Game Night

Posted May 20, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, overrated, thriller

gamenightIt’d be nice if a dark comedy called Game Night were more … playful. It has a few good laughs, and no shortage of clever little twists. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are the lead couple, united in love and marriage by their shared passion for games — tabletop, trivia, charades. Stressed out by his competitive streak tied to his resentment of his more successful brother (Kyle Chandler), Bateman is having trouble producing viable sperm, and that’s one more trait than McAdams’ character gets. Anyway, big brother Chandler invites Bateman and MacAdams’ usual game-night group over to his swanky rented house for a murder-mystery game involving kidnapping, though the kidnappers turn out to be quite real.

This is not generally my favorite brand of mash-up — when a comedy imports a crime plot. It put a dent in Date Night and ruined whatever chance Let’s Be Cops had to be worth anything. Here, though, it works for a while because all the characters are steeped in pop culture and are self-aware; once they assume everything they’re experiencing is fake, they behave accordingly, oblivious to the very real dangers, the very genuine bullets. Eventually they catch on, but the synthetic nature of the plot is dispiriting. Every little detail and flick of the brush is meant to be filed away for future reference. The whole creaky construct is so “clever” it barely breathes.

When it does breathe, though, Game Night earns its spot at the bloody-farce table, mainly by pairing the players off and watching them respond to the challenge. One couple (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) gets stuck on the possibility that she had an affair with a celebrity, whose identity she won’t share. In this sort of film, we sort of expect a real celebrity playing himself to make an appearance as the cuckolding culprit, but the joke goes another, not necessarily funnier direction. Another couple is made up of an idiot (Billy Magnussen) who usually attends Game Night with equally stupid dates, and the smart ringer (Sharon Horgan) the idiot has brought this time. Their subplot doesn’t go much of anywhere either. But all the actors are committed and fun to watch, even if, say, neither Bateman nor McAdams does anything we haven’t seen from them before.

The MVP is Jesse Plemons as Gary, a next-door police officer still grieving his divorce. Plemons has bland, mashed-potato-eating features, sort of a cross between Matt Damon and Michael Shannon, and he puts awkward pauses in everything he says. He wonders why Bateman and McAdams exclude him from their Game Nights, which he used to attend with his now ex-wife; everyone finds him creepy and hasn’t invited him. The great thing is, Plemons never violates his unhappy, suspicious character, assuring the audience that his feelings are funny. They’re very real, as real as the bullets and the kidnappers. And yet he gets laughs — uneasy laughs, weird laughs. He’s clearly been given the go-ahead to bear down on his divorced, lonely cop and ground his absurdity in painful reality.

Game Night doesn’t amount to much, but it’ll make a decent rental for a Movie Night, with friends invited over for a breezy, occasionally gory spot of goofiness. There’s a cute dog, drenched in blood (someone else’s) but otherwise coming to no harm. Movies like this, where people are bashed and shot, should probably refrain from putting dogs front and center in their advertising; dog lovers may squirm through the whole thing waiting for something terrible to happen to the pooch. Nothing does, but then we wait for some sort of reckoning connected to the dog’s owner discovering all the blood on it. It gets blown off in a line of dialogue having to do with the collateral mess the dog leaves. A farce like this needs to click together mercilessly, inhumanly, uniting all its aspects into one finished puzzle of bad behavior. But we’re to believe this particular character finds his beloved doggie spattered with gore and has nothing to say about it?

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Black Panther

Posted May 13, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, comic-book, one of the year's best, science fiction

blackpantherThe entire bloated, interlinked, resource-eating Marvel Cinematic Universe may have justified itself by having made possible Black Panther. It’s a rich and shining tapestry, in deep African reds and golds and purples. Being a Marvel movie, it is unavoidably corporate and Manichean — might makes right in the eternal war of Good and Evil. Fortunately, the artists behind Black Panther are interested in how one defines good and evil. Is it that hard to be good if you’re a royal, a member of the warrior elite of a technologically advanced society (Wakanda)? And if you grow up the resentful, brutal product of living in a much poorer society that resents and brutalizes you, can you truly be described as “evil”?

