I wouldn’t be the first to compare The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ neurotic, deliciously acrid comedy of manners, to All About Eve, Joseph Mankiewicz’ indelible and nasty-minded unclothing of the entertainment industry. Such a comparison effectively stitches the connection between royalty and celebrity, a stitch which Lanthimos then unthreads (or shears to pieces) via his total and unmitigated assault on the prefabricated identities the women at the heart of this royal chess-match mock-up to hide their devious underbellies. But, although there may be some imaginative kinship between the films, even by those standards, Lanthimos’ brew of irony and sheer cinematographic morbidity constitute an act of cinematic sabotage that feels totally unique.
Although it has precedents – even among Lanthimos’ own films – the indeterminate coordinates of sexual deception in this choreographed pageant of political misdirection constitutes not only an image of personal identity interfered with by the machinations of others but a truly vicious darkening of the moral edges. Or a lowering of the lights into a depiction of cloistered Royalty that seems to be occurring in some particularly regal ring of hell. And I mean darkening quite literally. Although Lanthimos turns his eye to the tight-lipped and equally predatory theater of the British aristocracy, he somehow one-ups Mankiewicz’ film at least cinematically speaking by corrosively throwing enough visual bile in Robbie Ryan’s gloriously gross cinematography to keep up with the vicious barbs hurled from every character in the film. The Favourite is a truly cynical, predatory film, a closed-door masquerade of fluid power dynamics and curdled souls to rival last year’s Phantom Thread. Continue reading
Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is a textural paradox, aiming for intimacy not in spite of but through Cuaron’s typically broad, sumptuously grand filmmaking sensibilities. While Gravity was deliberately essentialized, primordial, and mythical, Roma retains this largely mythopoetic caliber but diamond-cuts it against a more democratic, diffuse, heterogeneous portrait of quotidian existence, elevating the everyday to the almost elemental. Somewhere between Federico Fellini’s experimental memory-plays and the harsher, hoarser contours of Italian Neo-realism, Roma is a collective canvas of lives intimated, a fable-istic vision closer to the whimsical squalor of De Sica’s Miracle in Milan than his more famous Bicycle Thieves, despite the latter’s obvious clout as an influence here. It’s more immediately (perhaps superficially) satisfying and less philosophically dense, or mournfully longing, or emotionally haunted, than any of these inspirations, and certainly lacks the cackling, existential carousel ride feel of the Fellini film which shares its name (and even that isn’t the director at his most carnival-esque). But it’s a spellbindingly textured film nonetheless, a semi-autobiographical work that aims less for a realist canvas than a conjuration of strong, semi-arbitrary memories, a tapestry of impressions that are both crystalline and vague.
Which means that Roma doubles as both a singular, focused drawing of Cuaron’s childhood maid realized so empathetically in Yalitzia Aparicio’s Cleo, a Mixtec servant of an upper-middle-class Mexico City family, and a kind of impasto of ephemeralia: a film where each brush-stroke tells its own story, intimating another image, character, moment, or vision beyond Cleo’s immediate existence. Each moment simultaneously stands-apart, converses with one another, and sometimes contradicts each other, allowing the film to spread out beyond the confines of the perspective which is ostensibly galvanizing the screenplay. Roma isn’t exactly revelatory, and it certainly divorces itself from the hellion, wild child impulsiveness of Y Tu Mama Tambien and the bad seed divinations of Children of Men, still Cuaron’s masterpieces. But as a largely generous motion picture, Cuaron’s film is a wonderful vision of sheer empathy, even if its empathy doesn’t always extend to real solidarity. Continue reading
It is essential to the success of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed that both his convictions and his doubts suffuse it to the core. Not only about religion, mind you, because the film is also positively tormented with dread and anxiety about Schrader’s personal God: cinema, the medium which he has studied, scrutinized, and analyzed for decades and bestowed with both the authority of holy writ and the uncertainty of a doubtful sinner, unsure of his abilities, begging for admittance into the ecclesiastical cinematic canon and fearing that he just doesn’t measure up. For decades, Schrader has not only been the sharpest and most penitent student of cinema but a truly sacrilegious, ill-tempered devotee to his own id, a man who, even to his film’s detriment, would sustain his outsider-art tempestuousness simply to remain in a wandering state of search, looking for something – maybe anything – which clarified, or stirred the waters of his soul, and which the cinema around him was not providing.
