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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

Film Review: Atlantics

December 27, 2019 Leave a comment

Atlantics (2019; Directed by Mati Diop)

Dakar, the capital city of the West African nation of Senegal, is surrounded on three sides by water, the mighty Atlantic Ocean. The spare, unexpected directorial debut from Mati Diop is set in this city and is similarly haunted by water, particularly by the vast unknowable ocean expanse that gives the film its title (its original French title is the singular Atlantique, and the pluralizing when translated to English is ambiguous).

Atlantics is a love story and a ghost story; the tagline from the trailer states with obscure poeticism that every love story is a ghost story. This one is about 17-year-old girl named Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) who is bethrothed by parental arrangement to a wealthy man named Omar (Babacar Sylla), who splits his jetsetting time between Dakar and Italy and whom she does not love. She loves Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a poor construction worker building a futuristic skyscraper that looms above the low, sweltering skyline of the city like an absurdly oversized minaret (Senegal is 95% Muslim, you should know; I did not). The film’s first scene sees Souleiman’s crew demanding three months’ wages owed to them from the foremen, who can do nothing; the money is not forthcoming from wealthy local developer Mr. Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene), as we later learn. The crew rides home in the back cab of a pickup truck, Souleiman pensive and silent as his coworkers sing and chant, taking refuge in fleeting mirth.

Souleiman and Ada glimpse each other from either side of a railroad crossing while waiting for a train to pass, snapshot images of bashful young love between rumbling train cars. They kiss in an abandoned building by the ocean, but are chased away, and Ada’s friends warn her to leave him off, as she is due to marry Omar in mere days. Her dilemma is resolved, it seems, with unforeseen tragedy and mystery: Souleiman and his construction brothers, denied pay for their work, boarded a migrant boat and made for Spain and its opportunities; fragmentary evidence suggests that their boat capsized and broke in half, and they are dead. Their demise is complicated, however, when Souleiman is seen again on the same night as a baffling, seemingly spontaneous-combustion fire that burns a hole in Ada and Omar’s opulent, putative wedding bed; police investigator Issa Diop (Amadou Mbow) suspects Ada’s involvement, although his efforts to look into the matter are interfered with by bouts of a recurrent sweaty, dizzy illness. Related, strange somnabulent spirit-possessions affect the young women left behind by the migrated men as well, and with their blind white eyes they seek both fiduciary restitution from Mr. Ndiaye and a more romantic resolution to Ada and Souleiman’s star-crossed adoration.

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. Images of spectral possessions in the night crop up: the possessed women crossing a road towards the sea in a loose formation; a queue of vehicles, their headlights in a meandering row, inch along a lane between dilapidated brick homes in the city’s sprawling poor neighbourhoods. Numerous scenes, including the haunting romantic climax, take place in a modest seaside bar frequented by Ada and her girlfriends, who feel the ineffable absence of their disappeared men: a cheap rotating disco lighting rig twinkles on Ada’s skin with emerald corpse glow pinpricks, and its wall of mirrors reflects the ghosts of the vanished boys in place of the human vessels they inhabit.

But water – natural, artificial, spiritual, corporeal – is the dominant recurrent motif used by Diop (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Olivier Demangel) in Atlantics. Its insistent ever-presence presses on almost every scene, be it the background or the interstitial scene-transition frames of the image and sound of the waves, eternally in motion but always static and eerily still as well. That vast ocean, terrifying but beautiful, is the last resting place of Souleiman and his fellow migrating workers (although their restless souls travel back to land to find peace), and it also becomes the enduring ether for his love with Ada, their final spectral/corporeal reunion before the reflective water-like glass of the bar followed by a poetic epigram spoken over a sea-horizon sunset, identifying their surviving memories of each other with the cries and the whispers and the lapping and the crashes of the waves. The wetness of perspiration characterizes the mysterious sweating daytime fever that accompanies the nocturnal spirit-possession episodes; an imam advises the mother of one affected girl to immerse Qu’ran verses in holy water as part of a mystical liquid cure for the condition. The fires that the ghosts seem to magically set to compel the outcomes that they seek in order to achieve peace are an elemental counter to this prevalence and dominance of water.

Water also symbolically summarizes her distance from Omar due to his alienating wealth. His first appearance sees them sitting poolside and not speaking to each other at a luxury hotel, colourful tropical drinks left untouched on tables; he goes to get another and an advertisement for the modern new tower plays behind him, associating his wealth and privilege with the image the building seeks to project, its mission to bring such liquidity to Senegal. Omar dives into the hotel’s infinity pool, its invisible edge bleeding into the expanse of the ocean in an interrupted illusion of continuity betrayed by a metal contemporary art sculpture of a halved human face at the threshold. Diop’s camera lingers on this half-face at the water border between the artificial and the natural, contemplating this trompe-l’oeil and its seductive treachery, one shared by global capitalism.

Atlantics is poetic and profound in its water themes, but it lacks a deep dive into its political and historical implications. The subplot about African modernization and elite-concentrated wealth being underscored by labour exploitation and driving dangerous, fatally failed migration makes its points clearly and succinctly while tying those points into the film’s supernatural conceit. It does not tie those elements into the broader and more difficult and tragic history of wealth and exploitation in this part of the world. Unseen and unreferenced off the peninsula that Dakar is built on is the island of Gorée, the infamous West African slave trade depot. Although Gorée may not have been a major slave trading venue, the Maison des Esclaves on the island dating to the 1770s has taken on a symbolic resonance to descendents of enslaved Africans, and the site is often visited by foreign tourists as the Auschwitz of slavery, a solemn, venerated memory depository of a historical atrocity whose trauma is diffuse, elided, a matter denied and pressed back into the earth still by a world that benefitted from it for so long. Ringed by the ocean crossed by slave ships full of stolen Africans that serves as a watery mass grave for those whose Atlantic journeys, like Souleiman’s, ended in tragedy, Gorée is a ghost, silent and blind-eyed but speaking multitudes with its persistence.

