Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

February 15, 2020 Leave a comment

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017; Directed by Martin McDonagh)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes me wonder what has happened to its writer-director Martin McDonagh. This reaction might not have been the anticipated one, seeing as how the film won three Oscars and even more Golden Globes and BAFTAs, making it McDonagh’s big awards-circuit breakthrough after his first two unruly but frightfully clever genre films Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges (the latter being one of my favourite films of the 21st Century, an underrated classic). Three Billboards was greeted by not only awards voters but by critics and audiences as McDonagh’s finest and most appealing cinematic work yet, headlined by Oscar-winning performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and providing an acerbic and morally complex take on American social problems of policing, race, misogyny, and rural disintegration. What’s happened to Martin McDonagh, I ask? Why, he’s only gotten better, nearly everyone else answered!

Perhaps what Three Billboards makes most clear is not what has happened to Martin McDonagh, but what hasn’t happened to him. What hasn’t happened is him that he has moved forward as an artist or storyteller or polemicist. The London-born, Irish-descended McDonagh was an acclaimed playwright before moving into film with In Bruges, his biting black comedies about contemporary Irish life mixing nimble borderline-tiptoeing “edgy” humour with serious social examinations and even tragic themes. He’s still crafting those kinds of stories on the big screen, and he’s even making practically the same exact kind of “edgy” jokes that he always has, in a manner that is exposing their limitations as well as the plausible-deniability tactics that obscure their offensiveness. In my review of Seven Psychopaths (which I thought was okay, but at least saw McDonagh interested in the relatively fresh ground meta self-reflexive questions of representations in media, particularly of violence), I wrote that “the quintessential McDonagh joke offends on its face while acknowledging both the cause and the rightness of that offence; it will call out discriminatory assumptions while scoring a laugh off of them, and then inflate them to such outsized proportions so as to upend them again.”

Maybe because I loved In Bruges so much and held onto such goodwill for McDonagh as a writer, I wanted to believe that what he was doing by playing with offensive stereotypes like this was sophisticated and critical. I convinced myself and tried to convince anyone reading that he wasn’t just lampshading. Three Billboards makes it painfully clear to me that he is lampshading, and probably always was lampshading, in the terminological sense of distancing himself from the offensiveness of the stereotypes at the heart of his dark comedy by calling attention to that offensiveness and/or placing it in context while still using a shared knowledge (and generalized prejudiced acceptance) of those stereotypes to get a laugh. McDonagh certainly likes to pepper his writing with ableist and homophobic slurs, and even the N-word, but since his characters are either just prejudiced people or openly point out that it’s not PC to say those kinds of things, it’s fine and obviously only a dullard who didn’t get it would actually be offended. He also goes hard on “midget” jokes for the second of his three films (In Bruges‘ person of short stature was played by Jordan Prentice, but felt like a role that McDonagh wishes he could have gotten Peter Dinklage for; in Three Billboards, he gets his Dinklage), which makes him the most cutting-edge satirical humourist of 1954, I suppose.

The lampshade-hanging sharp-tongued comedy of Three Billboards is not really the primary problem with it, but it dovetails neatly with the unsubtle contrivance of the film’s dramatic developments. This is the kind of dramatic movie in which a hardened-in-grief mother (McDormand as Mildred Hayes) who has lost her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) to a brutal rape and murder flashes back to the last time she saw her child on the night that she died, and the last words Mildred says to the bitter Angela after denying her use of the car to go out for the night is to concur with the teen’s petty sarcastic parting epithet that she hopes that Angela is raped and murdered. Nearly every plot moment lands like this, with the subtlety of a hammerstroke and with an oppressive, smothering irony. Most of them derive from Mildred’s idiosyncratically confrontational response to her grief and to the local police’s lack of traction in investigating the crime: she rents the titular triptych of successive billboards on the side road that leads to her home and plasters an accusatory message aimed at the failures of local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to solve the case. Since Ebbing is a tight-knit community and it’s also shared-secret public knowledge that Willoughby is dying of cancer, Mildred’s J’Accuse…! style of advertising is not popular, to say the least, and leads to a local backlash (although it’s worth interrogating McDonagh’s text as to how much of that backlash is realistic or believable).

Almost nobody likes these billboards. Obviously Willoughby doesn’t much appreciate it, struggling as he is with the legacy of his failure to find’s Angela rapist and killer and the heartbreaking reality of his mortality and leaving behind his wife (Abbie Cornish, whose chosen accent is bizarre and unplaceable), his two young daughters, his officers, and his beloved horses. Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who abused her and then left her prior to Angela’s death for a 19-year old (Samara Weaving, who manages a couple of decent comedic beats in a thoroughly thankless role), certainly doesn’t agree with it, nor does her high-school-age son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). The local police are predictably resentful too, especially bigoted, drunken shitheel Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), who is notorious for having tortured an African-American man in his custody. Dixon proceeds to cover himself in even greater vainglory, arresting Mildred’s black female gift shop co-worker (Amanda Warren) on trumped-up possession charges in retribution, and harrassing and eventually nearly killing Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the homosexual local advertising agent who rents the billboards to Mildred.

The escalation of Three Billboard‘s drama is, as implied, fairly overheated and contrived, driven by manipulative plot necessities more than character psychology or local social forces. The cast sells it as best they can, and McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell give as near to the best as can be given in service of the material (the flinty McDormand is the most clearly spectacular; she could win an Oscar for every role she ever played and you wouldn’t find many objectors). McDonagh aims for a portrait of ambiguity and messy human frality and imperfection quite purposely, though not as thoughtfully as he might think or intend. Three Billboards is not a film that judges any particular character in totalizing moral terms, not even Dixon, who is a horrid, racist, homophobic, dimwitted, pathetic prick until he suddenly, improbably rallies from a low ebb to become a dogged crusader for Angela’s killer in a whiplashing last-act redemption arc. Better critics than I have analyzed why McDonagh’s arc for Dixon is irresponsible and even offensive in terms of racial politics, so I leave that point to them. But it’s also emblematic of the deepest-seeded problem that Three Billboards has, the one that ultimately drags it down: Martin McDonagh doesn’t understand American society, culture, and politics as well as he thinks he does, and his supposedly searing cinematic critique of its core issues comes off as paternalistic tourism (there was an element of this to In Bruges, but tourism was part of the core joke there).

Such tone-deaf arrogance, you might scoff, a Canadian critic chiding a world-renowned British-Irish filmmaker and playwright for not “getting” America. But to anyone who has ever been to the States or even so much as consumed some of its media (and who hasn’t done that?), great swaths of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri come across as entirely wrong, unfair, or even offensive (and not in McDonagh’s usual winking “we both know this is offensive but let’s have a penetrating laugh at it” manner). The intense, supposedly-probing focus on the inhabitants of rural red state flyover-country (“The Heartland” of America, in that racially and partisanly coded nomenclature) so often either ignored or marginalized or stereotyped by Hollywood is, well, rife with stereotypes of people from that part of the world. The examination of the fraught and divided social views of the police is facile, the consideration of racial issues is hardly a consideration at all but the writing equivalent of dumping the loose contents of a packed purse on a table and inviting the audience to paw through the items for what they might be looking for, an approach without discernment or focus or sensitivity to traumas felt by some Americans but not felt or understood by others. There’s a staged quality to McDonagh’s vision of Ebbing, a theatrical quality that you might have expected from a playwright-turned-film director but which In Bruges and especially Seven Psychopaths did not display in the same way. Treading into more unfamiliar territory geographically and socio-politically, McDonagh retreats to framing that he knows better to anchor the work, it seems; this goes for the music as well, which bookends Irish folk poem “The Last Rose of Summer” as the film’s choice aural elegy for American life.

