Shorts Cuts: THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV

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Nowadays, Jean-Pierre Leaud is as much a symbol as an actor, and with good reason. Starring in The 400 Blows (1959) when he was 14, he broke out at the same moment the French New Wave did and then proceeded to come of age on camera at a time when the idea of cinema got tied to such restless, experimental, political upheaval. The honor roll includes Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin (1966), Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973), to pick the first three films to pop into my head—excluding, for the sake of fairness, the half dozen or so he made with Truffaut. In my own millennial lifetime, he’s been cast in ways that are both savvy and fetishistic: as a former New Wave director wondering what it was all for in Irma Vep (1996), and as himself in fond cameos in Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is It There? (2001) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003).

So it’s a credit to how much Leaud disappears into Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, in which he plays a noble aged monarch sliding towards oblivion, that the film is more than a cineaste’s allegory for bygone movie history. Certainly, that reading is available, and plenty satisfying if you want it. But Serra’s film has its eye on something grander, drawn paradoxically on a small scale. The plot is little more than the title: it is a two-hour string of scenes at an 18th century deathbed, the camera generally restricted to a few interiors. Its only intrigue is the way sycophants and medical quacks huddle in the corners, second-guessing themselves on how to treat the king or wondering how to get him to sign off on a matter of state, even as the king himself reverts to the mind a child.

It is, I imagine, not what most people would call “a good movie” on the technicality that it’s not what most people would call “a movie” at all. But it’s catnip for anyone who needs to be reminded that that restless filmmaking spirit never really went away. It is defiantly slow and hushed, the sort of film that insists on being taken on its terms and no one else’s. But as its details accumulate, it reaches a cinematic sweet spot where a film can tackle such heady subjects—the absurdity of history, the inevitability of death, and the way human civilization, each phase of which looks surreal in retrospect, is helpless in the face of it—without anyone ever giving a speech to that effect or reducing its ideas to mere words. (In aiming to make a period-piece era feel not relatable but insane, it finds a candlelit brethren in Barry Lyndon (1975), which many Kubrick fans are bored by for reasons I can’t fully understand, and which is an action movie by comparison).

Ultimately, the experience of The Death of Louis XIV is modestly anticlimactic for a film of such willful ambition, which is a polite way of saying that I suspect Serra’s best work is either still to come or carries inherent limitations. But with Leaud providing the raw pain, confusion, and wistfulness of old age, and Serra providing a perspective that can swing from empathy to satire to the grisly and the grotesque, it is a gem: a slice of provocative melancholia willing to set (and break) its own rules.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Death of Louis XIV played Cannes in 2016 and was released into a precious handful of theaters by the good people at Cinema Guild in 2017. It is now hiding, available for rental, on iTunes.

Short Cuts: PHANTOM THREAD

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Paul Thomas Anderson may be the most Freudian director working today. His films are dotted with children paying for the sins of their parents; seekers who are both eager for and ashamed of sex; and men who want badly to be cradled and get laid, though not necessarily in that order, because they can’t decide on the order themselves. What other director could, with Punch-Drunk Love (2002), surface how a lot of 90s Adam Sandler comedies could be half-psychodrama if they really applied themselves? So with Phantom Thread, a strange but eternal kind of love story, Anderson is quite at home setting his latest film circa 1950, a golden age for psychodramas, where his lovers can take a stroll along a windswept cliffside that wouldn’t be out of place in Rebecca (1940) or Suspicion (1941). They are played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps as a kind of Svengali and ingenue, each half-enigma or half-phantom in what makes them tick. Carnality is never visible in the film, as it wouldn’t be in any film made there and then. Yet it is unmistakably a tale of battle and conquest, asking us to wonder who is conquering whom, and to what end.

It is Anderson’s return to this time period after 2012’s The Master, a relentlessly psychoanalytic film that, perhaps because of its huge hype, started Anderson’s journey to becoming more of an acquired taste than he already was. (I remember how perplexed people were that it had all the ingredients of an American epic like There Will Be Blood (2007), but turned out to be largely about a spasmodic Joaquin Phoenix grappling with his erection.) But Phantom Thread is also Anderson’s return to someplace else: the main spotlight of Oscar season, with nods for Best Picture and Best Director for the first time since There Will Be Blood. Part of this may be that Anderson has scaled back on the more off-putting scatological aspects of The Master and Inherent Vice (2014); emotional intimacy is a more respectable subject than melancholic horniness, if not necessarily a more profound one. But there is another, more basic reason: it’s his best film since There Will Be Blood as well, his most focused, cohesive, and emotionally resonant, even as it continues his exploration of making films borne on texture and flow. The plot is just a framework; the real narrative is made of liquid.

