Capsules: February 2019

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the time or revisited after many years. This month: Taiwanese action, later films of old arthouse staples, and goodbye to a Monkee.

Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967)

An ideal intro to vintage wuxia, from before the age of wires and computer enhancements, when trick editing and choreography could provide all the kinetic energy a sword fight would need. There are a string of minor story hiccups, but in the face of such tautness, such instantly epic widescreen imagery, I couldn’t care less. A grand adventure that, placed alongside its descendants, feels plucky, not bombastic.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Intervista (Federico Fellini, 1987)

Allow that Fellini is solipsistic enough to conceptualize, write, and direct an interview with himself, and there is generosity to be found here. At times, this nesting doll of films-within-films is a victory lap in a half-empty stadium. At its best, it’s a love letter to immersion in cinema so deep that an old filmmaker can lose track of which parts of life he lived, which he saw, and which he made up. Meandering, certainly. But all of this is not baroquely staged but deftly conjured out of thin air—a magic act that was always essential to his appeal, and whose lower budget suits him better than being on top of the world.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

The Man Who Loved Women (Francois Truffaut, 1977)

In which Truffaut’s are-women-magic? act reaches peak naval-gaze. Part wish fulfillment and part self-effacement, this string of romantic and sexual mishaps plays surprising, awkward, even downright mortified games with itself and its subject. The needle it has to thread is showing at least half as much interest in understanding the women as understanding the man. To its credit, it tries—far short of greatness in the attempt, but maybe that’s because “funny” and “interesting” are the best we men can do.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Autumn Sonata is sometimes pitched, in a somewhat gimmicky way, as the collaboration between Bergmans Ingmar and Ingrid, and it helps to have an artist on the level of Bergman (both of them) for a film about the regrets of perfecting your art versus nurturing your life. I do think, however, that a tendency to fall back on monologs over dramatic action holds Ingmar back—it makes emotions feel both overly controlled and arbitrary, as if the character has disappeared and been replaced by a brilliant actor. More intriguing are the slippery cinematic devices, where an unhappy childhood can be instantly evoked in a single frame.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968)

Cult value galore! The Monkees frantically searching for reality but never finding it. Jack Nicholson outlining the movie on LSD. The rubble of a fourth wall. Its bad-trip logic can be tiresome, but enough moments work, be they funny, provocative, or totally nightmarish, to register and demand notice. I’m not sure I want to join the cult, but a girl in middle school told me this was her all-time favorite movie, and I definitely should’ve asked her out when I had the chance.

Next Door to Prestige 2: A Year in Search of a Center

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It was the stuff P.R. disasters are made of: a move that was intended to accommodate everybody and ended up pleasing no one. That about sums up the Academy’s decision, back in August, to announce a new “Best Popular Film” category. The internet became a hornet’s nest. If you were the sort of fan upset that Nolan’s Batman movies got shut out from top honors, creating a new category looked condescending. If you didn’t care for blockbusters, it looked like a vulgar concession. If you knew Oscar history, it looked absurdly unnecessary (JawsStar WarsE.T., and Avatar were all nominated). And if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care about the Oscars at all until they start recognizing Claire Denis and Tsai Ming-Liang, the transparent, ratings-hungry desperation made your eyes roll even harder.

The decision was reversed following a public outcry, but more followed. Kevin Hart was set to host—withdrawn, due to ugly Tweets. The Academy said it would cut down on the broadcast of some of the awards to save time—withdrawn, due to backlash from the film community. (Though IndieWire has admirably compiled an oral history of how that decision wasn’t exactly what we all thought it was). The corker was that the new “Best Popular Film” category was yanked before they even announced what, exactly, a “popular film” is—never mind that the definition of “a popular film” (hell, of “a film” in general) is increasingly worth debating.

The Oscars are in no small part about symbolism, and I’ve gone back and forth about how much that symbolism should mean, especially since the Academy follows rather than leads. The 2015 #OscarsSoWhite controversy drew attention to the very real uphill battle of ethnic minorities and women filmmakers to get their due in Hollywood. If the numbers had gone a different way, and Ava DuVernay and her cast had gotten nominated for Selma—surely no less deserving than, say, The Imitation Game—it’s impossible to imagine the same firestorm. But would their nominations have actually fixed anything? Would it have just been optics? Or, for this annual pomp-and-circumstance of What Our Movies Mean, are optics enough?

It’s fair to say that anyone who thinks the Oscars matter, or wants them to, has an Oscars of their own. Should it be more populist? More cinephiliac? More youth-oriented? More inclusive? The Academy has one foot in advertising, one foot in inside baseball, and one foot in aesthetic judgment, which is already more feet than a person can handle. Early in 2018, when The Shape of Water was the frontrunner, Bill Maher’s panel on Real Time took a moment to tweak the Academy’s choices. “The movies are not what America is watching,” said Maher. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson nodded along, pointing to the snub for The Dark Knight and adding, “What Hollywood thinks are the greatest movies—they’re not what my family goes to see.” And the sense I get is that, rather than telling them to fuck off back to their respective media outlets, the Academy takes such criticism very seriously.

