Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The first book I read in 2018 was Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last. The protagonist and her husband, who lost their home and their professional jobs and now live in their car while trying to avoid sexually- and economically-motivated violence, agree to participate in a project called “Consilience.” Consilience is a kind of planned, gated community in which participants spend alternating months in a nice home and working professional jobs and in a “prison,” doing more menial tasks. Over the course of the book, the main characters become aware that the promises of Consilience are hollow, and that the corporate overseers of the community have many nefarious goals, as the work narratively explores themes of identity, oppression, corporate irresponsibility, and sexual predation in multiple forms. Despite being a huge Atwood fan going back over a decade since the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale in 2005 (it’s a book that retains its relevance regardless of the particular authoritarian ugliness one is currently living under, be it the War on Terror or the current War on Decency), this is, other than the awful Surfacing, my least favorite of her books. The Heart Goes Last is simply too tonally inconsistent, rapidly flipping back and forth from the kind of insightful commentary that makes up her other works to a kind of absurdist humor that the astute reader can see is intended to make the darkness darker, but doesn’t work.

Sorry to Bother You has a similar plot point, and a similar problem. From the first few minutes, the audience is made aware of the existence of WorryFree, a corporate entity to which citizens can essentially sign over their freedom in exchange for the relative security of guaranteed employment and wages. This has become a more common feature of dystopian fiction of late, especially as broad trends point toward a governmental and social system that is more pro-corporatism and anti-consumer, as various writers and artists highlight the way that economically disadvantaged people can be pressured and herded into debt slavery and company towns from which there is no escape. (Aside: there’s a lengthy description of one such company town in Octavia Butler’s phenomenal 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which should be considered required reading for every American citizen, in my opinion.) The issue in Sorry is the same of that in The Heart Goes Last: the abject horror of the concept of WorryFree and Consilience alike is undercut by the comedy of the absurd that permeates both works. Imagine that The Handmaid’s Tale and Idiocracy were involved in a teleporter accident and you’ve got a pretty good idea of why this shouldn’t work, and you’re picturing both THGL and STBY, although through different lenses (notably, the comparison to Idiocracy is almost too obvious, given the presence of Idiocracy alum Terry Crews in STBY as the protagonists’s uncle, who is considering signing himself up for the WorryFree program). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sorry to Bother You presents the story of Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a resident of an alternate contemporary Oakland. Cash lives in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Crews) and, as the film opens, finds a job as a telemarketer for RegalView that will hopefully pave a way for himself and his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) to have a more stable lifestyle. On his first day, he is encouraged by more seasoned co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” (David Cross) when making his sales calls as a way of making (predominantly white) customers feel more at ease and trusting. Although this tack leads him to success in his career, Cash also feels drawn to the ideals of Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a fellow RegalView employee who is actively working with his peers to form a union.  Cash finds himself torn between two worlds and various factions as his star continues to rise; promotion at work leads him to learn that upper tiers of RegalView’s services includes selling the human labor of WorryFree. He finds himself the subject of special interest of WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who invites him to a bourgeois party where Cash’s “otherness” is put on full display as he is forced to, in the cultural theory lexicon of our times, “perform his blackness” for an audience of rapt white people. In a private meeting, Lift reveals his ultimate goals for WorryFree, much to Cash’s horror.

A very dear friend saw STBY about a week before I did and warned me off of it: “I hated it,” he said. A fellow writer and friend with whom I went to see the movie the following weekend walked out and immediately declared: “Well, that was a piece of shit” (she missed about 15 minutes of the film for personal reasons and re-evaluated that stance once we filled her in on what she missed, but her overall impression was still largely negative). I feel that my concerns with the negative elements of the film may give the impression that I feel the same way, but that’s not really true. This is a movie that is undoubtedly flawed and certainly has all the hallmarks of a first feature from a director who has too many ideas, even if all those ideas are interesting (or even brilliant) in isolation. Another friend advised that her co-worker broke down STBY thusly: Scott Pilgrim + Black Panther + Black Mirror + Office Space. At the time, a mere day or two after my screening, I responded that my breakdown was more 15% Get Out, 30% Naked Lunch, 10% Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 5% Rent (mostly that Detroit’s stunningly bad performance art piece is a lot like the horrible Maureen’s horrible “Moo With Me!” bullshit, presumably [hopefully] as a parody of the same), 10% Idiocracy, and 30% Being John Malkovich. After a couple of weeks to marinate on it, I’d probably change those percentages up a little bit and add that there’s also a few healthy pinches of that one episode of Degrassi TNG in which Liberty realizes that the only reason the Smithdale sorority wants her is to serve as their token black friend.

