Movie Reviews
Tuesday , November 12 2019

2019 Films

(based on non-festival, U.S. theatrical release date)

Ad Astra.  I wanted to like this.  But it’s never a good sign when, during your initial viewing in a theater, you notice all the little seams in the SCI elements of a sci-fi film (e.g., so it took his father years to get the farthest mankind has ever traveled to explore the solar system while the son makes the journey is weeks?); and excessive exposition symptomatic of an unassured script doesn’t help matters.  With his first hard genre entry, James Gray clearly wants to throw his hat into an arena that includes the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), but he ends up just short of the space occupied by Sunshine (2007).  A decidedly slow pace is not what gives a film like this gravity, especially when the themes and characterizations are this tired.  And the Apocalypse Now-lite denouement—and from the trailer, I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything here—proved to be remarkably anticlimactic to this particular white male viewer.  (Grade: C+)

Always Be My Maybe.  As much as I love watching Ali Wong and Randall Park mix it up in starring roles, that third act is just horribly, painfully rote and saccharine. (I’m sorry, was that a spoiler?) And in reading the letterboxd reviews, I couldn’t help but notice that the most lauded part of this first feature film by female director Nahnatchka Khan (a former writer on American Dad, no less), which purports to focus on the Korean-American perspective, involves Keanu Reeves.  (Grade: C+)

Arctic.  For fans of Mads Mikkelsen, not to be confused with Polar.  (Grade: B)

The Art of Self-Defense.  But is it too blunt to be art?  (Grade: B+)

Avengers: Endgame.  Even at a funeral, the Wakandans are fashion forward.  (Grade: B+)

The Beach Bum.  Yet another one of Harmony Korine’s post-postmodern jokes, which in this case plays like the first 15 minutes of Arthur (1981) for 95 minutes … And again, it’s just not very funny.  (Grade: C-)

Between Two Ferns: The Movie.  I enjoy the schtick.  I admit it.  But I can’t really recommend the “movie” versus simply watching the new episodes on YouTube.  (Grade: C+)

Blinded by the Light.  This cinematic equivalent of a Big Gulp brimming with Diet Coke makes me seriously question my initial rating of Sing Street (2016), which has got a hell of a lot more heart and conviction.  Look, I’m as down with the Boss as the next guy and I went in expecting to like this at some level; but the beats here feel too painfully contrived and the musical sequences puzzlingly half-assed. (After years of listening to the Manfred Mann version on AOR radio, I thought the second line of the eponymous song was “wrapped up like a douche ….”  And thanks to wiki, I have come to the realization that I was not the only one!  The word of the day is mondegreen.)  (Grade: C)

Booksmart.  As an initial observation, I have to say that billing director Olivia Wilde’s debut as a gender-inverted take on Superbad (2007) understates both the breadth and depth of its reference-riffs (my personal favorite being an appropriation of one of the strangest moments to ever appear in this sort of mainstream movie, Better Off Dead (1985)).  Even so, this species of lighter fare has to be more than an exercise in meta; and to be sure, the timing (in terms of both delivery and editing)—essential for any effective comedy—is not always on.  But in resisting the urge to list some of my favorite moments, I will simply predict that while Booksmart will earn a spot on many 2019 top 10 lists for its wokeness, it will ultimately maintain its status among the most rewatchable movies of this well-worn genre due to the chemistry between its leads, its random elements of fun weirdness, and a supporting cast of high-schoolers who exude just the right level of Linklateresque authenticity.  (Grade: B+)

Brightburn.  The concept is somewhat intriguing (the Superman origin story as horror) – the execution (jump-scare horror), not so much.  (Grade: C)

Brittany Runs a Marathon.  Making major but necessary changes in the way one lives is invariably a process two steps forward and one step back; and how we deal with that progressive-regressive aspect can be fraught with self-sabotage, particularly when we hold ourselves up to others.  On those narrative terms, I have to admit that I enjoyed and appreciated this film a bit more than the average reviewer.  It’s funny (but never too funny), and it’s rough (but never too rough).  (Grade: B)

