His Dark Materials
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THE SHORE THING - My Review of THE LIGHTHOUSE (4 Stars)
One of my all-time favorite films is F.W. Murnau's silent classic, Sunrise, a drop dead gorgeous example of German expressionism in which its haunting imagery and Postman Always Rings Twice storyline felt way ahead of its time. Filmmakers today could learn a lot from its ability to tell a compelling story with very little dialogue. Some of our most visceral current filmmakers, such as David Lynch and Claire Denis owe a huge debt to this pioneering filmmaker. Add Robert Eggers to that list, whose debut film, The Witch, demonstrated his mastery of tone and dread, and now with his follow-up, The Lighthouse, he adds brutality, intensity, subtext, and surrealism to his singular voice. It's definitely not a film for everyone, but if you like to feel a film down to its pores, then welcome to his little slice of Hell.
In late 1890s New England, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) serves as Thomas Wake's (Willem Dafoe) assistant for a grueling 4 week stint minding a remote lighthouse. Wake's a gruff, pipe-smoking, constantly farting, foul-mouthed old salt, while Winslow, who relocated from the Pacific Northwest, has a quiet air of mystery about him. Eggers, who co-wrote the script with his brother Max, shoots in an inky black and white and opts for a square aspect ratio, the better to sell its silent film qualities. We've convincingly stumbled into the past, where dank quarters barely protect you from the elements and cabin fever seems like a mere introduction.
From the start, Eggers immerses us into their world. An early shot of Wake and Winslow framing a shot of the lighthouse as their boat sails ashore has the feel and vibe of a hand-cranked silent film. A minute later, the pair stare into the camera with looks so deadening, they seem to tell us they know of the rough ride ahead. Wake treats Wislow like a dog. While Wake insists on working in the lighthouse at night, he orders Winslow to do all the daytime drudge work, such as cleaning the latrine, painting the walls, and constantly scrubbing like a Cinderella who will never see a glass slipper. Winslow can also never go into the top of the lighthouse.
Of course, a command like that will not be heeded or we'd have no film. Getting to that point, Eggers loads the screen with an endless display of dread. The intrusive sound mix combines constant foghorns with Mark Korven's bold, distinctive score. It rattles you, along with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke's fantastic framing and use of negative space. We experience the deprivation through Winslow's eyes, his gaze fixated on Wake while he sleeps. Occasionally, Winslow will relieve his tension while holding a mermaid figurine, but his sexual feelings seem confused. Violent impulses eventually supplant sexual ones. Hallucinations abound. Men lose themselves in the moment. It's impossible to watch this film without thinking of it as a treatise on homosexual panic. Waiting For Gaydot, as it were.
Since Eggars has "young auteur" written all over him, much like Ari Aster has with his first two films, we already have some Eggers tropes at play. In addition to the black and white, the unsettling sound mix, and the unexplainable occurrences, he also brings us another memorable animal performance. Whereas The Witch gave us Black Phillip, the goat, his new film has an intensely squawking seagull who finds all sorts of ways to annoy Winslow. You won't forget the gull's storyline anytime soon.
Same goes for the lead performances. Dafoe, who spouts a constant stream of crazed monologues, kept me from wanting this to be dialogue-free. It's a non-stop, ferocious role, and Dafoe takes a big bite out of it. He reminded me of R. Lee. Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, with his bold, fearless approach to a character most would want to clobber. Pattinson proves once more that post-Twilight, he's one of the greats. As an actor, he has the most expressive eyes and knows how to simultaneously evoke danger and lust. As things go completely bonkers in this film, you willingly take the ride just to see how Pattinson will react to the increasingly crazy and dire circumstances.
Not everybody goes to the movies to feel dirty and disgusted. The Lighthouse hardly offers escapist fare. It's a romantic comedy as filtered through a literal cesspool, and Eggers joins the few who I'll follow down into the sewer if it means experiencing a film like this, which engages all of your senses.
