Netflix might just be the best pasture yet for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The Oscar-winning filmmakers were reportedly creating a Western series for the online streaming giant but that has turned into an anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens’ love of the beautiful, the bizarre, the bucolic and the brazen are on full display with their six-part anthology movie that serves as reminder of what wonderfully unique cinematic voices they are. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, as most anthology films tend to by design, but it reaches that vintage Coen sweet spot of absurdity and profundity.
The best segment is also the one that kicks things off, the titular adventures of Buster Scruggs, a singing Gene Autry-style cowboy who manages to get into all sorts of scrapes. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. He’s a typical Coen creation, a wicked wordsmith finding himself into heaps of trouble, but through his quick wits and sudden bursts of violence, he’s able to rouse an entire saloon full of witnesses to his murder into a swinging, carousing group following him in song. I laughed long and hard throughout much of this segment. I was hooked and wanted to see where it would go next and how depraved it might get. Tim Blake Nelson (O Bother Where Art Thou) is wonderful as Buster Scruggs and perfectly finds the exact wavelength needed for the Coen’s brand of funny and peculiar. He’s like a combo Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on his merry bravado. The segment ends in a fitting fashion, another song that manages to be hilarious and strangely poignant at the same time. The Coens allow the scene to linger into a full-on duet of metaphysical proportions. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.
The other best segments take very different tonal destinations. “All Gold Canyon” is a slower and more leisurely segment, following Tom Waits as a prospector who systematically works the land in search of a hidden trove of gold he nicknames “Mr. Pocket.” The step-by-step process has a lyrical nature to it, and it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood where we follow Daniel Plainview’s initial success at unearthing the beginning of his fortune. Waits is fantastic and truly deserving of Oscar consideration as the prospector. He’s hardscrabble and resilient, and there’s a late moment where he’s narrating a near escape from death where he’s tearfully thankful, possibly losing himself in the moment, and so grateful that it made me tear up myself. The segment ebbs and flows on the strength of the visual storytelling and Waits. It’s a lovely short with a few hidden punches, which is also another fine way to describe the other best segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a woman making her way to Oregon with a wagon train. She’s heading west for a new life, one she was not prepared for and only doing so at the urging of her pushy brother who dies shortly into the journey. Now she’s on her own and struggling to find her own place in the larger world. There’s a very sweet and hopeful romance between her and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the wagon train leaders who is thinking of settling down. It’s also a segment that slows down, accounting for the longest running time of the six. It goes to great care to establish the rhythms of life on the road, where many people walked the thousands of miles across the plains. The budding courtship is at a realistic simmer, something with more promise than heat. It’s such an involving story that its downturn of an ending almost feels criminal, albeit even if the tragic setups were well placed. Both of these segments take a break from the signature irony of the Coens and sincerely round out their characters and personal journeys and the dangers that await them.
The remaining three segments aren’t bad by any stretch (I’d rate each from fine to mostly good) but they don’t get close to the entertainment and artistic majesty of the others. The second segment, “Near Algodones,” has some fun moments as James Franco is an inept bank robber who seems to go from bad situation to new bad situation, getting out through miraculous means until his luck runs out. The interaction with a kooky Stephen Root is a highlight but the segment feels more like a series of ideas than any sort of story. Even for an anthology movie, the segment feels too episodic for its own good. The third segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about a traveling sideshow in small dusty towns in the middle of winter. Liam Neeson plays the owner and the main act is a thespian (Henry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter films) with no arms and no legs. The thespian character says nothing else but his prepared oratory. It makes him a bit harder to try and understand internally. I was also confused by their relationship. Are they father/son? Business partners? It’s also the most repetitious short, by nature, with the monologues and stops bleeding into one another, giving the impression of the thankless and hard life of a performer trying to eek out a living. It’s a bit too oblique. The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” is like an Agatha Christie chamber play. We listen to five characters engage in a philosophical and contentious debate inside a speeding stagecoach that will not slow down. It’s an actors showcase with very specifically written characters, the Coens sharp ear for local color coming through. The conversation takes on a symbolism of passing over to judgment in the afterlife, or maybe it doesn’t and I’m trying to read more into things. You may start to tune out the incessant chatter as I did. It’s a perfunctory finish for the movie.
Being a Coen brothers’ film, the technical merits are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) is sumptuous and often stunning. The use of light and color is a gorgeous tapestry, and some of the visual arrangements could be copied into ready-made scenic postcards, in particular “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon.” The isolation, hostility, warmth, majesty of the setting is expertly communicated to the viewer. The production design and costuming are consummate as well. The musical score by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell is classic in its use of melancholy strings and motifs. It’s a glorious looking movie made with master craft care.
Before its release, the Coens had talked about how hard it was to make their kind of movies within the traditional studio system, even with their 30 years of hits and classics. Netflix is desperately hungry for prestige content, so it looks like a suitable match. I’d happily welcome more Coen brothers’ movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a goofy Western that’s equally heart wrenching as it is heart-warming, neither shying away from the cruelty and indifference of the harsh setting nor neglecting to take in its splendor. Just give them whatever money they need Netflix to keep these sort of movies a comin’.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.
This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.
Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.
BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.
It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.
Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.
There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.
There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.
All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.
Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.
Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.
BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.
Sorry to Bother You: A-
The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.
Nate’s Grade: B
You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.
From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.
The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.
The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.
The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.
While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.
Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.
When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.
Nate’s Grade: A-
As an avid devotee of The Room, and a connoisseur of crappy cinema, I have been looking forward to this movie for literal years. I’ve been fascinated by Tommy Wiseau’s movie ever since I first saw it in 2009, and I’ve since watched it over 40 times. In my review for the movie, I said if I had to pick only five DVDs to take with me on a desert island, I might just select five copies of The Room. It’s that rare form of bad movie that is a thousand brushstrokes of bad, where you can discover something new with every viewing, and you desperately want to have your friends discover this miracle of filmmaking. It’s become a modern-day cult classic and theaters have been playing rowdy spoon-tossing midnight screenings of Wiseau’s film since its initial 2003 release (humble brag: I’m responsible for it playing on a monthly basis in Columbus, Ohio since 2009, the only regular public screening in all of Ohio). From its successful re-branding as a “quirky new black comedy,” fans had burning questions that needed answering, and that’s where Room actor Greg Sestero co-wrote a behind-the-scenes book, The Disaster Artist. One fan was multi-hyphenate James Franco, who purchased the adaptation rights, attached himself as director and star, transforming into Wiseau and tapping his younger brother to play Sestero. Who would have guessed all those years ago that these beleaguered actors would soon have Hollywood celebrities portraying their astonishment? The Disaster Artist might be one of the best films of the year by chronicling one of the worst films ever made.
Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor in San Francisco when he meets the Teutonic acting force that is Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Tommy doesn’t behave like anyone else, for good or ill, and it inspires Greg to become friends with him. Tommy says he’s the same age as Greg, though is clearly double, and that he’s from New Orleans, though he definitely sounds more vaguely Eastern European. Tommy also has a lot of money and elects to move to L.A. to make it in the film industry, and he wants his best friend Greg to join him. Greg finds some beginning levels of success but Tommy is rejected at every turn, determined as too weird and off-putting by casting directors. He doesn’t want to play a villain; he sees himself as the hero. Tommy won’t wait for Hollywood and decides to make his own movie. He’ll write it, direct it, and be the star, and Greg can be his onscreen best friend. The Room, Wiseau’s magnum opus, was a stunning document of filmmaking ineptitude that had to be seen to be believed, and many of the people involved were certain it would never be seen at all.
I was worried that the film version would simply be many painstaking recreations of scenes from The Room and watching characters snicker. Thankfully, the recreations are kept to a minimum and The Disaster Artist personalizes the story in the friendship between Tommy and Greg. If anyone has read the book, you’ll know there is a wealth of juicy anecdotes about the bizarre onset antics and about the human enigma himself, Wiseau. The film could have been three hours long and just thoroughly focused on all of the crazier aspects of the behind-the-scenes and I would have been satisfied. However, the ace screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Fault in Our Stars), have elided all of those crazy details into a story about a personal relationship. The most memorable tidbits are still there, like the 60 plus takes needed for Tommy to say one line, but the sharper focus allows the film to resonate as something where you can genuinely feel invested in these people as characters rather than easily mocked send-ups. Greg feels greatly put upon by Tommy but he admires his fearlessness, and deeper down he feels indebted to Tommy for getting him onto the road to his dream. Thanks to Tommy, Greg was able to move to L.A., find a place, become an actor with representation, and book commercial spots. Tommy is also an anchor weighing him down. Greg will routinely have to place his rising career opportunities at the mercy of Tommy’s capricious sense of loyalty. It’s a movie that explores the value of friendship and the lengths people will go.
This is also an extremely funny movie. Part of the allure of The Room is how it feels like a movie made by space aliens who didn’t quite understand human interactions. The head-scratching choices and dropped subplots and redundant, nonsensical plotting are all given examination, allowing the audience to be in on the joke even if they have never seen Wiseau’s actual movie. This is a film completely accessible to people who have never seen The Room; however, if you have seen The Room, this movie is going to be 100 times more fascinating and enjoyable. The sheer bafflement of what transpired is enough to keep you chuckling from start to finish. The Disaster Artist is wonderful fun, and the actors involved are here because they love Wiseau’s movie. The celebrity cameos are another aspect that helps to add to the film’s sense of frivolity, spotting familiar faces in roles such as Casting Agent #2 (Casey Wilson), Actor Friend (Jerrod Carmichael) and Hollywood Producer (Judd Apatow). Watching everyone have a good time can be rather infectious, but The Disaster Artist succeeds beyond the good vibes of its cast.
Rather than lap up the easy, mean-spirited yuks, The Disaster Artist goes further, following a similar point of view with 1994’s terrific Ed Wood by portraying these men as deeply incompetent filmmakers but also as sincere dreamers. Wiseau is clearly overwhelmed by the demands of being, let’s be generous, a traditional filmmaker, but he is also a person who set off to achieve a dream of his own. He was denied other avenues so he took it upon himself, and a mysterious influx of money he doesn’t like to discuss, and this self-made-movie star built a vehicle to shine brightest. Sure, ego is definitely a factor, though one could argue it plays some degree in all creative expression needing an audience. Wiseau didn’t let a little thing like ignorance of storytelling, film production, or how to handle cast and crew as human beings with needs stop him from plowing ahead to prove his doubters wrong. The filmmakers definitely find a certain nobility in this artistic tenacity, as did Tim Burton with Ed Wood. It’s natural to pull for the underdog, even an underdog that is so naïve it might be worrisome. You can laugh freely at Wiseau, and you will, but you may also start to admire his gumption. As the opening barrage of celebrity interviews posits, you could not make something like The Room even if you were the greatest filmmaker on the planet. It is nothing short of an accidental masterpiece. It is a movie that has entertained millions of people and one they feel compelled to share with friends and family, compelled to bring others into this strange, beguiling cult of fandom. While Wiseau may not have made a “good movie,” he has made one for the ages.
James Franco (11.23.63) deserves an Oscar nomination for playing Tommy Wiseau. I’m serious. He is channeling some Val-Kilmer-as-Jim-Morrison lightning when it comes to simply inhabiting the spirit of another person onscreen. It’s crazy that a movie so bad could inspire another movie that might legitimately compete for legitimate awards. James Franco is entrancing with his performance as he fully channels Wiseau, an almost mythic figure that we have never seen the likes of before. The accent is pitch perfect and impossible not to imitate after leaving the theater. Wiseau can be manipulative and cruel but he can also be generous and selfless. He takes great ownership over his friendship with Greg, so he believes all of his actions are to help their unique bond, even when he’s pushing that same person away. He so desperately wants acceptance but seems incapable of achieving it on anybody’s terms but his own. Wiseau is a fascinating film figure, and the movie does a fine job of neither overly romanticizing him nor vilifying him. Even despite his missteps, you may find yourself feeling sympathy for Wiseau, and that’s a major credit to the screenwriters and James Franco’s magnetic performance.
