Connect with us

Film

David Mamet’s House of Games on Criterion

It surely isn’t lost on David Mamet that the title of his 1987 debut feature, House of Games, doubles as a three-word summation of his career.

Published

on

David Mamet’s House of Games on Criterion

It surely isn’t lost on David Mamet that the title of his 1987 debut feature, House of Games, doubles as a three-word summation of his career. From stage to screen, the playwright and filmmaker’s tales are rife with hustlers, tricksters and sleight-of-hand artists. Mamet’s characters tend to fall into one of two camps: the taken and the takers. Some of the latter are fairly marginal in the greater scheme of things: in House of Games, Joe Mantegna’s mind-twister Mike and his partners in deception aren’t really a threat to anyone but their marks. Other Mamet takers are more menacing because they represent larger institutions: the mob in Things Change, the blandly ruthless executive branch of the U.S. government in Spartan.

But Mamet is rarely content to depict simple morality plays or contests of will. He self-consciously and deliberately italicizes the characters as characters—mouthpieces for Mamet’s world view and motors driving the plot. The story, meanwhile, is often more of a “story,” an interlocking series of situations designed to illustrate Mamet’s philosophy of life; he’s like Stanley Kubrick in this respect, only leaner, and with less interest in (or capacity for) lyrically cinematic moments. The subtext of many Mamet films is, “You’re watching a story because you crave a story; the characters’ goals, indeed the characters themselves, are pretexts to satisfy that need.” Many of Mamet’s projects as playwright, director and hired-gun screenwriter follow hard men in pursuit of what Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin”; Glengarry Glen Ross, The Spanish Prisoner, Ronin (which Mamet rewrote without screen credit), Homicide and Oleanna revolve, respectively, around the leads; the process; the briefcase; the definition of the word “grofaz”; and a report by a “group” investigating sexual harassment charges against a professor. The films sometimes add one more layer of self-awareness by peaking with a twist that surprises, disappoints or otherwise pulls the rug out from under the viewer—a tactic perfected in 1973’s The Sting, in which a couple of con men hoodwinked both their mark and the audience.

Mamet forged his template with 1987’s House of Games, newly reissued in a terrific 20th anniversary DVD from the Criterion Collection. Mamet’s debut stars his then-wife, Lindsay Crouse, as Dr. Margaret Ford, a psychologist and bestselling author who gets tangled up with a con man named Mike (Joe Mantegna) whose signature line should be every Mamet fan’s mantra: “Don’t trust nobody.” When one of Margaret’s patients confesses that he owes Mike a gambling debt that he can’t afford to pay, and she visits Mike’s smoky headquarters, the House of Games, hoping to solve the problem, Mamet sets off a chain of misdirection that continues through the film’s hysterically overwrought climax (“Please, sir—may I have another?”).

In House of Games, the gambit that con men call the “hook” is the scene where Mike tells Margaret that he’ll erase the patient’s debt if she’ll pose as his girlfriend, join him in a high-stakes back room poker game, and then, when Mike briefly leaves the room, spy on an opponent known as the Man from Vegas (Ricky Jay), then inform Mike if the man flashes his “tell” (a bit of body language revealing intent to bluff). The scene is fake-out within a fake-out: the Man from Vegas appears to outsmart both Margaret and Mike and then, when Mike calls him out as a liar, pulls a “gun” that’s actually a water pistol and demands a payout that the rattled Mike claims he doesn’t have; Margaret, an outwardly tough woman with a major Florence Nightingale complex, instantly offers to write a check covering Mike’s debt. The scene is cut to suggest that Margaret, the lone civilian in a room full of hardcore gamblers, is the first character to spot the water dribbling from the water pistol’s barrel. In fact, the supposed “screw-up” was part of the con men’s script, as was the subsequent, “spontaneous” confrontation between Mike and the Man from Vegas (who’s actually George, an associate of Mike’s).

This entire sequence is the opening salvo in a long con that illustrates the poker player’s maxim, “If you look around the table, and you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.” Margaret’s “discovery” of the water pistol con makes her feel smart. But a smart woman wouldn’t whip out a checkbook in the presence of a self-confessed “bad man” like Mike, much less willingly return to Mike’s orbit (”…like a dog to its own vomit,” in Mike’s words) and ask if she can follow him around and write about book about his world. She should know better, but she can’t help herself. Or perhaps, deep down, she wants to get taken.

What a piece of work is Mamet. He’s kin to Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese and Norman Mailer, prone to romanticize the same brutes he dissects; half sociologist, half hype artist, utterly valuable. His books on the craft of creativity (including Writing in Restaurants, On Directing Film, and the acting manifesto True and False) are must-reads. His singsong rants influenced everyone from Spike Lee and Kevin Smith to Quentin Tarantino and David Milch. And his meticulous, largely self-taught directing style—dazzlingly showcased in House of Games, a master class in dramatically functional compositions and camera moves—should be mandatory viewing for any would-be filmmaker.

***

Games also marked the appearance of a lot of Mamet’s baggage, much of it cumbersome, some downright ugly. Mamet has little use for women, who exist only to support or undermine men. He has less use for intellectuals (a class that Mamet, with his chin-stroking author photos, unquestionably belongs to; interesting bit of self-hatred, that). And he despises psychiatry, therapy and anything that smacks of “sensitivity.” This pose is reinforced in Mamet’s books about writing, which dismiss organized study of the arts (particularly workshops, college courses and graduate studies) as cons designed to make people who aren’t serious feel as though they are. “I don’t have any experience with film schools. I suspect that they’re useless, because I’ve had experience with drama schools, and have found them to be useless,” Mamet writes in On Directing Film. “Most drama schools teach things that will be learned by anyone in the normal course of events, and refrain from insulting the gentleman or gentlewoman student of liberal arts by offering instructions in demonstrable skill.”

Mamet disdains psychiatry and worships “natural” men who aren’t remotely curious about why they are who they are; yet his dramas, while hard-edged and profane, are also archly self-aware, and they often build their narratives around reductive, Psych 101 explanations of compulsion, sublimation, repression, projection and the like. The most annoyingly trite scene in House of Games is when Margaret makes a Freudian slip in the presence of her German-accented mentor and Mamet plays the moment straight. The moment is trite because only in bad movies do Freudian slips disclose one’s true self; it’s annoying because Mamet includes it in a film that otherwise slags psychiatry as a sucker’s game. Mamet’s third film, Homicide, starring Mantegna as a cop and self-loathing Jew who gets sucked into an investigation that might involve a sect of violent Jewish radicals, had an even more unsubtle Freudian gimmick: it illustrated the idea that the hero had culturally emasculated himself and wanted to be punished by having him repeatedly drop his gun when he most needed it. Mamet plunders pop-Freud thinking while sneering at the culture that birthed it and denying its influence on his work—a neat trick. He’s like a politician who’s built a 40-year public service career on running against government.

Mamet’s big three animosities intertwine in House of Games’ systematic debasement of Margaret, one of only two major female characters in an otherwise testosterone-heavy film, and the repository of Mamet’s bemusement at the vanity and impotence of intellectuals and his much proclaimed contempt for psychiatry. The latter is showcased again on the Criterion disc, in a commentary track by Mamet and Jay, an actor, gambler, card trickster and walking encyclopedia of deception. Mamet never misses an opportunity to slag shrinks (“all their kids are insane,” he says at one point). Jay’s more nuanced analysis of the Margaret-Mike relationship states that Mamet is “conflating, if you will, psychology and the con.”

Mamet’s Scientology-level loathing of psychiatry pales beside the more nuanced mockery of The Sopranos. That series’s creator, David Chase, kids Dr. Melfi’s tough-love deadpan, pregnant pauses and smugly certain diagnoses even as he acknowledges that she’s right more often than not. Chase’s point could be boiled down to, “Psychiatrists are as self-important and deluded as anyone; psychiatry is good at identifying the roots of people’s behavioral problems, but almost useless at fixing them, because people are so contradictory that they resist deconstruction, and they often can’t or won’t change.” Mamet’s take: “Psychiatrists are con artists with diplomas.”

By making both of the film’s representatives of psychiatry female (Margaret and her mentor, Dr. Littauer, played by Lilia Scala), Mamet lumps psychiatry in with cultural forces that he believes are trying to psychologically castrate men. The notion of therapeutic culture as a distinctly feminine con game is built into the film’s narrative. Mamet’s script defines empathy as weakness and reveals Margaret—the film’s most conspicuous purveyor of empathy—as a parasite who feeds on pain, helps others in order to distract from her own sense of worthlessness, and poses as strong while secretly craving submission and humiliation.

That Mamet’s stand-in, Mike, is a better psychologist than Margaret is an easy gag, but incredibly satisfying to moviegoers—a cliche that flatters every audience member’s fantasy of being the coolest person in the room. The character is a dazzling conceit: an abstraction that embodies the seductive adage that instinct trumps book learnin’. The Mike-Margaret relationship inadvertently anticipates the byplay in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway between John Cusack’s wimpy, pointed-headed college boy playwright, David Shayne, and Chazz Palminteri’s Mafia assassin, Cheech, a scowling thug who turns out to be a natural born writer who knows things you can’t learn in college.

The difference is, Mike is content to be a bad man, and digs the awed fascination he provokes in “respectable” people. He’s uniquely qualified to hoist the doc on her own petard. He deduces that the transgressive impulses and need for dependence that characterize Margaret’s patients are present in Margaret as well, then draws them out and exploits them. Added to which: Mike man, Margaret woman. He’s a suave bulldozer; she’s a prim fembot who could use a good plowing. When Mike seduces Margaret—emotionally, by inviting her into his forbidden (male) world; then physically, in a purloined hotel room—the acts are pregnant with wider insinuations. We’re not just seeing a con man dupe and nail a shrink. We’re seeing an exemplar of natural manhood ravaging a symbol of feminized, therapy-addicted, “sensitive” culture.

Mamet has a mission—The Re-Ballification of Man—and he’s been on it for most of his career. In Oleanna, the film and the play, a pompous but essentially honorable professor is goaded into violence by a grade-grubbing fembot student who hits him with specious sexual harassment charges that she knows he can’t disprove. In The Untouchables, Sean Connery’s gnomic old Irish beat cop, Malone, shows the WASP-y college boy Elliott Ness how to fight dirty, and gallantly endures one of film history’s most gloriously spectacular death scenes; Ness honors Malone’s example by engineering a nonsensical and probably illegal jury switcheroo during Al Capone’s trial and chucking Malone’s assassin, Frank Nitti, off a courthouse roof after Nitti has already surrendered. “I have become what I beheld,” Ness declares in the end, “and I am content that I have done right.” Tellingly, Ness’ wife—the most significant onscreen emblem of the civilized, domestic society that Malone and Ness went medieval to protect—is identified in the end credits simply as “Ness’ wife.” In the Mamet-scripted The Edge, Anthony Hopkins’ hero character, a soft-spoken, well-read, self-made billionaire, survives a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, outwits and outlasts a much younger fashion photographer (Alec Baldwin) who wants to steal his trophy wife (Elle MacPherson), and slays a grizzly the size of a Winnebago. In Heist, Gene Hackman’s thief is an old man who forgets to wear a mask during a robbery, but he still kicks ass and bunks with a saucy dame half his age (played by Pidgeon). Mamet’s affinity for manly men is so pure that it’s almost childlike. He hypes them even when it’s not necessary. “My motherfucker’s so cool,” Jay’s sidekick character says of Hackman in Heist, “when he goes to sleep, sheep count him.”