SEOUL SURVIVORS - My Review of PARASITE (4 1/2 Stars)
It would be understandable to watch the first ten minutes of Parasite, the new film from Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) and think you've stumbled into an alternate universe version of Shoplifters. Both feature an Asian family of grifters living in a hovel and preying on people with money. Both won the prestigious Cannes Film Festival's top prize a year apart. While both excellent films, Parasite is to Shoplifters what No Strings Attached was to Friends With Benefits. I won't chase comparisons any further than that, because Parasite is a staggering work of art worth putting on its very own pedestal.
Bong Joon Ho has delighted in subverting our expectations within specific genres, whether it's a monster movie, a chase film, or an environmental issues farce. His films have often explored the marked differences between the haves and the have nots. With Parasite, he and co-writer Han Jin Won bring this social dichotomy to the world of the home invasion thriller, creating a masterful, screw-tightening, devastatingly powerful gut punch of a movie.
I'll set up the basic premise but spoil nothing in this review, as the surprises merit fresh eyes. The Kim family live in a damp basement apartment which affords them a view of drunken men urinating right outside their street level window. They subsist on odd jobs like folding pizza boxes and dream of better lives which they can see on their iPhones whenever they're able to piggyback onto their neighbor's WiFi. This foursome, played by Kang-ho Song, a Bong Joon Ho regular, as the father Ki-taek, Hye-jin Jang as the mother Chung-sook, Woo-Sir Choi as the young son Ki-woo and So-dam Park as the daughter, deserve a break.
Good fortune strikes them one day when Ki-woo's friend tells informs him he's traveling overseas and needs him to cover for him as an English tutor for the daughter the wealthy Park family of four. Ki-woo impresses the parents, who live in a sleek modern mansion in a well-to-do section of Seoul. The father, Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee) owns a tech company and has the shuffling gait of a man used to his creature comforts. The mother, Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo) oozes compassion and beauty despite not always being aware of her surroundings. They raise their young children in a bubble which gets burst wide open with the arrival of Ki-woo. Soon, enough, the rest of the Kim family insidiously infiltrates the Parks' lives, and my story description ends here.
Needless to say, Parasite draws you in with its basic premise and then, like the best of Hitchcock and Kubrick, turns it on its ear and makes you gasp. The majority of the film delights in revealing every little shift which occurs in that gorgeously stark home until you slowly realize that everything has changed. In an instant, however, things go bonkers (you'll know it when you see it), but it doesn't so much feel like a tonal shift as it feels like an organic extension of our poor family's desperation. The film doesn't feature a human antagonist. The Kim's do what they need to do to survive in a tough world, and the Parks are mostly kind to their employees, although they do separate themselves a bit by noticing that poor people have certain smells. It's enough of a detail to evoke a ton of empathy for the Kims.
Make no mistake. This is a movie-movie. It has grand set pieces and almost unbearable suspense. I've never before witnessed the preparing of a ramen type dish in the context of a nail-biting moment, but there it is for Bong Joon Ho to mess with his audience for several agonizing minutes. Same goes for a sliding shelf door, a living room table, a light switch, a flooding apartment, and an innocent enough outdoor party. What the filmmaker seems to be saying is that what separates the classes is merely a thin veneer. We're all one tiny moment away from losing everything.
It doesn't hurt that the assembled cast shines. I especially loved the interplay between Kang-ho and Hye-jin as the parents. Their increasingly dire circumstances bring them closer together with each showing the other tenderness despite the mayhem. I also loved Yeon-kyo's guileless performance as the too-easily impressed mom. Had she done a little Googling, she may have prevented what ensues, but she seems to love people, so it's hard to hate her.
For a moment near the end, the air leaks out of the tires with a sequence slightly out of step with what precedes it. I should have known better to question it, as Bong Joon Ho is a master filmmaker. Of course it would swing around again to produce an unforgettably heartbreaking final moment. It's up there with the great movie endings.
Bong Joon Ho uses everything in his powers to achieve this instant classic. His cinematographer, Kyung-pyo Hong, understands how to present space in a frame and how to mine suspense out of every slight camera move. Ha-jun Lee's production design presents a vivid contrast between the two main homes. Jail Jung's orchestral score gives the film an appropriate heft, worthy of such big flights of musical fancy. Parasite is a movie of its time as each of us circle around the ever-diminishing musical chairs. We don't know when the music will stop, but when it does, some of us are in for a world of hurt. At least we may still find beauty in it if great filmmakers like Bong Joon Ho have a seat at the table.
