Jojo Rabbit(10/16/2019)

For about as long as there has been Nazis there have been people making fun of Nazis.  Carlie Chaplin made and released The Great Dictator before the United States even entered the war, Ernst Lubitsch made To Be or Not to Be at the war’s height, and even Disney was known to put out cartoons of Donald Duck wreaking havoc behind German lines.  Granted, those movies were made before the details of the Holocaust were public and some of those jokes about “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” and the like do take on a new meaning in hindsight, but these movies remain prime examples of the power of laughing in the face of evil.  The game of making fun of the Nazis didn’t exactly end there though and through the rest of the 20th Century you can find any number of movies like The Producers or the show “Hogan’s Heroes” that would use the goose stepping and thoughtless hate of Nazi totalitarianism as a source of dark humor and a similar streak of satire tends to run through a lot of other movies that take a more irreverent look at the past like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones franchise or in Inglourious Basterds or even in the Wolfenstein series of video games.  So it wasn’t really a huge shock to me when I learned that the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (who is apparently Jewish) was making a satire about life in Germany during the end of the Second World War which would feature some rather irreverent Hitler imagery, but I was curious to see what he’d do with the concept.

The film concerns a ten year old boy named Johann “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who is living in a town somewhere in western Germany during the last year of the Second World War.  Jojo’s father is said to be away fighting in the war and his sister apparently died earlier so he is living alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson).  Jojo has been caught up in the madness of Nazi Germany and views Hitler as something of a rock star and Hitler (Taika Waititi) actually talks to him from time to time as a sort of hallucinatory imaginary friend and as the film begins he’s excitedly running off to a Hitler Youth jamboree.  This gathering is being overseen by a wounded German officer named Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who at one point demands that Jojo kill a rabbit in front of him to demonstrate his willingness to kill for the Fatherland and despite Jojo’s enthusiasm for the cause can’t bring himself to do this, at which point he is mocked and given the nickname “Jojo Rabbit.”  Compounding his problems he ends up having an unlikely grenade accident, which he survives but is left with some scarring on his face and leg.  Because of that he’s stuck home most days and starts to hear noises from the second floor and discovers a hidden door and when he looks behind it he learns that his mother has been hiding a seventeen year old Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic, a discovery that will make him question his commitment the Nazi ethos.

Jojo Rabbit won the Audience Prize at the Toronto Film Festival this year and I suspect that it will be a pretty big hit with audiences generally; the one I saw it with certainly seemed to like it and gave it a big applause at the end.  I will say, I can sort of see why certain audiences would react that way.  Taika Waititi is a skilled director and does have a certain knack for juxtaposing slightly difficult coming of age stories with wacky humor as evidenced by his previous film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  I can also see why people would find the film to be pretty funny as there are certainly moments in it that are recognizably witty and Waititi’s performance in it as hallucination Hitler is certainly broadly memorable entry in the ranks of Hitler parodies (of which there are many) and the performances in general are pretty strong.  The audience I saw it with was laughing uproariously through much of the movie but while I could recognize some decent comic beats this movie did not really make me laugh all that much, which could mostly be a matter of taste or could be a function of me just not finding all of this as shocking or outlandish as some people may.  As I discussed in the opening paragraph there’s kind of a long history of movies making fun of the Nazis and on some level I’m kind of over it, or at least harder to impress with it.

That having been said, I am glad that Waititi did add that level of overt comedy to the film because without that this movie would really be a pretty insufferable.  I mentioned earlier that this was the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and that is an award that has something of a history of not aligning with my tastes as the last film to win it was last year’s inexplicable Oscar winning film Green Book.  I bring that up because this movie and Green Book have more in common than you might think from the advertising campaigns.  At its core this, like Green Book, is basically the story of a white (or in this case gentile) person slowly coming to decide the minority he’s forced to have dealings with isn’t so bad after all and how the power of friendship triumphs over hate or some shit.  This isn’t to say the two movies are identical.  For one thing this is about a child coming to this realization and not a grown-ass man and it’s a child who grew up in a somewhat extreme environment to boot.  But still, I must say I find something kind of trite about this whole message of intolerance being overcome through personal interactions and especially find it to be rather out of place here given that Nazi Germany certainly wasn’t a place that improved their race relations through gradual self-improvement and civility.  On the contrary, it took an overwhelming military defeat at the cost of millions of lives, a series of trials that ended in many of its leaders being executed, and a five year occupation in which all former Nazi organizations and symbols were illegalized, and decades of shame and a conspicuous demand for atonement from the rest of the world thereafter.

If Waititi really wanted to explore Nazism he probably would have been better served exploring what made Jojo (and by extension the rest of Germany) find that party appealing in the first place rather than how he came to dislike it all of a week before the allies were about to force the issue anyway.  The opening credits, set to a German cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” compares the rise of Hitler to Beatlemania, which is the kind of provocation and insight I would have liked from the rest of the film but it doesn’t fully explain why this kid (who would have only just been born around the time Triumph of the Will came out) would be such a fan.  He clearly didn’t get this from his parents, who clearly weren’t true believers in Aryan Ideology and presumably would have tried to instill in him some of those values even if they needed to be careful about preventing him from spilling the beans.  The imaginary Hitler friend also doesn’t provide much insight.  The character is presumably supposed to be a sort of devil on this kid’s shoulder and from time to time he sort of acts in this capacity but more often than not he’s just there to be a goofy onscreen presence rather than some hateful part of his psyche.  In many ways making the film about a child just seems like a bit of a copout, it doesn’t explain why a struggling country would have found comfort in authoritarianism and it makes anti-Semitism into an exaggerated joke about childish misconceptions of people with horns rather than the result of a paranoid conspiracy theory mixed with a strong desire to feel superior to others.

