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

22 October 2016

The Fits

And in case you are feeling guilty about hating The Birth of a Nation (or if, alternatively, you decided to boycott TBoaN because you have something against Nate Parker), please allow me to recommend The Fits. This film also played at Sundance this year (2016), and it didn't get nearly as much hype as Birth. But The Fits is a superb little film.

Anna Rose Holmer's film (the film was actually written, directed, produced and edited by Holmer, Saela Davis, and Lisa Kjerulff) follows a young tomboy named Toni who mostly hangs out with her brother and his male friends and spends her time boxing in a gym in Cincinnati. She gets excited about auditioning for a girl's dance troupe and starts practicing so that she can join. She begins to make a few friends in the squad, and although she does not fit in very well, she is excited about this dance troupe and so she works hard to make it happen.

But then... the captain of the troupe has a kind of seizure or fit. And no one can explain the cause of this fit.

And then... one of the other girls has a fit. Is it a ghost? Is it something divine? Is it the water? What is happening to these girls?

The Fits is a beautiful, thoughtful, gorgeously composed film about black girl magic, female identity, and what it means to fit in. The eponymous fits are the film's central mystery, certainly, but because The Fits is about fitting in, the title resonates in that way as well.

The central character is sensitively and quizzically played by newcomer Royalty Hightower, and she is supported perfectly by other Cincinnati actors Alexis Neblett and Da'Sean Minor, who all give great performances.

I don't want to say anything more about The Fits since it is intended to work as a puzzle; I wouldn't want to spoil it. This is a short feature (less than 90 minutes) but it is exquisitely realized and is the freshest coming-of-age tale I've seen in a long time. The Fits is easily one of my favorite films of 2016 thus far.

The Misfiring of the New Birth of a Nation

After Sundance this year, everyone was talking about The Birth of a Nation. Sundance happens during Oscar season, and after the Oscar nominations were announced on January 14th and a number of films by black filmmakers were snubbed or otherwise ignored, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began to cause the Academy a lot of trouble. The Internet – and especially the Twitterverse – is a fickle, disloyal mob that tends to respond too quickly to things and jump to judgments that it should (it seems to me) consider for more than a couple of seconds or 140 characters. In this case the Internet caused the Academy to make real changes in membership structure, and the culture of the Internet became momentarily excited about black filmmaking.

This momentary excitement about black cinema was not enough, apparently, for audiences to make hits out of films like Mediterraneo, Dope, Chi-Raq, Timbuktu, Concussion, or Girlhood, but only enough to complain that the Academy didn't like them. Enter Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance and was greeted by ovations. The film was sold for a whopping $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, the most money ever paid for a film at Sundance. Everyone else got a taste when the film's teaser-trailer was released to the general public in April, and Birth seemed poised to be this year's answer to the Oscars So White problem. People said Nate Parker was a new director watch, the film seemed ready to win many Oscars, and this was to be a hit in the making. Parker is a fantastically sensitive actor, who gave what should've been a star-making performance in Arbitrage a couple of years ago.

But the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away. This August when the Birth of a Nation crew should have been promoting their film, the movie became beleaguered by accusations that Parker committed rape in 1999 (he was acquitted in 2001). And suddenly, inexplicably, even, Fox Searchlight and Parker had a real advertising crisis on their hands. Now: none of us knows whether or not Parker committed rape in 1999, so let's not pretend that any of us does, but the Internet mob, which had wanted us all to see and love The Birth of a Nation because it was good black cinema in a market that supposedly had no good black cinema had quickly tried and convicted this filmmaker of rape and wanted us all to boycott Birth.

The film, as it turned out, was a flop at the box-office, recouping only $7 million in its first weekend. It played for two weeks in theatres and now has disappeared. No one went.

I went. And I went expecting it to be a very good film that had been unfairly maligned by the hostile unthinking trolls of the Twitterverse. Well, it was unfairly maligned by the unthinking trolls of the Twitterverse, but it wasn't a good film. And what I think I discovered is that it was, in fact, unfairly, unthinkingly praised by audiences at Sundance. What were they all thinking back there in January?

