Archive for June 2019

Us

June 16, 2019

us Jordan Peele has proven himself one of the most fascinating writer-directors working today — not just in the horror genre, but in general. His presence behind the camera now guarantees my interest. Us, Peele’s mesmerizing, terrifying follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit Get Out, shows that the social-horror sensibility that animated that film was no fluke. This is, among other things, a thriller that (like last week’s The Perfection) is powered by surprise and its willingness to cross genre boundaries, so it’s another one whose plot is difficult to write about — though the plot isn’t the main reason Us gets under our skin, in any case. It’s the primal punch of the images and moods that the plot makes possible. For instance, how can I explain how hilarious and horrific the use of NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” is here? It’s a joke at the expense of Siri/Alexa-type virtual assistants, but it’s also a grim warning: For real, fuck the police, they’re not going to help you here, not in this weird new world informed as much by Hands Across America and Michael Jackson as by Kubrick’s The Shining.

Has Jordan Peele ever read the snippet that Harlan Ellison once published from his unproduced The Whimper of Whipped Dogs script? There’s an image near the beginning that makes me think he has — a girl drops her candy apple in the sand of a beach, where it sticks up as ominous night rain begins to patter onto it. I recalled Ellison’s image of a knife in the sand dappled by raindrops. Even if Peele wasn’t influenced by this specific bit, it seems clear that he’s drinking from the same intoxicating and frightening well of brutal visuals that filled/fueled Ellison’s imagination. Those visuals can help an artist try to make sense of violence, and in Us Peele summons hints and whispers of the uncanny in order to make sense of, and ultimately elicit sympathy for, its mostly inarticulate monsters.

The narrative begins simply, with a well-to-do family off to kick back in their summer house. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), the mother/wife of the family, seems to be the main protagonist by virtue of her introduction in the opening extended flashback as a little girl. She is grown now, and a bit skittish due to her experience in a strange beach funhouse, but essentially normal. So are her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They all hang out at the Santa Cruz beach with their also-wealthy friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenage daughters, and the subtext of familial violence expressed in ironic jokes begins to surface. One night, the Wilsons are trying to relax back at their summer house, and a quartet of menacingly silent figures appear outside.

If Peele’s subversive narrative style has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that after Get Out we know to notice, and file away for future scrutiny, any number of visual, aural, or thematic Easter eggs. When a character turns up holding a sign referring to Jeremiah 11:11, and when another character not only notices that a clock reads 11:11 but calls attention to it, we know we’re meant to look up the Biblical quote on our phones in the parking lot after the movie. (Amusingly, when you google the line now, you get back a bunch of images from Us.) I’ll let you have fun with the passage, with its intimations of evil and the wrath of the Old Testament God, and what it could possibly have to do with a story that makes room for paper people chains, Minnie Riperton, rabbits, Lucas/Spielberg nods, and the discontents of what used to be called (and in the context of this movie is a perfectly appropriate descriptor) “the underclass.”

The wounded-seeming Nyong’o plays victim and victimizer with equal conviction and facility, and Winston Duke, whom I’d only seen before as the sardonic, intimidating warrior M’Baku in Black Panther, is something of a revelation here as the much less at-ease-with-violence Gabe, whom Peele almost seems to have molded in his literal image. (When Gabe is forced to grab a baseball bat and warn the interlopers away, Duke gives us the attitude with a subtle undercurrent of self-doubt.) There’s twinning all over the movie, including a real spider crawling out from underneath a toy spider, and there’s Elisabeth Moss at her stark raving scariest, staring in a mirror and rendering her face incarnadine in more ways than one (she seems ready for a David Lynch movie). The movie is spooky as hell, dealing hard and fast from a thick deck of symbolist cards, and ultimately Peele offers it as a suggestion to think about what society and prosperity are built on. It is brilliant and timely and more than a little insane in its everything-ties-together narrative sanity, which the movie also comments on. I have no idea where the actual hell Peele intends to go from here, but wherever it is, he has my eager permission to go there and report on his findings.