Despite the Audience Award win at Toronto the film’s response at that festival by critics was kind of polarized.  This didn’t get a whole lot of press, in part because the critics were even more polarized by Joker and the endless arguments about that movie have kind of overshadowed any other cinematic divisions.  But Joker is perhaps another interesting point of comparison because I think my view of Jojo Rabbit is not dissimilar from how a lot of that film’s detractors felt: namely that I think it has a premise that promises a strong insight into society that it never really delivers on and ends up feeling especially shallow as a result.  That might not be entirely fair: much as I basically view Joker as elevated genre fare rather than a work attempting true social insight, there will probably be a lot of people who view this as simply a smarter than average comedy which provides a better than average theatrical experience and that’s probably fair enough.  Additionally I could see myself having gone along with this a lot more if it had hit my funny bone more than it did, instead I found some of its quirks kind of annoying especially given the setting and how little insight I think it really has into it.

**1/2 out of Five

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Joker(10/3/2019)

Rather than simply opening the movie Joker wide in early October Warner Brothers decided to premiere the film a month earlier at the Venice Film Festival, which is a move that garnered the film some initial raves and won it the prestigious Golden Lion award.  Ultimately though I think it was a bad move because it meant that critics would spend the next month very publically arguing about a movie no one else was able to see in a way that’s much more visible than it is when they see arthouse movies early, and the discourse has not been pretty.  There were initial grumblings as early as that Venice premiere with people saying the movie was potentially “toxic,” which is one of those imprecise words that headline writers and no one else likes to use.  From there a certain subset the media decided there were clicks to be found in going full Tipper Gore and drumming up a sort of panic that the movie will cause mass shootings or something.  Even ignoring the fact that these articles were making long disproven arguments about violence in cinema and essentially advancing NRA talking points, there also seemed to be an inherit elitism to the whole thing.  This type of gritty violence has long been seen as understandable in limited release arthouse contexts but suddenly they were freaked out because it was in a movie that might be seen by the great unwashed masses.  But what really annoyed me about the whole thing is that there was this widespread argument about cinema going on and I had no way to weigh in or even follow it because the damn movie hadn’t even come out yet.  Well, it’s finally out and I have some thoughts.

Joker presents an origin story for the famous Batman villain as it examines the mental deterioration of a man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who starts the film with a long history of mental health problems.  Fleck lives with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), herself someone of questionable psychology, and takes multiple medications and has a condition which causes him to laugh uncontrollably at times regardless of his mood.  Fleck is working as a clown for hire and has some rather delusional aspirations at becoming a stand-up comedian and idolizes a late-night talk show host named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).  None of this is working out very well for him but his life starts to take a turn when he gets his hands on a handgun and ends up shooting three bullies who try to attack him on an empty subway.

It is nearly impossible to talk about Joker and not bring up the two Martin Scorsese films that inspired it: 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King of Comedy.  Robert De Niro of course starred in both of those movies and his presence here seems to be a tacit nod to this inspiration.  Like Taxi Driver this is following a man with a clear screw loose as he loses it, begins arming himself, and forms unhealthy stalker-like obsessions with a woman and with a politician and like The King of Comedy this unhinged man has delusions that he’s a talented comedian and wants to find his way on a popular talk show by any means necessary.  That the film is plainly derivative is something of an albatross around the movie’s neck which for many will blunt whatever it accomplishes what with it standing on the shoulders of giants to get there, and I do sort of feel that way to some extent but simply dismissing it as a rip-off seems unfair and inaccurate as well.  First of all, a lot of perfectly good movies do stuff like this.  Boogie Nights is basically Goodfellas in the porn industry, Black Swan is basically Repulsion meets The Red Shoes, First Reformed is basically a hash of ideas from 1950s art films, and perhaps most comparably there’s the movie Logan, which could easily be described as a watered down and comic bookified rehash of Children of Men and The Road.  Let’s also not ignore the fact that Scorsese himself is second only to Tarantino in his propensity to proudly wear his influences on his sleeve.

Of course the thing that does differentiate Joker from the Scorsese movies that inspired it is that this is a comic book movie, a fact that’s often been downplayed when arguing in favor of the movie but which is actually kind of crucial to it.  The things that happen in Joker are generally bigger and more operatic than they would be in a Scorsese movie from the 70s.  Also the film is quite specifically set in Gotham City rather than New York, and not even the kind of hyper modern Gotham that we say in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films but a kind of decaying Gotham of the past.  This isn’t the first time Batman has been done as a semi-period piece.  Tim Burton’s Gotham was a mix of 30s art deco and futuristic technology, possibly as a means of bridging the comic book’s Golden Age origins with modern cinema and other Batman properties like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Gotham” followed suit.  This film never cites a year it’s supposed to be set in but it certainly looks like it’s straight up set in the 70s or early 80s both in terms of technology (all televisions in the movie are CRTs) but also in terms of social conditions because the city seems to be dealing with the kind of crime rates and budget shortfalls that New York was experiencing when Travis Bickle dreamed of a rain to “wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks.”  Almost like what Tim Burton’s version of the city would have become in about thirty years were it not for the intervention of The Dark Knight.