Far from being an intriguing film about U.S. American history, The Birth of a Nation is a generic film about American slavery that hits all the exact same notes you know it will hit. There is absolutely nothing new here. There is no clever way of looking at things, no novel story, no unique filmmaking style, no newly uncovered historical information, no deeper portrait of American slavery than anything we've seen before. I am not saying we are done with stories about American slavery; I don't think we are. Its legacy is too powerful, and it is important that we keep remembering what this country did and how people managed to survive under American tyranny. But this is a genre film that ticks off the same boxes that any other film about American slavery has done... and with nothing new to make this one stand out.

Mr. Parker
It gets worse. The editing is excruciatingly awkward, and the storytelling moves in stilted ways from plot-point to plot-point without giving us a deep portrait either of Nat Turner, his wife, or the man who legally owned him according to American law. The acting is good all around (except for Roger Guenveur Smith, who I guess I just don't understand), and Parker gives another powerhouse performance. He is a great actor and is always compelling to watch, but this movie doesn't seem to think Nat Turner is either more or less interesting than any other American slave. Maybe I am jaded; any theatre historian who has read a lot of black theatre has read a great many escaped-slave narratives. (Eleanor Traylor argued as early as 1978 that the escape narrative was one of the fundamental black American contributions to American drama.) But The Birth of a Nation is only one more entry into the genre; it hasn't anything new to say. String together a set of sequences from any number of films about American slavery and you could edit your own version of this story.

And then there are the true absurdities in the film. Birth of a Nation seems to think all enslaved Africans in the U.S. came from the same place on the West African coast – that a group of enslaved black folks on a random plantation in Suffolk County, Virginia would all be able to understand the same language and have the same rituals. (The one time, incidentally, we see a faux-African ritual in the movie, it appears to be a ceremony that has no purpose whatsoever, since it is easily interrupted, and the man in charge quickly switches his focus.) And later when Turner's wife is brutally raped and beaten by a group of evil white men (the same evil white men who do all of the bad things in the movie; you'd think there were only three or four truly evil white men in the U.S.) she appears to be recovering in bed for many, many weeks. And at one point she speaks to Turner as though she is on her deathbed, crying and cringing, while Turner decides to put a group of men together to fight. But Mrs. Turner has contracted a movie illness and that is all. Her sickness makes no sense in the world: she has been injured; she isn't ill, it's just that usually in these kinds of movies a very sick woman tells a man that he should go fight and that she'll always be with him, and in the generic version of this narrative, a man needs a sick woman or a child to defend so that he can prove himself. It is probably worth noting, as well, that Parker uses the same trope of the violated female body that Griffith used in his original 1915 Birth of a Nation to justify the violence committed by Turner. In this 2016 Birth, the violated bodies of men and the systematic dehumanization and maltreatment of enslaved people in the South are apparently not enough for Turner to decide upon revolution, but defending the virtue of "our" women turns out to be an excellent justification for violence.

A vision of a better film
Where the film really falls down is a great missed opportunity – one that was promised by the film's trailer. The real Nat Turner saw visions and these were visions related to his faith in Christianity. So when, in the trailer, we saw images of Parker covered in white, it seemed that the film was going to have a kind of strange, visionary aesthetic that surprised us by rethinking not only how Christianity was understood by some enslaved Africans but giving us images that were uncannily surprising and beautiful. Interpretations of Christianity differ widely, of course, and the real Nat Turner heard crazy sounds and he claimed to have heard the voice of the god speaking to him in a kind of King Jams Version English – saying things like the Serpent hath been loosed among ye. I thought we were going to spend some cinematic time inside of these visions, but alas there was no voice of a god in this film, and there were no serpents. This Nat Turner's cosmology is as boring as our own. The Birth of a Nation's biggest missed opportunity is the way that it flattens Turner's own legacy, forming it into an uninspired rehash of a slave narrative we've heard before instead of attempting the real story of Turner's own outlandishness. (For the record, the great play Insurrection: Holding History by Robert O'Hara tries to do precisely what Parker does not do.)

Mr. Domingo gives the film's best performance
The Birth of a Nation isn't totally without merit; it boasts some excellent performances, including Parker's own. It is also always good to see Dwight Henry, who was so great as the father in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Colman Domingo who gives my favorite of the film's performances and is really superb. Armie Hammer and Jackie Earl Haley are also very good in their roles. None of this, however, is enough to make this film interesting. It's just boring moviemaking.

