Tár

Posted February 5, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama

tar

Continuing Oscar catch-up: Todd Field’s Tár seems like long, dry homework — it’s a character study of a great artist, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who may not be such a good person, and it tips the scales at two hours and thirty-eight minutes — but it’s well put-together, with spaces left open for interpretation. It’s an art object about art, and whether a person who can create or at least facilitate art also owes society good personal behavior. Tár is a revered conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic; she has a book coming out, and she’s about to complete her Mahler project by conducting his Fifth Symphony. 

Then, slowly and then briskly, her life falls apart. Tár, it turns out, has a habit of having affairs with young, smitten musicians, and one of them, named Krista Taylor, has recently killed herself. Legal attention soon follows, it comes out that Krista is far from the only musician to drift into Tár’s orbit, and Tár is “cancelled.” There’s foreshadowing early on, when Tár teaches a class and is at odds with a student who doesn’t respect Bach’s reputation as a womanizer. The student’s response to flawed artists is as valid as Tár’s — most of us choose which real-world actions are dealbreakers for us when it comes to the artists we love. One point of the movie might be that saying there are no dealbreakers can be as limited as saying, yes, there are dealbreakers, things we can’t forgive.

Todd Field keeps a lot of things ambiguous. Tár of course denies any wrongdoing on her part, and she could be lying or she could be on the level. Past a certain point it doesn’t matter. Her name is connected publicly with grooming and sexual predation, and it becomes poison. Most of the film, though — I’d say the first two hours — has little to do with “cancel culture” other than occasional omens. While we wait for Tár’s house of cards to riffle to the floor, we study Tár, a somewhat arrogant and fairly high-strung woman who seems like what can happen when a high-school music nerd gets some power and gets drunk on it, then accustomed to it. 

Tár has a wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), who plays in Tár’s orchestra, and they share a small daughter, Petra. One day, Tár comes to see Petra at school and pays an intimidating visit to a girl who’s been bullying Petra. Tár assures the kid that she will “get her” if she doesn’t leave Petra alone, and nobody will believe the kid if she tries to tell anyone. This seems like a key moment, almost the sole reason Tár is even given a daughter in the film. Here we see a menacing, will-to-power side of Tár that perhaps young, trusting musicians also saw. Aside from this scene, and one other in the film’s final act, Tár doesn’t seem overtly abusive. She is smart and talented, and other smart and talented people in major cities put her on a pedestal — she’s a woman and gay and excels in a career traditionally dominated by men. Tár has taken advantage of all of that — or maybe she hasn’t. We get glimpses of evidence that, to us, seems inconclusive. It may also seem that way to the Berlin Philharmonic, but Tár has become radioactive and must be cast out regardless.

I don’t think Tár means to say much about the supposed “woke mob” thirsting to ruin the lives of artists by falsely accusing them of salacious deeds. It may have interested Todd Field as a sidebar issue he wanted to explore in the downfall of an artist, but I don’t get the sense that he’s decrying anything. The ambiguity about whether Tár is actually guilty as charged can provoke literal-minded debate, but I suspect Field has a good deal more to say about the creators we lift up and tear down, not limited to churlish-sounding Fox News editorials about woke hysteria. We’re given enough clues, both by the allusive script and by Cate Blanchett’s brittle, richly detailed performance, to deduce that Tár is probably guilty as sin; if not of driving Krista Taylor to suicide, then of other casualties left bleeding on the side of Tár’s road to glory.

That road leads far away from her humble origins as a kid named Linda Tarr. That may sound like a bridge too far in terms of a diagnosis of Tár’s disease. Ah, an artist is driven to the top by the fear of dying anonymous and obscure in her home town. In an alternate universe, is there a Linda Tarr who stayed and maybe taught piano lessons and was never given the opportunity — the rich white privilege — to follow her darkest impulses? Would that person have been happier? Is Tár truly happy? We never see her uncomplicatedly happy. The narrative is full of little hostilities Tár commits — the mini-arc having to do with Tár’s neighbor and her ailing mother shows us how unused she is to normal social exchanges. Tár doesn’t crowd our emotions; it lets us respond how we will. A note of caution, though: the price Field pays for his nonjudgmental, emotionally arid approach is a certain emotional recoil on our part. The movie is intelligent and artful. And we don’t finally give a damn about Lydia Tár or what happens to her. 

To Leslie

Posted January 29, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama

to leslie

Playing Oscar catch-up: To Leslie is the sort of small, honest drama that Oscar attention is meant to rescue from oblivion, so it’s a shame that Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nomination has gathered a scent of scandal (as I write this, the Academy is looking into whether the grass-roots campaign on Riseborough’s behalf played by the rules). Apart from all that, this is a glum but focused story about Leslie (Riseborough), an alcoholic who frittered away $190,000 of lottery winnings six years ago, alienating many friends and abandoning her young son. Now she drifts from bar to bar, getting evicted from her motel room and going to stay with her now-grown son (Owen Teague), who soon shows her the door as well. She goes to stay with exasperated former friends Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root), and that works out about the same.

