Saturday, December 30, 2023

Broadway Rhythm: WONKA and THE COLOR PURPLE

Those drawing connections between the current ongoing collapse of box office for big-budget Hollywood efforts in overfamiliar genres and the similar moment in the late-1960s might be chuffed to find Warner Brothers looking around at properties they own and asking: can we make that a musical? If we really are in a late stage for the current studio system, like 60 years ago, it should be little surprise to see the return of the big, corny backlot song-and-dance show. The modern twist is that it’s not in and of itself representative of said bloated, over-tapped genres, but instead harkening back. They’re simultaneously reviving old forms of showbiz while wringing more material out of old ideas the studio owns—plunging into their vaults to re-exploit old hits, making new ones while driving some business into catalog titles, too.

So it goes with Wonka, a prequel to Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That book tells how reclusive chocolatier Willy Wonka lets a group of children tour his fantastical factory—and watches as their obvious personality defects lead them one by one to ruin. That book, with its wicked dark humor and vivid imagination, has already been adapted twice over—in 1971 starring a mercurial Gene Wilder dripping with droll Dahl dialogue, and in 2005 starring a pasty Johnny Depp in a full Tim Burton spectacle. This new movie puts twiggy it-boy Timothée Chalamet in the title role as a dewey-eyed dreamer who hopes to open a chocolate factory. That the fact he will is a forgone conclusion does little to dim the movie’s underdog spirit is due to his off-kilter charm. He never quite settles comfortably into the singing and dancing required of him, but squint a little and the boyish discomfort—the hey-that-jock-isn’t-so-bad-in-the-school-play attitude—goes a long way to charm.

The movie around him is working overtime to sell the high-spirited whimsy, too. Writer-director Paul King, he of the agreeably twee Paddington pictures, has a suitably British style that fusses with the magic and mischief in a perfectly puffed-up sense of its own twinkling wryness. There’s a discount Dickens to the setup, as Wonka finds himself in preposterous debt to transparently scamming boarding house proprietors named Scrubitt and Bleacher (Olivia Colman and Tom Davis). And he can’t pay them back by selling his marvelous, scrumptious magic chocolates because of the city’s cruel candy cartel and their ruthless rules. (Crooked cops (Keegan-Michael Key) and priests (Rowan Atkinson) keep the shops in line.) This is all fine and funny, and King keeps the plates spinning with a game supporting cast (Jim Carter! Natasha Rothwell! Hugh Grant as an Oompa Loompa!) giving swell theatrical performances. It has a bit of the cruel-and-clever blend you’d expect from a knockoff Dahl (for the real deal you’d have to go to Wes Anderson’s brilliant short film short story adaptations, dumped unceremoniously on Netflix). But Wonka’s makers can’t help but mix that bitterness with heaps of sugary sentimentality that lets you know it’ll be all right. The look is primary colors and rounded edges, fake snow and smiles, even when businessmen plot murder and pay off police with pallets of chocolates. The knowingly fake stages and pleasant melodies and soft choreography all adds up to something sweet enough to pass the time.

Warner Brothers also has a bright, backlot-looking musical of The Color Purple in theaters now. It naturally shares its plot’s structure and events with Alice Walker’s novel, and the 1985 Steven Spielberg drama that made Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey stars. This new film version is not nearly as powerful, but it has some merit. It takes the Broadway adaptation as inspiration, and it is admirably tough material from which to draw such danceable exuberance. The story follows an impoverished young black woman in early-20th century southern America as she’s separated from her sister by her cruel husband. As the decades pass, she learns about her own interests and desires and is slowly able to assert herself against the tides of abuse her family and her society push upon her. This is strong stuff about sisterly bonds and the triumph of the human spirit, and, by the end, a kind of radical forgiveness. I am not made of stone; tears welled up in my eyes during the final communal energy of a cast clad in white, raising their hands to the heavens, declaring a moral and spiritual victory as one. It makes its case loudly and broadly, with little of the nuance of a more sensitive drama, but all the obvious stage power of a big, belting one.

The story is too good for a phony sheen to stop it entirely. The performances here overflow with energy, through pain and pleasure alike. Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, and Danielle Brooks are a formidable trio of voices and personality, emoting through each note with huge melodic crescendoes and propelling each spoken line with the expression to carry it to the back row of the highest balcony. (The skilled supporting players here—from Colman Domingo to Halle Bailey—pop with the same sharp shorthand dramatics.) It helps, I suppose, that Marcus Gardley’s screenplay is generally averse to subtext—it’s all right on the surface. That makes it a good match for the obvious emotional exposition of the musical numbers faithfully recreated as stage-bound, even in flight of dream ballet fancy. Director Blitz Bazawule cuts cleanly and stages with broad blocking. Every shot, in songs and straight scenes alike, is a posed snippet of theatrical choreography. And it’s all so brightly, evenly lit in images scrubbed an uncanny digital shine, that it sparkles with its fakery even as its story works hard to sell the darkest realism. That mix of the deep and shallow, the smooth and the tough, makes it an uneven 140 minutes. But the story itself has such undeniable force that the whole movie gets pulled toward tears anyway.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

All Those Lonely, Lonely Times: ALL OF US STRANGERS

Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is a palpable portrait of loneliness and the long tail of childhood grief. It’s a film that feels haunted with the intense emptiness that comes from a solitary life. It stars Andrew Scott as a writer just south of middle age who lives alone in a small apartment in a mostly uninhabited new building in London. Though the movie will technically leave this cramped home, in all the really important ways it stays trapped there with him, and within his head. He meets another inhabitant of the building, a troubled younger man (Paul Mescal) with whom he strikes a hesitant romantic interest. They’re drawn together as two loners, clearing their throats to speak like they're unaccustomed to doing so. There’s a sense even as they open up emotionally, sharing stories of their pasts, their coming outs, and their romantic interests, that they’re holding something back. They’ve been hurt before.

The writer is currently working through some of his hurt with an autobiographical project about his parents. He imagines them as they were when he was 12 years old. They were dead before he was 13, killed in a car crash at Christmastime. How awful. Now this writer will sometimes return to his childhood home and see them. Hardly ghosts, they are flesh and blood memories he inhabits, having conversations he wishes he could’ve had, and still could have but for that fateful black ice—reminiscences explanations, apologies, a coming out. The parental presences are projections of the son, but Claire Foy and Jamie Bell play them with full personalities. These aren’t dream parents; they’re not always parroting ideas their now-grown child would hope they’d share with him. They’re real, and unreal. (There's a productively weird cognitive dissonance of seeing actors of roughly the same age playing parent and child, too.) He’s happy to see them, but there’s that spectral distance, too. They’re part of him, and yet not. Here’s a man so used to being alone he holds everything at arm’s length, from that potential new boyfriend to the grief he’s never quite addressed.

Haigh is a filmmaker always so closely attuned to the subtleties of human interactions—the way a shift in information or understanding ripples imperceptibly across a face, and then out across an entire relationship or community. It's in the intimate close-ups and spaces for quiet contemplation. He makes movies in which people sit and talk to each other, revealing as much in their silences and implications as with their conversations. There’s the hookup coupling that tentatively teases the idea of something more in Weekend or the anniversary that teeters on the precipice of a breakup in 45 Years. His works are always careful to conceal and reveal his characters interiority in conjunction with softly naturalistic performances that capture their humanity. He also expert at getting deft, delicate drama out of symbols lesser directors would fumble as obvious underlining. Here’s a movie about a man literally haunted by his grief, and has trouble bringing someone new into his lonely life. That core specificity gives its abstractions their power.

It’s about the disconnection he feels from the world around them, and from some essential part of himself and his past. So of course there’s that huge empty building, and a cozy memory place of childhood memory. The two blur. There’s a mid-80s photo from right before the incident. It becomes a vision of the past with a child actor; it’s also a recreation with the adult. Past and present are joined by the Pet Shop Boys’ swirling synths. That’s a peak of hazy sadness in a movie that’s a most tender, melancholic ghost story. Later, a simple move of the camera swaps one ghostly presence for another, although we might not quite know it until we reflect on it later. The movie builds to a climax of emotional revelation, and nods to the power of love to last. Because the performances are so natural, and the filmmaking so attentive, it gathers considerable metaphoric force. It feels heavy with depressed yearning in every gesture.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Vindication of the Rights of Woman: POOR THINGS

With Poor Things, director Yorgos Lanthimos returns to his pet themes: freedom and control, society and individualism, intellect and appetite. Within them, the Greek provocateur loves to push buttons and test the boundaries of discomfort. He sets up rigid systems and see his characters squirm under their demands. His international breakthrough Dogtooth is a tragedy set in a worst-case scenario disinformation-based homeschooling setup, while his dreary The Lobster is a depressing world of romantic pressure in which unlucky singles are turned into animals, and his gripping Killing of a Sacred Deer finds eerie body horror revenge inflicted on an alienated nuclear family unit by an unsettling interloper. Even his biggest hit to date, period piece of royal courtly intrigue The Favourite, drips with a devilishly funny satire of politicking and interest peddling within his usual concerns. In Poor Things he pushes his ideas to fanciful Frankensteined abstraction in a steampunk fantasy Europe of an imagined Industrial Revolution past—a little Mary Shelley, a little German Expressionism, a little Tim Burton, a little Jean-Pierre Jeunet. But it’s all of a piece for a work about a revived body stumbling into the world and slowly learning what life is all about.

