Monday, June 11, 2018

HEREDITARY: THE GODS DESCENDING



Written and directed by Ari Aster, starring Toni Collette as Annie Graham, Gabe Byrne as Steve, and Alex Wolf as Peter.

SPOILER ALERT

Object if you may to a horrific story about ghosts, gods, and seances, but at least pay homage to a cast of performers who give their all to the tale. Indeed, Toni Collette ratchets up a wrenching intensity as the mother to a haunted and traumatized family that places her on a par with Essie’s Davis’s frenzied performance in a similar role in The Babadook. And that’s high praise indeed.

The recent death of the reclusive matriarch of the Graham family triggers events that accelerate from a standing start to an all-out Gothic sprint at the end. The deceased’s daughter, Annie, is greatly troubled during the funeral, and her memorial speech is likewise troubling. She doesn’t seem to have liked the old girl, very much. And soon we find out why.

I should have known that something seems very wrong with this story at the very beginning: A slow camera dolly moves in to a cutaway of a doll house interior and into one of the tiny rooms. The stiff tableau of miniature family members suddenly comes to life. Welcome to the Graham family—father, mother, son, and daughter. Are they literally living in a doll house? Of course not. Well... maybe not.

True enough, their lives are exposed, the fourth wall torn away. And what we find is a family in the grip of nothing less than a coven of Black Magic worshipers inhabiting nearby a little hut perched on stilts. We don’t know this, at first; we have to pick our way through a thicket of sudden deaths, decapitations, and empty graves before the payoff. And all the while, we watch with mounting horror the psychological deterioration of Annie Graham and her son, Peter (another extraordinary performance by Alex Wolf). We can take comfort, I suppose, by ascribing the nightmares and apparitions of the dead to deranged mental states. But that’s too easy. HEREDITARY won’t allow us this refuge. It relentlessly confronts us finally with the reality of a witch’s cult.

Relentless, yes, but a slow-burning fuse at that. If ever there were a sincere film about witchcraft, this is it—rivalled only, perhaps, by Carl Dreyer’s classic Day of Wrath. The subtlety of camera work, editing, and mise-en-scene is marvelously suggestive without sacrificing the blunter aspects of the witching. And the impassioned conviction of the entire ensemble doesn’t allow us for a moment to ridicule or reject the Gothic claptrap to which the movie is occasionally liable.

And if the oddly lyrical and worshipful climax, delivering a stiff tableau worthy of any haunted doll house, doesn’t send you busily hunting down references to the demon god, Paiman, then your own demons are not worth their salt.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

BOOK CLUB



BOOK CLUB. Directed by Bill Holderman, and starring Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen. Oh, yes, a few guys are on hand for the ride, including Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Craig T. Nelson, and Richard Dreyfuss.

BOOK CLUB is not about a book and not about a club.

In the first place, the book that is being read by the women in this club is hardly a “book,” but Fifty Shades of Gray, more of a screed about kinky sex indulged in by men and women alike than a tome for active discussion. And in the second place, this “club” is more of a refuge for women talking about men—the men they dislike, the men they yearn for, the men they forgot, the men that disappointed them—than for women talking about politics, home life, local gossip, professions, and, yes, sometimes about men.

Either way, this movie is an equal opportunity insult—to books, to the women who enjoy them, and to the clubs that bring readers together.

The women in question here are Jane Fonda, a wealthy hotel owner who avoids commitments to the many men who slip in and out of her bed; Mary Steenburgen, a wife disappointed by a husband who straddles a motorcycle instead of her; Diane Keaton, lately widowed, whose possessive daughters restrict any opportunities for a new man in her life; and Candice Bergen, a federal judge who for decades would rather handle court documents than a man. Of the bunch, it is only Bergen who delivers a candid and lively performance that bears the remotest connection to the realities of a woman of a certain age navigating today’s freewheeling singles scene.

For these four women the Book Club is more of a group confessional in which they exchange smarmy winks about Fifty Shades of Gray and trade advice about how to snare a man than it is for anything more intelligent and engagingly personal. Just ask any women you know in book clubs and they’ll share the dismay at what’s on screen. I have. And they do.