TIC TIC BOOM! – My Review of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (3 ½ Stars)
I love a good pulpy novel sometimes, and exactly a year ago, I picked up Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, published in 1999, completely unaware that an Oscar-nominated actor had been trying to bring it to the screen for the past two decades. It just sounded like a fun read, wherein a detective with an unnamed tic disorder similar to Tourette Syndrome attempts to solve a murder. While the story itself didn't wow me, I enjoyed the first person point of view of a man who appears to burst at the seams in order to formulate words and ideas. The novel had a giddy rush whenever we took a peek into our protagonist's mind.
Ed Norton, who writes, produces, directs and stars, has radically steered away from the book, changing the time period from the 1990s to the 1950s, and basically jettisoning everything which occurs after the inciting incident. In many ways he has come up with a more compelling, more relevant story, but it's all wrapped in the all-too familiar tropes of a film noir.
• Voiceover narration. Check.
• Moody, Edward Hopper style cinematography. Check.
• A beautiful, mysterious woman. Check.
• Classic cars which go "Awooooga" when you hit the horn. Check.
• An underbelly of corruption our hero can't begin to comprehend. Check.
It seems as if he wanted to make his own Chinatown or L.A. Confidential and decided to shoehorn the bones of the novel into the genre to satisfy his itch. With an incredible cast and a look at how New York City developed into the city we know today because of racist development policies, Norton has made a film worth seeing. Its punishing length, however, merely serviceable direction, and a too light tone keep it from crossing over into the classic territory of the great noirs.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, one of a quartet of former orphans "adopted" by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in a warm turn) to work at his detective agency. After an amusing slow speed chase, someone ends up dead and Lionel and his cohorts, played by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts and Ethan Suplee, get to work to solve the crime. With limited clues, Lionel, who soon breaks from the pack and works alone, leans into his disorder and photographic memory to go down the rabbit hole of NYC corruption.
Along the way, he meets a black female attorney named Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who fights the injustice of urban planning wrought by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), based on Robert Moses, a real titan of NYC, who presaged the rise of the Donald Trumps of the world. The film provides an invaluable history lesson of the city which will prevent you from ever looking at its bridges the same way again.
With fine, memorable turns from Leslie Mann, Willem Dafoe, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones, it's still Baldwin who delivers the best performance in a blazing, scary turn not seen from him since Glengarry Glen Ross. He's a classic villain who thinks his actions are for the greater good even as he spouts racist ideology, abuses women, and tramples all over human rights. Remind you of anyone currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Norton brings a sweet energy to his detective, allowing us to simultaneously empathize and stand in awe of his character's special gifts. He makes for quite an original romantic lead, giving his scenes with Mbatha-Raw a special kick. He stands up for what's right, but in true noir fashion, the steamrolling ahead of someone's twisted version of an urban utopia cannot be stopped. Instead, Essrog makes a low key, low stakes decision in the end. As such, the film lacks the bitter nihilism of its predecessors.
In an interview with Norton at the screening I attended, he claimed a more foreboding ending would not go down easily in these tense times. This may be true, but it leaves us with a slightly upbeat, toothless film. I still recommend it for the troublesome past it resurrects, along with an engaging story and game cast. Norton takes a big swing here, but I can't help but thinking this would have resonated more from a character and story perspective had it remained set in the 90s. Norton, though, made a film lover's decision and gets major points for shining a light on the ugliness of a city's history. Unfortunately, noir is meant to be dark, and this film sidesteps the defining characteristic of its genre. It looks like noir, but, to paraphrase the classic, "Forget it, folks. It's not Chinatown."
Mix together The Producers, The Tin Drum, Hope And Glory, Moonrise Kingdom, Life Is Beautiful, The Diary Of Anne Frank, Hogan's Heroes, Inglourious Basterds, and anything Monty Python and you still would not come close to describing the wondrous tone and sheer brilliance of Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit, the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and one of the best films of 2019. A scabrous comedy set during Hitler's occupation of Europe, the film, based on the much more sober novel, "Caging Skies", approaches this stain on history through the eyes of a heavily indoctrinated young boy. As such, we experience a fresh, hilariously inappropriate yet ultimately powerful and moving take on the subject.
