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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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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Baby Driver

On the topic of idealized Americana, courtesy of our European cousins, is Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which takes the low road to pimped-up rides and cheap cafés. It lacks the sophistication of Breathless, the elegance of Tarantino’s second-run Death Proof, or the snarky dynamism of Wright’s own Cornetto trilogy—but that’s like asking a Buick to be a Bugatti.

There’s a sweet aftertaste of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; the familiarity of their kinship, which complements Wright’s lucid exasperation, resides in the doe-eyed love affair between Ansel Elgort and Lily James (rather more in her than him). They play the sort of drifters that exist outside time and inside the old Warner Bros. vault. Baby fiddles with his iPods a little too much to make the car-chase scenes very memorable. At one point, there’s the promising suggestion of a getaway in a rain storm. When the clouds parted, however, my anticipation level slunk into the gutter.

Kevin Spacey is cool as the mob boss, but his change of heart doesn’t make much sense. (Perhaps it’s best to keep that guy away from jail-bait Baby.) In some ways, the final third is dramatically verklempt, but it’s engaging to watch how Wright, after a fling with the gruesome, snaps back with his moral compass. Hidden behind Baby’s badass shades is a sense of guilt and responsibility. Most of his peers, like Thelma and Louise, would sooner gun it off a cliff than get caught. Wright is a different kind of romantic.

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The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys spells summer like a curly straw in a cocktail. Scrambling together private-eye tropes with the counterculture is, by now, an old and venerable sport for the brightest minds in the business. I wrote about the subgenre last year, citing the continuity of hipsterism from Chandler to Vietnam. The detectives are only cosmetically different from Humphrey Bogart and other forebears; it’s the world that is perceived to have changed. In the post-’60s ecosystem, the P.I. is the patsy, the Establishment is the perpetrator. Holding the Establishment accountable is like betting against the house. You might win the battle, but the war rages on.

Problem is, we’re coming up short on revelations. P. T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which is this movie’s nearest neighbor, was a postmortem on clichés that are old enough to stink like truths. Groovy trip, but still a trip. It butt up against the Establishment only to reaffirm its unknowability. Shane Black, who directed The Nice Guys, isn’t looking for truths he couldn’t find, concealed as they are behind an Establishment firewall. Hippie grievances, for which there is little evidence that the filmmaker feels much sympathy, are sweetened into an anachronistic whine. (Even though we’re supposed to be in L.A., in 1977, those knucklehead protesters should know that we’ll fix the smog problem eventually.) For Black, the counterculture clichés are alive and wellto the point: they are alive. The movie doesn’t aspire to that level of thought that freezes fusty clichés into knee-jerk despair, so the whole thing melts in one’s mouth like a daiquiri. It’s a slurper.

Part of its sweetness comes from Black throwing another genre into the blender, the buddy movie. (N.B.: He wrote Lethal Weapon.) This probably seems like less of an adjustment than it is; having a partner sucks the bitter venom out of the gumshoe, the ur-loner of American cinema. The partners are Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, divinely paired and raising their own Nancy Drew (Gosling’s 13-year-old daughter, played by Angourie Rice). The plot is hardly worth mentioning—a genre staple, going back to The Big Sleep—though I’ll register my weariness at seeing the porn world thrown in, as it is whenever so much as a leisure suit is in wardrobe.

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An appraisal of Fritz Lang’s M, courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

M (1931) is the portrait of a city united against itself. The efficiency of Fritz Lang’s technique and the ambiguity of its implications are summed up by that lonesome letter, which Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) discovers himself branded with—seared into the back of his overcoat in stark chalk strokes. Fear swims in the bulging white glass of his eyes. Tubbier than in his early Hollywood period, the 26-year-old Lorre looks as much like a golem as a cherub. His waxen moony cheeks, snub nose, and pouting lips make him as delicate as the dolls in the toy store window where Beckert sees himself reflected, accompanied by a little girl. If Beckert doesn’t know what the mark stands for, he does know what it means. The question is no longer whether he’ll be caught, but when—and by whom. M is for murderer. M is what he’s reduced to.

