Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds takes the strange, nervy stylishness and distant teenage girl psychopathy of Stoker, and multiplies it by Heavenly Creatures, which is to say times two. A fatal fille folie à deux. I’m here for it.

Many critics have been comparing it to Heathers, and there are a lot of overlaps there, for instance lawn sport set pieces. But after the cool, inky gloss of Stoker, I think Heavenly Creatures is the better companion piece for Thoroughbreds, for that element that surprisingly I’ve seen no critic mention, only the writer-director: that he made a psychological thriller sure, but also a romantic comedy. This movie is by far best understood as a weird, muted, obsessive romance between two 17-year-old sociopaths who don’t know how to love each other. By Hannibal standards, this shit gets outright tender. I had some real feelings here! A good joke on me, out of something this darkly deadpan.

So that was fun. Thoroughbreds is just fun. It began its life as a play, and that’s fun (you can easily see how Cory Finley original had it: just two odd girls on a big couch). The score is exceedingly wonky fun. There are so many rack focus shots, the most fun shot. The tone is glib and dry and nimble—fun. The girls at its heart don’t care, which frees the film up to not get too precious about itself. At one point, Anton Yelchin swooningly sniffs a bar of fancy soap in slow motion as ‘Ave Maria’ plays, and then the movie just laughs it off and slide-locks into a sharply macabre Noël Coward scene, literally set in a drawing room.

There’s potentially something in this script about empathy and success, a class-conscious commentary on the moral apathy bought by the rich, but this too is more dry and glib than anything. It’s not like it’s totally empty as a gesture, it’s just a little, “Florals, for spring?” Frankly I think if you want to talk about something fresh in this new voice, it’s how this young straight guy wrote a movie in which two teen girls have no boyfriends, no fraught exes, no crushes, no guys they’re interested in at all. Their stories are wholly unencumbered by any of that, that whole quadrant deemed irrelevant and never even alluded to, like they live in some rarified heterosexuality-free pocket of Connecticut. Like I said this movie is fun.

***

Nota bene: Earlier I called them sociopaths—Amanda actually reads like a pretty straightforward caricature of a psychopath, though that’s seemingly the only mental makeup she doesn’t mention; Lily is something more complicated. But they’re both pure sociopaths in the film tradition, which has decided that’s the term for any characters who exhibit that recognizable movie strain of ~morally aberrant behavior~. And so just like how English majors are the only people who can garner any utility in still talking about Freud, psychology has yielded ‘sociopath’ to the film critics, where all these out-dated, simplistic models work great on the fictional people we make up.

The Beguiled

My notes on The Beguiled take a hilarious unhinged uptick two-thirds of the way in, which I think tells you what this movie does. It goes off. It begins like Sofia Coppola Does Picnic At Hanging Rock, which is already pretty interesting on its own, and then act three begins and everything goes completely buckwild. Admittedly, Picnic At Hanging Rock also gets weird af, but while there it’s more of the surreal sun-drugged afternoon daymare school of unsettling, The Beguiled is being startled awake in the middle of the night by a frantically poised Nicole Kidman with bloody surgeon’s hands directing Kirsten Dunst in ringing tones: “Bring me the anatomy book!”

My notes: “Nicole I am screaming!!!!!!”

The Beguiled really does start off so much more gauzy, which is what makes the transition such a treat. The cinematography is on serious point, all the women in these pale antebellum dresses glowing like powdery moths against a dark, smudgy, decaying Virginia. It’s the waning years of the Civil War, and the society the handful of girls at Miss Martha’s finishing school are still listlessly practicing to join is as doomed to demise as this old mansion is to succumb to the encroaching vegetation, that only ever seems to get closer to the porch each time they cut it back.

It’s all mist and thick slanting sunlight through these huge, huge tress dripping with moss, a white dress spilling over the legs of a girl artfully yet carelessly resting on one of the lower branches — and into this slowly stifling household stumbles an injured Union soldier, an enemy, a man, his arrival like dropping a stone into a pool. Or like dropping Colin Farrell into a pool, it’s more exactly like that. Immediately every woman in the house wants to sleep with him, which is a sort of plot I usually find tedious, but this time it’s Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and she makes it worth your while. And weird.

This movie is, speaking generally, kind of like Phantom Thread. A gradual then exponentially increasing veer to the most high-key end, a wealth of powerhouse female performances, ravishingly beautiful, and terribly funny in its obscure morbid mode. The Beguiled is also like Phantom Thread in one very specific way, and if you’ve seen them both you do not need me to go on because you shrieked at it immediately.

 

The Third Man

The Third Man is one of my very favorite movies of all time, and the first one I would show people who think all those old black-and-white films are too slow. Within just a handful of minutes, we’ve gotten a crash course in the post-war politics of 1940s Vienna, met our main character on his way there, found out his friend he was going to meet was hit by a car just a few hours ago, and are, suitcase still in hand, looking down at his grave while this rollicking zither score plays. Who says old movies can’t MOVE.

You really do know right from the start that this one is different. The voiceover for the opening history lesson is impeccably blithe, feeling exceedingly British in that, but at the same time speaks to this very European sort of jaded ennui. “Wonderful,” the narrator chuckles over the hapless four-part assemblage of the Allied police force, “what hope they had. All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language.” This movie already has you laughing and we’re still in preamble. ‘Surprise!‘ it says. And it is a bit; according to the charters of this sort of thing, The Third Man is one of the very best of film noir, where “the streets were dark with something more than night.” But it sometimes happens, and oh I love it, that the preeminent versions of genre films are also deeply funny, simultaneously commenting on the genre as they perfect it.

