Friday, December 16, 2022


The great Umberto Eco once reminded us: “Two clichés are laughable. A hundred clichés are affecting.” He was writing about Casablanca, but he might as well have been discussing the films of James Cameron. He’s a filmmaker whose love of towering piles of cliche is the very thing that resolves his contradictions. He’s a precise, technical director drawn to writing sloshing human melodrama. He’s a hard-edged action director with a soft-hearted love of family and romance. He makes gripping, and often intense, genre pictures that turn on protective parents and the warmth of motherhood and True Love. He’s a conceptual, even experimental, hand at pushing the nuts-and-bolts craft behind the camera. (Here, to his use of 3D, he’s added a variable frame rate that’s sometimes distracting, and sometimes enveloping.) And yet he loves pushing this tech in the context of broad, crowd-pleasing, to-the-rafters satisfaction. To do all this at once, and to keep getting away with it at such a high level of success, he simply must make these appealing epics—the Terminators, Titanic, and, yes Avatars that capture an audience’s imagination with the sheer commitment of their tellings, and the total control of one man’s complicated vision. Those cliches that pile up are our way in, and hold us in their thrall, deeper into the earnest plights of the characters on display. To borrow another phrase from Eco, “When all the archetypes shamelessly burst in, we plumb Homeric depths.”

So here we are with Avatar: The Way of Water, a long-awaited sequel to the 2009 original. It picks up over a decade after that one left off, in the far future, with ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) transmogrified into the body of a Na'vi, the blue giants indigenous to the world of Pandora. In that body, he turned against humankind and fought to repel corporate colonists looking to exploit the lush jungles for the minerals beneath the Na’vi’s sacred trees. Quite a feat for Cameron, making a whole new world full of culture and creatures and geography and spirituality, and then staging a rock-‘em-sock-‘em battle that had audiences hooting and hollering for the death of capitalist overlords. But that was then. Now Sully’s a family man, with half-human, half-alien teenagers, two sons and two daughters, he’s raising with his Na’vi warrior wife (Zoe Saldana). There’s also an abandoned human boy (he grows up to be played by newcomer Jack Champion) who dons an oxygen mask and leaps around in a loincloth as an adopted member of the tribe. They all clearly love each other, and enjoy their humble lives mastering their terrain and honoring their cultural traditions. You can tell right away that this is a sequel more intimate and tender, with a smaller interest in a family unit worth preserving even as the larger machinations of their world (and Cameron’s storytelling) are inevitably going to pull them back into the action.

So when the humans arrive for a second attempt at taking the land and its resources, Sully has even more reason to fight. And yet, after all the fighting that settled this issue in the first film, the heroes are reluctant to do it all again. Here’s a sequel about how the heroes would rather not do a sequel, what with life having moved on to more precious concerns. Alas, conflict imposes, and the villains are literal clones of the last ones. And so, what begins as an attempted insurgency becomes an attempt to hide—this time among the water Na’vi who commune with whale-like creatures—even as powerful forces amass to lure them out for the killing. Three acts: Run. Hide. Fight. Simple enough. Cameron knows how to pump up a conflict, stage memorable character moments, and pace a simple story so cleanly and clearly that we are once more drawn into the emotional investment of the world before we even realized that was happening. Of course we want the vulnerable to stay safe, the heroic to prove their worth, and the dastardly to receive comeuppance. There are those archetypes shamelessly bursting in. But Cameron also knows winding them up and letting them go in a fantastical location is enough to get the blood pumping with the earnest emotions and pleasures of the best pulp sci-fi. If you’re going to paint with a broad brush, you need a broad canvas, too.

There’s clear love for this fictional planet in a film that luxuriates in the world Cameron has imagined. First it gets exposition out of the way in the first hour or so. That’s all plot mechanics catching us up on the state of Pandora and its conflict. The middle hour simply wanders the ocean, meeting new tribespeople (Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet) and creatures while learning their ways. I especially liked the whales that understand sign-language and whose murmurs are subtitled. That’s where Cameron once more surfaces his ecological concerns and real empathy for the environmental erosion that accompanies corporate oppression on the march. As he sees the displaced Sully family try to integrate in this potentially safe space, we see the inextricable ties between these people and their home. And it’s communicated through fluid sequences that dance across and underneath the water that generously allow the audience to study the topography and the tides, the flora and the fauna. Watching these Na’vi swim around their tropical paradise, I found myself remembering the Avatar super-fans who reportedly experienced real depression and withdrawal upon exiting the theater after repeat viewings of the original. They were distraught knowing this wonderful planet wasn’t a place they could actually visit. Here’s a movie that’ll repay that interest, dwelling in that long central passage of pure vibes, setting, and design.

I was also so bought-in to the artifice of it all—the motion-capture performances of the bewitching blue characters, the all-encompassing depth and detail to the landscape and the way the sunlight breaks across a clear blue sea—that I would occasionally step out of myself and remember, with real awe, that I was basically watching animation for vast stretches. It’s an impressive technical achievement. But none of that vivid imagination—a cleanly designed comic-book fantasyland excursion—would matter if the story itself, and the characters within it, didn’t come to life, too. That’s the final Cameron contradiction to consider: the elaborate falseness, the enormous machine-tooled fakery, bringing forth ideas of sensitive smallness. Here’s a big-budget business casting its eye on the joys of close community with others and with nature, the restorative pleasures of family, the spiritual sustenance of the wilderness, and the nobility of standing against the calculating profit motive and doing the right thing. So once more he’s made a concussive epic concluding with explosions and gunfire—and this time includes a self-quoting climactic sinking ship to amp up the watery danger—but he’s populated it with such patient archetypical love for nature and these fantasy people that those depths are worth plumbing. Homer, it’s not. But Cameron’s good enough to fill the screen with spectacle straight from the heart of this ocean.

Sunday, December 11, 2022


It can be difficult to make friends in adulthood, and even more difficult losing one. Sometimes that prospect can result in a friendship coasting on routine, someone you hang around just because, well, you have for too long to stop it now. And what would happen if you did? That’s the emotional crux of Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin. It’s set in 1923 on a small island off the coast of Ireland. Not a lot of options for socializing there, so the locals take what they can get. Sometimes they can hear cannon fire on the mainland—the Irish Civil War. That distant rumbling is a fine underlining of the story’s main civil strife: one man (Brendan Gleeson) suddenly deciding he doesn’t want to be friends with another (Colin Farrell). He doesn’t really have a reason. He just doesn’t want to talk with him anymore. For years, they’ve met every afternoon at the pub for a drink and a chat. But now, it’s abruptly over, and the man doesn’t even feel he owes a reason. From this simple—almost adolescent playground—declaration, this falling out is gossiped about and talked over by the whole tiny town. Word travels fast. But the facts of the case rest most heavily on Farrell’s befuddled loss. He’s desperate for his friend back, or at least an explanation.

McDonagh, the playwright-turned-filmmaker whose In Bruges was also a good blackly comic showcase for these two actors, gives this sure-footed narrative the purity of a folksy tale. It’s gnarled with colloquialisms and a straight-faced dark humor. And it’s carried along by a slow-rolling matter-of-fact shock—a then-he-did-what?—as the men’s interactions escalate. At one point Gleeson calmly says that if Farrell talks to him again, he’ll go home and cut off one of his own fingers, just to prove how serious he is. Unmoored from their only meaningful friendship, they both drift off into middle-aged melancholy. And McDonagh balances the story’s sympathies as it becomes a portrait of this kind of loneliness of adulthood, where connections can strain and fall flat or grow mercenary. Where time starts to weigh heavily through sheer inertia of habits, a dawning awareness of time slipping away every day creeps in with a sense of waste. The windswept fields and dirt paths and icy ocean views make a stark backdrop for this romantic—in the classic intensity of emotion sense—ennui, and the chattering daily grind of whispered rumors and stormy escalations. The characters are often separated by windows and walls, or going for long walks across chilly landscapes, and always fumbling to ruminate over the mysteries of their lives.

We get a sense that the smallness of life in the vastness of the terrain is brewing an insular despair. In this town, there’s an abusive constable and mean old ladies and well-meaning bartenders and docile animals and the town idiot and a firm-but-fair sister. Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon, as those last two, are especially sharp counterpoints to Farrell’s befuddled pity. Gleeson, for his part, plays one long exasperated sigh, as a man whose depressive clanging against the bars of his own mortality drags out his potential harm to himself and others. With this steady orchestra of personalities, McDonagh creates a grimly generous work, then, with a bleakly Irish ending. It reaches a logical conclusion like a short story that snaps shut with the most pleasingly logical ambiguity. The potent sadnesses and frustrations at the core aren’t exactly exorcised, but, like a local legend retold and embellished, they have revealed something real and true about the darkness lurking for the unfulfilled and the unsatisfied. That’s why it’s nice to have a friend. And nicer still to keep one.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Tender is the Night: AFTERSUN

They say poetry is about the words that aren’t written, music is the notes that aren’t played, and sculpting is a matter of carving away everything that isn’t the intended shape. Aftersun is a movie like that. It is precisely told. It builds up the unspoken and the unsaid so fully and so evocatively that its pinpoint emotional turns hit all the more overwhelmingly for having been suggested instead of stated outright. Writer-director Charlotte Wells, in her debut feature, here tells the story of an 11-year-old girl on a vacation with her thirty-something father sometime around the most recent turn of the century. (My, how quickly our present became past.) We gather she spends most of her time with her mother in Scotland, so this summery week at a mid-range resort in Turkey is clearly meant for a rare sustained moment of father-daughter bonding. The movie is exactly that simple: an anecdotal story that observes these two characters in a tender moment. It’s also delicately perched on a precipice—a last fleeting moment before tipping over into something new. She’s naturally on the edge of massive change—curious in tentative ways about the opposite sex, about her place in the world, about how others perceive her, and how she sees others. She’s trying to figure out how people relate to each other, and how she can, too. Her young dad is similarly in flux, with plans for the future, a desire to maintain a healthy relationship with his daughter, and sublimated emotional currents, symbolized by the cast on his arm, that are held back for her sake.

I’ve been trained by decades experiencing stories of melodrama and misery to fear an explicit tragic turn with this setup. Indeed, there is a certain suspense hanging over some of the proceedings—an ear for the potentially ironic. A line about birthdays, or scuba diving, or the passage of time, or a stray reference to sexuality or substance abuse, can press with the weight of expectation. But the movie’s too sensitive and circumspect and real to push toward such explicit drama. Instead, it finds a genuine love between father and daughter, and a casually-worn insight into the spaces between the world of an adult and a world of a child. To the eyes of a grown-up audience, a certain fragility and danger can sit in scenes where the father allows his child to wander the resort, or adolescent figures crowd near as specters of looming diminution of innocence, or a momentary lapse in judgement leaves the pre-teen to fend for herself for a brief span of time. But the girl’s remaining childhood innocence is both a protection and vulnerability—neither quite needed, but the scrim of retrospection hangs heavily. Threaded throughout are scenes shot from a camcorder. The first, in fact, is also the last—a heavily pixelated goodbye that’s then rewound. Here’s a movie dreamily, melancholically, past-tense. It’s nostalgic in the purest sense of the term in its original Greek: the pain of returning.

This rewind—punctuated with the pop and whir of old tech punctuating intuitive remembrance—leads into a memory poem of a film that delicately folds back in on itself by the end. Its diaristic, impressionistic structure isn’t a mystery to solve, but clarity that slowly comes into focus in soft lighting and gentle observation. Scenes in their room, at meals, games, pools and sightseeing, unfold with the precision imagery and sounds of the most frangible memories. There’s such lovely, low-key attentiveness in performance and staging and sound here—a glance, a gesture, a murmur of affectionate advice, a slow slipping mistake, an earnest apology, a song, a smile, a dance, a helping motion. It’s a child’s hair softly teased with a kind hand. It’s a shared satisfaction in a game, or a view. It’s a sudden frosting-over of interactions and a slow, inevitable thaw.

In the performances of Paul Mescal (Normal People) and Frankie Corio (a winningly natural debut), we see how much unspoken import passes between parent and child—the longing for connection, the imbalance of power, the loving, the imperfections, and the loving despite and because of those imperfections. It’s about the slow shift in dynamics, and the circular nature of their mutual sympathies. What makes the movie especially special, moving, haunting, is its attention to detail—a keen eye for physicality, a sharp understanding of the weight a word—or its absence—can have in the memory. The movie’s approach is built around the loneliness they feel together, a slowly widening self-consciousness, and looming sense of aging and loss. There’s a feeling that this is a Final Moment, though it never tips its hand for why, exactly, it feels these two might never meet again. We return at the end to the beginning—a goodbye, except, as the camcorder closes, this one feels like forever, and like a memory to which she, and we, will need to return.

Monday, December 5, 2022


“Everything is sex, except sex, which is power.” — Janelle Monáe

Never underestimate Hollywood’s ability to turn any true story into a movie, even, or maybe especially, its own scandals. How quickly the shock of the new turns into the grist for the content mill. Here it’s She Said, a dramatization of the reporting of the 2017 New York Times story that exposed the decades-long abuses of producer Harvey Weinstein. That he was a bully and a bad boss had been widely known the whole time. Whispers of his sex crimes floated, too, usually on the margins of gossip reports and blind items. But it took this reporting, and others, to break a culture of silence around such shameful practices. This then became one of the first sparks that lit the #MeToo fire, a rolling bonfire of stories outing predatory men in a variety of industries. I wish we could, five years later, point to something more systematic that’s changed other than the ousting of various bad men from prominent positions they held. Still, that’s better than nothing. What we have with this new movie, from director Maria Schrader (Unorthodox) and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida) could’ve easily been a major Hollywood studio simplifying the case and building to a false triumph. Instead, it achieves a kind of unsettled cumulative force. Gathering sources, fact checking, finding corroborating evidence, and eventually clicking publish has a certain tension, and knowing it is only one step toward justice and not justice entire.

There’s definite inspiration from Spotlight in She Said. There’s the just-the-facts approach to interviews and collecting information. There’s the flatly honest glimpses into the home life of reporters. There’s the tone and style—serious, direct, plain, with accumulative force—much like the reporting it portrays. But where the former movie took a story an audience knew the general outline of, and used the specifics of the procedural undertaking to draw deeper understanding as the layers of secrets were peeled back, this one seems to proceed from a point of assumed knowledge on the part of the audience. Some of the names that are dropped and stories that are referenced are mentioned as if we already have that understanding. But there’s still that sense of unfolding discovery, as two reporters (Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan) are tasked by their editor (Patricia Clarkson) of getting the story in publishable shape. The sleuthing elements make for a sturdy, simple studio drama, with lots of talky sequences, some flatly expositional and others with a bit more personality, bringing to life something like a convincing portrait of the import job it reenacts.

Because a good journalism movie is also a detective story, it’s notable that the movie starts with the assumption that the guy who is suspected of committing the crime is absolutely the one who did it. The tension becomes not so much learning new information about the story—although impactful one-or-few-scene performances from Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton, along with Ashley Judd as herself, go a long way to dramatizing the pain of their persecutions—but the moral weight of asking the women confiding in them to go on the record. Mulligan and Kazan, inhabiting casually credible portrayals of working mothers, feel acutely the potential pain they’re leading these victims toward, and the sensitivity needed to get them to all agree to take uncertain steps toward outing their powerful victimizer. Its best scenes are ones that drive relentlessly into the process of doing so, in tandem with running through the necessary steps to draft, approve, and fine-tune a major article. The newsroom scenes of shop talk and phone calls and long meetings is a fine conclusion to all this hard work—and the final shot, of a cursor hovering over a button, makes an interesting counterpoint to the whirring presses of newspaper movies past. It’s a culmination of hard work that’s deceptively simple. What happens next is more difficult.

An even talkier exploration of this sort of abuse, and the consequences of speaking out, is writer-director Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. It’s set in a repressive Mennonite community—a few families on a secluded stretch of farmland—where the men keep the women uneducated and under their control. The story starts with the men off to town, leaving the women alone and able to discuss the sexual abuses to which they’ve been subjected. We see haunting flashbacks—quick cut images, really—of bruises on thighs, blood on mattresses. It is upsetting material handled with a soberness and lack of exploitation. Thus Polley keeps most of the film’s action to one meeting where the women gather to talk out their options. Should they stay and fight? Should they stay and forgive? Should they leave? There are few easy answers, and little agreement, at the start. Polley’s filmmaking is typically engaged with such questions, like her best work, autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell which most explicitly sees the ways in which people can thrive on false assumptions about themselves and those around them. That, too, sees the benefits of exposing the truth and talking it out. So here the women are in pain, expressed in different ways, and stand up the arguments that flow from these perspectives.

Throughout, there’s a collection of great actresses—Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy—ventriloquizing differing points of view, talking points brought to life. They’re partly real, convincing people, partly imagined inhabitations of their thorny debate. Adding to this incomplete sense of reality, the movie is shot in a sickly digital pallor—a super-wide frame with a stretch of wan color correction that seems to bleach out all sense of specificity. It feels like a well-cast experiment, in unforgiving digital that washes out the light and leaves the figures in the frame stranded in a smudge of pale fuzziness. It convincingly makes what could’ve been pastoral, and maybe even a rural ideal on the surface, into something that looks as uninhabitable as an alien planet. This emphasizes both the discomfort of their position, and the difficulties of seeing a way out. But it also emphasizes the conceit of it all—a sense of otherness and remove that heightens the dramaturgy and flattens the debate. I found myself wishing the movie was as powerful as its subject matter and, though it is respectful and an engaged intellectual exercise, the form and function never quite click into place for the transcendence of purpose for which it’s searching. Still, as reality continues to prove, there’s value in the talking, and we’re better off not letting such abuses fall under the powerful protection of silence, even if the results are imperfect.

Saturday, December 3, 2022


Violent Night is for people who still think it makes them sound interesting to pretend they just noticed Die Hard is a Christmas movie. This hard-R actioner’s one innovation is to have the real Santa Claus (David Harbour) interrupt a home invasion. Alas, this is a noxiously pedestrian effort, lousy with gore and four-letter-words and filled with the unappealing, poorly sketched characters in the most routine plotting. It wants to be winking and transgressive. It tries really, really hard. How boring. It takes a real misanthrope or outsider to understand the undercurrents possible in a dark Christmas story. Put a Christmas Evil or Black Christmas or Dial Code Santa on and you’ll find a cozy Yuletide scumminess in harsher-edged stories of queasy intimate despair and real bloody danger. There’s always something bittersweet and sad about the holidays, a time to reflect on a fall from childhood innocence and domestic happiness. Even a more monstrous take—Rare Exports or Gremlins—plays up the Charlie Brown Christmas melancholy as it excavates clever ways to set scares against the setting. This one, with all its blandly blocked studio gloss, is just dull. It takes its idea’s surface and resolutely refuses to dig even one centimeter into its implications, senselessly colliding stupid fantasy with gooey gunplay over and over. And the thing stretches that thinness over two whole hours. Talk about a lump of coal.

The resulting forced frivolity leaves only mirthless misery where the action and comedy should be. It finds a horrible wealthy family trapped in their mansion on Christmas Eve when a paramilitary heist squad (led by John Leguizamo) shows up to take millions out of their vault. Turns out the family runs a black-ops contractor company and stole their stash from the US government by claiming it disappeared in the Middle East. Since we met the sweater-clad family (which includes Edi Patterson and Cam Gigandet and Beverly D’Angelo) vulgarly sniping at each other around a crackling fire, we aren’t exactly predisposed to like these crooked people. But the villains are never sympathetic either. And the movie lacks the moral or political clarity to actually make something of all that. So it’s just nasty for nasty’s sake. That’s an ain’t-I-a-stinker? move that runs straight into the movie’s actual attempts to make this all about The Spirit of Christmas. The horrible family has one bright spot: an innocent little girl (Leah Brady) brought by her reluctant mother (Alexis Louder). The tot still believes in Santa, and that belief in him will help save them all once Saint Nick himself ends up coming down the chimney and reluctantly reconnects with his Viking roots. Its approach to Claus lore is typically charmless. To see the jolly old elf himself sledgehammer and electrocute and behead the intruders, is, well, something, I suppose. This is all tiresomely tedious, and director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow), working from a screenplay by the Sonic the Hedgehog guys, lacks the chops to really make this mess of intentions cohere. The result is an ugly mixture of cringing empty holiday sentimentality and nasty artless violence.

Same As It Ever Was: WHITE NOISE

You can always tell when a filmmaker enjoys reading great literature. There’s the extra understanding of the importance of the shape of a story, an added attention to weaving incident and images with thematic motifs, a patience for constructing dialogue with an ear for layers of meaning and revealing detail. There’s the confidence for letting a story feel like it’s sprawling, even as the pile-up of moments and impressions builds to somewhere intentional. Watching a movie from such a filmmaker—even a partially-successful one—can sometimes activate the English class seminar in me, filling the brain with the pleasing close-reading feeling of getting absorbed in a fascinating narrative and pinging off each noteworthy detail as you build a grand theory of the text.

Noah Baumbach’s always been a clever, verbose screenwriter, with his early efforts like Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy of a piece with that 90’s wave of East Coast indie wordsmiths, like Whit Stillman and Hal Hartley, who made their bones on dialogue patter with a fine-tuned ear for idiosyncratic character. Lately, though, he’s risen to greater heights, and ever more literate efforts. His Marriage Story is a precise dance of perspective as both partners in a divorce have their foibles and complaints balanced on the fulcrum of what’s best for their child. In its focused generosity of character and anecdote, it has the vibes of a densely imagined ensemble adult drama of the Terms of Endearment or Ordinary People adaptations kind, albeit with more quotidian conflicts instead of tear-jerking tragedy. Fizzy comedies like Mistress America and Frances Ha are shaggy, observational, and quippy like a slim, charming, surprisingly soulful character study. Greenberg has its cranky epistolary hook. Best is his The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which, from the title on down, plays like the best collections of linked short stories. This one has insight into three generations, interest in art and legacies, empathy for revealing eccentricities and tender connections, and smart repetitions of key lines. That gives it the intimate interior scope of the finest-tuned concision.

His latest is a further expression of his literary tastes: White Noise, an ambitious adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel. That classic was a timely satire of middle-class ennui, academia’s tunnel vision, and consumer culture’s mass homogenizing media noise. It’s the story of a small-town college professor (Adam Driver) and his family. He’s an expert in Hitler Studies. His wife (Greta Gerwig) is a frizzy-haired wellness coach and secret addict of experimental pills. They have a Brady Bunch of children from their previous marriages. The first part of the story is a swirling, arch take on campus politics—especially as the professor talks with colleagues, including a new friend (Don Cheadle) who teaches a class on cinematic car crashes and dreams of being the expert in Elvis Studies—and a cozy, overlapping ensemble family dramedy. The second, best, part takes a swerve for the apocalyptic, as a train derailment sparks what’s known euphemistically as an Airborne Toxic Event. The town has to evacuate, cutting short the brewing plot lines and tossing the characters dynamics into a tumbler. These sequences are shot with wide lens complexity and dazzling real-world spectacle—like Altman’s Nashville traffic jam meets the UFO gawkers from Spielberg’s Close Encounters. The final stretch, an extended denouement, returns to resolve some of the threads from before, but the traumas of the middle stretch contaminate. The new dark cloud of mortality that hangs over all.

Appearing on our screens now in 2022, the adaptation is somehow even more timely in the midst of a pandemic, and an opioid crisis, and an ongoing erosion of confidence in systems big and small. But to reduce it to the oblique commentary on its 80s times, or ours, is shortchanging it as a work of ideas. It buys into the humanity of its characters and their predicaments, even as the movie operates at a heightened pitch. It swings from quiet, tightly-framed, naturalistic dialogues to loud, highly choreographed, widescreen sequences saturated with colors and lights. In grocery stores and campus cafeterias, the fluorescents practically radiate with an intensity. In the home, crowded with kids and books and nooks and crannies, there’s a cozy hustle and bustle to the more naturalistic textures. In the wilderness, an endless highway and crowded campground, there’s wide open possibility that’s somehow closing in. Here’s a story at least in part about life as a jumble of sensations guided by circumstance and environment that don’t care for you or your systems. And it’s about the meanings we make with, and for, each other to make sense of it in spite of the bombardments of stimulus. “Family,” goes a repeated professorial axiom herein, “is the cradle of misinformation. We’re fragile creatures, and the society we’ve built to obscure that fact is easily strained. A key image has to be an evacuated man angry that their fear hasn’t made the news, and thus isn’t validated, or that that feels the same as not existing at all.

Baumbach stretches his style here with impressive dexterity and scope. He shoots his adaption like a 90s ironic version of a 70s suburban drama—all overlapping dialogue and roaming camera and self-consciously elaborate tableau. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is slick and insistent, not unlike what Conrad Hall brought to American Beauty or how Alan Rudolph half-successfully adapted Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. It’s at once flatly naturalistic and cocked at a half-joking expressionism. Turns out, you tip an 80s consumerist playground or small-town aesthetic just slightly to the left or right and you get a rumbling, believable self-satirizing setting. There’s a high-toned seriousness played for woozy, breezy, frazzled choking smirks. Danny Elfman’s score has pounding carnival horns and soaring theremins and dark, noodling madness—a perfect amalgamation of his collaborations with Tim Burton and Sam Raimi. Together the sound and image create a tension, a lightness, and an inner motor for a movie that bursts with inner life—the suggestion of intellects spiraling. And in the middle is a rather believable family relationship, as Driver and Gerwig and the younger performers make a unit that’s lovably eccentric and unbelievably tossed about by the upsetting events that threaten to tear them apart. There’s something emotive there to hang onto as the movie takes its spins through incidents amusing, frightening, chaotic or cringing. It looks at a world with fears, and denials, and ominous signs of contamination and infection and distraction and despair and says, well, fair enough. But you gotta have hope, too.

The movie, like the book, albeit without slavishly chasing its every rabbit hole, feels caught, and overwhelmed, in a time of transition. DeLillo’s work was in the mode of fascinating 80’s boomer novels—far enough from the incomplete progress of 60’s radicals to feel the failures, and taking the temperature of the very waters that’ll brew the Gen X disaffected distancing. Inspired by this source, Baumbach has copied over its frazzled stream of ideas, a sure-footed confusion, a world bombarded with messages and television and radio dispatches and camcorders and corded telephones. He captures a sense of disruption, and places at its center earnest performances invested in the characters emotions. It’s a neat trick making the people real and their world hyperreal, piling on details verging on surreal—The Event, vivid nightmares, a drop into potential climactic violence—while the characters maintain their sense of self. The film strains to capture these extremes at times, tipping fleetingly into too-clever artifice while trying to play it flat. And without the inner monologue there’s some vagueness around some less convincing plot turns. (What works on the page is sometimes harder to transition on screen, especially the swerves in the final third.) And yet, Baumbach directs like a smart reader, drawing our attention like a tour guide to the ideas and images and people on display. He takes us through a book’s notable ideas, dramatized and stood up on a stage for us to see. Not unlike when Gerwig herself adapted Little Women (easily my favorite classic-book-to-film in many years), the form itself is an argument to return to the text. It may not be a great movie, but, at its best, it can light up one’s brain like one.

Friday, November 25, 2022


Glass Onion isn’t exactly a sequel to Knives Out. It’s simply another complicated case for its sole returning character to puzzle through. Good thing detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is such great company, oozing Southern charm and confidence, while behaving an enlightened, affable gentleman who can slip right into any social context. He somehow stands out and blends in, the better to be underestimated as he gathers clues. And good thing, too, that writer-director Rian Johnson knows a thing or two about constructing a sequel that zigs when you’d expect it to zag, and ends up satisfying even more for giving you what you didn’t know you’d like to see. This one is a larger film, trading the first’s bickering family clad in cute sweaters, holed up in a cozy New England house while all their grievances tumble out, for a palatial mansion, with enormous sunny sets on a private Greek island filled with rich friends hanging around in sunglasses and beachwear. If Knives Out had an autumnal Thanksgiving vibe, Glass Onion is pure summer vacation.

It finds Blanc invited to a murder mystery party. He’s the ringer, and stranger, in a group of obscenely wealthy friends—a satirical send-up of every contemporary societal ill. There’s the host: an out-of-touch, and out-of-his-mind, tech bazillionaire (Edward Norton). And there are the guests: a hypocritical politician (Kathryn Hahn), a private-sector scientist-for-hire (Leslie Odom, Jr.), an alt-right YouTuber (Dave Bautista) and his girlfriend (Madelyn Cline), a ditzy model-turned-mogul (Kate Hudson) and her assistant (Jessica Henwick), and a former business partner who may be out for revenge (Janelle Monáe). It’s pretty easy to believe one of them will actually be murdered, and that they’ll all be so greedy and stupid that it might give Blanc quite a challenge. Johnson gives us a long, glittery, rambling opening hour that provides introductions to all of the characters and their dynamics. Invitations are delivered. The group assembles in Greece for the boat ride to the island. (Set during the first COVID summer, the way they wear their masks upon arrival is a big clue about their personalities.) They settle in for their first night in the mansion—a massive high-tech structure with dozens of rooms and topped with a gargantuan glass onion. The camera often pulls back to sweep around in bright establishing shots and drink it in, the sets and the setting providing a gleaming backdrop for the scheming. And throughout, Johnson, by taking his time, makes these political cartoons into bantering people we can size up and keep in mind as believable variables at play as the plot unfolds.

By the time the screenplay springs its surprises, doubling back on itself and deliberately filling in gaps I hadn’t paused to realize were left open, the film reveals it is awfully clever in a way that never stops paying out. There’s plenty of enjoyment on the surface of the movie, but when the setup reveals its full intentionality, there’s an added layer of rewards for the attentive viewer. This is a charmer of a mystery that you could practically chart on graph paper as its various setups converge with supremely satisfying reveals and conclusions. There’s an airtight clockwork construction at play, with each gear of plotting and character and humor turning at just the right time to click into place for crowd-pleasing punchlines and payoffs. Johnson’s a filmmaker with a great sense of genre play. See his straight-faced high-school noir Brick, or pretzel-logic time-travel thriller Looper, or his vivid, moving Star Wars episode. Here he’s totally at home, and clearly having fun, constructing these crafty mystery plots. They twist and turn, dangle detours and dole out tricks of perspective, but they always play fair with the audience. You can keep up with the logic, and by the end see the details close in with a pleasing snap. (It’s the dialogue and editing that does all the crackling and popping.) There’s evident delight in the construction, and that extends to the ensemble’s winning commitment to throwing themselves into the proceedings with wit and verve, too.

This has been a busy year for the whodunit movie. We got Greg Mottola’s shaggy, appealing Confess, Fletch. There was Kenneth Branagh’s opulent, excessive, and over-acted adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile; that has its velvety 70mm melodrama pleasures. We got a quaint and cozy little jewel box of a Christie homage, See How They Run; that’s a cute, winking meta-movie about a fictionalized murder mystery around the stage production of Christie’s The Mousetrap. (That movie actually brings Christie onstage, as if to say it was Agatha All Along.) But Glass Onion is head-and-shoulders above the rest. Rather than falling into homage or dutiful resuscitation of old tales, it’s the real deal itself. It’s built for maximum audience pleasure, and is quite pleased with itself, too. It’s formula without being formulaic. We return to these stories, not to be shocked and appalled or grossed out, but to take the mental exercise. Maybe it’s the cozy comfort of knowing, though the film may start with a dead body, it’ll end with a murderer revealed, and something like justice doled out.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Visions of Light: THE FABELMANS

In the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, it’s a snowy night in 1952 and a little boy is a little nervous about going to see his first movie. The prospect of giant people filling a wall in the downtown movie palace makes him leery. So his parents cheerfully try to calm his nerves. His father (Paul Dano), a meek, bespectacled engineer, launches into a technical explanation. Movies are just an illusion, he says: still photographs passed quickly before a light projecting the impression of moving pictures. His mother (Michelle Williams), who we’ll learn is a frustrated musician who battles depression, takes a more metaphorical approach. Movies are dreams, she says: dreams you never forget. Right there, in the opening dialectic between mother and father, science and art, reality and dreams, is the whole picture. It’s also a whole life, and a whole career. Anyone with an understanding of Spielberg the man and Spielberg the filmmaker will recognize that that boy, though he’s Sammy Fabelman here, is little Spielberg himself. Those are his parents’ occupations and personalities. And there he is, at his first movie, ready to discover The Greatest Show on Earth.

The movie that follows finds the boy’s growing interest in moviemaking, and dawning awareness that his parents’ marriage isn’t happy. These two aspects of his personal education are seen through a broader dawning of awareness of the world around him, and we see how a variety of influences inform who this young person starts to become—as an artist, and a man. Co-writing with Tony Kushner (in their fourth productive collaboration), scenes spanning his youth and teenage years are rich with character details that build out the world of this family, and their small circle of friends and relatives, as well as the reactions and habits that suggest their inner lives. We get amusing dinner-table chatter and passive-aggressive sniping and warm expressions of sympathy and acceptance. We also get those cross-currents of competition and concern that can push and pull on the decorum of a family. And further still, we get lots of happy moments, where the boy and his sisters and buddies make elaborate home movies and eccentric relatives float through and long car trips give a child new landscapes to feed his sharpening eye for noticing. (Great classic movies are doing that for him, too.) The scenes are framed in such a way that an adult eye can pick up on the unspoken details a child might not, but the perspective does so with such subtlety that there’s a fine-tuned generosity, and a lack of judgement. This isn’t a movie about a boy sometimes angry with his parents that is actually angry with the parents. There’s a lot of love here, foregrounded in the story, and some regret in the telling.

Spielberg approaches this semi-autobiographical sketch with the sensitivity to portray the dynamics honestly, the empathy to extend understanding to all involved, and the distance to deepen and resonate its ideas. This isn’t a retelling for self-aggrandizement or self-pity. Instead, it draws on a rich understanding of the relationships involved, and a lack of judgement on their actions. The boy finds much to be angry or sad about, and solace in honing his craft, but the movie itself is too compassionate to give in. This is a mature, even-handed look at specific moments in one particular family’s life. He keeps up the motif of the mechanical and the metaphorical, the technical and the emotional, light’s illusion and reality, throughout. The contrast between father’s machines—something to be taken apart, retooled, repaired—and mother’s music—piano practice filling the house with melancholy classical works—stand in for their ability to be complementary influences in a relationship. But it also stands in for their incompatibility. They’re trying, and there’s genuine affection there, but it just can’t connect consistently for the long term. It’s the figure of the boy, whose love for the movies becomes a love for the process—in long, loving montages behind-the-scenes of ingenious amateur filmmaking tricks and the procedural montages of previewing and cutting and adjusting 8mm reels—becomes the join between the head and the heart, the machine that makes ideas.

For that’s what the movies are: a technical feat that hits the heart. That’s what makes it a craft and an art. (So, too, says the movie, a calling.) By looking with such thrill of discovery at the makings of beginners’ films—and a beginning filmmaker—The Fabelmans reminds us that the movies are illusions that show us the world. They are collective dreams that hold us captive and can reveal something beyond the real and tangible—the deeper truths any great art form can access. Families are like that too, sometimes, built on shared dreams and memories, fueled by careful editing and elisions, motifs of light and shadow, rules and intuition. It’s about the framing, in what you see and know, and when, and how. It’s about whose perspective we share, what conclusions can be drawn, or faked, or ignored. Spielberg makes this movie with a clear-eyed love for family and film. It’s perhaps his most restrained work, with great blocking and image-making, but little of the obvious virtuosic camera moves or soaring scores for which he’s known. But it’s still, as so many of his movies are, about people seeing, or realizing, something amazing, and puzzling over its implications.

Moviemaking may be artifice, but the resulting art is, at its best, beautiful, and true, and real. And personal. Scenes of Sammy showing his movies to crowds are electric with pleasures and tensions. Seeing the audience react to one of his filmic tricks, you can see satisfaction sharing space with the wheels turning about how to grow and evolve as a technician and artist. Late in the film, Sammy, having shown one of his movies, is startled to discover he’s accidentally reframed reality for a character—and the gap between the screen and their daily existence opens up a crisis about how they’ll never live up to that image. This is a mirror of a scene in the middle where a few characters see an uncomfortable truth in some raw footage, a family secret hidden in plain sight. The movies can hide as easily as they reveal. And in the alchemy that takes them from an idea, to a camera, to a process, to art—there it is, real and unreal and all its consequences.

This is a movie about the thrilling act of creation, and the feedback loop between artist and audience. And it’s about how transporting and fulfilling it can be to see that screen light up with images you never knew you needed. Few movies about movies get this as right, perhaps because it’s not simply an ode to the form, but about the feelings and talents that come out of life lived full of complicated situations and shifting relationships. In the end, the movie’s final shot reminds us that all of this is framed with intentionality, considered for its implications, and shifted to clearly communicate its ideas. Here’s a movie from a master filmmaker, making the argument that everything one experiences goes into one’s art, and the results, with enough hard work, talent, and luck, can be transcendent. He’s right.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Adventure Time: STRANGE WORLD

Strange World is Disney Animation once again returning to its least frequent mode: the cheery, red-blooded adventure film. We might get notes of that threaded through their usual animal antics or fairy tale musicals, but when they decide to go all out—the Atlantis: The Lost Empires, the Treasure Planets—the results can be quite entertaining. In the case of Strange World, we’re introduced to a family of explorers whose patriarch (Dennis Quaid) never returns from an attempt to cross the seemingly insurmountable mountain range that surrounds their expansive home valley. This leaves his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) to become a farmer instead. This is an imagined old world where electricity is grown on the vine, and thus allows an agrarian society to have sparkly sci-fi vehicles and gadgets run off of freshly harvested glowing orbs. Farming may not be as exciting as exploring, but it’s perhaps more important. Decades pass, and this farmer, who now has a son of his own (Jaboukie Young-White), is recruited to join an expedition. The crops are dying of a mysterious disease and a group is off in a hovering aircraft—that and the environmentalist bent make for a clear Miyazaki nod—to track down the source. And so off they go, reviving the old family tradition. The movie is told with a similar pluck, traipsing from one appealing cliffhanger to the next in true serial fashion, complete with a soaring heroic orchestra theme and a band of appealing characters.

There’s a Boy’s Adventure magazine aesthetic to the plot’s development, shot through with a refreshingly casual 21st-century diversity—there are men and women, with figures of every color and a couple orientations and it’s no big deal, which is, of course, the big deal. And the world the team discovers, deep in the roots of their prized crop, is a feast of vibrant colors and fluffy surfaces. They find towering Seussian trees and curling DayGlo cliffs, fields of koosh-ball tentacles and grasses, flocks of floating fish and herds of rolling blobs. There’s even a cute blue gummy glob that splats around with chipper personality and becomes the obvious critter sidekick. And guess who else has been trapped down there? In this swirling mystery world of topsy-turvy dangers, there is, of course, room for intergenerational caring and conflict as three generations of guys—a tough grandpa, a stubborn son, and a sensitive grandson—have to learn to work together and truly discover a new way to survive. (Having a great mom (Gabrielle Union) involved helps, too.) Writer-directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon) weave this family story through the adventure quite naturally, in a charmingly busy picture of constant color and movement. By the end, it’s also brought into focus a parable of ecological collapse and a need to reform an economy around alternatives to destructive industries. All this and a breezy fantasy adventure with eye-pleasing visuals and the earnest ode to family togetherness? Why, that’s just about all you’d want from a satisfying family movie night.

Saturday, November 19, 2022


In this new Gilded Age, the rich are a fat, juicy target for any satirist. But in fact, the obscenely wealthy hoovering up our resources and headlines are often far more ridiculous than any satirist could invent. It doesn’t take a political cartoonist to balloon their buffoonery; they’re already doing that on their own. Still, it leaves plenty of room for an astute storyteller to put them before us anew and bite with sharp portraiture to draw bitter laughs. That’s the project of The Menu and Triangle of Sadness, two complementary, and similarly half-successful, movies that take service industry jobs as their window into the one-percenters’ transactional heartlessness that’s at the core of so many societal ills. The willingness to diminish a person to their job is a hop, skip, and a jump from not seeing their humanity at all.

Revenge is the dish served in The Menu, in which a high-level chef (Ralph Fiennes) has invited a collection of horrible people to dinner. Each course ramps up the tension as his cultish cooks and servers twist the knife—sometimes literally—by slowly revealing that 1.) the guests are trapped in the restaurant, and 2.) each tiny, artsy, deconstructed course is designed to steadily reveal ever more of their personal foibles and secrets. There’s a smorgasbord of character actors (Janet McTeer! John Leguizamo! Reed Birney! Judith Light! Nicholas Hoult! And more!) for the ensemble as crooked tech bros, apathetic blue bloods, a snooty food critic and her editor, a washed up actor and his embezzling assistant, and a misogynistic foodie realize they’re being led to a slaughter. The one innocent (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a hired date of one of the diners. So at least there’s one person for whom to wish survival. The characters are all thinly sketched, leaning on our prejudices for implied critiques, and that puts a cap on the sick pleasures it could offer.

There’s a lack of specificity in its energy, and its understandings of its characters. It’s like they know they’re posing for a fiction. The chef himself is an unfair Gordon Ramsey riff, what with his employees shouting “Yes, chef!” upon every command as they run around a kitchen and dining area that looks like a cross between Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef sets. But it’s never clear what his grievance is, other than, as he says late in the picture, that his guests are the kind of people ruining the art of food. The result is a satire that’s pretty clever line to line—one of the screenwriters comes from the world of Late Night talk shows—and works well enough scene by scene. But it doesn’t really add up to much, with a visual style and pace that’s as smoothly stereotypical as its characters. The movie’s ultimately too pleased with its glibness to dig in and mean something of any consequence. I’ve seen lesser Saw sequels with a better sense of social commentary. Shame this one’s so undercooked.

Triangle of Sadness
gets off to a better start because writer-director Ruben Östlund knows how to spin up types and let them crackle with specificities. That’s what makes his best film, Force Majeure, so bleakly funny with its story of a vacationing family’s tensions after a mishap at a ski resort reveals way more about deep character flaws than anyone could’ve anticipated. His The Square does a similar thing with incidents set in a hollowed-out, corporatized, faux-transgressive art world. Sadness has a male model (Harris Dickinson) and his influencer girlfriend (Charlbi Dean) bickering over money before they arrive at a luxury yacht. The middle portion of the movie is dedicated to sharply needling vignettes in which they, or the other insanely privileged, preposterously selfish guests aboard the cruise, are blind to the needs of workers around them. Meanwhile, the smarmy customer service mangers wrangle and cajole their underlings to plaster on those fake smiles and never say “no.” All of these scenes are as precisely observed as they are darkly amusing. By the time Woody Harrelson exits his cabin as the alcoholic leftist captain, the movie’s setting up some pretty obvious ideological collisions, especially as he starts trading Communist critiques with a crooked Russian capitalist’s Thatcherite babbling.

There’s always a sleek intentionality to Östlund’s images, and a stately chill that lets the squirming satire scrambling within them twist all the more uncomfortably. That works right up until it doesn’t in this case. The movie builds up a healthy head of steam on its outrage over inequality. That bursts on a turbulent night that sends these rich folk tumbling through vomit and sewage. That’s a pretty hilarious as a fit of scatological schadenfreude. But it’s the film’s endless final third that slowly unravels anything potent about the early going. Set post-shipwreck on a small tropical island, it thins out its class critiques with a reductive tromping through human nature as a struggle to survive. This doesn’t level the playing field, but reverses it in a reductive, and vaguely condescending way. The result is basically a less astute Lord of the Flies with assholes. And then it concludes—or really just peters out—with a limp joke and some inscrutable ambiguity. That’s the sort of ending that not only is unsatisfying in the moment, but retroactively makes the early going feel weaker, too. It misses the mark.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

No One Will Guide You: ARMAGEDDON TIME

What’s ending in James Gray’s Armageddon Time is a boy’s ignorance of life’s complicated problems. Everything else—the injustice, the inequality, trickle-down Reaganism, and, above all, the wisdom to see through it—feels nearer a beginning than an end. At least it is in the fleeting ephemeral time of one mortal life. The movie is set in New York City in 1980. The late 70’s malaise sits heavily on the proceedings, like a fog that’ll only superficially lift before returning all the worse. Within it, a sweet, artistic boy is about to be caught up in a moment that’ll make him aware of the rotten, unfair systems that surround him. Less a coming-of-age story than a becoming-aware story, the boy gradually gets some glimmer of a world swamped with prejudices, and narrated by elites’ inflated sense of self-worth. One has to play the game to get ahead, his mostly well-meaning family insists. His mother (Anne Hathaway) wants to run for school board, and his father (Jeremy Strong) makes a decent living as a plumber. They want their son to have more. It’s up to his warm grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) to encourage his arts and projects, and to give him the twinkly-eyed—and sometimes contradictory—straight talk that he needs to hear. Stand up for yourself, he says. Do the right thing. Fit in when you can, but stand up when you must. Resist the prevailing cultural pressures to see wealth as power, education as utilitarian, art as a hobby, and difference as deficit. What luck this kid has such a mensch in his life. And yet, there’s always more to learn.

Here’s a movie, beguilingly low-key and yet persuasively heavy, about the ways in which a younger person discovers the world around them. It sees the innocence of a child slowly fade in the face of that dawning realization that everyone around them—parents, teachers, politicians—are just as fallible and complicated as anyone. We’re all just getting by. It’s not just a matter of figuring out how to live one’s own life, becoming one’s own person, stepping out from the comfort of a cozy familial unit to find one’s own taste in art, in music, in philosophy. It’s about testing out definitions, and becoming aware society is already drawing boundaries around one’s potential. The boy is privileged, in some ways, to cross class boundaries. His comfortable middle-class Jewish family wants to send him to a private school where he can be away from “bad influences.” Sure, they mean large class sizes, a disinterested teacher, and the pernicious potential of drugs. But also mean Black kids. And they want to give the boy a foothold in a ladder of success by getting in good with the upper-class. They disagree with Reagan—“morons from coast to coast,” the dad will quip about the Gipper’s voters—but are somehow products of his disingenuous bootstrapping spirit nonetheless. The rich WASPy folk they end up fleetingly crossing paths with are even worse in that regard (and their identities are stranger than fiction).

Gray, always a precise, classically restrained filmmaker, understands the importance of detail in making a period piece. His films, like Ellis island melodrama The Immigrant, explorers’ epic The Lost City of Z, and 70s cops-and-robbers picture We Own the Night, are rich in evocative character moments nestled in expertly-chosen mise-en-scène. He knows the irreducible complexity of a historical moment can only be glimpsed through its accumulated details, from the ways people speak, to the facets of culture around them, to the furniture and lamps and technology and clothes and toys in every corner. Armageddon Time's particular historical moment is one he’s very familiar with, as it’s a semi-autobiographical story of his own family and friends at this time. Watching it feels like walking into a memory. It has that frisson of reality, and the crystallization of small noticing, that characterizes great short stories or photographs, drawing the mind’s eye with gestures and design that are poignant, and evocative. There are whole lives lived here, and we’re lucky to glimpse them for a little while. We see a flurry of changes taking place slowly, and all at once, over family dinners and school events, as well as milestones and mistakes. This film is shot in warm, intimate shadows and chilly, autumnal public spaces, balancing the comforts of family with harsher realities slipping into the boy’s awareness. In both settings, there are often subtle shots and blocking that leave space in the frame, offering plenty of room for those dawning implications.

Here, with every detail so well-chosen, and the characters so precisely drawn, the downward pressure of the unspoken grows all the stronger. In this case, there’s added weight to the small, closely-observed story of this boy in the largely untold story of a friend he makes. This other kid, an orphaned Black boy living with his dementia-addled grandmother, is glimpsed mainly at school, and then later in quick moments in shadow or through chain-link fences. Their paths cross meaningfully, but only for a brief time. The lead boy doesn’t entirely understand the full ramifications of the friend’s troubles, or how an attempt to help will inevitably make things worse. An adult audience in 2022 can understand. We can feel the extra sadness around the edges, and fill in the negative space left just off stage, the ballast from an entire, sadder other story largely unseen. In drawing one boy’s life so sensitively and fully, watching the dawning awareness of implications beyond him, it remains frustrating and moving how the boy’s vision—and those influences around him—still can extend only so far. The story builds, not to some grand revelation, but a quiet, subtle shift in understanding. In its particulars—granular, nuanced, specific—it finds something small and sad and true.

Saturday, November 12, 2022


I don’t envy the cast and crew of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever's task in creating a sequel after its star unexpectedly passed away. Imagine being obligated to make a blockbuster feature film for the most popular ongoing franchise for the biggest studio, but it has to be about the sudden death of your friend and co-worker. That writer-director Ryan Coogler and his collaborators manage to make a movie that’s simultaneously enormous spectacle and gently grief-stricken is some kind of miracle. It has such incredible liftoff that it manages to avoid the downward drag of Marvel formula for more of its runtime than you’d expect. Wakanda Forever is a superhero movie. Technically. But it’s not really interested in building huge CG slugfests, and, indeed, is at its worst when it has to fill half of its climactic confrontation with hectic effects shots of big armies blandly hurtling at each other. What does work is its mournful qualities, which extend not only to its characters mourning the death of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, but to its exploration of the legacies left by tragedies—familial, royal, colonial. It opens with a funeral, and throughout finds tenderness in scenes with Queen Angela Bassett and Princess Letitia Wright. Starting with such somber celebration—a franchise sendoff that would be crass if it didn’t stay just on the right side of an honest salute—it keeps a fragility throughout.

This sequel finds the fictional African nation tossed into uncertainty as Western nations seek to exploit its resources. Meanwhile, Wakandans are also confronted with another secret nation—an underwater kingdom populated by mutant descendants of a lost Mayan tribe. And so the encroaching conflict is about indigenous survival in the face of genocidal oppression, and the ways in which the pressures of potential colonization turn tribes against each other. Coogler takes the time to build the antagonistic king of the underwater people, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), into a richer character than we usually see in the more formulaic of these pictures. With evocative backstory filled in quickly, in generously evocative historical flashbacks during a sensitive monologue, we see the pain of Namor’s past sits close to the surface. And the angling between Namor and the Wakandans takes on some complicated real-world edge as characters on all sides consider taking violent steps to protect their own, even at the cost of others. Pity that their conflict has to run through some scenes with Martin Freeman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus back in the States, especially since they tease a promising geopolitical wrinkle that’s summarily dropped. Besides, it’s underwater and in Africa that the movie is most alive.

We get a sense of history in the ways the characters speak to each other, in their gestures and intentions, and as the frames push out into small, suggestive, murky glimpses of a fantastical setting. Coogler keeps his camera close to the characters, but pulls back just enough to give a sampling of worlds populated by unique peoples and cultures their rulers want to protect. The plot globe-hops in a way that feels expansive, and the stakes feel genuinely large. Turns out when you build conflict rooted in character and expressed through their emotional deliberations and deep lineages, you can suggest world-changing suspense without shooting a blue laser into the sky or summoning swarms of aliens or robots to punch for an hour at a time. The result is a comic book plot—complete with side-quests and living MacGuffins—that’s often warmly characterized. Wright, in contrast to the eager comic relief she played last time, is sunken with grief, and sees opportunity for connection with new characters before growing tempted by sorrowful vengeance. Bassett is strong regal suffering—a speech culminating in “Have I not given EVERYTHING!?” is a powerful expression of emotional pains. Returning supporting characters (Lupita N’yongo, Winston Duke, Danai Gurira) have slightly less to do, and I wish there was more attention paid to their moral dilemmas, but their presence is a warm reminder of what the first film did so well: building a community of characters whose words and deeds have consequences, and who relate to each other in ways that have actual weight.

Coogler, unlike most directors working for Marvel, has ideas and knows how to communicate them. His work—a day-in-the-life of a man murdered by police, Fruitvale Station; a celebration of an old franchise by reframing its perspective, Creed; and the original Black Panther—has consistently considered questions of what one can build for oneself while alive, and what one leaves behind for others once gone. He’s suited to make a film about an absence, about characters struggling to live up to a good example that’s been taking from them too soon. But this is also a movie that complicates this easy sadness. It’s earnestly committed to questioning violence and lamenting cycles of retribution. It comes by this honestly, engaged with issues of vengeance and victimhood, expectation and exploitation. Namor is never entirely in the wrong; Wakandans are never entirely right. This makes for good drama, with our heroes wrestling with a sense of morality, weighing what’s satisfying in the moment against what might be better long term. In the movie’s most exciting moments, the spectacle—a fun car chase with an instantly-compelling new character, a concussive water-bombing of Wakanda—runs hand-in-hand with a thrilling sense of wondering how these peoples can find a way to deescalate.

By the end, though, the movie has lost some track of these ideas, burying them in so much zapping and stabbing and chaos that’s atypically, for Coogler, and typically, for Marvel, unreflected upon. I found myself puzzling back through the chain of events and lamenting the shortcuts and sanding-down that had to happen to force a more typically Marvel climactic collision. Here’s a movie that pretty persuasively makes its own case against the formulaic stuff that’s weighing it down. It’s difficult to care about armies colliding, let alone the teases for future conflict, when the movie itself has made it clear it is about, and builds towards more characters realizing, that war does not make one great. Coogler has made an open-hearted franchise picture that’s often genuinely funereal and always interested in rebuilding its heroes’ broken hearts by helping them find new purpose. For the first couple hours, it’s alive and engaged and animated by interesting ideas beneath the fast vehicles, big explosions, and sparingly deployed quips. And in its final moments, it returns to a soft, quiet, tender spirit. That’s the stuff that will linger long after the noisy, simple, limp action of the finale fades.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Improper Conduct: TÁR

Lydia Tár is a brilliant conductor. She can read all the nuance embedded in a sheet of music, feel deeply the gestures and textures of a composer’s choices, and expertly sculpt an orchestra into ecstatic musicality. To listen to a great piece of music with her, or to sit at a piano and see her pull beautiful notes out of the air, you can see her lose herself in its power. She’s also willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the great composers of the past, to see their intent and try to realize it ever better for contemporary audiences. How interesting, then, that she’s so quick to ignore the nuance, the gestures, the textures, of the people in her life. And as for the benefit of the doubt, well, that she only reliably extends to herself. Todd Field’s Tár is a fascinating character study of this fictional woman, and an ice-cold dissection of this peculiar trait of some powerful artists: an ability to bring so much empathy and emotionality into their work that they have little left over for anyone else.

Cate Blanchett plays Tár with imperious confidence in her job. As she rules over the Berlin Philharmonic with an iron grip, we see how, with a wave of her hand, the orchestra blasts bombastic power to the rafters or, in a quick flick of the wrist, falls dead silent. She extends this control in backroom negotiations and extemporaneous lectures, too. She stalks the stage of a college classroom, casts sharp eyes on underlings as they swiftly act on her command, and snaps off learned analysis in interviews and lunches with various high-culture interlocutors. But, for an actress so supremely in control, Blanchett is also quite good at showing the seams around the surfaces of this woman’s life, the quiet insecurities, easy entitlement, and fierce temper battling beneath her regal posture. These are imperfections that can lead to an unravelling, a loose end that frays with her sense of self. Tár has, after all, become used to the status—feted and praised until fettered with the very privilege that affords her multiple fancy apartments, private intercontinental flights, and ready access to eager, vulnerable, starstruck people who end up exploited in one way or another for a chance at breaking into a career in the arts. Tár’s sense of privileged and narrow focus leaves her blind to mistakes this hierarchy breeds.

Field, the writer-director behind deeply felt, finely-tuned dramas In the Bedroom and Little Children, here shapes a film that’s imposing and inviting, drawing us into a specific world populated with fascinating figures. It’s simultaneously a relatively straightforward character study and a cold work packed with elusive and mysterious detail, puzzling elisions, and tantalizingly unresolved facets of plot and character. (“Loose ends,” an important one-scene character shrugs toward the end of the nearly three-hour runtime.) Around Tár we find: her wife and daughter, her personal assistant, various orchestra players and staff, potential lovers, rival conductors, fawning fans, retired musicians, and mysterious missives from a troubled former mentee. For each, she’s, almost unconsciously, putting on a show to maintain her prestige, and her relationships, as facets of the self she’s built for display. This potential material for modern melodrama is kept on an ominous low boil under a frosty surface as Field carefully frames his figures in imposing structures—both literal, in Berlin blocks, roomy apartments, and New York streets, and metaphorically, in the levels of bureaucracy and embedded prejudices within this rarified air.

Within these spaces, during these few weeks in the life of its characters as they prepare for a book launch and a recording of a piece by Mahler, is a sharp statement about how complicated life is. Particularly, this complication is rooted in the thorny discussions of what to do about great art made by troubled, or troubling, artists. It does so by not only seeing this conductor in all her potential for destruction in her own life and in the lives of others, but by considering the art world’s culpability in uplifting and maintaining the structures that enable those like her, and those worse than her. And yet, such beautiful, imposing, enveloping music! The movie pointedly passes by every potential off-ramp of easy explanation, simple judgment, or pat conclusions. Fittingly, it has a gray palate—stone and glass—and a spacious soundtrack full of pregnant pauses and unspoken implications between the symphonic movements. And the film moves with metronomic certainty, stepping so surely as it presents a fully-realized character (and, in its most uncomfortable moments, a performance that’s a performance of a performance) in all her successes and talent, and her irreconcilable flaws and foibles. How true. Why, to reflect on the film is to reflect on a character who almost feels like a real person we’ve met.

Monday, October 24, 2022


There’s a scene late in Ticket to Paradise when stars Julia Roberts and George Clooney, playing a divorced couple who have heretofore been bickering and bantering, finally stop for a quiet moment together. They’re on the top of a mountain on a tropical island and the sun is low in the sky, casting soft orange light all around them. They speak softly and openly to each other and, as their eyes start to sparkle, for the first time from beneath the needling chemistry that’s been sending sparks, we can see the real glow of affection they still have for each other. As they kindle this reconnection, I found myself thinking: I hope they kiss right now. And if that’s not a sign a romantic comedy has its hooks in you, I don’t know what is. The movie is a welcome example of a mode of moviemaking that’s all-but extinct—the glossy Hollywood rom-com—generously containing a further throwback—the comedy-of-remarriage. It finds in this comforting return to sturdy formula yet more resuscitation: a studio movie driven solely by Movie Star power. Roberts and Clooney, in particular, are at this point underutilized old pros, performers totally at ease with effortless charm. The movies these days afford them too few opportunities to appear at all, let alone uncork the full extent of their appeal. And so here we care about this couple because their actors are so good at embodying even the flimsiest formula with depth of personality, and projecting a charismatic likability in every angle and with each line reading. Because they’re pros, we can feel comfortable they can take this journey to its destination and find enough fun along the way.

Writer-director Ol Parker’s previous film was the fizzy lifting drink of a musical: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. That one, far and away his best work, and as feel-good a movie as any released in the last decade or two, must’ve unlocked something in his filmmaker toolkit. Here he continues capably marshaling the charms of stars swanning about gorgeous island locales enacting slightly silly but earnestly felt family dramas that bubble and sparkle with clever dialogue and float toward some convincing sentiment in the end. Clooney and Roberts reluctantly reunite en route to their daughter’s impromptu destination wedding. She (Kaitlyn Dever) has only known the guy for a few weeks, so the parents plan to talk her out of it. Even with just those two sentences, I’m sure you can start to piece together the plot. Yes, it has the miscommunications and mishaps and mistakes and moments of genuine connection and affection. But the joy isn’t in the story per se, thought it is sturdy, but its telling. The proceedings are kept agreeably light and amusing, photographed with brightly-lit scenic views, and build to those moments where, yes, you really do want to see the couple get together in the end. Paradise? Perhaps not exactly, but, when all the stars align, it’s in the neighborhood.

Sunday, October 23, 2022


Here we are again. Black Adam is another walloping might-makes-right superhero power fantasy. It mistakes noise and movement and non-stop violence for excitement, and assumes loud frantic explanations can pass for story. It has some good visual designs and an atypical setting that engages some novel ideas, but it’s also cloaked in a dour, murderous tone and a pace that’s so quickly cut there’s no room to catch a breath. Yet I’ve also come to appreciate the DC movies for their willingness to go overboard, for their sense of careening out of control with more characters and world-shaking developments than one cluttered feature film could contain. That seems to suit the mythological dimensions of even the lesser efforts in this particular cinematic universe. Unlike Marvel’s tidy decades-long planning and homogenous style, DC has been more often than not a chaos of outsized comic book visuals and nonsense plotting that’s concurrently too thin and overstuffed. This one locates a potentially provocative story of exploitation and imperialism—and the need for the enslaved to rise up and take over their own destinies—and buries it in a hurry-scurry plot that gets nowhere fast amidst breathless exposition and cheesecloth characterizations. It’s unsatisfying in its miss, but not in its swing.

