Set in El Paso, Texas, Maisie Crow’s documentary “At the Ready” takes aim at the law enforcement classes that scoop up vulnerable students who are looking for ways to help their families with the promise of a decent salary that doesn’t require going into debt for college. It’s a dose of sobering insight, captured at the height of the Trump administration and when headlines about separating families at the border dominated the news. With a class predominantly filled with Latino students, many of them with immigrant parents and relatives, the documentary follows a group of children confronted with the realities of the job that are more than just practicing arrests and active shooter training drills.
“At the Ready” opens at the beginning of the school year, complete with the awkward first day of class introductions and giddy smiles. At Horizon High School, one of roughly 900 schools in Texas that offer classes in law enforcement, students can pursue a career track that will prepare them for jobs in the police force or Border Patrol, a big draw for a border city like El Paso. In addition to in-class training, students can also sign up for an extracurricular club to compete against other schools to reenact law enforcement scenarios. The teenagers learn how to fire guns, practice paramilitary techniques, and receive narcotics training. While their classmates enjoy football games and endure the indignities of school functions, the law enforcement class practices their training as security guards at these events.
Three different voices come to stand out in Crow’s film. The first belongs to Cristina, a recent graduate of Horizon High School who became a member of Border Patrol. As the documentary progresses, she comes face-to-face with some of the crueler duties of her job, especially when young kids arrive separated from their families. Her heart is in the right place—she says over and over again she wants to help her community and help her parents—but the demands of the job force her to question the organization’s mission.
Then there’s Mason (who went by Kassy in high school), an independent trans student mostly on his own since his father is away for work. Where once he found a much needed sense of community in his law enforcement classes, he begins to question whether or not he feels like he belongs, knowing that some of the law enforcement teachers look down on LGBTQ people.
Cesar is another kind and caring student who steps up to care for his brother and help his mother around the house. He questions whether the law enforcement classes would actually help him or his family since his father has had past troubles with the law.
Crow’s camera captures the nuance of what these teens face and how law enforcement instructors and recruiters sell children on the idea of following in their footsteps. The program, which has been in place since 2009, includes a recruitment video promoting its fraternity of graduates now in law enforcement. An instructor follows up the presentation with the promise that her students will never be alone because of this network. Other instructors appeal to the kid’s sense of loyalty to their families and their communities. Students carry backpacks and hand decorated notebooks celebrating the police or Border Patrol.
"At the Ready" observes other background details, like what these kids are missing out on by not being a part of the general student population or the Thin Blue Line flag that hangs over their classroom, to explain the environment where these classes take place. Salaries are discussed both at home and in the classroom. For many students with immigrant parents, the career path to a steady job with a steady income is part of the American Dream. It’s a source of pride for their parents, and it becomes a means to help take care of their families right after high school. But for some of these students dealing with guilt, insecurity and doubt, these intensive courses become a nightmare. The students question themselves when other Latinos call them racists or traitors. The instructors plainly tell the camera they keep some of the real unpleasantries of their jobs away from the kids, like the scarier life-threatening situations or the personal toll a law enforcement career takes, yet they encourage their students to pursue these tough careers because it’s how they moved up in life. It’s a cyclical pattern that has spread in the years since the documentary was filmed.
El Paso sits just across the border from Ciudad Juárez. Many of the film’s main subjects travel over to the other side to see their families. For them, the issue of immigration and militarization hits painfully close to home, even as recruiters pitch them as assets to any law enforcement branch they join. “At the Ready” explores those tensions through a sympathetic lens, going over the many reasons that would convince young, caring students to learn how to arrest and subdue perceived bad guys and how the previous generation of law enforcement recruits to replenish its ranks. It’s a pipeline not unlike that of the military or a gang, starting with engaging kids’ interests, before they’re old enough to vote or drink, with the promise of work and a decent pay-off. That concept is scarier than watching teenagers bob and weave around their school practicing how to confront an armed suspect, and just as jarring.
Now playing in theaters and available on demand.
"The Harder They Fall" is a bloody pleasure: a revenge Western packed with memorable characters played by memorable actors, each scene and moment staged for voluptuous beauty and kinetic power. Jeymes Samuel, who cowrote, directed, and scored the movie, has not just studied the works of the directors he emulates, but understands what they were doing with image and sound, and feels it, surely in the way that he feels the craft involved in music he performs and produces under his stage name The Bullitts. It's a pity that this Netflix film will likely be seen mainly on handheld devices, laptops, and iPads, because (like other late-2021 releases, such as "The French Dispatch" and "Dune") it was plainly conceived with a movie house in mind. Samuel uses a very wide screen to frame shots that employ a lot of negative space and contain layers of information you have to focus on to appreciate, and gifts his actors with precious moments where their characters are allowed to listen to each other, silently glance at each other, and ponder their next move, often while enduring death-stares from enemies armed to the teeth.
Western history buffs should be warned, or at least notified, that while many of the major characters in the story share the same names as actual people who lived and died in the Old West, including Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Stagecoach Mary, Jim Beckwourth, and Cherokee Bill, the events they take part in are mostly made-up nonsense. They bear as much relation to reality as the events of a dreamscape Western like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "The Quick and the Dead," and "Posse" (to name just three Westerns this one cribs from) or a gangster movie like "Dillinger" and "The Untouchables," the major events of which were so ludicrous that they might as well have been taking place on another planet, or in an alternate dimension.
