There are few movies making the rounds at genre film festivals this year that have received as much praise from the festival organizers as Lowlife. When it made its World Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival back in August, it was on nobody’s radar. In fact, Fantasia received Lowlife through their general Inbox, and prior to that not even the festival programmers knew it existed. But once they saw the film, they did everything in their power to convince people to see it — most recently it screened at the Toronto After Dark Film Fest, where festival programmer Adam Lopez also sung high praise, and if you ask those of us who have seen the movie, most of us will agree that Ryan Prows’ debut feature is one of the year’s best!
Lowlife is best described as this generation’s Pulp Fiction. Equal parts absurd comedy and surrealist crime thriller, Lowlife is a shocking and often-hilarious story about a beloved luchador named El Monstruo, employed by vicious crime boss Teddy Haynes, who runs his underground crime facility below his fast-food restaurant, harvesting the organs of undocumented immigrants while pimping out underage women. The serpentine plot tends to get a bit complicated, so try to keep up: El Monstruo (played by Ricardo Adam Zarate) is Teddy’s enforcer, a man caught in a web of crime, trying to keep alive his young wife Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), one of Teddy’s previous sex workers, now dealing with a serious heroin addiction while now eight-months pregnant with Monstruo’s son. The second major player we get to meet is Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) who’s desperately trying to help her ailing husband attain a kidney transplant by any means necessary. She meets Teddy, who promises her he can help save her dying husband, but unknown to Kaylee is Teddy’s connection the local cartel.
They all eventually cross paths with two small-time ex-cons that further complicate their lives. The duo is comprised of Randy (Jon Oswald), a fresh-out-of-prison white rapper now cursed with a swastika tattoo covering his entire face, and his best friend Keith (Shaye Ogbonna), who has since married Randy’s ex-girlfriend and settled down to have a family. It’s been a while since Randy has seen the light of day, and now that he’s out of prison, his Neo-Nazi tatt is sure to attract some attention from the people in his hometown of Compton. These naïve thugs eventually get blackmailed into doing some dirty work for Teddy that they’re not exactly kosher with. As each of these character’s twisted lives collides, fate brings them together in one colossal explosion of coincidence, forcing these antiheroes to join forces in order to survive against Teddy’s underground criminal ring and save a pregnant woman from certain death.
Lowlife is best described as this generation’s Pulp Fiction.
Like I said, there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and Lowlife works several angles of the same day from the perspective of each character, as the stories all intersect at the rundown motel managed by Crystal. The sharp dialogue and good storytelling leave the viewer guessing as to how all the characters will eventually meet during the final showdown, and while we’re left wondering what’s going on plot-wise, Ryan Prows bombards us with enough plot twists and sight gags to keep us entertained. The devil here is in the details, and Lowlife does a remarkable job with its sound design, sharp editing, and cinematography (the entire film was shot handheld) to make every familiar genre convention seem fresh and original. Everything from the sun-drenched visuals to the discordant soundtrack elevates the movie considerably beyond the usual Pulp Fiction clone. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but Lowlife is incredibly calculated, and will keep viewers guessing from start to finish.
More often than not, when a movie is credited with having more than one screenwriter, the screenplay tends to be somewhat of a mess. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Lowlife is that this movie was penned by five writers (who call themselves the Tomm Fondle), and yet given the amount of characters, twisted subplots, and the timeline told out of order, Lowlife is so incredibly self-assured and well thought out that it puts newcomer Ryan Prows on the map as a director to look out for. Despite the meta references, B-movie sleaze, and a sheer sense of fun, the filmmakers never lose focus on any of the characters, and it helps that the cast is strong, even if not always up for the emotional range needed for certain scenes.
It’s hard to pinpoint the most interesting character of the bunch because they all pull off memorable performances, but the famous luchador, masked avenger, son of El Monstruo, and renowned defender is most likely the character you’ll remember the most. His family’s legacy extends back centuries, and legend has it that when you pray to him, he will save you from your oppressors. The problem is, El Monstruo no longer saves people. He’s now a two-bit criminal sucked into a criminal enterprise against his better judgment, yet even when you see him bashing in someone’s skull with a propane tank, you’ll find yourself rooting for him to overcome his inner demons. El Monstruo is the center of the story after all, and while we may never get to see the man behind the mask, we can’t help but sense the pain and suffering he endures.
Lowlife is at times hilarious, but for the most part it is an extremely bleak film addressing current issues surrounding racism, immigration, and drug addiction. Right from the opening, we meet an ICE Agent pulling off an unauthorized raid of a cheap motel in the middle of the night. What follows is the film’s most horrific scene, in which the young, beautiful women are forced into sexual slavery, while the older women are painfully executed and devalued based on their ethnicity. Prows manages to not only create a commentary on the current state of affairs for illegal immigrants under a presidency that continually preaches anti-immigration sentiments, but also addresses the horrifying process behind organ harvesting, human trafficking, and the black market. In this world, the cops are often on the wrong side of the law, and everyone else is desperately trying to survive in a place that seems like it’s falling apart around them.
