Licorice Pizza(12/11/2021)

The 70s were weird, or so I’m told.  The general cultural consensus seems to be that on balance it was a terrible decade that combined all the worst elements of the previous decade (political tumult, crime, moral uncertainty) with all the worst elements of the next decade (cultural commodification, conservative social backlash, embarrassing fashion) along with some aesthetic choices which feel like they never could have been seen as tasteful.  The music and movies of the era tend to hold up pretty well, in part because it was the decade when baby boomers became adults, thus making it one of the few times when there was more money to be made in catering to adults than children.  But those boomer adults mostly seem to look back on the decade with disdain.  Gen Xers (or at least honorary Gen Xers) on the other hand seem to look back on the decade with more affection.  Nostalgia is a hell of a drug and even people who grew up during the worst of warfare and economic depression are capable of coming out with at least some odd affection for the times they grew up in.  Up to now the definitive film of 70s nostalgia was almost certainly Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a 90s movie about teenagers in suburban Texas circa 1976.  Beyond that you maybe have Wit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn.  But few movies are as oddly pro-70s as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights a movie that seems to suggest that from a certain perspective the 70s were actually awesome for all the reasons most people are disgusted by it (cocaine, dirty sex, disco) while the 80s were lame and stifling.  Well, Paul Thomas Anderson has now returned to that decade, this time looking at it from a slightly more chill perspective via his long awaited 70s set film Licorice Pizza.

Specifically Licorice Pizza is set in 1973 and in the San Fernando Valley and it looks at a rather unconventional relationship between a fifteen year old actor and “go getter” named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and a somewhat aimless young woman ten years his elder named Alana Kane (Alana Haim).  Despite being of high school age Valentine has been working as an actor both in features and in commercials from a very young age and is already moving into other ventures like starting a business selling water beds (then a new invention) to the surrounding areas.  Kane joins him in this venture along with some other friends and siblings and their exploits will to encounter all sorts of Hollywood eccentrics like fictional aging actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), fictional director Rex Blau (Tom Waits), real life producer and spider enthusiast Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), and real life local politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie).  Throughout all this the two of them have a sort of “will they or won’t they” dynamic as both of them aren’t exactly sure whether they should be something more than friends given the age differential and occasional bouts of interest in other people.

Paul Thomas Anderson was born in 1970, meaning that he was three years old when this was set so it would be a mistake to view this as a movie that’s autobiographical.  Instead this appears to have been inspired by the recollections of a showbiz friend of his named Gary Goetzman, who is currently a producer who works a lot with Tom Hanks.  Like Gary Valentine, Goetzman’s biggest credit by 1973 would have been as a child star in a dopey comedy called Yours, Mine and Ours (fictionalized here as Under One Roof) and like Valentine he had a bunch of other hustles at a ridiculously young age.  The film is also populated with other L.A. figures both famous and obscure, some of them lightly fictionalized and some of them named by name.  The aging Jack Holden, played here by Sean Penn, appears to be based on William Holden and while I don’t have a source for this I’m going to guesstimate that the rugged aging director played by Tom Waits is based on Sam Peckinpah.  Meanwhile they just name producer/Barbra Streisand ex/Shampoo inspiration Jon Peters by name and making him this hilarious crazy person who pops into the film for a fifteen minute stretch, possibly just because Anderson knew Peters had a sense of humor about his reputation.  Some of these people are a bit more obscure as well, like a restaurateur played by John Michael Higgins called Jerry Frick who has this weird racist banter with his Japanese wife and late in the film we meet a local politician named Joel Wachs, who is also real and was apparently a figure in southern California politics for decades to come.  All of this suggests a bit of a portrait of this odd community in the time and place that’s not exactly connected to the film industry but certainly on its periphery and where you can just run into eccentrics at will and where it feels like you can accomplish things a bit easier than you’d maybe expect elsewhere, for better or worse.

So, let’s get to the elephant in the room: this is a movie about a relationship between a fifteen year old and a twenty five year old… is that creepy or what?  At the very least that’s a tension that runs through the film and it’s something that needs to be approached with a bit of nuance that tends to be absent from conversations about these sorts of things.  In many ways I think this movie can be viewed as something of a weird funhouse mirror companion piece to Anderson’s last film Phantom Thread.  While the two movies have vastly different tones and settings, what they have in common is that both of them are basically film length peeks into unconventional relationships between unconventional people which you’re not exactly sure you can approve of.  That film looked at a dynamic which, in terms of wealth differential and temperament could be viewed as emotionally abusive except that the woman in that film proved to be a tougher cookie than you’d expect at first glance and was able to find ways bring her husband down to earth.  Here there are a number of factors making the power dynamic between these two rather… unconventional.