The very British-Isles understanding of discrimination and prejudice being grounded entirely in socioeconomic class pervades Three Billboards; working class suffering is the common denominator, the core assumption of social and emotional struggles. Martin McDonagh knows that race is vital to understanding American social, economic, and political power relations, but he can only invoke it as a push-button comedic/dramatic shock tactic, a literal trump card to be played (take every charged potential meaning of that wording to be entirely purposeful). There are superficially fascinating and potentially deep themes simmering tantalizingly in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, half-posed and entirely unanswered questions about the role of advertising in directing the mass psychology of capitalist societies (the opening glimpses of the derelict billboards are exquisitely, artfully photographed by cinematographer Ben Davis, summoning ghosts of The Great Gatsby‘s symbolically-charged fragmentary billboard of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg) and the position of the police as punitive agents of power maintenance more than as the endlessly culturally-celebrated ideal of crime-fighting arbiters of moral equilibrium. The concept of rural America in particular and of America in general as a culture and society in decline and decay is invoked as well; the town is called Ebbing after all, and the root verb comes up in dialogue as if to re-emphasize the point (very few of McDonagh’s points here are judged to be unworthy of exhaustive re-emphasis).

But none of this rises beyond quasi-literary colour, like Willoughby and his wife referencing Oscar Wilde and the former maybe even identifying Wilde’s life-ending plight with his own cancerous decline. Of course, Martin McDonagh would identify with an Irish playwright, but would a small-town Missouri police chief? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is full of such details, large and small, that are raised and emphasized but never really seem to be the point. It grants the film the illusion of complexity and richness and depth without the bother of actually labouring to erect them. Three Billboards purports to be a film about grief and loss and prejudice and injustice and love and redemption and forgiveness and revenge and race and power and all of those other Big Ideas. But what it ends up being about is how Martin McDonagh can’t wrangle these Big Ideas into a thematically and emotionally coherent film, so he papers over the incoherence with surface-level cleverness and button-pushing provocations. Perhaps what happened to Martin McDonagh is that his ambitions outstripped his creative grounding, and his desire to be taken seriously by the segment of American mass culture represented by awards-bait movies led him astray from the knowledge-base that he drew from in his best work. Write what you know, right? Martin McDonagh doesn’t know America, unfortunately, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes that fact painfully clear.

Categories: Current Affairs, Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Post

February 2, 2020 Leave a comment

The Post (2017; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of the behind-the-scenes newspaper work and decision-making dilemmas behind The Washington Post‘s publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 is a robust narrative about the patriotic duty of the free press to hold the powerful to account, despite social, political, and legal inconvenience and aggressive, cover-up-minded pushback from those powerful players. Its applicability to America’s contemporary situation is not lost on Spielberg and certainly is not lost on screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, but this contextual association is left to the audience to make for themselves.

Spielberg begins The Post by entering the tropical jungle meat-grinder of the Vietnam War in 1966, following State Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) as he embeds with a U.S. military unit hit hard by a nighttime Viet Cong ambush. This crucial scene-setting establishes the stakes for what Ellsberg will later decide to do: young Americans are dying in a war in Southeast Asia, but why? Ellsberg’s boss, then-Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, a go-to choice for Presidents but an eerie match for JFK and LBJ’s key cabinet member), seeks his subordinate’s first-hand assessment as support for his own private view that America’s involvement in Vietnam is not likely to lead to success and that the situation is indeed deteriorating. But Ellsberg becomes disillusioned when McNamara publically emphasizes that the situation is improving, contrary not only to behind-closed-door discourse but also to an exhaustive report compiled at the behest of the data-minded McNamara that detailed the flawed decision-making that deepened American commitments in Indochina despite ample evidence that what they were doing was not working, even as successive administrations dishonestly told the American public that matters were getting better and victory was possible (McNamara felt rather guilty about this later in his life, as Errol Morris demonstrated). Ellsberg therefore sneaks out and copies the report from the offices of contractor Rand Corporation, his intentions initially unclear but easily graspable.

Flash ahead to 1971. It’s the eve of The Washington Post going public on the stock exchange in order to raise more funds to expand its journalistic work, an effort which consumes the attention of the paper’s publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who is also a personal friend of McNamara’s. Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, a post-millenial Spielberg fave) is dealing with his reporter being shut out of covering the wedding of President Richard Nixon’s daughter, but suspects something much bigger is afoot at the New York Times, whose star Vietnam reporter Neil Sheehan hasn’t had anything published in months. It soon becomes clear that Sheehan and a Times team has had Ellsberg’s copy of the Pentagon Papers for some time and the paper of record soon begins publishing front-page stories about the government misleading the American public about the war. As the Nixon Administration gets a federal judge to order the Times to halt publishing stories based on these top-secret documents for national security reasons, Bradlee’s newsroom receives copies of the Papers as well, from a random hippie-looking walk-in and through a connection between reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) and Ellsberg himself.

The core dramatic dilemma of The Post places the weight of great choice on the shoulders of a member of the elite, Graham herself. Pressed on one side by Bradlee’s lofty insistence on journalistic integrity and press freedom and on the other by more practical concerns of sinking the public offering (Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford are two male executive advisors warning her on this front) and indeed possibly even going to prison, Graham must decide whether to publish the Papers or not. Hannah and Singer and Spielberg see in Graham a figure defined by her gender and the glass-ceiling expectations of her time. When her father, who owned the Post, died, he left it not to her but to her husband, and it only came to her upon his suicide; she is keenly aware that she is not seen as equal to the many men who run her realm, and Streep allows that knowledge to play across her surface layer of WASP-ish self-possession. Spielberg also blocks out a contrasting pair of scenes to emphasize her inadvertent role as a figure of sort-of-feminism in the midst of patriarchal power structures: at the stock exchange on the day she takes the Post public, Streep passes up a staircase through a crowd of female secretaries and then through a set of doors to a smoky room full of powerful men, and then when leaving the Supreme Court after the lawyers for the Post and the Times argued for their right to publish the Pentagon Papers, she passes through a crowd of female onlookers, this time down a staircase but with an added measure of self-possession and confidence.

There’s a lot to like about The Post, with its crackling, overlapping dialogue, steady and smooth direction from one of Hollywood’s supreme craftsmen (who has his usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams on board to help), and superb cast of character actors. Spielberg applies his cast like a painter layers brushstrokes, with actors capable of lead-character depth appearing in a scene or two or three to nail down a certain character’s role in the proceedings. Jesse Plemons descends with withering practical realism as the paper’s lead legal counsel, Michael Stuhlbarg is the New York Times‘ brash publisher Abe Rosenthal, Alison Brie floats through as Graham’s daughter, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife manages the crowd of harried reporters that descend on her home with platters of sandwiches and her daughter’s lemonade, and those reporters are played by the capable likes of Carrie Coon, Odenkirk, and David Cross (Spielberg seems to purposely pose the latter two together in frame in the paper’s newsroom as a brief Mr. Show reunion). Rhys plays Ellsberg as a careful and principled whistleblower in a manner that should prove familiar to observers of contemporary examples like Daniel J. Jones of The Report or Chelsea Manning or especially Edward Snowden. The latter two whistleblowers’ respective fates of imprisonment and exile were avoided by Ellsberg only because of the Watergate scandal which truly made the Washington Post‘s name as a top-notch investigative newspaper, and the burglary which set it off is The Post‘s final scene, demonstrating the Nixon regime’s deepening illegality and paranoid distrust for political and legal norms as well as the vital importance of Graham and Bradlee shepherding their paper through the Pentagon Papers crisis so that it might soon bring down a criminal President.