Director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole make Black Panther a battleground of philosophies — isolationism vs. generosity, revenge vs. justice, even vibranium (the element that gives Wakanda its power) vs. Jabari wood. It is never at any point black vs. white, or African vs. Caucasian, even though one of the villains is white (he is shown to be an equal-opportunity slimeball who will ally with and then betray whoever can most benefit him in the moment). Unlike the unredeemable adversaries of the DC universe — the unreachable anarch the Joker, the megalomaniacal Lex Luthor — the rogues’ gallery at Marvel tend to have some shading, some humanity, even if appalling humanity. And the heroes are often impeded by guilt, doubt, hubris. Thus, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly crowned king of Wakanda, represents a kind of naïvete born of privilege; his opposite, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), came up outside Wakanda’s embrace and has a more bitter view of the world. Erik often makes good points, and T’Challa sometimes sounds fatuous.

Wakanda represents what the whole of Africa might have been without colonizers — an African-American’s warming daydream of a black Shangri-La, unmutilated by whites. It’s a dream of superiority, too; Coogler and his artists take command of a medium that has spent far more of its history demeaning people of color than not, and they make sure this example of the medium gives us people of color who are demonstrably smarter and tougher than anyone else. (There’s a white CIA agent, played by Martin Freeman, who is generously made a brave and competent fighter.) That an empowerment fable on this level — a $200+ million sci-fi fantasy opening in 4,000 theaters nationwide — is only thinkable due to its association with a larger, otherwise pretty pale-skinned corporate concern is probably not the sort of irony Marvel fans would appreciate. Yet Black Panther may ultimately stand apart from its wider mythos the same way Wonder Woman did.

Considering the strain he must have been under — here you go, a massive blockbuster all your own; try not to disappoint Marvel or the black audience; no pressure or anything! — it might be too much to have expected Chadwick Boseman to manage anything other than a noble performance, with occasional brushstrokes of rage and grief and one or two fleeting bits of humor. (I look for the sequels — don’t worry, there’ll be some — to let T’Challa and Boseman have more fun.) Michael B. Jordan, on the other hand, knows he has a juicy wounded-martyr role and rips into it with gusto, thoroughly enjoying playing a large-scale villain on an enormous canvas. Boseman more or less gives the movie to Jordan and to the many beautiful, brilliant women surrounding him: Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright. The Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, could give the Amazons in Wonder Woman a rough time of it.

Wakanda is heaven, a dream of unity and equality of all kinds — though I imagine we’d have to wait for Black Panther 3 or 4 to find out how LGBTQ people or the disabled are treated there. Wakanda feels like the perfect land we all should have had, a utopia (though one ruled by a techno-warrior class). The place has great beauty, but it doesn’t look like much fun, truth to tell; it looks like a stolid land of solemn traditions and tests of strength, its loyal subjects pledging to defend its borders from the outside world. (And a benevolent monarchy is still a monarchy, no?) In a much-discussed quote at the end, T’Challa tells the United Nations, “In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” It’s hard not to hear in that a rebuke to … well, you know. Somebody.

 

The Misandrists

Posted May 7, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cult, one of the year's worst, satire

Misandrists-7-800x499The only moment I freely enjoyed in Bruce LaBruce’s erotic satire The Misandrists comes when a woman dressed as a nun, walking on the grounds outside an all-girl school, suddenly and randomly breaks into the Charleston while music plays (coming from where? We don’t know). Then, as inexplicably as it started, the music stops, the dance is cut off, and the “nun” resumes walking. This happens roughly fifty minutes into the movie, and it’s the only bit with any spontaneity or life. The rest of The Misandrists is more porno-tinged, half-serious “radical” agitprop from LaBruce, a founding father of the queercore movement of the ‘80s, who has made this as a quasi-sequel to his 2004 film The Raspberry Reich.

