Friday, June 21, 2019

The Favourite

The Favourite (2018)
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult

Only a guy with films like DOGTOOTH and THE LOBSTER on his resume could reasonably describe THE FAVOURITE as his “most normal” film, but that’s the position we find ourselves in with Yorgos Lanthimos in 2018. But if the film represents a retreat from the brazen surreality of Lanthimos’ earlier work, it certainly loses nothing of the savage misanthropic satire which makes his filmography such a prickly treat. On the surface, this resembles any number of mannered British period pieces; it concerns prim aristocrats in ornate costumes who vie for social standing and power in the Royal court (in this case, the court of Queen Anne in 1708). But unsuspecting moviegoers envisioning a big-screen Downton Abbey are going to be in for a very nasty shock indeed. Without doing anything obtrusively anachronistic, Lanthimos and his superb cast bring a minor episode from the dimly remembered past to lively, venomous life, full of slippery power dynamics (both political and sexual) that feel ripped right from today’s headlines.

That cast really is something to see: Olivia Colman (HOT FUZZ) is so spectacular as the fragile, desperate Queen Anne that she steals the movie right out from under an absolutely terrific Rachel Weisz (DREAM HOUSE), something I frankly didn’t think could be done. But pretty much everyone is superb; Nicholas Hoult (ABOUT A BOY), as a venal rival aristocrat, is giving far and away the best performance of his career, and is still by a comfortable margin not in the top three best performances in the movie (for her part, Emma Stone [THE HOUSE BUNNY] builds her role around a scrappy live-wire vivaciousness which makes her both likably earnest and curiously enigmatic). Still, the movie’s strength is not solely, or even primarily, in its acting; Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan shoot their opulent royal spaces with a queasy unease that sometimes warps into out-and-out distortion, masterfully turning chambers of extravagant luxury into agoraphobic nightmares of oppressive emptiness. It’s never out-and-out surreal (the plot remains firmly fixed in reality) but it uses the tools of surreal cinema to add a potent layer of alienating disquiet to the already anxious machinations we’re observing.

Which is not to say it’s not ribald and funny --it certainly is!-- but the comedy has a merciless edge to it that makes the movie a tense watch. It’s a nasty, misanthropic thing, not at all afraid to play rough with its characters, while simultaneously refusing to turn any of them into outright villains. All three women at the film’s center are flawed, opportunistic, abrasive, manipulative… and sympathetic, or at least pathetic enough that we root for them. We’d like to see them all end up happy, but the roles they’ve cast themselves in place them unmistakably at odds with each other, and consequently the shifting emotional power dynamics feel vital and dangerous. If there’s such a thing as a political thriller, perhaps THE FAVOURITE is best described as an emotional thriller. There is, of course, always the looming threat of actual death or political catastrophe, but it says something about the film’s bitter empathy that those threats barely register next to the film’s real horror: being rejected and pushed out by those you love. This is, I think, the film’s secret weapon; for all its vulgarity and cynicism, there’s a streak of hopeless desperation for love and acceptance which runs through it, and grounds the rest of the film in a tender vulnerability which makes the sting more than purely superficial, the schemes more than simply tactical. For all its splendidly odd affectations, its earnestness and wounded humanity give it its real power.

Anyway, it’s certainly about the most I can imagine myself enjoying a movie about repressed courtly power struggles amongst English royalty in the 18th century.  While Lanthimos’ brand of uniquely confounding magical realism is too special to give up entirely, THE FAVOURITE offers definitive proof of his ability to fully utilize his distinct strengths as a filmmaker in service of other goals.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


Roma (2018)

Dir. and written by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero

Well, Alfonso Cuarón can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned; his last film was one of the best films of that year, and so was his previous one, and I have every reason to reserve a space on that list in advance for whatever he makes next. But after the bombastic GRAVITY, I was a little surprised to see him turn so intimate for his next project, producing his first Spanish-language film since 2001’s Y TU MAMA TAMBIAN, and likewise returning for the first time since that film to both his home country (Mexico) and, after more than a decade as a fantasy/sci-fi guy, to something resembling a realistic setting. Quite realistic, in fact, in the sense that the film is reportedly out-and-out autobiographical, though an autobiography with an interesting twist: it’s the story of a period of his childhood, told from the perspective of the family’s indigenous maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, an untrained actress of Mixtec and Triqu heritage, making her film debut).