Advertisements

The Perfection

June 9, 2019

perfection Netflix’s new thriller The Perfection (with its impossible-to-remember title) relies on the type of screaming twists and turns on a dime that can stymie a reviewer. How can you talk about a movie like this to people who may not have seen it without nuking its surprises? You can’t, so I am obliged to sketch and suggest. The Perfection is about two cello prodigies, Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning). The menacing artsiness and female trauma that inform the movie’s tone put it in the same small folder as Suspiria (either version) and Black Swan. It seems to switch not just gears but genres, several times. I would recommend going into it completely cold, and not even watching the trailer, which prankishly sets a viewer up to expect a vastly different film than it turns out to be.

What you get for your trouble is a handsomely photographed (by Vanja Černjul, who also shot Crazy Rich Asians), feverishly written (by director Richard Shepard with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) thriller that gets you hating one character, then another, then someone else, until finally balance is bloodily, poetically, and somewhat ludicrously restored. The Perfection is therefore not the nicest movie or experience. It exists to pull the rug out from under you, repeatedly, until you mistrust the rug and the floor under it. Is it pleasurable? Here and there. It’s more gripping than entertaining; it squeezes us, it pulls on the short hairs of our temples. It establishes and maintains control — bullying control. Like most thrillers great and poor, it essentially takes a rapist’s attitude toward the audience. It gets you alone and has its way with you.

The redeeming factor here is that, ultimately, The Perfection shakes out as a #MeToo revenge thriller. Its brutality and manipulations come to seem necessary in order to convey the wounding tone required to get us, in the end, on the side of victims who at first seem like aggressors. We may feel betrayed at certain points, but so have its characters. The movie also ladles equal amounts of beauty and rancid ugliness into its hermetic aesthetic, breaking away from that only during a cold roadside scene that packs the most painful violence, which comes to be seen as an act of mercy. The events leading up to the scene — like much else in the movie, and indeed in most thrillers — won’t stand up to harsh scrutiny. The plot depends on a hostile bus driver behaving as a character secretly wants him to. I imagine there’s a deleted scene involving the close study of bus routes so as to guarantee winding up in a desolate area.

The Perfection also contains the following: a tender same-sex lovemaking scene; a few lovely if stressful music performances; a performance by Steven Weber that confirms my longstanding suspicion that he’s aging into William Fichtner; a laughable flashback (or rewind, really) that explains how a cooking instrument comes into a character’s possession (almost as funny as the preceding scene in which the character just randomly seems to produce said instrument — the movie is firmly in the tradition of thrillers that can’t possibly take themselves seriously and don’t want us to, either); a bit that had me thinking we were in Romeo Is Bleeding territory and on the exit into Long Jeanne Silver turf; a quaint confidence in various medications to have exactly the effect on someone that one hopes they will have.

There’s more, but I grow tired of avoiding writing about the story. I can finish by praising the intense performances of Williams and Browning, or the way a cello performance that must proceed without error elicits more sympathetic wincing than does the sometimes graphic violence, or the film’s nearly Cronenbergian reliance on body horror and disfigurement. The Perfection is strongly made, scene for scene, and it ends on a note of serene unity of soul through music in the face of ghastly oppression. But I can’t say I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when it was done squeezing my soft bits. I won’t claim it doesn’t have the right to play with sensitive themes and elements to get its effects; I think, ultimately, it earns that right and shows itself to be compassionate. You do have to navigate a whole lot of bear traps to get there, though, and you may not agree that it’s worth the journey, with all its hurt and vomit and maggoty visions of sickness. I can raise a glass to the skill of all involved but I’m in no hurry to feel all those things, see all those things, again any time soon.

