December 27, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

In which there be medium-level spoilers.

When Lando Calrissian (played by Billy Dee Williams) triumphantly appears piloting the Millenium Falcon, during a deus ex machina moment in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, you can almost feel J.J. Abrams, who directed this ninth installment in the series, saying with tears in his eyes, “Look what else I’ve got for you!” Abrams assumes the role of a desperate father trying to captivate an impish, bored child. Rise of Skywalker is a weird mixture, in fact, of placation and reverence, in which sacred relics from the Star Wars universe are unsubtly trotted out to gin up the adulation of the fans, or to appease them. (They got so mad at Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, after all.) You can feel the lazy cultishness of the movie: Here’s the original X-wing jet that Luke flew in The Empire Strikes Back, here are some Ewoks, gazing wondrously toward the sky contemplating the end of the Dark Side, here’s Darth Vador’s mask, melted and crumpled like a rotted, fruit fly-infested jack-o-lantern a week after Halloween. 

I could get behind the Star Wars mania if its creators truly began treating it like a religion. (And yes, there apparently are practicing Jedis, but let’s ignore them for now.) Talk about a bold new direction for the Star Wars franchise! 

If only the Pope had allowed LucasFilm to premiere The Rise of Skywalker at the Vatican. And then, LucasFilm could buy up churches and convert them into Jedi sanctuaries, where every day is Star Wars. Come one, come all, and genuflect to the stations of the Star Wars cross. “May the Force be with you. And also with you. We lift up our hearts. We lift them up to the Force.” After you’ve demonstrated your zeal, you can purchase bits of Princess Leia’s chainmail bikini from Return of the Jedi at the gift shop, or debate the canonicity of The Mandalorian in the Skywalker Reading Room. No cash for the offering plates? You’re in luck! There are ATMS in all corners of the lobby.  

But sadly, this “final” entry in the franchise is far too careful for its own good. It yearns for approval. Stripped of its embarrassing need to please, The Rise of Skywalker might have had a chance. But there are still moments that work: Daisy Ridley, as the series’ rising Jedi apprentice, exudes a commanding presence, and when she delivers the line, “I have all the Jedi with me!”, there’s enough conviction to save it from being laughable. There’s a little bit of Rian Johnson’s visual poetry, such as the scene of Leia’s hand dropping as she breathes her last; moments later, as she is covered with a white sheet, the scene assumes a kind of Lazarus-in-the-tomb gothicness. 

Many of the sets possess an entrancing grandeur: the sleek blackness of the newest Death Star (a tired old trope nonetheless), the earth-toned grunginess of Kijimi, Poe’s old stomping grounds, the tempestuous ocean sequences where Finn (John Boyega) meets Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a warrior on horseback, at the edge of a cliff. But it’s Ridley who holds this film together, even as much of it falls apart around her from sheer sloppiness. (The return of the Emperor Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, feels desperately tired.) 
Few of its dramatic moments (and there are many of them, too many it seems) land with any real weight. Adam Driver, returning as Kylo Ren, somehow seems muted, although he also displays a tenderness in this film that deepens his character, as well as the tension between he and Rey. Even the death of Leia feels somehow undernourished, perhaps because we had already experienced the death of Carrie Fisher in real life, before The Last Jedi

Sometimes, a Star Wars movie remembers that a character is better off, during an emotionally charged moment, saying nothing. But just as often a Star Wars movie forgets this, and we get such risible moments of overacting as Luke’s “That’s impossible!” (after D.V.’s big reveal in Empire) or even his “But I was going to go to the Toschi station to pick up some power converters!” in A New Hope. Rise of Skywalker hits about 50% of its marks in this category. Much of the worst dialogue feels insidiously didactic: Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) seems to tell every other character in the Rebellion how much he needs their help, as if the movie is trying to teach us how to behave. Be nice, be inclusive, don’t be arrogant. But, to channel Yoda, good life lessons do not good entertainment make. It’s cheap moralizing to match the film’s cheap sentiment, as the resistance fighters seem always poised to embrace in friendship. Cheap sentiment is grating and wasteful because it sabotages any possibility of an earned moment of feeling. 

One wonders how the death of Carrie Fisher impacted this film. I was curious to see firsthand how the filmmakers repurposed her scenes from The Force Awakens. The Fisher archive footage works surprisingly well considering the sad reality, but the scene in which the Rebellion reacts to news of Princess Leia’s passing, feels hastily executed and falls flat. “She’s gone,” a resistance fighter informs Poe and Finn and Rey when they return to home base. Somehow, the vagueness of the word “gone” doesn’t feel right. I kept wanting one of them to mutter  aloud, “Where did Leia go?” Is saying, “Leia has died” too dark for the viewers of Star Wars?