Make no mistake: this is a good film and a great work of art, even when the meaning of certain symbology is hard to parse. It’s worth noting that the negative reviews I got from friends were from white friends, which isn’t meant to impugn them, but demonstrates how a story about blackness, perceived whiteness, the navigation of predominately white economic spaces, code switching, and the magical realism of taking concepts like “talking white” and “workhorse” to a literal extreme can discomfit white audiences without them understanding why (bear in mind, I am a white person, so I’m trying to use my privilege to highlight this while staying in my lane, so please forgive me if there’s something I’ve overlooked).

This is good: making your audience aware of inequities and how they affect the psychology of every participant, those who are empowered and those who seek empowerment but can be corrupted by it, is important. And faulting a work of art for not providing a clear explanation of how to navigate this minefield is as foolish as expecting every disadvantaged or disenfranchised person to assume personal responsibility for your education about social issues and race relations. This film raises awareness without trying to make the audience feel better at the end by saying “oh, there is a path to a better world, just follow this light.” It just says “this is a bad time, guys” and means it, and leaves each member of the audience to sort out what that means individually. If there’s any truly glaring fault, it’s that the film occasionally makes the mistake that Crash (shudder) did, which was painting racism as solely an independent, personal flaw of character rather than as both an individual fault and as uncritical or insufficiently critical participation in hegemonic social constructs and systems of power that are the legacy of colonialism.

There’s a line in Sorry to Bother You that I really love, even if I can’t remember the exact wording and can only paraphrase: “When people don’t know how to fix a problem, they get used to it.” In a recent interview, writer/director Boots Riley noted that the undesirable—and yes, deplorable—elements of American society have made themselves more visible in the past few years, to the point that his original satirical screenplay, written in 2014, had to be rewritten to avoid being “too on the nose.” Notably, this meant the excision of the line “WorryFree is making America great again,” which was composed at least two years before that same rhetorical phraseology took on the connotation that it has now. (Another aside: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 publication The Wild Shore is another dystopian novel concerning a post-disaster U.S., like Parable. In Wild Shore, we see that “Make America Great Again” was the rallying cry of another dangerous leader who draws people to his banner in the name of nationalistic pride. It’s quite good, although it also shares some of the first time novelist/director issues that STBY has, as it was originally written as Robinson’s MFA thesis.) These continue to be dark days, and though we may not know how to fix them, we must not get used to them. And if you like your social commentary candy-colored but lacking in neat, pat answers, go see Sorry to Bother You. Hell, go see it even if that’s not your bag; your comfort zone could become your noose if you don’t push your boundaries.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Big Deal About Call Me by Your Name (2017) is That It Isn’t a Big Deal at All

While I wasn’t quite as knocked on my ass by the Academy Award-nominee Call Me by Your Name as Britnee seemed to be in her review, I do share in her appreciation of its merits as an intoxicating sensory experience. She writes, “I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of the music in the film was phenomenal.” Like with Luca Guadagnino’s previous directorial effort A Bigger Splash, this is a film that often compensates for its most glaring narrative shortcomings by simply shining as a gorgeous object, a portrait of life “somewhere in Northern Italy” that appeals to all five of the senses. I can’t recall a work of art that’s served as a better advertisement for an Italian life of leisure since the wonderfully-penned Gabrielle Hamilton memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter. I wasn’t 100% convinced by the passion shared between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) & Oliver (Armie Hammer) in this gorgeous backdrop the way Britnee was, but in a way, the soft, casual edge to their summertime romance is a huge part of the film’s appeal. Much like the ease of drinking fresh-squeezed juice, going for a swim on a whim, or plucking a book to read from the endless towers of them stacked about the open-windowed house, the same-sex romantic tryst at the center of Call Me by Your Name is a casual indulgence in an ancient pleasure. The only air of tragedy to their extended hook-up in this sun-drenched Eden is that it’s doomed to be temporary. That casual approach to same-sex romance & sensuality is extremely rare in cinema’s coming of age narratives about queer self-discovery, especially the ones set in the AIDS-paranoid, legally malevolent days of the early 1980s. It’s wonderful to see that the Big Deal about Call Me by Your Name isn’t made to be a big deal at all.

