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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A Star Is Born — 6/10

A STAR IS BORN (2018, Bradley Cooper)

Just as Cooper pitches his voice down an octave to play Jackson Maine (and it’s about three octaves south of Rocket Raccoon), this iteration of the timeless tragic love story about fame and alcoholism is pitched at a lower level of melodrama. Where the Cukor version was full of big-show 1950s manipulations, this one is marked by an element of restraint and “cool,” despite its maudlin DNA and big-ballad sap. For that, it’s an easy sit: surface-level pleasurable, not annoying, and likable in a shaggy-dog way — all qualities you could also apply to Cooper himself in this movie. As both an actor and a director, he has made a cheap-seats belter; a massive crowd-pleaser that is guaranteed to make huge amounts of money, and is such a surefire lock for Best Picture that even the wrong envelopes will contain its title as well.

But as every mom in the building exits their matinee screenings into blasting sunlight, wiping buckets of tears off their faces, it’s hard to shake the ultimate skimpiness of this product. Sure, it provides a hit soundtrack with a few solid gold songs, a breakthrough performance of unimpeachable quality from Lady Gaga (I can’t see how the seasoned, decades-trained actresses who lose to this relative rookie in February can complain too much), and fierce supporting work from Sam Elliott (his red-eyed face as he backs up his car away from Jackson is the most affecting shot in the movie), but is it really saying anything at all?

First of all, the alcoholism storyline, omnipresent in all the versions, I imagine (I haven’t seen most of them), is both clichéd and muddled. Is it all on Jack, as his brother argues? Or is it Not His Fault, It’s The Disease, as his wife does? Either way, as long as Cooper looks cool both in his sweaty cowboy hat holding a glass of gin or on stage with a guitar, it’s all good, right? Also, if the movie is a condemnation of fame both as a weapon of separation (the bullshit British manager character, totally false and one-dimensional) and a corrupt enemy of art (Ally’s sellout pop hits and SNL performance), then why am I watching two characters who don’t even contemplate that issue, or question why they’re so eager to be famous? Ally isn’t at her happiest when she’s with Jack; it’s when she’s showered with Grammys (barely an award, but apparently the be-all-end-all of artistic recognition) and watching her own face projected to an amphitheater of adoring fans.

Gaga herself likes to investigate the concept of fame as a two-headed beast — her first two albums were The Fame and The Fame Monster, and two of her biggest hits are “Paparazzi” and “Applause” — but the script here doesn’t allow for such introspection. It just shovels in a few platitudes about “telling your truth out there” and being who you are, or whatever, and that’s all anyone in 2018 wants to hear. This is the 5th cinematic telling of this story, but it’s very much about 2018: in an era of both social media likes/follows and of hit TV shows like The Voice, American Idol, and America’s Got Talent, it’s never been a surer bet to release a slick Hollywood sugar-bomb giving every shower-singer and YouTuber with an Instagram page some hope that maybe she too will be able to get on stage and make everyone shut up and pay attention to her voice and one-of-a-kind songwriting chops. If everyone is a star just waiting to be discovered, then who’s left to buy a ticket to the show?

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Private Life — 9/10

PRIVATE LIFE (2018, Tamara Jenkins)

A fantastic argument in favor of form over content. It proves that a movie can contain subject matter that I either have zero interest in sitting through, or world views I actively disagree with, and still be massively affecting because of how skillfully it is presented. What Jenkins has done with this funny, acerbic, deeply honest indie dramedy is create two believable, likable adults and put them and her audience through hell because none of us have any choice in the matter. Or do they?

I wouldn’t have expected a modern fertility comedy starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti to end up as a treatise on the Myth of Sisyphus, but by the time this couple is continuing their struggle for the Nth time, it becomes obvious that that’s the vision of the human condition Jenkins believes in, and it strikes home with a thunder. For a few specific reasons, I wasn’t exactly eager to watch a story about a couple in their 40s first going through IVF, then hunting for an egg donor, then sweating the egg donor’s retrieval, more IVF, more money down the drain, and painful scams by hillbilly young women serving as phony surrogates. (People I’m very close to shouldn’t even be reading this review let alone watch the movie). But with each passing scene of exacting composition, shrewd cutting, and swelling, multi-dimensional performances, it became clear I was watching something exceptional regardless.

Jenkins peppers her movie with a lot of striking, memorable dialogue, but she also knows when to be quiet and let images do the talking rather than take a This Is Us approach and deliver every bit of exposition through conversation. One great shot that tells us Sadie isn’t staying with Rachel and Richard anymore is just Richard silently deflating her air mattress. And of course that isn’t the only thing in the room being deflated. Another great touch is when Sadie is taking a psychological test to qualify her for being an egg donor, and they ask the woman a question: “Do you ever feel like smashing things?” Cut to Richard and his brother smashing a racquetball on the court. Here, Jenkins is (not so?) subtly showing that standards for women’s sanity are much higher than those for men, yet also puts everyone in the same boat. All in one cut. And in the long game, it’s amazing how Richard and Rachel’s fostering of Sadie mirrors all the stages of parenthood they hope to actually have, sped up and made metaphorical: feeding their young daughter, then having frank birds-and-bees talk, then sending her off on her first date, then taking her to college. It’s 18 years in 18 weeks, and when that all hits home by the end it’s almost too much to bear. And it makes the final sequence all that much more astounding.

Note: You can’t see this movie in theaters, because every screen is too busy showing cartoons and comic book franchise bullshit. In the ’90s this would have had a healthy theatrical run. In 2018 it was released on Netflix, proving furthermore, for better or worse, that modest-budgeted American stories for adults are finding their homes far more often on our television screens than in our theaters.

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