Film Review: “Gloria Bell” and the Sublime Joy of Julianne Moore

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I have a confession to make: I’m a Julianne Moore fanatic.

I’ve loved her in every film I’ve seen her in: Safe, Far from Heaven, A Single Man, and Game Changer (in which she seemed to embody the spirit of Sarah Palin). Never once have I been disappointed by a Julianne Moore performance. And, having seen Gloria Bell, I’m glad to say that that that record remains intact.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I love a good, simple story simply told. Sure, I also love big epics and thundering blockbusters, but one can only watch so many of those before starting to feel a bit drained, a bit overwhelmed and frustrated by Hollywood’s seeming resistance to small films. Luckily, that seems to be changing.

Gloria Bell is a tidy little film, and what it lacks in bombast and narrative complexity it more than makes up for with a lean story, solid performances, and genuine heart.

Gloria has started to feel a bit stifled by her life: her ex-husband has remarried, her son seems a bit of a drifter who is clearly distant from his wife, and her daughter is preparing to embark on an international romance with a Norwegian surfer (and is pregnant to boot). Into all of this wanders Arnold (John Turturro), middle-aged man that she meets at a dance club, who has his own issues with his family. Thus starts a contentious relationship that forces Gloria to really think about what she wants from her life.

The film is refreshingly frank about Gloria’s sexuality. It manages to convey sex scenes that are sensual and not prurient, and it allows Gloria to take charge of the narrative in ways that women are (still all too consistently) denied in much Hollywood film. She wants to carve out her own sort of life, though it also seems that everyone in it doesn’t see things the way that she does. Through her understated performance, Julianne absolutely disappears into the role, to such a degree that we almost (but not quite) forget that it’s a star we are watching.

While at first Arnold seems to provide just the sort of escape she’s looking for, it soon becomes apparent that he has his own hang-ups and issues. While he refuses to introduce Gloria to his needy daughters, she makes every effort to include him in her family, an effort that he rejects (he even flees a birthday party without telling her where he’s going). Turturo does an excellent job conveying Arnold’s narcissism, and while we aren’t led to identify with him, we can at least have a bit of sympathy for his unenviable position. Thankfully, it doesn’t take Gloria long to realize that he has far too many issues and is far too controlling, manipulative, and self-centered, and we cheer her along as she reclaims her agency.

There’s no question that it is Moore that elevates the film from being simply ordinary. She is truly one of those actors who has what it takes to be more than a mere performer (though, of course, she brings a genuine warmth and sincerity to the role of Gloria). When she’s on screen you simply cannot take your eyes away; her charisma infects every scene in which she appears. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Moore is one of those rare (these days, anyway) actresses who actually qualifies as a genuine star.

However, the supporting cast is excellent as well, and Holland Taylor makes an understated yet affecting performance as Gloria’s mother. Michael Cera brings his signature blasé attitude and, as already mentioned, Turturro captures middle-aged male angst expertly.

Gloria Bell doesn’t break any of the rules, unless it’s through a refusal to give into the imperative to have a happy ending that would domesticate this free spirit. In fact, when she sprays him with his own paintballs and then goes to a wedding reception, where she begins dancing to her signature song (“Gloria”, obviously). In the end, she reclaims her agency, showing once and for all that she doesn’t need a man to be happy and fulfilled.

All she needs is her sublime, glorious self.

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A Tale of Two Endings: “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Green Book”

When Green Book was announced as the winner of the Best Picture at this year’s Academy Award, one could practically hear the collective groan that went up. The film, many argued, was too simplistic and too banal in its exploration of race relations in America, particularly when compared to other films such as Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk. G

Having now seen it, in conjunction with Barry Jenkins’s new film, I can say that those frustrations are justified.

If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, chronicles the budding romance between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), which faces an existential crisis when the latter is accused of having raped a woman and imprisoned. The film toggles between past and future, showing the beginnings and flourishing of their romance, as well as the struggles they face after he goes to prison.

It probably goes without saying that, in If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has managed to recapture the same sort of magic that he brought to his Oscar Award winning Moonlight. The film is visually lush, with a color palette that makes the texture of fabric sensible to our own fingers, inviting us to experience the rich, deep love between the film’s two leads. The score is hauntingly beautiful, likewise invoking the exuberant joy of first love.

Yet it is precisely the films exquisite beauty that makes its ending that much more tragic. Having confessed to the rape in order to avoid even harsher punishment, Fonny must now spend several years in prison. Still, the two of them attempt to make the best of this awful situation, and Tish brings their son to regularly see his father, and the film ends with this haunting tableau: a family united yet also irreparably shattered by the violence of the state.

Of course, we’ve been primed for this unhappy ending throughout the film, for Jenkins makes the canny choice to intersperse the film’s lush colors with moments of black and white photography depicting the depredations of a police state that sees black bodies as little more than prison fodder. Though we want Fonny and Tish to find a way out of this dreadful situation, we also know that it can never be.

As I sat in the theater watching that family manage to claw some sort of love and unity out of this horrid situation, I was struck by how the ending tears apart the Hollywood myth of the happy ending, for though they are united in their love of each other, they are separated by the institutions that have oppressed people of color and by the banal pettiness of racism.

