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.

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.

Friday, January 27, 2017

PATERSON: “WATER FALLS”



Directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Adam Driver as the bus driver Paterson and Golshifeth Farahani as his wife Laura.

PATTERSON is a quiet miracle. Writer-director Jim Jarmasch has fashioned a gentle and poetic evocation to a decent city and its people.

One day while walking home from his daily work as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson (for that is also his name) stops to listen to a poem written by a 10-year old girl waiting for her mother. “Water falls,” she recites, reading from her little notebook, and the simple lines compare falling water to hair falling across her shoulders. “That’s good,” says the admiring Paterson.

He should know. He too is a poet. While waking up over his bowl of Cheerios, while driving the bus, during his lunch breaks, down in his workroom, he thinks about his own poems tucked away in his own notebook. His words, halting and tentative, limn themselves across the screen as he thinks and writes. And if the little girl’s poem sounds like William Carlos Williams, well, then Paterson greatly admires William Carlos Williams. And Paterson the town was once the home of William Carlos Williams. Not that the city boasts of the fact. Rather, another local celebrity, Lou Costello, is privileged with a park and a statue.

But the whole of PATERSON is like a poem by Williams. It celebrates the details and simple incidents in the daily lives of the citizens of Paterson. There’s the local bar owner who plays chess against himself, the lovelorn barfly suffering from unrequited love, the bus manager with his daily recitations of woes, the rapper declaiming in the laundromat. Paterson’s daily routine itself is like a poem, a litany, as it were. He rises in the morning, checks his watch, kisses his wife, eats his cereal, arrives at the bus station, listens to the small talk of the passengers, arrives back home, straightens out the tilting mailbox, and exchanges quizzical glances with Marvin the pug dog. His wife, delicately portrayed by the lovely Golshifeth Farahani, bakes cupcakes for the local farmer’s market and sings “I’ve been working on the railroad” with her new guitar. She decorates her life: She decorates the cupcakes, the guitar, her dresses with an odd black-and-white motif of white circles against a black field.

Nothing much happens in Patterson, New Jersey. There are no big events and conflicts in the town and in the movie, just quiet moments that come and go, hardly noticeable, but cumulative in their collective power. But there is this odd way that the film rhymes itself. By that I mean incidents have a way of repeating themselves. A chance remark by Laura to Paterson about maybe having twins someday is echoed in later moments when twins arrive in Paterson’s bus. The little girl’s “Water Falls” poem repeats itself in moments at the city’s water park. Laura’s dark, rather exotic beauty finds its counterpart in the movie she and her husband attend one night, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, with its “Panther Woman” character. And while the quiet, rather stoic Paterson himself is something of a cipher, we remember the picture of him in a Marine uniform at the moment he disarms the lovelorn barfly after a lover’s spat.

Sometimes a miracle will find its way into the quiet streets and rundown shops of Paterson. They don’t announce themselves with a shout or with shafts of heavenly light. They just come and go, while we’re not looking. One day, while Paterson is sorrowing over the loss of his notebook (Marvin the dog ripped it up one night), he sits disconsolately on a bench in front of the waterfall. A little Japanese man in a business suit sits down next to him. He carries a satchel of notebooks. He asks Paterson if he writes poetry; if he likes William Carlos Williams. And then he gives Paterson one of his notebooks. It’s pages are blank. Paterson thanks him. Renewed, perhaps he will write again. The little man, meanwhile, departs, bound, he says, for Osaka.

From Paterson, New Jersey, to Osaka, Japan. Try to connect those two.

You can do it, but only in a poem.



Thursday, January 12, 2017

THE SILENCE


Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver.

THE SILENCE is Martin Scorsese’s Heart of Darkness. Unlike Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, who journeys toward “The Horror” in search of the renegade Kurtz, Scorsese presents two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who infiltrate the anti-Catholic savagery of 17th-century Japan in quest of the apostate Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Scorsese purportedly has been trying to bring to the screen this story, based on Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, for 25 years.

"If God hears our prayers, does he also hear our screams?" That question not only dominates a movie filled with the screams of tortured Christians, but it insinuates itself into the entire history of Christianity. Like a modern-day Job (about which more later), Martin Scorsese dares to ask this. But is there an answer . . . or just silence?

The subject in SILENCE of the Jesuit struggle in the 17th century to convert the Japanese to Christianity is not a topic we know much about. Not only was such an incursion resisted, it was savagely denounced. In another context, Bruce Beresford tackled a similar subject in his magnificent BLACK ROBE, wherein the Jesuits’s attempts to bring Christianity to the Indian tribes of Quebec resulted in the disastrous decimation of indigenous cultures through warfare and disease. In both films the introduction of Christianity is nothing less than the overthrow of one world-view and the replacement with another. SILENCE attempts to examine the conflicts and the negotiations in several key debates. The first transpires in a battle of wills between the Portuguese priest, Father Rodriguez, captured and threatened with torture, now fighting for his faith and his life with the wily Japanese Inquisitor. The priest’s attempts to counter the Inquisitor’s enigmatic taunts are rendered foolish. In the second Father Rodriquez finally confronts the apostate priest, Father Ferreira, who is now living with his captors as a Buddhist priest. In what is bound to create controversy among many viewers, Ferreiara defends his apostasy and demonstrates how selfishly indulgent, narrow, and presumptuous are Rodriguez’s arguments. A congruence of the two philosophies is impossible, argues Ferrera. For example, Christianity declares that Jesus came back from the dead after three days. The Japanese view is that God is the sun, which rises every day! Any Japanese person who converts to Christianity is only converting to his own version of the faith, inevitably inflected by his cultural grounding. Christianity may take root in the nourishing soil of the West but it only poisons the soil of the East.

Too many of us are trapped between the Heaven and Hell of our dilemma. I agree with one critic that the most relatable character in the film is neither the priests nor their inquisitors, but the one called “Kichijiro,” who continually appears throughout, begging confession and absolution for his betrayals of the priests. Back and forth, back and forth he goes, acting when it suits him out of faith one moment and renouncing that faith the next. He waffles back and forth between belief and self-preservation; renouncing his religion when it suits him, The effect is almost comic. Kichijiro is enacting the tragedy of being human. And I’m convinced that Scorsese loves him. So do we.

Meanwhile, I wonder if some viewers will come away from the film’s graphic depictions of Japanese tortures convinced that Scorsese is delivering a hate-sermon against the Japanese culture. And if other viewers will conclude that a God seemingly indifferent to human misery is not a God worthy of our faith and devotion.

And yet, and yet . . . For a film whose repeated and graphic scenes of Christian torture and martyrdom will test even the strongest stomachs of viewers, it’s fascinating how so many of the so-called “lost priests” of the Jesuit mission find that the denial of their faith is the only way to spare the horrific tortures of threatening members of their endangered flock. Now there is a true paradox. Indeed, our last view of the burial of the ageing Father Rodriguez, now an apostate living peacefully among his Japanese captors, is of the tiny crucifix secretly concealed in his robes . What are we to make of that?

As I said, Martin Scorsese is his own Job, questioning, like the beleaguered Job in the Bible (and like the captive Jesuits in the film) how God can allow Evil in the world and witness in silence mankind sufferings. The very inscrutability of this becomes its own answer. Are God’s ears deaf to our voice; or are we deaf to God’s voice? Has the silence been broken at all, either way?

In one of his finest works, G.K. Chesterton’s “Introduction to the Book of Job” tackles the problem. He speaks out in words that I believe Scorsese takes to heart: Job’s questions are answered only with more questions. “He is told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” As Chesterton notes further, “This deepening of the mystery is, paradoxically, what actually comforts Job – not only has no explanation been provided, but the world is shown to be even more perplexing than Job had even first thought, and yet he recognizes in this deepening of the mystery of creation some kind of assurance of divine providence.”