Patron Request: ‘The Legend of Drunken Master’

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the John Wick movies a whole lot. That love is informed by a lot of things, not least among them the series’ knotty plotting and labyrinthine world-building. When an action scene happens to John Wick, it’s for a plethora of increasingly convoluted reasons. I think that’s fantastic. It’s a joy to watch unfold. Still, there’s joy to be found in exactly the opposite approach as well.

In The Legend of Drunken Master (as it was released in the States), there’s a plot, yes. But a good portion of the fight scenes have little to do with that. For the first half of the film, Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-Hung fights mostly over petty slights. He fights because he’s good at it, and he likes it. The film understands that there’s really no need for a narrative excuse for action. You’re not here for the why of it all.

Still, it comes up with an intriguingly nationalistic reason to keep things moving. Sinister officials from the British consulate are conspiring to ship ancient Chinese artifacts out of the country to be sold. Wong and his family become embroiled in the plot when a switched package leaves them in possession of one of the most valuable objects the thieves desire. Wong ends up fighting for his country’s dignity in the face of feckless foreign invaders. It’s interesting commentary on the Western relationship with China, from the latter’s perspective. “Next they’ll tear down the Great Wall!” says one indignant character. The Brits have a parallel plan to con Wong’s father out of his land, if for no other reason than that the martial arts students practicing on it disturb their sleep. I wouldn’t call The Legend of Drunken Master an overtly patriotic film. Its ideas about Chinese identity and culture being stolen and sold feel rooted in honest concern rather than jingoistic fervor.

And we’ve talked so much without even getting to the action itself. Do I even need to say that it’s phenomenal? Jackie Chan is up there with Buster Keaton as one of the greatest physical performers in cinema history. The specificities of his physicality are so unique. Every joint in his body seems to have a life of its own. Each movement seems to have an exacting grace, and yet it comes across as so chaotic at the same time.

The choreography itself somehow manages to keep up with him. The improvised weaponry is consistently inventive. Each strike seems like a piece of a puzzle, one fitting neatly into the next, assembling a perfect picture when all is said and done. Perhaps that metaphor implies a didacticism that the fights do not display. Their flow is terrifically seamless. Director Lau Kar-Leung shoots them almost casually, with the canny understanding that the performances speak for themselves. Every setup is positioned with the sole goal of capturing the fullest, clearest image of the fight participants. Why that isn’t just the standard for action cinematography, I’ll never know. The Legend of Drunken Master is an all-time classic action movie. I wish there weren’t so many terrible ones these days that its historical significance only grows.

Patron Request: ‘Her Smell’

It’s hard to find the right word to describe what Elisabeth Moss is doing in Her Smell. The one that keeps coming to mind is “dangerous.” Not because it’s the role is a daring risk in terms of her career or image, far from it. It’s in the performance itself. It is so unhinged, so unrestrained, that every single moment teeters on the edge of a disastrous abyss. She has to give this character an insane amount of energy and never let up for a second. But she has to be smart enough not to let it tip into self-parody or camp, because that is decidedly not the movie Alex Ross Perry is making. Her Becky Something has to feel, in all her specific vocal tics and explosive emotional outbursts, like a fundamentally real person. Otherwise, the film’s sobering final third just feels like another act. That Moss pulls it off is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.

What I’m unsure of in Her Smell has more to do with Perry’s fixations as a filmmaker. He’s made several movies about “difficult people,” almost always men, whose deep-seated insecurities are masked by a “charming” abrasion. They’re the sort of shitty men so many terrible writers imagine themselves to be, men who are supposed to deserve love and admiration (usually from the women in their lives) despite their total self-absorption. Queen of Earth is a notable break from the pattern, though I don’t remember that film well enough to say whether it distinguishes the Moss character from the eponymous lead of his most egregious example, Listen Up Philip.

Becky Something is just as off-putting a personality as any of his other leads, but this feels like the first time Perry is genuinely interested in interrogating his main character’s emotional defects without an ironist’s distance. The depiction of her flaws doesn’t come with a sardonic shrug and an eyeroll, as if to say “Yeah, I know, but so what?” Becky does horrific things to the people around her, and we see it through the eyes of the people she’s hurting. Her Smell doesn’t ask you to understand why she’s doing this; there’s little time spent on backstory or psychologizing. She’s just a tornado, and you have to endure her.

