The first thing you see before the opening title of Double Lover, the new thriller by François Ozon, is its young star getting her long hair cut very short, throwing away one look for a completely new one. She seems strangely agitated, and when she makes eye contact with the camera, there’s something of an instant challenge to anyone staring back. Is she preparing to play a role? Having a mental breakdown? Or simply getting her hair done?

The first thing you see after the opening title is an extreme close-up of her vagina. The scene is a trip to the gynecologist, and it is, by design, among the least erotic nudity you’ll ever witness. But for a movie in which sex and intimacy play such leading roles, it’s a way of immediately and squeamishly giving you the most physically private sight of its heroine possible and letting her stay no less an enigma when she comes out the other side.

There is intrigue in such gamesmanship, in a director playing with what we see and what we know. And this approach, not to mention the plot built around it, finds Ozon in De Palma territory: doppelgängers, split-screens, and lethal unreliability. And so, in an apparent state of physical and psychological pain, the heroine (Marine Vacth) visits a therapist (Jérémie Renier) to pour out her subconscious. She starts a love affair with him in an emotionally unhealthy sort of way, and then learns that—unless she’s imagining things—he has a twin brother with a nastier and kinkier streak. It’s a solid concept for a character study doubling as a mystery, and it has a heartfelt destination in mind. But the intrigue starts to wane when the film, god help it, has to find ways to sustain its middle hour in that dangerous duality of pretension and camp.

And here, Double Lover is useful mainly as a case study in the difference between Good Ridiculous and Mediocre Ridiculous. As the sexy bad twin, Renier comes across less as a force of irresistibly dangerous masculinity and more like a 50 Shades of Grey impersonator for bachelorette parties. The film’s in-the-streets, in-the-sheets psychoanalysis of its characters is thumpingly literal, bluntly scripted, and visualized in ways that seem like the stuff of underfunded art school projects. Set it next to something like Brian De Palma’s Obsession or Dressed to Kill or Femme Fatale (which are no less insane) and you can see what Double Lover is missing: a more skilled and dextrous command of what film can accomplish as a dream state. Double Lover tells you straight out too much of what it should be implanting subconsciously. It makes disbelief something you have to suspend rather than something you’re happy to throw away. It breaks and recasts its own spell several times over long before the final revelations bring the fractured psyche back together.

The unexpected and intense turn towards body-horror at the end means that anyone who picks it out of the New Releases lineup for purely lustful reasons will get exactly what they deserve. But forbidden desire at the movies—particularly the kind with such outlandish twists—needs to transform its excesses into the audacious kind of wit that Double Lover keeps losing control over. The good people at Cohen Media had the devilish sense to premiere the film in American theaters on Valentine’s Day. It’s almost the wittiest thing about it.



Double Lover played in the main competition at Cannes in 2017 and came out on US home video this summer. I can’t say I recommend doing so, but if you can safely watch it with your significant other, you have a very healthy relationship.



The sociopathic elite haven’t changed much since the 1980s—or at least, there are still people willing to take Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero as a trenchant critique rather than a zeitgeist-y piece of knee-to-the-gut prose. Thus, riding out of Sundance, comes Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, about two teenage friends (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy) who plan to murder the latter’s stepfather.

In part, they do so because the stepfather is an unpleasant man. But it’s more because, ensconced in a world of privileges, the anti-heroines are too affluent, too imbalanced, or too disaffected to have much perspective on human life. Cooke’s character is recovering from a scandalous, rumor-inducing episode in which she euthanized a horse. Taylor-Joy appears to have more composure, but can’t hold it for long. And the film that unfolds is less a valuable examination of American wealth than a dour, self-serious take on a soap opera staple: rich people doing awful things. From the dialogue alone, you can tell that the action is set somewhere in Connecticut or near Westchester County. I grew up in one and went to high school in the other, and god knows there’s enough material there to keep a satirist busy for a lifetime. But this particular cinematic murder is so very high-concept in its construction, so surface-level in its observation, and simultaneously so vague in its central metaphor and so unsubtle in its overall meaning.

