Roadrunner

Posted July 18, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary, one of the year's best

roadrunner

The suicide asks the world, “Why?” The question has levels: Why me? Why am I here? Why should I go on? And the suicide, most often, is answered by the same word with a different meaning: Why did you go? Why did you leave us? Why wasn’t I enough to save you? The messy but honorable documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain does its best work when it engages with all the whys — not only Bourdain’s final why (he took his own life in 2018) and the many whys of those who loved him, but the whys of Bourdain’s packed and perpetually in-motion life. 

A chef turned writer turned host of several food/travel shows, Bourdain seemed to mainline experiences as he once injected heroin. He was never one to err on the side of moderation. As much as we would have wanted a storybook ending for him — retiring to his beloved Vietnam, kicking back — that wasn’t in the cards for him. Director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor) sits down with a bunch of Bourdain associates and friends, who all still seem raw about losing him. The narrative picks up around the time the spotlight landed on Bourdain — when his addictive tell-all Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000. From there Bourdain wandered into television, a medium he was not initially suited for.

At certain points one might feel a better title for the film would be Storyteller, since more than one person calls him that. But Roadrunner better matches up with the movie’s portrait of a man with an itchy foot. Bourdain was always running towards new worlds; he was also, we begin to sense, running away from himself. We might as well knock it out of the way now: I don’t blame Bourdain’s last lover, Asia Argento, for what he did, and I don’t think anyone who watches Roadrunner with a reasonable amount of attention could, either. Any attempt to make Argento the “why” of Bourdain’s ending runs contrary to his own ethos, his very soul. He knew nothing is that simple. This man who wrote about everything else, though, did not leave a note. He felt, perhaps, the act spoke for him.

By liberally seasoning the film with talking-heads footage of those who loved him — second wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, fellow chef Eric Ripert, many others — Neville avoids the trap of making a compilation of clips from all Bourdain’s shows, and Bourdain’s survivors help put him in context. He was generally miserable and dissatisfied with himself, which drove him to immerse himself without restraint in new passions, like jiu-jitsu — or Argento. After a while, the portrait takes shape: the profoundly sad implication is that some people aren’t meant to last — the old “light that burns twice as bright” adage — and that Bourdain escaped self-extinguishment in a few major ways (I still remember the New Zealand episode of No Reservations when an ATV flipped over onto him and, by some fool luck, he didn’t end right then and there) and in countless, everyday minor ways until it finally caught up with him. Bourdain, though, lasted long enough for millions — not just those he hung out with — to mourn him bitterly.

The big takeaway here, I think, is a brief bit when Bourdain sits across from Iggy Pop, who says that what still thrills him is being loved and appreciating that gift. Bourdain nods blankly, as if Iggy were talking about alien abduction. The entirety of the movie is in that opaque nod of incomprehension. Bourdain was stopped and praised wherever he walked in New York City and increasingly elsewhere in the world. It would have been balm for his ego, if not for the damage it did to his role as an observer and chronicler. Once he became the observed and chronicled, which on an elemental level he seemed to feel he didn’t deserve, it was only a matter of time. If you don’t feel worthy of adulation and random stranger affection, you don’t feel you belong in the world that lavishes it on you. And perhaps you act accordingly. Roadrunner shakes out not as a biography so much as an inquiry into grief.

Werewolves Within

Posted July 11, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, horror, one of the year's worst, video game

werewolves

Something about Werewolves Within doesn’t sit right with me. It’s a horror-comedy, which often means that people and even dogs die and you’re not asked to care much, but even so, this is a glib and breezy affair. We may find ourselves asking why we care if the characters live, either. The script, by memoirist Mishna Wolff, based on a video game, hands the actors lumpy mouthfuls of dialogue that they mostly turn into sentences that sound like real people might say them.

