Archive for February 2020

Come and See

February 23, 2020

come-and-see“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity,” wrote World War I poet Wilfred Owen, not long before he was killed in action at age 25. This also is the subject of the 1985 Russian World War II film Come and See, now touring the country in a newly restored print. Come and See, the fifth and final movie by director Elem Klimov, has a reputation for being hard to endure, but not because of any violence. There is some, near the end, and it is repulsive. But most of the film zeroes in on the grime and filth and desperation of war, the despairing moments in between the spasms of brutality, and the intolerable dread of inevitable apocalypse.

We’re in Belarus, 1943, and the ragtag resistance is doing what it can against the Nazi machine. We experience almost all of the nightmare through the eyes of Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), a 14-year-old who gets conscripted into the partisan ranks. Flyora doesn’t say much, but his features, dumbstruck with terror and disbelief, speak eloquently for him. He meets, and for a while accompanies, a girl named Glasha (Olga Mironova). They seem to bond solely by virtue of the agonizing and absurd reality they share. There’s no romance or even infatuation in store. War steamrolls over everything warm and comforting. Glasha may or may not even exist, except as a phantasm of grace and innocence in Flyora’s head.

Again and again we are shown how war reduces victims and victimizers alike to animals, except that animals are generally not so cruel. The narrative is anecdotal and splintered, though smoothly photographed (largely via Steadicam); there’s a bit towards the end, when an SS brigade goes from being boisterously evil and triumphant to being sniveling captives of the partisans, that takes us out of the movie — the part where the Nazis actually get defeated, which happens outside Flyora’s view, is just skipped over. I think Elem Klimov is ruthlessly efficient about what precisely he wants to show and convey. The important part of that whole section of the film — which incorporates the semi-climactic genocidal rage directed at a Belarusian village — isn’t who wins or loses, and how. Everyone loses. It’s the pity of war.

Shot in a squarish aspect ratio, with no concessions made to our need for catharsis or narrative tidiness, Come and See attempts no stylistic dazzlement whatsoever; it barely even has a style. The camera just stares at human faces creased in disgust or fear or devastation. “That is war,” Klimov might be saying, “no more, no less.” It shares more DNA with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc than with any standard war picture (at times, young Aleksei Kravchenko exudes the same frozen torment as Maria Falconetti in the Dreyer film). It’s not overtly political, either. Nobody sits around discussing how inhumane Hitler is, because the entirety of the film’s two hours and sixteen minutes is devoted to moment-to-moment survival. And yet all this stylelessness resolves into a stubborn vision of war as filth and waste, something to be strenuously depicted as the polar opposite of macho, righteous, cool. At its showiest, the filmmaking recreates an idea put forth in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, probably the most unheroic WWII novel ever written, and probably the greatest.

Aside from its 35th anniversary this year, we might wonder why Come and See is being revisited now. It may be a tale of Russian revolt against fascism, but it’s certainly not pro-Russia (or pro-anything). It paints the Nazis as degenerate primate sadists, which is fine, but seems to go a little past the usual such portrayal into caricature, almost. Then you find out the Nazis in the film are based on the real Dirlewanger Brigade, whose atrocities were so extreme that even some fellow Nazis found them over the top. These psychos burn an entire village alive inside a church, then get drunk or stuff their faces, as if at a tailgate party, in between bouts of rape and other assorted cruelties. When the tables are turned, they promptly throw each other under the bus and beg for their lives, while the saturnine partisan leader (Liubomiras Laucevičius, looking like Oscar Isaac in a bad mood) glowers — there are not very fine people on both sides here. The stoic commander is the one instance that Klimov allows himself some conventional war iconography, but at that point, I have to say, he has earned it. Most of the movie comes as close to what war must be like for the civilians caught in its midst as we would ever want to get.

Ford v Ferrari

February 16, 2020

fvfChristian Bale should lighten up more often. Usually he plays dark or tormented or both, but in Ford v Ferrari, as ace car racer Ken Miles, he literally sings a ditty called “I’m Happy” twice, and he looks it — he isn’t just singing it ironically. Both times, Ken is behind the wheel, where he feels most alive. Bale is in skinny mode (as was the actual Ken Miles), but his color is good, he has a robust laugh, and he enjoys a warm and healthy bond with his young son Peter (Noah Jupe) and with his wife Mollie (Caitríona Balfe) — the latter knows him better than anyone and won’t put up with whatever crap he might shovel out.

Ford v Ferrari, make no mistake, is nothing revolutionary. It does nothing unexpected; even its twists follow in the footsteps of earlier films. But it’s an increasingly rare example of non-franchise entertainment for adults, it’s carpentered extremely well (its dialogue isn’t always fresh, but as William Goldman said, screenplays are structure), and it offers the sort of generous, heedless fun that only a big studio movie can. Essentially, it’s a buddy film; the other buddy is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racer retired due to a bum ticker and cooling his heels designing and manufacturing high-performance cars. Carroll and Ken are part of the brotherhood of speed, the fast company. They respect each other, they yell and throw things at each other, they love each other.