But this is a feature of the movie, not a bug. The entire project feels like a bit of a lark or an indulgence, until the point when it wipes the cocky grin off its face, embraces the melodramatic aspects of its central storyline, and becomes an earnest romance, a family tragedy, and a quasi-mythological story about how violence begets more violence, whether it's experienced in a saloon, on dusty streets, or in the privacy of a family home. (Three different characters in "The Harder They Fall" talk about their experiences with domestic abuse.)
Jonathan Majors, who came out of nowhere a few years ago to become one of the most reliable of leading men, stars as Nat Love, first depicted in flashback as a terrified child whose mother and father are murdered by the outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). As a parting gift, Buck draws his dagger and inscribes a crucifix into the boy's forehead. It marks the film's hero as meaningfully as the vertical sabre-scar on the Outlaw Josey Wales' face. As an adult, Nat becomes a feared gunslinger and outlaw, and finds himself embroiled in a combination adventure and revenge mission targeting the man who killed his parents. There are quick-draws, large-scale gunfights, horse stunts, and chases, a train robbery, bank robberies, and a couple of hand-to-hand brawls with fists, feet and makeshift weapons that are as good as any ever staged in a Western (with unabashedly modern fight choreography, though—like something out of a Bond or Bourne film). There are also musical numbers, and big sets painted in so many varied and vibrant hues and with so many modern touches that at times we seem to be touring an art installation on Western themes. A fight to the death between two characters in a barn is preceded by a walk through brightly dyed fabrics hanging on clotheslines; they look like those large-scale "wrapping" projects that Christo does on landscapes.
Samuel and his co-writer Boaz Yakin ("Remember the Titans," "Fresh") break the first section of the film into mirrored narratives, each dealing with one of the main criminal gangs: Nat's and Rufus'. At the start of the story proper, Rufus is doing federal prison time for bank robbery, but gets sprung by his right-hand woman Trudy (Regina King, chewing up the screen as a sadistic, sneering baddie).
Trudy then leads Rufus' gang in a boarding action that takes over a U.S. Calvary-controlled train where Rufus is being held inside an iron vault as if he were a velociraptor (or Hannibal Lecter). It takes a rare actor to justify the buildup that Samuel creates for Rufus: the character's face is not seen in the opening sequence and for another 20 minutes after that, and when Trudy takes over the prison car and opens the vault door, the movie lets us stare into the darkness a bit longer, like infantrymen with binoculars looking for Godzilla's dorsal fins in Tokyo Bay. Elba makes the wait worth it, imbuing his majestically cynical, confident character with a free-floating sadness reminiscent of El Indio, the antagonist from "For a Few Dollars More" whose opium addiction numbed his awareness of his own monstrousness.
Unshackled at last, Rufus returns to the desert town he used to run, and finds his old partner Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole, giving off Clarence Williams III vibes) lording it over the place as if he were the rightful owner. Rufus makes quick work of Wiley, but he doesn't kill him, and it's fun to watch the character come skulking through the film again at various junctures, wheedling and manipulating and double-crossing and doing whatever else he feels he needs to do to get ahead. Most, if not all of the characters have a similarly self-justifying moral code. Not for nothing do Samuel and costume designer Antoinette Messam outfit nearly every character in a black hat: it's not just a sly nod to the film's non-traditional casting, it'a an acknowledgement that nearly every player in this story would be described as the antihero or villain if you made them the star of their own project.
Samuel fills the screen with characters whose eccentricity, coolness, and layered psychology are conveyed with such economy that it's only when you look back on the picture that you realize that they only had a few minutes of the two-plus hour runtime to themselves. Although the film's sympathies are always with Nat, a traumatized boy imposing his manly will upon an unjust universe, for the most part it seems more invested in the idea that people are complicated and self-contradicting, which might be why it portrays the jockeying of the two gangs over possession of assorted bank robbery hauls not as a battle of good and evil, but a conflict between competing business interests, each party trying to redefine will and appetite as justice.
In addition to Elba, and King, Rufus's gang includes Lakeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, whose prolific kill record is undercut by rumors that he shoots his enemies in the back. Backing up Nat, we have Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary, a gun-for-hire who used to be Nat's lover and still carries a torch for him; Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, a Calamity Jane-type tomboy gunfighter who presents as male; R.J. Wyler as Beckwourth, a pistol-twirling showboat who's obsessed with killing Bill in a legitimate quick-draw contest; and rifleman Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), who, in the words of Morgan Freeman's character in "Unforgiven," could hit a bird in the eye flyin.'
Rolling his eyes as the types of viewers that Alfred Hitchcock derided as The Plausibles, the filmmaker goes for an operatic dream/nightmare feeling, creating (like Leone before him) a parallel, alternative version of the American West in which pistol shots reverberate like cannon fire, and gunfights become so acrobatic as to seem like an extension of martial arts.
Racism, genocide, and imperial arrogance exist in this film's universe and impact the lives of nonwhite people (one Black character reveals a neck scar indicating that he survived a lynching), but not to such an extent that they can't own bars, nightclubs, and banks, run thriving towns, and roam about the frontier with cocky confidence in armed groups (just as white gunslingers did) without having to fear persecution or annihilation at any moment. Samuels' film is escapist, then, in a somewhat different sense than one in which that word is usually employed. The movie creates a fictional space where viewers who have traditionally been excluded from a genre can revel in its pleasures.
