Maps to the Stars

Posted March 1, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, cronenberg, cult, drama, one of the year's best

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The world of David Cronenberg is usually hushed, intimate, frequently antiseptic, but within this hermetic construct people suffer, orgasm, howl in elation or agony, transform, die. Cronenberg’s is a tightly ordered vision of chaos. In Maps to the Stars, the Canadian director’s first film in his 46-year career to be shot in America, the Hollywoodites we meet are damaged, monstrous to others and to themselves. It’s been called a Tinseltown satire, but Cronenberg doesn’t think of it that way, and neither do I. It is, if you will, a horror movie about how living on the toxic soil of Hollywood deforms human beings, body and soul. This is a place where a woman can gleefully celebrate the death of a little boy she’d been cooing over not a day earlier — where, indeed, children in general are drowned, strangled, drugged, sexually abused, almost set on fire, or just die alone in a hospital of blood disease.

Hollywood is a graveyard of innocence/innocents, though it could also be every other place in America, only more so. Maps was written by Bruce Wagner, the eternal insider (his novels are long on L.A. grotesques, and he wrote the comic strip that became the surreal Wild Palms) turned Castaneda mystic. Wagner is hip to the ways that Hollywood chews up and spits out spirituality, perverts it and monetizes it. One of the creatures in the movie is Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who sells ersatz therapy to suffering stars; his approach hasn’t much helped his family — his daughter (Mia Wasikowska) is a burn-scarred schizophrenic, his son (Evan Bird) a teenage star of hacky comedies who’s already almost washed up. Among Stafford’s clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress with heavy mommy issues.

In this ghastly atmosphere, there’s no way to raise children without ruining them as human beings, no way to live without putting your soul at hazard. Often, Cronenberg puts characters alone within a frame, talking into a void. He brings Robert Pattinson back from his previous film Cosmopolis, this time driving a limo instead of riding in one. The two movies are bookend pieces, the monetary insanity of New York and the rancid dream factory of Los Angeles, a sleep of reason that produces monsters* … and ghosts. Maps to the Stars is loaded with guilty visions of dead kids, dead parents. People speak to each other in grave whispers, as if attending a funeral — maybe their own. Yet the movie also sneaks in deadpan humor whenever it can. It’s a pretty good joke, for example, that Carrie Fisher — as clear an example as anyone of how Hollywood can deform people into self-medicating neurotics — plays herself here as the (unwitting) instigator of the movie’s entire twisted plot.

The violence is abrupt and sometimes shocking — a dog is shot to death, and that’s only a warm-up — but we’re never sure how much of it is real, since it seldom has any consequence (unless, of course, it involves a prosperous comedy franchise). A scene in which someone self-immolates at poolside might be intended to be taken as “real,” but the flames look so fake it’s hard to know. We could, if pressed, shelve this film alongside any number of other Cronenberg efforts; it seems to me to be less a screed against Hollywood than a study of a particularly fucked-up family, a theme that aligns it with The Brood and A History of Violence and Spider. Once again, Cronenberg meditates on the split between mind and body, the perfect Hollywood bodies and the deformed minds within.

* Indeed, the movie is rather Goya-esque, and the epigram for Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters would fit the film as well: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

Oscars 2015

Posted February 23, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

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Possibly the cruellest thing you can do to someone who’s good at hosting stuff is to suggest repeatedly, after he’s nailed hosting this or that awards show, that he host the Oscars. So for the past few years, the refrain became familiar: “Neil Patrick Harris should host the Oscars.” “How hard would Neil Patrick Harris crush the Oscars?” And so on, until Neil Patrick Harris actually hosted the Oscars, and turned out to be … not bad, but not great. Oddly insecure, and ultimately unmemorable. NPH’s by-now-expected opening musical number traded on the old magic-of-movies trope until Jack Black blasted in and laid down some cynical truths. Jack Black should host the Oscars. How hard would Jack Black crush the Oscars…

Other than Patricia Arquette, whose call for equal pay for women was refreshingly political, Black was the only Richard Linklater confederate to get much satisfaction. Linklater’s Boyhood went home with little, while Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman owned the night … except for Michael Keaton, whose loss of a Best Actor trophy pained me, though I certainly didn’t begrudge Eddie Redmayne’s win. Really, Boyhood and Birdman struck me as the same movie in some ways — both are dramas by temperamentally independent directors, riding on something of a technical high-wire-act gimmick (Birdman seems to run in one continuous take, Boyhood was filmed bit by bit over a period of twelve years), and probably a little overpraised. Also, the odds of the average moviegoer having seen either of them before Oscar night — even on DVD, never mind finding a local theater playing them — were slim to none.

A few years back, the Academy decided not to restrict the Best Picture nominees to five, because a wider playing field might mean a better chance of a popular nominee. In this respect, only American Sniper qualified this year, and it went home with almost nothing, which probably annoyed its many patriotic fans. The Grand Budapest Hotel fared surprisingly well, winning a lot of the “what a pretty movie” awards other than cinematography. I was glad to see two longtime favorites, Julianne Moore and J.K. Simmons, finally receiving their due. My feeling on Inarritu is that nothing he’s done has equalled his debut, the coruscating Amores Perros, though I’m also glad that the director of Amores Perros now has several Oscars.

As for the show itself, it didn’t drag itself out with pointless montages the way it used to. Lady Gaga nailed her Sound of Music tribute, and John Legend and Common’s rendition of “Glory” got an understandable standing-O. Harris had a mostly unfunny running gag about his Oscar predictions under lock and key (guarded by Octavia Butler, giving me to ponder once again that the actress who once played an irascible DMV clerk on The Big Bang Theory now has an Oscar). Eddie Murphy seemed more engaged as a presenter here than he did at last weekend’s SNL shindig. (There were no Cosby jokes or, really, any jokes at the expense of Hollywood, save for an Oprah joke I didn’t really get, and she didn’t either.) Harris steered the ship into port without hitting an iceberg — a metaphor I think I’ve used before with the Oscars, but it applies this year. Harris wasn’t as dazzling as he has been on smaller shows, but all that practice at least ensured a baseline of professionalism. At this point, though, a robot in a clown suit could host this thing and no one would care.

The robot in a clown suit should host the Oscars. How hard would the robot in the clown suit crush the Oscars…

Saturday Night Still Alive

Posted February 16, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

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It was an irony of sorts, I guess, that the special program commemorating 40 years of Saturday Night Live aired on a Sunday night. (Also quite a few months premature; SNL actually debuted on October 11, 1975.) But for those of us in the northeast battered by relentless snow and cold, the show provided some respite, all three and a half hours of it (not including an hour-long “red carpet special” beforehand). If you want to know why the show went all out to mark its 40th instead of waiting for its 50th, it’s likely because many of the original talent might not be around by then. In 2025, show producer and creator Lorne Michaels will be 80. Dan Aykroyd will be 72. Bill Murray will be 74. Chevy Chase will be 81, and Generalissimo Francisco Franco will still be dead.

The show, I guess, is still alive. I don’t think I’ve watched it at all this season, or last, but then I’ve never been quite loyal to SNL. My college years were my (sporadic) SNL-watching years. So I missed a fair bit of what the 40th Anniversary Special served up as “greatest hits.” Did anyone ever laugh at the Californians, and did that deserve to be re-animated here along with Wayne and Garth, Aykroyd’s Bass-O-Matic, and Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer? I suppose it was a good excuse to get Kristen Wiig in there somehow, but by my lights she’s becoming more interesting as a comedic-dramatic actress than as the farceur she was on SNL.

I didn’t mind the special’s self-indulgent sprawl, though a lot of it smacked too much of white male baby-boomer self-congratulation. The ghosts of the original cast have haunted Studio 8H for at least 35 of the show’s 40 years, and a viewer’s estimation of SNL’s peak depends on when he or she started watching. (Even the now-revered comedy godhead Murray was once regarded as a poor replacement for Chevy Chase.) It was touching to see Emma Stone pay her respects to Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, and interesting to see that the character Melissa McCarthy felt worthy of emulation was Chris Farley’s bull-in-a-china-shop Matt Foley. I didn’t resent the newer performers for their attempts, but I did resent Death for taking Radner, Farley and too many other cast members too soon.

Belushi was the first to go, and his notoriously ironic short film “Don’t Look Back in Anger” (with Belushi as an old man reflecting on all his castmates who beat him to the cemetery) kicked off the special’s In Memoriam segment, which was about the only time we saw acknowledgment of any of the writers. (During a mildly funny q&a bit, Jerry Seinfeld explained that a tribute to the writers was tossed out in favor of “Randy Quaid saying something.”) Michael O’Donoghue appeared onscreen by virtue of his sharing the show’s first-ever sketch with Belushi (“I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines”), and of course Tina Fey got her share of stage time, but no other writers who weren’t also performers were deemed ready for prime time.

In brief, the special was overlong, flawed, riddled with weird choices (Kanye doing whatever that was; Eddie Murphy marking his return to the show after decades by saying not much of anything), and occasionally funny, which puts it one up on a lot of the actual SNL episodes that had all those qualities except for the funny. Mostly I sat through it and didn’t mind it: I didn’t mind Miley Cyrus’ cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (if nothing else it probably scandalized the baby boomers), I didn’t mind Martin Short doing his smarmy-show-biz specialty while Maya Rudolph’s Beyonce vamped, and I didn’t mind seeing old friends like Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks again. Lorne Michaels sat out the special until the very end, which could signal fatigue or modesty; let’s hope it’s the latter. However iffy my allegiance to SNL has been over the years, and even if I usually don’t make it to 11:35 most Saturday nights, it’s comforting to know that it, and Lorne, are still there.

Waves

Posted February 8, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: romance

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Anyone in the market for a romantic movie might want to forego Fifty Shades of Grey and look for the Philippines-set (but mostly English-speaking) independent film Waves. Some have likened the movie to Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a comparison that might hurt it among Malick acolytes and detractors alike; let’s say that Waves has its contemplative side, a healthy appreciation for luscious travelogue shots (most of the story unfolds on an island), and a leisurely pace, but none of Malick’s confounding narration or musings on Nature vs. Grace. It’s simply the story of two friends who become more than that.

Elegantly composed by director/cinematographer Don Gerardo Frasco, Waves sets up a meeting between a man, Ross (Baron Geisler), and a woman, Sofia (Ilona Struzik), who used to know each other back in New York. Sofia is a model now; Ross drinks alone a lot. Sofia needs to get back to New York, and her fiancé, for a modeling gig. Ross suggests she stick around a couple of days. After some thought, Sofia agrees, and before long they are sailing, swimming, and sleeping together on the aforementioned gorgeous island.

As such, the narrative is uncluttered. It focuses on the shifts of emotion between the two new lovers, flipping an old cliché by making the man overly sensitive and the woman noncommittal — Ross wants more than a two-day fling, Sofia doesn’t know what she wants. Geisler, well-known in villainous roles in Filipino movies, and Struzik, an actual model, enact their conflict quietly, without overplaying. They seem like adults, which are in short supply in current mainstream cinema. Again, the drama and occasional comedy of two people dealing with their mutual attraction and its attendant complications are better handled here than in the contemporaneous callow spank-a-thon that is Hollywood’s idea of a Valentine’s Day event.

Occasionally the director indulges a bit much in jump cuts, and some of the shots are static enough that I got distracted trying to work out who was pictured on Ross’s t-shirt. By and large, though, Frasco has a satisfying respect for subtlety. He likes sunsets and underwater footage, but he also knows that the camera’s ultimate subject is what Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself. The picture-postcard images complement the romance rather than competing with it or symbolizing it.

Another sign of an adult sensibility in Waves is that it avoids a happy ending, which isn’t the same as saying it has a sad ending. It just has an ending, which seems to point towards events past the end credits. Will Ross and Sofia wind up together forever? Who knows? They don’t. The ending finds the lovers apart, but the movie suggests they’ll reunite, whereas most Hollywood romances end with the lovers together while we doubt they’ll stay that way for long. Do we care about Ross and Sofia’s future? We like them, and we like them together, and that’s just about the best that a movie which isn’t trying to be manipulative can do.

Exposed

Posted January 31, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

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The enduringly popular old-school nudie performer Bettie Page was a devout Christian who reportedly had no problem disrobing for strange men. Her reasoning was that God had made her body to please men, and so there was nothing wrong with using her body for its God-given purpose. I thought of that while watching Exposed, the longtime underground filmmaker Beth B’s tribute to the women, men and unclassifiables who have affably hijacked New York burlesque and bent it to their avant-garde political will. Bettie Page might have felt kinship with some of the performers profiled here, if only because they, like her, know no shame or guilt in nude self-expression. There’s an innocence, a sense of riotous play, in even the most transgressive and in-your-face shows here.

Before anything else, though, I feel the need to object to the audiences for the performances. In a weirdly moving sequence, an entertainer called Bambi the Mermaid comes out bedecked in lobster claws and shells, cracking open and eating bits of “herself” while looking near tears. As someone who pities the lobsters in the tank at the supermarket, and whose philosophy on eating them can best be encapsulated by David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “Consider the Lobster,” I felt saddened and disturbed by the performance, but the downtown hipsters in the club chortled hiply at it. I felt like saying “You’re annoying; shut up. She’s doing something beyond comedy here. Respect.”

Indeed, most of the performers do move beyond comedy, and the audiences do sometimes rise to it as it deserves. There’s a good amount of gender-bending, from the likes of transgressive drag queen Rose Wood (whose breast augmentation surgery is sort of the movie’s climax) or the “boy-lesque” artist Tigger! or the genetically female World Famous “Bob,” who spent some years thinking she was a gay man trapped in a woman’s body (shades of Margaret Cho) before learning to accept what she was born with. Such self-acceptance is a key motif here, as many of the women are full-figured and one of the male performers, Mat Fraser of American Horror Story: Freak Show, was born with what he calls “flippers” instead of arms after his mother took Thalidomide while pregnant with him.

Most of the people on view here hail from what Rose Wood terms “the Island of Misfit Toys,” psychologically if not physically. Women like Bunny Love and Dirty Martini have taken a form of entertainment long considered sexist and degrading (or, at best, goofy and archaic) and refurbished it to speak wordlessly but eloquently in a feminist language. It’s hard to argue that these non-mainstream artists aren’t doing exactly what they want to do, how they want to do it. The moves, the tassels, the striptease, all the elements are there, but the performers use burlesque as a found object, or found medium, to get their points across in a sensual, attention-grabbing manner.

I would also like to take this opportunity to nod gladly at Beth B, who was instrumental in the “No Wave” filmmaking movement of the late ’70s and who has worked in documentaries, some for TV, over the last decade or so. Though I can’t say she ever really left her artistic New York roots, the candy-colored, sex-positive Exposed feels like both a homecoming for her and a fine way to bring newcomers into her fold. (She turns sixty this year. I can’t even.) To put it in crass marketing terms, fans of John Waters and of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and Shortbus should give this quick, often touching documentary a spin, and then maybe look up her early work like Vortex. This is not someone who will be offered a Marvel movie, or would accept if offered, and is to be cherished as such.

Boy Meets Girl

Posted January 24, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, drama, romance

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Boy Meets Girl is a mildly ironic title for a movie that almost always feels genuine. It’s a romantic comedy-drama about Ricky (Michelle Hendley), a young Kentucky woman who wants to go to a fashion school in New York. Ricky was also born female in every way except physically. The transgender narrative has become more familiar and less exotic in recent years, and deservedly so. What once might have come across as gimmicky, a way for a cisgender actor or actress to play trans and collect accolades (cf. Felicity Huffman, Jeffrey Tambor), now powers a low-key film in which Ricky’s identity is more or less taken for granted, and Ricky is played by a neophyte trans actress whose experiences bring unstressed authenticity to the character.

Ricky hangs out with childhood friend Robby (Michael Welch), who seems to see her as just Ricky, a girl he’s known forever. Pretty much everyone in the small Kentucky town knows who Ricky is and what her deal is. One day Ricky meets Francesca (Alexandra Turschen), and even though Francesca is engaged to a soldier, David (Michael Galante), stationed in Afghanistan, she and Ricky pursue a tentative connection. Francesca doesn’t know what Ricky’s deal is, but she finds out soon enough, and it intrigues her even more. We can guess, however, that David won’t be in Afghanistan for long.

Despite that, Boy Meets Girl takes its cue from the laid-back drawl of Michelle Hendley, whose unaffected performance provides a baseline of truth and humor. Ricky has climbed long and hard to be okay with herself, and by the time the movie starts she’s already done seven years of hormones and many more years of getting used to her own skin. The awkwardness is mostly felt by Francesca and, later, her fiancé; they may not hate Ricky for who she is, but the very fact of Ricky makes them wonder about their own identities. The supporting cast — especially Michael Welch, who reminded me of the very young Saving Private Ryan-era Nathan Fillion — seems happy to work alongside Hendley and to enact the script’s emotional convolutions.

This is the tenth feature by writer-director Eric Schaeffer, whose goofy If Lucy Fell I pooh-poohed nearly twenty years ago, and whose subsequent work I skipped. Based on Boy Meets Girl, I now feel I may have done Schaeffer a disservice, ignoring his later output that may have been, for all I know, as thorny and insightful and good-hearted as this film is. The movie logically stops at the eighty-minute point, but then goes on a bit longer, because it recognizes that it needs to deal with two other characters and the feelings they bring into the mix. The cheerful denouement feels earned. Ricky’s life beyond the movie will go as it should. She can take care of herself.

Appropriate Behavior

Posted January 18, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, comedy, drama, romance

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The debut feature by writer/director Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior has been compared to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls. I’ve never seen the Dunham show, but I’m prepared to believe that Akhavan’s movie is as inspired by Dunham as leagues of white male nerds were by Woody Allen. The question you have to ask is: Derivative as it may be, is this film its own thing — does it have its own voice, its own concerns, its own world? Appropriate Behavior does, I think.

Akhavan also stars as the lead character, Shirin, a bisexual Brooklynite closeted to her Persian family, to the chagrin of her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). The story of Shirin and Maxine unfolds in non-linear flashbacks; the present tense involves Shirin’s attempts to move on from her breakup with Maxine, including a job teaching filmmaking to five-year-olds and an awkward polyamorous fling with a couple she randomly meets. Shirin is a typical confused twentysomething, trying to forge an identity among people who may be a little too rigid in their own identities — and not just the conservative Middle Eastern family she’s vaguely afraid of.

Akhavan’s writing/directing style is as deadpan and laid-back as her acting. The movie is the opposite of emotionally pushy, which makes an underwear-snipping, bottle-throwing argument late in the film stand out even more. Appropriate Behavior is, of course, about inappropriate behavior, but nobody is judged for it. It’s just the sort of goofiness that smart, needy people get themselves into, and nobody gets terribly hurt. The movie’s amused view of aimless artistic types in the city reminded me a little of the 1995 Parker Posey vehicle Party Girl. People ironically take stock of their neuroses, aware that their problems aren’t the end of the world, even if they feel apocalyptic.

Shirin doesn’t have a whole lot of back-up; she has one nonjudgmental friend, Crystal (Halley Feiffer), and various acquaintances and flirtations. Characters are allowed to be weird, complicated, flawed; nobody really does the expected thing. The guy who gives Shirin her job (Scott Adsit from 30 Rock) is a Louis CK-type sad sack who’s a little clueless but nonthreatening; that goes for pretty much everyone else, though they’re all clueless and nonthreatening in their own styles. The movie doesn’t seem to be up to anything larger than an amiable slice of urban life, and it doesn’t need to be.

Appropriate Behavior packs a drowsy erotic charge during a couple of its trysts, and even during those it doesn’t lose its tremulous sense of humor. Shirin teaches class alongside a blonde waif who used to be a hair model and whose “advanced” moviemaking class produces a pompous, Artistic little film called “At Park”; Shirin’s more down-to-earth class makes “Tales of the Lost Fart,” featuring zombies, boogers, and copious farts. Akhavan’s own movie is somewhere in the middle — no stranger to foo-foo self-reflection or to embarrassing physical foibles.


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