Short Cuts: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

the_ballad_of_buster_scruggs

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

********

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

star-is-born

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.

✬✬✬✩✩

********

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

student-prince-banner

Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the 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

the-guilty

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

********

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

old-man

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.

✬✬✬✩✩

*********

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

Capsules: October 2018 (Halloween Edition)

the-fog-banner

Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the 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.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Short Cuts: BURNING

burning

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.

✬✬✬✬✬

********

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

image-w1280-2

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

********

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

Eighth Grade - Still 1

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.

✬✬✬✬✩

********

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

Capsules: September 2018

2046-banner

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

A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

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

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

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

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

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Symphony For a Massacre (Jacques Deray, 1963)

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

✬✬✬✬✩

State and Main (David Mamet, 2000)

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

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)

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

✬✬✬✬✩

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

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

✬✬✬✬✬