Archive for April 2017

Split

April 30, 2017

splitThe most intriguing thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s comeback thriller Split is something I can’t reveal — or maybe I can, since Shyamalan has recently told the press that there will be a Split sequel that also follows up Shyamalan’s 2000 cult favorite Unbreakable. What I’d like to say, first and foremost, is that the usual literal-minded sorts have gone after Split for demonizing a character who lives with dissociative identity disorder — what used to be called “split personality.” But, given what we find out, it seems possible that the afflicted protagonist, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), is no more a typical D.I.D. sufferer than Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs was transgender. Something more supernatural — dare I say superpowered? — seems to be going on here.

An enormous success at age 29 with his breakout hit The Sixth Sense before his hubris and some bad choices locked him in movie jail for a few years, Shyamalan has been working modestly and steadily back towards credibility. Split shows — as did his least-loved movies, really — that Shyamalan’s problem was never directing. He brings with him a highly welcome sense of gravitas and quietude, and every frame feels suffused with dread. Some find Shyamalan’s style tiresome, but I’ve always valued it as a corrective to the hyperbolic flailing of other directors of his generation.

Kevin, under his bespectacled and buttoned-down identity Dennis, kidnaps three teenage girls, including the movie’s heroine Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). They are meant, we gather, as sacrifices for Kevin’s as-yet-unseen 24th identity, The Beast, who disregards regular physical limitations. When you meet The Beast you might see what I mean about superpowers; if Unbreakable was the origin story of a hero, Split functions the same way for a supervillain. Back in 2000, I razzed Unbreakable a bit for its (to me) anticlimactic ending, but now I feel that assessments of both it and Split will be incomplete without seeing the end of the trilogy (to be called Glass). Usually I insist that a movie should be judged on its own merits, but in this case there seems to be a long game at hand, and why not wait to see where Shyamalan plans to take this story?

The underpopulated movie runs for a long time on the virtuoso instability of McAvoy in the several identities he gets to try on, and the contrasting survivor’s intelligence of Taylor-Joy, whose Casey, like Kevin, is the product of abuse. Every so often, Kevin — in the person of the most socially competent of the identities, Barry — goes to visit his therapist (Betty Buckley), whose study of Kevin aims to prove that the brain is capable of more power than we can imagine, to the extent of controlling the potential of the body to heal or to perform feats of strength. Is Shyamalan saying that everyone with D.I.D. is a budding mutant psychopath? No, just Kevin, although there’s talk of others with similar talents. (Maybe Kevin has a more benevolent counterpart out there, a Professor Xavier to his Magneto. The comparison is apt, since McAvoy’s largest claim to fame has been playing the young Xavier in the last several X-Men films.)

Shyamalan spent much of his thirties high on his own reputation, and he was due for (and maybe earned) a humbling stumble; get called the next Spielberg at 29 and see how you act. But how much longer are we going to hold his younger self’s ego against him? I think he’s eaten enough worms. Split is a tight thriller with Shyamalan’s usual mastery of mood, and with a dream role for any actor that McAvoy somehow — mostly — resists ramping up into camp; he finds the humanity, cracked or otherwise, in each of Kevin’s personae. Split not only makes me anticipate its follow-up but makes me want to revisit Unbreakable: If he doesn’t blow it in the last inning, the trilogy of superhero movies unfolding in the gunmetal-gray mundanity of Philadelphia could be Shyamalan’s true legacy, a quiet rebuttal to the bland vapors of the Marvel films and, Kal-El knows, the ridiculous nü-metal pomp of the DC films.

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Rogue One

April 23, 2017

rogueoneBetween regular “saga” entries of the Star Wars franchise, we can now expect interstitial forays like Rogue One, which tells the story of how the Death Star came to have a weak spot into which Luke Skywalker so triumphantly squeezed laser blasts in the original Star Wars. This sort of “untold story” is symptomatic of the nerdish desire to explain everything, tie everything up neatly. After all, the question of why such a fortified super-weapon should have an Achilles’ heel has plagued the world for some forty years. Now we learn it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, put there by clever scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been pressed into service by the Empire to work on their big new Rebellion-crushing toy.

