Chi-Raq – Spike Lee (2015)

Chicago holds a special place in my heart. I called the city home for six years, and grew to love it. I consider it my spiritual hometown, and so was very interested to see Spike Lee’s take on the gun violence that has plagued the city and filled anyone who loves the place with despair. Living on the south side in the early aughts, I am familiar with many of the places and neighborhoods portrayed in the film, although the violence was nowhere near the level then that it is now (and even so, I was living in a fairly protected enclave). Many Chicagoans have been vocal about the name of the film being pejorative, and the film itself reflecting negatively on the city; while some of this is understandable and perhaps justified, in truth it seems to have more to do with Lee’s outsider status, and positions him as a kind of carpetbagger or tourist of tragedy. The fact of the matter is that the level of violence Chicago has experienced in the past decade is staggering, and anyone with Lee’s status who wants to draw attention to the problem should be commended. Yes, his film is a polemic, and yes, its didacticism has no interest in drawing a nuanced, wide-ranging portrait of the city in full. This is not a problem, but a strength. Anyone who is concerned about the numbing level of daily (gun) violence in America should be thankful this film exists; that we might be amazed it exists is a measure of how acclimated we have become to living in a nightmare (and how easily we can deny that nightmare as long as we are able to quarantine it within certain communities).

The film works in a few different modes or registers. We begin with a straightforward sequence laying out the facts of the problem that is quite unlike anything you have seen in the past thirty years in mainstream American cinema – the frightening numbers of dead and wounded are laid out as an anguished, angry rap provides the subjective view of this violence. We then move to a nightclub, where a shooting is about to take place during the performance on stage; right before the shooting, however, the action freezes, and our narrator/chorus Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) explains, in verse, the structure of the film, and that it is based on Lysistrata by Aristophenes. Many times during the course of the narrative, Dolmedes returns to comment on the unfolding action. The narrative itself, pitched, like Lysistrata, as a farce, concerns two warring gangs, one run by rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the other by the older Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is Chi-Raq’s girlfriend, and starts the movie without much awareness of the terrible conditions of her community, and in denial about her boyfriend’s contributions to the problems. She is radicalized both by the death of a child and by her neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who encourages Lysistrata to use the power she has as a woman in a political way – that is, she starts to think about withholding sex as a way to control Chi-Raq and tamp down the violence he thoughtlessly causes in the community. At this point, Lee mixes in “documentary” sequences that highlight the present day reality of this tactic, such as the peace movement in Liberia led by Crystal Roh Gawding that sought to end that country’s civil war in a similar way. Lysistrata’s task is to convince not only her fellow gang wives, but those of Cyclops’s gang, that such a move is in the best interests of the entire community. As the action begins to take root and show some success, the movement grows not only city-wide, but worldwide, as women everywhere begin to use sex as a tool of peace. Eventually, Lysistrata and her “army” nonviolently seize the National Guard barracks in Chicago and a stand-off between the men of the city and the women ensues. On a somewhat separate track, we have the story of Irene (Jennifer Hudson), whose child was collateral damage in a gun battle. This death is partly what influenced Lysistrata, but Lee returns to Irene and her grief, making the child’s funeral a central sequence in the film – it is during this church service, led by Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), a character modeled closely on the real life Reverend Michael Pfleger, that Lee, through Corridan, gives voice to one of the most scathing indictments of the American way of death, and the economics undergirding it, that we’ve ever seen in a narrative film. Eventually, the “armies” of men and women square off in the persons of Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, with the first to orgasm the loser. Before anyone can win or lose, however, Cyclops and the other male representatives of the community (not just gang members at this point, but men from all walks of life and levels of “respectability”) intervene and force Chi-Raq to concede. Lysistrata carries the day, and in the denouement, everyone dressed in white (suggesting heaven and an ideal conclusion that cannot be realized in this world, sadly), Cyclops and Chi-Raq sign an accord to stop the violence, and Chi-Raq begs the forgiveness of Irene, confessing that it was he who killed her child. He then willingly accepts his punishment, and implores those in attendance (and, by extension, the viewers of the film) to use his case as a negative example.

I fully admit the description does not do the film justice. You might be able to tell it is a fairly radical work as far as mainstream cinema goes, especially these days, but it is pretty radical even by Spike Lee’s standards. His anger is often palpable, but what I don’t convey well is just how funny the film is. Jackson’s Dolmedes is outright hilarious, and even though we are in the realm of the serious, the film is a farce first and foremost. All the same, the ending is quite powerful, and moving, and much of that can be chalked up to Nick Cannon, a huge surprise in his controlled and astute portrayal of Chi-Raq. Really, though, the entire cast is excellent – the purely farcical characters, such as General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly, channeling a union of Generals Buck Turgidson and Jack D. Ripper from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) come off the worst, as they seem cartoonish and shallow, but those with a serious mode are very affecting. (John Cusack is unexpectedly great in this way, but I must also give a shout out to Wesley Snipes, who returns to the screen with an affected character who could easily be dismissed, but owns it, being by turns ridiculous and serious as needs be). Like many other of Spike Lee’s films, though, Chi-Raq has problems. Lee is just not good at dramaturgy, and his narratives are often lumpy, misshapen, and lack momentum. In his best work, such as Do the Right Thing, he triumphs in the end – but his best work, to my mind, is his earliest and least experimental. As he has gotten older, Lee has been willing to try new forms – Bamboozled, for instance, is audacious, but overlong and tiresome. More conventional fare, such as Summer of Sam, comes off as pointless and downright boring. So while I prefer Lee in his experimental mode, in any mode his films often have long, tedious parts. This is partly due to a lack of structure, but the greater problem is his inability to write characters that are both believable and who convey emotion and motivation through action rather than words (another reason Do the Right Thing works). Often the acting in his films seems bad, as in the embarrassingly hysterical Jungle Fever, but it is not really the fault of the actors – the characters are simply too often types or obvious contrivances, spouting dialogue that communicates Lee’s point of view straight-up. They rarely feel organic, or fully formed, and tend to lack ambiguity. We get a taste of this early in the film, especially with Angela Bassett’s character. Such ham-handedness makes the proceedings feel amateurish, like an overly earnest After School Special. In Chi-Raq, though, it works to his advantage a bit, because the whole film has an improvised air, and often seems like a piece of filmed street theater. Lee makes use of real locations, and foregrounds the artificial, and temporary, nature of the production, for instance by using fabric signs hung on the side of buildings in place of billboards or real signage. This tactic reinforces the universality of the material, suggesting that Chicago is just the most recent stop on the tour of this immortal agit-prop theater troop. Ultimately, for me Lysistrata is just a very odd choice for source material given the topic Lee wants to address. A gang war is not like other wars – as Lee makes apparent, it is the product of structural forces beyond the control of the disempowered actors in the street. And the gender aspect of the play, while providing much of the comedy, is a strange fit as well for the subject matter. Yes, it makes sense in that the mothers of the dead might ultimately be the loudest, and angriest, voices, but the sex comedy side feels odd. I would wish for a film that is angrier, tougher, and wrings tears from the audience throughout, rather than waiting for the post-climactic afterlife. Still, even though the film is uneven, and even though it does not touch a nerve as forcefully as it needs to, it is an essential film for our time, simply because it is so unique and addresses a topic that no one else of Lee’s visibility is touching.

