Short Cuts: THE FAVOURITE

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

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

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

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

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

✬✬✬✬✬

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

Capsules: December 2018

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

Small Change (François Truffaut, 1976)

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

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Mizayaki, 2004)

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

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961)

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

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

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

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

The Housemaid (Kim Ki-Young, 1960)

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

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey, 1945)

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

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Short Cuts: COLD WAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

✬✬✬✩✩

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

Short Cuts: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

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

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

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

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

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

✬✬✬✬✩

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

Short Cuts: A STAR IS BORN

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I was interested in the new A Star is Born for a simple reason: it seemed like a deeply uncool movie to make. The story is something like Hollywood’s equivalent of Romeo & Juliet: one doesn’t walk into any iteration of A Star is Born expecting narrative surprises—or, for that matter, any type of hip, ironic savvy. It’s a weepie and a melodrama, rooted in an (imagined?) cinematic past where the former term existed and the latter wasn’t a dirty word. You know how it goes: a star at the peak of his fame falls in love with a struggling ingenue and helps launch her to the stratosphere. Only as her star rises, his falls, and a mixture of alcoholism, jealousy, and the cruel machinations of fame destroy their happily-ever-after. Here, they are a country musician played by Bradley Cooper (also directing and co-writing) and Lady Gaga (fairly new to acting, and thus the closest thing to an ingenue ever trusted with the part) as a girl with a heart of gold and a voice to match.

“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” Cooper warbles sincerely, though the movie itself might disagree. There is a modern sheen here, from YouTube to synth beats to updated sexual politics. But it hews to an old-fashioned ideal of what a Hollywood movie should be: this is real you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry stuff, going big on unironic emotions, putting star power front and center, doubling down on any cliches, and leaning happily on the modern fairy tale conceits that can lift a Cinderella into a world of riches, true love, and artistic validation in the span of a week. I have far more use for L.G.’s transformation into an actress than B.C.’s into a singer, though the fact that each of them is trying on new hats has let them pull off a nifty show-biz trick of being known quantities and underdog revelations at the same time. If you walk out after the first 45 minutes, you’ll have seen the friendliest, giddiest, most genuinely feel-good movie of the year, and even a hardened cynic might be so swept up by the offhand warmth that they’ll dread what they know is coming. The cynic, then, can take comfort in knowing that Cooper and co. sell the rise better than the fall, and that the spell wavers any time the screen doesn’t have the chemistry of its two already-born stars to rely on.

I’m still not sure, however, that this story actually means anything, or ever has. There are certainly topics this A Star is Born explores. The filters of pop culture authenticity, for one—the difference between sitting alone at the piano and having a laser show with backup dancers. Lady Gaga’s own star persona gets its close-up, from her nose to her status as a Queer icon. And of course, there’s addiction and depression, which Cooper wisely recognizes as a more vital catalyst than jealousy. But there was always a certain exultation of show business inherent in the tragedy on display, not just in this version but in all of them, as if to ask “well, what else is there?” And no A Star is Born has ever really tried to reconcile that paradox when it’s so much more desirable (for them? for us?) to romanticize it instead. So guard yourself, as much as you can, against Sam Elliott’s grizzled metaphor about how all any artist can do is work within “twelve notes and an octave.” Your skepticism will be correct. But if the only way the movie could ever make its point is simply and shamelessly by hooking you, it does. Oh, how it does.

✬✬✬✩✩

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A Star is Born is up for 5 Golden Globes and enjoying a box office afterglow. If you were put off by it, you have two months to make peace with the phrase “Academy Award winner Lady Gaga.”

Capsules: November 2018

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

The Tree of Life: The Extended Cut (Terrence Malick, 2011/2018)

No one who didn’t like The Tree of Life wishes it were 45 minutes longer, but moviegoers pay heed. This official alternate edit is not better, per se—it sacrifices focus in a movie that already toyed a lot with scatter. But it improves the ratio of cosmic dabbling to dramatic incidents, adds scope and details, and even alters the meaning to become a more deeply optimistic film. It gives a sense of what the idea must have looked like on paper, and how the theatrical cut was bare essentials even if it didn’t feel like it. You might say these two cuts illuminate each other—and that the idea is too big to ever be perfected. It makes me want to see what else could be conjured in the editing room for all the flawed, frustratingly beautiful collages Malick has done since.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927)

