Monday, December 18, 2017

THE LAST JEDI: FOR GOD’S SAKE DO SOMETHING!


Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Daisy Ridley as Rey and Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher as You Know Who.

The last thing anyone needs is my take on the new STAR WARS entry. What follows is just my own selfish need to get a few things off my chest after enduring the damn thing. Yes, enduring what was, for me, a movie which at its core was bland and, well, inert. Forget the plot. I already have. No, I refer to the iconic characters of who exist at center stage, Luke and Leia, whose beloved souls who are no longer with us. Requiescat in pace. Indeed, both are scarcely present in this movie at all. Take Mark Hamil, who spends his time glowering inarticulately beneath the cowl of his monkish robe. C’mon, Mark, say something! Stop galloping up and down the steps of your own little island, running away from Rey, and do something. When you stop for a breath, you can only mutter something about the Stuff that Binds Together the Universe. Lucretius said it better thousands of years ago. And Philip Pullman pronounced it better last week in the His Dark Materials books. Now, I’m the first to admit that at the time of your final face-off, you have a tiny, almost inadvertent great moment, i.e., when after the froth and fury of a deadly fusillade of cannon fire, you remain nonplused, fastidiously flicking an offending bit of grit off your cloak. But that’s about it. Otherwise, you wind up after that only a useless pile of empty clothes.

And take Princess—now General—Leia. Please. Carrie, I’m sad that the script and the filmmakers have given you so little to do. Except merely existing like a useless lump with that hang-dog expression during protracted close-ups of your glum features. I’m not complaining that you’ve grown old—heavens, God help us all!—but you’re Our Princess, and we can reasonably expect more agency from you. And when you exit the planet, comatose from enemy fire, floating up and away. . . I must confess I hoped you would not come back. Why you did come back, considering it would have been a useful exit moment for your character, I have no clue. But because you are back and will presumably return for the next movie, I hope the filmmakers will have the grace not to subject you to CGI immortality but allow you to gracefully fade away into the nether regions of The Force.

Character counts—even in Space Opera. I grew up with John Carter’s interplanetary adventures, and he and Dejah Thoris could teach Leia and Luke a lot: Namely, even if your characters are wafer-thin, you can still do something. In Action Resides Character. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that somewhere. He was a Force in himself.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

THE DISASTER ARTIST.


Directed by James Franco. Starring James Franco, Dave Franco.

The best short form review of THE DISASTER ARTIST is. . . WHY???

And that’s what I kept mumbling to myself throughout this troubling, even repellent copy-cat movie. Why? Why this movie? Why the movie that it’s based on, The Room? And is this movie-about-a-movie—a movie about the making of a movie—as bad as its reputedly bad subject? Indeed, why are we so fascinated by bad movies in the first place? And should we be fascinated by this movie?

Or should that be the point? Maybe it’s a tribute, or deconstruction, or spoof, or indictment not of bad movies, so much as serving notice to us viewers that we have long since ceased to differentiate—or care—between what is good and what is bad? Maybe it’s not about bad movies as about bad audiences.

The time is 1998. Two participants in an acting class meet and decide they will go to Los Angeles in search of acting careers. After no success in landing parts, they decide to make their own movie. It will be scripted by Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and will star his buddy, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). What amounts to a six million-dollar budget produces a movie called The Room that, upon its premiere in 2003, produces gales of derisive laughter that rocks the house. What began as a movie playing in a single theater that made a paltry $1800 has by now become the Worst Movie Ever Made that has to date turned a profit among its cult viewers.

I must say that James Franco portrayal of Tommy is one of the creepiest, even scary roles I’ve seen on screen all year. I kept prodding myself that it’s supposed to be funny, and that the simulations of the Room’s scenes are supposed to be funny. If we assume that Franco’s portrait is spot-on (and according to the side-by-side comparisons of The Room and its look-alike that is indeed the case), then it wasn’t funny at all. And the portrait of Tommy with his lank, shoulder-length hair, explosive outbursts, irrational behavior, and bizarre accent came across as someone dangerous. This is a person teetering on the brink of his own special abyss.

Now, I have since seen some excerpts from The Room. It’s not as gloriously bad as something by Ed Wood. It’s just bland by comparison. I recommend that you watch THE DISASTER ARTIST before venturing into the domain of The Room. That way, you can preserve your own nervous horror at what you’re seeing. And then, after seeing the original, which is pretty tepid by comparison, measure your reactions against the ecstatic responses of its cult followers to the original.

Gus Van Zandt made a shot-for-shot., scene-by-scene reworking of Hitchcock’s Psycho. If the point of that exercise was clear to some (it wasn’t to me), then what are we to make of this A-list movie expending its top talents, budget, and crew in simulating to exact detail something as questionable as The Room? Or, I could ask, is it less legitimate to copy a bad movie than it is to copy a masterpiece?