The cast is likable and game; the lead, Sam Richardson, is a large and huggable bundle of neuroses and kindnesses. But most of the rest of the characters are annoying, stereotypes, or both. Wolff and director Josh Ruben betray a snide contempt for flyover country, although a well-to-do gay couple also take some abuse (more for being rich than for being gay; I suppose we must be thankful for small favors). After a longer-than-necessary set-up, Werewolves Within settles into a one-location whodunit, in which evidence mounts that a large animal is savaging men, dogs, and generators in the tiny mountain town of Beaverfield.

There’s already drama in the town over a guy who wants to run a pipeline through the area, waving big paychecks. Some refuse the money; some can’t afford to. The script largely separates anti-pipeliners and pro-pipeliners into elites and Trumpsters. Werewolves Within keeps flirting with the notion of a divided-America metaphor in the whodunit mode; Knives Out did it a lot better, or at least was more enjoyable. Rian Johnson believed in his characters more purely than I believe Ruben and Wolff do, and Johnson’s cast was having a ball with the things they got to say and do. This cast seems to be working against the script. Not to mention that big, gaping traumas both emotional and physical seem far too easily gotten over (lose a husband, lose a hand, keep on truckin’). And if I never again see the gag where someone talks in the middle of the road, oblivious to the large vehicle that’s about to flatten them, I’ll feel no pain.

The plot runs over with red herrings; we figure pretty much anybody could be the culprit. When one of the more annoying and inconsistent characters comes forward and seems to admit to everything, and another character snarks that it would be a disappointment if this person turned out to be the werewolf — well, that also applies to the actual culprit. About halfway through I felt the familiar chill in my belly telling me that I didn’t honestly care who the werewolf was and that I was wasting my time. The tone is just too offensively light; it plays like the pilot of a CW show that only lasts one season. Towards the finish, people keep lurching forward and seeming to reveal themselves. It’s all amiably meaningless.

There are any number of ways Werewolves Within could’ve been about something, could’ve worked its paranoia into a statement on mistrustful America. But it’s too hip for that, too ready to score points off of ignorant small-towners who just want to open a craft shop (okay) but are willing to murder for it (wait, what?). Maybe it shouldn’t have bothered with its shallow stabs at relevance — the little attempts at commentary (rural types love their guns and beer) make it always seem on the verge of satire.

Character work at the script level might’ve helped. Michaela Watkins is a force of nature, and it’s sad to watch her playing yet another braying yahoo. Milana Vayntrub might emerge with some new fans, even though the movie betrays her. Sam Richardson comes off best — unsurprising, as he’s one of the producers — but he deserves better, too. One minute his character is bleeding badly from a gut wound; not much later, he’s flinging heavy axes at a nemesis. It’d be cool if even horror-comedies about werewolves could at least acknowledge reality, how things like bodies and blood and grief work.

Summer of Soul

Posted July 5, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: concert film, documentary, one of the year's best

summer of soul

If you’ve been on the fence, for whatever reason, about catching Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul, I urge you to fall on the side of seeing it. It’s a guaranteed mood-lifter. Questlove’s achievement here goes far beyond what some might take to be “just a concert film.” The bulk of the film, under the direction of Hal Tulchin, is footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. The performers included Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, Nina Simone, and Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples in a duet that generates more power than you’ll find in any Marvel movie.

The Harlem Cultural Festival ran for six weekends in the summer of 1969, and Hal Tulchin shot it all. Then, despite Tulchin’s best efforts to sell it around as “the Black Woodstock,” the footage sat unseen on tapes in his basement for the next few decades. Questlove and his team unearthed it and whittled it down to two hours, with some interview space given to people who were there, either in the dense crowd or onstage. There isn’t a dud in any of the performances Questlove selected, and many of them do double duty as great music and as great human moments. You can see that all the artists know they’re a part of something major. “We were so happy to be there,” says a visibly moved Marilyn McCoo as she watches herself and the 5th Dimension finish a number.

