Archive for September 2020

The Wolf House

September 27, 2020

wolf_still7-1024x576It helps to bring some basic knowledge of Chile’s Colonia Dignidad into the strenuously experimental animated feature The Wolf House, though that’s not really necessary to decipher what’s going on — to the extent that you can decipher it. The history of the Nazi-founded Chilean colony functions more or less as backdrop, or in visual hints here and there, such as some lines on a wall that momentarily become a swastika before resolving into a window frame. The Wolf House appears to unfold in one unbroken take, whatever that means here, because of course there were thousands of takes — the movie is primarily stop-motion animation, with various other media paying visits. Its herky-jerky, unstable style seems to represent what life in a repressive, abusive colony might feel like. The very celluloid is breaking down, decaying, burning itself. The technique is truly apocalyptic, while the narration is hushed, mesmeric.

Directed by Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León, making their feature debut after several shorts, The Wolf House observes Maria, who has escaped from the colony and has sought refuge in a remote house in the woods. There she finds two pigs, who become two children known as Pedro and Ana. The three humans/humanoids melt, come apart, reassemble, while the house — really just one room — keeps changing around them. The movie’s conceit is that it’s a propaganda film made by the colony’s leader to prevent further escapes. Therefore we’re getting moral instruction from an immoral system. Film being what it is, though, we are drawn into the happenings, even if we can’t always read them. We forget we’re seeing propaganda and just respond to the vibe of dread and revolt. The wolf waits always outside. We are trapped in the changing house along with the changing people. Only we stay the same.

The style will not be for everyone. The twisted, spackled physiques recall something out of a painting by David Lynch, who has said he strives to create art that people want to bite. There’s a bit of Lynch’s 1966 sculpture/animation loop Six Men Getting Sick in there, too. And the flickering, dreamlike horrors of the inconstant flesh reminded me of the aggressively grotesque Sloaches Fun House segment Animalistic Times (1995). There’s probably a bunch of stuff in there — Francis Bacon, etc. Of course, some of the style is simply what happens when you do stop-motion but leave in all the telltale stuff animators usually painstakingly avoid. It’s intentionally rough-hewn, like the accidental folk art it purports to be. I imagine some viewers, though, won’t need context or prior history in order to get lost in the whirl and seethe of this chaotic universe, where things living and unliving perpetually destroy and remake themselves.

Others may feel the tug of time passing; even at just 73 minutes, The Wolf House feels a bit overextended and, at some points, exhausting. If you don’t have to take in the whole thing in one gulp, it will likely play better parceled out across a couple days. It could also be the old trap of strongly pictorial short-film directors not adjusting the pace for feature length. There’s only so much visual dazzlement I can manage in one sitting before my eyes glaze over and I become numb to the fireworks. (Subsequent viewings help, because you know what to expect.) Something like The Wolf House earns high marks just on the strength of its restless images — sometimes the movie seems dissatisfied with itself, always in motion, always shape-shifting. But a little of that can go an awfully long way.

Some of it gives the impression of being something ungovernably weird that you catch out of the corner of your eye on late-night TV — Adult Swim more or less hung its shingle on that aesthetic. In this case, though, it’s not stoner-weird but the fractured, nonsensical perceptions of a prisoner — more Painted Bird than Harvey Birdman. It leaves us unsettled, as though we’d looked into a random passerby’s darker emotions and seen something we weren’t supposed to see. I can’t really fault The Wolf House for giving us exactly the insecure, not-always-pleasant experience it means to give us. It took five years to make, and has been kicking around film festivals since 2018, so … it was begun when life was far less dark, released when things were darker, and now comes to American home video in the darkest moment many of us have lived through. And maybe some viewers might eschew a film that so effectively reflects our inner world today, and others may find catharsis in it. Whatever it is, it’s not remotely easy.

