Short Cuts: THE GUILTY

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In which a Danish first-timer with one set, one principle on-screen actor, and a series of phone calls gives most Hollywood thrillers a run for their money. Suspense-mongers in this town, of course, have their own history of wringing tension out of minimal elements, from Hitchcock to Fincher. But the apartment of Dial M for Murder (an average film, if I can be blasphemous) is downright baroque compared to Gustav Möller’s feature debut, The Guilty.

The film centers on a Danish police officer (Jakob Cedergren) working the night shift at an emergency dispatch call center, and Möller and company very economically establish two defining traits. First, he’s good at what he does. And second, his experience has left him with a barely veiled contempt for the victims, perps, and fuck-ups he encounters after dark. There is something else, too—a more personal matter quickly hinted at, and then teased out with increasing specificity. But when he gets a call from a woman who’s been abducted, something lights up in him, and he spends a tense 80 minutes of real-time, both for him and for the audience, juggling calls to try to get her to safety. At times, he is a Langian figure, a technocrat manipulating the action from afar. At others, he is like Jimmy Stewart in the late passages of Rear Window: the helpless voyeur, able to see everything (or in this case, hear everything) but be too removed to effect it.

The film doesn’t waste a minute of its lean runtime, which is rare enough these days. And if it doesn’t feel constrained, it’s because the direction shows remarkable formal control within the sandbox it’s built for itself. The film knows when to let the stillness of the camera play against the chaos of the audio, when to go handheld, when to draw out the shot, when to suddenly cut—in short, how to tighten the screws for the sort of story that may make you want to close your eyes, but diabolically knows that you can’t so easily close your ears.

The worst I can say is that, underneath this conceptual ingenuity, it is really a rather ordinary film, relying on familiar elements of sensationalism, suspended disbelief, and conventional emotional pivots. It is not empty-headed: its thematic scope expands just when you think it’s narrowing, and it has something on its mind about a society of civil servants who, with all the data at their disposal, may still completely fail the human element. But form and concept are the virtues that linger. The Guilty succeeds at delivering an inventive genre twist far more than landing the lofty grandeur that its title might portend, if only because both feel a bit like show business. Whether it’s a one-off or the start of a career is something only time and maturation will tell. But for now, with an appealing lack of fanfare and expectations, inquisitive audiences can be surprised by a less-is-more thriller that any Friday night moviegoer might be sit up for and any low-budget, idea-hungry director might envy. I got hooked in, and so should you.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Guilty won the Audience Award at Sundance and is Denmark’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It’s now playing in select theaters—and if the theaters are too select, the people at Magnolia have generously made it available on iTunes for a $7 rental.

Short Cuts: THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN

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David Lowery’s last film, A Ghost Story, was about the meaning of life. His new film, The Old Man and the Gun, is about finding a farewell vehicle for Robert Redford. And any worldly movie buff might tell you that the two concepts have just as good a chance of being great cinema—just as any critic should note that the two films, for all their differences, share the same distinct air of wistfulness. Lowery isn’t the first director to tackle the Big Questions and be revealed as a better filmmaker than a philosopher, and its easy to peg The Old Man and the Gun as a retreat from loftier ambitions. But for warm but bittersweet comedy, Lowery does just fine, lightly eccentric and at ease with nostalgia—even if a little more ambition might have done the film some good.

In his (reportedly) last role, Redford plays a charming career bankrobber, ready to take your cash with a friendly smile and refusing to settle down in old age. One reason he’s still at it is persistence: he doesn’t need the money, he just keeps doing what he’s doing because it’s what he does. Another is that he’s working on such a small scale that the law seems to react to this old-timer more with bemusement than with any rush to turn him into public enemy #1. He never fires his gun, and even his victims, as they get over the shock of being robbed, can’t help but describe him as gentlemanly. When he meets Sissy Spacek—whose smile is, if anything, more glowing as she gets older—he’s smitten. And the question is whether he can or should go on forever, if he should retire as an ordinary man or disappear into myth.

