What’s Streaming: August
The nights are getting shorter, but there’s more to sink your eyeballs into when the sun goes down as Tom Hanks, the Met Gala, a High-Rise horror and The Lobster hit home
By Katherine Monk
The First Monday in May (3/5)
Who doesn’t want to go behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? I know I do, even if I’m just getting access to the costume gallery – that small square of space accessible by freight elevator and remote staircases in the bowels of the storied institution on Fifth Ave. Ever since its inception in 1946, the costume institute (now named after Vogue editor and chief fundraiser Anna Wintour) hosts the museum’s annual fundraising ball, which makes or breaks the annual operating budget on the first Monday in May. With so much riding on the Met Gala, you can feel the stress in curator Andrew Bolton’s fashionable fibers from the moment the movie opens. And it ramps up from there as we watch him prepare for the opening of China: Through the Looking Glass, one of the biggest shows ever produced by the museum. Co-curated with the help of filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love), the show had to acknowledge Chinese fashion and tradition without pandering to Orientalism – and the difference isn’t always obvious to the round-eyed folk who appear in the frame. The more tension we feel, the more interesting the movie becomes. Yet, underneath all the glitz and glam of the ball preparations and the balancing of celebrity egos, you can feel the costume institute’s own fight for respect in the curatorial community. Half the movie screams “Fashion IS ART! It’s not EMPTY!” but when you’re watching shallow people say snarky things about the rich and famous for ninety minutes, the argument falls a little flat.
Hologram for the King (3/5)
It’s Tom Hanks’s greatest hits rolled into one: A little Splash, Apollo 13 and Castaway wandering through a forest of Gump-like befuddlement as Hanks takes on the role of Alan, a nice guy from America trying to make a sale in Saudi Arabia. An older guy working for a high-tech firm, Alan already feels like the proverbial fish out of water before he even steps foot on the sandy soil of the Kingdom, but once he lands in the desert, he’s gasping and grasping at castles in the air. It’s an easy metaphor with formulaic similarities to something sweet, like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen or Local Hero, only this Tom Tykwer movie misses the sweet spot and hits something tinny. Part of the problem is Hanks’s lack of romantic charisma, the rest is the film’s curious self-awareness in its pursuit of the comic moment.
Ayn Rand understood the symbolic power of the skyscraper, thrusting its rigid beams into the soft clouds, asserting the technological potency of mankind. But J.G. Ballard goes one further in his 1975 novel High-Rise. He pulls the concrete phallic symbol out of its pants, removing the romantic mystery, and replacing it with cold, hard, and largely unattractive human truth. High-Rise is a social metaphor in the tradition of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), a high-concept exploration of class dynamics with a surreal, subversive edge. The edge is the first thing you really feel in this effort from oddball director Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace, Sightseers, A Field in England), because nothing else is all that clear. We watch Tom Hiddleston stride through the doors of a luxury high-rise. We learn his name is Robert Laing and that he’s a doctor who recently divorced. His little cell is perched on the 25th floor, where the tenants have access to all the luxury amenities in the building, such as the pool and spa, but this is not a world of equal access. Residents who live higher up have a better view and enjoy more privileges, and the man who would be king of this vertical kingdom is none other than Mr. Royal (Jeremy Irons) – the architect who poured his worldview into every bucket of stacked concrete. It’s not hard to see where Ballard was going with his top-down metaphor, and Wheatley captures all the absurdity and all the horror of the human species in this smart, and suitably disturbing deconstruction of our civilization.
The Trust (2/5)
Nicolas Cage may be the most unreliable of movie stars – brilliant in one performance only to flail in monotone the next. As a result, watching his movies feels a bit like Russian Roulette: There’s a fair chance some bad acting will lodge in your skull and leave you scarred. Yet, The Trust sees Cage ranting and playing in good form as he takes on the role of a Las Vegas crime scene investigator. When he discovers some drug lords are running cocaine in the hollowed-out pistons of a car engine, he starts sleuthing. When he realizes there’s a truck that regularly visits a giant freezer in the desert, he enlists the help of his buddy, Waters (Elijah Wood). Before long, the two cops are plotting a heist worthy of an Ocean’s Eleven movie – but the more convoluted this movie from Alex and Benjamin Brewer grows, the worse it gets. The entire endeavor feels like a plate of thrown food slowly sliding down the wall as the characters become increasingly unlikable, and a once-believable plot starts to bubble with hyperbole. The dynamic between Cage and Wood is solid. You actually feel like both guys are trying to present a different face to the camera, so even when The Trust crumbles, the chemistry between the two leads keeps us watching.
The Bronze (2.5/5)
As uncomfortable and awkward as a spread-eagled fall onto a balance beam, The Bronze keeps you watching out of sheer curiosity. It’s the same tingle that travels up a rubbery neck when passing a car crash, a crushing sense of gratitude mingled with gory caution. You remember the images, but don’t quite know where to put them as they sidle towards guilt, and scurry close to embarrassment. How else to describe the pathos of watching Hope (Melissa Rauch), a former Olympic gymnast who refuses to pass the torch to the next generation, and clings to her moment of glory? Hope won the affection of her small Ohio town when she fought through pain and landed a routine on a ruptured Achilles to win a bronze medal. Now unemployed and prone to stealing mail from her dad’s mail truck, Hope is hopeless until she’s given a shot at redemption by coaching an Olympic contender. Some people will no doubt enjoy watching innocents tormented by a selfish meanie wearing a red, white and blue hair scrunchie, but without any good will, accessible characters or any semblance of kindness, The Bronze is limited to a low place on the podium.
The Lobster (4/5)
The cult of coupledom isn’t something filmmakers typically attack, given how much society celebrates marriage and romance. Yet, Yorgos Lanthismos’s strange, postmodernist claw called The Lobster both crushes the notion of love at the hand of fascist matchmakers, while affirming its power at the same time. A lovable and twisted trap that features Colin Farrell as a recently single male looking to mate with a new love before time runs out. You see, in this world that mimics our own, everyone in the civilized world has to be coupled off. If there is a single person, they must register at a couples’ retreat where they are forced to find true love, lest they be transformed into an animal – of their own choosing. Farrell surrenders everything, including his waistline, to play the tubby, jaded Romeo. Rachel Weisz, not surprisingly, is equally impressive as the willfully single social outsider on the run. It all works a strange magic, which means The Lobster, somewhat violently, cracks the very essence of love.
THE EX-PRESS, August 10, 2016