That this is set in a fictional time and place is, I think, what’s maybe throwing some critics for a loop.  People seem to be expecting this to be a movie that is making a statement about America today when I think it was actually meant to be a bit more off in its own world than that.  This is still very much a comic book movie, just more of a gritty 80s comic book than a fun silver age comic book.  Its set in a city that’s over-run by crime, not necessarily a problem in America today (at least not relative to 1976), but it was certainly a problem in the Gotham City that gave birth to Batman, and while it does have some interest in the plight of the mentally ill Arthur Fleck’s situation is pretty specifically rooted in a fictional condition that’s poorly treated by the shortcomings of a fictional city’s healthcare system.  This isn’t to say there isn’t some relevance to real life conditions here, after all this fictional world was inspired by social problems that have and do exist in the real world, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be as tapped into the current zeitgeist as it’s been suggested.

This I suppose brings me to the criticism that the film in some way endorses or glamorizes the violent actions of unhinged individuals, which I think is largely unfounded.  First and foremost it should be noted that the Joker in this movie is not exactly what you’d call a mass shooter.  Any violence in the film is generally quite personalized and is committed by small and unglamourous weapons like knives and snub-nose handguns.  There are no assault rifles to be seen and even at his worst this Joker isn’t taking out his anger on random individuals.  Then there’s the rather lazy assertion that the film is some sort of “incel” manifesto, which is odd given that “incels” are a fringe online group who are defined almost entirely by their rage at women who don’t want to sleep with them, and while Arthur Fleck has all sorts of grievances with the world his sex life or lack thereof is not really a focus of the film and also isn’t one of the character’s main stated grievances and very few of his victims are women.  This isn’t to say that the character is entirely free of misogyny, his treatment of the Zazie Beetz character is certainly all kinds of creepy, but he generally seems far more angry about his trouble holding onto a job and random street violence than he is with the women of the world.  Additionally, the movie never falls into the trap of suggesting that Fleck is some sort of kind soul who’s just misunderstood.  The film has enough sympathy with him to not want him to be assaulted on the street and wants him to have access to social services, but it’s upfront about how messed up he is from the very beginning and why everyone around him has very good reasons to keep their distance.

So if this isn’t trying to make a grand statement about society what is it trying to do?  Well, I think it’s trying to say something about Batman.  Specifically it seems to be contrasting the oft filmed origin of the caped crusader with this new birth of the clown prince of crime and suggest that one is the funhouse mirror reflection of the other.  And I’m going to have to get into spoilers here.  Batman was famously born of a tragedy caused by street crime but it’s also said to have been Bruce Wayne’s unconventional means of carrying on the legacy of his enlightened Carnegie-esque millionaire father.  Joker rather cleverly re-casts Thomas Wayne as someone who was also a father figure to Fleck, at least in his own head, but also suggests that he viewed him as being less of a swell humanitarian and more of an out of touch condescending Randian asshole and that Wayne was more the cause of than the solution to Gotham’s many problems.  Where the real son opted to emulate his father (or his conception of him) and rebuild law and order by peaceful means, the fake son opted to rebel against his “father” (or his conception of him) and go on a sort of nihilistic crusade against law and order.  There’s obviously more to Fleck’s descent into madness than that and his murderous ways are of course wrong whether or not he’s “right” about Thomas Wayne, but the movie does do a very good job of decontextualizing the origin story we all know and love.

So how does one make a final analysis of Joker? It’s certainly no Taxi Driver, but then again what is?  I’ve certainly seen lesser riffs on that formula like The Assassination of Richard Nixon and One Hour Photo.  Ultimately I think the choice to draw inspiration from that film is an aesthetic choice more than anything and it makes Joker something rather unique among comic book movies: one that plays like a drama rather than an action movie.  To me that’s something that’s unique and valuable but it’s only an impressive aesthetic choice if you’re looking at the movie as a comic book movie rather than as some sort of realist drama: looked at as a comic book movie it’s one of the most impressive entries in its form but looked at as a realist drama it’s… not, and probably never could be given the fantasy elements that are inherent to its very nature.  Either way it’s an exceptionally well made movie that’s hard to look away from and features a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix.  It’s certainly better than director Todd Phillips has made previously and significantly better than the more conventional superhero fare that Warner Brothers has been giving us through its DC Cinematic Universe.  Just maybe don’t take it too seriously.

**** out of Five

Ad Astra(9/19/2019)

Last year when I went to see First Man and this year when I watched Apollo 11 I came to a slightly depressing revelation: the 60s space program has lost a lot of its luster, at least for me and I suspect with a lot of people of my generation.  I think that’s in large part because at the moment space exploration seems like a bit of a dead end.  Back in the 60s people just assumed that landing on the moon was a giant leap for mankind and that by the year 2001 we’d be regularly traveling to space bases and traveling through trippy alien wormholes to reach our next stage of evolution.  Instead we’ve mostly just learned that the moon and Mars are both barren wastelands and that if there is life (or even worthwhile natural resources) out there it’s so astronomically far away that it would be ridiculously hard to ever get there.  Hollywood for their part has kind of given up on space optimism; they usually just go the fantasy route and jump to distant futures of the Star Trek variety without even suggesting how we got there.  The only movie in recent years I can think of which tried to do science fiction in a way that was closer to our current technology was The Martian, but even that movie kind of marginalized the actual space travel part of getting to the red planet.  Joining that film is perhaps the new James Gray film Ad Astra (which is the Latin for “to the stars), a film which looks at a distant but not entirely distant future which seems at least a little bit plausible.