With this material and this cast, it all falls into place rather effortlessly—too effortlessly, perhaps, since it’s well into this laid-back, ramblin’ film before Lowery and company start throwing any interesting curveballs. For one, there’s the complication that, unbeknownst to Redford, he may have done more emotional damage over his career than just robbing banks. (The stakes are now raised—after all, what has a little federally-insured larceny ever meant to an audience?). Then there’s Casey Affleck as the cop who pursues him. However much of a creep Affleck has been in real life, he carries a bubble of soulfulness on screen, serving as a perfect foil for Redford because Redford seems to have discovered the secret to happiness and Affleck hasn’t yet. The steadiness with which the plot unfolds means as much as anything that happens in it. And the earnest conversations about how to keep busy past 65 surely served as a haven when the film, like a thief, snuck into a weekly box office top 10 that was otherwise being eaten alive by Venom and sliced by Halloween.

Still, I can’t help but wish The Old and the Gun were funnier, or twistier, or carried a greater sense of loss, or really were more intense on any axis on which it exists. I can see why Redford might like this as goodbye material: it’s a metaphor any movie star would be proud to call their own, and it’s infused with a self-conscious fondness for the New Hollywood of Redford’s generation. Outside Redford, or Spacek, or the fact that it takes a special kind of nostalgist to stunt-cast Keith Carradine, the main attraction is the filter through which it views the world. This is the country as the more charitable side of New Hollywood cinema saw it: the cities, towns, and out-of-the-way spots of an era when “America” (or some version of it, romantic in its earthiness rather than its glamor) was enough of a subject for a movie. This one is humble, its abiding mood calm, its questions offered with such minimal insistence that they take a moment to register. It’s a movie that looks at the audience and tips its hat. I’ll tip mine back.

✬✬✬✩✩

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The Old Man and the Gun is now in theaters. Bonus Tom Waits.

Capsules: October 2018 (Halloween Edition)

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the time, revisited after many years, or somehow made topically relevant again. This month is a playlist of horror classics, hits, misses, and cult objects in honor of Halloween.

*****

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)

Netflix’s adaptation, with “Hill House” restored to the title, is getting enough play that I hear chatter about it in the office kitchen. But the 1963 version by Hollywood polymath Robert Wise is still the one to beat—not only an old-dark-house classic, but one of those films where Old Hollywood itself seems to be dying and getting reborn in real time. The scientist and the playboy are stock characters from ages past, but the warped, wide-angle terrors look to the future. There are moments here of creepy atmosphere, frames composed for both beauty and shocks, and some impressive FX. But what remains most fresh is the psychology of repression, including a lesbian subtext that’s barely sub.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

With The Fog popping back up in rep theaters in a new restoration, its worth revisiting this follow-up to Halloween (itself enjoying a zeitgeist bump) to appraise what John Carpenter’s cult classic does well and why. The 11th hour inspiration—to add a literal “campfire story” opening scene to set the mood—turns out to make a world of difference, turning the appealing slightness of this ghost story into a feature, not a bug. Other pros: the lively interconnected cast, the pacing, the eerie atmosphere, and a tough lead heroine who proves just how much Carpenter understood Howard Hawks. Drag your friends.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)

By the end of the 90s, a lot of what felt punk about Carpenter films started to feel trashy, a trend not helped here by a charmless James Woods and the other, other, other Baldwin brother you forgot existed. Yet there’s still some interesting things in Vampires: the acid western/giallo genre hybrid that informs the style, plus the leather-clad fuck-you spirit of Escape From New York redirected from the government to the church. And for those happy to glean what they may, it’s always nice when Cheryl Lee (Laura Palmer herself) has license to go freaky.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Young people in a remote place just looking for a good time—enjoy the relative boredom while it lasts, because it gets intense. I generally loathe horror movies that use extreme grisliness to get a rise out of you. But I can’t help but admire how Hooper and company can freak you the hell out with grainy film stock, off-kilter compositions, and psychedelic lens flares alone. This is truly inventive sensory cinema, all but empty on any other level. American independent cinema begat torture porn; try not to hold that against it.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)

I was 12 when this came out, and all my friends told me it either creeped them out, bored them, or made them throw up. Neither was appealing, so I skipped it. But seeing it for the first time now, with the simple setup and payoff, Blair Witch seems mostly a triumph of creating a fake document, its pleasures as close to a self-reflexive po-mo exercise like Medium Cool as they are to the run-like-hell dread of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And I dig the conceit that, in 1999, the most doomed hubris you could show in the face of the terrifying unknown was deciding to make a student film.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

