Short Cuts: AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

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

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

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

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

✬✬✬✬✩

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

Short Cuts: EIGHTH GRADE

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

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

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

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

✬✬✬✬✩

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

Capsules: September 2018

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A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

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

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

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

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

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Symphony For a Massacre (Jacques Deray, 1963)

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

✬✬✬✬✩

State and Main (David Mamet, 2000)

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

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)

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

✬✬✬✬✩

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

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

✬✬✬✬✬

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

Short Cuts: FIRST REFORMED

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

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

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

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

✬✬✬✬✩

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

Short Cuts: BLACKKKLANSMAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

✬✬✬✬✩

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

Short Cuts: LET THE SUNSHINE IN

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

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

✬✬✬✩✩

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

Short Cuts: A QUIET PLACE

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Over coffee once, a friend of mine said he has a principle: that the true measure of a movie is how much you can remove its gimmick and still be left with something special. It’s a good rule of thumb, and like any rule regarding movies, it’s made to be broken: it’s perfectly possible to double down on high-concept premise so wildly that there’s no need for niceties like meaningful drama. A Quiet Place, this year’s horror sleeper hit, directed by John Krasinski, is nothing if not high-concept. In a post-apocalyptic future, vicious monsters (aliens? mutants?) have invaded and almost exterminated mankind. The hook is that the monsters, while seemingly indestructible, can’t see, but can hear the slightest sound. So a surviving family, played by Krasinski, his real-life wife Emily Blunt, and a duo of children-in-peril, have to scrape by in near-total silence, communicating by sign language and watching every step. It’s all an excuse for jump-scares, for squeezing fear out of otherwise ordinary environments, and for the quiet place to be suddenly rattled by a frenzied set-piece. (One involving red lights and fireworks does very well).

Yet I can’t help but think of the aspects of its concept left unexplored. Consider the psychological implications of never being able to speak, laugh, or cry after a lifetime of doing so. Consider that it had gone on for a year, and there’s no sign that you’d ever get it back. It’s enough to drive any sane person mad, even without aliens/mutants/etc. And then consider that A Quiet Place is almost entirely unconcerned with such psychology. The film’s engine is more the usual combo of physical danger and underlying family pathos—and given the movie’s achievements, which include ruling the spring box office and getting green-lit for a sequel, that might be for the best. It is the psychological aspects of a horror movie that really have the potential to disquiet an audience; the rest is just for fun.

So this is slumber party stuff, through and through: some frights, some showdowns, some drama, some surprises, some light squeamishness, and some triumph, never breaking the boundaries of PG-13 while getting in and out in 90 minutes. The fact that $188 million worth of American ticket buyers were captivated by so little talking speaks to the draw of a good clean fright night; in my experience, it’s the genre where young moviegoers are most likely to roll the dice on a novel pitch. On that level, it works, capitalizing on its ambitions by taking them only so far. Even its stretches of implausibility can’t rightly be chastised as flaws. They’re more like conversation pieces for a monster-movie audience—something for you and your friends to fondly joke about after the show, having been engaged for the duration, pleasantly goosed, and able to sleep soundly.

✬✬✬✩✩

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A Quiet Place is now available on home video and streaming. I don’t know why I keep seeing outlets refer to this as John Krasinski’s directing debut—it seems kind of unfair to the two features he directed before it.

Short Cuts: DOUBLE LOVER

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

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

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

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

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

✬✬✩✩✩

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

Short Cuts: THOROUGHBREDS

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

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

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

✬✬✬✩✩

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