Rogue One follows Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), a hard-bitten young woman very much in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from The Force Awakens. Rarely smiling, much less showing affection for anyone other than her long-lost daddy, Jyn is apparently nouveau Star Wars’ idea of the deromanticized heroine, the brave and driven woman with no lovey-dovey distractions. This is fine with me, believe me, but the film’s screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are credited) forget to humanize Jyn in any other sense. (Her preoccupation with running a mission to realize her father’s plan just defines her in terms of a man anyway.)

The story is simple — Jyn has to get the Death Star plans, which include where the thing’s weakness is, into the hands of Princess Leia — and the movie is much more consistently and consciously a war picture than any other Star Wars film. Things blow up, large objects plummet and fly apart, Stormtroopers and Rebel warriors kill and die by the dozens. After a while, the combat becomes numbing, monotonous, locked into the technology from the original trilogy (the lumbering AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back make an appearance). Despite all this, the plot is needlessly convoluted, involving a variety of ragged grayhats who come together in the common cause of defeating the Empire. If there’s a reason the extremist character Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) really needed to be in the movie, I’ve already forgotten it. Rogue One starts wearing out its welcome at about the hour mark, and there’s another 75 minutes to go; the movie, lumbering like those AT-ATs, feels like it stomps along forever.

Some humanity occasionally peeks over the rubble. Everyone enjoyed Alan Tudyk’s vocal performance as the reformed/reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who tends towards brutal honesty at inopportune times, and I liked him too. The ethnic diversity of the cast is a merit, including the calming Zen presence of Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who feels one with the Force even if he’s not an official Jedi. Oddly, the Stormtroopers, reliably inept and fond of doofus small talk about the latest Imperial tech (someone on this production obviously remembered the goofball Stormtrooper exchange about the VT-16 in Star Wars), seem to be the most relatable characters despite being cannon fodder — but then, almost everyone in Rogue One is cannon fodder.

That’s a potentially interesting thing to do in a $200 million movie that’s part of a multibillion-dollar franchise — a nihilistic, die-with-honor war film. Here, though, it comes off as a little cold. Seeing all those Stormtroopers bite it, I was reminded again that at least a few of them could be like Finn in The Force Awakens, sickened by slaughter and in desperate need of flight and redemption. Rogue One couldn’t care less about that, and cares scarcely more about the Rebel Alliance heroes. The people we’re introduced to in Rogue One will never be seen again in the films (I suppose there might be spin-off comics or novels about them), their ultimate sacrifice known by few and remembered by fewer. Empire Strikes Back had its dark and dissonant moments (I still remember a post-torture Han Solo moaning “They didn’t even ask me any questions”), but at least it wasn’t depressing.

The Fate of the Furious

April 16, 2017

f8In the New York segment of The Fate of the Furious, the film’s big bad remotely takes control of a slew of autonomous cars and sends them zooming this way and that, all over the congested city streets. It’s then that we see, in this context, the three most beautiful words in the English language: COLLISION AVOIDANCE DISABLED. It sure is. That could be the tag line and the credo for this entire beefed-up franchise, which, after eating its Wheaties and spending many hours in the gym, has evolved into a series of 007-style blockbusters. Yes, this movie begins (in Cuba) with an old-school race that’s about the franchise’s two biggest concerns — cars and family — but after that, we’re into another plot about someone who wants to do something globally unspeakable, and only Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his loyal crew can put a stop to the shenanigans.

But wait: Dom switches sides this time out; he Turns His Back on His Family. The aforementioned big bad, an ice-queen terrorist who calls herself Cipher (Charlize Theron), has a very big bargaining chip, and she compels Dom to do her bidding. Cipher, who likes to spout sociopath-philosophical mumbo-jumbo about choice and accountability, wants a nuke to play with. So Dom’s crew, including special agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Dom’s surly but loyal significant other Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), swing into action to save not only the world but Dom. There’s a fleeting suggestion that Dom has indeed “gone rogue,” but that possibility is batted away by Letty as if it were a mosquito. Something’s wrong. This isn’t Dom. He would never Turn His Back on the Family.

