04 December 2016


Loving is a nice movie. It is a very fucking nice movie, of the kind that shimmies on out when people are starting to sort out which films they want to give awards to, but which doesn't tend to receive any of those awards, except in a kind of pitying way. And nice movies are nice to have around, I guess, particularly nice movies with two incandescent lead performances, like the ones Loving has. None of this means that it's a particularly distinguished entry in the America Used To Be Racist But Fixed It genre, nor in the career of writer-director Jeff Nichols, who has peaked, I'm starting to think. At any rate, Loving is his most banal movie yet; rich with the thing he always gets right, a certain affectionate but unsentimental Southern regionalism, but without much else.

It is is a true story, Loving is; in fact, it's the kind of movie that only gets told because it's a true story, and it will make people feel good to know more about it, and not because the story is particularly well-suited to the requirements of storytelling. What happened is this: in 1958, Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) founder herself pregnant, and given that she was very much in love with the baby's father, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), and he with her, they decided to get married and a raise a family in peace and quiet. Unluckily for them, they lived in Caroline County, Virginia, a state which at this time had rigid anti-miscegenation laws, and Richard was white, while Mildred was African-American with some Cherokee and Rappahannock ancestry on top of it. They drifted up to Washington, D.C. to get married, but didn't really think through that in Virginia, a little bit of paper wasn't any sort of legal protection, and thus they ended up in jail. Released on the understanding that they'd leave the state for 25 years, they spent a few years back in Washington, the Lovings drifted in a dismal limbo for some years, until in 1964, they decided that enough was enough; Mildred sent a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who forwarded her request on to the ACLU, and it was through this group that the Lovings' was eventually heard in front of the Supreme Court. In June, 1967, the Court ruled unanimously that laws prohibiting certain marriages on the grounds of race were unconstitutional.

By all means, the Lovings were brave people and worthy of praise. That's not sufficient to make Loving a particularly interesting movie. The biggest stumbling block it faces is that nine-year time frame. The thing is, the Lovings might have lived a life of drama, but not really a dramatic life, if you catch my meaning. This is part of the charm, in fact: the film presents them as two people who are particularly happy to be alone with each other and their children, and as far as possible from the currents of history as they conceivably can be. We needn't be told by the boilerplate film-ending title card that they didn't like to call themselves heroic; that's incredibly obvious from the two very fine performances, and Nichols's tendency to focus on non-moments of the couple aimlessly inhabiting their home with quiet comfort. That part, at least, is great. Movies about Historical Events love that moment where the diegetic sound dies down for the strings and brass to start weeping triumphantly on the score as the characters embrace in slow-motion while surrounded by people cheering; Loving denies us any such moment. The Lovings weren't that kind of people (at one point, their main lawyer, played by an against-type Nick Kroll, is comically baffled why they don't want to go to the Supreme Court to hear their story told, and hear their children slandered by the opposing side as mixed-race bastards) and their story shouldn't have that kind of grandiosity. It's the closest the film ever comes to challenging its audience to remain true to the characters and their real-world antecedents in that way.

What it leaves us with, though, is a nine-year story that's mostly made up of things specifically not happening, and when things do happen, they do so away from the protagonists that Nichols virtually never departs from (when he does, to pick up some plot-important information from the ACLU lawyers, it's never particularly satisfying). That's a hard narrative to structure, and Loving never manages it; there are gaps and ellipses every which way you turn, some of which effectively convey the frustrating lack of concrete life that makes the Lovings' years in exile so maddening that these deeply insular people would go to such extremely public lengths to find justice, most of which simply serve to leap between the good parts as quickly as possible. Time is shapeless in Loving, to the movie's detriment; if you're not paying attention to certain lines of dialogue and don't immediately remember the dates that things happened in America in the 1960s, there's absolutely no awareness of time passing. That, in turn, makes the holes in the plot feel particularly annoying and distracting. Making things worse, neither Edgerton nor Negga is visibly aged throughout the movie, but have simply been cast as the oldest versions of their characters (Mildred was 27, and Richard was 33 at the time of the Court's decision; both actors are several years older than their characters, but it's believable in the "rural life and constant stress ages you faster" sense). And this harms the movie in other ways: that the Lovings' story begins as the impetuous choice of a 24-year-old and 18-year-old is not insignificant, but the characters never seem to be nearly that young, nor even a tiny bit naïve.

But all that being said, there's a great deal in Loving to admire, above and beyond its commitment to a more just society; for one thing, Nichols is a genius at evoking rural America and the pace of life of its inhabitants, which makes him unusually well-suited to directing a story about two people who so vigorously don't want anything but the relaxed, unmolested life of blue collar country folks. The film's best moments, such as its superb opening scene (a long, uncut close-up of Negga slowly sidling through the reveal that she's pregnant), are languid and character-driven in a way that makes Loving a pleasurable depiction of how a certain culture and certain personality types interact, whatever its limitations as a story. And to help carry that off, it's worth reiterating that Negga and Edgerton are both incredibly good; she's a bit more accessibly so (Richard is, as a character, so quick to shut himself off that much of Edgerton's performance seems flat and cold until we figure out what he's doing), with much that goes unsaid except by what she turns to look at, and when. She always makes sure to remain a blank slate for everybody but the camera, which alone captures her weary, worried face, and which primes us to hear the tremulousness hiding beneath her muted line deliveries. It's quite a lovely bit of intimate screen acting - Edgerton's curt edges make him less intimate, but no less well-observed and insightful - and that's definitely a strong point in Loving's favor. It works so much better as a character sketch than as a message movie about history that it's frustrating as all hell that it keeps half-heartedly feinting in the latter direction. That's not what the film is good at, and not, apparently, what anybody making it cared about; the result is a film that's intermittently quite moving, when it's not too damn busy ticking off the boxes to be minimally socially progressive Oscarbait.


03 December 2016


The Eyes of My Mother wins, by my count, two superlatives for itself among recent American horror films. It is, on the one hand, the most beautiful such movie in an inordinately long time - long enough that I gave up trying to figure out when. That's selling it a bit short, actually: it's also the most beautiful American movie of 2016. In fact, I think that, if I were being flagrantly uncautious (and you would probably also have to get me incredibly drunk), I might go ahead and call it the most beautiful American movie since The Tree of Life. So it's a good thing that I'm prone to caution.

That's the easy sell. The hard sell is that The Eyes of My Mother is the most brutal American horror film in every bit as long or even longer, brutal up at the level of the French Extremism films, or the roughest Asian horror pictures of the last 15-odd years. Not because it is violent and gory - it is violent enough, but not disproportionately so. It's got nothing on any of the Saw films, or even a particularly hardcore war movie. Its brutality comes at a deeper level, a brutality of the soul. What we have here is a film in the tradition of Maniac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: a plunge into the headspace of a killer entirely divorced from human morality asking us to do very little other than soak up the alien monstrosity as writer-director Nicolas Pesce slows the action to an imperceptible crawl, the better to linger on his protagonist with suffocating closeness. In this case, that protagonist is a woman, a change that ends up altering very little in the end; it doesn't even diminish the tinge of sexual perversion to the killings common to movies about male serial killers (indeed, one particular death is staged to resemble a love scene much more than a murder).

Beauty and savagery are by and large the whole of what the film offers; certainly, they are its two most salient characteristics. This is in no way incidental, and indeed, that's what makes this meaningfully different than Henry and its ilk. For that film is overwhelming in its grotty, artless realism: it is punishingly horrifying because of the sense of a banal real-world setting. There's not one frame of The Eyes of My Mother that evokes the real world. For one thing, it has been shot by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein entirely in black-and-white, emphasis on the black: this is a movie in which entire epic-length single-take scenes are lit with just a single side light providing a sliver of silhoutte to the side of the characters, only a trivially useful amount of illumination on their faces. Not everything is like that, of course, though it is an exceptionally dark movie throughout; sometimes, though, Kuperstein shapes that darkness with sufficiently light to give it clear texture and edges. Anyway, irrespective of what the film depicts, it is heart-stoppingly gorgeous, with many striking compositions right from the very opening pair of images (a shot through the windshield of a truck, from the passenger side, with the metalwork of the window forming a series of internal frames that wonderfully emphasise the distance of the space outside; and then a cut to a top-down view of the road in front of the truck, a thick line of slate grey with the onscreen humans reduced to the status of abstract shapes), to go along with the dramatic and intensely dour lighting. It's not just pretty; it is pretty in a menacing, grave way.

More to the point, the film's beauty is ironically contrasted with violence and death throughout. I am unsure whether the beauty undercuts the horror, or if it's the other way around. Anyway, this is the story of little Francisca (Olivia Bond), who lives on a farm with her father (Paul Nazak) and Portuguese immigrant mother (Diana Agostini). Francisca's mother is also a surgeon, and with the help of a dead cow's head, teaches the girl all about the structure of eyes, in an exquisitely unnerving sequence that without hesitation or shame evokes Un chien andalou, and pushes all the way through horror into poetry. All is fine on the farm, until the day that a twitchy salesman named Charlie (Will Brill) shows up to ask to use the bathroom, and then kill Francisca's mother, in an unbearably casual, disaffected sequence. Francisca's father quickly takes his revenge on Charlie, blinding him and cutting out his tongue, and then the father and daughter chain the killer up in their barn. Years later, Francisca grows up (and is played by Kika Magalhaes), and is about as well-adjusted as you'd expect. We have not, impressively, seen the most disturbing stuff that the film has to offer.

It's no surprise that The Eyes of My Mother has been beset with polarised reviews since its bow at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; honestly, for all that I more or less love it, I can't pretend that it's not a provocation, pretty much from the first scene to the last. The barely-detectable tripartite plot (each third a perverse parody of a different familial relationship) is a litany of powerfully disturbing moments, not all of which involving killing - the matter of the father's body after he dies of natural causes is entirely upsetting even without any criminality, or anything you can definitively call immorality. It is certainly not an insightful look into the situation of Portuguese immigrants and their families, and only if you squint and hold it at an angle and decide that you're going to meet the film about nine-tenths of the way does the film offer up any kind of statement on gender. Which is honestly kind of baffling, given how in-your face gender would appear to be throughout every single step of the way through the plot.

It's not even, really, a diagnosis of a social evil like Henry; Francisca isn't a real-world killer, but some kind of fairy tale ghoul. Besides, the close identification Pesce encourages with her ends up making her much more of a sad figure, who was helpless to avoid being profoundly fucked up by all the godawful things that happened in her youth, than a terrifyingly nihilistic one (though there isn't any point at which she seems more than glancingly explicable; a sympathetic portrayal of pure evil this may be, but pure evil is still in play). It is, insofar as it is anything positive - and I absolutely think it is, while also knowing full well that most of the people I recommend this movie to will hate me for it - The Eyes of My Mother is a predominately experiential film, designed to trigger a strong emotional response, and nobody can rightfully deny that it does so, not even the most hostile reviewers. Revulsion is a strong response, after all.

But no, not much for plot: very little happens, and it happens slowly, and it happens to characters who are portrayed with a listlessness that suggests that Pesce was very good about studying his Bresson. All the things that are great about the film are sensory in nature: the visceral, instinctive response to the violence, which is made that much stronger by the way the beautiful imagery tells us to feel soothed and dazzled; Ariel Loh's score floats hauntingly apart from the film, scuttling our attempts to make some kind of sense of the material by so pointedly depriving the soundscape of any emotional cues or other anchors. It's not quite like anything I've ever seen: something like the ambiguous French, Italian, and Spanish horror of the 1970s but in a aesthetic idiom that owes more to the ultra-arty slow cinema style (especially Tarr Béla, given the severity of the black-and-white cinematography). Slow it is indeed; at only 76 minutes, the film crawls by over what feels like a real-time depiction of several years of Francisca's life. All the better to let us feel trapped within her presence, caught between the humanity we know and love and the perversion of humanity that's all she's left with inside her ghost-haunted mind. This is in no way an entertaining movie, and in most ways that count it's extraordinarily unpleasant, but holy hell, is it ever a great achievement, and I am terribly eager to see where its creators head next.


01 December 2016


A second review requested by Cammy, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There's not all that much competition, but I rather think that Gattaca is among the very best of all the original "thoughtful" sci-fi movies out there (by which I mean, not quite hard, not quite soft; "social science fiction" is a phrase I've heard thrown around, but I'm not sure how widespread it is). It's enormously literary for a movie with no direct literary antecedent, and this gets it into a little trouble here and there, particularly in the exposition. But much more than that, this quality is one of the film's best strengths; as a piece of idea-driven writing, it's directly in line with the finest speculative fiction of the mid-20th Century Golden Age, using a reasonably appealing genre plot (it's a murder mystery, at heart) as the pretext for grappling with Big Ideas about where society is, where it's going, and what that will mean for us wee tiny human beings. And so what if it's not always perfect in the execution, or if the passage of some two decades have made the 1997 film feel a little morally panicked about an ethical crisis that's not quite as right around the corner as it seemed at the time - better a film that gets lost in its own intellectual ambitions than one content to succeed at being nothing at all.

The film was the brainchild of writer-director Andrew Niccol, a New Zealand-born director of British television ads prior to making this, his feature debut (and who never really paid off the promise of this film; not as a director, anyway). It's set "in the not-too-distant future", an unfortunate turn of phrase (Mystery Science Theater 3000 had long since laid its immortal claim to that line), when prenatal genetic counseling and manipulation has reached a level of near-perfection, resulting in multiple generations of humans born with what 20th Century normals would regard as extraordinary resistance to disease, strong respiratory and cardiac systems, high intelligence, and flawless physical beauty; but to them as live in that world, it's just how things are.

Also part of how the way things are: a theoretically illegal but immutable caste system, in which the genetic superhumans get all of the complex, interesting jobs, while the standard people who still come into being, thanks to traditionalism, or accident, or what have you, are stuck with the menial shit jobs. This used to be the life lived by one "Jerome Eugene Morrow", the identity taken on by normie Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a former janitor at Gattaca, a research corporation that oversees routine space exploration missions. Vincent wanted, more than anything, to be able to go on one of these missions, but his weak heart, among other physical disorders, kept him trapped. A world like this could hardly function without a black market, however, and Vincent was able to meet up with the actual Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), a championship-level swimmer who lost the use of his legs in a car accident. They've set up an arrangement whereby Vincent pays for Eugene's lifestyle, while getting use of the perfect man's perfect identity. And this puts him in the front lines for an upcoming trip to Titan, right up to the moment that Gattaca's mission director is murdered, with a solitary eyelash of Vincent's found at the scene (this despite Vincent's usually merciless care in keeping his genetic material safely secured where nobody could find it).

In theory, the wrong man thriller that thus ensues is the driving force behind everything in Gattaca: it's how Vincent ends up spending time with his co-worker Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman), and thereby falling in love with her; meanwhile, the investigators on the case (Alan Arkin, Loren Dean), by virtue of trying to track down this one mysterious lead, quite inadvertently threaten to uncover Vincent & Jerome's secret. It's a good wrong man thriller, at that: the wrinkle of the wrong man being the hidden identity of a man guilty of a very different crime isn't without precedent, but it's rare enough to be special, and packaged inside sci-fi trappings, it's rarer still.

The very phrase "sci-fi trappings", though, is quite misleading. Rather than just window dressing for a routine narrative (or even an unusual one), the sci-fi is more or less the whole point. Gattaca isn't quite a fantasy, and not quite n allegorical depiction of the modern world, but an attempt to extrapolate what the future might consist of based on where we are now. It is, more than anything, a warning: a few tiny little things that sound look perfect reasonable ideas - who wouldn't want to cancer-proof their unborn baby? - and in hardly any time, we've re-instated slavery. Niccol's nervousness about this brave new world is very mid-'90s: the 1990 book and 1993 movie versions of Jurassic Park had suddenly plopped ideas like cloning and genetic engineering squarely in the mainstream of pop culture, and the year before Gattaca's release, Dolly the sheep was born as the world's first mammal cloned from an adult animal. The international Human Genome Project was in full swing. The question of whether we would start making designer babies seemed hardly worth discussing; it was only when that would become an option. In the 2010s, these questions don't seem nearly as urgent they did then - not dead, but certainly not very energetic - which has robbed Gattaca somewhat of its social commentary. Still, it plays as a pretty sharp commentary on the overruse of technological fixes, and the easy way that human culture finds new and interesting ways to split itself into upper and lower classes. There's a lot of Romantic optimism veined throughout the movie: other than the real killer, all of the characters turn out to be basically nice, and basically committed to justice and equality, once they have society's exploitative elements pointed out to them, so it's never a particularly bleak or harsh vision of the future. But it's clear-eyed about the capacity for greed, and cruelty, and the tribalist narcissism of parents who view their children as little accessories to their own lives (among the film's best grace notes comes when a doctor, bald and brown-skinned, grins with plastic enthusiasm at programming up a porcelain white hazel-eyed child with a perfect head of hair). It's too careful about foregrounding the thriller plot and the love story to turn into a harangue, but it's still smart as hell - probably Niccol's smartest screenplay, for all that I prefer his subsequent The Truman Show (which he did not direct) as a movie.

It's by no means a perfect screenplay: like a lot of sci-fi obsessed with the technology that defines its invented world, it is drunk on exposition, and has all the gracefulness that implies. In Gattaca's case, that means a big, lugubrious flashback that kicks in only minutes after the movie starts up, glumly laying out the rules of this world in charmlessly literal voiceover that survives only because of Hawke's '90s-era "sensitive boyfriend" vocal cadence (that came out a little mean: in fact, the performance as a whole is probably the most sophisticated and multilayered of any of Hawke's '90s fims without the word "Before" in the title). The worst part is that Niccol has already demonstrated, by this point, that he can set the stage through subtle visual storytelling: the first thing we see in the movie is an elaborate personal hygiene ritual, in which Vincent carefully removes every hair, nail, and bit of belly button lint that might let his telltale DNA out into the world, and it reveals plenty while outright stating nothing at all.

But this thudding mass of a flashback is close to the only misstep of any size that the screenplay makes; and even when his instincts fail him as a writer, Niccol is a pretty fantastic director, both of the image and of his cast (besides Hawke, the film boasts a very strong Thurman performance at a time when she was much less reliably great than has become the case in subsequent years; that it has a great Alan Arkin performance is maybe less shocking, but nonetheless Arkin is great, and his acerbic pulp-style line deliveries used to perfection within the movie). Above and beyond anything else, Gattaca is a great-looking movie: a lot of that comes from choosing some exceptionally savvy Modern buildings for locations, to accentuate Jan Roelf's slick, polished, pointedly lifeless production design (which received an Oscar nomination); and a lot comes from the filtered half-light of Sławomir Idziak's cinematography, giving a vague evocation of noir style without actually playing into noir tropes. It's a stifling look, that's what it is: one that is in some distinct, if muted way hostile to humans. Such hostility is, of course, the underlying reality of the world the film depicts, and it's hard to imagine the visual presentation of this story serving its moods and themes any better. It is not a film, honestly, that does much of anything to reach outside of its genre roots - Gattaca rewards you richly for liking this kind of science-fiction, but it does not try to persuade you to like it if you're not already a fan of the style - but within the confines of that genre, this is pretty damn great.


30 November 2016


The Boss is not actually good. Melissa McCarthy is actually great in it, however, and that provides enough cover for the film as a whole to achieve some kind of simulation of goodness. Or to put it another way, I laughed, and I laughed often enough to conclude that it was a worthwhile comedy, however many borderline-crippling flaws it has here, there, and most places. This is obviously a viciously narrow way to praise a film, but comedy is a tricky beast to get a handle on.

The film's hook - calling it a "plot" would be a kindness - is that a certain Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), the 47th-wealthiest woman in America (this says more about me than the movie, but it was that "47th" that made me start to feel good about where things were going: extreme specificity is an underrated source of strength in comedy writing), is an abusive, vulgar tyrant, who treats her long-suffering assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) with extra contempt on top of what she doles out to everyone else. Then she's nabbed by the federal government for insider trading. Reduced to destitution, a post-prison Michelle has nowhere to stay but Claire's couch, and it's from here that she discovers the world of girl scout cookies (but not, in a no-doubt legally-mandated dodge, "Girl Scout" cookies), thanks to Claire's daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). Discovering as well that Claire has a killer brownie recipe, Michelle reinvents herself as the authoritarian leader of Darnell's Darlings, an empire of adolescent and pre-adolescent girls selling brownies throughout Chicago (a city where it frankly makes no sense to set any part of this narrative, but McCarthy's from there, and it results in some great location shooting). And it is thus that Michelle will restore her former fortune.

The film is actually about watching McCarthy curse and fume at Bell, or whatever other actor comes over for a scene or two; The Boss has a bad habit of dragging in talented performers to do very little, including Margo Martindale, Kathy Bates, and Kristen Schaal (the last of whom is completely wasted in her two humorless scenes). Mostly McCarthy and Bell, though, and that's a strong enough pairing for the film to generally keep its head above water: playing the straight man is by no stretch of the imagination the best use of Bell's talents, but it's not like she's been getting any better movies roles, and she does have pretty much note-perfect timing for playing against McCarthy's demolishing whirlwind of a character. Not something to take for granted, a good straight man. But anyway, this is all about McCarthy, of course, and she holds nothing back. It's been at least since The Heat that she has been, herself, so invested in a part (Spy is of course a better film overall than The Boss, but by no means is McCarthy the best part of Spy), and while frequent stretches of the movie consist of not one blessed thing past "McCarthy spews imaginative, startlingly mean insults", the passion she has for spewing them is pure and true and intense; it radiates off the screen. And when the film goes increasingly silly - a long riff on Doritos, a climactic sword fight - she gives in to silliness completely, in the most generous and ebullient way.

As for everything around that central dynamic; ah, well. This is the second film directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy's husband, and the second film they've written together (this time bringing along first-timer Steve Mallory to help with the screenplay), and while two features may not be enough to start making grand statements, the evidence seems to favor the idea that they ought to stop. The Boss is by every imaginable yardstick a better film than Tammy, their other collaboration, but it shares a lot of that film's signature flaws: long dead spots, a forced Let's Learn Lessons ending that's as insincere as it is trite, and above all else, a curiously dark hatred for McCarthy's character. She's a much better comedian than doing the whole fatty-fall-down bit, as can be seen in any of her collaborations with Paul Feig; there's something magically off-putting about how the films she and her husband have tailor-made to fit her talents and their interests go all-in on that kind of material. Michelle is knocked down a flight of stairs; Michelle is knocked into a pile of garbage; Michelle gets tossed against a wall by a malfunctioning sofa bed (that last one is kind of absurd enough to be almost funny). These are stale bits, on top of being weirdly cruel.

Also stale: the film's eyeroll-inducing "she just needs a family!" B-plot, which by the end of the film starts to muscle the much better A-plot the the side. See, Michelle was raised in an orphanage, and was so disagreeable even as a child that she was repeatedly returned there by the families that adopted her. This experience turned her into a closed-off monster, and hence we have everything else that follows. All of what follows, by the way, I think you can predict. It's powerfully bland, even if it does facilitate Martindale's appearance as an increasingly exasperated nun.

All that being said - and since I did start out to right a vaguely positive review, something I have not so far done - there are bits and pieces around the film, above and beyond McCarthy's enthusiasm, that give it some life. One of these, unexpectedly timely, is the way the film riffs on America's most famous cartoonishly awful businessperson, Donald Trump: the film's credits openly mimic the general style of the ads and credits for The Apprentice, and Michelle's direst enemy is the owner of a building played by Chicago's Trump Tower, with his big name splashed on it and everything. That enemy is one of the film's other strengths: his name is Renault, he's Michelle's former lover, he speaks with a contrived pseudo-Continental accent, and most importantly, he's played by Peter Dinklage, who has a knack for turning bad characters in poor comedies into something galvanising: why, his very last film prior to The Boss was the dire Pixels, in which he decided that his character would be a locus for wanton anarchic absurdity, and threatened to make it an interesting film in the process. He does nothing nearly so dramatic for The Boss, but he's still doing the Lord's work, untethering everything in the movie from lived human experience, and creating a feeling of surreal madness that at least turns all of his scenes into fascinating little dollops of weirdness (he also makes a great scene partner for McCarthy).

If none of this adds up to a recommendation - and it surely doesn't - it at least adds up to a level of "don't feel like you need to run screaming out of the room if it comes on", and plenty of comedies, some of them with McCarthy, don't hit that level. It's goofy trash, but sometimes the goofiness is sufficient. Anyway, I got more pleasure out of this than McCarthy's other 2016 vehicle, so let that stand for whatever little victory it can.


29 November 2016


It has been a year, hasn't it? My word. Setting aside all the other things one could think to talk about as 2016 winds up, let's stick with movies: it has been an excellent year for very, very good films, and not a terribly interesting year for absolute masterpieces (I don't think I've ever gotten this deep into the calendar with so few new 10s - only one for an actual 2016 U.S. release, in fact). I don't imagine the last five weekends are going to seriously change that, but we can hold out hope. If nothing else, the summer popcorn movie I've been most excited about all year is in the offing, regardless of the annoying fact that summer is quiet emphatically over.


Gotta love that early December shitty horror release slot: "Aaron Eckhart pays Lin Shaye's Inisidious character" is the closest I've been able to come to figuring out Incarnate, the weekend's only new wide release.

If you want horror to ring in the holiday season, a much better bet will be the limited theatrical platform/VOD release of The Eyes of My Mother, which I'm just over the moon for. More to come on Friday.

As far as limited releases go, a couple of international heavy-hitters get a pair: Pablo Larraín's biopic Jackie, and Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come, with Isabelle Huppert; and sometimes, really, the only thing you need is Huppert being Hupperty.


Once again, we have but a solitary wide release, and I cannot imagine who would give any portion of a shit about it: Office Christmas Party, with a lot of reasonably talented comic performers doing the whole R-rated comedy thing for the directors who made The Switch.

In much, much, much happier news, the platform release of the Emma Stone/Ryan Gosling musical La La Land starts on this day. I can vouch that it is as good as you hope it is, especially if you love Jacques Demy. And if you do not, I cannot help you.


Alright, here it is: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Notwithstanding its pile-up of a title, I am sort of blissfully free of my characteristic cynicism about this one. Ever since the first rumors kicked around that "caper movie about finding the Death Star plans" was one of Lucasfilm's mooted Star Wars spin-offs, it's been the film in the series, mainline or otherwise, that I've been most excited for. Nor have any of the trailers done anything to dent my enthusiasm, though they haven't, in honesty, been quite up to the insta-iconic trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I may have spent 32 minutes on Sunday night yelling "fuck you" at Fandango until it stopped crashing and sold me a ticket.

And for some reason, you can watch Will Smith talk to the anthropomorphic personifications of Love, Time, and Death in Collateral Beauty.

In limited release, Pablo Larraín's second biopic of the month: Neruda. I have tried and failed at two different film festivals to see this one, so I'm glad to finally make that up.


Illumination is quickly becoming my bête noire, and their animals-singing-pop-songs epic Sing looks almost as appealing as having a car door slam in my face. I will not speak of it any more until I absolutely have to.

A mere five days after that other sci-fi movie, here comes Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers, a thriller about accidentally waking up from cryo-sleep on a cross-galactic voyage. And in my affection for genre fare that sounds like it was first conceived of in the 1950s, I might even be excited for it, if only Morten "Imitation Game" Tyldum. Also, the newest attempt to make something not-awful out of a video game movie is Assassin's Creed, which has gone so far as to wrangle Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard to add a veneer of artistic respectability. It does not appear that it will be sufficient.

In limited release, the year's unlikeliest double-feature: from the ultra-American masculinist Peter Berg comes a Boston Marathon bombing procedural with the heavy-handed title Patriot Day, while the glossy camp/melodrama master Pedro Almodóvar has a story about motherhood called Julieta. I would like you all to guess which I am more excited for.


How utterly baffling that the run-up to Christmas includes a magical realist children's fable, A Monster Calls, and it's not getting anything bigger than a platform release (the wide release happens in January?). Instead, the solitary Friday wide release - for the third of four weekends! - is Why Him?, which has the distinct appearance of being a less-funny Meet the Parents with Bryan Cranston as the dad and James Franco as the son.

Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese's long, long-brewing Silence finally sees the light of day, and the idea of that director working with Liam Neeson gets me excited enough to be on pins and needles even if the rest of the project seems a little stuffy. The Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake may also be coming out for its qualifying run, or it may be getting nudged into 2017. My sources do not agree.


Christmas Day! And, clearly conceding the family audiences to Rogue One and Sing, there's not a solitary holiday weekend-type movie on the docket. The biggest release is Fences, which is insanely the first of August Wilson's plays to be adapted as a theatrical film, and with pretty much exactly the dream cast of dream casts, in the form of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Washington also directs, which is the enormous question mark here: he's made two films before this, and they're neither of them movies that exactly set the world on fire. On the other hand, he's never worked with such thoroughly field-tested material before.

The huge cluster of limited releases, some of which will be expanding in January, some which are doomed to a life in art house purgatory, mostly centers on Oscar bait, though not all of the same kind. We have the Crowd-Pleasing Dramedy About Social Issues Oscar film in Hidden Figures, about an African-American woman working as a NASA mathematician in the 1960s; this same umbrella perhaps also covers 20th Century Women, the latest attempt to win Annette Bening her damned Oscar already. For the Grim, Manly Crime Drama Oscar film, we must turn to Live by Night, a Dennis Lehane adaptation directed by Ben Affleck in his brief window between Batmans. And then for the Film Too Goddamned God for Oscar film, we have one of the year's many wonderful Palme d'Or losers, Maren Ade's gargantuan comedy Toni Erdmann - I've seen it, and it's one of the absolute best films of the year.

And another Palme also-ran that everybody liked more than I, Daniel Blake rounds things off: Jim Jarmusch's Paterson. And once I hear "Jarmusch", I stop needing reasons, so I actually can't tell you anything else about it. I think it's about a bus driver. It is, at any rate, fun to have the last movie of the year be one I'm so eager to see.

28 November 2016


Princess musicals. That's the ticket: Walt Disney Animation Studios just needs to keep on making princess musicals.

You can set the starting point of Disney's second renaissance under the guidance of John Lasseter wherever you want - with 2008's Bolt, which was the first film for which Lasseter was chiefly responsible for overseeing its production; with 2009's The Princess and the Frog, which was the studio's first fairy tale musical since the 1990s; with 2010's Tangled, the first really substantial box-office hit in almost a decade. Me, I go with Bolt, but the math works out close to the same any way: if you cut off Winnie the Pooh, the sad little misfit from 2011 that Disney seemed to positively despise, half of the movies have been princess musicals: The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, 2013's devouring smash hit Frozen, and now late in 2016 (the first year with two Disney animated features since 2002), the company's 56th officially canonised animated feature, Moana. The other half have not been about princesses, nor are they musicals (though three of them have prominently-featured songs): Bolt, 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, 2013's Big Hero 6, and from March of 2016, Zootopia. I would not hesitate for the smallest fraction of a second to declare the first four movies to all be superior to the second four movies, with all due apologies to the many people who consider Zootopia some kind of high point in contemporary animation, for reasons as mystifyingly foreign to me as ancient Sanskrit. So I repeat: I would very much like it if Disney just focused on making princess musicals from here on out.

Moana is probably the least of these four movies; or maybe it's about on par with Frozen, but for different reasons. I will happily say this in its favor: it does more interesting things with the animation medium than any Disney feature since The Princess and the Frog flicked the "Art Deco" switch for its "Almost There" number, and far more interesting things with the more narrowly-defined medium of 3-D computer animation than any American film by any studio in the whole of the 2010s (this is an embarrassingly small bar to clear, mind you - Moana is still pretty visually conventional in almost all ways that matter). I have to wonder if that's something to with Moana being the first 3-D movie directed by Disney lifers Ron Clements & John Muskers (with co-directors in the form of Don Hall & Chris Williams, who came on to help wrap things up during the usual last-minute story changes), who've now lived through two Disney Renaissances and an interregnum in between, merrily cranking out movies throughout; presumably, they weren't ready to entirely give up the old-school medium that had nurtured them and led to such grand successes in their careers as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and found whatever ways they could to make sure the new movie was in some way an homage to the old Disney aesthetic, if not really a marriage of the old and new. Which it might have been, in a kindlier universe; the rumor mill has been heavily insinuating for years that Clements & Musker's next film after The Princess and the Frog was to have been the first Disney feature animated with Meander, the hand-drawn/CGI hybrid technology introduced in the 2012 short Paperman, or some spiritual descendant thereof, except that it simply wasn't ready for the demands of feature production. Maybe next time; let's all pray for the 63-year-olds to have continued good health and enough ambition for one more feature.

Let's remember that and come back to it a bit later. First things first: what the hell is Moana? For one thing, it's the studio's very first fairy tale/mythological musical that has a largely original story: not that e.g. The Princess and the Frog or Frozen have much in the way of a real connection to "The Frog Prince" or "The Snow Queen", but you can imagine the tormented development process that transformed one into the other. Moana is predominately a new concept that draws from the corpus of pan-Polynesian legend primarily in the form of its secondary protagonist and the general attitude of its story and setting (this makes it, incidentally, only the third Disney feature derived from a non-Western culture, after Mulan in 1998 and Brother Bear in 2004*; it's also Disney's second Polynesian-set film, after the 2002 Lilo & Stitch, which I'm otherwise not prepared to describe as "non-Western").

That new concept, incidentally, turns out to have exactly the same start as Disney's own 21-year-old Pocahontas: a young woman, whose father is the local tribal chief, wants to go out and have extraordinary adventures, specifically mentioning water as a metaphor for change and fluidity. Her father's natural caution and belief in the importance of stable tradition hold her back, but a grandmotherly figure with a greater awareness of the spirituality guiding the community urges her to follow her dreams. She has two animal sidekicks: a bird and a four-legged mammal (a pig named Pua, who gets distressingly little screentime). That only gets us a quarter of the way or so into Moana's unhurried 103 minutes, but for as long as it went on, it's kind of impressive how comfortable the new film's seven credited story writers are about pilfering from the company's history. It is, anyway, a better film than Pocahontas, so the pilfering is not without its value.

The young woman is none other than the titular Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), and the grandmotherly figure is her actual grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), who happily embraces her reputation as the village lunatic of the small community on the small Pacific island of Motonui (the name of a place on the west side of the northern island of New Zealand, and, as Moto Nui, an islet near Easter Island; the film's island is a deliberate fiction). Under the rule of Moana's father Tui (Temuera Morrison), and generations of chiefs preceding him, the islanders have remained steadfast in their home, never traveling beyond the gentle waters of the island's bay to fish. Moana - whose very name means "Sea" - is unique in finding this unbearably confining, and has been drawn to the water ever since she was a baby, when the ocean itself moved like a living thing to invite her to explore its depths. Moana's sense of adventure is about to come in very handy: for uncertain reasons, the crops are failing and the fish have vanished, and only Tala's legends offer any kind of explanation. A thousand years ago, the demigod Maui stole the gem-like heart of Te Fiti, the goddess who created all life; for the last millennium, a darkness has slowly crept over the world from the island formed by Te Fiti's living corpse, and it will eventually consume all the islands of Polynesia. The story convinces Moana, anyway, and she heads off in one of the ancient canoes of the Motonuian's ancestors to find Maui and force him to return the heart (which the ocean brought to her as a child) to Te Fiti.

The remainder of the film is an entirely straightforward adventure comedy with mismatched protagonists: Moana finds Maui (Dwayne Johnson) in short order, and discovers him to be a lazy braggart, disinterested in anything but finding the magic fishhook once given to him by the gods, without which he's merely an undying, incredibly muscular human. The pair make an uneasy pact - the ocean's insistence on forcing the two of them together despite Maui's best efforts is almost the solitary reason why - in which he'll return the heart only after she helps to retrieve his hook; along the way, Maui teaches Moana about the great traditions of Polynesian seafaring, now no longer practiced by any living humans, and thus helps to shape the young woman's sense of her place within her culture.

But that's a serious thing, and Moana is hellbent on being unserious. It is the defining mark of nearly all of Clements & Musker's films that they are far more comic than the average Disney film, and this makes no effort to break that tradition. It's slapsticky throughout, tosses in a bit of scatology, and gives pride of place to a brainless chicken, Heihei ("voiced" by Alan Tudyk, apparently for no reason other than to give the studio's reigning good luck charm a role), who is defined entirely by his indefatigable comic stupidity. And these things all generally work. What doesn't - like, at all, to even the smallest degree - is the glut of purposefully anachronistic jokes. For this is another mark of Clements & Musker, first with Aladdin, in the character of Robin Williams's Genie, but even more so with their follow-up to that film, 1997's Hercules, which puts in a strong bid as the most anachronistic thing in Disney history (it is, after all, a story set in ancient Greece that places the title character in a TV ad for a sports drink for one visual gag). It's an annoying, film-damaging bother there, but it's absolutely worse in Moana: Hercules only went for generic, life in the 20th Century type jokes, about things like dialing 9-1-1, or fast-talking Jewish moguls, or smart screwball dames (wait, I'm wrong: there's an Air Jordan gag). Moana has a motherfucking Twitter joke, and I could not possibly have built up enough good will towards the movie to greet that joke with anything but teeth-bared rage. Generally speaking, that's most of what Maui does in the film: he uses modern slang and turns of phrase, he is every bit a Dwayne Johnson goofball in animated form, and this is a very bad thing that cheapens Moana, every bit as much as Hercules was cheapened by its, or as much as the gargoyles perpetually threaten to completely ruin The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

But anyway, all these things do not ruin Moana, though they surely do take a chunk out of its armor. The film remains a substantially interesting piece of animation, and mostly a successful musical: the overall average quality of the songs, all written by some combination of Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, is certainly higher Frozen (I think I'd still put Tangled's songs just a tiny bit higher) though there's no "Let It Go"-sized showstopping standout,. There is a certain "Shiny", in which Jemaine Clement sings the part of a greedy crab-god named Tamatoa, that qualifies as a showstopper, in that it stops the ever-living hell out of the movie; it's a godawful attempt at David Bowie-style glam rock that accompanies the one completely useless scene in the movie, and vies only with that idiotic troll song from Frozen as the worst book song written for a Disney film since 1989. The only thing interesting about it is that towards the end, it starts to play with color and negative space, creating a neon-on-black spread of shapes and lines that's disorienting and funny simultaneously.

Everything else is at least pretty good, though some of the songs have an irritating addiction to generic Broadwayisms: the score's best original song by some length, "We Know the Way", is not coincidentally also the one that mostly drops Broadway and pop style in favor of sincerely trying to foreground Polynesia musical forms (the pensive, ethereal "An Innocent Warrior", which has not a single English word interspersed among its Tokelauan lyrics, is very nearly as good, but it's a new version of a pre-existing song Foa'i had already written). That being said, there's good Broadway and bad Broadway, and Moana gets the former: the scene-setting "Where You Are" is, lyrically, absolutely opening number boilerplate, with the whole tone singing about its traditions and that whole deal, but the Polynesian influence makes it unreasonably interesting. "How Far I'll Go", the twice-reprised "I Want" number, is a particularly strong example of the form, with lyrics and melody that tumble out at high speed, and while Cravalho has somewhat too poppy of a voice, she's admirably strong at keeping up with the pace and quick lyrical shifts while also belting real darn good. Even something as not-very-innovative as Maui's "You're Welcome" (Johnson is charmingly bad and adorably committed singer, it turns out) benefits from some pretty fantastic orchestrations in its second half, as it shifts completely into Big Production Number mode, and that's probably the weakest of the film's good songs.

"You're Welcome" also benefits from being home to some of the most interesting animation in the film: as Maui lays out his personal history to Moana (as part of what turns out to be a cheap, distracting trick), the film starts to go all mixed-media on us, with hand-drawn animation and 2-D backgrounds derived from traditional Polynesian art styles interacting with the 3-D characters as a kind of diorama or shadowbox version of a traditional Disney song-and-dance routine. It's also probably the single best argument in favor of seeing the movie in stereoscopic 3-D, though the whole movie really makes that argument: this is one of those ever-so-rare movies for which 3-D genuinely adds a great deal to the experience of watching it.

It's not even the only point in the movie where Polynesian art and computer animation speak to each other in interesting ways: the movie opens with just such a sequence, as some very lovely and colorful flat animation gives life to Tala's story of Maui's theft and what comes after, though this is certainly less aggressive and ambitious than "You're Welcome". What might be the very best thing about the film, though, is present throughout. Maui's body is covered in tattoos depicting his various feats, and to enact those feats he has a tiny tattooed version of himself moving around - apparently with a mind entirely its own, given how often it serves to act as his conscience. A cute enough gimmick, but the very cool thing is that Mini Maui was entirely hand-drawn before being digitally placed on Big Maui's CGI muscles, the first time anything hand-drawn has shown up in a Disney feature since 2011. Better still, this animation was supervised by Eric Goldberg, the animator responsible for Aladdin's Genie among other things, and who has spent the last ten years or more being ill-used; this little character is an extraordinarily gratifying return to form, with the bulbous muscular shape proving an excellent fit for Goldberg's particular tendencies and talents. This is that marriage of old and new forms that I was daydreaming about before, sadly present in only one character, but that character absolutely steals the movie every time he's given the chance; the fulsome pantomime, borrowing from the vocabulary of American cartoons without breaking the traditional aesthetic of the tattoos, is creative as hell, funny and charming, and beyond doubt the best thing in the movie.

The rest of Moana is perfectly well-animated, of course, though nothing about the character animation causes me to relax in my belief that Disney's 3-D animation lacks the spark that makes their corporate cousins at Pixar so special. The skin's not quite right, for one thing: Maui, in particular, seems to be covered in a sheath of tight-fitting vinyl rather than flesh that's connected to his bones with sinews and muscles, but I'd be hard-pressed to name a single human character whose textures feel exactly right. It is neither the first time nor the last, I am sure, that I'll have cause to complain that Disney would be much better off returning to 2-D animation. Character designer Randy Haycock, the day the film came out, published a cluster of pencil tests to his YouTube channel, and I'm really not in the least bit ashamed to say that I like every single one of them better than anything that ended up making it into the movie.

On the other hand, everything that's not a human being is pretty great: in particular, the film's water is an unabashed triumph of the medium. Moana is to a significant degree a film about the great vast wetness of the ocean, and perfecting its movement, its fluctuating transparency, and the physical properties of water's movement across solid surfaces was critical to the film's sense of reality, if we're to take for granted (as the studio self-evidently did) that realism was the overriding goal. The directors have gone so far as to declare that capturing the exact nature of water was the primary reason Moana was 3-D and not 2-D (which is of course a lie; it'll be many years, if ever, before Disney puts another 2-D movie into production after The Princess and the Frog's weak commercial performance). It is a beautiful ocean with beautiful lighting, and whatever shortcomings the character animation has, there's barely a frame of the movie that's not lovely for those reasons.

It's no masterpiece, but it's all extremely pleasant, and in Moana herself, the film boasts Disney's most interesting and complex protagonist in several years - easily since Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, maybe even since all the way back to Mulan. The complete lack of a romantic lead is alone enough to make this one of the studio's more interesting character arcs, even if it's pretty easy to predict that arc in detail before it starts. Of course, unexpected narrative twists haven't ever been one of Disney's goal, and in pursuing its clear-cut story so steadily and gracefully, aided by Mancina's lovely score as well as the outstanding ocean imagery, Moana has certainly the most satisfying overall narrative of any Disney film since Tangled. It even happily lacks the grating reveal of a surprise villain (or, for that matter, any villain at all, in another one of its exceedingly nice touches; a couple of threats, including some adorable coconut monsters, but no villain). I remain unconvinced that the "snarky contemporary attitude + plasticky animation" formula is where Disney should be, but if every couple of films that formula turns out a Moana, then things could be a lot worse.


25 November 2016


What a strange, strange trend 2016 has brought us: deadly serious movies about race and slavery in America that are nearly undone by terrible editing and ugly color correction that drenches night scenes in azure. By all means, The Birth of a Nation is better than Free State of Jones, but it's a hell of a lot closer than it should be, and a hell of a lot closer than seemed possible when The Birth of a Nation burst out of Sundance on a wave of inflated praise. It's a textbook example of a story that desperately, urgently needs to be told, and therefore the movie that finally got to tell it wins points simply for existing; but it would be very nice if we could have given those points to a different, much better movie instead.

The story in question is that of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), who led a rebellion of slaves in Virginia in August, 1831, the most consequential such rebellion in the history of the American South. It is not, primarily, a story about that rebellion, but about the man himself about whom little is positively known; in Parker's telling (for he is not merely the lead actor, but also the director, producer, and writer), the solution to this ellipsis has been to plug Turner's life into Braveheart. It's really quite striking, just how much overlap there is between the two films; not just at the level of story, either. There are even some specific shots that are taken more or less unchanged from that movie, and in the same narrative context, even (the big tell is the "making love the night they get married" scene, with exactly the same tastefully backlit nudes; most of the other direct lifts could be waved away as general types that are just part of the atmosphere of filmmaking, but this is too specific and too distinctive). This is not a problem, of course, except insofar as that Braveheart is much better-made; at a bare minimum, it has infinitely better cinematography than the clumsy, washed-out nonsense that Elliot Davis has seen fit to perpetrate. I shouldn't speak too quickly; the washed-out blue-tinted daylight scenes later in the film are merely unattractive. The real sins are the night scenes: the very first thing we see in the whole movie is a scene set near a bonfire, and lo and behold, it turns out to mean that we get served with a proper orange and teal sequence like there hasn't been for a while.

