Review: The Beach Bum (2019)

The Beach Bum is the latest film by Harmony Korine, perhaps the most detestable director working today. His works are largely exploitative and nihilistic, gratuitous in their depictions of women and following characters who seem to have no purpose in life.

This is my third encounter with Korine after Gummo and Spring Breakers – and, well, both of those grew on me after I initially had a strongly negative reaction. As sleazy as his works are, Korine has this odd ability to make them linger.

These three works all tackle nihilism but in different ways. In Gummo, he gives us a view into the world of the desperately poor, an observation of people who are given no sign that life can be anything more. Spring Breakers utilizes nihilism as a tool for violence, following a group of college girls who leave a wake of bodies while on vacation. If those two represent nihilism as a destructive force, The Beach Bum loops it back around to its most positive side – if life has no purpose, why not have fun with it?

The Beach Bum isn’t that naive – there’s an underlying sense of dread and giving up, people drifting without a focus. This film feels similarly unfocused, but in a way that suits the mood. This is a slice of life through the eyes of people who can get away with anything due to their undeserved riches.

What makes Korine such a compelling figure is how talented he is – he takes these detestable tales and gives them a truly impressive presentation. He’s like if John Waters had the visual mastery of Terrence Malick. His films carry this hypnagogic style, this feeling of drifting through the imagery.

So, where it’s easy to pass off Korine as merely exploitative, I think there’s more to what he’s doing. His film feels like a prime example of post-modernism – explicitly in its mixing of heightened visual language with low themes. Films about wanton debauchery don’t deserve to be shot so compellingly – yet Korine has proven time and time again that he can do so with ease.

The Beach Bum feels like the most accessible of his works, giving Matthew McConaughey a perfect role as he drifts between several figures – it’s like if Linklater’s Waking Life toured various forms of self-destruction in place of philosophy. Despite the context of what’s on screen, a lot of this film is strangely beautiful. Bright colors cover the screen, the thoughts of characters linger as the scene cuts to new shots. Some conversations occur over several cuts, the characters shifting places but their dialogue continuing as if no time has passed – it’s almost hypnotic, the way in which it plays with time.

The Beach Bum is excessively obtuse – your opinion of this film is going to be largely dependent on your tolerance for a narrative that goes nowhere, making statements that don’t add up to much. But if you’re less concerned with narrative cohesion and more drawn to the mixing of fine cinematography with vile excess, as I apparently must be, The Beach Bum is another good time. Where the overall picture might not add up to much, each individual sequence is strangely compelling – whether it be Zac Efron’s take as a completely misguided Christian youth while rocking panini-chops or Martin Lawrence as a woefully incompetent dolphin tour guide, there are several moments that are hard to forget.

God – when did I become such a big fan of Harmony Korine?

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: Dumbo (2019)

Dumbo is one of several Disney remakes releasing this year, and the one that appeared to hold the most promise – instead of being an apparent shot by shot remake, this film attempts to tell its own version of the story. So, what happens when you expand the tightly-focused, 64 minute original to nearly two hours by shifting focus to a bunch of human characters?

I really hate to open this review by attacking a child actor, but if you’re going to put a young person in a lead role, you really should make sure they can act. Nico Parker’s performance is distracting throughout – it feels as if they were attempting for this sort of stoic, wise-beyond-her-years child, and the result is this really boring version of Violet Baudelaire. This film is loaded with shots of her responding to big moments with completely dull surprise.

Her lacking gaze is far from the only dull element of this film – this entire work felt like a slog. Much of the film’s plot focuses on an attempt to reunite Dumbo with his mother, and the human characters all feel so secondary to this – yet Dumbo himself feels reduced to a non-character. While Dumbo didn’t speak in the original, having him surrounded by animals made him feel like an equal. That film was the story of a young animal struggling to find purpose in a cruel world.

This remake quickly leaps through the flying wonder stage – with Dumbo’s magnificence being established early, there’s really not much for him to do on a personal level. Instead, the film shifts into this awkward take on corporate takeovers, coming from a company guilty of doing so on a large scale. The corporate circus at the end seems to be a direct riff on Disneyland, but it’s such a hollow sentiment coming out of a film that exists due to a corporation exploiting one of the properties that got it established.

Disney has no apparent interest in reestablishing these classic takes for a modern audience. Everything about this production suggests it was rushed. Much like Mary Poppins Returns, it falls so quickly into a cycle of the most basic Hollywood-style framing and editing, the camera desperately chasing the action. The original Dumbo contains one of Disney’s most iconic and experimental sequences – that film deserves better homage than this shallow take.

