Nearing the halfway mark of the movie year and teetering, as we all are, on the edge of another summer movie abyss which holds only the thinnest promise of providing strong reason to tread amongst the mall-igentsia in search of air-conditioned escape, I find myself feeling far less regret than usual over the movies I’ve missed so far in 2016. Usually by this point I’m bemoaning having had to sideline 20 or 30 interesting pictures because I couldn’t get out to a theater. This year I’ve whiffed on about the same number of movies of interest, but only nine or 10 of those misses have anything like real regret attached to them. It does actively annoy me that I will have to catch up with the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor, the foodie doc City of Gold, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue, Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, Jason Bateman’s The Family Fang, Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler and Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert on VOD as the year slouches on. I’m counting on my favorite North Hollywood and Pasadena second-run houses, the Valley Plaza and the Academy, to provide me ample opportunity over the summer to catch up with The Jungle Book and Key and Peele’s Keanu at very reasonable prices. On the other hand, the lingering specter of seeing Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups seems with each passing day less like a privilege and more like an obligation I feel dwindling urgency to fulfill.
As for that summer movie season we’re currently staring down, amongst the reheated thrills of X-Men: Apocalypse and Warcraft and Alice Through the Looking Glass and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and The Conjuring 2: The Endfield Experiment and Independence Day: Resurgence (just the titles on those last three—jeez…) there are several reasons to suspect that all won’t be entirely lost by the time Oscar Bait Season rolls around. This weekend the reviews for Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising have been surprisingly strong, enough that my curiosity has been piqued even though I thought less of the first installment than most everyone else did. Scott Mendelson, writing in Forbes magazine, seems to think the new Seth Rogen-Rose Byrne-Zac Efron-Chloe Grace Moretz comedy has, aside from copious and memorable gross-out laughs, some actual ideas regarding gender and identity politics worth chewing on along with your popcorn; he even calls it “a revelation… one of the best movies of the year and one of the all-time great comedy sequels.” What do you know!
My own personal hopes for a high-quality hoot-and-a-holler, however, are more heavily invested in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, which recasts the writer-director’s familiar buddy cop action comedy formula (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Bang Bang) as a nasty ‘70s-period L.A. romp with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling essaying disreputable, downtrodden PIs who investigate the apparent suicide of a porn star, only to peel back reeking layers of smog-choked corruption in the process. (Calling Thom Andersen! Los Angeles does not always play itself here—the movie was shot partially in Atlanta.) And it is a strange day indeed when one can check the listing for your local AMC Cineplex and see the latest from Dogtooth’s Yorgos Lathimos playing right there alongside Captain America: Civil War and The Angry Birds Movie. But there it is: the director’s deadpan dystopian romantic dramedy The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, looks to be one of the most tempting lures to get me out of the house this weekend. If you are similarly inclined, then we’d both be well advised to lunge for it before those multiplexes kick The Lobster to the curb next Thursday to make room for the new X-Men and that faux Tim Burton-Lewis Carroll movie.
The bulk of the summer menu may lean heavily on tepid recycling and go light on genuine inspiration, but there does look to be some potential among the more obvious dreck. Despite my better instincts, I find myself not dreading either the DC Comics villain-fest Suicide Squad or the CGI-intensive jungle antics of The Legend of Tarzan, though I admit that the presence of Margot Robbie in both pictures, as, respectively, the deliciously freaky Harley Quinn and the legendary vine-swinger’s Jane, may be fueling my prejudice ever so slightly. I will further admit a perverse, perhaps not entirely defensible interest in seeing Blake Lively taunted by a shark for the entirety of The Shallows, though I suspect she might have better luck in the company of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart navigating the calms of Woody Allen’s comparatively sophisticated Café Society which, unlike the legendary director’s last 268 movies, actually looks like it might be good.
Eschewing sophistication, if Andy Shamberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer’s satire of celebrity desperation, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, is only half as funny as Samberg’s recent tennis parody Seven Days in Hell, it’ll be worth seeing. And the chance to see Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick go deep, dark and psycho on Zac Efron and Adam DeVine’s clueless party bros in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (directed by Seven Days in Hell’s Jake Szymanski) looks to be an irresistible festival of raunchy humiliation. Perhaps sketchiest of all, the bizarre CGI-animated shenanigans of Sausage Party sets a refrigerator full of suggestively shaped lunchmeats (voiced by the likes of Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, James Franco and Kristen Wigg et al.) in search of the meaning of their existence. Sausage Party is unlikely to be a kosher experience, though it’s virtually guaranteed to be free of the nitrates packed into that Oscar Meyer dog you could be wolfing down while watching it.
I will say I am a tiny bit trepidatious, however, about Ghostbusters-- perhaps writer-director Paul Feig, who directed Bridesmaids and The Heat and whose last outing, the Melissa McCarthy-Bond sendup Spy, was flat-out hilarious, will reveal within the context of the movie itself all the funny that seems to be eluding audiences in those low-wattage trailers. Funny or not, and despite the vaguely and sometimes blatantly misogynistic online howling heard incessantly since those trailers debuted, it must be said that no one’s rich cultural heritage is being raped and pillaged by a female-centric reboot of an Ivan Reitman film. And if there has to be a new Ghostbusters in town, I’d rather accommodate a new wrinkle like this one than get slimed for a third time while Bill Murray yawns his way to another paycheck.
There is no such ambivalence on my part over the prospect of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s novel The BFG—this movie, featuring recent Oscar-winner Mark Rylance as the titular big, friendly giant, looks to these weary eyes to be as much of a sure thing as anything on the summertime roster. The only thing that strikes me odd about The BFG is how little in the way of buzzy anticipation there seems to be for a new picture by one of the movies’ most accomplished storytellers. Does Spielberg really have to threaten yet another Indiana Jones pictures to get the connoisseurs of the Internet all aflutter?
And yet another big, friendly giant looms on the horizon in the personage of a Disney live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon, whose 1977 incarnation was half live-action already (and the less said about that the better). Disney hopes their springtime success with the digitized rehash of The Jungle Book will be replicated here, though Pete’s prospects seem far less preordained. The original version is, I suspect, a classic only for the most nostalgically narcotized, which makes me wonder if the hoped-for box-office crush might be a classic act of corporate overestimation. Yet if any of the potential summer blockbusters has the opportunity to genuinely upend expectations, particularly from an artistic perspective, it’s this one—the new Pete’s Dragon has been directed by David Lowery, whose ephemeral features St. Nick and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints seem like odd and unlikely training ground for birthing a Disney behemoth. (Lowery also edited Shane Carruth’s supremely impressionistic Upstream Color.) The tension between this young director’s previously displayed ambitions and the possibility of said ambitions being sublimated into a Hollywood mediocrity makes Pete’s Dragon one of the summer’s most intriguing high-wire acts.
None of the big summer treats described above holds as much promise for me, however, as a trio of nonfiction features making their bow (at least here in Los Angeles) during the month of June. The advance word on both Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma and Thorsten Schutte’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words has been tantalizingly enthusiastic, and the prospect of seeing exhaustive but, considering their subjects, presumably far from exhausted documentaries focused on two of my personal artistic heroes is singlehandedly keeping my desire for summer movies alive. Three-plus hours spent at the movies than listening to the premier visual stylist of his generation and the most brilliant and iconoclastic musician/composer of his generation holding forth on what they do better than just about anyone when they’re really cooking? How can these movies possibly miss? And then there’s Tickled, an acclaimed doc, which starts out as a “quirky” investigation into a bizarre "competitive endurance tickling" underground and turns into a harrowing... something else. The movie’s trailer hints of disturbing depths the exact nature of which I hope can remain completely unspoiled until I actually see the film.
So much for hopes, high, low and otherwise. What about what I have seen so far in 2016? In my humble estimation, the best movie of the year to this point, is most certainly writer-director Robert Egger’s debut feature The Witch, subtitled “A New-England Folk Tale,” which made its debut on VOD and Blu-ray this week. That subtitle should be taken seriously, especially in light of the acclaim that greeted the movie at Sundance and during its theatrical release as one of the best and scariest horror movies to come along in a couple of decades. Because The Witch actually lives up to both that level of hyperbole and its own modest descriptor, and on its own precisely committed and near-obsessive terms, which says a lot not only about what Eggers has achieved but also about what audiences have come to expect from a modern horror movie, and why those expectations are most often greeted by one disappointment after another.
The movie does indeed feel closer to the telling of a folk tale-- perhaps a cautionary one spun by other New England Puritans from the 1600s of this movie’s period—or to the compact, elliptical shorthand of a masterful short story, than to what audiences might start salivating for when they start hearing claims of “best” and “scariest.” A farmer and his family are exiled from a fortified Puritan church community for an unspecified offense and set off on their own to claim a modest expanse of land at the edge of a forbidding wood upon which to build a new farm, a new life. One day the farmer’s eldest daughter, played with fetching guilelessness by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, tends to her infant brother, playing with him a game of peek-a-boo. Three times she hides then reveals her eyes, to the baby’s delight. The fourth time she uncovers them, only to find that the baby has disappeared. Has the baby been spirited away by a witch of the wood? Or as her family comes to believe, spurred on by tragedy and hunger borne of failing crops, is she herself the witch?
Despite the opportunity, Eggers is not in the business of using his superior modernity to deride his characters for their beliefs. Yes, these are people for whom tangible, sober reality does not preclude the satanically inspired existence of broom-riding hags who delight in grinding the flesh and bones of children to make paste for heathen sacrifices. But they are also twice exiled, from their community of believers, but also from their home across the ocean, longing for the relative comfort of home that the harsh wilderness refuse to provide. Eggers portrays their struggles with empathy and respect, taking pains, through period authenticity of sets, costume, and of language, to establish the humble, unforgiving reality of life in a new world (reflecting, of course, the silent and unforgiving nature of a loving God) that could as easily consume as fulfill those who would harvest and tame it.
The Witch operates on such a level of visual and tonal confidence that I often wondered if maybe it wasn’t Eggers who was possessed. Outside of a tendency (mostly near the beginning) to rely overly on the atonal crescendos of the score to build, and then momentarily dissipate dread, the movie barely makes a misstep. According to the writer-director, the sort of arcane yet lyrical dialogue with which the movie luxuriates—“Thou shalt be home by candle-time tomorrow”-- was derived almost entirely from period court transcripts and historical accounts of alleged witchery. As righteous as that sort of pursuit of authenticity might be, it’s the mingling of it with the director’s desire to stir an ambiguous response in his audience, to unnerve viewers who may be atheistically convinced of the folly of religious conviction with the possibility of supernatural influence, which fuels the movie’s most profoundly frightening impulses.
Eggers routinely toys with horror conventions, often deriving chills from his own refusal to capitalize on shocks that seem to be coming yet never arrive—a dream visitation from the dead does not end up with the CGI-infused punch line in which a more typical horror movie might have lazily indulged. And The Witch is full of unostentatious, lyrically unsettling imagery—a woman cackling hysterically as a raven pecks at her breast, all the while dreaming of blissfully breastfeeding a baby; and later, in the sudden freedom of a calm epilogue after horrific violence, a young woman, her head looming in the frame and out of focus, stares out at a grave, behind which looms the wood where her apparent destiny will be fulfilled.
The movie is at times overwhelming, but it’s full of moments like these that sneak up on you, and others which take you down harder and justify The Witch’s burgeoning reputation as a great new horror movie-- I’m thinking of the death of one character which so alchemically intertwines religious ecstasy and existential horror that almost four months after having first seen it I don’t think I’ve fully escaped its effects. When I first saw The Witch in February there was a man sitting in front of me who obviously didn’t cotton to the way the movie refused to conform to the rules of the schlock-shock playbook, and when the movie made its final cut to all-consuming blackness he wasn’t shy about blurting out his dissatisfaction and confusion: “What the fuck was that?!” Others may find the ambiguities that Eggers carries through to the movie’s end more fascinating. The Witch is a movie that had me marveling at the mysteries of its darkness, not cursing at them.
Nine Other Movies I’ve Liked A Lot So Far in 2016:
Barbershop: The Next Cut
Captain America: Civil War
Everybody Wants Some!!
Eye in the Sky
Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro)