Roma — 7/10

ROMA (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)

A loose, haphazard, listless collection of snapshots scattered on a floor, ROMA slowly gathers them together and pins them to a cork board labeled Slice of Life. As each ambling moment is shakily linked to the next, the overall story steadily builds up some steam, and things cohere fairly nicely down the stretch — but coherence does not equal emotional force, and you may end up a little unmoved by the results.

Plenty of sequences stand out on their own — the most memorable being the hospital delivery room and the beach rescue — but others come across like forced poetry: Cuarón imagining the lyrical power an image may have and thrusting it upon the audience without any dynamic storytelling leading you there. Here’s a shot of a baby in ICU with earthquake debris perilously atop its enclosure. Here’s a political uprising causing a riot outside a furniture store where two characters are shopping for a crib. He’s a master filmmaker with an uncommon gift for being able to tell a story without dialogue, so there’s plenty of great wordless exposition and character development (Fermín going back to drink the last of Cleo’s Coke, but not take the money she left on the counter; the ordeal of parking the Galaxy in its narrow driveway, etc.). But there’s also the sense that there are a lot of ideas here for a patchwork quilt of a movie that doesn’t have the focus of something like A LITTLE PRINCESS or Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN.

Aside from his one hired-gun franchise movie (he did Harry Potter 3 or something), this is the first Cuarón feature not to employ the DP work of Emmanuel Lubezki. Perhaps that’s why the camerawork here — while gorgeous at times — leans a little too much on the crutch of the oscillating fan technique, covering most scenes in one shot and slowly panning back and forth to pick up action. But it’s going to be hard for any movie to top the dolly across the sand with the sun backlighting Cleo, or the opening shot of a tile floor splashed with soapy water, revealing a reflection of the sky above (note how often he uses reflection: dirty water, a waxed tabletop, you name it he’ll find a surface that can reflect a world outside the reach of its heroine). And in Cleo (and huge credit to rookie Yalitza Aparicio for a warm, understated performance of wisdom and tenderness), Cuarón has presented us a character through which to view a world that is harsh, indifferent, dangerous, and vast, but can somehow find a way to reflect back to us the model of giving, guileless, motherly affection. 

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — 7/10

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018, Joel & Ethan Coen)

Fully into their 60s, it’s fair to call the Coen Brothers old, or at least in their late period. And this is the first of their work to feel like an elder’s patient parable. No longer curious or experimenting, it feels like they’re wrapping it up, having solidified a world view and are ironing out the wrinkles as they plow forward in what may be the last decade of their remarkable output. They’ve never done an anthology of disconnected stories, though, so it’s a departure without feeling like a voice from anyone else. I’m sure future viewings (as they always do with the Coens) will unpack more delightful details, but as it stands this really is no more than the sum of its parts — so I might as well break it down and discuss it chapter by chapter… (some spoilers follow, so don’t read this if you want to go in blind)

Chapter 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Could have begun and ended everything, as it serves as both a summary and a culmination of Coen philosophy. Nelson is a conduit for the Coens answering their critics who call them misanthropes — they don’t hate people, as Nelson explains, they find all their immoral and incompetent behavior merely an expression of being human. In other words, it isn’t people that they hate: it’s the human condition itself. Watch any of their works from BLOOD SIMPLE to FARGO to THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE to INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and you’ll see that attitude expressed in many beautiful and hilarious ways. (It’s notable here that during Nelson’s crowd-rallying, bar-top musical number, the Coens cut back several times to the grieving brother of Curly Joe and the gruesome sight of Joe’s corpse; it is not funny or joyous). Furthermore, this piece says that every good artist (gunslinger) reaches the end of their rope, as a better (faster) one will always come along. And they’ll take on your name, too. So your identity is tied to what you do, not who you are. 

Chapter 2: Near Algodones 

A bit of a rehash of Coen plots from yesteryear, notably MILLER’S CROSSING and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, which both involve a protagonist exonerated (or gone unpunished) for something he did, but held accountable for something he didn’t. Justice in the world of the Coens is never fair; these are just things that happen. Despite the well-worn territory, this gives Franco a chance at the perfect line-reading of the best joke in the story: “First time?” Lest the story pass without a dark, cynical twist, however, we get two needles: one is that the hood goes on a split second too late (so Franco’s final image of the girl is of her scowl, not her smile), and second is the cheering of the crowd. Never underestimate an audience’s bloodthirstiness. Is that why we’ve been treated to so much gory violence in this movie?

