The Northman

Posted May 15, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's best

northmanTwentieth-century softies like me may experience a film like Robert Eggers’ The Northman as a contemptuous but invigorating slap in the chops. Life was hard in AD 895, and every frame of the movie is there to show it, in all its magic-hour, snow-flecked beauty and all its torn-flesh, bloody-mud-puddle ugliness. Like Eggers’ two previous films — The Witch and The Lighthouse, both of which I adore — The Northman devotes itself to recreating a time long past, along with its moods, attitudes and details of day-to-day life. It would be easy indeed to parody The Northman, with all its shrieking madmen and howling to the black sky and chanting in the Old Languages. But Eggers offers up this material so earnestly, and with such carefully crafted art, that to lampoon it would feel callow and vile.

I’m about 75% on board with the film — it runs a bit long, and we start to feel it with about half an hour left to go — but I’m glad it was made, and I hope its poor showing at the box office won’t put Eggers in movie jail. This is the sort of expensive, excessive fantasia that sniffs around in deeper, darker nooks of cinema largely forgotten about and lifts the art form. The Northman is loud, with a brooding score and metal clashing against metal, but it has more in common with silent film than with anything else around. Based on the legend of Amleth (which in turn spawned Hamlet), it seems to want to take us back to the beginning of drama, or at least the birth of many tropes. It tells the most elemental of stories, the one about the son avenging his father, and grafts a lot of pagan strangeness and gore onto it.

Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is out to get his stinky uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murdered Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and married his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). For years, Amleth grunts and growls and readies himself for the moment when he realizes his oath: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Amleth’s entire life becomes about that, after which, he guesses, he’ll just kill himself or something, because his life will no longer have purpose. Amleth does pursue a brief interest in the young sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who proposes another level of purpose to Amleth’s life. But mainly his fate seems to be mired in rage and pain and blood. It may take a little bit before a viewer recognizes that Amleth as presented here isn’t really the hero, just the protagonist.

The images appear to be charged by the post-human energies of spirits and fae. The shadows and scents of femininity seem to reduce these crude, brutal men to animals, and the women, dealing with this off-the-scale-toxic masculinity, are in danger of becoming inhuman wretches themselves. Queen Gudrún, for instance, certainly comes across as vindictive and cruel, but to what extent have the culture of 895 and its sickening rules (rape is no big deal, it’s part of every king’s victory lap) made her that way? There are other men, though, noncombatants, fools, he-witches, who have wiser heads — until they lose them to someone with a hotter head, plus a sword. The Northman seems simple, or simplistic, until we start turning it around and peering at it. 

The sensibilities we see in the movie are very remote from ours. We could almost be watching aliens. Sometimes the film has a harshly musical Icelandic vibe; Eggers recruits the Icelandic poet Sjón as his co-scripter here, and puts Björk in majestic electrocuted-penguin garb as a character called the Seeress. As I said, the narrative begins to drag a little, but the compositions and the colors of night and the cast’s dedication to exploring long-gone behaviors — all of this is first-rate. The Northman might be my least favorite Eggers project, but that means nothing — oh, it’s only a B+, or maybe even an A-. Eggers goes big here, and uses paints he hasn’t used before. His three films feel alike, in that they could all unfold in the same uncanny, demon-haunted universe at different times, but they’re also very distinct accomplishments. Eggers is still a major reason to stay interested in whatever movies are becoming.

River’s Edge

Posted May 8, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama

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When River’s Edge opened in America (35 years ago on May 8), reviewers and columnists chased it around like cartoon reporters waving their mics at a murder suspect. They probed it for social meaning, decided it was a commentary on the affectless kids of baby boomers (meaning, the kids of the columnists). For those of us of the generation in question, the movie was “John Hughes Goes to Hell.” It took the ethos of The Breakfast Club — “When you grow up, your heart dies”— and ramped it up. The kids in River’s Edge were born with dead or broken hearts. Generation X nodded in recognition, then probably moved on to Beverly Hills Cop II later that May as a palate-cleanser. To a greater or lesser extent, we looked at the kids in River’s Edge and said “Yeah. We know kids like this. Sometimes we are kids like this. This isn’t a social commentary, this is a snapshot.” The boomers really didn’t want to hear that.

The shock of River’s Edge isn’t that it shows kids who either kill or respond to death numbly; it’s that it shows those things in an American movie. Screenwriter Neal Jimenez and director Tim Hunter are commenting, if anything, on what we usually expect young American protagonists to do, how we demand they respond. The situation here, which Jimenez based loosely on a 1981 murder case, is that one of the film’s teenagers, Samson (Daniel Roebuck), has strangled his girlfriend, for no explicable reason — meaning, with no clear motive. “Motive,” in this movie’s terms, is a fake thing that other movies do. What Coleridge called Iago’s “motiveless malignity” holds sway here. As for the other kids, for a long while nobody is sure what to do, how to respond — except for one — and the body lies out in the open, uncovered, unmoved. 