Inevitably, The Disaster Artist will be compared to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Except that the latter film allow us access to the inner melancholy and tragic sweetness of Wood himself. The Disaster Artist keeps Tommy Wiseau at arm’s length. Thank goodness. The only drama here is the very inexplicableness of Tommy, who is so much more bizarre than his movie, The Room. Where does he come from? How old is he? And, above all, where does he get his money? He and his partner, Greg Sesteros, make public appearances to this day. And they’re not telling. Neither does this movie. Foul! I cry. My own answer is that Tommy Wiseau can only be explained if we are allowed to speculate about his extraterrestrial origins. That would make a great science fiction movie, where everybody and everything are Unidentified Flying Objects.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.: A HIGHER JUSTICE



Directed by Dan Gilroy. Starring Denzel Washington as Israel, Colin Farrell as George Pierce , and Carmen Ejogo as Maya

“He was drowning in the shallow end of the pool.” What an effective way to describe the plight of Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington). Once a dedicated, but virtually penniless idealistic lawyer, ever ready to defend the downtrodden in the Los Angeles criminal court system, he turns a corner and sells out for the big bucks. Which means he leaves behind a cramped little office and a lifelong ambition to press forward a huge class action suit, and finds himself in the offices of a slick L.A. high-rise, working for a slick boss (Colin Farrell). Drowning .

What happened? After being mugged, and his fortunes reaching a desperate low, Roman takes advantage of an opportunity to turn in a criminal on the run. It’s an illegal move, but it nets him $100,000 on the sly. New suits, a penthouse apartment, and a new job beckon. But his left turn into corruption immediately threatens his life when the imprisoned criminal’s stooges seek him out in retribution. Shaken out of his momentary illicit endeavors, Roman returns the money, leaves his apartment, and prepares to turn himself in. But not before he’s shot dead on the streets.

A higher justice? It falls short of the kind of redemptive fable Joseph (Lord Jim) might have written, but it delivers Roman back to the ideals of his youth. But a fatal price.

Although the film tries to do too much in a short span of screen time—Roman’s fall-and rise is abrupt and unconvincing. But thanks to Denzel Washington, who fairly lives in the role, the film delivers something rare in movies about the law—a tribute to those who labor on behalf of the ideals of law and order. While it lasts, the film is gripping and flows at a satisfying pace. And there’s Denzel’s performance of a man lost in the early idealistic years when he was mentored by a legendary champion of the downtrodden—a rather pathetic figure who shuffles along in his rumpled clothes, stuttering nervously, constantly adjusting his glasses, cursed by a motor mouth that constantly gets him in trouble. He’s something of a savant, gifted with a phenomenal memory for legal minutiae, but hopelessly out of place in the more cynical halls of justice. Another actor might have delivered nothing more than a collection of outward tics and eccentricities. But for Denzel, it’s a chance to tamp down his powerful charisma and work instead from within.

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER



Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and starring Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy, Nicole Kidman as Anna Murphy, and Barry Keoghan as Martin.

Do we recall the Greek myth of Iphigenia and the Sacred Deer?

Late in the film we learn that Dr. Steven Murphy’s daughter has written a paper about the Greek character of Iphigenia. This is an important detail, since it echoes the plot of this film: In variants of the Greek myth, by Aeschylus and Euripedes, Agamemnon accidentally kills a deer in the sacred grove of the goddess Artemis; for which he is ordered in atonement to kill his daughter, Iphigenia.

Indeed, Dr. Murphy is faced with a similar dilemma. He is an affluent heart surgeon with a beautiful wife and son and daughter. Lately, he is the target of a relationship with creepy young Martin, a 16-year old whose father had died under Murphy’s knife during an operation. Martin’s attentions, at first affectionate, soon turn dark when he confronts Murphy with an ultimatum: He charges Steven with the murder of his father; and now he, Steven, must kill a member of his own family as an act of atonement. If he fails to do this, his family will suffer from strange maladies—starvation, paralysis, bleeding from the eyes—until they die

Indeed, both children are afflicted and hospitalized. A battery of tests yield no diagnosis. They come home and are confined to their beds, under the care of their parents. Alarmed by their deterioration, Steven kidnaps Martin, ties him up in the basement, and tortures him against the release of his curse (if that is what it is). Anna, meanwhile, learns that her husband had indeed been responsible for the death of Martin’s father: He had been drunk during the operation and the patient had died. Increasingly distraught, Steven threatens to shoot Martin; but the boy only calmly repeats his charge that it is Steven who is the murderer. If Martin dies, Steven will be guilty of the death of his entire family. The choice as to which family member must die is Steven’s. He gathers them all in the basement, places bandages over their mouths, puts hoods over their heads, and stands in the middle of the room, rifle in hand. Placing a hood over his own head, he circles dizzily round and round, firing three times until he blindly makes a hit. It’s the boy, slumped lifeless in his chair.