Of course, at this moment the United States has an even more shamelessly criminal Republican President with an openly antagonistic relationship to the American press (the “fake news” as he likes to call it, when he isn’t calling reporters out-and-out traitors) that makes Nixon’s rhetoric about the media seem mild in comparison. It cannot be said that the U.S. media, the Washington Post (no longer owned by the Graham family since they sold it to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013) very much included, has not covered the shady corruption and voluminous misbehaviour of Donald J. Trump, although its coverage was also complicit in his unfortunate rise: Fox News’ breathlessly hagiographic Dear Leader angle on him, obviously, but also NBC launching Trump to rehabilitory stardom with The Apprentice and softening his image during the campaign with Jimmy Fallon’s hair-ruffling on The Tonight Show and a retrospectively mortifying hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, CNN’s pillar-to-post live broadcast of his frothing-at-the-mouth campaign rallies and persistent employment of his dishonest surrogates as both-sides pundits, and print, television, and online media’s disastrous obsession with the gussied-up nothing story of Hillary Clinton’s private email server that is one of many factors that presaged Trump’s 2016 election victory.

As excellent as The Post is as a film celebrating the inspiring courage of American journalism (and since this is Spielberg, there is of course a scene of climactic positive triumph, complete with swelling John Williams score), a creeping knowledge of the future of the press relationship with disingenuous and criminal government actions lessens its current impact. While Hollywood made a movie like The Post glorifying the historical bravery of a paper whose chest-beating motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, American democracy may very well be dying in the full light of day, and not without the collusion, alternately advertent and inadvertent, of the vaunted free press. Sure, it’s “just” a movie, but it has also proven to be not nearly enough.

It’s interesting, given the current American milieu with which it is extratextually contrasted, that The Post explores the tension between journalistic freedom and the free market imperatives of bottom-line capitalism (especially where those imperatives overlap with the backslapping chuminess of the self-preservationist elite) the way it does. In the Trump era, we see a democratic crisis that has advanced to a troubling place largely due to journalism’s weakness in holding the powerful to account in the face of the drive for profit in a shifting, unstable industry, just as the powerful decide not to check a dangerously reactionary but superficially business-friendly leader in order to keep the tap open and the wealth flowing into their tanks. Like Nixon, Trump fights with the press and tries to limit and discredit their exposure of his malfeasance, but he also knows how to manipulate it and exploit its weak points to get what he wants from it (having a readymade state media in Fox News doesn’t hurt; American history might have turned out very differently if Rupert Murdoch’s tacky cable-TV reincarnation of Der Stürmer was around in the 1970s to spread pro-Nixon propaganda 24-7). The Post is (highly adapted) history, but as a rallying cry for current power-challenging press integrity, it’s unfortunately a nostalgic fantasy.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: 1917

January 18, 2020 Leave a comment

1917 (2019; Directed by Sam Mendes)

World War I was wrong. It’s well understood (and generally acknowledged even by wet-eyeballed nostalgic imperialists) that the Great War of 1914-1918 was a totally horrifying meatgrinder of a conflict, decimating most of a generation of young men from across Europe and its imperial possessions in the muddy, bloody accelerated decay of the trenches and the battlefields. Millions of lives were meaninglessly thrown away in deluded offensives whose strategic premises were couched in military conceptual frameworks made frightfully and tragically obselete by technological innovations in that ever-cutting-edge field of killing humans. Millions more non-combatants were caught in the fighting’s crossfire or subject to genocidal cleansing, to say nothing of the global flu pandemic that swept across a weakened planet and claimed another 50-100 millions lives. And after all this mind-boggling death, the war to end all wars not only did nothing of the sort, it led in an absolutely direct line to an even more terrible and devastating war.

This much is known, but what is not as known is just how morally and politically inexcusable all of this wanton slaughter was. World War I’s preliminary causes and beginnings tend to be taught reductively: a set of interlocking balance-of-power alliances were activated by a political crisis tied to the assassination of an almost comically old-fashioned heir to the throne of a slowly-dissolving Old World empire. But World War I was the monumentally tragic and infuriating folly (George Kennan called it “the Seminal Catastrophe of the Century”) of a gilded global elite bent on clinging to and expanding on their power at absolutely any cost and utterly, sociopathically detached from the shocking human toll of their endless grasping and hoarding. Whether the war was driven by the Entente powers’ desire to contain German ambition on the Continent and in the colonial sphere or by the German Empire’s desire for conquest and expansion, the killing machine of the Western Front and the less-narrativized but just as deadly fighting on the Eastern Front was designed and maintained by governments and military command structures of Europe’s best and brightest and richest. These august men extinguished lives by the millions over detached squabbles for greedy acquisition and wounded pride, knowing full well what they were doing but deceiving themselves and the people they claimed to serve as to why, not only with public obfuscation during the conflict but with solemn, sober, and entirely nationalistic commemoration after it. That several of these governments were toppled by the war’s consuming reach (such as those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire), this seems a small punishment for the suffering visited on millions in the 1910s and millions more in decades that followed. World War I was horrifying and the loss of life it caused sad and to be mourned, but it was also wrong, and that is what ought to be remembered.

I am telling you this at the outset of a review of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917 because the movie does not. 1917 is an in medias res Great War story, a visually and temporally immediate and experiential “you are there” narrative of survival, loyalty, and comradeship in the crucible of a conflict bigger than any one life but enlivened and encapsulated in the perspective of one life, or in this case two. A pair of Lance Corporals in the British Expeditionary Force, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay), are chosen for a tremendously dangerous mission in the titular year. General Erinmore (Colin Firth, one of numerous prominent British thesps in cameo officer roles) orders Blake and Schofield to traverse miles of No Man’s Land and enemy positions recently vacated by a German withdrawal to deliver a message to a battalion ordered to attack the retreating foe: it’s a trap. The Germans have only fallen back to the newly-built Hindenburg Line fortifications, and intelligence has found this out too late to get the message to the attacking troops any other way. These two solitary men are entrusted with the task of saving the lives of 1,600 men who are heading straight for an enemy waiting to massacre them, Blake’s officer brother (Richard Madden) among them.

Mendes, working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, dramatizes the journey of Blake and Schofield as a real-time experience filmed in a simulated single shot. Although it’s an enjoyable game to try and spot the hidden cuts that stitch together this single-take simulation (watch for objects being panned across in the extreme foreground), this technique previously employed in movies like Birdman and Russian Ark is wondrously executed on a grand and powerful scale in 1917. Mendes arranges sequences of unbearable tension (passage through abandoned German tunnels, an engagement with an enemy sniper) and balances them with sequences of respite (a friendly reminiscence in a white-blossoming orchard, a tender fireside scene with a French girl and a baby, soldiers seated in a forest listening to one of their number sing an aching, lilting tune), ending with a desperate, jawdropping sprint across British troops charging against enemy bombardment, Thomas Newman’s epic score swelling with massed strings. If Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk explored how war fragments and distorts the perception of time, Sam Mendes’ 1917 uses moment-by-moment inexorable ticking-clock immediacy to convey war’s vivid, surrealistic experiences on unforgiving timelines of pending mortality, an effort greatly served by the convincingly harried performances of Chapman and (especially) MacKay.