What remains, then, is the simple pleasure of a plot that keeps you wondering who will be killed and whether anyone will face the consequences—and that simple pleasure is not unsatisfying. Between Cooke as the psycho version of the sarcastic girl you always kind of liked in high school and Taylor-Joy looking perpetually like she knows something she won’t say, the two have an icily engaging chemistry. The film needs their bond, because that bond is far sturdier and more human than the plot mechanics. The rest is filmmaking craft that generates mood from very few moving parts, but whose aspirations still lean towards knee-to-the-gut bluntness and whose aim is less than precise. It is a movie—a real movie-movie, with technique, contrivances, and all—that struggles with whether it is, or wants to be, or should be, as detached from the world as its subjects.



Thoroughbreds is now available on Blu-ray and as a digital rental. It’s always nice to have noir where you grew up.



We last saw Scottish director Lynne Ramsay at a place of organized chaos: 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, a deeply uncomfortable, sensory-assaulting narrative montage about the twisted hell of parenthood that dropped us directly into the head of arguably the strangest character Tilda Swinton has ever played. That Ramsay went so long without another feature was not according to plan: rather dramatically, she quit the director’s chair of the Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun on the first day of production. Lawyers descended—Hollywood has chaos of its own.

With You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay returns, dialing back but not abandoning the chaos of Kevin for a lean, intense 90-minute thriller that retains her taste for haunted subjectivity. That haunted subject here is Joaquin Phoenix, starring as a bounty hunter who specializes in rescuing children from sex trafficking rings. Much of his performance lies in physical transformation: the character is part action hero and part wreck, muscle-bound but lumpen, showing a layer of flab and a paunch, his hair an uncombed tangle and his face obscured by a mangy beard. Physically, he seems fairly impervious to pain, as action heroes are. Psychologically, it’s clear that, whatever wound he hopes to heal by doing what he does, it isn’t working. But he’s good at it, and so is Ramsay. She and her team do well with the simple art of cinematic murder: the placement of a dying man, or a pair of broken glasses, or a hallway with something dreadful around the corner, is all very meticulously composed. (The plot bears surface similarities to Taxi Driver, but a more direct Scorsese link is the way Ramsay sets a scene of Joaquin Phoenix beating men with a hammer to the tune of a classic pop song).

The real question is whether the film finds an adequate social and psychological context for its action—that is, if it can transcend being an exercise in sophisticated, aestheticized violence. That question deserves an answer both passionate and ambivalent, because some of the film can fall into the arthouse trap of looking or seeming more artistic than it is. But between Phoenix keeping a low volume and Ramsay’s taste for flash cuts, it opens itself nonverbally; like the film’s troubled, introverted hero, the camera keeps catching details that echo and resonate. The coup, I think, comes in the withheld nature of the climax, which twists the conventions of a salvation-through-heroism arc both cleverly and soulfully, and suggests that perhaps genre tropes, Scorsese’s needle-drops included, are enough of a social context of their own. On those terms, it works fantastically as one of the better films of 2018—a film whose existence examines different kinds of detachment. And so it understands the multiple connotations of the title: a movie-hero covert operative, a dissociated trauma victim, and a lonely soul who, in the scheme of things, may not even make a difference. Its setting may be the dark city of film noir, but pair it on a shrewd double bill with Shane or The Searchers, and you might realize that Ramsay got to make a western after all.



You Were Never Really Here is available on home video and Amazon Prime. Cheers to their distribution arm for treating films right.

Short Cuts: UNSANE


Could Steven Soderbergh ever really retire? Our most prolific and eccentric of Hollywood insiders rather suddenly announced his retirement five years ago, and cooler heads cautioned us to wait and see. The retirement turned into a “sabbatical”, which turned into directing two seasons of The Knick. His hiatus from feature films officially ended after four years—i.e., the average time we wait for a non-retired Paul Thomas Anderson to make a film—with last summer’s Logan Lucky. And even if you missed it, which I did, you didn’t have to wait long for his next release: Unsane, a thriller shot quickly and in secret on an iPhone 7.