Presenting, for your neo-camp horror comedy delectation, a version of the 1980s so disaffected and materialist that no one can remember anyone else’s name and the closest they come to real human empathy is when they listen to Phil Collins. It’s a fiendishly witty joke, which is good, because for much of its runtime, it’s practically all American Psycho has got—apart, of course, from a killing spree. Maybe it’s impossible to do a deep satire of a shallow worldview. But Mary Harron comes damn close, and the red-white-and-black color scheme and eye for male insecurity register when they most need to. Shout-out to Chloe Sevigny for giving the movie the extra bit of soul it needs.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

It: Chapter One (Andres Muschietti, 2017)

In a way, it makes sense that last year’s It is now the highest grossing horror film of all time in the United States, and not just because inflation isn’t on The Exorcist‘s side. It: Chapter One is by design more silly/fun/friendly than scary—a crossover hit for slumber parties instead of audacious deviants. When it’s vague with its mythos and mostly shallow in tying the horror to psychologically resonant ideas, that’s a problem. When some of the 13-year-olds are annoying, that may just be verisimilitude. Curious to see if lightning strikes again for chapter two, when they’ll no longer have 13-year-olds or 80s nostalgia to lean on.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Now this is for deviants, or at least in the deviant starter pack. There isn’t exactly a lot of attention to plot or character, and I’m always skeptical when a horror film relies on shock-gore. But then there’s the total craft: the acid colors; the demented sets; the prog-rock score played as either warning or tease; the editing that synthesizes all the above; and Jessica Harper as the perfect wide-eyed lamb. It can indeed be said that Suspiria is About Something—namely vicious competition between women and the uselessness of men in their world, though even typing that sentence is meeting the film halfway. The remake that’s opening this weekend needn’t be something to fear; there are ways to embellish Suspiria‘s gaps.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

This was the time when people were talking about “the new freedom of the screen”, which poses a question for Hitchcock: when someone was so adept at sneaking around or challenging the restraints of the screen, what do they do in the age of X-ratings? The result is his most viscerally shocking movie, containing moments so clammy and morbid that don’t seem to have been filmed so much as heaved onto celluloid by a remarkably frank subconscious. With all that, it’s a smart look at British repression—and a tight, twisty plot that only falters near the end. The last Hitchcock film worth making a fuss about, with all due respect to 1976’s Family Plot.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945)

What would a cinephile Halloween be without mastermind B-movie producer Val Lewton? Isle of the Dead is one of the gems he cranked out in the 1940s, nowhere near his team’s best or most famous, but indicative of their poetic ambition. The island setting, the battle between reason and faith, the angsty and cruel main character—hell, this is essentially Bergman territory, just shot on the cheap on an RKO backlot and laced with some spooky faux-mythology. Boris Karloff does terrific work with a complicated character, but the second half strays too far from logic or causality. Martin Scorsese picked this to represent Lewton on his list of scariest films ever made, which says less about the film, I think, than that the young Marty was the right kind of sensitive viewer.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini, 1968)

From the golden age of anthology films comes a triptych that adapts Edgar Allan Poe for the modish 60s and has the rare good taste to tell its stories in order of ascending director talent. Roger Vadim’s Jane Fonda psychodrama is mild Euro-kink (naturellement). Louis Malle delivers solid work with a mesmerizing doppelganger tale. And Fellini’s 40 minutes are one of his best kept secrets, a fantasia of half-past-dead celebrity that’s enough to make you wish he ever made a real horror flick. This one goes out to FilmStruck, whose own departure from our mortal plane was suddenly announced today. After being unable to track down a copy of the film, I was pleased to see it pop up in their library, where they even offer Fellini’s short separately for the convenience of cinephiles in a rush. Watch it while you can. RIP.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

2018 gave me the occasion to revisit this for the first time since my teens, when it looked to budding millennial movie buffs like a model of serious cinema for grown-ups. Looking back, I had two realizations. First, it’s not at all as serious-minded as I remember—in fact, in the shameless goosing, the cartoon villains, and the sexual subtext of every advance Jodie Foster deflects, its heart is the sort of smart B-movie prized by Roger Corman (who gets a cameo). Second, all of that makes me like it just as much—if craft can convince the Academy that a cheeky thriller is prestigious, god bless.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Short Cuts: BURNING

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In a way, it would be a shame to let any review of Burning, the new film by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong, say anything about the plot. The movie begins with the camera following a young man down a city street, and it’s best to walk in blind and follow along. Watch where it goes in texture, theme, and even genre. A social-realist snapshot of a lost generation? A straight-up thriller in the making? The sort of “existential mystery” Antonioni might have made if his films were informed by anger instead of ennui?

