Short Cuts: ROMA

ROMA

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

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

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

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

✬✬✬✬✬

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

Short Cuts: THE FAVOURITE

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Over Thanksgiving, The Favourite arrived in American theaters with the strongest box office premiere of any limited release of 2018, and it’s been off to the races to since then. It comes as no surprise that Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film hit the ground running for awards season; I hadn’t seen it yet, but had been at the theater several times when the trailer played for an Oscar-inclined audience, and you could always feel the responsiveness. 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 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. 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 costume dramas 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 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 had 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 family reunion.

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. 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; the stories show real progression, shading one another and allowing 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.”

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.

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.

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 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 facial hair. 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 villains who are as engaging as their heroes, 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 slight variations, 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, bad 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’s certainly no shortage of teen movies, but most of them are romanticized, sensationalized, removed into genre territory, and/or starring actors who are clearly older than their characters. Such mythology 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 basic day-to-day existence 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 play out with 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.