For Tarantino, this time is personal

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This article contains spoilers for ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’ Proceed with caution if you care about being spoiled.

The advertising for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood proudly announce it as “the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino.” This kind of marketing is the result of a career that has been built as much on cultural relevance as it has on quality cinema. A lot has changed in the film world since Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, benefitting form the independent film boom of the nineties, became a cultural sensation and turned the second-time director into the most talked-about man in Hollywood. The impact was so huge – calling Pulp Fiction the most important film of the nineties is like saying Obama was the first black President. It’s just a fact – that Tarantino has been able to build a unique career out of it. He is one of the very few filmmakers who will get close to a hundred million dollars from a big studio to make whatever movie he wants, on the promise that the Tarantino brand is strong enough to make bank at the box office. But this isn’t just another Tarantino movie. After decades of wild passion projects – kung fu epics, indulgent westerns, Nazi capers – Hollywood sees him do something completely unexpected: Tarantino’s gotten personal.

Running the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I am willing to say Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the most exciting movie in Tarantino’s career.  This might be a weird thing to say about a movie that operates for most of its two-hour-and-forty-minute run time as a comedy about good friends going about their day, but such low-stake vibes come off as refreshingly relaxed when in contrast to the director’s past work. Because Tarantino arrived fully formed, his movies have always seemed like the product of the same, incredibly talented, but inert artist. That is until now. This is the first Tarantino movie that feels like it takes place not in a cinematic real of the director’s design, but in the real world. Where the facts of history don’t only provide the setting for revenge fantasies, but the specifics of the situation. This is the first Tarantino movie to offer a glimpse not just at the director’s obsessions – movies, music, pop culture –  but at his inner psyche. Tarantino, who is nearing his sixties, is no longer an enfant terrible. He is an elder statesman, an institution, and it seems that with age, he is starting to interrogate himself and his cinema.

Let’s get specific. The movie takes place in 1969 Los Angeles, the year that saw the horrific murders in which members of the Manson Family killed five people, including actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child. This already differentiates the movie from Tarantino’s other historical epics, in that it is dealing with a specific fact of history rather than a narrative creation. While the “Operation Kino” that is meant to kill Hitler and his cabinet in Inglourious Basterds is a product of Tarantino’s imagination, the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends is pointedly not. Most of the movie, however, takes place six months before the tragedy, and focuses on the comings and goings of people in the film industry. Tarantino, who was six years old in ’69, recreates the Los Angeles of his youth with enormous care and wonderful detail (for this fact, he has called this film “his Roma“). And while two of the main characters are fictional, the third is Sharon Tate herself, making her the first real life protagonist of a Tarantino movie. The degree to which Tarantino is interested in following Tate in the seeming mundanity of her day-to-day life not only situates the movie squarely in our reality, (or closer to it than any other of his films), but provides the most tender reason for the movie’s existence: to focus on the life of a person who is mostly remembered for her death.

While Sharon Tate (played lovingly by Margot Robbie) reflects the movie’s interest in the historical record, the two fictional protagonists of the movie reflect Tarantino’s more personal interests in making this movie. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a television star past his prime, while Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Dalton’s stunt double and loyal sidekick. It’s in these two characters that I see Tarantino interrogating himself. He’s created plenty of great characters before, but never have they felt like they were part of his inner psyche in the way these two struck me as two sides of Tarantino’s own self-reflection. Cliff, the tough guy stunt man, seems to me a manifestation of Tarantino’s cinema: impossibly cool (Pitt, at 56, has improbably never looked better), capable of extreme violence, and with a problematic past. It is revealed halfway through the movie that Cliff might have been responsible for his wife’s murder. It’s not hard to make the connection to Tarantino’s past work, which is full of controversy – be it the liberal use of the n-word in his early movies, his decades-long collaboration with Harvey Weinstein, or the reports of endangering Uma Thurman on set while shooting Kill Bill. 

Meanwhile, Rick Dalton represents Tarantino as a person. He is an artist who has had great success in the past, but is now growing old in an industry that seems to be leaving him behind. As Rick, DiCaprio provides the best work of his career since he played the haunted conman of Catch Me If You Can. He has always been best at playing people who are out of their element and build a flashy persona to hide their uncontrollable fear of it all crashing down. Rick is a ball of insecurities, an actor obsessed with the idea that he might become yesterday’s news, not unlike the image-obsessed Tarantino, who has claimed he will retire after making only ten movies in order to preserve his legacy. The younger generations that threaten to take Rick’s place come in two groups: the murderous hippies of Manson’s commune, and the up-and-coming Sharon Tate and her group of friends. While the former group is portrayed with intense (perhaps justified?) contempt, Sharon and her friends represent a bright and loving future for Hollywood. Tellingly, Sharon’s friend group is made up of artists and performers, while the Manson zealots complaint about phony actors and violent television.

