All the Rage: Saved by Sarno

Posted June 19, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

all_the_rage_-_key_image-h_2016As a reader of Dr. John Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, I was eager to see the documentary about him, All the Rage: Saved by Sarno. The diminutive, gravelly-voiced physician (who retired in 2012) is noted for his theory that a lot of pain, specifically back pain, derives not from structural causes — say, a slipped disc or a small crack in the spine — but from suppressed emotion. According to Dr. Sarno, such aches and pains are our mind’s way of distracting us from disturbing feelings we’d rather not have; these feelings usually have to do with buried anger due to childhood trauma.

As All the Rage establishes fairly early, such non-hippie, blunt-talking skeptics as Howard Stern, Larry David, and John Stossel (who ran a 20/20 piece on Sarno in 1999 that he still hears about years later) swear by Sarno’s teachings. (Other Sarno fans not present in the film: Anne Bancroft and director Terry Zwigoff.) The movie, directed by Michael Galinsky (Horns & Halos), is partly autobiographical: Galinsky, who acknowledges a great deal of stress and anger in his life, is struck down repeatedly by agony in his back, to the point where he spends days at a time on the floor in his office. Stern and Stossel were once floor-dwellers, too; now they take any opportunity to “spread the word.” Sarno is the man who took away their pain without surgery or drugs.

Galinsky would like to believe. His approach is to show various people vouching glowingly for Sarno, and then Sarno himself deflecting praise and wanting only to relieve people’s pain. We do, however, spend a little more time with Galinsky and his family (including wife and co-director Suki Hawley) than is probably necessary to get the point. The movie lacks a from-skeptic-to-believer narrative, and we might begin to feel impatient with Galinsky, who keeps going back to Sarno for consultations and seems to conclude that the key is giving himself permission to feel things. Sarno, a tough old cookie (he didn’t retire until he was 89), might counter that it doesn’t matter what you do with your emotions as long as you know they’re there.

Mention is made of Sarno’s lectures, but more people talk about his book, which can be borrowed through interlibrary loan. I imagine his lecture DVD, which goes for $49.95 on his website, is available for library lending as well. I bring up something so gauche as cost because a lot of the people in All the Rage who benefit from Sarno’s methods are white, well-to-do urban creatives. Sarno is shown at a senate hearing, where he discusses the epidemic of pain among the poor, pain caused by their suppressed rage at the brutality of income inequity. One of the senators, Bernie Sanders, presumably agrees, at least with the part about inequity. Another, Tom Harkin, takes the occasion to share his own story. His back, he says, used to hurt so much he had to rest on a cot in his office. Now, years after reading Sarno’s book, he is pain-free.

There will, no doubt, be people who dismiss Sarno and the movie on the basis that the idea — “Your pain is all in your head” — is dismissive and insulting. Sarno’s point, though, is that the pain is very real; the mind and the body are intricately linked, and who would deny ever feeling tension in one’s muscles or an ache in one’s stomach in times of stress? Pain caused by emotion, whether physical pain or mental, is thought of by many as “fake,” which sounds like how the old sexist doctors used to handwave such “women’s problems” as depression and anxiety. No, Dr. Sarno is not saying that the reason for your particular medical situation is insufficient venting of pique. What he does do is to move the conversation a little further away from invasive procedures or painkillers. The movie succeeds to the extent that it spreads the word, though it’s a microbudget documentary unlikely to be seen by many; if 20/20 and Howard Stern couldn’t get it done, it’s hard to know what could.

Long Night in a Dead City

Posted June 11, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 2.13.27 PMAre there such things as midnight movies any more? The Pawtucket, R.I. filmmaker Richard Griffin (Nun of That, Flesh for the Inferno, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) has been making them for seventeen years, and soon he will retire. That’s a bummer, but his new and penultimate feature, Long Night in a Dead City, may be the midnight-est movie he’s directed, and that’s saying something. The film feels for all the world like a bittersweet farewell, in a way — it catches the melancholy but hopeful tone of a young man wandering around the city in its artsy prime, meeting strange but alluring people, winding up in a movie theater (the same one it will have its premiere at — the Colombus, in Providence). It feels something like a glass of beer held aloft with damp eyes to the memory of Griffin’s own young adulthood spent devouring and making art — it feels, to me, autobiographical. (The script is by Lenny Schwartz, veteran of several Griffin films and an accomplished playwright himself.)

