A still from 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'.
June 25, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

You Can't Go Home Again

2019 / USA / 121 min. / Dir. by Joe Talbot / Opened in select cities on June 7, 2019; locally on June 21, 2019

A city is a perpetually mutating organism. Like all gradual processes, this evolution often occurs in such tiny, iterative steps that one barely notices change is happening at all. There are exceptions, of course, where a natural disaster or public-works project sweeps through and overthrows the existing urban order in a relatively short span of time. For the most part, however, a city is eroded and replaced through a thousand cuts, a Ship of Theseus realized on the metropolis scale. One day, you look around and realize that your neighborhood has changed, for better or worse: The faces are unrecognizable, the familiar feels uncanny, and living memories have been replaced by strange and haunted spaces.

This sense of being unsettled in one’s lifelong stomping ground suffuses writer-director Joe Talbot’s lyrical and eccentric debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Proximally, this is a story about gentrification: individuals, families, and communities elbowed aside as their neighborhoods become desirable to more affluent property owners. There are few places in America where this phenomenon is more evident than in the Bay Area, which is ground zero for one of the nation’s grimmest and most persistent housing crises. TLBMISF simmers with indignation over this sort of slow-motion displacement, but Talbot’s film is not, strictly speaking, a jeremiad against the evils of wealthy white encroachment into historically minority-owned spaces. Instead, the director approaches the subject as a personal, bittersweet modern fairy tale, and in doing so expands and deepens his feature’s themes, embracing all the ways that people can be made to feel like strangers in their own backyards.

Co-written by Talbot and Rob Richert, TLBMISF stars Jimmie Fails, who makes his captivating feature acting debut as a character who is also named Jimmie Fails. (He and Talbot share a story credit, and several aspects of the film essentially constitute fictionalized autobiography.) A skateboarding twentysomething who works as a nurse at a long-term senior-care facility, Jimmie is restless and rootless in the fashion of many young men. He sleeps on the floor in the cramped bedroom of his best friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken fishmonger and amateur playwright who lives with and cares for his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). The Allen home is tiny and aging, but at least it’s a home.

That's more than Jimmie has right now. He spends his waking hours obsessing over the long-lost home where he lived until his was 6 years old, a gorgeous Victorian-style townhouse in the Fillmore District, smack in the heart of San Francisco. Jimmie’s grandfather purportedly built the house in the 1940s, mimicking the style of the surrounding properties, most of which were owned by Japanese-Americans until those families were removed and scattered across the Pacific Coast by World War II-era internment. The Fails house is now owned by an older, affluent white couple, but in Jimmie’s persnickety judgment, they’ve allowed the property to fall into disrepair. He accordingly spends his free time performing minor maintenance to the façade – re-painting the red and gold trim, for example, when it begins to fade and peel. Unfortunately, the current owners regard his unsolicited handyman labor as little more than a creepy, possessive form of trespassing.

Following a death in the family, however, the former Fails house becomes mired in an estate dispute, and the current owners vacate it. The empty, unattended property is too much of a temptation for Jimmie to resist, and he accordingly sneaks into the house and squats there, soaking up the remembrances that lay dormant in its stained-glass windows, wooden staircases, and dusty pipe organ. Mont eventually joins him, claiming the majestic dining room as his own space. Jimmie soon pays a visit to his Auntie Wanda (Tichina Arnold), fibbing about having his own place and convincing her to relinquish some of his granddad's old furniture, which is currently collecting cobwebs in storage. Now properly outfitted with vintage furnishings, the friends begin fantasizing guilelessly about the simple pleasures of home ownership, an all-too-easy enticement in a grand old residence like the Fails house. (Gardening! Parties! Reading the paper and sipping coffee!) They even change the locks.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be here,” Jimmie muses in a rare moment of doubt. “Who should be here more?” retorts Mont, his own misgivings assuaged by the house’s gingerbread charm and antique opulence. “Some millionaire?” Jimmie has no response to that, and he can’t deny that the house feels like a birthright, something that was once swindled away and has now been reclaimed. Naturally, this bubble of nostalgia and sanctuary eventually bursts, but the magic of TLBMISF lies in how Talbot conveys the irresistible gravitational force of a place, the way its comforting embrace can make myopic delusion seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. The viewer is compelled to share Jimmie’s cozy sense of domestic bliss, notwithstanding the nagging awareness that it’s all built on a foundation of sand.

Talbot achieves this by crafting a fantastical sensibility around his film from the very first scene. A street preacher (Willie Hen) standing on a milk crate pontificates on the allegedly shady environmental cleanup occurring in the bay across from the Allen house, his cadences pitched halfway between a Sunday revival and a conspiratorial rant. The film’s cockeyed, wistful version of San Francisco is populated by such colorful characters, most of them faintly exaggerated but sketched with the affectionate warmth of a hometown playwright. Some of these individuals represent whiter and wealthier segments of the city – such as Finn Whittrock’s owlshit-slick real-estate agent, a SF native who can sniff out a high-six-figure down payment like a shark smells blood.

Mostly, however, Talbot and Richert’s screenplay maintains focus on the city’s down-and-out African-American characters. This includes Jimmie’s acerbic, semi-estranged father (Rob Morgan), a shiftless bootleg-DVD hustler who reacts furiously to the discovery that his son is occupying the old family home. “That’s not your old house and that’s not your neighborhood!” James Sr. snaps, the ambiguity of this declaration just one example of the script’s plainspoken elegance. By means of recurring personalities like the preacher and a Greek chorus of blustering, tattooed neighborhood toughs – as well as one-off characters such as the Candy Lady (Dakecia Chappell) who runs a gray-market corner store out of her living room – Talbot establishes a kinship with Spike Lee’s epochal Do the Right Thing (1989) and its vivid, hyper-real depiction of Brooklyn street life.

The film’s warm, quixotic atmosphere is further enhanced by Adam Newport-Berra’s glorious cinematography, which captures the city in all its iterations: crystalline and gleaming; soft and autumnal; chintzy and crumbling; and, of course, wrapped in pale sea fog, which in one crucial scene becomes a Stygian herald of tragedy. Talbot’s style is daring and dynamic, freely mixing fussy compositions with slouching naturalism, feisty montage with ultra-slow-motion indulgence. It’s a credit to the talents of the director, cinematographer, and editor David Marks that this kitchen-sink formal approach – which evinces influence from filmmakers as diverse as Wes Anderson, Terrence Malick, Sam Raimi, and the aforementioned Lee – feels enchanting rather than schizophrenic.

Although there is undeniably a political dimension to TLBMISF, as one might expect from a film about gentrification and black displacement, Talbot and Fails’ screenplay is energized foremost by its characters. Through Jimmie and Mont, the film finds ways to explore several forms of urban alienation. With his tweed jacket and Moleskine full of sketches and half-finished plays, Mont is both unapologetic about his sensitive-artist inclinations and self-conscious about how awkwardly he fits into “his” neighborhood. (There’s even a scene where he practices his African-American Vernacular in front of the mirror.) Given his grunge-rocker wardrobe and the skateboard slung under his arm, Jimmie is also subtly marked as a misfit, and the pair’s inseparable nature inevitably invites homophobic insinuations from the Greek chorus. The norms of black hetero masculinity rumble uncomfortably through the story, adding a layer of anxious complexity to the already-fraught drama of the Fails homestead. This tension comes to a head when one of the chorus members, Kofi (Jamal Trulove), begins dropping by the house, and his queer-flavored intentions briefly disrupt the household’s almost matrimonial equipoise.

Talbot’s film is funnier, sweeter, and weirder than this summary of the plot might suggest, often finding dry humor in the absurdities of race, class, and geography. In one scene, Jimmie encounters a gaggle of white architectural tourists on Segways and ends up cheerfully schooling the guide on the real history of the Fails house. In a running gag, the Muni bus that Jimmie and Mont wait for every morning never actually appears, repeatedly necessitating a tandem skateboard dash through the city’s rolling streets. (Inviting stares from Korean grocers, Airpod-wearing tech bros, and leftover Haight-Ashbury weirdos alike.) Like Carlos López Estrada’s shamefully under-seen Blindspotting (2018) – another tale of male friendship, racial tensions, and Bay Area gentrification – TLMISF expertly blends its scrappy wit with an earnest examination of place, identity, and ownership. This emotional and thematic nimbleness is what makes Talbot’s debut so auspicious. It’s a film that evokes profound melancholy over its characters’ personal losses and the real-world plight of black Americans, while also nurturing a vital existential truth: A person is more than the four walls that surround them.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Dead Don't Die'.
June 20, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Dying Together Isn’t Going to Solve Anything

2019 / USA, Sweden / 104 min. / Dir. by Jim Jarmusch / Opened in select cities on June 14, 2019

Jim Jarmusch is sick of zombies. “What’s cool about a zombie?” He asks during an interview with Rolling Stone. “They’re lifeless forms. They’re soulless humanoids. They’re an excuse.” It’s not a surprising take from a humanist like Jarmusch, given that  much of the filmmaker-musician’s leisurely paced filmography couldn’t be more different from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Jarmusch’s last film, Paterson (2016), starred Adam Driver as the titular bus driver who finds poetic inspiration in the conversations around his daily routes — both on and off the job. Broken Flowers (2005), follows a perpetual bachelor (Bill Murray) as he searches for the adult son he didn’t know he had. The rest of Jarmusch’s oeuvre isn’t far off from this vibe: stories about lonely people parsing their lonely situations, featuring poignant observations about humanity and the world around them. Of course Jarmusch is sick of zombies — he clearly loves humans. There’s the problem, though: This firm anti-zombie stance coincides with Jarmusch’s latest feature, the zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die.

At its outset, The Dead Don’t Die feels like any other Jim Jarmusch film. Centerville, Penn., police officers Ron and Cliff (Adam Driver and Bill Murray, respectively) confront an oddball drifter named Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), the three of them taking part in an amusing bit of deadpan about missing chickens before Ron and Cliff head back to their tiny, three-desk police station. From there, the film hops back and forth between a diner, a motel, a gas station-turned-comic shop, a juvenile detention center, and a funeral home, with each location showcasing Centreville’s peculiar Twin Peaks-y residents as they try to make sense of the increasingly strange occurrences in their small town.