Anyway, it's ugly at worst, and merely inconsequentially bland at best, and very obviously the work of a first-time director with no real sense of what to do with shot scale; that's a pity, and I'll say no more about it. It's at least somewhat better as a story, even as a Braveheart clone that make something of a hash of actual history (this at least, is the position of Leslie M. Alexander, professor of African-American and African Studies at Ohio State, and that's good enough for me). We meet Turner as a boy (Tony Espinosa), being promised by some manner of vision that he is destined to be a prophet; hints of his impending destiny immediately manifest themselves, as he learns to read from a patronisingly kind white lady, the wife of his owner, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). Years later, this means that Nat Turner is something of an amateur Bible expert, which is why Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), the heir to the dying plantation of which Nat is a part, hits upon the idea of renting out Nat as a preacher to use religion to quell the unrest of other slaves, or otherwise encourage them to follow blindly the commands of their overseers. This continues throughout Nat's increasingly awareness of the cruelties inherent to the slavery system that rules the South (Samuel is relatively kind slave owner, which is to say a relatively lazy one who visibly doesn't give a shit, and therefore treats Nat somewhat better than one might expect), and is snapped into focus when he finds passages in the Bible which seem to suggest that chattel slavery is against God's will. It takes a lot of slow building for him to finally jump into action: multiple rapes, including of his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), by white men under command of the local slave-hunter Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), and eventually his own abuse at the hands of Samuel, the final indignation that pushes him over the edge.

Not exactly groundbreaking, and as noted above, not exactly true to history in most of the ways that matter (Turner was inspired to take action because of his religious visions, which seems like a particularly dubious thing to have elided), but it has the merit of vigor and passion. Moreover, this fictionalised version of Turner is particularly impressive as a protagonist: Parker's performance - far and away the best in the movie - is a wonderful feature-length slow burn, steadily increasing in anger until he almost quivers with, his voice growing hollower and darker throughout to accompany his wrathful expressions. So the film has that going for it, at least. It doesn't have a whole hell of a lot else, unfortunately: the filmmaking is slapdash at best, and the choices Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin made in assembling the story are rather peculiar: this is a movie about the United States' most important slave rebellion in which the slave rebellion is rather chastely kept to an onscreen minimum: what should feel like an act of God's fury channeled through the bodies of the slaves working to utterly destroy their exploiters is presented almost entirely though a banal montage, set to a Nina Simone recording of "Strange Fruit". The film transparently wants to be a revolutionary act: presumably that's why it cribs its title from the legendarily racist 1915 film that largely defined the parameters of the American feature-length film while arguing that the country's very identity depends on ruthlessly preserving the segregated superiority of whites. It wants to form a counter-narrative of a national identity based on black resistance to being controlled or killed, a veritable call to arms in an era of loudly resurgent mainstream racism. It's not easy to be revolutionary when you're very squeamish about revolutions, though, and The Birth of a Nation is rather more committed to the dictates of prestige message movies than to the dictates of radical social change.

That's complaining about the film is not, rather than what it is, and that's a bad habit. Anyway, what it is doesn't impress very much either: the editing is choppy as hell, the acting generally aimless and often given to broad caricatures, and the imagery bland when it's not outright ugly. The only real strength the film has to offer is that slave narratives are still much too rare in American filmmaking, and all of the ones that come out attain a certain inherent value and interest for that reason; but as far as that goes, this isn't a patch on Django Unchained or 12 Years a Slave, not in its storytelling, not in its cinematic creativity, and not in its willingness to stare down the violence of slavery (which is, for that matter, part and parcel of its skittish editing: compare the scene of a slave's teeth being chipped out with the hanging scene from 12 Years a Slave to see the potency of a long static shot compared to cuts that keep letting us back away from violence). It's worth seeing in a general "eat your vegetables" sort of way, but it's so very easy to look at this history and wish for so much more than we've gotten here.


24 November 2016


Of all the things people said against Free State of Jones when it came out - which wasn't much, because it sank like a stone from the moment it opened as one of the most self-evidently un-commercial wide releases of summer 2016 - I'm rather angry that nobody bothered to tell me how shit-ass ugly it is. I'm a little bit baffled why this should be the case. Benoît Delhomme isn't one of my favorite cinematographers, but he's got more hits than misses on his CV, and some of those hits are the very beautiful likes of The Scent of Green Papaya and The Proposition. And Gary Ross is certainly not one of my favorite directors, and I haven't found any of his three previous films - Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games - to be especially interesting to look at, but they all have a stately Rockwelliana about them that should be a slam-dunk approach for a movie set in rural Mississippi in the 1860s. Instead, Free State of Jones has been set upon by an especially rotten case of post-production color timing, one that goes all-in on hot neon blue nights and glowing green grass. It's unpleasantly bright and shiny, and that's not good at all: not good in the context of the story, which is extravagantly serious and sober and in no way wants such shrill Crayola colors; not good as art qua art.

That's all it would take for me to turn on the film, honestly, but that's just part of the cavalcade of misjudgments running throughout its swollen, plodding 139 minutes. The only thing we cannot say against the film is that it's heart isn't in the right place; indeed, Free State of Jones is one of the most sincere and passionate movies you could imagine, anxious to say something important about society, and where it came from, and where it's going, and the legacy of violence and cruelty that's as American as apple pie. It is the story of Jones County, Mississippi, a place home to brutally impoverished farmers and slaves at the time of the U.S. Civil War, who found themselves so repulsed by the Confederacy's attempt to fight a war that could only benefit rich landowners on the blood and sweat of the lower classes that they decided to rebel against the rebels. Under the leadership of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), the Jones county residents formed an egalitarian libertarian society they called the Free State of Jones, where black and white could live in peace and harmony, holding fast against the Confederate Army's incursions.

It's an entirely fascinating history, somewhat fictionalised by scenarist Leonard Hartman and screenwriter Ross, but with most of the important parts left intact. The Free State of Jones is one of those indisputably intriguing footnotes in history, and surely worthy of treatment in popular culture, and this is the thing that Free State of Jones, the movie, brings to the table that I would never deny it. It brings nothing else, outside of maybe McConaughey's performance, which is a dark, slow-burning bit of intensity, but not particularly nuanced or novel. But even if we count him, that doesn't leave a whole lot to recommend a movie that places all of its chips on "this is IMPORTANT because it is about RACIAL ISSUES" as the justification for all of the decidedly shabby storytelling that otherwise makes up the entire movie.

There are so many things that are obviously the one big problem with Free State of Jones that I'm not sure how to go about discussing them. The umbrella that covers most of it is the movie's inordinate sense of historical rigor: the film has so many scholarly advisors that they get an entire screen-filling card in the end credits. Obviously, that's all well and good, and surely none of us will argue in favor of movies that are jam-packed with lies, but in the battle between dramatic integrity and scrupulous accuracy, I'll pick drama ten times out of ten. It appears, from the evidence onscreen, that Ross does not agree with me. There are, in fact, a few very good moments scattered throughout the movie, mostly in the form of its combat scenes: these are casually violent and brutal, depicting ruined bodies and missing limbs without looking away or leering, and prone to swift, unexpected, horrible death captured in journalistic detail. Sometimes, the cinematography robs these moments of their impact, but not always - a funeral turned into a shootout is particularly strong, with the filmmaking waking up for the first and only time.

Outside of these set pieces, the film is absolutely nothing but a history lesson, presented in what feel like deliberately uncinematic terms. One of the film's very favorite tricks is to stop the action to present a montage of vintage photographs overlaid with text explaining the historical context of what's going on - it is, in essence, the movie showing its work in the form of footnotes, purposefully sacrificing narrative momentum in order to lecture us. And as horribly annoying as this is, it's nothing next to the frequent, short flash-forwards to 1948, when Newton's great-grandson Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is on trial for miscegenation, it being argued that since his great-grandmother was Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a black woman, he has enough non-white blood to run afoul of Mississippi's racist laws. These flash-forwards provide not a god-damned thing to the movie, and take quite a lot away: the reveal that Rachel and Newton will become lovers is entirely spoiled, the limited momentum that the film is able to build up is crushed by the rather strained decisions about where in the narrative these flash-forwards should happen, and the symbolic link Ross is clearly trying to draw between different eras of institutional racism in the United States feels so cloying that the film can't do anything but trivialise the very awful reality of anti-miscegenation laws. It's terrible - just plain terrible.

Notwithstanding its grinding joylessness as a story, Free State of Jones isn't terribly well-made, either: the editing is much too busy for such a spare, deadly earnest film, frantically jumping from one shot of a character to a virtually identical shot of the same character, subdividing simple moments into three or four beats, and otherwise making a hash of the very straightforward character material. Ross also makes some peculiar choices about where to point his camera: the film has an odd, distracting addiction to close-ups of gun muzzles, and one of the most hushed and serious moments in the film, the lynching of one of the Jones rebels, is completely gutted by the cramped close-up of his face preceding his murder, reducing him to an impersonal mass of sweaty pores.

