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

24 December 2017

The Shape of Water

Guillermo Del Toro's new movie, which is getting rave reviews and winning tons of awards, is an, ambitious, romantic love story between a young woman and a sea monster.

I liked the movie well enough. The Shape of Water is set in a movie-version of the 1950s, during a movie-version of the Cold War. A young woman (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor in some kind of aquaculture department of the government. There she meets and falls in love with a sea monster, who has recently been imprisoned by an evil masculine-identified 1950s man's man who would rather cut the monster open to see how it works than get to know the monster and learn from it.

The movie is intended to be a kind of thriller, as Sally Hawkins decides to break the creature out of jail and let him live in her apartment until she can set him free into the ocean. But more importantly, The Shape of Water is a love story. Sally Hawkins falls in love with a sea monster, and this unconventional romance is front and center in the film, taking narrative precedence over the escape plot and the 1950s-intrigue-Cold-War-Russians plot.

This is a fairy tale, but the trouble with The Shape of Water is that it never wants to wade into the depths with this central complex plot point. I perhaps didn't make it clear above, that Sally Hawkins not only falls in love with, but has sex with our friend the sea monster. And this wasn't a problem for me, but – oddly enough – this wasn't really a problem for anyone else in the film, either, and the film itself doesn't present this as a problem. What is, perhaps, strange, is that if you think about it, this is a problem. So I think what it boils down to is that The Shape of Water is not actually interested in exploring problems or questions or complexities. Instead, the film is willing to ride along the surface of a romantic plot, finding this young, lonely woman, sweet and cute and (frankly) pitying her, so that when she makes love to the sea monster, we already understand; we don't wonder what's going on with her; we don't ask ourselves whether or not she should be exploring a sexual relationship with the sea monster.

Two-Dimensional Love
In fact, my central issue with The Shape of Water is its resistance to wading into the deep end with anything in the film. Del Toro seems fine with painting two-dimensional characters and letting them alone without asking us to think about them in complex ways. This is, perhaps, most apparent with the film's villain, Michael Shannon, who plays this absurd version of a 1950s man – a racially insensitive Eisenhower voter who is easily talked into buying a Cadillac because he wants to be a "man of the future", who ignores his kids, who has unpleasurable sex with a wife he also ignores, who sexually harasses the young women who work for him, who refers to the janitors as "the help", and who would rather torture and kill the beautiful being he has imprisoned than talk to it and get to know it. He is, in short, a caricature of traditional mid-century masculinity. And Michael Shannon plays him to the hilt. But the villain is so two-dimensional that when, in the third act, the film finally asks us to think about him or care about him, we can't. He's just not enough of a fleshed-out figure.

This is also, unfortunately, true of Sally Hawkins' gay BFF, played by Richard Jenkins, a lonely older man, who knows Old Hollywood trivia about Alice Faye and pines after a handsome young white boy who works at a restaurant chain that serves bad pie. Jenkins' character is a graphic artist, and The Shape of Water gives him a little subplot, in which he is trying to get a job back in an ad agency. He is being given a small job by a man who is (I assumed) an ex-lover. But Del Toro gives this plot no resolution. We never learn what happens with these men and their relationship, and we are never told what happened with them in the first place or why Jenkins no longer has his old job. I found this strange, but it honestly went along with the shallowness of the rest of the movie. Del Toro has hastily sketched these characters and any depth they possess amounts to a set of generic conventions with which we are already familiar. (In this case, Jenkins is sad about his deteriorating good looks. He is aging, and his vanity needs a boost – he gets one, of course, courtesy of our sea monster friend.)

I will say that I loved Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water, and I also thought Michael Stuhlbarg was charming and fun, but most of the movie (Spencer's parts included) made me think more of an Edward Hopper painting with the saturation turned up than a depiction of something existing in the real world. The Shape of Water, in other words, despite Michael Shannon's Trump-voter caricature, felt really disconnected from 2017, existing firmly in the realm of fantasy instead. It's a fantasy version of the 1950s, a fantasy version of the Cold War, and a fantasy version of a love story. All of this is fine, I suppose, but I was looking for more depth, for more groundedness. The Shape of Water, on the other hand, seems content with confirming a whole set of things I already think I know – about mid-century masculinity, about the ability of love to conquer difference, about the power of friendship, about the magic of cinema.

Skimming the Surface
The film felt like a cartoon to me, and this is aided by the film's (gorgeous) production design, the delicately charming score, and the vibrant costumes. What's odd is that at times Del Toro seems to resist the cutesy, contained movie that The Shape of Water is. There are a couple of moments where the film seems to break with its easily digestible tone and subject matter. There is a fun sequence, for example, when the sea monster decapitates a cat, and another gross-out sequence in which Michael Shannon squeezes pus from two fingers which have been imperfectly attached to a wounded hand. These grotesque moments in The Shape of Water were my favorite of its sequences. They're places where Del Toro's sensibilities seem to peek through from behind the gorgeous visuals and anodyne version of the 1950s. These are moments where the film seemed to promise more depth than it ended up providing. For the most part, however, The Shape of Water remains shallow.

This is not to say the film is not beautiful. It is that. And its use of water, as a visual and as a theme, works very well. But The Shape of Water spends so much time on the surface of things that by the time we reached its end and Del Toro asked me to be moved to tears and swept away by the movie's romanticism, I just couldn't quite connect.