The Devil All the Time

September 20, 2020


Netflix’s synopsis line for The Devil All the Time tells us the movie unfolds in a “backwoods town teeming with corruption and brutality,” and boy, ain’t that the godforsaken truth. This bloody, overlong affair is full of murder and suicide and sexual terror and even a brushstroke of necrophilia. It’s a real Southern gothic, with religious/fundamentalist hypocrisy cheek by jowl with horrific mayhem. The whole godawful thing starts with Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), home from World War II, where he saw the flyblown near-corpse of an American soldier nailed to a cross. 

World War II was where the country lost its innocence, if it ever had it; it found itself meeting acts of ghastly cruelty with two acts of epic cruelty. One could riff on what’s in this movie and say properly literary things about its apparent thesis that the war was proof of God’s absence. But it grinds on, unpleasantly and humorlessly, and leaving us feeling as though we were coated with a thick layer of slime. The Devil All the Time is about human monsters running rampant under the red and indifferent sky of rural Ohio, and they mouth the words of God while operating as if no one were watching them. Or maybe they’ve been driven mad by comparing their base human selves to the glory of the Lord. Who knows?

If this thing has a hero, it’s Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), son of Willard; Arvin seems to have a moral compass, which in this movie boils down to not being actively malevolent. Arvin’s stepsister runs afoul of the new town preacher Teagardin (Robert Pattinson); Arvin also finds himself up against a corrupt cop (Sebastian Stan) and a couple (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) who go around killing and raping people — yes, in that order — and then taking pictures of the carnage. The sheer thoroughness of the movie’s nihilism is almost funny. The story is set from the late ‘40s to the mid-‘60s, with WWII and Vietnam as the dark bookends, and we may nod at all the neat little literary touches — the film is based on an acclaimed 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who narrates the movie. But prose often redeems a story’s brutality, whereas in a film one is stuck looking at a freshly mutilated victim of the serial-killer couple, and there’s no mitigating poetry — just nastiness.

Overheated, garish southern-discomfort stories have a long and sometimes scintillant pedigree. But Antonio Campos, the director of The Devil All the Time, manages to deaden every emotion and atrocity. He just presents the ghoulish anecdotes neutrally, with no juice or steam. Or heart or point. The mood is grinding inevitability — everyone’s on the escalator down to Hell, and they can’t change what they are. That’s the motor of noir, of course, but this movie is noir blanched to light gray. There are no great mysteries or secrets to be unveiled here; there’s just Arvin plodding along the road of violence that his father set him on. Arvin is America personified, I guess, doomed to play out the same homicidal-suicidal nightmares/fantasies over and over. 

The problem is that the characters are never defined other than their capacities for madness and viciousness. We get not one but two disgusting preachers with pinched faces and the eyes of predators. I’d call the movie misogynist based on the terrible depictions of women (either psychos or prey), if the men other than Arvin weren’t an order of magnitude worse. The movie presents no way of living that doesn’t demand sacrificing one’s soul to violence. It’s ultimately a callow lens through which to view the world, or even a fictional world. The performances are dedicated enough to keep us watching even though the performers never do anything especially enjoyable. The nihilistic scheme of the narrative won’t let them; they’re all pawns knocking other pawns off the board. A movie that’s the devil all the time is as limited as a movie that’s the Lord all the time.


September 13, 2020

Goodfellas-Ending-Joe-PesciThere is no dust on GoodFellas. Thirty years old on September 19, it still sprints along as if Martin Scorsese had made it yesterday, at first with the bouncy step of youth, then slowing slightly to account for greater gravitas, then going into coke-fueled turbodrive before a relatively sedate final sequence, and then Joe Pesci — representing the movie as well as the ghost haunting all wise guys — firing his gun right at us. I hadn’t seen the movie in its entirety in years — contenting myself with watching favorite clips — so I’d forgotten how evenly it flows, except when (by design) it doesn’t. Over the years I’ve gone back and forth over whether this is Scorsese at his best. Let’s say it was his doctoral thesis at that point; it was a 47-year-old master taking everything he’d learned and watched and putting it into his most personal film to date.