There are worse Star Wars movies than The Rise of Skywalker and there are better ones. Maybe the pressure alone–to produce a showstopper–dooms this movie from the get-go. But, all things considered, this movie is fine. It works about half the time. Even though much of it runs on autopilot, the film’s lazy pandering is maybe a relief: Would it kill me if The Rise of Skywalker were a masterpiece? No. But, is some part of me a little bit happy that the movie is only mediocre? Probably.

How will the world think about the three newest Star Wars films in ten years? In fifty years? They are not terrible films by any means. And they are lucky in at least one respect, because they followed the prequels, which seem to be universally reviled except by people who saw them as children, before the mythology of the original films could permeate them. The mass audience yearns for the past even as newer, less publicized movies continue to surprise us with their relevance for the present. In this era of nostalgia saturation, at what point will we feel the itch has been scratched, if ever? I wonder. 

July 18, 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

In June of 2019, the median monthly rent in San Francisco reached an all-time high: three thousand seven hundred dollars. Simultaneously, reports of an increasing homelessness problem in the city abound. San Francisco has evolved, unwaveringly, into a land of economic extremes–a desired home for the haves and a dubious haven for the have-nots. (3,700 dollars a month would land you a leafy pile on the St. Johns River in my hometown of Jacksonville.) Perhaps this startling economic disparity makes The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which opened in June, even more urgent. The film was conceived by Joe Talbot, making his directorial debut, and actor Jimmie Fails, playing a version of himself: a young black man with an obsession for a house. Not just any house: his childhood home in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, a house which, Jimmie informs us, his grandfather built with his own two hands. 

Even though Jimmie’s family was forced to leave when he was very young, he visits every other week, “fixing” the property and the exterior, to the confused dismay of the current tenants, a middle-aged white couple. It’s an act of preserving not just the house, but himself. The current residents don’t know, or don’t care about, the house’s history. Only Jimmie’s best friend, a playwright named Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) understands his connection. When the house becomes vacant, Jimmie and Mont claim squatters’ rights, gathering all the old furniture from storage, and recreating the past.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco opens with a close-up of a girl, looking down. As the camera retreats, we see the object of her attention: debris that’s been culled from the Bay, by a man wearing full protective gear. Nearby, a man in his 30s stands on a crate on the side of the road, ranting about the poisoned water, like a preacher sermonizing to an empty church. Jimmie and Mont watch him from the bus stop (a mound of grass by the side of the road). “Does he do this every day?” they wonder. The bus seems to be in no hurry, so the two men take flight on Jimmie’s skateboard, and as they weave through the streets of the city, the film’s poetic imagery (framed by Emile Moseri’s totally gorgeous music score), you feel dazzled and haunted and drawn into the vibrant world of this film with such totality that you can’t help but be overwhelmed. 

The city of San Francisco has long been a fertile ground for the movies; in fact, it’s almost as prolific a city as Hollywood itself. Hitchcock, of course, marshaled its haunted mythology to great effect in Vertigo, and Philip Kaufman transformed its bold, unapologetic eccentricity into a source of terror in the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But The Last Black Man in San Francisco may be the first film to fully capture the poetry of San Francisco. Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra deserves much of the credit here for grounding us, wherever we are: he wows us with the city’s architectural funkiness, sure, but he never loses sight of the human connection, whether it’s Jimmie and Mont crammed in Mont’s converted bedroom, or Jimmie emerging from a secret room in his grandfather’s house to scare an unsuspecting couple taking a tour of his lost family house, not on the real estate market, or a naked homeless man sitting next to Mont at a bus stop. (Their conversation is amusing because Mont has absolutely no reaction: this is apparently not the first time he’s seen something so unusual.) 

We’re not likely to emerge from the theater thinking of San Francisco as “a character in its own right,” the way people talk stupidly about really New Yorker-y movies. San Francisco as depicted in The Last Black Man is much more than that. For Jimmie, it’s a canvass, a battleground, and a home. It’s all of these things, mind you. As dehumanized as the city has made Jimmie, he can’t seem to let go of it, even though he probably ought to. “Fuck San Francisco!” one of his relatives jeers, and Jimmie wrestles with whether or not to embrace this mantra. Later, on a bus, Jimmie overhears two rusty young woman, obvious transplants, complaining about living in San Francisco. “We should just go to L.A.,” one of them sniffs. Jimmie responds: “You have to love it to hate it… Do you love it?” You don’t have to be from San Francisco to understand Jimmie’s point. You just have to be from somewhere

March 23, 2019

Jordan Peele's "Us" is marred somewhat by a bizarre twist, but it’s still a first-rate scare picture.

(Readers who’ve seen the movie will recognize that I am dancing around spoilers in this review.)