Well, maybe he does or maybe he doesn’t; I won’t give away his true motivation, though there is one grudging new member of the team: Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who has tasted his own blood at Hobbs’ hands (or feet). When Statham locks eyeballs with Dwayne Johnson in one of their several fight-or-get-a-room macho displays, the two men seem millimeters away from bursting out guffawing, and finally they actually do it. While most of the actual movies (including this one) don’t quite dazzle me, I’m fond of the idea of this series — it’s unfailingly diverse and inclusive, and every so often it even winks at its ironic, amused gay audience. The icing on this film’s welcome-to-the-family cake for gays is complete with the casting of an unbilled Helen Mirren in a cameo as the hard-boiled cockney mother of Shaw and his brother. Of course, there’s not enough of Mirren here, but then there never is, is there?

But we were talking about an action movie. Collision avoidance, as noted, is disabled. Explosions occur, and finally our heroes race a massive submarine chugging along under the ice. For all that, though — and some of the excessive deep-bass festivities did tickle regular chortles out of me — the series is in dire need of cool, and Vin Diesel can’t really provide it. (He’s a much more friendly and human presence as himself in interviews.) Coolness is left in the capable hands of Kurt Russell, who returns as the narrative’s super secret agent, Mr. Nobody. Various lunkheads marinating in testosterone growl at one another, and Russell, with an amiable chuckle, gives one or both of them a calming clap on the back. At this stage, Russell has amassed so many bad-ass points the mere sound of his voice can gentle meatheads two heads taller than he is.

Still, this series gets its power and popularity from its salud, mi familia shtick, which as far as I can make out is perfectly genuine. The soul of the movie is in the tormented looks the betrayed Letty shoots towards Dom, or the longing look Dom gives a vulnerable family member through bulletproof glass, or the wild-eyed devotion Hobbs gives to coaching his daughter’s soccer team, or the slyness with which Helen Mirren manipulates her tough-guy son into doing her bidding. As Dom might say, if you ain’t got family you ain’t got nothin’.

Louis C.K. 2017

April 9, 2017

20170114_LCK _MG_2722.CR2In his new, simply titled concert film Louis C.K. 2017, the eponymous comedian doesn’t waste any time with pre-concert sketches. He just gets right into it: “So I think abortion is, um, here’s what I think,” Louis begins, and the audience guffaws knowingly. A lot of what Louis C.K. says is in quotes — “Here’s what a clueless white guy sounds like” is the unspoken preface, followed by an observation along the lines of  “I’m not condoning rape, obviously — you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” The point, to an intelligent audience, is that there isn’t a reason; Louis also lays down a level of satire of self-justifying rhetoric. So when Louis steers his abortion bit into a statement that “women should have the right to kill babies,” the bit becomes more about the irreconcilable, eternally warring language used in the abortion debate than about abortion itself.

Louis C.K. 2017 finds Louis in his usual amiably schlubby but seriously askew conflict with life — a concept that gets no respect from him: the abortion material more or less ends with Louis saying that life is overrated anyway. (Another bit has him musing about suicide in a way that falls on neither side of that topic.) He wears a suit this time out, as he also did in his opening monologue on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live. Has he grown up, or sold out? Louis has shed his typical working uniform — a black t-shirt and jeans — in favor of an outfit that more effectively points up his opinions as those of a goofy white dude.

Louis treats his insights as throwaways; an unimpressed Generation X elder (born in 1967), he doesn’t buy into anything as the one way to look at the world, much less his own view. His bit about how Christianity “won” — pointing to the very fact of the numerical year we all agree on whether or not we’re believers (hence the title of the special, I guess) — is less confrontational than just bewildered. The broader his reach, the more timeless his comments, the closer he gets to being his generation’s George Carlin. But then he’ll take it back down to muddy earth, to the grimy and personal, linking him to Richard Pryor. Yet he comes off as an original; he doesn’t ape Carlin or Pryor so much as earn the right to be included with them in conversations about American comedy.

A good chunk of Louis’ material can be taken as depressing. Love, he says, is nice but doesn’t last; he even leaves out the usual bromide about how the finest things don’t last, which is why they’re the finest things. I suppose we can infer that, but that would violate Louis’ particular defeated weltschmerz. Carlin was angry; Pryor was afraid; Louis is just, like, whatever, this all sucks (another generational thing). There’s a cap, though, on how cynical a creative person can get — especially one operating at the level of Louis C.K., who in recent years has evolved from a comedian’s comedian to someone who can sell out Madison Square Garden. He has achieved, in this degraded pop culture, the rare distinction of being both artistically respected and wildly popular.