So what were they thinking at Sundance? I am wagering that the reasons everyone liked the film in January were similar to the reasons everyone hated this film in August – which is to say that they had nothing to do with the film itself. In January the Internet's politics aligned to make Birth of a Nation the film to see. By August the Internet's politics had realigned to make Birth of a Nation a flop. None of this was about the movie itself. When Internet hype creates a movie – Ghostbusters, Suicide Squad – the audiences simply don't appear in the way predictors think they will. The Twitterverse, it seems, is not the same thing as the real world. Do Twitter-users actually go to the movies? I have yet to see Twitter make or break a movie, but The Birth of a Nation is the third flop this summer that the Internet predicted would be a hit.

The Twitterverse speaks in too few characters to do real film criticism, that's for sure, but we have seen this summer that it isn't even good at spotting trends or predicting what people are actually going to go out and see. The Birth of a Nation was never a good movie, and Twitter was like an over-excited parent, building up the ego of its only moderately talented child just to watch him choke the first time he performed.

19 October 2016

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

Josh Kim's How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) (พี่ชาย My Hero) is sweet but very slight. As usual, I am also bored by films that tell their stories from the perspective of children. This is sold as a Thai gay love story, and that is its B-plot, but that story is told through one of the young men's younger brothers. This makes for a perspective on the relationship that does not actually bring that relationship into focus.

18 October 2016

The Evil Queen's Not-Quite-So-Evil Frozen Sister

Once upon a time...

Actually it was four years ago. My dear friend Julie and I got drunk and watched Snow White and the Huntsman. We watched it because we like to watch bad movies together, but ended up really loving some of the film's aspects.

Obviously this meant we needed to watch the sequel. So, here is our conversation while watching The Huntsman: Winter's War.
* * * * *

Aaron: Who is doing this narration? Is this Liam Neeson? Why is Aslan in this film?
Julie: What is this gold ball? That is not a mirror.
Aaron: Julie, what are you drinking? Priorities.
Julie: I would like to note that I am not drinking. So this is either going to be the best or the worst time we've ever done this. (I am not pregnant.)
Aaron: Ok. I might get really drunk on this rosé.
Julie: I support you. I had three beers earlier and I am too old to have any more.


Aaron: How is Charlize already murdering people?
Julie: That is what a woman does. She is a witch, obviously. (That is Liam Neeson. Love him.)
Aaron: These costumes are going to be just as good as the last ones.
Julie: That headpiece!! Stunning.
Aaron: Stunning.

Julie: I know I'm not drunk, but who is Emily in relation to Charlize? I wasn't listening.
Aaron: She is her sister, Freya, apparently. Why is Emily Blunt in this?
Julie: Because Emily appreciates camp as much as Charlize.
Aaron: Ok. Fair. Like, I want to be Charlize, too. That seems like a good goal for Emily Blunt.
Julie: I would like to note that this is written and directed by men. This movie full of women. Let's see how this goes.
Aaron: We know how that usually goes. Who are the other women in this?
Julie: Jessica!
One more of this headdress.
Aaron: K-Stew is not, right? Oh my god, is this child burned up like a cinder?
Julie: Correct. OMG she’s Elsa!
Aaron: Oooo Emily Blunt is totally Elsa.
Julie: She just froze that shit!
Aaron: I told you this was going to be about Frozen.
Julie: And her hair turned white!
Aaron: Let it gooooo, Julie.

Julie: Ugh. I am over it. We always fear what's different, blah blah.
Aaron: Is Aslan going to narrate this whole film?
Julie: A barren woman is a dangerous woman, blah blah.
Aaron: "If she could not raise a child, then she would raise an army." Shut the fuck up.
Julie: Jesus, this is legit The Snow Queen. AHHHHH ICE QUEEEEEEEEN.
Aaron: The art direction is a lot better in this one.
Julie: You remember the other one that well? Lies.
Aaron: Who wrote that Snow Queen? Andersen?
Julie: Yessir.
Aaron: She is fabulous!
Julie: Neat gown! Does Emily sing? It's time for a power ballad. [Note: She does sing.]

