GoodFellas

Posted September 13, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's best

Goodfellas-Ending-Joe-PesciThere is no dust on GoodFellas. Thirty years old on September 19, it still sprints along as if Martin Scorsese had made it yesterday, at first with the bouncy step of youth, then slowing slightly to account for greater gravitas, then going into coke-fueled turbodrive before a relatively sedate final sequence, and then Joe Pesci — representing the movie as well as the ghost haunting all wise guys — fires his gun right at us. I hadn’t seen the movie in its entirety in years — contenting myself with watching favorite clips — so I’d forgotten how evenly it flows, except when (by design) it doesn’t. Over the years I’ve gone back and forth over whether this is Scorsese at his best. Let’s say it was his doctoral thesis at that point; it was a 47-year-old master taking everything he’d learned and watched and putting it into his most personal film to date.

Towards the home stretch, we’re told — in narration by our guide, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) — that gangsters referred to each other as good fellas. Not only does that phrase never appear in the movie until Henry mentions it, it doesn’t appear in Nicholas Pileggi’s source book Wise Guy, either. But for various reasons, Scorsese couldn’t use the book’s title, so GoodFellas it was. We all hardly notice it now, but that’s a weird title, especially stylized with the big F. Anyway, the title is one indication among many that GoodFellas was actually fairly radical. All its idiosyncrasies are part of the canon now, part of film language. But Scorsese wasn’t just pinching from classical cinema; he was importing bits from French new wave and avant-garde. It’s the only way he could fit so very much stuff in one movie, even a movie just south of two and a half hours.

Henry, half Irish and half Italian, always stands slightly apart from the Sicilian crime family he falls in with. He is with them but not of them, and the same is true of skilled Irish thief Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), who like Henry works for neighborhood goombah Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Squint at GoodFellas and you might see it with fresh eyes as the story of an Italian boss who never should have trusted Irishmen (like Hoffa?). Jimmy is shrewd, but he inadvertently helps dig the hole to hell in some ways — he fails to keep a lid on the Cicero family’s most mercurial button man, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a butcher with the mouth of an insult comedian. Never happier than when he can bounce his contempt off of a dense colleague or underling (alas, poor Spider), Tommy has a quick, almost imperceptible tipping point to homicidal pique. If you weren’t there in 1990, even after Pesci was in movies for about a decade, it’s hard to imagine what a concussive blast Pesci’s performance was — hilarious or terrifying, and then switching places on subsequent viewings. Pesci’s Tommy is the mob’s corroded soul, though occasionally a lonely note of morality does pipe up; “You’re trying to make me think what I did here,” complains Tommy, oddly, after he has shot the gofer Spider in the foot.

That line — possibly ad-libbed, as so much else in the film was — haunts me. If you kill for a living, you don’t want to think what you did here. GoodFellas exists to prove that thesis, though it starts all fun and games, with Tony Bennett blaring as young Henry stares out at the mob guys hanging out at the cab stand. To us they look like meatheads, but to Henry they’re a ruling class, heedless of laws or government or even school. The first hour or so is a tale of dark enchantment, dark as wine or blood. Henry and his new bride Karen (Lorraine Bracco, imposing loud and welcome womanhood onto a movie otherwise populated either with mothers or “hoo-ers”) are swept into it. It’s terrific fun. For a certain type of toxic masculinity, it’s the party that never ends. When Henry and Karen are ushered into the Copacabana in that famous tracking shot, if we look closely we can see the fishing line pulling them to their table, the lure baited with a thick wad of hundreds.

After that first hour, GoodFellas pumps the brakes a little; a violent event and its tragic consequences dim the mood considerably (I will leave them unspoiled for the newcomer). Michael Ballhaus’ camera still swings and swoops with nimble gaiety, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing still stitches everything together gorgeously, but the movie has slowed its excitable forward momentum. (Even before that, the aftermath of the Lufthansa heist and its “Layla”-scored viewing of corpses have shown us, with bleak tragicomedy, where crooks can expect to end up — hanging up in a meat truck, say.) Then Henry gets into cocaine, dealing and snorting, and takes on a second girlfriend on the side, and Scorsese makes a mini-movie about having a coke-induced heart attack — at least it feels that way to us. It’s a ferocious stretch of filmmaking, and when Scorsese finally stops it, it comes as an abrupt relief, like a rapid cessation of pain. So we return to my earlier question: Is this peak Scorsese? I’d like to think he’s made other films just as good, in very different ways, in the three decades since. Just in the past few years, Wolf of Wall Street was amazing, Silence was powerful, The Irishman an elegant shroud over the mob life. But GoodFellas feels to me like the movie Scorsese was put here to make. And he made it accordingly.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Posted September 6, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, art-house, one of the year's best