The conflict arises not from the authorities trying to prove Samson did it — for he admits to the murder to practically anyone who will listen — but from the ethical struggle between two of the other boys in this group, Matt (Keanu Reeves) and Layne (Crispin Glover), over what should be done about Samson. Layne proposes that they all close ranks around Samson, hide him, whatever. His reasoning appears to boil down to “She’s dead — we can’t help her. He’s alive; we can help him.” Matt isn’t so sure; like the others, he has a flicker of conscience and consciousness, which can either be extinguished or fanned into flame. We’re not too surprised when Matt goes to the cops fairly early on. Even 35 years ago, Keanu Reeves projected a basic kindness. But even Matt doesn’t act quickly enough for the police’s liking. Most of the adults in this movie are essentially ghosts of movies past, insisting on the clearcut morality and narrative rigidity that are irrelevant in the gray and tangled world of River’s Edge. 

The film has a hell of a lot under its hood, and not all of it was intentionally placed there, but some of it clearly was — the whole doll motif, for instance, linking a dead girl to hollow objects of male desire or destruction. I guess Matt’s new girlfriend Clarissa (Ione Skye) is supposed to be the living, breathing exception to all that, but she’s a little blank. (Someone like Allison Anders could step forward to tell Clarissa’s story.) We learn nothing about Jamie, the girl Samson killed. She’s literally just a naked body to be argued over. We never hear her speak, only briefly see her alive in a flashback, moments before she’s killed. 

My hunch is that Hunter and Jimenez are getting at something more elemental and distressing than just “these kids today” or “adults suck.” The passage of 35 years has made River’s Edge feel more timelessly tragic. Other than a few bits of score that briefly make the movie sound like a banal ‘80s thriller, it has aged very, very well. Its lineage proceeds from skid-row cinema to the JD flicks of the ’50s to Herzog’s Stroszek to Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue — Hopper is rather famously in River’s Edge, by the way, as a one-legged freako and possible killer who isn’t even the craziest galoot Hopper played in 1986. Hopper’s presence links this movie to his earlier portrait of bottom-dog life in numbed-out America. A double feature of Out of the Blue and River’s Edge is contraindicated unless under strict supervision.

I should probably deal with Crispin Glover here. Throughout River’s Edge, Layne is meant to be the “leader” who decides for everyone else what’s going to be done and tries to enforce it. Glover’s relentlessly externalized and stylized performance says that he thinks Layne is a cartoon, so he plays him without any human shadings except fear and the will to power. He’s basically the Joker to Reeves’ wounded stoner Batman. I could entertain arguments pro or con Glover’s performance, but ultimately it just doesn’t seem organic to the piece. What happens to Layne doesn’t matter to us, and maybe it’s right that it shouldn’t matter. And maybe Glover, to his credit, sensed that, and made Layne a cartoon devil to indicate that the character isn’t human on the same level as Matt and the others with still-alive morality. The effect, though, is to leave the movie lopsided. (Pauline Kael, in her negative review, put it succinctly: Glover is “giving an expressionist performance in a movie that’s trying to be ‘real.'”) You can tell that Matt and the others capitulate to Layne because it’s in the script, not because he’s persuasive or intimidating.

Samson sits next to his victim, a teenage Frankenstein not knowing why that flower petal didn’t float. We gather that murder made him feel alive, for a while, but then the adrenaline wore off and he resurfaced to a reality where everyone around him was dealing with the consequences of his action, so he didn’t have to. Layne is cut from the same cloth as those who want to protect rapists, because why ruin this young man’s future? Matt, who is almost comically courteous to Clarissa even post-coitus, is of a quieter but stronger fabric. Layne will speak for the soul-dead living; Matt will let the dead speak for herself. Like Out of the Blue, River’s Edge is depressive but piercing — it stings and leaves a bruise.

Jackass Forever

Posted April 24, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy

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The “yarbles,” as Anthony Burgess termed them in A Clockwork Orange, take quite a bit of punishment in Jackass Forever. It’s as though this franchise, which is now over two decades old, were refuting possible charges of toxic masculinity by batting those balls right out of the park. It may take massive ones for Johnny Knoxville and his coterie of giggling loons to do these painful stunts, but that doesn’t guarantee those organs any kind of asylum. Their neighbor to the north is also involved, being punched, hockey-pucked, flattened, slathered in bees, and, in the movie’s terrific opening number, dressed up like a kaiju laying waste to a whole city. The last thing I would call the Jackass movies is masculinist, since the family jewels are shown to be fragile, goofy, in constant danger of injury or insult.

