The Love Witch

Posted December 4, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, overrated

lovewitchEvery frame of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is lavishly loved and fussed over, and every frame is unquestionably Anna Biller’s: she directed it, produced it, wrote the script, edited it, designed the sets and handmade the costumes, and composed the music. The movie has a luscious dreamlike look, too, shot (by cinematographer M. David Mullen) on 35mm in radiant tribute to the Technicolor Euro-horror of the ‘60s. I would love to award it high marks in areas other than the purely technical, but the troublesome truth is that The Love Witch, while stubbornly idiosyncratic and unmistakably a vision, is also dawdling and hollow and kind of awful, really — difficult to sit through, once the creamy visuals lose their novelty. It’s a long two hours, and it could have been worse: “If I had not cut any lines out and I just kept it the way it was in the script,” Biller has said, “it would have been three hours.” Jesus wept.

The narrative, such as it is, follows lonely witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) as she sets herself up in a new town and goes about finding men to seduce and lure to their deaths. There’s a good deal of talk about how men and women differ, and all the men are blinkered or pathetic or both, which may be what the film’s supporters are talking about when they call it “feminist.” Elaine does seem to be trapped, stylistically as well as in the script’s context, in a reality in which she is defined solely by her appeal to men and her power over men. But it’s Anna Biller who traps her there, and I couldn’t work out how the polymath director felt about her heroine or her struggles. Biller seems content to photograph the externals.

Some of the movie comes close to camp or just falls in, as when Elaine is assaulted by former friend Trish (Laura Waddell in the film’s only genuine performance), whose husband Elaine has stolen. “Skank! Whore!” Trish yells, slapping Elaine while wearing a wig cap — the movie helpfully provides its own drag-show re-enactment. A sequence in which Elaine is confronted in a bar by a mob of superstitious goofballs (“Burn the witch!”) is frankly terrible and staged with incredible clumsiness. The Love Witch will be worshipped as a fetish object by a certain breed of film nerd who luxuriates in its DIY retro aesthetic, but it isn’t really a movie — it would have to move first, and the pacing is leadfooted. The plot’s pairing Elaine with a stolid detective (Gian Keys) just leads to a handfasting scene at a local ren faire that seems to go on for six, maybe seven years.

I wonder if any of the hipsters cooing over the film have seen George A. Romero’s 1973 effort Jack’s Wife (also known as Hungry Wives or, on video, Season of the Witch). It tells a bleak and discomfiting story about an abused wife who finds, she thinks, acceptance and family in a coven. Romero’s film is technically uneven but feminist in a way The Love Witch isn’t — it grapples with reality vs. ideals, and ultimately presents its heroine as trading one form of domination for another. The Love Witch isn’t nearly as complex or, really, as dramatic. It seems transfixed by its star, who acts in the same arch, artificial manner everyone else does (and I wish Biller had been as obsessive about the sound as she was about other things in the production — the dialogue sounds tinny, hollow, amateurish).      

Truly, witch narratives can get deep to the heart of this country’s Puritanical weirdness about women and the Other. Robert Eggers’ masterful The Witch, from earlier this year, carries an oblique (and therefore more powerful) charge of blasphemy and transgression against patriarchal force. But The Love Witch has no inner life, no deeper meaning beneath its attractive surface. People will appreciate it, if they do, on an aesthetic level or even an ironic one, but I don’t anticipate it touching anyone’s heart in the way that even teen junk like The Craft did twenty years ago. Its smug, glazed beauty walled me off from feeling anything about it except impatience.

Jackie

Posted November 27, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic

jackie

When considering Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I remember Priam’s line from The Iliad: “I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; / I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.” Jackie, of course, was not the first First Lady to be widowed, but surely the first to be so publicly widowed, her agony magnified and reflected back to her by the media. Once the Zapruder footage was made accessible, there she was, spattered and panicked, forced to move through the motions of abrupt bereavement over and over for the edification of conspiracy theorists everywhere for all time (“Back and to the left … back and to the left”). She did not have to put her lips to the hands of Oswald (or whoever pulled the trigger), but she did, I think, endure what no other mortal woman had endured, at least on that scale.

