WRB—Dec. 2023 Film Supplement
I found the Managing Editorship of the Washington Review of Books in the gutter. I picked it up with the tip of my sword and cleaned it and placed it atop my own head.
Yet if Moonstruck (1987) is Cage’s most purely romantic film, the secret ingredient was his own romantic baggage, feeding his performance from some half-conscious realm. At the time, Cage was reeling from a breakup with his girlfriend of several years, actress Jenny Wright, with whom he lived in 1985 and 1986. When he filmed the indelible late-night soliloquy—in which Ronny (Cage) passionately implores Loretta (Cher) to embrace the intrinsic messiness of love and “get in my bed!”—Cage was thinking about Wright, imbuing the breathless Shanley dialogue with the weight of his own heartbreak.
This scene encapsulates Moonstruck’s core thesis: a treatise on love’s destructive yet insurmountable trance. “Love don’t make things nice,” Ronny tells Loretta after their date to the opera. “It ruins everything! It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess.” Secretly, Cage imagined Wright might hear his pleading, might be turned on by how handsome he looked, gleaming in the moonlight in an expensive tux. “It was like a love letter in a way,” Cage reflected in 1990. “I was hoping she would be out there listening.”
In, on Paul Giamatti’s turns in Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004) and The Holdovers (November 10):
The beauty of Giamatti’s performances in Sideways and The Holdovers is that he’s playing characters who are hilariously snarky and self-absorbed, but not so entirely wrapped up in their own nonsense that they can’t give other people consideration. It genuinely bothers Miles that Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is out in wine country cheating on his fiancée, and when Maya (Virginia Madsen) confronts him about it, he says, “I’m not Jack. I’m his freshman-year roommate from San Diego State.” And while much is said about the lovely speeches Miles and Maya offer about their oenophilia—Jack’s line about pinot grapes being “thin-skinned and temperamental” are like a copy-paste of his character description—Giamatti’s best moment in Sideways is mostly nonverbal. When Miles finally sees his ex-wife outside of Jack’s wedding and she tells him that she’s pregnant, Giamatti pulls off an expression that suggests that he’s utterly shattered by the news yet willing to suppress his disappointment to congratulate her. He will have time to soak in his misery later, when he pops open his prized Bordeaux over a desultory burger and onion rings, but he will mask his feelings for her benefit.
[Sideways is a great movie that I strongly recommend to any readers who like films about being a huge bummer while on vacation. I know all of you love The Green Ray (1986), so. —Steve]
In The Ringer, Manuela Lazic on the tradition of films about aspiring to high social status that Saltburn (November 17) operates in:
As despicable as Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley and Clift’s George Eastman may be, they are also endearing; their pain is touching. It’s hard not to relate to their desire for more. Those stories have maintained their appeal over the years because they reveal the pit of longing and despair that lives inside many of us who haven’t been lucky to be born with a silver spoon in our mouths and have to struggle for what we want. Perhaps not coincidentally, two years before playing golden boy Dickie Greenleaf in Ripley, Jude Law starred in Andrew Niccol’s dystopian space drama Gattaca (1997) as a “genetically superior” man offering his DNA to Ethan Hawke’s Vincent, an “in-valid,” in order to allow Vincent to realize his dream of going on a deep space mission. Vincent grew up always feeling lesser than his brother Anton, who was conceived through genetic selection, and now has to live a lie and always look over his shoulder. When his secret is discovered, Vincent insists that he got where he is all on his own, through his own perseverance and hard work. He’s both right and wrong.
- reviews Napoleon (November 22):
When Phoenix speaks lines that might have been scripted by Kevin Smith, one of the film’s more fascinating tensions emerges: that between English acting (most of the cast sound like RADA graduates and probably are; Kirby went to LADMA) and American acting (mostly embodied by Phoenix). This dynamic reaches its climax at the Battle of Waterloo, where on one side there’s Phoenix, with his jutting and shrugging and neurotic tics, and Rupert Everett (trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London) as Wellington, coasting with slick arrogance to victory like a combination of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I began to root for Napoleon out of misplaced actor’s patriotism now that his doom was at hand.