For a film that invokes ghosts, Senegal’s colonial past is not glimpsed in Atlantics, outside of a few snatches of French dialogue (most of the dialogue is in the country’s lingua franca, Wolof; French seems like a tongue of professional and public life only). This is no doubt purposeful: Atlantics is a film about the now, with an undercurrent of urgent vitality that belies its spectral rhythms. Outside the text of the film, however, Senegal’s colonial ties to France are undeniable in Atlantics‘ funding, production, and reception: in addition to its cinematographer and co-writer, the film’s producers are French with some Belgian co-funding, and the film won the Grand Prix at Cannes, where Diop was the first black female director with a film in competition at the prestigious cinema-arts gatekeeping festival (shocking, but maybe not). Whatever the cinematic production and promotion infrastructure that made it happen, Atlantics is a unique and memorable creative expression of a new film artist worth watching, a work of beauty and febrile, elegiac fragility.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: High Flying Bird

December 23, 2019 Leave a comment

High Flying Bird (2019; Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

A couple of months ago, I reviewed The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s half-baked “satire” of the shady dealings of the megarich, by wondering aloud whether Soderbergh was still a good enough filmmaker to be in possession of his reputation as a director whose work is always worth watching. It turns out that all I needed to do was browse Netflix’s interface of thumbnails to another film of Soderbergh’s released to the streaming platform this year for proof that he’s still got it.

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 (think Kyrie Irving, without the flaky half-serious flat earth theories). The focal point of this dissection is a savvy, high-powered New York-based pro basketball agent, Ray Burke (André Holland, who suggested the story to Soderbergh). Burke represents the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg of the sadly cancelled Netflix series American Vandal). Scott’s rights are owned by the unnamed New York NBA team that drafted him (implied to be the Knicks, of course, but while the league and individual players are named in the film, there are no doubt licensing issues around team trademarks), a team owned by David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), who is also spearheading an owners’ lockout of the league’s unionized players (represented by Ray’s ex-wife Myra, played by The Wire‘s Sonja Sohn) in order to force more favourable terms in collective bargaining negotiations. This is unfortunate for Scott, who cannot begin collecting his multi-million-dollar salary until the lockout ends, and more unfortunate for Ray Burke, whose roundball-centric agency is hurting for profit and tightening its belt. Ray Burke’s job and indeed the survival of the entire agency depends on the lockout ending and the cash flow returning, his boss David Starr (Zachary Quinto) tells him.

Ray, still haunted by the suicide of a highly-touted baller cousin for whom he acted as agent, puts a plan in place with the help of his former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz, who has had a damned good year). Sam, who has learned well from the Machiavellian Burke, pursues a romantic entanglement with Scott and uses his social media to start a trash-talking beef with star player and his future teammate on the New York roster, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), while Ray takes the measure of Jamero’s formidable mother/agent (a flinty Jeryl Prescott) and floats a potentially lucrative opportunity outside of the league’s orbit. When the rivals both show up at an annual basketball-camp event run by a renowed old-school basketball coach (Bill Duke, with his long face and exquisitely weary eyes) and their disagreement escalates into a score-settling one-on-one game that is filmed on the cellphones of camp kids (one of which is played by Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin) and subsequently goes viral, the whole balance of the lockout – and perhaps of the pro game as it has been constituted – changes.

While The Laundromat weakened and obscured its message about the global elite’s devious lack of accountability with a screenplay full of tonal variance, misfiring comedy, and fourth-wall-breaking distraction (its screenplay was by Scott Z. Burns, who did better directing The Report), High Flying Bird (written by Moonlight co-scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney) crackles with verbal energy and clever sophistication of ideas. It’s also shot in a direct, intimate style by Soderbergh on an iPhone 8 specially fitted with an anamorphic lens; in a key single-shot conversation between Burke and Scott about the agent’s vision of a huge-earning future out from under the league’s umbrella, the camera circles the two actors seamlessly around a tight-packed NYC townhouse dining room table, the kind of motion that wouldn’t be possible with a full-sized movie camera. There’s an immediacy to the way the film looks and feels (Soderbergh himself acts as cinematographer and editor under aliases, as he has done before) that gives its thoughts about the business of pro sports a similar urgency and force.

Although Holland inspired the story, High Flying Bird climactically name-checks UC-Berkeley sociology professor Harry Edwards’ The Revolt of the Black Athlete and even has the author make a late cameo. One would be hard-pressed to argue that Scott and Umber’s fictional abortive rebellion against the NBA cartel that controls the monetization of their competitive atheltic output ought to be mentioned in the same breath as the social-justice agitations of Edwards’ Civil Rights era subjects like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tommy Smith, and John Carlos. Indeed, High Flying Bird (the title is inspired by the 1960s country/folk-rock staple song of the same name, a version by Richie Havens scoring an early scene of Ray walking through the streets of Manhattan) is ambivalent about the hope of breaking down the inequitable contractual system of pro sports, let alone fulfilling radical leftist ambitions of challenging the underlying capitalist terms of transaction, the “game behind the game”.

Soderbergh intersplices documentary-style interview clips with NBA stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Reggie Jackson, and Donovan Mitchell, who speak with guarded candidness about the struggles of breaking into the league as the fictional Erick Scott is doing and the lessons they gleaned from the experience. These testimonials don’t really touch directly on the monopoly-challenging scenario of the movie’s fictional narrative of the ideas behind it, but then public statements of contracted NBA players wouldn’t be expected to, would they? Not that this scenario is some sort of anti-capitalist revolutionary inversion either; it’s simply a scheme to score a bigger piece of the profit pie for the players whose abilities are being sold to the public, and one that is ultimately an elaborate bluff meant to rush lockout negotiations to a successful resolution, not a whole new system to be put into effect in its place.

A running joke in High Flying Bird emphasizes both Soderbergh and McCraney’s knowledge of the racial politics of economy and labour that underlie majority African-American professional sports leagues like the NBA (and the NFL, where Umber’s older brother plays) and its doubtful stance in regards to both more traditional community-based and more extreme radical-progressivist responses and remedies to the inequity of those systems in late capitalism. Duke’s elder statesman of the game Coach Spence has a rule in his gym that extends to outside-the-gym social interactions: any mention of slavery requires a rosary-like mea culpa recitation: “I love the Lord and all his black people”.

