Sunday, January 13, 2019

Nine Thoughts on 2018 in Movies

1

I watched a few James Bond films recently: Roger Moore vehicles For Your Eyes Only (1981), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and Octopussy (1983) plus Pierce Brosnan starrers Goldeneye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). I am sorry to confirm that Octopussy is still the most abysmally terrible of these. Sure, Bond films don't always strictly "make sense" -- see, for example, everything about Silva's confinement to and escape from MI6 in the generally excellent Skyfall (2012) -- but I have watched Octopussy many times and I am still baffled by the plot. I truly don't understand who is doing what to whom or what any of the villains are trying to achieve in this movie. The film has a few great set pieces -- the auto rickshaw chase through the streets of Udaipur and the climactic fight on the airplane exterior stand out -- yet as a whole, Octopussy is a confused, boring mess. I urge you to avoid it.

It pains me to say that after Octopussy, The Spy Who Loved Me, a perennial favorite, fared the least well for me on these recent viewings. It's the sexism. One particularly odious scene in which Bond is offered an unspeaking, scantily clad woman as a companion for the night just spoiled the movie for me. I seem to be reaching the point where these old cinematic friends grate against my strong feelings about misogyny.

Combining his sexism with his imperialism, Bond quips: 
"When one is in Egypt, one should delve deeply into its treasures."

Thankfully, For Your Eyes Only was much more bearable on the gender front -- Melina Havelock may be the most empowered, least sexually objectified woman co-star in the Bond corpus. Furthermore, Topol is superb as Columbo and Eyes' climactic rock-climbing sequence is a series high point. The Spy Who Loved Me still has the best villain (Stromberg), the best villain's henchman (Jaws) and the best theme song (Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better"), and I will need to re-watch The Man With The Golden Gun to be completely certain of this, but For Your Eyes Only might well be the best Roger Moore James Bond film.

Goldeneye was also excellent -- definitely the best Brosnan Bond film by far, featuring the franchise's second-best theme song. Tomorrow Never Dies is pretty good, Michelle Yeoh is terrific and Jonathan Pryce has a good time chewing scenery. Yet it has the very worst theme song of any Bond movie, no offense to Sheryl Crow.

2

The Favourite or BlackkKlansman or Sorry to Bother You is my favorite movie of 2018. Probably BlackkKlansman. I don't know. BK is a surprisingly upbeat and enjoyable film made by a very talented and focused director at the height of his powers. It may even be Spike Lee's best film, or is surely ranked among his best. Its ending, when it shifts into documentary footage, is one of the most potent and saddening and moving and gut-wrenching moments I had in cinema this year.

I love the audacity and genre-bending qualities of both The Favourite and Sorry to Bother You. Sorry To Bother You is scrappy, rough around the edges, more satirical and weird than pathos-driven, yet it packs a cumulative wallop with its zany absurdism and its willingness to address key social issues like labor strikes in a head-on way -- a rarity in Hollywood cinema. It is a satirical comedy with a touch of the surreal and science-fictional. Though it won't ultimately appeal to everybody, it is definitely a must-see.

The Favourite is a comedy of manners without the manners -- a dark comedy with touches of pathos, depth, and unexpected beauty. Visually audacious in its use of fisheye lenses, natural lighting, and long takes, The Favourite is riveting due to its tight script and its nuanced handing of interpersonal rivalries, lust, and love. All three leads are terrific but Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah are particularly revelatory. 

3

As far as big "popcorn" movies go, the only ones I clearly remember enjoying in 2018 are Black Panther and The Meg. I especially appreciated the women characters in Black Panther and also its villain Killmonger. He convinced me. And the rhino battle near the end ruled. I guess Black Panther is the best Marvel movie, though to me that is not necessarily the highest compliment, but whatever. This stuff is also true:
Killmonger is disenfranchisement turned into a person, someone for whom killing is a better fate than life and death is a better fate than bondage. He recalls slaves specifically, who would rather throw themselves from the ships than face a lifetime in chains.
The film’s idea of solving its dilemmas is always contained, to avoid conflict with other kinds of civics, to black-on-black violence . . .
Black Panther identifies and neutralizes its target audience by marketing empowerment but ultimately discarding it as the foolhardy goal of a Marvel villain. 
But whatever. I think I want to check out Into the Spider-Verse soon -- I have a feeling that might be the kind of superhero movie I will enjoy. I am also greatly looking forward to Captain Marvel. End of superhero movie talk.


