Film Review: The Post

February 2, 2020 Leave a comment

The Post (2017; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: 1917

January 18, 2020 Leave a comment

1917 (2019; Directed by Sam Mendes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Serenity (2019)

January 14, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Knives Out

January 5, 2020 Leave a comment

Knives Out (2019; Directed by Rian Johnson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Under the Silver Lake

January 3, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, Reviews

Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2019

December 30, 2019 Leave a comment

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

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

1. Parasite (Directed by Bong Joon Ho)

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

Review – 24 November 2019

2. The Irishman (Directed by Martin Scorsese)

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

Review – 5 December 2019

3. Atlantics (Directed by Mati Diop)

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

Review – 27 December 2019

4. The Lighthouse (Directed by Robert Eggers)

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

Review – 3 November 2019

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

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

Review – 11 December 2019

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

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

Review – 9 December 2019

7. Us (Directed by Jordan Peele)

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

Review – 26 March 2019

8. Midsommar (Directed by Ari Aster)

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

Review – 16 December 2019

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

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

Review – 28 August 2019

10. High Flying Bird (Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

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

Review – 23 December 2019

 

 

Categories: Film, Reviews

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