A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Posted December 14, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cult, foreign, horror, one of the year's best

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The title sounds like a script direction, or the beginning of a joke: A girl walks home alone at night. The information in those seven words is misleading: the girl in question (Sheila Vand) may walk home alone at night, but she is perfectly safe from harm. The girl is a vampire, and she wanders around a bleak nowhere town looking for blood, and sometimes just for company. Like Jesus, she sits with the disreputable and victimized without judgment. Unlike Jesus, she occasionally feeds on predatory men. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hasn’t much plot; its young writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour approaches it as a thickly allusive study in disaffected humanity. Here and there it drags, but mostly its deliberate pace and its stark black-and-white aesthetic are hypnotic.

Amirpour treats cinema as a chocolate factory to which she’s been given a gold ticket to take anything off the shelves. The unkind will call it derivative. I find myself not minding this sort of thing as much as I used to. There is so very little true originality possible any more — and originality, when it does appear, is greeted so often with hostility — that I cannot but applaud a filmmaker who uses cinema with love and passion and sincerity, and never mind whether we can sit on the sidelines like nerds and identify her influences. The images unfold inside a wide, wide frame, emphasizing the gulf, the dead air, between characters. The girl meets a young man (Arash Marandi) who’s caught between the needs of his junkie father and the brute who’s supplying the father, and to whom the father owes serious money. The brute takes the young man’s vintage car as payment; he will not own it for long.

The girl lives in a room with a turntable that plays forgotten synth-pop (by the way, I want the soundtrack for this movie) and walls covered with images of Madonna and other signifiers of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. A Girl is Amirpour’s feature debut after a few short films, and it’s customary among rookies to throw everything they love into their first movie, because who knows when you might ever get to share the stuff you adore with an audience at this level again? The setting is a dream Iran (actually Bakersfield, California, shot in Farsi with Iranian expats), populated by townspeople who could already be undead, drifting in search of heroin or ecstasy or other forms of oblivion. Nothing here seems literal; reality drifts like snow. A man curses a photo of his dead wife, then becomes convinced that she has been reincarnated as his son’s cat. A fake vampire hugs a real vampire. There’s not much blood, even when the girl has her ears pierced with a safety pin. Vampirism seems beside the point in a world that appears to drain everyone of life and soul.

The girl, clad in a shroud-like chador and a horizontally striped shirt, is a ready-made hip visual. She even skateboards. A Girl is informed not only by Lynch and Murnau but by graphic novels and music; it reminded me of the just-for-kicks wild fantasias Gilbert Hernandez likes to write and draw, except the wildness is restrained, ascetic, like the underwater-damned sound of Portishead. It’s trippy and poker-faced yet heartfelt; its probably tongue-in-cheek marketing refers to it as “the first Iranian vampire western” — and tonally I can go along with that description — but it’s closer to the dread-ridden romance of Let the Right One In. Aside from a chilling bit in which the girl scares a little boy into being good for the rest of his life, A Girl doesn’t deal much in horror. The vampire girl drifts through the void, flashing her fangs only sporadically, in a shadowy universe where the weary strength of women trumps the frailty of men.

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Wild

Posted December 7, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, drama

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Pushing forty now (she turns 39 next March), Reese Witherspoon has long since shed the girlishness she had in early, attention-getting performances in Freeway and Election. She still has the drive, though, and in Wild we don’t question whether her character, Cheryl Strayed, will see her impossible goal through. Strayed, who wrote about her adventure in an acclaimed memoir, set out in 1995 to hike the Pacific Crest Trail despite having no backpacking experience. Strayed did this in part to get out of her own suffering head, after losing her mom to cancer and wallowing in annihilating grief. The way Witherspoon plays it, the hike is almost just one more way for Cheryl, an intelligent but complexly miserable woman, to punish herself.

Wild was an Oprah-approved book, and the Oprah website offers more than twenty inspirational quotes from its pages, but the movie is rather short on bromides. There are some here and there, but mainly the film respects the intractability of despair. Whatever positive meaning Cheryl’s mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) might have wanted Cheryl to take from it, Bobbi still died at 45 without having found her own life. Dern, though, gives us a woman who lunges at any shard of joy or freedom, and makes Bobbi’s positivity seem more tough-minded than depression or nihilism. Cheryl walks, she tells us, in hopes that she will meet in herself the woman her mother raised her to be. We may not doubt that Cheryl will finish the hike, but we’re not at all sure what kind of woman she will meet at the end of it.

