Archive for December 2021

The Matrix Resurrections

December 25, 2021

matrix4

There’s a whole bunch of plot jibber-jabber in The Matrix Resurrections, as there was in the previous three films in the series, but at least this one is a bit more emotionally readable. Lana Wachowski, one-half of the Wachowskis who engineered the Matrix franchise, has said that her impetus for going back to the Matrix well was the deaths of her parents. She wanted them back, and she put that yearning into a story in which everyone moves heaven and earth to get Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the heroes of the earlier movies, back together and in charge of the resistance against those who would misuse the Matrix.

I have very little understanding or recall of what happens scene for scene in The Matrix Resurrections, but the elation of having these two back cuts through the murk like a foghorn. Even if, like me, you were never sold on the brilliance of The Matrix, some part of you may respond to the characters’, and Wachowski’s, gratitude that Neo and Trinity are still up for a fight, though this movie takes a while to re-acquaint Neo and then Trinity with reality outside the Matrix. In the matrix, Neo, or Thomas Anderson, is a rich and betrophied videogame designer, whose game The Matrix was a big hit. Thomas happens across Trinity in a coffee shop, except she’s now Tiffany, married with kids.

There’s a fair amount of meta snark here. Thomas faces doing a belated sequel to his original Matrix game trilogy, because if he doesn’t, Warner Brothers will find someone who will. There’s some talk about how originality is dead and entertainment rehashes the same stories endlessly. Wachowski is on thin ice here, but the strong thread of feeling — which we’re told here affects people more than facts — carries us through. Wachowski talks about the dangers of submitting to a comforting fiction (the Matrix, with its taste of steak) while submitting to a comforting fiction; this isn’t hypocrisy, it’s an honest assessment of what we often want and need from art. If the first Matrix films were really about the trans experience (although the sequels kind of got bogged down in set pieces), this one is about making a self out of one’s own, or others’, creations.

The pertinent question here might be, How is it as a Matrix film? I doubt it’s possible to go back to the relative simplicity of the first movie and disregard the convolutions larded on by its sequels (the way, say, David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel did), and Wachowski acknowledges that on some level. A lot of clutter has to be thrown in the path of Neo and his new band of acolytes before Trinity figures things out and re-assumes her role; it’s significant that it’s a choice she must make for herself, a subtext unlikely to win the movie fans among conservatives. (As much as she must have wanted to, Wachowski doesn’t have time here to include scuzzy incels appropriating her red-pill-blue-pill metaphor. There is, however, chit-chat about binary ways of thought and living, and how those are truer to a machine’s view of humanity than to the reality of it.)

Back in 1999, The Matrix felt like a brutal-cool riff on the old themes of individuality vs. oppression (we didn’t yet know the story had deeper meanings for Lana and Lilly Wachowski; Lilly chose to sit out this film). I wasn’t terribly wowed at the time, but in hindsight it emerges as one of an accidental run of movies in that year grappling with reality and our role in it. It makes more sense in its 1999 context as a sharp, sickly-green pre-millennium vision than as the start of an increasingly bloated franchise. The Matrix Resurrections ultimately can’t go home again, and Wachowski knows it; there’s a streak of melancholy running through the film, but intertwined with a streak of hope that the elders of cool, Neo and Trinity in their black-on-black get-ups, still have something to teach us, and that there are younger warriors willing to go to the brink to rescue their wisdom. And if you’re looking for a review that tells you how the new Morpheus is, or how bad-ass the fights are, you took the wrong pill.

Nightmare Alley

December 19, 2021

nightmare alley

Despite its darkness and pessimism, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley is a shapely piece of entertainment that may cheer you up. Grim as it often is, it’s been put together with such obvious love and devotion that its energy carries us through Gresham’s moralistic tale of a con artist — Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle — whose imposture may or may not withstand the reality that there will always be someone shrewder, more ruthless and more powerful than he is. Gresham’s book is a sandwich of crisp bread slices surrounding a bit of soggy meat, though del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan streamline the narrative. They keep the bread fresh, and they retain Gresham’s bleak ending while importing a stellar final line from the 1947 film version. 

Stanton arrives at a carnival in 1939 and learns the ropes. He learns how to do “cold readings” as a self-proclaimed psychic; he also learns how an unscrupulous carny barker (Willem Dafoe in a brief but vivid turn) creates a “geek” — an attraction based on a down-and-out drunk’s desperate willingness to do disgusting things in exchange for booze. Stanton falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), who does tricks with electricity, and they leave the carnival to strike out on their own scams. It’s a bit of a bummer when Cooper leaves the seamy, intriguing milieu of strongmen and freaks in the company of Rooney Mara, who unfortunately remains a null presence. But the movie is still beautiful, with golden cinematography (Dan Laustsen) and richly crafted production design (Tamara Deverell) that keep our eyes happily engaged. Nightmare Alley is dark but not dreary. 