The next day, I saw Green Book, and wow, what a different film. Tony (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer who is employed by renowned musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to be his driver as he makes a tour of the Deep South. Though clearly racist himself, as they journey through the south Tony gets a clear sense of the tremendous toll this takes on his employer. He gradually comes to recognize the terrible injustice of Dr. Shirley’s life.

Let me say upfront that the film is not nearly as bad as I had thought it would be, and I think it might be overstating it to say that it is explicitly racist. I don’t think it would be going too far, however, to say that the film is disingenuous in the extreme, and I can understand why many were upset that the film won out over such contenders as Roma, The Favourite, and BlacKkKlansman.

For one thing, the film isn’t about race relations, or the black experience in America, or about black people at all, really. What it is about is one white man’s journey to understanding the injustices that black people face. Let me be clear. This is not at all the same thing as focusing on Dr. Shirley’s experience, precisely because so much of the film is about, and told through, his perspective. Of course, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find a Hollywood film channeling our present anxieties about racial strife through the eyes of a white man.

More irritatingly, one of the film’s central conceits is that Tony has a salt-of-the-earth wisdom that is superior to the more educated one possessed by Don. In one particularly notable scene, Tony actually has the gall to claim that he is more authentically black than his employer (because he likes fried chicken and knows who Aretha Franklin is), and the film doesn’t really make any effort to show either Tony or the presumptive viewer how utterly ridiculous that claim is.

Most frustrating, however, is the ending, in which  is exactly what you would expect from a liberal film from the early 1990s: after returning to NYC, Tony invites Don in to enjoy Christmas with his family. While at first Don demurs, at the end he knocks on the door, is admitted, and is welcomed into Tony’s family. Now, to be clear, the film has gone out of its way to show how everyone in Tony’s family except for his wife is as virulently racist as he is, and somehow the film seems to want this ending to do the heavy lifting of making us believe that they have all had a moment of enlightenment. Such naivete is both laughable and incredibly frustrating.

Through this narrative closure, the film promulgates the idea that somehow, if everyone just puts their minds to it, the film suggests, everything will be okay, no tearing down of institutional racism needed! So predictable is it, and so heavy-handed in its delivery, that I actually groaned when I realized what was about to happen. Surely, I thought, this can’t be how they intend to end this film. Alas, it was.

Let me be clear: the ending isn’t bad in and of itself. It’s okay sometimes to go to movies simply for the pleasure of feeling good. What frustrates me, though, is that the film remains so resolutely and frustratingly wed to Tony’s perspective. Everything hinges on his “acceptance” of Don, who remains a shadowy and elusive presence right up until the end.

I suppose I wouldn’t be as annoyed as I am had not Green Book not won the Oscar for Best Picture, a category in which If Beale Street Could Talk was not even nominated (when it clearly should have been). It is tremendously frustrating to once again see a film that takes the easy out when it comes to issues of race in the United States win the Best Picture, a frustration made that much worse by one Academy member’s huffy claim to The New York Times that he voted for Green Book because he was tired of being told how to vote by those outside of the Academy.

These two films, with their radically different endings, make different demands on us as viewers. Beale Street forces us to reckon with the consequences of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies, which cannot be waved away by the banalities of a Hollywood ending. Green Book, on the other hand, reassures us that everything will be all right, so long as good white men like Tony take it upon themselves to not be racist.

In 2019, we deserve better from Hollywood than the triteness of Green Book. Thank goodness we have If Beale Street Could Talk.

Film Review: “Stan and Ollie”

Fair warning: Spoilers for the film follow.

These days, it’s sometimes hard to remember that it used to be possible–preferable even–to have a film with a running time of an hour and a half, one that still manages to hit all the right narrative notes to make a satisfying cinematic experience.

Cue Stan and Ollie, a pleasant little biopic about the later years of one of Hollywood’s most iconic comedy duos.

Though a few scenes take place during the duo’s heyday in 1930s Hollywood, the majority of the film revolves around their attempts to rejuvenate their film career via a tour of the UK and Ireland in the 1950s. Though it’s slow going at first, they gradually attain success, until they are playing to packed crowds in London. However, the ostensible goal of this tour–to procure a movie contract–ultimately falls through, and the two must decide whether they will continue their partnership.

Full confession time: I’ve always much preferred Laurel and Hardy to Abbot and Costello. I can’t say why, other than that I think that Stan and Ollie just seemed more organically funny to me than their (arguably) more successful counterparts. So, I was already prepared to enjoy the film, and I was not disappointed.

The film does play a bit fast and loose with historical details, compressing some things and excluding others, but that’s rather what you expect from a biopic. Indeed, rather than trying to provide a panoramic view of the comedy duo’s career, it shows us this one particular incident that is reflective of their dynamic and their struggles both within and against Hollywood. As a result, we do get a fairly rich sense of their relationship.

While the film’s plot follows a fairly traditional biopic pattern, the performances from both Coogan and Reilly really allow the film to stand out (it’s rather a crime, I think, that neither was in contention for an Oscar). They both seem to truly inhabit their characters. This is not mere mimicry, but instead something richer, deeper, and more meaningful. Just as importantly, there is also an undeniable chemistry between the two leads that lends their performance a level of credibility it might otherwise lack. There are times when one could be forgiven for believing that the two men on screen are really the two old Hollywood stars.

