Immersed in our shared dollar-store world of travel-sized toiletries, useless trinkets, and selfie sticks, Ghostbox Cowboy investigates American and Chinese capitalism by presenting two sides of the same bad penny. “America is dead,” explains a grifting American in China (Robert Longstreet) who is trying to make money from something called FreeDentures.com, which sells sets of Bluetooth-enabled false teeth online. His Chinese counterpart (Vincent Xie), a CEO and investor, longs to get out of Dongguan, a dismal factory town where he dines alone every night in the same restaurant. These two men conspire to stomp the dreams of Jimmy Van Horn (David Zellner), a Texan who has reinvented himself in China as the head of a start-up called Big Horn Global. Jimmy’s big plans involve a small electronic device designed to communicate with the dead—a flimsy black box with a row of blinking colored lights on the front, priced to move.
Shot surreptitiously with DSLR cameras, documentarian John Maringouin’s first narrative feature explores a corrupt investment economy in “sweaty betrayal season,” the period in the Chinese summer when every deal goes wrong. An American expat fixer called The Specialist, apparently playing himself, acts as guide to this hellish environment. He’s a genius for business deals, he explains, though also suicidal.
Jimmy, the living embodiment of the phrase all hat, no cattle, depends on this twitching sharpie for guidance through the manufacturing warrens of Dongguan. His investors are the kinds of businessmen who have previously put money into products like “Bathtub Gargoyles,” ugly statues that perch ominously on the corner of the tub, waiting to end up as landfill. As Jimmy pursues “influencers, agitators, violators, and jousters,” every one of them fleeces him a little more. Penniless, he is reduced to playing a cowboy mascot on a Segway, prodded and berated by Chinese handlers who treat him like a circus animal and pay him in KFC coupons.
The film winds its way through Inner Mongolia to a city built to be the biggest in the world but inhabited by only twenty-five people. Maringouin, a self-consciously Herzogian director, has by that time turned Jimmy into a cartoon Kinski in a white Fitzcarraldo suit, a blond wig, and false teeth. A lost soul but eager to please, all he has left is a cyanide pill with an American flag printed on the capsule.
Clint Eastwood is a Giacometti sculpture with a skull stuck on top. What skin he has left on his face is paper-thin, ready to be scraped and scratched. He looks dermabraded even before drug runners in The Mule push his face against a wall. Eastwood walks across motel parking lots in his latest movie with the careful certainty of a man who has always stayed on the hard line, a rule of life from a movie of his, Blood Work, he made seventeen years ago, when he already seemed old but was only 72. Since then he has become a wraith. In The Mule he drives back and forth along the border in a Ford truck from 1970. Later, dream-like, he finds himself driving a new black SUV, awakened like in a David Lynch film sitting in someone else’s car.
Eastwood has not starred in any of the films he’s directed since Gran Torino in 2008. The Mule, therefore, is something of a return to form after the strange, almost avant-garde films Sully and The 15:17 to Paris. Gran Torino and now The Mule allow Eastwood to resurrect himself as the aging embodiment of 20th-century America as it confronts crime in the non-Anglo world today—the Hmong community in Detroit in Gran Torino, a Mexican cartel in The Mule.
As a superannuated movie star, Eastwood’s downscale portrayal of Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino had elements of distress and melancholy—his final suicidal act predicted various kinds of American deaths of despair even as Eastwood tried to show how his values of honor amid violence could be passed to a new generation that didn’t look like him. The Mule, a variation on that, is equally a testament to Eastwood’s life work and a revival of his persona in a new context.
Significantly, his daughter, Alison Eastwood, returns to a film by her father after an absence of over twenty years. Clint’s character here, Earl Stone, is punished more for being a bad father and husband than he is for becoming a geriatric drug runner. The scenes of Earl using his newfound wealth to try to make things right with his family and friends are new in Eastwood’s work, a late-stage apology.
Dianne Wiest’s performance as Earl’s ex-wife is repetitive and “acted,” in the typical male-female dichotomy of Eastwood movies. It started with Jessica Walter’s stalker hysteria in the first film he directed, 1971’s Play Misty for Me, and continues through Meryl Streep’s role in The Bridges of Madison County to Wiest in The Mule. Eastwood is terse and restrained, women are emotive and unhappy with him.