Big-budget prehistoric giant shark movie The Meg actually surprised me  -- as predictable and rote as it is, I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Jason Statham and Li Bingbing make excellent co-leads. I need to re-watch that one soon I think.

4

I also really enjoyed Eighth Grade and Will You Be My Neighbor? this past year but those ones haven't stuck with me as much.

5

One of the highest points of my moviegoing year was attending the Eastman Museum / Dryden Theater's Fourth Nitrate Picture Show last May. The Nitrate Picture Show is a three-day film festival screening only nitrate film prints, by definition pre-1950s films since the industry switched to less flammable "safety film" after that. I am incredibly fortunate to live in a city -- Rochester, NY -- that can show such prints, as apparently there are only four or five theaters capable of screening nitrate films in North America, and the others are in California.

The entire program was wonderful, including a collection of shorts that kicked things off on Friday afternoon and Saturday night's headliner The Red Shoes (1948). Yet the real highlights of the festival for me were three films I hadn't seen before: the Robert Siodmak film noir Cry of the City (1948), George Cukor's delightful rom-com Holiday (1938) -- shown in a rare sepia-toned print -- and surprise "blind date with nitrate" festival finale Man of Aran (1934). The basking shark fishing footage in the latter film was the apotheosis of my Picture Show experience and a great way to cap off this very special event.

Just a few weeks ago I went to the Dryden's encore New Year's Eve screening of The Red Shoes -- a fun way to ring in the new year and a reminder of how much I am looking forward to attending the Nitrate Picture Show again this year

6  

Hereditary was 2018's best horror movie. (I enjoyed A Quiet Place while watching it but it didn't really stick with me afterwards and I was bothered by its big plot holes -- where does the farm's electric power come from? -- and its melodramatic valorization of John Krasinski's patriarchal father character.) Hereditary is suspenseful, emotionally harrowing, and visually striking. Its plot presents an interesting twist on the demonic possession plot, with some gendered elements I am still trying to work out. All the performances are excellent, though Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, and Alex Wolff are especially compelling. With its possession / parenthood themes and paranoia-inducing cinematography, Hereditary's closest cinematic cousin is Rosemary's Baby. A must-see for horror fans.

One of my favorite recurring images from Ari Aster's excellent Hereditary.

7

I teach film studies and my students are often kind enough to loan me DVDs and Blu-rays of movies I haven't yet seen. Two of the best movies I've seen in awhile came to me as loaners from students last fall: Escape From Tomorrow (2013) and Mandy (2018).

Escape From Tomorrow is a movie I knew about largely due to its audacious premise and unique, controversial production history. Shot surreptitiously and illegally and in the Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme parks, Escape tells the tale of Jim (Roy Abramsohn), a husband and father who seems bored with his family's trip to the Magic Kingdom. Shown entirely from Jim's somewhat disengaged and prurient perspective, Escape From Tomorrow, in one of its finest sequences, depicts the It's a Small World ride as a nightmarish, acid-trippy hellscape. Unable to use the song "It's a Small World" for licensing reasons, the film's soundtrack music actually makes the well-known ride both more familiar and more uncannily horrifying.  Brilliant.

Escape continues its deconstruction of the Disney experience with science-fictional behind-the-scenes machinations, an undercurrent of commentary about Disney princesses as sex objects, and its weird -- yet successful -- twist ending. Featuring great black and white cinematography and a haunting musical score, Escape From Tomorrow is much more than a guerilla filmmaking stunt -- it is a truly compelling satire. That said, it is surely aimed at Disney critics like myself or at least Disney fans with a sense of humor about their fandom and a tolerance for irony and dark comedy.

Mandy is one of the most visually striking movies of last year. It fuses a male-oriented revenge thriller / action movie with horror-movie trappings and art-film visual techniques. Laden with slow motion, wordless sequences, and red filters, Mandy is similar in general premise to Sam Raimi's wacky Army of Darkness (1992) but serious-minded and deliberately paced, more interested in mesmerizing visuals than speedy action. Mandy features one of Nicolas Cage's best performances in years -- he gets Cage-ishly unhinged by the end but earns it via a relatively restrained and measured performance in act one. Linus Roache also deserves kudos for being extraordinarily creepy and despicable as death cult leader Jeremiah Sand.

