Friday, November 17, 2017

WONDERSTRUCK: MUSEUM PIECE


Directed by Todd Haynes from the illustrated novel by Brian Selznick. Starring Oakes Fegley as Ben, Millicent Simmonds as young Rose, and Julianne Moore as adult Rose.

With a wonderful title like “Wonderstruck,” with its slew of lightning flashes and power blackouts, space music by David Bowie (“Space Oddity”), a pithy epigram by Oscar Wilde (“We all live in the gutter, but some of us look at the stars”), and a literary property by Brian (the wonderful Hugo) Selznick—with all that, you would think WONDERSTRUCK would dazzle and soar.

Sorry, it’s mostly down-to-earth, burdened with a rambling and leaden pace, protracted dialogue exchanges, and an increasingly tedious pattern of shifts between color and black-and-white. Moreover, it’s a kind of museum piece that walks its characters (and us) through an endless succession of dioramas, curiosity cabinets, and table-top displays. Indeed, the conclusion of the film, which reveals its secrets against the backdrop of an enormous tabletop model of New York City, confirms that its characters and their world are nothing more than a collection of cardboard faces and miniature buildings on display. Welcome to the dollhouse.

WONDERSTRUCK weaves together two narratives. One, set in 1977, introduces us to young Ben, who’s recently lost his mother. He runs away from home and goes to New York City in search of his absent father. The second, set a half century earlier, is about a young girl named Rose. She undergoes a similar quest to New York to find an absent parent, in this case, her mother, who turns out to be a silent-movie star going under the name of “Lillian Mayhew.” The first is in color, the second in black-and-white. The first captures the sleazy chaos of Times Square; the second, the tattered charm of a bygone era.
Figuring prominently in both is New York’s Museum of Natural History, the center of much of the action.

How these stories intersect engages our interest—for awhile. But as these children plod their way through their respective storylines, our engagement flags. And it’s mostly due to that blasted Museum, wherein the children, past and present, ramble interminably through the halls and exhibits. And I mean interminably. Director Tod Haynes seems to be his own museum walker, hypnotized by its clutter of worlds.

And it should be noted that a curious paralysis grips the film when the children, who are deaf, attempt to communicate with scribbled notes and clumsy sign language. These interminable dialogue exchanges bring us full stop, and we watch and wait impatiently for the story to move on. I hate to sound unkind, but really, this is a real problem in narrative pacing. By the time the kids’ quests are resolved and united (young Ben learns that he is the grandson of the little girl from fifty years before), the moment is shrouded in the darkness of a New York blackout. And I, at least, sitting in the darkness of the theater, no longer care to look up at the stars. Unlike the lyrics to Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—heard several times throughout—wherein “Major Tom” successfully travels to the stars, WONDERSTRUCK never gets off the ground.

True, there are wonderful things here. Haynes’ recreations of New York in 1927 and 1977 are amazing in their wealth of authentic detail. In important ways, the black-and-white sequences of the film successfully evoke the experience of watching a silent film. Haynes’s pastiche of Lillian Mayhew’s films (such as Mayhew’s Child of the Storm) is a dead-on parody of virtually anything by Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford). Haynes extends this effect by conveying in a similar manner much of Rose’s story, providing dialogue titles and non-diegetic incidental music. But even here, the pace slackens, relying too much on Carter Burwell’s oddly jarring collection of non-diegetic pop songs and background music. And may I register a personal note: I can’t stand the rock-music version of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato, which is heard several times. It’s tacky and cheapens events.

In sum, WONDERSTRUCK is a curiosity cabinet whose many drawers and clutter of figures and objects invites us to pause a moment and enjoy the world en miniature. But after awhile, we are impatient, and ready to move on.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

THE FLORIDA PROJECT: TWO MAGIC KINGDOMS


Directed by and written by Sean Baker and starring Willem Dafoe as Bobby, Bria Vinaite as Halley Brooklynn Prince as Moonee

I emerged from a screening of THE FLORIDA PROJECT confused, disheartened, and angry. I couldn’t shake its disorienting effect. The streets and people outside the theater seemed but an extension of the desperate lives and failed hopes on screen.

