The Beach Bum (2019)

I best appreciate Harmony Korine when he reins in his aimless, nonsensical character studies with the semblance of a guiding structure. Deliberately off-putting, nihilistically empty provocations like Trash Humpers & Mister Lonely are immediately fascinating for their surface eccentricities but exhausting at full-length. By contrast, the reason Gummo & Spring Breakers stand out as clear highlights in the director’s scummy arthouse catalog is that they afford the audience a recognizable genre framework with built-in dramatic payoffs, whether post-Apocalyptic sci-fi or a neon-lit heist thriller, without sacrificing the eccentricities that distinguish Korine as a phlegmy creative voice. The Beach Bum joins those ranks of Korine’s best-behaved works by meeting the audience hallway with a recognizable tone & structure while its minute to minute rhythms still recall the off-putting, amoral deviance of provocations like Trash Humpers. The guiding structure in this sunshiny Floridian nightmare is the most unlikely genre the director has barnacled his schtick to yet: the 1990s major studio comedy. The Beach Bum is essentially Harmony Korine’s Billy Madison. I mean that as a compliment.

Matthew McConaughey stars as the titular preposterous beach bum, a Florida-famous stoner-poet named Moondog. As you might expect from a Korine protagonist, Moondog is The Worst. “The most prolific poet in Key West, Florida,” he lives in a haze of cheap beer, pot smoke, and dehydrating sunshine, relying on his local fame to pave over his schoolyard bully brutality. He ruins every life he touches, but everyone around him continually excuses his behavior with shrugged-off phrases like “That’s just Moondog,” and “He’s from another dimension.” Meanwhile, Moondog laughs maniacally at his own villainy, barking “I write poetry, you little bitch” at anyone who doesn’t immediately respect his literary pedigree. He announces in a poem, “One day I will swallow up the world and when I do I hope you all suffer violently” to his adoring audience, briefly dropping his worry-free beach-frat exterior to reveal his true nature: a hedonist monster who’s wiling to destroy lives if it means he can get laid, get high, and have a laugh. The film builds itself around exploring the intricacies & eccentricities of a character who is too stoned & too spiritually empty to be genuinely interesting on his own merits. It’s pure Korine in that way, even if its surface details resemble a much more conventional comedy.

As off-putting & nihilistically empty as The Beach Bum is as a character study, the marketing company that cut its misleading trailer had plenty to work with in making it look like a 90s stoner comedy. A plot contrivance that pressures Moondog to finish his next poetry collection in order to inherit a fortune that was willed to him with that stipulation feels like it was ripped directly from an unpublished Adam Sandler screenplay. To reinforce that association, Jonah Hill plays Moondog’s literary agent as a full-on impersonation of The Waterboy’s Bobby Boucher. Moondog’s own persona seems to have derived from a fantasy where Billy Madison grew up to be an even grosser, less effective version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, which is the kind of fan-fiction you write as a teenage idiot only to rediscover it in horror as a sober adult. All the plot really amounts to, though, is an excuse to send Moondog on a go-nowhere, circular road trip with his trusty typewriter slung over his shoulder in a trash bag. Like all road-trip comedies, The Beach Bum is mostly a series of episodic run-ins with over-the-top caricatures: Snoop Dogg & Jimmy Buffett essentially playing themselves in extended cameos; Martin Lawrence as a dolphin-obsessed sea captain (who would almost certainly have been played by Chris Farley in a genuine comedy of this ilk); Zac Efron as a JNCOs-wearing Christian-rocker who apparently time traveled directly from a late-90s Creed concert. They’re all recognizable archetypes from mainstream 90s comedies but distorted into horrific grotesqueries. And none are half as nightmarish as Moondog himself.

The Beach Bum bills itself as “The new Comedy from Harmony Korine,” but I was the only person at my first-weekend 4:20 screening howling in laughter or gasping in horror. A certain familiarity with the director’s schtick is likely required at the door to get on this film’s wavelength. It wears the clothes of a laugh-a-minute yuck ‘em up from the Happy Madison brand, but beneath those vestments it’s the same aimless, puke-stained nightmare Korine has always delivered. As a hot-and-cold admirer of his work, I found plenty to be impressed by here – particularly in the way he mimics Moondog’s semi-conscious, lifelong-blackout engagement with the world in an editing style that works in half-remembered, repetitious circles. Moondog is a destructive menace with nothing novel or insightful to say about the world but somehow continually gets away with passing off his villainy as gonzo poetry. Living inside his burnout, bottom-feeder mind for 95 minutes is a frustrating, fruitless experience, but also fascinating as a character-specific nightmare. It’s less a satirical attack on the juvenile manbabies of mainstream comedies past than it is an acknowledgment of a kindred spirit between them and Korine’s own catalog of useless, preposterous lunatics. Whatever critiques or subversions of the mainstream comedy you may pick up along the way are just a result of the director doing his usual thing to an unusual level of success.