Shot with his favored fisheye lenses and pushy, panning, zooming, looming cameras—and scored with a calliope-meets-theremin brio—the movie finds a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) bringing a beautiful corpse (Emma Stone) to life with a mind made freshly tabula rasa. Named Bella Baxter, she flails and stumbles and babbles, trying to master language and motor skills, like a grown woman with a toddler’s mind. It’s quite a spectacle, funny and sad and off-putting and compelling all at once. It might give you a sense of Lanthimos’ approach here that the mad doctor’s new assistant (Ramy Youssef) takes one look at her and gasps: “what a beautiful retard.” The movie gawks and scowls at its characters’ madnesses and eccentricities. As Bella grows into her body, society fills her mind with ideas. She strains against the confines of her experimental status and demands to be let out into the world. There she encounters a variety of men—buffoonish seducers (Mark Ruffalo) and suave cynics (Jarrod Carmichael) and nasty brutes (Christopher Abbott)—who want to have her and control her and affect her and mold her. And yet Bella is so stubbornly, persistently herself that she’s uncontainable by societal standards. She hasn’t been indoctrinated with the shame  she’s expected to feel and stereotypes to which they assume she'd conform. There’s some pointed commentary in the fact that she’s most desirable to the men when she’s at her least capable. The more she learns, the more she confounds their expectations, the more they go mad for her, in all senses of the word. She navigates a series of gross-out gags and slapstick and drama and sexual encounters with a growing awareness and a blissfully inquisitive need to take it all in and understand.

The potentially simple concept is exquisitely elaborated and vividly imagined in all its complications and contrasts. The screenplay by Tony McNamara, who brings some of The Favourite’s charmingly mean ear for dialogue, takes clear delight in running Bella through a crash course in philosophical constructs, a one-woman Enlightenment living the concepts Rousseau and Locke and Hobbes and Voltaire had to merely ponder. And it’s all so fleshy, too, with Lanthimos’ usual preoccupation with bodily fluids and functions, making her a Candide in situations that’d blush with frank vulgarity but in fact give nary a flinch. She likes to copulate as much as she cogitates. But for all the overt mixture of the highfalutin philosophizing and lowdown dirtiness, the movie’s at its most fun as it dances across that chasm. It’s a riot of production design—weird vehicles and elaborate sets—and costumes—all frills and flowing cutaways and cinched edges. And within that, the performers turn loose in masterfully silly eruptions of straight-faced shock and delicate pratfalls and casual nudity. It’s Stone’s show—a stunningly technical and deeply felt play with high drama and fearless comedy. But everyone in the cast joins in the fun. Every line reading turns into candy, and every serious swerve of intellect is chased with a grinning irreverence. Ultimately, this is Lanthimos’ most hopeful picture, embodied with a stubborn, grinning belief that the stuff of life is pleasurable and, though people may be as cruel as they are curious, the right fresh mind is capable of positive change. As Taylor Swift wrote, "we were built to fall apart / then fall back together."

Sunday, December 10, 2023


Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron—though I prefer its more evocative Japanese title: How Do You Live—is a movie that feels intensely and beautifully like the work of an elderly man. This is hardly a negative when you’re in the hands of a master. The 82-year-old animator has given us such magical movies as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, pictures that sing with the simplicity of childhood fables and spin out with the elaborate emotional growth of complex and true feelings. He situates his magic within real natural worlds, with care taken to show us the pulse of wind through a field of grass, the ripples in a pond, the steam off a hot meal, the soft shift of a person’s weight from one foot to the other. All the better to gently and then suddenly unfurl his fantastical delights. Whether his movies are action-filled or more sedately contemplative, there’s always that tension between the slowed-breath awe and the sensationally unexpected. There’s a moment early in The Boy and the Heron in which a character runs toward a massive fire and, as the typically fluid and expressive movements of his style rushes forward, the image ripples with the intense heat of the flames. Ah, I thought, here’s once more the comfort of a picture full of the attentiveness to which we’ve become accustomed with this filmmaker. Every frame is lovingly placed and painted. And the rest of the film itself continues to unfold with a patience and a confidence—pulling us along through a winding experience. It’s slow and slippery and a bit scattered, but imbued with a pulsing dream logic and a purity of purpose through its magical realism.

It’s also, appropriately for its elderly qualities, haunted by death. World War II is raging just beyond the frame. The fire in the beginning claims of the life of a young boy’s mother. He then moves with his father to live with his aunt in a palatial country home, where all the servants are tottering, chattering old women. This is where he sees a heron, who lurks around trying to get the boy’s attention, slowly revealed to have an old man’s face drooping out from under the beak. This creepy bird tells him there’s a place where his mother’s still alive. I know it’s a lie, the boy will say, and yet I have to see. Isn’t that just the way to enjoy a fantasy? So off they go, into a dilapidated tower in the dark forest where an ancestor—who was maybe a wizard—disappeared. This is clearly a place rich in spells and magic. But the movie never explains itself or sets forth rules for its imaginary spaces, even as the boy tumbles into a phantasmagoric world of odd landscapes populated with strange creatures—giant birds, blob spirits, shadowy phantoms, a fiery little girl, and a labyrinth of doors. Here’s a movie about a boy lost in a world he can’t understand, hazily trying to find his way out in an inscrutable dream-logic. It’s a film of dazzling visual designs and unusually compelling confusion. The sheer force of its ideas pull the story along.

Here is Miyazaki once again telling us: children are innocent but wily, adults can be chaotic even when they mean well, society can be painful, nature is often a balm, and the spiritual power of a fantasy can be the invisible string that holds our sense together. But here the telling is more fraught than ever, shrouded in mournful doom. That’s not only true for the characters, but the teller, too. When we eventually see the wizened figure of an old wizard wrinkled at the end of time, locked in a tower of his own making, he’s quite ambivalent about the worlds he’s created. We meet him in the end, after a winding, episodic journey, as he’s hunched over a spare table wondering if it’s worth keeping his fantasy going. How moving, then, for a film so robust and so frail, so funereal and familial in its concerns, that such oblique self-doubt comes at the climax of a movie that’s a perfect amalgamation of Miyazakian interests. Its setup is by turns semi-autobiographical and right out of a Victorian children’s book imbued with Shinto spirits, and then there’s a dizzying drop into a flurry of fanciful figures moving at their own pace and working through their own eccentric agendas in their own closed loops of logic. So does the film. It makes meaningful connections and spins strange tales, made all the stronger for all involved knowing they’re fleeting, destined to melt away, fade to nothing, and be forgotten. But the emotion might linger all the same. If this is really his last film, he’s given us a movie hushed and haunted, pushing through pain and confusion, hanging on the power of a story to reunite ghosts and revive one sad child’s will to go on.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Notes on a Scandal: MAY DECEMBER

Todd Haynes is a modern master of melodrama, with films that thrive in the tension of societal norms straining to restrain his characters’ natural drives toward it. In his latest film May December, an actress arrives at the home of a family that was once the center of tabloid controversy in hopes of shadowing them for her latest movie role based on their scandal. The actress (Natalie Portman) has only surface-level questions to ask, and a kind of guileless confidence in her ability to soak up something real from the quotidian observations she’ll grok just by hanging around. The matriarch of the family (Julianne Moore), a dotty housewife with a flailing bakery business and a wispy lisping affect, just hopes the movie star won’t be rude (like Judge Judy), and that she’ll play fair with the facts of her life as she sees them. You see, her affair with her much younger husband (Charles Melton) started when he was in 7th grade. They got married after her release from prison, where she had their first child, and weathered a storm of national news attention. She doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with that. Now he’s barely cracked his mid-30s and their offspring are graduating high school. For his part, he really loves his teenage kids, but it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that these fresh-faced youngsters are now older than their dad was when they were born. As the movie draws out his hobby of raising caterpillars to release as butterflies, it’s clear he’s been stunted in his cocoon by the unacknowledged abuse that’s shaped the majority of his life. Meanwhile, when not interviewing the woman’s estranged first family, the actress hovers on the margins of family life for a few weeks, watching in scenes of live wire discomfort as the dysfunction inherent in this family dynamic ripples and bubbles beneath metric tons of denial. The homogenizing force of suburban normality is stretched to the breaking point for these people—and the Savannah setting gives it a sense of oceanfront Southern Gothic as two phonies circle each other and the rest are adrift in the consequences.

