Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural, his debut novel, in 1952, the year the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. The tale of once-promising baseballer Roy Hobbs was almost universally praised upon the novel’s release, with many championing it as the first great novel about baseball. Critical consensus, though, agreed that the actual baseball — the strategy, the technicalities, the game — mattered less than the fable at hand. In some ways the myth behind Roy Hobbs was more interesting than Roy Hobbs. The original New York Times review from August ’52 typifies this stance in describing the novel thusly:
a sustained and elaborate allegory in which the “natural” player who operates with ease and the greatest skill, without having been taught, is equated with the natural man who, left alone by, say, politicians and advertising agencies, might achieve his real fulfillment.
Continue reading The Natural (1984)
Last year, 2018, was the biggest year ever at the domestic box office. There were some great movies, sure, regardless of their financial success, but it still felt like a weird year for Hollywood. The dark pall cast by the Weinstein case revealed the industry to be hopelessly stuck in the past (to understate the matter), run by rich white men and increasingly monopolized media conglomerates. Green Book winning Best Picture did not help.
So, how did 2019 respond? Essentially in two ways:
- Martin Scorsese refers to Marvel movies as “not cinema”. He goes on to clarify and reclarify his position, which is in turn either refuted or bolstered by nearly everyone in Hollywood. But the point is out there now, whether you agree or not: there’s the Hollywood that cares about money, about starpower, about IP, about all four quadrants, about comic-book fandoms and release calendars and streaming services and cosplay-riddled convention hall trailer reactions; and yet, somewhere, there’s still the Hollywood that truly cares about the movies, quaint an idea as that may be. Partly due to Scorsese’s willingness to speak truth to power, many spent 2019 redefining and rediscovering cinema.
- Disney, meanwhile, spent 2019 expanding its revenue base by a record $10 billion.
I watched about 100 new movies in 2019 and it seemed like Adam Driver was in most of them. The first one I saw was Alita: Battle Angel and the last one was The Two Popes, both of which were full of guns-blazing action. Chris Evans holds the distinction of starring in the year’s biggest (Avengers: Endgame), one of the year’s best (Knives Out) and also one of the year’s absolute worst (The Red Sea Diving Resort). And just when you thought toxic discourse about Star Wars fandom couldn’t explode any further, The Rise of Skywalker and Baby Yoda brought us to the brink of an Alderaan-level event.
But those aren’t the stats you care about. You just came for the best:
Continue reading Best of 2019
The first scene of E.T. wouldn’t be the same in any other medium. Wordless, shadowy and purposefully obscure, there’s still a ton of information conveyed through visuals alone. Spielberg was (and maybe still is) a fan of this kind of opening, eschewing expository positioning in favor of details that might strike as somewhat disorienting at first. There are fifteen or so characters here, all of them faceless. But even though we don’t get an instance of “Spielberg Face” — his beloved reaction shot of a wonderstruck visage, eyes wide, mouth agape — there’s still plenty to gawk at in these few short minutes.
Here’s the opening scene (jump to 1:10 to skip the opening credits):
Continue reading E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
One of the most intriguing films of the past year is Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s violent, hardboiled yarn about two misogynistic and racist cops (Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn) taking the law into their own hands. The film plays as a far-right (or even alt-right) fantasy, the two white leads lamenting “political correctness” while they harass witnesses and suspects who are exclusively non-white. Even the casting of Gibson and Vaughn is loaded. But Concrete hinges on the question of whether Zahler actually agrees with the mentality of his own film, whether he’s playing a larger game in giving us these exact characters at a time when everything else out of Hollywood is either liberal-minded or four-quadrant neutral. Short of an answer, the question alone makes Concrete into one of 2019’s most provocative films.