With all of this going on around him, Rick stands by his buddy Cliff despite his possibly murderous past the way Tarantino can’t help but stand by the potentially problematic thrills of his own cinema. It’s no surprise that Tarantino rejects the moralizing hippies in order to stand with the electrifying experience of cinema, but what does it mean in the context of the last section of the movie? As the brilliant Tim Brayton has pointed out, when the movie’s third act flashes forward to August 1969, Tarantino abandons the more “realistic” hang-outs the movie’s been inhabiting for his usual M.O., starting with a Kurt Russell voice-over recap and ending in an explosively violent climax. As Rick and Cliff band together against the hippies, Tarantino uses the fantasy of cinema to, once again, change history. Sharon Tate gets to live, cinema’s own violent tendencies become a force for good. The implications of such a climax can be deeply problematic, but have we ever seen Tarantino be this introspective before? This movie is the result of a man who is truly considering his relationship to his own art. For the first time, Tarantino isn’t just showing us the things he loves, but reckoning with them. Is such a departure a signal that Tarantino is growing as a person? Who knows. A signal that he is growing as an artist when we least expected it? That’s for damn sure.

 

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2019 Summer Box Office Predictions

2019 Box Office

I’ve been (wrongly) predicting the biggest box office hits of the summer ever since this blog started, and for the last three years, the predictions have been accompanied by a podcast recording with my friend Rachel, in which she joins me in trying to figure out what movies will make the most money. You’ll find my predictions below, and if you want to find out what Rachel thinks will be a hit, then listen to our conversation (also below). Being wrong is part of the fun, keep that in mind.

A note on what “summer” means: Box Office Mojo considers May 1-Aug 31 to be the summer movie season, and that’s what we are going with. That means Avengers: Edgame, which comes out the last week of April, is not eligible for our lists. Whether or not you consider it a summer movie is up to you, we just have to draw the line at some point. Never mind the fact that “actual summer” doesn’t start until June 21.

A second note: These predictions are for the domestic box office (U.S. and Canada), by the way, mainly because keeping track of when movies open in foreign markets is too much work.

1. The Lion King
Release Date: July 19
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 800 Million
Are you good at math? Hear me out. If you adjust for inflation, the live action Beauty and the Beast did 1.87 times as much money as the animated version. If you apply the same logic to The Lion King, then the live action remake would make $996 million, making it the highest grossing movie of all time. Given that we’re dealing with one of the most beloved properties out there, I think such a massive haul is a possibility. Still, a Disney remake being the highest grossing movie of all time doesn’t seem quite right, so I’m going on a half-assed limb at 800 million (which would still make this second highest grossing after The Force Awakens). In any case, I will go out on a limb to predict this makes more than Avengers: Endgame. 

[Update: In the time since writing this, and posting the podcast, Avengers: Endgame had by far the biggest opening weekend of all time, making upwards of 300 million. The likelihood of The Lion King outgrossing it seems quite unlikely, though I stand by what I said.]

2. Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Release Date: May 10
Studio: Warner Bros.
Predicted Box Office: 400 Million
This is my big bet. When it was announced, Detective Pikachu seemed like a joke. But if  the summer of Pokémon Go taught us anything, is not to underestimate this franchise. The trailers have been a total success, pushing the nostalgia buttons so perfectly that even I -who, sure, grew up with Pokémon but hasn’t thought about the creatures in a long ass time- excited for this movie. Kids will go. Young adults will go. There is something in the air about this one. I can feel it.

3. Toy Story 4
Release Date: June 21
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 375 Million
The Toy Story movies are big money-makers, but I don’t see a lot of excitement for this one. Toy Story 3 was such a perfect cap to the series, a lot of people (myself included) are wondering what’s the point of yet another sequel. Unless the reviews are ecstatic and this ends up being some sort of unexpected masterpiece, I can’t imagine it surpassing Finding Dory and/or Incredibles 2 in the pantheon of Pixar sequels.

4. Spider-Man: Far From Home
Release Date: July 5
Studio: Sony
Predicted Box Office: 340 Million
The MCU is a safe bet, people seem to be into this new version of Spider-Man. Spider-Verse and Endgame should be able to gather enthusiasm for this sequel, which should make about as well as its predecessor (330M.)

5. Aladdin
Release Date: May 24
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 230 Million
This one could go any other way. People really don’t like the look of the trailers, especially the blue CGI work done on Will Smith’s genie. However, this is a nostalgic property so it should be able to make enough bank to not be a complete disaster.

6. The Secret Life of Pets 2
Release Date: June 7
Studio: Universal
Predicted Box Office: 225 Million
The numbers Rachel pulled out while recording the podcast made me think I’m terribly underrating this one. People love their pets, they need things to take children to, and they do love those Illumination Studios movies, no matter how bad they look to me. I’m sticking with a number 6 spot, hoping that the release of Toy Story 4 a couple weeks after will take some of this movie’s momentum.

7. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
Release Date: August 2
Studio: Universal
Predicted Box Office: 190 Million
The Rock and Jason Stathan in an action extravaganza. Their movies don’t always make as much as they’re supposed to, but attachment to the Fast and Furious franchise should provide enough money to come close to 200 million.

8. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Release Date: May 31
Studio: Warner Bros.
Predicted Box Office: 180 Million
I see a lot of people online excited for this movie, but out in the real world? I could be totally wrong, but I think a crowded summer might make this an underperformer.

9. Men in Black: International
Release Date: June 14
Studio: Sony
Predicted Box Office: 175 Million
I thought the idea of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in a Men in Black reboot was a winning ticket, but the buzz around the movie is apparently really bad. Like most comedies, this will live or die on whether it is funny, and there’s really no way of knowing until the movie actually opens.

10. Dark Phoenix
Release Date: June 7
Studio: 20th Century Fox Disney
Predicted Box Office: 
150 Million
Disney seems to be dropping this one now that they’ve acquired 20th Century Fox. They want to do their own version of the X-Men, one that can interact with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so they just need the current series to wrap up as soon as possible. The buzz online is really bad, the trailers look bad, and most people are excited for the series to end than for this new movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t even crack a hundred, but superhero movies are insanely popular. At least enough for a top ten finish.

Cannes 2019 Preview

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It’s time for Cannes! Even if it’s unlikely that I’ll ever travel to the Croisette to attend the most prestigious film festival in the world, I cannot wait to hear about all the movies that play there. Hearing what’s coming down the pike from some of cinema’s most respected auteurs is one of the delights of the cinematic year. These are all the movies I get to look forward to for the rest of the year! This year I’ve decided to do something a little different, and list the movies in order of how excited I am to see them (with the caveat that the order will probably change after the movies premiere and we have actual reviews to guide my interest).

Overall, the line-up seems pretty much in line with the kind of movies (and directors) that premiere at Cannes. The biggest surprise was the absence of Once Upon a Time in Hollywoodthe latest from Quentin Tarantino, which was expected to premiere at Cannes on May 21 (the day that Pulp Fiction premiered twenty-five years ago before winning the Palme D’Or). The movie is still in post-production, and although it wasn’t part of the announcement today, will probably be added to the competition in the weeks to come. With four films, this is the line-up with the most female-directed movies in the history of the festival, thought I’ll let you decide if 4 out of 19 is a number to be excited about. 

The 2019 Cannes Competition (in order of Personal Excitement): 

Pain & Glory (directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
Focusing on a director who reflects on his life at a critical point in his career, this movie sounds like Almodóvar is making his version of 8 1/2 and All That Jazz. I absolutely love Almodóvar, and would watch any movie he directs, but what makes me extra excited is that this one has already opened in Spain, and the reviews have been fantastic. Some are starting to think this could be the movie that finally wins the Palme D’Or for Pedro. The movie stars Antonio Banderas, and features Almodóvar veterans Penélope Cruz, Cecilia Roth, as well as the acting debut of pop singer Rosalía.

The Dead Don’t Die (directed by Jim Jarmusch)
The festival’s opener is the latest from offbeat director Jim Jarmusch. Advertised as “the greatest zombie cast ever dissasembled,” the movie stars Bill Murray and Adam Driver as a sheriff and deputy who must protect their small town from a zombie outbreak. They are joined, among others, by Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez and Tilda Swinton. Jarmusch is a Cannes veteran, but has never won the Palme D’Or. This movie, which looks very comedic from the trailer, might not look like the one that finally gives him the win, but it does look quite delightful. I will follow Jarmusch anywhere after the wonderful Paterson, so I’m glad this one has a U.S. release set for June 14.  

Bacurau (directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles)
Mendonça’s Aquarius was one of the ver best movies of 2016, and featured a powerhouse performance by Brazilian legend Sonia Braga. His new movie, translated as Nighthawk on IMDb, sees the director reuniting with Braga. I don’t know much about the plot, but honestly, I don’t need to. I would be incredibly excited for Mendonça’s latest no matter the subject or star.

Parasite (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
After Mother, Snowpiercerand Okjathere is no doubting Bong as a master of genre cinema from me. No one can balance forward momentum, extreme violence, and dark comedy the way he can, often jumping from one to the other in the very same scene. Re-teaming with leading man Kang-ho Song, his latest movie focuses on a family in hardship whose illegal activities take them down a very dark road. I expect a top-notch, unique mystery.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (directed by Celine Sciamma)
Celine Sciamma is the director of Girlhooda fabulous movie that, if nothing else, features one of the very best scenes I’ve seen in a movie this decade. Sciamma has had success in Cannes sidebars in the past, but this is her debut in the competition. It’s a 18th Century period piece about a young female painter being forced to paint a wedding portrait for another young woman. I’ve been waiting for a while for Sciamma’s follow-up to Girlhood, so color me very excited.

It Must Be Heaven (directed by Elia Suleiman)
I must admit I’m not familiar with Suleiman’s previous Cannes entry –The Time That Remains– but everything I’ve heard about the director makes this sound like a fascinating project. Apparently, Suleiman’s style combines silent slapstick with melancholic introspection (already up my alley). This is the story of a man who escapes from Palestine to discover that the country follows his wherever he goes. I am very intrigued.

Atlantique (directed by Mati Diop)
If you are me, then you will recognize Mati Diop as the young girl from 35 Shots of Rum, or one of the foreign artists in the wonderful Hermia & HelenaThis is her first feature-length film as a director, which makes Diop the first black female director to have a film in the Main Competition. This seems to be a story about African migration to Europe, focusing on one woman who is left behind in Senegal. Despite being a debut, the buzz around this movie is really strong. Many outlets and insiders are claiming this is will go down as the emergence of a new major filmmaker. I’m really excited.

Frankie (directed by Ira Sachs)
Director Ira Sachs, who’s directed lovely American indies such as Love is Strange and Little Men, makes his Cannes debut with this story about three generations of a family working out their personal conflicts while on vacation in Portugal. When Isabelle Huppert and Marisa Tomei headline the cast, one simply cannot ask for more.

Little Joe (directed by Jessica Hausner)
Hausner’s last movie, Amour Fouis a very unconventional period piece. The Austrian director makes her English-language debut with this science fiction story about a group of scientist trying to figure out a mysterious plant that seems to change the personalities of those who come in contact with it. The lovely Ben Whishaw plays one of the lead roles.

The Whistlers (directed by Corneliu Porumboiu)
This movie sees Porumboiu revisit a character from his ten year-old Police, Adjective, as Romanian mainstay Vlad Ivanov plays a police officer who tries to use a secret whistling language in order to pull off a heist. I expect a slow and dryly funny movie in the style of most Romanian New Wave films, which when done right, can do wonders for me.

The Wild Goose Lake (directed by Yinan Diao)
There almost no information about this movie, but Diao’s last, Black Coal, Thin Icewon the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. There was a bit of controversy earlier this year regarding the Chinese government not allowing certain titles to compete at Cannes this year. This seems to have been the one exception. I am not familiar with Diao’s work, so I’m placing it near the middle expectations-wise.

A Hidden Life (directed by Terrence Malick)
Oh, Terrence Malick, the suddenly prolific American auteur returns with a three hour epic set during World War II. It’s supposed to be the story of a conscientious objector who refuses to fight for the Nazis, but knowing Malick, there will probably a lot of philosophical detours taken along the way. Malick isn’t usually my cup of tea, but I do love The New Worldso while I wouldn’t count on it, here’s hoping I can connect with this one in the same way.

The Traitor (directed by Marco Bellocchio)
I’ve never seen a movie by Bellocchio before, though I’ve heard quite good things about his Mussollini biopic VincereThis one is also a biopic, albeit of the less well-known Tommaso Buscetta, known as the “boss of the two worlds”, who apparently became the first mafia informant in 1980s Sicily. The trailer below is just a teaser, so it’s hard to know what’s going on, though I expected the typical darkness, violence, and excess of a gangster/mafia movie.

