Archive for November 2018

The Christmas Chronicles

November 25, 2018

santakurtNetflix’s The Christmas Chronicles lasts, with credits, one hour and forty-four minutes, of which fifty-three minutes are worthwhile. You’re way ahead of me: those are the minutes featuring Kurt Russell as Santa Claus (he prefers “Saint Nick”), a robust, not quite jolly old elf who oddly seems to fit right in with Russell’s recent run of hirsute cowboys and rough workers with a surplus of chin and/or lip fur. (Not to mention the global twinning of Russell now having played bearded heroes of the North and South Poles.) Russell plays Santa with absolute integrity, which in this context means he plays Santa as Kurt Russell playing Santa, which is the only reason most people of legal age would want to watch this. And he delivers.

Sadly, Russell shares the movie with two irritating kids, chipper believer Kate (Darby Camp) and her sullen teenage older brother Teddy (Judah Lewis). They’re bummed because their firefighter dad died on duty, this is their first Christmas without him, and their mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley in an utterly thankless role) just wants them to get along. Because Teddy no longer has a father figure, he’s drifting towards crime (he and his buddies literally steal a car for a joyride at one point). Teddy needs to be bitter and cynical so that, of course, he can relearn Christmas Spirit over the course of the movie, but that could have been accomplished without all the grand-theft-auto stuff that can’t help implying that single women can’t raise boys without disaster.

On Christmas Eve, these kids, led by Kate, find themselves in Santa’s sleigh, where they startle him and he lands them somewhere in Chicago without his reindeer or his magic hat. If he doesn’t get these items back soon, there will be no Christmas cheer, by which the movie means no presents. I kept waiting for the film to break out the old platitude that Christmas is about more than presents, but nope. It’s about presents and also about the other dude of the day — at one quiet moment in the adventure, Kate and Teddy pause outside a church and sadly reflect that they haven’t been since their dad died. Which, I guess, means their mother hasn’t brought them? So we’ll blame her for her kids being godless, too!

It’s probably useless to come at The Christmas Chronicles with politics, though there is that odd moment where Santa, denying that he actually says “Ho ho ho,” grumps “It’s just a myth. Fake news.” That’ll date the movie in a bad way, not that Netflix cares, nor its uninspired director Clay Kaytis (an animation guy who graduated to jodhpurs and megaphone with the Angry Birds movie). A good deal of the film is an excuse for elaborate CG effects, which have no magic; even a long look inside Santa’s toy bag is a multilevelled vision of card catalogs and conveyor belts of gifts — it’s like Terry Gilliam without a brain. At least Sofia Coppola’s A Very Murray Christmas had some soul (and Bill Murray).

Russell tries his damnedest, though. In a sequence that will justify the movie for some, Santa jams in a prison cell with some surprise ringers whose identities I won’t spoil (a hint: if the movie had any wit it would’ve stranded Santa in Jersey). Russell himself takes the lead on “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” and he’s in good voice, busting out his old E moves (Elvis, of course, first recorded the song sixty-one autumns ago). Now, having Kurt Russell get his Elvis on, as well as winking at some of his past roles (“Big trouble,” Santa intones), will tickle some of the audience, including yr. humble scribe. And I can’t feel sad for Russell being in a movie that’s unworthy of him in general, because he lifts all his scenes so effortlessly, bringing his own cool party with him and inviting us to join in.

I also liked the way Russell plays the many scenes in which Santa knows various folks’ childhood dreams and hopes. His Santa is a little irascible, given the circumstances, but also good-hearted. This isn’t one of Russell’s challenging performances, like those in the underrated Miracle or Dark Blue. Here, he reminded me of Jeff Goldblum, who can also get artsy and serious, but whose natural charisma is such that you can be content just watching Jeff having fun being Jeff. And the same is true of Kurt. For fifty-three minutes.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 18, 2018

buster If the movie studios no longer want to handle wonderful sketchbook exercises like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s good that Netflix is stepping up. It wasn’t very long ago that you stood a fair-to-decent chance of catching something like this in the theater, but the theater is increasingly inhospitable to the audience for something like this. Ballad is structured as an anthology of six unconnected stories “of the American frontier,” as follows:

– “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” appears to be a nod and wink to the singing-cowboy subgenre, which is about as dusty now as the American frontier, except that its titular hero (Tim Blake Nelson) is both a crack shot and a cheerful sociopath who likes to start and bloodily finish trouble wherever he goes. Despite Buster’s body count, his name only precedes him as mockery, which he enjoys silencing. This story — which, like the five that follow, is immaculately shot by Bruno Delbonnel and scored by Carter Burwell — seems to interrogate the lone gunslinger from a crazily farcical perspective. It also creates the impression that the rest of the movie will share this existentially goofy tone, which it doesn’t.