Knoxville, who recently turned 51, has said that Jackass Forever will be his final dance with this series. We’ll see. For one thing, the previous entry, Jackass 3D, which dropped twelve years ago, had the tone of a good-bye to all that, and I responded to it as such. The new movie feels like a bit of an addendum, proving whatever the Jackass crew feels necessary to prove — that they can still do it, mostly. Though maybe not for too much longer: the movie is also something of a passing of the torch, welcoming, for the first time, a few newcomers, including Rachel Wolfson, the first female Jackass. New blood was needed, since one member, the late Ryan Dunn, wrapped his Porsche around a tree in 2011 and another, Bam Margera, fell off the wagon and was fired. That and, well, how many more times can Knoxville get in the bull ring and come away breathing?

The thing about the Jackass stunts, especially in the movies where there’s a budget for them, is that this lowbrow, roughhouse stuff that takes two minutes to watch and guffaw at required God knows how much prep, planning out, and paperwork (the insurance policies alone must make for dense bedtime reading) to pull off without killing someone. As it is, an inch here or there may have made the difference between a Jackass walking off the pain and being carried off in a bag. Pain and peril aren’t the only gremlins the Jackasses must face; bodily fluids of all kinds burst forth, arcing in the outdoor sun. I’m sure someone has already written at scholarly length about the various violations to the (mostly male) body in the Jackass series and the wastes constantly pouring out of it. The body is squeamish, revolting, unreliable, and, we see here, aging. The gray-maned Knoxville can no longer bounce back as fast as he once could.

Will the franchise continue? I can see why Rachel Wolfson and the other newbies (including comedian Eric André, pumped to hang with these guys he grew up watching on TV) wanted to be a part of the dumbass festivities. The attitude among Knoxville, Steve-O, Wee Man, and the other OG Jackasses is camaraderie born of shared agony. Someone like Danger Ehren (who takes by far the most shots to the yarbles in Jackass Forever) may rage against his cackling brothers (and sister) in stupidity, but nobody gets away unscathed; everyone gets a turn inside the cannon or the poop-filled porta-potty or the dark room that may contain a deadly snake. 

The frequent laughter on the set as one or another Jackass gets pig semen dumped on him or gets his meats beaten with tiny boxing gloves isn’t mean-spirited. To endure one of the aggressively gross or dangerous set pieces and survive, walk it off (or get hosed off), and come back for more is to be embraced into a small subculture of masochists and ninnies. But maybe the real secret to enjoying what Knoxville and his team have wrought is that they don’t seem to be doing all this to entertain us; they do it, as they always have, to entertain themselves. I couldn’t do it. Respect. 

X

Posted April 17, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, overrated

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A work of art or entertainment can have a lot on its mind and under its hood, but if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, and no amount of sophisticated subtext is going to make you like it. Which brings us to Ti West’s X, a nasty retro slasher film, set in 1979 and indebted to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as to a number of ‘70s porn flicks. X conflates sex and violence in an almost comically obvious way; it’s about a small crew of porn filmmakers who go to a remote location and get picked off gorily one by one, but not before they’ve plied their trade. So in a way, the movie is a meta commentary on the fuck-and-die motif that distinguished (if that is the word) many slasher flicks in the ‘80s. It feels almost as if West intends it as a minimalist distillation of slasher and porn tropes: Here, this is what all those gross-out and skin flicks were getting at all along.

I suppose part of the meta joke is that X doesn’t really deliver either as horror or as sexploitation. West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett stage the porn-making scenes unimaginatively, and the murder scenes, when they eventually come, follow suit. X is a slow burn, though it starts with a flash-forward to the police nosing around the bloody crime scene, as though West were saying “Yes, the first half of the movie is a lot of talk and hanging out, but don’t worry, gory stuff is coming.” And it does, but I found I didn’t care about the victims any more than I cared about the psycho fodder in, say, Friday the 13th Part 3. 

The camera really only has eyes for Maxine (Mia Goth), a young porn actress with ambitions of being a star, whose freckles seem to come and go depending on the scene. Maxine is set up as the Final Girl, but she’s not especially likable or smart or … anything, really. Maxine’s psyching herself up in a mirror is perhaps a nod to Boogie Nights, and if we remember that film we know that X’s setting in 1979 is heavily ironic: Home video would soon turn porn into what it always really only was, jerkoff fodder, and the concept of porn “stars” more or less died. (I think the last adult-film performer whose name crossed over into mainstream consciousness was Stormy Daniels.) So Maxine is heading for a future in videos with titles like Dirty Texas Sluts, Vol. 17. 

