Women Talking(10/28/2022)

Sarah Polly is one of those directors who seems to have a giant reputation despite having kind of a small body of work.  Prior to 2022 she had only directed three movies, one of them a documentary, and there was a long ten year gap in there as well leading into her new project.  Her first movie, Away From Her, was likely her strongest work up to this point, albeit not necessarily a movie that lingers in my memory.  I don’t know, it’s a movie I watched on a Netflix DVD in my sophomore dorm room, which is maybe not the best environment to empathize with an elderly woman’s battles with Alzheimer’s but I remember it having solid performances among other strong qualities.  I missed her follow-up Take this Waltz, whose reputation is of a movie that’s good but inessential.  Then there’s Stories We Tell, her documentary about her own parents and an affair one of them had.  People talk about that documentary in absolutely rapturous terms and I’ve got to say I really don’t get it.  The situation at its center does not strike me as being overly exceptional or interesting beyond the fact that a moderately famous actress/director is involved in it and its attempt to turn it all into some Rashomon-esque delve into the nature of subjectivity over the most minor of discrepancies in peoples stories did not connect with me at all.  So, I guess I’m a bit of a Polly skeptic, but that’s not to say I’d given up on her.  Away From Her alone was a well-crafted enough film that I felt like she had the potential to give us something special, and finally I think she just might have with her new film Women Talking.

The film is set in more or less modern day, but in a remote Mennonite community (seemingly) somewhere in North America, and given the Mennonite’s traditions this essentially makes the film look like a 19th Century period piece for much of its runtime.  The film begins when it’s revealed that a large number of the women in the community had been drugged and sexually assaulted by various men in the community and had been for several years with the women’s concerns being dismissed as the actions of ghosts or devils or “feeble-mindedness.”  This time though, the perpetrators were caught red handed and were arrested by the outside police force.  The most of the community’s men, however, seem to be standing by the perpetrators and have gone to town in order to bail them out under some religious conviction that anyone cast out of the community will be damned to hell.  With them gone, the town’s women convene to try to figure out what they’ll do: will they stay as if nothing happened, stay and “fight,” or will they leave and try to found some new colony elsewhere.  Much of the film then, aside from some flashbacks, consists of the deliberations certain representative women have when making this decision and leads to some pretty tense debates.

Sarah Polly has long been something of an “actor’s director” and that certainly carries over to the impressive ensemble here but with this movie she also takes a noticeable step up as a visual stylist.  She and cinematographer Luc Montpellier shoot the film in an ultrawide 2.76:1 aspect ratio, the same ratio that Quentin Tarantino used for The Hateful Eight and like that movie it’s a choice that is intriguing given that this is a movie that ostensibly takes place primarily in one large room.  In fact one could easily mistake this for having been an adaptation of a play, but it’s not, it’s based on a novel by Miriam Toews.  Toews is a woman who was herself raised in a Mennonite community but left the community when she was eighteen.  The novel, though fictionalized, is inspired by real events that transpired at a Mennonite community in Bolivia.  That community (which, like most Mennonite communities, is largely populated by European emigres who speak a form of German rather than the local tongue) experienced a very similar set of attacks which led to a similar reckoning.  However, it does not take a genius to realize very soon into Women Talking that Sarah Polly does not view it as truly a movie about Mennonites and instead views the conversations they’re having as being extremely relevant to women around the world, especially in the wake of #MeToo.  And as the title implies, it kind of exists as a medium by which its authors can write very direct conversations around the kind of conversations survivors could have when facing systemic abuse and trying to find solutions.

The decision at the film’s center is whether to stay and maintain the status-quo (the anti-feminist solution), stay and “fight” (the feminist solution), or leave the compound entirely (the radical solution, at least within the logic of this society).  The basic practicalities of these solutions, while not entirely ignored, are not necessarily the emphasis.  The film is a touch vague about what “stay and fight” means.  It isn’t clear if that just means trying to change the society through some sort of peaceful resistance or if they intend to literally take up arms.  If it’s the former then they don’t really get into the exact methods and if it’s the latter they aren’t exactly stockpiling weapons or anything.  The film also doesn’t necessarily go into every logistical challenge of leaving; these women are depicted as illiterate and are said to have not even seen a map of the (unspecified) area they’re in and needless to say they don’t appear to have money saved up for some sort of real estate purchase that would allow them to set up a new compound.  But this is not emphasized in large part because these aren’t really conversations about logistics; they’re conversations about philosophy and about feelings around this situation, especially given that many of the people talking are traumatized victims of violence and abuse.  That trauma is central, some of the women here are very angry and vengeful, some are just mournful about the whole situation and some kind of go back and forth between different attitudes in a sort of complex stew of emotions.