This loose, free-floating style will feel familiar to Jarmusch fans accustomed to the director’s frequent use of interconnected vignettes in place of traditional plot points — Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) all follow a similar method. This laid-back approach to storytelling lets conversations breathe, allows the plot (however ephemeral it may be) to develop organically, and keeps the world of the film chugging along at a pace not dissimilar from the world beyond the darkened movie theater. This is something Jarmusch often expresses an interest in — keeping the pace of his films at or around that of the real world — and The Dead Don’t Die is no exception.

The faces, too, will be familiar to Jarmusch fans. In addition to Driver, Murray, and Waits, The Dead Don’t Die uses other frequent Jarmusch collaborators: Tilda Swinton (who portrays a Scottish samurai-sword-wielding mortician); Chloë Sevigny (who works alongside Driver and Murray’s characters at the police station and serves as the resident scream queen); Steve Buscemi (having some fun as a curmudgeonly farmer sporting a “Keep America White Again” cap); Eszter Balint (as Fern, the stereotypical diner owner, collared dress and all); Rosie Perez (playing a newscaster tasked with all the expository dialogue); RZA (as a delivery man for “Wu-PS”); and Iggy Pop and Sara Driver (who appear briefly as a pair of coffee-loving zombies). These actors, working together with new faces like Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, and Selena Gomez, are all more than willing to go along with whatever Jarmusch’s script has in store for them.

Given that the structure is typical Jarmusch and most of the cast is Jarmusch-friendly, why does The Dead Don’t Die stick out like a sore thumb — or, rather, a rotting arm from the ground — compared to the rest of the filmmaker’s oeuvre? The script is definitely the problem. It’s self-aware and it’s angry. As a movie lover himself, Jarmusch’s films often dive head-first into genre. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) audaciously embraces the best parts of both martial-arts movies and gangster movies. Only Lovers Left Alive (2014) isn’t afraid to be an unapologetic vampire romance. One would assume that The Dead Don’t Die would do the same with zombie movies. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case — instead of paying homage to the genre or, more adventurously, taking it to new heights (or depths), the only zombie movie the director is all that interested in emulating is George A. Romero’s foundational 1968 film (and, to a lesser degree, his 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead). This isn’t just an assumption: Characters openly discuss Night of the Living Dead and Romero, sometimes going as far as to directly quote from the film. This runs directly into a filmmaking rule of thumb: References to unimpeachable classics make audiences wish they were watching that movie instead of the one they’re in the middle of. The Dead Don’t Die functions as an affectionate tribute to Night, to be sure, but it mostly just elicits a longing for the original zombocalyptic recipe.

Taking this surface-level zombie-movie self-awareness a step further, a few characters within The Dead Don’t Die are actually conscious of the fact that they’re just actors in a movie. Every time Sturgill Simpson’s title track plays, characters comment on it being the movie’s theme song and how tired they are of hearing it. Ron takes every opportunity he can get to remind his colleagues that “this isn’t going to end well.” (Ron also carries around a Star Wars keychain.) Even the decision for a humanist like Jarmusch to make a zombie movie feels somewhat meta — the man who loves (and has hope in) humanity has made a film about the undead reclaiming the Earth. It all feels a bit too contrived, as if Jarmusch had run out of ideas and didn’t know how to wrap up the story.

The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t completely flatline, but it can’t really function without life support. It’s obvious that Jarmusch is no longer comfortable with the apolitical stance that characterized his past films. Underneath the metafiction, there’s a palpable sense of outrage and frustration at the government, another key component of The Dead Don’t Die that feels very un-Jarmusch. In an early scene, three pre-teens at the Centerville Detention Center — it’s probably not a coincidence that the abbreviation “CDC” also stands for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — gather around the TV as a news broadcast explains that polar fracking has knocked the Earth off its axis. They talk about the gravity of the situation and about their fear for the world, only to be sent back to their rooms by a couple of uncaring corrections officers while politicians and their mouthpieces on the news insist there’s nothing to worry about. Buscemi’s racist farmer gripes about country music, trespassers, and even his dog Rumsfeld, offering a clear satire of Trump supporters. Even the children of Centerville harbor a deep-seated misanthropy, swearing at strangers as they pass by.

As evidenced by these numerous departures, The Dead Don’t Die is not a typical Jarmusch movie. Normally, one would not leave one of the director’s films wondering what it all means — everything the filmmaker wants to say can often be found right there in the dialogue. That’s not the case here; Jarmusch’s wide array of targets means there’s almost too much to consider after one departs the theater. Is the filmmaker saying that children are the future, that this younger generation contained within the walls of the CDC are humanity’s only hope? Or is he insisting that we’re all slaves to our possessions, each one of us zombies going through the motions of our daily lives in search of more stuff? It’s possible that Jarmusch intentionally left these questions unanswered, the loose ends suggesting that there’s still time to avoid our civilization’s looming bad ending.

Despite the shortcomings that accompany the director’s many risks, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t a complete failure. For every creative decision that falls flat, there’s a visual gag or bit of dialogue that delivers. It would be near-impossible for a Jarmusch film with a cast this talented to be a total bust. Their chemistry is infectious, especially with Adam Driver and Swinton doing much of the heavy lifting. Sure, audiences might not be laughing out loud at every beat, but Jarmusch’s pitch-black deadpan frequently elicits the kind of laughter that manifests itself as a quick exhale through the nose. In the end, maybe this is what The Dead Don’t Die is supposed to leave the viewer with: memories of those little puffs of air, a reminder that, unlike the undead citizens of Centerville, we’re still alive and breathing.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese'.
June 18, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Shake Your Windows and Rattle Your Walls

2019 / USA / 142 min. / Dir. by Martin Scorsese / Premiered online on June 12, 2019

The ideal audience for director Martin Scorsese’s curious new Netflix documentary – which boasts the party-sub-sized official title Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese – is unquestionably composed of passionate Bob Dylan fans. This is typical when a new volume in the ever-burgeoning compendium of “Dylanology” is birthed into the world. Elvis might be the closest thing to an American metaphor in the rock-star flesh – as illustrated in Eugene Jarecki’s brilliant documentary from last year, The King – but Dylan’s cult of personality is arguably deeper, more defensible, and more sophisticated. (His devotees would certainly argue as much.) With its plethora of vintage concert footage, wild backstage encounters, and patented Dylan mystique, Rolling Thunder will naturally appeal to hardcore fans of the aged folk god.

However, even a viewer who knows virtually nothing about Bob Dylan or the titular tour that crisscrossed America and Canada in 1975-’76 is likely to find Rolling Thunder Revue strangely fascinating. There’s a moment when such uninitiated souls may start to suspect that Scorsese is up to something much weirder and more rascally than the mere reverent documentation. That point comes when Sharon Stone, of all people – allegedly absorbed into the tour chiefly for being a gorgeous 19-year-old model in a KISS T-shirt – relates a droll anecdote. In a rare private moment with Stone, Dylan purportedly plunked out “Just Like a Woman” on the piano, revealing that he wrote it just for her. Dylanites will already be smirking in amusement at this point, but Stone delivers the punchline for the newbies: As another member of the tour later broke the news to her, Dylan had composed that song almost a decade prior. (It was, in fact, the fourth U.S. single from his legendary, double-platinum 1967 rock LP, Blonde on Blonde.)

It’s a great little yarn that epitomizes Dylan’s propensity for good-natured historical revisionism and mischievous bullshitting. It’s also the moment in the film when the scales may start to fall away from the eyes of some viewers. Did this episode really happen? Wouldn’t a starry-eyed Dylan fan recognize one of his biggest singles? Wait: Did Stone ever actually tour with the Revue? Something about the story smells, but that fishiness is by design. Dylan purportedly conceived of the tour’s spirit as something halfway between commedia dell'arte and a traveling medicine show. In fact, there are several, conflicting stories about the etymology of that name, “Rolling Thunder Revue,” and Scorsese’s documentary does little to clarify the historical record. Indeed, the filmmaker seems to have picked up Dylan’s taste for enigmatic mythologizing and amplified its puckish qualities.

Rolling Thunder is as much a work of navel-gazing fiction as it is a proper concert film or rose-colored retrospective. It’s a cinematic puzzle cube steeped in Boomer nostalgia, one that manages to cunningly subvert the self-fellating tendency that characterizes most long, strange trips into 1960s-’70s music culture. Compared to Scorsese’s last Dylan documentary, the more conventional and encyclopedic No Direction Home (2005), the director’s latest feels both focused and loose. It’s a verité lazy-river float through a narrow period in Dylan’s career – and, more generally, past an intriguing inflection point in rock celebrity and American culture generally. (Tellingly, Rolling Thunder scrambles the chronology a little to lead with the Bicentennial and its enforced moment of national self-reflection.)

Not that anyone thought much of the Rolling Thunder Revue at the time. The sprawling, evolving tour was considered a financial failure for its promoters, and its artistic impact was debatable, notwithstanding the impressive lineup and the novelty of a post-breakout Dylan playing smaller, scruffier venues, including gymnasiums and a women’s prison. However, the Revue quickly entered the canon of Dylanology thanks to its live recordings (and countless bootlegs), not to mention Renaldo and Clara, the 1978 experimental film that resulted from the tour. Directed by Dylan and co-written with Sam Shepard, Renaldo is a kind of concert film/meta-fiction hybrid – much like Rolling Thunder itself. The 1978 feature is a notoriously esoteric fragment of Dylan apocrypha, mainly because it became virtually impossible to screen after its initial release and critical drubbing. (Renaldo remains unavailable to consumers in its original form.)