Do the men come off any better? Well, yes and no. Andy Garcia has a winning charm. And Don Johnson is, well, he’s Don Johnson. He has the best line in the book: “Love,” he says, “is just a word; it’s what you make of it.” They both cut through the nonsense thrown at them by, respectively, the flighty and annoying Diane Keaton and the hardened, unlikeable Jane Fonda . I hate to say it, but neither Fonda nor Keaton transcend their by-now standard collections of tics, grimaces, and, in Fonda’s case, dismaying plastic surgeries.

Which leads me to my greatest disappointment. These four actresses have obviously settled for less in doing this movie. They deserve better. And so do we, who have grown to love and respect their work.

Is there a real movie in here, somewhere? Indeed, what would a movie about a women’s book club look and sound like? BOOK CLUB grants us no answers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

LET THE SUNSHINE IN



LET THE SUNSHINE IN. Directed by Claire Denis and starring Juliette Binoche as Isabelle. With a surprise appearance by Gerard Depardieu.

How sadly funny this movie is!

That is not apparent, at first. For awhile, you think you’re watching a throwback to those French films of the 60’s by Eric Rohmer or Chabrol or Godard, where everyone talks seriously and endlessly about everything and anything. That’s what our 50-something Isabelle (Binoche) is doing with the various men in her life. In the bedroom, the art gallery, the theater, the country, they talk, endlessly, their words, sentences, looping in and out of each other, tentative, halting, stopping altogether, reversing course, circling back again; full of reversals and contradictions; and ultimately, and maddeningly—all of it irrelevant. Life, love, relationships, the arts, the landscape, the Whole Damned Thing, are all here to be talked about examined, analyzed, questioned, and dismissed.

It’s all so serious, in a deadpan way, until you realize that this is really a sad comedy where, despite all the talk, nothing is happening. Indeed, nothing makes any sense. And that’s the joke that begins to dawn on us. Isabelle’s gallery of men—the brusque middle-aged banker, the ambivalent young stage actor, the distant gallery owner, the former husband and father of her 10-year old daughter—advance and retreat, here, then there, then gone again. She seems to be hungering for commitments but moves in a world that offers none.

Isabelle is the still-point of all this, sometimes wracked in sobs, sometimes regarding it all with that amazing bemused smile of hers. But hers is a restless centering as people and situations revolve around her, popping in and out of her life, inscribing a weird kind of geometry.

A random geometry of life and love.

And so it is, finally, that Isabelle sits down with a man who seems to be her advisor, her guru, her Mystery Man. Who the hell is he??? Then comes the surprise: it’s Gerard Depardieu, sitting there in the half-light! He gazes at some photographs of her lovers. He launches into a monologue. He spins out this remarkable nonstop string of observations about her lovers past and present. Some will fulfill her needs, some will not. Others are yet to appear. And they might be the Great Love. Or maybe not. On and on he goes. While Isabelle just sits there, an enigmatic smile on her face. “Be open,” the man is telling her. “Be open.” She repeats the words, over and over. It’s her mantra. And while he talks, the camera tilts down ever so slightly to reveal that all the while he is waving a pendulum over the photographs, like a divining rod, seeking their Mysteries.

Even while the credits scroll down the screen he keeps talking. Nothing can stop him. Until the screen grows dark.

We are laughing, by this time. Even if we can never be sure what we are laughing at.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

DISOBEDIENCE



DISOBEDIENCE, directed by Sebastian Lelio and starring Rachel Weisz Ronit Krushka, Rachel McAdams as Esti Kuperman, and Allessandro Nivola as Dovid Kuperman. Music by Mathew Herbert.

Rabbi Rav’s last sermon strikes the discordant note that reverberates throughout the rest of the new film, DISOBEDIENCE. “God has created the angels,” he declaims, “who can only follow their blessed gifts; and the beasts, who can only follow their earthly instincts; and there are we humans, in between, neither one nor the other, but who must choose... “ Thereupon the rabbi is stricken with a heart attack and collapses, dead, on the spot.

Those words will be repeated near the end of the movie by the rabbi’s successor, Dovid Kuperman. But at those fateful words, “you must choose,” he suffers an insight; and that revelation allows him two choices: The first is to resign his appointment; and the second is to free his wife from her obligations by marriages.

Both are stunning admissions in this rigidly patriarchal Jewish community. In between those two scenes is a drama of love and faith that are severely tested. The late rabbi’s daughter, Ronit Krushka, has left her New York home to return to her family community in London. She seeks forgiveness for leaving her father and the faith decades before. As a youth she had formed a passionate attachment to Esti Kuperman, which had shocked the heterosexual tenets of the faith. And now, back in London, that attachment rekindles. Complicating an already tense situation, Esti is the wife of the rabbi-to-be, Dovid.