Leslie seems incorrigible, but she just needs to catch a break, and she lucks into a room-and-board job at another motel run by Sweeney (Marc Maron), a kind-hearted loner who somehow sees the potential in her. She almost blows that, too, but Sweeney is patient. To Leslie isn’t the miserablist wallow in bad vibes that it may sound like. Just as it’s honest about the ways some people mess up their lives, it’s also honest about people who pull out of the tailspin and do what needs doing, and that’s Leslie’s story. This isn’t the kind of soul-grinding indie drama that leaves the audience with no hope; the script by Ryan Binaco knows there are as many successes as failures in the realm of addiction. 

The secret of Riseborough’s performance here is that she keeps a spark of Leslie’s former, clearer self glowing, even if only dimly during Leslie’s darkest hours. We sense what Leslie has thrown away, and when Riseborough acts opposite the great Allison Janney we get duets of loathing and self-loathing. Leslie and Nancy used to be friends until Nancy watched Leslie drink away most of her humanity. “How mean are you?” Leslie asks Nancy, who still not only holds her grudge but grips it with white knuckles. But Nancy isn’t mean, just heartsick at what happened to someone she loved and, somewhere distant inside, still does. But these are West Texas women with no talent for prevaricating, and Nancy can’t help coming off as bitter, even cruel.

Even by herself, though, Riseborough conveys Leslie’s maddening discomfort in her own skin. Riseborough takes Leslie to almost rock-bottom and gradually lifts her again, without softening Leslie’s rage at those who gave up on her, including herself. What makes her turn worthy of notice most of all is its generosity of spirit. Riseborough always makes Leslie interesting. Leslie is smarter than she sounds, and very keenly aware of how thoroughly she tossed herself in the trash. There are a lot of lesser performances like this in fraught indie dramas every year. Riseborough gives Leslie mordant wit about what a dumpster fire she is, but not so much that she’s just cracking jokes about her failures. Leslie doesn’t like to talk much about the demons that brought her low. Riseborough shows us glimpses of them anyway.

Director Michael Morris doesn’t prioritize his star at the expense of the supporting cast — Maron is quite good playing a decent man, and Andre Royo has the sting of authenticity as Sweeney’s motel partner Royal, an acid casualty who likes to howl at the moon. The movie is underlit by design, until the final scenes, which have an almost tacky brightness that functions as one last humbling detail. It’s just humbling, though, not depressing. We’re not sure exactly what Leslie did in her lost years, but we get enough clues; when she’s still drinking, she hangs out in the bar and eyeballs men who might buy her a beer and a shot in exchange for her body, and we figure she has past experience at that, but we don’t have to watch her debase herself here. (One man perceives what’s going on with her and politely demurs.) 

I don’t feel qualified to assess whether Riseborough’s work is “as good as” that of her fellow nominees, or “better than” other actors who didn’t make the cut. The danger, though, is that the kerfuffle over her nomination will lead viewers to expect a flashier, more forceful turn than she actually gives. That would be unfair, as her work deserves to be assessed on its own merits away from popularity contests or pricey Oscar campaigns or, indeed, the performances with which she is in “competition.” All I know is that she made me believe in Leslie and care about her future, despite Leslie’s acting like a turd a lot of the time until she gets tired of looking in the mirror and seeing a turd. I wished Leslie well and felt better about her chances (and the chances of others like her) at community and purpose and happiness, perhaps for the first time. Highlighting compassionate acting like this, again, is what the Oscars do best.

Videodrome

Posted January 22, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cronenberg, cult, film noir, horror, one of the year's best, science fiction

Videodrome-HERO

On February 4, it will have been forty years since David Cronenberg’s Videodrome — his magnum opus about fantasy and control — emerged, like a rash, on theater screens and shortly thereafter withdrew its shingle and closed shop. In the decades since, it has been re-appraised as an important work on display in the Cronenberg museum of images and ideas. Taking the form of a classic noir, the film is less a whodunit than a what’s-it-gonna-do-to-me. The protagonist, Max Renn (James Woods, seldom moister or better), owns and operates a shady indie TV station that traffics in the obscure and the louche. Max is always on the lookout for harder content, and he finds it in Videodrome, a program consisting only of torture and murder (simulated or real? does it matter?). 