Haynes stages scenes with elaborate framing for straight-faced jaw-dropping confessions and twisting entanglements of exploitation. (In tone, it’s somehow the perfect equidistant midpoint between Douglas Sirk’s Eisenhower-era stiffness and John Waters’ lurid vulgarity, right next to Pedro Almodovar in its tightly controlled stylish displays of repressions and unspoken depravities of character.) The lines between actress and her subjects get blurry, especially as the women seem to trade traits—listen to how that lisp drifts between them!—and Haynes loads the frames with mirrors and reflections and cameras and lenses. It’s all about image in that ineffable way. Isn’t that a typically Haynes subject, though? Here’s another of his seductively unsettling melodramas about the tragedy of being unable to recognize your true self behind the artifice you’ve built up around yourself. Like the Barbie doll Carpenters in his experimental Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story or the frosty domestic noirs of his Mildred Pierce or Carol, or the suffocating Sirkian vibrancy in Far From Heaven, he’s once more pinning his characters down with empathetic archness. Here it’s simultaneously moving and at a distance, and often darkly hilarious, in a gripping style pulsing with raw emotion beneath the surface. He uses stinging, borrowed piano cues on the score and a kind of hazy softness to the frames, like he’s dredging up dark truths through the scrim of a 90s ripped-from-the-headlines made-for-TV movie. And yet, by Samy Burch’s emotionally complex screenplay setting the action of the story two decades past its central scandal, and making explicit the ways in which attempting to fictionalize such sensationalized real world melodrama inevitably falls short, it makes for a movie using that distancing effect to be more invested in the long ugly aftermath. That roils underneath the apparent, twisted normality that’s settled over the pain, and no empty gestures of family life or hollow Hollywood artifice can fill that emptiness.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Infinity and Bey-ond: RENAISSANCE

Beyoncé is the auteur of Beyoncé. She’s the director, on screen and off. Her public persona has been tightly controlled as she’s been able to consolidate all that power herself. She makes music, yes—among the catchiest of pulse-pounding danceable pop and soaring melodic ballads this century. But she’s also fashionable, political, and historical, alive and aware to her continuity as a brand, as a person, and as the latest in a long lineage of cultural figures. She’s an icon and knows it. Ever since she started directing her own film projects, she’s more or less stopped giving interviews. Her movies are the message. Think of the stirring visual album Lemonade, and the echoes in the similar project Black is King, engaged with a fluidity of persona in conversation with the solid truths of Black womanhood in America and in diaspora. Her Homecoming captured her career capstone Coachella performance—her own Eras-spanning set—clad in the garbs of Bey-centric Greek-life sweatshirts and short-shorts riffing on looks from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, complete with a brassy marching band and rat-a-tat drumline for backup. Throughout, these cinematic works prove Beyoncé has a keen directorial eye, staging eye-popping images and resonant symbolism with the same layered pleasures she brings to her music. She knows how to pose, how to style, how to draw the eye, and make it all swell with meaning. She’s cultivating an image, to be sure. But just when we might start wondering about the slick elisions (she's strangely vague about the "difficult times" we've been through lately; supply your own cultural context, I guess), the music starts pumping again—the thudding, insistent, endless beat booming with the force of subwoofer in your rib cage and begging you to bust a move.

When it comes to Renaissance, a rebirth into a self-proclaimed looser, freer Beyoncé, and a shared space for her fans to celebrate themselves in the presence of her self, she’s building on all she’s shown before with a new openness. It’s still brand management. The modern star on her level is also a corporation, after all. But here she’s more willing than ever to show us the whole ecosystem it takes to help her look and sound this good. And how hard she’ll fight for her vision. The spine of the movie is a loud, energetic capture of her latest tour—a massive arena undertaking bringing her latest album to the stage. Throughout she threads behind-the-scenes vignettes. We see rehearsals, meet backup dancers and singers, technicians on stage and off. We see her family—none cuter than her kids mimicking her dance moves from some anonymous room behind the show. She talks about her inspirations, about growing up, references moments from her career. We see archival footage, sometimes popping as flashes of memory echoing a big hit—a glimpse of filming the “Crazy in Love” music video, of TV appearances, of a little girl dancing in the backyard. Look where I’ve been, she seems to be saying. And look what I can do now—a mature artist fully embodied in herself and comfortable with what she can bring and say to the world.

This all deepens and enriches the experience of the main event. She’s a performer of remarkable consistency. It’s a show of sweat and energy and propulsive dancing and soaring vocals. The fashions are elaborate—and with a myriad of costume changes even between shows, and she loves showing that off with satisfying match cuts between nights revealing new stunning outfits, a Homecoming trick oft and well repeated here to more elaborate effect. She’s in full control, even when celebrating a concert and album, and her house music tribute within, that pounds with a sweaty club beat dripping in modes of shimmery disco and drag ballrooms and girl groups—all manner of eclectic and authentic tastes synthesized in a style all her own. The concert itself embraces the contradictions of Beyoncé. She’s somehow fresh and retro. She’s a soft-spoken private person and a brilliantly loud show-off performer. She’s a pneumatic technical hard-edged Afro-futurist precision machine—literal digital robots tower on video screens over her in snaky glows. And she’s a warm, soft, organic mother imbued with and empowered by a rich cultural heritage. She’s a vulgar, earthy sensualist and a shimmering spiritual beacon of pure love. She’s a bootylicious twerker and a beatific familial homebody. She’s a benign cult leader unto herself and totemic conduit for bigger ideas outside herself. Renaissance—the movie, the tour, the album—doesn’t resolve these tensions, but expresses them, explodes them, explores them. And it has that huge walloping beat urging us to pop ecstatics.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Flesh and Blood: NAPOLEON

I wonder how many people know that the saying about history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, is a paraphrase of Karl Marx? Or how many know that he was talking about Napoleon and Napoleon’s nephew’s respective coups? Regardless, the quote was on my mind during Ridley Scott’s Napoleon because the film is at once a large-scale epic of combat and tragedy, and a scrambling farcical comedy of interpersonal pettiness. It seems to be arguing that history isn’t just repeating. It’s always tragedy and farce playing out simultaneously. The one feeds the other; the wheels of time spin forward with the push of the pathetic egos of petulant leaders. Scott’s been on this kick for a while, melding the historical scope of his Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven with the messier stuff of small, fallible human foibles. This preoccupation must’ve started bubbling up with his brilliantly, bleakly absurd 2013 drug-war thriller The Counselor, and he’s continued to ramp up both the humor and the pathos in films more—medieval Rashomon with a bitter satiric edge, The Last Duel—and less—broad schtick ensemble chaos House of Gucci—successful. His Napoleon is among the best of these, balanced on dual intertwined through-lines of its subject’s tactical brilliance and pathetic personal drama.

He has in Joaquin Phoenix a perfect co-conspirator for this tone. The actor brings a sniveling underdog quality that’s both charmingly pompous and irritatingly arrogant, and never far from wallowing in self-pitying psychological myopia. He stalks the frame like a glowering child, with a posture that’s somehow simultaneously hunched and puffed-up. He speaks with the half-swallowed bark of a man so deeply insecure he needs to stomp up and down the halls of power convincing himself he belongs. Rarely is swagger so needy. His Napoleon is a man of unchecked ambition and bottomless insecurity. The film takes him from his days as a young solider, through his unlikely rises and falls through the ranks to eventually become Emperor of France, and then sees him straight through his exiles and death. Dramatic scenes are cut like comedy, while the battles are big and booming, bloody and legible. Track the tactics and the players with Scott’s camera and you see the triangulation and bloodthirsty brilliance of the battlefield. (Cannonballs smash through horses. Swords slash through jugulars. Bodies plunge bleeding into the ice.) Then we swoop through the palaces and backrooms where the real intrigue is the scheming and intrigue of power-hungry men (a slew of fantastic character performances) and their unrepentant appetites. When Napoleon churlishly retorts, “I enjoy my meals” as a way of rebuffing accusations of his piggishness, we see the unfurling of an ego and the melding of the personal and political. He never has enough. Later, he’ll fume at an English representative, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” like he’s a tantruming teen.

