Now Playing — Burning

burning

Burning begins as a young man name Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) makes his way through a busy Seoul street. Outside of one of the storefronts, two women are hyping the business to the crowd, and one of them, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), spares Jong-su some flirty glances as she pulls numbers for raffle prizes. Jong-su doesn’t recognize her, but Haemi reveals they were classmates and neighbors when much younger. The two go to dinner and the tentative overtures of romance continue, culminating in a gentle sexual encounter shortly before she departs on a trip to Africa. While she’s gone, Jong-su regularly goes to Haemi’s apartment to feed a pet cat he never sees.

The film is firmly, comfortably in the realm of the sedate and mundane — exquisite art house cinema land — finding restrained drama in the specifics of the character’s personalities, his awkwardness and her cheery invention.A greater disruption arrives when Haemi returns from her vacation. Jongsu expects a continuation of their budding relationship where it was left, but she is closely trailed by a new friend named Ben (Steve Yuen, billed here as Sang-yeop Yuen, the name he was given when he was born in Korea). He has an ease and confidence that is the exact opposite of Jongsu’s personality, and it quickly becomes clear that he has laid claim to Haemi’s affections.

Upon this simple narrative frame director Lee Chang-dong constructs a veritable palace of insight and profundity. There is not a wasted moment or detail across the film. (Based on a story by Haruki Murakami, the screenplay is co-credited to Lee and Oh Jung-mi.) Everything contributes, either to the character development, the understanding of place, the explication of class divisions, or, as Ben’s secrets darken, the mounting sense of danger. Lee renders it all with skill and care, showing special mastery with the delicate emotions of the piece. In that task, Lee has remarkable collaborators in his actors. Yoo rouses instinctual sympathy though the dictates of the character require a considered obliqueness, Yuen hints at the ways privilege can corrode the soul, and Jun is nothing less than vivid in portraying a young woman whose inquisitive positivity just might make a bit of a fabulist.

Many of the images Lee puts on screen are staggering in their beauty, especially an extended sequence that takes place at a remote house in an atmosphere of prolonged gloaming. The film is lovely, but spare. There are sequences of jarring impact, but Lee has no apparent taste for ostentation. Burning is lean. It’s also wise and deeply felt. It represents one of the rare and wondrous instances when a film does everything right.

 

Now Playing — Creed II

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There were many reasons to celebrate Creed, led by Michael B. Jordan’s exemplary performance as second generation professional boxer Adonis Johnson, who would eventually overcome emotional-fueled reluctance claim the name of his departed father. The other aspect of the film that most impressed me was the strong sense of how elegies are strengthened when they look to the future, emphasizing continuation of the stories that interlace. Creed gave ample time to another chapter of Sylvester Stallone’s decade-spanning turn as Rocky Balboa, but the stallion was clearly being put out to pasture. In his script and direction, Ryan Coogler stressed continuance over nostalgia, reinvention over repetition. It’s open to debate whether there were more stories worth telling about Adonis, but the Rocky saga felt properly completed. That Stallone and others felt there was more to say about the character he created over forty years ago is an anchor on Creed II.

The sequel didn’t seem inevitable, and yet here it is. As the film opens, Adonis claims the heavyweight title in a fight that flicks by with surprising speed and lack of drama. Narratively, it’s mere prelude to the main plot, which brings forth a notable challenger. Viktor Drago (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) has been building a quiet reputation as a brutal boxer in his Russian homeland, under the tutelage of his father, Ivan (Dolph Lundgren). It was Ivan who killed Adonis’s father, Apollo Creed, in the ring, only to later face defeat at the gloves of Rocky, an outcome that led to personal disgrace, as depicted in Rocky IV. As soon as Adonis has a belt declaring him the champ, Viktor comes a-challenging. It’s a bad idea for Adonis to accept the fight, but history and pride prevail.

It’s not exactly unfinished business from the first film addressed by Creed II, but there’s at least consistency to its considerations of the burden of legacy, the craving for acceptance, the need to establish a worthwhile sense of self in doggedly tough world. Jordan remains fantastic in the role, committing to its complexities when mere charisma would do. And his rapport with Tessa Thompson, playing Adonis’s love, Bianca, has only strengthened. Some of the movie’s best moments come in the little scenes of the two of them tentatively, carefully shaping their future together. The screenplay’s shaky motivations and handy conveniences are given just enough repair by the authenticity of the acting.

Just as Creed brought delayed dignity to Rocky’s greatest opponent, Creed II has the makings of the same rescue for the Drago clan. Although it’s given only a modest amount of screen time, there’s a emotional power — even a poignancy — to the harshness of Ivan’s regret and the combative mentoring he provides his son, partially to the goal of providing the younger man with a better life. Director Steven Caple Jr. doesn’t have the same offhand visual ingenuity and perfectly calibrated pacing as Coogler, but he does demonstrate a keen ability to burrow into the deeper emotion of a scene. That generates a lasting effect for some of film’s smallest details.

The film’s footwork mainly falters in the persistence of Rocky’s presence. Stallone again plays him with with endearing melancholy of diminishing fortitude, but there’s nothing new to add. After ceding the screenplay duties to others on Creed, Stallone once again takes a writing credit (shared with Juel Taylor, while Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker provided the story). If Stallone felt the need to provide his own parting words for the character that changed his life (and there are indications he considers this film to be Rocky’s final round), he has rendered too long and belabored of a goodbye. There little here that wasn’t covered as well or better in Creed, so redundancy sets in. The new movie is solid when it’s actually Creed II. It bogs down in its lingering obligations to be Rocky VIII. There can only be one champ at a time.

Now Playing — Widows

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Arriving five years after director Steve McQueen took 12 Years a Slave to the top prize at the Academy Awards, Widows is a curious follow-up. It’s not simply that it doesn’t have the heft (in its basics, anyway) as the soul-wrenching slave drama that stands as the British filmmaker’s great success. McQueen’s fourth feature overall is a stark outlier. His artistic voice has been one of grim assessments of humankind, cataloging unsparingly the agony of struggling for something better in the face of rigid social impediments. That preoccupation is present in Widows, too, but it’s backgrounded in favor of more conventional crime drama sparkle and pow.

Based on a two-season U.K. television series of the same name, Widows follows the efforts of a small group of women who are desperate enough to briefly turn to illegal activity after their husbands are killed on another job. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) has the plans her husband (Liam Neeson) drew up for a heist that would yield millions, money she needs to pay off local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). She enlists fellow grieving wives Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and they proceed to cobble together the resources needed to complete the robbery. In a nice change from the usual streamlined process of getting the crew together and assembling the pieces, Widows makes it look like challenging, tedious work. There’s no glamour to it. Hands start dirty.

The more McQueen focuses on the simple strain of mounting this unfamiliar criminal endeavor, the stronger the film. But there’s so much more to it. Even as he’s shaking down Veronica for money he’s owed, Jamal is running for an alderman position in Chicago. His opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of Tom Mulligan, who’s vacating the political position up for grabs. The screenplay — co-credited to McQueen and Gillian Flynn — slops around in the mud of Chicago politics, while also affording a sideways glance at the gun violence and police brutality that has bedeviled the city. There is consideration of generational divides and the brutal rigidity of class structures. And all of that is largely separate from the teetering tower of feminist commentary that is an inescapable topic given the basic premise. It’s a lot, probably too much. McQueen can’t quite finesse it all into something consistently cogent. The film is overlong, yet aches for more time to explore every concept shuffled up.

Despite the flaws, there’s an authority to McQueen’s filmmaking that carries Widows. It’s engaging even as it skims across the surface of its insights. And he does fine work with actors, providing the room for the sort of nuance that can deepen the material. Debicki is particularly strong, in part because her undervalued moll takes the longest emotional journey. Widows might not cohere, but there are riches in its messiness.

Now Playing — Suspiria

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I fully acknowledged being tickled that Luca Guadagnino’s follow-up feature to the tender, elegant Call By Your Name is the the precise opposite, in almost every respect. Suspiria is officially a remake of the 1977 horror film of the same name, directed by Dario Argento. Overlay the two movies’ plots and there isn’t all that much in common: a dance school, some basics to the characters, supernatural doings. There’s a similar divide stylistically. Argento favored vivid colors and ornate art direction, coating the screen with dizzying splendor. Guadagnino counters with a concentrated drabness befitting the film’s setting of Cold War Berlin. The clearest commonality between the two works is a beautifully dark, lurid soul.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria casts Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, an American dancer who arrives at Germany’s Markos Dance Academy. Her background with a Mennonite family makes her comes across as a little odd, especially when interacting with comparatively freewheeling dancer Sara (Mia Goth) or stern, exacting instructor Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). The atmosphere around the academy is filled with portent, but Susie’s own behavior hints at a deeply entrenched discontent. Satisfyingly insidious, Argento’s Suspiria ultimately played by very familiar horror movie rules. His art house bona fides firmly in place, Guadagnino is up to something else.

When Guadagnino’s artistic vision is compact and ruthless, the impact is rattling. A scene in which Susie dances with kinetic intensity is spliced together with shots of one of the film’s first victims meeting her gruesome fate, and it’s like flying a Cessna through a thunderstorm. And when Guadagnino pushes into Boschian swirls of hellish excess, he largely manages what Darren Aronsofsky wrongly thought he was pulling off in last year’s mother! This is largely because Guadagnino follows through on previously planted ideas — notably the dismissals and betrayals regularly endured by women, as well the hard physical contortions of modern dance — rather than just slops grandiosely challenging imagery into the the frame. The thesis is imperfect, but at least it’s consistently present.

The veins of serious artistry throbbing through the film cause some trouble, too. At over two-and-a-half hours, this Suspiria is too long. The most obvious grind is the parallel plot featuring elderly therapist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf, the credits claim) and his slow discovery of evil afoot. But there are plenty of passages that hold on a little too long, lingering enraptured by the bounty of bleakness. Guadagnino has effusively praised Argento’s original work, claiming it was personally transformative when seen at a young age and then multiple times after that. The new film bears that affection with both awkwardness and grace. In cracking open his artist heart, Guadagnino naturally spills a little blood. And that stuff can get slippery.

Now Playing — First Man

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Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a remarkable technical feat. The filmmaker takes the unofficial once-per-generation challenge to intensify the verisimilitude in the cinematic depiction of space travel and rises to it. The title refers to the historic 1969 touchdown on the Earth’s moon realized by Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the crew of Apollo 11, but the film painstakingly traces the ordeals NASA went through in order to complete that improbable mission. Chazelle emphasizes the clunky mechanics of the early spacecraft, all thudding doors, rickety joysticks, and clicking dials, none of it inspiring immediate confidence that it is prepared to cut across galaxies. Tension arises from the plainest observation of astronauts and other NASA employees doing their jobs, calculating miracles with math sketched out on graph paper. The editing, cinematography, art direction, and sound design combine to place the viewer right in the confined capsules, where wonderment and dread intertwine trembling fingers.

Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a sad dramatic failure. Working from a screenplay credited to Josh Singer (and officially adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong), Chazelle ticks off all the necessary details and remains doggedly true to the spirit of the times and the dignity of the people involved. He also can’t past the surface of the story. In part, this at least feels right, aligning the fiction with the famed reticence of the man it depicts, who was loathe to capitalize on his place in the history books. Gosling does commendable character work as Armstrong, but he struggles to find inner life behind the engineer’s stoicism. Claire Foy fares better as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, benefitting from the moments of emotional fire built into the script. And the one attempt to give Armstrong a lengthy emotional arc culminates in a lunar surface moment of transparent falsehood. It doesn’t call anything the precedes it into doubt. Instead, it stands out in damning contrast to the film’s prevailing exactitude.

Since Chazelle has made his name with films about music, it feels appropriate to rely on a metaphor from that world. First Man is all rhythm, no melody. It makes an impression, but it doesn’t linger.

Now Playing — Bad Times at the El Royale

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Drew Goddard’s feature directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, has aged very nicely for me. The film’s impish deconstruction of the horror genre was fun from the start, but the layers of cunning stirred in me a long-lasting appreciation for the ways in which Goddard embraced the inherent power in well-worn tropes while also giving them a knowing tweak. The delighted meta shenanigans give the whole enterprise a winning intelligence and low-sizzle current of insightful commentary.

The follow-up has been a long time coming, in part because Goddard got waylaid by Sony’s bumbling management of their Marvel properties, working for ages on a Sinister Six project that was eventually scrapped. An Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Martian kept Goddard somewhat in play (and he deserves extra credit for directing the wildest episode of The Good Place), but it’s taken too long for the latest film to bear his full authorial signature.

