Archive for January 2022

The Power of the Dog

January 30, 2022

power of the dog

It’s been a while since I saw a movie that catches us leaning the wrong way as far as The Power of the Dog does. That could be due to the source novel, by Thomas Savage, but a lot has to do with the film’s master writer-director Jane Campion, who keeps things becalmed and subtle, even nuanced. In outline, The Power of the Dog sounds like a number of other stories, but it is its own story, and Campion uses its tropes and our expectations to tell it mainly through visuals and through the tiniest gestures and reactions. The movie requires patient attention, otherwise its mini-explosions might look like a lot of nothing on the screen.

We’re in Montana 1925, at a cattle ranch owned by brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). Soon enough, George meets and marries widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who has a teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) readying himself for medical school. George’s money sends the boy, Peter, to college. George is kindly but doesn’t have much going for him other than that and his money, and he knows it, and so does Phil. Boy, does he ever. Phil is one of those brilliant rats we meet all the time in fiction, practically never in life. He’s intelligent — a product of Yale — but also mean as a scorpion, the kind of guy who always wants to tell the destructive truth the way he sees it, which is of course darker than most others see it. He may also be one or more of the following: a bigot of all stripes, a deeply closeted gay man, a potential murderer or rapist.

Campion’s steady hand and Jonny Greenwood’s anxious score combine to create a highly unstable, almost insecure film. Everyone else in the movie seems focused on Phil, afraid of him. But should they be? Cumberbatch weighs in with a portrait that can be studied in many ways, and will almost certainly play radically differently if viewed a second time. We gather that Phil, who initially mocks Peter’s effeminacy, has something in mind for him, but what? Clues surface here and there, involving Phil’s one-time mentor Bronco Henry, who apparently taught Phil the ways of ranching as well as several other things. Bronco Henry’s name is enunciated with almost as much reverence as Randolph Scott’s in Blazing Saddles. But the saddles here don’t blaze, and while we have our distrustful eye on Phil, someone else might be taking advantage of our distraction. 

Phil might well be a bad man who is not only a bad man, and the frame is otherwise filled with folk who are neither good nor evil but just flawed, weakened by life and its indifferences. George is about as understanding as any man circa 1925 can be expected to be; he takes the labor of women and men as his due, without malice. Rose has her private miseries that she has taken to dipping in liquor. Peter may or may not be gay — the question of his sexuality seems less relevant as the movie goes on — but there may be gaping holes in his good nature, put there in large part when he discovered his father dead, a suicide. Peter recounts this trauma without much feeling; it’s Kodi Smit-McPhee’s moment of triumph. Peter, we see, may grow up into another Phil. Phil certainly seems to think so. If he can be for Peter what Bronco Henry was for him, he might have a purpose — or he might become a monster.

The Power of the Dog can thus be debated long into the night — the characters’ paths not taken, the dramas interrupted. After several things we’re led to expect to happen don’t happen, we realize we have little idea where the movie is taking us, yet we trust Campion to take us somewhere, and she does. Campion excels at tension between people — largely between men and women, but not always. Here it’s tension between one person and everyone else, but most everyone takes a turn creating that tension. We gather that the mix of these particular personalities and all their painful baggage is combustible, though, in this movie’s terms, quietly combustible. We see that what happens is inevitable yet far from predictable, except maybe when we think back on it. 

Don’t Look Up

January 23, 2022

dont look up

Some things are too big for most people to worry about. We’re all going to die at some point, but it’s possible to know that and still go about one’s day. If we were told, as the people of Earth are told in Don’t Look Up, that a comet will come and wipe us all out in half a year, what would we do? Writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) thinks some of us would face it — few of us, really — but most would be short-circuited into denial or avoidance. It’d be too big to think about. But Don’t Look Up is more of a satire of the media presence and politics of recent years than a lampoon of humanity’s response as individual humans. Outside of a few flashes, the movie doesn’t deal much with how other countries, cultures, peoples are coping with the comet. The barbs fly mainly at America.

Two astronomers who aren’t especially media-ready — Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) — discover the comet and figure out its trajectory and ETA. The president (Meryl Streep) blows it off until she needs a wag-the-dog diversion, at which point we send up some nukes at the comet. Other complications happen; the administration privileges monetary gain over human life. Eventually everyone has to look up. The movie has become something of a flashpoint, though its buzz has faded in the last couple of weeks. Some viewers come away shocked, others get angry, and I’ll bet a good number have the same response I did: “Well, yeah. Of course.”

