Kicking the Tweets

From Hollywood to Rose (2016)

Bridal Fare

Like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, From Hollywood to Rose is unstuck in time. Though set in modern-day Los Angeles, writer Matt Jacobs' screenplay sounds like one of those talky, pop-savvy reactions to the Kevin Smith phenomenon that littered late-nineties art houses--and its dreamlike interludes with after-hours oddballs wouldn't be out of place in 2001's  Waking Life. As co-directed by Liz Graham, the movie comes across as a mid-period John Waters joint, complete with over-the-top quirks and costumes, and acting that might most generously be described as "iffy".

Eve Annenberg plays Woman in Wedding Dress,* a middle-aged bride-not-to-be whom we meet shortly after she leaves her fiance at the altar. Wherever she's headed, she needs a bus to get there, and the film follows her for several hours as she collects people and experiences, and takes stock of her sad, twisted life. Among the late-night commuters are a violent criminal with an affinity for sewing (Krzysztof Soszynski), a mail-order bride (Chia Chen), and Woman's almost-sister-in-law (Isadora O'Boto), who isn't thrilled about the afternoon's events.

She also meets a pair of tubby slacker dudes who gladly press "pause" on their aimless evening to include Woman in their profane and deeply obsessive discussions about comic books, Star Wars, and Bruce Lee. For a fleeting moment, it seems as if Jacobs and Graham will abandon the people-watching motif in favor of a bizarre relationship comedy, as the more sensible but utterly directionless of the two guys (the "Dante", if you will, played by Bradley J. Herman) becomes infatuated with Woman. This detour doesn't last long, and the filmmakers wisely balance the rest of Woman's journey with a parallel look at the encounter's impact on the rest of the guys' evening.

Taken at face value, From Hollywood to Rose is a spaghetti-on-the-wall assortment of alternately funny, frightening, and flat run-ins that are meant to, I guess, elicit nods of recognition from anyone who's ever had to traverse the wasteland of broken dreams that is Hollywood, California. But if the filmmakers treat their characters as a collective freak show, it's at least one that Tod Browning would have been proud of. Jacobs and Graham show real affection for and grant dignity to even the most cartoonishly rendered, throw-away parts (I'm looking at you, Melt Down Bus Driver). And even though half the performances left me wondering about the low caliber of actors who didn't make the cut, I couldn't help but get swept up in the heart that emerged from Jacobs' words.

Which brings us back to Woman in Wedding Dress. I attribute much of the success of Eve Annenberg's performance to her incongruously wide, expressive eyes and slack, unimpressed mouth. Her character experiences every interaction on two levels: the first in the here-and-now, taking in with great interest the assortment of disillusioned, heartbroken, or dangerously naive passengers and passersby; the second in the glimpses we see of her past and the mental picture we're invited to paint of the hours leading up to her first steps onto the bus. Annenberg registers a constant state of shock more authentically than any performer I can recall right now, and it's impossible not to want to see a split-screen of the real-time and and imaginary information flooding her mind's eye throughout the film.

Woman's trance shatters briefly toward the end when, after a dawn beach swim, she has the penultimate conversation of her eight-hour odyssey--in which she talks more than during the preceding sixty-plus minutes/ The liberation of Annenberg's thoughts from her mouth signify Woman's breaking (or at least cracking) of the spiritual chains that have shackled her for years. I won't give away the person with whom she speaks or the outcome of their chat, but I will say that this moment sealed the deal for me.

From Hollywood to Rose may have no idea when its time was or who its audience is. It may lack the conviction of its actors in rendering characters as either wholly believable or utterly farcical. It may even push the boundaries of how "inside L.A." is too "inside L.A.". But in its rocky, weird, and colorful struggle to present the human condition as universal in its freakishness, the film reminds us that we've all been a Woman in a Wedding Dress at some point or other, looking for something we can't quite describe and (hopefully) finding it in our fellow travelers.

*Most of the film's characters are listed only as costumes or character traits.