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One question we’re left with by Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things: did Kaufman mean to cast two actors with almost the same first name except the I, or was that just a freakishly apropos accident? There are many other questions, this being a Kaufman script based on a twisty Iain Reid novel. One of them is extratextual: how does Kaufman keep getting the money to direct these whatsit movies, which in any case have been few and far between — aside from the films he only wrote (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, etc.), he previously helmed Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015). I, for one, am glad the money is still there for Kaufman’s mad-lab literary experiments, albeit from Netflix, the 21st century’s surprise patron of the arts, even stubbornly weird arts.

On the film’s literal level, not much happens. We begin with young couple Lucy and Jake (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons), who haven’t been together for very long; they’re driving through Oklahoma snow so that Lucy can meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Truthfully, the impatient will probably check out halfway through the car ride, which is filled with talk (punctuated by Lucy’s miserable thoughts, like “I’m thinking of ending things”) and clocks in at about twenty minutes. Kaufman clearly never absorbed the screenwriting truism that you gotta grab ‘em fast, although if you’re a Kaufman booster, as I am, you have faith that this is all leading somewhere. It is. But slowly, in a crabwise fashion, until you are watching a naked man in his sixties following a disemboweled cartoon pig down a high-school hallway. And at that point you simply have to see this whinnying insane beast to its conclusion.

Before that, though, I’m Thinking of Ending Things occasionally exerts an almost magnetic pull between one’s finger and the fast-forward button. I’m being honest. The film is a bracing work of art and I’m in awe of it in retrospect, but in the moment it can be a rough sit. The dinner at Jake’s parents’ house might be the most awkward since the one in Eraserhead, and the film’s resonance with David Lynch movies doesn’t end there. There are hints of Mulholland Drive as the film treks on into surreal bits of business, such as a pair of almost-identical blondes working the counter at a Tulsey Town ice-cream stand. Do they really exist? Well, of course they don’t, nobody onscreen does, it’s a work of fiction. That bit of meta-awareness often informs Kaufman’s work, as does fiction’s role in the lies we tell ourselves to cope with the big lie called life. In Kaufman, we build our own story out of other stories, out of tropes, out of corrupt mainstream notions. Bad ideas fasten onto our psyches like toxic leeches. We are all the stars in our own movies that a critic would roast as boring and derivative.

Uncomfortable though it is, Kaufman’s film sure isn’t boring, and it’s not derivative — at least not in the usual ways. Part of its scheme is to nudge us to identify which bits of pop culture have fed us. In this case, Oklahoma (the musical) takes an uncertain place onstage next to Pauline Kael, whose dismissal of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (his masterpiece, I think) is quoted by Lucy (or is that her name?) at length. Both stand next to Akiva Goldsman, Robert Zemeckis, and the poet Eva H.D. We are what we eat; we are the pop culture we consume. One way to interpret what Kaufman has done with Iain Reid’s identity-crisis thriller is to imagine it as an invitation to root around in the box of someone’s soul. What’s in there? What’s not? What should be, shouldn’t be?

Some will lack the patience for Kaufman’s woolgathering at the expense of conventional narrative. I sympathize completely even while I wouldn’t have Kaufman any other way. Expeditions like I’m Thinking of Ending Things (ending what? and how? and why only thinking?) touch the nervous system — mine, anyway — in ways nothing else can. There’s room for window-clear, expertly crafted entertainment too, of course. But I also make space at my table for the work that invites us to look inward as well as outward, that takes an odd and winding road to get somewhere. Goofball that Kaufman is — he’s essentially a comedian, if a singularly dark-humored one — he also throws in, like Lynch, elements the crowd wants, like romance and ice cream and cartoons and dance numbers. Never let it be said that Charlie Kaufman can’t show you a good time! This in the midst of an existential horror movie that cuts closer to the bone than Jason or Freddy ever could.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Posted August 30, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, sequel

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Before watching Bill & Ted Face the Music, I was assured I didn’t have to rewatch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) — it’s true, you don’t — which was good, because I didn’t especially feel like rewatching them. (I last saw them both in ’91.) Having now seen the third installment, I do feel like going back and revisiting the younger Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves). B&TFTM has the effect of making us look fondly anew on these two doofus besties, who grew up to be pretty decent men — not perfect, not successful, but decent. The new movie is as good-natured as the prior two — maybe even moreso, because Bill and Ted no longer do that “we’re alive, let’s hug” bit and then back off each other saying “Fag.” They’ve grown into men who just hug.

