Under the Silver Lake (2019)

The very first line of spoken dialogue in Under the Silver Lake is a verbal reference to Turner Classic Movies. Every character’s shithole Los Angeles apartment in the film is lined with Old Hollywood movie posters. The score (from the director’s return collaborator Disasterpeice) is an oppressive Studio Era composition that swells & overwhelms the soundtrack in playful nostalgia. A pivotal scene in the protagonist’s amateur investigation of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is staged at the foot of Hitchcock’s grave. This is a movie that very much wants to be understood as a prankish, tongue-in-cheek throwback to noir thrillers of ancient Old Hollywood past. The problem is that all that influence signaling is a flagrant misdirect. Under the Silver Lake plays much more like an echo of 1980s Brian De Palma oddities like Body Double & Blow Out than it does any Hitchcockian thriller it pretends to riff on. Since De Palma himself was already prankishly subverting Old Hollywood tropes, this continuation of that tradition is essentially a copy of a copy, twice removed from any detectable sense of purpose. It also suffers the misfortune of continuing De Palma’s leering heterosexual perversions into an era when they’re decades out of date, removed form any possible “It was a different time” excuses. Worse yet, it suffers the worst fate any film could ever stumble into: it’s a comedy that isn’t funny. Still, I found myself on the verge of enjoying it in nearly every scene, frustrated that I could never quite get there.

I was majorly disappointed by this film. It’s difficult to imagine there will be a bigger disappointment all year. The drop-off in quality between David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature It Follows (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2015) to this straight-to-VOD follow-up is about as steep as any I can remember from any director. And yet, if someone told me they saw a Southland Tales-level messterpeice in it I’d almost believe them. I don’t at all blame A24 for quietly dumping it into home-streaming distribution after purchasing it at the height of its festival-circuit buzz, but I can almost understand what its apologists see in it if I squint from the right angle. This is a twisty, farcical fantasy piece about a hipster LA loser (Andrew Garfield) who follows his own vanilla tits-and-ass prurience into a vast, impossible conspiracy network that secretly runs the entertainment industry (and, by extension, the world). Pop music cults, hobo royalty, serial dog murderers, and an ancient succubus assassin are major players in a vast, mysterious organization that the movie deliberately sets up to provide no possible satisfying answers. It’s a horned-up, surrealist, Madlibs-style approach to storytelling that I’d normally find majorly exciting, but in this case fails to entertain in two significant ways: its jokes are not funny, and it’s impossible to care about its fuckboy protagonist. Many people had issues with the logical & tonal inconsistencies of It Follows, but that film at last has a strong grasp on its sense of atmosphere & a main character whose wellbeing we’re actually invested in, whether positively or negatively (with the added bonus of using that POV for an identifiable thematic purpose). By contrast, Under the Silver Lake is just a sunshine-noir moodboard where things just kinda happen, until they don’t. It eats up two and a half hours of your time and then it’s over. You just move along with your day, case closed.

As with De Palma’s seedier works, the major question at the center of this titties-obsessed Madlibs mystery is how much its depiction of a mediocre man’s lurid, vanilla sexuality is a shameless participation and how much is open mockery. We spend the entire film looking through the eyes of a listless, cigarette-smoking slob who’s absolutely dogshit at having sex. He’s the kind of just-rolled-out-of-bed, low-effort hipster that makes you want to shout “Take a bath!” at the screen, yet when he actually does take a bath the result is entirely unsatisfying. That disgust is intentional, as everyone he encounters on his amateur sleuth trail makes a point to comment on his stench. This is a man who punches children, slags the homeless, and peeps on his undressed neighbors through his Hitchcock Brand™ binoculars. It’s doubtful that we’re supposed to think of him as an upstanding citizen. Still, the default-misogyny of his POV works its way into the film’s DNA. No woman’s breasts or buttcheeks will grace the screen without a proper close-up. Bikini-clad hotties bark like rabid dogs in go-nowhere nightmare sequences. Sex workers & actresses are both coveted & mocked for the supposed degradation of their trades. This is a movie that gets its kicks by indulging in the male gaze, then has a character verbalize the phrase “the male gaze” just so you know the exercise is self-aware. At least when De Palma indulged in the same self-aware prurience his own sexuality was mildly kinky & risqué. Under the Silver Lake’s sex drive is the microwaved leftovers of a mid-afternoon trip to Hooters; it’s the faux intellectual titties-fetish of a Playboy Magazine collector; it’s the inner sexual life of someone who still wears cargo shorts in the 2010s. It’s boring, it’s scared of women, and yet any commentary on the sexuality of American pop culture you can derive from what’s onscreen would be meeting this shapeless mess more than halfway.