On the periphery is Ben Wishaw’s character, the one man in the film with a speaking role and someone that the women in question basically seem to view as being apart from the other men that they’re essentially in opposition to.  He’s the town’s school teacher and apparently does have some university education and he’s been invited to take minutes for this deliberation as the one literate character present.  As such he’s kind of a point of view character and observer but occasionally speaks up in the deliberations, in ways that are sometimes welcome and sometimes not by the various women.  You can tell he’s rather conflicted about his place there, as are the women and to some extent so is the movie.  That is likely appropriate given that society in general is kind of not sure what role male allies are supposed to have in the wake of #MeToo.  This probably isn’t the only thing the film is willingly conflicted about as it’s kind of a movie that’s asking a lot of questions that society hasn’t really answered and is about characters who are left with a similarly uncertain future.

This is in many ways a film that feels like it could be in dialogue with another of the year’s high profile releases, Todd Field’s Tár, which also sort of comments on #MeToo if not by name though from the perspective of a perpetrator rather than from victims.  The women here are in many ways more conflicted and thoughtful that the title character of that film, in part because they care about people besides themselves.  Though Tár is perhaps a bit more directly about #MeToo as it existed between 2017 and 2022, I think that movie is going to be a little more universally recognizable as long as powerful abusers continue to exist.  Women Talking, by contrast, feels to me much more directly reflective of this very moment of widespread reckoning and all the messy feelings and conflicting arguments that it conjures up.  But as it does this it never loses track of the fact that this is a movie about specific people in a specific circumstance whose situation is not always going to be one hundred percent applicable to the wider conversation.  It tells a very human story above all else and it does it in a milieu that’s pretty unique and while I would exactly call the movie a one-of-a-kind revolution or anything it is a movie that doesn’t follow an overly familiar template and makes for a lean and intense drama that’s staged in a strong and appealing fashion.  In short it’s the major work that I’ve been waiting for Sarah Polley to make and really live up to all the praise she’s been lavished with.
****1/2 out of Five



Warning: Review contains some spoilers

When directors come back from hiatus it’s always kind of a trip.  We’re probably never going to see something as wild as Terrence Malick making a dramatic comeback after thirty years off, but from time to time we get people coming back after a decade or so and that’s the case this year with the triumphant return of the director Todd Field.  Field was never exactly being held up as the world’s greatest filmmaker but he seemed like a really promising voice in the early 2000s.  His 2001 film In The Bedroom was a pretty bold debut; a nuanced depiction of grief and aging that was a pretty challenging piece of work for someone to be making when he was only thirty seven.  He followed that up five years later with a social satire called Little Children, which was well liked but didn’t quite end up being a top-tier Oscar contender and also didn’t prove to be particularly popular.  And after that he seemed to disappear.  By all accounts this fifteen year stretch of seeming inactivity was not exactly by choice.  Field was actively in development for all sorts of different projects that, for one reason or another, he wasn’t able to get funding for.  I’m sure that if he was willing to sell out and take a more commercial project and gets more credits onto his IMDB but he seems to have held out until he had a project he really cared about.  And it seems that project finally came around this year with his new film with Cate Blanchett: Tár.

The film is set in the world of classical music and follows a woman named Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who is introduced in the beginning as being a deeply accomplished composer and orchestra conductor who’s highly respected in her field and the founder of a non-profit for the advancement of women in classical music called Accordion.  As the film begins she is about to start rehearsing a major concert with the Berlin Orchestra of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.  She’s seemingly on top of the world, but something feels off.  Her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) is clearly disgruntled, her marriage to fellow musician Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) seems oddly transactional, and there’s a looming conflict with her assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner).  But the crisis that especially seems looming is the fallout from the suicide of a former acolyte named Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote).  Tár’s reaction to learning about this seems odd and one of the first thing she tries to do in response is purge her emails about Taylor and recommend that Francesca does the same.  She’s clearly hiding something and it seems like it won’t be long until there’s quite a bit of fallout from this.

