Can’t Stand Losing You

Posted March 22, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

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There’s probably a great documentary to be made about the swift rise and equally swift dissolution of the rock band the Police, but Can’t Stand Losing You isn’t it. It’s actually the second film to tell the Police’s story from the viewpoint of a band member — drummer Stewart Copeland’s Everyone Stares came first, in 2006, a year before the band got back together for a final world tour. Can’t Stand Losing You climbs into the shoes of Police guitarist Andy Summers, whose memoir provides narration and whose artsy photos offer images of occasional interest. Summers is an amiable and hardworking sort, but of the three Police, his perspective seems the least interesting.

The movie jumps back and forth in time, between the Police’s humble origins and eventual peak and their 2007 reunion. Summers tells us that during the band’s punk-club days, they were often covered in audience spit, that being customary in the scene. In what may or may not be a witty transition, we cut to footage from the Police’s reunion tour, and I thought to myself, Nobody would dare to gob onto Sting and the boys now. They’re elder statesmen now, their new-wave platinum blond hair trending towards gray. At least the audience responds to them more appropriately than it did in the Synchronicity era, when we catch film of young fans bouncing gaily up and down as Sting belts out the Jungian agonies of “Synchronicity II.” Older fans in 2007 listen to the same song and stay put. They’re old enough to have been packed like lemmings into shining metal boxes, and so on.

Summers goes through a mild variation on the rock-star lament. He punches the clock in a few bands (including the Animals) before finding the Police. He meets and marries psychiatrist Kate Lunken (no mention is made of Summers’ first wife Robin Lane), has a daughter with her, and finds it increasingly difficult to focus on family life as the Police’s star ascends. Kate asks for a divorce in 1981, but they remarry four years later. Given the craziness of the band’s lives at their peak (’77-’84), you’d think we’d hear some spicy stuff, but I guess Summers wants you to buy his book. He emerges from the Police experience, and sinks back into it decades later, without much insight into any of it. He’s clearly an everyman kind of guy, and the guy to talk to for idiosyncratic, pungent, poetic thoughts would be Sting, but I think we’ll be waiting a long time for his documentary about the Police. (He and Stewart Copeland appear in this film by default, in backstage and onstage footage both vintage and more recent, but neither sits for an interview.)

Was there a lot of tension in the band? Mostly between Sting and Copeland, we gather. A group interview conducted by MTV’s Martha Quinn is interrupted when Sting sprints away from the table with Copeland in hot pursuit, and the two legendarily came to blows during the recording of “Every Breath You Take” (while Summers quietly came up with the tune’s signature riff and laid it down in one take). Summers was and is a clean decade older than his bandmates and had more experience, yet they didn’t seem to take him seriously — I counted at least two occasions when Sting rubs Summers’ head affectionately but condescendingly, as though petting a beloved but stupid dog. How did Summers feel about this? The movie won’t tell you.

So this isn’t the definitive Police documentary many will want it to be. Nor is it especially moving as a musical document. I suppose hardcore Andy Summers fans — there may be several out there — will dig it the most, though of the three, his post-Police career was the least familiar to me. Which means nothing, of course, nor does the Wikipedia factoid that made me emit a bark-like laugh, that in 2012 Rolling Stone named him the eighty-fifth greatest guitarist of all time — hell, no national magazine has ranked me the eighty-fifth greatest anything of all time, so I shouldn’t talk. What matters is how interesting a movie subject Summers is and how interestingly he can paint a picture of the Police for us, and I’m afraid he comes up short both ways. Perhaps the person to talk to after all is Summers’ psychiatrist wife.

It Follows

Posted March 15, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, overrated

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It Follows is a slow-burn, reasonably creepy horror film with an unusual premise that promotes subtext to text. Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl, has sex with her boyfriend. Soon afterward, he tells her he has passed some sort of supernatural entity to her. She can only get rid of it by passing it along to someone else via sex. Otherwise, the thing, which changes appearance and can only be seen by its victim, will follow her slowly but implacably until it kills her. Mostly, the movie is a stylistic calling card in which its writer-director, David Robert Mitchell, shows how scrupulously he can ape John Carpenter. The comparison only holds sporadically, though. Parts of It Follows are so determinedly slack, and the performances so unaffected bordering on deadpan, that it seems like a mere exercise, not something that trades on legitimate fear.

Carpenter himself isn’t doing old-school Carpenter style any more, so I understand why this movie has been overpraised. It attempts to look and sound different from the usual contemporary horror. Any and all elements of it that make the viewer shiver — its stark widescreen images, its straight-backed slow-walking fiends, its synth score by Rich Vreeland — are pinched from vintage Carpenter, particularly Halloween. So it’s nothing original cosmetically, though it does play at times like a commentary on the have-sex-and-die motif that many pilloried Halloween for popularizing. The terror here becomes so linked to sex it’s practically venereal.

With the occasionally efficacious help of her lackluster group of friends, Jay hides from the following it, or tries to ward it off. Mitchell doesn’t waste much breath on exposition, or explaining the rules of this thing. It’s invisible to all but the person it’s following, but it can touch anyone and be touched, and it can be hurt, possibly killed. In a less laconic movie, we would’ve gotten a five-minute planning scene about how the teens scheme to electrocute the thing in a swimming pool, but here we just watch them setting up the trap with no preamble. How they know that electrocution might even work is left unspoken. The thing also has no backstory. It’s not getting revenge on anyone; it’s not stalking a long-lost sister or observing a holiday. It just exists and follows and kills.

Is it a metaphor, then, for sexual guilt? As I said, the usual subtext of slasher films here becomes text, so it’s tempting to take it back to subtext, but not much seems to be going on under the hood. Mitchell can set up tense and satisfying sequences, but the thing he hasn’t understood about Carpenter in his prime was the way Carpenter started out low-key, to lull us into a voyeuristic rhythm, and then gradually ratcheted up the suspense. Mitchell goes from a scare scene to a slack scene; the result isn’t a tightening grip of horror or a downward spiral towards confrontation, but an alternating jostle of brake and gas pedal, brake and gas pedal.

The movie begins to feel padded out, and not one but two boys offer to take on Jay’s burden, which might have come across as a witty commentary on horny teenage boys nobly volunteering to take one for the team, but doesn’t. Most of It Follows is humorless except for a fart joke early on and the washed-out dialogue between the kids. (Parents are mainly absent here.) We get quotes from Eliot and Dostoyevsky, but no particular insights into the characters, other than an anecdote about the kids finding porno mags in the woods. The movie unfolds in a universe with little or no adult supervision, and the police can’t help; we might have been encouraged to feel the kids’ frightened isolation and helplessness, but instead we just passively observe them while the Carpenter-copy soundtrack goes bloop and zhoom and other noises. I wish I had better news about It Follows, but really, don’t get your hopes up.

Two Men in Town

Posted March 8, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, remake

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William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) stands straight, moves slowly, and seldom smiles. He’s been in prison for the last eighteen years for killing a deputy, but good behavior has bought him a parole — a chance he seems earnest about not wasting. Very quickly, William settles into his new life; he finds a job, he finds a girlfriend, he moves in with her. If you’re thinking there are elements from his past violent life willing to drag him down, though, congratulations on having seen more than a few movies. Fortunately, Two Men in Town, a remake of a 1973 French film, doesn’t rest much of its weight on its plot. It’s a mood piece, an actors’ showcase, set out in the desert of New Mexico where sun and dust and sky are the whole world.

William is haunted by two men from the bad old days: Sheriff Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel), whose deputy William killed, and Terrence (Luis Guzman), an old associate who wants to pull him back into crime. Men lead to damnation, but women point to salvation: William’s parole officer, Emily Smith (Brenda Blethyn), is tough-minded but wants him to do well, and his bank-clerk girlfriend Teresa (Dolores Heredia) shares William’s yearning for a simple, honest life. There are very few twists in store, which is good but can make the movie seem a bit lightweight. William has anger issues, and he converted to Islam in prison, and he enjoys tooling around on the cheap motorcycle that was one of his first post-jail purchases, and that’s about all there is to him. Simplicity.

Director/cowriter Rachid Bouchareb seems interested in William’s conflicts as iconic, metaphoric. He is a Free Man who will never truly be free. William is black and his nemesis the sheriff is white, but nothing much comes of that. The sheriff has a couple of scenes, in fact, that underline his compassion in certain contexts; he works border patrol (just as Keitel did in the sorely overlooked The Border) and feels badly about the suffering of illegal immigrants, and he throws a party for a returning soldier from Afghanistan. I imagine these details are here (if they aren’t imported from the 1973 film) to show the sheriff as a multifaceted man whose life doesn’t entirely revolve around hovering over William and waiting for him to fuck up.

The scenes between Whitaker, who underplays and simmers, and Keitel, whose rage at the death of the deputy feels genuine, are powerful enough to raise the question of why their conflict is never resolved. Not much else is, either. Two Men in Town, like a lot of desert-set cop dramas (The Pledge, Electra Glide in Blue, El Patrullero), sort of lets its story drift upward and away, like a shimmering highway mirage. Waiting for a climactic scene between William and Teresa? Sorry. How about between William and Emily? Nope. So you have to get your enjoyment in bits and pieces, from the mood and the landscape and the performances. Blethyn is just about the hero of the piece, and deserves better than to have her character all but forgotten about. Ellen Burstyn turns up for a few minutes as William’s adoptive mother, and though it’s fine to see her, all she did was make me reflect that the only other movie featuring her and Harvey Keitel was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, forty years ago now, and that they don’t have much more time to reunite properly (they don’t share any scenes here). And I’m reasonably sure that wasn’t what I was supposed to be thinking about during her scene.

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 monsters¹ … 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.

¹ 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.


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