Thursday, December 26, 2019

Best of 2019

It's all over, man, the year, the decade, the Great White Way, the coral, picnics (thanks to the killer bees) and fresh water. The burning of Australia and the flooding of somewhere else considered little more than deep state fake news by our twittering Nero. So what, you say? As Rodney Dangerfield once said, "So!? So let's dance!"

If 2017 was the year of the Woman, and 2018 was the year of howling rage, 2019 is the year of the fuck-it - teach the makers of last year's Suspiria remake what a real Satanic dancing school rehearsal looks like! Dancing while old white paragons wheeze out swan song farewells; young women and/or non-white/non-straight men dance ecstatically while tripping their faces off; there are not one but three films with long-haired dudes hanging out by the seaside getting loaded! 

Maybe five, if you count Quentin's.

I'm sure there were other movies floating around worthy of note I haven't seen, like Hitler the Rabbit, Her Smell (which has one character up to the task of being as off the rails as three of these other movies, and the rest of the cast just circling around, trying to harsh her mellow, and then succeeding) and/or that Bong Jon movie we kept meaning to see at the Alamo but was always sold out. If I see anything else good I'll fold it in here later, and act like I wasn't too lazy to get out of the house back when it was on big screen. 

I'm Gen-X, and I'm on massive meds, so don't blame me if four films on here are superheroes; you can see how none of it is my fault. 

Dir. Harmony Korine

One of a trio of neo-'head' movies (along with Climax and Midsommar) that marks 2019 as the year psychedelics became the new weed (and weed became a nootropic), The Beach Bum is a probably loosely autobiographical work of art from Harmony Korine, starring Matthew McConaughey in the role he was meant to play ever since he fist rolled onto the scene in the ultimate high school initiation movie, Dazed and Confused. Korine takes the druggy ASMR stream-of-consciousness flow he patented in Spring Breakers--wherein reality is both captured and transcended, i.e. the actual experience of being on drugs, and I mean good drugs--and... uh where was I? 

Here at last; the fantasy that one can be a filthy rich and known and beloved by all while being nothing but a hairbag poet (my dad's phrase for me in college)--that one can sell a poetry book and cash-in the way someone like JK Rowling might in real life, albeit with poetry--and that you might be the recipient of a Pulitzer and zillions and all sorts of free weed from Florida locals like Snoop Dogg. As a POET!. Like Spring Breakers, this seems a great 'four-AM, strung out on cough syrup or coming down of ecstasy, listening to it with the lights on synchronized color changes and via good headphones while the rest of your threesome is asleep on the other end of the massive king-size hotel suite bed, sleeping off their intentionally taken half-a-Rohypnol' kind of a film. It's also what you show your grandmother before convincing her to give you a massive loan. (see Air Auda Beya Lah).

Dir Gaspar Noe

Gaspar Noe's super bizarro dance troupe-amok on too-much LSD, administered without their knowledge at a pre-tour/post-rehearsal party movie: Sofia Boutella, the lush sinuous Algerian dancer/actress (she was the latest incarnation of The Mummy and a cute alien in Star Trek: Beyond, etc.) stars, or is the most recognizable and sympathetic of the gathered dancers. Noe's ever-roving camera merges the difference between the POV of a restless eavesdropping mingler and a choreographer using the party and its wild aftermath/devolution as the ultimate in a fusion of dance and insanity, a modernist collective nervous breakdown presented as a form of dance in itself. On acid, it seems, even dying is to the counter-beat. Aside from a few prolonged stationary shots such as the overhead shot from above during the big dance-a-thon that breaks the first half (the rehearsal, the "normal" partying) with the second half (the kicking-in, the paranoia, the violence), the camera never stops moving, snaking around like a combination god, dancer, and joneser looking to find someone in the act of sharing a joint or a line. Incidents of sex, violence and druggy desperation overlap in a seamless flow: a girl accidentally lights her hair on fire while trying to smoke crack/freebase and deny it to some other joneser at the same time; a pregnant woman cuts her arm and stabs her belly as she's blamed for the dosing and goaded (they believe she's faking pregnancy as an excuse not to drink the sangria). Soon, racial lines become increasingly dangerous to cross. We get violence and incest as an outgrowth of the dancing; we go the full length of the rehearsal space and the adjoining lounge, dorm rooms, and bathroom, looking for an escape back to some kind of sanity. Only time, sex, sleep, death, and the dawn's early police raid might bring some, but it's doubtful even then. 

The dancer's ferocity is so convincing and the flow so seamless that the cumulative effect is intoxicating. Throughout the length of the devolution--fro, organized normalcy (if their wild-but-controlled arcane dancing style, a mix of modern and street, filmed as if by a zonked Busby Berkley, can be called normal) to insane madness and finally murder and sexual hook-ups--the music never stops so the cast--being dancers all--never cease moving and twisting, blurring the lines between Climax as an 'acid test' tragedy horror film and a kind of extended 90-minute dance performance. Weirder, it all goes down in an underlit annex of what seems like the dancing school in Suspiria, and some of the characters seem to sense it, reacting to the blood/black red walls and strange flag ("I don't like that flag, man..." one character notes as the drugs begin to take effect) with growing paranoia. Since we barely see anything of the night outside, aside from the snow right outside the front door (ala a group happening Shining), we lose contact with the real world as much as the actors and end up lost in a weird cabin fever collective break, not helped at all by the brilliantly distorted sound mixing that captures just what it's like to feel too much acid kick in. See it with the lights low and red. Watch it again and again! Leave all hope behind, it will only slow you down. (see The Broken Dagger Mirror in the High of the Beholder).

Dir. Ari Aster

Though the tripping feels pretty real in the first two films on this list, thanks to some great sound mixing and the wild dancer amok grace of the talented young casts, the visuals of tripping are fantastically rendered only here, in this horror movie about the strange experiences of a deeply depressed young woman (Florence Pugh) who invites herself along on her boyfriend Christian's (!) friend's spring break trip to a remote agrarian commune in Sweden. The cult they meet aren't the usual Satanists but white-wearing Pagans with a great pro-life communal bond. They are also knowledgable about how to get you super high with just a drink of mead or a puff of powder blown into your unsuspecting puss. Sign me up! The best sex scene of the year occurs with the entirety, nearly, of the female population of said cult/commune, breathing in unison while Christian impregnates a girl who lets him know she's interested by leaving menstrual blood in the food she makes him (and other stuff is so super weird yet logical and maybe saner than our own amok over-populated shithole of a normal world that you may find yourself smiling as the madness intensifies and the visuals kick in like they hadn't done for me since 1987).

