Rogue One

Posted April 23, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, overrated, prequel, science fiction, star war

rogueoneBetween regular “saga” entries of the Star Wars franchise, we can now expect interstitial forays like Rogue One, which tells the story of how the Death Star came to have a weak spot into which Luke Skywalker so triumphantly squeezed laser blasts in the original Star Wars. This sort of “untold story” is symptomatic of the nerdish desire to explain everything, tie everything up neatly. After all, the question of why such a fortified super-weapon should have an Achilles’ heel has plagued the world for some forty years. Now we learn it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, put there by clever scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been pressed into service by the Empire to work on their big new Rebellion-crushing toy.

Rogue One follows Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), a hard-bitten young woman very much in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from The Force Awakens. Rarely smiling, much less showing affection for anyone other than her long-lost daddy, Jyn is apparently nouveau Star Wars’ idea of the deromanticized heroine, the brave and driven woman with no lovey-dovey distractions. This is fine with me, believe me, but the film’s screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are credited) forget to humanize Jyn in any other sense. (Her preoccupation with running a mission to realize her father’s plan just defines her in terms of a man anyway.)

The story is simple — Jyn has to get the Death Star plans, which include where the thing’s weakness is, into the hands of Princess Leia — and the movie is much more consistently and consciously a war picture than any other Star Wars film. Things blow up, large objects plummet and fly apart, Stormtroopers and Rebel warriors kill and die by the dozens. After a while, the combat becomes numbing, monotonous, locked into the technology from the original trilogy (the lumbering AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back make an appearance). Despite all this, the plot is needlessly convoluted, involving a variety of ragged grayhats who come together in the common cause of defeating the Empire. If there’s a reason the extremist character Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) really needed to be in the movie, I’ve already forgotten it. Rogue One starts wearing out its welcome at about the hour mark, and there’s another 75 minutes to go; the movie, lumbering like those AT-ATs, feels like it stomps along forever.

Some humanity occasionally peeks over the rubble. Everyone enjoyed Alan Tudyk’s vocal performance as the reformed/reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who tends towards brutal honesty at inopportune times, and I liked him too. The ethnic diversity of the cast is a merit, including the calming Zen presence of Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who feels one with the Force even if he’s not an official Jedi. Oddly, the Stormtroopers, reliably inept and fond of doofus small talk about the latest Imperial tech (someone on this production obviously remembered the goofball Stormtrooper exchange about the VT-16 in Star Wars), seem to be the most relatable characters despite being cannon fodder — but then, almost everyone in Rogue One is cannon fodder.

That’s a potentially interesting thing to do in a $200 million movie that’s part of a multibillion-dollar franchise — a nihilistic, die-with-honor war film. Here, though, it comes off as a little cold. Seeing all those Stormtroopers bite it, I was reminded again that at least a few of them could be like Finn in The Force Awakens, sickened by slaughter and in desperate need of flight and redemption. Rogue One couldn’t care less about that, and cares scarcely more about the Rebel Alliance heroes. The people we’re introduced to in Rogue One will never be seen again in the films (I suppose there might be spin-off comics or novels about them), their ultimate sacrifice known by few and remembered by fewer. Empire Strikes Back had its dark and dissonant moments (I still remember a post-torture Han Solo moaning “They didn’t even ask me any questions”), but at least it wasn’t depressing.

The Fate of the Furious

Posted April 16, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, sequel

f8In the New York segment of The Fate of the Furious, the film’s big bad remotely takes control of a slew of autonomous cars and sends them zooming this way and that, all over the congested city streets. It’s then that we see, in this context, the three most beautiful words in the English language: COLLISION AVOIDANCE DISABLED. It sure is. That could be the tag line and the credo for this entire beefed-up franchise, which, after eating its Wheaties and spending many hours in the gym, has evolved into a series of 007-style blockbusters. Yes, this movie begins (in Cuba) with an old-school race that’s about the franchise’s two biggest concerns — cars and family — but after that, we’re into another plot about someone who wants to do something globally unspeakable, and only Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his loyal crew can put a stop to the shenanigans.