17 December 2017

Darkest Hour, Roman J. Israel, Disaster Artist, and the Best Actor Oscar

Last night I saw Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill-leading-up-to-Dunkirk movie, and I am here to tell you it is really, really strong.

Gary Oldman plays the cantankerous old Prime Minister, beginning his fight against fascism, and his performance is just pitch perfect the entire time. He's under a large amount of makeup, of course, but this doesn't seem to get in the way of the work he is doing at all. Churchill emerges as a rich, nuanced, fascinating figure filled with doubts and attempting to balance two warring political factions at home while making the right decisions about the soldiers fighting the Nazis in France and Belgium.

Oldman is superb, and he is definitely the best part of the film, but this is only because he is so good. Wright's filmmaking is also just excellent, the script is smart if it occasionally veers off into the overly sentimental, and the camerawork and editing are wonderful. Oh, Dario Marianelli's score is great, too, keeping the mood intense even when what we're watching doesn't seem to be about the stakes of human lives in peril.

Darkest Hour is also total Oscar bait. It's a WWII movie with a great performance at its center. It's (obviously) way better than The King's Speech (in fact, Darkest Hour has it's own King George VI – Ben Mendelsohn – who is great), and it maintains a sort of regal, important tone throughout.

It earns all of this, though, and the movie works very, very well. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope Oldman does win his Oscar.

* * *
While I'm talking about this year's Best Actor Oscar, let me just go all the way in. The SAG nominees are out, and the Golden Globe nominees are out, so that means the field is pretty well established.
Here is how it looks to me.

The Screen Actors Guild nominated:
Timothée Chalamet for Call Me By Your Name,
Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour,
James Franco for The Disaster Artist,
Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out, and
Denzel Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq.

The Golden Globes doubles up its nominees. To the list above they added the following five names:
Tom Hanks for The Post,
Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread,
Steve Carell for Battle of the Sexes,
Ansel Elgort for Baby Driver, and
Hugh Jackman for The Greatest Showman (haha).

I think the Golden Globes Drama list – Chalamet, Day-Lewis, Oldman, Hanks, Washington – is the top five. I would say there only really two alternates for those top five spots and those are Daniel Kaluuya and James Franco. But the SAG skews young, and it is also going to skew toward films that have come out earlier. It makes sense that movies like The Post and Phantom Thread, which are only now just being seen by everyone, are not on that SAG list. I don't see either Kaluuya or Franco breaking into that top five. It could happen, but I don't see it.

* * *
As for Roman J. Israel, Esq., it's surprisingly good! I was sort of expecting it to be just a star vehicle, but Dan Gilroy (who also made Nightcrawler a couple of years ago) is trying to deal with ethics in Los Angeles, and he has crafted a script that explores social justice and law in the U.S. in interesting ways. The movie is too long, and it has an oddly uplifting, hopeful ending, but perhaps this just reflects the fact that Gilroy believes in the possibilities of change a bit more than I do.

And Denzel Washington is great in this part. It is a really beautiful performance that often feels new and intriguing, and Roman J. Israel, Esq. is very different from other parts that he has played recently. It's a de-glammed, non-powerhouse part that (paradoxically) packs an interesting punch. I really enjoyed the film, and after seeing the performance really feel confident that he will get nominated.

Oh! And Colin Farrell is also in this movie, doing his usual excellent supporting work. He is just a fantastic actor. I am glad he works so much. At some point, I am sure people will wise up to just how good he is, but for now I guess he can just keep churning out great performances.

* * *
I have also seen Franco's The Disaster Artist, and I can tell you that I also think Franco is great in the movie. The movie itself is... well, I think it is for people who really like The Room. I'm not one of those people, so I didn't think the film was nearly as funny as it thought it was. Also, and this is the part that doesn't really sit well with me, The Disaster Artist's treatment of Tommy Wiseau strikes me as mean-spirited, even ugly. For all of the brilliance of Franco's mimicry – and it is brilliant – The Disaster Artist thinks Wiseau is a total fucking joke. So the entire film, which is about the making of a terrible film, is busy making fun of Wiseau. The film thinks he's a sexual deviant; it is baffled by how rich he is but also happy to cash his checks; and it is laughing at him to his face.

What is fucked up about The Disaster Artist is that this is all done under the pretense of really loving Wiseau. The movie even begins with various actors speaking to the camera in documentary style about how brilliant the film is. We love Tommy Wiseau, everyone in the movie seems to be saying.

The Disaster Artist, in other words, wants to have it both ways. It wants to make fun of Wiseau while pretending that it is paying tribute to him or some such business. It all feels disingenuous to me. The Disaster Artist isn't really interested in getting to know Wiseau, in exploring what's going on with him or how he works or what he thinks. It's content, instead, simply to look at him as a curiosity, a bizarre, wealthy clown. It reminded me a bit of the way last year's Stephen Frears's film looked at Florence Foster Jenkins: this person is a freak and nothing more. We might feel a little bit sorry for these people, but we certainly can't identify with them. Both of those films allow us to believe that we normal people are nothing like those weirdos.

I didn't dislike the film, really, but it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.

