Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day is prefaced by a quote from Tolstoy about the persistence of nature, no matter how much we industrialize. In the end, with a cackle of thunder, nature comes down in torrents—soaking a bag of money and the corpses of grifters who’d spent the movie failing to launder it. What I liked most about this Chinese animation is that it’s shrouded in night the way that South Park is always covered in snow. The filmmaker, Liu Jian, crawls through that night like that lizard crosses the train tracks. His style bypasses implausibility; the whole vibe is permissively absurd.

Sometimes, it’s a little too casual. As in a Mike Judge cartoon, the only element moving inside any given frame is usually the mouth of whoever is talking—which is to say, droning on in a cynical deadpan. This, plus the strain of keeping track of sometimes crudely drawn figures—the female characters more so than the men—can be disorienting in a way that does not seem intentional. They leap in and out of the plot like dolphins doing flips. To be fair, the bricolage is a pretense for commentary: a kidnapped painter who spends most of the film in the big boss’s trunk doesn’t affect the story, but provides an excuse to bring up Fauvism. Moreover, he shows that even the loftiest professions are snared in the ambience of crime.

Everything seems to be part of the black market here; there’s a bleakness that’s familiar from movies imported from other communist (or formerly communist) regimes: films such as My Joy or Ida. For each of its various thieves, the stolen loot is seen as seed money to mend broken dreams: an escape from industrial ennui. As Jian sees it, Western-style progress only gets us so far. His exteriors have a geometric precision, but the frames pass by languidly enough that one can get lost in the cross-stitched decay.

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Black Panther

Superheroes are a salve for children—traditionally boys—who struggle to integrate into their childhood societies. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that superhero movies have become increasingly central to the plastic cathedral of American pop culture during the same years that American boyhood has consumed much of what was once, by the lights of biology, considered to be manhood. Nor does it seem a coincidence that, in those same years, men’s feeling of enfranchisement in adult society has decayed.

Disenfranchisement is, of course, a wound of literal rather than figurative consequence in this country for women, black people, and both. The appeal of Black Panther is in watching the metronome ticking between revolution and inclusion rustle the wrappers of a Happy Meal. It asks questions at the bottom of political distinctions through the sleek music of African accents, which dignify the stiff lines only half as well as Daniel Kaluuya withdraws the wings of his devotion. His eyelashes, like stage-curtain tassels, brush Chadwick Boseman aside. Boseman wears his pride in his bones.

On occasion, Ryan Coogler finds set pieces that live up to the power of his ideas: Michael B. Jordan, as the warrior-king Killmonger, returning to his childhood home in an Oakland project, at the exact moment his younger self discovered his father dead, has a doleful magic. There’s an essential unprofanity to Jordan which makes him impossible to not take seriously, even if Killmonger’s grievances are too notional. Boseman, the superhero king, on his own vision quest, pieces together the tragedy on Killmonger’s behalf; his outrage over a displaced father figure abandoning a son seems pointed. The Black Panther himself is probably the only one whose motives aren’t telegraphed. In a Marvel movie, profundity is only cape-deep.

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Oscar Hangover: 2018

As the Motion Picture Academy’s pick for Best Picture of 2017, The Shape of Water is a perfect compromise: it’s a movie by a prominent Latin American director about the liberation of characters of all backgrounds—from gay to invertebrate. My own favorite nominee was that perverted Pygmalion and ballet of midinettes, Phantom Thread; Get Out was a solid runner-up, and deserved its win for Best Original Screenplay. However, Water being fluid, it was naturally the most intersectional choice: watching Guillermo del Toro brandish his trophy was even a triumph for nerds and weirdos.

Winners and losers notwithstanding, permit me to leak a few thoughts.

As a human being, I strongly support equality of opportunity. As a critic, I do not—and should not—support equality of outcome. And I use “critic” in place of a mindset, not to mean someone who diddles about movies on the Antarctica of the Internet. I’m not persuaded that any work of art is good simply on the grounds that it was made by or about a minority group.

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Academy Rewards: 2018

The Academy Awards have always straddled the awkward space between creativity and competition. When the institution was formed, 90 years ago, the “creatives” were basically race horses; it was their breeders—the studio heads—who coveted the trophies. Even as the studio system crumbled, and talent found empowerment through agents and became managers of their personal brands, the breeders’ vision won out: the thoroughbreds crave the carrots, but those who feed them now crave—and covet—their respect.

There’s a lot riding on those carrots. To some degree, the left carps about the legitimacy of the Oscars until those statues reflect their agenda in the same way that Donald Trump gloats about his role in the booming market until stock prices go bust. But his office serves to illustrate the grim reality of our moment: the entertainment industry represents American thought more accurately than our elected officials do. Just as the state of California is a bellwether for political trends, Hollywood is the driver of our culture.

It’s a peculiarly American tragicomedy that the places where our laws get written lag far behind the city where our screenplays do. But I hesitate to escalate that condition to tragic because many of the people writing those screenplays regard this as a problem, too. There are exceptions, of course. Tarantino’s revenge fantasies rewrite the past for the sake of enacting his fantasies in the same way that cable news and the Web warp the present. Winking at alternative facts is a complacency that becomes a black eye in light of the challenges that liberal democracies are now facing.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It was a luxury to have ever believed in heightening the contradictions. For some fraction of the population, which skews neither evil nor good, but is large enough to punch above its weight, the unconscious objective of life is to wash its hands of any guilt or responsibility, whether they are soiled or not. This strikes me as a weakness, even if it bolsters their strength.

There’s a special place in hell for those on one end of this spectrum: the Wayne LaPierres who whip up resentment to burnish the sales of guns or the Dinesh D’Souzas and Alex Joneses who blind themselves to the actual, provable, visceral suffering of others, like the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, who have been heroically vocal about their losses and their proximate cause: guns. And then there’s the other end of the spectrum, an emergency-responder acquaintance of mine who resides in the rural South, and believes the line that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a firearm brandished by himself. I trust his good intentions, and so does he, and my point isn’t that we’re allergic to reasoning. But a million invidious arguments will land on him before I’m allowed a word in edgewise. You can chose your culture, but not pick your society.

It would be missing the point of Star Wars: The Last Jedi to preface a review with hopelessness. If anything, it proves the same point the Parkland, Fla., students do: that the kids are all right. And yet it seemed significant, in a way that was difficult to articulate then, that its long-awaited prequel, The Force Awakens, had arrived at the ramp-up to the 2016 election.

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The Disaster Artist

The second best decision that James Franco made for The Disaster Artist was casting himself as Tommy Wiseau; his best decision was casting his younger brother, Dave, as Greg Sestero. More than an imitation, the elder Franco hints at this slum-rat showbiz Frankenstein’s motivations, which is remarkable considering that these actor-filmmakers—both Wiseau and Franco—spray mace in the eyes of anyone who peers into their souls.

Greg, however, is an open book. No doubt this wide-eyed quality, which is stuck on him like a sheet of paper that says “Kick me, I’m gullible,” is what turned these strangers in a San Francisco acting class into collaborators in Hollywood. Acting is a dream for Greg, by which I mean it is an aspiration but also a fantasy; someone like Tommy, whose performance style brings to mind a James Dean that was raised by orangutans, might look, to virgin eyes, like an unsung master. Greg skips college and moves to L.A. with his indeterminately older and inexplicably wealthy friend. I’m tempted to call this dude Tommy’s “straight man,” but that’s not altogether clear.

As a love letter to playacting for its own sake, featuring theater people who are older, and presumably hungrier, versions of Lady Bird’s dorky friends, The Disaster Artist is very pleasing. Los Angeles, ever its own most ruthless villain, isn’t the soul-crusher or ball-buster it gets pigeonholed as, nor is it only worth the trouble if you make it big—like the darling dreamers in La La Land. As Jacki Weaver puts it, portraying one of the community-theater stalwarts who lands a role in Tommy’s 2003 cult classic The Room, “Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day in reality.” Issued from a working actress who’s no closer to the pearly gates of Beverly Hills than a kid growing up in Hell, Mich., it’s a touching sentiment.

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All the Money in the World

David Edelstein makes a more persuasive case to read the source material for All the Money in the World than I could make for watching it. That isn’t to say it’s a poorly made time-killer; what it lacks is inspiration. The plot unfolds like an instruction manual, step by step, with characters spelling out their thoughts while the most obvious songs imaginable establish the period. (Using the Rolling Stones for your clichés must cost all the money in the world.) Michelle Williams, playing a woman whose kidnapped son’s multi-billionaire grandfather refuses to pay the ransom, as if withholding it would build the lad’s character, acts up to the bigness of the production. When she broke down in Manchester by the Sea, it was like watching grief cave in on a mother who’d lost a son in different circumstances. Here, she plays the smart woman who always falls for the loser: critically, a scion of the Getty Oil fortune and casualty of ’60s burnout (Andrew Buchan).

Gail always has to take charge; everyone around her is a moron till proven competent, and that’s especially true for the rich. Even if she’s not given a shred of backstory it’s clear that she’d been around the social register long enough to ever warm up to the likes of the Gettys. But Gail’s claims of being ordinary are refuted by her mannerisms. It’s a sight to see a wonderfully gifted naturalistic actress like Williams glint like Katharine Hepburn.

Williams’s performance would tip director Ridley Scott’s hand, in terms of how he interpreted what’s at the core of this material, if it weren’t for the (last-minute) countervailing force of Christopher Plummer as Gail’s former father-in-law: J. Paul Getty, supposedly the richest man in the world at the time, and also the cheapest. If Williams channels patrician movie queens, Plummer lollygags like Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. His Getty is like an aristocrat who’d hunt men just for sport—and yet he has the gaiety of Willy Wonka. It’s a weird-ass mistake, but it’s not the first time this octogenarian’s made it: he’s having too much fun.

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