Crystal, also a recovering addict, is cursed with perhaps the film’s most depressing subplot. She doesn’t want to lose her lover, and with barely enough money to pay the bills, she’s left with little choice but to turn to the black market when seeking a kidney donor to replace her husband’s failing organ. She knows her source is shady, but desperate times calls for desperate measures, and with no one else to turn to she’ll do whatever it takes to save the man she loves. What Crystal doesn’t know is that the donor is Kaylee, her biological daughter who disappeared years back when she was addicted to smack and ended up becoming one of the many victims taken prisoner and locked up in Teddy’s basement. That’s where El Monstruo found Kaylee. That’s where he fell in love with her. That’s where he liberated her from the clutches of sex slavery and now that her life is on the line once again, he must do everything in his power to save her.
Lowlife is modern exploitation done right, and a film destined to find a cult following. It’s unbelievably entertaining, outlandishly funny, and sincerely touching — and that is what ultimately separates it from Tarantino’s classic. Lowlife truly has heart, and somehow finds the humanity in situations that go from comedic to horrific to over the top within a few frames. Don’t be surprised if you shed a tear or two in the film’s denouement. Happiness doesn’t come around very often for this group of misfits, but amidst the unexpected, bursts of violence, and interweaving vignettes, there is a glimmer of hope that the luchador can live up to the legend of his family’s name and maybe, just maybe, save the day?
– Ricky D
Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan
Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something
You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.
Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts.
Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune.
And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.
I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie.
While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.
In Defense of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’
The anger and vitriol directed at Rian Johnson’s 2017 film is misplaced, as it’s actually the best ‘Star Wars’ movie since the original trilogy
Over the course of the last few years, a tiresome debate has been had, over and over again, over whether certain popular blockbuster movies have become too politically correct, too inclusive, too “woke.”
This debate has touched just about every piece of mass entertainment, from Marvel to Terminator to Watchmen to Charlie’s Angels, and it’s often used as a cudgel to gloat over negative box office results.
It’s all both exceedingly tiresome and not the slightest bit new, as it’s just a different name for what used to be called “liberal bias” analysis, back in the 1990s. But the worst thing of all about it the modern version of this is that “woke” is often merely another word for “this movie has women and minorities in prominent roles.”
“Every word of what you just said was wrong”
Probably the apotheosis of the recent version of this was Star Wars: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson’s film that came out in December of 2017. The Last Jedi received positive reviews, with a Rotten Tomatoes critics score in the 90s, and made $1.3 billion worldwide, good for 13th all time. It was the #1 movie at the domestic box office in 2017, even though it was released two weeks before the end of the year.
However, since the time of the film’s release, there’s been a bitter, angry backlash against The Last Jedi, against director Rian Johnson, and in favor of a counter-narrative that says the film “ruined” Star Wars.
Yes, there are other arguments, about the film not being true to the character of Luke Skywalker, about Star Wars not being what it used to be following its 2012 acquisition by Disney, and other specious contentions that The Last Jedi “ruined” characters Star Wars fans used to like.
Nevermind that a certain subset of Star Wars fans has reacted with seething anger to just about every new Star Wars project, going back as far as Return of the Jedi. (The Mandalorian seems to have escaped this, through its first few episodes, but give it time.) Or that many of the complaints about The Last Jedi, from its hamfisted dialogue to its overly cute characters to the slowness at times of its plot, is true of just about every Star Wars movie.
Things get ugly
Of course, the backlash against The Last Jedi has taken on even uglier tones. There were death threats against Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose. Trolls admitted to manipulating the movie’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. That petition to strike the film from the Star Wars canon. The film has been the subject of way too many angry, ranting, three-hour YouTube videos.
Nasty as all of that stuff is, these people are just plain on the wrong side. That’s because The Last Jedi is a beautiful, special film, one that holds up on repeated viewings, and is by a pretty significant margin the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy.
There are many great things about The Last Jedi, starting with the return of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. The film centers Luke in a way that one hadn’t since Return of the Jedi, and explores the character in a fascinating way that is, contrary to what Last Jedi haters say, true to what may become of Luke.
There’s also a ten-minute sequence in the middle of The Last Jedi that’s up there with the very best of the Star Wars saga. That throne room scene, followed by Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo slamming into the ship -which Johnson shot as a knowing 2001: A Space Odyssey homage – is such a thrilling succession of events that I rewound and watched it again the last time I watched the movie. This part, in particular, made everyone in my critics’ screening gasp:
Then there’s the final scene, in which kids are playing with a Luke Skywalker toy.
The silly thing at all is that the film doesn’t even have much of a political agenda, unless you’re the sort of person who thinks that women and people of color having prominent roles in a movie is, by its very nature, problematically political.
