Psychomagic, a Healing Art

Posted August 9, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 3.45.03 PM It has been odd, of late, to see the provocateur extraordinaire Alejandro Jodorowsky ripen from an assaultive artist to a kindly, avuncular guru who lays hands on the psychologically pained and “heals” them — or at least makes them feel heard, validated, worth something. Jodorowsky spent roughly the first half of his career spelunking in his own imagistic caves, photographing his findings (Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain). Perhaps his most famous film was one he never got to make; the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune told all about it. In recent years, Jodorowsky has pivoted to autobiographical psychodramas (The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry) in which he often appears, drifting through re-enactments of his life carried out by his own sons.

Now there is Psychomagic, a Healing Art, in which the notorious auteur receives “patients,” if you will — people made miserable by past traumas, mostly having to do with inattentive parents — and, in effect, turns them into colorful performers in another of Jodorowsky’s cinematic journeys. His clients are asked to strip naked and be massaged by male and female therapists; they are encouraged to indulge their neglected inner child; they are directed to walk about in public dragging chains behind them or wearing their father’s jacket or covered head to toe in gold paint. They all seem, or claim, to feel better after the Jodorowsky therapy. I am rather more skeptical than they are, but who am I to judge? If they say Jodorowsky helped them, then he helped them.

It’s when Jodorowsky brings a cancer patient onstage and directs the audience to aim their healing energy at her throat that I feel less live-and-let-live about what Jodorowsky is selling. (There is no talk of fees in the movie, but I presume Jodorowsky doesn’t just work his magic on people in exchange for a warm feeling of accomplishment.) Jodorowsky offers to try to help this woman “without promising anything” — well, at least there’s that. Ten years later, the woman is still alive, and feels that Jodorowsky has something to do with that. I’m aware of the placebo effect, and it could be said that Jodorowsky guides his clients into a mental state that triggers … something that we don’t understand. It’s one thing when Jodorowsky’s technique shocks someone into a fresher way of looking at their pain; it’s another when a movie more or less implies that the man can cure cancer.

Most of Psychomagic, though, deals with the myths and archetypes that must be unlearned or learned in order to move past anxiety and depression. On this point, I’m prepared to give Jodorowsky the benefit of the doubt and say his method is about as valid as anyone else’s. He draws on lots of ancient tribal knowledge, role-playing, scenarios designed to push someone out of guilt, shame, self-loathing. Jodorowsky is a multifaceted artist, and it’s significant that he calls his way a healing art and not a science. Once or twice I caught myself seduced into going along with Jodorowsky, with his beatific smile and white guru beard; I reflected that perhaps we’re not ready to marry art and science as Jodorowsky has. It could be something only a small subset of people have access to.

But then the skeptic in me kicks in and I can’t help noticing that everyone in the movie is a success story, that nobody reverts to despondency after a while. Not that we hear about, anyway. The couple who go to Jodorowsky with individual bugaboos blocking their relationship are handled rather ambiguously; we don’t know if they stay together or if part of their revelation is that they don’t belong together after all. Some of Jodorowsky’s therapy seems to boil down to people with trust issues being touched intimately but nonsexually; this seems to give them back ownership of their bodies. How, then, given their issues, do they come to trust Jodorowsky and his assistants enough to let them cup their breasts or testicles in their hands? We don’t find out. After a while I wished Psychomagic were more of a fictionalized narrative in which the hero does what we see Jodorowsky doing — going around performing psychic miracles, something like his Alchemist in The Holy Mountain — but we’re free to interpret or question it because it’s art. Psychomagic, sadly, isn’t art; it’s advertising.

The Painted Bird

Posted July 26, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: foreign, war

painted-bird-3 An intense and prolonged experience about the inhumanity of war, The Painted Bird might take its rightful place as the most prestigious endurance test since 1985’s Come and See. The point of the story, hammered home again and again over the course of two hours and forty-nine minutes, is that war destroys the soul, makes even non-combatants callous and vicious — the subsidiary point, perhaps, being that in war there are no non-combatants. Everyone is drawn into the madness, including our young protagonist (Petr Kotlár), nameless for most of the film. We begin in medias res, with the boy running through woods, carrying a small fuzzy animal (a ferret?). Some young bullies catch up to the boy; they beat him and incinerate the animal. Welcome to The Painted Bird, where even small gestures of mercy and kindness are tainted and ambiguous. Mostly, people are beasts to one another.