Julie: A child of color! We are already doing better than the last film. Do you think they read our critique of its racism?
Aaron: If the Snow Queen learns how to love by the end of this movie I will be so mad.
Julie: Love is a sin, A-ron. She will not commit sin.
Aaron: This is why snow exists, when women no longer believe in love.
Julie: There is another person of color! I'm keeping count.
Aaron: There is a fucking animatronic owl! I am loving my life.
Julie: I think you are loving rosé.
Aaron: Is this little redhead going to grow up to be Jessica Chastain? And the little pugnacious boy will be the Hemsworth? And there will, apparently be a grown-ass black man as well?
Julie: Yes, that is mini-Jess.

Aaron: Emily has a great wig. But if this is going to be about Emily Blunt and not Charlize, then I am going to be sad.
Julie: There will be one adult man of color according to iMDB. I think Charlize is passing on the crown, so to speak.
Aaron: This is a shame.
Julie: There he is! The one black man.
Aaron: Already an improvement on the last film. Jessica Chastain is seriously in this? What in the hell.
Julie: I legit don't understand the timeline for this film. When are we in relation to K-Stew's character?
Aaron: My ex-boyfriend said that this is a prequel and a sequel. So maybe it is happening simultaneously?
Julie: So, like, Charlize is Anna, and Emily is Elsa? And we just didn't see Elsa the last time?
Aaron: Yeah, I guess so. Anna but, like, a murderous one.
Julie: This is dumb. Then who is Jess? Olaf?
Aaron: I think I don't remember Frozen as well as you do, Julie.
Julie: Olaf is the snowman, A-ron. Best part of the film.

Aaron: So far the problem is that we are spending time with the good guys instead of with Charlize eating the hearts of dead birds. I don't care about these white people making out.
Julie: No one cares about white people making out. Oooo that dress! It's like chain mail!!
Aaron: Didn't Sarah Palin wear that dress to endorse Trump? Emily Blunt doesn't know how to do this part. Why is she having so many feelings. Be the ice queen!
Julie: She's letting it go. It's a process.
Aaron: Haha.
Julie: The ice is not as fun as the black, oily goo from the last film.
Aaron: Not at all.
Julie: Oh noooooo! J-Chas!!!!!
Aaron: Oh my god, wait. Is J-Chas already dead? It's barely been 20 minutes. Jessica, we hardly knew ye!
Julie: Also, did they just make the one man of color the bad guy? Liam says love cannot last. He is correct.
Aaron: The one man of color will get his redemption.
Julie: I hope so.
Aaron: Oh now we've jumped forward to after the other movie.
Julie: Back to Charlize?!?
Aaron: Well no, now Charlize is dead, right? Because Snow White is queen now. I need more rosé. This is stupid.
Julie: Jesus, none of this make sense.
Aaron: Do they think we remember that movie?
Julie: Apparently they do. He just killed your animatronic owl.
Aaron: This owl that watches him is fun. I am sorry it just got killed. I love owls.
Julie: There'll be more where he came from, I'm sure.
Aaron: This dwarf comedy bit is not good.
Julie: No. Using them for comic relief is not cute. Nor is it funny.
Aaron: This bit is straight out of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Julie: I will take your word for it. Does that dwarf have a man bun?
Aaron: The other one has a mohawk.
Julie: And the other has a mohawk. What is happening?
Aaron: Julie, nothing's happening.
Julie: ZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. At least you are drinking.

Aaron: Wait, can Chris Hemsworth, like, sense the auras of dead people?
Julie: According to this film, yes.
Aaron: Now this movie is a mystery movie. It is jumping genre a bit too fast for me.
Julie: The only mystery is why we're watching it.
Aaron: Nothing is happening! What is this?
Julie: Where are the women? They killed off two at the start and now Emily is MIA. This sucks. I don't care about Chris and his dwarves.
Aaron: Maybe I'd be a little more interested in this fight sequence if I had any idea what the sides were. Like, who are these soldiers? And whose side is Chris Hemsworth on?
Julie: They are huntsmen. I don't understand the stakes. Or the plot, for that matter.
Aaron: Maybe Jessica Chastain is really alive.
Julie: J-Chas?!?!? Please for the love of Jesus let it be her.
Aaron: That legitimately makes no sense, but I hope it is true.
Julie: Nothing about this makes sense. Yay I win!