We can tell that Ti West wants X to be taken more seriously than the rotgut splatterthons whose aesthetic it plunders. That’s apparent in the first half’s sense of melancholy, its tonal lip service towards the sadnesses of age, the lost freedom of youth. A lot of the film seems to meditate on the sexual frustration of an elderly woman, Pearl, who with her husband owns the property where the porn crew are filming. Maxine finds Pearl’s sexual (and, it appears, bisexual) neediness pathetic and disgusting, and the movie seconds her. One can’t really divide the audience’s sympathies in what’s supposed to be a slasher throwback; you end up cancelling out any sympathy. I won’t say horror movies should be nice, or even politically correct, but if we’re to care about a character it’d help if that character didn’t invite our disdain, either by ageist bigotry or by murderous brutality. In brief, the movie’s take on sexuality among the elderly is that, however gently Pearl’s longing is framed, codger sex is creepy and gross. 

In a movie where people are pitchforked, fed to a gator, and generally roughly treated, we search in vain for a warm heart. But, whatever West’s intentions, X comes across as a cold exercise rather than a hot, blood-red shot of the strong stuff. Cold and unfeeling. You can’t ask us to think about an old woman’s feelings of hopelessness and then push us to root for her messy death. Whatever West is trying here doesn’t ultimately land, maybe because West himself doesn’t seem to care about any of these people. (Regardless, we are told that a prequel film, Pearl, is already in the can.) Anyway, something is seriously amiss with the tone. Some viewers will find it a spicy hit of cruel fun, while others will feel a little rubbed raw, not to mention disappointed and bummed out. There are actual pornographic horror films, with a budget for gory effects and everything. Any of them, in their simple, mercenary eagerness to please, might set on the stomach a bit better than X. 

Scream (2022)

Posted April 10, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

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The best reason to watch Scream, the fifth in the meta-horror franchise, is to see the gravitas that has gathered in the acting styles of Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette. All of them were in their twenties or early thirties when the first Scream hit big in 1996, and they have endured through each sequel since, though there hadn’t been one in eleven years before the new one. The addition of wrinkles and wisdom has done interesting things to the characters. Campbell, as perennial survivor Sidney Prescott, has a certain hard-won grace in the face of horror. Cox’s intrepid reporter Gale Weathers has become much less of a satire of tabloid journalism and more of a real, abashed person (her book about the original Scream case has led to movies and assorted mayhem). And Arquette imbues the once-goofy Deputy Dewey with a survivor’s sardonic bitterness.

Actually, the best reason may also be the only reason. This Scream starts the slasher ball rolling in Woodsboro once again, with the cloaked, Munch-faced killer Ghostface turning up and doing damage. There are, as usual, a cast of suspects, including Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), daughter of the original film’s co-killer Billy Loomis. (A de-aged Skeet Ulrich appears as Billy in Sam’s febrile daydreams.) Back in Scream 3, which is where the series pretty well began its descent, the plotting reminded me of nothing so much as Murder, She Wrote by way of the CW. Which is valid, I guess, because a lot of the early slasher flicks (including the very first Friday the 13th) might as well have been dusty murder mysteries retooled for the ‘80s slasher craze. Still, the plottier and whodunit-er these things get, the further away they break from true fear. 

And that’s part of the problem with the new Scream. My theory is that if your brain is engaged in who could be the killer, it becomes an exercise, and whenever a character is killed you just say “Well, they can’t be the killer.” However, the right director can bring a humanity to the proceedings that makes us care, and that’s what the late Wes Craven did in the first two films, anyway. Craven was able to stage horrific violence and sadism, but in person he was unanimously said to be a kindly professor type, and so we felt the pain and fear in Craven’s violence because he felt it too. If you don’t care about the human beings getting slaughtered, it’s just special effects to be viewed neutrally. Some of the brutality in Craven’s best Scream entries was exceptionally gory and nasty, but it hit all the harder because, say, Drew Barrymore was allowed to establish an instant rapport with the audience (and her character’s fate was legitimately shocking at the time). We cared. Here, the gore is even nastier — I continue to be surprised, not necessarily in a bad way, by how much splatter the MPAA lets movies get away with nowadays — but we don’t care. At this point, it’s just “Cut back to more Neve Campbell, or hurry up and get to the killer reveal.”

In 1996, I was already more than a little old for the impact Scream had on teenagers at the time. I took it as a terrific homage; teenagers took it on a different, more direct level. The metafictional aspect of it was like a big welcome sign to the millennial audience, but the grisly kick of the horror sealed the deal. The first two Screams (they really should have stopped there, but they couldn’t, and they won’t — a sixth Scream is already pencilled in for next year) occupy a very specific part of late-‘90s American pop-cultural real estate, when Gen-X was starting to get the keys to Hollywood in a second wave after the class of ’94. Original scripter Kevin Williamson is an early Gen-Xer, and Gen-X irony is all over Scream and Scream 2. The tone of the new Scream is like a faded photocopy of that irony. This time the concepts of “legacy sequels” and “elevated horror” are roasted, in the era of the Halloween reboot and the rise of the indie studio A24. But I think it’s safe to say that when a series reaches its fifth go-round, it can no longer afford to be snarky about tropes that make money. Its cultural critiques are no longer well-taken, and this corporate concern stopped being a goof on endless slasher clichés and started simply putting them to work quite a long time ago.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood

Posted April 3, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: animation, drama, fantasy, one of the year's best

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The key to Richard Linklater’s deft reverie Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood comes early, when Linklater’s young avatar of memory, the Houston fourth-grader Stan, gives a show-and-tell presentation for his class, leaving out the “show.” Stan talks about walking down the street and encountering a robot with attached wires reaching up into the sky. Stan is what they used to call an imaginative boy, and the world events of the late ‘60s are filtered through his brain, which teems with pop culture. The big news story, apart from Vietnam, is America’s attempt to land a man on the moon before the Russians do. Stan imagines himself part of the process; he tells us (in the adult voice of Jack Black) that NASA, who’d built their lunar module too small for a grown man, recruited Stan for a top-secret preliminary trip to the moon.

That, of course, is based on a daydream common among Linklater, who was around the same age as Stan in 1968 and 1969, and many other kids. Apollo 10 1/2 flips between Stan’s moonshot fantasia and the actual launch and landing. By the time Neil Armstrong is leaving footprints where there were none before, Stan is asleep on the family couch. He’s done it already (if only in his head). What’s fun about the movie — which is as amiable as most of Linklater’s work — is that we often forget and mix up reality with fiction. The adult Stan is an engaging narrator, and Linklater threads Stan’s story with enough convincing nostalgic details that the narrative of Stan’s flight is just one more thread alongside playing with baseball cards in the garage or getting free ice cream cones at the parlor where Stan’s sister works.

Linklater also adds a stylistic brushstroke to make the real and the imaginary visually equal. As with his Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), Linklater has mapped a layer of rotoscoped animation over the live-action footage he shot. The result looks a bit like some of the Marvel comics Stan would’ve been leafing through back in the day, though probably not TV cartoons of the time, many of which had cheap, basic animation. In a way, Apollo 10 1/2 is a movie both of its narrative moment and of its moment of release. A divided and fraught country is united by a common absorption in the moon shot, though even then — as we also saw in Summer of Soul — people were questioning the government’s spending billions on the space race when it could be helping humans here on the ground. Now the American race is run by competing billionaires, but the objection among many remains largely the same.

One amusing and rather prominent thread is the sheer amount of danger that parents blithely subjected their kids to, because nobody knew any better. Linklater doesn’t look back on this in horror; he shakes his head mildly and chuckles. This director may have the soul of a Gen-Xer (the movie that got him noticed is literally called Slacker) but he’s actually a late boomer, just old enough to be there at the moment when nostalgia surfaced in the culture for real. Stan rattles off all the hits on TV — particular emphasis here on Dark Shadows and all the kids rushing home to see it — as well as reruns of older shows like I Love Lucy. It was the start of seeing pop culture as a continuum, where the same box that brought you Cronkite also gave you the Three Stooges, where visions of the past, present and future seemed to mingle and converse. As they do here. 

Linklater uses all that Netflix money for a near-constant stream of needle-drops, ranging from Pink Floyd to Hugh Masekela to the Monkees, who are also seen on The Johnny Cash Show and given a little time as the focus of Stan’s sisters’ crushes. As in Dazed and Confused and other films, Linklater wants to evoke a period, a mood. Somehow, he manages to avoid tonal or behavioral anachronisms. Everyone talks and acts the way you remember or assume they would have in 1968, or 1976, or whenever. The storytelling, as I said, is convincing and smooth, the pacing just short of a blur, which may reflect how Linklater remembers that time. It’s a lovely film, really, full of good tunes and hope and excitement and the awe of the dream-dappled night sky.

Oscar Night 2022

Posted March 28, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: oscars

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And here I thought I’d have very little to write about this year’s Oscars. At least it looked a bit more like a typical Oscar show, after last year’s weird COVID-deformed ceremony. There were the usual bumps and awkwardnesses, but there always are. I figured the big take-aways would be Troy Kotsur’s signed acceptance speech (which was amazing) and the much-cherished-on-social-media detail of Zack Snyder’s Justice League winning the Best Cheer Moment (or whatever) for “The Flash entering the Speed Force.” 

Then Will Smith entered the Speed Force and got upside Chris Rock’s head for cracking a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head (she has alopecia). I spent a while thinking it was just a bit.

Truthfully, I was almost expecting Smith, when he went up to collect his Best Actor Oscar, to chuckle and say “Y’all thought I really smacked Chris, didn’t you?” But the longer and weirder his speech got, the more I realized it wasn’t a bit. All that exchange getting muted on American TV should’ve tipped me off, though that could’ve been part of the bit. (When I caught the uncensored footage on Twitter from Japanese TV, that’s when I knew for sure.) 

Where do I fall on this? Rock was being a prick. Smith lost his shit. I don’t think either one deserves a parade for his actions. But when your life partner has been living with alopecia for years — often a painful and traumatizing illness to treat and deal with — and along comes some asshole to snark about their head … I’m sorry, I can’t bring myself to condemn Smith. An offense had been rendered, and it needed to be answered. (It occurred to me during Smith’s harrowed “protector” speech that there may be something direr wrong with Pinkett Smith than just alopecia. We don’t know.) Wherever you fall on this, though, it was a powerfully strange moment, probably now part of the canon of “whoa” Oscar events already. 

As for the reason we were all supposedly there, eight of the categories were awarded before the show proper started, were taped, and were aired during the course of the night. Dune ended up with a good armful of technical awards — I guess I have to see it now. Jimmy Fallon will now have to introduce his bandleader as “Oscar winner Questlove.” The Power of the Dog may be the rare movie to win Best Director and nothing else. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t have to fret about not being there to complete his EGOT (his wife has COVID so he sent his regrets), since he lost Best Song to Billie Eilish, who now has a GO and just needs an E and a T. Prior to the Slap Heard ‘Round the World, the most emotionally fraught moment belonged to the puppy Jamie Lee Curtis was holding while memorializing Betty White. The puppy did not enjoy the lights and the noise one little bit and just wanted to quiver in his blankie. This might also describe Rami Malek.

The stuff the Academy thinks will pull in more or younger viewers — the fan-favorite “awards,” jettisoning almost a third of the awards from the live broadcast — are always beside the point. The Oscars are supposed to be overlong and clunky and corny, with lots of things to complain about. I would say it’s the rare Oscar-watcher indeed who watches the show with unconditional love and no roasting the outfits or the scripted presenter banter or the bathetic acceptance speeches or Sean Penn. Penn wasn’t even there, I don’t think, but earlier in the week he made a big show of announcing he’d smelt his Oscars if the show didn’t invite Volodymyr Zelensky to speak. Uh, Sean, I think the guy has two or three bigger fish to fry. 

The three hosts (Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall, Amy Schumer) were fine, and Schumer gracefully nodded at the elephant in the room — someone had to. The thing everyone will possibly still be talking about as you read this, though, will be a man defending his wife’s honor. Really it’s a classic movie moment. If you saw it in a movie you’d applaud Smith. But during this night about movies, about illusion and bullshit, came a moment that was very real. Approve of it or not, it was a clarifying belt across the chops, and a reminder that real, flawed humans make these films. Some wondered why the Academy didn’t disqualify Smith, or have him arrested. I didn’t wonder. That slap is the biggest thing to happen to this creaky-ass ceremony in years. The Academy better send Smith and Rock big fucking gift baskets. 

CODA

Posted March 20, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, overrated

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The well-meaning CODA, which has unexpectedly pulled into the lead in the race for the Best Picture Oscar, seems designed to make skeptics feel like bullies. It’s about a family — mother, father, son, daughter — in which all but the daughter are deaf. The father (Troy Kotsur) and his kids Leo (Daniel Durant) and Ruby (Emilia Jones) go fishing for a living — the film is set in Gloucester — while the mother (Marlee Matlin), worried about bills, just seems to want to sell the boat. Looking for a gut elective her senior year of high school, Ruby drifts into choir, partly because singing is something she enjoys doing while flinging fish, partly because she’s crushing on choir kid Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). 

The presence of the Shaggs’ immortal record Philosophy of the World in Ruby’s room shouldn’t fool you. Ruby doesn’t seem to have a passion for music; the plot just dictates that she enter an art her family can’t share her experience of. (The script, by director Sian Heder, proposes a couple of ways deaf people can enjoy music, but still has the mother ask Ruby, “If I were blind, would you paint?” Well, Mom, for starters, visual art can also be tactile; and a movie about such a family developing ways to process their daughter’s expression sounds a lot more interesting than CODA is.) Eugenio Derbez, huge in Mexico and slowly penetrating American film for the last decade, gets to play the plum role of the choir teacher who’s a checklist of traits: impatient, arrogant, a terror to unserious students but a believer in Ruby’s talent. He tells her not to try to sing pretty. She sings pretty anyway.

An exercise in irony, CODA makes a big ally show of putting deaf characters on the screen, casting actual deaf actors, and establishing the parents as sex maniacs, which goes so far in the other direction from the standard depiction of disabled people as sexless that it’s kind of crude and campy — but the movie isn’t really about them. The movie shouts it out loud: Deaf people — it’s like they’re people or something! They get drunk and high, they boink, they get in barroom fights. The one thing they can’t do, apparently, is make a living without Ruby as their free interpreter. Intentionally or not — since it centers Ruby and her dilemmas — CODA ends up saying: Deaf people — what pains in the ass! Ruby’s loyalty to her family threatens to derail her destiny as a great singer (even though that destiny was unknown to her during the first 16 years of her life). Now, a lot of movies have set up the conflict of the talented kid who needs to get out of the small town, the house, the needs of his family. The family, though, usually isn’t three-quarters disabled. Having your young lead resist leaving home because she can’t abandon not one, not two, but three disabled family members is, I’m sorry, overkill. The deaf people in this movie are unavoidably plot obstacles on the cute abled kid’s path to glory.

The tone seems off: the family seems selfish for not wanting Ruby to go; Ruby seems selfish for wanting to go; then Ruby seems selfish for not wanting to go. The emotions of the story feel unresolved, almost ignored. Do the parents and the brother come up with some other way to have a hearing person on board? (According to the movie, they need ears aboard because the father and brother can’t be relied on to pay attention to the flashing alert lights on the boat. Deaf people: they get into such wacky mix-ups! Anyway, this is a dramatic distortion of a real 2003 case: google “Coast Guard Cites Deaf Boater.”) Does Ruby still want to leave for Boston when her sweetie won’t be going? And does anyone who’s seen a movie before doubt what the outcome of Ruby’s audition will be? The acting here is aces across the board, and it’s nice to see a majority-disabled family in a movie who’s also working-class. But the movie didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about Deaf culture (except for the mother delivering a brief speech, which Matlin sells beautifully, about how she’d wanted the newborn Ruby to be deaf — which flirts with emotional complexity far, far beyond this film). It’s a movie about a cute kid who wants to go off to Fancy School in the City. The deafness is very much incidental.

Licorice Pizza

Posted March 6, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

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When you Google Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Licorice Pizza, you get a list of questions people have asked about it. The first question, amusingly, is “What was the point of Licorice Pizza?” The point, since you may have been one of many who asked, is to ramble and stroll, sink into the vibe, tone, flavor. The movie is set in 1973, but is largely unlike Anderson’s ‘70s epic Boogie Nights. There’s no sex (though there’s some crude talk about it) and the porn is limited to a glancingly seen newspaper ad. In part, Licorice Pizza is an affectionate and fairly nonjudgmental study of attitudes and personalities that possibly could only have thrived in the early ‘70s. The more one thinks about it later, the larger and more enveloping Anderson’s vision comes to seem. 

On the most basic level, it’s a study of two young denizens of the Valley, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twentysomething Alana Kane (Alana Haim) as they learn how to navigate the adult world. Some adult world: most of the grown-ups in it are either cases of arrested development or people charged with serving them and enabling their childishness. Gary may be a minor but he’s already a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood hustle, dining out on his tiny acting resume and leaping for whatever get-rich-quick scheme lands in his view: selling waterbeds, opening a pinball joint. Alana goes along with him, hitching a ride on his ambitions, since she doesn’t seem to have any. The two bicker and hang out — it’s a classic hang-out movie. 

Licorice Pizza is structured as a tall tale of youth in the land of dreams; it’s loosely based on the memories of Gary Goetzman, who grew up to produce films by Jonathan Demme and then by Tom Hanks. The movie’s Gary has a lot of drive but is also still awfully immature. However old she is (maybe 25, maybe older), Alana is hardened in some ways but soft in others; she still lives with her parents and her sisters (all played by Haim’s real family; she and her sisters form the rock band HAIM). Gary seems pointed towards legitimacy by way of working for himself, while Alana drifts into volunteering for closeted politician Joel Wachs. Gary wants, and Alana, who doesn’t know what she wants, settles for being wanted. When they’re together, they breathe the same warm air and mingle spiritually, platonically.

Oh, but Anderson sets a lot of pieces moving around the central couple. The San Fernando Valley we see in Licorice Pizza is a mostly safe playpen for aging actors (Sean Penn as a macho-idiot actor based on William Holden), crazypants producers (Bradley Cooper personifying rich white privilege as superproducer Jon Peters), an oil embargo and the resulting crisis (gas at a whopping 55 cents a gallon! To be fair, that’d be $3.48 now), plus odd details like an atheist Jew attending a shabbat dinner, or the mysterious guy with the 12 shirt who turns up a couple of times. (A Google search will bring you various theories about the 12 guy.) Licorice Pizza at times seems like a spaghetti bowl of unfinished threads, though this isn’t the sort of movie that likes its sentences trimmed and brought to a halt. It’s a moment, an eternal summer, a slice of (licorice pizza) life.

Anderson isn’t Mark Twain; persons attempting to find a plot in this movie will not be shot, though they may be disappointed, even flummoxed. Movies are so expensive, and such a risk now, that we aren’t used to a film that just eases itself into a jacuzzi alongside its characters and digs their energy. But that’s generally been Anderson’s M.O. Shaggy movies like this and Inherent Vice are content to capture a mood, the conflict or harmony of personalities. Haim gives one of the great natural, nothin’-to-it performances, almost innocent in her transparency. Sometimes, actors who are primarily musicians (Courtney Love is another) just give the audience everything without coyness or reserve. Hoffman, who from some angles bears an eerie resemblance to his father Phillip Seymour Hoffman, embraces new experience with all senses open and alive. If you don’t agree early on that these two are worth following wherever they wander, maybe the movie isn’t your thing. I was happy to be in their company in a time and place where bad or worse things were going on unchecked (the casual racism, sexism and homophobia of the day) but random magic also wafted sweetly in the night breeze.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

Posted February 20, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

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Have the people who made Netflix’s new Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever used a chainsaw? The tool wielded by Leatherface (Mark Burnham) cuts through flesh, bone, wood, and metal with magically equal ease, like a hot knife carving an ice-cream cake. Not bad for a weapon that’s been literally sitting plastered up inside a wall for years. If, however, you’ve used an actual chainsaw to cut actual objects, you’ll know this thing is more akin to a lightsaber or Excalibur — a pretty funny concept, if only the movie weren’t so dour and unpleasant. Yes, I know a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film has every right to be unpleasant, but I mean its mood as much as its content. Tobe Hooper’s original was hell on earth to shoot, yet it has an artful, almost playful vibe. The new one feels bitter and miserable, with a side order of red-state resentment of entrepreneurial urban zoomers that I can’t tell if the movie sympathizes with or is just exploiting.

This movie, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, is a direct sequel to the original film and disregards any other sequels/prequels/remakes. It’s been fifty years since the donnybrook at the ol’ Texas house, occupied by Leatherface and his family of cannibals. The family is never spoken of here; we’re told Leatherface went to live at an orphanage (implying he was a very large teenager in the original film, which still puts him at least in his sixties here) and has stayed there for years, cared for by a very forgiving woman (Alice Krige). But the aforementioned zoomers roll into town, having bought up property to auction it off. The kids say they own Krige’s house. She disagrees. The cops come, she has a heart attack, and Leatherface — who presumably has been peaceful all these years — crushes that olive branch in one beefy fist. 

The gory kills — the MPAA must really have grown lax about movie violence over the last decade or so — may be the only thing keeping us connected to the film. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an angry film — angry at well-to-do zoomers, angry at the bank, angry at killers who are still out there somewhere. Taking another page from Green’s Halloween, the film brings back the original’s Final Girl: Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré, in for the great Marilyn Burns, who passed in 2014), who escaped Leatherface and went on to be a Texas ranger obsessed with hunting him down. What’s weird is that we’ve been half-rooting for Leatherface, because the rich kids are mostly annoying and we feel bad he lost his caretaker, and then Sally comes in and talks about him like a mad dog who must be put down. Olwen Fouéré sells Sally’s righteous fury, pulling us over some of the dumber stuff Sally does, like insisting Leatherface acknowledge who she is when she should just be shotgunning him into the next phase of existence.

That’s a bothersome little detail. Sally must figure or hope that if she has to die, she might as well die while killing Leatherface, and if he doesn’t know her, he’ll at least know she was the one who killed him. But this is a horror movie, so she isn’t guaranteed that kind of send-off or closure. This Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers no one any slack except maybe a redneck handyman (Moe Dunford) who acts like a red-hat stereotype until he develops some shadings of sympathy. The kids, except one (Elsie Fisher, from Eighth Grade) who survived a school shooting, are obnoxious in ways that will sting unexpectedly. These little pricks call the cops to kick a disabled old lady out of her home — tell me again why we shouldn’t revel in their chainsaw vivisection?

Other than a brief bit appearance (played by Burns) in 1995’s awful Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, we haven’t seen Sally Hardesty in almost fifty years. A movie with more curiosity about what she’s been up to might have been nice. It could have centered Sally more, played up the death-match angle. Instead, we get a bunch of little snots for Leatherface to turn into fine red mist, while Sally stomps around on the film’s margins, finally thrown away like blood-soaked trash, like almost everyone else here. And this sequel dares to evoke the original film’s masterful final shots without having a thousandth of their impact. It doesn’t convey freedom and hysteria, it conveys helplessness and grief. The whole movie is like that — depressing, despairing.