The other actors, a.k.a. everyone in Franco’s sphere of friends, are committed, enjoyable, and plugged into why exactly audiences have grown to love The Room for years. Dave Franco (Now You See Me 2) is effectively the perspective of the audience, deliberating how much of Tommy to put up with and when to walk away. Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) gets the most sustained comedic run as a script supervisor who is bewildered by Wsieau’s methods. Alison Brie (Netflix’s GLOW) is our chief source of confused expressions as Greg’s girlfriend. Ari Graynor (I’m Dying Up Here) wrings great laughs from her awkwardness with Wiseau as filmmaker and onscreen anatomically-challenged lover. Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) is Greg’s disapproving mother who worries about what kind of relationship her son has with a much older man. Zac Efron (Baywatch) is hilariously excitable as the inexplicable drug dealer, Chris R. Speaking of excitable, Jason Manzoukas (The House) and Hannibal Buress (Spider-Man: Homecoming) are a great team as the film equipment rental guys who can’t believe their luck with Wiseau. Even two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) gets some nice moments as an older actress who justifies in a heartfelt message why exactly everybody on set would go out of their way to work on such an awful movie.
If you’re a fan of The Room, then you’ll absolutely adore The Disaster Artist, and if you’ve never seen The Room, you’ll still find plenty of entertainment in Franco’s film. Wiseau’s 2003 film has to be experienced to be fully believed. The film-about-his-film provides the added extension of a coterie of characters to share in our bemusement and bafflement, providing a chorus of commentary. However, the movie isn’t all jokes at Wiseau’s expense. It evolves into a love letter for the power of art to bring distaff people together with a shared dream. Like Ed Wood, Wiseau might be incompetent by traditional measures of filmmaking but he ignored the naysayers and followed his artistic vision. Under Franco’s direction, he’s a modern-day Don Quixote, or just a really weird guy who lucked into a miraculous alchemy that gave birth to a cult classic. At the end of the movie, Tommy thinks he’s a failure. Greg reminds him to listen to the audience reaction. They are hooting, hollering, applauding, and having the time of their lives. He’s responsible for that and he should be proud of his accomplishment. I unabashedly love The Room. I introduce the theatrical screenings in Columbus. I loved The Disaster Artist book. This movie is everything I was hoping for, and it just so happens to be one of the funniest, most genuinely pleasurable films of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Coming-of-age movies typically coast on a combination of mood, sense of place, and character, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird excels in all areas and supplies a straight shot of happiness to the senses. Gerwig serves as solo writer and director and tells a semi-autobiographical story of “Lady Bird,” a quirky, determined, feisty, self-involved, and vulnerable teenager (Saoirse Ronan) trying to leave the lower-middle-class confines of her Sacramento life for bigger pastures. Ronan (Brooklyn) is spectacular in the title role and displays a heretofore-unseen sparkling sense for comedy, punctuating Gerwig’s many witty lines with the exact right touch. This can be a very funny movie and it has a deep ensemble of players. Ronan’s character is a magnetic force of nature that commands your attention and finds ways to surprise. The film follows her high school senior year’s ups and downs, potential new friends, bad boyfriends, social orders, family struggles, jobs, and most importantly her dream of getting into an East Coast college and leaving the trap she sees is her hometown. Her parents (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts) are stressed and exasperated with their demanding daughter. Metcalf (TV’s Roseanne) is outstandingly affecting as the beleaguered matriarch. Much of the movie’s ongoing conflict, and later triumphs, revolve around the fraught mother/daughter relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf are never better than when squaring off. This is a movie rich in authentic lived-in details and observations. It can stray into overly quirky territory but Gerwig as director has a remarkable feel for when to hold back. There’s a genuine and poignant family drama at its heart that doesn’t get lost amid the whimsical additions that cater to Lady Bird’s vibrant personality. By the end of a coming-of-age movie, the characters should feel a little wiser, having learned through heartache, bad choices, and changes in perspective. This isn’t a movie about big moments but about the ebb and flow of life and the formation of one’s sense of self. We should enjoy having spent time with these characters on their journeys. With Lady Bird, I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos might just be the most perversely ingenious creative mind working in movies today. After Dogtooth and The Lobster, I will see anything that has this man’s name attached to it, especially as a writer/director. Lanthimos’ latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is a challenging revenge thriller, a macabre comedy, a morality play, and a generally uncomfortable watch that is just as alienating as it is totally brilliant.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a heart surgeon with a loving family that includes his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), teen daughter Kim (Tomorrowland’s Raffrey Cassidy), and young song Bob (Sunny Suljic). Then there’s Martin (Barry Keoghan), the lonely son of a patient who died on Steven’s operating table. He won’t leave Steven alone and doesn’t understand boundaries, even trying to hook up Steven with his lonely mother (Alicia Silverstone, yep you read that right). Martin even takes an interest in Kim. However, once Steven’s son falls victim of a mysterious illness and becomes paralyzed, Martin makes his true intentions clear. He’s poisoned all three of the Murphy family members and they are destined to die slowly unless Steven kills one of them. He has to choose which family member’s life to take with his own hands, or else they all die.