Its horror roots are as old as Dr. Caligari: a woman who may or may not be crazy gets involuntarily committed to a mental institute where someone may or may not be after her. From there, it descends from clammy to lurid, stopping along the way for Soderbergh’s recurring theme of money as the blood pumping through America’s veins. But the less revealed, the better, because a large part of the film’s suspense is whether its pieces will actually come together or go flying decadently off the rails. As a genre experiment, it uses the idiosyncrasies of its tech to wonderfully eerie effect: the digital grain, the blooms of light, the warping of the depth of field, the uncanny clarity of an HD close-up with little or no makeup—everything that seems “off” is very much in the film’s service. The choice of format and framing can put you at an almost immediate unease, and so many unbalanced compositions feel like miniature prisons of their own. Like most Soderbergh films, it doesn’t swing for the fences; its aspirations are to tinker, needle audience expectations, and provide entertainment for perversely curious cinephiles who wonder how the idea of “a movie” (one with a narrative, a genre, a star, etc.) can end up on screen feeling like such an anomaly. It works as well as it does because it’s the sort of potboiler that wouldn’t want higher production values if you offered them and would roll its eyes at you, as contemptuously as its heroine, if you asked if it was “art.” But there’s a long, storied history of respected filmmakers being influenced by disreputable, low-budget pulp. So if you’re wondering what a 21st century equivalent of those cult 1950s/60s/70s B-movies would be—brash, formally inventive, so trashy in some ways but clever in others, bouncing progressive politics off of pure exploitation—Unsane is it. So get a phone and get cracking; formal control is cheap.




In The Death of Stalin, Steve Buscemi plays Khrushchev. He doesn’t sound like Khrushchev—he sounds like Steve Buscemi. He doesn’t look like Khrushchev—he looks like Steve Buscemi with a shaved head and a prosthetic nose. And all of this is very much to the film’s appeal. When addressing recent history, particularly real-life figures who already have sizable media footprints, a drama has to overcome that nasty, hairy thing called verisimilitude. But comedy can whack verisimilitude across the face with a rubber chicken and still get at the truth, especially if the truth is absurdity. The director is Armando Iannucci, and anyone familiar with his previous work—BBC’s The Thick of It, its 2009 spinoff movie In the Loop, and his leap to America with HBO’s Veep—will know what to expect: a comedy set in entrenched government bureaucracy, where ships of state are manned by hapless, childish, recognizably human fools whose convictions are spotty and who can only try their best to avoid a very British kind of embarrassment. Only here, the stakes are raised, because we are in the dead center of Soviet power grabs, and such embarrassments are staged with violent round-ups going on in the background. In our own time, when anxious leftists might wonder if incipient authoritarianism is too incompetent to succeed, a pitch-black political comedy is a deliciously dangerous prospect: an uncomfortable reminder that it’s perfectly possible to trip and fall ass-backwards into a dystopia.

All of which makes the The Death of Stalin as disappointing as it is clever, because it is not quite the movie it could be, especially given the talent involved. The verbal flow that never stopped crackling in In the Loop and The Thick of It has become repetitive in comparison. The style has shifted from on-the-fly, quasi-documentary chaos to the semi-ironic production values of a “serious” period piece, and it leaves the film halfway towards limbo. The comedy lacks the consistency of Iannucci’s best work, the intrigue lags far behind the banter, and the pivot from dark laughs to terror isn’t seamless, as if the film’s distance from its characters and narrative is torn between short skits and dire consequences.

What that leaves you with is a long string of nice touches, like a stock scene of two politicos conspiring as they stroll through a park, only to pass by two others doing the same; or Michael Palin giving a rambling speech that leaves a table full of yes-men teetering back and forth, confused whether he wants them to vote yay or nay. The Death of Stalin feels more sincere and well-observed in such little human absurdities than it does when the time comes to face history, and I wonder if Iannucci’s lens is best suited to a mundane republic rather than a dystopian dictatorship. In the end, I’m not sure we have anything more than we started with, not even a fully satisfying realization of the idea that authoritarian regimes, like sitcom plotlines, tend to reset back to zero after the last one has ran its course. If drama has its pitfalls, so does comedy, and satire faces the challenge of somehow acting glib and provoking engagement at the same time. Make no mistake, The Death of Stalin has barbed moments that tease and wink and bite—enough to be worth the price of admission. But I wish the frenzy of the film could match, let alone illuminate, the satire playing out in every day’s headlines.