The New Yorker‘s Troy Patterson sees Spence and his imposing church-esque rule silencing comparisons of chattel slavery subjugation and its many bastard children in the American social economy to basketball as an old-guard, keep-your-head-down denial of the politics of justice. Ray talks to Spence about an independent black basketball league that he was involved in but which failed in competition with the early NBA; Spence means well and has intentions of uplift to his youth players in the South Bronx, but he doesn’t seem to think that true black autonomy in a sport they dominate is realistic. The best that they can hope for is a slice of the pie of white-centric corporate capitalism (a not-inconsiderable one, for highly-touted prospects like Scott and Umber), in exchange for the commodification of their bodies outside of their own control. Is it slavery? No, and it’s maybe not productive to imply that it is. But it also isn’t freedom, and falling somewhere in between may not be good enough. 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.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

December 21, 2019 1 comment

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019; Directed by J.J. Abrams)

The Rise of Skywalker is the ninth film of the main-thread “Skywalker saga” and the eleventh film in the Star Wars movie franchise, which has grossed $9 billion at the box office over more than four decades. Star Wars is a proven money machine, but what else is it? Is it fanciful and immature escapist entertainment, carrying no deeper narrative or thematic significance or cultural importance than any other lucrative blockbuster product fundamentally aimed at children and full of furiously expensive action sequences, only treated like it is more because of its massive success? Is it deceptively simple but actually rather profound and richly politically applicable pulp storytelling, carrying resonant messages about hopeful resistance to tyranny, generational inheritances and grappling with complex legacies of the past, and glimmers of pop-Freudian psychological struggles of fear and self-doubt? Is it all an elaborate, eternally recurring, only half-purposely cyclical exercise in transmuted nostalgia, encoding halcyon memories of cinematic adventures past (swashbuckling Republic serials, Hollywood westerns, WWII epics, and Kurosawa’s samurai films) into the DNA of the saga’s earliest films and then the already-allusive genes of those earlier films into the later ones? Is it an ongoing, flawed, messy, conflicted filmic conversation with its own legend, a fluctuating, externalized internal battle with alternating comfort and discomfort under its own long narrative and thematic shadow? Is it all of these things in varying degress to millions of people from numerous generations around the world, who bring to Star Wars as much or even much more than it brings to them, who let it down when it rises, and rise when it lets them down?

Whatever their flaws and compromises, the first two films in the contemporary Episodes VII-IX sequel trilogy, 2015’s The Force Awakens and 2017’s The Last Jedi, were at least honest attempts to grapple with some of these questions, to forge an at least half-new identity for the franchise under the ownership ambit of entertainment mega-conglomerate Disney and away from the direct creative control of the big-screen space-opera universe’s flawed-genius auteur giant, George Lucas. The Force Awakens, directed and co-written by hit-and-miss mainstream franchise mogul J.J. Abrams (he of the infamous “mystery boxes”), could lean in on easy, indulgent “remember this?” callback moments, but it also embraced its new generation of characters and their distinct-if-mirroring journeys alongside the original trilogy’s legacy leads, finally earning its unfailing instinct for crowd-pleasing. Rian Johnson’s arresting The Last Jedi turned a productive self-critical eye on the franchise, dialing up to klieg-light brightness a healthy glare of skepticism for the intellectual property’s less-flattering aspects: its occasional cynical exploitation of past glories, its thoughtless power-fantasy hero worship, its erasure of difference, its blindness to the structures and processes of systemic injustice, its soft-eugenicist elevation of a privileged, supremacist hereditary elite who control the tenuous fate of the galaxy through mystical inheritance.

A portion of the franchise’s fan base despised Johnson’s probing thoughtfulness and upending of expectations, and reacted with the visceral distaste of those whose precious and fragile assumptions are rarely challenged (one might say that they are “snowflakes” who were “triggered”). Another portion of that fan base was rapturous in its praise for and newly loyal to Johnson’s creative vision, finding new reflections of themselves in the broadening arcs of its characters and of their perspective on the world in this weary, wary take on Star Wars, dragged kicking and screaming to the precipice of hard-won adulthood. Surely many fell in the middle, agreeing with intent but questioning execution or admiring execution but uncertain about intent. The Last Jedi split Star Wars fandom in a way that seemed to blindside its corporate overlords in the House of Mouse (with implications both immediate and further-reaching, as we will see), but whether a hater or a lover of the movie, no one could deny that Rian Johnson made Star Wars contentious again, worth debating and thinking about. For once, a saga forever facing the past seemed to be turning inexorably towards an unpredictable and even exciting future.

As the capstone of the sequel trilogy (and thus of three trilogies), The Rise of Skywalker is at once imbued with this promise and burdened by the weight of a fractious legacy. It also faced production challenges that the prior two entries in the saga had the good fortune to avoid. Rian Johnson was slated to write the film, but then was not. Original director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World, The Book of Henry) was removed from the helm during the development process (fired directors being a common feature of the concurrent anthology films), although he retains a story credit, and Abrams was brought back to conclude what he began. Perhaps most significantly, original trilogy star Carrie Fisher passed away a year prior to The Last Jedi‘s release. This sad loss supposedly had major implications on the structure of Episode IX, which was initially planned to feature a central role for her General Leia Organa in its narrative and themes in much the same way that The Force Awakens centred Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and The Last Jedi centred Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker.

All of these problems were then, of course, eclipsed by the The Last Jedi schism. If Disney felt a need to course-correct its mega-lucrative franchise after Johnson’s basket full of risks sparked a toxic vehemence in some quarters of the notoriously demanding fandom, then it could not have signalled its intent to do so more clearly than by rehiring Abrams, many of whose puzzle box mysteries from The Force Awakens were discarded by Johnson in The Last Jedi with the casually unimpressed indifference encapsulated by Luke tossing away the lightsaber that his putative apprentice Rey (Daisy Ridley) held out to him with such dramatic portent in the nearly-literal cliffhanger that ended Abrams’ first film. The most cynical predictions for Abrams’ approach to The Rise of Skywalker ran in the direction of the stubborn reinstatement of every cherished puzzle box that Johnson roughly kicked under the bed, especially the mystery of Rey’s parentage, the puppet-strings-pulling main villain Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the helmeted Darth Vader cosplay of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the return of his shadowy circle of warrior-brothers, the Knights of Ren. Abrams checks every one of these boxes with dull dutifulness: he revives the question of Rey’s lineage (in an extremely boring and dispiriting fashion that Emily Todd VanDerWerff gets into at Vox, with spoilers that I won’t bother with here); retcons Snoke (sliced in half by Kylo Ren in one of The Last Jedi‘s best moments) into an apprentice of the previous trilogies’ Big Bad, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), himself mysteriously reincarnated as this film’s primary villain; and within 15 minutes of the opening crawl, Kylo has welded his helmet back together, covered his head with it again, and surrounded himself with his Knights of Ren, who aid him in hunting Rey, with whom he shares a Force-psychic connection and heaps of sexual tension.

