Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Lighthouse — 7/10

THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019, Robert Eggers)

A dissertation on entropy disguised as a visual adaptation of a Decemberists song. When we first see the faces of our two protagonists, they stop and stare right into the lens, holding a pose like one of those old-west photographs where proper people had to sit for half an hour just to get a selfie. They then make their way into the lighthouse and begin a laborious structure that includes night shift, day shift, cleaning, hauling, and rule-following (the manual says no drinking!). By the end, more shit has hit the proverbial fan than you could ever anticipate in a two-hander that basically plays like a comedic stage play: Waiting For Captain Godot.

Other than the entropy through-line, and the general investigation into stir-craziness / loneliness-to-madness, it’s hard to figure out just why Eggers even wanted to make this movie. If anything it’s a braggadocious actors’ exercise, giving Dafoe and Pattinson the meatiest roles they’ve ever had, which they justify ably. Pattinson comes off a bit worse, mostly because of an uneven accent, high degree of difficulty with his arc, and the high standard he’s set recently with stuff like GOOD TIME and THE LOST CITY OF Z. Dafoe, on the other hand, is absolutely stunning. He gets to play his Ahab parody with full-gravel voice, under-lit face like a ghost-story raconteur, and never ever breaks character.

Eggers doesn’t just plop his camera down and rely on the performances. He squeezes them into a 1.19:1 (silent film era) aspect ratio, visually cramming these guys together more than even their living conditions indicate, and punishes the soundtrack with a relentless foghorn and the implacable crashing of waves against the unforgiving rocks that surround them. He drains them of color by shooting with 35mm black-and-white film stock on a century-old lens, focus often getting the best of Eggers and his cast. The ghost of Kubrick vaguely haunts the proceedings, with aspects of 2001, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and especially THE SHINING peeking into this sea shanty world. The result is a peculiar spirit, a spiked punch of a movie that looks and sounds like nothing else this decade or beyond — much of it is impenetrable and little of it is revelatory, but it’s a thing to behold nonetheless.

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Gemini Man — 7/10

GEMINI MAN (2019, Ang Lee)

You will not see this movie. In fact, you can’t see this movie. To do so, you must be lucky enough to live near one of the 14 screens around the country that are exhibiting it in 3-D at 120fps. (And even then, those 14 screens are only capable of projecting a 2K image, not the 4K in which it was shot. This article from Polygon explains further.) Here in Los Angeles, today (Thursday Oct. 17, the seventh day of its release) is its final day on one of the screens (Arclight Hollywood) that’s showing it as intended. The movie has been a box office disaster and my showing on a Wednesday evening had a total of 5 people. If you do watch something called “Gemini Man” in middle America, or at home on video, you’ll be seeing a third-generation approximation of something that mildly resembles the movie. Like ordering a cheeseburger and only being served a photo of it.

I mention this not to sound elitist, or to criticize the inherently exclusionary nature of a movie that exists without the means to properly exhibit it — but to underscore that the presentation of it really IS the content. If I were to analyze this strictly on its narrative function, it’s a pretty bad DTV sci-fi thriller with cardboard characters, lousy dialogue (was “everyone hates cilantro” ever going to be funny without Smith’s delivery?) and a tired sub-Frankenstein morality theme about playing God with DNA. The plot is riddled with holes (if Smith is retiring, why does Owen need him to be killed? Just because he found out Dormov’s file was spiked, doesn’t mean he’s going to bother finding out why — this is why he’s retiring! Also, if Dormov was just a molecular biologist and not a terrorist, why did four of Lassiter’s hitmen fail to take him out?) and the structure follows in the wake of dozens of similar predictable actioners of the last 30 years: ex-military assassin has trouble with his One Last Job, and then gets a bounty on his own head by a private weapons firm getting high on its own supply. It really took David Benioff to write this?

On October 12, Eliud Kipchoge broke the previously unbreakable 2-hour barrier in the marathon, finishing in 1:59:40. He did this thanks to the inexorable march of technology: laser-guided routes, aerodynamic pace-setters, foam-padded Vaporfly shoes, a schedule programmed with ideal weather in mind, and other carefully constructed aides. But he did it, and nobody else can — especially nobody as old as he is (his age is listed as 34, but most experts agree he’s actually around 40). Technology does not make achievements less impressive – they just move the goalposts. Ang Lee has been doing this for years, and his previous film, BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK used a similar visual presentation.

The effect is wholly immersive — the HFR provides a hyper-real image, the 2K (or 4K if you’re lucky) provides extra clarity and crispness, and the 3-D is, well, 3-D. Lee’s characters are directed to look right into the lens. When glass explodes, the shards fly out into the theater in a way that improves on all 3-D tech in the past, even AVATAR (though, since James Cameron is always on the vanguard of tech, this movie proves that AVATAR 2 is going to look absolutely phenomenal). Even the simple exposition of a spade tattoo on the inside of characters’ wrists is achieved by Lee framing those wrists over the shoulder as they reach away from the 3-D camera. It’s hard to imagine this movie existing apart from its tech, and that can be extended to the content as well — it’s a movie about cloning, and the de-aging effects on Smith’s face are better than any we’ve seen before (makes me curious to see how effective it is in THE IRISHMAN). So the centerpiece sequence (a chase in Cartagena, Colombia) is not only an incredible piece of action cinema (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and LIFE OF PI might be enough to make you forget that Lee is a superb director of clean, electrifying action dating back to CROUCHING TIGER all the way through the punishing war flashbacks of BILLY LYNN), but the technology allows it to also include Smith fighting Smith, with good enough 3-D and FX layering that you’ll believe the tire marks on old Smith’s cheek the rest of the movie did come from the spinning motorcycle wheel that threw him over a car.