Jackie is the latest attempt to dramatize the 20th century’s most famous widow’s experiences, anchored by an uncanny vocal impersonation by Natalie Portman, whose Jackie is appropriately brittle and confounded. Towards the finish, the movie administers a couple spoonfuls of sugar to make the existential medicine go down — John Hurt appears as a priest to explain to Jackie and us why Jackie, and we, go on in a world without meaning, and there’s a bit too much dewy-eyed romanticization of Camelot. (I swear I could hear old Gore Vidal snorting in disdain from wherever he is.) But most of the film is a delicate, trickily structured poem of sadness, the kind of sadness that recalls Aeschylus’ “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

That structure, by way of screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín, flips back and forth as Jackie talks. She talks to the country while giving a tour of the White House and her revamp of same; she talks to the aforementioned priest; she talks to presidential chronicler Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). So the woman rendered hysterically silent by that Zapruder footage is given a chance to speak copiously for herself, even if she engages in conscious mystification. (More than once, she tells White that something she’s just said is off the record or that she didn’t say it at all.) Again and again, Jackie explains herself in plain English. Past a certain point, though, words are inadequate. Her husband is gone. Her two (surviving) children no longer have a father. This experience has been shared by millions, famous and not, but the details distinguish Jackie’s unique suffering.

With the aid of Mica Levi’s boldly emotive score, Larraín distills tragedy down to a few potent drops. (Larraín has said he dislikes biopics, but he’s got two out this season — this one and the upcoming Neruda.) He pretty much hands the movie to Portman, who finds volumes of variations on Jackie’s poised and sometimes archaic speech (“I’d rather them at home,” she says of her children at one point, in the sort of syntax one seldom hears any more). The editing, by Sebastián Sepúldeva, stitches it all together firmly enough but is occasionally too fancy — there’s a cut from Jackie angrily trying to remove her wedding ring to Jackie swallowing a pill, and it took me out of the movie for a second (“Wait, did she just swallow her ring?”).

For the most part, though, Jackie keeps things clear and preserves its subject’s sadness in amber. Some people forget she had a whole other marriage and life after JFK; for them, she is forever defined by her first marriage and its brutal end. Portman brings the icon of widowhood to sharp, sometimes prickly life — her Jackie will control how her story is told, thank you very much. After a while, we see how the pieces fit together. The reporter, the priest, the TV tour of the White House hosted by Charles Collingwood (father confessors all) — it all speaks of a woman who did everything a mid-20th-century woman was supposed to do: married well, made a beautiful house for herself and her family, but then lost it all. Like a lot of women in the ‘60s, she then had to find meaning without all those things to define her, and she did, though beyond the movie’s purview.

Miss Sharon Jones!

Posted November 20, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

sharonjonesBarbara Kopple’s compassionate documentary Miss Sharon Jones! was completed in 2015, got a limited theatrical release last summer, and hit DVD earlier this month. It is newly relevant for a saddening reason: its subject and star, the retro “queen of funk” singer Sharon Jones, passed away just last week. That makes watching Miss Sharon Jones!, which follows Jones as she deals with her first bout with pancreatic cancer and finishes up her Grammy-nominated album, more bittersweet than it might have been. It is well worth the watch, though, especially for viewers/listeners (like me) who hadn’t been familiar with Jones and her work with her band the Dap-Kings.

In recent years, Kopple, whose early work tended towards the political (1976’s Harlan County USA and 1990’s American Dream both won Best Documentary Oscars), has focused on female entertainers in extremis: films about Mariel Hemingway (Running from Crazy) and the Dixie Chicks (Shut Up and Sing). Miss Sharon Jones! devotes about as much time to Jones undergoing chemotherapy as to her music. Though there is some cookin’ footage of her and the Dap-Kings onstage and in the studio, the movie isn’t primarily a concert film; it’s a portrait of a woman and her art and the sickness that temporarily — and then, outside the reach of the film, permanently — stopped the music.

