About Endlessness

Posted May 9, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, foreign, one of the year's best

abtend

It is the common fatigue. That’s what my ears thought they heard during a scene in Roy Andersson’s typically deadpan About Endlessness. What I was really hearing was a priest delivering communion in Swedish: The body of Christ broken for you, or Kristi kropp bruten för dig. But, in a lot of ways, Andersson’s first film in five years, and possibly his last, is all about the common fatigue. The priest, as it happens, is going through the motions, administering the ritual with a heavy heart and hollow soul — we have just seen him in the church kitchen, swigging from the same bottle that pours the blood of Christ. He appears several times in the film, often on the edge of tears as he admits he has lost his faith. But nobody much cares, even his psychiatrist.

Sounds heavy, especially if this is your first tour through the bemusement park of Andersson (best known for his “Living” trilogy: Songs from the Second Floor, 2000; You, the Living, 2007; A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014). But About Endlessness, in the sort of irony remarked on by legions of critics by now, is in and out in 76 minutes. Andersson, who spent a long hiatus from feature filmmaking directing commercials (Ingmar Bergman was a fan of them), knows that the type and mode of story he wants to tell is best achieved with brevity. (His only film to exceed two hours, 1975’s Giliap, tanked hard and drove him out of features for 25 years.) The movie is an anthology of moments: some dreary, some distressing, some carefree. The anecdotes add up to a meditation on life as experienced individually and specifically by each subject.

Sometimes the placement of scenes does a lot of the work. Early in the movie, and then not long before the end credits, a man grumbles to the camera that a former schoolmate has been ignoring him because of something unspecified he did to the schoolmate, way back then. That this man is the second, and then second-to-last, person we hear from — bracketing a collection of vignettes ranging from the mundane to the apocalyptic — makes a quietly funny point about the ridiculousness of long-running grievances. Motifs announce themselves: water or wine pouring into glasses, overflowing the glass, or filling a vase for flowers at a dead soldier’s grave; the reality of death captured just before or just after its arrival. If there is despair here, though, there is also joy. Andersson knows that a vision without one or the other is false. The joy whisks away despair, insisting that despair doesn’t last. The despair infects our enjoyment, murmuring that joy won’t last, either. And on and on in a loop.

About Endlessness features Hitler his own bad self, in his bunker being dusted by bomb-loosened plaster and barely acknowledged by exhausted old generals who can’t even muster a decent sieg heil. The straight-faced absurdism of the segment recalls some of Monty Python’s “historical” sketches; the flatness of the style is a wicked rebuke to Leni Riefenstahl’s voluptuous portfolio of lies, Triumph of the Will. So we meet the Devil, and he’s this dull clerk celebrated by half-dead flunkies in the most banal-looking crypt any soon-to-perish despot ever had. Where’s God? Oh, I saw Him here and there, despite the plaints of the priest. He was there in the spontaneous dancing of teenage girls and in the fatal knife wounds of another — the A to Z of human experience. 

The movie leaves us talking back to it — we don’t want it to go just yet. The brevity sometimes verges on a taunt: most of the people we meet, we’ll never see again. The rare exception, aside from the recurring faithless priest, is a dentist who gets two segments — two consecutive segments, which nobody else gets. We first see him in a sketch that seems to be making a point about how emotions can get in the way of how we engage with people personally and professionally, leaving them hurt. The next bit finds the dentist in a bar, with a gentle snowfall visible out the windows — the cozy warm comfort of the scene is palpable, and it seems to nudge one of the customers into blurting “Everything is fantastic.” As Kurt Vonnegut said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” But Andersson isn’t finished, and the last two anecdotes are bitter and desolate, respectively — yet still with glimmers of mitigation. If this isn’t life, I don’t know what is. 

Oscar Night 2021

Posted April 26, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: oscars

oscar2021

I have no special inside knowledge on why the Oscars ceremony did what it did how it did. So if there was a point to putting the Best Picture award before the two lead acting awards, I wouldn’t know. Some have said that Chadwick Boseman was expected to win Best Actor posthumously and that the show was leading up to that surefire emotional climax. And then … it didn’t. Best Actor went to Anthony Hopkins, who wasn’t there, even remotely. For me, a weirdo, this represented the final panel in a trilogy of matches between Hopkins and the also-nominated Gary Oldman, after Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hannibal. Too bad that Hopkins couldn’t have been there for it. Too bad that the show itself couldn’t have been there.

