Archive for March 2023


March 26, 2023


Maryland has provided a gritty, grubby backdrop to productions ranging from HBO’s The Wire to the whole of John Waters’ portfolio, but it may never have looked so enchanted, so freshly peeled from a book of fairy tales, as it does in the experimental indie film Leda. Director/cowriter Samuel Tressler IV, who devoted five years of his life to the project, films in and around the woods and lakes and mansions of a Maryland that passes for Anywhere. The milieu appears to be timeless, though set in a world predating technology. The harshly gorgeous atmosphere (Nick Midwig did the largely black-and-white cinematography) reminded me of Kenneth Patchen’s bothersome verse “Come now, my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we’d be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest?”

Is anything planning to harm Leda (Adeline Thery)? She seems haunted in general. Her father perished in a fox-hunt accident; her mother fell ill and died before that. Now she drifts around her property, sometimes visibly pregnant, having upsetting visions mostly involving a swan, though an egg also puts in a few appearances, in perhaps the most ominous use of that object since Alien. In Greek mythology, of course, Leda was a Spartan queen impregnated by Zeus; in the form of a swan, he “seduced” her, we are often told, softening the reality of the encounter as rape. (Can consent be freely given to a god, especially one as legendarily concupiscent and sensitive to offense as the king of Mount Olympus?) 

Leda’s cousin (Nicolle Marquez) comes to stay with her and look after her. There is a man who does some picking up around the mansion, and perhaps more. Leda keeps passing into daydreams or nightmares usually having to do with water. She swims in, bathes in, washes with, and at certain points walks on the stuff. Sometimes she stays submerged for so long we hope the actress has good lungs. Such spoilsport thoughts may only occur to those of us who view the film in less than optimal conditions. Leda is ideally screened in anaglyph 3D — the sort that requires red/cyan glasses — with a stereo system that does justice to the enveloping sound process; it has been designed as an immersive art experience. I viewed it in plain ol’ 2D on my laptop and heard it through earbuds — getting the very least of the meat, you could say — but to be honest, this is how most people from here on out are going to watch it. And they’ll have to make do with the no-frills version I saw.

Leda is clearly an audiovisual riff, and a spectacular one; Tressler has an eye, an ear, and a soul for art. The narrative, though, such as there is, tends toward the abstract and sometimes into the opaque. We see the man on the floor scrubbing at a spot. This may or may not signify something other than itself. But the child inside us who’s being told a story wants to know who the man is and what his function in the story is — why is he here? (Eventually we find out, but he still seems like abstracted Man. His character name as per the credits is literally The Man.) It’s the rare but wonderful creation that satisfies on literal and metaphorical fronts; when someone pulls it off, it feels like a magic trick.

Samuel Tressler is not that level of wizard yet, but he’s got 85% of his ducks in a row here. He can set and maintain a hypnotic mood, either soothing or needling — by the way, did I mention the film has no dialogue or even narration? Not a human word is heard, though the nature-driven sound design, with all its raindrops dappling the serene surface of a lake, disqualifies Leda from being a true silent film. Anyway, Tressler goes a long way here on tone and visual/aural poetry. But some of the meanings seem still locked up in Tressler’s heart. This or that image may mean more to him than it could to us. Artists want us to see what they see, but sometimes they forget to set the scene, do the primitive foundational work of the tale told round the fire, and we get lost in a strange landscape that seems very routine and familiar to them, but…

Cocaine Bear

March 19, 2023

cocaine bear

A movie like Cocaine Bear has to do what it says on the tin, and it does. A big bear gets into a fumbled stash of cocaine out in the woods, and it kills people. The film is a horror-comedy — full of blood and guts, but somehow the director, Elizabeth Banks, keeps the proceedings as light as possible. She doesn’t want to bum us out or, particularly, to gross us out (although there are several nasty, messy kills, not all of them at the hands — er, paws — of the bear). She wants to entertain us. Set in 1985, when the actual events that inspired the movie took place, Cocaine Bear is short and, yes, kind of sweet. Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden make most of the characters likable by giving them identifiable quirks and needs. Even the piece’s real villain, drug dealer Syd (Ray Liotta in one of his final roles), has recognizable resentments and fears. 

This is notable, because Cocaine Bear, of all movies, did not need to go the extra mile to flesh out the characters, thus making us care if they wind up as bear scat. It could just as easily have coasted on its absurdist premise and fed stick figures into the powdery maw of the beast. But the script sets several groups in motion, sometimes at cross-purposes, all heading towards the bear. Even the tourist couple whose troubles kick the movie off seem to have a history in back of the film and a hoped-for future in front of it. Once the threat is established, we get to know the threatened. Sari (Keri Russell) is a busy nurse who goes looking for her teenage daughter in the woods. Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) go looking for the cocaine, at Syd’s command. A park ranger (Margo Martindale) and wildlife activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) get involved.

