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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Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson, already a man of prodigious talents, has become our foremost specialist in nonsexual romance. (Don’t tell Maya Rudolph.) To my mind, The Master (2012) is a treasure of infinite suggestiveness: an eagle with a wingspan as wide as the imagination. It grazed the appeal of religious zealotry, and its vulnerability to sham; the interplay of power and restraint in an America at the pinnacle of its century; and what same-sex attraction meant when it couldn’t be reduced to, or complicated by, letters in an ever-elongating acronym. The director’s new film, Phantom Thread, is set in England during the same middle slab of the last century. He drifts through the rubble of old-world mores like a fly on a rotting wall.

Once again, we land in the center of a chaste ménage à trois. Or, more precisely, at the edge, because its participants would doubtfully be in the middle of anything that isn’t woven by their respective delusions. The two closest to the center are the fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), his protégé and muse. Hovering over the periphery is Reynolds’s spinster sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). The influence she exerts over Reynolds’s life, as his talent agent and business manager, maps to Amy Adams’s susurrant matriarch in The Master. As an index to the sibling relationship, Reynolds’s pet name for Cyril is “my little so-and-so”; that, plus the enervated tone in which it’s uttered, says a lot: if nothing else, it speaks to how inbred the British upper classes were.

Anderson’s basic attitude toward artists is less shocking than his attitudes toward cult leaders or oilmen. Shriveled by his unchecked vanity, Reynolds makes Day-Lewis’s Lincoln look like President Taft; the offense he takes at being served asparagus with butter instead of olive oil is fair indication of how he maintains his heroin chic. Apropos of nothing other than her own projections, Alma tells him, on their first date, that he’s only pretending to be strong. It isn’t much of a pretense. If a woman models one of his gowns with an inadequately tightened drawstring, he’ll sink into a depression for days. (As pretty as his work is, however, Reynolds has nothing on whoever dressed Katharine Graham. I guess Reynolds wasn’t into caftans.)

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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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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.

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master makes you feel the universe expanding around you. It catalyzes in memory; there’s a stillness to the images–an immobility–that lends itself to reflection. It is borne aloft at the tempo of the romantic standards of its period, a slow dance chaperoned, chastely beautiful–the sources of beauty and chastity almost intolerably resolved in the ether of an intangible era: a sad dream one wakes up longing for. This is not so much a film about Scientology as it is about will and power and coping with the lack thereof. It is about belief as a proxy for love; a conflicted Elmer Gantry; and a G.I. who jacks off at a crowded beach. It is a masterpiece.

We meet the G.I., Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), first. World War II has just ended, and he pokes through the blanket of good feeling like a stubborn erection. When he dry humps a buxom sculpture in the sand, his fellow vets laugh at first. But he keeps at it like a dog in heat and the spectators scatter; they’ve already graduated to the Greatest Generation with chins in the air. When Freddie gets a job as a portrait photographer at a department store, he immortalizes their kind in its Sunday Best–but by then he’s as invisible to them as a mirror. He has no place in this newly minted middle class, with its ambiance of prosperity founded on Yankee good trouncing Axis evil. Like the hysterics in A Dangerous Method he’s an alien–but without the benefit of membership to a “fairer” sex. The first person we see who takes a genuine interest in him is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), on whose yacht Freddie, forever on the lam, is a stowaway. (He lost his job by picking a fight, for no explicit reason, with a customer who resembles Hoffman; he was then expelled from a commune for poisoning a tramp–who looked like his father–with a noxious cocktail of the sort that Freddie himself often partakes of.) Dodd, tellingly, is master of a cult, but not of the boat; it belongs to some member of the café society that gives this salon mystic his backing–the same perks that Scientologists currently get from their association with the movie colony. Above deck, he gives away his daughter (Ambyr Childers) at her wedding, schmoozing and oozing with studied gaiety; below, he’s hacking away at Freddie’s defenses, eye contact unwavering, repeating questions that expose such baleful truths as a sexual affair with his aunt. One might say that Phoenix is a Method-glazed ham–and his Bob Dylan bird-flip with Casey Affleck has scored him no affection from me–but I think that to say he’s overacting would be to say that Jack Nicholson overdid it in The Shining. With shadows that turn his nasal cavity into a cave, and that lopsided fighter’s snout on the verge of caving in, he’s like a cobbler in a Caravaggio: some icon of damnation on the tip of the mind’s tongue. As the fella said, it’s a wonderful day for an exorcism.

A friend of mine likened watching The Master to banging his head against the wall; and so much of the movie is about running in circles–an extension of Dodd’s interrogative technique. The most striking shots, to me, were stationary images of characters gesticulating in place–such as the break-up spat between Dodd and Freddie when they’re both thrown in prison; the former’s arms are crossed wryly while the latter curbstomps the toilet–or of the camera moving to maintain its subjects’ place in the frame, such as a motorcycle zooming through the desert or a figure sprinting to catch a trundling ship or Freddie running back and forth and smashing himself against the walls in Dodd’s baroque form of therapy. Even the dreamy score, by Johnny Greenwood, skates in circles over a pane of Philip Glass. Mihai Malaimare, Jr., the cinematographer, has worked with Francis Ford Coppola and has a Dutch Master sense of light. It’s never too dense, in an opulent way; I got the sense that the performers were swimming in it as naturally as fish through the sea. Since There Will Be Blood, Anderson has been transitioning from ensemble pieces to something like the “great man” genre. (Is it homage or historical coincidence that the L. Ron Hubbard surrogate looks like Charles Foster Kane during his political period?) But even with immobility as his theme–as his visual motif–he leaves no impression of historical fixity or stiffness; there is, instead, a sense of flow–both within the images and from them. And I think the circuit between past and present is even stronger here than it was in There Will Be Blood, one of the few great works of unalloyed leftism of recent years.

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In the Loop

Dressing up the march toward war in the heightened-mundanity style of The Office might seem like a ludicrously insensitive sneak attack, but the makers of In the Loop are savvy wolves in sheep’s clothing. They use faux reality-T.V. looseness as an antidote to high-flown demagoguery, yet they get their complex points across with the clarity of “Yes We Can.”

Not that their vision is so sanguine. The fresh-faced British Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), opines on a talk-radio interview that an impending Middle Eastern war is “unforeseeable.” Of course, higher up within the government, war is quite foreseeable—in fact, it’s being actuated behind layers of sticky red tape—so the Prime Minister’s spin-doctor, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), is assigned to Foster for damage control. Tucker is a Scots sociopath whose trenchant profanity is probably like Karl Rove’s id on rollerblades. He trains the naïve secretary to speak in ambivalent bromides, and against Foster’s better judgment, the secretary uses them at antiwar conferences held by the American Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy). Foster, along with a document by Clark’s assistant Liza (Anna Chlumsky), are supposed to be Clark’s ace in the hole against the forces of her pro-war opponent, Linton Barwick (David Rasche). But, through swaths of convolutions, obfuscations, and manipulations, the strength of her hand goes up and down like the Scales of Justice turned into a playground seesaw.

The Middle Eastern war isn’t Iraq, though it’s clearly an echo of it. The head honchos on both sides of the Atlantic go unnamed and the references (Lily Allen, I Heart Huckabees, etc.) are clearly anachronistic for a 2002-3 timeframe. But the filmmakers are too clever as satirists to fall into the Iraq trap; In the Loop depicts the horrendous ways in which any modern war can be tricked into erupting. Similarities to Iraq give the writers (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Ian Martin, and the director, Armondo Iannucci) moral ground to stand on—not a soapbox to scold from.

The cast, however, is given several opportunities to scold, shout, seethe and weave strands of B.S. with a scatological loom. Within the loop are hacks, stalwarts, armchair ideologues, sadists and suck-ups, and Iannucci gives each type a send-up, but not dismissively. Most of the actors deserve to get props, but Capaldi and James Gandolfini (as a pragmatic American general) are given the funniest and most difficult roles, respectively.

I usually wince at “pure” evil characters in “serious” movies, but Capaldi makes a robotic weasel like Tucker seem plausible; only once did I think he had his own opinion on something and wasn’t just brokering power for its own sake or for the sake of his ego. To paraphrase from The Lion in Winter, his human parts are missing; but it’s not within this movie’s docudrama purview to examine how that lack affects him internally. Gandolfini, on the other hand, has a role that seems alien to antiwar farce: the tough, sympathetic, mostly respectable Army careerist. His general has Tony Soprano’s physical menace, but that same imposing physique is only one tool that Gandolfini uses to give Lt. General Miller his gravitas. Miller is Soprano with brains as well as guts—pun intended, of course. One of the best—and tensest—scenes in the film pits these two characters against one another in a strength-of-will battle that rivals the Daniel Day-Lewis/Paul Dano confrontations in There Will Be Blood. Here, “good” has such supple reserves of violent strength that you almost fear for “evil.” It almost gives a glint of humanity to “evil.”

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The Critic’s Criticism of His Critics

Of late, I’ve had the pleasure of reading some very negative comments made about my reviews. Because blogs are a newfangled, “democratic” medium, I respect my reader’s right to express him or herself that way, but I also reserve my right to respond—as lengthily (or douche-ily) as I please…

Comment 1:
Because God forbid we enjoy a ‘pop-corn’ movie without the need to call it ‘dumb.’