Overflowing with rich but unsentimental scenery, the movie benefits from clear-eyed direction by Jean-Marc Vallée, whose Dallas Buyers Club last year shared Wild‘s compassion for flawed Americans and certainty that people will behave with kindness given the chance. Cheryl encounters a lot of men on her journey, not all of whom seem nice, though the first guy she runs into looks like a creep but ends up offering her a meal and a shower. (No strings attached; he’s contentedly married.) Cheryl is no prude: part of what she’s trying to escape is her period of anguished, drugged-out promiscuity. The movie doesn’t judge her for that — it simply allows that Cheryl has burned through it into a need for something purer.

Wild is the third movie to be released this year about a woman who goes solo walkabout; there was also Tracks, based on another desert-hike memoir, and the underseen Redwood Highway. Of the three, Wild has the obvious Oscar push behind it, but I prefer Redwood Highway and Shirley Knight’s lovely performance in it, as a kind of Cheryl Strayed forty years later. Still, Wild is decent enough as a bookend piece to Dallas Buyers Club, with a drifting, trippy-melancholic tone governed by Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” (with its binary “I’d rather be a…than a…” construction). Cheryl keeps pursuing her mom, hallucinating her at times, but to where is Bobbi trying to guide her? We have a good idea where she wants to steer Cheryl away from, but towards what?

At the end, Cheryl tells us that later on, after the narrative ends, she will marry a man and have two kids. This is fine, if it was what Cheryl chose and wanted in actual life; but why seal the movie with reassurances that Cheryl finally got off the trail of solitude and became a mom just like her dear old (young) mom? Do we need that? Does the movie? I say we don’t and it doesn’t; it carries the unattractive implication that all an unhappy woman needs are the right man and a couple of babies. I’m sure that’s not what Witherspoon (also one of the producers) intended. Right? Or is it not reassurance at all, but a kind of warning? I’ll need to mull it over; Wild is not generally a movie that says a man, or anything else, will fix whatever ails a woman.

Birdman

Posted November 28, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, comedy, cult, drama

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Birdman is a sort of accidental metafiction dunked in surrealism or magic realism. If that loses you already, I don’t blame you, but the movie is a bit more nakedly entertaining than that. It’s a bit up itself with its talk of artistic integrity and “risking everything,” but the trick of the supremely gifted director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is that what must’ve been intensely difficult to film comes off as smooth, playful, fun. Birdman is in part a celebration of what movies can do, and despite the story’s inherent mopiness, there’s a pure-cinema jazz-riff feel to it. The movie is indeed a risk; it always seems on the edge of tumbling into pretentiousness, but the working-man self-abasement of its star, Michael Keaton, pulls it back.

Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Birdman, in three blockbuster movies. We are told, of course, that the script (by González Iñárritu and three others) did not have Keaton in mind, even though Keaton is a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Batman, in two blockbuster movies. I assume that once Keaton signed on, the script may have been tweaked accordingly, otherwise the line about Riggan last playing his superhero in 1992 — the year Keaton’s final Batman movie was released — is weirdly prescient. I also assume that Keaton in real life does not share Riggan’s occasional talent for telekinesis, though this always happens when no one else is around and may well unfold only in his head.

Riggan wants to make his big comeback, and bid for credibility, by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver stories on the Broadway stage. Disastrous circumstances lead to a difficult but brilliant actor, Mike Shiner (the brilliant and often-reportedly difficult Edward Norton), replacing an injured cast member, and the play heads into previews amid much chaos, ego, and tenuous sanity. Mike tries to have actual sex with costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) onstage. On another night, a drunken Mike tosses the script and makes a shambles of the set. A theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan that she has decided, sight unseen, to destroy his play. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, teases Mike and herself with the possibility of a hook-up. And so on.

All of this, like Hitchcock’s Rope, is seemingly filmed in one swooping, unbroken take, which is especially impressive when Riggan’s fantasies go whole-hog metafantastical and helicopters fall from the sky while Riggan is tormented by Birdman and eventually becomes him. González Iñárritu plays around like Welles did, a boy enchanted with his train set. Birdman is probably no Wellesian feat — it’s too intellectually amorphous for that; there doesn’t appear to be a sharp intelligence behind all the game-playing, though Emma Stone is refreshingly tart and fierce in the one scene when Sam gets to let loose on Riggan. This sort of life-vs.-theater construct certainly is a toybox for actors, just as it was in the far more challenging Synecdoche, New York.