The Misguided (2018)


The Misguided refuses to be categorized. In the squabbling, knotted-up relationship of twenty-something hustlers/brothers Wendel (Steven J. Mihaljevich) and Levi (Caleb Galati), you’ll find a familiar tragedy in which one criminal sibling pulls the nobler of the two down to his level. When college-bound innocent Sanja (Jasmine Nibali) breaks up with scumbag Wendel and dives into bed with wounded puppy dog (she thinks) Levi, no one would blame you for expecting an alternately sappy and tense love-triangle movie. And as writer/director Shannon Alexander’s camera follows Sanja and Levi on smoky, late-night walks and joy-rides around Perth, there’s no harm in thinking of The Misguided as a kind of Down Under take on Kogonada’s Columbus.

There’s also a “B” plot involving Sanja’s nosy little sister (Katherine Langford) and psychotically protective dad (Athan Bellos), plus a “C” plot about Wendel’s constant struggle between his half-fucked-up self and his fully fucked-up self (sex, drugs, and schemes are his oxygen). I’d like to say the three-pronged drama I described earlier is balanced out by the humor of the mirror-sibling side stories, but even the jokes are off-kilter—ranging from cutesy daddy-daughter dynamics to the can’t-look-away reality-show trainwreck of Wendel’s all-consuming ego.

This may sound like a mess (a hack might call it, “misguided”), but Alexander’s underworld-adjacent ride-along drops us in on a world where the poles of “Have” and “Have Not” fold in on themselves—in which drug deals are mundane, thirty-thousand dollars is a casually replaceable commodity, and love manifests in a barely readable continuum muffled by deceit, abuse, and betrayal. The film isn’t concerned with plot, but it is concerned with making these characters believable—even if contemplating the possibility that there are real Wendels, Levis, and Sanjas walking around might make your head hurt.

Speaking of which, in a climactic scene, Wendel and Levi square off in a playground, roughing each other up to enhance a lie about a drug deal gone bad. As Levi takes blow after blow after blow to the face, Alexander cuts between Wendel’s descending fist and a set of nearby metal rocking horses. In a flash, we see evil overlaid on innocence and wonder what could have caused these boys to become men who became monsters. The humor drains out of the setup, giving way to a profound sadness (and, frankly, squeamishness).

Alexander’s tinkering with our expectations extends to the manner in which he presents his feature debut: The Misguided glitches with pixel banding and split-second stops. Occasionally the camera drifts as if to imply a missed edit; one scene cuts out too soon, for what could be construed as either intentional or unintentional comedic effect. The result is a film that harkens back to the mid-aughts found-footage glut, though Alexander’s aims seem to be much loftier than simply trying to resurrect a trend that began its decline ten years ago.

There’s an audio cue at the very end suggesting this may not be a “movie” at all—rather a corrupted mental hard drive of memory fragments cobbled together by someone addicted to technology, narcotics, and vanity. In that moment, Wendel becomes the rocking horse and we become Wendel: voyeuristic captives to a chaotic past whose best bet is to pick a direction and stick to it.


Bright (2017)

Color. Cut. Clarity.

I'm beginning to understand why so many people hate critics. In late December, Netflix debuted their $90 million stay-at-home blockbuster, Bright, an urban buddy-copy fantasy that quickly became one of 2017’s easiest punch lines. When the movie dropped, I was still playing catch-up with awards season and decided not to bother with something that had struggled to gain 27% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

My wife and I finally watched Bright last weekend, darkly drawn in by the sustained critical assault against the “year’s worst movie”. We paused several times in that two-plus hours, wondering what, exactly, we were supposed to hate. By the time the credits rolled, we’d grown to enjoy the rocky chemistry between Will Smith’s bitter L.A. cop, Daryl Ward, and his partner, Nick Jakoby, a not-quite-gentle giant of a hulking blue orc, played by Joel Edgerton. We wanted to spend more time in writer Max Landis’ alternate reality, as realized by director David Ayer.

You’ve probably read that Bright is little more than a rehash of Alien Nation, mashed with Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings/Every Other Fantasy Movie. It’s a fair assessment, but an unfair criticism. In fact, all of the nitpicking about plot holes, ridiculous dialogue, and done-to-death story arcs can be just as easily leveled at movies everyone is supposed to love—including one of 2017’s biggest critical and box office successes, Wonder Woman. There’s no question that Patty Jenkins spear-headed a milestone for female filmmakers, but her record-breaking superhero flick is also just another overlong, predictable origin story.