Intimate but not invasive, Kopple’s camera takes us close to Jones and her fear and pain. But Jones perseveres, and her strength permeates not only her singing but the movie itself, so that we don’t feel gross or exploitative for watching a dying woman. For, of course, at the time of filming, and possibly right up until the end, Jones was very much a living woman. I’ve heard and read many performers talk about whatever awful physical or mental torment they may have been going through, and as soon as the lights and applause hit them, all was forgotten. Sharon Jones frequently dances in this film, dances like a woman half her age and with none of the illness. The force of her will is exhilarating and, at times, a little intimidating. I would not have wanted to get between her and whatever she wanted. I would almost feel sorry for her cancer if the fucker hadn’t caught up with her in the end.

The movie shows us the power of art and music to transform Jones from a suffering middle-aged woman to a volcanic goddess of song. It does this with a minimum of cant or bathos. Jones is seen to have been a devout Christian, and one of the extended examples of her singing and dancing, as the shackles of her disease slip visibly from her body, takes place in a church. Kopple doesn’t underline this; it’s just part of the DNA of so much African-American music. Jones was a uniter: her fans are racially mixed, as are her band and her friends — her best friend, a white nutritionist, gladly put Jones up at her home for a while. Again without pushing too hard, the movie speaks gently for kindness between diverse people. It’s a message I don’t mind hearing just now.

In brief, Miss Sharon Jones! has more on its plate than just Miss Sharon Jones. In just 93 minutes, the movie encompasses a good deal of experience and truth, and we get to hear some mighty fine retro funk while we’re there. Like the Dixie Chicks film, whose subject was the backlash after Natalie Maines voiced anti-Bush sentiment during the run-up to the Iraq War, the movie captures the impact of one band member’s problems on many other people. Jones knew she had to go on — the Dap-Kings depended on the income from performing. She also knew she couldn’t just sit home and mope — the music was perhaps a more vital therapy than the toxins pumped into her veins. And now, in this year that has taken so much from us, she is gone, too. She was not a household name (despite doing the talk-show rounds to support her album), but a lot of people felt her loss sharply. She meant something to more people than she might have realized. I hope she did realize.

Ghostbusters (2016)

Posted November 13, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy

kateThe key to the Ghostbusters reboot is that it works not so much as a comedy (it’s fitfully amusing) or as a big-budget adventure but as an unforced celebration of feminism. The four heroic women suffer some sexism, but not enough to get in their way significantly (they mostly power through and do what they want anyway). If they’re not taken seriously, it’s not because they’re female but because they insist in a secular age that ghosts exist. At heart it’s a story about two friends since childhood, who grew up to be scientists Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), and who have grown apart since co-writing a book on the paranormal, which Erin has disavowed. The whole creaky, noisy spectacle leads to the moment when one of these women literally jumps into the abyss to save the other.

That’s what it’s all about, in the end; saving the world is okay, but sisterhood matters more. Ghostbusters has a sketchy script (by director Paul Feig and Katie Dippold), which functions largely as a clothesline for supernatural gags, but then so did the script for the sacrosanct 1984 original. (Aside from Peter McNicol’s performance, I’d just as soon forget about the wanting 1989 sequel.) I think Feig and Dippold, probably with the encouragement of the actresses, really just wanted to tell a small-scale story about the bond between smart women, and in Ghostbusters they seized the chance to do it on a massive scale, on a $145 million budget. God knows most of the legitimately funny bits could have been filmed in a one-bedroom flat for five dollars. But movies like that don’t get greenlit any more. Movies that cost $145 million and have a connection to a beloved franchise do.

