The best scene in David Lowery’s Sundance darling A Ghost Story depicts a single uninterrupted shot of Rooney Mara’s unnamed grieving widow as she stress-eats an entire plate of pie. A perversion of such classic symbols of Americana, the scene is grueling and powerful. Casey Affleck sits, silently in the background, impossible to soothe her physical or spiritual suffering. It should also be mentioned that, for the majority of the movie, Casey Affleck is a ghost dressed up in bed sheets with eyeholes cut out. That’s all that will be said about the plot, and probably all that should be. The film works best as a series of reveals, the euphoria of pulling back the curtain at the theater.
Lowery’s previous work, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and especially last year’s Pete’s Dragon, lean on the most canonical work of cinema’s history, but A Ghost Story reaches a more ersatz dimension. The film shifts from New Hollywood (the house around which the film centers recalls the Longhetti residence in A Woman Under the Influence), to the hauntingly sparse opera of early silent films, back through the 90’s American Independent wave, barreling towards the contemporary music video, complete with its own anthem, Dark Rooms’s “I Get Overwhelmed.” The film is about two or three steps removed from reality, traversing all of space and time not as Affleck sees it, or Lowery, but as it has been seen in filmic predecessors. Influence from Malick has been well-documented, but Lowery’s inspirations sprawl greater; The mechanical choreography and momentary precision of Fincher are present here, as is Spike Jonze’s beta-male woozy melancholy, and the wistful infatuation of Terrence Davies. The film’s topography of influences reaches further; A Ghost Story is essentially a Western, Casey Affleck taking the role of a metaphysical cowboy. Yet the editing is far from a throwback, leaning heavily on the patterns of video essays.
It shouldn’t be understated how pleasurable the film is moment-to-moment; The tone isn’t particularly jubilant, but Lowery knows how to synthesize the work of the form’s past into a spunky digest. The surrealism and genre-bending do less to interrogate questions of faith than jump ecstatically between scenes. But ultimately, the film tends towards pretentiousness in the truest sense; though overwhelmingly earnest and nothing less than compulsively watchable, the film purports to have a universal philosophy that it cannot sustain. No matter how little dialogue or guidance the audience receives dramatically from Lowery, the film’s vision of cinema and spirituality is startlingly narrow. The film does not challenge preconceptions about death or ethereal planes, does not expand on them. Watching Affleck’s body make these loose, amorphous imprints is genuinely heart-breaking, but it clarifies that this registers not as a film about the afterlife, but rather what humanity imagines the afterlife to be.
The film plays with an easy emotional arc of cosmically enforced romantic longing, with little variation. The pie-eating centerpiece stands out as one of the few moments in the film to feel grounded; Lowery’s framing recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but the sound design follows more conventional routes, and the composition is too centered, too anthropocentric to rival Joe’s framing. Casey Affleck’s emotional journey seems irrevocably removed from any actual other plane of existence; He is helpless and longing and passive. As the film moves farther and farther away from the corporeal and the specific, it registers as less and less authentic, though not at odds with what came before. Lowery’s vision here is coherent, but it is not wholly resonant.
This film’s increasing lack of physicality feels rooted less in a deep spirituality than an infatuation with iconography. As moving as it can be to see someone reckon with death in such an uninhibited and personal way, A Ghost Story lets down the audience when eventually it posits the central ghoul as a blank canvas for everyone. If the film is intended as a deconstruction of the Grand American Story, and its language is this masculine, this white – gruff, compositionally pristine, basically traditional, tragically incommunicative and outspokenly nostalgic – then the film’s desire to speak towards some greater profundity rings false. Despite the egregious amounts of silence, A Ghost Story seeks to push the limits of its philosophical underpinnings to the point of obviousness where subtext has become super text. There is no uncertainty, only the comfortably sublime. With its assured but platitude-driven technique, the film does not realize how it luxuriates within its own presumed history.
If A Ghost Story offers anything (and it does, almost certainly), it is a world-weary sadness, a grief that permeates every frame. That a film can be this intoxicating and somewhat uninspired, and also this profoundly, endlessly tragic. Early in the film, Mara slips a note between the crack in her house. If Affleck, or the audience, never finds consolation in that note, never finds the words scrawled on that cheap yellow paper, then at least we have found a most succinct prognosis of the most pervasive spiritual narratives. Above all else, that iconic sorrow sticks to the soul like a white cloth caught in a zipper.
Editor’s note: This review was originally published on May 9, 2017. We’re re-running it in conjunction with the film’s limited release in New York and Los Angeles this weekend.
‘Game of Thrones’ finale review: An epic final episode that corrects some major wrongs
Spoiler warning: this article is for people who have watched the Game of Thrones finale. Do not read on unless you have watched season eight, episode six: The Iron Throne.
And so, at last, after 73 episodes, untold millions of dollars and an estimated 200,000 slayings, it is all over – bar the shouting on the internet. Death came to Game of Thrones and everyone involved in its making threw up their hands and shouted “Yes! Finally! Today!”
We began the finale with Tyrion wandering the ash-strewn ruins of King’s Landing, scene of Daenerys’ handbrake turn into full-blown lunacy last week, lifting fallen bricks and confirming for himself, and viewers still clinging to hope, that the Lannister twins were indeed deceased beneath them. Having the Imp cry “This is an ex-Lannister! If it wasn’t buried under rubble it would be pushing up daisies!” would have been only fractionally less subtle a way to confirm what we all needed confirming before we could get on with the true business of the day; deciding who gets the Iron Throne, who gets to die and who gets a spin-off series.
Daenerys was looking confident about her position, with a jaunty speech to her followers (“Blood of my blood! You have given me the Seven Kingdoms!”) and the speedy arrest of Tyrion for treason. Jon looks pained. Possibly because of the mindless destruction and mass murder carried out by his lover-aunt. Possibly because he’s trying to do a sum involving odd numbers in his head. Dear, sweet, useless Jon. People have berated the writers for many things over the show’s run, but they surely deserve some recognition for managing to sell Kit Harington as a convincing candidate for kingship.
Jon visits Tyrion in prison, where the Last Lannister tries – as Arya does just before – to convince Jon that as a fellow Targaryen with a claim to the throne, the woman atop the dragon might just attempt to do him harm in the near-future. “That’s her decision,” says Dumbo. “She is the queen.” Tyrion adds that she’ll probably go after Sansa and Arya, too, which seems to cause scales to fall from Jon’s eyes, and prompts just about the only bit of action in the finale.
In this generation’s Buffy/Angel moment, Jon kills Daenerys for the greater good. Drogon makes his feelings about this development clear by melting the Iron Throne with dragon fire and flying off with her corpse. “That’s no good!” shouts Jon after him. “T’throne’s just a symbol. Tha’s got a lot more work to do before tha can usher in an age of representative democracy!” No, he doesn’t. But the actual script doesn’t try much harder. After Jon is arrested offscreen by the Unsullied, the lords and ladies of Westeros convene to decide what must be done. They decide to … choose a ruler from among them. Just like that. Grey Worm, made Dany’s Commander of All War Things in the wake of her dragon nuking King’s Landing, makes no objection. No word on who gets to tell the Dothraki. Bagsy not me.
Samwell wonders whether the people should have a say in who gets to govern them. Oh, but the guffaws can be heard across the Narrow Sea! So that’s that possibility as dead as a White Walker run through with Valyrian steel.
Tyrion nominates –
Bran. Or Bran the Broken, as he is dubbed. Westeros is very ableist, as you might have suspected after the six seasons it took for anyone to cobble together a wheelchair for him. It’s a callback to the ancient figure of Bran the Builder, who raised The Wall, founded Winterfell and was the first King of the North, but still. Bran. Bloody Bran. He will rule over only six kingdoms, because Sansa declares the North will become independent once more. Which again, everyone seems fine with. Tyrion becomes Bran’s Hand but Grey Worm insists that Jon be punished by returning to the Night’s Watch. Fair does. Might as well look permanently pained somewhere; it makes sense. And he’ll never realise there’s no reason for the Night’s Watch to exist any more.
Arya is taking a gap year to go travelling “west of Westeros”, an unmapped region rumoured to contain the Mountains of Spin-Off Potential. Our last sight of the whole shebang is Jon setting off into the super-north with the Free Folk.
There’s no doubt this season has been a rushed business. It has wasted opportunities, squandered goodwill and failed to do justice to its characters or its actors. But the finale just about delivered. It was true to the series’ overall subject – war, and the pity of war – and, after doing a lot of wrong to several protagonists last week, did right by those left standing. Whether the million signatories to the petition to remake the entire final season, or the majority of the estimated 45 million around the world due to watch the last episode, will agree – who knows. When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. Overall, I think, it won.
‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ review: A wildly fun kick-shoot-fight-repeat spectacular
“Prepare for war,” someone who knows Latin will tell you, if you ask about that subtitle, though it’s hardly necessary intel: In these gloriously dumb—but remarkably well-staged—gun-fu flicks, the war is already here, and it lasts for an entire film.
Maybe others prefer it when Keanu Reeves talks; for me, he’s more effective when he moves. John Wick’s somber suit-clad NYC assassin has become his signature role, stripping down Speed and The Matrix into something John Woo sleek. Mob thugs killed his pet pit bull in the first installment. Those guys are long gone. Though this latest John Wick adventure brings on the usual distractions—Ian McShane’s fastidious boutique-hotel proprietor, Lawrence Fishburne’s booming king of the Bowery underworld, Halle Berry’s lady with vicious dogs that leap straight for the crotch—mostly these characters stay out of the way of the main attraction.
Instead, we’re here for the rigorously conceived, blessedly coherent action showdowns, the work of director Chad Stahelski (also Reeves’s longtime stunt double and choreographer). Stahelski is a fight-scene Fosse and Reeves is his Gwen Verdon: Parabellum takes the hall-of-mirrors high style of the second film and pushes it into overdrive. (Those who live in glass-walled galleries shouldn’t throw anything at Wick.) The level of hard-R-rated bloodletting is so delirious, you’ll ignore how bad it is for you.
A closed Manhattan Bridge is the perfect site for a sword duel on speeding motorcycles. Put Wick on a horse and he’s more of a menace than John Wayne on a grouchy day. In one battle, so many knives are flung, a corpse is used as a pincushion. It’s the golden age of…something—please don’t make us explain it.
‘Us’ review: The latest horrifying nightmare from the mind of Jordan Peele is his best one yet
A little more than two years after the release of Get Out, the Oscar-winning directorial debut from Jordan Peele that served as a creepy, satirical social commentary about race relations in America, the writer-director is back again with Us, his audacious sophomore effort that so desperately wants us to know that, despite what we may think, we are our own worst enemies.
The film opens with a brief, chilling prologue set in 1986 before fast forwarding to the present day where we meet the Wilsons, an upper-middle-class black family visiting their Santa Cruz beach house for what is expected to be an idyllic summer getaway.
Santa Cruz also happens to be the hometown of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), who is as charming as she is overprotective of her family, which includes the fun-loving Gabe (Winston Duke), phone-tethered teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and mask-wearing young son Jason (Evan Alex).
Perhaps it’s her motherly instincts that cause her to be the way she is, but it’s probably more so due to the fact that she experienced a traumatizing incident as a child that still continues to haunt her to this day. And you can’t really blame her for that.
So when Gabe offers to take the family to the beach for the day, the site where Adelaide experienced her childhood trauma, she understandably refuses. But after some convincing from Gabe, she agrees to go, but only under the condition that they leave before nightfall.
Oddly enough, though, the moment the Wilsons arrive at the beach, a number of strange events and coincidences begin to unfold; we see a dead body being loaded into the back of an ambulance, a frisbee with a pentagram-like design land perfectly aligned with a polka dot on a beach towel, and a bloodied man standing motionless in the middle of the beach, hands out, as if he’s waiting for someone to come and join him.
These strange occurrences, in addition to Jason wandering off without telling Adelaide, put her on edge. And when the Wilsons arrive home that night, things don’t necessarily get any better. There’s a family standing in their driveway. Four of them. Who is it? It’s the Wilsons themselves.
While the concept of the evil doppelgänger is certainly nothing new to the horror genre, Us always feels wholly fresh and original, and never once dares to fall back on the typical genre tropes or clichés that audiences have grown so very tired of over the years.
Peele’s script, much like the one that won him an Oscar for Get Out, is wickedly smart, funny, and witty, and is packed with so many genuinely shocking surprises that you never fully know for certain when he’s going to be throwing another curve ball your way.
The cast acts it all out in such incredible fashion too, especially when you consider the fact that they’re pulling double duty here with dual performances. Nyong’o is particularly impressive though. Whether she’s playing the charming superheroine that is Adelaide or her terrifying, raspy-voiced doppelgänger, it’s hard not to rank her up there with Toni Collette in Hereditary as one of the best horror performances in recent memory.
By the time the Us is over, things may not be clear right away. And that’s OK. With all of the various imagery and symbolism spread throughout, there’s no doubt that this is a film that demands more than just one repeat viewing. But the main message at the heart of the film is evident, and it’s as important as ever—especially in Trump’s America.