Most of this goes like a shot. Banks attends to the humans and their plot threads, almost at the expense of the bear, who just wants a quiet place to scarf down some cocaine and a side order of severed leg. Banks’ amused affection extends to the bear (who, it turns out, has kids). The bear’s scenes are achieved with a computer, but the movie doesn’t feel like a CG demo. Some tense sequences have little to do with the bear at all, such as the standoff between Daveed and a cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) standing atop a gazebo. The cop seems to be there to bring a cute, foofy little dog into the movie (don’t worry, no harm befalls her). You might question why the dog is there, as well as the other cop who looks after her, but there’s a payoff later, and Banks pulls it off without undue throttling of our heartstrings. Banks has described the movie as “the bear’s revenge tale” — the actual cocaine bear didn’t kill anyone — and the movie believes in redemption. The park ranger and her hypothetical love interest are handled a little cavalierly and cartoonishly, but no matter how warmly Banks paints the characters, the deaths in a movie like this have to come on schedule. 

Cocaine Bear has the structure of a slasher movie (the ‘80s), though it owes a lot to the animals-attack subgenre of the ‘70s, which were essentially proto-slashers with Ungentle Ben or whatever else (birds, bees, frogs, rabbits — yes, rabbits, I’m not kidding) menacing the dwindling human population. The it-is-what-it-is title has drawn comparisons to Snakes on a Plane, though this film doesn’t depend for most of its effect on seeing it with a packed and snarky audience on opening night. I have now seen two out of three Banks-directed films (her Charlie’s Angels reboot from 2019 was well-meaning but kind of null), and this one sticks with me for its unstable but winning mix of heart and gore. The tone is a very tricky needle to thread, but Banks does it. And the box office has rewarded her: Cocaine Bear made $3.8 million on its fourth weekend in theaters despite having been available to stream since March 14. That’s word of mouth: “Hey, you gotta see this, it’s fun, I’ll go see it again with you.” Banks, an amiable working actor for decades, has earned this modest triumph.

Oscar Night 2023

March 13, 2023


For us fans of Everything Everywhere All at Once, it was an embarrassment of riches. Even those of us who love Jamie Lee Curtis didn’t expect her to prevail over Angela Bassett, yet there she was, posing with her trophy alongside co-star Ke Huy Quan and then Michelle Yeoh and then “the Daniels,” who won for writing, directing, and producing the multiversal comedy-drama-whatsit. The fecund playfulness of the night’s most-honored film was about the only bright spot in an otherwise bland, dignified, somewhat tight-spirited ceremony. Ironically, for haters of EEAAO, the show will live in infamy; for the rest of us, we were glad it won, but little of the show itself is likely to stick with us.

Hosting for the third time, Jimmy Kimmel presided over a sober-sided, respectable evening. The subtext was, We’re not going to let The Slap happen this year. And it didn’t. But the Oscars need that underlying buzz of this-is-live anxiety to thrive and to draw viewers. Every few years, something unanticipatable and awful needs to happen, to keep people hooked. Kimmel didn’t host last year, but the first year he hosted, 2017, was also the year the wrong Best Picture winner was read out. Oddly — perhaps not, because nobody blames the host for mishaps like that — Kimmel was asked back the following year, then stayed home for a few seasons. Anyway, Kimmel acquitted himself solidly, his jokes neither sharp enough to invite wayward palms nor bad enough to stink up the joint. He set the tone, and the tone was, Let’s go easy this year.

I ended up seeing seven out of the ten Best Picture nominees (how’d you do?). Most of the movies in which I had a rooting interest got something to take home, though The Banshees of Inisherin now has the same number of Oscars as Elvis (zero, sadly). I was happy to see Ke Huy Quan and Brendan Fraser win, though in terms of Oscar-season narrative they were sort of the same story: comeback kids after years in the wilderness, pointing out the comeback and the wilderness whenever feasible, until one got tired of hearing their eager, grateful, tremulous voices and wondered if they would burst into tears if denied the Oscars they so clearly wanted. They got verklempt anyway. Jamie Lee Curtis, who looked genuinely surprised to win, was more affecting. She’s having a hell of a third act.

I wasn’t a fan of the new All Quiet on the Western Front, and though I rejoiced that it lost Best Adapted Screenplay to Sarah Polley and Women Talking — how are you gonna give Best Adapted to a movie that so widely misses the mark set by Erich Maria Remarque’s classic? — I kept grumbling as it picked up various other prizes, including one for Best Score. The most memorable part of that score is that “whonk whonk whonnnk” thing it does whenever war things are about to happen, sounding like Hans Zimmer’s pet goose. But Sarah Polley, once the tiny little girl Terry Gilliam almost got killed on Baron Munchausen, now has an Oscar for writing one of the year’s quiet triumphs. Women Talking is fine drama, maybe not great cinema, but good theater. Polley is intelligent and emotionally attentive, and she will make more good-to-great films; that future, with her win, got more likely on Oscar night.