He's scary and funny and altogether uncomfortably human. Napoleon’s key romantic entanglement with wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) is shot through with some legitimate tenderness and complicated feelings. But it’s also sloppy and pathetic with heaving, fast copulation and sweaty cuckoldry. His position of imperial power is constantly undercut with his complicated interpersonal ironies—even the famous painting of his coronation, replicated here in flesh and blood, is triangulated with the undercurrents of jealousies and rivalries and unspoken power plays in every darting glance. He’s a man of great power, and great damage, with little control over his immature id. When he at long last has an heir, he holds the crying infant while we hear the rumble of cannon fire in the distance. The personal and political intertwine with foreboding for the future. In each twist of his personal life, we see a reflection of the consequential reign of terror he inflicts on his country. In the scariest, funniest scene, he goes scrambling, tumbling down a flight of stairs mid-coup before returning with the military behind him. He barely collects himself before, staring at representatives from behind drawn weapons, he offers, “Now, then. Shall we vote?” Out of such slights, the world turns, and people die.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Cruel Bummer: SALTBURN

After two films, writer-director Emerald Fennell’s signature appears to be staging social satires with only a glancing understanding of society, ending in twists that call into question what in the world the earlier commentary was supposed to be setting up in the first place. Her Promising Young Woman had such a promising premise—a woman vigilante-style shaming male misbehavior—completely sunk by a choppy execution, complete with following up a take-down of systemic prejudice leaning on said system to solve things in its climactic surprises. What? Now here’s Saltburn, a much better movie on the whole, if only because it has more enjoyable surface pleasures of gleaming craftsmanship and gutsy arch performances. But that doesn’t mean it makes the points it thinks It’s making. I’ll get into that later. The movie comes on strong as sensual and prickly, and self-consciously arty with its grainy squared-off images, elliptical cutting, and woozy pop-heavy soundscapes, as it sets up a clear, Brit-focused, dark and dripping class comedy. It grooves on its cruel streak spectacle for a while, as a lower-class university student (Barry Keoghan) is invited to spend vacation at the palatial estate of a rich classmate (Jacob Elordi). A whole host of quirky, pampered, indulgent characters live there—from an icy mother (Rosamund Pike) to a dotty dad (Richard E. Grant), a teasing sister (Alison Oliver), a sassy quip machine family friend (Carey Mulligan), and a butler (Paul Rhys). We see Keoghan’s pathetic character obviously lusting after their privilege as he worms his way into their lives. Usually this sort of class commentary uses the allure of riches to shame the rich for their obliviousness, and/or the poor for coveting such worldly treasures. Here Fennel flips the script, for a movie that ultimately seems to say, gee, the rich sure are eccentric with their hollow parties and conspicuous consumption, but it is the sneaky underclass for which you have to watch out. There’s a reason why that’s not the thrust of these stories. It’s almost a shame, then, that so many seductive shallow thrills are sent in pursuit of such a flawed premise. You can swoon on those surfaces—the shine of the images, the venal bon mots, the performances of charm and charisma, and physical beauty lit like a perfume commercial. Keoghan, especially, finds new fearless ways to put himself on display—never more than his impressively bare final scene that leaves quite an impression. All that can be fun on a moment by moment basis. But it’s all for naught if the foundation on which these enjoyable details are built is so fundamentally cracked.

Friday, November 24, 2023


If you needed a reminder that The Hunger Games remains a bracing and bleak blockbuster series with sharp-angled political ideas, here’s a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, to make its dystopian metaphors resonate anew. It takes us back to the world of Panem—a future United States where the gaudy one-percenters in the Capitol rule the rest of the country’s districts through intimidation. The centerpiece of their plan is the regular Hunger Games competitions wherein tributes chosen randomly from the youth of each district are forced to fight to the death in gladiatorial combat broadcast propagandistically, reality TV style. This new movie, once again based on a Suzanne Collins’ novel, is set in the early days of the Games, when their evil rules and cruel complications are still being codified. Where the later movies are vast sci-fi spectacles with high-tech arenas and a powerful undercurrent of rebellion fomenting in the districts, this one takes place in the shattered aftermath of a war. Freedoms have only recently been curtailed for the masses, and, despite their overwhelming victory, the wealthy capitol citizens still feel a poisoned, righteous anger at the violence incurred by the recently beaten-down people in the heavily-policed cities, open-air prisons effectively, that have become the tightly controlled and patrolled districts. This positioning relative to the original series of films gives the proceedings a sick, pit-in-the-stomach feeling of an inevitable slide into authoritarianism that won’t be substantially confronted for a few generations.

Making matters more morally complicated: the protagonist is an 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), who will grow up to be a central villain in the original stories. We meet him as an impoverished, disadvantaged capitol boy struggling to get a foothold in the elite of his society. To do so, he’s throws himself into a new job: mentoring a tribute in the year’s games. He’s quickly infatuated with his assigned player, a fetching, scrappy, singing underdog (Rachel Zegler), and the film’s tension is suffused with a stifled romantic tragedy. Will he cling to his sympathies for her, no matter how tinged with selfishness, and help her survive, or will he get lost in the dictates of the games as his only ticket to a wealthy life? The games here are simpler, harsher, more contained and personal for the players. Cruel gamemaster Viola Davis with an enormous frizzy grey wig, two different eye colors, and blood-red rubber gloves—she chews every line like it’s a bitter hard candy—just wants to put on a violent spectacle to keep the oppressed and oppressors alike hooked on the show. (The footage we see of the pre-game interviews looks like watching old American Idol clips on YouTube.) The school’s sharp-tongued, alcoholic dean (Peter Dinklage) semi-reluctantly serves up his rich students to guide the slaughter for a televised event (hosted by a perfectly smarmy Jason Schwartzman) for the first time. They represent a status Snow desperately wants, and though he has a close friend (Josh Andrés Rivera) who voices dissent about the morality of the games, we can see this flickering conflict in his conscience slowly ice over in his eyes. In his plight, we see how the institutions of fascism encourage a steady erasure of empathy. The cruelty is the point.

Returning director Francis Lawrence frames this in a familiar style, fitting the series’ usual slick imagination and populist Hollywood aesthetics. It’s gripping, exciting, propulsive stuff, but done with a slower melancholic sense of creeping despair. The prequel status runs the imagery back, though, trading the high-tech future metropolis of the earlier films for a more mid-century look—contrasting a bluegrass folksiness of the districts with a palatial dilapidated art deco decadence in the hyper-capitalist capitol. As the film stretches on, it starts to feel like a darkly doomed romantic epic, with scenes in backrooms and clandestine meetings, especially once out in the wilds of the rural hideaways, that start to gather shades of World War II resistance dramas and grey Soviet thrillers, a gnarled sense of a character study ground down in the inevitable march of historical forces beyond any one’s control. These figures are caught up in systems larger than themselves, in a world that takes their impulses to rebel, and to care, and turns it against them in service of the system itself. Betrayal and spectacle run the plot, and the world, in this dystopian vision that leaves hope a fragile, flickering flame that’ll wait decades to spark anew. We can see it in their eyes, and in the echoing screams resonating through the forest. Zegler sells the folkloric resistance pricking at the conscience of the capitol, while Blyth plays the creeping cruelty that threatens to thaw before growing all the colder. They both want the best, but fear, assume, the worst. Here’s a big-scale Hollywood entertainment about how difficult it is to stop an authoritarian noose already tightening. Would that we learn its lessons in time.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023


With The Killer, David Fincher renews his status as the premiere name in luxury brand pulp fiction. Here’s a film of cool surfaces and methodical plotting and a constant low-level thrum of tension. The lead character is a hit man who we meet as he sits in an abandoned Parisian WeWork loft, fastidiously and patiently waiting to snipe some rich guy in the penthouse across the nondescript street. Michael Fassbender plays the assassin-for-hire as a hollow-point threat, a no-nonsense man of coiled readiness, prepared to spring into action, but more often than sitting in ominous stillness ready to check off each step of his deadly to-do list. This hit goes wrong, though, and his mystery client subsequently tries to have him killed. So now the hit man turns on the client and works his way up the food chain to find him. (In that way, it’s also a movie about a gig economy worker deciding to stop freelancing and go it alone.) Each victim is reason for a well-cast supporting actor (Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard, and Tilda Swinton are among the instantly compelling figures) to make a quick, memorable impression in a scene or two before the inevitable threat of violence crescendoes. 

That’s a pretty simple, predictable, and familiar story for this sort of thriller. But each sequence is made with the bespoke attentiveness that Fincher is best known for. This is a film of icy remove and precise, digital sheen. Each image, each cut, clacks into place with eerie forward momentum and chilly matter-of-fact suspense. It may not reach the virtuosic heights—or is that more accurately the visceral, propulsive, twisting lows?—of his Gone Girl or Se7en, though it shares the latter’s screenwriter. But, as a return to form for a master of this form, its low-key, high-style blend functions as a sharp-angled pleasure from frame one to final cut to black. It’s Le Samourai plotting by way of Fight Club adjacent tone, with the surface cool of a terse Jean-Pierre Melville procedural animated by a terse, chatty, unreliable Gen-X voice over. Can this empty man of action ever find peace? He thinks so, controlling variables with his repetition and routine, reducing the mess of life and death into a checklist. He does yoga, builds his rifle, plugs in his playlist of The Smiths, and off he goes. Of course it’s not that easy. The film enjoys setting up complications and watching step by step as the killer thinks his way out. In the end, it’s another of Fincher’s pictures of process that has the luxury to be both admiring and afraid of what its lead can do.