Burning, taken from a short story by Haruki Murakami and turned into a 150-minute smolder, synthesizes all of the above remarkably well. The young man is Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), scraping by on odd jobs and moving through life like a sleepwalker. He is chronically underemployed and has few social attachments. He claims to be an aspiring writer, though despite his ample downtime, he doesn’t use any of it to write. But off the street comes Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman who works as a sales model for a local store and swears she knows him from their childhood. When he doesn’t recognize her, she says she got plastic surgery. (“Aren’t I prettier now?” she asks, and the question is bashfully proud). She seems to remember the details of their past far better than he does—including, she notes suddenly, that he used to treat her with arrogant disregard. But it’s not long before she’s invited him back to her apartment and into her bed.

There is a strange, almost amnesiac numbness to Jong-su, just as when we look at Hae-mi (through him), pieces of her seem to be missing. Is she harboring an old crush on him? Toying with him? Is everything she says even true? Or is imbuing her with any mystery at all simply a way of misunderstanding an unfailingly sincere person? It’s a hook, and not the last for a film whose great strength is what it leaves unspoken, unspecified, or handled indirectly, while its passion coalesces with the direction of a jab to the gut. When Hae-mi goes away on a trip and returns with the enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun), a modern playboy with a Westernized name and money flowing in from some unknown source, the tension is set for a disquieting love triangle. It begins with a baseline of suspicion and jealousy and heads into increasingly sinister territory.

What emerges is a portrait of a system—one with a smiling face, a friendly surface, and an eerie normalcy—that can swallow things up and leave hardly a trace. It’s not hard to decode Burning as a work of social criticism. In fact, the broad strokes are there in the title: simply watch what gets burned and what doesn’t. But broad strokes don’t do justice to the wrinkles of a murder story that so shrewdly and emotionally plays with the very definition of the word. It is a rich and atmospheric film, sustained in its intrigue, attentive to its characters (especially its heroine), tinged with narrative abstraction around the edges, and taking the time to let the full extent of its ambiguities, anxieties, and most of all sadness seep under your skin. The end of the hero’s writer’s block comes in tandem with an act of violence, as if both are floodgates that open at once. And for all that’s unsettled in the film, that parallel may be the only concrete answer you need—even if Lee is old enough, or smart enough, to steep it in weary, mournful uncertainty. At American arthouses, where movies like this are liable to pull off disappearing acts of their own, Burning is not to be missed. It is one of the best of 2018.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Burning won the Critics’ Prize at Cannes and is South Korea’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. It had a preview screening at the Aero in Santa Monica tonight and opens on Friday in select theaters.

Short Cuts: AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

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When a series regular gets killed off before the opening credits of Avengers: Infinity War, it’s a way of announcing that, whoever controls the life-or-death fates of these characters—the Russo brothers? Kevin Feige? a majority vote of Marvel’s board?—they’re not fucking around. Not that any Marvel movie would ever foreswear “fucking around” completely; another term for that might be “irreverent, riffing, self-reflexive humor”, ample amounts of which have been central to Marvel’s identity ever since they started hiring comedy directors for action movies and launched an empire on Robert Downey Jr.’s insolent charm. But what it means is that, as the climaxes pile up, Infinity War has what lesser blockbusters fail at and lazy ones don’t even attempt: a palpable sense of stakes. (A lot of movies settle for “the world”, which means less and less these days if it isn’t handled right). It’s showmanship, of course—even a non-comic-book-reader knows that superhero deaths don’t tend to be permanent, especially when they’ve already signed on for sequels. But as long as moviegoers who never quite outgrew this shit (and don’t intend to) will pay $13 to greet silliness with reverence and vice-versa, it’s good to be in the hands of showmen who are not only talented, but feel devoted to their end of the bargain.

As the culmination of one of Hollywood history’s most ambitious act of serialization, Infinity War was never going to want for scale: come see dozens of superheroes, each of them with their own history, mythology, and comic bit, in a sustained cross-cut juggling act. Iron Man and Dr. Strange will clash egos and facial hair. Half of the Guardians of the Galaxy will team up with Spider-Man, the other half with Thor. The Hulk will crash down on earth and meet Black Panther. And all of them will unite to fight the extraterrestrial demi-god Thanos (Josh Brolin) who’s been floating around the edges for a decade and has one of those existential-minded plans to commit mass murder in the name of balance.