So given that the Oscars are symbolic, and that the nature of its symbolism is fleeting, hyperbolic, and overdetermined, I still can’t think of a more evocative symbol for Hollywood cinema in 2018 than the Academy’s string of controversies: the old-school tribute to What Our Movies Mean cycling awkwardly through ideas to try and keep people from going away. The Oscars are Hollywood P.R., that much has always been true—but it’s hard to do P.R. when it’s uncertain what you should be doing P.R. for.

This was a weak year for movies, people keep telling me. And you should take that with a grain of salt because a) anecdotal evidence means little, b) my sample size is small, and c) people in Hollywood tell me that almost every year. Is it true? I don’t think so, no—2018 was just a year when you had to keep your ear to the ground to find your cinema. It offered a wealth of worthy titles, especially for international films and documentaries, which are where some of the snubs sting the most. American movies were no slouch, but for what it’s worth, eight of my top ten of 2017 were English-language American productions or co-productions. For 2018, that number is four—one of which is the completion of a much older movie, and two of which were released by Netflix.

Indeed, 2018 should go down as the year when Netflix truly came of age as a studio, even if there’s still a major question mark over what it can be. There’s Roma, yes, but don’t miss that Cuaron’s sensation—getting flattened by hype, as all good Oscar contenders are—is just one of at least a half dozen worthy films that went straight from prestigious festivals to your TV. Many reliable prognosticators are predicting Roma for Best Picture, which would be historic on two major counts. It would be the first time a streaming service has won Best Picture, which is something I’d assumed would happen eventually. And it would be the first time that Best Picture has ever gone to a foreign language film, which is something I’d assumed would never happen at all. Even a Best Director win, which looks like more of a lock, would be unprecedented—but then, precedent isn’t exciting people in the LA bubble as much as it has before. So with no regrets about spending 2018 at the movies, and as someone who thinks the Oscars can/should matter (if not in the way they intend to), I look forward to tuning in Sunday night—intrigued by how we just might have year so messy that a safe bet can be placed on something that has never happened before.

My 10 favorite films of 2018:

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10. Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy)

During the opening of Alice Rohrwacher’s dreamy new film, you may find yourself wondering what year it is. Hang onto that thought. The fantasy that unfurls from there is like a tour through a half-century of Italian history—and Italian cinema—with the eternal Holy Fool at its center and both magic and realism impinging around the edges. Its ending is simultaneously too direct and too metaphorical to suit me, but that’s a small quibble in the face of a pilgrimage with such entrancing textures and compelling ideas. It won Best Screenplay at Cannes and was picked up by Netflix. Sadly, they never gave it much of an offline push. Happily, it’s available to watch right now.

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9. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)

Like Herzog filtered through the eye of Jacques Tati, Martel delivers an absurdist historical portrait of “the new world”, full of tart, frustrated irony. Is it about colonization? An emasculated warrior? The lives of men and women? The values of an invented country? Yes, yes, yes, and yes—and its sense of politics and adventurism builds to a line that a freshly “conquered” continent deserves: “I do for you what no one did for me. I say no to your hopes.”

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8. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, US)

The unlikely repertory event of the year: the restoration of a notoriously unfinished film, released by a streaming service that isn’t exactly known for cinephilia, and arriving with the hype of a filmmaker who has a greater stature in death than anyone could possibly have among the living. There is a lot to unpack from this kamikaze film, and its accessibility to any cineaste with an internet connection can speed up years of debate on what is, at first glance, impenetrable editing chaos. It’s a work of acidic contempt for movies and the whole frenzy that surrounds them: the money, the fans, the myths, the endless doomed attempts to stay relevant. But “contemptuous” is not the same as “unfeeling”, and this mockumentary’s paranoid number of cameras snap plenty of pure, honest emotions—which is part of its warning. Its arrival is like the Hollywood ghosts of bygone eras rattling their chains at you.

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7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen, US)

What starts out looking like one of the Coen brothers’ most pointless films turns out to be among their most purposeful: a Death-and-the-West compendium from pop culture junkies and natural born storytellers who shine to the mythic potential of the American heartland. Stick with it. It expands and enriches as it goes along, adding soul, casting doubt on fatalism, combining philosophy with cheek, and making clear at the end that, for the Coens, the thrill was always in the telling.

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6. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, US)

Aside from a comedy, a thriller, and the best script Lee has had in years, this is something else: a movie about movies, from the open racism of Birth of a Nation to the Confederate nostalgia of Gone with the Wind to the rumblings of blaxploitation. If you take it as a straight comedy/thriller, it’s solid if imperfect. As a pastiche of politics, pop culture, and varying degrees of (un)reality, it achieves a lucid agitation about the pleasures that movies offer and the pitfalls in trusting them too much. Funny, frightening, and rousing, willing to bait controversy and deserve it. No American film of the year is as worth debating.