Three and a half stars out of five

Brooklyn – John Crowley (2015)

Brooklyn is one of those films that sails by under the radar, as watching the trailer, for instance, produces no particular impression other than mild disinterest as a series of quite generic and bland, if slightly humorous or heartwarming, sequences pass by. The heroine looks unremarkable, the dramatics subdued, the film pretty in a conventional way; it looks like a story we have seen or read a hundred times before, a safe, perhaps even conservative film, that will offer little to distinguish itself aside from a quiescence and universality that might result in mass appeal. Taken as a series of pieces, of sequences taken out of the context of the greater film, Brooklyn would not add up to much. Unlike many films which are produced these days (at least in the generally straightforward English speaking world of filmdom), Brooklyn’s impact and artfulness arises only through slow accumulation. It works subtly, deliberately, and with an attention to detail that is almost invisible. Thus, when the full film emerges (which happens only in the final shot, perhaps, but not in the sense of a more typical coup de théâtre, even of the slower Tarkovsky variety), the accumulated force is all the greater, washing over us as does a massive wave that we have barely detected, as we have studied it from underwater, unaware of its surface effects until the final moments.

The film, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who is languishing in her small Irish town during the 1950s. She seems congenitally dissatisfied, as if not even realizing her constraints, but her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott) takes an interest in her liberation, and secures her a job in Brooklyn through an acquaintance in the clergy, as well as passage on an ocean liner. We follow Eilis as she struggles to make her way, both on the boat, and later in the city, as an inexperienced, and generally shy country girl. Living in a boarding house with four other girls in similar circumstance, and under the shrewd and watchful, but compassionate, eye of Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), Eilis works at a department store, but has a hard time adapting to the cheerful demands of the job. Taking note of her homesickness, the clergyman, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) intervenes, and pays her first semester of tuition so that she might attend night school and become a bookkeeper. Perking up at this intellectual stimulation, Eilis begins to find her footing as she is taken into Mrs. Kehoe’s confidence, due to her compassion and sensibility, and eventually she meets a young suitor at a dance. This young man named Tony (Emory Cohen) is Italian, and thus we expect a clash of cultures, which never materializes, as Tony woos Eilis, eventually introducing her to his family, and finally proposing love and marriage. Her deepening connection to Tony coincides with sister Rose’s unexpected demise, which calls Eilis back to Ireland, both to console her now abandoned mother and to sate her guilt at having not said a final goodbye to Rose. Eilis and Tony marry before she leaves, but once arrived, she tells no one of her recent nuptials. Although she tries to demure, her childhood best friend sets her up with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), the local most eligible bachelor and all around decent fellow, and thus a tension develops as Eilis’s mother actively implores her to stay in Ireland, and Jim passively offers her a future and a reason to. Meanwhile, Tony writes Eilis letters, trying to stay in the forefront of her mind, but perhaps disavowing the pain the separation is causing to both of them, she leaves them unread. Her bookkeeping skills put to good use, Eilis steps into Rose’s old job on a temporary basis. No longer the dissatisfied, sallow girl without a future, Eilis is now a sophisticated import with a worldly outlook and skills that are sought after; Ireland could indeed be a satisfying place to live, unlike before her journey. Or could it?

As you can tell, there is nothing particularly innovative about this narrative – it is classically shaped, and the conflicts it sets up are universal in nature. What is impressive about the film, particularly for a work adapted from a piece of literature, is that is eschews psychologizing its subjects in any definitive way. We don’t get precise explanations of certain events, nor do we get a narration or other device to guide us through the interiority that is literature’s métier. For instance, Rose’s death is a bit of a mystery. Her mother finds her dead shortly after a sequence that portrays her as unhappy. Father Flood tells Eilis that she must have died from a medical condition she kept hidden, and Rose does indeed have a fragility about her physicality (she has, for instance, an unexplained scar above her right eye). Did she die of natural causes, or did she commit suicide? The book provides a more definitive answer, but the film, by refusing to resolve the issue, provides a resonance to Eilis’s dilemma when she steps into Rose’s shoes later in the film. Is unhappiness caused by the limited nature of this place, or by the people in it? Does it, and other emotional opportunities, emerge from within, as part of our temperament, or from without, imposed by the existential conditions we find ourselves trapped within? By simply portraying such situations, and allowing them to suggest, rather than define, the film amplifies the emotions at stake as it moves along so that, like the wave that carries us to the shore, by the end we are borne along by feelings and desires, rather than intellectual recognitions. Ultimately the film is working with very basic, and well-worn, tropes, such as the nature of love, the ability to adapt, the desire for and impossibility of return, the journey from innocence to experience. But, like many of the greatest films of the classical era of Hollywood, these universal issues allow us all to step into Eilis’s experience imaginatively by way of our own, and fuse our own voyage with hers; like many of those films, there is something for “everyone” in this portrayal. That the film effectively carries off its aims is not despite, but indeed a feature of, its simplicity, and a credit to an adroit adaptation by Hornby, and incredibly faceted performances by everyone, but especially Ronan, whose transformation does not even register for us until the last quarter of the film, and also the two men in her life. Tony, and his close Italian family, could have been a caricature, slipping into an easy identification based not on human experience, but on past filmic representations; instead, he is brash in a respectful, shy way, and his family distinctive while feeling contemporary and fresh. Jim is also a study in unexpected humility, as instead of trying to woo Eilis and keep her in Ireland, he remains at a remove, always aware of the depth of experience she has acquired that he has not, and respectful of the fact that her life is now elsewhere, in a place that likely cannot but make what he has to offer pale in comparison. The film ends in a way that is unsurprising and, like the rest of the movie, emblematic rather than distinctive. But at least this viewer found it one of the most deeply moving experiences of the past year. A powerful, and beautiful, humanist vision.

Four and a half stars out of five

Spectre – Sam Mendes (2015)

It has been forever since I’ve seen a Bond movie. And by forever, I mean, I’ve never seen one on the big screen, and the last one I can remember purposefully sitting down to watch all the way through was a VHS copy of Never Say Never Again that I got from the public library when I was a kid. Sure, I have seen most of the Bond films from the Connery era, all on cable television, and the Lazenby Bond film, and Casino Royale (the first version, with Woody Allen), and bits and pieces of many of the others, also on cable television. And I played Goldeneye to death on the N64 (but have no interest in the film, as Pierce Brosnan always seemed the Bond with the lowest yield). I even read a whole damn big glossy coffee table Bond fanbook from cover to cover! So somehow I know plenty about Bond, without really caring. Based on the trailer, I had no interest in seeing Spectre because, in truth, all the Daniel Craig Bond trailers have looked the same to me – palette of gunmetal, a perpetually cloudy sky, and little in the way of the trappings that have always screamed Bond. I understand the reason for this, as the Craig films are Bond 2.0, with a stripped down, “realistic,” (that is, dark) sensibility, and no taste for camp, cheese, or many of the colors of the rainbow. They have serious actors playing serious villains; no Donald Pleasence (God rest his soul) stroking his kitty while cookie cutter lamebrains “die” by jumping this way and that, but rather heavy hitters like Mads Mikkelsen and Javier Bardem coldly calculating the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Such is Bond in the age of global terror. But I was desperate – desperate for some escapism, and for a movie that wasn’t all talking, but heavier on the doing, even if what it was doing was of little consequence. And I like Christoph Waltz, although, if I am honest, it was the prospect of seeing Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux at 20 foot scale that sealed it for me. And yes, I am happy to report I was mercilessly entertained and even, at times, somewhat moved. (Say what?)