What makes me uneasy is that this is the first Perry film I’ve seen where the main character actually gets better. She’s forgiven by the people she hurt, one of whom actually says, “It never made me not love you.” We see her get sober, we see her mellow out, we see her reflect on her behavior. What we don’t see is what she did that instilled in others the will to keep loving her. She’s another Perry protagonist who receives love from people she’s done nothing but abuse, and by the film’s end we’re meant to understand that she’s earned it.

I’m not the writer who’s going to tell you that this is oh so problematic and therefore bad writing. I appreciate the aspects of Her Smell that trouble me. What I’m unsure of is if Perry has really learned anything as a filmmaker. This is certainly a far cry from the jauntier indies of his early career, with its droning panic attack of a score and noisy handheld camerawork. I just wish Perry had gone further in his examination of Becky. More than that, I wish he had further examined his own proclivities as an artist. Maybe it’s unfair to ask a director to be anything but what they are. He just gets so tantalizingly close here that I can’t help but see the better picture.

Patron Request: ‘Good Time’

Life is short. There are only so many movies you can fit into your schedule before your synapses stop firing. So I tend to have little patience for movies that make me feel as miserable as Good Time. Each successive scene presents a new object of distress, every development a new anxiety. Nothing good happens to anyone in Good Time.

The film is a harder watch the second time around, when you anticipate every forthcoming disaster. It’s a film you watch with eyes wide open the first time, and rewatch through your fingers. I’m not typically a squeamish viewer, but there are plenty of “oh god please don’t do that” moments here. Chief among them, of course, is Connie coming close to statutory rape in order to distract a teenage girl from his face appearing on the news. There’s a disconnect key to Good Time: Connie is plainly despicable, but you still cringe when he fails.

How do the Safdie brothers accomplish this? His motivations, of course, are ostensibly pure. He roped his (probably) autistic brother into a robbery scheme that got him arrested, and now he needs bail money to get him out. Your sympathy for Nicky is Connie’s sympathy. What Connie does to get that money, the people he hurts and takes advantage of, it all becomes if not forgivable, at least understandable. What makes Good Time a great movie is that it knows that that shouldn’t be the case. The casting of former teen dreamboat Robert Pattinson is key here. When he gets that teen girl arrested because, again, he roped her into his scheming, you see the look of pity and regret flash across his face. But of what good is that pity? He can feel bad all he likes, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to change. Good Time puts the lie to the idea that the ends justify the means. Connie’s cause is sympathetic, yes. But can that really excuse his actions?

The Safdies also put you in Connie’s headspace with their chaotic direction and sound design. Everything around him is always just too much for anyone to handle — the hell that is other people. Everyone is aggressive and loud, they all talk over each other; the cuts are awkward and lopsided and unnatural. The fact that he often keeps his cool is admirable, and when he doesn’t, it’s understandable. The fact that he’s so completely loathsome fades into the background. It’s hard to hate a guy who’s so put-upon.

But, again, the film is well aware of what it’s doing. It wants you to question why you allow yourself to feel for him. It doesn’t do this in an obvious, didactic way, either. This isn’t a film that shames you for having an emotional connection that it deliberately created. (This isn’t every video game from the last 15 years.) It is, to use a cruder term, just asking questions.

It also provides a pretty explicit answer. At the film’s end, Connie is arrested, and he takes the rap for Nicky off-screen. Nicky’s therapist remarks on what a “responsible” decision this was. He says Connie is “right where he belongs” in prison, and that so is Nicky, in a therapeutic support group with other autistic adults. I don’t think the film means us to take the therapist’s word as thematic gospel, but it does raise the idea that Connie accomplished nothing that wouldn’t have occurred if he hadn’t turned himself in immediately. The teenage girl and carnival security guard wouldn’t have been arrested. The man he stole from police custody at the hospital would still be alive. Connie’s rampage was disastrous for everyone he came into contact with. And at the end of the day, he was only attempting to help his brother in a way that would allow him to elide responsibility.

Good Time blows up the flattened notions of “good” and “likable” and “relatable” that film criticism likes to box characters into. Connie is none of the above, but he’s something far more important: Watchable. You don’t have to like him. But you can’t look away.

Patron Request: ‘Naked Lunch’

I like to think I have a pretty high tolerance for the sort of gonzo wackiness on display in Naked Lunch. I’ve seen plenty of films that are, however you quantify it, weirder than this one. Just in terms of breadth of imagination and bizarre imagery, Naked Lunch is nothing to write home about. I was surprised, then, at how overwhelming I found it, how tough to keep my eyes open in places. There aren’t many directors who have both a talent for base grossness along with a talent for filmmaking. David Cronenberg is unquestionably at that peak.

The real star of Naked Lunch is the effects work. I’m a proponent of CGI as a unique art form which can create imagery that practical effects can’t match; that being said, this is a film that only works because everything is practical. You need it to look real, like you could reach out and touch it. Or more accurately, like it could reach out and touch you. You need something the actors can actually interact with, and feel, and stick their fingers inside with an accompanying squelch. CGI at its best creates a deliberate disconnect between ostensibly “real” actors and the fabrications around them. It draws a line in the sand between the real and the fictional. Naked Lunch is a film wherein there is no such line.

That’s actually one of the things I found alternately fascinating and frustrating about it. In depicting the main character’s descent into hallucinatory paranoia, it doesn’t begin with any sort of grounded reality from which to descend. The film begins in a sort of Gilliam-esque world of metaphor, a writer’s construct more than a real place. By the time the first talking bug shows up, it’s less a shocking departure than another stop on the established road. What makes it partially work is Peter Weller as Bill Lee. His mumbled monotone undersells even the strangest developments. His utter lack of shock makes you wonder if he even cares that he’s hallucinating, whether or not it even matters. Naked Lunch is unconcerned with how much of what you’re seeing is “real,” perhaps because it acknowledges that none of it is, at least not in that sense.

What is real, what does matter, is the stellar final moment. Lee, asked to prove he is a writer by border guards of a country called Annexia, re-enacts the hazily-accidental murder of his wife. He shoots her in the head and tearfully cradles her body. The guards accept this as proof he is indeed a writer, and wave him through. This feels like deliberate provocation to William S. Burroughs, who shot and killed his own wife in the same way, and was thus inspired to begin a career as a writer. This plot does not appear in Burroughs’ book, and so in adding it the film becomes less direct adaptation than commentary on the author himself. It leaves Lee on a note of ambiguity, asking himself, “Was it worth it?” Did Burroughs ever wonder the same?

I liked Naked Lunch. But as a part of David Cronenberg’s canon of body horror classics, I found it a little wanting. His best films use terrible morphing flesh, the cracking of bones and the ripping of skin, to illustrate the terrible condition of having a body at all, of having to live inside this thing that you have less control over than you think. In Naked Lunch, it’s just an aesthetic.

Patron Request: ‘Zodiac’

This review was based on a request from one of my patrons on Patreon! For $3 a month, you can request a film for me to write about and support the work that I do. If you’d like to do that, visit my Patreon and become a patron!

I’ve talked in the past about how my least favorite runtime is two hours and forty minutes. It’s right at that point where you should either trim the fat or go all out, cutting thirty minutes or adding twenty. It’s an ungainly, ugly runtime. It signals a self-indulgent sloppiness. Remembering that Zodiac was this long made me a bit reticent to revisit it. But I think the film is one of the few of its brethren to actually get away with it, for one reason: Zodiac is about the passage of time.

For the first 100 minutes or so, nearly every new scene in Zodiac comes with a timestamp chyron. “Six hours later,” “7 1/2 months later,” and so on. The implied passage of time communicated by a cut is made literal by on-screen text. At one point, characters are shown leaving a place to go somewhere else, and as the film cuts to their arrival, we’re told exactly how long it’s been. We don’t strictly speaking need to know this. But it forces us to reckon with the passage of time directly, rather than in the abstract. It gives that offscreen time a heft, a weight; we are made to know it exactly.

