Welcome to another installment of our monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
With some reflection, I’ve come to more fully appreciate the jagged shape and structure of Korean director Na Hong-jin’s tragicomic horror movie. It shifts wildly in tone over the course of its two-and-half-hours, very much tailored to a lead character, a rural village policeman played by Kwak Do-won, who starts the film as a portly figure of fun and ends it a pitiful, near-death wreck. In-between, he investigates a series of murders with a supernatural cause that hit home after his young daughter (Kim Hwan-hee) is seemingly possessed by the devil. Not all of the narrative pieces fit, but the fatalistic mood (the sense that none of us can ever fully avoid indulging our own worst tendencies) is profoundly pervasive.
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s profile of film brat provocateur (and their good friend) Brian de Palma is a minimalist complement to a maximalist artist. It’s basically a guy in a chair holding court: For almost two hours the director known for such baroque thrillers as Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Mission: Impossible, Femme Fatale, and more goes through his career chronologically, his comments interspersed with smartly chosen clips that reveal a confidently pragmatic man as much as a deviously playful one. Directing is, for De Palma, all about logic—solving a puzzle that has its fair share of unknowns and which more often than not involves falling on your face. It’s a pleasure to watch him revel in both success and failure, and to witness how intriguingly different an artist’s perspective on his work can be from his audience.
The singular Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo has been making variations on the same movie for years. His latest, you might say, is a variation on a variation, incisively examining the budding relationship (which is fraught, as per usual, with soju-soused fear, anxiety and depression) between a filmmaker (Jeong Jae-yeong) and the painter (Kim Min-hee) he meets by chance. The duo drink, make small chat, have a big blow out. Then, mid-way through, Hong repeats the story with subtle changes and a different outcome (even the title card recurs, its words reordered). There are no do-overs in life. In the movies, however…
Contra its title, the expansively-named Cosmos (helmed by Polish great Andrzej Żuławski) takes place entirely on Earth. That doesn’t mean it feels in any way of this world: The film follows a failed law student (Jonathan Genet) who spends some eventful time at a guest house filled with oddball characters. The place is a galaxy unto itself with its own strange rules (slugs and insects appear, unacknowledged, on food) and ominous signs and wonders (what’s with that dead sparrow hanging in the nearby forest?). Our protagonist is no model of sanity himself, starting the film frenzied and ending up, likely, psychotic. It’s a most beautiful breakdown. And this is a fittingly manic final testament from Żuławski.
Color me shocked that my favorite recent movie is a Nicolas Winding Refn joint. Drive and Only God Forgives made me want to claw my eyes out (my Ryan Gosling allergy certainly didn’t help matters), whereas I felt like my every sense was giddily expanding while watching this vacuous and depraved take on the vacuous and depraved LA modeling scene. Refn hasn’t changed; he’s just found a milieu that suits his sumptuous nihilism, and he allows a surfeit of female talent in front of and behind the camera (stars Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee; cowriters Mary Laws and Polly Stenham; cinematographer Natasha Braier) to complicate his archly hypermasculine perspective.
Best New Old Movie: Looney Tunes: Back in Action
I rewatched Joe Dante’s repudiation of the godawful Space Jam at Metrograph‘s Warner Brothers animation series, and found it as revelatory now as it was in 2003, when I named it my favorite film of the year. Ad man Joe Pytka was doing little more than extending the Warner Bros. brand by forcing Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, et al into a Michael Jordan basketball vehicle. Dante, with a skeletal spy film structure (and despite numerous behind-the-scenes headaches) embraces the dada doodling that defined the best of the Termite Terrace output. (An out-of-nowhere homage to Psycho is especially inspired, as is the Louvre museum chase—in which Bugs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd race through paintings by Dalí, Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat—that even detractors of the film gave sky-high praise.) Flesh-and-blood protagonists Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman, charming though they may be, take backseats to their cartoon counterparts. Dante knows who the real stars are.
Dud of the Month: The Shallows
It would be easy to give this slot to something like the new Independence Day. But in this case, I’d rather use “dud” to spotlight a film that has some good parts, which are ultimately negated by its many idiocies. Jaume Collet-Sera is a solid-enough craftsman whose films almost always disappoint me because of an underlying shoddiness. Even at barely 90 minutes, his Blake Lively vs. Megashark thriller feels padded with asides (such as a corpulent drunk who becomes fish food) that dissipate the tension rather than enhance it. It’s enough to have Lively stranded on a rock, making conversation with an injured seagull, while the toothy predator circles, or (in a rare instant of true visual expressiveness) focus on her stunned face as a glowing school of jellyfish lights her way to safety. Yet Collet-Serra is too in thrall to rote, digitally enhanced action beats (and a cheesy reunite-the-family redemption narrative) to really linger on these moments. As is so often the case in his movies, the prosaic trumps the poetic.