Friday, September 13, 2019

Heist Life: HUSTLERS

Hustlers is a crowd-pleaser with the old-fashioned charm of a good story well-told. What a pleasure to sink into a narrative for the sheer enjoyment of the one-thing-after-another pile-up of Based On a True Story incident, carried along by the compelling characters and the story’s energy and suspense, bolstered by a game ensemble of winning performers. It tells the story of a stripper (Constance Wu) who is taken under the wing of the club’s stunning, confident pro (Jennifer Lopez). They’re living the high life, raking in the big bucks at a New York City strip club frequented by Wall Street types. It’s 2007 and the market can only go up. Alas, as the recession hits and the finance money dries up, the club hits difficult times. What are these enterprising women to do? Why not scam? Lopez swaggers into the ringleader position all high-heels, tight dresses, and fur coats. She glows. With one strut onto the stage, one shrug of her coat, one spin on the pole, you can tell why her character is the one who draws the most attention, who all the other strippers are drawn to and look up to. This is a remarkable performance, poised and sexy, sly and self-aware, off-the-charts charismatic in a low-key but megawatt way. This is star power. Wu is quickly taken in with the plan. We can see why.

The movie is, beyond its surface pleasures, a fine-tuned look at the women’s friendship, an early scene of reconnection swelling with booming cornball late-aughts dance pop as their eyes meet and the plan hatches. Every step of the process is told with engaging verve through these compelling characters and the crackling screenplay’s tick-tock tightness and loose, funny chatter. The duo plan to rope in dopey high-rollers and invite them back to the club where they’ve negotiated to take a percentage of whatever they can get the guy to spend there. It’s better than stripping. All they need to do is keep the pretty ladies distracting the guy so the beer is flowing and his credit card is swiping. “He needs to be able to sign the check,” Lopez smirks as she lays out the strategy, which eventually includes secretly slipping some MDMA into the mix to keep the guy happy, and giving him a consoling pep talk if he calls back later. “You were having so much fun,” she’ll coo. Wu wonders what’ll happen if they get caught and a guy calls the cops. Lopez laughs. “And say what? I spent $5,000 at a strip club! Send help!”

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, whose Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has sweetly swooning bitter comic apocalyptic mood and The Meddler so astutely charts the relationship between a grown daughter and her lovely overbearing mother, Hustlers has a sparkle of fun over the despair at its core. It loves hanging out with its lead women, and with the crew they gather — Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and sometimes Madeline Brewer — to keep the scam rollling. They skim just enough to keep going, but never enough to get in trouble. They hope. Scafaria balances among the sheer hangout caper joy of their successes, their bubbly genuine care for each other, and the omnipresent financial despair that drives their work. Side-hustles and part-time jobs are around every corner. Apartments shift radically in size. Some days are a warm holiday of presents and dancing. Some days are spent with nasty men urging ugly awfulness into their ears. What a thrill they feel in the control over their lives, their finances, their futures.

Booming with constant well-curated pop music and sleek camera moves, floating along with propulsive editing and a melancholy past-tense structure — Wu gives an interview years later to a sympathetic reporter (Julia Stiles) to narrate some events — the movie is an excited recounting of their scheme. It grooves on the populist rage underpinning the con. Lopez chews into exposition about a taxonomy of Wall Street types, and how unfair it is that so many of them conspired to make themselves richer at everyone else’s expense, then got off without so much as a sniff of a jail sentence. The movie pushes its points forcefully — the final scene even comes right out and says the thesis the movie otherwise does a good job of embodying without doing so. But it’s just as interested in the bonds between its characters, the strain struggle puts on them, and the lengths they’ll go to stay afloat. It’s hugely entertaining, but with this undeniable sharp-edged sadness underneath.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Send in the Clown: IT CHAPTER 2