– “Near Algodones” kind of sustains a similar tone, though. It’s the narratively skimpy tale of a bank robber (James Franco) who picks the wrong bank to rob, then finds himself on the wrong end of a noose not once but twice. At this point I started to think the Coens were using the muddy, racist, violent birth of our nation as a way to comment mordantly on the human condition in general. It’s funny but not funny.

– “Meal Ticket” is a hard, pointy thing to swallow. In it, an impresario (Liam Neeson) drives from town to town, carting around a man with no arms or legs (Harry Potter’s Harry Melling, who in life has all his limbs, thus denying an actor with tetra-amelia syndrome this role) who recites poetry and famous passages from plays, speeches, and the Bible. The impresario looks at the decreasing number of coins dropped into his hat at the end of each performance. What is he to do? The story’s ruthless logic shows the Coens’ continuing love-hate relationship with the movie business. Despite considerable competition, Neeson probably does the film’s best turn.

– “All Gold Canyon,” based faithfully on a Jack London story: How has Tom Waits never been in a Coen film until now? Anyway, here he is as a prospector on the lookout for “Mr. Pocket,” a large gold deposit he suspects lies buried near a stream. For whatever reason I enjoyed this episode most freely and purely, maybe because it’s such a perfect marriage of performer and material (you should look up the London story, too).

– “The Gal Who Got Rattled” — that’s a title that seems to mock its subject but actually says a lot about the abrupt, pitiless language of the American Old West and the concepts that language struggled to describe. The gal in question (Zoe Kazan) has a hard time of it as part of a wagon train heading inexorably towards Oregon. This segment has the most old-Hollywood and thus problematic treatment of Indians As Marauding Savages, though all of that is simply to set up the sick-joke tragedy of the ending.

– “The Mortal Remains” finds the Coens visibly jealous of how much time Quentin Tarantino spent inside a moving stagecoach in The Hateful Eight. The story itself feels the most as though it unfolds inside Tarantino’s particular version of the Western, and not within the same Coen reality from which sprang their crack at True Grit. It involves big honking stereotypes (Saul Rubinek’s Frenchman may as well twirl his mustache and blurt “Aw, oui”) telling stories while trying to avoid consciousness of literal looming death. It’s also cast (Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Chelcie Ross) pretty much like a Tarantino movie might be.

I enjoyed leafing through this volume, though my watch beckoned a couple of times. The stories that involve the least efflorescent Coen dialogue — the ones driven by stark silences or old coots talking to their mules — come off the best; they remind the viewer that the Coens excel as directors, makers of pure cinema, as well as writers. We know the Coens love words and love characters who love to hear themselves talk; that’s why the movie kicks off with, and is named after, the loquacious Buster, and ends with a mystifying enclosed-space chin-wag that feels almost like a ghost story. The meat in the middle of this sandwich, though, is the unforgiving soil, the blood spatters that warm it, and the folks who live on both. No words required.

Papillon (2018)

November 11, 2018

papillonWhen I was eight or so, I had a brief fascination with the story of Henri Charrière, or “Papillon,” a French thief falsely accused of murder in 1931. Subjected to years of brutal and/or solitary imprisonment, Papillon kept escaping and being locked back up, until in 1941 he finally made it off of what was meant to be his final jail, the inescapable Devil’s Island. In all versions — Charrière’s bestselling memoirs, the 1973 film based on them, and now the remake — this material is intended to be the inspirational saga of one man who refused to let his soul be caged, and so forth. It’s a real “triumph of the human spirit” tale, with a repetitive freedom/capture/punishment, lather/rinse/repeat structure. What appealed to an eight-year-old about it? Maybe the guillotine. That was pretty cool.

The guillotine makes its appearance in the new Papillon, along with an upped quotient of bloodshed and nudity. The original film, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, very nearly got an R rating for its brutality but won a PG on appeal. The new one was never going to get a PG, from the looks of it. I’m not sure why someone felt the time was right to retell this story, except maybe that Unbroken, which shares Papillon’s high regard for masochistic endurance, had some success four years ago. Despite the advances in technology, the guillotine’s work is less convincing here than it was in 1973. The earlier film, thanks to a jump cut, gave the illusion of a man going from alive and terrified to dead and decapitated instantly, with his head tumbling down towards the camera. In the remake it happens at a distance from the camera; it might as well be a mannequin getting beheaded.

