Monday, December 17, 2018

AT ETERNITY’S GATE.



Directed and written by Julian Schnabel. Starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh.

GATE CRASHING!

The sunflowers are withered.

It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with this poetically sensitive depiction of the last three years in the life of the Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh. These were years spent in around Arles, years of a chaotic chain of circumstances—corrosive relations with Paul Gauguin, pleas of help to brother Theo, incarcerations in hospitals and asylums—that miraculously produced the masterpieces we now know and celebrate. AT ETERNITY’S GATE, I must admit, surely benefits from lushly photographed landscapes and an outstanding performance marked by Willem Dafoe’s trademark intensity. It’s just... well, I’m probably the one at fault, for expecting a more insightful and interpretive conjoining of image and music from painter-filmmaker Julian Schnabel.

Instead, Schnabel trots out the Usual Suspects about the troubled painter’s mental and physical turmoil—the visions, the erratic emotional temper, the restlessness that damaged friendships and home life, the stabbing painterly “performances” at the easy... And he serves them up with pertinent, brief excerpts from the painter’s letters. But it lacks context for all these things. The painter’s words, about his God and about his work, about his fellow painters, are shorn of the needed nuances of time and circumstance that they deserve. Please note: Van Gogh was an extremely gifted and expressive writer, as measured and steady in his letters as he was impulsive and reckless in his behavior. But eviscerated and clipped as are his words here, his thoughts seem merely artificial and cliched. He is ill-served here. Consult his letters. See for yourself.

And there are those annoying, wordless, interpolated passages where Schnabel’s camera follows Van Gogh on his interminable ramblings across the countryside. We see his feet, we see his face limned against the sky, we see through his eyes the landscape ahead... Walking, always walking. On and on. A lot of screen time might have been better served than this preoccupation with walking, climbing, scrambling. Worse, during these walking sequences, there’s an annoying solo piano on the soundtrack, lamely hammering away at repeated chords, likewise, on and on...

But there is a final irony here—one that I assume is intended by director Schnabel. He defies our expectations of filling the screen with Vincent’s signature images of blazing-yellow sunflowers. Instead, all we get is a field full of desiccated blooms and stalks, pitiful brown remnants of a once proud glory. But that is fine. That is fine with me. This bravely, rudely works against our expectations. It’s the sort of debunking touch that we had found and welcomed so frequently in an earlier Van Gogh biopic, one that I much prefer—Vincent and Theo, by Robert Altman.



COLD WAR



Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and starring Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Victor.

SONGS OF THE EARTH?

COLD WAR is a story of two lovers who meet, separate, reunite, stray apart again... over fifteen years, from 1949 to 1964... and then finally march steadily toward the fate that has always awaited them. It’s a great film.

Warsaw, 1949. Zula is a fresh-faced young Polish girl who auditions for the famed Mazurek Ensemble of singers and dancers. Like them, she is young, relatively untutored, from farm and the country. They come from the earth, they perform music of the earth, they bring their quirky, plaintive folk songs to audiences across Poland. But it’s not quite as simply stated as that: Zula auditions a song she calls “Two Hearts.” Is it a Polish folk song? Not really: She heard it in a movie soundtrack. And that’s not the first musical irony of many to come. Attracted to her is Victor Tomasz, the conductor of the ensemble. On his off hours he is performing--not a Polish folks song... no—he’s belting out a more sophisticated Polish tune, Chopin’s “Fantasy Impromptu.”

Are you getting the sense these two performers are slightly out of kilter with the program?

Soon, Zula and Victor fall in love. They and their ensemble quickly come under the Communist agenda promoting Joseph Stalin’s so-called People’s Music. And yes, now dressed in beautifully tailored peasant costumes, here they are, on stage in a crowded opera house, performing a gruesome but festive “Stalin Cantata” in front of a huge curtain bearing Uncle Joe’s fiercely-mustached face. Music of the earth is ground down under the dictator’s heel. The audience dutifully applauds. Touring takes the Mazurek Ensemble to Berlin and East Germany. Yugoslavia.

The lovers split when Victor escapes to Paris. He performs in a piano bar. Years pass. Now she’s also in Paris but married with a son. She’s gaining fame as a cabaret singer. (I might add that more and more she looks like Monica Vitti, which is fine with me!) Listen closely, and you’ll hear underneath the sultry smoke and slow, slightly dissonant harmonies that same song she same years ago, “Two Hearts.”

