Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman is an interesting and frustrating movie. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that one of the principal plot elements is that Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her free time pretending to be outrageously drunk and allows men to take her home. What happens after that doesn’t appear in the trailers, so I’ll leave it out, but the root cause is due to a horrible incident that happened to her best friend some years ago.

The movie is much better than the trailer promised, a bit predictable in spots (plenty of foreshadowing), but not really for the long game. My frustration is that Cassie’s approach to the problem doesn’t seem particularly healthy, the people who have “moved on” seem a bit too dismissive of the underlying problem, and Cassie’s response to those people is rather glib, often snarky, and ultimately unsatisfying. We’re all in a box, nobody gets absolved. In this context, the resolution of the film seems logical enough, but hardly a satisfying outcome.

In the minus column, we hit a stretch just past midway in the movie around the Dean and her daughter that I could have done without. I am not sure if the script was poor of if the plot-line was unwriteable from the outset. Possibly both.

In the mixed column, the pop culture references were quite thick herein. I was aware that I was being bombarded with allusions to things, but I am too old and too square to know what they are. I am certainly not the target audience and I’m not sure quite how the target audience would respond to this. But the first 40 minutes it’s pretty thick. I did like a lot of the sets, including a living room scene where I was the only one in the theater laughing out loud at the décor, suggesting that maybe perhaps there was something for everyone.

In the plus column, Clancy Brown did a nice job as Cassie’s dad and L&D favorite Bo Burnum is outstanding and often hilarious as the tall doctor guy. Almost hilarious enough to recommend this movie straight up. And Mulligan is mostly very good in a rather challenging role.

This was by far the most crowded we’ve seen the theaters, possibly because they quit showing the late films on Tuesday. But, weirdly, it seemed like a lonely crowd. I am looking forward to the end of the pandemic and the reunion of L&D for movie nights.

Vanguard

VANGUARD - Chinese teaser #4 (2020) Jackie Chan Action Movie - YouTube

What can you reasonably expect going into a Jackie Chan vanity project with a Metacritic rating in the 30s? A big bucket of popcorn, a few laughs, a lot of stuff blowing up, and some hand-to-hand fisticuffs?

I guess we got that, but, boy was this one tough to sit through. The story was stupefying. The CGI was objectionable. The car chases were worse. The movie kept trotting out a series of unconvincing villains. The jingoism was omnipresent. And the action wasn’t really that good.

There were some high points. There was one guy who made a funny face when he got knocked out and zapped with a cattle prod (we thought it would be a running gag, but it wasn’t). The man pictured above had a really hilariously large gun. There was a not bad kitchen scene where the good guy kept besting the bad guys with various dimensions of culinary splendor. And the end credits were actually quite a bit more entertaining than the rest of the movie.

I would say the best part of the movie is thinking about where you draw the line on stupidity. The entire project is so bafflingly stupid that any specific complaints probably reveal something about the element of the complainer. My companion, Dr. B., was particularly annoyed at the young woman who cuddled lions in the wild like kitty cats, and at the guy who was dead for 10 minutes (spoiler alert) and then was miraculously revived. I thought a car falling 100 feet and landing intact was a bit of stretch and two cars was a bit stretchier. But, in fairness, they were Volvos!

So if you want a chance to enjoy a movie in the comfort of your own theater (who in their right mind would go see this?) this is the movie for you. But let’s just say that 35 Metacritic rating is at least 10 points too high.

The Last Vermeer

The major questions of The Last Vermeer are (1) Why isn’t there more Guy Pearce? (2) Why isn’t there more Vicky Krieps? (3) Who cares about the Claes Bang character? And, (4) who wrote this, anyway?

I had only a vague idea of the movie’s subject matter as I walked in, so it took a while to figure out what the big reveal is. But after reading a few reviews, perhaps the big reveal is known to most going in? If that’s the case, this is a big, big strike against the movie.