That’s the powerful, if disorienting effect this amazing film has on the viewer. It’s a story of two “magic” kingdoms in Orlando Florida. One is Orlando’s Walt Disney World; the other is a nearby slum hotel. They counterpoint each other. The first is a shining Cinderella castle of dreams; the second is its garish parody. Cinderella’s castle is a glorious illusion; the motel is the sordid reality behind that shining curtain. Both lie simmering under the blazing Florida sun.

Among the motel’s collection of drifters, drug dealers, and near-homeless are a mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year old granddaughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Mother and child are running wild, from the very beginning of the film, feral creatures in the grip of some sort of desperately manic energy. While the little girl is all arms and legs playing contact sport with the world, the mother is warily negotiating with it. While the child and her little friends wreak damage against the hotel’s power system, sets a nearby abandoned building on fire, and spits and terrorizes the inhabitants, Mom is soliciting the guests of a nearby resort hotel and turning tricks in her room. Presiding over it all is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) a kind and hard-working motel manager who wages a hopeless battle to maintain some semblance of order amidst the surging chaos of the inhabitants.

The steady stream of images, incidents, and fragments of storyline gradually coalesce into a mosaic of mounting dismay and horror. Violence ensues. Halley nearly kills another motel resident who accuses her of prostitution. Police and social workers arrive to take her away and consign her bewildered child to foster parents. The little girl breaks away. She flees to the door of one of her little friends. The moments captured in closeup as she screams and pounds frantically at the door are among this year’s movies’ most agonizing moments. She and her friend escape the motel and bolt through fields and across busy streets to the nearby Disney Magic Kingdom. Desperately, they thread their way through the parking lot and the crowds of thronging tourists. Ahead looms Cinderella’s Castle. They run and run. And then, abruptly, brutally, the screen goes to black. Not even the magical fantasy of Disney can help them now.

Like Sean Baker’s breakout film from a few years ago, Tangerine, THE FLORIDA PROJECT is so real and so vibrant that it hardly seems to be a movie at all. The children, in particular, seem absolutely themselves, not the fabrications of direction, camera and script. Contrasting Dafoe’s stoic and sturdy manner (one of his very best performances) are the amazing portrayals by newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince as mother and child. So raw and seething are their roles, I can hardly fathom how they could have been achieved, ironically, by seasoned actors. There’s not a shred of contrivance here, only a raw authenticity that is unschooled and unvarnished.

Both Magic Kingdoms fail their occupants. Both are only a ground zero, a dead end. Cinderella’s Castle is as hollow and useless as its motel counterpart. Viewers of faint heart and cozy fantasies should stay home. Which is a pity, since this is one of the very best movies of the year.

Friday, October 27, 2017

SUBURBICON: THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD!



Directed by George Clooney and starring Mark Damon and Julianne Moore.

The opening credits of Suburbicon depict a paint-box picture of a whitebread housing development in the late 1950s. But we quickly learn that within its cookie-cutter homes its clockwork people lace peanut-butter sandwiches with poison, serve coffee with lye, commit murder for life insurance benefits. And when the first black family moves in, it doesn’t take long before the neighbors deposit a Confederate flag on the doorstep, encircle the house with fences, and gather nightly to jeer insults and hurl bricks.

No mistake about it: SUBURBICON is a nasty piece of work about as awful collection of racist bigots and perverted characters that can be found this side of the Coen Brothers.

Indeed, the Coens wrote the script, in collaboration with director George Clooney.

