Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Notes on the current cinema.
People have been describing this as a nicer or more accessible Paul Thomas Anderson movie, but let’s note that in many ways it’s just as weird as Phantom Thread or The Master. Funnier, though. Many expectations are violated in this film, including any sort of recognizable standard for measuring time: In the course of the movie’s span, businesses are begun and abandoned, one peripheral character divorces a wife and takes on another (this figure is the source of some accusations that the movie contains racist material, although it is screamingly obvious that the butt of the joke is the idiot white guy in question), a political campaign takes time to develop, and so on.
My point is that there’s something unusual and even radical about this movie, just as there is with much of Anderson’s work—it might be unfolding in a few moments of someone’s memory, even though it feels like it sprawls across the early 1970s. Thus our main character (Cooper Hoffman) is supposedly 15 years old throughout the action, even though I don’t think that’s possible, and his crush (Alana Haim) is 25 throughout, or she says she is, although I don’t think that’s possible either. “You’re never gonna remember me,” she tells him early in their friendship (and the movie is about friendship rather than romance), and the entire film is organized to prove her wrong—she’s wrong about herself, and she’s wrong about him. Licorice Pizza is a collection of memories happening at the same time—funny, lovely, specific.
Don’t Look Up
Apparently there’s some kind of discourse about this movie that suggests it’s heavy-handed, or condescending to its characters, or something. Oh really? Don’t Look Up may be a mess—it’s an Adam McKay movie—but surely the heavy-handedness is baked into the satire; the thing doesn’t work without it being clobberingly obvious; that’s a good deal of the point. There is a lot of fun here, even if Don’t Look Up has its share of bobbles (McKay gets a demerit for something that ought to be a slam dunk, because Streep-as-U.S.-president is never as funny as expected). A handful of running gags give pleasure, especially Jennifer Lawrence’s long-stewing irritation over having to pay for White House snacks.
And no movie has better captured the seduction of how being on TV leads otherwise intelligent people to go with the vapid flow; the way DiCaprio’s scientist, while appearing on a talk show, suddenly finds himself concerned about an idiotic celebrity breakup, just for the sake of keeping the show’s vibe going, is choice material.
But—condescending? This is a movie that suggests that the world is full of people acting cravenly and stupidly. Don’t look up, look around.
A disappointment coming from Michael Pearce, the director of Beast, an interesting little UK film from 2017 that played like In a Lonely Place told from the female perspective. That film was not perfect by any means, but it did a nice little number with its is-he-a-murderer tease, and it provided a launching pad to the careers of Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn. Encounter also tries out a guessing-game construct, asking us to wonder whether there really is an invasion of tiny, human-burrowing parasites from space, or whether this is all unfolding in the mind of a military vet (Riz Ahmed) strung out by too many tours of duty. The premise—which has Ahmed seizing his two young sons and road-tripping to a safe spot somewhere in Nevada—begins to circle around itself all too quickly, and Ahmed (though burning as always) feels miscast; his presence is clearly meant to bring an offbeat quality to this scenario, but the mantle of gung-ho maleness feels limited, and frankly not that interesting.
A little like Night and the City, in its presentation of a scoundrel anti-hero who stays in constant motion while he tries to keep his schemes aloft. Instead of Richard Widmark and London, here we have Simon Rex and the amazing American landscape of Texas City, Texas, where smoking oil refineries loom over backyards and donut shops exist surrounded by acres of emptiness. I didn’t really know much about Rex’s background when I saw Red Rocket, but let’s say that his unstoppable performance carries the whiff of authentic desperation and tawdriness about it—he may not be a Widmark, but he’s the guy we deserve now.
Director Sean Baker captures this world (marvelously shot on 16 mm.) and the flabbergasting vocal rhythms of Texas City’s denizens; the convincing performers—actors and non-actors alike—include stand-out turns by Bree Elrod and Susanna Son, as Rex’s estranged wife and new fixation, respectively, and Ethan Darbone, as Rex’s slugabout neighbor, who could only be named Lonnie. I’m never entirely sure what it is Baker is up to in his films, but when a train comes chugging by the Donut Hole parking lot and Rex and Son are screaming at each other to be heard because there might be a marriage proposal going on (except there isn’t, it’s more like an invitation to join the adult-entertainment industry), you are in the silted-over flow of American mythology, and as pathetic as that vision looks here, you kind of have to laugh.
January 14, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.