Captain Marvel.  Yes, it all seems so formulated.  As announced in the opening scene of the fim’s first trailer (Brie Larson’s title character tumbling down from the sky straight through the roof a Blockbuster), the MCU powers that be have decided to use this particular character bootup to exploit our contemporary nostalgia for the ‘90s – from Garbage, No Doubt, and Hole featured prominently on the soundtrack to the homages to Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997) up on the screen.  That and our love for cat videos. … In shrewd anticipation of the inevitable comparisons to director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), the MCU looks forward to beat the release of the DCEU’s sequel as paean to the ‘80s (WW84) by eight months.  As a female lead character, Captain Marvel may lack the cultural cache of Wonder Woman, but her non-form-fitting attire is that of a soldier, as opposed to a warrior princess with nice gams.  And while Captain Marvel the film may also lack a big superhero reveal (a la No Man’s Land), we do get Brie Larson kicking Jude Law’s condescending ass.  Yet for all the differences, the cinematic Captain Marvel character arc—steeped within the milieu of war—is strikingly similar to her DC counterpart. … Setting the gender coding aside, to get to the fun stuff, one must nonetheless endure a laborious first act, rife with exposition about “Kree” and “Skrulls.”  And true to MCU form, the battlefield finales are as cartoonish and stakeless as ever.  But in spite of all of these recurring issues with these films, an unexpected thing happened to me in a cinema full of fanboys last year: I actually really enjoyed Avengers: Infinity War.  Maybe I’m learning to appreciate the MCU for what it really is (super-high-budget episodic television projected onto the big screen).  Maybe I’m more successfully tapping into my inner 12 year-old boy.  Or maybe the MCU is just getting better at what they’re doing. … And that brings me to the strength of this film: the casting.  In addition to Larson, Law, and returning franchise favorite Samuel L. Jackson (who takes on full sidekick status here), we are treated to Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, and a relative unknown, Lashana Lynch, who for my money delivers the best supporting performance in the entire franchise while seated at a kitchen table.  (Grade: B-)

Captive State.  How would I characterize this?  A failed dystopian political thriller.  I mean, in addition to conveying timely themes, it’s got to be, you know, suspenseful, right?  I knew this wasn’t going to work when, only 15 minutes in, we (both me and my companion) started wondering aloud when John Goodman’s character was going to reveal himself to be part of the resistance.  (Grade: C-)

Dark Phoenix.  I actually forgot that I saw this and had to log it later on. That said, I’m tempted to leave some pithy sarcastic comment about how genre movies with female leads deserve better writing. But in stark contrast with Avengers: Endgame (sorry for the pun), just about every element of this final installment of the rebooted X-Men series, which really only had two installments worth seeing, feels phoned-in. And frankly, I enjoyed X-Men: The Last Stand more than Dark Phoenix, the latter of which was supposed to be screenwriter Simon Kinberg’s truer-to-the-comic redemption for the former.  (Grade: C-)

The Dirt.  The whole Ramsay Bolton as Mick Mars doing the “Live Wire” audition is gold.  (Grade: C)

Dolemite Is My NameUse it, baby, use it!  (Grade: B)

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.  As a fan, with all due respect to this fan service, I’ll choose to remember one of the greatest TV series ending with Jessie Pinkman screaming hysterically into the night, pedal to the metal – the last man standing in an inevitably bloody denouement … without this epilogue.  (Grade: C+)

Everybody Knows.  I loved Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), but I have to say that his subsequent four films have yielded steadily diminishing returns.  Notwithstanding Farhadi’s unique thematic concerns and cinematic approach, I would never have imagined that a movie engined by a wedding, a kidnapping, and a family secret could be so listless.  (Grade: C+)

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.  This Ted Bundy biopic – with the title character rendered quite competently by Zach Ephron – ostensibly differs from the standard genre fare by taking the point of view of his girlfriend with whom he shared some period of time of normalcy.  The key word here is ostensibly.  But with director Joe Berlinger having already offered Netflix a bloated Bundy documentary earlier this year, I’m not surprised.  (Grade: C-)

The Farewell. There is a scene in this film and its trailer where an uncle lectures our young Chinese-American (but a bit more American) protagonist about the difference between the East and the West: in the East, one’s life is not one’s own but part of a whole (family).  Combined with the pre-credits reveal (which shows that the “real” grandma in this story survived for six years after her diagnosis of terminal cancer), it seems that many viewers are interpreting this film as an endorsement of the Chinese way.  But to the credit of the filmmakers, I don’t agree with that assessment at all.  There is a certain tension—if not a contradiction—to the idea of advocating the wholeness of family in the midst of one part of said whole conspiring to conceal from the other part of said whole the pain of knowing her own fate – well, not so much knowledge of her fate as knowledge of the imminence of the inevitable.  Plus, once doing this sort of thing becomes a “way,” suspicions within the constituent components said whole also become inevitable.  In the end, there’s no catharsis for any of our characters, and the truth (such that it is) is inconsequential.  There is only the reality of grief and the absurdity of our efforts to somehow control the experience thereof.  And little birds.  (Grade: B)