The result is a unique and affecting bit of storytelling (to the extent that the film is interested in anything that could be called a “story”), with the expected domestic drama happening around the periphery, seen from the perspective of someone who is deeply enmeshed with the family without exactly being part of it, while we simultaneously examine the hidden life of someone that the world is generally taking very little notice of. It’s about a world experienced entirely from the outside, both by its central character and the audience; it doesn’t so much present its characters to us as it forces us to enter their world and experience them on their own terms. It’s a curious strategy, which unexpectedly uses our alienation from the characters to draw us closer to them, resulting in a deeply, almost painfully intimate immersive experience which fiercely resists pat, easy characterization or cheap sentimentality. Though the whole film takes place from Cleo’s perspective, we almost never directly hear what she’s thinking and feeling -- mostly because no one ever asks, but I’m also inclined to think there’s more to it than that. She’s so completely powerless and detached from her life that I’m not even sure she could tell us what she feels if she could break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera; she’s a character whose life is completely reactive, defined and dominated by other characters who see her (if they see her at all) as a mere supporting player. It’s the Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead of low-key domestic dramas.

You could argue -- and I’ve seen it argued-- that this is an infantilizing, even dehumanizing way to portray an already marginalized character,* but I see it as quite the opposite: a very honest and empathetic examination of the psychological alienation that results from being so entirely invisible and ignored that you begin to see yourself as a bit player in someone else’s story. Humans are social animals, and our lives and feelings exist, to some extent, only to the extent they can be shared. Left entirely apart from humanity, adjacent but parallel, Cleo’s experience is curiously half-formed, like a dream related by someone else. It’s not that she’s a cypher as a character, it’s that without an outlet, her thoughts and feelings must remain entirely internal, unarticulated and roughly formed. For my money, this makes for a far more intriguing approach to the character than the weepy, hectoring melodrama this would surely have been in someone else’s hands, though I certainly understand why some critics felt otherwise. It’s a unique way to structure a film, at any rate, and a testament to the profound strength of the filmmaking that something so deliberately alienating can be so evocative and moving.

It’s little surprise that the filmmaking is exemplary, of course, given that Cuarón’s superlative talent is already a matter of public record. But even so, the film is full of surprises; for something so intentionally intimate and authentic, it has a curious tendency towards spectacle and visual poetry. In fact, Cuarón’s fussy visual style is so fastidiously committed to capturing the chaotic detail of real life that he ends up overshooting realism and landing in some kind of meticulously curated hyper-realism, which seems mythic and timeless while still evoking something that feels very honest and specific. The production is deeply rooted in everyday reality, but it feels hypnotic and dreamlike just as often as it feels mundane and grounded, particularly during a few bravura long takes which wander meditatively through strange, fastidiously constructed dreamscapes that hover just on the precipice of the surreal. You could argue that this is a misstep which distances the audience from the gritty reality that the film seems to think it’s offering, but for my money it just makes it that much better. What kind of nut would stage an elaborate and jaw-dropping battle scene in the middle of his quiet little character piece? The kind of nut who knows his way around great damn cinema, that’s who. ROMA (the title refers to the neighborhood in Mexico city where the family lives) may not be quite as naturalistic as it believes itself to be (or at least as it present itself), but what’s not in dispute is what it is: vital, patient, masterful cinema, and very possibly a new high-water mark for one of cinema’s most virtuosic modern auteurs.

*And the fact that it’s a movie being made by a rich, Academy-Award-winning director about his childhood maid doesn’t exactly help matters, regardless of how much affection and sympathy he obviously has for her.


Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin (2018)
Dir. Armando Iannucci
Written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin
Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine

Armando Iannucci (IN THE LOOP, Veep) is known for making black comedies which juxtapose the seriousness of real-world politics with the absurd, ignorant behavior of the flim-flamming egotists who are inevitably in charge of everything. But I guess he might as well stop right here, because THE DEATH OF STALIN pushes that formula about as far as it can go and still be considered comedy. Centering around the power struggle following the titular death, the film chronicles the machinations of various self-interested imbeciles bumbling their way towards a leadership role that has the potential to steer the Soviet Union in either a much more humane or a terrifyingly oppressive direction. The “humane direction” is personified by ambitious but essentially benign bureaucrat Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY, GOWN-UPS 2, THE COBBLER), while its opposite is embodied in the despicable, vicious Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale, previously unknown to me and absolutely tremendous here). Both men are quickly caught up in a mad scramble to secure enough support to put them on top, resulting in a flurry of desperate politicking with their very lives, as well as the country’s future, on the line.

That doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of big belly laughs, but the comedy comes from the absurd complications which pervade everyday routine in an authoritarian country where one poorly-phrased comment can result in a horrible death. And Iannucci doesn’t shrink away from the inherent grimness of this premise the way a less confident director might. The first scene (which recounts an anecdote from Testimony, the disputed, posthumously published memoirs of composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich), tells us everything we need to know about the world we’re stepping into: a harried radio producer (Paddy Considine, HOT FUZZ) receives a phone call from Stalin himself, requesting a record of the concert he’s just heard on the radio. With mounting terror, the producer discovers that no record has been made. Knowing that disappointing Stalin has the potential to be professionally disastrous and perhaps fatal, the producer frantically corrals the musicians and audience into recreating the exact same concert a second time, in a desperate effort to produce a single record for a single listener. In part, this is a simple comedy of manners, with the producer’s officious panic and the bruised dignity of all involved juxtaposed against the ridiculousness of the request. But the stakes make all the difference; this may feel like an episode of Fawlty Towers, but it’s one where put-upon John Cleese might just be dragged into the street and unceremoniously executed by nonchalant soldiers if he doesn’t pull this off.

Iannucci leans into that pervading feeling of real, tangible danger, and doesn’t blink at following it to its grim conclusion, including some hilarious physical comedy about an execution which may well qualify as one of the darkest jokes I’ve ever seen on-screen. It’s a dangerous gamble for a comedy, but it pays off: rather than resulting in a bleak bit of misery porn, the shocking bluntness of the violence and perversity on display make the comedy all the more potent, galvanizing the deadpan insults with a real livewire suspense. If comedy is all about stakes, this has some of the highest in the history of the genre, and Iannucci and his magnificent cast (which also includes Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough and an unexpectedly funny Jason Isaacs) are almost miraculously surefooted at manifesting the seriousness of the situation without undercutting the queasy humor. It works so perfectly that it almost seems simple, a trick that only the most carefully constructed and fastidiously orchestrated comedies can ever pull off, making the exquisitely complex look easy and intuitive. Of course, easy is not the same thing as easy to watch; it is a comedy, but it’s a merciless, nihilistic one that might well leave you with a knot in your stomach. Indeed, some critics have argued that the film turns a little too bleak and corrosive in its final minutes. But as much as it might put an end to any giddy, transgressive fun we might be having, it's also the only appropriate way for this particular story to end. That final shot of bitterness eloquently caps off a film which is consistently and thoroughly bitter about humanity, and reminds us that if there is something funny here, the joke is certainly on us.


Wednesday, June 5, 2019


Blindspotting (2018)
Dir. Carlos López Estrada
Written by Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal
Starring Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar

Collin (Daveed Diggs, VELVET BUZZSAW) is a easy-going guy with a lot of problems in his life. First, he’s a working-class black man in a very rapidly gentrifying Oakland, CA, watching much of the city he knew and grew up in slipping away into an uncertain future which may or may not hold a place for him. Second, he’s on his last three days of a strict, lengthy probation (the result of an earlier conviction for a not-immediately-specified felony), and any slip-up could send him back to jail for years. Third, his best friend is Miles (Rafael Casal, the upcoming BAD EDUCATION), a white guy who grew up with him but whose reckless behavior and overriding concern for his tough guy rep is constantly threatening to drag Collin into exactly the kind of trouble he needs to avoid right now. And to make matters worse, he just witnessed a cop shooting an unarmed black man in the back. And the cop is played by Ethan Embry (EMPIRE RECORDS), so we strongly suspect that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of this guy.

            That all sounds pretty bleak, and, of course, it is pretty bleak. But that’s not the whole story here. BLINDSPOTTING is a movie with a lot of issues on its mind, but it’s also a movie which, like its characters, is mostly more interested in living than preaching. It’s much more of a hangout buddy comedy than a social polemic; it just happens to be about a pair of buddies who can’t extricate their lives from the tumultuous and frequently hostile social upheaval going on around them. Still, for a movie so obviously ripped from the headlines in an increasingly angry and polarized society, it’s almost shockingly low-key, funny, and big-hearted. That alone would be something of a minor miracle; the fact that it maintains that tone consistently and successfully without ceding an inch of its moral indignation is something close to outlandish. If it doesn’t quite stick the landing, it comes about as close as any movie I’ve seen in years to detailing and exploring the injustices --primarily but not exclusively the racial injustices-- of modern American urban life, without dissolving into pedantic lecturing.

