The Stylist

Posted February 21, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

stylist

Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a hair stylist, and a good one. A loner who lives with a limping little dog, her attempts at small talk with her clients are a bit awkward, but she’s trusted enough to get a wedding-hairdo gig for Olivia (Brea Grant), a hard-charging magazine editor. What Olivia doesn’t know is that Claire is lonely to the point of psychosis. In her basement, Claire keeps an assortment of pretty scalps on glass mannequin heads; she tries on each one and pretends to be the woman she scalped. The Stylist, cowritten and directed by Jill Gevargizian, is an expansion of her 2016 short film (you can watch the short on YouTube). Here and there the burn is slow, but the feature doesn’t feel padded. Claire is part Leatherface and part Frank from the gory cult horror film Maniac, and almost every frame is devoted to her.

The difference between Gevargizian’s film and the recent Saint Maud, which also concerns a deeply troubled young woman and her thorny relation to the outside world, is that Gevargizian is simply a better filmmaker who knows when to sprinkle some humor, some humanity, some suspense. The Stylist is far-fetched but emotionally readable. It’s not going to show us the nuts and bolts of how exactly Claire has been getting away with her hobby; that part isn’t very important to Gevargizian, the disposal of bodies and so forth, not to mention how Claire poisons or drugs her victims so that she can scalp in peace. We wait uneasily for one of the unwilling hair donors to blink awake. More than once, Claire finds herself somewhere she shouldn’t be, and manages to hide or flee smoothly enough that we may wonder how much of her nocturnal activity is real.

A lot of this will crumble apart if subjected to too much literal scrutiny, so let’s not. Gevargizian intends The Stylist as a bloody, wincing metaphor for yearning for someone else’s life. A hair stylist herself, Gevargizian knows how well-heeled women talk to those they consider their servants, even if they fancy themselves too liberal to use that word for people who, in fact, serve them. Women frequently complain to Claire about their cushy but dull lives, not knowing they’re talking to someone who would gladly take over those lives. Claire never really does, though. She doesn’t go out on the town with her new identity as a blonde or a brunette; she sits in front of a mirror in her basement lair and talks to herself, echoing her victims’ dialogue. Even her insane method of self-actualization is smothered in secrecy — and isolation.

Claire’s ultimate project would appear to be Olivia, though it’s by no means clear that Claire would know what to do with Olivia’s life if she had it. As the movie approaches Olivia’s wedding, we wonder how it will play out; will Claire snap out of it and give up her extracurriculars, or will Gevargizian jump into the deep end along with Claire? That’s the source of most of the suspense and dread in The Stylist. Unlike the critically lionized Saint Maud, this film is actually about something besides the degraded mood of watching a sad woman deteriorate beyond help. It seems concerned with different strains of resentment — between women, and between socioeconomic classes. It follows a cracked protagonist without making the mistake of excusing her — or condemning her. It’s also one hell of a gnarly horror film, and one that has no shame whatsoever about that.

Saint Maud

Posted February 14, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, horror, overrated

Screen Shot 2021-02-14 at 6.53.03 PMEvery couple of years, a little oddity emerges from the indie-cinema beat and gets lionized as the next great thing to happen to horror. Generally these films are scrupulously calibrated and express the drive and obsession that a young filmmaker — in this case, Rose Glass, a British writer-director about thirty — feels about a story or a theme. What they don’t express is true fear. Glass’s feature debut, Saint Maud, meditates on a lonely young woman burning in shame. Once known as Katie, a bit of a wildcat, she has changed her name to Maud, shifted her nursing emphasis from hospital to hospice, and given herself over to God. At this point, I’ve seen so many somber art films about the rigors and torments of faith that a movie just amiable and matter-of-fact about Christianity (and no, not one of those awful belches of propaganda that usually star Kevin Sorbo or Kirk Cameron, either) would be genuinely radical and unique.

Saint Maud follows its lead (Morfydd Clark in a tremulous, detailed performance) as she tries to take care of her client, former dancer Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), struck down by lymphoma and approaching the end. Maud tries to get Amanda to hand it over to God, but Amanda isn’t biting. She fears the void but is reasonably sure there’s nothing else for her. Amanda’s doubts make Maud’s own misgivings flare up. Aside from a few people who seem to exist only to anger Maud, the movie really only has these two characters, and once Maud cuts herself out of Amanda’s orbit, it’s just Maud, and Jennifer Ehle’s serenely mordant vibe is badly missed.