Constructed partly from the B-roll footage of Dylan’s cinematic flop, Scorsese’s film is accordingly the closest thing to full exhumation of Renaldo that the world is likely to see. Thankfully, the director mostly allows the performances to speak for themselves. Captured in 16mm color by Renaldo’s cinematographers Howard Alk, David Meyers, and Paul Goldsmith, the footage looks especially gorgeous during the live concert sequences. Scorsese permits the original long, sustained closeups of the performers to play out without interruption, presenting songs in their entirety – mostly hits like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and “Hurricane.” It’s ecstatically focused stuff, if only as a means to convey the bottled-lightning wizardry of Dylan and his fellow travelers – including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakely, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – absolutely killing it onstage. There’s a moment when the limo driver for oddball tour violinist Scarlet Rivera confesses that he’s never been to a rock concert before. When he enthuses that the spiritual connection he felt between the performers and the audience was positively electric, it’s hard not to concur.

There’s also an embarrassment of fascinating (maybe) candid footage captured in backstage rooms, on the tour bus, and in otherwise banal moments between shows. At times, it has the feeling of a faintly grotesque carnival, seething with whimsy and weirdness, like a post-Aquarian Hunter S. Thompson essay brought to life. It also recalls the whirlwind of carousing, jockeying, and low-key assholery in Orson Welles’ posthumous The Other Side of the Wind (2018) – albeit with less ravenous cynicism. Rolling Stone writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman roams around, pestering everyone with his needling questions and ingratiating manner. Poet Allen Ginsberg commands the viewer’s attention just by talking, his wonderful words flowing forth like a spring of mellow, radical wisdom. (The punchline: Ginsberg’s stage time keeps getting cut by the promoters as the tour progresses, to make time for music acts that will sell more tickets.) Dylan strolls around like a troubadour in a cafeteria full of restive Iroquois, singing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” while tribal leaders looks on awkwardly. And then there’s the anonymous concertgoer, who, after the Revue finishes their last song at some low-rent New England civic center, just breaks down and sobs, inconsolably and silently, as though seized by a post-Watergate inversion of Beatlemania.

It takes a little bit for Rolling Thunder to find its footing, but after some throat-clearing, Scorsese settles into a gratifying rhythm, alternating the stage performances with sections that blend offstage footage and contemporary interviews. Solely as a concert film, it’s engaging stuff that more than justifies its 142-minute running time – there’s a thoughtfulness and modesty to the director’s approach here that isn’t evident in his glossy, frenetic Rolling Stones feature Shine a Light (2008). Underneath the revolutionary spirit, however, there’s still that strain of blatant, occasionally acerbic bullshit that runs through the whole enterprise. Other than the concert footage, everything in Rolling Thunder is an unsorted jumble of truth and lies, which seems to be exactly how the director and singer-songwriter both prefer it. When asked about the tour’s origins early in the film, a present-day Dylan answers in his vaguely testy grand-uncle way, “I don’t remember a thing about it. I wasn’t even born.” OK then.

Scorsese’s film embraces this maddening meta-inscrutability, turning it into a midway magic trick with a folk-rock soundtrack. The tell is an initially inexplicable insert of an 1896 Georges Méliès short featuring a stage illusionist who makes a woman vanish and reappear. Scorsese has crafted a similar mirage around a core of musical truth: a hypnotic, self-reflexive gestalt object, difficult to pick apart but devilishly easy to just kick back and relish. It’s infinitely subtler than the recent Elton John biopic-fantasia Rocketman – but just as madcap in its protest-song way, and equally enamored with the notion of mythmaking. For a Scorsese film, Rolling Thunder is unexpectedly smirking and slippery; a rambling, docu-fiction voyage in the spirit of Robert Greene and late-period Welles. There’s a little of filmmaker Penny Lane’s coy and crafty quasi-docs (Our Nixon; Nuts!) in there, too.

The central fictional conceit in Rolling Thunder is that the film’s 1975-’76 footage was shot by British director “Stefan Van Dorp,” here played with scabrous world-weariness by performance artist Martin Von Haselberg. Van Dorp is positioned as the vaguely skeptical outsider in the tour’s entourage, and in interviews he’s perpetually undermining other members’ recollections and destabilizing the viewer’s expectations. He asserts that Dylan barely spoke to him during either the fall 1975 or spring 1976 legs; but also claims that the musician co-opted his European style of smoking cigarettes almost immediately. It’s an unflattering characterization – Dylan as an aloof mimic, constantly absorbing affectations yet fundamentally unknowable – but also one that’s consistent with the man’s established persona. (And, of course, one that Dylan tacitly approved, given that he agreed to appear in the film.)

Perhaps it’s for the best that Dylan has kept Renaldo and Clara hidden away from the public for so long, given that its recycled and castoff maybe-falsehoods play quite well from the hazy, post-truth vantage point of 2019. When Michael Murphy eventually appears as one of his old characters, U.S. Rep. Jack Tanner from Robert Altman’s HBO miniseries Tanner ’88, Scorsese’s film finally tilts into some kind of meta-fictional New Hollywood cinematic universe. The presence of Sam Shepard – who characterizes himself as a glorified roadie, rather than fessing up to his role as a scripter for the fictional 1970s footage – adds an additional layer of morbid uncanniness, given that the acclaimed playwright and actor passed away in 2017. Naturally, there are already explainers online that tease the historical fact in Rolling Thunder from the winking fiction, but why would anyone want to break the film’s trickster-god magic by analyzing it to death?

Scorsese and editors Damian Rodriguez and David Tedeschi use the you-are-there performances as handholds of truth in a sea of fairy tales and fish stories. Sometimes the con is obvious: When, for example, former lovers Dylan and Baez share a moment that’s ripe with gentle romantic subtext, it feels oddly staged, as though the artists were tweaking the gossip-mongers. Of course, given the power of Photoshop and modern digital-effects trickery, one should probably regard all the “obvious” vintage material with a skeptical eye. Whenever Ginsberg appears, one starts to wonder if one is seeing the real deal, or perhaps just comedian David Cross’ uncanny mimicry with faux-16mm embellishments. Cross previously portrayed the poet in Todd Haynes’ 2007 Dylan “anti-biopic” I’m Not There, which similarly understood the centrality of storytelling (read: lies) to the musician’s identity and appeal. Rolling Thunder isn’t remotely as audacious as Haynes’ feature, but within the limits of an ostensible “straight” concert film, Scorsese has crafted an irresistible mosaic of truth and myth. After all, who are you going to believe? Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan or your own lying eyes?

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Non-Fiction'.
June 13, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Communication Breakdown

2018 / France / 108 min. / Dir. by Olivier Assayas / Opened in select cities on May 3, 2019; locally on June 14, 2019

Olivier Assayas’ last film, Personal Shopper (2016), proposed that modern technology could be a possible medium for the living to communicate with the dead. One part haute couture murder mystery and one part grief tone poem, the beguiling ghost story devoted its entire second act to a text-message conversation between the protagonist and someone who claimed to have passed into the realm of the departed. As un-thrilling as that may sound, it nevertheless functions as one of the more fascinating cinematic realizations of how humans interact digitally within their analog realities – a notion that’s commonly only hinted at in other films through obnoxious superimpositions of text messages over shots of the senders and receivers.

Personal Shopper wasn’t the first time Assayas dove into digital life. In his previous noir thrillers Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007), Assayas often denigrated technology, fingering innovation as the impetus for the widening wealth gap in an increasingly globalized world, while still fetishistically deploying new computer-generated cinematic techniques himself. That very tension is the great invention in those undervalued gems, but the formula has been reversed in his latest feature, Non-Fiction, in which the digital is foregrounded only indirectly – there are no iMac or iPhone screens showcased here – as it wreaks havoc among the French bourgeois and their romantic and professional entanglements.

Also unlike those aforementioned films, Non-Fiction is not what one would call an impressive display of genre acrobatics. If anything, Assayas is working in a Rohmerian romantic comedy of manners mode, and the result is arguably the director’s most modestly scaled and minor-key film. After the raging rivers of emotional currents in Summer Hours (2008) and Personal Shopper, the historical documents of Après Mai (2012) and Carlos (2010), and the grand persona-swap meta-fiction of Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Non-Fiction goes down like a hastily thrown-together trifle, its deeply rich layers alternating with light and airy ones.

Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet), a suave and seductive book editor, sits with his longtime client and friend, Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne), an author whose reputation and sales have declined over the previous decade. After an extended meal in which the two dally in the media marketplace of ideas, Alain recommends that the infamous playboy writer return to his older, pulpier material instead of the thinly veiled autobiographical manuscript he’s just completed. Léonard proudly scoffs at Alain’s sly, repeated suggestions until all the beating around the bush forces the author to just flatly ask if his long-time publisher plans on releasing the new book. Alain, shocked at the naked display, quips, “No, I’m not. I thought you understood.”

This first “chapter” provides a loose key to understanding the occasionally obtuse discourse about “How We Live Now” that makes up the bulk of Non-Fiction. Protracted exchanges about the woes of social media and handheld devices, physical vs. digital media, the value of criticism and art, and the world’s political and cultural climate seem to point to Assayas picking low-hanging think-piece fruit. However, the surface-level evaluations contained within are largely acts of obfuscation by the director and his players. What’s harbored in their messages is a yearning for intimacy and authenticity that, as time passes, increasingly rise to the surface in genuine displays of human connection and expression.

The film’s French title, Double vies (“double lives”), is possibly a more apt signaling of the dialectical conversations and compartmentalization (or lack thereof) of the characters’ relationships. Within the sexual carousel – Non-Fiction is, in its essence, a contemporary version of Max Ophüls’ La ronde (1950), albeit one trapped within the social milieu of the media elite – each participant has their own double-self. Alain’s clandestine rendezvous with his publisher’s young digital-marketing savant, Laure (Christa Théret), puts his career and marriage in jeopardy. He’s married to actress Selena (the always-sublime Juliette Binoche), who, on top of her own long-standing secret affair with Léonard, is struggling with her public and personal personas. Her prominence as the lead of a popular television show only exacerbates the issue; the question of whether her character is a police officer or in crisis management adds yet another complicated layer to her in-flux existence.