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5. Dead Souls (Wang Bing, China)

Of our major documentarians, Wang Bing is the most uninterested in hooking you with technique. No montages, no music, no reenactments, no stunts, no jazzy editing, just a dedication to testimony that’s as pure and potent as anything in cinema today. For a filmmaker so intent on bearing witness to political sins, Wang comes off not as a firebrand, but simply as a humanist, which is radical enough on its own. This one is heavy lifting: at eight hours, it was the longest film to ever play Cannes, and I spent much of it fearing that Wang was using an extreme duration for sheer volume rather than scope. But his method is to create form out of formlessness, and the interviews he saves for last make it hurt even more. It played at the Hammer Museum in LA for one illuminating, emotionally draining day, and will be more widely available soon (I hope) however eight-hour documentaries are.

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4. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan)

This comedy-drama about a family of petty criminals struck a chord in Japan (where it outgrossed Infinity War) and with the Cannes jury (who gave it the top prize) before landing in the States as a hot ticket at the arthouse. Kore-Eda wouldn’t make a film with just one idea, but the spirit of Shoplifters is closest to the jocular father figure, who seems aware of every human shame and hardship and is willing to forgive it all. It’s beautifully drawn, warm in its view of people but critical of their circumstance. It makes you wonder how long outlaw humanism can last without betraying itself. And it’s determined to find a way to forgive it anyway.

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3. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/US)

Lanthimos hits Oscar gold by finding the juicy spot between familiar prestige and batshit insanity. But what’s most surprising about the film is that, beneath the viciousness and gleeful obscenity, lies a tenderly felt sympathy for the pains of female competition. Colman is the heart and soul of both a satire and a love story. No comedy or drama of 2018 has a sadder final act—you yearn for them to all be happy together.

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2. Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea)

In a way, it would be a shame to let any review of Burning say anything about the plot: better to let the viewer start the film, with the camera tailing the main character, and then follow along wherever it goes in terms of texture, theme, and even genre. Lee’s mournful, literally incendiary thriller about a lost generation is rich in unsettled mystery, but lucid and impassioned in its view of a system that can swallow people up and leave no trace.

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1. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico)

Cuaron’s use of the long take continues to conjure a world spreading out in all directions, and it allows the simplest of plots—an unwanted pregnancy, an imploding marriage—to find a social and personal context with fragments of lives criss-crossing through the frame. The festival awards, the hype, the cinephiles lining up early outside the Nuart, the Oscar nods, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash—personally, I’ve been waiting for something like this for a decade. A streaming service has produced the year’s best film, and in doing so has proved how much we still need theaters.

THE ROUND-UP 2018: Virtual Fantasies

As I prepare to call it a day on 2018, the Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for films that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive on this blog and come shy of my upcoming Best-Of. I present highlights here—let the lightning round begin.

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Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)

No futuristic dystopia that includes the phrase “corn syrup drought” is blind to its own irony. And somewhere between Spielberg’s characteristically wonder-tinged regard for a brave new world and such cheeky hints of parody, this movie-within-a-video-game-within-a-movie ends up as the most preposterously goofy film of 2018—but one carrying a lot more than goofy films normally do. Its tribute to the “the fans” is to make them the heroic center of all the blockbuster tropes they’ve flocked to, which is both more and less than they (we?) deserve. But video games, far more than blockbusters, face an uphill battle in being seen as personal. So cheers to the heart that Ready Player One looks for and finds in the machine. You have unlocked Mark Rylance.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)

A sign of the times when surrealism has to try this hard to be freaky; even freakiness demands finesse, and Sorry to Bother You shows self-conscious strain from wanting to be the weirdest damn thing of the year. But I’m prepared to take it as a distinctly regional kind of surrealism: this is an authentic expression of the Bay Area, where freedom is both a gift and a curse, and where conflicting utopian belief systems—post-60s radicalism that’ll never go away, plus the charlatan uber-capitalism of Silicon Valley—have to jostle for space. Whatever its flaws, the plot makes the rambling of a strange man outside a BART station signify with righteous paranoia. These days, it should.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)

If Incredibles 2 is no Incredibles 1, it’s for basic reasons of dramaturgy: a plot that isn’t as suspenseful, jokes that aren’t as funny, and the juggling of two storylines with vastly different levels of urgency. But Brad Bird’s 60s retro-futurism is still immediately distinct, and he gets away with more heady provocation than anyone at Pixar. His sequel mulls over the meaning of superhero-mania in pop culture, not without a certain tinge of critical self-loathing. That it does so while still animating the best superhero action sequences of the year is just one reason that Bird is an all-American crank I’m happy to call our own.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Crazy Rich Asians (John M. Chu)

As hearteningly progressive as wealth porn can get, and about 60% as funny. It makes the explicit, convincing argument that the East is already the new center of glamor and class-conscious fairy tales. And it makes the implicit, more intriguing argument that if you let ethnic outsiders fill every role in a Hollywood film, a gallery of stock rom-com characters—the wacky best friend, the party bro, the gay quipster, the snooty mean girl—constitutes a spectrum of humanity. Fie on it stuffy cinephiles may, but be fair and throw out half the screwball comedies of 1930s Hollywood.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)

