Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

03 December 2019

Frozen II: Frozener? More Froze? Frozé?

Let's talk about Frozen II. The cast and the directors of the original 2013 film have reunited, and we've been given a chilly but not-quite-lukewarm sequel.

As with the original Frozen, the best part about Frozen II is the songs. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have composed some really great tunes, and I loved all of the things that made me fond of the original – 1) the film is actually a musical in which characters actually sing, 2) the film stars Broadway singers and not Hollywood actors who have trouble singing, 3) most of the songs are really incorporated into the film's narrative in a seamless way. And what Frozen II does that Frozen does not do is continue the songs through to the film's end. This is a good thing.

The best song in Frozen II is Jonathan Groff's amazing Phil-Collins-Peter-Cetera-Freddie-Mercury-inspired number "Lost in the Woods". It's completely hilarious. It's filmed and orchestrated like an '80s music video, and I laughed and laughed. It's easily the best thing in the movie.

But the plot of Frozen II leaves a great deal to be desired. A great deal. In fact, the whole thing doesn't make very much sense. I am most confused about the way that Elsa's magic interacts physically with the "natural" spirits of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. Her magic seems to tame these elemental spirits in some sort of way. I don't really get that. There is also a fifth element in this movie, and if you've seen The Fifth Element, you can probably predict where that plot point is headed.

I am also very skeptical of the liberties the film took with exposition. Now we find out that mom and dad aren't who they said they were, and they didn't die the way we were told they died, and (apparently) there's a haunting lullaby that Elsa and Anna always sang to one another – except that they didn't do that in the first movie. Anyway, all of this is suspect, but apparently necessary for this plot to function.

And for me, the plot is the real trouble into which Frozen II wades. See, Frozen II is a colonialist fantasy. Make no mistake about it, while this is apparently a film about the far-off kingdom of Arendelle and its relationship with an enchanted kingdom to the north called Northuldra, what Frozen II is really talking about here is U.S. relations with indigenous American ethnic groups. The Northuldra, in addition to living in harmony with the spirits of water, earth, wind, and fire, are also very clearly drawn to look Inuit. These are indigenous people, and we find out that...

Ok stop here if you haven't seen the movie yet, because I'm about to spoil a plot point or two.

Apparently Grandpa Arendelle (I forget his name) actually killed the leader of the Northuldra, and he was attempting to make them completely dependent on his own power. He also installed a dam, which totally disrupted the natural flow of water and animals in the ecosystem of the enchanted forest. If you're not thinking of the British, French, and Spanish colonization of the Americas, then you're totally missing the plot here. (Now, there are other indigenous groups, too, like Native Hawaiians or the Sámi of Northern Europe, whom the film could be referring to, but this is a film made by U.S. Americans, and our national colonialist fantasy seems to me to be what is driving this narrative.)

What Frozen II offers is a series of colonialist fantasies in which indigenous people need the colonial power in order to survive. In Frozen II the wisdom and knowledge of the colonists solve the problems of the indigenous people (it is the colonists who free the forest from its enchantment). Except, of course, that the plot twists, and we learn that Anna and Elsa aren't colonists so much as they are really good white ladies who find out that they are actually ... half native. In this way, Frozen II invests in the 23andMe approach to ethnicity, whereby Anna and Elsa can be indigenous and profit from the fact of their indigeneity even though they have only a tenuous cultural connection to the Northuldra and haven't grown up in a land without a sky as Honeymaren and Ryder have. Instead, we find that Anna and Elsa are (cellularly!) a combination of indigenous wisdom and white racial (genetic) superiority. And because of this, they can use the knowledge shared with them by the indigenous folks to solve the film's mysteries and inaugurate a new way of life for Arendelle and the Northuldra. So far this is a fairly common U.S. American colonial narrative.

Now, this fantasy is, it must be said, not a fantasy in which the indigenous population is eradicated. This is not one of those "last" narratives that Jean O'Brien has critiqued (like The Last of the Mohicans or The Last of the Wampanoags) in which the native people all die and bequeath their wisdom to the white colonist. No. The Northuldra get to live in this narrative. At the end of the film they run with the reindeer and they live in harmony with nature in the forest in the north. But this is precisely why I am calling Frozen II a fantasy. The lie this film is selling is that in this narrative the native people get to keep their land. That is not what happened in the Americas. And Native American (and Native Hawaiian) land rights continue to be contested, flouted, and otherwise ignored by various state governments and by the federal government of the United States. In the fantasy of Frozen II (unlike in the United States), the residents of Arendelle apologize for attempting to murder the Northuldra and disrupt their way of life, and then they go back to Arendelle.