This is yet another prime example of what Tim Burton lacks as a director. He has always been a top director when it comes to the plastics of his film – the set design, the costumes, they’re all fine here. But he is rarely able to capture his daring designs with worthy technique, and his narratives largely tend to be shallow. He understands the visual aspect of the image but not how to capture it, to add meaning to it.

Again, Disney has pushed out a film that feels less like an artistic work and more like a product. The original has always been the odd one out among Disney’s first five animated features, and it’s one that deserves a better legacy – but this remake shifts the focus to an unnecessary lens and adds a few side stories to draw the plot out longer. I can understand the compulsion to go beyond the original’s 64 minutes, as a film of that length is practically unheard of these days, but stretching it to two hours is a simply violent act against the audience.

Tim Burton’s Dumbo is an unfocused mess of a film, one that loses all traces of charm from the original to tell an entirely different story it really has no right to be telling. An adaptation of a visually inventive film from a director that used to be accused of similar creativity, this work is disarmingly bland.

So, I will instead implore you to revisit the original. It comes from an era when Disney could take risks, back when animated film was still being established as a form. Some of it might seem familiar now, but it still feels like a fresher tale than this newly minted adaptation.

2 Out of 5 Stars

Review: Us (2019)

Jordan Peele’s Us has the unenviable position of following an instant classic debut. Get Out was my favorite not-mini-series film of 2017, perfectly mixing horror tropes with a grand statement about race in America, a rare film that tackles real issues in a meaningful yet digestible way. Where Get Out was rather straightforward in its statements, Us is an entirely different beast.

The film starts simply enough – Adelaide, played by Lupita Nyong’o, briefly encounters a doppelganger as a child and spends her life in fear of its return. While on vacation with her family, they are attacked by their collective doppelgangers. This is a film that obviously plans to dive deep, but saying anything more exact than that would spoil the fun.

Luckily, Us offers so much more than narrative bullet points. The visual language of the film is phenomenal – lighting grants an ominous view of the doppelgangers as they first appear, and their body language is right in that inhuman, uncanny zone. The acting and technical elements work in perfect unison to highlight their differences, with close-up shots revealing haunting little touches that really drive the point home.

This sense of unlike doubles is really brought to life through the performances, especially lead Lupita Nyong’o. She captures this knowing, frightened mother role well, but where she really shines is as the copy. There’s this assured, sinister grace to her movements, the way she contorts her face as she speaks – she fully sells herself as one of the more ominous movie villains.

The film is loaded with imagery rife with potential symbolic meaning, though what it all adds up to is naturally a bit murky. This is a good thing, as this film creates horror through the unknown. A pair of scissors alone is a bit scary as a deadly weapon – having it as a common weapon shared by the doppelgangers suggests some deeper meaning at play.

At times, it feels like Peele wants us to be actively viewing this movie on both the figurative and literal level. Though Us is clearly a horror movie, I feel the style demands it be read quite a bit differently. Where my usual focus in this genre would be on who will survive and how, Us pushes past that. It’s ultimately a mystery film – it sets us up to believe there has to be a deeper meaning behind all these symbols, and then gives reason for the protagonist to hunt that meaning down. The struggle to survive is matched by a macabre curiosity.

Peele clears up some matters by the end, but a lot is left to linger. A week later, I’m still wrapping my head around some of the imagery. This is a film that hits hard, the type that will inevitable spawn a hundred different think pieces due to the depth of its imagery.

Which, I’ve been going on about its symbolism, but this is in no way a movie that requires a deep interest beyond the surface level. Like Get Out, Us makes these dense topics accessible. This is ultimately a comedic horror – which is not to say it uses this imagery as a backdrop for comedy. In fact, this is a rare horror comedy that manages to use comedy to heighten the horror at key moments. Punchlines in comedy tend to act like relief – here, Peele uses that relief to give a false sense of security before immediately reminding you of the brutal context.

The narrative structure is also on-point, evolving as new points of tension pop up. The story goes to wild places, but it always feels like a natural progression – I kept comparing it to Akira, which similarly starts small and uses that limited initial focus to tell a personal story on an increasingly larger scale. One thing that makes this feel so consistent despite its vibrant shift in focus is how it keeps cycling back to the same motifs – even if you don’t feel like diving into the symbolism, it gives a sense of purpose to every moment.

