Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Directed by Aisling Walsh, starring Sally Hawkins as Maudie and Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis
Midway through MAUDIE, while the little lady known as Maudie bends to her paintings, she absently closes the door on her husband, who lingers outside. It’s a tiny glimpse into the shifting polarities of their relationship as wife and husband. When she had first come to his tiny little home, she had been only a humble housekeeper, paintings disdained and rejected. But as they began to sell to customers passing by, she assumed an equal role in the household as breadwinner, while he was consigned to the cleaning and cooking. Both grow into their roles.
Thus does MAUDIE track these dual trajectories with one of a series of finely observed moments. It’s a quiet film but it makes a great sound. And as widely-heralded as Sally Hawkins is in the role of this arthritically-disabled woman, with her hunched posture, downturned head, and sly grin, we should give equal time to Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of the stoic, gruff, and not very likeable husband. Hawkins has already made her distinctive mark in several Mike Leigh films, including Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky; and here she continues her chameleon-like gallery of roles. To be sure, the Ethan Hawke of HAMLET and Great Expectations has already proved his acting chops, but here, as the barely-literate Nova Scotia fisherman, he demonstrates how to say so much about his life and emotions with such finely-observed detail.
Pair MAUDIE with another portrait drawn from real life of a so-called “primitive” painter, Martin Provost’s Seraphine (2008), one of my very favorite films. In that powerhouse drama, we see another drab and emotionally-disabled domestic-cum-celebrated painter. In likewise humbling circumstances, she too attracts attention far beyond her circumstances. But in a marked departure from MAUDIE, Seraphine falls victim to exploitation in the art market. Worse, she succumbs to a mental deterioration and spends her last days in a mental institution.
Beyond their exterior likenesses, both films blossom into color with the paintings of both women. Maudie captures the stark simplicity of flowers and scenes from local life. Seraphine paints the flowers of the region and arranges them into intricate patterns. The paintings in both instances are produced through hardscrabble living conditions and with the most modest of tools. Despite their unlikely origins, the paintings provoke us with great power and poignancy.
Praise be to both films, not just portraits of two strong women who forged highly idiosyncratic images that both captured and transcended their worlds.
MAUDIE, unlike Seraphine, ends with a note of personal triumph. While Seraphine is consigned to an institution and sits alone, abandoned, at the foot of a great tree, Maudie graces her dying breath with her last words to her attentive husband, “I am loved. I am loved.” That is the triumph of both her and her husband. Like her paintings, is a starkly simple expression.
Monday, August 14, 2017
Directed by William Oldroyd and starring Florence Pugh as Katherine, Cosmo Jarvis as the groomsman, and Naomi Ackier as the maid
While the carnal lusts and vicious murders in LADY MACBETH left me disturbed, the reviews on the placard in the theater lobby left me confused and not a little irritated. “A Feminist Parable,” screamed the headlines. Really? How did this portrait of a Lady betrayed and abused turn into a Lady vengeful and murderous? And how does this constitute a feminist statement?
The “Lady” of the title is Katherine, newly married and the mistress of a rural farm house in mid-19th-century England. When first seen, her face is chastely concealed by a white bridal veil; when last seen, her prolonged stare into the camera is an implacable, if enigmatic, challenge to the viewer. Another contrast is between her appalling wedding night as a new bride ordered to undress and stand naked against the wall, while her impotent husband abuses himself offscreen; and the penultimate slaughter of said husband (and his horse, too). What transpires in between are the increasing neglect and abandonment by her husband, her torrid affair with the groomsman, and her executions of husband and father-in-law. A complication to all this is the late appearance of a woman demanding redress for the illegitimate baby fathered by Katherine’s errant husband. What is our Lady to do? Bent on removing this unwonted intrusion into her domestic bliss, if that is what it is, she methodically suffocates the child with a pillow. She does her best to cover it all up, while the local authorities grow increasingly suspicious. Terrified at all this, the hapless groomsman escapes into the forest. And Katherine sits down on her couch, glares at us, and—what?