It’s hard for me to think of whom exactly to recommend this movie to because it is so intentionally off-putting. It’s intended to make you awkwardly squirm and question what you are watching. This will not be a fun watch by most accounts unless you’re a very select person who has a dark sense of humor and an appreciation for something different. Lanthimos seems to be purposely testing his audience’s endurance from the start. We open on several seconds of black to test our patience and then an extended close-up of real open-heart surgery. My pal Ben Bailey had to shield his face from the screen. From there, the movie defies your expectations at most turns and digs further into its depths of darkness. This is one of those movies where you wonder whether it will go “there” and it most assuredly goes there and beyond. One minute you’ll be cringing, the next you’ll be cackling, and the next you’ll be deeply unsettled, and then maybe back to laughing if you’re like me. Much like Lanthimos’ other movies, his deadpan sense of comedy is his prescription for an absurd world. It’s a movie where you have to actively work to adjust to its bizarre wavelength, but if you can, there are rewards aplenty. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Unlike The Lobster, this doesn’t exist in a completely parallel universe but more of a cracked, heightened version of our own. Lanthimos’ breakout film, 2009’s Dogtooth, dropped the audience into a strange world and expected us to catch up. This is similar. The flatly comic conversations become a sort of absurdist poetry. Everyday moments can be given one extra strange beat and become hilarious. Scene to scene, I didn’t know what would happen. The movie allows its story to properly breathe while finding room for its characters to discover intriguing diversions and insights, like Martin’s recollection of how he and his father eat spaghetti the same way. There’s an unusual sexual kink that involves giving oneself completely to another that makes more than one appearance, enough to question the connection between them. The very geneses of that kink I think alligns with a character’s god complex, but that’s my working interpretation. It made me rethink about the aberrant concepts of sexuality in Dogtooth, a.k.a. the nightmare result of helicopter parenting. The handling of pubescent sexuality, and the idea of incorrectly applying information learned from other settings, is just one more tool to make the audience uneasy. Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a closer approximation of our world in order for there to be a better sense of stakes. Somebody is going to die, and if Steven cannot choose then everyone will die. This isn’t a fantasy world but a real family being terrorized by a demented and vengeful stalker. This gangly teenager is more terrifying and determined than just about any standard slasher villain.
This is a modern-day Greek tragedy literally inspired by an ancient one. Prior to the Trojan War, Agamemnon was hunting and killed one of the sacred deer belonging to Artemis. The angry goddess stranded Agamemnon’s ships and demanded a sacrifice in order for the winds to return. He had to choose one of his family members to kill, and Iphigenia got the short end of that one. Euripides’ classic work gets a fresh retooling and Lanthimos is not one to merely stand on ceremony. He smartly develops his premise and takes it in organic directions that feel believable even given the ludicrous circumstances. That is Lanthimos’ gift as a storyteller, being able to make the ludicrous feel genuine. After the half-hour mark, where Martin comes clean, the movie really takes off. Does Steven tell his family and how much? Does he take matters into his own hands to convince Martin to stop? Is he actually culpable for the death of Martin’s father? Once the reality becomes clear and people starting getting increasingly sick, the movie becomes even direr. Steven is given the unenviable position to choose life and death, though he frequently shucks responsibility and only continues to make matters worse. Once his family comes to terms with the reality of Martin’s threat, they each try different methods to argue their personal favor to dear old dad. They vie to be father’s favorite or, at least, not his most expendable loved one. It’s a richly macabre jockeying that had me laughing and then cackling from the plain absurdity. Lanthimos presents a tragedy and forces the audience to simmer and contemplate it, but he doesn’t put his characters on hold either. They are adapting and have their own agendas, mostly doing whatever they can to campaign for their lives at the expense of their family (Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious character would loath this movie with a sleeveless fury).
The end deserves its own mention but fear not dear reader I won’t spoil it. It’s a sequence that had me literally biting my own hand in anxiety. I was pushing myself backwards in my chair, trying to instinctively escape the moment. It’s the culmination of the movie and feels entirely in keeping with Lanthimos’ twisted vision and the depiction of Steven as a weak man. There’s a strange sense of inevitability to it all that marks the best tragedies. I don’t know if I’ll sit through a more intense, uncomfortable few minutes in 2017, and yes I’ve seen, and appreciate, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! of difficult 2017 sits.
As much as this is a thriller it also feels just as much a satire of overwrought Hollywood thrillers. The killer isn’t some shadowy evil genius. He’s just a very determined teenager in your neighborhood. There are several moments that are difficult to describe but I know Lanthimos is doing them on purpose as a critique of thrillers. At the end, a character shakes a generous heaping of ketchup onto a plate of French fries, and we’re meant to get the lazy metaphor of the sloshing ketchup as spilled blood. However, under Lanthimos’ heavy direction, the shot holds longer, the accompanying soundtrack becomes an operatic crescendo, and the whole thing turns comic. Lanthimos has to know what he’s doing here, commenting on the lazy symbolism of dread in overwrought thrillers. There’s another instance where Martin has severely bitten into Steven’s arm. Martin’s apologetic and promises to make it right and then proceeds to bite a chunk of flesh out of his own arm and spit it onto the floor as an offering. That would have been creepy enough but then Lanthimos goes one step further. “Get it, it’s a metaphor,” Martin explains. It’s one in a series of moments where Lanthimos goes a step further into pointed genre satire. It’s possible I’m reading too much into the rationale behind some of these oddities but I don’t really think so. It seems too knowing, too intentional.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a movie that invites discussion, analysis, and just a general debriefing in the “what the hell did I just watch?” vein. This is a movie experience that calls upon the full range of human emotions, and sometimes in the same moment. Lanthimos’ modern Greek tragedy serves up a self-aware critique of its own genre, as he puts his personal stamp on the serial killer thriller. This is also an alienating film that doesn’t try to be accessible for a wider audience. It almost feels like Andy Kaufman doing an experiment replicating Stanley Kubrick (and it was filmed in Cincinnati). Even if you loved Lathimos’ most high profile work, The Lobster, I don’t know if you’d feel the same way about Killing of a Sacred Deer. It wears its off-putting and moody nature as a badge of honor. I found it equally ridiculous and compelling, reflective and over-the-top, sardonic and serious. Dear reader, I have no idea what you’ll think of this thing. If you’re game for a demanding and unique filmgoing experience and don’t mind being pushed in painfully awkward places, then drop into the stunning world of Lanthimos’ purely twisted imagination. Killing of a Sacred Deer just gets better the more I dissect it, finding new meaning and connections. If you can handle its burdens of discomfort, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of the most memorable films of the year and also one of the best.
Nate’s Grade: A-
One way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to differentiate your movie by making it weird and whimsical. Just being different can grab your attention, and Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze are definitely different. Both of these indie films attracted attention for their unusual concepts and lo-fi designs, banking on a sense of nostalgia for a homemade style of art that’s a little rough around the edges. These might be two of the strangest films that will be released in 2017.
