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Film Review: Dolemite is My Name

November 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Dolemite is My Name (2019; Directed by Craig Brewer)

Halfway through Dolemite is My Name, Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) and his buddies are dining out, celebrating the surprising success of the ribald, streetwise rhyming pimp African-American stage character that he’s created. At Moore’s urging, they decide to attend The Front Page, an acclaimed, sophisticated Billy Wilder comedy feature starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau that he’s read is a new comedy classic. Surrounded by a mostly white audience’s laughter, Moore and his black friends can’t understand what’s so funny. The humour doesn’t land for them, just as Dolemite’s baudy, strutting routines don’t appeal to the comic sensibilities of white audiences in quite the way that they appeal to black ones. It’s a sort of thesis statement moment for Dolemite is My Name, and it also vitally catalyzes Moore’s quest to make a movie that will make his own people laugh in the way that The Front Page makes a white audience laugh.

Dolemite is My Name is, in this way, very nearly a meta-commentary on the career and work of its star, Eddie Murphy. Conventional film scholar/celebrity history wisdom on Murphy holds that after bursting into blazing superstardom in the early 1980s via Saturday Night Live, Beverly Hills Cop, and his Delirious stand-up comedy special, Murphy couldn’t get a handle on his fame and effectively translate his meteoric talent into consistently good movie work. But is this narrative racially predetermined, like so much in America, entertainment very much included? Does the yawning gulf between The Front Page and Dolemite mapped out in this movie also apply to the last quarter-century of its star’s film oeuvre? Do African-American audiences turn their noses up at The Nutty Professor and Norbit and his braying voiceover work from the Shrek movies? Do white audiences, even? Has the long tail of his post-1990s career, with frequent ill-suited family-friendly sojourns, been incontrivertibly poor, or does it shift and change when viewed in different lights? Hollywood hasn’t known what to do with Eddie Murphy for quite some time, but he’s hardly the only African-American screen megastar in that situation (Will Smith is on Line 1, sir).

Dolemite is My Name is a sort of repositioning for Murphy nonetheless, a pivot back to profane adult-oriented comedy, albeit with softer edges of mature melancholic self-doubt and inspirational can-do crowd-pleasing spirit. The film was directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan), known for making films couched in African-American experience and anchored by strong core performances but that look and feel suboptimally less-than-cinematic (how apt for the Age of Netflix film releases, which this movie is one). It was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriters of Ed Wood, one of the best films ever made about the sort of low-budget, Z-grade, misfit moviemaking that Hollywood loves to romanticize, laugh at, and smugly turn its back on at the same time. Stitch these creative profiles together with Murphy’s own predilections as a performer and his deep admiration for Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite character and its broad influence on his own comedy (as on black culture of the past 40 years in general), and the final result is Dolemite is My Name.

Moore was originally from rural Arkansas, though he also lived across the Midwest, in Seattle, and even went to Germany as a US Army serviceman. Dolemite is My Name commences in the early 1970s in Los Angeles, with Moore working at famous record store Dolphin’s of Hollywood by day and introducing acts at a club by night. Even as he ages and faces his limitations, Moore dreams of entertainment success and hustles the record store DJ (Snoop Dogg, another avowed acolyte of Dolemite who has emphasized the character’s influence on hip hop) to play his singing record and tries to squeeze attention-catching jokes into his brief emceeing slots at the club. It all seems to be for naught until the half-insane rantings of a record-shop-invading streetperson named Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) catch Moore’s attention as he ushers the man out the door.

Ricco’s ramblings consist of rough-hewn, foul-mouthed rhymes derived from African-American folklore and run through the hard realities of urban poverty. Moore follows Ricco to a homeless encampment and collects more like-minded material from other streetpeople. He refines and rehearses the shtick, then thunderously unveils it at the nightclub done up in the flamboyant suit-and-cane attire of a pimp, to a raucous and enthusiastic reception. His profane, boasting, sexually-explicit comedic story-rhymes in character as confident player Dolemite quickly gain a loyal following in the local black community, and he grows his profile with relentless DIY energy. Moore can’t afford studio time to record a comedy album, so he cuts it in his apartment with an invited audience; when no record company will release something so obscene, he borrows funds from his aunt to press copies and sells them out of his trunk. He toils on the Chitlin’ Circuit in the Deep South while the album’s popularity grows, and with the marketing help of an intrigued record company, it even charts on Billboard.

The rise of Dolemite takes up about half of the film, and the making of the character’s kung-fu blaxploitation movie debut Dolemite occupies its latter half. Perpetually short on funds and rife with semi-professionality, the production utilizes the entirety of Moore’s entourage behind the camera and in front of it, as well as some white film school students (the film buries the lede, but one of these is the cinematographer, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is actually the son of legendary Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg). The frustrations and triumphs of movie production are entertainingly portrayed, and Moore has to go the DIY route to distribute the movie as well, before it reaches its eventual status as a celebrated B-movie classic.

Murphy’s performance as Moore and as Dolemite synthesizes the most successful and rewarding portions of his wide-ranging entertainment career, combining the cocksure swagger of his peak standup work with the warmth and thoughtful self-critique of some of his latter-day dramatic roles. Moore wheedles and hustles to make his dreams of fame come to fruition, but is granted moments of deflation, doubt, and inadequacy, and a few scenes touch on the physical abuse of his father, which lights a fire of chip-on-his-shoulder motivation. As comeback performances go, it’s a fine one, a reminder of what Murphy can be at his engaged, dynamic best.

But he doesn’t bogart the spotlight, allowing co-stars to shine as well: Keegan-Michael Key is an amusingly earnest realist-playwright-turned-kung-fu-pimp-movie-scribe, Craig Robinson is a jolly musician buddy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph plays a sharp-tongued single mother who becomes Moore’s unlikely comedy protégé and confidante (and closest thing to a love interest, though not actually that close). It’s another long-dormant black movie star mostly done dirty by the vagaries of the Hollywood system who really steals the show, however: Wesley Snipes as Dolemite‘s director and onscreen villain D’Urville Martin, who appeared in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and thus considers himself to be a film artist of the highest order. Snipes’ Martin swans around in prancing princeliness and delivers his lines like he’s wetly slapping each word as punishment for stealing a spoonful of his lobster bisque. He steals each scene he’s in, and it’s a testament to Murphy’s ability to subsume ego to art that he lets Snipes get away with it.

Dolemite is My Name is not a great film, and it suffers from the biopic’s classic structural issues and Brewer’s workmanlike lack of ambition (the too-unkind phrase “the black Ron Howard” comes to mind when considering his direction). But it’s funny enough and generous in spirit, and approaches racial divisions thoughtfully and gently but without illusion. If it doesn’t quite fit in with the more critical and even radical cohort of recent African-American cinema, then it isn’t really trying to. Dolemite is My Name is about a black artist and entertainer carving out a considerable niche appealing specifically to black audiences without much intent or hope for mainstream (read: white) crossover. If its milieu smacks of the segregated ghetto, then it also invokes a robust and proud sense of cultural community.

