WRB—Oct. 2023 Film Supplement
Prince Ham of Denmark
There are more things in the Washington Review of Books, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
[I guess this is the Kenneth Branagh and Shakespeare edition. Plenty of references to and discussion of both, sometimes together, sometimes not. A thank you to Grace Derksen for suggesting the above riff on “There are more things in heaven and earth.” —Steve]
Adelle Lutz: JoAnne Akalaitis was a theater director that came out of Mabou Mines. And she was the one who said, “I think we should put an armchair and a lamp there” for “(Naive Melody).” So David sat down in the chair and [said], “Excuse me, this is a rock ’n’ roll show.” It killed it. So funny. And so later, I said, “I think you have to lose that armchair, but you should do something with the lamp.”
Tina Weymouth: He was watching old Fred Astaire films. In one film, Royal Wedding, he’s falling in love with the girl and he does an ecstatic dance with a coatrack. For this one song, David wanted to create the atmosphere of home. He thought a lamp would be appropriate, and he could do these dances. I mean, if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. So it is also an homage. It’s a synthesis of our pop culture.
[The WRB Film Supplement will have more on Stop Making Sense next month in Movies across the decades.]
Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting sued Paramount this year for abuse on account of Franco Zeffirelli’s handling of the nude scene in Romeo and Juliet (1968). Lila Shapiro profiles them and their lawyer in Vulture:
When I asked Hussey how she felt about the nude scene today, she took a tiny sip of water. “I’m getting hot, thinking of it. It’s ridiculous,” she said. She recalled the words Zeffirelli had used to pressure her into taking off her clothes: “We want young people to love it 50 years from now when we’re all dead or old. And what do young people love? They love passion. They love youth. Naked bodies.” “Things which I understand as a person that understands art,” she continued. She’d never been in bed with a boy before or naked in front of one, and she was terrified. “But when you’re acting, you always pretend everything is fine,” she said. After she finished shooting that day, she went into her dressing room and locked the door. She thought about what her devout Catholic mother would say. “I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I started to cry, and I cried and I cried. I cried for a good 15 minutes,” she said. “Everything I felt came out then.” All these years later, Hussey can’t quite banish the thought that she was somehow to blame for the shame she carried from the set. “If I’d had a body like a model, maybe it would’ve been a lot easier,” she said. “But I loved to eat. I had a tummy, I was round. I was a typical teenager, but my breasts were like 34D. So after that, I just always felt I had to be thinner, I had to be thinner.”
After some mid-career wandering in the wilderness, Kenneth Branagh has found something good in Hercule Poirot. In Paste, Jesse Hassenger explores why the material might appeal to Branagh:
Why, then, are Branagh’s Poirot movies so satisfying? Why are there already three of them? Why did the gentleman seated next to me at a healthily attended public preview screening of A Haunting in Venice literally rub his hands together with glee when seemingly supernatural trappings appeared to emerge? Subliminally, maybe it has to do with Branagh’s Shakespeare experience: Though the human-condition truths are less profound, these are recognizable tales, obviously attractive to talented actors, penned in a specific kind of language, albeit in a cozier idiom than the Bard. In practice, though, these movies harken back to the Old Hollywood drunkenness of Dead Again, Branagh’s sophomore-feature follow-up to Henry V. That 1991 film is more of a self-consciously Hitchcockian pastiche of noir and romance, bolder and more brazen in its ridiculousness than the Poirot mysteries. It’s also one of Branagh’s grand cinematic gestures that doesn’t feel strained; Branagh, then a next-gen cock of the walk, is evidently confident in his crowd-pleasing abilities.
Many of the great genres of the 1990s have fallen on hard times. In GQ, Gabriella Paiella pleads for one of them, the legal thriller, to make a comeback:
The time is ripe. Nineties nostalgia is stronger than ever. And Hollywood seems to be underestimating young people’s appetite for solid adult stories. Even Gen Z is proving to be legally-minded, whether it’s watching 12 Angry Men in snippets on TikTok (true story) or obsessing over the court reporter covering the Tory Lanez trial. The 2010s legal drama Suits somehow became the most-watched show of the summer. As for plot, no need for a reboot. In the past 30 years, America has generated more than enough social issues to tackle in the fictional courtroom, whether it’s gerrymandering, environmental scandal, or the actual president getting arrested. But, to be fair, Grisham is still churning them out—and even has a sequel to The Firm, titled The Exchange: After The Firm, publishing this October.
