Tár: The Character is the Message
Warning: the following review contains spoilers for the movie Tár.
It's no surprise that "cancel culture" (which might be more accurately termed a culture of accountability) has appeared, either implicitly or explicitly, in many recent American films across various genres. Barbarian, for example, starts off as a taut thriller that throws two strangers, a man and a woman, in a threatening and confined space but soon changes its focus entirely to an actor who's been cancelled after rape allegations. That brawniest of action directors, Ridley Scott, had his #MeToo moment with The Last Duel, which mimics the structure of Rashomon to depict the rape culture of 14th century France (implying that not much has changed since then). Promising Young Woman hammered home its rhetorical points with sledgehammer obviousness, manipulating genre and narrative style to deliver its hot-button moralizing. Last Night in Soho was hardly more subtle in showing how the sins of the past fester into the present and the future. Whether horror, historical epic, or revenge fantasy, these movies and others grapple with one of Hollywood's greatest foundational sins (which dates back at least as far back as 1920, when Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted of raping and accidentally killing actress Virginia Rappe).
Crimes of the Future
Crimes of the Future has been touted as David Cronenberg's return to body horror, with comparisons to earlier work like Videodrome, Scanners, and eXistenZ dominating the conversation. It's easy to see why: his newest film penetrates the flesh of humanity in a near future in which our organs no longer play by the rules, as if evolution is wreaking vengeance for our attempted tyranny over the natural world. The main axiom of Videodrome, "long live the new flesh," might actually be better applied to Crimes of the Future, in which the new flesh that has started spreading within us is perfectly suited to an industrial wasteland of the 21st century. Just as compelling as these connections to Cronenberg's past work, though, are the more implicit echoes that are less consumed with bodily trauma: for example, the grimy minimalism of Shivers (1975), the clinical non-sexuality of Dead Ringers (1988), the literariness of Naked Lunch (1991). Whether intentional or not, Crimes of the Future plays like a self-referential endpoint for Cronenberg's favorite thematic and formal motifs, uniquely updated for the 2020s and its discussions of climate change and bodily autonomy. How strange it is, then, that it also ends up being one of Cronenberg's most guardedly hopeful films.
The Cat's Meow
The Cat's Meow is set in 1924, but it might be Peter Bogdanovich's most personal film: a glamorous but melancholy look at the destructive lusts and quests for glory that prove irresistible in the land of Hollywood. The characters we see here are larger than life, but their dramas are painfully human: to behold the unrequited loves and power struggles enacted here is to witness gods and goddesses fall to earth.
No one would confuse Boardinghouse for a good movie, but it is one-of-a-kind—and sometimes, that's a more remarkable achievement. Made in 1982, Boardinghouse was the first horror feature shot on digital video, which would be a notable landmark even if the movie's plot, performances, and dialogue didn't match its grade-Z aesthetic. As it is, director John Wintergate (who cowrote the screenplay with his wife Kalassu) apparently uses the rough visual format as an excuse to embrace all things crude and nonsensical. The intentionality of the movie's ludicrousness is debatable—there's a fine line between surrealism and inanity—but the end product is the same: a vision of primitive digital sleaze that seems to have drifted in from an alien dimension (or perhaps just from early '80s California).
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
As a historical romance between two women set on an island in Brittany, Portrait of a Lady on Fire sounds like standard prestige-picture fare: a stately tale of burning desire and repression, with unsubtle parallels to our own time. But even if Céline Sciamma's film teems with lustful glances and pointed critiques of marriage and patriarchy, it's infinitely more interesting, sensuous, and arresting than that description makes it sound. With its overt feminism and depiction of the burgeoning identity of a young female artist, the film inevitably conjures recent fare like The Souvenir and Greta Gerwig's Little Women, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the most compelling and quietly radical among them: an enigmatic film about the battle waged between realism and expressionism.
Ad Astra suffers from an identity crisis: it's a visceral, sometimes jaw-dropping piece of genre cinema, ricocheting from action to sci-fi to horror, in the guise of a ponderous male melodrama. This is a common ailment for movies desperate to prove how important they are, as if weighty backstory and solemn voiceover narration automatically lend a film greater value. It's a shame that Ad Astra feels the need to obscure its propulsive, exciting vision through pseudo-profound rambling about the nature of man in an unknowable universe; if the film had embraced what it truly is, it could have been a thunderous success.
White Dog is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
Nearly forty years after it was made, Samuel Fuller's White Dog is timelier and more sobering than ever—an outraged depiction of how white supremacy pervades a society, rotting it away from the inside. That such an indictment takes the guise of a visceral, pulpy thriller only adds to its intensity, though it's probably also (in part) what led to accusations that the movie was racist upon its release. (Calling this movie racist is like calling Fox News progressive; it's antithetical to their very reasons for existing.) The movie's central metaphor is overt but no less profound: it bears witness to the destruction of an innocent creature for the sake of domestic terrorism.
Louis Malle's Calcutta (1969) is comprised of footage left over from the shooting of Phantom India, a seven-part TV documentary that aired in France and England in 1969. The former is a fascinating piece of ethnographic filmmaking, but mostly for all the wrong reasons: every difficult, unanswerable question about the ethical obligation of the outsider artist and the voyeuristic nature of film recording is posed by Calcutta (often, one senses, inadvertently). It purports to be an unvarnished document of a poverty-stricken metropolis in flux, but really it's a document of how artists try to lend themselves legitimacy by exoticizing the "Other" while neglecting to explore the object of their study with any empathy or respect.
Mrs. Miniver is propaganda; there's no doubt about that. This is the film that Winston Churchill claimed did more for England's war efforts than a fleet of destroyers, with a rousing, climatic speech that was reprinted in Time and Look magazines, broadcast on Voice of America radio, and excerpted in leaflets dropped over ally and enemy nations alike. As Joseph Goebbels admiringly wrote, "its refined, powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of." The extent to which Hollywood was and is part of the war machine, clamoring for public support as a cog in the military-industrial complex, remains unsettling even in the context of the so-called Great War. But propaganda can't be flatly dismissed for its ethical conundrums—to do so would require throwing out everything from Battleship Potemkin to I Am Cuba—and Mrs. Miniver should be remembered for what it is: a moving, richly interwoven, powerfully constructed drama about war intervening in the unspectacular lives of a stolid middle-class family.
I Walked with a Zombie
I Walked with a Zombie is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
In its 69 minutes, I Walked with a Zombie packs a dense and fascinating allegory for the damning effects of slavery and the tenuous coexistence of cultures. Like many of the B-grade horror films produced by Val Lewton at RKO Studios, it began life with a certain set of parameters and expectations: saddled with the title I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton was tasked with adapting an American Weekly Magazine article about plantation workers in Haiti who are turned into "zombies" through rampant drug use, an insidious form of ongoing oppression. (One imagines RKO execs were mostly attracted to the title; such a storyline would have been hard to get by the Hollywood Hays Code at that time.) Instead, Lewton decided to make, as he called it, the "West Indies Jane Eyre," and concocted, with screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, a story about the coma-stricken wife of a plantation owner and the Canadian nurse who believes that voodoo magic may help cure her. There are no actual zombies in the film and it's often closer to romantic melodrama than horror (like the Brontë novel that inspired it), but these numerous conflicting forces make for Lewton & Company's most haunting film.