Of greater concern to the slice of Star Wars fandom heartened by Johnson’s choices in The Last Jedi was the possibility that Abrams would take the frequently bad-faith criticisms of the trilogy’s middle chapter from its most toxic detractors and act upon them, seeking to appease their grievances and assuage their concerns. Sadly, he did exactly that. Johnson split up his heroes in order to give their character arcs time and space to develop and deepen; The Last Jedi‘s casino planet subplot came in for particular criticism as a pointless sideline, but not only did it ask pointed political questions about the capitalist underpinnings of the franchise’s neverending wars, it also provided more development in the arc of Finn (John Boyega) than either Abrams entry does. But it seems superficially like more fun to have all of your heroes adventuring and quipping together, like in the original trilogy whose highlight elements are referenced constantly in Abrams’ films in the series, so that’s what Abrams does here, to the detriment of most of their character journeys. Denied Snoke as a nearly-all-powerful (but frightfully dull) main villain, Abrams just slots in Palpatine in his place, regardless of whether anyone in the story gives an ounce of care about him or what he represents. In a more minor but still very unfortunate move, Abrams essentially condones the hatred (much of it racist and sexist in nature) for the thematically key character of Rose in The Last Jedi and the reprehensible social media abuse of the actress who plays her, Kelly Marie Tran, by online trolls, shunting her very noticeably to the margins in The Rise of Skywalker.

Two tidbits of media promotion serve to contextualize J.J. Abrams’ approach in The Rise of Skywalker and nod towards why the film doesn’t work, and indeed may be the worst Skywalker Saga film since Attack of the Clones. One is recent, a pull-quote from Abrams in a New York Times story about the coming release of the trilogy-ender suggesting that The Last Jedi, despite its bold choices, erred in telling its audience that Star Wars didn’t matter. That is the last thing that Rian Johnson’s film was saying; indeed, it was saying that Star Wars mattered a desperately great amount, and that’s why it took such great chances and made such sacrifices to try and make it better, to shepherd it towards earning that larger significance. It’s a bald misreading/mischaracterization by Abrams, who might be hurt that Johnson didn’t think that his cherished story enigmas and fan-servicing hits of weaponized nostalgia mattered much and expanded those personally-significant elements to constitute all that Star Wars does and ever could represent. The second and even more revealing press quote (which I came across on Twitter but cannot now locate to link to, frustratingly) was from Chris Pine regarding some direction given to him by Abrams during filming of his 2009 Star Trek reboot, a film whose success directly paved the way to the director’s Star Wars gig. Required to pause in the midst of a kinetic action scene to read a line of exposition, Pine (like a good thespian) asked Abrams about Captain Kirk’s background and motivation in relation to this specific bit of information: how did he know about it, what did it mean to him, anything at all that might aid Pine in improving his conviction in delivering the line. Abrams told him that it didn’t matter; just speak the line as clearly and seriously as possible, and the audience will hear it, absorb it, and forget to care about it a moment later. In summary, storytelling doesn’t matter except as a fleeting magic trick, certainly not in any sort of sustained or supported fashion.

If this anecdote is at all accurate, it would shed plenty of light on The Rise of Skywalker, in which characters are constantly shouting out exposition in the midst of huge, putatively exciting action sequences and no time or effort is expended on establishing why anything that happens matters, why or how it’s happening, or how those things that are happening reflect the perspective or psychology or changes of the characters. It doesn’t help matters that the film is chocked full of McGuffins and successive quests requiring whiplashing switches in objectives and settings, more a video game structure than act-based movie construction (Abrams’ co-writer is Chris Terrio, also co-scribe of the initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, which was notorious for plots of this sort). The Rise of Skywalker is not complex but it is complicated, and its dramatic stakes are constantly undermined by its forward momentum as much as by the Abramsian tendency noted by Pine to privilege that motion, that superficial sense of kinetic exhilaration, over emotional or thematic meaning. This approach might work fine for boilerplate action entertainment (Abrams made a relatively well-regard Mission Impossible movie, after all), but it’s fatally misguided for Star Wars, whose every moment is pinpointed and microanalyzed and expanded to mythic vitality by a fanbase far more obsessive and passionate and witheringly difficult and critical than any other in popular culture.

This is one of the things that makes Abrams’ sops to certain segments of that fanbase in The Rise of Skywalker so disappointing and even depressing: they’re not even likely to satisfy them, and not only because a lot of these fans, by their very natures, can never be satisfied. If “fans” who have spent the past two years endlessly harping on the “plot holes” in The Last Jedi (which aren’t) have any modicum of consistent intellectual honesty (they don’t), they will tear the loose, lazy, dropped-in-a-moment narrative logic of its sequel to tiny shreds. Many critics of all stripes will delve into these numerous issues in the months and years to come, and it reflects neither my specialty nor my interest to get into them here (I imagine that the best among them will look more than a little like YouTuber Jenny Nicholson’s pre-release dissection of a laughably awful Episode IX script treatment by sci-fi writer Alan Dean Foster, which resembled the final film in more ways than it has any right to). Suffice it to say that little of what happens in the movie either makes sense on the surface or holds up to even the barest amount of scrutiny. This is why this review hasn’t gotten into the plot at all, let alone those fearful spoilers. If the director of the movie won’t approaches these details like they matter, why should anyone else? If cinematic storytelling is such a painfully cheap trick to J.J. Abrams, why give it a second thought, let alone a third or a fourth?

What’s left, then, is a huge special effects spectacle with some dogged performances from actors fighting upriver against surging currents of cynical indifference. Ridley and Driver are left particularly adrift, but paddle hard in place: the former spares little thought to the exponential expansion of her Jedi powers and sells the (deeply stupid) revelations about her lineage as best she can, while the latter is such a good actor that he still gives a strong performance even through progressively more predictable turns in his character’s path and a complete lack of dialogue through the climax. Boyega is likable, but Finn is just left to the wind, flitting between unspoken (and unceremoniously dropped) affection for Rey, for Resistance leader Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), for the sidelined Rose, and for new character Jannah (Naomi Ackie), whose origin story reflects his own and represents the film’s only attempt to think about the once-promising implications of an Imperial Stormtrooper turned rebel fighter. Isaac’s charisma shines through Poe’s awkwardly-plotted arc, which is largely tied up with a beard-like revived relationship with a former underworld acquaintance named Zorri (Keri Russell). Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO has a substantial comedic subplot, his largest Star Wars role since the 1980s. Billy Dee Williams reprises his role as Lando Calrissian, seemingly to make up for the total hash that is made of Fisher’s role as Leia through the ill-fitting employment of footage shot before her death to try to craft a farewell arc for her. Domhnall Gleeson’s fascistic General Hux is done dirty, almost as an afterthought. There’s various cute things slotted in for cheap colour: toy-store fave soccerball robot BB-8, a new droid that looks like a lamp on a wheel, tiny droid-hacker alien Babu Frik, and Dominic Monaghan.