Leading with the positives: Pearce, especially early in the film, has a very intriguing, relaxed manner about him in the role of Han van Meegeren, the sketchy Dutch artist wheeler dealer. He sports some spectacular eyebrows and an impeccable wardrobe to go along with his splendid household and liquor collection. Yet, his character never gets fully fleshed out, so it’s never clear exactly what to make of him. Or perhaps it is? Good, but underutilized.

We are also treated to August Diehl and his quasi-comedic portrayal of a Dutch law enforcement bureaucrat, clad in what appears to be the bad-guy costume from Raiders of the Lost Ark. His hat with the flat brim is spectacular. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I laughed and you will too. Winner.

On a less positive note, Vicky Krieps is pretty much wasted. She plays an assistant to Captain Joe Pillar in his investigation of some untoward art dealings, but we don’t get very much of her on screen, and we don’t learn too much about her. Her character development and acting was so splendid in The Phantom Thread that I was waiting for a wooden shoe to drop in this one, but it never did. Her character isn’t important to the story in any way that I can remember, and that’s a problem.

I guess the bigger problem is that the story revolves around the Captain in the first place. Big mistake.

And so that’s it. The more I think about this movie, the less I like it. Technically it was fine to good — someone spent some money here. There were a few striking images of post-war Dutch cities, but far behind, say, Jojo Rabbit. There is also a bit of an art history lesson making its way through despite the awkward script. I enjoyed watching Guy Pearce mix the paints and discuss the art world, though the characterizations of the Big Art establishment play out as caricatures.

Mostly, though, it’s hard to get around the odd focus on the forgettable main character and the obviously contrived courtroom “drama” that unfolds. Remember the Brady Bunch episode where Mike Brady drops the briefcase behind the whiplash claimant? That strikes me as more plausible than what transpires here.

This seems destined for your Netflix queue purgatory, something that you imagine you would like to see, but you never get around to actually seeing. Then one day it’s gone and you aren’t that sorry you missed it. I did enjoy seeing the big art on the big screen, so if you are hitting the theaters regularly, this isn’t a terrible option. But that says more about what’s available in theaters these days than what this movie has to offer.

The Climb

The Climb » : mon ami, ma chance, mon boulet

The Climb is a fantastic movie. It has the trappings of a buddy movie, but it also seems to be something of an anti-buddy movie. Right from the get go there is tension and conflict and violence, and that continues for the duration through a series of emotional set pieces.

The main characters are Mike (Michael Angelo Covino) and Kyle (Kyle Marvin), and that they both take their own first names as characters probably says a lot. Mike is extremely convincing in his role and is cast pretty much perfectly. The script is constantly telling us things about Kyle that we can’t quite see otherwise, which is really my only real complaint with the film.

The film does cover a lot of ground, mostly with a single scene or series of scenes within a short time period where the action and dialogue fill in what has happened in the interim. Indeed, there are a lot of elements that just go unexplained and it’s just as well (what were they doing in France?!?). The film offers a lot to think about, particularly about friends and family and relationships and loyalty and obligations and, ultimately, the capacity for forgiveness. It’s really great.

I was struck by the many recurring symmetric plot elements and settings sprinkled throughout the film. The characters get to engage with similar circumstances on multiple occasions, and the movie challenges the viewers to think about action and motive and why people do things for their friends and family, or do things that hurt their friends and family. The film has a surprising amount of physicality, often violent, occasionally touching and intimate (though not that hip thing intimate), not quite predictable.

(There is also a considerable amount of heavy drinking (Jägermeister shots, of all things. Smooth), so if that’s a trigger for you, perhaps you should avoid this one.)

Along with that, we are treated to several set-piece interludes, including an African-American cemetery crew, a Ukrainian three piece featuring some wicked accordion, and some middle-aged synchronized skiing! Perhaps visceral is a better word than physical.

Once again Dr. B was riding shotgun on this one, and once again we had the theater to ourselves, so far over the $5 I can’t even tell you. If you are immune to Covid, you should definitely make The Climb.

