Now that we’re firmly in the decade of Pixar shoring up its status with sequels to best-in-show properties rather than adventurously casting off its lot in less-rehearsed, more invigorating directions, we can at least be pleased that this particular sequel is an excuse for Brad Bird to return to the world of Pixar. Which, apparently, is a generally commensurable company to house his relentlessly optimistic aesthetic indulgences in the widest-eyed corners of mid-century Americana and pulp sci-fi. And house it does! While Bird’s good-natured futurism felt awkward while navigating the confines and demands of live-action cinema in the sometimes-effervescent, sometimes-cloying, sometimes-unwieldy Tomorrowland, there’s a natural mutability to animation that fits Bird’s relatively (and gloriously) surface-bound style like a glove.
And to the surprise of no one, aesthetically speaking, Incredibles 2 is a gas, the giddiest approximation yet of the gee-whiz mid-century spirit clearly percolating in Bird’s head since the halcyon days of The Iron Giant (to which, say, Adult Swim’s terrific cartoon The Venture Bros. is the cracked-mirror negative double). After a few mostly realist animated pictures, it’s deeply gratifying to see Pixar return to the deliberately frivolous, gleefully foolish cartoon style that dances so recklessly in Bird’s head, and which animated (excuse the pun) the spirit of many of their best films (Bird’s Ratatouille, most of all). It’s gloriously insignificant, as beholden aesthetically as narratively to mid-century pop serial storytelling and comic book absurdity, much more vigorously enlivened with comic book zest than any live-action comic book movie released in the past few years, save the Guardians duology. Continue reading
I remain heartened months after its release that the internet spent a good few weeks desperately trying to shoot some adrenaline into cinema’s most deeply tiring franchise by convincing the world that Avengers: Infinity War was an experimental film of sorts, and how do I wish that little gambit provided more real food for thought than it does. It certainly does distract us from the actual film, which, as the claims of “avant-garde” suggest, only tenuously clings to that signifier “film,” or at least more tenuously than any blockbuster film is supposed to these days. But while, I don’t know, Speed Racer (all the way back from the inaugural year of the MCU) feels divinely inspired to dismiss the rules of blockbuster filmmaking as a moral and ethical statement, and an incendiary display of personal conviction, Infinity War isn’t a conventional “movie” out of some combination of laziness, failure, necessity, or simply because it can’t be bothered. That’s more or less interesting, and probably more fascinating to think through than an 18th entry into any franchise should be. But I can’t resist the sensation that I and the internet are playing head-games with ourselves to privately amuse ourselves, semi-ironically meditating on the norms of cinema with Infinity War as a catalyst just to pass the time searching for something, anything, to say about the most milquetoast cinematic franchise of the 2010s. The MCU has held modern blockbuster cinema prisoner for almost a decade, but, as if the delirium of no escape is kicking in, the voices of the internet refuse to give in. They resist.
Which is either a heroic display of viewership or a positively deluded marker of entrapment, for Infinity War certainly does not resist in any meaningful way. It’s certainly the case that directors Joe and Anthony Russo stage something quite a bit more akin in flavor and spirit to the television sitcoms that bred them than to a conventional three-act cinematic structure, a decision – nay, a requirement – which is by turns liberating and truly tiresome, as though the nominal heads of the franchise have simply abdicated the throne of narrative cohesion and essentially given up any sense that this ought to function like a real movie rather than a glorified cinematic hang-out. That said, while this particular film is so self-evidently reliant on a television-style familiarity with characters, imploding the illusion of cinematic self-containment, Infinity War does not disrupt these cinematic norms toward any purpose, or with any wit. Which is to say, it doesn’t experiment with narrative so much as concede its lack of one, and it does so without the self-amused meta-critical gags of something so neurotically nefarious as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, where any pretension that we are watching real people and characters who exist off-screen is ceremoniously shot, stabbed, poisoned, and demolished almost immediately before being run over in the infamous final act Julia Roberts bit. Continue reading
Granting a movie its concept is, in general, as axiomatic a principle as a respectable film critic can hold, but boy does Susanne Bier’s Bird Box test that classical truth at every turn. Adapting a story about the perils of sight to a visual medium is both a grand folly and a delicious possibility, a dare to accept the task of playing around with cinema’s very form. To forget the foundational cinematic tradition of show-not-tell. To both advance to its logical conclusion terror’s tradition of visualizing the un-visualizable and, as importantly, to acknowledge what can’t be seen. So the “concept” of Bird Box isn’t actually rotten so much as a question mark, a quandary to be used for good or ill as the creators see fit. How do you use a visual medium to thematize the inability to see? Continue reading
Noise kills, and that old trope of a horror film narrative device is given a sturdy work-out by director John Krasinski in A Quiet Place. Himself playing the male lead and casting his wife as his on-screen partner, it seems self-evident that A Quiet Place treats its horror as a distinctly personal affront, and his craft belies the care he put into this production. This, in other words, is personal for Krasinski. But, if this film relies on horror as personal threat, it is definitively not an existential threat here: the bestiary of A Quiet Place is a threat to an assumed normative domesticity rather than a question for it. Family-hood is pro forma here, a way to appeal to an audience’s basest fears rather than reconsider them. In a film like A Quiet Place, women give birth because, well, why would one ask? Continue reading
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