The Death of Stalin is available to rent on iTunes, where their curators made it an Editor’s Choice. Godspeed.

Short Cuts: THE 15:17 TO PARIS


A little while ago, a group of friends and I were talking, and someone asked, when you hear the name “Clint Eastwood” in 2018, do you think of the movie star, the director, or the political figure who rambled against an invisible Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention? The obvious answer, to me at least, is the movie star: we live in a visual media culture, and there are too many years’ worth of ponchos and Magnums to be supplanted by anything else. Yet the three Eastwoods—the icon of badass masculinity, the filmmaker who digs below the surface of American heroism and violence, and the guy who voiced support for Trump (a decision that’s aged worse in 2 years than Eastwood has in 88)—can’t and shouldn’t be taken apart. To try to separate one from the rest would do a thoughtless service to his body of work. Because whatever his blind spots, Eastwood is generally a filmmaker who asks you to think—at least, right up to the point he asks you not to.

His latest film, The 15:17 to Paris, comes with a trailer-ready hook: the reenactment of a thwarted terrorist attack on a train in Europe, starring three Americans who stopped it in real life. (“A true story, the real heroes” the poster succinctly reads). The scene of the attack itself—which, whatever else it may be, is one of the best shot and edited sequences I’ve seen this year—lasts only fifteen clammy minutes. The rest of the film is devoted to filling in their lives—three friends from Sacramento, two in the military—that led up to it. The comparison to the Audie Murphy films about World War II is both obvious and more interesting the more you think about it, since Eastwood isn’t concerned with the war heroes’ trip “to hell and back” but with their ordinariness. Even their military service is shown largely as routine. Their act of heroism is presented as stemming from a learned mixture of moral decency and physical discipline.

As actors, how do the real heroes do? Not bad, actually. Congenial presences, one and all—certainly not that natural, but even a seasoned pro would have trouble with some of the lines they’re given, and there are plenty of seasoned pros in the cast to prove that theorem. So the film is a cinematically awkward piece of work, but one that, like a conservative Rossellini, values narrative polish less than a low-key, insistent purity. Among other things, this is an ideologically informed vision of how a swath of America views itself: a world of God and guns, where men are men, war isn’t taboo, and duty provides purpose. Much of it plays like a wholesome industrial film about how to live a meaningful life—and that meaningful life is far from what Eastwood so derisively termed “the pussy generation.” Accordingly, that low-key purity will, depending on your political persuasion, either serve as a moving affirmation (awkwardness and all) or a chance to look at the world through the goggles of an ideology that feels left behind by those liberals in Hollywood. (And I must admit, my curiosity in adding this to my Netflix queue is more the latter).

The chief fascination, then, is to watch where the lines are drawn. In one scene, a young boy who dreams of enlisting in the military has a Full Metal Jacket poster displayed prominently in his bedroom. In lingering on the poster, does the film acknowledge the irresolvable complexities of Kubrick’s view of a soldier’s life, or does it negate them entirely? There’s room for either reading; it all depends on what you bring. The films’ other villains, running a distant second behind terrorists, are snide public sector bureaucrats. “My God is bigger than your statistics!” a hero’s mother says to one early in the film. On an individual scale, it’s a fine and noble sentiment for a single mom to express in defense of her son. On the macro scale of 2018 culture wars, it does a fair job of explaining why our body politic is a vomit-stained alcoholic unwilling to admit it has a problem.

So by the end, you should have noticed that, as much as the film reflects on origins and choices, it is strikingly unreflective about terrorism itself. It is an act of evil, certainly, but one which The 15:17 to Paris leaves almost completely in the abstract: uncomplicated, existing outside of a political context, embodied by a scary and silent foreign face, having no real origin of its own, simply a force to be met with force—two cultures that show no signs of coexisting. As I said, Eastwood tends to be more thoughtful than knee-jerk criticism would suggest; a more crass director would tease the terror attack with a kind of loud stomp instead of his somber tone. But more than the meditations on the ordinary becoming heroic, or the revival of WWII cinematic idioms for a messier American century, or a masterclass on how to film claustrophobic action, those dualities are the takeaway. Within the world the film celebrates, there is plenty of room for nuance, subtlety, contemplation, diversity, novelty, immaturity turned to growth, naivety turned to wisdom, expectations defied, and misconceptions corrected—in short, all the necessary ingredients of humanism. But Eastwood’s humanism, and you could just as easily say America’s as well, will come with stringent borders and boundaries. And it won’t extend beyond them.