In the intervening 25 years since Bogus Journey (which unfolded in 1995, so we’re told), the titular duo’s band Wyld Stallyns has plummeted off the charts and into wedding-party oblivion. They still dig making music, though, and they’re alive to the spirit of experimentation — at that wedding party, Ted breaks out a theremin and Bill commences Tuvan throat singing. The wonder of this is that Bill and Ted never come across as pathetic, not even in other timelines when they’re pretending to be rich, famous musicians or when they’re muscleheaded convicts. The pair’s happy acceptance of life remains a pure constant across the decades. But the movie, it turns out, isn’t really even about them.

Bill and Ted have married the medieval princesses they met in Excellent Adventure, and each union has produced a daughter named after each father’s BFF. So Ted’s daughter (Brigette Lundy-Paine, who precisely nails the ol’ Ted vibe) is named Billie; Bill’s blonde, easily amazed daughter (Samara Weaving) goes by Thea. Bill and Ted are tasked to save reality, which has become temporally shambolic, by writing a song that will unite the world. As Bill and Ted bounce back and forth in time, trying to steal the song from various future Bills and Teds, Billie and Thea go off on their own trying to piece together an epic band to deliver the song — Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, Ling Lun, and a percussionist cavewoman named Grom (played by Patty Anne Miller, who has drummed for Beyoncé). Ultimately, the music that must be faced here is that Bill and Ted have to complete the process of being good husbands, fathers, and stewards of music that rocks. They have to step aside. They’re not the band, they play back-up now. This is a bittersweet message for Generation X, who now pass the baton (did we ever really have it?) to millennials and zoomers. The young and hungry and energetic can take over.

Not that Keanu and Alex lack energy here. Keanu can still activate that carefree beam, but as Owen Gleiberman noted, he has a more somber resting face now — he actually always had it, going back to River’s Edge and Permanent Record. But the face he wears now is hard-earned; it has the dents and scrapes of experience and loss. He seems to be having fun here, and believe me, I’m the last person to begrudge Keanu a fun time. Neither he nor Alex Winter seem to be doing this for any reason other than hanging out, goofing around, rocking some tunes. (In that respect, Jay and Silent Bob filled the void Bill and Ted left.) Bill & Ted Face the Music is sweetly nostalgic, yet never looks back on its own past. Growth and progression seem to be the goals, which partly means raising daughters to be weird and quirky, and to be excellent to each other. There’s a blessed sanity to the warmth and kindness of Bill and Ted and pretty much everyone else in the film — even Death (William Sadler again), who just wants to lay down sick bass lines. I wouldn’t say, as some have, that Bill & Ted Face the Music is “the movie we need right now.” But I sympathize with those who do. There isn’t a whisper of meanness anywhere in it. Its soul is safe and soft. 

The Return of the Living Dead

Posted August 24, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, cult, horror

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It doesn’t feel right, somehow, for a punk, gory, young and snarky thing like The Return of the Living Dead to be 35 years old. But here we are (it was released August 16, 1985). Though writer-director Dan O’Bannon was a busy screenwriter in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Alien, Total Recall) and directed one other film (1991’s The Resurrected), Return feels like a one-off, almost the Never Mind the Bollocks of ‘80s horror — fast, furious, and farcical. It’s a mammoth amount of fun, with a sharp trashy punk/new wave soundtrack and a trio of perfect performances by middle-aged actors in the midst of posturing, attitudinizing youth. It’s the three older guys, I think, who make Return not just great crappy fun but just plain great.

To give you an example of the level of acting craft: there’s a scene between Clu Gulager, as the owner of a warehouse, and Don Calfa, who runs the mortuary across the way, and I would put it up against any scene anywhere. Gulager wants to use Calfa’s crematorium. Why? Well, because he has several garbage bags full of writhing undead human body parts, and he needs to incinerate them. Calfa takes one look at the bags and says, what the hell? Gulager says, “…Rabid weasels.” The exchange gets weirder and weirder, and Gulager and Calfa effortlessly find the hilarious reality in it, and I’m serious, acting gets no finer than this. And this in what’s designed to be a throwaway zombie flick for bored ‘80s teens. Which it also is, but brilliantly.

