Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 28

Here we are again at that special time of year where every single one of the previous year's prestige movies and Oscar hopefuls gets dumped in Israeli movie theaters at the same time.  I've found myself scrambling from one screening to another, just trying to catch up to movies that reviewers abroad have been talking about for months--I suspect I will have seen more than half the total movies I'll watch in 2018 before the end of March.  So far, my reports are mixed.  There are a lot of interesting movies among this year's Oscar nominees, but few of them have lived up to their reputation.  Of the five movies I discuss here, one is remarkable, two others are intriguing but frustrating, and two are genuinely bad.  Let's hope I fare better with the next bunch.
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Yorgos Lanthimos follows up the bizarre but oddly lovable The Lobster with a stranger, colder work that challenges viewers (like myself) who were willing to follow him into the woods of that earlier movie to keep going.  Perhaps what's strangest about The Killing of a Sacred Deer, however, is how similar it is to The Lobster in its style and approach, even though its tone and subject matter are much darker.  Successful heart surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) is having regular meetings with Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a deceased patient, buying him expensive gifts and inviting him to meet his family: wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and children Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic).  The early parts of the film operate within the familiar forms of a psychological thriller, introducing a seemingly normal (if suspicious) situation and slowly amping up the wrongness, as Martin insinuates himself further and further into Steven's life and makes more demands on his time.  But because Killing is written with the same stiff, oddball speech patterns, the same indifference to the norms of polite conversation, that Lanthimos used in The Lobster, it can be hard to tell where the wrongness we're supposed to notice ends, and where the kind that is the hallmark of this director's movies begins.  When Steven straight-facedly informs a colleague that Kim has recently started menstruating, or Bob and Martin debate whether the latter has sufficient armpit hair, that's a weirdness that is simply part of the film's world.  But when Bob, and then Kim, suddenly begin to suffer from a mysterious paralysis, and Martin informs Steven that he must choose which of his family members to kill before the illness kills them all, that's a weirdness that everyone notices (even if it takes Steven and Anna a while to believe in it).

    Killing is thus a parody of thrillers in which the unacknowledged guilt of overprivileged men comes back to haunt them, and a completely earnest example of one.  It is also an urgent, compelling movie.  Between the cast, Lanthimos's deliberate direction, and the intrusive soundtrack, the film expertly ratchets up the tension of its situation, and makes its characters, robotic as their speech and behavior can sometimes seem, into people whose fate we care about.  (In particular, Kidman is great at finding a person at the heart of her strange character, whose fear, desperation, and anger are palpable even as she explains to her husband that he should kill one of their children because they can still have another one.)

    Nevertheless, Lanthimos's style and the chilliness of Killing's story make for a challenging combination.  For all the distance it imposed from its characters, The Lobster was ultimately a compassionate film.  It saw them as foolish and weak, but also took care to remind us that it was the world they lived in, with its arbitrary definitions of what an acceptable relationship looks like, that allowed those traits to grow paramount and destroy the characters' lives.  Killing has no such compassion.  It derides Steven, who beneath his guise as a strong, benevolent patriarch is fundamentally weak, incapable of admitting fault, and constantly looking to make his horrific situation easy on himself regardless of how much pain that causes the rest of the family.  But it offers no respite in the form of Anna, Kim, or Bob, who as soon as they realize that Steven needs to choose between them start turning on each other and trying to manipulate him into making a choice that leaves them alive.  Even more disturbingly, as Steven's weakness becomes apparent, they turn to Martin, who embodies the virtues of male strength and decisiveness that their patriarch has proven himself incapable of.  It's obvious that Lanthimos is trying to comment on the destructiveness of male pride and self-regard, but in a film that lacks The Lobster's oddball warmth, that condemnation quickly becomes indistinguishable from depiction.  By the time the film ends, there's no one left to feel sorry for, and one is left with the feeling of having watched something expertly-turned but fundamentally empty.