An obvious drawback of a filmmaker disappearing for fifteen years is that you kind of forget what made them so great in the first place while also not really knowing how they’ve evolved as artists or as people in the time that’s passed.  I think that’s especially true for Field given that, while both of the films he made previously were good they were not necessarily ones that begged to be watched over and over again.  I remember liking both movies but, especially in the case of Little Children, my memories of them are a little hazy so I’m perhaps not in the best place to really judge Tár in relation to Field as an auteur though from what I remember it has In the Bedroom’s interest in questions of justice and also Little Children’s interest in commenting on modern social mores but visually this feels a lot more ambitious than either of those movies, albeit in subtle ways.  Tár doesn’t really have some immediately apparent trick or gimmick to how it looks but as the film begins the camerawork is notably very controlled and often quite still, perhaps reflecting the character’s stable and managed career and lifestyle and as things move along and unravel this becomes less the case.  The movie never starts to be messy and handheld or anything but the camera and filmmaking subtly start working against Tár and the film’s sound scape starts reflecting a conflicted and perhaps slightly paranoid mind.

Tár has sometimes been talked about as a movie about “cancel culture” but it could perhaps be more accurately described as a movie about #MeToo, or perhaps it’s about both and is maybe trying to make a distinction between the two.  Early in the film there’s a lengthy scene in which Tár is teaching at Juilliard and has a slightly heated conversation with a student who for some reason has it in his head that Johann Sebastian Bach is a “dead white man” who’s too problematic to study.  She puts up a pretty smart defense of the baroque composer’s relevance, which the student doesn’t really appreciate and perhaps predictably her statements in this defense are eventually taken out of context and weaponized against her.  That is perhaps an example of the kind of silly zoomer “cancel culture” that so many columns get written about, but both the film and the characters within it view this whole exchange as relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things.  The things that really get her in trouble are much more serious breaches of trust and ethics, so in a way the film seems to be saying “don’t sweat the small stuff, “cancellation” should be reserved for the real predators.

And yet, I’m not sure the message is really that simple.  Tár is what you’d call a “glass ceiling” breaker in terms of gender and sexual identity.  She’s celebrated for this but downplays it in an interview early in the film, suggesting that with all her success she has nothing to complain about and that all the real barriers were already broken previously.  Later she even suggests re-configuring her non-profit so as to not be specifically be about helping women, ostensibly because she doesn’t think women need special help anymore, an idea she only backs down from when she’s told it could cost them donations.  This all speaks to a certain level of privilege, maybe not one entirely created by innate characteristics she was born with but perhaps a sort of survivorship bias: Lydia Tár is an elite enough talent to get past whatever gender biases exist in the world, so why shouldn’t the rest of the ladies?  That’s not an uncommon attitude amongst the nouveau riche, who maybe are maybe a bit blinded to how exceptional their own stories are and what less obvious privileges benefited them.  Of course she never comes out and expresses these sentiments so bluntly, she knows where the bread is buttered in “the modern discourse,” but her actions are not unlike the actions of powerful people who come in more traditional packages.  And I don’t think it can be dismissed that this attitude is at play in that Juilliard classroom when she excitedly defended the traditional canon and by extension the existing order.  That’s not to say that the film sides with the student who’s trying to cancel Bach, is arguments are juvenile and misguided, but given Tár’s other actions she becomes a less than ideal champion for the classics.

As to the “cancelling” of Tár herself, it is interesting in that the movie waits an awfully long time to show its hand in that regard.  The film is very much what you’d call a “character study” and it spends a lot of time bringing you into Tár’s world before it really introduces the film’s eventual conflict in earnest.  In a way this suggests that Tár’s façade is so meticulously built that it’s hidden even from us, the viewers who are ostensibly watching every moment of her life and believe she has everything so together that we don’t think twice even when she’s making hubristic mistakes like alienating an assistant who likely has a lot of dirt on her.  The film reminded me of another #MeToo themed work, Kitty Green’s The Assistant, in that it shows the revelation of malfeasance as being something of a cold and undramatic for those in vicinity of the abuser who are enabling them in very subtle ways without really thinking about what they’re doing.  And you as a viewer kind of find yourself feeling that way as you start to recontextualize some of Tár’s actions.  The aforementioned defense of Bach starts to look different, her willingness to threaten a bully who was harassing her daughter starts to feel indicative of a brutal willingness to crush her perceived enemies, and you also start to wonder what her motivations for mentoring a young cellist that she takes under her wing and starts to mentor.