One of the great ironies of Videodrome is that the actual content of the Videodrome programming isn’t the problem — it’s not, in and of itself, harmful to the viewer. It’s just there to lure people — perhaps a certain kind of person not averse to violent fantasizing — and then the signal, which we’re told could just as easily be conveyed in a test-pattern screen, causes hallucinations and, eventually, death. The concept of salacious and/or violently stimulating content as a Trojan horse for something else is borne out by Cronenberg’s own movie, which attracts us with kink and splattery, suppurating Rick Baker special effects and then infects us with its virus of ideas — or at least an invitation to debate them. Unlike Videodrome, Cronenberg doesn’t want to hurt you, just provoke thought.

Following the rabbit hole of clues and sketchy figures, Max gets involved with Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), who gives advice on the radio by day and indulges s&m urges at night. Nicki is intrigued enough by what she sees of Videodrome to want to be part of it. For Max, she becomes the erotically entreating face of Videodrome, her lips bulging forth from the TV set from which many of Max’s head trips flow. Despite the wild and often unprecedented imagery he puts on the screen, Cronenberg has never been a flashy director, which suits his material just fine. If we’re to understand what Cronenberg is telling by showing, we need to see it, straight on and dead-eyed. No fancy cinematic footwork will do.

Other figures fade into the picture, like gangsters out of the noir fog — mainly media cult types, who study the effects of mass communication and either caution against it or weaponize it. Somewhere in the film’s second half, Cronenberg gets a little lost in the weeds of his own story’s implications. But that’s what makes it art. Cronenberg has famously said that you make a movie to find out why you wanted to make the movie. Videodrome, possibly, stays unresolved for us because it was unresolved for him, and how can something this visually and philosophically tangled be resolved? It can’t. It can only go out on a small frequency and reach the like-minded, who may perceive its unanswered questions as a void they feel duty-bound to fill with interpretation.

Cronenberg began with a disturbing childhood experience with a TV signal that was barely coming in; the (again) unresolved fuzz and hiss of a bad signal, he thought, could have been a dark and frightening program without enough juice to cut through the static. That’s not even a premise, that’s a vibe, and the original tone of young Cronenberg’s unease makes it into the movie. The sometimey signal of Videodrome seems to cast its malefic spell by what it conceals as much as reveals. Sweaty imagination pastes in what the eye misses. Videodrome has a lot to say about the bad romance between eye and brain, mind and body. Cronenberg has taken his childhood fear and built a world of conspiracy around it. Some of it plays as old hat — Cronenberg had just been down a similar paranoid road with 1981’s Scanners — and some of it is an excuse for Cronenberg and Rick Baker to do the Lovecraftian work of imagining the unimaginable. “Long live the new flesh” are Max’s final words, and Cronenberg’s artistic credo. The flesh Cronenberg shows us may be new, but it’s as flawed as the old flesh, because it’s ours. 

Terrifier 2

Posted January 15, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

terrifier 2

“I react to the brutality,” wrote Pauline Kael in her review of the brutal El Topo, “because I still associate violence with pain.” Well, Damien Leone’s Terrifier movies are decidedly not for Kael or anyone else who associates violence with pain. For horror-movie fans who respond to the protracted kills in these movies as flashy crescendos, the viciousness is (again in Kael’s words) a turn-on. Terrifier 2, which earned $10 million last fall against a $250,000 budget, ups the ante on the grisly shocks Leone dealt in the previous films in the franchise — All Hallows’ Eve (2013) and the first Terrifier (2016). The films are unified by the star of the show, the silent creeper/killer Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), but can be watched independently. The first Terrifier is a minimalist slasher that exists to send various characters to untidy deaths, but Terrifier 2 is some kind of ambitious work of art within the context of slasher sequels (it even, for Christ’s sake, boasts a musical nightmare sequence).

Art the Clown never speaks or even screams in pain, and when he laughs at his cruel works, he does it silently. He moves gracefully, even joyfully, and often reads as childlike. He’s much the best part of this series; he seems to wear an aura of nightmare logic around himself, bending the world’s reality to his designs. He does too many incredible things in these movies to be a realistic psycho; he seems supernatural, even immortal, and here we learn that he may have emerged from — or at least been predicted by — the sketches of an artist whose brain tumor drove him to madness and suicide. The dead artist left a bitter widow and two school-age kids: Sienna (Lauren LaVera), a gloomy teen who works for months on costumes in her room, and Jonathan (Elliott Fullam), who has a morbid interest in Art. The devilish clown zeroes in on these kids, sometimes accompanied by a little girl who shares his rictus leer and his worship of gore; she exists, probably, in Art’s imagination, or maybe not. The metaphysics of Leone’s movies are far from consistent or coherent.