If you’re wondering what a “political Wes Anderson film” would look like, it’s something like this: a genocidal war against dogs by people who prefer cats. And oddly, it kind of works, skating on charm and adventure, being somehow epic and miniaturist at the same time, and coming close to real-world commentary by demanding that when adults have clearly fucked up, it’s time to hand off the world to the young. To the extent that it all resonates, I don’t credit any newfound engagement with the outside world—Anderson’s recent discovery of historical pain is too glib in comparison to the masters he references. It’s more that in the awful year of 2018, even his toyland isn’t safe.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville)

Morgan Neville has made documentaries about pop stars, Gore Vidal, and Orson Welles, and here he makes the case that a Presbyterian in a sweater-vest was just as iconoclastic, rabble-rousing, and status-quo-shaking as any of them. Morgan Neville’s stamp is expanding upon media nostalgia; his style a simple immediacy that touches on more than it explores. That is, the drawback of a film like this is that it shuffles through angles so quickly that you leave certain that the fuller, more interesting story is still out there. But it collates, sometimes beautifully, adult feeling to a world of children’s television too easily regarded as disposable.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Bohemian Rhapsody Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury)

Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer & Dexter Fletcher)

So artlessly scripted, never more so than when it tries to be artful, that it seems determined to make its non-musical scenes as generic as possible. It’s for the fans, sure, mainly by trying to improve upon concert footage by juicing it with Hollywood production values. If such an endeavor requires meeting kitsch with kitsch, rock on, but it should be emphasized that Queen’s kitsch appeal was never so bland: this is rock stardom Disneyfied. I didn’t know it was even possible to Disney-fy a scene where one man winks at another at a truck stop, which might be a sign of progress—socially if not artistically—until an evil, charisma-free gay svengali seduces our hero into a world of PG-13 hedonism meant to shock your great-aunt without driving her out of the theater. Its handling of the AIDS era is a retrograde framework reaching for modern cred, which is a minefield the film blunders into simply by wanting to be (what’s that phrase?) lightly likable. So if it’s tame hagiography of something everyone already likes, what’s the harm? Then again, if it’s tame hagiography of something everyone already likes, what’s the point?

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

Short Cuts: SHOPLIFTERS

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In the opening scene of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters, a father and son commit the titular crime. They move quickly through a grocery market, mindful of lines of sight, slipping food quietly into a backpack and leaving without paying. In the next scene, the father stops to buy croquettes for himself and the boy—a spontaneous and lawful treat, spending what little money they have to celebrate nothing in particular. And there you have the duality that drives them: a mixture of generous spirit and disregard for social ethics. After all, the father might ask, how bad is a theft if its net impact is more good than harm? It’s thorny logic already, and it will become even thornier when, before long, they “shoplift” something altogether larger: a child.

She is a young girl, barely old enough to go to school, who has run away from an abusive home. They spot her huddling in the cold, and feeling that she’d be better off with them, they decide not to return her to her parents. What they can offer is a spot in a loving but particularly makeshift family. Crammed together in poverty, their exact genetic relations (or lack thereof) are teased out subtly, and any titles—father, son, sister, mother, grandmother—are unofficial enough to deserve asterisks.

But they get by, skimming extra money in ways that range from disreputable to illegal, all of which the film greets with a beautiful warmth, humor, and charity. The mother steals from her job at a laundry. The grandma grifts pension checks and lies to her wealthier relatives. The college-age sister performs at a peep show, where Kore-Eda is characteristically non-judgmental to both the women who work there and the men who pay them. And the son teaches his new “little sister” the art and science of petty larceny, even if he’s getting old enough to start to Figure Things Out for himself. This is a family’s worth of character arcs, but the film may be most closely defined by the endlessly cheerful father figure: a small, humble, even childish man who seems doggedly aware of every human weakness and shame and has determined to assuage them all. By the time they all have a lovely reverie on the beach, you might wonder how long such outlaw humanism can possibly last. How long before it contradicts or even betrays itself?

When they have to break a window to commit their next crime, even a single pane of shattered glass feels jarringly like a breach of their code. Twists, conflicts, and revelations tumble out from there, muddying the plot, which isn’t a good thing, but complicating the humanism, which is—especially since the film’s idealistic sympathy remains steadfast, even as its instability is exposed. Back home in Japan, the film has been a hit and a controversy. Over here, Kore-Eda’s patience alone would throw him into the arthouse corner, never mind the subtitles. But a lot of what he has to say (about the importance of family, the supremacy of love over blood ties, the lessons that children can teach adults) would be perfectly suited to anything made by Hollywood. What makes it delicate is the nature of his storytelling style, the way he doesn’t insist upon action so much as let the characters take root and then steadily grow into it. There are threads in Shoplifters that arise and resolve with the directness of a Dickensian melodrama, and others whose ideas float unanswered. The final shot returns to the girl, who by the end is in a more uncertain place than ever. It is a graceful coda. It resolves nothing at all. But its placement, and tentative calm, open the film to how much lies ahead.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is up for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards this weekend. You can rent it now on iTunes.

