The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse is like this box, this nearly square screen in salt-dried black & whites, into which Sea Dafoe and Sea Pattinson have been plunked, wearing nautical sweaters and gloomy gremlin glee. And gradually, as the wind and waves pick up, the box starts getting rattled and tossed around, the two of them scrambling and colliding bodily into each other, slipping in a brackish muck of kerosene and seawater and piss and semen, yelling in kelpy, semi-incomprehensible Melville. All the while, a foghorn keeps an eldritch time, a deep bellow like an exhalation from Hell, and a dizzying phantasmagorical Art Deco egg of thick glass-plated light slowly swings and sings overhead, as the timbers of the box begin to buckle and crack under the onslaught, the mad sea rushing and foaming in at the corners like a briny vignette, waiting to crash through and leave everything a tangled broken mess on the rocks.

It’s a rigorously deranged ride of barmy barnacled madness and we are blessed. By an absent fearful Christian God, or more likely Poseidon, invoked at one point by miniature craggy king Willem Dafoe in a maniacal, minutes-long ocean swell of a curse in which he apparently foregoes the need to breathe. When at last the booming torrent breaks, all Robert Pattinson can do is look up at him from his sprawl on the uneven floor with his haunted cliff-ghast eyes, and offer that alright, maybe not all of Thomas’s cooking is that bad. And our packed Monday night audience absolutely lost our shit.

Is it for anything besides this, this fever break of laughter before the barometer just starts rising again? Does it need to be? As the internet has asked, must a movie be good—is it not enough to sit in the dark and see an actor, unhinged? Do you question the SEA for ROILING?

In this case I think there is actually plenty of flotsam and jetsam tossed in this, but I don’t need all these references and elements (meteorological or otherwise) to be combed out. I don’t need to solve anything, be like oh it’s Freudian, oh it’s the myth of Prometheus—it’s enough that there are phalluses and light and at times those coalesce and almost drip into Robert Pattinson’s graven cheekbone. I really like reading Robert Eggers talk about making his movie, his fascinating reverse-hydra approach to production decision-making where he establishes something he must have, and then that one decision auto-decides a constellation of other decisions that he’ll insist serve this one. It would all sound rather draconian and unfun if the initial choice wasn’t whimsically something like, and I quote: “The reason why it became this period in The Lighthouse is because I wanted to have a foghorn, and I wanted to have a Fresnel lens.” You go, buddy. I respect this Quaint Nerd priority matrix.

This is what I mean by rigorously deranged. It means that Pattinson is wearing the exact right style of wickie overalls when he’s getting menaced out of his damn mind by a one-eyed seagull or fucking unearthly screamed at by an alarmingly anatomically correct Victorian mermaid or drunkenly hanging on Willem Dafoe as he slurrily slow-dances him around their cramped kitchen singing a song of which I caught not a word. But if there’s a message here, it might be on that last: go easy on the grog when you’re trapped on a rock, lest you go mad north-nor’easter, and don’t make it back to land.

★★★★½

Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria) is a warm, contemplative movie by a wonderful filmmaker who has earned making what is essentially a tenderly, sometimes painfully felt, yet ultimately gentle retrospective about his own life. There is not a dearth of films about male artists getting older and considering their life and work, given who often makes movies, and those vary in how much I feel they’re worth it for the rest of us. I think this one is genuinely Good, a good film, and I don’t think it’s inherently a problem that it is best for people who already love Almodóvar. Again, I think he’s earned it. He has put in the years, put in the work, that is required to make something as openly personal as this project feel as balanced as it manages. He makes it make sense, which is all any of us are ever trying to do with our lives. That storytellers are better at this than others is because they’re storytellers, not because their lives naturally fall in resonant patterns. When you stop and consider this movie later, the plot is rather piecemeal. Things just kind of happen, drift up and then back down again. But while I was watching it, it just felt like a nice piece of Alberto Iglesias score.
What I think is most interesting about Pain and Glory, if you do know Almodóvar’s work up until now, is that he has traded the melodrama for mellowness. There’s a bit where Antonio Banderas, playing the Almodóvar analogue, instructs his actor to not give in to the temptation to cry, to hold it back, and all I could think about was him opening Talk To Her with two men just weeping in a theatre. Did I kinda miss that colorful passion? Maybe. But he’s older now. He’s not more restrained or buttoned up, it’s just more….gentle. Sweet. There are still some cinematic flights of artistic fancy, but they’re mostly kept in the bookends, some of the scenes of little Salvador in his childhood—his mother and the other women’s gorgeous singing as they unfurl clean sheets to dry on the reeds by the river, the young handyman washing in the kitchen under the skylight on a warm day. And the very, very lovely final scene sets all this into focus in a way that elevated the whole movie for me. It’s nice feeling you’re in capable hands.
Antonio Banderas is deeply a part of that comforting capability as well. He should be nominated for an Oscar for this, and very well may be. I was moved watching the ginger way he gets out of taxis, trying to spare his stiff, pained back. The actor playing the actor Salvador had fallen out with 30 years before and is reconnecting with over the first part of the movie, was also terrific. I’ve been lightly trying to learn some Spanish, and I’d recently learned ‘pirata’, los hombres son piratas, and I thought this every time I saw his dashing, rapscallion face framed with that long hair. Anyway, don’t do heroin, kids. But if you have kids of your own, do be like Salvador’s ex-boyfriend from his youth and tell your eldest son about your relationship with a man, “to encourage him.” Charming, it’s a charming movie.
Previously in Almodóvar: Bad Education, Volver, Talk To Her
★★★★

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

I liked this so much. I loved this. I think about it today and something feels warm and happy in my chest. It felt new and different and also pleasantly classic—something young and old both, like the vampire girl at its center.

Every year there are a number of modern black & white movies, like last year’s Roma or Cold War, that are very beautiful and sound in their black & white clothing, but I wouldn’t say are made in a way that feels tied to movies of the past. Which of course they do not have to be, it’s an aesthetic choice that makes sense for their stories. But if A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was filmed in color, I believe there would still be something inherent in its pacing and atmosphere that would call to mind old movies.

I’d never thought about this before, but night-drawn streets in classic films are so quiet. Probably just a product of the combination of frequent use of sound stages, small extras casts, and that decades ago, streets simply were quieter. People went to sleep. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (دختری در شب تنها به خانه می‌رود‎) takes place in the fictional Bad City, described in the movie’s log-line that follows it across platforms as an “Iranian ghost-town.” It is. People live there, but they feel sparse, lots of lonely stretches were no one else walks—or there is one other person walking, just one, in a long black veil. On the edge of town is a dry ravine under a bridge where the dead are tumbled, unremarked.

And when the vampire girl walks through the town, the sound carrying softly in the empty air, it felt comforting to me. Old movie stars walking slowly along a street set under the lamps. This movie isn’t slow, but it’s unhurried, the pacing dream-like, black shadows on street corners that you could wrap yourself up in. Something like the still, bombed-out Vienna of The Third Man run through gentle David Lynch. More thematically, maybe Brief Encounter meeting Only Lovers Left Alive.

Our slender vampire very much kills people, with a sudden preternatural swiftness and hungry snarl, but mostly this movie is about sad-tinged, innocent tenderness, between her and the boy, and her and the woman. It’s an airy story—I don’t mean shallow, but like one of those lovely loose-weave shawls. It has its own shape, there’s just lots of space—just enough material to give texture, but it still holds warmth when you lay it around your shoulders. My heart filled watching the final scene, simply long thoughtful shots without any dialogue, for me to have. A gift of openness.

End here for anyone who wants to avoid more specific, spoilery plot details; for the rest of you:

Because for a movie shot in black & white, it is not very. Arash and his father’s lives have been dragged down by the drug dealer, and then when he’s gone Arash simply inherits his trade to become a drug dealer himself. The vampire wears a black chador on the streets, covering her hair and throat, but indoors she always wears a striped boat-neck top that exposes her long beautiful neck and collarbones, making her feel strangely vulnerable to herself. Or maybe to her fangless Dracula—when Arash properly meets her, charmingly high and lost on ecstasy after the costume party, he pulls her in and sweeps his own vampire cloak around her after discovering that she’s cold to the touch. And of course, there’s the ending itself, with all that is known or simply understood, and all that is not. But somehow after all the matters of life & death, it is just about two creatures in the quiet night, looking at each other, as the radio plays.

★★★★½

The Double

Watched this again for the first time since initially seeing it five years ago; still into it. The strange gel-lit stageworld this movie creates is still so fascinating—I’ve yet to see another movie feel so much like it takes place in some sort of contained system, not even a Wes Anderson. This is Dostoevsky, but it’s a BECKETT play, super much, a production of Endgame I once saw the only thing that comes to mind for bleakly existential tragicomic comparison.

I was surprised this wasn’t tagged as horror on Letterboxd, what with the constant dread, the dark & sharp violin score, the fact that the whole thing takes place in a seeming perpetual night without an ounce of daylight ever lightening the chiaroscuro shadows. And there’s blood and death and knives and jump-scares, even, though of the gasp kind not the scream kind. And that colored light…I know I’m always talking about The Double’s colored light, but that colored light! Goldenrod and teal! The neon cross glowing on the church! Interiors like Terry Gilliam gone Brutalist! I just love looking at this thing a lot!

This time around I was elated to discover that Sally Hawkins has a brief cameo in this (Richard Ayoade’s IT Crowd costar Chris O’Dowd I’d clocked back in 2014). Wallace Shawn and Mia Wasikowska are both as terrific as you’d expect, but the masterstroke is Jesse Eisenberg, impeccably cast to play the extremity of his two poles against each other. Because there are two types of Jesse Eisenberg characters: the hapless awkward doormat, or the smug superior sociopath. And here he gets to be both, at each other.

There is a stretch maybe midway through this where I wonder if it’s a touch too maddening and punishing for me to keep watching someone so thoroughly caught in a hopeless trap. But then as the movie turns the screws tighter and things spring out a bit more vicious and outrageous, some of the wheels skipping tracks and knocking into each other, the score vaulting—I’m on the bitter edge of my seat.

★★★½

The Witch

There’s that phrase “the past is a foreign country,” that’s been taken to mean all sorts of things, agreed with and disagreed with back and forth. I guess a lot of it comes down to what extent you think foreign countries do things differently than your own, as the original quote goes on say. Do you think other countries differ from yours in fundamental ways, or more superficial ones? What about the past?

I think perhaps the most powerful sense of creeping captivated unease engendered by The VVitch: A New England Folktale, is the sense that these 17th-century settlers do things so differently than we do, but are also us. This nearly 400 years past Calvinist family are a pack of weirdos by my modern standards, but they’re just people out there living their lives, out there saying “thee” and “hither” but real as hell. And incidentally, hell is real too? Because there’s a real ass witch living in the woods, as we are shown before we’re even out of act one, as if the movie wants to go ahead and answer your first question up front so that it can delve into different ones.

That’s the mode I think the horror in The Witch takes, this uncanny duality of the conceptual and the real, the past and the present. It’s uncanny like time travel, uncanny like the old school sense of liminal, of being in two places at once, Nabokov’s “shimmering go-between” of literature. I’ve been reading and it seems a lot of viewers, particularly women, like to interpret this movie as a feminist allegory, but I don’t feel it’s that direct or simple at all, and honestly find it WAY more interesting as a complicated thing, as something that can exist in that foggy valley between an Angela Carter-esque progressive interpretation of a folktale, and a deeply period-appropriate rendering of a composite cautionary tale built out of years of Robert Eggers’s research, large amounts of the dialogue pulled verbatim from diaries and letters and court documents of the time. I think the reason this movie can feel so uncannily real-unreal is that Eggers approached this family on their own terms. So the evil here is draconian patriarchal Puritan strictures that were very real indeed, and it’s also that there’s a naked woman in the woods who does very much murder children for the Devil. I think they’re both there because a young woman like Thomasin in the near-far past believed both. Knew enough to decry her father for his hypocrisy, but also doesn’t know how to write her own name.