It becomes an almost humorous motif: again and again we hear performers and audience members say they’d never seen that many Black people in one place before. You do see the occasional white face in the crowd (or, surprisingly, on stage; one man who caught the show talks about his bemusement that Sly Stone had a white drummer), but largely it was a Black event. Some of the performers made gestures towards brotherly love between the races, but there is an overriding concern, informed by the urgency of the day, that Black people must be allowed equity before any smiley talk about equality. These were not quiet times, and the Festival was in some respects an oasis but also an opportunity to reflect on the power, pain, and pleasures of the Black soul. (I’d say the use of that word in the title has at least two meanings.) Songs were sung as much in anger and longing as in joy and togetherness.

Questlove’s main accomplishment is to thread the joy alongside whatever anguish it came out of. The energy of the music is profound and rich — the performers, especially the gospel singers, seem to tap into something direct, elemental, occasionally almost frightening in its force. I don’t know anyone still vertical who wouldn’t be wiped out by Nina Simone’s set, or a rare taste of Stevie Wonder on drums, or the moment when Mavis Staples, having scorched the air with her voice, hands the mic to the ailing Mahalia Jackson, a dragon awakened, who reaches inside herself and pulls out something annihilating yet restorative. And this almost never saw the light of day.

What we take with us, perhaps even more than the warming memory of the music, is the vibe passed back and forth between artists and audience. That exchange of spirit is common in concert films, whether the exchange is cool (Jazz on a Summer’s Day) or toxic (Gimme Shelter). Here, the give-and-take is a bit more complex. Some of the faces in the crowd are wary, closed off; some are wide open, embracing the experience. None of the music is insular or wise-ass (they had comedy bits for that — Moms Mabley and Willie Tyler turn up briefly); it’s all transportive, reaching out to community and to life. If you were in that crowd, you would have had to work at it not to be won over. Questlove has a light touch, alternating historical gloom with aesthetic elation. This is a beautiful work of restoration and tribute.

Lansky

Posted June 20, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, drama

lansky

Harvey Keitel has still got it. The 82-year-old actor reigns over the biopic Lansky despite not being in most of it. That’s partly because the movie itself is pretty dreary weak tea — though handsomely realized on what I imagine was not a large budget — but mostly because Keitel will naturally dominate everything you put him in now, with ease and little effort. In The Irishman, Keitel had scant minutes of screen time and maybe eight words of dialogue that I can remember, but in a room with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, he was the unquestioned force. As a young man, Keitel bellowed and flailed (and his torments meant a lot to us), but now all he has to do is angle his head and pitch his voice just a bit differently and he still packs a punch. Please, someone put Keitel in one last film that deserves him.

Keitel does infinitely more for Lansky than it does for him. It’s 1981, and “mob accountant” Meyer Lansky (Keitel) has recently been diagnosed with the cancer that will kill him two years later. Lansky decides it’s time to tell his story, and selects struggling, just-divorced writer David Stone (Sam Worthington) to work on the book. The Lansky we see most of the time onscreen is in his thirties and forties, and is played (well enough) by John Magaro. As the older Lansky relates his younger days in flashbacks, we hear about something that’s low-key fascinated me for years: the war between the mob and the Nazis. Look up Operation Underworld sometime and marvel at how it hasn’t yet inspired the greatest movie ever made. It takes up all of three minutes here, and I would gladly have had a whole film, with this cast and these filmmakers, treating that subject at length.

Instead we get an obnoxiously pointless subplot, dealing with the writer who, as far as I can determine, is made up out of whole cloth, and who dallies with a woman who gets him involved with the feds, and I guarantee you, every time this subplot shows its saggy, unshaven face, you will want to huck a tomato at it. It’s a whole other (and intolerably boring) movie transplanted onto a promising movie. Nothing against Sam Worthington — or Minka Kelly, who plays the woman — but this entire narrative could be lifted out and leave us with a leaner, meaner film, perhaps adding back some stuff they had to cut out to keep the film under two hours. What they have now doesn’t work on its own or in here. It’s truly awful. It turns a potentially solid film into a bad one. Take it out and put back more stuff about gangsters gouging out Nazis’ eyes at a Bund meeting.