So how does someone whose shtick rests on himself being a skeevy bum (but hilariously honest about his bummy skeeviness) respond to being loved by his peers and by the masses? (Well, maybe not all his peers — there are still various allegations of gross behavior in front of female comedians he has to contend with.) On the evidence of Louis C.K. 2017, he just continues doing what he’s been doing. He can do five minutes on the most piddly-ass thing, and then tie it into a coherent (though frumpy) filter on the world. The subtext of his more outrageous bits is “Yeah, listen while this scuzzy idiot presumes to tell you what he thinks about [fill in the blank],” which is why his opening sentence about abortion gets a big laugh even though it doesn’t read funny on paper. A consummate actor, as proven on his dazzling and much-lamented FX show Louie, he can give the impression that his act isn’t honed and perfected over the course of dozens of gigs but just a guy riffing off the top of his head. As mopey as his material can get, the fact that Louis C.K. can work at his level and be successful is one reason to stay optimistic.

Silence

April 2, 2017

Lane-MartinScorsesesSilence-1200Silence is very likely the most Catholic movie Martin Scorsese has ever made, which makes it very Catholic indeed — mega-Catholic, über-Catholic. It’s a real high mass of a film, done with high craft in the highest seriousness. I’m seriously divided on it, but ultimately I have to lean in its favor. I feel protective of it, as if it were a pencil sketch or a mandala. Pain and guilt radiate from every frame, alongside incongruous natural beauty. I’m not sure if it’s a work of art or a tract of instruction, and certainly it couldn’t be less interested in reflecting the concerns of the day or satisfying the commercial cravings of the day. Like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, it’s timeless and placeless; its true milieu is inside Scorsese’s head.

The climate in Last Temptation was red and dusty; the one in Silence, 17th-century Japan, feels cold and wet, shot by master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto in infinite gradations of blue and gray, yet never feeling desaturated. The mood is frightened but determined spirituality in the face of violent oppression. Christianity in this land is punishable by torture and death, unless the accused voluntarily steps on an image of Christ, thus signaling their renunciation of God, their apostasy. (We hear the word “apostatize” in this film about as often as we hear a certain other word in Scorsese’s gangster films.)

Two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrupe (Adam Driver), volunteer to sneak into Japan to look for their former mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is said to have apostatized. They find a blue, rainy place haunted by terrified Japanese Christians and the stone-faced samurai who hunt them. The problem with Scorsese’s alter egos in his movies about faith is that they, for him, are filled out with his own guilt and devotion. The rest of us may perceive these heroes as somewhat hollow, undefined. Andrew Garfield does what he can, but Rodrigues is drawn as a bit too much of a noble sufferer, only intermittently aware that his steadfast refusal to apostatize might have more to do with his pride than with any genuine love of God.

Fortunately, Scorsese acknowledges this, and throws some of our identification to a few of the Japanese characters. There’s Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas stand-in who’s also the mad fool of the piece, always moving between sacrifice and betrayal; or Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto, bad-boy director of Tetsuo the Iron Man and many others), a devout old Christian; or especially Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata, whose voice is one of the most amazing purrs of self-satisfied evil I’ve ever heard in a movie). Given that the priests are so devoted to their faith they sometimes seem completely out of touch with reality, and given that Scorsese lets the Japanese have humor and complexity — humanity — I don’t think Silence can be waved off as white-saviorism. Scorsese sees the problem with all-or-nothing thinking on either side.

Technically, Silence is a Michelin three-star restaurant. Emotionally it’s impacted, uncertain; Scorsese never met a doubt he didn’t love to chew over. Sometimes it seems his real subject all along has been faith darkening into doubt and then brightening back towards faith, and on and on eternally. Paradise, says a woman in the film, is a place with no suffering and no work (and no taxes, she adds), but what kind of drama is that? As David Byrne said, heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. For Scorsese, it’s all about the struggle, which for him is the tension between religious asceticism and the visceral, sensual pleasure he derives from cinema — watching it and making it. His movies about faith tend to end more or less happily because the end of a film means that a film has been made. The famous cliché about Scorsese is that the movie theater is his church and vice versa. Silence is an interiorized work surrounded by, almost mocked by, flesh-punishing yet ravishingly gorgeous nature. In that respect it’s as Catholic as the blood flowing through Scorsese’s veins and his emulsion.