The French Dispatch

Posted January 16, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, comedy, murray christmas, wes anderson

french dispatch

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is that rarity, a disappointment that I feel I need to see again. By now, we all know how polarizing Anderson’s dollhouse movies tend to be. They’re immaculately designed, obsessively symmetrical; they’re boxes within boxes, each packed in a ruthlessly tidy fashion. But generally the stories have a strong throughline, a sturdy narrative arrow with some emotional resonance. The French Dispatch feels like it came out of the bottom drawer of Anderson’s desk. It’s a trio of tales, bracketed by front and end matter; it’s about journalists writing about artists, or at least about people who express themselves in some way — through painting, manifesto, food.

One of the segments, the one about the manifesto, I couldn’t tell you much about. You see what I mean when I want to watch it again. The French Dispatch is about a titular newspaper — the film’s full title is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — that reports on happenings in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé for the enjoyment, I guess, of the millions of Francophiles in Kansas. The newspaper is inspired by The New Yorker, particularly the magazine’s self-regard as The Magazine. All the best writers write for the French Dispatch, and the paper’s editor (Bill Murray) keeps trying to whittle their pieces into shape. The writers all love and tolerate him. He dies early on — like so much else here, we’re not asked to feel one way or the other about it — and what we see is the contents of the final issue of the paper.

But none of it really took hold and commanded my attention. The first story involves an artist (Benicio del Toro) who is also serving a life sentence for murder. The second follows Dispatch reporter Frances McDormand as she gets caught up in a student protest and its players. The last has to do with the kidnapping of a little boy and a police officer who’s also a chef — most of the characters have different facets to them. Technically, the filmmaking is gorgeous, with alternating black-and-white or color photography by Robert Yeoman in two different aspect ratios. It’s all very cleverly worked out. The problem is a pit that Anderson has been edging towards for a few movies now, and in The French Dispatch he sinks right into it — there are just too damn many characters.

At this point, being in a Wes Anderson movie must be a terrific feather in an actor’s cap, and a lot of them come work with him over and over. But nothing in this movie will show you why. The teeming mass of actors here rarely get a moment to give us a reason to care about them; people like Edward Norton and Elisabeth Moss and Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe pass through, hardly even getting any lines. (The bulk of the movie is narrated by the stories’ writers anyway, further limiting the characters’ opportunity to speak for themselves.) Anderson veteran Saoirse Ronan turns up as a character credited only as “Junkie/Showgirl #1.” The impression you get is that Wes Anderson has joined the elite cadre of directors who can compel a four-time Oscar nominee to play Junkie/Showgirl #1. Well, good for him. Not so good for us, or for Saoirse Ronan.

And yet … I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Anderson’s prior films, so I’m willing to give The French Dispatch the benefit of the doubt; a second viewing, knowing what it is going into it, may not be amiss. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the movie doesn’t drill down and tell one particular person’s story. Maybe the movie is about storytelling itself, about who tells stories and who hears or reads them. The main character is the Dispatch. The style of the film is the style of the writers. The writers are self-centered to a degree that they make the stories about them — they think they have to make the stories worthy of being told by them. Running through the film is a sneaky little critique of the whole New Yorker magazine-of-record aesthetic and ethos. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s both nostalgic and timeless. It didn’t stick to me — this time — but I wouldn’t dream of discouraging anyone, especially Anderson followers, from seeing it. Just know what you’re in for.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Posted January 2, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, coens, shakespeare

macbeth

Stripped down for action, shot in black-and-white in the boxy old Academy ratio, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth couldn’t be much more a hat-tip to film noir — the mode of narrative that has been so good to Coen and his brother Ethan (who seems to have left filmmaking for the nonce), from Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men. In this Macbeth, you don’t feel the pain of violence, as you did in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, or Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 Throne of Blood. Nor do you really feel the weight of guilt and murder on the souls of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand). What you do get is an art-house riff on Shakespeare’s themes; visually and aurally this is a masterful achievement. Coen is using Macbeth to carpenter a stark, stylized tribute to a film genre he loves.

