(On DVD, February 2018) I have a long list of annoyances when it comes to movies, and at first glance Synecdoche, New York seems to hit an impressive number of them. It’s consciously made to annoy viewers, to revel in their darkest fears, to rush to the worst ending imaginable, to become self-involved in its own inscrutable metafictional games, to screw with expectations for no reasons. Coming from the reliably twisted mind of writer/director Charlie Kaufman, this is a film that jumps in-between high concept, dream sequences, a background apocalypse, characters taking each other’s roles, intense symbolism and decades of events compressed in barely more than two hours. It barely explains what it’s doing, leaving viewers to ponder and search for fascinating readings about the film’s means and meanings. Heck, the lead character may not even be himself. I have been infuriated by tamer movies. Adding to the potential disaster, the DVD version of the film does not have English subtitles, making my life much harder as I was watching the film in less-than-ideal audio circumstances. (I eventually found and read a copy of the script to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything important, and was relieved to find that I hadn’t.) But, for lack of a better expression, Synecdoche, New York worked its magic over me. The relentless gloom of the film quickly becomes a comedy, and once you accept that the film will make more emotional sense than a purely narrative one, it becomes a curiously enjoyable experience. The metafictional book-reading scene set aboard a plane flight had me laughing, which is not something I would have anticipated from a movie that features a greatest hits selection of every single fear that adults can have, from being estranged from loved ones, to progressive illness, to being made completely redundant, to not being forgiven, to surviving the end of the world, and so on. Gloriously ambitious, Synecdoche, New York is about everything. Phillip Seymour Hoffman turns in one of his great performances as the tortured hero, ably supported by cast as varied as Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan and Dianne Weist. Adding to the strangeness, Samantha Morton and Emily Watson are rather eye-catching here, which is really weird given that I usually don’t rank them particularly high on my own list of sex-symbol actresses. Ultimately, Synecdoche, New York’s unrepentant refusal to be ordinary is what sets it apart. I’ll leave viewers to decide if it’s best seen cold or not (this is not a movie that can be spoiled), but any second viewing should be done after gorging oneself with various commentaries, interpretations and lengthy analyses of the film. It’s incredibly rich material for discussion, and I’m as surprised as anyone to like the film as much as I did.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) Life is made of strange coincidences. So it is that I sat down to watch Get Out as the results of the US Senate Special Alabama election of 2017 were coming in, an election that offered as clear cut a choice between a typical candidate and a far-right activist with documented episodes of racism, sexism and pedophilia. A fitting backdrop to Get Out, which is a daring take on race relations by way of comic horror. While the starting point of the film may seem familiar—a young white woman takes her new black boyfriend home to meet her parents—the film quickly takes a turn for the bizarre and then the terrifying as the protagonist realizes that he’s in grave danger. To tell more about the premise is irresistible, as it encapsulates the nature of racial relations at a time when it’s not polite to be racist. To my dismay, I could recognize a bit of my own tics in the oh-so-subtle racism expressed by upper-class whites toward our protagonist. The horror elements get more and more intense as the film goes on, although they are partially defused by a comic subplot that seems to belong in another film. Daniel Kaluuya is good as the hero, but Catherine Keener and Allison Williams are far more interesting in their insidiousness. Writer/director Jordan Peele has some notoriety in comedy as part of the Key & Peele duo, but his eye and attention for detail as a filmmaker is terrific—Get Out has a pleasant amount of depth and craft in its details, with a script in which most lines (including the titular quote) have more than one meaning. It’s solid filmmaking and I was quite taken by the result despite taking in my own lumps as a left-leaning well-meaning kind-of-oblivious white guy. I suspect that my just-shy-of-enthusiasm reaction may have been helped along by the real-world events unfolding via my telephone screen as I watched the movie. As all hope seemed lost for our protagonist on-screen, electoral results suggested a comfortable lead for the worst candidate. But as the movie wrapped to a close and fortunes shifted for our protagonist, so did the electoral results, with the better candidate taking a comfortable lead right before the credits started rolling. The ongoing discussion about racism may take the form of an entertaining movie or a statewide election, but it needs to take place. Sometimes, the stars even align and you get both a great movie and an election result that feels like progress at the same time.