Friday, December 14, 2018

The Favourite: Sex, Blood, Revenge, and Other Elegant Things

Olivia Colman and Emma Stone in "The Favourite"
Done to death, the British costume drama is given new life in The Favourite, a wickedly funny, deceptively sad movie about the ruling and the ruled. Its period trappings—the hushed candlelight, the sprawling castles, the finery and regalia—may seem unusual for a film by Yorgos Lanthimos, but then, no Yorgos Lanthimos film is usual. Having previously turned his lacerating eye on a number of twisted scenarios in the present—perversely homeschooled children, oppressively romantic dystopias, magically vengeful teenagers—the Greek director now looks backward, bringing his inimitable brand of irreverent humor and piercing technique to bear on the stuffy, pompous palaces of Stuart England. The Favourite may carry the sheen of a proper prestige production, but nobody here is behaving themselves.

Except maybe for Lanthimos. Of course, bad behavior is relative; it takes until The Favourite’s final scenes before a cuddly animal is abused, which for this occasionally sadistic filmmaker qualifies as a form of restraint. But even as he continues shoving his characters into confounding, humiliating situations—here, a genteel carriage ride through the countryside can quickly morph into the involuntary witnessing of a crude sex act—Lanthimos remains cool and crisp with the camera. Working with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey), he creates a gorgeous atmosphere that luxuriates in the period’s obscene extravagances, even as he methodically subverts them. (Ryan shoots a number of scenes with fisheye lenses, an approach that subtly warps the corners of the frame yet somehow enhances its beauty in the process.) The production design is impeccable, while the costumes and wigs—designed by the great Sandy Powell, who won Oscars dressing other English monarchs in The Young Victoria and Shakespeare in Love—are marvelously ornate. Visually, The Favourite is supple and elegant, which makes it the perfect vehicle to tell a story of backbiting and debauchery.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Their Lives Are in Pieces, and So Is the Movie

Tim Blake Nelson in the Coen Brothers' "Ballad of Buster Scruggs"
In one of the six vignettes that make up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new Western from Joel and Ethan Coen, a solitary prospector played by Tom Waits spends a good deal of time digging a series of holes near a river. As you watch his methodical work, it doesn’t take you all that long to discern his purpose; even if you struggle to fathom the particular mechanics of his strategy, it’s plain that this silent, grizzled man is searching for gold. But because these laborious digging scenes find the film at its least busy—note that this is another way of saying “most boring”—your mind is likely to wander, and to contemplate the potential thematic connections that must surely link the film’s narratively disparate episodes.

But how? In structuring The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as an anthology, the Coens have invited their audience to engage in a robust, somewhat maddening intellectual guessing game. Maybe the movie is about the tragic inevitability of death; this seems plausible, given that four of our six main characters die, while the other two do the killing. Maybe it’s about the inherent tension between the tantalizing promise of the Old West (manifest destiny!) and the cold reality of a lawless, nascent civilization. Maybe it’s about the perpetual collision between man’s insatiable greed—most everyone we meet craves more of something, be it money, glory, or respect—and his desire for stability and peace. Or maybe, just maybe, the vignettes don’t share any deeper meaning at all. Maybe those holes are just holes.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald: Setting the Magical Table, One Spell at a Time

Katherine Waterson and Eddie Redmayne in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald"
There is plenty of spell-casting and wand-waving in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second in a planned five-film series from director David Yates and writer J.K. Rowling. Whether there is much genuine magic is another matter. On occasion, Yates’ visual flair and Rowling’s boundless imagination combine to show you something truly wonderful and dazzling: winged horses pulling a carriage through lashing rain; a lionlike creature with wide eyes and a whirling pink tail storming through Paris; a circle of brilliant-blue flames walling off an army of advancing soldiers. Most of the time, however, the magic on display is of a more earthbound sort, akin to a charlatan’s rudimentary illusions. The Crimes of Grindelwald is very loud and busy, but its noise and energy seem designed to distract you from what’s really happening. It’s the classic shell game writ large and in CGI; focus on the blurs of motion and the blasts of sound, and you can’t see the movie’s fundamental emptiness.