  • Molly's Game - There's really only one reason to seek out this movie, and that's the morbid curiosity aroused by the idea of Aaron Sorkin writing a female lead.  The result feels not unlike the famous comic strip needling Frank Miller for his inability to write women who are not overly-sexualized prostitutes.  Not that Sorkin is as casually demeaning as Miller, but that the attempt ends up being so revealing, not only of his hangups about women, but of his obsession with elites.  The titular Molly is Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a bright overachiever who stumbles into running high-stakes poker games for movie stars, CEOs, and trust fund kids, and after a decade finds herself at the center of a RICO case when it turns out that some of her clients were mobsters who were using her games to launder money.  The film alternates between flashbacks that narrate Molly's rise and fall, and two-hander scenes with her lawyer Charlie (Idris Elba, who rattles off Sorkin's dialogue with an ease and naturalism that puts nearly all the actors who have done so before him--a rather storied bunch, as you'll recall--to shame), who is initially reluctant to believe that Molly ran a clean game and had no idea who her shady players were.  (The film is based on a book by the real Bloom, who obviously has every motivation to make herself seem as innocent as possible.  For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to treat the film's Molly as a purely fictional creation, since between Bloom and Sorkin I have no way of knowing how close she is to the truth.)

    As much as the question of Molly's guilt dominates the film's early scenes, this is not the trial that it eventually puts her on.  The idea that she might have been in deep with the mob is quickly dismissed, and the film even makes a reasonably compelling argument that the seizure of her assets and the exaggerated sentencing recommendation made by the prosecution are intimidation tactics meant to secure her cooperation as a witness.  But what really occupies Charlie, and the movie, when they try to figure out its main character is the question of class.  By which I mean not the socioeconomic state, but the mode of being--is Molly a person of character and integrity, or is she a fame-whore?  This is, to state the obvious, a ridiculous question--on the one hand, completely irrelevant to the issue of whether Molly deserves to go to prison, and on the other hand, completely inadequate to summing up her moral failures.  By her own admission, Molly built her career by roping in enthusiastic but outmatched players for her regulars to fleece, and created an atmosphere of male hedonism and entitlement that she both despised and used to get rich.  The film hangs its approval of her on the things she didn't do--she didn't employ leg-breakers to collect her outstanding debts; she refuses to name the famous players in her games, or reveal the dishy tidbits of gossip she collected about them.  But not doing bad things doesn't make you a good person, and being morally upright in a den of debauchery and corruption that you yourself built is not the testament of good character the film seems to think it is.  If anything, it makes Molly look kind of stupid.  She had the privilege, resources, and skills to make a successful legitimate career at anything she put her mind to, but instead she chose to live half in the shadows, and ended up where people who do that usually end up.

    A much more plausible reading of the story Molly's Game tries to tell is that its title character is simply someone who found an easy, glamorous way to make money and rolled with it without thinking about the consequences.  Instead, the film tries to paint her as a saint for running a semi-honest game and refusing to name her players.  More importantly, it refuses to even consider the possibility that Molly was just as star-struck as her clients by the rooms she was moving in. Which feels not just like an expression of Sorkin's issues writing women, but bound up in his ideas about class, in a way that ends up exposing how much those two hangups have to do with each other.  When Molly first asks Charlie to represent her, he refuses because he sees her as someone who is cheap and tawdry, a tabloid queen who wrote a book to cash in on her infamy.  Even if you tried to ignore the way the film ties feminized behavior to a lack of integrity, Sorkin makes it impossible--Charlie, who is making his daughter read The Crucible, describes it as a story about "what happens when teenage girls gossip".

    Molly's journey of proving her worth, then, is a journey of demonstrating that she is above petty, girlish preoccupations with fame and celebrity.  This all culminates in a truly dreadful scene in which Molly confronts her domineering father (Kevin Costner) who explains to her that the reason she chose to torpedo her prospects by running a poker game is that she was trying to get back at him for cheating on her mother.  Throughout the film, there have been faint hints at an alternate explanation for Molly's actions, her simmering rage at the entitled, sneering men who will never see her as their equal.  But this scene takes that rage and pathologizes it, by pretending that all of these men were merely stand-ins for Molly's father.  In other words, this is what you get when Aaron Sorkin writes a heroine: someone who, in order to prove her worth, has to demonstrate that she transcends womanhood; someone who spends the entire movie earning the approval of men; and someone who isn't even allowed to feel anger at this situation before being informed that her problem isn't the world, but her own personal hangups.  Honestly, I shouldn't have expected any better.