Aaron: Ok this makes sense now. But it is just as boring as before. This is just tired sentiment.
Julie: Let her have the mirror then. At least things would be interesting then.
Aaron: This shit is so slow.
Julie: That's because this stupid movie is about "love". ZzzzZzzzzzz.
Aaron: And literally the plot is: will this man and this woman get back together? Like, fucking duh. How are we supposed to get invested in something so obvious?
Julie: I miss K-Stew.

Julie: Remember how the first film didn't have a sense of humor? I miss that.
Aaron: Goblins!
Julie: We are only halfway through this shit. OMG.
Aaron: I wish there were more to make fun of. But this is just sentimental schlock.
Julie: I legit might fall asleep.
Aaron: Where is Aslan? Liam Neeson's narration could speed us right through this.
Julie: I wish he would enter the movie, all Taken-style. That would spice things up.
Aaron: The goblins! Maybe they'll have cool make-up? Let's do the rest of our chat in pirate voices. I'm gonna finish this bottle of wine and hope this gets better.
Julie: Hahaha how? Just put "argh" after everything? There's the blasted mirror.
Aaron: Arrrr. I think Charlize might be coming back! Oooo!!!!This goblin is badass!
Julie: Is that a goblin?!
Aaron: Maybe not…? Maybe he is, like, from the mirror itself.
Julie: He looks like he belongs in the Planet of the Apes movies.
Aaron: I love him. He’s the best this film has offered us so far. Aside from Charlize's headdress.
Julie: That is not a goblin. Is it? Look at that Matrix flip he just did!
Aaron: This is the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Boromir dies. I think he's a goblin. Yeah, here's some more of them.
Julie: He's a freakin' ape.
Aaron: They're mean guys. Look at that river of molten gold! I want it. This director loves Peter Jackson a lot. Goblin blood is pyrotechnic or something? This aspect of goblin lore was unknown to me.

Hemsworth wonders why we're still watching.
Aaron: See, and here is another bullshit scene. It is impossible to cry about someone dying when it is manifestly obvious that he is not dead.
Julie: These effects suck.
Aaron: The last movie's effects got an Oscar nomination, Julie.
Julie: They did. This one will not receive that distinction.
Aaron: No it will not.
Julie: And there's Tinker Bell. WTF.
Aaron: But there are tortoises covered in moss behind these fools.
Julie: I thought that was a porcupine.
Aaron: There was one of those, too.
Julie: This is terrible.
Aaron: I know. I have no idea why I should care or what we are fighting about.
Julie: Why is she angry? I do not understand what's going on.
Aaron: Well, like, she thought he left her. And so she has been hating him for 7 years.
Julie: She needs to
Aaron: But, who cares? She's gonna get over it in like 10 seconds and take his clothes off as quickly as possible. And.... now they're having sex. But ten bucks says that mirror is gone.

Julie: OMG is Charlize whispering through the mirror? Why the fuck would she be true to him when she thought he left her? That is some patriarchal shit.
Aaron: Look! It is the ice army!
Julie: Aw shit. She's a badass.
Aaron: Jessica Chastain don't care; she's in a tank top. Emily Blunt is riding a  … giant arctic wolf?
Julie: Haha it looks like it.
Aaron: It's just like in The Hobbit. When all of those characters rode on weird animals.
Julie: Correct.
Aaron: Jessica Chastain is having feelings.
Julie: Naw. She's cold as ice, just like Em.
Aaron: Did that fucking arrow hit the necklace he always wears? "She never misses." Predicted it.
Julie: I wish he had died.
Aaron: I do too. This is so bad. And now, like in a Peter Jackson film, these fools are going to ride on giant elk. To the North Kingdoms or wherever Emily Blunt is. I wish you were drinking, but I can't say that alcohol is making this any better.
Julie: I hate this. I want Charlize back!!!!!! Nothing could make this better.
Aaron: Peter Jackson shot! I need to stop taking note of things that are exactly like Peter Jackson.
Julie: This whole movie is a rip-off of every fantasy film ever made.