Capsules: January 2019

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

Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)

Husbands announces itself as “A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom”, and “Comedy” may actually be the most ambitious word in there, as it’s a term that Cassavetes could only ever use loosely. This one’s more an absurdist drama, where the unruly excess of his characters—either the stuff of life or the stuff of acting workshops—is necessary for the moments where pure, crystalline, vulnerable emotional truth rises up out of it. A potent look at men who emasculate themselves just by clinging desperately to manliness. It sets out to feel like the days and nights you’re ashamed of. It succeeds.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972)

This Corman-produced hothouse gangster flick is considered Scorsese’s nadir, and rightly so. (According to history/lore, Cassavetes turned to Scorsese and politely told him he’d spent a year of his life making “a piece of shit”, prompting young Marty to regroup). The script is thin and porous, and there are only trace amounts of Scorsese’s flair with editing and camerawork—at least before the germ gets loose in the red-bloody-Catholic finale. Until then, it’s drifting actors, indifferent grindhouse luridness, wonky plotting, and home movie staging. But its mediocrity should be inspiring, both for directors and those who follow them. After all, the next stop was Mean Streets.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

Miyazaki’s manga-turned-movie is by any standard—in suspense, intrigue, world-building, visual design—a top-notch action sci-fi movie in a decade full of them. If you come at it from a reverse Totoro, you may miss the Wonderland/Narnia effect he can get by leaving one foot in reality. But the construction of Nausicaä makes a strong case for Miyazaki as one of better epic filmmakers of his era: lean, grand, purposeful, imaginative, with his eco-pacifist morality feeling somehow both idealistic and worldly.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Made in U.S.A. (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Godard’s kiss-off to making “fun” movies is, ironically, one of his most inviting, maybe because it goes full looney, or because it makes no less sense than a normal noir, or because Godard’s typically dense set of allusions is so very American. This is Godard trying to reconcile our country’s best absurdities (his favorite B-movies) with our worst, creating an immediate, accessible, and pleasurable pinpoint of the exact moment he fully swapped genre for radical politics. And Anna Karina, watching as tears go by, makes a wonderfully animated plucky detective.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Third time’s the charm, I guess. After being unmoved twice in film school—first finding it an impenetrable object, second a po-mo intellectual stunt—catching Contempt in a theater ten years later finally did it. How close can a cinephile get to their dream world without killing their muse? Suppose they took the muse for granted? Suppose the muse didn’t want to be a muse, but had her own desires in life? There are multitudes here, possibly the best film about selling out, drawn from big themes and little games so private that it helps to have basked in Godard (and his own cinephile heroes) to feel it. And “feel” is the operative word.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)

I’ve heard some viewers watch this ambitious, eye-popping documentary and feel at one with the universe. I can report no such awakening, except to emerge with renewed appreciation for grand cinematic undertakings and the power of the image. A lot of its cosmic metaphors are elementary, though that doesn’t make them untrue. My main hang-up is that I’m not sure how I feel about turning real individuals into symbolic props. But between the scale and the CinemaScope frame, this is its own kind of epic cinema, where the sets and synchronized crowds are provided by the world itself. For movie buffs, an astounding trip and a lucid tone poem—even for those who find that term uninviting.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Short Cuts: ROMA

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Alfonso Cuarón loves the long take, and it’s fair to say the long take loves him back. What excites in his use of tracking shots isn’t that he merely shows off—looking at you, Iñárritu—but that the motion and the action conjure up a larger world beyond the edges of the frame. The Mexico of Y Tu Mamá También and the future dystopia of Children of Men spread out in all directions—it’s all the camera can do to gulp in as much as possible, and for the script to try and keep up. Then, of course, there is Gravity, Cuarón’s trip to outer space, where “all directions” has an altogether more alarming meaning. It was also boxed in by his narrowest, stiffest sense of narrative and character. Whether you loved Gravity as a technical achievement or hated it as a collection of lousy monologs, you were right.

With Roma, he’s come back down to earth, dialing down the pyrotechnics but maintaining the expansiveness for his most ambitious and glorious film yet. There is story in Roma: a year in the life of Cleo, a Mexico City maid; the imploding marriage of her employer; an unwanted pregnancy where the father bolts. But there are hardly enough plot points to fill 135 minutes on their own, and a solid half hour goes by before anything like dramatic conflict. What we have instead are an accumulation of incidents and sensations that place its most basic of stories into a series of social, personal, political, and vaguely mystical contexts. Roma has set-pieces—a forest fire breaks out, dissidents riot in the street. Yet its eye is just as informed by the way that, say, the contents of a drawer or the leftover glasses on a table are worthy of a CinemaScope composition.

“It oozes with life!” the heroine of Y Tu Mamá También cried, providing her movie with its mission statement. Roma oozes with life too, only no longer from the point of view of wired juveniles but from a more somber place of memory. The frenetic tracking shot has been replaced with a slow pan; the camera absorbs the action while being seemingly indifferent to the speed of the people in front of it. Planes forever fly overhead, reminding you of an outside world that the heroine, whose economic status keeps her a supporting player in so much of her own life, may never get to explore. The film closes, perfectly, with Cleo’s best friend approaching her and excitedly saying “I have so much to tell you.” As the two disappear together, we don’t know what needed to be told, or why it was so urgent. But the world of the film continues, even as the film ends.