Oh Mercy! (directed by Arnaud Desplechin)
Despelchin is another Cannes favorite. This is about a detective trying to solve the brutal murder of a young woman. The wonderful Lea Seydoux is the top billed actress, though I’m not sure if she is the detective or the victim… or neither. Murder mysteries are not my favorite genre, and I’m constantly disappointed by contemporary French cinema, so I’m waiting for reviews to see if I gather any excitement.

Sybil (directed by Justine Triet)
The final female-directed film in the competition is a story about a “jaded therapist who returns to her first love of writing” and obsesses over a young actress. Female obsession is always an interesting genre, though my spotty history with contemporary French cinema keeps me from getting excited about this one.

Matthias & Maxime (directed by Xavier Dolan)
The prolific and opinionated Xavier Dolan has a particularly thorny history with Cannes. His last movie to play in Competition, It’s Only the End of the World, won the Grand Prix in 2016 despite being totally eviscerated by critics (a situation so hostile that Dolan claims he got eczema from it). But now he’s back with his latest movie, apparently an ensemble drama about relationships. I’ve only seen a couple of his movies, and haven’t been truly into them. Reviews for his latest stuff has been mostly bad. So my excitement is definitely low.

Les Miserables (directed by Ladj Ly)
This is Ly’s directorial debut, and it’s always exciting to see a filmmaker debut in Cannes Competition, but watching the clip that is available on IMDb lowered my expectations quite a bit. This movie seems “gritty” and “masculine” in a way that is always unappealing to me. The descriptions says it’s about a group of anti-crime brigade operating in a poor French neighborhood.

Sorry We Missed You (directed by Ken Loach)
Loach is one of those people who are extremely prolific and well liked at Cannes, which means that his movies are always in the competition. I personally don’t tend to connect with his particular brand of social realism. Not even his Palme D’Or-winning work can get me very excited, so unless reviews are truly ecstatic, I will probably skip this one.

Young Ahmed (directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
I am not the biggest fan of the Dardenne brothers’ hyper-realist miserablism to begin with, so this would be a tough sell for me no matter what. But the log-line “A Belgian teenager hatches a plot to kill his teacher after embracing an extremist interpretation of the Quran” sounds like exactly the kind of movie that I have zero interesting in seeing, especially coming from two white Europeans. They are Cannes favorites, though, so their movies are always in the line-up. 

Podcast: The Best Movies of 2009

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It’s become a tradition. Every year, I go on my friend Rachel’s podcast and we talk about our favorite movies form ten (and sometimes twenty) years ago. This time around, it’s 2009, so give a listen to the podcast below (which is also available on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts). Conversation topics include my distaste for Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, Rachel’s unexpected experience with Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, and the wonderful surprise I had when I revisited Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Other Podcasts on this Series: 2007, 2008, 1998

Other “Best of…” Retrospectives: 1992, 1995, 2005, 2006

Dumbo, or Fear of the Big D

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The new version of Dumbo, based on the 1941 animated classic, is an anti-capitalist story. In this live action update, director Tim Burton presents Dumbo -the flying elephant!- as a uniquely talented creature, one that boosts the ticket sales at a crumbling circus and ends up attracting the attention of V. A. Vandevere (Michale Keaton), the biggest entertainment magnate in the country. Vandevere, believe it or not, turns out to be evil. In order to get Dumbo into his fold, he buys the raggedy old circus, not caring about all the circus workers who will lose their jobs in the process. Even worse, he doesn’t care about Dumbo reuniting with his long-lost mother (she’s an inconvenience he’d rather shoot dead). But this being a children’s movie, the ragtag group of now unemployed circus performers (led by Colin Farrell) comes up with a plan to get Dumbo and his mom reunited, and give Vandevere a taste of his own medicine.

How ridiculous is it for a company like Disney to make such a movie? Disney, a company that last week finalized its purchase of 20th Century Fox -one of the “big six” Hollywood studios- creating massive layoffs as it inches slowly into total domination of the entertainment industry. Isn’t this some sort of deep hypocrisy- a giant corporation warning us about the dangers of giant corporations? Vandevere, who owns an amusement park called Dreamland full with massive parades and a “world of tomorrow” exhibit, couldn’t be a more obvious parallel for uncle Walt himself. How can this be a coincidence? Is this some sort of sick joke? In the time of Late Capitalism, Disney is here to sell our ideals back to us, as long as investors get rich. And we’re buying it. It’s hard not to when the same company owns Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, ESPN, the Muppets, Avatar, Titanic, The Simpsons, Disneyland, ABC, FX, and holds a majority stake in Hulu. How could you possibly escape that? 