***

In an interview commissioned for the House of Games disc, Crouse defends every aspect of the film. When she insists that Margaret truly is the hero of the tale, the character who engages the viewer’s rooting interest, she’s not too persuasive. She sounds like an actor who’s still justifying having accepted a role that no actor with half a brain would have refused. Far more compelling is Crouse’s analysis of Games as a dream film—a non-representational narrative built from bits of Margaret’s personality. Crouse repeats the adage that “every person in your dream is you,” or otherwise indicative of the dreamer’s fears and desires. This interpretation jibes with the movie’s hardboiled, not-quite-real aesthetic—the deliberately stiff, signifier-loaded dialogue; the cartoonishly Freudian character motivations (Margaret’s bestseller is titled Driven); and most of all, the cruel magnetism of Mike, a devil summoned by a dirty secret prayer.

“You want someone to possess you,” Mike intones, stroking Margaret’s hand as she gazes at him in wonder. His musk fogs Margaret’s bullshit detector and sets her heart racing. He’s Stanley Kowalski rewritten by Ayn Rand. The delight he takes in conquering Margaret recalls Rand’s defense of the notorious scene in The Fountainhead where the ostracized genius architect Howard Roark stopped jackhammering a quarry long enough to hate-fuck the book’s snooty heroine, Dominique Francon. “If it was a rape,” Rand said, “it was a rape by engraved invitation.” “You raped me,” Margaret tells Mike in the climax of House of Games. “You took me under false pretenses.” She’s not speaking literally—their sex was consensual—but figuratively, and accurately; what Mike did to her was a violation. “Well, golly, Margaret,” Mike sneers, “Well, that’s what happened, didn’t it?” In other words, don’t act offended, lady; we both know you wanted it.

Crouse’s defense is intriguing, but it only holds up if House of Games can be said to stand apart from Mamet’s other movies—if, in other words, the anxieties and fantasies on screen are credibly Margaret’s, and if the situations and imagery are demonstrably different from what we see in Mamet’s other films. They aren’t. But Mamet’s preoccupations and hangups are so engrossing that House of Games is fun regardless. Its style is simple, but its situations are primordially deep, and their provocative, politically incorrect and often silly nature makes them all the more fascinating, because the narrative isn’t just about Margaret and Mike.

Given its subject matter, we should know from Games’ opening moments that we’re being set up along with the doctor—that things aren’t what they seem, that there’s no way Margaret can outsmart Mike and his crew because Margaret has ideals and delusions and shame and the con men don’t. If we’re fooled, it’s because the director flatters us as Mike flatters Margaret—with intent to deceive. The water pistol scene is Mamet the trickster’s version of the subsequent scene where one of Mike’s compatriots (Mike Nussbaum) walks Margaret through a short con involving paper money and an envelope. Like a con man with a movie camera, the filmmaker positions viewers for a big con by revealing smaller ones. “It’s called a confidence game,” Mike explains. “Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”

In his books about creativity, Mamet says that fiction’s core appeal resides in the sub-rational desire to know what happens next—either because you don’t know what’s coming or because you’re curious to see how the inevitable plays out. Congruent with that is the desire to vicariously experience predicaments we’d avoid in life, and identify with iconic character types comprised of ten percent credible psychology and ninety percent wishful thinking. House of Games boldfaces the implied pact between storytellers and audiences.

On the Criterion commentary track, Mamet says that acting and lying engage the same submerged animal trait: the instinct to survive a deadly threat by any means necessary. Acting and lying, Mamet says, plug into “the essence of the cerebral cortex: How do I get away from the wolf that’s trying to kill me?” Storytelling feeds the same need. Audiences crave controlled encounters with primal desires and fears; therefore, the storyteller’s first obligation is to satisfy that need. To Mamet, drama is a service industry.

