Archive for December 2018

Cold War

December 30, 2018

coldwar Together with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest work of beauty Cold War reminds modern viewers how lovely and, yes, roomy a film shot in the old, squarish Academy ratio can look. Towards the end, when the film’s star-crossed lovers are dropped off by a bus beneath a massive tree, they are dwarfed by it in a way they couldn’t be in a more conventional rectangular composition. Events global and intimate weigh on the protagonists, and the images (with the help of cinematographer Łukasz Żal), with their cavernous head room, imply that the very atmosphere itself is pressing down on the people.

Cold War, loosely inspired by the story of Pawlikowski’s parents, runs a brisk 88 minutes (including six or so minutes of end credits) and spans fifteen years. The next time some hot-shot blockbuster director brings a superhero movie in at north of two (or even two and a half) hours and tries to tell you the epic length is necessary, show them Cold War, which despite its brevity allows itself plenty of breathing room for ambiguity and elliptical storytelling. The couple, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), run across each other various times over the decade and a half, in Poland, in Moscow, in Berlin and Yugoslavia and Paris. Each encounter seems to make the same point about how they’re not meant for anyone else but can’t live together either.

The film’s approach to the romance (if that is the word) is a bit distanced, as though Pawlikowski had no idea what drew and bound together his own disputatious parents. Maybe he made the movie in order to find out, but I don’t think he succeeded, if so. The movie makes better sense as a metaphor for conflicting values or temperaments; she is art, he is business, she is confidence, he is fear, she is flexible, he is rigid. Most importantly, he defects to France and becomes a peripatetic session musician, while she legally goes wherever her ensemble goes and eventually builds a solo career. During all this, the music starts with peasant-authentic folk, then shifts to state-approved odes to authority, then jazz, then rock and roll; we see the evolution (or devolution, as some at the time would have said) of pop music in the mid-20th century.

Cold War has a classical old-Hollywood chiaroscuro sheen. Its black-and-white images heighten the starkness of the European settings during the titular era (1949-1964). It has its thematic and aesthetic ducks in a row; it’s an understated achievement of great elegance and awareness of the intractable illogic of people. As cinema, it’s near perfect, but there’s many another schlockier romance that actually makes us care about its lovers. Maybe if you go too far down the road of art you have to leave the basics of manipulation and pathos behind, the narrative beats that pull emotions out of us whether or not we want them to. Cold War doesn’t do that. It leaves us with a vague sadness about what might have been, and we sort of have to climb into the movie and flesh it out — imagine the dialogue we’re not privy to, the connective scenes of standard affection and attraction Pawlikowski artfully leaves out. In brief, Cold War rings the bells that respond to a gorgeous brushstroke, but ignores the basic matinee-goer’s desire to know why the boy and the girl get together, should be together, are destined to stay together.

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The Year in Review

December 24, 2018

wakanda Setting aside 2018’s global turbulence, what did the year mean for movies? I suppose African-American film fans have more reason to be of good cheer than they might have had a year ago. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther finished domestically with $700 million, far and away 2018’s top grosser. Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time got mixed notices and just barely made back its cost worldwide, but it was still the first film directed by an African-American woman to hit a $100 million domestic gross (and was definitely the first movie so directed to boast a nine-digit budget). Spike Lee had his biggest hit in years with BlacKkKlansman, whose domestic earnings tripled its cost. Other success stories include Charles Stone III’s Uncle Drew ($42m gross against $18m cost), Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (cost $3 mil, grossed $17 mil), and Malcolm D. Lee’s Night School (made back four times its budget globally).

Add in some wins for Asian-Americans (Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians and James Wan’s Aquaman) and gays (Bohemian Rhapsody is the top-grossing movie about an LGBTQ+ person in history despite its attempts to straightwash Freddie Mercury) and you have a better-than-middling year for diversity. What you don’t have, for the tenth year running, is cinema for grownups. 2008 gave us a sea of blockbusters pointed mainly at teens, and it’s been the same story every year since. Now, some movies aiming higher on the age spectrum finished just outside this year’s top ten: A Star Is Born, say, and the aforementioned Crazy Rich Asians. But even the triumphant Black Panther, despite its sky-high level of craft and imagination all around, is finally just another brick in the Marvel/Disney wall, and I can imagine Paul Mooney chortling ironically at the fact that the big-deal black superhero got finger-snapped into nonexistence just one movie later, in Avengers: Infinity War.