Bobby "Haxan Cloak" Krlic's avant garde string-heavy score veers strangely close to Colin Stetson's for Aster's previous instant horror classic Hereditary (2017). This is especially true near the end, when the long-bowing bottom-dropping coccyx-tingling drones and triumphant cascading Phillip Glassy phrases come flowing into a kind of expansive re-baptism.  Add some Lygeti-esque solar wind socking, and encounter group breath work flowing through the barn door cracks and you have an unforgettable level of aural strange. 

The visitors--a conglomeration of Americans and--to the side--some Brits--are the right kind of bewildered. You can read it in their hunched over body language, cynical attitudes, and--especially in the case of Florence Pugh's heroine and her passive-aggressive boyfriend--inability to let go of old tired 'relationship problem' patterns. It took me a second view to see how much the film is really about modern young people's romantic entanglements, the way your average schmuck lacks the guts to break up with a girl yet also are afraid to commit fully to her, hoping instead she breaks up with him to make it easier on his conscience. The result is a kind of frustrating non-committal half-assed distance bound to drive any woman nuts. Once Pugh does break free and we're washed in the 'truest' hallucinations ever in cinema (you have to watch every flower very closely, and the pupils!) we're given probably the most even-keeled examination of communal life ever: from the collapse of privacy, the loss of independent thought, the way 'breathing method' panting seems here a seamless part of conception, and the lack of abjectification within the ranks. It all leaves us reeling in a kind of dream daze that the rest of the film takes and walks ceremoniously with, right into the all-cleansing fire.  (full)

Dir Quentin Tarantino

The heavy thoughts of Manson and his Cielo Drive slaughter hangs over the first two hours or so of this film like an ominous portent, which only makes the big climax all the more cathartic (no spoilers). For a lot of us fans in the last year or so, hearing Tarantino was going to do a film about the Manson murders was as exciting as hearing Scorsese was going to do a first-person narrated mob story starring De Niro as an Irish hitman (in other words, oh jeeze, not again) Sigh, there were like eight Manson movies that year alone (including the dreadful but nicely dusky Bad Times at the El Royale). Knowing QT's way with subverting narrative expectation though, we should not have worried. That's QT's big trick in his last four films, a long leisurely drive that we don't even know is setting a slow boil tension until it explodes in a full bore catharsis. The costumes and sights of LA, the endless great diegetic songs, that roar to life on radios of gorgeous period cars, and die as suddenly with every ignition key twist; it all denotes the hand of a confident master. 

Unlike Scorsese's Irishman, here there's no end need for a priest. God is clear as a bell, thanks to the miracle of film. Though it's hard to take Leo serious as a young western actor hero, he once again proves he makes a superb villain, which is one of the characters we see him playing. Little bits of brilliance pepper throughout and Brad Pitt steals the show with his deadpan elan. With more nods to the next generation, Tarantino also casts a horde of cool young horror auteurs and up-and-comers--including Kansas BC Butcher Bowling and Samantha Love Witch Robinson--as either Manson girls or cool well-costumed friends of Margot Robbie's super sexily-attired Sharon Tate. Re-establishing herself as the super-talented fox of the hour, Robbie's wide-eyed innocent wonder conveys her character with very few words. Then there's her shadow opposite, a filthy but enchanting Manson girl named Pussycat played by a fabulous Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys) who shares a long drive with a Brad 'statutory-rape-avoidance-made-cool' Pitt.

Tarantino's camera meanwhile roves the rooftops looking down on the highways and mansion pool parties like some omnipotent spirit made nonetheless FOMO restless by the Santa Ana winds, that terrible but sexy yearning for that next party that nags like a perennial spring fever?  Little digressions and eddies in the current cohere, wow, and dissipate just as fast, as when Tate cruises downtown and ends up seeing a Matt Helm movie she's in (The Wrecking Crew), showing off karate moves she learned from Bruce Lee (a perfectly cast Mike Moh) during his martial arts stuntman training days (while also playing Kato on the short-lived Green Hornet TV series). 

Another highlight: Leo's crushing realization of his advancing age and irrelevance, comforted by an up-and-coming precocious child actress (Julia Butters) who will shortly be his terrifying characters' innocent hostage in his latest film. Little precious moments abound: all of working and unemployed Hollywood taking an 8PM breather to tune into FBI on TV, as able to be subsumed into the hypnotic lull of a gripping narrative as anyone, even scabby Mansonites. The climax is as expectation-shattering and exhilarating as the one in Django, and who can't relate to Leo's big tantrum of despair trashing his dressing room after flubbing his lines, rueing the fact he drank eight whiskey sours last night instead of the two or three he was intending? As we say in AA, I really related. 

Dir. Theorella Laguardia

Marty may be an old codger by now, but his awe of the wiseguys from the neighborhood never seems to fade. By now those old thugs must feel like museum pieces, especially with their unconvincing young person CGI botox (their bronzed faces nearly tumble into the Uncanny Valley). Pacino looks like he just had oral surgery and the novocaine isn't wearing off, but it's nice to see Joe Pesci in a restrained performance as an older mediary wiseguy.  The result is a bit-too familiar yet still funny--a low-key Wild Strawberry-fellas. Fans of the Bloods a Rover trilogy of novels from James Elroy will be pleased as our leads take part in both Bay of Pigs to the Hoffa vanishing. The last half lags with way too much of De Niro's union thug trying to get Pacino's Hoffa to heed the warnings that things are about to get at the "It is what it is" stage due to his flagrant defiance of mafia edicts. Meanwhile when Hoffa's wife finally gets a line or two, the whole film seems to do a double take as you suddenly realize no women have had speaking roles for the last hour and a half.