That running gag is bested only by a story about lewd acts performed during a screening of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2010) – or was it Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)? This episode is featured in Léonard’s new novel, which is itself a quasi-confession about his own surreptitious past. His wife, political consultant Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), seems to be the only unbreakable link in this tangled chain, acting as an audience surrogate who observes the human foibles on display. Even in the film’s last act, a breezy weekend-in-the-country double date for the two main couples that features a silly Ocean’s 12 (2004)-style meta-moment, Valérie is the gracious and understanding force – and a signifier that Assayas is ultimately optimistic about the state of human connection.

The interconnectivity of the world that the characters so often deconstruct is found not only in the complex web of their personal lives, but also in Assayas’ relatively unassuming visuals. The director keeps his camera fluid and roving throughout the Parisian cafes and expensively decorated apartments, as if tracking the dissemination of information and personal disclosure between the nodes of the human network here. Even when his script spends pages on somewhat staid discourse, Assayas is keen to liven up this minor entry in his filmography, allowing even more casual viewers to peel back the many layers of Non-Fiction.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Shadow'.
June 12, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Not a Soul to Tell Our Troubles To

2018 / 116 min. / China / Dir. by Zhang Yimou / Opened in select cities on May 3, 2019; locally on May 31, 2019

Chinese director Zhang Yimou is a prolific, multi-genre filmmaker, but among mainstream Western viewers, he is likely best known for his luscious, pseudo-historical wuxia action epics, such as Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Although his films are keenly attuned to the raw cinematic bliss of, say, a sumptuously staged, slow-motion sword duel, Zhang has always been too besotted with grand storytelling to deliver “mere” genre exercises. Consistent with the Chinese literary form from which they are derived, his wuxia films are dense and flavorful things, suffused with romance, tragedy, intrigue, and the heightened yet intricate drama of personal and national honor. (Perhaps tellingly, Zhang’s attempt at a Hollywood-style action-fantasy, 2016’s The Great Wall, is a tedious clunker, distinguished by little but its bold production design.)

Zhang’s deliriously stylish (and seriously grim) new feature, Shadow, is another film in the wuxia tradition, but in this instance the director has literally drained the color from his fantastical tale. Desaturating a film’s palette into grayish-brown murk is now an unfortunately ubiquitous post-production technique in American blockbusters, but Zhang gives it new life by building his feature’s entire aesthetic around it. Although it was not shot in black-and-white, Shadow is virtually monochromatic in its final form, like a bracing, modernist production of some canonical opera or ballet. The film’s sets, props, and costumes are all rendered in waterlogged hues of charcoal, nickel, and dirty white, evoking the ink-wash style of traditional Chinese painting. Only the actors’ skin and the copious gouts of wine-dark blood disrupt the film’s severe, ashen palette.

It’s a fitting choice: Shadow is one of the bleakest wuxia films in memory, often leaning towards the gory, Shakespearean cruelty of a Japanese samurai feature. Akira Kurosawa’s brutal Macbeth retelling, Throne of Blood (1957), and Takashi Miike’s mud-spattered remake of 13 Assassins (2010) stand out as likely touchstones, but Shadow never feels like a Chinese riff on another cinematic genre. It remains a wuxia epic in its bones, one in which a Taoism-informed struggle over identity plays out in the context of palace skullduggery, vengeful duels, and a preposterous street-to-street epic battle in the pouring rain. 

Although it ostensibly takes place during the Three Kingdoms period of the third century, B.C., Shadow is effectively set in an anachronistic “Long Ago” China. Following their military victory over a common enemy, the rival kingdoms of Pei and Yang have settled into a tense and lopsided postwar alliance. Once a part of Pei territory, the city of Jing is now under the control of the feared Commander Yang Cang (Hu Jun) and his forces. This occupation chafes many of Pei’s leaders, but not its haughty and capricious king, Pei Liang (Ryan Zheng), who is so smug about forging an alliance with Yang that he’s composed an epic poem about it, decorating his throne room with hand-painted scrolls of verse. The king’s complacency isn’t shared by his chief military commander, the stoic Zi Yu (Deng Chao), who has recently – and without royal permission – challenged Yang Cang to a duel, with Jing City itself as the stakes.

When the film opens, the king is dressing down Zi Yu for this reckless act of provocation, while the commander’s devoted wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li) and the king’s headstrong sister Qing Pen (Guan Xiaotong) look on in (mostly) mute protest. There’s a queer tension running through this confrontation, and it comes to a head when the king rather perplexingly commands Zi Yu and Xiao Ai to play one of their legendary zither duets. Both husband and wife beg off in deference to oaths they’ve sworn, and soon the audience is clued in on the reason for all the anxious glances. “Zi Yu” is, in fact, a double named Jing Zhou, a lookalike groomed since childhood to misdirect assassins and even take the commander’s place should the need arise. The real Zi Yu (Deng again) skulks in a secret subterannean chamber, ocassionally creeping about inside the palace walls to spy on the court. After sustaining a grievous wound from Yang Cang’s guandao a year ago, Zi Yu fell into ill health, and he has since retreated from the public eye, allowing Jing Zhou to assume his place in court. (Unlike the musically virtuosic Zi Yu, Jing Zhou is a novice at the zither; hence the nervous excuses when the king orders him to perform.)

Zi Yu's wife Xiao Ai is in on this elaborate deception, which takes on a new urgency as the mortally injured commander grows closer to death. He regards Jing's upcoming duel with Yang Cang as his revenge by proxy, although the plan becomes complicated by numerous factors. The king’s anger at “Zi Yu” over the unsanctioned challenge is one hurdle, as the monarch punishes the commander by stripping him of his rank and status. There’s also the matter of an oracle’s prophecy, which stipulates that the seventh straight day of rain is the opportune time for an attack on Jing City. Why this might be salient is never fully elucidated, but no matter: The prediction is there simply to provide a deadline for the film's action. While the kingdom is pummeled by unrelenting downpours, Zi Yu subjects Jing to a brutal regime of training exercises, in the hopes of working out a winning strategy for use against the mighty Yang Cang. Meanwhile, Jing Zhou recruits a disgraced military officer (Wang Qianyuan) and a horde of ragged forest bandits for an audacious Plan B. Qing Ping seethes as the king and his chief administrator (Wang Jingchun) conspire to marry her off to Yang Cang’s arrogant son (Wu Lei). And Xiao Ai is befuddled by her emergent affection for Jing Zhou, whose decency and hunky vulnerability contrast with her real husband’s increasing physical infirmity and wild-eyed, egomaniacal scheming.

It’s standard wuxia stuff, for the most part: bold-stroke conflicts and big emotional beats, as expressed through the somewhat convoluted lens of courtly politics in a never-was ancient China. The screenplay by Zhang and Li Wei is vague on some aspects of the backstory – Why is Jing City so vital to Pei’s national pride? – but all the viewer really needs to know is that wresting the city from its Yang occupiers is Zi Yu’s all-consuming ambition. And Jing Zhou’s as well, for once the city is retaken, the commander will release his common-born double from his obligations, permitting him to return to the humble house where his aged, blind mother still lives.

Zhang adds a layer of thematic complexity to Shadow’s straightforward stakes via Taoist motifs, most conspicuously the enormous taijitu (“yin yang” symbol) that adorns the rain-slicked stone floor of Zi Yu and Jing Zhou's sparring chamber. Complementary and oppositional forces – light and dark, male and female, strength and grace – run through the story, even finding expression in the martial-arts styles used by the characters. (The film mines droll humor from a swishy, “feminine” weapon style involving a parasol, before revealing its unexpected lethality.)

Despite these stark elements, the ever-present subtext of Shadow is that nothing about this scenario is black-and-white: The film images themselves are composed of a stunning gradient of grays, reflecting the ambiguous moral and philosophical dilemmas that the characters confront. Although it is embellished with superheroic feats of martial prowess, Zhang’s feature highlights that the savagery of the world is natural and human in origin, not supernatural. The pitch-black, assaultive shadows of the German Expressionists don’t fit here, nor does the haunted gloom of the gothic, with its sharp good-vs.-evil dichotomies. This is a film of natural and industrial grays – storms and soot, slate and steel – befitting a story in which the characters must contend with pounding rain and flying blades.

Twinnings and reversals also abound. Zi Yu mockingly calls Jing his “shadow,” but it’s the haggard commander who is beginning to resemble a shade – shuffling unseen through the palace as if half ghost, while the rot from his festering wound courses through his veins like black bile. For his part, Jing Zhou is obliged to confront his own hollowness, as the mission he’s trained for his entire life reaches its do-or-die conclusion. Zhang rather cunningly turns his protagonist’s tabula rasa blandness – a common flaw in action epics of this sort – into a source of angst, lending an almost existential weight to Jing’s tribulations. (Without Zi Yu, who the hell is he?)

Real-life spouses Deng and Sun do a splendid job of suggesting the conflicted longing for connection that throbs beneath their characters’ all-business subterfuge and Confucian propriety. Deng’s Jing Zhou gallantly departs the marital bed every evening to sleep on the floor in an adjacent chamber, and the officious yet intimate way he performs this nightly ritual – and the careful way that Sun’s Xiao Ai watches him – elegantly signals that their relationship status has shifted to “It’s Complicated.” Zi Yu, meanwhile, is a more exaggerated figure, limping about on scrawny legs that grow ever more unsteady, all while sliding into madness with a mirthless cackle. (He nimbleness never seems diminished, however, when he is wielding his bamboo staff in the training yard.) With death looming over him, Zi seems eager to inflict suffering on everyone around him, especially Jing Zhou. In this way, the dying commander betrays the extent to which his supposedly single-minded plan for vengeance has been tainted by resentment for his handsome, able-bodied double.