So, about that framework. The story concerns the relationship between a famous British fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock—I never said Anderson abandoned scatology completely—and a young waitress named Alma whom he takes on as his latest live-in companion. Reynolds is an intensely fussy man, pathologically insistent on control down to the smallest detail in both his work and his life. His only true confidante is his rigid sister (Lesley Manville). He has preoccupations surrounding his late mother, and he takes on romantic partners only to discard them once they’re worn down. He is an emotional tyrant, one senses, more by reflex than intent. And the film that surrounds him is about trying to bring someone into your life without exposing anything of yourself or giving up an inch of your own comfort or routine, which is a recipe for misery if there ever was one. With Alma, he may have met his match—but then, so much about her can seem slippery, too.

The arc of the film has more to do with character, theme, and metaphor than anything as immediate as plot, which means that much of Phantom Thread must be enjoyed the way Reynolds himself might enjoy it: by marveling at its fastidious beauty. As with The Master, Anderson and his composer Jonny Greenwood excel at creating a version of the past that somehow feels both immaculately familiar and utterly alien in its tone, which fits a movie that has the detail to be set either in a specific time and place or entirely in its characters’ minds. The camerawork is gorgeous, while Greenwood’s score makes the film feel like a series of visual musical compositions rather than dramatic scenes. But the compositions start to change. The stateliness breaks down into a sneaky sense of humor, and Alma, initially a cipher, grabs co-authorship. She is, as played marvelously by Krieps, the first real stab at a heroine in Anderson’s films in 15 years, and his work is all the better for it.

I’d never spoil the climax, except to say that what Alma and Reynolds have in store for one another—and what each gets out of their arrangement—gels by the end like a twist on a Hawksian screwball comedy. And as the “phantom” aspects take physical shape on screen, I was convinced that what I had seen just might be the most perversely romantic film of the year. Anderson, who started his career as a precocious wunderkind and is now approaching fifty, renders emotion in a way that has a worldly lucidity and works like a dream. The film washes over you, and if you are a certain kind of cinephile, it leaves behind the magnificent stamp of cinematic traditions being explored as a fresh and personal quest of discovery. The rave I’m giving it may not be the one I would have given halfway through the movie, or even as I exited the theater genuinely punch-drunk from Anderson’s conclusion. But I’ve lived with Phantom Thread for about a week now, and it only grows. I may be in love myself.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Phantom Thread is playing in theaters around the country and is up for a half dozen Academy Awards. I haven’t mentioned whether or not Daniel Day-Lewis is good in it, because I don’t need to.

Short Cuts: GOOD TIME

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In the end credits of the Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time, the first name to appear under the special thanks is Martin Scorsese. I don’t know what went on behind the camera, but they’d owe him that much for Mean Streets (1973) alone; like a classic Scorsese crime picture, Good Time is about reckless hoodlums who are almost smart enough to realize how dumb they are. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a New York City kid who ropes his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Benny Safdie, stepping in front of the camera) into helping him commit a bank robbery. When it goes south, Nick is caught and thrown in prison, and Connie spends a long night bouncing through the outer boroughs in a series of increasingly desperate, ill-advised plans to score some cash to get him out, with dawn and inevitability on the way.

It is a film with style to spare, full of rave colors, sharp editing, and a few stunningly controlled helicopter shots. And fittingly, the key question hovering over the film is the same that has hounded Scorsese, and that’s whether or not there’s more to the film than just an invigorating shot of pure cinema in the arm. There is: to its credit as a film, Good Time is not a good time, but a bad trip laced with social criticism and MDMA. It is an overload, a discomforting vision of America’s strivers, fuck-ups, and have-nots, precise and convincing in its earthy detail of mid-to-lower-rung city life. (Essays can be and have been written on which characters the Safdies make white or black, as class throws the two into the same boat but race keeps them judged by different standards.) As an actor, Pattinson has been looking for arthouse cred for a while now—just like fellow Twilight star Kristen Stewart—by working with directors like David Cronenberg, Werner Herzog, and James Gray. And it’s to his credit that by the end, what starts looking like a “a bunch of authentic New Yorkers plus an English matinee idol” ends with him having disappeared into the role. Besides, you’d need the looks of a matinee idol to get away with half of the scams he attempts.