Return was O’Bannon’s firecracker rewrite of a script by Night of the Living Dead’s Russell Streiner and John Russo, who’d envisioned it as a serious sequel to that George Romero classic. O’Bannon made it more of a riff; Night is referenced but not named, as a movie that was loosely based on events in Return’s universe. Tanks of toxic guck sit in the basement of Gulager’s warehouse, operated by James Karen, the third middle-aged guy, who accidentally punctures one of the tanks when showing the ropes to new hire Thom Matthews. Karen, one of the great That Guy character actors, expertly sets the film’s irreverent tone. He’s every older guy who showed you around on your summer job, coming off as a know-it-all but actually just as dumb as anyone. Truly punk, Return of the Living Dead has little respect for humans as a self-preserving species.

The body parts go up in flames; the smoke commingles with gathering storm clouds, and re-animating rain falls on the nearby cemetery. A small group of punks hang out there, waiting for their friend Matthews. The burning rain falls on them too, and soon re-awakened corpses are chasing them all over, craving their brains. Punks in 1985? Well, the movie is set in Kentucky; maybe they’re Kentucky punks who took a while to get the memo. (The post-punk delight Repo Man had opened a year and a half earlier, and yet the two movies seem a natural double feature.) Strangely, the girls (Linnea Quigley, Jewel Shepard, Beverly Randolph) come across more vividly than do the young guys, who all seem temperamentally interchangeable except maybe Suicide (Mark Venturini), who gets a tombstone-grandstanding speech (“Nobody understands me, you know that?”) that links him with the whiny crime-doing punks in Repo Man.

I have affection and respect for all of George Romero’s zombie films, but Return of the Living Dead occupies a particularly fond piece of my heart. It’s edited (by Robert Gordon, beautifully) for comedic timing, not horror, and mostly acted that way, too. By the time we get to Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry), who authorizes the ultimate solution in a Lynch-like deadpan over the phone (“I see. And what did you do then? … And what did they do?”), we can add Bob Newhart to the list of influences on this sarcastic, winking apocalyptic cartoon that proves the utility of paramedics once and for all. 1985 was a great year for party movies. Return of the Living Dead goes that one better, asking you if you wanna party, and then giving it to you. It is, after all, party time.

She Dies Tomorrow

Posted August 16, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, horror

she-dies-tomorrow-187190-1A single concept — that you are going to die tomorrow — lodges like a tick in the psyche of whoever hears it. Whoever hears it then passes it to more people, so it spreads like a lethal virus. There are a couple of ways to handle a premise like that. You can go the narrative, overly plotty way, figuring out what is causing this phenomenon and how best to defeat it. Or you can move in a more artsy and oblique direction, narrowing the focus to a few infected people and what the infection feels like. In She Dies Tomorrow, writer-director Amy Seimetz takes the second approach, which isn’t surprising. Seimetz is an actress as well as a director; she got her start in mumblecore, and you may have seen her most recently in Alien Covenant or Pet Sematary. So, like some of her peers before her, Seimetz marries arthouse and horror.

I truly wish I liked the result more. But I found it only sporadically enjoyable — mostly due to the actors, all of whom are on their game — and some of it just seems pointlessly obscure. For instance, near the end, one of the main characters — in terms of screen time anyway — turns up at the house of two young women we’ve never seen before. They, too, are infected. By whom? Everywhere else in the movie, we’ve seen, if you will, contact tracing — this person infects this other person, who then infects others. But here are these two random women, outside the chain of infection, yet carriers. After the fact we can justify this and theorize that this is how Seimetz establishes that the plague has spread outside the circle of family and friends we’ve been watching. But as we’re watching, it pulls us up short; we want to stop the film and say “Wait a minute, who…?”

That’s the trap of a diffuse, tonally drifty horror film like She Dies Tomorrow. The premise, it turns out, is intriguing enough to make us want answers. Seimetz isn’t offering any. She begins with Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who mopes around her new house. Her concerned friend Jane (Jane Adams) comes over, and Amy says she’s going to die tomorrow. Soon, Jane goes in her pajamas over to her brother and sister-in-law’s house while they’re having a party, and says she’s going to die tomorrow. And so on. In some respects the movie reminded me of the even more minimalist (and more effective) Pontypool, in which a “word virus” turned people who heard certain words into zombies. Here, it’s just a concept that’s contagious. The movie is spookier on a cerebral, retrospective level than in the moment. It might explain why some critics have rated it kindly for its premise and the admittedly high caliber of acting, while others can’t get past the memory of the impatience it made them feel as they sat through it. The terror is almost entirely insular; when Amy at one point says she doesn’t watch TV, we think, how convenient — that way Seimetz doesn’t have to show the endless coverage of it on the news.