Spectre picks up after the events of Skyfall (which, having not seen, I assumed had more import than they do – more on that later). M (is for Mommy) Judy Dench is dead, and a sense of rebirth and/or the afterlife permeates the whole film. We get this from the first shot, which opens with Bond dropped into the Dios de la Muerte festivities in Mexico City, sent to dispatch an assassin by the end of the opening set piece, which is a goody. Although Bond accomplishes his task handily, new M Ralph Fiennes is none too pleased, as he did it without the proper indemnification, it seems. So Bond is ordered grounded, pending the reorganization of the double aught program into a new MI6 overseen by a young Orwellian data hungry war on terror type (Andrew Scott), C. C is hot to link up all the governmental surveillance operations of the world on the same intranet, and thus keep us all safe in a warm cocoon woven by this unblinking and fiery eye of cyberSauron. Bond, though, has captured a mysterious ring off the finger of the dispatched assassin which he wants to further investigate. He is thus, with a little help from Q (Ben Whishaw), forced to go AWOL, and travels to Italy to get the skinny from the assassin’s widow (a brief, brief, all too brief appearance by Ms. Bellucci). The widow informs Bond that the shady organization her husband worked for (Spectre, duh) is meeting in Italy that same night! Bond hightails it over there, in time to see a new court assassin appointed while discovering that Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man thought dead, is the chairman of the board. Barely escaping the palatial grounds of the malevolent mind-meld, Bond is pursued through the streets (and the rest of the movie) by said assassin, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), who is hard to kill and likes to keep his fingernails long. He of course escapes, and is soon on the trail of Mr. White, a Spectre flunky who holds the secrets of the organization, but is dying of thallium poisoning. Mr. White doesn’t have much time, or incentive, to help, but he does have a daughter who knows where the secrets be hid, and so Bond agrees to protect the daughter if White tells him where to find her. It turns out daughter Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) works on the top of a mountain at an exclusive medical clinic – all the better for a nice set piece as Bond pursues her down the mountain in the clutches of Hinx. Retrieved, Swann and Bond go to Morocco, uncover the secret of Spectre’s location, and are eventually chauffeured there courtesy of Oberhauser – or, should I say, Blofeld! Blofeld and Bond have an interesting shared backstory, and eventually must do battle in London, with Swann’s life in the balance. About the climax, I will say no more, except that we learn how Blofeld got his blind eye (he had the kitty all along, apparently).

Spectre has everything that you want a Bond movie to have, plus some. There are big set pieces, bigger than life baddies, beautiful women, and, thanks to director Sam Mendes, action that is staged with clarity, a minimum of digital stupidity, and a very snappy script. Yes, the climax is ludicrous, and given the outcome is what we expect, they could have gone with a less is more approach. And yes, all of C’s, and M’s, rantings and waxings poetic (respectively) about democracy seem quaint to the point of camp. But this is Bond plus, and it is mostly due to the presence of Léa Seydoux. Not only is her character strong, and often Bond’s equal (although, yes, she does have to be rescued in the end), Seydoux is a remarkable actress and brings what could be a rote role to life, imbuing her scenes with a palpable sense of loss that gives weight to her connection with Bond – we care what happens in the end, and want both of them to live happily ever after. Moreover, Spectre feels like the summing up of the previous Craig Bond films; the introduction of Blofeld, and Spectre, ties together the previous story lines and marks the end of one era and the beginnings of another (post-Craig, perhaps?). In the aftermath of Skyfall, which was curiously flat and underwhelming, with action more fit for a Tom Clancy or Bourne movie and with the tedious and weird Oedipal overtones that made the whole film about M, Spectre plays almost like a swan song to the world of Bond as it was in the 1960s. That is, a world where democracy mattered (or at least seemed possible) and where systems of totalitarian techno control were harebrained schemes of evil geniuses, and not a fait accompli proffered up to techno “wizards” by a passive public. The last shot (which I won’t give away) feels like Bond is retreating back into the era from which he emerged, and to which the logics of his persona make most sense. We feel not nostalgia, exactly, but instead elegiac, sad at the distance between the world as it was, even fictionalized, and as it is now, so debased that it cannot be recouped into fiction without at the same time denying its own reality. Spectre deals with this split deftly, portraying M’s vision of saving democracy not without irony, but also never sneering at it – rather referencing it as the hopeful candy colored dream of a 20th century now long, and definitively, dead. (Or, like Bond, set to rise again?)

Four stars out of five

Suffragette – Sarah Gavron (2015)

While preparing to write this review, I wracked my brain trying to think of any other films I knew that concerned the history of the feminist movement or the battle for women’s right to vote. And I came up bone dry. Even films that are generally feminist in perspective, at least mainstream films, are pathetically hard to come by. (I exclude such films, more prevalent in the past 15 to 20 years, particularly within the genre of comedy, that would claim the feminist mantle by snarkily proving that women can be men too, while doing nothing more than celebrating the status quo of white upper middle-class life and winner-take-all capitalism). So even if Suffragette were not a very good movie, it would be notable and worth seeing simply because it tries to portray an era of history almost never portrayed, and a political movement that is almost never considered within popular culture, even as it is the foundation, in many ways, of huge swaths of what is taken for granted about the modern world. Happily though Suffragette is a good movie; it is not pedantic, and conveys the historical detail and political stakes of its subject in a naturalistic, fluid way while also connecting on an emotional level. While it does have its problems (mostly on a formal level), it also is powerful in that it pulls no punches, and does not lamely celebrate how far we’ve come, as you might expect such a film to. Instead, it is happy to paint the suffragettes realistically, as angry agitators willing to break the law, destroy property, and reject slow, incremental change in favor of direct action even at the risk of inciting violence. In this, it speaks to our own moment more so than a film that, like so many in the last few decades, dare only portray the fight against political injustice through the lens of passive resistance. It is a film unafraid to be angry.

The story concerns the political awakening and radicalization of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wage slave toiling non-stop in a laundry in turn of the century London. She and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) work together and, we assume, live in factory housing with their son George (Adam Michael Dodd). One day while out delivering some laundry, Maud is surprised when two women smash a shopfront window with rocks while yelling political slogans. Awakened to the idea of women’s equality, but still ignorant of the details, Maud is educated by her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is generally a thorn in the side of management, and set to testify before Parliament and Prime Minister Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) about the generally deplorable working conditions of the laundry, and particularly the condition for women, ahead of a general vote on women’s suffrage. Unable to testify because she has been beaten by her husband, Maud steps into her place and gives extemporaneous testimony. Present at a rally that hopes to mark the announcement of suffrage, Maud and the other women are outraged when Lloyd George announces the proposal did not pass. Maud’s affinity for the movement is cemented when the police, under the supervision of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), beat and arrest many of the women at the rally. Unable to bail herself out of jail, Maud is forced to stay in prison for a week, her husband and son at home only able to guess where she is. Freed, and all the more committed to the cause, Maud joins up with a more militant arm of the suffrage movement under the direction of Dr. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a rare female physician who cares for many of the workers at the laundry. They begin a campaign of bombing post boxes and breaking shop windows; at the same time, Inspector Steed begins to tighten the dragnet in an attempt to put down the suffrage movement. Sonny eventually sides with the law against his wife, and presses his claims to custody of their child, while shutting her out of the household. Maud is forced to live in a church attic which provides sanctuary for suffragettes, and visits George on the sly. Sonny, unable or unwilling to care for George without Maud’s support, puts him up for adoption, and after blowing up Lloyd George’s soon to be completed summer home, Maud and her cohort plan to use the upcoming Epsom Derby to get their message before the film cameras there to photograph King George V.

What makes the film powerful is that it ties together several threads that are often considered separately, or left dangling, in the popular imagining of what women’s suffrage means. Chief among them is the connection between economic justice and the vote – Maud is not interested in having the vote as a means to achieve some abstract equality with men, or to be able to exercise political power for its own sake, or to be the equal of her husband socially, but because it is the only road she can see to a less miserable life for herself and her family. Before he decides to take recourse in the law and deprive her of her maternal rights, Sonny and Maud are de facto equals in that both are wage slaves and both have little opportunity to change their circumstance, or provide a better one for their child; Maud’s testimony importantly makes concrete that poverty is not just deprivation of leisure and pleasure, but indeed a life lived in physical pain and an early trip to the grave. Where Sonny and Maud are not equal is in their treatment at the laundry, as the foreman, who controls the employees from an early age, the status quo begetting generations of misery, is free to sexually molest the female workers from a young age. So the film does well to tie together economic power and biopower, and to show how limits on one helps guarantee a limit on the other (and thus keeps bodies docile). Another strength is that the film portrays agitation in a realistic manner; the police are shown to be a tool of state repression, and the portrayal of officers beating up women in the street is an effective counter to the image that tends to be propagated, in popular culture, of the Victorian era and its long sunset as an age of decorum, patronizing chivalry, and of women kept prisoner in gilded cages. (Again, when do we see working women of this era portrayed? Almost never, and even when we do, they are still too often idealized, a la Downton Abbey). When Inspector Steed confronts Maud with the violence implicit in her act of helping to blow up Lloyd George’s country estate, she does not pause and is not chastened, but instead vehemently rebukes him, offering a critique of the state’s monopoly on violence, and effectively making a case that when deprived of figurative representation before the law, bodies must use the only force they have access to – that is, physical force. The film portrays Maud not as a woman who is nobly willing to sacrifice her family and child for her cause, as we might expect, but instead as a woman who has already been forsaken by society, her previous status of wife and mother just the scrim of propriety the social order has cast over a person who was born without power, without choice, and without recourse. She is driven, from point to point, to survive and work against this system by asserting whatever power she can find – be it in the indecorous use of her body, or in the raising of a rock, or the planting of a bomb. And the ending does not seek to tidy up the picture in any way. This is not a tale of triumph; it might shock those who don’t know, or remember, that the rights being agitated for at the end of the film are still 20 years in Britain’s future. The film is not without fault, but one cannot accuse it of overly sentimentalizing its subject matter. It does lack historical context in that we are dropped into 1908 and don’t understand where the movement arose from materially. This might not matter, but such emphasis is placed on the figure of Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, who does stick out a bit), a fixation not only of the police, but of the film itself, which treats her as an enigma and as an avatar of the movement, without allowing us to understand her involvement, where she came from, or why she is important. The camerawork is also problematic in that it is of the shaky, handheld faux documentary style familiar to the work of director Paul Greengrass, but without much motivation. Do directors even think about motivation for camera placement anymore? The handheld shakiness would make sense in the crowd scenes, if we take the camera to represent the point of view of a member of the rally – but why is the camera moving otherwise? The framing is often sloppy as a result. These are minor distractions, though. Overall Suffragette not only does justice to its subject matter, it sobers us with the realization that so little has changed.

Three and a half stars out of five

Bridge of Spies – Steven Spielberg (2015)

Steven Spielberg has long been our foremost, and perhaps finest, liberal humanist, a nuanced artist even as he is also, at times, a nuanced ideologue. For a long time, he put forth his hopeful vision of the human animal within the wrappings of the fantastic; as he has gotten older, more and more often he has turned to history for his subjects, working within a style of high drama that simulates a product that used to be called, in old Hollywood, “prestige” or “quality pictures.” Starting with Schindler’s List (although previewed in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun), Spielberg raised the stakes of his aesthetic by making statements rather than simply telling stories that might happen to have (an often comforting) morality. As Spielberg has aged, his vision of the human endeavor has grown darker, but also more faceted; if his work is still often problematic (Schindler’s List, grim though it is, remains a fairy tale), it is still to be taken seriously, as the characters he portrays are fully three dimensional, and inhabit the middle tones of reality, rather than the high contrast relief of a cartoon. And although his subject matter has shifted from the far-flung, easily enthralling locales and concepts of his early work to the potentially deadly milieus of rooms in which characters do little but sit and talk, his style has kept pace, and we are never bored. Not that I have taken this to heart, for whenever a new Spielberg “quality” film comes out, I tend not to be excited to see it – “more drab gray and brown chromatics, more guys in suits standing around talking?” says I. I wind up dragging myself to the theater, but always come out braced, feeling remiss for not giving him more credit. So it went with Bridge of Spies, which I have only now finally seen, mostly because all my other choices had bottomed out. What is great about the film is that it speaks to our current moment, and appeals to the better angels of our nature (even though, for this viewer, only fools remain, as angels have long since learned that treading on Mars is safer and more interesting) – yet he does so by gentle, and subtle comparison, rather than with thundering histrionics. While he is out to convince us of something, he also believes in the self-evidence of his conviction, and so approaches us not as cynics in need of correction, nor naive patriots needing ammo for battle; that is to say, he treats his audience with intelligence, which is a rare enough thing these days.

