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

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Burning(12/16/2018)

Let’s talk about platform distribution.  In theory movies on this track are supposed to open in New York and L.A. for about a week, and then expand outwards into the other large markets until hopefully you’ve opened wide.  It usually works out pretty well for me because I’m in a large enough market that I pretty reliably get most independent/foreign movies a couple weeks after they debut or at least know when they are coming out.  However some sort of monkey wrench got thrown in the gears when it came to acclaimed new South Korea drama Burning, which got picked up by some strange company called Well-Go-USA which usually focuses on Asian cinema of the martial arts variety and seems to have some bad ideas about how to release art house movies because from where I sit they’ve really botched this one.  When the film first expanded they skipped over the Twin Cities entirely and opened in places like Dallas, then the next week in places like Albuquerque.  My city wasn’t entirely alone in this suspense.  The damn thing opened Columbus Ohio before it opened in Seattle, it opened in Omaha before it opened in Denver, and in Salt Lake City before it opened in Detroit.   And to this date it still hasn’t opened in Minneapolis and there’s no indication as to when or if it will.  Color me pissed.  Fortunately I was still able to catch a screening of the movie while on a trip to Chicago, or else I may have missed out on one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, and if that had happened I may well boycotted the damn company for life.

Burning is set in modern South Korea and focuses on Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer who lives on his father’s run-down old farm in the town of Paju, which is located a little bit outside of Seoul.  One day while visiting Seoul he runs into a woman named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who was a neighbor of his back in Paju while they were kids.  The two form something of a friendship, one that Jong-su is never quite sure is venturing towards the romantic, and Hae-mi recruits him to feed her cat for her while she takes a sort of “spirit journey” to Africa.  When she returns from this trip she’s accompanied by a guy named Ben (Steven Yeun) who was the only other Korean where she was, causing the two to form a bond that Jong-su is never quite sure was or is romantic.  From there Jong-su has to navigate whether or not he’s been put into the “friend-zone” by Hae-mi and whether or not he should be jealous of whatever bond she has with Ben and how that makes him feel, at least before things start to take a different and altogether more sinister turn in the film’s second half.

Burning is the work of Lee Chang-dong, an important but not overly prolific Korean auteur who has largely eschewed the more extreme genre tendencies of some of his most famous countryman to instead make realist dramas, usually about ordinary people at crossroads in life trying to cope with where they find themselves in life. His signature film, Secret Sunshine, remains one of the finest examinations of the concept of forgiveness in all its complexity and his follow-up Poetry is an excellent meditation on justice and legacy but it’s been a long eight year wait for his latest film.  Burning is a little more playful than his previous films in that it doesn’t burden the audience with super heavy themes right away and generally operates on a more cinematic logic than strict realism.  That said, “playful” is a bit of a relative term given that this is a film that still very clearly addressing its themes seriously and the film does end up going to some pretty dark places in its second half.

There’s a scene in the film where the protagonist casually watching a news report of Donald Trump giving a speech.  Jong-su doesn’t seem terribly enamored by what he’s watching and the scene feels superfluous but it isn’t.  Lee Chang-dong isn’t trying to suggest that Jong-su would have any particular affinity for Trump himself or his xenophobic nonsense but he is trying to sort of establish him as something of the Korean equivalent of the prototypical “Trump voter” that outlets like the New York Times can’t help but profile.  He’s a rural guy who’s been given the short end of the wealth inequality stick and has kind of been left behind by the modern world and that this outlook does not lead him to make the healthiest choices in life.  He also seems to be in way over his head in dealing with Hae-mi, who may have come from his village but who has become quite the free spirit in Seoul and Jong-su spends a lot of the film’s second act trying to determine whether or not their single hook-up was something that was more casual to her than it was to him and trying to play cool around her.  His jealousy toward Ben is readily apparent and it certainly has at least a little bit to do with class resentment.  This is all helped quite a bit by the fact that Jeon Jong-seo manages to create a character who is in fact quite captivating and seems to be worthy of all the investment that Jong-su makes in her.

Of course there’s also the sinking suspicion in the back of both his mind and the audiences’ mind that he’s being played from the very beginning either by Ben or by Hae-mi or both of them.  That third act is very much about obsession and paranoia and it keeps the audience guessing throughout.  As a whole this is a film that doesn’t really follow the usual formulas you expect movies to follow, but it also isn’t trying to be radically strange or avant-garde either.  That is in part what sets it apart from Lee Chang-dong’s earlier movies, which certainly weren’t formulaic but they were less noticeably meta and were generally heavier exercises.  Does this then mark a new chapter in his auteur style?  We’ll have to see, though I must hope his next movie comes a bit faster than this one, because Chang-dong is too fascinating a filmmaker to keep operating on a “two movie per decade” pace.

****1/2 out of Five

If Beale Street Could Talk(10/27/2018)

The great writer James Baldwin died about thirty years ago but it’s not hard to see that here in the late 2010s the guy is having a bit of “a moment.”  I think this started with the rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a thinker and public intellectual.  Coates, with his intellectual demeanor, roots in the literary world, and uncompromising politics in many ways felt like Baldwin’s intellectual descendant and he more or less invited the comparisons when he wrote his 2015 essay collection “Between the World and Me” as a letter to his teenage son, a literary device that was not dissimilar from one that Baldwin used in his 1963 book “The Fire Next Time.”  Baldwin’s next re-emergence happened with the release of Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was adapted from Baldwin’s final manuscript and looked at his views of the civil rights movement and of larger American culture.   That was a great documentary but it was a limited one insomuch as it was largely concerned with Baldwin’s work as an essayist and as a public intellectual and was not really focusing on his work as a novelist, which is what made him famous in the first place.  Enter Barry Jenkins, red hot from his amazing Oscar winning film Moonlight, who has decided to bring attention to that said of Baldwin’s career by making as his next film an adaptation of Bladwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Despite the tile the film actually isn’t set in Memphis and is instead set in Harlem during the early 70s.  The film is told from the perspective of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne), a nineteen year old who has fallen deeply in love with her longtime friend Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James).  Unfortunately, as the movie begins Fonny is in Rikers Island awaiting trial for an alleged rape, one that Tish knows he didn’t commit because she was with him when it was alleged to have happened, an alibi the police do not believe because of her relationship to Fonny.  Complicating matters further, Tish is apparently pregnant with Fonny’s baby.  From here we get a number of flashbacks about Tish and Fonny’s courtship and attempts at building a life interspersed with material about the family’s attempts to find a way to help get him out of jail.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” was not one of James Baldwin’s more famous novels either in its day or in modern times before Barry Jenkins decided to adapt it.  It was written after Baldwin was at the height of his fame and at a time when America was a bit weary of the topic of race, believing falsely that the Civil Rights Movement had already accomplished everything that needed to be accomplished and that everything else would just sort itself out eventually.  Baldwin’s novel certainly doesn’t labor under any delusions that that is true but it’s not a book about the macro-politics of civil rights so much as a portrait of the small and not so small indignities that interrupt black life and prevent greater prosperity for the African American family.  In particular the story looks at the effects of the criminal justice system on black life, which I think is a big part of why Jenkins believed the film would be particularly relevant today.  The story is very much designed to make you root for the couple at the center of it and to be extremely frustrated by the fact that they’re being kept apart by circumstance.  In this sense the film is a very traditional romance plot, but one where society is keeping its characters apart rather than parents or misunderstandings within the relationship.

As a case study in the criminal justice system Fonny’s is perhaps an extreme case as it seems that the police involved have gone through a lot of trouble to frame him for a fairly serious crime for rather petty reasons, something that is probably not unprecedented in the history of American policing but which remains a something of a worst case scenario.  Another character played by Brian Tyree Henry comes into the film at a certain point and tells a story about getting a rather brutal prison sentence for carrying weed on his person, which is probably a bit more representative of the kind of cases that are overfilling American prisons in a post-“War on Drugs” era than Fonny’s predicament.  There is also, in this climate, something just a little queasy about having a film center around trying to get a rape victim to recant her accusation even if that accusation appears to have been influenced by biased police officers, but the film does manage to portray that woman’s story with sensitivity as well.  Still, the bigger point here is about how disruptive arrests like this are on the black family and the ways in which they cannot count on a fair trial or treatment.

Really though, the story’s relevance to modern political debates are not what makes this movie special, what really stands out is simply how well it renders the lives of its characters.  The film certainly brings early 70s New York to life in an interesting way, endowing it with some of the romance of something like Manhattan when necessary while also showing some of the grit and hardship that living there could entail.  The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s set during a particular period, the characters seem to have appropriate hairstyles and have a habit of referring to people as “cats,” but it avoids emphasizing the kitchier elements of that decade.  Most of the music the characters listen to seems to be the jazz and blues of an earlier time rather than the chart hits of 1973 and the movie doesn’t give anyone an oversized afro or anything.  In general the movie uses a lot of the same cinematic tricks that made Moonlight such a revelation but applies them to what is structurally a very different movie that operates in very different ways.  Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton have once again managed to create the perfect color scheme for the film and Nicholas Britell has contributed another fine score for this film, and the cast is absolutely killer.   KiKi Layne, who as far as I can tell from IMDB has done almost nothing onscreen except for a couple of guest starring roles on TV, manages to anchor the film perfectly and Stephan James brings just the right mix of sensitivity and masculinity to Fonny.  Regina King is also a standout as Tish’s mother, who comes to have a key sequence late in the film.

In terms of adaption the book skews very close to Bladwin’s novel, to the point where it acts as an almost word for word adaptation at times, which mostly works for the movie as it encourages Jenkins to leave in little bits of character that other movies might have cut out as superfluous.  Little bits like Tish’s discomfort with her job at a department story perfume counter add a lot to the movie and easily could have been left out of a screenplay that were less reverent to the adaptation source, but this reverence can be a bit of a hindrance as well. For instance there is a lengthy scene at the beginning of the book and movie in which Tish’s family is at odds with Fonny’s self-righteous mother, which is in and of itself an excellent scene, but the conflict it establishes basically never comes up again in the movie and it feels like a bit of a dangling thread at the end.  That and another subplot about the two lovers’ fathers conspiring to raise funds for Fonny’s defense are both left unresolved in the movie, in part because of the one aspect of the novel that Jenkins chose to alter in a significant way: its ending.  I will not go into detail about this except to say that the ending of the novel is a bit abrupt and probably did need a change of some kind, his solution is to omit some of the material that would have slightly resolved the above plot threads in favor of an epilog he’s added which I don’t think fits exactly with what the rest of the film is setting up.

That was kind of an odd decision but I see what Jenkins was going for and aside from that one misstep I think this is basically another triumph for Jenkins.  I’m not sure whether or not I’d consider this to be the better movie than Moonlight, truth be told they aren’t as easy to compare side to side as you would think given that they were more or less made by the same filmmaking team.  If Beale Street Could Talk’s literary nature and general talkativeness differentiate it from Moonlight’s unique triptych narrative and enigmatic lead character, but what the two movies have in common is that they are both trying to apply a level of artistry to stories that the cinema and culture as a whole often renders as sensationalistic stereotypes.  In the eyes of society Moonlight’s Chiron is merely a drug dealer, but Jenkins managed to show him as a lot more than that, and he is similarly able to show through this movie that Tish is far more than a mere “baby mama” and he effectively both explains why her life is the way it is while also endowing it with a clear degree of dignity.  By the film’s end you feel like you’ve made a connection with its characters and that you’ve gone on something of a journey with them, which is theoretically what all movies are supposed to do but it’s kind of rare for one to really deliver on that and this one does.

****1/2 out of Five

The Favourite(10/27/2018)

Warning: Review reveals an aspect of the movie’s premise which may be considered a spoiler.

I like to think I’m more knowledgeable about American history than most.  I have a degree in the subject after all and I do find myself reading a fair number of books about it since then.  I cannot, however, necessarily say the same thing about British history and especially not pre-20th Century British history.  I do know a little more about certain eras of interest like Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign and I guess the handful of kings that Shakespeare wrote plays about and I suppose I have a cursory knowledge of William the Conquerer and The War of the Roses and a few other events but at a certain point it becomes very hard to keep track of all the monarchs, parliaments, and reformations that have happened in that country in the last two thousand years.  I don’t exactly feel terrible about that given that it’s not a country I live in.  In theory there’s no particular reason I should know more about English history than, say, Chinese history but nonetheless I do take in a lot more popular culture from and about the United Kingdom and occasionally I feel a little more unsteady than I would when watching period pieces set in the United States.  Take the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, which is set in the early 1700s during the reign of Queen Anne.  I had probably heard the name “Queen Anne” at some point before but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much of anything about her.  So the film, titled The Favourite, is something of an education for me… or is it?

The film begins with a woman named Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arriving at the court of Queen Anne (Oliva Coleman) in hopes of getting some sort of job there.  Hill is of noble birth but her family has fallen because of some terrible decisions by her father and she is basically penniless.  Her hope is that her distant relative, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), will give her some sort of assistance.  The Duchess is not a person to be trifled with.  She’s wily and tough as nails and she’s also more or less become the right hand woman to the queen, who is depicted here as smart but sickly and perhaps a bit loony from her life of privilege and indulgence.  Hill does manage to get a job as a lowly palace maid but soon the duchess finds something of a kinship with Hill.  The Duchess gives her a better job in the palace and also invites Hill to join her in recreational live pigeon shooting.  Soon though, Hill comes to learn that the duchess and the queen are not merely confidants but are in fact also lesbian lovers.  Seeing an opening, Hill comes up with a plan to supplant the duchess as the queen’s favorite subject and to use that to return herself to the nobility.

Like I said, my knowledge of British history in this period is minimal, so when I finished the movie I had just assumed that this was a fictional story set in the time period.  However, when I started poking around on Wikipedia it became clear that there actually is a lot more genuine history here than I thought.  The Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Hill were real people, their circumstances were about the same as what’s depicted here, and they really did fight for the queen’s favor as well.  Where the film differs from the history record is in speculating that these three were engaging in a lesbian love triangle, which appears to have been something that was rumored at the time but for which little hard evidence exists.  The movie is also basically engaging speculation in depicting the motives of the two women who may or may not have been as power hungry in real life.  That said historical accuracy is probably a secondary concern here as Yorgos Lanthimos does not treat the film as a historical reenactment and instead injects it with a lot of modern energy.  The film’s dialogue is not distractingly anachronistic but it isn’t filled with “thees” and “thous” and “prithees” either and the screenplay does not shy away from having the characters use various vulgarities that would not make it into the history books.  The film also uses some stranger elements of life in this period are also emphasized for comedic effect like the nobility’s apparent pastime of duck racing.

This unconventional take on the period piece reminded me a bit of The Death of Stalin, which leaned even heavier into anachronistic language and was a generally broader comedy, but the Armando Iannucci project that the movie really reminded me of was his HBO series “Veep” in the way that the characters are self-interested vipers that are constantly playing chess with their adversaries.  Unlike Iannucci’s comedies, which tend to take place in worlds where anyone and everyone has their eyes on the prize, in this movie no one except for the main trio at the center really seems to stand a chance.  That’s especially true of all the men in the court who are primarily represented by a pair of groveling politicians and a conceited military officer, all of them made to look like comical fops by the ridiculous fashion of the day which involved gigantic wigs and unappealing purple jackets.  That rather feminized appearance is quite intentionally contrasted with the women in the movie, who are slightly musicalized power players that ride horses and take up target shooting in their free time.  The movie is not in denial that this was not the gender dynamic of the vast majority of people in this time and whenever any of them leave the bubble of Queen Anne’s court they start to face the same dangers that women generally faced in the wider world, but while they’re in the palace they pretty much only view each other as a threat.  Of course all of this would have a slightly different ring to it if the queen was a king and the two women were involved in a love triangle with a man, but as a lesbian triangle the monarch’s behavior feels less like exploitation and more like a game that they’re all sort of willingly entering into.

Another thing that differentiates the film from Iannucci’s work is that Yorgos Lanthimos is certainly not going to let it have the same kind of televisual “comedy first” look that Iannucci’s projects tend to have and is instead bringing his own brand of weirdness to the film.  I’ve been a little agnostic about Lanthimos’ two English language films so far, I admired their unique vision but was also alienated (mostly in a bad way) by the peculiar nature of how his characters spoke and acted.  Things are different this time around, certainly in part because he’s working with a screenplay written by others this time around but I think also because this material just works really well for him.  The characters seem to be heightened in just the right way and you feel like their quirks are specific to them rather than the whole of the film’s world and things that might otherwise just feel like Lanthimosian flights of fancy here just feel like aspects of this strange time and place.  It’s certainly his most accessible film though that is relative and I’m sure it will feel plenty strange to people who haven’t experienced The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The Lobster, so I wouldn’t think of it as any kind of sell-out scenario and it won’t be for everyone.  Still, the movie is clearly an excellent twist on the conventional costume drama and one that will be starting some very interesting conversations throughout the year.

****1/2 out of Five

Annihilation(2/21/2018)


He’s taken an odd route to Hollywood success but the English novelist Alex Garland has somehow managed to work in movies for over fifteen years and doesn’t really have a bad movie on his resume.  Beginning with the sale of his novel “The Beach” Garland began a working relationship with Danny Boyle which led to Garland writing screenplays for the Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which both had their flaws but which were nonetheless very solid movies and then he went out on his own and wrote the screenplays for the under-rated Never Let Me Go and Dredd but he really became a force of his own in 2015 when he stepped into the director role and made the small scale science fiction film Ex Machina.  That was a movie I was kind of lukewarm on when I saw it but which in retrospect I think I was a bit too hard on.  That was an original science fiction movie made on a mid-budget, which is a kind of movie critics get really excited for but are also often disappointed by and Ex Machina managed to deliver and even somehow managed to get a visual effects Academy award despite being made on a relatively small budget.  He’s now been allowed to make another science fiction film and this time with a bigger budget and despite being made in a major studio his new film Annihilation is just as uncompromising as Ex Machina.

Annihilation begins with the sight of some kind of object crashing to Earth and hitting some kind of lighthouse.  From there we flash forward and meet a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and military veteran whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing since going on a classified special forces mission a year prior.  That ends one day when he suddenly shows up at her door and begins behaving strangely and can’t explain where he’s been and shows signs of deteriorating health.  Later that day they’re both stopped and arrested by government agents and brought to a secret facility that sits outside a national park that has been taken over by a strange phenomenon called “The Shimmer” which has encompassed the park (which has been evacuated under pretext of a chemical spill) and seems to be expanding outward.  Kane is apparently the only person so far to have returned from The Shimmer and as such Lena convinces a lady named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to let her join the next team to enter The Shimmer in hopes of finding answers.

One of the reasons I was a little cool on Ex Machina originally was simply that I was a little tired of the whole “how human are robots” question that science fiction has been batting around for the last hundred years.  With Annihilation avoids this problem, in part because it’s a lot less cut and dry about what it’s trying to say or even what questions it’s asking in the first place.  In broad strokes it’s pretty clear what “the shimmer” is insomuch as it appears to be some sort of alien terraforming effort but the exact reasons for its creation and the full extent of what happens there is less defined.  The area is plainly reminiscent of “The Zone” from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in that it’s this seemingly earthly area where few people opt to venture because of the strange things that happen there.  Also like Tarkovsky’s film the mission that Lena and her compatriots go on seems less like an adventure and more like a grim inevitability they’re driven to by various personal demons.  Unlike Stalker though Annihilation has some more conventional genre thrills along the way.  I don’t want to give away too much of what goes on inside of “the shimmer” but the is a horror element to it including some creature effects that are somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing and some of the group dynamics as the trip into “the shimmer” reminded me a bit of The Blair Witch Project.

In short, Annihilation is quite a trip.  It’s a thoughtful science fiction movie but one with imagery and structure that make it an entertaining viewing.  The most obvious recent touchstone for the movie would likely be the 2016 film Arrival, which was probably the last intelligent science fiction movie to really catch on with the public.  Both films are about women tasked with making contact with aliens who have appeared on Earth for mysterious reasons, but Annihilation is a little more visually adventurous and a little less generous in doling out its meaning.  This is a movie that’s going to keep people guessing and theorizing for a while, maybe not as long as one of Tarkovsky’s science fiction films, but certainly longer than most of the movies that Hollywood gives us.

****1/2 out of Five

Phantom Thread(1/13/2018)

Paul Thomas Anderson is in an elite group of directors right now, the league of directors whose every movie seems like it will be a potential classic long before we’ve so much as seen a trailer for it.  The qualifications for this tier of excellence are nebulous, almost based more on mystique than anything.  It isn’t necessarily a matter of having a perfect track record, Anderson himself is actually coming off of something of a failure given that his last movie Inherent Vice proved to be more of a curiosity than a classic.  It also doesn’t necessarily have to do with the quantity of great movies you have to your name.  The Coen Brothers, for instance, have made more than enough amazing cinema to seemingly be in this club and yet I doubt even the most optimistic of Coen brothers fans to have been expecting Hail Caesar to have been any sort of classic for the ages.  Really being in this tier is mostly a matter of seeming like the kind of filmmaker who does not mess around, someone who seems like he is swinging for the fences every time and who also has the stats to back up such cockiness.  Mike Leigh, for example, has hardly made a single bad movie and yet I wouldn’t necessarily put him in this company for the simple fact that his movies are sneaky in their quality and aren’t necessarily the kinds of things you anticipate months ahead of time despite his track record.  Scorsese is probably in this club, so is Tarantino, Malick was in the club before his quality control went out the window with his last couple of projects, Christopher Nolan is probably in this club despite sort of operating in more of a populist lane than some of these guys, Alfonso Cuaron probably would be in the club if he worked a bit more often.  Of course being in this club has its downsides as it can create some very specific expectations that not every movie is designed to live up to and there are certainly high expectations for the newest Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread.

The film focuses in on Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world renowned dressmaker in London’s haute couture scene during the 1950s.  The House of Woodcock is already at the height of its success as the film begins but Woodcock is aimless in his personal life and has just let an assistant go and is soon on the prowl for a new muse.  Eventually he finds himself in a country diner and spots a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) and seems immediately smitten, but it’s not exactly clear what he wants from her.  Soon she’s in his employ as a personal assistant and as a model for his dresses, but she’s also living in his house and is soon acting as his lover and muse.  From here the movie largely becomes a mystery of sorts as to what exactly this mysterious man wants from Alma.  This guy is a fashion designer and at one point uses the phrase “confirmed bachelor,” so the possibility that he may be a closeted homosexual is certainly going to be in the back of most audience members’ minds but the truth of what makes this guy tick is a lot more complicated than that.

The filmic reference point for Phantom Thread seems to be, of all things, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca.  That movie is generally not considered one of Hitchcock’s major efforts, in part because the Daphne du Maurier novel it’s based on is a bit higher brow than his usual fare and that sometimes overpowers his interest in suspense.  At its heart Rebecca is something of a mystery, but it’s not a mystery about “whodunit” but more of a mystery as to what the intentions of its male lead’s intentions are.  Like Rebecca this is a movie about a young woman of modest origins who suddenly finds herself courted by a much older and richer man who is sort of mysterious and aloof and it’s not clear if this is a true romance or if this is merely an older man trying to control and possess a younger woman.  There are also shades of Mrs. Danvers in Leslie Manville’s role of Woodcock’s sister Cyril, who acts as something of a business partner and at times seems to have a bit more of an objective eye on Alma.  There are, however clear differences between the two movies and the comparison between the two only really goes so far.  Unlike the narrator in Rebecca Alma is never really seems to be living as much in the shadow of a former lover.  There’s an element of mourning in Woodcock’s life but it isn’t as pervasive.  The big twist from Rebecca also isn’t really here at all and the second half of the movie isn’t really all that analogous to Rebecca at all, so this is less an adaptation and more of a jumping off point that Anderson seems to have used to conceive of the movie.

That this movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis is of course itself an event, like Anderson he is someone who does not mess around.  Day-Lewis’ work here is a bit more subdued than what we’ve come to expect from him recently as he is not doing a major physical transformation like he is in a movie like Lincoln and he isn’t going into the kind of grand theatrics we saw him doing in There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York.  Instead here he’s characterized by a generally gentle demeanor that often belies his more ruthless actions and his generally controlling personality.  In some ways it almost feels like he’s holding himself back to leave some room for his co-stars, especially Vicky Krieps who is something of a revelation here.  Krieps has been seen in small roles in movies like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man and has apparently starred in a variety of not overly notable European films but this is clearly her most prominent performance to date and she manages to be effectively mysterious throughout.

Throughout awards season I’ve been a little confused as to why Phantom Thread seems to get so many awards despite receiving such positive reviews.  Now that I’ve seen it I kind of get what was going on.  Phantom Thread is a movie that demands respect but repels simple acceptance.  It’s a movie about the lives of two really messed up people and it’s not always easy to relate to either of them or really get a grip on their behavior.  This is very much a film for the arthouse crowd and for people willing to take a deep dive into the weird dynamics of this strange relationship.  There is certainly some interest in the procedural elements of watching this fashion house work but outside of that I don’t think this will have much appeal for the mainstream viewer.  Even for the arthouse crowd the film may seem elusive.  It’s a movie that intrigues you and leaves you looking for answers to questions the movie never really even asks.   Honestly, I think I’m going to need to see this thing a few more times before I’m really going to be in a position to talk about it intelligently, but I certainly liked what I saw.