The technical achievement of 1917 in this vein is substantial and sometimes remarkable, and one must give full recognition and credit to Mendes’ ability as a filmmaker for its success, as well as to his cinematographer Roger Deakins, a grand old master of the art and craft of light and shadow of the moving image. Deakins follows Blake and Schofield’s odyssey with incredibly impressive camera motion and shoots the world through which they pass with evocatively grimy realism (decomposing horses, well-fed trench rats, blown-out artillery, bloated bodies in a river), but also unleashes an astonishing sequence in a bombed-out town at night, expressionistically lit with nightmarishly beautiful overhead flares and fiery background conflagrations. It’s a chiaroscuro vision of a hell clumsily crafted by the cruel hand of man into an infernal inverted mirror of heaven. At least once (sometimes more) in any film with him credited as a director of photography, there is a sequence which looks so stunningly arresting and gorgeous that I can but shake my fists to the impotent sky and cry out in primally effusive admiration: “DEAKINSSSS!” In Skyfall, it was Bond’s infiltration of a Shanghai skyscraper; in Blade Runner 2049, it was K coming face-to-face with the towering holographic advertisement of his departed Joi; in 1917, it is this indelible visual triumph of a sequence.

This is how 1917 has been greeted by critics and audiences, as a visually and technically superb spectacle of transporting proportions. A thrill ride, as they say. But how does this affect reflect on the moral-historical dimensions of the film’s depiction of World War I? Does 1917 criticize war or does it glorify it? It’s hard to claim that the latter does not pre-dominate. 1917 is a proudly British film from a filmmaker who has, in the past, leaned into the comforting glow of nationalism; Mendes’ James Bond film was the most overt flag-waving celebration of imperialism in the recent history of a franchise hardly light on such themes. The ever-celebrated stiff-upper-lip heroism of the British soldier is reified in 1917, not only in the resourcefulness and loyalty and resilience of its protagonist lance corporals, but even in its army officers. Oft-villified (and rightly so) for snobbish detachment from the mortal consequences of their command and blamed for some of the war’s most wasteful expenditures of manpower as cannon fodder, British officers in 1917 vaguely bemoan these qualities in others in the command structure but not a one displays them himself: a wearied lieutenant on the front line played by Andrew Scott is sardonically cynical after unmitigated losses but not unsympathetically so, Mark Strong’s Captain Smith offers Blake and Schofield transport and kind advice, and even Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), the commander of the attacking unit that must be warned to stand down or risk a slaughter, is only lacking in context and information, despite warnings of his inflexibility and lust for a fight.

More than anything, Mendes stacks the deck for the essential goodness of the top-level command by having the orders of Firth’s Erinmore be to save 1,600 lives from a pointlessly fatal assault, rather than throw those men away in such an advance, as generals so often did in this war. It’s a statement to how the film constructs a wartime realm where everyone’s actions and motivations are justifiable or at least understandable. Even the Germans, with their superficially treacherous retreat gambit, are simply trying to gain a strategic advantage, to win. Those Germans carry on their persons cherished photographs of loved ones left behind at home just as the British do, a conventional war movie shorthand used by Mendes without much reflection. There are horrors here, absolutely, and a sequence on an abandoned farm commencing with the crash of a German biplane treads close to treating with the deadly indifference to moral consequence that prevails in such armed conflicts. But an honest observer would be hard-pressed to call 1917 anti-war in any robust fashion.

What we’re asking for here is not a scene of Blake and Schofield pausing to repeat Howard Zinn’s historical interpretations or anything (who’s the WWI-era equivalent of Howard Zinn? Eugene Debs?). Perhaps Mendes and Wilson-Cairns could have formulated a scenario for the film that allowed for themes of moral ambiguity and injustice to find voice, although considering the title card beginning the credits saluting a veteran relative of Mendes whose Great War stories inspired him to make 1917, there may have been personal barriers to such an approach. 1917 is not an elegiac meditation on war’s inhumanity, it’s a spectacular roller-coasting ride of visceral tension and emotional turmoil. Its intent is representative realism, showing as best as movie magicians can a century removed from this terrible conflict what it was really like. But in Mendes’ hands, this intended realism is accompanied with a political neutrality that presents as centrist moral cowardice in the face of the war’s historical reprehensibility.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Serenity (2019)

January 14, 2020 Leave a comment

A Fish Named Justice (2019; Directed by Steven Knight)

Serenity starts out as one kind of movie, pivots quickly but not unexpectedly into another kind of movie, and then eventually u-turns drastically into a third, far worse kind of movie. Considering the weird and unconvincing conceit of its last-act twist (which I am going to spoil a couple of paragraphs down, but to have it given away doesn’t really ruin or even materially affect the rest of the movie, to be honest) and the fact that it stars a mumble-and-growl phase Matthew McConaughey as a slowly-unravelling, morally-conflicted fisherman obsessed (at least at times) with catching a gigantic yellowfin tuna named Justice, Serenity is a surprisingly direct and even boring genre exercise that never meaningfully leaves its lane. A movie more in touch with the potential bad-film camp appeal of its ludicrous ideas would not only have cast a less serious-minded lead actor than McConaughey (the role screams out for pure wild-eyes B-movie Nicolas Cage), it would have gone all in and actually titled itself A Fish Named Justice. Serenity is not that movie, nor is it Joss Whedon’s theatrical-release endcap to his sci-fi series Firefly either, a point of unnecessary confusion that could have been avoided with that better title. A better title that, regardless the contrary decision of the movie’s creators and distributors and marketers, I will be using to refer to this movie for the rest of this review (and plugged into the heading, too; in for a penny, in for a pound).

McConaughey is Baker Dill, a fishing boat captain on an isolated, seemingly-Caribbean island named Plymouth (filming was done on location in Mauritius, an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean; possibly its stars signed on for the promise of a semi-holiday in the remote tropics). His unexplained fixation on catching his tuna Moby-Dick is costing him his livelihood, especially when he threatens paying big-fish anglers to back off while he mans their rods to catch it. This loose-cannon rogue can’t pay his local mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), relies on older, wealthy casual lover Constance (Diane Lane) for supplementary financial support, and takes to solo night fishing to afford the gas on his boat and drinking money at the only bar on the island. But then old flame Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives and offers to sink all of his money troubles to the ocean bottom along with her rich, abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke), whose murder at sea she offers Dill $10 million in cash to execute.

There’s a personal complication to this film-noir scheme: Karen had a son with Dill back home on the mainland when he was called John Mason, before he went off to war in Iraq and came back shell-shocked and no longer himself (hence the new identity, so we’re to believe). This son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), is a loner who hides in his room from his stepfather’s violence towards his mother and immerses himself in programming and playing a tropical-island fishing game.

Maybe you can see where this is going? If not, this is where it’s going (to spoilers!): John Mason never came back from Iraq, he died there. The widowed Karen married the abusive bully Frank (Clarke’s well-realized dickbagginess obscures how thoroughly the movie stacks the deck as far as his badness goes), and Patrick uses his IT skills to craft an alternate video-game fantasy open world where his real dad is still alive and fishing like they used to when they were together and happy. Then Patrick reprograms his game to have his parents team up (and also have angry, unloving sex?) to kill his nasty stepdad, while at the same time in the real world, he takes a fishing knife and goes off to kill his stepdad.

A Fish Named Justice is messed the heck up, but never comes anywhere close to realizing it, like a more fun bad movie would. Writer/director Steven Knight, the auteur/creator of the beautifully-made but increasingly strained interwar-set English gangster drama Peaky Blinders, has seen plenty of film-noir thrillers and probably read some Melville too, but he’s maybe only seen a nephew play World of Warcraft once or twice, and so the “it’s all a video game!” twist doesn’t land. Knight uses a camera-rotating move around McConaughey a couple of times in one scene, and introduces Hathaway’s femme fatale Karen with a similar move, which is supposed to telegraph that they’re characters in a video game, one supposes. Locals keep offering Baker Dill better lures and fishing equipment like NPCs in a sword-and-sorcery RPG who provide the player improved gear (does Baker level up by sleeping with Constance, being rude to Duke, and going on benders?). He is also followed around, but never actually met until the night before he plans to murder Frank on the water, by a man in a suit (Jeremy Strong) who claims to want to gift him a fish finder, but is later revealed to be a personification of “the rules” or programming of the game. This coded man and the Plymouth Island locals are constantly, unsubtly prodding Dill back to his prime tuna objective like mission reminder menus. Maybe Knight is a seasoned gamer after all, because his movie is like The Elder Scrolls only even more stultifyingly dull and bloodless.