It’s necessary, too, when cuts contain such wildly different timeframes. Editor Angus Wall rarely differentiates between a two-hour cut and an 18-month cut. It’s all the same matter-of-fact transition. The only way you understand how much time is actually passing is through those chyrons. The Zodiac investigation as depicted here is so harried that it seems everything was happening at once for those initial few years. A jump of several months may as well be a jump of several days. One day, the hunt is on and the leads are hot. The next, as Dave Toschi puts it, “they’re already making movies about it.” Time passes so quickly. That is, until it doesn’t.

After the four-year jump at the film’s midpoint (covered in the director’s cut by a neat audio montage of news bulletins and popular music), time seems to slow down considerably. The timestamp chyrons are gone. Everything in the final 40 minutes seems to happen over the course of a single night. As Graysmith gets more frantic and obsessed, the only way we know time is passing at all is by his increasingly unkempt facial hair. The arc of time in this final section loses its strictly organized structure and all starts to blend together. I find this sort of mushiness less compelling than the ordered manicness that preceded it, but I do admire making such a dramatic editorial shift so deep into such a long film.

I think I like Zodiac a bit less now. I hadn’t seen it since high school, when I was on a stereotypical Fincher kick. I was blown away by it then, but on rewatch I found it more whelming than overwhelming. It’s a perfectly good movie. I think Fincher uses his fastidious focus on process and obsession to more interesting ends in Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, though it’s been ages since I’ve seen either of those as well. If nothing else, Zodiac is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Mark Ruffalo in his predestined role as a rebooted Columbo. You’ve gotta give it up for that.

Patron Request: ‘And God Said to Cain…’

This review was based on a request from one of my patrons on Patreon! For $3 a month, you can request a film for me to write about and support the work that I do. If you’d like to do that, visit my Patreon and become a patron!

It’s hard to come up with something to say about this movie besides “Klaus Kinski hot.” Even conspicuously dubbed over, his raw magnetism is undeniable, with those twinkling blue eyes and that perpetual grizzled grimace. He plays Gary Hamilton, a black-hatted revenge killer with a strangely blase name, who is pardoned after serving a decade on a chain gang and seeks out vengeance on the man who set him up. Kinski is ideally cast as a spaghetti western anti-hero — the mean, hard man you can’t help but cheer through his various murders. Hamilton is a bit more anti- than hero, of course. His justice is personal, rather than moral. “If innocence is repaid with prison, then I’ve earned the right to kill!” he at one point proclaims. Kinski’s charisma makes this an easy sell.

The film takes place almost entirely on a single stormy night, when Hamilton rolls into town to confront his nemesis, Acombar. And God Said to Cain plays out almost like a precursor to the John Wick films. Hamilton uses underground tunnels to secretly traverse the town and take out Acombar’s men one by one, teaming up with amenable townsfolk along the way. Hamilton is a predator stalking his prey. It’s never a question of if Acombar will win. It’s a question of when he will lose. Hamilton is a force of nature. He is the storm blowing into town.

He’s also something of a figure of terror. And God Said to Cain plays out a bit like a horror movie in places, with Hamilton as the unstoppable, cretinous villain. Whenever it cuts to Acombar and his men finding another one of their own slaughtered, the film plays like a slasher movie. Hamilton even leaves some of the bodies in elaborate traps to frighten his enemies, like Michael Myers in Halloween. That he barely says a word throughout most of the film contributes to the idea of him as more the animation of bloodthirsty desire than a human being. It’s a thrill to watch.

I’ve only seen one other film from Antonio Margheriti, that being his infamous Yor: The Hunter from the Future. And that was with the addition of MST3K or Rifftrax or some such comedic commentary. A quick look at his long filmography reveals a longer history of horror than of westerns. It also appears that he’s really obsessed with The Lady from Shanghai; its iconic hall of mirrors climax occurs in And God Said to Cain as well as in Margheriti’s Devil of the Desert Against the Son of Hercules. (That’s another John Wick connection as well.) He seems like the kind of insanely prolific guy that the Italian film industry was chock-full of in the 60s and 70s, guys who would crank out wild stuff day in and day out without stopping to catch their breath. I really admire that as a filmmaking ethos, just the relentless creative drive without any auteurist pretension. Not that I don’t love me a pretentious auteur! There’s just something you can’t help but love about a director who just directs.

Patron Request: ‘Gozu’

This review was based on a request from one of my patrons on Patreon! For $3 a month, you can request a film for me to write about and support the work that I do. If you’d like to do that, visit my Patreon and become a patron!

Gozu is a very “Dead Dove Do Not Eat” kind of film. It’s Takashi Miike. I don’t know what I expected. If nothing else, I was surprised to find out afterwards that it was released in 2003. Everything from its look to its attitude feels very 90s. I had an alright time with it. But there are some capital-P Problems here.

The first is a tonal issue which arises from Miike getting too playful with the familiar elements of his filmography. The opening title promisingly bills Gozu as a “Yakuza Horror Theater” but the film’s beats are much closer to what you’d see in one of Miike’s broader comedies. It’s overloaded with an often juvenile silliness. This comes particularly at the expense of gender non-conforming people, which you always hate to see. It’s not as bad as it could be in that department, I suppose. It’s just disappointing to see trans people treated as wacky outre gags on the level of poop jokes.

But again, what do you expect from Miike? He’s never been a filmmaker with an overabundance of sensitivity. He works with all the subtlety of a cannon blast, and you just have to take him or leave him. Most of the time, I’ll take him. I loved his JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure adaptation last year. The problem with Gozu isn’t really a Miike problem, though. It comes from how Miike tries to experiment with his own style.

As I said, this is basically a broad comedy, but it doesn’t play like one. Miike shoots it like a tense horror-thriller, replete with ominous music cues and anxiety-inducing angles. Miike keeps undercutting the tension with jokes, but he maintains the creepy tone through the punchlines, so they never really land. Gozu is a hard film to laugh at because you’re never really sure if it wants you to laugh at it. It’s also impossible to be scared by because the ostensibly frightening aspects always feel like self-parody. I just don’t know what this movie wants to be.

Still, it’s a Miike movie, and that means some astonishing compositions. Miike can toss off a brilliant image like it’s nothing, cutting away from it before you even have time to process it. Everything else aside, he’s just fundamentally a good director. Without his visual acuity, Gozu would be basically unwatchable. It’s thanks to his innate skill that it ends up more or less entertaining, if ultimately disposable. It’s definitely the weakest Miike film I’ve watched, but the bar is set pretty high there.

Defining the Box: ‘John Wick,’ ‘Hitman,’ and Systemic Spaces

There’s a shot in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum that epitomizes the series’ prime fixation. It’s a tracking shot following Halle Berry’s Sofia during a chaotic gunfight in Casablanca. The camera follows behind her back as she takes shots from behind the cover of a pillar. There’s a horizontal plane on which the action operates; she is on the “bottom,” and the enemy is on the “top.” Most gunfight scenes are content to stick to such a simple axis of engagement, but most gunfight scenes aren’t in movies called John Wick. Without cutting, Sofia moves to another pillar along a completely perpendicular plane, and takes shots from cover there. She does this two or three more times in the shot, reorienting the direction of the action while further settling the geography of the space. It’s a brilliant moment.

The climax of John Wick: Chapter 2 takes place in a hall of mirrors-style art exhibit called “Reflections of the Soul.” A loudspeaker voice describes the work as John enters, and it might as well be describing the whole trilogy: “Within this exhibition, the interplay of light and the nature of self-images coalesce to provide an experience which will highlight the fragility of our perception of space, and our place within it.”

The John Wick films have always been concerned with space. It defines their beloved fight scenes as much as it does their narratives. These films always focus on defined spaces, the delineations between them, how the spaces are different, and (in Chapter 3) who gets to draw those lines. It’s one thing to say a fight scene has “clear geography.” Wick has always made that geography mean something. It matters where these fights are taking place.

The first important space we learn about in the series is the Continental Hotel, a New York respite for weary assassins to catch their breath and talk shop. The most important rule is that no “business” (i.e. murder) can be conducted on Continental grounds. The series introduces early on this idea that certain spaces have defined rulesets, and that the consequences for breaking them can be dire. It’s not just that the law exists — the space itself imposes its will on the people inside it.

It reminds me a lot of the recent Hitman games, which are a low-key twin to the Wick films. In these games, you play as the tabula rasa assassin Agent 47, whose ability to disguise himself as just about anyone helps him get close enough to take out his targets, often in elaborately designed accidents. It’s about as far from the directly confrontational action in Wick, but the two share an obsession with demarcated spaces. In Hitman, Agent 47 is prohibited from entering certain areas depending on the disguise he’s wearing. It’s a system the developers call “social stealth.” Certain floors are restricted only to bodyguards, for example. The kitchen is off-limits except to chefs. The laboratory is only for scientists. You get the picture. Each space has a set of rules 47 must appear to obey. Once he manages to construct that appearance, he can pass through unnoticed…provided he doesn’t break any of the other rules. A scientist or chef can’t openly carry a firearm, and being seen doing so in one of those disguises will cause a scene. The game can become something of a logic puzzle, with the player figuring out how to get from point A to point B traversing through various areas with different rulesets.

John Wick has no need for social stealth. He and the rest of the assassins he interacts with barely seem to exist in the real world at all. In one scene of Chapter 3, two young killers are taken out by a more experienced gang in the middle of Grand Central Station. Their throats are slit and they fall to the ground. No one around them seems to notice. A few shots later, the bodies have disappeared. In the most memorable sequence of Chapter 2, Wick trades silenced shots with another gunman in a subway station, the dozens of passersby around them none the wiser. The chaos caused in the first John Wick’s famous club scene is the outlier here. I’m willing to grant director Chad Stahelski that he hadn’t yet conceived of this aspect of the series’ wider world.

Still, Wick does follow the rules of the real world to some extent. In Chapter 3, a confrontation between him and fanboy killer Zero is halted when a line of hand-holding children cut between them. “That’s what makes you special, John Wick,” Zero says. “I wouldn’t have stopped.” Wick finds himself unique among his brethren because, having left the game for a time, he finds himself still tied to a basic social contract. He can’t float like a ghost through these public spaces like the rest of them can. He lives in both worlds at once.

The nature of Hitman’s medium means it must allow the player to decide for themselves whether or not 47 is similarly bound to the basic social laws of a public area. It does, however, penalize you for killing anyone who isn’t explicitly identified as your target. That includes people who are shooting at you, if your mission has gone especially haywire. The penalty affects your score upon completing the mission, which doesn’t really have any impact on gameplay. Once again, it’s up to the player whether or not they care about how many points they get. Hitman does what it can to nudge you in the John Wick direction, though. 47 can take very few bullets before he’s killed, so getting into a gunfight is never advisable anyway. And if nothing else, it’s just more fun to take out your targets without any collateral damage. The game is designed to incentivize obedience to simple human relational law wherever possible. Except where your targets are concerned, of course. Nothing to be done about that. They just gotta die.

Things come to a head in Chapter 3 when a representative of the all-powerful assassin High Table deconsecrates the Continental, meaning that “business” can be conducted on its grounds. The laws that held the area together completely change with a single phone call. Chapter 3 builds on the previous films’ ideas about the rules that govern certain spaces by asking: Who makes those laws, and why do they get to do so? It explores the notion that these laws are not immutable, not born of some inherent human ideal. They were created by individuals who had some incentive to make them that way, perhaps to the detriment of the people below them. And no matter how long these rules have stood, they can be taken away in an instant, because these rules ultimately aren’t for the benefit of the people on whom they are imposed. They’re there to enrich and empower the already rich and powerful. These spaces don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a web of intersecting laws and guidelines, all governed by a few specific actors. Is any of this sounding familiar?

Hitman being a video game means that it can’t change the rules of its maps at random as happens in Chapter 3. However, it hits at the same theme in a similar way. Almost every target in the two most recent games are part of the upper-upper-class, the mega-wealthy and uber-powerful. They are capitalist cretins, destroying the lives of people below them for their own enrichment. When 47 enters these maps, he is entering a space dictated by class divides. The Paris map in Hitman: Season One is the most obvious example. 47 must advance up a four-story mansion to reach one of his targets, each floor becoming home to a more and more exclusive club. By the time he reaches the top, he finds himself at an auction where people are purchasing everything from fixed elections to entire islands. In the basement, meanwhile, he comes across a weeping server being consoled by her coworkers. She’s been reduced to tears by the boorish, condescending behavior of the people she’s working for. The basement is her space. It is, in the eyes of the people in charge, where she belongs.

What makes 47 unique is his ability to traverse all of these spaces. He can be a waiter in the basement one moment, and a war economy patron on the top floor another. His baseline anonymity allows him to slip into any space he desires, provided he looks the part. He is the master of these spaces, his very presence denying the power of the people who created them.

John Wick masters spaces, too, albeit through force rather than deceit. His films have him smashing through windows, charging down hallways, racing across bridges, and causing his fair share of property damage. In one especially memorable bit from the hall of mirrors fight in Chapter 2, he susses out an enemy’s position behind one mirror by looking at his reflection from afar. He shoots through the mirror next to him, and hears the thud of the body hitting the ground. Even in a space deliberately designed to bewilder and disorient, Wick is never caught off-guard. He is in full command of his surroundings at all times. He even turns them into improvised weaponry on occasion. In Chapter 3, a brawl in a library is ended when he picks up a heavy book and begins slamming it into his opponent’s head. A little later on, he’s in a stable, and he gives a horse a hearty smack to make it kick his pursuer right in the head. He always knows where he is, and that has a tremendous impact on how he fights.

In 2019, so many action blockbusters don’t seem to care about where their action is set. How many of them end in anonymous rubble-strewn battlefields, or flat open ranges, or airport parking lots? This is a major aspect of what makes the John Wick films so special. It’s not just that Stahelski’s direction makes your mental map of a location crystal-clear. It matters what that map looks like. It has narrative and thematic purpose. John Wick is using these spaces to say something about its world and the people in it, as are the Hitman games. In these works, the worlds around their protagonists aren’t just staging or backdrop to the story. They are the story.

Patron Request: ‘I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore’

Women never get to have Falling Down stories. When men are constantly aggrieved and irritated by the world around them, they are martyrs; their subsequent actions, however violent, are morally righteous. They are the avatars of every annoyed man in the universe, every man who secretly believes that he is the only person who sees the fucked-up ways of the world for what they are.

Women don’t get that. When women are put-upon, it’s normalized. That’s just how it’s supposed to be. Women don’t get to lash out, we don’t get to fight back. We don’t get to have our absurd overreactions justified by fiction. We just have to swallow our frustration and be the bigger person. Fiction so often demands women take it and shut up.

So it was nice to see in I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore a story of a woman who gets to push back on her life of aggravations in increasingly silly ways. Melanie Lynskey’s Ruth Kimke makes a suitable embodiment of the pile-up of low-level annoyances so many women endure. She’s quite privileged, obviously, which is sort of the downfall of any Falling Down-esque story. Her life isn’t really that bad. It’s just irritating, and the most privileged people tend to confuse irritation for oppression. But I do genuinely think it plays better with a woman protagonist, because those irritants are genuine and systemic rather than on any individual level. When Ruth is asked what she wants and she desperately responds, “I just want people to stop being assholes,” it’s a cry for help directed not at specific people but at a world designed to make people act obnoxiously towards each other.

I really liked Elijah Wood’s character in this. Besides being a great performance (he kills as the sort of guy who proudly buys ninja weapons on Amazon), he’s used to better effect than I expected. I was worried he would be the male figure of violence and aggression who drags Ruth into his world before she realizes what a mistake she’s made. In point of fact, for all his thrill at committing revenge crime, he’s not a sociopath. He quibbles with her theft of lawn art from the parents of the kid who broke into her house. He’s also not creepily romantically obsessed with her, which was refreshing. He just wants, in his own weird way, to be a good friend to her. It’s nice that Ruth’s vengeance spree is instigated by herself and not a man, and it’s nice that she’s not made to regret trusting him.

