Archive for February 2018

They Remain

February 18, 2018

theyremainA slow-burn psychological thriller like They Remain requires patience. It seems to be more about mood and paranoia than about plot or easy scares — kind of like John Carpenter’s The Thing but more minimalist, if that’s even imaginable. Most of the movie is a two-hand exercise, showcasing two actors — William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson — as scientists and former lovers who spend several weeks in an isolated woodsy area, measuring this and that, reporting on their meager findings. The woods, precisely photographed by Sean Kirby, amount to a third character, although we meet a sardonic pilot who interacts briefly with the scientists while picking up some evidence. The area is of interest for two reasons: animals are acting oddly, and the site was once home to a murderous cult. They may have left unfound corpses in the woods; some of the cult members may still be out there somewhere.

Ah, yes, Out There Somewhere, that time-honored horror trope. They Remain, adapted by writer/director Philip Gelatt from a story by Laird Barron, takes pains to maintain its ambiguity. Aliens? Demonic possession? Minds cracking under stress and isolation? We’re kept in the dark for a long time, and despite the film’s small footprint on the afternoon, it feels like a long time. The pace is obviously glacial for a reason, and achieves what Gelatt is going for, a meditative freak-out that runs partly on the scientists’ experience of boredom and repetition. Its ornery long-take rhythm may attract a small cult audience that zones out blissfully on draggy sci-fi (2001, Solaris, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Blade Runner 2049).

Might this have been happier at half the length as an X-Files episode? The scientists, particularly the man, get more and more fearful — the story is told through his eyes, so the woman becomes more and more suspect. Given that these characters could be of any color (or gender — they could be former gay male or female lovers), are we to place much importance on the identities of the male as African-American and the female as Caucasian? One could engage in quite a chunk of racial theorizing if not for the possibility that, like Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, the best actor for the role also happened to be black. Whether the various racial subtexts were or weren’t placed there, instead of cropping up on their own, we can’t quite help viewing the relationship and its attendant conflicts and rapid devolution through this filter, even though the text yields no drama about, or even acknowledgment of, the man’s race.

There sure is acknowledgment of the woman’s gender, though; at one point the man unleashes an existential howl of “Bitch!” The text, elusive as it is, doesn’t seem to disagree. But here I am, calling the movie a “text,” three times now. An artsy patience-tester like They Remain (named for some association with It Follows?) seems to demand to be read. The mood is all, and Gelatt is on point there, weaving a tapestry of curiosity and dread out of its Malick-esque visuals and its oddball score (by Tom Keohane) — he tries to make this underpopulated, one-location movie cinematic. The quietude is sometimes broken, too, by the characters’ nightmare visions of the cultists drifting around the trees and performing barely-glimpsed offenses to decency.

The land itself seems to be demonic, infesting its inhabitants with bad self-annihilating vibes. The soil contains secrets and mysteries, among them skeletons a hundred years old. We could say this cursed earth is America itself, built on the bones of the indigenous and the captured, and the text …. There we go again. Could They Remain be after something so banal as a built-on-Indian-burial-ground story, wrathful ghosts pitting black against white, woman against man, even in the hermetic context of a remote laboratory in a field? It’s worth asking why Carpenter’s Thing, which theoretically should attract lots of academic woolgathering, seems to exist completely outside of interpretation. Carpenter just said “These guys don’t trust each other” and that was that. The image of a black man and a white man facing each other with affable nihilism at the end of The Thing, with neither us nor them knowing who was human, doesn’t seem to mean anything outside of itself. That sort of thing sure seems to mean something in They Remain. But what?

Advertisements

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

February 11, 2018

Denzel Washington stars in ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.Public payphones have faded from the national landscape to such a degree that it brings us up short when we’re reminded they still exist. The titular hero of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) is a walking anachronism — he seems to exist in several different decades other than this one. His fro, his mashing up an iPod with nerdily large earphones, his very soul and rhetoric speak of a man who refuses to be tied down to anything so fleeting as time. He’ll plant his own roots on his own land. So in one scene you’ll see Roman checking several payphones for change, and in another there’ll be a reference to Uber. Like its namesake, Roman is ambitious and wonky and all over the place.

It’s a vibe that owes a lot to the seventies, to whose gritty, inward-directed aesthetic the writer-director, Dan Gilroy, genuflects in this movie and his previous Nightcrawler. You can say a lot about these movies, but you can’t say they’re safe or stale. Actors like Washington or Jake Gyllenhaal rove through Gilroy’s tales, white-hot and solipsistic. Washington’s Roman doesn’t really seem able to relate to whoever’s in front of him. He’s an idealist in the general sense, and he has a radical streak, but it’s wedded to his identity as an in-the-rear-with-the-gear lawyer — not a trial lawyer — with a possibly neuroatypical facility for recalling legal data. In his head, he’s a moral crusader, but in reality he’s just been dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for a failing, even corrupt, two-person law firm. Then the other person dies, and Roman’s story begins.