Something that caught my eye in Britnee’s review was that she made a point to note that Elio confesses his desire to (the older, more confident) Oliver “without stating that he is homosexual or bisexual.” This may be a result of the film’s less identity politics-obsessed 1983 setting, but it’s very much important to its overall appeal. I’ve been taken aback by a few critical takes on the film that posit Elio & Oliver as closeted homosexual men, when my experience with their shared arc was explicitly framed as a bisexual awakening. In a typical cinematic version of this story, these two young men would only be flirting & sleeping with women as a cover for their true passion, a dangerous romance that would inevitably end in tragedy (think of titles like Brokeback Mountain or When Boys Cry for context). Here I never question that the leads enjoy sleeping with women any more than I question them enjoying fresh fruit or afternoon swims. Their own connection may be more passionately intense & more of a social taboo (due to their significant age gap just as much as their shared gender), but that feels like it has more to do with their mutual compatibility than any external factors. A more convincing case could be made that Elio’s academic father (the consistently magnificent Michel Stuhlbarg) is a closeted homosexual man, but his hints about his own sexual orientation are left ambiguous at best. The most you can surmise from the fatherly advice carefully doled out throughout the film is that he believes what Elio & Oliver have is a rare, beautiful thing. Again, I don’t buy that the summertime fling the two leads share is as rare or as special as it’s ultimately framed to be, but I do find a lot to admire in this mode of subtle parental encouragement. In a more typical work, Elio’s parents would have found out about their tryst and made a huge dramatic gesture out of shutting it down. Instead, they quietly allow it to blossom & wither in its own time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (which it kind of is).

The exchange that best solidifies the connection between the ease of Oliver & Elio’s romance and the general idyllic ease of a life on a Northern Italian villa is the one involving The Peach. Between his bored, restless indulgences in reading, drinking, swimming, sleeping, playing music, and having sex (what a life!), Elio often finds himself alone & sexually frustrated in the few private spaces he can find in his parents’ expansive summer home. In the most pivotal of these moments, he finds himself masturbating into a fresh peach, only to awake embarrassed when Oliver discovers him sleeping next to the evidence. To Elio’s horror, Oliver licks & threatens to eat the defiled, oozing peach. It’s a jarring exchange, but one that’s played as casually as the glazed petit four scene in Toni Erdmann, rather than for the shock value humor of similar scenes in Wetlands, Pink Flamingos, or American Pie. Elio is too embarrassed & ashamed to see it, but Oliver’s instinct to Eat The Peach in that scene is a natural extension of the indulgent, leisurely life they’ve been living all summer. Oliver is an overconfident, lumbering bro with a voracious appetite for Experience. The way he downs whole glasses of juice, dances with wild abandon, and smashes into even the daintiest of breakfasts is almost beastly, but it’s an appetite for life that makes the most out of the many sensory pleasures that enrich the Northern Italy countryside. Elio could use some of that unearned confidence himself, which is why it’s wonderful to see him indulge in more pleasures outside the shade of his bedroom as the film progresses. Eating The Peach is such a great summation of the careful, delicate hedonism of the summer the two young men share together over the course of the film. It’s kind of a shame the movie ultimately chickens out on fully depicting it (which I understand was not the case in the André Aciman source material).

