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Time Is a Rabid Dog

Pandemic cinema at the end of year two
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At the Palace Theatre in Lake Placid, New York, there is a sign with white plastic letters at the ticket window. It lists the admission prices—one for matinees, one for regular shows—and at the bottom it says PLEASE STATE WHICH MOVIE. So when I got to the cashier, I handed her the money, looked her in the eye, and said “Old.”

The title of M. Night Shyamalan’s new film fit the situation that afternoon last July. The other three movies playing at the Palace were aimed at people too young for a driver’s license. But those movies were old, too. Jungle Cruise was based on a theme-park ride that opened to the public in 1955, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins on a doll that was first sold in 1964, the same year the title character in Black Widow debuted in a comic book. My friend and I chose to see Old because it looked the least like kiddie fare, but it was really the newest film playing. Shyamalan adapted it from a graphic novel published in 2010. Old was contemporary, not a nostalgia item shoved down the throat of the summer.

Old was the first movie I’d been to see at a movie theater in seventeen months. And Lake Placid was the first place I’d been outside New York City since February 2020. The pandemic appeared to be subsiding. The town was filled with tourists from all over the country, judging by the license plates on the SUVs in the crowded municipal parking lot. Main Street was busy and there was a line at the Palace.

In the theater, my friend and I sat in the first section, face masks on, as people filed in behind us to see Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal trapped on a beach that caused them and their kids to prematurely age. They grew old before our eyes, inching closer to death, unable to figure out what was going on or how to stop it. Shyamalan’s movie was too timely, an obvious and exact mirror of pandemic life over the previous year and a half.  

His metaphor included an added frisson for the vaccine-hesitant: the leisure class, it turns out, are lab rats, there to test new medicines. Abbey Lee, playing a trophy wife with a calcium deficiency, hides herself in a cave in Old, embarrassed to be seen as she deteriorates. Her Botox fades and her bones get brittle, causing them to break and then heal at an accelerated rate. This quick, repetitive cycle of damage and repair turns her into a twisted mass of fused dislocations, her joints and vertebrae permanently misaligned along with her chakras. Gazing at this monster of female vanity, the teens in Old gasp in horror. She’s “healed in the wrong position!” one shouts, summarizing what happened last summer when we thought the pandemic was ending.

The Palace Theatre was built as a one-screen in 1926. It features a large, impressive marquee with its name in incandescent lights. Inside, there is a tall fireplace behind the concession stand. When I was there, a concessionaire in a black T-shirt and a rosewood-colored face mask stood between the fireplace and the glass counter selling Black Widow popcorn tubs with black plastic logo lids from on top of the mantle, ten dollars each, more than the price of the movie. Shyamalan shot Old on 35mm film, but the Palace was showing it digitally. In the lobby, the theater had put on display one of their decommissioned 35mm Simplex projectors, with a Xenex lamp house. At least they’d saved it.

The digital projection didn’t bother me that day. I was glad to be back in a movie theater. The early shots of beaches and nature, of people on vacation, were emanations from a past life. The screen-size was overwhelming. Even so, seeing a movie with a mask on, my glasses fogging up, added a level of anxiety disguised as mere discomfort. Every way to see a movie now, in a theater or at home, subtracts something from it.

ANNETTE

In some quarters it was the most anticipated movie of the summer, and it arrived as something of a miracle just by existing: Leos Carax had made a movie in English for Amazon. But a movie that could use less Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and more wooden puppet-baby and Simon Helberg can’t be judged wholly a success. Annette begins with the pure delight of seeing Sparks in the studio and then with the cast in the street. After this exhilarating musical opening, Annette jerks into Comedy Night at the Orpheum and tries hard to be convincing as Adam Driver: Raw. Later, the film gathers its green-hued darkness around the light of baby Annette, international singing sensation, but right away Carax wants the audience, wherever they are, to understand that the film is going to be a 140-minute endurance test.

Annette has things in common with Carax’s Lovers on the Bridge beyond musical numbers, street scenes, the battle of the sexes, plunges into water, and the ever-present threat of death. But now Carax sets his drama in the post-Holy Motors world of money and power, of fame and limousines, not street drunks chugging from clear plastic jugs of cheap red wine. As usual with Carax, obscure autobiographical elements mix with deconstructions of storytelling and cinema. Annette describes and witnesses the way comedy and tragedy become outrage and sentiment under commercial pressure. The film is self-consciously an anti-entertainment product for the streaming-content age.

Teetering on the edge of an abyss it keeps mentioning, Annette posits the height of expression as a masculine obsession intimately connected to murder and exploitation. That’s the family drama of high art on hand here, male jealousy, anger, and self-pity that Carax sets in opposition to Cotillard’s and baby Annette’s cathartic, ethereal trilling. The film’s terrifying qualities are insistent and demanding, forcing a second viewing so that its indictments of gossip news and halftime shows disappear in the rearview mirror with the California wildfires. To have the child of a comedian announce at a stadium concert that “Daddy kills people” is taking a pun to the bitter end, where Chris Rock and Bill Burr are thanked in the credits.

THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD

The Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier is the opposite of Leos Carax. He doesn’t aim high enough, and he still never hits his target. Every movie he makes unspools like an assignment, though paradoxically he also seems to work in total freedom. He’s like an MFA in fiction writing who wakes up one morning and realizes that now he actually has to write a novel. Trier is professional, he’s accredited, and his work is dutiful. The new thing in his new movie, The Worst Person in the World, is that now he’s trying to please a larger crowd.

This is Trier’s fifth feature, and it’s the rom-com version of elevated horror. It’s time for him to get it together, just like the protagonist in this film should have. Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a floundering twentysomething who starts out serious and ambitious, then bumbles through work and romance for over two hours, unable to commit to anything. So, yes, she’s relatable. Trier, however, tells her story with banal gimmicks. When Julie runs to her new lover (Herbert Nordrum) at the café where he works, the people she passes freeze in place, like something from a ten-year-old TV commercial for phone service. Julie wants life to be magical and fully charged, like a phone, and she finds it isn’t. Maybe Trier is trying to depict cruel optimism.

The main love of Julie’s life, the graphic novelist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a man a little older than she is, gets sick and complains about analog vs. digital at a picnic table on the grounds of a hospital. Also relatable. But also not a good thing here, anymore than it is with Julie. More productively, the film showed, quite by accident, that if Julie had stuck with medical school, she could have operated on Aksel and maybe saved his life, the way Rock Hudson becomes a surgeon in Magnificent Obsession and cures Jane Wyman’s blindness.

Instead, Julie has to listen as Aksel goes on and on about how much he loved vinyl records and how much the world he is leaving has changed because there is less stuff in it, even though Julie works surrounded by books in a bookstore. Having to listen to this is where not thinking ahead got Julie, and also where it gets Joachim Trier. At the end of An Affair to Remember, Deborah Kerr said to Cary Grant, “If you can paint, I can walk. Anything can happen.” Maybe it’s not that way anymore, even in Norway and the movies. But that makes this movie an affair to forget.

WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car will go down as one of the great films of its era, but to me there was something unsatisfying about it. It was too long, so by the time it got to the confession at the collapsed house in the snow, I wanted Hamaguchi to wrap it up. There was also something comically perfunctory about the way the homicidal actor was eliminated from the film. Was it supposed to be funny? It was to me. Finally, there was the Covid-era supermarket parking lot coda, which I didn’t quite get. I loved it while I was watching it, but the more I thought about it, the less it held together.

The film’s tough love for its characters, Hamaguchi’s ability to put the process of acting and directing into the film through the Chekhov play at the center of it, the rehearsal tape on the car stereo, the credits that come forty minutes in: I was moved or surprised by these things, one at a time. Yet at a certain point the film was like a too-long bass solo. It was all warm feeling and cold technique. All I could think was: end it.

Not so with Hamaguchi’s other masterpiece this year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, with its longer title and shorter running time. In an hour less, it tells three separate stories, each of which was odd, compact, and more mind-bending then Drive My Car. Notably, these are original screenplays by Hamaguchi. Drive My Car is based on a Murakami story.

The three segments center on women, whereas Drive My Car’s wheels turn around a man. The story of his adulterous screenwriter wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), and the sound of her recorded voice were the film’s engine, but Hamaguchi’s attitude toward this complex, slightly menacing character was never quite clear to me. He put a whole lot of ambiguity into Drive My Car.

The contradictory impulses and thorny emotional lives of the women in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy make each story sharp and focused while subtracting none of the characters’ complexity. The first story sets up a cute fashion model (Kotone Furukawa) as pleasant and supportive, then leads her into jealousy and possible violence, her initial unthreatening manner giving way to rage. In the second, a lazy student (Katsuki Mori) having an affair with a callow wannabe (Shouma Kai) is lead by him to honey trap their professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who has won the Akutagawa Prize for his latest novel. In the third, a woman in town for a class reunion (Aoba Kawai) mistakes someone on an escalator (Fusako Urabe) for her high-school love, a girl who rejected her. The passerby goes along with it and takes her home.  

