What to Watch: Midsummer Night Fever Dreams
"Bullet Train and "Bodies Bodies Bodies" in theaters, "Thirteen Lives" and more on demand.
Happy Friday, and for once some of us can indulge leaning a little harder on the happy part. Good news came out of the Tuesday vote in Kansas, indicating that there’s a silent majority rather different from the one we used to talk about, and it’s mad as hell. The week’s award for Best Scene of Comic Schadenfreude goes to the video of InfoWars goblin Alex Jones learning that his attorney had accidentally sent two years of his client’s phone texts and financial information to the lawyers for the Sandy Hook parents currently suing him, thus scoring a massive self-own that doubles as retroactive perjury while teeing Jones up for future criminal charges. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Bob Dylan sang something about a Mr. Jones once, and I think it may apply to a lot more people than Alex. One can hope, anyway. Onward to November.
Before I get to the reviews, a pause to note something odd and possibly chilling happening in the entertainment industry: Warner Brothers announced that it was shelving “Batgirl,” a $90 million superhero movie that is already in the can and ready for release. Not only no theatrical exposure, no streaming debut – no nothing. It’s getting 86’d and, unless leaked, will never be seen. Is it because the movie’s bad? No one knows, but that’s beside the point: Plenty of terrible movies have been burned off with quickie theatrical exposure or just left to die on VOD. As weary as I am of costumed crimefighters, “Batgirl” had some interesting rising talent associated with it in star Leslie Grace (if you saw the film version of “In the Heights” – which you should – she was a standout) and Belgian-Moroccan directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (“Bad Boys for Life”). So what’s the deal? Possibly a studio deciding to take a tax write-off on an uncertain property. More likely the tip of the iceberg as WarnerMedia merges with Discovery and, under new CEO David Zaslav, prepares to decimate streaming service HBO Max. That would be a shame because HBO Max is one of the best VOD platforms out there, with a huge library, striking originals, and intelligently curated film programming from across the decades. (Paste’s Jacob Oller has an excellent backgrounder here. )The larger lesson to keep in mind is that massive entertainment corporations no longer think in terms of movies, history, or quality, but only “content,” and what the streaming universe giveth, it can and will take away. Physical media – DVDs or Blu-ray – is the only format for keeps; everything else is provisional and will cost you forever. (All that aside, I reserve the right to suspect that if “Batgirl” had had a white lead and directors, we very well might be seeing it in one form or another. In perhaps not unrelated news, “Joker 2” with Joaquin Phoenix just got green-lit and will be in theaters October 2024.)
Okay, okay, the movies. Not a lot of sweetness and light this week. Sorry.
“Bullet Train” (in theaters, **1/2 stars out of ****) – Quentin Tarantino crossed with a Road Runner cartoon, and, as such, relentlessly entertaining and more than a little full of itself. Brad Pitt plays a slouchy, sensitive hitman – he’s code-named “Ladybug” and he talks about his therapist a lot – who’s assigned to steal a briefcase as the title conveyance rockets from Tokyo to Kyoto and rival assassins come out of the woodwork like weevils with knives. (And guns. And hypodermic needles filled with snake venom that makes your eyeballs bleed.) As directed by David Leitch (“John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde”), “Bullet Train” is paced like a panic attack and filled with cartoonish, sometimes quite bloody mayhem. It’s also self-consciously, self-referentially funny – primo junk food that leaves you filled but not fully satisfied. The best things in it are the performances, particularly Brian Tyree Henry (TV’s “Atlanta”) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) as Lemon and Tangerine, an aggrieved double-team of hired killers whose banter recalls Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in “In Bruges” and, even more faintly, Travolta and Jackson in “Pulp Fiction.” (Henry is especially wonderful as a thug for whom “Thomas the Tank Engine” explains everything.) But those movies had an emotional and, yes, a moral grounding that no one involved seems very interested in, and Pitt is coasting here on his considerable charm. (A few celebrity cameos are sprinkled in like jimmies, including a well-known actress who appears to have been replaced by an airbrushed version of herself.) I have it on good authority – my friend Matt, who came with me to the screening and has read Kôtarô Isaka’s original novel – that the book is even more nutty while lacking the American star-wattage and the explode-o-rama climax where everything goes ka-boom. Because that’s what Hollywood is for – retrofitting imported goods with crashes and pixels.