Immediately, as the sexual tension grows between the two women, the community is outraged. Esti resolves to leave her husband and go back to New York with Ronit. Dovid himself is placed in an untenable position: He is expected to succeed the late rabbi; moreover, Esti announces she is pregnant with the child they had hoped to have.

Before the resolutions come at the end—they are not as simplistic as it would seem—we have an absorbing drama highlighted by the strong intensity of the performances by the three principles. The London streets and houses of the Jewish community are entirely convincing, i.e., there is not one moment we feel we are watching studio; rather, this is a place that is lived in, where people really do work, raise families, and worship. And the music score by Matthew Herbert is a wholly engaging, subtle, yet piquant complement to the action.

In other words, the choices by the filmmakers, cast, and crew, are wonderfully right and work together to convey a beautiful experience. Here is a movie that is really about something, an always welcome event to some of us moviegoers exasperated and dismayed by much of what else we see on the screen these days.

RBG: “THE NOTORIOUS RBG”



RBG, produced by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.

“The Notorious RBG” is emblazoned on tee-shirts across the country. And amidst the current crop of super heroes on screen, Variety magazine trumpeted about this modest little documentary: “How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became a Summer Box Office Avenger.”

Wow, do we need this story of the 84-year old Little Woman That Could! Judging from the enthusiastic response of the packed house at the Tivoli Theater, it’s striking a nerve with hammer blows that put Thor’s hammer to shame.

The narrative strategy of RBG is standard-issue: We have a profusion of film clips and photos from Ruth’s childhood, her education at Harvard and Columbia, her remarkable string of Supreme Court victories in the 1970s, her rise to the Supreme Court in 1993 , her subsequent fame as the Great Dissenter in favor of women’s issues cases, her current status as Guru to a new generation of women and liberals, and numerous encomiums from Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, and other women on the Front Line. And speaking of Women on the Front Line, there’s a breathtaking citation of a quote from 19th-century abolitionist Sarah Grimke: “I ASK NO FAVOR FOR MY SEX; ALL I ASK OF OUR BRETHREN IS THAT THEY WILL TAKE THEIR FEET FROM OFF OUR NECKS.” On a more personal level, Ginsburg is revealed to be an opera lover (a few choice bits from Lucia de Lammermoor), a proponent of physical fitness, and an educator.

This last provides one of the funniest moments in the film: She describes her days in the ‘70s arguing before the Supreme Court as a “kindergarten teacher” before an all-male court teaching the realities of women’s issues.

Most moving of all are the glimpses we get of her relationship with her beloved husband of more than 45 years, Marty Ginsburg, who died in 2010. He is the Man Behind the Throne, so to speak, whose love, support and advocacy of his spouse paid no little role in her career.

Through it all, the quiet-spoken RBG is a Sphinx with a twinkle in the eye and a gentle jibe at the ready.

Female filmgoers will support the film. But it is the men who must also go, watch, and be educated.

Meanwhile, there has been some talk that female viewers attracted to the current Book Club will flock to RBG. What a stupid expectation that is. Viewers of RBG will likely consign Book Club to the Graveyard of Misbegotten Movies. The only possible connection between the two films is that one of the women in Book Club has a cat named “Ginsburg.”

Friday, May 18, 2018

AVENGERS AND OTHER SUPERHEROES


Whether or not you’re a fan of recent super-hero epics like Avengers: Infinity War, which breaks box office records, a colossal testament to cinematic greed and excess, or Logan and Unbreakable, which are master classes in how the whole superhero-genre can gain our respect, our attention might rightly be directed to one of its profoundly influential literary prototypes, which remains particularly relevant today.

Once upon a time, Philip Wylie wrote a novel called Gladiator. It was about a man who could lift weights of four tons with ease, leap such distances that he almost seemed to fly, shed machine-gun bullets with ease, rip bank vaults apart as if they were paper-mache. No, it wasn’t a Superman story. It was published in 1930, eight years before Schuster and Siegel produced their first “Superman” comic. Superman and every other superhero owe it a lot. In the opinion of fantasy and SF historian Joe Moskowitz, “Gladiator is probably the greatest tale of a physical superman since the Biblical story of Samson.”