Regarded as a political dissident, Victor is dragged out of Paris by the Polish police. A jail cell waits for him.

And so it goes. More years pass. Crossing borders. She returns to Poland and performs a bongo-band version of “Two Hearts.” He follows. They try to reunite, but it hasn’t worked before, but maybe, just maybe, it’s going to work now?

COLD WAR is a history of music as much as of the political fortunes of two lovers. Of, I should say, what happens to music... as it springs from the rough, frayed hearts of the peasants, slumps to political agendas, transmutes into the discords of cabaret and blues, and erupts to Zula’s frenzied dance to “Rock Around the Clock.”

COLD WAR has a measured, rather stolid pacing, moving along in discrete chunks of story fragments. It frequently leaves gaps that allow us to fill in the story. Was it Miles Davis who once said, “It’s not the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play? COLD WAR is like that.

It’ll be a miracle if this Polish-French-British finds a home in local theaters. Check Amazon. But know that elsewhere, it’s garnered a fair share of international awards.





Monday, December 10, 2018

SUSPIRIA


Directed by Luca Guadagnio and starring Dakota Johnson as Suzy Bannion, Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc (and two other roles). Mark Coulier is in charge of the prosthetic effects.

BODY HORROR

It’s not often that a movie review will lead off with the name of a “prosthetic effects” artist. But SUSPIRIA, a remake of a Dario Argento classic from 1977, demands it. His name is Mark Coulier, and his body-twisting prosthetic effects headlight the movie.

This story of the infernal doings at the Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin in 1977 is more than an exercise in the strenuous balletic physicality in the Martha Graham tradition. . . much more. The central image of the movie depicts dozens of dancers, endlessly grinding away on the floor, arms and legs contorted, torsos convulsing. There’s no balletic grace and beauty here, only self-inflicted pain and bone-cracking contortions.

At least that’s what dance mistress Madame Bland tells her new protégé, a young American named Suzy Bannion, who has just come to the Academy in search of a career. What Madame Blanc has in mind and what young Suzy achieves is nothing less than a ritualistic worship of something else, something dark, even Satanic.

Indeed, the Markos Academy is a witches’ coven. There are Three Mothers in charge. And Suzy is the newest recruit into the coven.

I use the term “Body Horror” to describe SUSPIRIA as dark fantasy historian John Clute defines the term. In his book, The Darkening Garden (2006), he describes “body horror” as the indulgence of the visceral affect, “the atrocity of the thing itself”—the subjection of the body to tortures and dislocations—in the service of a new aesthetic of horror. Well, not so new. The pain and dismemberment of Jacobean Theater, the French Grand Guignol tradition, the flayed-body images of painter Francis Bacon, and the monstrous entities of H.P. Lovecraft are old hat. But the more recent revelations of Abu Ghraib have brought these perversions to a newly disturbing reality.

No, the horrors of SUSPIRIA are not comfortable. They’re not supposed to be. And the camera’s unblinking gaze into ripped bodies spilling out their entrails is not incidental. It is front and center. It ventures into self-parody, by no means incidentally bordering on laughter.

A defense of this, if one is needed at all, is that gruesome displays like these are a needed revelation of the savagery of the human soul. Nothing less will do.

SUSPIRIA and its close relation on the distaff side, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, suggest that pain and pleasure are closely joined, not opposed, but as integrated extremes that approach a dark purity of its own. It’s a chthonic ideal that rips out our own innards. It turns our eyes away from the upper air and plunges our gaze downward into the earth.

We might violently reject it this excess. But it’s too late.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

SOMETHING WICKED... AGAIN!

The Good News is that a new edition of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, Ray Bradbury's classic fantasy from 1962, is forthcoming soon from Centipede Press. It will feature three of my interviews with Ray and with his illustrator, Joseph Mugnaini.

This is the cover of the First Edition, artwork by Gray Foy:


And here is the cover of the first British Edition, with Mugnaini's artwork:


Most spectacular was the the poster art from the Walt Disney adaptation, directed by Jack Clayton in 1983. Alas, the movie itself was nowhere as good as this poster art:


I am so looking forward to this new 2019 edition of SOMETHING WICKED, since it brings back memories of my encounters with both Ray and Joe. Here's Joe and me from an interview in the mid-80s in Los Angeles:


Rarely has a partnership between writer and artist been more happily fruitful than that between Bradbury and Mugnaini. They first met in the early 1950s in Los Angeles and remained staunch friends and sympathetic collaborators ever since. Here they are: Mugnaini on the left.


