WRB—Feb. 2024 Film Supplement
It’s not October 3rd.
Stop trying to make the Washington Review of Books happen. It’s not going to happen.
In the Times,
on Mean Girls (both 2004 and 2024) as reflections of the homeschooler experience beyond their high school context:But a home-schooled protagonist is the ultimate way into this kind of tale, because when you’re home-schooled, those structures just don’t exist. And without them, you’re a free agent. You don’t naturally belong anywhere. That can lead to a strange kind of floundering when you do the work, laid out so neatly in high school movies, of figuring out who you are; it makes more sense to take on other people’s identities than to find your own. Lacking a lifetime of being pushed into one group or another by your peers, you’re a little unmoored. That is mostly a good thing in the end, but it’s confusing and chaotic in the moment. Mean Girls excellently evokes that feeling, with a protagonist who is co-opted by two different groups for their own purposes.
In Dissent, Sam Adler-Bell on the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe :
Marvel chose arms dealer Tony Stark to star in the first MCU film (2008’s Iron Man, with Robert Downey Jr.) because a focus group of kids reported that he was the hero they’d “most want to play with as a toy.” (And to be fair to those kids, he flies and shoots lasers from his hands.) For years, Perlmutter refused to approve stand-alone films starring female heroes because, he believed, the toys wouldn’t sell. Black heroes were also thought insufficiently toyetic. Marvel’s corporate brain trust was relieved when a change to the storyboarding for Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), set during the Second World War, placed more emphasis on HYDRA, a syndicate of long-time Marvel baddies, because, as the authors note, “the resulting toys would be more interesting and—technically—not Nazi action figures.”
In Vulture, Rachel Handler interviews Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel, co-stars of The Taste of Things (February 9), twenty years after they broke up:
Binoche: I really believe [their daughter] did it because she wanted to get inside of herself. To see if she was brave enough to do it. I believe she wanted to do Hamlet because there’s a strong connection she feels with this character.
Magimel: You can’t have an 18-year-old kid play Hamlet. She did it because she wanted to get closer to you. Closer to her parents.
Binoche: No! There’s something about Hamlet that speaks to her. It’s to do with the relationship to the father, to death. I never said anything about Hamlet to her. She’s the one who wanted to do it.
Magimel: It’s because she wanted to impress you. I asked her about the auditions, and she said she felt sick for three weeks. I said, “Then you mustn’t. If you do it, it’ll make you feel bad.”
Binoche: You don’t act to feel good!
[The whole interview is this wild. The French, you know. I also want to note that Magimel was outstanding recently in Pacifiction (2023), which I have jokingly described as “good Oppenheimer (2023)” and “good Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).” —Steve]
In Current (the Criterion magazine), Beatrice Loayza on the first decade of Chantal Akerman’s career:
Energized, Akerman made two silent films using money she stole from her gig as a porno theater ticket-taker: La chambre and Hotel Monterey (both 1972). These two films explore cramped interior spaces through rigorous formal experimentation inspired by structural cinema, an avant-garde movement that began in the 1960s and produced minimalist films that generate ideas and sensations by emphasizing technical and material processes. Michael Snow’s work in particular was a revelation; it taught her that “a camera movement . . . could trigger an emotional response as strong as from any narrative.” With Hotel Monterey, Akerman sought to capture the fuzzy, ephemeral state that she had occupied as a new arrival in a city of strangers. With Mangolte serving as her cinematographer on both films, Akerman demonstrated a new command of technique and composition that allowed her to summon these elusive experiences, which she once described as “nothing but mist.”
Car crashes are a staple and almost a requirement of the cinema, and movies and automobiles developed hand in hand, in every way. Joseph Cotten’s speech in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) about how “all outward things are going to be different” because of automobiles is so central to understanding America in the twentieth century. I guess my favorite car crash in movies—though “favorite” is a strange way to put it—is the one that ends Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963). We see Bardot and Palance only after the crash has happened and the whole thing looks fake and dumb, and that does not matter at all. The fakeness does not affect the tragedy at all. Godard is good at that, as in Weekend (1967) also. A recent French film, Bruno Dumont’s France (2021), had the best, most harrowing and “realistic” car crash I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Are the French beating us at car crashes in movies? I recently saw a horror movie called Body Parts from 1991 that had a most excellent and unexpected car crash in it. It’s so good that it’s hard to believe the filmmakers didn’t really crash a car on the highway. And it was shot in Canada.
