We’re Not Ugly People

The movies can put a positive spin on anything. Seeing the world anew, or for the first time, becomes an allegory of motherhood and childhood in Room, which puts its protagonist (Brie Larson) in a situation not unlike Matt Damon’s in The Martian, but Earthbound, and worse.

Oscar Movies, 2016

Still from Joy.

The Martian

A children’s movie about how great science is, The Martian has a pragmatic message for budding astronauts: you solve one problem, then another, and see if you survive. The film’s obsession with years-long plans imparts a Soviet feel to the space program depicted, but its sunny optimism keeps the movie all-American. Not once do we believe The Martian will end with a shot of Matt Damon’s skeleton half-buried in sand. Maybe the film is so bright because the days are thirty-nine minutes longer on Mars than on Earth, the same thirty-nine minutes that should have been cut from this Friday-less Robinson Crusoe. Kristen Wiig, however, is on hand to show that girls aren’t into The Lord of the Rings.

Ridley Scott’s backlot Mars offers a parable for New Yorkers considering the move to LA. Once you relocate, you’re stranded, and the chances of getting home are remote. Yes, you’ll have a vegetable garden you can sit near and watch the beautiful sunsets, but you’ll be alone, 50 million miles from your loved ones. You’ll conduct your social life via text and Skype, make trips to the desert in your electric car. You’ll continue to shave every day on the off chance you get a meeting.


Room

The movies can put a positive spin on anything. Seeing the world anew, or for the first time, becomes an allegory of motherhood and childhood in Room, which puts its protagonist (Brie Larson) in a situation not unlike Matt Damon’s in The Martian, but earthbound, and worse. If The Martian is a friendly version of dark Ridley Scott sci-fi, Room domesticates repugnant horror with spiritual uplift. Held hostage in a shed with the 5-year-old she’s had with her rapist captor, “Ma” becomes a stand-in for every young mother isolated by child care, chained by domestic servitude, and abused at night by a man who’s out all day in a world she may never see again. This dismal parody of heterosexual coupling reinforces the idea that it’s time to have families in some new way.


45 Years

A tour de force of subtlety and restraint, 45 Years is the perfect movie to see alone if you’ve just broken up with someone and want confirmation it was a good idea. No need to waste decades in coupledom if all it amounts to is an unnoticed gesture of frustrated defiance. The film saves that moment for its last shot, which isn’t quite the indictment it’s meant to be. That’s because the film stacks the deck against Tom Courtenay’s character, a retiree recovering from a heart attack. Courtenay’s performance is a model of invisible acting, even when he’s doddering or fumbling an important speech at a party, but the film belongs to Charlotte Rampling, a star presence who can command the screen just by watching the passing landscape from a boat.


The Big Short

The performances in The Big Short are carried by wigs, makeup, and bad suits, like in a silent comedy. Adam McKay, Will Ferrell’s director, cuts away from everyone’s big moments in their big scenes, almost walking away from them. Christian Bale, with a fake glass eye to go with his wig, moves the film along by himself for large chunks of it, often by air drumming, despite the large cast of Hollywood dudes giving it to hedge funders by playing them as self-deluded slickster oafs who will never be Ryan Gosling or Brad Pitt, no matter how many billions they sock away.

The explanatory cameos by Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez, and Richard Thaler barely work, and the Margot Robbie one is a sarcastic wink-wink insult to the audience that almost sinks the whole movie while, at the same time, referring to The Wolf of Wall Street, a better film than this. Even though McKay gives the impression he is using recognizable forms of infotainment to educate us, the film doesn’t do that—it’s barely in the form of a movie. This disrespect is what makes The Big Short so satisfying. It jeers at and burlesques Wall Street for letting the crash happen, using Michael Lewis’s book to show there were people who knew it was going to happen. Its slapdash quality reinforces the idea that it needed to be made.