Balance is, of course, what such a scale calls for, and the juggling act of Infinity War gamely pulls it off. For one, this is lean and tight for a two-and-half-hour film: its momentum refocuses it on the pop epic it needs be whenever you worry it might get bogged down playing the hits or turn into Marvel’s Cavalcade All-Star Revue of 2018. The comic book action and emotions have enough moment-by-moment immediacy that you’re welcome to dive in even if you’ve had too much real life between installments to clearly remember who had which magical artifact where. (The merging of filmic size and TV narrative flow continues, even as both formats balloon). The gags that write themselves are fine; the gags that don’t are better. And if it took Marvel a long time to come up with villains who are as engaging as their heroes, Brolin fits the bill and lends the necessary grave personality to movie evil.

Marvel’s peaks were never that high nor their valleys prolonged. Most of the franchise is a question of variations, like flavors of the same kind of empty-calorie Saturday morning breakfast cereal, even while the Russos’ Captain America movies got the best stories, Thor: Ragnarok was allowed to be uncommonly freaky, and Black Panther felt personal. But the tone and texture of Infinity War‘s “to be continued…” final scenes feel like something new for a series pushing twenty films. This is a film that bets, with success, that after ten years of backstories, good plots, bad plots, and plenty of fucking around, the best place to leave its audience is not the usual flashy animated end credits sequence, but a somber and portentous note. If there’s been a better cliff-hanger at the franchise-hungry multiplex in the last ten years, I haven’t seen it. So the compliment Infinity War deserves is both the finest and most basic you can give to this town’s showmen, especially those who take 150 minutes. When it was over, it left me wanting more. Here’s hoping they know how to finish.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Avengers: Infinity War is available anywhere you get your movies and all your friends have already seen it. To whom it may concern, it’s easily a much better movie than The Force Awakens.

Short Cuts: EIGHTH GRADE

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Here’s a question worth debating: how many movies about American teenagers deal authentically with the teen experience? There are certainly plenty, but most teen movies are romanticized, sensationalized, removed into genre territory, and/or starring actors who are clearly older than their characters. Such mythology can be an enticement. It’s the reason manic high school comedies are most fun when you’re in middle school, manic college comedies are most fun when you’re in high school, and both get harder and harder to relate to except through nostalgia goggles. But how many of the American movies about “teenagers” capture the mess of day-to-day life as an early teen, where people’s most private confusions arc past each other, you have the self-conscious urge to lie about things you really don’t need to lie about, and it’s all mixed in with such mundanity that you may not really realize what you learned until years later?

To its credit, that seems to be at least partly what Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is going for. It follows the last week of middle school for Kayla, an awkward and shy girl at precisely the age it’s hardest to be awkward and shy. She has a loving, supportive father at precisely the age when loving, supportive parents mortify you. She bares her feelings for no one except a social media channel with almost no viewers. She and her peers are different from those who came before them chiefly because they’re blessed and cursed with the latest tech. And all the while, the new world of high school awaits.

Most of this hits familiar beats, like the same coming-of-ager with a new SnapChat filter, or an easy comic close-up on those millennials hooked to their phones. The misadventures play out with a mixture of self-consciously cinematic performance and touches of offhand authenticity, and I suspect that teen movies will never buck cliches completely because none of us made it to fifteen without involuntarily becoming one (or worse, wanting to). But the gentle regard for its characters, and how wonderfully its actors handle them, wins you over. And it’s at its best when it veers into unexpected tonal territory—like a car ride that turns from liberating to deeply uncomfortable—or, staying true to early adolescence, shows moments of growth but refuses to come right out and settle them.

Unlike last year’s (superior) Lady Bird, I didn’t get to it before the hype, and it struck me as much slighter and less incisive than its indie darling reputation would suggest. It is a conventional film, made from the outside looking in, seeming to simulate an experience a bit too much and inhabit it a bit too little. Yet few news items over this summer gave me a kick of happiness like A24’s announcement that it would host screenings of the film for middle schoolers and not enforce the R rating. Thirteen-year-old’s lives are already rated R, and they know that better than the MPAA. And whatever issues of slightness inevitably accompany indie-darling hype, I approve on principle of any comedy that teens and adults can watch together, each fondly laughing at how little the other knows. In fact, I daresay it warms my heart.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Eight Grade was a toast at this year’s Sundance and is available to rent on VOD next week. While writing this, I realized that the class that just started eighth grade was born the year I graduated high school. Kill me now.