It wouldn’t do to see the “Lubitsch touch” as purely a matter of comedy. His films are keenly aware of sadness and happiness—who gets to have fun, and on what terms—which the visual maestro establishes with both immediacy and delicacy. This non-fairy tale is a move towards melancholia, not without some melodramatic dopiness and difficulty in filling 106 minutes. But its imagined beauty should resonate with anyone who’s starting to feel time. Hail and farewell to FilmStruck, where it was the last film I watched.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)

Spike Lee is more dialectical than he gets credit for. His public persona may be an obstinate provocateur, ready to take or dangle any bait, but his best political work also has an open quality: it asks you to understand why people respond the way they do in the face of problems without easy answers. Hence why I, a white man who doesn’t consider himself a devil, can feel edified by passages of “white devil” rhetoric. And why the chief constant trait of the film’s subject is his forthright passion—his view of the world keeps evolving, and one gets the sense that if he hadn’t been cut down, it never would have stopped.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)

Much more of a wonky kiddie matinee than I remembered. But then, a good kiddie matinee (wonky or no) should make kids feel like adults, and any kid who watches this and responds to its ideas, imagery, and paranoia is a moviegoer destined for adventure. It still works: fast, lean, iconic, better FX than modern cynicism would expect, and the groundwork of a concept that every generation must make their own. You’re next, indeed.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)

How a thriller can have so many familiar plot beats and still be incomprehensible is a mystery of filmmaking voodoo. With Michael Fassbender more lifeless than his character’s valium use can explain, and little narrative tissue between A and B, this attempt to import another mystery from Scandinavia is a painful slog enjoyable only to rifftrackers prurient enough to laugh at the misguidedly-Anglicized name “Harry Hole.” And the murky editing is signed by (say it ain’t so!) Thelma Schoonmaker.

✬✩✩✩✩

*****

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

My heresy, for the month of Welles back in the spotlight: no matter how many times I revisit Touch of Evil, I don’t place it near the top of the man’s work. The opening and closing set-pieces are perfect, but the middle is a narrative hazard that neither the studio nor Welles reconstructionists could quite solve. (I’d prefer The Lady From Shanghai, if only because it’s able to abandon all but the faintest pretense of tidiness). Still, one can’t deny the cinematic virtues on display. Sequences seem to be directed by god, and the atmosphere is positively toxic. To see it in a theater is to feel like you’re suffocating.

Short Cuts: THE GUILTY

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In which a Danish first-timer with one set, one principle on-screen actor, and a series of phone calls gives most Hollywood thrillers a run for their money. Of course, suspense-mongers in this town have their own history of wringing tension out of minimal elements, from Hitchcock to Fincher. But even the apartment of Dial M for Murder (an average film, if I can be blasphemous) is downright baroque compared to what Gustav Möller cooks up in his feature debut, The Guilty.

The film centers on a Danish police officer (Jakob Cedergren) working the night shift at an emergency dispatch call center, and Möller and company very economically establish two defining traits. First, he’s good at what he does. And second, his experience has left him with a barely veiled contempt for the victims, perps, and fuck-ups he encounters after dark. There is something else, too—a more personal matter quickly hinted at, and then teased out with increasing specificity. But when he gets a call from a woman who’s been abducted, something lights up in him, and he spends a tense 80 minutes of real-time juggling calls to try to get her to safety. At times, he is a Langian figure, a technocrat manipulating the action from afar. At others, he is like Jimmy Stewart in the late passages of Rear Window: the helpless voyeur, able to see everything (or in this case, hear everything) but be too removed to effect it.

The film doesn’t waste a minute of its lean runtime, which is rare enough these days. And if it doesn’t feel constrained, it’s because the direction shows remarkable formal control within the sandbox it’s built for itself. The film knows when to let the stillness of the camera play against the chaos of the audio, when to go handheld, when to draw out the shot, when to suddenly cut—in short, how to tighten the screws for the sort of story that may make you want to close your eyes, but diabolically knows that you can’t so easily close your ears.

The worst I can say is that, underneath this conceptual ingenuity, it is really a rather ordinary film, relying on familiar elements of sensationalism, suspended disbelief, and conventional emotional pivots. It is not empty-headed: its thematic scope expands just when you think it’s narrowing, and it has something on its mind about a society of civil servants who, with all the data at their disposal, may still completely fail the human element. But form and concept are the virtues that linger. The Guilty succeeds at delivering an inventive genre twist far more than landing the lofty grandeur that its title might portend, if only because both feel a bit like show business. Whether it’s a one-off or the start of a career is something only time and maturation will tell. But for now, with an appealing lack of fanfare and expectations, inquisitive audiences can be surprised by a less-is-more thriller that any Friday night moviegoer might be sit up for and any low-budget, idea-hungry director might envy. I got hooked in, and so should you.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Guilty won the Audience Award at Sundance and is Denmark’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It’s now playing in select theaters—and if the theaters are too select, the people at Magnolia have generously made it available on iTunes for a $7 rental.