Shadow is an undeniably gorgeous feature, its monochromatic palette paradoxically opening creative avenues for Zhang, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, and production designer Horace Ma. The costumes, supervised by Li Meng, are a notable standout: Straying deliberately into an ahistorical modern sensibility, the silk robes worn by the characters often seem to have been tie-dyed in Rorschach patterns. Still, for all the film’s startling set-pieces and memorable touches – from a bizarre, tumbling stampede of bladed umbrellas to the way that Zi Yu’s long hair constantly fidgets in the breeze – its visuals don’t have the evocative potency of those in Zhang’s full-color epics. It might be an appropriate choice for the film’s mood and themes, but the de facto black-and-white look pales (pun intended) when compared to, say, the eye-popping autumnal forest duel in the director’s masterpiece, Hero.

That said, as a standalone and often inspired slice of lavish storytelling – one in which the double-crosses and fake-outs pile up quickly in the film's blood-drenched final stretch – Shadow has few flaws worth quibbling over. Zhang remains one of the living masters of the form, and even his “lesser” wuxia features are wildly extravagant and enthralling cinematic objects, if only because so few filmmakers are crafting anything quite so ambitious and distinctive. If Shadow feels a little chillier, darker, and more ruthless than the director’s international hits from the 2000s, it’s a shift that is unambiguously reflected in every inch of the film’s form. That kind of ground-up artistic diligence is a rare and marvelous thing indeed.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Perfection'.
June 10, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Fortississimo

2018 / 90 min. / USA / Dir. by Richard Shepard / Premiered online on May 24, 2019

In April, Twitter account @NetflixFilm — one of the streaming giant’s many attempts to appeal to hip cinephiles via this newfangled social-media thing — garnered some unwanted attention by praising a standout shot from a recent horror addition to their film library: “I just want to shout out this split diopter shot from Final Destination 3 because it looks like it came right out of a Hitchcock/De Palma film.” Users were quick to criticize both the tweet’s inaccuracy — Hitchcock rarely used split diopters (though De Palma’s films do employ the technique frequently) — the account’s flop-sweaty attempt at Film Twitter pandering. Luckily for Netflix, the embarrassing tweet was all but forgotten by the next day.

Then, almost exactly a month later, the streaming service released Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, a campy thriller that the company snapped up at Fantastic Fest in Austin back in 2018. As it turns out, Shepard’s film is filled with split-diopter shots, as though Netflix had been hinting at what was to come. The account was quick to point this out in a pedantic, multi-tweet rant on The Perfection’s release date, going on at length about the intended effect that split diopters have on the viewer, citing multiple examples of them from film history and explaining the difference between the technique and deep focus. (“The unnaturalness of the shots [creates] a disorienting effect & helps enhance the film’s constant sense of trepidation,” the account’s author writes, practically instructing the viewer on how to feel.)

In truth, no amount of Film School 101 bloviating is preferable to actually experiencing the abstract shots and jarring cuts contained in the first few minutes of The Perfection. Seconds in, a split diopter is used to show Charlotte Willmore — played by Allison Williams in full Get Out (2017) mode, straddling the line between serious and this-can’t-be-serious — staring at her dead mother’s body. This is followed by some spliced-together footage of a young Charlotte and a slowly spinning shot of present-day Charlotte at her mother’s bedside. Some overtly expository dialogue from a pair of aunts just outside the room establishes the backstory. Ten year ago, Charlotte gave up her life as cello prodigy, but — as she says in a phone call to Anton (Steven Weber), her former teacher and owner of the prestigious music school she used to attend — she is now free to return to the world of classical music, given that her mother has “finally passed away.” 

This phone call takes Charlotte to Shanghai, where Anton and his wife, Paloma (Alaina Huffman), are in the process of narrowing three potential cello students down to one. Assisting Anton and Paloma with their selection is Elizabeth Wells (Dear White People’s Logan Browning), a fellow cellist who ascended to success when Charlotte left the school. After an awkward, mutually fangirlish conversation and an impromptu cello duet, Lizzy and Charlotte’s artistic camaraderie quickly turns physical. The two decide to go backpacking through rural China to get away for a few days, but not before celebrating their newfound relationship with a night out.

Unfortunately, Lizzy wakes up feeling awful after their evening of excess. Dismissing it as hangover symptoms at first, the two quickly begin to sense that something isn’t quite right, especially when they realize that Lizzy’s symptoms match those of a mysterious epidemic sweeping through southern China. The two grow more hysterical as Lizzy gets sicker, eventually resulting in their ejection from a bus and their stranding in the middle of nowhere. From here, a genuinely surprising twist serves as a D.C. al Coda of sorts, as the film hurls the viewer back to the moment the couple awakens following their night of partying. The feature then provides an alternate perspective on the events thus far before jumping into the next act. 

This twist is shocking and effective enough to excuse much of peculiar dialogue and hokey performances that characterize the film’s first act. With an hour left and the rug pulled out from under the viewer, The Perfection could honestly go in any direction. Unfortunately, the direction Shepard’s film chooses for its second half pales in comparison to the wild ride of the first. What initially presents itself as a jealousy-fueled thriller quickly devolves into a three-way quest for vengeance between the film’s leads. The film returns to same rewind-time device that worked so well in the first instance, but it fails to garner the same jaw-dropping impact on the second go-round.

Regardless of how effective these plot devices are, The Perfection clearly wears its influences on its sleeve, the most obvious being De Palma’s plethora of psychological thrillers. The film also has plenty in common with Whiplash (2014) – another entry in the musical-prodigy-psychodrama subgenre – and with the South Korean revenge films of Park Chan-wook. However, despite these cinematic touchstones, something feels a little off about Shepard’s final product, which never truly manages to feel cinematic itself. 

Some of this may be attributable to the creative team’s television-heavy background. Shepard and Williams are both veterans of HBO’s Girls (2012-17), the latter as a one of the ensemble dramedy’s stars and the former as a director. Co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, meanwhile, are best known as producers and writers on the never-ending cult phenomenon Supernatural (2005-19). Intertitles suggest that The Perfection’s four chapters are intended to mirror the movements of a musical composition, but this structure also conveniently allows Shepard, Charmelo, and Snyder to approach the story episodically. Director of photography Vanja Cernjul is likewise a prestige-television stalwart, which might explain why the lighting in The Perfection is so luminously harsh, as if everything is glowing, soap opera-style. In a time when television is constantly being referred to as “cinematic,” The Perfection illustrates that episodic TV and feature films require completely different creative approaches to function most effectively.

Ultimately, after a quick, bloody climax and a startling final shot, Shepard’s feature leaves the viewer stupefied. The film feels like seedy, campy perfection when the first big twist reveals itself around the halfway point, but ventures into dangerous and reductive territory when it employs the outdated abuse-equals-empowerment narrative that has been a staple of countless revenge thrillers. At first, all those split-diopter shots feel startling and novel, but the technique is less effective by the time it makes its 10th or 15th appearance. Each plot twist fills the viewer with an exciting uncertainty, but the film consistently falls back into familiar tropes before too long. This back-and-forth is incessant, flip-flopping from tired to wired and back again for the duration of the film’s 90-minute runtime. The Perfection is undoubtedly a B-movie, but the result lies somewhere between B-sharp and B-flat.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'Rocketman'.
June 5, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Madman Across the Water

2019 / UK, USA / 121 min. / Dir. by Dexter Fletcher / Opens in wide release on May 31, 2019

Early in Rocketman, musical prodigy Reginald Kenneth Dwight (Matthew Illesley) – who will eventually assume the stage name Elton John as an adult (Taron Egerton) – sits on his bed late at night, feverishly studying sheet music. He raises a hand to conduct his imaginary orchestra, and the film’s eponymous song – already evoked by a glitzy title sequence – slowly builds on the film’s soundtrack. The camera pans from the young maestro’s gesticulating hands to a manifestation of a full orchestra floating in a twinkly night sky before him. It’s an moment of cinematic fantasy that might have made even Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger envious.

The sequence, even more so than an earlier dancing-in-the-streets number in which Reginald leads his family and London suburb neighbors through “The Bitch Is Back,” announces that Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic is far more adventurous than most of the by-the-numbers rock-star narratives that have preceded it. Specifically, Rocketman will inevitably be compared to last year’s Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, not only because that global box-office smash (and Oscar winner, ugh) is so fresh in viewers’ memories, but also because Rhapsody’s sole credited director, Bryan Singer, was replaced by Fletcher himself late in production. Fletcher's latest bests Rhapsody in nearly every possible detail, elevated beyond its precursors by its resolve to become a full-on old-school musical fantasia.

Granted, this Elton John jukebox musical doesn’t reach the sort of bold and experimental heights attained by Todd Haynes’ biopic trilogy: Barbie-doll-starring experiment Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987); glam-rock identity-investigation Velvet Goldmine (1998); and many-faces-of-Bob Dylan essay film I’m Not There (2007). Rocketman still slavishly hews to the familiar story turns of lesser films like Elvis (1979), Walk the Line (2005), and Rhapsody, charting the rise-fall-redemption arc of its subject. What’s between Fletcher’s show-stopping numbers is simply above-average Hollywood filmmaking.

Rocketman is structured as a series of flashbacks told from the rehab facility that John enters – bursting through its doors wearing a bombastically ornate phoenix-rising costume – when he is at the peak of his fame and a nadir in his personal life. The film uses the pop star’s biggest hits to tell his story, but it largely forgoes slogging through John’s catalog to depict the actual creation of these tracks. Instead, the feature employs the songs thematically, playing fast and loose with the chronology of the artist’s discography. (“Your Song” is the sole exception in getting the behind-the-scenes treatment, but given its still-supreme status and its use here as an ode to platonic love, that can be forgiven.)

Although Dexter’s nimble and propulsive direction means each musical interlude is suffused with a cinematic glee, mileage varies on the thematic interpolation of the music into the narrative of Rocketman. The verses of “I Want Love,” a minor 2001 comeback for Elton John, are traded off between the Dwight family members in an early Terence Davies-esque sequence that lays the groundwork for the film’s pat armchair psychology. The raucous “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting” rollicks through Reginald’s sexual and musical coming-of-age, alternating between his early local pub shows and a hazy nocturnal carnival. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is Bernie Taupin’s (Jamie Bell) send-off to his songwriting partner after Elton’s narcissistic downward spiral into drug addiction and self-importance. Even more on the nose is the appearance of “I’m Still Standing,” and anyone familiar with the triumphant comeback song can discern its placement within this traditional narrative.

