Short Cuts: THE IRISHMAN

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Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has so many familiar Scorsese-isms—intoxicated tracking shots, doo-wop murder scenes, loose cannon friends who just can’t be saved—that it can best be defined by its absences. It’s not just that its color palette is more muted, or that its music cues are more subdued instead of frenzied, or that it has a star as accomplished as Anna Paquin say almost nothing, just serve as a persistent symbol of conscience. It’s something central: namely, what’s driving its main character? Why is this the life he chose? It’s a much straighter question for Scorsese’s other career criminals. Ray Liotta in GoodFellas and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street got off on the privilege and material pleasures, neither of which seem to hold much interest for Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran. (He’s far and away the least hedonistic wiseguy Scorsese has ever built a movie around). The De Niro of Casino wanted to construct a legit business empire on top of the congenitally unstable world of the Las Vegas mob. The De Niro of The Irishman shows no such lofty dreams. Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets had the foolishness and limited perspective of a young man—an excuse that, in The Irishman, wouldn’t cover much of its story, if any. So why fall in with the mob, and why keep going at it for a lifetime?

The closest direct answer we get is when he notes that being part of the mob was just like when he was in the army in WWII: you got instructions, and you followed them. (All we see of his service is a quick flashback, where he quizzically but tellingly notes how POWs who were ordered to dig their own graves would actually do it). In other words, his mob is a system to adhere to, with structure, loyalty, and a sense of greater purpose that comes from shared inclinations. “Solidarity”, as Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa says, for a post-war moment in America where people valued the collective more. This motive can tickle your brain, because more than any of Scorsese’s gangster movies (but less elegantly than The Godfather: Part II), the film ties the backroom dealings of organized crime to more reputable or official institutions like government, the military, and unions. It can also make Frank Sheeran a somewhat frustrating protagonist. There are long stretches of the film where he simply does whatever a Scorsese antihero would do: move up the ladder, assassinate the inconvenient, trade one wife for another, etc. He’s about as passive as can be for a character who spends a movie killing people. And this vague tinge of removal makes the film’s strived-for grandeur initially elusive—at least until the last act, when it all pays off.

The same can be said for one of the film’s most publicized elements: the digital de-aging effects, which smooth out the faces of De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci in an effort to make them look younger. Scorsese has called the use of the tech “experimental”, and in experimental fashion, it’s partly successful, partly distracting, and with a lot of interesting side effects. It’s certainly not photorealism: in the early scenes, Sheeran seems less like a young De Niro and more like an old De Niro wearing a young De Niro mask. When he curb-stomps a grocer, you’re clearly watching an elderly man trying to match the physicality of a younger one. In the scene where they first meet, Pesci calls De Niro “kid”, and your guess is as good as mine on whether De Niro the “kid” is meant to look 25, 30, or 40. But you adjust, and when De Niro’s extended flashback catches up to his age, it hits you not because he suddenly looks old, but because, in old age, he suddenly looks natural.

Admittedly, I spent most of the movie wondering if this was all working in practice as well as theory—that is, whether or not The Irishman simply reaches a high plateau of expertise and then stays there, cycling through incidents in a way that’s not epic so much as long. There’s no shortage of engagement; with this cast and this crew, any given 20 minutes of The Irishman would place among the best moviemaking of 2019. (For all the attention given to Al Pacino’s first Scorsese collaboration, special praise must go to Joe Pesci’s return, soulfully against-type). But the last half hour is among the most haunting and somber of Scorsese’s work. Scorsese is right to encourage viewers to stream his three-and-a-half-hour, intermission-free movie in one go, even if he’s spitting into the cultural wind. By the end, the audience should feel a weight of time passed, and what all those absences start to mean when you have nothing left to do with your life but examine it—and not much time left to do so. It is a ghostly final act, tying together Scorsese’s spiritual concerns and gangster-romanticism like no film of his since Mean Streets. Where The Irishman ultimately ranks in his canon will be settled in the future. For now, I can safely say that it establishes the right to a legacy and a reputation of its own. And that, of all of Scorsese’s gangsters-brought-low, this is the one whose ending moved me the most.

✬✬✬✬✬

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The Irishman is streaming on Netflix, is up for a bunch of Golden Globes, and will be an Oscar juggernaut. And for the love of god, yes, he’s made a lot more than just gangster movies.

Getting What We Deserve: Reacting to JOKER

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It’s remarkable what a film can go through before the general public has even had a chance to buy a ticket. The trailer for Todd Phillip’s Joker was the best of the year. When it dropped, suddenly an eccentric side-project—a mid-budget, standalone, Scorsese-inspired origin story, starring Joaquin Phoenix and inexplicably separate from the rest of the DC franchise—became one of the most anticipated films of 2019. When it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, the stakes were raised. Nobody could miss the new precedent: this was no longer just a comic book movie with a more “adult” approach (Logan, say), but a film that had been prestigiously anointed like no other of its kind. Nobody could miss the irony either: Venice has faced controversy lately over a lack of female representation, and any hope that having Lucrecia Martel as the jury president might change that gave way to a reality where one of the 21st century’s most acclaimed female filmmakers gave a Golden Lion to the director of The Hangover, a frat-bro touchstone unable to imagine a woman who isn’t either a domestic shrew or a down-to-party stripper. Meanwhile, critics fretted about whether Joker‘s outside-the-box take on superhero IP portended freedom or an insidious dependency. Law enforcement went on call at certain screenings, in case the film’s perceived glorification of violent loners inspired a mass shooter to open fire (this is, apparently, the world we live in now). And just for good measure, Todd Phillips stirred the pot on Twitter when he said that PC culture was killing comedy.