The film begins with an action scene where Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on a massive antenna which stands so high that its basically in space when it’s hit by some sort of power surge and he plummets to the surface before being saved by a parachute.  We soon learn that this is one of many such surges that are wreaking havoc across Earth and McBride is brought into a top secret briefing where he’s told that these surges are the result of a mission from years ago called the Lima Project.  This mission, an attempt to find intelligent life in the universe which required a voyage deep into the solar system, was led by McBride’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who the public believes died heroically when that ship was lost sixteen years ago.  In the briefing its revealed that the government believes Clifford is actually alive and that these surges are somehow being caused by the Lima’s power sources.  As such Roy is being recruited to travel to Mars, via the Moon, in order to send out a personal plea to Clifford.  Roy accepts this mission and begins what is sure to be a fateful journey both for himself and for humanity.

What is immediately striking about the future depicted in Ad Astra is that, more so than in even the most grounded of science fiction, it manages to feel legitimately futuristic while also feeling like a fairly natural evolution of the modern world.  The space ships in it can apparently go to the outer-reaches of the solar system in a matter of a few months but they still resemble shuttles and need to use rockets to exit the atmosphere and the clothing and space suits everyone’s wearing are not wildly divergent from modern clothing trends.  They’ve apparently colonized the moon and Mars, but getting to them involves all the same mundanities we need to deal with at modern airports and parts of both are apparently unstable warzones.  All over the film you can tell that a great deal of thought and research was done to build all these futuristic things, but the film doesn’t feel obliged to stop and explain all of it.  Take that antenna thing at the beginning, what is that for?  I don’t know, and unless I missed something I don’t think the movie ever stops and explains it but it’s certainly a striking image and I do have a certain confidence that they thought it through.  The scientific things that don’t make so much sense to me are things that kind of seem like plot contrivances.  I’m not exactly sure why they would need to go to Mars just to send a signal to Neptune and it’s also a bit convenient that in the third act Pitt is able to travel a pretty vast distance in a relatively short span of time, which would seem to raise some plot questions.

Having said all that, the science fiction in Ad Astra is in many ways something of a background element more than the main focus.  This isn’t a movie that’s trying to be a headtrip in the lineage of 2001: A Space Odyssey so much as a human quest modeled after Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with Pitt as Marlow and his father as Kurtz.  It certainly isn’t a one to one parallel and the overall thematic message is quite different but the basic structure is more or less there.  This also makes the film a rather inward piece of work that focuses almost entirely on Brad Pitt’s character to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else and as a result the film has to rest pretty heavily on a voice-over narration by Pitt that is a bit of a mixed bag.  I certainly wouldn’t want the voice-over taken out entirely because there are definitely sections of it that are needed but I do think it could have been reduced a little bit.  Pitt’s narration in and of itself is a bit monotone and was made to sound like it was recorded in an echoy spaceship, which may or may not have been the best call.  There are also some plot details that bug me in the film, especially a violent turn of events that leads into the third act which seemed avoidable and kind of undermined the film’s ending.

Honestly I do having a sinking suspicion that there are a lot of plot elements here which aren’t going to hold up overly well to strict scrutiny and I don’t look forward to the “everything wrong with” videos that are eventually going to be made because looking at the movie like that sort of misses the point.  At the same time, the film’s general straightforwardness does make it a bit more susceptible to that kind of criticism.  This isn’t the kind of brainy science fiction film that really forces you to untangle some crazy mind bending idea about aliens or time travel or something, it’s ultimately a character study and the journey at its center is about as literal as it is metaphorical.  While I was watching the movie, I really liked it.  It looks great and it has some very strong scenes, but it didn’t really leave me with the same level of food for thought that we’ve come to expect from this kind of science fiction.  It’s a movie that’s fairly straightforward in its messaging and there are plot elements which I just can’t completely overlook.  This is actually the feeling I get all too often when I leave James Gray movies, he’s a guy with clear talent but his movies always end up being a bit shallower than their trappings suggest.  Still, if the movie has failings they’re failings that are set up by high expectations, looked at in the wider world of commercial cinema this is definitely worth seeing especially for fans of hard science fiction.

***1/2 out of Five

It: Chapter 2(9/5/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Light Spoilers

I try not to get too wrapped up with box office numbers, but sometimes when the right movie becomes a hit it can feel really good.  The success of the movie It in 2017 was one of those cases.  While not exactly what you’d call high art it was in many the kind of product that you hope for from large studio filmmaking: a solidly made adaptation of a respectable property which didn’t compromise more than it had to.  Seeing that R-rated horror adaptation make $123 million dollars in its opening weekend and later end up among the top ten highest grossing of that year right between two MCU movies was really satisfying.  This success had a lot to do with timing; Stephen King has always been relevant but the popularity of “Stranger Things” had really primed the audience for his brand of horror storytelling and the fact that this was focusing on the suburban childhood aspects of the book and that its milieu was moved from the 50s to the 80s really strengthened that connection.  That’s not to say the movie entirely has the TV show to thank for the money it made but both properties were certainly tapping in to the same nostalgia vein that people really wanted tapped in 2017.  Now, as happy as I was by the film’s success I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was one of my favorite films that year.  In fact in my original review of the film I felt a little hesitant to pass judgement at all simply because I knew this second half was coming and wanted to see if some of the elements I thought were lumpy would pay off and to know for sure if it was going to stick the landing.

Set twenty seven years after the events of the first movie, It: Chapter 2 opens with an attack by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) which Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) gets word of and realizes that this evil entity has returned on schedule.  As Mike is the only member of “The Loser’s Club” who has remained in Derry all these years he takes it upon himself to call his old friends and reunite them in order to kill the monster once and for all.  The “club” members lives have gone in different directions: Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a horror novelist, Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is in an abusive marriage, Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a standup comedian, Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) has lost a lot of weight and is a wealthy architect, and Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) has a desk job.  They all reunite out of a sort of obligation but when they arrive many of them have forgotten about their fight with Pennywise as a function of how that entity’s magic works.  Once they arrive and their memory is jogged many of them are reluctant to stay, especially after some scary encounters, but when they learn about the suicide of Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) who the one member who didn’t show up, they become resolved to finish the fight.