Hard to believe but this the first Scorsese movie for Al Pacino, and it makes a perfect  capstone' project for an aging patriarchal superstructure, equal parts elegy, celebration, spiritual last gasp /holy key brass ring grasp, and victory lap. But hey - you could edit Irishman together with Goodfellas and Casino and have one long seamless film lasting about 12 hours, especially if you could get over seeing Joe and Bobby in three separate roles, acting out numerous ages for each character in various degrees of unconvincing CGI makle-up, while various ages themselves in real life. Like old Don Fanucci at the San Genarro puppet show, it might be the violence that gets to you, but the comedy is for keeps. Besides, why obey Marty's film snob edicts you should watch it all in one go and shun Marvel and small screens? I know I'm the last wit in the sphere to suggest you watch this on your phone in ten minute installments at an airport and loudly proclaim "it's pretty good but it ain't no Aquaman" but express it I will. These are the good times.

Surprise! The real scene stealers here, despite all the heavy hitters, are really Ray Romano as a neighborhood union lawyer, Anthony Palitano as a bar owner and Harvey Keitel, seething with silver-eyed menace as one of the big capos of the five families. His chemistry with De Niro, stretching back to Marty's big break-out hit, Mean Streets, seems to come to an icy climax.

Best of all is the historical connection between World War 2 and the rise of the mafia, both before and after. Remember that the nation was suddenly inundated with unemployed young men with experience killing people. The original flood of Forgotten Men in the Great War led to bootlegging empires thanks to Prohibition. After the second, it's all unions, pension-skimming, extortion, and loansharking. De Niro's amiable brute learns to kill from his regular job of shooting unarmed German prisoners. Alas the whole back hour kind of runs out of steam as Scorsese tries to blend his loftier notions (the Silence, Kundun, Passion of the Chirst side) with his gangster bread and butter side. Bergman seems to be what all New York auteurs strive to emulate, but he ended his films on time if you remember. Strawberries barely seems to have an end at all. Maybe Ingmar realized there's no way to end a film about the end of a life that doesn't feel redundant? Marty doesn't seem to realize this. The result, like the elderly characters themselves, it just waits there at the end, expecting something to happen and being forced to wait even longer than the film can afford to stick around for.

Dir. The Safdie Brothers

One of those frantic 'last 24 hours in the life of a deranged gambler' style movies, the Safdies' latest is a riveting, embedded tale of a diamond district lunatic played by Adam Sandler. He seems born play the role of a Jewish jeweler / gambling addict, with the gaudy but high-end taste that makes him the go-to guy for athletes and rappers. Too bad he never pays his debts, ever trying to win enough money to bet on a basketball game so he can pay back his loansharking brother-in-law and also live like a king and also bet everything on the next game. The action centers around the titular gem--a crazy 'stuff that dreams are made of' mcguffin that turns the action with an almost magic force. Still, as with past Safdie films, this feels so fly on the wall realistic the center is almost not needed. You may feel the need to take a shower afterwards (all the testosterone and loud cologne and taxi exhaust seeps into your pores) and it's not as swirlingly psychedelic as the more nocturnal Good Timebut Uncut Gems is still a propulsive masterpiece that owes as much to Abel Ferrara as Scorsese, yet seems to outpace them both. And Daniel Lopatin's amniotic analog synth score courses through its veins like an amphetamine B-12 shot.

Dir Josh Cooley

The more our characters age in the Toy Story series the worse their fortunes (flecked off paint, warped plastic, flea market drop-offs) but meanwhile-- thanks to Woody's 'never leave a toy behind' Munchausen-by-proxy neediness--there's never a shortage of rescues to be made out in the cruel world. Wow settings include a traveling carnival sandbox packed with childless toys and an antique store policed by a quartet of ventriloquist dummies. A ceramic baby doll with the best limpid pool evil eyes in the history of animation as the villain! And she's terrifying! There is also the big debut 'good' character, 'Forky,' a character Bonnie (the human owner) glues together on her first day in kindergarten. (The film never asks why she never makes a single friend). Thing is, Forky was made from junk Woody fished out of the trash in his micro-managing hovering. And Forky liked it there, in the trash, but Woody won't let him die since he's so determined to keep Bonnie sheltered and cut off. In other words, Forky is a combination Frankenstein monster ("me... love dead") and any alcoholic or drug addict, with Woody as the hovering co-dependent 'fixer.' Randy Newman sings "I can't let you throw yourself away" over a montage of Woody pulling Forky from the trash over and over. Addicts and alcoholics will surely recognize the pattern of that person in your life who continually comes over to run interventions rather than letting you disappear down the rabbit hole (Forky considers the trash warm and safe, like a good bottle of whiskey or shot of smack.) As we say in AA, I really related.

As with Avengers: Endgame, there's a bit too many tearful goodbyes at the end, more or less stopping the film dead in its tracks to indulge in the Pixar feels, over and over, like a depressive Irish mother off her meds. Luckily, there are so many hilarious details and gorgeously observed moments (the residents of Bonnie's closet asking the less-played-with Woody what he'll name his first dust bunny), massive streaks of feminism (though possible lesbian Rosie-the-Riveter overtones aren't developed) and great bits from Key and Peele as a pair of never-won stuffed animals at a carnival toss game, that Hanks' overbearing helicopter caregiver schtick can be halfway forgiven.

Dir. Olivia Wilde

Sure, it's Superbad for girls-ish, an all in a single night/day "better cram all our partying into one wild time before graduation" flick. Certainly one can't do ecstasy and then be 'down' a half hour later, especially if it's your first time even drinking; and sure, it's almost logically impossible for all the things that happen to happen before dawn. But hey, one look at the credits--which include a crew and production team of so many damned women--and it's a thunderstruck galvanizing moment. Lady Bird  may have launched the volley, but this is the film that slays the onrushing backlash brigade. The only sex on display is a lesbian third base foul in the bathroom with pouty beauty Diana Silvers (Ma) but the main thing is the intense screwball comedy patter between Kaitlyn Denver (a revelation) and Beanie Feldstein (the pal in Lady Bird). What dialogue! What energy! Finally another comedy duo where they know each other's rhythms like real best friends and sweep us along in their tide.

 I wish I had been able to see this movie in high-school instead of shit like My Bodyguard, and all the Stephen King adaptations with their endless bullying and abuse- all of which made it seem like it's impossible to attend school and keep your dignity at the same time. While I don't envy kids growing up in the age of constant texting and slut-shaming, (in the 80s, sluts had a very special place in our hearts), at least there's no teacher-ignored assaults and bullying itself is at least less tolerated and therefore less visible. None of the stuff our heroines hope for comes to pass but, in the process, they realize there was nothing to fear from their peers to begin with. It's a lesson I surely could have used in high school. Maybe that's the lesson America as a whole needs. The enemy has always been in our heads projected onto others and exploited by some sock puppet think tank in Russia via Google and News Channels. Stop fighting shadows and look deep into the eyes of your mirror foe... Dumbass.