Valentine is indeed quite a bit younger than Kane, but he’s also not your average teenager.  His child star upbringing and general disposition has made him the more confident, independent, wealthy, and worldly of the two and you don’t get the impression that he’s being outsmarted or taken advantage of by Kane, who by contrast lives at home with her family and generally seems kind of aimless in life.  Does all this meant that such a relationship, is “okay?”  Not necessarily.  It should be noted that the relationship between Valentine and Kane appears to be basically unconsummated for much of the run of the film, which sort of sidesteps some of the thornier aspects of all of this and I don’t think it’s really making much of an argument that this relationship is some sort of true love that will last forever or even much past the summer.  More broadly though this does not strike me as a movie that’s trying to justify or make excuses for these kind of age differentials in general any more than a movie showing someone snorting a line of cocaine without consequences is necessarily trying to say that drugs can never hurt you.  It’s all meant to be very specific to these two people and their very unusual dynamic.

But all this talk of sexual ethics really misses the forest for the trees and distracts from the bigger takeaway, namely that this movie is a fuckin’ blast.  The movie can pretty legitimately be called a comedy without qualification as it is going for laughs in almost every scene and it has a lot of that energy that Paul Thomas Anderson was famous for in his early films but without some of his excessive tendencies from that era.  The film does have a bit of an episodic structure especially in the second half where it almost feels like a series of guest stars showing up, which may be a touch odd to some people but I think it works well for the movie in conveying how these characters are just kind of flowing through life in this weird breezy summer and some of these episodes are just priceless, that sequence with Bradley Cooper is some of the most amusing shit you’re going to see all year.  It’s certainly not the deepest movie that Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made but movies about teenagers dicking around in the San Fernando Valley during the 70s are by their nature not going to be as deep as movies about oil barons and cult leaders, but that doesn’t mean that it was made any less thoughtfully and the fact that he’s able to make both points to the sheer depth of his talents.  There’s basically nothing I’d change about this film… except maybe the title, not sure what that’s all about.

****1/2 out of Five

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Last Night in Soho(10/29/2021)

It has taken me a while to come around on Edgar Wright, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s taken him a while to catch up to me, or my tastes anyway.  I had mixed feelings about his “Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy,” which all certainly had their moments but their more parodic elements never quite sat well with me as I’m generally kind of allergic to genre spoofs.  In retrospect I quite like all of those movies but it’s probably not a coincidence that The World’s End, which is the least interested in cinematic tropes of the three, was the one that worked best for me on a first watch.  Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is almost certainly my least favorite of his films as it just bugs the hell out of me on all sorts of cultural levels, but again I definitely saw talent there.  That movie has perhaps become divisive in the years since but at the time I very much seemed to be on the outside of public opinion about it.  I did however finally come to Wright’s wavelength with his last movie Baby Driver, a movie that in a number of ways I think is actually rather under-rated.  That was certainly a movie that was interested in making callbacks to pop culture, specifically music, and it was certainly in dialogue with several cinematic tropes but it didn’t feel like arrogant in how it did this and the movie generally took it self exactly as seriously as it needed to while providing some really virtuosic filmmaking in the way it combined action and song.  But things are a bit different with Wright’s latest film Last Night in Soho in that the buzz I was hearing going into this one was not universally positive.  It has a respectable score on RT but a lot of people who saw it on the festival circuit were disappointed and Focus Features do not seem to have a lot of confidence in it in their release marketing and haven’t built a lot of buzz.  And that means the tables have fully turned because I now find myself being a Edgar Wright defender rather than detractor because I quite liked the film.

The film revolves around Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) a young woman from the English countryside with some vaguely defined psychic powers who has long had an interest in clothing design, which leads her to apply to the London College of Fashion and travels to the big city to attend.  Once there though she quickly finds that she does not fit in with the other girls in the dorms and opts to move out into a room for rent at a nearby brownstone owned by a rather conservative landlord named Mrs. Collins (Diana Rigg) in spite of a great deal of light pollution there from a nearby neon sign.  One night while sleeping in this room Turner has a very vivid dream that she is in that Soho neighborhood some sixty years early in the midst of the swinging 60s, a time period she’s long been infatuated with through the clothing and music and general culture of the time.  Not only is she in this location in these dreams but she’s a different person entirely, a charismatic aspiring singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) who really lights up ever room she sets foot in.  Turner wakes up from this dream but finds that aspects of her temporal journeys linger with her and this ends up being the setting for future dreams as well, but soon these dreams turn into nightmares as it becomes clear that Sandie’s story is actually quite sad and the metaphorical start to stick with Turner even during her waking hours, seemingly driving her insane to most outside observers.

