Archive for the ‘thriller’ category

Army of the Dead

May 23, 2021

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It’d be nice if Athena Perample got a career bump from Zack Snyder’s mediocrity at length Army of the Dead. A stuntwoman, Perample appears in the new zombie film as a character credited as Alpha Queen, and she slinks around hissing and looking fabulous in an undead Corpse Bride fashion. (Even the zombies are hotties in Snyderverse.) I’ve seen Army of the Dead described as being full of characters who could carry their own interesting movies, but are instead all stuck with each other in a boring movie. The Alpha Queen would be exhibit A. Are the alpha zombies the top of the hierarchy of zombies? Do they have a culture? Leisure activities? They’re said to be smarter than the usual “shamblers,” but are they building anything or just squatting on the dust of a dead world?

There’s little evidence that Zack Snyder cared all that much about the implications of a zombie society. Snyder isn’t a thinker; like Christopher Nolan, he works up to big, showy sequences, devoted to his jock-nerd idea of cool. I don’t think Snyder is without merit: he did well by Watchmen and made an accidental masterpiece with Sucker Punch, which I persist in considering unconscious art. But without a strong structure, his films tend to go by in a semi-sequential blur. They have no internal clock, no rhythm. Something happens, something else happens, and it’s all on the same emotionally null level. 

Army of the Dead is never more risible than when it asks us to sniffle over the fates of characters we barely know, even though Snyder has plenty of time to acquaint us with them. Hell, George Romero’s longest Dead film was only 126 minutes, and it was described as “epic” despite being confined mostly to one location. This damn thing runs for two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and though it mashes up the zombie genre and the heist genre — a group of hardcases are tasked with getting millions of dollars out of a Vegas casino before the whole zombie-overrun city gets nuked — it doesn’t even give us a montage where the players plot things out. Dave Bautista gets top billing as a mercenary (I guess?) who puts a team together to fetch the money, and again, as with Man of Steel, the connective narrative — when Bautista recruits various people (a safecracker, a hard-bitten expert at zombie warfare) — feels like placeholders. Snyder kind of just goes through them so he can get to the good stuff, when zombies bite folks real good and then get shot up real good. In both cases, blood sprays all over the place.

Army of the Dead is raring to be big and excessive, and the concussive deep bass and scale of it can be mesmerizing in fits and starts. Sometimes we look at the chaotic images and we lament the kind of zombie opus that George Romero was never given the budget to make. Romero would’ve known what to do with this cast, too. I like Bautista — his cartoonishly wide frame holds some tenderness — but Snyder doesn’t do much with him. A lot of the publicity has surrounded Tig Notaro being digitally ported in to replace accused sexual scumbag Chris D’Elia, but the movie neither gets the best out of her nor deserves it. We’re supposed to root for all these people because they’re not zombies, I guess, although the film sometimes seems on the verge of switching our allegiances around (hey, zombies have feelings too!) but ends up fumbling that too.

Snyder spent the better part of a decade in the DC Comics wilderness, making dour, overlong films nobody much enjoyed. Did he ever even like superheroes? He seemed more at home with the deconstructionist superhero valedictory Watchmen. I thought Sucker Punch was a possible unaware shiv in the ribs to the Comic-Con rules of cool — Snyder the naive satirist. But in Army of the Dead he’s back doing stuff seemingly calculated to make high-school boys exclaim “Badass!,” except this time nothing is skewered. The story is bloated and amorphous, and whatever targets it might have are murky. As in his Dawn of the Dead remake, Snyder isn’t using the zombie movie as a Trojan horse for social comment; even the crass irony of zombies feasting on Vegas schmucks and showgirls is threadbare and abruptly handled. Snyder just wants to get to the parts where hordes of zombies get their brains blown out, over and over. It gets old for us a lot sooner than it does for him. 

Oxygen

May 16, 2021

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If Oxygen, which started principal photography in July 2020, isn’t the ultimate quarantine film, I don’t know what is. There are flashbacks, but most of the movie is a matter of one actress, Mélanie Laurent, alone inside a cryogenic pod with nobody to interact with except voices. Oxygen is an American-French co-production, and is showing on Netflix in a dubbed English version or in its original French with subtitles, and I heartily recommend the French — you get the benefit of Laurent’s legitimate emoting (in English, Cherami Leigh substitutes the voice, and is directed to sound somewhat whiny), as well as Mathieu Amalric as MILO, this film’s HAL, an implacable AI who frequently points out, with neither malice nor mercy, just how much air Laurent’s character has left.