Feig enjoys stories about friendships between women, and he has told them again and again in the last few years, in Bridesmaids and The Heat and Spy. Two minority women, the African-American subway worker and armchair city historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and the crypto-gay nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), round out the quartet of ghostbusters, and they all go to the limits of existence for each other. They’re afraid but forge ahead anyway, the true definition of bravery. Ghostbusters was not as big a hit as it should have been, or else McKinnon would have handily stolen the summer and perhaps the year. She gives us a scientist highly entertained by the buzz of her own brain; weird noises and asides keep leaking out of her — she’s placidly unstable and very much giddily alive. Jones’ Patty largely recalls Richard Pryor’s routine about black people’s comically pragmatic response to the supernatural (get the hell out) while managing to feel much less like a token afterthought than Ernie Hudson’s black ghostbuster in the original.

This Ghostbusters doesn’t feel like its predecessors, or look like them; it lacks the original’s cool, slick ‘80s lamination — the director of photography is Robert Yeoman, who provides the warm, bright hues of every Wes Anderson film (and all the aforementioned Paul Feig movies). The phantasms glow sickly green, and spew green slime; the improved technology gives us more visually elaborate ghosts but can’t give us a reason for their ghosting around. There’s a plot thread about some nerdy mad scientist trying to start the apocalypse (ah, that old thing), and the movie itself seems fatally uninterested in everything to do with it. This nerd gets killed about an hour in and spends the rest of our time hopping from body to body, eventually settling inside the ghostbusters’ hunky but dim secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, enjoying being stupid). I don’t imagine Paul Feig cared about the whys and wherefores of the ghosts; I know I didn’t.

Yet Ghostbusters is commendable for its respect for intelligence, its regard for friendship; its Stronger Together emphasis feels like a balm in the cold days post-Hillary. (It may be best apprehended as an artifact of the era when a female president seemed tantalizingly imminent.) Unlike the original, it doesn’t proceed from a writer’s genuine hungry obsession with all things inexplicable. The ghosts symbolize loud, chaotic elements seeking to split up our heroes, so they have more going on under the hood than they did in the original, where the ghosts didn’t mean much of anything except gag fodder. Here, the ghosts have a certain beauty and pathos, and are sometimes scarier than their ancestors (though Slimer makes an appearance, as do many other fan-service ghoulies and actors). The movie is more readily comparable to Feig’s other work than to its forefather. It’s a comfortable night out (or in), pleasing and unchallenging.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Posted November 7, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: shakespeare, Uncategorized

amnd2Sixteen years ago, the Rhode Island filmmaker Richard Griffin made his feature debut with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Now he comes full circle with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Griffin had wanted to make for years. Artists as diverse as Peter Brook and Neil Gaiman have tackled this supernaturally-tinged romantic comedy, and Griffin, who usually leans dark whether he’s dealing with horror or comedy, lightens up and opens his palette. He and his frequent cinematographer Jill Poisson are like little kids with a big bucket of Crayolas; everything is bold, vividly colorful, magic seen at magic hour.

The play itself I have mixed feelings about. We needn’t go into them. What matters is what an adapter does with it, and Griffin makes high entertainment out of it. He isn’t in the least intimidated by Shakespeare, perhaps because he started out making one of the Bard’s less prestigious plays. (“I knew you when, buddy,” Griffin might be saying to Shakespeare; “I was there when you were hacking off hands and feeding people their own children.”) And he’s comfortable with the story’s otherworldly aspects; he builds an atmosphere where people — whether regular humans or faeries — can be theatrical, stylized. Nobody here goes small. Johnny Sederquist, for instance, creates a Puck in anarchy shirt and rave-club makeup, endlessly amused by what fools these mortals be.       

There’s an element of cruelty in the premise, in which faeries use magic to turn hapless mortals into romantic puppets. The faeries, of course, are romantic love itself, the most simple and baffling of emotions, turning people into animals, or a literal donkey. Almost subliminally, in a matter-of-fact way, the openly gay Griffin turns Midsummer Night’s Dream into a queer-friendly, inclusive ode to l’amour fou. The play toys with gender to begin with; Griffin recasts “rude mechanical” Peter Quince as Rita Quince, who in the person of Christin Goff kept reminding me of Elizabeth Warren.