By the time I waited out the frenzy and actually saw the movie, a different quote from Phillips’ press junket came to mind. As he told TheWrap, mid-controversy:

We didn’t make the movie to push buttons…I literally described it to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like, ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it fucking Joker’.

You can’t argue with success; Joker is now most the profitable comic book film ever made and the first R-rated movie to gross $1 billion. But I wondered, as the end credits rolled, if Joker would have been a better film if it had been made to push buttons—or rather, if it showed a better grasp of which buttons it most certainly pushes, and why.

It definitely makes a number of contrary decisions for a movie called fucking Joker. It’s a scaled-back character piece about madness, with barely two action sequences to rub together but lots of ugly imagery and a running commentary on Reagan-era indifference. It’s also, by my count, the first big-screen version of the character we’re never meant to find funny or charismatic at all. This Joker—Arthur Fleck, by name—is a pitiable and unsettling creation, as Gotham City’s criminal mastermind is boiled down to a picked-on, mentally ill struggling comic who develops a taste for killing and the sense of power that comes with it. He lives with his mother and is cut loose from both his job and the public health facilities he relies on for treatment. But when he uses force to make himself felt, he grows confident; as he puts it, “people are starting to notice.” Any review is duty-bound to note the debt Joker owes to Martin Scorsese’s portraits of sociopathic urban loners, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. From The King of Comedy, it takes a heap of plot points and character notes. From Taxi Driver, it gets its vintage Big Apple grime, self-righteous vigilante, and most interesting idea: that a society might become so dire that it mistakes a head case for a folk hero.

So in a time when we can’t keep track of either reboots or horrifying headlines, Joker enjoys playing with fire. And no skeptic should deny it: there’s a lot of craft and intelligent filmmaking in the result. As a piece of tentpole revisionism, it’s well ahead of almost every other blockbuster this year in its plotting, character arcs, thematic detail, aesthetic distinction, and political topicality. But set it alongside where it sources much of the above, and you’ll see how clumsy Joker can be—how often it bluntly reduces its ideas, or montages its way through scenes it doesn’t know how to dramatize, or defines important characters with a single simplistic trait, or hops over a logical gap so it can go straight for the sucker punch. And if any movie, especially a “real” one, is to withstand scrutiny, all of that matters. The audience’s perception of Travis Bickle will shift several times over the course of Taxi Driver without ever losing unity. The King of Comedy has real pathos for the desperate or resigned characters on its ladder of success. Joker‘s hard-R world of alienation (nobody is civil, you get what you deserve, etc.) is not much less of a caricature in its persistent cruelty than the average Marvel movie is in its exuberance. And setting aside ambition, transgression, or craft, it’d be worthwhile to debate which is actually more honest.

There is, however, one way in which equating Joker and The King of Comedy is genuinely deserved, and that is this: both are living embodiments of their main character. The King of Comedy, like its anti-hero, is an aggressively off-putting misfit that spreads discomfort wherever it goes—but by the end, you’ve grown to actually understand and feel for it. Joker, like Arthur Fleck, takes violent actions that resonate politically—but like Arthur, does it ever truly care? At times, it even seems to acknowledge the adolescent limitations of its worldview. But for every smart wrinkle of nuance, you get choices like the needle-drops for “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2” or “White Room”, which are so self-consciously “edgy” and tonally off from what surrounds them that they practically exist to say fuck you if you want to think too hard about all this, or if you think that provocation means more than nihilistic postures and clever technique.

The “real movie”/comic-book-film argument has been an incurable meme all season, ironically kicked off by Scorsese himself. Whether/however that divide exists, Joker has a peculiar relationship to it: everything that’s bracing or sensational about the film requires it to draw the line and exist on both sides at once. It’s nearly impossible to be apathetic about it, which is rare enough these days for comic book movies and “real movies” alike. If Joker demonstrates anything, it’s that audiences are eager for more from the former and deserve more from the latter. I suspect that if the film came to edify the multiplexes, it’s also here to troll them.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Joker is still in theaters and primed for the Oscar race. It played at the Bruin in Westwood Village for over a month. They eventually swapped it for Doctor Sleep, but when Doctor Sleep underperformed on its opening weekend, Joker was back the next Friday.

THE ROUND UP: Spring and Summer (Part 2)

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. This is where we came in.