James (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney) is living underground with his parents, April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamil). He does his homework, listens to his parents about never going outside, and anxiously waits every new episode of Brigsby Bear, a children’s fantasy TV show starring a Teddy Ruxbin-looking bear that teaches life lessons. Eventually we discover that April and Ted are not, in fact, James’ parents. They abducted him when he was a baby. The FBI raids their compound and returns James to his biological family, the Popes (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as mom and dad, Ryan Simpkins as younger sis). James just wants to know when the next episode of Brigsby will come out. Unfortunately for James, Brigsby isn’t real. Ted produced the show on a nearby sound stage. He’d even occasionally hire other actors. James is the world’s most knowledgeable fan of a TV show no other person knows one iota about. He’s determined to give it a proper ending and recruits family, friends, and neighbors to make the ultimate Brigsby movie.
I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively Brigsby Bear was at being cheery and sincere. I was expecting, given the premise, an ironic riff on nerd culture or obsessive fandom, and Mooney and company instead decided to play things very seriously. They take a fantastic premise that seems begging for derisive commentary and choose to find a human story within the absurd. That’s much more commendable and harder to achieve. As I’m aging, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of sincerity over irony (part of this is also that our modern age is inundated with irony). I was reminded of last year’s Swiss Army Man, an alarmingly strange movie with Harry Potter’s farting corpse and went for sincerity without any whiff of detached irony. Brigsby Bear isn’t at the same level of artistic accomplishment and lasting power as Swiss Army Man, but it’s an unconventional and touching movie that earns its quirky-yet-feel-good emotions.
It’s easy to see where this story could have exclusively dwelt in psychological darkness. James was abducted as a child and raised in a strange environment that makes him emotionally stunted and grossly ill prepared for the real world outside his reclusive safe space. The movie could have understandably dealt with James’ crippling sense of loneliness, betrayal, and inability to assimilate since his sense of self were cultivated by a fake children’s TV show. He could have easily been the creepy oddball who makes people uncomfortable. Instead, they made him the goofy oddball who makes people smile. His childlike sense of wonder is in tact and frees him from self-doubt. James is remarkably cheery for having his world turned upside down, and the movie follows his lead. This movie could have been another perplexing Dogtooth and instead it’s more accurately reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney “we’re putting on a show” pictures. I was waiting for a moment of artificial conflict, a darker plot turn late into the film where perhaps it’s revealed that Ted was a molester. There’s 700 episodes of Brigsby Bear so I figured a few of them would reveal disturbing clues about something even worse. The film never does take that darker turn and instead stays upbeat to the very end.
As he adjusts to his new home, the movie serves as both a delayed coming-of-age movie and a love letter to the power of creativity and how it can build community. With James transported into the outside world, much is made over his awkwardness with human interactions and his complete lack of guile. He gets his first kiss with a girl, and shortly after his first handjob, and wonders if that means they have to get married. It’s a sweetly naïve reflection. We watch the growing pains of James as he starts to make friends and become more confident in himself, which is a surefire way to win over an audience. James isn’t held up for ridicule. People want to be part of his project. He’s overcoming adversity and triumphing through the transformative power of art. There’s a joy in watching characters find themselves anew, and James serves as the catalyst. This person knows how to do special effects. This person used to act when they were in college. In his heartfelt attempt to provide closure to the Brigsby series, and possibly a chapter in his life, James’ project takes on a life of its own that brings people together. It shows how the community of art can be an empowering venture that can freely inspire the best in others.
The movie doesn’t become overly reliant upon nostalgia either. I figured it would be an ode to 80s television and culture but it really just uses that as backdrop. The world building of the show of Brigsby is bizarre and entertaining every time it’s included, especially when you comprehend the propaganda messages that Ted is sneaking in like, “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The sense of wonder and whimsy doesn’t overwhelm the movie and its poignancy. Director Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes the most of the retro pastiches while still serving the story. James could just have easily been obsessed with any show or ongoing work of art. The content of the show is unimportant. It’s about facilitating his growth into a person comfortable and confident with whom they are. By the end of the film, I was fighting back tears as the full assembly of characters watches the finished product of their labor. You watch them smile, laugh, take a sense of pride in their communal efforts, and they can see the world as James does. It’s a whole-heartedly pleasurable movie with surprising currents of emotional uplift.
With Dave Made a Maze, the titular Dave (a beardless Nick Thune) is lost in a maze that he built in the apartment he shares with his beleaguered girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). This maze consists of a cluster of cardboard boxes taped together. In time, a group of their friends and even strangers have assembled to admire the maze. Dave warns them not to enter but they do so anyway, and once inside they realize that the maze is considerably bigger and byzantine, and everyone expectedly gets lost. Annie and a documentary crew travel (lead by James Urbaniak) deep into the maze to rescue Dave. They all must confront booby traps, a Minotaur, thirty-something existential ennui, and the unsettling realization that the maze is expanding all on its own.
The real star of Dave Made a Maze is the fantastical environment inside the maze. The resourcefulness, imagination, and implementation of such a bizarre vision on such a limited budget is incredible. Each new room offers a new opportunity for the surreal. The characters stumble from room to room in mixtures of awe and bemusement, and the audience will feel the exact same way. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sunner, and Art Director Jeff White, come from a world of animation, and they’re meticulous attention to detail pays off to an astonishing degree. In a just world, they would be nominated for an Oscar. There’s a DIY inventiveness that carries an irresistible charm with it, re-purposing everyday items to create a unique and whimsical world. Even when people are being gored to death and dismembered it adheres to the whimsical tone. The blood is replaced by red yarn, confetti, and silly string. The movie smartly underplays the lack of consistent logic within the world of the maze, and so weird things can just happen at a moment’s notice, like the main characters turning into puppet versions of themselves made out of paper lunch bags. There’s even a half-finished maze within the maze, which draws derision from the tired and frustrated people just seeking a way out. Some of the weirdness feels too half-formed and self-conscious, but the movie has an Eternal Sunshine quality where each new location provides another enjoyable opportunity for potential discovery.