Matt Damon is Gardner Lodge, an unassuming, buttoned-down businessman who lives with a paralyzed wife, victim of an automobile accident, her twin sister, and a young son. A violent home invasion assaults the family and leaves the paralyzed wife dead. But nothing is as it seems. Soon after the funeral, we find Gardner cuddling up with his very obliging sister-in-law. And the home invasion turns out to be a staged hit job to get his wife out of the way, collect the insurance, and skip town with his new honey. But one day the hit men show up angrily demanding their money. Then the insurance man arrives, convinced the case “stinks,” as he puts it and demands hush money. Things are closing in on good old Gardner. Worse, his young son knows all. And he’s in the way of a getaway.

Meanwhile, the neighbors are closing in on the hapless black family next door, under daily assault.

Murder, mayhem, race hatred are served up with a trowel. And an occasional Mad Magazine humor skitters crazily in and around the story, like a skateboard gone berserk.

Critics and viewers already HATE it. And I can’t blame them. The film veers crazily in tone, from the pastel colors of its grocery stores and hair salons to the thundering dark tones of its homicides and mayhem. There is no subtlety to characters and situations, only sledgehammer transitions. It’s all hard angles and harsh contrasts, a geometry of scene and story that’s gone mad.

It vaguely resembles the post-card facades of Pleasantville and The Truman Show and the subtle delivery of Get Out... But I have to admit I admire its comic-book presentation, whose sheer audacity is in your face, with no apologies or moderation offered.

(Purportedly, SUBURBICON is based on a true-life incident about race violence in the post-war living experiment known as Levitown, a planned community in New York state.)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

FACSIMILE: “BLADE RUNNER 2049” AND “AMERICAN MADE”


Meet a Guy Named Joe in the new BLADE RUNNER and a Guy Named Barry in AMERICAN MADE. “Joe,” whose Replicant name is K-something-or-other, flies around in his souped-up police car chasing rogue Replicants in a future of 2049. “Barry Seal” runs guns and drugs in his souped-up airplane in a past time of the 1980s.

Now, no one in his right mind would yoke together these two recent films in a review, but why not, say I, because I saw them both within hours of each other and darned if they don’t bounce off each other in many ways. Both men are the manufactured commodities of their culture. Their worlds are violent, noisy, and corrupt. Both men turn rogue against the very systems they work for. Joe begins as a Blade Runner on the hunt for soulless, android Replicants, but he eventually joins a resistance movement to restore human freedom to the world. Barry works with criminal south-of-the-border drug cartels and gun runners, but he winds up betraying them in sting operations. Joe gains the humanity that he has lost—at the sacrifice of his life. Barry attempts some measure of redemption in saving his family from prison but must lose his life in the process. And the loud and explosive soundtracks of both films demonstrate that worlds past and present are determined to pummel and pound us into submission.

Now AMERICAN MADE and BLADE RUNNER, to be sure, radically differ in their narrative and pacing strategies. The former moves straight ahead with dizzying speed; the latter slumps badly long before its own finish line. One is nimble on its feet; the other is one long slog. AMERICAN MADE’S director Doug Liman—whose racehorse techniques have given lots of buzz to pictures like SWINGERS, GO, and THE BOURNE IDENTITY—tracks the razzle-dazzle and hijinks of Barry’s career with whiz-bang cutting and skewed and jittery camera work. BLADE RUNNER’S director Denis Villeneuve—whose SICARIO and ARRIVAL were slow-burning meditations on politics and Otherness—mires down action and character in a swamp of static camera setups and tedious dialogue exchanges. The former cares little about Art; it never stops to think about what’s going on. The latter is everywhere consumed with Art; and it limps along, preoccupied with its own navel-gazing.

AMERICAN MADE lets the story tell itself. BLADE RUNNER fusses and frets with its story and wrestles it to the mat.

And just what is that story? It’s all about the fate of human identity in the face of encroaching conformity. BLADE RUNNER blurs the boundaries separating man from machine. AMERICAN MADE finds gangland corruption in the halls of Congress. Maybe it’s not so much a story as a condition. That the still, small voice of humanity is only a flickering flame against the onslaught of the dark.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

MOTHER! HOME INVASIONS


Directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.