Of course, this being a Griffin film, there are the usual exploitation elements: sex, drugs, nudity, blood. I’d say rock and roll too, but the score, primarily by Mark Cutler, is a morose but uncanny solo-guitar riff that recalls Neil Young’s fuzzbox sounds for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, among others. That guitar is like wind navigating slowly around gravestones. The general tone of Long Night speaks of mortality and regret. I’d have to peg it as one of Griffin’s “serious” efforts, not a knowing what-the-hell-let’s-party pastiche, although Griffin’s many cinematic loves do inform the process here. The photography, by John Mosetich, deals in the deep, bold primary colors found in the Italian horror/thrillers that fed Griffin’s head (I suspect the title, which used to be Satan’s Children, is a nod to the industry that gave us films with such jawbreaker titles as 1972’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key).

The narrative follows young Daniel (Aidan Laliberte), who wakes up on a cold, lonely street on New Year’s Eve with his face showing evidence of a beating. He wanders around, looking for his brother. He encounters a variety of oddballs who seem to have stepped out of Eyes Wide Shut or, alternately, After Hours. Daniel eventually settles in, after a fashion, with an inviting young woman, Holly (Sarah Reed), who wants Daniel to make love to her at midnight. The reserved, frightened Laliberte and the witty, entrancing Reed make a productively unstable couple for this gory ghost-town riposte to Before Sunrise. There’s also a driver (Aaron Andrade, with his usual rough-hewn charisma) who could be a stand-in for Charon. The air seems charged with uncertainty, which for a vulnerable young man alone in a strange city can be exciting, or exciting in a bad way. Long Night is less about plot than about mood, the possibility of salvation or damnation in every weird and allusive exchange. Griffin and Schwartz create a surreal tone poem about feeling lost and alone, on a quest to find family.

I’m glad the title was changed; Satan’s Children was a little too literal and might have raised expectations of a more straightforward, evil-cult-based horror flick than we get here. Long Night in a Dead City — not very long, really, seventy-five minutes including end credits — evokes the actual elliptical experience with far more grace. The movie is enthralling — a successful entertainment — yet it’s clear that Griffin is wearing his artist hat here, and his first concern isn’t how many people get the movie or even see it. It’s one of those films you used to be able to stumble across in the better mom-and-pop video stores … or at a midnight screening. It will find its audience and satisfy that audience. Whether you find yourself in its appreciative following depends on how much of yourself you find in Daniel. Probably by now you know how much or how little.

Wonder Woman

Posted June 4, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, adaptation, comic-book, prequel, war

wonderwoman2Towards the middle of Wonder Woman, when the central heroine Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) is running through the no-man’s-land (ha) of a battlefield and deflecting hundreds of German bullets, either you recognize the subtextual power of this image or you find it a typical bit of superhero-movie action. I’d submit the latter is not the most productive lens through which to view Wonder Woman, here as well as its earlier iterations. This ideal of strong femininity has always been greater than the sum of her parts. I could say that the movie has its flaws particular to its status as a superhero film inside a larger superhero narrative, but it doesn’t matter. Wonder Woman is an indelible symbol of sane female compassion against nihilistic male violence. She didn’t make the cover of the first Ms. magazine for nothin’, and this fourth movie of the DC Extended Universe (after Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad) stands well on its own and will gather deeper relevance than any other superhero flick.

Gal Gadot does what’s needed as Diana; the role is bigger than she is, but she gives Diana’s heroism a nice underlayer of sadness and regret. Diana has lived all her life with the Amazons on what we used to call Paradise Island, hearing about war (and its author, Ares) without knowing it. War soon invades the idyll of the island in the person of American pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), with German soldiers in hot pursuit. It’s late in World War I, or, as Trevor calls it, “the War … the war to end all wars.” The retrospective irony of that phrase is bitter, as is Diana’s realization that there isn’t just one convenient supervillain to blame for war. Ares whispers in our ears; we take it from there.

Diana carves a swath through the German army, seeking only to defend or to deflect. She isn’t a stone killer, just as she wasn’t in the cheesy but beloved TV series with Lynda Carter, who could knock thugs or Nazis for a loop but preferred to be strong to be kind. Diana is, of course, a warrior, trained as such by her fierce aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) against the wishes of her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Wright and Nielsen, both 51 and seemingly still peaking physically, show us what power without masculinity looks like. Diana takes a bit from each woman. She will fight, but only when absolutely necessary. For the most part, her strength is hidden behind fake glasses and under a gray uniform, much like that of Superman.

Wonder Woman may be part of the doom-laden, ugly, “dark” and gritty DC film-verse, and by virtue of unfolding during one of the more costly and grotesque wars it certainly has its grim moments. But its director, Patty Jenkins — who helmed 2003’s excellent Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster and hadn’t directed another feature film until now — brings a refreshing clarity to it, a productive mix of gravitas and winking. At certain times, the movie seems very aware of being a cultural lightning rod with a lot of eyes on it. At other times it forges ahead swiftly (Wonder Woman runs two hours and twenty-one minutes but goes by fast), uninterested in anything outside itself and its musings about the nature of war and the nature of mankind.

