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Jokers, Parasites and Fear

17 Oct

Why are people so afraid of Joker?

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In the September 25th issue of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael asked “Are people becoming afraid of American movies?” 

This was, of course, 1978, not 2019. Yet it seems likely the great film critic would have asked the same question forty-one years later, given the critical hysteria over Todd Phillip’s Joker.

Kael continued: 

When acquaintances ask me what they should see and I say The Last Waltz or Convoy or Eyes of Laura Mars, I can see the recoil. It’s the same look of distrust I encountered when I suggested Carrie or The Fury or Jaws or Taxi Driver or the two Godfathers before that… They don’t see why they should subject themselves to experiences that will tie up their guts or give them nightmares….Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art—of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we’ve been getting a new cultural puritanism… and the press is full of snide references to Coppola’s huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision…

The parallels to today should be obvious to anyone following much of the critical reaction to Phillip’s brilliant and deeply unsettling masterpiece.

I’m a fan, obviously. Joker is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. If left me shaken, disturbed and in need of a double shot of Bulleit. Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the troubled man at the center of the movie, delivers one of the great cinematic performances of all time. Brimming with dozens of cinematic references, the movie is gorgeously crafted: this was a crew that working overtime on every single frame. Joker resonates on a deep emotional level, particularly for those of us who have struggled personally or dealt socially with madness. Joker is upsetting for many reasons, not the least of which is that although it’s set in fictional Gotham of 1981, the movie thrusts many troubling aspects of our present society in our face, forcing us to bear witness.

The movie certainly has many fellow defenders. Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival where it received an eight minute standing ovation. And the public is supporting the movie with wild abandon: the film is a smash hit worldwide, already earning over half a billion dollars.  In the US alone it had the biggest October opening weekend ever and broke even more records this past weekend, its second. Hitting #1 the second weekend is telling: films can have a big opening but then fall off once word of mouth spreads a movie is a stinker. Joker is not falling off. People are continuing to go see it. 

Yet many critics are assaulting the movie. I don’t mean the typical “I didn’t like this and here’s why” type of reviews. Before Joker’s release two weeks ago these critics were clearly trying to hurt the film, cripple its box office and wipe it from memory before it could get going.

Here’s a quick look at what some of these critics had to say:  “a viewing experience of a rare, numbing emptiness.” “ punishingly dull”, “pompous, grim, relentlessly one-note”, “Dangerous”, “pernicious garbage” , “grim, shallow, distractingly derivative”, a dangerous manifesto that could inspire incels to commit acts of violence” and “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting”, which, if you’ve seen the movie, even if you hated it, has to appear ridiculous given what happens in Joker. To call this particular movie dull and uninteresting is in itself “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting.”

Clearly the movie is getting under these critics’ skin. They are attempting to render Joker immoral, often wildly misrepresenting the movie and its contents in order to do so.

One frequent attack is that the movie is hero worshipping a killer, that it’s a how-to manifesto for incel violence, and that the movie turns the hero “into an angry guy with a gun and violent disregard for everyone.”

But this isn’t true in the slightest. Joker doesn’t go rampaging through the city shooting at any or everyone (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). Key here are two sequences: one in which Arthur lets a co-worker go free after killing another co-worker: “You were the only one who was nice to me.”  The other is Arthur’s TV appearance. He easily could have been depicted as going on a rampage, shooting into the audience, yet he only kills one man, the man who made fun of him. The violence in the movie, while shocking and horrifying, is nothing compared to normal screen violence (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). In fact, compared to such movies the body count in Joker is quite low.

Something interesting is going on.

It’s obvious that part of what’s driving these critics crazy is the sympathy many of us feel for Arthur. This sympathy clearly enrages and scares them. Is creating sympathy for Arthur condoning his actions? Of course not. These critics, however, seem to confuse understanding and sympathy with approval. The idea that we can understand how Arthur becomes Joker and have sympathy for him, while still finding his acts repellant and horrific, is apparently too complex for some. Complex ideas don’t much seem to exist anymore. In our era of quick soundbites and a media universe where someone is either good or evil/repellent with no possibility of shading in between, attempting to understand why someone is driven to become a killer is anathema and morally offensive.

I wonder what current critics would think of the brilliant Fritz Lang film M, still one of the most unnerving movies movies ever created. I repeatedly encourage people to watch this 1931 movie about the manhunt for a serial killer of children in Berlin. Arguably the first movie about a serial killer, M, through Peter Lorre’s devastating performance and a famous monologue he delivers in the third act, somehow creates sympathy for Hans Beckert, a pedophile child murderer. Never in any way condoning his actions, M refuses to turn Beckert into a pure demon, creating instead a very complex portrait of a man tormented by his actions. Todd Phillips’ treatment of Arthur is the same.