After an endless prologue, it introduces a Justice Society (not to be confused with the Justice League) that apparently works with the Suicide Squad’s leader (Viola Davis) to tackle superpowered problems. In this case: Black Adam. He’s an ancient protector of the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom Kahndaq. He was a slave granted god-like powers by the same wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who gave the kid in Shazam his boost. Adam was asleep for thousands of years. Now awoken in modern day by a freedom-fighting professor (Sarah Shahi), he mostly just wants to bring death and destruction to the imperialist gang that rules what was once his city. They fly around on their sci-fi jet bikes and amass an entirely undifferentiated and vaguely defined army. Adam, played by Dwayne Johnson with a stony edifice and rumbling monosyllabic pomposity, floats like an indestructible block through these armies of Bad Guys, exploding them in surprisingly intense ways given the ostensible bounds of the PG-13. He loves killing those who get in his way. But instead of a simple fight for his country’s freedom, the conflict for most of the movie is that the team of shiny heroes sent in to get him under control would rather he not indiscriminately murder people with his lightning hands and speed and strength and flight. Sure, the enemies are bad, the likes of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) tell him. But that doesn’t mean you can just blow them apart.

So Black Adam fights these and other heroes—invincible action figures who slam power into power over and over beyond all reason—until they agree that they instead need to agree to disagree and stop the real bad guys together. The villain who basically sits out the first chunk of the movie suddenly, and literally, turns into a demon from hell, complete with devil horns and a pentagram on his puffed-up CG chest, inaugurating a whole new round of super-punching. It’s all a deadening too-muchness of a repetitive spectacle. The performers are game, and director Jaume Collet-Serra (the B-movie expert in his recent, less effective, A-budget phase) manages to whip up some appealing bombast here and there amidst the otherwise fuzzy, muddy visuals. (I especially liked the fractal planes through which Brosnan travels.) But the swirling frenzy deadens and dominates more than it entertains. I could imagine a version of the movie where it had a slightly sharper take on its politics. Coding the Justice Society as clueless American interventionists is already a step in a clever direction. Explaining their existence even a little bit might’ve been nice. The movie would still need a better shape to its story, though. There’s so much repetition of plot and action beats that one wonder why they wasted their time doing it all so quickly the first time. It may have suitably outsized potential—and a huge, booming orchestral main theme that promises a grander adventure than we get—but it’s just a bludgeoning experience to which you either begrudgingly surrender or give up on entirely.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022


We flatter ourselves if we think we’re better than the past just because we know how it’ll turn out. A story’s ending, after all, depends solely on where we choose to stop telling it. As Faulkner once reminded us, the past isn’t even past. The present sure isn’t either. Peter Farrelly’s The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a movie about how much it might take to make an unthinking person recognize the truth about his own historical moment. In this case, it’s the late 1960s. New York barfly Chickie (Zac Efron) spends his time, when off from hard shifts on merchant ships, drinking with his buddies. Together they lament those friends who are deployed in Vietnam. One has just been shipped back in a casket. The guys grumble about war protestors and the media coverage and grouse that it is unfair American soldiers are losing hope on account of all this negativity from the homefront. On a whim, Chickie decides to hitch a ride on a cargo ship and deliver some beer to these friends serving overseas. Turns out spending time in a war zone isn’t the lark he thinks it’d be, though the movie’s breezy tone and ambling smirk matches its lead’s stupid grin as that lesson takes its sweet time sinking in. Chickie isn’t the fastest learner, but even he can recognize that his army buddies are way more distressed about his bumbling into battlefields than he thought they’d be. (The first deflation has to be learning they can get beer there.) Efron plays this slow-dawning realization by degrees, calibrating his wide grin and frat boy antics—he breezes past Generals by letting them assume he’s CIA, to name one of his carefree gambits—into appropriately chastened through near-death encounters.

Farrelly began his career making, with his brother Bobby, hilariously raunchy (but secretly sentimental) comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Lately he’s pivoting solo, with Green Book and now this new effort, to spin simple lessons out of complicated truths. It’s a little historical depth and extra sentimentality in a slightly more serious version of his studio comedy packaging. (In other words, he’s traded gags about bodily fluids and anatomical functions for gentler punchlines and Important Human Connection.) These movies are dopily well-intentioned at best. Unlike Green Book’s retrograde buddy-comedy approach to race relations, Beer Run is a little more honest about its character’s progression from ignorantly self-righteous into a humbled observer. The trappings of Vietnam in this telling may look flat and overlit and sitcom stagy, but the increasingly harrowing implied violence around the character makes his journey less of a lark. It helps that he meets a world-weary war correspondent played by Russel Crowe with every bit of effortless gravitas that casting implies. Eventually, Chickie realizes that journalists are telling the truth, the military isn’t being honest, and, though some soldiers are brave in the face of senseless killing, the war was probably a mistake. If he makes it home, he might just live up to a British journalist’s description of his feat: “It may be idiotic, but it’s a noble gesture.” There’s the review right there.

Better use of true trappings to tell a caper in the shadow of real war is David O. Russell’s Amsterdam. It’s at least more invested in the bodily damage combat leaves in its wake, and finds metaphors to match. Two American soldiers in The Great War (Christian Bale and John David Washington) bond when they, riddled with shrapnel, are pulled from the trenches. Each saved the other. Their nurse (Margot Robbie) extracts jagged metal from their flesh and stores it for use in her found-materials art projects. Turns out she’s an emigre living the European life, and as the long post-war years loom, the three become good friends. She’s in love with one, and a dear friend of the other, and they all live together in a cozy loft apartment in Amsterdam—a gauzy, artful, open-minded arrangement in the caesura between World Wars. And yet, because they met in bloody circumstances and the shock of the war is nonetheless the engine driving the culture in which they swim—surrealism and modernism elbowing into their rosy, softly-lit lives—it’s an inextricable part of their fleeting friendly connection. Reconfigured and reclaimed, it literally surrounds them: a tea set, a photograph, a memory. The city of the title takes on a similar symbolic weight. It’s a place, and a mindset, that’s an oasis from the usual, and a respite removed from the weight of prejudices back home that’d make their casual arrangement unthinkable.

That the characters can’t stay so cozily in the emigre state of mind fuels the bittersweet heart of the picture as it plunges into a knotty conspiracy back home in America. The central trio has parted, and when they meet again a decade and a half later, on the streets of New York City, they’re all mixed up in a plot involving white supremacist agitators hoping to shake off FDR’s New Deal and align their country with the rising tide of European fascism. A beloved General is suddenly dead, and his daughter is subsequently pushed under a moving vehicle. When the murderer tries to pin the blame on Bale and Washington, they scramble about looking to clear their names. (All this, and they’re trying to stage a charity reunion revue for their old army unit—shades of White Christmas—too.) The movie ambles along, slowly untangling the various threads by the time the credits roll. It plays loosely with history, but fairly in identifying between Europe and America a shared moneyed class with a taste for authoritarian control to protect their business interests. Imagine Frank Capra doing John le Carré, complete with unsubtle sentimentality hammering home a too-easy moral (hear that interminable final monologue) after the hard work of international intrigue. Buffeted by these competing demands, the central trio is a beguiling collision of acting styles. Bale stumbles and squints and blusters; Washington lets it all slide down easily; Robbie flits and flutters and flusters. And together they push and pull at the edges of the stifling story’s baggy pace and semi-complicated mystery to find moments of improbable melancholic grace.

Russell, no stranger to mismatched slow-boiling character conflicts, is usually quite good at cooking up scenarios in which good actors can cut loose and spread out potentially silly turns in serious subjects with a full commitment to both. His best movies—Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook, Joy—have compelling stories told with a kind of farcical plate-spinning quality, keeping a varied cast’s competing aims and through-lines legible even as they overlap and collide. This one’s sleepier, bringing on eccentric supporting characters in a soft-shoe of a mystery. The large ensemble—Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Robert De Niro, Andrea Riseborough, Timothy Olyphant, Michael Shannon, Mike Meyers, Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana, Taylor Swift, and so on—makes for information devices and red herrings. There’s a wan quality to the imagery that keeps them pinned down, and a soft looniness to the line readings and complications that make for a hazy unreality that never quite gathers the heft it needs. The performances are a collection of tics and takes, with actors given space to spin out their competing ideas and aims. The story occasionally curlicues into distraction—and some overfamiliar fake-outs. But, for all the tricks it pulls, there’s a sharp political point in the middle about the collusion of corruption, and the way it tears at the happiness of those who just want to love each other and make art and help the defenseless and live in peace. Didn’t they almost have it all? One almost wants this ersatz Rick and his Ilsa to say we’ll always have Amsterdam.