The horror movie this reminded me of most is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now from 1973. The Witch and Don’t Look Now are both my kind of horror: creepy and atmospheric and more interested in formal aspects of filmmaking and Topics than jump scares or gore. And both movies are about the occult as a source of fear as well as intrigue, and how people in strained situations and strange environments might be more susceptible to its pull. There are also dead children and grieving parents in both, and little Samuel is snatched away by a figure in a red cloak—homage! The Witch also made me think of last year’s First Reformed from Paul Schrader, another movie concerned with religious asceticism shot with this direct, head-on sort of framing. Listen it works well.

Alright, now we talk Black Phillip and also spoilers. The first scene of Black Phillip bounding around the grey yard while the twins sing him songs….that was the most preternatural fucking creature I have ever seen. And like, that wasn’t CGI, was it? That was a real goat? Because this is what I’m talking about!! The spookiest parts of this movie are the things that feel super real!! Anyway I fully understand why Black Phillip took off the way he did among the online film fans, due to the one-two punch of very eerie goat dance + the most quotable scene in the movie. Which, if you’ve seen it, you know I would end up waiting for that scene for the entire runtime (thankfully a cleanly cut hour thirty). But it did not disappoint, not least because, despite seeing “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” everywhere, I had no idea that Black Phillip transforms into a shadowed man dressed all in black with a hat and spurs like some sort of sexy highwayman? Thought this was really well done actually, because there’s no way to show a goat talking that’s not a bit hokey, and Eggers wisely doesn’t dwell on the transformation either—save a hoof clipping into a heeled boot just beyond the table, mostly staying on Anya Taylor-Joy’s fascinating wide-eyed face as she contemplates what she wants and what she’s willing to do.

★★★★

White Material / Certain Women / The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Tried to make effective use of a week’s trial of the IFC channel, spoiler-free capsule reviews below….

WHITE MATERIAL

A brutal, sun-scorched, hypnotically distressing look at white feminists and French colonialists and mad sons in the midst of an erupting civil war in an unspecified African country that Does Not Want Them There. You have to leave, the retreating French army tells Maria, you need to get out, her own plantation workers tell her, but Maria just wants to finish harvesting her coffee beans, and I want to tear my hair out!!

Isabelle Huppert is astonishing in this, in a role that reminded me a lot of Florence Pugh’s in Lady Macbeth. She is intractable and naive and strong and insane. The steady, dread-filled pacing made me feel like *I* was going insane. White Material was like one of those bad dreams where I realize that oh, this is so nightmarishly bad because it actually is a nightmare, and then with relief I can just find something to throw myself off of and end the dream. Only it was a movie not a dream, and if I hadn’t finished it I wouldn’t have had a moment of such sudden pure shock and horror that I sat straight up with a yell. Claire Denis is a Filmmaker.

★★★½

CERTAIN WOMEN

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything that felt more like the phrase “a collection of short stories” than Certain Woman. It is adapted from three by Maile Meloy (sister to Colin), all set among small towns in Montana in winter, strung together in a simple triptych.

The three protagonists very scantly cross paths, so minimally that none of them ever speak to each other. In fact I don’t think Michelle Williams’s character sees any of the others at all. I had kind of thought this movie would be about a handful of disparate women making a connection, but that’s not it at all, it’s much more about women as figures alone. Somehow I feel like saying it’s a portrait of female isolation is getting across the wrong tone—although all three of them do have a loneliness to them, by alone I mean that like…their existence is so defined within themselves. They be out there, as the memes go.

This is a quiet movie, with a lot of space to let the characters just carry out their tasks and think their thoughts. It’s spare in a nice way, the way poetry is spare.

★★

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY

This is maybe the only one we didn’t watch in the ‘Ireland In Film’ class I took in college, and as such I several times would think “oh boy we’re gonna get bogged down on this part,” before remembering that I am just my own class now, and am free to bog or not bog on Irish film at will. Appropriately.