As I said, those inclined to view this as a feminist statement wreak their own violence on this dismal portrait of isolation, sexual frustration, and destruction. It seems to me what we have here is the kind of “feminism” ascribed to the icon of the savage Lilith of the Apocrypha. Books like Sandra Gilbert’s and Susan Gubar’s classic The Madwoman in the Attic, Ann Jones’s Women Who Kill, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” all present portraits of women who protest their repression and marginalization through lust, madness, and murder. The “Angel in the House” becomes the “Monster in the House.” Studies like this seem to verge more on pathology than feminism. Putting it another way, feminist resistance, as we have come to know it through the rhetoric over several centuries, from Mary Wollstonecraft in the late 1790s to Camille Paglia and Betty Friedan in our present day, is twisted into a lame justification for a murderous anti-male bias.
I wonder, does this not commit an injustice of its own on the ideal of the feminist drive for dignity and equality?
No question, Katherine is a Victorian Lilith. Her crimes, including the almost casual shooting of her husband’s horse and her methodical suffocation of the innocent step-son are scenes carefully and graphically staged, difficult to watch and even more difficult to justify on any terms other than her own selfishness and bloodlust. Best consider LADY MACBETH as an indictment of Victorian society and as a psycho-pathological study of a woman wronged beyond endurance, which is truly terrifying and disturbing on its own terms, rather than as a feminist statement. The latter interpretation, I submit, is more disturbing than anything in the film.
Directed by David Lowery, and starring Rooney Mara as “M” and Casey Affleck as her husband, “C”
[NOTE: I ordinarily don’t just reprint a movie review by somebody else, but I have to admit this review, posted on the Roger Ebert Reviews web site, seems very insightful. I would simply add that this film does at least two things commonly ascribed to the traditions and tropes of ghost stories, namely, (1. it teases us with the possibility of an after-life, whether we want it or not; and (2. It examines how ghosts are assigned a place, or location, from which they may not stray. This in itself may symbolize how stubbornly we cling to our mortality, reluctant to leave it behind. The sheeted figure in A GHOST STORY is a silent witness to both. Both themes are interrelated, of course. On the other hand, A GHOST STORY violates one of the most cherished aspects of ghosting, the frisson of fear and trembling. This alone may put off many viewers, lured into the theater by the title and the emblem of the sheeted figure. If the movie is enigmatic about its meanings, we are left to ponder them on our own, just as we keep starring at that sheeted figure, into the blank depth of the eye-holes, wondering as we watch, after awhile, if they change expression from scene to scene, teasing us with their “Rorschach” aspect. I would also add that the long monologue midway through concerns Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and how it has become part of our public and cultural consciousness over the centuries, and how it may, ultimately, and inevitably, suffer a mortality of its own. Finally, I have to admit I was more intrigued conceptually than involved emotionally with the story. Its longeurs, including extremely long and static takes, tend to wear you down... rather like time itself, inexorable, which claims all of us in the end.]
I rarely see a movie so original that I want to tell people to just see it without reading any reviews beforehand, including my own. David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is one of those movies. So I’m urging you in the first paragraph of this review to just see it and save this review for later. If you want more information, read on. There are no spoiler warnings after this because as far as I’m concerned, everything I could say about this film would constitute a spoiler.
This tale of a man who dies young and lingers around the property where he and his wife once lived is bound to be one of the most divisive films of the year. I didn’t know anything about it going in, except that its main character was a person who dies and spends the rest of the movie walking around mute, wearing a white sheet with eyeholes cut out of it. The film is a ghost story, in the sense that there’s a ghost in it, but it’s also many other things: a love story, a science fiction-inflected story about time travel and time loops, and a story about loneliness and denial, and the ephemeral nature of the flesh, and the anxiousness that comes from contemplating the end of consciousness (provided there’s no life after death—and what if there isn’t?).
The characters are so archetypal that they don’t have names, just initials. C (played by Casey Affleck) is a musician who lives with his wife M (Rooney Mara) in a small house surrounded by undeveloped property somewhere the vast flatness of Texas. C dies in a car crash early in the story but continues to linger on as a ghost, silent observing his wife’s grief and her eventual exit from the home they once shared. He stays in the house as new tenants move in, including a single mother (Liz Franke) and her two children (Carlos Bermudez and Yasmina Guiterrez) and some presumably young, single people who throw parties with lots of bohemian artist-types. Time keeps moving forward, and at a certain point the house gets leveled and replaced by a gigantic luxury condo-hotel type of development. C stays rooted to the spot where he died, as if he’s still stuck in the “denial” phase of the grieving process.
