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Wednesday
Nov212018

Urban Legend (1998)

Movie nostalgia is like breakup nostalgia. Time and newfound affections sometimes paper over epic missteps. On better days, you might even recall teenage screaming matches as butter-hued stepping stones to the future Better You--until a random supermarket encounter or a Facebook Memory pops the wound afresh like a neck zit. Revisiting Urband Legend, I was struck by gooey memories of baby-faced WB stars snarking their way through 1998’s answer to I Know What You Did Last Summer (i.e. 1997’s answer to Scream). But watching Tara Reid beg for her life in a campus radio station reminded me of my dislike of this movie twenty years ago. A banal cruelty pulsing beneath the “Use By 1999” in-jokes suggests that the filmmakers had run out of stars and steam and anything clever to say about horror. It was back to, “Ain’t murder fun?” and other childish questions best left in the past.

Monday
Nov192018

A Star is Born (2018)

As surely as the blinking embers of creativity struggle against Hollywood’s unyielding brand-recognition vacuum, this fourth iteration of A Star is Born will not be the last. Co-writer/director Bradley Cooper plays country star Jackson Maine, who falls for Lady Gaga’s Ally after seeing her perform at a drag bar. They flirt. They fuck. She joins him on tour. Jackson succumbs to a lifetime of demons via drugs and drink. Ally teams with a hungry young producer (Rafi Gavron) who leads her on down a wayward pop path. For glossy Awards bait, A Star is Born doesn’t shy away from big questions about the dueling allure and repulsion of fame, constantly returning (through music and a recognizably human supporting cast) to the question, “Does art matter if the artist has nothing to say?” Gaga answers with a rousing final number that elevates this triple-take remake above prodcut into genuine, soul-searching spectacle.

Friday
Sep212018

Lizzie (2018)

Hatchet-tag (Meat, Too)

Nearly two decades ago, The Matrix blew millions of minds wide open with the idea that reality is a fantastical construct designed to shield the human psyche from unimaginable true-life horrors. It may not be a coincidence that the film’s ascendancy in popular culture tracks with the advent of reality TV, which crafts storylines from drastically edited timelines, cobbled-together reaction shots, and voice-over, creating an illusion for its audience that is so perfect as to subtly reshape the real world,* year after year.

How was The Bachelor allowed to metastasize from an annual sideshow into a quarterly franchise with more spin-offs and crossovers than a flagship Marvel Comics title? What is social media, if not the most telegenic, most heroic version of ourselves blasted out to a potential audience of millions of like-minded e-celebs-in-waiting? What are politics today, if not extensions of those warped personalities--always performing, always proclaiming, always skimming instead of digging? News cycles are a quarter (or, generously, a half) of what they used to be, and will soon, I predict, shrivel to the length of commercial breaks--which are themselves becoming indistinguishable from the programming they allegedly interrupt.

It’s hard to shut the door on these things, to blue-pill yourself, as it were. And if you think that holing up in a theatre with a chilling yet romantic period piece about the Borden family murders constitutes refuge--I have some bad news.

Maybe it’s great news, depending on how open you are to peeking at the figurative man behind the curtain. Director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass have delivered one of the headiest and most subtly complex thrillers about the “Me, Too” movement you’re likely to see this year. Or maybe it’s about “Time’s Up”, or “Listen and Believe”. I’ve lost count of the hashtags, which will likely be out of date by the time I press “Publish” anyway.

Set in 1892 Massachusetts, Lizzie stars Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie Borden, the thirty-two-year-old daughter of real estate developer Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan). She lives at home with older sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw), and not-so-dear-old Dad. Lizzie's is a life of boxed-in privilege. Absent any suitors, she goes to the theatre alone--unless her father randomly decides he’d rather not deal with the concerned whispers of polite society. Like Emily Dickinson, as portrayed by Cynthia Nixon in last year’s A Quiet Passion, Lizzie Borden has a cutting wit that is not always appreciated within her gilt cage; she is also given to debilitating seizures that confine her just as surely as the social norms against which she vainly yet persistently strains.