May they both rest in peace,,,

THE HAPPY PRINCE




Written, directed, and starring Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde; supported by a stellar cast including Emma Watson, Colin Morgan, Tom Wilkinson, and Colin Firth.

“DYING BEYOND HIS MEANS”

THE HAPPY PRINCE is not a happy movie, and it’s not really about a prince. The title comes from a curious fairy tale written by Oscar Wilde in 1888, about a beautiful statue brought down from sublime innocence to sordid reality by the sorrows of the world, leaving behind only an unbroken heart. We flash back to Wilde telling the story to his two sons at times throughout the film. It’s the linking device that binds together the free flow of images past and present.

Viewers relatively unfamiliar with Wilde’s life will not see the parallels between the fairy tale and Wilde’s life during the years after his imprisonment in 1896 for two years at hard labor. Immediately before his conviction and incarceration for the “crime” of homosexuality, Wilde had been a sort of “prince,” the witty and boastful toast of the London stage. His greatest play, The Importance of Being Earnest had lately packed in audiences. But within a matter of months all had come to smash. For two years he suffered greatly as he was passed from prison to prison, barren cell to barren cell, forced to endure gruesome privations that nearly broke him.

A recent book, Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, by Nicholas Frankel, tells the whole sadly fascinating story of his decline from his release from Reading Gaol in 1897 to his death in Paris in 1900. And now THE HAPPY PRINCE retells events with remarkable fidelity to the historical record, accurately documenting the restless shifts in locations, the struggles for money, even down to the pathetic scene where a priest is called in to conduct a last-minute absolution to Wilde on his deathbed. Which is to say that aside from moments of witty badinage in his best epigrammatic manner, and of boisterous gaiety from the drink-sodden Wilde in the cafes and with his Italian rent-boys, there is little attempt to varnish over events, no false romanticism on display, no sidestepping the spectacle of a man seeming willing his own decline and death. His words, “I run to my ruin,” are all too true. Indeed, one of the chief fascinations of the Wilde story is that very fact—that he seems to have done everything he could to encourage his own downfall. Was there in him what Edgar Allan Poe once described as an “Imp of the Perverse” that impelled him to stage-managing his downfall, as if to imitate the “art” of the fairy tale?

At the same time, the cast of THE HAPPY PRINCE is so skilled and the sheer craft of the movie-making so expert, that the free-flow shifting of events in time and space is deftly executed and, ironically, a pleasure to watch. And as excruciating at times as is the narrative—flashbacks to the privations of his imprisonment, the sordid details of his heavy drinking, his sexual indulgences, and the fatal attraction to Lord Alfred Douglas (the charismatic and heartless youth who played such an important part in Wilde’s life, before and after his incarceration)—the drama remains fascinating and compelling. Now, although Lord Douglas—affectionately called “Bosie” by the besotted Wilde—is here an unalloyed monster, I should note that for some historians Douglas’ role in the whole business has been unfairly impugned.

The jury’s still out on that.

If I must cite a lapse or two in this otherwise faultless narrative, it’s the unwelcome intrusion a couple of time of an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony. The music of this late 19th century Russian homosexual is obviously yanked in to corroborate the pathos of Wilde’s last days. Sorry, it’s just too obvious in a movie that is otherwise canny and subtle in its effects.

Friday, November 16, 2018

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?



Directed by Marielle Heller, scripted by Nicole Holofcenor, starring Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, Richard Grant as Jack Hock, and Dolly Wells as the bookstore owner.

SORDID AND FABULOUS!

Yes—“a pretty sordid and fabulous story” is what the New York Times said about real-life writer Lee Israel’s memoir of her days forging the signatures of celebrities such as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and Marlene Dietrich.

I could say the same thing about the new movie, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Make no mistake about it, this is no cozy collection of beguiling eccentrics plying their fraudulent trade, but a shabby collection of people who feint, dodge, and barter for survival against the grime of the city and the loneliness and desperation of their lives. But at least they live in a New York City in the early 1990s, a poignant, vanished world where you can still find wonderful, independent bookstores and where writers still use pens and typewriters.