Do I have to watch Elvis or Avatar 2 or the prestigious vomit-fest that is Triangle of Sadness? Nobody’s telling me I have to, so I’m gonna pass. The low-key shocker of the night, though, is that Spielberg’s The Fabelmans went home with bupkis. Once upon a time, an autumnal Tribute to the Magic of Movies by perhaps Hollywood’s most successful director/producer in history, with sentimental nods for Judd Hirsch and John Williams as well as for Spielberg, might have cleaned up. Not this time. The Oscars — I don’t mean to sound ageist — may be becoming a youngster’s game. Were they ever gonna make the 91-year-old Williams, the 87-year-old Hirsch, or the 76-year-old Spielberg creak their way up to the stage one last time? 

The downbeat tone of this year’s Oscars might owe to Hollywood’s essential insecurity, now more than ever. As Kimmel pointed out, 2022’s top ten box-office winners were all sequels or franchise movies. Something as stubbornly original as EEAAO seemed like the thing to reward, even though Hollywood doesn’t really understand it. Spielberg is out, the Daniels are in. And though it’s easy to cave to cynicism and say the Oscars are more about rewarding a campaign narrative than a work’s given qualities, it does appear that the good guys mostly won this year — even All Quiet makes war look grim and not fun, unlike Top Gun 2, with its invisible enemy from Somewhere, Planet Earth. That sequel, incidentally, lost Best Song, apparently composed by Lady Gaga in the highest anguish in her basement. I dig Gaga, but man, couldn’t she just have said “Here’s a song I wrote for the money”? (I for one would’ve respected that more.) When Gaga gets all dolled up to sit in the audience but then dials it way down to take the stage, something’s off. Bring back the Oscars where Gaga comes out looking like beef or a Blaupunkt car stereo. Give us back our ridiculous, our Monday-morning water-cooler gossip, our Oscar legends. 


March 5, 2023


Concluding Oscar catch-up: Living is a precise and compassionate reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 drama Ikiru — one of his less typical masterpieces, away from samurai or Shakespeare or noir. Both films tell the story of a bureaucrat, stricken with stomach cancer, who finds it in himself to cut through the red tape and leave something behind. Living is set around the same time as Ikiru was first released, which makes it a period piece where Ikiru wasn’t. Both films unfold less than a decade after World War II, and each society — Living takes place in 1953 London — deals in ways large and small with the lingering shock and horror of the war. In a place that has been bombed near to oblivion, what difference does one playground make?

One act, one word, of kindness, it is said, can make an immeasurable difference. The bureaucrats in this story — inspired by a Tolstoy novella — take the news of their impending deaths with a kind of numb stoicism. In Ikiru, there’s a startling moment when the protagonist exits his doctor’s office and steps out onto the sidewalk; all noise disappears from the soundtrack, until a truck comes roaring into the frame. There’s nothing quite like that in Living, which has been directed by Oliver Hermanus with a subtlety bordering on blandness. Hermanus may have figured, “I’m not even going to try to out-direct Kurosawa.” So, although gracefully lighted (by Jamie D. Ramsay), the film screens in the boxy old Academy ratio. The movie almost apologizes for itself by way of its modest scale and style.

Bill Nighy, as this film’s new dying bureaucrat Mr. Williams, doesn’t have that neurosis, it seems. He doesn’t see himself as being in competition with Takashi Shimura, who played Kurosawa’s fool turned hero; Nighy came up in the theater, where if you think too much about the greats who once sparkled in the role you’re currently playing, you go nuts. So he just approaches Mr. Williams as a man whose juice was squeezed out many years ago, and whose dire diagnosis gives him license to shake the tree a little. But just a little. At first, Mr. Williams contemplates ending himself before the cancer does; then he spends a night out with a guy he’s just met, drinking and singing. In the cold light of day, he realizes that a trio of ladies who’ve been bouncing off the bureaucracy in hopes of getting a playground built point down a more difficult but rewarding path. 

Adapting Ikiru, one of his all-time favorites, Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t give Mr. Williams too much of an obvious Scrooge arc. Pre-diagnosis, Mr. Williams isn’t particularly unpleasant or domineering, just, as one of his underlings says, “frosty.” And he only thaws maybe a couple of degrees. I imagine some of the people who deal with him once he starts taking the playground seriously might find him prickly, but the fact that his demeanor doesn’t change much adds layers to the performance. Mr. Williams is using his polite but iron imperviousness to get something done instead of to stonewall something getting done. His actions change radically, but he’s still the same dyspeptic geezer nicknamed by his young former worker Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) as “Mr. Zombie.”

Nighy fills out a hollow man who begins the movie in general sadness, is given something to be really sad about, and takes it as an impetus to run counter to his entire career. But the sadness remains, and persists. So do we. It’s a very Kurosawa concern, and Ishiguro honors it: life is just people navigating their private sadness. No exceptions. No one here gets out alive. Ikiru is tough stuff in the Kurosawa mold because it’s bracingly wise about human frailty; so is Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day), though in a different mode. Kurosawa was much more acerbic, even withering, about the salaryman ethos of the bureaucracy. His office drones would turn you down gruffly. The ones in Living hem and haw and smile politely, but it comes to the same. The new movie doesn’t have any real malice towards the city-hall blockers. They’re all part of the same sad system, and the only one who can short-circuit it for a little while is going to die soon.