Thus, the film is essentially about the relationship between the two men. From its perspective, the two of them only really succeeded when they worked together. Their other partnerships, Though their wives are certainly prominent parts of their lives–and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda deserve enormous credit for imbuing each of them with spit-fire personality–it’s clear from the beginning that the bond between the two men is of a different kind.

The film is also a reflection on the brutal, unforgiving nature of Hollywood. No matter how successful Stan and Ollie become through their tapping into nostalgia, there will be no movie deal for them. The Hollywood of their heyday has moved on, and while they may not be as pathetic as, say, Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, there is still a sense of pathos about the whole drama. We in the audience know that there can be no resuscitation fo their film career even before they do; there is no place for 1930s comedians of their type in 1950s Hollywood. We are thus invited to both cheer for them and pity them at the same time.

The film is intertwines various types of nostalgia: there is the yearning of the two actors for their earlier success; there’s the nostalgia of the fans who fill the auditoria; and then there is the film’s own nostalgia for both the 1930s and, arguably, the 1950s. As with so many Hollywood films about Hollywood, the dream factory is a vexed signifier. While it promises them both a renewed career, it is also the great beast that has already chewed them up and left them behind.

In that sense, Stan and Ollie is a rather melancholic film, for as the blurb of text at the end explains, the tour did in fact take a heavy toll on Ollie’s health, and he died shortly afterward. For his part, Stan never again performed with another partner. In the end, we’re left with a sense of sadness for what might have been, a bittersweet longing for two careers cut short by the vicissitudes of Hollywood.

Film Review: Surrendering to Feeling in “A Star is Born” (2018)

Warning: Substantial spoilers for the film follow.

I went into the most recent version of A Star is Born with great trepidation. I’ve seen both the 1930s and 1950s versions, but have steered clear of the 1970s one because of its notoriously bad reception. However, something drew me to this one. Perhaps it was my long-standing love of Bradley Cooper’s beauty or my queer appreciation of Saint Lady Gaga. Or perhaps it was hearing “Shallow” come on my Sirius XM and feeling profoundly moved by the performance. 

Whatever it was, something drew me in to see this film, and I have never looked back.

Unsurprisingly, this film follows the narrative pattern of its predecessors: ingenue and aspiring (musical) artist Ally (Lady Gaga) is discovered by country-rock star Jack Maine (Bradley Cooper). Very quickly, her career begins to overshadow his, and he begins his descent a descent into addiction and despair that ultimately results in his suicide. The film ends with Ally singing in her late husband’s memory.

Fortunately for me, I was prepared for the ending. I mean, it is A Star is Born, and so you sort of know how the whole thing is going to end up. The one thing that remains the same in every iteration of the story is Maine’s decision to end his own life rather than continue to drag his successful wife down with him into his own private darkness. Nevertheless, it still felt like a gut punch when Jack takes his own life by hanging himself with his belt–a method that had failed him when he was a teen but has now become devastatingly effective. 

What surprised me as I watched the film was how easily I was overwhelmed by feeling. How was it possible, I wondered, that I could be so invested in a story whose ending I already knew? At least part of this is due to the star power of Cooper and Lady Gaga, both of whom positively ooze charisma. Gaga proves that she has the acting chops to convey vulnerability, while Cooper, with his rakish good looks, serves as the ideal embodiment of a country rock star struggling with his own inner demons.

Yet it is also due to how deftly the film handles the feelings of its characters. Some of this stems from the soundtrack. I dare you to listen to songs like “Shallow,” “Is that All Right,” and “I’ll Never Love Again” without being reduced to an absolutely soggy mess. Of course, we all knew going in that Lady Gaga is one of the most talented musicians of her generation, but MY GAWD. Her performance of the film’s finale (I’ll Never Love Again”) drew sobs from me that I didn’t even know were there. Admittedly, I’m very prone to weeping during melodramatic films, but even as I was watching that final performance I was astounded by just how much feeling was being wrenched from me at this moment. It was one of those rare occasions when my entire body and soul seemed to be caught up in the currents of emotion on the screen.

An equally strong part of the powerful feeling of this film, however, comes from the film’s willingness to display men showing emotions other than anger. Bradley Cooper manages to convey Jack’s genuine sense of remorse at the shame he has brought Ally, and when he breaks down and weeps while in rehab it’s hard to maintain your own composure And let me tell you something, there is nothing that will make you weep like seeing Sam Elliott–the paragon of a certain type of western/cowboy masculinity, who plays Jack’s brother –tear up after what turns out to be his last parting from his brother. Emotional response aside, it really is refreshing to see straight men allowed to be outwardly expressive of feelings other than rage and violence.

At the formal level, A Star is Born is a remarkably intimate film. The camera frequently moves in for tight shots of its characters, and it its movements are graceful and fluid. As a result, we are constantly drawn into the world of these characters, invited to inhabit their states of feeling. By the end, it’s hard not to feel the same pang of loss that Ally does, as we nevertheless experience the soaring, exquisite joy of her ultimate success. 

Sometimes, you just have to give yourself up to the pleasures of feeling.

