Little Women(12/31/2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

****1/2 out of Five

Uncut Gems(12/24/2019)

You know, as a critic I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to have a deep-seeded hatred at the sight of Adam Sandler’s face but I really don’t.  I mean, if I were a “real” film critic who had to see every single movie Hollywood puts out I probably would hate the guy, but his terrible comedies are generally pretty easy to avoid, especially now that they’re going direct to Netflix and aren’t getting major advertising campaigns.  In fact I don’t think I’ve seen any Adam Sandler produced movie in theaters at all since… I think 2002’s Mr. Deeds.  The Adam Sander movies I have actually kept seeing are the occasional non-comedic ones that he isn’t producing and which are using his on-screen persona in interesting ways.  Paul Thomas Anderson was the first serious director to use him for artistic ends in his 2004 film Punch Drunk Love and he’s also done good work in films like Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Judd Apatow’s Funny People.  Still these moments of Sandler clarity have untimely been pretty few and far between.  Hopefully that changes though because he’s gotten his best role yet in the new film from the Safdie Brothers called Uncut Gems.

In the film Sandler plays a sort of jeweler for the stars named Howard Ratner who I suspect he was inspired by Jacob Arabo.  Ratner owns a small storefront in the diamond district whose clientele appears to be invite only as his door is locked unless a potential buyer is buzzed in.  Howard also seems to have a lot of side hustles going on and appears to gable frequently.  One day in 2012 Kevin Garnett (played by himself) walks into Howard’s store on the eve of his conference semi-finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.  Ratner shows Garnett an uncut opal that he’d just acquired through nefarious means.  Garnett is immediately transfixed by it and wants to buy it on the spot but Howard has it set for auction and can’t sell.  Determined, Garnett asks that he simply be allowed to hold onto it as a good luck charm for that night’s game.  Ratner agrees, but only if Garnett leaves his championship ring as collateral.  Garnett agrees and Ratner immediately hatches a scheme: he’ll pawn Garnett’s ring while he’s gone and use that money to bet on Garnett that night and then use those potential winnings to pay off his gambling debts and then get the ring back before Garnett knows it was ever gone, but murphy’s law being what it is this isn’t going to be as easy as Ratner things and he’ll also need to deal with issues with his wife (Idina Menzel) and mistress (Julia Fox) while also being chased by angry loan shark enforcers.

Uncut Gems is the most high profile film yet to be directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, a directorial pair who made a bit of a splash with their films Heaven Knows What and Good Time, which were movies that never quite clicked with me but showed clear potential.  Uncut Gems to me shows that potential being realized.  The Safdies tell streetwise crime films set in the seedy parts of New York City that are supposedly disappearing.  Their previous movies looked at a drug addict and a bank robber and this one looks at someone who could be described as a hustler.  Howard Ratner is quite the creation; the very look of him with his goatee, leather jacket, and designer glasses frames communicates the kind of world he operates in and Sandler modulates his voice in a way to just make him sound like a bit of a weasel.  But unlike the protagonist of Good Time, who genuinely seemed like a menace to society, you don’t really hate Ratner.  Ratner doesn’t pose much of a threat to the average person, his compulsive gambling and wheeling and dealing mostly only poses a threat to himself and to the people who are foolish enough to go into not so legitimate business with him.

Much of the movie consists of Ratner running around the city trying to keep his various plates spinning, it’s kind of like a slowed down and movie length version of that section of Goodfellas where Henry Hill running a bunch of errands for the mafia while taking care of personal issues all while the FBI helicopters are swarming overhead.  But the Safdies aren’t Scorsese and they bring their own style to the proceedings.  Rather than fill their film with rock and roll cues they have this wild synth score in place and they have pretty modern cultural sensibilities.  The film is set in 2012, presumably to put it in a time when Kevin Garnett is still playing basketball, and they manage to make some appropriate soundtrack selections and make some cool casting choices like including a prominent cameo by The Weeknd.  You generally get the impression that these guys are plugged into what’s going on in the cooler sections of Manhattan and they bring it to the screen with exuberance.  You also get the sense that they understand a thing or two about gambling culture, which is what the film is ultimately about.  Ratner is plainly a gambling addict but this addiction is broader than just the risky bets he makes on sports, it extends to broadly to the various hustles we’re seeing him do through the whole movie.  He’s a character who frustrates the audience because he makes risky mistakes, but you can tell he isn’t frustrating himself with this behavior, in fact he seems to be thrilled by the rush of it all at least when he’s winning.  And to some extent so are we but we don’t need to worry about what happens when he loses.

