Video game designers often rhapsodize about Core Loops, those small, quickly repeatable moments of coolness that can keep players glued to the controller past the point of thumb-trauma. 2014’s John Wick made this phenomenon into a spectator sport, devising a seemingly infinite (and distressingly satisfying) variety of ways for Keanu Reeves to inflict grievous bodily harm on a steady stream of henchmen. John Wick: Chapter 2 somehow managed to further refine the formula, ramping up the action scenes to the verge of head-popping nirvana, while also adding new wrinkles to the agreeably odd surrounding mythology. (This is a universe in which literally Every Second Person You See is an assassin.) They were both just about perfect, in a Red Meat/Reptile Brain way.
Sealing the Deal tends to take low priority in the movies these days, with measured resolutions and logical endpoints largely phased out in favor of open-ended tosses to various cinematic universes. Happily, though, Marvel’s gargantuan, decade-in-the-making Avengers: Endgame largely nails the dismount, blending clever callbacks and newfound cosmic hooey into a satisfyingly constructed mass of entertainment. While it improves upon the previous installment in a number of aspects—there’s much more Ant-Man, for one thing—what ultimately impresses the most is how it allows itself to wrap things up and let a number of significant curtains fall.
Disgraced private detective Roland Drake is on the verge of being evicted from his crummy little office—the glass door is scarred with tell-tale signs of a partner’s name haphazardly scraped off—when she slinks in. “She had a face that could launch a thousand ships and a body that would bring them back,” he monotones in voice-over. Played by actor/director/co-writer Tom Konkle with the hangdog presence of a born patsy, Drake has a bottle in the drawer, a fedora perched on his head, and an attitude that reaches for world-weary resignation.
That reach—like much of the film—exceeds Konkle’s grasp, but the ambition of Trouble is My Business is impressive.
The Final Frontier has received any number of varied cinematic treatments over the years, ranging from a Kubrickian adherence to physics, to full-on Road Runnerish refusals to honor the laws of gravity. High Life, the latest barbed wonder from Claire Denis, makes its particular approach to the void clear from the first few moments. Here, the objects set adrift in space either hover poetically, or fall straight down to God Knows Where. While the effect may well make scientists clutch their heads, it informs the film’s startling combination of unblinking body horror and gauzy far-out glories, fueled by the respectively stoic and frenzied performances of Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Even at its most baffling, you can always detect the pulse of a master filmmaker. She controls the vertical, the horizontal, and everything in between.
Saluting a megalithic juggernaut for taking risks is a bit of a mug’s game, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been in a winningly funky mood lately, alternating the large-scale Sturm and Drang of the Avengers series with lighter, more idiosyncratic fare. (Yes, I realize that something like Thor: Ragnarok is light years away from being an indie film, but work with me here.) Captain Marvel, the long-overdue solo launch for the comic company’s most powerful female character, unfortunately can’t quite keep the left-field streak going, settling for a pretty familiar origin story delivery mode. While the pre-Iron Man timeframe contributes some novelty—to say nothing of some stellar soundtrack needle-drops—it often feels like a throwback in less engaging ways, as well. Still, even when mired in generic comic movie trappings, the exceedingly game Brie Larson and her ace supporting cast keep things buzzing.
There are a couple dozen lines of dialogue in Arctic, plus an assortment of grunts. As it happens, we don’t need even that much spoken information: The simplicity of writer/director Joe Penna’s approach and the magnificence of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting is more than enough to make this survival tale a gripping experience.
One of Penna’s best decisions was to lop off the first act of the story. We don’t know how or why a man, played by Mikkelsen (the superb Danish actor from Casino Royale and the TV version of Hannibal), has come to be stranded somewhere in the frozen North.
[Originally published in The Weekly, July 8, 1984]
Ah, the past has filled up quicker than we know, and God has little patience with remorse.
—Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
Adapt a novel of consequence to the screen and you’ll damn well answer for it. At best, your pride of achievement will have, quite properly, to be shared with the author of the original work. At worst, you will be taken to task, by those who cherish the book, for any deviation from it. In the muddled middle range of opinion, reviewers can sound learned and play it safe at the same time by suggesting that, honorable and sporadically admirable as your adaptation may be, it somehow misses the essential imaginative core of the artistic experience. It isn’t …well, heck, it isn’t the novel.
This problem becomes tetchier still with a novel so relentlessly novel-ish as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The main portion of Lowry’s book, dealing with the drunken peregrinations of the ex–British Consul in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead 1938, is tacitly a flashback. It’s also a dense, roiling stream-of-consciousness piece with both the hyperclarity and level-shifting instability of a fever dream. Symbols and allusions—cultural, literary, historical, geographical, political—pile up to create a veritable poetic and spiritual analogue of Western consciousness, an updated Waste Land for the generation after T.S. Eliot. (Lowry worked on the book from 1938 through 1946.)
[This article first appeared in the September-October 1990 issue of Film Comment. It was reprinted in the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres (1995).]
Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller’s Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it’s nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else’s closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his deliberate, tangential progress, from background to middle distance and then out the side of the frame, is also a story – draining authority from the close-up Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who’s come to insist, ironically enough, on the recognition of his territorial rights.