The movie’s two most fascinating formal traits are its decision to keep C under the sheet for much of the film’s running time, and the way it moves its story along with hard cuts instead of dissolves, fades to black or other signifiers that a lot of time has passed. The sheet denies the film’s leading man most of the tools he’d normally use to communicate emotion; he must instead approach the character as if he were onstage in a play where gestures were more important than words, and try to convey surprise, sadness or anger simply by holding his head and shoulders in a particular way, or turning quickly instead of slowly to look at something.
But this opens up a different kind of relationship between character and viewer: we’re projecting ourselves onto C as we might as children playing with dolls or stuffed animals. Simple, powerful emotions can be summoned that way, and it’s those sorts of emotions that are this movie’s specialty. There were many stretches where I was reminded of European art cinema classics like “Stalker” and “The Passenger,” which derive much of their power from asking you to commit to staring at the images the film has put in front of you, and think about what they might mean and how you feel about them. There are other times when the film is reminiscent of “Groundhog Day,” in its ability to weave guilt, karma, and fear of change into a story that might otherwise have played as a light diversion.
The hard cuts that move us through the story convey the idea that C perceives time differently than we do. In a scene that involves decay, which I won’t describe in too much detail here because it occurs in a context I didn’t expect to encounter, a body becomes a skeleton in a series of cuts that last about 30 seconds. The deeper we get into C’s story, the more Lowery teases our perceptions of time, until by the end he’s got us questioning the idea of singular, linear experience. (“A Ghost Story” would make a great double feature with Shane Carruth’s “Primer” or Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” two other Texas films about the perception and experience of time.)
“A Ghost Story” feels bracingly, at times alienatingly new. It’s a movie you can’t be quite sure how to take. There are moments where the movie seems to be handing you keys to interpretation, but I’d caution viewers against looking at such scenes for answers, because they have a rope-a-dope quality—as if they're designed to bait and trap those who would sneer at this kind of movie. In any event, this is a film that's more inclined to ask questions than answer them, much less give life advice. A long monologue by a party guest (Will Oldham) about humanity’s doomed attempts to leave traces that last, especially through art, would seem to suggest that a song C writes for M will outlast him, but we have no evidence of that. The film’s presentation of ghosthood as a purgatorial in-between state, inhabited by individuals who refuse to let go of the life they can no longer have, jibes with many Western religions’ ideas about the afterlife, but I don’t think the resolution of C’s story gives us any hope of Heaven; to me it seemed more like a warning to be at peace with the possibility that we may never know the answers to the big questions.
I should admit here that any take I can offer is provisional. I need to see the film a second time to sweep away preconceived notions that might’ve been lingering in my mind during my first viewing of “A Ghost Story.” The movie is so simple in its storytelling and its situations are observed so patiently that the result has a disarming purity, as if Lowery jammed a tap into his subconscious and recorded one of his dreams directly to film. It’s probably the closest that a lot of people are going to get to seeing a late-period silent movie on a big screen—a melodrama that deals in big ideas and obvious symbols, and that puts across fantastical concepts, such a ghost haunting the landscape over a period of decades, by putting a sheet over its leading man and having him walk around slowly and stare blankly at stuff. (Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shoots the movie in the old-fashioned, square-ish “Academy” ratio, letting us see the rounded edges of the frame; this has a constricting effect, so that we seem to be spying through a keyhole at someone else’s life.)
People either seem to love “A Ghost Story” or hate it, with no in-between. It got mostly very positive notices during festival screenings, but on the eve of its commercial release I’ve found myself arguing with colleagues who think it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes and find it too precious, too sentimental, too much of a one-joke movie, or not enough of one thing or another thing. I loved everything about it, including the scenes I wasn’t sure how to take. I recommend seeing it in a theater because it’s a movie that has as much to say about our perception of time and permanence as it does about love and death. Much of the impact that it has, positive or negative, comes from having to sit there and watch it without interruptions and think about what it’s showing you, and how.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
BABY DRIVER is, quite simply, as astonishing achievement, part supercharged chase movie; part love story with a sweet center (rather like those noir classics, Gun Crazy and They Live By Night); and all things Hollywood dance musical. But for all that it stands on its own. For those like me, relatively unfamiliar with director Edgar Wright and actor Ansel Elgort, it’s a declaration of sorts. Here am I, it seems to say, where have you been???
When he’s not driving like a canny maniac, when he’s not paying off debts to a local gangster (Kevin Spacey), when he’s not falling in love with the pretty waitress (Lily James)—he’s taking care of an aging deaf and dumb black man, confined to a wheelchair. There’s a telling moment early in the film when the old man advises Baby (for that’s his name, until it’s finally revealed to be, tellingly, “Miles”) to “spread the peanut butter to all the edges of the bread.” Remember that. It’s a handy way of describing how director Edgar Wright has crafted this movie.
Indeed, BABY DRIVER spreads its events, dialogue, songs, and dance choreography right to the edges of the frame. They demand our eyes and ears pay attention, lest we miss some detail, gesture, and song lyric. In a way, it’s a live-action throwback to the great Disney cartoon shorts of the 1930s, where the entire frame—every character, every stick of furniture, every flower bud—anthropomorphically ticks and throbs to a musical beat. That tempo is the powerful engine that drives Baby Driver. Baby’s mix tapes propel his car and provide the downbeat for everything he does and everything that animates the world around him. Baby’s traversal of the city streets at the beginning—an amazing uncut take—is tightly choregraphed to the music of “Harlem Shuffle.” Two heist sequences are timed to the beats of “Bell Bottoms” and “Neat Neat Neat.” And you won’t believe how “Tequila” figures in to the action. . . . The songs denoting Baby and his girlfriend, Debora, Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” and Simon and Garfunkle’s “Baby Driver,” are leitmotifs throughout that surround and animate the lovers. Right in the middle of the action, he and the other characters will suddenly lip-synch, right on cue, a few words to a song that’s been running all along, either as a diegetic or non-dietetic event. The world is in thrall. Heck, even the windshield wipers sweep along with the beat.
The story is conventional enough: Baby is a young, preternaturally gifted wheelman who will be free of his handler if he’ll just do one more job. But the heist goes bad and the thugs turn on each other. Everyone is ultimately blasted to kingdom come, ultimately—
—except Baby. From first to last, at the wheel of the waiting getaway car in the beginning, and waiting out his last days of a prison sentence at the end—he’s the silent, rather stoic still point of the film. Ear buds attached to his ears, a mix tape at the ready, sunglasses hiding his eyes (he seems to possess an endless supply of sunglasses), he’s a Sphinx, tuned in to an auditory Other World. Except that Other World of pop songs is Our World, too. His interior acoustic universe is also our own exterior experience. The two are joined. And it’s a miracle.
THE MUMMY, directed by Alex Kurtzman, starring Tom Cruise as Nick, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wellas as Jenny, and Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll
THE MUMMY is presumably desiccated—I mean, dedicated— to all you Mummy fans out there. You’ve been loyal through numerous movie exhumations, from the Karloff classic in 1931, through serials and sagas from Hammer Films in the 60s, to the recent Brendan Fraser trilogy at the turn of the new century. Now Tom Cruise appears in the newest incarnation; and if he wears a perpetually perplexed expression at the goings-on, who can blame him? Or us?
The story is about an unearthed ancient Egyptian queen in quest of a bejeweled dagger with which she can impale Tom Cruise and transform him into her unholy partner as a “Living God.” Indeed, for some fans (most obviously Cruise himself) it’s always been a short hike from Tom Cruise Movie Star to Tom Cruise Living God.
As if those ambitions aren’t dubious enough, film makers and screenwriter David Koepp have ripped off the “Waking Dead” and zombie genres in general. Queen Amunet’s minions are shambling, murderous piles of deadly ash shambling hungrily after every human in sight. And for reasons entirely inexplicable to me, the script introduces Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll into the fray. Dr. Jekyll??? He shows up and gnashes his fangs momentarily before retiring back to his lab.
What results is one of the worst movies of this or any year. It lumbers around like Tom Tyler and Lon Chaney in those terrible “Mummy” movies of the ‘40s. Bereft of anything new to offer, it shamelessly exploits every Horror Trope known to man. It’s in tatters like the Mummy herself.
However, credit the makeup staff for providing Sofia Boutella a sexy shroud bikini in which to strut her stuff.
As for Cruise, he somehow avoids Queen What’s-Her-Name‘s clutches, only to die himself and arrive, resurrected, an Arab chieftain traversing the Burning Sands in search of—what? I’m not sure. The movie concludes with him on horseback, racing toward the Hollywood horizon.
Footnote: It’s interesting to remember that the whole “Mummy” saga was fashioned long before Hollywood, in the delicate hands of a 19th-century teenaged woman, one Jane Webb. She wrote the Grandmummy of all mummy stories in 1827, a scant decade after her Sister in Horror, Mary Shelley, reanimated her own creature in the novel, Frankenstein.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Directed by James Gray. Starring Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett, James Pattinson as Costin, and Tom Holland as his son.
Combining a story about a Lost City with the music of Maurice Ravel proves to be useful. Several times the music from Ravel’s ballet, Daphnis et Chloe, underscores visions of the tangled forests and rushing rivers of Bolivia and Brazil. Just as the music evokes Greek myths of Paradise, so THE LOST CITY OF Z likewise envisions its own primeval world as it plunges its protagonist, British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett, into his ill-fated search for a fabled City of Gold.
Make that three expeditions, in 1902, again in 1912, and finally in 1924. In the first two, after privations of starvation, disease, and near-death risks at the hands of indigenous peoples, Percy has to turn back short of his goal—but not before discovering some shards and fragments of pottery, suggestive of the remains of a former civilization. In the third, the obsessed Fawcett and his intrepid son, Jack, again nearly reach the goal, but. . . well, what happened after that is “lost” in its own myth and speculation. The film’s dreamy epilogue shows that the two men were captured by natives and, after being subjected to a mysterious ritual of food and drink, were subjected to a fate unknown, possibly cannibalism. Or, maybe they did not die at all, but remained there for years, peacefully living with the natives. Significantly, perhaps, Fawcett’s compass, which he had foretold would arrive back in England as a sign that he had reached his goal, did indeed find itself in the hands of the president of the Royal Geographical Society.
At two and a half hours, THE LOST CITY OF Z at times seems as endless and twisty as Fawcett’s expeditions. As one expedition follows the other, there’s an intervening episode of World War I., where Fawcett barely survives a charge in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Several times as the film just keeps on trucking along, hacking its own way through the thickly-forested narrative, I found myself, asking, Are we there yet? Moreover, forgive me if I found Fawcett’s arbitrarily tacked on preachments to the Royal Geographical Society about the nobility of civilizations that pre-existed Merry Olde England—not to mention his warnings that “civilized” men endangered those pre-historical civilizations—tiresome and arbitrary.
The film is decidedly Old School, straight out of Haggard and Kipling. Early on, Kipling’s poem, “The Explorer” (1898) is quoted, and its message resonates throughout:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—And we go there, all too willingly, even if we are not sure of our destination.
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!...
Over yonder! Go you there!”
Directed by Terence Davies. Starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, Jennifer Ehle as sister Vinnie, Duncan Dugg as brother Austin, and Keith Carradine as father Edward.
Unlike Emily Dickinson’s famous lines (1830-1886) that Death “kindly stopped” for her, the death that is described in A QUIET PASSION comes only after a series of cruel, unrelenting scenes of suffering. Seldom has the very process of death in its gasps, heavings, and prostrate convulsions been depicted so graphically under the unrelenting eye of the camera. In this respect, the life and death of the fabled Woman in White is stripped of any sentimentalizing. The “Belle of Amherst” does not lie quietly in her grave. Nor does she rest easily in posterity.