The film is absolute tedium, crawling through its story with a deadly mix of hyper-elucidation and confounding ellipses; that it is badly-made tedium is just insulting on top of everything. This is an intriguing and important slice of American history, and it is good of Free State of Jones for bringing attention to it; but it would have been much better if it hadn't ground all the humanity out of it in the process.



A review requested by Nik Evans, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Laura is a fucked-up movie about sex. There's much else to say about it, virtually all of it good, but I think that's the core of it. Movies released in America in 1944 didn't have the luxury of being terribly forthright in their depictions of human sexuality, of course, but but they were immensely good at being circumspect, and even in the lusty, fetid world of film noir, I can't offhand think of any other movie from the period so enthusiastically kinky as this story about a cop who wants to sleep with a dead woman, and his psychological struggle with the gay man who has been treating her as his favorite plaything.

Adapted by Jay Dratler and Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt from Vera Caspary's novel of the same name, Laura goes about its plot in a very damn peculiar way. It starts not so much in medias res as ex post facto, with the snobbish voice of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) opening the film in voiceover against a black screen (already an unusual choice) by solemnly affirming "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died". It's a snazzy bit of modernism that instantly sets the scene: Laura is not about what happens, but what happened; it is not a film of action but of a clean-up crew. Most of the movie takes place in a single New York apartment, because there's no need to leave it: practically nothing actually happens across the movie's trim 88 minutes, and the inordinately small scale suits it just fine.

I would like to imagine that the film is enough of a canonical classic that I needn't even bother with the plot, but that would be unreasonable. Anyway, so Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is dead, and Det. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is the NYPD officer trying to figure out who killed her. The obvious suspects are Waldo, a mercurial radio celebrity who has been intimately involved with Laura for years, and Laura's fiancé, the shabby gigolo Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). It could also potentially be Shelby's last lover and Laura's aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). McPherson quickly stops caring, as his lengthy time spent in Laura's apartment, poring over her letters and diary, under the constant stare of a large oil painting of the dead woman herself, leads him to become more obsessed with the murder victim than the actual murder.

That already gives us plenty to gnaw on, and that's without even getting to the midway point of the film, when a very much alive Laura shows up after a long weekend in the country and is stunned and a little angry to find a cop rifling through her things. It is one of the most defining things about Laura that this reveal is completely underplayed: there's no shocked musical sting or dramatically intense close-up: she just walks through the door into a wide shot, inadvertently ripping the movie in half. Good on director Otto Preminger, whose career as a major director begins here (he'd already directed a handful of features, but none with any kind of lasting legacy), and who never really bettered this film in his frequently inspiring, thoroughly uneven career. It's got a fascinating screenplay and a lot of great actors, but Laura is always mostly a triumph of direction, not least in little places like that mid-film twist, where the decision to go so forcefully low-key is completely unintuitive, but certainly to the story's benefit: the suddenness of Laura's entry into the film as a living person thoroughly jangles all of our sense of what's going on in much the same way it does for the characters, making it infinitely more gripping than it had been just a moment before.

I have greatly drifted from my main point in all of this, which is sex. While I get into that, let us make a few things clear. First, while Tierney and Andrews are top-billed, and do in fact have the biggest, most plot-consequential roles, this is Clifton Webb's movie; he gets the first and last lines, he's the only person to speak in voiceover, and the movie gratefully cedes POV to him at every chance. Second, Preminger had to fight hard to get the 54-year-old Webb in the movie: his slight film career had ended during the silent era, and he was exclusively a theater actor at this point, and Darryl F. Zanuck thought he was a dangerously uncommercial choice. Third, Webb was unmistakably gay, and was out as much as one could possibly be out in 1944 and still be employable. I wouldn't say that Preminger fought for him solely because he reads as gay even by the deeply locked-down standards of 1944; he's a great actor and particularly great in this role, devouring the wonderful epigrams the script hands him with immense, obvious pleasure (I won't mire this review in a "favorite Waldo lines" exercise, but I could never pass up the chance to celebrate one of my favorite lines in a '40s movie: "In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention"). Simply as a jealous, cruel older man, Webb's faultless ability to exude entitlement and chilly hatred and infatuation with his own cutting wit is one of the best things in Laura, if it's not the best thing.

But anyway, he most certainly was gay, and it's trivially easy to read that into the character, both in Webb's performance, and in Preminger's blocking of him - almost the first thing Waldo does is to stand nude (off-camera, of course) in front of McPherson and demand a robe. This is hardly for noble, progressive reasons (in fact, he's a stock-issue Evil Queer): it's because Waldo is an emotionally poisonous aesthete, whose obsession with Laura is pointedly not about sexual desire, but about something possessive and controlling. He views her as his creation (the scenes especially confirming this were cut right after the premiere and only restored in 1990, which is a terrible shame for the people who only saw the film within that 46-year window), a work of art to be displayed as an example of his own refinement and taste. The idea that Waldo is concerned with collecting fine things is established in literally the first shot, a probing moving take that looks around Waldo's whole apartment (foreshadowing a key clue in the process), ending by framing McPherson within the large glass display case of particularly handsome trinkets. Laura is the finest, poshest thing that Waldo has achieved, his vision of the idealised feminine.

Standing in opposition to Waldo is the ludicrous love story between McPherson and Laura, inspired by his adoration of her portrait when he thought she was a corpse whose head had been blown off by a shotgun. Not by any means the most stable, normative way to start a relationship, and yet the film treats their interactions without a detectable trace of sardonic detachment. But of course something's wrong anyway, so wrong that perhaps the movie doesn't even need to stress it. And it does actually stress it in the form of the portrait itself, which just looms all over the apartment. It is prominently out of focus, if such a thing is possible, in the back of many shots, almost worthy of counting as another character in its own right, particularly the insinuating smile that seems to smirk at McPherson even as he grows obsessed with it. It is the very visual embodiment of the male characters' obsessions with Laura, and the general superficiality of that obsession (for McPherson, who has access to her private thoughts and thus her "true" self, this is less so; yet he still first falls in love with the painting, making him arguably the most superficial of them all). There are actually two title characters, Laura as Waldo wishes to talk and think about her in flashback, and Laura as she exists in the real world. Tierney's exceptional performance effectively fleshes out those differences, showing the snappish, brittle Laura of reality as an unexpected counterpoint to the smiling ingenue of the flashback. Can't more directly indict the way the other characters think about her than that.

So we return to the idea of sex, in all its corruption: Waldo's possession of Laura's body as a proxy for physical intimacy, McPherson's fantasy girlfriend conjured up out of a corpse, Shelby's flimsy mercenary antics in lieu of actual attraction or sexuality (it's not much of a coincidence, I imagine, that both of the supporting male actors in the film were notably effeminate and carried themselves with an exaggerated dignity that verged on proto-camp). Even Ann gets in on it, with her late monologue explaining, basically, that she likes having Shelby around because his own venality makes her feel better about her own. Laura is uniquely decent as a human being in this cast, which is exactly why she ends up as the locus for all the other characters' warped sense of human relationships and sexual attraction.

It is not a nice movie; the best films noirs never were. It is a masterpiece anyway, with excellent visual storytelling (there's little of the shadowy under-lighting for which noir was named, admittedly, but the framing is beyond great throughout) to augment its excellent performances and impressively three-dimensional awful people - I think you could argue that every one of the leads other than Anderson is giving their career-best performance, certainly Tierney - and its striking, if toxic cosmopolitan attitudes. It's one of the smartest of all noirs, and thus among the most enticingly savage and dangerous.


23 November 2016


I shall simply cut to the chase: The Wailing is all that I could possibly ask of a horror movie. The Korean import isn't perfect, of course, particularly with an ending that goes through at least one too many switchbacks (though the concluding pair of scenes are exquisite), and a distinct over-reliance on "scary dream makes the sleeping person jolt awake" jump scares. Be that as it may, this is still damn great - as great as any horror movie of the 2010s to date, and it's been an unusually strong decade for such things.

It's not just a horror film, is part of it. Writer-director Na Hong-jin's screenplay contains at least three distinct genres: it's a cop movie, a demonic possession movie, and a family drama. Never in a systematic or schematic way: all three of those styles are kind of the same thing in the movie's formulation. Here's what we've got, anyway: the setting is a small town in the mountains called Goksung (the town's name is the film's original title), which is suffering from a peculiar sickness in which the locals are growing inexplicably violent. A local cop, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-wan) is investigating, and he's being pushed gently in the direction of assuming that this has something to do with an old man (Kunamura Jun), who has recently moved into the woods outside of town from Japan. There are stories about the man's peculiar behavior, which possibly includes stalking through the forest wearing naught but a ratty loincloth, with his eyes gone blood red. That's enough for Jong-goo to go investigating, but this onion has many layers indeed, involving a mysterious woman whose name translates as "No-Name" (Chun Woo-hee), and a hipster shaman named Il-gwang (Hwang Jun-min); eventually Jong-goo's daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) gets tangled up in the mystery, which is when the film and Jong-goo's desperate investigation both shift into overdrive.

