The end of August saw the coincidental (re)releases of the The Matrix (1999) and Midsommar (2019); the former in celebration of its 20 year anniversary as a landmark cultural milestone and the latter as a kind of victory lap from an indie film studio on an impeccable genre streak.You can find my review of Midsommar here; to be brief, I found Ari Aster’s sophomore effort to be a less-urgent, albeit quieter and deadlier affectation of modernity’s spell. Dani’s trip down the pagan rabbit hole of the macabre Hårga tradition in the director’s cut of the film occasioning the re-release, nicely parallels that of Neo in his awakening from the literal dreamwork of the Matrix, a computer simulation of neoliberal society maintained in the real world by an intelligent machine race. Two lost souls desperate as for connection, Dani and Neo take the curious leap into the perilous unknown.
Nearly all of the discourse I’ve come across around Midsommar – and The Matrix in other significant ways – seem to not know what to do with the films’ political implications nor the ramifications of their thematic ends. **spoilers ahead** Dani’s relationship woes don’t as much stem from her emotionally stunted boyfriend Christian, but a broken social system necessarily dependent on the alienation of its subjects. Likewise to The Matrix, Neo’s existential choice between ‘red pill’ and ‘blue pill,’ when taken in its correct, neoliberal context, is a brutally honest denouncement of the entrancing, hegemonic complacency that is capitalist realism. The Matrix itself is a means of completely severing the human mind from its reality by supplanting a new one. Even when plugged out of the Matrix, Neo struggles to escape the restrictive consciousness learned in his virtual imprisonment. “There is no spoon.” We are only as limited as our consciousness. Our accepted breadth of possibilities must be fluid to our distinctive needs as autonomous individuals. Dani is clearly more suited among the Hårga than her own American countryfolk despite her repulsion for the casual ritualistic violence, but violence is more than blood and gore. By the end, Dani and Neo are born anew through death set forth a bright, limitless future.
Perhaps the most loudly praised film of 2019 thus far is Olivia Wilde’s critically acclaimed Booksmart, a raunchy high school comedy starring Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as two over-achieving, model students on the cusp of graduation and college onward. However while their futures are bright, there’s one thing holding them up: the fact that they’ve admittedly forfeited the indulgences of the high school experience (i.e. partying, hooking up, drinking) for the hegemonic title of “smart” student. Not so bad a premise on the surface, but when we look at what exactly spurns this brutal realization, alarm bells begin to ring, bells that keep ringing up to the film’s expectedly derivative ending.
Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) spend the beginning of the film basking in their veiled air of superiority over their less-disciplined peers; while they clearly lack social finesse, they ultimately find security in their academic prowess, evidenced by their acceptance in to Ivy League universities Yale and Columbia, respectively. As long as they’re attending exclusive colleges that their peers can’t, it doesn’t matter how ill-liked they are. In an early scene in the school bathroom, Molly eavesdrops on a group of antagonistic seniors trash talking her. Visibly offended, she confronts the clique with the retort that because she’s the disciplined valedictorian she is, who hasn’t spent the last four years screwing around like they did, because she got into Yale and they didn’t, she wins. One of the mean seniors mocks Molly, asserting she’ll be seeing her at Yale later in the fall since she too got into the esteemed university. Taken aback, the next senior in the troupe admits he has a scholarship to play soccer at Stanford and the third guy says he’s going to work for Google as a software engineer straight out of high school. Panicked, Molly rushes out into the hallway to find out where every one else is going. They all respond with the stereotypical highbrow colleges (Harvard, Berkeley, etc.), to the point it’s clear that pretty much everyone in the graduating class have achieved the same feats as our accomplished heroes, with a fraction of the social concessions.