I must affirm, nonetheless, that in the final analysis, A QUIET PASSION is a very quiet film, a prolonged silent cry of protest, recriminations, anger, and resentment. The soundtrack is bereft of music, save for a song at the film’s opening of a song by Schubert [“Nacht und Traume”], and a scattering of ditties like “The Last Rose of Summer,” a few phrases of Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and finally, as a valediction after her death, the long, slow, quietly winding phrases of Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question.” This last wraps the story and its characters in a quietly enduring enigma that is, finally, Emily Dickinson herself.
From our first view of her amidst the stifling moral recriminations hurled at her by the awful headmistress of Mt. Holyoke School, high-strung Emily is confined and pinned to the mat by the disapprovals and recriminations of her family, friends, neighbors, and a repressive Massachusetts middle-class society. The claustrophobic mise-en-scene confirms the horror of her entrapment in its several 360-pans that limns the starchy gallery of characters clustered around her in the lifeless, and dim interiors. (Indeed, Terence Davies once again proclaims himself as the “Poet of Interiors.”) And Emily, herself, at the end, as her own room implodes upon her, famously refuses to appear outside her door. She must endure the ongoing horrors of Bright’s disease with scarcely a sound from her grimly tight lips. Claustrophobic, yes, with scarcely a sense in its last half of any world outside the Dickinson house. Ironically, the closing credits disclose that some of the film was shot on location in Emily’s beloved Amherst, Massachusetts. They could have been shot in Timbuktoo, for all the visual import they have.
Emily Dickinson’s drama is revealed as something straight out of Eugene O’Neill. A QUIET PASSION becomes a sort of A Long Day’s Journey into Amherst. The dialogue is self-consciously studied and posed. Everyone hurls aphorisms and witticisms, by turns wicked, clever, and dangerous, at each other, like combatants lobbing grenades in a No Man’s Land. At times, the archness of these exchanges gets too precious, and you would be forgiven for wearying of the artful intelligence and cynicism everyone, not just Emily herself, wields with surgical precision. Particularly tedious are the extended dialogues between Emily and a character that has been inserted into the story, her proto-feminist friend, the wily Vryling Buffam. Indeed, the script at times is insufferably arch and precious. But, yet, all is forgiven, for there is Cynthia Nixon’s Emily, lurking above the fray atop the stairs, glaring at the world, her round face perched precariously atop a long neck, hair severely drawn back in a bun, eyes sometimes glittering with mania, voice scratching and abrasive. Here she is in all her petty feuds, righteous anger, grim frustration, and spiritual confusion. “She scrapes against the grain of the movie’s decorum,” writes critic Anthony Lane, “and asks, What kind of soul did you expect, at the root of poems like these?”
And yes, the poetry. A QUIET PASSION belongs to a select genre of movies about poets and poetry, from D.W. Griffith’s quotations of Robert Browning in Pippa Passes, to Glenda Jackson’s tender declamation of the poetry of Stevie Smith in Stevie, to the lush lyricism of the blighted love between John Keats and Fanny Brown in Bright Star. Here, in A QUIET PASSION, Dickinson’s lines are voiced by Nixon herself at strategic moments, a quiet counterpoint to wordless scenes, and, at other times, deftly slipped into the very dialogues. At one point, her lines are heard with only the image of a closed door before us.
Terence Davis is one mighty brave director to pull all this off with scarcely a concession to romanticizing Emily’s story. The one exception comes during Emily’s lines about the Death that awaits her as visualized in a shadowy male figure, silhouetted in the doorway of the house, who moves slowly up the stairs toward her door. But this tender and shadowy vision is quickly offset by the very material horrors of her decidedly unvarnished sufferings.
There is a clever visual device Davies employs twice to convey both the passage of time and Emily’s identity as myth and reality: I refer to an early scene when the camera moves slowly into the posed figures of the Dickinson family members, each subtly altered from youthful faces to the more set and stern expressions of advancing age. And at the very end, Davis repeats the procedure, this time prolonging a shot of Cynthia Nixon’s face as it dissolves into the familiar portrait of Emily herself. The technique speaks of time and identity. It is its own poetry.