****1/2 out of Five

The Irishman(11/23/2019)

11-23-2019TheIrishman

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Though it has seemingly everything going for it, The Irishman oddly hasn’t really been one of the movies I’ve really been anticipating this year.  The mere fact that it’s a Martin Scorsese film should have been enough to make me excited for it, the guy is as good as he’s ever been these days and is probably the world’s best living filmmaker.  The fact that this film has him re-uniting with Robert De Niro for the first time since 1995 alone should have made it the film event of the year.  Add to that the fact that Scorsese is also working with Al Pacino for the first time ever and that Joe Pesci basically came out of retirement for the movie should have moved it into the stratosphere of excitement.  So why haven’t I been outlandishly excited for this thing?  Well, part of it is that on paper it just seemed too good to be true.  All too often when the pedigree of something sounds that great on paper the final film doesn’t quite pan out and it’s best to keep your expectations in check.  Also something about Scorsese going back to the gangster movie well had me worried this could be a very commercial play intended to make up for the failure of Silence at the box office.  Then of course there’s the Netflix of it all.  But the film is finally here now and it’s a pretty heavy piece of work to wade into.

The film is an adaptation of a confessional memoir called “I Heard You Paint Houses” that was published shortly after the death of Frank Sheeran, a former Teamster official with likely ties to organized crime.  In the book Sheeran takes credit for having perpetrated a number of high profile murders for the mafia including having played a role in the death of Jimmy Hoffa.  The veracity of this book has been widely questioned and it’s likely because of this that the film doesn’t have much in the way of “based on a true story” title cards and much of the film is framed by shots of Sheeran (Robert De Niro) late in life recounting his story to some unnamed person off screen.  From there there’s a sort of “frame story within a frame story” of he and his associate Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) are going on a road trip in 1975 with their wives to Detroit ostensibly to attend a wedding but actually to use that wedding as cover to take care of some illegal business.  We come back to that road trip from time to time in the film and it seems oddly somber and ominous.  From there we flash back even further to the 50s and follow the chronology of what brought Sheeran to that point, namely his exploits as a hitman for the mob and the Teamster ties that would make him a close confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

As I mentioned before, it’s not overly clear whether there’s any truth to Sheeran’s account of things.  From what I’ve read he was indeed a teamster official and friend of Jimmy Hoffa with mob ties, but there almost no evidence outside of his own accounts that he was ever the triggerman for any murders and his accounts contradict the conventional wisdom about a number of the murders he was involved with.  There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory aspect to his recollection of 20th century history which puts the mafia at the center of certain events including the Bay of Pigs Invasion and possibly even the Kennedy assassination and that makes me increasingly suspicious that all of this is just the rambling of an old man, but parsing the reality of it all is probably besides the point.  Martin Scorsese isn’t Oliver Stone and I’m pretty sure that he was primarily attracted to this material for its dramatic potential rather than as a history text and it’s probably best just to look at it as a work of fiction.

If you’ve heard anything about this film in the press you’ve probably heard that it has become a rather expensive production because it employs some high tech de-aging technology to allow the film’s senior citizen cast to portray their characters at various different ages in this film that’s set over the course of this decades spanning tale.  I was skeptical about this but I think the technology works pretty damn well.  Granted the film never really needs to make them look much younger than middle age, which really would have been a challenge given that De Niro kind of gained some weight in the 80s and it probably wouldn’t have worked to try to make him look like he did when he was really young, but for what’s needed here the technology mostly delivers to the point where you don’t really think about it much.  Of course this would seem to be a rather extravagant expense but I mostly think it’s necessary.  This movie is all about following characters over the course of years and years and seeing their decisions build on them over the course of time.  To simply cast various actors of various ages would have made for a painful disconnect between the various time periods being covered.