The anguish of misunderstanding that revolves around love and sex in ordinary lives has become weirder in these two Hamaguchi films, edgier than it was in his earlier features. Hamaguchi is a Rohmer for a time when nothing makes sense, things don’t work out, and everybody is in some kind of mental anguish that they suspect won’t interest other people. His matter-of-fact coldness, with its conflicted humanism and acceptance of change, now places his work in the forefront of contemporary cinema.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH

I don’t trust a magazine without a film critic, especially one in a movie based on The New Yorker directed by someone who famously courted Pauline Kael’s approval. Maybe the director himself is the missing film critic. Certainly, The French Dispatch is an amalgam of dozens of other movies, which Wes Anderson went so far as to list in a press release. On that list are some of my favorite films, so I guess I have to admit that Anderson and I share a sensibility. But that is the problem. I don’t want to be roped in. I’d prefer his film convince me.

The French Dispatch, like Hamaguchi’s Wheel, is made of three stories, plus some other stuff. In the first one, Benicio Del Toro is a mad painter in a high-security prison, watched over and encouraged by a guard (Léa Seydoux) who is also his nude life model, which is something of a joke on the viewer since Del Toro’s character is an abstract expressionist. Adrien Brody and Tilda Swinton are at their best in this beautiful segment, with its gray prison walls in black-and-white and the explosive color of its Seydoux-inspired bas-reliefs. It could have been the whole movie. It’s the best thing Anderson has done in a long time, maybe since Rushmore.

The moment in this story when Del Toro switches places with Tony Revolori as the young version of himself, going from promising if troubled youth to incipient breakdown and madness, was a touching key to this film that the other two stories struggled to reach, though they try. Jeffrey Wright in particular came close as an erudite food writer interviewed by a wry Liev Schreiber on a period-specific talk show set. What period exactly I do not know. Sometime in the mid-1960s to early-1970s.

The thing I have never understood about Anderson’s movies appears in that last story: the lame chase scene that goes nowhere. Here it is animated, Tintin-style, and is self-consciously pointless, ending where it began. Anderson’s movies often credit multiple screenwriters. I don’t get how it takes four people to come up with those chase scenes, and not one writer points out that they don’t work. Maybe that person is always outvoted.

As for the middle story, about the student revolt, it reminded me less of La Chinoise or Masculine Feminine and more of something from Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel, The Unpossessed, which is about a group of radicals trying to start a magazine. One of them is a shiftless, married dilettante communist who pictures himself as an editor at the nonexistent magazine’s French office. His co-editor eventually has to admit something.

About starting their magazine he says, “Oh, we don’t really, we just pretend to.” “There are no Magazines, there are no revolutions,” he explains, finishing with “and now it’s time for growing boys to get their sleep.”

EL PLANETA

Amalia Ulman has an almost expressionless quality that is fully reflected in the deadpan brilliance of her debut feature, El Planeta. She stars in the film with her mother, Ale Ulman. They’re a pair who Spanish neoliberalism has turned into a Grey Gardens duo in training. Or they could be, if they can keep their apartment, and if María (Ale), who shoplifts in a mink coat and charges restaurant meals to a local politician, can avoid arrest and a jail cell.

Returned from London to Gijón against her will, Leonor (Amalia), a fashion student, wanders the streets in couture, with little to do but browse shops. Looking for a source of income, she Skypes with art directors and considers sex work. We meet Leonor meeting a man (Nacho Vigalondo, the director of Colossal) who wants to pay her to urinate on him, at a discount rate not much better than the “exposure” an art director offers her to work on a celebrity fashion shoot. Leonor goes on a date with a dude her own age (Zhou Chen) who she meets in a shop. He seems nice, intelligent, an artiste like her, but he doesn’t treat her much better than her two potential employers.

María’s reliance on magic spells mirrors her belief in a fictional economy where women like her and Leonor can lead decent lives, where their cat isn’t dead, where they have reliable companions. Instead, they are surrounded by the trappings of a consumerism to which they are addicted and which is growing out of their reach. At the end, Ulman’s film pops into color from black-and-white like The French Dispatch does throughout.

