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 in 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. Most of all, 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. It has its stylistic flourishes—mirrors abound—and 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 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, and in the process breaks and continually recasts its own spell. The body horror elements mean that anyone who picked out the film for purely lustful reasons will get exactly what they deserve. But forbidden desire 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: beautiful 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.

Short Cuts: YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

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

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

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

✬✬✬✬✩

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

Short Cuts: UNSANE

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

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

 

Short Cuts: THE DEATH OF STALIN

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In The Death of Stalin, Steve Buscemi plays Khrushchev. He doesn’t sound like Khrushchev—he sounds like Steve Buscemi. He doesn’t look like Khrushchev—he looks like Steve Buscemi with a shaved head and a prosthetic nose. And all of this is very much to the film’s appeal. When addressing recent history, particularly real-life figures who already have sizable media footprints, a drama has to overcome that nasty, hairy thing called verisimilitude. But comedy can whack verisimilitude across the face with a rubber chicken and still get at the truth, especially if the truth is absurdity.

The director is Armando Iannucci, and anyone familiar with his previous work—BBC’s The Thick of It, its 2009 spinoff movie In the Loop, and his leap to America with HBO’s Veep—will know what to expect: a comedy set in entrenched government bureaucracy, where ships of state are manned by hapless, childish, recognizably human fools whose convictions are spotty and who can only try their best to avoid a very British kind of embarrassment. Only here, the stakes are raised, because we are in the dead center of Soviet power grabs, and such embarrassments are staged with violent round-ups going on in the background. In our own time, when anxious leftists might wonder if incipient authoritarianism is too incompetent to succeed, a pitch-black political comedy is a deliciously dangerous prospect: an uncomfortable reminder that it’s perfectly possible to trip and fall ass-backwards into a dystopia.

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

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

✬✬✬✩✩

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

Short Cuts: THE 15:17 TO PARIS

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

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

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

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

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

✬✬✬✩✩

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