Nobody seriously believes any of those superheroes won’t be brought back next April in Avengers: Just Messin’ With You, We Ain’t Killing Off a Dude Who Made Us $1 Billion Worldwide. Disney isn’t exactly hurting (it can brag about 2018’s top three grossers, tossing in The Incredibles 2), but it got stung a little with the relatively weak grosses of A Wrinkle in Time and also Solo: A Star Wars Story, the first movie in its historically lucrative franchise to come out in the red column domestically (even though it wound up at #9 on the top ten). Warner’s Fantastic Beasts sequel is showing some Potterverse fatigue (or maybe newfound audience wariness about Johnny Depp). Universal has Jurassic World, The Grinch and Halloween to dry its tears over Skyscraper, Pacific Rim Uprising, and the one-time Oscar hopeful Green Book, a meant-to-be-heartwarming road-trip drama much criticized for its retro approach to race relations, which stalled badly in theaters.

Yes, I said Halloween. Finishing at #17 on the year-end list, the reboot/sequel opened huge and ended up the biggest-grossing film in the history of its franchise; even adjusted for inflation, it only came in about $20 million behind the 1978 original. A sequel to this sequel is already planned, though I wish they wouldn’t go ahead with it — people came out for this one because it promised closure and brought back Jamie Lee Curtis, and a follow-up would just be more of the night he came home … again. In general, horror remains strong as a genre; A Quiet Place (#12) was this year’s Get Out in terms of word-of-mouth success (no pun intended), if not in terms of social relevance. Threats to the nuclear family, whether visually challenged monsters or disgruntled white males, were the main boogeymen in 2018’s films; the year’s “Look out! Brown people!” movies, Sicario 2 (#53) and Peppermint (#75), performed barely above their costs and will not likely be asked back for a third or second dance.

It can be instructive to look at what scares moviegoers, but it’s just as useful to consider what makes us laugh (Deadpool 2, at #5, is essentially a meta-superhero comedy, perhaps bespeaking the first rustles of superhero fatigue) and what makes it dusty in the room (A Star Is Born remains stubbornly effective tearjerker material after eight decades). The popular myths of the day tell us where our heads and hearts are at. Of course, the big breadwinner of twenty years ago was Saving Private Ryan; of thirty years ago, Rain Man. It has been a while (fifteen years, in fact) since a #1 grosser, like Rain Man, was also crowned Best Picture at the Oscars (for those playing at home, it was The Return of the King). Will Black Panther break the streak and join the ranks of Titanic and Forrest Gump? We’ll see in February, I guess.

The House That Jack Built

December 16, 2018

the-house-that-jack-builtIn Lars von Trier’s traumatizing serial-killer epic The House That Jack Built, the murders have a rough clumsiness, preceded by something that’s almost worse — the awkward chasm of build-up before the killing, when our protagonist Jack (Matt Dillon) is trying to relate to his prey, if only to keep up appearances. A textbook sociopath, Jack has photos of various facial expressions pasted around a mirror, so he can practice looking human. He is human, though; the moments when he’s trying to manipulate his way into a house, or holding forth before the mutilation begins, show us the cracks in his mask of insanity. Somewhere in there, seen only in fragments, is someone capable of compassion, staring out in horror.

The point of the film, I gather, is to draw a connection between Jack the fictional ripper and von Trier the supposedly amoral artist — and, by extension, between the acts of destruction and creation. Both leave a mark on the world, even if a mark of erasure, and Jack takes it a step further by trying to transform murder into art — sculpting corpses into tableaux of ruin and decay. Of all the atrocities we witness, possibly the ghastliest is what Jack does to the face of a frowning little boy who, in life, was nicknamed Grumpy. I’ll never forget that sight, and moments like it are why horror fans have gravitated eagerly to The House That Jack Built — von Trier finds a new way to shock, to show us fear in a handful of meat. But for the most part what they’re going to get is a sermon on art and morality before they get the gory donut.

The version of the film most Americans will see (until the director’s cut is allowed to be released in America sometime next year) is R-rated, and missing a minute or so of footage involving the shooting of children and a nonconsensual mastectomy.¹ Whether we think we or anyone need to see these things is beside the point; this muted version removes taboos that had strengthened the film’s punch as a work of Juvenalian satire. The House That Jack Built turns out to be a movie very much of this fraught, bifurcated moment. The wearing of red baseball caps in a key scene may provide a clue. Anyway, the trimmed version is mainly intact, though I recommend it for the most part only to von Trier fans, who seem to have greater tolerance for the Danish maestro’s games than do most Western critics.