The movie is based on the much-debated 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, whose World War II experiences, it turned out, did not inform the book; some even doubted that he himself wrote it. Still, Kosiński — like Come and See’s Elem Klimov after him — fashioned a ghastly rat-trap reality that ground innocence under the treads of tanks. The eerie thing about the movie is that so many of its settings are rural and almost primeval it’s jarring when a plane or jeep or even a train shows up. The boy wanders through endless villages and is set upon by peasants, perverts (pedophiles of both genders), and fellow castaways of the war. The closest thing to a laugh in the entire epic is when the boy performs an act of animal cruelty to get even with a teenage girl who has abused him.

But then the whole enterprise is about cruelty in all its forms. At the risk of sounding impatient, I think The Painted Bird might have dealt subtler and sharper damage to our psyche less about 45 minutes; the constant and endless litany of offenses to our young hero becomes numbing and borderline ludicrous, which is a problem inherent in an anecdotal structure allowed to stretch out at epic length. The boy meets someone new, and you sigh and wonder how this person is going to screw him over, literally or figuratively. Occasionally someone like a kindly if clueless priest (Harvey Keitel) or a Russian sniper (Barry Pepper) happens along and takes the boy under his wing. (The American actors seem to be sounding out their dialogue phonetically in Interslav or Russian or whatever, and then someone else dubs them over. It works; it gets us away from Barry Pepper attempting a Russian accent, anyway.) Aleksei Kravchenko, once the 16-year-old star of Come and See, turns up as a Russian officer and seems to be passing the baton of suffering on to Petr Kotlár, a Czech-Romani newcomer who spent his tenth and eleventh years on the set. Kotlár holds this fierce beast of a movie together despite almost no dialogue.

Unlike Elem Klimov, the Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul allows us mitigating artistry and even beauty to offset the human ugliness. (Udo Kier comes in to do his thing, using a spoon.) Vladimír Smutný’s black-and-white photography is sumptuous, even bucolic at times; the restful country landscapes, if anything, are more chilling for the sense they give of turning their backs on carnage and sadism. You can die out there in the open air and nobody will care; you’ll be rolled into a grave or become a toy for crows. The title refers to a bit where a man daubs white paint onto a bird and lets it fly off, whereupon its fellows peck it to death in mid-air. Humans, nature — the portrait of indifference to pain and need is distressingly complete. The Painted Bird is artful, if not quite art — it needs finer threads in its tapestry than just “People suck” — but it’s without a doubt a masterwork that you will most likely give exactly one evening of your life, if that.

Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II

Posted July 19, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, cult, one of the year's best

undercover vice 1At a moment when protesters are being taken away in unmarked vans by feds in camo, it’s a goofy relief to see cops doing nothing more terrible than posing as gay porn actors in Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II (premiering on Facebook July 31). In the world of Rhode Island director Richard Griffin (Before the Night Is Over), sex levels everything; sex makes everyone ridiculous but also hot. Griffin’s latest is no different. Don’t be thrown by the tongue-in-cheek subtitle: although it shares one character, Piñata Debris, played by drag queen Ninny Nothin, it’s more a spiritual than literal sequel to Griffin’s 2017 Strapped for Danger. So Undercover Vice can be watched and enjoyed without having seen the earlier film, though I recommend both.

I’m not even sure if Piñata is the same character (in the first film she was a hostess at a strip club, here she directs gay porn) — more like the same fact of life, the genderfluid constant catering to ticklish and giggly impulses. Ninny Nothin (aka Johnny Sederquist) embodies either/or, neither/nor, the Venn diagram of male/female/gay/straight. Drag queens aren’t just camp denigrations of women any more (if they ever were, or at least if done disrespectfully). Griffin loves women, though — he wants to show them being happy and funny and ludicrous. So the movie isn’t entirely taken over by sweaty testosterone; Griffin brings in ringers like Sarah Reed, Samantha Acampora, and Victoria Paradis and encourages them to go huge.