Even more than The Big Chill, Forrest Gump uses pop music as an all-purpose balm, but the cues are so relentlessly literal-minded that they skirt self-parody: “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” over images of girls with flowers in their hair; “Everybody’s Talkin’” behind a shot-for-shot reprise of Midnight Cowboy (1969), and so on. If The Big Chill tried to flatter its target audience by affirming (rather than examining) their slightly retro musical tastes, Forrest Gump’s soundtrack is like a reverse Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange (1971); instead of using brutal visuals in counterpoint to Beethoven to make the latter’s symphonies unpalatable, it effectively airbrushes and/or whitewashes the major talking points of twentieth-century history by reducing them to miniature episodes of Pop-Up video. The semiotic shorthand ranges from clever to appalling, with Forrest ultimately achieving prophet status by observing that “shit happens”— “bumper sticker wisdom,” as per Showgirls (1995), except that Zemeckis, whose direction suggests a former Steven Spielberg protege brainwashed into thinking he’s the real thing, appears to be aiming for profundity. But the message is as anodyne—and insidious—as the absolution encoded into Billy Joel’s 1989 hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire”: in a world where, to quote more bumper sticker wisdom, “life is like a box of chocolates,” the only thing to do is stand beside the inferno and make s’mores.
Had Lost in Translation been made 10 years later, Charlotte’s glassy-eyed ennui would probably have been expressed very differently—perhaps via social media updates—and she definitely would have been shown scrolling on her phone at some point. The technology in Lost in Translation is dated—fax machines and flip phones, plus key plot points delivered into answering machines—but the visual and tonal vocabulary looks retrospectively ahead of its time: There’s something palpably proto-Instagram-ish about some of Coppola’s compositions, a by-product of her aforementioned curatorial sensibility. Even more than wealth, what those steel-and-glass hotel interiors convey is a feeling of being on display at all times, whether one wants to be or not.
Marwood says that his heart “beats like a fucked clock” while comparing Withnail to “a stopped clock.” Only one has the capacity to move forward. In an early draft, Withnail poured the last of his stolen Margaux ’53 into a double-barreled shotgun and fired it into his mouth, but the filmed ending is somehow bleaker than suicide. Seen without Marwood—the I and the eye—for the first and last time, he delivers a soused soliloquy from Hamlet to an audience of wolves against a backcloth of rain. At last we see that all along he had the talent and the soul of a tragedian but, to quote Marwood, he has made an enemy of his own future.
In Metrograph,reviews Fear and Desire (1952):
So, like its characters, Fear and Desire is a sort of fugitive film, disowned by its maker and shrugged off by one of the country’s most prominent critics. Viewed outside of Kubrick’s career, which it hardly ever is, it’s a powerful anti-war film, in that it shows the ways war turns ordinary men into murderers and turns them against themselves. Four soldiers find themselves stranded in enemy territory after their plane crashes. There are Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp), Sergeant Mac (Frank Silvera), Private Fletcher (Steve Coit), and Private Sidney. Corby is ironic, pragmatic, and patrician. Mac is a gritty grunt whose survivalist mentality takes a self-sacrificing heroic swerve. Sidney is the raw recruit who cracks up. They build a raft and abandon it, capture a native peasant girl (Virginia Leith in a sublime single-syllable performance), and stage a pair of ambushes against the enemy. Released at the time of the Korean War and shot in the San Gabriel Mountains of California, the film presents itself in an opening voiceover as an abstract tale, set in no specific time or place but only in “the mind.” It partakes less of the valor associated with filmic depictions of World War II or of the paranoia of movies about the Korean War than it does of the spirit that would come to animate many retrospective visions of the Vietnam War. What are the psychological conditions that lead to atrocity?
In our sister publication in the Big Apple, Adam Kirsch reviews Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy: Three Colors: Blue (1993), Three Colors: White (1994), and Three Colors: Red (1994):
Nostalgia for religion isn’t the same as actual belief, however, and Red, the last film in the trilogy, asks what kind of faith is still plausible at the end of the twentieth century. Is it possible to believe that our lives are subject to providence, or is the world governed by randomness? Valentine’s story is full of fateful meetings and near misses that send her life, and the lives that intersect with hers, onto different courses. The most momentous coincidence comes at the very end, when she boards a ferry across the English Channel that sinks in an unexpected storm. Some fifteen hundred people are killed and just seven survive—including Valentine and the main characters from Blue and White, who have all ended up on the same doomed ship.
Godard is not completely innocent of objectifying Bardot. He is well aware that a certain portion of his audience will be instantly charmed by her. But he also knows that desire grows when the object of desire is partially concealed and just beyond reach. Camille’s elusive personality, her inscrutable thoughts, and her literal distance from view (the film has few closeups) make her enticing but also frustrating to the prurient moviegoer. In one scene, Godard films Bardot’s face, in profile, immaculate before a clear background, as she utters one obscenity after another in a flat tone: a dissonance meant to disturb the viewer. In this and other scenes Bardot is able, in flashes, to escape objectification. The viewer is able to see a complete yet unknowable character, at the center of the drama. Bardot also makes the world around her more interesting. A beautiful thing, Elaine Scarry argues, creates a “lateral regard” for the objects around it. Those smitten by Bardot’s performance have their focus turned toward all that surrounds her—a world of high culture not completely dominated by the profit motive.
[I am tentatively planning to have more on Contempt, as well as some other movies about making movies, in December’s Movies across the decades. We’ll see. Here’s a glimpse behind the curtain. —Steve]
An interview with Richard Linklater: “So, on the one hand, selfishly, you think, ‘I guess I was born at the right time. I was able to participate in what always feels like the last good era for filmmaking.’ And then you hope for a better day. But, man, the way distribution has fallen off. Sadly, it’s mostly just the audience. Is there a new generation that really values cinema anymore? That’s the dark thought.”
Steven Soderbergh keeps diaries of his culture consumption.
“Are they going to kill me and destroy my soul? Is Kevin Feige a bad man?” [Nia DaCosta] joked. “And they were like, ‘No, he’s just a good guy who was a nerd.’”
“Every John Wick Kill, Ranked” [I love it when an article is aimed directly at me. —Steve]
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 go see. —Steve]
The Origin of Evil (dir. Sébastien Marnier, September 22):
This has been promoted as another in the series of “eat the rich” movies, which does it a disservice. [Regular readers will know that I am sick and tired of this genre. —Steve] Yes, the family at the center is rich, but the money just gives them something to fight about. They’d be fighting anyway. If anything, much of this movie is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. There’s even a shot where a clock takes up almost the entire frame. That the aging and dying of a member of the family—in this case the patriarch (Jacques Weber)—allows for a series of recriminations, some incredibly venal, is reminiscent of Cries and Whispers (1972) and Autumn Sonata (1978). And the identity theft that allows a recently released convict (Laure Calamy) to become a part of the family is made possible through a lesbian relationship with the person whose identity she has stolen (Suzanne Clément) in a regularization of the nightmare logic of Persona (1966). And, to drive home that connection, an identical speech is given by both characters at one point. Maybe this is part of the “eat the rich” genre, but it’s one of the best because, under that surface, it is universal.
A Haunting in Venice (dir. Kenneth Branagh, September 15):
Just a little bit above competent in every area, and that will take you far. Postwar Venice looks noble but decrepit, as it should. Kenneth Branagh shows off a little bit behind the camera with fisheyes and angles and one shot that ends with the camera upside down, but it’s pretty restrained from a man not known for that. He does his bad Belgian accent, but he’s earned it and it works. It’s not Poirot—of course it isn’t—it’s Branagh playing Poirot.
And the movie takes death quite seriously, more than most murder mysteries do. The Second World War looms over the proceedings, especially in a doctor (Jamie Dornan) suffering from PTSD after liberating a concentration camp and two Romani orphans (Ali Khan, Emma Laird) recently in a displaced persons camp. What is this movie about? It’s about letting Branagh ham it up, but it’s also a melancholy meditation on survivors’ guilt, and those two sides fit together better than they should.
The Kill Room (dir. Nicol Paone, September 29):
Takes shots all over the place at the art world and some of them hit. It probably is that narcissistic and that desperate to pretend one of its main uses is not money laundering. [I wouldn’t know. I only edit a books and culture newsletter. —Steve] The plot makes no sense, not least because it seems unlikely that a hitman (Joe Manganiello) would be such a nice guy. But funny things keep happening and the art world keeps on coming in for the beating it deserves. And it has Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson in it. That’s worked before.
Jawan (dir. Atlee, September 7):
In substance this is a rote Bollywood action movie. People who like that sort of thing will find it the sort of thing they like.
[I do, more or less, like that sort of thing. It’s fun in a way Western movies basically never are. (That said, I watched Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) a couple weeks ago, and its approach to slamming in a bunch of tunes from the Great American Songbook does have something in common with Bollywood.) But what struck me most was a disconnect between the movie’s text and symbolism. The text is very nationalist, something along the lines of "the Indian Army deserves all kinds of success against the evil terrorists across the border but is being betrayed by corrupt defense contractors who are more concerned with enriching themselves." But one of the heroes (Shah Rukh Khan) is a man whom the authorities railroad with false accusations before he dies in disgrace as a traitor. In the process he receives five wounds, here from bullets. Turns out he actually isn't dead. When he comes back he shows a guy the wounds to prove he is who he says he is. This is all of course very Christian. It’s also the director’s first movie in Hindi: his previous films were in Tamil. I don’t know what to make of all this, but I found it fascinating. —Steve]
The Equalizer 3 (dir. Antoine Fuqua, September 1):
A movie about when violence is justified, which could be interesting but isn’t because it never puts Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) in any particularly difficult situations. He makes one choice, regrets it, makes the other choice, and it all works out. But to see Denzel Washington do this is to watch a man who commands the screen like few others ever have.
The Creator (dir. Gareth Edwards, September 29):
Nothing in this movie is original—it’s all cobbled together from Avatar or any of the movies about Vietnam that Avatar drew on—but the formula still has some life in it. Not very much life: John David Washington turns in a completely unmemorable performance as the main character Joshua, although the script is so rote that it’s hard to see how he could have improved on it. The story of how a man went native to join the “mystic East” to resist the “violent West” has been done better, and making the East a place where man and AI live in harmony does not solve the fundamental problems in storytelling.
Speaking of the East: everything set out in nature (and shot on location) is some of the best-looking work of the year. The whole movie is, really, although scenes indoors tend to be very dark in a way that detracts from that quality. And it only cost $80 million. Many movies this year have spent far more money to look far worse. It would be good if this served as a turning point.
[One strange thing: the obvious point of the movie is that the side that thinks AI is human is good, and the side that thinks AI is robots and programming is bad. We can understand why the studios want to promote this message. (I wanted to cheer every time the Americans used their bomb-dropping space station to rain fire on Team AI. Is this what being a neocon feels like? It was so much fun.) But at the end, Joshua meets an AI version of his dead wife (Gemma Chan) on the space station right before it plunges down to earth, and he is happy. I’ve seen this movie before: it’s Solaris (1972). And there, the return of the wife, or something like her, from the dead, and the man’s choice to be happy with it, is a broken man choosing to turn away from life on Earth and live within his memories, not caring that it’s something produced by Solaris and not the real thing. For a movie otherwise as black and white as it gets, it’s a shocking note of ambiguity. —Steve]
The Retirement Plan (dir. Tim Brown, September 15):
[This does not really have anything particular to recommend it, although I did laugh at the scene in which a goon who has kidnapped a kid gets offended that the kid assumes that he, because of his profession, is unfamiliar with Shakespeare. But I liked seeing my friend Nicolas Cage overact his way through a passable action movie. —Steve]
PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie (dir. Cal Brunker, September 29):
Uninspired even by the low standards of modern kids’ movies, but it’s fine. There’s a moral. The wink early on to the adults where a character notes that it’s absurd for a bunch of dogs to be a city’s emergency response system is gratuitous. Everyone knows that already. Pointing it out does not make you intelligent.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (dir. Aitch Alberto, September 8):
This is an adaptation of a YA book. This is obvious from the title. And it is obvious from the plot—as you may have guessed, Aristotle (Max Pelayo) and Dante (Reese Gonzales) actually discover their sexualities. None of this is any good. But when the camera breaks free of the need to show every plot point and instead sits with the two, as it does when Dante teaches Aristotle how to swim near the beginning, or when they drive out into the desert, it knows exactly how to conjure up that teenage feeling that everything is both unbearably beautiful and unbearably important.
Expend4bles (dir. Scott Waugh, September 22):
Apparently making this required $100 million. None of it is visible on screen. The action scenes look like no one cared, probably because no one cared. The choreography is bad, and the CGI is worse. At least Jason Statham and Megan Fox gesture at something in their portrayal of two people who are toxic both with and without each other. And Levy Tran makes a couple striking faces.