Directed by Greta Gerwig 

Greta Gerwig uses the classic prestige pic template to herald the arrival of the female Bechdel test 'sister power' auteur and her ability to craft legit art, all in a way that puts the first three adaptations to shame (just kidding, no one is shamed here. The days of shame-based comparisons are done). A roster of familiar faces, including Hermione Granger (as the poor one) and Midsommar's Florence Pugh (as the 'sensible' one who marries Timothée Chalamet's Laurie after he's spurned by) Saoirse Ronan as Jo, once again demonstrating her perfect rapport with Gerwig's dialogue and vision. Its odd 'zipping back-and-forth through time' structure has apparently confused a few viewers not well acquainted with the book or its three more linear previous adaptations. Me, I'm not acquainted nor confused. But in 1994 I saw and loved Gillian Armstrong's Winona Ryder-starring version version. I remember I cried at that one, all boozy and emotional on a rainy Sunday night, all dewy and smitten by Ryder in ways neither Gerwig nor Ronan would encourage/tolerate today. But Chalament makes for much more engaging Laurie than Christian Bale was (Bale always seemed like he was encroaching on some precious girl time with some stealth testosterone). Though I cried less this when the sick sister (Eliza Scanlen) was dying, it might be as I'm now all sober and medicated (but then I remembered Olive, our beloved cat, dead now some months, I was able to quietly bawl along with the chicks I was with). Gerwig stages the narrative's descent into soap and romantic foibles as possibly fictionalized to placate Jos's male publisher's idea of chick lit (as the book on which the film is based is completed) which makes it all somehow easier to bear but less ultimately engaging.

For the first half of the film, this is the best movie of the year, all rich with overlapping simultaneously occurring chitchat dialogue as the girls all tumble over each other in brilliantly choreographed movements worthy of a Hawks screwball comedy, albeit with Yorick Le Saux's cinematography capturing an eternal dusky autumnal period richness and Gerwig's keen familiarity and clear love of the book palpable in every frame. (Me, I don't get it). Streep and Chris Cooper are reunited again after Adaptation as the cool older generation and steal all their scenes (this is the rare story with no villains, not even the vaguely patriarchal publisher). Highlights: a stunning tracking shots of Jo racing excitedly down the crowded period NYC street after selling her first story; and a haunting art gallery-worthy golden hued nighttime train station romantic 'possible concession to the publisher" climax. And of course the various plays up in the attic, lots of well photographed, orchestrated and attended dances, and some existential moments on a windy beach. Louis Garrel makes a magnetic Friedric, though the May-December element is played way down. 

Dir. James Wan

The plot may parallel Black Panther, Lion King and a zillion other movies/myths with some positions jostled vis-a-vis rightful heir to the crown battles, just with the ocean instead of Africa, but who cares? The tale was old when it was told in The Lion King and, probably, when Sir Thomas Mallory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur in 1485. It will never age though, not as long as there are dudes hanging around guzzling brew instead of reclaiming their kingdoms from bureaucrat usurpers. But much as I mancrush on Jason Momoa, there's one reason why this should be on this list, and one reason should be enough: the wet, straggly hair.

There's a moment when we're up close in Nicole Kidman's waterlogged grey (!) straggly dreads when it hits us - the hair in this movie could have gone horribly wrong: anime flat, soft boy gelly, or dry or worse, taped down, the sort of lazy cop-out akin to the having kaiju slap-downs occur on cloudy days (freeing animators from dealing with bothersome afternoon shadows and scale-glint highlights), but director James Wan (Fast and the Furious - the most consistently good dude-friendly action series ever) wisely knows that the split ends of wet hair is going to make or breaks our belief that these people are actually underwater rather than just making swimming gestures in slow motion in front of a blue screen. I'll grant you, all the hair isn't that amazing and some of the acting is hammy, especially Willem Defoe's declamatory outdoor voice kind of over-enunciation as a sympathetic court official. He speaks in that voice you hear on Saturday morning cartoons where voice actors talk to each other adult characters like they're really talking to children despite their heavy intent, and moving their lips in such a way as to make things easy for the dubbing crews to come.

Then you have Patrick Wilson, one of those items you just keep getting on the menu though you never ordered it. Maybe it's because he's not offensive enough to send back or deliberately request be left off the plate, like the pickle and the little tub of cole slaw at the diner. It might be delicious if you really dug into it, but why would you when there's mighty Dolph Lundgren as the King Triton-cum-Sea Monkey? On the other hand, there's that green spangle scale costume clashing with the dyed red hair on the usually sublime Amber Heard as the girl who brings the Momoa down deep to prevent a massive ocean-land war. Bad color grader, bad!

None of that matters, because this is the best of this kind of Henry V/Arthur-esque 'scraggly prince, his girl, and his mother, riding in to the wasteland to declare his right to the throne against his kingdom's enemies' movie since Dune. And then there's Jason Mamoa, with his massive beard and super-brooding eyes and gloriously tattooed body. He's the kind of king you know you can swig beers with but then proudly serve, not unlike the Hemsworth Thor when we first found him way back in 2005 or whenever. Such a genius casting move to make him all a half-Polynesian / half-Poesidon, keeping his long hair and groovy mods rather than streamlining him to some whitebread DC pap ideal in elvin slippers and orange scales

One weird but strangely hopeful sign too: the presence of a set of African-American father-son high-tech submarine pirates who open the film boring into nuclear subs to kill the crew and steal the nukes. What an idea --an African American father -son bond but they're the bad guys!! It's all well and good to put African Americans as sidekicks and main character heroes, but casting them as villains, for DC that's a huge complexity for which they should be congratulated. Watching them in action, we're so conditioned to scan a pair like this as stars in some underprivileged small scale drama that acknowledging them as evil and the Russian nuclear sub crew as the good guys, runs so counter to a lifetime of movie conditioning it quietly cracks open a long-closed iron door. 