I hear you waiting to object: No, Aaron. Frozen II is a story of sharing, of cultural contact, of shared love of land, family, and nature. It's about making things right that granddad did wrong. Yes, it is that. But the reason that is a fantasy is that it does not reflect the history of colonial-indigenous relations in the U.S. Elsa and Anna, as it turns out, didn't even have to give up the city of Arendelle. It is saved from the flood caused by the broken dam ... by another dam (this time a magic one).

And where were the indigenous actors? The Northuldra – who are all very plainly drawn to resemble First Nations people – are played by Evan Rachel Wood, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, and Alan Tudyk. If the film were actually about respecting indigenous ideas or cultural contact or some ideals like that, wouldn't it make sense for the film to use some Native American actors? But the film isn't about cultural contact or shared love of nature or whatever. It makes sense for all of these white actors to be playing these native characters because these characters are a mere colonialist fantasy of indigenous people.

As I say, the songs are good. (I thought the pop version of "Into the Unknown" that Panic! At the Disco sang over the end credits was a bop). And I laughed out loud at the hilarity of Kristoff's song (I am glad Jonathan Groff finally got to sing in the sequel). But the film's politics seem to me to do more harm than good, offering a myth of colonial-indigenous relations that differs as widely from the historical record as the myth of the Thanksgiving holiday on which Frozen II was released.

02 December 2019

Jojo Rabbit

It seems to me that the popularity of Jojo Rabbit with so many festival audiences is surely due to the total dynamism of little Roman Griffin Davis, who plays little Jojo.

This film by Taika Waititi is a tongue-in-cheek look at a little wannabe Nazi whose mother is working for the anti-Reich resistance and whose father and sister are gone. Little Jojo sees Hitler like an imaginary friend, and Hitler (played by the director) encourages Jojo and gives him hilarious little pep talks.

Jojo Rabbit is funny for a while, but then, you know, the Americans bomb Berlin and kill a lot of people, and long before that there are Nazis doing evil things, like, you know, carrying out a genocide. And, as it turns out, Jojo Rabbit is mostly just not funny.

I mean, it is funny, or somewhat funny, but it is impossible to forget – and Taika Waititi doesn't even want us to forget – the actual violence and genocide. (I felt this same way about The Death of Stalin last year. This is a comedy about a topic that is basically not funny. Many, many people died. This is a time for jokes?) Thankfully the director has written moments of terror and moments of deep sadness into his script, so that the broad comedy of the film's first act is balanced by seriousness and grief.

Or... that would be true if it were directed differently. Instead what we have with Jojo Rabbit is a very good script that was poorly directed. Waititi understood on paper what the film needed to be, but he wasn't really able to execute that. And I say that as someone who really liked Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I think Waititi can do comedy very well. He hasn't figured out how to balance that out with anything else yet.

Sam Rockwell is good. Scarlett Johansson is very good. Roman Griffin Davis is absolutely great.

01 December 2019

Pain and Glory

My favorite movie of the year so far is Pedro Almodóvar's new film Pain and Glory.

It is absolutely gorgeous. This film has all of Almodóvar's hallmark auteur traits – the narrative doubling and tripling, drug use, frustrated desire, melodrama, bold Sirkian colors – but the filmmaking itself is wonderfully personal and restrained, so gentle and careful. It's a lovely, lovely film. A kind of Almodóvarist 8 1/2.

I think what I loved most about Pain and Glory is the way that Almodóvar, without flinching, examines his own terrible behavior, his own pettiness, his fears about how his mother felt about him, his terror of growing older.

In a typically Almodóvar move, the character who is the version of Almodóvar in the movie (Antonio Banderas) writes a story about himself, and then that story is recounted, movingly, by another actor (Asier Etxeandia) as though it is his own story. But this is how Almodóvar's films work, they never allow you to access the true story, the real one, because there is no essential version of any one story, and that story is not one person's to possess.

Oh and the acting is magnificent: Etxeandia is best in show, but Leonardo Sbaraglia is also just fabulous, and of course Banderas and Penélope Cruz (both beautifully understated) are just lovely.

30 November 2019

Labyrinth of Passion (1982)

Labyrinth of Passion (Laberinto de Pasiones) is a completely outrageous sex farce. It's Almodóvar's second movie, and it's about a gay Arabian prince and a female Spanish pop star nymphomaniac who fall in love. They're both singing for punk bands, but there's also a princess, a group of terrorists, a laundress, two psychiatrists, and an insane drag queen. It really is a labyrinth of insanity. This is delightful fun, and many of Almodóvar's later themes (drug induced affections, plastic surgery, incest) are already on view here. Pedro himself also makes a cameo singing an insane song in a nightclub.

Shadow (2018)

Shadow (影) is quite a silly film.