The big conversation leading up to the release of this film largely had to do with its running time.  The movie is about 2 hours and 50 minutes long, which is not something I inherently have any problems with because to me that isn’t very unusual; it’s about ten minutes longer than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I loved, and ten minutes shorter than Avengers: Endgame, which the masses flocked to.  Given that the movie was half of an adaptation of a thousand page book it seemed largely reasonable and I was looking forward to seeing the film and telling all the haters that they were being silly for freaking out about that.  Then I saw the movie and… yeah, it’s too long.  Well, it’s not so much that it’s literally too long, I wouldn’t exactly say I lost interest in it over time or anything, but it has a bizarre structure and becomes repetitive in ways that eventually undermine it.

Take the opening scene, which is a disturbing depiction of a hate crime perpetuated against a gay couple which ends with one of them being thrown off a bridge and then murdered by Pennywise.  It’s a strongly rendered scene, but what is it doing in this movie?  We never see the attack’s survivor again or the human attackers and while it does serve to announce Pennywise’s return that could have been achieved just as easily by moving a later attack against a kid at a baseball game (which is shorter, fits Pennywise’s MO better, and has less baggage) to the beginning.  Then there’s the character of Henry Bowers; in my review of the first film I said “there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel,” and while he does indeed come back his presence in the sequel ends up being as much of a time waste as he was in the first.  His three or so scenes are well made, I can see why a director would be attached to them and want to leave them in, but he ultimately has no effect at all on the plot beyond being one more obstacle and has only the slightest effect on theme, so his presence here only lengthens the movie and does very little to justify is presence in the last movie either.

Superfluous as those scenes were, they can be set aside as merely misjudged extravagances on the part of director Andy Muschietti, who seems to be going into this sequel with a lot more confidence and money than he did before after the massive success of the first film.  The bigger structural problem with the film is that it’s basically a movie with six protagonists and feels obligated to give each of them equal screen time. For instance the film has to begin by Mike making six different phone calls to each of his former friends one after another, forcing the movie to stop and give us six different vignettes about where these people are in their lives.  That might be a necessary expository tool (aside from the weird domestic violence vignette in Beverly’s introduction which is kind of left dangling), but what’s less forgivable is how the film then spends a lot of its first half sending each of the six characters out to find “artifacts from their past.”  In practice that means six episodic segments in a row of a character going somewhere in the town, having a flashback to some moment of their past too inconsequential to have been in the first movie, and then having Pennywise fuck with them in some ineffective way.

Pennywise’s habit of appearing before our main characters to creep them out rather than actually kill them was actually a problem I had with the first movie.  In my review of that movie I said “every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them” but I sort of let it go because you could sort of explain it away as Pennywise underestimating The Losers Club, but it’s harder to forgive here as we see six episodes in a row of him jumping out and going “boo” at our heroes and them getting away from it unscathed.  And beyond simply making the first chunk of this movie kind of tedious it also kind of hurts the rest of the film because it makes Pennywise a bit of a paper tiger who can’t actually hurt anyone, which is kind of a suspense killer.  At its heart I think the problem here is that in the original novel this half of the story with the characters as adults were meant to act as something of a framing story to the scenes with the kids rather than a standalone narrative unto itself.  That makes the film kind of awkward because instead of flashing back to the actual important parts of their childhood (which were all in the first movie) they just flash back to some random crap that belongs on the cutting room floor.

Despite these structural problems there is a lot here to like.  For one thing the casting here is really strong.  These certainly won’t go down as the best performances of James McAvoy or Jessica Chastain, not even close, but they are definitely believable as older versions of those characters from the first film and the same can be said of most of the less famous actors in the film.  Then there’s Bill Hader, who like his fellow cast mates makes perfect sense as an older version of that character and he’s been widely considered to be a standout element of the film because of the comic relief he provides.  This praise is largely deserved, he is quite funny in the film and commands the screen when he’s in it, but his role in the film is a bit of a double edged sword.  There is definitely a place for levity even in the most hardcore of horror cinema but here Hader is doing so much comedy that it does sort of hurt the tension a little, or at least it contributes to the other problems the film has with Pennywise’s general ineffectiveness.  Really the whole movie has a much different tone from the first movie in no small part because of this.  In fact it almost feels more like a summer blockbuster than a true horror film, especially considering that a lot of the film’s scares involve CGI imagery, some of which is more effective than others.

What I’d really like, is to see a supercut of the first and second film put together into an epic five hour movie that cuts between the two timelines.  Maybe in that context the characters artifact hunts would seem less like repetitive time wasting and maybe that long runtime would make Bill Hader’s comedy seem less omnipresent and more like a true relief from the rest of the horror.  As an individual movie though It: Chapter 2 is kind of a weird movie that’s hard to really call “good” or “bad.”  I can rattle off a whole checklist of ways that it’s misshapen and indulgent but it would be hard to really say I disliked it or that I didn’t appreciate having seen it.  The things that do work in it work quite well and frankly I’d rather a movie fail through over-reach than through mundanity.  So if you liked the first movie, by all means see the second but go in with the expectation that it’s meant to give a fairly different experience than you got from the first one and that it’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride at times.

*** out of Five

The Nightingale(8/17/2019)

In 2014 the most buzzed about horror movie, for that matter one of the most buzzed about movies period, was Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.  That movie didn’t really have much of a presence at the box office (the title probably didn’t help) but it’s become a pretty substantial cult hit and remains one of the decades more critically acclaimed horror films.  Personally, I wasn’t quite as bullish about the movie as some people, but I think I’ve come around on it a little.  When it came out we were kind of drowning in movies about people being haunted by nebulous ghosts and the movie resembled that formula a little too much for me to fully embrace it at the time.  Looking back though I think I was maybe being a bit too picky; the movie managed to do a whole lot with a little and its psychological subtext was probably difficult to pull off and the film’s ability to communicate it well was impressive.  Removed from the hype I see that it’s quite the accomplishment.  But even when I was a Babadook skeptic I was excited to see what Jennifer Kent would do next and now that her second film, The Nightingale, has been released I was excited to go even though I’d heard it was a pretty different kind of movie.

The Nightingale is not really a horror movie and is instead more of a historical revenge movie.  The film is set in Australia, and specifically on the island of Tasmania in 1825 when the country was still very much a prison colony and in the midst of what is still known today as the “Black War” between British colonist and the Aboriginal population.  The focus is on an Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who was sent to Australia for petty crimes and is married to another convict named Aidan (Michael Sheasby) but still very much a prisoner under the control of a British officer named Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin) who uses her as a “nightingale” who sings to the troops to build morale.  Unfortunately Hawkins’ possessiveness over Clare extends far past any reason and this obsession results in a night of extreme violence which leaves Clare’s husband and child dead and her both physically and sexually assaulted and left for dead.  When she wakes up she learns that Hawkins left the next day to go on a trek across the Tasmanian wilderness in order to fight for a promotion he fears he’ll lose for semi-unrelated reasons.  As such Clare decides the only thing to do is to hire (under false pretenses) an aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to find him and his cronies in order to exact revenge.

The Nightingale is a very different movie from The Babadook and fans of one are not necessarily going to be fans of the other.  The Nightingale is not really a horror movie so much as it’s a really dark historical revenge movie.  I’m not one to give out “trigger warnings” but I’m pretty sure that one would be appropriate for this one given that it contains multiple rape scenes, depictions of genocide, and some graphic violence.  The rape-revenge movie is of course something of a dubious genre often rooted in exploitation but this film tends to shy away from genre tropes and leans more on being a character study rooted in its setting.  It’s certainly not the first movie to depict 19th Century Australia as a sort of Oceanic old west untamed frontier (John Hillcoat’s The Proposition comes to mind, but I can only assume that there are other examples) and it certainly isn’t the first movie to explore the violent oppression of the aboriginals but it certainly does make that conflict a vivid and apocalyptic background for what is an oddly exciting adventure through the wilderness.

Kent shoots the film in the academy ratio and recreates the period effectively throughout.  This isn’t really an “action” movie per se but she does shoot the scenes of violence with panache.  Aisling Franciosi does a good job of rendering Clare’s anguish and she and newcomer Baykali Ganambarr have very strong chemistry as the film’s central protagonists as representatives of the underclass being victimized by British imperialism.  Sam Claflin is also strong as the film’s villain though I must say that if the film has a weakness it’s that Hawkins as a character is evil to the point of ridiculousness.  I’m certainly not naïve to the depths of awfulness that the British colonists were capable of and get that he and his cronies are sort of meant to be a stand-ins for all of that but this guy really seems to go out of his way to be evil above and beyond his own self-interest and by the time they had him casually gunning down a small child for petty reasons I was almost laughing at how thickly they were laying it on.  I’m also not entirely sure how I feel about the ending, which seemed like it was going in one of two ways but ended up sort of going in both of them at once in a way that didn’t entirely work.  Overall though this is a pretty strong piece of filmmaking and a worthy if unexpected follow-up to The Babadook.  I’m not sure what Jennifer Kent is planning to do next with her career but she has my attention all the more after this.

**** out of Five

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood(7/26/2019)

Review Contains Spoilers

For about as long as I’ve been watching Quentin Tarantino’s career there’s been the specter of its eventual end.  Tarantino announced a while back that he was planning to quit filmmaking after he’d completed ten films, thus locking in a filmography for fear that he’d lose skill with age and have that taint his legacy.  He’s likened it to a boxer knowing he only has so many fights in him.  On some level this seems unnecessarily defeatist, after all Tarantino’s idol Martin Scorsese seems to be more than capable of making exciting and relevant films well into his 70s, but I do kind of see where that instinct comes from.  There have definitely been filmmakers like John Carpenter who seem great but then suddenly become incapable of making good movies once they hit a certain age.  More commonly though directors find themselves in a position where they make their last great movie, then they make four or five mediocrities, and then they end their career without fanfare.  I can see why Tarantino would want to avoid that, but there’s always been a degree of skepticism about this whole scheme.  Tarantino is plainly deeply in love with filmmaking to the point where it’s hard to see him willingly giving it up, so everyone just kind of assumed that plan would go the way of the Vega Brothers spinoff.  But now with the release of his ninth movie (his marketers have been making sure you’re counting) he’s really close to that end goal and if that ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is any indication Tarantino appears to be dead serious about his retirement plans and has been thinking about aging out of relevance someday very carefully.

The film is set in Hollywood during the year 1969.  Our focus is on a pair of fictional characters: a down on his luck star of B-movies and TV westerns named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Booth is a veteran stuntman but there’s been something of a pall over his career because it’s believed (perhaps rightly) that he murdered his wife and got away with it.  In many ways he’s been working as an assistant and driver for Dalton, but Dalton’s career isn’t terribly healthy either.  Dalton became famous as the star of a TV show called “Bounty Law” and he’s made a few grindhouse movies but at this point he’s mostly doing guest appearances as villains on other people’s shows and an agent named Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) is trying to convince him to go to Italy to make a spaghetti western called Nebraska Jim with Sergio Corbucci.  All the while Dalton is kind of unknowingly in the line of historical fire as he resides in a house on Cielo Drive right across the street from the home of Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), which everyone knows would become the sight of the Manson Family’s most infamous murders in the August of that year.

When auteurs on Tarantino’s level make movies you don’t generally go into them like you would a general release.  Like, when I turn on a movie I haven’t seen by Fellini or Ozu or someone like that the last thing that’s on my mind is whether it’s “good” or “bad” in the traditional sense so much as I’m looking to see how they address their usual themes or advancing their aesthetic.  Eventually you have to determine if it’s a major or minor work but unless they’ve really dropped the ball the question of whether the film is even worth seeing is king of beside the point.  So let’s get the mundane consumer advice out of the way upfront.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a good movie, duh.  It’s got a pair of fine performances at its center, some very funny moments along the way, it’s interest in 20th Century pop culture and iconography is impressive, and it leaves you with a lot to think about.  That said, while I am the last person to complain about the runtime of Quentin Tarantino movies even I would have to admit that those criticisms might have a tiny bit of validity this time and that certain parts of the movie worked better than others.  Within Tarantino’s recent oeuvre it lacks the energy and entertainment value of Django Unchained and the visual mastery of The Hateful Eight and certainly isn’t the radical reinvention that Inglourious Basterds was.  Were I to rank his films it would probably be nearer to the bottom than the top, but whatever, the dude’s hardly ever made a movie that was even a little bit bad and being low ranked among his films is like being towards the bottom of a ranking of moon landings.  So, thumbs up, four and a half stars, if you’re trying to decide between seeing this and seeing The Lion King, Stuber, Hobbs and Shaw, or whatever other market-tested product Hollywood is putting out by the time you’re reading this, see this.

Again, Spoilers going forward, last warning.

With that out of the way, let’s look a little deeper into what this movie might be saying and how it fits into Tarantino’s career and into the filmmaking landscape.  This is technically the first movie that Tarantino has made that was released by a major studio, or at least made by a major studio without going through a specialty division.  He made the movie for Columbia/Sony after there were… issues… with the people he’s worked with most of his career.  When it became known that he was shopping this project elsewhere there was actually something of a bidding war to see who he’d begin working with which kind of surprised me given that, well, he doesn’t make movies about superheroes.  He makes R-rated independently spirited original movies that are driven by dialogue and esoteric references rather than CGI effects.  He does have a good sized fan base and he’s certainly proven to have some commercial instincts to reach audiences beyond that, but at the end of the day he still doesn’t exactly embody what Hollywood normally values that strongly these days.  Hell, even back in the 90s he was something of a renegade voice who needed to come through the indie backdoor in order to find a place in “the industry.”  And that’s the thing about Tarantino’s whole retirement plan: had he announced it recently rather than over a decade ago one could easily imagine that it was a reaction to a belief that he and his style of filmmaking were being pushed out by Hollywood, and that anxiety almost certainly fuels Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In the past Tarantino has rather snarkily said his whole retirement plan was in place because he didn’t want to find himself making “old man” movies, which is ironic because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is absolutely an “old man movie.”  It’s loaded to the brim with references to obscure nostalgic ephemera that no one under fifty is going to recognize (it makes “Mad Men” look downright lazy in its period detail), it completely ignores the filmmaking trends of its time, and most importantly it’s quite literally about old (well, Hollywood “old”) men not knowing how to react to “the kids” these days.  The selection of 1969 as a year for Tarantino to set a movie about overtly about movies in is certainly not a coincidence.  Anyone who knows film history knows that the late 60s was a tumultuous time for Hollywood where a new generation was rejecting the style of filmmaking that had been working since the Golden Age and new mediums like color television were increasingly acting as competition for the cinema and clearly Rick Dalton sees himself as a potential casualty of this transition.  It also definitely isn’t a coincidence that Dalton’s genre of choice is the western because that is also genre which even at its height was all about generational change and hardened pioneers being replaced by the “civilized” world they helped to usher in (the movie rather pointedly has a character saying he wants to connect 1969 with 1869).

That said, one shouldn’t view Dalton as a complete stand-in for Tarantino himself and the film should not be mistaken as a work that’s entirely on his side.  For one thing, Dalton does not appear to have ever been as accomplished as an actor as Tarantino is as a filmmaker.  He appears to have been something of a second rate talent and we’re given ever reason to believe his self destructive tendencies have as much to do with his professional shortcomings as changing tastes.  A very uncharitable reading of him is that he’s exactly the kind of mediocre white man that is going to be the first one to be threatened by more tolerant hiring practices.  More successful actors like the real Steve McQueen (who Dalton is established as a second rate non-union replacement for) are shown to fit in fairly well with the new generation and other members of the younger generation like Sharon Tate and the eight year old girl that Dalton has a breakdown in front of seem to be worthy replacements for the likes of Dalton.  So in many ways it feels like the work of someone coming to terms with his own irrelevance in a changing world in which two flawed heroes from a dying world are set up to, like in the westerns of yore, go on one last great hurrah before leaving the world to the next generation… and then the Manson family shows up and everything goes crazy.

If the pricklier aspects of Dalton and Booth are meant to represent why this change may be necessary, the Mansons are meant to represent everything that’s shitty about the next generation.  The real Manson Family was of course a perverse funhouse mirror reflection of the hippie flower power movement; they were people who discarded all the values of a the previous generation and rather than replacing them with new and better values they replaced them with Charles Manson’s insane bullshit and became monsters without honor or humanity.  Given their propensity to spout hollow slogans of radical consciousness they barely seem to understand one could maybe see them as a stand-in for the kind of woke twitter trolls who may be inclined to “cancel” Quentin Tarantino, especially given a speech delivered by Susan Atkins right before the murders where she accuses screen violence for the Vietnam war.  However, I think the bigger statement Tarantino is trying to make about Manson has less to do with modern political discourse and more to do with the effect that the Manson murders are said to have had on the American psyche.

The cultural narrative has long been that the Manson murders shocked the nation in such a way that it kind of killed off the very notion of flower power and ushered in the end of the sixties.  That way of viewing things is, of course, kind of ridiculous.  Cultural evolution does not happen that cleanly, but when the legend becomes fact print the legend.  So when Dalton and Booth inadvertently re-route history so that Manson’s minions are the ones massacred that day rather than Tate and her friends they are, for all intents and purposes, fighting the future and keeping the groovy sixties going on past the expiration date in our history books.  On a more personal level this ending can also be viewed as a moment where the old dogs like Tarantino rage against the dying of the light, use their old world toughness to protect the innocent, and not only fight back against the people who would replace them but incinerate the motherfuckers with a damn flamethrower.  So in many ways this ending would seem to be in contradiction with the resignation with the future and obsolescence we saw earlier in the film and which Tarantino seems to be advocating in the real world… but does it?

This is of course not the first time that Tarantino has dared to re-write history with one of his films.  In Inglourious Basterds he killed Hitler and burned the Nazi regime to the ground and in Django Unchained he had a black man fight back against the slave holding south and blow up a plantation and metaphorically the debased society that built it.  In both cases these are meant to be richly deserved cathartic retributions against debased philosophies which would usher in more enlightened ages more rapidly than in the real world.  Here we’re certainly supposed to be happy that Sharron Tate has been saved but otherwise the revisionist history at play this time around seems to be something of a different beast.  For one thing, Charles Manson is no Adolf Hitler and his idiot goons are no Hans Landa.  We actually don’t see a lot of Manson himself in the movie and while we can intuit that the events of the film’s finale would eventually lead police to Spahn Ranch and result in his arrest Tarantino does not seem to view him as an adversary worthy adversary whose philosophy needs to be cathartically dismantled.  Rather, a lot of what happens in that ending kind of feels like overkill.

The trait that initially changes the trajectory of the killers is not enlightened heroism but rather an old drunk asshole basically profiling what could have easily been a group of innocent young people under different circumstances and all but telling them to “get off his lawn.”  And the way the Family acolytes are dispatched, while likely justifiable homicides is about as ugly and brutal as the actual killings from history despite being directed at people who ostensibly “have it coming” and the consciously absurd bit with the flamethrower borders on the psychotic.  That the two then react to killing these “damn hippies” with such casualness also stands out, as does Dalton’s general disinterest in the well-being of his new wife.  Are we supposed to feel happy about all this?  I’m not so sure that we are.  Just consider the music cue that’s playing when he walks away from the bloodbath to meet with the recently saved Sharron Tate.  Rather than some triumphant pop song it’s a sparse cue from the movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean which almost sounds like something out of Rosemary’s Baby.  And rather than taking a Victory Lap like Django or asserting something to be a masterpiece like Aldo Raine, he just walks out of frame while the camera lingers on the empty driveway.

There’s something ominous about it all and I think that’s Tarantino signaling his own ambivalence about what he’s just done as a re-writer of history.  Viewed as a confrontation between actors and Manson family members this is all a relatively straightforward battle between good and evil but viewed as a confrontation between generations it’s uneasy.  These two jackasses might be in able to claim the moral high ground in relation to the Manson Family but they maybe aren’t in a position to claim superiority over the future they don’t even know they’ve wiped out just because Tarantino loves to live in the past and that’s the big difference here: Django Unchained and Ingourious Basterds were movies where historical revision ushered in a new world but here revisionism is meant to maintain the status quo and Tarantino seems to realize that there’s something kind of problematic about this.  He knows he’s being small “c” conservative and I don’t think he likes that feeling and I think the film is in many ways an expression of that.

Am I reading too much into this?  I don’t know, maybe.  This is actually the second straight Tarantino movie I’ve come out of with a fairly elaborate theory I’ve had to try to back up and while I do stand by my belief that The Hateful Eight is a complex allegory about political division I’m not sure that every granular piece of evidence for this which I found in my first viewing exactly holds.  I’m also not sure I get how every piece here fits together either.  Like, I totally see how Rick Dalton fits in with my little theory but I’m not entirely sure how Cliff Booth does or what Sharon Tate’s exact role is in it all and there are other parts of the movie that I don’t have the same sort of bold reading of.  It’s in many ways a movie of ideas and iconography moreso than a work of storytelling and that makes it feel kind of weird and misshapen and I’m not sure how a lot of people are going to react to that.  However, I think this is going to be looked back at as one of the important keystones of Tarantino’s career and I think his true fans are going to be able to pick up what he’s putting down, and if he does go forward with his plans to retire after his next movie I’ll certainly miss his work but after seeing this I think I finally understand.

****1/2 out of Five