For LaBruce, homosexuality is revolutionary, and he literalizes that by linking gay sex with terrorism, or at least with terrorist rhetoric. I see the point: In certain quarters of supposedly free Western societies (LaBruce hails from Ontario), if you’re LGBTQ you may as well be ISIS. So why not give homophobes something to be genuinely phobic about? Filmed in Berlin in twelve days on a Kickstarter budget, The Misandrists concerns a lesbian separatist group — the Female Liberation Army — disguised as a convent. Their leader is Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse, from Raspberry Reich), who uses gender-swapped words like “womansplain” and says things like “We must tell the world to wake up and smell the estrogen.”

If this is your cup of camp, drink up. I found it largely boring, especially a slow-motion pillow fight that goes on for eight or nine weeks, or so it seems. Filmed in early 2016, The Misandrists can’t really be faulted for not anticipating the atmosphere in which it would eventually be released (after a year or so of bouncing around festivals worldwide). You can’t read a room if you’re not expecting it to be on fire in two years. But maybe now isn’t the time for a jokey send-up of gay, female and transgender rage. Maybe it also isn’t the time for scenes like the one in which an transgender young woman is ostracized (temporarily, but still) while a wounded young man is subjected to forced gender reassignment surgery (shown in gory, leering close-ups in actual vaginoplasty footage as the man screams in pain). This may be a shot at the TERF mentality, but in this particular landscape it lands poorly. As Roger Ebert wrote about the lumberjack jokes in Blue Velvet, “Sorry, but I just couldn’t get my lips to smile.”

This sort of japery was done funnier and filthier by John Waters in the pride of his midnight-movie shining, in films like Desperate Living and Female Trouble. I’m not sure whether LaBruce wants us to chuckle politely — that dignified whitebread titter you hear in audiences for art-house flicks — or to nod in meaningful mute assent to the heavy points he’s making. One of the points is a good one: extremism used to control people is bad; used in art, as in the pornifesto the young women produce at the movie’s end, it’s good. Would that The Misandrists were an example of the latter. As it is, it employs graphic, unsimulated sex and blood for an upsy daisy assortment of self-consciously subversive blackout sketches. Which may have worked in the somewhat gentler ‘90s. These days, more is needed and deserved.

 

Transformer

Posted April 29, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

Transfomer_1_previewWhen a transgender person sets out to transition from male to female, it can be a great help if she has a small, slender body. Many transwomen, though, don’t have such a body, and sometimes they are sufficiently discouraged from transitioning because they lack the physique that society deems “feminine.” In the good-hearted documentary Transformer we meet Janae Marie Kroczaleski, named Matt at birth, a former Marine and erstwhile prize-winning powerlifting/bodybuilding competitor who has always felt female inside. Yet even after committing to facial feminization surgery, Janae doesn’t feel right completely abandoning her “guy side,” the self who lifts and hangs out in sweaty gyms with two of her best guy friends, whom she considers brothers.

Increasingly in the transgender community, particularly with the rise of younger generations, the notion of “passing” — being able to “go stealth” in one’s preferred gender presentation without attracting unwelcome, bigoted, often violent notice — is becoming less desirable as a variety of body types in general have become more accepted. Janae will always be a large and muscular woman, and has made her peace with that as much as she can; in the past she has lost excessive weight to attain more of an hourglass figure, but she ended up miserable, so now she is combining a less bulky and “cut” version of her old body with softer clothes, makeup, wigs. Honestly, though, she comes across as much less masculine simply by no longer overcompensating, as many pre-transition transwomen do, thinking they can exorcise the feminine “demon” inside by drowning her in testosterone.

Transformer takes Janae’s emotional pulse as she goes through the usual barrage of feminizing therapies, meds and surgeries. Her story, by virtue of the physique she started with, is an exaggerated version of the struggles of most transfolks. Smoothly directed by Michael Del Monte, the film is on the brief side at under 80 minutes, and sometimes details are shortchanged — we find out late in the game, for instance, that Janae has been fired from her job as a pharmacist, and she worries about how she’ll now make a living, afford more surgery, and support her three sons (from her first marriage). The movie offers no reassurance about her financial future — it seems to forget about it — though according to reports outside the documentary she seems to be making her way as an entrepreneur and activist. What’s more important to Del Monte is Janae’s journey as a warrior on the bleeding edge of gender and its many received notions.

Janae may stand as an inspiration to any transperson who for whatever reason looks in the mirror and doesn’t see the gender they know they actually are. There’s a nice scene in which Janae visits an event for trans lifters and chats with a transman — female-to-male. They talk shop about the desire for “bottom surgery,” the sort of final frontier of medical transition. This is not, to put it mildly, the kind of conversation one normally hears in films, and is all the more fascinating for that, and all the more to be valued. With other people Janae stays honest but respectfully leaves them some room to process her struggle on their own. Her mother is shakily on board, her dad not so much; her teenage sons, informed at early ages of her status, are completely okay with it (they still call her Dad, though).

Janae’s sons, like many of their generation, give us some hope for a more open-minded future. Transformer in general shows us a world around Janae that more or less accepts her (which may be a result of consciously surrounding herself with positivity). As one of her sharp sons says, the biggest obstacle in her way has always been herself. These days Janae identifies as nonbinary, or gender-fluid — either/or. She is an embodiment of the resistance to gender essentialism — the outmoded school of thought that says men and women have to be, act and look a certain way. When Janae is being roughly encouraged by a fellow transwoman lifter (“Don’t be a little bitch!”), we accept it as part of the culture that they insist on staying a part of while refusing to deny who they are. A lot of us, not just transgender, might learn a bit from these women yelling at each other profanely but supportively, being completely their own persons. A good movie and a great story.

Russian Doll

Posted April 23, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, thriller

russiandollIt’s probably none of my business, but I have to ask anyway: How must it feel to be a first-time movie actor — a personal trainer by trade — doing a nude same-sex love scene in a movie produced by your mom and brother and directed by your father? Melanie Brockmann Gaffney might be in a position to tell us. She stars in the somewhat gimmicky whodunit Russian Doll, co-produced by her mother Suzanne Brockmann (yes, the romantic-thriller novelist) and brother Jason T. Gaffney (an openly gay actor who also appears in the movie), and written and directed by paterfamilias Ed Gaffney. Come to think of it, how does it feel to be a guy directing your daughter in a nude make-out scene, or, for that matter, directing your son as he enacts sadism and torture?

This all makes Russian Doll sound more juicy than it is, I fear. It’s a decent if heavy-handed affair, motivated, we understand, by the Brockmann Gaffneys’ desire to make female-centered LGBT-friendly movies. A noble goal, and surely the title itself indicates a person stashing his or her secret self inside the shell of a false self. None of which seems to have much to do with the heroine Brockmann Gaffney is playing — Viola Ames, a detective on the case of a kidnapping and possible planned murder connected to a play about … people hiding their real selves. The would-be murderer is doing the same thing, of course. The plot allows for one of those grand metaphors that must be satisfying to a fiction writer, but the rest of us might be less enamored of it.

The movie was filmed in Framingham and Concord, Massachusetts, for about twelve cents — enough to afford an established actor, anyway, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Kristine Sutherland. I feel like a dick criticizing a microbudget film, but it has a major video distributor — Wolfe Video, which specializes in gay-themed entertainment — and, honestly, there are better options around. Aside from ringer Sutherland, the acting is a bit rigid when it isn’t hammy; the movie goes so far in establishing the play’s writer/star as an unpleasant prima donna he may as well have “red herring” written across the front of his shirt. Gaffney at least knows what he’s doing; the film is cleanly photographed and, actually, pleasingly edited, clipping scenes quickly and getting on with it.

It’s the story that feels hacky. And did I miss a meeting where it was decided that gay audiences would give a hetero male director the benefit of the doubt for nude lesbian love scenes that (A) move the story forward not one inch and (B) are all, so far as I can determine, taking place in the heroine’s morose fantasies? The scenes are more sweet than raunchy, but are still pointlessly explicit. The matryoshka metaphor doesn’t seem to apply to Viola, who’s out to everyone; her trauma has nothing to do with hidden selves, but rather with her late, lamented wife, dead almost two years now. Viola’s mother (Sutherland) sets her up with the amiable Faith (Marem Hassler), because everyone has decided for Viola that she’s mourned enough and needs to get back into the romance game. This seems tacked onto the murder-mystery plot — or maybe the other way around.

Russian Doll does — or attempts, anyway — what we want so many works of entertainment to do these days. Its heart is in the right place, I guess. Unfortunately, a lot of truly great art has its heart in exactly the wrong place. It doesn’t serve an agenda (however warmly one might agree with it). It doesn’t create a gay female protagonist only to pretend her sexual identity has zero to do with anything she does (sadly, just as we are light years away from a society that truly doesn’t see color, so we are nowhere near a society whose homophobic structure does not brand itself on gay psyches in some way). And to return to my earlier question: I don’t know how it feels to be a woman doing a nude sex scene for her director father, or to be a father directing his daughter in a nude sex scene. I do know how it feels to watch such a scene. Not so good.

Vazante

Posted April 15, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, foreign

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 5.26.26 PM“Why do whites love ouija boards?” asks a particularly trenchant internet meme. “If they want to learn about demons they can just go to ancestry.com.” Sharp, but not wrong. In Vazante, the first solo-directed feature by Brazilian filmmaker Daniela Thomas, we see some demons up close. In fact, Inti Briones’ rich black and white cinematography ensures that we perceive every wrinkle, sty, nook and cranny in the faces of the oppressors and the oppressed alike. Pictorially, Vazante (translating to English roughly as “ebb tide”) is unimpeachable, and more than once I felt its images might enjoy a gainful second life in a coffee-table book. “That’s lovely,” I’d say, or “Ah, the poetry of the muddy, puddly ground underneath the bare, shivering feet of African slaves trudging towards the failing diamond mine where they work,” and the aesthetics of the slaves’ anguish outweigh, I am afraid, the politics or reality of it.

I don’t suspect or accuse Daniela Thomas of amoral motives. I simply think she fell inadvertently into a Riefenstahl-like elevation of an evocation of time and place through picture and sound, at the expense of conveying much emotion about what happened in that time and place. The similarly rigorously archaic The Witch seemed to unearth themes and modern resonances from the arid soil of its milieu (and made us feel things — sometimes deeply divided things — about its people and their actions). Vazante seems neutral, at best, about the inhumanity it shows us. The owners and drivers of slaves don’t twirl their mustaches with wretched glee, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained or even Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave. Thomas has said she wanted to avoid the sort of exploitative, eroticized sadism of many slave narratives, and yet there’s not much here to replace those tropes. We don’t really get inside anyone’s head.

Worse, the plot carries a whiff of soap opera. At the start, the initial protagonist, slaveowner Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), arrives home to find that his wife has died in childbirth, as has their child. Despondent, Antonio drifts around for a while. Then he marries his 12-year-old niece Beatriz (Luana Nastas), while dallying with (well, technically raping) his slave Feliciana (Jai Baptista). Meanwhile, Beatriz develops her own thing with Feliciana’s son Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), who may or may not be Antonio’s son out of wedlock. Antonio lying morosely in his hammock becomes an almost amusingly frequent recurring image. So do scenes of Beatriz moping around Antonio’s house. Frankly, the movie starts to seem padded out, and fetishistically devoted to its visual scheme. We’re drawn to Beatriz largely because she’s virtually the only one we see smiling ever, not that a dour countenance would be uncalled-for in this story. But it’d be nice to have some levity, some lightness, even some music (aside from sparse singing and some tones under the end credits, there is none).