Here, however, it is to show that this mother and daughter are spectators in the street with hundreds of others as Martin Scorsese arrives in their town to be given an award, like the ending of The Life Aquatic. El Planeta also brings to mind early Jarmusch, but its self-aware position in the economy of image production goes beyond comparison to earlier films. Ulman’s directing is as strange and demure as its two main characters. Too polite to cause trouble, they would rather just wander out of frame. But the movie itself doesn’t fizzle. I have not seen as sly and hard-hitting a debut in a long time.

ZOLA

Zola is the most audacious of the films in the category Sex Workers of 2021, especially considering it started as a Twitter thread and was originally a James Franco project. Janicza Bravo and her co-scenarist Jeremy O. Harris removed it from a trash fire and turned it into a stunning work, a savage, comic B-movie about a sane woman (Taylour Paige) in a hard world, embroiled in a triangle of exploitation across state lines.

Paige’s Zola, a Black Hooters waitress, meets Stefani (Riley Keough), a white customer at one of her tables, and soon the two are on a road trip to work a strip club. With them are Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun), maybe the stupidest man ever depicted in a movie, and X (Colman Domingo), Stefani’s manager and, as it turns out, pimp. When Zola realizes the truth of the situation, which she cleverly narrates in retrospect, it falls to her to set things right. Effectively X’s prisoner, she has to negotiate her escape, avoid prostituting herself, and raise the duplicitous Stefani’s price and self-esteem.  

The film’s dick montage is a new moment in the cinematic depiction of johns, an unexpected interruption amid the film’s beautiful 16mm color cinematography (by Ari Wegner, who also shot The Power of the Dog). The degradation of Florida is really proving itself to be a continuing source of innovation in movie photography. It lends an eerie atmosphere to the film’s chaos, a feeling that any bad thing could happen, from the most trivial to the most final, and receive the same eye roll from Paige.

RED ROCKET

The former MTV VJ Simon Rex has had a convoluted career in the mid-level trenches of Hollywood. In Sean Baker’s new film, Red Rocket, he’s mixed in with a cast of mostly non-professionals who Baker assembled near Texas City, Texas, a Gulf Coast town that has seen better days. Rex plays Mikey Davies, aka Mikey Saber, an immature, middle-aged, failed porn star who returns from LA to his ex-wife (Bree Elrod). Lexi is also an ex-porn star, a sometime crack smoker now living a precarious existence with her mother (Brenda Deiss), and turning the occasional trick via Craigslist.

Mikey is the true worst person in the world, but with plenty of sleazy charm and a terrifying, destructive lust for life. He immediately and without hesitation proceeds to mess up every person he meets, including a hapless neighbor who lies about his military service (Ethan Darbone), some hard-bitten drug dealers he goes to work for (Judy Hill and Brittney Rodriguez), and an underage donut-shop counter-girl who calls herself Strawberry (Suzanna Son). He rogues his way through, until he’s stripped of everything, including his clothes, making everybody’s lives worse for having met him.

Rex and Son give two of the best performances of the year, finding a cruel joy in the series of bad decisions they make or succumb to. The film’s ending is ambiguous, playing into the sordid fantasy of the contemporary American dream, which Baker and his cinematographer, Drew Daniels, shoot in a full-color 16mm that rivals Zola’s. Red Rocket takes place in 2016, during Trump’s campaign, which hums low in the background while Mikey clamors among the poor in Texas City. His last act is as ominous as President Trump’s was, and portends disagreeable, unlucky things for all concerned.

BAD LUCK BANGING

Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn is a film of ideas, so to make sure that anyone who doesn’t like ideas doesn’t stay to watch it, he starts it with an explicit homemade video of an ordinary couple having real sex. This video is also the film’s founding document. When it’s uploaded to the internet, Emi (Katia Pascariu), the video’s costar, is put on trial at the school where she teaches, and faces losing her job.

Jude films Emi documentary-style on various errands in the Covid-era streets of Bucharest before her trial at the school. This is the first film I’ve seen that is in full pandemic mode. People in lines in shops wear masks improperly and argue about it. During Emi’s trial at the school, her colleagues grapple with their various styles of mask, pulling them down, then fixing them, taking them off, forgetting about them, being scolded for not having them on.

After Emi’s tortuous, long-lens walk through downtown Bucharest, which Jude presents as unfriendly and garish, with patriotic Romanian messages everywhere, he interrupts the film for a slide show of definitions, which appear as aphorisms drawn from Romanian writers, including E. M. Cioran, but from many other sources, too. (Over a shot of a sliver of pond with apartment towers in the distance: “Nature: Alexander Blok, journal entry, April 15, 1912: ‘Yesterday, I took great joy in the wreck of the Titanic. So there is still an ocean.’”)

These systematically dismantle ideology and serve as a prelude and introduction for Emi’s outdoor trial, which takes place at night on the school grounds, and which Jude lights in garish magentas and oranges in a mise-en-scène reminiscent of the cover of Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse album or a Michael Bilandic film shot by Sean Price Williams.

Emi’s fellow teachers are normal people, vindictive monsters with a couple of thoughtful outliers dotted in. The film’s shock ending, the best of the year, was far better than, for instance, Black Widow’s, which also took place in Eastern Europe. Forcefully pro-woman, Bad Luck Banging places violence in a realm of fantasy far more satisfying than that movie’s. It’s more honest because Jude understands that’s where it will stay, and it’s even more ridiculous.

BERGMAN ISLAND

A filmmaker (Vicky Krieps) and her older husband (Tim Roth), also a filmmaker, get a dual residency on Fårö, the Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked during the second half of his life. While Roth doodles S&M sketches in his notebook, Krieps conceives a somewhat boring film about a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) attending a wedding on the island and reconnecting with a lost love (Anders Danielsen Lie, Scandinavia’s official ex-boyfriend, who looks something like the younger Bergman).

The meta aspects of Bergman Island are bland and convoluted, requiring careful attention, which doesn’t pay off. The film is more a testament to how the complacent international creative class can no longer make films like Bergman did, or doesn’t want to, because Bergman was a bad husband who acted on his artistic impulses, then flayed them on the screen, instead of a loving family man who drew dirty sketches and hid them. Mia Hansen-Løve is too comfortable with her film’s mediocrity, which she presents as an irrefutable condition of contemporary existence. It would be better to watch the other Bergman Island, Marie Nyreröd’s 2004 documentary featuring Bergman near the end of his life, or Dheeraj Akolkar’s documentary Liv & Ingmar, from 2012. Both are sensitive, unsparing, and emotional films that do justice to Bergman and his complicated relationships, especially his working life with Ullman, who speaks of him with love but without illusion.  

THE SOUVENIR, PART II

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir was maybe the best film of 2019. The disappointing follow-up includes what may be the worst scene of 2021: young filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) sobbing in front of her TV in 1989, deeply moved as she watches the Berlin Wall come down. It so easily could have been cut.

Unfortunately, it encapsulates the solipsism of the whole enterprise, in which Julie completes her thesis film, all the odds in her favor as a human being on this Earth, those odds improved by a large cash outlay from mother (Tilda Swinton, as excellent as she was in the first one).

The Souvenir, Part II is the exact opposite of the other daughter-mother films of 2021, sublimely unaware of its good luck (because still reeling from boyfriend death) as it pursues the film-within-a-film, which we see and which is maybe supposed to show Derek Jarman’s influence on Hogg in the 1980s. It reminded me more of Kenneth Anger’s Rabbit’s Moon, and it would have benefitted from being sped up like that film was. As in the first Souvenir, but more so, Richard Ayoade’s performance as an ambitious rival filmmaker who is maybe based on Isaac Julien puzzled me with its pompous Wildean non-mots. He’s not funny, he’s annoying, he’s right about things?

FRANCE

Shot in eye-pounding high-def, to bring out the sparkly whiteness of Léa Seydoux’s dazzling, erotic teeth, France creates a unique digital anxiety in the viewer that demands full attention. Seydoux plays France de Meurs, a popular and successful TV news anchor with no scruples. At the start, the film appears to be a satire of twenty-four-hour television news media, focusing on a terrible blonde who is gossipy and ruthless at work, cold to her husband (Benjamin Biolay) and son (Gaëtan Amiel) at home, both of whom, like her, kind of suck as human beings.

The film then takes a deceptive turn into Haneke territory when a distracted France hits an immigrant deliveryman (Jawad Zemmar) with her car. Her sense of guilt precipitates a breakdown, and the film kicks into high-gear, best represented by another car accident, one of the most jaw-dropping in any film. It’s much longer than car crashes usually are in movies, rolling and tumbling with great violence on and on. Bruno Dumont wants the audience to feel it, recoil from it—a cycle the film reproduces in many scenes.