It Chapter 2 has all the defects of its predecessor, but adds a considerable number of benefits, as well. The first half of Andy Muschietti’s handsome mixed-bag Stephen King adaptation took a story about adults reencountering a trauma from their past — the book slides back and forth between the origin of their fears and a present day confrontation with them — and told just the kids’ stuff. It was a grindingly mechanical and, for me, joyless experience. You could’ve set your watch by the predictable jump scares, while the surface-level discomfort and vaguely defined supernatural threats never gained any complexity or momentum. It was a procession of grotesque jolts delivered at a regular pace. Now, though, the sequel production shifts attention to the adult versions of those kids and finds itself immediately richer and more evocative in the process. It can’t help but add to its similarly-shaped funhouse collection of loud shocks and obvious shivers a layer of complexity and character the earlier lacked. It 2 becomes a melancholic creepy tale about returning to your cursed hometown long after you’ve forgotten whatever meaning it once held for you, about reconnecting with people you once knew to find you’ve grown apart. In both cases, it's a sad story about finding that, though you have something foundational binding you to places and people of your past, once you’ve moved on, you’ve moved on. Still, they find power in remembering, and in forging new connections with old friends, despite, and maybe because, of their overlapping formative damage. In fact, reconciling past traumas with current selves just might save them all.

So here we have Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy and James Ransone and Jay Ryan and Bill Hader entering the frame instantly carrying the baggage of an encounter with evil and fear personified, but distantly, as a vague memory. (Key flashes back to the kid cast create a fine Proust-lite echoing.) The one friend who stayed (Isaiah Mustafa) calls them back to creepy little Derry, Maine — still weirdly underpopulated. It’s been nearly 30 years, and now once more there’s a killing spree from demonic Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard, still really going for it, if given less to do this time around, more mascot than believable menace). They’re the only ones who discovered this truth. They thought they stopped it then. They better do it better now. It’s all fetch-quest, ancient-exposition nonsense dolled out just to get the plot going, a similar effects-heavy, mood-light factory dark ride of pneumatic jolts. But the production is sprawling and goofy, maybe not digging into the darkest of King’s implications, but certainly attuned to the terror — a hate crime kicks things off, and, later, a boy gets his head brutally squashed by a chomping monster mouth — as it eyes its ensemble with sympathy. It takes a roller coaster shape paced out so each disconnected episode in the middle — a fine apportionment of scares with each actor getting one set piece to call their own — gives everyone a nice loop-de-loop in center stage. Meanwhile Hader gets to run comic relief circles around every scene without shortchanging his big crying-jag moment at the end. It’s more relentless popcorn fun than a deep unease, a horror movie that deals with horrific moments without getting truly scary. But, a rambling, nearly-3-hour movie balanced between past and present, it gains a heft and a satisfaction the first half of this cinematic version deliberately withheld.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Dead Man: THE NIGHTINGALE

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is too honest and too true to satisfy with easy answers. Its setup is pure rape-revenge melodrama thriller, but its plot’s progression throws complications in the development to enhance its resistance of typical genre thrills. It makes tragedy quotidian, the price of being alive as an oppressed class. Set with all the grim grit and grime in the frontier Western outback of colonial Australia, the movie finds an Irish woman (Aisling Franciosi) an indentured servant at a military outpost. She’s years past earning her freedom, but the sneering British commander (Sam Claflin) refuses to give her the paperwork. When her husband (Michael Sheasby) dares confront him on this fact, the Brit responds by raping the woman, murdering the man, and killing their baby. This sequence is among the most unendurable brutalities I’ve ever witnessed in a film — unflinching without being explicit, so strong in its sound design of a wailing baby and slamming bodies, and quick shots of rough gestures. So painful it is that I was relieved when the silence following a cut to black was broken by an audience member softly gasping, “Oh, God.” The woman is left for dead. She summons the courage to report the brutality to a higher regional authority. The old man behind the desk sniffs at her to calm down and watch her tone. “You expect me to believe a woman’s word over a soldier’s?” he asks, even as she clutches her infant’s corpse. It turns out the culprit and his men have just struck out for another town days away, so she saddles her horse, grabs her gun, and hires an Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her catch them. The movie wears its ideas on the surface, torturous developments gripped tightly and simply as the tension-filled pairing — each deeply suspicious of the other — slowly realize they’re both victims, and should put aside their differences to fight back.

But rather than accelerate into Tarantino-esque fantasy of historical vengeance (as good as those are), the movie goes slow, gathering dread and letting the sick sensation of its early implications settle and churn. After the brutal opening, I wanted nothing more than to see the men responsible brought maximum pain. But the movie sits in the long journey with its lead, as the deepest of mourning and the strongest of trauma settle on her like a roiling storm, conflicting her intentions and dragging her steps slower and slower. Kent, whose previous film was the excellent, chilling, depression-monster horror movie The Babadook, here roots the terror in the realities of life for an Irish woman and an Aboriginal man in this time of brutal white British male domination. It trades on Westerns' iconography — the lone rider, the rifle, the horse, the native guide, the sun on the horizon, and the silhouetted figure in the doorway to wide open spaces. But its cold digital clarity locates a specific and overwhelming stifling world. Every character — even our lead — participates in the systems creating the brutal conditions: racism, colonialism, patriarchy. Everyone drips in it: the casual misogyny, the sexual violence, the cruel prejudices. A helpful man snaps at his wife. People sympathetic and evil alike growl “boy” at older servants of color. Threat of harm hangs over interactions. The movie is a cauldron of righteous fury, and of bleak reality. It quakes with justified rage at the worst of men, and knows that, in mankind’s direst moments, there can be no happy solution. We are left with no good options. The damage has been done. To kill one evil man, no matter how narratively or personally satisfying, nonetheless leaves in place the evil systems that allow for him. Kent painstakingly drains every bit of potential payoff from her genre setup, leaving only the emptiness, futility, and pain.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

She's Not There: WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about a genius architect. She (Cate Blanchett, in another of her textured, tightly-wound, woman-on-the-verge performances) is nearly a recluse and hasn’t worked in two decades. She’s in the middle of restoring a crumbling former girls’ reform school in Seattle where she lives with her high-level Microsoft project manager husband (Billy Crudup) and their adorable Antarctica-loving eighth-grader daughter (Emma Nelson). Bernadette is also nearing or at her wit’s end, with crippling social anxiety, barely able to force herself out of the house for fear of all the irritants in the world — namely, other people, especially the busybody school moms and neighborhood fussbudgets (most notably Kristen Wiig) whose relentless striving and nitpicking are understandably annoying. Bernadette raises annoyance to an art form, her sublimated or dormant creative energies healthily channeled into a close relationship with her daughter, and unhealthy antagonism with everyone and everything else. This is a set of very specific character choices, a collection of traits and circumstances that are singular, and therefore typical of a Richard Linklater project, a filmmaker who, above all else, makes vivid and textured film of specificity in their characters. Whether he’s looking at a college baseball team in the 1980s, or a flirtatious couple of strangers (or long-lost loves, or a married couple) wandering Europe, or a high school in the 70s, or a boy growing through the early-2000s, or a charming oaf scamming a school or covering up a murder, a Linklater film is one of observation and love. His are inquisitive and sensitive films that sketch in the characters’ hopes and dreams, behaviors and philosophies, ticks and eccentricities, into singular windows into particular people. Here, Blanchett’s Bernadette is given the space to unravel and maybe, just maybe, find her way. She rarely sleeps, she over-medicates, she has tense interactions with most everyone but her loving daughter (a tender relationship well-defined). It’s clear she can’t improve these conditions because she’s accepted this as her lot in life. She has the capacity to change for the better, but, like so many of us, she can’t find the first step on that journey.

There’s more to the standoffish Bernadette (and Bernadette, with its soft lighting and comfortable staging) than meets the eye. She’s surrounded by people who at first look like shallow types in a social satire — a comedy of manners in the overlap between an overpaid tech world and an upper-class private school enclave, the way Bernadette herself seems to see it some of the time — but Linklater and his co-writers, working from the novel by Maria Semple, strengthen and deepen every character with a inner life that glows through, even in unexpected ways. The story feints in a few directions every so often — clashes with the neighborhood, a therapist on call, a looming vacation, past disappointments and rash contemporaneous decisions. It lightly develops each scenario’s possibilities while drifting towards another, resisting outright farce or melodrama in favor of something more comfortably, naturally heightened, before finally resolving in unexpectedly simple and moving moods of potential for reconciliation of these disparate conflicts. It’s engaging and moving precisely because it’s so unhurried and genuine, gently funny and compassionately wrought, in tune with its main character’s mental energies and trends. The movie is as sharp and unpredictable on the surface, and yet as warm and clear underneath, as Bernadette herself. It’s a loving, but critical movie, one that adores its character’s potential without ignoring or valorizing her flaws. She is both wholly herself — a unique individual — and symptomatic of so many who slip away without ever leaving, resisting human connection and retreating into convenient shadings or outright fictions that allow resentments to fester and self-righteousness to inflate. Linklater’s soft, textured, clear-eyed humanism allows her this mistake without denying her — or anyone’s — humanity. She has a void so many feel, and tries to cover it up with excuses, or screens, or empty busyness. The movie, calmly, patiently observed, watches as those who love her try to help her until she can help herself. This quiet optimism guides the project to a gentle, loving moment of clarity, and a reaffirmation of what makes a life well-lived. A movie this compassionate and kindhearted doesn’t come along every day.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Call of the Child: DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD

There has been no 2019 summer blockbuster more satisfying than Dora and the Lost City of Gold. A live-action remake of the nearly twenty-year-old Nickelodeon show aimed at toddlers who followed Dora as she explored the rainforest with a monkey, a backpack, and a map, the movie is a bright, sweet, funny adventure romp pitched squarely at the 8- to 10-year-old crowd and those who can access their memories of what it meant to enjoy a movie like this then. Like with his great Muppet movies, director James Bobin approaches the film at the exact right level of heartfelt excitement, giddy about making a movie of such gleaming all-ages enthusiasms. It starts with Dora as a precocious six-year-old tromping through her wild yard while her archeologist parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena) are hard at work looking for a mythical long-lost Incan city of gold. The movie starts on such a likable note, the camera swooping toward their lakeside home in the middle of the rainforest, the instantly recognizable girl — a big grin, a tidy mop of bangs, a pink t-shirt, and orange shorts — waving and smiling as the camera approaches. “C’mon!” she shouts as she dashes off with giddy enthusiasm, her imagination-filled playtime roughly equivalent to the original show’s childlike whimsy. We skip ahead ten years and Dora (now Isabela Moner, who, on the strength of this and her megawatt charm in Instant Family and Transformers 5, should be a huge star) is sent to California to live with her teen cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and his family in order to learn how to be around kids her own age in a city far from the wilderness. Her parents mean well. Although Dora is self-sufficient, boundlessly energetic, and hugely knowledgeable about the natural world, they don’t want to raise her to be comfortable only with a solitary jungle life. Besides, they’re finally off to the city of gold and don’t need her following along on this dangerous quest. The movie becomes a sunny fish-out-of-water comedy for a while as Dora’s plucky enthusiasm clashes with the surly teens in California High. (Moner is as good at this role as Amy Adams was in Enchanted.) They are instantly suspicious of someone so earnestly kind, obviously passionate, and genuinely guileless.

The kid-sized Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones plot kicks off when a treasure hunter (Temuera Morrison) kidnaps Dora, Diego, and a couple classmates from a school trip. They end up in the middle of the jungle, rescued by a bumbling archeologist (Eugenio Derbez) who says Dora’s parents are in trouble. So it’s a race to the city of gold through ancient ruins, quicksand, angry tribal archers, deadly animals, dangerous plants, and all the expected obstacles of such a story. Along the way, Dora is able to use her wits and her relentless positivity to help get her family and frenemies out of these jams. It has all the appeal of a bouncy adventure movie, and a core safe kindness that makes it totally kid-friendly. Best of all, it never takes Dora’s child’s-eye excitement as a joke. Though it contrasts her with the moody teens, and she’s at first a source of embarrassment for her city cousin, she’s not unaware of these differences. They laugh at you, Diego tells her. “I know. I’m not stupid,” she says, going on to insist that she simply has to be herself, the kind of girl who’d go to the school dance asked to “dress as your favorite star” and come encased in a giant cloth sun, and who’d grin and wave and say “we did it” to her classmates at the end of the school day. That this plays as generosity, a soft character moment in the middle of a jaunty adventure rather than didactic sloganeering, is all for the better. There’s a warm affection for her energy, and for the original show. Somehow it even manages to include a dash of fantasy, as one of the villain’s henchmen is a sparingly deployed masked talking fox named Swiper (Benicio del Toro) who steps straight out of the cartoon with only a bit of bristling fur realism to sell the silliness in this heightened version of our world. The whole production is animated by a love for its cute character and her world, cheerfully taking her cues to enjoy its every moment with a verve and a warmly funny spirit. After a long, dismal summer of failed big budget spectacles (and even the rare good ones, like John Wick 3 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters were on the grim side), it’s nice to be reminded that a movie like this can make you grin from ear to ear for 100 minutes straight, and leave you walking out happier than when you walked in. It’s a true delight.