Reed’s and Acampora’s big sex scenes are completely about what makes a woman hum — forget the males who happen to be physically facilitating it. (Fantasizing aloud, and loudly, Acampora’s character — a cop’s soon-to-be-fiancée — essentially gives us an imaginary sex scene overlaying the one we’re watching, which links this film with one of the few films to pull this off successfully, David Cronenberg’s Crash.) Undercover Vice, written (like Strapped for Danger) by Duncan Pflaster, concerns two detectives — sorta straight but bicurious Andy (Sean Brown) and damn straight Kevin (Chris Fisher) — who are ordered by their chief (the splenetic Paradis) to go undercover as gay-porn actors to infiltrate a blackmail organization. Griffin enjoys playing in the very small sandbox of this sub-subgenre of cops going undercover gay, which in the past has yielded such disparate efforts as Cruising (1980), Partners (1982), and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991). Ultimately those movies failed or hardly tried to do what Griffin does, which is to use the trope to show straight folks how it feels to have to play-act as another sexuality to survive.

But Griffin isn’t here to lecture us (not in a movie with that title); as usual with his comedies, he just wants to throw a party and invite everyone — and he will have dancing, dammit, even if it means a random Bollywood what-the-hell-was-that scene. (It’s like that joke about Christians fearing that sex leads to dancing.) We get to know the “criminal” porn actors (Alec Farquharson, Ricky Irizarry, Anthony Rainville), who all have their own quirks and kindnesses. The bad guys, if anyone, are the police chief and her two hee-hawing minions, who think the detectives being forced to be gay for pay is the funniest thing in world history. Griffin and Pflaster also know that stories about cops going undercover — being actors — allow for some nice character shading. Does the cop come to feel bad about busting his new companions? If so, why? If not, why not? These stories can get to the very heart of identity and its discontents, and we ruminate upon that, and then a naked ass gets spanked. That’s the Griffin touch.

Greyhound

Posted July 12, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: war

greyhound Maybe, like me, you’re in just the right mood for something like Greyhound, a taut, exciting, no-nonsense war movie that weighs in, less the end credits, at one hour and twenty-three minutes. The film’s brevity is true to the virtues it respects: clear, coolheaded professionalism, all egos checked, a well-oiled machine of well-trained men getting the job done. (Doesn’t that sound refreshing right about now?) There’s hardly any griping, one or two mistakes corrected and acknowledged without much anger. Tom Hanks, who stars and also wrote the script based on C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, seems to be interested only in the moment-to-moment details, orders, repetitions of orders, and decisions made under the highest of pressures. Hanks, as Commander Ernest Krause, doesn’t get much dialogue that isn’t about the task at hand: guiding three destroyers to escort a convoy of allied ships to Liverpool.

Unfortunately, U-boats are in the way, and the commander of one of them, Grey Wolf, taunts Krause and his crew over the radio at every opportunity; this creepy, bodiless voice is so evil it comes from Thomas Kretschmann, that dab hand at Nazis, vampires, and general sadists. Krause ignores this voice and presses on. Given that Krause is a fictional character — and given to much more self-doubt in the Forester book — Hanks makes him a little too noble. Krause is the kind of man who stops a messenger to ask that he append “thank you” to a standard acknowledgment. He says his prayers, has a patient woman back home (Elisabeth Shue), and takes no particular pleasure in sending U-boat sailors to Davy Jones’ locker. “Fifty less krauts,” enthuses one of his men. “Fifty souls,” Krause clarifies. “Fifty fewer krauts,” the grammarian in me snarked.

Hanks, who enacts stoic heroism and its underpinnings of vulnerability as well as he ever has, wants us to see Krause as just a man doing his job the best he can. Krause’s equivalent to Horvath, the beefy sergeant who played right-hand man to Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, is Stephen Graham’s Cole, the second in command. There’s no “I thought you were my mother” banter between the men here, though; the dialogue Hanks has written is almost exclusively naval-wonk jibber-jabber, and while it adds texture to the movie’s fabric of verisimilitude, it doesn’t do much to illuminate the men. Three men die aboard the ship, and the only reason we know one of them is also the film’s diciest aspect. Krause has a black messmate, Cleveland (Rob Morgan), who’s always trying to make sure Krause gets something to eat. I’m sure Hanks wanted to point out that African-Americans fought and died in World War II, but Cleveland comes across as a servant in most of his screen time. Worse, he’s apparently interchangeable with the only other black sailor we see, whom Krause mistakes for Cleveland. I’ll give Hanks the benefit of the doubt and say he was also trying to sketch in the unconscious racism in even so noble a white man as Krause in 1942 — but it did give me pause.