Aaron: Can Charlize come out of this mirror? I pray that happens.
Julie: I hope she eats someone's heart. Like her big sis. Yayayayaya the mirror goo!
Aaron: Now those are cool effects.
Julie: Well, Terminator did it first, let's recall.

But then the goo turns IN to Charlize!
Julie: Bitch is BACK. Thank you baby Jesus.
Aaron: Praise be. This makeup is flawless.
Julie: Death doesn't matter to Charlize. She is forever. Her whole ensemble is amaze-balls. And her nail claws! YASS.
Aaron: I love everything about this. Thank goodness for this film's third act.

Julie: But now we're back with the dwarves. I DO NOT CARE ABOUT THESE PEOPLE.
Aaron: Nope. Charlize is back.
Julie: She's changed outfits!
Aaron: With a new crown. And a new gown. This one is fabulous too.
Julie: The girls are out. That braided/snaky hair is fantastic.
Aaron: She is flawless. Julie. This movie is redeemed for me.
Julie: That is the rosé talking.
Aaron: Well maybe not redeemed. I need more rosé.
Julie: Yes. You do. You're drinking for two, after all.
Aaron: Just like any good mother-to-be. More Peter Jackson imagery. For those keeping score.
Julie: I hope there are flying monkeys. This feels a little Wizard of Oz-ending to me. By the way, what happened to our actor of color?
Aaron: He's still around. I saw him when J-Chas came back.
Julie: She is sad about being childless. I hate this trope.
Aaron: Charlize in yet another outfit. All is right with the world.
Julie: Ooooo Charlize energizes this shit. And she has wings, to boot.
Aaron: She's just so much better than everyone in this movie.
Julie: Yes. She's the only one who realizes how to make this not suck. Everyone else is playing it straight. That is a mistake.
Aaron: So true. They're all doing some kind of emotional truth. And Charlize is just being badass. It's really magnificent to watch.
Julie: Well, she has no feelings. She is dead, after all.
Aaron: Her shoes! She just said that too. "I've been dead before."
Julie: I missed the shoes. I'm sad about it.
Aaron: Ok, Julie, but why is it that we can see what makes this movie good, but the filmmaker has no idea what is good about this movie. Man of color. Redemption. What did I tell you? The black oil is back!!!
Julie: Well he didn't know about the last one either, but Charlize was in the entire thing, so it sucked less. Yay, effects!
Aaron: This is amazing.
Julie: That goddamn ice needs to go. It is boring.

Aaron: I am a little sorry that we won't get to see another costume change.
Julie: Is this movie telling us that women are pathetic because they have feelings? I'm not sure of the messaging here.
Aaron: It was Charlize who killed the baby.
Julie: That cape is badass though.
Aaron: I think the message here is that women need to love more. They should be less cold-hearted.
Julie: Men don't like powerful women. They don't have feelings. They don't smile. They are too ambitious. They are Hillary Clinton.
Aaron: This is cool now.
Julie: Sorry. I am getting excited. Powerful women are evil, they ruin everything, blah blah. We must thaw their cold, cold hearts.
Aaron: Charlize gave this movie life. All hail to this evil queen. She also hates "cheap sentiment"! Me too, Charlize! And we got a costume change after all. She was literal gold to this movie. But yes, as you say, this movie sees women just like everyone else does. They are too ambitious. They are too cold. They are too busy not being mothers.
Julie: Fuck, the dwarves are back.
Aaron: This is the last few minutes of this, though. I await Liam Neeson's narration.
Julie: Liam!
Aaron: Even buried under ice and snow, love survives.
Julie: Ugh. Love. Zzzzz. Fuck Liam Neeson for saying that. "None ever truly end." There is going to be a sequel. But without Charlize?
Aaron: Bad grammar. None ever truly ends.
Julie: I mean, I guess we have proven that she can be dead and still be in the movie. I hope they were all paid really well for this.
Aaron: No. Charlize definitely comes back. That's what that gold bird was for.

