Archive for April 2019

Serenity (2019)

April 28, 2019

serenity When a thriller becomes, after a calamitous theatrical release, a cult favorite, it’s usually because of some outlandish twists or, more likely, plot elements that shove it into a whole other genre. You thought you were watching a film noir about an unlucky fellow playing the sap for a femme fatale? Ha, it’s actually a western! So Serenity has earned a reputation for being loopy and oblivious to reason, and stuff like this can be fun as hell; you used to get them a lot in the ‘90s, when films like Dead Again, Shattered, and Romeo Is Bleeding inspired hoots and awe in roughly equal measure. I truly wish I could say Serenity took its rightful place alongside those others, but it just isn’t as fun — its weirdness seems to come not from a desire to give juicy pleasure but to provoke deep philosophical thought, and I’m afraid a thriller can commit no greater sin.

The world that writer/director Steven Knight establishes in the first reel or so keeps us hooked for a long time with convincing details and personality quirks. The first scene has more in common with Jaws than we’re expecting it to. Our hero, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), takes paying customers out on his boat to catch big fish. Baker has his own big fish, a tuna he calls Justice and is obsessed with catching. We settle in for a Hemingwayesque tale, then, but then the genre shifts. Baker is approached by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway), now married to a rich abuser (Jason Clarke) who beats her and threatens young Patrick, the son Baker and Karen had together. Karen wants Baker to take her hubby out for a fishing trip and then come back without him. She offers $10 million. Will Baker take it? Or will he agree to the task only to rescue his son?

Film noir anti-heroes usually paint themselves into corners. And they were always going to do so; it was fate, and nothing they can do will change that. Serenity takes the determinism of noir about as far as it can go. Maybe the true engine of noir, the thing that keeps us watching, is to explain why a person is trapped. We know Baker is probably going to at least set out to knock evil hubby off the chessboard, but why? What elements conspire to make sure he has no choice? Some of the more recent thrillers answer this by reading from the book of the supernatural. Serenity does something similar, but again, it seems like a cheat. Generally, we in the audience know the events in a fiction movie are not literally happening. We would like to pretend, for a couple of hours, that they are happening, and we would like to care about people who don’t exist, doing things that are not really being done. Serenity frustrates that basic narrative need, and sort of looks down on it. Sometimes I like cold anti-audience experiments like that, but in this case, no.

I’ll tell you why. McConaughey and Hathaway, and in supporting roles Clarke and Djimon Hounsou and Diane Lane, create characters worth caring about, identifying with or hating. The film is beautifully made, shot in luscious tones of gold and blue and gray by Jess Hall, ominously scored by Benjamin Wallfisch. Thrillers can be second only to science fiction in their potential to show off style. I believed in what Steven Knight was telling and showing me. He had created a world worth engaging with. And there are clues throughout — by the time the third character refers to the fish in Baker’s head, we figure it can’t be coincidence. And what of the little feller (Jeremy Strong) who keeps trying to talk to Baker, and who seems to know more than he should? But, knowing of the story what I know now, I can’t come up with any reason why Diane Lane’s character should exist. I mean, I’m happy to see Diane Lane, anyone is, but the movie takes away whatever context her character had. And if you, as a movie, cannot come up with a reason Diane Lane should exist, I cannot come up with a reason you should exist.

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

April 22, 2019

donquixote It’s well-nigh impossible to assess Terry Gilliam’s long-gestating, oft-foiled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as just, you know, a movie. It became, in the thirty years since Gilliam first wanted to make it, the ultimate unrealized project and the ultimate Gilliam project — the two seem synonymous at this point. (Some of Gilliam’s aborted films — the list includes The Defective Detective and Theseus and the Minotaur — play better in our heads than some of his actual films of recent years play in reality.) And, oh, would that it had stayed unmade, to shine and thunder in our imaginations forevermore. But, alas, after several false starts and story changes, a film by Terry Gilliam called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote now stands before us. I feel a bit fond of it, because the whole thing understandably expresses a certain happy relief that’s been absent from Gilliam’s work for a while. But I don’t think I want to see it again.

The story now involves Toby (Adam Driver), a jaded director of TV commercials who started out as an artsy, idealistic filmmaker. Toby is in Spain shooting an ad that involves Don Quixote tilting at a windmill; after hours, he encounters, on a bootleg DVD, a short film he made in a nearby village years ago about … Don Quixote. I doubt this is meant as a coincidence, and indeed as Toby the spoiled Hollywood player becomes Toby the soiled squire, the fantasy world of delusion begins to seem here like a virus, highly contagious and fast-acting, spread by the combustible machine of a film set. In part, Gilliam wants to tie filmmaking back into its origins as a series of suggestive images that don’t quite cohere into a sustained narrative. In other words, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — brilliant and scattered — is the same film Gilliam has been making for fifty years now.

Toby is drawn back to the village where he first animated Don Quixote, and finds the same non-actor — Javier (Jonathan Pryce), the shoemaker Toby cast as his Quixote — who now believes he is Quixote. He, of course, thinks Toby is Sancho Panza, and together they go on “adventures” that seem to drift in and out of reality, through various layers of representation. This may sound terrific, and you may spend some time feeling that Gilliam was somehow meant to be thwarted so many times in making the film, so that he could age into it. And indeed, there are some small threads of pathos that were probably easier for Gilliam to access as a 77-year-old man than they would have been at age 47. But though the plot feels busy, not much really happens other than the narrative eating itself. It gets repetitive; people are always unmasking, revealing their or others’ true selves. After a while we don’t care. I checked the time, aghast to discover there was more than an hour of this to go.

My fondness for the enterprise begins with Jonathan Pryce’s warm, surefooted portrait of Quixote as a man happy and fulfilled in his delusions. Pryce, of course, more or less played Quixote, tilting at the impersonal windmills of bureaucracy, in Gilliam’s ur-masterpiece Brazil, and here he is again, confident on his steed, driven by visions of the pure Dulcinea much as Sam Lowry was goosed out of his drone-tedium by the woman of his dreams. The picaresque, rambling narratives that so attract Gilliam are remarkably consistent. They’re also filled with two-dimensional people, like his honking, muttering animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the day. Gilliam actually can make a movie with real, complex people — flip back to 1991’s The Fisher King, Gilliam’s second masterpiece (a textbook example of a film made by a man who just turned fifty, I now realize). But this fantasist prefers to paint in bold, hyperbolic colors and thick lines.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is almost unavoidably a disappointment. If it had come out in the early ‘90s, or even in the early ‘00s, as just the next Gilliam movie, it wouldn’t have gathered the weight of our speculation, hope, frustration, and anticipation, which this movie simply cannot support (no movie could). Its effect on anyone who still cares enough to see it will have nothing to do with the mild, disjointed film itself and everything to do with all the ironies and mishaps surrounding its history. And yet here it is, Gilliam’s triumph — not really an artistic triumph so much as a triumph over all the obstacles and metaphorical floods and giants that kept it frozen in a curse of stasis, like a princess in a fairy tale, for three decades.

Glass

April 14, 2019

glass When last we saw the almost-invulnerable hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis), he was sitting in a diner at the end of 2016’s Split, in a surprise appearance that linked the movie with David’s own movie, 2000’s Unbreakable. Both those films were written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who returns to wrap up the trilogy with Glass. Shyamalan doesn’t really stick the landing, but I’m not sure he was supposed to, or was trying to. Taken in sum, the three movies are a morose meditation on comic-book tropes, and somewhat a critique of them; after all, the villains are both disabled in some way, and that’s part of the critique, that those whose minds or bodies are not “normal” are destined to turn to evil. (It’s a very Victorian notion, and the history of comics is lousy with it.)

David’s power of insight (he can tell what you’re guilty of by bumping into you) leads him to track down the serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the mercurial antagonist of Split, who contends with dissociative identity disorder and currently has four cheerleaders stashed away in his rusty abandoned-factory hideout. When we meet Kevin here, he’s letting nine-year-old Hedwig take the wheel, but when David arrives, Hedwig tags in the Beast, who roars and bellows and has unearthly strength. Regardless, David almost defeats him, until some cops led by psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) capture them both and lock them away in a featureless asylum — along with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), aka “Mr. Glass,” who resides in a wheelchair because his osteogenesis imperfecta renders his bones brittle. Dr. Staple’s goal is to get the three men to admit their views of themselves as exceptional — superhuman — are delusions.

Currently Elijah the mastermind is zoning out in his chair, seemingly doped up to his eyeballs, but you don’t hire Samuel L. Jackson and then not let him hold forth (although the cheeky Shyamalan denies Elijah speech for over an hour of screen time). There are times when Glass appears to fall victim to the same superhero clichés it’s tweaking — there are plans, master plans, counter-plans. Everyone in the movie seems to be plotting, except for sweet Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a survivor of an earlier Kevin/Beast incident in Split, who feels a connection to Kevin, the only reachable and reasonable personality of “the Horde.” There’s also David’s now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s loving mother (Charlayne Woodard), who must be, what, ninety years old by now? We see that Kevin was abused as a child by his mother, whereas Elijah wasn’t, but they both turned out bad; Shyamalan seems to be saying that in some cases, it’s pain that makes the difference between a villain and a hero.