Among the many achievements of Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (and their filmed adaptations) was their deft balance between—to borrow terms from TV criticism—the episodic and the serialized; each told a compelling story with a discrete dilemma and a particular villain while also continually developing the central characters and steadily progressing toward an ultimate, good-vs.-evil showdown. The Crimes of Grindelwald, by contrast, seems entirely invested in setting the table for future installments, cautiously arranging chess pieces without moving them anywhere interesting. Following a reasonably suspenseful, somewhat indiscernible prologue in which the dastardly Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, perfectly fine) escapes from the custody of magical law enforcement in the night sky amid a thunderstorm, the movie begins with Grindelwald poised to topple the social wizarding order. It ends in pretty much the same place. The meaty stuff, it appears, will be served later; this is just a lengthy appetizer.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody: Thunderbolt and Lightning, Not Very Frightening

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody"
Sparring with a grumpy studio executive over the direction of his ascendant band, Freddie Mercury insists that Queen’s new record will have operatic overtones, thereby defying the traditional formula of “Do it again, only bigger.” The suit balks. “I like formula,” he retorts, and well he should; formula has made him money. Bohemian Rhapsody, the new middle-of-the-road biopic about Mercury and Queen, frames this studio head as an out-of-touch buffoon, a crass businessman solely interested in profit and utterly lacking in artistic vision; the band, in contrast, is perceived as constantly knocking down barriers and fearlessly reinventing itself.

The juxtaposition is ironic, because while Bohemian Rhapsody may chronicle 15 years in the life of one of rock-and-roll’s seminal musicians, in terms of ambition and execution, it is entirely on the side of the suit. Which is to say: This movie is pure formula. Take a solitary dreamer with starry eyes and a disapproving dad; introduce him to some pleasant and unmemorable fellow aspirants looking for their own big break; show the group coming together to create some of rock’s classic tunes; follow a montage of their success with a reveal of slowly deepening fissures of dissension; mix in some substance abuse and romantic trauma; conclude with a harmonious reunion that reminds everyone of the unsullied joy of making music. Stuff everything in a blender and press “Play”, then wait for the dollars to start pouring out.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Suspiria: Witchy Women, Dying and Born Again

Dakota Johnson dances her way into Hell in "Suspiria"
Dance is death in Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s insane, exasperating, furiously watchable remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic. The collision of beauty and brutality on stage is hardly novel; Black Swan gave us a feral portrait of a performer who helplessly sacrificed her body and her sanity in the pursuit of artistic perfection. But Suspiria posits ballet as a more malevolent sort of blood sport, where lithe women twirl and leap and crash, all while sinister forces lurk behind the gleaming mirrors and beneath the polished floorboards, eager to feed on the talents of the young. I’m not speaking metaphorically; this really is a movie about a desiccated matriarch who craves to transplant her soul from her own befouled body into the supple flesh of an unsuspecting protégé. And you thought the battles in the Step Up franchise were intense!

Of course, Suspiria is more (or maybe less) than a gonzo supernatural thriller. “I could explain everything to you; I think that would be wrong, though,” an instructor murmurs to an unnerved pupil. I can’t explain much of anything to you, because this movie defies easy description, even as it eagerly courts post-hoc analysis. Suffice it to say that Suspiria seems to be about many things. Perhaps it’s about the intersection of political activism and grass-roots fanaticism, given that it’s set in Germany 1977 and glancingly depicts (by way of news broadcasts and radio snippets) the death knell of the Baader-Meinhof movement. Maybe it’s about femininity and solidarity, seeing as it traces the relationships—the camaraderie, the rivalries, the jealousy and admiration—of a company of female dancers at an elite academy. Maybe it’s about self-discovery; its main character, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), initially enters the conservatory’s halls with timidity, only to quickly reveal herself as an ambitious and capable dancer with a hunger for stardom. Maybe it’s about the persistence of fascism; how else to explain the extensive subplot about an elderly German man searching for his wife, who’s believed to have vanished decades ago at the Concentration Camps? Or maybe it’s just about a bunch of old women who want to be young again.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Hate U Give: Beaten Down, Then Speaking Up

Amandla Stenberg in "The Hate U Give"
Overstuffed yet bracing, predictable yet provocative, The Hate U Give is above all defiantly, unapologetically loud. Yet it opens with a scene of sober, ominous quiet. As the camera glides through the fictional Compton-esque neighborhood of Garden Heights, it locks on a two-story house and creeps through an open window, where a man, Maverick, is talking with his wife and three children at the kitchen table. It could be any chat where a parent imparts advice about the larger world—about sex, politics, family values—but here, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) is calmly but forcefully telling his kids how to behave if they ever when they inevitably get pulled over by the police. Keep your hands flat on the dashboard, he says. Be respectful. Don’t make any sudden movements; don’t give them any reason to hurt you. The burden, he patiently explains to his kids, isn’t on the cops; it’s on them. His children, all under the age of 10, listen intently, as though their father is teaching them about the difference between life and death. Which, of course, he is.

In making The Hate U Give, the director George Tillman Jr. faces an unusual and somewhat perverse challenge. Tasked with adapting Angie Thomas’ bestselling novel to the screen, he must dramatize a fictional story—about the fallout of a white police officer killing an unarmed black youth—in an era where such events are horribly, commonly real. In a country already familiar with the tragic deaths of actual people—many of whom the film name-checks, including Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile—do we really need an entertaining yarn about invented characters suffering the same fate?