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Sword of Trust (Lynn Shelton)

No underdog indie was more conceptually promising for 2019: a warm comedy about our age of alternative facts, juggling the insane delusions of American life and the likable citizens who believe them. Thus we get the story of a heartland pawnshop owner, his shiftless employee, and a lesbian couple who decide to make a quick harmless buck off conspiracy theorists who listen to YouTube charlatans. Lynn Shelton has skills no cinephile should take for granted, including a hilarious, empathetic ear for the ways that people will talk in circles to hide their flaws before succumbing helplessly to honesty. This is the kind of comedy without punchlines, or even setups—just delicious friction. But the shagginess comes at a cost: Sword of Trust goes poof at exactly the point when it should be the strongest. If its destination is the heart of American delusion, it never gets there. Instead, it arrives in the realm of traditional sitcoms, with a twist and a resolution that are both tidy and palliative. And neither “tidy” nor “palliative” are 2019.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam)

Terry Gilliam’s famously cursed film was a fantasy twenty years ago, a tragic and promising “what if?” from a great director who had yet to make anything unworthy of the name. After a two-decade string of false starts and rewrites, the real thing arrived at Cannes to an unimpressed response, was abandoned by Amazon Studios under litigious circumstances, and barely registered as a blip in American theaters. So if the hype and counterhype have cancelled each other out, you’re in the best state to glean what you can (and should) from this long-suffering passion project—especially since the Quixote we have is evidently informed by years of frustration with the film industry. In fact, the film is so self-reflexive that it’s tempting to see its flaws as baked into its identity: an act of tilting at windmills full of doubt and lacking sense, but unwilling to concede. In truth, its flaws are much more mundane. The buddy chemistry doesn’t gel, the taste for excess is underfunded, the humor is inconsistent at best, and even by Gilliam standards, it lacks the narrative shape needed to turn its ballooning symbolism into catharsis rather than exhaustion. But its insistence on bringing chivalry into the film industry is not without resonance. And its most enchanting moments, which treat the real and the imagined as a game of three card monte, back up its case that part of tilting at windmills is treasuring the triumphs you can.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

The latest offering from A24—as much a brand as a distributor at this point—is visually busy and narratively choppy enough to feel like a string of music videos were truncated and spliced together. The hook is there, but at a certain point, directorial tics are clogging its heart and taking the place of a complete and immediate drama, which obscures the valuable things it has to say: first about the legacies of black culture and art, then about the dilemma when money is the only claim to a home and you don’t have any. It hurts to be lukewarm on any movie whose climactic line is as graceful and pained as “you don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” So in the interest of optimism, I’ll note that the last time I was lukewarm on a debut film about black bohemia in San Francisco, the director’s second film was Moonlight.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)

In which Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron use dopey movie love to bridge the uncanny valley in a world where tech and organic matter have become intriguingly interchangeable. Does that conflation refer just to their world, or to ours? Take it as far as you like. The plot is a mess by the end, and sci-fi rules mean the same character can get not one, but two annoying death scenes. But the look and feel of this relatively humble tentpole are compelling. It recalls the days of Raimi’s Spiderman or Del Toro’s Hellboy, when blockbuster IP valued not just zazz but a visual personality.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov)

The narrative that emerges steadily from this documentary’s impressionist footage is solid: a mini-epic about different ideas of modernity, tension between neighbors, and a principled stance towards living off the land. But the film’s implied insistence on an invisible camera—that is, that there isn’t a crew right there deciding how to frame it all—gives this trip to the edge of western civilization a cause for ambivalence. Ironically, the narrative of Honeyland feels more distant and self-consciously constructed than it might if the presence of filmmakers were openly embraced. Set it next to, say, Paris is Burning (a classic LGBT documentary whose restoration was a rep-house highlight of the summer), and you’ll see how much more gregarious a doc can be when it feels like the audience isn’t just watching someone else’s world, but truly being invited into it.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)

The highest grossing documentary of 2019 is an interesting construction of a different sort. Right from the opening shots, it looks and moves so much like a contemporary doc that it’s startling to know that it’s all footage from 50 years ago; even the B-roll of crowds takes on a crisp, uncanny quality of time travel. By using only a resurfaced trove of old video and audio (with a little animation to connect the dots), this retelling of the moon landing limits or at least changes its approach. It doesn’t have much in the way of context, subtext, suspense, or psychology. What it has is awe: images that can’t possibly be real, but are. At its best, it renews wonder in an achievement that subsequent generations, mine included, might see in a history book without feeling the magnitude. So if the film doesn’t really humanize its subjects, apart from marveling at the calm in their radio chatter, it’s because it insists that this particular non-fiction deserves to be mythic—and that mythic undertakings are most useful when they belong to a collective.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Capsules: October 2019 (Halloween Edition)

Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This one goes out to new and old films watched for Halloween, including a movie night of Dawn of the Dead—maybe the most unaccountably hard-to-find film of its type and class.