A third weight on Lizzie’s soul is her apparent lesbianism, which, in the period we’re discussing, was, I imagine, not dignified with such a scientific-sounding name--if it was spoken about all. By contrast, Mr. Borden has no trouble expressing his sexuality, as evidenced by late-night advances on the family’s new Irish-immigrant housekeeper, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). Though these rendezvous involve candlelit, tiptoe navigation around creaky floorboards, Andrew’s indescretions might as well have been conducted at the breakfast table. As Mrs. Borden observes, sadly but resolutely, “I am continually astonished at the endless number of ways you find to humiliate yourself in this family”.

It’s unclear whether or not Bridget awakens something in Lizzie, or if the months-long snapshot of their lives into which we peer is part of a continuum that might explain the necessity of a new domestic in the Borden home. The young women develop a clandestine sexual attraction, but we get the sense that this isn’t the first for either of them. What little timidity precedes the back-of-the-barn kissing and scissoring feels more like Bridget and Lizzie testing the waters of discretion, rather than breaking free of societal shame. It’s a fascinating slant on courtship, and Sevigny and Stewart’s burgeoning lust comes off as genuine--not just tabboo or “hot”.

Dennis O’Hare pops up as the skeevy “Uncle” John, a business associate of Andrew’s. He’s involved in an unimportant side plot about taking over the Bordens’ fortune and shipping the daughters away somewhere--but not before putting the moves on Bridget and further drawing Lizzie’s ire. Is he the one responsible for sending notes to the home with ominous messages like, “Your sin will find you”? Or did Lizzie write them to upset her asshole father? Or are they figments of the many paranoid imaginations that occupy this increasingly cramped house?

I suspect you’ll care as much about these “B” through “D” plots as I did, which wasn’t very much. Like most people coming to this movie, the draw is not who-dun-what, but the grisly details of how what was done to whom was done. On the morning of August 4, 1892, six months after Bridget’s arrival, the bodies of Abby and Andrew Borden were found in their home, their heads rendered unrecognizable from multiple hatchet strikes.

Lizzie Borden was arrested and tried, but ultimately set free because, as Lizzie’s post-script points out, “a jury of men” could not believe that a woman was capable of such acts. We get to see what the jury could not, in a blood-drenched flashback that depicts an utterly naked Lizzie attacking her stepmom in the bedroom. Mr. Borden, who died an hour-and-a-half later, metes a similar fate, but the details of who initiated the assault and who all was in the room prove to be a nice surprise (which, if you’ve read this far, probably counts as a mild, but incomplete, spoiler).

These climactic sequences would have been far more effective had the director not peppered horror-movie atmospherics throughout the rest of the film. Lizzie works as a sizzling drama of repressed rights and bridled passions; no need to add creepy violin music to the score and rattles/bumps-in-the-night to the score. I won’t wade fully into the popular debate over whether films such as this are “real” horror movies or “art-house pictures with horror elements”--because I often come down on the “real horror movie” side. But Lizzie really is, I believe, at its heart, a sort of female-centric take on Brokeback Mountain. The “spooky” add-ons do nothing but distract from the bravura performances of Sevigny, Stewart, and Sheridan.**

The deeper draw to Lizzie, though, brings us back to “Me, Too”. The movie is decidedly, and perhaps justifiably, a misandrist work. Just as Get Out offered a stylized parable about racism that portayed all its white characters as villains, stooges, or accomplices, there is not one man in Lizzie who comes across as anything but skeevy. From the lascivious Andrew and “Uncle” John to the post-script jury I mentioned earlier, there isn’t a single non-detestable male on (or off) the screen.

I’m conflicted about this.

It’s possible that Lizzie never experienced tenderness, or any kind of kindness, from a man--and I’d go so far as to say it’s plausible during the periond depicted in the film. However, the emphasis on cartoonishly horrible masculinity, coupled with lines such as, “Men don’t have to know things, Bridget. Women do”, suggests an odd agenda behind the project--one that goes beyond the typical, “Look at how nighmarish things used to be” theme of most historical movies about oppression. No, there’s a sense here that Lizzie was conceived in and for this moment in time, envisioned as a call for women to stand up and (de)face the men who have held them back since forever.