Not everything in Call Me by Your Name worked for me. The Oscar-nominated Sufjan Stevens songs were more of a distraction than an enhancement. For all the film’s confident comfort in bisexuality, I found it a little odd that its onscreen nudity was all boobs and no peen. Less superficially, I never fully bought into the once-in-a-lifetime significance of the central romance, nor into Oliver’s transformation from “impolite, arrogant” bro to sensitive soul. Again, though, Guadagnino’s eye for gorgeous, natural imagery and all-encompassing sensory pleasures more than compensate for any narrative missteps (the intensely-lit Psychedelic Furs dance sequence was the most I’ve been excited for his upcoming Suspiria remake to date). Overall, this is a tenderly beautiful & surprisingly humorous delight. Speaking more culturally than personally, I believe the film’s greatest achievement is in not pushing to be more than that. It’s so encouraging to see between films like Call Me by Your Name & Princess Cyd that there are bisexual coming of age stories finally being told onscreen where the awakening & the romance are The Big Deal instead of the sexuality itself. There’s too many kinds of queer stories yet to be told onscreen for every major non-hetero release to be a coming-out misery narrative, as feels like has been the case for decades. Elio & Oliver believe their summertime romance to be a bombshell secret, a fear contextually informed by the film’s early 80s temporal setting, but nearly everyone around them perceives what they’re up to and does nothing to obstruct it with disapproval. The movie is ultimately casual & delicate in its depiction of an extended same sex hook-up, leaving only a young man’s broken heart behind in its inevitable conclusion (a wound that always heals with time, no matter how traumatic it feels in the moment). Elio & Oliver’s brief, passionate fling is presented as just one Northern Italy delight among many, no different than a good book, an afternoon swim, or a freshly squeezed glass of juice. The only way for that messaging to be clearer would be for Oliver to Eat The Peach and shrug at the camera, but I suppose that would have been making a Big Deal out of nothing at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, Call Me by Your Name (based on the André Aciman novel of the same name), has earned loads of critical acclaim since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January and subsequent Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. After watching the film for the first time last night, I can truly say that it lives up to the hype. Here I am, an entire day later, still thinking about all the beautiful scenes shot on 35mm film. In addition to the movie’s vibrant beauty, its ability to pull the audience in emotionally is incredible. The entire theater was silent (minus a few sniffles for those heartbreaking moments) as everyone was wide-eyed and open-mouthed.  It felt like we were part of a virtual reality experiment.

The film is set in northern Italy during the summer of 1983. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) are spending time at their Italian villa. Elio’s father is a professor of archaeology and invites a handsome young research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), to stay with them during the summer. Elio is a seventeen year old with wit and talent beyond his age, and Oliver, while extremely intelligent, falls a little into the frat boy stereotype. At first, the two develop a friendship that involves intellectual conversation, daily swims in gorgeous Italian waters, and going out to local night clubs. Slowly, Elio begins to develop more of a sexual interest in Oliver. Without stating that he is homosexual or bisexual, he approaches Oliver and makes his desires known. Oliver, while hesitant at first, indulges in these desires as he feels the same for Elio. The two then engage in a very brief, yet passionate affair over the summer.

What I love the most about Call Me by Your Name is the film’s pace. It doesn’t move too fast or too slow; it’s just the right speed. There’s a gradual build-up before Elio and Oliver consummate their relationship, but the film doesn’t come to an abrupt end after this occurs. Instead, the audience is able to watch their relationship blossom into something beautiful. This kind of intimacy was responsible for getting me so emotionally invested in the film. Understanding Elio’s feelings before he approached Oliver and watching the passion between them grow more and more each time they were together was absolutely magical.

This is the first Guadagnino film I’ve seen, and I am immensely impressed by his ability to create an atmosphere that is so appealing to all the senses. I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of music in the film was phenomenal. From the memorable sequence of Oliver dancing in his high socks and Converse shoes to The Psychedelic Furs hit, “Love My Way” to Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love” (nominated for Best Original Song) during Elio’s heartfelt moment of self-reflection, all of the film’s musical components add emphasis to these little moments.

While the performances from Chalamet and Hammer were above par, the most pivotal exchange in the film is Stuhlbarg’s monologue during a father/son discussion that goes beyond a father telling his son that he’s supportive of his sexuality. Chalamet showed up and showed out during this scene, and it had everyone in the theater in tears. In film, these conversations usually occur between mother and son because the father is usually too “macho” to understand anything about homosexuality. I was thrilled that this memorable moment was shared between Elio and his dad rather than Elio and his mom.