The harsh, jagged nature of the film has its limits, particularly for a film whose biggest flaw is how it keeps you at arm’s length while yanking the chain. (That is, if a film isn’t at least half-interested in tenderness, you can easily spend two hours watching anti-heroes ruin their lives without growing to know or care for them.) But the finale, in which the two words of the title are spoken, suggests an ambivalent moral that the only responsible path forward in life is not fast or exciting but drab and dutiful and banal. A Scorsesian theme if there ever was one, and enough to say that the Safdies’ neon odyssey, already showered with cinephile acclaim, could be the breakthrough of an outstanding body of work. Scorsese himself has signed on as an executive producer of their next film. Fingers crossed.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Good Time was a darling at the Cannes Film Festival last May and is now available for download. Keep it legal, please.

Short Cuts: THE SQUARE

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There are many delicious ironies inside and encircling The Square, the cringingly funny new comedy by Swedish director Ruben Östlund, not least of which is that it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Cannes is a place both magical and somewhat insane, a hotspot of global prestige where for two weeks each May, aspirations of important, global cinematic art mingle with crass elitism, conspicuous consumption, and institutional absurdity. So where better to celebrate the story of Christian (Claes Bang), the anti-hero of The Square? Christian is the curator of a museum of contemporary art in Stockholm; the number one obstacle is money, he explains early on. Hiply dressed and doing his best to dodge his own faults, he juggles his day-to-day job, his nights at parties, his young daughters from a previous marriage, a reporter he slept with (Elisabeth Moss), an encounter with a pickpocket, and the problems with the museum’s new installation called “The Square”: a physical space where all people are equal and must be humane to each other—a concept that proves difficult to concretely explain, and even more difficult to market.

Östlund had a breakout of sorts with 2014’s Force Majeure, and The Square continues that film’s way of breaking people down, particularly men, into creatures with absurd atavistic instincts barely covered by even more absurd public facades. The Square is nothing if not a string of not-at-all-subtle comic setpieces to that effect, including a violent performance piece during a black-tie dinner party (Buñuel would be proud) and a Q&A with a conceptual artist (Dominic West) who keeps being interrupted by a man with Tourette’s syndrome. As for artistic concepts, the one at the center of The Square is delightfully droll: the idea that serious introspection and universal empathy—which, in a perfect world, we would all practice anyway—can be turned into the kind of artistic event that only the rarefied would even attend, let alone be effected by. Art-world pretension is a fish in a barrel if there ever was one, and to the film’s credit, Östlund has his sights on something larger: class-conflict, poverty, and the idea of a utopian society that has evaded even a place as progressive as Sweden. Christian is callow, irresponsible, and self-centered, but the film works because Bang is affable enough to keep the movie from condescending. Christian is both a cad and an innocent; his mistakes are mistakes that anyone in his position might make, and his humbling is not one we’re meant to take snide pleasure in. (“You must think very highly of yourself”, Moss says to him at one point, to which his response is an instinctive, strikingly sincere “I don’t”).

This is an idea whose weight the film doesn’t do full justice to: that utopian artistic humanism and absurdist cringe-comedy should be forever bound together, because we are, on the whole, a very absurd species. The Square‘s level of insight into said absurdity, either for the art world specifically or humanity in general, is thin for a movie that stretches for two and a half hours. Like Force Majeure, it ends on a weaker note than it begins, as if Östlund the dramatist is better at spotting our foibles than coming up with emotional, weighty, meaningful conclusions for them. But as a humorist, he’s a shrewd adult who hasn’t lost touch with his inner child, and that inner child is a very naughty prankster. As the various ideas of this deadpan comedy diffuse, the most lasting ones are that low-brow entertainment can do more than art, that truly effective art has to be dangerous, and that—in a world of pretensions and poses, of problems that have no perfect solution, of political arguments where it’s impossible to please everyone—the most honest form of human expression is an awkward breakdown. I’ll drink to that.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Square was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. It’ll be available on iTunes by the end of the month, if you want to wince in the privacy of your own home.