In the run up to this movie’s release I was working on a theory that, much as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End formed a thematic trilogy Wright’s other two movies (Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World) could also have been the start of their own unannounced and unnamed thematic trilogy.  Unlike “Spaced” and the “Cornetto” trilogy, which were both very concerned with Generation X, these new movies were looking at Millennials (pushing into Gen Z), and specifically Millennials who were obsessively interested in pop culture from before their time: 80s video games in the case of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and 70s music in Baby Driver.  So I was eager to see if Last Night in Soho would fit into this framework and prove my theory right, and in some ways it does.  Like those movies this is about a younger person (Gen Z instead of millennial, but close enough) and she is indeed obsessed with the pop culture of a previous era, namely the music and fashion of the 1960s.  So in that sense it fits but having said that this is actually a pretty dramatic change from those movies, both tonally and in format, to the point where calling it of a piece with them is simply not accurate.  Those movies had been action movies of sorts while this rather definitively is not, it’s a horror movie of sorts though it doesn’t feel like one initially and kind of emerges as one in the psychological mold of something like Repulsion or Black Swan.

The film still has some pretty adventurous camera moves and tricks and is identifiably an Edgar Wright film but his style has matured a bit here and is perhaps the first time he is using it for a movie that operates in a more straightforward kind and less referential way than his previous movies with often came close to breaking the fourth wall at times.  The early portion of the film is probably Wright at his most grounded and character based.  Seeing this McKenzie character fail to really blend in with her more outgoing college peers and prefer to retreat to her own nostalgic world was pretty relatable to me as that’s not entirely unlike what my own early college experience was like. We saw a similar take on the horror of being a reserved introvert in college with Julia Ducournau’s but this one is even more down to Earth.  You expect that this is setting up an arc in which the protagonist learns to open herself up to her peers and perhaps have a Midnight in Paris-like revelation that you shouldn’t romanticize past “golden ages,” and to some extent it does do that on some level but it also goes down a much darker path and begins to focus on the ways in which places like Soho can in fact be quite hostile towards single women and the violence towards women who move their with ambitions.  This theme is kind of undercut but a rather giallo-like twist in the third act that kind of reframes things and I suspect that will be something of a disappointment to people who invest somewhat in this being a border statement about gender politics but I think there’s still enough there to give most viewers food for thought within a horror context.

This is a more restrained Edgar Wright than his last couple of movies but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of his usual creativity here, it’s just channeled in different ways.  There are in fact some pretty interesting set-pieces here like an introduction to the way the McKenzie character experiences her “flashbacks” through a dance sequence with her and Taylor-Joy switching places in mirrors and as the movie goes on he does bring some effective scares by melding the past and present and having these ghostly figures show up to the protagonist throughout her days.  This trick does become a touch repetitive towards the end of the film but overall it still works pretty well.  The film also uses Wrights signature mastery of using popular music with some really well chosen needledrops and many of the film’s sets are also top notch.  Stylistically this is definitely a solid horror movie and a nice evolution of Wrights style.  Really there’s a whole lot to like here in general but there are just some shortcomings holding it back from its full potential and it doesn’t really stick the landing, but there’s so much to enjoy along the way that I feel this is just generally more successful than its reputation would have you believe.  It’s more than worth a look.

**** out of Five

The Last Duel(10/17/2021)

Warning: Minor spoilers

We talk a lot about how amazing it is that Martin Scorsese is still making large scale and vital movies at the ripe old age of 78 and yet people seem oddly less shocked that Ridley Scott, who is actually five years Scorsese’s elder, seems to be able to mount even larger (if probably less vital) movies on a near regular basis.  Scott is truly the last of a dying breed, a filmmaker in the vein of a Howard Hawkes who can make movies in all sorts of commercial genres (while specializing in a few) and can adjust himself to each of them while still having a detectable style if you know what to look for.  It’s one thing to be a director who makes a lot of movies in this day and age but the other super-prolific filmmakers these days tend to be people like Steven Soderbergh who put together smaller scale efforts but Ridley Scott seems to crank out rather massive productions, especially since he sort of reinvented himself at the turn of the millennium with Gladiator.  He’ll work in a smaller movie like Matchstick Men here or there, but the majority of his many movies are ambitious productions made for tens of millions of dollars.  Of course the downside of his productivity is that his work can be inconsistent.  I don’t get the impression that he phones in certain projects at all but he does not write his own scripts and sometimes seems to rush projects into production that haven’t quite been perfected on the page yet and for every hit like The Martian there seem to be two misses like Exodus: Gods and Kings or Alien: Covenant.  This year we’re getting not one but two Scott productions in fairly quick succession, the first of them being a medieval epic that seems to be very much in his wheelhouse with The Last Duel.

