Richard Pryor: Live in Concert

Posted February 10, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, concert film, one of the year's best

Richard Pryor - Live in Concert (1979)In Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, the eponymous great comedian drops what has become euphemistically known as “the N-word” forty-two times. The word, in Pryor’s hands, becomes a rueful acknowledgment of fellowship, of shared indignity and terror and general craziness connected with being black in a racist white society. Occasionally he puts it in the mouth of a white person, but most often Pryor uses it interchangeably with “brother.” (As a man in the ‘70s, Pryor was not especially enlightened on matters of feminism — but that doesn’t mean he was unconcerned with women’s struggles, either.)

Eventually, in his later concert film Live on the Sunset Strip, Pryor talked about his trip to Africa, and said “I ain’t gonna never call another black man a n——. You know, ‘cause we never was no n——s. That’s a word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness.” In the 1979 film, though, Pryor is (and would later remain) conversant with his own wretchedness — his embarrassing, screwed-up humanity, the ways in which he was down in the dirt with the rest of us. He was the first to call himself out, and he fashioned his foibles into poetry. Live in Concert is not art as filmmaking — director Jeff Margolis, who has helmed TV specials and awards shows for decades, basically just keeps Pryor in focus. It’s the text, the material, that I value as art, as literature, as hilarious and heartbreaking memoir.

Pryor flits from subject to subject, but the jewel in the crown of Live in Concert is his account of his heart attack, in which Pryor famously gives voice to himself and to his own aggrieved heart (“You thinkin’ about dyin’ now, ain’t you?” the organ growls as it goes into cardiac arrest; “You didn’t think about it when you was eatin’ all that pork”). Pryor will occasionally lapse into a truism — “The hospital ain’t no place to get well” — and then chase it with “You can die in there and nobody give a fuck,” something so bleak and blunt it forges its own hilarity. In reviewing Sunset Strip, Pauline Kael — a big fan of Pryor — somewhat uncharitably noted that his routine about his self-immolating suicide attempt (which he passed off then as an accident) couldn’t help but be a pale echo of the earlier heart-attack bit. But Pryor so often abused his own body, as if in twisted solidarity with his abusers from his childhood, that it was inevitable that he should work up comedy about his own physical self-disrespect.

When Pryor hops from being Pryor to being his heart to being an indifferent phone-operator angel in heaven, he’s firing on all cylinders and doing what he did better than anyone — breathing life into people and things, animate and inanimate, raising monkeys and dogs and deer and car tires to his own level of awareness — sharp, paranoid, lowdown and unsentimental. Pryor, especially here, doesn’t do anything so mundane as tell jokes. He embodies; he inhabits. Sometimes, not to get offensively voodoo-mystical about it, he seems to channel alien consciousness and reinterpret it through his own wounded yet tickled human experience.

Pryor creates for us an entire world, in seventy-some minutes, with just a microphone — a world of danger and rage, yes, but also one of mitigating ironies. “I woke up in an ambulance, right,” he says after his heart punks out on him. “And there wasn’t nothing but white people staring at me. I said, Ain’t this a bitch. I done died and wound up in the wrong motherfuckin’ heaven.” For Pryor, whose art and viewpoint were so snugly connected to his experience as a black man, ending up in white heaven (“Now I got to listen to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days”) would have been the ultimate indignity and joke. Pryor’s comedy draws on deep African and African-American traditions of folklore, storytelling, playing the dozens, anthropomorphism. He was an original, a visionary, a crowded house of voices — an American sangoma, healing with visions and laughter and empathy, divining by throwing his own bones.

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Posted February 3, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, thriller

girl-in-the-spiders-web-trailer-claire-foy-lisabeth-salander-painted-mask It’s been almost a decade since I last saw the original Swedish trilogy of thrillers featuring Lisbeth Salander, but I don’t quite remember them being reheated James Bond, as The Girl in the Spider’s Web often is. This is based on the fourth book in the series, taken over by writer David Lagencrantz after Lisbeth’s creator, Stieg Larsson, permanently clocked out in 2004. I couldn’t tell you whether Larsson would have approved of what Lagencrantz has done with Larsson’s hero, though I wonder if Larsson’s plans for her included such pulpy touches as Lisbeth’s sociopathic twin sister emerging from the shadows to incinerate the world with the help of a vicious gang called the Spiders.

Handled differently, a plot development like that would nudge a movie into cult-favorite status to be ironically enjoyed. But director Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe, the Evil Dead remake) seems to be locked into the grim, dreary tone apparently required by producer Scott Rudin. Rudin also produced 2011’s American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which made a lot of money being grim and dreary, and so Spider’s Web is commanded to go and do likewise. When Álvarez can put an action scene together, he excels; the movie is full of chases and gunplay and strange torture, like the other films, but Álvarez brings something heavy and muscular to it. Towards the end, when a sniper takes out some bad guys, we feel the propulsive punch of those bullets.

A Lisbeth Salander movie is only as good as its Lisbeth, and Noomi Rapace, who fleshed out the hero in the Swedish films, leaves cavernous shoes to fill. Rooney Mara couldn’t manage it in 2011, but Claire Foy, who steps in here, is a different story. She nails the character’s essential spiky loneliness and skittishness. It shouldn’t look cool to be Lisbeth, whose lifetime of abuse from scummy men starting with her own father has mutilated her soul. Foy understands this — her Lisbeth looks more saddened than bad-ass. Her flickers of caring about others, like her friend and one-time lover, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), come across as vulnerability but also a kind of relieved reaching towards connection. Foy shows us a blunted humanity under the scabs and scars.

Put Foy up against Sylvia Hoeks (the frightening killer replicant in Blade Runner 2049) as Lisbeth’s anarchic sister Camilla and you should have an affair to remember. And in truth, it all leads to a scene between these formidable actresses that very nearly justifies the existence of the whole creaky movie. Lisbeth, it seems, ran away from home — and from her father’s sexual abuse — as a girl, leaving Camilla there to absorb his evil. Lisbeth grew up to be a brilliant hacker and remorseless avenger of abused women. This twist, though, recasts Lisbeth as a goth Clarice Starling, driven to save the lambs again and again because she failed to save one — her sister. The one who escaped is damaged enough, but the one who got left behind ended up morally diseased by years of proximity to evil. Camilla asks Lisbeth why she rescued everyone but her. It’s a fair question, and Lisbeth has no real answer.

The rest of Spider’s Web, though, feels inessential. Even though Stieg Larsson himself reportedly planned ten Lisbeth/Mikael novels, maybe the pained and rageful Lisbeth doesn’t and shouldn’t work as a franchise hero. Her whole M.O. is bringing the pain to deserving men, but here her ultimate adversary is a woman — and, of course, not just a woman. Whatever integrity this character has, it demands that she never really heal or grow, and it seems insensitive — even cruel — to keep re-animating her to face more devils and scum. (A fifth novel, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, was published in 2017.) Since Spider’s Web was a worldwide flop in comparison with its more heavily hyped predecessor, it appears likely that this latest cinematic go-round for Lisbeth will be her last; she’s a great character, but I think she’s earned retirement.

Roma

Posted January 27, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, foreign, overrated

roma Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, considered the front-runner among the eight films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, comes pre-packaged with all sorts of hype about how personal and autobiographical it is for Cuarón and how artfully it has been realized. Every frame of the film could be isolated and hung on a wall, and maybe that’s what should be done with it. Roma is a beautiful boring movie. Cuarón’s laborious technique gets between us and the emotions we’re supposed to be drawing from the screen. What’s sad is that, after the accolades and awards, a fair number of people who actually sit through the thing may feel they’re the ones at fault, not refined enough to appreciate such a monumental work. To such viewers I can only say, It’s not your fault.

In outline it’s a nostalgic sketch set in 1970, when Cuarón was eight or nine, based on his family’s life in Colonia Roma, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City. The movie is dedicated to the family’s maid back then, named Cleo here and played (well and honestly) by novice actress Yalitza Aparicio. Cleo works for an educated, professional couple, whose relationship is on the rocks, and their four kids. She gets pregnant by a ne’er-do-well who, when she tells him the news, ditches her in a movie theater; the drama between them is upstaged by the far less fancy film showing on the screen (La Grande Vadrouille, a French war comedy) — my attention kept wandering to it. At least the movie within the movie moves.

Most of Roma is photographed (by Cuarón himself) in long shot, in lengthy takes. Some of the press has identified various aesthetic reasons for this, but it just keeps everything at a literal distance from us, and there’s a practical reason for the glacial pace — Cuarón wants you to see Roma in massive 70mm, the film fetishist’s preferred format (well, that or 16mm), and when you compose and edit for an image that large, the cuts can’t come too fast and furious or the movie will make everyone throw up. Meanwhile, on the home screen, which is where most of us will see Roma, it just feels pompously, pointlessly long. “Why are we watching Cleo walking this whole goddamn way,” I would gripe to myself, or “Oh goody, another slow pan across nothing much happening while yet another airplane passes meaningfully overhead.” There’s a scene where Cleo goes to find her slimy baby daddy at a martial-arts training class, and I swear we have to sit through what feels like 45 minutes of a bunch of guys doing wrathful martial-arts poses before we get to the point of the scene, which is him saying he wants nothing to do with the baby. The scene could’ve unfolded in a Burger King bathroom, but that wouldn’t have been as visually, Oscar-baitingly impressive.