But wait: Dom switches sides this time out; he Turns His Back on His Family. The aforementioned big bad, an ice-queen terrorist who calls herself Cipher (Charlize Theron), has a very big bargaining chip, and she compels Dom to do her bidding. Cipher, who likes to spout sociopath-philosophical mumbo-jumbo about choice and accountability, wants a nuke to play with. So Dom’s crew, including special agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Dom’s surly but loyal significant other Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), swing into action to save not only the world but Dom. There’s a fleeting suggestion that Dom has indeed “gone rogue,” but that possibility is batted away by Letty as if it were a mosquito. Something’s wrong. This isn’t Dom. He would never Turn His Back on the Family.

Well, maybe he does or maybe he doesn’t; I won’t give away his true motivation, though there is one grudging new member of the team: Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who has tasted his own blood at Hobbs’ hands (or feet). When Statham locks eyeballs with Dwayne Johnson in one of their several fight-or-get-a-room macho displays, the two men seem millimeters away from bursting out guffawing, and finally they actually do it. While most of the actual movies (including this one) don’t quite dazzle me, I’m fond of the idea of this series — it’s unfailingly diverse and inclusive, and every so often it even winks at its ironic, amused gay audience. The icing on this film’s welcome-to-the-family cake for gays is complete with the casting of an unbilled Helen Mirren in a cameo as the hard-boiled cockney mother of Shaw and his brother. Of course, there’s not enough of Mirren here, but then there never is, is there?

But we were talking about an action movie. Collision avoidance, as noted, is disabled. Explosions occur, and finally our heroes race a massive submarine chugging along under the ice. For all that, though — and some of the excessive deep-bass festivities did tickle regular chortles out of me — the series is in dire need of cool, and Vin Diesel can’t really provide it. (He’s a much more friendly and human presence as himself in interviews.) Coolness is left in the capable hands of Kurt Russell, who returns as the narrative’s super secret agent, Mr. Nobody. Various lunkheads marinating in testosterone growl at one another, and Russell, with an amiable chuckle, gives one or both of them a calming clap on the back. At this stage, Russell has amassed so many bad-ass points the mere sound of his voice can gentle meatheads two heads taller than he is.

Still, this series gets its power and popularity from its salud, mi familia shtick, which as far as I can make out is perfectly genuine. The soul of the movie is in the tormented looks the betrayed Letty shoots towards Dom, or the longing look Dom gives a vulnerable family member through bulletproof glass, or the wild-eyed devotion Hobbs gives to coaching his daughter’s soccer team, or the slyness with which Helen Mirren manipulates her tough-guy son into doing her bidding. As Dom might say, if you ain’t got family you ain’t got nothin’.

Louis C.K. 2017

Posted April 9, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, concert film, Uncategorized

20170114_LCK _MG_2722.CR2In his new, simply titled concert film Louis C.K. 2017, the eponymous comedian doesn’t waste any time with pre-concert sketches. He just gets right into it: “So I think abortion is, um, here’s what I think,” Louis begins, and the audience guffaws knowingly. A lot of what Louis C.K. says is in quotes — “Here’s what a clueless white guy sounds like” is the unspoken preface, followed by an observation along the lines of  “I’m not condoning rape, obviously — you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” The point, to an intelligent audience, is that there isn’t a reason; Louis also lays down a level of satire of self-justifying rhetoric. So when Louis steers his abortion bit into a statement that “women should have the right to kill babies,” the bit becomes more about the irreconcilable, eternally warring language used in the abortion debate than about abortion itself.

Louis C.K. 2017 finds Louis in his usual amiably schlubby but seriously askew conflict with life — a concept that gets no respect from him: the abortion material more or less ends with Louis saying that life is overrated anyway. (Another bit has him musing about suicide in a way that falls on neither side of that topic.) He wears a suit this time out, as he also did in his opening monologue on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live. Has he grown up, or sold out? Louis has shed his typical working uniform — a black t-shirt and jeans — in favor of an outfit that more effectively points up his opinions as those of a goofy white dude.

Louis treats his insights as throwaways; an unimpressed Generation X elder (born in 1967), he doesn’t buy into anything as the one way to look at the world, much less his own view. His bit about how Christianity “won” — pointing to the very fact of the numerical year we all agree on whether or not we’re believers (hence the title of the special, I guess) — is less confrontational than just bewildered. The broader his reach, the more timeless his comments, the closer he gets to being his generation’s George Carlin. But then he’ll take it back down to muddy earth, to the grimy and personal, linking him to Richard Pryor. Yet he comes off as an original; he doesn’t ape Carlin or Pryor so much as earn the right to be included with them in conversations about American comedy.

A good chunk of Louis’ material can be taken as depressing. Love, he says, is nice but doesn’t last; he even leaves out the usual bromide about how the finest things don’t last, which is why they’re the finest things. I suppose we can infer that, but that would violate Louis’ particular defeated weltschmerz. Carlin was angry; Pryor was afraid; Louis is just, like, whatever, this all sucks (another generational thing). There’s a cap, though, on how cynical a creative person can get — especially one operating at the level of Louis C.K., who in recent years has evolved from a comedian’s comedian to someone who can sell out Madison Square Garden. He has achieved, in this degraded pop culture, the rare distinction of being both artistically respected and wildly popular.

So how does someone whose shtick rests on himself being a skeevy bum (but hilariously honest about his bummy skeeviness) respond to being loved by his peers and by the masses? (Well, maybe not all his peers — there are still various allegations of gross behavior in front of female comedians he has to contend with.) On the evidence of Louis C.K. 2017, he just continues doing what he’s been doing. He can do five minutes on the most piddly-ass thing, and then tie it into a coherent (though frumpy) filter on the world. The subtext of his more outrageous bits is “Yeah, listen while this scuzzy idiot presumes to tell you what he thinks about [fill in the blank],” which is why his opening sentence about abortion gets a big laugh even though it doesn’t read funny on paper. A consummate actor, as proven on his dazzling and much-lamented FX show Louie, he can give the impression that his act isn’t honed and perfected over the course of dozens of gigs but just a guy riffing off the top of his head. As mopey as his material can get, the fact that Louis C.K. can work at his level and be successful is one reason to stay optimistic.

Silence

Posted April 2, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's best, underrated

Lane-MartinScorsesesSilence-1200Silence is very likely the most Catholic movie Martin Scorsese has ever made, which makes it very Catholic indeed — mega-Catholic, über-Catholic. It’s a real high mass of a film, done with high craft in the highest seriousness. I’m seriously divided on it, but ultimately I have to lean in its favor. I feel protective of it, as if it were a pencil sketch or a mandala. Pain and guilt radiate from every frame, alongside incongruous natural beauty. I’m not sure if it’s a work of art or a tract of instruction, and certainly it couldn’t be less interested in reflecting the concerns of the day or satisfying the commercial cravings of the day. Like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, it’s timeless and placeless; its true milieu is inside Scorsese’s head.

The climate in Last Temptation was red and dusty; the one in Silence, 17th-century Japan, feels cold and wet, shot by master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto in infinite gradations of blue and gray, yet never feeling desaturated. The mood is frightened but determined spirituality in the face of violent oppression. Christianity in this land is punishable by torture and death, unless the accused voluntarily steps on an image of Christ, thus signaling their renunciation of God, their apostasy. (We hear the word “apostatize” in this film about as often as we hear a certain other word in Scorsese’s gangster films.)

Two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrupe (Adam Driver), volunteer to sneak into Japan to look for their former mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is said to have apostatized. They find a blue, rainy place haunted by terrified Japanese Christians and the stone-faced samurai who hunt them. The problem with Scorsese’s alter egos in his movies about faith is that they, for him, are filled out with his own guilt and devotion. The rest of us may perceive these heroes as somewhat hollow, undefined. Andrew Garfield does what he can, but Rodrigues is drawn as a bit too much of a noble sufferer, only intermittently aware that his steadfast refusal to apostatize might have more to do with his pride than with any genuine love of God.

Fortunately, Scorsese acknowledges this, and throws some of our identification to a few of the Japanese characters. There’s Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas stand-in who’s also the mad fool of the piece, always moving between sacrifice and betrayal; or Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto, bad-boy director of Tetsuo the Iron Man and many others), a devout old Christian; or especially Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata, whose voice is one of the most amazing purrs of self-satisfied evil I’ve ever heard in a movie). Given that the priests are so devoted to their faith they sometimes seem completely out of touch with reality, and given that Scorsese lets the Japanese have humor and complexity — humanity — I don’t think Silence can be waved off as white-saviorism. Scorsese sees the problem with all-or-nothing thinking on either side.

Technically, Silence is a Michelin three-star restaurant. Emotionally it’s impacted, uncertain; Scorsese never met a doubt he didn’t love to chew over. Sometimes it seems his real subject all along has been faith darkening into doubt and then brightening back towards faith, and on and on eternally. Paradise, says a woman in the film, is a place with no suffering and no work (and no taxes, she adds), but what kind of drama is that? As David Byrne said, heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. For Scorsese, it’s all about the struggle, which for him is the tension between religious asceticism and the visceral, sensual pleasure he derives from cinema — watching it and making it. His movies about faith tend to end more or less happily because the end of a film means that a film has been made. The famous cliché about Scorsese is that the movie theater is his church and vice versa. Silence is an interiorized work surrounded by, almost mocked by, flesh-punishing yet ravishingly gorgeous nature. In that respect it’s as Catholic as the blood flowing through Scorsese’s veins and his emulsion.

The Transfiguration

Posted March 26, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, horror

transfigurationMilo (Eric Ruffin), the African-American teenager whose struggles animate The Transfiguration, is enamored of vampire movies. He has a stash of them on videotape in his bedroom closet, and he prefers the “realistic” ones — like George Romero’s Martin or Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Milo might also enjoy The Transfiguration, because it, too, is realistic — vampires don’t burn in sunlight, and they definitely don’t sparkle. They just go around preying on the vulnerable, punching a hole in their carotid arteries and slurping up the gore. When I say “they,” though, I really only mean Milo, in the literal sense. The movie is full of metaphorical bloodsuckers, stealers of innocence, abusers and sociopaths. Such is life in New York City.

Since the movie isn’t religious at all — Milo would no doubt be unaffected by a crucifix or holy water if they were used against him — one might wonder why writer-director Michael O’Shea titled it The Transfiguration, other than that it sounded cool and dark. Nobody is really transfigured here in the Christian sense, although some might say the movie itself transfigures schlock into art. It’s funny about vampire films — they lean into the artsy mode, the elegant and the expressionist, far more easily than, say, werewolf films or zombie films. Just recently we had Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and O’Shea’s film joins their number, reveling in the glum goth mood, the awkward silences, the gurgle of blood in the dark.

Milo meets a newcomer to his building — Sophie (Chloe Levine), an abused girl almost as affectless as Milo is, though she’s quicker to laugh. Milo is almost always clenched and blank-faced, but around Chloe he loosens up a bit. For a while, hanging out or watching violent videos, they seem well-matched, one’s psychological/emotional blank spots complementing the other’s. Milo’s even more dour older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), an Army veteran, is at least happy to see Milo comfortable around someone, even if she’s a white girl. That fact makes Milo even more of an object of derision for the local gang, who enjoy tormenting him.

Milo’s connection with the gang doesn’t end up where you’d expect it to in a vampire film, and his relationship with Sophie doesn’t, either. The Transfiguration is bound to be called a cross between Martin and Moonlight, though it’s not as erotic as those films. What it seems to have under the hood is something about how inhuman conditions can produce inhuman people (or, as Stephen King would put it, “this inhuman place makes human monsters”); almost everyone we see exists in some spiritually null zone. There might also be something about how black teenage males are demonized, made the monsters of the media narrative. Milo might be the result of generations of neglect benign and not-so-benign. He doesn’t seem to have much race consciousness, though. He’s too deeply into his vampire fixation — like Martin, he believes he is one, so in terms of effect he pretty much is one.

The performances are uniformly natural and unaffected; O’Shea understands that quiet desperation speaks louder than hysteria. (He also has the wit to give cameos to Troma schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman and art-house horror auteur Larry Fessenden, whose disparate styles influence this film’s.) People will sit together on the side of the wide frame, isolated yet united. The compositions are thoughtful, though always a little jiggly. O’Shea takes his time and creates an allusive atmosphere whose meanings are up for grabs. The Transfiguration could have snapped into sharper focus; it remains a bit thematically diffuse, a little underdone. But at its most haunting it earns its place in that bedroom closet next to Martin and the rest.

The Assignment

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

assignmentWatching Another 48 HRS on TV recently 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 won’t know from watching it.

Who’s Crazy?

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

whoscrazy4-1600x900-c-defaultOnce 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 around 1966 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.