We’re told in the movie that this is real life, and Shyamalan as usual grounds everything in the gray, glum streets and hallways of Philadelphia. But he also all but promises us a climactic face-off between David and the Beast atop a new skyscraper in the city, while Elijah plans to … but why spoil it? The twist addict in Shyamalan’s own screenwriting Horde breaks free and indulges himself, tying things together with a geeky abandon that’s part sneer at and part appreciation of comic-book plotting. In brief, what we get just raises more questions, especially as regards Dr. Staple, whose name may refer to the things that hold together comic books. Shyamalan finishes on a note of half-hearted optimism that, again, is either critical or symptomatic of comic-book endings, which never really end.

Shyamalan as writer has been erratic almost from the beginning; even the now-lauded Unbreakable struck me at the time as anticlimactic, though now, like Glass, it reads more as metacommentary. It’s as a director, a filmmaker with a natural command of mood and dread, that Shyamalan excels. Glass, which cost a pittance by today’s Hollywood metric ($20 million), spends a lot more time in quiet talking-heads passages than in superhuman beatdowns. Shyamalan still, two decades later, trusts the audience to sit still and be told a story. But they wouldn’t sit still if his control over tone and pace weren’t so appealingly rock-solid — there’s something about a self-assured director that makes an audience feel secure that they’re in competent hands. That’s what happens here. Glass is the conclusion of a lumpy and weird trilogy, the cumulative effect of which inspires respect. This series is unconventional and therefore not satisfying in a conventional sense. Its strengths, and goals, lie elsewhere.

Diane

April 8, 2019

diane Some independent movies wear their miserablism as a badge of perverse pride. “We will make you look at despair, poverty, sickness, the fragility of existence,” they promise us, “for your own good. Eat your spinach and recognize our noble intentions.” These movies think being a depression delivery system is enough to qualify as art. Then there are films like First Reformed and now Diane that forge life’s intractable aspects into something greater, but quieter, than the sum of its parts. Diane devotes itself to the inner life, guilt and disappointments of Diane (Mary Kay Place), a 70-year-old woman drifting through bleak, snowy rural Massachusetts, trudging through altruistic activities in order to make up for … something. A bit of selfishness in her past, which may or may not be relevant to the pains and problems she faces now.

The literal-minded may look askance at Diane — why punish this basically good woman for a lapse decades ago? But Diane doesn’t punish Diane; Diane herself does. Mary Kay Place, a reliable and often inspired character actor for some 40 years, fills out a role written for her by director Kent Jones (in his fictional debut, after some documentaries). Place makes Diane gentle and thoughtful but with a strong prickly streak — Diane is no angel. Neither is she a devil, nor is her troublesome addict son Brian (Jake Lacy), who morphs from foul-mouthed and resentful to annoyingly pious once he gets Jesus. There are no villains here, just humans ground down a bit by the world. Even Brian’s journey isn’t as simple as it sounds. Nobody’s is.

Diane is not strictly a work of entertainment, but its level of craft and insight makes it enjoyable; the way it lingers on the subtle, the quiet, the unspoken human moment, and trusts us to be patient and adult, is refreshing. Diane sits at the hospital bedside of her dying cousin (Deirdre O’Connell), or sits across from an old friend (Andrea Martin) at a buffet. She has a support system of sorts, even if she may not feel she deserves one. As far as she’s concerned, her job is to serve and to submerge her own emotions (which bubble up unbidden anyway). Diane was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, and in a way it’s as much about faith and its discontents as any of his own serious works about religion (Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence). Diane nails herself to a cross every day for that one time she decided to feed her hungry ghost in a big way at the expense of those who trusted her. Kent Jones feeds this to us bit by bit, in naturalistic exchanges and undramatic (or undramatically presented) incidents. Here and there we find beauty, such as the warm smile of an older fellow Diane regularly feeds at the local food pantry. Played by Charles Weldon, a journeyman actor who died last December at age 78, this fellow drops in to offer Diane some perspective on her sorrow.

One other valuable thing Diane does is to center on a woman entering her eighth decade, and to fill the frame with friends and family mostly around her age or older (such as 91-year-old Estelle Parsons, who seemingly hasn’t lost a step). These women may be closer to death than to birth but they still have some arrows left in their quivers. These characters were young and stupid once, and they regret it (or they don’t). As loneliness starts closing in on Diane, she vents about it in her journal, in short lines that structurally resemble some teenager’s emo poetry, and that’s when the full concept snapped into focus for me. David Cronenberg is worth quoting at length here: “There’s no such thing as an old person. There’s a person who has been broken on the rack of pain and infirmity, but there’s really no old person. When someone dies at eighty, it’s the death of a young person. I see that.” Diane sees it, too.