The movie certainly shows the audience enough evidence to make it pretty clear that she’s guilty on some level, but much as Tár herself doesn’t really witness the consequences of her actions on her victims the film doesn’t really show this either, which is perhaps a choice that will be controversial.  By the film’s end Tár never really reckons with her own actions and it’s not clear really if she’s sorry or if she’s just sorry she got caught.  We see late in the film that she’s disgusted by more overt versions of sex trafficking, so clearly there are some limits to her depravity, and that she likely simply doesn’t see her own actions as comparable, and perhaps not without reason.  We don’t know the full extent of what she did or what shades of gray there were in these relationships that led to their downfall: did they seem like grooming to her?  Was there some truth to the actions she took against Krista Taylor that seemingly sabotaged her career or was it just pure retaliation?  The film leave enough ambiguous that you can think and wonder about these things and in the film’s final act as everything that Tár built up starts to crumble you can’t entirely help but want to salvage some of what’s being lost in her downfall.  Striver that she is, she doesn’t go down completely without a fight in much the way we still see people like Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. try to keep their careers going in unusual ways to much controversy.  Such indignities are perhaps a weak punishment given the stakes of what they are accused of but there is a tragedy to be found in genius talent being stifled and the movie has empathy for that… but it’s also clear as day that this wasn’t caused by some mistake in the culture, it was caused by Tár’s own selfishness and the only person she has to blame is herself.

****1/2 out of Five

Everything, Everywhere, All At Once(4/4/2022)

They’ve often taken a back seat to robots, space ships, aliens, and time travel but as a science fiction concept parallel dimensions are clearly having a moment.  Unlike some of those other concept they don’t really have a clear grad daddy like an H.G. Welles or an Isaac Asimov, these ideas about tripping through an infinite number of alternate universes where things are just slightly (or not so slightly) different from our own has been all over the place in movies, TV, shows, and whatnot.  Some googling says that the concept as we know it started in a short story from the 1930s called “Sideways in Time” by Murray Leinster but some more famous progenitors include the Star Trek Mirror Universe but what really seemed to make them go mainstream were comic books, particularly DC Comics’ Earth-Two shenanigans which also carry over to Marvel’s multi-verse, which have now become a major part of the MCU films, particularly the “Loki” TV show and their recent box office titan Spider-Man: No Way Home, but what actually seemed more informative to the recent trend of parallel universes might actually be the adult animated TV series “Rick and Morty,” which often brings these ideas to mind bending ends.  But I don’t know that we’ve ever quite had the definitive feature length film meditation on this concept, until now, as the idea is take to it’s logical endpoint by the new film Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.

The film focuses in on a woman named Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) who in her younger years had emigrated from China to the United States with her husband Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) and the two now jointly run a not overly successful laundromat and are being audited by the IRS over tax irregularities.  She also has a rather strained relationship with her adult daughter Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu), who has entered into a relationship with another woman named Becky (Tallie Medel), which makes Evelyn uncomfortable.  Eventually the whole family, including Evelyn’s wheelchair bound father Gong Gong Wang, but excluding Joy, make their way to the IRS building to meet with an auditor named Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) but strange things start happening once they arrive.  In the elevator Waymond suddenly starts acting like a different person and give Evelyn strange instructions about thinking of herself in a broom closet and pressing a button on a Bluetooth headset and when she does this a wild series of events begin which involve traveling back and forth across different realities which will change the lives of all involved forever.

The film is directed by a duo named Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert who collectively refer to themselves as “Daniels.”  The two of them did a lot of music videos before moving on to features and they very much descend from the Spike Jonze and Michel Godry school of outlandish visuals and comedy.  I wasn’t a huge fan of their first feature film Swiss Army Man, which involved Paul Dano getting caught in the wilderness and using a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe to get out of it, but there was definitely a vision there and I was also certainly amused by some of their music video work like their video for the DJ Snake and Lil John song “Turn Down For What,” where their kind of crazy was really distilled to its essence.  Still I was skeptical that they could really get what they do to work as a feature but I think they managed it with this new movie, partly just because they found a concept which really allowed them to really start at a pretty fast tempo and mostly just speed things up and up, unlike Swiss Army Man which often slowed down and maybe gave its audience too much time to process how strange the concept was.

At the center of the madness is Michelle Yeoh, an actress who is both a legend with nothing left to prove while also being a criminally under-rated actress, especially in the United States.  Historically Yeoh has played spies, martial artists, and glamorous millionaires but here she plays a seemingly ordinary immigrant family woman with fairly mundane problems until she learns that in other universes she’s in fact a tremendously important person with implications that ripple out throughout the multiverse, as such she (and most of the cast) kind of need to play multiple roles as they encounter different versions of themselves.  I also really liked Stephanie Hsu as her daughter, who is frustrated in rather conventional millennial reasons in this world but who has some rather outlandish personality differences (and similarities) in different universes.  Then there’s Ke Huy Quan, who was a child star best known for playing Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom back in the 80s but never really transitioned easily into adult roles.  Truth be told I can kind of see why, the guy kind of got funny looking with age, but that sort of works here as he’s supposed to be playing a kind of dorky looking guy whose looks odd when he’s taken over by other versions of himself and suddenly becomes badass.