Bridge of Spies concerns the seemingly undramatic, if not uninteresting, case of the clandestine spy swap that returned downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet hands. The film begins at the height of the cold war, as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a great Mark Rylance) is captured in Brooklyn. Well regarded insurance attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to represent Abel, and after due consideration of how unpopular such a role will make him, takes the job, and mounts a vigorous defense. Much to his, and our, surprise, Abel has been prejudged not only by the public at large, but by the officers of the court as well – the judge on the case (Dakin Matthews) dismisses all of Donovan’s more than reasonable motions and makes it quite clear that, in his eyes, Abel is guilty of crimes against the state and should be executed. While Donovan does not dispute that Abel is guilty, he also finds him deserving of admiration, as although an enemy, he remains loyal to his cause and does not turn double agent, selling out his beliefs, or, at the least, his allegiance, for money or protection. Not wanting to see Abel executed, Donovan appeals to the judge’s realpolitik patriotism by suggesting that he be imprisoned, preserved in case the circumstance arises that an American agent is, at some time, captured by the Soviets and a deal need be made to bring that loyal solider home. The judge accepts this reasoning, and sentences Abel to jail, much to the consternation of the general public; Donovan’s defense of Abel, and his desire to move his case further through the appellate system, does indeed make him, and his family, momentary pariahs. Parallel to this story, we are introduced to America’s spying scheme involving the development of the U-2 aircraft, its deployment, and Francis Gary Powers’s (Austin Stowell) eventual capture, imprisonment, and interrogation by the Soviets. Now faced with the eventuality predicted by Donovan, the CIA decides that a swap is necessary to prevent Powers, who was instructed to kill himself rather than be captured, from spilling classified info. They tap Donovan to arrange the swap, as he has been approached, with much subterfuge, by the Soviets via a letter from Abel’s “wife.” Donovan travels to Berlin to arrange the swap without telling anyone, even his wife (Amy Ryan) what he is tasked with. Berlin, having just been rent asunder by the infamous wall, is a dangerous place for Donovan, as he is there without any protection, official or otherwise, and is only allowed to speak, sotto voce, for the U.S. in a fully deniable fashion. He is tasked with going into East Berlin to speak with a mysterious Mr. Vogel (Sebastian Koch), without escort and without contacts. Complicating matters is that, as the city was being divided, an American grad student was captured on the eastern side trying to bring his girlfriend across to the west – the student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), becomes a pawn in this game, as both the newly formed government of East Germany and the Russians, would prefer to trade him for Abel rather than Powers (the Russians for obvious reasons, the Germans to project the prominence of their newly formed state onto the world stage). Donovan, being the Dad and stand-up guy that he is, doesn’t want to leave Pryor behind, even though he is repeatedly warned by his CIA handler (Scott Shepherd) that he is not a priority. Donovan crosses into the east, and with his lawyerly wrangling, tries to negotiate a two for one swap. His success or failure remains unresolved until the last minute, at the early morning meeting on the titular bridge.

What makes the movie so great, and “relevant” (ugh), is that Spielberg echos forward so many of the paranoias and fears that, it must be said, have always been America’s bread and butter, but which have taken on a renewed virulence since 9/11, and he does so simply by showing, rather than saying. We recognize familiar names and sights (the U-2 takes off from an airbase in Pakistan, and looks much like a drone) and are perhaps a little taken aback by how much the now supposedly defunct Cold War still inflects, and infects, our body politic. The setting of the film, although slightly after the Second Red Scare, is at the height of nuclear hysteria, the effects of which Spielberg portrays effectively, both via Donovan’s young son (Noah Schnapp), who is heartbreakingly indoctrinated in the ways of useless fear at school, and by way of comparison with the behavior of Rudolf Abel. Abel, a painter and a man of consummate composure, is portrayed as a stoic – he continually, when asked by concerned seconds if he is not worried about his plight, responds, “Would it help?” We understand this is partly shorthand for the Russian national character, but it is also, when compared against the rabid hysteria and herd mentality of the Americans, a portrayal of our national character cast in relief, and a wise response to a world where the individual increasingly has less and less control or free will. Indeed, Spielberg, working from a script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers (which displays more insight and less cynicism than most of their directorial work), is at his finest in portraying the travails of men in a world of existential dead-ends, doing their work as best they can, and staying authentic by trying to match that work with their own moral code. The film is an excellent portrayal of humans trapped within the context of history – the Soviets are not boogeymen, but simply hysterical in different ways, and equally convinced of the rightness of their competing, and alien, system (which, as with the portrayal of Abel, defamiliarizes our own system, and makes it seem equally strange and absurd). There are some missteps, mostly in the details. Pryor is seen toting the one copy of his dissertation across the border with him on his mission to deliver his girlfriend from Communist hands – really? And the dialogue gets a little breezy and ahistorical (Abel at one point says there “might be a glitch”). No matter, though, as the heart of the film, and the most affecting part, is the relationship between Donovan and Abel, two men who can see beyond the era in which they are both prisoners, and who admire each other for having this quality of timelessness (perhaps the prerequisite for an ethics). Abel at one point tells a story of seeing his parents beaten by anti-Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, and contrasts them with a family friend who fascinated the young man because whenever he was knocked down, he immediately stood back up again, and was ravaged the worse for that trait. He compares Donovan favorably to this man, who he calls the “standing man.” And indeed, if Spielberg has an overarching theme throughout his body of work, it is the standing man – almost all of his films are portraits of him. Spielberg is an authentic artist, and it is also important that in an era where most of us cannot but crawl, that we see the standing man. Yet, this fascination is also Spielberg’s weakness. For there is no shame, or failure, in staying down when one is beaten, and what are we to say about those who cannot stand? Is there no sympathy, no place of honor, for them? Where is the artist who can, with equal eloquence, speak for, and redeem, the fallen, the defeated, the tired, and the weak?

Four stars out of five

Crimson Peak – Guillermo del Toro (2015)

All of Guillermo del Toro’s films are, in some way, tales of the gothic. Like his influence (and failed adaptee) H.P. Lovecraft, they are also hybrids, so it is not surprising if the gothic tendency is not the first quality that springs to mind when considering his work. But it is there, running like a subterranean stream through films that feature a kind of art cinema historical realism (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) or that seem genre exercises in fantasy (Hellboy and Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrinth) or sci-fi (Mimic, Pacific Rim). In fact, looking at his filmography, it is possible to wonder if all these categories are indeed fused for him – while horror is the overarching category that captures all of his work, most of the films fall into at least two categories. (Blade II, for example, is a horror film, but also has elements of sci-fi and fantasy. Mimic could be considered sci-fi horror. Pan’s Labyrinth is art horror fantasy. And on and on). So what is surprising, given this trajectory, is that Crimson Peak is not a hybrid, and that it is avowedly gothic through and through. Like most of his other films, it is a tale of ghosts, of the dead who refuse to remain dead, and of the vampiric need for the blood of others to guarantee personal survival.

Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak is the story of an escape from a traumatic reality into a fantastical space where, it seems, dreams can come true. In fact, it could almost function as a kind of sequel to Pan’s Labyrinth, as while it lacks that prior film’s grim historical specificity (and outcome), it focuses on a young woman, just on the far side of adolescence, who also seeks to escape a personal tragedy, but instead of forming a closed, safe interior universe, instead ventures outward, both physically and emotionally, leaving her country and falling in love for the first time. Pan’s Labyrinth was a story about the dangers inherent to trusting that the world will support you; Crimson Peak is about the risks of trusting others, after the continuation of the world itself has been assured. The story will be very familiar to anyone who has had a passing encounter with 19th century literature. Our heroine, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is an aspiring writer of gothic tales and the only daughter of a self-made magnate in 19th century Buffalo, New York. Her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) is visited by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a vaguely aristocratic young Englishman of seemingly decrepit lineage, who tries to interest Cushing père in funding his mud harvesting and brick making scheme. Carter, ever cagey, doesn’t trust Sharpe at first because he is not the up from nothing American type that he can identify with, and then later because of some nasty details learned through the aid of a private detective (the distinctively seedy Burn Gorman). Not thrilled that Sharpe has been making a romantic impression on his daughter, and armed with his evidence of skulduggery, Carter confronts Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and writes them a check to send them on their way, on the condition that Sharpe thoroughly breaks Edith’s heart before leaving. He does so, humiliatingly, at a dinner party, but before they can leave town, someone bashes Carter’s head in. Edith, newly orphaned and without anyone to protect her from the Sharpe siblings except her friend and doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who is too discreet, respectful of Edith’s will (and perhaps hurt at being passed over) to intervene, falls back into Thomas’s arms, and soon is newly married and travelling to his vast manse in the wilds of the English countryside for a new life with he and his sister. Sister Lucille seems strangely jealous of Edith, the house is a monstrous wreck, and haunted to boot. Soon, Edith is wondering what is kept secret in the supposedly too dangerous to visit basement, but before much can be discovered, she inexplicably falls ill. Are the mysterious visitations from bloody women portents of some vile past? Are Edith’s sudden health issues the sign of foul play? (I think you don’t need to read the tea leaves to find that answer). Eventually, all sorts of degenerate yet predictable “secrets” will be revealed, but does Edith make it out alive? Is the love of Thomas true, or will Dr. Alan reemerge and press his case? For the answers, tune in tomorrow… (Or simply imagine, as you are probably right).

Crimson Peak plays out as a kind of cut and paste mashup of the Illustrated Classic’s versions of Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, with a few panels from Great Expectations thrown in for good measure. It is well done, and the attention to period detail, and character filigree, is impressive. And, although the first third of the film, set in Buffalo, is far more interesting than the high gothic doings that comprise most of the rest, and although del Toro’s ghosts look crummy, are not scary, and seem attuned to the worst trends in horror films from the past decade or so, the movie is still affecting and moving in parts, as it does plug us back into what makes the gothic an affective and disturbing form. The acting is good, and helps sell the weaker parts, with Wasikowska being particularly winning and sympathetic (can the gothic exist without a woman at its core?) and her dad Beaver a nuanced standout as well. Beyond that, it is not particularly memorable or powerful. What is fascinating about del Toro as a director is also what is frustrating about him – his films are quite uneven. He’s made a few very good films (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), many solid and thought provoking entertainments (Blade II, Cronos, Crimson Peak) and a few semi-stinkers (Mimic, Pacific Rim). He doesn’t tend to write characters with deep or complex psychology, and he rarely surprises with novel techniques or with narrative originality. Just as his imagination is clearly visual first and foremost, it is citational as well; he tends to ransack other films and literature for character types, plot devices, and generic situations. What is surprising, though, is that despite this, each of his films has a distinctive flavor, whether they are art films that we would think more “personal” or genre moneymakers. Despite the hoariness of his material, he is totally sincere; the familiarity of his references feels warm, and comfortable, rather than tired or lazy. Indeed, even though many of his films are “generic” in this way, del Toro takes considerable care to make sure all the details are right and that there is a fidelity to the original within his elaborations. Yes, he tends to focus on the surface, but he is meticulous in his construction, and seems to believe that through detail something larger can emerge. For his faithfulness to the source material to matter, del Toro needs to understand it, not just intellectually, but emotionally, and not just for modern audiences, but for the original ones too – and it is clear that he does. This is why he never winks at the audience, why his references are completely straight, and unironic, as for him (and often for his characters) the imagination is a vehicle that provides an escape into, not just an escape from, and where we are carried is just as important as the fact that we are carried away. Unlike the majority of cynical image makers, who mine the history of representations for shorthand notations in an attempt to convey emotions and meanings that they are too limited to create, del Toro is instead recalling – his cinema is a cinema of memory, but the subject is his own memory, the child-like delight evident in the beauty and directness of his imaginings a window to what he finds important morally and emotionally. del Toro is an anachronism in the sense that he reminds one of those journeyman directors of yore, toiling within the studio system, who turned out uneven product and inconsistent art, and who never rose to the rank of household name or avatar of “greatness,” but who nonetheless, in their ubiquity, in their striving, in their simple desire to work and solve problems of visual communication, helped build the grammar of the visual language we speak with today, and by the by constructed a palace of dreams vast and rich enough to escape into, perhaps, like del Toro, forever. Crimson Peak does not do anything new, nor does it overly impress us in any particular way, but at the same time, it helps us remember the stories we thought we had forgotten. Even if this remembering does not linger far beyond the end credits, in the time of our transport it reminds us that we are haunted by the ghosts of past representations for a reason. The ghosts are important, as when we are haunted, we are, like Edith, learning how to navigate the world of humans by remembering those who came before. And, also like Edith, such remembering ultimately allows us to survive, able to become the author of the story of our own lives.

Three stars out of five

The Assassin – Hou Hsiao-Hsien (2015)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first film in eight years, The Assassin has been greeted with nearly unanimous rapture. Critics’ reports from Cannes nearly all claimed it the best film in competition, calling it beautiful and enigmatic, and stateside reviews have been just as positive. The film is Hsiao-Hsien’s take on the wuxia genre, which, in both literature and film, focuses on the doings of lone heroes, usually assassins, who wield their martial art skills for the purposes of righting wrongs or restoring the proper balance to tectonic powers. The form is largely a literary one, and Hsiao-Hsien has talked about how such books were an inspiration to him growing up. Many Asian directors do make a wuxia story at some time (usually earlier in their career), so for Hsiao-Hsien, who is now 68, this film is obviously a labor of love. While predominately a genre of Hong Kong cinema (although Hsiao-Hsien is Taiwanese), American audiences are probably most familiar with the genre by way of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers. Such films, while full of drama and intrigue, do usually fall under the category of marital arts film, and you expect at least an equal portion of action to the dramatics. Those familiar with Hsiao-Hsien’s style (he is renowned for his use of a static camera and long takes, as in Flowers of Shanghai, which is comprised of 38 lengthy shots) will not be surprised to learn that his version of the wuxia format takes a markedly, although not radically, different aesthetic tack when it comes to working through the narrative. While not as austere and immobile as his previous films, the camera is still quite static, and the takes are longer than one would certainly expect for an “action” film; the action itself is often discursively portrayed, and even when the focus of a scene, rarely feels immediate or exciting. Whereas in previous films his use of long takes and long shots allowed the story to unfold in a grounded, observational manner (even when characters spend long chunks of time in monologue), here the technique feels an odd hybrid. The cutting is comparatively quicker than in previous work, but still very slow and strange for an action film – often, a character or pair of characters will spend the first half of a shot speaking, and then the remainder of the shot features the character standing and staring, immobile, or with very little affect. I must admit I am completely at a loss as to what the aesthetic value of this technique is supposed to be. It seems intended to impress upon us the import of whatever information or emotion was just imparted or portrayed, but instead it feels leaden and pretentious, stagy and, quite honestly, boring.