I’m sorry; this all sounds harsh. Roma is, for me, a failure, but one on a higher level than a superhero movie or romcom that fails. It swings for the fences and whiffs, a big whistling whiff, but at least it swings. It’s not a cowardly bunt, and the emotionally transparent Yalitza Aparicio sustains us through a lot of it, with Marina de Tavira picking up slack as the family’s sad and angry mother. Roma has its too-facile plot points, like the revelation immediately preceding Cleo’s water breaking, and the dramatic sequence following it is blunted by, once again, Cuarón being extremely artful and clever with the camera placement. The water breaking is part of the film’s rampant water imagery, starting with the opening titles, with a window reflected off wet floor tiles — the movie is visually grandiloquent before it’s two minutes old. Every director has a polished nostalgic turd like this in them, and Roma is Cuarón’s. Now, perhaps, he can stop telling us what an artist he is and return to proving it.

First Man

Posted January 21, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic

Film Title: First Man You may not be able to tell what emotions Neil Armstrong is experiencing most of the time in First Man, but you might have a better than fair idea of how he felt physically during his flights. Being in a rocket, according to this movie, is like being inside a submarine running crazily on rollercoaster tracks at intolerable speed, spinning and creaking and sparking and thundering. There have been many credible earlier films about the journey beyond Earth — The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 — but First Man is perhaps the first one of them to convince me utterly that, yep, this is what it sounded and looked and felt like. A solid round of applause for director Damien Chazelle (La La Land), of whose previous work I’m not fond, but whose work here is a creme de la creme pure-cinema ride, symphonic and abstract and richly filling.

Unavoidably, the scenes on the ground can’t compete. Most of the movie takes its emotional cue from Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling as a cool cucumber, a champion at tamping down his feelings. In one scene not far into the film, after Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have lost their infant daughter to cancer, we see Armstrong go off by himself and cry a bit, and that has to get us through the remaining two hours plus. Armstrong is the definition of withholding, which makes him an ideal astronaut. But Janet is the opposite — not overly temperamental, but emotionally transparent. And Claire Foy brings such a directness of spirit to her big scenes that Gosling actually bestirs himself and responds to her. Their time together isn’t all anguish and anger, either — there are scenes of them horsing around with their two boys. They never say in so many words what they mean to each other, but we get the idea.

All of that is wallpaper for the larger cinematic portrait not of Neil Armstrong the man, but Neil Armstrong the cipher onto which we can project our hopes and fears while riding with him into varying depths of space. Chazelle doesn’t want too much specificity of character, too much idiosyncrasy, getting between us and the experience. The alien grandeur of the moon sequence is heightened when the frame thickens from its common widescreen scope to the taller proportions of an IMAX screen. (On your TV, the picture will shift from a letterboxed 2.35:1 aspect ratio to a screen-filling 1.78:1.) Wedded to an eclectic Justin Hurwitz score, the images have the burnish and urgency of Steven Spielberg in his prime (Spielberg executive-produced). The action is alarming at times, sometimes close to terrifying. The creaking and clanking we hear inside the planes and rockets drive home our sense that these were essentially fancy buckets — metal tubes full of meat. A million things could have gone tragically wrong during the launch, flight, and landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969; or, rather, a million things had to go right, and it only took one thing to go wrong.

Chazelle takes the 2001 approach and cuts off the sound when appropriate (i.e., when we’re out in space and not meant to be hearing anything). Elsewhere, the sound is exquisitely detailed, fully imagined and integrated. Technically, First Man is a victory, a near-masterpiece. It doesn’t do much that other films haven’t done before, but it does those things with a purity of purpose rare in big-studio American films just now. It’s as though Chazelle and his ringer cast (not a clunker performance in the lot — Gosling’s taciturnity works for the story Chazelle is telling) had approached each scene, whether a space shot or a conversation around a dinner table, and polished it to a blinding shine. This drive to perfection sacrifices a level of humanity; a true work of art usually has at least a drop of embarrassment, a moment of swinging too hard for the fence and whiffing, some evidence of fallibility that compels us to think warmly of it. This is sometimes what people mean when they say they admire a work but don’t love it. I admire First Man enormously.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

Posted January 13, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

the-man-who-killed-hitler-and-then-the-bigfoot“It’s the Bigfoot, Ed. They want me to kill it.” That’s ol’ Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott) talking to his brother (Larry Miller) over a cup of powdered cocoa and mini-marshmallows. Some forty-odd years prior, Calvin also pulled the trigger on Hitler himself, hence the title The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, that title promises something different from what the movie delivers. A feature debut by Robert D. Krzykowski (who co-produced Lucky McKee’s The Woman), Hitler/Bigfoot has unexpected pathos and gravitas, and the titular killings are anti-climactic, almost beside the point. Calvin lost what was really important in the war — his innocence (a killer is something you can never un-become) and the love of his life.

Why did Calvin never track down his stateside sweetie, schoolteacher Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald)? Probably because he felt stained by killing a man, even if that man was Hitler. As Calvin explains to the two government suits who recruit him to deal with Bigfoot, killing Hitler didn’t matter because his words survived him; like the deadly virus that the Bigfoot carries (which is why it urgently needs killing), Hitler’s hateful ideas radiated outward from his corpse and infected millions. Hitler and the Bigfoot both turn out to be smaller and less impressive in the flesh, and more easily killable. Killing them doesn’t make Calvin any happier or even more heroic. As he says, he just did what he was told.

That Hitler/Bigfoot is more subdued, humanistic and poignant than the title indicates doesn’t mean it’s a cult classic like Bubba Ho-Tep, though. It’s a little underdone, with an elaborate flashback structure that sometimes confuses us — we’re watching Calvin (played as a young man by Aidan Turner) during the war, then as a nail-tough codger in the ‘80s, then as a young man again before heading off to war. I suppose this structure is justified by being a tall tale about a man looking back on an eventful life. Krzykowski, though, either neglects or forgets about narrative beats we’re expecting. What happened to Maxine? Why does Calvin fake his own death if he’s just going to be seen publicly with Ed later on? And what’s that in his shoe that bothers him for the whole movie? A tracking device, I’m guessing — how the government keeps tabs on him. (It’s also implied there’s a painting in his parlor that’s bugged.) But Krzykowski has Calvin dump it out of his shoe in a medium shot, and we never get a good close look at the thing. For all we know, it’s the ring he never got a chance to give Maxine.

Still, if you enjoy Sam Elliott and his rich baritone, there are worse ways to spend your evening. Calvin is the sort of flawlessly ethical American who finds a $100 scratch ticket on the sidewalk but refuses to collect the winnings himself; who lives modestly with his trusty ol’ dawg and kills brain cells at a bar, saying he’s thinking about giving up the booze but knowing he won’t. Elliott puts all of this across effortlessly — he’s an iconic presence playing an iconic man who would rather just be obscure. “This is not the comic-book story you want it to be,” he tells the somewhat starry-eyed younger agents who pull him back in. The unemphatic directorial style promises that much, but it’s Elliott — his sad, measured voice the sound of a bruised soul who has seen more blood than you — who really delivers on the promise.

Bird Box

Posted January 6, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

birdbox The news informs me that, having watched the new Netflix film Bird Box, people nationwide are taking the “Bird Box challenge.” This involves wandering around wearing a blindfold, copying the characters in the film. Sadly, it does not involve aping the film’s other following behaviors: carrying birds around, listening to upbeat Dionne Warwick oldies, or taking pity on refugees escaping from terrifying hazards. It would be nice if more of us took that last Bird Box challenge in the weeks to come. Anyway, if you don’t expect it to make literal sense on a scene-by-scene basis, Bird Box is a fairly tense metaphorical thriller, though with a fatal structural flaw.

Well, since you asked so nicely: When a narrative has fancy flashback architecture — if it goes back and forth between what we understand as “now” and what we’re told was “five years ago” — it’s very hard for any of the flashbacks to pack any suspense. We begin with our emotionally prickly artist heroine, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), preparing two children we assume are hers for a dangerous rowboat trip down a river. We then go back to five years earlier, when the apocalypse comes in the form of creatures who drive their victims suicidally insane if looked upon. Malorie, who is pregnant, makes her way through the chaos to a house holding several other survivors. Right off the bat, we figure Malorie had to survive whatever threatens her in the flashbacks we see, and we figure she lives to have at least one kid, too. But wait, one of her fellow survivors is also pregnant. So either Malorie ends up having twins, or this second pregnant woman is destined for the dirt and Malorie has to adopt her kid, and…

Well, like I said, it’s metaphorical. Bird Box was directed by Susanne Bier, who has made several acclaimed, even Oscar-nominated dramas in her native Denmark and elsewhere. If Netflix is to be believed, Bird Box has been watched 45 million times, which, even if we buy only a third of that number, represents millions more eyes than have been on any of Bier’s previous features. Bier isn’t really interested in the monsters, or in survival either; she seems more intrigued by how people in extremis treat one another. To that end, we get a fair number of scenes dealing with the tension, or relative lack thereof, between the survivors in the flashbacks. This has the unfortunate effect of making the few characters all seem to be symbolizing something or other — John Malkovich’s unhospitable character, for instance, reps callous paranoia — and there’s a potentially distasteful element wherein the mentally ill, immune for some reason to the monsters’ influence, become violent predators who want the unafflicted to look at the monsters and die. Then again, that may be part of a subtler point that we must empathize with the mentally ill or suffer accordingly.

Anyway, the film continues to flip back and forth, without many surprises. Since kids are involved, we have a hunch there’s a limit to how dark the story can get, and we are correct. Bird Box has been around in a variety of forms for decades. The most we can do is look under the hood of this year’s model, kick the tires, and see how it runs. The characters are basically delivery systems for the film’s metaphors, and the actors can’t access much beyond the basics — fear, love — in the moment. I most enjoyed the sequence dealing with the crisis finally arriving in America, which provides a cascading chill of mores and taboos exploding everywhere we look. But even here, we get Sarah Paulson as Bullock’s acerbically pro-social sister — for all of five minutes. I would cheerfully have swapped a few of the gray, cold, repetitive rowboat scenes for a few more minutes with Paulson.

Cold War

Posted December 30, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, foreign, romance

coldwar Together with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest work of beauty Cold War reminds modern viewers how lovely and, yes, roomy a film shot in the old, squarish Academy ratio can look. Towards the end, when the film’s star-crossed lovers are dropped off by a bus beneath a massive tree, they are dwarfed by it in a way they couldn’t be in a more conventional rectangular composition. Events global and intimate weigh on the protagonists, and the images (with the help of cinematographer Łukasz Żal), with their cavernous head room, imply that the very atmosphere itself is pressing down on the people.

Cold War, loosely inspired by the story of Pawlikowski’s parents, runs a brisk 88 minutes (including six or so minutes of end credits) and spans fifteen years. The next time some hot-shot blockbuster director brings a superhero movie in at north of two (or even two and a half) hours and tries to tell you the epic length is necessary, show them Cold War, which despite its brevity allows itself plenty of breathing room for ambiguity and elliptical storytelling. The couple, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), run across each other various times over the decade and a half, in Poland, in Moscow, in Berlin and Yugoslavia and Paris. Each encounter seems to make the same point about how they’re not meant for anyone else but can’t live together either.

The film’s approach to the romance (if that is the word) is a bit distanced, as though Pawlikowski had no idea what drew and bound together his own disputatious parents. Maybe he made the movie in order to find out, but I don’t think he succeeded, if so. The movie makes better sense as a metaphor for conflicting values or temperaments; she is art, he is business, she is confidence, he is fear, she is flexible, he is rigid. Most importantly, he defects to France and becomes a peripatetic session musician, while she legally goes wherever her ensemble goes and eventually builds a solo career. During all this, the music starts with peasant-authentic folk, then shifts to state-approved odes to authority, then jazz, then rock and roll; we see the evolution (or devolution, as some at the time would have said) of pop music in the mid-20th century.

Cold War has a classical old-Hollywood chiaroscuro sheen. Its black-and-white images heighten the starkness of the European settings during the titular era (1949-1964). It has its thematic and aesthetic ducks in a row; it’s an understated achievement of great elegance and awareness of the intractable illogic of people. As cinema, it’s near perfect, but there’s many another schlockier romance that actually makes us care about its lovers. Maybe if you go too far down the road of art you have to leave the basics of manipulation and pathos behind, the narrative beats that pull emotions out of us whether or not we want them to. Cold War doesn’t do that. It leaves us with a vague sadness about what might have been, and we sort of have to climb into the movie and flesh it out — imagine the dialogue we’re not privy to, the connective scenes of standard affection and attraction Pawlikowski artfully leaves out. In brief, Cold War rings the bells that respond to a gorgeous brushstroke, but ignores the basic matinee-goer’s desire to know why the boy and the girl get together, should be together, are destined to stay together.