Here on prime display is the sort of storytelling that makes film distinct from other arts; adapting even Roma‘s most incidental moments to prose would require a hell of a writer. Inevitably, all this talk of style and drama-through-immersion arrives at one of the film’s main fascinations: namely, that it’s released by Netflix, despite being slow, reliant on atmosphere, and essentially not what online binge-views are made of. Just from the opening credits alone—a hushed, three-minute Tarkovsky ape to set the pace—I wondered how easy it would be for a curious audience to start fidgeting in a living room full of distractions. But the prestige has also given Netflix cause for their biggest theatrical push. Find it on the big screen, and the visuals and especially the sound design create a flow of hypnotic environments. The festival awards, the hype, the cinephiles lining up early outside the Nuart, the Oscar nods, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, the (worthwhile) debate over bourgeois politics—personally, I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a decade. A streaming service has produced one of the buzziest cinematic events of the year. And in the process, they’ve proved how much we still need theaters.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Roma is now streaming on Netflix and playing in select cinemas.

Short Cuts: THE FAVOURITE

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Over Thanksgiving, The Favourite arrived in American theaters with the strongest box office premiere of any limited release of 2018, and it’s been off to the races to since then. It comes as no surprise that Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film hit the ground running for awards season; I hadn’t seen it yet, but had been at the theater when the trailer played for an Oscar-inclined audience, and you could feel the responsiveness every time. On the one hand, you had the sort of British period piece with familiar appeal but typically too safe to muster any urgency. On the other, you had the sense that a necessary germ of madness had been introduced, infecting the 18th century court with comic perversity and chilly danger—hence the delicious pitch of Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as two cathartically devious aristocrats competing for the favo(u)r of Olivia Colman as a cathartically unhinged queen.

By the time its release expanded over Christmas, I got a text from my aunt asking me about the film, because she and her sisters had gone to see it and had found it “a bit odd.” This struck me as notable for two reasons: first, because calling a Lanthimos film “a bit odd” initially seemed like the polite understatement of the year; and second, because my extended family was texting me about the disturbing director of Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first place. But then, hasn’t Lanthimos been a clever courtier himself, leaping to greater opportunities, big stars, and the red meat of the English-language market? I know poor souls who even watched The Lobster with their parents, having no idea what they were getting into. So maybe “a bit odd” isn’t an understatement after all. We’re in surreal territory by any sensible standard, but by Lanthimos’s, this is among his tamest and most appealingly open films—a calculation that means something artistically as well as financially. If it’s struck gold, it did so by finding a juicy sweet spot between traditional prestige and total insanity, and then mining it exquisitely.

The film’s schema for weirdness isn’t terribly complicated: dialogue as cleverly refined as the next battle of wits, only punctuated with the word “cunt”, plus wide-angle lenses that make the 1700s pop with spastic alien energy. What elevates it is that, intertwined with all the comedic viciousness, lies an empathy for the world of female competition—and on that count, Weisz, Stone, and Colman deserve to be credited as coauthors. Colman especially: she is the heart and soul of both its satire and its longing, the seat of power and somehow the least glamorous role.

Men are there, of course: secondary comforts at best, total brutes at worst, and most often resources, obstacles, or mosquitos with erections. But the women carry their own public and private faces and their own means of moving up and down the hierarchy. Naturally, they have their own taboos to indulge as well—this is a homoerotic love story, and indeed it’s hard to imagine any other type of love being as pure within the world of the film. Even before it becomes explicit, Weisz’s domineering hold over Colman clearly has a tangle of affection mixed in. As for Stone, she’s the long-suffering interloper, experienced with the mercilessness of the bottom rung and more than ready to play her hand when forced. We don’t have to fight anymore, she says triumphantly to Weisz near the end, and it registers as a peculiarly honest, brazenly optimistic, and even vulnerable sentiment, particularly given what came before. Weisz, for reasons no one could blame, rejects it, setting the stage for perhaps the saddest final act of any drama in 2018.

The Favourite‘s most valuable perversity, then, is one of its most unexpected: its tenderness. The film’s schematic pleasures would be hollow without it, or else end up in the corner with films whose contrary nature and ruthless cleverness far exceed their substance. But tenderness exists in the film, and it is expressed, exploited, guarded, and ultimately snuffed in an unnerving finale that grinds up dynamics of the heart in the dynamics of power—which is what these sorts of stories generally aspire to in the first place. All this is based on real-life figures; I’m not sure how much of it comes from solid historiography, and more to the point, I’m not sure the filmmakers care. It could just as easily be set in a past dreamt up by Lubitsch or Sternberg (to pick two telling examples), and its humor, provocations, observations, betrayals, and pains would mean precisely the same. As the three leading ladies navigate Lanthimos’s own dreamt up past, rightly confident that a germ of madness can beat sanity at its own game, the most lasting impression is as classical as tragedy gets: you yearn, in vain, for some way they could have a happy ending.

✬✬✬✬✬

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The Favourite is in select theaters now. I will, emphatically, not be going around recommending Dogtooth at the next reunion.