Thematically, the writer’s subplot does make sense: it echoes Lansky’s own conviction that he did what he had to do for his family. The message, banal but not belabored, is that family is all, but if you make the wrong moves to protect it you wind up destroying it, as Michael Corleone found out. The younger Lansky has many tedious squabbles with his wife (AnnaSophia Robb) over the amount of blood on their money, as if she didn’t go into her marriage with him (as the movie tells it) knowing what he was. The director, Eytan Rockaway, keeps things moving and lively — there’s always something going on — but he should have fired the screenwriter, who unfortunately is also Eytan Rockaway.

Keitel delivers on his end of the bargain. He gets to play a lot of juicy elderly-sinner emotions, though age has subdued Lansky somewhat. It doesn’t matter. When it comes time for Lansky to show a flash of fury or cave to despair, Keitel nails it, but with the economy that wisdom brings. I don’t think he could play a frenzied dumbass anymore, like the pianist in Fingers or the elaborately suffering Bad Lieutenant. He has become, as I said, the grey eminence who quietly dominates. He was even memorable in The Painted Bird dubbed in Interslavic. I hope that he has many more performances in store, and that at least one of them is in a movie that earns him.

Godzilla Vs. Kong

Posted June 13, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, science fiction, sequel

gvk

The cartoonist Sergio Aragonés once pointed out something in an interview that has stuck with me for some thirty years. He said that when Superman in the comic books was rendered less realistically and more cartoonishly, he could pick up a tall building by its corner and we could believe it. In later years, Aragonés said, when Superman and his surroundings were depicted with more physical realism and you could see all his veins and muscles, all the bricks in the building, we could no longer believe in such a feat — we would assume the building would just crumble apart. Aragonés’ insight applies as well to movies, which can depict the unreal with surface realism — you can see all the details — but lose something in the realm of fantasy and imagination.

Who ever wanted to see a realistic King Kong or Godzilla? Kong as realized by Willis O’Brien in the 1933 film has a rough-hewn magic that inspires glee and fear, sometimes both at once. The Godzilla, or Gojira, of some of the goofier Toho films was clearly a man in a suit, and accordingly had a human vibe. He was the kind of monster we felt close to, sorry for. All of that is lost in Godzilla Vs. Kong, in which the title opponents are of course created in computers. And boy, you can see all the details. Nothing is left to the imagination — at least as it applies to the damage the titans do to each other. Humans, on the other hand, die as afterthoughts, as gnats in what they thought was their narrative, but which instead belongs to the bestial and gigantic. And when the titans clash in the middle of Hong Kong, buildings are atomized, blown apart into coffee-cake crumbs, scattered like drops of mist. 

We’re told the city has already been evacuated, but that hardly matters. What we’re seeing is vast destruction, and the assurance that there’s no human toll is the sheerest hypocrisy. The fact is that we didn’t care fifty or sixty years ago if there were people in the buildings Godzilla wrecked, and we don’t care now. The problem is that even the buildings are rendered here with the utmost realism. So this sort of narrative handwaving is less convincing now than when the buildings were obvious cardboard. These are made to look like real creatures in real space destroying real objects. The cartoonish quality of a vintage Toho monster mash is gone. The fun, for me, is gone.

Does the story really matter? Demian Bechir plays an arrogant tech moneybags who believes the Titans — Kong, Godzilla, and the critters Godzilla fought in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters — threaten humanity’s status as the planet’s alpha, its apex predator. So he has built Mechagodzilla to kill them. Godzilla and Kong don’t get along at first, but ultimately they join forces against Mechagodzilla, and truly when you distill this thing down to a brutal synopsis it sounds like something you’d see on a 22-minute episode of the ‘70s Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon. And it would have been more entertaining there. Instead, Godzilla is charmlessly ugly, and Kong is always unhappy and riled up, and Mechagodzilla is this clangorous mess of steel, and there’s no exhilaration in it except for one moment when Kong and Godzilla roar at each other.