In The Nation, Vikram Murthi on Edward Yang:
Yang portrays mid-1990s Taipei as an unfettered new frontier where people’s wayward desires and newly deep pockets are ripe for exploitation. (“Nobody knows what they want” is the recurring, gleeful refrain of Mahjong’s (1996) young gangsters.) While the Western émigrés mine the country’s burgeoning economy for personal gain using shady—albeit technically legal—means, the gang takes advantage of their own countrymen’s superstitions and spiritual beliefs. Transactional relationships reign supreme in Mahjong: Everyone is either a con man or a mark, predator or prey, packed into a country where capital’s relationship to power has been laid bare.
In New Lines, Kingsley Charles on the influence of new Christian movements on the development of Nigerian horror:
A common plotline of Nollywood’s horror cinema involves a fraternity of evil-minded men killing humans as a sacrifice to grab fast money or achieve business success. As well as living in opulent houses and managing a fleet of expensive cars, the cult members depicted in the films are notorious for their ostentatious displays of wealth at public gatherings. But the prosperity is only short-lived, for the cult members soon face mysterious illnesses and imminent death as a consequence of their ill-gotten lucre. Sometimes, as in the case of Andy in Living in Bondage (1992), one cult member manages to evade the repercussions of death by seeking help in a church, thus portraying the supremacy of Christianity. It was common practice for these films to end the last scene with the phrase “To God Be the Glory.”
, reviews The Zone of Interest (January 26):This is going to sound perverse, but the film’s very conceit almost treats Holocaust knowledge like comic book movies treat in-universe lore: as something in the background for knowledgeable audiences to pick up on. “Ah yes, here’s the manufacturer Siemens working with Höss, can you believe they’re still a going concern?” “Do you hear that piece of music the camp worker is playing? ‘Sunbeams’? It’s a piece that was actually written in and rescued from Auschwitz, did you know that?” “Oh, did you hear that woman say she found a diamond in a bottle of toothpaste? Yes, there were many efforts to save family wealth; none of them worked.”
The characters in Chinatown are irrevocably “LA.” The heroes are a desperate sort, unbearably present in the moment because they know there’s no backup plan. When you’re at the terminus of the rail line, you fight back because your back is to the ocean and you can’t drink a drop. The villains are modern conquistadors, forging kingdoms out of the raw material of the desert. Their evil is strong enough to mold the geography, the land withering even further like an Oedipal blight.
If there is an agreement between the two, it’s that LA should not exist. Its continued survival is either an act of ingenuity, hubris, or malice, often all at the same time. For the evil that existentialism is a license to remake the world in their image. For an unlucky few that is a call to purpose, to bring justice to a land without much interest.
, and review Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974). Tobias:Because of the improvisational nature of Rivette’s work—and of Céline and Julie specifically, which has that seat-of-the-pants spontaneity to it—I think there’s ultimately a lot of flexibility in terms of how we think about these characters, who are more like pieces in a grander design. The deeper you get into the film, the more self-aware you become: This is a film about watching, about narrative, about our engagement with a story and the fantasies that we can project onto it. Part of the fun of Céline and Julie is that a film—or a piece of literature, for that matter—doesn’t allow us to affect how it transpires, so we can engage in the fantasy of rearranging events as the characters do here.
In the Journal, Jeanine Basinger reviews Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams’s biography of Kubrick (Kubrick: An Odyssey, February 6):
The filmmaker emerges from this biography as a contradictory and enigmatic man. Fanlike in their deep respect for his work, the authors describe his perfectionism in relentless detail. His life was about endless research, slow decision-making, constant rewriting, anxious mind-changing and frequent dropping of collaborators. Many found him difficult to work with: The director Bertrand Tavernier, who was Kubrick’s publicist on A Clockwork Orange (1971), resigned via a famous cable that said, “As a filmmaker, you are a genius, but as an employer, you are an imbecile.”
Anyone But You (2023) is a word-of-mouth hit among the youths. [It’s good. —Steve]
The wives in mob films are now fashion inspirations. [“They had bad skin and wore too much makeup. I mean, they didn’t look very good. They looked beat up. And the stuff they wore was thrown together and cheap, a lot of pantsuits and double knits.” —Steve]
Hallmark has several films adapting or inspired by Jane Austen coming out this month.
“Hallmark rose from the sixth-most-watched cable network at the top of October to the third-most-watched the week of November 20, when it won out over CNN and MSNBC in total eyeballs.”
How The Holdovers (2023) achieved the look of film.
Norman Jewison, director of films including Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and Moonstruck (1987), died on Saturday, January 20. R.I.P.