Capsules: September 2018

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A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

Such an expansive, disorienting, mesmerizing blend of elements that I had to sleep on its ending before concluding that yes, this is indeed some kind of masterpiece. The martial arts plot at the center is familiar intrigue and superheroics. But framing it from the point of view of a definitive non-superhero and finishing it on acid turn this action film into a haunting spiritual journey. Tidy? God no. But its elemental, mysterious nature is forever.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1942)

Clouzot’s debut is a charming whodunnit with a morbid sense of humor and only the frivolity of its genre to quell a nagging dissatisfaction at how the plot wraps up. But already you can see signs of a pungent cynicism, a distrust of people both as individuals and as groups, coloring the caper and pointing the way to his future hits Diabolique and The Wages of Fear and his masterpiece Le Corbeau. So much fun that when he stopped being charming, it was clearly a choice.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Symphony For a Massacre (Jacques Deray, 1963)

Cheers to Pathé for restoring this gem and to the Aero for showing it! You know the racket: a plan, a gang of thieves, and the mistakes and chaotic X factors that can foul up any “perfect crime”. But this one does everything right, giving the double-crosses and misunderstandings the ironic wit they deserve. Essential for people who’ve exhausted Melville, so hopefully it will get more play. Don’t discount the women, and remember to use the hidden exit.

✬✬✬✬✩

State and Main (David Mamet, 2000)

Mamet-the-writer is more distinctive than Mamet-the-director, but he manages a fine comic juggling act whose appeal isn’t so much an attack on Hollywood but a failed breakup with it. Pointing out that the Hollywood system produces immoral out-of-touch assholes is old hat and easy—more intriguing are the twists, nuances, ambiguities, and self-reflexive contrivances that allow the film’s Mamet surrogate to enter the Hollywood system, get everything he wants, and somehow stay clean.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)

I was once asked by a European to explain the appeal of baseball. I failed, naturally, because baseball is as much a part of the quintessentially American mythos as George Washington and the cherry tree, only a lot more fun. The further down the rungs you get from the majors, the closer you are to the heart of it. Which is why this perspective from the minor leagues is so meaningful, and executed with such bittersweet, humorous regard for what it means to be a success.

✬✬✬✬✩

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

The immortally suppressed desire of In the Mood For Love erupts into a dangerously seductive erotic fantasia—and though this B-side to that 21st century arthouse staple takes a different, even opposing approach, it lets you realize that the two stories can’t exist without the other. As a fable about failed attempts to replace impossibly idealized love, it couldn’t be simpler. But it luxuriates in details, characters, and meta games, as if Wong’s ambitions ballooned to where reality alone couldn’t contain them.

✬✬✬✬✬

Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies I either saw for the first time or revisited after many years.

Short Cuts: FIRST REFORMED

first-reformed

Yes, video stores still exist in LA, and they have a purpose, both as a repository for films abandoned by the streaming boom and a forum of ideas for the geeky, the devout, and the reprobate. At one of them, I mentioned to the clerk that, with First Reformed, writer-director Paul Schrader seemed to be having a moment again for the first time in years. He agreed, then asked me about Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. “Did you see Winter LightFirst Reformed is basically 70% Winter Light.”

Having seen both, that number sounds correct, and I’d add that a lot of the remaining 30% belongs to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. (Schrader, in his life as a critic, literally wrote the book on Bresson, before writing the script for Taxi Driver and having a directing career of his own). Schrader’s own country priest takes the form of Ethan Hawke, who enters humbly as the reverend of a dwindling church in upstate New York. He is a sickly, solitary individual who hides most of his thoughts from others, as if he’s determined that his convictions must require loneliness. And his crisis of faith—not in god so much as in mankind—intensifies when one of his parishioners, distraught over environmental pollution, loses the will to live and leaves behind a widow. (In Bergman’s telling, it was fear of the atomic bomb).

There is a certain audacious reverence in lifting so much, particularly in a year when Bergman retrospectives have been touring American rep houses. But then, America makes a fertile and rewarding place to move the religious traditions of arthouse past, where Schrader’s anti-hero can serve as a soulful, Bressonian counterweight to megachurches and so much Christian kitsch. The past isn’t dead, especially not at movie theaters. And in a year when Wes Anderson remixed Kurosawa with stop-motion dogs for the inner-children of twenty-somethings everywhere, the un-hip, anachronistic man-and-god sincerity of First Reformed not only has its own distinct power, but is something to be treasured. Schrader is a terrific storyteller, and don’t miss how much his style can contribute: the look of the film plays a muted color scheme, shot in the Academy ratio and lit like Dreyer (another Schrader touchstone), against unnatural neon colors that feel sickly and toxic in comparison—like the sight of a cloud of Pepto Bismol in a glass of liquor.