That’s a cynical attitude, but it’s not incorrect, and Mamet proves it on the page. Acts and beats are the DNA of Mamet’s drama, archetypal (or cliched) characters his marrow. He gives us “stories” instead of stories—living, breathing, messy or (God forbid) ambiguous fiction—because he finds the latter dull, and as phony as Margaret’s empathy. (In On Directing Film, he tells would-be moviemakers to study Dumbo, and says that young artists who claim they just want to “express themselves” should compare how people describe a work by a performance artist with how they talk about Cary Grant.) He creates characters like Mike because he knows that viewers crave characters like Mike—men who, like certain storytellers, can mesmerize and overwhelm us, even when we know they’re absurd and believe that we’re strong enough to resist their charisma. The big bad wolf wears Armani.

Mike doesn’t just suss out Margaret/the viewer as a tight-ass who’s nursing a bad-girl fantasy. By italicizing his self-created trickster image, Mike sparks Margaret’s healer’s impulse (as both woman and doctor) and stokes her need to live for someone else and through someone else. Mike is a professional storyteller; he knows what the audience wants, even if the audience would never admit it. When Margaret excoriates Mike for setting her up, he rebukes her for having the temerity to act surprised. “You say I acted atrociously,” Mike says. “Yes. I did. I do it for a living.”

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Features

Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

Published

on

Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

3

Published

on

The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

3

Published

on

I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.

2

Published

on

The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Published

on

The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

1.5

Published

on

Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril

In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

2

Published

on

Midway
Photo: Summit Entertainment

“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.

Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.

Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.

Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.

The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.

Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.

Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Klaus Gorgeously Grapples with the Reinvention of Tradition

Sergio Pablos’s film is essentially a metaphor for its own unique and refreshing mode of expression.

3

Published

on

Klaus
Photo: Netflix

From Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, mainstream animation has taken a long-overdue look in the mirror as of late. Increasingly, animated films are opting for more experimental approaches, and often by taking inspiration from past techniques. Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is one such project, a throwback to classical animation that appropriately bakes its concern with tradition right into its plot. As a sort of Santa Claus origin story, the film examines the ways that tradition is built and torn down, all through an aesthetic that’s striking, beautiful, and as innovative as it is mindful of its own history.

The film follows the disgraced Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a failing student at a postal academy, as he’s exiled to the frozen northern town of Smeerensburg. His father (Sam McMurray), the very rich head of the international postal service, has given him an ultimatum: establish a functioning post office in Smeerensburg, where so many others have failed before, or be cut off from his luxurious lifestyle. As a tipsy ferryman, Mogens (Norm MacDonald), notes at one point, the townsfolk have one thing to say to each other and no need for letters to say it: In some long-standing Hatfield-McCoy-esque familial feud, they swing axes and fire muskets at one another, making the ramshackle town a perpetual warzone.

No one in Smeerensburg sends their children to school because that would mean mingling with the enemy, and out-of-work teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has adapted by using the schoolhouse for her side gig as a fishmonger, filleting catches right on her desk in front of the chalkboard. As he visits the unaccommodating locals, Jesper discovers a gruff, reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Though Jesper initially suspects the hulking, white-bearded man of being an axe murderer who traffics in severed heads, Klaus only wants to help the town’s beleaguered children by gifting them handmade toys. All they have to do is ask for one by sending a letter with, of course, postage paid to Jesper.

The gears of the kids’ animated holiday movie are immediately apparent here, not just in the presence of a treacly tie-in song, but also in how Jesper’s own motivations will inevitably come back to bite him, with a requisite “I’m sorry” scene following a requisite “I quit” scene. These moments somewhat drag down the back half of Klaus, but the sheer extent of the film’s visual invention ensures that even such lulls are fabulous to look at. The exaggerated character designs are at once spindly and pleasantly rounded, and, most impressively, the textured, naturalistic lighting gives the film’s throwback techniques a distinctive and thoroughly modern edge. Pablos worked on Disney’s Treasure Planet and Tarzan, and that lineage is readily apparent in the bouncy, vibrant life that runs through all the character movements.