In cases where such wrongs are evident, I am absolutely in favor of justice (minus the rending of skulls to pulp, of course). But I find it difficult to fully recommend a piece that is so vehemently anti-man as to perhaps reinforce the zealotry that has, for now, frozen the productive gender dialogue in our wider culture. Just as I don’t take to entertainment that depicts women as one-dimensional objects, and which portray men as the conquering, superior sex, I can’t quite get behind a piece that feels designed as an underhanded attack on potentially half the audience.

In the end, the jury’s underestimation of Lizzie’s gender allows her to slip the noose. That’s a fine karmic note that will no doubt leave some in the audience gasping in surprise and cheering in solidarity. It may be selfish, and indeed too much to ask, but I would’ve appreciated some kind of acknowledgment that allies exist (scarce as they may have been in 1892), and that there's room enough in this corner of the pop landscape for people like me, too.

*Not The Real World, which has remained more or less unchanged in its formulation since 1992.

**Okay, there’s one nice touch: in the aforementioned barn scene, the POV switches from an omniscient close-up of Lizzie and Bridget’s intimacy to a wider shot with just enough of a hand-held tilt as to suggest we’ve assumed the role of a voyeuristic character--perhaps "Uncle" John or Andrew Borden. The following shot puts that notion to rest, meaning we’ve either caught a happy accident in the movie or the filmmakers deliberately wanted us to feel as though we’ve walked in on something we shouldn’t see, in effect making us the very object of our main characters’ fears. I’m not so sure it works, but I always appreciate creators' efforts to jolt my movie brain out of passivity.

Wednesday
Sep052018

Bound (1996)

Pulped

Cinema’s Tarantino hangover lasted well into the late-90s. The glut of crime movies featuring snappy dialogue, lurid situations, and balletic carnage stalled out a few years later, after Quentin Tarantino himself moved on to more ambitious projects. But in the immediate aftermath of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Hollywood was awash with gritty indie sensibilities that studio execs hoped could rake in mainstream profits.

It was a dark time. A Xerox of a Xerox, as they say, is never quite as pristine as the original, and that’s certainly the case with the dozens of QT knock-offs, wherein a group of colorful killers finds themselves in a Mexican standoff after some jumbled-timeline narrative centered on retrieving/dodging a Maguffin. This phenomenon wasn’t exclusive to dramas, of course: the monster success of Wes Craven’s Scream gave birth to myriad sequels and imitators, and Kevin Smith’s brand of brainy, foul-mouthed slackers created a pop-comedy zeitgeist.*

For me, the Tarantino/Craven/Smith trinity was enough sustenance for the decade. I peeked in on the copycats every once in awhile, but for every Out of Sight, there seemed to be eight Eight Heads in a Duffle Bag--which is why it took me twenty-two years to finally watch Andy and Larry Wachowski’s** Bound.

When The Matrix blew up in 1999, three years after Bound’s release, it’s quite possible that a lot of newly minted Wachowski devotees revisited (or visited) their debut film. I did not. The idea of going from a heady, sci-fi techno adventure to a low-budget, love-triangle-with-guns didn’t appeal to me--no matter how loudly the critical community raved about the performances, the techniques, the endless etceteras. I was a dumb twenty-something, what can I say?

Bound stars Jennifer Tilly as Violet, the disaffected girlfriend of a mid-level Chicago gangster named Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Corky (Gina Gershon) is an ex-con who lands a job as the maintenance person in their building. After a brief but meaningful encounter in an elevator, the women begin a physical affair that quickly becomes something else. Violet has grown tired of her semi-lavish lifestyle, which Caesar affords her by occasionally torturing a debt-dodger in their bathroom. Corky, it seems, has never been in a relationship past the dive-bar-hook-up stage. In short order, the women hatch a plan to rob Caesar’s boss, Gino Marzzone (Richard C. Sarafian), of two million dollars--and pin the theft on Caesar.

