They Remain

Posted February 18, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, horror, science fiction

theyremainA slow-burn psychological thriller like They Remain requires patience. It seems to be more about mood and paranoia than about plot or easy scares — kind of like John Carpenter’s The Thing but more minimalist, if that’s even imaginable. Most of the movie is a two-hand exercise, showcasing two actors — William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson — as scientists and former lovers who spend several weeks in an isolated woodsy area, measuring this and that, reporting on their meager findings. The woods, precisely photographed by Sean Kirby, amount to a third character, although we meet a sardonic pilot who interacts briefly with the scientists while picking up some evidence. The area is of interest for two reasons: animals are acting oddly, and the site was once home to a murderous cult. They may have left unfound corpses in the woods; some of the cult members may still be out there somewhere.

Ah, yes, Out There Somewhere, that time-honored horror trope. They Remain, adapted by writer/director Philip Gelatt from a story by Laird Barron, takes pains to maintain its ambiguity. Aliens? Demonic possession? Minds cracking under stress and isolation? We’re kept in the dark for a long time, and despite the film’s small footprint on the afternoon, it feels like a long time. The pace is obviously glacial for a reason, and achieves what Gelatt is going for, a meditative freak-out that runs partly on the scientists’ experience of boredom and repetition. Its ornery long-take rhythm may attract a small cult audience that zones out blissfully on draggy sci-fi (2001, Solaris, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Blade Runner 2049).

Might this have been happier at half the length as an X-Files episode? The scientists, particularly the man, get more and more fearful — the story is told through his eyes, so the woman becomes more and more suspect. Given that these characters could be of any color (or gender — they could be former gay male or female lovers), are we to place much importance on the identities of the male as African-American and the female as Caucasian? One could engage in quite a chunk of racial theorizing if not for the possibility that, like Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, the best actor for the role also happened to be black. Whether the various racial subtexts were or weren’t placed there, instead of cropping up on their own, we can’t quite help viewing the relationship and its attendant conflicts and rapid devolution through this filter, even though the text yields no drama about, or even acknowledgment of, the man’s race.

There sure is acknowledgment of the woman’s gender, though; at one point the man unleashes an existential howl of “Bitch!” The text, elusive as it is, doesn’t seem to disagree. But here I am, calling the movie a “text,” three times now. An artsy patience-tester like They Remain (named for some association with It Follows?) seems to demand to be read. The mood is all, and Gelatt is on point there, weaving a tapestry of curiosity and dread out of its Malick-esque visuals and its oddball score (by Tom Keohane) — he tries to make this underpopulated, one-location movie cinematic. The quietude is sometimes broken, too, by the characters’ nightmare visions of the cultists drifting around the trees and performing barely-glimpsed offenses to decency.

The land itself seems to be demonic, infesting its inhabitants with bad self-annihilating vibes. The soil contains secrets and mysteries, among them skeletons a hundred years old. We could say this cursed earth is America itself, built on the bones of the indigenous and the captured, and the text …. There we go again. Could They Remain be after something so banal as a built-on-Indian-burial-ground story, wrathful ghosts pitting black against white, woman against man, even in the hermetic context of a remote laboratory in a field? It’s worth asking why Carpenter’s Thing, which theoretically should attract lots of academic woolgathering, seems to exist completely outside of interpretation. Carpenter just said “These guys don’t trust each other” and that was that. The image of a black man and a white man facing each other with affable nihilism at the end of The Thing, with neither us nor them knowing who was human, doesn’t seem to mean anything outside of itself. That sort of thing sure seems to mean something in They Remain. But what?

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Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Posted February 11, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, underrated

Denzel Washington stars in ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.Public payphones have faded from the national landscape to such a degree that it brings us up short when we’re reminded they still exist. The titular hero of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) is a walking anachronism — he seems to exist in several different decades other than this one. His fro, his mashing up an iPod with nerdily large earphones, his very soul and rhetoric speak of a man who refuses to be tied down to anything so fleeting as time. He’ll plant his own roots on his own land. So in one scene you’ll see Roman checking several payphones for change, and in another there’ll be a reference to Uber. Like its namesake, Roman is ambitious and wonky and all over the place.