Of course this all falls to pieces once you think about it for even a moment, but A Fish Named Justice chugs along to its conclusion anyway, powered by a sturdy engine of generic convention. There’s no midnight-showing, so-bad-it’s-good future for this movie, like a real, disastrously awful B-movie like The Room or even like an expensive, misbegotten monstrosity of a flop like the recent Cats, which the leftist, lapsed theatre-kid irony-lovers of social media are working overtime to make into A Thing in that vein. It’s too competently made, for one, and McConaughey, Hathaway, Hounsou, Strong, Lane, and Clarke are all too professional and likable and convincingly sincere to let the proceedings slip into true camp. Top down, everyone believes in this ridiculous nonsense, and they’re mostly too good to let it go really bad. And that’s just no fun, dammit.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Knives Out

January 5, 2020 Leave a comment

Knives Out (2019; Directed by Rian Johnson)

Rian Johnson’s fantastically entertaining neo-whodunit Knives Out had a release date, likely by happenstance, that closely coincided with the final Sequel Trilogy Star Wars movie The Rise of Skywalker, the follow-up to his excellent yet contentious The Last Jedi. Release-slate coincidences aside, this conjunction is highly illustrative. While lesser filmmakers (greatly constrained by circumstances, expectations, and corporate oversight, but still lesser) tripped over the furniture in the dark to revise and undo all of the good work that he did with the space adventure franchise, what does Johnson do? Only more good work.

Knives Out sees Johnson return to the detective genre of his 2005 feature film debut, Brick. But while that striking film transposed the look, mood, language, characters, and themes of pre-war hardboiled detective noirs from writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler into a contemporary American high school, Knives Out is a fiendishly clever, masterfully crafted homage to the intricately-plotted murder mysteries of Agatha Christie (along with a clear nod or two to one of the fathers of the genre, Arthur Conan Doyle). The film has been labelled a subversion of that species of mystery fiction, but it’s more of an elevation and a broadening of the possibilities of those generic elements and the kind of cinematic frame that contains them. It’s also a political parable about Trump-era America, and a purely delightful crowd-pleaser. I saw it too late to find a spot for it on my list of the Top 10 Films of last year, but rest assured, it would find a place high on that ranking.

Knives Out revolves around the death of renowned, wealthy bestselling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) in his large, rambling, wood-paneled house somewhere in the Eastern United States. With his grasping, bickering family bustling around in the week between his funeral, memorial, and will reading, a police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) and state trooper (Noah Segan) question the family members regarding the murky circumstances of the imperious old man’s death, which is judged a suicide but also lies under shadows of doubt. This doubt is also probed with idiosyncratic fitfulness by a private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who was anonymously contracted to look into Harlan’s death with an eye towards possible murder.

Through interrogations with Blanc and the police that link up with flashback scenes, the characters of the family members and the finer details of the night of Harlan’s death (also the night of his 85th birthday party) are laid out. Harlan’s cane-wielding son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs his father’s publishing company, and is frustrated at being stifled by the old man when it comes to potentially lucrative screen adaptation rights. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) runs her own company, alongside her reactionary, slightly dim, blustering husband Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson); their Large Adult Son Ransom (Chris Evans, who makes a great prick, it must be said) is an arrogantly entitled trust-fund shitheel and the roundly despised black sheep of the clan, although Harlan sees him as a bit of a kindred spirit. Joni (Toni Collette) is the new-age liberal widow of a deceased son of Harlan’s and has her own skincare company. Her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) is into political progressivism and attends a liberal-arts college on Harlan’s dime; she clashes with the Drysdales’ groomed, always-online teenaged son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), whom she labels an “alt-right troll” and a “literal Nazi” while he needles her about her pursuit of a “SJW degree”.

Also about are Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), Harlan’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), his unquantifiably ancient mother (K Callan), and his young Latina nurse and confidant Marta Cabrera (the excellent Ana de Armas). Marta, who the Thrombey/Drysdale pack speaks about as “part of the family”, is particularly key to the whole affair. She was the last person to be with Harlan in his upstairs room prior to his death and therefore almost certainly knows more about its shady details than anyone else, and is also of unimpeachably good character: she has a violently physiological reaction to dishonesty, vomiting instantly if she tells a lie. She also figures centrally in what Blanc suspects to be Harlan Thrombey’s plans with regards to his inheritance to his backbiting family circle, which may have precipitated foul play.

Saying anything more about the elaborate set of clues and revelations layered impeccably into Knives Out’s plot by Johnson (who writes as well as directs) would be an act of cruelty. Like the Agatha Christie stories that provide the film’s inspiration (Brad Gullickson identifies three in particular that Johnson singled out as creative catalysts for Film School Rejects), Knives Out seeds every pertinent part to the mystery’s resolution before the whole is revealed. Like all good mystery stories, the clues are all there to be fitted together to solve the puzzle. Also like all good mystery stories, few if any readers/viewers will fill in every detail, will fail to match every clue to its proper important place in the narrative of the crime. It is the author that is the ultimate arbiter, the cleverest boy (or girl) in the room, who dazzles with the revelation of the superior wit of their complex mystery machine’s construction, but rather than insult the intelligence of an audience that cannot aspire to such cleverness themselves, delights them with the dramatic unveiling of that clockwork complexity and flatters their attentive eye to even the smallest clue, when that clue’s significance becomes vital. A good mystery story makes you feel smart even while comprehensively outsmarting you, but you not only don’t mind, you love it and can’t wait to consume another story just like it. It’s an elegant knife’s edge balance, and it’s little wonder that the writers who pull it off with any consistency become immortals.

Rian Johnson is a writer/director deeply suited to this kind of genre narrative. He’s always been a clever visual storyteller; maybe too clever for his own good, his critics might bemoan. This was an under-noticed element of the roiling backlash to The Last Jedi online, where the most implacable negative critical energy towards his deconstructionist Star Wars came from mostly male internet communities and elements of the franchise fanbase known for toxic masculinity, reactionary politics, and outsized conceptions of their own superior intellect and knowledge. These sorts of fans were not going to take kindly to a filmmaker with a strong voice (and clear leftist politics, as well) like Johnson demonstrating not only that he was smarter than they were and understood Star Wars better than they did (well enough to take it apart and put it back together again, before their eyes), but that he knew it and had no qualms about making certain that they knew it as well. Rian Johnson’s films make you feel smart while comprehensively outsmarting you, but when he did that with Star Wars, the most popular film series in history, a lot of people didn’t appreciate it like mystery fans might have, and on this level, perhaps you can’t entirely blame them.

But this tendency makes Johnson an ideal match for an intricately-plotted, geographically-fixed murder mystery full of colourful, antagonistic characters/suspects to be solved by an eccentric but insightful detective. Because he’s so very clever, Johnson also drops semi-meta references to the literary genre throughout Knives Out, although mostly as witty background and shrugging misdirection. One of the family members notes that the convoluted circumstances of Harlan Thrombey’s death resemble the plots of his whodunnit novels, and Segan’s Trooper Wagner is a superfan whose role is mostly to recognize similarities with details of the stories. Blanc expands the referential scope, referring to Marta as the Watson to his Sherlock Holmes on a couple of occasions. This self-reflexivity situates Knives Out in the history of the genre but otherwise doesn’t particular lead anywhere, except maybe to deductive dead ends in the minds of astute genre-savvy viewers who assume that the master mystery author has planned out his own murder and its aftermath (I will only say that it isn’t that, but it also isn’t not that).