Of course talk shows would absorb and then dismiss an existential crisis, pivoting with relief to coverage of a breakup between two pop stars. Of course Americans would have a divided, largely unhelpful reaction to it. Of course politicians would lead from the polls instead of from their consciences. Of course our pop-culture-fixated, meme-addicted media would trivialize it, just as it trivializes anything else it touches. Anyone who’s endured the last two years and paid a modicum of attention will find very little in Don’t Look Up surprising or controversial. So it’s probably not going to change a lot of minds. The red-hat-wearing anti-vax contingent isn’t going to see a movie like this anyway, and if they do, they’ll fold their arms and turn to stone, letting the film’s appeals to rationality bounce off of them.

It’s well-made, to be sure, played just a hair shy of farce, and the large cast (including Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, and Jonah Hill) come to play. Ron Perlman makes the most out of his few minutes as a belligerent war veteran picked to lead the assault on the comet. Lawrence and DiCaprio yell and suffer a lot. Everyone is committed. But the satirical gunfire becomes scattershot. We are not, after all, culpable in the existence of the comet, the way it certainly can be argued we are culpable in the human impact on the climate, or culpable in the prolonging of the pandemic. The comet has nothing to do with us; we didn’t create this monster. McKay is more interested in showing how the responses to the crisis — the government’s, John and Jane Q. Public’s, but mostly the media’s — are dictated by fear or greed. Which is valid, I guess, but don’t stop the presses.

The problem with movies that satirize “the media” is that they manage to forget they’re part of “the media.” Would that be the same “media” that Adam McKay worked for weeks at the end of last year, angling for that Oscar? “The media” obligingly created a gotta-see-it buzz around Don’t Look Up, first around its stars and then around the “controversy” (as if anything in this polarized culture weren’t “controversial”). In making Dr. Strangelove, still the undisputed champ of American satirical cinema, Stanley Kubrick largely ignored what “the media” would say; he focused on the donut, the government, not the hole. McKay focuses on the hole, the media, and then decries the void.

The French Dispatch

January 16, 2022

french dispatch

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is that rarity, a disappointment that I feel I need to see again. By now, we all know how polarizing Anderson’s dollhouse movies tend to be. They’re immaculately designed, obsessively symmetrical; they’re boxes within boxes, each packed in a ruthlessly tidy fashion. But generally the stories have a strong throughline, a sturdy narrative arrow with some emotional resonance. The French Dispatch feels like it came out of the bottom drawer of Anderson’s desk. It’s a trio of tales, bracketed by front and end matter; it’s about journalists writing about artists, or at least about people who express themselves in some way — through painting, manifesto, food.

One of the segments, the one about the manifesto, I couldn’t tell you much about. You see what I mean when I want to watch it again. The French Dispatch is about a titular newspaper — the film’s full title is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — that reports on happenings in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé for the enjoyment, I guess, of the millions of Francophiles in Kansas. The newspaper is inspired by The New Yorker, particularly the magazine’s self-regard as The Magazine. All the best writers write for the French Dispatch, and the paper’s editor (Bill Murray) keeps trying to whittle their pieces into shape. The writers all love and tolerate him. He dies early on — like so much else here, we’re not asked to feel one way or the other about it — and what we see is the contents of the final issue of the paper.

But none of it really took hold and commanded my attention. The first story involves an artist (Benicio del Toro) who is also serving a life sentence for murder. The second follows Dispatch reporter Frances McDormand as she gets caught up in a student protest and its players. The last has to do with the kidnapping of a little boy and a police officer who’s also a chef — most of the characters have different facets to them. Technically, the filmmaking is gorgeous, with alternating black-and-white or color photography by Robert Yeoman in two different aspect ratios. It’s all very cleverly worked out. The problem is a pit that Anderson has been edging towards for a few movies now, and in The French Dispatch he sinks right into it — there are just too damn many characters.

At this point, being in a Wes Anderson movie must be a terrific feather in an actor’s cap, and a lot of them come work with him over and over. But nothing in this movie will show you why. The teeming mass of actors here rarely get a moment to give us a reason to care about them; people like Edward Norton and Elisabeth Moss and Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe pass through, hardly even getting any lines. (The bulk of the movie is narrated by the stories’ writers anyway, further limiting the characters’ opportunity to speak for themselves.) Anderson veteran Saoirse Ronan turns up as a character credited only as “Junkie/Showgirl #1.” The impression you get is that Wes Anderson has joined the elite cadre of directors who can compel a four-time Oscar nominee to play Junkie/Showgirl #1. Well, good for him. Not so good for us, or for Saoirse Ronan.