France has space for someone to play Angela Merkel (Marina Tamássy), glimpsed outdoors at a mountain sanatorium, and for a digitally snipped-in Emmanuel Macron to take gotcha questions at a press conference. France’s journey is not one to enlightenment or redemption. Her job drills something into her, and her confrontation with it makes life seem mysterious and threatening. The film has one of the great non-endings, an enigmatic scene of nothingness that epitomizes and transcends the European art film, maybe because it’s another ruse from the ever-cunning Dumont.

WHIRLYBIRD

Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard were a husband-and-wife news-reporting team in Los Angeles who, starting in the late 1970s, realized that television news coverage in LA County would benefit from twenty-four-hour air surveillance. Using a helicopter would allow them to get to crime scenes faster, while filming from above would provide television news with unique, all-encompassing views that added great drama to breaking stories at active crime scenes, fires, and other big disturbances. They learned to fly, invested in a helicopter, and flew it to dubious glory during the 1980s and 1990s, the key inventors of a new form of television. It worked hand-in-hand with police surveillance to contribute to the degeneration of journalism as it became hypnotic, appalling entertainment.

Matt Yoka’s documentary, Whirlybird, tells this story, including the effect it had on Tur and Gerrard. Bob (now Zoey) and Marika narrate their work life, a history of Los Angeles that coincides with Bob’s increasing belligerence and hostility as his job takes over their lives. His meltdown ends his marriage and then their business. Before its over, they have filmed, from the air, the Rodney King riots, including the beating of trucker Reginald Denny, and the low-speed white Ford Bronco chase as a brigade of cop cars followed O.J. Simpson for over an hour on the freeway and then up to the door of his house, where he surrendered forty-five minutes later. Close to a hundred million people watched that live. Whirlybird is an invaluable document on how it happened.

Bob came out as transgender in 2013 and moved to the woods. She and Marika are the parents of Katy Tur, the MSNBC television news journalist who Donald Trump publicly excoriated throughout his 2016 campaign, about which she wrote a book. Katy is interviewed in Whirlybird, where she explains her estrangement from Zoey, who put a microphone in her hand when she was a toddler and had her reporting in the helicopter by the time she was in elementary school. (We see the home videos.) She has since reconciled with Zoey, and now she’s married a TV news reporter. Maybe France de Meurs had the same kind of parents.

THE CARD COUNTER

When Barack Obama put Paul Schrader’s film The Card Counter on his list of his favorite films of 2021, Variety noted that he also liked the movie Quo Vadis, Aida, which the trade paper called “a 2020 Bosnian war film.” Variety described Schrader’s film as “an edgy character study,” neglecting to mention that the former president was giving his thumbs-up to a movie about the illegal torture of prisoners by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib during the war in Iraq, a subject covered in the Senate report that Obama, bowing to CIA pressure, refused to fully declassify.

Schrader, ever the productive irritant, does not let his characters off for the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program administered under George W. Bush. His protagonist, a former Abu Ghraib guard turned professional gambler, played broodingly by Oscar Isaac, has served time for this crime but can’t shake his guilt. He goes by the name William Tell, tell being a funny word for a professional card player to pick. Tell was at least punished for torturing prisoners, unlike the people who ordered him to do it. We see his training and the lead-up to his crimes in ugly, harrowing flashbacks, filmed by Schrader and his cinematographer, Alexander Dynan, as loud, wide-angle nightmares.    

Schrader is deep in the Pickpocket here, his predominating late-period Bressonianism now applied to non-Vegas casinos, cheap restaurants, highway driving, and American prisons. Isaac is cool and intense in the film, as is his handler, played by Tiffany Haddish, while Tye Sheridan, his apprentice, and Willem Dafoe, a veteran turned military contractor, are secretive and bizarre. Schrader leaves the grueling denouement of the movie off-screen, playing it as sounds from another room, a refusal on the film’s part to indulge in the same things the CIA did. The Card Counter is a subtle exorcism of national crimes eighteen years old, an unusual, serious genre film unafraid to hold its protagonist to account. It tries hard to keep in mind Romans 12:19. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. Avenge not yourself.