            Its secret, I think, is its genuine authenticity; Diggs and Casal really were childhood best friends growing up in Oakland, and the film was shot there on-location. If the story isn’t explicitly autobiographical, it’s certainly based on the kind of affectionate, comfortable familiarity with a place and its people that generally only comes with some real lived experience. One gets the strong feeling that the writers personally know the characters they’re portraying here, that the fiction arises naturally from a lived reality they’ve seen inside and out. And this kind of intimate understanding allows the film to be surprisingly generous with its characters, even at their worst. And it’s not shy about showing them at their worst, either; it doesn’t allow its affection for them to cloud its vision, it just equally understands that seeing people clearly also means seeing beyond their worst moments. Seeing the worst in people is the easy part, and that’s as far as most people get. But true understanding means being able to see something more complex, both in a person and in a society. It means being able to identify your own, --oh, hey, the title!-- blind spots.

            BLINDSPOTTING sets itself the task of doing just this, within the microcosm of shifting identity in an Oakland that is very rapidly ceasing to be what it has been and becoming something altogether different. Of course, what it was and what it’s becoming, and what either of those things mean, are by no means a matter of widespread agreement; even Collin and Miles have different perspectives and approaches. And well they should, because just as the culture around them is in flux, they, too are still in the process of shaping themselves and the face they present to the world. For Collin, his awareness of the fear and suspicion society places on young black men --especially convicted felons-- is ever-present, and places him in the position of constantly having to prove his harmlessness (his probation officer [Kevin Carroll, the Leftovers] tell him as much directly). But the quickly shifting culture around him might actually offer an opportunity for just the kind of personal growth he’s attempting; if he can learn to get on-board with vegan burgers and $10 bodega juice, maybe there’s a place for him here, after all.  For his buddy Miles, on the other hand, the recent changes are a disaster: the influx of white hipsters into the area means that he’s in danger of being mistaken for a recent transplant, shattering his self-image as a white guy who has fought hard to be accepted in a culture which is now vanishing around him. They have, of course, essentially the same problem; people are drawing the wrong conclusions about them based on lazy stereotypes. But the difference is that for Collin, this misunderstanding could turn fatal, as the shooting he witnessed drives home. And Miles doesn’t quite seem to understand the danger he’s putting his buddy in with his aggressive, overcompensating attempts to prove he’s legit.

            It would be easy to see Miles as the bad guy here; his selfish fixation on defending his rep is putting Collin in real jeopardy, and moreover, we later learn that he was just as involved in the crime that Collin went to jail for, and yet seems to have avoided taking the rap. He’s the very embodiment of white privilege, even if that doesn’t in this case equate to a life which seems very privileged overall. And yet, to its eternal credit, the movie doesn’t hate him. Despite what a handful he is, we also see why Miles is charming and fun, and why Collin needs him -- why they need each other. But they are going in opposite directions at the moment, and headed for a reckoning one way or another. For a while it seems like the moral of the story might be that Collin needs to dump his buddy if he wants to grow up, and that’s certainly the opinion of the character who seems like she’s being set up to be the moral center of the movie --Collin’s ex, Val (Janina Gavankar, The League, True Blood)-- who disapproves of Miles and thinks Collin would be better off without him. But the movie disagrees. (SPOILERS) At the end of the day, she has a blind spot too: she’ll never be able to see past Collin’s assault conviction. But Miles will. He’s a moron, and deserves the dressing-down he gets from Collin over what a selfish asshole he’s been, but in the end he sheepishly grows a little, they remain friends, and the movie is openly glad for it. Me too. (END SPOILERS)

            The movie’s friendly refusal to paint anyone as a clear villain extends even beyond Miles; it would be easy to make fun of fussy photographer Patrick (Wayne Knight (!) JURASSIC PARK), but the movie affords him a certain bemused dignity (and hey, he’s also being displaced out of the neighborhood where he could once afford to be an eccentric artist). Likewise, it could resent unlicensed gun dealer / uber driver Dezz (Jon Chaffin, The Haves and Have Nots) for wholeheartedly playing into the stereotypes Collin is desperate to get away from; instead, it sees him as a beloved local institution, the kind of larger-than-life character who gives the city its unique flavor. Even the much-derided gentrifying hipsters we encounter turn out to be very friendly and inviting, just like the $10 “green juice” that has turned up at their local bodega turns out to be pretty tasty, once you get used to it. It doesn’t mean they’re not causing problems, of course, but they’re trying, in their own way, to be neighborly. They just have, you know, some blind spots.