If this movie and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were shorter (both clock in at north of two and a half hours), they might make a good bromance double feature. Whereas Quentin Tarantino meditated on toxic masculinity, though, FvF director James Mangold would like you to consider nontoxic masculinity. Ken couldn’t be a more acceptable male, even for the mid-‘60s; he generally defers to his more grounded wife. Carroll, by contrast, seems to have no home life at all. (The real Shelby was married seven times, and was in the midst of his seventh divorce when he died in 2012, at 89.) Both men are recruited by the Ford Motor Company to make their brand sexier (a Lee Iacocca brainstorm) by building and driving a car that can dethrone the insurgent but insolvent Ferrari at Le Mans.

I don’t know or care how closely the script (by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, building on an earlier Jason Keller draft) sticks to real events. It’s a cracking story beautifully told. I don’t begrudge it its status as a Best Picture nominee; indeed, it may be the most purely, uncomplicatedly enjoyable of the nine finalists. But back to nontoxic masculinity: our heroes don’t enter into Ford’s agenda for the competition. They’ve won enough. They only have something to prove to themselves. Now, this might sound perfectly banal, and on one level it is. But it’s accomplished with such free-flowing good feeling and wit, and it knows so well that we instinctively lean towards people of great intelligence and acumen, that the tropes are just road markers that we expect and want to be there. There, though, the Tarantino likeness ends; there’s nobody of complexity and shaky self-worth like Rick Dalton, who needs a massacre to put him back on top. Ford v Ferrari is almost Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with two Cliff Booths.

Damon, though at times dipping perilously close to his wry Matthew McConaughey impression, invests Carroll Shelby with regret tempered by gratitude that Carroll can still be part of the brotherhood by making his brothers great cars. Carroll has to deal with the corporate suits, typified by blustering Tracy Letts as Henry Ford “the second” (who nevertheless gets a redemptive moment) and oily Josh Lucas as Ford PR man Leo Beebe. Ken Miles, the amiable no-nonsense Brummie, tends to respond to authority with a cheerful two-finger salute. Together these men — workin’ men with grease under their fingernails — grumble about the home office but stride forward to get it done. There was a time this movie would have been the big hit of the year and won all the trophies, and during that same time I would have pointed out its familiarity with much more disdain than I feel now, when a film about the professionalism and decency of grown-ups seems to paint a richer, sunnier fantasy world than anything dreamed up by Disney or Stan Lee.

Oscar Night 2020

February 10, 2020

oscars 2020 As do many movies, the Oscars ended with a bang (or a Bong), but you had to sit through a lot of dross to get to it. I can’t be the only one who flashed back to one of those “secret Oscar voter” interviews where the subject said she didn’t want a foreign film to win Best Picture like a “regular film.” Well, what Bong Joon-ho and Parasite pulled off was the loudest clapback to that mindset imaginable. First it won Best Original Screenplay, and that’s when I first started thinking, Hmm. Then it took Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Film). Fine; everyone thought it would. Then Bong won Best Director — whoa, that shut down a couple of films, but this just happened last year (Alfonso Cuaron for Roma), so it’s not unheard-of. And then it happened: Parasite made Oscar history by being the first non-English-language film to win in the non-English-language category and Best Picture.

Before then, though, it was another bland Oscar night without many surprises. It began with a meant-to-be-rousing number by Janelle Monae about representation in movies that might’ve gone down better in a year that offered representation in movies. Honestly, though, a lot of stories about the less privileged are being told — just not in movies. In this moment, you’re more likely to get a human-scaled story financed on one of the streaming outlets. Just ask Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach, nominated for their work on movies bankrolled by Netflix. Of course, being on Netflix didn’t help Eddie Murphy or anyone else involved with Dolemite Is My Name. Then people wonder why some folks resented the Oscar love for Netflix movies about old white men or rich white couples.

Two speeches seem to stand in for the whole night, and are also two sides of the same coin. Joaquin Phoenix’s speech started off bumpy and nervous but gradually resolved itself into an expression of hope that we can do better. Renee Zellweger … yeesh, I think her speech is still going on. The speeches existed on either side of the line between basically good self-indulgence and bad, presuming-your-patience self-indulgence. I almost felt sorry for Bong Joon-ho having to keep going up there for more trophies — leave the man alone to get a drink. A good problem to have, I guess. I don’t envision any circumstances under which I would voluntarily watch Judy, so I can’t speak to whether Zellweger deserved her second twirl in the lights. I was good with Joker winning exactly what it did (Actor, Score) and no more. I was fine with Pitt’s triumph, and I dig that Laura Dern now has an Oscar (maybe I’ll have to watch Marriage Story for her now), though was disappointed she didn’t thank David Lynch in her speech. Lynch had nothing to do with Marriage Story, but a lot to do with her career being what it is. Maybe YouTube or Instagram should offer to host videos by winners thanking people they forgot to mention on Oscar night.¹

In brief, this Oscars show didn’t leave me much to complain about, and complaining is always the most fun. The announcement of the nominations absorbed most of the outrage (Gerwig snubbed?? Hulk smash!), so what was left was watching people win whose joy you didn’t exactly begrudge, but you saw it coming. The acting categories were in the bag, but the big dogs — Director, Picture — seemed up in the air, though history will record there were some who actually expected 1917 to prevail. The Irishman went home empty-handed, Tarantino left prizeless — this year, with the exception of Zellweger and Roger Deakins (winner for photographing 1917), was not a year for most anyone who had previously won. Sometimes even that was predictable — I have yet to meet the person who thought Elton and Bernie weren’t a lock for Best Song. But aside from making one of the year’s genuinely great films, Bong Joon-ho threw one hell of a wrench into the way the Academy usually works. Your film isn’t supposed to win Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature and Best Director and Best Picture — except now it can, because there’s precedent. That opening Janelle Monae number meant well enough, but what it was trying to say, the success of Parasite actually showed.

¹As it happens, there is such a protocol in place; apparently when winners go backstage post-speech, they can thank whoever they left out onstage.

Doctor Sleep

February 2, 2020

doctor sleep Few, I imagine, will be surprised by the news that Doctor Sleep — based on Stephen King’s novel, a sequel to his The Shining — packs a heftier emotional punch than does Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. That doesn’t mean Doctor Sleep is the better movie; very few films can touch Kubrick’s The Shining. It does mean that the new film’s source material grapples with very human concerns — enduring childhood trauma, addiction, predators, the cycle of abuse, the fear of death. (Kubrick’s The Shining was imperiously disinterested in King’s own themes, chiefly alcoholic demons literalized as vicious spirits; like most Kubrick films, it had a broader target in mind, the hubris of mankind’s delusion of control.)

Still, Doctor Sleep is less a horror movie than a supernatural drama — only intermittently frightening, but engaging and saddening. It feels like the deep dull pain of a slowly forming bruise. The story’s protagonist, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), still has the telepathic gifts he had as a boy in The Shining; in his forties now, he is a recovering alcoholic, having turned to drink to blunt his visions (as his father Jack also may have). King’s narrative has three prongs. The second deals with an itinerant band of psychic vampires called the True Knot, who feed off the “steam” exuded by dying people who, like Danny, have “the shine.” The third follows a teenage girl, Abra (Kayliegh Curran), who may have more intense powers even than Danny, and whose steam is coveted hungrily by the on-their-uppers Knot monsters, headed by a demon known as Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Abra contacts Danny for help, and we’re off.

I haven’t seen them all, but Doctor Sleep may be the most morose Stephen King adaptation since The Dead Zone. That’s not a criticism; the film’s writer-director Mike Flanagan pauses from time to time to take the full measure of death and pain. A ghastly sequence has to do with the Knot’s sacrifice of a little boy; Flanagan stages it as an atrocity that we need to see to understand the stakes, not as a gory tickle for Saturday-night horror fans. It’s not especially graphic, but we feel the boy’s pain and terror. This, I have to say, is not an effect Kubrick attempted (or was interested in). And a horror director with a healthy respect for human frailty and a cold revulsion for dealers of pain is not to be sneezed at. I have questions about a morally cowardly choice Danny makes near the beginning, in his pre-sober days, which after one ghostly visit is never referenced again; perhaps Flanagan’s longer cut, reportedly clocking in at three hours, acknowledges it more deeply. Otherwise, what Flanagan does here is decent in the ethical sense, and a fine tribute to both King’s and Kubrick’s The Shining. (King’s Doctor Sleep, on the other hand, I remember enjoying, but have forgotten most of its specifics. It cuts more mustard as a redemption narrative for an alcoholic; King wrote the sequel after many years sober, while he penned The Shining as very much an active alcoholic.)

I’ll be curious to see that longer cut; I appreciated Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep for its solidity, its commitment to the raw emotions of the situation. McGregor more or less can’t help conveying virtue even when his character wallows in the dregs — whether the worst toilet in Scotland or George Lucas dialogue — and he gives us a Danny who squares with the Danny we know from the Shining book and movie, fearful but taking peril full in the face anyway. The real hero, though, is Abra, whom Curran imbues with a certain equipoise that comes from serious abilities. In contrast, we’re catching Rose the Hat and her pack at a low ebb, from a shortage of “steam,” and Ferguson shows us hints of the lioness Rose once was and how her desperation and weakness have made her, if anything, more dangerous than ever. In part, Doctor Sleep is a meditation on power and those enhanced or burned out by it. I respect it and feel warmly towards it. Like The Shawshank Redemption, it’s somber and oblivious to hot-shot cleverness, and it deserves a home cult like Shawshank’s.