Chapter 3: Meal Ticket

Perhaps the bleakest segment, it’s another allegory for the film industry — Neeson is a studio exec, and when one high-brow act begins to lose its audience, he swiftly hitches himself to a low-brow one. What’s the villain in this downward slide towards idiocracy? It could be the insipid whims of the drooling (paying) masses; the greed and carelessness of the producer; the disposable value of performance; or the idea itself of the unholy destructive union of art and commerce. The kicker: we don’t even know if the chicken is going to perform. 

Chapter 4: All Gold Canyon

A bit of an outlier in this anthology; there’s no audience component like the first three, nor any moments of levity. It’s a quiet, contemplative tale demonstrating the best that Delbonnel has to offer as a DP (when the Coens can’t have Deakins, their backup is pretty strong). Humans pierce a serene piece of nature, bringing violence into a peaceful meadow, prizing only greed and selfishness. But the omnipresence of the owl reminds us that humans are just one living species on a planet that will survive everything and nothing. 

Chapter 5: The Gal Who Got Rattled

The longest chapter by far, but one that feels mostly like misdirection. What feels like a love story is really just an excuse for one of the leads to be a red herring. One could draw a parallel between the self-destructive, tragic ending and modern-day gun violence in America, but that seems a little glib for what is a more lyrical, poetic short film. The dialogue is sharp, period-specific, and beautifully mature, which contrasts with the harsh realities of a wagon train lifestyle. And however much or little you’re affected by the narrative, it’s hard to deny the excellence of the two performances: Kazan reaches back to her MEEK’S CUTOFF days to do some career-best work, and the much-less-well-known Bill Heck is a reserved, steady treat. 

Chapter 6: The Mortal Remains

A bit of a sour way to end the proceedings; it’s almost the opposite of Chapter 5 in that it’s all metaphor with little specificity. Furthermore, the execution is, in a rare misstep for the Coens, lacking — the dialogue feels dulled and patchy, and the performances almost all misjudged. It’s all about storytelling, and how stories (movies?) can distract us in the brief moments we have while we’re alive. Sometimes they entertain, sometimes they bore, and sometimes they enlighten or make us weep. That’s all fine, but couched in this lugubrious coach ride which might as well be across The River Styx, it all feels preachy and not particularly unique. 

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Widows — 8/10

WIDOWS (2018, Steve McQueen)

Every bit the stern, straight-faced visual artist he’s been since before he became a film director, McQueen is the cool, slick ice cube inside a rye old-fashioned heist picture. He even makes sure to turn his villains into philistines. When Manning strolls through a house he points at a random book on a shelf: “I haven’t read that.” Mulligan Sr. calls Jr.’s painting “$50,000 wallpaper.” “It’s art.” “Wallpaper.” And in the movie’s second-best oner (I’ll get to the first in a moment), Daniel Kaluuya’s terrifying hitman asks two victims to start rapping — then McQueen’s camera takes the POV of a spot on a spinning record, as we whirl steadily around in a circle to listen to the raps (a location and image reminiscent of McQueen’s bravura video for Kanye’s “All Day”), before Kaluuya suddenly scratches the record and the camera stops for a bullet to the brain.

Villains equaling philistines is just one of the pet themes McQueen squeezes out of the pulp storyline. He’s also got his mind on class, race, and gender. As for the class, the best oner in the movie follows Colin Farrell’s Mulligan Jr. into his car but the camera stays latched to the hood, as we watch the neighborhood change during the travels from the 18th Ward campaign stop (surrounded by projects) to Mulligan’s beautiful upper class block filled with large, well-kept houses. For comparison, note how terribly Tom McCarthy flubbed this concept in SPOTLIGHT, and how perfectly McQueen executes it here. 

Race only became a major theme of McQueen’s since 12 YEARS A SLAVE, but here he weaves it into the fabric of modern Chicago; a tragic backstory for the Rawlings tells a too-familiar tale of white cops and law-abiding black citizens (and it serves a narrative purpose too — it explains why Veronica won’t go to the cops when Manning threatens her). The Mulligans are so casually bigoted that they don’t even notice the offense taken by their own black driver or constituents. And while the gender issues are more obvious, it’s great to see how Cynthia Erivo’s Belle uses her athletic skills (she learned to run by having to race to catch the bus) as a tool to help scout the Mulligan house and eventually pull off the heist. 