It really can’t be emphasized enough that Star Wars has now been around for over 40 years. If you’re part of the original generation of fans, that saw the original movies in the theater and collected the original toys and everything else, you’re not only not the entirety of the Star Wars fan base anymore, but you’re not even the majority. And when it comes to Star Wars today, I care a lot more about what kids think than about what 45-year-olds think.
The director speaks
For Rian Johnson’s part, he’s found a way to often cleverly retort to trolls who still harass him regularly for directing a movie they didn’t like.
“The key to being on Twitter is like anything else- you have to enjoy it,” Johnson told me in a red carpet interview when his new film, Knives Out, showed at the Philadelphia Film Festival back in October. “If you’re not enjoying being on there, there’s no reason to be on there.. if you’re having fun, and you’re getting more out of it than you’re putting more into it- and I do, in all the interactions with the fans.
“The bad stuff gets written up a lot, but 95% of my interactions on there are wonderful and lovely,” he added. “And the stuff that’s bad, I’ve seen so much of it, I see the patterns it falls into, you don’t want to engage with it too much, but once in awhile it’s fun to just kind of play with it a bit.”
Too many Star Wars fans seem to think, despite everything, that they’re part of a small subculture of nerds and outcasts, as opposed to the closest thing to a worldwide monoculture that still exists.
It’s part of the ugly trend towards fandoms taking on the properties of identity politics. No, liking Star Wars doesn’t make you part of a marginalized, persecuted minority. You just didn’t like a movie, that’s it. George Lucas didn’t “rape” your “childhood,” and no, neither did Rian Johnson. All Johnson did was make a great film that took risks and saw nearly all of them pay off.
‘Greener Grass’ Is a Pain in The Ass
Maybe get high for this one
Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe as two soccer moms who battle it out over who has the more perfect suburban life, Greener Grass looks like it creators are having a lot of fun. Possibly more fun than anyone actually watching the film, a surrealist satire of suburban life that is neither cutting enough to be insightful nor funny enough to be worthwhile. While watchable thanks to its strange, cartoonish world-building and bold production design, it ultimately fails both as comedy and as meaningful commentary.
Greener Grass starts with Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) watching their kids play soccer; Jill has a new baby, which Lisa hadn’t previously noticed. In the first sign that this world is completely askew, Jill just gives her baby to Lisa as a present. This is one of the least weird things that happens in a film with little concern towards logical construction or narrative coherence.
Featuring a soundtrack giving off serious original Twin Peaks vibes, the world of Greener Grass is one of pure strangeness: cars are replaced by golf carts, characters wear matching coloured suits, and the whole town gives off a twinkling aura reminiscent of classic television adverts. Jill and Lisa are classic models of femininity, at one point switching husbands to kiss as a comment on how generic their men seem. Nonetheless, they are constantly competing, with the ever-susceptible Jill constantly on the lookout for a way that she can finally improve her life, while Lisa tries to iron out her own familial issues. Sadly, neither Jill nor Lisa ever make it past their sketch-show characterisations, making them at first unrelatable, before eventually becoming straight-up annoying.
There is a sense here that more care has been put into crafting this weird universe then telling a coherent story of what actually happens in it; Greener Grass mostly using its setting as an excuse to string together a bunch of middling skits. At first, the randomness seems freeing; when you watch so many films for a living, B constantly following A can get rather repetitive. This is a world where anything can happen and nothing is explained. For example, when Jill’s son turns into a dog — suddenly leaving the woman who once had two children with none at all — the how of it all is never asked, and the event is instead used as a means to explore Jill’s relationship to Lisa. Yet, once it becomes obvious that there is no true connective tissue between absurdities (like you might find in the tightly-wound films of Yorgos Lanthimos), the world of Greener Grass grows easily tiring — even moreso considering its barrage of adolescent, amateurish, awkward and atrocious attempts at comedy.
Comedy is a hard thing to quantify. Sometimes it simply boils down to whether something makes you laugh…or at least smile. While the madcap world of Greener Grass is aesthetically delightful, the jokes can come across as painfully awful — the kind of try-too-hard skits you find in the bottom basement of a bar at the Edinburgh Fringe. Undeniably an each-to-their-own kind of situation, its an even bigger shame that these jokes cannot even be corralled into something actually interesting.
The obvious influence here, in both form and construction (featuring a subplot with a mysterious killer), is David Lynch. Yet, while Twin Peaks (at least in season 1 and The Return) and Blue Velvet used that weirdness to expose the darker underbelly of American life, it’s hard to say what Greener Grass is actually saying about the nature of suburban aspiration. While it seems that the point is to show how suburban life is already kind of absurd, dialing the zaniness up to eleven doesn’t hammer in that point any further. It comes as little surprise that the feature film is adapted from a short. Perhaps it should’ve stayed that way.
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