She Dies Tomorrow has also been lauded for its accidental relevance to our current reality, although if you took the parallel all the way you’d end up with morons shouting “I’m gonna die tomorrow!” at people wearing earplugs in public. (Implausible; Americans in a movie wouldn’t be so pugnaciously selfish and stupid. If the virus in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion had spread faster because characters refused to wear masks, and insisted on going to bars and clubs, and sent their kids back to petri dishes calling themselves schools, we’d have laughed their suicidal behavior right off the screen. Ridiculous!) It’s possibly natural for a fearful section of viewers to hook into a film that seems to allude, however hazily, to the situation they’re afraid of.

As I said, this works almost better as an actors’ workshop than as a work of horror. (Calling it horror is almost cruel to it, since that just creates an expectation in the viewer of something, well, horrific — especially after the almost comical jump-scare of the title card.) Sheil, Adams, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Olivia Taylor Dudley — they all shine, because they’re given room to shine and an irresistible chunk of dramatic meat to gnaw on. A lot of them came up together or have worked together before or swim in the same indie-film waters; I’m never displeased to turn a corner in a movie and find Jane Adams there. The movie might best be described not as horror or thriller but as a creepy idea that its cast and writer/director then riff on. It’s like a jazz concept album, with various artists honking or tootling their soul’s response to a given theme. By all means try it, but bring all the patience you have.

Psychomagic, a Healing Art

Posted August 9, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 3.45.03 PM It has been odd, of late, to see the provocateur extraordinaire Alejandro Jodorowsky ripen from an assaultive artist to a kindly, avuncular guru who lays hands on the psychologically pained and “heals” them — or at least makes them feel heard, validated, worth something. Jodorowsky spent roughly the first half of his career spelunking in his own imagistic caves, photographing his findings (Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain). Perhaps his most famous film was one he never got to make; the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune told all about it. In recent years, Jodorowsky has pivoted to autobiographical psychodramas (The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry) in which he often appears, drifting through re-enactments of his life carried out by his own sons.

Now there is Psychomagic, a Healing Art, in which the notorious auteur receives “patients,” if you will — people made miserable by past traumas, mostly having to do with inattentive parents — and, in effect, turns them into colorful performers in another of Jodorowsky’s cinematic journeys. His clients are asked to strip naked and be massaged by male and female therapists; they are encouraged to indulge their neglected inner child; they are directed to walk about in public dragging chains behind them or wearing their father’s jacket or covered head to toe in gold paint. They all seem, or claim, to feel better after the Jodorowsky therapy. I am rather more skeptical than they are, but who am I to judge? If they say Jodorowsky helped them, then he helped them.

It’s when Jodorowsky brings a cancer patient onstage and directs the audience to aim their healing energy at her throat that I feel less live-and-let-live about what Jodorowsky is selling. (There is no talk of fees in the movie, but I presume Jodorowsky doesn’t just work his magic on people in exchange for a warm feeling of accomplishment.) Jodorowsky offers to try to help this woman “without promising anything” — well, at least there’s that. Ten years later, the woman is still alive, and feels that Jodorowsky has something to do with that. I’m aware of the placebo effect, and it could be said that Jodorowsky guides his clients into a mental state that triggers … something that we don’t understand. It’s one thing when Jodorowsky’s technique shocks someone into a fresher way of looking at their pain; it’s another when a movie more or less implies that the man can cure cancer.

Most of Psychomagic, though, deals with the myths and archetypes that must be unlearned or learned in order to move past anxiety and depression. On this point, I’m prepared to give Jodorowsky the benefit of the doubt and say his method is about as valid as anyone else’s. He draws on lots of ancient tribal knowledge, role-playing, scenarios designed to push someone out of guilt, shame, self-loathing. Jodorowsky is a multifaceted artist, and it’s significant that he calls his way a healing art and not a science. Once or twice I caught myself seduced into going along with Jodorowsky, with his beatific smile and white guru beard; I reflected that perhaps we’re not ready to marry art and science as Jodorowsky has. It could be something only a small subset of people have access to.

But then the skeptic in me kicks in and I can’t help noticing that everyone in the movie is a success story, that nobody reverts to despondency after a while. Not that we hear about, anyway. The couple who go to Jodorowsky with individual bugaboos blocking their relationship are handled rather ambiguously; we don’t know if they stay together or if part of their revelation is that they don’t belong together after all. Some of Jodorowsky’s therapy seems to boil down to people with trust issues being touched intimately but nonsexually; this seems to give them back ownership of their bodies. How, then, given their issues, do they come to trust Jodorowsky and his assistants enough to let them cup their breasts or testicles in their hands? We don’t find out. After a while I wished Psychomagic were more of a fictionalized narrative in which the hero does what we see Jodorowsky doing — going around performing psychic miracles, something like his Alchemist in The Holy Mountain — but we’re free to interpret or question it because it’s art. Psychomagic, sadly, isn’t art; it’s advertising.