So throw out whatever Shakespeare-nerd expectations you may bring to The Tragedy of Macbeth; this ride’s for film nerds. The experience isn’t even much about performance, though Washington and McDormand — to paraphrase a critic quoted in the Coens’ Barton Fink — acquit themselves admirably. The star of this Macbeth is nowhere seen on the stage. Joel Coen must be aware that the Scottish play is so baldly a forerunner of noir — with its bargain-bin Macbeths led down the path of sin and doom by conniving dames — it has actually spawned movies that recast it in gangster-flick clothes (1955’s Joe Macbeth, 1990’s Men of Respect). Yet nothing in the design of the film — the costuming, the sets — links it to those earlier chiaroscuro morality tales. It’s dark and bleak and stylish, but more closely resembles, say, Welles’ Chimes at Midnight or Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse.

The problem with Coen’s approach is that it feels like an exercise. The visuals (and the beefy soundscape, where drops of blood seem to fall with thunderous force) are meant to express this or that, but mostly they just convey a director’s nifty ideas. When Macbeth raises arms against Macduff (Corey Hawkins), they’re both in a narrow walkway hemmed in by tall concrete walls, yet they’re also outdoors, so they get to taste teasing sips of the air while effectively buried alive. That design does work emotionally — they’re both like rats in a maze, stuck there by fate, and we feel the claustrophobic guilt and shame that put them there. Elsewhere, the three witches (all played, dynamically, by Kathryn Hunter) stand reflected in a puddle — or, rather, two witches are reflected from the third — or the frame is filled with leaves or crows. Sometimes the style is a bit much, but then noir always was.

As beautifully put-together as this is, though, I can’t help shrugging a little. Joel Coen has successfully told more than a few stories about the folly of crime. It’s as though he had finally worked back to the ur-noir, the original wellspring of crime drama and “Be sure your sins will find you out,” and found himself cowed, insecure. In this respect, Coen’s Macbeth is expressive after all: it expresses a smart director’s nervousness about approaching a capital-C classic — nervousness he resolves by visually showing daddy Shakespeare (and daddies Welles, Kurosawa, Polanski) who’s the captain now. But dramatically he sort of drops the ball.

Perhaps it’s because he has no fun Coen divertissements to fall back on; even in the Coens’ adapted work there are usually scurvy or scary villains, and there really aren’t any here (the hero, in what still seems a radical turn, becomes the villain). Coen sighs with relief when supervising Hunter’s witches, or Stephen Root in a funny bit; their brand of showmanship is more in line with Coen’s comfort zone. But when it comes time to make us feel the full pressure of a man who decides to cross the line you can’t uncross, or the horror of a woman who agitates for murder but whose dreams drown in incriminating gore, Coen doesn’t come up with anything. The morality of it all seems weightless. But, boy, is it something to look at.

The Matrix Resurrections

Posted December 25, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, science fiction, sequel

matrix4

There’s a whole bunch of plot jibber-jabber in The Matrix Resurrections, as there was in the previous three films in the series, but at least this one is a bit more emotionally readable. Lana Wachowski, one-half of the Wachowskis who engineered the Matrix franchise, has said that her impetus for going back to the Matrix well was the deaths of her parents. She wanted them back, and she put that yearning into a story in which everyone moves heaven and earth to get Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the heroes of the earlier movies, back together and in charge of the resistance against those who would misuse the Matrix.

I have very little understanding or recall of what happens scene for scene in The Matrix Resurrections, but the elation of having these two back cuts through the murk like a foghorn. Even if, like me, you were never sold on the brilliance of The Matrix, some part of you may respond to the characters’, and Wachowski’s, gratitude that Neo and Trinity are still up for a fight, though this movie takes a while to re-acquaint Neo and then Trinity with reality outside the Matrix. In the matrix, Neo, or Thomas Anderson, is a rich and betrophied videogame designer, whose game The Matrix was a big hit. Thomas happens across Trinity in a coffee shop, except she’s now Tiffany, married with kids.

There’s a fair amount of meta snark here. Thomas faces doing a belated sequel to his original Matrix game trilogy, because if he doesn’t, Warner Brothers will find someone who will. There’s some talk about how originality is dead and entertainment rehashes the same stories endlessly. Wachowski is on thin ice here, but the strong thread of feeling — which we’re told here affects people more than facts — carries us through. Wachowski talks about the dangers of submitting to a comforting fiction (the Matrix, with its taste of steak) while submitting to a comforting fiction; this isn’t hypocrisy, it’s an honest assessment of what we often want and need from art. If the first Matrix films were really about the trans experience (although the sequels kind of got bogged down in set pieces), this one is about making a self out of one’s own, or others’, creations.