Fighting with My Family.  With a third act riddled with plot conveniences that somehow manage to feel both cliched and inexplicable, it’s difficult to recommend Stephen Merchant’s dramedic twist on the Rocky narrative.  (And really, being “based on a true story” is no excuse.)  But even if this origin story of a female pro wrestler is not your cup of tea (have you seen G.L.O.W. though?), I suppose it might just be worth the price of admission just to see an unrecognizable Florence Pugh (Lady MacBeth (2017)) mixing it up with the likes of Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead (2004)), Lena Heady (Game of Thrones (2011-2019)), Vince Vaughan (Swingers (1996)), and The Rock (every third action movie being released this year).

First Love.  A 90th feature film.  Holy crap.  (Grade: B-)

Glass.  As with the Matrix films (1999-2003), I did not actively dislike any of the entries in this Eastrail 177 trilogy of Shama-lama-ding-dong (thanks Tarantino, now I’m never going to say his name correctly); but as with the Matrix trilogy, if someone asked me whether to watch the first film or all three, I’d have to recommend the former.  What Glass attempts to do in overtly contextualizing the cycle as a parable of unrealized human potential, Unbreakable (2000) did far more elegantly on its own, which is perhaps a reflection of the changing times: back then, there was no need for an insidious organization of the clover tattooed to stifle the exceptionalism of the individual; all David Dunn/The Overseer needed was a cultural milieu of ennui and his own sense of self-doubt.  (Grade: B-)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  First of all, it should go without saying (but I somehow feel compelled to say it anyway) that a filmmaker’s employment of sound storytelling fundamentals and an audience’s experience of “fun” are not mutually exclusive.  Or, considering that we now live in a culture where ADHD is less a psychological malady and more a salient characteristic of the population, am I being too naive?  With its half-assed attempts to service fans of a long-running mega franchise that started as a somewhat serious post-WW2 metaphor to become more and more campy as time went on, the narrative of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is distinctly lacking in coherent logic (even for a fantasy), resulting in a “wild ride” riddled with characters big and small that one may struggle to care much about (again, even for a fantasy).  And say what you will about the relative quantum of action on display (which seems to be the most cited aspect by positive audience members), but the rendering of the monsters in this film feels so slight, so inconsequential, and so goofy versus Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot.  (Compare the introduction of “King” Ghidorah here v. the introduction of Godzilla in the 2014 film.)  Indeed, as an episode within a series of films (which has seen a steady decrease in opening box office returns), Godzilla: King of Monsters feels like less of a piece with, and more like a repudiation of, the film that started this MonsterVerse.  (Grade: D+)

Good Boys.  Good Boys certainly passes the six laugh test, but said boys sure do sound more like adults pretending to be boys.  (Grade: C+)

Hail Satan?  At this point in the American culture war, a documentary about an organization devoted entirely to blasphemy as a means of political discourse seems particularly timely.  And yet, amidst all the awareness-raising, director Penny Lane doesn’t shy away from the internal contradictions that eventually, inevitably beset every revolutionary organization.  (Grade: B)

Her Smell.  From The Rose (1979) to Vox Lux (2018), this species of character study is fairly well-tread ground, which is why it is somewhat surprising to see Alex Ross Perry’s name attached as director and writer.  What Perry gives us with Her Smell is essentially a stage play comprised of five acts, all shot semi-verite (of course, heavy on makeup-smeared closeups, as perfected by Perry and lead, Elizabeth Moss, Queen of Earth (2015)).  The real weakness in this 2 hour and 14 minute opus lies in the sheer exhaustion that the first three acts engender, and more specifically (by my estimate), at least 30 excess minutes of toxic femininity on display.  This film certainly has it fans, and I suspect that taking issue with the editing will generate a retort similar to that of the defenders of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) (to paraphrase, “the excess is the point”).  Still, I couldn’t help but notice that its theatrical run lasted one week in a nonprofit art cinema here in ATX, and given the strength of the performances, I really don’t think that needed to be the case: without any fundamental change to its character “development” or its denouement, it could have earned a much larger audience.  (Grade: B-)