It’s a vibe that owes a lot to the seventies, to whose gritty, inward-directed aesthetic the writer-director, Dan Gilroy, genuflects in this movie and his previous Nightcrawler. You can say a lot about these movies, but you can’t say they’re safe or stale. Actors like Washington or Jake Gyllenhaal rove through Gilroy’s tales, white-hot and solipsistic. Washington’s Roman doesn’t really seem able to relate to whoever’s in front of him. He’s an idealist in the general sense, and he has a radical streak, but it’s wedded to his identity as an in-the-rear-with-the-gear lawyer — not a trial lawyer — with a possibly neuroatypical facility for recalling legal data. In his head, he’s a moral crusader, but in reality he’s just been dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for a failing, even corrupt, two-person law firm. Then the other person dies, and Roman’s story begins.

Roman’s firm and cases are subsumed into a larger firm headed by slickster George Pierce (Colin Farrell), Roman’s partner’s former student. In truth, Pierce has a more gratifying character arc than Roman does, or maybe a more movie-ish one. Pierce seems to exist in a more hopeful reality capable of redemption, a reality that Roman thought he lived in for decades and now rejects. Roman J. Israel, Esq. turns out to be about nothing less than a man’s mind breaking a bit when confronted with its own possible irrelevance, his values akilter, his moral compass magnetized into chaos. He loses himself, indulges in childish appetites.

Washington has been doing some hard work in the realm of idiosyncrasy lately, and in this movie he finds a kind of lyricism in a complex computer who stops computing. In opposition to the slicker but morally chaotic Roman we have Pierce, who gathers layers of compassion — he’s been looking for a Don Quixote to replace what his teacher once was to him, and almost seems to see Roman as a father figure. That’s obvious from the way Pierce responds to a breach of protocol on Roman’s part that may have cost a young client his life. Instead of firing him, Pierce comes to see Roman’s virtues and actually restructures his firm to reflect what he thinks Roman’s values are. Or were.

A motif through all of this is the major brick-like thing Roman has been toiling on for years, the legal brief that calls out the entire system itself. With help from a Farrell performance that starts icy but warms up, Pierce seems poised to help Roman carry the weight. The movie ends up saying that ideals will survive the cracked human containers who cart them around. On a thematic level, this resounds and makes intellectual sense to us. On a basic plot level, it seems pointlessly downbeat, even nihilistic. The movie seems to be in conflict with itself, in harmony with its hero. Like many of those ‘70s films cherished by film nerds, Roman is more beautiful for its flaws; it’s cantankerous and possibly insufferable and the sort of shot in the dark that grows in memory.

A Fantastic Woman

Posted February 4, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, foreign, one of the year's best

fantasticwomanThe low-key but affecting Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman, one of 2017’s Best Foreign Language Film nominees, restores the smooth melancholic power of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Time,” long a staple of easy-listening radio. Here it feels like a deep bruise of loss. A Fantastic Woman uses the common grief narrative and the less common transgender narrative to illuminate each other. Marina (Daniela Vega) is involved with an older but smitten businessman, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After a night out for Marina’s birthday, followed by a loving night in, Orlando wakes up feeling ominously poorly. Within hours he is dying of an aneurysm, while she is symbolically locked out of the room where he is being ineffectually treated. The Parsons ballad plays twice — first during their last dance, when the song carries less meaning because we don’t yet know it’s their last dance, and then under the end credits, when it may bring a tear.

Marina is a transgender woman, and it becomes apparent that Orlando’s family hates her and considers her a freak — though I imagine they would also hate her if she were cisgender. Marina’s being transgender just gives Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) and adult though childish son (Nicolás Saavedra) something to fixate on. Others make it an issue, too, and against the dramatic backdrop of Marina’s grief and loneliness, A Fantastic Woman shows the thousand cuts transgender people weather daily, the endless, casually dealt challenges to their dignity and humanity, the misgendering and prurience about their bodies.