10. CRAWL 
Dir. Alexandra Aja 

Kaya Scodelro gives a star-making performance as the tough ex-swim champ who didn't win on her big chance or something all those months ago, and is heading past the FEMA barriers back to her immanently flooded Florida home where divorced handyman dad (Barry Pepper) isn't answering his phone. The result: daughter must rescue dad and dog from an influx of gators that swum over the fence of a nearby gator farm, rolling in under the house along with a massive category 5 hurricane. All things considered (see above), it couldn't be more timely. The sets are amazing -including a massive flooded exterior, where the whole neighborhood, from the house across the street to the gas station, is actually flooded. Rescue teams come by but those gators won't quit. Aja uses every foot of the four stories of the house, from basement up to attic to roof are used to wreak maximum suspense. The gators keep coming, and Haley keeps rising to the challenge leading to a pretty memorable final shot in a rollicking film that keeps one engaged and entertained from the beginning to the end.

Dir. Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

I know, too many comic book movies in my list/s, but I can't help what I watch or like or what stands as genuine mythic arc lighting and social progress and screw anyone who disagrees. It's funny that Marty Scorsese's dislike of Marvel movies becomes a meme when The Irishman is such a cliche in its format, from Scorsese's regular guy narration to the moments chosen to focus in on, such as Joe Pesci's irritation with his wife's smoking in the car as an excuse for those stops along the symbolic Jersey road. Does Marty prefer not to drive so doesn't know you can roll down a damned window?). It's simple shit like that. Scorsese thinking that we should feel involved in Leo Di Caprio's urge to kill the man who killed a father he didn't even know, when it was a fair fight during a big 5-Points battle (Gangs of New York) or that we're not supposed to be sick to death of De Niro's character's surprise when he's slammed by the gaming license committee after he refuses to keep Joe Bob Briggs on staff, even "farther down the trough" (in Casino). Such moments seem to indicate Marty is severely challenged when it comes to the basics of reality.

The best Marvel movies, on the other hand, don't give a shit. They're mythic, and so much more attuned to reality than Marty's asphalt-eyed adoration of regular guys. Though its plot is hardly original even in comic book movies, Lady Marvel has got everything great films should have. And as the title character, Brie Larson proves a sea change along the lines of the one we see in Booksmart and Little Women and Crawl, i.e. the arrival of 'last wave' feminism, wherein strong female characters no longer need to keep banging on the edges of the shattered glass ceiling like the millionth spokesperson for grrl power. The ceiling is busted and Brie knows you can just move on up through and, rather than stay up there making a speech, looking for some small corner still uncracked so she can break it a bit more. To use a D-Day parlance, she's smart enough to gets the hell of the beach. No longer merely identified via the handrails of the 'strong female woman' but eight miles beyond it, the way Sam Jackson's Nick Fury's whole demeanor changes when he realizes this is marvelous. While Captain Marvel was a wearisome snooze as a man, with Brie at the helm she's part of a grand scheme that points out to America, in the most mythic way, that in the next war, upcoming election pending, we might well be the fascist bad guys.

Dir. Craig Brewer

A fascinating rags-to-riches tale of DOLEMITE, a DIY film that broke cult midnight movie records and made its star and producer, Rudy Ray Moore, famous. It's a FUBU affair, with Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, a stand-up comedian who makes a name for himself in his neighborhood and black clubs when he starts using the boasting limerick-style sexual potency pre-rap rapping of the local street bums in his act. Calling himself Dolemite he's soon putting out 'blue' records and eventually getting financed to make a small low budget movie. Stealing electricity and using local film students as a crew, the film goes onto become a smash hit primarily with all black audiences who'd been longing to see just such a participatory raunchy mess. Eddy Murphy disappears into the role of Moore, and captures the highs and lows of the character, letting us into the mix of go-for-broke moxy that every struggling filmmaker yearns to capture. The 99% black cast backing him up is top notch. Best of all, here is a film about the black experience that eschews any tired examples of racism as an impediment to success (there are no police or social sermons to be found) to focus instead on an all-positive tale of black culture taking the tools of the trade and making their own damn movie, free and clear of any liens on having to represent some kind of black crisis, black pride, or other "Big Message" that so often makes black movies seem like dreary liberal 'preach to the choir' racism call-outs. The take-away is nothing sort of a revelation, a glimpse into what a post-racist black culture might look like, free of the need to define itself by past oppression or economic woes. Like the poetry of Langston Hughes, the film has the guts to reach way past the last 300 years--in both directions--and provide a mythic core to the African-American experience. It may not be perfect but in its glorious imperfection. Dolemite is my Name is a fine proof-of-patent. Black-made movies about black people making their own movies is just the first step out of the reactionary ghetto. The signs are all around.

13.a. US 
Dir. Jordan Peele

Though in the end the reveal doesn't make a lot of logical sense, the meanings and interpretations remain intriguing and varied. And like Endgame, certain key termite moments transcend the whole and become original, real, iconic and terrifying. Lupita Nyong'o in particular is so balls-out crazy and lit so well that her round huge eyes and glaring white teeth blazing against the all consuming blackness of her ebony face, becomes a terrifying monster behind the mask of normality, as if the gleaming smiles of past America's past black caricatures come ripping open to expose some kind of terrifying archaic pre-human savage. It's such a wild piece of acting we can feel the pantheon of great horror icons opening up to embrace her, should she deign to stay. If the film itself and its weird obsession with Hands Across America can't quite live up to the expectations we all had after Get Out, it's still loaded with enough weird symbolism, an examination of a century-old problem in the African American community (i.e. that no one can enter the upper middle class without carrying the guilt of not helping the community they left behind). The idea of this other linked world never quite feels real beyond its symbolic usage, but the whole film is beautifully lit, shot, and acted, with enough great horror moments that it earns a spot in this looney-tunes list.