However, this conceit reveals that Rocketman at least understands the subversive essence of pop music in conveying messages through presentational code, whereas Bohemian Rhapsody just lazily trotted out the origin stories of Queen singles as if the actors were doing a live reading of the band’s Wikipedia page. Further complicating these ideas is that this dissemination of meaning through code is of great importance to the lives of queer people – a group to which both Elton John and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury belong – especially within cultural climates that suppress queer identities. Rhapsody made the fatal mistake of equating Mercury’s sexuality with his downfall – dying-damsel moment of coughing blood into a handkerchief to signal his AIDS diagnosis and all – and had nothing on its mind about this intersection of performance, pop-music forms, and identity. In Fletcher’s film, a mentor succinctly elucidates the paradox of queer identity and pop performance to Elton John before his career takes off in earnest: “You have to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”

In this regard (and many others), the director seems to address complaints lobbed against the previous film with which he is tenuously associated – most conspicuously the accusation that Rhapsody obscured Mercury’s sexuality to make that film more palatable for hetero audiences. Granted, the sole sex scene between John and his self-serving manager-cum-lover, John Reid (Richard Madden), pulls a Call Me by Your Name (2017) by panning up to billowing curtains at the peak of the couple’s sexual intimacy. However, Rocketman does not repeat Rhapsody’s sins. In fact, Fletcher’s latest could rightfully enter the all-too-small pantheon of populist films about the queer concerns of coming out, unrequited love, gender performance, and public personas (albeit through the lens of a white cisgender man).

None of this would come with such startling clarity if it weren’t for the supremely fine-tuned performance of Egerton. He lends credibility to the character of Elton John not by impersonation but by creating a fully formed human being who evolves from pit-in-the-stomach anxiety to devil-may-care narcissism. The actor, best known for leading the Kingsmen action films, manages to induce great empathy in the audience, despite the distance afforded by being one of the great rock stars of the 20th century. Doubtlessly, some critics will complain that the actor’s singing voice doesn’t quite sound like John’s, but that’s to the creative team and Egerton’s credit: Verisimilitude isn’t necessary when more ecstatic truths are deployed.

Some of those truths may be called into question, however. Even with the character of Elton John as the unreliable narrator of his own story, Elton John the executive producer is still somewhere behind the camera calling some shots. There’s nothing outrageous about a musician playing around in the sandbox of his own biography and discography, molding the narrative into whatever shape he likes. On the contrary, Rocketman is relatively forthright about John’s shortcomings as a human being. However, the musician’s egocentrism occasionally intrudes on the film’s credibility, in both its factual and fantasy modes. During the musician’s debut performance across the pond in a popular Los Angeles nightclub, the audience and the performer levitate in ecstasy. Later, some self-aggrandizing pre-end-credits title cards announce the (admittedly) important charity work John has done in the years since the film proper’s narrative ends. Although these are small gestures – and fair enough in sketching John as a human who can syncretize disparate identities into a whole – their overbearing weight is enough to keep filmgoers’ feet firmly planted on the ground.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Starfish'.
June 3, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

The Convent

2018 / UK / 81 min. / Dir. by Paul Hyett / Premiered online and opened in select cities on May 3, 2019

Nunsploitation horror is in something of a slump lately, between last year’s aimless spook story The Nun and a streak of unmemorable VOD clunkers (The Devil’s Doorway, Welcome to Mercy, St. Agatha). Director Paul Hyett’s witless demonic-possession flick The Convent does nothing to rectify this unfortunate trend. While on trial for murder, Hannah Arterton’s 17th-century English commoner is offered sanctuary by an order of religious sisters. Their gloomy priory, it turns out, is haunted by a voracious Satanic presence, one that is not entirely uninvited. Hyett at least has the good sense to lean into his film’s unabashed trashiness, larding the plot with occult freakiness, lesbian eroticism, and copious, Fulci-esque gore. This almost makes The Convent feel like a dime-store burlesque of Ken Russell (The Devils, Gothic, The Lair of the White Worm), or it would, if the film didn’t prove to be such a tedious slog. Turning such profane raw materials into a lackluster array of stock horror drivel is damn unforgivable. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other major platforms.]

The Nightshifter (Morto Não Fala)

2018 / Brazil / 110 min. / Dir. by Dennison Ramalho / Premiered online on May 23, 2019

Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira) works the graveyard shift at a São Paulo morgue, which gives him plenty of time to exercise his singular gift: conversing with the recently deceased. This mostly entails trite exchanges with stunned accident victims and vengeful street thugs. However, one day an opportunity arises for Stênio to dispose of his odious wife’s lover, and the temptation is too much for the put-upon working stiff to resist. Director Ramalho starts with a vivid hook seemingly plucked from an old Tales from the Crypt episode, and initially it seems as if the premise might yield some darkly ironic fruit. Unfortunately, the film eventually collapses into a meandering, bog-standard story about a vengeful ghost. Dodgy digital effects aside, there are flashes of vicious inspiration in the film’s set pieces – a bit involving a glass-coated kite string, for example, has a Saw-like ghastliness. However, The Nightshifter is mostly content to pummel its distasteful protagonist with tiresome haunted-house shocks for an unwarranted 110 minutes. Rating: C [Now available to stream on Shudder.]

Starfish

2018 / USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Al White / Opened in select cities on March 13, 2019; premiered online on May 28, 2019

Director Al White’s mesmeric, utterly unclassifiable debut feature establishes its thematic core in its first 20 minutes. Troubled twentysomething Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) mourns the passing of her best friend Grace by breaking into the dead woman’s apartment in their sleepy Colorado town. Starfish takes is sweet time in this passage, steeping in Aubrey’s shattering grief – and other unresolved demons – with a delicate attentiveness to Grace’s indie-cool worldly possessions, including an enigmatic mixtape. Abruptly, the “elevated” sci-fi-horror of last year’s Annihilation and The Endless forces its way into Aubrey’s mourning process with mysterious monoliths, bizarre phenomena, and slavering alien creatures. Ambitious and weird in a gratifying way, Starfish relies on diverse methods – including an anime music video and a scene of meta-horror straight out of Inland Empire (2006) – but at its heart are Gardner’s intrepid performance and a messy, humane meditation on fear, fuckups, and forgiveness. It’s The Mist (2007) as a one-woman college radio show, with a dollop of Another Earth (2011) and a dash of Tarkovsky. So, yeah: weird. Rating: B [Now available to rent or purchase from Google Play and other major platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters'.
May 30, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Royal Rumble

2019 / USA, Japan / 131 min. / Dir. by Michael Dougherty / Opens in wide release on May 31, 2019

Godzilla began his cinematic life as a not-so-subtle metaphor for nuclear weapons, but the pop-cultural endurance of this colossal, city-leveling radioactive reptile – arguably the great post-World War II movie monster – is attributable in part to his flexibility. While the Godzilla novice might be tempted to regard the Japanese kaiju film (and its international cousins) as a monolithic and homogeneous subgenre, the reality is much more complex and, well, pretty damn weird. The 32 official Godzilla films produced by Japanese studio Toho run the gamut, from the overt atomic terror of Ishirō Honda’s groundbreaking original (1954) to psychedelic eco-parable (Godzilla vs. Hedorah, 1971) to kiddie-flick silliness (Godzilla vs. Megalon, 1973) to exhausting sci-fi lunacy (Godzilla: Final Wars, 2004).

That said, the Godzilla franchise is currently in the depths of a profoundly pessimistic era, thematically speaking. (The “Reiwa period,” per the Japanese imperial parlance used to categorize the Toho features). The series is as blatantly apocalyptic as it’s been since Honda’s original, or at least since the grim anti-nuclear jeremiad The Return of Godzilla (1985). This shift was purportedly inspired in part by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and resulting Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The tonal change is evident straightaway in 2016’s Shin Godzilla, a “hard reboot” that writer/co-director Hideaki Anno drenches in the paralyzing horror of a massive natural or human-made disaster. (Bizarrely yet compellingly, Anno and co-director Shinji Higuchi also turn the film into a bureaucratic satire-procedural about collective problem-solving.) Toho doubled down on this bleak tone in the Godzilla trilogy it subsequently produced with animation studio Polygon Pictures, films subtitled Planet of the Monsters (2017), City on the Edge of Battle (2018), and The Planet Eater (2018). That trio of features blends Godzilla tropes with the conventions of futurist anime to create a post-apocalyptic sci-fi saga, one in which the titular leviathan and his kaiju nemeses are reimagined in a darker, more desolate context.

The handful of American Godzilla films have always been confined to a sort of parallel, semi-embarrassing sideshow, their relationship to the Toho films primarily one of licensing. (The ‘Zilla of TriStar’s notorious 1998 Hollywood film even became a target of outright mockery in the Toho features of the early 2000s.) It’s accordingly surprising that director Gareth Edwards’ remake/reboot Godzilla (2014) has ended up feeling so consistent with the Reiwa-period Japanese features that immediately followed it. Although there is no narrative connection between those films and Edwards’, the 2014 feature captures the same feeling of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, an uncommon tone for the franchise that nonetheless seems like a natural fit. Edwards’ Godzilla has its glaring flaws – a dishwater-dull “hero,” overly dark visuals, and the elimination of its best performers before the second act – but it also has awe-inspiring and frankly terrifying monster action, superbly conveying the sense that humanity is simply beneath the notice of the planet's battling behemoths. Much like Shin Godzilla, the 2014 American feature is the uncommon disaster flick in which toppling skyscrapers, normally a source of cheap Hollywood spectacle, evoke a fitting sensation of horror and powerlessness.