The film ends with Steven and his wife and daughter sitting at a café table. A few feet away at the counter sits Martin, his wounds healed. After a few moments of silence, Steven and wife and daughter (who now can walk) leave the room.

At first, the tone of the story is very quiet, the pacing deliberate, the dialogue clipped and in a monotone. As the action unfolds and an underlying tension escalates, a strange selection of musical cues embellish the slow-burning action—Schubert’s Stabat Mater, Bach’s St. John Mass, and works by Ligeti and Gubaidulina. The grim deterioration of the children matches the growing disfunction of the Murphy marriage. It makes for gut-wrenching, even excruciating viewing as Steven works out his frustrations in his torture of Martin and moments of violence against his own children.

Notwithstanding all that however, I must admit that somewhere along the way an absurdist quality creeps into the film’s general tone. How easily, inevitably, I think, its unrelenting seriousness verges on self-parody. We are trapped in our bewilderment, unable to decide which is which—not unlike Steven’s own tortuous inability to make his deadly choice.

Friday, December 1, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: “JUSTICE WRIT LARGE”



Directed by Martin McDonough and starring Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby, Sam Rockwell as Officer Dixon; and Peter Dinklage as James.

THREE BILLBOARDS is more notable for what it does not do than what it does. Which is to say, it confounds our expectations at every turn, overturning, reversing, leaving them unresolved. Mildred Hayes is frustrated that a year has passed since the brutal rape and murder of her daughter. The case has gone cold. She resolves to plaster three billboards just outside the little town of Ebbing, Missouri with messages accusing Sheriff Willoughby of negligence in the criminal investigation. As bad as his passive reception of the message is, even worse is the reaction of his deputy, Officer Dixon, whose blatant racism offers only obstruction. At length, she learns the identity of a possible suspect. Vigilante style, she packs her gun and leaves on her revenge mission.

At least that’s what the movie at first glance seems to be about. I watched with growing surprise, delight, and even amusement as the plot insists on defying the very expectation it sets up. Let’s sample some of them: (1. When Sheriff Willoughby enters the story, he seems to be a compassionate, albeit rather reluctant agent on her behalf. But his sudden suicide halfway through the film (he suffers from terminal cancer) brings his help to an abrupt end. (2. Deputy Dixon’s racist obstruction shifts suddenly as a result of being burned in a fire—a fire at the police station started by Mildred—and, newly transformed, he launches an independent investigation on her behalf. (3. Mildred’s culpability in that fire is shielded by a local resident, “James,” a dwarf. Immediately, we imagine a growing romance between him and Mildred. But no, she rebuffs him and he disappears. (4. When Officer Dixon overhears what he thinks is an incriminating conversation by a stranger, subsequent DNA evidence reveals his innocence of that crime (although possible culpability of other crimes). (5. Although the suspect is innocent, Mildred and Dixon leave town, armed, determined to kill him anyway, as if in retribution for his other crimes. But in the last scene they admit ambivalence about their mission: Will they kill him, after all?—maybe, maybe not.

In the final analysis, easy expectations are set up, then abandoned. The movie is impatient of standard revenge genres. And it refuses, ultimately, to consign the little Missouri town to cardboard stereotypes. Life itself, in Ebbing and elsewhere—and even sometimes in the movies—has a habit of eluding our easy grasp.

Moreover, spicing this rabidly violent fable are not only quirky comic elements—not the least of which are Mildred’s incendiary actions against anybody who stands in her way (including her son’s teenaged companions)—but unexpected moments of grace. They include the note that Sheriff Willoughby leaves behind to his deputy, assuring him that he sees a “good man” underneath Dixon’s violent bigotry (an insight that soon will be borne out). The help offered Mildred by James is a beautifully nuanced gesture of compassion and an outreach of love. Dixon’s momentary thought of suicide (he holds his rifle to his head) is overturned by his resolve to help Mildred. And, best of all is a tiny scene that fairly shines like a jewel amidst the darkly convulsive violence and brutality of the little town: As Mildred crouches in sad defeat at the base of the billboards, she has a sudden vision of a beautiful deer just a few paces away. The camera remains tight on her face, as she addressed the creature with a wistful monologue about this unexpected intrusion of grace into her grimy life. It’s one of those scenes that illumines the entire film with its wistful beauty. And it surely will show up at Oscar time when her nomination will be accompanied by that very scene.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS


Directed by Bahrat Nalluri. Starring Dan Stevens as Dickens, Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, Jonathan Pryce as John Dickens.


THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS takes its cue from a famous painting by Robert William Buss, “Dickens Dream,” painted in 1870, around the time of Dickens’s death. It shows Dickens in the chair of his study, surrounded by the dream-characters of his novels. The movie likewise surrounds Dickens with his imaginary creations during the throes of his writing A Christmas Carol. This sort of psychic drama can be a tricky thing to bring off, wherein whimsy all too often turns into muddy pretentiousness; but on the whole, THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS brings it off, not least due to the whimsical impersonations by the cast members of the imagined characters in A Christmas Carol.

The year is 1843, and after the relative failure of his recent novels, Martin Chuzzlewit and the travel book, American Notes, the 31-year old author is facing a serious slump in his career. With the celebrated Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist already behind him and David Copperfield and Great Expectations yet to come, the need for a comeback compelled by a growing family and accumulated debts is pressing and immediate. And so begins the creation of what would become his most famous book, A Christmas Carol. It celebrates for all time a Christmas that is not so much a solemn religious observance but how we know it mostly today, a festival full of Pagan festivity and charitable brotherhood.


Visualizing the creative process on film is a really dangerous business. How do you penetrate with the camera something so mysterious as the imaginative impulse? Now, as actor Simon Callow, who appears in the movie briefly as Dickens’s illustrator, John Leech, once told me, this is a near-impossible task. In the instance of writing, what can you do, he admitted, when all you have is a person sitting silently in a chair, with pen in hand, a piece of paper before him?—Shoot closeups of the scratching pen? Cut to the writer’s wrinkled brow? Track the words spilling across the page? Etc. Indeed, any moment of creation is essentially sealed off from the probing camera. Isn’t it?

The Man Who Invented Christmas resorts to a kind of meta-cinema. As Dickens prowls the streets and records images and incidents and scraps of overheard dialogue, their imaginative correlatives--Marley, Scrooge, Cratchit, Tiny Tim, the Three Christmas Ghosts—spring to life. The world is his storybook and he is merely their auditor. The characters crowd into Dickens’ study; and soon they beleaguer the poor writer with advice, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. “You are the author of this story,” suggests one of them with a sly wink—“aren’t you???"

It’s almost as if Pirandello had taken a left turn from his Six Characters in Search of an Author to A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens at age 25. Drawing by John C. Tibbetts
I must confess although there is some charm and wit in this business, I’m a bit uncomfortable with it. Like most creative artists, Dickens didn’t always depend solely on the immediate world around him for direct inspiration. The processes of his writing must have been far more mysterious than that. In some unfathomable fashion, his work came from within. For example, some of his other Christmas stories didn’t depend upon the thronging streets of snow-bound London; rather, he wrote them amidst the sunny climes of Florence, Italy.

But I digress. With a deadline of just six weeks, Dickens has not only to contend with the demands of his phantom characters, he has to put up with the unwonted interruptions of family and professional life, the demands of his creditors, of his children, the intrusion of his neer-do-well father, and the prospect of yet another baby on the way. Moreover, a series of nightmares are plaguing him. They take him back to his dreadful boyhood, when the abandonment of his father forced him to work grueling hours in a London blacking factory. Writing A Christmas Carol reawakens forgotten traumas of a blighted childhood—traumas that would never entirely leave him but would remain unknown to the general public for many years.

But Dickens slogs along and at length comes to the moment when Tiny Tim has died, and the third Ghost takes Scrooge to the graveyard. Full stop. Dickens has insisted Tim must die. And Scrooge must remain unrepentant. Any happy endings and overnight conversions would never do. But a chorus of protests assails him, from characters and family members alike. Even the young Irish maid protests. Dickens holds firm. Things are at a standstill. Only a personal epiphany resolving conflicts with his childhood and with his estranged father will break through the impasse and bring Tim back to life and Scrooge to his redemption.

Am I so cynical to consider that Dickens’ had a point; that maybe his initial instincts for a downbeat ending—at least as the movie tells us—were right?

In closing I greatly admire THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS for its concentration on the novel and the characters of A Christmas Carol. And not, ironically, on this business of movie adaptations, of which there have been confoundingly many. Here, viewers have the opportunity to learn about the book, after all. Indeed, I’d like to think this movie proclaims an essential truth of the matter:

It’s time to READ THE DAMN BOOK. On its own terms.

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.

Monday, August 14, 2017

LADY MACBETH: A VICTORIAN LILITH


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.

A GHOST STORY: SILENT WITNESS


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.]

THE REVIEW

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: 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.