Where Dave Made a Maze runs into problems is when you realize there isn’t anything beyond that sense of invention. There isn’t a larger thematic core to this movie and the characters remain, at best, background players elevated to starting status. Most of these characters are jokes but they don’t even supply much in the way of jokes. The closet to a substantive theme is simply an arrested development fable where the man-child is struggling to finish a laboring artistic accomplishment, he feels humbled and humiliated, and his strained relationship with his accommodating girlfriend will always come together in the clincher. Dave lashes out that he didn’t feel like an adult at 30, so maybe he retreated to the halcyon days of childhood, or maybe it was a nostalgic retreat. Whatever the case may be, the movie suffers from an inevitable lull once the giddy novelty of its DIY fantasy starts to wear off. There’s one sequence where Dave and Annie have a circular conversation that just keeps going, and I’m sure if the filmmakers weren’t so desperate for material that it would have been trimmed down significantly.
Even at 76 minutes before credits, this is a movie that feels stretched beyond the limit because it’s lacking greater consideration to story. There are jokes that feel like they should be funnier too, like a latecomer to the maze who sets off the traps that Dave warns about earlier. This should be a fun structural payoff, allowing us to see both sides of the rooms. It doesn’t really work out that way, and the bumbling latecomer becomes another relatively unmemorable and undeveloped body on screen taking up space. The documentary crew conveys some mild satire as the crew leader keeps prodding others into saying what he needs for his movie, but even this inclusion feels more like a transparent device to get the characters to talk through plot points. Another misfire is the curious lack of stakes. The movie has a light-hearted charm but then doesn’t ever quite make up its mind on the danger being confronted. Real friends die for real. By the end of the movie, they do not come back even after the maze is kaput. They are really dead. Yet the film plays the stakes at a low simmer and the survivors just sort of shrug and move on. The film gives me little reason to be attached to any of these people, alive or dead.
Whimsy is a fleeting feeling that’s hard to conceive and harder to hold onto. Both movies take whimsical premises that cater to the peculiar but only one delivers something of lasting substance. Brigsby Bear is a charming, heartfelt, and exceedingly sincere movie about an oddball finding his place in the world through the power of the creative process. He is transformed through his love of art and how that serves as the foundation for community. Whereas Dave Made a Maze is a lo-fi curio that I can admire more than enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements that make its journey worth the effort, beside its imaginative and scrappy production design. Both movies are charged by the power of the imagination to transport the ordinary into the extraordinary. Brigsby remembers to use its flights of imagination and whimsy to tell an engaging and ultimately touching story. Dave Made a Maze has cool sets and some infectious silliness. If you see one story of a man-child escaping into a world of nostalgic imagination and inviting friends to tag along, make it Brigsby, a film that uses whimsy to still tell compelling human stories.
Brigsby Bear: A-
Dave Made a Maze: C+
When people decry the relentless slate of sequels, remakes, and redundancy from the Hollywood assembly line, they’re looking for something original and different, and there may be no movie more different this year than Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. David (Colin Farrell) is the newest guest at the Hotel, a place for singles to find their true love. He has 40 days to fall in love with a compatible mate or else he will be transformed into an animal of his choice (hence the title, David’s choice). The people at the hotel are all in competition to find their mate. Outside the confines of the hotel, in the woods, are dreaded single people, those who ignored the rules of society. They are to be feared and hotel guests are rewarded for capturing wild singles on weekly hunting trips. One way or another, David is going to have to decide his place in society as a person or animal.
The Lobster is daringly different, wildly imaginative, and drops you into the middle of its cracked, alternative landscape and expects you to pick things up as you go. It’s something that the writer/director already achieved with chilling, car-crash fascination in Dogtooth, a dark parable about extreme parental protection that crossed over into abuse. This is a world that opens with a distraught woman driving a long distance just so she can shoot a donkey in the head. Who is this woman? Why would she purposely murder this animal? Why is she so emotionally invested? And with that jarring act of peculiar violence, we’re off. We’re never told how this world came to be, it just simply is. There isn’t any extensive exposition save for one initial sit down David has with hotel management to determine what animal he’d like to turn into at the end of his stay if unsuccessful in love. There’s a genuine sense of authenticity to this deeply weird place and the characters all play it with straight-laced absurdity, which makes the satire land even harder. It sells even the most bizarre aspects, like the ongoing visual incongruity of wild animals just trotting around the background. You can sit back and think, “I wonder what that peacock’s story was, or that donkey, etc.” Its abnormal background pieces that add to the context of the world. I loved discovering new little wrinkles and rules to Lanthimos’ world that made perfect sense within its parameters. In a world where coupling is the only goal, of course masturbation would be a punishable crime. I enjoyed that there are other means guests have to stay at the hotel, chief among them hunting down the loners in the woods, which allow the more awkward or anti-social guests added time at the expense of others. Even in a world this bizarre, there are people who are making their own way, including the revolutionaries in the woods (more on them later). The movie is exceedingly funny and so matter-of-fact about its peculiarities to make it even funnier.
The movie straddles the line between skewed ironic romance and cynicism, so I’m not surprised it’s rubbed people the wrong way. This can be a pretty dark movie and that’s even before the violence against animals/former people. It’s certainly written from the point of view of someone who is single and those currently in that category will likely relate the most to the film’s strident social commentary. “It’s no coincidence the targets are shaped like single people,” a man says in reference to target outlines. The pressures can seem absurd in their own regard, and the film has a clever concoction where the “happy couples” are merely two people who share a superficial physical trait. These two people are near-sighted. These two people get nosebleeds. These two people have a limp. Even the characters are named after their physical depictions, like The Limping Man and Short-Sighted Woman. It’s not exactly subtle but the satiric effect is still effective. The hotel manager says, to a newly cemented couple, “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children, that usually helps.” The humor can be very dry and very dark, never stopping to inform you where to laugh. There’s a sad woman played by Ashley Jensen (TV’s Extras, Ugly Betty) who is desperate for companionship, offering sexual favors to any man who might just alleviate her loneliness. She is ignored and often threatens to kill herself, and then one day she does it by jumping out a hotel window, but she’s not successful. It’s one more dark, awful ironic point of suffering for this woman, and she screams in agony while others ignore her, including a clearly affected David, still trying to play indifferent to win over the hard-hearted woman he sees as his best way out of the hotel. It’s a hard moment to process but one that made me admire the film even more for the cold courage of its convictions.