Steven Soderbergh was running the show this time, and his influence was evident at the start, with the camera following Regina King to the stage as funky ?uestlove music played and the credits flashed as in a Soderbergh film. A lot of other choices just seemed weird. The idea, I take it, was to produce a cinematic show, and when groups of nominees were announced, the camera would swoop between them fluidly, as if Scorsese were moving it and it would pause on Jimmy Two-Times as he went to go get the papers, get the papers. Some of it fell into the deep Drawer of Nice Tries, and some will never be attempted again. But oddly, away from the discomfort of it, I admire whatever it was that Soderbergh tried. He did his damnedest with what must have been a logistical clusterfuck even without the complications of live musical performances.

It’s just that whatever has gone wrong with the Oscars precedes COVID-19 and the prohibitive protocols the show needed to observe. I miss the bold, terrible, tasteless Oscars of my younger Oscar-watching days. Those Oscars are long gone; so are the films that fueled them. The show has become timid, too reflexively recoiling from anticipated blows from Film Twitter. They’re going to try to be woke, or at least to look woke, but they’re going to do it in a pallid, half-surly fashion. Soderbergh and his director Glenn Weiss tried to muster some sincere engagement; more than once the camera caught sign-language interpreters working for the benefit of deaf attendees, adding the disabled to the diversity project in a way the voters didn’t — witness the nominated Crip Camp, which lost to what quite a few commentators referred to as “the fuckin’ octopus movie.”

As happens more often than not, Best Picture went to one of the nominees I least wanted to get it (at least it wasn’t Mank). So fine, the crypto-corporatist uplifting meme of a movie goes home with the big prize. I love Frances McDormand, but man, she had two of these things already and I would’ve been happy with a Carey Mulligan win. At least Promising Young Woman got Best Original Screenplay, shutting down Chicago 7, the only one of the Best Picture nominees to go home empty-handed. There were choices I hated and choices I didn’t, but an attempt was made to spread the wealth a little. No one film clocked more than three wins.

The thing about Boseman is sad the more I think about it, though. Yes, his performance was perhaps not his best, but people win all the time for not their best work. Putting him in the running for Best Actor was, one would think, an easy way to reward his fine work during his tragically short career. A great movie-movie ending to the show, hearts swelling up as the sparse audience rises in ovation for someone who won’t hear it. Did they put all their chips on Boseman getting the sympathy vote? And, not to overthink, but could it be that voters resisted or resented being manipulated into voting for someone who can’t benefit from it any more anyway, or saw through the attempted narrative and wanted to short-circuit it?

Whatever the reason, I can’t find any angle to feel good about this. Hopkins was great, he’s always great (maybe Riz Ahmed, also great, could’ve used it more), but what this means in the starkest and most basic sense is that Chadwick Boseman never won an Oscar and never will. That’s done. He’s done. Now, that part is reality, and it’s surprising to find the Academy acknowledging reality. The magic of movies can’t bring Boseman back, nor can the encomia of his peers in the craft. On the other hand, it shows the Academy doesn’t quite have the woke thing down yet. Snazzy as the sets were, the optics were sometimes terrible. Laura Dern at one point was way over to the left on your screen, and Daniel Kaluuya was way to the right, and she started talking to him, and the Black man had to crane his neck awkwardly to listen to the white woman talking to him about him. I promise you that this never crossed either of their minds, and I cherish Kaluuya and Dern. But … not a good look.

Nobody

Posted April 17, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, one of the year's best

Screen Shot 2021-04-17 at 2.48.09 PM

Sometimes you just want a brutality expert wrecking house and perforating faceless bad guys, and Nobody gives you that and then some. At ninety-one minutes, the movie embodies “lean and mean,” and it’s not about anything — it’s just an excuse to get our hero into as many ferocious encounters as possible. It’s the kind of pure cinema that traditionally gets little respect except from action-film fans, who have seen everything and just want to see it done well. Is it realistic? Gedoudda here. It’s a cartoon. But as directed by Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry) and written by Derek Kolstad (the John Wick series), it’s made by people who know what they’re doing. When a baseline of competence is in place, there’s solid ground from which to jump, take flight, indulge in excess.

Perhaps best known these days for Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk would seem, at the very least, cast against type here as Hutch Mansell, an apparently meek office drone crunching numbers in his father-in-law’s business. (Indication of the fun to come: dad-in-law is played by badass character actor Michael Ironside.) About half an hour into the movie — by which time we’ve seen Hutch decline to meet a couple of home invaders with a violent response — we find out that Hutch used to do wetwork for “the three-letter agencies.” A tough guy in a tattoo parlor sees a tat on Hutch’s wrist and backs right down; he knows what that means. Soon, a group of goons threaten a young woman on a bus Hutch happens to be on, and we’re off to the races.