Roman’s firm and cases are subsumed into a larger firm headed by slickster George Pierce (Colin Farrell), Roman’s partner’s former student. In truth, Pierce has a more gratifying character arc than Roman does, or maybe a more movie-ish one. Pierce seems to exist in a more hopeful reality capable of redemption, a reality that Roman thought he lived in for decades and now rejects. Roman J. Israel, Esq. turns out to be about nothing less than a man’s mind breaking a bit when confronted with its own possible irrelevance, his values akilter, his moral compass magnetized into chaos. He loses himself, indulges in childish appetites.

Washington has been doing some hard work in the realm of idiosyncrasy lately, and in this movie he finds a kind of lyricism in a complex computer who stops computing. In opposition to the slicker but morally chaotic Roman we have Pierce, who gathers layers of compassion — he’s been looking for a Don Quixote to replace what his teacher once was to him, and almost seems to see Roman as a father figure. That’s obvious from the way Pierce responds to a breach of protocol on Roman’s part that may have cost a young client his life. Instead of firing him, Pierce comes to see Roman’s virtues and actually restructures his firm to reflect what he thinks Roman’s values are. Or were.

A motif through all of this is the major brick-like thing Roman has been toiling on for years, the legal brief that calls out the entire system itself. With help from a Farrell performance that starts icy but warms up, Pierce seems poised to help Roman carry the weight. The movie ends up saying that ideals will survive the cracked human containers who cart them around. On a thematic level, this resounds and makes intellectual sense to us. On a basic plot level, it seems pointlessly downbeat, even nihilistic. The movie seems to be in conflict with itself, in harmony with its hero. Like many of those ‘70s films cherished by film nerds, Roman is more beautiful for its flaws; it’s cantankerous and possibly insufferable and the sort of shot in the dark that grows in memory.

A Fantastic Woman

February 4, 2018

fantasticwomanThe low-key but affecting Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman, one of 2017’s Best Foreign Language Film nominees, restores the smooth melancholic power of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Time,” long a staple of easy-listening radio. Here it feels like a deep bruise of loss. A Fantastic Woman uses the common grief narrative and the less common transgender narrative to illuminate each other. Marina (Daniela Vega) is involved with an older but smitten businessman, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After a night out for Marina’s birthday, followed by a loving night in, Orlando wakes up feeling ominously poorly. Within hours he is dying of an aneurysm, while she is symbolically locked out of the room where he is being ineffectually treated. The Parsons ballad plays twice — first during their last dance, when the song carries less meaning because we don’t yet know it’s their last dance, and then under the end credits, when it may bring a tear.

Marina is a transgender woman, and it becomes apparent that Orlando’s family hates her and considers her a freak — though I imagine they would also hate her if she were cisgender. Marina’s being transgender just gives Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) and adult though childish son (Nicolás Saavedra) something to fixate on. Others make it an issue, too, and against the dramatic backdrop of Marina’s grief and loneliness, A Fantastic Woman shows the thousand cuts transgender people weather daily, the endless, casually dealt challenges to their dignity and humanity, the misgendering and prurience about their bodies.

What sets the movie apart and may make it a cult favorite is that the director, Sebastián Lelio, gives Marina a poker face that hides a more flamboyant view of herself. A fantasy sequence finds her doing one of those empowering Living Out Loud center-of-(positive)-attention dances in a club; right afterward, she walks home alone in the rain, but for a while, anyway, Marina transcends her world. A waitress by day, Marina is also an up-and-coming singer (Daniela Vega, also a singer as well as transgender herself, has a lovely voice); this seems to indicate the partitioned lives and identities of transpeople. Marina’s case attracts the attention of a detective named Adriana (Amparo Noguera), whose curiosity about Marina seems ambiguous. In a roundabout way, Adriana seems to think Marina killed Orlando in self-defense. Adriana has seen many cases involving transpeople, you see, and she knows how often they are assaulted. I can’t decide whether this reasoning is transphobic or bitterly realistic or both. But because her job demands it, Adriana must think in this way, and Marina must contend with many other people who think that way, or worse.

The scene in which Orlando’s belligerent son and other family members take Marina for a non-consenting ride is uniquely upsetting, even though, other than wrapping Scotch tape around her head (a weird, weird detail that’s meant to silence her and temporarily deforms her), they don’t physically harm her. It’s good, I guess, that this and a few standard epithets are all they have in them; their bark is worse than their bite, and even that is a tinny “arf.” It’s debatable whether that’s worse than the scene in which she’s forced to bare first her upper half, then her lower half, for the camera of a police doctor. Or when she has to show her ID, which legally still displays her “deadname.” Or when Orlando’s ex-wife deadnames her. People like Marina of necessity develop a wary relationship to society, and the one person who loved her for who she was is dead.

A Fantastic Woman is and isn’t an ironic title; Marina strives to be read as an average, un-fantastic woman, but there’s that chanteuse side of her, the side that fantasizes being lifted up on the dance floor. Marina daydreams about the glamour she thinks she can’t have, but there’s a serene glamour in keeping one’s composure despite minute-by-minute chips taken out of one’s self-esteem, a million microaggressions. These concepts, obscure to the cisgender viewer, are smoothly advanced by way of a tragic tale of lost love. Essentially, like Living Out Loud and Truly, Madly, Deeply and a ton of others, it’s about a grieving woman who learns how to move on; such movies’ success depends more on what they do with this subject than on how original the subject is. A Fantastic Woman lets us see grief through a fresh pair of eyes.