If there's a downside, it's that Samuel sometimes gets so enamored with the presentation of violence (and the buildup to violence) that the characters that he and the actors have so patiently created turn into action figurines. And some of the storytelling choices can feel counter-intuitive or worse (Stagecoach Mary has to be a damsel in distress for a bit, and the film's coyly referring to her as a "damsel" doesn't make the choice feel any less retrograde). To be fair, though, this has sometimes been a problem in films that "The Harder They Fall" appears to be channelling as well.
But even the missteps here are counterbalanced by seemingly out-of-nowhere choices that make you laugh because of their audacity, then sigh at their rightness, such as the way that both Rufus and Nat often whistle or sing melodies that also appear in Samuel's score or songs, making the movie seem as if it's constantly on the brink of turning into a Western musical: imagine "Annie Get Your Gun" directed by Hype Williams. Some of the scenes between Mary and Nat, particularly early on when she's shown performing onstage, echo Nicolas Ray's surreal but earnest "Johnny Guitar";a David Lynch favorite, and another Western that creates its own universe that is mainly about the storyteller's affinities.
The movie succeeds as pure spectacle, turning light, color, and motion into sources of pleasure. In a time of increasingly slovenly action filmmaking, it's a relief to find yourself in the hands of a director who knows what to do with a camera. Samuel brings a musical performer's sensibility to the staging of big moments. He and cinematographers Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. and Sean Bobbitt change angles or shift focus to create laughs or gasps; hold on striking images to create self-contained objects of beauty (such as a sniper's eye-view of a target or an overhead view of gunmen with very long shadows confronting each other in a street), and cast the laws of nature aside to get the movie to do what it needs to do to produce a certain feeling. Notice how, in the final showdown, the sun is all over the place, and yet always where it needs to be to create an iconic Western image, suitable for framing.
It's an actor's showcase as well—and as compelling as the actors in flamboyant supporting roles are, it would be a shame if the subtle, grounding work of Majors and Elba went unappreciated, because it's hard to imagine how their performances could be better. Elba brings a world-weary, self-disgusted quality to Rufus that is so fascinating on its own terms that when we finally get the pieces of the puzzle that unlock the core of the character's personality, it feels like a diminishment.
And Majors captures that mix of fearlessness and self-deprecation that audiences used to love in Harrison Ford heroes. Nat is a badass who can kill six men before their pistols can clear their holsters, but this is not a vain or even particularly swaggering performance. Majors leans into instances of comic misunderstanding, romantic longing, overconfidence, and physical vulnerability that define Nat at key points in the tale. Rather than undermine the character, these moments only endear him to us.
This is one of those movies that might come on TV while you're supposed to be doing something else, and that you'll end up watching the rest of the way through, because it's so much fun.
In theaters today, on Netflix on November 3rd.
In a 2019 interview with Charente Libre, Wes Anderson said that his new movie, "The French Dispatch" was "not easy to explain." He's right, it's not, and any explanation would deconstruct it in a way to make it sound even more incomprehensible. It's like taking apart a clock to see how it works, and in so doing you no longer know what time it is. A clock is an apt metaphor for Anderson's style, present in all of his movies, but to an extreme degree here. Made up of a dizzying array of whirring intersecting teeny tiny parts, "The French Dispatch" ticks forward relentlessly, never stopping to breathe, barely pausing for reflection. "The French Dispatch" lacks some of the more endearing qualities of his earlier features—the prep school shenanigans of "Rushmore," the intimate family dynamic of "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Darjeeling Limited," or the kid-centered "Moonrise Kingdom." By contrast, "The French Dispatch" holds the audience at a remove, and is a stronger film for it. Watching Anderson follow his obsession to the outer limits (it's hard to imagine how much further he could go) is fascinating. The movie may be hard to explain, but it's very fun to watch. It's a fast-paced delirious movie about a very slow unchanging world.
In "The French Dispatch," the object of Anderson's obsession ("object" is a key word) is The New Yorker, specifically The New Yorker in the time of finicky founder/editor Harold Ross, and his daunting roster of writers—James Thurber, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Rosamond Bernier, James Baldwin—all of whom were given enormous leeway in terms of subject matter and process, but edited within an inch of their lives to align their prose with the aggressive New Yorker house style.
The fictionalized New Yorker is called The French Dispatch, published out of a little French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé, although it started in Liberty, Kansas, where editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) was born and raised. (In one of the many "A-ha" moments of trivia sprinkled throughout: the magazine was originally called Picnic. Playwright William Inge, most famous for his 1953 play Picnic, was born in Independence, Kansas. Liberty, Independence, get it? None of this means anything, but it's fun if you pick up on it.) Howitzer is surrounded by a loyal staff overseeing a collective of eccentric writers, all busy at work completing pieces for the upcoming issue. "The French Dispatch" doesn't delve into these characters' lives but instead focuses on their work, and the movie's structure is that of an issue of the magazine, where you literally step into the pages, and "read" three separate stories. But first, there is the Jacques-Tati-style opening sequence, clearly a riff on The New Yorker staple, "The Talk of the Town," with Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson, jaunty in a black beret and turtleneck) bicycling through Ennui-sur-Blasé, showing us the sights (and speaking directly to the camera, causing some unfortunate collisions).