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)

Think of the baroque imagery of Apocalypse Now. The chiaroscuro lighting. The superimpositions. The plumes of smoke. Wouldn’t it be sumptuously perfect for silent-style gothic horror? It is, though neither the plot nor the passion is lucid, despite the voiceover’s best efforts. A British accent is beyond Keanu’s reach, Winona is strangely affectless for a character in thrall to lust, and at a certain point the plot gives up on sensible causality. But it’s ravishingly excessive: it dredges up all the subtext and overindulges in every old-school camera trick in the book. As a cinephile experience, the 130 minutes are like a giant bag of chocolates you eat all at once. Which, ill-advised or not, is certainly a Halloween tradition.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962)

The 1991 Scorsese remake is more thrilling, more thematically complex, and somehow less enduring. One can’t deny the sordid power of telling this story in a setting that could still feign innocence, where a truly disturbing thriller can tap into bourgeois America’s worst fears of its own underclass, and where the dark triumph is making a censor-approved, law-abiding finale feel so very bloodthirsty. A final word, paraphrasing David Thomson: “Robert De Niro is a great actor, but Robert Mitchum is The Beast.”

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

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The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

The verities can still work in the right hands: a spooky house, spookier children, and an eerie control of lighting and sound design. The initial hook of The Others is that every character in its triangle is immediately creepy/insane/unreliable enough that this could all go in any number of directions. The one it picks drifts so much from logic that you become sure a twist is on its way. And though the twist is far from unique, it’s grounded nicely in a theme of spiritual uncertainty—another verity, and the one that powers all the rest. The Others came out during a zeitgeist of movies that aimed to blow your mind. I hope that in retrospect, we see how the best ones also aimed for the heart.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)

Not the most subtle classic—if you’re ever in doubt that the zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for consumerism, a character will look straight in the camera and tell you. But it’s still the definitive version for doing what so few genre films manage: thinking through its concept and fleshing it out as fully as possible. It’s also a case study in incongruous elements. There’s no logical reason that a cream-pie-to-the-face gag should exist in the same set-piece as intestinal gore, but this rebound is part of its midnight movie legend. Moving between slapstick and shock, the silly and the grim, the juvenile and the perceptive, it maintains quixotic faith that a horror film can have something to say. And that even if the apocalypse is here, there’s still something to hang on to.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

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Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)

How famous can a film get before it loses its status as esoterica? Wherever that line is, Häxan hasn’t crossed it yet: this doc about “witchcraft through the ages”, spanning medieval rituals to early 20th century psychiatry, is still singular. One doesn’t usually see fantasy/horror sequences worked into a documentary, just as one doesn’t expect a silent era period piece with such good production values to have such an irreverent streak. As a piece of horror cinema, it provides an early, direct, and cerebral link between cult appeal and literal sacrilege. As a work of analytic non-fiction, its shrewd understanding that any modern age will someday look insane keeps it evergreen.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Body Bags (John Carpenter & Tobe Hooper, 1993)

Somewhere between good and bad, trying and not trying, creativity and cliche lies Body Bags, in which two “masters of horror” water down their act for a defunct cable pilot salvaged as an anthology film. Hooper’s completists will be more satisfied than Carpenter’s—the final chapter by Hooper is the film’s tightest, densest, and most visually grabbing schlock. And if the whole experience isn’t really satisfying, except maybe by the standards of intentionally bad taste, how could the cult value not be fun? John Carpenter as a prop-comic crypt-keeper? Sam Raimi as a corpse? Debbie Harry as the oversexed nurse at a hair transplant clinic? Mark Hamill as a cornpone evangelical with a literal evil eye? Roger Corman as the only sane doctor? The flash of realization that it’s the guy from American Werewolf? Categorically better than Twilight Zone: The Movie.

 

THE ROUND-UP: Spring and Summer (Part 1)

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. Noteworthy recaps of 2019 moviegoing begin now…

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Us (Jordan Peele)

Us may indeed qualify as a sophomore slump, but it’s one from a smart filmmaker upping his craft. Viscerally freakier than Get Out but less fully-fleshed, this spooky allegory for materialism makes you accrue at least a little heart for both the consumers and their “evil” twins. It’s about class, certainly, and it’s shrewdly about race insofar as class makes race less of an issue. The problem is how it trips over its mythology. The demented details of Get Out all gloriously added up; here, you get a twist that oscillates between making kind-of sense and no sense at all the harder you think about it. Part of me wants to feel cheated at any sucker punch that raises more questions than it answers. Another part of me knows that any movie that can sustain this balance for two hours—humor and frights, unpretentious genre kicks and on-target satire—is a genuine tonic. Sobering sidenote: it’s currently the only film in the top 10 grossers of 2019 that isn’t a sequel, a comic book adaptation, or a Disney live-action remake.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Transit (Christian Petzold)

A risky, daft, and ultimately rewarding concept: the script for a World War II thriller transposed to our own not-too-distant present, allowing old-fashioned story tropes, 21st century politics, incipient fascism, and narrative incongruity to nag away at you. The plot—about escaping Europe as stormtroopers descend, needing letters of transit, and choosing between romantic love and greater principles—finds its most obvious parallel in Casablanca. But doing it as a period piece would have a sense of removal, no matter how urgent the subtext. In telling this type of story straight in what is empathetically not a period setting, nor a logical 2019, Petzold’s film reconstitutes a vein of cinematic myth into a modern faceless anxiety. (When two people walk through the background of one scene, you wonder if they’re extras in a movie about the Terror, or simply a couple that happened to be passing by during the shoot). As always, Petzold is a solid storyteller. His weakness, as in his last film Phoenix, is formal blandness. The dystopia-is-now spirit of Transit cries out for a more uncanny treatment. Godard visited Alphaville with less.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)