Matters spin out of control, of course, and the Wachowski’s (in very Tarantino fashion) keep the audience on their toes by jumping back and forth through time; sexing up the violence to perhaps heretofore unimagined degrees; and introducing new characters who span the “menace” spectrum from bottled-up (see John P. Ryan’s high-level Marzzone enforcer) to goofily unhinged (see Christopher Meloni as Marzzone’s psychotic screw-up son, a wild-eyed, heir-to-the-throne airhead with a touch of Mr. Blonde). In 1996, a tame-by-modern-standards lesbian sex scene between Gerson and Tilly raised eyebrows and snapped ratings-board pencils clean in half, I’m sure. For my money, one of the most explicitly and perhaps unintentionally X-rated shots in movie history involves one Bound character splashing around in white paint against a dark floor as bullets rip apart his body.

As characters go, Bound doesn’t fall into the trap of false “zip” that Tarantino’s imitators often failed to capture in their dialogue--not exactly, anyway. The Wachowskis evoke hard-boiled 40s and 50s crime pictures more than anything else, with their classic mobster-betrayal story and tough, breathy femmes fatale speaking as much with their eyes as with double-meaning-heavy dialogue. Which is fine. Gershon is undeniably cool here, but Tilly’s helium-noir delivery is more often distracting than not.

No, the hardest-working characters in Bound are mood and choreography. On a dime, the story’s mob elements come rushing to the fore, and we get to see Caesar for the desperate, ruthless thug he is. As the Wachowskis shift their gaze from Violet and Corky’s secret courtship to the husband’s stolen-money cover-up, any questions as to why Violet was so eager to escape vanish immediately.

It’s not just that Caesar is an insane jerk, it’s that he’s so beholden to a cadre of homicidal insane jerks that he’ll stay up for twenty-four hours procuring, scrubbing, and clothesline-drying more than two million dollars worth of blood-splattered bills in his suite, and make his beleaguered wife watch. Violet appreciates Corky’s rough-edged compassion and sees in her a resilience that she has rarely observed in any man. Violet’s confidence in her new relationship grows in direct proportion to Caesar’s anxiety about being framed for stealing the money; his actions grow darker and more desperate by the hour and in the end the women are left with no choice but to upend their reality in order to survive.

For reasons that would become obvious later, the Wachowskis are obsessed with secret identities. Their stories are marked by societies that force heroic figures into hiding, whether due to robot uprising, corrupt race-car mega-corporations, or garbage bags full of mafia cash. It started with Bound, and though you can see the seeds of bullet time and digitally enhanced geographic trickery here, the stylistic flourishes that would contribute to the siblings’ success take a back seat to the powerful emotions screaming to be heard beneath the pulse-pounding confrontations and intricate set dressing.

If time travel ever becomes a thing, please do not, under any circumstances, share this review with my nineteen-year-old self--especially not the following confession: I’ve got to give the Wachowskis an edge over Tarantino. What Bound gets right about crime as a genre is that it works best when there are real stakes, real emotions, involved. Sure it’s fun to argue over whether Mr. Pink survived; or speculate about the contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase; and there’s no denying that Natural Born Killers (which Tarantino wrote and Oliver Stone directed) is still a relevant and shockingly effective concept nearly a quarter-century on. But I never cared about those characters to the degree that I hoped Violet and Corky were A) being true to one another and B) would get the chance to explore their relationship in a world that was not yet ready to deal with it.

Strike the first part of that last paragraph. Go ahead and show the teenage “me” this review (right after you kill Hitler and invest in Facebook). He’ll be upset. But at least he’ll have no choice but to go watch Bound.

*Feel free to place a psychic asterisk next to Mallrats, if you wish.

**In the decades since, the Wachowskis have transitioned from male to female, and have assumed different names. Until a few years ago, the siblings were referred to alternately as “Andy and Larry Wachowski” or “The Wachowski Brothers” or, simply “The Wachowskis”. I’m not one hundred percent (or even one-hundredth of one hundred percent, which is to say, I guess, one percent) sure of how best to refer to the filmmakers’ gender at the time they made this movie. At the time, Lana Wachowski didn’t co-create Bound; that was Larry. But was Larry always Lana? That’s not for me to say. To avoid confusion, I will simply call the filmmakers by their collective name, “The Wachowskis” moving forward.