Us is a visceral, at times surreal horror experience. Though it doesn’t quite reach the level of Get Out, it is certainly a worthy follow-up. Jordan Peele is bold in his mixing of genres that are generally looked over as lighter fare with stark symbolism and dense social critique. This is a movie about us as both Americans in general and individuals. It will get under your skin, both in its immediate horrors and the strange way it gives just enough answers to keep you asking more questions. Great movies linger after they’ve finished, and Us certainly lingers.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Dirt (2019)

What happens when you take a troubled dad rock band that was never properly passed on to any following generation and adapt an apparently disturbing tell-all book into an audience-friendly Netflix biopic? You get an experience about as pleasant as lapping up Ozzy Osbourne’s piss off the edge of a pool.

The Dirt appears to be targeted solely at older Generation X’ers who never quite grew up. The director’s previous credits all belong to the Jackass franchise, and his obsession with bodily fluids and self-destruction is just as shallow here. Motley Crue is not a band I even moderately respect, but I can at least admit there could have been something done with the source material – but this is not it.

With Jeff Tremaine’s immature focus, The Dirt is nothing more than a simple journey into hedonism. There’s no real atmospheric feel, just a bunch of awful men doing stupid things and not really being judged for it. The movie has slight references to the fact that there was likely something psychologically wrong with members of this band, but nothing is done to really analyze their behavior. Instead, the film largely joins in on the glee of their reckless abandon.

The Dirt has all the pieces required for a mid-2000s MTV film, a decade and a half too late. There’s no real sense of effort put into this movie – they took an easy source with a built-in fan base and narrowed it down to the most shocking moments in the name of bile fascination. If you’re not a fan of Motley Crue, you’re most likely going to walk away from this movie convinced they’re a group of awful, abusive people who you have no reason to look into any further. Which, really, is fine – there’s a reason we look back on the mainstream culture of the 1980s specifically and laugh.

The cast of the film doesn’t seem to be even halfway trying – you know there’s a problem when Machine Gun Kelly isn’t just a minor role but one of the leads (and he now unfortunately tops the list of my most watched actors of 2019). This film falls back on all the biopic cliches, and every close-up, fourth wall-breaking camera address just highlights how poor these performances are.

The film is a technical chore, the most generically shot film I’ve experienced this year. If Motley Crue is supposedly this transgressive band, why is everything in this movie so by the numbers? The acts performed on camera are certainly vile, but there’s little attempt to back it up through camera work or anything. When it does do something a bit unusual, it’s clearly because Tremaine has seen it done in other works and is simply copying, such as a first-person bender sequence. He even tries to use fades to black to punctuate each cut during a key end scene, which ultimately just highlights the shoddiness of everything.

The Dirt is simply a valueless film. There’s nothing to be gained from the experience; no reason to watch unless you’re a die-hard Motley Crue fan, and even then, you should ask for something more from a biopic about something you adore – though I guess that would require Motley Crue fans to be capable of asking for something better. They enjoy Motley Crue, after all.

1 Out of 5 Stars

Dear Redacted Break For the Week of March 18

As I continue to find my energy to focus on other projects, I find myself slipping from Dear Redacted – this project was an attempt to get me back on my productive feet, but now that I have my energy for at least film criticism again, I’m having to readjust my balance of time. I don’t want to simply throw something together to meet a self-imposed deadline, so I’m going to take a break from the project and hopefully return next week.

Review: Apollo 11 (2019)

Apollo 11 is a rather straightforward documentary; it brings us on a chronological journey through the first successful moon landing and return purely through contemporary footage. There’s no historian to add context, no modern flourishes besides a soundtrack. This is a historical film that remains rooted in its own era, capturing the first hand experience as best as it can.

Apollo 11 is much more than a rudimentary recollection of a significant event – this is a masterclass in film editing. The film starts a bit before launch and carries through to the men landing back on earth, and it offers several vantage points. It begins by juxtaposing the nervous mission command with the excited public gathered outside to watch the launch. Director and editor Todd Douglas Miller gathers as much disparate footage as he can to tackle several perspectives. Where a film like They Shall Not Grow Old appears to gloss over the small details in service to the bigger picture, Apollo 11 feels more comprehensive by honing in on this specific moment. It might not address the various tests leading up to the launch, but this feels like full coverage of the public event, media frenzy and all.

Miller fits in as many details as he can while keeping the film to a tight hour and a half. He greatly utilizes split screen, whether it be to show conversations between ground level crew and the astronauts or sometimes to simply showcase the exact same moment from different angles. Some moments are montage while other key scenes allow an extended shot to run in full – Miller makes the wise decision of showing the full footage of the actual landing, this nondescript camera angle as a meter counts down the rapidly decreasing altitude.

By summarizing the events so directly, Miller manages to capture a bit of the frenzied zeitgeist this moment represented. By drawing these key moments out, he even adds in a bit of tension that would otherwise be missing since we all know how this story ends. Time is expertly used for atmospheric effect.