Laurent, as a woman named Elizabeth Hansen, wakes up in this cryogenic pod with no memory of how she got there, where she is, or where she’s headed, if anywhere. I say “a woman named Elizabeth Hansen” not because I don’t know what she does for a living but because we share Liz’s disorientation. We learn her situation along with her, and Christie LeBlanc’s script, a one-time Black List entry, stays close to Liz’s terror and rage to live. As directed by horror neo-maestro Alexandre Aja, who was originally only going to produce, Oxygen manages to change up its visuals and pace often enough so that its claustrophobic milieu doesn’t present as too tedious. Besides, when you have a futuristic pod that can be sweetened by CGI to jazz the eye, you’re already one up on something like Buried or Open Water.

Also suggested: don’t scrutinize the script too closely from a scientific angle, as some have done to their chagrin; don’t focus too much on the measurements and numbers (twelve years, 42,735 miles, etc.). Oxygen works mainly on the emotional/experiential level, trapping us in close quarters and treating our thirst for information with a maddening slow drip of data, not all of which may actually be sound. This is now two basically-one-location films in a row for Aja, who last bedeviled us with the alligator-in-a-flooded-basement thriller Crawl in 2019. On the evidence, Aja likes a challenge; even his first film to gain international notice, High Tension, runs on a huge twist that invalidates everything that went before it (…or does it?). Here he has a cramped space and essentially one face (Liz’s may-or-may-not-be husband, played by Malik Zidi, turns up on occasion), and we are invited to consider every line and pore in Laurent’s visage more closely than she might be comfortable with.

It’s tasty, savory meat for an actor, and Laurent rips into it, by turns despairing, hopeful, mordant, credulous or skeptical. (The role was previously attached to Anne Hathaway and then Noomi Rapace, either of whom would have done brittle magic with it.) When a future book is written about sci-fi movies that run on a specific trope I’ll not mention here, Oxygen may sit near the top of the list due to Laurent, who finds the terrifying weirdness in it. The trope has been done (and even used as a twist) innumerable times, but Laurent’s prickly humanity sets it apart. Meanwhile, that great reptilian actor Mathieu Amalric, fresh from giving Riz Ahmed a hard time in Sound of Metal, keeps offering data without comfort, sounding at times like a bored functionary. “Would you like a sedative?” MILO keeps asking, like an insistent date-rapist, and Liz instinctively refuses.

I enjoyed Oxygen while periodically feeling the pull and pinch of boredom, a perhaps unavoidable trap of such a confined narrative. I suspect, though, it works better viewed alongside its siblings in Aja’s portfolio, which is heavy on genre stuff, than viewed in and of itself. It’s artier than some of his others (Horns, the Hills Have Eyes remake, and so on) but still contains shards of wincing auto-violence: nobody’s around to violate Liz, other than a persistent syringe, so she has to mangle herself, yanking things out of her body and then painfully re-inserting them. Aja can sardonically spotlight the penetrative, eros/thanatos pain that powers so much horror with only a cast of one. I don’t think Aja needs to challenge himself again on this how-small-can-I-go? level. He’s done all anyone can. As it is, he probably wants his next film to unfold during Mardi Gras.

Tenet

January 24, 2021

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There’s a guy, brave and smart. We’ll call him the good guy. Watch now as we point him in the direction of the bad guy. The bad guy wants to make everything die. Why? Because he’s the bad guy. The good guy, being the good guy, must stop the bad guy. This, sincerely, is all you need to understand Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It’s also the basic bones of your choice of spy tale, including the Bonds. But, as with many of those spy stories, that good guy-bad guy skeleton is all you take away from Tenet. That’s fine; not every movie needs to be Tarkovsky. Tenet is perfectly readable and enjoyable as the “ride” Nolan wants you to go along for.

Of course, people will want to hang analytical ornaments all over it, wrestling with what this or that symbol or word really means. Let them, but if you value your sanity, follow them not too deeply into the weeds of interpretation. Someday, I hope long after I’m gone, someone will sync Tenet to a deep-cut Pink Floyd side — Atom Heart Mother, maybe — and the world will end, folding in on itself into an origami chicken that pecks itself to death. On a certain level, Tenet can and will be taken as a higher-math mind trip, though one that, like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, relies for its humanizing element on the trope of a mother-and-child reunion. Here, the trope is somewhat cauterized by the casting of Elizabeth Debicki — whom Warner should be looking at to play an Amazonian rival of Diana’s in a future Wonder Woman film — as the mother.