Let Him Go

Lesley Manville joins Let Him Go, a thriller film

Let Him Go is in the theaters and L&D sent off representatives to investigate. It’s a Diane Lane, Kevin Costner vehicle, spanning the great Rocky Mountains of Montana to whatever you call those crazy rock formations in North Dakota. The film delivers intrigue, tension, and more than its share of nauseating moments, but ultimately it feels like one of those **- movies you come across on FXM at 2 a.m.

The main attraction of the film is that it is dramatic, spine tingling, dread inducing, just generally a tense affair. About 15 minutes in I was asking Dr. B whether we maybe should have picked another movie. That it wasn’t entirely predictable really helped keep me curled up in my seat.

The major downside, and there are many, is that this is a genre film that hasn’t figured out what its genre is: The writing is all over the place. The two most developed characters are Ladd as the Type-A mother, and L&D fave Leslie Manville as the mater familias, and a doozy at that. Ladd was good in her role and Manville very good, but I still never really cared that much one way or another.

The big loser here, I think, is Kevin Costner, whose character isn’t really even one dimensional. A former lawman, grieving father (?), inept husband, excellent driver (!), what exactly is going on here? We learn a bit about his glory days and some vagaries about the heroics of his past life, but not enough to drive the car or to make sense of this mess of a script.

I suppose this is another modern Western, with an abundance of wide angle shots of the mountains and landscape and far off places. The film is putatively set in the 1960s and I’m not sure how much the crew actually had to do to transform rural Montana and South Dakota back to that age? But the film makers did do a very good job of ensconcing western remoteness and vulnerability into our consciousnesses.

What does Let Him Go ultimately mean? Dr. B and I ran through a number of candidates as the movie plodded along, but lost interest almost as soon as we exited the theater.

So if you are stir crazy and temporarily immune to CoVid (and you haven’t seen The Climb), you could do worse.

But you could also do better.

The Nest

The Nest Trailer: Carrie Coon and Jude Law Unravel | IndieWire

Does she know how to smoke a cigarette? How about some wine?

L&D headed off to Marcus Valley, sans L, to see The Nest, a new drama thriller starring Jude Law, Carrie Coon, and a dark horse named Thunder. The movie starts with an extended shot of Law and Coon’s fine dwelling, presumably in the greater New York metropolitan era. Given the movie title, one might be excused for thinking this is the nest, because it is a pretty fabulous house. Law serves the tea, takes the kid to school, and imagines a new world from his home office. Coon likes to sleep late and she trains horses. They have two children, one who calls Law “Rory,” suggesting that perhaps she is not his offspring. The other is unfortunately named “Beanie.”

One day Rory wakes his wife up with the news that he wants to move back to London so he can re-fill the depleted coffers. I think it is about this point that an unsettling rolling thunder sound makes its appearance, and the movie is pretty much a slow burn from here on out. Rory sets up the fam on a regal farmhouse in Surrey and, well, the story unfolds and the characters’ backstories bleed out from there.

The acting in this movie is excellent all around. The scene where Coon orders dinner and demonstrates the proper wine-tasting technique is a big highlight, capped off with a bemused smile from Law that may well have been genuine. I laughed, too. On top of that, the story is not predictable, not in the least. And the house is both spectacular and unsettling. In fact, it was unsettling enough that I didn’t have time to take apart how the house was being filmed — it definitely had a Shiningesque quality about it and reminded me more than a little of the shotmaking in The Favourite. After the first hour I was checking my pulse to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack. And, by the end I admit I was curled up in a little ball waiting for the proverbial boot to drop. Not the most exciting movie you will ever see, but well crafted and a lot to appreciate.

Or, perhaps not. My companion, Dr. B, and I were both a little perplexed on how it played out, not disappointed, but maybe surprised. There were also a few guns on the mantle in the introduction that may or may not have gone off. I have neither read nor seen anything else about this movie, so the answers might be found in the text of previews or reviews.