Anyway, I found this surprisingly workmanlike for a Palme d’Or winner. Rather just, here’s a march of history! it was grim!, without really anything of artistic interest to set it apart, besides maybe the minor special effect that is the face of 29-year-old Cillian Murphy. While pretty run-of-the-mill war bleakness on the whole, the script does go quite in on idealogical debate in the latter portion, which is kind of interesting, though not exactly novel in the oeuvre of director Ken Loach, or, frankly, all Irish film. If at some point a character doesn’t start yelling in a heavy brogue about Michael Collins, is it even Irish?

★★½

Hustlers

Spoiler warning: I’m going to talk about maybe half the needle drops in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, because they fucking rule, just like this movie!! I think what makes them work so well is that they are either exactly right on the money for what you would want for the stripper heist movie, so big and take-no-prisoners that you’re half stunned they managed to get the rights to these icons—Janet Jackson, Britney, Usher, Lorde. Or, they’re spectacularly left-field and weird and intelligent—Fiona Apple, Chopin, a fucking surreal morbid Jacques Brel song(!?). And that’s Hustlers. It’s a huge fun splashy riot of a good time, and also really strong and smart about the 2007 financial crisis, and the inherent corruption of wealth, and what control really means and looks like and feels like when you take it—and what it feels like when you start to lose it.

It’s also about Jennifer Lopez’s molecular control over her entire earthly body. How. How. The woman is 50 years old and a goddess. I mean the answer is partly money (again, Hustlers all over!) but I also don’t want to deny her innate…magic. She’s a gorgeous powerful star and I’m so glad we’ve been given good reason to remember it. J.Lo in this movie is giving off what I’m going to call big Cate Blanchett energy, in the sense of topping many critics’ current Best Supporting Actress lists, and also just topping. She’s constantly wearing these luxurious fur coats between towering heels and this warm smile, like the world’s sexiest mama bear. Early on she’s enthroned on a rooftop smoking when tiny adorable Constance Wu comes out of the door and nervously asks for a light, and Ramona takes one look at her in the cold night, lifts her coat and says “Come inside my fur,” beckoning her to the step between her knees. I mean. MAGNIFICENT.

I can only recall the name of one man in this movie, and even for him I only have half of it because they kept bleeping out his last name, in a hilarious and sharp move for this, a true crime story. Men are genuinely just marks here, we might as well just call all of them Mark, for all that it matters. Instead, we just have a whole lot of women, both in front and behind the camera, and it shows. The strip scenes are smoking hot and yet non-leering, I think because it’s always centered on what the women’s POV is on the scene? And hey sometimes their POV is just “wow that’s smoking hot!”—here’s looking at you, Constance Wu looking at Jennifer Lopez.

But Hustlers feels far less self-consciously Feminist than the convenient lady crime comparison point Ocean’s 8, which always had a whiff of marketing to it, probably inherent in being a genderbent rendition of an existing movie starring men. Several have been comparing Hustlers to Goodfellas, but I haven’t seen Goodfellas, so that’s as far as I can take you there. What I do know, and like very much, are funny, propulsive movies where charismatic thieves scam the wealthy while trying to avoid landing in hot water themselves. And while gender politics are inherently built in to this specific set-up, it’s the glamorous heist genre that is the primary blueprint here. This is a movie before it is a statement, which is what allows it to be such a successful, rich piece of entertainment. No pun intended.

I have to mention Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, who round out the criminal quartet at the center, and are both wonderfully funny and engaging, love an ensemble! Cardi B and Lizzo very much just have cameos, they are not in this movie very long at all, but if you’re gonna do it these two were entirely the correct choice and fun as hell. There is another cameo they’ve been keep semi-secret, you may already know, but just in case I’ll just say that I found it surprisingly poignant? I think something to do with the feeling I got when “2007” popped up over the opening scene and I thought half wistfully “oh, it’s a period piece.”

Listen, time moves fast—get all your friends to Hustlers before it’s gone, like so many Wall Street guys’ expense accounts.

★★★★