I want to be careful about giving away too much more than I already have about this movie because it is one you’re probably going to want to go into fairly blind but needless to say it gets really hyper as it goes.  The kind of physical comedy that “Daniels” are known for is on full display at times in the movie as the process of skipping between universes involves doing strange bits of physical comedy and other generally absurd and sometimes scatological things happen all over the place in the movie, which will likely weird out some audiences.  That physical comedy bent also mixes with straight-up fight sequences in which Yeoh’s martial arts background comes into play, making this an action film in addition to being a science fiction movie and a comedy.  The fast paced nature of the film’s multiverse shenanigans will likely be the other big barrier to entry for some audiences but to those who can keep up with it it’s invigorating and it just gets crazier and more over the top as the film goes.  But beneath all the wild stuff the film is grounded by its characters, who do react like rational humans to all this stuff in a way that makes it kind of relatable and there is a sentimental core to it all about this family and its dynamics.  To me this is a huge leap forward for “Daniels” after Swiss Army Men, almost to the point where they don’t have a lot of room to improve their hyperactive style from here, they may well have taken it to an almost perfect extreme and I’m not sure where they can go from here.

****1/2 out of Five

The Worst Person in the World(2/11/2022)

Joachim Trier is kind of a tricky filmmaker to talk about.  I’ve seen pretty much all of the guy’s movies up to now and certainly acknowledge him as an important voice in world cinema but I’ve generally come away respecting his movies more than I loved them.  My favorite of his for the longest time may have actually been his least known: his debut film Reprise, a really energetic take on the lives of elder millennials in Norway’s literary scene.  From there his movies got to be a bit slower and sadder.  His sophomore effort Oslo, August 31st was more widely praised than his debut but was more of a mood piece steeped in regret and melancholy.  His English language effort Louder Than Bombs was by most accounts a setback.  I think I liked it but it was really a movie that I barely remember and I don’t think I’m alone in that.  Things looked better with his last film Thelma, which was his take on something of a horror film, or at least a film with a supernatural element.  That movie might have done better if A24 had gotten their hands on it, but it never really found an audience.  I wasn’t sure where Trier would go next but was pleasantly surprised to see that his new movie The Worst Person in the World was something of a return to where he started: by taking a slightly satiric look at the lives of upper-middle class Oslo millennials.

The Worst Person in the World is divided into twelve short titled chapters along with a prologue and an epilogue.  The prologue sets up our protagonist, a slightly aimless woman in Oslo named Julie (Renate Reinsve) who shortly after college falls for an underground cartoonist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) who is about fifteen years older than her.  In “chapter one” we then skip forward about four years to when Julie is thirty and Aksel is about forty five and the two are unmarried but in a committed relationship and living together.   From there a lot of the usual questions of modern thirtysomething-dom start entering her life: Does she want children?  Does she want them with Aksel? What does she want in gernal?  Things become even more complicated when she meets a guy named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) who she has some affinity for but both of them are in relationships and don’t really know each other that well in the first place.

It has been suggested that this is the third in an “Oslo Trilogy” along with Reprise and Oslo, August 31 but I don’t really see it.  Or at least I don’t really see how Oslo, August 31, fits into it aside from the fact that it happens to be set in the same major city as the other two.  I remember that movie being a rather melancholic film more in keeping with the tones of Louder Than Bombs or Thelma while this new film in many ways feels like a return to the witty tone and somewhat youthful energy of Reprise.  The film is not exactly a comedy or even a satire but there is certainly an undercurrent of dry humor to it, much of it poking fun at the particular moment of “discourse” we’re currently in.  Like, one of the chapters in the film is called “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo,” which comes from an essay the main character writes and gets published at one point and if you find that chapter title amusing this is probably the film for you.  There are also some filmmaking devices the film employs like a much discussed scene where the character metaphorically makes time stop and a weird hallucination scene in the second act after some characters partake in magic mushroom consumption.  All of this is in service to the film’s overall interest in chronicling this character’s 1/3 live crises in which she still isn’t quite sure what she wants in life and what it means to be in your thirties.