The Wild Bunch

June 2, 2019

wildbunch Watching The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus, you might imagine it should have killed off all Westerns forevermore. Or movies. The film, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on June 18, was designed to flip our violence-craving switch off by giving us splattering, gushing, slow-motion carnage. Instead, to Peckinpah’s chagrin, it fed and reinforced that craving. And yet, to modern eyes, it’s not the copious blood squibs and squirts that feel revolutionary (not when we know it was preceded by Kurosawa and Herschell Gordon Lewis); it’s Lou Lombardo’s time-scrambling editing, which glides from regular to slow motion between shots during the sequences of greatest brutality. Old-school mythmaking met new-school technique and produced, as Pauline Kael had it, a new wine that exploded the old bottle of the Western.

The basic story is older than the medium itself — a band of aging outlaws on one final score. But Peckinpah takes it and tries to strip off all the romanticism that had accumulated around the trope for the past seventy years or so. In retrospect, Gene Hackman’s character in Unforgiven can be seen as a Peckinpah figure, debunking the grand old legends of the West, replacing the pulps’ malarkey with his own cheerfully cynical version. (And I mean cheerfully; despite the gore and grime of The Wild Bunch, its tone is mostly the opposite of grim and gritty. There are a few points when characters join in full-throated nihilistic laughter.) In this savage universe, death is noted and given its due, but only briefly; life is pursuit and retreat, and innocence is represented by a group of children burning ants and a scorpion alive.

In such a godless place, only killers and thieves with some sort of moral code, however shaky, stand a chance of existing with dignity. Our anti-hero, Pike Bishop (William Holden), says that if we can’t be loyal to the men we ride with, we’re no better than animals. But no one else is obligated to share that ethos. The movie is set in 1913, possibly a surprise to newcomers, and the appearance of an automobile seems really out of place in the reality established in the film up to that point. But it’s not the car that’s the anachronism, it’s these men, who might have made their bones after or even during the Civil War, and who don’t belong in the 20th century. Moral codes are becoming an endangered species. In one short year, all the technology seen or talked about by these men — such as the machine gun that gets such play during the climax — will be put to use in the first Great War. For most of the movie, though, our anti-heroes — including Ernest Borgnine as sarcastic Dutch and Ben Johnson and Warren Oates as the loutish Gorch brothers — ride through a world of six-shooters, rifles, maybe dynamite.

The pictorial style of the film — classical, elegiac — bumps up against the technique that fractures and prolongs death. Peckinpah uses pure cinema to make his point about the world passing these men (this genre) by. The Peckinpah figure here might be Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), formerly an associate of Pike, now deputized by the railroad to find and kill Pike and his gang. Deke doesn’t take any pleasure in violence, and isn’t like some of the human buzzards in his posse who rush to denude the dead. Deke seems to see the writing on the wall, and Ryan plays him with a sad gravitas typical of his great late-career performances. (Indeed, if not for later triumphs by Oates and Johnson, I’d be tempted to say Peckinpah got career-capping work out of everyone here.) A lot of The Wild Bunch, while working to be iconoclastic, is also archetypal. If you’re going to redefine painting, you still have to do it onto a surface, not in thin air.

And so The Wild Bunch is projected onto a big wide screen, larger than almost anything (though Peckinpah isn’t much interested in aping Sergio Leone’s near-parodic gigantism). The scale is epic though not inflated. The simpler men in the gang seem capable of joy, fleeting though it is (literally soaking in wine with topless women — the nascent second-wave feminism of its era touches this film not in the slightest, by the way). The older, wiser men can laugh ruefully at the abyss but have stared into it too often to forget it for long. That’s Peckinpah in sum. This lengthy Panorama movie-movie, with its crimson eruptions playing out in open air and sunshine, turning the dry Mexican sand into bloody mud, may be Peckinpah’s most personal film; he’s both Pike, an old outlaw feeling outmoded, and Deke, a former outlaw renouncing disorder. Peckinpah and his film are profoundly ambivalent about which is the better man, and fifty years later that may remain more of a shock than the arterial geysers.