Call Me by Your Name is a coming of age love story that has left me with nothing but fond memories. I’m looking forward to watching this one a few more times once it’s released on DVD.

-Britnee Lombas

Free Fire (2017)

About halfway into Free Fire, Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to last year’s excellent existential horror High-Rise, I began worry I was watching something much more pedestrian than its predecessor. In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

Staged “in real time,” Free Fire depicts a weapons deal gone horribly wrong in a 1970s Boston warehouse. Irish gangsters representing the IRA attempt to purchase a large quantity of assault rifles from South African crime lords with impartial American mediators maintaining order between them. The only reason the audience really has any incentive to prefer one faction’s victory over another is because one group is introduced first. Besides there being one woman in a sea of overly macho personalities hitting on her and referring to her as “Sweetheart,” “Doll,” and “Bird,” there isn’t much variation in the film’s various intergangster dynamics. Mostly, Free Fire‘s dozen or so characters are all irredeemable criminals, boys with their toys, who are attempting to get one over on each other in an exchange of funds & murder weapons. Once the familiarity of their antagonism breaks down and their vendettas transition from business to personal, the deal devolves into an hour-long shoot-out where everyone’s shot multiple times and it becomes a weird joke they there’s anyone still alive to continue the narrative. Even with exposed brains & bullet-shredded flesh, the warehouse full of bloodied-up reprobates somehow find the energy to lob witty insults at each other between the roars of gunfire. For something so horrifically violent, it’s decidedly goofy.

There’s a Walter Hill-style exploitation throwback quality to Free Fire‘s bare-bones premise and its “All guns. No control.” tagline suggests it actually has something to say about modern culture’s relationship with firearms, but the film often feels like a naked excuse to watch beautiful people (Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, etc.) model 70s fashion & fire weapons to incongruous pop songs by acts like CCR & John Denver. It’s easy to see why the marketing team felt it was appropriate to tout Martin Scorsese’s executive producer credit so prominently in its advertising. Wheatley knows exactly what genre confines he’s working within here, though, and subverts them not through joking meta-commentary, but by playing them straight to an absurdly prolonged extreme. The last time I laughed this much at a character’s improbable, strained survival was watching Leonardo DiCaprio crawl & gurgle blood for hours on end in The Revenant. The difference in Free Fire is that the humor is intentional and every character is a post-bear attack DiCaprio, functioning like dead weight zombies who barely have the strength to lift guns in each other’s directions, much less take the time to aim. The film is impressive in its simple alchemy of making a familiar premise feel fresh again by sustaining it for an absurdly prolonged stretch of screentime. You may feel as if you’ve seen this exact film before, but you’ve never seen it pushed to such a sublimely silly extreme.

-Brandon Ledet

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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threehalfstar

There’s no doubt in my mind that fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford has a masterpiece in him somewhere. His 2009 debut A Single Man was an interesting work that suggested that maybe his intense vision as a meticulous stylist wasn’t exactly suited for an intimate, small cast drama. Ford took the note and his follow-up, the gleefully trashy Nocturnal Animals, makes much more deliberate strides to match the arty perfume commercial pretension of the his visual obsessions to a more appropriately detached work of cinematic abstraction. In its best moments, Nocturnal Animals nearly touches the transcendent modes of exquisite trash that wins me over so fully in titles like Phase IV, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and The Neon Demon. Ford has seemingly accepted his role as an art curator & visual stylist here, aiming more for a well-constructed image than an emotionally engaging narrative. Nocturnal Animals still feels oddly restrained, though, and the director hesitates to follow through on the film’s more exciting, disorienting impulses, restraining it from becoming the soaring cinematic achievement Ford will surely make someday. Hopefully, it’ll be someday soon.