The first magazine story centers on Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a genius artist serving a life sentence for homicide, and engaged in a love affair with Simone (Léa Seydoux), his muse, promoter, and prison guard. Adrien Brody plays Julian Cadazio, Moses' representation in the hifalutin' art world, wheeling and dealing to get Moses' work out there. The second story is a whimsical pantomime of the 1968 student protests in Paris, presented in Godardian pastiche, with Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a moody revolutionary (is there any other kind?), and Frances McDormand as Lucinda Krementz, the French Dispatch writer whose objectivity is compromised when she inserts herself into the story. (This section is clearly inspired by Mavis Gallant's 1968 coverage of the protests for The New Yorker, "The Events in May: A Paris Notebook".) The final story shows the attempt by writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright)—a mashup of James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling (with a little M.F.K. Fisher thrown in)—to profile a legendary chef named Nescaffier (Steve Park), who works his magic in the police department kitchen. Each story is told with its own style, with Anderson utilizing animation, graphics, still lifes, visual puns, and gags, all held together by the thread of Alexandre Desplat's score, and Anderson's single-minded sense of mission.
Very few filmmakers have as distinct a fingerprint as Wes Anderson. (There's an entire book called Accidentally Wes Anderson, made up of photographs from around the world of buildings and landscapes that look like Anderson shots.) There are two things that obsess him: objects and nostalgia. Prosaic everyday objects transform in the context of Anderson's miniaturized diorama world. He views objects the way the artist Joseph Cornell viewed them. Cornell was an obsessive collector of what was deemed "junk" (marbles, old maps, tiny glass jars), junk which turned into magical talismans when placed in his now-world-famous boxes. Cornell's fetishism is apparent in his work, making it all slightly unnerving in really beautiful ways. There's a fine line between obsession and fetishism, but in art that fine line doesn't much matter. Anderson's objects glow from his detailed attention: he cares about each and every one of them. A line from The Picture of Dorian Gray comes to mind: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." Anderson perceives the mystery in the visible.
Anderson's obsession with objects has to do with his other obsession of nostalgia. Nostalgia is universal, but it is also tricky. What one person yearns for in the past may be someone else's nightmare (and vice versa). In a cliched film, nostalgia expresses itself in a golden glow (assumed to be universal). Anderson's nostalgia isn't like that. His is extremely specific. There's a reason some people find his work alienating. You're in the presence of a true obsessive, that's why. For example, if you don't yearn to live inside J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, then you won't easily enter into Anderson's dreamspace. The same is true of "The French Dispatch." What is most interesting about this, though, is that Anderson is nostalgic for things that pre-date his own life. He is nostalgic for fictional worlds, for objects now considered obsolete, for rhythms of a long-ago time he didn't even experience. This is not to say his nostalgia is not personal. It is. Another quote, this time from Nancy Lemann's eccentric novel The Fiery Pantheon: "She had a nostalgia for a life she had never lived."
This is not so much what "The French Dispatch" is about, as what it made me think about. It's strange that such a crowded, dazzling, visually-insistent film leaves so much space for free association, but it does. Now that's endearing.
Now playing in theaters.
“Diving is the most fabulous distraction you can experience,” Jacques Cousteau once said. And as the early moments of Liz Garbus’ intimate and deeply informative documentary “Becoming Cousteau” remind the audience, the pioneer was always in his most comfortable state underwater—so much that he once defined the misery of emerging from the blue depths as being forced back to earth after being introduced to heaven.
These thoughts are not surprising for a man whose name has been synonymous with all things aquatic as an innovator, explorer, conservationist, and filmmaker who wanted to be the John Ford or John Huston of the ocean. Resourcefully using grainy archival footage and audio files—as well as segments from Cousteau’s diaries, read in voiceover by Vincent Cassel—Garbus dives deep into all these aforesaid facets of Cousteau’s work and tireless efforts, while expertly weaving them with the lesser known and not entirely pleasant aspects of his private life as a father and husband. The result is a captivating, sincere, and articulate documentary about a household name that will satisfy and even enlighten those of us who grew up with the man’s mesmerizing TV series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” as well as introduce a new generation of young, aspiring explorers and conservationists to his legacy. While it on the whole doesn’t feel as engrossing as some of the filmmaker’s former, more innovative movies (the terrific “What Happened, Miss Simone?” comes to mind), “Becoming Cousteau” is still as immersive and warmly inviting as non-fiction biographies come.
Smartly, Garbus keeps her narrative’s chronology straightforward and starts Cousteau’s tale from his young days when he wanted nothing more than to become a pilot. But a major car crash changed the course of his life in his mid-20s, when he started rehabilitative swimming to heal his injuries and grew an insatiable curiosity towards diving. It was during this time that he had to invent and innovate, with his constraints driving his original thinking to overcome them. Enter waterproof cameras and the revolutionary breathing device, Aqualung, without which the contemporary open-water diving wouldn’t be where it is today. Also came Calypso along with its handsome crew in the early 1950s, the research-focused excursion boat, immortalized through the captain’s groundbreaking visual output on TV and in movies, before such breathtaking expeditions were commonly accessed by average human beings from their living rooms on channels like National Geographic and Discovery.
Garbus’ greatest feat in “Becoming Cousteau” is the clarity with which she maps out the trajectory of Cousteau’s change of heart around issues concerning the environment. He and his squad were by and large irresponsible for quite a while in how they interacted with and manipulated the ocean’s precious ecological balance. In that regard, there are scenes in her doc that show Team Cousteau unflatteringly—blowing up fish, locating oil sites for money, tantalizing tortoises, and even proudly killing a poor shark fighting for dear life. (This last instance is in fact in Cousteau’s Oscar-winning 1956 documentary, “The Silent World,” a scene the captain himself couldn’t stand behind or even watch in his later, ecologically conscious years.) But all that became history for Cousteau in the ‘60s when he stepped up as one of the world’s first celebrities to speak about climate change. This groundbreaking conversion meant shifting gears sharply in his films and overall work to assume an activism-oriented, educational focus.