Griffin’s casts are always eager and robust — his joie de cinema rubs off on them — and the standout here is Ashley Harmon, whose Hermia is vulnerable, rageful, driven to frustrated dementia by her near-complete lack of agency. Harmon grounds Hermia’s suffering, and the play itself, in something real. Without Hermia you don’t have the darkness that the light of the play is designed to dispel; she might be the play’s backbone, its unsung hero. The rest of the cast bathes in Griffin’s and Poisson’s creamy Argento/Bava colors, having a grand old time and sharing it with us, but Harmon comes at things more sharply, speaking for the common woman (who isn’t so common).

A lot of foolishness unfolds under the dappled purple sky, a lot of poetry in the charged night air. Griffin sets the movie in “Athens, Massachusetts, 1754,” but the spirit feels modern, playful. (The occasional anachronistic gag is sprinkled into the mix, giving weight to the idea that the play’s concerns straddle the centuries.) As usual, Griffin manages to make a movie that looks — and also sounds, thanks to Daniel Hildreth’s lush score — as though it cost about a thousand times more than it did. As before, he brings the Bard to the screen with no fuss or pomp. If you’ve heard me go on about Griffin before, but you were too bashful for his naughtier films and too squeamish for his gorier efforts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as fine an introduction as any to his raffish charms.

Kate Plays Christine

Posted October 30, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, biopic, drama

960At the beginning and end of Kate Plays Christine, as the lead actress Kate (Kate Lyn Sheil) is prepped by make-up artists to film her character’s suicide, I think we’re meant to remember Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Kate wears a wig cap that makes her look bald, and her expression bespeaks despair in expectation of doom, yet relief that the despair will be over soon. The image is allusive and electric, an anomaly in an otherwise rigidly interiorized film with bland visuals to match. Kate Plays Christine is a sort of documentary, or a mockumentary (though mostly laughless), about an actress researching her role in a movie that doesn’t exist outside of the movie being made about it.        

The role is Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV reporter who was notorious for a while back in 1974, when she put a gun to the back of her head and pulled the trigger while sitting at her newsdesk on live television. She prefaced her act with this deathless contemptuous snark: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.” That’s some heavy-duty nihilism, and Chubbuck, cast from the same dark mold as Susan Sontag and Anne Sexton, had a hooded and harrowed look. Some people are unreachable; nobody was ever going to reach this woman or get behind those pained, inward-focused eyes.       

For whatever reason, Chubbuck’s story — a lonely woman, a virgin at 29, driven to public self-execution by the demons she heard gibbering in her head after sundown — has inspired two films this year, the other being Christine, a more conventionally structured biopic. Kate Plays Christine questions its own existence and, by extension, that of any movie that presumes to speak for the dead, or any male director who tries to interpret a female subject. The writer-director Robert Greene likes to play with format and interrogate performance, and his work here is no different. He uses Chubbuck’s tragedy and Kate’s immersion in it as a way to critique the inherent voyeurism of movie-watching as well as the inherent exploitative nature of moviemaking.       

We watch Kate, an earnest 31-year-old actress with soft, sad features, drift around doing research and asking questions. Kate is convincing as this meta-version of herself, but the footage we see from the movie in which she plays Christine looks — intentionally? — amateurish. Greene may be saying that this flat, clumsy footage, or something like it, is the natural result of any attempt to trap the wildness of true experience in the amber of narrative. This may all sound intriguing on paper, but in practice it’s often dull and strained, and we get the queasy sense that this woman, likable enough, is beating herself up doing something that Kate Plays Christine essentially says is not worth doing.        

Whatever the intentions, Kate steeps herself in morbid homework, reading up on suicide, buying a gun from the same place that sold Chubbuck her gun, swimming in (and ruining her wig in) the same waters that Chubbuck swam in. In brief, the movie answers any possible criticism of itself by pre-emptively including that criticism in its DNA. In the end, Kate profanely sums up the movie’s own self-hatred and lashes out at its audience for good measure. Boy, she sure told us. This, at least, feels true to the saturnine Christine Chubbuck, but it still gives us nothing about her except the surface. For all its self-aware shame, the movie doesn’t have the balls to ask the biggest question: if making a movie and performing a role with a suicide at its center is morally dodgy and not worth doing, what then makes it worth watching?