Godzilla Vs. Kong made money against all odds, so there will be more movies in this “MonsterVerse” franchise (which also includes 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the latter of which I missed). This might be the time for me to tap out of this series, though. The look of most of them is grim, gray, drizzly. (Kong’s milieu, though, is naturally sunnier and more colorful — the bits I’ve seen of Kong: Skull Island seem to bear that out.) Everything is drab now — the Bond films, superhero films, and giant-monster films. They’re depressing to look at and to spend any length of time in. So I’ll stick with the old monsters. Even the black-and-white monster films have a sharper visual pop than the dishwater dregs of Godzilla Vs. Kong. 

The Amusement Park

Posted June 1, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cult, short

gorDPIVg

The prospect of a “lost film” from George A. Romero (1940-2017), director of Night of the Living Dead and its several sequels, may sound as compelling to you as it did to me. A word of warning, though: don’t let anyone overhype it for you. The Amusement Park, completed in 1973 but unseen until recently (it will have its streaming debut on Shudder next week), is a downer of an allegory about discrimination against the elderly. Romero, at loose ends at the time, was hired by the Lutheran Society to make the film, which they promptly rejected after getting a load of what Romero did with the concept. There are no zombies or cannibalism, though, just a stroll through a strange amusement park filled with indignities for those deemed too old — or too poor — to deserve respect.

Romero was many things, but a subtle satirist was never one of them. Some of the messagey dialogue in some of his Dead films verges on crude. In The Amusement Park, we follow a man in his seventies (played by Lincoln Maazel, who later appeared as the nosferatu-obsessed old cousin in Romero’s 1976 cult vampire movie Martin) as he wanders around the park and encounters various affronts to his humanity. These range from getting beaten up by a trio of bikers to being disregarded by a little girl he was reading a story to; we get the sense that the girl’s indifference hurts him more. The man is also ignored by doctors and priests (who close up their “sanctuary” to him as soon as he approaches). All of these anecdotes feel a bit like checklist items; Romero seems somewhat locked into the Lutherans’ assignment, toning himself down for their approval (which he didn’t get anyway).

Still, this curiosity should be seen by fans who tend to prefer Romero’s non-zombie films, like Martin or Jack’s Wife (aka Season of the Witch) or Knightriders. Its cinematography (by Bill Hinzman, the cemetery zombie in the first reel of Night of the Living Dead) and typically razor-sharp editing (by Romero himself) make The Amusement Park a pure-cinema snack; it’s the content itself (written by Wally Cook) that flirts with redundancy at times. The milieu and the theme of being neglected — not seen or acknowledged — echo Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, a cult z-budget item that predated Romero’s NOTLD by six years. Did Romero, thirty-three at the time and visible in the film as an irate bumper-car driver, care all that much about ageism, or was he just doing the best he could with the gig he got? Either way, we feel for Maazel’s character, who starts out as a white-suited dandy and ends up soiled and bloodied; he either experiences or witnesses every example of disrespect in the film. Life as an elderly person — and, let’s not forget, an elderly person of color, or an elderly disabled person, or an elderly woman — is painted here as a steady stream of insults and gatekeeping slights. A good deal of the doors that shut here in the faces of those who aren’t young, white, male, able-bodied, and/or rich persist just as thick and soundly locked today.

Which brings me back to my advice not to let your expectations get out of hand. Sometimes early work drifts off into the ether for a reason. Who, having finally screened Stanley Kubrick’s first feature Fear and Desire, would argue with Kubrick that it isn’t, as he said, juvenilia? And good luck sitting through Tobe Hooper’s Eggshells — his debut prior to Texas Chainsaw Massacre — unless you’re a die-hard completist. The Amusement Park displays Romero’s flair for cloaking social comment in nightmarish clothes. It’s of considerable interest to anyone who cares about his work. But to call it Romero’s “most terrifying film,” as his widow Suzanne Desrocher has — an assessment prominent in the film’s publicity — is to set it up for disappointment. Terrifying, no. Disturbing — and fascinating — yes. 