Melissa McCarthy’s “Lee Israel” and Richard Grant’s “Jack Hock” are willing, even enthusiastic malefactors. We find her at story’s beginning a down and out writer, an alcoholic with a sick cat, a smelly apartment, many bills to pay, and a readership no longer interested in her biographies of entertainment celebrities like Fanny Brice. (Hey, it’s 1991, years past the popularity of Hello, Dolly! From the late ‘60s.) And Jack Hock is a gay hustler just this side of homelessness, with scars to show from his latest tricks. Together, they form an improbable partnership that provides some of the best moments in this or any movie in recent memory. Granted, we already know Richard Grant as one of our finest dramatic actors. But McCarthy—well, who knew??? Hers is a finely nuanced portrayal of a sadly defiant woman who takes no prisoners.

At first, Lee’s forged letters are a profitable success. It’s one of the nicest ironies here that she can write wittier and more interesting letters by Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker than they could write themselves! Indeed, an even nicer irony is that Lee truly “finds” herself as a creative writer by impersonating other writers! But when autograph collectors get wise and set the Feds on her trail, she enlists Jack Hock to continue their nefarious trade while she stays out of sight.

Inevitably, disaster catches up with both of them. But if you expect Lee to appear before the judge crying real tears, you’re wrong. Her unrepentant speech--and McCarthy’s performance—belongs to the A-list Oscar performances this year. Similarly, Richard Grant’s performance as Jack Hock’s valedictory speech belongs to the ages.

Add CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME—the title comes from a Dorothy Parker quote—to the list of outstanding films over the years about forgers. Coming to mind are The Hoax and F Is for Fake, both about Clifford Irving, and Shattered Glass, about the exposure of a series of fraudulent articles in Vanity Fair. We live in strange times, after all, where collectors pay the big bucks for every scrap and scrawl of a celebrity autograph. We know full well many are faked—the sports world is particularly guilty of this sort of thing—but still we want to believe. Indeed, what is it about our own fascination with this sort of thing? Why are we so willing to suspend our disbelief? Why do we enjoy the illusions of stage magicians, knowing all the while we are being fooled? Or, most pertinent of all, why does the votership base of our President unswervingly support him, with his own bag of tricks on full display?

Monday, November 12, 2018

HALLOWEEN



HALLOWEEN, directed by David Gordon Green, and starring Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, Haluk Bilginer as Dr. Sartain, Will Patton as Officer Hawkins.

HIDE AND SEEK

You come away from the new HALLOWEEN almost suffocated from two hours confined in safe rooms, crawl spaces, and cages; from two hours hiding and seeking in a dark tangle of Halloween tricks and treats.

Yes, here is another HALLOWEEN, or, more properly, a second take on the original John Carpenter classic from 1978. Improbably for some (including me), that original outing has spawned over the years a host of sequels and a plethora of copy-cat slasher films. Praise it or blame it, it’s a force that has come to be reckoned with.

Now, forty years later, Laurie Strode (Curtis) has turned her encounter with stalker, Michael Myers, into an obsession to kill him, should he ever escape the insane asylum that has housed him all this time. She has amassed an arsenal of weapons (which she proudly displays in a scene evocative of Travis Bickel’s weapons array), rigged her house with a basement saferoom and fitted out the rooms with cages, alarms, and booby-traps. Michael Myers has given her a Purpose in Life.

He has likewise given his psychiatric keeper, Dr. Sartain (Bilginer) a decades-long fascination with his charge that threatens to swamp his own identity to the point that, late in the movie, he actually dons Myer’s face mask in some weird sort of Brotherly Love. Watch him tenderly stroke Myer’s face and then don the mask. That’s the most disturbing scene in a movie that all too often lapses into just another collection of pop-up scares.

Another scene that pulled me out of my almost somnolent state also transpires late. That’s when director David Gordon Green baldly copies the most famous scene from the original film. I refer to the moment when Laurie has pushed Myers out a window onto the street below. When she takes a second look, the body has disappeared. It was a great moment, the instant that a physical horror transitioned to a transcendent evil. The new HALLOWEEN reverses the polarity: This time it’s Laurie who has been pushed by Myers out the window; and this time, it is Laurie who disappears upon a second look.

Now, both Predator and Prey have surpassed their mortal coils and belong to the ages.

At least, that’s about the best I can come up with regarding an only mildly interesting horror film.

Maybe the Final Horror is that David Gordon Green, a director capable of the wonderful George Washington, has come down from the sublime to the ridiculous.