The most immediately aggravating thing about the 2014’s film’s direct sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is its tepid interest in revisiting that novel mood of apocalyptic terror. The screenplay from Dougherty and Zach Shields – with an additional story credit to Max Borenstein – is most preoccupied with creating a globe-hopping action epic in the spirit of cheesy 1990s sci-fi blockbusters like Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), and Armageddon (1998). KotM isn’t as remotely insipid as those films, but it shares some of their more conspicuous traits: a glossy, faintly laughable futurism; a disconcerting hard-on for the U.S. military; and a script that favors earnest, hokey speeches peppered with tongue-in-cheek one-liners. Even the film’s human antagonists – a cabal of radical, violent ecoterrorists led by an ex-MI6 British mastermind (Charles Dance) – feel like refugees from some lost Arnold Schwarzenegger flick that was plucked from a Blockbuster Video shelf 25 years ago.

Dougherty has written superhero films of varying quality (X2: X-Men United, Superman Returns), but his real claim to fame among genre enthusiasts is as a director of cult horror comedies (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus). It’s difficult to determine whether the distinctly 1990s style of his inaugural Godzilla film constitutes a semi-ironic homage to an earlier, tackier Hollywood era or just standard flattery by mimicry. Regardless, it ensures that KotM has a self-consciously schlocky quality that is at odds with the primeval, god-level horror that the film strains to evoke.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is more of an ensemble effort than its 2014 predecessor, although the heart of the narrative is plainly the Russell family: paleobiologist mom Emma (Vera Farmiga); animal behaviorist dad Mark (Kyle Chandler); and 12-year-old daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Both adult Russells have connections with the secretive cryptozoology agency Monarch, and unfortunately, the whole family was in San Francisco at the time of Godzilla’s climactic 2014 smackdown with the parasitic MUTO super-organisms. Indeed, KotM opens with a flashback: As the victorious Godzilla lurches back into the sea, the Russells desperately search through mountains of rubble for their young son, Andrew. The loss of their oldest child drives a wedge between Emma and Mark, and five years later, they’ve split up to pursue their scientific careers on different sides of the globe. He’s filming wolf behavior in the Colorado wilderness, while she’s working at a clandestine Monarch facility in China, where Madison – in the fine tradition of many a precocious kaiju-film kid – evidently has the run of the place.

This facility houses a gestating Titan, one of several gargantuan, god-like prehistoric creatures that Monarch has discovered over the past few decades. The first of these was Godzilla, awakened by the U.S. nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in the 1940s and ’50s. The colossal ape depicted in the 1970s-set Kong: Skull Island (2017) is another. Most of the remaining Titans appear to be slumbering, although the giant, glowing egg that houses the Chinese Titan – dubbed Mothra by the Monarch technicians – has just begun to hatch. Fortunately, Emma has recently perfected a portable bioacoustics gadget, codenamed “Orca,” which allows her to capture, remix, and broadcast the peculiar sonic language that the Titans seem to share (despite their morphological diversity). Using the Orca, she manages to calm the enormous silkworm larva that emerges from the egg. However, their human-to-monster tête-à-tête is interrupted by the literally explosive arrival of the nefarious Col. Jonah (Dance) and his militaristic tree-huggers, who are rumored to traffic in black-market Titan DNA.

Mothra manages to escape during the chaos and cocoon herself under a waterfall, but Jonah eliminates the Monarch staff, steals the Orca, and abducts both Emma and Madison – the former being one of two people in the world who understands the intricacies of the device. The other would be Mark, who years ago helped Emma design a prototype, which is why the Monarch leadership shortly appears on his doorstep in Colorado. Paleozoologists Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, both reprising their roles from the 2014 feature) and the agency’s unctuous director of technology, Dr. Coleman (Thomas Middleditch), all plead for Mark’s assistance in tracking down the pilfered Orca. However, Mark – who has nothing but contempt for the Titans and Monarch’s benign stance toward them – is primarily concerned for the safety of his daughter and ex-wife.

Relenting to Monarch's request, he is whisked away to an undersea research facility, one devoted to sonically tracking Godzilla’s oceanic movements in the wake of his emergence. There Mark meets more agency higher-ups, including acerbic sonographer Dr. Stanton (Bradley Whitford, essentially retreading his 2012 role from The Cabin in the Woods), Titan historian Dr. Chen (Zhang Ziyi), and Col. Foster (Aisha Hinds), a former Army Ranger officer who now leads an American special-forces unit attached to Monarch. It doesn’t take long for this group to puzzle out Jonah’s next destination: Antarctica, where a Monarch outpost stands watch over “Monster Zero,” a three-headed winged reptilian Titan encased in the polar ice. It seems that Jonah and his allies have Thanos-sized apocalyptic ambitions that have nothing to do with filching biological samples. They intend to wake the hibernating Titans one by one, re-balancing the planet’s ecosystem and healing the ravages of humankind’s millennia-long dominance. The likely demise of billions of people in this cleansing process is hand-waved away as a necessary sacrifice.

Do the dastardly eco-terrorists manage to awaken all those slumbering monsters? Does Godzilla emerge as the last best hope for humanity? Does Watanabe get to solemnly clean his glasses and speechify vaguely about the power of hope? Does one even have to ask? It’s all somewhat dismally familiar stuff, the polish lent by the 2010s visual effects notwithstanding. Admittedly, there’s a certain cheeky quality to the film’s breathless, scientifically challenged world-building that almost makes it amusing. (There’s eventually a foray into the drowned ruins of a lost, ancient civilization that is only disappointing because no one has the chutzpah to name-drop “Atlantis.”) In this, KotM has some tonal similarity to the 1950s-’70s (Shōwa period) Godzilla films, which tended to treat their science-fiction and fantasy elements with a bewildering glibness. This doesn’t exactly salvage Dougherty’s film from its own hyper-committed silliness, but it’s at least a more charitable explanation for the feature’s eye-rolling story beats than the usual studio-blockbuster stupidity.

The cast can’t do much to elevate such a trite screenplay, although they don’t really exert the effort it would take to do so. Dramatic stalwarts like Farmiga, Chandler, and Watanabe are essentially just working in their customary, sweatpants-comfortable modes. (And who can blame them? This is a $200 million Godzilla film, after all.) No one else leaves much of an impression, including Brown, who the screenwriters give zilch to work with beyond, “You’re an angsty, witless, reckless pre-teen; also, you love your mom and dad.” Every little positive morsel the film proffers is seemingly upstaged by a more pervasive negative. As an example, Hinds’ colonel is that vanishingly rare character, a black woman military commander in a Hollywood blockbuster, and almost all the named military characters are people of color. (Spoiler: They even survive to the end!) This welcome gesture of representation is soured by the film’s propagandistic, wall-to-wall obsession with weapons technology and military operations. (Most embarrassingly, the film is practically a 131-minute commercial for the V-22 Osprey aircraft, that poster child for budget-busting Defense Department boondoggles.)

None of this may matter to viewers who walk into KotM seeking the spectacle of epic monster-on-monster battles – as opposed to airtight world-building and nuanced character drama, which, if one is being honest, have never exactly been series staples. As a director, Dougherty doesn’t quite have Edwards’ affinity for bigness, a trait the latter director honed with his kaiju-on-a-shoestring 2010 debut feature, Monsters. As a filmmaker whos has previously been besotted with the beauty of autumnal and wintery nightmares, Dougherty is prone to prioritizing gorgeous, screencap-worthy shots over the overwhelming sense of scale that made Godzilla 2014 so exhilarating. This isn’t to say that delectable visuals aren’t a welcome trait in a film like KotM, which possesses two key elements that work in its favor: plenty of monsters and plenty of locations. Long before the gigantic, mutant pterosaur Rodan emerges from a Mexican volcano, annihilating a city merely by flying over it, it’s obvious that the film has poured its passion into art direction and visual effects, with creature design an obvious standout. Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan are the marquee stars here, along with long-time Godzilla rival King Ghidorah, although KotM also offers up a cavalcade of original supporting Titans, many of whom suggest Toho kaiju like Anguirus (Godzilla Raids Again, 1955) and Kumonga (Son of Godzilla, 1967).

The film’s monsters are rendered with phenomenal attention to detail, evincing a mindful effort to visually distinguish them from one another, perhaps in recognition of the way that Godzilla’s early Shōwa-period foes often blended together into one grayish-green reptilian blur. Ghidorah’s design here is more explicitly mythological than in previous iterations, evoking a Chinese dragon rather a than a real-world animal. (There’s also a handmade “offness” to his golden scaly hide and facial features that suggests the stop-motion monsters of Ray Harryhausen.) Mothra has a luminous, almost angelic appearance in this film that sets her apart from the rest of the Titans, who tend toward more bestial or repulsive forms. The film even manages to find a roundabout way to work in the Shobijin, the twin fairies that traditionally serve as Mothra’s heralds and priestesses in the Toho films.

This is emblematic of one of the things that King of the Monsters does best: shameless, downright giddy Godzilla fan service. The film’s story lifts elements from several Toho features, most prominently the Godzilla-vs.-Ghidorah showdown Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). However, the real appeal for kaiju devotees mostly lies in the little details, such as the plot nods to the original Godzilla – an “Oxygen Destroyer” superweapon makes an appearance – and Bear McCreary’s score, which reworks motifs from Akira Ifukube’s thunderous 1954 compositions. More generally, KotM is a film that understands the sheer, visceral thrill of a giant monster fight. The Titans clash in a variety of vivid arenas, from an Antarctic glacier howling with wind and snow to a burning, tornado-wracked Washington, D.C. Although Godzilla 2014 captured the size of its creatures better, KotM’s monster action is superior overall: a succession of vicious, animalistic death matches full of slashing, smashing, and writhing, all lit by crackling energy. Unlike the anonymous, eldritch leviathans in Pacific Rim (2013), the giants of KotM have personality, befitting a roster of movie monsters that have endured for decades.