Roman Griffin Davis stars as Jojo, a 10-year-old who, at the outset, appears hellbent on killing as many Jews as he can. After a stunning title sequence in which the German-language version of The Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" plays over images of the screaming throngs of people who worshipped Adolph Hitler, little Jojo attends a Hitler Youth program training camp. Led by a ridiculous trio of trainers played by Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen and a really funny Rebel Wilson, Jojo faces the first of many challenges when ordered to kill a rabbit in front of everyone. Beaten down by that incident, he conjures up a type of solace via his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler, played to delirious comic perfection by Waititi himself. This version of the dictator feels as if it's been filtered through the "Hey girl, let's dish" school of impersonations, with Waititi intentionally turning Hitler into a jackass almost as self-obsessed and thin-skinned as our current POTUS. Is the weight of history mocked here? If the film only had slaps, slapstick and schtick on its mind, I'd say so, but Waititi draws you in with outrageous comedy only to pull the rug out from under you later. It's an awe-inspiring tightrope walk.
Jojo lives with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who on the surface presents as a perfect, Aryan specimen, but harbors secrets of her own. Not only is she part of the resistance to the Nazi's agenda, but Jojo discovers she's hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) inside the walls of their drawing room. Jojo promises Elsa he won't tell his mother he knows about her as it could easily lead to her doom. McKenzie, so great in Leave No Trace, proves that film was no fluke. She commands her scenes here with a scary confidence, like a cross between the Feral Child of the Mad Max films and Blake Lively in A Simple Favor. Fast on her feet and quick with a knife, her Elsa feels in charge of her fate.
The film explores Jojo's conflicted feelings when he slowly realizes the Third Reich is a house of cards built on a very shaky foundation. Waititi draws out suspense in many different ways in the film, with multiple characters in danger of being caught for being Jewish, or a traitor, or just a bad Nazi. All of this, however, gets wrapped into one big comically absurd package reminiscent of Mel Brooks at his finest. Try not to laugh during a scene in which dozens of "Heil Hitlers" get passed around as a large group greets each other. This scene, however, oozes with dread as multiple characters risk exposure. That Waititi can walk that fine line of comedic bliss and stomach-churning horror simultaneously, serves to announce him as a major talent. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. employs a very Wes Anderson style of composed images, but in this case, the camera moves give the film way more energy than expected. He also gets tremendous scope despite a limited budget and a film which largely takes place in Jojo's home. There's also a wonderful montage of buildings whose windows look like watchful eyes looking down on a hopeless society.
None of this would work, however, without the wonderfully focused performance of Waititi's little star. It's rare to encounter a child actor who doesn't mimic his scene partners, and Davis stays sharp and committed to maintaining the intelligence and dignity of his Jojo. He may be dead wrong about whom he idolizes, but his humane spirit shines through anyhow. Archie Yates, another young newcomer, steals every scene he's in as Jojo's best friend Yorki. His exasperation at how tiring war can be made me laugh out loud. Johansson delivers a crisp, lovely performance, gorgeously containing her emotions at times when lesser actors would be hamming it up to the back rows. She leads her wrongheaded son around as if she were a teutonic Mary Poppins, clucking and winking at him, gently prodding him away from his sickening ideologies. I mean this as high praise when I say she makes it look so easy.
Obviously a comedy set during the Hitler era comes with high stakes, and this film tonally shifts towards one gasp-inducing reveal. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it. Most filmmakers would wallow in such moments as this, but Waititi keeps the comedy coming while he deftly incorporates true emotional depth. It all leads up to a truly lovely, simple final scene that moved me to tears.
With Jojo Rabbit, Waititi tells us that comedy can save the world. Satire exposes the buffoons, humanizing them in a way that takes away their power. Instead, films like this take on that power, and when in the hands of such a singular talent, it makes you feel like you can take on anything….even the trainwreck world we currently find ourselves bemoaning.