Bad Times at the El Royale is another genre exercise, albeit one less ruthless in its demolishing of established narrative devices. Set in the late nineteen-sixties, the film brings together several disparate characters in a border-straddling motel that’s seen better, far more glamorous days. As they check in, it’s clear that all carry heavy, tricky secrets, and Goddard’s ingenuity is in the way he systematically reveals all, holding back key details until the most opportune time to foist them on the audience, like bursts of confetti that just may carry toxins, or maybe wisps of psychotropics. All the ingredients of twisty thrillers are in place — kidnappings, gunplay, missing stashes of stolen money, sordid doings of all stripes — and Goddard absolutely revels in the grand excess he’s created.

And Goddard has assembled a band of game collaborators. The art direction, production design, and costume design are all dazzling, as is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. And the assembled actors tackle their complicated roles with verve. Jon Hamm continues his stretch of roles that reward (and benefit from) his robustly playful instincts, Lewis Pullman somehow keeps finding new pockets of internal turbulence as the sole employee of the motel, and Cynthia Erivo is nothing short of sensational as a girl group singer trying to eke out a living in a hard business that rejected her. The actors have the enticing but tricky task of using bold strokes while also keeping the characters grounded enough that there are real stakes to the mounting mayhem. Largely, they succeed admirably.

The film loses its way somewhat in its final act, in part because Goddard allows one particularly character to push too far into outright villainy, at odds with what’s been previously established. Following the intricate care of the earlier portions of the film, the descent into simply drawn conflict seems too pat, even as Goddard stages it energetically. Bad Times at the El Royale misplaces some of its inventiveness when it’s arguably needed the most, when a sharp ending could have served as the perfect bookend with the film’s crisp, shrewdly conceived opening sequence. It’s a touch of disappointment that isn’t likely to linger. As I’ve come to realize about Goddard’s work, it’s the strengths that endure.

Now Playing — Private Life

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I haven’t dug into any interviews with Tamara Jenkins to learn the insider story of why over a decade passed between her last film and her latest, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find the reason serves as narrative fuel for that new cinematic offering. It’s not simply that Jenkins prior two features — Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages — had the unmistakable weight of autobiography to them. Private Life, the new film from Jenkins, has the rawness of brutal, brave truth. Someone still could have drawn such a story purely from their imagination, but the details sting with authority that suggests rueful reminiscing is the more likely source.

Private Life focuses on Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), married New Yorkers who have spent years trying to conceive a baby. The film begins with them taking what appear to be weary, final swings at the problem, like a battered boxer in the late rounds of bout that has long been lost. Nearly everything has already been tried. Even adoption proved to be such an arduous process that they’ve circled back to medically enhanced methods, such as in vitro fertilization, which adds a whole other set of tasks to their routine. The relationship is clearly buckling, stressed beyond capacity by the fact that their shared identity is one of futility.

Matters are further complicated by the arrival of their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), who’s taken a sudden leave of absence from college. She is taking respite with her cool city relatives in part because they move in the lower tier bohemian artist circles Sadie sees as a hopeful destination, but also because of the emotional skirmishes she gets into with her own mother (Molly Shannon). Sadie’s presence gives Rachel and Richard a diversion from their interpersonal struggles, simply by providing another person to focus on in their cramped apartment. But she may also provide some assistance with the larger problem, as the couple has reached the point where the possibility of an egg donor has been broached.

Jenkins tilts the material towards wry comedy, albeit of the gut-punch variety. Of course, her lead performers are particularly skilled at maneuvering the narrow pathways between humor and pathos. Hahn is uniquely capable of keeping brash expressiveness firmly tethered to intricate characterizations, and Giamatti’s gift for the slow burn has evolved to a point at which it’s really more of a pilot light dimming to infinity. They give dignity to every tremor of emotion in the roles, showing how these people make their way, sometimes delicately, sometimes bravely, sometimes humbled by the inescapable grind of defeat.

Jenkins assembles the film with a keener eye than I recall from previous films. She crafts visuals that tell compelling stories all on their own and generally assembles the film with the spartan certainty of Woody Allen in his cinematic prime. These qualities also give Private Life a disarming lightness that cuts across the darker subject matter. It has the feel of something that came easily, which isn’t meant to diminish the evident work that went into it. Quite the contrary, a film that can be pointed, precise, and loose all at once is likely the product of a director who knows without a doubt what they want to do, what they are ready to convey. It’s as if Jenkins spent those many years between films envisioning Private Life to the seams in the corners, and only when it was fully formed did she gift it to the rest of us. It should be received with the deepest gratitude.