Short Cuts: I, TONYA

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The opening titles of I, Tonya—a dark comedy about the life, times, and scandal of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie)—inform us that it is based on the “irony free” testimony of those involved. It’s both a joke and a boast, and “irony” quickly becomes the operative word; the landing that I, Tonya needs to stick is to convince us that there’s more to this biopic than the thick syrup of irony it ladles over every detail of its true story. There is an attempt, to be sure. But by the final act, the film has established itself as perhaps the most fraudulently entertaining film of 2017, a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too movie that tries to tap into the untold pathos of a tabloid celebrity while parading everyone as a comic freak show. It toggles back and forth between its modes so fast that it can give you whiplash—there’s no idea so serious that the movie can’t tactlessly undercut it almost immediately.

For those too young to remember the 90s, Tonya Harding was an Olympic figure skater who was implicated in the maiming of Nancy Kerrigan, one of her rivals. The facts of the case are stranger than fiction, and the rumors worse. As for the film’s telling, it certainly can’t be faulted for acting or technical skills. Allison Janney (as Tonya’s maniacal, chain-smoking mother) will probably get an Oscar nod on the basis of profanity alone, while the camerawork and editing are forceful and exhilarating, particularly during any scene set on the ice rink. What it lacks is a coherent, consistent perspective on its subjects. More than one reviewer has favorably brought up Martin Scorsese, which is a sign of how superficial critics can be: the movie pulls the tracking shots, needle-drops, and broad strokes from Scorsese films without realizing just how much Scorsese’s style and themes worked together. (As excessive as they are, Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) are nothing if not subtly and expertly balanced between seduction and moral dismay).

It’s a shame, because I, Tonya is correct when it says at the beginning, with its characteristic lack of subtlety, that the story of Tonya Harding is a story of America and a story of the pressures put on women. There’s plenty of narrative material to back up both, and I can see why Margot Robbie, who is also credited as a producer, was drawn to the material: it’s a chance to play an unconventional heroine and give a swift kick in the balls to anyone who thinks she’s mere eye-candy. Her big scene at the end—in other words, the landing—deserves to be in a much better movie. The most honest moment may be when Bobby Cannavale, as a reporter for Hard Copy in one of the film’s mockumentary segments, says that mainstream news outlets have now become as trashy as the gutter journalism of the 90s. That, if nothing else, is the implicit moral of I, Tonya: I’m sick, you’re sick, they’re sick, we’re all sick, and we can all be manipulated by the media—now enjoy this crane shot and laugh and be moved. There’s no way on Earth that I, Tonya will bore you. But if you think about it enough to scratch just below its surface-level effectiveness, it doesn’t cleverly prove that point so much as it clumsily embodies it. Frankly, I’d advise not giving it the satisfaction.

✬✬✩✩✩

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I, Tonya is in select theaters now. Margot Robbie is wonderful in it, but people who forget it understand it best.

Short Cuts: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

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Even if you’re allergic to that arthouse subgenre about bourgeois European intellects who have nothing to do with their summer except dine al fresco, philosophize about western civilization, and decide who to have sex with that night, you owe it to yourself to check out the loveliness of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name and draw your own conclusions about the hype. Looking at its list of ingredients, the easiest point of comparison is Eric Rohmer—so easy, in fact, that it’s worthwhile to jump at it and note the differences. The heroes and heroines of a Rohmer film are at least halfway preoccupied with theory; that is, they have hearts and libidos, but will talk themselves into logical knots trying to rationalize what they do or don’t do. Call Me By Your Name is less concerned with rationality or rationalization. It is a film that dives headlong into pure sensuality: beautiful scenery, beautiful houses, beautiful works of art, beautiful women, beautiful men, beautiful words (a script by James Ivory), and beautiful music (courtesy of Sufjan Stevens).