And yet … I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Anderson’s prior films, so I’m willing to give The French Dispatch the benefit of the doubt; a second viewing, knowing what it is going into it, may not be amiss. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the movie doesn’t drill down and tell one particular person’s story. Maybe the movie is about storytelling itself, about who tells stories and who hears or reads them. The main character is the Dispatch. The style of the film is the style of the writers. The writers are self-centered to a degree that they make the stories about them — they think they have to make the stories worthy of being told by them. Running through the film is a sneaky little critique of the whole New Yorker magazine-of-record aesthetic and ethos. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s both nostalgic and timeless. It didn’t stick to me — this time — but I wouldn’t dream of discouraging anyone, especially Anderson followers, from seeing it. Just know what you’re in for.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

January 2, 2022

macbeth

Stripped down for action, shot in black-and-white in the boxy old Academy ratio, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth couldn’t be much more a hat-tip to film noir — the mode of narrative that has been so good to Coen and his brother Ethan (who seems to have left filmmaking for the nonce), from Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men. In this Macbeth, you don’t feel the pain of violence, as you did in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, or Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 Throne of Blood. Nor do you really feel the weight of guilt and murder on the souls of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand). What you do get is an art-house riff on Shakespeare’s themes; visually and aurally this is a masterful achievement. Coen is using Macbeth to carpenter a stark, stylized tribute to a film genre he loves.

So throw out whatever Shakespeare-nerd expectations you may bring to The Tragedy of Macbeth; this ride’s for film nerds. The experience isn’t even much about performance, though Washington and McDormand — to paraphrase a critic quoted in the Coens’ Barton Fink — acquit themselves admirably. The star of this Macbeth is nowhere seen on the stage. Joel Coen must be aware that the Scottish play is so baldly a forerunner of noir — with its bargain-bin Macbeths led down the path of sin and doom by conniving dames — it has actually spawned movies that recast it in gangster-flick clothes (1955’s Joe Macbeth, 1990’s Men of Respect). Yet nothing in the design of the film — the costuming, the sets — links it to those earlier chiaroscuro morality tales. It’s dark and bleak and stylish, but more closely resembles, say, Welles’ Chimes at Midnight or Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse.

The problem with Coen’s approach is that it feels like an exercise. The visuals (and the beefy soundscape, where drops of blood seem to fall with thunderous force) are meant to express this or that, but mostly they just convey a director’s nifty ideas. When Macbeth raises arms against Macduff (Corey Hawkins), they’re both in a narrow walkway hemmed in by tall concrete walls, yet they’re also outdoors, so they get to taste teasing sips of the air while effectively buried alive. That design does work emotionally — they’re both like rats in a maze, stuck there by fate, and we feel the claustrophobic guilt and shame that put them there. Elsewhere, the three witches (all played, dynamically, by Kathryn Hunter) stand reflected in a puddle — or, rather, two witches are reflected from the third — or the frame is filled with leaves or crows. Sometimes the style is a bit much, but then noir always was.

As beautifully put-together as this is, though, I can’t help shrugging a little. Joel Coen has successfully told more than a few stories about the folly of crime. It’s as though he had finally worked back to the ur-noir, the original wellspring of crime drama and “Be sure your sins will find you out,” and found himself cowed, insecure. In this respect, Coen’s Macbeth is expressive after all: it expresses a smart director’s nervousness about approaching a capital-C classic — nervousness he resolves by visually showing daddy Shakespeare (and daddies Welles, Kurosawa, Polanski) who’s the captain now. But dramatically he sort of drops the ball.

Perhaps it’s because he has no fun Coen divertissements to fall back on; even in the Coens’ adapted work there are usually scurvy or scary villains, and there really aren’t any here (the hero, in what still seems a radical turn, becomes the villain). Coen sighs with relief when supervising Hunter’s witches, or Stephen Root in a funny bit; their brand of showmanship is more in line with Coen’s comfort zone. But when it comes time to make us feel the full pressure of a man who decides to cross the line you can’t uncross, or the horror of a woman who agitates for murder but whose dreams drown in incriminating gore, Coen doesn’t come up with anything. The morality of it all seems weightless. But, boy, is it something to look at.