(SPOILERS FOR THIS WHOLE PARAGRAPH) Most surprising of all, even the inevitable final confrontation with the killer cop refuses to allow him to be a clear-cut villain. If there’s anyone who should be the heel of this story, it would have to be this character, the focal point of all the unfair pressure that’s been bearing down on Collin. And yet, when we finally meet him, he’s more of a pathetic figure than a threatening one; we meet him in his house, weeping inconsolably. He, too, is moving out of the area. Possibly he and his family are no longer safe here now that he’s known for, you know, murdering a guy, but is it too much to wonder if his cop salary doesn’t go as far as it used to in Oakland? He may be the victim of the same forces pushing Collin and his friends out of their home. Maybe they should be on the same side. But of course they’re not, and Collin gets to give him a piece of his mind. You might think, especially knowing what we know about him, that this cop would respond with defensiveness equal to Collin’s fury, but he doesn’t; instead, he just offers a wheedling plea that he “didn’t mean to.” In a way, that puts him in the same boat as Collin and Miles; people look at him and see a killer, but he doesn’t see himself that way, doesn’t want that label. He’s got a nice wife and a cute little kid, probably has a grill out back and an apron with some dorky dad joke written on it. That’s who he thinks he is, he doesn’t think of himself as the face of systemic ethno-cultural oppression. But unlike Collin or Miles, he’s gotten to this point not because of what he looks like, but because of the choices he’s made. He may not think of himself as a racist or a hateful guy or a fascist oppressor, certainly didn’t wake up that morning planning to kill an unarmed black man. But he didn’t have to pull that trigger in that moment, and when the time came, he chose to do it. Which makes Miles' reply to his doleful plea that he “didn’t mean to” just about perfect: “you sure?”  (END SPOILERS)

It’s an interesting ending, and maybe an inescapable one, but it’s also the one part of the movie where its righteous indignation might get the better of it and push it to the parochial sermonizing that it has up to that point managed entirely to sidestep. It’s raw and explosive enough that it works emotionally, even if it doesn’t quite work narratively, and it has the benefit of a cathartic rush, amplified by the dreamlike strangeness of being the one scene in the movie which seems utterly divorced from the down-to-earth realism of everything that’s come before. It’s a crazy, ballsy thing to suddenly pull on an audience, and it has the overwhelming feeling of something Diggs and Casal just had to say aloud, had to get out there, narrative logic be damned. And it almost comes close to working, which is an impressive achievement all by itself. Earnestness and urgency get you a long way, but ultimately there’s no way around the fact that it also smashes the movie’s structure by adding a second climax which it just doesn’t need. The heart of the movie is the relationship between Collin and Miles, and that plot has already reached its perfect conclusion; adding an abbreviated final act afterwords disrupts the quiet momentum that’s steadily been building --mostly unseen by deeply felt-- for the entire runtime, just to directly spell out everything the movie has already demonstrated far more powerfully and intractably. It’s understandable that two first-time writers --and especially two rappers-- would ultimately prefer to put their feelings into words, but I hope the next time around they trust that the nature of cinema is always that it is better to show than tell. And the movie is so good at showing that it’s a shame to retreat to telling right at the finish line. It ends up feeling like a rare moment of insecurity in a movie which is overall almost preternaturally sure-footed.

Still, it’s a moment only, and not even a wholly bad moment, just a somewhat destabilizing one. And it’s the one off-note in a stunningly ambitious melody which is certainly not lacking in notes. Much of this seems like it absolutely should never work. Mixing broad jokes with fervid social commentary, mixing grounded realism with strange flights of fancy, mixing a buddy hangout movie with the gut-wrenching tension of Collin’s precarious place in light. But somehow it all does, and I guess that’s mostly the result of how emotionally authentic it feels, and how well it captures the vibrant life of a particular time and place (director Carlos López Estrada, a music video guy, has a real knack for capturing vivid details in the environment that immerse us in the specificity of the places we visit, though he also has a first-timer’s enthusiasm for flashy tricks that doesn’t always serve the movie). Simply put, it’s a rare movie that invites you to truly inhabit the world as someone else sees it, and Diggs, Casal, and Lopez Estrada have lived and imagined richly enough to make the experience a completely immersive and transportive one. Any missteps it make make out of overeagerness are completely forgotten in the face of its amiable, but unmistakable, ambition. Movies this timely and incisive are rarely so warm and appealing, and it’s enough to genuinely leave one hopeful for the future. Hopefully that’s not my blind spot.

Also, happy belated 2018 I guess. For the next little bit we’ll be revisiting those heady days fully half a year ago when we were all still so young and full of hope.