Dir. Bong Jon Hoo

2019 was really the year for metaphors for class resentment and mirroring: one family destined to literally live 'below' another, the wealthier one taking their privilege for granted and never looking twice at their mirror reflections, which are out to get them. Luckily Bong Jon is way beyond the American/British bourgeois cinema's compulsive need to depict the poor as simpleton saints. Here they're crafty and also ruthless, forging documents and faking their into their positions as art therapist, driver, housekeeper and tutor, their poor roots betrayed only by that inescapable basement apartment mold smell they can't quite shake. But this is more than just another plan to siphon wealth off the rich, these four do the work required, and well --it just seems to be a fact that one has to undertake a high level of subterfuge just to get paid regularly. After an ingenious set-up in the first half, this comedy of manners soon gets tense, building up through deeper secrets (layers below even the lowest) exploding with all the murderous force of a Freudian hysteric symptom. Not just a great metaphor for the South/North Korea divide (especially when the poor family must wade through their flooded basement apartment, drowning in their own shit), it gets at some primal root too deep to do anything but depict. Cultivated critics may note similarities to Downstairs, Boudu Saved From Drowning, The Rules of the Game, and Korean cinema's seminal The Housemaid. But for me, too earth-salted to admit I recognized those haughty links, it was the stunning similarities to Us that made me wonder which one is the Psycho and which one the Horror Hotel. Bong's De Niro, the perennially stone-faced Kang-ho Song, is once again front and center as the patriarch of the less-than clan, with the gorgeous Yeo-Jeong Jo (The Servant) as the neurotic rich wife, and So-dam Park is the crafitest of the poor clan, who steps into the role of art therapist with admirable confidence. America, be scared. 

By Anthony and Joe Russo

Well, in addition to the joy of partying like the tab for the world is about to arrive and, rather than admit you can't pay it, you just stall and start ordering more rounds of shots, the big 'last day on earth' celebrations also have a very real flip side, a tendency to lose a grip on their usual semi-cool and mythic elan and to get blubbery and let every character take a sobbing bow, dying in one another's arms left and right. I can't spoil the surprises in the bottom of the Endgame cereal box but, as with Toy Story 4, the maudlin goodbye speeches and dewy-eyed "human" contact moments kind of wind up in a fender-bender five mile back-up that seems to freeze time in place while the saccharine strings build and the hugs commence. One of the reasons I risk critical reputation (!) by regarding these movies so highly is their mythic resonance, but when they get like this they're no longer resonant towards the larger myths - the Parsifal/Moses/Perseus hero with a thousand faces archetypal blueprint --and more just a homage to a homage, like Red Riding Hood cut with B-12 and baby powder. Maybe that's what they call the actor's 'reward'. You can see the reward in TV shows, where--even in dramas--they'll let certain actors with musical theater roots belt out an anachronistic song, or the whole cast will do some choreographed lip sync dance party and you're like ugh.

Then again, as with Aquaman's hair, all the angst and sobbing (dude, no one gives a shit about Pepper Potts!) is worth it just for Thor's big gut and devolving from mega-hero to slovenly dude playing videogames and quaffing beers with the survivors from Asgard's destruction at the end of Thor: Ragnarok. The scene where he time travels and bumps into his mom (dead since Thor 2) and she instantly gets he's from the future on an important mission, and the way he plays it, clearly overwhelmed and finally breaking down in her arms, made my cinematic year. Go Thor! Go!

Dir Todd Phillips

The Beach Bum's even more crack-pot brother from another psycho mother, this is a well-crafted sashay into the looney-bin, with Hildur Guðnadóttir's brilliant droning, if familiarly Johan Johannson-ish (she was cellist on SICARIO and ARRIVAL) soundtrack like the opening bars of George Harrison's "Within you and Without You" blown out into a nightmarish elevator drop. Set in a very garbage strike 70s NYC-style Gotham, with shades of NYC in the Goetz-Sliwa 70s, with a Reagan's California 80s approach to the mentally ill in the depiction of paranoid schizophrenic workaday clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), unwisely given a gun by his Peter Boyle-d work chum after he endures a stomping from a gang of local toughs. What's next is a fusion of Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro cinematic allusions along with digs at the murph alt-right fascist juggalo contingents of your red state hometown. Fleck's ill-advised foray onto an open mic night stage (he aims to be a stand-up comic) merges his Bickle with the Pupkin (De Niro is in the Jerry Langford role, if that makes it more meta and less ripper-offy) leaving us to regularly wonder what's real vs. a psychotic delusion.

But that's a slipper-slopperly slope when making a silly-willy clown movie, Mr. Todd! There's a difference between WIZARD OF OZ and SUCKER PUNCH. To me and my gal, it was as much of a cop-out as the cracked head and opening disclaimer tacked onto Roger Corman's THE TRIP (1967) by an uneasy James Nicholson, or the censor-imposed hanging/trial ending to SCARFACE (1933). I can't be sure, but I presume it was added after nervous producers saw the rough cut and worried hooligan fans would start post-show riots in a reversal of Aurora's DARK KNIGHT RISES premiere.

STILL The one and only RIPoxoxox
Another issue: though Guðnadóttir's drones rawked, the classic rock songs on the juke box often seemed a little too on the nose. I loved, like everyone else, Phoenix's dance to Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part II" atop a now meme-sanctified set of stairs, but hearing Burdon sing "It's my life/ and I'll do what I want," Creem's "White Room", CCR's "Fortunate Son," not to mention that tacky "Send in the Clowns" and "Smile" renditions, is problematic. Good thing that, despite all that, there's real dirty kick danger burned into this film, and I have no doubt that Joker mask shall be worn by more than one masked juggalo taking advantage of large protests to smash windows and throw rocks at cops in real life. And though I initially had issues with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead (he seems way too old to play an origin story), his insane laughing is pretty terrifying. When confessing his crimes on Robert De Niro's TV talk-show in a lurid triple play version of De Niro's own characters in KING OF COMEDY, TAXI DRIVER and BLOODY MAMA, you know you're into some dark twisted waters, and no amount of 'all a dream' what-iffery can belay its Captain Ahab-esque order.

I just wish Phillips and Co. had the courage to ride the dark fantasy all the way up against the police barricades and beyond, for being caught up in a riot used to be a rite of passage (I've been caught in three of them, and each time I learned a little bit more about the ugliness of mob mentality - and that, for all my Herzog-ish fascination with the process, I can never quite join in).  Finally, here is a film not afraid to stage one but chicken to incite one. It starts to be the FIGHT CLUB of its generation and then it backs off. You think Heath Ledger's Joker, setting fire to millions of dollars was just empty movie gesturing? Would Phillips insist on having a close-up that it's just play money so don't cry, capitalism is safe?