As has become a tradition with superhero films, there are too many villains, though our time spent with them (including an uber-proto-Nazi played by Danny Huston and a mad mutilated genius named Dr. Poison played by Elena Anaya with a half-mask recalling Jack Huston in Boardwalk Empire) is agreeably pulpy. Pulpiness is sort of baked into the concept; Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston was working out ideas about femininity — seeing no reason why a strong woman couldn’t also be submissive, he contrived to put Diana in bondage in a bunch of the powerfully idiosyncratic feminist-cum-fetishist comic-book stories of the ‘40s. The movie’s Diana is briefly restrained, but not a lot of Marston’s thoughts inform the film, which is fine; Wonder Woman is bigger than he is, too. Lynda Carter can wear her, or Gal Gadot, but ultimately she belongs to all girls and women, a symbol of gentle power that can’t help but endure. Or persist.

Get Out

Posted May 28, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, one of the year's best, thriller

getout“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They are different from you and me.” Jordan Peele’s political horror movie Get Out, which he describes as a “social thriller,” tells us just how the very rich (and, mostly, very white) are different. This paranoid masterpiece has also been an old-school-style horror success story, earning back many, many times its cost. It hit a nerve; it is also legitimately frightening at times, and deeply funny at others, and always both entertaining and wince-inducing. It is not, perhaps, as radical as some have made it out to be — screen Fight for Your Life or The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for such people — but it’s still an electrifying achievement.

Peele reveals himself as an intuitive director early on, when our protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) arrives with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to visit her affluent parents. The parents, we are told before the trip, have not been briefed on Chris’s blackness. They are, we are also assured, the furthest thing from racists. So when they meet Chris, we wonder what subtle tics of anxiety the camera might impart in close-ups. Peele leans away from this trope and shoots the whole scene at an across-the-street distance; we hear the voices, the cloying dadness of Bradley Whitford and the patrician rich-white-lady tones of Catherine Keener. Peele is encouraging us to look beyond appearances and to avoid putting too much weight on visual cues.

The movie will likely play better a second time; Peele must have planted a thousand little Chekhov’s guns, and the performance of one actress in particular, Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid Georgina, almost demands further scrutiny. Georgina and another servant, the oddly spoken Walter (Marcus Henderson), are both black, and Rose’s dad sheepishly acknowledges the problematic optics. Rose’s parents engage in a sort of meta-narrative, commenting on the likely appearance of things as if self-awareness were itself redemptive. It’s a tried and true way of deflecting criticism about privilege.

Get Out ramps up gradually — for the longest time there’s very little blood, a drop here, a headlight smear there — and, as Chris becomes more and more menaced and baffled, the plot rolls inexorably into paranoid sci-fi/horror. Black writers trying to account for white perfidy have from time to time engaged with metaphor or conspiracy-myth; it goes back at least as far as the story of Mr. Yakub. The metaphor-myth Peele creates and parcels out bit by bit has to do with the different style of racism practiced by wealthy white liberals. Peele doesn’t say that underneath outwardly genteel white liberals are racist demons. He says that genteel white liberals can also be racist demons, side by side in one person, one shading into the other. For good measure Peele throws in a Japanese man, who asks Chris if his experience as an African-American has been an advantage or disadvantage.

That detail, like many others in Get Out, has been unpacked in thinkpieces from sea to shining sea. For a while, it was the biggest gotta-see-it-and-talk-about-it movie in too many years. Written during the Obama years, filmed when a female president seemed likely, premiering at Sundance three days into Trump’s presidency, the movie does collide productively with the zeitgeist while never abandoning the story’s more timeless horror elements — the tension of our hero trapped in a ghastly situation. The narrative goes way over the top; anyone still taking the story literally will end up on the side of the road. Metaphor and myth can also power satire, and that’s where Get Out ends up — has been all along, really. For black audiences, the true horrors on the screen are nothing new, except in movies. White liberals take a few hard shots in the chops. It’s not as if we didn’t have it coming.

Logan

Posted May 21, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comic-book, sequel

loganLogan is the Wolverine movie they should have made all along. As it is, coming after the terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and the compromised The Wolverine (2013), it looks even better than it might have. The mean but noble mutant has been around in movies since 2000, in a variety of X-Men films, and in comic books since 1974. Logan is intended as a valedictory for this popular character (but only in movies; his services are still needed to move units for Marvel Comics), a neo-western that has more of Shane, The Cowboys and Unforgiven in its DNA than it has of most other superhero movies. It has the farewell-tour poignancy of a popular, aging baseball star taking that final trot around the diamond.

