Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is wonderfully inelegant, a delirious scrawl of a film that at times seems to tilt completely off its rocker, an ungovernable pop manifesto sometimes truly on the brink, as though the film could shudder apart at any moment. While so many superhero pictures seem to fear for their lives that their essential superfluity will be discovered, Into the Spider-Verse rushes headfirst into ludicrousness, swinging deliriously and incredulously into its own harebrained lunacy and divining relevancy out of blissful irrelevancy. And, somehow, concurrently besting any other superhero film this year for dramatic earnestness and emotional seriousness anyway.
Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman (and bearing the distinct Lord/Miller touch every step of the way), Into the Spider-Verse also wears the inevitability of its storytelling on its sleeves. Which is to say, even if it does succumb to certain clichés of the genre, it not only ruefully mocks these conventions (the lesser path traversed by, say, the Deadpool films) but examines the tragic futility and heroic possibility of truly breaking from them. In other words, as it semi-transgressively disrupts the rules which it acknowledges it must adhere to, it motions toward a shared critique of the blinkered cultural production of anemic superhero storytelling and the social-material-systemic inequalities which constrain a mixed-race Brooklyn teenager in an oppressive, in-egalitarian, often hostile world. Continue reading
At times, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels like a mere Western jukebox: six variations on America’s central mythologies, a film content only to revisit cinema’s past glories rather than conjuring a tangled, intersubjective dialogue between various visions of the West and the imaginative clout it has held throughout time. But even at their most reverential – and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is ultimately more of a hat-tip to the West than a screed – the writer-directors never treat the mythos as pure chapter-and-verse. In moving between cruel, cutthroat, mordant, and elegiac ruminations on the most American of genres, they tackle various flavors of the American experiment, from the wonderfully impious to the truly haunted to the downright nihilistic. While each of this omnibus’ six short tales is more a sketch than a story, they each refine a moral perspective on the West that is more complicated, and far messier, than the Coens’ more literal Western thus far, 2010’s somewhat depressingly straight-laced True Grit. While that earlier film was a skilled retread, a taxidermy of Western tropes curated for our pleasure, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs actually seems to have a perspective – many, in fact – on the genre.
Another way of putting it is that, while True Grit was a sensible imitation – garbed in the finest spurs it could don – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a meditation, frequently a grave one, that more self-consciously affects various Western guises and outfits only to unbutton them. Some of this is purely schematic – if you have six chances, you’re more likely to create a Western prism, a polyphonic impression of competing and sometimes contradictory visions rather than one more foundational notion of the “West”. But that doesn’t make it any less evocative. While the Coens have always been distinct American moralists, brandishing a mixture of godless heresy and fire-and-brimstone puritanism in the spirit of Mark Twain, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs practically wears its fictive, fabulistic qualities on its sleeve, conjuring a half-dozen parables of loners, cutthroats, and miscreants trying to survive within, and usually falling prey to, the American experience. Continue reading
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