Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Recent Movie Roundup 33

I didn't write any film criticism this summer, because it was a singularly uninteresting summer for blockbuster movies.  I skipped most of the big titles and kept my eyes out for any interesting counter-programming (of which there wasn't a lot).  Which is why this roundup starts with a leftover review from early July, of a film that I imagine most of you have already forgotten.  Otherwise, however, as summer has wound down and film festivals have wound up, some engaging selections have finally shown up at my local movie theaters.  I still don't think 2019 is going to shape up to be a great movie year (and certainly not for genre and blockbuster movies) but this bunch of films is satisfyingly eclectic, and mostly satisfying.

  • Spider-Man: Far From Home - The second outing starring Tom Holland as the MCU's version of Peter Parker picks up eight months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, in a world reeling from the upheavals of the last five years, but still nowhere near as disordered as it should be--the inevitable famine and economic collapse that would have resulted from the sudden doubling of the world's population are nowhere in sight, and instead the main preoccupations of a post-"blip" society are the valorization of Tony Stark (but not Steve Rogers or Natasha Romanoff, for some reason) and an obsessive seeking after "the next Iron Man".  Peter himself is troubled by that question, feeling that Stark's death has left him indebted but dismayed by the responsibility the role represents.  He keeps trying to step back into the position of friendly neighborhood Spider-Man while also living the normal life of a sixteen-year-old, including a school trip to Europe where he hopes to confess his feelings to MJ (Zendaya).  The trip premise, and the frustrated teen romance, give Far From Home a teen movie feel similar to the one that made Spider-Man: Homecoming so charming and down to earth, but from the outset there is a sense that this lightness can't last.  Nick Fury corners Peter in Venice, where he passes along Stark's bequest for him--an AI that controls a powerful drone system, keyed to Peter's biometrics (the question of when Tony made the will that grants Peter this power, given that Peter was dead to him until about a minute before his own death, is never addressed; nor, for that matter, does anyone consider that he might have better entrusted this power to Pepper)--and tries to recruit Peter to a fight against "elementals", beings who have been terrorizing European cities.  Fury also introduces Peter to Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a visitor from another Earth who has fought the elementals before, and who quickly bonds with Peter over his reluctance to accept the responsibility left to him by Stark and take the weight of the world on his shoulders.

    I enjoyed Homecoming for the way it blended the fundamentals of the Spider-Man character with the events of the MCU, along the way managing to pass a subtle criticism of Tony Stark, whose attempts to control, manipulate, and groom Peter repeatedly proved counterproductive.  Far From Home's efforts to produce a similar effect are hobbled by the MCU's need for Peter to step up as an Avenger, no matter how poorly that suits the character.  It ends up doing a lot of the same things as Homecoming, but less well, chiefly when it comes to Peter's acceptance of his own heroism in the face of constant second-guessing, browbeating, and gaslighting from the alleged mentors in his life.  In Homecoming, this confusion culminated in Peter, alone, with no technology, and buried under rubble, crying out "I am Spider-Man" and rising to the occasion.  In Far From Home, it means calling Happy Hogan to bring a private jet and one of Tony Stark's suit fabricators to save the day.  Instead of finding the hero within himself, Peter's heroism suddenly seems to revolve around his similarities to Tony, so that Far From Home ends up feeling more like an Iron Man movie than the Spider-Man film in which he actually appeared.  Not helping matters is the fact that the memory of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is still fresh in our minds.  That film managed to tell a Spider-Man story that was completely new while still finding the core of the character, even as it celebrated the many different forms it could take.  That Far From Home can't imagine any way for Peter to grow except into the space left behind by another, completely different superhero is thus doubly disappointing.

    Still, there are charms to this movie, even though most of them feel like things the first film did better.  Peter's relationships with May (Marisa Tomei) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) remain sweet and supportive, and his burgeoning romance with MJ is true to both characters' quirks and foibles.  Gyllenhaal is great as both a slightly off-the-wall hero in the film's first half, and a wonderfully nefarious villain (whose motive is suitably mercenary and un-ideological, in keeping with the template established by Homecoming) in its second half.  And though I remain boggled by the idea that anyone would give Nick Fury the time of day after his many failures as a general and spymaster, the film strikes just the right balance between criticizing him (and allowing Peter to grow past him) and acknowledging his obvious badassery.  I'm a little less certain about the two major twists introduced in the film's post- and mid-credits scenes.  They represent huge upheavals to the basic Spider-Man story, as well as the MCU as a whole, that I'm not sure the stewards of this series have proved equal to shouldering.  Once again, it feels as if Spider-Man is being flattened and twisted into shapes that don't suit him in order to serve the greater MCU, when surely we would all have been happier just watching Holland play the web-crawler straight--the final scene before the credits roll, in which Peter finally returns to New York to swing between scyscrapers, is a wrenching reminder of what these films have been missing, and now may never manage to give us.