The film is set in Northern France in the late 14th century and the film’s title refers to a trial by combat that would be fought between a knight named Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and a squire named Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who had once been friends but who had grown increasingly antagonistic over the years, reaching a fever pitch when it is accused that Le Gris had raped de Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer).  The film is presented as three separate accounts, one from each of these people, of the events leading up to this.  First we see de Carrouges’s account, in which he views himself as a perennial underdog constantly being treated unfairly by Le Gris and their mutual lord, the Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), before finally hatching a scheme to sidestep the biased courts and defend his woman’s honor.  We then see Le Gris’ account, in which de Carrouges is actually an unhinged idiot whose various problems are largely self-inflicted wounds caused by his perennial bridge burning and whose oafish abusiveness drove Le Gris and Marguerite into an affair.  We then get Marguerite’s account, which I will hold off from revealing as much about, but who has her own perspective on both of these men and the society around them leading up to the fateful duel of the title.

Akira Kurosawa made his film Rashomon in 1950 and it remains the touchstone whenever someone makes movies about diverging viewpoints of a single event.  People talk about that movie as if to suggest that it’s a movie where every character’s point of view is valid and that it’s a movie about the subjectivity of truth but I don’t think that’s exactly right.  In that movie events diverge in ways that are too dramatic to be explained away as simply differences of perspective; some of those characters have to be lying, or maybe all of them are lying, but it’s a movie about deception rather than good faith disagreement.  That is not necessarily the case with The Last Duel though.  We get three versions of more or less the same events here, there’s no voice over or anything but the title cards label them as the “truth” according to the people involved so to some extent we’re presumably supposed to view them as dramatizations of each person’s testimony and while all of them could be said to be guilty of lies of omission they actually don’t really contradict each other, at least not in matters of basic fact.  Even when it comes to the central sexual assault neither the “he said” nor the “she said” really depicts different actions, rather they only differ insomuch as the “he said” is looking at the encounter through a toxic lens in which “no” can mean “yes.”

Where the accounts do diverge are in matters of intention and emphasis.  For example we learn in Jean de Carrouges’ story that a piece of land that was promised to him in a dowry was taken from him by the Count and given to Le Gris but Le Gris’ own account asserts that this wasn’t his own machination and was instead kind of an inadvertent benefit of him being favored and we get a better idea of why de Carrouges as viewed as unfavorably as he was by the court.  Of course the story that diverges most dramatically is Marguerite’s story, which tends to more heavily emphasize how nasty the Damon character could be and how little she even knew the Le Gris character.  That story also displays the full extent of how archaic medieval views of sex and gender could be to the point of rape being viewed as a property crime committed against the husband of the victim and some very backwards notions of the science of conception.  Where the two men spend their whole narratives trying to show how much of an asshole the other is, her account basically just confirms how right both of them are: they are indeed both assholes, but their own accounts give a good idea of why they’re also both so incapable of self-reflection.

This being a period epic of sorts from Ridley Scott one feels compelled to compare it to the first costume drama that rejuvenated Scott’s career, Gladiator.  That was a movie with a much dumber script than this movie has but a lot of that movie’s faults are kind of painted over by its star Russell Crowe, who feels almost perfectly at home giving a commanding movie star performance and just seems to have a face that looks good in that environment.  As Chris Rock would say in an Oscar monologue a few years later: “if your movie’s set in the past, get Russell Crowe’s ass.”  Scott’s other period epics like Kingdom of Heaven have kind of struggled to find actors with the same timeless quality and this one is no exception.  Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (along with Nicole Holofcener) wrote the movie’s screenplay in addition to starring here and they may well have been better served by dipping out of the project once the writing is done because there is kind of something odd about seeing these two Boston bros hanging out in Medieval France in a way that might have been less jarring if they weren’t both there.  They also aren’t helped by some rather strange hairstyling ideas, which I’m sure sounds like a ridiculously superficial thing to harp on but seeing Affleck with a bleached blonde goatee and Damon with a sort of mullet and a moustache-less beard is distracting.  It just is.  I have reason to think this follicle decision is actually historically accurate but it doesn’t feel that way and Adam Driver seemed to get away with his usual shoulder length locks and his co-stars may have been better served being similarly lazy.