Set in the the early 1980s, the plot is the brief, blossoming love affair between a teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet) and an older grad student (Armie Hammer) who comes to stay at his family’s villa in the Italian countryside. It is a movie about homosexual awakening, though most of the politics of an LGBT identity—each hero has affairs with women as well as each other—is largely absent. (Guadagnino has been criticized for discreetly cutting away from outright showing gay sex, which is a fair point, though I doubt homophobes and insecure masculinities will be comfortable with what he does show, even when it’s just a boy alone with a peach). For my money, the film’s philosophy is more the capital-A Aestheticism of Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray: the idea that you should follow your desire for new sensations to wherever it leads you. It is also an extremely generous film, a showcase for all involved where no one hogs the spotlight. Chalamet is as much the breakout star as you might’ve heard. Hammer is fine in a role that calls for being handsome, aloof, and unreadable. Guadagnino’s direction keeps everyone in precise relation to one another. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is glowing and immersive. Sufjan Stevens’s piano score pairs well with so much sunlight reflecting off a lake. And Michael Stuhlbarg, as Chalamet’s father, gets to deliver the speech that gives the story its moral: that opening yourself to life’s experience means embracing all the emotions that come with it. With all these elements in such elegant arrangement, the 130 minute runtime flies by, and it sticks in your memory like a summer vacation you never had with a group of friends you never met. As good as it is, I’m not convinced the film escapes its own rarefied atmosphere, or that it ultimately leaves you with more than an emotional trip. But such trips are to be treasured, and it’s a major Oscar contender for a reason. Its virtues and limitations are no less, and no more, than those of beauty itself.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Call Me By Your Name is in select theaters and up for a boatload of Golden Globes.

Short Cuts: MUDBOUND

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It’s one of the most famous lines in Hollywood cinema: Norma Desmond, movie queen of the silent era and the anti-heroine of Sunset Boulevard (1950), flares her nostrils and declares, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.” She never lived to see Netflix. Streaming services, Netflix chief among them, have revolutionized the way television content is produced and consumed. But movies have been a trickier debate, even as the line between “TV” and “cinema” gets blurrier by the year. One reason Amazon beat Netflix over the finish line as the first web giant to win a major Oscar—last year, with Manchester by the Sea—is that Amazon still treats films as a theatrical event. The challenge that Netflix has set for itself is finding a way to virtually skip the theatrical window, go right to your TVs and mobile devices, and somehow shake off that direct-to-video stigma that can make a movie feel small. And make no mistake, Mudbound—Dee Rees’s new film and Netflix’s gambit for Oscar season—is the sort of film that needs to feel big. It’s a historical/literary period piece that spans years. It is a two-hour-plus story that straddles a historical fissure (World War II, in fact, the Academy’s favorite historical fissure). It tackles the social issue of American racism. It films the heartland sunrise in CinemaScope. It jumps back and forth a few times between continents. And it features an award-eligible original song, played at the end for your consideration.

But even setting aside how Mudbound is distributed and received—which, to be fair, may wind up the most consequential thing about it—it is a film that wastes too much of what it does well. The greatest strength of this tidy epic about two families in the Deep South, one black and one white, is its Faulknerian dedication to multiple point of views. It trades off inner monologs and voice-overs, mapping how the world of the film looks if you’re young or old, male or female, rich or poor, black or white. But its sense of time and place is thin. It can’t consistently fool you into thinking you’re not watching actors in costumes. And by the end, it has dived into the melodramatic hand-me-downs that have haunted the Academy stage since at least Sophie’s Choice (1982): that is, Mudbound feels like our era’s version of an earlier era’s version of an earlier era. Even as it goes for a violent gut-punch near the end, I’m not entirely convinced this kind of period piece is the most effective way to provoke a dialogue about race in America in 2017. A bizarro genre film like Get Out—whose villains aren’t mid-century brutes with Mississippi drawls, but a left-leaning white upper-class that’ll swear on its heart that it loves black people—is so much better at stirring the pot.

By comparison, the world of Mudbound, multiple perspectives and all, is frozen in sepia and converted to a digital copy. It is not a film without impact. It has characters, it has an arc, it has a destination, it has a certain soap-operatic intrigue, it has an ambition towards complex humanism, and when it is content to quietly smolder rather than yank, it has moments that strike home. But at least 40% of it feels like it could have sprung, fully formed and without an individual identity, from the collective unconscious of Oscar season itself. That the film has arguably accrued more year-end prestige than any Netflix movie so far may be its biggest irony: a still-early trial balloon for the model of the future has one foot so utterly tethered to the old-fashioned.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Mudbound premiered at Sundance and was given a small theatrical release to qualify for awards. It currently lives on Netflix.

Short Cuts: THE SHAPE OF WATER

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With Tim Burton dicking around and Terry Gilliam still living under a question mark, Guillermo Del Toro stakes a claim to being our finest practitioner of modern fairy tales, a director who can fade in on the world of automats and Cold War paranoia with an atmosphere that immediately and beguilingly says “once upon a time…”. So if you’re wondering what Cinderella would be doing in the early 1960s, Del Toro’s The Shape of Water has an answer: she’d be living above a grand movie theater and working as a maid at a secret government research facility. She is, as played by Sally Hawkins, a mute, and a delicate, private, and timid individual. After her G-man bosses capture what looks uncannily like the creature from the black lagoon—one of Del Toro’s favorite movie monsters—she and the creature bond as fellow outcasts, and an escape plan is hatched.

To put it mildly, Del Toro has great tenderness for cinema’s monsters, so it’s only fitting that he use one as a symbol for America’s disenfranchised communities, be they racial, sexual, or economic. That social commentary is more or less safe, tidy, and unremarkable; pointing out that America was a regressive place during the Civil Rights era is, these days, like shooting fish in a barrel. But without spoiling anything, I wonder what on Earth the studio thought of at least two sequences Del Toro devised for his silent aquatic hero, both of which double down hard on the film’s heartfelt predilections. And that gets to The Shape of Water‘s greatest strength: it so clearly comes from such an utterly singular consciousness, a cinephile mind in love with both plucky B-movie weirdness and luxuriant A-movie craft—and a mind that believes that the most pitiable monsters might be humans. Much like Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001), two of Del Toro’s earlier fables, The Shape of Water is not a lean, mean suspense machine or an airtight plot. (More than once, you may find yourself marveling at how lax the security at this government facility really is). But it is laced with details, themes, characterizations, and subtle morality plays that make it linger pleasingly in the mind. As the film’s villain, Michael Shannon could fulfill his plot function simply by growling, but the scenes Del Toro includes of his personal life—the straight-society alpha male who wants everything he’s supposed to want—make his character as pathetic as he is menacing. (Both he and Hawkins spend the movie carrying a physical scar or deformity, and how each wound turns out is bizarrely poetic in its sincerity).

What results, as the film fades to black, is a risky pastiche of genres, elements, and tones, and I haven’t told you the half of them. But the film works as well as it does because, like an Old Hollywood classic that might play at Sally Hawkins’ nearby movie theater—this fairy tale’s true enchanted palace—The Shape of Water holds so purely to its convictions: that an outlandish monster can open a serious metaphor, that color should be splashed across the screen with gusto, that bedtime story logic might follow us into the world of modern genre cinema, and that the filmmakers, star, and story can unironically hurl themselves at the unexplainable in the hope of a happily-ever-after.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Shape of Water is now playing in theaters and is nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes. Bless it when something this strange gets bestowed with prestige, and I hope the Academy tosses a nod to Shannon as well as Hawkins.

Away From the Breach: DUNKIRK and Christopher Nolan

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Over the last ten years, Christopher Nolan has become perhaps the closest thing Hollywood has to a tentpole director with a blank check. So, with curiosity, earlier this year I took a look back at Following, his 1998 debut, a fractured and scrappy modern noir made in the UK for $6,000 before Nolan had turned thirty. It is a remarkably skillful beginning, and it shows how many of his virtues, vices, and trademarks were there from the start: an addiction to non-linear narrative, a dark fascination with moral compromise, an eye for slippery editing, an ear for rattled anti-heroes, a few cheap tricks and small hiccups, and the gnawing, inescapable sense that the cynicism/fatalism of his cinema is not really worldly wisdom, but an aesthetic preference. And make no mistake: in an era when fans treat Nolan as one of Hollywood’s reigning geniuses, true wisdom remains the most underrated quality a film can have.

But looking at the structure of Following, in which a doomed man tells his tale, it struck me that the story-within-a-story format is very telling for Nolan. First, there are flashbacks to moments that the main character was present for (memory). Then, there are scenes from the main character’s story that he did not witness, but must assume happened (imagination, or some element of it). Last but not least, there is a final revelation that is neither narrated or witnessed by the hero, but presented to us as objective fact (let’s call it reality). And so, to tell its simple story, we juggle between the three realms, with different levels of subjectivity and none really distinguished from the other. But as impressive as Following is, digging so deep into its layers of narrative reliability may be giving it too much credit. By the end, there aren’t three kinds of perspectives. There is only one: Nolan’s, the all-seeing man with the camera, the sole presence in the film with all the answers, doling out information or twists to the audience in just the right amount—and in just the right order—to try to catch you off guard. He is, first and foremost, a purveyor of effective, clever, and dubiously meaningful narrative magic tricks. It’s no wonder that, for many cinephiles, including myself, it feels like his most personal work comes in the dueling magicians of The Prestige (2006).

About those cinephiles: for the last ten years, I’ve been stuck in the middle, caught between worshipful fanboys versus critic types for whom taking Nolan down a peg has become a kind of standard. As for the latter, I can understand it: Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and Interstellar (2014)—his first three films after The Dark Knight (2008) made him an IMDb god—are his weakest films by far, overextended in their complexity, overhyped in their deeper meaning, and vague in their narrative mechanisms. But I’ll say this for Nolan: he uses the power of that blank check for good. In his ambition and dedication to the virtues of analog filmmaking, he’s worth tracking because he’s the only major studio tentpole filmmaker active today to reach so far.

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Part of that analog spirit is why Dunkirk, his latest film and a prime Oscar contender, is only coming out on home video now, when plenty of other summer releases became available to rent months ago. As part of the Oscar campaign—and, I would venture, Nolan’s personal taste—the film was rereleased in theaters earlier in December for select IMAX and 70mm presentations, before Blu-ray, iTunes, and Amazon Video viewers could get their hands on it. I was eager to see it, because it promised the end of a rut that needed to be shaken. It is Nolan’s first film in over a decade to be set in the real world, as opposed to a sci-fi or comic book world. It is his shortest film in a decade as well, and it’s a testament to the multiplex grandiosity of his last few films that this time-shifting, $100 million movie feels like Nolan has scaled back to basics.

Set at the evacuation of Dunkirk during the early days of World War II, the film is an epic of survival and retreat, as half a million Allied troops, stranded on the coast of France, hold fast and wait for help from home. And of course—nothing being linear for Nolan, even history—the film intertwines three stories on three timescales: frantic troops look for a way off the beach (set over the last week before evacuation); a British civilian sails his boat across the channel to rescue as many men as he can carry (set over the last day); and an RAF pilot, running low on fuel, engages in a dogfight over the sea (set over the last hour).

The result is his first great film in ages. Watching it unfold, I couldn’t help but think of the omniscient Nolan of a film like Following—the all-seeing eye—because Dunkirk is material that calls for a certain Mount-Olympus point of view. Which is to say, Dunkirk overcomes most of Nolan’s weak points by either dodging the attempt or leaning into them so hard that they become strengths. It is a decentralized mood piece writ large, a relentless string of immaculately terrifying set-pieces to escape an unseen enemy, and a film that sustains high-wire darkness before giving way to the chance of mercy. It is above all a sensory experience, a kind of narrative soup where every figure is dwarfed and no one can claim to be the main character, not even a dignified Kenneth Branagh, a devoted Mark Rylance, or a shell-shocked Cillian Murphy. The wonky exposition of The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are not an issue; the underlying plot events of Dunkirk are pure simplicity, and its chaotic presentation feels both appropriate for a fog of war and increasingly lucid as the film goes on. Nolan’s last two films had blind spots when it came to nuanced psychology or seamless characterization. Here, there’s no need for either; it’s enough to know that these characters are people who face death and fear it. (Indeed, the film’s biggest stumbles come when it attempts to get more intimate than that). In the absence of so many of the up-close-and-personal elements of an epic drama, what that leaves you with is a distilled version of Nolan’s physical craft, which has never been stronger or more controlled, and an evocative sea of actors’ faces.

It is certainly a war movie for its time. “Survival is victory”, says the movie’s tagline, and the sentiment is echoed rather explicitly near the end, which finds Britain reflecting and regrouping. “Inspiring” is a word that tends to get thrown around a lot in Oscar season, and Dunkirk is, on the face of it, the sort of inspiring “based on a true story” that Hollywood dreams are made of: Britain hoped to save 30,000 troops, and ended up saving ten times as many. But Nolan remains fascinated by compromise, and there is a certain conflicted passion to the way it comes to a close. Dunkirk runs its characters through a gauntlet of some very un-heroic emotions, and ends with one of them—nobody more or less remarkable than one soldier among many—reading aloud Churchill’s famous “we shall never surrender” speech while the music swells.

Are we meant to find it inspirational? The simple answer is yes, of course, naturally. But all you need to do is set it side by side with, say, the Lincoln letter scene of Saving Private Ryan (1998) to notice that Nolan’s tone, and where he leaves his characters, is something different than just the typical piety—starting with the fact that the soldier reads the speech solemnly but without grandiloquence. Is he dazed? Weary? Optimistic? Nervous? Quietly resolved? All of the above? Contradictions can be found in reconciling the end with what came before it: war as a challenge that must be faced, as an ordeal that any sane man might run from, as a reverent demand for heroism, as a reality where survival matters most. (And, whether the film realizes it or not, as both a violent nightmare and a spectacle with an audience-friendly PG-13 rating). It is in this respect that Dunkirk, taken as a whole, comes shy of being a masterpiece, but provides one of the more valuable storytelling lessons of Nolan’s career: that the true measure of a film’s complexity is not its tricky structures, loaded mythology, or topical window-dressing, but the amount of opposing truths it can fit onto the same screen at once.

In other words, Dunkirk is, like any Nolan film, a clockwork mechanism. But it is built to leave you somewhat disoriented and suspended as well as moved, whereas someone like Steven Spielberg always left World War II, as both an event and an idea, tied in a neat little bow. Nolan may be the first director to try and reconcile the Spielberg of Saving Private Ryan with the Terrence Malick of The Thin Red Line (1998)—a cinephile divide if there ever was one—and the fact that Nolan even comes close is a remarkable achievement. Dunkirk isn’t a film without flaws, compromises, or contrivances. It doesn’t reinvent the World War II movie, which is a lot to ask, I know. But for now, it is one of the most potent movies for both its year and its director; it means more to me in 2017 than Private Ryan ever did. Skill with a camera was never Nolan’s problem, even when he was working on less than $10,000. But more than ever, Nolan and his considerable talents are closer to saying something magnificent than to performing sleight-of-hand.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Dunkirk is now available as a digital rental, whether Christopher Nolan likes that or not. It will still feel intensely claustrophobic on a laptop screen.

Short Cuts: THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

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Can whimsy and social urgency mix? As a matter of principle, I see no reason why a topical issue can’t be heavily aestheticized—if done properly, it’s both more vivid and more honest than the pretension of “realism.” But doing so takes the greatest of care. That’s the thread walked by Aki Kaurismäki’s new comedy The Other Side of Hope, in which a Syrian refugee named Khaled, having fled the violence in Aleppo and been driven across eastern Europe, lands unceremoniously in Finland. Or rather, in Kaurismäki’s version of Finland: a place of chain-smoking cool, retro guitar licks, and rooms so color-coded that just about every scene includes a static composition that could be hung comfortably on a wall. (Kaurismäki’s deadpan sensibility makes him Finland’s Jim Jarmusch, though it may be more proper to say that Jarmusch is America’s Kaurismäki). Khaled, as played by Sherwan Haji, is something of a Buster Keaton figure: generally silent, physically small, expressively inexpressive, unfailingly innocent and honest, and ever-persevering through all the indignities, indifference, and injury that life—in this case, life as a refugee—throws his way. And fate has him set on a course to collide with a wannabe restauranteur whose morals are shady at best. The film often plays by screwball logic; that is, characters will make a decision because that’s what’s required for comedy—and the way this mingles with the migrant crisis, including glimpses of real violence on the news, can make The Other Side of Hope a bit too arch or nebulous or listlessly trapped between tones. But as its plot threads come together and the film closes, it has become a truly uplifting comedy in the classical sense of the term, borne from the idea that people can go on, that locals aren’t necessarily more law-abiding than immigrants, and that maybe the system will get its shit together. The coda earns the word “hope”. Bless it.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Other Side of Hope is appearing and disappearing at arthouses across the country. If you have a chance, take it.