- reviews Priscilla (October) for Vox:
Coppola’s talent is in taking this story—much harder-edged when translated to Versailles—and giving it the rosy sheen of a girl’s memory, of feeling the intensity of a star’s rays on her so keenly that there’s nothing to do but bask in it, at least for a while. That sheen comes from the movie’s source material, Priscilla Presley’s memoirs, which recount her years with Elvis the way she remembered them. That is why Priscilla is not a “biopic” about Priscilla Presley; it’s a memoir. It is a story told not about, but through its main subject.
Two reviews of The Killer (October):
- in his newsletter:
Contemporary audiences have come to view Fincher’s more incendiary works as thinly-veiled critiques of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, imagining him laughing right alongside them, enlightened by the same unproblematic, straightforwardly progressive views they hold. (One is reminded of David Lynch’s supposed disdain for small-town America which is commonly—and falsely—inserted into readings of Twin Peaks.) It’s true that Fincher certainly doesn’t admire his violent male characters but, like Lynch, he doesn’t entirely detest his subjects either (I’d argue that no interesting filmmaker does).
Either way, these interpretations persist and as a result, the titular killer (Michael Fassbender) has been caricatured by many critics as something of a bumbling oaf, essentially an open challenge to the members of the audience who idolized Tyler Durden or any of the “literally me” characters that have graced screens both silver and televisual. (They’re not quite as eager to discourage audiences from deifying Gone Girl’s (2014) Amy Dunne.) Puzzling, given that, with the exception of the opening hit (which only narrowly goes wrong), he is portrayed as fairly competent or, at the very least, perfectly capable of achieving his goals. Rather, the crux of The Killer’s death-industry character deconstruction (for lack of a better word) comes from our privileged access to his thoughts.
Beatrice Loayza in The Nation:
Either way, Fincher must see some of the killer in himself and his work—both are sought-after commodities, reliable suppliers of high-quality services, be they flawless executions or stylish, cerebral entertainment. Over the years, Fincher has passed from one era of commercial filmmaking to the next, performing within the parameters of the ever-evolving film industry and creating art out of the process if not the actual task. The Killer stands as his critique of this seemingly inescapable dynamic. Close to home as it may be for the director himself, it’s not specific to the rarefied conditions of working in Hollywood, or any one factory of ideas and mass culture, for that matter. That The Killer has it both ways—it’s an anti-action movie in the sheep’s clothing of a standard Netflix thriller—comes off like an act of trolling, yet the bottom line is as callous as the film’s systematic killings: To work is to compromise, to “not give a fuck” even when we do.
- in his newsletter:
We now move to reviews of books [Reviews of books! In the Film Supplement! I know! —Steve] with’s review of a monograph on Whit Stillman (Whit Stillman: Not So Long Ago, September):
The heart of the book is Neyrat’s long interview with Stillman, which offers insights into the autobiographical, technical, and philosophical elements of his films. Sometimes all three elements come together: Metropolitan (1990), whose evocative opening title card gives the volume its name, feels timeless, in part because Stillman “couldn’t represent [1966-1974, the actual time period he was imagining] with our budget and I wasn’t really interested in making a period film.” This practical limitation meant that “everyone thought the film was about their own time,” with one viewer even feeling “like he had returned to the fifties”! I confess that I always assumed it was meant to take place in the early ’80s—in part because of the repeated, casual references to parental divorce, one of the consistent markers of Gen X culture. But Stillman was born in 1952; his parents, it turns out, broke up before everybody’s did. The end of deb culture, unhooked from 1960s period detail, becomes a synecdoche for all endings, all our vanished worlds, even our doomed bourgeois bodies. As the Fourierist Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) argues, “Everyone ceases to exist. That doesn’t mean everyone’s a failure.”
[For my part, I always assumed that Metropolitan was set somewhere around 1974 on the basis of its cultural references, and that this was consciously done to juxtapose the talk of decline in the film with the state of America at the time. —Steve]
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Louis Menand reviews a book on Charlie Chaplin’s exile from the United States (Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, and Politics Collided, by Scott Eyman, October) in The New Yorker:
But Chaplin did not have a lot of support during his ordeal, either from the movie industry or from liberals. Eyman’s account suggests that, as far as Hollywood was concerned, the lack of support was due to jealousy. I think there is a little more to it than that. Movies are a collaborative art form, not just creatively—with different people responsible for costumes, casting, production design, and so on, all the way down to the grips and the animal wranglers—but also financially, with producers, distributors, and exhibitors, all of whom get a piece of the box-office action.
Chaplin, by contrast, did everything himself. He financed his own films; he wrote them; he took music credit; he even choreographed. Most of the cast and crew were on his payroll. He even co-owned his distribution company. The box-office take went straight into his pocket. He was not beholden to anyone, but he was not indispensable, either. Losing the Chaplin studio had a negligible impact on the movie business qua business.
Tanya Gold reviews a book on that most famous of Hollywood couples (Erotic Vagrancy: Everything about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, by Roger Lewis, January 23, 2024) in The New Statesman:
When reading in Burton’s diaries of her “round belly and the exquisite softness of the inside of your thighs” Lewis sees “a smirking, heaving Gloucestershire Old Spot sow… When it comes to explicit sexual description, a little goes a long way.” This is disingenuous. This book is all about sex and drugs, and drugged sex (with their films playing on a distant TV).
Its title is Erotic Vagrancy, a quote from L’Osservatore Romano della Domenica, the Vatican newspaper that issued a public rebuke to Burton and Taylor, after their extramarital affair—which began in 1962 on the set of Cleopatra in Rome—became an international scandal: “You will finish in an erotic vagrancy, without end or without a safe port.” At his most fetid Lewis writes that Taylor liked “meaty cocks.” Like Burton, he seems to both desire and hate her. Lewis calls her the last of the great silent movie actresses. Would he have preferred she kept her mouth shut?
Two reviews of Werner Herzog’s memoir (Every Man for Himself and God Against All, translated by Michael Hoffman, October):
Mark O’Connell in our sister publication in the Big Apple:
The reason for this personal taboo against self-scrutiny has to do, in one sense, with a belief that were he to analyze himself too thoroughly, he might eradicate (rather than deepen) the mystery that lies at the source of art. Herzog is not interested in psychology as such; he is concerned with the soul—and maybe even with the Soul of Man. “Psychoanalysis,” as he put it in one interview, “is no more scientific than the cranial surgery practiced under the middle-period pharaohs, and by jerking the deepest secrets out into the open, it denies and destroys the great mysteries of our souls.” (You don’t have to be a Freudian, or even a pharaonic cranial surgeon, to feel compelled to point out the strangeness of a criticism that condemns a practice as both completely unscientific and disastrously, paradoxically effective.)
David Trotter in our sister publication across the pond:
Kinski has always loomed large in Herzog’s self-mythologization. But he only ever appeared in a handful of the films. The doctrine of ecstatic truth is, by contrast, pervasive. There are further questions to be asked—even or especially in the absence of its malevolent talisman—of the broader premise on which it is based. Documentary has customarily been regarded as a genre duty-bound to deal in facts. But the only duty Herzog has ever felt as a filmmaker is, as he puts it, to “follow a grand vision.” His talent as an inquirer, backed by monumental self-confidence, has gained him access to sealed locations as disparate as death row and a cave full of prehistoric animal paintings. You sometimes wish that he’d handed his grand vision in at the door. It’s disconcerting that when he introduces the idea of ecstatic truth into Every Man, he does so in order to associate it closely with the way in which “fake news” (his term), if repeated often enough and acted on, can “evolve” into or assume the “structure” of a fact.
The Times has hiredas a film critic. [Great hire. —Steve]
What happened to Christmas movies?
Richard Linklater is working on a film about the French New Wave. [This is my catnip. —Steve]
Antoine Fuqua is working on a film for Netflix starring Denzel Washington as Hannibal. [This is also my catnip. —Steve]
An interview with John Woo.
An interview with Rodrigo Prieto, cinematographer on Killers of the Flower Moon (October).
The making of The Right Stuff (1983).
Trailers for musicals are hiding the “musical” part.
AMC is offering a backpack inspired by Nicole Kidman’s suit in the ad.
The French don’t like Napoleon (November 22). “It’s too bad Napoleon looks like a loser,” one Frenchwoman says.
