Remakes of European horror films in English often reveal what the adapter thinks of their audience. Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In left much of its plot hidden in subtext while its violent eruptions were alluded to off-camera, but the American version, Let Me In, made relationships as clear as possible and upped the budget for action sequences. That I prefer the latter to the former might say something about my cinematic tastes, and this pattern has repeated itself with the remake of Suspiria. Dario Argento’s staple of Italian giallo horror makes little sense plot-wise, instead relying on a timeless score and stunning cinematography to create an unnerving mood and an unpredictability that fans would call a feature instead of a bug. Luca Guadagnino’s version puts the plot in the forefront while holding onto the mood and the grand setpieces, draining the film of mystery but compensating with jaw-dropping sequences of body horror, historical relevance, and incredible performances. Film isn’t only about story-telling, sure, but once again, the version of a classic horror tale that doesn’t obfuscate is my preferred flavor. I guess I prefer an explanatory, though naturalistic, conversation to baffling images of vampire genitals or mangy humanoids on assassination missions.
Released in the midst of stagflation and hostage crises, Hal Ashby’s Being There posits a country so desperate for answers that it will turn just about anywhere, even raising up a charlatan who looks the part but doesn’t actually have anything to say. As this empty vessel that people fill up with their own hopes and wants, Peter Sellers is a pleasant center, a simpleton who doesn’t understand what’s going on but is happy to live in the comfort that the heights of business and politics affords a person. Ashby’s social satiric chops and Sellers’ amiable deadpan flesh out a world of privilege and useless nostalgia that’s only slightly more absurd than our own.
Back in the mid-2000’s when Kevin Feige was first dreaming up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, did he know that everything would culminate in the 22nd entry in the franchise? This number just happens to coincide with the amount of episodes typically included in a network series of television, and Avengers: Endgame certainly feels like a season finale, with some characters saying goodbye and others beginning new arcs that will take them into season two. This blurring of media lines makes me somewhat uneasy for reasons I’m not completely sure of, but whether looked at as a single film or the artificial ending of a decade of big-budget, candy-colored filmmaking, Endgame does what the MCU has long been good at: satisfactorily entertain while making stabs at something deeper, most of which fall short because landing credible or coherent emotional beats aren’t required for their movies to be successful.
Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy functions as my first rock opera. It’s also a drug-fueled nightmare, an earnest romance, a Nicolas Cage freakout, and a wholly unique piece of art, arguably the first time that classification could be applied to a film that also features a chain saw duel. Destined for midnight showings at the planetarium, or the modern equivalent of it, Mandy is a must, a cinematic experience that, though imperfect, feels like the kind of film that will persist long past its release date. This homage to 80’s back-bin intensity works for trashy genres in the same way that Tarantino can update chop-socky and grungy noir. I remember scoffing at the ‘visionary’ honorific attached to Cosmatos in the trailer. I’m not scoffing anymore.
This viewer has not clicked with the films of David Lowery. His Terence Malick tribute Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was solid, but Pete’s Dragon felt like a missed opportunity and A Ghost Story was too abstract and indulgent for my tastes. The critical consensus on Lowery as an up-and-coming filmmaker keeps pushing me to give him one more chance, and it finally pays off in The Old Man and the Gun, a geriatric robbery drama that doubles, supposedly, as Robert Redford’s final film role. Whether Redford’s retirement sticks or not, what’s true is that Lowery hits with an elegiac swan song for his star and a film that would be a worthy end to a long and iconic career.
Yorgos Lanthimos makes films that only he could make, partly due to the strange rules that he impresses on the worlds that he creates. Whether those worlds are the restricted compound of Dogtooth or the dystopian anti-romance police state of The Lobster, their inherent absurdity doesn’t break the films because the characters within strenuously abide by the rules. Throughout history, few environments had as restricting, nonsensical, and arbitrary rules as a European royal court, making one a perfect fit for Lanthimos. In The Favourite, the Greek director, born in the birthplace of democracy, goes to the eighteenth century English monarchy for an outrageous chamber drama to end all chamber dramas. How can a future wannabe Best Costume Oscar winner dare to pretend that royals and their courtesans had dignity and gravitas when Lanthimos frames them as coddled by legions of servants as they steer the ship of state based on which minister or hanger-on is making the best jokes?
Ethan Hawke has been quietly tearing up screens as a master of the one-for-them, one-for-me method of career building. I say quietly because his ones-for-them are disposable trash too insubstantial to generate the kind of derision someone like Nicolas Cage gets while his ones-for-me are tiny craft projects that no one sees but critics and cinephiles. Within this framework, the star of Born to Be Blue and Regression, of The Magnificent Seven and First Reformed, is operating at the highest level of his career, playing parts in both the best and worst movies of any given year. Hawke’s 2018 was especially superlative between his titanic role in First Reformed and his directing of Blaze, a biopic of a little-known outlaw country singer. Hawke reinvents a much-derided subgenre with his handling of Foley’s life, one that lacks the major milestones that operate as millstones around adaptations of more famous musicians’ lives. That Blaze can communicate who its subject was while also resisting genre tropes, finding universality in the life of a gifted man, and be a stunningly beautiful piece of art is a rarity and one more piece of evidence in the continued, idiosyncratic brilliance of the film’s director.
Yann Demange’s ’71 remains one of the decade’s best action thrillers, but the French director has a difficult time transferring that expertise from Troubles-era Northern Ireland to crack-era Detroit in White Boy Rick. As an adaptation of the life of Rick Wershe Jr (Richie Merritt), the youngest FBI informant ever, White Boy Rick only scratches the surface of its decaying urban environment. The film includes scenes of Rick and his friends getting into teenage hijinks, but because it’s set in Detroit, that means bounding through abandoned factories and stumbling onto rats’ nests. What does that kind of industrial dystopia do to an American living in the middle of the evidence of the lie of the American Dream? For that matter, Rick and his family seem to be the only white people left in Detroit, a detail the film doesn’t examine. Why did the Wershe’s stay when all the other white people left? Is this story only notable because Wershe is white?
In its fourth incarnation, A Star is Born puts Lady Gaga and her thin acting career in direct comparison to the icons who have previously played the role. She has to tread ground where actors like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand have previously trod, and in Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, he steers Lady Gaga towards a performance worthy of her predecessors. Thanks to her earnestness and realism, and the palpable chemistry between her and Cooper’s co-lead, A Star is Born wins over the skeptical, like this viewer, through sheer force of will, using power ballads to blast through cynicism and create something visceral and invigorating. This is half of a perfect film, and disappointingly, half of something much less that that. While A Star is Born should deservedly open up new creative pathways for its leads, it falls short of being the sustained masterpiece that the first hour suggests it will be.
The Mercury Seven got their epic in The Right Stuff and so did the crew of Apollo 13, and now Neil Armstrong gets his cinematic apotheosis in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a Kubrickian masterwork from a director who’s said all he has to say about jazz. Finding fertile new ground in the space race, Chazelle instills his historic representations with the flintiness of his Whiplash characters, portraying Armstrong as a difficult man who, in his difficulty, may have been the only person capable of emerging from the trying 19606’s intact. Utilizing you-are-there filmmaking and the best of Ryan Gosling’s oft-internal performances, First Man signifies Chazelle’s emergence as a singular auteur in total control of his art.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.