Dog Days: THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Third time was the charm for 2019 to give us a passable based-on-a-book, narrated-by-a-dog drama. We simply had to go from bad to worse first. For those prone to lap up these stories of human dramas told from the perspective and through the words of twinkly wisdom spoken from the mind of a furry innocent, this has truly been a boomlet of cinematic pandering. However, even for those of us who don’t mind a little manipulation at the movies now and again, it’s been a bit of an endurance test to reap meager rewards. Still, now that we’ve finally trial-and-error-ed our way to a decent version of the concept, I’m more than ready to let it go.

First, January gave us A Dog’s Way Home, in which an adorable pup gets lost and homeward bounds back. Along the way, she (telling the tale in voice over from Bryce Dallas Howard doing what sounds like a Ginnifer Goodwin impersonation) meets a bunch of people in vignettes alternately heart-tugging and gently (ostensibly) comedic. She also, in the worst decision of the movie, becomes friends with a CG mountain lion. This passage is particularly bad, not merely for the obvious effect breaking the movie’s soft, boring realism, but for thinking its animated animal could stand up to scrutiny in a movie with a real dog dominating most scenes. Some of the scenes work well — I was particularly moved by Edward James Olmos as a man experiencing homelessness— but most slide by in a bland sludge.

Next, and worse, May’s entry in the mini-subgenre was A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose, which started the whole trend with a puppy whose thoughts slobber out in the voice of Josh Gad. The hook of these films is a proposition that dogs remember their past lives as they reincarnate. Therefore, this pupper latches onto a formative owner — a cute boy who’ll grow up to be KJ Apa, then Dennis Quaid — and keeps looking for him even after waking up a new pup at the end of each lifetime. The initial movie worked its concept pretty well, but this follow-up is a sloppy flop —a procession of scenes so overwhelmingly sentimental and unrelentingly melodramatic that it gives both potentially reasonable qualities a bad name. It’s a cavalcade of yanking reaction shots and sudden tragic revelations that’d almost make The Room’s breast cancer news look natural. Once again a dog runs through a variety of owners, each with a button-pushing emotional arc that is overtly calibrated to make you cry when you’re not laughing at Gad’s badly scripted gags. It’s a painfully syrupy drama shot and staged like a sitcom. If it works for you, I’m glad for you, because it’ll spare you the exasperation I felt from the beginning to an end so loopy I had a hyperventilating giggling fit trying to explain it to someone after the fact.

So it doesn’t take much for The Art of Racing in the Rain to top those. It works where they fail because the story it tells is a simple, affecting family drama that doesn’t need to be gilded with CG sidekicks or clumsy falsehood conflict. In fact, it’s the only movie of the three that would work just as well without the dog at all. It even allows some of its most poignant scenes to play out without the canine chorus entirely, trusting in the heavy-lifting its cast can do. It’s the story of a would-be race car driver (Milo Ventimiglia) who falls in love with a beautiful English teacher (Amanda Seyfried) whose wealthy parents (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) don’t approve of him. Hardly groundbreaking narrative material, but the cliches pile up in satisfying combinations, and the complications of the couple’s life together feel drawn from a gentle spark of truth. It cycles through birth and death, illness and recovery, legal troubles and financial struggles, all cannily high-pressure emotional situations bound to hit close to home at some point and wring the tears. There’s nothing here that’s implausible, except, of course, for the constant commentary from his dog. Enzo’s the name, and he sagely intones with the growling gravitas of Kevin Costner’s voice. (His line readings are so deep and gravely here, I found myself occasionally wondering if he hurt his throat getting that grit in his vocal cords.) He begins the film near death, and then talks us through the narrative in a feature-length flashback, explaining why the thoughts of a bouncy puppy come to us with the molasses grandfatherly rumble of a wise old man. He’s far more thoughtful a dog than the others in films of this kind. He’s keenly aware of his limitations and is prone to comment on Mongolian philosophy and automobile techniques, and express a bittersweet sadness that he cannot share words with his human family to explain how much he cares for them. What an odd perspective, but an undeniably effective one, though it just as often underlines emotional subtext in scenes already so tenderly acted that it’s like a movie reading out its own CliffNotes over its action. Nevertheless, it’s all in what you compare it to, and here director Simon Curtis invests in the reality of his humans so fully that its winks of canine fantasy rarely get in the way if you give yourself over to it.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Lost Cause: THE DEAD DON'T DIE and SWORD OF TRUST