Cher: “Without U,I Would Not Have My Beautiful Golden Man.”
[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]
Fallen Leaves (dir. Aki Kaurismäki, January 5):
Sad and sweet and heartwarming, spare like all of Kaurismäki’s work, a romantic comedy without all that much comedy (the funny moments all have a twinge of pain to them). Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) are two very decent and very lonely people who have been ground down by life; their economic precarity is both symptom and cause, and one item on the long list of things in their way is themselves. They meet, and they discover something worth fighting for, something worth changing their lives for, and they manage, however slightly, to get out of their own ways for once. Tropes became tropes because they’re effective. [Every time I’ve thought of this since seeing it I’ve smiled. I’ve also listened to the Finnish cover of “Early Morning Rain” it uses a lot. —Steve]
The Zone of Interest (dir. Jonathan Glazer, January 26):
Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) have created what is on its surface a very nice life for themselves. He is the commandant at Auschwitz, and their life requires them not just to overlook that in the abstract but to overlook what it means to live at such a place, with its endless stench of burning flesh and constant roar of the furnaces punctuated by occasional gunshots. Sometimes human bones wash up in the river where their kids swim and fish.
This is not quite a film about the banality of evil. It is a film about the problems of a bourgeois marriage. And it subverts this, most obviously in who the couple are, but also by flipping the common trope where the man’s need to provide for the woman leads him to resent her. Here, the problem is not money—in fact, Hedwig is angry when her husband gets promoted because the promotion would require them to move. She forces him to talk his bosses into letting his family stay while he moves so that she can remain, to use his words, “the Queen of Auschwitz,” where she can take whatever she wants from the belongings of those sent there.
Near the end, Höss, whose (there’s no way to say this that isn’t shocking in its bloodlessness) superior technical and management abilities get him sent back to Auschwitz to oversee the extermination of the Jews of Hungary, finds himself at a lavish party in his honor that he aimlessly wanders around, hopelessly alone. It’s a variation on Burt Lancaster at the end of The Leopard (1963), if significantly shorter and not up to the standard of one of the greatest hours of film ever made. There is no room for Höss in the coming world because his side is losing the war and his crimes will be regarded with horror, as the film indicates by inserting a scene from the modern-day museum at Auschwitz into Höss’s drifting through the party. But even before that defeat he can’t find purpose in the world around him. He has created a machine for death, and the machine he created does not need him.
Freud’s Last Session (dir. Matt Brown, January 26):
A few weeks before his death, Sigmund Freud met with a young Oxford don. This film wonders: what if that don were C. S. Lewis?
Here, Freud (Anthony Hopkins) and Lewis (Matthew Goode) spend a whole day together arguing about the existence of God while doing something in between reminiscing on their lives and frantically trying to justify to the other that their religious and philosophical views are not just coping mechanisms suited for the life each has lived. (Much of this takes place in a number of flashbacks of extremely varying quality.) Occasionally present throughout the day is Freud’s daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), who is more of an indication of the way Freud treats people than a person herself. It’s fun when it’s on if you like hearing zingers about these subjects—if you wanted to score the argument you’d probably give it to Freud, probably because, as good as Matthew Goode is, he’s up against Anthony Hopkins.
Strangely, this movie looks atrocious in the way that blockbuster action movies that need to cover up bad effects work do—muddy and dark all the time. It’s hard to fathom why.
Fitting In (dir. Molly McGlynn, February 2):
Lindy (Maddie Ziegler) is a normal teenage girl who discovers that she has MRKH syndrome, meaning that she has no uterus and her vagina is not fully developed. In other words (the words in which she finds this relevant to her life) she can’t have sex. Much of this is an exercise in box-checking the high school experience, but Lindy’s condition (which writer-director McGlynn shares) allows for teenage awkwardness about sex, having it, and not having it to be taken as far as it will possibly go.
The Book of Clarence (dir. Jeymes Samuel, January 12):
Life of Brian (1979), the film that might be most like this, came out 45 years ago. Ben-Hur (1959) came out 65 years ago. This is a throwback to the days where there were films about people who found their lives ever so slightly adjacent to the life of Jesus. (It’s also a throwback in having a plot that requires decent familiarity with the Gospels to make any sense.) Why Jeymes Samuel wanted to do something as out of fashion as this is clear enough: he had so many ideas for this kind of sword-and-sandal parody, from the overarching—the Romans are white, the Jews are black—to the throwaway—one truly hilarious shot reinterpreting Leonardo’s The Last Supper. Unfortunately, while much of this is funny independently it doesn’t cohere at all. The plot is mostly an excuse to get all the ideas in, but LaKeith Stanfield in his performance as both Clarence, who decides to become a false messiah to pay off his massive debts, and his twin brother, the disciple Thomas, tries hard to hold it all together.
The Beekeeper (dir. David Ayer, January 12):
The titular beekeeper (Jason Statham) beats up some dudes real good. The dudes are annoying hustle culture grifters and scammers who deserve it, and the corruption goes all the way to the top. This is one of those bad action films where what the choice of villains says about societal attitudes is more interesting than the film itself. [As always, I am judging action on the John Wick scale, and, because that franchise has raised the bar so high, basically nothing else in the genre coming out can compete. —Steve]
I.S.S. (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, January 19):
Three Russians and three Americans are on board the International Space Station when nuclear war breaks out below. If you imagine that this is an episode of The Twilight Zone you can imagine what happens next, but episodes of The Twilight Zone aren’t 90 minutes long for a reason. Like The Beekeeper, the views and attitudes animating this film are the most interesting thing about it. [Nic’s review goes into detail on the geopolitical situation in the movie, the geopolitical situation in the real world, and how that changed while the film was in production. —Steve]
Fighter (dir. Siddharth Anand, January 26):
Indian Top Gun (1986). Like American Top Gun, it’s not actually good, but there’s a lot of good stupid fun (if significantly less homoerotic). Unlike American Top Gun, all the shots of planes in the air look like video games. Like American Top Gun, it’s extremely patriotic, so much so that the military helped the film get made. Unlike American Top Gun, this manifests itself not in defeating an unidentified enemy but in humiliating the evil Pakistanis, culminating in a threat by our hero that India will occupy the entirety of their country. [Note: Pakistan has nuclear weapons. —Steve]
Origin (dir. Ava DuVernay, January 19):
It is typical of this film’s intellectual engagement that it proves to its satisfaction that the Holocaust and Jim Crow laws had similar purposes by showing that Nazi race laws were influenced by Jim Crow laws. The film considers this enough to dismiss the argument (made within the film) that subjugation and genocide are not the same thing. Whether it would be enough to dismiss the argument that the tyranny of racialized chattel slavery in the American South and the tyranny of extermination in Hitler’s Germany emerged at different times and places in the context of different modes of production and different ideological and intellectual trends aimed at their justification, and, further, that these differences led to the creation of different structures of oppression with different aims—it’s impossible to say, since the film never considers the possibility.
Argylle (dir. Matthew Vaughn, February 2):
Have you ever heard a story told by a small child under the impression that coming up with an endless series of nonsensical twists is equivalent to good storytelling? Have you ever seen images where the sloppy compositing work and terrible CGI backgrounds make it immediately obvious that the people in the images were not actually in the locations shown?
Mean Girls (dir. Samantha Jayne, Arturo Perez Jr., January 12):
Desecrating a corpse is a crime.
[I’m not doing any Oscars discourse here. If you want to know what films nominated for Best Picture from last year are worth seeking out: Barbie, The Holdovers, Killers of the Flower Moon, Oppenheimer, and Past Lives. —Steve]
on the search for “a Godzilla of 9/11”:And besides, the questions raised by Rachel’s post are good ones: Has the U.S. made a “decent 9/11 movie”? If not, why not? What would make for a “decent” 9/11 movie? And, genuinely, what does it tell us about 9/11 that the answers to this question are not immediately obvious?
Jacob Savage on the state of movie criticism:
This anesthetized language, divorced from aesthetic experience, is antithetical to the spirit of art. Were any of these movies beautiful? Did they make the critic feel something? Or did they just check the right boxes?
[Mote, beam, et cetera. You can’t say that other critics are saying a bunch of glib nothings about films in a piece throughout which you constantly say glib nothings about the same films. For example: would you know from reading this that The Fabelmans (2022) is the sort of film in which the stand-in character for a teenage Steven Spielberg, while editing the film from a family vacation in order to make home movies, discovers that his mother is committing adultery? Would you know that he puts together a film containing only the evidence of her affair and forces her to watch it? Or does Spielberg “have nothing left to say”? Is it “a charming nostalgia piece”? —Steve]
Movies across the decades:
Mean Girls (dir. Mark Waters, 2004)
[Since I discovered to my shock last month that “the original Mean Girls is good” was a controversial position in the WRB Slack, I feel the need to write in defense of it. —Steve]