It’s interesting to compare this critical reaction to the equally brilliant Parasite, released this past weekend one weekend after Joker. Parasite also deals with class, the have-nots rising up against the haves. Yet even though the have-nots in Parasite resort to malevolent actions, including violence and murder, they are being celebrated by critics while Arthur is not. We realize, then, it’s not the dispossessed and downtrodden that matter but the right kind of dispossessed and downtrodden. For these critics, the wrong have-nots rise in Joker and it terrifies them. So much so they must attack the movie on every level imaginable.

It’s not just the wrong kind of downtrodden critics attack but anyone who likes the movie. 

JOKER, a film where you’re supposed to sympathize with a mediocre white man radicalized into deranged violence, will no doubt be appealing to the wrong audience for the worst reasons.

There’s an entire symphony of voices in the criticism about “the wrong people.” The wrong people in the movie and the wrong people in the audience. While it isn’t easy to figure out to whom they are referring, given my own regard for the movie I wonder what they would think about a progressive gay man loving the film. I guess even I am part of the “wrong audience” lauding the movie for “the worst reasons.” This kind of labeling and separation – the wrong people, the wrong way of thinking – has become the norm in discourse today and I despise it, along with the superior condescension of these attacks, a superior condescension social media has made so easy. (I can barely scroll through the Facebook newsfeed anymore, this condescension is so rampant.)

Personally, I’m thrilled the moviegoing public has ignored the critics and the faux controversy they tried to create before the movie’s release. The box office success is rousing to me in a way I imagine continues to terrify these critics. (How many people does it take, btw, to call something a controversy? Looks to me like it’s just some critics and a small number of people on twitter foaming at the mouth…. Sorry, that’s not a controversy.)

One of the many reasons I found Joker so affecting and disturbing is that the Arthur I see at the beginning of the movie is a person I see often on the streets of Los Angeles. I do some work with the homeless downtown and when you stop and talk to the men and women living in the tent cities on our streets, stories and personalities that mimic Arthur’s are everywhere. Many of these people, like Arthur, just need to be heard. But no one is listening.

People just want – need – to be listened to. This means all of us, not just the right kind of people. All of us includes the homeless and dispossessed, whatever color or belief. Believe me, it. can be difficult to listen to a thirty minute rant from a schizophrenic homeless person. Yet sometimes you can see that the listening helps them, tempers them, the same way all of us are helped and tempered when our friends listen to us. (My poor friends temper me all the time.) One of the many powers of Joker is that it can help people who live not so difficult lives look at people living difficult lives in a different, more sympathetic way. That’s powerful. Attacking Joker by saying it will inspire people to similar violence is missing the point. Joker forces us to look at the lost and dispossessed of our society, of all races and political beliefs, and asks us to see them and listen to them. Joker also serves as a warning, if people will look and listen. 

Am I saying you need to see Joker? Not at all. Am I saying you need to like Joker if you do see it? Again, no way. What bothers me, though, about the attacks on Joker is that the response from many of those who don’t like it, or are unsettled by it, attack the movie and anyone who likes it on a moral level.

This kind of attack is certainly not new. People went after Fritz Lang in similar fashion over M. Pauline Kael herself could be guilty of this kind when she hated something. She went after Dirty Harry with a vengeance, for instance, calling it fascist, which is ridiculous. Don Siegel’s masterpiece remains a terrific and complex movie, perhaps even more so today. Kael also reacted virulently to any show of faith on screen. Yet she changed criticism enormously and she certainly changed my life. Her brilliant writing and enormous passion for movies affirmed and uplifted my own passions at a time I needed affirmation and uplift desperately. Even today, when I’m in a funk, which isn’t rare, I have two books I reach for: Flannery O’Connor’s letters and Pauline Kael’s reviews, this volume in particular. Both continually affirm and uplift in powerful ways.

I also want to make clear all movies don’t need to be dark and disturbing, as much as I myself am attracted to darker films. I can watch Pillow Talk or Notting Hill or Heaven Can Wait (a movie Kael trashes in this same essay) every day. I love a feel good movie. But I do want to challenge those who dislike Joker simply because it is so upsetting or challenges their world view. People no longer like their world view challenged. That’s not safe. Nor comfortable. To then have to see, acknowledge and listen to a person who disagrees with a personal world view? No way.

And so we attack.

Let us end with Kael:

This is, of course, a rejection of the particular greatness of movies: their power to affect us on so many sensory levels that we become emotionally accessible, in spite of our thinking selves. Movies get around our cleverness and our wariness; that’s what used to draw us to the picture show. Movies—and they don’t even have to be first-rate, much less great—can invade our sensibilities in the way that Dickens did when we were children, and later, perhaps, George Eliot and Dostoevski, and later still, perhaps, Dickens again. They can go down even deeper—to the primitive levels on which we experience fairy tales. And if people resist this invasion by going only to movies that they’ve been assured have nothing upsetting in them, they’re not showing higher, more refined taste; they’re just acting out of fear, masked as taste. If you’re afraid of movies that excite your senses, you’re afraid of movies.

 

 

Best of 2018 Pt. 2: Everything else

20 Jan

I posted on my favorite films last week… here are my other favorites of the year:

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

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Hill House

 

Hands down my favorite anything of the year. Anything. By far.

Mike Flanagan’s reworking of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel (he also riffs generously on Robert Wise’s wonderful 1963 adaptation, The Haunting) is, pardon my french, fucking incredible. Even the master, Stephen King, called it “close to genius.” I’ll one up my hero and say it plainly: The Haunting of Hill House is indeed genius. While Flanagan in his revision uses both the novel and film in clever ways, he’s up to something much deeper than just a horror series. At its core, the series is a penetrating and devastating family drama. It’s as if Flanagan took Ordinary People, magnified the emotional depth of that brilliant movie ten fold, then stuck it inside Jackson’s sick and twisted Hill House, “a house that was born bad.” Every episode scared the shit out of me, and each episode also hit me on a powerful emotional level. The intricacy of Flanagan’s time jumping plot is dazzling. When his technique purposefully dovetails into that intricacy, such as in the justifiably famous 6th episode, a series of single takes designed to look like one, the effect is truly mind-blowing. Don’t shy away from the series because it’s scary…  the family stuff is so universal, anyone can relate to the marvelous, human Crain family.  But be warned, it is indeed scary. Flanagan is the best ‘jump-scarer’ I’ve ever encountered. Those of us watching together starting counting how many shrieks each episode elicited from our group. And there’s this one particular scare… well, it’s the best scare of all time. If you watched the series, you know of what I speak. I had to stop this episode midstream and have a couple of shots of bourbon to calm down before I could finish the episode, though my heart was still racing hours later. As a creative, The Haunting of Hill House is the kind of narrative success that is both enervating and energizing. Enervating because I think, ‘Goodness, I could never achieve that, just stop trying” but also energizing because, for a storyteller, this series reaches the peak for which we all strive. I may never reach such a pinnacle but Flanagan and his remarkable team and superb cast of actors certainly make me want to try.

Finally, though I know people who disagree, Flanagans’ twist on Jackson’s famous last line is electrifying.

 

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The Bent Neck Lady

 

BODYGUARD

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Things are going to get intense

 

WHOA. One of the biggest hits ever in the history of UK broadcasting, Bodyguard is a short (six episodes) but far from sweet adrenaline rush I could not turn off. This is ‘call into work sick’ material, because you have to finish it. If you’ve seen it, you know of what I write. If you haven’t, the less you know the better. Richard Madden is stunning as ‘the bodyguard’, he goes deep, goodness and Keely Hawes matches him perfectly. As does the rest of the British cast. Great show, an intense blast to watch. 

HOMECOMING

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Something weird is going on

 

Julia Roberts is having one hell of a year. She gave the best performance of her life in superb Ben Is Back (see last post) and her performance in Homecoming is just as stellar. Yet she’s not getting much attention on the awards circuit… what gives?? Oh well, ultimately, who cares. After 30 years onscreen, she has become one of our best actresses and it was a joy to watch her this year. As for the show itself? Kick. Ass. A subtle mystery that really gets under your skin, I did not hear the podcast upon which the series was based so the story was new to me. Sam Esmail’s decision to approach Homecoming like a classic 70’s thriller in the vein of Alan J. Pakula et al. was a huge turn on to a film buff like me. As was his decision to score the entire series using music from those films. But you don’t have to be aware of that to enjoy. This is another one of those shows I watched and thought, ‘Wow, I wish I had worked on that.” Every performance is terrific, though I have to single out Stephan James and, in particular, Shea Whigham. His turn as a downtrodden DOJ investigator also deserves many more accolades than he is receiving. Finally, the genius move to make each episode 22 minutes instead of an hour made the show incredibly binge-able. Hear hear! Show creators, more of this in the future!