For every pointless scene throughout this journey into Juggs Magazine mystique, I found myself genuinely straining to enjoy myself. There’s almost a Greasy Strangler quality to its repetition, awkwardness, and ham-fisted interpretation of genre where noir = window blinds & missing dames. I just wasn’t amused, or aroused, or intrigued in the ways the film wanted me to be, which ultimately made this feel like a lot of effort for zero payoff. Kudos to anyone who managed to have Southland Tales-style Messterpeice Theatre fun with it, because I’m truly jealous. The only line in the film that resonated with me in any significant way was “It’s silly to waste your time on something that doesn’t matter.” This move does not matter, and I feel very silly indeed.

-Brandon Ledet

Never Let Me Go (2010)

The recent critical success of Annihilation (to say nothing about the film’s financial doom at the hands of its distributor) has been a welcome opportunity to look back to Alex Garland’s career-long achievements as a sci-fi screenwriter before he made the jump to buzzworthy auteur in his debut feature as a director, Ex Machina. A significant part of that reexamination has been tied to a rumor, recently confirmed by actor Karl Urban, that Garland was the uncredited director of the sci-fi action thriller Dredd. I very much enjoy Dredd as a slick, bare-bones slice of schlocky spectacle, but it’s not quite of the same cloth as what I enjoyed so much in Annihilation & Ex Machina. To me, Garland’s personal brand of sci-fi is one of heady, introspective melancholy. His films might feature Domhnall Gleeson seducing a sexy robot or Natalie Portman firing bullets at a monstrous alligator-beast, but they’re still works built on the backs of sci-fi ideas, as opposed to sci-fi spectacle. To that point, I’d suggest that the undersung work of Garland’s past is not Dredd at all, but rather the sci-fi melodrama Never Let Me Go. Adapted from a widely adored novel by Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also penned Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is a romantic period drama set in an alternate timeline version of the 1970s (and later stretching to the 1990s). It details a decades-long love triangle melodrama between three doomed characters, recalling more the historical romantic epic ambitions of a film like Atonement rather than the shoot-em-up spectacle of Dredd. It’s not an especially fresh, attention-grabbing work. There’s no space travel, ray guns, or alternate dimensions. Instead, it dwells on the glum, moody repercussions a sci-fi dystopia wreaks on the emotional state of the characters who live it, which makes the film feel right at home with Garland’s more recent, more revered directorial efforts.

I was intrigued by the trailer for Never Let Me Go when I saw it nearly a decade ago, but also confused why the advertising made its central twist so obvious. As it turns out, it’s because the main conceit is not a twist at all, but a premise that’s stated up front and seen to its logical, emotional conclusion. A breakthrough discovery in the alternate history 1950s raised the live expectancy rate of the average citizen well past the 100-year mark: clones. Clones are systemically raised as part of an organ-farming program. Donations are involuntary, required without exception, and donors are raised to understand what fate awaits them as their purpose in life reaches “completion” (hint: they don’t get to enjoy the extended life expectancy rate the new technology affords the rest of the world). Our window into this scenario is a traditional British boarding school that only appears sinister at the margins. Cloned children are taught that it’s their special duty to keep themselves “healthy inside.” Chip readers, daily pills, and mysterious art contests hint at the administration behind their care, but we never peak behind the proverbial curtain. Instead, we watch them mimic social behaviors form music & television, find enormous pleasure in the thrift store castoffs of regular children, and search blindly for clues to the identity of the “originals” they were cloned from in any scraps of the outside would they can gather. From this grim backdrop emerges a decades-long tale of unrequited love & romantic jealousy among three of the boarding school student as they age out of the safety of childhood education and into active, repetitive organ donations. Some attention is paid to the mysteries behind the administrative structure of their preparation as donors, but the story is much more concerned with the emotional repercussion of an unfulfilled romantic life of people who were “born” to die young. It’s a small, intimate story told within the context of a massively ambitious sci-fi premise, so it’s no wonder Garland was drawn to telling it onscreen (he was also reportedly chummy with Ishiguro on a social basis, which helps I’m sure).