Tuesday
Aug072018

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

Female Bond-ing

On a lark, I paid to see The Spy Who Dumped Me Saturday night. At best, the trailers promised a sufficiently bone-headed action/comedy; at worst the movie looked like a forgettable endurance test. To my great surprise, I really enjoyed the movie, and immediately posted the following on Facebook:

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT.

The reaction was swift; the judgment definitive. With a few exceptions, my community of friends and colleagues let me know that I'd made a terrible error in judgment--possibly due, per one theory, to some bad marijuana.

Before moving on, I'd like to correct the record, and apologize for leaving out a ">".

Spy movies and spy-movie spoofs are a dime a dozen. Between the Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises; the Fast/Furious series (which inexplicably turned street racing criminals into international persons of mystery); and genre send-ups as literal as Spy and as tenuous as Pitch Perfect 3, espionage actioners have become as ubiquitous as comic-book movies. So the prospect of sitting through another one didn't exactly thrill me, despite the presence of the reliably unpredictable, infinitely watchable Kate McKinnon.

Director Susanna Fogel and co-writer David Iserson embrace a lot of conventions while sidestepping others in their story about Audrey, a grocery store clerk whose newly-exed boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), turns out to be an elite CIA operative. Drew's last mission ended disastrously, leaving the fate of the world in the hands of Audrey and best friend/aspiring actress, Morgan (McKinnon). They need to deliver a flash drive containing Planet-Threatening SecretsTM to someone in Vienna--all the while being pursued by motorcycle-driving hit-men, Ukrainian assassins doubling as an Olympic gymnastics team, and other CIA agents, who may or not be in league with the hit-men. Or the Russian mob. Or the Chinese mob.

We get high-speed chases and monologuing villains; shoot-outs with faceless thugs and the inevitable Big Double-Cross (not to be confused with the half-dozen "They're Not Who You Thought They Were" revelations). But our protagonists remain recognizably human throughout the film--or as recognizably human as semi-exaggerated comedy characters can be. Audrey knows how to fire a gun, yes, and Morgan's dashed dreams of joining Cirque du Soleil come in handy when fending off a killer disguised as a harlequin Borg during the finale. But there's no elaborate training montage, no trip to Q's gadget shop, no magical transformation from check-out girl to video-game mega-brawler.

Sure, The Spy Who Dumped Me dips greedily into the Spy Movie Cliché Cookie Jar (and often goes back for seconds), but does that criticism hold up when sites like ScreenCrush gush over Christopher McQuarrie's use of "homage" in setting up his Mission: Impossible: Fallout climax? I guess it's my fault for confusing "Easter Eggs" with lazy screenwriting. But I digress.*

Speaking of that Tom Cruise juggernaut series (which, until Fallout had, in my not-so-humble estimation, defied movie-franchise odds by improving with each subsequent entry), the praise surrounding it mostly stems from the fact that Cruise performs all those really dangerous stunts himself--sometimes resulting in physical injury and always resulting in truly spectacular set pieces.

But I'm past the point where stunts are enough to sustain me for two-and-a-half hours. When Tom Cruise pulls a Vic Morrow on set (God forbid), maybe I'll once again emotionally invest in one of his big-screen spectacles--similar to the way Heath Ledger's death added a new degree of urgency to seeing The Dark Knight when it opened. Until then, my days of being impressed by a multi-gazillionaire leaping off of things while supported by the best safety teams money can buy in service of a crummy blockbuster are over--much like this ranting aside.

Audrey and Morgan survive this insane adventure using their innate wits and resourcefulness--not to mention a very strong friendship and more than a smattering of luck. It's only a semi-spoiler to say that they're helped along the way by another CIA operative named Sebastian (Sam Heughan), since his loyalties are as much in question throughout the film as the ultimate fate of that flash drive. This allows our heroes to get in and out of some pretty scary situations without the story losing all credibility, while also giving Audrey some much-needed context regarding her relationship with Drew.