It’s through these developments that Garbus' film earns an increasingly urgent tone without being preachy or giving up its charming vintage feel, organically instilling in the viewer a willingness to reconsider their own environmentally unfriendly habits. Elsewhere, Garbus thankfully doesn’t hide Cousteau’s shortcomings, portraying an imperfect, chaotic, and work-centric hero who didn’t devote enough time or care to his family—his wife Simone (who was instrumental in operating his ship) and his two sons, Philippe and Jean-Michel. The film dedicates a good portion of its running time to Philippe, who was hands-on committed to his dad’s work until his tragic passing in a plane crash at the young age of 38. Later in 1990, Cousteau lost his wife Simone to cancer, and married Francine Triplet shortly after. (At that point, he already had two kids with Francine.)
It’s thanks to this full-fledged honesty that “Becoming Cousteau” rises above the trappings of a simple-minded nostalgia trip. As curious-minded as its immortal subject, Garbus' film has a refreshingly forward-looking perspective, delivering a hopeful plea towards a future that’s worth saving.
Now playing in theaters.
"Ron’s Gone Wrong” is an indictment of the invasive, insidious tactics of Big Tech, and of the ways we relinquish a little more of our privacy with every click and view. It shines a light on the superficial nature of social media and how it amplifies bullying and insecurities, especially among the young people for whom it serves as a lifeline.
“Ron’s Gone Wrong” is also a celebration of the positive power of technology, of its ability to connect us with others who share common interests and to teach and transport us with the touch of a few keystrokes. And, fundamentally, it’s a lively and sometimes hilarious animated adventure and a sweet story of friendship.
This is a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too—with a side of cookies.
Directors Sarah Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine and co-director Octavio E. Rodriguez, working from a script by Smith and Peter Baynham, don’t tell us anything we haven’t already heard and don’t already know. Electronic devices are bad. We are addicted to them at the expense of genuine human interaction. And the platforms that were designed to unite us actually have driven us further apart. Additionally, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” borrows from myriad other movies in telling the story of a lonely boy and his adorable but imperfect droid pal, from “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Big Hero 6” to “Her” and even that forgotten ‘80s comedy “Electric Dreams.”
But gosh darn it if the character design on the B-Bot, “Your best friend out of the box,” isn’t irresistible with its smiley face and soft-edged simplicity. As voiced by Zach Galifianakis, he’s just so perky and well-intentioned despite his brutal literalism and awkward turns of phrase, you can’t help but like him. And yet, if you stop and think about it, the mixed messaging on display here is problematic and inescapable.
Jack Dylan Grazer (“It,” “Shazam!”) provides the voice of Barney, a misfit middle schooler who dreads the isolation of recess. When the Apple-esque mega tech manufacturer Bubble comes out with a shiny new device that follows you wherever you go, knows everything you like, and connects you with others through your apps, every kid in school gets one but him. You can even switch up their colorful skins, from bunny rabbits to Mexican wrestlers, in a nod to interactive games like Roblox. As a belated birthday present, his nerdy widower dad (Ed Helms) and old-country Bulgarian grandmother (Olivia Colman, doing unrecognizable voice work) devise a way to snag one for him—trouble is, it fell off the back of a truck, so it’s a teensy bit defective.
Still, the minimalist Ron (as Barney names him) is eager to please, and the sequences in which he and Barney attempt to bond despite his technical malfunctions are the movie’s strongest. One charming segment finds Ron rolling out in the world to share photographs with strangers and hand out friend requests made with construction paper and crayon. The pacing is really spry here and the wordplay is consistently clever. But when Ron goes haywire on the playground in a moment that goes viral, the B-Bot’s idealistic, hoodie-wearing inventor (Justice Smith) and Bubble’s soulless, profit-obsessed CEO (Rob Delaney) struggle to contain the fallout with minimal damage—albeit for different reasons. Their conflicting intentions parallel the film’s efforts to operate on two contradictory levels at once: They simply cannot work together.
Young viewers will probably see a lot of themselves in these characters, though, whether they’re loners like Barney or secretly sad popular girls like Savannah (Kylie Cantrall), who’s constantly feeding the beast of social media to boost her self-esteem. There’s a better movie that takes on that topic, too: Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” But for tweens and kids a little younger, this less-sophisticated model should work just fine.
Now playing in theaters.
In November 1987, two stations in Chicago, Illinois were hijacked. During the sports portion of the news on WGN that evening, the signal suddenly switched to a person wearing a Max Headroom mask with a swiveling panel behind the figure and distorted audio. Two hours later, it happened again on PBS during a showing of “Doctor Who.” This one was longer and included soundbites that could be made out and even ended with a butt shot. No one was ever caught. It wasn’t the first time—there’s a famous one from a business owner named Captain Midnight from 1986 and the notorious Southern Television broadcast interruption in England in the late ‘70s—but it feels like the event that most inspired Jacob Gentry’s “Broadcast Signal Intrusion,” which uses the concept to tell a story about paranoia and that nagging sense when you’re just one revelation from putting together what everyone else seems to have stopped trying to figure out.
Harry Shum Jr. plays James, a video archivist in Chicago in 1999 who stumbles upon a recording of a BSI that features a figure in a strange, slightly terrifying white mask. He instantly (too instantly, really) becomes obsessed with learning more, soon finding a recording of a second BSI and hearing rumors of a third. It’s not long before James is meeting shadowy figures in parking garages and alleys, getting clues about the origin of the intrusions and what they might mean. It turns out that the dates of the intrusions line up a little too neatly with those of missing women, and, of course, James has an emotional connection because the rumored third intrusion happened right around the time his wife Hannah disappeared.
Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall’s script was very clearly inspired by conspiracy films of the ‘70s and ‘80s like “The Parallax View” and “Blow Out,” films with protagonists who become obsessed with the idea that they are just one clue away from solving everything. With increasing concerns over the power of tech, the disintegration of piracy, and the general distrust of government, it seems like a perfect time for a resurgence of the large scale paranoia thriller, and “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” could eventually look like the start of that subgenre’s return with hindsight. Paranoia certainly hasn’t gone away since the ‘70s—it’s just gone online.
An interesting yet underdeveloped component to this particular paranoia thriller is the grief that drives James as much as his curiosity. Whereas most people might investigate these intrusions with the fascination of a true crime podcast fan, James instantly suspects a connection to his trauma, and Shum is capable of conveying the way that grief can impact perception. If anything, it feels like Gentry should have played this angle up—although he was likely concerned about turning “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” into a “missing wife” story—as Shum seems to want to give the project an urgency that it too often lacks. It all leads to a frustrating push and pull between a film and its leading man.
It’s also not long before it feels like the rabbit hole that Gentry is following James down is pretty shallow. It’s a film with echoes of recent horror movies about obsession like “Berberian Sound Studio” and “Censor” but those movies, despite their flaws, felt far more legitimately dangerous and fearless than “BSI,” which is content to maintain a slow buzz of paranoia for longer than it should. The stakes aren't there, which is fine for the set-up, but not for the follow-through. It’s a movie that needs to just go off the rails at a certain point and arguably doesn’t do so until the disappointing final scene, when it almost feels like a different film is just beginning. Maybe that’s the point. The Chicago intrusions never really added up to much either.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms.
"The Electrical Life of Louis Wain" has the same problem as its real-life subject, in that it goes off in too many directions at once. Benedict Cumberbatch, who also produced the film, plays Wain, a late 19th and early 20th century illustrator whose fanciful pictures of cats were so popular they helped inspire the widespread adoption of cats as pets. Contemporary viewers will enjoy the confused reaction when Wain tells someone he has a cat named Peter. "You mean as a mouser?"
Peter is a companion and a source of solace, as today's pet owners well understand. When Peter dies, Wain is inconsolable, weeping every day for years. His love for cats shines through his illustrations. H.G. Wells (a brief appearance by musician Nick Cave) said of those drawings, "Cats that don't look like Louis Wain's are ashamed of themselves."
Olivia Colman provides crisp narration, first giving us the context of the period and cheerfully overlooking, as she does so much else, the repressive and colonialist elements of the era: "Aside from its bizarre social prejudices, Victorian England was also a land of innovation and scientific discovery. Many of the world's finest minds were digging deep into the nature of electricity." But while scientists and inventors were trying to use electricity to illuminate darkness and operate machinery, Louis Wain believed that electrical forces are what pull us forward in time and help us hold onto our memories. He called electricity "the key to all of life's most alarming secrets." This idea helped inspire his pictures of cats, which became more stylized and kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic, over the decades.
Today, we would call Wain neuroatypical. For example, he drew his intricate artwork with both hands simultaneously, each hand beginning at a side of the page, meeting up with perfect alignment in the middle. His interactions with other people had a blunt awkwardness that might be diagnosed today as on the autism spectrum.
He also spent his last decades in mental hospitals. Colman's narration tells us his mind was a "dark, screaming hurricane of crippling anxieties and recurring nightmares." Wain says that his constant, frantic activity was an effort to manage his mental chaos. Some contemporary experts believe he had schizophrenia and the increasing abstraction and fantasy of his images is evidence of a disconnect from reality. The movie depicts him having a terrifying hallucination that could be caused by psychosis.
He had a lot of external pressures as well. He was the sole provider for his "whimsical and bohemian" widowed mother and five "hungry and precocious" sisters, one of whom would become severely mentally ill, and none of whom contributed to the family's upkeep. Even after his work was very successful, his poor judgment and lack of understanding of money kept the family struggling and in debt.
The only moments of peace and true happiness for Wain were in a very sweet romance with his sisters' governess, Emily (a warm-hearted and witty performance by Claire Foy). Peter was a stray cat they adopted together. He was a great source of comfort as Emily developed breast cancer and became very ill. She was the one who told Wain that cats were "ridiculous, silly, cuddly, frightened and brave, just like us," and that inspired the beginning of his whimsical drawings of cats enjoying human activities, often gently making fun of the era's fads and fashions.
The cool cheeriness of Colman's narration and the postcard-pretty settings may be intended to give us a sense of Wain's mind, at least the part that imagined the whimsical world of his cats. But it makes for an awkward and sometimes insensitive depiction of the more tragic elements of the story. One scene is punctuated with a song on the soundtrack that is primarily "meow"-sounds. The result is an artificial tone that makes the fanciful cats more real to us than Wain himself.
Now playing in theaters and available on Amazon Prime on November 5th.
The US-Polish science-fiction movie "Warning" is bound to be unfavorably compared to “Black Mirror,” mostly because “Warning” is also an ungenerous collection of cynical sci-fi morality plays set in the near future. The main difference is that “Warning” runs about 85 minutes.