I should start by saying that this film's costume design (by Chen Minzheng) and the film's production design (by Ma Kwong Win), are easily some of the best work this year. Both designers have already won the Asian Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards in their respective categories for designing Shadow.

The film also has a few affecting moments; the performances by the two leads are excellent, for example. But, as usual, Zhang's impeccably gorgeous, slow, bloody spectacles are not to my taste. This felt empty and occasionally even totally nonsensical in its pageantry.

But this is how I always feel about Zhang's movies these days. They look beautiful, yes, but they're not about anything. They're not even really studies in aesthetics. Instead, they're melodramatic machines – they work like little clocks or puzzle boxes – and usually they work well, but once you've gotten inside, there isn't anything there.

29 November 2019

Knife+Heart (2019)

In French this movie is called Un Couteau dans le Cœur (a cut in the heart), but they're distributing it in the U.S. as Knife+Heart, which I think is quirky and pretty great. Knife+Heart is very gay, totally fucking weird, and occasionally violent (uncomfortably so) in the extreme. I was obviously into it.

A director of blue movies in 1979 has been abandoned by her lover, and then a psychopath begins murdering the actors from her porn films. The film is campy but also serious, and the second act takes place almost entirely in a forest, where the protagonist contemplates the questions of existence. This second act is paced differently, shot differently, and one almost forgets about the sexualized serial murders for a while.

But this is a movie about gay desire, violence, the violence adjacent to gay desire, and much more. It has three separate endings, and each of the endings cemented my affection for the film more than the last.

(I never saw Yann Gonzalez's other movie that was distributed in the U.S. – You and the Night – but I sure am going to now.)

25 November 2019

The White Crow

The White Crow is a film about Rudolf Nureyev's defection from the Soviet Union when he traveled to Paris to dance in 1961. It's fine. To my mind, though, this movie isn't gay enough, but it is based on a particular book, and maybe what I mean is that the book isn't gay enough. In any case, it's not gay enough.

Is Ralph Fiennes getting better as a director? Maybe. I don't know. I'm not sure he really has hit upon a vision of any real kind yet. I'm not sure what this movie is trying to be about except an appreciation for European art. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with that; it just feels rather old school.

Fighting with My Family

Oof. I thought Fighting with My Family was gonna be a comedy! Turns out, it's not. It's a sentimental picture that plays the same beats over and over again. I was decidedly bored. And the end makes no sense at all. (For reasons I don't really understand, everyone in the film acts surprised when – at the end of the film – the main character wins the WWE title, even though there's really no way at all that she could've won if she hadn't been told ahead of time that she would.)

Whenever the Rock is onscreen, he's great. But everything else in this picture is sentimental shite.

23 November 2019

Parasite (2019)

Constantly surprising, insane, and very smart. The title in Korean (기생충 / Helminth) refers to parasitic intestinal worms that are common in developing countries. Parasite itself is about money and labor and class, but it's also terrifyingly thrilling and very exciting.

19 November 2019

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

Oddly enough, The Reflecting Skin was not as weird as one of Philip Ridley's plays. But make no mistake, this is a very, very weird movie in which a young boy's friends and family all begin to die very mysteriously. First his friend is found dead, drowned in the family's well, and then his father lights himself on fire after fellating a gas pump. More deaths ensue. The script is actually pretty good, but it's directed (by Ridley) with almost total ineptness. One really has almost no idea what is going on, and the twist of the film is never really communicated to the audience, even at the very end. It's a strange, strange picture.

18 November 2019

Why So Serious?

Joker is pretty good at what it wants to do. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is chilling and very scary, and the movie itself is quite scary too. The thing is, though: I didn't really enjoy this very much at all. Even the third act triumphant revenge sequences were joyless to me. The first act is so relentless in its beatdowns of this poor man. It's one-note, almost (dare I say it) comedic (although it never really is this), in the pain it delivers at this man's doorstep.

I don't, for the record, think the movie is irresponsibly violent or anything like that. Joker is fairly careful about its violence. Consider, for example, the sequence in the non-girlfriend's apartment. The film actually works to make us afraid for the young woman and her daughter. We will for nothing to happen to them. We hope he doesn't hurt them. I felt this same way with his diminutive coworker who comes to visit and witnesses him killing the other guy they work with. Please don't kill this guy, I thought. And of course he doesn't.

It's clear in these moments that Joker is a sentimental movie in its own way. It doesn't wish death and destruction on everyone, or at least not quite everyone. Little people and mothers with young children are spared this film's wrath. The rest of the universe, however – as we find out at the end of the movie – can simply burn, and society itself should be utterly destroyed. But save the children and the co-workers who smile at you.