-Brandon Ledet.

White Boy Rick (2018)

The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.

Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.

What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.

It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.

-Brandon Ledet

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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It would be dishonest of me to echo the complaints about how lackluster this summer’s movie offerings have been, since I’ve enjoyed so much of what’s been released, from major productions like Paul Feig’s unfairly-reviled Ghosbusters reboot & Shane Black’s neo-noir comedy The Nice Guys to weirdo indie outliers like The Fits & The Neon Demon. Where I sour on 2016’s movie industry output, however, is in those films’ box office numbers, which are dismal at best. Seemingly, the only movies able to make significant money in our current cultural climate are either bloated superhero spectacles or CG-animated films featuring talking animals. What’s frustrating me the most this week is that Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika, satisfies both of those requirements in its own way. It features both an in-over-his-head protagonist with superhuman abilities and his talking animal sidekicks and yet, like so many other great films this year, it’s flailing in its opening weekend attempt to recoup a significant fraction of its production costs. Kubo and the Two Strings alone is proof positive of 2016’s major cinematic conundrum: great films are being made; it’s just that no one’s paying to go see them.

Inspired by Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics, Kubo and the Two Strings is at heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic. The film’s titular protagonist is a small boy who makes a living for himself & his disabled mother by telling stories for market place shoppers’ spare change in town. Kubo illustrates his own tales by playing his banjo-esque musical instrument, the shamisen, which brings to life colorful sheets of paper that fold into origami shapes & act out his stories as he narrates. What the townspeople don’t know is that the witches, samurais, and magic moon kings of Kubo’s stories are also a real life part of his past . . . which is why his tale doesn’t yet have an ending, a frustrating quality that always leaves his audience hanging. When that past catches up to him Kubo is caught in the middle of two opposing quests: his own mission to reclaim his deceased father’s armor and his witch & moon king enemies’ quest to steal his only remaining eye (finishing a job they started when he was only a newborn) and, thus, destroying his capacity for empathy & his free will. Kubo’s only company on this journey are a goofball beetle in samurai armor (Matthew McConaughey in his best performance since Interstellar) and a no-nonsense monkey (Charlize Theron, who’s just as fierce here as she was in last summer’s Fury Road). Along the way Kubo learns the responsibility & discipline necessary to command his magic abilities, but more importantly he learns that only he can bring a happy ending to his own story, however bittersweet.

A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent. What’s really impressive here, however, is its efficiency in storytelling. There isn’t a single image or element at play, from a woven bracelet to a paper lantern to an insectoid buffoon, that doesn’t come to full significance if you lend the film enough patience. Kubo and the Two Stings could’ve easily rested on the laurels of its visual spectacle, a result of infinite hours of painstakingly detailed labor in an animation studio, but it instead pours just as much care & specificity into its reverence for traditional storytelling. Nothing presented onscreen is wasted. This is narrative prowess at its most essential & efficient, an attention to craft reflected in the fact that the film’s protagonist himself is a storyteller & an animator in his own right and that his quest mostly centers on a desire to seize & steer his own narrative to a satisfactory ending. This film definitely falls into the category of cinema about cinema, art about art, but it doesn’t call attention to that conceit. It all takes naturally & beautifully as the plot continually folds in on itself like intricate origami.

What films do you consider the height of stop-motion animation as a medium? The Nightmare before Christmas? Fantastic Mr. Fox? Alice? Mary & Max? Kubo and the Two Strings easily belongs in the conversation at even a moment’s glance. The film boasts an impressive depth of visual detail & intricately mapped-out story structure, yet it’s remarkably light on its feet, leaving plenty of room both for moments of levity & for heart wrenching blows of emotional impact. Just watching the endless parade of bland talking CG animal kids’ comedies in the trailers preceding Kubo and the Two Strings, each more annoying & forgettable than the last, is enough of an eye opener as to why this film’s arrival in our current cinematic climate is such a goddamn relief. You owe it to yourself to watch this modern classic on the big screen and, please, bring a friend. The idea that there are no great films being released this year, that Hollywood is simply out of ideas and the world was somehow more creative or inspired in past decades is honestly getting to be more than a little silly. There are plenty of great films in the theater right now. We just need to get smarter about throwing our attention & dollars at them. I suggest starting with Kubo and the Two Strings. You could do far worse with your money than escaping the August heat in the air-conditioning, admiring a projection of a modern animation masterpiece in the comfort of public darkness.

-Brandon Ledet