“Warning” also tut-tuts viewers who, like its cast of neurotic outsider characters, are not living full lives in our technology-rich modern age. Meaning, full lives as determined by the ungenerous creators of “Warning,” which features a half-serious subplot about a spiritually barren woman who falls apart when she can’t pray to “God 2.0,” an Alexa-style prayer computer device. There’s also a subplot that runs with one of the the best sci-fi stock plots—an astronaut’s life flashes before his eyes as he dies alone in space—but somehow it’s not awesome? “Warning” will judge you, but only after making some trite observations about man’s ongoing inhumanity to man.
To be fair, it’s kind of quaint to see the makers of a new English-language science-fiction movie take so much effort to lament our crippling reliance on technology. That old chestnut, again? “Warning” follows multiple stories, all of which take place on the same day. Most of them are variations on the same theme: humanity, still obsessed with all the wrong things, even in the future.
“Warning” begins and ends with its most high-concept scenario, the one that ostensibly ties the others together: doomed astronaut David (Thomas Jane) floats around outer space and thinks about his life after a freak electricity surge sends him flying out of control. That comic premise is about as indestructible as St. Peter scolding the dead at Heaven’s pearly gates. Unfortunately, David mainly exists to set up a darkly funny anti-climax that doesn’t work given the preceding sub-plots’ total lack of dramatic tension. Most of the movie’s vignettes, about cartoonishly vacant God 2.0-worshipper Claire (Alice Eve) and sadly obsolete companion robot Charlie (Rupert Everett), feel like half-completed sketches that were jammed together because less often looks like more when there’s lots of it. Besides, David’s here to put a bow on everything, just you wait.
Directed and co-written by Agata Alexander, “Warning” asks viewers to consider a few situations without ever really developing those ideas, characters, storylines, etc. Just imagine: what would you do if you, like mortal Nina (Annabelle Wallis), were confronted by your immortal in-laws, who didn’t want you to date their passive, adult immortal son Liam (Alex Pettyfer)? Or what if you, like Claire, became so dependent on technology that you felt compelled to ask for an inspirational quote for the day from an unassuming customer service rep? What would you do then?
These conceits aren’t original enough to be inherently likable, and they’re too often grounded by characters who are too bland and/or pathetic to be human. Nina mostly rolls her eyes and tries to be polite when she’s asked stuff like “Why can’t you find somebody of your own kind?” And Claire sets up various cheerful but impersonal customer service reps, for some underwhelming conceptual punchlines, like when Claire’s told to “do it manually” after she asks how she’s supposed to pray without God 2.0. These characters are walking gags, and they’re barely developed by individual performers like Eve and Wallis, who do a lot with very little.
Then again, can you blame some of the movie’s performers for being less than dazzling given the material they had to work with? Everett’s presence is cute, but his weird commitment to Charlie’s quirkier tics brings to mind the worst bits from “Heartbeeps.” By contrast, it’s hard to know what went wrong with Jane’s performance since he rockets through his line-readings as fast as David blazes through the various stages of grief. See David petulantly curse God: “As far as fathers go, you’re not very good either. Shit.” Now watch him enjoy a silly moment of zen, which ultimately paves the way for the movie’s snarky finale: "It's easier to live in an illusion than it is in ... reality."
What went wrong with “Warning” beyond a general lack of character or conceptual development? We meander from one story to the next until every idea, big and small, gets cast aside with childish zeal. I normally love genre movies that play out like bad shaggy dog jokes, but “Warning” doesn’t go far on such meager fumes.
Now playing in select theaters and available on digital platforms.
“No Future” is the kind of movie that presents a challenge to anyone attempting to review it, as even the vaguest plot description will ensure that most will probably go out of their way to avoid it despite any praise I might offer. Trust me, I fully recognize that this is not the kind of film most people would voluntarily choose to watch as a way of relaxing. However, those willing to give "No Future" a chance will find it to be a fairly smart and realistic depiction of two people consumed by grief, guilt, and loss and the misguided ways by which they attempt to come to terms with those feelings.
Will (Charlie Heaton) is a young man and a former musician who is in the process of recovery from heroin addiction and is fully aware of all the pain he has caused in the past—when he goes to visit his estranged father (Jackie Earle Haley), he first makes Will roll up his sleeves to look for fresh needle tracks—and just how tenuous his path to sobriety really is. Nevertheless, he's clearly dedicated to getting clean for good—he regularly attends 12-step meetings and has even begun a relationship with girlfriend Becca (Rosa Salazar) that has progressed to the point where he is contemplating asking her to move in and therefore letting her even further into his life.
He also recognizes a potentially disastrous situation when he sees one, such as when estranged best friend and former band mate Chris (Jefferson White) turns up at his house following a recent prison stint. Chris is clearly in a state of physical and emotional anguish that reminds Will all too well of what he has put behind him but he doesn't feel strong enough to help Chris if he asks or to resist if he is encouraged to return to his old habits. He ends up turning Chris away—he explains that Becca is coming to stay the night. The next morning, he gets a message from Chris' mother, Claire (Catherine Keener), informing him that he came home late that night, went into his bedroom, and died of an overdose.
Stricken with guilt, Will goes to the funeral and reunites with Claire, who is reeling not just from the loss of her child after years of trying to deal with his addiction, but by the fact that she'll never know for sure if Chris’ fatal overdose was an accident or if he deliberately killed himself. Will commiserates with her but cannot bring himself to admit that Chris went to see him that night before returning home and that his rebuffing might have proven to be her son’s final breaking point. That is bad enough, but things are exacerbated further when the two, largely out of a shared sense of grieving and a need for some kind of comfort, fall into a sexual relationship that, even under the best of circumstances, cannot possibly end well for anyone involved.