Also left over is the nostalgia. Heaping, gloopy handfuls of it, splashed crudely in the audiences’ faces like the rainbow goo in the imagination feast scene in Hook. The Rise of Skywalker aims to turn its saturating callbacks into the circle-is-complete resolutions to set-ups from elsewhere not only in the sequel trilogy but in the original trilogy and even the much-maligned prequel trilogy as well. Like Avengers: Endgame did, though not as well (and I didn’t particularly love that movie or how it called back to prior Marvel movies). The message of The Last Jedi was sometimes misunderstood or misstated as Kylo Ren’s line “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to”, when the film had a more complex and conflicted relationship to nostalgia, recognizing that the past and our rose-tinted remembrance of it has an active and essential-to-grasp role in our present as in our future. There is plenty of looking back in The Rise of Skywalker, and plenty of potential in the character arcs of Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo for thoughtful critiques of or at least nuanced expansions on ideas of nostalgia and legacy.

But unlike a cultural work like HBO’s recent Watchmen series (from Abrams’ Lost collaborator Damon Lindelof), The Rise of Skywalker is not about inheritances of trauma and how nostalgic thinking encouraged by enduring power structures elides them. This is Star Wars after all, and that stuff doesn’t matter. The past is good because people liked it, and when people like something, it makes money. Maybe, in 2019, under the aegis of Hollywood’s largest studio and its incipient industry monopoly, this is what Star Wars means, and nothing much more.

The franchise will take a pause after The Rise of Skywalker concludes its latest, sure-to-be-contentious trilogy of films, but there will be more Star Wars, of course. More anthology films are likely (Obi-Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett are the rumoured subjects, although the latter may have been made redundant by Disney+ streaming television series The Mandalorian, making Pedro Pascal’s helmeted bounty hunter and his adorable meme-ready sidekick the sole torch-bearers of the franchise during the cinematic hiatus); Rian Johnson was announced as the writer-director of a new trilogy of in-universe films after the studio’s initial contentment with The Last Jedi, though that may not be happening anymore given subsequent developments; another film trilogy from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss is certainly not happening anymore (probably a good thing, considering how they ended Thrones). The future of Star Wars is uncertain, as it was (in vastly different ways in vastly different contexts) at the end of the original trilogy in 1983 and at the end of the prequel trilogy in 2005. Disney’s Star Wars is a machine for corporate profit, but what kind of story is it, and what kind of story does our culture need it to be? As popular as it is, for the first time in a long time, in the wake of The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars doesn’t feel very culturally necessary. If that’s what was in J.J. Abrams’ mystery box all this time, then it’s quite a shocking twist indeed.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Midsommar

December 16, 2019 Leave a comment

Midsommar (2019; Directed by Ari Aster)

On one level, Ari Aster’s Midsommar is a handsome and grandiose new folk horror classic, following a quartet of American graduate students as they learn more than they ever would have wanted to know about an isolated Swedish pagan commune with sunny dispositions and very dark cultural (emphasis on “cult”) practices. On this level, it’s an artfully disturbing experience, its arcane midsummer ceremonies and maypole dancing punctuated by bloodier and more primeval approaches to communal spirituality that speak to the horror genre’s gory prurience. Its most obvious and well-know genre antecedent would be The Wicker Man, but cinephiles might recommend a number of other folk horror entries worth considering, many of them from Britain and Japan.

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. Considering the very literal blood sacrifices required to lift the weight of that grief, it is twisted as hell, indeed almost sociopathic, that this is Aster’s ultimate thematic point. But Midsommar is cinematic art that can’t not be called challenging, after all. It cuts very deep.

Protagonist Dani (the utterly amazing Florence Pugh) feels the fresh sting of the agony of loss, her bipolar sister having carbon monoxided herself and their parents to death in the film’s coldly troubling opening scenes. Unfortunately, her only support network after this devastating tragedy is her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who is emotionally disinterested and self-centered, more invested in hanging out with his college buddies than providing for Dani’s emotional needs and intending to break up with her before her entire family’s death makes that too much of a dick move even for him. Christian also intends to travel to Sweden over the summer with those friends: horny frattish Mark (Will Poulter), focused anthropology major Josh (William Jackson Harper), and chilled-out, beatific Swede Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the latter of which grew up in the secretive ancestral commune that they intend to visit (and that Josh, whose thesis deals with traditional midsummer celebrations, intends to study). To mitigate the perceived slight of planning to leave the country in Dani’s time of need (social politeness gets many characters into deep trouble in this movie, not that rude refusal provides any escape either), Christian invites her to come along, and despite recurring, overwhelming panic attacks at slightest hint of what happened to her loved ones, Dani accepts.

On the way to the idyllic hidden-valley compound of the Hårga in remote Hälsingland, Aster’s camera follows the travellers’ car down the highway, tracking over it and then flipping upside-down, with the ground at the top of the frame and the sky at the bottom. This (dis)orientation continues as they pass under a welcoming banner draped across the forest-lined road, then bleeds into the next scene of preparatory welcome and magic-mushrooms-bidden hallucinations (Pelle’s communal “brother” Ingemar, played by Hampus Hallberg, is likewise a portrait in bliss even as he practically introduces the Americans and his own English guests to the other Hårga with “Check out the new meat, everyone!” relish). This place is in the land of the midnight sun, close enough to the Arctic Circle to have only a couple of hours of duskish darkness at night in high summer before the sun comes out again. This effect further disorients Dani and the others (Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia explores a similar effect on Al Pacino’s murder-investigating character in Alaska, itself a remake of Norwegian film likewise set in the far north), combining with the sleep deprivation, natural hallucinogens, and otherworldly weirdness of the Hårga community to add up to a unstable experience. Like the camera move on the highway, the midnight sun is a symbolic idea of inversion that sets the stage for the rest of Midsommar.

