Joker(10/3/2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**** out of Five

The Nightingale(8/17/2019)

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

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

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

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

**** out of Five

Midsommar(7/2/2019)

I don’t know that I necessarily saw this coming but the “A24 horror film” has somehow become something of a filmgoing institution.  These are horror movies that are noticeably artier and more intelligent than what cinema-goers are normally used to and critics love them.  However, as a byproduct of these being horror enough to play in normal theaters they also bring in a lot of audiences who expect their genre fare to offer simpler pleasures and as a result they end up getting really low “Cinemascores” (which are like these exit-poll things that are done by a research company and are considered important by Hollywood insiders) and end up getting these hilariously clueless user reviews in places like IMDB and RottenTomatoes.  Honestly I think this critic/audience disconnect is a bit overblown, it’s basically just the result of a cadre of people who were never really in these films’ audience in the first place also tagging along and not knowing how to process what they’re being given.  The main movies in this trend have been Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Trey Edward Schults’ It Comes At Night, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and while Hereditary was the last of these films to come out its director was the first of the three to have a follow-up come out.  That new film, Midsommar, is opening this week on 2707 screens and should lead to some rather interesting audience responses.

Midsommar begins with something of a prologue set somewhere in the United States during the middle of winter.  Here we’re introduced to Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), a psychology student who’s struggling with a troubled sister and a fairly shaky relationship with her boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor).  Christian and his friends are planning a trip to Sweden in the summer to visit the home village of his friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) which lives a traditional lifestyle and still engages in centuries old rituals during festival times, which is of great interest to Christian and his fellow anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and of course European decadence is also very much of interest to his other friend Mark (Will Poulter).  After a tragedy occurs Christian decides to invite Dani along to get away from it all, but it could soon become clear that they aren’t exactly sure what they’re in for.

Despite what Cinemascore might suggest I do think Hereditary ended up pleasing standard horror audiences more than some of the other A24 horror films.  It grossed more at the box office than the other two films and I’ve generally heard fewer anecdotes about dumb people being “bored” by it.  I think that’s because, in its last third, the film does start to deliver on some of the more conventional scares that people are looking for.  That in many ways seems to be what may set Ari Aster apart from someone like Robert Eggers; even when he’s making a horror film in his own idiosyncratic ways he does know how to throw the horror audience a bone.  In this film that bone is probably the set of characters he’s assembled, who do roughly fall within the usual trope characters even if they feel richer than usual.  Dani might not be a virgin but she still has plenty of “final girl”-isms, Christian certainly seems like the jock boyfriend who ultimately won’t be able to protect her, Josh is the “smart one” who knows a lot about the sub-theme, and Mark is the boorish party dude who acts as comedy relief.  The film manages to challenge some of these tropes without self-consciously subverting them but it isn’t afraid to exploit them just the same and is surprisingly funny at times in the way it depicts the interplay between some of these guys.

The other big connective tissue between Midsommar and Hereditary is that both films are in many ways movies about mourning and feature characters who are just recovering after experiencing a loss that makes them rather emotionally vulnerable right from the jump.  Also, in much the way Hereditary basically shows the dissolution of a family as a result of both grief and supernatural shenanigans, Midsommar explores the toll of both a loss and horror scenarios on a relationship.  Dani and Christian are two characters who are established as being pretty close to the end of the road already as the movie opens, with Christian’s friends establishing that he’s been planning to break up with her for reasons that seem cruel but understandable.  Dani is shown to have been someone who’s gone through a lot even before her family tragedy and that she’s been a handful and a half and that Christian has been at wits end and that he’s on some level been staying in the relationship out of a sort of uncertain pity.  Christian knows this, the audience knows this, but Dani does not necessarily know this and that kind of establishes for the audience that they’re about to be metaphorically watching a car crash in slow motion and the rest of the movie can almost be viewed as a sort of operatic manifestation of how this kind of breakup can go wrong in the most extreme of ways.