Towards the home stretch, we’re told — in narration by our guide, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) — that gangsters referred to each other as good fellas. Not only does that phrase never appear in the movie until Henry mentions it, it doesn’t appear in Nicholas Pileggi’s source book Wise Guy, either. But for various reasons, Scorsese couldn’t use the book’s title, so GoodFellas it was. We all hardly notice it now, but that’s a weird title, especially stylized with the big F. Anyway, the title is one indication among many that GoodFellas was actually fairly radical. All its idiosyncrasies are part of the canon now, part of film language. But Scorsese wasn’t just pinching from classical cinema; he was importing bits from French new wave and avant-garde. It’s the only way he could fit so very much stuff in one movie, even a movie just south of two and a half hours.

Henry, half Irish and half Italian, always stands slightly apart from the Sicilian crime family he falls in with. He is with them but not of them, and the same is true of skilled Irish thief Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), who like Henry works for neighborhood goombah Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Squint at GoodFellas and you might see it with fresh eyes as the story of an Italian boss who never should have trusted Irishmen. Jimmy is shrewd, but he inadvertently helps dig the hole to hell in some ways — he fails to keep a lid on the Cicero family’s most mercurial button man, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a butcher with the mouth of an insult comedian. Never happier than when he can bounce his contempt off of a dense colleague or underling (alas, poor Spider), Tommy has a quick, almost imperceptible tipping point to homicidal pique. If you weren’t there in 1990, even after Pesci was in movies for about a decade, it’s hard to imagine what a concussive blast Pesci’s performance was — hilarious or terrifying, and then switching places on subsequent viewings. Pesci’s Tommy is the mob’s corroded soul, though occasionally a lonely note of morality does pipe up; “You’re trying to make me think what I did here,” complains Tommy, oddly, after he has shot the gofer Spider in the foot.

That line — possibly ad-libbed, as so much else in the film was — haunts me. If you kill for a living, you don’t want to think what you did here. GoodFellas exists to prove that thesis, though it starts all fun and games, with Tony Bennett blaring as young Henry stares out at the mob guys hanging out at the cab stand. To us they look like meatheads, but to Henry they’re a ruling class, heedless of laws or government or even school. The first hour or so is a tale of dark enchantment, dark as wine or blood. Henry and his new bride Karen (Lorraine Bracco, imposing loud and welcome womanhood onto a movie otherwise populated either with mothers or “hoo-ers”) are swept into it. It’s terrific fun. For a certain type of toxic masculinity, it’s the party that never ends. When Henry and Karen are ushered into the Copacabana in that famous tracking shot, if we look closely we can see the fishing line pulling them to their table, the lure baited with a thick wad of hundreds.

After that first hour, GoodFellas pumps the brakes a little; a violent event and its tragic consequences dim the mood considerably (I will leave them unspoiled for the newcomer). Michael Ballhaus’ camera still swings and swoops with nimble gaiety, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing still stitches everything together gorgeously, but the movie has slowed its excitable forward momentum. (Even before that, the aftermath of the Lufthansa heist and its “Layla”-scored viewing of corpses have shown us, with bleak tragicomedy, where crooks can expect to end up — hanging up in a meat truck, say.) Then Henry gets into cocaine, dealing and snorting, and takes on a second girlfriend on the side, and Scorsese makes a mini-movie about having a coke-induced heart attack — at least it feels that way to us. It’s a ferocious stretch of filmmaking, and when Scorsese finally stops it, it comes as an abrupt relief, like a rapid cessation of pain. So we return to my earlier question: Is this peak Scorsese? I’d like to think he’s made other films just as good, in very different ways, in the three decades since. Just in the past few years, Wolf of Wall Street was amazing, Silence was powerful, The Irishman an elegant shroud over the mob life. But GoodFellas feels to me like the movie Scorsese was put here to make. And he made it accordingly.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

September 6, 2020


One question we’re left with by Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things: did Kaufman mean to cast two actors with almost the same first name except the I, or was that just a freakishly apropos accident? There are many other questions, this being a Kaufman script based on a twisty Iain Reid novel. One of them is extratextual: how does Kaufman keep getting the money to direct these whatsit movies, which in any case have been few and far between — aside from the films he only wrote (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, etc.), he previously helmed Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015). I, for one, am glad the money is still there for Kaufman’s mad-lab literary experiments, albeit from Netflix, the 21st century’s surprise patron of the arts, even stubbornly weird arts.

On the film’s literal level, not much happens. We begin with young couple Lucy and Jake (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons), who haven’t been together for very long; they’re driving through Oklahoma snow so that Lucy can meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Truthfully, the impatient will probably check out halfway through the car ride, which is filled with talk (punctuated by Lucy’s miserable thoughts, like “I’m thinking of ending things”) and clocks in at about twenty minutes. Kaufman clearly never absorbed the screenwriting truism that you gotta grab ‘em fast, although if you’re a Kaufman booster, as I am, you have faith that this is all leading somewhere. It is. But slowly, in a crabwise fashion, until you are watching a naked man in his sixties following a disemboweled cartoon pig down a high-school hallway. And at that point you simply have to see this whinnying insane beast to its conclusion.

Before that, though, I’m Thinking of Ending Things occasionally exerts an almost magnetic pull between one’s finger and the fast-forward button. I’m being honest. The film is a bracing work of art and I’m in awe of it in retrospect, but in the moment it can be a rough sit. The dinner at Jake’s parents’ house might be the most awkward since the one in Eraserhead, and the film’s resonance with David Lynch movies doesn’t end there. There are hints of Mulholland Drive as the film treks on into surreal bits of business, such as a pair of almost-identical blondes working the counter at a Tulsey Town ice-cream stand. Do they really exist? Well, of course they don’t, nobody onscreen does, it’s a work of fiction. That bit of meta-awareness often informs Kaufman’s work, as does fiction’s role in the lies we tell ourselves to cope with the big lie called life. In Kaufman, we build our own story out of other stories, out of tropes, out of corrupt mainstream notions. Bad ideas fasten onto our psyches like toxic leeches. We are all the stars in our own movies that a critic would roast as boring and derivative.

Uncomfortable though it is, Kaufman’s film sure isn’t boring, and it’s not derivative — at least not in the usual ways. Part of its scheme is to nudge us to identify which bits of pop culture have fed us. In this case, Oklahoma (the musical) takes an uncertain place onstage next to Pauline Kael, whose dismissal of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (his masterpiece, I think) is quoted by Lucy (or is that her name?) at length. Both stand next to Akiva Goldsman, Robert Zemeckis, and the poet Eva H.D. We are what we eat; we are the pop culture we consume. One way to interpret what Kaufman has done with Iain Reid’s identity-crisis thriller is to imagine it as an invitation to root around in the box of someone’s soul. What’s in there? What’s not? What should be, shouldn’t be?

Some will lack the patience for Kaufman’s woolgathering at the expense of conventional narrative. I sympathize completely even while I wouldn’t have Kaufman any other way. Expeditions like I’m Thinking of Ending Things (ending what? and how? and why only thinking?) touch the nervous system — mine, anyway — in ways nothing else can. There’s room for window-clear, expertly crafted entertainment too, of course. But I also make space at my table for the work that invites us to look inward as well as outward, that takes an odd and winding road to get somewhere. Goofball that Kaufman is — he’s essentially a comedian, if a singularly dark-humored one — he also throws in, like Lynch, elements the crowd wants, like romance and ice cream and cartoons and dance numbers. Never let it be said that Charlie Kaufman can’t show you a good time! This in the midst of an existential horror movie that cuts closer to the bone than Jason or Freddy ever could.