Amy Adams stars as an art gallery curator struggling to hold onto a flailing marriage with an indifferent business dick, played by Armie Hammer. Their imperfect, handsomely tailored reverie is disrupted by a package containing a manuscript for a new novel from the curator’s first husband, played by Jake Gylenhaal. This framing device sets up three competing storylines: the narrative of the novel, flashbacks to the bickering that dissolved the first marriage, and an endless parade of shots of Amy Adams thinking & reading in bed. All three of these narrative threads are dripping with melodrama, but only one of them is consistently entertaining to behold. The novel, which plays almost like a parody of macho fiction scribes like Bret Easton Ellis & Cormac McCarthy, follows a family who are derailed from a road trip by some West Texas hooligans who rape & murder all but one surviving member.  After a years-long pursuit with the help of a grizzled law man, an absurdist terror brought to life by a top of his game Michael Shannon, those hooligans are brought to a justice of a kind, but at a devastating cost. There’s some kind of parable here about the flawed nature of revenge, but the point Ford’s trying to make doesn’t really matter all that much in the end, given how little attention the “real” world drama of the art curator’s love life is given in comparison to the crime novel’s sensationalist violence & self-doubting masculinity. I like how the novel’s years-long search for retribution mirrors the frustration of constantly performing mental autopsies on a past failed romance, including the incessant impulse to return to the scene of the crime in both cases. However, I’d rather that the art curator’s half either match the novel’s narrative significance so that both halves are equally strong or for the film to not try to make a point at all. As is, their connection feels a little thin considering the effort they take to merge thematically.

The one thing the Amy Adams end of this fractured narrative does accomplish is to contextualize Nocturnal Animals as a work of Art, rather than a conventional feature film. The opening credits are a stunning, immersive gaze into a gallery exhibit where flabby erotic dancers shake their naked bodies in a Twin Peaks void of sparklers, confetti, and tiny American flags. At a fancy cocktail party between artsy types, Adams rattles on about “junk culture, total junk” and a swishy Michael Sheen chides her (along with the audience) to “Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful when you do.” Gyllenhaal’s frustrated novelist even laments at one point about how painful & vulnerable it is to make divisive art that seemingly no one likes. Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).

I’m loving the new weird territory Tom Ford explores here; I just think he can afford to get a whole lot weirder. There’s a third act shift into audience disorientation in Nocturnal Animals that I found far more exciting than any of the film’s various moral dilemmas and moments of bitter melodrama. Ford cuts from one reality to the next in jarring transitions where you sometimes aren’t even sure if you’re watching a scene or a still photograph. If this narrative jumble between its various storylines lead to some kind of a psychological break along the lines of a Persona or a Mulholland Drive, I might be singing its praises (the way I have been with its fellow exquisite trash pieces Tale of Tales & The Neon Demon) as one of the best films of 2016. It instead leads to a much more pedestrian narrative about revenge & bruised emotions: a hollow, although beautiful, shell of what could have been. I doubt Ford would be interested in doing so, but I’d love to see the director move into an even trashier genre than a pulpy crime story in the future. If he left behind his impulse to make a narrative point about life & humanity and instead applied his stylist skills to a horror of sci-fi genre pic, where the stakes are lowered from the heights of an intimate drama & the thrills are more or less predetermined, he’d feel way more free to let loose & deliver that weirdo masterpiece I’m convinced is in his imminent future. Nocturnal Animals very nearly gets there and it’s fascinating to watch him reach for it in his own carefully meticulous way, but he needs to loosen up just a little bit to arrive at that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet

Mirror Mirror (2012)

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onehalfstar

How many times do you allow a filmmaker to burn you before you stop coming back for more? Usually I’d allow a fairly long leash in these situations, but I have a feeling Tarsem Singh is about to really test my patience. Singh’s first feature, The Cell, is a fairly decent thriller that’s stuck with me over the years due to its intense, dream-logic visuals (a knack the director undoubtedly picked up from his music video/advertisement days). It was The Cell‘s follow-up, The Fall, that affords him so much patience form me as an audience. Easily one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen in a theater, The Fall is a fantastic, visually overwhelming movie about the very nature of storytelling as an artform, a work that nearly outdoes the great Terry Gilliam at his own game. I can’t say enough hyperbolically great thing about The Fall, which makes it all the more confusing why not any one of the three Tarsem Singh features that have followed have piqued my interest. Somehow, each follow-up looked even blander than the last and I didn’t want to ruin the high note The Fall left me soaring on.