At the center of all this is an actress named Renate Reinsve, who had a small part in Oslo, August 31 but has otherwise mostly worked in films that are not well known outside of Norway.  Here she has quite the challenge because Julie is kind of a prickly character; a self-confessed flake who’s often irritatingly lacking in self-direction and who engages in borderline infidelity at certain points.  Despite all this Reinsve and the screenplay do keep us on this character’s side for much of the movie, not just on her side, we really come to like her and care about her mission of self-discovery.  It’s a movie that oddly compliments another of this year’s high profile films, Licorice Pizza, which also involved an age-gap romance as a means of exploring a woman’s youthful self-discovery.  Of course that movie was about a woman in her twenties rather than thirties, but more importantly there’s a pretty big difference in voice between Paul Thomas Anderson and Joachim Trier.  Anderson’s take on this kind of story is warm and nostalgic while Trier’s take, even if it’s lighter than some of his other recent works, is still kind of dry and formalist and his movie goes to some sadder places, which is perhaps appropriate given that things tend to get a bit “realer” for people as they enter this stage of their lives.  At the end of the day I think I prefer Anderson’s voice, but this movie gives it a run for its money and I could actually see this working better for people looking for something with a little more weight and a bit more serious.

****1/2 out of Five

Red Rocket(12/25/2021)

Is Sean Baker the most important American filmmaker to emerge in the last ten years?  A credible argument could certainly be made.  There are of course other candidates like Barry Jenkins or Robert Eggers but Baker is in many ways doing something much more unique and excelling at it to levels that are both unlikely and incredibly impressive.  Of course “emerged in the last ten years” is perhaps a matter of perspective.  Baker has been making films as far back as the year 2000 and also did some television work but for the average film enthusiast he really emerged in 2015 with his film Tangerine, which looked at about twenty four hours in the lives of two transgender sex workers in West Hollywood with a great deal of energy and wit.  That however proved to mainly be an appetizer for what came next: 2017’s The Florida Project.  That film sported a larger budget and featured a supporting performance by Willem Dafoe, but remained true to his style of embedding himself into a marginal American community and building a strongly humanistic but at times wickedly funny story about what it means to get by on the fringes of society.  That was my favorite movie of 2017 and to my endless frustration it never really managed to become an award season staple that year and only managed one Academy Award nomination for Dafoe, but the fact that such an unconventionally made film even got as close as it did was impressive.  To follow that up he’s delivered another film that gives voice to the voiceless, albeit one that’s more prickly and complicated than his last two films.

Baker’s latest film is called Red Rocket and it finds him in a town called Texas City, Texas, which is a sort of coastal suburb on the periphery of Houston and frankly doesn’t look like a very pleasant place to live, or at least not the parts of it that are in this movie.  It’s in the shadow of a bunch of oil refineries and petrochemical plants and most of the people are living in these tiny houses that appear to be maybe a rung or two above trailer homes.  Our subject Mikey (Simon Rex) grew up in this town and has a history there but left and became a pornstar under the alias Mikey Saber.  He seems to have had a falling out with the industry though and at the beginning of the movie he gets off of a bus covered in bruises and with about twenty dollars to his name.  His first stop is the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), who lives with her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), and both appear to be drug users.  Desperate he agrees to pay them two hundred dollars rent a month to board with them and, lacking non-pornographic references, begins selling weed to make cash.  While doing this he finds himself in a donut shop where he spots a seventeen year old girl (Suzanna Son) working there and susses out that she has some rebellious tendencies and starts plotting to recruit her into the pornography to get back in the good graces of that industry.

Unlike Baker’s previous films, which starred non-actors in their lead roles this one does a have a professional at its center… sort of.  I hadn’t heard of Simon Rex before this movie came to light but he has been something of a figure in the entertainment industry before this.  He was apparently an MTV VJ in the 90s and during the 2000s he was in a string of fourth-rate parody films like Scary Movie 4 and Superhero Movie as well as a bunch of direct-to-DVD crap.  I have no idea where Baker got the idea of casting this guy in one of his movies but it seems to have been a stroke of brilliance because Rex is electric here.  “Mikey Saber” has this fascinating used car salesman energy where he exerts this incredible confidence in all situations and seemingly talk his way out of any jam despite basically having nothing to show for it.  That is an important skill for him because if he didn’t look the way he did and didn’t have this charismatic personality someone probably would have slit his throat by now… or maybe he would have become a better person if he didn’t have these skills to fall back on, but either way there version of him we see here is pretty much a monster… albeit a very entertaining monster to watch.