But I would still say it’s worth your $5 if you are CoVid-proof, worth your two hours if you would prefer to catch it on the tele. That’s what they call it on the other side of the pond, mum.

The Rhythm Section

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The Rhythm Section really caught my eye with some nice Steadicam moves and jaw dropping landscape shots thanks to the handy cinematography work of Sean Bobbitt. This film has great scope as we travel along Stephanie’s trail of violence throughout the world, including a unique car chase in Tangier. I also enjoyed the shot selection and style of director Reed Morano. And though The Rhythm Section hit many clichés it was still a mostly enjoyable ride due to the serious talent of one Blake Lively. For a genre crime film this is a powerful performance. It starts out intense and it ends that way — and don’t you forget it.

The film has many merits. Jude Law convincingly plays a former British spy forced to turn into trainer of lethal force. Aside Warning — Why is it the training scenes in films are always more compelling then the following events?…Full Metal Jacket, Rocky, etc. — Regardless, the drama is carried deftly by Lively and Morano. This film was extremely human for one with several car bombs. That’s a nod to novelist Mark Burnell, who created a compelling character that has to learn difficult lessons about vengeance. The Rhythm Section doesn’t have the sustained visceral energy of some other kick-ass woman films like Besson’s Anna or Lucy but it still carries you along on other stylistic and emotional levels. It certainly easily passed the Tuesday 5 dollar bar at our local cinema.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Brittany Runs a Marathon focuses on a woman who has come to the realization that she isn’t happy with where she has found herself in life. Starting off at a posh ad agency in The City, Brittany had high hopes for herself and her career.  But, alas, we pick up the story and she is a 197-pound party girl with an iffy job and an iffier circle of friends.  During a visit to her local clinic to score some recreational prescription meds, her doctor gives her an earful about her sorry state of health. Brittany decides she needs to do something, and that something is to start running.

We’ve seen versions of this movie before, of course, but this one has both some originality and plenty of audacity. L&D particularly liked Jillian Bell in the title role, and neither of us for a second believed that she was acting the part because she owned the part.  We agreed that her performance was both seamless and brilliant, even if we felt like scolding her throughout the film. I thought the rest of the characters were extremely well cast, even if I thought the story arcs were either incomplete or bungled for every single character aside from the title character. Even so, the film had some truly enjoyable personalities, especially Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who we loved, and Gretchen (Alice J), who we didn’t.

Thematically the movie is a not terribly subtle homage to the original Rocky film, with a loser in the title role who has an opportunity to transform herself into someone she’d rather be.  Brittany does a really good job of emphasizing that the transformation is both physical, virtually anyone can get their body in better shape (especially people who currently spend an inordinate amount of time boozing and smoking and doing drugs), as well as mental.  The emphasis on the difficulty in changing her own mentality about her identity is well done.  Indeed, this is expressed quite profoundly in a number of spots, including a remarkable scene where her super mean roommate tells her to keep her old clothes, because even if Brittany manages to keep the weight off, she’ll always be the “fat girl.”  Ouch.   It isn’t until Brittany realizes that it is about process and not outcomes that the transformation is complete.

Unlike Rocky, which dispenses of the character’s bitterness early on in the film, Brittany spends a good deal of time holding on to her anger and envy and insecurities, and dishes out her share of punishment throughout the film.  Indeed, my major objections to the film are not that the supporting characters’ are not sufficiently developed or that their story arcs are not resolved in a convincing fashion (they aren’t and they aren’t).  My beef is that the movie is extremely short on reconciliation.  Why do these folks continue to embrace her unconditionally?  She isn’t that funny.

Overall, we are enthusiastic about this one for a great leading role, some great supporting characters, and an enjoyable and thought-provoking storyline. In a year where we haven’t loved a lot of films, this one could creep onto our year-end list perhaps. See it before it’s gone, or catch it on Amazon Prime on the rebound.