Saturday, November 11, 2023


The Marvels arrives on a wave of bad buzz for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has fans and critics and showbiz reporters wringing their hands about the troubled state of the series. What once prided itself on a kind of comic-book style improvised cross-over continuity has floundered as the movies and TV shows have felt less connected. And even when parts of a particular project hit big financially or creatively, which seems to happen less and less, there’s a prevailing sense of diminishment. (It’s easy enough to forget the pretty darn satisfying Guardians of the Galaxy 3 was released a mere 6 months ago.) The newest feature will do nothing to calm fans fears that this whole thing is on its way out. This effort to draw together threads from a variety of projects—it’s a direct sequel to both Captain Marvel and Avengers Endgame, pulls in television characters like the charming teen lead of Ms. Marvel and a key supporting player from WandaVision, and finds cameos from two other movies and one other show—plays like a heavily recut compromise that’ll please no one. Writer-director Nia DaCosta's underlying concept is clever enough: flying, energy-beaming Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) realizes her heroism from her first film inadvertently destabilized a planet’s ecosystem and created a new villain’s need to plunder resources from other planets. Said plundering leads to an accident in which Marvel gets her powers entangled with the two TV superheroes (Iman Vellani and Teyonah Parris), so now they switch places every time they try to use their super-talents. There’s a hint of clever body-switching stuff and some potentially provocative ideas about intractable intergalactic conflicts. There’s a role for Samuel L. Jackson to stand around, and some funny sitcom ideas floating around Ms. Marvel’s charming family. But everything is flattened by the hurrying nonsense plotting, deadeningly empty spectacle, and endless pattering exposition papering over leaps of logic and incomplete ideas. Even then there’s barely coherence to the jumble, leading to what’s less a story, more a number of sequences scotch-taped together as a string of random moments. Everything lands with a thud. It takes several planets near, to, or beyond the point of apocalypse with a shrug, and slams three charming leads off of each other with flat jokes and paint-by-numbers character beats instead of developing actual chemistry. It skips over the surface of every idea, and shreds every good concept under the weight of hurrying into the next scene. I watched in growing dismay as it sat dead and lifeless on screen. Even its attempts to shoehorn in fan-flattering cameos and long-awaited teases for future plot lines play limply, doomed to go nowhere and please no one. Its end credits scene feels like less of a promise and more like a threat to pile on complications past the point we care. I don’t think the MCU is doomed quite yet, but a few more flailing projects like this will do the trick.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

In Loco Parentis: THE HOLDOVERS

Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is a wintery character drama about feeling gloomy, and lost, and lonely. But it’s also full of warmth and sentimentality crackling like a warm fire in the form of human connection and memory. Of course it’s set at Christmastime. Payne here knows well what Charles Dickens knew with A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra knew with It’s a Wonderful Life and Charles Schultz knew with A Charlie Brown Christmas. To truly tap into the storytelling potential of the holiday season, one must place the cozy comforts of decked halls and twinkling lights against the snowy drifts and slippery walks and deep wells of sadness that come along with it. The holidays are full of light and mirth and high spirits and togetherness, but it’s also when the year is literally darkest, and so thoughts can turn to loss and regret, too.

So here’s The Holdovers, set on the campus of a wealthy private boarding school in New England in December 1970. The least-liked teacher (Paul Giamatti), a frumpy middle-aged expert in all things Ancient Greek and Roman, is stuck with the least-liked duty: babysitting the kids who won’t be going home for winter break. This year the group of left-behinds eventually becomes just one: a gangly student with more potential than diligence, whose stormy home life (dead father, absent mother) leaves him awfully emotionally delicate this holiday. Of course he lashes out with adolescent bluster, arrogant and ornery, going toe-to-toe with the weary grumpiness of his unhappy teacher. They make quite an awkward pair. Giamatti is a great sympathetic curmudgeon, a clearly intelligent man sulking under the competing pressures of his job. He cares about his students, and he takes a tough-love approach to molding their minds. But, like the book he wants to write but hasn’t started, there’s something incomplete about his life. His ward for the week is played by newcomer Dominic Sessa, who so perfectly fits the part of an equally intelligent youngster who just lacks the knowledge and experience to settle into the middle-aged ennui. He’s instead spikier and pricklier, prone to swings of emotion beneath a slippery exterior mask of bravado. Their scenes together are gently comic, warmly patient, and, through plenty of conversation about history—their own, mostly, but the world’s, too—allow them to gradually start to learn. It is a school, after all.

Although the contours of that concept might start to feel familiar, the movie manages to find a specific and sensitive mood beyond the cliche. The screenplay by David Hemingson is deftly drawn to allow these two to simply exist as people we come to know, and to see them let down their guarded preconceptions to recognize the humanity in the other. It’s a good fit for Payne’s direction, which has always been put to use as a fine observer of indie human drama in broadly appealing packaging. His quotidian comedy-dramas like About Schmidt, Sideways, and Nebraska are gently comic, smartly written, and full of memorable characters who feel vivid and real in their strip malls, farmlands, and suburban despair. They’re films rooted in specific spaces, and finding rich emotional detail within them. In this new film, Payne settles into the place and time with a style to match—early 70s dissolves, long takes, film grain on the image and Cat Stevens on the soundtrack. The detailed filmmaking ensures this doesn’t become a simple sentimental uplift story where the Spirit of the Season awakens an intergenerational friendship that cures their lives’ problems. Instead, it sits in their respective disappointments and depressions and slowly awakens a mutual understanding. The world is a confusing place full of problems and pitfalls. But it helps, a little, when you understand your place in it.

That’s where the third major character, a soft-spoken school cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), plays welcome counterpoint to the privilege lurking in the students and the setting. She put her son through school by working here, but couldn’t afford to send him to college. That’s how he ended up in Vietnam. There’s an early scene in the school chapel where the camera lingers on memorials for students killed in various wars. What’s the value of a quote-unquote good education if this fate is for what they’re being prepared? The movie is wise enough to match the warm melancholy of its mood, and generosity of spirit for these sad, lonely characters, to actually tackle that question. Here’s a rare movie set in a school that’s actually, in part, about education—not in the formal, curricular way, but actually to the heart of making a well-rounded liberal arts scholar in the classic sense. It’s about soul formation more than job training, about preparing students to see the world as it is, confront deep, lasting truths, and find a way to be content in that lifelong pursuit. And so it’s a movie that finds three characters in that pursuit, feeling the weight of a teacher’s words and of cultural inheritance, and the small joys and sadnesses of their holiday together. What they learn is a reason for the season—and the kind of fleeting realizations that make life worth living.

Sunday, October 29, 2023


There’s a storm on the plains. Thunder and lightening rumble in the distance. Rain drops on the farmhouse in a steady drumbeat. The white man (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes to close a window. The indigenous woman (Lily Gladstone) stops him. The storm is powerful, she tells him. Give it your attention. It must be paid respect. And so they sit, she meditatively, he uncomfortably, as the rain falls. The sound fills the empty spaces in their awkward conversation, their fumbling flirtation. It’s a simple scene, and yet a key to understanding Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Here’s a movie about a metaphorical storm of violence and conspiracy and desire running through an Oklahoma community in the early 20th century. It gives us space to understand the conditions that created it, and the lasting consequences of it. The setting on the last bleeding vestiges of a wild west finds the moment when horses were traded for cars, fields for oil wells, and bartering for bank accounts. It’s a film about the transition, about beginnings and endings and who gets to lay claim to the land, and to the stories about it. Scorsese, always a director sharply interrogating human fallibility, fragility, and fearsome self-justification, here finds a moral righteousness driving underneath a knowing, provocative, and enveloping complexity. He finds the most staggering shifts of history sit squarely in the pressures of relationships and gestures.

It is a movie about real evil. It paints a damming portrait of the queasy intimate violence of greed and prejudice that built many a wealth in this country. It’s based a true story of an all-American evil—systematic murders in the early 20th century that chip away at the Osage tribe’s rights to Oklahoman oil money. We see a vibrant indigenous community living socially and economically intertwined with a rising white working class of maids and drivers and cooks and farmhands and bootleggers—and the wealthy white grifters rising to take advantage of them all. The wide frame, with ensembles in vintage attire and convincing locale looking for all the world like D.W. Griffith or John Ford had been building classical blocking in CinemaScope from day one, bustles with this activity of a society in flux. Notice how the scenes are full of Native Americans as the movie begins, and as it stretches on and on, the faces in the crowds are whiter and whiter. This time period finds freshly fading into the past the settlers’ mass exterminations and relocations of Native Americans in the poisoned name of Manifest Destiny. Now they’re in a stage of erasure as a more intimate kind—akin to domestic violence or terrorism. (No coincidence that the Klan has a big presence in the territory.) Here we see how a genocidal project can settle into a matter of encroachment. This is extermination by way of taking and taking and taking because it’s there and you want it and you can get away with it.