Presaged by a midnight movie trailer with the easiest jokes of Jim Jarmusch’s career, this all-star zombie parody shambled into the summer under the question of whether it would actually be as fun or as shallow as advertised. The answer, happily, is “sort of” to the former because “no” to the latter. Its po-mo goofs are indeed too easy, not to mention protracted, and like a good hipster it comes with a willfully half-assed posture to undercut how it has serious ideas on its mind. But the ideas are there, and even when it goes for laughs, its vision of apocalypse Americana isn’t so easily brushed off. In this context, the indulgences and indie comedy readymades—deadpan reactions, pop culture expertise, celebrity meta gags—register as paralysis in the face of rapid decay. “This isn’t going to end well” goes the movie’s dry refrain, as narrative threads keep getting killed off before they can go anywhere. Well before the end, it’s stopped feeling like a joke.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley)

Toy Story 4 would have to do a lot to justify its existence after the perfect finality of Toy Story 3, and if it doesn’t, it’s at least a fun, lively, sufficiently thoughtful use of two hours. There’s something poetic as well as merchandisable in its view of mundane objects animated by emotional fetishism. And this time around, the franchise’s running metaphor of facing up to change feels aimed at adult issues more than children’s. But fatigue, dispersion, and dramatic wonkiness have set in when the new finality is both the series’ most drastic and its least convincing. Not that you can fully trust them to stick to finality, now or ever.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

GRETA

Greta (Neil Jordan)

Guilty pleasure? If your reason for doubling back and renting a movie is to see Isabelle Huppert as a psychotic manipulative bitch-queen, you have nothing to feel guilty about. What’s guilty is psychodrama with such laziness towards both psychology and drama: too bland to be camp, too silly to be anything else, and utterly reliant on hack thriller stings. Porting Madame Huppert’s appeal to the American multiplex is a nobly fiendish idea, but she seems shockingly adrift in a role tailor-made for her. But then, so does everyone else. And the line “I’m like chewing gum” is the definitely least spine-tingling stalker threat in many a moon.

✬✩✩✩✩

*****

Domino

Domino (Brian De Palma)

A test: how many virtues can a movie lack and still have auteurism draw you in? Domino is by no means a successful film. In fact, of the twenty-plus De Palma films I’ve seen, I’d venture this is his worst. The cast looks undirected. The leads need more charisma. The story has holes punched out. The geopolitical context feels tacky. And the staging can be awkward, sluggish, or downright careless, which is odd, because even when he’s not winning over critics with tastefulness or coherence, De Palma can usually be relied on for brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces. But if it doesn’t deserve blanket defense from the faithful, it doesn’t deserve knives out either—and certainly not any of the despondent cinephiles wishing for retirement. Instead, look at the De Palma staples and the way they’ve shifted in the 21st century: the technocratic voyeurism, the games with an audience’s sympathy, and the reawakened leftist concerns of an unreconstructed baby-boomer. After a troubled production, Domino essentially went straight to video, and I can’t imagine that the original cut, reportedly about an hour longer, would fix it. But I’ve returned to it in my mind a lot more than a great many more polished and sensible new releases. Which means I failed the test—or passed, as the case may be.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

A wealth of potential meaning(s) here, in spite of the shambling structure. It makes sense that Tarantino’s latest spawned a hot summer’s worth of hot takes, since it’s nothing if not two hours and forty minutes of thinkpiece material; you could say “problematic”, “tender”, “reactionary”, “indulgent”, “self-aware”, or “but then again…” depending on what you focus on and for how long. In addition to a western about westerns and a nostalgia piece about nostalgia, it’s an attempt to answer a question: how do you do a love letter to a town and an industry with so much to be cynical about? The film’s details are emotionally attuned to what Hollywood gives and takes from its inhabitants, what it offers its fans and requires them to believe. The mode may mutate. John Wayne will give way to Clint Eastwood. Movies like Valley of the Dolls will fall into style and then out of it. Innumerable bits of pop arcana will be forgotten by everyone except insiders and obsessives. But Hollywood will always be here, beautiful and ugly. Did Tarantino grow up? Never. But even people who don’t grow up can’t help but grow old.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Short Cuts: HIGH LIFE

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At one point during High Life‘s opening sequence—an extended, eerily serene passage that floats through the aftermath of the movie you’re about to watch—Robert Pattinson cradles an infant and tries to teach it the word “taboo.” He’s thinking out loud, the way parents do when they’re talking to both their child and themselves, and his tone is nothing but love. “Break the laws of nature,” he advises, “and you’ll pay for it.” It is a quick narrative lodestar—though the better question, examined by the film like an alien object, is what the laws of nature are, and whether you could ever break them in the first place.