The monstrous killer doesn’t seem to want anything from Sienna or Jonathan other than to kill them messily, which I felt missed a chance for the plot to be interesting instead of distended. (Terrifier 2 runs two and a quarter hours, a long time to indulge Leone’s bloody showmanship.) Still, anyone who cut their teeth on forbidden issues of Fangoria magazine in the ‘80s, cooing over the color photos of splattery massacres and (even cooler) how the effects were done, will recognize Terrifier 2 as the sort of over-the-top magnum opus we Fango kids always hoped for and seldom got because the MPAA always required horror movies to be whittled down to win an R rating. Terrifier 2 went out unrated, without major-studio backing, and wound up spending four weeks in the box-office top ten. That’s worth paying attention to, even if the film’s particular emphasis on surreally cruel mutilations and hackings requires a loud and receptive audience. If you’ve never heard of Fangoria, you are probably not among that audience.

Some have noted, here and in its predecessor, that Leone tends to linger on the agony of the female victims while giving male victims relatively quick and merciful deaths. I can’t deny that, and I don’t know the following for sure, but women/girls being stalked and slashed is a regrettable but inarguable trope of this subgenre, and by lavishing such attention and fake blood on those scenes, Leone may be (I suspect, perhaps too charitably) parodying or at least commenting on that trope. The violence here goes beyond misogyny; it’s often too cartoonish to be taken seriously, and it’s not truly intended to be associated with real pain. It’s the sort of horror comic, caked over with red crayon, that a spooky monster-loving little kid might come up with. Like Art himself, it seems innocent on some level. It appeals to the part of us that used to engage in verbal riffs on gross tortures when we were kids. Again, if you weren’t one of those kids…

Glass Onion

Posted January 8, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, mystery, one of the year's best, sequel

glass onion

If, like me, you had the means to watch Glass Onion but for whatever reason had been procrastinating, I advise you to jump on in. This franchise, which began with 2019’s Knives Out, is shaping up to be a perfect delight. (You don’t need to have seen the first movie to follow this one.) The films take their cue from Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the sharp, drawling detective at their center, whose raciocinative acumen narrowly tops his keen sense of fashion. Here, Benoit goes to a private island owned by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who has sent out puzzle-box invitations to a murder-mystery party he has planned. Of course, the plot is a bit more complicated; the preceding sentence is not to be trusted fully — it describes what happens but, of necessity, omits a lot.

The first sequence introduces us to all the suspects, who know Miles from back before he was really Miles Bron. (Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed Glass Onion as well as Knives Out, assures us that Miles’ similarity to Elon Musk is coincidental.) There’s governor Kathryn Hahn, model/fashionista Kate Hudson and her assistant Jessica Henwick, masculinist YouTuber Dave Bautista and his girlfriend Madelyn Cline, scientist Leslie Odom Jr., and former Miles associate Janelle Monae. We’re led to believe any of them might have a motive for killing Miles. That may well be, but Benoit Blanc suspects the truth is more tangled.

Stories like Glass Onion are hard to review without spoiling them, so that’s about all I’ll say about the goings-on. I would chat a bit about the small pleasures tucked away in the margins, but that would give away all the jokes — the Benoit Blanc films are as much comedies as mysteries. So what’s left? I can praise how it’s told and the tools used. Johnson (who got his start in features with the neo-noir Brick) writes and directs these movies with grace and wit; his camera follows the lead of the script, every move and pan in place to support — or buttress, if you will, a word favored by our courtly Benoit — the tale. And since that tale gets a little convoluted, with an extended flashback, Johnson knows that absolute filmmaking clarity is vital to our understanding.

Glass Onion cost $40 million, a pittance in Hollywood terms today, but has a posh, expensive look. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who’s been working with Johnson since Brick, lights the characters warmly as contrast with their cold glass surroundings. His burnished images, wedded to Nathan Johnson’s rich, old-school score, take us to a comfortable past when money was still spent on divertissements for grown-ups and no expense was spared to make everything and everybody look good. If nothing else, the Benoit Blanc movies have an effortless style (wherein a ton of effort goes into making it all seem effortless) that a viewer of a certain age can take in without feeling insulted or visually tricked. The puzzle boxes may look implausible in real space, but these movies tweak reality ever so slightly. It’s still recognizably our world, but with charming little filigrees like a gag-inducing throat spray that presumably offers protection against COVID (the film is set in the first few months of the pandemic). 

Daniel Craig was always a better actor than James Bond allowed him to be. Anyone who knew that will be happy to see him amiably flourishing post-Bond as the suave master detective who, at a loss between cases, sits in his tub playing online mystery games with celebrities associated with mysteries. Craig lifts up anyone he’s sparring with, too; Edward Norton sprinkles some intellectual insecurity onto his not-Elon Musk, and if Netflix had allowed Glass Onion to play longer in theaters the film might have done for Janelle Monae what its predecessor did for Ana de Armas. Monae is terrific, fully popping, at last, as a movie star. All the actors here, really, seem snuggled by the warm camera eye. These movies know that even if a character is an irredeemable murderer, that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun to watch.

