Archive for April 2018

Transformer

April 29, 2018

Transfomer_1_previewWhen a transgender person sets out to transition from male to female, it can be a great help if she has a small, slender body. Many transwomen, though, don’t have such a body, and sometimes they are sufficiently discouraged from transitioning because they lack the physique that society deems “feminine.” In the good-hearted documentary Transformer we meet Janae Marie Kroczaleski, named Matt at birth, a former Marine and erstwhile prize-winning powerlifting/bodybuilding competitor who has always felt female inside. Yet even after committing to facial feminization surgery, Janae doesn’t feel right completely abandoning her “guy side,” the self who lifts and hangs out in sweaty gyms with two of her best guy friends, whom she considers brothers.

Increasingly in the transgender community, particularly with the rise of younger generations, the notion of “passing” — being able to “go stealth” in one’s preferred gender presentation without attracting unwelcome, bigoted, often violent notice — is becoming less desirable as a variety of body types in general have become more accepted. Janae will always be a large and muscular woman, and has made her peace with that as much as she can; in the past she has lost excessive weight to attain more of an hourglass figure, but she ended up miserable, so now she is combining a less bulky and “cut” version of her old body with softer clothes, makeup, wigs. Honestly, though, she comes across as much less masculine simply by no longer overcompensating, as many pre-transition transwomen do, thinking they can exorcise the feminine “demon” inside by drowning her in testosterone.

Transformer takes Janae’s emotional pulse as she goes through the usual barrage of feminizing therapies, meds and surgeries. Her story, by virtue of the physique she started with, is an exaggerated version of the struggles of most transfolks. Smoothly directed by Michael Del Monte, the film is on the brief side at under 80 minutes, and sometimes details are shortchanged — we find out late in the game, for instance, that Janae has been fired from her job as a pharmacist, and she worries about how she’ll now make a living, afford more surgery, and support her three sons (from her first marriage). The movie offers no reassurance about her financial future — it seems to forget about it — though according to reports outside the documentary she seems to be making her way as an entrepreneur and activist. What’s more important to Del Monte is Janae’s journey as a warrior on the bleeding edge of gender and its many received notions.

Janae may stand as an inspiration to any transperson who for whatever reason looks in the mirror and doesn’t see the gender they know they actually are. There’s a nice scene in which Janae visits an event for trans lifters and chats with a transman — female-to-male. They talk shop about the desire for “bottom surgery,” the sort of final frontier of medical transition. This is not, to put it mildly, the kind of conversation one normally hears in films, and is all the more fascinating for that, and all the more to be valued. With other people Janae stays honest but respectfully leaves them some room to process her struggle on their own. Her mother is shakily on board, her dad not so much; her teenage sons, informed at early ages of her status, are completely okay with it (they still call her Dad, though).

Janae’s sons, like many of their generation, give us some hope for a more open-minded future. Transformer in general shows us a world around Janae that more or less accepts her (which may be a result of consciously surrounding herself with positivity). As one of her sharp sons says, the biggest obstacle in her way has always been herself. These days Janae identifies as nonbinary, or gender-fluid — either/or. She is an embodiment of the resistance to gender essentialism — the outmoded school of thought that says men and women have to be, act and look a certain way. When Janae is being roughly encouraged by a fellow transwoman lifter (“Don’t be a little bitch!”), we accept it as part of the culture that they insist on staying a part of while refusing to deny who they are. A lot of us, not just transgender, might learn a bit from these women yelling at each other profanely but supportively, being completely their own persons. A good movie and a great story.

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Russian Doll

April 23, 2018

russiandollIt’s probably none of my business, but I have to ask anyway: How must it feel to be a first-time movie actor — a personal trainer by trade — doing a nude same-sex love scene in a movie produced by your mom and brother and directed by your father? Melanie Brockmann Gaffney might be in a position to tell us. She stars in the somewhat gimmicky whodunit Russian Doll, co-produced by her mother Suzanne Brockmann (yes, the romantic-thriller novelist) and brother Jason T. Gaffney (an openly gay actor who also appears in the movie), and written and directed by paterfamilias Ed Gaffney. Come to think of it, how does it feel to be a guy directing your daughter in a nude make-out scene, or, for that matter, directing your son as he enacts sadism and torture?