Additionally, I think the film gains a lot by having this dream team of mob actors in its cast even if they aren’t 100% age appropriate for their roles for much of the film’s running time.  Much the way Unforgiven stands as a sort of requiem for the film western this seems to be a sort of definitive end to the gangster picture, or at least the generation of gangster picture that Scorsese and Coppola ushered in back in the 70s.  Comparisons will of course be made to Goodfellas and Casino and not without reason.  This is obvious yet another movie where a 20th Century mobster recounts his life of crime through voiceover, but there are some pretty key differences as well.  For one thing, those movies are a lot more interested in what their characters find seductive about “the life” before their eventual downfall.  There isn’t a lot of that here; Sheeran is obviously being paid for his work but he isn’t living a life of immense wealth like Ace Rothstein and he isn’t getting into the Copacabana through the back like Henry Hill.  Sheeran also doesn’t seem terribly interested in his family as a reason to be living like this.  There’s maybe a little bit of that early on but mostly he just ends up pushing them away though his general cold bloodedness.

Instead Sheeran seems to be doing what he’s doing out of sheer blind loyalty for the most part.  There’s a flashback early on (technically a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback) to Sheeran executing German soldiers during the war when given vague orders to do so and that kind of mirrors what he ends up doing in organized crime as well: blindly following orders without second-guessing whether what he’s doing is a war crime/mortal sin.  When he does get hired to “paint houses” he carries out his assignments with a sort of military efficiency and lacks any sort of remorse or hesitation.  The dude is a psycho.  I suppose the characters in Scorsese’s other mob movies are also psychos in their own ways but they at least weren’t hitmen so much as people who occasionally needed to have people wacked in order to keep their own hustles going and you get the impression that they’d generally rather not have to do that.  But this guy?  You get the impression that if Russell Bufalino told him to kill his own mother he’d do it.  In this sense the movie is almost less like Goodfellas or Casino and more like Raging Bull in that it’s a portrait of a really complicated and hard to relate to character who ends up really losing everything that ostensibly mattered to him out of his life but for opposite reasons: La Motta was too impulsive and wild while Sheeran was too cold and methodical.

There are other key differences between this and Scorsese’s earlier work.  For one thing, Joe Pesci is a lot different here than he has been in the past.  In Goodfellas and Casino he was practically playing the same character: a violent wildcard who kind of screws everything up.  Here he’s playing a much more rational and in control figure and he isn’t leaning on his usual persona in the film.  Al Pacino on the other hand kind of is leaning on the kind of acting we’re pretty used to from him, and that does fit the character to some extent but I would say that if there’s a weakness to be found in the film it might be Hoffa.  The infamous Teamster leader is a guy who they easily could been the center of his own film, and has, and the challenges of doing his story justice after he enters the film an hour in are probably a big part of why the film has such a long running time.  Hoffa’s eventual death is clearly viewed by the film as a sort of Greek tragedy in which a hero is brought down by his own hubris but if we’re supposed to have any particular sympathy for Hoffa I wasn’t really feeling it.  If anything the film lays out a pretty good case that Hoffa kind of had it coming both within the morality of the underworld (dude was not respectful) and within the morality of society (he was legitimately corrupt and needed a “house painter” on the payroll) and the guy seemed to have been given every warning and chance to make things right which he flushed out of sheer pigheadedness.

The larger role of Hoffa’s demise within the film is to act as a sort of wakeup call for Sheeran, the moment that finally breaks through this hitman’s sociopathic resolve and leaves him riddled with regrets later in life, and it’s effective at doing that but there is something rather odd about a movie whose protagonist’s great revelation is simply the achievement of having gained some fraction of the empathy that normal people have without trying.  But then maybe that’s the point, that these gangsters that we’ve been glamourizing for decades are pathetic and cold hearted people who are doomed to either early deaths, long prison sentences, or to die alone and friendless.  It’s almost like a return to the message from the message from the 1930s gangster movies that started the whole genre, but obviously a bit more artfully conveyed than it was in those movies (which were code-mandated to end with the gangster protagonists being gunned down or executed at the end), and it was obviously on some level the message of The Godfather films on some level.  I do wonder if Scorsese feels that this movie contradicts the tone of his own earlier gangster movies, which also certainly didn’t support the gangster lifestyle but were a bit more subtle in their messaging and were more interested in showing the push and pull of this lifestyle being intoxicating and being horrifying.  I think I might prefer that approach more overall, but I can also understand the instinct of an artist late in life to stop and make one hundred percent sure people knows what he really thinks.