    (Since writing the above, Sony and Disney have announced the end of their shared custody agreement over Spider-Man.  It's hard to imagine how future films in the current series will cope with the mess Far From Home has bequeathed them, which both upends the Spider-Man mythos and requires the series to remain deeply embedded in the MCU.  But I hope they manage it, because the odds now seem greater of getting an actual Spider-Man movie starring Tom Holland, as opposed to a film in the Avengers universe that happens to feature Spider-Man.)

  • Midsommar - Like the feverish Hereditary, Ari Aster's second film starts out as a closely-observed character drama chronicling deep relationship dysfunction and barely-processed trauma, then slides inexorably towards overt horror, as its troubled characters find themselves caught up in the machinations of a pagan cult.  And, as in Hereditary, one finds oneself thinking that the film would have worked just as well with just its first, more naturalistic half to drive it (though the second half, buoyed by Aster's careful compositions, assured direction, and canny way with actors, is never less than engrossing).  Midsommar manages this shift better than its predecessor, in part because it never loses sight of its central character the way Hereditary eventually did.  Dani (Florence Pugh) is a high-strung, anxiety-ridden grad student who has for years been in an unsatisfying relationship with the callow, immature Christian (Jack Reynor), who puts on a show of being a supportive boyfriend, but clearly conveys his impatience with Dani's every expression of emotion.  When Dani suffers a horrific family tragedy, Christian feels unable to end the relationship (though it's unclear whether he would ever have done so, rather than eternally keeping one foot out the door), but also doesn't know how to support her.  Mainly in order to avoid discussing the cracks in their relationship, he backs himself into inviting Dani along on a trip to a remote Swedish commune to witness their once-in-a-century midsummer celebration.

    The first half of Midsommar is thus concerned with a very mundane type of horror--that of being an outsider in a group who are all too polite to say that you're unwelcome, but nevertheless make you feel it.  Christian's friends, Mark and Josh (Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper) clearly realize that they have to be tolerant of Dani and her emotional fragility, but they still manage to bring across their dissatisfaction at her presence and the way that her omnipresent grief and trauma keep ruining their fun.  In an early scene, Dani quite reasonably demurs when offered psychedelics, and is then pressured into taking them by the men's obvious unhappiness at being asked to delay their own gratification.  Dani herself is not blameless here--Pugh's performance is a masterpiece of eager-to-please self-effacement, as Dani repeatedly minimizes her own feelings in order to avoid making Christian or the others feel bad, and eventually that comes to feel like her own choice as much as a response to his behavior.  But it's clear that Christian has made her feel that she can't express any complex, ugly feelings, as exemplified in multiple scenes in which Dani appears to be on the brink of letting out her rage and grief in a primal scream, and then chokes it down to a whimper.

    All of this makes Dani a prime target for the manipulations of the villagers at Hårga, the seemingly idyllic commune to which Dani, Christian, and the others have been introduced by their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up there.  Wearing white robes and beatific smiles, the Hårgans welcome their visitors to a traditional midsummer ceremony, but even without knowing the film's genre it would be easy to guess that something isn't right.  Everyone is too watchful beneath their blissed-out demeanor, and a little too cryptic about what their ceremonies actually entail.  By the time our characters witness a ritual suicide, it's fairly easy to guess how the rest of the film will play out.  What's interesting, however, is less that the Hårgans have murderous designs towards their guests, and more the complexity of their intentions towards Dani.  They see her as a kindred spirit, and go about folding her into their community.  She, in turn, finds in them an outlet for the feelings that she hasn't let herself express, and responds to their ritualized approach towards death as a counter to the capricious, senseless role it has played in her own life.  The choice she makes at the end of the movie isn't surprising, but Pugh and the script work to make us see it as a twisted sort of happy ending for her (or at least a better option than a sterile, lonely life with Christian, which admittedly isn't much of an alternative).  From her damaged, despairing point of view, the Hårgans' insanity makes a demented kind of sense.