The story is quite hard to follow, partly because Hsiao-Hsien does not try to bring us along easily or make relationships explicit, and partly because the concerns of the plot are quite remote to us. The film is set in China during the 7th century, and revolves around a young female assassin named Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu). Yinniang has been in exile from her family for years, training with a nun versed in the ways of treachery on a mountaintop somewhere. Previously chided by her mentor for being too soft-hearted and slow to kill, Yinniang is now tasked with proving her mettle by returning to her family and slaying her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang) who is the ruler of her home region of Weibo. The nun relates to Yinniang how Weibo previously was on the verge of splitting away from Imperial rule, and it was Yinniang’s mother (if I followed the plot fully) who restored harmony through marriage. Now the province is again on the verge of challenging Imperial rule, and so it is the daughter’s task to kill her cousin to prevent this. The problem is that Yinniang not only doesn’t want to kill her cousin because he is family, but because she is in love with him. Thus the bulk of the film consists of her oftentimes playing the good cousin inside his court, and in the remainder skulking around with the intent of killing him, but never being able to go through with the deed. For his part, Ji’an starts to feel something is not right, and intuits that Yinniang is an assassin and wants him dead – so he vacillates between a desire to prevent this eventuality and, realizing she has done nothing wrong yet, wanting to figure her out (we suspect he also harbors similarly romantic feelings towards her). The film thus becomes a strange pas de deux, with both parties neither able to commit to violence or to ravishment, and so at least this viewer was left feeling similarly unresolved and jammed up. Eventually Yinniang returns to her mentor, confesses her inability to do what she was trained to do, and the movie ends.

Many of the positive reviews of the film I’ve read comment on how wonderfully staged and exciting the action is; am I missing something? Perhaps for a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film it is fast paced, but the action is very minimal indeed. At the beginning, Yinniang jumps out of the treeline and slits the throat of a passing noble. Is there blood? No. Is the camerawork particularly interesting or more active than in a typical such film? No. Are the acrobatics more inventively staged or more dynamic than in your average Hong Kong martial arts film? No, no, a thousand times no. While the film seemingly does not make use of the stupid digital effects of Crouching Tiger, which at least keeps what is portrayed rooted in reality, I did not find the martial arts segments (which are what makes a wuxia a wuxia after all) terribly interesting. The most interesting thing about the action sequences is that the majority are abortive, unresolved, and (unlike the introductory assassination) staged at a distance. For instance, we will see, in a long shot, guards on patrol within a treeline. Suddenly we see the branches bobbing and dancing, and can just make out, within the treeline, Yinniang appearing and disappearing, apparently killing some guards. Then, just as soon as the disturbance arrived, it departs. We don’t see who died, or even have an idea if anyone did, or why the attack took place at all. (I fully admit I might have missed crucial information throughout that would clarify such things). In all, almost nobody dies in the film, and the action is there only to foreground the impossibility of acting for the protagonist. So we have a few scenes like that, and then many, many scenes set in palace interiors, with characters talking, or more often declaiming, and then posing statically until we go to the next such scene. While I will admit I am vexed by the film, and intrigued by Hsiao-Hsien’s intentions, the experience of watching it did not deliver any immediate emotional or even intellectual payoff. Yes, it is a “beautiful” film, in the way that many international art film directors can deliver a “beautiful” film (especially when dealing with a remote time period) – the lighting is rich and natural, candles make interiors dens of shifting shadows, cast in a golden hue, there is much flowing fabric and verdant natural surroundings, and the sound design is quite good. But the results are soporific. For all the accusations that it was totalitarian, I will take Yimou’s full-blooded Hero any day of the week. If this marks me as a philistine, so be it.

Two and a half stars out of five

The Forbidden Room – Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson (2015)

Guy Maddin is one of the most indelible of contemporary filmmakers. When he emerged, seemingly sui generis, from Winnipeg a little over 25 years ago, he was definitely a cult figure, and when classified, was often lumped in with David Lynch as a visionary dedicated (perhaps too stridently) to the strange and dreamlike. Lynch’s strangeness can be associated with America – his corn-fed sincerity is mixed with a fascination with the hidden, perverse aspects of America’s self-regard, an interest revealed in his tendency to mix hokum with shock, notably in Blue Velvet, but also in Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and, of course, Twin Peaks. Maddin can equally be associated with Canada, but his connection to his homeland is revealed less by the subject of his films than by their form, which makes use of a deadpan absurdity that will be familiar to fans of Canadian comedy as practiced by SCTV or The Kids in the Hall (although Maddin goes far beyond the norm in his dedication to pursuing the lesser traveled byways of his psyche). Part of what has always made it hard to pin Maddin down is that his films have always had a meta-relation to cinema’s history and catalog of stylistic devices; that is to say, Maddin has always worked with certain techniques, and sought to achieve certain effects or visual styles, that have an indexical relationship to certain eras of cinema’s history (chiefly the silent period). Maddin has never been making replicas or parodies of such films, though, but neither has he been making pastiche, rummaging through cinema’s memory bank and grabbing devices or looks simply for novelty’s sake. No, what makes him much trickier (and marks him as a true artist) is that his films have some relationship to what they are parodying, but they are also wholly contemporary; unlike many contemporary films, which would deploy such a historical relationship ironically, though, Maddin’s films do not wink at the audience, nor do they pretend a sophistication against the naivete of the “originals.” Maddin is not unlike many other directors, many of them children of the various New Waves, who took filmic influences and made them their own, but unlike those other directors, he is not afraid to always push the boundary of what an audience will accept (his humor helps in this endeavor a lot). He is not afraid to be avant-garde, and thus tends to be more interested in the surface of a film than in depth. This is not to mean his films are shallow – I simply mean he is less interested in telling a story than in thinking about how and why we tell stories, and he is less interested in having the form serve the content than the other way around. When you think of a Maddin film, the first thing you think of is how they look – and though they all look different, we can still see, in our mind’s eye, an emblem of “how a Maddin film looks.”

Given that preamble, though, Maddin has changed, as any artist is liable to, over the years. His early films, in the intensity of their communication, felt more focused; the form and the content seemed more tightly woven. You will not, for instance, mistake Careful for the kind of mountain film the movie is obviously taking as its inspiration, but you do feel that the aesthetic world of that film is very meticulous, tight, and compressed. It is a film that lends itself easily to a “reading,” as the aesthetic of the film is consistent and unified, and relates very closely to the content (that is, “Maddin’s version of a mountain film narrative,” which we feel is commenting on various, perhaps latent, aspects of the genre). Many of Maddin’s earlier films have this feel. Around the turn of the millennium, Maddin’s style began to shift. The films became looser, often making use of visual stylizations that, while perhaps internally consistent throughout the film, felt less necessarily connected to the content (this is very true of his dancing version of Dracula, to my mind). The films began to feel more contemporary in affect, while they became a bit more willing to grab styles and visuals from many points in film history within the course of one film. His Coward’s Bend the Knee is an example of this, as it in some ways points back to silent film, like much of his work tends to do, but in a fairly non-specific way. It uses those techniques to do less work than they might previously have; instead, the film’s look seems more a way to unify what is, essentially, a perverse (auto)biopic. Part of this shift may have come about as Maddin became better known, and was called to rethink his work for a variety of formats – for instance, Coward’s Bend the Knee was originally conceived as an installation piece, with the film broken up into segments, each viewed through a Kinetoscope mock-up. All of this is to say that as Maddin has aged, his work has become more overtly personal, and he has perhaps felt less pressure to unify the form and content of his films, allowing them be more associational, poetic, and intuitive. Certainly many of his later films, The Forbidden Room among them, have a shaggy dog feel, a sense of brainstorming, barnstorming, a “lets get together and make a movie” improvisation that recalls the flavor of the Kuchar brothers in their heyday.

