Wednesday, July 12, 2017

BABY DRIVER: MIX TAPE

Directed by Edgar Wright and starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jonathan Hamm, and Lily James

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


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

THE LOST CITY OF Z



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—
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!...
Over yonder! Go you there!”
And we go there, all too willingly, even if we are not sure of our destination.

A QUIET PASSION (21 May ’17)



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.

Monday, March 27, 2017

LIFE: “SURVIVAL MEANS DESTRUCTION”


Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Starring Jake Gyllenhall and Rebecca Ferguson.

SPOILERS!

Add LIFE to the selective list of science fiction’s most harrowing exercises in horror. The mantra that “survival means destruction” is amply demonstrated here. It’s kill or be killed as the crew members of a space ship engages in an apocalyptic struggle against an invading life form.

The crew of the International Space Station has been assigned the task of retrieving and bringing back to earth a capsule from the Martian surface containing a dirt sample. On board, a multi-celled organism emerges and quickly grows into a complex life form. Dubbed “Calvin,” it’s a diaphanous, tenticular, flower-like creature that relentlessly seeks out and envelopes its quarry. Impervious to flame, able to survive for prolonged periods without oxygen, it clambers around inside and outside the space ship, darting and slithering its way toward any opening or orifice, human and otherwise, affording its hideous entry. It’s a pure biological imperative, without emotional or psychological qualification or moderation. In short, it’s an eating machine

Every attempt to foil or contain it fails in a series of masterfully staged and horrifically escalating encounters. Only two crew members are left facing a desperate decision. If the monster is to be prevented from reaching earth, they must sacrifice themselves and propel their ship back into deep space. The resulting suspense and moments of purely visceral horror sustain a terrific, unflagging momentum. It’s as if the movie itself becomes an inexorable life form of its own, relentlessly and craftily attacking the viewers’ vulnerabilities.

An important element in the film’s Escher-like disorienting effects is the deployment throughout of a gravity-free ship’s interior. Crew members shoot in and out of hatchways, right side up, upside down, sideways and every way. Floors, ceilings, and walls afford no stable spatial sense. It’s the first film since 2001 that is so determined to confuse us in this way. Do not be surprised, therefore, if you emerge from the theater walking sideways along the corridors.

Yes, critics are pointing out the numerous references to other classic SF films, including ALIENS, GRAVITY, INVADERS FROM MARS, etc. There are even “Watch the Skies” and “They’re coming!” warnings at the end, issued by a desperate ship’s commander. So be it. LIFE is a science fiction and therefor subject inevitability to certain generic conventions. Deal with it.

Those warnings to “Watch the Skies!” may be too late. In a breathlessly nihilistic ending, the ship’s capsule containing the creature splashes down in the ocean; and several ships are seen approaching it from the point of view of a high-angle shot. It’s as if we are viewing through a microscope the encounter, which is nothing less than the fertilization of an egg... and the birth of the End of the world.

GET OUT: AN AMERICAN GOTHIC



Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, Allison Williams as Rose, and Catherine Keener as Missy.

SPOILERS ALERT! The most interesting film of the new year is this serio-comic parable about race in America. It’s an amazing directorial debut from a man known primarily as a comedian. A weird cauldron of subtle creeps and outright guignol horror, it comes across as a kind of racist STEPFORD WIVES and true-life GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. Sprinkle in a few shock cuts, some quirky slapstick, and an unexpected tribute to the Transport Security Administration (!). And yes, the great Catherine Keener is here, the evil matriarch of a family straight out of a Grant Wood painting in a crooked frame. (She first showed us how purely evil she can be as the suburban housewife who holds a young girl hostage in AN AMERICAN CRIME.)

On their way to the Armitage family home, tucked away in rural Alabama, Chris and Rose are your ideal interracial couple, comfortable in their black and white skins and committed to each other. Any apprehensions Chris might have about being accepted by Rose’s upscale whitebread family are quickly erased at the ease with which he is accepted into the family circle. . . Until. . . He begins to notice things. Several black servants appear, smiling, rather vacant. They wander about the house and grounds like vagrant ghosts. Stray dinner table remarks seem subtly racist; a few visiting relatives seem to be sizing him up (like that odd remark about his “genetic physical gifts”); and a strangely unnerving undercurrent flows through the house. Like all self-respecting gothic houses, there’s that locked door to the basement rooms.

And there’s Missy, the matriarch, a practicing therapist whose specialty is hypnotism. She loses no time in locking eyeballs with him and, with a slow twirl of a spoon in the coffee cup, puts him under. I mean, puts him UNDER. A nightmarish image shows him falling, falling, into a dark pit. He moves about, only half awake, shifting between conscious and unconscious states.