Red Rocket can legitimately be called a comedy, albeit a very dark comedy.  Mikey’s patter and general shamelessness is really funny, as are the reactions to him by the people who see through his bullshit.  In this sense the film feels a bit like a throwback to what Baker was doing in Tangerine and will perhaps make it a little harder to recommend than The Florida Project, which had a bit more melodrama and neither of Baker’s previous films focused on a character that is as repellent as Mikey proves to be over time.  Make no mistake, this guy is scum; he has seemingly no qualms whatsoever about starting a sexual relationship with a seventeen year old (when he learns she’s that age, the age of consent in Texas, he happily proclaims she’s “legal as an eagle!” with seemingly no self-awareness about how this sounds) and it’s also clear that he views this “relationship” entirely as a manipulation; he holds no delusions that this is a genuine romance but continues with it anyway.  Despite that, you as an audience member still kind of find yourself on this guy’s side to some extent; not rooting for him per se but on some level you admire the hustle and you want to see how this all plays out and that all kind of comes back to Simon Rex and his performance and how perfectly he defines this guy.

Baker shot this film on 16mm rather than the 35mm of The Florida Project or the shot-on-iPhone cinematography of Tangerine and that choice kind of emphasizes the dustiness of this Texas location and kind of evokes the look that Andrea Arnold explored with American Honey.  The film is perhaps less interested in finding sympathetic side characters here than he was in his previous films as pretty much everyone in Mikey’s orbit has some degree of criminality with the possible exception of Strawberry herself, who nonetheless has some negative sides to her as well, but the film finds endearing quirks to a lot of these characters and does build out elements to all of them so that you understand their lives.  The decision to set the film in 2016 right as the election was going on in the background felt like a bit of a misstep; it kind of suggested the film was meant to be some sort of commentary on how that election looked on the ground in a red state but it doesn’t go too far with that.  Looking back though I think I get the decision a little better as I think it’s trying to make a comparison between Trump and the Simon Rex character as both are opportunistic bullshiters who don’t have a good long term plan but even looked at in that dubious light I don’t think Mikey Saber can be described as being nearly as successful at bullshit as Trump and I don’t think it’s really a perfect metaphor.  Still, on its own terms this is one of the more successful attempts I’ve ever seen at trying to build a movie around a total shithead who you really can’t get behind and one more bold look at a marginalized America from Sean Baker.

****1/2 out of Five

Licorice Pizza(12/11/2021)

The 70s were weird, or so I’m told.  The general cultural consensus seems to be that on balance it was a terrible decade that combined all the worst elements of the previous decade (political tumult, crime, moral uncertainty) with all the worst elements of the next decade (cultural commodification, conservative social backlash, embarrassing fashion) along with some aesthetic choices which feel like they never could have been seen as tasteful.  The music and movies of the era tend to hold up pretty well, in part because it was the decade when baby boomers became adults, thus making it one of the few times when there was more money to be made in catering to adults than children.  But those boomer adults mostly seem to look back on the decade with disdain.  Gen Xers (or at least honorary Gen Xers) on the other hand seem to look back on the decade with more affection.  Nostalgia is a hell of a drug and even people who grew up during the worst of warfare and economic depression are capable of coming out with at least some odd affection for the times they grew up in.  Up to now the definitive film of 70s nostalgia was almost certainly Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a 90s movie about teenagers in suburban Texas circa 1976.  Beyond that you maybe have Wit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn.  But few movies are as oddly pro-70s as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights a movie that seems to suggest that from a certain perspective the 70s were actually awesome for all the reasons most people are disgusted by it (cocaine, dirty sex, disco) while the 80s were lame and stifling.  Well, Paul Thomas Anderson has now returned to that decade, this time looking at it from a slightly more chill perspective via his long awaited 70s set film Licorice Pizza.

Specifically Licorice Pizza is set in 1973 and in the San Fernando Valley and it looks at a rather unconventional relationship between a fifteen year old actor and “go getter” named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and a somewhat aimless young woman ten years his elder named Alana Kane (Alana Haim).  Despite being of high school age Valentine has been working as an actor both in features and in commercials from a very young age and is already moving into other ventures like starting a business selling water beds (then a new invention) to the surrounding areas.  Kane joins him in this venture along with some other friends and siblings and their exploits will to encounter all sorts of Hollywood eccentrics like fictional aging actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), fictional director Rex Blau (Tom Waits), real life producer and spider enthusiast Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), and real life local politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie).  Throughout all this the two of them have a sort of “will they or won’t they” dynamic as both of them aren’t exactly sure whether they should be something more than friends given the age differential and occasional bouts of interest in other people.