The fight choreography and bone-snapping editing give us a clear view of the carnage. Odenkirk trained for over two years to master Hutch’s lethal moves, and it shows. Is it easier to get a performance out of a nonactor but professional fighter (say, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire) or to hire an actor and train them to fight? In this case, Odenkirk brings a resigned slouch to his pre-violent scenes as the retired hit-man turned family man (he has a wife, played by Connie Nielsen, and two kids). Hutch once thought he wanted the quiet life, but after some years away from the bloodshed he wants back in. He doesn’t really suffer any great tragedy to push him back into the fray. He’s just tired of, as the first song in the movie underlines, being misunderstood.

Hutch runs afoul of a Russian gang, led by casually vicious Aleksei Serebryakov. He could take them on alone, but where’s the fun in that? Hutch enlists the aid of two men whose identities I won’t spoil, and just the sight of them joining in the mayhem is boundlessly entertaining. Nobody made me deeply happy not in spite of but because of its dedication to gritty, grunting, gore-splattered climaxes. I liked the reasoning behind Hutch letting the two thieves go at the beginning: as someone well-acquainted with true evil, Hutch didn’t sniff it on these nitwits. Hutch’s wife and son, it turns out, don’t know him very well; they take him for a boring wimp. His little daughter on some level knows what he is; she feels safe with him.

Some fans are already agitating for sequels, or a crossover set in the John Wick-verse. I say let Hutch (and Odenkirk, who’s 58 and probably doesn’t have many more Nobodys in him physically, though I have no doubt he could still kick my ass) stroll off into the sunset and take pride in a job well done. Not everything has to be a franchise. As it is, this plays like the sort of outstanding but obscure action tape you used to find on the bottom shelf of a mom-n-pop video store, a fierce one-and-done. Its story is complete. Hutch came back once; he doesn’t need to keep coming back. By its very energy and happy ingenuity, Nobody argues pretty persuasively for Hutch’s violent past, at least as the subject of a solar-plexus-punching B movie. It’d be depressing in real life. And the other side of Odenkirk’s phenomenal performance is that Hutch, we sense, knows just how depressing. Odenkirk shows us the contradiction of the samurai, many of whom were also Buddhist. Also there’s a dude who gets chest-bumped with a fucking Claymore.

Minari

Posted April 11, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, foreign

minari

Minari is a modest film about big things — ambition, family, immigration and assimilation. It’s based loosely on writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s experiences in a South Korean family living in rural America. In 1983, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) brings his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and two kids, and all their belongings, to what looks like a godforsaken five acres of Arkansas land, with a forlorn trailer sitting atop the dry grass. Monica hates the place on sight; Jacob hopes to raise a farm here, and one day have fifty acres. I’m not sure we understand Jacob’s life choice any more than Monica does, but it’s his dream, so we go with it, hoping for the best.

Jacob sees what others don’t: the soil is actually a rich color that tells him it may yield the crop of his fantasies. He hopes to grow all Korean fruits and vegetables, and sell them to fellow Korean transplants. In brief, Jacob has a foot in each world; he has the gumption of a dust-bowl American but seeks to bring some of his home country into his adopted country. Monica would rather go back to the city, or at least back to California, where Steven was a top chicken sexer. Which is how the Yis keep the lights on in Arkansas until the crops come in. 

Monica decides to bring her own home to this new place — her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who watches the kids but doesn’t act enough like a grandma for the liking of the youngest child David. (As probably the director’s avatar, David gets a lot of screen time without necessarily seeming like the central character — it’s really an ensemble piece — and he has a sister Anne, who it’s easy to forget exists.) Minari is appealing, though short on moviemaking electricity; it’s quietly pictorial, satisfying — along with fellow Best Picture nominee Nomadland — our desire to see America as a big broad land with endless pockets of beauty.