Dumb Money (dir. Craig Gillespie, September 15):
A few moments of pandemic life (for example, commenting on seeing someone else’s unmasked face while pumping gas) are preserved here. The remainder of the movie is dedicated to falsifying what happened with GameStop stock early in 2021 to make it a story of the people against the powerful. It declines to mention that there were hedge funds long on GameStop as well as short, or that some retail investors bought in near the top and lost a lot of money. The Winklevoss twins, recently in the news and devoted to crypto, were executive producers. Why would someone in the crypto space be interested in portraying these events in this fashion? Who knows!
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 (dir. Nia Vardalos, September 8):
A very good study of the psychic space taken up by “the homeland” in the minds of certain white ethnics. A very bad movie.
But the strategy can be surprisingly effective on tentpole releases, for which studios can leverage the growing universe of fan-run websites, whose critics are generally more admiring of comic-book movies than those who write for mainstream outlets. (No offense to comicbookmovie.com.) For example, in February, the Tomatometer score for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania debuted at 79 percent based on its first batch of reviews. Days later, after more critics had weighed in, its rating sank into the 40s. But the gambit may have worked. Quantumania had the best opening weekend of any movie in the Ant-Man series, at $106 million. In its second weekend, with its rottenness more firmly established, the film’s grosses slid 69 percent, the steepest drop-off in Marvel history.
The digital era was supposed to leave the answer to that question—just how much do you want to watch?—up to you, not the vicissitudes of licensing agreements. That’s one reason Ryan Godfrey has held on to Netflix’s DVD service, even as its importance to his overall viewing has diminished. “Now, we have this explosion of available movies, and it’s not so crucial,” he says. “Most things you can find online if you subscribe to enough services and/or are willing to rent them. But that’s not everything.” In his final months of Netflix-by-mail, Godfrey has been concentrating particularly on movies that aren’t available online, like Greek director Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses’ Gaze, starring Harvey Keitel, and Why Change Your Wife?, a Cecil B. DeMille comedy from 1920 starring Gloria Swanson. Technically speaking, the latter is available on YouTube in a blotchy public-domain transfer, but it pales beside the DVD version from 2005, a moment when the flood of money to the home-video market spawned a flood of archival restorations that would be all but impossible now. (The dwindling of physical media has also all but killed the market for supplementary features like director commentaries, which many filmmakers who came up during home video’s peak have called the equivalent of going to film school for free.) Netflix’s physical catalog may have dwindled dramatically, but they still have “all these 20-year-old DVDs that the long tail determined someone was going to want,” Godfrey says. “And it’s true, because I want them.”
Ian Wang on Past Lives (2023):
Ironically, it is Arthur, the film’s only white character, openly voicing his worries that he is ‘the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny’, who seems most like a recognisable, specific person. He comes across as spineless, yes, but his racialised self-pity is believable in a way that Nora’s prim civility is not. In his wounded candor he is more of a nuanced character than the film’s East Asian protagonists. The film is an archetypal example of East Asian diaspora cinema’s likeability problem: any opportunity for a character to become morally or emotionally unappealing, and thereby more realistic, is immediately quashed for fear of unsettling audiences, until they are sandpapered down into nothing.
[This is the correct critique to make, but I’m not convinced Nora and Hae Sung are likable—like Wang notes in his last paragraph, it’s quite possible to read the film such that they’re not likable at all, and I found the film’s power to come in part from that ambiguity. —Steve]
We must try to talk about the viewer, about the original viewer. The one we call childish, who goes to the movies to be entertained, to have a good time, and who only gets that far. This viewer is the one responsible for the older cinema. The most "educated" of all viewers. In fact, he's the one who was taught in his youth that the function of movies was to entertain, that you went in particular to forget. When this viewer, this original viewer, goes into a movie house, it's to flee what's outside, the street, the crowd, to escape himself, to enter into something else, the film, to lose the part of him concerned with work, studies, the couple, relationships, the part that is repeated every day. He has gone no further since childhood, and similarly that's where he still is, in cinematographic childhood.
With more time to go to the big screen in the last few years, I have started to learn what film can really be. And I realise, my grandmothers came from a culture that had something akin to the fiction of Dickens. They knew all the classics, saw them together, shared them. They kept going back to them on those long retired afternoons because they had been alive at a time when this great art was fresh.
Movies across the decades:
Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare:
Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996)
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