As for Ridley Scott’s own direction, I’d say it’s mostly solid but he is at a stage in his career where he isn’t really doing much to surprise his audience.  Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is very in line with other films he’s made with Scott and aside from the structure (which is not insignificant) this does probably feel of a piece with Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood.  In this sense Scott is perhaps simultaneously the most perfect and most imperfect person to direct a movie like this: he’s obviously well positioned to film the titular duel, which is a nicely gritty big of violence but is he really the voice that the film world wants to be commenting on rape culture and #MeToo?  Well, on that front he (Thelma and Louise not withstanding) and the epic costume drama genre in general are strange bedfellows for that hot button issue and I think that will make this a bit of a tough sell with both critics and audiences but at the end of the day I think all parties involved acquit themselves pretty nicely.  The film is especially impressive by the standards of large scale Hollywood filmmaking: everyone constantly begs for more big budget non-franchise films for adults and this is emphatically that and it’s that done pretty well on top of that.

**** out of Five

The Lodge(2/20/2020)/The Invisible Man(2/27/2020)


Horror has almost always run in trends whether it’s the slasher movies of the 80s, the post-modern slashers of the 90s, or the torture porn of the 2000s.  Mini-trends would exist alongside these larger macro-trends and there would of course always be one-offs that exist outside the bigger waves, but generally speaking it wasn’t too hard to spot what’s been in vogue with the genre.  For much of the time I’ve been reviewing films the most dominant trend was haunted house movies with lots of jump scares, not a trend I welcomed, and while I’m sure some of those movies are still being made things do seem to finally be moving on but what are they moving on to?  Well there seem to be two tends that may be contenders for the title of “next big thing.”  Within my personal viewing patterns the most noteworthy trend is almost certainly the emergence of indie horror films like The Witch and Midsommar from studios like A24, which perhaps represent a sensibility more than a specific sub-genre of film.  None of these have been bona fide blockbusters but amongst those who know they loom large and I can only assume that they continue to penetrate the culture after release and that they may well become bigger with time.  The next trend, the one that is likely in the lead if we’re going to view this as a race, is to make horror movies in the mold of Get Out that tackle social issues in a very direct way that more or less make subtext text.  So if these two trends are going to the shape of horror to come it makes sense to take a look at the first two movies of the  year that are seeking to represent each trend: the indie horror film The Lodge and the social issue tackling The Invisible Man.

Like a lot of elevated horror movies, The Lodge opens with a major moment of trauma as a woman leaves her kids with their father, who tells her the time has come to formalize her divorce.  She then goes home and shoots herself.  We pick up shortly thereafter as the father (Richard Armitage) is trying to blend his new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough) in with his teenage son Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and tween daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) and decides that the best way to do this is to have the whole blended family go to a lodge for Christmas, which Aiden and Mia are strongly resistant to partly because they blame Grace for the death of their mother and partly because they know that when she was a child the lone survivor of a fundamentalist cult that went Jonestown.  His ultimate plan is to leave her alone at the lodge with the two children for a couple of days while he takes care of some business, but this proves to be a very bad idea.  Meanwhile The Invisible Man deals with a very different kind of trauma from its onset, namely the extensive trauma that its main character Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) experienced prior to the film’s beginning when she was apparently the victim of extensive domestic abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).  Griffin is someone who has earned millions in the “optics” business, but is by all accounts a controlling sociopath and Cecilia needs to literally break out of his home at night in the first scene.  Two weeks later she’s in hiding and receives news that Griffin has killed himself, but she starts to wonder about this when strange things start to happen around her.

The thing about the “elevated horror” movement is that it’s definitionally an alternative movement, which is a dynamic we’re perhaps more used to seeing in music than in movies, and when alternative things become popular there’s always the looming threat that they’ll be coopted by the mainstream.  That’s something I worried about when I saw the advertisements for that Gretel & Hansel movie, which kind of looked like the Silverchair to The Witch’s Nirvana.  Granted I didn’t end up seeing it and that impression could be wrong, but it’s a distinct vibe I got from it.  I had a little more hope for The Lodge but that was misplaced as it is very much the Bush to Hereditary’s Pearl Jam.  In fact it’s kind of remarkable just how specifically the film is trying to be Hereditary what with its focus on a grieving family and its tendency to cut to a symbolic model house.  That said it’s not trying to be a satanic cult thing and instead focuses on the tension of whether this woman is crazy and will go after the kids or whether the kids are the crazy ones who are going to go after her.  There’s some interest to be found in that dynamic but it’s kind of lessoned by the fact that this whole setup is patently ridiculous.  Blending families is never easy but trying to go about it through the trial by fire of leaving traumatized and clearly resentful children alone in an isolated building with an also traumatized woman is about the stupidest and most contrived thing imaginable.