 

Film Review: “Annihilation” (2018) and the Radical Dissolution of the Self

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

Some science fiction films are groundbreaking in the sense that they open up new ways of seeing and looking at the world. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such film, as is Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ridley Scott’s Alien. These films unsettle us, forcing us to live in a very uncomfortable sort of world, one that is both like and unlike the one that we experience in the everyday. Annihilation, with its unstable narrative, exquisitely unsettling visual composition, and uncanny sound design, is another such film, a reminder of the continuing power of science fiction to challenge our ways of making sense of the world…and of the cinematic image.

The film begins when Lena (Natalie Portman) is reunited with her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who had gone missing in an area known as the Shimmer over a year earlier. Determined to find out what caused his disappearance–and his physical breakdown after he re-emerged–she agrees to enter the Shimmer with a group of other women to discover the source of the disturbance, what it may want, and whether it can be reversed. Once there, however, they encounter increasingly disturbing mutations, including an alligator with teeth like a shark and a hideously disfigured (and utterly terrifying) bear. Ultimately, Lena must confront the entity that has formed the Shimmer, in all of its utterly alien intensity.

At the level of narrative, Annihilation poses a challenge. It is not a straightforward story, but is instead related largely in flashback from Lena’s perspective. However, as we quickly learn, there is much that Lena cannot explain, either to the scientists interrogating her in the army station outside the Shimmer. And, just as importantly, it’s entirely possible that Lena, having been affected (infected?) with the entity that has come to earth, may not in fact be herself in the way that we normally expect individual subjects to be. Perhaps, after all, she has become something entirely new, something capable of turning narrative against itself.

The film also registers a fundamental instability in the way we make sense of ourselves as discrete, self-contained subjects walled off from the external world. When Lena asserts at the end that she isn’t sure that the entity has a purpose other than the continual destabilization of life on earth, she gestures toward an uncomfortable truth: there are things in the universe that simply do not behave in any way that accords with our own limited epistemologies. This is particularly discomfiting, as the entire film’s narrative centers on a search for knowledge, a desire to understand what it is that has caused the Shimmer and driven so many soldiers to madness and death.

What’s more, the film is also a challenge to us as spectators. Through both its stunning visual and sound designs, the film engenders a feeling of a loss of self, something akin to the sublime. This emerges in two important ways, one small in scope and the other larger. In the first, smaller-scoped sequence, Lena gazes into a microscope at a dollop of her own blood, and she is dismayed to see her DNA–the basic structure of her identity–changing and mutating right before her eyes. This sequence is unsettling precisely because of its oscillation between the seen and the unseen. While Lena is able to see her innermost self rapidly transforming, her external self remains largely unchanged. This is in marked contrast to so many of the other characters in the film, who are shown losing parts of themselves, either to the predatory bear or to the more benign plant beings that gradually absorb one of the team members. This sequence engenders a profound feeling of unease in us as spectators, as we are forced to accept that, for all that we might like to think of ourselves as discrete subjects, we are constantly subjected to and changed by forces we cannot see or control.

The second is much more radical. The director has been very open about the fact that it is best seen on a big screen, and while I am not usually one who buys into the idea of medium specificity, but in this case the sheer overwhelmingly dazzling nature of the big screen really does make all the difference. There is a scene near the end where Lena finds herself face to face with the radical alterity that is the extraterrestrial being, and the screen explodes into a radiant nimbus that is rendered even more unsettling by the pulsing of the soundtrack. In this startling instance, the film invites us to feel as if we are being lifted right out of our bodies or, perhaps more precisely, as if our bodies have meshed with the film screen. Something, it seems to me, is lost in this exchange between the body of the film and the body of the viewer, and there is also something unsettlingly pleasurable about this experience.

Thus, the film’s title is not just about humanity’s propensity for self-destruction but also a distillation of the film’s challenge to individual subjectivity. In that sense, Annihilation is the perfect film for our current age, in which all truth–and all sense of self–seems to be in a current state of flux, disruption and, in the most extreme cases, implosion. The fact that the scientists who question Lena seem to have no more ability to explain what has happened than Lena herself does further calls into question the regimes of knowledge that govern almost every aspect of our being. And the fact that the film’s aesthetic remain so disturbing also registers, I argue, the angst of an era in which the old certainties are passing away and, somewhat surprisingly, turns those anxieties into a viewing experience that sends a quiver across the flesh, a shudder of pleasured revulsion.

Annihilation is a horror science fiction film in the best possible way, one that pushes the boundaries not only of what film as a medium can do, but also what we as spectators can readily bring into our own bodies, minds and, dare I say it, souls.

 

Film Review: The Utopian Pleasures of “Black Panther” (2018)

Every so often a film comes along that really and truly changes the contours of Hollywood filmmaking.

Black Panther is one such film.

I tend to be a bit hyperbolic in my praise of films that I really enjoy, and I will warn you right now that this is going to be on of those reviews. From the very beginning, I loved everything about this film, from the cinematography to the acting to its utopian sensibility. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is without question my all-time favourite of the MCU to date.

