A Serious Man

I watched this for Michael Stuhlbarg and let me tell you: he’s magnificent in it. HE’S MAGNIFICENT. He’s got these surprisingly large brown eyes and a voice with every edge rounded off to a smooth burnished bell — these are the consistencies, he’s always coming with those. The entire historical living human being he then sets behind those eyes and in that voice, that’s all on him and his preposterous morphability. In the last two months I have seen Michael Stuhlbarg in three movies. Before this, I had seen him in, [checks], good god, another five movies, including Arrival just last year. The fact that I have only now recognized him is, I swear, a testament to his great skill.

I will actually talk about A Serious Man at some point I promise, but now I’m on his Wikipedia page and Michael Stuhlbarg once studied mime with Marcel Marceau. What can’t he do!!

Anyway, in A Serious Man Michael Stuhlbarg plays a 1960s Jewish physics professor whose entire life just falls apart around him, and the reason why it succeeds as the dark comedy the Coen Brothers aimed for it to be, is that his performance is so engaging that you’ll willingly go with this poor man through one horror after another. He’s so accessible, such a dear combination of sincere and un-self-serious, so hopeful and despairing and funny, so #mood, that I mourn the fact that this movie came out eight years ago because I could really use approximately 25 reaction gifs from it.

So, come for the Stuhlbarg, stay for how it was shot by Roger Deakins in some Edward-Hopper-meets-Edward-Scissorhands phase, and that midway through it becomes a full-on Jewish morality play (the best kind since the morality is mostly like, fable and fatalism). There are literal chapter cards setting off sequences titled “The First Rabbi”, “The Second Rabbi”, etc., and I was delighted. Honestly this movie would make a very very good play, and this time that’s a compliment.

Pan’s Labyrinth

I have a book on the color green, written by a French historian named Michel Pastoureau. I haven’t finished it yet, but I have this feeling that perhaps I’d need to in order to properly talk about Guillermo del Toro movies. Everything. Is. Green. Perhaps even more so here than in The Shape of Water, impossible as I would have thought that to be before rewatching Pan’s Labyrinth for the first time in eight years. The greens in The Shape of Water are aquatic, deep and tealed and emotive, or else they are artificially bright and represent The Future. The greens of Pan’s Labyrinth are vegetal, ancient and verdant and fey — Nature green in tooth and claw. I love it always. Guillermo del Toro clearly must as well.

I probably misspoke earlier though: I said that I had rewatched Pan’s Labyrinth. In fact, there are several minutes of this that I still have not watched. The monsters I am good with, more than good. The tall, creaking-nimble Faun who smells like earth, the horrible Pale Man with his blackened, sharpened fingers — love them, entrancing, can’t look away, all praise Doug Jones. It’s the torture scenes that I can’t handle, not at all. My eyes immediately squeeze shut, and for once I’m even grateful that I can’t understand Spanish. Guillermo del Toro makes very gorgeous movies. He also makes very gruesome movies. I wonder about that. I don’t think my Green book will explain.

Guillermo del Toro also makes magic movies though, this is sure. And the magic Pan’s Labyrinth deals in is so old: toadstones, golden keys, blood & milk, drawing a door, not eating any of the underworld feast, lullabies, sacrifice. Like The Shape of Water, it’s a fairy tale, and also like The Shape of Water, there’s this idea that in fairy tales, in fantasy, we can make choices. Ones that will have dire consequences, but they are ours. When your world seems so intent on making your path for you, maybe the gift of the Greenwood is in getting to choose which way you’ll go, even if that way, too, is dark.

Phantom Thread

If you have not watched Phantom Thread, and by and large tend to enjoy the movies I also enjoy, and by that I probably mostly mean “having Experiences at the cinema”, imagine that I am taking you by the shoulders right now and telling you that you shouldn’t read this review, don’t read any reviews, just go watch it, you have my word that it’s good, and then come back here so we can talk about what the FUCK this movie turns out to be.