Scorsese locates deep-rooted pain of this history by making a sweeping movie that runs over three hours with a large cast and contains endless fascinating tributaries and details within its methodical momentum. He’s a filmmaker skilled with hard-charging historical panorama, sweeping scope in which he finds the up-close personal dynamics that drive the larger picture, whether with gangsters, financiers, filmmakers, priests, or Jesus. With Killers of the Flower Moon he situates, at the core, a real personal sense of betrayal. DiCaprio plays a World War I veteran returning stateside to work with his rich uncle (Robert De Niro). The older man is the one who suggests wooing Gladstone’s Osage woman. De Niro has never looked more sinister as an avuncular presence — loudly declaiming his support for the Osage, chummy condescension, while plotting their demise for the inheritance, and the insurance fraud. DiCaprio, for his part, has never let himself look more foolish, scrunching his face with the squint of half-comprehension, muttering and self-deceiving as he woos and eventually marries her and starts a family, without entirely understanding that his uncle hopes to murder the wife’s family to make sure their oil rights are passed to his. Does this husband love his wife more than money? The self-justification as he’s pulled deeper makes every tender moment with Gladstone all the more gripping and complicated and devastating. She plays the most multi-faceted role here, as a strong and observant woman who sees her friends and family die around her and yet is slow to implicate her own husband in her suffering. The stronger the love, the deeper the betrayal.

This is Scorsese at his best, as ever, with an ability to see a complicated world with clear-eyed understanding of its implications and resonances, and the supreme filmmaking skill to bring it to life in all its complexities. His emphatic camera moves and generous staging returns to his subjects of great moral complication and human nuance. His light touch with actors lets them get deeper, with richly textured performances and an easy rapport slipping easily between tenderness and toughness, dark laughs and darker depravity. It’s a story of crime and punishment, love and loss, ritual and art, religion and despair. The forward pull of its accumulating incident invites contemplation of the lingering effects of such tragedy. Here is history that’s not even a century old. We live with the after-effects. His telling overflows with memorable faces and enraging detail. He stages murders with vivid matter-of-fact brutality—a sudden pop, a splatter, a fall. He reveals culprits with a tilt of the camera or a quick, implicating cut. Because he draws out the humanity of its characters—lingering in uncomfortable grey areas with people making grave mistakes and planning, then taking, terrible action—it doesn’t allow us the comforting distance of historical perspective.

This picture has all the dimensions of historical horror, a potential for lurid melodrama held back by the restraint of cold, hard facts. It’s also a film that knows to explore the darkness that lurks in humanity, and the lengths to which people will go to build wealth and deny justice to their fellow man, is to explore its characters in all their dimensions. There’s immediacy to this discomfort. One of the darkest moments is an intimate domestic scene with a fire raging outside, their faces lit by flickering hellish orange through every window. Scorsese heightens the drama with this theatrical staging, and also looks close and sees them sweat. They’re only human, after all. We can’t safely put this in the past and feel better about our present enlightenment. The times may have changed, but the darkness remains. In the end, it’s about who gets to control the story, too. Whose narrative makes it to court, or the papers, or the True Crime retellings? Scorsese knows the importance of perspective, and the power of an image. Here is cinema put to powerful use, each formal flourish or patient development drawing fresh insight. Its final moments are moving and transformative in a way only cinema can accomplish. The film holds the audience in the middle of a storm and demands our patience as we pay it the attention it deserves. One leaves the theater still vibrating from its thunderous force.

Monday, October 16, 2023


As if Taylor Swift wasn’t already a big deal, the Eras Tour further cemented her already secure place as one of the top pop acts of this century. Every stop on her concert brought out thousands of screaming fans lucky (or wealthy) enough to score a ticket. There they’d witness a lengthy whirlwind tour of each album in her career’s evolution—from her debut albums as a Fearless country teen to her bopping twenties Reputation and folksy early-thirties Evermore as global pop superstar. Putting it all in a row—in a pleasingly shaped achronolgical order with each album given its own set—and in such quantity—a breathless three-hour extravaganza with only the shortest of quick changes for breaks—throws in even greater relief the skill of her song-craft. Every pop star has hits. She has an oeuvre. There’s a consistency of vision across the evolving sound—recurring images, ideas, preoccupations, personality quirks, poetic turns, and stylistic tics. Her songs are at once joyful and melancholic, personal and universal, so specific and vivid that in speaking to experiences, real or imagined, she creates whole stories, whole emotional worlds, in just a few lines. At her best, we feel along with her all too well. As concertgoers experience 40 some songs spanning 17 years, the energy and excitement is a swirling mix of the awestruck and the intimate, the spectacle and the singular. She commands the stage alone with a guitar or piano as well or better than with fireworks and lightshows. Either way, there is one figure—no stretch to compare her to Dylan or Madonna at this point—who commands attention across generations, in every iteration, while remaining only herself.

If nothing else, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is a movie as a work of cultural preservation. A concert is ephemeral. Cinema feels like forever. For those who couldn’t find, or afford, tickets to the tour, and for current and future people wondering what the fuss was about, this movie preserves the experience. For those of us who want to relive the concert, it’s an effective, transporting reminder. It’s a loud, and bright, and relentless machine of a movie—the most efficient music delivery device on this scale since Beyoncé played Coachella. It’s sheer pop pleasure. It also affords the best seat in the house, sitting in awe of her command of the stage, how the slightest gesture sets off ecstatic reactions for adoring fans. The camera’s constantly panning, spinning, tracking, appreciating. The editing can be percussive, chopping on the beat to the musical climaxes or restraining to capture a big flourish of stagecraft or stillness. The image is frequently moving in for close-ups and medium shots of Swift that celebrate and admire without leering at her statuesque stance, her ebullient back up dancers and singers, her strutting, flouncing confidently limited dance moves, and her wardrobe—from sparkly dresses and frilly coats to a snaky bodysuit. But the sound design—so clear and concussive—balances the crowd noise just enough to give you a taste of the size and scale of the experience as the background constellation of multicolor light-up bracelets rarely leaves the frame. A faithful capturing of the performance in all its detail is what’s valuable here.

As a work of filmmaking, it’s clear who the auteur is. It’s not director Sam Wrench, a veteran of simply and unobtrusively capturing live performance, having helmed concert specials for Brandi Carlile, BTS, Billie Eilish, and some episodes of American Idol. He may have gathered the slick footage, and assembled it far more professionally than the shaky amateur clips that dripped out over the summer. But the driving personality is clearly Swift herself. She’s a filmmaker in her own right—having taken the chair for her last several music videos and a pandemic-era performance of her Folklore album. Here she’s content to be the star, knowing that she has a show to put on that’ll satisfy even when the electric live element is removed. The moviemaking of The Eras Tour film bends to the force of the concert, with no stylistic flourishes, cinematographic personality, or contextual perspective of its own beyond bringing the live experience into the preservation of this form. I thought of a passage from the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s book Notes on the Cinematograph: “A film cannot be a stage show, because a stage show requires flesh-and-blood presence. But it can be…the photographic reproduction of a stage show. The photographic reproduction of a stage show is comparable to the photographic reproduction of a painting or of a sculpture…[They are] historical documents whose place is in the archives…” It’s not the same, but what a document! As the communal, flesh-and-blood presence of the concert dissipates, the archives will have this fun record.

Friday, October 6, 2023


The reason why no sequel or spinoff of The Exorcist has managed to capture the deep, raw scares of the first is that William Friedkin’s original film of William Peter Blatty’s pulp religious fright novel is the only one that feels like it’s happening in something like the real world. Friedkin gives it the ominous undertones of religious epic—from its desert opening to the light-and-shadow gloom-and-doom of Catholic symbolism in priests cloaked in righteous doubt combating a puss-spewing demonic possession. Every film after it, despite being guided by such heavyweights as Deliverance’s John Boorman and First Reformed’s Paul Schrader and even Blatty himself, is about characters in an Exorcist movie. Moral tests and creepy-crawly imagery abound, but there’s always that guardrail sense that we’re seeing someone playing in a template. The best moments let the darkness crack through authentically—a real jangling jolt in the lives of tropes, when the likes of haunted priest Stellan Skarsgaard or Robert Mitchum or weary cop George C. Scott wield their immense melancholic charisma. But there’s also a lot of stomping around in the shadows waiting for the wiggly effects and loud clanging symbolism.

The latest attempt belongs to David Gordon Green, who was once a great maker of tender indie dramas and now balances raunchy comedy with studio horror. He was last seen making a trilogy of Halloween reboots that got somewhere interesting by the end. His The Exorcist: Believer is a basically proficient possession thriller. It has two 13-year-old girls go missing in the woods after school and, upon their return a few days later, they’re slowly revealed to be inhabited by evil spirits. Green does as well as anyone has with plumbing the basic concept for broad consideration of moral dilemmas, while transposing it for a modern world that’s somehow both more “spiritual,” broadly defined, and less religious, specifically. It means to move the ideas away from one particular denomination and more to a free-floating sense of good and evil. This gives the top-line talent—Leslie Odom, Jr and Jennifer Nettles as the father of one girl and the mother of the other, and Ann Dowd as a conflicted nurse with a troubled past — room to play with faith and doubt in the face of supernatural creepiness and jump scares. They sell the parental or faith-based pain with more investment than the formulaic plotting requires.