PROJECT SPACE 13

Michael M. Bilandic’s new gem, an airtight chamber comedy ripped from Covid-era headlines during the Soho looting scare of summer 2020, takes place in a locked-down art gallery. There, two rent-a-cops (Theodore Bouloukos and Hunter Zimny) protect the investment of a gallery owner (Jason Grisell) in an artist (Keith Poulson) and his work, an elaborate, junky assemblage where he lives in a cage, fed bugs by a small, annoying robot. Every idea in Project Space 13 is exceedingly stupid and beautiful. Bilandic cuts it all to the quick so that nothing is wasted in this film were paradoxically nothing is necessary.

Poulson, as mouthy and abject as he was in Bilandic’s Hellaware, plays the artist as a pretentious regular guy, while Bouloukos and Zimny’s increased nervousness as the film proceeds gives them opportunities for dumb monologues that place them in a history of downtown failure. As usual Grissell steals every scene he is cut into, delivering instructions from the back of an SUV or rambling about Woody Woodpecker’s popularity in Brazil as he wanders a gray beach out of town. Whoever did his wardrobe deserves an Independent Spirit Award presented by Judy Tenuta. What may be the film’s best performance, however, comes from a club kid (Kyle Brown) in frameless palm-leaf sunglasses and a fuzzy pink fur jacket. He crawls under the gallery’s closed grate and faces the drawn guns of the two security guards. Then he crawls back out without having said a word, a concise encapsulation of downtown’s early 2020s vibe.

THE SCARY OF SIXTY-FIRST

Bilandic and Grisell have absurd cameos in The Scary of Sixty-First, actor-podcaster Dasha Nekrasova’s directorial debut, also an exemplary low-budget wonder ripped from today’s headlines and shot on 16mm. It doesn’t scale the Bilandician heights of ludicrous astonishment because it’s a horror movie about Jeffrey Epstein, an ambitious concept for anyone’s first film. But it gets close enough in this second year of blighted pandemic cinema. The increasing hysteria of the film’s three co-leads (Madeline Quinn, Betsey Brown, Nekrasova) progresses insidiously as their obsession with the absent Epstein’s sex crimes takes over their lives, or possesses their souls, or whatever’s going on.

The film presents itself in the guise of travesty, and ends with a film-history joke, having nowhere to go because it has backed itself into a corner. Quite literally—it is Nekrasova’s final girl who ends up in a basement in blood and black boots. Yet as an actual work of horror-exploitation, The Scary of Sixty-First is only posing as irony. Its ambitions are impressive, though the whole movie keeps going up to the line of naughtiness, a strategy guaranteed to draw in the film’s built-in reply-guy audience.

As with the glimpse of Angela Merkel in France, in The Scary of Sixty-First we get a quick sighting of someone (Anna Khachiyan) who might be the now-convicted Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s familiar. Seeing this film during Maxwell’s trial was a reminder of the slipperiness of the entire class she represents and worked for. There should be more cheap movies made this quickly about current events, so that the whole area isn’t ceded to streaming services and Oscar hopefuls.

SPENCER

The first half has a horror movie feel, with Jonny Greenwood’s “Diana Runs the Voodoo Down” score working with Kristen Stewart’s Porsche driving to create a sense of confusion and menace. The second half is a Lady Antebellum video brought to you by Kentucky Fried Chicken. In between, the walk-in dessert fridge and the holiday weighing ritual performed their magick, but to no avail. In this world of high-toned entertainment, you can flee from the Windsors like Diana Spencer did, and you should. 

SOCIAL HYGIENE

In the forests and meadows of Quebec, or maybe in a city park, a feckless vagabond revolutionary (Maxim Gaudette) is criticized, berated, and implored by his sister (Larissa Corriveau), his wife (Évelyne Rompré), his mistress (Ève Duranceau), a tax collector (Kathleen Fortin), and a woman who he has robbed (Éléonore Loiselle)—all from at least six feet away.

Denis Côté’s Social Hygiene is classical French theater, stripped down via Straub-Huillet, and then presented with Covid-era social-distance rules in place. Set in the present, the characters act and speak as though they inhabit a previous century. Dressed like they’ve been asked to pose for Manet and didn’t have time to put the right outfit together, they declaim their dialogue in the manner of Jean-Pierre Léaud playing Saint-Just in Weekend.

Each scene in this excellent, amusing, and unexpected film is one shot long, with the actors placed a little too far from the camera, figures in a landscape. The film works because of how it looks. It’s only seventy-six minutes long and beats Malmkrog at its own game, almost a parody of the Puiu film. But could either of these films have known the other existed? They occupy separate bubbles of oddball philosophical discourse.