This all makes Russian Doll sound more juicy than it is, I fear. It’s a decent if heavy-handed affair, motivated, we understand, by the Brockmann Gaffneys’ desire to make female-centered LGBT-friendly movies. A noble goal, and surely the title itself indicates a person stashing his or her secret self inside the shell of a false self. None of which seems to have much to do with the heroine Brockmann Gaffney is playing — Viola Ames, a detective on the case of a kidnapping and possible planned murder connected to a play about … people hiding their real selves. The would-be murderer is doing the same thing, of course. The plot allows for one of those grand metaphors that must be satisfying to a fiction writer, but the rest of us might be less enamored of it.

The movie was filmed in Framingham and Concord, Massachusetts, for about twelve cents — enough to afford an established actor, anyway, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Kristine Sutherland. I feel like a dick criticizing a microbudget film, but it has a major video distributor — Wolfe Video, which specializes in gay-themed entertainment — and, honestly, there are better options around. Aside from ringer Sutherland, the acting is a bit rigid when it isn’t hammy; the movie goes so far in establishing the play’s writer/star as an unpleasant prima donna he may as well have “red herring” written across the front of his shirt. Gaffney at least knows what he’s doing; the film is cleanly photographed and, actually, pleasingly edited, clipping scenes quickly and getting on with it.

It’s the story that feels hacky. And did I miss a meeting where it was decided that gay audiences would give a hetero male director the benefit of the doubt for nude lesbian love scenes that (A) move the story forward not one inch and (B) are all, so far as I can determine, taking place in the heroine’s morose fantasies? The scenes are more sweet than raunchy, but are still pointlessly explicit. The matryoshka metaphor doesn’t seem to apply to Viola, who’s out to everyone; her trauma has nothing to do with hidden selves, but rather with her late, lamented wife, dead almost two years now. Viola’s mother (Sutherland) sets her up with the amiable Faith (Marem Hassler), because everyone has decided for Viola that she’s mourned enough and needs to get back into the romance game. This seems tacked onto the murder-mystery plot — or maybe the other way around.

Russian Doll does — or attempts, anyway — what we want so many works of entertainment to do these days. Its heart is in the right place, I guess. Unfortunately, a lot of truly great art has its heart in exactly the wrong place. It doesn’t serve an agenda (however warmly one might agree with it). It doesn’t create a gay female protagonist only to pretend her sexual identity has zero to do with anything she does (sadly, just as we are light years away from a society that truly doesn’t see color, so we are nowhere near a society whose homophobic structure does not brand itself on gay psyches in some way). And to return to my earlier question: I don’t know how it feels to be a woman doing a nude sex scene for her director father, or to be a father directing his daughter in a nude sex scene. I do know how it feels to watch such a scene. Not so good.

Vazante

April 15, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 5.26.26 PM“Why do whites love ouija boards?” asks a particularly trenchant internet meme. “If they want to learn about demons they can just go to ancestry.com.” Sharp, but not wrong. In Vazante, the first solo-directed feature by Brazilian filmmaker Daniela Thomas, we see some demons up close. In fact, Inti Briones’ rich black and white cinematography ensures that we perceive every wrinkle, sty, nook and cranny in the faces of the oppressors and the oppressed alike. Pictorially, Vazante (translating to English roughly as “ebb tide”) is unimpeachable, and more than once I felt its images might enjoy a gainful second life in a coffee-table book. “That’s lovely,” I’d say, or “Ah, the poetry of the muddy, puddly ground underneath the bare, shivering feet of African slaves trudging towards the failing diamond mine where they work,” and the aesthetics of the slaves’ anguish outweigh, I am afraid, the politics or reality of it.

I don’t suspect or accuse Daniela Thomas of amoral motives. I simply think she fell inadvertently into a Riefenstahl-like elevation of an evocation of time and place through picture and sound, at the expense of conveying much emotion about what happened in that time and place. The similarly rigorously archaic The Witch seemed to unearth themes and modern resonances from the arid soil of its milieu (and made us feel things — sometimes deeply divided things — about its people and their actions). Vazante seems neutral, at best, about the inhumanity it shows us. The owners and drivers of slaves don’t twirl their mustaches with wretched glee, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained or even Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave. Thomas has said she wanted to avoid the sort of exploitative, eroticized sadism of many slave narratives, and yet there’s not much here to replace those tropes. We don’t really get inside anyone’s head.