About a head taller than most any man with whom she shares the frame, and with no attempt by Nolan to cover by putting the men on soapboxes, Debicki has the equipoise to shoulder Tenet’s emotional weight without herself becoming bathetic. Her Kat Barton at least has recognizable human motives, unlike the protagonist (John David Washington), puckishly named only as The Protagonist. T.P., as I’ll call him in the interest of saving space, is a CIA agent charged with the mission of preventing a Thing (McGuffin, bomb, worldkiller, whatevs) from getting into the hands of the Bad Guy (Kenneth Branagh). The complication: the Bad Guy can access the future. So T.P. and his new bestest buddy Neil (Robert Pattinson) go back and forth between the back and the forth in pursuit of the Bad Guy. Most of this is only an excuse for Nolan, whose gleeful little inner child playing with trains really shows himself here, to indulge in massive set pieces involving squadrons of crew, an actual plane ramming into an actual building, many millions of dollars, and Kenneth Branagh doing a muted version of the Bond villain he’s always thirsted to play.

Other than a couple of scenes with Branagh and Debicki on a yacht — and even those are contextually loaded with dread and foreboding — Tenet is always in motion, never catching its breath, always beating feet to the next big bang. The physics/metaphysics by which people can travel to next week or last week washed over me nearly unnoticed. It’s just details. I responded to Tenet as a gigantic tone poem of motion proposed and then rescinded, bullet holes sealing themselves up and bullets rocketing back into their chambers. (What happens if you get hit by a backwards bullet? It ain’t pretty.)

I came to realize, with this and his previous film Dunkirk, that Nolan seems to be leaving plot behind to focus on story, and to make story bend to the reckless will of cinema. And it’s true, some of the stuff here has never been seen before (on this scale) and will likely only be seen this once. The really zesty moments wouldn’t work in any other medium, and watching it on my laptop (with subtitles), I understood with a twinge of sympathy why Nolan was so adamant that Tenet be seen on big screens. This work has been designed to be viewed on an enormous canvas, and Warner and Nolan should have held it back until it was safe for audiences to do so. But it may also find a life as a Brobdingnagian cult film, an ambitious and pricey folly to shelve alongside Cloud Atlas and a few others. It means what you want it to mean, and I don’t want it to mean anything. It’s just a ride.

Possessor

October 4, 2020

posessor Surprises abound on the movie beat. If a filmmaker’s debut feature doesn’t do it for you, a second chance might be in order, and I thought Brandon Cronenberg, who bowed with the tedious and unpleasant Antivirus eight years ago, was still serious and sincere enough to merit further scrutiny. Cronenberg’s new one, Possessor, sadly confirms my earlier response. Cronenberg, whose father is the legendary director David, is certainly no dummy, and he doesn’t go for cheap thrills, or indeed any thrills. His work sure is gory, though, and the violence is crueler than it needs to be while not really engaging our emotions — just our gag reflex. People are always slipping and sliding on bloody floors, the soles of their sneakers squeaking around in puddles of gore. You can’t say Cronenberg romanticizes murder or death at all. It’s presented as a sticky, soul-scorching and repulsive experience.

Does this mean that Cronenberg has earned a third visit from me? I’m afraid not. Possessor is bleak and cold, out of touch with ordinary feeling. Like the recent She Dies Tomorrow, the film takes off from a premise of fantasy but isn’t moved to explore the premise’s nuts and bolts, preferring to study the humans involved and create a mood. The problem is that there are no humans in Possessor, and the mood is dreary and depressing. Andrea Riseborough appears as Tasya Vos, a futuristic assassin who jacks into another person’s consciousness and rides their body around, eventually committing murder. Tasya’s main problem is that the host bodies of this neural hijacking are supposed to blow their own brains out after the job is done, and Tasya can’t bring herself to do it. The first time she does it in the movie, she engineers a suicide-by-cop. Her second assignment that we see doesn’t go quite as smoothly.

“Andrea Riseborough is worth watching in anything” is a sentence I can no longer use after Possessor. It’s not her fault; after a certain point, she enters the consciousness of a corporate lackey (Christopher Abbott), and the wounded, numb-spirited Riseborough vanishes into the glowering Abbott, who never manages to suggest being puppeted by Riseborough or even by a woman. (You’d think a filmmaker with Cronenberg’s lineage would have more fun with the concept of a female assassin who finds herself with male equipment and using it on a woman. No fun to be had here.) Riseborough-as-Abbott commits double murder, again with far more sadistic relish than seems necessary given the no-nonsense demands of an assassin; then she loses control over the body, and the body heads for Riseborough’s family’s house. But Cronenberg’s morose, dead-affect treatment of all this aborts any pleasure we might take in the twisty plot.