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Martin McDonagh's third film has proven extremely polarizing, garnering both raves and condemnation.  But given how much I enjoyed his previous In Bruges, I was still surprised by how much it fell flat for me, its formal experimentation and political commentary constantly ringing the wrong, sour notes.  I do, however, feel like I've got a handle on why this film seems to divide its audience so starkly.  Despite its heavy subject matter--the aftermath of the brutal rape and murder of a young girl, and simmering racial tensions and police brutality in the titular small town--Three Billboards is a comedy (it actually deserved to be classed in the Golden Globes comedy category far more than Get Out).  What's more, it's a comedy that relies for its effect primarily on shock and outrage, on the vicious insults lobbed back and forth between its characters, the sudden violence that erupts between them, and their cavalier way with both racist insults and the accusation of racism.  That's the sort of thing that either really works for you or really doesn't, and in my case nearly every scene where Three Billboards tried to get a rise out of me, whether through shock or laughter, fell flat.  The film ended up feeling stagy and contrived, its characters elevated only by fine performances, not a cluttered, unfocused script or McDonagh's direction.

    The three billboards of the title are rented by grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand).  Their text--"Raped While Dying" "And Still No Arrests?" "How Come, Chief Willoughby?"--is intended to needle the town's police department, who have failed to capture the killer of Mildred's teenage daughter Angela.  While Mildred's righteous rage is sympathetic, it's made clear very early on that it's also at least partly misplaced.  Despite severe problems in his department, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a decent man who earnestly tried to solve the murder, but simply had no evidence to go on.  To add insult to injury, he's dying of cancer, which Mildred knew when she paid for the billboards.  For the rest of the film, Mildred's anger drives her to greater extremes of hostility and violence, even towards people sympathetic to her cause.  What's also made clear, however, is that the town is far more outraged by Mildred's actions than by Angela's murder--the latter they find regrettable but somehow within the "normal" scheme of things, whereas Mildred's choice to lash out in anger and tar an upstanding member of the community is perceived as beyond the pale.  She quickly starts receiving public condemnation, threats, and even outright violence.

    This is--or should be--the beating heart of the film, and yet Three Billboards can't seem to keep its focus on it.  It veers off in odd, increasingly theatrical tangents, such as a mid-story twist involving Willoughby that's meant to be touching but just comes off as melodramatic (and which results in him functioning as McDonagh's mouthpiece, informing the other characters who they are and what they want).  A few of these set-pieces land, most notably a confrontation between Mildred and Willoughby in which they trade increasingly nasty, personal insults until he suddenly starts coughing blood, horrifying them both.  But for the most part, I found the characters' behavior inhuman.  When it's revealed, for example, that not only were Mildred and Angela fighting the last time they spoke, but that Mildred ended the fight by saying "I hope you get raped", I had to roll my eyes.  This isn't the behavior of a well-written character.  It's McDonagh putting his finger on the scale, trying to wring the maximum amount of drama out of a story that would have been much more dramatic if it had simply been allowed to breathe.

    And then there's the matter of the film's handling of racism.  One of the reasons that the disparity between the reaction to Angela's murder and to Mildred putting up the billboards doesn't get the space is deserves is that most of Three Billboards's second half is focused on the character of Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a deputy in Willoughby's department with a history of violence towards people of color.  Dixon is initially portrayed as stupid, belligerent, and, yes, racist, but in the second half of the film he undergoes a moral awakening and comes to support Mildred in her quest for justice.  This has led to a flurry of condemnation of the film.  Though I'm not categorically opposed to redemption stories for characters like Dixon--if we're going to spend so much time with toxic male characters, it might be nice to see some of them realize that they want to be better, and make efforts to achieve that without someone else having to "save" them--I have to agree that the execution in Three Billboards is appalling, and like much else about the film, suffers from the script's sloppiness.

    Firstly, there is the way that Dixon's malice is minimized, and even made fun of.  Though the other (white) characters condemn him for his racism and racially-motivated violence, they also treat it as something of a joke.  It's as if racism were a cudgel that the various white people in the movie can use against each other, not something that affects actual marginalized people--as when Mildred hurls Dixon's past abuse of a black prisoner at him as a way of putting him on his back foot.  When the few black characters in the movie interact with Dixon, we see contempt, but not fear, as if Three Billboards genuinely doesn't realize that to some people, Dixon isn't just stupid or mean, but genuinely dangerous.  And when Dixon starts his process of growth, his interactions with people of color end.  In a touching scene, he apologizes to the man who rented Mildred the billboards, whom he had previously viciously beaten.  But this victim is white, and there's no sense that Dixon's growth involves recognizing the debt he owes to Ebbing's non-white residents.  This leads to the film's strange ending, in which Mildred and Dixon join forces to deliver vigilante justice to evildoers.  You can sort of see what McDonagh is going for with this final twist--the idea that these two damaged, rage-filled people can find absolution by having each other's back--but in the context of the story Three Billboards is telling, this once again feels like a poorly thought-out plot twist that doesn't really land.

