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.
The Farewell Rated: PG Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes Director: Lulu Wang Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Han Chen, and Shuzhen Zhao
In The Farewell, director Lulu Wang poses a fascinating question on the logic of lying in the modern sense. Based “on [the] actual lie” of Wang’s experience with her real-life grandmother’s illness, the film is about Billi (Awkwafina), her relationship with her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), and the difficult news her Chinese family insists they all keep from the dying matriarch. Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; the doctors say she maybe has three months to live. Having more or less assimilated to the American way of being since she, her Mom Jian (Diana Lin), and her Dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma) moved West when she was still a young child, Billi naturally struggles with the prospect of keeping the known fact of her grandmother’s mortality hidden from her; especially given the cult of individualism so engrained in the Western dream. Her family has decided to stage a fake wedding back home in China so that everyone can come together for one last farewell before Nai Nai passes. Afraid Billi won’t be able to hide her emotions well enough, they plea for her to stay away, for Chinese people have a saying, “when people get cancer, they die.” Nai Nai may be sick, but knowing she’s dying will only affirm the prognosis and that will kill her for sure. At least this way, she won’t suffer from the impending knowledge of her death – she can enjoy the rest of her life worry free, as it should be.
Some spectral parallels to July’s Midsommar (coincidently another A24 release not even a month apart), TheFarewell is too juxtaposing contradictory cultural modalities, namely Western (American) and Eastern (Chinese) traditional perceptions of who one’s life belongs to. As Billi’s uncle puts it, in the East, one’s life belongs to the whole – the family is to carry the burden of the bad news so that Nai Nai doesn’t have to. To ruin what’s left of her time by telling her, so to keep their individual consciences’ clean, would be needlessly unfair to Nai Nai. There is little point to life if its remainder is to be tainted by dread and despair. In the West, one’s life is committed to oneself foremost. Billi and her parents even make a note of it being illegal in America to keep news of someone’s dire ailment from them. Lying in the West is primarily done to conceal individual insecurities as opposed to keeping information from people whom aren’t necessarily entitled to know, as Billi lies about the rejection letter for the fellowship she’s applied to that everyone’s waiting to hear about. We can look at the film’s parallel lies as inversions encapsulating the valuations of their respective cultural sources. Not to say one is right and the other wrong, but to simply value life where you can, how you can.
The Farewell is nowhere near as intense as Midsommar, but those intrigued by the latter’s themes of cultural consideration will find in the former a wise account of empathy missing from the existential discourse today.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours 41 minutes Director: Quentin Tarantino Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Timothy Olyphant, and Emile Hirsh
Like the many legion of Tarantino-Stans dispersed across the filmscape, I’m typically predisposed to adore anything the guy touches. I can’t name any of his eight prior films that I would deem anything less than masterworks in their respective goals (yes, even Death Proof and The Hateful Eight). However, while I have a soft-spot for all things Tarantino, I can’t deny the auteur’s problematic indulgences both in front of and behind the camera, even if I don’t personally hold every vice against him. From his liberal use of the “n-word” to his sometimes-questionable direction of female stars – Uma Thurman’s car accident on the set of Kill Bill and Diane Kruger’s unsimulated strangulation by Tarantino’s own hands in Inglourious Basterds – the optics of his directorial flavor understandingly leave a bad taste in his critics’ mouths. Then there’s his trademark stylistic elongation and contentual borrowing from past cinema presented as novelty that, while very entertaining and itself used as thematic context, can easily fall into the realm of gimmickry, despite how good his films are. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, OUATIH for short, is at once some of the director’s finest work to date and also the first time I’ve doubted his dramatic crux.
OUATIH treks the struggles of aging actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his trusty stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) as Dalton begins to come to the harsh terms of his fading stardom, highlighted all the more by his new next door neighbor, rising actress Sharon Tate (Robbie). Meanwhile, the Manson family has made their way to the city of angels, whose real-life tragedy surrounding Tate casts a foreboding shadow over much of the film’s near three hour runtime. But we should know better from Tarantino than to expect a one-to-one retelling of historical fact in the quasi-period pieces he’s been putting out. Both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained famously leverage a brutal epoch to revolutionary ends, providing a kind of gratification that manages to resist an underpinning exploitation. The same is mostly true with OUATIH.
On one hand, the film elegantly plays as hauntology of a cultural promise broken in real-time and restored in the revisionist climax that **spoilers ahead** pits the Manson family against Rick and Cliff rather than Tate and company on that fateful August night. In classic Tarantino fashion, this is the point in the otherwise blood-tame film that descends into extreme violence enacted against the Manson cult members (2 of the 3 assailants being female). Now, I’m not in the camp to sympathize with villains who in real-life successfully committed their heinous crime, but I will admit to be taken aback by Cliff and Ricks harsh dispatchment of the home invaders. **spoilers end** The gesture implied by the film’s credits is legitimately endearing, but how Tarantino gets there in the climax, while very much in his wheelhouse, feels sadly misguided, or knocked off balance, for the sake of an indulgence that effectively detracts from the narrative’s final proposition. But honestly, OUATIH is so good that I can’t help but dig the retrograde love-letter to a more optimistic 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.