Still, more than a lot of these films even on this list, JOKER stayed with me enough I snuck it on here in the tail end. It clearly has at least a finger up the external acoustic pipe of our national disquiet, for the sheer amount of writing on it via the WWW has been staggering. With a mighty swath of acting by old Joaquin, great colors, music, pacing, dialogue and vivid characters and grime to spare, you can forgive it its whiffling and waffling. And even more so than is expected in the recent years, the rise in excellent creative sound mixing duplicates the numb feeling of being getting the crap knocked out of you or racing down the street. Next time, Todd, put down your PC-bashing tweeter, put on your steel tipped sneakers, and kick out the struts like a summer camp can.

1. FLEABAG - Season 2
By Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Even my own significant other wanted to re-watch season 2 in order to nurse her crush on the hot priest (Andrew Scott) and she hasn't had such a notion in a decade. The in-love with the show critics note it's the perfect end to the series since she seems to break up with us, her viewers, at the end, but let's hope not. It's the most raucous, focused comedy on TV, and Waller-Bridge is a badass sex addict of the first order. We simply must stalk her into a third season or we'll SCREAM! 

(HBO) Creators: Julio Torres, Anna Fabrega 

Written and conceived by doe-eyed El Salvadorian ex-SNL writer Julio Torres (the genius behind the 'Wells for Boys' sketch) and the startlingly deadpan young writer/comedian Ana Fabrega, LOS ESPOOKYS, a new HBO comedy, is one of the first HBO series to be filmed in Spanish but meant for American audiences as well as the world. Set in Mexico with forays to LA, the show chronicles the interlocking adventures of a group of horror make-up/effects specialists who--for a fee--stage 'real' scares: everything from UFO abductions, to exorcisms, sea monster sightings (to drum up seaside tourism), and old dark house hauntings (for will readings) and so forth. Fans of classic Mexican horror, Ed Wood, Alejandro Jodorowsky, the ficciones of Borges, the wheezing of Togella, the drollery of Armisen and all the true (?) ghost and UFO shows on cable--ay dios mio!-- must love it as I do. I demand it! (Full: "Disinformation Please!")

(Netflix) Dir. Samuel Bodin

This Gallic Stephen King-ish tale isn't the first to use Stephen King's collective oeuvre as a genre unto itself, but it is the best. Ala It 2, we have a group of grown-up childhood friends in a (French) seaside town who reunite when one of them commits suicide at one of the heroine's book readings. A hot girl version of Stephen King, she's forced to realize her writing both creates and comes from the evil spirit behind it, a kind of La Llorona witch in a mildly twee-meta vein, named Marianne. The whole "you must write me so I exist" angle can get your eyes rolling if you're not from a country that reveres writers (i.e. the U.S.), but the acting is all great and there is perhaps the scariest actress performance ever in the shape of Mireille Herbstmeyer as the possessed mother of the 'suicide' girl. Clearly they're using some kind of subliminal secret CGI to enlarge her eyes and mouth ever so slightly here and there, never enough to really break the wall of normality, and that's why it's so terrifying. It's maybe the best use of 'subliminal' CGI since What Lies Beneath. 

(in French with English Subtitles)

(Prime) season 1

Using a family history of mental illness as a jumping off point, this rotoscope Waking Life-style animated series explores the before and after of a major car accident that throws disaffected Daria-style star Rosa Salazar into what is either a fourth dimensional reunion with her late father (Bob Odenkirk) or a total psychotic break. Deftly captured in the animation, the trippy segues in and out of alternate realities are a wonder to behold, as is the way the animation captures the wealth of expressions from wunderkind Salazar. Amazingly, the whole thing never strays very far from that split of the difference between reality and the vividly imagined, managing to give us both possibilities so seamlessly we realize that-- in our collective move towards re-embracing psychedelics as a doorway into the world normally experienced only via mental illness-- subjective experience is not only as legitimate 'consensual reality,' its more coherent.

(season 1) HBO

Though typical for the network in its shockingly blatant sexual violence, something that haunts me way too much even years after I see it (I get the shivers just hearing the word "Bolton" or seeing that actor in a different movie or show, because of GOT for example), I can't deny that EUPHORIA is a major work of art, especially in the writing and the performances of the two main characters, the barely-out-of-rehab Rue (played by the masterfully disaffected Zendaya) and fearless trans blonde pixie Jules (Hunter Schaefer), who together navigate the sometimes terrifying worlds of--for Jules--rough trade sexual online hookups--and recovering opiate addict Rue, the horror of trying to stay clean in a world filled with triggers. Meanwhile all sorts of horrible HBO sexual transgressions and violent repercussions go on, most thanks to a terrifying alpha male (Jacob Elordi) and his power top papa. There is, as usual too with HBO, stunningly vivid acting, including wildly grounded and super cool work by Angus Cloud as Rue's chill dealer.

6. Of course, Rick and Morty - season 4. It's just as wildly imaginative, trippy, densely woven and filthy as it ever was. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, I don't know what they're smoking over there, but find out what it is and distribute it to the other shows. Great as it is, I only add it last, almost in secret, as the troll fan contingent and other elements give the show a tainted aura outside of itself, particularly where uppity broads like my own beloved #mefirst feminist cohabitant is concerned. But hey, don't throw out the baby with the bathwater, and all the other 'can't we just have this one thing?' blah blah appeals we SWMs make to keep the things that double us over in hilarity free from associative slime. Ohm, it's a shrinking island. I'm on it and increasingly worrying if the streak of 'just kidding' no fear gestures I make are getting through, or if I'm just sounding like a Drunk Uncle. That's I guess the challenge of the 20s. But guess what? Now we have a name for the decade! It's been weird trying to find the right moniker for this past 20 years, "way back in the aughts, or the 10s, or double-00s, or the 'teens" - nothing sounds or feels quite right. But the twenties?! Hell Yeah the 20s. Long may they roar, quietly.

