On the edge of a rock hugging the violent sea, a weathered lighthouse affirms the mission of two men stalled on a mental tightrope. They plod day and night through a routine that always leads to one outcome: ensuring the illuminating glow of the tower never dims, even as the most turbulent storms loom relentlessly overhead. But a day comes when the winds shift, casting doubt on their own perseverance; a nor’easter draws down like a force of punishment, until their demeanors – one sardonic, the other silent and morose – collide on each other with disturbing gravitas. On the other side of the struggle is only more of the same: a cycle without relief or certainty, unless the primary conviction is to stilt the moods of those eager viewers watching below the projector’s light. Their feelings, I reckon, might parallel what some of the early audiences thought upon first seeing “The Shining,” also about people who were driven mad by isolation. Did the slow plod through a tonal labyrinth, too, undermine their defenses enough to amplify the horror of the climax? Were they submissive to the visual attack, and did it negate any questions of logic they might have had? Robert Egger’s eerie, hypnotic new film mirrors many of those possibilities and finds something rather interesting buried beneath: an imagination that escalates its visions into the fantastical and absurd.
Long before mental health awareness pigeonholed the Joker personality as a damaged loser prodding psychological wounds, Bob Kane’s villain existed somewhere between the cynical and the sardonic, like an instrument of showy destruction joyously sticking a thorn into the sides of his opposition. If the early comic book readers never quite saw him as a great monster, it’s because the material was emboldened by the irony of the façade; the clown makeup and the ridiculous cackle were behaviors of cartoon personalities rather than straight madmen. But now we have crossed into the space where graphic yarns have lost that distinction and have become living embodiments of the terror within. With that the villains of Gotham City have gone through a considerable transformation, starting with the Tim Burton “Batman” films, where criminal minds were founded by childhood trauma rather than a simple need to be devious. Christopher Nolan’s adaptations took this prospect even further; gone were the absurdist production designs, and in their place were tangible forces of darkness that seemed as if they were walking past us on any ordinary city street. The most profound modern realization of the Joker belonged to “The Dark Knight,” where Heath Ledger took the idea beyond the source’s own possibility and showed us a broken personality whose chaotic tendencies were like a roadmap leading back to a mind wrought with personal hell. Alas, now we must contend with Todd Phillips’s miserable “Joker,” about a man who knows no humor, slogs through a world riddled in corruption and limitation, and finds escape in unleashing the sort of gratuity and destruction usually reserved for cynical horror films.
The most reflective moment in “Ad Astra” takes place just outside the orbit of Neptune, seen hovering in the distance like the most vulgar mood indicator in a sci-fi film since the ominous planet in “Solaris.” While its energies don’t directly influence the emotional demeanors of those nearby, their attitudes have all but foregone a similar deep melancholy: a recognition that there may be only deafening solitude in the great emptiness that is space. Up to that point, James Gray’s mysterious film foreshadows that statement via a morose internal monologue by his lead star: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut who has abandoned a family on Earth to take to the same stars his father disappeared into decades before. But when he must confront the man he feels abandoned him, what can they say to one another? Was his father’s sacrifice really all terrible given that Roy has followed the same trajectory? Aboard the rusting ship that once housed a crew seeking intelligent life, two men lose the desire to form a cogent reasoning and can only submit, quietly, to a discovery that ought to have been obvious all along. What is not as discernable, at least until those final scenes, is how Gray will fill his audience with the same sense of dread. If we come to science fiction to understand the unknown and make it palpable, here is a movie that suggests we are naive in assuming greater secrets beyond our own corroding existence.
Is Tony Maylam’s “The Burning” a dead teenager horror film at all, or an ambitious homage to giallo masquerading as a slasher? The possibility occupied my brain while the material on screen lumbered along slowly and conventionally, positioning itself for a checklist of obligatory sequences that we come to expect of genre vehicles. The key difference is slight yet noteworthy: instead of recycling the sort of artificial showmanship that usually informed most of the violence in the early horror franchises, the movie creates a rather convincing aesthetic of gore, right down to the gaping wounds in a neck and the severing of someone’s fingers. The blood, meanwhile, splatters in the same ambitious fashion usually seen in the films of Mario Bava, who often used it more like a substance for a paintbrush. Where does an otherwise aimless descent into superficial formula staples get the gall to be so painstaking about its own visuals? Or the patience, for that matter? Maylam’s benefit may be that he, unlike any number of stand-in cameramen pretending to be legitimate filmmakers in that time, took the time to study up on his peers in order to best them at their own routine.
In theory “It: Chapter Two” ought to be a straightforward document about a monster’s final encounter with seven surviving teenagers destined to destroy him, but in truth it’s more about the pain of buried memories – about how grief and torment have been so great that survivors have placed protective barriers over their recollections, even as they are forced to relive them in order to understand their relevance in the present. Not 10 minutes into this long-awaited sequel and the distinction is firmly established: as the members of the Losers Club gather after 27 years of life experiences away from the horrors of their childhood, they discover a great significance in drifting consciously into flashbacks, as if peering through photographs that conceal necessary answers. Clues and perspectives rush to them in a torrent of emotion, arming them with what will turn out to be the right defenses to conquer their lifelong enemy. But who is the real barrier here: a menacing clown that feasts on defenseless loners, or the unresolved fears they have suppressed for nearly three decades? It is part of the skill of a good horror movie to reflect on its subjects throughout any ordeal thrown at them, and much like its predecessor, the new film is a well-made attempt to dissect the nightmares that come with being young and impressionable in a world riddled with cruelties.
Ten convicts. One game. Nine must die. The victor walks free. This isn’t an inherently flawed plot description if viewed through the lens of a well-intentioned eye, but the offense that is “The Condemned” exploits it for nothing more than lurid, gut-crushing violence – and in the process becomes one of the most deplorable moviegoing experiences of my life. The very idea of describing these scenes fills me with a dread I rarely recognize – you know, the sort that comes rising from the pit of your stomach when you’re in the throes of danger, or about to witness something causing agony or pain to another? If that’s just a taste of what is possible, then imagine what the poor suckers involved in the movie were thinking. Did they connect with this idea in any substantial way beyond their monetary greed? Was it sold to them as a sincere attempt at understanding our perverse voyeurism? Or were they all part of an elaborate joke being played on the victims known as the audience? I mourned their innocence just as much as they must have wept over the decimation of their careers. Towards the end, a single character stares angrily in the direction of the source of chaos, and he asks scornfully, “are you really trying to save them?” “No,” she retorts, “I was trying to save you.” How strangely comical it must have been for anyone to utter those words in the same room as a director and writer who ought to have seen them as self-reflective.
Towards the middle of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino casually reveals his intentions in a sequence involving an audacious clash of history and fiction. Already he has established the key relationship between an actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), but not until there is a western-style standoff with members of the Manson family do we sense the gravitas of their roles; just as Cliff is the one exposed to all the danger on the set, so does he carry that burden off-screen, where his friend and partner is usually sulking in self-pity. This, we soon realize, is the destiny that will foreshadow how the movie must play out: with the stunt man ready to face off against a violent threat emerging in the shadows while the other, more aloof personality, is left to remain mostly ambivalent in the backdrop. Is Tarantino saying something about his own ideals in these characters, who are like two halves of a fully contained behavioral system? Is his Rick Dalton, a neurotic and insecure man reflecting on the monotonous tide of his career, an avatar that he projects all his fears onto, while Cliff symbolizes the more youthful scope of his own chutzpah? Theirs is a union necessary to a film that would otherwise collapse without it; they bring guidance and perspective to an atmosphere that is essentially a eulogy to the old ways of Hollywood.
A great evil lurks in the fields of Gatlin, known only to a select few who have been ensnared by its mental claws. All those who do not accept it – mostly adults – are destined to become its famous first victims, as shown in an early sequence where the young narrator watches as rows of adolescents slaughter them at a local diner. Few beyond the town’s borders know of what transpired there, but a token mechanic living on the outskirts provides all the perfunctory warnings to those passing through. “Well, folks in Gatlin’s got a religion,” he tells a couple searching for a phone. “They don’t like outsiders.” And so the stage is set for the two oblivious leads to get lost on the road, wander into the abandoned town square and begin a bloody face-off with kids who otherwise would be carried off to youth detention centers in any normal reality. Piece all these elements together and you have the default premise for countless teenage splatter films; add in a few extra touches like excess violence with farm weapons, bad child actors mugging for screen time and a preacher who sounds like he is choking out his ponderous sermons, and what you have is the greater offense of “Children of the Corn.”
You can deduce a lot about a madman by the way he is perceived by others. The conventional anecdotes are the staple of many retellings of their crimes. They were loners. They didn’t talk to anyone. Some thought of them as socially awkward. They never stood out, always seeming to disappear among the faces in crowds. And then there are the sorts whose sins come as a total surprise to onlookers who otherwise thought highly of the culprits. “No one expected a sweet man like him to murder those boys,” a resident in Houston, Texas once said of Dean Corll. “I considered him a friend, and I’m stunned by this all,” another spoke of John Wayne Gacy, shortly after his house was ransacked and 29 bodies were pulled from the crawlspace beneath. The more lurid and disturbing maniacs cast a long shadow of doubt amongst their peers, who would never assume something so heinous behind a set of charismatic eyes. That also means their crime sprees tend to be long and drawn out, no doubt since they provide few (if any) warnings signs. Yet as I watched “Tenderness of the Wolves,” a dramatic reenactment of the many crimes of Fritz Haarmann, I was struck by the almost cheerful ambivalence of his friends, lovers and onlookers as he routinely got away with the vicious killings of teenage runaways. Consider a scene, for example, when the notorious “Werewolf of Hannover” drops a slab of meat on the counter of a lady’s establishment, and she expresses glee at his arrival. He apparently doubles as a butcher, in addition to being a police informant. Others, however, find the texture of his delivery odd and off-putting (no one questions where it comes from, of course). But the restraint of curiosity belongs to a single pitch: what purpose is there to suspect a man so charismatic of engaging in anything so heinous? This is a movie that theorizes people are more content to look the other way on what is obvious than to deal with it directly.
The insurmountable tension between the main characters of “Midsommar” would usually indicate the foreshadowing of some sort of dramatic showdown, but for Ari Aster, a filmmaker who prefers to quietly agonize over more unconventional horrors, it is simply a wound for the story to exploit much later, when the narrative pummels down on it like a merciless weapon. Up to that point, the leads dance around cordial exchanges as if attempting to subvert the topic of their mutual dislike, and brief arguments seem held back by a suspicion that it will all explode into something more elaborate. But those confrontations never come, usually because the faces are gradually picked off by something more volatile in the nearby shadows. Is Aster insinuating, perhaps, that not dealing with an issue like this early on is a gateway to tragedies beyond your control? Or is he of the belief that people’s individual personality conflicts are pointless when viewed in a broader sweep of cynicism? However you choose to approach the movie will do little to quell the macabre connotations of the outcome, which uses these behavioral details like roadblocks preventing eventual casualties from detecting more obvious fates. Theirs is less a story than it is a series of actions preceding inexplicable bloodshed.
Tradition is a social construct eroding in the sweep of modern values. This is one of the key observations made by Marxist E. J. Hobsbawm, who also suggests their prevalence in a series of more dangerous cultural identities, including the same nationalism that lead to Hitler’s Germany. One wonders how the writers of “Birds of Passage” would feel about this assessment – whether they would, quite possibly, concede that the behaviors of their characters seem like gateways to troubling histories, or if they, like their customs, are simply undermined (or destroyed) by more cynical paradigms. Evidence before them could support either theory. The scene: an indigenous tribe of Wayuu natives in the plains of Colombia is celebrating the coming-of-age of Zaida, the daughter of the family matriarch, and she has acquired the notice of Rapayet, a member of the neighboring family, who announces his intention to marry her. The snag in his desires is Ursula, Zaida’s mother, who insists on a steep dowry. Protective and dismissive, she believes he will never be able to pay it. But as days pass and Rapayet is seen caught up in a monetary agenda with foreign vacationers, her demands are met. Unfortunately, this does more than promise him the bride he seeks; it also sets the early stages in motion for what will become the gestation period of the Colombian drug trade, which found footing in the late 1960s and became the source of a cycle of violence that continues well into the 21st century.
John Carpenter’s “Christine” is a well-made attempt to bring sincerity to absurdity, without calling much attention to the disconnects of logic that would otherwise collapse the story. Imagine how frustrating that must have been for a man that was otherwise absorbed by more palpable realities. After “Halloween” established him as a filmmaker obsessed with the possible and “Escape from New York” moved him towards a more prophetic sense of storytelling, along came a ridiculous screen treatment involving a killer car and his nutjob owner who mow down the town’s teenage bullies. Who would have guessed – indeed, predicted – that any filmmaker might develop the self-awareness to know exactly where to take this story without tipping the audience off or sabotaging their interest? “It was just a paycheck when I took it on,” Carpenter once said in a book-length interview about his career. That was a payday well-earned, and now long after the horror movie market has been saturated by sub-par adaptations of most of Stephen King’s famous stories, his end result is widely seen as one of the more effective screen treatments of the era, however corny or preposterous it may remain on paper.
It takes a certain endurance to thrive among the X-Men, especially in the movies. Reflect for a moment on how frequently this team of misfits changes lineup: one minute a certain character is front and center, joining the ranks of Xavier’s mutants as their power comes to fruition, and then the next they are cast as a backdrop when someone more exciting (or dangerous) comes strolling through the doors, like new car models or better generations of cellphones. Only the more showy or idiosyncratic personalities ever make it past this curse of a momentary observation, and as with the source material the film adaptations have often leaned towards the same series of faces to revolve around: Wolverine (who even starred in his own trilogy of movies), Magneto (the most consistent villain), and Mystique (who has the benefit of, well, always being able to change her appearance). Now the filmmakers can add poor Jean Grey to that list of primary identities, if for no other reason than because of what her history will dictate: that she will go beyond being a normal telepath and see her mutant abilities ascend into the realms of gods and monsters. The newest chapter of this series, “Dark Phoenix,” has the distinction of casting her in that role before she is emotionally developed, which adds another challenge: how do you control yourself in a situation where everyone in the room has either lied to you or knows you must be destroyed to preserve humanity?
No other high-profile actor from the Hollywood golden age was more earnest in personifying the agony of character than the great Marlon Brando. Across four decades of challenging performances that involved smooth-talking creeps (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), crime world kingpins (“The Godfather”), exiled military generals (“Apocalypse Now”) and a mournful dock worker (“On the Waterfront”), it was his harrowing turn as a pseudo-predatory widow in “Last Tango in Paris” that ricocheted with the most realism. Something within what was otherwise accepted as perfunctory dialogue and staple behaviors slipped past the notion of simple observation and echoed deeply and sincerely, particular in a cluster of scenes where the camera observes his mourning process. “I’ll never understand the truth about you,” he tells the figure of his deceased wife before collapsing in a heap of raw emotion over her corpse. There is the moment where the entirety of his career can be absorbed in miniature, in a scene where all the conviction of his method is unleashed in a heartbreaking explosion of grief and confusion. How did he find the ability, or the strength, to transcend the notion of embodiment and become the very source of torment he was portraying? Where most actors simply repeat the words and actions to the service of a story, Brando became one with an identity.
Over a period of four years in the middle of his lauded creative boom, Woody Allen assembled the pieces of what would become “Zelig,” a faux biography about a man from the early 20th century who could physically change his appearance just by being in the company of others with similar attributes. At the time, the ambitious artifice was merely regarded as a self-contained display of his comic ability, a closed world of the sorts of wisdom and quirk than often ran unrestrained in his more mainstream endeavors. Looking back on it now, however, one uncovers a deeper meaning, particularly when we use the full hindsight of his career as the framework. Like the enigmatic Leonard Zelig, Allen harbored deep questions about his own value that were frequently sidelined in an attempt to “fit in” with the world’s perceptions, and making movies – much like changing identities – became an outlet to work through the impulses and behaviors. If the sum of his career can be seen as a series of destinations on a road to that discovery, then his strange, off-the-cuff “mockumentary” provides the most unlikely roadmap.