THE TERROR

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The Terror, indeed

 

One of my favorite novels, by the great Dan Simmons, became one of my favorite shows of the year. A fictionalized account of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition in 1845, this sumptuous adaptation is an atmospheric chiller, no pun intended, superbly directed with an outstanding cast. (Again, those Brits…) You may want to subtitle it, as the accents are pretty thick. Filled with shocks and surprises and deep humanity, The Terror is yet another reason 2018 was one of the best years of television in recent memory.

THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL SEASON 2

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I want to live inside this show

 

Paris! The Catskills! Lenny Bruce! Zachary Levi! Susie! Season 2 of one of the best shows on television was even better than season one. I cannot imagine what they spend on this show and/or how they get away with the production value and music budget. Sublime to watch, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is Amy Sherman-Palladino at her best, which is about as good as it gets. There are too many wonderful moments and performances here to even begin to start listing favorites, but may I say what a joy it was to watch Marin Hinkle’s Rose evolve this season. In the very strong likelihood you see me running around with a plunger over my shoulder, Mrs. Maisel is why.

WESTWORLD SEASON 2

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Brilliant. Frustrating. Westworld.

 

My favorite show of 2017, and, admittedly, an intense obsession, thrilled me for 9 brilliant episodes that came crashing down in the season two finale. I’ve friends I trust who love the finale, however, and I need to watch it again after some distance to see if I can overcome my misgivings. Still, those other 9 episodes. Wow. I watched each one twice without plumbing their depths entirely and am still enough of a fan to re-watch all of Season 2 before Season 3 begins… fingers crossed. 

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I read a lot of novels this year. And some I very much enjoyed. But for the first time, I didn’t have a novel this year I wanted to put on the list. I still read an amazing book, however: Simple, a cookbook by the extremely talented Yotam Ottolenghi. I have all of his cookbooks and use Jerusalem often. (Click here for a post covering that wonderful book.)  For me, if a cookbook is enjoyable to read and gives me just two or three killer recipes I will use for years, I’m happy.  I’ve been cooking a lot from Simple the last few months, however, and after making ten or twelve recipes, I’ve yet to hit one I didn’t love. This is a bonanza of flavor and food joy. (Do NOT miss the “baked rice with confit tomatoes and garlic”… I’m Cajun, rice is one of my favorite foods in all the world, I’ve eaten white rice happily since the day I was born. This is the best rice I’ve ever had, bar none.)  Simple is hands down the cookbook of the year. 

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The best rice I’ve ever eaten

PADDINGTON 2

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Wonderful

I quietly scoffed at a couple of friends who told me Paddington 2 was the best movie of the year. Seriously? Well… I might not call it the best of the year but having just watched this delightful movie, I agree it is one of the best for sure. A visual feast that is creative, clever and ultimately heartwarming in the best way possible, Paddington 2 is one of the very few movies on Rotten Tomatoes to score 100%. Deservedly so. Additionally, Hugh Grant is %@$# incredible in it. Like Julia Roberts, he’s been on screen a long time and his gifts are now innumerable and invisible. Great performance, great movie.

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Our bear goes to prison!

Best of 2018 Pt. 1: Film

10 Jan

Belated Happy 2019! It’s been a long while for a post as I had an incredibly busy fall. Apologies for those who follow! I have a number of posts half-finished, including Breakfast Fried Rice and Heaven In A Bowl… let’s see how much I can keep on track this year. First, though, we begin with the requisite ‘best of’ posts. 

Below are my favorite films of the year. I have more movies listed than usual this year which surprised me because at the end of summer there were only a few movies I was excited about. But it was a strong fall for features. Not all are ‘great films’ but each achieved something wonderful, moved me deeply or took unusual risks that made the film worth mentioning.  In no particular order:

BEN IS BACK

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Ben Is Back slayed me. I’ve seen it twice, fell apart each time and will watch it again soon. It’s unfortunately one of those movies the studio can’t seem to pay people to go see. But I loved it and encourage you to see it. Julia Roberts give the best performance of her career, which is saying a lot, and Lucas Hedges meets her head on. (What a banner year for Julia, who will also appear in the next post.) I’m a big fan of the writer/director, Peter Hedges – yes, he and Lucas are father and son. See this movie.