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Old Man & the Gun: Hands Up, Please, This Is a Respectful Robbery

Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford in "The Old Man & the Gun"
Describing Robert De Niro’s vicious mobster in Goodfellas, Ray Liotta says, “What he really loved to do was steal; I mean, he actually enjoyed it.” David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun also follows a real-life criminal with a genuine passion for robbery, but that’s pretty much where the similarities between the two films end. Never one to tackle genre material head-on—Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was ostensibly about lovers on a shooting spree, but it was really just a collage of pretty Texas pictures overlaid by Malickian voiceover—Lowery paints this story’s true-crime elements with a warm, humanist gloss. What would typically play as a gritty thriller—there’s even a cops-and-robbers angle, with an obsessed detective who makes it his mission to capture this audacious thief—instead unfolds as a leisurely character study of aging and contentment.

Mostly, The Old Man & the Gun is a showcase for Robert Redford, appearing in what is supposedly his final role. He plays Forrest Tucker, the felon who, as relayed in the David Grann article that formed the basis for Lowery’s screenplay, robbed nearly 100 banks over a 60-year span, escaping from prison more than a dozen times in the process. That’s quite the rap sheet, but Redford doesn’t exaggerate Tucker’s legend or puff up his stature. Instead, he delivers a sly and twinkly performance, investing this sundance elder with a strange integrity that’s part-pride, part-grace.

Monday, October 22, 2018

First Man: Making History, One Small Step at a Time

Ryan Gosling shoots for the moon in "First Man".
Just how crazy did you have to be to become an astronaut? These guys clearly must have had a screw loose, because so did their spaceships. At one point in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, as intrepid explorers are piling into a bucket of bolts that’s designed to blast them into the stratosphere, the crew struggles to fasten somebody’s seat belt. The solution: “Anybody got a Swiss Army knife?” That’s right, these are multi-million-dollar missions spearheaded by the country’s greatest minds, yet somehow they’re repairing their vehicles with trinkets from your 10-year-old’s tool kit.

That scene is a blackly comic moment, but it also illuminates the forces that drive First Man’s characters, and its maker. Chazelle’s Whiplash was a bracing portrait of single-minded obsession in the pursuit of perfection; his follow-up, La La Land, was simply perfect, but it also involved artists who dreamed of glory and self-fulfillment. Yet where those movies were taut and intimate, First Man operates on a grand scale, seeking to compress nine years of scientific exploration into two-plus hours of white-knuckle adventure. It’s a monumental undertaking, and for the first time, you can see Chazelle strain, laboring to deliver the epic goods. But he remains a prodigiously gifted filmmaker, and even if First Man lacks the effortless fluidity of his prior works, it also routinely serves up sequences and images that are, literally and figuratively, out of this world.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A Star Is Born: The Song Remains the Same, But with New Music

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in "A Star Is Born"
As meta monologues go, it’s hard to imagine one more openly symbolic than the speech that Bobby (Sam Elliott) gives in A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s sweet and soulful love story. Music, Bobby drawls, is just 12 notes between any octave. “It’s the same story, told over and over, forever; all the artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.” Bobby is speaking about the constraining nature of music—a medium whose potential for variety is virtually limitless, but never mind—but it’s impossible not to read his remarks in the context of this movie, which is a remake of a remake of a remake. The cinematic notes underlying A Star Is Born have already been played. What matters now isn’t their sequence, but their presentation.

And measured against that yardstick, the film is a success. Its story is obviously familiar, but Cooper’s execution of it is spirited and stirring. It rather seamlessly transports the hoary themes of the 1937 original—a classic tale of fame, persistence, and possession—into the complexities of the present day, managing to feel timeless and contemporary at once. And perhaps most importantly, it features high-quality music, including a handful of truly triumphant scenes that help transform its leading lady from a pop phenomenon into a movie star.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Colette: Carnal Explorations, with a Parisian Gloss

Keira Knightley in "Colette"
Early in Colette, the entrepreneur Henry Gauthier-Villars—better known as Willy, his nom de plume—lays out his plan to publish a wildly popular novel. He conceives of an epic work that’s both refined and ribald, literate enough to appeal to highbrows but sufficiently tawdry to intrigue “the unwashed masses”. Then he pauses, musing, “Maybe it’s the other way around.”

He might be onto something. The issue endemic to many period pieces—this one opens in 1892 and spans roughly 15 years—is a surfeit of gentility, and a corresponding lack of vulgarity, like a catered dinner party with no spice and no impudent conversation. Colette plainly has the handsomeness part of the equation down pat, sporting a luxuriant score, ravishing costumes, and fluid camerawork. What surprises and enchants about this movie, which was directed by Wash Westmoreland from a script he wrote with Richard Glatzer (his late husband) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is how breezily entertaining it is. Colette is elegant, yes, but it is also funny, sexy, angry, and even a little bit naughty. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko: Gauche is good.