Hugh Jackman is that star; yoked to Wolverine, aka Logan, aka James Howlett, for the last seventeen years, he leans into the sad, heavy gravity of the moment, playing Logan as a slowly expiring warrior (the unbreakable adamantium coating his bones and his claws is poisoning him). It’s 2029, and mutants are on the way out; in a possible nod to Children of Men, no new mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan passes his days driving a limo and his nights taking care of his old mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), former leader of the X-Men, now living uncomfortably with Alzheimer’s. Medications control Xavier’s seizures, which, due to his telekinetic prowess, tend to paralyze anyone around.

If you’ve been following these two in comics or movies at all (I confess I tapped out a few years ago), it’s moving to see them gray and broken down, addled by pills or booze as their only anodynes. They still have some use, though: new mutants are indeed being created in a lab, among them Laura, or X-23 (Dafne Keen), a vicious little wild child with fist-claws of her own, plus foot-spikes for good measure. Logan and Xavier must convey Laura to a possibly-mythical locale called Eden, where others of her kind are in hiding from the sociopaths pursuing them. Like Deadpool last year, Logan may be based on Marvel comic books, but it carries an R rating — a fairly hard R, in which we finally see what Logan’s claws actually do to flesh and bone. Profanity is likewise liberated, not only from the surly Logan but from the heretofore genteel Xavier.

Logan comes from director James Mangold, who also helmed The Wolverine; it’s as though he undertook this project to atone for the last one, and much pleasure can be taken in the movie’s realistic substance, the creak of rusty Ford truck doors, the gurgle of perforated arteries. The script, by Mangold, Scott Frank and Michael Green, is heavily derivative, though — we’ve seen most of the beats before, and when a brutal Logan clone called X-24 joins the party, the film starts to feel overcrowded, over-villained, as though well-armed hordes with robot hands weren’t threatening enough. Logan has a few mitigating human moments — I liked the quiet insouciance with which Patrick Stewart donned a fedora — but the plotting is a bit too blockbuster-pulpy for the movie to be the cleansing back-to-basics art it seems to want to be.

Still, I must be honest and say I got misty a couple of times. “At least there’s water — he’s got water” is painfully fine as a terse, choked eulogy. And the physically failing heroes trying to protect the young and powerful from the corrupt and mutilated make for a resonant conflict visually as well as thematically. Logan could probably be shelved with The Dark Knight as a superhero film that tries to transcend genre by borrowing copiously from other genres, and by taking itself with seriousness that borders on po-faced. (Logan has the edge here with the jostling, caustic rapport between Jackman and Stewart.) It’s worth seeing exactly once, but beyond that, it’s too overstuffed — and not fun enough — to reward revisits.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

Posted May 14, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, horror, science fiction, sequel, video game

resident-evil-the-final-chapter-clipOne thing horror fans remember well from the fourth Friday the 13th film: never trust a horror sequel that calls itself “The Final Chapter.” There may, however, be a reason to take Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’s word for it. For one thing, franchise star Milla Jovovich isn’t getting any younger. Sure, she can leap and shoot and fight with as much éclat as ever at age 41, but for how much longer? And did she really intend to do six of these things in the first place? As of now, Jovovich has led the longest-running female-fronted action franchise in Hollywood history (the all-time record probably belongs to Lupe Vélez and her eight-film Mexican Spitfire comedy series from the ‘40s). She can safely rest now, and perhaps focus on other projects that don’t involve throngs of ravenous undead.

You probably don’t need to have seen the previous five movies to follow this one; the story (by director Paul W.S. Anderson, who is also Mr. Jovovich) is as violently incomprehensible as the others, anyway. The gist is that the cure for the T-virus (which created the zombie outbreak) exists in “the Hive” in the ruined Raccoon City, and Jovovich’s Alice must find it (within 48 hours, of course) and release it to save what’s left of humanity. Zombies and various other critters get in her way, as well as the nefarious Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who pursues Alice and her cadre of fellow warriors. Or it could be his clone. I’m still not sure. Along for the ride is returning comrade-in-arms Claire (Ali Larter), from two of the earlier movies.