I recently ruined all that goodwill by checking in on Tarsem Singh’s most high profile work to date. When considered in the abstract, a big budget retelling of a classic Grimms’ tale would be a perfect follow-up to the grandiose fantasy dreamscape of The Fall, but Singh does so little to justify that optimism here. I’m honestly not convinced that he hasn’t been murdered & replaced by an imposter, possibly some kind of artificial intelligence from the future or an ancient human-impersonating monster. Mirror Mirror is Tarsem operating in the world of fairy tales (Snow White, for those somehow unaware), but it’s a dull, passionless work that could’ve been handled by any number of journeymen with a Hollywood-sized checkbook. Indeed, there are echoes of the film’s contemporaries like Maleficent and Snow White & The Huntsmen at work in Mirror Mirror, but I’d argue that even those far-from-prestigious comparison points far outshine this lifeless exercise. They’re at least occasionally fun. Even this film’s out-of-nowhere Bollywood song & dance ending was somehow more painful than delightful.

I’m not sure how closely Mirror Mirror follows the original Grimms’ tale, but I am sure that I don’t care to investigate. In this version (subversion?) Snow White carries a sword and saves her own ass from peril, which is presented as a big whoop, but instead bores to the point of cruelty. If I’m remembering correctly, I’ve seen a swordfighting, swashbuckling Snow White onscreen before on the impossibly cheesy ABC show Once Upon a Time and even they did a better a job of keeping my eyes open than this drag. I guess the film gets certain brownie points for at least attempting to subvert the damsel in distress dynamic of many (bastardized) fairy tales, but it does so with such a half-hearted non-effort that it’s hard to drum up any genuine enthusiasm for the content.

The true story of this film is the long list of suffering actors practically checking their watches as the running time slowly bleeds out. Nathan Lane looks especially pained in his boredom and, despite thanklessly giving the same endless charm he brought to his roles in The Social Network & The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,  Armie Hammer does little to lighten the mood. The most embarrassing turn of all comes from Julia Roberts, however, who fully commits to her role as the evil queen/witch, but fails miserably. Roberts toothlessly gums the scenery when the movie demands that she devour it. An over the top villain might’ve saved Mirror Mirror from total devastation but Roberts simply isn’t up for it & watching her try is admittedly a little pathetic.

I guess if I were to say one nice thing about Mirror Mirror I could point to its lavish costumes, which likely deserved the Academy Award they took home in 2013. As the costuming in The Fall was similarly striking, this one detail could maybe serve as a glimmer of hope that Tarsem Singh has at least one more decent movie buried deep within him somewhere, depending on how closely you want to look. Costume design is only one small piece in the larger, complex filmmaking puzzle, though, and I doubt the other Singh films I’m going to catch up with despite myself are going to fare much better, brilliant costume design or no. There honestly isn’t much hope left out there.

-Brandon Ledet

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I’m not sure exactly why Guy Ritchie’s latest foray into highly stylized action cinema, a big screen adaptation of the 1960s television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., has more or less flopped at the box office. Personally, I might at least be able to attribute my own reluctance to catch up with the picture to a little bit of superspy fatigue. So far this year the cinemas have been bombarded from the superspy likes of Kingsman: Secret Service, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, American Ultra, and a spoof of the genre simply called Spy. That’s not even taking into account the upcoming Stephen Spieldberg/Tom Hanks collab Bridge of Spies & the latest James Bond feature Spectre. If 2014 was the Year of the Doppelgänger, 2015 is certainly the Year of the Spy & The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s returns may have suffered somewhat from a crowded market. It’s by no means been a devastating financial blow like Ritchie’s disastrous Madonna vehicle Swept Away, but it has struggled to earn back its $75 million budget, earning less than half of that sum in its U.S. theater run. What’s even more difficult to account for, however, is it the film’s middling reviews. I’m no Guy Ritchie fanboy, having seen less than half of the films that he’s released, but U.N.C.L.E. was easily the most fun I’ve ever had with the director’s sleek action movie aesthetic, however delayed my trip to the theater may have been.