I can’t kick myself too much for missing Never Let Me Go in its initial theatrical run. Practically nobody saw this thing. It earned $9 million on a $15 million budget, only $2 million of which was domestic box office. The real shame there is that I believe the film could have been a huge hit if it had arrived just a few years later. Its romantic strife amidst a grim dystopia would have been right at home with the YA craze that followed The Hunger Games in 2012. Then there’s the cache of the film’s cast, which only gets more impressive every passing year: Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins, Domhnall Gleeson, and so on. With Garland’s recent critical success, Never Let Me Go now has a unique context as a primer for his auteurist voice, but it’s honestly baffling that the film has yet to become a hot topic before, whether initially or upon reappraisal. The film may be a little low-key melancholy for a star-studded sci-fi picture, but it’s far from the limited appeal of the art house version of this child-farming territory in works like Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution. This is the tragic story of young people being disfigured & discarded by a menacing society who treats them like appliances, but in the midst of watching it the weight of that premise never overwhelms the simple love story at its core. If there’s anything Garland has proven himself to be particularly adept at, it’s achieving intimacy against the backdrop of far-reaching sci-fi concepts and Never Let Me Go is a great, distilled example of how effective that dynamic can be. He’s never quite turned that talent into boffo box office (not even with the popcorn action spectacle of Dredd), but Ex Machina & Annihilation both enjoyed a critical goodwill Never Let Me Go deserves as well. It’s doubtful that wide scale reappraisal is ever coming, since the movie’s previous lack of attention doesn’t make much sense either, but it’s still pure-Garland in its intimate sci-fi introspection, an auteurist voice we’re just starting to fully understand.

-Brandon Ledet

Silence (2016)

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fourhalfstar

If you can claim that a film successfully marries the philosophical inner-conflicts of Ingmar Bergman with the epic majesty of Akira Kurosawa, is there really anything more to say about its worth as a work of art? Martin Scorsese’s latest is undoubtedly one of the most impressive technical feats to reach cinemas in the last year and likely one of the greatest accomplishments of the American master’s long cinematic career to date. Silence is a passion project. A hand-wringing reflection on what Bergman scholars would call “The Silence of God” set in 17th Century Japan, this three hour historical epic is essentially and spiritually a form of box office poison. It should be considered as something Scorsese got away with (after more than a decade of false starts), not something that failed in its wide theatrical release. Silence was designed to lose money, something it’s been doing quite well in its first week of national distribution. Its ambitions reach beyond financial concerns and easy critical points to search out something within its auteurist creator’s soul, as well as something possibly divine & transcendent outside human reach. The journey getting there is long, brutal, hopelessly cruel, and, in its most honest moments, a destructive force of self-deluded madness.

Two Jesuit priests from Portugal continue a failed mission to spread Catholicism to Japan despite the Japanese government’s systematic destruction of the religion. They use the disappearance and reported defection of their former teacher to justify the excursion, which partly sets up a Search for Colonel Kurtz type storyline straight out of Apocalypse Now. For the most part, though, this suicide mission is a spiritually selfish act for the holy men, who take dictums like “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” way too close to the heart. They practice a religion that asks them to spread the Truth globally no matter what the personal sacrifice. The problem is that the sacrifice is rarely personal and the Japanese Inquisition that meets their efforts crucifies, drowns, and burns the very people they intend to “save” through Catholic conversion. They practice an outlawed faith, praying in secret & hiding in daylight like Holocaust victims. It’s a true war on Christianity, unlike whatever delusional Evangelicals think is happening in modern America. They’re the invading force in this war, though. They travel to a foreign nation to spread a faith that doesn’t belong in an Eastern philosophical context, only to see the native people tortured for the transgression. Japanese officials are exhausted by the routine of the exercise, taking time to host theological debates (which are, of course, corrupted by an imbalance of power), arguing that the converted are merely the poverty-stricken taking solace in the promise of Paradise after death, never truly understanding the Christian faith beyond that hope for posthumous rebirth. Until the priests can repent and revoke their imposition of a Universal Truth that’s proving to be not so universal, they struggle with delusions of their own Christ-like godliness, whether the mass death & torture of their converts is God’s Plan, and whether God is there at all. The answers to these questions are difficult, insular, and widely open to audience interpretation.