****1/2 out of Five

Parasite(10/25/2019)

Bong Joon-Ho has, over the course of the last two decades, become a pretty major voice in world cinema whose reputation seems to grow with each film he puts out… and I’m not the biggest fan.  Among modern Korean auteurs I much prefer Park Chan-Wook and Lee Chang-dong.  Joon-Ho instead reminds me a bit of Guillermo del Toro in that I think he’s a cool guy and I like what he represents for cinema and he seldom makes a movie I outright dislike but I’ve found him uneven in his output and think that even the best of his films come up a little short of greatness for me.  I kind of hated his last movie, Okja, which was a muddle of bad CGI and weird over-the-top acting.  I did enjoy his previous effort Snowpiercer a bit more but I still found it a bit silly in places and The Host never really did much for me either.  All three of those movies seemed to get an inordinate amount for general wackiness combined with a dose of sophomoric on-the-nose political metaphors.  In general I’ve preferred the director more when he steps away from overt genre cinema to make more character oriented thrillers like his breakthrough film Memories of Murder or his 2009 film Mother, but even those movies only did so much for me.  Still there’s a reason why I’ve kept watching these movies and given that his latest movie, Parasite, has been widely acclaimed and looked a lot more like the Joon-Ho movies I’ve preferred I was still pretty excited to see it.

 The film focuses in on a lower class family in Seoul who live in a dingy garden level apartment and getting by on various scams and grifts.  Things start to look up for the family’s college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) when one of his more wealthy friends tips him off about a job he might be good for.  The job involves tutoring an extremely wealthy family’s high school daughter and while Ki-woo isn’t actually a college student his friend knows that the mother in the rich family (Cho Yeo-jeong) is really gullible and will be fooled if Ki-Woo’s sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges some fake credentials.  Once there he sees that this family will indeed be easy to grift and hatches a scheme to have his sister pose as a tutor for their younger son and after that works they conspire to have the family’s driver and maid fired and then replaced with their father (Song Kang-ho) and mother (Jang Hye-jin).  So they’ve infiltrated the family and are living on them parasitically if you will, but soon the fallout of their actions will catch up with them in unexpected ways that will have life altering consequences for all involved.

So, as you read that summery the question whether or not we’re really supposed to be on the side of this family given that they are plainly committing fraud and don’t seem terribly guilty about disrupting other people’s lives to get what they want, and the answer to that is complicated.  The short version is that these grifters are just generally more likable people despite their rather amoral actions than their wealthy victims, but the movie finds very interesting ways to set up this dynamic.  For one thing, it very carefully avoids painting the rich family as being actively malicious in its behavior and doesn’t treat them as being devoid of virtue.  They seem to genuinely have love and affection for their children and they don’t intentionally mistreat their employees to their face.  Rather their great sin is that they just have kind of a shitty attitude about people.  They speak with incredible condescension about their employees when they aren’t listening and while the grifters did conspire to screw over some of the previous domestic workers at the house their plans only worked because they knew the wealthy family would be selfish and uncaring enough to judge and dispose of them the second they became inconvenient.  Meanwhile, the family of grifters have a certain salt of the earth charm through most of the movie and while the movie never excuses them for their crimes it does show that they were motivated by legitimate need and seemed like relatively victimless crimes when they set out to do them.

This element of class warfare is embedded in Parasite but does not entirely define it.  This is not an “issue” movie, at least not on the surface.  In a way it’s trying to do the same thing that Snowpiercer was doing, comment on wealth inequality within the context of an entertaining film, except this one is more entertaining and isn’t making its point through a blunt as hell metaphor.  You don’t, however, need to really care that much about the issues of class at the center of the film to enjoy it.  Aside from the fact that it’s not in English and that it gets kind of crazy toward the end this is actually made with some clear commercial sensibilities and will be quite accessible to most audiences.  In that sense I’m almost kind of surprised that it’s managed to be so widely loved by institutions like Cannes who generally tend to reward more formally unconventional fare.  But that is in some ways the film’s great strength, it knows exactly what compromises to make in order to work for both highbrow and lowbrow audience and it achieves a movie that is going to be very widely enjoyed for what it is.

****1/2 out of Five

The Lighthouse(10/24/2019)

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

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

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

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

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