In Us, the new shocker from writer-director Jordan Peele, the spaces of the film linger in our memories. If Peele has any tangible connection to the director John Carpenter (of the 1978 Halloween, Escape From New York, etc.), it’s his effective use of familiar locations, which he transforms into hellscapes. Images of the leafy suburban houses of West Hollywood, as featured in the original Halloween, have rattled around in my psyche ever since I first saw that movie, and I can wander the streets of my own neighborhood and spot similar houses which conjure inside me a cozy sense of foreboding. The dwellings in Us are two mid-century lake houses that look like they might have been a vacation spot for the Brady Bunch what with their open stairwells and wood-paneled walls. And the other primary location is an oceanside amusement park in Santa Cruz (which, as the film is steeped in 1980s references, is surely a nod to the 1987 vampire film The Lost Boys). When the film opens, we’re met with a series of television commercials playing on an old boxed TV set (the year is 1986), which culminate in a feel-good, saccharine advertisement for “Hands Across America” (which took place on May 25, 1986). Moments later, we meet Addie, a young girl visiting the amusement park with her parents. Addie is draped in an oversized t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Michael Jackson’s Thriller” on it. The shirt is a prize, won by her father moments ago at one of those shooting games. Addie wanders away from her parents, practically swimming in that Thriller shirt, and enters a dark funhouse called “Vision Quest”. (Its logo is, “Find Yourself”.) There she becomes lost in a maze of mirrors and seemingly infinite reflections of herself, one of which, it turns out, isn’t a reflection at all.

We’ve been so inundated with nostalgic genre pieces about the 80s (including the 2017 adaptation of It and the Netflix series Stranger Things) that a further excavation of 80s pop culture may suggest that Jordan Peele is following trends instead of doing his own thing. After all, it was doing his own thing that earned the director an Academy Award for his debut, 2017’s deliciously creepy and perceptive Get Out. Peele is perhaps the most vital and surprising director working in the horror genre right now. And, thankfully, he uses nostalgia more cannily and organically than the rest: He’s not simply pandering to us, or repackaging old content. He plants his nostalgic bits of detail, planning for them to pay off later, and then moves us to the present day, with a grown-up Addie Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabriel (Winston Duke), en route to the family lake house with teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright) and son Jason (Evan Alex), who wears a monster mask and, like the boy in The Shining, seems like he knows something. (There’s always at least one kid in a horror movie who seems like he knows something.)

We know that Addie fears returning to the lake house because it means returning also to the beach at Santa Cruz, and we know whatever Addie experienced in the funhouse has yet to be fully revealed to us. It left Addie temporarily mute as a child, and as an adult, Addie has kept quiet, never revealing the story to Gabriel, who is just trying to enjoy his vacation. Gabriel is more focused on playing with his new (old) boat and mingling with Josh and Katie (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss), fellow vacationers who have a pair of inane teenage daughters. As the boozing, bored Katie, Elisabeth Moss lends some flair to a small role: Josh pours Katie a third glass of rosé (he’s quick to point out the number in the presence of Addie), and says, “here’s your medicine,” and Katie responds with a jokingly hostile indifference that perfectly sums up their relationship. Indeed, Katie’s general response, in body language and in tone of voice, is the equivalent of the world’s longest eye roll. Addie suffers through this performative marital spat as the lone spectator; when Katie invites her into some wifey small talk, Addie feels unequal to the task.

What unfolds is a Twilight Zone-esque story that, unlike any Twilight Zone-inspired horror film I’ve ever seen, actually feels suited to the format of a movie. That’s because Jordan Peele lives and breathes movies. His passion for filmmaking shows in his love of building a suspenseful sequence, as well as in his refusal to bombard us with jarring jump scares, one of the most worn out tricks in the horror movie playbook. The film gets going quickly enough, and once Addie’s family is confronted by their doppelgangers (not a spoiler if you’ve seen any of the film’s official trailers), ominously staring at them from the foot of their driveway, Gabriel, assuming his role as “The Dad” in an apparent crisis, attempts to scare them off. Gabriel’s vaguely comic threats are unpersuasive, his brandishing of a baseball bat equally unconvincing to these wide-eyed, freakish Parent Trap-apparitions, all of them adorned in orange jumpsuits like escaped inmates, and each wielding a pair of big, sharp scissors (surely one of the scariest weapons in a horror movie.)

The pace of the film never relents after the initial attack, when we realize that these are not the only doubles who’ve been unleashed, seemingly by Addie (for reasons unclear to us). But the film is somewhat marred by a complicated plot twist, and its refusal to give away too much too soon means that our horror is tinged with confusion: we’re aghast by the freakish goings on, but constantly aware of our confusion. Peele doesn’t deny us an explanation, and the movie avoids the problem of Hereditary director Ari Aster, who went in too many different directions, but Us is nevertheless vaguely unsatisfying if you think about it too much. The doubles themselves are loaded with symbolism, but the more you contemplate their actual origin, the less it makes sense. That’s why I recommend not parsing out the details. (Perhaps Peele should have left them out to begin with.) As a movie-going experience, Us is unhinged and pleasurably terrifying (and funny) in the way a horror movie should be. If the big themes underneath are mushy and unsatisfying, at least Peele gets a good deal right in terms of tone and construction.

