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 BeyoncĂ© 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.