Of course this is a horror movie, or at least it poses as one.  The obvious reference-point for all of this is obviously Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man, which is about a similarly paganistic commune which may or may not be sinister in its adherence to “the old ways.”  Like that movie it doesn’t necessarily try to be “scary” at all times and instead gains power by exerting a sort of quiet threat at all times.  In fact a lot of what makes the movie so appealing in its paranoia is the way the characters are constantly having their survival instincts over-ridden by the hospitality of these cultists, who have this uniquely Swedish way of seeming completely reasonable and inviting no matter what they’re saying.  Where the film may lose some people is that, outside of a couple of gory moments thrown in, the horror in the film is generally left at an intentional simmer rather than brought to a boil.  Though it goes into some fairly transgressive places towards the end it isn’t necessarily leading to anything as viscerally exciting as the finale of Hereditary.  Rather, the film’s finale is almost more like a really, really, really dark joke rather than a thrilling chase in the dark and that could be a bit polarizing.

At the end of the day, Midsommar is built to be a niche genre movie… the Swedish title probably should have been your first clue there.  It’s a film that’s uncompromising, it’s got a long running time, it takes its time, it will gross out people who come in expecting it to be The Conjuring, and it just generally behaves different from mainstream horror movies (even more so than Hereditary).  That it’s opening wide will maybe lead to the same pattern of critical acclaim and fan backlash that we’ve seen before… but maybe it won’t.  Maybe if A24 keeps putting out interesting product like this the right audience will continue to catch on and the people who aren’t equipped to enjoy them will increasingly stop showing up expecting the wrong thing.  As for this one, well, even as someone very interested in what it was doing I will admit that this is pushing the limits of how long a horror movie can go without really trying to be conventionally scary and as such I probably preferred Hereditary on a whole.  But maybe that’s a sacrifice worth making in order to see what Ari Aster can do when he’s really allowed to just go nuts.

**** out of Five 

Toy Story 4(6/20/2019)

With only a few recent exceptions I generally only watch Pixar movies on home video but when I do find myself seeing one in theaters it’s a bit of a trip because it means I get exposed to a set of trailers I normally don’t see.  These trailers are usually a window into a world of absolute madness.  At my Toy Story 4 screening I bore witness to one trailer about a pigeon who becomes a secret agent, some bullshit about a fox that wants to be a sled dog, a sequel to an Angry Birds movie I had assumed was a flop, and another sequel about troll dolls which resembled a candy-colored hellscape of noise and terror.  What I’m trying to say is, before you watch one of these Pixar movies you’re immediately reminded of how much worse the rest of the cartoons out there and the way the audience laughs at jokes about butts reminds you that, if they wanted to Pixar could be a lot more pandering and stupid than they are.  Of course Pixar has always set themselves apart from their peers, which is something I wasn’t really taking into account when I was reviewing them all in a marathon session back in 2011 (long story).  That article series was an exercise in comparing Pixar movies to the best that cinema had to offer, but as the years go on and I get a better idea of what contemporary animation is like and start comparing them to that and they start looking a whole lot better.  Still, I have a bit of a quirky relationship to Pixar’s movies, especially their Toy Story franchise, and that made me rather unsure if I wanted a fourth.

Toy Story 4 actually starts with a flashback.  It dramatizes something that is alluded to in the third film: the night when Bo Peep (Annie Potts) leaves the rest of the toys because the family decides to give away the lamp that she’s part of.  We then flash forward to the status quo after the third film, in which the toys we’ve been following have been given away to a new kid named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  I always found it a little bit strange that this 2010 kid would be so interested in receiving a bunch of hand-me-down toys from the 90s which look like they’re actually from the 50s and as this new film establishes, I may have been right to be suspicious.  As it turns out Bonnie does not actually spend much time playing with Woody (Tom Hanks), and being the vain attention whore that he’s always been he doesn’t exactly react well.  When he learns that Bonnie is about to be going on her first day of kindergarten he sneaks into her backpack under the delusion she needs him and, seeing her distressed on her first day he tosses some scraps up to her table while she’s doing crafts and with them she makes a weird little statue out of a spork, a pipe cleaner, and some fake googly eyes and dubs him “Forky.”  Soon thereafter Forky (Tony Hale) becomes sentient, and sensing that he’s a monstrosity immediately tries to kill himself by jumping into the trashcan.  Woody determines that Bonnie has formed an attachment to Forky and does everything he can to keep Forky alive, which will be challenging because Bonnie’s parents are about to bring her on a road trip with all her toys.