In Wiest’s deathbed scenes with Eastwood, Earl confesses to the twin crimes of abandonment and drug running. Under the tender nagging of his former love, these scenes become the sappy exceptions in an otherwise dry, weird, and unsentimental film defined by road trips in which Earl prefers to be alone with his car radio, at least by day. It is significant that this film of reconciliation arrived on screens shortly before the death of Sondra Locke, Eastwood’s romantic partner in the 1970s and ‘80s and the female lead in some of his best films.
After Eastwood ended their relationship, Locke sued him for palimony, then later for fraud. Eastwood’s busy career and his lasting success, in this light, are the crimes for which he seeks to atone by making and appearing in The Mule. Like Earl, a florist before he turns to drug running, he just wanted to cultivate flowers (movies) in the sunshine. The film ends with Eastwood imprisoned, working in the penitentiary greenhouse, wearing a gardener’s hat (not a cowboy hat), a frail old man but finally forgiven. The persistence of Eastwood as an icon in The Mule makes it easy to miss that as a director he was the one who forgave himself.
Welcome to Marwen
With its attention to long-legged, thin-waisted, big-busted living dolls, World War II, and male weakness, Welcome to Marwen should have been directed by the late Russ Meyer, not Robert Zemeckis. What holds the film back is that it does not go far enough in the direction of oomph, something Meyer would not have allowed. While the film’s tragic story is fetishy and perverted, by trying to be tasteful or at least palatable it comes off a little self-deluded, and therefore wrong in a way Zemeckis could not have intended. Despite that, Welcome to Marwen retains a certain power, which comes from both the documentary on which it is based, and on Zemeckis’s desire to make a career-enfolding late work so he could bare his soul. He puts it on display in thermoplastic polymers and CGI.
Playing with dolls and toys to make movies is how I’ve always suspected the Spielberg–Lucas–Zemeckis generation did it. They were always too chaste to do what normal kids would do with their dolls, which was to make Barbie and G.I. Joe fuck. Instead, they vocalized jet-fighter noises on the carpet and transmuted sex into crashes and explosions—the way of Hollywood since Star Wars. In retelling the story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist with a brain injury whose photographs of miniatures in his backyard recreate the imaginary story of a Belgian village under Nazi attack, Zemeckis has found the perfect encapsulation of the Hollywood blockbuster process.
The miniature village is protected by Hogancamp’s fighter-pilot alter ego and what must be described as a bevy of female soldiers whom Hogancamp has based on real women in his life. In his fiction they are cast as toy dolls in tight military garb, or in Frenchy striped tops, off-the-shoulder blouses and dirndls, and the stiletto heels Hogancamp sometimes likes to wear himself. In Zemeckis’s movie, they are played by Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Merritt Wever, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie, and Leslie Zemeckis, the wife of the director cast as Hogancamp’s favorite porn star, who is not exactly from his real life but appears in his favorite movie, Wicked Hotel Encounters. The magic of computer animation transforms these actresses into mannequins with Barbie physiques.
Hogancamp’s photos are readymade storyboards for Zemeckis’s tribute to an alcoholic artist beaten senseless in a hate crime. Welcome to Marwen has much in common with Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, Flight, and Allied, other Zemeckis movies that come in various shades of cartoonishness or seriousness or both. Hogancamp’s memory is semi-shot. It relies on military history and fantasy to sublimate trauma. Zemeckis too seems to have a better memory for his own artistic creations than for anything else, and solves the film’s (and Hogancamp’s) problems by blasting Nazi action figures into the future, which is our present, and is where they reside today.
The way Robert Zemeckis threw his whole career into the stewpot for Welcome to Marwen, James Wan, the Saw–Insidious–Conjuring director, throws all of blockbuster cinema into a giant lobster pot for Aquaman. This comic-book movie ends with a message that purports to be pro-ecology and anti-pollution, but reads a little fascist: “The land and the sea are one!”
Aquaman (Jason Momoa), we learn, will now command a united ocean force, which is bigger than any individual ocean nation, just as the worldwide audience for movies like this is bigger and therefore better than the domestic audience. Aquaman becomes Jesus in a codpiece, with a trident instead of a cross. This ending calls to mind Fritz Lang’s silent Nibelungen, supposedly Hitler’s favorite movie, the same way Star Wars called to mind The Triumph of the Will. We’ve moved back in time, from 1935 to 1924, to a pre-fascist state. The film’s interpolated credits scene sets up the next Aquaman movie, in which our half-American, half-Atlantean hero will be pitted against a black villain (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and an Asian scientist (Randall Park).
The way superhero movies consistently threaten or depict CGI genocides has become predictable. Wan deflects from that by making this very long movie a gallery of set pieces that refer to previous blockbusters. Stormtroopers here are also Transformers. The undersea sets have a Pirates of the Caribbean look. Dinosaurs inhabit a lost world in the Antarctic. Black Manta, the black villain, is Iron Man. The monsters are like the ones in Alien, Arrival, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and a Godzilla remake. The heroine (Amber Heard) flies a semi-invisible plane like Wonder Woman used to. Since the film has a classic adventure quality more than a doom-and-gloom one, this fantasia where the world underwater is also outer space, Heaven, and Hell becomes more involving the more derivative it gets.
By the end it has the dream-like quality of the kind of silent-movie adventures that starred Douglas Fairbanks and were directed by Raoul Walsh or Allan Dwan, or an undersea Soviet fairytale film by Aleksandr Ptushko. Seahorse movements of the characters underwater, with their undulating hair and videogame bobbing, lull us into acceptance, as does Willem Dafoe, our guide here as Aquaman’s mentor. Nicole Kidman, as Aquaman’s mom, fights off bad guys in L.L. Bean outfits and Keds because she lives in Maine before getting divorced and moving to the Land of the Lost. Aquaman, unlike most superheroes, has a lot of nurturing support.
The film’s simple-mindedness makes it work. When the characters end up in Sicily, a supertitle reads Sicily, Italy, so we know we are not in Sicily, Illinois. Momoa as Aquaman is more pro wrestler than actor, and Amber Heard is dressed and acts like a beauty queen. The movie is a New England Black Panther, as if the Nation of Hampton Beach finally got its own superhero, with a hot girlfriend who dyes her hair cosplay red.
The House That Jack Built
James Wan relies on the history of Saturday matinees, pumps it up, and resells it. On the other end of the spectrum, Lars Von Trier wants to destroy the cinema entirely. His latest film is pedantic, stretched-out torture porn, with Matt Dillon as the serial killer in the title. The House That Jack Built is a PowerPoint presentation with gore between the slides, told in five “incidents,” each of which, if this were Wan’s Saw series, could have been its own separate franchise entry. The archival photos and explanations of things like Goethe’s oak at Buchenwald, the Jericho sirens on Stuka dive bombers, Glenn Gould, and dessert wines would probably not make the cut in a franchise movie. All the material Von Trier marshals to illustrate his lecture on how life is evil, human beings are stupid and soulless, and art is long would have to be relegated to the bonus features.
It’s the first movie of Von Trier’s that’s made him seem behind the times. His beef with modernity remains, but now he’s repeating himself, using clips from his older films as if he’s Godard, or maybe he’s punishing Godard for not including Von Trier footage in his own essay films. So we get to see Aquaman co-star Willem Dafoe in an Antichrist clip. He also, through subtle-obvious references, tries to ruin Cassavetes, Wenders, Kiarostami, the done-to-death Don’t Look Back Bob Dylan clip with the signs, even Lucio Fulci. Fulci made a film called Don’t Torture a Duckling. So Von Trier does just that, just because an Italian genre director told him not to.
Amidst all the butchery and the arrangements of dead bodies into what Jack claims is architecture and art, the image of the duckling stands out. Whatever gimmick allowed Von Trier to sever the duck’s leg, the duckling is not a performer in the same way as Uma Thurman, Riley Keough, and the large number of other actors who signed up to play Jack’s victims. Jack has contempt for them, calling them stupid and worse. He and the film are dedicated to showing how easily led people are, and how simple it is to convince cops that there’s nothing to see at his crime scenes. Five minutes of bloodshed were cut from the film for theatrical release in the US, which may explain why the gore in The House That Jack Built, while disgusting, seems exactly as theoretical as Von Trier’s pontificating, much of which recalls the Übermensch dialogue in Hitchcock’s Rope, a film from seventy years ago based on a crime that happened twenty-five years before it was made.
More than ever, all of this takes place in Von Trier’s mind, where windmill fantasies of American violence slowly turn, as they have throughout his career. As they rotate, he listens to David Bowie’s Young Americans with his eyes closed, trying to figure out where songs from it go in his movies. Von Trier’s America is supposedly near Mount St. Helens in Washington State. As filmed it’s in Sweden, Denmark, and England, which I guess has something to do with his idea that in the rural US, peasant farmers clear fields with scythes like in 19th-century paintings. The whole movie is like that, a Thomas Bernhard novel about the Three Little Pigs, with Dillon in a Burt Reynolds mustache playing the Big Bad Wolf.
The film’s wall-to-wall lecture plays over scenes in the form of a dialogue between Jack, American serial killer, and Virgil, the Roman poet, who is voiced by the great actor Bruno Ganz, who died shortly after the film came out in the US. Ganz played Hitler in Downfall (2004) and starred in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend and Wings of Desire. Von Trier must have chosen him for those reasons. Ganz was the embodiment of the post-1968 European art film. When he finally appears on screen in this film’s last act to lead Jack into Hell, The House That Jack Built becomes a different film, one that is quite astonishing. It begins with filthy-sewer video footage, then crosses the River Styx in a Delacroix-inspired tableau vivant, before descending into crimson hues of hot lava. That is the thing with Von Trier. Just when it seems like whatever he’s trying to do has gone to hell, he will literally go there. If these scenes don’t redeem the film’s brutality, which Von Trier must not care about anyway, they sure (as hell) make it entertaining, right up to Jack’s drop into oblivion and the final cut to the blatant corny obviousness of the song over the end credits.
The overly literary narration from Willem Dafoe that begins Vox Lux, along with its drab opening credits, which focus on an average street in a residential neighborhood in Staten Island, indicate that we are in the presence of art. Brady Corbet’s second feature film proves that he has absorbed the nasty lessons he learned at the master’s knee by playing one of the murderous preppy creeps in Michael Haneke’s 2008 remake of his own Funny Games.
Vox Lux begins with a school shooting before its main character, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy, then Natalie Portman) becomes a jaded pop diva whose music video inspires a terrorist attack at a beach resort. By combining a Haneke film with Katy Perry: Part of Me, Corbet has invented a new genre of art film, one that fuses contemporary evil and violence to the backstage exposé and the concert film, then wraps it up in bad vibes. Vox Lux is too dark and stealthy to be pop art. It mingles with poptimism in an underhanded way. This mélange proves to be confounding, as the film, despite its many ideas, does not coalesce. It just ends with lots of concert footage. This gradual inconclusive petering out is a strategy in itself. Its cold, tired repetitiveness, I guess, is the goal, although maybe it’s meant to be redemptive or triumphant. Or maybe Corbet is rickrolling us.
Portman is up to the challenge of playing a hit singer with a choreographed stadium show and futuristic costumes. She and the rest of the British and Anglo-French cast (Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacey Martin) were sent by Corbet to the Arthur Fonzarelli School of Screen Acting so they could learn to talk like Andrew Dice Clay and Cyndi Lauper. Vox Lux, in fact, is A Star Is Born in negative, the first homegrown feel-bad art movie post-Gaga. Sia and Scott Walker did the music, another combination that demonstrates the film’s objective of mixing austere European high art with Glitter. Portman again portrays a divine creature with many problems, blind in one eye, rolling her neck because of the bullet lodged there. Her presence and this film’s unique jumble of elements will guarantee that Vox Lux’s stature grows when we remember this era of mass killing and audible pitch correction.
A. S. Hamrah’s collection of film criticism, The Earth Dies Streaming, is for sale in our online store.