Yet in First Reformed, one finally senses a kind of acceptance, even a restfulness. But crucially and blessedly, not a sedimentation, or even a clarification. Schrader is still clearly on the hunt for an answer he doesn’t have; his search is merely less restless, albeit no less uneasy, no less apprehensive about the possibility of true existential comfort in a deeply inharmonious world. Crystallizing his internal agitation into something manageable for the first time in decades, probably since his screenplay for the truly antinomian Bringing Out the Dead, First Reformed still explores the brackish, murky waters of a man wracked by contradiction and simultaneously fascinated and tortured by paradox. First Reformed is a film gifted with and tormented by an ascetic’s restraint, a Baptist minister’s undying conviction, and a heretic’s anarchic disobedience, all while accruing the potency of a divine spirit, which in this case suggests both the film’s feverishness and its ghostly, diaphanous half-presence, like a film tenuously touching our own world but which might evaporate or erode on a moment’s notice. You can feel it simultaneously breathing its last breaths, writing its will and testament with all the wisdom it acquired over its life, and spontaneously bursting out into a new, uncertain existence with every moment. It’s both a lament and a provocation. Continue reading
For a film that plays in the broad narrative strokes like a much-belated sequel to the adolescent fantasia that was 1981’s Heavy Metal, Panos Cosmatos’ gleefully irresponsible Mandy sure approaches the sheer, ravished psychic impact and meditative, enraptured gloom of another film from the same year, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. Sacrilegious though the comparison may be, Cosmatos’ clearly mystical aria of sensory impulses and untamed spirits radiates with a similarly occult energy, simultaneously soul-bearing and soul-occluding, and casts a similarly esoteric, mosaical shadow on the landscape of modern cinema. Thriving on contradictory ambition, Cosmatos’ film thins the membrane between Judas Priest and Joy Division, or Andrei Rublev and Conan the Barbarian (lest we forget that Tarkovsky himself was a huge fan of The Terminator’s ice-age tenor and melancholic urban nightmare). It’s wild, woolly, and truly psychotropic – demon-fed fuel for any rager and comfortable adorning the shelf of any man-cave – but its aesthetic ambitions and vision of a restful dream forestalled also draw us right to the existential enmirement of the human soul in unsettling forces beyond our comprehension. Cutting a conjurer’s figure, more than any film of 2018, Mandy casts a truly demiurgic spell on the viewer.
And, as violently untamed and cathartic, bordering on avant-garde, as the final half may be, the early portions of Cosmatos’ ethereal vision of Manichean loneliness cast a Romantic portrait of collective solitude that could have made Emerson blush. A couple, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), live a solitudinous existence, wonderfully lonely but not emotionally stranded. As they go about their daily rhythms, the film suggests a slice of life picture lost in the void, fuzzy with intangibles, radiating the composure of a perfect relationship that is bound to collapse at a moment’s notice, a vision of perfection which seems plasticine, self-consciously affected, too crystalline to be as true as it lets on. Mandy is tinged with whiffs of sorcery throughout, but the most effective devilry Cosmatos concocts is the almost preternatural sense that happiness is a thin, chimerical fabric that only exists to be ripped to shreds. Continue reading
Tracing the fault lines of familial trauma without any ostentatiously showy post-modern paranoia, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is extremely cunning, but more importantly, it’s never clever. For all Aster’s talents as both writer and director, his film is blissfully and unapologetically free of any desire to outfox us. For a horror film released in the waning years of the 2010s, Hereditary is almost singularly unhindered by any compulsion to ironize itself and foreground how much it is outpacing our intellects. There’s no sense it is running ahead of us, wagging its finger at us for not keeping up. While its moral architecture is deeply tangled, to say nothing of its truly dyspeptic emotional knots, the film’s style is resolutely classical, mining the depths of its characters’ austere mental insularity in order to depict a family without any exit, staging a drama of almost demonic predetermination.