Her hypnotic influence is everywhere. This house is a modern-day plantation, a pressure cooker of tensions in liberal White America. This is the crux of the film: Racial sympathies are only skin deep (as it were) and bigoted cruelties are only lying in wait. The first revelations of this come when the click of Chris’s camera momentarily releases the tortured slave identity that lurks beneath the servants’ placid exterior. And so the time comes when all the masks are off and Chris’s beloved Rose and her family are revealed as rapacious slave masters. Rose, in particular, like other family members, has been “recruiting” young black men for sex all along, and then consigning them to some unknown fate (are some of them now the sleepwalking servants?). Chris is the newest. The whole household has been collecting these black folks for a variety of purposes, as servants, sex slaves, even as subjects for some sort of surgical brain procedures and mysterious medical experiments—a sort of medical miscegenation with the white folks. At this point, late in the film, the action in the underground laboratory explodes in an all-out guignol of mad scientists and hideous surgical experiments.

Now entrapped in that locked basement room, Christ manages to get free and exit the house, killing Missy and other family members. He’s out on the highway speeding away—until Rose appears, shotgun in hand, ready to mow him down. But at the last minute, Chris’s buddy, whom we met earlier in the film working in the Transport Security Administration, comes to the rescue. Despite his broadly humorous antics, the tone of the film is not damaged, but, curiously enough, enhanced.

The most haunting images in the film are the smiling, placid faces of the black housekeeper and farm hand, the epitome of those “happy black folks” working for the Massa. “I told you not to go into that house,” says Chris’s TSA friend (LilRel Howery). Indeed, if you venture into what seems the possibilities of racial equality and harmony—you do so at your risk.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

AMERICAN HONEY



Directed by Andrea Arnold, starring Sasha Lane as Star, Shia LaBeouf as Jake, and Riley Keough as Krystal.

The final images of AMERICAN HONEY sum up the lives of this gypsy-like tribe of teenagers on the road. Amidst the rising flames of a twilight campfire, the kids—teenagers mostly, a few in their 20s—twist and somersault over the fire. Sparks fly upward, framing their celebration of the moment. They dance free of the blaze, while they court its destruction. This is no coming-of-age narrative. It’s only ongoing. It’s a vision of America, of a sweetly violent apocalypse consuming itself. And all the while Lady Antebellum’s song, “American Honey,” proclaims an elegy:
There's a wild, wild whisper
Blowin' in the wind
Callin' out my name like a long lost friend
Oh I miss those days as the years go by
Oh nothing's sweeter than summertime
“There’s only one rule to selling,” Jake explains to his new friend/ protégée, Star. They’re knocking on the door of a home in wealthy Mission Hills, Kansas City. “And that’s the first moment they open the door. Everything depends on that first moment. They look at you and you have to know right away who they want you to be.”

What are they selling? Whatever their “customer” wants. . .

We first see Star digging through a dumpster, tossing a turkey down to her little brother and sister. A flurry of incidents quickly follows: one moment she’s trying to hitch a ride; the next, she catches the eye of a guy in a van full of kids; then she’s dancing with a strange man in a home; now she’s chucking her clothes out the window; at a dance hall she leaves her brother and sister behind with her mother out on the dance floor; and now she’s back in a Motel 6 where she joins the van full of kids, bound for Kansas City, where they’ll team up to knock on doors and sell their wares. Life is like that in this American road trip, a series of chance encounters, rambles, casual acquaintances, and knocks on the next door.

In charge is a young woman named Krystal. She plans their motel stops, delivers pep talks, collects a percentage of the money, and enjoys casual sex with a series of strangers who mysteriously appear in her rooms. Okay, she seems to be in charge; but who is really pulling the strings of these kids? What is this selling operation really all about? We don’t know. This is no Death of a Salesman, with its Shakespearan resonance and tragic finality.

The passing scene westward, through Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas, is mostly glimpsed through the van’s windows: from the luxurious homes of Mission Hills to the dusty back roads, gas stations, seedy motels, strip malls, oil fields, and shanty shacks. The kids rattling away in their van have no past and no future. Neither does the aimless, wasted lives they see on the road. And certainly not in the country that is their America. At the center of it all is Star. She is part of the group, yet she stands slightly apart from it. She seems naïve at times but sexually experienced at others. She is neither victim nor victimizer. She makes love with Jake, she parts from Jake; again and again. She objects to selling door-to-door, yet she sells her body to a passing trucker. Periodically, she pauses to rescue a beetle, a turtle, watching their escape. But there’s no escape for her as she clings to the huddled bodies in the van, belonging, yet not belonging, as it hurtles on and on...

The film itself is like all of this, with its odd gaps in the narrative, characters who come and go, incidents that don’t resolve, and a repetitive quality that risks monotony. It’s overlong at more than two and a half hours, and frequently baffling in its narrative sense. . . Yet, and yet, there is an extraordinary sense of being in the moment throughout. There scarcely seems to be a camera anywhere. You don’t sense any of this is calculated or contrived. The surface is absolutely naturalistic and unstudied. There is a remarkable sense of life in the raw, with all its loose ends and frayed edges.