In brief, it is the story of Hugo Danner, born the results of experimental drug treatments given to his mother. When the baby smashes his crib to smithereens, Mom knows she’s got trouble on her hands. She and her husband take great care in the training of their child to hide his strength and deal with the psychological impact of his growing awareness of his “differentness.” After demonstrating remarkable athletic feats as a youth, Hugo leaves home after accidentally killing a fellow athlete. Hugo has difficulty finding a place for himself, exploiting his great strength in prize fighting, strongman acts, pearl fishing, soldiering, farming, and even banking. But when he faces the inability of others to accept him, he determines it would be best to kill himself. The passages at the end of the book when Hugo considers his end are among the most moving in the genre:
Conscience was bickering inside him. Humanity was content; it would hate his new race. And the new race, being itself human, might grow top-heavy with power. If his theory about the great builders of the past was true, then perhaps this would explain why the past was no more. If the Titans disagreed and made war on each other—surely that would end the earth.
Amidst a raging thunderstorm, Hugo raises his fist to the lowering clouds. A lightning bolt strikes him dead.

With apologies to Nietzsche, Wylie himself had this to say about the possible advent of a race of superheroes. “For if ever there does appear upon this planet a tightly knit minority of really superior people, it will be the end of all the rest of mankind--and mankind knows it, not having come through a billion-odd years of evolutionary struggle for nothing.”

Fortunately, Wylie’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But in the subsequent race of literary superheroes,” which his Gladiator so profoundly predicted, we find ourselves awash in their ilk. You can’t swing a stick—or Thor’s hammer, for that matter—without bumping into one. But be careful: You don’t want to piss them off. The moment they shed their benign agendas, we’re all in trouble.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR or, HOW THOR GOT HIS AXE PART ONE


Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Starring everybody in the whole damned Marvel Universe (including Stan Lee as a bus driver)

Yes, subtitle this mess “How Thor Got His Axe.” And add, “How Thanos Got His Sunset”, and how “Viewers Got Dust Thrown In Their Eyes”. . .

I admit I am the last person to be fair to this movie. I’ve been on record for years about the silliness of this stuff. And as an educator I’ve been forced to watch with growing dismay its addictive results on adolescents and teens. (You might as well shoot this into their veins.) But at the same time, I should be the most qualified person to judge this movie, since I was weaned as a boy on the exploits of John Carter of Mars, the story of a Confederate Army Captain who gained Superhero-Dom on the Planet Mars (and whose name was conferred on me by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself). Big John kinda started this whole thing. Am I a hypocrite to condemn the former while privileging the latter?

At least John Carter’s story was one of the spiritual yearning for Identity, the longing for a rightful home that transcended space and time.

What do have with AVENGERS? An anti-story. A cynical grab at box office bucks. (It’s worked!) Patches and shards of special effects and massive suits of armor and mystical mumbo-jumbo and some Business about The Six Stones that may determine the fate of the Universe.

Okay, Big Thanos: MAKE A FIST. Your gauntlet has six settings into which the Six Stones can be affixed. And then, all Hell will break loose. And you can enjoy your damned sunset.

Pity poor Wakanda, by the way. It had its moment in the sun a few months ago; and now... well, you know...

But let me turn to the redoubtable critic Anthony Lane, who can skewer a superhero movie better than most. He advises us that for just $19.99 Thanos could have collected all the Six Stones on the QVC Network! (That in itself is punishment enough). He adds, “Why is it always the Universe that’s at stake in these stories? Why not Hackensack? Does anybody care what happens to South Dakota, or Denmark, or Peru?”

And I’m going to steal from Lane a quote he attributes to Sigmund Freud, which says a lot about all of us who fall victim to films like AVENGERS: “Even dire criminals and comic heroes captivate us within the context of the arts by dint of the narcissistic rigor with which they keep at bay anything tending to diminish their ego.”

Finally, if you’re puzzled about the Dust Storm that concludes AVENGERS: INFINITY WARS, I advise you to read Philip Pullman’s magnificent epic trilogy, His Dark Materials. It answers everything...

I also hope you will read Philip Wylie’s classic Gladiator, first published in 1930. It’s a superhero story, THE superhero story, which stands alongside John Carter. More on that in a second installment to come.