Alright, so where are we — ah yes post-war Vienna, as mentioned. One of the best sets for a film that ever was. All partially bombed out buildings and Dutch angles and the street lights apparently at knee height and tilted up toward the nearest poetic escarpment of rubble and dilapidated grandeur. There is an extended sequence in a echoing, beautiful, stone-built sewer system, and for the first time since Victor Hugo you wish you could stay down there twice as long.

Into this chiaroscuro playground are tumbled an affable rube of an American pulp novelist turned situational detective; a kind, trimly professional British major with that wonderful clipped yet drawled English accent that died with Trevor Howard; a sad, morbid, beautifully disaffected comedy actress barely making a living hawking the tea and whiskey the foreign officers toss her in lieu of flowers; a German baron who looks like the Grinch and carries a tiny puppy tucked in his coat sleeves; and a slew of other progressively shadier characters from the thriving racketeering trade that has overrun the divided city.

And, of course, Orson Welles. Orson Welles, the original Philip Seymour Hoffman. With the best intro in cinema history and a zippy, cynical monologue on violence & culture as apocryphally improvised and deservedly acclaimed as Rutger Hauer’s C-beam speech in Blade Runner.

The second time I watched The Third Man, it was part of a Welles double feature at Film Forum in New York City with three friends of mine. I was the only one who had seen it before, and was so gratified when they fell in love with it as much as I had, laughingly singing the zither melodies at one another all the way back uptown. This is one of those classics that really, really earns it. Come for the gorgeous cinematography, come for the dry modern hilarity, come for the twisty film noir plotting — just come.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I rewatched The Grand Budapest Hotel a couple weeks ago, as it had snowed in Portland and I was feeling like I wanted a last dash of millennial pink hued winter. I also wanted to confirm if it was still my favorite Wes Anderson movie, and I’ve decided yeah I might as well go for it.

This is an atypical choice for me, as I call this one my favorite because I call this one the best, and I call it the best simply for structural and philosophical reasons, not emotional ones, and none of that is the usual way I go. But the thing about Wes Anderson movies is that I always enjoy them in the exact same way. For whatever reason (and I’m sure this says a lot about me), it is very comforting to me to have so much to look at and listen to, all arranged so tidily. His movies are just very pleasant for my brain, and they all have this quality, so I have to find something else that’s going to set one of them apart.

And that one is The Grand Budapest Hotel, because this is the only one where the aesthetics become the ethics. Andersons’s fastidious prettiness and charming wordplay is itself a central, force-generating concern of the main characters, and so the message aligns with the medium and my pattern-loving mind is made even happier. This movie also actually has something to say about anti-immigrant sentiments (nothing of course about women — there are 1.5 female characters here), and while having your showy dandy of a protagonist repeatedly stand up to a fascist police battalion not for self-aggrandizement but just alone in a train car, just on principle, is hardly new or bold, it is a surprisingly sturdy topic for a movie set in pastel paper cut-out mountains doused with powdered sugar.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is also rather bleak in a way I find heartening (yes probably add this to the character analysis on me), because it’s not hopeless about it. It acknowledges what may be futile but doesn’t see that as a reason to give up, darling. Still we try, this movie says, because in that we can be beautiful.

Annihilation

It’s one of those things where I thought I knew I what I was getting myself into. I hadn’t read the book, or even watched the trailer, but I’ve seen Ex Machina and some Tarkovsky, and the premise of an all-female cast in a slow, unnerving, batshit science fiction film that looks like it was shot through an hallucinogenic Instagram filter was apparently enough to make me forget what happened to me when I watched Under the Skin. That was the last movie to unspool me so bad, spending the next several hours with this free-floating unease that had me just very distressed over, I don’t know, the angle my door was at. The fact that doors even exist and I had to contend with them. It was a bit of a long night.

I’m ready and liable and to get extremely jumpy while watching any scary thing, but it’s the languorous pace to the eeriness in Under the Skin and Annihilation that I suspect does a real number on me. I was also getting echoes of Arrival, which makes a lot of immediate sense. Annihilation too has thoughtful female scientists as its protagonists, quietly stepping around the military to walk up to something horrifyingly, mesmerizingly, utterly alien. There is a Shimmer that exists, and they have to contend with it. It’s a long way to the lighthouse.

All that said, I do want to impress on you how trippy grisly and above all very bonkers this movie is. This movie is frightening and weird in ways that I struggle to figure out how to get across. There is a significant and not brief scene near the end where I was thinking “wow I hate this freaky thing that’s happening” and also “god bless Alex Garland for not being at all over dance sequences, if nothing else.” Incidentally I have a number of talking points about Alex Garland, a debatable dude, but one of them is sure not his repeated use of Oscar Isaac. Lucky that he had his number, as that role belonged in the hands of the man with the best dead-eyed stare in the business.

And while a few of Garland’s other casting choices just sound fishier the more he tries to explain what happened (a talking point!), I still have to commend him on those five women though! That’s a talented group who worked very well together. Despite my bewildered dread throughout, still was truly special to watch a group of actresses carry a hard sci-fi movie out there on their own, like they’ve been doing this for years. And Gina Rodriguez plays a lesbian paramedic and Tessa Thompson is a gentle physicist in last decade’s glasses and I really have no notes there at all.