Everything else seems to happen at a distance, too. Charlie Hunnam, the new Papillon, and flavor of the month Rami Malek, as Papillon’s forgery-artist friend Louis Dega, make kind of a lackluster team compared to McQueen and Hoffman — who wouldn’t? A decade-spanning adventure  needs outsize personalities, grand gestures. These two aren’t bad — they turn in human-scaled, naturalistic performances, which would be fine in another kind of movie. But it’s not enough to carry a movie for two hours and thirteen minutes or to engage us for that long. Our attention shifts to broader supporting actors like Roland Møller as a violent, desperate inmate who wants in on Papillon’s escape, or Yorick van Wageningen as the Javert-like warden at French Guyana, where Papillon is kept. Aside from Papillon’s girlfriend in the early Paris scenes and a Mother Superior who sells him out, the movie is also quite the sausage-fest, which I guess is a trap of the material.

I don’t imagine this Papillon will transfix any eight-year-olds, even ones as weird as I was. It’s too grim, too poky and dreary. Which may be another trap of the material, or the prison-escape genre. You have to spend a good long time establishing the prison as a place our hero must escape against all odds. We feel trapped right along with the hero, and when he finally leaves the prison, so can we. I can’t be the only one who feels the deep urge to walk out when we get the montage showing how long Papillon spends in solitary confinement. He doesn’t want to be there, why should we want to sit there with him? A movie like Brawl in Cell Block 99, with no hope of escape at the end but with plenty else to distinguish it, is far more engaging and even exhilarating than an old-school lockdown fable like Papillon. It’s ‘30s pulp elevated to wannabe-poignant Chicken Soup for the Soul fare. As for the 1973 film, much less the books, I haven’t wanted to revisit them. Better to let that memory stay gold.

BlacKkKlansman

November 3, 2018

blackkkIn a way, Spike Lee’s filmmaking career from the beginning has been a rebuke and retort to the infamous Birth of a Nation, the movie credited with sparking the comeback of the Ku Klux Klan in America. In 1980, in film school at NYU, a 23-year-old Lee made the short film The Answer, in which a black screenwriter is hired to write a remake of the D.W. Griffith film. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee stages a screening of Birth of a Nation for an audience of hooting white supremacists, including Klan grand wizard David Duke, and intercuts it with an account of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, during which account a witness (played by Harry Belafonte) links the atrocity to the release of Birth of a Nation the year before.

Lee knows the power of cinema to influence and change. Will BlacKkKlansman do likewise? As a work of (somewhat fictionalized) protest, it’s a piece of the past (the early 1970s) passing trenchant comment on the present; time will tell if it will have much sway in the future. What it is right now is an attempt to unify rather than to divide — the movie shows black and white people working together to shut down the racists. It may begin and end with blasts at racism, but most of BlacKkKlansman is an object lesson in cooperation between different races, colors and creeds. It does this in a half-satirical way that’s as much about acting as about reality.

Black men have to pretend to be racist white men; Jewish white men have to pretend to be anti-Semitic white men. Based loosely on the adventures of a real cop, BlacKkKlansman shows rookie detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) posing, over the phone, as a white man interested in joining the local Klan chapter, so that Stallworth can infiltrate and learn about possible terrorist plans. Stallworth is black, so he can’t carry out his disguise in person; enter white Jewish cop “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who “plays” Ron in the flesh.  In a spooky basement meeting with a virulent Holocaust denier, Flip-as-Ron makes an equally Jew-hating case for the Holocaust having happened. Whichever one of the four credited writers (Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott) is responsible for this scene, it’s a masterpiece of rhetoric.

Eventually, Stallworth talks his way up to the top, securing himself (or Flip) a meeting with David Duke his own bad self (Topher Grace, teaching a master class in mealy-mouthed corporatized racism). The filmmaking heats up, changing from fluent coolness to a hot thriller mode, charging towards a climax fabricated for the movie but no less dramatically and thematically sound. Lee’s inventions don’t offend much, because even if some events didn’t happen to Stallworth, they’ve happened elsewhere, and Ron comes to stand not for himself but for the disenfranchised who have tried to negotiate a hostile territory through defensive imposture. Blacks passing as white, Jews passing as gentiles, gays passing as straight (this last doesn’t get much play in the movie, except maybe through amusing subtext).

Undercover cops have to understand the banality of evil in order to assume it as cover, which often means understanding their own self-hatred or potential for bigotry. Actors and artists do much the same, and the movie finds Lee wearing both entertainer and artist hat. BlacKkKlansman argues for a world where no one has to pretend to be anything. I think Lee would even rather racists were open about it, sunlight being the best disinfectant and all, instead of hiding behind the hypocrisy of dog whistles and three-piece suits. Lee has taken the opportunity to deliver an existentially crazy police procedural that ends up saying more about society’s disease than many a sober-sided Oscar-chaser. Not that the movie doesn’t deserve it — c’mon, Academy, can you acknowledge Spike now, please?