The streaming wars are about to heat up. Disney+ is 4 weeks away, with Apple TV+ and others not far behind, in an effort to steal Netflix’s thunder. And the noise from this has most viewers claiming that streaming is the enemy of the theatrical experience. That just isn’t true. Streaming is the enemy of cable TV. Nobody hates Netflix more than Dish and Comcast. Because home viewing is home viewing, and there are only so many hours you spend on your couch and only so many dollars in your wallet to pay for the content. The enemy of movies are movie theaters. As cinema keeps evolving because of said inexorable technology march, theaters need to keep up with it. There’s no other way to get the experience. But alas, AMC multiplexes can barely show a 16:9 digitally shot comedy without poor luminosity from its projector bulbs, bad masking at the wrong aspect ratio, and failing to enforce rules against using cell phones or excessive talking. I doubt I’ll ever stop going to the movies. But if I do, it won’t be because of technology. It’ll be because of people refusing to accept it.

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Parasite — 9/10

PARASITE (2019, Bong Joon-ho)

Fuses the class-conscious social commentary of SNOWPIERCER with the comic tone of OKJA and creates a wholly original, consistently surprising dark comedy that is Bong’s most complete and satisfying movie to date (in a career that boasts an already-impressive batting average). Bong’s eye has never failed him, and it’s no surprise he meticulously storyboards every shot — this thing is composed masterfully, utilizing vertical space and movement to underscore every point about the haves and have-nots.

When the Kims leave the Parks, they are always moving down: down stairs, down a hill, ducking under things, with the camera tracking down to follow them to the slums. Even their living room has a front window that looks upon the street — but since they’re in a sunken flat, their view is an ankle-level shot of the outside. This contrasts with the Parks, whose house is shot with crisp wide-angle masters, the staircase on the right side, a spacious living room in the foreground, and giant open kitchen in the background. But look out for the dark space receding behind the kitchen, down the stairs, to the danger that lurks below.

As the story gets further out of control (this is paced beautifully, by the way, constantly ramping up the stakes and the insanity much like many of Bong’s earlier features), we start to see all the ramifications of Korea’s widening wealth gap: the poor are trapped within the walls of the rich, inextricable from their lives and fates. The wealthy hold their noses at the stink of the poor, a stink caused by their own sewage flooding the houses of the slums below them. But they also can’t live without them — they need them as tutors, as drivers, as cooks, and as therapists to flatter and cajole them and their spoiled children. It all culminates in a whopper of a final scene; the last shot knocked the wind out of me. Interesting that this won the Palme d’Or a year after SHOPLIFTERS did the same — both are about a morally dubious poor family, but where Kore-eda approached the material with earnestness and more than a little sap, Bong comes at it with a chef’s blade: cynical, brilliant, and not a single punch pulled.

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Joker — 6/10

JOKER (2019, Todd Phillips)

When protagonists in comic book movies appear shirtless, it’s often to show off their toned abs and bulging pecs, proof not only that a high-priced Hollywood trainer has chiseled a hero out of clay, but also that the character is capable of great feats of superhuman strength and stamina. Joaquin Phoenix is often shirtless in JOKER, but Phillips’s camera gazes upon this scrawny torso for entirely different reasons. When Phoenix leans forward, we see his spine poking out of his back like some kind of mammalian crustacean. When he leans back, we see every individual rib outlined by his sunken belly. The point, of course, is that a character who is this malnourished and empty in his physicality is also malnourished cerebrally. And while it may be a reductive comment on mental illness, movies get a lot of mileage out of visual shortcuts into characters’ minds. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is a skeleton under wrinkled skin, with no muscles to fight with, no guts to take responsibility with, and probably no heart to feel with.

Phoenix, by the way, is sensational in this role. It’s not just his physical transformation — in the second scene, he starts in close-up by cackling his soon-to-be trademark wail, and we seriously can’t tell if he’s laughing or crying. His face grimaces in pain, but his throat hacks up guffaws. We soon learn it’s part of a medical condition, but the central thesis of the character has been established — he can’t distinguish between comedy and tragedy, and every time he turns his face into a smile, there is sinister anguish driving it. If this is the best in a long line of great cinematic Joker performances, it’s because Fleck is the center of every single scene. It’s two hours of a disintegrating arc, where actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger appeared for brief flashes here and there, signifying a terrifying menace but always supporting the centralized Batman story. Here, Bruce Wayne is a child in two brief scenes, and it’s Fleck who determines the fate of Gotham City.

There are interesting and entertaining aspects of JOKER aside from Phoenix’s stellar turn, but their force is mitigated by a lot of Phillips’s dumbed-down hand-holding. He shows his cards by casting Robert De Niro as the talk show host, indicating the Scorsese films he’s cribbing from (mostly TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY, but also CAPE FEAR a little). Scorsese’s tormented antiheroes are given contemplative weight, whereas Fleck in this film is treated with maximalist shock value, the bursts of gory violence looking like cosplay instead of coming naturally from the material. Also, the twisty story points are then repeated by editorial choices that hammer home what’s already obvious, as if the audience is full of idiots.

This kind of simplified, shallow storytelling is frustrating coming from a director who has improved a lot lately, when his focus has been on more serious, action-oriented movies. THE HANGOVER PART III and WAR DOGS showed visual sophistication that was lacking in his earlier work, and the latter (also Scorsese lite, riffing on THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) took a firm position on America’s gun problem. Here, the gun issue — as well as mental illness and the health care system in general — are just given lip service but not investigated. It’s barely a John Oliver monologue, let alone a serious argument.

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