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.
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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.
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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.
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April 2019 was a pretty earth-shaking month in pop culture terms. We had the first tangible fallout from the Disney/Fox merger and some really interesting developments in the Great Streaming Wars (the launch of the fantastic Criterion Channel, details on the upcoming Disney+), we had new blockbuster releases (Shazam!, Hellboy, Pet Sematary), and we had strong holdovers from March (Captain Marvel, Us). Even beyond all that, this month seemed to consistently mark the climax or conclusion of cultural behemoths known all over the world. Game of Thrones launched a final season that culminates the biggest television production in history. The announcement of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker gave us a glimpse at the film that will round out the Skywalker Saga. But for the moment, even those sort of seem like drops in the bucket compared to Avengers: Endgame.
The implications of such a convergence of influential entertainment raises interesting quandaries about the ways in which we as a society consume…oh, who am I kidding. We just saw Avengers: Endgame and internet etiquette dictates we lay down a few buffer paragraphs as a necessity, lest any spoilers be spoilt. But no one’s really here to discuss industry patterns — we’re here to discuss that badass part where SPOILER uses a massive SPOILER as a freakin’ SPOILER. So if you haven’t yet seen the blockbuster-to-end-all-blockbusters, then I highly recommend Robert Mueller’s heavily-redacted review of the film until you manage to get tickets for the next available Endgame screening 30 years from now.
Seriously, massive spoilers below. Good to go? Good. Let’s go.
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I never much expected Yorgos Lanthimos to become a great filmmaker. He was always a very good filmmaker, and it must be noted that we’re reserving the term great here for someone truly deserving of the moniker, as in one of the all-time greats. Nowadays great gets bandied about a lot. Is Ridley Scott great? From time to time, sure. Maybe we weigh the greatness of Blade Runner against the decidedly-not-so-greatness of Alien: Covenant? Is Francis Ford Coppola great? He definitely was. Does he get a lifetime pass for Godfather and Apocalypse Now? Is Wes Anderson great? No, he’s not. Stylish, yes. Symmetrical, very. But a mere few living filmmakers are transcendently, naturally, consistently great. Surely it’s a malleable and transient label, fit to be removed, re-earned, reconsidered. And surely — as The Dude would say in that movie by the great Coen Brothers — it’s just, like, your opinion, man.
Lanthimos isn’t yet one of the all-time greats, but watching The Favourite I did think, for the first time, that he might just have it in him someday. Such a consideration might have been questionable after his previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an overly melancholy tale featuring a creepy turn from Barry Keoghan, one cool shot of a descending escalator, a Funny Games-esque climax and a whole bunch of monotone dialogue. It wasn’t a bad movie, and it might even be a pretty good movie. But the cold design of Sacred Deer made it impactful but never resonant. Maybe it was just so different than The Lobster, the previous effort from Lanthimos, which was a darkly funny and much more inventive film.
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It would have been easy for Shoplifters to glamorize the criminal acts of its central characters. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film follows an impoverished Tokyo family surviving on a hierarchical system of thievery, nicking small items where the opportunity arises or, more frequently, setting out on an express mission to steal that which they need. The setup, of course, is worlds away from the heist genre, but it’s still refreshing to experience these criminal acts for what they actually are: desperate, thrill-less acts devoid of meticulous planning or grifter’s luck. And if there is any thrill in stealing shampoo and ramen noodles, it’s a thrill that quickly sinks into the pit of one’s stomach, weighed by the immorality of it all.
Shoplifting — or crime, more broadly — isn’t really the main focus of Shoplifters, anyway. This is a movie about family, and the family in focus happens to sometimes commit criminal acts. For the first chunk of the film, we might almost leave it at that. We spend as much time at home in quiet moments with the members of this family as we do in the “action” of their thievery, although it quickly becomes apparent that both are survival tactics. Fulfilling the role of Family Member, in many ways, provides much the same life-giving sustenance as does the role of Thief.
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You could call Roma the most colorful black-and-white film ever made. After the Centerpiece screening at the 56th New York Film Festival, writer/director Alfonso Cuarón noted how important the visual presentation was to the overall effect of the movie. Crucial among his points was that this black-and-white is “not a nostalgic black-and-white” but instead “modern” and “pristine,” disabusing the viewer of the notion that this tale is unfolding in a long-forgotten place or time. Despite being assured throughout the film that the place is Mexico City and the year is 1971, Roma simultaneously manages to assure you that what’s happening is happening here and now.
You could also single out the production design, the incredible detail in every frame of the film, as a primary contributor to this experience of color in a movie that supposedly doesn’t have any. A sweeping shot of the countryside seems to give off a yellow hue because the lighting is so sunny and natural; muddy brown makes its way into an otherwise cold shot of a discarded action figure and a flattened soccer ball in the garage outside. A rock thrown through a window in one scene leaves a hole that we look through weeks later, and somehow this lasting detail even evokes color in clear glass.
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After winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend, public opinion on Green Book quickly pivoted from a general curiosity in a dramatic effort from the guy who did Dumb and Dumber to genuine anticipation for an early Oscar frontrunner. The film’s first trailer, full of emotional monologues and swelling orchestral strings, already gave off a For Your Consideration vibe before Green Book even premiered. But TIFF has certainly become a stronger indicator of awards season success in recent years, and nine of the last ten People’s Choice Award winners went on to become Best Picture nominees. Universal went into overdrive this past week to get their sudden contender out to smaller festivals and screenings, so this week’s presentation at the 34th Boston Film Festival was a pleasant surprise.
Set in the back half of 1962, Green Book follows pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) after he hires bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) to be his driver on a tour of the Deep South. Their pairing has the trappings of a buddy road movie, Shirley a wealthy and dignified artist and Tony a brash and illiterate tough guy. Shirley is reserved, polite, particular; Tony eats twenty-six hot dogs in a bid to win fifty bucks. More to Green Book‘s theme, Shirley is a Jamaican-born American rightfully concerned about his own safety on a tour of the increasingly bigoted South; Tony, an Italian-American who rarely leaves the Bronx, is for the most part blissfully unaware of his own racism.
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I arrived late to the party for The Shape of Water, having finally caught the movie a few weeks ago after months and months of dodging reviews online. Guess I’d better add my voice to the fray, huh? Maybe a piece on how writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s creativity allowed him to get away with a smaller budget…but, no, someone’s already written that. How about an article detailing the Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired genesis of the film? Damn, that one’s been up for three months. Use of color in the film? Been there. Political subtext? Done that. Seems a movie as rich as this should have a surplus of accoutrements on which to festoon my opinions, should have that pliability typical of great films allowing for different readings, interpretations, criticisms, attitudes and judgments.
The irony, in a way, is that explicit analysis of The Shape of Water is sort of counter to the themes of the film. More than that: forcing words onto Shape, which thrives largely on sight and feeling, might actually be detrimental to one’s enjoyment of and identification with the message at hand. Despite having seen the film only recently and only once, I suspect that removing the words entirely — watching it with the volume muted — wouldn’t take anything away from the overall experience. It might even heighten it, highlighting just how different “words” and “communication” actually are.
Continue reading The Shape of Water (2017) →