The movie is literarily structured into five “incidents” and an epilogue (“Katabasis”). The “incidents” almost all feature Jack singling out some woman — he usually happens on them randomly — and bringing the pain. He’s not especially slick at it; he bumbles through the first killings we see, stashing the remains in his walk-in freezer. He takes on the nom de meutre “Mr. Sophistication,” mailing the newspapers photos of his work as David Bowie’s “Fame” comments somewhat obviously on his ambitions. He talks to an unseen man, known as Verge (Bruno Ganz), who listens to Jack’s self-justifying monologues half-heartedly, having heard speeches like them many times before. Jack is being led to Hell, and feels the need to explain himself on the way.

The House That Jack Built — immaculately acted, by the way, especially by cold-eyed Dillon and by Siobhan Fallon Hogan in the film’s most wounding but least gruesome “incident” — is enough of an evocative art-house exhibit to be about whatever you want it to be about. Jack’s hobbies and trophies could sensibly be read as the horrific logical extension of white male privilege, and its ultimate destination might make this von Trier’s most cheerful film in quite a while. Maybe Jack can kill with impunity — though not forever — and maybe, as he shouts, “nobody wants to help,” but that doesn’t mean no consequences. By the end, when we see the end result of Jack’s hoarding of his victims, we understand that we have left the realm of the literal — if we were ever in it — and entered the twistier dreamland of metaphor, icon, myth. We recall the sorrowful, stinging tone of von Trier’s previous fables about America, and we understand we all live in Jack’s house.

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¹This sequence, in the R-rated version, becomes darkly hilarious for its glimpse into what the MPAA finds beyond the limits of an R rating (showing a breast being cut off), and what is apparently acceptable (showing a disembodied breast being prankishly tucked under someone’s windshield wiper, and the other one used as Jack’s wallet). I leave it to the reader to determine which is worse.

Bohemian Rhapsody

December 9, 2018

Bohemian-Rhapsody If we agree that movies — even documentaries — are not the first place to look for the unalloyed truth, the question then becomes, What story are we being told? To what ends are the facts being bent? The answer may explain why a movie is a runaway success, like Bohemian Rhapsody, the most lucrative musical biopic of all time, which takes the thorny persona of Freddie Mercury and gentles him into what he says, in the film, he doesn’t want to be: a cautionary tale. Better to say that Mercury, safely dead for the better part of three decades, is now ripe for autopsy and a moviemaker can try to divine by his entrails.

The narrative being pushed here is one of a boy, Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), who as the movie begins has already Americanized his name to Freddie. After a while he will legally change his last name to Mercury, cutting himself off from his Farsi roots. Freddie is bisexual but falls in love with one woman, Mary (Lucy Boynton). Despite his later life consisting of a blur of male partners, Mary remains his one great love. With his band Queen, Freddie reaches the stars but emotionally wallows in the gutter, until his AIDS diagnosis humbles him. He grovels his way back to the band (with their hetero lives, their wives and children), and the movie ends on the sweeping up note of Queen’s triumph at 1985’s Live Aid concert.

Never mind that the real Mercury wasn’t diagnosed until 1987; that would just end things on a bummer, and bummers don’t make almost $600 million worldwide. Bohemian Rhapsody certainly doesn’t take aesthetic risks comparable to those of its namesake single; it’s a bog-standard rise-and-fall-and-rise music biopic, and whatever affection has attached to it is pretty much the work of Rami Malek, whose resemblance to Mercury is passable — the actual Mercury had a kind of Christopher Reeve butch handsomeness interrupted by the extra teeth crowding his mouth. The way Malek’s syllables undertake the perilous journey around the fake choppers he wears is a little distracting, but a quick check of video of Mercury himself reveals that’s pretty much how he talked, right down to the frequent sucking on the front teeth.

Malek obliges the movie’s preferred narrative by enacting young, hungry Freddie, then success-sodden, druggy-orgy Freddie, then humbled Freddie ready for greatness, having suffered and renounced the catting around. He does all of this with sufficient facility, but Bohemian Rhapsody is probably better suited for people who haven’t seen this basic story a hundred times. The difference is the music, and I wonder if part of what accounts for the strong box office is that people are using the movie to see “Queen” in concert. The singing is Mercury’s, as is the band’s playing, taken, I assume, from live tapes of the era, so people might also want to hear the music in movie theaters with reasonably good sound systems as a communal event, framed by biographical re-enactments with the guy from Mr. Robot.