Coogler’s camera is a remarkably graceful one, and he relies less on the sort of breakneck editing that marks so much recent action cinema (and that can be quite disorienting and distracting when used, as it often is, to excess). There are several instances in which his camera actually follows the movement of the actor rather than relying on  It’s largely this graceful camera movement that grants Wankada its graceful beauty, which we are frequently invited to consume from above as the camera glides over the mountains and plains, all of it bathed in the piercing African sun.

Coogler’s camera is matched by the sinuous and smooth grace of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, who commands the screen with an understated intensity. While Boseman lacks the imposing physicality of his counterpart Michael B. Jordan (in the person of Killmonger), he nevertheless has a power all his own. The two are an intriguing mirror image of each other, each representing very different views of the world that systematically devalues the lives, experiences, and bodies of black people. While T’Challa believes in the necessity of looking after his people, even if that means turning his back on the rest of the world, Killmonger believes that it is only through violent revolution that the wretched of the earth can at last take control of their own destinies. The film ultimately argues that is only a synthesis of such ideas that can succeed.

Indeed, if I have one complaint about the film it’s that we don’t get to see more of Killmonger’s backstory. If we’re being completely honest here, Andy Serkis’s criminal mastermind Klaue is a bit of a distraction that could have been dispensed with in order to give us more time to learn about the tortured psyche of this film’s compelling antihero (I use that term rather than villain quite deliberately). While we do get some suggestive scenes of Killmonger’s backstory, more attention to his specific experiences as an African American would have allowed his personal philosophy–as tortured and destructive as it is–to have more heft within the film.

But let’s face it: the real stars of this film are the black women: T’Challa’s lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his general Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). These are some of the most kickass female characters to grace the silver screen, and they own every second of it. Can we talk about the fact that the elite corps of  Wakanda is comprised of women so powerful that, in one of the film’s climactic clashes, they can only be overcome with the use of war rhinos? And can we talk about the fact that finally (finally!) there is a young woman of color who is shown to be an acknowledged tech wiz (and a kickass warrior to boot)? And can we also talk about the fact that we have a woman of color who is a spy on the order of 007 himself?

And let us not forget Angela Bassett. While she doesn’t have a very large role in this film, she nevertheless grants some further grace and gravitas to the proceedings. She is also a pillar of strength for both her son and the kingdom at large, a reminder of the fundamental role that women play in Wanakda.

This film, like so much of Hollywood–and of superhero films in particular–offers up a utopian sort of pleasure. As Richard Dyer has outlined it, utopia provides imaginary solutions to the problems and shortcomings of everyday life in capitalist modernity, providing intensity, energy, community, transparency, and abundance. All of these are clearly on display in Black Panther, whether in the form of Wakanda’s phenomenal wealth or the scenes of action that sweep us up in their intensity. What’s more, Hollywood encodes into its form a sensibility that one can take action, that one’s body has the ability to transform one’s lived reality. Of course, for many of us we take that for granted, even as we acknowledge our own bodied limitations.

One can see this sensibility in the film’s sinuous cinematography that lifts us free of the mundane burdens of the regular world, but it also emerges in the stunning feats of action. T’Challa has strength that is both innate and also buttressed by his suit, and this allows him to move through the world–and to mold it–in ways that are denied those of more pedestrian origins. The fact that it is a man of color whose embodied agency controls the narrative makes its utopian pleasure that much more intense.

Black Panther is also utopian in terms of its reception. While there have been some who have (rightfully) critiqued the film’s politics, there have been just as many who have seen in it exactly the sorts of utopian pleasures that have long been explicitly offered to white audiences. There is something profoundly joyous about simply seeing so many beautiful black stars in one place, in a film that has been buttressed and funded by one of the most powerful entertainment conglomerates. Tempting as it is to wring our hands at the perils of being incorporated into the gears of mass entertainment, we must also acknowledge the profound emotional resonance such representation has for those who consume it.

It is my sincere hope that Marvel, Disney, and all of the Hollywood studios recognize what should have been obvious for quite some time now: it is indeed possible to make (financially) successful films that center on the experiences of nonwhite people will at last find the representation they deserve.

Hollywood, are you listening?

Film Review: “Phantom Thread” (2017) and the Dark Side of Desire

Some spoilers for the film follow.

Apparently, 2017 was in some ways the year of desire, or at least that is the impression I get having seen several of the contenders for Best Picture this year. Whether it’s the yearning to be free of small town life and smothering mothers in Lady Bird, the sweet summer of first love in Call Me By Your Name, or the powerful lust for a life outside of the confines of Cold War conformity in The Shape of Water, desire is everywhere.

And it’s darker side is to be found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is one of those films that’s deeply unsettling upon an initial viewing but slowly seeps into your consciousness as you think more about its impact on you. Perhaps it’s the film’s gorgeous attention to detail–both visual and auditory–or perhaps it’s the crisp performances from its leads. Whatever it is, this film burrows deep into your brain as the days go by.

Though it’s hard to summarize a film like this, here goes. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned designer of haute couture, his gowns desired and sought after by society’s finest. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), in a relationship fraught with quasi-incestuous ambiguity, and his daily life is governed by a very precise set of rituals which he rigorously enforces upon all who lives in his household. All of this is disrupted when he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who slowly but irrevocably disrupts his daily routines as they both find themselves caught in the deadly tide of desire.