If only any of this had been pleasurable. But the relentless of the first act of Todd Phillips' film set me up, as a viewer, only for more of the same. For me, Joker never really let up from this tone, and I had trouble enjoying any of the film after act one, even if I knew we were sort of supposed to take pleasure in the finale. I found the whole thing off-putting.  It's just not any fun.

Oh! One more thing that I can't get out of my head. When the three guys come to beat him up in the subway – the guys he kills, I mean – they're singing a song from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music: Isn't it rich / Are we a pair / Me here at last on the ground / You in midair. They even seem to know the second verse. Now, these are supposed to be young businessmen who work for Thomas Wayne, and given that this film is supposed to take place in a version of 1976 (I infer this from the numerous references to Lumet & Chayefsky's Network and Scorsese & Schrader's Taxi Driver throughout the film) and Sondheim's musical premiered in 1973, I suppose it's possible that these young businessmen might have committed "Send in the Clowns" to memory, but I find this improbable. Perhaps it is simply much more likely that the joker is psychotic and that the scenario the film shows us, in which he kills the three men, is just as fictional as the sequence two scenes later when he kisses his neighbor. My point is that we can't even trust what we see in the movie. What I guess I hope this means, after all, is that this joker is misinterpreting the ugliness and brutality of the world around him and that it just ain't all that bad. Either way, the joker's read on the world is not a perspective I have the ability to enjoy. I need a few more jokes.

Update. My friend George reminds me that "Send in the Clowns" was actually a pop-crossover hit. Witness this appearance by Judy Collins on The Muppet Show in 1973:

13 November 2019

The Lighthouse

I would like The Lighthouse better if it weren't all so obviously supposed to mean something. Thomas (Robert Pattinson) is a younger man doing a few weeks of work on an island, working at a lighthouse doing gruntwork and laboring in the service of an older, craggy former sea-captain also named Thomas and played by Willem Dafoe. They both begin to go insane – or maybe it is just Pattinson's character who goes insane and Dafoe's character is the cause of it. The older man is also keeping the younger man from accessing the shining light at the top of the long, winding staircase inside the lighthouse. It is clear from the beginning of The Lighthouse that the younger man wants to behold the light, to tend it and care for it in the way the older man is able to do, but the older man locks the grate and keeps the younger man out.

Robert Eggers' newest film, then, is about a descent into madness – fine; I think that's super interesting, and it makes for an intriguing follow-up to his earlier film The Witch, also about madness and an inability to trust what one sees. 

But in The Lighthouse, Eggers gives us a descent into madness that is supposed to be symbolically weighted with meaning: The man who sees the sun must die, and Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods must have his liver eaten by eagles (seagulls in this film's final tableau).

I thought this movie was fun (and actually quite funny) to a certain extent. But I found most of its attempts at a depth of profundity to be shallow. The real depth in the film is in its beautiful photography and excellent production design – in other words, on the film's surfaces.

As for deep meaning, one could try to suss some out, and the movie itself seems to prompt this. You can google and find webposts that say things like "the end of The Lighthouse explained! – maybe the two Thomases are really the same man, or perhaps the two Thomases and the seagull are all the same person, or perhaps the younger Thomas is haunted by demons he brings to life himself, or maybe the whole thing is an intense allegory à la Mother! – but the surfaces of The Lighthouse are always more interesting than its purported depths.

I'll be honest: Willem Dafoe isn't really my cup of tea. I think he's really fun in comedy, but as a serious actor, for me, he overdoes things. I think Pattinson is great; that's not really up for debate. But the movie as a whole... eh.

12 November 2019

Las Herederas (2018)

The Heiresses is an intriguing character study with a very good central performance. Ana Brun plays an older lesbian whose partner gets incarcerated. She then needs to build a new life on her own and figure out how to live. This takes her in several unexpected directions as she begins to work as a taxi driver for older, wealthier ladies. I do wish this script had been just a bit flashier, but I really liked this movie.

A Moment in the Reeds (2017)

A Moment in the Reeds is very interesting and beautifully shot. I loved the two main actors in it, too. But... this film's explorations of gay immigrants to Northern Europe felt unfinished or underexplored. What the film is really interested in is how stories like those of gay immigrants to Finland might put the stories of gay Finns into relief. This seems to me a less-than-careful approach to an interesting and important topic. The end of the film, too, leaves a lot to be desired. All of this isn't to say that this film isn't quite good. It's just not everything I wanted it to be.

05 November 2019

The Castle of Terror (1964)

This Sergio Corbucci–Antonio Margheriti horror movie, which is titled Danza Macabra or The Castle of Blood or The Castle of Terror, is pretty stupid and fairly boring. It also, quite disappointingly, does not have a vat of blood in which people drown. This put me to sleep.