Anderson has directed four of the six Resident Evil films (including the first one), and though editor Doobie White has been encouraged to make unreadable hash out of most of the action sequences, there actually is some apocalyptic-aesthetic beauty here and there. Often, the camera pulls back and back until it surveys the wreckage of a city from a great distance or height. The rubble contrasts sharply with the antiseptic white-on-white glossy surfaces of the villain’s lair. There’s poetry, too, in Jovovich’s husky snarl of a voice — this heroine may or may not be recognizably human after facing so much horror. I think after six films and fifteen years of this, both Jovovich and Alice have earned a respite.

The movie and the franchise in general sit largely humorlessly at the action-flick table, glowering with the higher purpose of saving humankind from the rotten Umbrella corporation. The films are more “badass” than fun, really. This could be why the series has never been especially lucrative in America — even the most domestically successful, 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, only made $60 million against a $60 million cost — but has blown up overseas; this last segment cleared a mere $27 million here, but pocketed $312 million globally, becoming by far the franchise’s top breadwinner. So … maybe there will be post-final chapters? The ending does leave the door open for more adventures.

More adventures with whom, though? Separate from the live-action series, there have been animated, direct-to-video Resident Evil features; the third, Resident Evil: Vendetta, will soon menace theaters and digital streaming platforms near you. These animated movies follow other folks besides Alice, like Leon S. Kennedy, a hero familiar from the RE videogame series. (Leon also turned up in the previous live-action outing, 2012’s Retribution, alongside Michelle Rodriguez, whose sullen presence is missed here; slight lookalike Ruby Rose represents instead as a tomboy mechanic, but she isn’t around long.) As for future live-action entries, who knows? Jovovich deserves a break, but I hate to think of these movies not anchored by her agility and her growl. It’s bad enough we now face Alien movies without Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and my growing sad suspicion is that if Warner Bros. could get away with putting out a Wonder Woman movie without Wonder Woman, they would.

Alena

Posted May 7, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, foreign, horror

alena-jpgThe Swedish horror drama Alena, out on American DVD this week, is an awfully slow burn. Normally I’m behind that, but this movie makes its earlier countryman Let the Right One In seem like an explosion in a chimpanzee factory. It feels a bit padded out, perhaps because it was: It began as a 59-minute piece for Swedish TV, then got expanded a bit to feature length. Despite that, I recommend it to fans of Let the Right One In: the sullen, angsty mood is well sustained, the performances are on point, and the movie applies artsy touches to scenes that could have been sleazy retro exploitation. Well, they kind of are anyway, but it’s amusing to see them accomplished with Bergmanesque somberness.

Amalia Holm carries the movie as the eponymous Alena, a disturbed teenager who’s just been transferred to a ritzy boarding school. There she swiftly runs afoul of resident bully Filippa (Molly Nutley), the school’s star lacrosse player, whose rich dad contributes a lot to the school’s funding. Not only is Alena a potential threat to Filippa’s standing on the team, she also attracts the cool loner Fabienne (Felice Jankell), whom Filippa wants for herself. The level of same-sex yearning here may satisfy those who enjoyed Lost and Delirious and The Moth Diaries, though those films were helmed by women and Alena was directed by a man, Daniel di Grado, who seems to have jettisoned almost every male character except a fleetingly seen kid and the lacrosse team’s easily intimidated coach.

What tips Alena into the neighborhood of horror is its treatment of a mysterious character from Alena’s past — Josefin (Rebecka Nyman), who follows Alena everywhere and who is, to say the least, more than first meets the eye. Josefin seems to bring violence whenever she shows up, especially in a potentially icky scene in which another of Alena’s classmates is confined in a locker room with Alena. Is she real, a ghost, or simply Alena’s mind luxuriating in her guilt? Could be all three, though the rules of her influence on her surroundings are murky.

The movie takes its time, creates its own chilly world run by female angels and demons. Alena is both, and Amalia Holm’s performance is properly uningratiating. She makes Alena an avatar for repressed, abused youth, like Carrie White in all her iterations, or Angela Bettis’ May. Innocence of a sort is represented not by the film’s namesake but by the rich Fabienne, who doesn’t care about Filippa’s mean-girl games and who appreciates Alena’s gauche outsider aura, complete with chopped-up hair dyed black, which might be a nod to Swedish goth-geek goddess Lisbeth Salander in either of her iterations.

Alena on some level is a compilation of tropes and influences, a calling card for its first-time cowriter/director. It won’t dazzle anyone with its originality. But it’s a sturdy, carefully wrought calling card with considerable feeling for its wounded subjects, and that’s not nothing. Di Grado has a sense of compassion for these troubled girls, even the destructive and conniving Filippa. Eventually the movie leans more heavily towards drama than horror, which is fine; it’s just the characters facing up to the consequences of their actions. The horror derives from pain and grief reaching from the past into the present.