THE ROUND-UP 2018: Virtual Fantasies

As I prepare to call it a day on 2018, the Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for films that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive on this blog and come shy of my upcoming Best-Of. I present highlights here—let the lightning round begin.

Ready-Player-One

Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)

No futuristic dystopia that includes the phrase “corn syrup drought” is blind to its own irony. And somewhere between Spielberg’s characteristically wonder-tinged regard for a brave new world and such cheeky hints of parody, this movie-within-a-video-game-within-a-movie ends up as the most preposterously goofy film of 2018—but one carrying a lot more than goofy films normally do. Its tribute to the “the fans” is to make them the heroic center of all the blockbuster tropes they’ve flocked to, which is both more and less than they (we?) deserve. But video games, even more than blockbusters, face an uphill battle in being seen as personal. So cheers to the heart that Ready Player One looks for and finds in the machine. You have unlocked Mark Rylance.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

sorrytobotheryou

Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)

A sign of the times when surrealism has to try this hard to be freaky; even freakiness demands finesse, and Sorry to Bother You shows self-conscious strain from wanting to be the weirdest damn thing of the year. But I’m prepared to take it as a distinctly regional kind of surrealism: this is an authentic expression of the Bay Area, where freedom is both a gift and a curse, and where conflicting utopian belief systems—post-60s radicalism that’ll never go away, plus the charlatan uber-capitalism of Silicon Valley—have to jostle for space. Whatever its flaws, the plot makes the rambling of a strange man outside a BART station signify with righteous paranoia. These days, it should.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)

If Incredibles 2 is no Incredibles 1, it’s for basic reasons of dramaturgy: a plot that isn’t as suspenseful, jokes that aren’t as funny, and the juggling of two storylines with vastly different levels of urgency. But Brad Bird’s 60s retro-futurism is still immediately distinct, and he gets away with more heady provocation than anyone at Pixar. His sequel mulls over the meaning of superhero-mania in pop culture, not without a certain tinge of critical self-loathing. That it does so while still animating the best superhero action sequences of the year is just one reason that Bird is an all-American crank I’m happy to call our own.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Crazy Rich Asians (John M. Chu)

As hearteningly progressive as wealth porn can get, and about 60% as funny. It makes the explicit, convincing argument that the East is already the new center of glamor and class-conscious fairy tales. And it makes the implicit, more intriguing argument that if you let ethnic outsiders fill every role in a Hollywood film, a gallery of stock rom-com characters—the wacky best friend, the party bro, the gay quipster, the snooty mean girl—constitutes a spectrum of humanity. Fie on it stuffy cinephiles may, but be fair and throw out half the screwball comedies of 1930s Hollywood.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)

If you’re wondering what a “political Wes Anderson film” would look like, it’s something like this: a genocidal war against dogs by people who prefer cats. And oddly, it kind of works, skating on charm and adventure, being somehow epic and miniaturist at the same time, and coming close to real-world commentary by demanding that when adults have clearly fucked up, it’s time to hand off the world to the young. To the extent that it all resonates, I don’t credit any newfound engagement with the outside world—Anderson’s recent discovery of historical pain is too glib in comparison to the masters he references. It’s more that in the awful year of 2018, even his toyland isn’t safe.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville)

Morgan Neville has made documentaries about pop stars, Gore Vidal, and Orson Welles, and here he makes the case that a Presbyterian in a sweater-vest was just as iconoclastic, rabble-rousing, and status-quo-shaking as any of them. Morgan Neville’s stamp is expanding upon media nostalgia; his style a simple immediacy that touches on more than it explores. That is, the drawback of a film like this is that it shuffles through angles so quickly that you leave certain that the fuller, more interesting story is still out there. But it collates, sometimes beautifully, adult feeling to a world of children’s television too easily regarded as disposable.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Bohemian Rhapsody Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury)

Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer & Dexter Fletcher)

So artlessly scripted, never more so than when it tries to be artful, that it seems determined to make its non-musical scenes as generic as possible. It’s for the fans, sure, mainly by trying to improve upon concert footage by juicing it with Hollywood production values. If such an endeavor requires meeting kitsch with kitsch, rock on, but it should be emphasized that Queen’s kitsch appeal was never so bland: this is rock stardom Disneyfied. I didn’t know it was even possible to Disney-fy a scene where one man winks at another at a truck stop, which might be a sign of progress—socially if not artistically—until an evil, charisma-free gay svengali seduces our hero into a world of PG-13 hedonism meant to shock your great-aunt without driving her out of the theater. Its handling of the AIDS era is a retrograde framework reaching for modern cred, which is a minefield the film blunders into simply by wanting to be (what’s that phrase?) lightly likable. So if it’s tame hagiography of something everyone already likes, what’s the harm? Then again, if it’s tame hagiography of something everyone already likes, what’s the point?

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

Short Cuts: SHOPLIFTERS

shoplifters

In the opening scene of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters, a father and son commit the titular crime. They move quickly through a grocery market, mindful of lines of sight, slipping food quietly into a backpack and leaving without paying. In the next scene, the father stops to buy croquettes for himself and the boy—a spontaneous and lawful treat, spending what little money they have to celebrate nothing in particular. And there you have the duality that drives them: a mixture of generous spirit and disregard for social ethics. After all, the father might ask, how bad is a theft if its net impact is more good than harm? It’s thorny logic already, and it will become even thornier when, before long, they “shoplift” something altogether larger: a child.

She is a young girl, barely old enough to go to school, who has run away from an abusive home. They spot her huddling in the cold, and feeling that she’d be better off with them, they decide not to return her to her parents. What they can offer is a spot in a loving but particularly makeshift family. Crammed together in poverty, their exact genetic relations (or lack thereof) are teased out subtly, and any titles—father, son, sister, mother, grandmother—are unofficial enough to deserve asterisks.

