In Hollywood’s second year as a force of dissent in the climate of Trumpism, no greater achievement resonated with the public more than “Black Panther.” Against all forecasts and most common trends it was a movie that broke the barriers of its genre, becoming the first film featuring a significant cast of black actors to cross the billion-dollar threshold. In a time when there is more demand for the representation of minorities in studio output, this was comforting: it meant that the mainstream element was, at long last, reflecting the diversity of modern American society, and doing so while sneering gleefully at traditionalists still pining for more of the same. Those were the sorts who nursed their cynicism into indignity, particularly as their more favored choices – violent action vehicles and remakes – often stalled at a box office overrun with the audacity of inclusion.
Somewhere in the elegance and luxury of 18th century England, Yorgos Lanthimos has uncovered a grotesque social underbelly. It exists not in the villages of the poverty-stricken or the back alleys of seedy tradesmen, but in the very corridors that surround Queen Anne, who has taken ill and depends on the council of devoted servants that are intoxicated by their own prestige. In many cases, they also seem destined to break all notions of social code, and there is a scene early on that exemplifies this: Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the queen’s closest consort, exchanges barbs with Harley (Nicholas Hoult) about the trajectory of war with France. He is opposed to it, but her venomous gaze seems to revel in his protest. Is she doing it because she believes in approving excessively high land taxes, or is she getting off on her own grip of the power hammer? What makes that scene, and so many others, so utterly biting is how the characters treat the concept of speech. It is a weapon against influence, not a bridge to understanding it. And for two hours we pause and watch as public formalities spill over into private sessions filled with scheming and cruelty, as if destinies are written from the blood and tears of the betrayed. At some point a background figure among them proves to be the most menacing of all: someone who will come to play at the table like a pupil silently undermining its teacher, even if it may be at the cost of more than just mere loyalties.
Did the characters of “Home Alone” survive the ordeal of the original film, or could they have slipped into an alternate timeline before cameras showed up for the sequel? This is one of many questions worth mulling over as the events of “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” play out in all their absurd glory, right down to a shameless and patronizing third act, which even contains a scene where young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) tries to lecture a homeless woman on living in fear of a broken heart. Where does he get the nerve? Perhaps he was empowered by enduring through the climax of the first film, where he outsmarted two burglars with comic savagery. Maybe surviving alone, stranded from his family, gave him pause to recognize his own fierce independence. Maybe being on the streets of Manhattan have hardened his edge. Or most likely he has just become the victim of writing that has lost its grip on any form of tangible reality. This is not a hard possibility to assume, after all, particularly when you consider everything that leads to that point. Here is a film where the adults lack common logic, parents are deluded to think they have a shred of credibility, and situations are contrived for the purpose of a cartoonish agenda that moves from one ridiculous moment to the next without any substantial point. Whatever merits we attach to the first film in this series, they are all but abandoned somewhere in the mess of a follow-up.
For some well-versed in the unremorseful extremism of Lars von Trier’s films, “The House That Jack Built” will play like business as usual. Others still may observe it as an exercise in arrogance and perversion, well exceeding the necessities of its premise. Both perspectives skirt the more devious intention lurking beneath. Sure, this is a film that walks, talks and personifies the idea of what a serial killer must be – right down to the rigid and perceptive way he uses his victims as set pieces in an elaborate show of self-proclaimed artistry – but beneath those disturbing exteriors is a critical essay about how a filmmaker with cynical worldviews sees himself in a reality that tries desperately to stifle his chaotic creations. To him, Jack is a self-projection, and his victims the willing cattle of a slaughter they seem subconsciously willing to submit to. Most important directors at some point in their career will create these sorts of on-screen avatars to symbolize their ideology, usually for the sake of revealing themselves to an audience caught up in misconceptions. Von Trier’s distinction comes from less generous conceits: he relishes this chance to play on your aesthetic limits and doesn’t care how you will respond.