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

kurt-vonnegut-1

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

out of the blue

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.

Violet

Posted October 31, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

violet

Olivia Munn has been on my radar since 2006, when she started as one of the hosts of G4’s goofball gamers-and-geeks program Attack of the Show. Even then, when the show had her jumping into a giant chocolate pie wearing a French maid outfit, Munn had a certain spark and wit, and perhaps an aptitude for things beyond farce. All she needed, I thought, was for someone to notice. In the years since, Munn has appeared in this and that, as a lead or as support, but it took the former actress Justine Bateman — maybe not coincidentally also underestimated — to bring the best out of Munn. 

Violet, which Bateman wrote and directed, is a highly interiorized psychodrama in which Munn, as the eponymous movie-production exec, deals with intrusive sounds, images, and an inner male voice, all telling her she’s not good enough. Using editing tricks as well as an effective technique of slowly turning the screen red to suggest Violet’s growing anger, Bateman puts us inside Violet’s head, feelings, wants and needs and fears. She makes it look easy, and some viewers may shrug and say “Is that all there is?” — the film is not plot-bound — but I’d like to point out how rare it is these days for a filmmaker to make time to get to know a woman. It’s a true feminist work, and it doesn’t pretend the usual suspects (men, work, family, friends) will fix what’s wrong with Violet.

And what is wrong? Violet has a flashback to her unpleasant mother chastising her as a little girl for backing out of helping a friend. We gather that Violet learned to tamp her emotions down and keep everyone else happy while ignoring her own happiness. She developed an inner critic (voiced by Justin Theroux) that keeps telling her things like “Be nice” or “You’re a baby.” Violet’s genuine thoughts and wants are written on the screen as she interacts with people who don’t really care what she wants. Since the inner voice once advised her to leave candles burning in an apartment she shared with a boyfriend, you’d think she’d stop listening to it, but such things are much easier said than done.

Charismatic and convincingly torn up inside, Munn is pretty much front and center throughout. She takes inspiration from the screen-written thoughts about feeling uncomfortable in her own skin; about the only person Violet might feel okay talking to is her lifelong friend Red (Luke Bracey), a screenwriter. If we ask why Violet’s milieu is Hollywood, the answer might be that Bateman is writing what she knows. It also allows for conflicts involving what Violet wants to produce; her pet project is a poetic indie script called Fox Run, though her boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) knows it has a slim chance of getting financed. At first, the boss seems to drop his mask and show his true misogynist colors a bit quickly, but Bateman is saying that this is what happens when a powerful man’s ego is pinpricked, his privilege challenged. We remember that insecure men are generally the ones who determine which, and whose, stories we are told in movies. Bateman’s two male co-producers must be secure indeed.

Violet is not man-bashing, though. A few women also annoy or disrespect Violet, and the root of her self-loathing appears to be her mother. Bateman’s own leanings are apparent in the casting, which brings back women who haven’t been in movies much of late — Laura San Giacomo, Bonnie Bedelia, Anne Ramsay, Colleen Camp. The crew, though, is gender-mixed, as we see in a post-credits montage of various technicians, ending with Bateman herself, passing by the camera and pausing for a smile, a pose, a peace gesture. Their efforts have given us a supple and empathetic story of a woman who needs to start listening to herself, if her self is still in there somewhere.

Halloween Kills

Posted October 17, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, sequel

Screen Shot 2021-10-17 at 3.12.13 PM

It’s difficult to judge Halloween Kills, since it’s the middle film in what’s going to be a trilogy (the capper, Halloween Ends, starts filming in January for release next October). What’s more, this trilogy, under the stewardship of director David Gordon Green and his writing-producing partner Danny McBride, looks as if it’s going to be all about fear and its destructive or self-destructive variations. Green and McBride (joined on the script here by Scott Teems) are devoted to this idea, often to the point of straining credulity. People in the movie act stupidly all the time, but not because they’re stupid — they’re afraid. The problem is, they’re still doing dumb-ass stuff and we’re still going “Oh, come on.” It doesn’t matter why characters do stupid things; they’re going to read to us as stupid people, and we’re going to wonder why we’re spending time with them, unless it’s a farce, which, despite some ridiculous moments, Halloween Kills is not.

David Gordon Green is going to take his moment in the Halloween franchise’s history to instruct us (literally, the theme is spelled out near the end) on fear and its sociopolitically deranging aspects. As such, Halloween Kills will be more interesting for horror academics to nosh on than for humble horror fans who just want a good scare. (Which, as original director John Carpenter assured us forty-three Halloweens ago, we’re all entitled to.) The academics will find great meaning, for instance, in two couples here — an interracial couple and a gay couple — who are butchered by series superslasher Michael Myers. Do they die for their “sins”? I’m going to guess not. Michael, you see, represents fear, and fear in the form of violent bigotry kills such couples. If Green didn’t actually intend that, I’ll be annoyed. But also relieved.

There was a psychiatrist in Green’s previous Halloween movie whose baffling actions worked better as subtext than as text. As subtext, we could see why Green wanted to go there. As text, it made no sense. And Halloween Kills is loaded with stuff like that. I guarantee you someone with a hearty appetite for symbology will read all sorts of jolly things into the movie, which prove it’s really about [insert grand concept here]. But if you’re just hanging out and being told this story, there’s way too much stuff that makes you go “Wait a minute.” 

A big chunk of the film has to do with an enraged mob, led by original 1978 near-victim Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, credible as a muscleheaded twerp), which eventually drives an innocent person to their death. For a reel or so, suddenly we’re in bargain-bin Ibsen or Arthur Miller. Now, I can nod coolly and claim to find all kinds of subtextual merit in this sub-subplot — Michael/fear turns people into killers — but my honest response while watching was “This is fucking stupid.” Is there going to be a whole third movie of things like this? Halloween Kills picks up the minute Halloween 2018 left off, so franchise heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is sidelined due to injuries incurred last time. Having read the script, Laurie knows exactly what Michael is and why he (fear) must be Faced and Defeated. She talks about this frequently, when she’s supposed to be concentrating on not bleeding out from the stitches she’s ripped. 

Almost as frequent are the gory deaths; every so often, Green snaps awake and brings someone into Michael’s path so that he can end them brutally. Corpses are always being happened upon, causing fear and grief. The mob rises, carried by the simplistic slogan/chant “Evil dies tonight!” Laurie convalesces with Deputy Hawkins (Will Patton), who gets a couple of flashbacks detailing his mishaps with Michael on that night in 1978 and the cop who offers to cover it up — suddenly we’re in small-town Sidney Lumet. Green stops the narrative dead so the cop can lay out what their official story is going to be. Again, this is yet another illustration of PTSD persisting for decades — the deputy is still miserable about his brush with Fear forty years later — but it feels dangerously like a sidetrack.

Halloween Kills is so obsessed with fear that it defines the actions and fate of everyone onscreen; how ironic that the movie packs so few scares. Green’s Halloween films may be the only movies ever made that concern an unstoppable killer butchering people but aren’t really horror movies. His first attempt worked because his concept was fresher then, but now it isn’t, and he has his work cut out for him on the next one. Halloween Kills isn’t hackwork by any means; the craft is high, the violence blunt and punishing, some of the performances believably rattled. (MVP for me: Robert Longstreet as the grown former bully Lonnie, who has a beer-scented, stubbly authenticity about him; he seems to have stepped out of a late-‘70s Stephen King book.) I can even respect what Green is trying to do with these films in theory. But in practice … oof. Green meditates on fear; John Carpenter inspired it.

Introducing, Selma Blair

Posted October 3, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary, one of the year's best

Screen Shot 2021-10-02 at 7.46.25 PM

As a young actress, Selma Blair developed something of a reputation for being willing to do just about any awkward or potentially thorny thing onscreen. It spoke to her honesty as a performer — we felt she didn’t do it for the attention (in her notorious red-box scene in Todd Solondz’ Storytelling, for instance) but because that was what the character did, and she was being paid to play that character. Within reason, Blair was just going to go for it, perhaps feeling she owed it to the woman she was playing to convey some sort of truth, even in a farcical construct like The Sweetest Thing

In Introducing, Selma Blair, the actress calls on the same candor to pull us into her misery following her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. Yet even when her body buzzes with pain or her speech becomes halting, Blair can usually summon her self-deprecating wit. Somewhere in Rachel Fleit’s sensitive documentary, Blair says her English teacher told her she had the makings of an actress, not, as she’d initially wanted to be, a writer. But there’s a warm clarity and humor to her language, even when she has trouble enunciating or finding the words. She could have been a writer, and still could be, if she wanted. This, after all, is a woman who begins the documentary self-satirically vamping like the past-it star Norma Desmond and ends it by floating face-down in her pool like the luckless screenwriter Joe Gillis. 

Blair is ready for her close-up, after a career that, in recent years, hadn’t rewarded her efforts. She allows Fleit access to her in her despair and pain and hope; in her hospital beds and tentatively riding her beloved horse again. (Blair’s sense of self is generally too astringent to make the movie a shameless tearjerker, but I felt a hard lump in my throat when Blair tearfully asked her riding trainer if she would adopt Blair’s horse if Blair didn’t make it through stem-cell therapy.) The narrative, for those who have dealt with the maddening ups and downs of real as opposed to Hollywood disease, can get tense at times. Time is a factor: Blair must undergo the stem-cell transplant ASAP or risk permanent brain damage. She bids a temporary (she hopes temporary) farewell to her young son Arthur and her ailing mother and heads in for grueling chemotherapy.

Here and there, Blair sardonically comments on the level of drama the disease and its undignified symptoms (imbalance, brain fog, speech bumps) have brought to her life. I wonder if her snarky self-awareness (a Gen-X icon through and through) helped her see that the role of Selma Blair, anguished MS patient, was a plum and complex role a lot of actresses might jump at. I’m not suggesting that was the impetus for the documentary; I believe Blair when she talks about feeling good that her struggles can bring comfort to others unsteadily walking a similar path — people like Christina Applegate, Blair’s costar in The Sweetest Thing, who went public with her own MS diagnosis in August. I would much rather have seen Blair acting, and only acting, these struggles in a good movie than enduring them for real. So would she have, I’d wager, but here we are.

Occasionally Introducing, Selma Blair (not sure why that comma is there) reminded me of the recent videography Val, which contrasted footage of a young, hot-shot, suave-talking Val Kilmer with the wounded man he is now. Blair’s movie doesn’t engage as much with her celluloid past, although it’s a painful irony to watch her moving with balletic grace in pre-MS clips and then witness her post-diagnosis trying to navigate stairs. We get bits from, I guess, her best-known films: Legally Blonde, Hellboy, Cruel Intentions. It was The Sweetest Thing, though — a rare-in-its-day female gross-out comedy, years before Bridesmaids or Girls Trip — that really showed me to what extent Blair was up for disregarding her pristine features and getting knee-deep in the risible muck of dysfunction and embarrassment. Any time Blair did something like that in a movie, I felt grateful she implicated herself in the eternal mess of being a person — didn’t stand aloof from it or deny it or soft-soap it. And she performs the same service here.

Cruella

Posted September 26, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, prequel

cruella

It’s entirely possible that the less real estate 101 Dalmatians and its various iterations occupy in your emotional neighborhood, the more you may feel free to enjoy Cruella, a live-action prequel unveiling the origins of one Cruella De Vil. She was born Estella, was orphaned as a girl, then fell in with a couple of Dickensian child grifters. Eventually she grows into Emma Stone, who dyes her natural two-tone hair a less showy deep blood-red and goes to work for the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a fabulous and malicious fashion-design icon. Cruella is about how Estella becomes Cruella, though tonally it’s unstable and off-putting, and it doesn’t seem directed so much as assembled.

That’s to be expected from director Craig Gillespie, whose previous film, I, Tonya, had similar themes and similar problems. Gillespie again can’t resist aping Martin Scorsese and swooping his camera through crowded rooms while the soundtrack is infested with period needle-drops. Cruella is supposedly set largely in the ‘70s, so we get the Stones, the Clash, Supertramp, the Doors, etc. As compellingly odd as it is to hear a Clash song in the middle of a Disney film, what people like Gillespie don’t get about the way Scorsese uses needle-drops is how the music emerges organically and emotionally — it’s not just there to make the movie cool. Cruella too often feels like a bunch of music videos glued together. It seems made to be thrown on the TV in the background of a party.

That’d be a stylish party, though, and if the movie launches a thousand Cruella Halloween costumes and drag queens next month, it will have done some good work. Truth to tell, a snarky, punk-goth riff on a Disney villainess sounded fine to me; I was a big fan of the Mouse’s previous toe-dip in this pool, Maleficent (though I missed the sequel). Full of pain and nuance, Maleficent more than redeemed the antagonist of Sleeping Beauty. But Cruella, though grounded in grief and poverty, is never less convincing than when it wants you to be sad — it’s just irrepressibly hosting its own outré costume party, although we don’t feel invited. Stone does put across a late-inning monologue directed at a fountain that represents her dead mum, but otherwise the movie’s conception doesn’t allow her or Thompson to transcend cartoonishness.

Here and there, Thompson does share the fun she’s having, swanning around in diabolically smashing outfits while everyone around her recoils in abject fear of her, and in some moments Stone’s conniving Estella/Cruella appears to be taking notes from the Baroness. (Or Stone from Thompson.) The level of craft is as high as Disney’s pockets are deep (one hears murmurs of a $200 million budget), but there was probably a firm ceiling on how arch and camp — on how gay, let’s not dance around it — Cruella could get without losing track of its bottom line. So it’s this sort of semi-closeted thing (though it boasts, in John McCrea’s fashion-shop owner Artie, Disney’s first “originally created openly gay character”) that doesn’t trade in nearly enough fun outsider queer-coding for a cult audience and isn’t legitimately queer enough for people who relate to Cruella and her cadre to be interested in it.

Even with all its weaknesses I might’ve cut Cruella some slack if it didn’t seem to play itself out at the 60-minute mark with over an hour left to go. A MacGuffin pendant is involved, leading to a tired twist. The style of the film comes on all Punk Sounds of the ‘70s, but the narrative is purely corporate story-meeting, with a lot of unacknowledged weirdness to unpack — we’re supposed to be jazzed that one sociopathically ambitious queen bitch is being replaced by another, who will go on to make dresses out of puppy skins? There’s no way an endeavor this costly is going to end on an ambiguous note or even in a way that closes off sequels. Nor does it want to go whole-hog into celebration, ironic or otherwise, of Cruella’s baser qualities. Cruella herself would find the movie dull and obvious, a wannabe punk decked out in Hot Topic.

@Zola

Posted September 19, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, comedy, cult, overrated

zola

Not everything needs to be a movie. That’s not to say that the legendary 2015 Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King doesn’t seem like — and play in our minds like, when we’re reading it — a movie-god-given piece of natural cinema material. It has everything: sex, violence, and, as Zola says in the first tweet, a story “full of suspense.” Zola’s common-sensical voice is loud and clear; it carries us through, and we can hear it in our heads, with its heartbeat-monitor spikes of disbelief and outrage. What I’m getting at is that Zola’s thread is almost a perfect little movie in itself. Imagining the story’s excesses, we collaborate, make it funnier to ourselves.

It gives me no pleasure to opine that @Zola, the movie director Janicza Bravo and her cowriter Jeremy O. Harris have made from Zola’s story, feels somewhat redundant. The actual film before us can’t compete with the mind-movie we made when reading the thread. (Maybe a viewer is better off going into the film cold.) I really didn’t want it to be this way. I was rooting for @Zola to be a disreputable but electrifying bonbon of sin and hyperbole, something along the lines of Spring Breakers or The Rules of Attraction in its mash-up of art and exploitation. And Bravo, who has a strong eye for trance-out color and movement, at first seems the ideal filmmaker for this tale. 

Part of the thread’s appeal, I think, is that its narrator (Taylour Paige) is Black and her companion, a sex worker here named Stefani (Riley Keough), is white. Stefani is also a hot mess who drags Zola into a hard-bass netherworld of guns and lust. Zola is essentially an observer on the side as Stefani, her pimp X (Colman Domingo), and her hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) make everything ridiculously worse. We hear some of Zola’s tweets as narration, though they may lack the tartness and surreal listen-to-this-shit humor they had in our heads. Taylour Paige is fine as Zola but somewhat inexpressive, ceding the movie to Riley Keough’s dumpster-fire Stefani, who talks like a dumb white chick’s idea of how Black women talk, gleaned from tabloid talk shows.

Neither woman seems to learn much from their experiences, though, and the movie arrives at a stop without having really arrived at an end — or a point. @Zola appears to advise viewers not to trust crazy white women, who are too padded by privilege to feel the sharp edges of the danger they get themselves in. (It’s the whiny, insecure Derrek, also white, who makes the worst mistake and almost gets everyone killed.) The film doesn’t put much stock in Black men, either. We’re aware we’re getting a subjective account (and Bravo puts the movie on pause to let Stefani control the narrative briefly), the purpose of which is to show the wisdom and resilience of a Black woman. No problem there, except that it tends to keep Zola at a remove. In this chaotic, candy-colored universe of sin and stupidity, Zola is the one keeping her head while all around her lose theirs. She’s watching and relaying the story; she’s seldom truly in it. 

Everyone else on screen is flawed, hilariously (Nicholas Braun kept getting unanticipated laughs out of me) or frighteningly (Colman Domingo’s stealth-African X loses his fake American accent when he’s angry). Zola isn’t. She has no quirks, no likes or dislikes, and when you get right down to it she exists in her own plot to save the infantile white people from the savage, street-smart Black men, who will get money out of your carcass any way they can, whether pimping it or murdering it. Can a movie written and directed by Black people be prejudiced against Black people? Not consciously, maybe. And I don’t doubt that Bravo and Harris must have responded to the wild tall-tale aspect of @Zola; I don’t presume classist bad faith on their parts — again, not conscious. Bravo is eminently worth watching as a director; the movie at its pure-cinema finest is like a neon mandala. But, man, does this film give off some discordant vibes. 

Kate

Posted September 12, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure

Screen Shot 2021-09-12 at 4.25.13 PM

Slicker than goose shit, Netflix’s #1 trending new film Kate is stylishly brutal and will probably be praised in some quarters accordingly, but it leaves us wanting more. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is laconically terrific as Kate, an assassin who gets poisoned and spends the remainder of the movie, and the rest of her shortened life, searching for the yakuza higher-up who gave the order. Kate kills her way through Japan, coughing and injecting herself with stimulants to keep going. Even just this far into the review, film titles may have popped into your head: John Wick and the Crank films and DOA (either version) and many others.

In and of itself, Kate is smoothly pieced together, but it simply echoes too many of its ancestors to earn a place among them. It’s probably best for fans of Winstead and of gnarly action — the fight choreography is quick and vicious, and the digital effects augment the carnage (Kate takes out one poor sap by shoving a knife through his lower jaw up through the bridge of his nose). Segment by segment, the movie keeps us going, like those stimulants, but ultimately it winds down, and our interest with it. Kate is provided with a damsel in distress, teenage Ani (Miku Martineau), whose uncle is a yakuza bigwig; her father had earlier been killed in front of her by sniper Kate, though Ani doesn’t know this.

Shooting and stabbing her way up the ladder of the Japanese underworld, Kate needs to keep the whiny Ani alive, and every time we see Ani, we’re reminded of how false this relationship feels, how roughly it seems forced into place. Thank God Kate’s maternal instincts aren’t awakened by Ani — Kate feels bad for getting Ani’s dad’s blood all over the kid’s face, but that’s about it. When Kate takes scissors to her hair in a restroom, she comes out looking a bit like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. The script, sadly, doesn’t give Winstead much to call her own. Kate is professional and pained and vengeful. She doesn’t have time to be anything else. For the sake of a cool visual late in the film — when Kate should be almost dead — she comes out, loaded for bear, smoking a cigarette and backed by numerous yakuza. Sorry, is this the same woman we’ve seen coughing in every scene and, pre-poison, jogging and parkouring up alley walls? There’s no reason for her to put more toxins in her body and mess up her respiration other than Rule of Cool.

Which, I suppose, will be enough for some. It’s probably an homage to Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer or Hard Boiled, or any number of films where an assassin blithely sucks up some nicotine before rolling up their sleeves and aerating dozens of foes. But Kate has too many moments like that, where we figure something’s there because someone (maybe director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, or writer Umair Aleem, or both) thought it’d look awesome. It does, kind of, but in all the old ways. Filmed in Tokyo, Bangkok, and L.A., Kate is full of decadent neon and Japanese hip-hop and densely packed nightclubs. There’s also an evil gay assassin (played by the musician Miyavi, the obsessed sergeant in Unbroken) who fights well enough but, jeez, why the yellow/pink peril?

It’s not as if the movie had anything to say about sexuality. Kate takes a rando to bed (contemptuously tossing a wad of cash on the nightstand), and if not for this guy, she wouldn’t get poisoned. Nothing he says to her strikes us as witty or persuasive enough to score with her, so why does she bother? Then again, we never ask why James Bond or other male assassins pause to savor the touch of a woman; maybe she just needs to work off some nervous energy. God knows she doesn’t have anyone else in her life, other than Woody Harrelson in a handful of scenes as Kate’s handler Varrick. (Is his first name Charley?) I wasn’t aware Harrelson had entered the stage of his career when he pops in for extended cameos in empty-calorie actioners; he probably does it better than Bruce Willis does at this point, but that’s not saying much. As with Winstead, his professionalism is appreciated, but one wants to be watching either of them in anything else.