ROMA

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A gorgeous, stunning film I can’t imagine working on TV at home, so Netflix’s decision to leave Roma in theatres for only a few weeks around Thanksgiving is incomprehensible. If you tried to watch it at home and turned it off, I understand. It starts very, very slow and certainly is never a wild ride. But the beauty of the directing, the cinematography (whoa!), the performances and the setting make Roma, for many of us, the best movie of the year. Spellbinding.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

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If even two weeks ago you said to me I would pay money to see Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, much less put it on my ‘best of’ list, I’d have laughed in your face. Yet here we are. Ha ha indeed. Thank goodness friends I trust forced me to go see it. Easily the most original and creative movie of the year, this visual feast is a blast from start to finish. It’s also surprisingly moving. Great film.

SEARCHING

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Another movie most people missed, Searching is another extremely inventive movie, a sharp thriller depicted entirely on social media, a narrative device that would seemingly get old but in these capable young filmmakers’ hands, never does. Anchored by a terrific performance by John Cho, this is another ‘find this movie and watch it’ recommendation from me. Terrific.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE VI: FALLOUT

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Mission Impossible VI is not only the best action movie of the year (decade) it’s one of my top 5 of the year. Unlike any other series, MI gets better and better with each movie, meaning MI VI reaches pinnacles rarely seen in this genre. Filled with dazzling actions sequences and stunts done real time — take that, CGI! — the movie in the final act also has an emotional impact rare for actions movies. Director McQuarrie and star/producer Cruise, in top form as always, also were smart enough to bring back Rebecca Ferguson from MI V. May I have an enormous swoon for Rebecca Ferguson? Damn. In love. (Even with a porn-stache, I’ll also give a well deserved swoon to Henry Cavill. Oh my.) Movies don’t get much better than this.

GAME NIGHT

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I love this movie! I first saw Game Night on a plane, annoying everyone around me as I cackled with pleasure the entire time. I’ve shown it to others numerous times since, laughing just as much each time through. An extremely clever comedy unafraid to push boundaries and go to some dark places, Game Night is smart and clever; the first five minutes are so well done I taught this opening in my screenwriting class last Monday. It stays sharp all the way through, is at times wonderfully shocking and the entire cast is outstanding. (Rachel McAdams also makes me swoon. Damn.) I loved it. 

THE WIFE

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If Glenn Close doesn’t win every acting award for her performance in The Wife, there’s no justice in the world. By my count, she should already have two Oscars on her shelf. Yet she has none. Please let this be her year. She gives a master class in screen acting in this small but powerful movie. You can’t take your eyes off her. Close’s gifts are so strong she can do absolutely ‘nothing’… such as sit and listen to a speech… and be intensely riveting.  The movie is also excellent. Sony Pictures Classics is expanding The Wife back into more theatres this weekend. Go see it!

A STAR IS BORN

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The classic Hollywood story remade yet again but this time with depth and empathy. Usually filmed in grand fashion, Bradley Cooper’s decision to shoot the movie in an extremely intimate fashion pays off beautifully. His performance also blew me away, he completely transformed into someone else. And he can sing. Loser! Lady Gaga also is terrific and I love the music. The incredible popularity of the movie seems to have people turning on it as the award season ramps up. I guess that’s what comes with popularity. Awards or none, Cooper and Co. have the last laugh. A Star Is Born remains one of the best movies of the year.

BLACK PANTHER

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It may not be a great movie but Black Panther has many great elements and performances. More importantly, seeing this in the theatre felt like an enormous cultural event. And it was. There are movies that are of their time and movies that transcend time. Both are important so while Black Panther may be the former, being of its time in no way takes away from the movie. It was also a very enjoyable movie to watch.

FREE SOLO

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A documentary as riveting and suspenseful as MI VI, Free Solo is a stunner. A fascinating character study combined with intense thriller, Free Solo is also a beautifully crafted documentary. The less you know the better. Find it.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS

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A delight from start to finish. I know people obsessed with the original who balked at Mary Poppins Returns but I loved it and am glad it is performing well, given the filmmakers daring decision in the modern era to embrace the look and sound of both the original and classic movie musicals in general. Emily Blunt is practically perfect. Her performance seems so effortless I think a lot of people don’ recognize how damn good it is.  (Biggest swoon of the day for Emily, btw. Lord.) Anchored by Emily and wonderful performances across the board, Mary Poppins Returns creates a glorious world you don’t want to leave. I myself love the songs – whoa, amazing orchestrations, so incredibly lush and beautiful – and you’d have to have a heart of stone to be unmoved at the end when both Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury turn up to create even more magic. Infinitely better than it had any right to be. 