Beyond its characters’ wondrously cartoonish, emphatic gesticulations, much of the film’s humor results from unlikely circumstances of violence and hardship. When delivering presents in one scene, Jesper stuffs toys in socks hung to dry above a fireplace because he doesn’t dare enter the rest of the house, as we see him boxed into the center of the frame by a pack of sleeping, toothy dogs. And he drops into homes via chimney because the unwelcoming townsfolk of Smeerensburg, whose lawns and porches are littered with spikes and bear traps, naturally keep their doors locked. In the world of the film, Christmas traditions emerge through children’s rumors: Klaus’s wagon becomes a flying sleigh by pure circumstance, sent sailing through the air once the wheels come off, and when one child sees it just before it crashes to the ground, the story of the “sleigh” spreads like a haphazard game of telephone.

There’s an anarchic edge to both the film’s humor, as in a glimpse at a group of creepy kids building a snowman with so many carrots stuck into it that it suggests a stabbing victim, and the way it builds its uncanny origin story, all the while remaining skeptical of entrenched customs. Characters note that the long-running Smeerensburg feud (one scene shows it in the form of a cave painting) is what the town was built on, but the film’s dominant thematic current is that it’s time to move on, that remaining shackled to tradition or stuck in a rut only impedes progress. And with gorgeous animation that makes what was once old feel new again, Klaus essentially becomes a metaphor for its unique and refreshing mode of expression.

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda, Sergio Pablos, Norm Macdonald, Joan Cusack, Sam McMurray Director: Sergio Pablos Screenwriter: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zack Lewis Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: The King Is a Moody, and Confused, Song of Mud and Chainmail

If only the film made more of the curious tension between Timothée Chalamet’s Henry and Robert Pattinson’s dauphin.

2

Published

on

The King
Photo: Netflix

A moody song of mud and chainmail, David Michôd’s The King twists Shakespeare’s four histories, known collectively as the Henriad, into a rather modern political fable. It’s the story of a young leader intent on rescuing his country from intractable warfare who nonetheless finds himself expanding the nation’s military footprint without doing great damage to his idealistic reputation. The film, co-written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, doesn’t dwell on the parallels between King Henry V and Barack Obama. Intead, it shrewdly casts the former Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) into an avatar of millennial discontent toward power and the grisly means in which it’s exercised. He’s nonetheless seduced by its thrall.

The King doesn’t limn much conflict from Henry V’s failure to live up to his ideals. In fact, Michôd and Edgerton seem strangely oblivious to its most compelling aspects, chiefly the styling of Hal as a mid-1990s goth icon, a la Brandon Lee in The Crow, before his elevation to the throne. Chalamet’s narrow frame and innate talent for expressing sullen diffidence provide a jolt of modernity to the early scenes where England is riven by civil war and King Henry IV (a cotton-mouthed Ben Mendelsohn) sinks into paranoia and dementia. Estranged from his family, Hal cavorts with Falstaff (Edgerton), spending his nights at taverns and waking alone because Falstaff has ushered the women whom the prince beds out of their inn at sunrise.

After the deaths of his father and brother, and despite his emo rebellions, Hal assumes the role of Henry V with a mandate to pursue peace and a haircut that transforms this brooding figure into a wary warrior. His attention is soon consumed by the French, who send spies to infiltrate his circle of confidantes, and whose heir apparent, the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) seems intent in taunting him into battle. By and large, the film portrays the king’s capitulation to a new battle as an act of attrition, in redundant scenes of Henry seeking the counsel of a war-hungry Archbishop (Andrew Cavill) and his Chief Justice William (Sean Harris).

The King somehow becomes more self-serious after Henry integrates Falstaff into his advisory council, reinventing the massive gallivant into a gentle friend and self-proclaimed man of few words. “What if Hagrid but a taciturn war hero?” appears to be the pitch for Edgerton’s Falstaff, a character who’s emblematic of the film’s confused identity. Is Henry a master tactician or a peacenik who’s in far over his head? This question is cast aside abruptly when the king declares war on France after an attack on Henry’s pride at the hands of the dauphin. This hasty decision is the only moment where The King questions Henry’s ego, and the scene undermines the film’s outsized attention to tedious backroom negotiations.

