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.