Stanton and Molly do their psychic act for rich suckers. A canny psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), pegs Stanton as a flim-flam man the minute she lays eyes on him, but is drawn to his confidence and technique. Along about the hour-and-a-half mark, Richard Jenkins enters the picture as the richest sucker of all, who is led to believe Stanton can put him in spiritual contact with a past lover. Jenkins, as he did in The Shape of Water, grounds a del Toro film in bitter humanity, though he’s playing much more of a scoundrel this time. Ultimately, nobody in this story is an innocent. The higher up you go, the more corrupt people you find. The picture of a pre-WWII America gouged by financial ruin and despair is deftly painted. Bradley Cooper, who spends a lot of his screen time with Rooney Mara and is thus casting his charisma into a vacuum, comes alive when he can play with Jenkins, or, for that matter, with Toni Collette or David Strathairn or Ron Perlman.

Gresham’s novel is a bit mechanistic in the tradition of noir, but it’s almost painfully internal; we seem to pause and hear the thoughts and feel the feelings of everyone, in Gresham’s plain prose spiked with carny slang. Gresham stops for so long to detail the backstory of Molly and her beloved carny father that he seems carried away, almost surprised at how Molly is coming alive and developing flesh. Molly is pretty opaque in the movie; del Toro and Morgan really only have time to concentrate on Stanton, even with a 150-minute length. Del Toro seems a little deflated when he has to leave the carnival (Dafoe’s lair of mutated fetuses and animals in jars is like a room in del Toro’s famous collectible-filled home) and go to swanky wartime Chicago, so he reaches out gratefully for Cate Blanchett, who banks another suave Old Hollywood performance. Lilith, true to her name, is like a fancy vampire drawn to a different kind of parasite.

In recent years I’ve remained fond of the idea of Guillermo del Toro while being disappointed in his last few efforts. But Nightmare Alley, the sort of gift a director can only give to himself on the heels of an Oscar triumph, is the real thing, physically imposing (it’s always raining or snowing outside the windows; objects have an almost pensive solidity and heft) and psychologically sound. Laid bare, the story casts the carny world as capitalism in microcosm, with misfits straining hard to make those quarters and dimes. The gawkers for the carny acts, even the geek act, are not portrayed as ghoulish or shameful — del Toro is too good-natured for that, especially since we and he are in the same crowd. The people getting bilked are in pain they’ll pay good money to stop. Stanton is quite willing to take their pain and their money off their hands, either as a slick psychic or as a cautionary figure.

The Card Counter

December 12, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-12-12 at 4.18.07 PM

Your standard Paul Schrader loner — think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Ernst Toller in Schrader’s previous film First Reformed, among many others — drifts from place to place, often at night, ears ringing with his own internal screams of guilt and dread. This loner walls himself (usually always himself — Schrader’s artistic/narrative mission is to probe toxic masculinity) off from normal human contact, pulled along by fatalistic strings of his own making. Oscar Isaac joins this bleak men’s club in Schrader’s The Card Counter as William Tillich (he goes by William Tell), who goes from casino to casino, placing and winning modest bets at poker tables with the card-counting skills he taught himself in prison.

We soon learn why William was in jail: he worked interrogation at Abu Ghraib, and he went away for eight and a half years while his superior officer and trainer Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe) got off free. William meets a young man — “Cirk with a C” (Tye Sheridan) — who has his own past with Gordo. His father, too, worked under Gordo at Abu Ghraib, came home addicted and violently abusive, and eventually killed himself. Cirk wants revenge on Gordo: he wants to capture Gordo and torture him to death. William has other plans for Cirk; he knows what Cirk doesn’t, that once you become a torturer/killer, you can never un-become that.

Schrader’s filmmaking has become as neat and clean as William’s hair, graying but not a strand out of place. Other than the intentionally off-putting Abu Ghraib flashbacks, filmed through a distorting lens, there isn’t an ugly or discordant frame in The Card Counter. Schrader takes his time, engaging in crossfades or fade-outs. The casinos William frequents all look the same and give the impression of stinking like cleaning fluid and cigarette smoke — not hell, exactly, but limbo. William has already been to hell, and a good chunk of his soul still exists there. He may see Cirk as his chance at some sort of redemption for participating in the repulsive system that deformed him and Cirk’s father. He also has eyes for La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who runs a stable of gamblers and thinks William should be one of them.