You know, I worry that even saying that it becomes Fucking Something is a spoiler, so pristinely unprepared was I for the dawning realization breaking across me in the theater. But I also suspect that this is what happened/s for most Paul Thomas Anderson fans with his movies, that that’s why they love him, and this is just the first time it all dropped in for me. Though another impression I get is that it’s perhaps unusual for Phantom Thread to be the one that got through to me, given that this is a beautiful weird restrained movie about being beautiful, weird and restrained. But I like that, I try to explain to the PTA stans holding forward copies of the phantasmically overflowing The Master, the thought you can feel in something that is very specific. Style is in what you leave out.

And in this case, style also is what is STUNNINGLY OUTRÉ.

Now Paul Thomas Anderson was already endearing himself to me with this one, writing, directing, and shooting the thing himself, with a cast that is something like 81% women and then Daniel Day Lewis dressed in tall violet socks. It’s a movie that was only rated R for language, and yet every time someone says “fuck” it feels like they just dropped a plate on the floor while maintaining direct eye contact. He mined so much drama out of toast. It was incredible.

And that was all before he pulled the (beautiful) cloth off the central love & power crux to reveal an enthusiastically mutual poisoning kink, a joyously strange final play that took Phantom Thread from being easily my favorite Anderson film to one of my favorites of the year. I think my nearest reference point is that it almost felt like something from the last act of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Jonny Greenwood’s wildly great score booming between my ears like Michael Nyman’s ‘Memorial’ as I silently yelled my heart out in the theater. Simultaneously upending and a revelation, clarifying the characters’ fixations on control and vulnerability, attention and carefulness, FOOD. I know this is the mood of the moment but honestly: shook.

Looking at them now, so many of the best movies of 2017 throw everything they have into their final scene, stoking them bright enough to set the whole movie that came before like pottery glaze, and I am all about this trend. Good show.

My Beautiful Laundrette

This movie is so thoroughly worth it. It would be worth it if it were just an hour and a half about a sprawling British-Pakistani family’s business and personal ventures in 1985 London. It would be worth it if it were just for young Daniel Day Lewis as a South London punk with his sleeves pushed up five inches past his elbows. It would be worth it for anything anyone in this movie says about politics or the immigrant experience or economics or education or, incidentally, worth. It would be worth it just for how well it serves its female characters. It would be worth it just for Tania, honestly.

But My Beautiful Laundrette is worth it for all these things, and more. Let’s say: the moment when suddenly, softly, Johnny takes Omar’s face in his hands and kisses him deeply in the shadows of an alley, and even though you know this is coming, all the pieces in your heart fall into place at the sight. Do you know what’s the 1980s period update on Maurice‘s gay British class porn I didn’t know I needed? Sweet, ambitious young Pakistani laundromat owner in his little suits, and his lease-less white street punk boyfriend who’s fixing up his shop, a spot of blue paint on his cheek. And because it’s My Beautiful Laundrette, they’ll even talk and flirt and fight about their criss-crossing class differences, because My Beautiful Laundrette goes all in always.

Now, while extremely worth it, that is not say this is a perfect piece of filmmaking. There is a lack of finesse in the editing that does jumble up the emotional flow at times. It’s that slightly thrown feeling you get from missing a reaction shot we needed, or taking too long with one thing and then not long enough with something else. I desperately want to fix it, which speaks to the rest of the movie’s great strength. There’s so much that is so good, that things like poor editing make you rage a little because you just want to pull everything up to that level.

Which is why we are swoopy with excitement over the recent news that Kumail Nanjiani is developing My Beautiful Laundrette into a TV series. What a very, very good idea. Would I have spent 8+ hours with these characters? Immediately. Thank you Kumail you are a true bro and scholar. Hire a good editor. Also if we’re scaling up the ages to match yours, hire Tom Hardy. Thanks again.

The Master

I think we’ve been going at this all wrong. I think actually the only other artist who deserves to be called “Lynchian” is Paul Thomas Anderson, because no two people on this planet are more apt and able to create works I stare at thinking “what the absolute living fuck am I watching.” They’re Difficult Cinema — what they make is excruciating, but also unworldly dazzling. Incomprehensibly stunning imagery, a  profound barrage of batshit ideas, deeply off-putting, mesmerizing, arduous, I hate watching them, I love the experience. That thing. That David Lynch thing. That Paul Thomas Anderson thing.