But they get by, skimming extra money in ways that range from disreputable to illegal, all of which the film greets with a beautiful warmth, humor, and charity. The mother steals from her job at a laundry. The grandma grifts pension checks and lies to her wealthier relatives. The college-age sister performs at a peep show, where Kore-Eda is characteristically non-judgmental to both the women who work there and the men who pay them. And the son teaches his new “little sister” the art and science of petty larceny, even if he’s getting old enough to start to Figure Things Out for himself. This is a family’s worth of character arcs, but the film may be most closely defined by the endlessly cheerful father figure: a small, humble, even childish man who seems doggedly aware of every human weakness and shame and has determined to assuage them all. By the time they all have a lovely reverie on the beach, you might wonder how long such outlaw humanism can possibly last. How long before it contradicts or even betrays itself?

When they have to break a window to commit their next crime, even a single pane of shattered glass feels jarringly like a breach of their code. Twists, conflicts, and revelations tumble out from there, muddying the plot, which isn’t a good thing, but complicating the humanism, which is—especially since the film’s idealistic sympathy remains steadfast, even as its instability is exposed. Back home in Japan, the film has been a hit and a controversy. Over here, Kore-Eda’s patience alone would throw him into the arthouse corner, never mind the subtitles. But a lot of what he has to say (about the importance of family, the supremacy of love over blood ties, the lessons that children can teach adults) would be perfectly suited to anything made by Hollywood. What makes it delicate is the nature of his storytelling style, the way he doesn’t insist upon action so much as let the characters take root and then steadily grow into it. There are threads in Shoplifters that arise and resolve with the directness of a Dickensian melodrama, and others whose ideas float unanswered. The final shot returns to the girl, who by the end is in a more uncertain place than ever. It is a graceful coda. It resolves nothing at all. But its placement, and tentative calm, open the film to how much lies ahead.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is up for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards this weekend. You can rent it now on iTunes.

Capsules: January 2019

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

Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)

Husbands announces itself as “A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom”, and “Comedy” may actually be the most ambitious word in there, as it’s a term that Cassavetes could only ever use loosely. This one’s more an absurdist drama, where the unruly excess of his characters—either the stuff of life or the stuff of acting workshops—is necessary for the moments where pure, crystalline, vulnerable emotional truth rises up out of it. A potent look at men who emasculate themselves just by clinging desperately to manliness. It sets out to feel like the days and nights you’re ashamed of. It succeeds.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972)

This Corman-produced hothouse gangster flick is considered Scorsese’s nadir, and rightly so. (According to history/lore, Cassavetes turned to Scorsese and politely told him he’d spent a year of his life making “a piece of shit”, prompting young Marty to regroup). The script is thin and porous, and there are only trace amounts of Scorsese’s flair with editing and camerawork—at least before the germ gets loose in the red-bloody-Catholic finale. Until then, it’s drifting actors, indifferent grindhouse luridness, wonky plotting, and home movie staging. But its mediocrity should be inspiring, both for directors and those who follow them. After all, the next stop was Mean Streets.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

Miyazaki’s manga-turned-movie is by any standard—in suspense, intrigue, world-building, visual design—a top-notch action sci-fi movie in a decade full of them. If you come at it from a reverse Totoro, you may miss the Wonderland/Narnia effect he can get by leaving one foot in reality. But the construction of Nausicaä makes a strong case for Miyazaki as one of better epic filmmakers of his era: lean, grand, purposeful, imaginative, with his eco-pacifist morality feeling somehow both idealistic and worldly.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Made in U.S.A. (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Godard’s kiss-off to making “fun” movies is, ironically, one of his most inviting, maybe because it goes full looney, or because it makes no less sense than a normal noir, or because Godard’s typically dense set of allusions is so very American. This is Godard trying to reconcile our country’s best absurdities (his favorite B-movies) with our worst, creating an immediate, accessible, and pleasurable pinpoint of the exact moment he fully swapped genre for radical politics. And Anna Karina, watching as tears go by, makes a wonderfully animated plucky detective.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Third time’s the charm, I guess. After being unmoved twice in film school—first finding it an impenetrable object, second a po-mo intellectual stunt—catching Contempt in a theater ten years later finally did it. How close can a cinephile get to their dream world without killing their muse? Suppose they took the muse for granted? Suppose the muse didn’t want to be a muse, but had her own desires in life? There are multitudes here, possibly the best film about selling out, drawn from big themes and little games so private that it helps to have basked in Godard (and his own cinephile heroes) to feel it. And “feel” is the operative word.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)

I’ve heard some viewers watch this ambitious, eye-popping documentary and feel at one with the universe. I can report no such awakening, except to emerge with renewed appreciation for grand cinematic undertakings and the power of the image. A lot of its cosmic metaphors are elementary, though that doesn’t make them untrue. My main hang-up is that I’m not sure how I feel about turning real individuals into symbolic props. But between the scale and the CinemaScope frame, this is its own kind of epic cinema, where the sets and synchronized crowds are provided by the world itself. For movie buffs, an astounding trip and a lucid tone poem—even for those who find that term uninviting.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Short Cuts: ROMA

ROMA

Alfonso Cuarón loves the long take, and it’s fair to say the long take loves him back. What excites in his use of tracking shots isn’t that he merely shows off—looking at you, Iñárritu—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. 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 cried, 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 easy it would be for a curious audience to 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.

✬✬✬✬✬

********

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

Short Cuts: THE FAVOURITE

the-favourite

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.