Keaton is getting the kind of surprised acclaim that reminds me of when everyone fell backwards over Bill Murray’s work in Rushmore, as if Murray had never been good or serious in anything before then. Same with Keaton. Make no mistake, he’s terrific here, bitterly melancholic and gnarled and human, just as he’s been terrific all along. I do hope Keaton gets the comeback out of this that Murray did (though with Murray it helped that he had Wes Anderson stubbornly casting him over and over until even the densest viewer had to admit that Murray was more than a ghostbuster). Keaton “gives us range,” to quote an actorism that pops up twice in the film. The movie doesn’t have an enormous lot going on under the hood — González Iñárritu and his writing confederates aren’t Charlie Kaufman. It’s hilarious, though, that this weird, often bleak meta-whatsit might be the closest González Iñárritu can come to escapism.

The Theory of Everything

Posted November 23, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic

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Pop culture has its way of gentling great minds for the masses. To paraphrase Us magazine’s popular and frequently mocked feature: “Scientists — they’re just like us!” Those eggheads want, lust, love, and consume the same as any regular jerk. I imagine it’s one of the secrets of The Big Bang Theory‘s success: the characters may look to the stars, and even escape to them at times, but mostly they’re mired in grungy physical Earth. The nice thing about The Theory of Everything, which serves up a touching account of the love life of Stephen Hawking, is that Hawking’s cosmological curiosity seems to issue from the same place that likes booze and girls. We meet him, after all, as a gawky college student encountering his future wife Jane for the first time. Soon enough, Hawking will be as grounded as a human can be.

As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne stubbornly refuses to solicit our pity even as Hawking’s affliction, a motor neuron disease, erases his ability to walk and then to talk. Redmayne conveys some of the horror of a mind that faces being closed off from communication. But mainly he is astringent and witty, a brain too active to be distracted by mundane physicality for very long, because he has bigger fish to fry — you know, time and the origins of the universe. Redmayne’s skill at replicating the ravages of Hawking’s illness may threaten to overshadow Felicity Jones’ delicate work as Jane, but it shouldn’t; for a while, based as it is on the actual Jane’s memoir, the movie becomes about Jane and her inner life, and Jones puts across why Jane was drawn to Hawking’s intellectual gaeity and the toll his illness took on her despite her love.

Together, Hawking and Jane dramatize the Cartesian split: mind and body. A bitter irony of the movie is that Jane, pursuing her own academic career in literature, becomes essentially little more than a body: producing three children for Hawking, whose coital ability seems unaffected by his disease. The film sketches in Hawking’s relationship with his nurse, for whom he left Jane in 1995 after thirty years of marriage, but doesn’t tell us that he divorced the nurse, too, in 2006. The movie winds up saying that when you marry a scientist like Hawking, you take a back seat to what’s in his head. It’s a dynamic familiar from decades of absent-minded-professor entertainment, up to and including Sheldon and Amy on Big Bang Theory (where Hawking did a cameo, making Sheldon faint in shame over a math mistake). The Theory of Everything tries to soft-soap what should set it apart: the difficulties of being, and living with, a genius. The progressive, scene-stealing nature of Hawking’s illness cloaks the probability that he would be hard to live with even if he were able-bodied.

Still, the acting lifts the highly fictionalized story out of the realm of banality and bromide. Moment to moment, what we’re watching is the effort of two people to make things work, and this extends to the actors’ struggle to make the characters’ struggle fresh. Redmayne sneaks in the interesting sense that Hawking is spiritually and intellectually freed by his ailment — that he literally becomes a brain in a jar, a very fragile jar, and leaves the realities of dealing with his physicality to others. On the opposite end of the axis, Jones gives us a Jane who fears losing her mind, and though the movie short-shrifts Jane’s own intellect except for a scene or two of her jotting down notes, Jones makes sure we understand what it was like to be a woman in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, living in the shadow of an egghead titan who, liberal as he may have been in some areas, probably had no idea he was reducing his first love to a baby machine and unpaid nurse.

Interstellar

Posted November 9, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: overrated, science fiction

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Is it possible to make a big science-fiction film these days that doesn’t bathe in banalities and sap? Smaller films like Looper or Moon or Under the Skin manage it, but the more a movie costs, the more it has to appeal to the mass audience or risk fatal word of mouth. Christopher Nolan probably commands the most clout of all the big-movie directors, after having made skillions of dollars from his Batman movies and from Inception, and his big new one, Interstellar, cost $165 million and runs 169 minutes — or about a million dollars a minute. Interstellar tries to tackle one of the biggest (and oldest) questions sci-fi has to offer: What will the human race do when Earth becomes uninhabitable? The answer is surprisingly nihilistic and cowardly: Abandon ship. We’ve ruined this planet, let’s go find another to ruin.

I doubt Nolan, who wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, considers Interstellar in those terms. Indeed, the movie stays resolutely apolitical about the dusty dystopia it depicts: nobody says that our crops are blighted and our land assailed by dust storms because of man-made climate change. This, remember, is the director who tapped into Occupy anger in The Dark Knight Rises only to wimp out of it. Nolan, then, is politically unconscious and perhaps conscienceless, a slick imperialist imagemaker who feels the masses are fairly dumb. In the future world of Interstellar, brains no longer matter; people mostly are groomed to become farmers, who work the dry land to grow corn, the only crop that can still grow (though not for long).

One such farmer, a former engineer and pilot known here only as Cooper or Coop (Matthew McConaughey), makes his way to a super-secret fragment of NASA, which shoots him out into space to find, via wormhole, a more hospitable planet. This mission takes longer than Cooper anticipates: over the course of the film’s two hours and forty-nine minutes, no fewer than three actresses play the role of his daughter Murphy at various ages, while Cooper, in an inverse of McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, stays the same age. (I’m sure I’m not the first to make that joke, but I couldn’t resist.) There’s much chat about the fifth dimension and the singularity and other recitations from the higher-mind quantum-magick grimoire. What there isn’t is much excitement, either narrative or cinematic, until Nolan tries to work some up by throwing in a bad-guy character whose only function is to try to get Cooper and his crew killed a few times. Pretty much everything to do with this character is terrible, especially when he and Cooper are in a death-grapple on some ice planet.

Nolan usually has too much masculine weight on his mind to bother with decent female characters, but such actresses as Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, and Louise Fletcher sneak in some of the emotions the film’s conception is sorely lacking. The Big Truths we’re meant to take away from Interstellar are the usual bromides about humanity and love finding a way (do we care about saving any other species, by the way? On this topic the movie’s silence speaks damning volumes). The movie isn’t very well thought out or deeply felt; there’s no passion in it. Nolan just wanted to make a big epic sci-fi number, and doesn’t seem at all interested in its implications.

The movie has an unacknowledged rotten core of cold nastiness. But that’s what keeps it bearable during the lengthy tech-geek scenes, wherein buttons are pushed and switches are flicked and directives are issued to robots with a humor level of 75% (which puts them at least 25% ahead of Nolan). Interstellar is good on all the same stuff that The Right Stuff and Contact and Apollo 13 were good on, the nuts-and-bolts Popular Mechanics stuff. But it doesn’t earn inclusion in the same sentence as 2001 or even Gravity, a minimalist masterpiece that focused on survival and left the cosmological woolgathering out of it. The movie doesn’t even leave audiences with bothersome questions on the level of the spinning top in Inception. Christopher Nolan, like David Fincher, is a well-appointed mainstream fabulist who uses a great deal of money and technology to no great artistic purpose. And his ideas are very much stale farts wafting through the deep library of speculative fiction.

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

Posted November 2, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy

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The broad black comedy A Merry Friggin’ Christmas was one of the last movies Robin Williams completed before his suicide in August, and it’s difficult to watch it with this in mind. Williams plays Mitch Mitchler, a bedraggled Wisconsin old-timer who used to be a drunk and emotionally unavailable dad to his son Boyd (Joel McHale). Quite a few scenes show Mitch sitting in his truck or on his son’s front steps looking devastated and depressed. I don’t think Mitch’s demons have much to do with Williams’, but it’s impossible to see Williams in this state without being taken out of the movie — and the largely feeble comedy — on some level. Past a certain point, Williams is expressing desolation and shame and seems all too well-acquainted with them. It casts a sad pall over everything else in the film.

Boyd takes his wife (Lauren Graham) and two kids to the old house in Wisconsin, because his mom (Candice Bergen) wants a family Christmas get-together. Boyd is obsessed with keeping his young son’s innocence about Santa, since Mitch so rudely and drunkenly disillusioned Boyd one Christmas decades ago. Maintaining the kid’s naivete involves spending most of Christmas Eve on the road back to Chicago, where Boyd has stupidly left the kid’s presents. It also involves no fewer than three run-ins with an unfunny highway cop and a near-disastrous encounter with a homeless Santa (Oliver Platt) that really should’ve been fully disastrous if there were to be any point to it, this being a supposedly dark comedy.

Television director Tristram Shapeero (who helmed twenty-some Community episodes, among others), making his feature debut, doesn’t sustain much of a style or a tone; the movie will replace Scrooged or The Ref in nobody’s heart, despite a cast full of ringers (including Clark Duke, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tim Heidecker). The satirical shots at dysfunctional family gatherings are so tired as to be nonexistent, and at about the halfway mark the script just spins its wheels, going back and forth between Williams, McHale and Duke on the road doing unfunny things and the rest of the family back home doing unfunny things — there’s a drunk-dancing scene with Bergen and Graham sure to mortify fans of both actresses, and there’s pointless gross-out ancient-pickle-eating.

Meanwhile, Robin Williams shuffles around looking angry and depressed — more so than the script would justify. More than once I felt I could sense him thinking “Is this it? Is this what it was all for, me doing a TV show that gets cancelled after one season, and then doing low-budget weak tea like this that’ll barely get a theatrical release? And stuff like this is what I have to look forward to getting up in the morning to act in, until the Lewy body dementia takes me apart piece by piece?” I submit that in a better movie none of these thoughts would have been relevant; I would only have been glad to see Williams again. But the man, great as he was, did not always have the greatest judgment in selecting projects. This, sadly, is one of the final examples.

John Wick

Posted October 26, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, overrated, thriller

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Directed by two guys with backgrounds in stunts, John Wick exists more or less entirely as a highlight reel of great action choreography. The titular protagonist (Keanu Reeves), a former freelance assassin dragged back into violence, employs a variety of guns to send his enemies by the dozen to the other side. John is so adept at dealing death that the Russian mob he used to work for refers to him as baba yaga, or the boogeyman. Ah, so John is the Michael Myers of the underworld, the man who strikes terror even in hardened killers? Yet John is also capable of gentleness and love, and these two sides of him don’t really cohere.

John left the underworld when he fell in love, but his wife (Bridget Moynahan) succumbed to cancer, gifting him posthumously with a beagle puppy. Don’t get too attached to the pup, who before the movie is ten minutes old dies under the boots of a Russian lowlife whose father (Michael Nyqvist) is John’s former employer. The lowlife son, ignorant of John’s identity, shows up at his house to steal his vintage Mustang; the puppy is merely collateral damage, and thankfully the incident is only obliquely seen/heard. Still, the pup was a living link to John’s wife, so he’s riled up enough to come out of retirement and kill his way through rows of Russian thugs until he finds the one who, as he puts it, “stole my car and killed my dog.”

That motive is simple enough to have sufficed as the plot fuel for a thirties western, and indeed John Wick is simple. Every year or so we get one of these throwback action-thrillers that dispense with plot complications and simply chug along on steam made of hot blood and gunfire (and, during the climax here, lightning bolts). As such things go, John Wick is less fun than Premium Rush (it lacks quirky supporting performances á la Michael Shannon) but blessedly less pompous and brutal than Drive. The violence here, while bloody, is borderline balletic — not to the extent of the bullet-time of The Matrix or the gun-kata in Equilibrium, but the emphasis is on how comically accurate John’s aim is, how he literally bumps people off as easily as swatting flies. John is a killing machine, but by virtue of being played by Keanu Reeves he’s soulful and human. (A bit on the mopey side, though; Reeves spends the entire movie looking like that Sad Keanu photo that made the Internet rounds a few years back — understandable, given the character’s grief.)

The temptation is to make a case for John Wick as pure cinema, but I can resist it. The directors may know their way around stuntwork and fight choreography, but that doesn’t mean they know how to shoot and edit it; one scene, inside a nightclub lighted like a furnace, is visually illegible. And despite a cast including John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, David Patrick Kelly, and Adrianne Palicki as an assassin named Ms. Perkins, the filmmakers aren’t actors’ directors either. They know how to set their wind-up anti-hero on his path to retributive bloodletting, which turns out to be more than a little anticlimactic, and that’s about all they know how to do. The movie is being wildly overpraised for containing a few nifty gun massacres. I remember when we wanted, and got, more from action movies.


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