High Life is science fiction as done by the French director Claire Denis. It is her first film in English, a decision she charmingly explained by saying that no one speaks French in space. It has a very Denis-like structure, slipping in time with dreamy edits, and a very un-Denis-like voiceover to keep you oriented, which just places it in sturdy sci-fi traditions that have somehow been hijacked by arthouse kink. Indeed, Mme. Denis is back in her transgressive mode, willing to go far enough that a genre hook, a Hollywood celebrity, and a dissolved language barrier still bend any notions of commercial appeal into an only vaguely recognizable shape. It is as if, in 1968, 2001 and Barbarella had had a scrappy pagan lovechild, then raised it in a venereal 21st century apocalypse. And while the result has too many rough edges even on its own idiosyncratic terms, this handcrafted space odyssey grabs quite a lot of the subversive, unsettling, intriguing, and fascinatingly dangerous potential of such mad science.

In the not-too-distant future, a group of criminals, bums, and undesirables are rounded up and shot into space. Ostensibly, it’s to gather research—something about fertility and black holes—but there’s no plan to ever bring them home. All of these exiles, male and female alike, take part in scientific sexual experiments, with their spare time spent wandering the halls, tending to a small but lush arboretum, and taking turns in “the fuck-box”, a room on the ship that provides a frustrated individual with mechanized release. It’s a festival of base instincts, and the only one in this voyage of the damned who seems to rise above it is Pattinson. There is something quietly virtuous, even saintly about his character—which, of course, just makes him more alluring to the ship’s twisted scientist, played with dark secrets by Juliette Binoche. (Who’d have thought, ten years after Twilight, that fetishizing Pattinson as some sort of elusive ideal partner would end this way?).

It is not exactly a pleasant viewing experience. In fact, it is frequently and with great purpose the opposite, spilling any bodily fluid it can in ways that only a female director (and a provocative one at that) would think to film. But no one should miss the lucidity of its arc: an inescapable microcosm where dark side effects of human sexuality—violence, self-loathing, infertility, compulsive masturbation, a mother’s resentment of her children, a pregnant woman’s disgust towards her own body—rattle around profanely before yielding the purity, clarity, and tentative peace of a new life. This all flows in a movement of tones, with an atmosphere built from modest elements: an interior lit in tender hues; FX sequences used as measured, abstract visual art; and actors who reveal themselves in ways that count. And so the L word of the title is a symbiotic relationship between repulsion and beauty, neither denying the latter nor judging the former. Kubrick had his Star-Child. And Denis, simply a child—no more or less cosmic than basic biology, portending nothing but the momentousness of parenthood at a time when the next generation may not have so much to hang onto. This is one of the strangest, most disturbing movies of the year, and in the end one of the most ecstatic. Any film that can be both deserves to be treasured.

✬✬✬✬✩

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High Life is now out on Blu-ray and VOD streaming services, accompanied by Amazon customer comments calling it “boring”, “degenerate”, and “the worst 2 hours of my life.” Know what you’re getting into.

Short Cuts: BOOKSMART

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Meet the Class of 2019: the same old inarticulate confusions, now mixed in with new technology, careerisms, ideals/pretensions of social consciousness, and shifting gender norms. They can be a bit monstrous, as everyone is at that age where you know less than you think but are well on track to inherit the earth anyway. But that monstrosity is a good starting point: in teen movie terms, the successfully ingratiating new comedy Booksmart adds up to something like the salvation of Tracy Flick. Here, the Overachiever from Hell is reborn as Molly (Beanie Feldstein), a pathologically dedicated student who, along with her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), decides it’s time for both of them to cut loose and squeeze as much fun as possible out of high school before graduation day. This is not the novelistic accumulation of detail of Lady Bird, or the “let’s get real about right now” cringes of Eighth Grade, but an altogether poppier and simpler tradition: the raucous up-all-night teen comedy. This is also to say that there is absolutely nothing conceptually novel about Booksmart—and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Here is a generation that may point out, with fair cause, that the timelessness of American Graffiti is lily-white, that Sixteen Candles is rapey, and that Superbad only gives its raunchy, empathetic close-up to the boys. So why can’t these kids go for an up-all-night comedy of their own?

The director is the actress Olivia Wilde, marking her first feature behind the camera, and the film’s likable, somewhat anonymous energy shows a periodic urge to play: a stop-motion interlude, say, whose weirdness is meant to justify itself, or a rather graceful long take when the emotions call for it, or an underwater sequence in a swimming pool that does more for teen freedom than any property damage. Some of it can feel oddly out of sync, with its plot mischief and its tenderness not quite occupying the same plane. It leans heavily on the heroines’ chemistry: the film takes their charm and runs with it, letting them riff and flow between story points that have varying degrees of imagination.