DESTROYER

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Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is one of my favorite movies of the last few years so I was excited to see her follow up, Destroyer. It doesn’t disappoint. An ultra dark Los Angeles neo-noir, Destroyer is getting a lot of attention for Nicole Kidman’s performance, which is amazing. The entire cast is superb, however; Bradley Whitford, for instance, is hilariously, deliciously slimy in one of many great scenes. Not perfect but Destroyer keeps you leaning forward the entire time. Definitely worthy of any list.

BEAST

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There are numerous beasts in this stunning debut from writer/director Michael Pearce. Only by the end of Beast can one figure out to whom the title refers and, actually, friends and I are still debating which character deserves the moniker. Moody and creepy, Beast slowly draws you into a beautiful yet disturbing world and Jessie Buckley, as the main character Moll, gives one of the best performances of the year. 

ANNIHILATION

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Okay, yes Annihilation has a lot of problems. But when this daring movie is working, it works so damn well, and takes so many risks, it makes my list. Based on what I considered an unfilmable novel, Annihilation is beautiful and disturbing and thought provoking and often shocking. You can’t take your eyes off it. Alex Garland, who also made the terrific Ex Machina, is bold enough to challenge the audience, asking a lot of us while also asking big questions with his narrative. Stunning visually, this is a movie well worth a look.

Also worth a mention: Bohemian Rhapsody, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Three Identical Strangers, The Favorite, BlacKkKlansman, Cold War, If Beale Street Could Talk

What were your own favorites? What have I forgotten? (Books and TV next week)… Let us know!

 

The Horror of “Get Out”

23 Feb

A week away from the Oscars means a rumination on a nominated movie is a great idea. A good friend and writing mentor, Jeff Meyers, has a take on “Get Out” I find extremely thought provoking and fascinating, so much so I asked him to let me post his ideas here. Whether you liked the movie or not (I realize as much as it invigorates many of us it befuddles others) , I think you will find his essay worthy of consideration and discussion.

It’s no secret that, historically, horror has been regarded as junk entertainment, a genre that relies on cheap thrills and lurid subject matter to draw audiences. And while critics have been willing to extoll the technical and cinematic achievements of the genre, they typically overlook the thematic, intellectual, and emotional resonance of the genre.

The well-deserved nomination of Get Out for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award is only the sixth time a horror film has been considered for such an honor. The first, 1973’s The Exorcist came 45 years after the Oscars were first introduced. Since then, only The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, Pan’s Labyrinth (Best Foreign Language Oscar) and Silence Of The Lambs (the only one to win… and regarded, by some, to be a thriller rather than horror), have been given such regard. Classics like King Kong, Bride Of Frankenstein, Psycho, Alien and The Shining were all, notably, overlooked.

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This dismissal of horror as a serious-minded expression of cinematic art and opinion has such a long and pervasive history that even some its own practitioners feel a need to distance themselves from the label, lest they be devalued as artists. 

In the introduction to The Walking Dead graphic novel, creator Robert Kirkman insisted that his goal was not to scare anyone, and that he wasn’t writing horror but rather “social commentary and character.” Writer-director Jordan Peele asserted that Get Out is not a horror film but rather a “social thriller.” 

With all due respect, Kirkman and Peele are wrong. While genre labels are often fluid and inexact, there is little doubt that a graphic novel that involves hordes of flesh-eating zombies, and a movie about a mad scientist that cuts out the brains of his victims in order to replace them with someone else’s brain qualify as horror. The rejection of the label is undoubtedly the result of those long standing dismissals of the genre. 

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Best Films of 2017

2 Jan

Though I am criminally behind in my viewing (see below), here is my annual list. The year started off rough, there wasn’t much I liked until suddenly the year blossomed in late fall; I saw a string of excellent movies that made 2017 feel like a pretty damn good year for features. Additionally, three of these terrific films – The Shape of Water, Coco and The Florida Project – were as visually stunning, albeit in very different ways, as any movie I’ve seen in years.

THE SHAPE OF WATER

It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Romantic. Violent. Erotic. Funny. Dazzlingly beautiful. Magnificent. 

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT

“A movie that defies traditional narrative storytelling” is always, for me, a polite way of saying “boring as hell.” Yet The Florida Project may be my favorite movie of the year (it’s a close call with The Shape Of Water.) Sean Baker’s objective look at the lives of marginalized people living in crap hotels on the outskirts of Orlando is funny, shocking, wrenching and heartfelt. It’s also a stunningly composed film. Baker and his DP, Alexis Zabe, somehow take these scummy yet colorful locales and bring beauty and art to the images. The movie also has some of the best performances you will see all year, many from non-actors. This is an amazing movie.