I’d hate to think it’s the message that’s driving repeat business. And that message? If you’re from an immigrant family, and on the queer spectrum, you can have it all, but don’t get too far above yourself. Show respect for your ma and pa (both followers of Zoroastrianism, which teaches that to be gay is to be demonic), tell your one-time white hetero female lover that she’s the love of your life (to hell with you, Jim Hutton, the lover who nursed Mercury until his death), and basically reject whatever sweaty, glittery, outlaw energy made people want to make a movie about you in the first place. Oh, and the press — enemy of the people! — is a mob of barking, salacious freaks who just want to know who you’re fucking, and gays around you will sell you out to them. “I’m not going to be anybody’s victim, AIDS poster boy or cautionary tale,” says Freddie, blithely unaware of the movie he’s in and what it turns him into.

Suspiria (2018)

December 2, 2018

When director Luca Guadagnino says that his film Suspiria is less a remake of than an homage to Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, I believe him. The new Suspiria takes the preceding movie’s basic premise — a young American woman (Dakota Johnson) arrives at a German ballet school, and supernatural shenanigans follow — and goes very much its own way. Guadagnino doesn’t attempt Argento’s virtuosic reveries of over-the-top bloodletting. His film is gory — Suspiria ’18 pushes the boundaries of an R rating ever further — but he doesn’t try to replicate Argento’s specific showstoppers. Instead, he gives us violence rooted in pain and fear. I suppose Argento’s Suspiria is a sanguinary art bauble, high on its own color and soundtrack and ominous mood, not built to evoke more than spooky fun; Guadagnino’s Suspiria, with a straight face, works nothing less than the Holocaust into its dark fable.

This will irritate some, no doubt, but Guadagnino is using the language of cinematic horror to inquire into the horrors real humans are capable of. I could go on in this vein, but I’m doomed to be honest and say that this Suspiria has so much under its hood the vehicle barely moves. It idles for two hours and change before ramping up to Vin Diesel extremes in its last act (there are six, plus an epilogue), at which point the art-house crowd may bolt for the exit and the horror-flick crowd may have followed Morpheus into the land of dreams. Guadagnino and his screenwriter David Kajganich meditate on the Germany of 1977, a country afraid of its own shadow and scarred with the wall that abuts the ballet school. What this has to do with witches (who are rumored to run the school) isn’t clear, though I think the witches take power from collective shame and guilt.

Dakota Johnson continues to be a tabula rasa who could, in theory, be a canvas for art in an art-soaked movie like this, but isn’t. As a dancer she’s up there among a bunch of professional dancers; as an actress, she shares a lot of scenes with Tilda Swinton as the school’s matriarch (and, swathed in latex, a couple of other roles). Swinton, as always, keeps her cool, though as the movie ratchets up to a pitch of hysteria not unlike that of Hereditary, Swinton meets a fate similar to Toni Collette’s in that film. The movie is flooded with images of bodily mutilation, and after a while one stops charitably seeking subtext in the agonies of the flesh and begins to find it all just … ugly. Guadagnino’s horrors are aggressively grotesque, but also easy to shake off; when Argento at his peak used violence, the set pieces tended to leave us a bit dazed, wondering what had hit us, and it had a pop-art pizzazz. It becomes clear that Argento’s occult dread came from a different, purer section of the horror playbook than Guadagnino’s does — it isn’t tied to historical atrocities in a way that commands us to make the connection.

Guadagnino’s fixation on the supposed horrors of aged, deformed female flesh starts to make Suspiria look schlocky and reactionary. The hero of the movie is not the bland Johnson’s Susie Bannion, who in any case isn’t what she seems to be; it’s the ancient psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer, a man wounded by the Holocaust and dedicated to finding out why his patient (Chloe Grace Moretz; the movie sorely needed more of her), after speaking of witches at the ballet school, disappeared. Klemperer, as whoever cares knows by now, is also played by Swinton, who under the cloak of make-up allows Klemperer a quiet decency. The rest of it is chaos. Some will engage with it strongly enough to revisit it several times; I found it a chore to get through once, and not just because of its distended running time. It’s unpleasant; it’s not entertainment, but its art is mostly on loan.