SPOILER ALERT!

Disturbing and fascinating, sometimes horrifying and unpleasant, Darren Aronofsky in MOTHER once again proves himself a master of surreal storytelling.

Bracketing the film are a succession of images: a face consumed by flames; a sparkling gem placed in a holder; a ramshackle house stirring to new life; a woman awakening and calling for her husband. . . Then a series of unfortunate events ensues, culminating in a kind of nasty home invasion of unwelcome guests. A fire engulfs everything. The cycle begins again. . . .

What is MOTHER about? Part One: It’s about newlywed Jennifer Lawrence’s fierce attempts to renovate a home for herself and her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she plasters the walls and cleans the floors, he’s sitting at his desk before a blank sheet of paper nursing a creative funk. But when a strange, sinister family comes to call (chillingly portrayed by Ed Harris and a most unpleasant Michelle Pfeiffer), he lets them in. Against her will, he allows them to take over the house. Chaos erupts and the horde of strangers trash the house. There’s a killing. Finally, the invaders leave. Reunited now with her husband, the wife discovers she is pregnant.

What is MOTHER also about? Part Two: The second half shifts focus. Her husband is a raging egomaniac. He values nothing unless it feeds his drive to write new poetry. And so, while the wife awaits the birth of the baby, the writer welcomes another home invasion. This time, it’s crowd of hero-worshipers, come to his door to celebrate his new book. Their quiet adoration turns into a candle-lit religious ceremony, then devolves into mob anarchy and violence, and soon turns the house is utter chaos. During all this, the baby arrives. The mother fiercely refuses to give it over to the husband. But he wants to show it off to the crowd. He wrests it out of her arms and bears it high above the crowd. They worship it; and then they tear it to pieces. Enraged and quite out of her head, the mother sets fire to the house. The husband cradles her burnt body, whispering that the inspiration the mother gives him can never be enough. He adds, that’s the essence of the creative urge. He must take and take from her and she must give and give—even her beating heart which he tears from her chest. He wrests it from her body and crushes it in his hands until a hard, diamond-like gem is produced. Amidst the flames engulfing her body, he carefully places it in a cup.

We’re back where we started. And, after the house comes back to life, the cycle begins anew. A strange woman awakes and calls for her husband. . .

In the first half, seldom does a film concentrate more relentlessly on a single character than MOTHER does on Jennifer Lawrence. The camera holds her in a tight closeup, following her rambles around the house, recording her every reaction to events, registering her every psychological anxiety and fear. Through her eyes, we learn that the house is a living thing, with walls that dissolve into fetus shapes, drains and holes that are like wounds that bleed, and a basement that gives birth to mysterious tunnels. In this regard, the first half of the film owes a lot to that other masterpiece of psychological disintegration, Roman Polansky’s Repulsion.

On the other hand, as the film continues into the second half, we realize that her deterioration, in a way, is the psychic consequences of feeding her husband’s writer’s block. And when the second home invasion arrives, he’s fairly reveling in their adoration and anarchic energy. It’s as if he swells and grows, his mighty ego fair to bursting. The artist as selfish monster, demon lover. And here, we may speculate that MOTHER is about the relationship between star Jennifer Lawrence and director Aronofsky. It’s no longer a secret but now open and public. Thus, we wonder if the abuse that is visited upon Lawrence’s character by her selfishly egomaniacal husband might somehow draw from the dynamic between actress and director.

Our fascination in the first half turns into repulsion in the second. While Aronofsky teases and tantalizes and dreams in the first, he batters and overwhelms us in the brutality of the second. Some of us will come away, feeling as brutalized as the character of the wife. Others might stay, wondering if there will be a third part of the ongoing cycle of fire and destruction.