There’s so much to be impressed by in Silence, but what most strikes me is its rough around the edges looseness. For an expensive religious epic that took over a decade to realize onscreen, it’s a work that feels oddly misshapen, which is a blessing considering how dull this literary adaptation might have felt if kept “faithful” & tightly controlled. Like with Altman’s Short Cuts, PT Anderson’s The Master, and Friedkin’s Sorcerer, there’s a surprising immediacy to the ways Scorsese allows Silence to feel oddly unfinished, as if he were still wrestling with the film internally well after it was shipped for screenings. The film is masterful in its high contrast nature photography of coastal & mountainside Japan, but fuzzy around the edges in its epistolary narration, violent zoom-outs, and strange moments of possible hallucination. Even the casting & performances can feel oddly loose. Liam Neeson provides some A Monster Calls style narration in an early scene before going fully into full Ra’s Al Ghul mode for his Colonel Kurtz-type defector. Andrew Garfield & Adam Driver are a little goofy & out of place in their roles as the film’s main Portuguese missionaries, but it’s a feeling that plays well into their characters’ in-over-their-heads naïveté. This becomes especially apparently as they’re outshone by the film’s Japanese cast (which includes Tetsuo: The Iron Man director Shinya Tsukamoto among its ranks), who clash with that goofy naïveté with a heartbreaking emotional gravity. The film’s visual craft and sudden bursts of cruel violence all feel tightly controlled, purposefully positioned in regards to how they affect the overall narrative. Everything within that narrative is much less nailed down, though, as if Scorsese himself is using the confusion to reach for something beyond his own grasp. It’s fascinating to watch.

It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.

-Brandon Ledet

99 Homes (2015)

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fourstar

You’d be forgiven for assuming that an indie drama about forcible evictions during the 2007-2009 U.S. Subprime Morgage Crisis would be a thoroughly bleak affair. And even if you didn’t assume that about 99 Homes, the film sets its pessimistic tone early by opening with the fallout of a suicide. There is a wild card at play here, however, and its name is Michael Shannon. Shannon is notoriously deft at playing hilariously terrifying monsters & his turn as a money-obsessed real estate broker in 99 Homes is certainly not relatable or even remotely likeable, but it is, at times, riotously funny. Shannon is such a darkly amusing joy to watch in 99 Homes that his performance often threatens to turn the film into a black comedy. It’s whenever he’s offscreen, leaving Andrew Garfield’s much-suffering construction worker & single father to pick up the pieces of a broken life left in the evil broker’s wake, that Shannon’s antagonist stops being darkly amusing & just simply feels dark.

The story of 99 Homes is fairly straightforward. Michael Shannon’s real estate broker makes most of his money by evicting people from their homes on behalf of the bank. When Shannon’s monster broker evicts Andrew Garfield’s out-of-work construction dad from his family home, Garfield’s desperate blue collar everyman ends up working for the less-than-legal brute. He works his way up from literally shovelling shit to making ludicrous piles of cash as the evil broker’s right hand man. This, of course, leads to Garfield’s sad dad performing the very same heartless eviction practices that ruined his life in the first place & hiding his newfound source of income from his suspicious mother, played by the always-welcome Laura Dern. There’s a devastating amount of empathetic pain in Garfield’s eyes as he explains to people that their homes are now owned by the bank & that they are trespassing on bank property that makes the film at times bleakly arresting. For the most part, though, there aren’t too many surprises in the film’s indie drama formula & it plays out exactly as you’d expect.

It really is Michael Shannon’s performance that makes 99 Homes a memorably visceral experience. Although there is a unignorable consistency to his work as an actor, Shannon brings a terrifying authenticity to the role, something that truly makes you feel bad for laughing, seeing as how this was a real thing that happened to real people very recently. Shannon’s heartless real estate broker is a pitch perfect update to the wicked bankers with the cigar-chomping switched out for e-cigs. (Our next generation of irredeemable villains are vapers. There’s no way around that.) Cop’s call Shannon’s evil broker “boss”. He golfs with politicians in one scene & makes backroom deals to rip off the government with higher-ups at the bank in the next. He brags about how he “made more money during the crash than before” & talks cynically about America as “a nation of the winners by the winners for the winners.” I also particularly liked a moment where he describes houses as boxes that you shouldn’t get emotional about. Instead of saying what matters is what you fill the boxes with, he says it matters how many boxes you have, which is a perfectly succinct summation of his monstrously greedy soul. As with a lot of Shannon’s work, the real estate broker at the center of 99 Homes‘ true-to-life nightmare is deliciously over-the-top in his villainy. Andrew Garfield & Laura Dern are talented actors who hold their own when needed, but Shannon devours so much scenery that there isn’t much left room for them left to stand on. He’s a sight to behold.

-Brandon Ledet