Who is Dumbo in this analogy? The cute little elephant could be standing for an artist like Tim Burton, who has had his talent and originality drained by the franchise machine (and in no small part by Disney, who makes millions off of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise). Although at this point in the game, he might as well be standing for any talented young person trying to break into a creative field. Directors, writers, actors spend years trying to get a low budget off the ground, and if that movie breaks through in any noticeable way, the reward is being hired by a big corporation to write/star/direct their latest franchise entry. Independent voices such as Ryan Coogler, Chloe Zhao, Alex Ross Perry, even Argentinian arthouse staple Lucrecia Martel have gone through this process in one way or another. Is Disney’s plan to soak every talented person into its orbit? Is the ability to spend as much money as they can to attract talent what will allow to build a monopoly on culture. Here’s a once ridiculous question that now seems only appropriate: What would pop culture look like in a world where everybody works for Disney?

What makes this real life scenario different from the movie is that there is no ragtag group of circus performers that can save us. There is no Colin Farrell here to lead the charge. How could there be, when we don’t have to take on one bad individual, but an enormous conglomerate who nobody can escape. Because nobody can resits Disney. Not the artist who is presented with a massive, once-in-a-lifetime paycheck. Not the children who are advertised to from the minute they are born. Not the adults who grew up with Disney movies and have a visceral reaction when they hear the opening notes of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, or “Circle of Life”, or the Star Wars theme. How do you fight that?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself for a while. Earlier this year I took inspiration from Alternate Ending editor Tim Brayton and decided that, like him, I will no longer go to see any Disney movie on its opening weekend. But what will that measly moral stance do other than make me feel a little better about my choices? Why does cutting Disney from my media diet feel as if I was becoming a Vegan (something I would never do)? How has a company been so effective at commodifying our pleasure, at owning our childhood, at selling it back to us? Why, if I understand that Dumbo’s anti-capitalist message is absolutely hollow, do I still find the little elephant so damn cute? Why do I get excited when I hear “Casey Junior” and “Baby Mine” on the soundtrack?

I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing to do. I will continue with my “no opening weekend” rule, but Disney cannot be stopped. I do not know what a world in which culture is monopolized by one company will look like, but I am now convinced we’ll find out sooner rather than later.

On Endings, Expectations, and ‘Us’

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This weekend Us opened to an outstanding 70 million dollars at the North American box office. Those numbers make it the biggest opening ever for an original horror movie. And yet, despite its commercial success, the movie seems to be regarded -by critics and audiences- mostly as a step down for writer-director Jordan Peele, whose previous movie was Get Out. Walking out of the movie theatre this weekend, I overheard quite a few variations on “I didn’t get it”, “I’m confused” and “What was that?” The cultural impact of Get Out would be impossibly hard to follow-up no matter what -expectation are just too damn high. However, the response to Us –which I think is a great movie- has me wondering about what we consider to be a good movie. Or rather, about the conventions that we have accepted to be the signifiers of a good movie.

The biggest difference between Get Out and Us comes at the end. For most of its running time, Us works beautifully as a horror movie. It focuses on a family (led by the incredible Lupita Nyong’o) whose beach vacation is ruined when they find themselves haunted by mysterious monsters that look just like them. It’s an intriguing set-up made all the more enjoyable by Peele’s abilities as an artist. He proves in just two movies, that he has a talent for balancing nerve-racking suspense with hilarious satire. Us moves from one horrifying set-piece to another with an ease that recalls the masters of horror filmmaking. It isn’t until the third act of the movie, when we start to get a sense of what the hell is going on with these “clones” that the audience starts to get disappointed.

Exactly the opposite was the case in Get Out, which deliberately uses its third act to explain the intricacies of its plot in detail. The answers at the end of that movie make everything clearer, validating the main character’s suspicions that he shouldn’t trust his white girlfriend’s family. In Us, however, things don’t become clearer. It’s not that the movie doesn’t make sense (if you’ve seen the movie and want some analysis of its themes, I recommend this article), but rather that the final minutes of the movie totally re-contextualize the previous two hours. Some might think of it as a cheap last-minute twist, but it is so much more than that. It confronts us with the way we were reading the movie, so much so that my initial reaction was of absolute rejection. “No, this movie was supposed to be this one thing, it can’t all of a sudden be this other thing.” But I thought about what I had just seen, and not long after my wife and I were exchanging theories of what it all meant.