Clark performs heroically, free of self-consciousness, worrying at her flesh or kneeling on popcorn kernels (ouch, but using Legos might’ve been funnier). For her part, Rose Glass takes the dread and anguish with the utmost seriousness, as if afraid to be unworthy of Maud’s stations of the cross. Glass creates a dour, foreboding mood that nobody is really allowed to tease — not even Ehle, handed this potentially juicy role but then finding most of the juice has dried up. In Saint Maud, I can tell what I’m supposed to be responding to, but it feels tepid and frequently-told one way or another. As Maud’s visions get weirder, the quiet material takes a Nestea plunge into loud horror; the film was distributed by A24, which also gave us the work of Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, and A24 would probably like you to think of Saint Maud as the next Hereditary or The Witch. The film has already inspired comparably caffeinated songs of critical praise; I wish I’d seen the same film they did, but the one I saw, frankly, feels twice as long as it is, and it’s only 84 minutes long. The one I saw is almost punitively dreary and grim; even an anecdote of casual sex, which should be an occasion to get some fresh air and acknowledge the power of pleasure, just ends in casual rape.

Rose Glass brings some verve and emotional vividness to the narrative. It’s not a bad movie, just glum and unengaging. Maud’s story just feels too familiar; it spends a lot of time competing with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (another A24 film) for the championship in tragically repressive religiosity, and then towards the end it’s as though First Reformed turned into The Exorcist. Yes, it’s likely imaginary, but the tonal damage is done. The true horror lies in watching a miserable loner spiral into madness, which is well-covered ground by now anyway, but the lapse into the often-tacky visual vocabulary of genre horror just shatters the spell.

Glass has talent and sensitivity, but a lot of potential drama in the material just slips through her fingers. And we get back to my earlier point: where’s the fear? Is there anything in Saint Maud that truly scares Glass? Sometimes, at good and bad horror movies, you might get one scene that truly feels sweated over, something that emerged from a genuine nightmare. But Glass doesn’t seem disturbed by her subject; she doesn’t seem to feel one way or the other about it. The story is just an excuse for slow-burn scenes with Maud trudging through her lightless existence until she finally goes completely around the bend. Does Glass feel anything at all about Maud? I didn’t.

Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez

Posted February 12, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comic-book, documentary

Screen Shot 2021-02-07 at 5.49.08 PMOn a lot of levels, Les Daniels’ 1971 book Comix: A History of Comic Books in America tweaked my ideas of what comics could be. Spain Rodriguez’ anti-bourgeois underground comix hero Trashman was a particularly sharp tweak. Here, relatively early in my experience of superheroes, was an artist with the heart of a biker and the soul of a revolutionary who created an anti-hero, nonwhite to boot, that didn’t care whether larger society approved of him. Down these mean streets a man must go, who is himself quite mean and tarnished but not afraid. Spain may not have been mean — one of his comics stories shows him hesitant to kick a biker adversary when he was down — but he was often the first to admit he was tarnished.

Directed by Spain’s widow Susan Stern, Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez is a portrait of a man who didn’t take well to being told what to do from the right or the left. Neither did most of Spain’s contemporaries in the pages of the seminal Zap comic, such as R. Crumb, Robert Williams, or the recently departed S. Clay Wilson. Many of the male underground artists weathered pointed criticism by feminist comix creators and/or historians (Trina Robbins, who is both, is interviewed here); of them all, Wilson, with his fixation on filthy outcasts and pirates hacking off limbs and genitals, was perhaps the most glaringly “problematic.” So why did Rodriguez, whose depictions of women were relatively benign, take such heat? An unhappy reason begins to fade in: Rodriguez was the nonwhite guy in a collective of pale guys, and his work had a political consciousness that afflicted the comfortable without much bothering to comfort the afflicted.

Stern’s film is about as neutral as it can be, spiced up with archival footage and copious examples of its subject’s art. It doesn’t come near Terry Zwigoff’s masterpiece Crumb, though maybe only because Spain’s life doesn’t offer as much baroque family stuff to work with. In Crumb, you can see for yourself what skewed young Crumb’s perception and drove him to get out. Bad Attitude gives us an artist who seems to have arrived fully formed. Like many of his generation, Spain grew up on the grotesque EC line of horror and crime comics in the ‘50s, and those fed his warts-and-all aesthetic as much as anything. Spain’s comix are highly entertaining, especially his autobiographical biker stories, though I’m partial to his street scenes, masses of humanity moving through boxes of lights and buildings. It’s hard to envision a Spain comic that doesn’t have streets in it, usually littered with junk and billboarded with actual ad art snipped out of magazines. The underground artists were all about drawing stuff you’d never seen in comics before, and that could mean perverse sex and it could also mean just the usual detritus you kick out of your way walking through the city, stuff you wouldn’t see in Superman or Fantastic Four.

