Archive for June 2017

Wilson

June 25, 2017

wilsonTwenty-five minutes into Wilson, the movie gets real. That’s when Laura Dern shows up, as the ex-wife of the titular character (Woody Harrelson). As David Lynch has known for the past thirty years, having Laura Dern in a film is one hell of a feather in its cap. Here, what threatens to become a merdiste tragicomedy with an irredeemably obnoxious protagonist turns on a dime into something worthwhile. Dern’s character Pippi once got pregnant by Wilson, but gave the baby up for adoption after she left Wilson. Seventeen years later, Pippi and Wilson are sitting across a table from their daughter Claire (Isabella Amara), a bullied and sardonic teen whose contempt for her vacuous rich adoptive parents is barely concealed.

While Harrelson gives his all to Wilson’s rocky emotional journey, it’s Dern whose stare of ineffable anguish makes us feel what it might be like to meet one’s almost-adult child. A simpler actress might play the joy or the heartbreak, but Dern gives us the whole cornucopia of confusing, conflicting feelings mostly without dialogue. Wilson was directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), but it’s primarily a Daniel Clowes film; as with the earlier Ghost World and Art School Confidential, Clowes wrote the script based on his episodic graphic novel. In the novel, Pippi mainly has the same deadpan-antagonistic personality everyone else in the narrative does. To appreciate how a great actress can elevate a character, I can only recommend reading Wilson and then seeing the movie.

I don’t want to kick Wilson too hard, as it’s the sort of small human-scaled drama (with comedic or absurdist elements) we never see in theaters anymore; it cost $5 million and grossed $653,951 in 311 theaters, which does not bode well for the future of films like Wilson. Still, the central narrative conceit of Wilson the graphic novel, which Clowes carries over into the film, was easier to swallow on the page. Clowes structured the novel as a series of bleak blackout skits, one per page; sometimes years passed between anecdotes, so that at the end of one page Wilson is looking out the window at the lights of a police car, and at the beginning of the next page he’s doing time for the kidnapping of his daughter. A movie structured like this could work, has worked, but Wilson doesn’t. For instance, when Wilson returns to his dead father’s storage unit after three years in prison, and finds all the stuff still there, we’re wondering who was paying the unit’s rent all that time, and if nobody was, isn’t there a whole show about people who bid on the mostly unseen contents of abandoned storage units? In California, where Wilson is set, this happens by law after only three months of nonpayment.

But then we wouldn’t be musing about such things at a more involving movie. Wilson is well-acted from top to bottom; aside from Dern and Harrelson, Judy Greer is typically fine as Wilson’s dog-sitter who becomes something more, Margo Martindale has a sourly funny date with Wilson, and Mary Lynn Rajskub has a scene of startling anger at Wilson that’s like a thunderstorm clearing out a foggy, humid night. Generally, Wilson belongs to the women, even though we can’t quite work out why women who look like Judy Greer and Laura Dern would sleep with a balding, scruffy misanthrope like Wilson. (Again, in the novel these women aren’t drawn flatteringly at all. Neither is Wilson, and Harrelson is an almost exact match for some of Clowes’ renderings of Wilson.)

Why does Wilson catch a beating from a couple of fellow inmates for being his usual cluelessly opining self, and then a couple of scenes later, people from various different prison cliques (blacks, neo-Nazis) all seem to like him? Why does the movie seem to take place in a weird universe that jumbles together technology from past and present, so that people pull up Yelp and Google on their phones but a private investigator uses a computer with a floppy drive, and Wilson takes a picture with an Instamatic with a flash cube? These things stick out but seem to call attention to themselves gratuitously, much like Wilson’s haphazardly stacked paperbacks; he fancies himself an intellectual but we glimpse potboilers by Leon Uris and Janet Dailey. Is Clowes even condescending to Wilson’s reading habits? Who knows? But again, I do endorse Wilson for Laura Dern and the other women thrusting their fists against the posts of Wilson’s — and Clowes’ — cynicism.

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All the Rage: Saved by Sarno

June 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Long Night in a Dead City

June 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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