And another corollary: are their works misogynistic, or do they actually hate and fear men? It’s always hard to say with these filmmakers who make such well-realized indictments of the global ruination that comes from toxic masculinity, and yet are adored by so many male moviegoers, not all of whom could possibly be supplicating at PTA’s latest feat like “o father o brother, lance this troubled sea within my breast, let me See,” which is the only way I’ve been able to imagine would be the experience of watching these movies as a man.

Anyhow. The Master. Truly one of the most beautifully colored and composed movies I have ever seen. Every new shot was breath-catching, framable, like looking at a work of art. And Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are absolutely unreal talents. I have no goddamn idea what any of their characters were doing in this movie, but watching them in this felt like, forgive me, watching masters. It was like an exercise. It also felt like exercise. I am exhausted. God I am so glad I never have to watch this again.

The Big Sick

And here we have another case of me having a somewhat different idea of what a movie would be! This time I had thought I was going to watch a compassionate modern romantic comedy where one character is in a coma for a while, when really it’s a compassionate modern family dramedy (where one character is in a coma for a while).

The Big Sick is not near as funny as I expected it to be, but I don’t mean that as a demerit at all, because what it is is something I really enjoyed. More so as it went on, and I realized that this movie was dealing in a lot more story than I bargained for. It was at about a third of the way in, when Emily has been admitted to the hospital, that I began to really understand what this movie with doing with realism, startled tears standing in my eyes as I watched Kumail staring through the glass, stunned.

Speaking of Kumail, the real Kumail Nanjiani, bravo to that guy for co-writing and starring in a movie in which he’s not meant to be the funniest character. That’s Emily, followed closely by each of their families. I love this so much, because instead of falling into the pitfall so many other comedians do, Nanjiani proved what a good comedian he is by making a movie that’s funny, not a movie about a funny person. And another big bravo, and this one goes out to the real Emily Gordon too, for writing a script with such a wealth and variety of genuine, living breathing female characters, several of them Muslim Pakistani-American women.

It is incredible what wisdom and heart imbues a movie with a diverse cast who are all treated with insight and attention. The Big Sick feels like life, in a way that often eludes romantic comedies. (And I’m not just saying that because I have the same twin-size spare air mattress from Target that Kumail does. Although that did contribute to the vibe.)

Get Out

Note: Contains spoilers!


I had missed Jordan Peele’s terrifically creative Get Out when it was in theaters, due to working an unpaid internship at the time that did not exactly have me rolling in movie-going money, and also being a weenie who likes the option of turning the volume halfway down when horror movies get horror-y. (Do other people also find visual scariness easier to handle then auditory scariness? What’s that about?)

So by the time I finally watched it this weekend, I had over 10 months of people chattering about Get Out to develop an idea of what this movie would be. Turns out, I had it kind of backwards! I thought it would be a horror movie where it is gradually revealed that the real horror was white liberal racism all along, and that this would dovetail with whatever traditional slasher nonsense-villainy was going on, making everything so much worse for our lead, as well as serving as a sharp social commentary, et cetera. Instead, it’s the white liberal racism that is gradually revealed to be housing the traditional nonsense-villainy, like the tip of a white, white iceberg of yikes. If is, of course, still a brilliantly sharp social commentary.

Other things I hadn’t managed to pick up that I really enjoyed: the gorgeously surreal visuals for the Sunken Place, the gratifying script-flip of having the imperiled main character frequently calling out to his friend in the city to get an affirmation that this is majorly weird, Chris’ powerful arc about the death of his mother (he gets growth! growth in a horror movie!), and of course: the heroism of a T.S.A. officer. Frankly, who could have possibly seen that one coming.

In addition to being able to nervously punch the volume down when Chris walked slowly into the woods after the deer, for instance, another benefit to waiting to see Get Out on DVD was that I could watch the alternate ending with Jordan Peele’s commentary. Interestingly, his original conclusion was the one I totally expected, but once again it ended up being something else. Feeling the culture starting to shift as he made his movie, Peele decided to end on hope instead, seeing that as just as important a thing to model as any. And if you know me, you know I sure love that.