But the charm is undeniable, and anxious industry reports have sprouted to ask why, despite strong reviews, it didn’t take off at the box office. Pick your poison. Did it need bigger names? Better marketing? Is it simply not raucous or clever enough to break through? Are its teen movie tropes just too dated for our insane 2019, no matter have many Gen-Z-isms you throw in? Is it more dire, that the market is drying up for Indiewood crowdpleasers? (J.J. Abrams thinks it might). Or is it something broader—that the very audience the film wants to be about doesn’t care that much about seeing themselves on the screen of a movie theater? Either way, Booksmart‘s problem, artistic and commercial, is falling short of a critical mass of urgency for adding another night to remember to the teen comedy pantheon, even if it shows the right underlying wisdom. Indeed, the film’s misadventures (which include arrests, drug trips, boat parties, and a last minute race to the podium) mostly fade away quickly, as if they were borrowed, used as directed, and now have to be returned. But its loveliest aspect, as well as its most urgent, is a quieter idea that it warmly illustrates well before the big obligatory speech makes it plain: that the people in high school who seem to be on the other side of some invisible barrier, seen or gossiped about more than engaged, are actually pretty nice if you take the chance to talk to them. I hope the Class of 2020 learns that before too long.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Booksmart is still in theaters. Three years in a row with a worthy, female-driven coming-of-age comedy. Don’t jinx it.

Capsules: June 2019

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month, crime, crime, Pauline Kael retros, crime, and a museum.

Fargo (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1996)

Thing I wasn’t allowed to do in 1996: see Fargo in theaters. Caught on 35mm in Santa Monica, the Coen brothers’ crossover hit looks more than ever like one of the great American films: a version of the USA where comically exaggerated immorality and comically exaggerated folksiness play tug of war, with Frances McDormand an even brighter spot of virtue in her world than Philip Marlowe was in his. In some small way, she can sway this fucked up, dysfunctional place, not only through her actions but through her very presence. As many ironic laughs as the film has, watch her closely. See what this pair of cynics aren’t ironic about.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, 2000)

I’ve never been a big admirer of Iñárritu’s pursuit of importance—his capital-T Truth feels too much like capital-M Movie, even if the end-of-youth, something-to-prove mode of his 2000 debut suits him. Oddly, by the mid-point of Amores Perros I thought of Douglas Sirk, and how a soap opera that smuggles in serious statements is more agreeable than a serious statement that pretends it’s not half soap opera. But you have to admire this: the man can sustain visual and narrative energy for two and a half hours straight.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)

The 90-minute long take rocked me to sleep in 2002, when this was one of the first “art films” I saw in a theater, so a revisit is in order. The flashy “one-take” movies that have come out since feel like a directorial high-wire act; here, the method is appealingly at one with the dreamlike subject. The technical achievement shows scrappy post-production seams, and I’m ambivalent about its alchemy of unapologetic high-brow aspirations and blunt metaphorical hand-holding. But when it hits a sweet spot of lucidity, abstraction, and Sternberg grandeur, it’s everything it wants to be: a trip through the culture and history of an isolated country, seen by a melancholy artist loyal to it in spite of its flaws—and well aware of how hard it’d be to change course, even if you knew the right direction.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)

Message to young baby-boomers: break all the rules, look sexy doing it, piss off the establishment, and don’t think too hard about the consequences of your actions. The (ostensibly fun, mainly irritating) glamor-icon bandits begin to flesh out in the homestretch, and it’s the movie’s saving grace: they begin to think and feel their way through, and it’s almost as if these freewheeling/sociopathic upstarts would have become real people if they weren’t offed. Maybe the sensation showed how boomer rebellion would curdle into selfish politics. Or how the filmmakers liked Breathless but didn’t entirely understand it.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

I always think I don’t really know The Godfather because I only remember the famous scenes. Then I look again—this time at a beautiful print at LACMA—and realize it’s all famous scenes. I doubt it averages 15 minutes without an iconic moment. But to know the film is also to see that it’s as much a piece of popular entertainment as any Hollywood movie. The nuances and intricacies are in the visual craft, the acting, and the number of plots it juggles, not necessarily the ideas. It leaves very little unsaid, and its morality play and social commentary are actually rather uncomplicated—put it alongside a contemporary like Barry Lyndon or Taxi Driver and you’ll see what thoughts can be stirred by allowing more ambiguity. So this godhead of American cinematic art might just be the sum of its parts. But damn, those parts are perfect.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Short Cuts: GLASS

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You can give M. Night Shyamalan this: when he has something to say, he wants to be damn sure you know it. With Glassthe conclusion of his comic book trilogy begun with Unbreakable and continued in Split, he joins Brad Bird as one of the few directors to earnestly look for metaphors for pop culture’s current superhero obsession. Like Bird, he’s drawn to the idea of individuals at odds with suppressive normalcy. Unlike Bird, he sees this in quasi-New-Age-spiritual rather than cranky-political terms. So where Bird’s two Incredibles films are a pungent, even dangerous balance of cynicism and idealism, Shyamalan does his best to stay starry-eyed.

The comparison, however, doesn’t do favors for Shyamalan. The first issue with Glass is one of showmanship: the film is riddled with jokes that don’t land, suspense teases that don’t hook, and horror stings that don’t horrify. But the very existence of Glass in 2019, while the Marvel Universe climaxes, is fascinating to consider, starting with the fact that anyone expecting a superhero action movie will have to wait. The bulk of the film is spent with Shyamalan’s heroes and villains (Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy) locked in a hospital and forced into therapy, where a psychologist played by Sarah Paulson—misguided? evil? play along—tries to convince them that they’re just ordinary men with delusions of grandeur. When the showdowns do come, they’re often filmed indirectly or restrained by close-ups. The film even teases a big Marvel-scale skyscraper brawl before letting it drop in favor of a tight grapple instead, as if Shyamalan has determined to keep any spectacle as earthy as possible. This may sound like some sort of genre subversion is being attempted, yet the opposite appears to be true. Glass, like no film since the partly lovely, partly insane, mostly awkward Lady in the Water, positions Shyamalan as the guardian of something sacred in these kinds of stories.