Though the film fails to explore Henry’s psychology, Chalamet effectively conveys the king’s efforts to perform leadership and charisma: The King’s version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech takes place on a muddy battlefield where Henry appears diminutive but persuasively motivates his troops into a potentially hopeless battle. If only the film made more of the curious tension between Henry and the dauphin, who Pattinson portrays as a gleeful imp who looks like he’s been airlifted out of Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire. Instead, the two are sent into a scrum of armored bodies drowning one another in puddles and stabbing heedlessly. The battle is, like too much of The King, a slog of desaturated colors and endless slow motion that means to treat war as a brutal, meaningless affair, all the while capturing the action with a reverent grandeur that suggests there’s no other realm where heroes can be made.

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Ben Mendelsohn, Robert Pattinson, Andrew Cavill, Lily-Rose Depp Director: David Michôd Screenwriter: David Michôd, Joel Edgerton Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 133 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Primal Squanders Nicolas Cage’s Hunger for Gonzo B-Movie Madness

The film too often suggests an Under Siege that’s been pointlessly larded with critters from Jumanji.

1.5

Published

on

Primal
Photo: Lionsgate

Given its batshit premise—big-game hunter brings deadly jungle animals aboard an ancient freighter that just also happens to be transporting an imprisoned American assassin—Primal makes for a disappointingly ordinary action flick. Frank Powell’s film revives the single-setting gimmick that was popular in the 1980s and ‘90s—often referred to as “Die Hard on a _____”—without much flair or sense of escalation. Primal is essentially composed of scenes in which disposable extras wander hallways, waiting to get picked off. In the process, Powell squanders this project’s promising elements.

Most promisingly, the film’s big-game hunter, Frank Walsh, is played by Nicolas Cage, who has a famously insatiable hunger for gonzo B-movie madness. Cage plays Frank as a drunken, cigar-chomping braggart, the sort of man who feels, debatably, that he’s elevated slovenliness to a form of fashion statement. In one scene, Frank is relaxing up in a tree somewhere in a Brazilian rainforest, eating nuts, smoking a stogie, and waiting for his prey to take the bait. Here, we’re allowed to feel a loner’s solace in doing the thing he feels he was put on Earth to do. Primal could use more such moments, as Cage frequently falls back on his heightened “quotation mark” acting, in which he utters his lines in shifting and ironic cadences in a seeming effort to stay awake. Cage is such an intensely original performer that even his autopilot is pleasurable, though Frank Walsh fails to join Cage’s gallery of classic eccentrics.

More gallingly, though, Primal doesn’t capitalize on its awesomely ludicrous plot. One assumes that Frank will tangle with the assassin, Richard Loffler, who’s played by Kevin Durand in a sneering, manic key that competes with Cage’s performance for fuck-it-why-not bravado. These actors are ready to play, yet Powell and screenwriter Richard Leder keep them apart for large stretches of the film’s running time. One also assumes that a parallel will be established between Richard and the jungle animals as rhyming prey that Frank must hunt, but the animals are often forgotten and utilized only for the occasional jump scare or surprise fatality. (Perversely, Powell doesn’t even show the animals escaping their cages.)

Primal threatens to catch fire whenever it actually engages with its premise, especially in a competently staged knife fight between Frank and Richard that allows Cage and Durand to hit 11 on the machismo meter. Otherwise, Primal doesn’t live up to its name, too often suggesting an Under Siege that’s been pointlessly larded with critters from Jumanji.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Kevin Durand, Famke Janssen, LaMonica Garrett, Michael Imperioli, Tommy Walker, Rey Hernandez, John Lewis, Braulio Castillo hijo, Jaime Irizarry, Sewell Whitney, Drake Shannon Director: Frank Powell Screenwriter: Richard Leder Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending