Thursday, November 15, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 31

In one of this year's previous movie roundups, I noted what a terrible year 2018 has turned out to be for blockbuster, action-adventure entertainment.  That situation hasn't improved (and seems unlikely to by the end of the year) but as the seasons change and the more sophisticated segment of the year's movie slate starts showing up in theaters, I've found myself pleasantly surprised.  2018's grown-up movies and Oscar hopefuls are an intriguingly diverse bunch, with some genuinely out there entries.  Even the films I haven't been wowed by have felt enough like their own thing to be worth watching.  This roundup covers films from late summer and early fall--it also helps that Israeli film distributors seem to have abandoned their habit of only screening Oscar hopefuls in the weeks right before the ceremony, which means that this year, for once, I can feel like part of the conversation around the award as it develops.
  • BlacKkKlansman - Based on true events, Spike Lee's latest film follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a Colorado police detective who in the late 70s makes contact with the local branch of the KKK and manages to infiltrate them, deploying a white detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), for in person meetings but maintaining a phone relationship with the branch leaders and even grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).  The premise, and Stallworth's ability to penetrate so far up the Klan's org structure, create the impression of a jovial heist movie, about how a black detective brought down the KKK, which is bolstered by Washington and Driver's witty, dynamic performances.  But this is to miss how angry, and bleak, BlacKkKlansman actually is.  The most important scene in the film comes when Stallworth's sergeant explains to him that Duke's strategy is to reinvent the Klan for an era in which overt bigotry is no longer cool, by instead concealing it under allegedly serious policy issues like immigration, which could eventually lead to sympathetic fellow travelers making their way into politics and even the white house.  Stallworth's incredulous reaction--"America won't elect a man like David Duke!"--is a stomach-dropping moment, but Lee isn't content to leave it at that.  The film ends with news footage from last year's murderous neo-Nazi rally at Charlottesville, and with footage of Trump calling the protesters (who had already killed a woman, Heather Heyer, to whose memory the film is dedicated) "very fine people".

    One could almost see the events of BlacKkKlansman as Stallworth doing the Klan's work for them, mopping up the more violent, openly bigoted chapter members, who are planning an attack on the president of a local black students group (Laura Harrier), who is also Stallworth's love interest, while leaving a smarter, more polite generation in place to enact the next thirty years of far-right encroachment into American politics.  It's hard, in the end, not to feel that Ron and Flip's mission amounts to little more than trolling, and while it's obviously satisfying to watch Duke and his ilk realize that they've been played, the fact that, as the movie points out, they have had the last laugh leaves you with a rather bitter taste in your mouth as you're leaving the theater.  It's for this reason that I'm dubious about the criticisms that have been made of BlacKkKlansman, for example by Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley, as being too pro-police.  For one thing, the film is extremely upfront about the fact that it takes a black man to even get the police to take the Klan seriously (before this mission, Stallworth is deployed to spy on "black radicals"), and it ends with the upper brass insisting that the investigation be shut down, and Stallworth's lists of KKK members destroyed. Obviously, a film about a heroic character who genuinely believes in the ability to do good as a cop will end up falling on that hero's side, for all the criticism it allows of that character.  But I think it's a mistake to view BlacKkKlansman, or its hero, as purely triumphant figures--it's just that Lee doesn't see the police as the ultimate problem.

  • Crazy Rich Asians - When I wrote about the Kevin Kwan novel on which this movie is based, I observed that it has a bulletproof premise--a Chinese-American woman travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend's family, only to discover that they're richer than god and see her as an interloper and a gold-digger--which it executes with bizarrely lead-footed inattention to the basics of drama.  So the most prominent reaction I had to Crazy Rich Asians, the movie--which is otherwise a well-made, fun romantic comedy with an excellent cast and a beautiful setting--is to note how many smart choices it makes in adapting the novel.  So instead of being a passive doormat, heroine Rachel (Constance Wu) is smart, inquisitive, and willing to fight for her man.  And instead of gaslighting his girlfriend for the entire movie, hero Nicholas (Henry Golding) is called on the insensitivity of simply dropping Rachel into a situation she wasn't aware of or prepared for halfway into the movie, and spends the rest of the story trying to make up for it (though I remain incensed that Nicholas didn't realize that Rachel would need a designer wardrobe to show her face among his family, and offered to buy it for her).  Annoying subplots from the novel--Nicholas's cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) prostrating herself before her husband, who is humiliated that she has more money than him, or his other cousin Edison (Ronny Chieng) browbeating his family into presenting perfect appearances for fashion photographers and paparazzi--are either cut or massively changed to be much more palatable.

    Most importantly, Crazy Rich Asians significantly increases the instances of interaction and conflict between Rachel and Nicholas's imperious, disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).  One of the most frustrating aspects of the book was how little these two women interacted, when the struggle between them should be the heart of the story.  And when you've got actresses like Wu and Yeoh at your disposal, it's simply a crime not to pit them against each other as much as possible, which results in some masterful scenes that give the entire film around them weight and significance.  The film also straightens out the book's messy conclusion, in which things more or less fall together for Rachel and Nicholas, by having Rachel make choices, and demonstrate to Eleanor that although she doesn't have money or breeding, she does have character (along the way, a genuinely infuriating subplot in which Rachel behaves selfishly and judgmentally towards her mother is also eliminated).  This leads to a perfect rom-com ending--the means by which the film indicates that Rachel has won Eleanor's approval is one of the most perfect moments of scriptwriting I've seen all year.  It might seem like damning Crazy Rich Asians with faint praise to say that I spent so much of my viewing time observing how much its script (by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim) improves on the book, but those improvements are also a reminder that fun, effective romantic comedies are something that Hollywood can still deliver, if it can muster up the will and get out of its own way.

  • A Star is Born - I haven't seen any of the previous versions of this beloved Hollywood tale, but like a lot of people, I suspect, I knew the general shape of the story long before sitting down to watch this latest one.  It feels as if director Bradley Cooper took that knowledge into account, because his version of Star feels like only the vaguest outline of a story, one that assumes our ability to make the leap from one plot point to another mostly unaided.  This works just fine in the scenes that focus on the film's two leads--Cooper's Jackson, a middle-aged country-rock star who is on the last stretch of his crawl into the bottle, and Lady Gaga's Ally, a furiously talented but insecure aspiring singer whom Jackson meets, falls in love with, and then watches flower into an instant pop diva.  The two actors perfectly inhabit their characters, and even more importantly, the romance between them, which feels warm and lived-in for all its obvious problems.  It feels worth watching the movie just to get to hang out with them, or listen to them perform the various songs they write separately and together.

    As a piece of storytelling, however, A Star is Born is a great deal less satisfying.  It sometimes feels as if the film is telling two stories, both of which it shortchanges.  There is the familiar Hollywood chestnut, in which Jackson sinks further into addiction as Ally's career takes off, finally realizing that his presence in her life will only make her miserable in the long run.  And there is the running issue of Jackson and Ally's conflicting musical styles, and the question of whether she is selling herself out by veering in a sexier, costume-and-dance-heavy direction, or if Jackson's insistence that she is merely reflects his jealousy and desire to control her.  The latter conflict is more interesting to me (not least for the unspoken but very obvious misogyny inherent in dismissing pop as Jackson and his hangers-on do), but it's where the film places the least emphasis.  Which might be fine if the seesaw of Jackson and Ally's career trajectories was more affecting, but this storyline is undermined not only by the script's hollowness, but by the entire premise's romanticized, soft-pedaling approach to difficult issues like addiction and suicide.

    Jackson is never allowed to be as ugly as the story demands--the closest he comes is when he humiliates himself and Ally on stage at the Grammys, but it's a scene that goes by quickly, after which he immediately gets clean.  And Ally's repeated choices to entangle herself with him emotionally and professionally, despite his obvious issues, are never explored or given grounding in her character.  (In addition, the film misses the obvious opportunity of being the first A Star is Born set in the internet era to discuss the ways that the constant churn of cultural commentary would affect its heroes--would Jackson become a meme?  Would Ally be derided for sticking with him?  It's never even discussed.)  The result ends up feeling glib, and ultimately irresponsible.  A Star is Born clearly wants to think of itself as a grand tragedy, but beyond some good songs and performances, all it left me with was a slight queasiness.

  • Suspiria - I haven't seen the original film of which this is remake, so I have no idea how much director Luca Guadagnino and writer David Kajganic's version differs from Dario Argento's original.  But one point on which the two films must diverge is their sense of history and its context.  The original Suspiria came out in 1977, and the remake is set in that year as a historical piece (with a brief foray into the present in its closing moments).  Which obviously gives it a very different perspective.  The Baader-Meinhof protests and terrorist attacks run through the story, showing up in police reports and in discussions of the characters' political sympathies.  That movement was at least in part a reaction by Germany's youth to the horror of the previous generation's actions, and to the lingering presence of ex-Nazis in West German leadership and politics.  Coming to that setting in 2018, one can't help but have different associations than Argento would have.  In one scene, heroine Susie (Dakota Johnson) asks "why is everyone so quick to believe that the worst is over?" and right now, with fascism resurgent in so many parts of the world, that seems like a question we should all have been asking.

    Susie, an American fleeing a strict religious upbringing, arrives in divided Berlin to join the Markos Company, a renowned dance troupe overseen by the ethereal, soft-spoken Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton).  She quickly singles herself out and is selected to be the lead dancer in the company's upcoming performance of their signature piece.  Knowing that Suspiria was a horror movie, I didn't expect it to spend so much time on the matter of art, but Susie's development as a dancer, her mentorship relationship with Blanc, and her growing understanding of the piece she's dancing are a major component of the movie.  Underlying it all, of course, is witchcraft--it's a genuinely clever touch to reveal, as the film quickly does, that the company's exclusively-female leadership is a coven of witches, who use their performances to augment their power and protect themselves from the outside world.  The prototypical image of witches in Christian folklore has involved women sneaking off to engage in secret, lascivious dances, and the pieces choreographed for Suspiria strike a perfect midpoint between modern dance and occult ritual.  It's not at all surprising--and, at the same time, both thrilling and horrifying--when Susie's first performance of her part inadvertently taps into the coven's latent power, and uses it to brutally punish a dancer who had betrayed the company.  The various performances in the movie culminate in a bacchanalia intended to offer Susie up as a sacrifice to ensure the company's continued survival, but things predictably go out of hand.

    For a horror movie that so revels in gore, physical abuse, and the grotesque--a particular highlight is the company's leader, the mostly-absent Madame Markos (also Swinton), whose swollen, barely-alive body is on full display in the film's climax--Suspiria isn't very scary.  If I compare it to something like The Haunting of Hill House--which overall I found significantly less coherent and interesting than this movie--I can't think of a single fright or scary moment that has lingered with me from Suspiria in the way that the miniseries has continued to haunt me.  On the contrary, there's something weirdly soothing about the movie's depiction of female power.  Not that that power is benign, even to other women.  It's made clear from the film's opening scene that the coven requires sacrifices, and that the company's leaders are perfectly willing to offer up their young dancers to horrific fates in order to preserve their power.  But given what's going on in the outside world of the movie (and in general) you find yourself hard-pressed to blame them for this calculation, and for being willing to do anything to remain safe and independent.

    The film's secondary storyline involves a psychiatrist, Dr. Klemperer (Swinton again, which means that almost every major role in the movie is played by a woman), who begins to suspect the coven when a dancer he'd been treating disappears.  Klemperer's wife, we learn, disappeared during the war, and he is haunted by guilt over failing to protect her.  Meanwhile, the Markos company survived throughout the war, when (as Susie is told by one of her soon-to-be-devoured friends) the Nazis wanted women to shut up and have babies.  It's a contrast that feels extremely deliberate.  Suspiria is unusual among horror movies in setting itself so strongly within a historical moment, and contrasting its horror so precisely with historical horrors.  The argument it's making is a bit glib--especially when the film's climax goes a little off the rails with its dedication to gore and hysteria--but one can't deny its timeliness.

  • Burning - Korea's entry in the upcoming best foreign language film Oscar race is a very slow film.  Not meditative or atmospheric, but simply slow, and the fact that that slowness is deliberate is made clear in the film's closing scenes, in which its story comes to a crashing, abrupt, close.  Before that, however, we follow aimless college graduate and aspiring writer Jongsu (Ah-In Yoo) as he works part-time jobs, reconnects with Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon), a former classmate and neighbor, tends to his father's country house, and attends court hearings in which his father is being tried for assaulting a government official.  Jongsu and Haemi's flirtation is cut short when she goes on vacation and returns with Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy man who enjoys squiring the two young people around, showing off his fancy car, beautiful apartment, and the group of sophisticated young professionals he socializes with.  The film makes very little effort to hide Ben's fundamental creepiness, and the possibility that he poses a danger to Haemi--in an early scene, he boasts about never crying or feeling sadness--but neither she nor Jongsu do anything to detach themselves from Ben, perhaps because his wealth and social status lend him an authority they feel compelled to follow.  There are several more scenes in which the trio hang out, or Jongsu tries to work through his frustration at being supplanted.  Then Haemi disappears, not long after Ben boasts to Jongsu about his hobby of setting fires, promising to start one near Jongsu's house.

    Perhaps the smartest choice that Burning makes is that, while its premise is familiar from a million thrillers and mysteries, it avoids their tropes entirely.  There's never any doubt about what happened to Haemi and Ben's responsibility for it.  Or rather, there is doubt, but it's of a more existential variety.  People suggest to Jongsu that Haemi may have gone underground to avoid credit card debt, or gone on another vacation.  It's not that any of these theories are more or less plausible than the suspicion that Haemi has been murdered by Ben, but that in order to believe them, Jongsu has to see her as a type, the untrustworthy woman--a major throughline in the film is his attempt to discover whether a story she told him about her childhood really happened--rather than a person whose wellbeing matters and should be a concern to everyone.  By the same token, we never find out the details of what happened to Haemi--again, there isn't really any question that she's dead, but Jongsu doesn't find her body, or any but the most circumstantial of proofs that Ben has killed her.  The point of Jongsu's journey is less about finding proof for what is, after all, the most logical explanation for both Haemi's disappearance and Ben's strange behavior, but his willingness to accept that it has happened, and to take the necessary next step.

    Haemi herself is a frustratingly vague figure, lacking any sign of an inner life, and completely passive in how she allows herself to be manipulated, and ultimately destroyed, by Ben.  This is obviously part of the point the film is making--not only that the society Haemi lives in values her, and women like her, so little that it allows Ben to prey on them with only the thinnest disguise for his actions, but that Jongsu, despite claiming to love her, never tries to understand her or reach out to her, and only becomes a true ally to her after he can no longer offer her any real help.  But that doesn't really alleviate the frustration of watching yet another film in which a woman is an object to be worked on, victimized, and avenged by men.  What's left to appreciate about Burning, then, is Jongsu's journey--one that is deeply inflected by Korean society's growing inequality, and by all the characters' unspoken recognition that people like Jongsu and Haemi will never matter as much as people like Ben and his friends.  Yoo does a great job of portraying a character who initially seems unformed, and slowly turns out to be more canny, and more determined, than either we or he could have imagined (though again, that growth comes too late to be of any use to his friend).  It's just a shame that this transformation is rooted, as it so often is in fiction, in a woman's suffering.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I feel like "BlackKklansman" actually shows the CSPD go through a similar whitewash and reinvention to what David Duke is putting the KKK through.

The story ends with them purging themselves of one especially visible and toxic asshole that, it's pretty clear, nobody really liked anyway (also does anyone really believe he was the only one?) The next day, as you say, they're wrapping up the entire KKK investigation and burning all records that might inconvenience solid upstanding citizens (before there's a chance to do any real damage to the organization). What's changed, really? The police is still doing its usual job of covering for and cleaning up after the (racist) power structure. The fact that they added one token black guy and ditched one token "real racist" isn't changing that.

Not hard to see how that mentality gets us to Charlottesville.

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