The fault, however, is that formula; it grinds the movie through the expected with little surprise other than a few predictable twists of the knife. (If you’ve seen one possession with croaking catchphrases and supernatural scarring, you’ve seen them all, apparently.) Worst is its pandering to the legacy sequel trend, bringing back the exceptional Ellen Burstyn, star of the original, to feature heavily in a handful of scenes that could be lifted out entirely and change the picture not at all. What a shame. Still, Green’s strong enough at marshaling the performances and mood, and the unsettled mystery of the early going is too potent to dissipate entirely. All that and some Tubular Bells had me just invested enough throughout, and willing to see if Green will come up with something more inventive and original next time. Although, I’m starting to suspect that, unlike the long running slasher franchises, The Exorcists might just spring from something too singular and serious and devilish to ever really sequalize like good, goofy genre heaven. Maybe we should cede that to Russell Crowe’s Pope’s Exorcist.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Love, Death & Robots: THE CREATOR

In a time of Hollywood spectacles that can conjure up incredible digital wizardry to populate all manner of fantasy worlds, it is dispiriting how often it feels like visual effects that can take us anywhere are so often used to take us to a generic nowhere. The same templates of gloopy magics and yawning vistas can be so indifferently framed and formulaically deployed that we might as well stay home and imagine for ourselves. Gareth Edwards films, however, are among the few of their blockbuster ilk suited to drop us into an invented world and almost immediately conjure a real sense of place and space. He shows us what it’s like to live there, placing his camera at a human level, letting it sweep back with a sense of proportionality with the elements in the frame. The people in his shots are dwarfed by the enormity and complexity of their lives interrupted by conflict on a fantastical scale. His scrappy indie debut Monsters and his American Godzilla alike let skyscraper-sized beings tower over his human figures to sell a sense of massive, threatening scale. Even his Star Wars spinoff Rogue One, a film of much-reported post-production compromise, has that visual element of believable dimension and size, never more than when an Imperial Walker or Death Star shakes the ground and blots out the sun. Here are movies that acknowledge the smallness of its human element as a way of not only heightening the believability and the danger of its sci-fi conceits, but to make the human spirit all the more indomitable in the face of it all.

And that’s what makes his latest, the totally involving widescreen stunner The Creator, such a fine work of speculative sci-fi action and thrill. It has ideas—a bit of pop jumble and genre play where imperious American military might is waging a war against third-world countries harboring banned Artificial Intelligence. And it has character—a wounded G.I. mourning his presumed-dead wife, holding out hope that one last mission might bring him back to her. And it has spectacle. Boy, does it have spectacle, wall-to-wall with the kind of visual effects that are so seamlessly convincing that I just completely bought into its every detail. It takes place in a future wherein artificial intelligence is embodied in humanoid robots that took the place of blue collar workers from factories to police forces. It was supposed to protect humans. For some reason that lead the machines to detonate a nuclear warhead in downtown Los Angeles. (Isn’t that always the way?) This kicks off the conflict we join in media res, with John David Washington’s grieving grunt reluctantly called into action to stop a top secret A.I. weapon from being unleashed by a rogue robotics expert who may or may not be related to his late wife (Gemma Chan). That human-sized sadness keeps the violent suspense sequences tied to something real that lets us believe the sci-fi trappings all the more.

Edwards makes propulsive proceedings in whirring and clacking military skulduggery of the hardest of hard sci-fi, a Vietnam-War-movie-inspired edge to heavily-armed squads helicoptering into humble rice paddies and Buddhist enclaves populated with robot refugees hiding from the omnipresent threat of American bombs. Into this grim quagmire drops a bundle of sentimentality—an adorable robot child who may be the one who can bring peace to this violent world. Edwards develops these ideas with a fine degree of complication, with characters torn between seeing A.I. creations as mere programming and those who say, even so, why must we be cruel? Villains Ralph Ineson and Alison Janney are perfectly nasty, brutal figures who want to kill at all costs. We see violent robots, but also ones who just want peace. Some have eerily emotive human eyes with whirring open gears behind their ears; others are blank-faced humanoid machines. Good thing they were all programmed to care. Washington’s a perfectly complicated figure, who slowly navigates the twists and turns until he settles on a feeling of moral righteousness. At every step along that way, the movie is so hard-charging and wide-eyed in detail that every walloping explosion and casually revealed tech enhances the absorbing world-design and the genuinely spectacular spectacle. And yet there’s that undertow of human soulfulness that finds these robots just might bring out the humanity in us—for worse, yes, but for better, too. This is genre filmmaking at a huge scale that for once lives up to its size and scope.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Old Men and the Guns: EXPEND4BLES

Expend4bles is running into all the usual problems that can dog an aging franchise limping back into theaters—diminished energy, effort, and interest. The title of the latest is its creative peak. This action series started as an aging action star ensemble picture. Not a bad idea to put a black-ops squad of oldsters together, a Grumpy Old Men with guns and gore. Sylvester Stallone lead the charge and, across three movies, supporting roles went to the likes of Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis and Wesley Snipes and Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jet Li and Harrison Ford and Chuck Norris and Mel Gibson and dozens more. The token young guy was Jason Statham, then only a decade removed from his first breakout in the Transporter movies. Now, though, he’s less than a decade removed from Stallone’s age in the first Expendables. When Stallone was Statham’s current age, 56, he was already gearing up to play Rocky and Rambo in their elder years (for the first time). Statham isn’t wearing his age like that. He’s still in fighting form as the youngest regular guy on the squad, able to jump and leap and stab and parry and even sell a perfectly aimed gunshot from a moving motorcycle as it spins midair. He’s still got it. No matter how many junk pictures he pops up in, I’m never tired of him. This movie, however, is tired. This belated fourth Expendables entry has no good young blood to offer to bolster Statham’s spot. And it doesn’t have the deep bench of older actors willing to return with them. So it’s still the same guys, but with fewer older stars willing to return to joke around in a subpar spectacle that relies almost entirely on the throwback appeal of said stars. It’s an aging varsity team with most of the roster unavailable and no one on the JV squad to call up. The result is so low-key and lethargic I spent even the action scenes wondering when it’d pick up the pace.

The director this time is Scott Waugh, an action expert whose films are sometimes solid. His video-game-adaptation Need for Speed is a fun car chase flick, though his Act of Valor is torpid US military propaganda, while his most recent prior film, the long delayed Hidden Strike, is torpid Chinese military propaganda. He’s not the sort of director who can overpower another’s priorities, in other words. Here he’s dutifully serving star demands and franchise image, but with much more of the former and less of the latter. Some of his frames here have a plasticine energy that tries hard to whip up a sense of fun. But that’s undone by characterizations that are one-note stereotypes. Even in a movie as broad and slight as a dumb throwback actioner, there’s just nothing to hold onto. It’s bad enough returning characters are simple and repetitive. Statham is a confident rule-bender always serving Stallone, the unquestioned macho leader adored by his team. It’s what he wants to project as a Movie Star in his twilight. I don’t think that’s changed much since the first. It comes with the territory. But such thinness is worse when the characters are new and quickly reduced to nothing. Newcomer 50 Cent spends the movie vaguely grumpy and gets no cool action. Megan Fox careens between nagging girlfriend and pin-up-poster glamor commando. Then these nobody characters enlivened only by the spark of celebrity in their casting are sent into a tediously simple storyline involving just a handful of locations, some pro forma deck-shuffling conspiracy blather, a layer of macho posturing and military jargon, and some CG blood splatter. It doesn’t even do right by its ensemble, leaving most of the fighting to Statham alone. (I mean, I would, too, but I’m also not going to try out for the Expendables team anytime soon.) I almost wish this movie was enjoyably bad instead of just dull.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Antisocial Network: DUMB MONEY

Dumb Money is a movie based on the true story of what can’t be any more than the second most important American event of January 2021. It can’t reference the actual most important event because recognizing the conspiratorial mob mentality of the January 6th capitol riots would be too much complexity for a surface-level story of the other internet-abetted swarm of those days. Remember the amateur stock traders who, emboldened by the ease of an app, swooped in and inflated the stock of troubled video game store GameStop? They held on long enough for the hedge funds betting against the company to post massive losses and lean on the app to freeze trading until they could bail each other out. The movie’s best moment comes in its first needle-drop. These so-obvious-they-circle-back-around-to-surprising song choices are becoming something of a specialty for director Craig Gillespie, after his enjoyable I, Tonya and Cruella played with pop soundtracks to good effect. In this case, it’s a setting-appropriate blasting of the Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s catchy, exuberantly profane “WAP.” As Seth Rogen and Nick Offerman’s fat cat characters stare in shock at their impending potential financial doom we hear the now-iconic opening sample: “There’s some whores in this house. There’s some whores in this house. There’s some whores in this house.” That juxtaposition could’ve set the stage for a vivid bit of agitprop with a point of view about stock market games and who’s whoring whom. But the movie is a slow deflation from there.

