Archive for July 2020

The Painted Bird

July 26, 2020

painted-bird-3 An intense and prolonged experience about the inhumanity of war, The Painted Bird might take its rightful place as the most prestigious endurance test since 1985’s Come and See. The point of the story, hammered home again and again over the course of two hours and forty-nine minutes, is that war destroys the soul, makes even non-combatants callous and vicious — the subsidiary point, perhaps, being that in war there are no non-combatants. Everyone is drawn into the madness, including our young protagonist (Petr Kotlár), nameless for most of the film. We begin in medias res, with the boy running through woods, carrying a small fuzzy animal (a ferret?). Some young bullies catch up to the boy; they beat him and incinerate the animal. Welcome to The Painted Bird, where even small gestures of mercy and kindness are tainted and ambiguous. Mostly, people are beasts to one another.

The movie is based on the much-debated 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, whose World War II experiences, it turned out, did not inform the book; some even doubted that he himself wrote it. Still, Kosiński — like Come and See’s Elem Klimov after him — fashioned a ghastly rat-trap reality that ground innocence under the treads of tanks. The eerie thing about the movie is that so many of its settings are rural and almost primeval it’s jarring when a plane or jeep or even a train shows up. The boy wanders through endless villages and is set upon by peasants, perverts (pedophiles of both genders), and fellow castaways of the war. The closest thing to a laugh in the entire epic is when the boy performs an act of animal cruelty to get even with a teenage girl who has abused him.

But then the whole enterprise is about cruelty in all its forms. At the risk of sounding impatient, I think The Painted Bird might have dealt subtler and sharper damage to our psyche less about 45 minutes; the constant and endless litany of offenses to our young hero becomes numbing and borderline ludicrous, which is a problem inherent in an anecdotal structure allowed to stretch out at epic length. The boy meets someone new, and you sigh and wonder how this person is going to screw him over, literally or figuratively. Occasionally someone like a kindly if clueless priest (Harvey Keitel) or a Russian sniper (Barry Pepper) happens along and takes the boy under his wing. (The American actors seem to be sounding out their dialogue phonetically in Interslav or Russian or whatever, and then someone else dubs them over. It works; it gets us away from Barry Pepper attempting a Russian accent, anyway.) Aleksei Kravchenko, once the 16-year-old star of Come and See, turns up as a Russian officer and seems to be passing the baton of suffering on to Petr Kotlár, a Czech-Romani newcomer who spent his tenth and eleventh years on the set. Kotlár holds this fierce beast of a movie together despite almost no dialogue.

Unlike Elem Klimov, the Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul allows us mitigating artistry and even beauty to offset the human ugliness. (Udo Kier comes in to do his thing, using a spoon.) Vladimír Smutný’s black-and-white photography is sumptuous, even bucolic at times; the restful country landscapes, if anything, are more chilling for the sense they give of turning their backs on carnage and sadism. You can die out there in the open air and nobody will care; you’ll be rolled into a grave or become a toy for crows. The title refers to a bit where a man daubs white paint onto a bird and lets it fly off, whereupon its fellows peck it to death in mid-air. Humans, nature — the portrait of indifference to pain and need is distressingly complete. The Painted Bird is artful, if not quite art — it needs finer threads in its tapestry than just “People suck” — but it’s without a doubt a masterwork that you will most likely give exactly one evening of your life, if that.

Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II

July 19, 2020

undercover vice 1At a moment when protesters are being taken away in unmarked vans by feds in camo, it’s a goofy relief to see cops doing nothing more terrible than posing as gay porn actors in Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II (premiering on Facebook July 31). In the world of Rhode Island director Richard Griffin (Before the Night Is Over), sex levels everything; sex makes everyone ridiculous but also hot. Griffin’s latest is no different. Don’t be thrown by the tongue-in-cheek subtitle: although it shares one character, Piñata Debris, played by drag queen Ninny Nothin, it’s more a spiritual than literal sequel to Griffin’s 2017 Strapped for Danger. So Undercover Vice can be watched and enjoyed without having seen the earlier film, though I recommend both.

I’m not even sure if Piñata is the same character (in the first film she was a hostess at a strip club, here she directs gay porn) — more like the same fact of life, the genderfluid constant catering to ticklish and giggly impulses. Ninny Nothin (aka Johnny Sederquist) embodies either/or, neither/nor, the Venn diagram of male/female/gay/straight. Drag queens aren’t just camp denigrations of women any more (if they ever were, or at least if done disrespectfully). Griffin loves women, though — he wants to show them being happy and funny and ludicrous. So the movie isn’t entirely taken over by sweaty testosterone; Griffin brings in ringers like Sarah Reed, Samantha Acampora, and Victoria Paradis and encourages them to go huge.

Reed’s and Acampora’s big sex scenes are completely about what makes a woman hum — forget the males who happen to be physically facilitating it. (Fantasizing aloud, and loudly, Acampora’s character — a cop’s soon-to-be-fiancée — essentially gives us an imaginary sex scene overlaying the one we’re watching, which links this film with one of the few films to pull this off successfully, David Cronenberg’s Crash.) Undercover Vice, written (like Strapped for Danger) by Duncan Pflaster, concerns two detectives — sorta straight but bicurious Andy (Sean Brown) and damn straight Kevin (Chris Fisher) — who are ordered by their chief (the splenetic Paradis) to go undercover as gay-porn actors to infiltrate a blackmail organization. Griffin enjoys playing in the very small sandbox of this sub-subgenre of cops going undercover gay, which in the past has yielded such disparate efforts as Cruising (1980), Partners (1982), and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991). Ultimately those movies failed or hardly tried to do what Griffin does, which is to use the trope to show straight folks how it feels to have to play-act as another sexuality to survive.

But Griffin isn’t here to lecture us (not in a movie with that title); as usual with his comedies, he just wants to throw a party and invite everyone — and he will have dancing, dammit, even if it means a random Bollywood what-the-hell-was-that scene. (It’s like that joke about Christians fearing that sex leads to dancing.) We get to know the “criminal” porn actors (Alec Farquharson, Ricky Irizarry, Anthony Rainville), who all have their own quirks and kindnesses. The bad guys, if anyone, are the police chief and her two hee-hawing minions, who think the detectives being forced to be gay for pay is the funniest thing in world history. Griffin and Pflaster also know that stories about cops going undercover — being actors — allow for some nice character shading. Does the cop come to feel bad about busting his new companions? If so, why? If not, why not? These stories can get to the very heart of identity and its discontents, and we ruminate upon that, and then a naked ass gets spanked. That’s the Griffin touch.

Greyhound

July 12, 2020

greyhound Maybe, like me, you’re in just the right mood for something like Greyhound, a taut, exciting, no-nonsense war movie that weighs in, less the end credits, at one hour and twenty-three minutes. The film’s brevity is true to the virtues it respects: clear, coolheaded professionalism, all egos checked, a well-oiled machine of well-trained men getting the job done. (Doesn’t that sound refreshing right about now?) There’s hardly any griping, one or two mistakes corrected and acknowledged without much anger. Tom Hanks, who stars and also wrote the script based on C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, seems to be interested only in the moment-to-moment details, orders, repetitions of orders, and decisions made under the highest of pressures. Hanks, as Commander Ernest Krause, doesn’t get much dialogue that isn’t about the task at hand: guiding three destroyers to escort a convoy of allied ships to Liverpool.

Unfortunately, U-boats are in the way, and the commander of one of them, Grey Wolf, taunts Krause and his crew over the radio at every opportunity; this creepy, bodiless voice is so evil it comes from Thomas Kretschmann, that dab hand at Nazis, vampires, and general sadists. Krause ignores this voice and presses on. Given that Krause is a fictional character — and given to much more self-doubt in the Forester book — Hanks makes him a little too noble. Krause is the kind of man who stops a messenger to ask that he append “thank you” to a standard acknowledgment. He says his prayers, has a patient woman back home (Elisabeth Shue), and takes no particular pleasure in sending U-boat sailors to Davy Jones’ locker. “Fifty less krauts,” enthuses one of his men. “Fifty souls,” Krause clarifies. “Fifty fewer krauts,” the grammarian in me snarked.

Hanks, who enacts stoic heroism and its underpinnings of vulnerability as well as he ever has, wants us to see Krause as just a man doing his job the best he can. Krause’s equivalent to Horvath, the beefy sergeant who played right-hand man to Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, is Stephen Graham’s Cole, the second in command. There’s no “I thought you were my mother” banter between the men here, though; the dialogue Hanks has written is almost exclusively naval-wonk jibber-jabber, and while it adds texture to the movie’s fabric of verisimilitude, it doesn’t do much to illuminate the men. Three men die aboard the ship, and the only reason we know one of them is also the film’s diciest aspect. Krause has a black messmate, Cleveland (Rob Morgan), who’s always trying to make sure Krause gets something to eat. I’m sure Hanks wanted to point out that African-Americans fought and died in World War II, but Cleveland comes across as a servant in most of his screen time. Worse, he’s apparently interchangeable with the only other black sailor we see, whom Krause mistakes for Cleveland. I’ll give Hanks the benefit of the doubt and say he was also trying to sketch in the unconscious racism in even so noble a white man as Krause in 1942 — but it did give me pause.

Still, the movie goes like a torpedo, directed by Aaron Schneider for maximum momentum and tension. Schneider plays to the strengths of Hanks’ script — its monkish first-this-then-that tempo, similar to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. The action spans a few days and nights, but it all seems like the same gray-blue, ocean-drizzly whenever. At times, Greyhound comes close to being an abstract war film, a study in human forms rattling off codes and orders and coordinates to each other. If not for the (really kind of needless) prologue with Hanks exchanging gifts with Shue before going off to war, that’s almost what the movie is: a film about machines within machines, protecting or destroying other machines. If this came from Kubrick or Welles or someone comparably mordant, the point would seem to be that war turns men into weapons, literal things of steel and oil. But Tom Hanks is a nice man, and he wouldn’t say such a mean thing. Greyhound is a brisk exercise in military-cinematic precision, but it might leave you as hungry as Krause must be near the end.

Force of Nature

July 5, 2020

force-of-nature-mel-gibson-movie-1590049016Its critical reputation as a racist thriller is a little overstated, but Force of Nature is still ten pounds of ass in a five-pound bag. This is a movie whose handling of a major character’s death is so feeble — a twitching eyelid visible to the camera — we expect the supposed corpse to pop up later on, perhaps to save a loved one at the last minute. That’s about the only cliché we’re spared in a film wherein even the bad guy comments on the clichés. Filmed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Force of Nature unfolds during a hurricane, though it doesn’t actually need to; the hurricane really only explains why two cops show up at an apartment building to evacuate some recalcitrant tenants, only to be caught in the middle of an art heist by some armed and deadly robbers led by a guy calling himself John the Baptist.

I would like to welcome the Peruvian actor Stephanie Cayo to English-speaking films. She plays Jess, a cop trying to make a name on the San Juan force. Cayo looks all the better next to the essenceless Emile Hirsch as her cop partner, the burned-out, lackadaisical Cardillo. These two go to the apartment building and try to extricate an old German man and a retired, sickly cop, played by Mel Gibson, whose very presence in a film at this point would attract hostile skepticism no matter what the film is. Gibson is (or has been; he seems to have behaved in recent years, from what we’ve heard anyway) a terrible person, but he still has the spark of a true movie star, and so does Stephanie Cayo; their brief scenes together illustrate what this bland movie could have been.

Force of Nature would like to be the sort of invincible thriller, like Die Hard, whose every odd bit of business pays off later. I have to wonder if the screenwriter, Cory Miller, wrote this whole thing around a scene involving the bad guy, who dons a police uniform in order to get away, and something behind a multi-locked door in someone’s apartment. There’s a whole scene dealing with meat and a guy buying all of it at the supermarket, and a bit of planted information that you definitely don’t want to enter that locked room if you’re wearing a cop outfit, and so when John the Baptist forces Cardillo to swap clothes with him, all the pieces fall into place but seem stupid anyway — and then the movie cuts away before we can see the one hilariously brutal thing we’ve been spending half the idiotic film waiting to see.

Director Michael Polish started off in the late ‘90s as a Sundance-blessed indie director, but now he seems to make films just to cast his wife, Kate Bosworth — this is their fourth film together, and probably their worst. Bosworth plays Gibson’s daughter, who is also a doctor, and who can also hold her breath long enough to get her and a wounded man out of a submerged room. (We never see them find their way out; she turns up fine later, like almost everyone else, and fairly chipper despite what we’ve seen her go through.) Force of Nature’s mixed review of the thin blue line — cops may be mean and corrupt but still get the brutal job done — is accidentally poorly-timed at this cultural/political moment, but it’s no more consciously racist than a hundred action thrillers from the ‘80s. It’s meant, I think, to be a throwback to those films, and to an era where Mel Gibson was still on top, but it lacks the snap and pizzazz to close the deal. It may speak well of Michael Polish’s character that he tries to make a retro, obliviously racist thriller and fails. But the failure still reads to us as a wasted hour and a half.