This summer gave us two small, mattter-of-fact, hard-edged comedies from veteran indie auteurs that reflect the dark currents of our contemporary national moment. First was Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. It’s the deadest of deadpan comedies, an affectionate zombie movie riffing on classically Romero metaphors of consumerism and cultural fatalism with an affect so flat that the stock genre characters are practically sleepwalking, even admitting to one another by the end that, hey, at least one of them comes by his hopelessness honestly. He read the script. (Jarmusch takes clear delight in slyly puncturing the fourth wall, like casually name dropping himself, slyly making a character a fan of the franchise that actor currently stars in, and having the Sturgill Simpson theme song under the opening credits become diagetic music a character will call “the theme song.”) He’s assembled an all-star cast to stand in simply posed scenes to react to the end of the world, as polar fracking causes the earth to knock off its axis, the days to last well into the night, and the dead to rise from their graves craving coffee and smart phones. These zombies bleed dust, like the life-force has already faded away. A small town’s cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny) basically give up before they even start, occasionally exiting their roundabouts and roundelays of dialogue and action to muster up a defense. But they, and everyone they meet in this Centerville, are practically flattened out by the inevitable despair — “this won’t end well,” Driver murmurs in his recurring line — and by the sense that they’re doomed to play out the end of the world to the bitter end. There’s nothing they can do to change what’s coming. The townspeople (Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits) make some efforts to protect themselves. Only some pretty city kids (a sunny Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat) bring some light into this town — so of course they’re among the first to get targeted by the deathless flesh-eaters. Unlike his first pivot to monster movies, the pale, cool, Detroit vampires movie Only Lovers Left Alive, which grooved on an aesthetic interest and emotional investment in the artful boredom of its characters cursed immortality, here Jarmusch barely can bring himself to take the zombies seriously. It’s a means to an end, a way to riff and rumble, to enjoy the trappings and tropes and star personas evoked with characters who see everything crumble around them, who see no way out. He takes the doom seriously. It feels familiar, a fun house mirror to our current state of affairs, where most realize something very wrong is happening and yet all appear powerless to stop it. Even so, even in their state of near paralysis at the state of everything — with every loopy plot development that derails what you’d expect — they manage to muster the small courage to fight back. If this is the end, at least we can go down swinging.

Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust is a reaction to the current climate told in a more realistic mode: an intimate character drama told in the loose, improvisatory comedy style that is her hallmark. The mumblecore alum — who has since helmed some of the best episodes of Mad Men, Glow, and other prestige TV series, as well as some underrated low-budget movie star character comedies like the charming Keira Knightley/Chloe Grace Moretz film Laggies —here stages a suitably loony excursion into the world of conspiracy theories and alternative facts. It has a gooier sentimental streak, and a bright sitcom visual style, but, more often than not, has a sharp point. It finds a pawn shop proprietor (Marc Maron) attempting to find a buyer for a Civil War-era sword a couple (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) would like to sell him. His younger employee (Jon Bass) discovers a YouTube page of Confederacy truthers who claim the Deep State has buried the real facts that would prove the Union army surrendered and actually lost the war lo those many years ago. Although neither the sword’s owners nor the shop’s staff actually believe this hogwash, they hope that the shady racists will believe the antique is all the proof they need — and will pay a five digit figure for it. Through circular conversations and alternately cynical and earnest connections, this unlikely group will stumble into this dark underbelly, encountering some shady characters (the funniest has to be a self-serious man who insists his name is “Hog Jaws”) and oddball motivations as the plot slowly stumbles to its kooky conclusion. It’s attuned to the financial strain of its characters, and compassionate for their relationship struggles and easy eccentricities. The performers are universally strong, working well together in fleshing out scenes with laugh-out-loud asides and sympathetic backstories. And the film will then spare no mercy in mocking the warped ignorance of those who cling to conspiratorial thinking, getting broader and sillier. (There’s even a fine, funny late turn of the knife where one main character proudly declaims that, although of course it’s ridiculous to assert that the Confederacy secretly won the Civil War, the flat-earthers are on to something.) Here’s a movie about the slippage of truth, couched in the humble terms of a struggling group of characters losing themselves in the pursuit of more stable ground. When we give up a little of ourselves to pernicious nonsense, it makes it harder to understand what’s really going on.