The Assignment

Posted March 19, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, film noir, thriller

assignmentWatching Another 48 HRS on TV with the sound off, for some reason, I found myself drawn into the movement, the colors, the cinema. That movie is a lazy, stupid sequel, certainly not the finest hour of its director, Walter Hill. But Hill is a visual samurai, and for a few minutes I just let myself coast on the smooth, feral images. Hill’s latest, the controversial pulp thriller The Assignment, has a few moments like that. Too few. An alarming chunk of it amounts to two people in a room swapping stiff dialogue. Given the advance anti-buzz — the very premise an affront to the struggle of transgender people — I was anticipating a good crappy time, a low-rent guilty pleasure, but the sad truth is it’s too dull to be offensive.

Hill is only as good as his script, and this one, which he and collaborator Denis Hamill tinkered with for years, doesn’t do him any favors. A hitman, Frank Kitchen, a lithe and scowling fellow with a beard, kills a lowlife who turns out to be the brother of an insane plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver). The surgeon has her revenge by having Frank abducted and brought to her operating table; before long, Frank looks like Michelle Rodriguez, with the accompanying lady parts, and of course without his former man parts. I say “his” because Frank is not transgender; he had gender reassignment surgery without his consent, so the use of trans-friendly pronouns doesn’t quite apply here.

What we have here isn’t truly transphobic. It’s really more of a gendernaut rewrite of Hill’s 1989 Johnny Handsome. In both films, the assumption is that surgery to change a scoundrel’s appearance will also change his heart; Weaver’s cracked surgeon sounds almost the same as Forest Whitaker’s much more altruistic sawbones in Johnny Handsome. In this case, it’s presumed that changing macho, cold-hearted Frank into a woman outwardly will also make him inwardly more feminine, less violent. Of course, the surgeon is also a woman, and she’s fairly cold and has no trouble getting thugs to do her psychotic bidding. Unpacking this movie for what it might say about gender will only result in clutter. It’s basically noir: people don’t change; people can’t change.

Towards the end, as Frank slaughters his way closer to the surgeon, Hill’s casual mastery of violence kicks The Assignment into gear. It’s cheaply done, and it’s depressingly clear that Hill’s days of having budgets like the ones he had for 48 HRS or Southern Comfort are long behind him. But there’s some snappy brutality. It doesn’t make up for the talkiness, though, or Hill’s habit of using corny scene transitions, or the highly expendable subplot involving Frank and a comely but unethical nurse (Caitlin Gerard). Hill was enamored of the film’s premise for decades, but he never made the premise into a movie. Weaver, sitting in a straitjacket, talks to shrink Tony Shalhoub for what seems like a lifetime, and talks and talks, and every time Hill goes back to this room and these two, we tap our feet and wait for the film to get started again.

Weaver tries for some Dr. Lecter sangfroid in bringing this arrogantly arch character to life, but it’s a monotonous, unsmiling performance from a usually good-humored actor. Rodriguez looks for something real in this pulp universe and fails, falling back into her sullen default mode. Walter Hill turned this material into a French graphic novel before he made the movie, and the movie has the same gritty, debauched tone as a European comics album for adults only. The acting needed to be heightened, the dialogue cruel and sharp as a shiv. There aren’t even quotable lines or amusing turns of phrase. The transgender community has far worse things to fear and rage against than this pallid exercise. Walter Hill alone may know why he still wanted to make this movie; the rest of us don’t know.

Who’s Crazy?

Posted March 12, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house

whos-crazy-1966-thomas-white-04Once upon a time, an American filmmaker in Belgium happened across a group of other Americans. The group were members of New York’s experimental Living Theatre, whose founders (Julian Beck and Judith Molina) were back in the States doing time for tax evasion. While waiting for their spiritual father and mother to arrive, the Theatre people herded into a deserted farmhouse along with the filmmaker — Thomas White — and created Who’s Crazy?, a barely feature-length attempt shown at a couple of festivals and then considered lost for decades. During that time it was known, if at all, among jazz scholars because of its soundtrack by Ornette Coleman. Finally, in 2015 a print of the film was found in White’s garage.       

Like Coleman’s score — performed while Coleman and his collaborators watched the film — the action in Who’s Crazy? is largely improvised. We begin aboard a bus transporting a bunch of mental patients. The bus breaks down, an inmate escapes, and while two guards chase after him, the rest of the inmates break free and crowd into the farmhouse, where they enact various scenarios meant to illuminate or satirize societal tropes (trial, marriage, communal meals). Sometimes the inmates chant or emit barbaric yawps; other times they speak in solemn theater jive. Most often, the harried, lunging music, a boomerang spinning towards discovery, speaks for them.       

Modern viewers might have fun imposing connections between this and earlier or later works. It definitely shares DNA with Marat/Sade, King of Hearts, The Idiots, and The Ninth Configuration, not to mention the Living Theatre’s own The Brig. One actor, bearded and saturnine, could be a brother to Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis; the cast in general shares that hipster aura. We’re always aware that we’re watching a performance — the movie doesn’t make us enter into the imaginative contract, where we agree to accept the shown events as “real.” White’s camera meanders or stares at a man numbly applying greasepaint, prefiguring Lance the acid-head surfer smearing camo grease on his face in Apocalypse Now.        

What makes Who’s Crazy? more than a curiosity, a relic from the noble-lunatic era of Leary and Laing, is its spirit of play — the actors are reaching for truth, ecstasy, life in death. All very po-faced and pompous, but fun to take in small doses (here and there it reminded me of some of the elliptical little theatrical whimsies Edward Gorey used to put on in Cape Cod). Like a lot of contemporaneous avant garde cinema, the movie is a result of shooting for hours and then manhandling it into some sort of order in the editing room. There’s a loose narrative with some cross-cutting creating what we read as subplots. Ultimately it comments on its own medium — experimental narrative often staggers towards postmodernism. Maybe two or three characters take turns owning the film simply because they get more screen time; we might feel there are equally prominent characters littering the cutting-room floor. Even avant garde in 1965 has its limits: no women or black actors (there are a few seen here) assume the center.       

I value this work more than I value, say, E. Elias Merhige’s grimly archetypal Begotten (1989) because it revels so cheerfully in its own nonsense, and the illogic consorts organically and gorgeously with those Coleman riffs. (The only other movie Coleman scored was David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, and Who’s Crazy? at times feels like one of Cronenberg’s early, intimate shorts.) There’s something fascist-apocalyptic about the movie’s milieu, a cold foggy place where wild innocents are pursued by bears with badges, but within that context the Living Theatre people celebrate and exult. (Apparently Mom and Dad didn’t much care for the result: Julian Beck sniffed that the movie was false to the Theatre’s “energy vector.”) Owing as much to silent comedy as to hip new notions of confrontational drama, Who’s Crazy? pleases by its very inability to please in a conventional sense. It gives the people what they want, though — conflict, thrills, love, music, song — just not in the usual package. Known for its jazz, it’s pretty jazzy itself, and ends up being a more potent tribute to that musical form than a certain recent musical that won a few Oscars.

They Call Me Jeeg

Posted March 5, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, fantasy, foreign

they_call_me_jeeg_italy_390The grimly realistic Roman superhero drama They Call Me Jeeg, which swept the Italian equivalent of the Oscars last year and will soon open in America, doesn’t put any particular emphasis on its feats of power and heroism. They just happen, in a gray-blue gunmetal world, and sometimes they go viral on YouTube. The title, perhaps bewildering to some, refers to a 1975 Japanese anime called Steel Jeeg. The protagonist, career thief Enzo Ceccotti (Claudio Santamaria), falls into a submerged barrel of toxic waste and emerges with heightened strength and healing powers. Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), the mentally unstable daughter of one of Enzo’s associates, is obsessed with Steel Jeeg and sees the newly super Enzo as her long-awaited Jeeg. At first, though, Enzo does nothing more noble with his gifts than, say, ripping off an ATM. And when I say “ripping off an ATM,” I mean he literally rips it off of a building.

In a movie like this, special effects are used in a matter-of-fact way, and it often leads to strange, memorable details; in a Marvel or DC superhero movie, for instance, you won’t hear the unique hollow thud-thud of a shoe being shaken with a severed toe rattling around inside it. You’ll hear it in They Call Me Jeeg, for sure. But you’ll also see things like Enzo making a ferris wheel turn with his bare hands to cheer up Alessia, who’s in one of the cabins — it’s a nicely understated but still grandly romantic moment. The severed toe belongs, or belonged, to Enzo, who has already healed from gunshots and now assumes he can simply duct-tape the toe back onto its little stump and wait for the flesh and bone to meld. What happens the following day is a deadpan sick joke, and it establishes that this slice of fantasy in a grubby real world has its limits. Enzo can’t fly, for example, but he can survive long falls, though even then he rises slowly and has to shake off the effects of the impact.

Even a stubbly superhero like Enzo needs a supervillain, and he gets one in the form of Fabio (Luca Marinelli), a manic and preening young gangster who relishes the theater of evildoing. Fabio fancies himself a singer and used to be on Italy’s version of Big Brother. He’s always holding rallies in his head, and the numbers are tremendous. At first I thought Marinelli’s performance was cringe-worthy, but soon realized he was playing a scared kid playing a bad-ass — putting layers of identity on the character. His flashy corruption runs counter to the cracked innocence of Alessia; Ilenia Pastorelli makes her a shattered girl stronger in the broken places, with a fantasist’s desperately escapist zeal. The acting in They Call Me Jeeg is far better than it needed to be, sharper and respectful of people’s complexities and need to see themselves as the center of their stories. The movie sneaks up and bounces some satirical riffs off of the nature of fame in the selfie/YouTube/Instagram culture.

The climax involves cobwebbed tropes like the ticking bomb and the antagonists facing off one last, big time. But director Gabriele Mainetti dials down the traditional histrionics, and we end up thinking more about the people involved. On some level, They Call Me Jeeg walks the same path as previous überschmuck films like Super, Defendor, Ichi the Killer, and Chronicle. But it also comments on its own genre in a way that those films more or less didn’t. The characters’ imaginations have been fed by the same pop culture that feeds ours; everyone acts the roles of the people they would like to be, but we see the cracks in the façades. Those cracks fuel the tensions of the film far more than punches or explosions do.

Oscar Night 2017

Posted February 27, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: oscars, Uncategorized

oopsThe most enduring image of last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony will not be that of a tearful, grateful recipient of the golden bald man. Nor will it be clips from any of the winning films. No, the picture that will persist for many years, haunting the nightmares of every future producer of the Oscars show, will of course be the shot of a card held aloft — a card pronouncing Moonlight the Best Picture winner instead of the erroneously announced La La Land. This was, globally, perhaps not a significant moment, but in the context of Oscar Night it was seismic. People from La La Land had time to get up onstage and begin their acceptance speeches, for fuck’s sake, before the error was clarified and made known. Even a Moonlight booster and La La Land detractor like myself couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for the hard-working creatives whose dream had been so decisively and publicly ripped away.

Well, drama and excitement were things the Oscars had been missing for too many years, and here were drama and excitement, all right. It was nice to see that the ceremony was still capable of surprise, albeit accidental. After all, La La Land was considered the favorite to sweep, the flagbearer for the Magic of Movies and the Beauty of Artistic Dreams. The irony is that while La La Land paid fawning lip service to those qualities, Moonlight actually embodied them, finding poetry in despair. That it not only won but literally wrested victory from the jaws of defeat will only add luster to the narrative of the little movie that could.

Aside from all that (and the lesser-known goof listing The Piano producer Jan Chapman among the dead in the In Memoriam segment instead of costume designer Janet Patterson), it was a competent enough evening. Jimmy Kimmel had some decent barbs in his pocket, and as usual he got considerable mileage out of his faux feud with Matt Damon. (I can imagine baffled Oscar-night viewers unfamiliar with the Kimmel-Damon beef that’s been going on for over a decade on Kimmel’s late-night show. “Why is he being so mean to Matt Damon?” they might have said.) Kimmel’s Mean Tweets were amusing as always, the bit with the bus tour maybe not so much.

The thing about Moonlight’s win — sorry, but this was the night’s big story — is that it garnered a Screenplay (adapted) award, while La La Land, over in Original Screenplay, lost to Manchester by the Sea. Hindsight is always 20/20, but La La Land not winning a writing trophy may not have been a positive sign for its Best Picture win. A Best Picture not winning a Screenplay award is not unprecedented — it isn’t even that rare (The Artist was the last film to do so) — but it doesn’t exactly help. In the end, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins had to be content with his shared Screenplay Oscar and the knowledge that he’d helmed the big winner, while La La Land director Damien Chazelle settled for Best Director and the five other Oscars it won.

One last thing. Many fans of Bill Paxton, who died right before the Oscar ceremony, grumbled that he wasn’t included in the In Memoriam piece. The reason is simple: the montage is created weeks in advance, and generally covers the period from February 1 of the previous year to January 31 of the current year. This is also why Alan Rickman and David Bowie weren’t acknowledged this year — because they were included last year. Paxton will, one hopes, be remembered during Oscar Night 2018. Know what else will be remembered next year? That card being held up, declaring La La Land’s brief reign as Best Picture winner as dead as Paxton.

Manchester by the Sea

Posted February 19, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, overrated

manchesterThere are some awfully good moments in Manchester by the Sea, and there aren’t really any awful moments. The movie is a steadfast and somber swim inside the psyche of a man, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who is stoically shouldering various levels of loss, grief and guilt. To that end, it flirts with melodrama and sometimes downright kisses it, mostly in scenes where the drunken and self-loathing Lee, perhaps seeking someone to punch but more likely needing to be punched himself, starts trouble at a bar. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, generally lauded for his taste, somehow loses track of it in some of the more emotional set pieces, cranking up the music, either diegetic (a song played in a bar) or non-diegetic (classical needle-drops, heavy on the Handel).

Some of the filmmaking is overbearing — a too-conscious choice on Lonergan’s part to meet audiences halfway after the box-office immolation of his cerebral 2011 drama Margaret — but some isn’t. Some of the awkward silences call attention to themselves — look, working-class dudes like Lee have so much they can’t express! — and some seem more organic. Many have pointed to the stop-and-start, inarticulate exchange late in the film between Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Is it a great scene? It’s a great actors’ showcase for great actors, is what it is. Williams in particular sheds blood in the scene. But my irreverent brain kept pasting a neon “ACTING!” chyron over the bottom of the frame. It’s a theater-workshop exercise that does not, for me, reveal much.

Manchester by the Sea — not hyphenated, unlike its namesake town — follows Lee as he deals with being the new guardian of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose father Joe (Kyle Chandler) has recently died of a heart attack. Patrick is very hooked into his life in Manchester¹; he has school, sports, two girlfriends, and a (terrible) band with a name only pretentious high-schoolers could devise: Stentorian. “We are Stentorian,” Patrick mumbles into the mic before the band kicks into a flailing attempt at guitar pop. The thing is, Lonergan can sometimes be heard announcing that, too. Is he a little embarrassed by the larger, sloppier, more audience-squeezing emotions his film is obligated to attend to?

Lee and Patrick have the kind of combative but ultimately loving relationship — plenty of mutual mouthing off — you generally see in a lot of lesser movies. At times this is a two-handed play, with various supporting characters drifting in and out as needed (C.J. Wilson, as a bearish friend of the family, gives what I may be alone in finding the best performance in the film — solid, credible, alive, human); even a grayer, thicker Matthew Broderick — a Lonergan good-luck talisman from the first — pops in as Patrick’s shiny new Christian stepdad. Casey Affleck burns in his own hell convincingly enough, but bringing in Kyle Chandler for a few taunting flashbacks is unfair to Affleck and cruel to us. Chandler might have made Lee readable and identifiable with an economy of motion. Affleck approaches Lee as a more depressive and less manic version of the Dunkin’ Donuts lout he played on Saturday Night Live, and so Lee is opaque, shut off from himself, his loved ones, and us.

The movie is this year’s Affliction or Precious, a miserablist portrait of the working class, who lack the poetry and wit and vocabulary to voice the upheavals within — according to movies like this, of course. (A corrective: the work of Harvey Pekar.) Lee seems to have little inner life even in the flashbacks when everything is fine — he keeps hopping on top of his sick then-wife, which makes him look like an insensitive twerp. It seems as though this couple were headed for the rocks even without the tragedy that separated them. Manchester by the Sea is not a stupid or poorly constructed movie; its central horror is much more wounding for playing out realistically, almost blandly. It’s not a project that originated with Lonergan, though, and maybe that’s the difference. He does his damnedest with it, and maybe now on the heels of this critical and commercial success he can return to his own playbook.

¹Manchester only became Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989.

Arrival

Posted February 12, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, one of the year's best, science fiction

art-amy-adams-arrivalArrival, a Best Picture Oscar nominee that hits home video this week, is a poem about time. That may seem a lofty description of a sci-fi movie about a dozen alien spacecrafts hovering over various parts of Earth, but that’s what it shakes out as. Its direction, by Denis Villeneuve, is sure and deliberate and hushed; Villeneuve, I’m guessing, coached his cast seldom to speak much above a murmur. That befits a movie about human communication and its limits — limits founded in our equally limited understanding of time.

This is a pensive experience that evokes something very much like awe, though on some level it’s a bit of a letdown. Unlike, say, 2001 or Solaris (either version), it hews too closely to conventional narrative, to a Hollywood knot cinching things together for the popcorn-munchers. Ultimately it acquiesces to a human viewpoint, wedded to a third-act conflict ginned up by our brusque modern boogeyman China. (Then it wipes that conflict away conveniently with the gentle spectre of grief.) I am trying to step lightly around the plot, which is, in any event, not the best reason to see nor the best level on which to process Arrival.

What I can tell you is that the aliens almost-land, and the military, represented by Forest Whitaker, recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find out what the visitors want. The visitors, when we see them, are foggily-seen critters the humans call “heptapods.” They look sinister as hell, and they communicate via inky, jagged circles drawn in the air (or their version of air — they are separated from the humans by a transparent barrier). Louise’s job is to figure out what the language-circles mean, and somewhere offscreen she devises a code. It’s clear Villeneuve and scripter Eric Heisserer aren’t interested in the linguistic nuts and bolts of how Louise deciphers the heptapods’ scribbles. The real point of the film isn’t the literal meaning of the language but its shape.

I suppose this is old news to veteran science-fiction readers; even if we discount the movie’s source material, Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “The Story of Your Life,” there’s Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and its Tralfamadorians with their apprehension of time as simultaneity. A man, or a teenage girl, who is alive now is also dead elsewhere in time, and vice versa. Arrival hints and feints at a new way of reckoning life, time, and lifetime, but then wraps it neatly in a Chicken Soup for the Soul formulation along the lines of “If you knew how your life would play out, would you do the same things?” This yokes the story’s metaphysical concerns to a comforting tale of someone who knows that certain choices she will make will lead to heartbreak eventually, but who makes them anyway.

It’s comforting because we in the audience can’t know our future, but are reassured that whatever choice we do make will be for the best — Desiderata and its “the universe is unfolding as it should” writ large (tell that to the Syrians). That remains to be seen, always. The movie falters at the end zone. I don’t know what it should have done; maybe the accumulation of awe and mystique sort of paints the film into a literalist corner. But most of it is masterfully assembled, with great near-wordless performances from Renner (whose gobsmacked smile after his first trip inside the spacecraft is perfect) and especially Adams, who conveys everything we want from a hero without stepping outside the bounds of a fallible human. “HUMAN,” reads Louise’s first volley of English language to the visitors, as if that were the most impressive fact about her instead of the equivalent of a gnat holding up a sign to us reading “GNAT.” As best I can recall, the aliens, in one of the film’s very few concessions to humor, politely let that slide.

La La Land

Posted February 5, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: musical, overrated, romance

la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-1Is the Hollywood musical worth saving? There may be a compelling argument to be made for it, but La La Land, I’m afraid, isn’t it. The movie is popular and is supposedly on track to win a tub of Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s full of music and color, but otherwise it’s a thin and glittery shell with a lot of hollowness at its center. It’s about two young wanna-be entertainers, actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), trying to make it in Los Angeles. They fall in love, but conflicts about artistic integrity threaten their idyll; during one such squabble, I thought, Jeez, I don’t know that I was in the mood to watch New York, New York again.

That Martin Scorsese musical, a flop when first released, still boasts a level of emotional ambition that seems well beyond La La Land. The story is almost offensively simple and streamlined, even though the movie weighs in at a punitive two hours and seven minutes. Sebastian, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, is set up as the white boy who alone can appreciate good music — he certainly appreciates it more than does the slick Keith (John Legend), whose successful, bland-pop band Sebastian is obliged to join to make some money. Mia shows some acting chops in an interrupted audition, but it’s a measure of the movie’s itchy impatience — and that of its young writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) — that when Mia rents out theater space and performs her one-woman show, we don’t see any of it.

No, Chazelle would rather stage elaborate musical numbers, many of which glisten with unmistakable flop sweat. In classic musicals, we didn’t feel (though we could infer) the hard labor that went into the music and the choreography. Here, I kept imagining how many brutal takes must have been necessary to nail such sequences as the meant-to-be-a-wow opener, set on an L.A. freeway. The movie keeps stopping dead for numbers that seem meant simultaneously to honor and to outdo the musicals of yore, with crescendos and fireworks; for a while, we get one climax after another, so it’s not surprising that the film burns itself out fairly quickly, with an hour or so left to go. Gosling and Stone try, but they just don’t speak the language of musicals natively or fluently. We’re put in the position of assessing their crooning or belting as talented amateurs.

La La Land is being predicted (even by its detractors) as the big Oscar winner because, like the equally meretricious The Artist of a few years ago, it pays loving, moist-eyed tribute to The Magic of Movies. (A clip from Rebel Without a Cause provides a few seconds of reprieve from this movie’s faux-classic scheme.) It’s comparable to old Hollywood in at least one significant way: its vision is blindingly white, with John Legend brought in to play a black music star who just isn’t as serious about black music as a white man is. This, apparently, is the sort of thing that passed muster over the six years of writing and revising that it took Chazelle to bring La La Land to the screen. For all that, for all the time and effort the movie took, very little passion comes through. Technically it’s whiz-bang — sometimes it unavoidably comes off as “Hey look Ma, I’m a director!” — but it’s an empty truffle, all sweet surface but nothing inside. A white-chocolate truffle, at that.