This is a movie that a lot of people were really skeptical about in the run-up to its release because it was believed that Toy Story 3 had a perfect ending and that this would ruin it.  I am a bit of an outlier in that I thought the ending of Toy Story 3 was far from perfect.  Where other people were apparently bawling out their eyes at the sight of Andy giving his toys to Bonnie, I was thinking what the hell kind of seventeen year old gives this much of a damn about old toys he should have thrown out when he turned twelve?  To me the whole thing was an overly sentimental cop out.  Toy Story 3 was basically a retread of the themes established in Toy Story 2 about toys eventually being abandoned by their owners, its one reason to exist was to finally have this calamity to catch up with our characters and force them to face their fate… but the movie didn’t end up having the nerve to finally take the killshot and instead it basically gave its characters a new beginning which more or less set up a new series, so the fact that they’re continuing the franchise isn’t that much of a shock to me.

To me what has made some of the previous Toy Story movies interesting was the world building.  A lot of animated movies build fantastical worlds where with talking animals or objects but the Toy Story movies are at least a little interested in exploring how the worlds they create are actually kind of fucked up.  These movies make being a talking toy seem like a sort of existential hell of slavery and ingratitude… or at least that’s what I get out of them, the movies themselves would hint at all this while never quite having it in them to truly challenge the system they’ve established.  Toy Story 4 is in many ways the Toy Story movie I’ve been waiting for in that the toys in it seem to finally be catching up to my way of seeing things.  Case in point the newest addition to the cast, Forky, is the first toy we’ve really met who seems to view itself as a genuine monstrosity and spends much of the first half of the movie seeking death via trashcan.  That is certainly an interesting approach but what’s really important is that Forky’s attitude does seem to plant a seed of sorts in the mind of some key characters in that he’s one of the first toy characters we’ve seen that doesn’t seem to have an instinctual desire to be played with by children and is decidedly not happy to be asked to do so.  This seed is then watered and sprouted by the re-emergence of Bo Peep, who had been effectively killed off between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 and is now a “lost toy” and happy to be one because she’s free of having to spend all her time making some child happy.

Of course the Toy Story movies have long been meant as a sort of allegory for the relationship of a parent to a child and this fourth movie definitely carries that forward and leans into moments where the characters talk about “having a kid” as if they were parents instead of playthings.  That’s part of why I always found the ending of Toy Story 3 to be kind of inadequate given that the toys don’t move on to a new phase of life after metaphorically letting Andy go but rather end up essentially replacing him and starting all over again.  It’s as if they’re living out the life cycle of some rich dude who ends up impregnating a new trophy wife right as their kid from a previous marriage is going to college.  Toy Story 4, by contrast is more like a movie where the toys (well, Woody anyway) actually do manage to find a new purpose in life after becoming empty nesters.  It’s a notably different outlook from what we’ve seen earlier in the series which were usually populated by toys like Jessie and Lotso who, once removed from “their kids,” basically spend their whole lives feeling bitter and incomplete.  Bo Peep, by contrast, seems to be revitalized through independence and the film at least understands why Forky (who’s maybe a bit of a stand-in for young father who causes an unplanned pregnancy) would not be pumped to be in played with by this kid.

This all isn’t to say that the series has suddenly become entirely Antinatalist.  Plenty of the toys here are still very interested in coming into the possession of a child, like a pair of carnival prizes played by Key and Peele who sort of steal the show as comic relief characters who’ve been waiting three long years for someone to win them in the rigged midway game that’s trapped them.  Then there’s the film’s villain Gabby Gabby, who is a bit of a retread of the “villainous bitter toy” thing that they’ve done in the last two films, but who none the less proves to be a rather sympathetic depiction of what is essentially the pain of infertility given that she’s a toy who was deemed defective from out of the factor and has spent decades in an antique store removed from children.  Nonetheless, this is the Toy Story movie that finally suggests that there are other legitimate ways for these toys to live and in many ways provides some of the characters with an ending that manages to be happy while still making more allegorical sense.  As such I reject the notion I’ve seen floated around that this is some kind of unnecessary cash grab, in fact I’d say that scene for scene it might actually be the best of the series.  It manages to tell a larger and more meaningful story than the first movie, its comedy is a lot better than the second film’s, and it doesn’t wallow in the cheap sentimentality of the third.  Of course this is coming from someone who didn’t grow up with these characters and has a somewhat perverse take on the whole franchise so take that sentiment with a grain of salt.