Short Cuts: THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN

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David Lowery’s last film, A Ghost Story, was about the meaning of life. His new film, The Old Man and the Gun, is about finding a farewell vehicle for Robert Redford. And any worldly movie buff might tell you that the two concepts have just as good a chance of being great cinema—just as any critic should note that the two films, for all their differences, share the same distinct air of wistfulness. With A Ghost Story, Lowery wasn’t the first director to tackle the Big Questions and be revealed as a better filmmaker than a philosopher, and its easy to peg The Old Man and the Gun as a retreat from loftier ambitions. But for warm but bittersweet comedy, Lowery does just fine, lightly eccentric and at ease with nostalgia—even if a little more ambition might have done the film some good.

In his (reportedly) last role, Redford plays a charming career bankrobber, ready to take your cash with a friendly smile and refusing to settle down in old age. One reason he’s still at it is persistence: he doesn’t need the money, he just keeps doing what he’s doing because it’s what he does. Another is that he’s working on such a small scale that the law seems to react to this old-timer more with bemusement than with any rush to turn him into public enemy #1. He never fires his gun, and even his victims, as they get over the shock of being robbed, can’t help but describe him as gentlemanly. When he meets Sissy Spacek—whose smile is, if anything, more glowing as she gets older—he’s smitten. And the question is whether he can or should go on forever, if he should retire as an ordinary man or disappear into myth.

With this material and this cast, it all falls into place rather effortlessly—too effortlessly, since it’s well into this laid-back, ramblin’ film before Lowery and company start throwing any interesting curveballs. For one, there’s the complication that, unbeknownst to Redford, he may have done more emotional damage over his career than just robbing banks. (The stakes are now raised—after all, what has a little federally-insured larceny ever meant to an audience?). Then there’s Casey Affleck as the cop who pursues him. However much of a creep Affleck has been in real life, he carries a bubble of soulfulness on screen, serving as a perfect foil for Redford because Redford seems to have discovered the secret to happiness and Affleck hasn’t yet. The steadiness with which the plot unfolds means as much as anything that happens in it. And the earnest conversations about how to keep busy past 65 surely served as a haven when the film, like a thief, snuck into a weekly box office top 10 that was otherwise being eaten alive by Venom and sliced by Halloween.

Still, I can’t help but wish The Old and the Gun were funnier, or twistier, or carried a greater sense of loss, or really were more intense on any axis on which it exists. I can see why Redford might like this as goodbye material: it’s a metaphor any movie star would be proud to call their own, and it’s infused with a self-conscious fondness for the New Hollywood of Redford’s generation. Outside Redford, or Spacek, or the fact that it takes a special kind of nostalgist to stunt-cast Keith Carradine, the main attraction of the film is the filter through which it views the world. This is the country as the more charitable side of New Hollywood cinema saw it: the cities, towns, and out-of-the-way spots of an era when “America” (or some version of it, romantic in its earthiness rather than its glamor) was enough of a subject for a movie. This one is humble, its abiding mood calm, its questions offered with such minimal insistence that they take a moment to register. It’s a movie that looks at the audience and tips its hat. I’ll tip mine back.

✬✬✬✩✩

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The Old Man and the Gun is now in theaters. Bonus Tom Waits.

Capsules: October 2018 (Halloween Edition)

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month is superseded by a playlist of horror classics, hits, misses, and cult objects in honor of Halloween.

*****

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)

Netflix’s adaptation, with “Hill House” restored to the title, is getting enough play that I hear chatter about it in the office kitchen. But the 1963 version by Hollywood polymath Robert Wise is still the one to beat—not only an old-dark-house classic, but one of those films where Old Hollywood itself seems to be dying and getting reborn in real time. The scientist and the playboy are stock characters from ages past, but the warped, wide-angle terrors look to the future. There are moments here of creepy atmosphere, frames composed for both beauty and shocks, and some impressive FX. But what remains most fresh is the psychology of repression, including a lesbian subtext that’s barely sub.