This is grim material and the screenplay by Mark Smoot (who also co-directs with Andrew Irvine) tries to negotiate a path between reality and melodrama with occasionally mixed results. For example, the moment that Will fails to immediately inform Claire about Chris’ visit that fateful night, it becomes obvious this information will end up being deployed, almost like clockwork, at about the 70-minute mark and the fallout will be used to drive the final scenes along. The film also has a tendency to introduce supporting characters and then fails to give them a purpose other than to help keep the narrative moving.
At the same time, “No Future” contains moments of bracing realism and honesty that stand in stark contrast to the more contrived moments. The affair between Claire and Will may sound like a twist worthy of a soap opera but it does work here as a way, however ill-advised, for these two to try to counter the annihilating sense of grief and guilt they are feeling. While they are unable to be honest with each other, the two do just that with strangers in a pair of especially wrenching scenes—Will speaking in front of his 12-step group and Claire confronting a couple of young women that she thinks is talking about her and her late son. (If you still need proof at this late date as to the brilliance of Catherine Keener as an actress, I advise you to watch the latter scene and learn.) I also admired how the film does not try to wrap things up in a neat little bow by offering simplistic solutions to problems that rarely come together in real life. That sense of narrative ambiguity, along with its lack of easy resolutions, will no doubt frustrate some viewers. But to end it any other way would be a betrayal of both its willingness to tackle hard issues and the strong high-wire performances from both Keener and Heaton.
So no, “No Future” is not exactly “entertaining,” at least in the classic sense of the word. However, that's more than offset by the raw power the film generates in its best moments as it goes to emotional places few movies these days even attempt to visit. "No Future" may not be a good time, but it is a good movie that, despite its occasional missteps, is still well worth seeing.
Now playing in theaters and available on VOD.
"Night Teeth" takes advantage of the easiest part about vampire storytelling—that much of the rules about the bloodsuckers are already known by the audience. Boom, there's your character development, your stakes, your fear of daylight. But instead of trying to add something significant to their lore, vampires are treated like one of many cliches in this underwhelming horror-action-comedy that has little charisma of its own.
The movie’s most exciting component, even with its abundance of splattered blood, neon lights, and goofy dialogue like "I bet you give good blood," is a human character played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.. Before he’s caught up driving around vampires, he’s a skateboarding college student who falls asleep in class, has a crush on someone whose boyfriend laughs at him, and makes music while living with his grandma. Kinda generic, Marty McFly-like stuff, but Lendeborg Jr. has the kind of neurotic comedic presence, and the soulful eyes when he’s in danger, that show why that trope is a reliable cliche. So when he gets to do some moonlighting as a chauffeur for his brother’s driving service, he’s a formidable surrogate into a gory Los Angeles underworld that involves the work of his new clients.
Blaire (Debby Ryan) and Zoe (Lucy Fry) are out to cause some bloody chaos, all with a big grin. Blaire, sweet by vamp standards, has been a bloodsucker for only a few decades, but Zoe has been this way for centuries, and it adds to her vicious, sadistic presence. Anywho, they initially tell their driver Benny that they’re hitting different parties at night, and need to be home before daylight. But it soon becomes apparent to him that they’re classic vampires, sucking blood and killing people as they go, all in a mob-like move to take over non-vamp territory (more on that later) and uphold the leader of their “gang,” Victor (Alfie Allen). Benny is initially trapped into this scenario, but eventually chooses to go along with it when his brother Jay (Raúl Castillo), who happens to lead one of the five gangs while also being a chauffeur, is put in danger.
“Night Teeth” gets some flair with its showy style, like shots that slowly flip the camera upside down, and a palette of neon blues, greens, and pinks that clutter the screen but turn nearly every location into some kind of nightclub. Director Adam Randall and his team have some discernible fun with the whole indulgent nature of this horny, goofy concept, and there are a few inspired touches, like chew-‘em-up sequences with Blaire and Zoe beating up their targets in the background of a brief action scene, while our surrogate Benny stands in fear in the forefront.
But the world-building here sucks, and it becomes a major part of how this script by Brent Dillon foolishly wants to be about more than just the craziest night of Benny's life. There’s a whole bunch of wordy business about five vaguely defined gangs trying to protect their vaguely defined territories, some of them including vampires and some of them including hunters, while Blaire and Zoe make a move on these different areas, breaking rules that had created peace, and more. Instead of enhancing the action, like how “Underworld” did with lycans and vampires war throughout its franchise run, this world-building (much of it through characters just explaining it; dreadful) slows everything to a halt. One mid-film monologue in particular, saddled onto Debby Ryan, has her speaking in the script’s primary form of shorthand. Throwing in a five-gang war should add to the stakes, but instead it adds to reasons to watch something else.
There's an overriding desire throughout "Night Teeth" for it to be an L.A. story, especially in how its context involves snide comments about how the bloodsuckers run Hollywood. But the movie becomes obnoxiously superficial itself, perhaps most obviously when it includes Megan Fox and Sydney Sweeney, its two biggest stars, for maybe five minutes of screen-time. Instead of adding to the film’s cred, their flat line-delivery about vampire business and humorless presence, complemented with flashy robes, shows how much “Night Teeth” can lose what little charm it has—especially when the backstory takes up so much space. It’s an especially gaudy moment from a movie that desperately wants to be as edgy as fangs tearing into a throat, but simply isn’t.
Now playing on Netflix.