The Weekly Roundup

Maybe this feature should just be a Tuesday thing. That’s when I seem to be able to get to it. But alright, regardless: may I present reflections on films watched between November 7th and 13th, 2017.

It’s remarkable that, even removed by 50 years and thousands of miles, everything in this movie feels so modern and relevant. Costa-Gavras’s film (in French, set in Greece) covers the assassination and surrounding conspiracy of a leftist politician and is constantly moving through a bubbling pool of characters, each with individual motivations and agendas beyond the nationalist/communist divide at the film’s center. It’s this plethora of emotion and ideology, coincidence and desire, that makes the film both exciting to watch and insightful to think about, especially in light of a current political climate with more than a few similarities to the one depicted here.

Mother India (1957)
Mehboob Khan’s 1957 epic of village life has been called the Gone With the Wind of Hindi cinema, is one of the highest grossing films in India’s history, and has a notable place in the canon of world cinema, so it’s been on my to-watch list for some time. It’s a huge film (174-ish minutes) covering in colorful, melodramatic strokes the struggle of a woman (Nargis) and her two sons (Sunil Dutt and Rajenda Kumar) to survive 20 or so years of poverty imposed by a cruel moneylender (Kanhaiyalal). The film is conscious of its status, created as a riposte to the colonialist/racialist 1927 novel of the same name and with a myth-making tone full of giant landscapes, grand montages, and, of course, elaborate musical numbers. Even across a cultural divide it feels a little dated in its stylization, but its undeniably powerful.

Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Though it adapts some of the trappings of gothic horror, this is still fundamentally a Bergman film before it’s anything else, which is to say it’s a chilly and uncompromising psycho-aesthetic puzzle. The art of Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) and the cruelty of the phantasmal patrons that interrogate and appropriate it becomes a reflection of his emotional state and relationship with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann) and former lover (Ingrid Thulin). The emotional climax doesn’t land quite as hard as some of the director’s other works (I’m thinking in particular of Through a Glass Darkly [1961] at the moment cos it’s one of my favorites), but this is at least partially offset by the creepiness of the atmosphere as an individualistic auteur dips a toe into genre.

The Lobster (2015)
Speaking of which… I’ve been meaning to watch this anyway, but decided to do it now after seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which piqued my curiosity about Yorgos Lanthimos. This film is a lot more playful than the other one–more identifiable as a comedy amidst its absurdity (the camel wandering through the woods did me in). In that, it’s interesting seeing them together–the same style (the slow, stilted speech in particular) employed to very different ends (romantic comedy vs. psychological thriller). This one felt a little more realized; it has a clearer payoff and deadpan is a tone that suits this director’s voice very well. Not for the squeamish, though. Yeesh.

The Stranger (1946)
Orson Welles is at his best when he’s being villainous–Touch of EvilThe Third Man, and herein, where he’s the worst of the lot: a genocidal Nazi fleeing prosecution in a sleepy Connecticut town. Welles’s third film was an attempt to prove he could make a commercial success on time and under-budget (which he did) and is arguably most interesting in the context of that pedigree. But it’s still an engaging noir thriller in the vein of Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious in particular), packed full of unusually understated versions of Welles’s signature long takes, peculiar setups, and deep shadows.

Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
I’ve seen the 2001 Soderbergh remake a few times so it’s difficult for me not to make comparisons (arguably in the wrong direction), but I can’t help but be struck by how much darker this film feels than its more modern counterpart. The comedy is still there, along with the raw, nervy Rat Pack cool, but underneath are postwar allusions to social commentary and the entire post-heist second half of this film feels more cynically satirical than anything Clooney and Pitt get up to. This is kind of in step with the change in Las Vegas itself; here it’s more of a blue-tinged twilight oasis instead of a flashing, 21st century circus. Also something I didn’t realize: this film was directed by two-time Oscar winner Lewis Milestone–one of his last, actually.

Real Life (1979)
Albert Brooks’s debut feature (as a writer/director; as an actor he appeared, somewhat unexpectedly, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in ’76) takes on the then-nascent oxymoron of reality entertainment in a sendup of the landmark 1973 series An American Family. The film is fiction disguised as documentary (on multiple levels), Brooks playing an aggressively Hollywood version of himself as he inserts himself into and manipulates the Yeager family (Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain, Lisa Urette, and Robert Stirrat) ostensibly to make a film about their “real” life. The disrupting influence of the camera is the low hanging fruit here, but arguably more interesting is the variation on Brooks’s neurotic nebbish–a man whose insecurity finds shelter in manipulating his own life to conform to a narrative ideal. It’s also very funny.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Some doctors have a certain style of speaking; when difficult decisions have to be made–sometimes very quickly–calm, authoritative statements can help people make those decisions by seeming to remove uncertainty from the equation. The characters in director Yorgos Lanthimos’s films tend to speak in a consciously unnatural manner anyway but in The Killing of a Sacred Deer he uses medicine as a context, a milieu in which the uncertain and the inexplicable cannot actually be masked or ignored, where responsibility cannot be deferred and where justice and vengeance are primal forces beyond the scope of careful, direct speech and composed exteriors. The film continues Lanthimos’s streak of highly controlled, highly individual works; it demands a great deal of engagement and its rewards depend on one’s willingness to encounter it under the conditions of its own abstracted logic.

The scenario is that of Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a successful heart surgeon who lives with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist in her own right, and their two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven also has a relationship with an awkward teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan); they meet in diners, Martin visits him at the hospital where he works, he buys the boy expensive presents. The nature of their connection is mysterious at first, but something definitely isn’t quite right. Keoghan is something of a revelation particularly in this opening act, straddling an uncomfortable line between friendliness and menace as the film takes its time bringing Martin, and by extension Steven, into focus.

The conditions that come to drive the plot once Martin’s motives are made clear are left without concrete explanation, giving the film an air of divine inevitability drawn from Classical tragedy. Like Sophocles, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou are interested in the psychic dissonance of individual pride and illusory control. Steven and his colleagues can casually make life-or-death decisions for others because they can wash their hands of the aftermath–it’s no coincidence that we are introduced to Steven removing bloody gloves after a surgery. Martin, seemingly by his very presence, comes to reveal the hollowness of such confidence; Stephen can’t quite push him away, can’t quite rid himself of the niggling guilt Martin embodies, but neither can he face a crucial decision when he must bear the full weight of its consequence.

Nor does he bear this consequence alone. Kidman has proven reliable tackling difficult roles in highly psychological films (see also: Dogville, Eyes Wide Shut, Stoker, even Margo at the Wedding) and brings that quiet intensity to bear as Anna’s passive mask contorts along with her husband’s and pushes up the degradation inherent in her existence. The children are a little bit more difficult to suss out, particularly Kim; her relationship with Martin once they are introduced is clearly important to the film, but it was difficult to pick apart–one of many reasons the film almost requires a second viewing. In a small but unexpected turn, Alicia Silverstone pops up as Martin’s mother whose unusual deference toward her son adds another complicated wrinkle to the puzzle.

In glancing over other reviews before seeing the film, I saw a few comparisons to the likes of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke which seem to make sense. Both of those directors are canny at placing the audience in positions of uncomfortable sympathy or moral revulsion (which seems to be what’s happening here), both are fond of situations that are as cruel and absurd as this film’s climactic scene, and both have a deliberate and chilly style that allows no quarter and no shelter from what is being depicted, just as this film is certainly deliberate and chilly. Thimios Bakatakis’s camera is a patient observer in the bright and neatly ordered environments of the hospital and Steven’s home. A dissonant score quietly throbs throughout, but even intense moments are infused with space and silence.

As I mentioned, this is a film that somewhat requires a second viewing. There are threads in it that I feel I still want to follow; for example, there’s a low-key occupation with physical signs of puberty like menstruation and body hair which seem to indicate some kind of thematic function that, at the moment, still feels obscure. But the takeaway here is that that’s the kind of movie this is–one to be pondered and puzzled over, and which may never completely reveal itself. As an experience it’s deeply unsettling to watch, in part because of its frightening ambiguity, so I’m willing to call it successful as an artistic venture. But the slow, artificial, bloodless (metaphorically, although not literally) approach to Agamemnon’s mythological dilemma (the referential title cites the sacrifice of Iphigenia in works by Euripides and Hyginus) could legitimately be a turn-off to viewers looking for something more conventionally frightening.