Despite the technical proficiency, there are a few moments that come across as a bit of a slog – surprisingly, not in the extended anticipation of the launch but in the slow trips between Earth and the Moon. I ran into the same issue with First Man; there’s no sense of the unknown to the actual journey. First Man was at its best when it was exploring the less publicized tests that led up to Apollo 11, just like Apollo 11 finds strength in the command center. The actual footage from the moon is at times frustrating – the length of the journey necessitated lower frame rates, and a lot of the angles reveal a painfully small amount of the landscape. However, I believe Apollo 11 is doing the best it can with the resources available.

There seems to be two classes of great documentaries – many of the best expose an otherwise overlooked concept, the type of work that can spark outrage in the right hands. Films like Apollo 11 serve more as a literal document – this is a succinct record of a major event that everyone is familiar with as a concept, but with footage neatly gathered in a single, logically-presented place. It’s unlikely to change anyone’s world view, but it certainly is a magnificent summary of one of the most important events we were lucky to catch on film.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Captive State (2019)

Captive State tries to take the sci-fi genre in a different direction, using an alien occupation as a backdrop for a film about a political revolution. The film was almost silently dropped into theaters, apparently having a review embargo up until its first public screenings.

The studio had fair reason to do this; Captive State is a jumbled mess of a movie, one that appears technically competent on the most basic levels but incapable of doing much with what it has. It’s clear the film wants to play upon some sort of political intrigue, never explaining what each character is truly doing; unfortunately, this coats the entire film in this vague layer of confusion. There’s a clear stylistic goal in its presentation, sometimes letting the camera quietly observe its characters and allowing actions to speak for themselves – but this is a problem when so many actions have no clear meaning.

Because it so consistently fails to establish anything, it’s similarly hard to invest in the narrative. Why should we care about any of these characters? A lot of people pop into this plot merely to die minutes later. The film even loses track of one of its two protagonists for what must have been half an hour – he gets trapped inside a subway booth, being chased down by a form of alien we haven’t seen before and won’t see at any other point in the movie, and simply stays there while a deluge of other characters push the plot forward. How did no one notice that they practically wrote a lead character out of a large chunk of the second act?

While carrying this vague energy throughout, it also telegraphs way too obviously in key moments. John Goodman’s William Mulligan has an early scene with the resistance leader who fronts as a prostitute. She talks of Greeks bearing gifts, and then the film cuts to a literal picture of a Trojan horse on her wall. Why make your eventual ‘plot twist’ so clear but none of the scenes we have to endure until that point?

Captive State simply lacks any form of the human element – despite being about humans rising up against an alien force, its characters are pure vessels for narrative advancement and nothing more.

It similarly lacks on the narrative front – the designs are subpar, and there is a variety to the aliens that is never properly established. The absolute worst of this is a shot of an alien spaceship travelling over the water; the effect is abysmal, this vague rock-like structure simply hovering, and I swear the exact same shot was used twice. Additionally, these mecha-like structures are lined up along the waterfront, but I don’t remember ever seeing them being used or otherwise referenced. So many pieces of the design act as simple signifiers, serving solely as a reminder that, yes, this is a science fiction film.

There’s a desperate need for more original films tackling genre fiction in new ways. Captive State likely started out with this goal, but every element works against it as a film. It’s bland, not by being generic, but by failing to establish any artistic purpose. Whatever this film was attempting to do got lost in murky editing choices and one dimensional characters.

1.5 Stars Out of 5

Friendship Removal Machine

Despite our falling out, I figured we’d at least have each other to watch through social media. We had grown apart, but there had to be something in at least being able to see where the other had ended up.

But I didn’t like what I saw. You appeared to join a fraternity in college, became the type of straight bro I’ve always dreaded. I tolerated it for a bit, but then it became clear you were falling into the right – perhaps even the far right.

That was a bit hard to take in – that someone who was once the closest friend I had likely resented the community I had found myself in. Really, you likely hated your voice growing up because of that resentment – or maybe the teasing drove you to that point.

I realized I was filling in the blanks in the worst way possible, but then I realized it didn’t matter. You weren’t the same person anymore. We both grew up apart from one another and found different lives, different circles.

I removed you from Facebook unceremoniously. I doubt you even noticed. Would you care at all if you did?

Yet there’s obviously that part of me that still thinks of you – but what’s it matter anymore? Am I just longing for the idea that you would have turned out differently? Or was this all too predictable considering your upper-class white childhood?

All these thoughts, they’re so pointless. If we were to meet again today as we are now, I’d feel nothing but discomfort.