P.S. - The best show, as far as prime time, was of course THE MASKED SINGER, but I'm too embarrassed to praise it properly. Had I the balls, its odd mix of Ken Johng's annoying comedy, the crazy inspired dancers, the relative sexy middle-aged pair of statuesque female judges with almost normal looking lips, the idea of a game show with no prizes and no real losers (and the whole Who-scored demasking climax), the way the amazing host Nick Cannon never misses a beat, looks great in a Sikh/magician turban and stresses the hard G and K in the title (i.e. the "MasKed Sinh-Ger"), the strange, strange but wildly imaginative performances, and the propensity of judge Nicole Scherzinger to shed more than one tear the moment shit gets ballad-ish (plus her tender love affair with the "Thingamajig"), the amazing editing, cutting to random but always trenchant audience reaction close-ups, and the fact even hoity-toity brainiacs like me and mine can get just as into it as some red state Fox viewer and neither of us have to feel slighted or ironic. If we can all agree on this show, there's no limit to the things we can achieve. 
(PS-alas, by season 2, the show was pretty played out--but that's life)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Sandahl Bergman's SHE (1984) comes to Blu-ray, Swingin'

Finally the great "SHE" starring Sandahl Bergman comes to Blu-ray in a flawless edition from Kino, released the other week. The Image and Sound are sublime, it's never looked better, and with a great interview given for the disc by director/writer Ari Nesher (yes that Aris Nesher), its pedigree as a cult rock-and-roll intellectually distaff comic book adventure can at last loom as medium large as it deserves. Finally we can examine the film in the light of what it is, a wildly imaginative, comic book-style adventure mixing all sorts of genres together to form an idea of what a post-apocalyptic renaissance faire might look like if its inhabitants roamed around and infiltrated other early 80s genre movies. It's a land where boxes of cereal are sold as antiques and one can wander from an underground mutant kingdom to a rich young werewolf pool party dinner/dance orgy in a few connecting woodsy shots, only to later be captured by a bewigged 18th century naturalist in lipstick and a batter's helmet and his tutu-wearing flunky; an insane, reincarnating/multiplying bridge guard who looks like a blonde Paul Thomas in an eyepatch and fringe-covered sailor suit and hat who talks in a constant stream of impressions (Groucho, Mortimer Snerd, Hitler, Popeye, Cagney, Cary Grant, etc. often all at the same time); leftover WW2 surplus canons, a war-torn city run by vicious warlords with funky helmets; a boiler room kingdom run by mummy lepers with Brooklyn accents; an inquisition-style god telekinetic with really hair arms whose eyes glow bright green when he levitates people, and so forth. There's a kinky edge, to be sure, with Bergman's goddess "She" and her right hand warrior woman enduring whippings and other torture, and all sorts of wildly imaginative Alex Raymond-style violence buried in its satiric weirdness and regular visits to the Conan / Escape from New York / Road Warrior well, but feminism always looms larger than sex (there is none). I kind of like that, as in the end, sisterhood wins out. Nesher wanted to make sure women weren't objectified, but man do we become thankfully acquainted with Bergman's incredibly lithe dancer legs. Symbols of great strength as well as grace and beguilement. She does all her own fights and stunts and knows her angles better than she did in Conan, but is just as physical, confident, and committed in her performance, leaping onto the backs of giant knights and driving daggers into the cracks of their armor with a sublime mix of raw fury and the joy of movement. 

Validating its worth as a great cult film, a kind of cross between Alphaville and Flash Gordon (1980) in style, there's an extra interview with Nesher, an Israeli film critic-turned-director/writer who made this in his 20s once out of his obligatory military service. Turns out he's an intellectual Cahiers du Cinéma type who went on to a distinguished career making 'serious' films in Israel like Rage and Glory, but also enjoying keeping his hand in with American genre junk like Doppelganger and Timebomb. -A handsome well-spoken guy who shot the extra while in New York for a retrospective of his Israeli films at (I'm guessing) Lincoln Center, the fact that he spoke so highly of his time making the film (a great anecdote his lunch with Fellini, who was shooting a film one soundstage over and had complained about the constant blaring heavy metal they were playing) speaks to his confidence in his art (i.e. he doesn't look back and cringe at the 80s rock excesses of his youth, the way an artsy American might).

This is what it looked like before the Blu - murky.

Nesher says Bergman spurred her stunt men opponents to use real swords and cutting it real close, getting physical like she trained for in Conan.  Nesher says he loved working with Bergman, and we believe him. Apparently it did well enough the producers wanted him to do a sequel, which is odd since I, a Bergman fan, never heard of this She until a chance catch on Netflix back in 2012 (which I tied in with Meet John Doe here). One issue perhaps is the name. There are just too many adaptions of the H. Rider Haggard novel, and only this one is really any good, but who would think to look for it under that title? 

In its past incarnations this She looked kind of cheap and rundown but now, on this solid Blu-ray transfer the witty genius of the film can really be felt. Bits like Sandahl's being startled into drawn sword-out readiness by the squeak from stepping on a stray rubber duck by the werewolf elite's swimming pool; David Brandon as the glitter-flecked gorgeous Sebastian Venable / Dorian Grey style aesthete; Sandahl's crazy all-in half-naked and bleeding brawl with various huge guys in knightly armor who come bursting out of big cardboard crates and attack her on the way to her deep-cavern bathing pool of immortality. Those fights are something else - unlike those as in Xena or Buffy, where they cut to Zoe Bell or Amy Johnston with hair in their face whirling and kicking, then back to the lead actress with her firsts up, these have the mighty Bergman lunging, parrying and sticking the knives deep, all in long take medium shots and with a unique mix of dancer presence (Every limb is in constant motion). Though lack of stunt men can mean terribly choreographed faux battling (i.e. in Ator, The Fighting Eagle), here, because of Bergman's experience on Conan, the strategy makes the fights seem more real, vivid- there's seldom any doubt it's Bergman doing the swinging, and there's always the possibility in her eyes that she may lose, or get really hurt, or not be able to get to the magic pool to heal her many cuts in time to stop herself bleeding out. If you love girl action heroes like I do, you know how rare that kind of palpable uncertain outcome reality is. Only Lady Bloodfight really comes close.

It's all very well paced, relentlessly entertaining and packed with Rick Wakeman's bass-heavy crazy rock anthems, reflecting the bombastic style of European rock, when prog and metal was taking the edge to the limit and avoiding the slick empty synth sounds the AOR guys in the States were convinced every artist needed to have at the time Similarly, the much bigger-budgeted groupthink-bespoiled Red Sonja (where Bergman made the fatal [for the movie] decision to play the villain instead of the lead seems to have, alongside the sequel Conan the Destroyer derailed the Conan train (thanks be to hack director Richard Fleischer-and his PG-minded producers). If only SHE had been freely avail when I was a smitten-by-Sandahl Conan worshipper back in the day, but as far as I know this never made it to the rental store... or other... 'til now. As Anita Pallenberg says in Barbarella, "Crime."

Blu-ray of the year!


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