This first week of the new year allowed me to catch up on some promising titles I'd been hoarding since December, leading to a much higher movie-per-week average than usual. These included the latest from three of the most talented individuals in Hollywood and one spectacular debut feature.
"The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino" we are helpfully told at the outset. What does one an audacious director do when the promise of unpredictability itself becomes a given as far as he is concerned? For QT, it means taking up the challenge, lock, stock and sixteen smoking barrels, giving us his most theatrical production yet. I mean this quite literally - this is a movie bound largely to two sets, a stagecoach and a bar. The confined setting simply allows Tarantino to spin out even more whip-smart dialogue as eight dastardly villains prepare to face off across one snowy evening. If the increasingly taut sequences don't approach the terrifying power of Inglorious Basterds' opening interrogation, there is still more bloody and invigorating entertainment to be had here than pretty much anything Hollywood put out last year.
Charlie Kaufman's latest is also surprisingly stage-bound and linear - though, as this increasingly complex stop-motion animated feature makes clear, there is no way it could have worked outside of its particular medium. Our protagonist, a consumer-relations guru spending a night at a hotel, has a peculiar problem. Everyone's voice sounds the same to him. His wife, son, the hotel attendant, all bleed into an unsettling monotone that typifies the man's increasing alienation. Until that is, he hears a woman's voice down the hallway that finally sounds distinct, and launches in single minded pursuit of her. Is this true love? Is it a manic delusion? Coming from the creator of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you know the likely answer is option c): both, and so much more. The movie didn't work for me on the level of his other achievements - the animation style, while so essential to the story, distanced me from the characters and there are definite pacing issues even though it clocks in at a slim 90 minutes. Still, this is Kaufman continuing to be ambitiously original and that, in and of itself is something worth celebrating.
Guillermo Del Toro, along with Baz Luhrman, is pretty much the Sanjay Leela Bhansali of Hollywood. I mean this in the best way possible, keeping in mind Del Toro's love of dramatic excess and sumptuous detailing of time and place. The trend continues in this movie, but the excess here can come off as a bit ... excessive. This is framed as a horror story ("Ghosts are real" is the first line of the movie), which position it occupies alongside its clear identification as a Victorian romance. The problem is that neither element is developed adequately. The scares just don't exist, and the romance elements are strangely half-baked, not helped by a lack of chemistry between the otherwise very capable Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston. Without spoiling much, there is plot purpose to explain the lack of scares, but it doesn't quite cut it. Also not helping is the cacophonous score - again, explained away, but if everything is backgrounded by a scoring crescendo then no moment really lands. And yet, I couldn't look away from this movie, because what Del Toro does with the art direction is nothing short of remarkable. Allerdale Hall where much of the movie is set is more of a character than its human leads, its arches knotted with insidious intent, its floors leaching blood, its walls whispering. Even the early sequences set in less forbidding territory are rendered in beautiful detail. As for Mia Wasikowska's stunning gowns - never has running for your life looked so elegant, with every anguished pace matched by a magnificent billow of fabric.
Two trans-female sex workers light up the streets of Los Angeles in this raucously funny and deeply moving story. There's a gimmick at play - this movie is shot entirely on iPhone video with augmentation - but it doesn't distract from the old school filmmaking skills at display here. Sean S. Baker does some excellent work by allowing the screwball chaos to heighten frenetically, and then defusing moments with unexpected grace notes. He's aided by two incredible performances from transgender actresses Kiki Rodrigues and Mya Taylor, who never allow the proceedings to devolve into lazy stereotype.
This looks to be frontrunner for the Oscar this year, and as with most frontrunners, is a solid, unexceptional movie. A journalism procedural,
detailing the Boston Globe's investigation of child sexual abuse in the early 2000s, it's a clear eyed and refreshingly unsentimental take on a horrifying issue. There are no easy targets either: as the team discovers, it might take a single man to carry out the abuse, but it takes a larger system to silence and cover it up. The ultimate chain of complicity runs deeper than one might expect. Good performances, restrained direction, certainly not the best movie of the year, but when was the last time the Oscars were about that?
Lysistrata - Aristophanes
I finally got around to reading Aristophanes' Lysistrata. My only experience with him before this has been through Plato's ventriloquism in the Symposium. There, the character of Aristophanes gives us an unforgettable articulation of the origin of love (strikingly evoked by this song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch). In this play though, Aristophanes is concerned more about sex. Sex as pleasure, sex as a medium of social exchange, sex as power, and ultimately, sex as revolution. The premise is delicious: the women of Athens, led by the titular Lysistrata, decide to deny their husbands sex until they lay down their weapons and end an existing war that ravages the city. The version I read was a modern translation by Douglas Parker, which allows for delights like the following articulation of Lysistrata's vow:
"I will withhold all rights of access or entrance/ From every husband, lover or casual acquaintance/ Who moves in my direction in erection..."
You get the hint. Those erections stand particularly, er, tall in the blisteringly funny denouncement where the men gather in sexual frustration and their inability to cloak it, brought to their knees by the women. I was surprised at the play's giddily feminist delights, given the overwhelming silence or outright derision that women face in the other contemporaneous Greek texts that I've come across. Here, though, spindling is a metaphor for governance and budgeting the household is prefatory to budgeting the economy. No metaphors for what I thought of the play - this is pure pleasure.
Rating: In as much as one can rate a classic on anything resembling objectivity - 4.5/5