The Invisible Man was released by Universal Pictures and is ostensibly meant to be the remake of the 1933 James Whale movie which was in turn based on the H.G. Welles novel of the same name, but the more telling logo in front of it is the Blumhouse Productions logo.  Blumhouse does a lot of things and I wouldn’t go so far as to say he has a house style, but one of the things he tends to do is give his horror films a certain social edge that goes beyond the more subtle allegories that have existed in the genre in the past.  Sometimes that comes in the form of silliness like their The Purge series, sometimes it just kind of feels like desperate pandering like their recent take on Black Christmas, but in general they’re really interested in getting the people who fight about stuff on Twitter into watching their scary movies and when they strike a chord like they did with Get Out there are high rewards.  The Invisible Man’s strategy to do this is to make no bones about the fact that its protagonist is a victim of an abusive relationship and to make her plight through the movie to be an extreme manifestation of the kind of controlling behavior that exist in these relationships and also to show the bad guy’s scheme as essentially a form of gas lighting where he’s trying to make her look and feel crazy when he is in fact being supernaturally awful.

It’s still a little staggering that they were able to make the invisibility effects work as well as they did for the 1933 film using a variety of camera tricks.  I’ve come to understand how they did them through a photochemical tick where things are shot in front of black screens but their challenge is still palpable.  Even when Paul Verhoeven was making Hollow Man in the year 2000 and had a variety of CGI effects it still felt like a showcase of cutting edge ideas.  The effects in this new invisible man movie are probably going to be less mind-blowing to anyone who knows anything about visual effects (I’m pretty sure it was a dude in green spandex on set who was digitally removed) but the scenes are shot with conviction just the same and director Leigh Whannell does seem to understand that he isn’t going to get away with just stringing together a bunch of invisibility gags.  Where the production falters a bit more is in the acting, specifically the supporting performances.  Elizabeth Moss is obviously great in the film and is well cast in her role, but a lot of the other actors here kind of seem like they got their job because the filmmakers were trying to keep their budget under control.  None of the performances are terrible necessarily but a lot of them felt a bit “syndacated television” to me.  I got the same feeling from Whannell’s last movie Upgrade, which didn’t even have a great lead performance at its center, so maybe something in his direction is to blame for that.

The acting is actually one of the stronger aspects of The Lodge.  There isn’t anything in it as noteworthy as Elizabeth Moss’ performance but the cast in it is able to make the material work better than it might have otherwise.  Riley Keough does a reasonably good job of keeping the audience in suspense about whether or not her character is the crazy one and the kids aren’t bad either.  However a lot of the psychology the script gives them really does not pan out.  The movie is trying to create a mix of trauma, mental illness, religion, and isolation to turn the titular lodge into a sort of pressure cooker for its characters but a lot of it just kind of feels like bullshit.  Granted, a lot of “psychological thrillers” probably don’t hold up perfectly but those movies are entertaining and this one is not, in fact it’s quite boring at times.  The movie is trying to do a sort of slow burn sort of thing, which can be thrilling when done right but I don’t think it’s done particularly well here and it’s all leading up to a twist that’s kind of predictable and also completely preposterous in the number of things that would have had to go exactly right and the logistics don’t go together at all.

The Invisible Man is less pretentious but I do think it has some ending problems as well.  The movie is a little too quick to confirm that Cecilia’s suspicions rather than playing out that ambiguity and is far too quick to explain Griffin’s means of becoming invisible and they look kind of silly.  The movie also takes a bit of a turn towards being more of an action piece in the vein of Upgrade, which is kind of fun in its own way but it lacks some of the primal terror that the first half was gesturing toward and I found the film’s final climax to be rather oddly staged and anti-climactic.  None of this is a deal breaker, but it does hold the movie back a bit and keeps it more in the realm of the elevated B-movie rather than any sort of true horror classic.  The Lodge by contrast is a movie that’s trying to be a serious horror classic but is just a complete non-starter for a variety of reasons.  If these movies represent the shape of horror to come I’m not sure either makes a perfect case for their respective approaches.  The Lodge shows that good ideas are not above being misused by wannabes and The Invisible Man kind of shows the limitations of what Blumhouse is going to be able to do at times, but as a movie unto itself The Invisible Man is plainly the stronger of the two and the one I’d much more quickly recommend.

The Lodge: *1/2 out of Five

The Invisible Man: *** out of Five

Little Women(12/31/2019)

If there’s any movie I’ve been kind of dreading this award season it was probably Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women.  Not because I thought it would be “bad” by any means, it’s been critically acclaimed, has a stellar cast, and is the follow-up from the director of the movie Lady Bird which I liked quite a bit.  So I had little doubt it would be well crafted, but what really had me dreading it is that I worried it would be a movie that I wouldn’t really be in a position to analyze or talk about all that intelligently.  I’ve never read Louisa May Alcott’s novel of “Little Women.”  It wasn’t assigned to me in school and have never been enough of a “classics” buff to read it of my own volition.  I have seen a handful of its various film adaptations in passing and they’ve never done much for me and I even rewatched a couple of them in the last month in an attempt to get a better grasp of the story and the different ways to interpret them and they still didn’t really connect with me all that much.  It just seems like one of those public domain books that gets kind of mindlessly remade over and over again on the big and small screen without much alteration every single generation like the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.  But I certainly wasn’t going to skip something this big and talked about out of reviewer cowardice.