Netflix is working on a restoration of a seven-hour cut shown at the Apollo Theater in 1927, but the release date for that was already pushed from 2021 to 2023 and there’s been no news about it recently.
A history of Napoleon in film.
Currently in theaters:
[Since every WRB Film Supplement is someone’s first: the movies are listed in approximate order of how good I think they are. Steve’s larks are the ones I recommend you see. —Steve]
The Holdovers (dir. Alexander Payne, November 10):
[Since I think this is the best new release I’ve seen in theaters this year I feel a need to admit my biases. I know and I remember the scuzzy run-down New England where this movie takes place—gentrification’s taken almost all of it out of Portland, but it’s still there in places with less money coming in. And I was formed by grouchy high school teachers who saw themselves as dinosaurs in method and approach, fighting the vulgarity, incuriosity, and insensitivity of their students and an administration that frequently seemed unaware of the purpose of education. And I have a fondness for Christmas movies in which characters are absolutely miserable during the holiday season. Of course I loved this. —Steve]
The Holdovers wants to be a movie from the ’70s so badly, down to using the ’70s MPAA rating card at the beginning. It’s not quite that, since there’s a coziness at its heart that cuts how acerbic it frequently is—it’s the warmth of people who have been ill-used by the world coming together and finding something in each other. A new Christmas classic.
Godzilla Minus One (dir. Takashi Yamazaki, December 1):
A Godzilla movie distinguishes itself in two ways: the quality of the effects work for the monster, and the use of the basic situation—Godzilla is destroying things and must be stopped—as a starting point for cultural commentary. [And not just about nuclear weapons, although of course that tends to be part of it. For example, the influence of Heidegger on Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), drawing as it did on his reading of “but where danger is, grows / the saving power also,” was significantly more thought-provoking than I expected out of, you know, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. —Steve] Godzilla looks wonderful here and is almost a figure of awe even more than of terror, not so much intending to destroy human life as completely indifferent to it. In this he is like the attitudes of the Empire of Japan. So much so that the man at the center of the story, a pilot (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who feigns technical issues with his plane to avoid carrying out a kamikaze mission and whose failure to fire upon Godzilla during his first attack leads to the deaths of all the men at a repair station for planes, feels not just survivors’ guilt but a sense that he has failed by not being dead. And his own struggle to find the value in his life parallels similar struggles in his relationships and in the attempt to formulate a response to Godzilla—what is a human life worth? What justifies dying, and, more importantly, what justifies living?
Dream Scenario (dir. Kristoffer Borgli, November 10):
Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage), one of the least interesting men alive, becomes famous by appearing in people’s dreams, and then people turn on him when he becomes violent in those dreams. This sounds like the plot of a movie about cancel culture because it is, but it also finds the time to attempt commentary on just about every other part of internet culture. There are so many ideas in here that it feels wildly unfocused, and some of those ideas are developed much better than others. The two best are a lengthy sequence revealing the differences between sex mediated through online phenomena and sex in real life and an advertisement taking influencer culture to its logical conclusion. The film also struggles with its understanding of Paul, who is both Everyman and a singularly self-centered and self-obsessed figure depending on the needs of any given scene. (Cage gives a great performance as the latter, putting his over-the-top energy into hysterical self-pity.) It has something to say about both this type of man and what happens to them when they get rushes of dopamine from the Internet, but in trying to say absolutely everything it fails to say anything cogently.
Napoleon (dir. Ridley Scott, November 22):
Even if Ridley Scott hadn’t announced that there’s a much longer cut of this film you could probably guess, since it plays the hits of Napoleon’s life in the most perfunctory way, rushing from one historical event to the next. It feels basically uninterested in what it depicts, and whether Scott actually understands or cares about Napoleon is an open question. Portraying him as a weird little freak works in the world of the film, with the exception of one massive question: how could this man possibly have millions of loyal followers? How could he possibly conquer Europe? It really is an Englishman’s view of the whole thing, especially at Waterloo: the English, as embodied by the Duke of Wellington, are the best men alive, and the French, as embodied by Napoleon, are a bunch of nutcases and cuckolds. (One suspects the French take the opposite view of the matter.) Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) is more successfully depicted, both because Kirby gives the film’s best performance and because it actually has something to say—Napoleon’s pathetic grubby desire for Josephine is exactly the same as his desire for power. Other than that, it’s a Ridley Scott special, a bunch of striking images not amounting to much. [It’s better than Gladiator (2000)! —Steve]
Silent Night (dir. John Woo, December 1):
A John Woo revenge action movie that does not benefit from the central gimmick of having basically no dialogue. The hero (Joel Kinnaman) has been shot in the throat and so cannot speak, and the other characters who can speak basically never do. The action scenes are good, since it’s John Woo, but the lack of dialogue where it would be expected leaves it feeling like an ultimately unsuccessful experiment. (And no, it doesn’t feel like a silent movie. People speak in those; it just isn’t heard.)