The rest is a dutiful docudrama retelling of the moment—a basement vlogger (Paul Dano) egging on day traders who push an under-valued stock sky high, gambling on a big payday if they can break the system. The story scatters across an ensemble of participants, from cash-strapped traders (America Ferrera, Anthony Ramos) to those Wall Street types and the tech bros (Sebastian Stan) playing both sides. This lets the movie go wide without getting deep. There’s a certain discount Social Network sheen to its wan digital aesthetic. (There’s the Ben Mezrich source material, too.) And there’s some clomping inevitability that creeps in around any movie that more about recreating a Wikipedia page than commenting on its moment in any meaningful way. That means the modern period picture leans on popular songs, but also the memes and the masks. As head-spinning as it is to see 2021 already feeling like a distinct historical moment despite still living in its immediate implications, it’s even weirder to leave feeling like you’ve seen little more than a reenactment of stuff you literally just finished reading about in the news 18 months ago. Gillespie places a lot of fine actors in decent scenes, but the movie’s point of view is little more than a shrugging, well, wasn’t that a thing? Its final title cards claim something big changed here, but the preceding movie doesn't exactly make that case.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Dark and Stormy Fright: A HAUNTING IN VENICE

It’s fitting that such a theatrical ham of an actor as Kenneth Branagh, so good at making full course meals out of others’ words, would be drawn, as director, to inhabit others’ works. His directorial career is full of echoes and inhabitations both literary (Shakespeare, Shelley) and filmic (Hitchcock, Lean). This doesn’t always lead to a good movie, but he’s a man of ostentatious Good Taste in a jolly old English way as befits a graduate (and current president) of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. His latest work as filmmaker, A Haunting in Venice, is his third turn with an Agatha Christie novel, returning as director and star in the role of famous detective Hercule Poirot. It is the best of these three—after Murder on the Orient Express’s airless exercises and over-gilded energy, and Death on the Nile’s expansive melodrama and bitter undercurrent. Compared to those, it has the smallest ensemble (Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Kelly Reilly, and a two-man Belfast reunion). But such spareness successfully builds on this series’ best assets: a sense of world-weary cynicism held back by a relentless cold detective logic that makes even the darkest edges and dreary deaths solvable with a sharp mind and steady investigation.

This one’s literally dripping in atmosphere. The setting is a damp Venetian palazzo on a dark and stormy night, the wind battering the windows, waves crashing into the walls, lights flickering, faucets dripping, interiors clammy and steps slippery. He films it like Welles might, in intense canted closeups reminiscent of Mr. Arkadin and snaky shadows like Touch of Evil. (To keep what Leonard Maltin might call the “Wellesian tomfoolery” going, a cut to a shrieking bird has to be a nod to Kane, and an early shot of a dramatic iron-gated gondola garage and a masked and robed figure is reminiscent of the only extant scene of Welles’ abandoned attempt at Merchant of Venice.) These surface pleasures are fun and potentially shallow, but Branagh finds plenty of percolating character beats and sneaky suspense to keep interest boiling with pop depths somberly intimated. In this locked-room mystery, Branagh is cranking up the spookiness and the sadness in equal measure, letting a blurry, bleary, midnight mood creep around corners and lurk in shadows.

As always in these stories, the murderer is in plain sight, and the cast of recognizable names stumble about in fear and suspicion, driven backwards into their frazzled psyches and paranoia as they try to survive the night. Christie’s sense of social status and class concerns takes a backseat to the tightening tensions and grief-stricken group. They were gathered for a seance: a mother who lost her daughter, a father damaged by war, a young son grappling with his father’s illness. (The seance itself is a fine, formulaic balance between sinister silence and sudden smashes.) Now they’re waiting out the storm while Poirot and his mustache must ask them enough questions to figure out the ghost of a clue. They’re as haunted by death and mystery as the film is by its influences—and its somehow a pleasing combination. For all the plot’s twists and turns, biggest surprise for me, though, was discovering that I’ve grown quite fond of Branagh’s broad take on Poirot with his puffed-up eccentricities and earnest melancholy. Beneath the starched facial hair and chewy accent there’s a real character there.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023


The crude, snarky R-rated teen comedy Bottoms has ideas gesturing toward the concept of funny without ever really getting there. It’s the sophomore effort for writer-director Emma Seligman, whose anxiously amusing Shiva Baby was one of the better debuts in recent memory. That movie, a nerve-pinching stress-laugh comedy of manners, was a fine star turn for young comedian Rachel Sennott and a cast of character actors stuck in the most awkward funeral reception imaginable—or at least since Neil LaBute remade Death at a Funeral. Seligman is a talented writer of filthy sharp-tongued barbs and a capable director of cringing exchanges. Her latest does well to continue developing her reputation as a filmmaker with a distinctive voice. But there’s small delight to find Bottoms is the kind of unsuccessful movie only a talented filmmaker could cobble together. It’s an excessive, exaggerated goof on the usual oversexed heteronormative teen comedy. The leads, played by Sennott and The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri, are the typical awkwardly virginal dork protagonists this sort of picture often brings, but this time they’re lesbians. That gives a slightly fresh—albeit hardly original—spin to the expect flop-sweat antics as they try to get the hot popular girls’ attention. The duo is funny enough in their slack, improvisational dirtiness and all-elbows casual-insult friendship to carry a lot of silliness. Their school, though, is a bloodthirsty hyper-masculine football cult—complete with a phallic mascot and double entendres on every flyer. The team prowls around school like a wolf pack, intimidating and blustering with bullying thin-skinned toxicity. And so it makes perfect sense in that permissive environment that the leads’ irresponsible teacher (Marshawn Lynch) would allow them to start a school-sanctioned all-girls Fight Club. Sure, that might get some of the hot cliques’ attention. But if you wonder if that’d lead to a Project Mayhem-style conclusion—well, an exploding van would let you know the answer well before a climactic bloodbath on the football field. The characters all stand perpendicularly to reality in a place that’s parallel to ours—an amped-up nonsense world of sex and profanity and violence that sails beyond the usual excesses of the genre into a nowhere land. It’s not exactly a satire of its form; nor does it have any clear thematic concerns beyond goofing around with how far it can push and pull different tropes into its bloody aims. I’m sure one could make a sharp point juxtaposing casually normalized sexualized youth with crowds willing to shrug off bloody teenagers—the movie dances around topical concerns before settling on vague nothings—but Bottoms is more interested in coarse insults, cynically casual outrages, and the sort of half-baked world-building that leaves something real and interesting—and funny!—stranded in an unconvincing simulacrum of a teen comedy.

Much more to my teen comedy liking is You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah. It’s cute and clever, as its broadness and obviousness and good humor are hammered home in comforting style like a pleasing pop song over a sitcom montage. But the emotions in it are deep and true and resonate, too. The movie is a totally charming work of comic empathy with high emotional stakes and small family dramedy. It’s also, maybe first and foremost, a love letter from Adam Sandler to his daughters, who here play his character’s daughters. There’s something genuinely moving about how much this picture plays off of Sandler’s love for his family. He takes a supporting role, while his younger daughter, Sunny, plays an awkward middle-schooler navigating the world of quarreling besties, dreamy boys, and mortifying menstruation. All this and a looming Bat Mitzvah, too? What’s a girl to do? The movie comes on like a modern-day Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret updated for the Snapchat and TikTok generation. It’s not nearly as annoying as that might sound. There’s some earnest tangling with ideas of young womanhood and religious awareness, as well as the requisite dramas of junior high social strife. The movie is juvenile enough to bubble over with the giddy, all-consuming importance of these milestones and mishaps alike, but wise enough to step back with a sense of perspective and proportion. That’s the fine double act of having both the adorable, high-energy commitment of the 14-year-old Sandler playing the adolescent drama, yearning, and confusion at full tilt, while the elder statesman Sandler (having aged into the most lovably paternal form of his screen persona) does his most shaggily charming wise-acre father act cutting the tension and wryly dropping in punchlines with ease. The movie’s colorful high-gloss look and generous ensemble of funny familiar faces adds to the comforting sitcom style, while its widescreen sheen and pounding pop music soundtrack gives it enough silver screen oomph to make every outsized emotion fill the space. It swoons and spurns and embraces and learns right along with its lead, and smiles knowingly at how these emotions are so big only because they’re all new to her. All this it accomplishes with a fine teen comedy flair, with the best Sandler mix of knowing irreverence tied to deep sentimental commitment. This is easily one of his most appealing films, and one of the most delightful teen comedies to come along in a long time.