Somehow both graver and more innocent than Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s follow-up to her career-making film (although, how it speaks to the treatment of female directors vs. actresses that we think of what that film did for Jennifer Lawrence relative to Granik) is at once more restful, compassionate even, and yet vastly more traumatic, locating major tragedy in the most minor-key of moments. Lacking that film’s bet-hedging semi-hicksploitation which feigned genuine dramatic ambiguity and equivocation while still gifting audiences the pacifying pleasures of a clearly-marked hero, Leave No Trace is a truly Herculean drama precisely because it resists any of the monolithic or totalizing compulsions the adjective “Herculean” might suggest, moral-mapping most of all. It is an extraordinarily gentle film, almost oneiric, albeit suffused with potent undertows of melancholy, like a dream-spun fable that mushrooms into a grave-like shroud. Continue reading
Ready Player One is hardly Steven Spielberg’s best feature film – heck, it isn’t even his best feature film of the past twelve months – but it might be the surest grasp of his talents, the most elegantly inelegant spiral he’s mounted in years. While his real masterpieces all work to some extent without him – Jaws boasts an astonishing full-throated and sharp-toothed screenplay, Raiders of the Lost Ark is deliriously sardonic with the question of its protagonist’s competence and narrative agency – Ready Player One, much like War of the Worlds, is good, to the extent that it is good, exclusively because of the Spielberg quotient. Boasting a screenplay which breaches questions of reality and authorship with an at-times mind-numbing obviousness, Ready Player One works as both a tornado of entertainment and a centrifuge of existential chaos only because Spielberg, seemingly singularly, knows not merely to mount this sort of production but to turn it against itself in ways which seem earned rather than cloyingly auto-critical. At its best, which is always when Spielberg exposes the inflection point between tornado of entertainment and centrifuge of chaos, between rocketing us to the apex of delirium and the abyss of purposeless, out-of-control motion, Ready Player One is not only testament to his directorial abilities, but to his thematic hunger. Continue reading
For a director who lives, or at least dreams, in dollhouses and dioramas, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs fittingly, and not unproblematically, begs, and then totally decries, comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu for its cinematic fantasyland version of mid-century Japan. That plaintive master of the cinema – arguably the master of the cinema – exposed post-War tensions in Japanese life with potent undertows of generational compromise and interpersonal balance all illuminated by and exposed through his famously diorama-like aesthetic. But although Anderson’s film is also set in a facsimile of mid-century Japan and retains Anderson’s typically diorama-laden milieu as well, it is in many ways Ozu’s diametrical opposition. While Ozu cast a plaintive and empathetic eye on external society, Isle of Dogs is resolutely a vision of the internal. Or, at least, it is a resolutely internal gaze on a mindscape known as Andersonville. For better or worse, it is as personal as Ozu’s film, but it is far more hermetically the work of, and a work for, one artist. Continue reading
Retreading but also, crucially, retexturing Taxi Driver, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here casts both a severe shroud and a diaphanous aura. Silent and somehow graceful, it suggests a world that could float away with every moment, ever-closer to crumbling with each second that passes on the screen. Yet, while it’s constantly dissolving and possibly evaporating, it’s also a heaving, brutish beast of a picture A huge, unapologetic mass of cinema. A giant hulking fucking thing of a film. Most importantly, while scores of films trade in corporeal violence and fewer still in existential disturbance, Ramsay’s picture is the rare film that feels truly, inescapably dangerous. Not because it depicts violence, mind you, or documents any external tragedies – although it undeniably does both – but because it casts us adrift in the askew, hostile, truly broken-down headspace of a phantom man with Ramsay’s diabolically refined, ruthlessly sawtooth craft as our collective Charon. It’s a psychic, predatory tremor of a film. Continue reading
The addictively Ill-tempered I, Tonya imagines itself as a wildly speculative critique of the biopic formula. That said, while it focuses on Tonya Harding and is at its best when focused on her, she is not primarily in the film’s crosshairs. It might be more accurately said that the film weaponizes the media frenzy around Tonya Harding as a way to yolk Billy Wilder’s scabrous journalist-carcass scavenger Ace in the Hole with, well, Billy Wilder’s equally scabrous showbiz-psycho-circus Sunset Boulevard. Yolk to effects that, of course, aren’t nearly as monumentally well-crafted or psychologically inquisitive as either of those films. Not to mention effects that are much, much more scattershot. But, to a point, that’s acceptable for Craig Gillespie’s rabble-rouser, which analyzes a scattershot world. Steven Rogers’ script and Gillespie’s direction are punchy and slovenly in equal measure, and there’s a formal combustibility brewing throughout that both mirrors Harding’s cathartically unpracticed, spontaneous rage and animates wider questions about the chaotic instability of memory, journalism, and subjectivity.