The 15:17 to Paris is now available on home video. Star ratings these days are almost pointless.




“It’s a bit like The Thing,” a coworker said to me, pitching Alex Garland’s Annihilation, and if you knew him you’d know there’s no greater compliment. It’s a fine comparison for all the isolated paranoia and gooey abominations you’ll witness. It’s also a lot like Stalker and Solaris, a little like Ridley Scott’s Alien, and something like what Scott’s Alien prequels wanted to be. A pinch of 2001 is, naturally, a given. In short, it is solid mystery box sci-fi, where humans saddled with humanity venture into a strange place and face up to the unknown. Here, that place is called “the Shimmer”, which doesn’t quite have the same ring as “the Zone”, but is likewise a mysterious spot on Earth where the rules of time and space—and in this case, genetics—have begun to bend in alarming ways. Almost no one who has gone in has come out, and the area is spreading. So a team of scientists (all women, with Natalie Portman as the haunted locus) head for the center of it, to determine its nature, intent, and weaknesses.

Of course, as with any mystery box, there comes a time to put up or shut up, and on that count, Annihilation actually does pretty well, albeit more for themes than plot. It ends up, intriguingly, as a kind of horror movie where the monster is “life” itself: teeming, cyclical, constantly evolving, and forever outside full scientific understanding. The film turns floral imagery and rainbow lens flares into something genuinely unnerving. It carries itself with a palpable distrust of natural law, and it connects to Garland’s 2015 hit Ex Machina in wondering whether something else might do a better job at being human than us. And like Ex Machina, the worst I can say is that it’s a bag of ideas which hint at more than they articulate, and that beneath its smooth craft and chilly atmosphere, it is more devoutly versed in sci-fi conventions than able or even eager to transcend them. It lacks the emotional richness of Solaris, the philosophical and political resonance of Stalker, and the radical aesthetic shock of Alien. But while those comparisons may sound like a put-down, it’s also a compliment to Garland for being one of the precious few directors in Hollywood today to get away with staging science fiction in such an ambitious vein. The film is itself a genetic hybrid: a Tarkovskian contemplation where occasionally something with nasty teeth pops up for target practice—and it wouldn’t do to say that the film’s identity needs one more than the other. That the studio balked at it—in most of the world, the film went straight to Netflix—is an ill omen. If Garland has a true science fiction masterpiece in him, he’s still working up to it. For now, what a joy it is to find yourself in the middle of a forbidden zone and not be entirely sure where it’s going. And then to have the ending linger.



Annihilation is available wherever you get your TVOD movie fix. Nothing like a close encounter to help you sort out your life.



I know I’m late to the party. The keg is empty, most of the guests have left, and there’s nothing on the dance floor except for confetti. But—since I spent its reign at the box office catching up on Oscar movies instead—I wanted to throw my praise to Black Panther as a roundabout way of addressing the career, now three films old, of director Ryan Coogler. Because as much as we might romanticize or expound upon some ideal notion of an “independent filmmaker”, working on a small scale outside Hollywood’s system and unbound by its idioms and convention, Coogler strikes me as one of those talents who has come into his own by making movies inside the belly of the beast.

Coogler picked up the top prize at Sundance with his first feature, Fruitvale Station. Shot for less than $1,000,000 and midwifed in part by Forest Whitaker’s production company and the San Francisco Film Society, it was about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a black East Bay native who was shot and killed, prone and unarmed, in Oakland by the BART Police in 2009. The story of Oscar Grant is an all-American travesty, one that we’ve seen play out countless times in the decade since. With a subject like that and an actor as good as Michael B. Jordan, it’s impossible not to have an effect. But as it made the festival rounds, Fruitvale Station also struck me as thin. It offered little insight into how such travesties occur and the system that sustains them, even in a place as ostensibly progressive as the Bay Area. The film did nothing more or less than present us with a sympathetic human being and watch them get killed—which is certainly not untruthful, but barely scratches the surface of what 90 minutes can do. And as for the filmmaking itself, it leaned hard on the kind of cinematic shorthands that make me wish for a good documentary instead of an above average docudrama.