High Life.  I would have thought that if Claire Denis’ pseudo-scientific/psychological/philosophical babble and fetish for semen didn’t turn off serious sci-fi fans, then the distractingly deficient level of craft reflected in the set design (e.g., apparently there is but a single hallway in the entire spacecraft) and the costumes (e.g., one can literally see the gap between the helmet and the spacesuit) certainly would.  (And to quote my favorite review of this film: “visual effects by your neighbor’s nephew Greg.”)  It would have been more artful/less insulting to just line a blank sound stage (a la Dogville (2003)) than to pass off what appears to be half of a floor of an old office building, an industrial garage, and an overgrown greenhouse—embellished by two days of carpentry work and $500 of used medical and office equipment—as the inside of a spacecraft capable of sub-light speed.  And then there’s the exposition (e.g., the scene on the train).  Bottom line: There’s no point to—or excuse for—the lack of devotion to basic world-building, other than a snotty contempt for the genre and its audience. … As for the substantive content, I think Richard Whittaker summed up this film best as “a meandering mess of symbolism, half-thoughts, ponderous exchanges, and emotional dead-ends, one that confuses ambiguity for an unengaging air of vagueness.”  On my own account, I felt genuinely embarrassed for Juliette Binoche, who not only has to deliver some real zingers, but is the sole participant in one of the most unsexy sex scenes (and not in a compelling way) I’ve viewed on the big screen in quite some time. … On the heels of Let the Sunshine In (2018) and in consideration of the 3.5 rating this film currently enjoys on Letterboxd, to my mind and my tastes, I would have to place Denis among the most overrated feature filmmakers working today.  (Grade: D)

Hotel Mumbai.  In a recent podcast, Chicago Times critic Michael Phillips lamented that Hotel Mumbai reminded him of disaster films, as if something sacred had somehow been turned profane.  And it seems to me that all of this “too soon” discomfort being expressed with respect to the release of this dramatic account depicting the horrors perpetrated by Islamic terrorists in 2008—fresh on the heels of a nutjob troll shooting up a mosque in New Zealand—betrays a certain degree of regressive liberalism.  But politics and religion aside, notwithstanding a few eye-rolling moments (e.g., Dev Patel’s Sikh servant having to remove his dastaar in order to convey his fundamental humanity to a bigoted aging white socialite), Hotel Mumbai does work relatively well as a genre film.  Given the biographical subject matter, the viewer may very well know the eventual fate of the antagonists, but in terms of stakes and tension, can take nothing for granted: every hotel guest—heroic or otherwise—is in mortal danger, constantly subject to the indiscriminate nature of a seemingly unrelenting threat.  It’s the most uncomfortable two hours that I’ve spent in the cinema this year, which is to say that I dug it.  (Grade: B-)

The Hustle.  File this away with Ghostbusters (2016) as yet another one of Hollywood’s squandered opportunities for gender inversion that just isn’t nearly as funny as it needs to be. (Grade: C-)

Hustlers.  Even knowing nothing about this movie going in, it’s difficult not to regard it as an overt response to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), in more ways than one.  The problem is that I didn’t care that much about that film, and for some of the same fundamental reasons—namely, tired plots and characters, for which no amount of coke-fueled visuals will make interesting—I don’t care much about this one.   To be sure, it’s got a female director providing a female perspective (certainly the be all and end all, in terms of the film’s merits, for many “progressive” cinephiles), but I don’t think the politically correct visual storytelling choices here add much credibility—much less a sufficient level of ickiness—to this particular “true story.”  I mean, it’s been quite a while since I’ve been to a traditional bachelor party, but regardless of whose “gaze” is involved, the strippers do still actually strip in strip clubs, right?  (Grade: C+)

Inventor, The: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.  Adam McKay and Jennifer Lawrence, bring it on!  (Grade: C+)

IO.  An (ultra-?)low-budget riff on Wall-E (2008) that is certainly thought provoking … thoughts like whether, without looking it up, I have seen Anthony Mackie in anything outside the MCU … thoughts like whether I should be watching this in the bedroom instead of the living room … thoughts like whether I left a $20 bill in my pants pocket yesterday.  (Grade: C-)

It Chapter 2.  Memory.  I seem to remember a spider and a turtle from the book.  I’m sure I’m not going to remember anything from the movie.  (Grade: C-)

JoJo Rabbit.  It’s hard to nail me with this sort of emotional tug—cynical as I am, after four decades of watching the same old cinematic storytelling tricks unfold—but that butterfly chase got me good, right in the gut.  Dammit.  (Grade: A-)