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*****

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

With The Fog popping back up in rep theaters in a new restoration, its worth revisiting this follow-up to Halloween (itself enjoying a zeitgeist bump) to appraise what John Carpenter’s cult classic does well and why. The 11th hour inspiration—to add a literal “campfire story” opening scene to set the mood—turns out to make a world of difference, turning the appealing slightness of this ghost story into a feature, not a bug. Other pros: the lively interconnected cast, the pacing, the eerie atmosphere, and a tough lead heroine who proves just how much Carpenter understood Howard Hawks. Drag your friends.

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*****

Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)

By the end of the 90s, a lot of what felt punk about Carpenter films started to feel trashy, a trend not helped here by a charmless James Woods and the other, other, other Baldwin brother you forgot existed. Yet there’s still some interesting things in Vampires: the acid western/giallo genre hybrid that informs the style, plus the leather-clad fuck-you spirit of Escape From New York redirected from the government to the church. And for those happy to glean what they may, it’s always nice when Cheryl Lee (Laura Palmer herself) has license to go freaky.

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*****

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Young people in a remote place just looking for a good time—enjoy the relative boredom while it lasts, because it gets intense. I generally loathe horror movies that use extreme grisliness to get a rise out of you. But I can’t help but admire how Hooper and company can freak you the hell out with grainy film stock, off-kilter compositions, and psychedelic lens flares alone. This is truly inventive sensory cinema, all but empty on any other level. American independent cinema begat torture porn; try not to hold that against it.

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*****

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)

I was 12 when this came out, and all my friends told me it either creeped them out, bored them, or made them throw up. Neither was appealing, so I skipped it. But seeing it for the first time now, with the simple setup and payoff, Blair Witch seems mostly a triumph of creating a fake document, its pleasures as close to a self-reflexive po-mo exercise like Medium Cool as they are to the run-like-hell dread of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And I dig the conceit that, in 1999, the most doomed hubris you could show in the face of the terrifying unknown was deciding to make a student film.

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*****

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

Presenting, for your neo-camp horror comedy delectation, a version of the 1980s so disaffected and materialist that no one can remember anyone else’s name and the closest they come to real human empathy is when they listen to Phil Collins. It’s a fiendishly witty joke, which is good, because for much of its runtime, it’s practically all American Psycho has got—apart, of course, from a killing spree. Maybe it’s impossible to do a deep satire of a shallow worldview. But Mary Harron comes damn close, and the red-white-and-black color scheme and eye for male insecurity register when they most need to. Shout-out to Chloe Sevigny for giving the movie the extra bit of soul it needs.

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*****

It: Chapter One (Andres Muschietti, 2017)

In a way, it makes sense that last year’s It is now the highest grossing horror film of all time in the United States, and not just because inflation isn’t on The Exorcist‘s side. It: Chapter One is by design more silly/fun/friendly than scary—a crossover hit for slumber parties instead of audacious deviants. When it’s vague with its mythos and mostly shallow in tying the horror to psychologically resonant ideas, that’s a problem. When some of the 13-year-olds are annoying, that may just be verisimilitude. Curious to see if lightning strikes again for chapter two, when they’ll no longer have 13-year-olds or 80s nostalgia to lean on.

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*****

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Now this is for deviants, or at least in the deviant starter pack. There isn’t exactly a lot of attention to plot or character, and I’m always skeptical when a horror film relies on shock-gore. But then there’s the total craft: the acid colors; the demented sets; the prog-rock score played as either warning or tease; the editing that synthesizes all the above; and Jessica Harper as the perfect wide-eyed lamb. It can indeed be said that Suspiria is About Something—namely vicious competition between women and the uselessness of men in their world, though even typing that sentence is meeting the film halfway. The remake that’s opening this weekend needn’t be something to fear; there are ways to embellish Suspiria‘s gaps.

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*****

Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

This was the time when people were talking about “the new freedom of the screen”, which poses a question for Hitchcock: when someone was so adept at sneaking around or challenging the restraints of the screen, what do they do in the age of X-ratings? The result is his most viscerally shocking movie, containing moments so clammy and morbid that don’t seem to have been filmed so much as heaved onto celluloid by a remarkably frank subconscious. With all that, it’s a smart look at British repression—and a tight, twisty plot that only falters near the end. The last Hitchcock film worth making a fuss about, with all due respect to 1976’s Family Plot.

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*****

Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945)

What would a cinephile Halloween be without mastermind B-movie producer Val Lewton? Isle of the Dead is one of the gems he cranked out in the 1940s, nowhere near his team’s best or most famous, but indicative of their poetic ambition. The island setting, the battle between reason and faith, the angsty and cruel main character—hell, this is essentially Bergman territory, just shot on the cheap on an RKO backlot and laced with some spooky faux-mythology. Boris Karloff does terrific work with a complicated character, but the second half strays too far from logic or causality. Martin Scorsese picked this to represent Lewton on his list of scariest films ever made, which says less about the film, I think, than that the young Marty was the right kind of sensitive viewer.