I think of my immediate guttural reaction, and the comments I heard coming from the audience around me and I wonder if those people will have similar conversations as the one I had with my wife after the movie. Worrying about how other people will react to a piece of art -let alone a piece of art you are not directly involved with- is a futile exercise. There’s just no way of knowing. But one of the things that I loved so much about Us was how open it was to interpretation, how it forced me to consider the way I felt watching the movie and try to understand first, why I felt that way, and second, what those feelings mean in the context of the movie. However, in order to do that, I had to trust that Jordan Peele knew what he was doing, that me feeling uncomfortable wasn’t a failure of filmmaking, but part of the experience. I had to give him the benefit of the doubt… And that’s what I worry about.

* * *

Not long ago, after a performance of the play Noura, a man complained that what he had just seen “wasn’t a real play.” What was this man trying to say? A little context: Noura is a play written by Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo, and loosely based on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In case you weren’t a theatre major, Ibsen was a pioneer of naturalist theatre in the nineteenth century. A Doll’s House was a particularly controversial work because it ended with a woman -Nora- deciding to leave her husband and children. Noura recasts the main role of Ibsen’s play as a woman caught between her Iraqi past and her American present, and it also ends in a somewhat controversial note. Not because it goes against any norms of decorum, but against narrative norms.

As it is nearing what we would usually understand as its dramatic climax, Noura ends abruptly. I think you know where I’m going with this. It’s a purposely frustrating ending, one that -to me- emphasizes the fact that the author’s priorities are not in the plot, that what Raffo wants to communicate with her play is not tied up to a resolution. What exactly she is interested in -character, ideas, theme- could be debated, but categorizing the ending as a mistake rather than a deliberate choice is an incredibly narrow-minded decision. I wonder what the man who thinks the lack of resolution makes Noura “not a real play” would think of Us. 

Is that all we want out of our stories? A satisfying ending? If you’ve ever taken a writing class or read a screenwriting book you’ll know what I’m talking about. There’s the inciting incident, then the twists and turns, and finally you pay it all off in the big finale. It’s a formula that has been developed over centuries and found its ubiquity thanks to the enormous influence of Hollywood. Film technology, which allows for movies to be exported without major alterations, made Hollywood movies into a world-wide phenomenon. The influence was immense. Practically all of the renowned international auteurs either take their cues from Hollywood, or purposefully try to go against its conventions. Akira Kurosawa, the French New Wave, Spaghetti Westerns… they all exist in relationship to Hollywood.

But just because we have this is the most popular way of telling stories does it mean it is the right way. We have accepted the dramatic structure presented to us by Hollywood (and its predecessors) as a gospel truth when maybe it isn’t. The idea of inciting incident, rising action and climax is most closely associated with 19th-Century theorist Gustav Freytag, who explained the structure of Greek and Shakespearean theatre by illustrating it as a pyramid:

Freytags_pyramid

Now here’s a caveat: this illustration isn’t perfect, since it makes it seem as if the “Climax” came in the middle of the structure, which is not true of most dramatic arts, and certainly not true in Hollywood storytelling, where the climax comes pretty close to the end. In any case, Freytag’s pyramid has been extremely influential in the way we have developed play- and screenwriting; so much so that a lot of us forget that this structure is not a requirement. In fact, this structure has its limitations. For example, playwright Sarah Ruhl observed that the trajectory of Freytag’s pyramid closely resembles that of the male orgasm.

This pyramid was created in a specific context, accepting it as the only viable dramatic structure is limiting our view of dramatic storytelling tremendously. Sure, it’s nice when the latest superhero blockbuster stars a person of color, or a woman, but there is a difference between playing ball within the parameters that have been established, and to truly subvert expectations. Let’s remember, movies will evolve. They’re only been around for about a hundred years (a minuscule amount of time compared to plays, music, poetry). What we are living through is not the logical end of filmmaking, it is barely its “classical period.” Youtube, Snapchat and whatever comes after them will shape the future of filmmaking. Nobody knows what a movie will look like in a hundred years, but how disappointing would it be if they looked just like they do today? I hope that as more people (with backgrounds and identities) get to make more movies, they will bring new ideas of what a movie can be.

Considering where this conversation has gone, the twist at the end of Us seems incredibly traditional. But if this is how we react to something that differs even slightly from the norm, then what hope is there for the future? The possibilities are endless, so why temper them with a restrictive pyramid?

2019 Movie Preview

Us peele

Awards season is finally done. There is a lot to celebrate (Spike! Olivia! Regina!), but it was one of the most punishing seasons I can remember, culminating in an embarrassing Best Picture win for Green Book. What better time, then, to look toward the new year, full of new movies and endless possibilities! I know the cycle will repeat itself, and I will be tired of the conversation that will develop around all these movies by the time we hit 2020, but for now, these represent the promise of stimulating, exciting cinema to be enjoyed in 2019.

The Movies I’m Most Excited For:

Us (opens March 22) – How could you not be excited for Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out, one of the most exciting studio releases of the last ten years? This one finds Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke facing off against evil copies of themselves, or something like that. The trailer was almost identical to the Get Out trailer, but I trust that’s just the marketing machine and Oscar-winning Peele has the clout and vision to do something wholly unique with his second movie.

Her Smell (opens April 12) – I find Alex Ross Perry to be a very exciting director, and I absolutely love Elisabeth Moss. Word out of last year’s New York Film Festival (where the movie premiered) is that this movie is a career height for both of them. Moss plays an unravelling rockstar, which sounds right up my alley.

John Wick: Chapter 3 (opens May 17) – The John Wick trilogy comes to a close? If you remember, the second movie ended with John Wick on the run from literally every assassin in the world, so expect this to be a action-packed extravaganza. We are here for legend Keanu Reeves, of course, but check out this cast: Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Jason Mantzoukas, Laurence Fishburne, Anjelica Huston, and Mark Dacascos a.k.a. the Chairman from Iron Chef America!

Ad Astra (opens May 24) – The movie I’m most looking forward to was supposed to open at the end of last year before being pushed to May. James Gray, one of my favorite directors, follows up The Lost City of Z with a science fiction epic. If that weren’t enough, it stars three of our best actors: Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Little Women (opens December 25) – Greta Gerwig follows the success of her delightful Lady Bird with an adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic. I’ll be very interested to see Gerwig work in a period setting -and with a literary adaptation to boot. The cast includes Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pough, Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep.

Dolor y Gloria (release date TBD) – It’s been a while since Pedro Almodóvar made a true masterpiece. We are hoping this movie, which reunites the director with Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas -both of whom became big stars thanks to their roles in Almodovar movies- will prove to be one of his best. The Spanish release of the movie is set for March, so I expect it to play Cannes in the spring and open in the U.S. sometime in the Fall.

Uncut Gems (release date TBD) – The Safdie brothers, responsible for Good Time, follow up that incredible movie with a story set in New York’s diamond district. Adam Sandler plays the lead character, a jeweler with a gambling addictions, and is joined by Pom Klementiff, Lakeith Stanfield and The Weeknd. This will probably debut at Cannes, so I’m hoping for a late summer release, just like Good Time got.

Untitled Noah Baumbach Project (release date TBD) – This one is about a family dealing with divorce, which sounds about right for a Noah Baumbach project. I love Baumbach, however, and will see whatever he does next. The cast, which includes Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, and Laura Dern only makes me more excited.

The Lighthouse (release date TBD) – Robert Eggers, who debuted a couple years ago with The Witch, returns with a horror story starring Willem Dafoe as a lighthouse keeper. I don’t know about you, but that description is enough to sell me on the movie.

The French Dispatch – Wes Anderson started filming his latest movie in the fall of last year. The plot of the movie is unknown, but it’s supposedly set in France after World War II. As usual, Anderson has assembled a cast full of stars, including Saoirse Ronan, Natalie Portman, Timothee Chalamet, Benicio Del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Lea Seydoux and, of course, Bill Murray. I love Anderson, but remains to be seen if the movie will be done in time to be released in 2019.

Deadwood (release date TBD) – Technically television, but Deadwood is one of the best tv series I have ever seen and it sadly got cancelled before created David Milch could properly put a bow on his masterpiece. More than ten years later, however, he will be able to tie loose ends in a television movie that will air on HBO sometime in the Spring. So if you’ve never seen this show, now is the time to catch up.

Detective Pikachu (opens May 10) – I’m not totally sure why Pikachu sounds like Ryan Reynolds, but I would be lying if I didn’t say the trailer to this movie speaks to my soul. Is my excitement the result of being relentlessly advertised to? A side-effect of being eight years old at the height of Pokemon fever? Or is it simply that Pikachu looks so damn cute? I don’t know the answer, I only know I’m going to watch the hell out of this.