Widows

Widows is pretty cold folks, and it rules.

This is basically the antithesis of Ocean’s 8, when it comes to 2018’s lady heist movies. There’s a moment where Viola Davis just spells out for the other women that they are not going to become friends, this is a job, and when it’s over they are on their own. The timeline for being on their own will be moved up are they to be caught while the job is still happening. This is a bleak movie about doing something rough and harsh because you’re being threatened, and the only way you can see out of the trap closing in is to be as hard as the steel of the bars, and move first.

That said, there are still nice moments of growth—or maybe nice isn’t the word, but satisfying. This is a grimly satisfying movie, the way good heist films can be. And there are grace notes of something warm under the chill of Chicago. There’s how Davis, wonderfully severe in this, carries her character’s soft white West Highland Terrier with her for seemingly half her scenes. She has just lost her husband, and the dog is her fluffy touchstone, fantastically incongruous against her highly structured clothes and stern manner. And there’s her interesting arc with Elizabeth Debicki, the 6’2” alien beauty from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. who gets to play relatively normal in this, an abused housewife trying to stand up on her own two feet, even if it’s to plant them in a shooting stance.

I just really like the casting of this. I like Michelle Rodriguez, with all her action bona fides, playing askew to type as someone who’s really not taking to this life of crime all that well. I like Liam Neeson, one of the current faces of action flicks like this, dying in the first act to the hand the movie over to his wife, where she can’t but move forward haunted by his shadow at every turn. I like Colin Farrell playing unsavory, always, and holy shit I like Daniel Kaluuya here, who takes his turn at BEING terrifying this time, damn. Congratulations on your eyes, you and Cynthia Erivo both, whom I did not know can also sprint like a full out track star. What can’t that woman do!

So yeah the cast is superb, and the shooting is top tier. I recently learned that Steve McQueen began his career as a visual artist, and he was good at it, and yeah that shows deeply in how he sets up shots. This is a movie with a strong eye, and a really packed plot that only starts to sound outlandishly cinematic once you spell it out later, making the grimly grounded, realistic feel of watching of it all the more impressive.

Wildlife

Well this was prettier than I expected! Definitely an acting showcase sort of movie, but behind-the-camera Paul Dano turns out to have a really beautiful artistic sense, in addition to getting wonderful performances out of his cast. In particular the color language, cinematography, and sound mixing were gorgeous, and tie to what I somehow did not know going in: that the 1950s nuclear family falling apart in Wildlife are doing so against the breathtaking backdrop of a Montana autumn, as a wildfire roars just beyond the mountain line, and the whole town waits for snow.

Carey Mulligan is obviously the best part of this, but that really just speaks to how very good she is, given the quality of everyone and everything around her. Her character has this tendency to just say things to people, startling things, particularly to her 14-year-old son, who is in the uneasy role of his mother’s only confident in this remote western town where her husband has recently moved them. He’s our center character, this watchful, nice kid, around whom his parents start to orbit more and more chaotically as their own system is thrown off its axis.

And when I think of this movie, I think of Carey Mulligan’s hitching smile, but then I think of just wordless sequences of young Joe in his deeply cuffed blue jeans running, through tawny Andrew Wyeth fields fields, down quiet midcentury suburban streets, under that big sky. The claustrophobia of these sort of relationship stories is really set off this time with how towering the outdoors are as soon as they step outside.

Anyway, I did feel the length of this movie, which probably speaks to a first-time director. My friend I saw it with and I actually both thought that a moment maybe seven or ten minutes before the true end was the final cut we would have picked, and interestingly, that point we found a natural stop would have left an ending more up in the air. With the smoke, and high flakes of snow.

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

A lovely movie about snarky miserable loners, real good for November coat weather. Alcoholic incorrigible middle aged gays become tentative friends and shabby book-world fraudsters in 1991 New York City, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard Grant as the churlish wlw/mlm solidarity pair of the season. Based on the memoir by writer Lee Israel herself about the true time she ran out of money and hope and started scamming collectors with fake letters from literary luminaries, and the English bar drifter she met along the way. This movie paints a really affecting portrait of down-trodden struggle and loneliness, but the bitter, tea-colored fog is mellowed with a dollop of grim sweetness from the story of two people discovering it’s better to be cranky together, and that sometimes you don’t realize you’ve made something good until you’re well past the middle of it, and on the run from the law.

One thing I really love about this movie is how the priorities and point-of-view are crafted with such a sure, gentle hand. Director Marielle Heller and her screenwriting team of Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, another woman and a gay man, have made something not flashy enough to be getting called feminist (and that’s an interesting realization) but simply is, as a movie that centers the experiences of a Jewish lesbian where the aspects of her identity aren’t the plot, they’re just who she is. The sole moment that touches politics, in the policy sense, is when Jack blithely mentions to Lee that all his friends are dead, and you’re struck with the reality of the date. 1991. Angels In America would have premiered this same year.

With similar grace, Can You Ever Forgive Me? builds a number of rounded, nuanced theses about authenticity, notoriety, the public view of private figures, and whether brilliant imitation is simply hiding your own light, or providing valuable illumination that the world wouldn’t otherwise get. There’s a scene that encapsulates much of this — even including the goddamn titular line but still not feeling like you’re being knocked over the head with anything (this movie is wonderfully done) — in which a tall, dear, Sally Hawkins-esque bookseller quotes a Dorothy Parker line to Lee, that Lee wrote herself. And what can she say? In this moment she takes the option of saying nothing, and becomes in one moment a little more famous, and a little more alone.