Hardly a shot or detail goes wasted in this well-oiled piston — even the cute voice-masking toys used by the little kids in act 2 play a key role in the act 3 heist. That doesn’t mean it all works, though: Michelle Rodriguez’s limited talents are acted off the screen by the towering work of Davis, Erivo, and Debicki. Debicki’s relationship with Lukas Haas’s David feels like a story that could have been its own movie (if Gillian Flynn really wanted to flesh it out) or part of Carey Mulligan’s arc in SHAME. But here it’s almost a blister on the skin. Still, this is the rare studio entertainment to drive right up the middle with fierce, grave, devastating weight to it and a gorgeous eye to guide it home. 

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Burning — 8/10

BURNING (2018, Lee Chang-dong)

Character defined by blocking as opposed to action; Jongsu is often alone in the frame when he’s in a scene with Ben and Haemi. Or he’s trapped in a window frame, a doorway, or a stable. Ben is always in smooth motion, always smiling, and connected to Haemi or his attractive possessions (car, clothes, etc.). Is there a difference?

For her part, Haemi is a beautifully, subtly realized character who avoids all the pitfalls of a potential manic pixie dream girl. She’s always revealing her own depressive insecurities — talks herself into a sobbing wreck detailing how she wants to disappear (which serves as both a premonition and a confession); not to mention she lives in a cramped studio apartment that only gets sunlight once a day. “You have to get lucky to see it.”

Identity is something to aspire for, not to claim: “I’m not a writer, I’m just trying to write.” “Do you want to be an actress?” “Do you know how hard that is?” “What do you do?” “This and that. I play.”

All of this existentialist hand-wringing pays off when the thriller elements boil into focus, and Jongsu does start to take action. And in a late shot that recalls the final image of Mike Leigh’s NAKED, he drives further and further away from a burning flame, but it’s visible through the window no matter how far he gets. Formally confident and audacious, aesthetically gripping, this is one of the best films of the year.

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Halloween — 7/10

HALLOWEEN (2018, David Gordon Green)

Trying to recapture the note-perfect magic of John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece is a fool’s errand, as all of its pathetic sequels and reboots have proven over the years. That film was a one-of-a-kind shooting star — it used its micro-budget in its favor, it had the great fortune of boasting a director who was also a maestro musical composer, and it was the first and most original entry in a genre that hasn’t quit for 40 years. Anything that apes it comes off like a faded carbon copy. So why does Green’s sequel work so well? Because it’s the first movie in the franchise to be *about* something.

Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t work that well. As a shock machine it leaves a lot to be desired (there were better jump-scares in the trailers before the movie started), and aside from Curtis it won’t sniff at any acting awards. But Green’s heart is in a different place — rather than trying to one-up the sheer evil of the original, Green has made a movie that contemplates the cycle of violence, and the contagious effect that evil has both throughout space and down generations.

The three Strode women begin the movie as fractured as they could possibly be (granddaughter isn’t forthcoming to mom, and mom lies to granddaughter and totally dismisses/shuts out grandma Laurie), but end as bonded as you’ll ever see — side by side by side, as Green’s camera drifts from Laurie to Karen to Allyson, then down to the butcher knife in Allyson’s hand. Freeze frame, I got it, I’m gone.

They’re drawn to each other by force and subconscious, and the only thing different is how time has turned the victim into the stalker. One brilliant moment echoes the scene in Carpenter’s original where Laurie is in the corner desk at school looking out at Michael creeping on her through the window. Now it’s Laurie’s granddaughter in the exact same seat, but it’s Laurie doing the stalking. In 1978 it was Michael who fell to the front lawn from the second story and got up; in 2018 it’s Laurie. These evils leave their mark. We do not emerge from trauma unscathed.

Even Michael himself bleeds evil to anyone who crosses his path — he whips his fellow inmates into a frenzy in the opening sequence, and what he does to the doctor who devotes his life to studying Michael and Loomis is tragic. Why does Haddonfield care so much about some dude who killed a few babysitters 40 years ago, someone asks? Because this story gets at who we are as imprinted psyches — causes have effects, and you don’t just get to wipe the slate clean.

Other qualities of note: Danny McBride as co-writer makes his mark in some obvious ways, most notably the Bahn Mi scene. And perhaps he wrote Drew Scheid’s character Oscar, who is funny until he isn’t, and credit to Scheid for screaming so raw and terrified that for the first time in any of these movies I really felt like I was listening to a teenage boy scared for his life. The updated score is used judiciously, and while no Dean Cundey, Michael Simmonds moves his camera with the unhurried but relentless drive of Michael Myers. This movie did not need to be made, and parts of it do feel like a studio-mandated cash grab. But as a pulsating organism exhibiting the deteriorating consequences of violence cycles, and of mass killings in general, it pierces the skin and draws blood.

