Knock at the Cabin(2/5/2023)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

So, I’ve recently somewhat re-evaluated the career of director M. Night Shyamalan, a guy who’s taken me on quite a journey.  You can read all about it with my most recent “Closure” article or listen to my most recent appearance on the Cinema in Seconds podcast if you want more details, but in brief the guy’s first three movies were really important to me when I was first getting into film but after his precipitous decline in quality after about the year 2004 I kind of shunned him and felt a certain sense of betrayal out of the direction his career took.  But in the last couple of years I’ve maybe come to a point where I want to give Shyamalan a bit more credit both for his longevity as an independent minded auteur in Hollywood and just as someone who’s weird eccentricities are maybe worth considering when they show in his work even if some of the movies themselves aren’t entirely well served by them.  This felt like a good time to start getting a new outlook on Shyamalan because he does seem to be on a bit of a career resurgence following the success of his movie Split and other projects like Glass and Old which seemed to find an audience even if they weren’t quite up to snuff in the ways that his earliest movies were.  And also I wanted to catch up with this reconsideration in the lead-up to his newest film, a thriller called Knock at the Cabin which seems like a pretty good vehicle both for his skills as a craftsman and his various religious preoccupations.

As the title implies, Knock at the Cabin is largely set in a remote cabin in the woods where a small family has been staying for a little while.   The family consists of two gay men, the meek lapsed catholic Eric (Jonathan Groff) and the more hot tempered Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their young adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui).  The three are enjoying themselves until one day four people led by the physically imposing Leonard (Dave Bautista) suddenly break into their house and hold them hostage.  These four do not appear to be very practiced at breaking and entering and seem to be composed of people from various walks of life and multiple regions of the country including a nurse named Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a waitress named Adriane (Abby Quinn), and an ex-con who goes by Redmond (Rupert Grint).  The four don’t seem to hold any malice towards the family and once their tied up they explain their motives: the four of them have all received visions that the world is going to end unless the four of them go on this mission and convince the family living at that cabin to make the ultimate sacrifice by having two of the three murder the other to avert the apocalypse that will end life on earth.  Obviously believing this to be insane, the family must find a way to escape from these fanatics before it’s too late.

So, I’ll just come out and say that this is almost certainly M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie since as far back as The Village.  Now, that’s really not the highest bar to clear as pretty much everything the guy made between 2006 and 2015 was a disaster and most of what he’s made since then has been middling at best.  I’m also not going to say that this means this is a complete return to form either as I certainly don’t think it’s close to being as good as his “big three” of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs but I don’t want to downplay it either because he has finally made a movie that I’m willing to recommend (for what it is) without too many reservations.  A big advantage this likely had over some of his earlier productions is that he wrote the screenplay with two collaborators and also he’s adapting a novel this time, “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Tremblay, which likely gave him a framework where he can establish his characters without giving them weird tics and also just generally have other people around to hold him back from indulging some of his stranger instincts that tend to be stilting on screen.

This is, however, absolutely a Shyamalan movie and mostly in good ways.  At its base level the film is a pretty nicely crafted thriller that establishes its characters well, gets you to care about them, and root for them through their plight.  Everything’s paced well; Shyamalan gets in some decent shots and stages his sequences quite effectively.  I don’t want to over sell this, it’s certainly not doing anything wildly out of the ordinary really and I do worry that I’m letting my low expectations for later day Shyamalan boost it a bit too much but it worked for me.  It’s also very much a Shyamalan film in that it rests on some overtly religious themes that are, uh, a little hard for me (a Dawkins-esque atheist) to get behind.  Shyamalan is not, as far as I can tell a practicing Christian.  He seems to be one of those “spiritual but not religious” types who think all religions are valid expressions of some unknowable deity.  He was once attached to make Life of Pi and while I’m glad Ang Lee was the one to ultimately make that film, it’s not hard to see its take on “god” would appeal to Shyamalan greatly.  However, he is a western filmmaker so usually when he makes these movies Christianity and specifically Catholicism is the medium of choice to explore “god.”  I’m not completely closed minded about this kind of thing: I basically embraced his film Signs, even though it’s a movie that’s kind of counter to most of my principles, but your movie better be damn good for me to go along with something like that.

Knock at the Cabin is a movie that very closely resembles Signs when it comes to religion as both are movies that are premised around god very much being real and are finally solved by the film’s central skeptic admitting that the signs of this are all there and overcoming his doubts to trust in the reality of the situation and take action accordingly.  Not exactly a message I love, but the movie certainly delivers it with some conviction.  There’s also something of a Book of Revelation cruelty to the god in question here, which does add some negative connotations to the religiosity here, and it’s also probably not a coincidence that the film put a highly sympathetic gay couple at its center in order make it clear that it’s not pushing the most intolerant kinds of Christianity.  If you can go along with that I think there’s a lot to like here.  There are a couple bits of Shyamalan-ian weirdness here and there (like the odd weapons the villains are wielding and a couple bits of questionable dialogue) but by and large the director avoids embarrassing himself like he has in some previous projects.  So, yeah, hopefully this is a sign of good things in the future for the director.  That said, “the director avoids embarrassing himself” is not exactly a quote for the poster and I do wonder if I’d be as nice to this if not for all the director’s baggage and expectations setting.
*** out of Five


Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery(11/23/2022)

            The 2019 film Knives Out holds a weird spot in my mind in that I basically enjoyed it quite a bit and consider its success to have been a net positive for the film industry, and yet I didn’t really love it or take it terribly seriously and found it odd when I saw people put it on their annual top ten lists and the like.  Honestly I kind of feel that way about the whole “whodunit” genre, which I tend to like more in the aggregate than in its individual examples.  I can, for instance, say that Agatha Christie was a master of her form while not really considering any of her books are some sort of masterpiece of literature.  They tend to be pretty enjoyable while you watch them but they don’t really stick with you and that would certainly be the case with Knives Out.  Additionally, Knives Out was the work of Rian Johnson, a filmmaker who has spent much of his career walking a line between clever and irritating and while he mostly stayed on the clever side of the line with that move he stepped over into “irritating” on occasion.  Despite that, it was a good movie despite some elements that annoyed me and it seemed like a foregone conclusion and I was interested to see them.  But then in a plot twist it was revealed that the sequels would not be made by the original film’s distributor, Lionsgate, but would instead be produced by Netflix.  So now what should be the one successful modern franchise to not involve dudes in capes is only going to spend one week in theaters before spending the rest of its life on a streaming service.

            Though this is ostensibly a sequel, it discards all the characters from the original Knives Out aside from the central detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) as he becomes embroiled in a new mystery.  This one is set in the spring of 2020 and looks at a party being thrown by the eccentric millionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) at his island estate dubbed “The Glass Onion.”  This party is meant to be a faux murder mystery, which seems to be why Blanc has been summoned but the rest of the guests are old friends of Bron including the governor of Connecticut (Kathryn Hahn), the head scientist at Bron’s company Alpha (Leslie Odom Jr.), a rather dimwitted fashion designer (Kate Hudson) along with her long suffering PR head (Jessica Henwick), an alt-right “influencer” (Dave Bautista), his wife (Madelyn Cline), and most surprisingly Bron’s former partner in business Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), who had been on the outs with the whole group ever since being ousted from Alpha in some sort of dramatic fashion. Things seem to be going more or less as planned but the dinner murder mystery Bron has planned doesn’t go quite as he’d hoped and suddenly the mystery starts to be less fictional and more dangerous than expected. 

            One of the biggest problems I had with the original Knives Out was the Benoit Blanc character and Daniel Craig’s performance in the role.  Having Daniel Craig play this part with a ludicrous southern accent like he walked off the set of a community theater production of a Tennessee Williams play is just not a joke I get and I’m not sure why more people don’t have a problem with it.  My opinion about that hasn’t changed here but I do quite like the rest of the cast.  Janelle Monáe is a real standout in the movie, especially after the first act, when additional dimensions are revealed about the character.  The other standout is probably Kate Hudson, who’s character is just a hilariously vapid ditz, the kind of person who’d get in trouble for a Halloween costume and not understand why people didn’t understand her “tribute” to Beyoncé.  Edward Norton also manages to really tap into his character’s narcissism and there’s also good work from Kathryn Hahn, Jessica Henwick, and Leslie Odom Jr.  Really the only person I didn’t care for here was Dave Bautista, who I think was a bit miscast as his character is supposed to be this over-compensating wimp rather than a true man’s man and casting a dude who looks like The Incredible Hulk kind of plays against that.

            The other big complaint I had about Knives Out was that some of the humor, particularly a strange character trait involving vomit, struck me as kind of dumb and contrived.  There are a couple of similar contrivances here that I won’t elaborate on for fear of spoilers, but there’s nothing as egregious as that.  There was, of course, also humor in that first movie that worked, particularly its elements of social satire around the mores of upper middle class old money types.  That element is even stronger here, but the targets are now the worst habits of the modern nouveau riche, particularly the lifestyle of its central character who is almost certainly based on Elon Musk.  It is perhaps a rich irony that this movie, which is clearly about how much of a dick Musk is, is coming out right when he’s really come mask off as a truly malignant presence in the world with his acquisition of Twitter.  It’s ironic because in many ways this is a movie that kind of feels like it was made to impress people who are what you’d call “massively online” and who spend a lot of time on that “bird app.”  The suspects here are broadly representative of the biggest villains on Twitter: Musk, normie insincere politicians, red pill types, imminently cancelable “influencers,” etc.  I of course don’t like those people either, but I kind of know when I’m being pandered to, and these are kind of easy targets.  On that level I think the first Knives Out might be the more accessible and restrained work and I think the solution to its mystery is a bit cleverer.  On the other hand, this movie has a cooler set and is generally more confident and is just generally funnier so it’s a bit of a draw.  I think I’ll more or less leave it at that, I still don’t think this really rises to the point of being some of the year’s finest cinema or anything but it’s a very fun time and I kind of wish I lived in times when that felt less like the exception.
***1/2 out of Five

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

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