It’s Time to Watch ‘Horse Girl’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Katrina Marcinowski/Netflix

With so many movie theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I decided to finally watch and review some straight-to-streaming flicks I haven’t had a chance to get around to yet. And in the spirit of things being not-so-normal, these reviews will maybe be a little more, uh, shall we say, offbeat, than usual.

First up on the docket is Horse Girl, a seemingly quirky indie comedy, but actually no, it’s a psychological study of emergent mental illness, but with some trappings of low-budg sci-fi. We can use the catchall term “drama.” It stars and is co-written by Alison Brie. The other person handling scripting duties is Jeff Baena, who also sat in the directing chair. I know and love Jeff from The Little Hours, in which he previously directed Alison. It played at Sundance in January 2020 and landed on Netflix on February 7, 2020. Thanks to Alison’s presence, I knew I was going to definitely watch it eventually, as I’ve been a superfan of hers since her days on Community (which I’m legally obligated to acknowledge is my favorite show of all time whenever I mention it).

Alison plays Sarah, an introverted lass who works at an arts and crafts store and enjoys horses. Also, her stepdad is played by Paul Reiser! (That’s got to be a good sign, right?) Things seem to be going okay for her, especially when she strikes up a potential new romantic relationship on her birthday. But then, as she begins to experience lost time and unexplained visions, it appears that the mental struggles that run in her family are finally making themselves at home in her brain. Or is she actually a clone who is also dealing with flippin’ alien abductions, jeez?

If you’re forcing me to say one or the other, Sarah probably actually is indeed experiencing mental illness. But Horse Girl makes me think: isn’t the idea of alien abduction intoxicating? What if it could be the basis of a religion? You could believe in them, though not literally, just have faith in them in some sort of way. That’s just a kernel of an idea, we’ll see if it becomes anything more. Anyway, Alison is terrific, but y’all knew that already! (Dint ya?)

‘Bloodshot’ Offers a Sort-of Fascinating Spin on a Few Common Sci-Fi Tropes

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Sony Pictures

Starring: Vin Diesel, Guy Pearce, Eiza González, Lamorne Morris, Sam Heughan, Toby Kebbell, Talulah Riley

Director: David S.F. Wilson

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Bullets and Explosions Here and There

Release Date: March 13, 2020

Bloodshot strikes me as more of a cinematic experiment moreso than a narrative presentation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The medium of film is robust enough that it can accomodate things that aren’t exactly telling a story or not doing so straightforwardly. Bloodshot actually does have some sort of plot, but that’s not the most interesting part about it. Based on a comic book series, it stars Vin Diesel as a Marine named Ray Garrison who gets killed but then is very quickly brought back to life stronger and more deadly. You know, that old saw that we love from the likes of The Six Million Dollar Man and RoboCop. He is bent on revenge against the man who “killed” both him and his wife, although the scientist who brought him back, Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), has a few missions he would like him to go on, but perhaps their motivations align with each other … or do they?

Ray’s enhancement is fueled by microscopic technology referred to as “nanites,” a word that I will never not find hilarious as I primarily associate it with the creatures of that name from Mystery Science Theater 3000. Basically, the idea is that these little creatures, or tiny robots, or whatever they are, work at an atomic level to repair any injury that Ray sustains thoroughly and immediately. In visual practice, this means that when he gets hit with bullets or other weaponry, fields of blood-red strands shoot off from his body, as his molecules re-assemble in mid-air and then return back into him.

Working alongside that idea of reassembling on the fly, the other major idea fueling Bloodshot is the series of false memories that uploaded into Ray’s head. His revenge mission, it turns out, may just be what he’s been programmed to do. In practice, this generally means that it never feels fully clear exactly what the practical stakes are. But on the plus(-ish) side, it also means we get some visual flourishes that I’ve never quite seen in any other movie, like one moment that virtually recreates the setting that Ray has been trained to remember. It looks like a behind-the-scenes video that shows the rendering of visual effects. I’m not sure that sort of thing belongs in a finished cinematic product, but I’m fascinated by its presence there nonetheless.