Capsules: December 2018

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

Small Change (François Truffaut, 1976)

Truffaut mixes Zero For Conduct and M. Hulot’s Holiday into his own child’s-eye-view microcosm: not a plot, per se, but a real community. It’s a world where falling children bounce back up and even poverty looks slightly whimsical (just when Godard was exploring the Marxist wilderness, too). There’s definitely meat to the argument that Truffaut gives children too much credit, but the attentiveness to the joys and pains of how children and adults view themselves and each other is a tender treasure. A lovely place to visit, even or especially when it hurts.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Mizayaki, 2004)

A fable about youth, beauty, and power, and what you choose to do with them. As is so often the case with Miyazaki, I find his all-out fantasias bloated by the kind of caprice and excess that would make more sense to me if I were young enough not to expect sense. There are tangents, narrative loops, setpieces of visual design for their own sake, and an ending that feels beholden to fairy tales rather than transcending them. But in the moments when the scale is intimate, or the mood contemplative, or the visuals scaled back from trippy sensationalism, it finds such warm storybook wisdom.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961)

Billy Wilder’s follow-up to The Apartment goes full manic for a Cold War comedy closer to the loud-and-proud schtick of Mel Brooks than Wilder’s hero Lubitsch. The East-West satire is mostly limited to glib one-liners, but the pace and sustained energy astound. This is a masterclass in staging comedy in a CinemaScope frame, a juggling act with circus music to go along with it. And all the farce dials down just long enough to deliver a key line for disillusioned radicals: “Any civilization that produced William Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, and striped toothpaste can’t be all bad.”

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

A Rossellini crisis of faith—not just in god, though there’s plenty of that, but in whether desperate people, places, and situations should be abandoned or clung to in hope of salvage. Thus an impulsive marriage and a poor, barren volcanic island stand in for post-war Italy, with a 1940s movie queen dropped into rough quasi-documentary realism. I’ll happily watch Ingrid Bergman wander infernal landscapes—especially if it signifies, and refuses to easily settle.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

The Housemaid (Kim Ki-Young, 1960)

Say what you will about sexual repression, it’s made for some good movies. A man afraid of his desires. A young woman punished for her crush. A crazed villainess who is literally unleashed from inside a respectable girl’s closet. And all of it unfolding down a rabbit hole in a bizarrely designed house with the open question of who’s got the rat poison. It’s a bit drawn out, but insane enough to get away with a structure that would sink a tamer movie. Long live tonal whiplash.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey, 1945)

Thank god for Barbara Stanwyck—mediocre scripts are as old as Hollywood, and they’ve always needed stars. This one, a big hit in its day, played at the Aero in Santa Monica as part of a series of holiday screwball comedies. It has a premise worth mining: that the most famous all-American homemaker (think 1940s Martha Stewart) is actually a front for a modern career gal whose food is cooked by an Eastern European immigrant. But the emotional deceptions cry out for the finesse of Lubitsch (who played right before), just as the satirical opportunities need a dedicated cynic like Preston Sturges (who played after). It’s certainly interesting, however, to see a time capsule of when my home state was mythologized as the ideal of American class. Reminds me of why I look back on it romantically. And why I bolted for California when I was 18.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Short Cuts: COLD WAR

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In 2015, back when he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Ida, Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski played chicken with the Academy orchestra. He was at the microphone for his acceptance speech for less than sixty seconds when they started to play him off—but, full of good spirit, he spoke over the music and kept on thanking. The orchestra music climbed higher and higher until it had nowhere else to go. With an audible sense of confusion, the musicians stopped playing completely. The audience laughed. The Academy’s bluff had been called. Pawlikowski finished his thank you’s, saving his family for last, and made a triumphant exit.

Having seen his new film, Cold War, that acceptance speech is still my favorite thing he’s done.

While Ida was (and is) celebrated, I remained a tepid non-fan. I chalked up its success with the Academy to it fitting the platonic ideal of what too many people think an “art film” is—a platonic ideal that’s 50 years old by now, and that Ida didn’t transcend. It had a stately topic and looked beautiful, but what it had to say felt undistinguished, and its choice to frame every lovely image off-center was more an affectation than a meaningful style.

Cold War, which won the Best Director prize at Cannes and opened in the US this month, continues with most of the same virtues and vices, even though it is the more interesting film. It tells a love story criss-crossing the Iron Curtain, as two Polish musicians (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot) move back and forth between the East and the West during the Stalin era. In the Soviet bloc, they’re subject to censorship and violent bureaucratic insanity. Abroad, they are dislocated. He feels unsatisfied with his lower place on the cultural ladder. She chafes at being seen as exotic by condescending Westerners. And so they search for some place and some way to be happy together. The film drops in and out of their lives, jumping ahead years between scenes, with each point in space and time marked by a different style of musical performance.