I freely admit that following every twist and turn that The Wailing makes in its remarkably long running time (156 minutes!) was beyond me, particularly as it starts to grow ever more explicitly mired in Christian symbolism. This latter part comes as little surprise, given that the movie opens with a passage from the Gospel of Luke describing the resurrected Christ appearing to his apostles (this image comes back in a singular, deliciously shocking way near the end of the film), but it still leaves us with a whole lot of material to unpack. So when I said that there are three movies inside The Wailing, I missed the fourth: religious allegory. Oh, make that five: it's also a Ford/Capra-ish satire on judgmental small town folk.

There is, anyway, a lot going on, though the most satisfying and meaningful is probably the story of Jong-goo and his ineffectual attempts to protect Hyo-jin. Even trying to remain sensitive to spoilers, I think I can safely state that the film is cribbing heavily from The Exorcist in plenty of ways, but allegorising the parent/child relationship is the thing I'm happiest to see ported over from that film. This is, in all its guises, ultimately Jong-goo's film, and his increasing despair over his daughter's infection with the evil plaguing the town is the most interesting, effective, emotionally rigorous aspect of his character. Kwak is absolutely great in the role, swinging from deadpan non-reactions to hearing overwrought ghost stories, to his wails of absolute despair near the end, and while I don't think any of us could accuse him of being subtle, he brings to the movie precisely what it needs. Heck, even just his visual appearance is an aid to the film: Kwak's face is round and, well, funny-looking; he's the kind of person you inherently expect to be a bit flippant and silly. Which is great for The Wailing when it is openly pursuing its sardonic black humor - and oh, how very black the humor is, but also how genuinely funny - and great as well when it stops, and Kwak's appearance starts to play as horribly ironic.

With all that going on, The Wailing takes its damn time to establish all of its plot, and its themes, and its visual schemes, and that brings me back to that 156-minute running time. This is powerful long for a demonic possession movie (for that is exactly what this turns out to be), but Na uses time in a focused, intentional way. This is, simply put, an epic horror film. Much of that comes from the setting in the Korean mountains, and the visual presentation that Na and cinematographer Hong Kyung-po bring to that setting. It is a feverishly beautiful movie, using extreme exaggerations of colors to give the mountains and forest a primeval quality: it's not just foggy rain, but staggering fields of blue; not just a forest but a kaleidoscope of lush greens. And the compositions have a generally unerring tendency to be pretty marvelous too: the film uses depth with great intelligence, building the world fully in three dimensions, and there's just enough baroque horror imagery (the body hanging from a tree is the one that really knocked me over with its vile beauty) to make the visuals really pop with nervy energy.

It's not a scary film, really: but it is heavy with dread and a distinct measure of increasing despair. This is also part of its epic nature: The Wailing is a very earnest depiction of good and evil in a cosmic, religious sense, and that fact gives it considerable gravity and weight. It is consequential in ways that I wasn't anticipating: the profound, profoundly upsetting story of father and daughter, but also the absorption and perversion of Christian iconography. The film telegraphs that it's drawing on traditions deeper than itself, and that gives it a whole lot of weight as the embodiment of those traditions; I know that other horror movies have carried abiding moral philosophical questions, but it's not so common that I'd be inclined to ignore such questions when they crop up, and anyway, The Wailing does it unusually well.

It does everything well. It's a very well-made movie. This is true in the cinematography, in the layered writing, in the extremely ambitious cross-cutting at multiple points in the film, but especially the dueling exorcism sequence somewhere in the middle of the film: the film cuts between the image, but also between different lighting styles, color palettes, and even sound levels. The extravagant range between the very quiet and the very loud gives the sequence a jarring, almost physically sickening power, leading to one of the boldest, most exciting sequences of 2016.

Whatever else it does with its complex story, it's important not to lose sight of that one thing: this is a viscerally powerful movie. Its sounds, its images, and its hypnotic pacing all contribute to making it an extraordinary spectating experience, one felt rather than watched, almost. It's a tough but exhilarating sit (its downbeat ending makes it even tougher), and easily the most engaging, and actively creepy horror film I've seen in, at this point, literally years.


22 November 2016


A review requested by David Q, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The Exterminating Angel, from 1962, was the first film directed by Luis Buñuel after his splashy return to his native Spain to make the magnificently poisonous satire Viridiana (whose official condemnation by the Franco government sent Buñuel packing back to Mexico, where he'd spent the last decade and change), and that is really the only bad thing about it. Both films cover roughly the same ground: the savagery of the Spanish bourgeoisie, the debasing dogma of the government-allied Catholic Church. Viridiana just does it better - as indeed, it does everything better than almost every movie. That's not to say that The Exterminating Angel is anything less than superb, nor that it fails to be thoroughly lacerating in its own condemnation of the self-indulgent monstrosity of the moneyed classes. And there is, anyway, one way in which The Exterminating Angel does manage to improve upon its predecessor: it brings back a healthy dose of the morbid Surrealism that had been such an important part of the director's career-making films in his youth, inaugurating the final phase of his career as a multinational creator of strange fantasies.

It is a monstrous complicated film, but it starts off seeming easy. As the story (co-conceived with Mexican screenwriter Luis Alcoriza, in the last of his several collaborations with the director). Edmondo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife Lucía (Lucy Gallardo) are hosting a dinner party for assorted upscale people, when their kitchen staff leaves for no discernible reason. After dinner, to the hosts' confused annoyance, all of the guests start to bed down in the music room, where one woman, Blanca (Patricia de Morelos), has just played piano. The next morning, the guests all find that they won't leave the music room. Not can't - they simply lack the will to do so, even though they all seem terribly distressed by this fact. As the days go by, and food and water dwindle, the guests' tempers start to flare and their behavior grows increasingly savage. Eventually, the cops arrive, but find themselves unable to enter the mansion.

Obviously, none of this is to be taken literally, though it's one of the greater pleasures of The Exterminating Angel that its surface-level plot is weird enough to watch it for the sheer joy of Surreal farce. It's all rather too scabrous to be funny, but it still might anyway be Buñuel's funniest film. The giddiness of watching as the guests fall apart - which they start to do almost immediately - has the ebullience of a good absurd comedy even in the absence of jokes or laughs. I shouldn't say "in the absence of jokes". There are many jokes, in fact, they're just presented in unconventional form. The reveal that a bear and two sheep are hanging around in the dining room, for example: there's not a blessed thing that's funny about it, just thoroughly, aggressively weird; and yet the way Buñuel stages the moment is such that the arbitrariness is intensified - the bear just shows up in one shot, unannounced, not in any way stressed by the editing or framing or dialogue - intensified up to the point where it's suddenly very funny indeed, or may so anti-funny that it comes back around to being funny.

But even while it's funny, the humor is bitter and bilious, coming from a place of severest nastiness. The film takes dead aim at the behavior of the bourgeoisie, not perhaps going into such fine detail as in Viridiana or the later The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (the latter of which plays like this film's mirror image: instead of dinner guests who can't leave the party, it presents dinner guests who can never start eating), but compensating with potency what it lacks in delicacy. The plot is, at heart, a case study in watching the little black souls of the upper crust stripped bare: when stuck in an untenable situation that puts a great strain on their ability to survive, they respond with panic, depression, and bestial cruelty. The last is the most important. These are not nice people. They seem elegant and sophisticated and all that, but their actions, and even before that their words, reveal an entirely inhuman world view. "I think the lower classes are less sensitive to pain" muses one woman, Rita (Patricia Morán) at one point, and that's merely the most open statement of utter contempt for the downtrodden uttered in a film where class-based tribalism is visible in every scene, damn near, but these people even turn against each other. Petty gossip, ignoring the suffering of cancer victims, just generally screeching at each other; there's not much about anybody that we can rightly say is admirable, and Buñuel mocks the whole cast throughout. It's all a simple exercise in depicting the whole class as prone to ugly, hypocritical actions and pathetically terrified, mindless responses to anything that even marginally threatens the comfort of their lives and the elaborate system of social lies underpinning it (the horror the characters feel at breaking the rules of etiquette is comically overstated, as though they can imagine nothing worse - and indeed they probably can't not even in the middle of their ordeal). Their buffoonery in the face of a problem that seems to have no cause but their own neuroses is the source of most of the film's comedy, as it gleefully indicts the entire cultural system that exploits and brutalises the lower classes that are so purposefully banished from the party at the start of the film.

I suppose if you took a notebook and made diagrams and wrote down every last beat of the film, you could undoubtedly draw out each and every bit of symbolism Buñuel plugged in (some of it is very obvious - it takes no degree in literary theory to guess what the line of sheep filing into a church at the end represents, for example), but that doesn't seem much fun to me. Far better to simply let the film slam into you with its impeccably-staged series of farcical broadsides, loaded dialogue, and visual wit. The film is sometimes called "theatrical", I guess on the grounds that it mostly takes place in one set, but that's hardly fair: the juxtaposition of images is reliably purposeful, the intrusion of absurdity into a realistic setting achieved through entirely cinematic means. And that's to say nothing of the powerfully disordered marriage of sound and image near the end, or the editing trick of repeating certain scenes to extend out moments and amplify the sense of purposeless meandering that marks the characters. It is a wholly brilliant film, literate and visual at one and the same time, hitting us hard in the gut with its theme while also layering that them into its complex intellectual argument. I'm not about to go ranking the work of such a vigorous iconoclast as Buñuel, but by any measure, The Exterminating Angel is one of his the key films in his career, and one of the most essential pieces of cinematic art from the fertile decade of the 1960s