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*****

Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini, 1968)

From the golden age of anthology films comes a triptych that adapts Edgar Allan Poe for the modish 60s and has the rare good taste to tell its stories in order of ascending director talent. Roger Vadim’s Jane Fonda psychodrama is mild Euro-kink (naturellement). Louis Malle delivers solid work with a mesmerizing doppelganger tale. And Fellini’s 40 minutes are one of his best kept secrets, a fantasia of half-past-dead celebrity that’s enough to make you wish he ever made a real horror flick. This one goes out to FilmStruck, whose own departure from our mortal plane was suddenly announced today. After being unable to track down a copy of the film, I was pleased to see it pop up in their library, where they even offer Fellini’s short separately for the convenience of cinephiles in a rush. Watch it while you can. RIP.

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*****

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

2018 gave me the occasion to revisit this for the first time since my teens, when it looked to budding millennial movie buffs like a model of serious cinema for grown-ups. Looking back, I had two realizations. First, it’s not at all as serious-minded as I remember—in fact, in the shameless goosing, the cartoon villains, and the sexual subtext of every advance Jodie Foster deflects, its heart is the sort of smart B-movie prized by Roger Corman (who gets a cameo). Second, all of that makes me like it just as much—if craft can convince the Academy that a cheeky thriller is prestigious, god bless.

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*****

Short Cuts: BURNING

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In a way, it would be a shame to let any review of Burning, the new film by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong, say anything about the plot. The movie begins with the camera following a young man down a city street, and it’s best to walk in blind and follow along. Watch where it goes in texture, theme, and even genre. A social-realist snapshot of a lost generation? A straight-up thriller in the making? The sort of “existential mystery” Antonioni might have made if his films were informed by anger instead of ennui?

Burning, taken from a short story by Haruki Murakami and turned into a 150-minute smolder, synthesizes all of the above remarkably well. The young man is Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), scraping by on odd jobs and moving through life like a sleepwalker. He is chronically underemployed and has few social attachments. He claims to be an aspiring writer, though despite his ample downtime, he doesn’t use any of it to write. But off the street comes Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman who works as a sales model for a local store and swears she knows him from their childhood. When he doesn’t recognize her, she says she got plastic surgery. (“Aren’t I prettier now?” she asks). She seems to remember the details of their past far better than he does—including, she notes abruptly, that he used to treat her with arrogant disregard. But it’s not long before she’s invited him back to her apartment and into her bed.

There is a strange, almost amnesiac numbness to Jong-su, just as when we look at Hae-mi (through him), pieces of her seem to be missing. Is she harboring an old crush on him? Toying with him? Is everything she says even true? Or is imbuing her with any mystery at all simply a way of misunderstanding an unfailingly sincere person? It’s a hook, and not the last for a film whose great strength is what it leaves unspoken, unspecified, or handled indirectly, while its passion coalesces with the direction of a jab to the gut. When Hae-mi goes away on a trip and returns with the enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun), a modern playboy with a Westernized name and money flowing in from some unknown source, the tension is set for a disquieting love triangle. It begins with a baseline of suspicion and jealousy and heads into increasingly sinister territory.

What emerges is a portrait of a system—one with a smiling face, a friendly surface, and an eerie normalcy—that can swallow things up and leave hardly a trace. It’s not hard to decode Burning as a work of social criticism. The broad strokes are there in the title: simply watch what gets burned and what doesn’t. But broad strokes don’t do justice to the wrinkles of a murder story that so shrewdly and emotionally plays with the very definition of the word. It is a rich and atmospheric film, sustained in its intrigue, attentive to its characters (especially its heroine), tinged with narrative abstraction around the edges, and taking the time to let the full extent of its ambiguities, anxieties, and most of all sadness seep under your skin. The end of the hero’s writer’s block comes in tandem with an act of violence, as if both are floodgates that open at once. And for all that’s unsettled in the film, that parallel may be the only concrete answer you need—even if Lee is old enough, or smart enough, to steep it in weary, mournful uncertainty. At American arthouses, where movies like this are liable to pull off disappearing acts of their own, Burning is not to be missed. It is one of the best of 2018.

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Burning won the Critics’ Prize at Cannes and is South Korea’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. It had a preview screening at the Aero in Santa Monica tonight and opens on Friday in select theaters.