Speaking of scary situations, Fogel directs the hell out of The Spy Who Dumped Me's action scenes. This is as much a legit action film as it is a "chick flick", and I can't recall another film recently that cared enough (or was competent enough) to treat both sides of the dichotomy with such care. We've all seen the slow-mo walking-away-from-an-explosion scene, but Fogel gives us a high-angle view of the destruction, trading fireballs for chunks of gray rubble and Drew walking just enough apace of the damage to indicate that he'd messed up his exit plan. There's a mistaken-identity shoot-out in Vienna later on; a tiny-street car chase; and that Cirque thing I hinted at earlier--all handled with the you-are-there intensity of the best modern Bond films and the comic terror of two young women who've suddenly traded swiping right on their phones to swiping right to knock a bike-riding killer into a wall.

My one major critique is Fogel and Iserson's overt injection of feminism into Audrey and Morgan's dialogue. We see that these capable yet vulnerable women are smart, resourceful, and don't need to rely on capital "M" men in order to live successful lives. Their romantic hang-ups are obstacles to overcome, as they would be for someone of any gender, but they don't prohibit the characters in ways unique to the so-called gender war. Yet, there are several scenes in which either Morgan or Audrey complain to themselves or to the men around them about issues that the screenwriters fail to establish as being relevant outside their own heads.

Drew is the lightning rod for these semi-misguided aggressions. When he meets Morgan, for example, immediately after having met and fallen for Audrey, Morgan corners him and gives the "If You Hurt My Best Friend, I'll Kill You" speech. Drew accuses Morgan of being "a bit much", which sends psychic shockwaves through Morgan and becomes a point of heartfelt conversation betwen her and Audrey later in the film.

Maybe because I watched this film from "a guy's" perspective, I had trouble fully grasping Drew's alleged offense. As played by McKinnon, Morgan is a bit much: the whole point of her character is to be the loud, audacious, over-protective best friend. Yet Drew's calling her out on that harsh truth seems to have triggered something deeper, perhaps the unwritten code that prohibits men from using words like "bossy" to describe women--regardless of how a particular woman might demonstrably treat those around her.

For the record, "bossy" men are just as obnoxious as "bossy" women in my estimation, and should either be respectfully called out on their nonsense or ignored completely. See Drew's casual exit from the scene described above as a glowing example.

Later on, Audrey confronts Drew for having left something very important with her during their break-up--effectively using her apartment as a stash-spot while he flies around the world completing missions. Audrey asks if he'd assumed hers would be the perfect hiding place because there was never any danger of her going anywhere. The subtext is, of course, that the guy gets to enjoy freedoms that the woman is denied while she keeps the cave warm in anticipation of his return. Not gonnna touch that one--except to say that, in this particular case, Audrey is correct in her assumption about Drew, and Drew was correct in assuming that Audrey did, in fact, provide the perfect cover.

During the year that they dated, Drew, a government-trained judge of character and behavioral patterns, likely picked up on the fact that check-out-girl Audrey never showed interest in doing anything beyond working at a Trader Joe's knock-off; that she talked about going to Europe but never made plans to actually get on a plane; that she never mentioned changing apartments, moving across town, or even leaving the state. Drew's plan might just as easily be boiled down to keen espionage skills as old-fashioned, sexist underestimation.

Fogel and Iserson offer a fine counterweight to their characters' problematic views of the opposite sex in the form of Gillian Anderson's MI6 head operative, Wendy. Morgan takes a particular liking to her, constantly asking if she and Audrey can become official government spies (regardless of the fact that Wendy works for a different government). Morgan tries the "girl power" move, and is summarily shot down by this no-nonsense leader who realizes that saving people's lives is a nobler goal than embracing an agenda.

Creators can write and shoot whatever they want, and I'm sure there's a strong contingent of moviegoers who are well-served by seeing people like themselves on screen delivering empowering, reinforcing messages in their entertainment. I'm simply suggesting that this film's narrative actually undermines some of those messages, rather than underscoring them.

If, by some miracle, we get a sequel (The Spy Who Dumped Me Again?), I hope that Audrey and Morgan take the meta-lessons learned from this adventure and see their lives as kicking ass, rather than needing asterisks.

*Heh, even I'm not immune from clichés.