Paul Thomas Anderson was born in 1970, meaning that he was three years old when this was set so it would be a mistake to view this as a movie that’s autobiographical.  Instead this appears to have been inspired by the recollections of a showbiz friend of his named Gary Goetzman, who is currently a producer who works a lot with Tom Hanks.  Like Gary Valentine, Goetzman’s biggest credit by 1973 would have been as a child star in a dopey comedy called Yours, Mine and Ours (fictionalized here as Under One Roof) and like Valentine he had a bunch of other hustles at a ridiculously young age.  The film is also populated with other L.A. figures both famous and obscure, some of them lightly fictionalized and some of them named by name.  The aging Jack Holden, played here by Sean Penn, appears to be based on William Holden and while I don’t have a source for this I’m going to guesstimate that the rugged aging director played by Tom Waits is based on Sam Peckinpah.  Meanwhile they just name producer/Barbra Streisand ex/Shampoo inspiration Jon Peters by name and making him this hilarious crazy person who pops into the film for a fifteen minute stretch, possibly just because Anderson knew Peters had a sense of humor about his reputation.  Some of these people are a bit more obscure as well, like a restaurateur played by John Michael Higgins called Jerry Frick who has this weird racist banter with his Japanese wife and late in the film we meet a local politician named Joel Wachs, who is also real and was apparently a figure in southern California politics for decades to come.  All of this suggests a bit of a portrait of this odd community in the time and place that’s not exactly connected to the film industry but certainly on its periphery and where you can just run into eccentrics at will and where it feels like you can accomplish things a bit easier than you’d maybe expect elsewhere, for better or worse.

So, let’s get to the elephant in the room: this is a movie about a relationship between a fifteen year old and a twenty five year old… is that creepy or what?  At the very least that’s a tension that runs through the film and it’s something that needs to be approached with a bit of nuance that tends to be absent from conversations about these sorts of things.  In many ways I think this movie can be viewed as something of a weird funhouse mirror companion piece to Anderson’s last film Phantom Thread.  While the two movies have vastly different tones and settings, what they have in common is that both of them are basically film length peeks into unconventional relationships between unconventional people which you’re not exactly sure you can approve of.  That film looked at a dynamic which, in terms of wealth differential and temperament could be viewed as emotionally abusive except that the woman in that film proved to be a tougher cookie than you’d expect at first glance and was able to find ways bring her husband down to earth.  Here there are a number of factors making the power dynamic between these two rather… unconventional.

Valentine is indeed quite a bit younger than Kane, but he’s also not your average teenager.  His child star upbringing and general disposition has made him the more confident, independent, wealthy, and worldly of the two and you don’t get the impression that he’s being outsmarted or taken advantage of by Kane, who by contrast lives at home with her family and generally seems kind of aimless in life.  Does all this meant that such a relationship, is “okay?”  Not necessarily.  It should be noted that the relationship between Valentine and Kane appears to be basically unconsummated for much of the run of the film, which sort of sidesteps some of the thornier aspects of all of this and I don’t think it’s really making much of an argument that this relationship is some sort of true love that will last forever or even much past the summer.  More broadly though this does not strike me as a movie that’s trying to justify or make excuses for these kind of age differentials in general any more than a movie showing someone snorting a line of cocaine without consequences is necessarily trying to say that drugs can never hurt you.  It’s all meant to be very specific to these two people and their very unusual dynamic.

But all this talk of sexual ethics really misses the forest for the trees and distracts from the bigger takeaway, namely that this movie is a fuckin’ blast.  The movie can pretty legitimately be called a comedy without qualification as it is going for laughs in almost every scene and it has a lot of that energy that Paul Thomas Anderson was famous for in his early films but without some of his excessive tendencies from that era.  The film does have a bit of an episodic structure especially in the second half where it almost feels like a series of guest stars showing up, which may be a touch odd to some people but I think it works well for the movie in conveying how these characters are just kind of flowing through life in this weird breezy summer and some of these episodes are just priceless, that sequence with Bradley Cooper is some of the most amusing shit you’re going to see all year.  It’s certainly not the deepest movie that Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made but movies about teenagers dicking around in the San Fernando Valley during the 70s are by their nature not going to be as deep as movies about oil barons and cult leaders, but that doesn’t mean that it was made any less thoughtfully and the fact that he’s able to make both points to the sheer depth of his talents.  There’s basically nothing I’d change about this film… except maybe the title, not sure what that’s all about.

****1/2 out of Five