    Another thing worth saying about Midsommar is that it is a genuinely funny movie.  Even as it amps up the tension and anxiety, and depicts acts of grotesque mutilation, the film never loses its comedic undertone, whether it is skewering Christian and his friends' passive-aggression, or highlighting the inherent ridiculousness of the Hårgans' rituals.  Its humor comes from such a wide range of sources that it can be hard to believe they coexist in the same movie.  A subplot in which Christian and Josh both decide that they want to write their graduate thesis about Hårga, and can barely conceal their hostility towards one another under a veneer of academic detachment and scientific curiosity, sits surprisingly well with a scene in which Christian, believing that he's been seduced by a Hårgan woman, instead finds himself surrounded by a crowd of chanting women as he thrusts into her, realizing even as he climaxes that his sole purpose there is insemination.  That breadth of material, and the sheer variety of set-pieces (I haven't mentioned the lewd tapestries, or the maypole, or the bear) explain Midsommar's bloated running time (two and a half hours, and apparently there's at least another half hour of material cut from the theatrical version), but by its end the film will have slightly overstayed its welcome.  Still, that's a small price to pay for a film as weird, interesting, and perfectly crafted as this one.  Midsommar would probably have worked just as well as just a character drama, a dark comedy, or a piece of folk horror, but its mingling of the three works surprisingly well.

  • Parasite - The winner of the grand prize at this year's Cannes festival, Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite is, like last year's festival darling Burning, a film about the profound inequality running through modern Korean society, as exemplified by a dysfunctional relationship between people at either ends of the economic spectrum.  In Bong's story, that relationship isn't between individuals, but between families.  Our protagonists are the Kims--father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park)--who are near the bottom of the economic ladder.  All four are unemployed, living in a tiny, bug-infested basement apartment, cadging free wifi from neighbors, and making ends meet with odd jobs such as folding pizza boxes.  Then a well-off friend of Ki-woo offers him a golden opportunity--he's been tutoring the teenage daughter of a wealthy family in English, and needs someone to take over while he's studying abroad.  Ki-woo doesn't have credentials, but he has the skills and the polish to fake being a middle class university student.  More importantly, he's able to quickly take the measure of the wealthy, oblivious Park family--airy, impressionable mother Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo) and barely-there father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee)--and play up to their sense of self-importance and their need to have the best in life (or at least, to believe that they have it).  In a sequence that plays like the most polished of heist movies, the Kims manipulate the Parks into hiring them all--Ki-jung as the young son's art teacher, Ki-taek as Mr. Park's driver, and Chung-sook as the housekeeper (the last two positions require shoving off their previous holders, which the Kims manage with inventiveness and ruthless efficiency).  Before long, the Kims are all frequent visitors to the Parks' elegant home, which becomes almost its own character, its eye-catching interior design and seclusion from the outside world making it not just a haven, but a physical expression of the way the Kims have battened on to the Parks--there are, in reality, two families living in the house, even if the official owners are unaware of this.

    Not unlike Snowpiercer and Okja, Parasite feels like a series of set-pieces strung together, all riffing on the common theme of the parasitical relationship between the two families (which in fact runs both ways, with the Parks routinely imposing on the Kims for not just work, but emotional labor).  Standout scenes include a drunken revel after the Kims are left alone in the house, in which they muse about their "benefactors" and conclude that it is money that has made them both gullible and kind; or a hallucinatory, wordless sequence in which Ki-taek and his children walk from the Parks' house to their own in a thunderstorm, descending endless staircases as if traveling to the underworld, and finding at the end of their journey that the rain that has been pelting them has flowed downhill as well, flooding their basement apartment.  Bong's powerful direction, which creates scenes of intense humor alongside ones of sudden tension and horror, helps to obscure a certain bittiness in the script, the absence of a thesis that ties all the film's ideas together.  One thing, however, shines through--the Kims, despite their expert manipulation of the Parks, are not con artists.  They've worked all their lives--one darkly humorous sequences sees Ki-taek listing all his past jobs--and the children both wanted to attend university.  The fact that they have had to lie and scheme just for the opportunity to work service jobs reflects not some get-rick-quick scheme, but the reality they live in, in which their only path to survival is to latch on to the wealthy for dear life, and fight off anyone who might endanger that position.

    After establishing this premise so effectively, you might expect Bong to rest on his laurels, but instead he complicates it.  It turns out that the Parks' house supports not two families but three, and the Kims find themselves in a fight with people even more desperate than they are.  The house becomes a trap that the family must survive and escape, all under the oblivious noses of the Parks.  It's a magnificent second act development that ratchets up the tension and allows Bong to delve even further into outright horror and action storytelling, as the Kims discover secrets of the house that not even the Parks are aware of, and fight to wrest control over it.  Having established this untenable scenario, however, Bong doesn't seem to know entirely what to do with it.  The film's final act explodes into open violence that feels more like a way of avoiding complicated dilemmas--most obviously, will the Kims commit murder to preserve the cushy positions they've secured for themselves?--than a natural outgrowth of what has come before.  Nevertheless, even this underwhelming ending doesn't do much to undercut Parasite's achievement.  It is a gripping thriller, and a hilarious dark comedy, about the society we've built for ourselves.

  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette - What happened here, one wonders.  You've got one of Hollywood's most respected auteurs, Richard Linklater, following his near-Oscar win for Boyhood with an adaptation of one of the decade's bestselling, most talked-about novels.  To which end he recruits not only one of the best actresses of her generation to play the title character, but a supporting cast that includes Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Megan Mullaly, and Kate Burton.  And yet somehow, Where'd You Go, Bernadette amounts to little more than an occasionally amusing but ultimately pointless experience.  You can't even lay the blame at that perennial pitfall of novel adaptations, over-fidelity to the text that results in an airless, dutiful effort (like the kind that has apparently defeated the star-studded adaptation of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch).  The script (by Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vincent Palmo Jr.) takes significant liberties with the original novel, including changing its ending, and even as someone who remembered the novel only vaguely, I was struck by how thoroughly the film version had changed its pacing.  Bernadette the movie wastes no time in introducing us to its title character, a former wunderkind architect who has become a misanthropic recluse, as well as her family--long-suffering but emotionally checked out husband Elgin (Crudup) and bright, adoring daughter Bee (Emma Nelson).  But it races through the novel's main events, both in explaining to us the genesis of Bernadette's career and how an early failure left her reeling, too disgusted with a world that didn't appreciate her creations to do any work, and in delivering the novel's set-pieces.  A crucial sequence in which the home of Bernadette's neighbor (Wiig) is nearly destroyed in a mudslide, which in the novel was a climax that appeared near its end, here occurs within the first hour, the better to give more space to Bernadette's escape from her family, and her attempt to find a way to create again.

    None of this would be a problem if Linklater's reenvisioning of the novel managed to deliver its emotional beats, but unfortunately the movie comes off as glib and surface-y.  Characters end up explaining their motivations and revelations in too-obvious monologues, because the script can't deliver these ideas organically.  The only character who escapes the flattening effect of Linklater's adaptation is Bernadette herself, and I suspect that this is mainly due to Cate Blanchett's performance.  Her Bernadette is the main reason to see the movie, not only because it's a great performance in its own right--a monologue scene in which Bernadette explains to Fishburne's character the personal travails that led to her abandoning her career is an almost breathtaking achievement, something that would have seemed mannered and put on from any other actress but which feels perfectly natural, and revealing of the character, from Blanchett.  But also, because it's still so uncommon for even an actress's of Blanchett's caliber to get to play this kind of character--a fearsomely smart, creative person who needs to make things in order to stay sane.

    Though the film sands off some of Bernadette's rough edges from the novel--the implicit racism and thoughtless privilege of her relationship with an unseen Indian personal assistant, on whom she happily dumps every responsibility in her life, is downplayed, for example--it leaves untouched the novel's conclusion, that someone like Bernadette needs to create, and that it is wrong for her family to try to stop her from doing that.  This leads to the film's ending, in which, instead of returning home to Seattle as a more functional person as she did in the novel, Bernadette travels to the south pole to design a new research station there (a somewhat unrealistic development, but it does give the film an excuse to shoot beautiful scenes of icy scenery--actually filmed in Greenland but no less breathtaking for it).  The one justification for Where'd You Go, Bernadette's existence is this conclusion, in which Elgin and Bee recognize that Bernadette needs this creative outlet, and let her go in the knowledge that she will return to them a happier, more fulfilled person.  But I can't help but think that there could have been a better film building up to this ending.