I understand how unfair it is to compare an artist to his parent. But David Cronenberg, no less serious or contemplative, also brings an astringent wit to his work, as well as deft pacing. David Cronenberg’s films are often hushed and eschew false, easy climaxes, but they move, and almost despite themselves they entertain. His violence, too, is never just gross or off-putting; he usually approaches it with the air of a bemused scientist. The difference between David and Brandon can clearly be seen in the way both men direct Jennifer Jason Leigh. In Cronenberg pere’s 1999 eXistenZ, Leigh had the lead as a videogame designer on the run from her fans’ fatwa, and Cronenberg provided a fun and funky adventure for her, giving her eye-candy support with Jude Law. Cronenberg fils casts Leigh as the scientist who runs this whole secret-agent deal, and here she has the same flat affect everyone else does. It could be anyone in the role. Leigh just sits around in a dark blue room and mumbles bitter mumbo-jumbo. What a waste of a still-vibrant actor! Cronenberg’s punishment should be one screening of Heart of Midnight — Leigh’s equivalent of Vampire’s Kiss — and going to bed without supper.

It could be that Brandon Cronenberg somehow can’t get interesting performances out of interesting actors because he’s not an actor’s director. In that case, he should stick to short films of ideas and avoid grasping at emotional straws that just aren’t there. The only things holding me to Possessor were its unsavory brutality and the dread of more and worse. Now and then Cronenberg tries to employ the language of film to evoke disorientation, but it comes off like a student director playing with film stock or exposure levels. And, as with Antivirus, the movie has a clever premise but offers no clue as to why it was made. We don’t feel any passion behind it, no suggestion why this story needed to be told now in this way. We feel no horror or sadness at the killings, just nausea and distaste for the killers. My only surprise at Possessor was that I managed to sit through all of it.

Force of Nature

July 5, 2020

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Its critical reputation as a racist thriller is a little overstated, but Force of Nature is still ten pounds of ass in a five-pound bag. This is a movie whose handling of a major character’s death is so feeble — a twitching eyelid visible to the camera — we expect the supposed corpse to pop up later on, perhaps to save a loved one at the last minute. That’s about the only cliché we’re spared in a film wherein even the bad guy comments on the clichés. Filmed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Force of Nature unfolds during a hurricane, though it doesn’t actually need to; the hurricane really only explains why two cops show up at an apartment building to evacuate some recalcitrant tenants, only to be caught in the middle of an art heist by some armed and deadly robbers led by a guy calling himself John the Baptist.

I would like to welcome the Peruvian actor Stephanie Cayo to English-speaking films. She plays Jess, a cop trying to make a name on the San Juan force. Cayo looks all the better next to the essenceless Emile Hirsch as her cop partner, the burned-out, lackadaisical Cardillo. These two go to the apartment building and try to extricate an old German man and a retired, sickly cop, played by Mel Gibson, whose very presence in a film at this point would attract hostile skepticism no matter what the film is. Gibson is (or has been; he seems to have behaved in recent years, from what we’ve heard anyway) a terrible person, but he still has the spark of a true movie star, and so does Stephanie Cayo; their brief scenes together illustrate what this bland movie could have been.

Force of Nature would like to be the sort of invincible thriller, like Die Hard, whose every odd bit of business pays off later. I have to wonder if the screenwriter, Cory Miller, wrote this whole thing around a scene involving the bad guy, who dons a police uniform in order to get away, and something behind a multi-locked door in someone’s apartment. There’s a whole scene dealing with meat and a guy buying all of it at the supermarket, and a bit of planted information that you definitely don’t want to enter that locked room if you’re wearing a cop outfit, and so when John the Baptist forces Cardillo to swap clothes with him, all the pieces fall into place but seem stupid anyway — and then the movie cuts away before we can see the one hilariously brutal thing we’ve been spending half the idiotic film waiting to see.