Even better, I, Tonya analyzes a society without having to dissect it, without turning Harding into a Parable For Our Times and thereby flattening her particularity with the imposed weight of National Crisis a la the OJ Simpson-focused season of American Crime Story. While the latter strives to ennoble the television anthology with a literary perfectionism and pristine grandeur, I, Tonya, not unlike its namesake, has no qualms hitting below the belt. More accurately, it admits that it hits below the belt, that its characters are sketchy, unformed caricatures, and while American Crime Story back-peddles into its own superficiality, I, Tonya careens into with a virulent gusto that occasionally approximates legitimate thoughtfulness. Continue reading
There is no deer in Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, certainly as cryptic and roughly as zoological as his previous work The Lobster, but there are obvious shadows of the multi-millennia old tale about King Agamemnon, Artemis, and other figures from which the film draws its title. The specifics of that tale don’t necessarily bear on this film outside of imbuing it with a generally moralistic view of eventual comeuppance, a sense of balance in the world rooted in often-painful eye-for-an-eye moral righteousness. But the millennia-old connections are our earliest rumor of another key feature of this film, perhaps its defining paradox: despite its relentlessly modernistic awareness of dissociated subjectivity and uncertain truth, a whiff of extreme classicism suffuses this picture, as it so obviously infuses Lanthimos’ obvious aspirational dreams, his affectations to be part of the canon of Greek Drama with capital letters. Despite his mobilization of hyper-modern techniques and assumptions about the level of punishment his characters can take on-screen, this is a director who clearly doesn’t belong in the 21st century. Continue reading
On the surface, Annihilation, Alex Garland’s adaptation of the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, is the rare blockbuster that seems to be hurtling inward, exposing the furthest reaches of its mind, the darkest corners of its imagination. Every twist and turn desperately in search of composure and truth reveals something much more than added clarity: an erosion of certainty. For Annihilation, the dream would be an endless self-refraction, uncovering new selves and fragmenting the vision until no possibility of a definitive, monolithic, totalizing statement, let alone a “pure” vision, remains. This form of “failure”, although I shouldn’t have to say it, would be no flaw; it’s the mark of any masterpiece of perfect imperfection, a sense of heterogeneity and a will to collide contradictory registers which cannot cohere into a prefabricated whole.
I worry, though, that Annihilation succumbs to an altogether different form of failure. Not the kind of failure I describe above, a white whale that sends a film perilously to the hinterlands of thought or tumbling in a head-strong rush of possibility, often in multiple contradictory registers, the mark of a film that sees beyond the cloistered realm of perfect formalism, or at least imagines an alternative biome to it. Annihilation seems to be weaving a tangled web in search of a fabled, crystalline center that encapsulates and defines the whole, as though it needs to clarify itself before it topples to pieces. There is a white whale that forever eludes this film, a sense in which it is doomed to fail, but the predominant question is whether the film is humble – or adventurous – enough to entertain its uncertainties and expose them, to dance with chaos, to admit to its incompleteness rather than to continue down a path toward a facsimile of closure. Or rather, whether its search beyond its own surfaces is merely, depressingly, surface-level. Continue reading
I read somewhere on the internet that it would have been a shame if Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread “won” Best Picture, especially when measured up against other, quote, “quirkier” and “stranger” offerings like the eventually triumphant Shape of Water. A two-character drama set in the secluded lairs of the British bourgeoisie, the aesthetic proclivities and nominally-classical texture of Phantom Thread apparently encase it in the stifling halls of traditionalist, conservative cinema in this framework. This equation, of course, pits the film against its corollary, but also its diametrical opposite, or its positive mirror-image, in Shape of Water, a fellow warped mid-century love affair between unlikely companions. But the assumption that Shape is forward-thinking and Phantom Thread backward-moving is not only a cruel fate for the latter film, considering the beguiling ways in which Paul Thomas Anderson’s work plunges into the artifice and performance of desire and gender and discloses truth within. The comparison, not to mention Shape’s eventual win, also illuminates a much more significant problem with the status of debates around “progressive” and “regressive” cinema and their, in this case, imbrication upon a certain construction of, or false opposition between, a binary of “strange” and “traditional”. Continue reading