This film was a Sundance hit and a Netflix release, truly a two-hit KO for me in most circumstances. I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. It’s not as cutesy or cliched as I feared, though it doesn’t quite rise above the level of competence. I can quite clearly imagine the worse version of I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, all twee in its depiction of violence and “subversion of tropes.” I prefer the version we got. It didn’t make much of an impression on me, but there’s plenty to appreciate here.

Patron Request: ‘A New Leaf’

There’s such a sharp observational quality to the films of Elaine May, as heightened as their comedy can be. You get the sense that May has such a deep understanding of people and relationships, and rather than simply recreating what she sees, she builds these hilarious concepts out of them. Her films can be ridiculous, but something about them always rings true. It reminds me a lot of the more recent work of Rachel Bloom, specifically the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The more I think about it, the more that show feels like heiress apparent to May’s comedies. Both construct elaborate comedic ideas on top of simple observable truths about human dynamics. And Bloom would be right at home alongside May as a scrappy Jewish comedienne.

If May hones in on anything in A New Leaf, though, it’s the inherent hilarity of a bourgeois lifestyle. The montage early on when a newly poor Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) says sorrowful goodbyes to all the absurd markers of his old wealth is hysterical. One bit has Graham sadly miming with a riding crop and then breaking down in tears. Just the concept of rich people seems hilarious to May, with all their silly dignities and meaningless obsessions. And she has a clear-eyed view of what being wealthy means in America. “You’re going to be poor in the only real sense of the word,” Graham’s butler tells him early on, “in that you will not be rich.” There is no world outside of wealth in A New Leaf; Graham’s first option when he’s lost all his money is suicide. It plays in the honest absurdism of the film’s comedy — the absurdity of a world where money is all there is to life, and yet the fundamental truth of that outlook in a capitalist society. The nonchalance with which one of Graham’s high society contacts introduces a couple named the Hitlers (“You’re not by any chance related to the Boston Hitlers?”) reflects the ironic detachment from decency that comes along with such highfalutin behavior. I’ve always thought that to make a good comedy about the wealthy you need to understand what wealth really means, and May very much does.

To keep speaking about May, she’s terrific as the nebbishy botanist heiress Henrietta. She casts herself in an unforgiving role; she must ride the fine line of being not so likable that Graham comes off as a complete jerk but not so irritating that Graham seems a hero for wanting to be rid of her. Her charm has to shine through, so that when Graham finds himself having fallen for her, the viewer has as well. It’s such a difficult challenge for a performer, and May just nails it. To do that on top of directing the film is nothing short of miraculous.

Matthau’s great too, as the perpetually annoyed bachelor who wants nothing more than to be alone with his money until the loss of that money forces him to seek companionship. He manages to keep you laughing at him even as his character descends further into a sinister mania. The late bit where he daydreams about all the ways Henrietta could be killed on a trip to the Adirondacks is on its face horrific, yet Matthau’s barely suppressed glee at the prospect sells the hilarity. He reminded me a bit of Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, though the comedic stylings of that film are a far cry from A New Leaf and Reynolds Woodcock much more a fusspot than a grump. The way both characters describe their lifelong disinterest in women could be read as a suggestion of queerness, too. I know Matthau’s disinterest in any and all people is more than a little relatable to some friends of mine.

I read that A New Leaf was ripped from May’s hands during the editing phase and that she was so unhappy she tried to have her name taken off the final release. I can’t speak, of course, to the relative quality of her (apparently three hour) cut of the film, but I can say that the existing version of A New Leaf is totally delightful. It feels like an Elaine May film through and through, whatever butchery happened to it behind the scenes. I’d be thrilled if May’s cut ever saw the light of day, but with the final cut being as good as it is, it’s hard to feel desperate for such a release.