Jacob and Monica go at each other quite a lot, the eternal clash of the pragmatic wife and the dreamer husband. Even so, the film is good-natured; even a couple of blinkered white kids who encounter David and Anne just blurt out highly inappropriate-even-in-1983 questions (“Why is your face so flat?”) not out of malice but just out of blunt curiosity. David gets a sleepover with his new friend; if Anne does, we don’t see it. Anyway, even the film’s Americans who initially set off our radar turn out okay — like ol’ Paul (Will Patton), who invokes Jesus constantly, speaks in tongues, and hauls a life-size cross around a dirt road as “his church.” Refreshingly, Paul stays a loyal farmhand to Jacob, and doesn’t turn out to be a villain. The Yis don’t encounter much racism that we can see. Minari isn’t about that; it centers on how hard it is for a foreigner to follow the American dream, how remarkable it is when they can find any kind of success. 

We are all, of course, foreigners here if we go back far enough, unless we have indigenous lineage. But Chung doesn’t make the mistake of saying we’re all the same under the skin. These are closely specific characters. Soon-ja, for instance, seems like a whole and authentic person with quirks and preferences. She isn’t ennobled, though; Chung sees her fondly but not sentimentally. Whatever way you might expect her to be drawn — strict, disapproving, old-school, secretly soft-hearted, the usual clichés — Yeun Yuh-jung steers clear of it. Her Soon-ja seems more easygoing than her daughter; she’d be a good grandma to have, cussing and teaching you card games and getting a little too involved in TV wrestling. Yet the performance is subtle, not an example of the life force, or “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” or any of that.

Chung avoids the trap of turning his experience into an omnibus of tropes. Toxic as this concept seems now, when Jacob and Monica argue, we can legitimately see both sides. Neither one is judged for their flaws or blind spots. Minari is named after an edible plant that grows wild; Soon-ja, perhaps out of solidarity with Jacob, plants some minari seeds at a nearby stream. Much is made of water in the film, the need for it, the lack of it, and finally an event that demands it. We could put on our professor hats and note the symbolism and subtext, but that doesn’t seem like an organic way to respond to a slice-of-life story whose teller wants to pay respects to his parents and grandma, who weren’t larger than life, just people playing the hand they were dealt — or dealt themselves.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Posted April 4, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, drama, one of the year's best

judas

Someone wanna explain to me how Shaka King didn’t get an Oscar nomination for directing the Best Picture nominee Judas and the Black Messiah? King did get nods for producing and co-writing the film, but come on. The filmmaking here is fleet-footed, smooth, alive, and contains (courtesy of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) the most colorful rainy scenes I’ve seen in a movie in years. Six Black directors have been nominated for Best Director since 1991, and of those, two directed Best Picture — but the Director Oscar went to someone else. You can say people get way too serious about the Oscars and also say representation is important. You can respect other directors on the list this year and also say King was robbed.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a perhaps too-neat title for an engrossing real-life thriller about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, and Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief strong-armed by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers and report his findings. Kaluuya puts some sand in his voice and barks out Hampton’s angry revolutionary rhetoric, while Stanfield keeps his cool despite fed Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) affably breathing down O’Neal’s neck for intel. We’ve seen a lot of undercover-cop films, and I thought Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman might have put the subgenre to bed, but this film has a Shakespearean-tragedy tinge to it. The martyr doesn’t even get to confront his betrayer, nor does the betrayer unburden himself of his guilt until far too late. O’Neal talked to interviewers for Eyes on the Prize 2 about all of it twenty years later. The night the interview aired on PBS, O’Neal died under disputed circumstances thought by some, including the filmmakers here, to be suicide. He was only forty.

Then again, O’Neal was only seventeen when Mitchell offered him a way out of his charges. Hampton was 21 when he died (if he were with us today he would still only be 72). Many of the agitators for peace and equality in the ‘60s were young, but man, these folks were young. Kaluuya and Stanfield are each about a decade older than the men they’re playing, and they look it, but it works for the movie — Hampton and O’Neal seem weighed down, prematurely aged, by their responsibilities. And their responsibilities are all tangled up with the racist world they’ve been in all their lives. Fred Hampton’s rhetoric wasn’t beautiful like Malcolm X’s or darting and jabbing like Muhammad Ali’s — it was more blunt-force, incantatory in its repetitions. Where he truly excelled was in getting opposed factions — Black street gangs, a redneck group — under the umbrella of his Rainbow Coalition. The FBI was having none of that, and they put a harder squeeze on O’Neal to clear a path to Hampton’s assassination.