The film’s plot is largely unchanged from the story we’ve heard before.  The film is set in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War and a few years after and looks at a household where a mother (Laura Dern) is looking after her four daughters while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army.  Those daughters are the traditionalist Meg (Emma Watson), the tomboyish Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and the troublemaker Amy (Florence Pugh).  The family isn’t poor exactly but it’s hardly rich and they do have more well off relatives like their snobby Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) and also live across the way from the estate of a wealthy man named Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), who is the guardian for his grandson Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) who comes to befriend the girls.  Love triangles ensue and the girls eventually grow up and grow apart but certain bonds can only be broken so far.

Of all the adaptations there have been of this novel the one with the longest legacy up to this point was probably George Cukor’s Academy Award nominated 1933 version.  That was not the first adaptation of the film (they’ve been remaking this since the silent era) but it was a major hit  even if it’s probably less famous for its Alcott reworking than for how it fit into a sort of culture war that was brewing in Hollywood at the time.  This was during the “pre-code” era and there was a lot of controversy at the time about the gangster movies and sex comedies coming out of the major studios at the time and this version of Little Women was being celebrated in certain circles as a conservative alternative that celebrated family values.  Elements like Jo’s tomboyishness were still there (she was being played by Katherine Hepburn after all) but at its heart it is still very much a family movie with an emphasis on wholesome sentimentality and to some degree that’s also the case with the 1949 version (which is pretty much only notable for being in color) and the 1994 version which is shockingly sincere and straightforward for something starring Winona Ryder in the mid-90s.  And that is more or less why I’ve never cared for these movies, they all kind of feel like they’ve all kind of felt like they exist to be played in middle school English classes and even when they depict tragedy they just feel kind of cloying.

Enter Greta Gerwig, who hasn’t made Little Women any less PG rated than her predecessors but has in many ways made the first adaptation of this thing that seems to be directed toward adult sensibilities.  The clearest alteration that Gerwig has made is that she took the chronological narrative from the book and adjusted it into something closer to a flashback structure.  The first scene is of Jo as an adult in New York working as a tutor while trying to get stories published and we also catch up with Amy in Paris, Meg dealing with her marital woes, and Beth having health problems.  It then flashes back to their youth and the movie cuts between the two timelines through the rest of the movie.  I’ve heard some reports of people finding this format confusing, and I may have benefited somewhat from seeing previous adaptations, but I thought it was pretty clear and also that the way this benefits the story more than outweigh any drawbacks.  For one, it really helps to define the personalities of these four sisters right up front by showing them when they’re more developed.  Previous adaptations struggled in this regard; they were able to make Jo’s differences clear enough with her tomboyish qualities but the other three sisters kind of blended together when they were just a bunch of children playing without extensive dialogue or internal monologue.  Additionally, knowing from the beginning where these characters end up kind of ups the stakes on the childhood sections, which could often feel a bit episodic and aimless in the other adaptations where you don’t have a clearer end goal.  And finally this allows those childhood flashbacks to feel more like pleasant memories than sappiness played straight and that somewhat plays into why I consider this adaptation to be more adult in its outlook than previous versions.

Needless to say there’s plenty that goes right here that has little to do with radical reinvention and everything to do with just getting certain things right.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that Gerwig has assembled an all-star cast of actors young and old.  Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh are a pretty unimpeachable trio to play the main sisters and Timothée Chalamet in many ways seems to have been born to one day play Laurie.  I will say that Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk seem to struggle a little bit here, in part because they’re playing overly virtuous and altruistic characters who don’t fit as well in this slightly more cynical interpretation of the source material, but other actors playing adults here like Meryl Streep and Tracy Letts do work well here and add fun little diversions to the film.  Gerwig has also done a great job of making adjustments to the period detail that make things feel less stuffy without feeling overly anachronistic and Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty score really helps to make things flow well.  I also must say that even though the film is only fifteen to twenty minutes longer than any of the previous adaptations of the novel it sure feels like it has more breathing room which goes a long way toward making the story flow more naturally.