What sets the movie apart and may make it a cult favorite is that the director, Sebastián Lelio, gives Marina a poker face that hides a more flamboyant view of herself. A fantasy sequence finds her doing one of those empowering Living Out Loud center-of-(positive)-attention dances in a club; right afterward, she walks home alone in the rain, but for a while, anyway, Marina transcends her world. A waitress by day, Marina is also an up-and-coming singer (Daniela Vega, also a singer as well as transgender herself, has a lovely voice); this seems to indicate the partitioned lives and identities of transpeople. Marina’s case attracts the attention of a detective named Adriana (Amparo Noguera), whose curiosity about Marina seems ambiguous. In a roundabout way, Adriana seems to think Marina killed Orlando in self-defense. Adriana has seen many cases involving transpeople, you see, and she knows how often they are assaulted. I can’t decide whether this reasoning is transphobic or bitterly realistic or both. But because her job demands it, Adriana must think in this way, and Marina must contend with many other people who think that way, or worse.

The scene in which Orlando’s belligerent son and other family members take Marina for a non-consenting ride is uniquely upsetting, even though, other than wrapping Scotch tape around her head (a weird, weird detail that’s meant to silence her and temporarily deforms her), they don’t physically harm her. It’s good, I guess, that this and a few standard epithets are all they have in them; their bark is worse than their bite, and even that is a tinny “arf.” It’s debatable whether that’s worse than the scene in which she’s forced to bare first her upper half, then her lower half, for the camera of a police doctor. Or when she has to show her ID, which legally still displays her “deadname.” Or when Orlando’s ex-wife deadnames her. People like Marina of necessity develop a wary relationship to society, and the one person who loved her for who she was is dead.

A Fantastic Woman is and isn’t an ironic title; Marina strives to be read as an average, un-fantastic woman, but there’s that chanteuse side of her, the side that fantasizes being lifted up on the dance floor. Marina daydreams about the glamour she thinks she can’t have, but there’s a serene glamour in keeping one’s composure despite minute-by-minute chips taken out of one’s self-esteem, a million microaggressions. These concepts, obscure to the cisgender viewer, are smoothly advanced by way of a tragic tale of lost love. Essentially, like Living Out Loud and Truly, Madly, Deeply and a ton of others, it’s about a grieving woman who learns how to move on; such movies’ success depends more on what they do with this subject than on how original the subject is. A Fantastic Woman lets us see grief through a fresh pair of eyes.

 

Lady Bird

Posted January 28, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, drama, one of the year's best

lady-bird-nytGreta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is one of the nine films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It doesn’t seem to fit the description — it’s wee, technically modest, undemonstrative to the point of obliqueness — and I don’t know that I’d put money on it myself, but the more time I have away from it, the more warmth I feel for it. It’s cozy; it’s fine. Its brushstrokes are light, and it never overextends — or extends, really. Its energies are almost wholly inward-directed. We ride along with the sorrows and temporary joys of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists that everyone call her Lady Bird. Why? The movie doesn’t tell us. Nor does there seem to be a compelling reason to set the story in 2002 and 2003. A lot of Lady Bird — its emotional meanings, specific references — seems locked away from the viewer, known and felt only by Gerwig.

It probably won’t do to speak of male or female styles of movie directing, especially in an art form that has given us Bigelow, Wertmüller, Lexi Alexander. But a movie like, say, Wonder Woman feels different from a male-directed superhero film in a million distinct, at times large and overarching, or sometimes almost imperceptible ways. They are elements that add up and assure you that you are getting a woman’s vision, which is all the more to be valued in an industry where the default — the experience that’s shared on film, and the audience with whom the experience is shared — is (white hetero) male. Lady Bird is unmistakably and unapologetically (white hetero) female. It’s a gentle thing, but far less fragile than it looks; there’s a hidden sadness in it, and strength from the sadness.

Lady Bird is a teenage student at a Sacramento Catholic school. She dabbles in this and that (running for school office, acting in plays), trying to find a self. In that way she’s a bit like Rushmore’s Max Fischer, though she has her own quirks. She’s dying to get out of Sacramento, to go to college in New York. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf), who works double shifts as a nurse to keep the family afloat, wants Lady Bird to be realistic about what school she can get into — and can afford. She has a boyfriend who turns out to be gay, then pairs off with a pompous ass in a band. She ices her best friend for a while in favor of a popular kid, then thinks better of it. Her entire life seems to be a repeating pattern of moving in one direction, backtracking, moving another direction, and so forth. The filmmaking, honoring this, feels diffuse, indecisive.

Actually, it’s right on target, a rare American inner-consciousness portrait that somehow doesn’t feel hermetic. The narrative may not literally reflect Gerwig’s life, but it has her warm and sympathetic touch; her personality can be felt. Lady Bird is far from perfect and often makes bad decisions, but they are her decisions. We never doubt that. In a repressive environment, she does what she can to carve her own space, to meet her own needs (a virgin, she swaps masturbation techniques with her bestie). She isn’t especially looking for a boy until she finds one — in both cases fixating on them while they’re singing (falling in love with their voices, I guess an inverse of The Little Mermaid).

We understand why she feels and acts as she does, and yet our empathy extends to people she has conflict with, such as her mother. Gerwig loves actors and small, telling moments, and actively avoids melodramatic plot turns you might expect. She bears down into mundane scenes and somehow makes them feel fresh by the sensibility that animates them. Gerwig’s obvious fondness for her characters (nobody in the film is all bad — or all good) is contagious. She loves and respects her creations enough not to put them in stupid, well-worn situations; she respects us enough not to foist such tired drama on us. We don’t see so much of that sort of consideration at the movies that we can afford to dismiss it.

Braven

Posted January 21, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: one of the year's worst

Braven-1
Filmed in snowy Newfoundland, the trim siege thriller Braven opens with some tasty widescreen views of the landscape. Tasty, but forbidding: You wouldn’t want to live out here, much less die out here. “If I’m gonna get shot I’d rather it’s hot than cold,” said a minor character in Unforgiven. “It hurts more when it’s cold. You know how if you hit your thumb when it’s cold” — and then someone tells him to shut up. But yes. We know. Thrillers or noirs set in the deep freeze have a physical heaviness and more intense painfulness than similar films set in San Diego. So in Braven, when men are stabbed and slashed and bashed and bled, our involuntary sympathetic wincing may feel sharper.

Physical solidity is about all Braven has going for it, but for a low-fat, no-frills sprinter like this, that might be enough, if only it weren’t so stoically laughable. Jason Momoa stars as Joe Braven, who lives up to his name, because you kind of have to. Joe’s pops (Stephen Lang), though neurologically disabled from a brain injury, is also Braven, as are Joe’s wife (Jill Wagner) and young daughter (Sasha Rossof). If the family name were, say, Wimpen, the movie would be even shorter and more anticlimactic. But here, Joe Braven isn’t only a loving husband, affectionate dad, and bringer of pain to lowlifes — he’s also a lumberjack. The sheer number of macho-noble signifiers built into this role Momoa produced for himself is breathtaking and more than a little funny, though the movie seems serenely unaware of the joke.

Joe finishes a hard, robust day of lumberjacking, and his co-worker slinks off to deliver some heroin; when the guy’s lumber truck flips, he finds Joe’s cabin and stashes the drugs there. This would be a better idea if Joe weren’t arriving shortly at the cabin with his addled dad and, unbeknownst to him, little daughter hiding in the back of the truck. Soon enough, bad men led by Garret Dillahunt converge on the cabin looking for the stash. And it’s then that the movie gets weird, because every single good guy in it seems to have secret lives where they had years of top-quality paramilitary training. Joe and his wife both know how to use a bow and arrow, and do so to damaging effect. Joe’s father, in his moments of lucidity, out of nowhere reveals sniper skills that would shame Charles Whitman. Too bad the kid mostly just runs and hides, because otherwise this is a whole hilarious family of expertly skilled killers.

Is Braven a stealth comedy? I mean, Jason Momoa seems to have some sense of humor, and the joshing here could be incredibly deadpan … or it could be presented in utmost monkish seriousness, which of course only makes it all the funnier. The climax involves a bear trap and a cliff, and plays like an unused alternate ending for The Revenant. At one point you’ve got Jason Momoa hanging painfully upside down, blood dripping up his nose, and that would be the ideal time to have him say something like “Man, I really didn’t think this through.” Dwayne Johnson would have. Dwayne Johnson is also maybe the biggest movie star in the world right now, and he headlines nine-figure blockbusters while Momoa gets a Canadian thriller so tightly budgeted it offers a truly cheapjack approximation of a truck crash. Go and do likewise, Jason.

I may have made Braven in its po-faced sincerity and obliviousness to its own goofiness sound more entertaining than it is. In the midst of the somber clownishness Stephen Lang brings vivid fear and pathos to his scenes as the disoriented Grandpa Braven. Joe, grappling with the certainty that his father will need to be “put in a home,” seems like a realistically troubled fellow. “I don’t want to fight, I just want to talk,” Joe tells his dad, not long before he stops talking and starts fighting. I’m not sure why all this painful background is included, except that ultimately Joe’s decision is taken out of his hands, and his responsibility, too. The movie ends up saying that there’s nothing like a good bloodletting to bring a family closer together while resolving the issue of inconveniently disabled elders. On second thought, this movie had better be joking.

Signature Move

Posted January 15, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, romance

signature-move-2017-001-wrestler-masksIf you feel like registering a gentle complaint about the current leadership, you could do worse than Signature Move, a lesbian dramedy about the maybe-sort-of-something between a Pakistani-American immigration lawyer and a Mexican-American bookstore clerk. Zaynab (co-writer/co-producer Fawzia Mirza) meets Alma (Sari Sanchez) at a friendly bar; they drink, dance, and fall into bed. The proudly out Alma would like the fling to become something more. Zaynab, fairly tightly closeted, isn’t sure; she keeps her sexuality from her recently widowed mother (Shabana Azmi), who spends her days sitting in Zaynab’s apartment, watching Pakistani soap operas and spying on passersby with her binoculars.

The script, by Mirza and Lisa Donato, is neatly assembled. The soap operas (Alma speaks in praise of telenovelas too) as well as a seemingly discordant note — female lucha libre wrestling — form part of the movie’s theme about acting, pretending, lying. It’s maybe a little too much of a coincidence that Zaynab takes wrestling lessons from a client (as payment for Zaynab’s legal services) and then meets and beds the daughter of a once-famed, now-retired luchadora. But I didn’t mind, because metaphorically it’s sound — the universe is conspiring to show Zaynab in ways painfully emotional and physical that she has to stop acting.

Director Jennifer Reeder, an indie-film veteran, keeps Signature Move bubbling atop a low flame, occasionally turning up the heat when the lovers enjoy each other (always clothed — save for a couple of words, this could be a PG film). It’s assured work from a filmmaker who values human-scaled awkward comedy over grand passion; the movie itself could have been handled as a soap opera, but Reeder disdains cheese (this is most welcome during the climax, at a lucha libre event). The women are agreeably paired: the warm and fleshy Sanchez matches up amusingly with the angular, neurotic Mirza, whose short swept-up hair and stoic default expression give her a resemblance to the young, imperious Camille Paglia.

One odd motif is the concept of a human being “coming out of” another human, the unlikely link mothers and daughters have despite deceiving looks. It also neatly sums up the dichotomous feeling many modern LGBT folks have when trying to reconcile their heritage with their sexuality. Sooner or later Zaynab has to move on past her mother, and so on. Signature Move packs a lot under a relatively small hood; the film weighs in at a slender hour and fifteen minutes, and sometimes feels like an extended pilot for a Pakistani-American lesbian New Girl. Join Zaynab, her girlfriend Alma, and their zany friends and family every week on NBC! Certainly there are worse things to say of a film than that we’d gladly spend more hours with its characters.

That’s probably more a result of the charm of the actors (I especially liked Audrey Francis as Zaynab’s wrestling coach, sort of an Illeana Douglas with biceps) than a reflection of the filmmakers’ goals here. Signature Move is short, but sticks around exactly as long as it needs to in order to make its point about the courage of declaring oneself (or one’s self). The abbreviated length also means we don’t have to wallow in the lovers’ temporary misery for very long. The movie is a perfectly pleasant bonbon for its target audience and its allies, and likely poison to those who don’t care for Pakistanis, Mexicans, gays, or women.

The Year in Review

Posted January 7, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

mother2Well, 2017 certainly was a year. It more or less began with craziness and pretty much stayed that crazy — though near the end, say in the autumn, we started seeing some pushback in the form of #MeToo. In fraught political times, every work of art seems to comment on those times, even when the commentary is unintentional.

My picks for the top two films of last year seemed to stand cheek by jowl in their efforts to explain the world in which we find ourselves, even though they were conceived and written long before January 20. Jordan Peele’s electrifying Get Out ran a paranoid premise through the filter of a lone African-American’s terror at the hands of outwardly benevolent white liberals. With its airtight structure and attention to detail and theme, it’s built for repeat viewings and long conversations. Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, hotly polarizing among critics as well as audiences, recast a biblical fable as an environmental cautionary tale — much like Aronofsky’s previous Noah. It was, in my view, the film of the year, a daft and impassioned folly that proves stubborn art is still possible on the major-studio level.

I loved Peele’s and Aronofsky’s efforts and look forward to more from them. I also celebrated the return of Patty Jenkins, who directed her long-overdue sophomore film Wonder Woman and made it into a fine refutation of nihilistic male domination in favor of female perseverance (the No Man’s Land sequence was instantly iconic). It became the official “Nevertheless, she persisted” movie, and seemed to set the stage for a period in which male sexual predators were called onto the carpet. One of them, Louis C.K., made a film that didn’t get released (but was shown at film festivals and sent out on screener discs to critics for awards consideration before its maker was disgraced) yet seemed to have the current moment on its mind.

The excellent series capper War for the Planet of the Apes was another accidental commentary on this xenophobic “build the wall” era. So was Mike White and Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner, which boasted, for me, the year’s great female performance (Salma Hayek) and found it within itself to allow some wit and dignity to a snide billionaire antagonist (helped by John Lithgow’s compassionate work). Colossal maintained that women can be monstrous too, though not as monstrous as a resentful, friend-zoned man. The tepid Wilson practically gave up on its eponymous anti-hero (Woody Harrelson) and let Laura Dern, as his long-estranged ex, take over the movie. Dern also shines, I hear, in the latest Star Wars episode, which I have not yet seen.

Star Wars, too, has become about how disaffected young white men can re-animate a bad old ideology (the First Order = white supremacy) while disillusioned old white men leave the battle for good to young women and people of color. (Eventually, the self-exiled, gray-bearded Luke Skywalker pulls himself together.) Blade Runner 2049, bloated as it was, spoke compellingly about the role of humanity in a cold tech future. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 was a terrific old-fangled yarn with old-school prosthetic gore as well as a 1970s respect for quiet human moments; it seems to cloak within it a sad critique of white-knightism and toxic masculinity, as did Zahler’s previous Bone Tomahawk. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seemed to have confidence in the potential for redemption, even for violent racists. Two middling efforts, The Shape of Water and I, Tonya, still put complicated, suffering femalehood at their centers in all its passion and rage.

In and out of the movie theater, 2017 was a year for struggling with the national identity. Are we to be compassionate or indifferent to injustice and inequality? How shall we define ourselves as a country — what world do we want to make for ourselves and our neighbors? The movies continued to tell us it’s important to stand against oppression in all its forms, even while some of those involved in making those movies were outed as hypocritical victimizers or enablers. (Kevin Spacey found himself un-personed out of the year-end Oscar bait All the Money in the World, replaced by Christopher Plummer.) Will we take up our swords and fight for the good we can be, or will we sink into self-abnegating despair like Luke Skywalker or Wilson or Rick Deckard? Increasingly, we are seeing women and non-whites stepping in. “We got this,” they seem to say; “be our allies or get out of our way.” The quality of our 2018 depends largely on the lessons we learn from 2017 — and its art.