If you don’t wish to be spoiled regarding Midsommar‘s subsequent shocks and unsettling images, then suffice it to say that although the Hårga present themselves to their guests as cheery and bright and positive, their rituals and cultural and social beliefs might well be described, with sober academic detachment, as completely fucked up. If you’ve seen the film or are otherwise willing to have some of its latter half details revealed, it might be so necessary to do so in order to consider how Ari Aster achieves his potent cumulative artistic effects. Although I haven’t seen Aster’s acclaimed feature debut from last year, Hereditary, I am to understand that it shares many features with Midsommar; Youtube video essayist Ryan Hollinger describes the films as natural companions, with Midsommar very much a spiritual sequel to the darker and more macabre Hereditary, as both films are about social units in painful emotional turmoil over the backdrop of violent and menacing cults. But where Hereditary was about the fracturing of a family under the force of supernatural horrors (Robert Eggers’ The Witch, another recent standout of folk horror from A24, the distributor of Aster’s films, has similar subject matter and themes), Midsommar is (quite perversely) ultimately hopeful, a film about finding communal acceptance (even if that community kills people with casual regularity) and thus overcoming grief.

Midsommar is a horror parable about life and death, about loneliness and belonging. Dani (a psychology major) is constantly seeking mental and emotional equilibrium after the unthinkable tragedy she has suffered, but it is always taken away from her: by her emotional disconnection from Christian and his friends, by the weird, drug-laced experiences at the commune, and above all by anxious manifested eruptions of memories of the tragedy itself. Her fellow guests seek equilibrium at the commune, too: while Mark seems to just want to drink, get high, and get laid (find your equilibirum however you need to, I suppose), Josh and eventually Christian seek stability and meaning in the academic study of the commune and its culture, in the epistomological quantification of their unquantifiable spiritual earth-magic belief-system and its anthropological manifestations. But the Hårga’s belief-system is predicated on natural balance and eternal circularity, on a paganistic emphasis on equilibrium between the human and the natural world, between the living and the dead, between the conception of new life and the serene yet visceral intentional ending of an old one (the scene of a ceremony at a cliffside that demonstrates this graphically is the first of several ghastly shockwaves that this movie has in store). In this balance and its communal shouldering of life’s emotional traumas, Dani is the one who finds an unlikely home.

Josh’s privileging of knowledge over enlightenment and Mark’s crude thoughtlessness both disrespect and transgress that balance, and they pay the price for their transgressions. Christian tries to ingratiate himself into the community and its culture, a quite literally more hands-on form of research than Josh’s attempts to record and classify, as the distance in his relationship with Dani becomes impossible for either of them to deny, but the condescension and self-involvement and bumbling half-unintentional jerkhood that characterizes his behaviour vis-à-vis Dani hamstrings his rapprochement with the Hårga: after deciding to do his thesis on the commune (thus trespassing on Josh’s academic territory, to the latter’s resentful chagrin), Christian is marked as a suitable mate to a breeding-age teen girl (Isabelle Grill) and willingly participates in ritualized intercourse with her, surrounded by the naked chanting women of the commune. But his shame and doubt overcome him after giving up his life-granting seed, and he is immobilized after discovering the grisly fate of other trangressive outsiders.

Dani, who shares a history of loss and grief with Pelle (the nice, handsome cult boy offers her emotional support and understanding that Christian is incapable of, and whose own parents’ fate anticipates the events of the film’s final scene), does not trangress the cultural norms of the commune and indeed becomes accepted as one of them, winning a semi-hallucinogenic maypole dancing endurance contest to become May Queen and being celebrated as an important figure among them with a vital role to play (she even briefly understands and speaks Swedish, symbolically crossing the barrier of linguistic incomprehension). When a heavy-breathing anxiety attack threatens to overcome her, the young women of the commune gasp and howl in unison with her, her agony becoming theirs and therefore transmogrifying into cathartic communal ritual, a weight shared that becomes a weight lifted from her own shoulders.

It’s surely no accident that almost all of these foreigners who break the paganistic Hårga’s rules with arriviste arrogance have biblical names: Mark (the Evangelist), Josh(ua, the general of the Israelites’ invasion of Canaan after the Exodus), Simon (the other name of Doubting Saint Peter, as this Brit character proves to be when confronted with some of the most extreme of the Hårga’s beliefs). The name Christian, of course, is an on-the-nose invocation of Christianity, and darkly ironic given his lack of selfless decency. Even Dani herself might be gesturing to the Old Testament hero Daniel, who proved himself worthy and loyal to his Babylonian captors while remaining true to his Abrahamic beliefs.

Midsommar does not employ its pagan rituals to destabilize Christian orthodoxy and query its hypocrisies and its ineffectuality as The Wicker Man did, and although the films share a memorable infernal climax, Midsommar‘s is concerned with personal revelation and hard-won joy: Dani the May Queen is cocooned in flowers, weeping in anguished horror alongside the empathic paroxysms of the Hårga cultists as a sacred temple with human sacrifices inside is consumed by flames. But in the final frames, as the building collapses, so does her debilitating pain and grief, and, superimposed on the destruction with eyes shining, Dani smiles. The direction by Aster and cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is astounding in this scene, and Pugh is mesmerizing, veritably possessed by primordial emotion. But the element that elevates the sequence to transcendence is Bobby Krlic’s simultaneously swelling and unnerving score: in its closing crescendoes, a lush rising sunrise melody contends with underlying splintering frayed-nerve strings, the heartclenching sublime of high Romantic myth tangled in the existential anxiety of a Schoenbergian nightmare. What a piece of remarkable total cinema that closing scene is.

Midsommar is the sort of hyper-real, indelibly haunting high-horror film that demands elevated attention to detail. Experts on runes (a.k.a. Futhark alphabets) could surely pick out hidden meanings carven on standing stonesm sewed into ceremonial gowns, even encoded in the arrangement of dining tables. Extra-careful awareness in the film’s establishing scenes Stateside reveals resonant, unsettling minutiae in Henrik Svensson’s production design: not merely the uneasily anticipatory Hårga murals emblazoned on the walls of commune buildings (a splash-page-style frame of such folk art opens the movie, its images laying out nearly the entire plot of the film to come), but ominous elements in the American students’ apartments like a book on the Nazis’ interest in secret runic languages and a foreshadowing print of a girl wearing a crown kissing a hulking bear, “Stackars lilla Basse!” by 19th/20th-century Swedish artist John Bauer. Svensson even claimed that messages critiquing Swedish nationalism are embedded in the folk-art murals and other design details in the film. It’s certainly hard to miss that the fire temple consumed in the closing scene is painted with the gold and blue of the Swedish flag, like a miniaturized IKEA selling not cheap plywood furniture but disemboweled bearskin suits.