  • Call Me by Your Name - Luca Guadagnino's gorgeous, heartfelt movie takes place over a single languorous summer in rural Italy in the early 80s, where Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the precocious 17-year-old son of an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlberg), falls in love with his father's summer assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer).  Viewers coming in knowing that Call Me by Your Name is a love story might find themselves feeling frustrated, as Elio and Oliver spend so long circling around each other and, in some cases, falling out of each other's orbits.  They spend as much of the first half of the movie's two-plus hours swimming, lounging on the grass, exploring the countryside, and hanging out with the other young people from the village, as they do pining for each other, much less making concrete steps towards acting on their attraction.

    This frustration, however, is very much a reflection of Elio's own feelings.  One of the things that Call Me by Your Name manages, which hardly any other story of first love even attempts, is to bring across the fact that Elio is in many ways still a child.  He can be intelligent and thoughtful, but also silly or moody.  He and Oliver go back and forth between serious conversations about music and philosophy, immature sniping that doesn't acknowledge the real reason for the tension between them, and boyish roughhousing, and for a while it's not clear which of these Elio truly wants--not even, one suspects, to himself.  Choosing to open himself up to Oliver means letting go of that last bit of his childhood, not just in the sense of surrendering his romantic and sexual inexperience, but also of having to engage with the world as an adult, not an indulged, favorite child.  It's been said many times, but whereas straight romances often sand down their characters' personality in the pursuit of vague notion of "love", gay romances seem to have an easier time treating their lovers as human beings with their own idiosyncrasies.  This is what happens in Call Me by Your Name, in which Elio's progress towards being able to articulate his desire for Oliver, and to demand that it be taken seriously as the feelings of an adult rather than a child's crush, is at the heart of the seemingly meandering first half of the movie.  (It's for this reason, also, that despite everything else going on right now, and despite Hammer being and looking much older than his character's age, the romance in Call Me by Your Name never feels exploitative.  We're never in any doubt that this is Elio's choice, and that he came to it on his own.)

    Even when that threshold is crossed, Call Me by Your Name finds ways of making the romance between Elio and Oliver feel like something that is about them specifically.  In their first love scene, they spend several minutes simply holding each other, overjoyed to finally be able to do something they've clearly been holding themselves back from for weeks.  Unlike the novel on which it was based, Call Me by Your Name avoids explicit sex scenes and nudity (male nudity, that is; there is a tossed-off scene of female nudity that feels all the more jarring given how carefully the film otherwise avoids prurience).  But it is very frank about the role that sex and physical desire play in Elio and Oliver's relationship, whether it's the difference in their experience, or their frustrated need to touch each other in public, or their joy in each other's bodies.  The film is also surprisingly, and refreshingly, uninterested in making homophobia or social disapproval the crux of its story.  These forces exist in the background, and Oliver in particular is clearly experienced at navigating them and teaching Elio how to do the same.  But this isn't a story about shame or self-loathing, and it ends on a profound note of acceptance--not just of Elio by his parents, but of Elio by himself.  The crux of Call Me by Your Name is the idea that love should be experienced, even when it's scary or socially unacceptable, and even when it's likely to lead to heartbreak.  It holds out the hope of a world that respects and accepts that love no matter what form it takes, and gives young people like Elio the space they need to explore who they are.

  • Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson's latest study of a deranged genius cloaks itself in the guise of a measured costume drama.  Set in the aristocratic circles of 50s London, the film follows society dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he embarks on the latest of his affairs, with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a much-younger waitress he meets while on holiday.  It's clear from the film's opening scenes, in which Reynolds's previous girlfriend is efficiently gotten rid of by his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), that these romances are common for Reynolds and generally follow the same trajectory--a period of intense infatuation followed by a sudden loss of interest, then wounded exasperation as the latest paramour tries to understand what she did wrong.  As his first encounters with Alma make it clear, Reynolds uses his lovers as muses, draping them with ever more elaborate and sumptuous gowns (the film is, if nothing else, an absolute delight for costume aficionados).  But it's not just when they wear his clothes that he seems to want them to be obedient dummies--a running theme through the film is his sporadic frustration at Alma making noise while at the breakfast table, which Reynolds finds unbearably distracting.  It's a portrait of the indulged, cossetted male artist, his selfishness and tantrums tolerated, and even encouraged, on the grounds that he needs total acquiescence to do his work.  The fact that Reynolds' art is rooted in the feminine, and that he is surrounded by women--not just Alma and Cyril, but also his clients, and the seamstresses who make his vision a reality but don't earn the designation of artist--is a reminder that the indulgence he enjoys is rooted less in his artistry (which is very real) but in his gender.  That he is able, by pretending weakness and delicacy, to bully all the women around him into thinking only of his needs and desires, never of their own.

    It's a brilliant depiction (not least because of Day-Lewis's performance, which turns on a dime from fussy and wounded, to outraged and malicious), but what Phantom Thread does with it, and with Reynolds and Alma's relationship, is unformed, maybe even glib.  It's clear from the first moment that Alma believes in Reynolds in a way that no one before her has, even as she sees his shortcomings more clearly.  In an early sequence, she is outraged on his behalf when a wealthy patron falls down drunk while wearing one of Reynolds's dresses, insisting that this is disrespectful to him as an artist.  But Alma also loves Reynolds for his presentation of himself as weak and childish.  She enjoys indulging him and taking care of him, and becomes frustrated when the real man--who is merely spoiled, not vulnerable--starts chafing against her attempts to become a true partner in his life.  Her solution to this--which is essentially to force Reynolds to become the weak, dependent person he has been pretending to be--should be a brilliant turn of the screw in what has turned out to be a twisty psychological drama.  But it ends up feeling empty and contrived.

    A big part of the problem is that we never get a strong sense of who Alma is and why she acts as she does (despite Krieps's captivating, emotive performance).  Is she a canny operator who realizes she's landed on her feet and will do anything to secure her comfort?  Is she a psychopath molding a victim into a perfect partner?  Is she a normal woman who has fallen in love with a monstrously selfish man, who must become a monster herself in order to keep him?  Or is Phantom Thread genuinely a love story, between two extremely weird people who just happen to be perfect for one another?  The film doesn't seem interested in answering that question, or even in stressing the ambiguity.  It appears content to luxuriate in its fine performances, gorgeous cinematography and music, and of course its beautiful dresses.  But there's something far nastier and cleverer at the heart of this story, and this is never developed as fully as it might have been.


Brett said...

I haven't seen either of them, but "Three Billboards" and "Phantom Thread" sound like they were warped around giving the leads a chance to EMOTE an Oscar-worthy performance more than making excellent movies. Especially in the case of Day-Lewis, where he's making a big show of it supposedly being his final performance.

I enjoyed "Molly's Game" mostly for the scenes where she describes in VO narration about setting up the games, and some of the regulars (IIRC the guy that Michael Cera plays was supposedly Tobey Maguire in real life). It'd be a much better film if we got some outside perspective on this within the movie - it feels almost like one of the POV segments in a Rashomon-style film of what happened.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I wouldn't call the main performance in either Three Billboards or Phantom Thread showy. They're both people who impose themselves on others, but McDormand and Day-Lewis are both good enough that they can bring across how Mildred and Reynolds overpower people without being overpowering themselves. In both cases, the problem is with the script - Phantom Thread's isn't sufficiently interested in Alma, and Three Billboards's is simply underbaked.

I've actually found myself feeling even more negatively towards Molly's Game since I wrote the above, and especially since seeing I, Tonya (which I'll write about soon). They're telling essentially the same story - about a high-achieving woman who suddenly transitions into infamy, who isn't an innocent but also probably didn't deserve the severe punishment she got for her transgressions. But I, Tonya is so much braver than what Sorkin did in Molly's Game, willing to admit that its heroine is flawed, unsympathetic, and sometimes just an idiot. It makes Sorkin's need to see Molly as a hero seem genuinely sad.

Anonymous said...

Whether Molly has character and integrity does sound like a silly question, but it's what Sorkin is always obsessed with, whether his character is a TV comedy writer or the President. It's probably why he hasn't written a good villian for 30 years.

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