* * *
My own preferences for Best Actor this year lean toward Robert Pattinson, Claes Bang, Harris Dickinson, and Jeremy Renner – but that's another story, and I haven't seen Call Me By Your Name, The Post, or Phantom Thread yet, so the jury's still out.

08 December 2017

Two Lives

Anna Muylaert's film Mãe Só Há Uma (2016) was released in the U.S. (and is available on Netflix) as Don't Call Me Son. I only just watched it last month, so I'm finally writing about it.

The movie's pretty great. It's not as good as Muylaert's 2015 movie Que Horas Ela Volta? (The Second Mother), but, then, The Second Mother is a brilliant film with a superb central performance by Regina Casé, so it is hard to beat.

Don't Call Me Son is about motherhood in some ways, too, but this new film takes the opposite perspective. This is a movie about being a teenager, and it explores that topic with sensitivity and generosity.

The film's clever English title (which seems unrelated to the film's original Portuguese title) manages to articulate both the main character's experiments with gender performance and his difficulties with his parents.

Still, if you're looking for a film about trans issues or even gay issues, this film isn't really trying to do that. Instead, the main character's experiments with sexuality and gender performance work as a kind of backdrop or circumstance that coincides with the larger story of finding a home and taking care of others. I really liked this movie, and the more I think about it the more I like it.

06 December 2017

Stuck in the Mud

I have some bad news. Mudbound is not very good.

I had such high hopes for Dee Rees's new movie – distributed by Netflix – about one white family and one black family living on the same area of land in Mississippi in the post-WWII period.

But Rees's film, which is based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, has a great deal of trouble moving from the page to the screen. It always feels like an adaptation of something – as though we're missing great sections of the story that might have made the whole thing feel more interesting.

Mudbound is the story of six different people, and it can't quite make up its mind as to whom it is following, switching back and forth between the six.The point of this, of course, is to demonstrate the interconnectedness of lives, the dependence that the white people have on the black folks in the South. (What the black folks get from the white folks, aside from violence and humiliation, is not really clear to me, but Mudbound takes this for granted.)

But the film has cast its net a bit too widely, and the aspects of these six lives on which it focused frequently baffled me. There are several sequences, for example, with a tertiary character named Vera whose husband is apparently molesting their daughters. This sub-sub plot goes absolutely nowhere, functioning only as a distraction from the stories of the six main characters, stories that are already so diffusely told that I had trouble connecting with them.

This is primarily the fault of the writing, which is, frankly, bad. Each character has these voice-overs that last for about 15 seconds apiece, none of them long enough to say anything profound or to give us any insight into character. Instead, they are overwhelmingly generic, platitudes about love or brotherhood or family that meet our expectations without asking us to think in a new way or press on the ideas we already have about the characters.

1. Morgan is great. 2. Blige is blank. 3. Morrison's pictures are pretty.
The acting, too, is a bit of a problem. Mary J. Blige plays a role that ought to have been played by a more practiced actress, one who could fill out the character with a much richer backstory. Blige – who bizarrely wears sunglasses for approximately a third of her screentime – is wooden and stiff for the movie's entire length. Garret Hedlund (who is, apparently, a different person from Charlie Hunnam?) is handsome and fun, but is kept too restrained here. The one bright spot is Rob Morgan, who plays the patriarch of the black family. The film is most affectionate with him, and his character actually makes decisions and does things.

Mudbound is shot beautifully, and has understandably been receiving accolades for its gorgeous cinematography, but this, too, sort of baffled me. Why has Rachel Morrison chosen to make it look so beautiful? This is a movie about Jim Crow, about the daily indignities of life in Mississippi for poor white folks and poor black folks, and about the ways that poor white folks use the advantages of the law to better their own meager positions by dehumanizing (through violence and humiliation) and exploiting (through labor and lending practices) poor black folks. What do beautiful sunsets and handsome lighting have to do with this? To my mind it is a strange choice, even if I do like looking at a beautiful sunset.

But all this is not the real issue. The chief problem here is that Mudbound is boring.

21 November 2017

Song to Song

It took me a while to like Song to Song, but then I really warmed up to it. To my mind it is the best film Malick has made since Tree of Life. It's about indecision and betrayal, but then it is quite hopeful, really, and the film moves from being a series of disconnected images à la King of Cups into steady shots of locations – a shift that signals the characters' own groundedness.

Gates of Paris (1958)

Porte des Lilas (Gates of Paris) – which was released in France in 1957 and the U.S. in 1958 – was great.
But there is a sequence at about the 20-minute mark that is just luminous. It's an incredibly clever and beautiful section of film. Porte des Lilas is worth watching just for this sequence of storytelling. It's perfect.

The Exception

The Exception is a kind of romantic thriller that pretends to be about ethics and Nazis and, oh, I don't know, something important. But David Leveaux's film is really a good-and-evil melodrama that felt to me like a bad, sentimental novel, in fact, I'd wager that it is a bad, sentimental novel. Jai Courtney is breathtakingly handsome, as always, and I am as delighted as everyone else that Christopher Plummer is having this late-career resurgence, but this film was silly.

If I Were King

If I Were King is not great or anything, but it is rather fun.
Basil Rathbone gives a festive performance, and Colman is, as always, both very good looking and quite entertaining. I've been sort of obsessed with Colman lately.