You may have also heard that Bright is a weak race-relations allegory. Another surface point that only partially rings true. In Landis’ version of world events (which is similar to both Tolkein’s writings and last summer’s Justice League), the evil Dark Lord was defeated by the combined forces of humanity and elf-kind two thousand years ago. The orcs found themselves on the wrong side of history after their leader was vanquished, which explains their present day status as second-class citizens. Jakoby’s position on the police force is a first for his kind, and an early incident involving partner Ward and an orc-perpetrated robbery makes an already politically complicated situation untenable. Don’t look for the depths of Jakoby’s struggle in Landis’ action-movie-retread dialogue; watch for it in Edgerton’s wounded eyes, and in the disgusted, judgmental looks of his fellow orcs as he and Ward roll through the city. For all its popcorn-movie trappings, Bright is a movie rich in peripheral details of character and environment.

Ayer and Landis were, perhaps, the only ones who could have made Bright. Ayer has perfected his vision of grimy, gang-ridden, ultra-violent hellscapes and crooked cops in films like Training Day (which he wrote) and Sabotage (which he directed). Landis continues his unique experiments in genre bending and audience provocation with movies like Chronicle (found-footage superhero adventure) and American Ultra (conspiracy theory love story). I can only speculate that a string of poorly received would-be blockbusters from both creators (Suicide Squad, Victor Frankenstein, etc.) led them to Netflix; whatever the case, I'm glad they found each other. Bright is an entertaining if imperfect blend of elaborate oddball fantasy and the kind of well-tread buddy-cop formula that's easy to slip into.

Cinema obsessives will no doubt pick apart the references to The Fifth Element and a half-dozen on-the-run-all-night cop flicks. And I'm sure there have been a thousand eye rolls at the obvious trilogy setup.* But Ayer, Landis, Smith, and Edgerton appear to be really invested in creating a new paradigm--one whose edges will hopefully be smoothed out in the recently announced sequel, and whose potential for spawning imitators and innovators is unlimited.

You see, while critics were feasting on holiday snark, "real" people** were streaming Bright and, by most accounts, enjoying the hell out of it. Consider me officially stuck between two worlds, hoping for the best, but mildly concerned about getting caught on the wrong side of history.

*Our cop anti-heroes must stop Noomi Rapace's elven assassin from finding three wands that will resurrect the Dark Lord--wands that can only be handled by "one in a million" humans. And guess who just happens to be on the case when Wand #1 shows up?

**Yes, I understand that critics are real people. But going back to at least Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I've noticed an amped-up animosity brewing in the schism between cinematic populism and the relatively small coterie of thinkers who've been, historically speaking, tasked with assessing the arts. It's impossible to pick a side (as If I'd ever need to), since I frequently vacillate between despising the holier-than-thou condemnations of my fellow critics (The Belko Experiment) and wanting to vomit when mainstream audiences call movies like mother! and The Last Jedi "terrible"--or, worse, "boring".


It Comes at Night (2017)

Were it not for televised news reports, it's entirely possible that Ben, Barbara, and the other doomed travelers in Night of the Living Dead might have believed they were combating an outbreak of violent mania, rather than a pandemic of resurrected corpses. Remove those two minutes, and it's a completely different story. Trey Edward Shults' It Comes at Night is that story, sort of. A family barricades itself in a wooded house, fending off an illness/supernatural (hyper-natural?) malevolent force. Supplies are as limited as trust in strangers, and oxygen masks and gloves are mandatory when stepping outside. Shults and company present danger, paranoia, and infrequent moments of hope subjectively--a technique that will leave some shaking their heads in frustration (who or what "It" is remains a mystery), and have others applauding the filmmakers' ability to focus our attention on fears so primal they'd make the bogeyman dive for the covers.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

In the aftermath of The Force Awakens, Star Wars fans were left with myriad burning questions: “Who are Rey’s parents?” “Where did Snoke come from?” “Will the next movie be a retread of The Empire Strikes Back?” Though Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi may or may not have the answers viewers want, the film is just what we didn’t know we needed—a loving but brutal deconstruction and reassembling of the sacred Jedi/Sith mythos that have bound up sci-fi/fantasy geeks’ imaginations for more than four decades. The eighth installment is too long in places, too derivative in others, but most of it sparkles with the unbridled emotional energy that fused George Lucas’ original franchise with our pop culture DNA. This isn’t an obligatory “middle chapter” packed with disposable missions and tedious seed-planting. In fact, it feels oddly like a fond farewell—which begs an entirely different kind of question: “Where to next?”