Ang Lee’s Gemini Man is such a bland and formulaic sci-fi thriller that it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that this was made by the same filmmaker who gave us The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The 3D, high frame rate presentation – combined with hackneyed dialogue and sluggish pacing – makes the movie feel like a cross between soap opera and corporate training video. As the predictable plot grinds into motion and we get more scenes set at night, the cognitive dissonance lessens and the visual effects don’t look quite as unbelievable. There are touches of the unbearable longing and deep melancholy that permeates the best of Lee’s work, and there is a short stretch when the story mechanics chug along effectively enough that you forget about the plot holes and bad dialogue. But it isn’t enough to save what could have been an exceptional thriller about nature versus nurture and what makes us each unique in this world.
Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse is a weird and wonderful work of existential horror and dread. Once again, Eggers digs deep into folklore and sea legends to add his own unique and terrifying spin on the tales of King Triton, mermaids, and the spirits of dead sailors. The film’s exquisite compositions are intensely focused on the minutiae of grueling, backbreaking manual labor and the keen knowledge that such a life inevitably leads to an early grave. The horror here is deep and primal – the terror of isolation, fear of the elements, and the ever-present specter of madness and delusion. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson give brilliant, tour de force performances that lay bare the deep toxicity at the root of most masculine bids for position, power, and control. There’s much more to unpack here and much more to discover on subsequent viewings. Eggers is a unique voice in horror, and I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.
Three Short Films by Anna Biller
The three early films from Anna Biller that are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel – Three Examples of Myself as Queen, The Hypnotist, and A Visit from the Incubus – are incredible windows into the vision and thematic concerns of a singular filmmaker. Plus, they are all an absolute delight. Shot with the lustrous texture you can only find on celluloid and saturated with luminous color, the films all feel as though they belong to another cinematic era. This heightened stylistic choice places the films in direct dialogue with Hollywood classics – reframing the male gaze and critiquing the deep-seated misogyny embedded throughout our popular culture. From fairy tale to melodrama to western-horror-musical, these three films are densely layered works that demand careful examination and multiple viewings to tease out the nuances and meanings. Biller is a phenomenal filmmaker, and I’m excited to continue exploring her filmography.
Anna Biller’s Viva is another extraordinary piece of cinematic commentary and use of narrative as criticism. With her nearly Technicolor textures, handcrafted sets and costumes, and archly mannered performances, the film pointedly reframes ’70s exploitation cinema and calls out the deep misogyny and socialization of women within American culture and society. The film slyly deconstructs the sexual revolution and deftly illustrates just how one-sided sexual liberation became as women were now expected to make themselves available to all of men’s desires. And yet, Biller isn’t interested in simple, reductive thinking as she holds onto the tension between the primacy of female sexual pleasure and the ways men attempt to control and dominate the feminine. But still, as deeply thought out and intentional as the film is constructed, it is so much fun to watch and Biller finds humor in everything from the influence of advertising to the unrealistic expectations of a bored housewife. Like all of her films, there’s so much more to uncover and explore.
Yes, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite really is as good as everyone says. It’s a masterpiece of social commentary, a thriller perfectly plotted and executed. Bong’s narrative delicately leads the audience from moment to moment, allowing us to think that we know what direction the film is heading, only to pull the rug out from under us and leave us shattered and uncertain, on the edge of our seats until the next slight of hand disorients us even further. The film’s visual geography and the contrast between our protagonists’ semi-basement and the house on the hill of their dreams perfectly encapsulates its concerns with class and privilege. The light touch and gentle humor of the first act helps us identify with characters who aren’t always the most ethical or noble. And throughout the film we can understand – and even sympathize with – the choices our protagonists make, while the film refuses to celebrate or condone their actions. It’s an incredible film, beautifully illustrating the ways in which privilege insulates from the hardships and pain of the world, while those at the bottom continue to lose pieces of themselves in the struggle to survive.
The Plague Dogs
Martin Rosen’s The Plague Dogs is an astonishing work of animation. The story of two dogs who escape a medical research facility in England’s Lake District, the film follows Rowf and Snitter’s attempt to survive in the wild, escape the dreaded white coats, and find a new master who will care for them. Like his previous film, Watership Down, Rosen employs a simple, rough animation style that perfectly suits the grim tale at hand. Told entirely from a canine point of view, we see what it takes for a domesticated animal to survive on its own, the uneasy alliances and difficult choices made out of sheer necessity. Scenes in the research facility – based on actual tests conducted on animals – are filled with harrowing imagery that intentionally evokes the Holocaust. Based on Richard Adams’s novel, the film is blisteringly angry at a cold and callous humanity that can inflict so much suffering on the creatures under their care. As sad and unflinching as the ending may be, Rosen allows the film to end on a note of grace and nobility that is more powerful and moving than any happy ending could muster.
Based on the stage play by Jean Genet, Christopher Miles’s The Maids is a riveting look at class and power, obsession and desire. Two sisters serve as maids to a wealthy woman and regularly perform an elaborate ritual when the madam is away – each taking turns portraying their employer and acting out their desires in a pageant of domination, cruelty, and subservience. The film is highly theatrical, which may not work for everyone, but as someone who spent their formative years working in theatre, I find something invigorating and thoroughly captivating about the stylization and rich, meaty use of language throughout. Glenda Jackson and Susannah York turn in marvelous performances, and the film’s ruminations on the interpersonal dynamics between the classes gives us much to ponder.
The Wicker Man
Why did no one tell me that Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is not only one of the great folk-horror films, but it’s also a full-fledged musical?! An eerie and off-kilter musical to be sure, but a musical nonetheless. The film’s deliberate pace and low-key approach to its central mystery is surprisingly effective, and making sure that we are only allowed to see things from the perspective of Sergeant Howie helps to keep the mystery baffling and heightens the sense of oddness in each interaction with the townsfolk. The tensions between Western European puritanism and paganism is palpable here, but Hardy doesn’t leave us with easy answers. The pagans may be free and unrestrained, but there’s an air of menace to their revelries. The puritan may care deeply about the sanctity of life and protecting the innocent, but there is an unyielding self-righteousness that is harsh and abrasive. If it wasn’t for the eeriness and slowly creeping dread of the film’s final act, I’d hesitate call this horror at all. But there is something truly terrifying about the finale that crawls under your skin and is simultaneously horrifying and deeply moving.