As director, Olivia Wilde does a fine job with Booksmart. The film is thoroughly funny as all comedies should be, and the performances are all around as naturalistic and measured as they are entertaining. There a few bits here and there that begin to grate, but Wilde otherwise succeeds at actualizing the Superbad-esque high school party/coming-of-age movie from a seldom depicted female/LGBTQ+ character perspective. That said, I can’t help but cringe at the inciting realization that drives the plot of the film: the realization that hierarchical gratification is only justified as long as you are higher up in said social ranking. It’s only when Molly learns that she doesn’t have the leg up on her classmates she thought she did that she begins to question her lived perception, which leads them to embark on the night of debauchery that showcases the film’s comedy. By the narrative’s resolution, Molly and Amy haven’t really learned anything as to the intrinsic errors of their held beliefs, as much as they learn to not to be so selfishly beholden to one’s ego and appreciate friends and acquaintances for the truth of who they are. But would Molly and Amy have gone through such a personal journey had their fellow peers not gotten in to the colleges they did? I don’t think they would have.
Film critic A.O. Scott of The NYTimes gushes “[in] Booksmart, Olivia Wilde and the screenwriters don’t so much reinvent the formula as refresh it, infusing some familiar situations with an exuberant, generous, matter-of-factly feminist sensibility.” What’s universally being recognized as the film’s greatest success is really its deepest failing. This “feminist” distinction attributed to Wilde’s film is in direct contradiction with the thesis of its content. The film’s incredulous assertion that everyone at this high school has gotten in to some canonically respected university necessarily posits the notion that signs of hegemonic merit (e.g. admittance to Yale, recruitment by Google with no college degree) are prerequisites for respect. I highly doubt that if the majority of Molly and Amy’s peers were more realistically attending community college or some other middling four year university, our protagonists would have been compelled to make the decisions they do. The politics of Booksmart are well within the rationality of neoliberalism; namely that only those who have met the arbitrary, meritocratic criteria in question are deserving of respect and anyone who hasn’t should be dismissed as the lesser being they are. It doesn’t matter that the participants are female or LGBTQ+ if they can’t identify the problematic logic of their own motives – even worse if the film they’re in can’t either.
Gigantic monsters show up and destroy things. That’s all I need to know. I am all in for the spectacle. Don’t need plot or character development.
– disgruntled Godzilla internet fan
Peruse the comments of any YouTube review or critical Tweet of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and you’ll find the same sentiment parroted by countless dismissive internet people: “I want giant monster fights, not character development.” What is to be achieved from such antagonism towards a very much valid critique of a work that you haven’t had a chance to consider for yourself? Why the strong pathological defensiveness in response to someone’s negative experience with a film?
There’s been a troubling trend in pop culture discourse (e.g. among fandoms and between fandoms and critic bodies); the increasingly tribalistic attitude among fans of specific IP, film studios, and filmmakers has made for an intimately hostile online environment for official film critics, with many fans even vilifying critics as if they were waging some kind of dialectic war. It’s not surprising that with the effective dreamwork of Capitalist realism, livable reality has been reduced down to the products (e.g. films) we “choose” to spend our money on. Tentpole blockbusters are extravagantly marketed to us as the answer to our existential woes, at least until we notice the next Spider-Man remake coming down the pike. Deprived of virtually all meaningful agency (the cost of living in Capitalism), we’re left with commodities that stand to define us.
Having seen Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I have to admit critics aren’t wrong or baseless in their assessments of the hotly anticipated sequel. The theatricality and gravitas of the 2014 Gareth Edwards Godzilla is sadly missing from new director Michael Dougherty’s take, so much so that the uptick in monster mayhem doesn’t even come close to compensating for the frivolity plaguing the latest end product. There’s no issue with moviegoers enjoying Kings of the Monsters despite its flaws, but vocal “fans” are doing more than just enjoying a film critics have panned; they’re taking pride in their lack of intellectual expectation. We’ve reached a point where film fans do not intuitively engage a film on its terms, but instead insist the film engage with them on their terms. And anyone who dares challenge those terms better watch out, no matter how rational the words; the lines have been drawn long before anyone has even had a chance to see the damn thing.
As insignificant as all this may seem, the anti-intellectual sentiment (as well as nostalgia fetishism) festering in fandom today is indicative of a much more catastrophic happening: an international culture stemmed in disdain for intellectual enrichment in favor of individual indulgence. With the guarantee of global climate collapse if the perpetual inaction of neoliberalism isn’t thwarted in twelve years time hectically knocking on humanity’s door, we should be deathly concerned of our propensity to dismiss critical thought under Capitalism.
Us Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes Director: Jordan Peele Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, and Elizabeth Moss
As complicated as the modern world presently is, it might behoove us, as a species on the verge of cataclysm, to step back and figure out where along the way we went wrong. From our ascension from the brutish state of nature to our adoption of the Social Contract, socialization and cooperation, eventually to systemic industrialization and exploitation, humankind has perpetually struggled with the notion of a “greater good” for collective prosperity: what it entails, who it applies to, who it doesn’t, and how far those with power will go to attain it. The most heinous acts committed through history – global and American slavery, the numerous attempted and successful genocides committed in the name of nationalism/religion, the catastrophic systemic violence perpetrated in service of capital – were all allowed to transpire due to that sole belief in the “greater good,” the ends of which always justify the means, or so our ruling class insists. Jordan Peele’s Us presents us a parallel world, similar to ours in all ways except one and simulates the inevitable retaliation that necessarily comes with the evils committed for the greater good, whether that’s for ourselves, our family, or our nation.
Us follows Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), a young, middle class black woman, with perfectly nuclear family and all, on vacation to their Santa Cruz beach house, where in her adolescence, she faced a disturbing encounter with a sinister doppelgänger. Though she’s managed to live a “good” life with charismatic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), Adelaide can’t help but dread the looming reunion with her mysterious adversary. They embark on their first beach excursion, where youngest child Jason ventures away from the family, triggering an already anxious Adelaide into a prompt panic. They find Jason quick enough and while he isn’t physically hurt on his person, it’s clear he’s shook. Later that night, Adelaide’s paranoid suspicion comes to pass, as the doppelgänger she met those all those years prior, along with copies of each of her family, arrives to terrorize the household and claim dominance where it really counts. But before the proverbial show can get going, Red, the name Adelaide’s copy calls herself, takes a moment to provide dramatic subtext to the imminent violence like any good villain. It’s through Red’s brief exposition that we begin to comprehend the scope of her motive.
Once again, funny-man-turned-thespian Jordan Peele masterfully weaponizes thematic misdirection to actualize another circle of social hell, different from that on display in his Academy Award-winning Get Out (2017). Contrary to its ghoulish marketing, the film reveals Red and her army of doppelgängers to have a much more familiar origin than the supernatural implications of their existence suggest. And its in this realization that the film’s point emerges: Red and her fellow “tethered” do not purposely attack to torment our protagonists. No, they are here to seize the lives they’ve been forced to approximate and take their rightful place in a civilized world. We don’t learn the details of where they come from or how, all we know is that they were originally conceived to covertly control the actions of their fulfilled opposites above ground, but when the American authority deemed them no longer necessary they were discarded, left to survive in the underbelly of the country; that is until one of them had an idea to stop the suffering themselves. Why in their right mind should they continue to endure endless torment in service of a neglectful populace when they are relentlessly denied even basic life pleasures? The violence perpetrated isn’t so much malicious as it is retaliatory; very much in the same vein as Oliver Stone’s 1994 cautionary genre flick Natural Born Killers, another fascinating film I’ve discussed at length in an earlier piece, which you can find here.
I don’t feel a need to dive into plot spoilers for Us, but audiences can be assured that every revelation, big and small, only helps solidify Peele’s greater allegory; that is, hierarchical societies, like the Capitalist America we live in, have an implicit expiration date that is pragmatically out of the hands of the ruling class. Under such conditions, there will always be a “tethered” population robbed of every outlet but one, and as long as we refuse to confront ourselves and the evil we force on others to secure our comforts, the outcome will always be the same.
Vice Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes Director: Adam McKay Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, and Alison Pill
Vice is the satirical docudrama recounting the activities of the political players responsible for the global, ideological fiasco that was/is post-9/11 American politic. Very much in the same vein as director Adam McKay’s previous film The Big Short (2015), which told a tantamount story concerning the economic travesty that was the 2005 U.S. housing mortgage crisis. This time though, we’re instead filled-in to the quiet, but monumental circumstances surrounding enigmatic figure, past Vice President Dick Cheney (played by an impressively stout Christian Bale) and the unsettling precedent he so vicariously set in his pursuit for power. Once again, Capitalism is front and center (albeit unnamed) in this historical case study of perhaps the single most fatal vulnerability in the American governing framework.
We first meet Dick Cheney inebriated, making his way down a desolate back road in an old beat-down car before getting pulled over by a cop. Surely we’re to think, “how did this troubled man come to be the cold opportunist who justifies this film?” The unsurprising answer being familial privilege. Cheney isn’t as well off as the son of a former US President, but his family ties run deep enough to earn him admission to Yale, where he quickly flunks out. Seemingly fallen into the working class rut, Cheney begins the familiar life trajectory of overworked alcoholic as pleaded by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), whose father ends up killing her mother out of that exact truth. Lynne reminds Dick of the long list of suitors that would be happy to marry her if he doesn’t find it in himself to take care them and their own in the growingly widening socio-economic valley. It’s here in Cheney’s “lowest” moment that he makes a choice, the choice to engage the world in a way he otherwise wouldn’t. In order to spare him and his wife and family, Cheney must commit himself to power. So likely from pulling those same familial strings again, Cheney manages his way into a White House internship under the Nixon administration and crosses paths with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who comes off as the caricature of what every middle-aged white man aspires to be: a wise-cracking, assertive, self-fulfilled “winner”. Cheney is immediately enchanted by Rumsfeld’s over-the-top shtick, wanting so badly to be just like him. The problem is, this aspiration model he’s chasing is just that, a caricature.
This moment is key to what the rest of the film is playing at; I’m afraid too many viewers will not recognize it and be eager to dismiss it as a kind of “lazy” evocation, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong with that assessment, but the deeper truth on display is the one denied by Republicans and Democrats alike. As necessary participants in the neoliberal state, we are all forced to presently exist in a power structure that subjugates anyone who doesn’t actively serve it, which becomes the source of contradiction that leads to global and local exploitation, death, retaliation, and a lesson perpetually ignored by those fortunate enough to find themselves in the few positions of power. Dick Cheney didn’t “invent the wheel” so to speak, but what his story very nicely encapsulates is the volatile danger of late-stage Capitalism as it pertains to socio-political conduct. Cheney’s success in achieving proxy unitary executive power is due largely in part to the use of a combination of social engineering and new age marketing tactics, fundamental Capitalist tools, to establish the stimulus feedback that still exists to this day and fine tune his gross machination as needed. With the only actionable concern being how to gain more power than presently had, the political game now becomes just another marketing campaign – a communication framework that is at its core not real. It can never be real. When the same tactics used to sell widgets is now used to sell policy, marketer intent dictates the depicted reality that the masses will begin to believe, the more that narrative is repeated by trusted faces. The film shows us a montage of various politicians, Democrats and Republicans, echoing the same lies thought up by Cheney and company to sell to the American people and the rest of the world. And we keep buying it.
Vice has to be my biggest surprise of 2018 – even if the execution is a bit heavy-handed at times, leaning into the more sensational contemporary parallels a little too much. But it’s clear that McKay and Bale are in on the “joke,” with the punchline being the identity of whom or what Cheney swore his agency to. It’s who a teary-eyed, helplessly obedient Cheney truly addresses in the film’s final moments, as he’s channeling his inner Frank Underwood and lying directly to the audience trying to justify his evil actions. For a brief moment, the facade of strength fades and a breeze of distress rises as he turns his words to whom he was really serving the entire time: the power that compels us.