Worse, the plot carries a whiff of soap opera. At the start, the initial protagonist, slaveowner Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), arrives home to find that his wife has died in childbirth, as has their child. Despondent, Antonio drifts around for a while. Then he marries his 12-year-old niece Beatriz (Luana Nastas), while dallying with (well, technically raping) his slave Feliciana (Jai Baptista). Meanwhile, Beatriz develops her own thing with Feliciana’s son Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), who may or may not be Antonio’s son out of wedlock. Antonio lying morosely in his hammock becomes an almost amusingly frequent recurring image. So do scenes of Beatriz moping around Antonio’s house. Frankly, the movie starts to seem padded out, and fetishistically devoted to its visual scheme. We’re drawn to Beatriz largely because she’s virtually the only one we see smiling ever, not that a dour countenance would be uncalled-for in this story. But it’d be nice to have some levity, some lightness, even some music (aside from sparse singing and some tones under the end credits, there is none).

Vazante plucks at some plot threads only to lose track of them. The most egregious example is Lider (Toumani Kouyaté), a rebellious slave nobody can understand because nobody speaks his language. We don’t understand him either, because unlike the Portuguese-speakers in the movie, he isn’t subtitled. His character barely makes sense — one minute Lider is saving the life of the interim master he’s just escaped from, the next minute he’s back in chains, eventually ending up insane and eating mud and meeting his fate offscreen. The disregard for Lider, easily the film’s most intriguing creation, is chillingly thorough. Vazante wants to be a visual riff on the various souls destroyed by slavery, but it also can’t help shaking out as a study of a white man’s agony at being betrayed by everyone. There are memes about white people tears, too, though the movie’s final scream of horror might actually be funnier than any of them.

Phantom Thread

April 8, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 4.31.39 PMPaul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a sort of upper-class pornography — without sex or nudity, though; it’s fashion porn and, secondarily, food porn. The camera lavishes its fixation on close-ups of threads, lace, mushrooms, pastries. The people onscreen focus on what goes into and onto the body, the better to avoid thinking about the body itself. The protagonist, esteemed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), surrounds himself with women but seems interested in them only as walls on which to hang his art, or assistants in making his art. He has successfully created an elegant bubble in which his various servants perpetuate his lockstep routines and he gets to play the difficult, complicated genius.

The hero of Phantom Thread is not Reynolds, or even his enabling sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville); it’s Alma Elsen (Vicky Krieps), a waitress drawn into Reynolds’ sphere after Reynolds has discarded his latest muse/lover and is possibly on the lookout for another. Alma, however, as we gradually learn, is not interested in being the typical muse, the victim, the martyr to a man’s greatness. She insists on her own humanity, perhaps because she understands Reynolds’ humanity more than most do. If Reynolds is meant in any way as an avatar for Anderson, Phantom Thread is the idiosyncratic and ambitious filmmaker’s self-satire. The character of Reynolds, though, at least on paper, feels a bit warmed-over — we’ve seen this rigid mad genius before.

What Anderson and Day-Lewis bring to him is a kind of sneaky dark libido, acted on, if not sexually, then in a thousand sublimated ways. He dominates as surely as does a Dom/me in BDSM play. In that respect, Phantom Thread follows from Anderson’s 2012 Hegelian reverie The Master; in both, the student, as they tirelessly say, becomes the master. Here, though, we get a rich aroma of a gothic stew — a good deal of talk about ghosts, literal and metaphorical; the turn two-thirds of the way through into the overt macabre; the title itself, which seems to refer to the invisible string connecting us all but could also signify the unseen messages Reynolds stashes in the linings of each dress.

Phantom Thread, shown in some theaters in colossal 70mm, harks back to the super-extra blockbuster dramas of the ‘50s, the ones shot in creamy Technicolor and drenched in repressed flop sweat. The dynamic between Reynolds and Cyril, and between him and the various muses he wishes to control, carries a faint whiff of Vertigo. As in other recent Anderson films, the mood is sexually impacted and obstinately uncanny. It could also be adapted to the stage with little trouble — I think a daydream near the end is the only exterior shot in the movie — yet fluently speaks the language of pure cinema. Even if Anderson has moved on from Altman and Scorsese to Hitchcock and Ophuls, he seems slowly to be irising in on the essence of whatever overstory he wants his career to tell — getting closer to whatever he’s been getting at for twenty-odd years.

Reynolds has a preoccupation with his dead mother, from whom he learned his trade, but the movie doesn’t suggest that he’s resurrecting Mom over and over every time he sculpts the perfect dress to bring out any woman’s beauty. Rather, his ego seems to want to displace the importance of his mother, leaving footprints that dwarf hers, while dismissing his father entirely (his only meaningful exchange with a male in the whole movie is a couple of disdainful shots at a young doctor). The psychology is tangled and doesn’t always track smoothly, but aesthetically it’s usually surprising and entertaining. I think if you don’t hold the movie’s pompous style against it — if you accept its style as part of the movie’s oblique point about creativity — Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most satisfying whatsit yet about the beasts red in tooth and claw beneath the politesse of what is amusingly called society.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

April 1, 2018

jediSo much happens in these new Star Wars films, and at such a ferocious clip, you’d think Lucasfilm had enough material for another whole trilogy. (Many stand-alone “Star Wars stories” are planned, including Solo in May.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi is also, at two hours and thirty-two minutes, the longest of the nine movies thus far, and deep into the second hour it can feel a little draining. There’s some stuff that feels extraneous (the whole Canto Bight sequence, which seems to exist to set up a new Lando-like character played by Benicio del Toro), and the cycle of attack and retreat — mostly retreat — gets a bit monotonous. But writer/director Rian Johnson pulls it together for the finale, unfolding on a planet with white salt coating red soil. The tracks of vehicles and feet scoring out crimson marks in the ground, as if slicing and drawing blood, has a poetry that matches the binary sunset of Tatooine, an image stirringly echoed here.

In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) returns, only to tell us and his student Rey (Daisy Ridley) that he and everything he once stood for deserve to die. This is a real “there are no heroes” movie, although not in a nihilistic way. I was amused to see that Luke, all these years later, is excoriating himself for the hubris — the smugness, really — he showed in Return of the Jedi. Hero myths of the sort that fed Star Wars in the first place, we are informed, are lies. There are only flawed people (or aliens, whatever) trying to resist tyranny. Luke says to us, in effect, “You grew up looking up to me. You were wrong, but I was more wrong to accept that reverence. The fact is that I am a failure.” He’s wrong there, too — one of the movie’s gentler points is that someone who fails (meaning all of us) is not a failure. A failure is a failure, and victory proceeds by small and not always satisfying degrees.

The plot has what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher in a moving swan song), running from the relentless forces of the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his soul-divided apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), son of Leia and Han Solo, one-time student of Luke. There’s an awful lot of back and forth, people hopping into ships and revving off for here and there, a good amount of pew pew and lightsaber hum, but the meat of the movie is a young man torn between good and evil, a young woman who feels he can turn to the good side, and an old man who has been there, done that, and takes a lot of convincing that any of it means anything. Johnson and his team (cinematographer Steve Yedlin, editor Bob Ducsay) stage the action cleanly and sometimes with a cathartic swoop of exhilaration, but a good deal of it is the same pew pew and hum we’ve been seeing for forty years.

The currency here is the people. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) taunting First Order General Hux (“Hi, I’m holding for a General Hugs”) is a risky but gratifying way to open the movie; returning stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), zipping around trying to crack into a tracking device, make a fun team in perpetual motion. The Vietnamese-American Tran is one of many women and/or people of color taking their places at the foreground of these new Star Wars movies, upsetting racist fanboys but pleasing everyone else. A most welcome addition is Laura Dern as purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, whose command is gentle but firm — she bats away the indignation of hothead Poe without raising her voice. Whoever decided to bring the warmhearted, levelheaded Dern into the Star Wars universe deserves a good cigar.

Ultimately, The Last Jedi speaks for the strength of a united front against imperial aggression, and forget about elevating a few people to godhood — and that includes the villains, too. The final image leaves us with the assurance that young people tired of injustice will pick up the ball their elders dropped; the movie was filmed and released before the Parkland shooting and its subsequent students’ movement, but seems to anticipate it. The Star Wars universe is starting to mirror our own in that it is re-evaluating its holy trinity of heroes — Luke, Leia and Han — and advising their worshipers to look to themselves for rescue, redemption, and faith. The Force (whose power no longer seems to depend on the “midichlorians” of George Lucas’ doofus prequels) shares with Zen Buddhism a cleansing disregard for icons (foreshadowed when Rey hands Luke his father’s lightsaber and he tosses it over his shoulder): If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.