Director Michael Polish started off in the late ‘90s as a Sundance-blessed indie director, but now he seems to make films just to cast his wife, Kate Bosworth — this is their fourth film together, and probably their worst. Bosworth plays Gibson’s daughter, who is also a doctor, and who can also hold her breath long enough to get her and a wounded man out of a submerged room. (We never see them find their way out; she turns up fine later, like almost everyone else, and fairly chipper despite what we’ve seen her go through.) Force of Nature’s mixed review of the thin blue line — cops may be mean and corrupt but still get the brutal job done — is accidentally poorly-timed at this cultural/political moment, but it’s no more consciously racist than a hundred action thrillers from the ‘80s. It’s meant, I think, to be a throwback to those films, and to an era where Mel Gibson was still on top, but it lacks the snap and pizzazz to close the deal. It may speak well of Michael Polish’s character that he tries to make a retro, obliviously racist thriller and fails. But the failure still reads to us as a wasted hour and a half.

The Invisible Man (2020)

June 28, 2020

mossinvisibleman Catching up: Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, I can’t help feeling, was robbed of its shot at becoming a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller that makes audiences scream happily. (As it is, the film, whose release was stunted by COVID-19 and the closure of movie theaters, still managed to scare up a decent amount via streaming and at drive-ins.) The Invisible Man is tethered to its strong lead performance — it’s probably unthinkable without Elisabeth Moss — and it’s a bit mechanical in the way that thrillers great or small can be. But I would be dishonest if I said it didn’t make me flinch and gasp. No doubt about it: the movie works. And it works on a nasty personal level; it exploits our awareness that women are gaslighted by abusive men all the time, to perpetuate and add to the abuse.

Moss is Cecilia, stuck in a suffocating relationship with wealthy scientist Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She plots her escape, spirited away by her sister (Harriet Dyer) and delivered to the safe home of her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), also a cop. The distraught Adrian kills himself, or so he wants the world to think. In reality, he’s using his beefed-up invisibility suit — he’s some sort of optics genius — to stalk Cecilia and ruin her life bit by bit. Nobody, of course, will believe Cecilia — not her sister, not James or his college-bound daughter, whose tuition Cecilia is paying for out of the money Adrian willed to her. We recognize fairly quickly that Adrian is contriving to alienate Cecilia from everyone else so that he can control her, in ways obvious and not so obvious.

Made for relative couch change ($7 million), The Invisible Man doesn’t indulge in an abundance of special effects, like Hollow Man or even Memoirs of an Invisible Man. There’s a scene where Elisabeth Moss is held aloft by her invisible attacker that might’ve been better conceived, and her subsequent being tossed around the room is needlessly crude; what was needed, I think, was a way to take us intimately inside her experience, to be worthy of the quieter, more dread-ridden moments. That writer-director Whannell actually has some integrity to betray, by way of the more flamboyant clashes, speaks well of the rest of the movie: it earns its Big Moments but doesn’t really need them. Most of the terror here works on dark, elemental levels — someone is after me but nobody will help me. Some of the emotional work, with Moss’s performance gaining power as Cecilia becomes more frightened and frustrated, is first-rate and lifts the thrills considerably.

Some of this description, of course, may read a bit stiffly because I’m trying to write around the twists. I can say that The Invisible Man has its technical ducks in a row, with Stefan Duscio’s sleek photography consorting well with Benjamin Wallfisch’s richly ominous score (though I wish Wallfisch hadn’t leaned so much on the deep rattling honking he used on Blade Runner 2049 at times it reminded me of the punitively ghastly score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the repugnant Gone Girl). This is the sort of suavely composed thriller that would’ve been not only a big hit but a water-cooler topic in a better time. The premise may be techno-pulp, but most of the movie stays with Cecilia’s choking feelings of helplessness. You may wonder what she could possibly do against her torturer.

In its last act, The Invisible Man almost lost me. It gets too plotty, introducing elements that seem to add little but padding, not to mention impatience on our part. The nobody-will-believe-me theme gets a vigorous workout, but all it leads to is gunfire and a shit-ton of “wait a minute” incidents. How convenient, for instance, that someone who has been careful to isolate and delegitimize Cecilia should leave so many people around to support her side of the story. The climax is enjoyable in an empty, guilty way, like a candy bar. But Elisabeth Moss shepherds us through it all; she stays connected to the basic nightmare of a woman with a bad ex-boyfriend in a perfect position to make her life hell. Cecilia’s ultimate act is, as written, something of a betrayal of her character, but the way Moss plays it — as the only act left to Cecilia — it isn’t. The Invisible Man is a reminder of how high a conventional thriller can be lifted with the right star, whose performance, like Betty Gilpin’s in The Hunt, deserves better than cruel fate allowed.