Joy

A fairy tale of lean-in capitalism about a Cinderella without a prince, David O. Russell’s Joy recasts the crazy family of a Capra comedy with stellar toxicity. Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence’s) undermining relatives are the selfish American clan par excellence, claiming to know everything about Joy’s business while undermining her future. Robert De Niro and Isabella Rossellini, playing evil-universe versions of themselves as Joy’s father and stepmother, delight in their performances as fickle scoffers.

Joy is a natural inventor prone to epiphanies about household products—the film could be called A Beautiful Mop. Her ingenuity and tenacity save her from a life of drudgery, though by the end her victory seems hollow. The film, busy with fake TV soap operas and flashbacks, doesn’t imagine another life for her, except maybe settling down with a cable-TV executive (Bradley Cooper) who lectures her and is wrong half the time. The mitigating factors in her struggle are that she can turn a profit, employ her friends, and help younger women manufacture improved lint brushes. Set in the early 1990s, Joy suggests these were the consolations working-class Gen X could hope for.


Steve Jobs

A series of epic walk-and-talks about the future retconned to be 100 percent correct because they’re about our present. For example, the Amazing Steve predicts that journalism will change because of computers. (He says that in 1998, the same year Aaron Sorkin found out.) By the end, when Super Steve tells his estranged daughter he will invent the iPod for her, the movie is indistinguishable from a TV commercial. They should have given Steve Jobs away for free without anyone asking for it, like that U2 album. That way people (users) might have watched it by accident.


Sicario

A nasty film about the drug war on the US-Mexico border that flirts with fascism and artiness, succumbing to the former. The film suggests that the best way for Donald Trump to convince the Mexican government to pay for building a wall would be to tell them it would keep out the CIA.

Benicio del Toro, maybe the last actor from the Robert Mitchum mold, plays an Agency-backed hit man with blasé menace. Del Toro, like Mitchum, is a strange, often indifferent actor who apparently spins a wheel of fortune to choose his roles. Once he settles on one, he’s either good or bad in it depending on something no one can figure out, maybe if work starts on a Tuesday. It doesn’t matter who directs him. In films by auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson and Arnaud Desplechin he can range from okay to not good, and then in an overblown thriller like this he shows up with something to prove. In some scenes he stares at Emily Blunt like he’s reminding her she is not an American and doesn’t work for the FBI, she’s just a movie star playing a cop.


The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper knows that eyes are important in cinema, so he has directed the actors in The Danish Girl to search the corners of rooms with their glances like they can’t find their keys or a mouse just ran by. He makes them doll-like, ventriloquist’s dummies, and when they talk to each other they converse in need-speak, like they are explaining which line to get into at the DMV. The film begins in 1925, so Hooper has imparted a silent-movie feel to The Danish Girl. Everyone in this movie’s Europe has been hypnotized by Dr. Caligari or tortured like Joan of Arc. Eddie Redmayne, as Lili, plays along, his coyness telegraphing femininity. He puts a flower between his teeth like Chaplin and seems forever on the verge of picking up two forks and sticking them into dinner rolls to make them dance. Since the film is about painters, Hooper hired Jan Vermeer to be his cinematographer.


Ex Machina

Women’s captivity is the great theme of most of 2015’s Oscar-nominated films, and Ex Machina is the most basic and manipulative of these, the tale of a hapless john sent on a bizarre mission by a pimp to see if he can free his whore. The sordidness is made oblique because the characters are a programmer, a genius CEO, and a pixie android, and it’s set in a sterile underground lab. This Taxi Driver for nerds is heavy with the fear of superwomen empowered by data-driven emotional intelligence and synthetic physical perfection, and hence able to outflank male idiots savants. Ex Machina succeeds as a mindfuck stage play for three actors, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander, who were in a total of about a dozen films this year, all less weird and talky than this one. The unavoidable onslaught of virtual reality and artificial intelligence will make stories like this ever more relatable to lonely techies in search of mechanical love in robot form, but not to me. There’s not even room in my apartment for a vacuum cleaner.


Creed

Nothing better could have been expected from the seventh film in the Rocky franchise than this flight from Hollywood back to Philadelphia. The savvy, intelligence, and heart of director Ryan Coogler’s screenplay equals his achievement in getting an assignment like this after making Fruitvale Station in Oakland at age 26. Boxing movies come with built-in emotional manipulation, and this one is no exception, establishing a family for Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) by bringing back a Rocky Balboa stricken with lymphoma. Stallone will go down in movie history as the only star of his generation willing to make way for Millennials and for black America like this.

Michael B. Jordan’s Donnie, a pro-am boxer, rejects his status as the son of Rocky’s rival, Apollo Creed, and exiles himself to working-class Philadelphia, where he cajoles Rocky into training him. When he finally puts on his father’s red-white-and-blue trunks before the big fight, the moment is hokey but astute. He’s forced to imitate a father who didn’t raise him and who is not there to see what’s he made of himself. At the movie’s end, Rocky’s illness is left uncured and Donnie isn’t quite a champion, leaving the story ready for an eighth round. The last scene, on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, predicts the ending of Star Wars: The Force Awakens but undercuts its own myth.

It’s clear that Ryan Coogler got cheated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Is there any doubt Creed was as well-directed and well-written as, say, Room? Coming a year after Selma’s Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo were ignored in the Oscar nominations, ignoring Coogler was especially troubling, proof of the problem #OscarsSoWhite exposed—that the Academy consciously ignores black artists. Jada Pinkett Smith’s viral video about her husband Will Smith’s lack of a nomination for Concussion was justified, even if Janet Hubert’s response video, reminding Smith that years ago he had refused to stand with other cast members of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when they wanted a raise, exposed Smith as also a victim of karma. The Academy, after all, started out as a union-busting organization. He should have supported his fellow actors in contract negotiations. Yet Smith had played the Oscar game strictly according to the rules by starring in Concussion. It was a medical drama about a controversial subject written and directed by a conscientious filmmaker, in which Smith had to change his appearance and his accent—pure Oscar bait. If Sandra Bullock was nominated (and won) for The Blind Side, a sappy football drama, Smith deserved at least a nomination for a serious one.

If Will Smith, who has been loyal to Hollywood’s way of doing things—loyal to a fault—can’t get a nomination, what chance did Ryan Coogler have? He made a good sports drama, a big film that made money and that critics liked. The Academy told him only Sylvester Stallone deserved recognition for it, the same way no one but four white screenwriters were recognized for Straight Outta Compton.


Straight Outta Compton

The first half generates excitement as it explores teenage life in 1980s Compton and brings the group together. Then F. Gary Gray’s biopic switches gears and splits Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) into a tripartite version of a Hollywood serious-composer biopic like Rhapsody in Blue. When N.W.A breaks up the film becomes morose, bogged down in cameo parts, recriminations, and ugly management disputes—a history of beefs—before Eazy-E’s sudden illness and death from HIV/AIDS brings it to a close. Eazy-E’s tragedy, treated with the gravity it deserves, is not mitigated by Dre’s success as a businessman or Ice Cube’s prodigiousness. Cube’s dignity and conscience extend to the actor playing him, O’Shea Jackson Jr., his son in real life. Jackson the Younger is a carbon copy of his father who makes him seem even greater than the original; he’s somehow more Cube than Cube. Christopher Wallace Jr. set the precedent for this by playing Biggie as a child in 2009’s Notorious, a film that didn’t get mentioned much in relation to Straight Outta Compton, which was treated as the first biopic to admit rap’s centrality to American culture, maybe because it was from the West Coast.


The Hateful Eight

I used to be a movie theater projectionist and sometimes I have an anxiety dream that I’m back working in the booth. I must have been anxious about seeing The Hateful Eight, because the night before I saw it I had a booth dream.

In the dream, different machines are in the booth with the two regular 35mm projectors: two 16mm projectors set up next to two 70mm projectors, the gauge Tarantino used for The Hateful Eight. These four new projectors crowding the booth—two of them small and two huge—are old models, battered and tarnished. I ask the theater manager why they’re there. He tells me the director of the movie we’re showing has made sections of the film in these three different gauges and the movie is to be projected that way. This director has also specified what make and model of projector each reel must be shown on, down to the year it was made.

As I begin to thread the first reel, I see that the film is old and brittle and has turned pink from age. It has many torn sprockets. I examine it more closely and see it’s not a new movie at all, but a western from the early 1960s by the director Joseph M. Newman. The manager tells me to get going, but when I thread the projector I put a twist in the film, which I notice after I start the movie. I tell the manager it’s going to break, and he says, “Don’t worry. If it breaks we’ll show an old cartoon.”

There were stories in the news about projectionists flying to distant cities to work in booths for The Hateful Eight, valiantly making sure the 70mm roadshow screenings went off without a hitch. When I saw it in 70mm in the East Village, I was happy there weren’t any promos for TV shows before it, or ads for soda, or any trailers at all—they couldn’t show them with a 70mm print. If Tarantino has done anything, he’s given us the experience of watching a new movie by itself, on film, without any extraneous crap beforehand to remind us that movies are part of a universe of media streaming elsewhere. Sitting in that theater watching The Hateful Eight put me in the hundred-year flow of people in big cities watching westerns in movie theaters, dreaming of places without skyscrapers and subways.

The Hateful Eight is a reflective film in which the Hawksian Tarantino reevaluates the unfair comments he made about John Ford when Django came out. Maybe in rewatching some Ford movies featuring John Wayne in preparation for casting Kurt Russell in a role based on Wayne (and on the constructed authority Wayne brought to his characters—an authority that is questioned and then eliminated in The Hateful Eight), Tarantino realized he has more in common with Ford than he thought. Fordian reference abounds: Russell says “that’ll be the day” like John Wayne in The Searchers; Tim Roth’s character is named Mobray, after an actor in My Darling Clementine who, like Roth, plays a part in a saloon; the explanatory flashback subverts the narrative Liberty Valance–style. The film’s letter from Abraham Lincoln, Ford’s touchstone in American history, proves to be false and dangerous, but a beautiful story, held till the end.

Jennifer Jason Leigh spits on that letter. She is the film’s destroyer, a poisoner who exists to upend all the stories men tell each other to justify their violence. A Kali figure of the cinema, Leigh’s Daisy Domergue, with matted hair and blood in her eyes, fights her captivity with a noose around her neck and the severed arm of Russell’s bounty hunter—the arm of the law—dangling from her chains.

I saw The Hateful Eight while the occupation of the National Wildlife Refuge was happening in Oregon. Malheur, close to Hateful in French, was a western, too, with a plot like Tarantino’s. Holed up in the middle of nowhere in winter, a group of armed men telling each other bedtime stories about the Constitution threatened to make a bloody mess. Outside, the nation tore itself apart because a large segment of the population refused to give up old myths. The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s most timely film.


The Revenant

Swinging hard for the visionary and missing, Alejandro González Iñárittu’s Revenant combines Andrei Rublev with Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan, unfurling winter panoramas in natural light and adding CGI animals. The heart of the film, the section in which Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud) after the buffalo stampede, rises above Iñárittu’s gory conception for a moment, before ending in a hanging and a rape, because if we forget this film’s theme for a second we will be snapped back into it as punishment for daydreaming. The rest is a slog, Klondike Kat crossed with a Matthew Barney film, dominated by Tom Hardy’s distracting-entertaining Appalachian accent. One thing is certain: Iñárittu has finally solved the problem of how to film a realistic bear fight. The next cinematic problem he should tackle is screenwriting.


Mad Max: Fury Road

Tinkertoys in a landscape that’s like a painting by Yves Tanguy, while in the foreground the Ed Roth car from the cover of The Birthday Party’s Junk Yard album drives by at 150 miles an hour. The most cartoonish film in a year of films like Warner Brothers cartoons is also one of the best. How? Mad Max: Fury Road is that one-in-a-thousand reboot that will greenlight even more reboots, none of which will justify its existence like this one. Charlize Theron as a one-armed truck driver in post-apocalyptic Australia wears black grease as sunscreen under a buzzcut, a look sufficiently removed from her usual perfume-ad glamour, which is displaced onto the women she is rescuing. Tom Hardy is better muttering than pontificating like he did in The Revenant. The entire cast seems handpicked for a kind of cinematic glory that has little to do with what goes on in other blockbusters. George Miller has done well to stay away from Hollywood and to switch from making animated movies to live-action ones.

Miller also remembered to make the film directly about things, not all subtext begging for explication. The scarcity of water, oil wars, the arms trade, and female emancipation jostle for space with the customized vehicles, coming in and out of focus with the blitz. But when it comes to political subtext, it must be acknowledged that Immortan Joe’s demise was predictable from his water distribution method. Pouring thousands of gallons of water on people’s heads from a great height is not the best way to keep them pacified. Better to sell it to them in plastic bottles for 99 cents each.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Like J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboots, his new Star Wars seems crowdsourced and easy to forget, an app you just closed. Kylo Ren’s mask sticks in my mind because he doesn’t need it and wears it anyway. He’s not a disfigured monster like Darth Vader, he’s handsome Adam Driver dressing up as grandpa on Halloween, preprogrammed for redemption. He’s not evil, he’s just young.


Spotlight

Spotlight joins the thin ranks of good contemporary Boston films (Mystic River, The Fighter) and does them one better by offering an explanation for the dark cloud that hangs over the place like the devil looms over the town in Murnau’s Faust. Set in 2001, during the time of The Boston Globe’s exposé of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church, Spotlight glorifies investigative journalism and newspaper publishing for a world without newsprint. The film is spare and didactic, an instructional film explaining a disappearing profession. The editors and reporters in the film are saints whose personal lives are secondary to their work, and the Boston they work in is institutionally corrupt—cops and the courts stand between them and the truth as much as the Church does.

It captures an essential truth about Boston, that feeling of drabness mixed with hostility and peculiarity anyone that who has ever had to knock on a stranger’s door in that town has felt. The key scene in this regard is the one in which Rachel McAdams stands at the front door of a disgraced priest, who happily admits to his crimes while his sister barks and snipes, shooing McAdams off. I’m sure that woman puts an orange traffic cone in her parking space in May.


Trumbo

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), the blacklisted screenwriter at the center of this earnest-frantic biopic, was pro-Soviet and a member of the CPUSA, his politics formed during the Depression. Called before HUAC in 1947, he served time in jail for refusing to name names and was denied work by the studios. After prison, he wrote films under pseudonyms, including Gun Crazy, and won Oscars for two of them. One was Roman Holiday—yes, Roman Holiday was written by a commie. He couldn’t publicly accept or acknowledge his awards until after Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger broke the blacklist in 1960 by giving him screen credit on Spartacus and Exodus.

As a true-life version of Hail, Caesar! that features many actors familiar from Coen Brothers movies, Trumbo hams up the blacklist. The director, Jay Roach, directed the Austin Powers and Fockers movies, and Trumbo gets over its awkwardness by focusing on the mechanics of screenwriting under duress, which Roach marvels at. Here is a screenwriter willing to risk everything, including his family, to write B movies for low pay under a pseudonym, without compromising his politics. After Austin Powers in Goldmember, that point of view makes sense. Actors play real Hollywood figures with varying degrees of success. Christian Berkel, who plays Otto Preminger, captures his essence, turning the combative auteur into a sly interloper popping up in Highland Park with mordant Viennese panache. Trumbo leaves the impression that the ’50s worked out for everybody in the end, except for poor Louis C. K., as a leftwing screenwriter who smoked too much.


Bridge of Spies

Also set in the baby-boomer heaven of the 1950s and early ’60s, Bridge of Spies presents the cold war as genteel and humane compared to the present war on terror. Tom Hanks, a high-powered lawyer but also a middle-class everyman, proves that making deals with our enemies is a better solution than building walls or dropping bombs. Retrofitting the cold war for the end of the Obama era, Bridge of Spies combines the negotiation of international agreements with a Trumpist approach: deals are best handled by private citizens who know better than government officials how to get what’s best for the country. Today, of course, it is this businessman figure who wants to build a border wall, a bellicose reversal of this film’s message.

The Coen Brothers cowrote it, but Spielberg’s unwavering belief in American values prevents any cynicism from coming through. At the same time, the film is mature, aware that Hanks is aging and could die of pneumonia without his overcoat from Saks Fifth Avenue. The scene with Hanks and Mark Rylance, as a pensive Soviet spy, listening to a Shostakovich piano concerto on a radio in a prison cell was not something I expected to see in a Spielberg movie.


Carol

Set in Manhattan and on the road in the winter of 1952, Carol fetishizes the mechanical equipment of surveillance—telephones, cameras, tape recorders. Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), soon to be lovers, get into a dove-gray Packard to escape Carol’s family, but can’t avoid the prying men who follow them anyway. Men are confused and pushy in Carol, and almost as forcibly drunk and well-dressed as Cary Grant in the early scenes of North by Northwest. Ed Lachman’s cinematography, in Super 16mm, is by far the most ravishing and understated among these films, a subtle tribute to the medium best suited for the intimacy of furtive glances and hushed conversations. The film is a triumph of art direction and wardrobe, a seductive art object. When Carol tells her husband “we’re not ugly people, Harge,” she is telling the truth about a film that finds beauty in bad situations.


Brooklyn

Leaving County Wexford, a rule-bound place where shoe polish is not for sale on Sunday because it’s “not a Sunday item,” Eilis, a thoughtful girl played with extraordinary composure by Saoirse Ronan, sails for New York. She moves into a boarding house and gets a job at a department store in Brooklyn, across the East River from the department store in Carol where Therese worked in Todd Haynes’s version of New York in 1952.

Eilis meets and falls in love with a handsome Italian American plumber (Emory Cohen, channeling ’50s method actors) who’s as calm and good-hearted as she is. Then she’s whisked back to Ireland for her sister’s funeral and coaxed to stay there by an equally kind young man played by red-haired Domhnall Gleeson, who’s in every movie. Eilis almost makes the decision not to go back to the Brooklyn of 1952, a choice unimaginable to the renters of Brooklyn in 2016, who would take the first boat to that Brooklyn if they could. For all their strenuous effort in vintage bar and restaurant design, they watch a livable Brooklyn drift farther off each day. For Eilis, Brooklyn meant freedom from the past. Somebody direct me to a place in this city, besides a movie theater, that represents freedom in the present.

If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.

Related Articles

April 7, 2008

Thinking about Grease reminds me that I’ve been watching new films set in the 1950s my whole life.

March 13, 2012

In late Varda forgetting becomes a structuring mechanism and a stylistic impetus: memory takes shape collectively.

July 20, 2009

My relationship with Annie changed hues. I was still an Annie fan, but I really was more of an Annie colleague.

August 14, 2013
Bureaucratic Heroism

More by this Author

February 13, 2008

If only I were paralyzed from head to toe and could only move one eye, then finally I’d be able to finish that book.

August 10, 2009

In this movie, comedians beg for something new and different: “Love me because I’m not that funny,” they plead.

April 7, 2008

Thinking about Grease reminds me that I’ve been watching new films set in the 1950s my whole life.

Issue 29 Bottoms Up

Humankind cannot bear very much reality, but it can bear a lot of reality TV.