Sometimes Schrader can be a bit on-the-nose. A lyric we hear often on the soundtrack goes “In my lonesome aberration,” which could be William’s internal theme song. (It’s a song by Robert Levon Been, son of late Call frontman Michael Been, who composed songs for Schrader’s 1992 drama Light Sleeper. A lyric from one of those songs is tattooed on William’s back here.) Tiffany Haddish can’t help smuggling in some levity, even if just in her manner or her line delivery, but otherwise the film is borderline mopey and as serious as a stroke. (The only other source of humor is Dafoe’s thick military-guy mustache.) But as I indicated above, Schrader has gotten better at working his particular side of the street, so that the immaculate, resolute unflashiness of his style is itself pleasurable. He no longer seems to be denying himself the contentments of filmmaking; he has developed a tidy, rigorous focus.

Isaac obliges Schrader with a smoldering, implosive performance rich in stillness and watchfulness. William seldom smiles, although in one of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks we see him larking around obscenely with one of the prisoners. These places, Schrader says, scorched the souls of everyone who entered them, in whatever capacity. Much of William’s shame, it happens, is because William enjoyed the terror and pain he caused. Near the end of Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack’s hit-man hero tries to account for his life choices: “You do it because you were trained to do it, because you were encouraged to do it, and because, eventually, you, you know … get to like it.” He appends hilariously, “I know that sounds bad.” William, in his lonesome aberration, also knows his past sounds bad. Whether he can become good, or at least less bad, is very much on William’s and Schrader’s mind; but because this is also a noir, it’s not entirely within William’s control. Someone always has other plans.

House of Gucci

December 5, 2021

house of gucci

For a little while — maybe its first half hour — House of Gucci feels like an early Christmas present to adult viewers. The tone is elegant yet semi-satirically unimpressed, and the actors are all dressed for the back of a limo. We settle in for a sleek, tongue-in-cheek saga of family and murder, a Godfather for the debauched cocaine-dust fashion era of the ‘70s and ‘80s. House of Gucci recounts how Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) married Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and thus married into the almost sci-fi-level wealth of the Gucci empire. Eventually, Maurizio met another woman and divorced Patrizia, who got together with her psychic friend (Salma Hayek) and a couple of Sicilian button men to take Maurizio off the board. Patrizia was caught and sentenced to 29 years in prison, of which she served 18; she was let out in 2016. 

This seems like at least two movies — one about an ambitious but jealous would-be queen who plots to murder her ex-husband, and one about the rich, famous Gucci family, which wouldn’t be all that interesting if not for the murder. They aren’t all that interesting with the murder, either. House of Gucci should be campy fun, but the director is Ridley Scott, whose name has seldom if ever promised fun. Scott knows how to set up a swanky milieu, but we knew that. He does nothing here that he or countless others haven’t done before. With a cast of hungry actors raring to play-act under latex or bad hair (something like American Hustle, come to think of it), the movie should be a quick, dirty good time, but Scott has never been an actor’s director, and the actors emote and erupt within the vast echo-chamber real estate of the very rich. They seem alone in their efforts — nobody behind the camera seems to be shaping or even enjoying their performances.

Jared Leto’s clownish Paolo Gucci seems to want to out-Fredo the infamous Corleone brother, but he’s just a delusional loser, with none of the pained humanity and frightened aggression that John Cazale brought to Fredo. Jeremy Irons as Rodolfo Gucci somehow retains his plummy English vowels through an “Italian” accent, but sadly he’s not around long. Driver plays it straight as Maurizio, though past a certain point he can’t make Maurizio make sense to us. Al Pacino enters in full goose-honk mode as old Aldo Gucci, unavoidably turning all his scenes into an Al Pacino movie instead of integrating his effects with those of his co-stars. There’s a late scene in which Aldo expresses rage and shock at something his idiot son Paolo has done, but Leto isn’t up to responding organically — he wants all his scenes to be a Jared Leto movie, and he cringes as if he were a signifying silent-movie actor — so Pacino projects into a vacuum and then, visibly deflated, seems to give up and pull Leto in for a hug.

When in doubt, Ridley Scott just pivots to Lady Gaga, who deserves more fun, more eccentricity to match her drag-queen-on-the-moon energy. When Gaga shares a scene (there are several, including a mud-bath bit) with Salma Hayek, we might wish the movie could break off and just be about them, and wish it were about them from the beginning. The scene of Gaga and Hayek issuing orders to a pair of godforsaken meathead assassins will be remembered as a classic. “If you fuck this up,” Hayek assures the goombahs, “I will put a spell on you.” I believed her. I would not want to get Hayek and Gaga mad enough at me to put a hit out on me. Gaga finds kinship and collaborative juice with Hayek that she doesn’t get anywhere else, even from Driver or Pacino. These two are twin death witches from the nightside of capitalism. I want more of the movie they’re in.