Sunday, April 11, 2021

Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young: Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners

Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners sets the tone of what’s to come during the opening credits with colors, black and white photos, and a font that would be at home on the inside and back cover of a record album jacket, specifically one released around the time the movie takes place, 1958. The setting is London and the movie’s title refers to the teenagers, caught in that transitional stage between child and adulthood, thrilled not to be the former and staying as far as possible from becoming the latter. The streets are so alive it’s as if the people sprouted from within them, as everyone is engaged in activity ranging from dancing to flirting to fighting (possibly all at the same time). Our guide through these impetuous streets is Colin (Eddie O’Connell, a dead ringer for a young David Bowie), an up-and-coming photographer who’s barely scraping by (he uses his appliances for a closet and storage space) but is instantly known and desired as soon as walks out the door and when you’re an “absolute beginner,” what could be more important than that?

The movie’s energy is established with a virtuoso tracking shot through the city’s nightlife, a place where anything can happen and most likely will. Our eyes joyously dance around the screen in hopes of getting drunk on as many details as possible as Colin briskly moves from one side of the street and from one hot spot to another. The frame is often filled with contrasting colors as a way to set up what will become of the movie’s key themes, diversity and the beauty and value that comes from it. Temple and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton never give us a chance to catch our breath…the camera is constantly in motion but it’s never dizzying. The filmmakers are passionate about what’s on screen and they want us to savor every bit of it.

Colin’s main squeeze is blonde bombshell Suzette (Patsy Kensit), though we can tell right away from their wardrobes that they’re on vastly different paths. Suzette wears solid colors, suggesting a desire for a professional, established career while Colin prefers stripes and designs, indicating a more free-spirited nature, at least when it comes to thinking about the future. Regardless of your dreams, the end result is to be the next big thing, whether it be in fashion, photography, or singing, and chances are there’s someone ready to capitalize on your youth in any and every way.

Despite wanting to be a respectable presence in fashion, Suzette still fits firmly into the counterculture community of the absolute beginners and, during a fashion show, stirs things up by ripping the conservative lid off of the clothing styles in order to announce that the stuffy adults running the event are seriously out of touch. The movie constantly reminds us what a travesty being an adult is, shown vividly through how badly the old want to be young and through sly visual cues (a neon sign reading “Lots-of-Fun” reflects over a man doing household chores). Suzette becomes engaged to a man who claims to be 37 though he’s clearly pushing sixty. Then there’s the sleazy record producer who keeps getting nose jobs while searching for a new teen idol (he picks a 14-year-old and dresses him in a gold glitter suit). One of the movie’s very best scenes shows Colin’s weary father, played by Ray Davies, crooning about the desire for a “quiet life” as he vacuums while his wife beds younger, sexier men. The sequence is shot using a diorama of their house so we can witness every room at once. It’s stunning and no doubt shows how Temple’s experience shooting music videos prepared him for the complex set pieces he pulls off here.

I mentioned at the start that Eddie O’Connell bears a striking resemblance to David Bowie, so it should come as no surprise that Bowie himself turns up as Vendice Partners, an entrepreneur interested in grooming Colin into a product salesman. He believes, as was a staple of 1950s culture, that selling things (items for the “modern” home) is selling dreams, which is of course the opposite of everything an absolute beginner represents. Vendice’s pitch involves an elaborate song and dance number where he pulls Colin through a series of product ads, in essence seducing his hopeful protégé in the same manner as his customers (“commit horrible sins and get away with it”). As strong willed as Colin may be, the temptation temporarily overpowers him and before long, his suits are solid and he’s turning into the very person he criticized Suzette for becoming. We see the tug-of-war that they both face by giving into the grown-up pursuit of capitalism, a shift that includes the harsh realities about love and the self-abuse it causes once it’s lost.

All this being said, Absolute Beginners is not overly serious in the way it tackles all the themes it juggles. At least not until the jarring final third. And even then, the high energy and wall-to-wall music and dancing are still the primary modes of storytelling. Throughout the movie, there have been glimpses of the “bad” counterculture teens (they are shown using rockabilly while the “good” are complimented by jazz) and the adults who have an agenda for them. Instead of wealth through consumerism, these men are intent on gentrifying the poor, non-white neighborhoods. Colin and his friends live there, as being a true absolute beginner means accepting everyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or social standing. The movie is quite powerful and unapologetic in showing racial tension, especially once a race war erupts during the climax. Even being an ally doesn’t make you safe when an aggressive white population has created an “us” against “them” scenario.

Outside of a handful of British rock tracks (supplied by Bowie and Davies), jazz dominates the soundtrack, the music being accompanied by a series of dynamic performances by Black artists in underground clubs. Temple pays tribute to the roots of the genre and its history of having to express pain through the creation of something joyful, at the same time showcasing how that led to the inclusion of members from the very race responsible for their suffering. This especially holds true as absolute beginners, both Black and white, flee for refuge during the fighting to a jazz club and we witness, even in the midst of so much hate and conflict, people of both races dancing and celebrating life together. La La Land only wishes it could be as fucking cool and subversive as this movie.

Absolute Beginners comes to a close as the street battle ends with pouring rain, literally freeing and cleansing the exhausted protagonists who have done what’s necessary to keep and save what is rightfully theirs. This is a movie both magical and polarizing, not simply for its content but also for how beautifully and effortlessly it pushes the boundaries of cinema and explores the full range of the medium. It’s a work of art on multiple levels, and the fact it was a critical and box office failure upon its release and still has yet to be fully rediscovered is baffling and maddening. Absolute Beginners is why we go to the movies…to be wowed, challenged, exhilarated, to have all of our senses intoxicated. In today’s climate of movies made by committee, I don’t know if there would be a place for it but I am so goddamn grateful it exists. What resonates about it most with me is the reminder that we don’t have to grow old…age is just a state of mind. It’s how we choose to live and love that keeps our spirit alive and young and that is worth celebrating.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c)Hell and Beyond, 2021.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

"The Future Is Right Now": John Carpenter's Escape from L.A.


John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. opens, just as its predecessor Escape from New York, with a detailed description of how “crime and immorality” have ravaged the city and the great earthquake of 2000 separated Los Angeles from the rest of the country. The President of the United States (Cliff Robertson), an extreme holy roller, would probably describe it as an act of God, as it made L.A. the perfect place to send all of the people he sees as undesirables. Or more specifically, “prostitutes, atheists, and runaways” (it gave me the chills to see a hallway full of children about to be deported and not think about the countless news stories regarding kids separated from their parents with no hope of being reunited). If you don’t want to end up in L.A., the alternative is to repent your sins to a minister and get the electric chair. These sins could include smoking, drinking, drugs, guns, foul language, red meat, or women (unless married. A misogynist president…who would have guessed?). We also learn that the U.S. constitution has been amended to give the president a “lifetime term” and that the capital has been moved to the president’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia (just hearing the word “lynch” strikes a nerve). Since L.A. is considered “unfit” for the new moral United States, a Great Wall has even been constructed so once a person is deported, they can never return. It bears noting that Escape from L.A. was released in 1996 but takes place in 2013. Any of this sounding eerily familiar yet?

The first glimpse we get of our anti-hero, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), is a silhouette framed to make it look as if he’s towering over a group of people waiting to be deported. The shot deceptively suggests Plissken will be their savior, though not in the way we might expect. Just like in the first Escape, Plissken is pulled out of prison by the government to complete a time sensitive mission, this one involving the retrieval of a black box holding a device that can cause power to shut down anywhere in the world. The president’s daughter, ironically named Utopia (A.J. Langer), has stolen the box and taken it to L.A. where it’s fallen into the hands of gang leader Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), who’s a dead ringer for Che Guevara. Like before, Plissken is injected with a virus that will kill him if he doesn’t complete the mission by the designated time frame (the symptoms of the virus include a cough, fever, headache, and gets downplayed by the president like it’s no big deal).

Aside from the difference in missions, viewers will observe that Escape from L.A. is the exact same structurally as the previous movie and will continue to follow suit for the most part. But this is not simply Carpenter trying to remake the same movie with a bigger budget and updated politics (though the latter does play a crucial role in the effectiveness of the picture). Instead, he used this sequel as an opportunity to satirize big budget movies and the state of Hollywood itself. Sequels by their very nature go bigger, and Carpenter took his largest budget to date ($50 million) and filled the screen with some of the most intentionally campy CGI yet to be seen. Even though this was still relatively early in the days of digital effects, movies like the same summer’s Independence Day showed that the capability was there to make them look smooth and sleek. Carpenter seemed to be saying he was not thrilled with the new direction of blockbuster movies, which is most evident once Plissken begins his journey to L.A. in a submarine and is almost gobbled up by a digital shark as he dodges the sunken Universal Studios sign. In other words, the magic of movies is fading away and technology is making them look too fake. If aliens can blow up the White House than why not have Plissken go surfing with Peter Fonda? To go a step further, think back to how gritty New York looked in the earlier movie and how overly glossy Los Angeles is here…Carpenter is hammering home not only the differences in where his movies are set, but how much time has changed for him as a filmmaker.

Once Plissken gets to L.A., it doesn’t take long to realize that most of the people sent there are Latino or Asian. The movie is unflinching in showing how these two groups are stereotyped in American movies as gangbangers and thugs, wisely never taking it over the top. The first woman (Valeria Golino) Plissken encounters was deported for being Muslim and exclaims, “the other side of the wall…that’s the prison.” At least in L.A., they have choices, even if a violent death awaits around every corner. Shortly after meeting, they’re kidnapped and taken to the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Bruce Campbell, because fuck yeah!), an expert in conducting “surgical failures” and collecting fresh body parts for his botched experiments. The sequence is spectacularly bizarre and darkly hilarious, commenting on Beverly Hills’s obsession with how one plastic surgery is never enough (echoes of Brazil come to mind). The only other woman Plissken meets, named Hershe (the great Pam Grier), happens to be black and transgender (she and Plissken are old partners). The character could have been played for cheap laughs and gets close when Plissken reaches under her skirt to see if she’s still, ahem, equipped, but the moment to me added an unexpected level of homoeroticism. I say this because up until now (and this includes both movies), we’ve never known Plissken to show any interest in anyone but himself, sexually or otherwise, and he seems so betrayed by how his relationship ended with Hershe that maybe there was something unspoken between them.

Despite the more polished nature of Escape from L.A., Carpenter still fully embraces his western roots. Plissken’s outfit this time dresses him fully in black, complete with a duster jacket and a gun on each hip. The score often feels like it was taken right out of a Howard Hawks movie, specifically during a sequence where Plissken does a fake-out draw against a group of banditos. Even L.A. has the colorless, dry look we would associate with the genre, best seen in the incredible high angle shot of our anti-hero walking into the remains of the city for the first time and continuing as it tracks him through the streets. Just as in New York, everyone recognizes Plissken (“he used to be a gunfighter”) and wants him on their side, though all that matters to him is beating the countdown clock so he doesn’t die (I would imagine Plissken would rather get gunned down than taken out by a virus created by bureaucrats). The western anti-hero often had a semi untrustworthy adversary, so Plissken gets saddled with Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi, because who else?), the kind of slimy two-face ready to serve whoever happens to have the upper hand. Neither Cuervo nor Plissken ever fully trusts him, and it’s fitting that Eddie is the one who kills Cuervo since he’s the antithesis of everything Plissken represents (or doesn’t).

Carpenter has always been ahead of the game when it comes to predicting politics, and it’s no stretch to proclaim that Escape from L.A. is the most accurate assessment of the future he has yet to achieve. If what we learn about the president during the opening of the picture isn’t enough to convince you, look no further than his behavior as the conclusion approaches. First, we see him hiding under a table and not long after, he yells in a panic that it’s time to “go to my quarters! Got to pray!” Upon hearing that, his right-hand man (Stacy Keach) advises, “Go with him. Make sure he doesn’t do anything crazy.” This same president that felt it was okay to control how other people live and deport those who don’t share his mode of thinking is shown pathetically clutching a Bible not long before he orders the execution of his own daughter. Giving himself a lifetime term as president has made him believe he’s godlike, though the truth of his power is revealed once Plissken pulls his ultimate act of rebellion at the picture’s end.

Escape from L.A. climaxes with Plissken’s return from his mission, black box and Utopia in tow (though he was told to leave her behind). Instead of giving the president the real black box, which is going to be used to shut down “the enemy” of Mexico and Cuba, Plissken pulls a switcheroo and keeps the box for himself, enters “the world code” (which is 666), and prepares to push a button that will “set us back 500 years.” The American way of life and the country’s history will be completely erased (though the president shows no concern for how it will affect the rest of the world). Carpenter provides a sly visual as to why this won’t be such a bad thing when Plissken picks up a pack of American Spirit cigarettes and we see that the box art no longer shows a Native American, but the colors of the flag. Once the earth’s power has been shut down, Plissken finally gets a smoke, and as he’s about to blow out the match, he takes a moment to look directly at us, the offenders, the ones who have made the United States into what it is today. In other words, it’s our fault the reset button needed to be pushed, and even if we might be tempted to say Plissken is as corrupt as we are, lest not forget he’s a war hero who served his country and has seen its hypocrisy first hand. In addition to that, he’s never dishonest about who he is or what his intentions are, even if they are self-serving. He’s the ideal American anti-hero…white, male, and apolitical, as he knows the system sucks regardless of who’s in charged. So why should anyone be? The final line in the movie, said by Plissken, once the screen has faded to black is “Welcome to the human race,” and after what we’ve just experienced it becomes clear the statement has a double meaning. Oh, how I wish Carpenter had been able to make Escape from Earth, though in a way it’s fitting the adventures of Snake Plissken ended here.

Escape from L.A. was John Carpenter’s giant middle finger to big budget filmmaking, for after this he would only direct three more (modestly priced) features. It was clear from Memoirs of an Invisible Man that he was perfectly capable of using visual effects…the ones in the movie are still quite remarkable today. But given the terrible experience Carpenter had making Invisible Man (it’s the only movie in his filmography post Halloween without his name over the title), it’s as if he knew the business was shifting in a way that did not support how he made movies. As I mentioned earlier, I think the intentionally cheesy CGI of Escape from L.A. (and later, Ghosts of Mars) proves that. And while I do enjoy his latter projects, for me Escape from L.A. is the last truly great John Carpenter movie: funny, exciting, mercilessly satirical, and fiercely political. When it was released, as was the case with many Carpenter movies, it was a box office disappointment. And like those other movies that slipped through the cracks when they were released, Escape from L.A. has patiently awaited its rediscovery. As Carpenter himself put it in 2015: “People didn’t want to see Escape that time, but they really didn’t want to see The Thing. You just wait. You’ve got to give me a little while. People will say, you know, what was wrong with me?” I am thrilled to say I am one of those people.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c) Hell and Beyond, 2020.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Manifest Insanity: Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger


It opens, in context of the movie that will follow, in the future. The first image we see is a balloon preparing to disappear into an endless sky as the child who lost it still reaches out as if it will float back to him. This balloon is making its way into the “future,” a term we will hear a lot in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger. That, and “progress.” From what we see during this opening scene, it looks as if much progress has been made. The time is 1933 and the setting is San Francisco, a city we will learn once the movie flashes back to its main period of 1869, is the ultimate destination of the railroad, which is freshly under construction.

The Lone Ranger begins at a carnival as a young boy, dressed as a masked cowboy, wanders into an exhibit of the wild west of yesteryear. Of all the “attractions,” he decides to stop at “The Noble Savage,” a backhanded attempt for our muddled history to give some dignity to the people we invaded (and a hint suggesting will soon see who the real “savages” are). The Native American on display is very old, frozen in place and broken out of his trance (or brought to life?) by the sight of the masked kid who he mistakes for his former outlaw partner. This is our first clue that the movie will question (and toy with) reality.

The Noble Savage is of course, Tonto (Johnny Depp), and he serves as the unreliable narrator of the story. I say this because he begins near the end, details from the present somehow end up in the past, some key pieces are left out entirely, and there are places where it feels as if he’s making the story up as he goes. I could note that it’s made more fantastical because a child is the audience, but who’s to say the narrator even acknowledges that. These elements to the storytelling fit in with the fact that the character of Tonto lost his mind as a child and so now that’s he is elderly, what’s left of it is gone for good (though whether in past or present, he never forgets to feed the dead bird perched on top of his head).

The movie refers to the past sparingly, only if the kid has a question about Tonto’s story. It’s crucial, I think, that Tonto is the narrator, as we need to see this period of American “progress” through the eyes of someone who was negatively affected by it. There was much controversy surrounding the casting of Johnny Depp as a Native American, but it seems to have been done in irony (I’d like to believe too that it’s because Gore Verbinski was paying tribute to Depp’s presence in Jim Jarmusch’s exceptional, Dead Man. I am certainly not the first to make this connection). One of the first observations the kid makes is that he thought The Lone Ranger and Tonto were the “good” guys, and the movie will spend a majority of its time asking what that even means at this point in American history. The question of what constitutes “justice” is up for debate too, as one man sees it as being determined by the court of law while others see it being answered by a bullet.

The masked hero of the movie is John Reed (Armie Hammer) a district attorney who, when asked to pray with a group of Presbyterians, holds up a copy of Treatsie of Government by John Locke and declares it is his “Bible.” The Lone Ranger proves to have a cynical view of religion and government, as they both fail those who try to do what’s right. The only principles that end up prevailing are the ones adopted by the heroes themselves. But like the narrator, I’m getting ahead of myself here. John begins the movie as the classic naïve, stick-in-the-mud, only to have everything he believes in challenged and then crippled. His brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), is the opposite, a confident lawman who takes down his opponents however necessary (Tonto sees him as a great “warrior”).

The movie’s thrilling opening sequence sees the escape of nasty villain Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) after his minions rescue him from confinement on a train. The railroad will be one of the key characters in The Lone Ranger, as a tool for the wealthy white men planning westward expansion, and as a way to wipe out the Native Americans they’ve signed a peace treaty with (though we can see the Native Americans are skeptical to believe what these men promise them). Control of the railroad means control of the land, which means spreading more (white) people to populate the rest of the country (“…power that makes emperors and kings look like fools. Whoever controls this, controls the future.”). Real allies are a dime a dozen, but Dan Reed is one of them, so when he’s brutally murdered by Cavendish (he cuts out and eats Dan’s heart, fitting since Dan is pure and the destruction of his heart is the biggest defilement possible), John reluctantly takes his place. Tonto discovers John is a “Spirit Walker,” a man who has been to the “other side” and now cannot be killed in battle. He insists John wear a mask made from his brother’s vest with “eyes cut by the bullets that killed him.”

Of course, John believes at first that when he finds Cavendish, he needs to be tried in court while Tonto, who also has an ugly past with Cavendish, believes he just needs to be shot for his crimes. John learns about Tonto’s history when they are brought into a Comanche village and the chief (Saginaw Grant) shares Tonto’s backstory, which is beautifully and hauntingly realized through voiceover (the gravity of the chief’s voice adds extra weight and perfectly complements Hans Zimmer’s score) and dynamic visuals. Tonto’s madness comes into thorough focus for us now, and we fully understand his desire for revenge. Depp’s appearance is melancholy and quietly chilling, his cracked makeup acting as an effective symbol for his fractured psyche.

The Lone Ranger is, first and foremost, a western (I was pleasantly surprised to find that Slant Magazine put it at number 87 on their list of the 100 Greatest Westerns of All Time) and director Gore Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli have crafted one of the best looking movies I have seen. Their influences are vast and on display during every luscious frame, from the landscapes, to the skylines, to the sunsets. The occasionally broad comedy and huge action also pays tribute to movies from a variety of eras, and it’s all staged so expertly that I was able to ignore the crazy tonal shifts, if not miss them altogether. Verbinski throws a lot of elements into the pot here, and though the movie is a huge blockbuster aiming to thrill, it still takes the underlying themes I’ve discussed to this point with alarming sincerity. The question for many viewers will be whether they’re able to go back and forth and not lose their concentration in the process.

If there’s one consistent through line in the movie, it’s the mounting anticipation that the peace treaty between the Native Americans and the white men will be broken and lead to a battle. No mystery is ever made that the wealthy railroad tycoons staged the raids on their own villages to make it look like Native Americans did it, all because they needed that land for their iron rails. This is progress, remember? The movie’s most unflinching sequence hits right before the bombastic climax as the Native Americans stage an attack and are mowed down by a gatling gun (we even see the chief get stabbed in the heart). Showing this massacre brought a great deal of heat on the movie, but I found it to be a pretty bold move. If you’re going to profile one of the ugly pieces of American history, you might as well go all in. The Lone Ranger is one of those movies that has its cake and then gleefully eats it, as we see at the start of the finale when the very same gatling gun is used to kill a bunch of US soldiers and rich white men (the movie surely has the largest body count and most unsettling violence ever in a Disney release).

Speaking of that finale, it is well worth the wait. The Lone Ranger runs a whopping 150 minutes, the last twenty of which make up one of the most showstopping action sequences I have ever seen. If you are a western fan, then it’s safe to say you’ve experienced a train chase before, but never quite like this one. It’s a seamless marriage of jaw dropping action and Buster Keaton-esque comedy, and even though it caps with the death of the villains, there is still someone just as sinister to take their place. After saving the day, John is given an award and told, “It’s time to take off the mask” and “Always nice to have a lawman on the side of progress.” Of course, neither of those statements ring true for John, who must let the mask speak to what he’s learned true justice is and that he’s on a completely different side.

If the movie has a weak spot, it’s in the female characters. John has a love interest, Dan’s widow, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), but unfortunately, she’s reduced to a damsel in distress, as is her son. There’s also Helena Bonham Carter, so good as the madam of a brothel. Too bad then that she’s only in two scenes, though in both she gets to showcase her ivory leg that doubles as a gun! When we first meet her, there’s a nice visual touch paying tribute to who she was before the leg was lost. Given the movie’s epic length, surely a little room could have been cleared to give her more to do. Her and Rebecca, for that matter.

The Lone Ranger fittingly concludes where it began, with Tonto and the boy. Tonto has packed his bag and is dressed in a suit, ready to escape his stereotyped prison and return to the home that was stolen from him and the other Native Americans not long before. Before he goes, the boy asks him if the story he just heard is really all true to which Tonto replies, “That is for you to decide.” We take a certain ownership of the stories that mean the most of us, giving them the texture required to make them our own and to hopefully wow our audience into believing every word they hear (And for Tonto, that means being a hero and getting his past due vengeance). The Lone Ranger honors this tradition in a wholly unique way while still lovingly paying tribute to the movies that inspired it. To get all of that and then a final shot of Tonto walking through a valley, into a future that belongs to and is decided by no one but him, is the crowning definition of cinematic bliss.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c)Hell and Beyond, 2020.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

10 for the 2010s

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Arrival, Columbus, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lincoln, Lords of Salem, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Nice Guys, Spring, Take Shelter, The World's End











Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c)2020, Hell and Beyond.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Past Is Behind You But Which Way Is Forward: Lee's Best Movies of 2019

I still vividly remember being a teenager and feeling like the year 2000 was so far away. Then we got there and the expectation reset for 2020. The time before hitting these milestone years was filled with anticipation and deep wonder for what our lives would be like and how the world would have changed. In the early 2000s, I made the mistake of trying to plan how my life would turn out, with all my hopes and dreams going in a completely different direction than I could have imagined. This led to too much time spent longing to go back and start it all over again. The best movies of 2019 identify deeply with this idea of coming to terms with who and where you are, for better or worse. How does one move forward when your feet are still pointed back? It's a loaded question, one that was explored in a variety of exciting, tragic, and hilarious ways. Every year has a abundance of good movies, but I felt a deeper connection to this one, maybe due to it being on the heels of a new decade. The path goes both directions...I am hopeful about discovering which one points ahead. I wish the same for you.


Movies Logged: 106

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Avengement, The Beach Bum, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Clemency, Cold Feet, Cold Pursuit, The Dead Don't Die, Diane, Ford v Ferrari, Happy Death Day 2U, Honey Boy, Hustlers, In Fabric, In the Shadow of the Moon, IT: Chapter 2, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Lighthouse, Midsommar, Queen & Slim, Ready or Not, Richard Jewell, Rocketman, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Terminator: Dark Fate, Vision Portraits


30) Altantique (Atlantics) dir. Mati Diop
29) Booksmart dir. Olivia Wilde
28) Ash Is Purest White dir. Jia Zhangke
27) Dragged Across Concrete dir. S. Craig Zahler
26) Dolemite Is My Name dir. Craig Brewer
25) Homecoming: A Film by Beyonce dir. Beyonce Knowles, Ed Burke
24) A Hidden Life dir. Terrence Malick
23) Crawl dir. Alexandre Aja
22) J'ai Perdu Mon Corps (I Lost My Body) dir. Jeremy Clapin
21) Little Women dir. Greta Gerwig


20) Ad Astra dir. James Gray
19) Transit dir. Christian Petzold
18) High Flying Bird dir. Steven Soderbergh
17) Fast Color dir. Julia Hart
16) High Life dir. Claire Denis
15) Uncut Gems dir. Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
14) One Cut of the Dead dir. Shinichiro Ueda
13) Border South dir. Raul Paz Pastrana
12) 3 from Hell dir. Rob Zombie
11) Toy Story 4 dir. Josh Cooley


10) Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory) dir. Pedro Almodovar

A career best Antonio Banderas reflects on his childhood and film directing career in this stunningly beautiful semi-autobiographical portrait of aging from one the world's finest filmmakers.

9) Under the Silver Lake dir. David Robert Mitchell

Modern day Los Angeles attempts to give purpose to a life solely lacking in this delightfully twisty and unpredictable slacker noir. Everything means something is you make the effort...even the minimal amount.

8) Aniara dir. Hugo Lilja, Pella Kagerman

There were a handful of exceptionally cerebral sci-fi movies in 2019, but none of them stuck with me (and haunted me) as heavily as this one. Aniara is an existential nightmare, a journey beginning with hope that slowly and terrifyingly declines the other direction. Of the many complex questions the movie asks, the one that I have yet to shake is, at what point do the machines we've created to bring us comfort realize there is no longer any comfort to give?

7) Glass dir. M. Night Shyamalan

Who could have guessed that the final chapter in Shyamalan's superhero trilogy would be the most emotionally and politically rich? Glass was, for me, the boldest and most challenging big screen blockbuster of 2019, a movie that takes huge chances and pulls most of them off effortlessly.

6) The Irishman dir. Martin Scorsese

A master storyteller, with the help of three cinematic icons, tells an epic saga of a life that felt well lived until it was reflected upon. Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) proudly recounts the details of his career, but the further he brings us to the present, the deeper we understand how sorrowfully it will end for him. The Irishman features a performance from Joe Pesci that is as terrifying as his turn in Goodfellas (but for completely different reasons) and a final shot that has burned itself into my brain for oblivion.

5) Knives Out dir. Rian Johnson

My third time seeing Rian Johnson's absolutely delightful Knives Out, I was still discovering new clues and relishing in off screen dialogue I had somehow missed the previous times. This is the year's biggest entertainment, a meticulously crafted, brilliant performed whodunit with razor sharp dialogue and an unexpectedly sweet story at its center. I can't wait to see it again.

4) Her Smell dir. Alex Ross Perry

There were a lot of amazing performances by women in 2019, but Elisabeth Moss's work in Her Smell towers highest of all. The movie is a searing portrait of an out of control rock star, played by Moss, whose self destructive behavior is at its most critical. We see her at her very worst, with director Alex Ross Perry refusing to let us look away, and then through her recovery. Both parts are intensely powerful, though the emotional core shines through most as Moss's character, Becky, tries to heal herself. In a year filled with incredible final scenes, the one here is a gut punch and leads up to a last line that is well earned and deserved.

3) Marriage Story dir. Noah Baumbach

A triumph of writing, performance, and direction, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is his best film to date, a thoughtful look at how two people who love each other, but are not a good match, do their best to navigate a divorce without drawing blood, something that proves impossible as they get deeper into the process. We witness as they each slowly unravel, leading to them saying things they don't mean and making decisions they didn't plan to make. It's often very difficult to watch, though we never doubt they want what's best for each other and for their child. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, two of my favorite actors, will have a hard time topping their performances here, and they're aided by a stellar supporting cast including Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Julie Hagerty. Like many of Baumbach's movies, it's heart-wrenching and occasionally very funny.

2) Parasite dir. Bong Joon-ho

No one mixes comedy and horror quite like Bong Joon-ho. The shift is jarring, but never without purpose. In Parasite, he and his acting muse Song Kang-ho, along with a top notch cast, have created one of the very best indictments against the 1% that I have seen. Scathing, unpredictable, and often jaw droppingly crafted (there's a sequence in the middle of the movie that is one of the most beautifully staged and edited of the year...hell make that the decade), Parasite is unflinching in its vision of the danger that comes with wealth...and what happens when those who don't have it get a taste. The less you know going in, the better. I was polarized.

1) Once Upon A Hollywood dir. Quentin Tarantino

I saw Pulp Fiction opening day in the theater, and the charge I got watching it was like nothing I'd experienced before. I was clearly in the hands of someone who loved the movies and wanted to share that with me in any and every way possible. With every movie since then (and Reservoir Dogs before it), Quentin Tarantino has continued to do that. Mileage may vary to be sure, but the passion for filmmaking, storytelling, and character has always shined through. If Pulp Fiction seemed like the perfect movie to be made by a cinema obsessed 31-year-old, Once Upon A Hollywood serves the exact same purpose for him at 56. It feels like Tarantino's entire career has been building to this, his magnum opus about the place where dreams are made during a time when the tide was shifting. The movie vividly and lushly captures the sights and sounds of Hollywood in 1969...we don't just experience it, we live in it. When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) drives through the city, radio blaring, we can feel the wind blowing through his hair and the intensity of the neon lights that hit his eyes. At the center of the story is a friendship between Cliff, an aging stunt man, and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV star struggling to stay relevant and recognized. The movie is set against the backdrop of the Manson murders, most specifically the time leading up to when his followers killed Sharon Tate and a group of her friends. Margot Robbie plays Tate in the movie, and it's an astonishing performance in that we witness a snapshot of the life of a happy, caring person through very little dialogue. Instead, we see Sharon dance, we see her sleep, we see her pick up a hitchhiker, share a conversation, and then part in a warm embrace. But the peak of our time with Sharon comes when she discovers a movie she's in is showing and she watches it with an audience. The joy on her face as people react to her onscreen (the footage of the real Sharon Tate is used) is one of the best moments in any Tarantino movie. I mentioned that the movies of 2019 were ripe with stunning final images, but the one that concludes Once Upon A Hollywood has stayed with me the longest. It's a moment that's as comforting as it is haunting, crafted by a filmmaker who's spent a career bringing us characters he loves, but this time has done it with more humanity and warmth than ever before. The movie is a sublime marriage of writing and direction...often times Tarantino's obsession with dialogue can overshadow his images. Here, what we see often speaks louder than what we hear. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a career defining movie. If Tarantino indeed only does one more movie, it will have mighty big shoes to fill.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c)Hell and Beyond, 2020.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

"The More You Drive, The Less Intelligent You Are." - Alex Cox's Repo Man

Like the best 1980s works of John Carpenter, Alex Cox's Repo Man is just as timely in 2019 as it was upon release 35 years ago. Fascinatingly enough, certain aspects feel even more timely now. Cox's influences are made apparent right from the start, as Iggy Pop's punk theme dominates the opening credits, only to shift to a more western style score (courtesy of Steven Hufsteter and Humberto Larriva) once the first scene begins. The first character introduced is J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), and he is driving the Chevy Malibu that will become the object in great demand throughout the movie. It is of note that his glasses have one clear lens and one dark, as if to suggest one eye is blind while the other sees. In other words, we're never getting the whole picture. Frank gets pulled over by a motorcycle cop who happens to have a pine tree air freshener hanging from his windshield, the first of many recurring images the movie will present to us in regards to consumerism. The officer requests to look in the trunk and once it is opened, a bright light emerges and he evaporates, nothing left but a pair of smoking boots. This disorienting scene perfectly sets up the tone of the movie, which will gleefully and mischieviously play by its own rules. More on the trunk contents later.

It's fitting that we meet the movie's anti-hero, Otto (Emilio Estevez), working in a grocery store, surrounded by products. Even though they are generically labeled (every item, right down to the champagne, has a white label with black type), Otto's co-worker, Kevin (Zander Schloss) energetically sings a jingle from a 7-UP commercial ("America's drinking 7-UP!"). Even while putting price tags on unmarked cans, there's still no escaping product placement. Otto's manager fires him after he uses vulgar language, only leaving once the Latino security guard pulls a gun on him (if you watch the bottom left corner of the frame as Otto leaves, you can see the security guard twirl his gun like a cowboy, showing the influence of American culture, though the uniform and the false sense of power that comes with it may be as close as this person of color will ever get to the American Dream).

Down on his luck in more ways than one, Otto catches the attention of Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a haggard repo man looking to find new recruits. He lures Otto into stealing a car, the perfect match for a young punk who can score some cash taking a person's most prized possession away. The repo outfit is called "Helping Hand," an obvious jab at the treatment of the working class. Bud and the other repo men seem to barely be middle class (if that), yet they still prey on those struggling to get by just as they are. Otto only agrees to become a repo man once he sees how lousy the other options are (while looking at the want ads, Kevin exclaims, "There's room to move as a fry cook"). Naturally Otto, like everyone else, wants to know how often he gets paid ("Work on commission. That's better than getting paid."). First though, Bud must teach him the Repo Code, a series of guidelines such as, "Only an asshole gets killed for a car." Otto learns the hard way that this could even be a concern after being shot at, maced in the eyes, and during a house visit where he tries to take a car that's on a jack. During the latter, we get a glimpse of how Otto has started drinking the Kool Aid, as he is now wearing a suit, has a brief case, and is still going to a take an African American woman's car even as she tells him that she's behind on payments due to being in the hospital. Otto's transformation is a gradual one: it starts with T-shirts and a blazer and eventually develops into dressing, as Bud describes it, "like a detective...they dress kind of square."

Otto has a love interest, or in his case, someone to have sex with and receive sexual favors from, named Leila (Olivia Barash). She too, is looking for the Malibu, specifically because she is convinced there are "aliens" in the trunk. All Otto cares about, and all the other repo men for that matter, is that the car is worth $20,000. It's fitting that this in-demand car is a Chevy Malibu, because what's more All American than a Chevy and what better representation is there for paradise than Malibu? In other words, this car represents the American Dream, and it is always out of reach for the characters here. As for the "aliens" in the trunk, at one point, someone asks if they are illegal aliens, a distinct parrallel to immigration since many people crossing the border must hide in the trunks of cars and, given what happens when the trunk of the Malibu is opened, they are automatically considered dangerous. Their needs are never considered, only apprehending them (as we see from the white men in suits who are always trying to stop Leila's efforts to rescue them from the trunk).

The movie takes place in a western city, presumably a border one, and focuses solely on the hardships of those struggling. Bud, who has been in the game for a long time, looks down on not only the wealthy but also the poor. Like anyone else, his goal is ultimately to have enough money to "sit around and let everyone else do the work for a while." Yet the characters are always quick to take opportunities for granted because they are too busy chasing a shallow and unattainable Dream. After jacking a car, Otto finds some wrapped gifts in the back seat and tosses them out the window. Soon after, it is revealed they were filled with stacks of $100 bills. Instead, a book titled "Dioretix: The Science of Matter Over Mind" (linked to Scientology) is a worthy back seat discovery, though in the end, it is valued just as much as the Bible. Organized religion is mercilessly attacked in Repo Man, beginning with Otto's parents, former hippies who have been literally hypnotized by a televangelist and have given all of their money to his "cause" (supposedly sending Bibles to El Salvador). When this same televangelist approaches the Malibu with a large Bible, the car retaliates by setting it on fire ("Holy Sheep Shit!"). Another visual clue is a sign in a convenience store window that reads, "Drink $3.16," suggesting that religion is, like everything else, a product being marketed and sold to the masses to separate us from the few dollars we have.

Capitalism has eaten this city alive, as we see from the state of the streets and the homeless and deprived people who roam them. There are never any recognizable landmarks or tall buildings...instead, there are shots of sewers, garbage blowing in the wind, and torn posters of white male politicians giving a shit eating grin that carries nothing but empty promises. And it's those smiles that have kept the population from achieving "happiness." The closest they get are yellow smiley face buttons or wrist watches, a blink-and-you miss-it effort to mask the illusion that everything is fine. At one point, a group of punks are seen stealing prescription drugs, leading us to wonder if it's just an easy way to get high or if they are suffering from lack of affordable health care (or both). The leader of that group, Duke (Dick Rude), always refers to their robberies as a "job," and late in the movie has a talk with his girlfriend about settling down, getting a house, and having a baby. After all, "everybody does it, so it seems like the thing to do." Even though Duke and his gang are anarchists, they still have been influenced by the society that shaped them. The same could be said for Otto, at least at the start, but as the movie reaches its conclusion, the blinders have been removed, thanks to a ride in the Malibu with Frank ("You ever feel like your mind is starting to erode?"), and Miller (Tracy Walter), the guy responsible for emptying the cars out once they are delivered to "Helping Hand." Miller's theories on...well everything, might seem like insane rambling, but he's one of the only characters we meet who boasts about a love for reading (which he does on the bus due to the fact that, "the more you drive, the less intelligent you are"). By the time the movie reaches it surreal and bonkers conclusion, Otto's journey has come full circle. As Duke lays dying and tries to blame society for what he became, Otto corrects him with the reminder that they are both white kids from the suburbs. The system caters to them above any others, making Repo Man an unapologetic attack on the hypocrisy of white privilege.

I notice that I've made Repo Man seem like a grim experience, and it is the furthest thing from that. It presents its ideas through a series of radically inventive comic scenes, characters, and dialogue, much of which is delivered with more than hint of deadpan. This is a satire, first and foremost, an large extended middle finger to Reagan era politics. Alex Cox may not be an American, but he clearly saw how the policies of the '80s were affecting not just the United States, but the world (we briefly glimpse Reagan's involvement in Nicaragua, which Cox would explore fully in his equally gonzo Walker). Even though Repo Man was well received upon its release, it still feels ahead of its time, an ingenious and loosely constructed comedy that, like the punk rock music that seems to have inspired it, is not concerned with how much sense it makes on the surface or how pretty it looks, so long as you are shaken by what lives in its core. I've seen it at least 20 times, with no two viewings being even remotely close to the same. Yet the final scene always carries the same jarring and electrifying effect. When Otto finally climbs into the glowing green Chevy Malibu for a ride into the night sky, the first twinkling lights we see are those of the bank skyscrapers that hold the people beneath them hostage. In letting go of the material world and all that it entails, Otto is able to see what lies beyond it, shooting straight for the stars and finally achieving enlightenment. At long last, he is no longer a punk kid from the suburbs, or a repo man, or any other label from an unforgiving society. He simply exists, and this unprecedented movie experience proudly makes us believe there is nothing better than that.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c)Hell and Beyond, 2019.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Another Day in Paradise: Lee's Best Movies of 2018

I have struggled greatly with what to say for my opening remarks on my favorite annual tradition, but after several well meaning but (at least to me) unsatisfactory attempts, I have decided to keep this brief. The largest reason for this is because everything I was wanting to say has already been done so by others and with more pathos. So, what I will leave you with is that 2018, like most years, had a wealth of remarkable cinema. It was a tremendous challenge putting ten in an order of favorites, as each movie spoke to me immensely, and in different ways. The best movies of the year had such passion, outrage, beauty, ugliness, and in some cases, joy. Boundaries were pushed and tested by filmmakers familiar and also by new, exciting, diverse voices.

I wrestled with a lot of demons in 2018 as we watched the world continue to crumble due to so much hatred and negativity. Often times, the movies were the best way out. When it came down to it, the best movie of the year for me was the one that left me in awe, dazzled my eyes, rattled my brain, and made me weep more times than any other movie I saw. It was a movie I walked into the theater to experience without much anticipation. Funny how that works. I suspect it will come up again at the end of this year when I make my best of the decade(!) list. Anyways, read on, let's discuss, and I'll see you at the movies!


Number of 2018 movies seen: 107

Notably Missed: Bisbee '17, Blaze, Burning, Cold War, The Green Fog, Monrovia, Indiana, Shoplifters, The Tale

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Annihilation, Aquaman, Blindspotting, Happy as Lazarro, Hotel Artemis, Incredibles 2, Let the Sunshine In, Mission Impossible: Fallout, The Predator, Upgrade, Wildlife, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Zama


30) Suspiria dir. Luca Guadagnino
29) Widows dir. Steve McQueen
28) The Other Side of the Wind dir. Orson Welles
27) The Favourite dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
26) First Man dir. Damien Chazelle
25) Support the Girls dir. Andrew Bujalski
24) Leave No Trace dir. Debra Granik
23) Revenge dir. Coralie Fargeat
22) The Endless dir. Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
21) A Quiet Place dir. John Krasinski


20) Private Life dir. Tamara Jenkins
19) Eighth Grade dir. Bo Burnham
18) Can You Ever Forgive Me? dir. Marielle Heller
17) Sorry to Bother You dir. Boots Riley
16) The Mule dir. Clint Eastwood
15) Hereditary dir. Ari Aster
14) Paddington 2 dir. Paul King
13) Game Night dir. John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein
12) Roma dir. Alfonso Cuaron
11) The Rider dir. Chloe Zhao


10) The Sisters Brothers dir. Jacques Audiard

Brotherhood is tested by violence and greed in an elegantly shot and acted offbeat western.

9) Mandy dir. Panos Cosmatos

Toxic masculinity and the fragility of the male ego are explored through an acidic fever dream with Nicolas Cage as a heavy metal album cover come to life.

8) The House That Jack Built dir. Lars von Trier

An artist turns the mirror on the ugliness and misogyny of his body of work with an uncompromising and deeply affecting look at his, and our, perception of art and the consequences it carries.

7) Hold the Dark dir. Jeremy Saulnier

Atmosphere unleashes our most primal instincts, blurring the line between truth, consequences, and the narrative that spreads from one ear to the next.

6) First Reformed dir. Paul Schrader

Is faith enough to save us from the cage our soul is trapped inside, with all of its fear, anger, and doubt?

5) BlacKkKlansman dir. Spike Lee

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying, but you still cry, because for every small victory, there are still many, many more to be won.

4) If Beale Street Could Talk dir. Barry Jenkins

Beauty and love can survive injustice, even as it continues to grow and infect what matters most. In the darkest moments, they can be the most potent of weapons.

3) You Were Never Really Here dir. Lynne Ramsey

Hope might seem like a blank wall when your experience consists of violence and trauma, but it can still emerge at the moment you least expect.

2) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Fate's sense of humor is as sharp, cunning, and unpredictable as its cruelty.

1) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Disappointment and rejection can lead to strength and possibilities. This movie is everything for everyone.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c)Hell and Beyond, 2019.