Either way, the underground artist was after a more authentic way of representing the world as he or she lived it, and that was certainly Spain’s M.O. (Cancer finally took him in 2012 at age 72.) Spain may not have “gotten” feminism (but struggled to understand it and its evolution all his life), but the ladies all seemed to dig him. (A few, including Stern, pose holding a Spain drawing of their younger, more zaftig selves.) The movie assures us that Spain may not have been 100% enlightened on every progressive topic, but he wasn’t unwilling to learn. His man-eating heroines like Big Bitch are essentially Wonder Woman filtered through Spain’s wish-fulfillment of women as powerful, sexy icons.

Seeing your subject as more than human is, sadly, a kinder way of dehumanizing than seeing your subject as less than human. In both cases the subject isn’t quite human. It’s a common thread in art, but not, I would guess, out of any conscious hatred or need to deny humanity; the artist just naturally has a different take on what humanity is. The highlight of Bad Attitude focuses on one of Spain’s slice-of-life anecdotes about the time he and some buddies encounter a gay guy in the park (who pleasures at least one of them) and then beat him up and “roll” him for his dough. Spain just presents the story without comment — “This is what happened.” In the story, titled “Dessert” and collected in the Fantagraphics Spain volume My True Story, Spain mostly stands apart from the abuse and witnesses it. Should he have intervened? Sure, but he didn’t. He recounts it for us but doesn’t tell us how to feel about it or about him. The last panel of the comic, though, shows the bloodied but unbowed gay guy saying “I can’t wait to come back again next week.” So the joke is on his abusers, who only got what was in his wallet but didn’t take anything important, didn’t stop him from further pursuit of illicit fun. That Spain not only gave the gay guy the last word but imagined a sympathetic way for him to flip the script makes Spain, I think, a great artist who was honest about the failings of humans but not nihilistic. Neither a good nor bad attitude, then — just realistic.

The Wanting Mare

Posted January 31, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house

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If you’re anything like me, you sometimes find the idea of engaging with difficult art — dry philosophical writing, discordant music, slow and artsy film — more appealing than the reality of it. Such might be true of Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s feature debut The Wanting Mare, which I almost feel I owe a second viewing. It’s everything I often say I want more of in movies, and so I dearly wish it had grabbed me at any point. A little humor might have helped; a darting spot of personality. But it’s an art object, and the people in it are not characters so much as concepts. Here and there it reminded me of another doodle of artsy fantasy, Begotten, although this film at least appeals much more to the eye.

Maybe too much. The Wanting Mare was shot mostly in a huge storage unit, even though more than half its scenes take place outside. Bateman then spent several years digitally painting the backdrop, or, if you will, the world. So the space the actors seem to inhabit doesn’t exist, but then the actors barely seem to exist in it either. The images have richness and depth; the characters don’t. I think we glancingly see one character laughing, during a montage in which we don’t know why she’s laughing. The scene is abstract, like the rest of the movie; the woman laughing stands in for the idea of merriment.

The montage is supposed to pull us into identification with young couple Moira (Jordan Monaghan) and Lawrence (Bateman), who meet inauspiciously when Moira happens across a bleeding Lawrence after he bungles a robbery. In this stark world, which has intimations of the apocalyptic, people speak in whispers about their dreams of the time before. Whatever that past was like, it was probably better than the movie’s present, where people kill and die for precious tickets to journey “across” to a better land. I read somewhere that Bateman wants to make further movies set in this bifurcated world of Anmaere, and again, the idea of a shared-universe series of stubbornly obscure art films is much happier than the actual films would probably be.

After a while, all the movie has going for it is its artificial environment, and sadly there’s at least one shot where you can see the seams, a car’s wheels that are clearly rolling across a flatter surface than the bumpy soil that was cooked up in a computer to go beneath the car. When a movie rests so heavily on the authenticity of its visual fakery, a glitch like that really wrenches us out of its spell. The movie hasn’t earned the simple warm goodwill we extend to the iffier shark effects in Jaws, agreeing to overlook one klutzy shot because every other one has been fantastic. The images in The Wanting Mare are gorgeous, but they don’t connect to much, and they unfold at a remove from us.

The uncharitable suspicion grows that the movie considers rumpled, ornery, funny humanity too crude for its scheme. People whisper languidly at each other. Generations pass; babies grow into women who adopt other babies who grow into women, and they’re all looking for The Dream that exists somewhere Across, from the World Before. The dialogue is almost all capitalized like that. The conversations are somberly meaningless — plot blurts that read like cookie fortunes. Part of the backstage drama of the film involves Bateman hinging everything on effects to be added later, effects he had no idea whether he could pull off. Well, mostly he has, and the movie is one hell of a calling card — proof that Bateman can craft bleakly convincing scenery. What he needs are compelling people to stick in front of it.

Tenet

Posted January 24, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, cult, one of the year's best, science fiction, thriller

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There’s a guy, brave and smart. We’ll call him the good guy. Watch now as we point him in the direction of the bad guy. The bad guy wants to make everything die. Why? Because he’s the bad guy. The good guy, being the good guy, must stop the bad guy. This, sincerely, is all you need to understand Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It’s also the basic bones of your choice of spy tale, including the Bonds. But, as with many of those spy stories, that good guy-bad guy skeleton is all you take away from Tenet. That’s fine; not every movie needs to be Tarkovsky. Tenet is perfectly readable and enjoyable as the “ride” Nolan wants you to go along for.

Of course, people will want to hang analytical ornaments all over it, wrestling with what this or that symbol or word really means. Let them, but if you value your sanity, follow them not too deeply into the weeds of interpretation. Someday, I hope long after I’m gone, someone will sync Tenet to a deep-cut Pink Floyd side — Atom Heart Mother, maybe — and the world will end, folding in on itself into an origami chicken that pecks itself to death. On a certain level, Tenet can and will be taken as a higher-math mind trip, though one that, like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, relies for its humanizing element on the trope of a mother-and-child reunion. Here, the trope is somewhat cauterized by the casting of Elizabeth Debicki — whom Warner should be looking at to play an Amazonian rival of Diana’s in a future Wonder Woman film — as the mother.

About a head taller than most any man with whom she shares the frame, and with no attempt by Nolan to cover by putting the men on soapboxes, Debicki has the equipoise to shoulder Tenet’s emotional weight without herself becoming bathetic. Her Kat Barton at least has recognizable human motives, unlike the protagonist (John David Washington), puckishly named only as The Protagonist. T.P., as I’ll call him in the interest of saving space, is a CIA agent charged with the mission of preventing a Thing (McGuffin, bomb, worldkiller, whatevs) from getting into the hands of the Bad Guy (Kenneth Branagh). The complication: the Bad Guy can access the future. So T.P. and his new bestest buddy Neil (Robert Pattinson) go back and forth between the back and the forth in pursuit of the Bad Guy. Most of this is only an excuse for Nolan, whose gleeful little inner child playing with trains really shows himself here, to indulge in massive set pieces involving squadrons of crew, an actual plane ramming into an actual building, many millions of dollars, and Kenneth Branagh doing a muted version of the Bond villain he’s always thirsted to play.

Other than a couple of scenes with Branagh and Debicki on a yacht — and even those are contextually loaded with dread and foreboding — Tenet is always in motion, never catching its breath, always beating feet to the next big bang. The physics/metaphysics by which people can travel to next week or last week washed over me nearly unnoticed. It’s just details. I responded to Tenet as a gigantic tone poem of motion proposed and then rescinded, bullet holes sealing themselves up and bullets rocketing back into their chambers. (What happens if you get hit by a backwards bullet? It ain’t pretty.)

I came to realize, with this and his previous film Dunkirk, that Nolan seems to be leaving plot behind to focus on story, and to make story bend to the reckless will of cinema. And it’s true, some of the stuff here has never been seen before (on this scale) and will likely only be seen this once. The really zesty moments wouldn’t work in any other medium, and watching it on my laptop (with subtitles), I understood with a twinge of sympathy why Nolan was so adamant that Tenet be seen on big screens. This work has been designed to be viewed on an enormous canvas, and Warner and Nolan should have held it back until it was safe for audiences to do so. But it may also find a life as a Brobdingnagian cult film, an ambitious and pricey folly to shelve alongside Cloud Atlas and a few others. It means what you want it to mean, and I don’t want it to mean anything. It’s just a ride.

One Night in Miami…

Posted January 18, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, biopic, one of the year's best

14one-night-2-superJumbo-v2Ossie Davis famously called Malcolm X “our own Black shining prince,” and One Night in Miami… adds three other princes. Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) heads to a Black motel to celebrate with Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) on the occasion of Clay’s ascension to World Heavyweight Champion. On some level, in the words of Kemp Powers (Soul), who wrote the One Night script based on his play, these were “the Black Avengers” — a supergroup of “living Black manhood” (again as per Davis) in different but parallel ways. Each man was engaged in rising up and trying to take as many Black people as he could up with him.

The irony is that all four men gained their fame and power in front of audiences; only one, Malcolm, did so before largely Black audiences. The rest had to function as entertainers or gladiators for white viewers, who bestowed prestige and money on them as long as they knew their places. But Malcolm appears as the other men’s conscience, often an irritating one for them. Malcolm is always going after them for compromising themselves. What he doesn’t realize — since he’s caught up in his own identity crisis — is that they, like Malcolm, are souls in flux. Clay wants to join Malcolm in the Nation of Islam. Malcolm, who has butted heads with Elijah Muhammad, wants to leave the Nation of Islam. Brown wants to pivot from football to movies. Cooke wants to write songs that mean more.

One Night in Miami… ends before the men all get what they want; it also ends before two of them, Malcolm and Cooke, were killed, months apart, under still-disputed circumstances. Director Regina King proves the old saw that actors turned directors tend to be the best actors’ directors. She creates a comfortable vibe for the cast to stretch and project — the movie is leisurely paced, bordering on but never really crossing over into slow. The tempo was different then, not because the need for change wasn’t urgent but because everything took longer. The narrative reflects that, but King varies exteriors and interiors smoothly enough that the story doesn’t feel as stagebound and talky as it might.

Besides, most of the time, what the words are about is much larger than four guys in a room, and the guys all know that. Having the culture’s magnifying glass pointed their way has given them all some level of self-awareness. That they’re consciously playing roles doesn’t make them less sincere; the point is that Black people in America have had to play roles to survive for 400 years. And these four men, in the peak of their prime, the pride of their shining, want to renounce, fully or in part, their heroic roles. They want authenticity in their words and their lives. The actors give us the faces the rubes see, but then quiet down for their private moments as men, not icons. There are some stretches when you can forget you’re watching these specific legends — you’re just seeing four men wrestling with changes that will anger everyone in their lives. As if it weren’t hard enough being Black in a place that continually reminds them of that.

Of the four, I found myself most drawn to Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X. The movie seems to be about him, though the story doesn’t happen without Clay’s victory and subsequent get-together. Like I said, Malcolm is the ghost haunting the attics of the other three men. Malcolm himself, as we know from his memoir and Spike Lee’s film of it, was constantly in a state of change right up until his murder. He recognizes this in his three friends — especially Cooke, whom he comes down on particularly heavily — and tries to goose them along, sometimes breaking out his electrifying street-speech cadences, which the others respond to with “Man, shut the fuck up.” One Night in Miami… is a comedy of friendship as well as a drama about how change has to come because that’s what living things do. When you don’t change, you’re in the grave.

News of the World

Posted January 10, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, Uncategorized, western

news-of-the-world-universal-pictures-1“We’re all hurting. These are difficult times,” says Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) to a packed crowd in News of the World. The year is 1870, not 2020, but the words ring accidentally true for us. Captain Kidd is a remorseful Confederate veteran who now makes his living by traveling from town to town, reading newspapers to the gathered folk. This was when news was still valued, though at one point Captain Kidd runs afoul of a man who seems to lord it over his town and its news; the local paper is full of accounts of the man’s glory. This, too, is relevant to us, though perhaps not so accidentally. The movie is about atoning for one’s past through usefulness to the larger community. As Captain Kidd opines, his is not a rich man’s occupation. One hopes it will come to be valued again.

News of the World is decidedly a change of (literal) pace for director Paul Greengrass, famous for his herky-jerky Bourne movies and his stylistically fitful studies of modern historical chaos (United 93, Bloody Sunday, Captain Phillips). Here, Captain Kidd covers the miles on horseback or coach or foot, and Greengrass eases up accordingly; you’d have to go back to his 1998 romantic drama The Theory of Flight to find him this becalmed, this steady of brushstroke. Tom Hanks obliges Greengrass with a contemplative turn, tight with grief and guilt, but open to the warmth of company. On his way from one Texas dustpile to another, Captain Kidd encounters a felled coach, a lynched Black man hanging from a nearby tree, and a girl (Helena Zengel) who speaks no English — just a smattering of German, from her original family, and Kiowa, from the tribe that took her in as one of their own. Captain Kidd takes it upon himself (after several false starts) to bring her “home” to her aunt and uncle.

With the astringent Greengrass in charge and the increasingly no-nonsense Hanks in the saddle, the story is approached with minimal cuteness; a certain level of manipulation is built into the material (from a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles), but mainly the film steers around it or tamps it down. If not for a dusting of PG-13 epithets and a stretch of ugliness involving an owlhoot who seeks to buy the girl, and then comes after Captain Kidd with two other men, this could be a family Western, sharing some traits with True Grit (either version), but with the dark undertone of The Searchers. The resulting shootout between Captain Kidd and the men, bolstered by the girl’s quick thinking, is a deft piece of suspense. Even there, Greengrass doesn’t revert to his old habits of jittery handheld camera or Cuisinart editing. Post-Civil War, even gunfights take a long time. Greengrass and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski pause and gaze upon the luxurious, unspoiled expanse of New Mexico (doubling for Texas).

Given that we just watched dirtbags shuffling through the halls of the Capitol bearing the Confederate flag, it may strike some as an iffy prospect to be asked to feel for a man who fought for that side, even if he is played by Tom Hanks. But Hanks imbues Captain Kidd with an intelligence that tells us the captain was most likely conscripted into defense of his birthplace, and was not acting out of any particular fidelity to the traditions of slavery. Still, we gather Captain Kidd sent his share of Union soldiers to Valhalla, regretfully, which makes him a complicated hero. (In the book, Kidd fought in the other, less divisive but equally noxious War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.) As we saw in Saving Private Ryan and Greyhound, Hanks is a natural at painting men skilled at war who take no pleasure in it. That prior experience with Hanks does a lot of the movie’s work.

I don’t think News of the World was consciously made as “the movie we need right now” (how many films in the past year have been thus described?) — it’s a leisurely tale as much about storytelling as about anything else. One nice thing Hanks does is to refrain from making Captain Kidd any kind of great raconteur or proto-anchorman. Standing before his dusty crowds, Kidd squints through spectacles, bending almost in half over the newspaper he’s reading from. He seems to be doing this simply because it’s something he can do, not because he has any passion for it. By the end, though, the pleasures of story have brought animation to Kidd’s reading and wit to his telling. And we appreciate the happy ending because don’t we all deserve one? These are, after all, difficult times.

Promising Young Woman

Posted January 3, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best, satire

promising-young-woman-trailerThe gut tension starts early in Emerald Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman. Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is by herself at night at a bar, seemingly so blitzed she can barely sit up. Some nearby horndogs take notice, and one of them heads over to her. What follows, as the guy compels the scarcely sentient Cassie to go back to his place for a drink, trades one form of stress for another, a more deeply unsettling one. Cassie is nowhere near as drunk or oblivious as she seems, and her M.O. is quickly established: She purposely attracts predatory dudes, then confronts them with their own piggishness. One of the insights that writer-director Fennell has is that all these guys, two minutes after trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman, still want to portray themselves as not that bad. They’re not, like, rapists or anything, they think, not long after they were planning rape.

But this isn’t quite the #MeToo Death Wish some critics have painted it as. It’s a satire — like, dark satire, Juvenalian satire in which hardly anyone comes off well, except maybe Cassie’s gentle dad (Clancy Brown, gainfully cast against his usual type). It satirizes the inverse of its title: the “promising young men” (Brock Turner, say) whose lives stand to be ruined if they are held accountable for their crimes against women. And the women’s lives? Young women, presumably, are not as promising. It’s a bitter, necessary title for a bitter, necessary near-thriller about a rage-filled woman who always seems about to cross over to violence but never does, except the violence she does to men’s egos.

Promising Young Woman is, alas, a bit pulpy; it runs a little too far on coincidence. If Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie’s, didn’t pick the coffee bar where she works to grab a cup, there wouldn’t be a first-act spin to kick the material up a notch. Ryan is a doctor, and Cassie was once going to be one, too, but she dropped out of med school to take care of her friend Nina, who was raped at a party. Usually, as in Ms. 45 and other revengesploitation, the annihilating angel is herself a victim, but Fennell works around that trope to haunting effect. Nina is never seen, but looms large over Cassie and over the movie. When we first meet her, Cassie’s vengeful fury is a bit random, scattershot; she only shames those who approach her with foul intent. But Ryan and the world he’s part of give Cassie sharper focus. Ryan seems a decent sort, quietly witty, and we dare to hope that Cassie finds some happiness. But the goblin of coincidence raises its furry head again; there’s a revelation that some will take as a betrayal and others will already have seen coming.

I saw it coming, but Promising Young Woman still left a stinging mark on me as one of the year’s best. I continue to insist that, as more marginalized people step behind the camera and take the reins of story — women, people of color, LGBTQ+, etc. — we will see how their approaches differ, often in wonderful ways, from that of the standard default white-cis-hetero-male director. There is a foglike dread, dread of how bad things can get, that runs through violent female-made films like Jane Campion’s In the Cut and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin — a subtle undertone of the silent agony that male supremacy is built on. And I find it in Promising Young Woman, which isn’t really a “horror film” but is about horror, true horror as it is felt and lived, the horror of being violated and then ignored, having to live on in a world that doesn’t care that you were raped. That, in fact, would rather you just shut up about it or die.

The movie may leave you feeling like an open wound, but I can’t deny it’s also fun a lot of the way. Carey Mulligan gets to play an emotionally stunted, eternally disappointed woman, and she finds notes of wit in Cassie’s pain — she may be in pain, but she also is a pain. That Cassie isn’t a wide-eyed goody-goody allows us to enjoy her manipulations as a sort of theater of rage. This one random guy may have had nothing to do with her friend’s savaging, but he’s still a guy who can be taught some brutal truths. Ryan seems different, but don’t they all? Promising Young Woman sees all men as grinning reptiles pulling at themselves; it sees through Cassie’s eyes without 100% buying into her particular actions, but still doesn’t disagree with her. And if we didn’t do concern-trolling with Bronson and Eastwood and all the rest about their vigilante actions, we don’t need to start now with Cassie.

Wonder Woman 1984

Posted December 27, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, comic-book, sequel, underrated

ww84Kristen Wiig is raring to give a classic large-scale performance in Wonder Woman 1984. Her character, the terminally awkward gemologist Barbara Minerva, sits with rage born of neglect. Barbara gets a chance at real power, and it turns her into a monster, literally: she further elaborates that she wishes she were an apex predator, and she becomes Cheetah, a cat-like villain. But why a cheetah? At least in Batman Returns, Catwoman had a cat and was saved by a bunch more. Barbara likes leopard print, so … okay, we’ll go with it. Anyway, Wiig would have an easier time of it in a movie that foregrounded her more, but the script brushes Barbara off as much as her colleagues do. She doesn’t even get a decent final scene, just a protracted fight that turns Wiig and star Gal Gadot into clashing CG figures.

This is not a good movie, and it’s not a bad movie. Wonder Woman 1984 is enormously ambitious, overlong, sincere, sloppy, trying to do something profound with somewhat silly ingredients. I much enjoyed 2017’s Wonder Woman (which like WW84 was directed by Patty Jenkins), but I think I feel a fondness for the sequel that I don’t for the original. The earlier film had the purity and sharpness of a drillbit; the new one, to put it outrageously mildly, does not. It has large things on its mind, some of which are accidentally relevant to the current moment; its message is that we should wish for the common good. An ancient stone comes across Barbara’s desk care of the FBI; it turns out to have the power to grant people’s wishes. Everyone wishes for self-serving things; even Wonder Woman uses her wish to bring back her long-dead soulmate Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Eventually Cheetah draws blood, Wonder Woman’s powers are ebbing, and nuclear bombs dot the sky.

That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air; Jenkins drops more than a few of them, but not the ones that mattered to me, the emotional beats. There is another villain here, the bull-slinging television personality Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), who gets ahold of the wish-giving stone and absorbs it into himself. Sometimes WW84 wants to be about geopolitics, and sometimes it wants to be about relationships, and sometimes it wants to be about this magic stone that does weird things to people. It refuses to decide to be about one particular thing, and I grew to like that — indeed, WW84 is a terrifically likable movie. It doesn’t hate anyone, not even the skunky Max, who goes around granting wishes in exchange for power. But something has to give, and when we don’t get certain connective scenes featuring Barbara/Cheetah to give us more of a grounding in the process of her descent to villainy, some of the emotions the movie triggers in us get short-circuited. The narrative bumpiness can read as indifference to Barbara, and to us.

Then again, there’s a scene early on where Wonder Woman (in her day-to-day persona Diana — the name Wonder Woman is never spoken here, though, as in the first film) goes out to lunch with Barbara and they talk about love and loss and loneliness, just like two grown-ups in a film for grown-ups. Jenkins handles stuff like this with aplomb, and is equally good at the action insofar as the special effects allow. It’s the story beats that a superhero movie seems to require that get muffled or half-assed, as though Jenkins weren’t interested in them; we’re not particularly either, but every so often a chunk or bit of orphaned story will bob, chewed and dead, to the surface, and it’s disconcerting. Some people will come away from WW84 confounded and hostile, seeing it as the latest example of big-movie big-money assault on coherence.

I understand that response, and the movie doesn’t make it easy to get on board if you’re not on right at the start. But the Young Diana Chronicles prologue hooked me (I’m not sure it has a thematic link to what follows, but it sure is fun), and soon after came a goofball heist right out of comics and movies of the ‘80s, and I was in love. I always wanted more, not less. A four-hour cut of this thing sounds fine to me. As it is, it feels like they shot a six-episode Wonder Woman series and then hacked it down to feature length. Like I said, Cheetah suffers the most from what I presume were some pretty heavy cuts, although there’s a subtle detail that leaves the door open for Cheetah and, more importantly, Wiig to come back. It’s not as though Wonder Woman ever had many big recurring villains aside from Cheetah, anyway. But — and this question goes to the movie, not to the comics, which answered it — why a cheetah?

The Year in Review

Posted December 21, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

invis

So, how’s your year been?

If anything can be universally agreed-upon these days, it’s that 2020 has been the crappiest year in living memory (and as I write this, it still has ten days left to mess with us). Particularly battered this holiday season are those who make, distribute and exhibit movies. Now, I know it’s hard for most of us to feel sorry for stars and executives who command and get seven- or eight-figure salaries. But the working folks, from the assistant focus puller to the stand-in to the ticket-takers at the local mall, are suffering. There are a lot of folks who never get mentioned on Oscar night who are the underpaid glue that holds the entire Hollywood contraption together. They’re hurting a lot more than Christopher Nolan is.

Nolan, of course, earned his envied position as the artistic rainmaker at Warner Brothers by delivering three insanely lucrative Batman movies, as well as a number of non-Batman movies that also made money. His latest film Tenet, now available on streaming and physical home media, was the first major motion picture to open in theaters exclusively during the pandemic and its attendant shutdowns. Nolan was very adamant about Tenet being the movie that would bring people back to theaters. Result: the movie ended up as #11 on 2020’s top box-office list, behind ten movies that came out pre-pandemic  — and, in some cases, were leftovers from December 2019. The latter explains why 1917, a 2019 latecomer that didn’t get a wide U.S. release until January 2020, wound up #2 on the list.

As it stands now, Warner announced it’s going to release its 2021 movie slate on streaming (HBO Max) as well as in theaters, and Nolan and other Warner directors responded with much finger-shaking disapproval. They don’t quite get that the experience of watching a movie has changed, is not going back any time soon, and was already headed for that change even before the pandemic. COVID just hastened the exit of the genie from that bottle. But I’ve written about the logistical aspect of this before. What about artistically? What will it do to movies as an art form?

The short answer is that movies that share the sort of virtues that we associate with classic or at least top-quality cinema are increasingly moving to streaming, leaving the theaters to the tried-and-true blockbusters. It was getting increasingly hard to find a year-end box-office top-ten list that had a single film not based on existing media or a sequel or aimed at kids. Last year’s top-ten list had Disney in seven of the top eight slots. Serious drama and top-rank comedy has largely gone to TV — cable, streaming, even network TV. You’re going to find the 2020s equivalent of The Godfather Part II as a limited-series event on HBO or Hulu or Prime before you’ll find it at the multiplex. (Wanna feel really bad? In 1974, Godfather II made $57 million. That’s $313 million in 2020 money, which would have placed it at #10 on last year’s list had it been released then. But of course it wouldn’t have made that much in 2019. But it did 45 years earlier. Were movies better then, or were we?)

But then look at this year’s top ten, and Disney only appears once, for a movie it released in 2019. Let’s not get optimistic: the number-one movie of the year is still a very-belated Bad Boys sequel, which would not have happened in a year that was supposed to bring us a new Bond and two new Marvels. And you know it’s been a scrawny year for box office when the notorious flop Dolittle still made it to #7 on the list. But Dolittle came in just ahead of Little Women, with its respectable $70 million gross. The Call of the Wild is also on there, and whether or not you felt it was a decent representation of the book, what was the last year-end list where you saw Jack London and Louisa May Alcott adaptations?

I think the saddest story in 2020’s top ten belongs to The Invisible Man, which did well but could have done gangbusters. It should’ve been a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller. And indeed it covered its small budget four times over on its opening weekend. But then COVID happened, and it was whisked from theaters and onto streaming. A movie like this really loses something when you watch it at home alone (though I still found it gripping) and not in a packed theater with the usual screamers and laughers around you making it a shared experience of dread and shock. That’s the kind of experience old-timers like me mourn about the old way of seeing movies. It might come back. But will we recognize it if it does?