Part of me thinks In the Company of Men is the Dragged Across Concrete of the ‘90s. Playwright Neil LaBute adapted his own 1992 play about two white company men — one a sworn and highly vocal misogynist (Aaron Eckhart) and the other an angry and impressionable wimp (Matt Malloy) — into an award-winning commentary on vitriolic corporate culture and the weak men who historically dominate that culture. Rarely has a film about workplace gender wars been this explicit, this horrifying, this willing to jump right into battle rather than dwell on why the fight began in the first place. And rarely has this war seemed so woefully one-sided.
Continue reading In the Company of Men (1997)
Political turmoil always breeds strange artistic phenomena, and the movies are no exception. As the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue reclines in the West Wing, bone spurs resting beside the crumpled Wendy’s bag upon the Resolute Desk, one such phenomenon we’ve witnessed recently is that of Art as Response. In this scenario a filmmaker — like, say, Steven Spielberg — will work quickly to produce a movie — say The Post — as an active comment on whatever’s happening (or not happening) in the Oval Office. A second phenomenon involves us, the filmgoers and cinemalovers, and the way we inexorably view almost any new movie in the context of today’s political climate. A given film — like, say, Joker — might not actually hold inherent wisdom about that climate, but it’d be impossible for us to read it any other way.
Yet a third consequence of that intermingling of art and politics is even more inevitable than the second, despite it not concerning new art at all: a film — like, say, All the President’s Men or The Candidate or Charlie Wilson’s War or V for Vendetta or Dave or Idiocracy — reaches out from the past and seemingly connects with today in a way that defies explanation. It’s an experience somewhat related to the prescience of the sci-fi genre, and certain practitioners like George Orwell or Michael Crichton definitely had a penchant for it. I’d never considered Stephen King among that crowd of writers whose works could achieve time travel, politically speaking, but that was before I encountered The Dead Zone.
Continue reading The Dead Zone (1983)
It ain’t always fun, the movies. Amongst this year’s least-fun pictures we probably have the likes of Alita: Battle Angel, Glass, Dark Phoenix and Gemini Man, all of which share in common a clear prioritization of special effects over storytelling. They’re also united in the fact that production was rocky in every instance, be it years of limbo or last-minute hackjobs in the editing bay, though that’s not necessarily synonymous with a bad film. Production on one of this year’s best, The Lighthouse, was described by its own director as “tense” and “cold”. No fun to be had in making that movie. Only in watching it.
In a pre-recorded clip before the New England premiere of Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson — whilst thanking us for seeing the film and imploring us not to spoil it — said flat out that making it was “a blast.” It’s not hard to believe, and evident from the film’s very first scenes: everyone in front of the camera (Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and a million others) breezes through having the time of their lives. And Johnson, too, exudes a confidence here as both a writer and a director that can only be borne of exciting material in the hands of a craftsman coming into his prime.
Continue reading Knives Out (2019)
The ambition of Robert Eggers was apparent after his debut The Witch, a one-of-a-kind horror film steeped in deeply-felt folklore. The dialect, the costumes and settings, the sound design and the themes were all clearly the result of hard research and dedication to period accuracy rarely realized in modern film. Eggers himself, who presented a special IFFBoston screening of his follow-up The Lighthouse at Boston’s Brattle Theatre last night, acknowledged the explicit attempt to “commune with the folk culture of the region” in crafting his debut. But while that hard behind-the-scenes work was definitely still required by The Lighthouse, less of it shows in the final product, resulting in a more mature effort that still values the power of myth and lore.
Atmosphere is everything. In the lead-up to the film’s premiere at Cannes in May, much was made of the film’s unique aesthetic choices. Despite the popularity of Roma and Cold War last year, the mere concept of a black-and-white format remains alienating to many audiences (and financiers). Shooting on 35mm gives that black-and-white an extra characteristic, with the blacks bottoming out into nothingness. Additionally, A24 posted this snippet from the Lighthouse script in reference to the boxy, unpopular aspect ratio that’s been largely defunct since the early sound era:
Seemingly the most off-putting of these choices by Eggers is the one it shares with The Witch: dialogue comprised of archaic vernacular and dialect, delivered in an accent that also aims to fit the time and place. Eggers and his co-writer brother Max wrote “in-dialect,” rather than writing in plain English and then translating, and the effect — as was the case with Witch — takes a minute to groove once the dialogue begins. And there’s a lot of dialogue in The Lighthouse.
Continue reading The Lighthouse (2019)
Ang Lee’s increasing preoccupation with digital cinema effects can be traced to 2003’s Hulk, the first time one of his films featured a main character generated by a computer. In 2012 Life of Pi saw Lee wading further into digital waters, showcasing computerized sets and hyperrealistic animal characters. And in 2016 Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, filmed in a superfast 120 frames-per-second that very few theaters in the U.S. were actually equipped to project, managed to exude a digital sheen despite the apparent novelty of normal human characters doing non-superpowered things. With Gemini Man, Lee’s big-budget Will Smith actioner, the director tries a new digital toy: a screenplay generated entirely by a computer.
It certainly feels like that, anyway. The real gimmick of Gemini Man, of course, is a digitally de-aged Smith playing a younger clone of himself (Fresh Prints of Bel-Air). The Real Human Smith is Henry, the world’s best assassin, who simply wants to retire in peace. But the digitized “Junior” Smith is sent to kill the O.G. version, resulting in a globetrotting game of cat-and-mouse (or cat-and-cat). That rote setup, spun with only the slightest variation out of the thousand other movies about the world’s best assassin on the brink of retirement, could still have made for an exciting movie with a solid script.
Continue reading Gemini Man (2019)
Parasite is consistently surprising at every turn. Even if you don’t go in cold, knowing nothing about the plot or themes of Bong Joon-ho’s latest, the sprightly storytelling still does its job in keeping you on your toes. If you’ve seen Bong’s English-language efforts Snowpiercer and Okja, you might assume Parasite to be structured over themes of class disparity and the dangers of technology. While you’d technically be correct, those themes are far less obnoxious than they were in Snowpiercer, more cohesive than they were in Okja, and overall the plot- and character-based twists make Parasite into a far superior film.
We won’t dive into those twists, because coming in blind is likely the best way to experience this (any?) film. The plot, in its barest summary, follows the impoverished Kim Family as they grow increasingly resourceful in trying to make ends meet. Their collective path crosses with that of the Park Family, one of Korea’s wealthiest, and from there… Continue reading Parasite (2019)
Early buzz on Joker made frequent mention of a guy named Martin Scorsese, a film director you may have heard of, though not one who’s ever actually directed any films called Joker. Partly the comparison stems from the aesthetic of this new grimdark pseudo-origin for Batman’s nemesis, which is set in the ballpark of 1981 in a Gotham that looks suspiciously like the New York of Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Partly it’s the theme, too, I suppose, as Scorsese’s obvious preoccupation with insecure males and violence fits Joker‘s bill pretty well. And partly people simply love saying “it’s just like ______!” when a new movie comes out. Heck, the last Joaquin Phoenix movie we reviewed (the phenomenal You Were Never Really Here) discussed exactly that: people said it was “just like Taxi Driver!”
It wasn’t, of course, and Joker isn’t really like Taxi Driver, either. But I’m willing to bet Todd Phillips — Joker‘s actual director — isn’t exactly bummed at the comparison. If anything he’s consciously invited it, crafting Joker as a
rip-off spiritual offspring of Marty’s in more ways than one. We might jump to Taxi Driver because of the interchangeable logline — unstable loner is shunned by society and devolves into madness as a result — but the shout-outs to Scorsese’s King of Comedy are even more explicit. Robert De Niro was in Phoenix’s shoes for that one, playing the failed comedian obsessed with Jerry Lewis’s talk show host, but in Joker he fills the exact seat Lewis filled in King. Now may be a good time to note that subtlety is not one of Joker‘s strengths.
Continue reading Joker (2019)