This desire seethes in every exchange, every frame, and every sartorial flourish, emerging at key moments to disturb our complacency as viewers. In this film, desire is not just as means by which people seek out a connection to one another, but also the way in which they are able to grasp something about themselves that evades their conscious understanding. Though the film establishes quite early on that Reynolds has a habit of dispensing with the young women who take his fancy, something about Alma–possibly her rakishness, her tendency to resist his control–seems to call to him in a way that keeps him from discarding her.

Desire also writhes beneath the surface of Day-Lewis’s face. Day-Lewis has earned himself a justified reputation for his ability to fully inhabit the characters that he plays, and he brings that to bear on his portrayal of Woodcock. Here, he portrays a man whose desire for control manifests itself in every aspect of his personality, from the rigour with which he approaches the design of his dresses to the absolute silence that he commands. This is a man who takes great care to sculpt his surroundings–including, it should be noted, his sister–into the form that he desires, and any disruption to that order causes an immediate outburst of rage.

And as much as the film’s visual palette is truly stunning, what stood out to me the most was its use of sound: the crisp delivery of the dialogue; the sumptuous rustle of cloth; the infamous scraping of the toast; the soft, delicate skritching of pen on paper. The sounds leap out of the screen, as unsettling as they are pleasurable, a reminder of the sheer physicality of this world. They grate against us just as they often grate against Woodcock, stitching us into his experience of his surroundings.

At the same time, sound also encourages us to see things from Alma’s perspective, to cheer for her as she cheerfully uses sound to break apart Woodcock’s meticulously ordered life. It is thus especially significant that Alma relates the film in voiceover, her voice asserting a measure of control into the narrative that forces us to rethink just how much Woodcock has over anything. But then, her entire presence in the film relies upon the power of sound, whether that is her tendency to always want to get the last word in an argument (one source of the film’s biting and rather acidic humour), or her deliberately goading him at the breakfast table by scraping her toast too loudly (and deliberately pouring the tea from a hilariously high angle).

As the film reaches its final third, Woodcock’s entire life, that he has crafted and sculpted with such meticulous and granular attention, has begun to crack. Cyril defies him at the breakfast table–something she has never done before–and one of his foremost customers has taken her work elsewhere. The film makes it clear that Woodcock’s brittle adherence to detail may well see the ruin of everything that he has worked so assiduously to maintain, both in his professional and personal life.

It is only when Alma begins poisoning Woodcock–thus rendering him incapacitated and totally reliant on him–that they begin to settle into their (deeply unsettling) primal rhythm. Each offers the opportunity to oscillate between control and abandon, a fierce frisson that will, Alma hopes, set the stage for their future together. Unlike Cyril, who has enabled Woodcock in his obsessive control, Alma constantly challenges him.

Ultimately, it seems to me, Phantom Thread explores the perilous nature of desire. It’s what drives (some of) us as human beings to seek out others, even as it is also what threatens to destroy us. Both Reynolds and Alma are individuals whose psyches are haunted by yearnings that they rarely openly articulate, in all likelihood because they cannot describe, even to themselves, what those desires actually are. And because the film seems largely agnostic about how we should feel about this obviously pathological relationship, it’s hard not to emerge deeply unsettled from the whole viewing experience (as many of my filmgoers did).

But then, perhaps that’s the film’s point. Much as we might like to pin desire down, channel it, or just plain understand it, part of it always eludes us. No matter how much we try to repress it, desire will always find away to erupt into our lives, disturbing the placid surface of our everyday reality.

Film Review: “Star Wars: Episode VIII–The Last Jedi” and the Aesthetics of Resistance

For me, a new Star Wars film is always a cause for celebration. I would consider myself a casual fan, someone who both takes pleasure in the franchise and recognizes its tremendous cultural impact and value as a text worthy of examination. While I was happy with The Force Awakens, to my mind The Last Jedi is like a breath of fresh air, taking the series in some new and very interesting directions.

Picking up where the previous film left off, The Last Jedi continues detailing the struggles of the Resistance, recently decimated and on the run from the First Order. In this film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince Luke (Mark Hamill) to return from self-imposed exile to help his sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the other resistance leaders. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) grows increasingly frustrated with the seeming complacency of the Resistance, particularly when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over after Leia is seriously injured. Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on an effort to break the tracking device the First Order is using against the Resistance.

In its thematic concerns, Last Jedi carries on from the first film in the new trilogy. The First Order is ascendant, and throughout the film the Resistance trembles on the brink of utter collapse. The pacing accentuates this, as we are constantly led to sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for the dreadful final bomb that will wipe our heroes from the galaxy. Of course, the narrative tension is supplemented by the action-cinema aesthetics, the numerous explosions, whip-crack camera movements, and bodies in perpetual motion. Through this narrative, cinematographic, and editing patterns, the film leads us to feel how imperiled the Resistance is, how all it will take is one more death, one more catastrophe, and the First Order will succeed in rebuilding the totalitarian state.

These patterns are undergirded by universally excellent performances, and I continue to be totally on board with the increasing diversity on display in the Star Wars franchise. Kelly Marie Tran is the film’s breakout star, and her fierce portrayal of Rose Tico is both off-beat and touching.