Army of the Dead

Posted May 23, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, horror, thriller

Screen Shot 2021-05-23 at 3.44.23 PM

It’d be nice if Athena Perample got a career bump from Zack Snyder’s mediocrity at length Army of the Dead. A stuntwoman, Perample appears in the new zombie film as a character credited as Alpha Queen, and she slinks around hissing and looking fabulous in an undead Corpse Bride fashion. (Even the zombies are hotties in Snyderverse.) I’ve seen Army of the Dead described as being full of characters who could carry their own interesting movies, but are instead all stuck with each other in a boring movie. The Alpha Queen would be exhibit A. Are the alpha zombies the top of the hierarchy of zombies? Do they have a culture? Leisure activities? They’re said to be smarter than the usual “shamblers,” but are they building anything or just squatting on the dust of a dead world?

There’s little evidence that Zack Snyder cared all that much about the implications of a zombie society. Snyder isn’t a thinker; like Christopher Nolan, he works up to big, showy sequences, devoted to his jock-nerd idea of cool. I don’t think Snyder is without merit: he did well by Watchmen and made an accidental masterpiece with Sucker Punch, which I persist in considering unconscious art. But without a strong structure, his films tend to go by in a semi-sequential blur. They have no internal clock, no rhythm. Something happens, something else happens, and it’s all on the same emotionally null level. 

Army of the Dead is never more risible than when it asks us to sniffle over the fates of characters we barely know, even though Snyder has plenty of time to acquaint us with them. Hell, George Romero’s longest Dead film was only 126 minutes, and it was described as “epic” despite being confined mostly to one location. This damn thing runs for two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and though it mashes up the zombie genre and the heist genre — a group of hardcases are tasked with getting millions of dollars out of a Vegas casino before the whole zombie-overrun city gets nuked — it doesn’t even give us a montage where the players plot things out. Dave Bautista gets top billing as a mercenary (I guess?) who puts a team together to fetch the money, and again, as with Man of Steel, the connective narrative — when Bautista recruits various people (a safecracker, a hard-bitten expert at zombie warfare) — feels like placeholders. Snyder kind of just goes through them so he can get to the good stuff, when zombies bite folks real good and then get shot up real good. In both cases, blood sprays all over the place.

Army of the Dead is raring to be big and excessive, and the concussive deep bass and scale of it can be mesmerizing in fits and starts. Sometimes we look at the chaotic images and we lament the kind of zombie opus that George Romero was never given the budget to make. Romero would’ve known what to do with this cast, too. I like Bautista — his cartoonishly wide frame holds some tenderness — but Snyder doesn’t do much with him. A lot of the publicity has surrounded Tig Notaro being digitally ported in to replace accused sexual scumbag Chris D’Elia, but the movie neither gets the best out of her nor deserves it. We’re supposed to root for all these people because they’re not zombies, I guess, although the film sometimes seems on the verge of switching our allegiances around (hey, zombies have feelings too!) but ends up fumbling that too.

Snyder spent the better part of a decade in the DC Comics wilderness, making dour, overlong films nobody much enjoyed. Did he ever even like superheroes? He seemed more at home with the deconstructionist superhero valedictory Watchmen. I thought Sucker Punch was a possible unaware shiv in the ribs to the Comic-Con rules of cool — Snyder the naive satirist. But in Army of the Dead he’s back doing stuff seemingly calculated to make high-school boys exclaim “Badass!,” except this time nothing is skewered. The story is bloated and amorphous, and whatever targets it might have are murky. As in his Dawn of the Dead remake, Snyder isn’t using the zombie movie as a Trojan horse for social comment; even the crass irony of zombies feasting on Vegas schmucks and showgirls is threadbare and abruptly handled. Snyder just wants to get to the parts where hordes of zombies get their brains blown out, over and over. It gets old for us a lot sooner than it does for him. 