The path of confrontational politics has not been the one favoured by Eddie Murphy, as an aging superstar or even really as a younger comedic firebrand. Dolemite is My Name is a star vehicle in an old-fashioned Hollywood sense, a conduit for advancing an image of and perspective on a big-name actor whose name was once bigger than it is. In that sense, it works very well, demonstrating that Eddie Murphy is still capable of slash-and-burn comedy flourishes while also developing a vulnerable and introspective side that has crept compellingly into his mature work. With Murphy fully leaning into the age of the nostalgic reboot/sequel by developing Coming to America 2 (with Brewer directing) and Beverly Hills Cop 4 (to be released by Netflix), he is clearly counting on the glow of goodwill that emanates from Dolemite is My Name to last for a while yet. It wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if it did.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Lighthouse

November 3, 2019 Leave a comment

The Lighthouse (2019; 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. As in his debut feature The Witch, an intense, deliciously-living tale of witchcraft, sin, and judgment set in Colonial New England and likewise distributed by acclaimed independent film house A24, Eggers pits weak and flawed humans against the inscrutable enormity of the natural world and the superstitious myths that render it apprehendable (though no less terrible) to the mind and the soul. That wilderness and the tall tales woven in order to give it intelligible form operate as a metaphorical mirror for the weakness and self-doubt of the puny people who toil fruitlessly against it, for the fickle, unknowable whims of an almost certainly absent God who has left the fates of his creations to the ravenous pagan deities and bestiary that his coming was imagined to have banished, and maybe even for the ugly, consumptive decline of American empire itself.

The Witch drew nearly all of its dialogue directly from 17th-century sources, including transcripts of New England witch trials. Eggers adds a similar title card to the credits of The Lighthouse, citing inspiration for the florid period language used by its characters (Eggers co-wrote the script with his brother Max) from Herman Melville’s work, lighthouse keepers’ journals and logs, and especially the writings of late-19th-century Maine poet and novelist Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s shot on 35mm film and in black-and-white by Jarin Blaschke, also Eggers’ cinematographer on The Witch, and presented in an odd, outdated 1.19:1 aspect ratio (ie. the fim’s frame is basically a square, rather than the customary widescreen letterbox format) rarely used in feature films since the early 1930s (Fritz Lang used it on his seminal films Sunrise and M, the latter’s claustrophobic darkness an arguable influence on this film). Mark Korven is credited with the film’s score, but the sonic environment is dominated by the station’s ominous, unearthly foghorn which ever blares away its deep groan of doom.

All of this visual and aural anachronism (so suggestive of the work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin in key ways that Eggers should almost cut the Winnipegger into his film’s grosses) makes The Lighthouse‘s tale of two late-1800s American lighthouse-men (known as “wickies”) stranded on an isolated rock as a storm and insanity both descend on them (a story adapted from a real incident involving two stranded Welsh wickies in 1801) all the more hypnotic and unsettling. They are salty maritime veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and rookie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Wake was a sailor for decades but pivoted to lighthousing due to a gammy leg, while Winslow is on his first assignment with the United States Lighthouse Establishment after leaving off lumberjack work in Canada with suspicious suddenness.

Left alone by a tender on the deserted rock isle for what is supposed to be a four-week turn, Wake and Winslow settle into a power-dynamic pattern of command and control, tension and release. The elder sea-dog Wake is the superior, and he consigns nearly all of the back-breaking manual labour to the younger Winslow, accompanying it with capricious whims of power and threats of garnished wages to assert his authority in the face of Winslow’s occasional insubordinate pushback. Meanwhile, Wake is secretive with the keeper’s logbook and the tending of the saturating light itself, forbidding Winslow from so much as setting foot on the top level next to the lighthouse’s rapturous, glow-emitting fresnel lens. Wake speaks in thick, sea-lore-specked nautical slang (Dafoe is a delightful marvel, and perfectly cast), sprinkling Winslow with dire warnings of bad omens and hoary curses of ocean mythology like bursts of sea spray. But this bad-cop act is balanced by attempts at good-cop comradery with his companion over meals and, after bad weather prevents a boat with relief crew from reaching them, over excessive amounts of alcoholic drink.

Winslow, for his part, is eroded by frustration and toil, physical, mental, and otherwise. He endures the thousand pinprick humiliations of Wake’s fluctuating tyranny but they wear him down, fray his edges, compel rebellion. He is tormented by a particular belligerent seagull (in their first meeting, Eggers’ centers Winslow and the bird in the two-shot edit, coyly framing them as equal antagonists), until he finally snaps and shockingly fails to heed Wake’s maritime-wisdom prognostication that it is bad luck to kill a seabird, as they contain the souls of men lost at sea. Perhaps like that of the previous junior wickie, who Wake claims went mad and killed himself.

But psychosexual dissatisfaction and sublimated homoerotic desire (one drunken-dance embrace between the men nearly becomes a tantalizing kiss) rage through these more mundane agonies. Eggers remarks in the film’s press kit that “Nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus”. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a lighthouse is just a lighthouse. But definitely not in this movie. A nude Wake is shown deriving euphoric sexual ecstasy from the heavenly light of the fresnel lens at the lighthouse’s pinnacle that only he may access. Meanwhile, Winslow, locked out of this ecstatic holy/sexual heaven, self-pleasures pathetically in a grimy supply hut to the figure of a scrimshaw mermaid and half-hallucinatory visions of flesh-and-blood sirens that he may or may not have actually encountered on and around the island, a turning shot of the lighthouse ending in vertical orientation pruriently associated directly with his erect male member.

Winslow’s denial of access to the beacon becomes metaphorical in myriad ways, a potent symbol of Wake’s power over him in numerous facets that keep him at a distance from satisfaction, belonging, meaning. Wake is also visually identified with the lighthouse itself, looming nude and terrible over Winslow in an indelible vision, a beam of light from the old man’s eyes shining on the younger man’s face. Wake is further personified as Neptune/Poseidon, the classical god of the sea, on a couple of occasions, tentacles writhing and strangling Winslow after one of their boozy tussles. But Winslow’s bedevilment eventuates not merely from external forces like his mean boss or the terrifying enormity of the sea or existential lonesomeness or even the dark truth of his past, but from the internal as well. When it is revealed that Winslow’s real Christian name is, like Wake, also Thomas (he stole the identity of a dead colleague in the northern woods), an element of crisis of identity and self is introduced into The Lighthouse, suggesting that the conflict and struggle between the two Thomases (the concurrence of the names is also a detail drawn from the tragedy of the Welsh keepers of 1801) is a conflict and struggle within Winslow himself (one almost anticipates a Fight Club-style reveal of Thomas Wake being a schizophrenic delusion and Winslow truly being alone, but that’s not it, bud).

If any lingering thread of doubt dangles loose in your mind concerning the actorly skills of the one-time sparkly-vampire heartthrob Pattinson, bear witness to The Lighthouse and banish said doubt forthwith. His transformation here is revelatory, thrusting beyond the quiet, self-contained man of few words that arrives at the lighthouse (a role he has played before, and pretty well) into a figure more primally desperate and id-driven. His interplay with Dafoe (besides Valeriia Karaman as the literally wordless mermaid, they are the only credited actors in the film) is extremely complex and often ambiguous; their conflict runs hot and cold, with widening fissures and almost tender rapprochements. Hallucinatory horrors of sea-lore aside, The Lighthouse is surprisingly realistic and insightful about the psychological and behavioural rhythms of men forced to live in isolated proximity.

For all of the stylistic, technical, and thematic similarities with The Witch noted at the outset, The Lighthouse is a distinct work in important ways as well. It’s much more of a claustrophobic chamber piece, with its two caged beasts of men tearing themselves and their small, limited world apart. Eggers employs intermittent shots of swirling, crashing ocean waves and begins and ends The Lighthouse with fades out of and into smothering fog. And yet the sea, by far the greater and more dangerous force, does not quite summon the dread anticipation and oppressive psychological and spiritual encroachment of the woods that press upon the Pilgrim family in The Witch. Although supernatural elements here like the shrieking mermaids and the pagan god of the sea and the impish seagulls function much as the titular witch and the billy-goat Black Phillip and the Great Satan himself in The Witch, their metaphorical profile is more pronounced, their place in the lived reality of the historical context less assured. There is never a modicum of doubt in the minds of the Pilgrim family in The Witch that the Devil and his malevolent servants are terribly tangible and frightening immediate threats to their physical safety as well as to their mortal souls, while Winslow consistently questions and dismisses Wake’s oceanic mythology and superstitious superstructure, dubbing them tall tales and even (self-reflexively) calling him out as an Ahab-ian self-parody of a crusty old seaman.

In a related way, The Lighthouse resonates less with deep political subtext than Eggers’ debut. The convincing historical context that it builds up is more of a side-story, a footnote in the American story with less pregnant meaning than that of Colonial-era America. 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.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Laundromat

October 30, 2019 Leave a comment

The Laundromat (2019; Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

The Laundromat is the kind of movie that leaves you straining to recall from the mistiest corner of your memory why you thought its creator was a great filmmaker. Because Steven Soderbergh was (is?) a great filmmaker, right? Traffic swept the Oscars. Out of Sight made George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez superstars, or at least contributed mightily to that process. The Ocean’s trilogy is pretty much as good as smart but superficial mainstream entertainment filmmaking gets. Heck, a lot of film critics will even go to ground for that male stripper froth Magic Mike (although its sequel seems to be the preferred option and Soderbergh didn’t direct it). Even in the collaborative film medium and the top-down realm of corporate Hollywood, Soderbergh retains the patina of the auteur, even recently serving as his own cinematographer and editor (under pseudonyms).

Given his resume, there’s little to no reason that Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat should be as mediocre as it is. The material and the anticipated approach to it plays to his strengths: The Laundromat is about a Panama-based law firm that served as a legal clearinghouse for almost countless illegal practices by the global super-rich elite: shell companies, offshore holdings, tax evasion, bribery, insurance fraud, real estate speculation, government corruption and graft, even drug trafficking. The scriptual conceit is that a grieving widow and grandmother (Meryl Steep) who was doubly screwed over in a personally painful manner by entities tied to the firm, Mossack Fonseca, begins investigating their practices and eventually helps to take them down after the illegality was scandalously revealed to the public in the so-called Panama Papers.

Sounds good, right? And right up Soderbergh’s alley, too, fine fodder for a breezy Ocean’s-style heist-comedy anchored by the paramount political issues of our neo-Gilded Age: widening socioeconomic inequality and shrinking accountability for the powerful who benefit from it. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of movie The Laundromat is. Scott Z. Burns’ perspective-shifting screenplay sidelines the emotional core plot thread of Streep’s questing Ellen Martin and greatly indulges the simultaneously candid and self-justifying Greek chorus (Panamanian chorus?) of the crooked lawyers Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), who detail the functioning of tax avoidance and other elements of the global financial shell game in meta, fourth-wall-breaking addresses directly to the camera (they even mention that Soderbergh himself has 10 shell companies in his name) while walking through exclusive clubs and across tropical beaches.

Streep herself closes the film with a meta, didactic counter-monologue about the necessity of resisting and changing the system that allows the rich to continuously use and abuse the less-rich for their own gain (the biblical phrase “the meek shall inherit the earth” is called out for its contemporary irony on numerous occasions). She strips off the layers of her actorly disguise on the sets that Mossack and Fonseca moved through earlier, revealing the dishonest artifice of their rhetoric and practices (and those of the film as well, if you think about it). It’s a tad on the nose, but the point is forceful and not undeniable.

Sadly, The Laundromat expends (wastes, really) considerable running time in its middle and late sections on illustrative vignettes with only very tangential connections to Ellen’s story or Mossack Fonseca’s work. Nested mini-narratives about bribery covering up the internal sexual dramas of a wealthy African-descended family in Los Angeles and corruption and murder linked to the Chinese government at its highest levels intend to diversify the critique of financial wrongdoing, but they only serve to dull the sharpness of the film’s blade of critique. It feels for all the world like a movie patched together from the busy schedules of its all-star cast, which besides Streep, Oldman, and Banderas also includes Jeffrey Wright as a Caribbean insurance huckster with a double life, David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick as tour-boat operators caught up in tragedy and fraud, and Sharon Stone as a Vegas real estate agent.

The Laundromat is skillfully constructed by Soderbergh, who has always been a deft hand who seeks out technical challenges in filmmaking and innovative solutions to them. It’s not totally bad, but mostly so, especially as its attempts at a lighter comedic tone clash with its heavier beats of personal anguish and its direct digressions into political and economic instruction. Soderbergh does not have the morbidly cynical edge of an Adam McKay as displayed in his film The Big Short or in the prestige television entry Succession, which he exec-produced, both far better detailings and sharper-slicing satirical critiques of the moral degradation at the soul of American (and global) capitalism.

Certainly, a good Hollywood liberal like Soberbergh thinks that what Mossack Fonseca and other companies like them did was wrong, and he and Burns have their actors clearly lay out why it is. But message films must not merely provide the message, they must persuade their audience of its truth, must convince them of the righteousness of the cause on levels beyond the abstractly moral and intellectual. The Laundromat is scattered and unfocused and frankly not very entertaining, and thus functions as polemic without persuasion. Whatever else Steven Soderbergh has done, he misses the mark here. Too bad.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Taxi Driver & Joker

October 20, 2019 Leave a comment

Taxi Driver (1976; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Joker (2019; Directed by Todd Phillips)

The antihero is curious and fraught element of any narrative text that includes it. The antihero is not, properly speaking, the “hero” of his or her (but it’s mostly his, if we’re being honest) story, because the antihero’s moral arc bends too far from justice for any claim to the classic white-hat heroism that traditionally, virtuously opposed black-hat villainy. But they aren’t the villain either, as their protagonist status subjectively preconditions identification with and contextualized understanding of their choices and actions, the prerequisites to empathy and, it often follows, to symbolic heroism in the eyes of the audience. Indeed, the elements of an antihero character that sunder them from traditional heroic ideals are often constructed as being in some way necessary, as if they are compelled to bend moral codes and engage in questionable actions in order to best the real bad guys.

Even with antihero figures understood in context as purposeful critiques of (very predominantly masculine) tropes of heroism, we can find the “anti” prefix eroding away, sometimes gradually, sometimes almost instantaneously. “Antihero”, after all, contains the word “hero”, and the term itself makes it highly difficult to miss it, to emphasize the prefix as it should be. My younger self, marinating in the half-fetid juices of literary academia, might have inserted a dash or slash into the term, a hybrid literary theory invention like “anti/hero” intending to make the contradictions inherent in the trope clear and compelling, or, as is ever in vogue in lit theory, less clear and therefore more compelling.

The antihero cannot exist without social and political context, as Emily Todd VanDerWerff considered a year ago in her superb essay for Vox on the trope in television (where it was ascendant only a decade ago, and remains common today) in the age of #MeToo, with its promise of accountability and/or punishment for real-life male “antiheroes” whose immoral behaviour belies the abiding assumed rectitude of their positions of prominence. Context can place antiheroes in their appropriate compartment and thus preserve the intentions and thematic thrust of their creation, and it can free and engorge them as well, transforming them from textually-limited characters embodying certain themes, psychological implications, and political ideas into great and terrible symbols vibrating with larger import and dangerous meaning.

In the way that he somehow embodies both of these oft-contradicting conceptions, Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, the angry, awkward, vengefully violent loner protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, is surely one of the towering antihero figures in the Hollywood pantheon. The character and the film are impossible to separate from their historical and sociopolitical context: 1970s America, where accelerating social decay, energy crises, rising urban crime, post-Vietnam doubt in national greatness, and the rootless uncertainty of the economy, employment, and even interpersonal relations (across racial lines, of course, but also across gender lines, in the wake of second-wave feminism) leading to a profound sense of malaise that Jimmy Carter, elected President as a fresh, folksily frank outside voice in contrast to the post-Watergate den of festering corruption the same year Taxi Driver came out, dared to point out to his lasting detriment. Taxi Driver is the official movie of the mid-to-late-’70s crisis of confidence.

Travis Bickle feels a sort of formless dissatisfaction and inability to relate to the world he finds himself living in, or even to express it, as DeNiro demonstrates with eloquent non-eloquence when he struggles to explain to cabbie mentor Wizard (Peter Boyle) what exactly it is that is troubling him. Although he only briefly mentions having been a Marine in his first dialogue scene taking the taxi driver job, he is understood as a Vietnam veteran, and elements of the character’s appearance (the military-fatigue-style jacket he always wears, the mohawk hairdo he dons for the film’s climax) are derived from soldiers in that war. He never speaks of wartime trauma, but his disconnection can be read as a PTSD symptom. At the same time as he seems psychologically and emotionally caged, he moves freely through the dilapidated urban geography of New York and observes it with penetrating voyeuristic intensity, often from the driver’s seat of his taxi cab, a conveyence conferring both liberty and diminishing anonymity, a vehicle through which he seeks out social contact while also detaching himself from it to an extent.

Travis is not specifically political in his disenfranchisement, and his circling of presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), whose vague uplifting populism is redolent of politically non-specific neoliberal hopes from Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, does not reflect an ideological affinity (not that Palantine, not identified in partisan terms but surely a Democrat in the mode of fuzzily positive imagined politicians across decades of Hollywood product, has much of an ideology to speak of). His only firmly-held and expressed sociopolitical belief is an overwhelming, proto-fascist aversion to “scum”, criminal or immoral elements of New York City’s vast urban underworld that act as convenient targets for his confused, directionless resentment by virtue of their placement permanently beneath even him, an isolated white working man, in the hierarchy of social and economic value. When his resentments and isolation grow to a fever pitch, it’s hardly surprising that this “scum” is the target for his “righteous” outpouring of violence (Alan Moore drew from this element of Bickle for the truly psychopathic Rorschach in Watchmen, a work also highly influenced by the atmosphere of urban decay in the film).

Travis Bickle is a bundle of implications and resonant qualities, many of them personal and specific to the creative forces behind his genesis. Screenwriter Paul Schrader drew Bickle from Jean-Paul Sartre novels and John Ford’s The Searchers and the diaries of George Wallace’s putative assassin Arthur Bremer, but also liberally from his own experiences as a solitary, disconnected, underemployed insomniac in New York City who haunted porno theatres and became unhealthily obsessed with guns. Martin Scorsese, for his part, infused this character study with his observant perspective, his aesthetic fascination with the dark, macho realm of his proletarian corner of his home city but forever apart from it, the good, sickly boy who loved movies enough to choose them over the priesthood but drew deep inspiration from the earthy (and sometimes illegal) swirl of Italian-American life that he grew up observing.

The precipitous gun obsession that afflicted his main character and screenwriter also touched the director, if Hollywood urban legend is to be believed: facing pressure from the MPAA ratings board to re-edit Bickle’s climactic brothel massacre in order to avoid a X rating for his movie, Scorsese is reputed to have stayed up all night prior to the editing deadline brandishing a firearm, to shoot himself or the studio executive mandating the changes if things didn’t work out (it is not clear which, and probably was never going to be either). In comparison to Scorsese and Schrader, DeNiro’s immersion in Travis Bickle’s mindset was less psychologically scarring; production anecdotes emphasized the focused professionalism of his prep work, driving a NYC taxi around the city and studying the Midwest accents of American soldiers while filming a Bernardo Bertolucci film in Italy.

Travis Bickle’s general status as an awkward and peevish loner who wants what he cannot have and seeks to assert some measure of control over a world that ignores or rejects him is only sharpened to a fine and deadly point via the whetstone his fraught interactions with women. Bickle displays stalking behaviour with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a pretty Palantine campaign worker, watching her from his cab both before and after he insistently bullies her (and partly intrigues her with his sense of mystery) into a date. On this date, he clumsily buys her a Kris Kristofferson record that she already owns because she talked about it, then even more clumsily takes her out to a Swedish pornographic movie. Mortified, she walks out, ends the date, and rebuffs him later on a phone call that Scorsese’s subjective camera finds too painful to linger on, panning to an empty corridor instead. Bickle bursts into the Palantine campaign headquarters later, confronting her in anger and insulting her. He is, in a word, a creep, a personification of toxic masculinity.

In a turn that makes Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle a more fraught and problematic text in regards to these themes, this pattern is repeated in the movie’s final act when Travis comes across a pre-teen prostitute named Iris (a 12-year-old Jodie Foster, who starred in Disney’s Freaky Friday remake in the same year, which is quite the line on the old resume). Although there is no romantic or sexual angle to his interest (he in fact pays a fee to her handlers in order to speak with her, turning aside her insistence on providing her services to talk her out of continuing to whore herself out), their interactions follow the Betsy model: she turns aside his attempts to save her in a follow-up breakfast “date”, and he talks down her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) as a perceived male rival much as how he ran down Betsy’s fellow campaign worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Bickle’s response to Iris being unreceptive to his advances (protective and non-sexual though they are) runs towards a psychotic ultraviolent massacre this time around (ironically, Scorsese came to feel that the MPAA-mandated edits to the film’s colour grading made the shootout sequence more shocking).

Although Travis Bickle’s toxic behaviour in regards to women eventually turns to murder, to targetted extermination of some of the “scum” he complained about in his narrated journal entries and to Palantine, Taxi Driver controversially rewards him for his actions and considers worthy of admiration and praise in a denouement that concludes with even Betsy treating him civilly and even appreciatively during a cab ride. This 11th-hour rehabilitation of the violent loner antihero Bickle into a genuine hero (grateful letter from Iris’ parents and all) has to be considered problematic and even dangerous even without the intervention of history, which saw the Travis Bickle character in general and his actions towards Jodie Foster’s character in particular provide inspiration for the delusional fantasies that led to John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

With much of Bickle’s character originally drawn from the ravings of a would-be political assassin, this was a case of life imitating art imitating life. The pattern followed by men like Bremer and Bickle and Hinckley – two of them real, one of them more than real – would be followed by numerous future murderous examples of what Amy Nicholson, in a Rolling Stone interview with Schrader upon the release of his film First Reformed last year, refers to as “destructive young men” who “aren’t sure where to put their energies”. Martin Scorsese is not responsible for the choices and actions of destructive young men who saw in a cinematic moment like Travis Bickle’s firearm-toting “you talkin’ to me?” delusional role-playing not a warning about mental and social disequilibrium but instead an enticing power fantasy, but it’s hard to deny that Taxi Driver‘s legacy includes a roadmap to lasting infamy that represents an attractive alternative to heroism for too many troubled individuals.

Taxi Driver‘s fraught legacy brings us directly to Joker, a film that intends to revisit and recontextualize Scorsese’s ur-text of modern American dangerous loner cinema for a time whose seething resentments and socioeconomic inequality it understands as reflecting those of the 1970s. But Joker regurgitates more than recontextualizes Taxi Driver (as well as Scorsese’s 1983 dark satire The King of Comedy), intending to cast the DC Comics evil clown supervillain and nemesis of Batman as a Travis Bickle for our own troubled and superhero-obsessed times but instead recombining the ingredients of its influences and cultural contexts into an inedible stew.

Joker is the almost unremittingly sad and disturbing tale of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a skinny and socially-awkward clown-for-hire in a crumbling, tense Gotham City who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and struggles with poverty, isolation, dark thoughts, and an embarrassing psychosomatic nervous tic causing him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times (dissolving into pained laughter, he hands strangers a card explaining this condition). An aspiring stand-up comedian who doesn’t grasp what is actually funny (even his mother recognizes this), Arthur idolizes late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (DeNiro channeling Jay Leno), but loses his position with the clown agency after dropping a gun during a performance at a children’s hospital. Riding despondently home on the graffiti-plastered subway, Arthur gets a taste of his true, antisocial calling when he kills three arrogant Wall Street bros who mock him by singing “Send in the Clowns” (like, literally half of it) and beat him up, unintentionally becoming the avatar of a clown-masked popular uprising against the city’s rich, represented by plutocrat Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who publically derides the city’s poor and may or may not secretly be Arthur’s father.

As Jeet Heer pointed out regarding the film in one of his trademarked Twitter essay threads, Joker is variously Oedipally focused, yearning to pay tribute to father figures (Scorsese, DeNiro, Thomas Wayne, and, more subtextually, prior Joker actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) while also seeking to kill and replace them. Joker casts a period-unspecific (but most likely early 1980s) Gotham City as a mirror image of Taxi Driver‘s decrepit, bankruptcy-approaching New York. It casts Arthur Fleck as a more unstable Travis Bickle in clown paint, roleplaying scenarios with his gun in his apartment and following a female neighbour with whom he has a brief elevator interaction to her downtown job (and proceeding to imagine an entire subsequent relationship with her that, in a fairly predictable late-film twist, is revealed never to have happened). This woman, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), even repeats DeNiro-as-Bickle’s iconic finger-gun miming of a gunshot to the head to Arthur in reference to the crappiness of their apartment building.

But Joker is a bit like the many destructive young men who see their own frustrated struggles in those of movie loners like Travis Bickle but are not spurred on to productive self-reflection and improvement on the basis of those big-screen cautionary examples. Joker, which Scorsese was set to produce at one point before backing away from the project, pays relentless tribute to the formalist elements of his work (this may be why he backed away): Phoenix’s performance owes plenty to DeNiro and other actors of that generation, and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography injects lurid bursts of colour into the social realist drabness of Gotham’s urban environments as Michael Chapman’s camera lens did in Taxi Driver. There’s even a memorable shot of half-cleverness that Scorsese may have appreciated: a furious, darkened, just-fired Arthur repeatedly kicking a dumpster in a refuse-choked alley with a ferris wheel looming in the deep-focus background like a symbolic anticipation of his circus-derived awakening into trangressive mean-clown ultraviolence.

That Joker constructs Arthur’s final transformation into the comic-book supervillain as a glorified awakening, a subversive species of empowerment after a life of diminishment and disempowerment, is its most brazen and oddly its most boring misinterpretation of Taxi Driver. There was much chatter throughout the discourse in advance of Joker‘s release that it was likely to be irresponsible or even reactionary incel propaganda that would wind up getting people killed; after all, the last movie featuring the Joker was rumoured (inaccurately) to have sparked a mass shooting, and it was overall nuanced and ambiguous in its treatment of this agent of chaos, which did not prevent the character from becoming a symbol of alt-right defiance to whatever established order is imagined to be worth resisting (usually one involving people who aren’t conservative white males, but I digress). Joker isn’t anything like that, making Arthur both more precipitously violent than Travis Bickle and denying him anything like the redemptive conclusion of Taxi Driver (like Taxi Driver, however, Joker‘s final scene has been interpreted as leaving the door open to some if not all of the film’s events having been paranoid delusions existing entirely in the disturbed, unreliable protagonist’s head; like Taxi Driver, that is probably not the filmmakers’ intent, although it is more uncertain in Joker‘s case due to the film’s relative artistic clumsiness).

In advance of the release of Joker, director and co-writer Todd Phillips stated in one interview after another that due to the limiting sensitivities of easily-offended, politically-correct “woke culture”, he has found it impossible to continue making comedies like his big hits The Hangover movies without being “cancelled” (ie. criticized sometimes on the internet). Because of this, he has found it necessary to make a serious movie like Joker instead. Phillips’ contextualizing of Joker in this way has only lead to more progressive criticism of him and his movie in the cultural discourse (even from his own cast members, namely Marc Maron, who is in a single scene as Murray Franklin’s producer), even before people started to see the movie and discovered that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver place this complaint in the mouth of his lead character in the movie’s climactic thesis-statement speech during the scene of Arthur’s appearance in full Joker costume on Murray Franklin’s show after his atrocious open-mic stand-up set was shown on the program.

If this argument wasn’t bullshit enough entirely on its own, Joker itself renders it even more so. It’s entirely disingenuous for Phillips to claim that contemporary culture around comedy has forced him to make a serious movie instead, because Joker is not a serious movie (whatever the Venice International Film Festival may think). It’s not serious about the state of politics and society, it’s not serious about income inequality, it’s not serious about mental illness, it’s not serious about child abuse, it’s not serious about morality. It’s not serious about the titular focus of its character study, who, despite plenty of award-grasping Difficult and Serious Acting from its star Phoenix, it treats with clumsy, confusing, irresponsible inconsistency (Jenny Nicholson sharply breaks down why the film’s treatment of Arthur Fleck’s descent into the madness of Joker never makes internal sense in a recent vlog on the movie; she also points out superficial intertextual references to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, during a gala screening of which Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne in the film). It’s not even serious about the often very unserious comic-book superhero form/genre which it purportedly subverts and/or deconstructs.

As he slides into the Joker persona near the film’s end, Arthur Fleck says that while he once thought that his life was a tragedy, he has now realized it is a comedy (this line is visually anticipated in his first appearance in the film, painfully using his fingers to force his mouth into the respective rictus-mask frown and smile symbolizing theatrical drama and comedy). Todd Phillips ought to have heeded his own screenplay; his film is a comedy (though not a particularly funny one) that thinks itself a tragedy. Arthur Fleck is twice the antihero Travis Bickle was, but the movie focusing on him (indeed, told from his perspective, like Taxi Driver is told from Bickle’s) and intending to provide a compelling and even problematically empathetic portrait of his anguish and descent into violent madness is less than half the film Taxi Driver was, despite sharing so many (purposeful) similarities.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review – Kingsman: The Golden Circle

October 9, 2019 Leave a comment

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017; Directed by Matthew Vaughn)

There comes a particular moment in Matthew Vaughn’s deliriously left-field spy-action comic-book spectacular Kingsman: The Golden Circle in which Colin Firth (as dapper super-spy Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad) teams up with rock legend Sir Elton John (playing himself, because who else could?) in a retro-1950s bowling alley built by a drug cartel queenpin deep in Cambodian jungle. The two men – Firth in an impeccably tailored suit, Sir Elton in a typically flamboyant multichromatic feathered get-up – destroy a killer robot attack dog (Jet, who along with robo-sibling Bennie tips a hat to an Elton John hit song) by crushing its head between two bowling balls. To even begin to provide explanation and context for this beat scrambles one’s brain. How does it come to this? In what sort of movie does something like that happen?

The Golden Circle, the sequel to Vaughn’s non-trangressively transgressive 2015 action blockbuster Kingsman: The Secret Service, is the sort of movie where something like that happens. A ridiculous movie, that is to say. There is more wild and goofy shit in this movie than in a whole summer’s release slate of blockbusters. If big-budget Hollywood filmmaking is firmly set on its yellow brick road to total comic-book and geek culture immersion and the attendant total unmooring from the expression of lived experience that almost inevitably comes with that path, then it could certainly do worse than to lean into the aesthetic of cool-ass ludicrous frippery with even a fraction of the wacky, shiny, imaginative pop-surrealism that Vaughn sincerely chases in this movie.

The Golden Circle launches into this magnificent exhilarating nonsense literally in its opening moments. Walking out of the well-appointed Savile Row tailor’s shop that serves as a front for the exclusive and well-funded secret British private intelligence service that employs him as one of its best agents, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) comes face to face with Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), a failed former Kingsman recruit who resents Eggsy’s success with the service as well as his working-class roots. Armed with a gun and a bionic robot arm, Hesketh battles the athletic and well-trained superspy Eggsy in the latter’s luxe custom London taxicab, pursued by a fleet of machine-gun-equipped vehicles. Vaughn’s camera pushes in, twists, rotates, follows the action choreography moves with keen clarity and twitchy interest, like a high-tech bird following a tantalizing morsel of food. Like showcase action sequences such as Firth’s establishing pub fight and wild shootout in a church in The Secret Service and this film’s closing single-shot fight in a diner, this scene strongly marks Vaughn as an action filmmaker of distinction, wit, and intelligence amidst a glut of samey action setpieces in the blockbuster milieu.

Defeating Hesketh for the moment and exploding his cronies, Eggsy pivots to balancing his home life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alström), the Crown Princess of Sweden whom he saved from Samuel L. Jackson’s tech bro and criminal mastermind in the previous franchise installment, as well as socializing with his modest, normal council estate buddies (Tobias Bakare, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Thomas Turgoose, and Calvin Demba). But Hesketh, working for the aforementioned boss of the titular Golden Circle cartel, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), conspires to deal Eggsy a grievous blow both personal and professional.

With the Kingsman organization reduced to only Eggsy and his technical expert Merlin (Mark Strong), the two men follow a bottle of Kentucky bourbon Stateside to a whiskey distillery run by Statesman, their richer and more cowboyesque American counterpart private intelligence firm. They meet a set of spirit-and-soda-codenamed agents: shotgun-wielding Tequila (Channing Tatum, prominent in the marketing but in little more than a cameo role here; Elton is in more scenes and serves a greater narrative purpose), bossman Champagne or “Champ” (Jeff Bridges, also only in a scene or three), electrified-whip-and-lasso-brandishing rustler Whiskey (Pedro Pascal, who has a larger and more vital role), and their version of deskbound techie Merlin, Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). Statesman also have in their care an amnesiac Harry Hart (Firth), believed dead by Eggsy after being headshot in the last movie. Harry is alive but not well, having forgotten his Kingsman training and experiences and reverted to the obsessive study of butterflies.

So Eggsy must bring Harry back to himself, navigate relations with Kingsman’s brash (and possibly secretly treacherous) Yankee mirror organization, avenge the lost, and balance the demands of his spy life with those of his Swedish royal girlfriend. The Golden Circle stretches some of its elements a bit too far, and all of them together certainly beyond wise limits; this movie is certainly too long. But the loopy ambition of its strangest and most extreme setpieces carries it through, and it’s hard to deny that Vaughn shows us things in The Golden Circle that we certainly haven’t seen before.

Lepidopterist Harry’s padded cell features half-sketched butterfly diagrams, and after his amnesia is cleared, butterflies still occasionally flutter through the vision of his Kingsman monitoring glasses. Eggsy has a crisis of romantic conscience (and indeed precipitates a second-act conflict with Tilde) when he must engineer an intimate encounter with Hesketh’s girlfriend Clara (Poppy Delevingne) in a VIP tent at the Glastonbury Festival; a tracking device must be inserted on a mucus membrane to enter her bloodstream, and Vaughn very unsubtly follows Eggsy’s hand as it locates such a membrane in a very private nether region. Strong leans with vocal aplomb into an orchestral-score accompanied version of John Denver’s “Country Roads” while standing on a landmine to distract Poppy’s thugs. Vaughn includes a hardy-har dissolve cut from a bag of leafy marijuana buds in Eggsy’s mates’ flat to the jungle canopy of Poppy’s Cambodian hideaway, a set of 1950s Americana revival structures that gleam with formica and neon. A later battle down its main boulevard set to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” includes a sight-gag of two antagonists being impaled by an oversized pair of scissors from the signfront of the salon. Compared to this wildly inventive visual mayhem, the movie’s showpiece action spectacle sequence – Eggsy and Whiskey trapped in a cable-car lift glass orb that is plunging down the snowy slopes of the Alps – seems almost quaint in its relatively standard-issue blockbuster profile.

The weirdest thing about Kingsman: The Golden Circle, however, has to be that among this wacky and entertaining nonsense, it features a forceful (indeed, downright heavy-handed) sociopolitical message (and plot spoilers are necessary in order to explore it). Poppy (Moore is a delight, her murderous tyranny barely lurking beneath her wide-smiling exterior) is unsatisfied with her status as a wealthy and powerful but also highly secretive drug lord. She yearns for fame and recognition as well (although usually if you’re a cartel boss whose name is widely known, you’re on your way to jail at the very least).

Poppy concocts a plan to publicly force the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood, who has played Presidents before but never one this cartoonishly reactionary) to end the war on drugs and grant her blanket immunity from prosecution by spiking her distributed drug product (it is not made explicit what it is, but it seems to be marijuana or other “soft” recreational drugs) with toxins that will painfully kill anyone who consumes them. If her demands are met, she will distribute the antidote by drone. If they are not, millions will die. Unfortunately the President has internalized decades of anti-drug propaganda and is prepared to wipe away “the drug problem” by letting millions of users and abusers die in agony. The disturbing fascist implications of his approach are made explicit in a manner that Vaughn likely considered ludicrously exaggerated in 2017: the state imprisons millions of infected citizens in cages stacked inside the massive AT&T Stadium in Texas, an over-the-top image that became less fanciful not too long after the movie’s release when the real-world President had migrants caged up in concentration camps not too far from that stadium, along the border with Mexico.

Kingsman: The Secret Service wanted you to think it was being transgressive by blowing up the heads of some plutocrat One-Percenters. But The Golden Circle places leftist-sounding anti-drug and anti-mass-incarceration rhetoric into the mouth of its ruthless supervillain while casting an American President as party to a hard-right law-and-order-driven genocide of drug users. If it isn’t transgressive, it’s certainly provocative. The screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman walks on eggshells with the implications of Poppy’s masterplan, with Eggsy and his allies attempting to foil it, and with how it judges or doesn’t judge the characters it marks as drug users (the toxin turns their veins bright blue, so it’s hard to miss it).

Poppy’s motives are selfish, of course; she doesn’t believe the drug war is any more morally objectionable than the drug trade, she just wants her cake and to eat it to. Eggsy has any number of motivations for stopping her, from saving living friends and loved ones to avenging dead ones, to say nothing of stopping the deaths of millions and taking out the Golden Circle; this movie is very careful to set the stakes in comic-book terms, and not to imply that an unintelligence agent is murdering his way to perpetuating the international drug trade. Even if the movie telegraphs how wrong the President is (his Chief of Staff is played by Emily Watson of all people, but her dramatic acting skills effectively convey the moral horror of his choice and the personal consequences of it as well), he also wants to stop the Golden Circle and thinks, with the logic of a fascist genocidaire, that eliminating its entire customer base in one fell swoop ought to do the trick. Particular caution is given to the victims, who are characterized above all as normal and essentially innocent; some mild opprobrium and comic scolding is reserved for users of drugs, but no one but the inflated hard-on-drugs President actually wants to see them die or even experience pain.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a wildly strange movie more than it’s a good one, despite the high competence of its action scenes, the winking commitment of its cast, and its mix of gleefully violent cynicism and vaulting visual and ideological ambition. This is blockbuster froth, ultimately, and doesn’t really have anything sustainedly serious to say about the drug war. But it’s hard to miss the big-tent fair-mindedness with which it treats drug users of nearly all stripes, not nearly lost amidst the overwhelming maelstrom of comic-book chaos. There are more Kingsman movies coming: a WWI-era prequel drops in February, and Vaughn and Egerton have promised a trilogy-capper for Eggsy, etc. as well. As a 20th Century Fox release, however, one has to wonder how much of the series’ frayed edges will be allowed to persist under the risk-flattening Disney aegis. Hopefully enough to surprise us just a little, which Kingsman: The Golden Circle manages to do, hardly a feat to be sniffed at in the world of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Cold War (Zimna wojna)

October 5, 2019 Leave a comment

Cold War (Zimna wojna) (2018; Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)

Lovingly shot in sumptuous monochrome, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-nominated international breakthrough Cold War is an often haunting portrait of a troubled and ultimately tragic romance set against the tumultuous backdrop of the first couple of decades of the Iron Curtain. A model of beautiful and affecting filmmaking in general, Cold War is a particular showcase for Polish actress Joanna Kulig, whose performance as confident singer Zula opposite her conflicted, internalized musical director/lover Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the film’s open, wounded soul.

Zula and Wiktor meet in the ruinated aftermath of World War II, when the new post-war Communist regime of Poland seeks to establish its cultural legitimacy and shore up the battered national character with a state-funded stage extravaganza adapting traditional Polish folk music. Wiktor and his collaborators, including eager-to-rise bureaucrat Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), audition wide-eyed locals at a tumbled-down rural aristocratic mansion for spots in the show’s cast, and Zula wins not only a role but Wiktor’s heart.

Wiktor becomes disillusioned with the show when Kaczmarek, at the urging of state ideologues whom he is anxious to please, incorporates pro-Stalin propaganda into the performances. In East Berlin for a performance, Wiktor and Zula pledge to cross to the West together, but only Wiktor goes through with it. On his own as a fashionable but deracinated émigré performer and film composer in Paris, Wiktor riskily travels to the Communist-controlled Balkans to see Zula in the touring show. She eventually gets married to obtain a visa and then joins him in Paris, but their romance fails to sustain itself outside of their native land.

Years later, their passionate odyssey ends near where it began, amidst the ghostly bombed-out ruins of a country church. Pawlikowski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski, interweves personal appeals and conflicts with the obstacles of social restrictions and geopolitical realities in Zula and Wiktor’s relationship. The titular “cold” conflict in this film is not between political ideologies and hegemonic powers but between personal perspectives and emotional spheres of influence. There is complexity, ambiguity, and raw open wounds in how their love affair draws them together and tears them apart.

Kot is rogueish and uncommunicative, a neo-European New Wave leading man, but Kulig brazenly snatches the spotlight. Zula is bedevilled in her desires by not merely political restrictions and the vagaries of the patriarchy, but by the unpredictability of her own heart, the force of her passionate living. Kulig typifies her character’s frustrating, compelling allure in a memorable scene in a Paris club: pouting half-drunkenly against the bar after clashing with Wiktor over his past lovers and freely-embellished attempts to promote her solo singing career, Zula careens suddenly to delightful dancing abandon to the strains of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.

Music in Cold War is also a compelling and unpredictable force. It expresses the deep longings and wants of the heart and soul, be it for poverty-stricken country peasants or ambitious, volatile singers. It is a tool of state-directed image-making, propagandistic acoustic nationalism that normalizes authoritarian regimes and cults of personality. It is a conduit for joy and hope and for loneliness and despair, bursting unbidden from deep and mysterious places. It is the scarlet thread that runs through the entwined fates of Wiktor and Zula, and through this measured and devastastingly lovely film exploring their minor-chord romance across a continent torn in two.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: You Were Never Really Here

September 3, 2019 Leave a comment

You Were Never Really Here (2018; Directed by Lynne Ramsay)

A distant, dead-eyed, and solitary man who lives with his aged, fragile mother, played by Joaquin Phoenix, becomes embroiled in a cycle of extreme violence that both stems from the psychological scars of a history of trauma and abuse and constitutes a twisted and more than a little unsettling quasi-heroic transcendence of the position of marginal male anonimity that he has every right to expect awaits him. From early trailers, reviews, and plot summaries of Todd Phillips’ forthcoming Joker movie, this is the general narrative and thematic arc of the Phoenix-fronted, Scorsese-aping “provocative” origin-story take on the notorious DC Comics villain. But it basically describes Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, while also not remotely pinpointing what is likely to set a film like Ramsay’s apart from something like Joker.

Phoenix is Joe, a haunted Iraq War vet who now takes high-risk jobs to find and rescue missing (and often sex-trafficked) young girls, with brutal, grisly punishment of their generally older male captors thrown in for good measure. He makes some money doing this through a plausible-deniability network of contacts that includes a convenience store owner (Frank Pando) and a businessman (John Doman), and he supports his mother (Judith Roberts) and has a sweet, slightly sad relationship with her in their New York City home. But he’s troubled and disconnected and not a little depressed, yearning for some sort of connection. It’s a by-the-numbers Joaquin Phoenix role on the surface, the sort of character that received its fullest study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and that Phoenix could spend the rest of his career approximating without stretching himself too much or without much complaint from the critics who praise him whenever he takes on such a role. Only, you know, good.

Joe’s problems becomes less psychological and existential and much more viscerally personal when he frees Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), from an exclusive brothel with a powerful and influential clientele. Soon Joe and everyone he is connected to is under threat from merciless forces, and it will take all of his violent ingenuity to escape with his life while also freeing Nina, who becomes a talisman of bruised innocence worth protecting, a symbol of the shred of moral decency inside himself that he fighting to keep alive.

Even this fuller plot description could be from a dumb, hypermasculine, patronizing 1980s action movie. Certainly, You Were Never Really Here vibrates with push-button #MeToo-era themes and suggestions of secretive pedophile networks trafficking young women for rich and powerful men, and Nina is given a live-wire of violent agency all her own. But it isn’t hard to imagine, say, an ’80s-vintage Sylvester Stallone (or more likely a late-2000s-vintage Mel Gibson) featuring in such a movie, albeit with a very different tone and focus. Hell, one need not even reach back into the past or into the imagination for such an example: Liam Neeson’s Taken trilogy is built around a grimly violent man killing bad people who are out to exploit young girls.

But You Were Never Really Here is pure auteur stuff from Lynne Ramsay, a compelling and memorable arthouse take on this potboiler subgenre that rises to the level of minor masterpiece on the back of her vision and control almost entirely. Ramsay stylizes her ultraviolence and thus increases its vividness. But she doesn’t turn it into balletic grace like John Woo or ugly punctuation to verbal provocation like Quentin Tarantino. Ramsay’s gore is pure, still aftermath tableaux: a body slumped in a hallway, a slowly-spreading pool of blood, a straight razor on a table, eyeglasses stained red with a shattered hole through one lens. It’s a vision of violence focused on its terrible, silent consequences rather than on the adrenalized moments of its excited release.

When Joe invades the brothel holding Nina armed with a ball-peen hammer, Ramsay, cinematographer Thomas Townend, and editor Joe Bini erect a chilled distance by crafting the sequence through the grainy voyeurism of black-and-white security cameras. Joe’s blows are never seen fully landing, and we gaze like a peeping security man at the destruction in his wake. Ramsay approaches violence in other ways elsewhere in the film, but in each case she effectively drains it of its vicarious exhilaration. Nor does Phoenix ever allow Joe to creep into knight-in-shining-armour territory, even if Ramsay’s screenplay singles him out as an ultimately righteous crusader figure. He is only good compared to the rampant awfulness around him, but neither Joe nor the movie featuring him harbours any illusions about the awful things he does redeeming or overcoming that rampant awfulness pervading everything. You Were Never Really Here crafts a metaphor for a crumbling society out of the pain and strain of one broken man, and unlike the defining films of its aesthetic touchstone (and Joker‘s as well, for that matter) Martin Scorsese, finds a slim reason to hope for better in the fate of that man.

Categories: Film, Reviews