Though she is only on screen for a very few scenes, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo is also one of the film’s great stars. Dern has always managed to capture a peculiar mix of strength and vulnerability, and she brings that to bear in this role. Though our perception of Holdo is largely skewed by the perception of Poe, who thinks that she lacks the initiative to help the Resistance survive, her ultimate sacrifice was one of the film’s most beautiful, heartbreaking, and exhilarating moments. As with any great movie about resistance against tyranny, The Last Jedi makes it clear that there can be no victory without sacrifice.

On the “evil” side of things, Adam Driver continues to blow me away as Kylo Ren. This would be the easiest sort of role to do badly, in that he is essentially a spoiled man-child who thinks that the universe should bend to his will. Driver, however, makes the most of his own gifts to endow this character with a certain tortured beauty. Somehow, Driver manages to be both graceful and awkward at the same time, a tension that perfectly captures Ren’s profound inner conflict. He feels abandoned by everyone who he thought cared about him, and this has become key to his ruthless drive to bring the galaxy into order.

This reflects Rey’s own inner turmoil but, unlike him, she turns away (for the moment) from both the dark side represented by Kylo and the isolationism represented by Luke. Though she was similarly abandoned by her parents–whoever they are–she has given herself completely to the Resistance, and she recognizes, in a way Kylo does not, that attempting to force an order on the universe will only replicate the cycle of chaos and destruction.

What I’ve always loved about the Star Wars universe is that it tackles the pressing philosophical questions of our time. Is it really so bad to have a world that is firmly ordered in order to curtail the dangers of contingency and chance (as Kylo wants)? Is there value in the sort of exclusionary religion practiced by the Jedi, one that relies on genealogy and a select priesthood? (A friend of mine referred to this film as the Protestant Reformation of the Star Wars universe, and it’s an apt metaphor). The film has a philosophical heart, and that’s a refreshing thing to see in an action/science fiction/space opera film.

Though it risks finding resonance everywhere (as a friend recently pointed out to me), it seems to my eyes that the recent spate of Star Wars films has intervened in our contemporary moment. With the forces of tyranny, authoritarianism, and toxic masculinity in full flood, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair, of wanting to just put your head down and hope that you survive. The Last Jedi, however, tells us that this is the way of the defeated, and that if we accept the brutality than we are complicit in the destruction of both ourselves and what we love. We must fight with every breath of our being, even though it is sometimes exhausting to do so (and even though it looks as if we might lose anyway).

This resonances stems in part from Carrie Fisher, who continues to exude a frail but resilient strength as an aging Leia. It was hard not to tear up every time she came on the screen, exuding her force of will and speaking in that faintly hoarse, slightly whispery way that is a hallmark of her recent performances. This is a woman who seems to know that she is fighting a rising tide but is determined to go down fighting.

In the end, The Last Jedi does give us hope that, even in the midst of great darkness we can still find the resilience and the strength to go on. And in these dark days, that’s a very heartening thought, indeed.

Film Review: “The Shape of Water” (2017) and Subversive Desire

Spoilers Ahead

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work ever since I saw Pan’s Labyrinth as an undergraduate. Though I haven’t kept up with him as much as I should have, I decided that, when The Shape of Water came out, I was going to go see it. After all, it was set in the Cold War, and was clearly an homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of that era’s most iconic horror films.

I was not disappointed.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water is essentially the story of how Eliza (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a creature dragged back from the Amazon by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Secondarily, the film also deals with the personal lives of Eliza’s friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), as well as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

As its base, the film is very much about the power of desire to liberate us from the shackles of bourgeois society and its ability to drain the joy from life. In that sense, it’s no accident that the film is set during the Cold War, that most perilous and oppressive of eras, when desire had not only social but grave political consequences. The film rips away the traditional (and irritatingly long-lived) cultural mythology that paints the period as one of dutiful wives and manly husbands, showing us the darker side of this ideology. Shannon’s Strickland is a Cold Warrior of the worst type, his mouth compressed into a grim line, his face bearing the grim imprint of his own pathological repression.

For Eliza, the power of desire lies in its ability to connect her to a being that may not be fully human (though the film also asks us to think about what that designation means). Unlike everyone else in her world, who sees her as just slightly less than human because of her muteness, the creature embraces her difference, desire providing the bridge between them. Indeed, desire in this film seems to exist in space beyond language, a challenge to the limits and the walls that we erect around ourselves.

There is, then, an irony in the title. For just as water always threatens to spill out of its bounds–it is fluid, after all–so desire always threatens to subvert the containers that we erect to contain and channel it. Though some might recoil at the idea that a human woman could find romantic (and sexual!) fulfillment with a man of another species, the film seems to take this particular fact in stride. It feels perfectly natural that Eliza should at last find her happiness with a creature that is as much a victim of the ruthless Cold War ethos as he is the characters’ anthropocentrism.

The Shape of Water repeatedly reminds us of the dangers of erecting walls around how we are supposed to feel, while also shedding a piercing light on the violence and hypocrisy undergirding Cold War America. From Strickland’s rotting fingers (they are bitten off by the creature but sewn back on and rejected by his body) to the empty friendliness of a pie shop clerk who spurns Giles’ advances (as well as a black couple that come in for a piece of pie), this is a Cold War America revealed in all of its artificial brutality. In this world, difference is to be shunned or destroyed and justice, peace, and beauty are (seemingly) doomed.