Joker.  Perusing online through the reviews and reactions that I previously tuned out, I would opine that, over nearly five decades as a citizen of the USA, the gravity of groupthink has never seemed as strong as it does now across virtually every aspect of discourse. At this point in our political and cultural nadir, I fully expect all the good little card-carrying SJWs to summarily dismiss any narrative film about a white male loner turned terrorist with tweetable quips like “Incel: The Movie.”  But the more cinephilic progressives seem to be only a bit less reductive—but no less monolithic—in the fundamental premise of their critiques: with the inclusion of recognizable beats from Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), writer/director Todd Phillips simply must be trying to pass off Martin Scorsese’s best work through the lamentably contemporary palette of the comic book genre. (I am willing to bet that these same critics will be much more receptive to the same inclinations by filmmakers like the Safdie brothers, as opposed to the un-PC vulgarian best known for The Hangover (2009).) C’mon folks, I get that the film agitates you, but you can do better than that: get off the script and tell us what you really think! … To be sure, our current reality is that comic book fare is the dominant mainstream movie genre. And in following in Adam McKay’s footsteps to respectability, Phillips does seem less interested in servicing the genre than in saying something more significant, e.g., about a metastasizing convergence of the psychological and the sociological. Notably, however, Phillips renders Gotham City as a thinly-veiled version of New York City circa 1981 (e.g., “Blow Out” and “Zorro the Gay Blade” appear prominently on a cinema marquee) – a time before the irritation of gentrification; hostile and grimy.  (Even with The King of Comedy occupying my ATF top 100, I would forgive Phillips’ shorthand riffing and appropriation of the cinematic language that we associate so strongly with this particular place and time, which he derives not only from Scorsese, but more broadly from Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin; this film certainly differentiates itself enough from its touchstones.)  In doing so, not only does Phillips suggest that our contemporary woes are not so contemporary, but he refuses to rely on the low-hanging fruit of the internet and technology in exploring what are more fundamental issues with—and perhaps, inevitable consequences of—a civilized humanity. … Although this exploration is not especially deep, in this instance, I’m not sure there’s much digging to do before one hits fire.  In any case, Joker is effective on its own distinctly unsettling terms due in large part to Joaquin Phoenix’s post-You Were Never Really Here performance and Phillips’ choice of providing no visual or audio cues to distinguish between the film’s sequences of reality and delusion (some of which are obvious, others perhaps not so much).  With respect to the former, I had serious doubts that even an actor of Phoenix’s caliber could bring anything new and interesting to a character who has already been played—in varying tones, and with varying degrees of success—by no less than three Oscar winners. With more screen time to fill than any of his predecessors, however, Phoenix avoids the obvious impulse to reinvent the flamboyant supervillain Joker, and instead, seems to bend an all but feckless Arthur Fleck to his own vaguely familiar onscreen persona – a character afflicted as much by brutal irony as psychologhcal malady.   And setting aside a few genre-obligatory slo-mos of Phoenix basking in crazy, the net result is surprisingly unenigmatic, unromantic.   At one point, our anti-antihero runs into a clear glass door while attempting to make a dramatic exit from an interrogation; but what would otherwise be mined for physical comedy is instead added to an aggregate sense of discomfort.  The scene is a microcosm of the film itself, which in many ways plays like a joke that is not meant to be funny.  That said, even setting aside the predictable disinclination of a certain segment of the audience to distinguish between portrayal and endorsement and a more pervasive desire for entertainment to comfortingly validate their ideologies, Phillips and Phoenix are clearly not going for easy accessibility; and regardless of some issues that did undermine my enjoyment of the film (e.g., pacing), I can certainly respect that.  (Grade: B+)

The King.  My familiarity with Shakespeare’s Henry V—the primary source for this loose adaptation that draws from a series of plays—begins and ends with a viewing of Kenneth Branagh’s calling card back in 1990.  Fast forwarding three decades to this latest cinematic stab, I now recall why the source material is considered some of the Bard’s strongest work among those in the know.  Professor Laura Estill proposes that its fluid interpretive power lies in its interest in how we create and encounter history and how it raises more questions about political leadership than it answers.  The King works best with respect to the latter, but I’m not sure the diametrically opposed cultural factions that generate the volume of discourse at the moment are amenable to popular art that muddies the ideological waters: we’re supposed to be rallying the warriors around the unmitigated evil of the other team’s captains.  Perhaps that explains the distinctly tepid responses to such a visually and theatrically competent film.  Certainly, the cast outclasses anything Netflix currently has to offer (with a particularly nuanced performance by Sean Harris).  But I must admit that, on Professor Estill’s terms, I am left underwhelmed by the ending.  (Grade: B)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco.  In this lush piece of blues cinema, one can certainly see the influences of early Spike Lee.  But notwithstanding a literal soapbox rant in the opening shot, debut writer/director Joe Talbot and writer/actor Jimmie Fails ultimately jettison Lee’s penchant for didactic preaching to the converted for a far more elegant and nuanced contemplation – not just on the deterioration of middle class black America, but on identity, family, space, and place.  (Grade: B+)

Late Night.  Exactly what I expected from the trailer.  (Grade: C)

The Laundromat.  Within the first five minutes of third-wall breaking by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, this Netflix original comes across as Steven Soderbergh’s take on The Big Short.  But as smart-ass social commentary, the relative deficiency of The Laundromat vis-a-vis Adam MacKay’s contemporary classic lies in Soderbergh’s unwillingness to couple a didacticism regarding the machinations of the top 1% with an indictment of the ADHD-inflicted audience itself (here, characterized as “The Meek”).  (Grade: C)

The Lighthouse.  I really loved where this piece of hyper-cinema was taking me in the first act-with performance, with photography, with editing, and with sound design … I dug that the second act dove head first into the maddening facets of masculinity … But the shipwrecked Coleridge acid trip of a third act was disappointing, feeling less to me like a “pure experience” and more like a narrative and thematic cop-out.  (Grade: B-)

Long Shot.  A casting idea that may have sounded intriguing at a pitch simply doesn’t work on screen: never once did I believe in Charlize Theron and Seth Rogan, in any capacity.  (Grade: C)

Luce.  Landing in American art cinemas months in advance of Oscar season, what’s surprisingly salient about this film is not its focus on our socio-political obsession du jour (identity), but the filmmakers’ eagerness to eschew any sense of ideological purity, opting to populate the narratice with human beings and all of the accompanying contradictions and ambiguities.  (SIDE QUERY: In a film as opaque as this, with such clever casting (e.g., Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, a decade on from Funny Games (2007)), is it weird that I found the side character Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang) to be the most elusive?)  (Grade: A)

Ma.  Almost worth the price of admission just to see Octavia Spencer do the robot … almost.  (Grade: C)

Memory: The Origins of Alien.  Partly a technical look into the sausage factory that made Alien (1979) and partly a hodgepodge of random intellectual musings, I suppose this is an ideal documentary for an ADHD culture that loves to travel the internet down the rabbit holes (even Clarke Wolfe provides the obligatory commentary on “patriarchy” as only a podcaster could); but personally, my enjoyment and appreciation of this whole proceeding—which starts off with a painfully odd dramatic prologue tied to just one of Alien’s many influences—was hampered by a lack of coherence.  And some of the proffered analyses go a bit too far down the rabbit hole (e.g., Francis Bacon’s childhood, thematic citations to Kramer v. Kramer (1979)), especially with respect to a film that is so viscerally overt in its visual conveyances.  (Grade: C+)

Midsommar.  Best. Breakup. Movie. Ever … I can’t say which version is better, the original or the director’s cut.  But what I can say is that the pre-opening credits prologue is the most effective 10 minutes of cinema of 2019.  (Grade: A-)

Mike Wallace Is Here.  In terms of topicality, there’s not much here for the bubbles on the Left or the Right to tweet about, but for my money, considering its peculiarly contextual construction and all of the footage that had to be culled through, this might be the best edited film of 2019 so far.  (Grade: B)

Monos.  A highly stylized, “topical,” and ultimately empty riff on Lord of the Flies.  (Grade: C+)

Never Grow Old.  Irish writer/director Ivan Kavanugh adds yet another exquisite entry into the resurging Western genre (see, e.g., Slow West), custom built for our polarized socio-political climate: a rural town is torn apart when a group of religious zealots/autocrat’s authority is challenged by the arrival of a gang of thugs who re-open the saloon/whorehouse, bringing a devil’s fortune to our protagonist – the town’s quiet undertaker (Emile Hirsch, whose age is showing for the better).  Without bestowing praise or criticism, I will say that it was worth the price of admission just to witness John Cusack as the chief baddie.  (Grade: B-)

The Nightingale.  This follow-up to The Babadook (2014) by writer/director Jennifer Kent starts out promisingly enough as an artier riff on last year’s genre reappropriation, Revenge, adding race and colonialism into the thematic mix.  In so much as this period piece is intended to be a thinly-cloaked statement about the present or imputation of the original sin de jure,  the narrative is custom tailored to fire up the bubble to the Left (read: white women and people of color need to band together to fight the real enemy – white males!)  But regardless of the merits/burdens of any political messaging that may be at play, one may find it difficult to make it past the meandering shapelessness of the film’s second half.  (Grade: B-)

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.  I’m glad to see that Quentin Tarantino has emerged from the Kill Bill (2003)->The Hateful Eight (2015) stage of his career—I felt like he was REALLY trying to overcompensate for some sense of artistic insecurity, hiding behind the most audacious of genre reference points.  That said, although Once Upon a Time… has its moments, it’s too undisciplined, even for a “hang-out” film.  By comparison, the spaces in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown are filled with more interesting and entertaining dialogue. … Parenthetically, I’m definitely Team DiCaprio here (sorry, Team Pitt, but it’s not even close); and yet, my favorite performance—in terms of bringing the right energy—was Margaret Qualley’s hippie hitchhiker, Pussycat.  Yeah, baby, yeah!  (Grade: B-)

One Child Nation.  The character and purpose of One Child Nation is relatively straightforward: counter-propaganda documenting the costs of China’s one child policy (1979-2015), including local authorities/health care professionals compelling abortions/sterilization and families surreptitiously leaving female babies in markets to rot or shipping off newborns to adoption agencies/human traffickers.  Yet in an age beset with a degrading environment, the primary aggregating factor of which is population growth (something scientists and economists cite routinely, but activists and journalists rarely want to discuss), an honest assessment of the benefits of this policy—or the lack thereof—would have made for a far more compelling piece.  It was ostensibly enacted out of a fear of overpopulation leading to mass starvation and strife, which seems like a pretty dire set of competing circumstances.  Were those concerns warranted?  If so, was there a set of voluntary measures that could have addressed those concerns?  Is an involuntary policy an inevitable product of a totalitarian communist regime?  C’mon, teach me – I want to learn.  (Grade: C+)

Pain & Glory.  Piss & Jasmine.  (Grade: B-)

Parasite.  Class warfare: It’s all fun and gains, until it’s not.  (Grade: A)

The Perfection.  So the solution here is to cut off the hand to spite the misogynist? … Come to think of it, in 2019, that makes total sense.  (Grade: C-)

Pet Sematary.  As late summer bled into my sophomore year in high school in 1985, I had almost worked my way through Stephen King’s then available bibliography, which up to that point included some of his best regarded works: Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, and Christine. And on one random morning, while waiting for my carpool out on our suburban street corner, I started the next novel in the chronology: Pet Sematary.  Unlike my experience with any of King’s previous work, I surreptitiously read through a couple classes and didn’t set that book down until I finished it – right before I put my head to the pillow that night. I haven’t picked up that book in over three decades, and yet I vividly remember a visual reference to a football field that opens one particular chapter. It was different from his other work; or to put it more accurately, everything else from King seemed compromised by comparison.  It was not only King’s best novel, but it was the most effective horror story I had ever read. … Fast forward to my first year at college and the release of the 1989 movie, which ultimately cemented my prevailing opinion on cinematic adaptations to literary works: there should be no sacred ground. Much to King’s public dismay, auteur Stanley Kubrick made one of the greatest horror films ever (The Shining) by stripping down the narrative to suit his distinct sense of visual storytelling, notably jettisoning the novel’s sympathy for the patriarch and the more silly plot elements (e.g., hedge animals as monsters).  Having learned his lesson, King himself would provide a relatively tempered screenplay for Pet Sematary (to secure an R-rating), and the studio would tap a relative newcomer (Mary Lambert) to serve as director; predictably, the end result would be faithful to the source material, but to many of us who had read the book, landed with a surprisingly flaccid thud. … About three or four years ago, I got a bit excited when I read that another auteur, Guillermo del Toro, announced that he “would kill” to direct an adaptation of Pet Sematary.  But the skeptic in me doubted that the keepers of the King franchises would ever allow the creator of Pan’s Labyrinth to interpret this particular tale set in small town America. … Now we’ve got this “remake,” penned by Jeff Buhler and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. (Yeah, me neither.)  The performances have somewhat improved.  The endgame has been somewhat twisted.  And the eyes of the zombies have become somewhat more asymmetrical.  But the whole affair is utterly forgettable.  Once again, I hear King’s dialogue and plot machinations, but I don’t see or feel the grief-fueled dread.  All of that said, I reject the notion that no cinematic adaption could ever be as effective as the novel; rather, I would say that no truly effective cinematic adaptation could be so beholden to the novel.  (Grade: C)

Ready or Not.  Blunt and uninspired.  (Grade: C)

Rocketman.  Ever so slightly better than what I expected from the trailer.  (Grade: C+)

Shadow.  I can’t help but think that there’s a subtext to that new weapon/fighting style … or is it just text?  (Grade: B)

Shazam!  Captain Marvel v.1 > Captain Marvel v.8.  (Grade: B-)