The place is a story, too, which we read as the scene unfolds. A private office; not Caspar’s, but not Reagan’s either – it’s city boss Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney) who sits behind the camera and his big desk, listening. An upstairs office, we know from the muted street traffic (without stopping to think about why we know). Night outside, but sunlight would never be welcome, or relevant, here. A masculine space, green lampshades amid the dark luster of wood, leather, whiskey. A remote train whistle sounds, functional and intrinsically forlorn; the distance from which it reaches us locates the office in space and in history. This room exists in a city big enough to support a multiplicity of criminal fiefdoms and a political machine that rules by maintaining the balance among them, yet it is still a town whose municipal core lies within faint earshot of its outskirts. Urban dreams of empire have not entirely crowded out the memory of wilderness, of implacable places roads and railroads can’t reach, even if one of them has been wishfully designated Miller’s Crossing. Hence we are not entirely surprised (though the aesthetic shock is deeply satisfying) when the opening master-scene, with its magisterial interior setting and dialogue fragrant with cross purpose, gives way to a silent (save for mournful Irish melody) credit sequence in an empty forest. And then to a title card announcing, almost superfluously, “An Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s.”
Batman is wearing a white bat-helmet, his costume dotted with sparkles that set off his fabulous ermine cape. I think at this point there is no question that the Batman from the Lego movies has eclipsed the Dark and Brooding™ Batman of Warner Brothers’ DC film cycle. No wonder Ben Affleck is opting out of the live-action role; he can’t compete with this. As voiced by Will Arnett, the Lego Batman is vain, dimwitted, and very nearly a complete parody of the Dark Knight. It’s the closest thing we’ve come to Adam West’s great TV Batman from the ’60s, and this is a good thing.
Batman has the bling on because he’s dressed up for an outer-space wedding, which is merely one of a thousand points of light in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, a sequel to the 2014 hit.
Playing a comedy genius is surely 10 times harder than playing another category of intellectual brilliance. If you’re cast as Albert Einstein, you put on a fright wig and spout a few equations — everybody thinks you’re brilliant. Play a famous singer, and they can always dub the voice. In the current At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe is Vincent Van Gogh: a terrific performance (that just received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), one for which the dedicated actor learned how to paint. But he doesn’t have to convince us he painted the completed canvases — Van Gogh provided the genius we see hanging on the walls around the actor.
But comedy? Comedy is hard. To be convincingly touched by comic genius is an extremely difficult thing to fake—it’s the difference between acting funny and being funny.
I saw Cold War last summer at a film festival in Ukraine, where I was on an awards jury. When it concluded, I stood up and declared aloud to no one in particular, “We have just seen the winner of the next Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.”
Of course I didn’t actually do that. Who am I to stand up and make pronouncements in English in a Ukrainian movie theater? (But I did mutter it to myself.)
Cold War has all the attributes of a classic Oscar-winner in that category: It’s accessible; it’s serious but also deeply romantic; it’s got political overtones; and it’s gorgeous to look at.
The Man Who Cheated Himself (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD)
Moonrise (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Gun Crazy (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)
No Orchids for Miss Blandish (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)
Lee J. Cobb takes the lead as Lt. Ed Cullen, a veteran Homicide detective in a secret affair with socialite Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt) while she’s in the midst of a divorce, in The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), an independently-made film noir shot on location in San Francisco. When she shoots her soon-to-be-ex-husband (in self-defense), Ed looks over the incriminating evidence and decides that a cover-up is in her best interest. When he’s assigned the case, all looks good, except that his rookie partner—his newlywed and newly promoted younger brother Andy (John Dall)—digs into the evidence and uncovers contradictions in the case, despite Ed’s efforts to nudge him in other directions. It’s a classic good cop gone bad set-up but Ed isn’t greedy or corrupt, merely protective of the woman he loves, which gets complicated because he’s equally protective of his kid brother determined to pull at every loose thread. Wyatt is an unlikely femme fatale, less cold-blooded than practical, but Cobb is excellent as the tough mug of a cop swayed by love and the two deliver a beautifully understated coda that sums up their relationship without a word, merely glances and body language that suggests a tenderness that still exists between them. Dall is the opposite as the bright and energetic rookie on the trail of his first big case, with wide grins and a twinkle in his eye.
My Neighbor Totoro: 30th Anniversary Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
Batman: The Complete Animated Series (Warner Bros., Blu-ray)
Hayao Miyazaki is one of Japan’s living treasures, a beloved filmmaker whose animated films number among the most beautiful and most enchanting productions ever drawn by hand. In this day of CGI productions, the aging artists still personally draws his key frames and defining characters, with a love and craft that comes through every frame. They may seem old fashioned and perhaps too sweet for American audiences—his films, while loved by many, have never found the huge audiences that flock to the more knowing and culturally savvy Pixar films and Shrek sequels—but the lovely fables, epic adventures, ecologically-minded dramas and modern fairy tales are all treasures.
My Neighbor Totoro (Japan, 1988) was Miyazaki’s first genuine masterpiece and perhaps my favorite of Miyazaki’s films.
When you win the Best Picture Oscar, you’ve got a choice: play it safe or take a chance. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins obviously decided to gamble.
Jenkins’ follow-up to his intense 2016 prize-winner is If Beale Street Could Talk, a complex, offbeat adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. The story revolves around Tish (wondrous newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), two lovers who’ve known each other since childhood. As the film opens, Tish finds out she’s pregnant while Fonny languishes in prison—two situations we’ll eventually learn more about as the movie skips around in time.
At its most inspired moments, Aquaman plunges straight into the deep end—like when a giant octopus commences an undersea gladiatorial contest by rapping its tentacles across a collection of oversized drums, or when someone offers the movie’s villain a weapon that “converts water into beams of energized plasma.”
I mean, if a movie is going to be this wacky, you really should give in. And I wanted to.
The problem with Aquaman, the latest attempt by the DC Comics faction to match their rivals at Marvel, is that it never picks which wave to surf.