Vazante plucks at some plot threads only to lose track of them. The most egregious example is Lider (Toumani Kouyaté), a rebellious slave nobody can understand because nobody speaks his language. We don’t understand him either, because unlike the Portuguese-speakers in the movie, he isn’t subtitled. His character barely makes sense — one minute Lider is saving the life of the interim master he’s just escaped from, the next minute he’s back in chains, eventually ending up insane and eating mud and meeting his fate offscreen. The disregard for Lider, easily the film’s most intriguing creation, is chillingly thorough. Vazante wants to be a visual riff on the various souls destroyed by slavery, but it also can’t help shaking out as a study of a white man’s agony at being betrayed by everyone. There are memes about white people tears, too, though the movie’s final scream of horror might actually be funnier than any of them.

Phantom Thread

Posted April 8, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, one of the year's best

Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 4.31.39 PMPaul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a sort of upper-class pornography — without sex or nudity, though; it’s fashion porn and, secondarily, food porn. The camera lavishes its fixation on close-ups of threads, lace, mushrooms, pastries. The people onscreen focus on what goes into and onto the body, the better to avoid thinking about the body itself. The protagonist, esteemed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), surrounds himself with women but seems interested in them only as walls on which to hang his art, or assistants in making his art. He has successfully created an elegant bubble in which his various servants perpetuate his lockstep routines and he gets to play the difficult, complicated genius.

The hero of Phantom Thread is not Reynolds, or even his enabling sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville); it’s Alma Elsen (Vicky Krieps), a waitress drawn into Reynolds’ sphere after Reynolds has discarded his latest muse/lover and is possibly on the lookout for another. Alma, however, as we gradually learn, is not interested in being the typical muse, the victim, the martyr to a man’s greatness. She insists on her own humanity, perhaps because she understands Reynolds’ humanity more than most do. If Reynolds is meant in any way as an avatar for Anderson, Phantom Thread is the idiosyncratic and ambitious filmmaker’s self-satire. The character of Reynolds, though, at least on paper, feels a bit warmed-over — we’ve seen this rigid mad genius before.

What Anderson and Day-Lewis bring to him is a kind of sneaky dark libido, acted on, if not sexually, then in a thousand sublimated ways. He dominates as surely as does a Dom/me in BDSM play. In that respect, Phantom Thread follows from Anderson’s 2012 Hegelian reverie The Master; in both, the student, as they tirelessly say, becomes the master. Here, though, we get a rich aroma of a gothic stew — a good deal of talk about ghosts, literal and metaphorical; the turn two-thirds of the way through into the overt macabre; the title itself, which seems to refer to the invisible string connecting us all but could also signify the unseen messages Reynolds stashes in the linings of each dress.

Phantom Thread, shown in some theaters in colossal 70mm, harks back to the super-extra blockbuster dramas of the ‘50s, the ones shot in creamy Technicolor and drenched in repressed flop sweat. The dynamic between Reynolds and Cyril, and between him and the various muses he wishes to control, carries a faint whiff of Vertigo. As in other recent Anderson films, the mood is sexually impacted and obstinately uncanny. It could also be adapted to the stage with little trouble — I think a daydream near the end is the only exterior shot in the movie — yet fluently speaks the language of pure cinema. Even if Anderson has moved on from Altman and Scorsese to Hitchcock and Ophuls, he seems slowly to be irising in on the essence of whatever overstory he wants his career to tell — getting closer to whatever he’s been getting at for twenty-odd years.

Reynolds has a preoccupation with his dead mother, from whom he learned his trade, but the movie doesn’t suggest that he’s resurrecting Mom over and over every time he sculpts the perfect dress to bring out any woman’s beauty. Rather, his ego seems to want to displace the importance of his mother, leaving footprints that dwarf hers, while dismissing his father entirely (his only meaningful exchange with a male in the whole movie is a couple of disdainful shots at a young doctor). The psychology is tangled and doesn’t always track smoothly, but aesthetically it’s usually surprising and entertaining. I think if you don’t hold the movie’s pompous style against it — if you accept its style as part of the movie’s oblique point about creativity — Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most satisfying whatsit yet about the beasts red in tooth and claw beneath the politesse of what is amusingly called society.