 

 

Ready or Not and Midsommar

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L&D opted to watch the Bears flame out against the Packers this past Thursday night, hence skipping the week’s somewhat slim cinematic offerings.  But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been out and about.  Indeed, over the past couple weeks we managed to see a couple of movies that we were initially reluctant to see, movies that were seemingly as different as night and day…

On the night side we saw Ready or Not, and if you’ve seen the trailer for this one, you pretty much know the gist of how it plays out. Grace (Samara Weaving) is a beautiful young family-less woman who is slated to marry into an eccentric family, heirs to a board game fortune.  As part of the spousal initiation, she must draw a card from the family heirloom box that selects a game to play with the family, something mundane like checkers or Jenga. But once every generation or so, the game is hide-and-seek, the kind where the incumbents have until dawn to track down the spouse and sacrifice him/her to the cause, with the cause being another generation of familial fortune.  So, by definition this one is mostly an overnight affair, mostly played out in the confines of a spooky old house, with mostly comedic-style violence, and an ending that is mostly never quite in doubt.

You have to give the filmmakers some credit here:  they gave away the broad strokes of the plot from wire-to-wire up front and they were still able to make thing reasonably compelling. That’s a pretty good trick, isn’t it?  I went in with low expectations and this one soared over the $5 bar.

 

Stackars_lilla_Basse!

That brings us to the day side, where L&D finally got brave enough to take in Midsommar (Ari Aster’s extended director’s cut, no less), where the sun shines deep into the northern Swedish night, and the idiosyncrasies of IKEAesque paganism are out in the open for all to see, at least in principle.

The movie doesn’t start off that way, however, instead setting us up stateside in the dark, dark snowy days of winter, where we see snapshots of the fractured relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and her idiot boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor).  The opening salvo of a murder-suicide in Dani’s family is troubling enough that Christian decides not to pull the trigger on the breakup, and instead somehow bungles his way into inviting her to tag along with him and his grad student anthro buddies for the Midsommar festival hosted by the commune of his buddy, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).

So that gets us to Sweden, and after a few Shining-esque overheads, director Aster literally turns the world upside-down on us as the kids make their way into the sun-drenched village of Harga; the movie is not light on symbolism. I’m guessing an aggressive Google search would turn up a few hours of reading of the myriad meanings of the white frocks, the various shapes, and the character archetypes trotted out — the intellectual, the opportunist, the skeptic, and, of course, “the fool” (remarkably similar to the anthro buddies I had in college, I might add).

On top of the over-the-top symbolism, the movie isn’t terribly shy about foreshadowing, either.  In good Chekov fashion, if you see a picture on the wall of a woman trimming her nether regions and baking the clippings into a cake in the first act, expect to be pulling that hair out of your teeth before things wrap up, okay?

Between the visuals and the music and the director’s patience with scenes and the hyper-deliberate pace of the plot-lines, the movie does a spectacular job of inducing dread. It wasn’t terribly scary scary, but it was unnerving and more disturbing than your average bear.  The violence has a visceral quality about it that doesn’t show up in most comedic or antiseptic violence that characterizes much of what comes through the theater these days.  It’s a provocative movie.  Indeed, I am still thinking about the face plant and the “blood eagle” all these days later.

Also way over the $5 bar.  L&D approve of this extended message.

 

Succession s

Although these two films are cut from different cloth, they each explore a central question of the day:  how insular groups treat outsiders (with the protagonist(s) being the outsiders in both cases).  Where you want to take this metaphor  — capitalist v. collectivist societies, the upcoming U.S. presidential election — is up to you.

The Ready or Not clan absorbs outsiders subject to a few caveats.  First, these outsiders are selected by a member of the family (i.e., prospective spouses).   Second, the new prospective member must play this game business, which tacitly makes entrance to the family renouncing any previous allegiances. The bride is an orphan and any of her family or friends that were around for the wedding were certainly not around for the wedding night (This is almost certainly done for expositional simplicity, but a reasonable person can connect a few dots).  Then the million billion dollar question is whether the family actually has to adhere to the commitments of its forefathers or not — what are the consequences of reneging on a deal from the past?  This question is somewhat latent through most of the movie, but shows up spectacularly down the stretch.

Here is the thesis of the movie:  the really wealthy really are mostly indifferent toward you. They are ruthless, possibly incompetent, certainly deluded, and they get to make most (but not all) of the rules up as they go along.  If you’ve been watching HBO’s brilliant Succession, this theme should resonate with you.  They don’t necessarily have much in common with one another, other than a mercenary intensity in maintaining their lives in the lap of luxury.  At least you know where they stand, right?

Although the community in Midsommar is also pretty selective about who gets to come in, the community here is a true socialist paradise.  They eat together, sleep together, pray together, and do a lot of other things together that you might not immediately think of as community activities. That’s true at least in terms of what is out in the open and bathed in the sunshine.  Who knows what’s going behind closed doors?  Although there is a titular head who is ostensibly in charge, it is pretty clear that that’s not who is actually in charge.  Of course, the community rules are the community rules, but there is more than a hint that these rules are subject to selective interpretation of the higher ups. As a result, the treatment of outsiders is pretty much on a case-by-case basis and by the end here you can probably make the case that there wasn’t much of a doubt about how this one was going to play out.  

Although the movie is ostensibly about a break up, it is much better as a meditation on the pursuit of the collective good, whatever that happens to be.  Pro tip: be careful when someone tells you that your sacrifice for the cause is going to be painless.

Ultimately, I would argue that each of these films explores how we think about and how we treat those outside of our immediate circles, however defined.  More pointedly, each explores the danger and limits of extremism (are there limits of extremism?), whether the source is a self-interested patriarchy or the socialist matriarchy.  The upshot is that maybe night and day have more in common than we are willing to admit.  And, it is possibly instructive to think about which of these worlds is more resilient and durable.

Or maybe that’s just how it is in the movies.

Good Boys

Film Title: "Good Boys"

It’s late summer, the Valley’s fried chicken madness is now at a full boil, and the movies seem to be coming fast and furious, including the ninth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise (which evidently still has a lot to say).

Well, we didn’t see that, but instead bit the bullet and spent our late Tuesday evening watching sixth graders drop F bombs. 

Yes, we saw Good Boys.

As advertised, Good Boys is Superbad light, with the boys being a little younger and the kids’ objective somewhat less sensationally objectionable than in its muse film. The script is pretty high quality and the acting is pretty solid for what it is, though the pacing seemed off to me.  It is pretty funny despite many of the marquee jokes being featured in the trailers, and we did laugh out loud a lot, possibly more than the target audience laughed. Indeed, I think we laughed at a lot of stuff that we weren’t necessarily supposed to laugh at.

A very large portion of the humor involves the disconnect between what we believe sixth graders know and what an over 17 audience knows, particularly pertaining to alcohol, recreational drugs, sex, and adult sex products. Oh, and navigating the suburbs (how exactly should one cross an interstate?). The movie is remarkably restrained in its expression of vulgarity, with the simple appearance of a taboo item enough to elicit laughter in most cases. It’s pretty well done.

This all adds up handsomely for the backers:  the theater was packed, there isn’t a single A-list actor in the movie, and the production budget must have been trivial (though it had considerable promotion campaign). By my calculations, this movie is making the big big money and what they will do with the big big money is probably make more films like this, with the writing quality being swapped out for more explicit verbal and visual content.  I’d put $5 on that.

Speaking of $5, this one is way over that bar with the caveats that you like your humor blue and aren’t offended by kids swearing like actual kids swear when you aren’t around. Clearing the bar is especially easy given Marcus is offering a free popcorn and drink to anyone who flashes this coupon between now and September 2.  We arrived at the theater and our special guest, Bb, was peacocking with his free bounty.

The verdict: it’s not half Superbad.

And that’s pretty good.