The pertinent question here might be, How is it as a Matrix film? I doubt it’s possible to go back to the relative simplicity of the first movie and disregard the convolutions larded on by its sequels (the way, say, David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel did), and Wachowski acknowledges that on some level. A lot of clutter has to be thrown in the path of Neo and his new band of acolytes before Trinity figures things out and re-assumes her role; it’s significant that it’s a choice she must make for herself, a subtext unlikely to win the movie fans among conservatives. (As much as she must have wanted to, Wachowski doesn’t have time here to include scuzzy incels appropriating her red-pill-blue-pill metaphor. There is, however, chit-chat about binary ways of thought and living, and how those are truer to a machine’s view of humanity than to the reality of it.)

Back in 1999, The Matrix felt like a brutal-cool riff on the old themes of individuality vs. oppression (we didn’t yet know the story had deeper meanings for Lana and Lilly Wachowski; Lilly chose to sit out this film). I wasn’t terribly wowed at the time, but in hindsight it emerges as one of an accidental run of movies in that year grappling with reality and our role in it. It makes more sense in its 1999 context as a sharp, sickly-green pre-millennium vision than as the start of an increasingly bloated franchise. The Matrix Resurrections ultimately can’t go home again, and Wachowski knows it; there’s a streak of melancholy running through the film, but intertwined with a streak of hope that the elders of cool, Neo and Trinity in their black-on-black get-ups, still have something to teach us, and that there are younger warriors willing to go to the brink to rescue their wisdom. And if you’re looking for a review that tells you how the new Morpheus is, or how bad-ass the fights are, you took the wrong pill.

Nightmare Alley

Posted December 19, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, film noir, one of the year's best, remake

nightmare alley

Despite its darkness and pessimism, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley is a shapely piece of entertainment that may cheer you up. Grim as it often is, it’s been put together with such obvious love and devotion that its energy carries us through Gresham’s moralistic tale of a con artist — Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle — whose imposture may or may not withstand the reality that there will always be someone shrewder, more ruthless and more powerful than he is. Gresham’s book is a sandwich of crisp bread slices surrounding a bit of soggy meat, though del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan streamline the narrative. They keep the bread fresh, and they retain Gresham’s bleak ending while importing a stellar final line from the 1947 film version. 

Stanton arrives at a carnival in 1939 and learns the ropes. He learns how to do “cold readings” as a self-proclaimed psychic; he also learns how an unscrupulous carny barker (Willem Dafoe in a brief but vivid turn) creates a “geek” — an attraction based on a down-and-out drunk’s desperate willingness to do disgusting things in exchange for booze. Stanton falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), who does tricks with electricity, and they leave the carnival to strike out on their own scams. It’s a bit of a bummer when Cooper leaves the seamy, intriguing milieu of strongmen and freaks in the company of Rooney Mara, who unfortunately remains a null presence. But the movie is still beautiful, with golden cinematography (Dan Laustsen) and richly crafted production design (Tamara Deverell) that keep our eyes happily engaged. Nightmare Alley is dark but not dreary. 

Stanton and Molly do their psychic act for rich suckers. A canny psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), pegs Stanton as a flim-flam man the minute she lays eyes on him, but is drawn to his confidence and technique. Along about the hour-and-a-half mark, Richard Jenkins enters the picture as the richest sucker of all, who is led to believe Stanton can put him in spiritual contact with a past lover. Jenkins, as he did in The Shape of Water, grounds a del Toro film in bitter humanity, though he’s playing much more of a scoundrel this time. Ultimately, nobody in this story is an innocent. The higher up you go, the more corrupt people you find. The picture of a pre-WWII America gouged by financial ruin and despair is deftly painted. Bradley Cooper, who spends a lot of his screen time with Rooney Mara and is thus casting his charisma into a vacuum, comes alive when he can play with Jenkins, or, for that matter, with Toni Collette or David Strathairn or Ron Perlman.

Gresham’s novel is a bit mechanistic in the tradition of noir, but it’s almost painfully internal; we seem to pause and hear the thoughts and feel the feelings of everyone, in Gresham’s plain prose spiked with carny slang. Gresham stops for so long to detail the backstory of Molly and her beloved carny father that he seems carried away, almost surprised at how Molly is coming alive and developing flesh. Molly is pretty opaque in the movie; del Toro and Morgan really only have time to concentrate on Stanton, even with a 150-minute length. Del Toro seems a little deflated when he has to leave the carnival (Dafoe’s lair of mutated fetuses and animals in jars is like a room in del Toro’s famous collectible-filled home) and go to swanky wartime Chicago, so he reaches out gratefully for Cate Blanchett, who banks another suave Old Hollywood performance. Lilith, true to her name, is like a fancy vampire drawn to a different kind of parasite.