That mix of fascination and uncertainty is my general overall reaction to Bloodshot. Pretty much everything about it feels like it was made up on the fly, or meant to be about making it up on the fly. How else to explain the presence of New Girl‘s Lamorne Morris as an English hacker and the fact that he’s the best part of the movie? The second part is easy enough to explain: he’s Lamorne Morris, and he’s awesome. But presumably, he would’ve been just as awesome with his normal speaking voice. Is his character unmistakably English in the comic? Do we Americans just love accents that much? Look, you get your pleasures where you can with a movie that doesn’t seem to have thought through every little detail. Or you turn your brain off and admire the pretty pictures. Or you tap into some part of your brain that you didn’t realize you’d need to access for a movie as surprisingly un-pin-down-able as this one.

Bloodshot is Recommended If You Like: Vin Diesel gradually figuring it out, Lamorne Morris as the comic relief, DVD bonus features about special effects

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Nanites

The Bloody Carnage of ‘The Hunt’ Works Best When You Can Actually Recognize the Human Beings in the Game

1 Comment

CREDIT: Universal

Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley, Glenn Howerton, Amy Madigan, Ethan Suplee, Macon Blair, J.C. Mackenzie, Wayne Duvall,  Reed Birney, Teri Wyble, Sturgill Simpson, Jim Klock, Usman Ally, Steve Coulter, Dean J. West, Steve Mokate

Director: Craig Zobel

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Pretty Much Every Suddenly Explosive Way to Die That You Can Think Of and A Bunch of Sarcastic Profanity

Release Date: March 13, 2020

At first glance, The Hunt looks like it could be a terrible case of bothsidesism. But in fact, it is actually operating in too much of a valley of extremes to really be about the miscalculation of the scale of political differences. Instead, this is a story of conspiracy theories and misunderstanding blown out of proportion to terrifying, blackly comic heights. In a spin on the ever-popular 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” a group of self-castigating liberals have captured some so-called “deplorables” and set them some loose to be hunted as sport. (Trump’s name is never mentioned, but the use of “our ratf—er-in-chief” makes clear the context we’re operating in.) These marks have been chosen because they’re exactly the sort of people who like to propagate the conspiracy theory that elites who run the world have been secretly capturing and hunting people for years.

The script, credited to Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, operates on the premise of “What if the worst things that political opponents accuse each other in this current climate turned out to be true?” The results, as lavishly staged by director Craig Zobel, would include a baroque series of impalings, short-range shotgun blasts, limbs ripped apart by explosions, and car tires rolling over heads. The mayhem is admirably relentless, but it’s a bit too cartoonish for a movie that wants to be about real characters with genuine pain. The hunted do say some pretty awful things, but hardly enough to justify getting a round of bullets blasted into their brains. And it’s certainly worth noting that since we focus on them and they’re the ones in a state of vulnerability, they serve as our point of identification. Anyone threatened with immediate death suddenly starts to look very, very human, especially in relation to the hunters, who mostly come off like a bunch of caricatures who are prone to tout superficial accomplishments like how Ava DuVernay liked one of their social media posts. For the most part, they do not register as actual people so much as agents of self-parodic vengeful chaos. (At least It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Glenn Howerton, for one, can make a meal out of that task.)

Easily the most human of anyone in this melee is the deplorable played by Betty Gilpin. She’s shifty and resourceful enough to make you wonder if she really deserves punishment of any sort for whatever she’s guilty of, or even if she’s actually guilty of whatever she’s been accused of. The frustration that’s all over her face says, “I don’t care who you are at this point. I’m just going to do whatever I have to do to survive.” That’s kind of the fundamental, elemental appeal of a piece of exploitation like this: just who are we when faced with an outrageous, deadly situation? Too often, The Hunt‘s answer is, “A ridiculous gathering of stereotypes,” but often enough, its alternative answer is “It’s complicated. We don’t really know.”