The Painted Bird

Posted July 26, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: foreign, war

painted-bird-3 An intense and prolonged experience about the inhumanity of war, The Painted Bird might take its rightful place as the most prestigious endurance test since 1985’s Come and See. The point of the story, hammered home again and again over the course of two hours and forty-nine minutes, is that war destroys the soul, makes even non-combatants callous and vicious — the subsidiary point, perhaps, being that in war there are no non-combatants. Everyone is drawn into the madness, including our young protagonist (Petr Kotlár), nameless for most of the film. We begin in medias res, with the boy running through woods, carrying a small fuzzy animal (a ferret?). Some young bullies catch up to the boy; they beat him and incinerate the animal. Welcome to The Painted Bird, where even small gestures of mercy and kindness are tainted and ambiguous. Mostly, people are beasts to one another.

The movie is based on the much-debated 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, whose World War II experiences, it turned out, did not inform the book; some even doubted that he himself wrote it. Still, Kosiński — like Come and See’s Elem Klimov after him — fashioned a ghastly rat-trap reality that ground innocence under the treads of tanks. The eerie thing about the movie is that so many of its settings are rural and almost primeval it’s jarring when a plane or jeep or even a train shows up. The boy wanders through endless villages and is set upon by peasants, perverts (pedophiles of both genders), and fellow castaways of the war. The closest thing to a laugh in the entire epic is when the boy performs an act of animal cruelty to get even with a teenage girl who has abused him.

But then the whole enterprise is about cruelty in all its forms. At the risk of sounding impatient, I think The Painted Bird might have dealt subtler and sharper damage to our psyche less about 45 minutes; the constant and endless litany of offenses to our young hero becomes numbing and borderline ludicrous, which is a problem inherent in an anecdotal structure allowed to stretch out at epic length. The boy meets someone new, and you sigh and wonder how this person is going to screw him over, literally or figuratively. Occasionally someone like a kindly if clueless priest (Harvey Keitel) or a Russian sniper (Barry Pepper) happens along and takes the boy under his wing. (The American actors seem to be sounding out their dialogue phonetically in Interslav or Russian or whatever, and then someone else dubs them over. It works; it gets us away from Barry Pepper attempting a Russian accent, anyway.) Aleksei Kravchenko, once the 16-year-old star of Come and See, turns up as a Russian officer and seems to be passing the baton of suffering on to Petr Kotlár, a Czech-Romani newcomer who spent his tenth and eleventh years on the set. Kotlár holds this fierce beast of a movie together despite almost no dialogue.

Unlike Elem Klimov, the Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul allows us mitigating artistry and even beauty to offset the human ugliness. (Udo Kier comes in to do his thing, using a spoon.) Vladimír Smutný’s black-and-white photography is sumptuous, even bucolic at times; the restful country landscapes, if anything, are more chilling for the sense they give of turning their backs on carnage and sadism. You can die out there in the open air and nobody will care; you’ll be rolled into a grave or become a toy for crows. The title refers to a bit where a man daubs white paint onto a bird and lets it fly off, whereupon its fellows peck it to death in mid-air. Humans, nature — the portrait of indifference to pain and need is distressingly complete. The Painted Bird is artful, if not quite art — it needs finer threads in its tapestry than just “People suck” — but it’s without a doubt a masterwork that you will most likely give exactly one evening of your life, if that.

Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II

Posted July 19, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, cult, one of the year's best

undercover vice 1At a moment when protesters are being taken away in unmarked vans by feds in camo, it’s a goofy relief to see cops doing nothing more terrible than posing as gay porn actors in Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II (premiering on Facebook July 31). In the world of Rhode Island director Richard Griffin (Before the Night Is Over), sex levels everything; sex makes everyone ridiculous but also hot. Griffin’s latest is no different. Don’t be thrown by the tongue-in-cheek subtitle: although it shares one character, Piñata Debris, played by drag queen Ninny Nothin, it’s more a spiritual than literal sequel to Griffin’s 2017 Strapped for Danger. So Undercover Vice can be watched and enjoyed without having seen the earlier film, though I recommend both.