In recent years I’ve remained fond of the idea of Guillermo del Toro while being disappointed in his last few efforts. But Nightmare Alley, the sort of gift a director can only give to himself on the heels of an Oscar triumph, is the real thing, physically imposing (it’s always raining or snowing outside the windows; objects have an almost pensive solidity and heft) and psychologically sound. Laid bare, the story casts the carny world as capitalism in microcosm, with misfits straining hard to make those quarters and dimes. The gawkers for the carny acts, even the geek act, are not portrayed as ghoulish or shameful — del Toro is too good-natured for that, especially since we and he are in the same crowd. The people getting bilked are in pain they’ll pay good money to stop. Stanton is quite willing to take their pain and their money off their hands, either as a slick psychic or as a cautionary figure.

The Card Counter

Posted December 12, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, film noir, one of the year's best

Screen Shot 2021-12-12 at 4.18.07 PM

Your standard Paul Schrader loner — think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Ernst Toller in Schrader’s previous film First Reformed, among many others — drifts from place to place, often at night, ears ringing with his own internal screams of guilt and dread. This loner walls himself (usually always himself — Schrader’s artistic/narrative mission is to probe toxic masculinity) off from normal human contact, pulled along by fatalistic strings of his own making. Oscar Isaac joins this bleak men’s club in Schrader’s The Card Counter as William Tillich (he goes by William Tell), who goes from casino to casino, placing and winning modest bets at poker tables with the card-counting skills he taught himself in prison.

We soon learn why William was in jail: he worked interrogation at Abu Ghraib, and he went away for eight and a half years while his superior officer and trainer Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe) got off free. William meets a young man — “Cirk with a C” (Tye Sheridan) — who has his own past with Gordo. His father, too, worked under Gordo at Abu Ghraib, came home addicted and violently abusive, and eventually killed himself. Cirk wants revenge on Gordo: he wants to capture Gordo and torture him to death. William has other plans for Cirk; he knows what Cirk doesn’t, that once you become a torturer/killer, you can never un-become that.

Schrader’s filmmaking has become as neat and clean as William’s hair, graying but not a strand out of place. Other than the intentionally off-putting Abu Ghraib flashbacks, filmed through a distorting lens, there isn’t an ugly or discordant frame in The Card Counter. Schrader takes his time, engaging in crossfades or fade-outs. The casinos William frequents all look the same and give the impression of stinking like cleaning fluid and cigarette smoke — not hell, exactly, but limbo. William has already been to hell, and a good chunk of his soul still exists there. He may see Cirk as his chance at some sort of redemption for participating in the repulsive system that deformed him and Cirk’s father. He also has eyes for La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who runs a stable of gamblers and thinks William should be one of them.

Sometimes Schrader can be a bit on-the-nose. A lyric we hear often on the soundtrack goes “In my lonesome aberration,” which could be William’s internal theme song. (It’s a song by Robert Levon Been, son of late Call frontman Michael Been, who composed songs for Schrader’s 1992 drama Light Sleeper. A lyric from one of those songs is tattooed on William’s back here.) Tiffany Haddish can’t help smuggling in some levity, even if just in her manner or her line delivery, but otherwise the film is borderline mopey and as serious as a stroke. (The only other source of humor is Dafoe’s thick military-guy mustache.) But as I indicated above, Schrader has gotten better at working his particular side of the street, so that the immaculate, resolute unflashiness of his style is itself pleasurable. He no longer seems to be denying himself the contentments of filmmaking; he has developed a tidy, rigorous focus.

Isaac obliges Schrader with a smoldering, implosive performance rich in stillness and watchfulness. William seldom smiles, although in one of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks we see him larking around obscenely with one of the prisoners. These places, Schrader says, scorched the souls of everyone who entered them, in whatever capacity. Much of William’s shame, it happens, is because William enjoyed the terror and pain he caused. Near the end of Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack’s hit-man hero tries to account for his life choices: “You do it because you were trained to do it, because you were encouraged to do it, and because, eventually, you, you know … get to like it.” He appends hilariously, “I know that sounds bad.” William, in his lonesome aberration, also knows his past sounds bad. Whether he can become good, or at least less bad, is very much on William’s and Schrader’s mind; but because this is also a noir, it’s not entirely within William’s control. Someone always has other plans.

House of Gucci

Posted December 5, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, drama

house of gucci

For a little while — maybe its first half hour — House of Gucci feels like an early Christmas present to adult viewers. The tone is elegant yet semi-satirically unimpressed, and the actors are all dressed for the back of a limo. We settle in for a sleek, tongue-in-cheek saga of family and murder, a Godfather for the debauched cocaine-dust fashion era of the ‘70s and ‘80s. House of Gucci recounts how Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) married Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and thus married into the almost sci-fi-level wealth of the Gucci empire. Eventually, Maurizio met another woman and divorced Patrizia, who got together with her psychic friend (Salma Hayek) and a couple of Sicilian button men to take Maurizio off the board. Patrizia was caught and sentenced to 29 years in prison, of which she served 18; she was let out in 2016. 

This seems like at least two movies — one about an ambitious but jealous would-be queen who plots to murder her ex-husband, and one about the rich, famous Gucci family, which wouldn’t be all that interesting if not for the murder. They aren’t all that interesting with the murder, either. House of Gucci should be campy fun, but the director is Ridley Scott, whose name has seldom if ever promised fun. Scott knows how to set up a swanky milieu, but we knew that. He does nothing here that he or countless others haven’t done before. With a cast of hungry actors raring to play-act under latex or bad hair (something like American Hustle, come to think of it), the movie should be a quick, dirty good time, but Scott has never been an actor’s director, and the actors emote and erupt within the vast echo-chamber real estate of the very rich. They seem alone in their efforts — nobody behind the camera seems to be shaping or even enjoying their performances.

Jared Leto’s clownish Paolo Gucci seems to want to out-Fredo the infamous Corleone brother, but he’s just a delusional loser, with none of the pained humanity and frightened aggression that John Cazale brought to Fredo. Jeremy Irons as Rodolfo Gucci somehow retains his plummy English vowels through an “Italian” accent, but sadly he’s not around long. Driver plays it straight as Maurizio, though past a certain point he can’t make Maurizio make sense to us. Al Pacino enters in full goose-honk mode as old Aldo Gucci, unavoidably turning all his scenes into an Al Pacino movie instead of integrating his effects with those of his co-stars. There’s a late scene in which Aldo expresses rage and shock at something his idiot son Paolo has done, but Leto isn’t up to responding organically — he wants all his scenes to be a Jared Leto movie, and he cringes as if he were a signifying silent-movie actor — so Pacino projects into a vacuum and then, visibly deflated, seems to give up and pull Leto in for a hug.

When in doubt, Ridley Scott just pivots to Lady Gaga, who deserves more fun, more eccentricity to match her drag-queen-on-the-moon energy. When Gaga shares a scene (there are several, including a mud-bath bit) with Salma Hayek, we might wish the movie could break off and just be about them, and wish it were about them from the beginning. The scene of Gaga and Hayek issuing orders to a pair of godforsaken meathead assassins will be remembered as a classic. “If you fuck this up,” Hayek assures the goombahs, “I will put a spell on you.” I believed her. I would not want to get Hayek and Gaga mad enough at me to put a hit out on me. Gaga finds kinship and collaborative juice with Hayek that she doesn’t get anywhere else, even from Driver or Pacino. These two are twin death witches from the nightside of capitalism. I want more of the movie they’re in.

Belfast

Posted November 28, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic

In his autobiographical film Belfast, writer-director Kenneth Branagh has a lot to say about the transporting power of movies, Star Trek, and the loveliness of a smart girl in one’s classroom. The movie is filmed in nostalgic black and white except for the opening and closing images and whenever we get a peek at whatever movie is playing at the cinema when the young hero Buddy (Jude Hill) is brought there. One such trip finds Buddy and his family taking in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the effect of the flying car swooping off a cliff and into the oceanside air makes everyone lean forward in their seats. In his own films since 1989, Branagh has chased that intoxicating mix of awe and engagement, and has sometimes caught it. But he doesn’t do it here.

As it happens, Belfast — told through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy — has little to say about Belfast. It seems a humble place where everyone knows each other; a chorus of chipper voices alerts Buddy when his Ma (Caitríona Balfe) calls him in for tea. But it’s also a place increasingly riven by tensions between Protestants and Catholics; Buddy and his family are the former, and his Pa (Jamie Dornan) is under pressure from local louts to take a (violent) stand against the latter. Pa has also been offered work, and a better house, in England. Ma doesn’t want to leave. After all, their lives are in Belfast, as well as Buddy’s grandmother (Judi Dench) and ailing grandfather (Ciarán Hinds). 

What the place doesn’t have is specificity; some of the movie was actually filmed in Belfast, but it might as well be a backlot. (Reportedly, the family’s street was built for the production on an airport runway.) Branagh is competing here with some heavy hitters even in relatively recent years — say, Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997) or Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes (1999). Those films (and the books they came from) found unstable comedy or unbearable tragedy — on occasion both at once — in the traumas of the Irish childhoods in which they immersed us. Branagh’s Belfast feels lightweight other than the early set-piece of rioters’ chaos, which in itself just seems like an event to get our attention quickly. That attention soon dissipates when we’re asked to focus on tribulations not particular to the Troubles — the father running afoul of the tax man; Buddy trying to get his maths grades up so he can sit next to his beloved.

Branagh may be saying that despite the unique clashes of Belfast, it was largely peopled by folks who worried about the same things most of us do (in addition to fretting about being in the wrong place when the bricks flew). But if we go to Belfast hoping for insight into how a little Belfast lad went on to glory in theater and film, eventually being knighted, we may leave empty-handed. About the only hints of Branagh’s future endeavors are a quick shot of an Agatha Christie novel and an eye-rolling bit with Buddy leafing through an issue of Thor (Branagh has directed movies in both universes). The theme song from High Noon seems to cast a longer shadow over Branagh’s memories than Shakespeare. 

I wasn’t hoping for Easter eggs here — more like elements that would have made this resound as Branagh’s Belfast rather than anyone’s Belfast. The incidents here, including a sequence in which Buddy nicks a box of washing powder from a store in the throes of looting, feel remote and anodyne. To us, the wrestling over whether to leave the increasingly explosive Belfast isn’t a struggle at all — get the hell out. Instead of making us mourn the city, Branagh resorts to making us mourn for poor old Judi Dench left on her own. Aside from a charming little dance between her and Ciarán Hinds, Dench is kept too steadily in the background to embody the land, its joys and discontents. (The movie is generally uptempo, scored as it is with the rambunctious hits of fellow Belfast boy Van Morrison.) But Caitríona Balfe takes over, as mothers in Irish tales often do, and it’s she whose sadness makes the strongest case for the continuity of place. All Branagh can do is make us yearn for a time when a poverty-stricken family of five could still afford a matinee show.

King Richard

Posted November 21, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, drama, sports

king-richard

You may be forgiven, watching King Richard, for wondering what exactly Richard Williams’ deal was. Was he a prophet or a damned lucky delusional? As tennis fans know, Williams is the father of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time. As the legend goes, Richard planned — literally, a 78-page plan — a future in tennis glory for his daughters before they were even born. He got this notion when he caught Virginia Ruzici on TV winning a tournament. If Ruzici won a lot of money doing this, Richard reasoned, think how much two girls could win. Richard didn’t know anything about tennis, but he learned, and he taught his daughters.

Now, what possessed this man to predict that his Black daughters could dominate a theretofore blindingly-white sport, and that they would both be born with the athletic genius to do so? Did Richard receive a nighttime whispered message from a herald? Further, in King Richard, once Richard gets his girls on the right track, he consistently goes against the grain of everything he’s advised to do. The girls’ coach says they need to start playing in the Juniors? No, Richard says, they’re not ready yet. Nike offers a $3 million endorsement deal? Well, Richard says, we’re gonna hold off. Richard gambles a frightening amount on his instincts, on his sense that he’s right. (We might catch a bit of subtext that Richard, who grew up in hard times abused by racists, is wary of all the received wisdom that comes from white faces — well-meaning, but white.)

Will Smith plays Richard as a batch of conflicting signals — sometimes cramped and cynical, sometimes carried along by his dreams. People, including his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), keep telling Richard he’s heading for a fall, cruising for a bruising. But he has no fear of failure; he seems to fear regret. He doesn’t want to look back and mourn the risks he didn’t take, the money he left on the table. Smith finds something fiery in Richard’s center; the man’s entire being and sense of self are tied up in being vindicated. Through his daughters’ triumphs, the world will tell Richard Williams that he was right. Richard pisses off one elite coach (Tony Goldwyn) and moves on to another (Jon Bernthal, in the funniest performance) and pisses him off. Nobody has seen things done the way Richard wants them done. This guy is nuts. And yet the world keeps sustaining his vision. Smith uses his star charisma — which makes the audience lean towards him — to make Richard seem nourished by everyone else’s doubt. All the film’s energy is directed towards Smith; it’s Richard’s story, not Venus or Serena’s. 

Richard is an odd man to hold the center of a film that also boasts, somewhere off to the side, two lightning bolts like Venus and Serena. The story Richard tells about himself (and which this movie co-signs) has a Biblical whiff about it: God tells Richard (or Noah, or whoever) that this thing is going to happen, must happen, and you’ve got to prepare for it. The Richard of this movie (truly I know little of the man aside from what Smith, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, and writer Zach Baylin give us) is a prickly, flawed, arrogant, possibly great man whose character goes somewhat unresolved, our questions unanswered. And it’s not that the movie is trying to be the sportsball equivalent of Last Year at Marienbad or anything; it just recognizes there’s more to him, to anyone, than even two hours and twenty-five minutes can capture. 

Alas, this male’s vision is mightily supported by a woman (Aunjanue Ellis comes through with a loving, sensible turn that even in moments of quiet watchfulness is the film’s moral compass) and by, of course, two girls. If not for them, there’d be no him. King Richard plays us out with Beyoncé’s “Be Alive,” which is about Venus and Serena: “We fought and built this on our own.” True enough. But the movie needs Richard’s righteous self-regard; it would be too close to a standard sports biopic without it. All the familiar beats are there, the advances and seeming setbacks, leading up to the big game with the whole universe hanging on it, and … well, you’ve seen sports films before. But maybe you haven’t seen Richard before. 

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

Posted November 14, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

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In 1941, an 18-year-old Kurt Vonnegut Jr. inscribed a book to his high-school girlfriend, who would later become his wife. He wrote, “To be shown to our children when they begin to wonder what things are most important in this world that some fools call hell.” Within four years, Vonnegut had lost his mother to suicide and, as an American prisoner of war in World War II, witnessed the bombing of Dresden and its horrific human toll. Sometimes, at least some of the world can be hell. Like any of us, Vonnegut struggled to exist in a world where Dresdens happen but birds also say “poo-tee-weet?” and children dance and elders laugh.

The long-in-the-making documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, by Vonnegut reader-turned-friend Robert B. Weide, knows enough not to pin Vonnegut down. He was complex, at times irascible or depressive, and towards the close of his time here, he was more or less openly yearning for the exit. (The war didn’t kill him, nor did his lifelong affair with Pall Malls, an untruth in advertising that irked him; he died from brain injuries incurred in a fall in his home, and even then it took several weeks for him to be finished, in 2007 at age 84. So it goes.) The documentary is shuffled around non-chronologically, in keeping with Vonnegut’s premise that life is a simultaneous continuum, that someone dead now is still alive somewhere else in the timeline, and vice versa. If we are all already dead, there’s no need to fear the inevitable.

At the same time, the dead leave behind people who want them still alive in this timeline, thanks very much. The man we meet in Unstuck in Time is a man with some scientific training and artistic instincts who created a buffer between himself and life’s intractable sadnesses. It was difficult to be a loved one finding oneself on the outside of that buffer, and Weide acknowledges that; he talks to Vonnegut’s three grown children as well as his four nephews that he took in after their mother, Vonnegut’s sister, died of cancer. They all chuckle about how the old man could be a grouch, a struggling writer trying to feed a family of nine. Ironically, it was Vonnegut’s magnum opus Slaughterhouse-Five, which came out like a kidney stone over a period of years of stops and starts, that redefined him and settled his money worries forever.

Unstuck in Time is a sympathetic, often fond portrait of a man who knew pain and seemed to consider it humanity’s common denominator, our shared cross to bear. He couched his insights in sci-fi narratives or absurdist premises, written simply so anyone could understand. He talked about kindness, the need for community. He looked the part of elder statesman even at 47, when Slaughterhouse-Five landed and made him a father or grandfather figure to a generation facing its own war. (Stephen King, of that demographic, dubbed him “Father Kurt.”) He functioned as a sort of whimsically dyspeptic eminence on TV, the country’s unofficial conscience. Sadly, he began to feel he’d outlived his time. Slaughterhouse-Five (my all-time favorite book) turned out to be his gravestone achievement, though his subsequent books still sold and he found some late-period purchase as a voice against the Iraq War.

Like his spiritual father Mark Twain, Vonnegut knew the importance of tucking his message inside a candied pill of humor. Weide frequently catches Vonnegut dissolving into laughter, sometimes, as one of his daughters points out, at inappropriate times: at his high-school reunion, Vonnegut looks at a plaque commemorating students who lost their lives in WWII, and he wheezes with laughter as he says that several of them died not in action but, say, during training or of spinal meningitis. (So it goes.) It was a sweet irony to Vonnegut, who knew there was no good way to die in war. During the end credits, Weide gives us a montage of Vonnegut laughing; it isn’t just a cheap way to send us out comforted — it’s an affirmation of Vonnegut’s ethos and his mission as an artist. Maybe his stories would make you sad, but damned if he wasn’t going to go for some jokes along the way.

Out of the Blue

Posted November 7, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best

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Linda Manz had a great camera face, scarred and wary, yet open to profane as well as sacred experiences. Her face haunts the few movies she appeared in, like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and especially Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, which has been rescued with a 4K restoration and has been making the rounds. What Manz does in Out of the Blue isn’t quite acting. It’s behaving, or attitudinizing, sorting through the externals of a broken girl, Cindy Barnes, or CeBe. Her affectless tough-girl delivery takes some getting used to; at first it strikes our ears as amateurish. But as we learn more about CeBe and her bombed-out, devastated life, we learn to read her splintered disposition — closed off from the world’s harm, but drawn to whatever forlorn adventure she can glean from it, because she’s still only 15 — as elaborate armor. 

Hopper was only going to act in the film, initiated as a Canadian TV-movie. But original director Leonard Yakir faltered, and Hopper took over, refocusing the narrative on CeBe instead of on a virtuous psychiatrist’s attempts to save her. (Remnants of this plot, with Raymond Burr in a two-scene bit as a school therapist, remain in the finished film.) Hopper co-stars as CeBe’s feckless father Don, who drove his truck into a packed school bus while drunk and was sent to prison for five years (CeBe was with him at the time of the accident; Manz’ real scars are explained in the film as the result of the crash). Don gets out of prison, reunites shakily with CeBe and with her junkie mother Kathy (Sharon Farrell), and wastes no time falling back into old self-destructive habits.

Pretty much every male CeBe encounters is a creep or worse, and the girls at her school, which she attends sporadically, mostly have no use for her. So she spends a lot of time alone in her depressing room, listening to Elvis and spouting punk-rock slogans (“Disco sucks! Subvert normality!”). Manz is eminently believable as Hopper’s offspring — they share a spirit as well as some features. The tone of their scenes together is dangerous yet saddening. Don has no idea how to be a functioning human being, much less a father. Does CeBe know how to be a daughter? It’s by no means clear that anyone in her life has “raised” her. Her “parents” are too lost in their own pain and addictions. Unsupervised, CeBe drifts around the night streets of Vancouver, going to punk shows and dodging unwelcome male notice.

It’s not long before we understand this isn’t going to be the kind of movie that leads up to a redemptive finale, in which the parents get their act together for CeBe’s sake and offer her some stability; nobody else, particularly not slime like Don’s menacing buddy Charlie (Don Gordon), is going to step in on her behalf either. Out of the Blue says that some people — some entire families — are just damned, and it doesn’t take a judgmental stance about it. Hopper, as director and uncredited writer, extends no hope whatsoever, and there’s something vital and cleansing about the movie’s thorough nihilism. As played by Manz, CeBe is hurt and bleeding but still alive. We see flashes of the innocent little girl she used to be who died long ago — an unabashed grin when a punk band’s drummer lets her hammer the skins for a minute onstage; her habit of curling up with her teddy bear and sucking her thumb.

The movie ends on a profoundly downbeat note, to put it mildly, and yet it doesn’t depress us because it doesn’t lie to us. We feel that a story like this can only end in this bleak but honest manner. The events of the narrative don’t exactly please us, but Hopper’s absolute dedication to honoring the truth of CeBe’s life (not to mention casting himself as one of many demons on the side of her dark lonely road) pays off. Movies are allowed to leave us feeling something besides happy or sad. They increasingly, frequently leave us feeling nothing at all. Out of the Blue is a gritty artifact from a time, the late ‘70s, when artists could work out their feelings about unbearable ways of living. It was also a time when a spiky presence like Linda Manz, who died last year six days short of her 59th birthday, could take over a movie and leave us wondering what we’d just seen, but knowing we’d seen something strange and beautiful.