The Hunt

June 21, 2020

thehuntAlmost every character in The Hunt is crap. The exceptions are a skittish private-jet attendant and “Snowball” (Betty Gilpin), so nicknamed by the rich elites who are hunting her. The Hunt has had a long and winding road to distribution. First slated for release last September, it ran afoul of commentators who, of course, had not seen it; their objection was to the premise, wherein wealthy leftists kidnap and hunt “deplorables” — Trump supporters — for sport. (As it is, the movie finally limped into theaters in March, just in time for COVID-19 to shut theaters down. It hit VOD a week later, and now is finally on DVD.) There’s more to the film than that — but not much more, disappointingly. It’s a sleek, short, well-wrought horror-thriller with buckets of gore, and a sharp performance by Betty Gilpin that deserved far more notice.

“Snowball,” or Crystal, has been chosen along with eleven others to be the prey while well-armed, somewhat trained richies play predator. Crystal turns out to be a smart cookie who fought in Afghanistan, and as such has a much better chance of survival than her fellow captives. Is she a deplorable? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? I don’t think so. The Hunt is better than The Oath, a dark comedy from 2018 that probed the current political bifurcation (I couldn’t get through that one), but it’s really a defense-and-retreat thriller first and political commentary a distant second. Almost everyone is an easy stereotype of virtue-signalling lefties or cap-wearing, bigoted righties. Crystal, the exception, is so shrewd about defense and retreat that the director, Craig Zobel, and writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof seem to have given her a sneak peek at the script.

In short, the movie is on nobody’s side except Crystal’s, and Gilpin rises to the occasion. Crystal keeps wanting a cigarette and never gets one; if she ever did, she’d be a perfect John Carpenter hero, someone of few words and hard action. Gilpin scarcely smiles, except ruefully, mordantly. She gives Crystal a certain southern-style wit, and she doesn’t ask to be liked. She gives us, against all odds in a taut but gimmicky thriller, a true feminist hero, and one notable thing Zobel does right is that he never tells us where Crystal does stand politically. We get to know all we need to know about her. She feels real to us. The other characters, not so much — particularly Hilary Swank as the HBIC of the elite hunters, pompously kept offscreen or with her back to us for half the movie. Swank does what she can with Andrea, a CEO with her own vengeful agenda, but Andrea isn’t really credible as a person. Whoever trained Swank and Gilpin for their king-hell battle royale in Andrea’s tasteful rented kitchen can take a bow, though.

The Hunt is weakest when it dips its toe in the waters of satire; the characters are simply too sketchy and rudimentary. It can’t touch the Clinton-era satires The Last Supper (1995) or Citizen Ruth (1996), which succeeded for reasons other than being on “the correct side.” Nowadays, those films (especially Citizen Ruth, which boasted its own great performance via Laura Dern) would be knocked on Film Twitter for both-sides-ism — or no-sides-ism, which amounts to the same thing. The Hunt would like to be a throwback to those small but thorny films, but its expertise lies with staging violence (some of the actors you expect to be around for at least a few reels are gorily dispatched early on) and with giving Betty Gilpin the breathing room to create, in the midst of this crisp but callow cartoon, a real human being.

Peeping Tom

May 3, 2020

peeping tom Perhaps the most shocking thing about Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom, sixty years now after its premiere in England, is that it looks respectable and classical and almost sedate — until it doesn’t. The movie genuinely appalled critics of its day, who must have assumed they were getting a delectable, harmless thriller from the director who, solo or with Emeric Pressburger, had presented many of England’s most prestigious films. (Critics already knew pretty much what to expect when Alfred Hitchcock unveiled his near-contemporaneous Psycho.) But no. Peeping Tom, written by Leo Marks, may look and play “normal” but is drenched with the flop sweat of sexual mania. I think if it had been made by anyone else, possibly in America, in the poverty-row style of something like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, it might still have kicked up a fuss, but not as much rage.

Peeping Tom turned out to be part of a wave of thrillers in the ‘60s, including the better-known Psycho but also movies like William Castle’s Homicidal, that focused on a killer’s psychological damage inflicted by cruel parents. Here, our subject is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), who acts as a focus puller on movies and takes naughty photos for a local bookshop. He also has an elaborate fetish involving women looking frightened. He films them at the moment they realize they’re going to die, and he adds a vicious touch that should remain unspoiled for newcomers to the movie, though the most horrifying moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 Strange Days owes most of its punch to it.