But Rian Johnson is not only a clever and hypercompent writer, he’s a clever and hypercompetent filmmaker. Knives Out is so greatly entertaining to watch largely because Johnson employs a wide array of tools and tricks of editing, cinematography, lighting, production design, sound design and editing, music, and, of course, acting to convey the intricacy of the mystery’s details, the nature of his characters, the drama and action of sequences, and to drop interpretive breadcrumbs for amateur sleuths in the dark theatre. Characters’ faces are lit in intentionally suggestive ways, music selections both diegetic and non-diegetic suggest mood as well as function as further clues (listen for Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” in a key scene, with its germane line “You better take care / if I find you been creeping ‘around my back stairs”), editing emphasizes certain details (check how Johnson’s editor Bob Ducsay cuts to the dull foreboding thump of Walt’s cane on the floor as he threatens blackmail against Marta) and cheekily undermines others with juxtapositional humour (Linda calling out the presumptive arrogance of the police thinking she is dim enough to be goaded into talking shit about the rest of the family, with a hard cut to Richard gladly taking the bait), and props and set details encode hints and meanings (I was sure to note Marta’s framing next to a neo-Gothic painted window of a medieval apothecary, an anticipation of her role in Harlan’s fate). Johnson could have made Knives Out in a direct, workmanlike manner and its screenplay and acting would have made it more than above average. But he makes it with artistic and technical virtuosity and stylisitic flourishes, using every piece of film craft at his disposal to heighten every moment, and this makes Knives Out a delightful triumph.

The victory lap of that triumph is Blanc’s climactic cracking of the case, a sequence tying together all of the strands in a manner satisfying, dramatic, and surprisingly funny. Craig, who is spectacularly good in a role with an eye to a post-Bond future (Johnson says he already has a sequel planned out, and I am very down for a Benoit Blanc Cinematic Universe), commences the sequence of the revelation of the solution (which of course I won’t get into here) with a hilariously digressive metaphor about donut holes, and leans into his outrageous Southern accent (I assume Blanc is supposed to be Cajun from the French name, but I’m not sure you can tell it from his speech) in big laugh lines like “A Nazi child masturbatin’ in the bathroom!” Among the criticisms that haters of The Last Jedi lobbed at Johnson was his use of clever, even “modern” humour in otherwise tonally dramatic scenes, but this sequence shows an unerring control of the mechanisms of tension and release that recognizes that comedy is not the enemy of suspense or drama but can work with them and punch them up with judicious and calibrated use.

The highlight prop of the film’s design figures centrally in this scene: a sunburst arrangement of mounted knives with their tips pointed inward to a open circle (see the still to the right), a blade-sharp visualization of Blanc’s metaphor for the mystery as a donut with a hole in it (and an inversion of the film’s title, seeing as these knives are oriented in). Characters are posed in frame on a couple of occasions with their heads in front of the hole (the establishing interviews take place in front of the piece earlier in the film, but Johnson is careful not to frame any of the interviewed characters this way at that point), the knives acting as a metallic accusatory halo, and Johnson and his cinematographer Steve Yedlin zoom dramatically along the surface of the display up to Blanc’s face for a critical line. And finally, this artistic aggregation of knives dramatically fulfills its Chekhov’s gun purpose, although with a inverted punchline redolent of Johnson’s wit and humour (watch the first and last shots of the film’s closely for another such comic inversion).

For a film so unerringly sharp in all other ways, Knives Out‘s aforementioned political subtext is stunningly blunt. Harlan’s family falls into a contentious political discussion whose clear context is the Trump presidency and its polarized dichotomies, albeit without naming names. They all think of themselves as winners, self-made individualist job-creators or savvy business people or enlightened tolerant liberals or smarter-than-thou smug alt-right “ironic” nationalists (Johnson learned a thing or two about those types from The Last Jedi backlash). But each one was made by what Harlan gave them, and selfishly, arrogantly pretend otherwise in ego-stroking self-aggrandizement. In contrast to the bickering, spoiled Thrombeys, Marta is hardworking, humble, diligent, and of course extremely honest, and yet vulnerable in way they are not, as a young Hispanic woman with an undocumented immigrant mother. The Thrombeys profess to like and respect her in variant ways, but it’s a running joke that her home country in identified differently by every one of them, and her outsider status and family legal concerns are wielded as weapons against her when the situation turns against them. It’s hardly subtle, but Knives Out is not only a tremendously clever and thunderously entertaining elevation of the whodunnit but also a sharp-edged parable for the resentful, threatened white privilege at the dark, inequitous heart of Trump-era America.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Under the Silver Lake

January 3, 2020 Leave a comment

Under the Silver Lake (2019; Directed by David Robert Mitchell)

By all rights, I really ought to have loved Under the Silver Lake. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the smart, creepy, and socially resonant indie horror It Follows is a rambling, ambitious, original, wrily comic amateur-detective ramble through dissolute, disillusioned hipster East Los Angeles. Highlighted by a wonderfully woolly and woozy performance from Andrew Garfield as a drifting deadbeat dirtbag delving into conspiracy theories and tracking down an enticing blond neighbour (Riley Keough) who disappears suddenly and mysteriously, Under the Silver Lake evokes sunbaked L.A. neo-noir detective yarns like The Big Lebowski, The Nice Guys, Mulholland Drive, and Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon’s work is a major influence in general). It’s full of unique, wildly inventive ideas, surreal images, screw-loose dialogue, and unexpected pathos (as mentioned, David Lynch is a clear creative lodestar). Despite this stew of influences, though, it’s a film entirely on its own wavelength.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t get on that wavelength with it. I’m hardly the only one. Under the Silver Lake popped up on the occasional Best of 2019 list, usually with a pre-emptively argumentative justification from the admiring critic as to why all of those who critique it as an indulgent, half-wise mess were wrong and just didn’t get it. The AV Club highlighted its most striking and memorable scene in their Best Film Scenes of 2019 list: a meeting between Garfield’s Sam and a figure known only as The Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), who claims to have written every memorable piece of popular music from the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” to the theme from Cheers to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, and disillusions Sam with brutal honesty as to the cynically capitalist motivations behind every piece of popular art that he and the rest of his pop-culture-obsessed generation clings to as personal markers of identity and meaning.

This excoriating moment may well have turned off many a pop-culture critic, but it’s built to throughout the rest of the film in tenuous but charged daisy-chain connections, and melds with the themes clustered around Sam and his self-conception. Post-coitus with an actress friend-with-benefits (Riki Lindhome), he talks about the awakening of his pubescent, self-pleasuring sexuality with a secretly-glimpsed copy of Playboy; the model on the cover is posed beneath the water of a pool, similar to the baby chasing the paper money on a fishing line on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind (Sam idolizes Kurt Cobain, has a poster of the late grunge frontman on his wall, claims to have seen the band in concert, and brandishes Cobain’s iconic Fender guitar in defence against the aggressive, violent revelations of the Songwriter) and also similar to a nighttime skinny-dip in the titular East L.A. reservoir that he takes with a grieving young heiress (Callie Hernandez) whose prominent-citizen father Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) is believed dead in a fiery car crash. Sam also has a dream-vision of Keough’s Sarah after her disappearance, swimming in the pool of their apartment complex.