  • Hustlers - The question most urgently raised by this film--which was an unexpected favorite at this year's Toronto Film Festival and has had a great opening weekend--is: who thought this was a story worth telling?  This is not a knock on Hustlers, an extremely entertaining and well-made crime story with two fantastic central performances from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez.  But absent those performances, and Lorene Scafaria's clever script and energetic direction, what was it about this story, in which a group of New York strippers, made financially insecure by the knock-on effects of the 2008 crisis (none of the Wall Street guys who were their bread and butter are showing up to party anymore), resort to trolling for marks, drugging them, and running up huge tabs on their credit cards, that struck people as so fascinating, warranting a long-form journalism piece and now a film adaptation?  Style-wise, Hustlers situates itself firmly within the tradition of heist and crime movies, from Goodfellas to the Ocean's films, with an late-aughts economic crisis twist that recalls The Big Short and its ilk.  But what's happening on screen isn't so much a heist or a con job as it is simple theft (not to mention assault).  There's not even any of the sophisticated plotting and manipulation that accompanies the early scenes of a film like Parasite--all that's required of the heroines, in order to succeed in their scam, is to be able to stand the company of the type of man who sees nothing suspicious about three or four gorgeous women suddenly wanting to party with him.

    I don't say any of this to decry Hustlers, which, again, is an impeccably well-made film that is utterly engrossing from start to finish.  But it's also a film that leaves a bit of a bad taste behind it, as you wonder whether it's the characters who are trying to make something grand out of what was ultimately a sordid and harmful scheme, or the movie itself.  Much like the characters in the film, what keeps you from checking out entirely is the force and magnetism of the personalities involved--newbie stripper Destiny (Wu), who is taken under the wing of seasoned, charismatic veteran Ramona (Lopez), and who together build around themselves a troupe of strippers-turned-hustlers that includes Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart.  A lot of the charm of the movie comes from how female-focused it is, and how much it has to say about relationships between women.  Hustling offers the characters not only the opportunity to take care of themselves, but to create a community with others whom they trust to take care of them.  But Hustlers knows better than to plump for empty platitudes about female empowerment and sisterhood.  The relationships it depicts--particularly between Destiny and Ramona--are thorny and complex.  It's never clear, for example, whether Ramona offers to mentor Destiny out of genuine kindness, or because she's looking for a loyal flunky--a question that becomes more pointed when she starts recruiting obviously sketchy and unreliable women to participate in the drugging scam.  And by the same token, it's never clear how savvy and on the ball Destiny actually is.  She's smart enough to realize that what she and Ramona are doing is a crime and that they need to protect themselves, while Ramona seems determined to pretend that she's done nothing wrong, and takes increasingly riskier chances in her pursuit of bigger payouts.  But she also can't seem to break her habit of expecting someone to save her, whether it's Ramona or the men in her life, even as she insists that all she wants is to be independent.  The fact that her career, both legal and illegal, is unsustainable always seems to take Destiny by surprise, no matter how many times it implodes on her, and though she blames Ramona for this, the film leaves it up to us to decide whether their friendship was toxic, or the only real thing in their lives.

    Hustlers repeatedly gestures at the obvious criticisms of its premise--Destiny, who is telling the story to a reporter played by Julia Stiles, defensively insists that she doesn't want people to think that all strippers are thieves, and that she wouldn't like to "perpetuate a stereotype" that she has in fact thoroughly lived down to; at least some of the heroines' marks end up hurt because of their illicit drugging; and an important subplot revolves around a mark who is a nice person and ends up having his life destroyed by the heroines' machinations.  But having registered these objections, Hustlers doesn't really have anything to say in response to them.  It tries to argue that the drugging scheme is a form of class warfare, with the heroines striking back against the banksters who derailed the American economy, but even in the moment that feels like a self-serving justification by Ramona ("America is a strip club" is a line she tries out on Stiles's character).  And it does its best to argue that the men the heroines target--the ones with fat wallets who would be open to partying at a strip club in the first place--are so entitled and dismissive of women that there's no reason to feel sorry for them.  But here, the film's emphasis on women works against it.  For a film that (obviously) features a lot of nudity and prurient images, Hustlers is surprisingly good at avoiding the male gaze.  The only time the camera fondles a woman is when Destiny watches Ramona dance for the first time, and her reaction has as much to do with professional admiration and envy as it does with lust.  Hustlers pointedly diminishes the presence of men--not only the clients and marks, who are a parade of interchangeable faces with high-limit credit cards attached, but the women's boyfriends and male relatives, who invariably make brief appearances but never stay or offer material support.  But as a result, the marks feel like such non-entities that it's hard to work up much of a dislike for them.  What's left for the film is to suggest that its characters have been left lonely and unhappy by their actions, a conclusion that doesn't entirely fit with its presentation as a sexy crime comedy.

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