Mark has been doing his thing unimpeded for a while now — in the opening scene, he disposes of a prostitute, who screams in her room though nobody cares enough to look in until he is long gone — but when he meets Helen (Anna Massey), a tenant in the building Mark inherited from his father, his thing deflates a bit. He shows the kindly Helen footage his demented shrink father (Powell himself) shot of himself tormenting the young Mark at night. She feels for him, and part of him responds to her sympathy. He promises he will never photograph her. He seems to want to cordon his psychosis off from her, but we and he know that’s not going to work. He has a run-in with Helen’s blind mother (Maxine Audley), who senses what he is but can’t do much about it. Helen, who has just turned 21, may be falling for Mark precisely because of his pain.

I imagine part of the vehemence of the response to the film was due to Powell’s pre-punk indifference to what his more monocle-dropping viewers would think. For instance, Powell takes Moira Shearer, beloved star of his The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, and contrives an undignified fate for her comparable to Janet Leigh’s. Yet always, the filmmaking is smooth, assured, suffused with cinematographer Otto Heller’s sumptuous palette. Powell shows us pretty pictures but uses them to lure us into a dark, seedy alley where two-quid whores loiter and warped men get them alone. It’s a classic bait and switch, and the trope of the voyeuristic beast locked in the city with his own misery until a beauty comes along may have informed Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, whose reverence for Powell almost matched his reverence for Christ.

We also sniff a Scorsesean element in the finale: a beauty cannot redeem the monster; only submission to the same treatment he has given his victims might do that. Roger Ebert mused that Peeping Tom’s real crime in the eyes of its early haters was that it implicates the viewer — it uses its own medium to wrench us into complicity with a killer. It wasn’t the first film to pull this rug, but it did it with such blunt-force trauma that it has been called the first slasher film. I don’t know about that; proto-slasher, maybe, or even proto-giallo — it predated Mario Bava’s seminal The Girl Who Knew Too Much by three years. In any event, Peeping Tom survived its initial shower of spit and rotten tomatoes — largely due to Scorsese, who spent some artistic capital to restore and re-release it in 1979 — to become a feverish cult object among horror acolytes and classic film buffs alike.

Parasite

January 5, 2020

parasitefilm It’s clear pretty early on that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite — which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and may yet claim more trophies this awards season — isn’t meant to be taken literally. Taken seriously, yes, but not literally. The narrative has many, many moving parts, but the parts are also combustible, and they’re all arranged to detonate on cue for maximum damage. Bong makes you feel as though you’d damn well better catch every little detail, every flourish and filigree, because it’s all inexorably marching towards something. But that destination can’t be guessed at or controlled — it’s chaotic and brutal, and only retrospectively makes sense.

Parasite is yet another movie that demands to be evoked, not described (as a plot synopsis would just ruin the experience). Put simply, it’s the story of two families. One family, just scraping by, lives cramped together in a “semi-basement” apartment of the sort common in urban Korea. The other family is wealthy, and one of their bedrooms would probably take up as much space as the poorer family’s entire living area. Each family is perfectly nuclear — man, woman, boy, girl — and the son from the poor family gets himself hired to tutor the daughter from the rich family. And it doesn’t stop there; in short order, each member of the poor family ends up working for the rich family, none of whom realize their new employees are all related.

Okay, that’s a little far-fetched. It’s also narratively convenient; some of it depends on just the right character hearing just the right bit of information. But the point Bong wants us to get is how the families respond to each opening. Nitpick Parasite if you must, but you’ll be watching a different movie from the one Bong has made. The actual movie underneath all the ornate plot scaffolding has a lot of questions, some of which it can’t answer, though art isn’t built to answer questions but to pose them. Bong asks, first and foremost, what prosperity is built on, and how far down the hierarchy goes (not how far up). You may feel the boot of the oppressor on your neck, but are you also oppressing someone just by virtue of what you have and what they don’t? You may not intend to oppress, but in truth, few actively seek to do so — the ones who have more, and who oppress more, just benefit from a certain moral laxity, a willingness to tune out the screams and wails coming from below. In our culture of late, we have discussed white privilege, and how it doesn’t mean a white person’s life is easy in every way, just that it’s easier in every way than a comparable person of color’s life is. And there are privileges among the less privileged, too: a hetero African-American man enjoys freedoms that a gay African-American woman does not. And both have it easier than a disabled African-American does. They share one aspect of experience, blackness, but in other respects are not alike.

So that’s what Parasite is about, but it’s also about the duelling production designs of the poor family’s packed but lived-in pad and the rich family’s expansive but sparse rooms, including a vast living room whose vast window looks out onto a vast backyard, where the climax unfolds in such an abrupt series of feints and jabs that we may want to stop the film and go back — we don’t feel ready for it, even though we know we’re on an accelerating ride into the inferno. One action during the climax isn’t readable at first glance because, in the moment, we see the father of the poor family the way the father of the rich family sees him: not as a father but as a driver. But then we say, No, he’s a father, and what he does makes some sort of sense.

Parasite will drive the literal-minded around the bend, because its events pile up and sometimes recall the ruthless structure of a sitcom, or a slamming-door farce like Noises Off. Much is made of the smell of the underclass, or the rich little boy’s American Indian fantasies into which the grown men of both families are conscripted, or water as a harbinger of disaster and forestalled revelation. The movie is also a lot of smooth fun to watch, Bong being an entertainer above most else. Parasite flips through about ten different genres and takes the best bits of each; it feels like a relaxing buffet that expresses and sparks a love of cinema. Some of the suspense and incidents rubbed me the wrong way while I was watching, but in memory they gain stature and gravitas. Finally, it stakes its claim as a Juvenalian satire in which products are more than once praised because “we ordered it from America,” but we Americans probably shouldn’t take that as a compliment.

The Kitchen

November 17, 2019

kitchen Based glancingly on a mediocre comic book, The Kitchen is the middle panel in an accidental sisters-are-doin’-crime-for-themselves trilogy, bracketed by two better-received films — Steve McQueen’s Widows, from last year, and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, from this past September. Nobody, I think, will advance the argument that The Kitchen is the neglected masterpiece of the trio, but I would like to recommend it anyway; its pleasures are piecemeal, having more to do with acting firepower than with the unconvincing quilt of clichés that calls itself a story. The narrative glides by, and writer/director Andrea Berloff doesn’t seem very concerned with the moral import and emotional costs of it all, but the cast is.

The lowlife Hell’s Kitchen Irish mobster husbands of our heroines — Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss — are sent away in 1978 for armed robbery, leaving the women to fend for themselves. The head of the local mob, a glowering creep, refuses to allot the wives enough money to live on — protection money isn’t coming in. So the women take over collection, positioning themselves as reasonable and less toxically masculine alternatives. But as one of the goons eventually tells one of the women, “You’re worse than we ever were.”

Which is debatable, and a movie in which the women gain power because they’re outwardly nicer and retain power because they’re not actually all that nice inside would be interesting, but The Kitchen isn’t really that movie. All the routine rise-of-the-criminal scenes are there, the fanning out of dollar bills, the respect paid, the pivot towards legit community service, the casual and empowering finality of the bullet. But when it comes time to slog through the crime-does-not-pay sermon, the movie lacks conviction. It’s difficult to prompt the audience to root for the violent awakening and self-realization of an abused woman and then turn around and condemn that process.

The women are murkily written; only the acting brings some cold clarity. Melissa McCarthy’s Kathy protects her kids, Tiffany Haddish’s Ruby has been made ruthless by her hard life and abusive upbringing, and Elisabeth Moss’ Claire is a battered wife turned assassin. Kathy’s relative compassion comes from her relatively stable life; her jailbird hubby is no prize but not as bad as the others, and even her loving Irish dad is still around. There’s an idea here — take enough anchors of humanity away from a woman and you have yourself a very fearsome adversary — but it just sinks into the pudding along with anything else potentially interesting here. The Kitchen is a moderately competent crime flick and that’s all it is. Given the cast — and not just pained McCarthy, disdainful Haddish and born-again corpse-carving werewolf Moss — it could’ve been much sharper.

Yet a film fan shouldn’t go through life without seeing what the actors — also including Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, and Margo Martindale in a ‘70s hairdo she clearly got from my grandmother — do with some of the whiskered situations. Bill Camp, for instance, gives us an Italian mobster so confident in his power he can afford to be pretty mild-mannered. Martindale functions as the sort of ogre the heroines are in danger of becoming, but she’s terrific at it, snapping out insults like firecrackers. There really isn’t a bummer in the cast, though I think Ruby calls for a brand of coldness that Haddish can’t persuasively convey — good news for her conscience (she may be too good-hearted to play anything different believably), bad news for Ruby, who too often reads as emotionally null. A character is taken out with an impersonal abruptness that sort of works as comeuppance but comes across as a betrayal of the character’s portrayer. We’ve followed the person through blood and triumph, and past a certain point the movie seems to lose interest in the person morally, and some other characters, too — they’re just damned to hell, I guess. But up until that point, there’s some painfully fine stuff.