**** out of Five

Us(3/21/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Two year ago I found myself in the rather unenviable position of being one of the few people in the world who didn’t much care for Jordan Peele’s Oscar winning horror film Get Out.  At the time the one and only negative review of that movie on Rotten Tomatoes was written by noted provocateur Armond White and to my general bafflement the movie became a giant box office success despite its rather unconventional appeal.  Still, I’m rather proud of that review.  I finally had a fairly original take on a movie and I think I expressed it pretty effectively and I haven’t really waivered at all in my take on the movie.  That said, with me going against the grain of popular opinion like that I feel like I spent a lot of time focusing on the negatives of the film when there were in fact certainly aspects to it that I found impressive.  It was certainly a different approach to the genre and Jordan Peele was certainly a voice I wanted to hear more from, so despite my issues with that debut I was looking forward to his follow-up film, the interestingly titled Us.

Us focuses on the Wilson family, which consists of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), their daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex).  As the story begins the family is headed to Santa Cruz, where they have a vacation home, but Adelaide has come to sort of dread this trip because of a traumatic experience she had as a young child in that area where she wandered off into a house of mirrors and encountered something that scared her to the point that it took her years to recover.  She does not, however, have the easiest time explaining this to her husband, who is looking forward to meeting with his friend Josh (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss).  Things mostly seem to be going normally for a while until suddenly at night the family notices a group of strange people standing out in their driveway looking rather threatening.  Soon they discover that this family is a sort of mirror image of themselves but with different and more violent personalities and ready to menace them over the course of the night.

Unlike Get Out, which was more of a Twilight Zone episode than a true horror film, Us is unquestionably meant to be a full on work of horror.  Specifically it’s a home invasion movie, at least in its early stages, which is significant because that is a sub-genre that’s been rather prone to rather loaded political subtext suggesting a sort of invasion of middle America that needs to be fought back, often though gun ownership.  Us isn’t specifically meant to be an inversion of that but it is worth noting.  The family at the center of the film is African American, and I don’t think this is incidental at all but it is interesting that it’s not something the film’s screenplay seems to draw attention to at all.  Had Peele decided to change directions and cast a white family at the film’s center I’m not sure that it would have really had to change any dialogue at all.  Instead I think the film very notably draws attention to the fact that this family is distinctly upper middle class.  They have a vacation home, the father rather prominently wears a Howard University sweatshirt through much of the film, and there’s an element of “keeping up with the joneses” in how they view their slightly richer friends with an understated but clear degree of jealousy.

This class distinction to me is key to understanding the film.  The metaphor at its center seems to be a sort of critique of the way American wealth comes at the expense of others both domestic and abroad.  We wear clothing that’s sewn at sweatshops, we communicate on devices that are put together by people known to throw themselves off of buildings, and we eat food picked by horribly mistreated migrants.  We do everything in our power to avoid thinking about the people propping up our way of life and engage in bullshit acts of performative charity like Hands Across America in order to tell ourselves we’re on the good side, but ultimately we’re all implicated in a system propped up on the exploitation of others whether we like it or not.  And that is where the “tethered” come in.  Adelaide’s counterpart rather explicitly lays out that the root of her discontent is that the surface dwellers have been living high on the hog while the people below have been actively miserable.  We like to think of these people as being a vague “other” but in reality they’re basically just alternate versions of “us.”

Of course that’s subtext, the really weird thing about Us is that the basic text of the film… kind of doesn’t make sense, or at least the twist doesn’t if you’re looking at it literally.  I gather from watching the movie that, prior to Red changing things, these tethers are supposed to be constantly mirroring every last movement of their counterparts above.  Which is something that would seem to result in a whole lot of walking into walls.  Think about it for just a couple minutes and you come up with questions like “What happens if you fly to the opposite coast? Do the tethers follow?  Do immigrants have tethers?  How do the tethers end up with the exact same mates as their counterparts above and pass along exactly the right genes to produce children identical to their clones on the surface?”  Beyond that there are other questions, like where they get their jumpsuits or why they think they’ll be able to take over a country with 1.2 guns per person using only scissors.  At a certain point you kind of need to invoke Argento style “nightmare logic” to excuse this stuff, and how willing you are to do that will probably determine how much you’re going to like the movie.