Ultimately, the performances of the actors playing the Wilson family make the movie work, because they make it human. Peele needs this, especially when his dizzying plot twist fails him. Even at Addie’s most monstrous moments, Lupita Nyong’o keeps her from becoming an actual monster; she remains maternal and strong and single-minded as she’s forced to commit horrifying acts of violence in order to protect her family. In a scene at one of the lake houses, Jason witnesses his mother bashing in a double’s skull (the gore is, mercifully, left to our imagination), but Addie somehow returns to normal, wanting her son to see her as his mother and not the Terminator.

Shahadi Wright, as Zora, and Evan Alex, as Jason, have together redeemed every child who has ever been a source of annoyance in a scary movie. (I’m thinking, in particular, of the irritating kids in Jurassic Park.) Zora and Jason fight back, take chances, use their brains, in ways that few adults do in most horror movies. They’re also remarkably game, and adept at developing fully realized characters, sometimes with just a facial expression or a gesture. Wright gets the sarcastic, “what the hell” look of a teenage girl down perfectly, and Alex, whose character is rather complex (he has a special bond with his mother, as though he’s more likely than Zora to connect with all things metaphysical), is required to be quiet and pensive, yet he makes us care about him, laugh with him, and root for him, as he outwits his own double in multiple scenes. And, as Gabriel, Winston Duke, the film’s comedy MVP, serves as a vector for Jordan Peele’s love of dumb humor. He cracks dad jokes and skulls in equal measure.

January 01, 2019

"Blindspotting" channels its exuberant anger like no other film this year.

“Kill a hipster...Save your hood.” These words, stenciled on a T-shirt Miles (Rafael Casal) wears in the exuberant comedy-drama Blindspotting, capture this film’s deliriously funny and dark sensibility. The film takes place in Oakland, California, which is apparently experiencing a hipster invasion. At the beginning of the film, when Miles and his best friend Collin (Daveed Diggs) are at the grand re-opening of their favorite fast food joint, Miles discards a vegan hamburger on the ground in disgust. “Did you specify that you wanted meat?” a well-meaning employee asks. Miles is apoplectic, and Collin has to defuse Miles, whose short temper is always getting Collin in trouble.

The friendship between Collin and Miles is somewhat problematic, especially for Collin, because Miles is white (although he affects a “wigga” accent) and Collin is black. This is because Miles, being white, has the luxury of being allowed to lose his temper without serious consequences. Not so for Collin, who’s been serving a year of probation (after doing hard time for a felony) for just that. The film takes place during the last three days of Miles’s probation: for the past year, he’s been confined to special housing for ex-convicts, and must adhere to a strict eleven o’clock curfew. From the beginning, we feel tense in our awareness that something is going to get Collin back in jail, and more alarmingly, something he has little control over. We see this almost immediately, when Collin finds himself in the backseat of a car as Miles, riding shotgun, peruses a mutual friend’s arsenal of illegal handguns for sale. Miles waves a pistol around like it’s a toy as Collin nervously begs to be let out of the car. But as much as Miles may be in some ways a bad influence for Collin, their friendship is the heart of this movie, and we find ourselves rooting for it to survive its own self-defeating elements.

The infinitely quotable Blindspotting is perhaps my favorite movie of 2018. It marks the feature directing debut of Carlos López Estrada, and was co-written by its two stars, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Diggs and Casal reportedly worked on the script for nearly a decade, and the result is a movie that feels lived in, both in terms of its characters and in terms of its humor. This is a movie that, likes it main characters, seems to be having a party in its head, even as it addresses heavy, urgent issues like racism (Collin witnesses a black man being gunned down by a white police officer, and it begins to haunt him, especially because he feels powerless to report what he saw), gentrification (an issue that’s more complex than one might think: Collin’s mother, on moving: “Why would I leave now that there’s finally good food in this neighborhood?”), and, in the end, the ways that people perceive us based on our race and class.

As a director, Estrada seems equally adept at shaping tensely dramatic moments or loose, giddy comedic riffs, like when Collin and Miles walk down a lonely street late one night, making up raps, partly for their own amusement, but also, as a way of expressing the frustrations they feel powerless to mitigate. These are both men who’ve been shaped by circumstance. We never really understand why Miles has chosen to act like a black man, but it’s his identity, and his friends seem to accept him. But Collin’s ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar) urges him to dump his buddy, who may impersonate a black man, but ultimately enjoys the rights and privileges of a white man. For Miles, such luxuries simply do not exist, at least not on the same level. Never before has a film channeled its anger with such brio, wit, and heartbreak.