2 Great Comedies: Real Life and Monsieur Verdoux

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Albert Brooks reinvents cameras (and comedy) in ‘Real Life.’

These reviews were originally posted in my Letterboxd account, and have been edited for this post.

Real Life (1979)
Director: Albert Brooks
In the running for funniest movie ever made. Albert Brooks plays “Albert Brooks,” a Hollywood celebrity who wants to make a movie in which he follows a typically ordinary American family for one year, capturing the simple profundity of everyday life. Of course, this being a mockumentary, all pretense of serious social experiment quickly dissolves into the sensational dramatism that we would now call “reality television.” It’s not exactly that Real Life predicts so many things that would define the landscape of American pop culture in the years since it came out, but rather that Brooks and his collaborators had already observed and considered everything that was inadequate, problematic, and alluring about this “reality television.” It’s not surprising Roger Ebert gave this one star, not quite knowing what to make of such a forward-looking movie – one that looked like nothing made in ’79, but that feels like the kernel for all comedy since. The movie is deeply observant about the futility of trying to capture reality with a camera, turning the debates about ethical representation that are usually reserved for documentary theorists and Jean-Luc Godard into a source of endless cringe. For all of its virtues as a satire of media past and future, the movie shines brightest by being so fucking funny.
Available to stream on Criterion Channel

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Director: Charles Chaplin
By this point Chaplin had gone from the most famous man in the world to a deeply controversial figure – he was at the center of a paternity scandal, which might have been provoked by the FBI wanting to soil Hollywood’s most famous socialist sympathizer. Thus, Monsieur Verdoux was Chaplin’s first true flop – an even more direct critique of capitalism than any of his previous movies (all of which are concerned with poverty and are deeply critical of the capitalist status quo.) This was also Chaplin’s first movie after World War II – Neil Bahadur wisely points out how we learn about Verdoux’s first victim by seeing dark smoke coming out of a furnace. Chaplin plays a man who, after losing his job due to the financial crisis, goes into the “business” of marrying and killing wealthy widows. In a shockingly chilling moment, we see Chaplin make that typical Little Tramp gesture where he puts one leg over his knee and smiles pretending nothing is going on, only the thing he’s covering is the fact that he’s about to drown a woman in a lake. Here we have Chaplin finally playing someone other than the Little Tramp, someone who has succeeded at playing in the Capitalist machine, and he is a literal serial killer. You can’t get much more blunt than that. And yet, the movie is deeply poignant about the dehumanization that occurs when everything is seen through the prism of money, of survival, of business. It’s not necessarily the darkest of Chaplin’s movies – even the movies with happy endings show horrible inhumanity – but it’s definitely the most bitter. It’s also an absolute must-see that belongs in the pantheon of Chaplin’s masterpieces.
Available to stream on Criterion Channel

Best of the Decade: First Cow

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There is an internet quiz based on Gary Chapman’s self-help book The Five Love LanguagesAs far as internet quizzes designed to explain your personality go, it’s not half bad. The premise of the experiment is that different people express their love in different ways, and thus perceive certain actions as being more romantic or meaningful than others. When I took this quiz, I scored highest in the category labelled “acts of service.” This means that the most effective way you can show your love for me is to do me a favor, and that you should consider yourself loved if I’ve ever done the same for you. It also means that I’m wired in such a way that the moment in Kelly Reichardt‘s First Cow where a man decides to sweep his friend’s house reduced me to an uncontrollable puddle of tears.

Let me explain a little more. Cookie, as played by John Magaro, is a gentle soul. We meet him as he’s traveling with a company of rugged fur trappers toward the Oregon territory. He’s the company’s cook – hence the name – and as we see him bullied by the men who expect him to provide good meals no matter the circumstances, we wonder how a delicate and sensible man could survive in an environment as tough as 1820s Oregon. One day, as he is foraging the forest, Cookie encounters a Chinese man. Risking the ire of the irritable trappers, Cookie provides the man some food and shelter. Week later, once the company has arrived at their destination, Cookie once again runs into this man. Happy to see the man who showed him kindness, King Lu (Orion Lee) invites Cookie over to his place – a humble shack in the woods. As King Lu steps out to chop some firewood, Cookie observes him for a moment, then picks up a broom and begins to sweep. In most American movies such a scene would be the smallest moment in the whole picture, in Kelly Reichardt‘s hands it comes across as monumental. Can’t you see this is the moment in which Cookie and King Lu become best friends?

Most people may have never heard of Kelly Reichardt, but in certain circles (such as the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma) she is one of the most celebrated directors in the world. Her movies are at first glance slow and simple, but upon further reflection reveal themselves to hold immense ideas within them. First Cow* might be my favorite of them all, not least because it so clearly speaks my (love) language. It’s a story about a tender, genuine friendship between two gentle men trying to survive in a rough and violent world. It is also a story about how that seemingly untamed world is already dominated with the forces that corrode American life. The movie was released in American theaters earlier this year, until its run was interrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic. I am taking advantage of the technicality that the movie played at last year’s Telluride and New York Film Festivals to include it on a list of the best movies of the 2010s – even though it would earn its spot among the best movies of any decade.

* The movie’s title refers to a literal cow, the first and only cow in the territory Cookie and King Lu settle in, which ends up playing a pivotal role in the men’s relationship.  

Best of the Decade: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

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This is an entry in the “Best of the 2010s” series, in which I write about my favorite movies of the last decade.

I had to learn how to watch the films of celebrated Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. My first experience was Cementery of Splendour, by all accounts the sleepiest and most glacially paced of his movies. Second came Syndromes and a Centurya bifurcated portrait of lovers across time. While I appreciated the ethereal simplicity of both, I didn’t fully connect with either. I knew I was missing cultural and historical context, but I also suspected (turns out rightly) that there was a way for the movies to cohere for me without having to become an expert in Thai history. The movie that finally did it for me was Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong’s Palme D’Or winning masterpiece.*

Uncle Boonmee is a sick man living in the jungles of Northern Thailand. A couple of family members come to visit and take care of him, but it’s clear to all that the good uncle is not long for this world. Later, as they’re having dinner, the family is visited by a sort of ape-man who reveals himself to be the spirit of Boonmee’s deceased son. The family reacts by asking the beast to sit down, and go on to have a totally casual conversation about the spirit world. Moments like this, including retellings of old legends and journeys into metaphysical spaces, are peppered throughout the movie, which is otherwise a slow paced meditation. I single out the dinner scene because it comes early on, and it was the moment that finally made things click for me. Suddenly it was all so simple: the scene is both funny and profound.

Later in the movie, we learn Uncle Boonmee is a veteran. We can sense a certain dread is building up in him, as he is unsure of how he will be judged for his violent actions in the afterlife. It would be foolish to pretend I know what the movie is about or trying to say – both because it feels too big to comprehend, and because mystery is built into its very foundation. Apichatpong’s suggestion that life and death don’t exist in absolute isolation is moving. The way he melds these worlds with the most unassuming, natural ease takes the movie into the realm of transcendence. In other words, the movie is profound because, not in spite, of the fact that you can laugh at the ape man.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel.

* The president of the Cannes jury that year was none other than Tim Burton. Giving the top prize to ‘Uncle Boonmee’ is undoubtedly the best thing he did this past decade. 

Best of the Decade: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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This is an entry in the “Best of the 2010s” series, in which I write about my favorite movies of the last decade.

As I write this, the internet is passing around a rather amusing tik tok that parodies the style of director Wes Anderson. Some people’s comments make it seem as if we are supposed to take the fact that videos like this surface on social media so often as a sign of weakness. I, for one, see the ease and frequency with which Anderson is parodied compared to his contemporaries as a strength. Such videos are proof that we can all recognize his stylistic tools – vibrant colors, dollhouse sets, perfectly symmetrical compositions – but also of how effortlessly and efficiently he is able to deploy them. If some Wes Anderson movies are better than others, this is surely a consequence of the screenplay. In terms of consistency, intensity, and elegance, no one movie by Anderson is better or worse directed than the other. The man’s developed such a unique film grammar, that any development he makes as a director never feels like a departure, but as a natural evolution of his cinematic language.

If The Grand Budapest Hotel stands out as a particularly notable achievement, it’s because it deals with the man’s relationship to his own work more explicitly than any of his other movies. Structured as a series of nesting-doll flashbacks, the bulk of the movie details the last days of the luxurious Grand Budapest, a hotel run with autobiographical perfectionism by Monsieur Gustave H (an excellent Ralph Fiennes.) As the good concierge and his protégé (Tony Revolori) embark on a caper involving the theft of a valuable painting, the fictional Nation of Zubrowka falls to thinly-veiled fictional Nazis. The presence of a force as dark as Nazism inside one of Anderson’s candy-colored dollhouses is immediately disquieting, and the feeling only intensifies as things turn more and more violent. We aren’t surprised by the melancholic resolution to our protagonists’ adventure – if we’ve been reminded of something too many times this past decade, it’s of Nazism’s refusal to die, and its ability to invade and poison anything it can get its hands on. What is truly surprising is the fact that such a detour into darkness does not puncture Anderson’s bubble, but strengthens it.

Evidently, Anderson is a control freak who is deadly afraid of any force that can’t be controlled (we have that in common.) Usually, these are natural forces – like the shark in The Life Aquatic and his characters need to learn to accept and live with them. But this time is different. The evil in The Grand Budapest Hotel is man-made, lives right under our noses, and can destroy something other than our character’s psychology – it can destroy culture. All of Anderson’s seemingly frivolous obsessions – visuals, art, fashion, textures – are at risk, and so this movie becomes the director’s way of arguing for their value. This sentiment is most perfectly articulated in two moments: First, when a prison guard, moved by the exceptional craftsmanship of the baker, decides not to inspect a pastry that hides an escape tool. Second, when we learn of a secret network of hotel concierges designed to look after each other, a pointed affirmation that organized, humane solidarity is essential when preserving beauty is the goal of one’s life and career.

Best of the Decade: Phantom Thread

phantom thread

This is an entry in the “Best of the 2010s” series, in which I write about my favorite movies of the last decade.

What is the epitome of romance? Every single person will have a unique answer to this question, and that’s what keeps our species from going extinct. There is no doubt that, in a world where the most repellent humans are capable of finding a soulmate, romantic love comes in infinite shapes and sizes. However, this is a fact that seems to be of no interest to the movies. The kind of characters who star in movie romances are not only written to be likable, but are played by incredibly good looking and charismatic actors on top of that. How refreshing, then, to find a movie like Phantom Thread, which finds true romance in some of the most irritating people you will ever meet.

The movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the impossibly-named Reynolds Woodcock, a prestigious fashion designer whose fussiness is extreme even for the movie’s genteel English setting. Vicky Krieps plays Alma, a young waitress who dazzled by Reynolds, but stubbornly refuses to be simply one of his many disposable girlfriends.* This classic screwball scenario came as a shocking revelation in the theatre, mainly because the movie’s trailer had made it seem like a severe and joyless prestige drama. This movie is, in fact, the most effective and original romantic comedy of the past decade.

Two things set Phantom Thread apart from most rom-coms: First, it goes beyond the genre’s usual scope. It does not focus on the courtship, nor does it end with the main couple getting together. Instead, it chooses to dive head-first into the nitty gritty of trying to make a relationship survive, meaning it relishes in the tough and unglamorous parts that most rom-coms try desperately to avoid. If that weren’t enough, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson decides to follow two incredibly irritating characters. Reynolds is irritating because of his fabulously inflated yet fragile ego; Alma because her actions are often at odds with how we expect a “strong female lead” to behave.* Given all these details, the movie’s most daring decision is to present itself as a swoon-worthy romance nonetheless.

What could possibly be romantic about two stubborn people who can only make their relationship work by literally poisoning each other? Well, precisely that. The fact that these two are able to make it work speaks to the wild nature of love, its many presentations, and most importantly, its impossible strength. Phantom Thread didn’t make the cut when I wrote about my favorite movies of 2017. I’ve now seen it four times, and with every watch, it keeps growing in my estimation. If there is a better monument to the power of love, I simply don’t know it.

The third corner of the movie’s central triangle is Reynolds’s sister Cyril, played brilliantly by the great Lesley Manville. 

** SPOILERS: Film critic Adam Nayman once said that if Alma had actually killed Reynolds with the mushrooms, the movie would have been a hit. In its current, more complicated form, the movie made only a small dent at the box office – although it did unexpectedly well at the Oscars, getting six nominations and a win for Costume Design. 

Best of the Decade: Magic Mike XXL

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This is an entry in the “Best of the 2010s” series, in which I write about my favorite movies of the last decade.

In 2012, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike grossed more than a hundred million dollars at the domestic box office. This achievement came, in large part, because the movie was marketed as a titillating stripper comedy despite being, at heart, a character drama about economic struggles during the great recession. In a bizarre and unjust turn of events, the movie’s sequel – released three years later – was a box office disappointment despite actually being the rollicking comedy that Magic Mike was marketed as. In fact, not only is Magic Mike XXL one of the most delightful movies ever made, it is also the best musical of the last decade, and an exceptionally political movie. It presents the kind of utopia that an angry conservative would deride as “the future liberals want,” the result of imagining what a truly just and humane America would look like. Lest you start to think, for some ungodly reason, that I am being at all ironic in my love for this movie, I would like to let you know that I wrote more than one academic paper on this movie’s greatness during my time at undergrad and wholeheartedly mean every word of my praise.

The movie is a road trip comedy in which a group of male strippers must travel from Orlando to Myrtle Beach in order to attend a stripper convention (yup, it’s that perfect.) The plot, as is the case in most road trip movies, is largely episodic, with the most significant episode – the heart of every paper I wrote on the movie* – being a visit to a Southern mansion where Jada Pinkett-Smith runs a house of pleasure that caters to a clientele of almost exclusively black women. It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of digital filmmaking I have ever seen, to the points that I tear up every time I see it despite it being an exclusively joyous segment. The matter at hand – women indiscriminately being able to express their sexuality – is overwhelming enough on its own, but is made even more effective through the movie’s visual stylings. Peter Labuza wrote perfectly about it at the time:

Shooting on RED, [director Gregory] Jacobs and Soderbergh scale the entire sequence on a blue and red color grade, eliminating the yellows that were key to distinguishing whiteness in 35mm (…) Everything in the frame takes on purple qualities, making each man and woman look gorgeous. Digital photography has often been spoken of as a medium better for capturing night than day, but rarely have I seen it used for the way it can correct the injustice of 35mm’s treatment of black bodies.

Magic Mike XXL came out in the summer of 2015, around the time that Donald Trump announced his candidacy. In the years since, as the most disgusting impulses of American identity have found themselves newly empowered, the movie’s vision of a society that is open to equality and solidarity, where men are comfortable with serving women’s pleasure, where race, gender identity, and sexuality are casually and routinely celebrated felt both like a fantasy and a road map toward salvation. Excuse me if I’m being blunt, but anyone who fails to see the profound levels of this movie and chooses to dismiss it as merely a stripper trifle, is simply an idiot.

Other notable sections included a comparison of Channing Tatum’s “Pony” and Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” routines and a treatise on Joe Manganiello’s “I Want It That Way” as an exorcism of toxic masculinity. 

Support the Girls is an American Masterpiece

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Andrew Bujalski’s new movie, Support the Girls, is an American masterpiece. If you think such a claim sounds ridiculous given this is a low-budget comedy about the waitresses of a Hooters knock-off, you are forgiven. However, if you pass up the opportunity to see this movie while it’s still in theaters, you might not be able to forgive yourself. Support the Girls is a tiny movie – most of it takes place over 24 hours in a single location – but it feels gigantic. It has enormous things to say about women, labor, race, class, and humanity. It moved me profoundly, the way only one or two movies do every year. It is also hilarious.

The movie stars Regina Hall, who’s been excellent for many years and is finally getting a chance at playing lead roles, such as her radiant turn in last year’s Girls Trip. This time, she plays Lisa, the general manager of “Double Whammies,” the kind of sports bar where the waitresses wear short shorts while showing a lot of cleavage. Such a setting is ripe for exploration, especially with a character like Lisa at the center. Lisa is good at her job. She is incredibly resourceful. As we follow her during a very stressful day, she never fails to find quick and viable solutions to whatever problem comes her way. She’s be the perfect manager, except that she cares about the girls who work for her, and that’s not always good for business.

As a manager, Lisa is the bridge between business owner and workers. Her job is to make sure things run smoothly and money is made, but she is the kind of woman who thinks of herself as the safety net between the girls who work with her and the charged, potentially dangerous gaze of the establishment’s male clients. She knows what it’s like to be one of these young women, and she feels an intense need to protect them. A million different things go wrong on the day most of the movie takes place, but it’s Lisa’s desire to help one of the girls that gets her in trouble with her boss. Being a human and running a business are simply not compatible.

Manager characters are usually portrayed as ass-kissing weasels who want nothing more than to climb the professional ladder. Their desire to move up in the workplace is usually a sign that they have betrayed the ground-level workers, especially if they started out as one. Lisa, on the other hand, is a complex human with real world problems, and Bujalski adopts her perspective thoroughly. A telling moment comes early in the film: It’s already been a particularly trying morning when Lisa steps out of the restaurant and enjoys a moment of calm. She takes a deep breath, and the hand-held camera moves up and down very slightly, as if it was breathing with her. It’s a significant touch. One that signals not only Bujalski’s commitment to his main character, but to the movie’s humane approach.

This level of empathy extends to the rest of the girls. You have Danyelle (Shayna ‘Junglepussy’ McHale), Lisa’s sarcastic and resourceful right hand woman. There’s new hire Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), a marketing major with a lot of dubious ideas of how to improve business. And above all, there’s eternally peppy Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), the only girl who seems to actually enjoy working at “Double Whammies.” They make up one of the best ensembles of the year, thanks to the movie’s resistance to turn them into helpless victims or dumb caricatures. They have agency, dimension, initiative. They make choices, they collaborate, they try to get ahead. Some of their decisions are questionable, but that’s part of the point. The movie argues that these women have a right to have principles other than those dictated by society, and to make mistakes while trying to live up to them. Lisa says as much during an emotional argument with her husband: “I can take fucking up all day long, but I can’t take not trying.”

Support the Girls positions working life in the context of an America that keeps on moving despite its unresolved problems. It casts a light on the people who refuse to lose their humanity just because they must make a living within the capitalist machine. Anyone who’s had to work a shitty job will immediately relate. With this movie, Bujalski has pulled off a kind of magic trick: he’s couched something profound in an unassuming, thoroughly enjoyable package. To top things off, in his final trick he chooses to close the movie by echoing the last scene of Garden State – the poster child for sad white boy indies – only this time the loud screams into the void ring with the rage of America’s working women.

This review, initially published in August 2018, was revised and re-edited in May 2020.