Given all of this depth and layering of design and symbolism, this heightened thematic and emotional meaning, this transcendence of folk horror genre convention, and its central superb performance, one is lead towards speaking about Midsommar as great. It’s worth thinking about Aster’s auteur bonafides, which are backed up by a conspicuous Martin Scorsese shoutout in a New York Times op-ed about the state of cinema, after all. There is much that is impressive and even profound about Midsommar, but also much that is salacious and provocative for the sake of shock about its horror elements (one of the cult’s victims is given a blood eagle, a quite likely imagined gory execution method that is such a favourite of pagan Viking Age cultural products that it has practically become a stealth cliché, and carries little meaning here). Its disturbing imagery can sometimes reflect the depths of Dani’s grief and her disintegrating relationship with Christian (Aster wrote the film while going through a difficult breakup, and as is often the case with unnerving works thus inspired, I feel sorry for the woman anonymously addressed in these ideas and images) or the Hårga’s loop of death and rebirth, but it also often exists for its own shocking sake in the cycle of stomach-turning one-up-manship of the horror genre. Midsommar summons such primal, surging power – especially in its final throes – that it can be easy to overlook its flaws, its half-explored concepts and plot points (what’s with the disabled incest-produced prophet and the missing sacred text? Who knows!), its occasional sops to generic expectations. 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. What more can one ask of cinema?

Categories: Film, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #9

December 11, 2019 Leave a comment

Tell Me Who I Am (2019; 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. But it’s also hard to share between the twin brothers who experienced it. Marcus and Alex Lewis, now both in their 50s, were inseparable as young adults, but not only because of the usual closeness of twin brothers. Alex lost his memory in a motorcycle accident at age 18, and relied on Marcus to fill in what he was missing regarding his prior life. But Marcus was not being entirely truthful with Alex, leaving out painful and life-altering details of a history of abuse in their strange faded-aristocratic rural English household, with an odd but vivacious mother and a distant, haunted father.

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. Twins though they are, Alex and Marcus have different ways of dealing with their shared trauma, and each has a difficult time understanding how the other needs to cope with it. Central to the jagged rocks on which they find themselves stranded is Marcus’ choice to hide the truth from Alex, an act of uncertain moral provenance that he claims was meant to protect Alex but it is soon clear was intended chiefly to protect himself. 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.

Ours is a world that still inculcates the idea in men that emotion is weak and feminine, and that their feelings must be beaten down and hidden lest they put them at risk or show them to be less than they are. These emotions, denied and insidiously sublimated, can often manifest themselves in ugliness and toxicity in the domestic and public spheres, and those manifestations are what make these men less than they are, not the emotions themselves. Ed 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. The Lewis twins find the shrapnel wounds of their past dissolving in this flood, but never quite entirely gone.

Hail Satan? (2019; Directed by Penny Lane)

The question mark at the end of the title of Penny Lane’s documentary is vital. Not only does it turn what might have been misconstrued as a blasphemous pronouncement into a searching interrogative statement, it also cuts to the heart of what the organization that is the subject of her film stands for. The Satanic Temple is a now-global “church” and political advocacy group that employs the name and iconography of Satan, the diabolic embodiment of evil in the Christian religion, as a sort of metaphorical champion for minority rights and adversarial challenges to the mainstream societal consensus, which in America tends to be Christian-centric. The Satanists that emerge from Hail Satan? are focused on inclusivity, compassion, autonomy, respect, humility, and human fallibility. They’ll even expel chapter leaders whose words and actions don’t conform to their values and standards, as they do to an outspoken performance artist and activist chapter head in Detroit who calls for armed insurrection and the executing of President Trump. This film about them is a fascinating and often funny meditation on the state of freedom of expression in contemporary America.

The Satanic Temple (a.k.a. TST), it needs to be said, is a distinct, newer, and more politically and socially conscious and active organization than the Church of Satan, which got some popular attention not long after its founding in 1966 by horns-wearing reactionary weirdo Anton Szandor LaVey. The Satanic Temple’s website has a helpful chart notating the differences, if you would like to consult it for your own edification. Suffice it to say that the Satanic Temple’s adherents do not commit blood sacrifices to their goat-headed Dark Lord, they do not eat babies, and they do not deface holy Christian altars. Well, sometimes they do that last thing, but usually as profane, inverted symbolic commentaries on the metaphorical cannibalism and patriarchal normativity at the core of Catholic mass. They have little to no connection to the so-called “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and 1990s, although TST’s co-founder and public frontman Julien Greaves (not his real name) speaks about this moral panic wave as a latter-day equivalent of the Salem witch trials (TST’s world headquarters are located in Salem), a collective trauma in the shared history of the “faith” that stands as proof in their eyes of the prejudice of conservative Americans and their “Christian privilege”.

It’s as an adversary to the Christian theocraticization of America that the Satanic Temple has found its attention-catching and growth-spurring media profile. Much of Lane’s film focuses on efforts to protest the erection of monuments bearing the Ten Commandments on the grounds of state houses in Oklahoma and Arkansas by building and trying to get permission to erect a life-sized monument of the occult idol Baphomet on the state house grounds as well, arguing that constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion should allow pluralistic expressions of any faith, and if it is suddenly allowing an expression of Christian faith on the legislature’s premises then it’s discrimination not to allow an expression of theirs as well. They have also protested prayer invocations before city council meetings in Phoenix, Arizona (leading to the removal of these theistic exercises, lest their paean to Satan be spoken before a meeting), and hit back at extreme-Christian hatemonger Fred Phelps’ Wetsboro Baptist Church with a crude protest at his mother’s grave. They meet with concerted and admonishing responses from Christian conservatives (who are usually crestfallen to discover TST members do not actually literally believe in Satan), including thousands of Boston-area Catholics marching against a planned black mass at Harvard University (which was cancelled and moved just off campus).

As one of the co-founders of TST points out (he is unidentified and his face is obscured while being interviewed), it takes tremendous gumption on the part of the Archdiocese of Boston to label their black mass immoral and offensive to Catholics when that governing body of the city’s churches participated in an ugly betrayal of a cover-up of endemic child sexual abuse by its clergy for decades. Another TST member, who became an ostracized loner as a child because his friends’ mothers forbade them from playing Dungeons & Dragons with him because they thought the game was a gateway to devil-worship (it all seems so ridiculous now), keenly observes that the Satanic panic was little more than projection on the part of Christian conservatives, whose own church institutions were corrupt, exploitative, and concealed deeper and darker secrets than any pack of demonic-cosplaying misfits could have ever dreamed of. So it is with the nation’s theocratic elected personages, who are at the spear’s tip of the American Right’s gallop towards open, unchecked authoritarianism. What a strange and unforeseen turn of events that sees the conservative churches as the vanguard of tyranny in America, while self-identified Satanists are among the most vocal minority defenders of freedom of expression and constitutional separation of church and state. The devil-worshippers, it turns out, are the good guys. Who’d have thunk it?