 

Shirkers

True crime was always a miss for me, but then Sandi Tan made a documentary about Shirkers, the indie film she shot as a teenager on the streets of Singapore in 1992, which was subsequently stolen from her and friends by their mysterious older mentor when he vanished with all their footage, and now I get it. This shit is riveting. Of course, it probably helps that three young renegade movie buffs in Singapore in the early 90s is a fantastic subject all on its own. Just connecting with each of the girls 25 years later as they reflect on that time and what happened to their relationship would have been amazing, but then you drop a con man and a great loss into the middle of it, and it becomes, yes, pure cinema.

Had it been completed, the original Shirkers would have been a marvelous oddity. Nowhere near a Great Work of cinema, being made by a bunch of kids and misfits with no money, but still game-changing as the first feature-length indie movie to come out of Singapore. Sadly we’ll never know what influence it may have had in its time. But in Tan’s documentary by the same name, Shirkers is not necessarily brought back to life, as Sophie, the 18-year-old producer turned film professor at Vassar, puts it, but given “an afterlife.” A ghost story after the style of Ghost World (though it would have predated that film, and Rushmore too, its empty spot in the lineage a loss Tan felt keenly when she watched these later movies), Shirkers is now a time capsule of a lost city, a key piece of evidence in the tale of a serial sham artist, and the subject of a documentary that might just change the game after all.

Suspiria (Guadagnino, 2018)

Probably at the end of the year the movie that will hold the most drastically different places on my ranked lists of Favorites and Bests will be Suspiria (2018), during which I mostly wanted to die, but which I think is probably a good or at least very notable movie in terms of concept/vision/execution/sheer audacity. Hard to say for sure though as I was cowering behind my fingers for 25-30% of it!!!! I knew, I knew as soon as I read the shocked reactions to that clip they showed critics back in April that I was going to spend this swamped with nauseous adrenaline, but still had the idiocy to skip dinner to instead spend 150 minutes locked in horror and agony, then limp home to get maybe five hours of sick shivery sleep, which is the story of how Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria wrecked my health for like 24 hours. A powerful film experience! Thanks I hated it!

So I’m very surprised to find myself wanting to fight people for dissing this movie in the wrong way. I’m not even dissing it myself, I’m just saying that I, personally, should have learned my lesson from Black Swan and noped out of the gruesome supernatural dance horror, because I respect but cannot fucking handle that shit. And so far I haven’t seen any critics with a bone to pick over how many bones…break, break so appallingly horribly and screamingly as dancers are cracked and twisted into demented drooling knots. Which is right, they are right to not fault it for that because that’s what this movie is, it’s gore—you don’t fault comedies for being funny you don’t fault gore for being harrowing. No, what critiques I’ve seen have been for artistic reasons, and that’s the place where I go from Suspiria victim to Suspiria stan, because while I did not at all want to go where this movie was going to take me (gore town), the thing I did like very much was the road it took to get there.

Mostly what I mean is that some critics are calling this movie a plodding, self-serious, pretentious art film, and that is wildly off to me if pretentious still means what I think it does, which is, yeah, plodding and self-serious—eye rollingly aloof while also vaguely neurotic and labored because the movie is trying too hard to be something. But even though I watched this wracked with dread, I still thought it seemed so relaxed in itself? Suspiria may stress me out, but it’s not stressed about its own identity. It’s really just having a good time being arty and ghastly during the German Autumn. There is a scene in this where Tilda Swinton wears an elaborate heavy silk caftan with iron grey hair spilling down to the middle of her back while she sits eating chicken wings and talking to Dakota Johnson about growing up in a Mennonite community in Ohio, like that is what I mean. It’s not like there are deliberately written jokes, maybe just a couple, but this movie is consistently funny in that way that’s only because you can tell the cast and crew were enjoying themselves. Suspiria sincerely enjoys the booms of the Baader-Meinhof Group terrorizing the streets of 1977 Berlin while Chloë Grace Moretz with a big overcoat and unhinged eyes informs her elderly psychologist (also played by Tilda Swinton, because enjoyment) that the witches that run the modern dance academy “will hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate.” Hah oh my god what? you ask yourself with a soft startled huff, and the movie just laughs in return and asks if you’d like to see a cold, blocky marble foyer from above while rain pours down outside.

Which brings me to the other critique I rebuff: people calling the look and palette dull, instead of the best ’70s beiges since Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The aesthetics of this movie are certainly not Argento’s insane neons, but oh man this is gorgeous post-war European bleakness. Old Bauhaus modernism and dilapidated art deco, all scummy taupes and mauves and lichen greens in watery light. Thom Yorke mourning in the background over piano, every article of clothing an absolute look and a half, maybe a quarter of the dialogue or more in German or sometimes French. I mean, in so many basic ways Suspiria is a thousand yard stare over a howling abyss away from last year’s Luca offering Call Me By Your Name, but at the same time, a surprising amount of evidence that this is the same filmmaker…mood-forward, clothes-forward, polyglottal, alt multi-instrumentalist on the score….

Anyway I definitely prefer one of them in my head and not the other, please Gott take it away, my evenings are still troubled.