THE WILD CARD OF COMEDY - My Review of JOKER (4 Stars)
Martin Scorsese's The King Of Comedy remains my favorite of his films. Just as Network presaged the news would devolve into entertainment, Scorsese's film predicted the consequences of a pop culture-obsessed society in which amorality wins in the end. The rise of Robert De Niro's Rupert Pupkin, a struggling comic who lives with his mother and helps kidnap a talk show host in order to get on the air, feels quaint when compared to Joker, its nihilistic, spiritual cousin. With De Niro cast, this time, as the successful talk show host, Joker comes across as King's bloodier, darker sequel of sorts. Add elements of Taxi Driver and bits of Michael Jackson's story, and you get this immersive, disturbing film from Todd Phillips, best known as the director of the Hangover franchise. For me, it's one of the most impressive leaps forward for a filmmaker since Craig Maizin (coincidentally no stranger to the Hangover films) shucked off his big, dumb comedy skills and created Chernobyl.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a professional clown who has an unnamed, but Tourette's syndrome adjacent, condition which causes him to laugh at the most inopportune times. His meager existence, which includes living in squalor and caring for his dying mother (France Conroy), serves as a stark contract to his vivid inner life in which he's a sweet, promising standup comic who fantasizes about appearing on The Murray Franklin Show. Arthur, ever the unreliable narrator of his own story, suffers from extreme ostracization and bullying, barely able to ever make it home without taking a beating in a dingy alleyway.
It's no wonder Arthur feels like the living, breathing exemplar of a mental breakdown. Phillips and his talented cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, hone in on Arthur and never let go, employing shallow focus, disorienting music, and the constant threat of violence to convince you how easily the outcasts of the world can snap and exert their power. Joker by no means provides a fun experience, but it has a relentless, consistent focus on the mindset of a good-natured guy who has reached his limits of abuse. More character study than your typically action-packed DC Comics movie, Joker has a slow burn, much like Taxi Driver. Arthur, like Travis Bickle and Pupkin, can't seem to impress the women in their sights. In Arthur's case, she's Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother in his building. Guys like Arthur, however, never find love, especially when they're too busy getting kicked. When it seems the world has conspired against him too many times, Arthur adopts his Joker persona and, like Bickle, commits a series of horrendous murders. His antiestablishment stances inspire a burgeoning cult of mask-wearing followers, a scarier, extremist version of the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
The film feels like a product of our current times, where unfit leaders proliferate and civil discourse has evaporated. It has no expansive CGI sequences and only a hint of a big, action set piece. It's all about character, character, character. In other words, this is one comic book film I can truly embrace. Every moment feels overwhelming, dire and sad. Phoenix goes deep here, flailing about, doing a little tap dance because that's what he thinks of as entertainment, and making your heart break for a guy who can't seem to catch one.
Even when he snags that proverbial golden ticket late in the film, he can't help but make a grand mess of it all. Although he plays one of the most notorious of supervillains, Phoenix bleeds for his character and while not making him necessarily sympathetic, his actions feel supported by the crushing society he endures. His performance has so much humanity, filled with rage, psychosis, and yes, an aching need to feel acceptance and love. Sometimes when Phoenix gets lost in a character, I only notice the hard work. Here, I felt his passion.
Occasionally, Phillips brings us sequences of Arthur blissing out to music, waving his arms around like a conductor on a drug-fueled high. The song selections here could have been less on the nose, with such titles as "That's Life", "Send In The Clowns" and "Smile" filling up an obvious set list, but Phoenix sells this as his inner soundtrack nonetheless. It also has too many endings, which leads to a little confusion in the final moments. I would have preferred the final shot be of Arthur standing on top of a car much like Michael Jackson did at his infamous molestation trial, and greeting his acolytes. The similarities between these two "freaks" could not feel more pronounced than in this sequence.
Ultimately, I'm not sure what Joker is trying to say. Is it conservative? Liberal? Are we celebrating his crimes because we know his pain? Or are his actions those of a person with a persecution complex who only deserves our scorn? Is he the love child of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle, who gets away with far more than those two did combined? I'm not exactly sure, but as a cautionary tale of what happens to the people we throw away, Joker, while one of the ugliest filmgoing experiences I've had in a long while, deals a pummeling but winning hand.