Thunderbolt is really brilliantly directed by Josef von Sternberg. It moves into saccharine melodramatic territory after awhile, but the photography in it is just so good, and Fay Wray is fabulous. Thunderbolt also contains rather a lot of African-American music, including a sequence in a black speakeasy.

04 November 2017

The Big Sick

The Big Sick is really funny. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are great.
And I laughed a lot. Also, turns out this is super queer: it's totally about killing your parents.

27 October 2017

A Better Title than The Florida Project

I find the title of The Florida Project totally nonsensical. But Sean Baker apparently is not interested in titles. He titled his previous film – about two sex workers and a cab driver in Los Angeles –Tangerine, a color/fruit that has no apparent connection to the film itself. He has also said in interviews that he doesn't see why filmmakers feel the need to title their works. Ok.

I wasn't super excited for The Florida Project, but the first time I tried to see it here in Florida there was a line outside the door. Screenings of this film have been selling out in my local Orlando theatre, where it has been playing on only one screen for two weeks. In any case, the excitement was contagious, and when I finally got myself a ticket, I was really looking forward to it.

The first forty minutes or so of The Florida Project build the world in which we're going to be living in. We follow around six-year old Mooney and her miniature friends as they cause trouble, spit on parked cars, curse at adults, beg strangers for change, share a soft-serve cone between them, and turn off the power of the motel in which she lives with her mother. It's quality world-building that I didn't find that interesting until about the 40-minute mark, at which point I really became enamored with the film's characters and their world.

For the subsequent 50 minutes or so, things start to happen and the film really finds its stride. We begin to see the consequences of the absurd parenting job Mooney's mother is doing, and I began to feel afraid for the little girl at this film's center. Her mother is really not taking care of her, and this gave the film a real tension that truly began to work.

But then just as the film works its way toward its end, Baker changes the entire tone of the movie. The Florida Project ends with a laughably bad fantasy sequence that is completely incongruent with the rest of the film. All of a sudden, the beautiful care with which the previous parts of the film have been captured is discarded. The final sequence appears to have been shot on a smartphone. And all of a sudden an upbeat film score appears out of nowhere. We're clearly supposed to be in an impossible, fantasy-style sequence that is only being imagined by a character.

But who is doing this imagining? And why would a film that has been documenting the life of an impoverished six-year-old and her mother end with a sequence unrelated to the previous 90 minutes of documentation? The audience with which I saw The Florida Project left the theatre completely baffled. What was that? people were asking. Why did that happen? 

My companion and I decided that what happened was that Sean Baker doesn't really know what he's doing, and the more I think about that the more right I feel. The Florida Project is filled with interesting images and beautiful characterization, but none of this actually adds up to anything. The film ends the way it does because the end doesn't matter to the filmmaker. Baker strings sequences together, but they don't need to go in any particular order, and none of them actually says anything – about the characters or poverty in America or Florida or Kissimmee or Disney World or food or sex work or anything. They're all actually just surfaces.

A good example of what I mean is three sequences in the movie where Mooney's mom Halley (pronounced like Hayley) sells brand-name-knock-off perfume to residents at a Disney hotel. Each of these sequences is filmed in a longshot. We're asked simply to observe her, to watch her sell this perfume. And the sequences are also played for madcap humor, even one in which she is assaulted by a Disney security guard. Because the camera never moves in, the film never asks us to identify with Halley's experience while she does this. We never get a feeling of the stakes of the situation in which she has found herself. Rather than sympathizing with her, the camera sits in judgment of her, or to put it more accurately: the camera is simply there. It has nothing at all to say about what we're watching.

Baker clearly likes Richard Linklater – his influence is all over The Florida Project. I generally find Linklater a bit boring; to my mind he makes films that are more interesting in concept than in reality. But Baker really takes this all even further. It is as though he's making pseudo-documentary cinema. His camera captures the real, the gritty, the unattractive, the mundane. Fine, but what he is shooting is, of course, fictional – a set of fabricated characters and contrived situations that are not captured by his camera but created precisely for his camera – by him. He's devoted to avoiding meaning only so that his films seem more "real".

All I get from this is emptiness. The Florida Project is a film that could have plenty to say but doesn't say anything at all. And one begins to suspect that Baker doesn't have anything to say.

26 October 2017

Angry Harvest

Angry Harvest (Bittere Ernte) wasn't directed as well as it was written. (It was directed by Agniezska Holland and written by Holland and Paul Hengge from a novel by Hermann H. Field and Stanisław Mierzeński.) In other words, the film is more intelligent and interesting on paper than it ends up being on film. The direction was more claustrophobic than it ought to have been, and it avoided suspense almost purposefully.

Beach Rats

Beach Rats is contemplative and sad with an excellent lead performance. There were long stretches where I forgot Harris Dickinson was even acting. This has gotten better in my mind since I watched it, too. Beach Rats has its problems, but I liked it a good deal.

22 October 2017

Wake Island

Wake Island was apparently a huge box-office smash in 1942, as well as being widely acclaimed by critics. I was less impressed than the USAmerican populace in 1942, I guess. Act one is actually awful – stilted writing, bad acting, awkward editing.