Categories: Film, Politics, Religion, Reviews

Film Review: The Report

December 9, 2019 Leave a comment

The Report (2019; 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. Casting as its protagonist Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), staffer for California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) who was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee for much of the Obama Administration, The Report details an attempt to craft and release a comprehensive and damning committee report on the CIA’s infamous “enhanced interrogration techniques” employed on high-value Islamist terrorists captured by the U.S. Known by their shorthand of EITs, these “enhanced interrogation techniques” amounted to little more than torture thinly cloaked in Orwellian euphemism, which despite being illegal under U.S. and international law were sanctioned for use on detainees by the highest levels of the CIA and the White House.

Jones, who took a hard turn towards national security issues when 9/11 went down just days after he started graduate school, leads an Intelligence Committee investigation precipitated by the suspicious destruction of CIA interrogation tapes in 2005. This investigation lasts a decade, only seeing light just prior to the end of Obama’s Presidency in 2015, when the final (heavily-redacted) report’s exhaustive and well-documented portrait of the CIA’s employment of torture (and its attempts to cover up both the fact of its use on detainees and the inescapable truth that it did little good in providing useful intelligence) provided the impetus for an amendment co-sponsored by Feinstein and Senator John McCain (for all of his many faults as a legislator, leader, and ideologue, his own experience of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese set him implacably against the practice for life) banning the practices, which were already largely struck down by an executive order issued by Obama days into his Presidency. Jones’ team is whittled down to himself and basically one other staffer by the end, as firm resistance from the Agency, lack of cooperation from the Department of Justice (who were also investigation CIA conduct, although no charges were forthcoming), and political forces of partisanship and public messaging take their toll. But Jones persisted, and the progressive-minded The Report sees in his persistence a low-key, obsessive, impressive, quiet behind-the-scenes heroic patriotism.

The Report was written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, a frequent screenwriter/producer collaborator of Steven Soderbergh, who is one of the film’s producers. The duo also made the vastly inferior exposé of global elite financial malfeasances The Laundromat, and it’s interesting to compare the way that the recently-released Soderbergh-directed The Laundromat dilutes its political message with flat attempts at humour and self-conscious deconstructionist conceits while the less-seasoned Burns nails the grounded and direct infotainment punch of Soderbergh’s politicized masterpiece Traffic. The Report is a mildly fictionalized drama film (the CIA might argue it is extremely fictionalized, but then it’s always been an important part of their institutional function to spread damaging misinformation), but it organizes its revelations with the persuasive effectiveness of a great documentary on the subject.

Perhaps some viewers will find The Report to be a cold and unsympathetic experience because of this. Indeed, although the still-unlikely movie star Driver plays Jones as relentlessly, carefully moral and professional and therefore all the more capable of directing excoriating indignation at those who lapse in those capacities, Burns’ script barely gives him time for a personality or a life outside of his consuming labour. “Don’t you ever sleep?” the security guard who scans Jones in and out of the office asks, to which Jones replies, “It gets in the way of work.” The Report treats this line as a thesis statement in its approach to its protagonist. There’s a brief early mention of a relationship ending early in the process of compiling the report due to his constant long hours, and a less serious and information-rich movie may have peppered at least the first act or so with scenes of a worried and disapproving girlfriend (they’d cast Elizabeth Olsen or someone equivalent in the role) telling Jones that he’s getting in too deep, to be replaced in the latter acts by concerned phone calls from Mom. As it is, Burns has colleagues notice Jones’ obsession in passing, with subtle alarm (“How long have you been here?” asks one fellow staffer when Jones smothers her first thing in the morning with new discoveries in the CIA documents as she enters their windowless basement office; he admits to having been there for a few hours).

One element of dramatic license that The Report does indulge in with relish is the employment of exquisitely hateable villains. No, not the career CIA bureaucrats played by the likes of Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, and Ted Levine, who stonewall Jones and Feinstein and even engage in framing and character assassination in order to prevent the truth of not only the Agency’s use of torture but its awareness of its wrongness and its doubts about its effectiveness from coming to light. The Report‘s villains are CIA contractors and psychologists James Elmer Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), who sell the CIA on their program of EITs (based on the military’s SERE program) despite a complete lack of experience in interrogation, a weak knowledge of intelligence gathering, and a dearth of firm criteria in determining whether or not their cruel, violent and sometimes deadly approach is working at all. The Report understands Mitchell and Jessen to be hucksters and charlatans but no less sinister and dangerous because of that (if anything, they are more so). Motivated by the fearful paranoid vengefulness of post-9/11 America and of course by greed, Burns leaves the duo at film’s end toasting each other with martinis on their private jet, having made millions from their work while being indemnified from prosecution by the CIA. If this final touch is slightly too on-the-nose (“Gentlemen: To evil!”), the outrage whipped up by this image of the guilty escaping justice and indeed enriching themselves from literal torture of other human beings carries an undeniable force.

The Report is full of such righteous force, and Driver (as well as the steely Bening as Feinstein, who is a far more complicated and compromised political figure than is acknowledged here) proves an ideal tool for delivering its persuasive blows. Jones’ fixed outrage is contrasted with the semi-smooth, half-exasperated attempts at political spin and pre-emptive management of potential damaging elements of the report by Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). McDonough presents the perspective of the man who dubbed himself (with a catastrophically naïfish folly that only seems greater and more terribly misguided in the Age of Trump) the first post-partisan President, who strove to erase the history (and future) of torture from the national security ledger but not to hold anyone who was responsible for it criminally accountable in any way, in much the same manner as he declined to pursue any credible accusations of war crimes against the George W. Bush White House or its national security command structure. Because partisanship = bad. If only the Republican Party ever deigned to agree.

In the absence of legal remedies for such crimes, the movies step ambitiously but inadequately into the breach. The Report may have only minor surprises in store for political junkies (I learned more than I knew about the role of contractors in the program, as well as the CIA’s internal awareness of its issues and efforts to keep a lid on them), but for the lower-information viewer to whom the showily shocking photos of detainee abuse from Abu Ghraib prison and vague recognition of the term “waterboarding” (which Burns depicts in agonizing detail, along with other EITs like walling, stress positions, rectal rehydration, and sleep deprivation) constitute the entirety of their awareness of the U.S. torture program, it may well prove an eye-opener. That’s not unimportant, but 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.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews