Archive for May 2019

London Fields

May 27, 2019

london fields The beleaguered London Fields was filmed so long ago (2013!) that its lead actress, Amber Heard, was still involved with Johnny Depp. This explains why Depp turns up in a few scenes uncredited as Chick Purchase, a scar-faced darts champion. Based on a 1989 novel by eternal literary bad boy Martin Amis, London Fields ran afoul of some of its producers, who by many accounts took the film away from director Mathew Cullen and rendered it less artsy (or, if you like, less artful). The resulting recut staggered into a few theaters in 2018 and died the death of a thousand critical cuts. It’s available on physical and streaming media, if you want it.

But now the director’s cut has been making the rounds among critics, and while I haven’t seen the producers’ cut to compare, I can say the restored version works as a brooding mood piece, haunted by Oppenheimer and looming nuclear catastrophe, structured as a trippy whodunit, or more like a “who’s gonna do it.” In this form, London Fields might take its place alongside other cult Chandler-bogarting-that-joint crime whatsits like The Big Lebowski, Brick, Inherent Vice, and Under the Silver Lake. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Samson Young, a blocked novelist trading flats with a British writer. He encounters Nicola Six (Heard), a psychic who has predicted her own murder; she just doesn’t know who’s gonna do it. Nicola might be meant to represent all of us in the post-Hiroshima world, who know, or at least darkly suspect, that collectively we will be murdered — we just don’t know who’s gonna push the button.

Like other shady ensemble pieces circling a corpse, the movie dots the landscape with saps, sleazes and sluts. The sleaziest, sappiest slut is Keith Talent, a scruffy driver and would-be darts king. Jim Sturgess plays Keith on about the same cartoonish “OI, ROIGHT THEN” level as the scrofulous roomies on The Young Ones. He lurches into every scene, shoves his face into someone else’s face, and screws his expression into an open-mouthed sneer. At first I found Sturgess hard to look at — he seemed to be giving the worst performance in a movie that also includes Cara Delevingne and Amber Heard — but the idiotic Keith gains layers of pathos. The performance came together for me when Keith showed up to a big darts championship (where he hopes to whip Chick Purchase’s ass in front of everyone) and discovered it would be filmed in a cavernous, empty studio, with audience roars to be added later. Sturgess’ rendering of Keith’s disappointment helps link the darts stuff with the rest of the movie’s stuff: In this film violet, nobody gets what he or she wants.

Thornton’s morose writer narrates as the miscast Heard flits from one bed to another, trying to manipulate her own murder. Suicide? Not really; she knows it’s going to happen, she just wants some control over how and whom. An English non-entity (Theo James) drifts into the picture, repping all the googly-eyed “nice guys” in noir history who eventually learn how nice they aren’t. If I had to guess, I’d say Amis, and then Cullen, use the mechanics of a thriller to muse on a future of mass incineration. (The actual London Fields had the crap bombed out of it in the Blitz.) Who cares about one murdered woman — a “murderee” — in a reality where we could all be murderees? “Charging a man with murder in this place,” observed Martin Sheen about Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, “was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” And as Robert Aldrich’s bebop-atomic Kiss Me Deadly knew, nuclear holocaust is about the last word in noir.

Amis played with metafiction and the concept of unreliable narrators. That’s hard to convey on film, so Cullen leans on apocalyptic stock footage and hopes for the best. (There’s reportedly no stock footage in the producers’ edit, which must really make that version seem pointless.) I responded to the jagged and despairing mood, and there’s a nifty though too-brief bit with Jim Sturgess dancing to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” in the rain near a dumpster. It’s a cynical, grimy rewrite of “Singin’ in the Rain,” of course, but Sturgess and Cullen make it vivid and almost transcendent. Too bad about Amber Heard, whose appeal continues to elude me, but London Fields as its director intended it is a noble attempt, ravishingly shot by Guillermo Navarro and dotted with ironically sprightly needle-drops (mostly absent from the producers’ cut). By all accounts, the version that’s out there right now is a botch, a massacre; I hope you get to see Cullen’s version, which while no masterpiece at least seems to have larger things on its mind and a nice control of jittery yet resigned mood — a mood that may have seemed prescient in 2013 and today feels like looking in the mirror.

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They Shall Not Grow Old

May 19, 2019

theyshall Near the end of the immersive World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, director/assembler Peter Jackson gives us perhaps the most breathtaking sound in the whole film: silence. Before that, we have heard the staccato of rifle fire, the grunts and creaks of tank treads, the death-dealing bass of artillery shells. But here, Jackson lets us hear something close to what Kurt Vonnegut described as the voice of God. “When I was a boy,” Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions, “all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”

We don’t have them any more, of course — veterans of the War to End All Wars are long dead now, and those of WWII and Korea aren’t far behind. What Jackson has done, aided by firsthand accounts on the soundtrack from men who fought in the trenches, is to capture and modernize a period when Satan walked the earth, when weapons of mass destruction — machine guns, mustard gas, flame throwers, shrapnel — came into wide use. World War I was a bloody, filthy, diseased, maggot-ridden experience, repulsive in almost every way, and Jackson does his best to make it vivid for current audiences, using technology to slow and smooth the stuttery, farcical Keystone Kops effect you always get from early-20th-century newsreels, so that the filmed record of these muddy, exhausted men takes its place alongside footage of later wars.

They Shall Not Grow Old is probably the finest thing Peter Jackson has had his hand in since Heavenly Creatures. In both, he kicks off with deceptive old-timey footage; here, it goes on for about 25 minutes, at which point we arrive at the front and the film opens out to widescreen and blossoms into (subdued) color. After the war has ended, Jackson constricts the image back to squarish black-and-white. In a way, the film is something of a cheeky riposte to Christopher Nolan’s you-are-there WWII epic Dunkirk; Jackson could be saying “Good job, mate, but you had the luxury of stars and re-enactment, didn’t you?” As the (disembodied) voices continue on the soundtrack, our imaginations fill in a lot, and, as with many WWI accounts, we may wonder how anyone could have survived. A plague seems to have descended among men; Satan walks and God, until 11/11/18, is conspicuous in His absence.

We see many bodies reduced to ghostless meat, pale and torn apart, consigned to the mud and becoming part of the muck that drowned other soldiers who unluckily fell into it. Hell on Earth! Some of the voices are chipper or matter-of-fact — that incomparable British get-on-with-it attitude — others haunted or choked with trauma. Jackson takes his cue from the veterans’ accounts, indulging in neither rabble-rousing nor the modern privilege of hindsight. These were men who were born around the turn of the 20th century, and were not our idea of enlightened. (Jackson plays a popular bawdy song of the period, “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” under the end credits.) Still, though, there is room for compassion and even kinship between the English and the Germans. They have been trained to slaughter each other without hesitation, but near the finish, when it looks as though more killing would be beside the point, the adversaries sit and talk and eat together.            

Until then, though, the mood is dread-ridden — when it doesn’t give way to nervous giggles. They Shall Not Grow Old is as much about how men function under fire as about the fire itself. Many weren’t even men yet; many died still boys. WWI birthed the concept of “shell shock,” which became “combat stress reaction,” which became “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The constant of war — the thousand-yard stare coveted by an unwise combat photographer in Full Metal Jacket — is everywhere present in this film. In that first half hour or so, voice after voice tells us he joined because it was the thing to do, you stood up and fought for your country, et cetera. They had no idea of the infernal meat grinder they were signing up for, which would pulverize them into machinery or into parts.

Wine Country

May 12, 2019

wine-country2-780x520 The women in Wine Country are such good company that I hate to complain that the script is a little underdone. So mostly I won’t. The movie is really just an excuse to get Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph and Ana Gasteyer in the same room, as well as fellow Saturday Night Live writing veterans Paula Pell and Emily Spivey, and also Tina Fey for a few scenes, and other funny women of newer or elder vintage. Essentially, if you were female and responsible for some laughs on SNL in the early ‘00s, Wine Country is your class reunion. And like class reunions, this occasion elicits some looking inward; the plot has Abby (Poehler) throwing a 50th-birthday trip for Rebecca (Dratch), and they and the four other friends who come along face various fears connected to being a woman of a certain age.

To be honest, though, Wine Country contends more with generational conflict than with gender conflict. Other than Jason Schwartzman as a house boy providing food and sex when needed, a barely glimpsed husband, a doctor who quickly gets hooted out of the room, and a couple others, males pretty much don’t exist in this movie, or are irrelevant. On the other hand, Generation X resentment towards millennials is all over Wine Country, which may limit its audience a bit. As I’m Gen-X myself, this shouldn’t bother me, but along about the second hour the millennial-bashing wears a bit thin. By the time we get to the empty-headed thirtysomething waitress/artist with a show devoted to Fran Drescher on The Nanny, the fear and anger of one generation towards its youngers are unmistakable.

Maybe it’s nothing personal, though — the general beef these ladies have is not younger women but no longer being younger women. Fear of the future manifests as taking comfort in the past (see the ladies’ “DUI” guilty-pleasure ‘80s playlist; the movie is also scored by former Prince revolutionaries Wendy & Lisa). What these women all have in common is that, decades ago, they worked at a pizza place and became friends; they’re not all the same age, but they share pop-culture experiences and similar trajectories. One works in an office, one’s a therapist, one’s a TV star on the wane, etc. They’re all fairly well-to-do; nobody’s struggling like Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, a movie with a more finely tuned script than this one. A lot of the funnier parts sound improvised, no shock considering improv master Poehler was also the director.

The writing isn’t bad, really; it just feels at times like a collection of sequences governed by a checklist. Mortality, check. Disappointing hubby, check. Job security threatened by the kids today, check twice. (Is Amy Poehler that nervous about aging out of Baby Mama-type roles?) Fortunately this cast is full of entertainers, and they treat the script (credited to Emily Spivey, who perhaps modestly keeps her own character largely sidelined, and Liz Cackowski) as a blueprint to bounce riffs off each other. For instance, I know a raccoon was in the script because someone on the film crew took the time to put a pawprint on a glass door, but the exchange between Dratch and Rudolph about how you can tell it’s a father raccoon sounds gloriously off-the-cuff. There are probably hours of great outtakes we’ll never see on DVD because this is a Netflix movie.

For millennial readers bristling at yet another piece of entertainment that shames them, I would also point out that Wine Country brings in a ringer — Cherry Jones, of the late-Boomer period, as a Tarot reader who hilariously puts the ladies in their place with bleak, accurate assessments of their present and future. (Take that, you Gen-X whiners!) The Tarot works according to archetype, and so does the movie; the characters are full of quirks and whimsical devils, so they seem fresh and individualized. The cast are all smart, snarky women who would get bored playing stereotypes, not archetypes. (Tina Fey’s character, the wildly rich owner of the house where the women are staying, is agreeably hard to pin down; she contains multitudes, like everyone else here.) It’s a real comfort-food movie, and that’s apparently all Poehler and her team wanted to make. Don’t they deserve to? Don’t we deserve to have one?

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

May 5, 2019

extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-movie It’s an old ping-pong witticism: “So-and-so has a lot of charm.” “Yeah, so did Ted Bundy.” The new Bundy film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the second Bundy project for Netflix by director Joe Berlinger (after January’s Conversations with a Killer series), might overplay the monster’s charisma a bit. Some have charged the movie makes Bundy look better as a lawyer (he was a law student) acting as his own defense than he really was, and that’s true. What Berlinger is after here, I think, is a collective portrait of a society taken in by Bundy — and, by extension, taken in by smiling evil that makes them feel good. To come to terms with his guilt was to admit one’s own dangerous credulity in the face of Satan.

Some saw Bundy for what he was. Others did not, because Bundy had an interest in focusing all his skills at imposture onto them. Extremely Wicked is based on a memoir by Liz Kendall, the woman with whom Bundy had a live-in relationship for years, during which time he kept diabolically busy out of the house. Liz, like many in her situation, believes Bundy when he insists on his innocence. If she’s wrong, it means she endangered not only herself by being with him but her daughter. After a while, as the movie’s emphasis shifts from Liz to Bundy’s trial and escapes from custody, we begin to suspect that Bundy himself, or the part of himself that can convincingly participate in society, doesn’t want to believe he could have murdered all those women.

Berlinger spent four hours with Conversations with a Killer going over all the evidence, tapes, cold forensics. My feeling is that he then jumped into Extremely Wicked (from a Black List script by Michael Werwie) because it turns the camera 180 degrees and focuses not on Bundy but on his impact on those around him. (The classic in the genre is probably still Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, the true-crime author’s account of her friendship with Bundy before his arrest.) I also imagine Berlinger wanted to make the movie just for the scene near the end, when Bundy (Zac Efron) is about to go to the electric chair and Liz (Lily Collins) demands that he admit at least some guilt. I suspect Berlinger waded hip-deep in the sewer slime of Bundy’s case and then wanted to pull something redeeming out of it, some closure. It didn’t happen that way in life (if you want unalloyed fact, stick to the records), but dramatically and metaphorically it feels right; the entire movie leads up to this moment, and Efron and Collins don’t falter.

Indeed, Efron nails the insecure lunges at compassion as well as the glowering menace that define Bundy. We see the real Bundy during the end credits, delivering the same dialogue Efron did; Bundy shows us something Efron, to his soul’s credit, can’t show — a grotesque moral void. Efron does pack in enough ominous bits of business to give us the creeps, and Collins gives us a woman who isn’t stupid so much as self-hating. Liz needs a guy as nice as Bundy seems to be, and Bundy needs to be needed in that way — whether because being in a relationship is good cover for being Jack the Ripper, or because a small part of him legitimately wants sane love, who’s to say? Later, of course, there are giggling Bundy groupies in the courthouse and one former coworker who falls in love with him and even has his baby. Some women will always be attracted to the monster.

Extremely Wicked has a murderers’ row of terrific performers (John Malkovich, Dylan Baker, Terry Kinney, Jim Parsons, Haley Joel Osment, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan) keeping the courtroom cat-and-mouse games lively. It sets the tone with a Goethe quote (“Few people have the imagination for reality”) that, coming from a director with extensive cred in the true-crime documentary field, is both funny and not funny. Berlinger spent a lot of years making not one but three films about the Memphis Three and how they got railroaded for the murder of three boys, and they proclaimed their innocence as vehemently as Bundy did his. As it happens, they deserved to be believed. Bundy did not, but many believed anyway. They couldn’t imagine the reality.

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See also: Ted Bundy, a far pulpier and pugnaciously contemptuous take.