You can read the full piece here.

The Gum Underneath the Shoe

A little program note about The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, and Inherent Vice, courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, reverse engineering the symbolism in a genre film meant subverting the expectations that decades of studio programming had groomed. It meant unpacking the myths that were sold to the “masses” – who were rather falsely assumed to have swallowed the illusions whole. Audiences may not have believed the myths, but they enjoyed the comfortably structured fantasies and accepted them, and to the counterculture who saw that acceptance culminate in racism and violence, this was a dangerous delusion. Genres were stand-ins for conventionalism, which was itself a stand-in for authority … The remedy, it was believed, was to respond in the same language … But the sad truth of the matter – from a political though not an aesthetic point of view – is that disrupting people’s fantasy lives is not always the same as changing their behavior.

You can read the full piece here.

American Hustle

If the fashions of the 1970s indicate a culture that had given in, the fashions of the 1980s indicate a culture that had given in but was pretending not to have. In the ’70s, couched in disillusionment, people weren’t hypocritical about being hypocritical; Americans indulged in new freedoms that they hadn’t yet learned to be afraid of. This wayward decade seems to be the spiritual home of the director David O. Russell, who turned 16 in 1974: the year that American Hustle takes off. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), whose chest hair garnishes a leisure suit which is open all the way down to the gut, are two fish grooving in this brave new sea, though their sense of class is informed by an even earlier period; they fall in love over a Duke Ellington L.P.

Russell’s take on the ’70s in America differs greatly from Tomas Alfredson’s view of England during the same era in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Britain’s finest hadn’t just given in—they’d given up. For small-time con artists like Irving, who bilks money out of other small fry by way of bogus loans, and Sydney, who assists him in the imperial guise of “Lady Edith,” this is a period of market expansion—until they get busted by Bradley Cooper in curls, an F.B.I. agent named Richie Di Maso. He takes a shine to Sydney—who still talks like Edith, even if her posh accent is less convincing than the Lady Eve’s—and decides to give the pair a break if they help him snare other criminals; they—Irving less willingly than Sydney—agree to help, and their con spirals out to the highest levels of the Mafia. To Irving’s way of thinking, however, it had gotten out of hand once the trap was set on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, N.J., whose graft for the cause of a rebuilt Atlantic City reads as corrupt to Richie but, to Irving, looks like the long game fairly played. All the while, Sydney plays them both—and herself, too.

Though very different in style and tone, American Hustle is a caper comedy with quirk baked in like The Brothers Bloom. Both take the idea of con men to Samuel Beckett extremes, and do so with self-awareness plateauing at healthy levels. But, with its roots in social realities, and in movies rooted in social realities—Bloom popped out of Wes Anderson and Fellini; Hustle Altman and ScorseseHustle attempts something more daring: Russell doesn’t only want to make a movie in the style of the ’70s masters, he wants to zero in on the sensibility that formed them. As someone whose taste in movies was born in that golden age before my birth, I can’t help but be thrilled by the spirit of his attempt. The big filmmakers of the ’70s were primarily Catholics and Jews—Russell is half-Italian and half-Jewish—and the adoration of Mayor Polito smacks of a certain form of tribalism native to the period. If The Godfather showed that the American Dream was paid for in blood, it also showed an ascendancy from Ellis Island that the sons and grandsons of immigrants could take pride in. Like the student protesters at U.C. Berkeley, their forebears were anti-establishment—but anti-establishment because they had to be. In the flattening of wealth that followed World War II, the ethnic diversity of the middle class boomed; but the aspirations were still hunky-dory Protestant in manner. In Bonnie and Clyde, the youth of a generation said “our turn”; that sentiment then rippled through the generation’s ethnic pockets. This self-identification, which can alas get mawkish, turgid, or worse, gave movies like Mean Streets some of their verve. The American Dream was rewritten in the vernacular.

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