Supplementing the dark satire is an off-kilter romance that emerges halfway through the film once David escapes the hotel. He finally meets up with the source of our narration, the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). It’s here that the movie shows glimmers of hope for the hopeless as David and this woman are drawn to one another. They’re in a world of outcasts but the rules of those in the forest do not allow coupling. They reject the expectations of the ruling order, and so they must remain resolutely single. the only time David and the Short-Sighted Woman can be open with their affection is when they go undercover into the city, posing as a couple, and getting a chance to kiss with abandon, all as a cover of course. They build up their own secret non-verbal language to communicate their feelings, much like a couple builds its own personal shorthand and inside jokes. The loners are only to listen to music individually and dance the same, but David and the Short-Sighted Woman synch their CD players to listen to the same track, to simulate like they are sharing a dance together even if not in proximity. It’s here where The Lobster becomes a beguiling and surprising love story and one where the heartless may grow a heart, watching two odd people find one another in such an odd world. However, Lanthimos does not let this emergence of romance blunt his message. The loner leader (Lea Seydoux) suspects coupling in her group and goes to some pretty drastic lengths to test the fortitude of feelings between David and his secret girlfriend. It’s like getting cold water dumped on the runaway spell of optimism. The fitting ending is left in ambiguity for the audience to determine whether they were meant to be after all.
It’s also in the second half of The Lobster that the movie loses some of its grandeur and momentum. We’re introduced to a new primary setting with new rules to adapt to and a new order to follow, and there’s a general interest to discovering another competing area of this landscape with a diametrically opposed social order. They punish people by mutilating parts that come into affectionate contact with another person. We see a couple with bandages around their red, swollen mouths, and then the reference of the “red intercourse” makes your imagination fill in the horrific blanks. David has left one regime dictating his life to another regime dictating his life, but they just aren’t as interesting. It feels like the film is starting to repeat itself. I would say the second half world building isn’t as compelling as the first but that’s why the romance emerges, something for the audience to root for. Now that he’s finally found someone he connects with they’re not allowed to be together. There’s never a shortage of irony in a Lanthimos movie.
The actors are perfectly in synch with the strange rhythms of this world, and Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Weisz (The Light Between Oceans) deserve special attention for their committed performances. Farrell gained 40 pounds for the role, which seems to have translated right into his stint on season two of HBO’s True Detective. He’s a schlubby guy that’s still mourning the deterioration of his marriage and larger society is insisting he get over it. He has only 40 days to recover or he’ll be plucked from the ranks of humanity. There’s great sadness tinged in his nonchalant responses to the absurd realities of this world, and Farrell keeps finding ways to make you laugh and wince. Weisz is our placid voice into the strange new world and it helps establish a sense of grounding as well as connection to her character when she eventually emerges. She injects a palpable sense of yearning to her character, especially once David is in reach and they begin their relationship. It’s got the cute romantic comedy staples but on its own terms, and seeing Weisz smile warmly is a pleasure in a morbid movie.
The Lobster is a romance for our age and an indictment of the romance of our age, an era where the swipe of a finger on an app is the arbitrator of contemporary dating. It’s a satire on our fixation of coupledom and being in relationships even when they’re not sensible. It’s a cracked fairy tale that punctuates the romantic love we’ve watched distilled to an essence in Hollywood movies. It’s a surreal and dark movie that manages to become emotionally moving and poignant, leaving on a note of uncertainty enough for different factions in the audience to interpret as either hopeful or hopeless. The Lobster is a unique movie with a singular artistic voice that dominates every shape of the narrative, the characters, and the boundaries of this fantastic alternative world. I imagine my depth of feeling for the movie will only grow the more I watch it. This isn’t an overwhelmingly dark or unpleasant movie without the presence of some light. It’s not an overly off-putting movie without an accessibility for a curious audience, whether those people are single or in happy relationships. The movie is inventive, transporting, but still relatable, rooting the nexus of its weirdness on the same awkwardness and anxiety everyone feels with the prospects of prolonged romantic courtship. If 2016 was a year that celebrated the oddities of cinema getting their due, then The Lobster is a captivating and unusual creation deserving of its spotlight and surefire future cult status amidst lovers of the weird.
Nate’s Grade: A
Swiss Army Man shouldn’t work as a movie, and in fact it will only work for a narrow swath of the world’s audience. There were plenty of walkouts during its Sundance premiere. The triumphant riding of a powerfully flatulent corpse in the film’s opening ten minutes should seal the movie’s fate. How does a movie survive such a juvenile, taste-obliterating moment, and one that is meant as an introduction to the film? Amazingly, stupendously, Swiss Army Man delicately walks that narrow tonal path and succeeds wildly, rapturously, and produces the rarest commodity in Hollywood, something daringly different and excitingly new. I fully anticipate that sizeable portions of readers are going to have an immediate and repellent response from just reading the plot synopsis, and I can’t blame them. I will do my best to try and explain why the movie worked so well even if I know this will be a fool’s errand for many, but if I can convince one more human soul to give Swiss Army Man a chance, then I’ve done the Lord’s work.
Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a desert island and about to hang himself when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Unfazed, Hank is still determined to end his life, that is, until he can no longer ignore the farting of the body. That’s when he gets an idea and uses the power of the farting corpse to ride back to the mainland. Hank drags the corpse with him finding unique benefits, like his retention of drinkable rainwater. He’s still stranded and it’s at this point that Manny, the name he gives the corpse, begins speaking and inquiring about the world and what it means to be human.