Still, the movie goes like a torpedo, directed by Aaron Schneider for maximum momentum and tension. Schneider plays to the strengths of Hanks’ script — its monkish first-this-then-that tempo, similar to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. The action spans a few days and nights, but it all seems like the same gray-blue, ocean-drizzly whenever. At times, Greyhound comes close to being an abstract war film, a study in human forms rattling off codes and orders and coordinates to each other. If not for the (really kind of needless) prologue with Hanks exchanging gifts with Shue before going off to war, that’s almost what the movie is: a film about machines within machines, protecting or destroying other machines. If this came from Kubrick or Welles or someone comparably mordant, the point would seem to be that war turns men into weapons, literal things of steel and oil. But Tom Hanks is a nice man, and he wouldn’t say such a mean thing. Greyhound is a brisk exercise in military-cinematic precision, but it might leave you as hungry as Krause must be near the end.

Force of Nature

Posted July 5, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: one of the year's worst, thriller

force-of-nature-mel-gibson-movie-1590049016Its critical reputation as a racist thriller is a little overstated, but Force of Nature is still ten pounds of ass in a five-pound bag. This is a movie whose handling of a major character’s death is so feeble — a twitching eyelid visible to the camera — we expect the supposed corpse to pop up later on, perhaps to save a loved one at the last minute. That’s about the only cliché we’re spared in a film wherein even the bad guy comments on the clichés. Filmed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Force of Nature unfolds during a hurricane, though it doesn’t actually need to; the hurricane really only explains why two cops show up at an apartment building to evacuate some recalcitrant tenants, only to be caught in the middle of an art heist by some armed and deadly robbers led by a guy calling himself John the Baptist.

I would like to welcome the Peruvian actor Stephanie Cayo to English-speaking films. She plays Jess, a cop trying to make a name on the San Juan force. Cayo looks all the better next to the essenceless Emile Hirsch as her cop partner, the burned-out, lackadaisical Cardillo. These two go to the apartment building and try to extricate an old German man and a retired, sickly cop, played by Mel Gibson, whose very presence in a film at this point would attract hostile skepticism no matter what the film is. Gibson is (or has been; he seems to have behaved in recent years, from what we’ve heard anyway) a terrible person, but he still has the spark of a true movie star, and so does Stephanie Cayo; their brief scenes together illustrate what this bland movie could have been.

Force of Nature would like to be the sort of invincible thriller, like Die Hard, whose every odd bit of business pays off later. I have to wonder if the screenwriter, Cory Miller, wrote this whole thing around a scene involving the bad guy, who dons a police uniform in order to get away, and something behind a multi-locked door in someone’s apartment. There’s a whole scene dealing with meat and a guy buying all of it at the supermarket, and a bit of planted information that you definitely don’t want to enter that locked room if you’re wearing a cop outfit, and so when John the Baptist forces Cardillo to swap clothes with him, all the pieces fall into place but seem stupid anyway — and then the movie cuts away before we can see the one hilariously brutal thing we’ve been spending half the idiotic film waiting to see.

Director Michael Polish started off in the late ‘90s as a Sundance-blessed indie director, but now he seems to make films just to cast his wife, Kate Bosworth — this is their fourth film together, and probably their worst. Bosworth plays Gibson’s daughter, who is also a doctor, and who can also hold her breath long enough to get her and a wounded man out of a submerged room. (We never see them find their way out; she turns up fine later, like almost everyone else, and fairly chipper despite what we’ve seen her go through.) Force of Nature’s mixed review of the thin blue line — cops may be mean and corrupt but still get the brutal job done — is accidentally poorly-timed at this cultural/political moment, but it’s no more consciously racist than a hundred action thrillers from the ‘80s. It’s meant, I think, to be a throwback to those films, and to an era where Mel Gibson was still on top, but it lacks the snap and pizzazz to close the deal. It may speak well of Michael Polish’s character that he tries to make a retro, obliviously racist thriller and fails. But the failure still reads to us as a wasted hour and a half.

The Invisible Man (2020)

Posted June 28, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: science fiction, thriller

mossinvisibleman Catching up: Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, I can’t help feeling, was robbed of its shot at becoming a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller that makes audiences scream happily. (As it is, the film, whose release was stunted by COVID-19 and the closure of movie theaters, still managed to scare up a decent amount via streaming and at drive-ins.) The Invisible Man is tethered to its strong lead performance — it’s probably unthinkable without Elisabeth Moss — and it’s a bit mechanical in the way that thrillers great or small can be. But I would be dishonest if I said it didn’t make me flinch and gasp. No doubt about it: the movie works. And it works on a nasty personal level; it exploits our awareness that women are gaslighted by abusive men all the time, to perpetuate and add to the abuse.

Moss is Cecilia, stuck in a suffocating relationship with wealthy scientist Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She plots her escape, spirited away by her sister (Harriet Dyer) and delivered to the safe home of her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), also a cop. The distraught Adrian kills himself, or so he wants the world to think. In reality, he’s using his beefed-up invisibility suit — he’s some sort of optics genius — to stalk Cecilia and ruin her life bit by bit. Nobody, of course, will believe Cecilia — not her sister, not James or his college-bound daughter, whose tuition Cecilia is paying for out of the money Adrian willed to her. We recognize fairly quickly that Adrian is contriving to alienate Cecilia from everyone else so that he can control her, in ways obvious and not so obvious.

Made for relative couch change ($7 million), The Invisible Man doesn’t indulge in an abundance of special effects, like Hollow Man or even Memoirs of an Invisible Man. There’s a scene where Elisabeth Moss is held aloft by her invisible attacker that might’ve been better conceived, and her subsequent being tossed around the room is needlessly crude; what was needed, I think, was a way to take us intimately inside her experience, to be worthy of the quieter, more dread-ridden moments. That writer-director Whannell actually has some integrity to betray, by way of the more flamboyant clashes, speaks well of the rest of the movie: it earns its Big Moments but doesn’t really need them. Most of the terror here works on dark, elemental levels — someone is after me but nobody will help me. Some of the emotional work, with Moss’s performance gaining power as Cecilia becomes more frightened and frustrated, is first-rate and lifts the thrills considerably.

Some of this description, of course, may read a bit stiffly because I’m trying to write around the twists. I can say that The Invisible Man has its technical ducks in a row, with Stefan Duscio’s sleek photography consorting well with Benjamin Wallfisch’s richly ominous score (though I wish Wallfisch hadn’t leaned so much on the deep rattling honking he used on Blade Runner 2049 at times it reminded me of the punitively ghastly score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the repugnant Gone Girl). This is the sort of suavely composed thriller that would’ve been not only a big hit but a water-cooler topic in a better time. The premise may be techno-pulp, but most of the movie stays with Cecilia’s choking feelings of helplessness. You may wonder what she could possibly do against her torturer.

In its last act, The Invisible Man almost lost me. It gets too plotty, introducing elements that seem to add little but padding, not to mention impatience on our part. The nobody-will-believe-me theme gets a vigorous workout, but all it leads to is gunfire and a shit-ton of “wait a minute” incidents. How convenient, for instance, that someone who has been careful to isolate and delegitimize Cecilia should leave so many people around to support her side of the story. The climax is enjoyable in an empty, guilty way, like a candy bar. But Elisabeth Moss shepherds us through it all; she stays connected to the basic nightmare of a woman with a bad ex-boyfriend in a perfect position to make her life hell. Cecilia’s ultimate act is, as written, something of a betrayal of her character, but the way Moss plays it — as the only act left to Cecilia — it isn’t. The Invisible Man is a reminder of how high a conventional thriller can be lifted with the right star, whose performance, like Betty Gilpin’s in The Hunt, deserves better than cruel fate allowed.

The Hunt

Posted June 21, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: satire, thriller

thehuntAlmost every character in The Hunt is crap. The exceptions are a skittish private-jet attendant and “Snowball” (Betty Gilpin), so nicknamed by the rich elites who are hunting her. The Hunt has had a long and winding road to distribution. First slated for release last September, it ran afoul of commentators who, of course, had not seen it; their objection was to the premise, wherein wealthy leftists kidnap and hunt “deplorables” — Trump supporters — for sport. (As it is, the movie finally limped into theaters in March, just in time for COVID-19 to shut theaters down. It hit VOD a week later, and now is finally on DVD.) There’s more to the film than that — but not much more, disappointingly. It’s a sleek, short, well-wrought horror-thriller with buckets of gore, and a sharp performance by Betty Gilpin that deserved far more notice.

“Snowball,” or Crystal, has been chosen along with eleven others to be the prey while well-armed, somewhat trained richies play predator. Crystal turns out to be a smart cookie who fought in Afghanistan, and as such has a much better chance of survival than her fellow captives. Is she a deplorable? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? I don’t think so. The Hunt is better than The Oath, a dark comedy from 2018 that probed the current political bifurcation (I couldn’t get through that one), but it’s really a defense-and-retreat thriller first and political commentary a distant second. Almost everyone is an easy stereotype of virtue-signalling lefties or cap-wearing, bigoted righties. Crystal, the exception, is so shrewd about defense and retreat that the director, Craig Zobel, and writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof seem to have given her a sneak peek at the script.

In short, the movie is on nobody’s side except Crystal’s, and Gilpin rises to the occasion. Crystal keeps wanting a cigarette and never gets one; if she ever did, she’d be a perfect John Carpenter hero, someone of few words and hard action. Gilpin scarcely smiles, except ruefully, mordantly. She gives Crystal a certain southern-style wit, and she doesn’t ask to be liked. She gives us, against all odds in a taut but gimmicky thriller, a true feminist hero, and one notable thing Zobel does right is that he never tells us where Crystal does stand politically. We get to know all we need to know about her. She feels real to us. The other characters, not so much — particularly Hilary Swank as the HBIC of the elite hunters, pompously kept offscreen or with her back to us for half the movie. Swank does what she can with Andrea, a CEO with her own vengeful agenda, but Andrea isn’t really credible as a person. Whoever trained Swank and Gilpin for their king-hell battle royale in Andrea’s tasteful rented kitchen can take a bow, though.

The Hunt is weakest when it dips its toe in the waters of satire; the characters are simply too sketchy and rudimentary. It can’t touch the Clinton-era satires The Last Supper (1995) or Citizen Ruth (1996), which succeeded for reasons other than being on “the correct side.” Nowadays, those films (especially Citizen Ruth, which boasted its own great performance via Laura Dern) would be knocked on Film Twitter for both-sides-ism — or no-sides-ism, which amounts to the same thing. The Hunt would like to be a throwback to those small but thorny films, but its expertise lies with staging violence (some of the actors you expect to be around for at least a few reels are gorily dispatched early on) and with giving Betty Gilpin the breathing room to create, in the midst of this crisp but callow cartoon, a real human being.

Da 5 Bloods

Posted June 14, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, drama, one of the year's best

da5bloodsAt this point, I would sit for two hours of Delroy Lindo just monologuing into the camera, and maybe so would you after watching Spike Lee’s epic new adventure-drama Da 5 Bloods, in which there are at least three such monologues. Lindo, easily the film’s MVP, bites hard into his role as head-scrambled Vietnam vet Paul, bringing the frightening intensity familiar to those who first noticed him in Lee’s Malcolm X, Crooklyn, or Clockers. He carries this long and bruising film the way Paul totes a backpack full of gold: shakily enough to remind you of the character’s vulnerability, but steadily enough to point up his strength — and his dangerousness. It’s a large-scale performance, forceful and heartbreaking, and right now I honestly can’t see anything or anyone standing between Lindo and a Best Actor Oscar. It’s his to lose.

The film he’s in would justify its existence for enabling that performance even if it were otherwise junk, and it certainly is not. I very much enjoyed Lee’s previous feature, BlackKklansman, but that was deft entertainment and Da 5 Bloods is closer to art — impassioned, sometimes rough around the edges, a little explicit in its dialogue from time to time, but heartfelt and built out of guilt, trauma, and Marvin Gaye songs. (Gaye is almost the film’s unofficial co-composer; Terence Blanchard offers a rich, sweeping orchestral score.) I’m not sure if it’s meant to heal any wounds incurred in the Vietnam War or any rifts between Americans and Vietnamese — though one character seems designed to augment Gaye’s and the film’s message of love — but it doesn’t have to. It gives black vets as well as Vietnamese heirs of the pain we caused there a voice we don’t often hear.

Lee and Kevin Willmott reworked a white-focused script called The Last Tour (which Oliver Stone was once going to direct), and it isn’t just black skin mapped onto white characters — the story and its tensions seem to have been rethought from the ground up to speak to specifically black angers and torments. The story concerns four black vets — Lindo’s Paul, Clarke Peters’ Otis, Norm Lewis’ Eddie, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin — who return to their old horror grounds in Vietnam for two purposes: to find the remains of their squad leader “Stormin’” Norman (Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks) and to dig up a trunk full of gold bars they’d found in a downed CIA plane back then. These are the plot things — and Boseman is electrifying as the good soldier who sometimes has to keep his men’s rage in check — but what matters to us is the journey of Paul and his grown son David (Jonathan Majors), a teacher who comes along in part to reconnect with his dad and also to keep an eye on the old hothead. The other three vets get brief bits here and there, but Da 5 Bloods is really about a reckoning not only between father and son — a common theme in Lee’s work — but between guilty survivor and the memory of the dead.

Never a shy director, Lee more or less lets his story and characters speak for themselves. Among several powerful moments is a flashback in which the soldiers hear over the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. has just been assassinated; it’s turned into demoralizing propaganda by the real-life broadcaster “Hanoi Hannah,” and four of the five almost falter in the face of it, but Norman pulls them back from self-defeat. Norman’s climactic scene might read on the page as a bit too pat, but the acting involved is first-class and earns the wet eyes the scene pursues. Lee is still doing his weird double-dolly shot (though thankfully only briefly here), and I don’t know why he feels the need to capitalize every word not only on social media but, here, in subtitled Vietnamese or French. But this is still an ambitious achievement (using at least three aspect ratios — why let Wes Anderson have all the fun?) with as much love expressed for movies as for the young black cannon fodder who left their blood and bloods over there.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted June 7, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, science fiction, sequel, star war

starwars9And so we return one final time to the Skywalker family. After Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, we are told, there will be no more stories told about the spawn of Darth Vader and their various friends, spawn, and acolytes. With this, I officially lose interest in the Star Wars franchise; even back in 1983, when I thought Star Wars was over, I couldn’t find any hunger for the comics or the “expanded universe” novels or any of the other things Lucasfilm devised to keep the brand a going concern until George Lucas revisited the saga sixteen years later. So the multimedia Joseph Campbell rewrite will have to chug along without me.

This last go-round neither disappointed nor thrilled me; it just exists. There’s always something going on, and that’s part of the problem: there’s never not something going on, no pause for breath, no beauty or poetry. We ain’t got time for that now. The Final Order, a bunch of bad guys led by the Big Bad Guy, the resurgent Emperor Palpatine, plans to subjugate or destroy every planet everywhere. The Good Guys leap to the rescue — identity-crisis Jedi in training Rey (Daisy Ridley), rash pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). Meanwhile, good-bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants to save Rey from Palpatine. His deal is as tangled as ever.

Some thematic relevance could be teased out of the previous entries, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). The latter, which I consider the best of the new trilogy, dripped some poison into the ears of the faithful. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), like Achilles, renounced the heroic code; he literally tossed his lightsaber over his shoulder in disgust. Well, we’ll have none of that now, not with non-entity J.J. Abrams (who made the first of the sequel trilogy) at the helm. Abrams’ insight seems to be that the fans want endless lightsaber duels and shoot-outs and spacecraft looping around. Some of the action has a shoot-the-works electricity, but the special effects are as hectic, busy, and essentially insecure as anything in Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Abrams strains so hard not to lose our attention that, through sheer narrative vehemence, he loses it anyway.

There are some pleasures. I felt it would be churlish to try to make out the seams in Carrie Fisher’s performance — cobbled together from unused footage — as General Leia. I was grateful for however much the moviemakers could give me of her. Billy Dee Williams, as the returning Lando Calrissian, comes through with a suave turn that helps to remind us that acting was once possible in these things. (Adam Driver just about sprains something trying to make something real out of Kylo Ren’s nightmares of conscience, but he did better under the tutelage of Rian Johnson, a real director, on The Last Jedi.) The young trinity of new stars sprint this way and that, hopping from world to world, in search of a McGuffin called “the wayfinder” that will lead them to the lair of Palpatine. This dark emperor is as boringly eeeeeevil as ever, and his connection to one of the heroes feels underdone, as if Abrams and his writers were wincing and hoping the parallels to a similar revelation in The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t strike us as too blatant.

We’re frequently reminded of the stakes — this needs to happen or the bad guys will be very bad and everyone will die — yet the demands of fantasy on this budgetary level guarantee there are no real stakes. People die but come back one way or another; the total outcome is never in doubt. Here and there, a bit of business tugs at the old nostalgic feelings or packs a sidewise punch: Daisy Ridley’s teardrop falling on Carrie Fisher’s (or a double’s) shoulder; a droid, cowed by past abuse, who declines a human’s touch with a prim but slightly panicked “No, thank you.” Even old Luke returns as a force ghost, reassuring Rey and us that he was wrong and it’s important for good to stand up to evil. That point is made here in the most generic of ways; it doesn’t risk resonating with the world we live in, which even Lucas’ goofball prequels at least tried to do. That much-derided “deathstick” bit in Attack of the Clones, for instance, at least tried to engage with human frailty outside the franchise, albeit in a laughable dad way. Nothing like that here.

The Grey Fox

Posted May 31, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, western

GreyFox_Still_1-768x415 For whatever reason, Kino Lorber has plucked the 38-year-old Canadian adventure-drama The Grey Fox out of obscurity, treated it to a 4k spit-shine, and given it back to us. The Grey Fox got respectful reviews in America when it arrived in 1983 but, it appears, was quickly forgotten here. Not so in Canada, where it’s regarded as a national treasure. Its director, Phillip Borsos, was only 27 when he made it; he only got to make four more features, including the bewildering One Magic Christmas, before leukemia took him in 1995 at only 41. I can imagine Richard Farnsworth shaking his head sadly at the notion of outliving his young director.

Farnsworth inhabits Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber who’s just finished a 33-year stretch in prison. When he gets out, it’s a different century — 1901 — and we learn very early on that we can trust the movie not to be cheesy, because it never makes much of Miner being a man out of his own time. Like the cowboys in The Wild Bunch who remember the Civil War but find themselves negotiating a pre-WWI world of cars and machine guns, Miner squints uneasily at technology but doesn’t let it faze him. Farnsworth, whose swan song was a beautiful performance in David Lynch’s becalmed masterpiece The Straight Story, had a high, light voice that nonetheless carried the weight of authority. Listening to Miner, we feel that this was a man who didn’t need to act hard. There’s a quiet but steely conviction in everything he says, and Farnsworth moves like a man who trusts his own body (this former stuntman was still plenty spry in his early sixties when he made this movie, riding a gorgeous black horse perilously close to a moving train).

Miner tries several times to get a real job and mend his ways. In fact, there’s very subtle comedy in the fact that he has it relatively easy when he gets out of jail. Not once but twice, women who care about him — his sister and then a suffragette named Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs) — offer him a safe haven. And there’s also subtle comedy in the fact that Miner just can’t accept their help. He can’t abide the workaday life — “I’m just no good at work that’s planned by other heads,” he says. He robbed stagecoaches, and now, after having seen the early picture The Great Train Robbery, he’s going to rob trains. That’s what he does and who he is. Nothing personal, mind you. Miner’s ethos meant neither he nor any of his men shot their guns directly at anyone. No killing. There’s a little of Miner in Seth Gecko in the Quentin Tarantino-written From Dusk Till Dawn, who insisted “I am a professional fucking thief. I don’t kill people that I don’t have to.” Miner also boasts a bit of the amiable outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and a bit of Henri “Papillon” Charriere — Miner has a habit of escaping from prison.

The Grey Fox is pictorially as satisfying as a full-course dinner, photographed in rich blues and browns by Frank Tidy. It’s a little loose and sedate, though, and our attention starts to slacken — the structure becomes anecdotal — until Miner and his two accomplices are camping out in Canada and a Mountie approaches. This is a whistle-clean, PG-rated, old-fashioned semi-Western with shootings but no bloodshed. From time to time it feels a little edgeless; the filmmaking is “respectable” almost to a fault. But then the grainy solidity of an image (Borsos and Tidy make the most of British Columbia locations) catches and holds us, or Richard Farnsworth says something, it doesn’t matter what, and we can’t imagine he could be anything less than honest. A good deal of The Grey Fox is A Great Man In Front Of A Great Sky, and that’s just about enough.