The Forbidden Room is Maddin’s shaggiest tale, and the widest ranging of his films in terms of styles and genres sampled. (I won’t even attempt to ennumerate the stylistic references, but they range from ’50s educational/exploitation films to French impressionism of the ’20s to silent jungle epics/exotica to the Surrealist avant-garde and onward). The film begins with a send-up of salacious “educational” films (a little less like the Kroger Babb variety and a little more like what you might have seen in school) called How to Take a Bath. The narrator (Maddin regular Louis Negin) stands jauntily in a hallway, his silky golden robe matching the wallpaper, and we get cutaways to the bather practicing his technique. Soon, the association with water takes over, and we find ourselves within the belly of our tale, a story of impending doom set on the submarine SS Plunger. There is a small crew, and a crazy captain who has isolated himself and “won’t be disturbed.” The crew is fretting over a cargo of explosive jelly they are carrying, which is threatening to explode because of decompression; things are so dire that they must resort to mining old flapjacks for the air bubbles trapped inside. While things look bad, the arrival of a stranger, the forester Cesare, seems to bring the possibility of resolution. The crew explores the submarine, with each chamber or room containing a story. Really, though, this is a vast understatement. The “story” of the submarine is a framing narrative on which to hang the rest of the tales, which multiply almost exponentially. Like Wojciech Has’s magnificent adaptation of Jan Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript, this is a film about stories stacked within stories like nesting dolls. A tale will start, to be sidetracked by another story told by a character in the first, who in her story relates a dream, within which another tale begins… you get the drift. In The Forbidden Room, we have, hanging off the main submarine narrative, a story told by the forester about rescuing an “innocent” from a gang of bandits in the snowy climes of Bavaria, and another story about an amnesiac flower girl and the dread “jungle vampire, Aswang.” From these two branches sprout a thousand others (many thankfully including the wonderful Udo Kier!) featuring volcanoes, double crosses, blind mothers, talking bananas, and enough other material for hundreds of fever dreams. Most of the stories work themselves through, and we eventually end where we started, back at the tub, and the loop closes.

While perhaps his loosest film, The Forbidden Room is also Maddin’s funniest (well, too close with Cowards to call, maybe). I personally prefer his earlier, very dryly funny films as an aesthetic experience (Careful really is without peer, but even an unfunny, borderline boring film like Archangel I find incredibly strong overall), but his more recent work is just straight up enjoyable, fun with the added benefit of being a feast for the eyes. Unlike much of his earlier output, The Forbidden Room is thoroughly digital (thus co-director credit to Evan Johnson). While an impressive feat in terms of color and image composition, I must admit I did not like the melty, swirly “liquefy” effect that roams over the surface of the image consistently throughout the film. I guess it is supposed to suggest the porousness of dreams, or the instability of early film stock, but I found it distracting and too digital looking. I am unsure how familiar Maddin is to a wider audience; he seemed to have his finest hour during the release of 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World, which many hailed, but I found vastly overrated and his weakest work, an overly long Kids in the Hall sketch without heart and with a grating performance by the usually credible Mark McKinney. While I would hate to handicap it, if I had to recommend one, The Forbidden Room might be the entree to Maddin’s body of film for the unfamiliar. It has near-constant novelty, an unending stream of strangeness, it’s ravishing to look at, and features many familiar faces (Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, the aforementioned Mr. Kier). As long as you aren’t hung up on conventional narrative, realistic psychology (or realistic anything), or “meaning,” The Forbidden Room will deliver an unforgettable experience. Just don’t ask me what happened.

Three and a half stars out of five

 

Goodnight Mommy – Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (2015)

The original German title of Goodnight Mommy is Ich seh, Ich seh, the meaning of which you might be able to deduce even if you don’t know German. That title, while cloying, also serves as a key to the film, and so is more fitting than the rather generic renaming; all the same, if you can decode the punny reference the German title is making, you can pretty much skip seeing the movie, as you’ll already know the outcome. Yes, Goodnight Mommy is about as derivative as they get. What’s more, like in an M. Knight Shyamalan film (but without any of the bumptious stabs at poetry to make up for its faults), the meaning of Goodnight Mommy hinges on a “twist” ending, a revelation that is supposed to answer questions, but instead only leaves us questioning the point of the whole enterprise. Like last year’s The Babadook, this is “psychological” horror, which effectively means that the scares are going to tickle your cerebrum and not twitch your death nerve. At least in that film, ham handedly managed though it was, the director tried for a level of allegorical content which vainly attempted to pull the tale from the grip of irrelevance. Sadly, the makers of Goodnight Mommy have no such desires – they tell their little (oft-told) tale straight, with no chasers of emotion or humanity. The style is Haneke, but it is like a Xerox of that master’s austere playbook. Since there is no point to seeing the film at all if you already know the ending (except, as the New York Times seriously suggested, to fact check the story’s logic), I will spare a spoiler. Here is the thusly reduced synopsis: two young twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live in a modernist house in semi-rural Austria. Our story begins with the return of Mom (Susanne Wuest), wrapped in bandages as she has just had plastic surgery. The kids seem leery of Mom, and think she is an impostor, or changed by her surgery. And she seems unbalanced; often cold and angry, she treats one of the twins with rough, grudging love, and ignores the other one completely – she won’t address him, won’t feed him. Mom seems to get more and more extreme as time goes on as the boys (or rather, the favored twin) question her more strenuously on what her problem is. We do see pics of Mom from earlier in her life, and she does not look much changed by the surgery, but we must agree she does act weird. But weird enough for the boys, feeling threatened, to whittle some wooden arrows for their “toy” crossbow? As you might expect, eventually the boys feel threatened and alienated enough by Mom that they tie her to her bed, and get to the bottom of things. Sorry Mom.

If you are familiar with The Other, Robert Mulligan’s sadly little known film of 1972, you know this film, and how it goes. The Other was true psychological horror, as it made us inhabit and identify with the protagonist to a degree that when the horror of his mind is understood, we feel it, and can both sympathize and shudder – our identification works like a mirror, and we cannot turn away, as to do so would be to deny ourselves. Goodnight Mommy is like a twist film procedural – it takes the alienated portrayals of early Haneke, adds a “creepy” gotcha, and, like an experiment, examines what the resulting aesthetic is like. For if there is enjoyment within this film, it is within the aesthetic. What we watch unfold is seen as if from outer space, or underwater – it might fascinate us, but it is too distant to move us. I can see that the Times might have a point, though, as perhaps watching the film knowing the outcome in advance would humanize Mom and make her fate more affecting, or make the twins creepier. At the same time, there are only so many hours left in my life, and an inversely proportional amount of movies in the world. Save yourself $14.75 (Angelika is a harsh mistress) and watch The Other instead.

One and a half stars out of five