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Summer Checklist

Three Dog Nights

With the dog days of summer upon us, the movie theater seems more like a smelly kennel than a traditional refuge from the scorching heat. (Hey, Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, ever heard of air conditioning? Oh, and straighten out that crooked screen while you’re at it.)

But it’s not just exhibitors who have gotten lazy. Below, we look at the recent, worst-ever works by two indie icons who have somehow grown maddeningly complacent. The third dog is a wildly overrated debut from a filmmaking duo who (mistakenly) assumed their self-important autobiographies would make for two hours of compelling cinema.

Thankfully, there was a cool breeze preceding all of this; a refreshing splash from Under the Silver Lake. It’s now available via Amazon Prime, so the a/c controls will be in your own hands.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino gave us fair warning that he was capable of dropping his dirty business on the rug. The first half of The Hateful Eight (2015) and its cleverly placed intermission promised a smart, irreverent, neo-Western classic. But, in the second half, we watched the director mindlessly chew up his own film, like Fido destroying his owner’s favorite slippers.

Like many Tarantino fans upon seeing previews of his latest, I thought “Tarantino turning his camera on Hollywood itself… Sounds good.” Wrong. It feels more like he simply wanted the easiest path to completing the “9th film from Quentin Tarantino” (Is he now more focused on quantity than quality?) I couldn’t find a single moment (in its two hours and 45 minutes) that showed any writer/director inspiration. Who would have guessed that the director of Jackie Brown (1997), Django Unchained (2012), and so many other memorable movies could squander Leonardo DiCaprio in a lead role?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nothing short of an embarrassment. I was embarrassed for the 60-something old dude sitting by himself, guffawing at every measly visual gag. I was embarrassed for the three stoners nervously giggling while looking at each other for approval. These are the folks who are making this Tarantino self-parody his most profitable project to date.

If you’re like them, by all means, go see it. Maybe you’ll feel that, finally, there’s a Tarantino movie that’s not challenging in the least. Finally, you might get why so many people like his movies, because now he’s done you the favor of pre-masticating everything. Here’s an art film with the art removed for mass consumption. And if you think images of Brad Pitt sniffing and tasting dog food, plopping it out of a can into his dog’s bowl, could be hilarious, you’ll have a wonderful experience. Tarantino repeats them four times.

The Film Critique rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Dead Don’t Die: Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to the summer of 2019 was less of a disappointing disaster than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that’s not much of an endorsement. “What were they thinking?” seems to be this season’s motto.

One can hardly blame the Akron-born-and-raised auteur for loving the zombie genre. In its early incarnations (if you will) there’s a lot to love. The AMC television series The Walking Dead, though, beat the genre to death (ironically), and The Dead Don’t Die feels like a moderately humorous epitaph.

Even from the hand of a massive talent like Jarmusch, the filmic “love letter” comes with a substantial risk of skewed perspective in the ode. (See also this year’s Maria By Callas.) Unsurprisingly, the movie is plenty enjoyable in its dialogue, deadpan humor, and acting. The mini-ensemble of Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, along with Tom Waits, almost saves the proceedings. Ultimately, however, Jarmusch caves to the pressure of providing zombie action instead of respecting the pressure to deliver something of greater artistic merit.

The brilliant stroke from Jarmusch is the purposely stunted, self-referencing dialogue that both works as a tribute to B-movie horror and provides genuine comedic notes.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★☆☆

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: The two most intriguing things about this film involve decisions made by people other than the filmmakers. Namely, the funding of the production and the glowing reviews. What one member of the filmmaking duo (writer/co-lead Jimmie Fails) did do in advance of those decisions really explains a lot: He made himself into an Internet star.

But let’s get one thing clear right away: Fails does have some important things to say and unusual ways of both seeing and saying them. Among them are the definition of “home,” what it means to “own” something, and the marginalization of Black history, even in liberal strongholds like California.

The problem is that The Last Black Man in San Francisco (as written by him, as directed by co-lead Joe Talbot, as acted by both of them and a mostly misguided supporting cast) is a second-year student film with a $4.1 million budget. Take away the pretty cinematography, first-rate production design, and professional editing, and what’s left is raging sophomorism. In the age of crowdfunding—through which Fails raised the first $75,000—this is something of a new normal.

It’s hard not to assign most of the blame to the movie’s U.S. distributor, the usually dependable A24, which released Under the Silver Lake (2019, see short review below), The Spectacular Now (2013), and Oscar Best-Picture winner Moonlight (2016), among other fine films. Without A24 or another large distributor, Talbot & Fails’ debut would have made its splash at Sundance—as it did, not a tremendous feat these days—and would have taken its rightful place on DVD and streaming services. The (albeit brief) theatrical run of The Last Black Man in San Francisco can’t be justified, and most critics know it.

Yet, the movie sits happily on Metacritic with an aggregate rating of 84 out of 100. This matters, because the degree to which a critic wants to like a film and feels the need to advocate for the filmmakers should not factor into their rating of the work. Off the record, reviewers and industry insiders will confirm that this is precisely what happened, 50 times over in this case.

I love young filmmakers, too. The voices of Black and LGTBTQIA writers, directors, and actors should be heard—must be heard. If their work is to be highly rated, however, they mustn’t be relieved of the responsibility of making good work.

The Film Critique rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Under the Silver Lake: Thanks to the bizarrely talented David Robert Mitchell (It Follows [2014]), my first summer in Milwaukee was not a total wash cinema-wise. The latest work by the Michigan-born writer/director features Andrew Garfield as an adrift, unambitious 30-something drawn into a crazy L.A. maze by a naked neighbor and a fleeting femme fatale.

Mitchell’s signature is atmospheric, dreamlike mystery with surprise visual and plot twists. The Los Angeles arts and party settings lend themselves well to all aspects of his storytelling, including his breezy-yet-carefully-considered camera angles and movements. From Garfield on through to the extras, on-screen talent here is a treat.

The kinetic, vividly colored neo-noir of Under the Silver Lake satisfies deeply, as you accompany Garfield’s Sam through a freakish labyrinth of serial dog murders, edible psychedelic party invitations, and a wise, homeless monarch played by The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★★☆

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