Monday, September 11, 2017

THE BLACKWELL GHOST (2017)

THE BLACKWELL GHOST delivers the best scare I’ve had in a long time.

It is a perfect demonstration of those occasional delights (in this case, scares) you sometimes encounter upon coming across a film with absolutely no prior knowledge of it. I was absently cruising Amazon Prime late one night when I came across this title. It was only 59 minutes, so despite the hour I impulsively gave it a look. It was billed as a documentary about a ghost hunter. Ordinarily I find things like this laughably absurd, because in spite of all the technology employed no ghosts ever have the courtesy to present themselves.

But here, although no spectral figures materialized, I was left at the end with one of the most hair-raising shocks I have ever suffered.

Since then, I’ve told many friends about this, but cautioned them: Watch the film first, and only after that check out its backstory.

At any rate, at the outset, THE BLACKWELL GHOST, seemed different from your ordinary store-bought paranormal investigation. This ghost hunter was no professional camera geek but merely a back-porch hack making a living by making clunky “zombie” video quickies. On a whim, he launched a one-man investigation into a purportedly haunted house in a Pennsylvanian suburban town. His inquiry picks up steam when he is invited by the occupant to visit the house and hear its story: It is a tale of thumps and bumps in the night, of doors and lights that click on and off, and, most intriguing, of a cellar with an underground well into which a previous occupant, one “Ruth Blackwell,” had dispatched the dismembered bodies of her victims.

Some research at the local library reveals that in 1941 a woman named Ruth Blackwell had indeed lived in that house and murdered and dismembered several victims and discarded them into the well in the cellar. A photo exists of Ruth, a decidedly sinister character about which nothing more is known.

The rest of THE BLACKWELL GHOST is an on-camera, first-person documentary that depicts our investigator and his wife spending three days and nights in the house. Armed with some makeshift cameras and microphones, they settle in. The first night is disappointingly bereft of spooks. The second night brings on a few strange sounds but little else. Determined to leave after one more night, they encounter during a thunderstorm a whole new battery of incidents that leaves them fleeing the house.

And left me shaken, baffled, and, above all, curious about what I had just seen.

Let me isolate one incident from the events depicted: One strategy our ghost hunter employs to trap any trickster ghosts is to place a soccer-ball-sized sphere on a table in the living room, an open invitation for a ghost to move it. Later, during that last, terrible night, alarmed by the noises downstairs and the appearance of veils of smoke triggering the smoke alarm, he ventures below. He discovers that every faucet in the house is on and that the power has been switched off. Down in the cellar, with only weak illumination from his light stand, he gropes for the breaker switch. No luck. But he can’t help noticing one new detail about the cellar: The sphere that had been placed on a table upstairs is now sitting atop the heavy grate covering the well opening.

Hours later he and his wife quit the house.

The film ends with no explanation or end credits. We have yet to learn the identity of our intrepid investigator.

Okay. That’s it. I must admit I swallowed this whole thing, hook, line, and cellar. All the paranormal, found-footage movies out there notwithstanding, I bought it all.

I later learned that THE BLACKWELL GHOST is, in all probability, a hoax of exceedingly clever achievement. No such house, no Ruth Blackwell, no account of the crimes exist. The clumsiness of its narrative structure, its amateurish execution, the goofy tactics of its unnamed narrator, the failure to deliver any spooks of substance—all contribute to its apparent veracity. You can go back and review it and detect all kinds of telltale evidence to the contrary—where is the camera for that scene, why are the characters not named, why are there no credits, for example. . . ? We don’t even know who the filmmaker is. Yet, the very fragmentariness of it all, as if a length of video film had been ripped off a larger reel and hastily abandoned, contributes to it strangeness. Calculation, if it is here, is superbly planned and executed in a manner that conceals its artistry.

I am left with that glimpse in the flickering light of the cellar of that blasted ball sitting on top of the well grate. What it signified, what it suggests, is with me still.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

MAUDIE: PAINTING A LIFE


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.