Nicolas Cage in Panos Cosmatos' artsy revenge thriller Mandy (2018).

Both of these films are strongly male-centered. Escape From Tomorrow, while clearly lampooning protagonist Jim's pretensions, also presents its women characters mainly as sexual objects (e.g., the two young women Jim keeps encountering in the park) or as two-dimensional, shrewish villains (e.g., his wife Emily [Elena Schuber]). Mandy does a little better, giving Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) some degree of agency in the first half, but ultimately she is a woman in a refrigerator, her death fueling Red's drive for revenge. In both cases, I guess the films' black humor and artsy visuals redeem them for me despite their palpable sexism.

8

Some comments on two 2018 films I saw in the past week:

First, the documentary RBG. This is a wonderful, well-constructed, inspiring feminist film that I highly recommend. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a feminist trailblazer, having spent her long career doggedly fighting against gender inequality in the U.S. legal system. She is a true American hero, driven, hardworking, and unswervingly ethical. She is also, despite her serious exterior, great fun, as the later parts of the documentary, tracing her recent rise as a pop-cultural icon, make clear. This is a great movie about a great person.

Second, Mary Queen of Scots, which I just saw two nights ago at the Little Theater. This was a movie I really wanted to like, yet despite my somewhat middling expectations, I was disappointed. The two stars, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, do everything they can with the material, and Ronan in particular manages some lovely moments, especially when interacting with Ismael Cruz Cordova's David Rizzio, the second most compelling character in the movie after Ronan's Queen Mary. Yet the film commits three major fuckups:
  • It wants to be a movie about sisterhood and the oppression of women, yet it lacks the focus to deliver on its own heavily belabored thesis. I know we are supposed to care about how much Queens Mary and Elizabeth suffer at the hands of scheming patriarchal men, but the way the film sketches this oppression is too two-dimensional and facile to have any emotional resonance. This is especially the case in the film's egregiously stupid portrayal of Elizabeth (Robbie), who despite early promise is reduced to a maudlin, petulant, woe-is-me figure in the film's second act. Her final confrontation with Mary, a contrivance not based on historical incident yet featured in many fictional tellings of this tale, also feels contrived -- and when Elizabeth confesses that she is jealous of Mary's beauty and love life and motherhood, I almost barfed. The movie ultimately sells out both its female leads by making them obsessed with motherhood at the expense of all else. 
  • The movie utterly squanders Margot Robbie and David Tennant. As she demonstrated in I, Tonya, Robbie is capable of fully committing to difficult, complex characters, but Mary Queen of Scots does not give her enough screen time to develop Elizabeth properly, and, as just mentioned, it has no idea what to do with her in the second half of the movie except to make her weirdly jealous of Mary yet uninterested in doing anything about it. Regarding Tennant, in Jessica Jones Season 1 he played Kilgrave, one of the greatest pop-cultural villains of the last several years, yet Mary Queen of Scots mostly makes his John Knox stand behind a pulpit and deliver dull, clunky sermons about how all women are duplicitous whores. Just watch Tennant's compelling performance in Jessica Jones Season 1 and see also Jonathan Goad's performance as Knox in The CW's Reign (2013-2017) for examples of how this could have been handled.  
  • Bothwell is way too boring and de-romanticized, acting as a raping, scheming conspirator against Mary rather than her lover and co-plotter against Darnley. This choice robs Mary of her agency. She is a victim of patriarchal trickery rather than a lover caught up in genuine passion for Bothwell and a desire to be rid of her drunken, weak-willed first husband.  
Ultimately, the film is just too rote and boring, like the shitty Imitation Game. It takes very interesting people and situations and flattens them out via clunky storytelling and lack of focus on its purported theme. It cannot decide if it wants to tell a compelling tale about sisterhood or to check all the expected boxes in terms of what is known (or suspected, or speculated) about the historical Mary Stuart. Guy Pearce and the rest of the supporting cast do good jobs but it's not enough to save it. I cannot recommend Mary Queen of Scots except to hard-core period drama enthusiasts, Saoirse Ronan fans, or Mary Stuart completists.

9

Lastly, a short list of films I want to see in the near future: If Beale Street Could Talk, First Reformed, You Were Never Really Here, Leave No Trace, Escape at Dannemora.

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