Michael Moore in TrumpLand

Posted October 23, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: concert film

michael-moore-in-trumpland-slice-600x200Has Michael Moore broken some kind of record with his new stand-up-punditry film Michael Moore in TrumpLand? This movie didn’t even exist three weeks ago. It was filmed on October 7 and 8, and it premiered less than two weeks later. Welcome to the wonderful world of digital, I guess. Anyway, the movie, which Moore sprang on the world with a flourish last week, captures Moore during two talks at the Murphy Theater in Wilmington, Ohio, a town that Moore tells us leans largely (or bigly) toward Trump. So here comes Moore, the lefty barnstormer, to take his argument behind enemy lines, with the marquee outside blaring “Trump Voters Welcome.”

I don’t know — and I’m sure Moore doesn’t know either — how many people in Moore’s theater audience were, in fact, Trump voters; there’s really no way to know. I don’t trust Moore’s editing: Who’s to say the man photographed scowling during a Moore paean to Hillary Clinton wasn’t filmed at some other point in the evening, actually frowning at something else? (This is nothing new, of course; editing makes audience members seem to respond to something other than what they actually responded to in practically every concert film you’ve ever seen.) We also don’t know if he changed anyone’s mind. Does it matter? At this point, people are pretty well seated where they’re at, and they’re probably not going to be budged.

What the movie amounts to is a fearful-sounding plea by Moore for everyone to vote for Hillary. Moore is not as sure of Trump’s defeat as many are. By his own account, Moore was in England during Brexit, and that experience — people voting as a “fuck you” to the status quo, and ending up fucking themselves — seems to have scarred him. In July, Moore rattled a lot of his fans by insisting that Trump would win. Most polls these days beg to differ, but Moore might also have been trying to galvanize people into action, which he also tries to do here.

In a way, Moore’s instincts towards compassion sabotage his proselytizing efforts, because as a native of the much-disgraced Flint, Michigan, Moore knows the frustrations of the working class and can understand why they want to blow up a system that gave them the shaft. He may be erring on the side of idealization when he says Trump boosters are decent people (all of them? The white supremacists? The bigots of all stripes? Milo Yiannopoulos?), but he seems to want to begin with a clean slate and work around to something Trump supporters and Clinton supporters can agree on. To be honest, I wonder if the true impetus for this movie was so that Moore could have a filmed document of himself publicly agitating for Clinton. Why? Maybe to assure Moore’s imagined post-apocalyptic post-Trump generations that at least One Man Stood Firm.

Moore feints towards common ground, but mostly pays it jokey lip service. I’m a Moore admirer with serious reservations: I feel that he can speak powerfully for the downtrodden, but that his effectiveness can get lost in smug self-regard or just plain snark. During this show, Moore literally walls off Mexican audience members and sics a drone on Muslim listeners, ostensibly to make the Trump voters in the house feel safer. Well, first of all, this sort of unfunny stunt isn’t going to endear you to the butts of the joke, the Trump voters. Second, Moore’s output is awfully, awfully long on this sort of unfunny stunt. I know Moore is generally on my side of the fence. I also know Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t prevent a second Bush term.

Then again, Dinesh D’Souza’s shitheaded 2016: Obama’s America didn’t prevent a second Obama term, either. (Nor, I think, will D’Souza’s recent Hillary’s America function as intended.) Generally folks who take in agitprop are not looking to have their ideas changed, but confirmed. D’Souza didn’t help convert Obama leaners to Romney, and Moore didn’t pull anyone away from Bush to Kerry. He isn’t going to do that to Trump, either. Trump seems to be doing a superlative job of that to himself. This concert, filmed in the moments right before the truly ugly Access Hollywood recording got out, doesn’t take that into account. This election season has been so weird, has moved so quickly into such unforeseen places, that even a film that was shot (as I write this) fifteen days ago can’t keep pace with it.