It is a fine structural conceit, but the result is curiously arid. She is the woman of my life, the hero insists, though the film captures neither the expression of passion nor the pain of it being held in. The two lovers argue, split, and embrace in the streets, but they register less as desperately emotional beings and more like models in a high-end, glossy black-and-white magazine ad. (An ad for what? Maybe cologne, or perfume, or a fashion line—in high-end ads, they don’t even have to show the product). Part of this thinness may have to do with length. Cold War aims to span decades and phases of life in under 90 minutes. And while master impressionists can and have flipped through time with both historical acumen and emotional pain, Pawlikowski’s execution feels like holes of causality have been punched out. Just to be strict but fair, I set it alongside other Cannes-feted, critically-raved films that cover similar thematic ground, like The Double Life of Veronique and Nostalghia—and Cold War looks all the more cursory and prosaic by comparison.

This is not, however, to say that Cold War is entirely unrewarding for arthouse hangers-on, but rather that its rewards almost entirely skim the surface: a resonant historical setting, immediate melodrama, literal metaphors, and pictorial beauty. The main exception is Joanna Kulig’s wonderful performance itself. She dredges up what’s unspoken in her character, and only a fool could deny a moment as exquisite as Kulig’s lonely, jaded heroine whipping her hair to rockabilly to try and squeeze every bit of consolation out of freedom that she can. But now that Cold War is short-listed for another Best Foreign Film Oscar, I can’t help but wonder why such definitions of “cinematic art” can’t be richer or more daring. And why movies about the trauma of the past arrive here with hype that smells vaguely like nostalgia.

✬✬✬✩✩

*********

Cold War is open in select arthouses, with more to come. In case you’re curious about that Oscar speech, here it is.

Short Cuts: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

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In the Coen brothers’ last movie, Hail, Caesar!, George Clooney played a kidnapped movie star who wound up in the thrall of blacklisted Communist screenwriters. “They’ve figured out the laws that dictate everything,” he gushes bumblingly at the end, once he’s retuned to the studio. “It’s all in a book called ‘Kapital’, with a ‘K’.” He’s summarily slapped upside the head and pushed back in front of the cameras.

His excitement about answers is a telling moment, and not because the Coens’ work is particularly Marxist or anti-Marxist. Indeed, nailing down the philosophy of their movies is a good deal more complex, more frustrating, and more fun. Their films are loaded with symbols and “isms”, enigmas and portents, references to politics and myth and the Bible, but all handled with the puckishness of natural born storytellers (and, on occasion, inveterate class clowns) who’d sooner shrug it off than cop to an academic reading. But what they have been, time and again, are our most affable chaoticians: from Blood Simple to Fargo to Burn After Reading to A Serious Man, their films return to a fiendish vendetta against anyone, on their side of the screen or ours, who presumes they’ve “figured out” what’s going on—or what’s going to happen next.

In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, their new film for Netflix, the spinning of such tales is itself a central theme. Even by Coen standards, Buster Scruggs is an odd bird: an anthology of six vignettes set in Old West, dotted with balladeer heroes and framed as short stories found in a musty cloth-bound book. At first, the cartoonishness of the film is so out of sync with its own literary framing device that I wondered if the Coens really had turned into the cheap, heartless ironists their detractors always claimed. The opening two chapters don’t have narratives so much as characters who are established and then promptly dispatched: first a sociopathic singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson), and then a lone bandit (James Franco) who might have borrowed his coat from Sergio Leone. To the extent that these first thirty minutes, in a vacuum, mean anything at all, it’s mainly to take old movie archetypes and drop them into a vision of the West where death is not only brutal, but sudden and arbitrary. Such ultraviolent genre revisionism has been done before, better and deeper. And as for the Coens’ vision of the West, it starts out so thin that I had to wonder if thinness was the point. (If they actually went to Monument Valley, they opted to make it look like a digital matte painting).

That curiosity should be nurtured, because the film expands and gets richer as it goes along. Its subject is death, or the eternal threat of it, as viewed through American mythology. And by the end, this idea has picked up nuance, added thematic complexities, transitioned from looney-tune comedy to pathos, hinted at self-reflexivity, and opened itself to the possibility that even if death is inevitable, fatalism needn’t be so absolute. I can’t, for the life of me, sympathize with the criticism that it feels like stitched-together TV episodes. This is a clear case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, a steady progression whose stories shade one another and allow meaning to flourish in the cracks between them. The passage with Tom Waits is perhaps the most soulful work in a filmography where genuine, intimate soulfulness is rather rare. Zoe Kazan’s chapter is the longest and most densely plotted, and thus saved for near the end, as if the initial thinness of the film has thickened enough to tell it. And the corker is the finale, a single scene of darkly comic dialogue that, depending on how you read it, is either a trip to the underworld or an ordinary stagecoach ride where waning light and a good narrator can play tricks on your imagination.

It wouldn’t do to read too much wisdom into Buster Scruggs—or too little. In fact, either one seems disrespectful to a morbid compendium whose climax is an on-screen storyteller flashing a grin and saying “How would I know?” But if this is how smart-asses (now in their 60s) approach the concept of mortality, it’s mature and haunting, one of the most eccentric and gnawing surprises of 2018. And as it reaches a resolution, it makes it clear that if you’re looking for a lesson from the film, or from the Coens, it’s that the thrill was always in the telling.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs went straight to Netflix after stopping off at the Venice Film Festival to win the award for Best Screenplay. In a rare touch of class, Netflix doesn’t shrink the player until all the credits have rolled.