The movie comes in a little north of two hours but flies by. Shaka King sketches Hampton here and there, just enough to keep us invested in him as a person, not an icon. We get almost no background on either Hampton or O’Neal — they exist for us in the now, they define themselves by what they do or don’t do. The movie obliquely prompts us to think about how circumstances have shaped us: what accounts for the differences in the ways Hampton and O’Neal respond to the world? Stanfield’s O’Neal doesn’t get any big dramatic moments, but we can see it’s killing him inside. He and Hampton scarcely get any downtime for hanging out, becoming friends, but we feel warmth and mutual respect between them anyway. In some ways, though, O’Neal redeems himself even during his imposture. He helps run things when Hampton is in jail, and he pitches in to rebuild the Panthers’ office after the cops firebomb it. “We are what we pretend to be,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” That cuts both ways, though, and as O’Neal pretends to be someone helping his community, there he is, helping his community.

The Father

Posted March 28, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best

the father 2

“Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man, fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less; and, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind.” Anthony Hopkins spoke those words as King Lear in 1986 and again in 2018, and he voices the sentiment in different words, or with no words at all, in the devastating drama The Father. Hopkins plays Anthony, an aging Englishman who can no longer make the world stay still so that he can get his bearings. The people in his life keep changing appearance. So does his flat, which is sometimes his daughter’s flat. The movie, directed and cowritten by Florian Zeller from his play, uses subtle cinematic techniques to keep us as disoriented as Anthony is. We share his sense of being unmoored, grasping at any solidity that presents itself before it and he recede into nonsense.

The Father is not as incoherent as I’ve perhaps made it sound. The style is sturdy and sensible; it doesn’t lurch into frenzy or melodramatic notions of what insanity feels like from the inside. Anthony is, after all, quite convinced that he’s perfectly sound of mind and that everyone else, for their own dark reasons, has conspired to throw difficulties in his path. So when the inconsistencies crack the narrative — when Anthony’s daughter Anne leaves, played by Olivia Colman, and then returns played by Olivia Williams — the style remains a steady flow of information that, though neatly presented, is unacceptable to Anthony. Who is this, now? Anne? You’re not Anne. This switcheroo happens with other characters, and Williams also turns up in two other roles.

The horror of this situation is twofold: Anthony’s existential anguish over losing everything he is, and Anne’s fury and heartbreak over being erased from her father’s memory. Both Hopkins and Colman beautifully convey the nightmare of a disease that steals identity not only from its host but from everyone in his support system. The film sticks diligently to its grim mode of a confounding reality attacking and retreating. Every scene is there to establish Anthony’s decline. It reminded me of some of David Cronenberg’s more interiorized psychodramas like Dead Ringers, Spider, even Naked Lunch to the extent that what the protagonist is perceiving is not always to be trusted. We are locked in his disintegrating perceptions for ninety-plus minutes; even in scenes when Anthony isn’t around yet, and Anne is talking to her husband/not husband (played alternately by Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell), we feel we’re seeing what Anthony is overhearing but misunderstanding, or imagining but through his own filter. Eventually we come to realize that the story is about no more or less than the unreliability of any perception. Anthony is all of us, blinking slowly at new people or missing objects while holding firm to his belief that his antennae are working perfectly. 

A lot of things in Anthony’s shifting sense of himself can be interrogated or discussed, such as his insistence that he used to be a tap dancer, while elsewhere agreeing that he was an engineer. Well, which is it? Florian Zeller, along with screenplay collaborator Christopher Hampton, plants conflicting details and, within the tight and conventional confines of his camera blocking, refuses to give us ground beneath our feet. Anthony has, or had, another daughter Lucy, who hasn’t come to see him in some time; the shards of data we get — which, of course, could themselves be suspect — indicate that Lucy was killed in an accident. It’s certainly open to interpretation. 

Hopkins makes Anthony prickly and ungovernable, a modern-day Lear raging against the storm in his own head. Ultimately, as in Wit (with Emma Thompson’s least-seen great performance), Anthony — as will we all — comes full circle into whimpering infancy. If we shed a tear, we do so not for him but for ourselves. The long, intolerable slide into oblivion — the immovable arc of the universe. Sometimes a story like this gets told with a spoonful of genre sugar; a lot of science fiction, for instance, runs on speculation about identity and humanity. So the tale is told sidewise, to spare the viewer a direct hit of pain. The Father stays within our unremarkable reality, a world we recognize, until we no longer do.

Sound of Metal

Posted March 21, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best

sound of metal

The refreshing thing about Sound of Metal is that it doesn’t pretend things don’t suck when they do. Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for the two-person band Blackgammon he shares with girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), is rapidly losing his hearing. As his doctor says, it doesn’t really matter how or why; this is the fact of his life now. Cochlear implants might help, but they’re expensive, and Ruben isn’t rich. Eventually he finds himself at a place hidden out in the sticks, run by a man named Joe (Paul Raci) as a retreat for those with deafness and addiction issues, both of which describe Ruben.