Oxygen

Posted May 16, 2021 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: foreign, science fiction, thriller

Screen Shot 2021-05-16 at 10.50.23 AM

If Oxygen, which started principal photography in July 2020, isn’t the ultimate quarantine film, I don’t know what is. There are flashbacks, but most of the movie is a matter of one actress, Mélanie Laurent, alone inside a cryogenic pod with nobody to interact with except voices. Oxygen is an American-French co-production, and is showing on Netflix in a dubbed English version or in its original French with subtitles, and I heartily recommend the French — you get the benefit of Laurent’s legitimate emoting (in English, Cherami Leigh substitutes the voice, and is directed to sound somewhat whiny), as well as Mathieu Amalric as MILO, this film’s HAL, an implacable AI who frequently points out, with neither malice nor mercy, just how much air Laurent’s character has left.

Laurent, as a woman named Elizabeth Hansen, wakes up in this cryogenic pod with no memory of how she got there, where she is, or where she’s headed, if anywhere. I say “a woman named Elizabeth Hansen” not because I don’t know what she does for a living but because we share Liz’s disorientation. We learn her situation along with her, and Christie LeBlanc’s script, a one-time Black List entry, stays close to Liz’s terror and rage to live. As directed by horror neo-maestro Alexandre Aja, who was originally only going to produce, Oxygen manages to change up its visuals and pace often enough so that its claustrophobic milieu doesn’t present as too tedious. Besides, when you have a futuristic pod that can be sweetened by CGI to jazz the eye, you’re already one up on something like Buried or Open Water.

Also suggested: don’t scrutinize the script too closely from a scientific angle, as some have done to their chagrin; don’t focus too much on the measurements and numbers (twelve years, 42,735 miles, etc.). Oxygen works mainly on the emotional/experiential level, trapping us in close quarters and treating our thirst for information with a maddening slow drip of data, not all of which may actually be sound. This is now two basically-one-location films in a row for Aja, who last bedeviled us with the alligator-in-a-flooded-basement thriller Crawl in 2019. On the evidence, Aja likes a challenge; even his first film to gain international notice, High Tension, runs on a huge twist that invalidates everything that went before it (…or does it?). Here he has a cramped space and essentially one face (Liz’s may-or-may-not-be husband, played by Malik Zidi, turns up on occasion), and we are invited to consider every line and pore in Laurent’s visage more closely than she might be comfortable with.

It’s tasty, savory meat for an actor, and Laurent rips into it, by turns despairing, hopeful, mordant, credulous or skeptical. (The role was previously attached to Anne Hathaway and then Noomi Rapace, either of whom would have done brittle magic with it.) When a future book is written about sci-fi movies that run on a specific trope I’ll not mention here, Oxygen may sit near the top of the list due to Laurent, who finds the terrifying weirdness in it. The trope has been done (and even used as a twist) innumerable times, but Laurent’s prickly humanity sets it apart. Meanwhile, that great reptilian actor Mathieu Amalric, fresh from giving Riz Ahmed a hard time in Sound of Metal, keeps offering data without comfort, sounding at times like a bored functionary. “Would you like a sedative?” MILO keeps asking, like an insistent date-rapist, and Liz instinctively refuses.

I enjoyed Oxygen while periodically feeling the pull and pinch of boredom, a perhaps unavoidable trap of such a confined narrative. I suspect, though, it works better viewed alongside its siblings in Aja’s portfolio, which is heavy on genre stuff, than viewed in and of itself. It’s artier than some of his others (Horns, the Hills Have Eyes remake, and so on) but still contains shards of wincing auto-violence: nobody’s around to violate Liz, other than a persistent syringe, so she has to mangle herself, yanking things out of her body and then painfully re-inserting them. Aja can sardonically spotlight the penetrative, eros/thanatos pain that powers so much horror with only a cast of one. I don’t think Aja needs to challenge himself again on this how-small-can-I-go? level. He’s done all anyone can. As it is, he probably wants his next film to unfold during Mardi Gras.

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.