Opening with a traditional James Bond credits sequence populated with sultry soul music, harsh red hues, and Cold War/Atomic Age stock footage, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. maintains a distinct sense of 60s-tinged, smart mouthed swank throughout its entire runtime. Sometimes its modernizing of the 60s superspy genre feels true to its sources. CGI-aided car chases work similarly to the manually sped-up action scenes of yesteryear. The classy noir lighting of 60s fare is brought into the 2010s with rainbow-colored lens flairs. Throwaway lines about “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist”, enriched uranium, and smuggled Nazi gold all feel native to the era it’s evoking. At other times this modernization can work a little too much like borrowed Tarantino cool, especially in small details like the yellow grindhouse subtitles and the pop music & whistling on the film’s soundtrack, but even Tarantino borrowed those elements from older sources, so the similarities are more than forgiveable. What most distinguishes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from, say, an Inglourious Basterds, is its calmly restrained chase of a smarmy, handsome aesthetic instead of Tarantino’s cartoonishly over-the-top tendency towards excess (which, of course, has its own distinct set of charms).

Speaking of calm restraint, just as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains poised & smugly handsome throughout its runtime, its American spy lead Solo (expertly played by Henry “Man of Steel” Cavill) prides himself on never losing his cool. As the CIA operative/international playboy Solo butts heads with quick-tempered KGB agent Illya (Armie “Winklevoss Twins” Hammer) & sexy German mechanic Gaby (Alicia “Ex Machina” Vikander) on a multinational mission to prevent a Nuclear Holocaust, he tries his damnedest to remain as coolly suave as if he were simply enjoying cocktail hour. A lot of humor is derived from watching Solo & Illya try to out-macho each other in activities as disparate as fistfights in restrooms to arguing over women’s fashion. Most of the film’s comedy, however, is dependent upon the sexual tension between all three leads & their escaped Nazi enemies (including a young married couple who look like an evil combination of Jason Schwartzman & Freddie Mercury and a character Tilda Swinton could play in her sleep). There’s an onslaught of innuendo in the film’s script, like when the art thief Solo offers to “fill the gaps” in a woman’s collection or to “take bottom” when divvying up which locks he & Illya will pick. By the time characters are nonchalantly delivering lines like “Want to have a go?” & “I wish I could stay to finish you off myself” the film’s earned enough goodwill to evoke full belly laughs instead of the light chuckles the first couple sexual quips elicit. Armie Hammer also gets great comedic mileage from the KGB hothead Illya, especially in the way he sweetly refers to mechanic Gaby as his “little chop shop girl” & the comically American Solo as “cowboy.”

No matter what the reasons for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s muted reception, I do feel the film has been a little shortchanged & I regret waiting so long to catch it in the theater. It has a distinct sense of smart, sexy glamour to it that suggests an alternate universe where Mad Men was an action-packed world of superspies instead of a slowburn of an existential crisis. The film’s sexual quips, use of wrestling as foreplay, gender reversal of the damsel in distress trope, and genre-faithful plot riddled with doublecrossings & double-doublecrossings all make for a fun, sleek picture that I’m sure will have a second life on Netflix & the like even if it’s not currently doing so hot in the theater. On top of these surface pleasures, Guy Ritchie makes some satisfyingly unique visual choices such as mounting cameras to the bows of boats, the fronts of safes, and car door mirrors for a effect that feels highly stylized, but genuinely earned. He’s also confident enough in his screenplay to imply offscreen action instead of showing every little explosive detail & to allow certain scenes to breathe for maximum effect, such as a particularly sublime moment when Solo is enjoying a picnic as his partner fends for his life in the background. As far as 60s throwback action & Nazi-killing revenge fantasies go, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is about as handsome & as confident as they come. If you’re like me & have been putting it off due to superspy fatigue, I’d suggest giving it a shot somewhere down the road. It has enough universal appeal that you’re likely to enjoy yourself.

-Brandon Ledet