Riz Ahmed brings an itchy, impatient intensity to Ruben, who just wants to fix his deafness. Joe disagrees; he feels the path to healing should focus more on sitting with the disability — and getting realistic about how it limits you and how it doesn’t — than on seeking to make it go away. This has been a conflict in every disabled community for years; I once worked with someone whose son was disabled, and who used to side-eye Christopher Reeve because he seemed, she felt, to agitate more for finding a cure for spinal injury than for, say, accessibility or generally making the lives of disabled people easier. Director/cowriter Darius Marder seems to understand this eternal heated conversation from the inside out, and has forged a gripping drama from it.

Once Ruben settles in at Joe’s retreat (after a kind of time-wasting bit where he declines to go there, and we’re sitting there waiting for this section to be over because if Ruben didn’t go to the retreat the movie would be very short), I expected Sound of Metal to go soggy and dull, like a bowl of life-affirming gruel. But it stays spiky and tough-minded; Darius Marder is a son of Massachusetts, but his sensibility seems really European in its indifference to sentimentality. Perhaps, then, it’s apropos that the third act brings in Mathieu Amalric, whose features speak of sad, intimate knowledge of the world’s cruelties, and sometimes this makes his character relatable and sometimes sinister; here, as Lou’s moneybags French dad, he manages to suggest both.

Marder also gets a great performance from Paul Raci, a character actor whose face I didn’t recognize; I simply took him for a deaf actor (he isn’t, but learned ASL to communicate with his deaf parents). Tapped for most likely the meatiest role he’s ever had, Raci underplays and puts across a kind of relaxed authenticity, such as we might associate with a Richard Farnsworth or a Sam Elliott. Joe is extremely plain-spoken, and will not bother with a less than honest statement because he knows conversation is difficult enough without having to factor lies into it. Joe’s place is church-sponsored, but there’s no proselytizing. Ruben goes in unreligious and comes out the same way, though there’s no question he’s undergone some kind of spiritual journey.

If Sound of Metal doesn’t at least win an Oscar for Best Sound, the award has no meaning. Frequently, Marder takes us inside Ruben’s experience as the aural world around him turns into muffled distortion, receding maddeningly into a cotton-candy fog of silence. The soundscape has more personality and terror than anything since Alan Splet’s work for David Lynch. We also hear what cochlear implants do to sound, piping its buzzy approximation to the brain, like the tasteless teleported steak in The Fly — it gets the basics of sound but not the warmth, the music. Sound of Metal does shake out as the inspirational tale of a guy who realizes he has to learn to live in the world he’s found himself in, but the insight is hard-won and earned. It feels specific and therefore universal.

Coming 2 America

Posted March 5, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, sequel, underrated

coming2america5.0

Coming 2 America may as well be titled Coming 2 Zamunda, since the movie spends most of its time in that fictional African country. Zamunda, of course, is home to Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), the hero of the hit comedy Coming to America. Rewatching that John Landis film for the first time since 1988, I was struck by how logy and static it was, even for an ‘80s comedy. It’s hard to argue that Coming 2 America is a “better” movie, but I liked it more; it’s warmer, its direction (by Craig Brewer, who made Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name) more dynamic, its aesthetic much more fluid and colorful (costume designer Ruth E. Carter can take a bow for that). And it’s actually about something: choosing between the elders we love and the future where the elders may no longer have a place.

Akeem soon becomes king, and is preoccupied with his throne and who will fill it when he’s gone. There’s some truth, of course, in Eddie Murphy playing a prince turned king — it mirrors his real-life arc. Coming to America gave Murphy his first taste of doing accents and multiple characters in the same film, and he reprises them all here, as does Arsenio Hall, playing Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi as well as several other roles. But now that Murphy is a king, to whom does he pass his crown? The amiably antic Jermaine Fowler as Akeem’s illegitimate American son Lavelle. The story is structured so that Lavelle can take over, but Murphy is too powerful a presence for that to happen, and Fowler just isn’t up to it.

Instead, Murphy lets apparent new BFF Wesley Snipes steal a few scenes as General Izzi, who wants Lavelle to marry his meek, boring daughter. Izzi insinuates himself into scenes with a low stroll, echoed by his gun-toting minions behind him; the effect is funky and weird, and Snipes, in these Murphy films, is having more fun than I’ve seen from him in years. In general, Coming 2 America just seems gladder to see all its stars of color than the original film did. Leslie Jones grabs as much of the frame as she can as Lavelle’s THOT mama, accompanied by Tracy Morgan as her brother, grumbling his usual huffy nonsense. Craig Brewer is a white director who clearly feels comfortable in the Black milieu (his other films include Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan). He approaches the sequel as a loving fan of the original; John Landis did little to show any warmth towards his original at all. Landis needed a hit, and Murphy threw it to him like a life preserver. If people think fondly of the 1988 film, it’s due to Murphy and Hall and John Amos and James Earl Jones and all those other wonderful performers filling out a nearly all-Black cast in a major-studio summer comedy. It’s not because Coming to America was particularly good.

Coming 2 America has some of the same problems, plus some new ones. As I said, most of it unfolds not in Queens (though we do check in back there and hang out at the barbershop again) but in Zamunda. If the first film was about questioning authority, the second is about being authority. Age has agreed with Murphy, who has filled out a bit and added some stillness and gravitas to his portfolio (he turns 60 next month, if you’re ready for that). He carries himself like a king, and he gives Akeem a kind of newfound rigidity born of realizing the world isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be. Certain traditions are there because they work; others must change with the times or be discarded. Lavelle in Zamunda is a callback in reverse to the fish-out-of-water comedy of Akeem in Queens, but the rhyming storyline never takes hold, and Akeem himself is largely passive, always trying to convince others to do things or not.

There’s really only so much a get-the-band-back-together nostalgia piece like Coming 2 America can do. Like Bill & Ted Face the Music, it works by being comfort food, and the original Coming to America wasn’t very edgy to begin with, so Coming 2 America isn’t a betrayal of anything other than those who’ll miss the nudity in the R-rated first film. (It was really pretty gratuitous, and as unfeeling a use of women’s bodies as anything in Hustler.) I don’t anticipate ever watching either film again, but Coming 2 America passed the time pleasantly. I don’t understand its disappointed reception, as though Landis’ inert film were an inviolable masterpiece marred by a mere sequel. Coming 2 America shows what this material can be in the hands of a director who’s not just taking it as a gig, who believes in it and loves the cast.

Nomadland

Posted February 28, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, overrated

nomadlandThere’s a Facebook group called “Capitalist Dystopia Stories Rebranded as Heartwarming Bullshit.” It provides links to news bits like the recent one in which a seven-year-old girl is selling lemonade to help pay for her brain surgery. I don’t know how we got to be a society that isn’t horrified by this. Anyway, stuff like that may help explain why the more I think about Nomadland the angrier I get. The movie is beautifully made (though not “poetic,” as many will tag it, so much as pictorial). It’s also heartwarming bullshit. Taking off from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, Nomadland gives us a community of good earthy folk who live in vans and RVs, roaming the country, taking temp work. This is the nicest movie about homelessness, financial despair and human frailty you’ll ever see.

Frances McDormand anchors the plotless, anecdotal film, but her role has been shaped by writer-director Chloé Zhao to make her the anchor — it’s an actor’s delight, a silently strong hero who stoically suffers. Zhao is known for filling her movies (previously, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) with nonactors “playing” themselves, and with the exception of McDormand and David Strathairn as Dave, a quietly unstable fellow nomad, that’s how Nomadland is cast. McDormand plays a woman named Fern — the name isn’t far off from “Fran” — and her last name starts with “McD.” So is McDormand also playing herself? Let’s say she seems to be behaving as Fern, just inhabiting Fern with as few frills as possible. After a while it seems to be an exercise in how much of herself she can suppress.

I’m as hooked into Amazon as anyone, but the movie’s wishy-washy depiction of Amazon warehouses as places that give our kind nomads a nice paycheck or two stuck in my craw. See, the film unavoidably says, Amazon doesn’t exploit desperate Americans — it helps them. Thank God for the largesse of our corporate overlords! Will you be requiring anything else, sirs? The people in Nomadland, though, aren’t defined by the work they do. They all seem to have opted out of the rat race. Many are out there in their vans because the economy cast them off, but we hear a lot more often from the nomads who just can’t get used to sleeping under a roof, in a soft bed. They want to live under the stars with others of their tribe. So the movie really has no political or economic consciousness at all. Taken to its logical conclusion, Nomadland could be saying that all homeless are homeless by choice; they’re just not built for house living or careers.