Another chain trails off from R.E.M.’s hit rocker “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Sam hears it playing at a 1990s-nostalgia crypt party beneath a fashionable music-art happening, and insists on dancing to it with a recurring scene girl/performance artist known as Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten), who is of course too young to have heard it before. The song’s famous inspiration (a delusionally violent man infamously shouted the phrase at news anchor Dan Rather while assaulting him in 1986) connects to Sam’s internet-fed obsessions with conspiratorial madness and paranoid belief in hidden messages in pop songs; he tracks Sarah and Sevence through a comic-book artist (Lynchian favourite Patrick Fischler) whose independent zine, also entitled Under the Silver Lake, relates urban myths of a Dog Killer (who is actually on the loose in Sam’s reality) and a murderous Owl Lady who snuffs out those who amass too much forbidden knowledge of the secret order of things, a fate that he fears will befall himself and that Sam begins to worry about too, the more he learns.

Michael Stipe’s line from “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, “Irony was the shackles of youth” serves as an on-the-nose thesis for at least one of the movie’s core ideas about a young generation adrift and alienated and drugged up. Sam floats into exclusive, hip shindigs, often connected with a local It Band, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula (their big song, “Turning Teeth”, is performed by L.A. scene stars Silversun Pickups, who appear as the Jim Morrison-esque Jesus’ backing group). Hipster kids’ worshipful admiration of this rock star Jesus is repeatedly openly expressed with very purposeful irony, popular religious devotion quite literally replaced by mass idolizing of the messiahs of pop culture (very much like Sam’s elevation of Cobain).

Mitchell even cross-references his contemporary portrait of disconnected, privileged youth smashing into one another in the gilded cage of their cossetted world with the similar material and themes of a towering literary totem of the American past, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. One young adult compares the sort of parties they attend around the city to those thrown by Jay Gatsby (likely they’re thinking more of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, or even the internet meme, than the character in the novel they had to read in high-school English), but Mitchell includes a more resonant symbolic callback to Fitzgerald’s novel: Sam stops and stares with haunted recurrence at a billboard advertising an optical service, featuring a female model (Summer Bishil) and the tagline “I can see clearly now.” Although it is later revealed that the young woman is Sam’s ex (a breakup with whom may have precipitated his descent into horny, unemployed lethargy and imminent eviction), Sam’s eerie fascination with this figure gazing down on him as well as the optical allusion associates this image with one of Fitzgerald’s key symbols in Gatsby, the faded eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg staring down from a crumbling billboard on the dissipated moral wasteland of Jazz Age America as a stand-in for a judgmental but absent God.

Sam never really sees clearly, his vision clouded by the obscure clues and cryptic messages that he tracks in search of deeper truths. But it’s also clouded by his own lack of direction and unmoored identity, as well as his voyeuristic horniness and general self-involved dickhood. Indeed, this is one of the things that makes Under the Silver Lake difficult to connect with: protagonist Sam is disconnected and adrift largely because he’s a horndog dickweed (as intended, and Garfield embodies this type almost too well), and not as a reflection of a lost generation seeking to remake themselves in the crucible of American capitalism à la Jay Gatsby. The cryptic obscurity that he struggles through is also the cryptic obscurity that we struggle through in watching his desultory adventures; if Sam doesn’t fully grasp what he is a part of as he chases traces of Sarah via indie comics and rich-kid parties and cereal-box maps and old issues of Nintendo Power magazine, then we don’t fully grasp it either as we watch Under the Silver Lake. This is not an incoherent movie, exactly, but any coherence probably lies in the interpretive mind of the viewer, a coherence imposed. The thinking film watcher is often heard to say that they’d like films to respect their intelligence and expect them to connect the dots. Be careful what you ask for, Mitchell snaps back.

That’s probably the point, too. David Robert Mitchell’s point in Under the Silver Lake, to the extent that this labyrinthine movie has one, is that our fragmented post-capitalist reality has become incoherent, and maybe always was. The dots do not connect, no matter how hard we try, no matter how smart we think ourselves. The meanings and the truth must be hidden because those freely offered and conventionally understood to be correct are unsatisfying and inadequate to the task. Paranoid conspiracy theories claim to offer totalizing explanatory paradigms for social problems and political corruption and economic disparities and culture wars and, above all, why you just can’t get laid. They’re frayed bundles of crackpot lies, but their circular logic and self-justifying feedback loops are honey traps for the paranoid and disillusioned mind. Their nonsense is eerily sensical, their questing core seductive. Under the Silver Lake is a movie that grasps and indeed embodies why and how conspiracies theories appeal to certain minds, and even personifies in Sam that certain kind of mind.

At the only half-glimpsed centre of the conspiracy Sam chases in Under the Silver Lake is, as ever, a wealthy elite, insulated by their privilege from the scrabbling confusion and violence, real and figurative, of the wider free-for-all of mass society. Looking down on it and pulling the strings like all-powerful puppetmasters. This elite is the hidden enemy, the unseen devil of insidious influence, the source of all evil: fanciful conspiratorial frameworks have pointed at Freemasons or Ivy League club members as this secret directorial cabal, dangerously anti-semitic ones have pointed at Jews, more mainstream political ideologues point at Hollywood liberals or venture capitalists and hedge-fund managers or inherited-wealth family compacts. Under the Silver Lake summons such figures as metaphorical lords in obscurity. The Songwriter, rapacious secret crafter of all sonic discourse, typifies this elite, as does Jefferson Sevence, whom Sam discovers to have been entombed with luxury and beauty like an Egyptian pharoah. How do we define ourselves in the shadow of these society-dominating giants, as rats scurrying through the sewer or as brave but underequipped champions of identity and truth? Andrew Garfield as Sam is a little bit of both, but far more of the former. It should be a great film that brings all of this close to and even sometimes above the surface. It’s a testament to the incomprehensible rhizomatic character of our times that Under the Silver Lake loses itself in the culture instead of illuminating a path through it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2019

December 30, 2019 Leave a comment

The best films of 2019 rose to the top of a strong and diverse slate of releases throughout the calendar year. In a movie marketplace dominated by superhero epics and franchise sequels, a legendary veteran auteur took a controversial stand for old-fashioned cinema about ordinary, complicated people, first in the public discourse and then with a sweeping artistic statement of his own. Provocative and impressive sophomore efforts mined the nautical past for psychosexually-charged descents into madness and masculine dominance, crafted indelible and ambiguous symbolic reflections on social inequality and segregation, and found emotionally resonant and deeply unsettling meaning in a rural Swedish pagan murder cult.

A haunting parable of ghostly love emerged from a directorial unknown from West Africa while audiences and critics embraced a leisurely, sunkissed summer cruise through romantic (though hardly unproblematic) Hollywood nostalgia from one of the industry’s most famous filmmakers and two of its biggest working movie stars. The year’s most memorable documentary slipped half-unnoticed onto the goliath of streaming platforms, using the raw emotion and dramatic twists of a personal memoir to tell a powerful buried story about abuse in the #MeToo age. In a time of government corruption and moral degradation, a narrative based on true events forcefully detailed the value of documenting the actions of the powerful and attempting to hold them accountable for them; as elite capitalist exploitation, much of it grounded in racial inequality, swallows up every aspect of public life, a fictional narrative breezily imagines a canny (if limited) economic rebellion. And standing above the rest, a relentlessly clever and entertaining visual/spatial metaphor for contemporary socioeconomic realities and their insidious penetration into every aspect of social life, all patterns of relation, and each psychological aspiration of those caught within their sway. This was 2019 at the movies, as I experienced it.

1. Parasite (Directed by Bong Joon Ho)

“With Parasite, Bong Joon-ho crafts his richest, most compelling and layered exploration of the social and personal costs of capitalist economic assumptions. This film, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is among the most urgent, persuasively uncompromising, and hard-to-shake portraits of the operational effects of class in 21st-century cinema, and perhaps in cinema of all eras. It’s also tense, shocking, frequently hilarious, and never anything short of remarkably entertaining. […] [The film’s] events unspool with clever writing, sharp editing, and keen performances, words and ideas and images planted in fertile cinematic soil in early stages sprouting and flowering productively as matters become darker and more terrible in the film’s later movements; it’s a witty confidence-scheme caper comedy before transgressing into full-blown and urgently resonant social horror.”