Then Coogler entered the world of Hollywood franchises with a surprise: Creed, a seventh Rocky movie that none of us realized we wanted, with Jordan back (and brilliant), Sly Stallone tasting Oscar hype, a standout boxing match shot all in one take, and the shrewd showmanship of holding back on playing “Gonna Fly Now” until just the right moment. It was a fine night at the movies, full of vitality, far better than anyone expected from a series that had already “ended” more than once. It was also, uncoincidentally, the sort of material where a little movie-world stylization and melodrama are exactly what’s called for. It pegged Coogler, in an appealing way, as a filmmaker whose natural inclination wasn’t to shake movie cliches but find ways to flavor them.

All of which brings us to Marvel’s Coogler’s Black Panther, in which issues of on-screen and off-screen blackness are put in the service of a mega-budget tentpole with superheroics, gadgetry, banter, and a synergistic tease for the next movie. “Wakanda forever!” cried fans on the internet, in praise of the mythical, technologically miraculous African nation ruled by T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka the Black Panther, who faces threats from without and within. The film is, by any standard of blockbuster storytelling, near the top of the Marvel corpus. The plot zips along with intrigue, the cast has chemistry, and Coogler shows off his taste for tracking-shot action scenes. It is the sort of movie that invites you to intellectualize it to a certain point and no further, and the way the adventure leans proudly into an Afrocentric focus is fruitful. It presents black identity as a multitude. It handles colonialism, diaspora, mass incarceration, and militancy vs. reconciliation in ways that are not necessarily deep so much as meant to offer a cinematic feeling of release. And in the process, it has Marvel’s first interesting villain (Jordan again), and thus a rare showdown where something more resonant is at stake than merely “saving the world.”

As Black Panther sits pretty among Hollywood’s biggest box office hits, a critic might argue that surely it owes a large part of its success, the title and a few visible Public Enemy posters notwithstanding, to being non-militant. That is, it sets itself up to be joyously pro-black without having to risk the controversy of being (or seeming) anti-anybody. The riposte is that it is political precisely to the degree that it’s packaged for mass consumption. We’ve certainly had black action heroes and superheroes before. (Remember Blade II? It was fun). But I can’t think of another American movie to be made or succeed on this scale while showing such little interest in tempering or balancing a community of black heroes with white teammates, partners, or sidekicks. If nothing else, it puts the lie to the idea that a cast of almost entirely non-white protagonists is inherently a niche movie. (The “almost” belongs to Martin Freeman, as an agog CIA agent who gets pulled in later in the game to be the token chip-in).

For the finale, Coogler returns the film to his native Oakland. A Wakandan airship descends and is met with dropped jaws, as a group of black schoolchildren stop, stare, and come to meet the visitors. It’s the type of scene that’s been happening in superhero movies as long as I can remember—the brief on-screen encounter of the comic book idol and the type of child reader that’s most likely to take their stories seriously. Only here, the child is a racial minority, and the epic hero he is gazing up at looks like him. It is a small coda for such a large spectacle, self-reflexive in its understanding of how, within the film’s genre maximalism and franchise obligations, there’s a desire to stake a claim. If Black Panther is by no means radical, it doesn’t feel insincere either. The closing shots register as uncommonly personal for a series that has been so often marked by uniformity.

Clout in hand, Coogler’s next project is reportedly a film about a testing scandal in Atlanta public schools, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ll be attending with interest to see how he returns to what might be called “ordinary lives”—it may very well be that Coogler’s strength and usefulness is more as a cinematic crowd-pleaser or myth-maker. The most genuinely stringent political movies deny the kind of unambiguous release that Coogler has proved so adept at delivering. But he has craft and dramatic instincts. He isn’t the first director to come out of Sundance and alternate between the world of movies and the world of our own—and, by all indications, he realizes how the two are more linked than they let on.



Black Panther is now on home video. The virtues are plentiful, but it’s still hard to get used to Martin Freeman with an American accent.