Although presentiments of terror lurk in nearly every nook and cranny of Aster’s metaphysically brutal film, Hereditary essentially never cheats, but nor does it try to trick us with sleight of hand in the first place. It gives us all of itself, withholds none of its intent so as to stroke our egos by allowing us to “uncover” parlour tricks masquerading as emotional truths. The only twists here are the kind which tangle your stomach in knots. Each and every premonition of woe has the emotional texture of a forewarned intuition, not so much an inevitable, forthcoming tragedy as a clarification of the unstated, barely-sublimated traumas that have always lurked in its central family’s lives, stalking their every gaze and conversation. Continue reading
Meant to upload this when BlacKkKlansman was released late last summer, but honoring Lee’s long-delayed, much-deserved nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards (even for a film I wasn’t crazy about) seems as good a reason to post this as any!
On the surface, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour vibrates with a haunted, hushed sense of gloom that begets genuine introspection, a sensibility of almost Bressonian sangfroid which thoroughly and contrapuntally rejects the bristling, sharply corrugated kinetic energy of Lee’s most famous films, hot and sweaty works that might melt the wounded 25th Hour on contact. But this most guarded film, by Lee standards, radiates its own intensity, a kind which, through its comparative silences, rejects the usual charge that Lee’s orientation is all bluster hawking snake-oil. Even Lee’s most scrambled, inelegant films have an internal coherence, and, conversely, the ostensibly calm and collected – even too conspicuously composed – 25th Hour only seems sure of itself; its comparative restraint belies a severe inner anxiety about both the value of personal self-observation in the face of consequence and the relationship between self and the wider nation.
Because, as Lee (never the most muted of filmmakers) makes apparent from the get-go, his protagonist’s ostensible assurance, inescapably masking apprehension, in turn signals, or at least rhymes with, director Spike Lee wrestling to cope with a now-lesioned New York after 9/11 in this, his more direct but also knottiest tribute to his home-city ever. Like any Lee film, it’s more sinuous than subtle when it comes to exorcising the directors demons, and the film’s meditations on mourning the phantom of the past – not to mention the dialectics of personal and national, private and political tragedy – are immediately apparent in the opening credits, which hover over the absent World Trade Center, spectrally approximated as an after-image in the form of the “Tribute in Light” commemoration which here evokes not triumph but the Towers as a kind of phantom-limb. Continue reading
Wrote this a while ago but someone never got around to posting it. With If Beale Street Could Talk, the first cinematic adaptation of a published James Baldwin story, currently gracing the screen, I decided now was as good a time as any to share.
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is revelatory precisely because of how little it reveals, or at least how little it reveals through the traditional pathways of film documentary revelation. By this I mean two things: what it reveals about its subjects, race in America and James Baldwin (in that order), is polyphonic, and the pathways of revelation – the film’s way of revealing – are ever-elusive, fragmented, drawn as much to the fissures in documentary form as its capacity to crystallize interpretation. To explain by example, the most immediately striking aspect of Peck’s film is how it rescinds the offer to rely on institutionalized experts, arbiters of truth, synchronized appraisals of Baldwin’s value, and professorial orifices scrubbed relatively clean of the stench of action in the trenches. I Am Not Your Negro is disobedient to these edicts, more interested in Baldwin’s and its own diffuse uncertainties than in crystallizing a portrait of a man who the film appraises as more of a bricolage, even an exquisite corpse: a collection of restless energies and stylistic vulgarities pulled from many sources and idioms, a life as vigorously asymmetrical as the film’s presentation of that life.
Or, at times, its seeming willful refusal to present. Baldwin’s most disobedient gesture, and the film’s greatest consecration of Baldwin (by way of a refusal to consecrate), is how he seems to evaporate from his own picture, to resist whatever form the film might impose upon him, to retain his opacity even to the point of severe frustration. In its disownership of conventional documentary form, in fact, I Am Not Your Negro doesn’t even seem to be consciously presenting Baldwin as an enigma in the studied, now-all-too-common modernist-biography sense of willfully presenting a self-alienated human who doesn’t even know themselves or who has replaced their soul with a pictorial approximation of some concept, e.g. “celebrity”. No, the vaporous Baldwin disowns even that psychological solution for the problem of depicting character; it never sacrifices Baldwin’s prickliness to calcify him as a “concept,” nor does it necormance an image of a man who self-consciously transfigured himself into one. Sometimes even resisting edification entirely, the film fingers the subject of James Baldwin quite like Ralph Ellison’s proverbial “jagged grain”. Continue reading