I doubt He’d forbid such a thing. In fact, I myself did not call the movie in question (Star Trek) dumb, as the commenter implies. I do, however, stand by my insistence that it is mindless trash entertainment—which I mean only half-pejoratively. There have been a few “popcorn movies” that have not been mindless—Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for example, or I Am Legend, or, more recently, Up—but, generally speaking, such movies are designed to be mindless. Movies like Transformers typically don’t interest me because they are made for a mass audience that supposedly prefers movies that treat them like vegetables. Frequently, I, too, enjoy slipping into a coma. On this principle, I enjoyed Star Trek (as I say unequivocally in my review), and I also enjoyed The Hangover. I didn’t feel much need to write about The Hangover, though. I allowed the multiplex to extract its usual pound of flesh from me, but I got exactly what I paid for: enough shards of hilarity to make up for the film’s dumb ethnic stereotypes, clichéd characters, contrived ending, and compulsively current soundtrack of pop songs that one can only enjoy when krunked at a house-party. I welcomed the mindlessness, but that doesn’t mean I should flatter myself by saying that I liked The Hangover because it was anything much more than mindless. In keeping with an age-old tradition that our profit-oriented film industry maintains, popcorn movies are not the most daring or ambitious projects, the kind I usually find to be more worth my while. These rarer movies are not always superior—in fact, some (such as Observe and Report or The Dark Knight) are too stuffy and pretentious or have other failings that bring them below the level of an unpretentiously commercial studio turd like The Hangover—but films such as There Will be Blood or The Wrestler or Synecdoche, New York or Tarsem’s short-lived The Fall were much more interesting than The Hangover, and thus, to me, much more entertaining.

I am conscious, however, that there are those out there who don’t agree with my taste; not only am I comfortable being in a minority, but I accept that movies don’t mean the same thing to everybody, and I’m A-okay with those who subject themselves to Michael Bay movies and honestly enjoy them for what they are. I wouldn’t assume that those people would be compelled to write (or even read) film criticism, as I am. It might well be some form of masochism for a person of those tastes to read my blog; but, as their tortures are self-inflicted, I can’t see how they could possibly dredge up the nerve to howl about their wounds publicly, as if I’d forced them to swallow my opinions and vomit them into the mouths of their young. When next I review a popcorn movie that’s not mindless—maybe around 2019 or so—I’ll make sure to keep this commenter in mind.

Comment 2:
can’t spell pretentious without ‘u’ in it. do you even like movies?

I’m actually rather proud of this one. If by “pretentious” you mean “have standards,” then yes, I proclaim to the world, proudly and wholeheartedly, that I am indeed pretentious! Hallelujah! If I wasn’t pretentious as such, it’d be akin to me wanting to hook up with every biped I came across, and I’m not quite that naughty a boy. Though my eloquence (and temper) sometimes fails me, I strive to be fair when defending my sensibility rather than a snob, scold or boor. I simply see no point in praising a film that’s achieved its aspirations if those are very low; you wouldn’t praise a couch potato who insists on using the remote control. After all, I am open-minded enough to like movies—that “popular” medium, that bastard son of “fine” art. A few decades ago, certain very pretentious people claimed to hate all Hollywood movies solely on the virtue that they were dumb enough for those proletarian schmucks to enjoy. So, really, I’m just as much a vulgarian-schmuck as I am pretentious douchebag.

A little sidebar for the commenter: You may not be able to spell pretentious without a “u” in it, but you can’t spell it without an “I,” either.

Comment 3:
Another one brainwashed by a text-book and French New Wave.

Which textbook? Advanced Trigonometry? No, probably some “pretentious” tome about how filmmakers could have political viewpoints, or some such nonsense. Ugh! As if the commercial entertainment that seeps into the minds of millions could be worth thinking about! Not thinking about it is tantamount to having your brain washed and rinsed repeatedly. I think I’ve pretty much answered this one already, but will add that I’d lump most of the French New Wave films I’ve seen into that slim, dream-come-true category of movies that are daring and ambitious, intelligently substantial, and—this is the kicker—fun to watch.

Comment 4:
[Re: Star Trek]
In saying that the writers’ use of time travel is a cheat, I think you’re being overly harsh. Would you rather they just blatantly ignore EVERYTHING and start COMPLETELY anew like Batman Begins? While that worked for Batman, it would’ve been a million times more insulting to the Star Trek universe. I found their method of “starting over” was incredibly clever and was a way to both pave the way for having new adventures without worrying about keeping canon, but also a way of preserving all the old stories so you don’t have to go “well that’s not how this happens and that doesn’t make sense” when viewing the new film in context with the others.

Also, I was wondering if you ever had any joy in your life at all.

Regarding the first paragraph, the commenter has a point, and I agree with it to some degree. In fact, I have all along, which is why I wrote in my Star Trek piece that “I understand the need for this rupture, but find the methodology crass.” Therefore, the commenter is not really arguing against my point, so much as he or she is arguing beside it.

As for his or her second point—if you want to call it that—I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced joy in my life, though I might be mistaking that sensation for indigestion. (I’ll take some Tums and get back to you on that.) I’ve recorded several instances of joy I’ve had at the movies even in reviews that were mostly negative. For that reason, and others, it is a very strange thing for the commenter to wonder about, and it’s not really much of an insult, to boot. If the commenter is concerned, maybe he or she could get me a prescription for Prozac, or hook me up with some ecstasy. The commenter couldn’t possibly be suggesting that I could ever be so joyful in life as to anonymously post unreasoned ad-hominem attacks on complete strangers simply over a difference of opinion. I don’t know if I’ll ever be that happy.