One more of Charlize before we go!
Aaron: So this song over the credits is all about girl power and how an old man is on a throne saying "I shouldn't be so mean". It's kind of great.
Julie: Oh really? I wasn't listening. Nice.
Aaron: But the film doesn't seem to believe its own message.
Julie: Any parting words?
Aaron: My parting words are that Hollywood is too sentimental for its own good. If it would only just give in to loving evil, it could really succeed.
Julie: No, this film doesn't think much of women. They are either sentimental or evil. There is nothing else.
Aaron: Not true. The movie knows that the reason to watch is Charlize. It just thinks we should all be embarrassed by or ashamed of that. Well I am not.
Julie: Well, that is not true. If it was, she would be in more than twenty minutes of it. I think this would make a neat musical: The Evil Queen starring Charlize. With really fun stage effects. Who is going to make that happen? And by 'this' I don't mean this movie. Obviously. Just the character.
Aaron: Obviously. And the answer is Julie Taymor. Last question. Does this film get a costume nomination?
Julie: I don't think Charlize('s costumes) were in enough of the film. Also, it was so early in the year. So unless it's a dry season: No.
Aaron: I think you're right. Although it may well turn out to be a dry season. I have begun pregaming, for the record, and so I saw The Dressmaker with Kate Winslet (for the costume category) and it was horrifically bad. Be glad you're not pregaming as in days of yore.
Julie: I am glad. I feel so free. Too many men. Too many white men. I would not survive another Oscar season.
Aaron: Let's do this again soon with something more fun.
Julie: Yes. We need another Tonto. Or whatever that mess was. I will keep an eye out. I do so love really awful movies. Thank you for keeping me company tonight. Sleep well. Dream of dead people's auras. G'night!
Aaron: Night!
Sleep well!

16 October 2016

The Program

This movie, with its terrible title – The Program – has a very good central performance by Ben Foster, who I love.

But as it turns out this is just a rather conventional film about a terrible person. The Program is about disgraced Tour de France winner ... actually I've forgotten his name at the moment and I refuse to look it up. You'll remember him, though. He's the U.S. American who did performance-enhancing drugs so that he could win the Tour de France seven consecutive times and then refused to admit he did anything wrong.

Well... the problem with The Program, even though Ben Foster is really great in the movie, is: we know he did it up front, we learn that he was doping all along and just hid it really really well, and he never ever has any remorse about it.

This is sort of hard to swallow, in the sense that there is no one for whom one can root in The Program. We know this criminal will get stripped of his titles. We know he will be caught. And we know he will never admit "defeat", i.e. the fact that he cheated. 

There are a couple of side plots designed to keep us emotionally interested, but none of them really works.

The Program does what it does well enough, but it can't help but be a kind of procedural in which the crime has always already been solved by the intrepid reporter.

13 October 2016

David and Lisa

I think the Perrys are good filmmakers, but I hated David and Lisa. Its subject matter is juvenile, its ideas about psychology are facile, its treatment of disability is offensive. Furthermore, it's a character study obsessed with plot instead of character, and the two main characters are truly and annoyingly unwatchable.

08 October 2016

Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry has made a strangely calibrated film that intends for its genre to be unclear. Is it a mystery? Is it a horror film? What in the hell is going to happen? The reason, I think, the film resists genre is that once we know what genre we're watching, we'll sort of know what to expect. And Perry doesn't want us to know what to expect. This works.

Queen of Earth itself is a critique of white bourgeois entitlement, I guess. But it is also a portrait of sheer madness. Or perhaps it is just that because I value politeness so much, I found the two main characters – and especially Elisabeth Moss's Catherine – absolutely insane. These women are totally unhinged. Who behaves like this??

Also, I love the poster. What a batshit crazy way to sell a movie! You can also see from even the poster that Perry is attempting to avoid the expectations that go along with particular genres. That typeface! That sketch! What am I even looking at??

I can't say that I enjoyed Queen of Earth, but I found all of this thoroughly respectable.

06 October 2016

Two in Neon

Neon Bull (Boi Neon) is one of the most unexpected films I've seen this year. The film follows a group of characters who work for a kind of Brazilian rodeo in which the tails of the bulls are grabbed by a kind of vaquero and the bull is flipped by his own energy so that he falls. As the film continues we see this happen several times. Each time it is compelling and unsettling.

Gabriel Mascaro's film follows one of these workers, Iremar, as he works with these animals, and a girl named Cacá whose mother works with the rodeo. Iremar is actually a fashion designer or wants to be, and he designs costumes for Cacá's mother when she dances in a cabaret. Cacá mostly just hangs around. But what she really wants is a horse.

The film unfolds slowly (totally my speed), allowing for our relationships with these characters to settle. We can observe and identify, slowly noticing patterns and studying these characters. The film takes a decidedly odd turn midway through, however, when Iremar and one of his companions attempt to steal some horse semen from an (apparently) valuable animal. I won't say any more than this – do I even need to? – but Mascaro's film kept surprising me from this point on.

Abigail Pereira and Juliano Cazarré
Neon Bull is visually stunning and some of its image are downright jaw-dropping. And as the film continues it meditates on our relationships with animals, on lives lived in relationship with animals, on the ways we make money off of our manipulation of animals. This means, of course, that Neon Bull is fundamentally about the question of the human. In what ways are we different from animals? In what ways are we animals? Mascaro's film thinks through these questions via the topic of sex, and Neon Bull is therefore a very sexy film in addition to being excellent.

This film made me think very deeply, and I don't think I loved it while I was watching. I was more astounded by this movie; my reaction was rather one of simple and consistent surprise. But once Neon Bull was over, I couldn't shake it. In fact, it's been three weeks since I saw this movie and I still keep thinking about it, its images, its ideas, its carefully drawn characters and their fascinating relationships. If I didn't love this movie three weeks ago, I'm positive I do now. It's not going to be for everyone – its explicit sex sequences (one involving an animal) and slow pace will turn off quite a few viewers – but this movie is great.

* * *
And then there's The Neon Demon, the new film by Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed the awesome Drive and then followed that up with the ridiculously boring Only God Forgives.

Neon Demon takes place in an odd, haunted Los Angeles that has almost no correspondence with reality. This is a Lynchian fever-dream of a film and knows that's what it is. In fact, there is literally no way that anyone who doesn't like Lynch will like The Neon Demon. 

What this movie is is actually a campy, surreal, mostly silly horror movie with models for main characters and cannibalism as its subject matter. It even includes that staple of this B-movie genre: lesbian desire and girl-on-girl sex scenes.

Nicolas Winding Refn, however, doesn't seem to think he's directed a gimmicky, B-movie, fantasy flick. He think he's made A Clockwork Orange or Barry Lyndon or Blue Velvet. He most certainly has not. He's hidden his silly-but-possibly-clever little horror film, which should have lasted about 75 minutes, inside a bloated, pretentious, and (worst of all) boring 120-minute film. The Neon Demon is awful. 

The Neon Demon's Opening Shot
And it isn't just the world of the film that seems totally detached from reality. Even the film's central assumption – that Elle Fanning possess an extraordinary (yet completely natural) beauty that none of the other gorgeous models in the film possesses – only makes sense because the film keeps telling us it does. I couldn't tell the difference between one model and the next, and I fail to see how Refn or anyone in his film is supposed to be able to do so. The film's main argument is actually that these models are a fungible quantity, easily replaceable, and yet we are supposed to believe that one of them is not that: that she is special in some kind of magical, clearly noticeable way? And then The Neon Demon itself replaces Fanning! In act three she is no longer the central character of the film. Someone else, in fact, takes the place of this irreplaceable, unique beauty, and we find that, of course, we can do without her quite well.

Oh, Who Cares?
For my part I could have done without this film in its entirety, but it is not completely without redeeming qualities. Karl Glusman is good in a small, thankless part, and Erin Benach's costumes are pretty great. The makeup, too, is really really excellent. Keanu Reeves, it should also be noted, gives a performance that is much better than this film.

There are a few stunning images, too, especially notable is a very brief sequence in which an intruder gets into Elle Fanning's apartment.

If only Refn took himself a little less seriously. I recommend that the director of The Neon Demon and Only God Forgives watch a few John Waters films and admit his silliness to himself. Refn seems to think he's doing Lynch or Kubrick, but what he's doing is what Frank Perry used to do – making very serious films that turn out to be exercises in camp.

02 October 2016

From Afar

I turned against this movie halfway through and never forgave it.