I’m normally pretty quick to have my attention derailed by plot holes and logical inconsistencies like that but I must say I found myself oddly willing to go along with Us.  I think that’s partly because it seems to be deliberately existing in a sort of symbolic place in a way that mainstream horror movies generally don’t.  That is the main thing that differentiates it from Get Out, which was also essentially an allegory, but a very clear allegory when that allegory started to stopped lining up as much as it thought it did in the second half it sort of lost me.  This one is more open for interpretation and that gives it a certain leeway that I wasn’t inclined to give Get Out.  It also frankly just works a lot better as a visceral thriller rife with intense pacing and visceral horror imagery and that alone puts it over Get Out even if I didn’t have other issues with that movie.

**** out of Five

Cold War(1/19/2018)

In the world of art cinema you sometimes get pleasant surprises and one of those pleasant surprises was the unexpected success of Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2014 film Ida.  That film was something of a sneak attack; its director was respected but not necessarily a huge name and while it got some buzz at festivals it was largely over-shadowed by other movies.  I didn’t even hear about it until I saw its rather striking trailer the week before it came out and new it was going to be something worth checking out.  Even more surprising was that the movie was a hit, at least by the modest standard of subtitled film in the 2010s.  Its $3 million take might not sound like a lot but if you exclude movies clearly marketed at immigrant communities rather than cinephiles its one of the twenty highest grossing foreign films of the decade, which is kind of awesome considering that it was a black and white movie about Polish nuns and kind of seemed to defy standard notions of commerciality.  When he accepted the Best Foreign Language film Oscar that year Pawlikowski gently quipped “how did I get here, made a film… about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation and here we are at this epicenter of noise and world attention.  Fantastic!  Life is full of surprises.”  With the clout he earned from that film Pawlikowski has come back with another black and white film about life in 20th Century Poland called Cold War which has arrive with much more fanfare and higher expectations.

Cold War begins in the Poland of 1949 where the post-war Polish People’s Republic has become firmly established as a Soviet puppet state.  One of the things this new communist government apparently did was establish an academy of sorts to create a song and dance troupe that would bring respect to the music if the downtrodden proletariat peasants, and this is where our characters come in.  Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) is the musical director and conductor for this troupe while Zuzanna Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) is a young woman who auditions for the troupe and immediately catches his eye.  Before long the two have started an affair and when the troupe finds itself touring to East Berlin Warski proposes that the two try to escape to the west.

First and foremost Cold War just looks really awesome.  Like Ida before it the film is in black and white and in the academy ratio so as to invoke the look of the European arthouse films of the era its set in.  Experiments to imitate previous filmmaking eras like The Good German or The Artist often come off a bit gimmicky but Pawlikowski has really managed to make something that looks like the genuine article and seems aesthetically pleasing beyond mere nostalgia.  Ida was of course a movie about spiritual exploration so it’s look perhaps invoked something more along the lines of a Bresson or Tarkovsky, but Cold War is more of an epic romance of sorts and takes the form of something like a European noir or some of Rossellini’s work in the 50s.  Helping this illusion is that Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig both manage to have a very classical look, which is admittedly probably helped by the fact that neither of them are terribly well known in the English speaking world.

The movie is, at its heart a film a relationship that’s rocky for both internal and external reasons.  Sometimes they’re kept apart by the repressive society they live in, sometimes they’re separated by national borders, sometimes they’re separated by relationships with other people or even by incarceration but often they’re also often separated by their own dysfunction.  At times this seems like a pair that are almost going out of their way not to be happy and I think part of the problem is that the movie feels a bit rushed at times.  This is after all a movie that’s set over the course of more than fifteen years but runs a scant 85 minutes and this means that certain stages in their relationship have to be summed up in just a scene or two and the last development in the film feels especially rushed through.  If you’re going to make an epic romance I don’t see why you wouldn’t want it to be a bit more epic in its length, Still the film’s style makes up for a lot and even if we’re only getting a taste of this romance it does still leave you with some of the emotion and when the film looks like it does that’s always just going to be catnip for film critics.

**** out of Five