Here and there, Dougherty exhibits an affinity for apocalyptic destruction that can be creative in is jaw-dropping splendor. There’s a moment when the smoldering Rodan obliterates an entire squadron of fighter jets simply by doing a barrel roll, a turn of events that prompts “Did that just happen?” shell shock from characters and audience alike. All this chaos is rendered with an almost painterly loveliness that can be jarring, given the popcorn-flick content on display. Simply put, King of the Monsters is an absurdly gorgeous film, at least at the Titan scale. Many of the film’s wide shots of battling monsters look like nothing so much as Rembrandt landscapes, full of deep shadow, glowing color, and menacing walls of cloud. There’s also more than a little Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel on display, with their swarming, chiaroscuro visions of Judgment and Hell. For a Godzilla aficionado, these sort of gnarly thrills and aesthetic delights are more than worth the price of some dopey dialogue and an insipid story. For everyone else ... well, there’s always the forthcoming showdown between the King of Monsters and the King of Skull Island. Or perhaps a nuanced character drama would be best instead.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Booksmart'.
May 23, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Fashionably Late

2019 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Olivia Wilde / Opens in select cities on May 24, 2019

Booksmart opens on the last day of high school for the Class of 2019 in an unspecified Los Angeles suburb – and BFFs Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) couldn’t be more ecstatic. It’s not that the past four years have been miserable for this inseparable duo. Far from it: Both girls are the sort of always-on over-achievers who put a premium on “winning” high school through academic excellence, student government, and progressive activism. Molly is the more relentless of the pair, a Type A go-getter in the mold of Tracy Flick and Leslie Knope. She’s class president, valedictorian, a champion debater, and eager to begin her matriculation “up in New Haven,” as she coyly puts it. (“You can just say ‘Yale,’” mutters their principal, played by Jason Sudeikis in clueless-dad mode.) Amy is quieter and less self-assured, but just as focused as her bestie on grades, trophies, and do-gooderism. She’s slated to spend her summer in Botswana, helping women in remote rural areas manufacture their own tampons, before heading to Columbia in the fall.

Joined at the hip since childhood, the girls are a little melancholy about going their separate ways. However, they’re also confident that all their hard work over the past four years – the straight As, perfect SAT scores, and glowing recommendation letters – has been worth it. Similarly, they have no regrets about the deprivation they’ve endured to snag slots in the Ivy League: no dating, no partying, and no fun unless it beefed up their college applications. As the last day of school winds to a close, however, Molly is shocked and appalled to discover that seemingly all their classmates have received choice acceptance letters and job offers. Affable jock Tanner (Nico Hiraga)? He’s heading Stanford on a soccer scholarship. Stoner goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who was thrice held back a grade? He’s moving directly into a six-figure software-engineer position with Google. School slut Triple A (Molly Gordon), so nicknamed for allegedly providing, um, “roadside assistance” to several guys? Horror of horrors: She’s been accepted to Yale, too.

These revelations shake the otherwise unflappable Molly to her core, and so she pitches a proposal to Amy. On this, the night before their commencement ceremony, they will cram in four years of neglected adolescent living, making up for lost time with a marathon of sex, drugs, and unsupervised misbehavior. Amy is reluctant, but Molly declares a “Malala,” a metaphorical ace card that is passed back and forth between the pair, and which effectively means, “You have to go along with what I’m suggesting, no questions asked.” For Molly, this one night of reckless hedonism is a matter of huffy principle, an over-reaction to the disheartening realization that she may have wasted the past four years of her life. Amy requires something a bit more tangible. Fortunately, Molly decrees that their destination will be the epic house party being thrown her useless vice president, dimwitted hunk Nick (Mason Gooding) – and it just so happens that Amy’s tattooed skater-girl crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) will reportedly be in attendance. Although she came out as a lesbian in her sophomore year, Amy has never so much as kissed another girl, and the prospect of some alone time with Ryan (and her cute overbite) makes her go weak in the knees.

Molly and Amy’s pact is an admittedly clever impetus for a raunchy, episodic teen comedy in the One Crazy Night sub-genre. The formula has been executed oodles of times before, of course, and it’s flexible enough to accommodate different tones: overt nostalgia trips like American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993), for example, or faintly fantastical nocturnal odysseys like Adventures in Babysitting (1987) and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). The most obvious point of reference for Booksmart, however, is undoubtedly Greg Mottola’s Superbad (2007), and not merely because one of that film’s breakout stars, Jonah Hill, happens to be Feldstein’s real-life brother. Both features place a devoted adolescent friendship front and center, and both grapple with the nascent separation anxiety that is bubbling beneath the surface of that relationship. Where Hill and Michael Cera’s marshmallowy losers were focused with horndog intensity on hooking up with their respective crushes, however, Booksmart is more humane and nuanced – even when it’s tripping balls or covered in vomit.

The journey that Molly and Amy are on is tangled up with a crisis of identity, a need to somehow prove to themselves that their willful embrace of a hyper-woke nerd-girl stereotype doesn’t also mean that they have to be fun-shunning killjoys. Both of them consider themselves outspoken feminists, after all – Amy’s Volvo boasts a “Warren 2020” bumper sticker, while a framed portrait of Justice Ginsburg hangs in Molly’s bedroom. And what’s more feminist than a teenage girl doing whatever she damn well pleases? As is their wont, the pair turn mildly rebellious adolescent fun into a manic science project, one where the blue ribbon of a Night to Remember can be clinched through sheer teen-girl magic. Indeed, Molly and Amy’s fervent positivity certainly seems indomitable. They’re the sort of friends who support each other by swapping foul-mouthed affirmations at the top of their lungs: “You’re fucking beautiful!!” “No, you’re fucking beautiful!!” Unsurprisingly, however, not every obstacle they encounter on their journey proves vulnerable to such intensity. Just as unsurprisingly, the unspoken resentments that are weighing on the girls’ friendship will be forced to the surface before the night is finished.

Hilarious, vulgar, and sweet in equal measure, Booksmart is the auspicious directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, from a screenplay penned by a quartet of writers: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman. That female pedigree is essential to Booksmart’s giddy success, most pointedly in its affectionate, enthusiastic portrayal of Molly and Amy’s gooey platonic-life-partner bond. Feldstein and Dever are just as vital in this respect, their comic energy – the former utterly irrepressible, the latter charmingly awkward – creating a complementary feedback loop that is somehow grounded and zany all at once. It’s appealing as hell, enabling a dose of the distinctly feminine school-daze pathos that characterized Lady Bird (2007) (which also featured Feldstein) without that film’s troublesome parent-child angst or Catholic guilt.

That said, Booksmart’s charm and novelty go beyond the sparkly specificity of its central female friendship. Like last year’s woefully under-appreciated prom-night romp Blockers, Wilde’s film flips the conventions of the crude teen comedy. Molly and Amy aren’t put-upon nerds out for revenge against their popular-kid oppressors. If anything, they’re alpha-female strivers, their eyes so fixated on their bright, shining futures that they can barely be bothered to acknowledge the mere mortals milling around them. Molly’s realization that her hard-partying classmates are also destined for lustrous adulthoods might be the story’s instigating jolt, but the film also repeatedly reminds its heroines in a variety of ways that their peers are people too, with feelings, talents, and hidden depths. It never does this pedantically, and only rarely with anything like soulful earnestness. It’s a delightful little miracle in its way: a The Breakfast Club (1985) message smuggled inside an outlandish Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) package.

Unlike both Superbad and Blockers, Wilde’s film eschews rambling Apatow-ian improvisation for tight, rat-a-tat dialogue and intoxicating momentum. (Think Diablo Cody without that screenwriter’s convoluted wordplay and ersatz slang.) Although its vision of high-school life is plainly an absurd exaggeration, the film only rarely veers into off-the-wall silliness – e.g., a stop-motion sequence in which the girls hallucinate that they are trapped in Barbie-doll bodies. Wilde keeps the proceedings humming along splendidly as Molly and Amy pinball their way through not one but three parties, while the comic payoffs and callbacks pile up with gratifying speed. The film isn’t completely seamless, betraying a bit of sloppiness here and there. For example, one of the girls pointedly proposes opening their high-school time capsule – a la last year’s Eighth Grade – but this potential plot point is never shown or mentioned again. When Molly and Amy head to the public library in the hopes of digging up the party’s address through old-school research, it triggers a swaggering musical cue – which is cut short when they abruptly pinpoint their destination via social-media stalking. It feels less like a droll joke than a clumsy, running-time-conscious edit.

Refreshingly for a story set in high school, Booksmart doesn’t have any real villains to speak of: no violent bully; no vicious queen bee; no country-club asshole driving his birthday BMW. It’s an optimistic, raucous Gen Z fable that has no time for sexism, racism, homophobia, or fat-shaming. (There is a bit of slut-shaming, but the film makes a point to smack it down in due course.) The only dragons to be slain are Molly and Amy’s own supercilious misconceptions about their classmates. More than anything, this is what makes Booksmart a quietly radical sort of high-school comedy: It’s a film packed with broad archetypes that feel like lovable characters instead of mean-spirited cartoons.

It certainly helps that the supporting cast is replete with delightful little comedic turns. The adult characters are all enjoyable, especially Jessica Williams as the prototypical Hot, Cool Teacher and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s conservative Christian parents who (paradoxically) are way too enthusiastic about her finding a girlfriend. The real standouts, however, are the high-schoolers. There’s Skyler Gisondo as gregarious rich-boy doofus Jared, who seems to be half Ali G and half Chris Hemsworth’s airhead receptionist from Ghostbusters (2016). There’s Noah Galvin as drama-club commandant George, whose piquant flamboyance is unexpectedly studded with low-key gags. (His summer staging of the Bard’s classics? “Shakespeare in the Park-ing Lot.”) The film’s undisputed scene-stealer, however, is Billie Lourd as unclassifiable space cadet Gigi, a fount of questionable druggie wisdom and Gucci excess who seems to pop up wherever Molly and Amy find themselves, like the killer in a slasher film. Thanks in part to this oddball student body, high school has never looked so ridiculous, frenetic, or unforgettable.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt