2021 Movie Reviews: Don’t Look Up / Nightmare Alley / Red Rocket

Two duds and a bonafide stud.

Don’t Look Up

I didn’t like this movie at all but that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with its message. No, I’m not a climate change denier or closet MAGA, I’m simply an Adam McKay denier, meaning I don’t think he’s made a decent movie since The Big Short and I don’t think he ever will. He’s been trying and spectacularly failing to capture Big Short‘s lightning in a bottle ever since, with both this and Vice. To Don’t Look Up‘s credit, Vice was a much shittier film with absolutely no idea of what it wanted to accomplish or say. Don’t Look Up‘s message on the other hand, is pretty obvious – WE’RE STUPID FUCKING IDIOTS COMPLETELY FUCKING THE PLANET WHILE IN COMPLETE FUCKING DENIAL ABOUT IT, MOST OF ALL, THE FUCKING PEOPLE WITH THE MOST FUCKING POWER AND MONEY, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO FUCKING DIE BECAUSE OF IT! FUCKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!! That’s about the extent of the subtlety and nuance McKay applies to this shouty “satire”. He’s not interested in mining greater, less obvious truths about human behavior or why we approach crisis like this, he just wants to vent like we all do. That’s fine but why would you think that constitutes an almost 2.5-hour film? In order for a satire to work it needs to pick at an insight that we maybe haven’t considered before entering the theater or expand upon a pre-conceived insight in a new way. This just rain gutter catches all the wettest sharts from your red-pilled Uncle’s Facebook page, hoses them down, and turns them into a one-dimensional character that yells. It’s like a marathon of barely funny SNL sketches featuring your favorite celebs, complete with cringe-y meme jokes and bad slapstick. I’d say it’s going after low-hanging fruit (that’s been hammered out to death by comedians and comedy groups EVERYWHERE since 2015) but it’s not even hanging on the tree at this point. It’s rotten, deformed, pigeon-munched bosque pears McKay swept up off the ground near the tree.

The cast here is criminally underused for the most part, despite their near Earth-shattering (NPI) abilities. DiCaprio is solid but seems like he’s in a far more serious movie than everybody else and while Jennifer Lawrence hits the tone better, it seems the film would have benefitted from more grounded protagonists to juxtapose the infantile madmen (and women) they encounter. Meryl Streep adds far less than you’d expect, Tyler Perry and an almost unrecognizable Cate Blanchett do well enough with two one-dimensional characters and Timothee Chalamet seems completely unneeded. The incredible Mark Rylance is quite funny as a vain tech guru but this comedy well has been pretty drained over the years, not least of all by Matt Ross‘ Gavin Belson in HBO’s Silicon Valley. Ron Perelman plays an old racist and is responsible for one of the only laugh-out-loud comedic bits of the film but Jonah Hill is the only one that seems to fully embrace what this ultimately seems to be aiming for with his inspired mama’s boy secretary of state character. I’d love to see that character in something more deserving of its chutzpah. I’d also like to mention that character actor Rob Morgan gives us a typically wonderful dramatic performance as Dr. Ogelthorpe, a performance that is, unfortunately, completely lost among his hammy co-stars.

The writing in this is pretty flat and never gives us the peaks and valleys something this long needs to. It’s one-note, all the time, cranked up to 11. Don’t Look Up also features some of the most bizarre editing choices of any film in the past decade or so. Whether it’s that dumb dinner table scene or just the way it, in general, seems to awkwardly jump cut from one scene to the next without letting the previous scene finish. It’s like trying to have a coherent conversation with someone coked out of their mind. You tell me if I’m wrong, but where I’m sitting this doesn’t add anything to the overall movie or the overall message of the movie. In fact, it really just feels like being caught in the crossfire of signature McKay temper tantrum, one that is wholly justified but unpleasant to have directed at you, nonetheless. It’s like “I agree with you dude, please stop shouting at me!” Everything is so face value in this and it points to McKay having what is maybe the worst trait a filmmaker can have – trusting your audience’s intelligence so little that you underhand pitch all your ideas. The only silver lining of this movie I can see is the general public taking climate change more seriously, but if we’re all as stupid and predictable as McKay seems to think, we might as well plan our funeral right now. Grade: C- (In Theaters and Netflix)

Nightmare Alley

Probably the biggest disappointment of the Holiday season movie glut, Guillermo Del Toro‘s Nightmare Alley is an awkward, uneven blend of Tod Browning‘s Freaks and film noir of the 1940s. It’s based on a novel of the time period, and also a remake of a film made from that novel in the 40s, neither of which I’ve ever heard of. It starts promising enough with a mysterious traveler (Bradley Cooper) taking up with some circus folk after he burns down this farmhouse for some reason. The reason will be revealed to us at the end, but it’s super underwhelming and doesn’t actually reveal much. There’s no reason for Del Toro to tease this information out till the finale, if we learned it in the opening scene it might actually enrich Cooper‘s character to the point of us maybe even giving a shit about him. This first twenty or thirty-minute stretch of the film is fairly decent thanks to the hammy but fun performances of Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Ron Perelman, and Mark Povinelli. There are some seriously overlong character monologues but it manages to set up an interesting premise with Cooper realizing he’s good at creating illusions or lying or tricking people, depending on how you look at it. He decides to take this talent on the road with his new crush (Rooney Mara) and that’s when this flies off the rails. Leaving the circus behind means leaving all the charisma and fun behind and what we’re left with is a seemingly never-ending series of boring con jobs and dumb two-person dialogue scenes with Cooper and Cate Blanchett, where they never stop talking but are never actually saying anything either. Seriously, these scenes are like “what the fuck are you two assholes talking about?!” for tens of minutes at a time. Finally, after two hours and twenty minutes that absolutely feel like 3+ hours, the movie ends in the most predictable way imaginable, making this feel like an extra-long and completely forgettable Twilight Zone episode. It’s a movie that actively reminds us of better movies/shows to explore this topic such as Del Toro’s TCM movie influences and that underrated HBO gem from the early 2000s, Carnivale. This is Guillermo‘s worst film besides Mimic, but at least that film had entertaining pockets throughout. Grade: D+ (In Theaters)

Red Rocket

Simon Rex is a fucking phenomenon in Sean Baker‘s painfully hilarious and sometimes just painful A24 dramedy, Red Rocket. It’s a deceptively complex performance that balances real, palpable pain with expert comedic timing, in what ultimately feels like a Midland Texas spin on Mike Leigh‘s Naked. Rex plays Mikey Saber, a washed-up porn star who stumbles off a greyhound from LA back to his hometown in Texas with nothing but a silver tongue for manipulating everyone around him. He starts with his ex-wife and former porn colleague, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and manages to score a sleeping spot on her couch if he can get a job, pay his share of the rent, and doesn’t mind getting rousted out of bed the couch at 8am so Lexi’s mom (Brenda Deiss) can watch The People’s Court or Trump rallies. That’s another interesting aspect of this, it takes place during the 2016 presidential primaries and everyone in this very hopeless and destitute part of Texas is really interested in what The Donald has to say. Trump’s empty promises perfectly parallel Mikey’s, a character so obviously full shit, nobody should believe what he says but desperation and general gullibility allows you to lie to yourself. For these people, it’s easy to latch onto anything when you’ve never had no nothing. Mikey is perhaps a sociopath, completely incapable of entertaining anything that isn’t at least partially self-serving and not caring about the damage he inflicts on everyone in his orbit. The stories he tells about how successful he was in the porn industry feel like he’s trying to convince himself of his own self-worth more than the poor neighbor giving him a ride to Cinnabon. Eventually, he meets an 18-in-three-weeks girl working at a Donut Hole named Strawberry (a fantastic Suzanna Son) and plots to seduce her and eventually mold her into an up-and-coming porn star he can ride the coattails of, back into the industry. Can he pull it off or will it all blow up in his face in the most outrageous way possible? The combination of darker societal implications in the background and awkward, raunchy, and all too real comedy in the foreground really gives the film its teeth, powering you through which could have felt like a slog if it had even a whiff of he’s-the-ultimate-victim attached to it. He’s not, the movie always points out that’s he’s the asshole. It’s almost like the most poignant and self-reflective episode of Maury Povich you’ve ever seen. “Red rocket” refers to a dog’s erection and while there isn’t an actual erect dog penis in the film, it’s a reference to Mikey, not a real dog but a human, wounded beyond repair, begging for scraps. You ultimately pity him, you never sympathize with him and you shudder to think of what kind of greater influences mold these types of people. Grade: A- (In Theaters)

Other new movies streaming and/or in theaters:

Spider-Man: No Way Home (Theaters)

The Matrix Resurrections (Theatres and HBOMax)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Theaters and AppleTV January 14th)

Licorice Pizza (Theaters)

The Power of the Dog (Netflix)

West Side Story (Theaters)

Benedetta ($6.99 rental VOD)

House of Gucci (Theaters)

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Theaters)

The Humans (Showtime)

King Richard (Theaters)

C’mon C’mon ($19.99 rental VOD)

Home Sweet Home Alone (Disney+)

Belfast (Theaters and $19.99 rental VOD)

Passing (Netflix)

Spencer ($4.99 rental VOD)

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