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Whoa. The great playwright, Martin McDonagh, follows up his debut, In Bruges, with the blackest film comedy I’ve seen since War of the Roses. Shocking, funny and shockingly funny, none of the movie’s main characters are who they seem to be initially. Each makes a surprising journey, one of the many pleasures of the film. Save one bit of miscasting in a smaller role, the performances across the board are exemplary. I’ve seen it twice and will watch again.

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LADY BIRD

It can be hard to explain why Lady Bird is such a wonderful movie. It’s a story we’ve seen told many times before and there is nothing innovative about the filmmaking… unless “damn, that is fine filmmaking” is innovative. Given the crap we see on screen, yes it is indeed innovative. Lady Bird may be a simple story told in straightforward fashion, but the writing and acting are so strong, so enjoyable, that writer/director Greta Gerwig uncovers originality and deep emotion, making what should seem old, a coming of age story, fresh and new. I had a smile on my face the entire time I watched Lady Bird. (What a wonderful year of acting is 2017! Everyone shines in this movie.)

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COCO

Pixar seemed to lose some of its magic in the last couple of years. While Coco isn’t perfect, and there are a couple of plot revelations you can see coming from the start, the movie is a revelation because the milieu and characters are so unique, at least for mainstream cinema. Coco is also a dazzling feast for the eyes, one of the most visually arresting movies I’ve ever seen. It goes for your heart and it will get your heart. Bravo.

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THE LOST CITY OF Z

I saw this dense, challenging movie three times in the theatre and was really bummed it did not catch on, though it is easy to understand why given the complexity of both the characters and the ending. James Gray steps into David Lean territory with the true life adventure tale of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who becomes obsessed with finding a lost city of the Amazon. It all works for me: grandiose and beautiful images, a terrific score, richly written characters, and superlative performances from Charlie Hunnam, Tom Holland, an unrecognizable Robert Pattison (becoming such a great actor) and Sienna Miller, a chameleon who may be the best actress working in film today. It will haunt you.

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DUNKIRK

Dunkirk certainly had its detractors. But it did boffo box-office, to use Variety-speak, which is surprisingly and encouraging given the movie is a $150 million dollar art film with no lead character, no real villain and a time-jumping narrative. I loved it. Rarely have I been so tense and keyed up in a movie. Nolan and his team build an incredible amount of dread, heightened by Hans Zimmer’s innovative score, one of his best.  Easily one of Nolan’s best as well.

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GET OUT

Jordon Peele somehow crafted a funny, suspenseful horror movie that slaps you up side the head while also being incredibly satisfying, a true audience pleaser even as it challenges you. Smart, clever and a lot of fun.

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PHANTOM THREAD

Wow. I’ve never used this word before now, but this movie ravished me. Stunningly beautiful with a magnificent score, directed with PTA’s usual precision and incredible performances across the board, I loved this movie. Loved it. It has put some people off as being cold and distant. I get it. Kind of. It’s lush and romantic yet ultimately a bit disturbing. Whatever. Phantom Thread transfixed me from the start and never let go.

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I, TONYA

I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t this: sharp, smart, hilarious and ultimately surprisingly deep and even moving. The filmmakers somehow make the standard mock-documentary format new and exciting. And the performances are stellar. (It has been such a wonderful year for actors.) This might just be the most purely enjoyable movie I’ve seen all year. What a blast.

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Honorable Mentions: Call Me By Your Name, The Big Sick, Baby Driver, Logan, Logan Lucky, The Disaster Artist, Blade Runner 2049

Did not yet see: Wind River, Phantom Thread, I, Tonya, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mudbound, Brawl in Cell Block 99, The Darkest Hour, Ingrid Goes West, Good Time, Hostiles – Wish I could just stop and watch movies for a few days!

Tell us your favorites in the comments!

 

Homemade Butter… in 5 minutes

14 Sep
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Butter made in 5 minutes

One of my favorite movies of all time is Rosemary’s Baby, still as chilling and brilliantly acted and directed as it was almost 50 years ago when it debuted. A favorite line in the movie has a modern relevance regarding food.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow), as you should know, becomes pregnant after moving into an old gothic apartment building on Central Park. On the advice of her doctor, she begins drinking a fresh, healthy milkshake every day, mixed and delivered by her next door neighbor, Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon deservedly won an Oscar for this role). According to Minnie, the shake contains raw egg, gelatin, herbs, and something called Tannis Root.