Fern sits and talks with real-life nomads playing versions of themselves. Two examples of this are of monumental tastelessness. One woman, Charlene Swankie (named only as “Swankie” in the film), plays a scene in which she has a headache and confides that she has cancer and hasn’t been given long to live. The actual Swankie is healthy, and the movie mixes fact and fiction in this sort of strange way, asking a nonactor to pretend she has a mortal illness. The other example finds nomadic guru Bob Wells getting choked up as he tells Fern about his son, who committed suicide. As it happens, that tragedy did in fact befall Wells. But it takes us out of the movie (is his story real or scripted? we wonder), as Swankie’s feigned illness also does.

Chloé Zhao has no anger in her about how the country has failed these nomads, how it uses them up and denies they exist. She’d rather just groove on the serene vibe of a group of outcasts sitting together around a fire, being each other’s family. As drama, Nomadland is pretty null; the emotional crescendo comes when we gasp at Dave accidentally dropping some of Fern’s cherished dishes. Yet Fern’s anger at Dave gets the movie to snap into focus for a moment — suddenly, McDormand has a professional actor to play off of, and she lunges at the opportunity while scrupulously staying within the cramped bounds she sets for Fern. But as far as we can see, there isn’t anyone scary out in Nomadland or violent or mean. Nobody ever seems in trouble. Everyone looks after each other. It all seems very nice. If the film gets any award traction it’ll be due to the current moment’s collective yearning for community. But let’s not be numbed to the cold realities of being nomads, or the larger society that has, through economic or social pressure, ejected them. Nomadland comes close to saying whatever happens to drifters and vandwellers is okay, because they have each other.

The Stylist

Posted February 21, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

stylist

Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a hair stylist, and a good one. A loner who lives with a limping little dog, her attempts at small talk with her clients are a bit awkward, but she’s trusted enough to get a wedding-hairdo gig for Olivia (Brea Grant), a hard-charging magazine editor. What Olivia doesn’t know is that Claire is lonely to the point of psychosis. In her basement, Claire keeps an assortment of pretty scalps on glass mannequin heads; she tries on each one and pretends to be the woman she scalped. The Stylist, cowritten and directed by Jill Gevargizian, is an expansion of her 2016 short film (you can watch the short on YouTube). Here and there the burn is slow, but the feature doesn’t feel padded. Claire is part Leatherface and part Frank from the gory cult horror film Maniac, and almost every frame is devoted to her.

The difference between Gevargizian’s film and the recent Saint Maud, which also concerns a deeply troubled young woman and her thorny relation to the outside world, is that Gevargizian is simply a better filmmaker who knows when to sprinkle some humor, some humanity, some suspense. The Stylist is far-fetched but emotionally readable. It’s not going to show us the nuts and bolts of how exactly Claire has been getting away with her hobby; that part isn’t very important to Gevargizian, the disposal of bodies and so forth, not to mention how Claire poisons or drugs her victims so that she can scalp in peace. We wait uneasily for one of the unwilling hair donors to blink awake. More than once, Claire finds herself somewhere she shouldn’t be, and manages to hide or flee smoothly enough that we may wonder how much of her nocturnal activity is real.

A lot of this will crumble apart if subjected to too much literal scrutiny, so let’s not. Gevargizian intends The Stylist as a bloody, wincing metaphor for yearning for someone else’s life. A hair stylist herself, Gevargizian knows how well-heeled women talk to those they consider their servants, even if they fancy themselves too liberal to use that word for people who, in fact, serve them. Women frequently complain to Claire about their cushy but dull lives, not knowing they’re talking to someone who would gladly take over those lives. Claire never really does, though. She doesn’t go out on the town with her new identity as a blonde or a brunette; she sits in front of a mirror in her basement lair and talks to herself, echoing her victims’ dialogue. Even her insane method of self-actualization is smothered in secrecy — and isolation.

Claire’s ultimate project would appear to be Olivia, though it’s by no means clear that Claire would know what to do with Olivia’s life if she had it. As the movie approaches Olivia’s wedding, we wonder how it will play out; will Claire snap out of it and give up her extracurriculars, or will Gevargizian jump into the deep end along with Claire? That’s the source of most of the suspense and dread in The Stylist. Unlike the critically lionized Saint Maud, this film is actually about something besides the degraded mood of watching a sad woman deteriorate beyond help. It seems concerned with different strains of resentment — between women, and between socioeconomic classes. It follows a cracked protagonist without making the mistake of excusing her — or condemning her. It’s also one hell of a gnarly horror film, and one that has no shame whatsoever about that.