Eighth Grade

One of the things that Bo Burnham (who wrote and directed Eighth Grade) and Greta Gerwig (who wrote and directed Lady Bird) share in common is an ability to sidestep their inexperience deftly. In Lady Bird, Gerwig loaded ungainly exposition into the mouths of unanticipated characters. In Eighth Grade, Burnham establishes his street cred early on. The grown-ups do the dab and call the reproductive system “lit”; they broaden the generation gap with acts of cultural appropriation. So, within a few minutes, he expels the oldsliterally takes them out of focussave for Kayla’s father, who is teed up for a big reveal. The message to young audiences is clear: despite the calendar, Burnham is no ordinary adult. Neither was Mr. Rogers.

I like Burnham and I like Eighth Grade; he has, and it shows, a great deal of talent, judgment, and sympathy. But however much the film (like Lady Bird) succeeds on its own terms, I do not find those terms very compelling. Both of these chronicles of adolescent life were made by young filmmakers (Burnham was born in 1990, Gerwig in 1983) who became well-known early in life; both of their movies are kind. If one had to sum them up in a single image, it would be the gimlet-eyed emoji. But their protagonists don’t exist to change, even if they grow up; they exist to be affirmed for who they are. (In the same vein, Kayla’s fatherJosh Hamiltonexists to affirm; outside of his daughter, he has no life, the implication being that this is how Kayla sees him.) This mechanism blandishes older viewers as well: it’s like a “yassss queen” projected backward to our darling, fledgling selves.

That being said, I think that knowing when to play to one’s strengths is undervalued, just as a gift for immersive empathy is rare in a comedian. Burnham’s rapport with Elsie Fisher, as Kayla, is truly specialeven if one takes John Hughes and Molly Ringwald as a benchmark. Compared to The Breakfast Club, Eighth Grade is loosely structured; it seems linked to Kayla’s nervous system. Where Hughes blamed parents for their children’s woes, Burnham shirks adults altogetherin part, I think, because he doesn’t like to point fingers. Youth exculpates Kayla and (most of) her peers. His goal, as I see it, is to give them a safe space to try on different personas.

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The Favourite

Once the stardom of Emma Stone had gone through beta-testing, and was finally F.D.A.-approved, I thought she was a detoxified Lindsay Lohan, just as I once assumed that Adele was the version of Amy Winehouse who did go to rehab. Stone struck me as a throwback to a time when men in suits schemed out pretty starlets’ careers; she did not act in movies, she starred in vehicles—like Crazy, Stupid, Love or The Help. In La La Land, which was no mere vehicle—it was a full-on showboat—Stone was perfectly matched with Ryan Gosling, another constructed star. Given that the night sky has gotten clogged with self-managed talents, competing for our attention on ever-smaller screens, their twinkle was reassuring, if also uncanny.

Transported to the early 18th century in The Favourite, Stone is perhaps the weakest leg of a love triangle comprising herself, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman—but she is also the only leg bereft of romantic feeling, which the other two, in their differing prodigious ways, are so good at showing. That said, she registers dissolute ruination very convincingly, considering that her Iago starts out as a sexy milkmaid pitted against Weisz’s huntress. Her bright-eyed Americanness is just right for the part; Stone deftly lets on that this servant’s pluck is the very thing that puts her at risk of corruption.

The director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is sometimes overconfident in his visual scheme and underconfident in his storytelling. The former, or at least his penchant for the funhouse distortion of fish-eye lenses, can be explained away by the technical constraints of shooting antique manors in natural light. But many of his low-angle shots, including some of Nicholas Hoult, who is already playing up to his powdered wig and the prissy makeup for which Trump’s tan is a 21st-century equivalent, are grossly emphatic; and when courtiers bust out hip-hop moves dancing to harpsichord music, we are halfway to The Little Hours but tonally out of step. Likewise, the use of crosscutting is distracting at best and confusing at worst; it eats away at any real tension or irony during a promising sequence at a bordello.

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The Death of Stalin

In The Death of Stalin, laughs are wrapped with barbed wire: one stumbles through the Orwellian schadenfreude, half-awake to the present goings-on at the White House. Trump’s rat maze continues to attract new vermin; his cheese does not seem worth all the hazards of grabbing it—but greed tells its hostages otherwise. I saw this film months ago, but the comic potential of bad people in worse situations is always ripe for an exploiter as ruthless as his or her subjects. Enter Armando Iannucci—political farceur.

I think, like most people, I land in different slots on the spectrum between American naivete and British cynicism—or British naivete about American cynicism—depending on the hues of my mood or news of the day. After In the Loop (2009) savaged Britain’s democratic institutions, Iannucci crossed the pond to hope-and-change Washington for Veep. He sets his sights here on Communist Russia. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either his hardest target or easiest. Satire is premised on the gulfs between pretense and reality, but those gaps ought to be unexpected as well as wide. History has not taught us to give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt.

That being said, I think that even if Trump had never descended his gilded escalator and helped put the threat of fascism back into the air, Iannucci’s insights would have still proven just as timeless as Terry Gilliam’s were in Brazil. And Iannucci’s totalitarian romp has a bonus basis in fact. Linking their films is Michael Palin, who I almost didn’t recognize as Molotov. The Monty Python alum has graduated from playing the part of the ambitious Mengele-on-the-make to occupying a role similar to the one played by Ian Holm in 1985: the exasperated functionary. This palsied Molotov could use a cocktail, and Palin demonstrates this by sweating out equivocations. In a Politburo meeting, he bloviates between self-canceling clauses; the hands of his colleagues seesaw their agreement like bids at an auction. Watching Bolsheviks snarl up in their own pollution of language is a sight to see.

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BlacKkKlansman

In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee attempts too much; fails at most of it; and is better off for having tried. First off, there’s the police procedural “based on a true story”: the original case files were destroyed, perhaps to protect the targets of the sting, or maybe just to cover up the overweening ineptitude. It seems like a reckless idea to have the one black cop in Colorado Springs infiltrate the K.K.K. over the phone—granted, he was the one who took the initiative—and then have the one Jewish cop in Colorado Springs assume the role when he goes undercover. And the poor schmuck, even after vocal coaching, does not even try to mimic the other officer’s honky voice from the phone—which Lee has set up as the comedic centerpiece! Obviously, it takes a long time for the dupes on the other end to catch on; I suppose you don’t need to pass an intelligence test to gain admission into the Klan.

John David Washington has great droll eyes and physical swagger, but he does not have enough urgency and he’s paired with the temperamentally similar Adam Driver. Apart from one scene, when Washington challenges Driver to carry on, there’s a dearth of material clarifying the bond between these two men. Ryan Eggold, as one of the Klansmen, gets to show a little sweat, and Topher Grace is something of a miracle in the role of the Grand Wizard, David Duke. He conjures up an unholy mixture of the fatuous and seductive that the eminently pale original couldn’t hold a candle to.

I didn’t come out believing the story, but I admired its feel and flourishes: the blaxploitation whine on the soundtrack; Washington venting his stress with jiu-jitsu pantomime; an effulgent early-’70s dance hall sequence, “Too Late to Turn Back Now” on the turntable, knitting the black revolutionaries together in a beneficent fro—both social binder and courtship ritual. Above all, I admired Lee’s quixotic jives between Hollywood movie and essay film: his juxtaposition of éminence grise Harry Belafonte as a witness recounting a lynching from 1914 with Klansmen cheering on The Birth of a Nation as if they were at a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Rosemary’s Baby

It strikes me that Rosemary’s Baby, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is a remarkably inconvenient movie. Adapted and directed by Roman Polanski, a #metoo pariah long before hashes were tagged, and starring, as the titular mother, Mia Farrow, whose real-life baby Ronan (son of Woody Allen!) broke the Weinstein story, the film is a scrupulous and sympathetic portrait of a vulnerable woman’s struggle to maintain her agency against a preternatural patriarchy. Not to mention her struggle to be believed. Only her young female friends, who’ve been cut out of her life, acknowledge her pain. Rosemary’s new social circle, which the pregnant housewife comes to see as the cause of her suffering, is a reliquary of witches next door.

There’s some juicy generation-gap paranoia and rather less plot. It follows a novel by Ira Levin, a twist on the nativity story that substitutes Satan for God. This new conception is far from immaculate, and sullied further by a Faustian bargain that’s struck off-screen. Of course, this is not a deal that Rosemary consents to—even if she’s the one stuck carrying it to term. She is, at most, a surrogate Faust: it’s her struggling-actor husband Guy (John Cassavettes) who sells his soul and leases her womb. Using Actors Studio narcissism to turn Guy into a clown, Cassavettes gives the impression that this thespian has a few ethical guardrails but is sufficiently weak to jump over them when an opportunity for advancement presents itself.

In a move that seems almost paranormal in its prescience, Rosemary’s Baby critiques the mores of its time to add to the creeping terror. (It’s the rare example of a movie that embraces its own period and simultaneously transcends it. It feels almost like a period piece set in the ’60s.) There is no indication, for example, that Rosemary is troubled by her lack of career or commitment to domesticity; she is neither Betty Friedan nor dirty hippie. But it’s equally clear that when Guy ignores her to focus on his own career; or isolates her from old friends in favor of their septuagenarian neighbors; or insists that she hire the neighbors’ flinty cohort Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) as her obstetrician, Rosemary has no way to oppose him.

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Game Night

Game Night is good company for the rump-end of a week. There’s nothing novel about squeezing comedy out of the disjuncture between action-movie tropes and ordinary life. To their credit, these filmmakers gnaw at that old tired chestnut sparingly—as when they repeat an unfunny and ultimately cruel gag about an imagined one-night stand with Denzel Washington. The fact that he plays himself in this delusion functions as a humble-brag.

But the filmmakers (writer Mark Perez and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein) put time into developing narrative muscle, and it’s a real and unusual achievement in comedy that their structure builds and does not collapse. The professional criminals who squirrel their way into a suburban role-playing game are scaffolding, of course, but it fixes our attention on Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman. If Nick and Nora Charles were alive and sober today—and pinned to all the constraints of middle-class comfort—they’d be quipping about Bananagrams like these two instead of solving crimes. Bateman’s Average Joe mug conceals petty resentments and his martini-dry delivery captures the pathos of the self-consciously spoiled. But his better half keeps him on his toes. For her part, McAdams is unapologetic about her competitive streak; she engages with details as only a committed fantasist could. Her journalistic poise in the face of a massive scoop stole the show in Spotlight; here, a backhanded compliment buckles her knees. She wobbles and shines like Jell-O.

Coco

There is an old maxim, which Google attributes to Banksy, that people die for the first time when they draw their last breath; they die for the second when the living cease to utter their name. It is obvious, in retrospect, that the best illustration of this mortal headwind should come out of Pixar.

In Coco, the Land of the Dead beckons like Disney World. We never see it in daylight, as we return to the earthly realm as soon as dawn breaks, which is altogether proper: this nocturnal haunt resembles a vertical Old Havana, strung together by patio lights. It’s neither heaven nor hell but is humanly corrupt, with a morbid bureaucracy out of Beetlejuice and a border crossing between life and death that one unpleasantly associates with ICE. I assume that last touch, with smiling agents enforcing rules they didn’t write, such as barring the dead from watching over their survivors if their survivors do not remember them, was subject to anxious notes from studio executives: the Land of the Living, when we see it, is a fictitious village in Mexico.

That village is home to Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez, who was 13 years old when the film came out). His journey demonstrates that Pixar is, as ever, catholic in its influences, even as it shrewdly excises all references to Roman Catholicism, which would be central to these characters’ lives. In short, Coco is a variation on the Orpheus legend, strapped to a ticking time bomb lobbed in from Back to the Future. Music is Miguel’s passion, but it’s been forbidden in his family since his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife Imelda and daughter Coco to pursue the lofty dream of becoming a famous musician. Miguel’s grandmother (Coco’s daughter) condemns his own guitar playing, which sets in motion the boy’s sojourn to the afterlife; but the condemnation of his relatives there presents an obstacle to getting out. If Miguel doesn’t disavow music, his ancestors refuse to release him to the living; but without their blessing, he’ll become a permanent resident in a matter of hours. And his skeleton is already visible through his skin.

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