Act two involves this absurd monologue about how women create memories or something. But the good part of acts two and three is the bombing of Wake island by Japanese forces. The sound, the explosions, the tension of it – all of that is great. I loved all of the air sequences too: they're balletic and exciting and dynamic.

As for the film's politics, Wake Island island surprised me by valorizing suicidal sacrifice by USAmerican soldiers. As much as the Japanese kamikaze would be demonized by United States media, our own media celebrated suicidal missions and sacrificing one's self for one's nation.

As for actual violence, Wake Island soft pedals things, like most films from this period under the PCA. When a man dies, he sort of clutches his breast, seizes up, and collapses. This isn't Bataan. Men don't bleed in Wake Island; they just fall over.

Honestly, though, it's sort of crazy that John Farrow made this movie in 1942, less than a year after the actual battle for Wake. And I was shocked to find that the film also references the Warsaw ghetto! Wake Island was released in August 1942, and evacuations of Polish Jews to Treblinka had only begun earlier that Summer.

The film ends with an upbeat musical sequence, over which a voice intones: "These marines fought a great fight!" as though the whole thing were a game. It's an odd bit of nonsense, that quote obviously makes the whole thing seem like a bit of fun rather than a slaughter in which hundreds of men were killed.

In any case, this ended up being sort of cool to watch, even if it is, more often than not, overly sentimental and awkwardly made.

20 October 2017

Am I in Cryo Sleep or Is This Film Boring?

It's a shame about Alien: Covenant. It has two or three really awesome scenes, but mostly it just doesn't jell. The more I think about it, the more surprised I am that Ridley Scott directed this installment of the Alien franchise (this is #6, right?). The film seems to have been heavily edited and re-molded by producers. It is very clearly a big-studio film that the producers thought was too long or too slow or too confusing. What it is now is not too long, but it is definitely too slow, and it is way more confusing than it needs to be, on top of being so totally predictable that it actually began to bore me.

Honestly, the poster is cool
The trouble is, I think, that the alien that has been the subject of the previous five Alien films has ceased to surprise. These are prequels to the original 1979 film, and Prometheus was about the evolution of the alien, and in this film the alien is a kind of contagion that behaves exactly as we expect it to behave and know that it will behave. There is one really great sequence in which an alien hatches out of Benjamin Rigby's back – it's incredibly cool and the film's best scene – but otherwise the monster is totally predictable.

In fact, the entire film is predictable, from start to finish. The third act is supposed to have two really big surprises. These plot twists are tired, generic reversals that could only fool a viewer who'd never seen one of the other Alien movies. You'll see both "surprises" coming from a mile away.

This leaves the film's relationships as the real interest of the film... except that the film's relationships aren't at all interesting. Covenant skips all exposition about its central characters. There is absolutely none. We begin with the death of the ship's captain and the entire crew weeping for his death. We, of course, cannot share in their grief because we do not know him at all. This is a strange storytelling tactic, and I feel pretty certain that this wasn't the way the film was written. The captain – we find out in a recorded video – was played by James Franco, so presumably his part was larger in some earlier version of Covenant. In addition, there had been early press that Covenant was going to introduce a gay male couple into its storyline. They're there in the movie, but their relationship is completely unclear, as though entire sequences had been excised from the final cut of the movie.

Covenant's best sequence – Mr. Rigby's back
Which isn't to say there is not a long, boring, expository scene because there is one of those – one in which we see Guy Pearce talk to Michael Fassbender, not about things we needed to know for the film to work, but about whether or not there is a god or whether we all need a father or something. I didn't care, and it was a ridiculously static way to begin an action–horror movie.

The alien, as usual for these movies, is totally disgusting, and this film had two or three really gross, cool sequences that I enjoyed, but overall I think the Alien series doesn't seem to have any more surprises up its sleeve. I was bored for most of this movie. In fact, I thought the Alien knockoff Life was more fun than Covenant – and I think the reason for that is that I never really knew what the sociopath alien in Life was going to do. I never really figured that little motherfucker out. With Covenant, I knew all of the moves the alien was going to make. This plot was hatched a long time ago.

12 October 2017


I loved Holiday and I love Ann Harding. What a great actress! It makes me wonder why she didn't work more.

Androids Dreaming of Electric Dads

Blade Runner 2049 is a long film. That is probably the first thing you ought to know about it. It clocks in at a totally unnecessary 2 hours 45 minutes. This movie is taking its time doing what it wants to do.

The next thing – and you already know this – is that the film is visually stunning. Its production design, costume design, cinematography, and visual effects are all award-worthy, awesome achievements. It just looks so good. The photography and lighting, honestly, are even better in the movie than you can tell from the trailer. There are sequences that are absolutely visually breathtaking.

And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her and opened her womb. –Genesis 30.22

But Blade Runner 2049 is a self-important, pretentious movie, that expects its audience to do a lot of intellectual labor. It doesn't clearly articulate the ethical questions at the center of its filmic puzzle, either, so that if the characters are thinking through questions of right and wrong, or if they're making bold decisions that contradict their programming or their caste in society, we don't really have much access to the thought processes (or perhaps software processes) that lead to those decisions. In short, the movie doesn't really let us in to the characters. Even if I loved Ryan Gosling's character K, I only rarely felt like I understood the conundrums with which he was struggling. (Robin Wright and Carla Juri's characters are notable exceptions to this.)

More than that, the film's characters are obsessed with, and long for, natural things like wood, water, air, and animal life. But Blade Runner 2049 doesn't make this clear enough, and the audience never shares the characters' wonder at the real. So things that seem wonderful or awesome to these people in 2049 are completely ordinary to the film's viewers. And how could they be anything else? Blade Runner 2049 doesn't spend enough time setting up the world for us; it avoids allowing us into how the characters feel about the slum slash police state in which they live.

The King
There is a famous robot play by Karel Čapek – the man who invented the word robot – called R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots. This is also an overly long story, and it aims at questions similar to Blade Runner 2049: viz. What if robots could reproduce? What might it mean for two androids to have a child? R.U.R. is mostly a problem play, and it spends its time talking us through the various ethical and emotional questions involved in having robots working as slaves (the word robot in fact means slave). In other words, there is much to discuss and therefore much time is needed for the play to do what it wants to do. Blade Runner 2049, by contrast, squanders its time, seemingly extending every sequence by at least 45 seconds so that the camera can drink up more of the gorgeous production design. This makes for a ponderous film that is nearly emotionally empty. (A part of this is due to having Ryan Gosling as the lead. He goes for stoic and silent in these kinds of roles – an obvious heir to Harrison Ford's famous sullenness – but this film needed emotional vulnerability in order to stop itself from being one of Christopher Nolan's soulless adventures.)

But it is visually and aurally stunning, and now that I've laid out all of my problems with the movie, all of the reasons that I know the film is not great, I can't say that I cared very much about any of these objections. I really liked Blade Runner 2049. Do I wish Villeneuve had made a better movie? I do. But I was delighted, astounded, even shocked by this one. Roger Deakins' cinematography feels completely fresh in every sequence. The neon-red-on-one-side-neon-blue-on-the-other-side visual that you can see in seemingly every movie – and about which I have complained before – never happens in Blade Runner 2049 even if it is used on the poster. Instead, Deakins' use of color feels inventive, novel, even revelatory. Now, one might easily object: but in service of what, exactly? and this objection would make sense, but for me these images were actually enough. They evoked plenty of emotion for me as colors and light: It was like staring at a Mark Rothko or a James Turrell or a Doug Wheeler.

So, I guess I can't really recommend Blade Runner 2049. If I really liked it, I know that I liked it for very specific reasons. I expect that for most people, this film's self-importance and pretenses will weigh more heavily against it, and those people are – sigh – probably right.

05 October 2017

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Honestly, I hate stuff like Michael Curtiz's The Charge of the Light Brigade. This is one in something like a score of Errol Flynn–Olivia de Havilland pictures. He's handsome; she's boring. But none of that has any effect on this movie, which foregoes the usual swashbuckling version of Flynn in favor of a "noble" British officer fighting the Russians (apparently) in colonial India.

It's just impossible for me to be on the side of these British, who are hanging out in India and trying to protect Victorian interests on the subcontinent. I find it simply inconceivable that I am supposed to root for these men in mufti attempting to "tame" (or whatever other nonsense term they use) a country that isn't theirs in the first place. I don't care how many times the film refers to them as savages or shows them killing women and children. The British do not belong there.

This film's score (by Max Steiner) was nominated for an Oscar, but the music's insistent trumpets and constant use of martial pacing, as well as its reliance on quotation of "Rule Britannia" annoyed me just as much as the rest of Curtiz's movie.

Mostly, I must admit, I just didn't care about any of this. There is a love plot – two brothers love the same woman – but I couldn't be bothered one bit. The film quotes Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" repeatedly by substituting its words for actual action, but the whole time I was just bored. To me it all felt as tired as Tennyson does.

I guess it is also worth saying that this is one of those films that thinks waging war, dying in war, and fighting over pieces of land that the generals themselves acknowledge they think are not worth fighting about are noble, valiant acts. And in this way The Charge of the Light Brigade is truly full of shit. When the film ended, with literally hundreds of men being killed by cannon fire because of an arrogant, foolish decision on the part of Flynn's character, it was driven home again to me just how nonsensical the whole thing was. Hundreds of men dying for a frivolous act of revenge, done to avenge an act that would never have happened in the first place if the English had just stayed on their island.

04 October 2017

The Racket

The Racket is more about the racket itself than about any one character in the racket, and although the film is occasionally smart about the criminal justice system's collusion with organized crime, this is way less interesting and not as well acted as 1929's Alibi, and it isn't even remotely as well made as Josef von Sternberg's Thunderbolt (also from 1929).

01 October 2017

The Dark Angel

The Dark Angel was sentimental but I found it rather touching. I love Fredric March so much. I know he was a huge movie star and that I probably should have admitted his long ago, but he's just so wonderful. I don't know why I was so resistant.

The Pied Piper

Typical sentimental war-time patriotic nonsense. I love Monty Woolley as much as the next guy, but this batch of silliness?

29 September 2017

Broadway Melody II

Usually these kinds of revues are fairly boring, but not Broadway Melody of 1936. The plot is clever, the performances are solid, the costumes are queerly interesting, and Eleanor Powell's tap dancing is spectacular. I loved it.
The Queen of Tap

To Forget Venice

To Forget Venice (Dimenticare Venezia) is lovely and a bit strange. But this is a film about memory and trying to let go, so perhaps a little strangeness makes sense.

You wouldn't know it from this Italian poster, but Dimenticare Venezia is a film about a man who is gay and his lesbian sister who are dealing with growing old and losing the generation older than them.

I really liked it. And it was nice to watch a film about queer people that wasn't about the closet or even about queerness as such.

26 September 2017

Decision before Dawn

Decision before Dawn is a surprisingly good film. It is about a German spy working for the Americans and has no real stars attached to it, so I understand why it's basically forgotten today, but this is good stuff.

Free Fire

Well this was way better than High-Rise, at least. Free Fire is quirky fun, all the gimmicks worked for me, and I thought it was really funny.

Something about Brie Larson, though... she seems so young in these recent parts (I'm thinking of this and Kong, which I saw pretty much back to back). She's not that young, I suppose; she's 27. But the idea that she is an arms dealer at that age or that she could be a decorated war photographer at that age? I am skeptical.

I know Hollywood hates women in their thirties, but it would be nice to see them take women more seriously in these roles, and something about Larson just looks so young to me.

Blood on the Land

Blood on the Land (Το Χώμα Βάφτηκε Κόκκινο) from 1965 is a very good old Greek movie about unionizing and land redistribution in early 20th century Thessaly. (Yes, I did just say a good movie about land redistribution.)

This is not quite as hard-hitting or smart as I Compagni, opting instead for a melodramatic approach. But it is a good film nonetheless, and it is a little odd that it was never released in the U.S. and doesn't exist for U.S. consumption at all.

24 September 2017

The Green Goddess

The Green Goddess is one of the weirdest old movies I think I've ever seen. I watched this for George Arliss, with whom I've really fallen in love. He was a wonderful actor and fascinating movie star in the 1920s. Arliss plays some "oriental" raja who is a self-styled Barbarian. He is quite polite and proper, but he acknowledges his own barbarism when he kidnaps and decides to kill three English citizens who have wandered into his domain. He tries to force marriage upon the one Englishwoman – in other words he tries to rape her – in exchange for the life of the two men; she refuses. Finally she and her lover are rescued by the Royal Air Force... and then Arliss's raja character literally looks at the camera and says Oh Well, she was probably more trouble than she was worth anyway.


In other words, the film is... sort of on his side, or at the very least The Green Goddess is expecting us to enjoy this man's machinations. (I guess?) It is a confusing, odd moment in the film, and it confounded my entire reading of the movie as just a sort of typical orientalist film with its good, proper, Englishmen and its "orientals" with strange, mysterious, superstitious, violent ways.

I honestly still loved Arliss in this (he was in fact nominated for an Oscar for the role), and I'll continue to look for more of his movies. He's great.

Sleight of Hand

Sleight's title is a pun, and a clever one at that. It's a film about a young magician in Los Angeles who is raising his kid sister mostly by himself.

Sleight is a attempting to be a neo-noir crime picture, too. As well as – and this is what Sleight really wants to be – a 21st century sci-fi movie along the lines of Josh Trank's Chronicle.

Unfortunately, J.D. Dillard's movie doesn't always work. It's shot beautifully, and most of the acting is great – you should start seeing Jacob Latimore, who stars, and Storm Reid, who plays the kid sister, everywhere really really soon if there is any justice in this world. But the film's score doesn't turn the focus clearly enough toward the movie's science fiction elements, and so the film opts for weird and slightly spooky instead of occasionally wonderful and surprising. It's as though the composer and director can't decide whether the audience is supposed to like the science fiction elements or be scared by them. Accordingly, they made me uncomfortable instead of making me excited. I should have been thinking about how cool the whole thing was, and instead it left me worried.

The script, too, is not that great. It was written by Dillard and producer Alex Theurer, but the plot has a couple of holes, its love story is too truncated, and many of the difficulties in which the film ensnares its protagonist are a) absurd and b) way too easily resolved.

But this is only Dillard's second film, and it's directed well enough that I'll be interested to see what he comes up with next.

21 September 2017

Private Worlds

Private Worlds is absurd. This was just, like, a regular old love story, but it's gussied up as some sort of women-can-be-doctors-too, faux-feminist bit of nonsense. Joel McRea is suitably cute, Charles Boyer is smoldering and intense as usual, and Colbert makes sense in the part. But the film is no good.

Private Worlds is based on a novel by Phyllis Bottome (what is this name?!), who wrote the screenplay with Lynn Starling and Gregory La Cava (who directed), but if the novel is at all feminist, that has been bleached from this film adaptation.

If you're going to end your "feminist" film by having your female protagonist decide that nothing matters if you really have found love? Keep it to yourself.

Love with the Proper Stranger

Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen are great in this. Actually, this film is just really good. It takes the usual Hollywood moral stance against abortion, which makes me fairly angry, but the central performances and everything else in the script are really excellent. It's odd, but while I was watching this the film reminded me a lot of Bloodbrothers, the movie with Richard Gere. I think it was the focus on familial connection and the sort of melodramatic approach that Love with the Proper Stranger takes toward family bonds. After the film was over, I looked up the director and it's the same guy – Robert Mulligan. This film is much much funnier than Bloodbrothers, but a lot of the family dynamics are the same, and Mulligan feels the same way about family – you need to escape it! – in 1963 as he does in 1978.

19 September 2017

Sarah and Son

Ruth Chatterton is a damn genius. Sarah and Son is an emotional film and a bit of a far-fetched Cinderella story, but Chatterton's performance makes it all worth it. Also, it's worth noting that Sarah and Son was directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women who worked as directors in Hollywood in this period.

A Ship Comes In

Sweet, patriotic, anti-Communist nonsense.

When Ladies Meet

All my pre-code viewing has turned up something really remarkable! A women's film that is smart and fun and truly delightful. I adored this movie from start to finish, and it treats its characters frankly and humanely.

The film boasts positively brilliant performances – by Ann Harding, Myrna Loy, and Alice Brady in the first place, but also by the always great Frank Morgan and with a superb supporting turn by Martin Burton.

When Ladies Meet is frank about sex. It's honest about relationships. It possesses fascinating insights about marriage. It was, of course, based on a play written by a woman, and I don't think this could have been otherwise. Male Hollywood screenwriters from this period simply were not writing things like this. And under the PCA I can't imagine this movie existing at all. It was, apparently, remade in 1941. I haven't seen that film yet, but I can't see how something censored – as it would have to be under the PCA – could work as well as this one.

Berkeley Square

Well I wasn't expecting this! Berkeley Square (which is always pronounced Barkley Square) is a time-travel movie (!) and an exceedingly odd one at that. I was sort of impressed with this film's ambitions, even if I find Leslie Howard rather boring and found the plot itself rather bizarre. What a strange film.

The Big Pond

The Big Pond is a very slight picture, one designed to capitalize on Maurice Chevalier's success in The Love Parade, no doubt. This is hard to dislike - it's too slight for that - but it's nothing to write home about.

17 September 2017

Skip! This! Movie!

I am sure Aronofsky thinks that Mother! is some sort of meaningful, fascinating allegory. But it isn't. Jennifer Lawrence's range is, as usual, limited, to say the least. She unsurprisingly scowls through the picture, and thus is, I suppose, the perfect star for the outrageous cynicism, awkwardness, and displeasure that characterize Mother! itself.

And if the plot itself is incoherent – which it is – this incoherence is made uncomfortable, unbearable, unwatchable by the fact that one has no character with whom one can identify and no one for whom one might wish to root. Aronofsky actively dislikes his own main character, and quite possibly dislikes his antagonist even more. This is a sadistic, painful movie that is actually invested in punishing its audience and violating its protagonist.

The structure of Mother! (what is that exclamation point about?) is such that we are angry and have hit a breaking point a full sixty minutes before our protagonist hits her own breaking point. This leaves us an entire hour in which we as an audience are frustrated enough to scream, but our heroine is not. We actively wait for her to lose her shit and let everyone have it – or for her to do anything at all! (Exclamation point.) But we wait the entire movie for this to happen. It will take the full two hours.

Michelle Pfeiffer is good in this, though, in her Hebraic Eve drag. I will say that. And I am certain this is because she is really the only actor who is having any fun here. Bardem plays a sadistic asshole but doesn't seem to relish this part at all, opting instead for a baseline of sincerity with small bursts of uncontrollable rage (an odd thing for an actor who has played fiendish, pleasurable villains.) Pfeiffer, on the other hand, opts for taking pleasure in sadism, annoying our protagonist and trying to get a rise out of her in whatever way she can. It's a pleasure to watch, and one of the only pleasures Mother! can actually boast.

La Pfeiffer
Domnhall Gleeson, on the other hand, is wasted in this movie. He is great, as always, but woefully underused.

And as for Kristen Wiig, there's a problem here. She represents, in fact, a real casting error. Wiig is hilarious. And we can't take her seriously in a part – we are trained to laugh at the things she says. So when she shows up in act three and is supposed to be terrifying? All I could do was giggle.

It might not be her fault completely. To be fair to Wiig, I had already started laughing at this movie by the time we got to act two. It's too silly not to laugh at it. This is an absurdist exercise in sadism and allegory. Be smart and skip it. This is the same guy (with an utter contempt for humanity) who directed Noah, and we all skipped that one (or wish we did). Do yourself a favor and skip this one too.

Addendum: If you want to read my sincere critique of the politics of Mother!, please follow the link to my Noah discussion. As it turns out, Mother! is just Noah in a new CGI outfit. What my friend Rick and I discuss about Noah is that Aronofsky really believes that a) human beings deserve to be punished for their total depravity, that b) there is a god, and that c) that (apparently male) god is actually a terrible force of mostly petty evil. Now, I have nothing per se against a film without hope or a film with a cynical view of human beings. But Aronofsky's two most recent films posit that human beings ought to be destroyed, that human culture is without redeeming qualities, and that the god ought just to scrap the whole experiment.

I find this frustrating for numerous reasons. In the first place, there is not actually a god. In the second place, what does Aronofsky want us to do with his allegory? Ask mom how we can help? In his film, the one character (Jovan Adepo) who actually tries to help JLaw, is treated like just as much of an interloper as Aronofsky's ciphers for Cain and Abel. As far as I can see, Aronofsky has no empathy whatever for any member of humanity, so aside from finding his film boring, I find his politics bankrupt.