Review – 24 November 2019

2. The Irishman (Directed by Martin Scorsese)

“Directed by a septeganarian and starring three more of them, The Irishman is perhaps unsurprisingly a legacy-minded film of aging, patience, and contemplation. […] If The Irishman does not exactly tread brave new ground in Scorsese’s oeuvre, then it gazes wistfully but harshly back on that oeuvre, as on an era of the American underworld’s ascendance that defined the country that lives in its long shadow. […] As old-fashioned as The Irishman is in its casting, themes and ideas, setting and genre and subject matter, it’s also about something very contemporary: toxic masculinity and its costs, for the men who perpetuate it, the women subject to it, and for its many victims across society. Martin Scorsese’s first film made in the Trump Era unflinchingly examines the careworn visages of men shaped by an old order of ruthless power and deadly loyalty and finds in them the darkly settling ravens of a corrupt, lawless, and fraught future which is our present world. […] Cinema is about forward motion, and The Irishman ultimately finds Martin Scorsese moving encouragingly forward, embracing his legacy while interrogating, complicated, and even deconstructing it.”

Review – 5 December 2019

3. Atlantics (Directed by Mati Diop)

“The spare, unexpected directorial debut from Mati Diop is set in [Dakar, Senegal] and is similarly haunted by water, particularly by the vast unknowable ocean expanse that gives the film its title. […] Atlantics is a quietly stunning film, its cinematography a model of grainy magnificence from French DoP Claire Mathon and its burbling, unsettling score from German-based Kuwaiti composer and conceptual artist Fatima Al Qadiri weaving a vision of ghostly, evocative realism. […] Atlantics is a film about the now, with an undercurrent of urgent vitality that belies its spectral rhythms. […] Atlantics is a unique and memorable creative expression of a new film artist worth watching, a work of beauty and febrile, elegiac fragility.”

Review – 27 December 2019

4. The Lighthouse (Directed by Robert Eggers)

The Lighthouse, the second film from Robert Eggers, is a mesmerizing, ambiguous descent into madness, as spare and bare as it is fulsomely baroque. […] [It’s] a claustrophobic chamber piece, with its two caged beasts of men tearing themselves and their small, limited world apart. […] Its focal-point themes of male power dynamics, psychosexual dominance, and even harmful alcoholism are stronger than any hint of political applicability. This is not to say that The Lighthouse is a lesser film than its director’s prior effort. In many ways, it is stronger, more focused and more boldly, gleefully provocative in its writing, performances, and especially in its imagery. Perhaps nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus, but if a film as memorably strange, evocative, and troubling as The Lighthouse is the result, then it can’t be all bad.”

Review – 3 November 2019

5. Tell Me Who I Am (Directed by Ed Perkins)

“Ed Perkins’ Tell Me Who I Am is a compelling documentary portrait of a complex and conflicted shared trauma that is hard to shake. […] At the core of this unpredictable and deeply thought-provoking film is the nature of psychological trauma: how it is inflicted, how it is manifested, how it is protected against, how its wounds can be patched up, healed, and moved beyond. […] Tell Me Who I Am‘s climactic summit of the Lewis twins is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema this year even though it is among the simplest: two men sitting at a table together, talking about their feelings. It’s because those feelings are complex and raw and are tied up in love and resentment and protectiveness and fragility that makes the negotiation of them so fraught but also so necessary. […] Perkins’ nimble and empathetic documentary tells a fascinating, surprising, and wrenching story before staging a session of emotional reckoning that exposes painful feelings to a soothing flood of truthful light.”

Review – 11 December 2019

6. The Report (Directed by Scott Z. Burns)

“A sober, no-nonsense political message film of laser-focused outrage, The Report plucks out one of the most heinous instances of moral and legal degradation perpetuated by the post-9/11 national security apparatus of the United States of America (and there were more than a few) and goes hard at it with even-keel righteous anger and quietly thunderous factual force. […] The Report is a mildly fictionalized drama film […], but it organizes its revelations with the persuasive effectiveness of a great documentary on the subject. […] In the absence of legal remedies for such crimes, the movies step ambitiously but inadequately into the breach. […] Movies like The Report, however good they are, cannot do all the work of winning justice for heinous moral and legal crimes that the politically powerful refuse to do.”

Review – 9 December 2019

7. Us (Directed by Jordan Peele)

“As in Get Out, the grander allegorical meanings of Us are accompanied and enticingly flavoured by social observations and cathartic humour. […] Us is a rich and ambitious but not always focused and coherent text in its political and social metaphors. […] Perhaps, amidst Get Out‘s thunderous success, Jordan Peele was put off, if only a little, by how his film’s thesis was smoothly delineated in so many critiques and thinkpieces. Perhaps Us is the reaction to that, a film full of charged ideas and symbols and reference-points that is less confidently parsed and interpreted, an unruly work whose meanings don’t stand still and allow themselves to be deconstructed and apprehended. […] [It] conceives of this terrifying, inequitous tableaux as the model for the relation of the powerful to the powerless, which in America is always already a relation predicated on and inextricably tied up in race. […] Us is another expertly crafted elevated entertainment from Jordan Peele, and it shakes us just enough to make our question our place in a world that is never for a moment as safe or as fair as it may seem.”

Review – 26 March 2019

8. Midsommar (Directed by Ari Aster)

“On one level, Ari Aster’s Midsommar is a handsome and grandiose new folk horror classic. […] But on another level, Midsommar is a peculiarly-pitched but extraordinarily powerful artistic statement on the isolation of grief and the power of community compassion in mitigating that isolation. […] Midsommar is the sort of hyper-real, indelibly haunting high-horror film that demands elevated attention to detail. […] Midsommar can be a nasty film, but it also can be a beautiful one. There is a delicately poised balance between the two, and Aster’s film frequently finds it.”

Review – 16 December 2019

9. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

“Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, a fable, a fantasy […] presenting an alternate reality version of a historical event in a manner that critiques the conventional Hollywood happy ending, which our own flawed and dissatisfying world is almost never accorded. […] Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a hopelessly tangled dialectic of messy positions and counter-positions, of nostalgic invocations and their cynical, worldly negations. […] The ideas percolating beneath the sunsoaked cool and brutal climactic slapstick of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood cannot be so easily channeled into revenge tropes, and Quentin Tarantino seems to at least partly realize this as he goes on, and even leans into it before he’s done. […] Like all good fairy tales, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood troubles the waters as much as it stills them, and quite possibly unsettles far more than it serves to comfort.”

Review – 28 August 2019

10. High Flying Bird (Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

High Flying Bird is a sharp-witted dissection of the big business infrastructure of American professional sports and how it manipulates and asserts power over the valuable, talented players that it relies upon, enriches, and exploits. It’s smart and fleet of foot, like a speedy, crossover-dribbling point guard. […] High Flying Bird […] crackles with verbal energy and clever sophistication of ideas. It’s also shot in a direct, intimate style by Soderbergh. […] There’s an immediacy to the way the film looks and feels […] that gives its thoughts about the business of pro sports a similar urgency and force. […] High Flying Bird is an enjoyable, slashing dribble-penetration into the packed zone defense of pro sports’ complex capitalist superstructure, but does it take the high-percentage layup or kick out for the dagger of a three-pointer? Honestly, a good, balanced measure of both.”

Review – 23 December 2019

 

 

Categories: Film, Reviews