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Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon in “Rosemary’s Baby”

Rosemary, along with the audience, slowly begins to suspect there is a conspiracy to steal or harm her baby. Famously, very little happens in the movie yet it ruthlessly crawls under the skin. The ordinary becomes terrifying as we wonder if something is actually happening or if Rosemary’s imagination is running wild. 

When the book (1967) and the movie (1968) were each released, both phenomenal hits, our country and much of the world was in the midst of a decades long embrace of chemically created food over natural: formula over breast milk, margarine or oleo over butter, Saccharin and corn syrup instead of sugar, boxed food over food made from scratch, etc, etc. It seems so obvious now that something natural would be healthier than something created in a lab. But given years of misinformation and outright lies from both the government and food corporations, there was no reason for the public to believe otherwise. (I really despise the FDA, a rant I’ll reserve for another post.)

What’s fascinating today about Rosemary’s Baby is that the shake, made from natural ingredients, is one of the creepiest things in the movie. It becomes a focal point and a source of fear for the audience, and then Rosemary herself. A knot begins to form in our stomachs every time Rosemary takes a sip. As her paranoia increases, she finally snaps and revolts against what she perceives is being done to her. Rosemary then delivers the line I love:

“I want my vitamins from pills, like everyone else!”

Crafted and created in a lab is what was healthy and normal to audiences at the time. Natural was not. Even with our modern perspective, we are thrilled when Rosemary takes this stand. Is she too late? Is anything actually wrong? You’ll have to watch this brilliant movie to find out. (Note: It’s free if you have Amazon prime… the movie is gorgeously shot by William Fraker so try to watch it on a big screen!)

We are thankfully moving away from the days of margarine and corn syrup (lies, LIES!) and the idea that crafted in a lab is good for you. We have returned to the wonderful knowledge that something as simple and wonderful as butter can be enjoyed without the guilt that was thrust upon us for years. It actually is healthy!

Yet true, decadent butter is still hard to find, at least in the USA, thank you FDA. Years ago I was in Italy and ate at a small family owned hotel/restaurant on a farm. After I sat down, they brought me bread and butter. I tasted the butter on the bread and thought my head would explode. I’d never tasted anything so good. I called the owner over and in my very broken Italian kept asking him, ‘What is this??” He kept shrugging and saying, “It’s butter.” I kept saying,  “No, this is NOT butter.” He became frustrated and looked at me like a stupid American and finally threw up his hands. “It’s just butter!” I realized later it was butter that had been churned that very day, with no pasteurization. My goodness, was that incredible butter, so different than what we buy in most stores. 

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Il Falconiere

I’ve recently discovered you can make such butter at home, fast, without a churn! All you need is some heavy (whipping) cream and a food processor. With basically no effort at all, you will have fresh, incredible butter. Give this a try (and let me know what you think!)

For the recipe, click here: Continue reading

Best Films of 2016

31 Dec

(With a little TV included!)

Most exciting to me about the films on this ‘best of’ list are the directors, none of whom are old guard. I should state that while I very much believe diversity of all kinds is of the utmost importance in the arts, I myself don’t think about the age, race, sexual identity or gender of an artist when I view a work. Is this a dichotomy? Some would say yes. I think not. A work of art is great or it isn’t no matter who creates or guides it, at least by my own judgement. 

A debate for another post.

Something wonderful is happening in movies, though. Only after I compiled this list did I realize all the directors were younger or less established than the directors we usually find on year-end lists. A very diverse collection of artists were involved in the movies I found worthy of note in 2016. I didn’t compile the list with this in mind, it just happened. Which fired me up.  

Agree with my list or not, the directing (and writing!) talent found here bodes well for the future of my favorite art form.

ARRIVAL

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Denis Villeneuve is my favorite director working today. As evidenced previously in two incredible thrillers, Prisoners and Sicario, Villeneuve builds tension and dread better than anyone. In Arrival he does the same, brilliantly, but for very different effect. A thought-provoking work of science fiction with a dazzling emotional payoff, I’ve seen the movie three times. It gets better and richer with each viewing.

Along with stunning cinematography by Bradford Young and an innovative score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve creates an atmospheric movie that somehow is simultaneously majestic and intimate. All of the actors shine, even in the smallest parts. Jeremy Renner does some of his warmest, most charming work ever. And Amy Adams is my pick for best actor of the year, male or female. Her understated performance is filled with great emotion and depth. She grounds the movie with a quiet power that makes the last twenty minutes even more thrilling and eye opening. A second viewing only elevates her work, given the final revelations. I’m not ashamed to say I wept the first time I saw ArrivalIt’s a masterpiece.

For the rest of the picks, click here to  Continue reading