Now, I mentioned before that the 1933 Little Women was received as a conservative vision insomuch as it was family friendly so it is perhaps a bit of an irony that this latest version re-interprets the novel as something that was actually rather subversive, particularly in terms of how it viewed the role of women in its society.  Some extra lines are written into the film to underscore this which do kind of stand out and feel a touch on the nose but I don’t exactly begrudge the movie for.  I am a bit more on the fence about what the film does with its final moments in which (spoiler I guess) Jo is re-written to have become the author of a novel based on the lives of her sisters that is basically the novel “Little Women” (an idea the 1994 film also had) and a metatexual element takes over where a cigar comping publisher demands that this book be given the happy romantic ending that the real Louisa May Alcott was pressured into having, which then effects the final ending of the movie.  This feels a bit like an out of place attempt on Gerwig’s part to have her cake and eat it too given that nothing else in the movie up to this point is trying to be particularly meta.  On the other hand, that other ending legitimately does kind of suck and letting it play out sincerely like the other films do would not have been a satisfying end.  So, at the end of the day I think my worries about not being able to engage with an analyze this movie were for naught and in many ways it’s actually a lot better than I had even hoped.

****1/2 out of Five

The Lighthouse(10/24/2019)

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years talking about a trend of elevated horror movies.  Granted, calling this a trend is a little nebulous as the movies don’t have that much in common aside from being horror movies that are more artisitic than what Hollywood makes and there’s no real evidence that they’re really influencing one another, but they’ve become part of the film discourse just the same.  2019 is in many ways the year where the whole “movement” really pays off because we’ve gotten follow-up films from most of the directors that have defined it.  We’ve gotten new films from the directors of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale), Hereditary (Ari Astor’s Midsommar), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake), and It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults’s upcoming Waves).  Some of these follow-ups were really solid and suggested more good things to come, some suggested that their filmmakers maybe weren’t as good as their debuts promised.  Some suggested a doubling down on horror as their filmmaker’s genre of choice, and some didn’t.  But the film that I’ve personally been waiting on the most was The Lighthouse, the sophomore effort of Robert Eggers, director of the amazing 2015 film The Witch which is probably the very best of all of them.

After the release of The Witch there were rumors that Eggers was working on some sort of new version of Nosferatu and I’m not sure if he’s still working on that or not but clearly he transitioned into making another film that harkens back to the early days of cinema called The Lighthouse.  That film is set in an unclear time and place but it appears to be at an island somewhere in the vicinity of New England at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century.  On that island is a tall lighthouse along with some lodgings and a little bit of space.  As the film begins a man named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is boated over to this island having gotten a four week contract to act as a worker at the lighthouse which is otherwise overseen by an old former sailor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe).  Wake proves to be a rather bossy and uncompromising man with a strange habit of going up to the top of the lighthouse and bathing in its light.  Winslow also proves not to be a prime example of mental health either as he’s having odd visions of mermaids and other nautical horrors and soon after arriving starts to think that the island’s seagulls are stalking him.  Over the course of these four plus weeks of work the two start to antagonize each other and a deranged war of wills commences.

The Lighthouse was shot in black and white and in 1.19:1, which is a very narrow aspect ratio associated with the very earliest days of sound filmmaking.  These choices seem to have been made partly to give the film a certain sense of unreality.  You could say that this gives the film a certain dream/nightmare quality, I’d even compare it to Eraserhead to some extent but it doesn’t get completely weird right away.  I think there also might be something to be said for the tall aspect ratio mirroring the verticality of the lighthouse and for the black and white just generally selling some of the period details a bit better.  This is not, however, a film that is strictly impressive on a visual level.  Eggers’ writing is also quite a thing to behold as he has once again opted to really lean in to the unique dialect of the period he’s set his film in.  Dafoe’s character in particular finds himself using an old fashioned seafaring slang and adopts an accent which is not unlike the captain from “The Simpsons.”  Occasionally the character will start reciting long passages of nautical invective that was almost certainly an ordeal to write and even harder to recite.  The film is well aware of how close this character comes to self-parody, and even comments on this at one point, but it still manages to make it work. It also does a great job of making the Pattinson character very different from Dafoe’s despite still largely being a product of his time.

But what does all of this mean?  I don’t know… does it need to mean something?  My running theory while watching it is that the island is functioning as a sort of purgatory for the Pattinson character.  Over the course of the film he’s constantly being tested in various ways, has a variety of temptations placed before him, and is also sort of forced to face some sort of incident from his past that he feels guilty about.  This is not necessarily a Christian purgatory however and a lot of the film’s imagery (especially the final shot) is strongly rooted in older mythology, and alternatively the whole thing could be thought of less as a literal purgatory and more as a sort of manifestation of this character’s guilt through a sort of nightmare.  Having said all that I wouldn’t recommend getting to bent out of shape trying to “solve” this movie, not on a first viewing anyway.  Instead I’d recommend going with the flow and taking the movie in as a sensory experience and as an almost theatrical exercise in two characters kind of dueling it out for two hours.
****1/2 out of Five