Oh hai 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Three Martini Playdate

Movies: A Simple Favor

When you think of two moms getting together so their kids can have a playdate, you probably don't imagine it takes place is a severely chic home with French ye-ye pop playing in the background and martinis so stiff they could impregnate you. But that's exactly the kind of playdate Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) finds herself on with new pal Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) in director Paul Feig's effervescent neo-noir satire A Simple Favor.

Kendrick plays to her "type" --a chipper, perfectionist single mom with a vlog where she demonstrates how to sneak veggies into food kids will eat and how to make the perfect first aid kit. The regular parents at her son's kindergarten (played by a sarcastic Greek chorus comprised of Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla--all very underused in this movie) look at her with disdain. But then, Stephanie meets Emily--a femme fatale who blithely says "fuck" in front of her five year old son, wears men's suits tailored to perfection, and has a nude portrait of herself hanging in her kitchen (a kitchen she never cooks in--that's her husband's job).

Blake Lively as Emily Nelson makes this movie. She's reminiscent of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl only she's richer, sexier, meaner, everything-er. She's a PR director for a fashion mogul, Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend in a great cameo role), and she's married to a sexy failed author (Henry Golding, last seen in Crazy Rich Asians). She seems to have it all. Then one day, she disappears. She calls Stephanie to ask a simple favor--can she pick up her son after school that day? Stephanie agrees...but when Emily fails to show up for multiple days after that (Emily's husband is in London) and won't pick up her phone, the noir part of the film kicks in like that third martini.



My biggest criticism of A Simple Favor is that it's all over the place--but that's also part of its charm. It's funny, zany, dark, scary, tense, ridiculous, over-the-top, and light all at once, keeping the audience totally off-kilter the entire time. Clearly, Feig is going for a send-up of Gone Girl/Mommy Murder Mystery books and films. You know--all those books with "girl" or "woman" in the title and the main character is ALWAYS an alcoholic with an unreliable memory. And he mostly succeeds. That said, the first half of the movie which focuses on the odd couple pairing of Kendrick's eager-beaver June Cleaver and Lively's nihilistic bad mommy is much better than the second half, where revelation after revelation and plot twist after plot twist happen so quickly that there's no time to react to anything before the next surprise is revealed. Apparently, the book the film is based on suffers from the same issue--everything is thrown at the wall to see what will stick. I wish Feig had been willing to cut out a plot twist or three and allow the revelations to happen more leisurely, privileging atmosphere over plot. But alas.

Despite the pacing issues, A Simple Favor is definitely fun. It also has a great soundtrack (a lot of Serge Gainsbourg), references to Diabolique, and passes the ol' Bechdel Test. So while it won't win any awards, I can recommend it without reservation. Just make sure to bring a flask filled with ice cold gin and a twist of lemon to the theatre.

Grade: B