“Bodies Bodies Bodies” (in theaters, *** out of ****) – It’s being billed as a Gen Z horror movie, but Helina Reijn’s movie could better be described as a murder comedy, and a sprightly and inventive one it is. Seven twentysomethings hole up in a parental mansion during a hurricane, drinking, drugging, sniping, and ultimately getting bored enough to play the “Mafia”-style homicide parlor game of the title. Surprise: Someone ends up dead, and that’s for starters. Refreshingly, the witty script by Sarah DeLappe – working from a story by Kristen Roupenian of “Cat Person” fame – is much more interested in the comic interrelationships and escalating paranoia than in doling out the gore: The characters may be freaking out, but the audience is more tickled than scared. And the actors bring their A-games, including Amandla Stenberg (Rue in the “Hunger Games” movies and a generally beloved figure to her generation) as a nervy lead just out of rehab, Maria Bakalova (the surprise of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”) as her ambiguous new girlfriend, Pete Davidson riffing acridly on his dopey “SNL” persona, and – best of all – Rachel Sennott of “Shiva Baby,” hilarious as an entitled party girl who’s not the sharpest fork in the drawer. There’s a final twist that simultaneously sends the genre up and cancels the movie out – a neat if self-sabotaging trick. Like “Bullet Train, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” is disposable; unlike the bigger film, you don’t come away feeling vaguely used.
“Thirteen Lives” (in theaters and on Amazon Prime, ***1/2 out of ****) – And now for something completely serious: Ron Howard’s dramatization of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, in which 12 schoolboys and their coach were rescued from the rising waters of a cave system in northern Thailand after 18 grueling days. Anchored emotionally by the lives at stake and by the increasing desperation of the parents and rescuers, this is essentially a process movie, painstakingly observing how thousands of people came together from around the world to attack a problem from all sides – literally from the top of the mountain to the underwater passages beneath. The initial scenes of Thai Navy Seals and a lame-duck provincial governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) struggling to reach the boys give way to starrier drama with the arrival of British divers played by Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton, and others, and while their expertly acted scenes can’t help feel like a sop to Western audiences, they’re also based in fact, and Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson (“Gladiator”) are scrupulous about keeping all aspects of the operation in focus and in balance. (It’s a process movie behind the camera, too.) Long but not overlong at 147 minutes, “Thirteen Lives” is sober and gripping, with an interest in the drama of men and women at work that wouldn’t be out of place in a Howard Hawks movie.
“I Love My Dad” (in theaters and on demand August 12, ***1/2 out of ****) – I love Patton Oswalt and I bet you do too; the comedian is fearless when it comes to taking on film roles that have you watching through your fingers as his characters plunge off the cliffs of their own delusions. (See: “Big Fan” from 2009.) Here he’s a hapless screwup father to a depressive young man played by writer-director James Morosini; desperate to connect, the dad pretends to be an attractive young woman on Facebook and establishes a relationship with his son that goes sideways and then south in a fashion that had festival audiences screaming in embarrassment earlier this year. Yes, he catfishes his own child; yes, this really happened to Morosini (as he and I discuss in a Washington Post profile of the filmmaker that runs this weekend). Unlike some of the movies discussed above, “I Love My Dad” does have an emotional resonance that helps it stick to the ribs – for all the oh-no-they-didn’t/oh-god-they-did comedy, the movie’s rooted in real pain and a genuine understanding of parent-child dynamics. After you’ve accidentally sexted with your dad, I guess there’s nowhere to go but up.
“Resurrection” (in theaters and on demand, *** out of ****) – Another unflinching exploration of emotional damage from Rebecca Hall (above), an actress who seems to view her roles as tightropes over an abyss. She plays Margaret, a fiercely intense businesswoman and single mother in Albany, NY, who starts to unravel with the appearance of a malefic figure from her past. (All I have to do to give you the chills, I think, is to say that the figure is played by Tim Roth.) Written and directed by Andrew Semans, it’s an almost clinical depiction of codependent madness that steadily and scarily sails toward the edge of human experience and eventually right off it. Not exactly a barrel of laughs, obviously – has Rebecca Hall ever made a comedy? Would she know what to do in one?* – but mesmerizing in its hold, with a fine performance by Grace Kaufman as the heroine’s stressed-out teenage daughter and a 10-minute monologue by the star that’s one of the more remarkable things she’s ever done.
[*Note from my editor: “Wait, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’! She was funny in that.”]
And for truly adventurous viewers, there’s “Hatching” (streaming on Hulu, *** stars out of ****), a Finnish coming-of-age fable that hovers between dreamland and horror in ways that sometimes strain and at other times connect with surreal power. Tinja (Siiri Solalinna, above) is a 12-year-old girl who pushes herself to excel in gymnastics and win the approval of her mother (Sophia Heikkilä), a nightmarish narcissist of an Internet influencer. The girl finds a raven’s egg in the forest that she brings home and watches grow to the size of a boulder before hatching a grotesque birdlike creature that acts out all of Tinja’s conflicted feelings toward her friends and family. Director Hanna Bergholm isn’t exactly subtle about doling out the metaphors, but “Hatching” sustains a fugue state of empathy and unease that puts it within shouting distance of David Lynch, and Solalinna is impressive in the lead – timorous on the outside, raging within, and granted a final shot that will remain with you for some time to come.
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