Spider-Man: Far from Home.  As much an unnecessary epilogue to Avengers: Endgame as a stand-alone movie, the fatal flaw in this variation of the Iron Man 3 (2013) narrative is the villain: a good idea thematically and a good bit of casting, but an otherwise poor execution.  (Grade: C+)

The Souvenir.  There’s gonna be a sequel to this?  Seriously?  “The Souvenir: More Bad Choices”? … Suffice it to say, from the beginning, I had a really hard time buying into the chemistry/attraction between the two purported lovers, which is an essential element to buying into the rest—no matter how stylized the filmmaking is.  And the thing about the jaggedly edited, elliptical storytelling at play here is that—even when it is punctuated by flowery poetic narration and accentuated by melodramatic opera/cloying pop songs—it doesn’t manage to avoid the potential problem with any two-hour addiction narrative: tedium.  At one point about two-thirds of the way through this film conspicuously set in the early ‘80s, as our Ringwaldesque protagonist suddenly comes down with an illness, I began to actively imagine how this journey was going to take an interesting (if not entirely unpredictable) turn—perhaps, a tragic realization of the title.  But no.  I only mention this not because such a turn would have made the film better or worse, but rather as an indication of just how much I wanted to break out of the listless spell it had put me under. (Grade: C)

Terminator: Dark Fate.  I’ve gotta disagree with Mark Kermode here: this is the worst of the last four sequels.  To be sure, the shameless and superficial pandering to the acolytes of Bechdelian reductivism, hardwired throughout this “reappropriated” narrative, all but guarantees this entry a higher rating among critics than its predecessors.  But beneath its bubble-pleasing gender assignments, the lazily paradoxical storytelling-by-committee and the tired post-Matrix action sequences are worse than ever.  (Grade: D+)

Transit.  Franz Kafka’s Purgatorio.  (Grade: B)

Under the Silver Lake.  Of all of the assessments I’ve read on letterboxd, I’d say this one most convincingly—and perhaps, generously—describes what writer/director David Robert Mitchell is straining for here.  The problem is that I—and it seems a lot of other viewers—utterly stopped caring after about 30 minutes.   But I didn’t stop viewing the film after 30 minutes.  And as such, I would ultimately characterize Under the Silver Lake as an episodic exercise for stoned filmspotters, meticulously constructed for the Gen Y cult canon, as well as the most grating experience I’ve had with a film in 2019.  (Grade: D)

Us.  I seem to recall early buzz hyping this as a straight-up horror film.  But in carrying over this thematic motif of an underneath from Get Out, there is a distinct sense of surreality to Jordan Peele’s second effort that seems to serve his pitchforks-at-the-gate allegory a lot more than the requisite sense of creepiness that the genre demands.  And while the performances and costumes are certainly enigmatic enough, I’m curious to see how the whole piece will play with the mainstream after the opening weekend buzz subsides.  (Grade: B)

Velvet Buzzsaw.  Velvet Buzzsaw plays like a mashup of The Square (2017) and one of those direct-to-video Poe adaptations from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.  It has its moments.  But as with their last collaboration (Nightcrawler (2014)), writer/director Dan Gilroy’s conveyances are so blunt—and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is so miscalibrated vis-a-vis the rest of the cast—that it never really works as social satire or horror.  (Grade: C)

Villains.  Quirk that doesn’t work.  (Grade: C)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette.  As fun as it is to watch Cate Blanchett chew up scenery for 90 minutes, this curious mix of third-wave feminist fantasy, artist cliches, and generous portions of sap ultimately feels like Richard Linklater’s penance for Everybody Wants Some!! (2016).  (Grade: C+)

Wild Rose.  An apiring country star from the wrong side of the [Atlantic Ocean]: will she make it big or self-destruct?   As the refrain from most reviews goes, it’s well tread ground to be sure.  But screenwriter Nicole Taylor does manage to eschew some of the more tired genre tropes, sacrificing melodrama for a tale more grounded in the humanity that lies between taking responsibility for the past and not losing hope.  (What more can be said about Jessie Buckley?  Her unlikely trajectory from Beast (2017) to Chernobyl (2019) to this apparently leads to … the next Charlie Kaufman film, opposite Jesse Plemmons and Toni Collette.)  (Grade: B)

Yesterday.  Featuring Himesh Patel as a likable Russell Brand, Ed Sheeran as a good sport, and Kate McKinnon as the Devil.  (Grade: B-)

Zombieland: Double Tap.  A sequel I really didn’t need.  (Grade: C+)

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