The Hunt is Recommended If You Like: Bloody mayhem, satirical exploitation of stereotypes, mixed social messages

Grade: 3 out of 5 Deplorables

Appropriately Enough for a Movie About an Abortion, ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ is a Full-On Empathy Generator

1 Comment

CREDIT: Focus Features

Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodor Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten

Director: Eliza Hittman

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Having to Be an Adult While You’re Still a Teenager

Release Date: March 13, 2020 (Limited)

Abortion remains one of the most fraught debates in American society, so it’s a bit of a small miracle when a movie about it is able to get produced and released, even when it’s something as small as Never Rarely Sometimes Always. It is reminiscent of the 2014 indie comedy Obvious Child insofar as it matter-of-factly presents the termination of an unplanned pregnancy, but with all the corresponding differences that go along with a protagonist who is a decade younger and lives in a state with more restrictive legislation. Accordingly then, it is a much more somber, exhausting affair. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is the one with the unplanned pregnancy, a teenage girl living in sleepy little Northumberland County in central Pennsylvania. Her best option for procuring an abortion is taking a bus to New York City, which is something that she is able to do if she sets her mind to it. Phrasing it that way kind of brushes aside the more difficult parts of this journey, but it’s an attitude that’s needed for Autumn to adopt to survive this experience.

Any major medical procedure is difficult to handle on one’s own both on a practical and psychological level, so luckily for Autumn, her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) is available to accompany her. I don’t like imagining how Autumn would’ve handled (or not handled) everything if she didn’t have a travel partner. From the moment she realizes she might be pregnant, her existence is in unending string of stress and indignities. She is forced to watch a graphic video discouraging abortion. She and Skylar encounter a creepy guy (Théodor Pellerin) on the bus who invites them to a show at an abandoned subway. She discovers that she has to stay overnight with no place to sleep because her pregnancy is farther along than she realized. She has to pay for the abortion out of pocket (thus depleting her bus fund) even though she has insurance, as she does not want her parents to be notified of what she’s doing. And then she must endure a series of multiple-choice screening questions (whose possible answers give the film its title) that force her to confront the pain of adolescence she’s been internalizing.

I don’t imagine Never Rarely Sometimes Always will change anyone’s minds on this issue (at least not immediately). I don’t think that’s what it was designed to do anyway. Cinema, famously, is known for its ability to generate empathy, and I hope that that power still applies even when viewers fundamentally disagree with the choices the main character makes. So while I don’t imagine that any needles on this issue will be moved anywhere significantly, I do hope that everyone who witnesses Autumn’s story can understand where she is coming from and appreciate the truth of her situation.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is Recommended If You Like: Obvious Child but wish it had been a drama

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Bus Trips

Jeff’s Wacky SNL Review: Daniel Craig/The Weeknd

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

History shall remember that on March 7, 2020 (and in the wee hours of March 8), Daniel Craig hosted Saturday Night Live for the second time and The Weeknd performed as the musical guest for the third time. The last time March 7 fell on a Saturday, in 2015, Chris Hemsworth hosted and Zac Brown Band were the musical guest. And the last March 7 Saturday before that was in 2009, during which Dwayne Johnson hosted and Ray LaMontagne was the musical guest. (I was studying abroad in Australia at the time.) An encore presentation of that episode aired in the SNL Vintage time slot last night. Interestingly enough, Dwayne Johnson hosted once again on March 28, 2015, the very next episode after the Hemsworth/Zac Brown one. But right now, we’re here to discuss the Craig/Weeknd show. Let’s get to it!

More

‘The Way Back’ Allows Ben Affleck to Meet His Fate as a Washed-Up High School Basketball Coach

1 Comment

CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Brandon Wilson, Lukas Gage, Melvin Gregg

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Basketball Coaches and Players Struggling to Adhere to a Catholic School Code of Conduct

Release Date: March 6, 2020

Ben Affleck is now at the point in his career where he can play a washed-up, middle-aged high school basketball coach and it is the most natural thing in the world. Honestly, his lead role in The Way Back feels like what he was destined for his whole career. Chip-on-his-shoulder energy has always been a major part of his persona, and now he’s at the age at which it fits most comfortably. He’s taken plenty of lumps, and he’s retreated a bit, but he’s got some loved ones who want him to get back in the game and give it another go. The character of Jack Cunningham is basically the Sad Affleck meme writ large with an even more tragic backstory. He was once the most heralded high school basketball player in the state, but now he spends most of his days in a drunken haze, with his refrigerator stocked entirely with rows of (neatly arranged) beer cans. But then he’s offered the suddenly vacant head coaching job at Bishop Hayes, his Catholic alma mater, and he’s finally motivated to do something he cares about besides wallow around in his misery.

The current state of the Bishop Hayes team is a sick joke compared to what it was in Jack’s heyday. Back then, about a hundred guys tried out for the team, but now, they need to pull up a few guys from the junior varsity squad to even be able to have ten players to run a practice. They’re not without some bright spots, but they’re undersized and outclassed by most of their opponents. They lose their first game with Jack coaching by an unceremonious 36 points, and at that point, it is not clear if this movie will actually be an inspirational story in which they turn it around and start winning. Frankly, it might start to strain credulity a bit too much if they do start challenging for a championship. But The Way Back gratifies viewers who know how basketball works by demonstrating how opportunities open up when you can get past the intimidation factor. Bishop Hayes does indeed start winning, pulling off upsets against ostensibly more talented teams with pressure-filled defense that neutralizes their opponents’ strongest players and by operating offenses that amplify their own strengths. So when that last-second shot in the big game does go through the hoop, the triumph feels legitimate.

But just as The Way Back looks like it is going to wrap up like any other inspirational sports drama, it follows a different, messier strain. Getting back into the game has helped Jack come a long way with his personal rehabilitation, but it hasn’t really addressed what’s eating away at his soul. He and his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) share a deep trauma that he’s nowhere near close to getting over. At a crucial moment, he says, “I never stopped being angry,” and that’s clear enough in every frame without him saying it, but it’s nonetheless powerful to hear it said. The Way Back packs a lot of redemption into an hour and fifty minutes, and I do wonder if these turnarounds will be permanent based on the work we get to see. But the raw, vulnerable energy on display is a blessing to witness.

After one game filled with some profanity-laced tirades, the team’s chaplain gently reminds Jack of the school’s code of conduct, to which Jack replies, considering all the terrible things in this world, does God really give a (not-safe-for-work four-letter word) what he and the boys say? That’s the crux of the matter, that in fact it really does matter how we personally conduct ourselves despite everything awful we’ve been through, and it’s undeniably affecting to witness our fellow humans opening themselves up to that challenge.

The Way Back is Recommended If You Like: Hoosiers, Redemption, Smart coaching

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Comebacks

‘First Cow’ is a Quirky Western About Pop-Up Food Peddling

1 Comment

CREDIT: Allyson Riggs/A24

Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Lily Gladstone, René Auberjonois

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for “Brief Strong Language,” according to the MPAA

Release Date: March 6, 2020 (Limited)

I’m sure there were other cows before the cow in First Cow, but she brings so much sweet satisfaction that she’s sure just as lovely as any actual first cow.

Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) meet up and become fast friends on the 19th century Oregon frontier. Their backgrounds are vastly different (Cookie’s originally from Maryland, King’s a Chinese immigrant), but they are nevertheless kindred spirits, bonded by shared drives to make something fulfilling out of their rough terrain. The first third or so of First Cow is rather sleepy, as it mostly consists of Cookie and King wandering through the dark woods. But then they chance upon a bit of a piping-hot business, and suddenly their story is working like gangbusters.

If you’re like me, you might spend a good portion of First Cow wondering, “Where is this cow? I was promised a cow. Let’s get a move on, Mr. Plot!” But patience is a virtue, and if you can indeed be patient, you will be rewarded handsomely, just as Cookie and King are, by writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s steady approach. C and K find the milk-producer just hanging out in a field, and they gather up her cream for all it’s worth. They then slot it in as the key ingredient for a batch of biscuits that they hawk in the middle of town. It tastes unlike anything their customers have ever tasted before, yet it also takes them right back to their childhood kitchen memories. The biscuits sell out immediately day after day the same way that a cupcake pop-up burns through its supply in the hippest part of the neighborhood in 2020.

Cookie and King are always hustling, so I guess we now know what it looked like when you were hustling while stuck out in the woods one hundred-some-odd years ago, or at least we have a satisfying cinematic approximation of what it was like. They certainly have to summon all their wits when they realize that their cow belongs to a wealthy landowner played by Toby Jones who’s been one of their loyal customers. When the jig is up, they find themselves once again out there floating through the coarse landscape. I’m not too experientially familiar with this harsh environment, but I recognize this strain of human existence. Reichardt takes on an interesting, untraditional journey of frustration, satisfaction, and worry bumping against each other. It’s a weird rhythm that I daresay is worth getting in tune with.

First Cow is Recommended If You Like: Toby Jones licking his lips

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Biscuits

Older Entries