In the end, though, The Shape of Water is an optimistic film, and it is determined to see beauty and love win out in the end. It’s this sentiment, trite as it may sound, that makes this such a resonant film in our current world. While it’s sometimes very easy to lose sight of the pleasures of desire and the sheer joy of love, this film shows us what that can feel like. It may not be del Toro’s most adventurous film–though it is lovingly crafted, with some exquisite play with shades of green and blue–it is arguably one of his most optimistic.

As a completely useless (I think) aside: I really appreciated the brief snippets of the epic film The Story of Ruth, which I’ve always felt was a vastly unappreciated epic film (and one of the only ones in the latter part of the postwar cycle that actually focused on a woman). It is worth pointing out, though, that reviews of the time particularly praised Elana Eden’s portrayal of the biblical character for its dignity, restraint, and strength, so in that sense the film does serve as a fitting reference point for Hawkins’s Eliza.

All in all, a truly fine film.

Film Review: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” Reveals a Broken America

For quite a while after I watched Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, I couldn’t quite figure out how I felt about this bleak, scathing, deeply violent, and acidly funny film. It wasn’t until I was chatting with my partner about it, that it finally dawned on me. What was this movie about, really? Sure, it’s about a grief-stricken mother’s desire for justice for her murdered daughter, but to me there seemed more to it, some greater comment that the film was making (whether wittingly or unwittingly remains unclear).

It’s about the brokenness that’s slowly rotting away at the center of America.

To fully understand how I came to this conclusion, it’s important to both know what happens in the film and how it happens. Three Billboards details Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand’s) pursuit of justice for her daughter, who was raped, murdered, and burned. She particularly blames the police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who happens to be suffering from pancreatic cancer. Her crusade enrages officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a policeman who has already fallen under suspicion because of accusations that he tortured a black suspect in his custody. As this drama unfolds, we get a tortured, razor-sharp glance into the despair that seems to have set in in this small town in Missouri.

There’s something almost of a Greek tragedy about McDormand’s relentless desire to avenge her daughter. A modern-day Clytemnestra, her daughter’s brutal murder has forged her into a formidable weapon, one that has one destination that she is determined to reach no matter the cost. As capable as she is, however, she has her own prejudices, ones that, I would argue, are built into the privileged position she occupies as a white woman in Missouri. She throws out epithets with a careless abandon that are almost breathtaking in their effrontery, as when she torments Jason with the “n-word,” calls a fellow townsperson a midget (he’s played by Peter Dinklage, whose enormous talents are rather wasted in this role, alas), and she insults the dentist for his fatness. She’s a character so broken that she doesn’t even bother to hide her contempt for those who occupy a lower social strata than she does. The fact that she has black friends doesn’t keep her from using what is arguably the harshest racial slur there is when it suits her. And it also doesn’t keep her from being crude toward her only suitor in the film, whom she casually dismisses when it suits her and uses him in other cases.

Indeed, Ebbing is a town full of broken people. The houses cling to the hills, and the people are beaten down. To some extent, this film has something distinctly noir-ish about it, the sense that there really is no right or wrong, just a bunch of sad folks shuffling through life trying to grab what little bits of meaning they can. For Mildred this is seeking her daughter’s killer, for Willoughby it’s trying to find the killer and enjoy the last bit of time has with his family before his cancer takes him, and for Jason…well, I guess it takes the form of his desire to be a good cop. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The film takes great pains to show how truly pathetic Jason is–a 40-something man who lives with his worn-out mother, whose only calling has been as a policeman. Rockwell imbues Jason with a certain ignorant belligerence, the sort of guy who got along well enough in high school but pretty much knew that he wasn’t going to ever leave his hometown. He’s fiercely loyal to his police chief, but I for one found him to be the most infuriating type of character. The film tries to grant him some sort of nobility, but I was left unconvinced.

Harrelson, however, does do a fine job portraying Bill, bringing his characteristic charm. I’ve always been a fan of the sort of careless charisma that Harrelson seems to exude. He’s crude, yes, but also intensely loving and, yes, noble. Of all the characters, he is perhaps the most likable, but he too is broken, his body inevitably failing him. The fact that he cannot solve the film’s central case renders his life tragic.

Three Billboards does possess a certain beauty to it, though, and it contains a number of scenes showing the rugged beauty of the landscape. As I was watching, I kept feeling the unsettling tug of familiarity. These could be people that I had known and grown up with. Part of this, I suspect, stems from the fact that the film was shot in the Appalachian parts of North Carolina, which bear more than a passing resemblance to my own home of West Virginia. Perhaps that’s why I felt (and still feel) a profound ambivalence about the film.

As I think about it, I continue to be perplexed by the film’s seeming agnosticism regarding Jason’s torturing of a black man in police custody. The film clearly has a fondness for even its most reprehensible characters–the redemptive arc it grants to Jason is particularly galling, especially in this political climate–and this leaves a distinctly bitter taste in my mouth.

If the film succeeds at anything, though, it is in showing us the bleak despair that has settled like a miasma into the heart of American consciousness. What we are supposed to do with that realization, however, remains unclear.