The Menu

Posted January 2, 2023 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, satire

menu

Who eats the wispy, elite stuff served up by chefs like Ferran Adrià and, in The Menu, by the well-regarded Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes)? Certainly not you and me, unless you routinely drop $1,250 on a meal. No, it’s for the rich and jaded. And the movie aims both barrels at those who have that kind of money, and would spend that kind of money on something that, as Slowik notes, “turns to shit in your guts.” The food doesn’t matter — it’s the status of being one-percenter enough to get a seat at the fancy table. On a mordant eat-the-rich level — though, to be fair, the film is never so obvious as to dabble in cannibalism — I enjoyed The Menu. But if you’ve consumed enough black-comedy horror about snobby gourmets getting their comeuppance, nothing much here will shock you.

Our entry point into this rarefied world is a young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who journey by boat with ten others to Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant on a private island. Chef Slowik rules his kitchen with military precision; essentially, he puts on a show, acting the way his audience expects a deluxe, eccentric chef to act. Tyler is a big fan of Slowik; the others, including a food critic (Janet McTeer), just buy tickets to the experience as a badge of superiority, or to find the less-than-robust fare wanting because, when you get down to it, most of these people aren’t as refined as they want to appear, and just want to stuff their faces like the brutal gourmand Mr. Spica in this film’s nearest ancestor, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Margot is not what she seems, and neither is Slowik; they gravitate to each other, carrying similar demons, and Fiennes and Taylor-Joy do their nimblest work opposite each other. Their scenes will play all the better a second time through. Hong Chau is elegantly menacing as Elsa, who deals with the guests using a quiet but deadly politesse (she’s having quite the season — she’s in The Whale and Kelly Reichardt’s upcoming Showing Up). The acting, especially John Leguizamo as a past-it hack movie star and Judith Light as a rich matron in whose eyes we can see the light of hope slowly dying, is top-notch; the director Mark Mylod clearly sets the stage (The Menu could almost as easily be done as theater — it is theater) and gets out of the way so this crew of performers can assemble some fine dishes.

But once you’ve seen what the movie is, you’ve seen the strings, and there’s about half an hour to go in which you wait to see how savage the situation gets. Pretty savage. Anthony Bourdain would have cackled his dark cackle all the way through it. But, again, if your diet has been long on stuff like Cook, Thief and various horror comedies set in restaurants, you’ll most likely see the final course coming; the only suspense is what the ingredients are. The writers, Will Tracy and Seth Reiss, have typed up a doozy, and I can’t fault the showmanship. But I kept hearing in my head the voice of my late friend and fellow horror fan Ken Souza, who would have given the film points for craft (Peter Deming’s cinematography is swanky-creamy throughout) but rattled off like ten different sources it cribs from.

I am a little more forgiving of lapses in originality. As Godard supposedly opined, it’s not where you take it from, it’s where you take it to. And The Menu takes it to a satisfyingly apocalyptic conclusion, the only way, really, for such a nihilist-lite work to see itself out. (I say lite because not everything turns to shit in its guts.) There’s nothing much the matter with it — there’s just not, finally, anything great about it. As satire, it sets up easily hissable Richie Riches without much shading. And the film’s (valid) grumbling about the inequity between classes would have more bite if we got to know anyone on Slowik’s kitchen crew at all. (One is reduced to a loud portion of Slowik’s ghastly performance art; one poses as something else in a somewhat pointless diversion; the rest are as indistinct as most of the maggots in Full Metal Jacket.) The Menu is a competently prepared dish that would like to be thought of, ultimately, as a well-made cheeseburger. But it feels weird on our tongues, like the reconstituted, teleported steak in David Cronenberg’s The Fly. In more senses than one, it lacks taste.

The Year in Review 2022

Posted December 26, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2022-12-26 at 11.46.02 AM

It wasn’t that long ago — five years ago, okay, an eternity ago — that Tom Cruise’s status as a big movie star was far from assured. The Mission: Impossible movies continued to be a reliable ATM for him, but never bigger than $220 million domestic. Other than that franchise, Cruise spent much of the 2010s either trying other franchises that sputtered out (The Mummy, Jack Reacher) or making big whiffs in relation to cost (example: Oblivion, which made $89 million domestic against a $120 million budget). Then, two years into the pandemic, Cruise released a much-belated (and delayed) sequel to a hit from 36 years ago. Result: biggest hit of the year (unless it gets Avatarred in the weeks to come), fifth biggest domestic hit of all time.