Côté has made over a dozen low-budget, semi-conceptual films in Canada since 2005 and shows no sign of letting up. Each of his movies is a bracing delight designed to perk up an audience by asking it to see and listen in some new way. Antonin (Gaudette), an irresponsible male id figure like in Red Rocket, has just as many self-justifications as Mikey Saber, though his are of a higher order. And he’s fully clothed. Asked by his wife where he’s been for two weeks, he tells her, “Time is a rabid dog.” She replies that they need more structure in their lives. Social Hygiene has plenty of that. Filled with birdsong on the soundtrack, stitched together with fast tracking shots and whip pans, it’s beautiful, too.

THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS

The suicide bots near the end are a brilliant new metaphor. With them, Lana Wachowski and her screenwriters David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon have created a frightening and visually arresting new version of the self-victimization of pod life. Keanu Reeves’s and Carrie-Anne Moss’s Gen X romance in the Simulatte coffee shop, and their acceptance that they “can’t beat time,” was moving and glorious, while Lambert Wilson’s and Christina Ricci’s cameos as, respectively, the anti-sequel, bile-spewing Merovingian and a stylish video game marketing professional were delightful, welcome, and gone too soon. Everything in the middle had a contemporary TV feel, in which old IP was rebooted for a Riverdale-in-Captain-Nemo’s-submarine effect that struck me as counter to the aims of the film but was also just being nice to kids.

DAYS

Tsai Ming-liang’s films are test cases of cinema. They require projection on large screens in dark auditoriums, even demand it, but quietly. Goodbye, Dragon Inn takes that as its subject, that the contemplation of life inside a movie theater is a necessary and important thing to do, no matter the condition of the film industry in the twenty-first century. And that takes a certain amount of time—the uninterrupted running time of the film.

Increasingly in Tsai’s films this form of contemplation is his most important and maybe his only subject. So to watch his most recent movie, Days, in my apartment became an exercise in how not do it. As the now middle-aged Lee Kang-sheng sat on a couch, staring ahead, trying to ignore his neck pain, so I stared at him, also immobile, a shadow on the wall. Eating dinner alone watching Lee get an erotic full body message in a hotel room from the other guy in Days (Anong Houngheuangsy) brought it home: this is not how I expected I would be living at this point in my life. And after they leave the hotel, they go to a restaurant.

DON’T LOOK UP

The next time capitalism and climate change force the employees of a candle factory in Kentucky to have to work through a deadly tornado, they’ll be able to say Adam McKay got it. He understood. He knew. And then when they get home from one of their co-worker’s funerals, they’ll be able to once again watch Don’t Look Up on Netflix and say thanks for the laughs.

McKay is a filmmaker who has learned nothing. After Vice, his tepid anti-Dick Cheney biopic from 2018, he might have reexamined the effectiveness of mild comedy and failed satire on the issues of the day. No, he is running a big production company, and he is busy with TV shows, websites, and basketball podcasts. One has to be a mogul in Hollywood just to survive. Only a mogul could wrangle such big stars and so much B-roll into one giant movie, the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the end of the world, minus the Melancholia.

To do something else besides that, something that required actual thought and concentration, such as making a good movie, is too time-consuming for someone like McKay. Here’s a quick-and-easy lesson for the next time: if the end credits sequence is sixteen minutes long, the movie is part of the problem, not the solution. Leonardo DiCaprio, the only person pulling his weight in the rest of the movie, wasn’t even in that part of the film.

LAMB

Lamb, Pig, Cow. Old MacDonald had a boutique film studio. Nicolas Cage in Pig was better than anything in Lamb. Both start off seeming like they are going to be genre films, Pig a vigilante action drama, Lamb just more elevated horror. Pig gets mixed with a vague neorealism—Bicycle Thieves or Umberto D. in Portland, Oregon—while Lamb becomes a quietist farming story with adulterous undertones, like a Dreyer silent.

Lamb ends in very unexpected way, really out there, but it’s too much too late. Pig succeeds because it keeps undercutting the potential for Cagian craziness, even during a stupid Fight Club-style underground semi-bumfight, in which the overripe Cage is repeatedly punched in the face by a busboy. Lamb is an Icelandic movie cowritten by the novelist Sjón, who played with the Sugarcubes, but it is best summarized by a different 1980s band, Duran Duran: “I’m on the hunt, I’m after ewe.” Cow I didn’t see. I heard it was a grim documentary about the repetitive drudgery of life in captivity, and I’ve had it with domestic drama.

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