I’m not even sure if Piñata is the same character (in the first film she was a hostess at a strip club, here she directs gay porn) — more like the same fact of life, the genderfluid constant catering to ticklish and giggly impulses. Ninny Nothin (aka Johnny Sederquist) embodies either/or, neither/nor, the Venn diagram of male/female/gay/straight. Drag queens aren’t just camp denigrations of women any more (if they ever were, or at least if done disrespectfully). Griffin loves women, though — he wants to show them being happy and funny and ludicrous. So the movie isn’t entirely taken over by sweaty testosterone; Griffin brings in ringers like Sarah Reed, Samantha Acampora, and Victoria Paradis and encourages them to go huge.

Reed’s and Acampora’s big sex scenes are completely about what makes a woman hum — forget the males who happen to be physically facilitating it. (Fantasizing aloud, and loudly, Acampora’s character — a cop’s soon-to-be-fiancée — essentially gives us an imaginary sex scene overlaying the one we’re watching, which links this film with one of the few films to pull this off successfully, David Cronenberg’s Crash.) Undercover Vice, written (like Strapped for Danger) by Duncan Pflaster, concerns two detectives — sorta straight but bicurious Andy (Sean Brown) and damn straight Kevin (Chris Fisher) — who are ordered by their chief (the splenetic Paradis) to go undercover as gay-porn actors to infiltrate a blackmail organization. Griffin enjoys playing in the very small sandbox of this sub-subgenre of cops going undercover gay, which in the past has yielded such disparate efforts as Cruising (1980), Partners (1982), and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991). Ultimately those movies failed or hardly tried to do what Griffin does, which is to use the trope to show straight folks how it feels to have to play-act as another sexuality to survive.

But Griffin isn’t here to lecture us (not in a movie with that title); as usual with his comedies, he just wants to throw a party and invite everyone — and he will have dancing, dammit, even if it means a random Bollywood what-the-hell-was-that scene. (It’s like that joke about Christians fearing that sex leads to dancing.) We get to know the “criminal” porn actors (Alec Farquharson, Ricky Irizarry, Anthony Rainville), who all have their own quirks and kindnesses. The bad guys, if anyone, are the police chief and her two hee-hawing minions, who think the detectives being forced to be gay for pay is the funniest thing in world history. Griffin and Pflaster also know that stories about cops going undercover — being actors — allow for some nice character shading. Does the cop come to feel bad about busting his new companions? If so, why? If not, why not? These stories can get to the very heart of identity and its discontents, and we ruminate upon that, and then a naked ass gets spanked. That’s the Griffin touch.

Greyhound

Posted July 12, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: war

greyhound Maybe, like me, you’re in just the right mood for something like Greyhound, a taut, exciting, no-nonsense war movie that weighs in, less the end credits, at one hour and twenty-three minutes. The film’s brevity is true to the virtues it respects: clear, coolheaded professionalism, all egos checked, a well-oiled machine of well-trained men getting the job done. (Doesn’t that sound refreshing right about now?) There’s hardly any griping, one or two mistakes corrected and acknowledged without much anger. Tom Hanks, who stars and also wrote the script based on C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, seems to be interested only in the moment-to-moment details, orders, repetitions of orders, and decisions made under the highest of pressures. Hanks, as Commander Ernest Krause, doesn’t get much dialogue that isn’t about the task at hand: guiding three destroyers to escort a convoy of allied ships to Liverpool.

Unfortunately, U-boats are in the way, and the commander of one of them, Grey Wolf, taunts Krause and his crew over the radio at every opportunity; this creepy, bodiless voice is so evil it comes from Thomas Kretschmann, that dab hand at Nazis, vampires, and general sadists. Krause ignores this voice and presses on. Given that Krause is a fictional character — and given to much more self-doubt in the Forester book — Hanks makes him a little too noble. Krause is the kind of man who stops a messenger to ask that he append “thank you” to a standard acknowledgment. He says his prayers, has a patient woman back home (Elisabeth Shue), and takes no particular pleasure in sending U-boat sailors to Davy Jones’ locker. “Fifty less krauts,” enthuses one of his men. “Fifty souls,” Krause clarifies. “Fifty fewer krauts,” the grammarian in me snarked.

Hanks, who enacts stoic heroism and its underpinnings of vulnerability as well as he ever has, wants us to see Krause as just a man doing his job the best he can. Krause’s equivalent to Horvath, the beefy sergeant who played right-hand man to Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, is Stephen Graham’s Cole, the second in command. There’s no “I thought you were my mother” banter between the men here, though; the dialogue Hanks has written is almost exclusively naval-wonk jibber-jabber, and while it adds texture to the movie’s fabric of verisimilitude, it doesn’t do much to illuminate the men. Three men die aboard the ship, and the only reason we know one of them is also the film’s diciest aspect. Krause has a black messmate, Cleveland (Rob Morgan), who’s always trying to make sure Krause gets something to eat. I’m sure Hanks wanted to point out that African-Americans fought and died in World War II, but Cleveland comes across as a servant in most of his screen time. Worse, he’s apparently interchangeable with the only other black sailor we see, whom Krause mistakes for Cleveland. I’ll give Hanks the benefit of the doubt and say he was also trying to sketch in the unconscious racism in even so noble a white man as Krause in 1942 — but it did give me pause.

Still, the movie goes like a torpedo, directed by Aaron Schneider for maximum momentum and tension. Schneider plays to the strengths of Hanks’ script — its monkish first-this-then-that tempo, similar to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. The action spans a few days and nights, but it all seems like the same gray-blue, ocean-drizzly whenever. At times, Greyhound comes close to being an abstract war film, a study in human forms rattling off codes and orders and coordinates to each other. If not for the (really kind of needless) prologue with Hanks exchanging gifts with Shue before going off to war, that’s almost what the movie is: a film about machines within machines, protecting or destroying other machines. If this came from Kubrick or Welles or someone comparably mordant, the point would seem to be that war turns men into weapons, literal things of steel and oil. But Tom Hanks is a nice man, and he wouldn’t say such a mean thing. Greyhound is a brisk exercise in military-cinematic precision, but it might leave you as hungry as Krause must be near the end.

Force of Nature

Posted July 5, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: one of the year's worst, thriller

force-of-nature-mel-gibson-movie-1590049016Its critical reputation as a racist thriller is a little overstated, but Force of Nature is still ten pounds of ass in a five-pound bag. This is a movie whose handling of a major character’s death is so feeble — a twitching eyelid visible to the camera — we expect the supposed corpse to pop up later on, perhaps to save a loved one at the last minute. That’s about the only cliché we’re spared in a film wherein even the bad guy comments on the clichés. Filmed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Force of Nature unfolds during a hurricane, though it doesn’t actually need to; the hurricane really only explains why two cops show up at an apartment building to evacuate some recalcitrant tenants, only to be caught in the middle of an art heist by some armed and deadly robbers led by a guy calling himself John the Baptist.

I would like to welcome the Peruvian actor Stephanie Cayo to English-speaking films. She plays Jess, a cop trying to make a name on the San Juan force. Cayo looks all the better next to the essenceless Emile Hirsch as her cop partner, the burned-out, lackadaisical Cardillo. These two go to the apartment building and try to extricate an old German man and a retired, sickly cop, played by Mel Gibson, whose very presence in a film at this point would attract hostile skepticism no matter what the film is. Gibson is (or has been; he seems to have behaved in recent years, from what we’ve heard anyway) a terrible person, but he still has the spark of a true movie star, and so does Stephanie Cayo; their brief scenes together illustrate what this bland movie could have been.

Force of Nature would like to be the sort of invincible thriller, like Die Hard, whose every odd bit of business pays off later. I have to wonder if the screenwriter, Cory Miller, wrote this whole thing around a scene involving the bad guy, who dons a police uniform in order to get away, and something behind a multi-locked door in someone’s apartment. There’s a whole scene dealing with meat and a guy buying all of it at the supermarket, and a bit of planted information that you definitely don’t want to enter that locked room if you’re wearing a cop outfit, and so when John the Baptist forces Cardillo to swap clothes with him, all the pieces fall into place but seem stupid anyway — and then the movie cuts away before we can see the one hilariously brutal thing we’ve been spending half the idiotic film waiting to see.

Director Michael Polish started off in the late ‘90s as a Sundance-blessed indie director, but now he seems to make films just to cast his wife, Kate Bosworth — this is their fourth film together, and probably their worst. Bosworth plays Gibson’s daughter, who is also a doctor, and who can also hold her breath long enough to get her and a wounded man out of a submerged room. (We never see them find their way out; she turns up fine later, like almost everyone else, and fairly chipper despite what we’ve seen her go through.) Force of Nature’s mixed review of the thin blue line — cops may be mean and corrupt but still get the brutal job done — is accidentally poorly-timed at this cultural/political moment, but it’s no more consciously racist than a hundred action thrillers from the ‘80s. It’s meant, I think, to be a throwback to those films, and to an era where Mel Gibson was still on top, but it lacks the snap and pizzazz to close the deal. It may speak well of Michael Polish’s character that he tries to make a retro, obliviously racist thriller and fails. But the failure still reads to us as a wasted hour and a half.