Paramount, which has the next two Mission: Impossible movies (and of course Top Gun: Maverick, the success story noted above), must be breathing easier as we trudge into 2023. And Disney can’t complain — their Marvel shingle gave them three of the year’s top ten domestic hits. Four, if you count Sony’s Spider-Man: Far from Home that debuted in late 2021 and played well into the new year of 2022 — it’s a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and Disney gets to wet their beak a little for that. The other majors had successes here and there. As usual, though, the ultimate loser was the moviegoer looking for originality and/or smaller films for grown-ups.

As seems to have become the annual reality, every film on the year-end top-ten domestic box office list is … well, I used to say “either a sequel or based on an existing popular IP in another medium,” but this year they’re all sequels* (and some are also adapted from another medium — all those comic-book flicks). You have to move down to #12 for a movie that isn’t a sequel or based on another popular work — and it was Elvis, nobody’s idea of an indie film about an obscure musician. A couple of notches down, at #14, was Jordan Peele’s Nope, which went the distance on the power of Peele’s name and the usual what-is-it-about? marketing. It’s good, I guess, that such an anti-genre movie could make it into the top twenty, and also that the Boomers had a movie they could enjoy in Elvis.

The Oscars this year, as has also become the custom, will be loaded with nominations for movies that used to be good for at least $40 or $50 million but have stalled at below $10 mil. Expect to see things like The Banshees of Inisherin ($8.9m, #83) and Tár ($5.5 mil, #96) among the honorees, but don’t rule out Top Gun, which may get a bunch of nods including Best Picture just to ensure ratings and a rooting interest for the mass audience. Then there’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, a sleeper word-of-mouth hit in relation to cost that nonetheless came in at #27, right below Morbius, everyone’s favorite thing to laugh at in 2022. Nominations might goose some or all of these up the chart a little, but only a little, since many of them are already streaming or will be by January 24, when the nominees are announced.

Streaming, Disney will say, killed the box-office prospects of their theatrically-released efforts Lightyear and Strange World. Those movies, other folks said, were the kind of shrugged-at bowls of oatmeal that now go directly to the Disney+ streamer. Increasingly, people just want to stay in and binge-watch things; Netflix’s Wednesday and Disney+’s Andor, to name just two, got the kind of buzz, engagement, and watercooler chat (social-media chat, now) that most new movies can only wish for. The rare event that can bestir the recalcitrant American butt, like Top Gun or, at the other end of the spectrum, Everything Everywhere is to be valued, studied … and feared. Every year we get closer and closer to art in general becoming solely (rather than mostly) a popularity contest, and every year we see fewer and fewer exceptions to that rule. There was a time when Steven Spielberg owned the box office. Now? You couldn’t pay people to get out of the house for West Side Story last year or The Fabelmans this year. But you never know. This time last year, Tom Cruise was sitting pretty, but now he’s sitting pretty on the box-office throne. (Cruise hasn’t been in a #1-of-the-year hit since 1988’s Rain Man, and he wasn’t even the star!) Spielberg might go back there. Or he might not. It’s up to you, isn’t it? 

*Okay, The Batman is a reboot, not a sequel; still, it’s the umpty-umpth goddamn movie featuring Batman, and I think of it as a non-sequel that, in the context of familiar and popular characters that people want to see over and over again, might as well be a sequel.

The Banshees of Inisherin

Posted December 18, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

banshees

The writer-director Martin McDonagh is now four for four in my book with The Banshees of Inisherin, a melancholy Irish piece about loneliness, grievances, and other depressing things. Take the kids and make it a Christmas outing! But the movie is not nearly as hopelessly grim as it may sound. There are the lovely landscapes (Inishmore and Achill Island stand in for the fictional Inisherin, an isle off the coast of Ireland), the rich-flavored music by Carter Burwell, and the strong performances by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and others in the small cast. The narrative may be a downer, but the work offers pleasure. 

The conflict seems simple. Every day at 2pm, Pádraic (Farrell) meets Colm (Gleeson) at the latter’s house, and they head off to the pub. Except that Colm has decided he’s not up for that anymore. “I just don’t like you no more,” he informs Pádraic, without any particular malice. What he doesn’t like no more, we come to gather, has more to do with what Pádraic represents — sitting around with pints, gabbing about nothing, killing the decreasing hours Colm has left. Colm plays the fiddle, composes songs for it, and would like to leave some sort of legacy to mark his having been here other than being an amiable sounding board for an increasingly drunk Pádraic. Colm raises the stakes: if Pádraic doesn’t leave Colm alone, Colm will take his sheep shears to his own fingers, one by one.

Some will read resonances with the Troubles in these two men’s troubles — the film unfolds in 1923, and the cannonfire and rifle cracks of Ireland’s Civil War carry across the water to Inisherin — but at one point I saw the struggle here as commentary on how artists often feel the need to stand apart, hunker down in solitude and write their songs (or their screenplays), to the chagrin of their social mates — without whom the artist would have less human material as inspiration. Honestly, though, there are too many elements floating around in the narrative to allow us to lock it down to one meaning. For example, Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Condon) is a sane female presence in this largely male ensemble, calling out foolishness whenever necessary, but Condon scrapes the barnacles of cliché from the character. Siobhán doesn’t really fit with my artist theory, and maybe that’s her whole point as a person, not fitting. The subtle, insistent roles of animals in the film, too, seem to exist on a separate plane while intersecting emotionally with the humans. In general, the actors here burst the barriers of possible stereotype; Farrell and Gleeson invest the blinkered men with layers of feeling, so that we never doubt their actions however wild they get.

Pádraic just can’t leave Colm alone, like a sore tooth he can’t stop tonguing. He wants to return again and again to the source of his rejection. Maybe he doesn’t take Colm’s threats seriously enough to respect his wishes. (If the men were in present-day America, all Pádraic would have to do is call 988 on Colm and the movie would be over in five minutes.) Colm just wants to be left alone, although the priest he visits for confession asks after Colm’s “despair” a couple of times. We start to feel that, despite its pictorial beauty, the place itself has as much to do with this intractable duel of wills as anything else. People are isolated, cut off from where the action (and work) is. They see the same people every day, do and say the same things every day, thirsty for any scrap of scandalous news to introduce some static into the low hum of Inisherin’s energy. 

The Banshees of Inisherin is not a neat work, not an easy thing to resolve one’s feelings about (and will not, as I said, reward efforts to wrestle it to the deck and pin an interpretation on it). It’s sad, it’s sardonic, it’s insightful on the subject of toxic masculinity and how it causes and is caused by the soul-death of depression. The women either keep an eye out for the next departing boat or stay and morph into mordant crones. Men like Pádraic and Colm needed to leave a long time ago, but they settled into their surroundings and their usual hang-outs, and they’re spiritually as well as geographically stuck. We don’t know how their story ends, because neither do they.

The Fabelmans

Posted December 11, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best

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If you can take a guy who punched you in the nose and make him look like a hero in a movie, the sky’s the limit. That’s the implication of the last act of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which tells a lightly fictionalized version of the story of young Spielberg as he gains a passion for movies — watching them and then making them. Here, Spielberg addresses an event that brought him and his siblings great pain at the time, his parents’ separation when Spielberg was 19, and sees it with enough distance to allow both parents humanity. He has made a memoir filled with compassion for everyone except, maybe, for an antisemitic kid who bullies Spielberg’s young avatar Sam Fabelman.

Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) gets the filmmaking bug when a trainwreck in The Greatest Show on Earth scares him. It’s fair to say Sam chases that emotional dragon — trying to recreate for his audiences that same sense of awe and fear — for the rest of his life; he asks for a train set so he can recreate the train crash and feel some control over it. That’s the diagnosis of his free-spirited mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a concert pianist. Like Spielberg, Sam partially takes after his mother — the creative part — and partially after his father, Burt (Paul Dano), an engineer — the technical, how-do-things-work part, the nuts and bolts of what gets a film in the can. Mitzi lends Sam his father’s camera so he can film the mini-crash once and just watch it over and over instead of doing it over and over. A director is born.

If Spielberg had attempted to make The Fabelmans at his manipulative-sentimental peak in the ‘80s, it would probably have been disastrous. His parents would still have been alive, and a concern over hurting their feelings held him back for decades. The way Spielberg portrays his parents now is far from unflattering or warts-and-all, but it’s not adulatory either; he gives them their due as human beings trying like hell to be good spouses and parents. There’s nothing like the shrill discord between Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which one parent has to leave the family to follow happiness. But a man in his thirties directed that, and a man in his seventies has directed The Fabelmans, which allows that the frequently suggested path of seeking one’s bliss, whatever that might do to one’s relationships, is not easy.

Spielberg gives us a few fun, amusing montages showing young Sam making westerns or war pictures, but they don’t seem central. The Fabelmans uses the filmmaking sequences to bring out the theme of compassion through one’s art, and that isn’t confined to movies. Spielberg’s handling of the kid who punches Sam is interesting and worth discussing. Filming his senior class’ “ditch day” at the beach, Sam could easily make the kid look foolish, but instead the camera lingers on the kid’s shirtless virtuosity at the volleyball net. After the movie screens for the class, the kid, upset, doesn’t understand why Sam filmed him so iconically. Sam doesn’t either. Sometimes the camera knows what it likes, and sometimes it likes bullies. The script by Spielberg and Tony Kushner has these sorts of ambiguities running all through it.

Spielberg’s direction is clean and free of unnecessary motion. He takes a page from John Ford (wonderfully embodied here by David Lynch), who crustily advises young Sam to pay attention to the horizon in his shots. The horizon’s placement, as the director of The Searchers knew, can lock in a thousand words in one image, and Spielberg does likewise here. In The Searchers, the famous last shot contains John Wayne in a narrow frame formed by a doorway and the horizon, suggesting his character’s ethos is better off boxed up or buried. Spielberg turns the horizon into a quick visual joke that nonetheless tilts up to offer Sam the sky and all its limits. It’s a generous, smoothly rendered work, among Spielberg’s best.

The Sight and Sound Poll, 2022

Posted December 4, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

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Every ten years since 1952, the British film magazine Sight and Sound has published a list of ten “greatest films of all time.” The polls are answered traditionally by movie critics (not me), and since 1992 a group of film directors has also been asked to join in. For a long time, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane topped the list — the directors’ list, too — and the rest of the entries were the usual (albeit usually great) suspects: directed by males, often white, often Baby Boomer-designated masterpieces. This year, though, there were some big changes, sending many commentators to their fainting couches. The poll is dead! The young and “woke” have risen up in their throngs and killed it!

What sparked all the fuss is that for the first time, a woman — a lesbian, to boot — took the top spot. Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is three hours and twenty-one minutes long, is in French, and focuses on the daily chores and activities of a Belgian woman (Delphine Seyrig), sounds almost like a parody of an egghead film-snob darling. (I haven’t yet seen it, but I want to, if only to spite the growling dudes who take its ascension so poorly.) Some rational objectors did say things like “I like Akerman, but this isn’t her best work,” and some of them may even have been sincere. (The extent to which I took gripes about the list seriously depended on the speed with which the griper reached for “woke” as a cudgel to hit the young’uns with. Also, some of the demurrals had the same month-old-Fruit-Stripe flavor as the 2016-era “I’ll vote for a woman for president, just not Hillary.”) The weird thing is, the film gives you what movies are supposed to give. It gives you a story, it gives you (eventually) sex, and it gives you (very eventually) violence. It just does it on a different timetable than usual.

I’m not saying you should see the film; I don’t want death threats. This isn’t about Jeanne Dielman, it’s about the poll and what it tells us about where we are now. For some, it’s an omen of the cultural takeover of the sinister “wokesters” who want to tell you what you should and shouldn’t like and who, for the most part, exist only in the febrile imaginations of Fox News talking heads and their ilk. These whippersnappers, the logic goes, are guilty of bad faith in elevating a tedious work by a gay woman because it’s politically correct to do so. For others, it signals a shift in priorities and sensibility, and not necessarily in a bad way. It may also mean nothing more troubling than that, until 2010, when Criterion put it out on DVD, a good many people outside Europe had never had a chance to see it at all. (It wasn’t screened in American theaters until 1983.) Now that it’s also streaming (HBO Max has it, as well as Criterion’s on-demand app), it’s easier than ever to access — though maybe not to sit through.

As far as I could see, none of the grumpy anti-wokesters (asleepsters?) at least cleared their throats, shook off the two-minute hate, and allowed that some stuff on the new list furnished us all anew with the will to live. Nope, nothing but ashes and sackcloths over in Asleepster Village. Me, I’m tickled as hell that David Lynch is in the top ten (Mulholland Drive, #8). Kubrick’s still on there; Hitchcock, Welles, Ozu too. I also don’t believe lists should exist to gatekeep. Since when is there a boss of culture, demanding that no film can ever be greater than Citizen Kane, no album better than Sgt. Pepper, ad nauseum? This list in particular gives us some stuff to chew on, some gaps to fill. A long-gone co-worker and friend used to say “Oh, you have a treat in store” if you said you hadn’t yet read or seen something. The list this time offers some potential treats aside from the usual stale Necco wafers of Film 101 vintage. (The directors’ list puts Akerman in fourth place, tied with Tokyo Story.)

Also as far as I can see, Citizen Kane hasn’t been eradicated by the state or vanished from everyone’s shelf. It’s still there. So are all the earlier lists where it’s #1 or #2. (For the record, it didn’t make the first Sight and Sound list in 1952. The king then was Bicycle Thieves.) Jeanne Dielman may only top the list this one time, and be supplanted in 2032 by, I don’t know, Caddyshack or something. And then the usual complainers will complain, and some will say “Hmm. That certainly is a list,” and look into whatever new top-tenners sound interesting. I’ll probably stream Jeanne Dielman somewhere down the line, but I wish it were shorter. If they wanted to pick an arrogantly static French art film directed by a woman, couldn’t they have gone with Marguerite Duras’ The Truck? It’s peak French art-film — a conversation about a nonexistent movie — but it’s only 80 minutes long. The length, mentioned by every review good or bad, is what makes Jeanne Dielman seem like a Mount Everest to be scaled and mastered, not simply to watch and listen to. Maybe people should just pretend they’re binging a three-episode Netflix series.