Saltburn (dir. Emerald Fennell, November 17):
[If I make a “Most Interesting Failures” end-of-year list this will be a strong contender for the top spot. —Steve] The one advancement, if it can be called that, this makes over other “eat the rich” films out recently is in portraying the desire of the middle-class Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) for the life of the immensely wealthy Catton family as a sexual desire bound up in money, or perhaps vice versa. [The twist, which I will not spoil outright here, takes this to the only place it can go any further. I don’t mind hinting at it in this way since it’s extremely foreseeable. —Steve] The rest of the film luxuriates in the life of the extremely wealthy while trying and failing to loathe it, and this confusion serves as the backdrop to a plot that baffles at almost every individual point. Maybe the rich don’t act like the rest of the world, but here every eccentric decision they make just so happens to forcefully move the plot where Fennell wants it to move.
Tiger 3 (dir. Maneesh Sharma, November 11):
A lot of Bollywood action is extraordinarily revealing about how India likes to imagine itself on the world stage. When it’s bad—and this is bad, a 156-minute slog that takes itself far too seriously—it provides no other pleasure, intellectual or otherwise.
Wish (dir. Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, November 22):
More of a compendium of references to other, better, Disney animated films than a film in its own right. The combination of 2D and 3D animation is so lazily done that everything looks devoid of detail when not moving and choppy when it is. The plot makes no sense. The songs are completely unmemorable. Godard said that the best way to critique a movie is to make another movie, but here the critiques are called Pinocchio (1940) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), among other Disney classics, and they already exist. The filmmakers have seen them, and so they are without excuse.
- on stars: “Something I think is important to understand is that movie studios didn’t want movie stars. It was audiences that found them, audiences that made them, audiences that demanded them.” [“Florence Lawrence” is a Thomas Pynchon name. —Steve]
The desire to exclusively engage with media and art made by “unproblematic” artists is a direct result of Americans viewing media consumption as an inherently political act because that is the supreme promise of Western prosperity and the religion of consumerism, and because it’s seemingly all that’s left. We’ve been stripped and socialized out of any real political energy and agency. Our ability to consume is the only thing remaining that’s “ours” in late capitalism, and as a result it’s become a stand-in for (or perhaps the sole defining quality of) every aspect of being alive today—consuming is activism, it’s love, it’s thinking, it’s sex, it’s fill in the blank. When the act of consuming is all you have left and indeed the only thing society tells you is valuable and meaningful, the act must necessarily be a moral one, which is why people send themselves down manic spirals deciding what, who is “problematic” or not, because for us the stakes are that high now.
- ’s guide to watching movies:
It can be difficult to simultaneously lean into the sensory, emotional experience of watching a film while also trying to disassemble the end product to unearth the purpose of its conception. One must be both inside and above a movie, both the doll in the dollhouse and the child with an omniscient, dioramaistic perspective. I particularly enjoy watching films twice, often almost back-to-back: first, to allow myself to just be present with a work of art, let it wash over me through what it does, what it looks like, what it “is,” and again after learning more about the context in which it was made, the life and practices of the people who made it, and what it “does.” To me, the mark of a truly great film is one that makes this uncanny distance either blindingly apparent (Rashomon (1950), La Chinoise (1967)) or totally imperceptible (Moonlight (2016), In The Mood For Love (2000)).
[I once watched Barry Lyndon (1975) three times in a row, which definitely revealed to me a lot about the film but also, looking back, indicates that I was at a real low point in my life. —Steve]