At one point in the film, Samuel L. Jackson says that children, unlike adults, have the ability to see the world the way it really is. That philosophy has never exactly been airtight, but it has made for some good films over the years; Spielberg, at his best, has elevated it to lyricism. But the second issue with Glass is that, where the best Spielberg films demonstrate, Glass can only exposit. Its central idea is that we might recognize comic book tropes as a possible truth if only we showed more humility towards the mysteries of the universe, and this is expounded upon until it becomes both academic and illogical. The film is better served by the moments when it does demonstrate—like having two super-villains, in the middle of their escape, subtly conspire to stage the mise-en-scene of a striking shot, purely because the world would be too mundane if they didn’t.

It’s easy to see why any director, particularly one with Shyamalan’s track record, would like the symbolism of where this is heading: heroes and anti-heroes busting out the doors of an institution to turn their aberrations into strengths for all the world to see. For the last 20 years, Shyamalan has operated principally in a blockbuster mode, and the context has made his flaws more apparent and his virtues more complicated to build a consensus around. He stumbles over pre-fab elements that this town is designed to spit out like clockwork. But his films, the good and the bad, feel like 21st century blockbusters beamed in from some alternate world where blockbuster priorities are different. When it works (Unbreakable), it’s exquisite. When it flops, it feels nakedly inept in the way only a sincere artist can be. With Glass, it’s simply ungainly and unsatisfying. But if audiences are indeed still willing to attend and debate this quest, I’d call that a good thing. (For whatever reason, my thoughts on Split are, to my surprise, this blog’s most trafficked post by a wide margin).

So it’s both strange and appropriate that his most anticipated film in years is his equivalent of a great many unsatisfying but more corporately-guarded threequels. Its flaws are not unlike the bloat of The Dark Knight Rises, or Spider-Man 3, or X-Men: The Last Stand: lopsided and misconstructed, at once too short and too long, muddling the tone, losing the earlier sense of discovery, and letting moments that should ring with finality instead land in a puff of exhausting anticlimax. Only for Shyamalan, the overextended maximalism doesn’t manifest in the form of action or plot threads or set-pieces. It manifests in the form of a statement—big, proud, and inarticulate.

✬✬✩✩✩

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Glass is available on home video. Fellow procrastinators, now’s your time to shine.

Capsules: May 2019

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month, avant-garde and difficult films laced with some sweetener.

Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)

In the yes-but-is-it-art? game that accompanies avant-garde experiments, the metric of gut reactions from fresh meat is still paramount. I was instantly hooked: a compression/elongation of time with just enough faint traces of narrative material to extrapolate. Is it a story of urban alienation? A more inward psychodrama, in which female space is invaded by a man? Either way, as it transitions from Strawberry Fields to a migraine drone to a photographic escape, it makes you want to guess.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)

Spielberg’s notorious and underrated misfire can’t even get many laughs from John Belushi, but somewhere between the unmistakeable Spielberg craft and the Animal House idiom lies a mesmerizing idea: the way the inherently juvenile nature of the film’s approach—historical turning point as Mad Magazine tableau—falls into meaningful harmony with a view of America as a land of rowdy, horny, childish, movie-crazed, trigger-happy yokels and toy soldiers. Sarcasm? More like patriotism. “Why we fight” indeed.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)

Sure, it’s a study of a bourgeoisie that’ll talk Schubert but watch porn, but I usually prefer this sort of Freudian potboiler when it’s pretending to be trash instead of the good taste version of bad taste. That said, the biggest twist is how it reveals its kinks with a tenderness and even a chance for hope. Both of which are dashed, leaving the disturbed confusion of love/sex/intimacy gone wrong when it reels from theory to practice. Isabelle Huppert is enormously moving.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

As self-reflexive visual metaphors go, a shot of perfectly geometric protest art made from smeared shit sums up Hunger nicely. Steve McQueen’s (12 Years a Slave) acclaimed debut is perhaps the most nauseating film I’ve ever seen, and what he chooses to show and not show speaks to both his vision and limitations as a cinematic thinker. But the film’s jagged structural approach—picking up and dropping characters, switching from wordlessness to eloquence and back—is genuinely provocative. It suggests that a cinema of pain might escape, or at least contextualize, its own myopia.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Les Mistons (Francois Truffaut, 1957)

Reasons to watch this early short? Truffaut completism. Bernadette Lafont on a bicycle. The director dreaming of Renoir and Tati but already developing his own visual energy. Because it’s 18 minutes long and streaming on the Criterion Channel. Because you just watched Steve McQueen’s Hunger and need something to wash it away. Because you were that age once, and this will convince you that you learned more than you did.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****