 

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Suspiria — 6/10

SUSPIRIA (2018, Luca Guadagnino)

On paper, it shouldn’t work — remaking the (arguably) giallo classic by adapting the story but leaving behind everything that made the original distinct: Argento’s one-of-a-kind gonzo visual style and its fantastic Goblin score. Why do this again if you’re only taking the one thing nobody much liked — the narrative? But as it turns out, Guadagnino and his BIGGER SPLASH writer David Kajganich haven’t even taken the narrative, either. They’ve given us a more expansive, creepy epic that turns out to be as stealthily Jewish as CALL ME BY YOUR NAME was.

The fact that this leans on Holocaust drama the deeper it goes is just one of the ways in which the remake has departed from the original text. While we still have Susie the American student joining the ballet company, and characters like Patricia, Olga, Sara, Tanner, Blanc, and Markos remain, everyone’s position has been remixed to further some sort of examination of fascism, guilt, and delusion. At one point Josef* tells his patient that “delusion is lies that tell the truth,” and you can’t help but wonder if Guadagnino feels the same about film — is it fiction that tells the truth? If so, truth about what? The ideas here are large: personal responsibility, power struggles among organizations, artistic interpretation, and complicity with regard to inaction in the face of terrifying institutionalized violence. (It’s telling that we see Blanc’s failure to protect Markos just after we learn about Josef’s failure to protect Anke).

But those ideas are all crammed into a whiplash soup of cinematic flourishes — Walter Fasano’s editing uses too much coverage to stab a lot of cuts into dialogue scenes, hyper-alienating the viewer, while Guadagnino constantly directs our eyes to mirrors and reflections (in one insane location, he manages to completely remove a swirling camera from the mirrors in front of which the characters are standing; that must have been a post-production nightmare)… dream sequences are self-consciously arty but also quite weird and unique. When it turns into an all-out gore-fest at the end, it’s hard to care about anything going on because of how insane it all is presented — and for a movie that spends a lot of exposition time asking us to care about the narrative, that’s a problem. There’s a lot to unpack in this, a lot of sequences to admire and issues to contemplate, but it’s so studied and full of effort that I wasn’t able to connect viscerally to it. Perhaps a second viewing would do the trick, that is if I can muster the courage for it.

 

  • Note: I didn’t realize who was playing Josef until I looked it up on IMDb afterwards. If you’re reading this before seeing the movie, I’d recommend not looking up who plays Josef to protect the integrity of that performance. 

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Bad Times at the El Royale — 6/10

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018, Drew Goddard)

Plays like a demo-version B-side of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS — it has the same voyeuristic puppeteering, the things-are-not-what-they-seem artifice, deconstruction of a theatrical genre, and apocalyptic finale with moralizing overtones — but despite some dazzling set pieces and visuals, it falls a little limp overall.

The questions posed by CABIN’s weird, twisty premise were answered in hilarious, shocking ways — and those answers provided a commentary on horror films at large. The questions posed here aren’t even answered much at all, and don’t end up having anything to say about post-Tarantino noir (which isn’t even much of a genre to deconstruct). There are two McGuffins: a bag of money and an incriminating film reel, but they don’t serve to underscore the rot of the characters. In fact, the specter of Watergate, Vietnam, JFK’s assassination (?), sexual assault, and racism all drape over this plot, but they are just window dressing for a pseudo-HATEFUL EIGHT third act that culminates in a religious scene lacking any emotional resonance.

Before that deflated conclusion, though, there’s a lot to enjoy here: Jon Hamm hams it up with a terrible southern accent (an issue quickly resolved one scene later) and even plays on his MAD MEN persona… a pre-credit prologue with Nick Offerman teaches the audience that they’re essentially watching a stage play on a fake set… a star-making out-of-nowhere lead performance from Cynthia Erivo makes you eager to see what she does in Steve McQueen’s forthcoming WIDOWS… Seamus McGarvey’s exacting compositions behind the camera continue to prove that the DP of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, ATONEMENT, and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is one of the most underrated in the business (not to mention keen on 35mm!)… the heavy dose of Phil Spector hits on the soundtrack both place the film in a distinct era and lend it a populist but sinister character… and Chris Hemsworth has the misfortune of being cast in the film’s worst role (a cult leader with a pedestrian weakness and nothing clever to do or say) but relishes the physical needs of the performance and manages to acquit himself wonderfully.

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