Hawke is terrific and against-type, though so recognizable that you can see why Bresson wanted unfamiliar faces to play his modern-day pilgrims. I’m not sure Schrader sells the environmental theme as more than a plot device—but then, committing suicide over nuclear anxiety always struck me as a bit histrionic, and Winter Light is safely considered a classic. The part of First Reformed bound to be most divisive is the ending, which deserves controversy not over whether it’s too bloody, too shocking, or too lurid, but whether it comes across as silly. (Surely a doomsday sign that the world is more jaded now than it was in Bergman’s 1960s, or even Taxi Driver‘s 1970s). But it’s the film’s own, and it sells—or, to use a more deservedly pure word, it offers—an idea worth pondering: that in the face of spiritual and psychological despair, desperation and carnality are what keep you going. And what’s more, they may not even be betrayals or sins. A theme that Bergman would have appreciated.

✬✬✬✬✩

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First Reformed is currently available on home video and video-on-demand. For what it’s worth, the clerk liked it too.

Short Cuts: BLACKKKLANSMAN

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Cinematically, 2018 began with Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, whose runaway success occasioned think-pieces, analysis, praise, and/or criticism from everyone from Slavoj Žižek to random bloggers (including an after-the-fact one by yours truly). It’s certainly worth considering what that movie and its phenomenon mean, because Black Panther is not a film with radical politics. Little of its essence risks true confrontation, and that’s part of its reason for existing. It just wanted, and triumphantly scored, a seat at the establishment’s table.

For Spike Lee, however, confrontation has historically been not only desirable but on-brand. And while it would be reductive to ignore the less inherently political trademarks of “a Spike Lee joint”—film school cinephilia, theater, sexuality, a hometown boy’s love of New York City—it would also not be unfair to argue that for the last decade or so, Lee has gotten more attention for the media-fueled public tiffs he’s landed in than for the actual movies he’s made.

BlacKkKlansman, about a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is being hailed as a career highlight and return to form, and rightly so. It is a fittingly brash approach to docudrama, part comedy and part cop movie, with focused, attentive storytelling, a mash of tones, and a cast worth using. John David Washington plays the cop, Detective Ron Stallworth. Adam Driver plays the white partner who serves as his in-person front. And, in a nice casting touch, an appropriately milquetoast, non-ubermensch Topher Grace plays Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

But I fear that it isn’t just that Lee and his collaborators, including producer Jordan Peele, have been inspired to make a terrific film, but that mainstream American political life has given them the context in which to do so. This is 2018: our public discourse has long since blown passed preaching to the choir and is focused on galvanizing it instead. Into this rabid media landscape comes Lee, with a younger man’s passion and, crucially, an older man’s wariness. And it seems to me that of all the unsubtle statements for our unsubtle time, BlacKkKlansman has the distinction of being one of the subtler—or at least, one with some of the richest ideas. It’s not a masterpiece, for those keeping score. Yet no other American film so far this year is as worth talking about.

It certainly doesn’t hold back on topicality. And, as a (white liberal) cinephile, I have less use for the villains’ explicit Trumpisms—”America First”, returning the country to “greatness”—than I do for the comparatively nuanced dialectic between the hero and his radical student girlfriend, who end the film in an unresolved and unresolvable argument about whether or not the system can be peaceably reformed from within. (It is one of her scenes that references the term “super-predators”, a racially-charged quote that you may remember haunted a 2016 candidate—and it wasn’t Donald Trump). Those are the politics, but then there’s the method and the scope; this is all “based on a true story,” and not often does that phrase so shrewdly contextualize itself.