Swiss Army Man is a disarming buddy comedy that weirdly yet miraculously deepens as it goes, becoming a genuine relationship drama that touches on the profound and philosophical. For the first act, the movie is an unconventional survival drama with Hank finding peculiar yet helpful uses with his savior, the dead corpse. It’s a guy lugging around a dead body at the end of the day. I was wondering if this was really a story that was more suited as a short and didn’t have the substance to merit a feature-length runtime, and that’s when the magic realism steps up and when Manny comes into focus. This is easily one of the most oddball buddy comedies ever. Manny is an innocent, a proverbial babe in the woods, and doesn’t know much about himself and the world, and Hank becomes his teacher. Through this process he’s forced to examine his own life from an altogether different perspective and actually starts to vocalize and come to grips with his own life’s shortcomings, insecurities, and frustrations. It’s through Manny that Hank is able to open up and examine what it means to be human. Their interaction becomes a truly rewarding and emotionally honest buddy film where one of them just happens to be a talking corpse that farts a lot. Manny wants to learn about the world and to feel what it means to be alive, and it’s this new path that emerges that gives the film a new life.
You would expect something this strange to be drenched in irony or pushing the audience to laugh at the characters, but you would be completely wrong. Swiss Army Man is one of the most earnest movies you will ever see. It is completely genuine, heartfelt, sincere in every crazy detail, and it’s what gives the movie its emotional resonance. It treats the relationship between Hank and Manny with credibility. It’s a movie about celebrating and claiming ones weirdness, told from a movie that is proudly offbeat. Hank feels left out by normal social interactions. He’s the typically withdrawn and awkward Dano character we’ve come to expect from his catalogue of films; however, rarely has he seemed this artfully articulated. He’s a man who has some deep-seeded neuroses and fears, including farting aloud in public, and he’s using his ongoing experiences with Manny to exorcise some of these past failings, to become the determined, self-actualized man he wants to be. There’s a touching part where Hank talks about the poor relationship with his father; the two have signed up for one another to get birthday e-cards via email. That’s the extent of their connection at this point, and yet Hank remarks that even if he were to die his father would still get a birthday card from him in perpetuity. It’s a small little thing but it hits and makes one think about the impact and legacy we’ll have after we’re gone for good. Are we more than just an occasional birthday card? The fact that the movie utilizes a climax that incorporates farting in public as an emotional catharsis is amazing, but what’s even more amazing is that this moment is completely earned and gratifying.
Another aspect of Swiss Army Man that kept me specifically amused is the clever use of ambiguity. As the fantastical plays out with even-keeled realism, it’s easy and expected to believe that much of what we are witnessing is all in the mind of Hank. He’s projecting his needs and hopes onto this analogue for a friend that also represents himself. That’s why Hank uses Manny to relive personal experiences and to try and get them right. Then the third act comes along and causes you to question even more, putting the behavior of Hank into a muddier realm that makes you wonder if he’s this innocent wounded heart we had come to know previously. Then there’s Hank’s fixation over the pretty girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he gravitated to on his bus rides. He looks to her as a goal, something he can return to once finally rescued and returned home. As he plays out his brief experiences with her, dressed as her, with Manny in the position of Hank, a faux courtship ensues. Hank, as her, and Manny, as stand-in for Hank, and it’s weird and wonderful and not afraid to accept the homoerotic qualities of its implications. This is a love story ultimately but a unique kind of love, and it’s up to the audience to determine what that means exactly. Is it romantic, bro-mantic, or simply a dude coming to terms with his own life in a very unusual therapeutic manner? The writer/directors The Daniels (Dan Kwan, Dan Scheinert) don’t outright tell you how to think or feel throughout any of this movie, which is a blessing. They present a complicated world with complicated and broken people doing their best to try and make their own sense, and they invite the audience along on this beguiling journey and just ask that they be patient and open-minded and then come to their own conclusions.
The music is a wonderful element that is also another facet of the characters, layering in even more whimsy and character depth. The music is often accompanied by Radcliffe and Dano, their mutterings and ramblings becoming syncopated and layered into a soothing collage of sound. They’re providing their own soundtrack to the movie of their life. Early on Hank describes the music from Jurassic Park as the proper accompaniment for life’s big moments, with a little nestling of nostalgia as well. It’s especially enjoyable to listen to either of the guys break out into their rendition of the majestic Jurassic Park theme. It’s silly and sweet but it also gets at the psychological element of Hank being outside himself, seeing his life as a movie and he as its lead. He also hums what he remembers of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” which reappears throughout with comically incorrect and changing lyrics. The music is another reflection of the characters and it imbues the scenes with an extra sense of whimsy that helps to maintain its magic realism tone.
Radcliffe (Harry Potter and the… everything) and Dano (Love and Mercy) are terrific together and Radcliffe gives a tour de force physical performance. The way he’s able to contort his body, malign his posture, make use of stilted facial expressions is amazing. This goes leagues beyond the simple slapstick of Weekend at Bernie’s. The way he’s able to convey a character and a performance through this crazy decaying prism. Manny wants to help people, is eager to learn, and it makes his character so endearing, and then you remember he’s a corpse who might just be a figment of Hank’s diseased imagination. Radcliffe completely lets go of vanity and delivers one of the best performances of the year. Dano is in more familiar territory but shines again, serving as a dry comic foil for Radcliffe. The two of them form a highly entertaining and winning buddy team.
Swiss Army Man is a unique film experience and one that shouldn’t work. It’s filled with juvenile body humor. Its key supporting role is a dead body. It’s about a guy who may or may not be a stalker living in a fantasy world in his own head. This should not be, and yet like Manny himself, miraculously it has been birthed into existence and we are better for it. Every time it feels like the movie is heading for a more conventional direction that will weigh it down, be it a love triangle or some slapdash “he was dead the whole time” twist ending, it calmly steers away. This is a wonderfully humane, touching, earnest, and emotionally affecting movie, one that, yes, also involves farting. The body humor stuff is a reflection over confronting what we feel uncomfortable with and why that is, what social conventions tell us is in poor taste, tell us to box ourselves in and play by the rules. Here is a movie that gleefully plays by its own rules. It’s not going to be for everyone but if it’s for you, like me, there might not be much else that can rival its cinematic highs. Even if you think you will hate this movie, see it. See it just to have seen one of the strangest and most beguiling movies of the modern era. See it and judge for yourself. I’m still awed at how life affirming and profound a movie with a farting corpse can be. Swiss Army Man is a labor of love, an explosion of feeling, and a declaration to stay weird.
Nate’s Grade: A