That is, in addition to being a comedy, a cop movie, and the best script Lee has gotten his hands on in years, BlacKkKlansman is something else. It is, explicitly, a movie about movies, from the rose-tinted Confederate nostalgia of Gone With the Wind to the racist frenzy of Birth of a Nation to the liberating but complex legacy of blaxploitation. As comedy or cop drama, it’s solid through and through, entertaining and thoughtful. As a pastiche of where pop culture and politics overlap, it achieves a lucid agitation, mixing the Old Hollywood canon, contemporary documentary footage, period-piece artifice, an Alec Baldwin comedy sketch (hello, Trump-era Left), a debate about Shaft and Superfly, and a haunting Harry Belafonte monolog into a provocative clash of history lesson and self-concious cinematic fictionalization. This is the America screen as a hall of mirrors, some seemingly clear, some proudly idealized, and some grotesquely distorted, with the insistence that each reflection be taken seriously.

So the best way to view BlacKkKlansman is as a movie that knows it’s a movie, and that certain pleasures and dangers are its heritage. It embellishes its true story with cinematic suspense and scenes of crowd-pleasing comic triumph, which, tellingly, have both drawn criticism and got applause from the theater I saw it at in West LA. But the whole experience, particularly the controversy-inviting ending, asks you to be careful where you try to draw the line between what’s “just a movie” and what’s something more. BlacKkKlansman is structured literally as connective tissue between Hollywood myth and your newsfeed, and the deceptive mechanisms of commercial cinema are its weapon of choice.

What is BlacKkKlansman‘s agenda? Not having Trump in the White House would be nice, but the film is under no illusions that the problem began with his political career or will end with it. For a film with such direct attacks on a current sitting President, it is expansive rather than myopic: its subject is a continuum larger than Trump, Stallworth, David Duke, the black power movement, the modern police force, and cinema itself. It starts already close to the edge of what’s comfortable for laughter or suspense (or even choir-preaching), and by the end has gone so far beyond that you should feel shaken, nauseous, and a bit conflicted at how the movie got you there. If its tactics rub you the wrong way, run with that feeling, because dismissing it would be even worse. This is a frontal assault on apathy, ugly and beautiful in the right places. Its value as cinema is to make visceral what might otherwise be safely removed into history or theory. It’s rousing because it never gives in to empty fatalism but sure as shit won’t offer easy answers. And it says, among other things, that laughing at an Alec Baldwin skit won’t do a thing. A clarion call for its audience if there ever was one.

✬✬✬✬✩

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BlacKkKlansman is currently in theaters around the country. Amidst uncertainty and conflict, a dance scene is sublime.

Short Cuts: LET THE SUNSHINE IN

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Claire Denis’ new film, Let the Sunshine In, is irritating. I don’t mean that as a criticism—at least not entirely—but rather as a simple statement of fact, because I gather that a certain degree of irritation or frustration is what it’s going for. The story follows a middle-aged French artist (Juliette Binoche) as men come in and out of her life in a pattern of hope, sex, love, and caprice. In one scene she’ll be happy with someone, the next scene she won’t. She’ll insist she isn’t looking for a fling, then immediately dive into one. She’ll deny that something bothers her, then turn around and say that it does. Most of all, she deserves better: of the men on her platter, none are particularly vivid or different from one another. Anyone who’s been in the dating world and is over thirty (hell, twenty-five) might recognize that this all sounds very true to life, even profound—at least, in theory. In practice, it can be a 90 minute slog in the company of characters whose behavior wavers between complex, which is good, and incoherent, which isn’t. This means that, even while it offers the surface pleasures of Mme. Binoche (as glowing as ever) and cinematographer Agnès Godard (making the city glow with her), theory is still where its principle appeal lies.

So if you’re familiar with Claire Denis’ films, you could be forgiven for looking at the first act and thinking that she’s actually given in and made an expected kind of straightforward bourgeois art film. Let the Sunshine In is neither elliptically edited (like Beau Travail or The Intruder) nor transgressive (like Trouble Every Day or Bastards). But it reveals itself as a structurally mischievous work, a film of such circularity and loose ends that it’s a middle without a beginning or an end. The film’s saving joke is its last one, where we suddenly dip into the lives of new characters who’ve had their own unseen version of the movie running parallel the whole time, and where the whole farrago of romantic confusion continues even as the credits roll, as if this routine can outlast not only your patience but even its own movie. These ideas still rolled around in my head the day after, alongside magnificent sights like Binoche, Denis, and Godard venturing out onto the dance floor. So after some irritation and a good night’s sleep, I can safely say that I’m glad I saw it, and that if you follow the festival circuit, I think you will be, too. Theoretically.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Let the Sunshine In played at Cannes in 2017 and opened in American theaters this spring. If you’re new to Denis, please start with Beau Travail.