Archive for the ‘adaptation’ category

The Devil All the Time

September 20, 2020

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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.

GoodFellas

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 (like Hoffa?). 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

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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.

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.

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.

Tell It to the Bees

March 10, 2019

tell-it-to-the-bees1 Tell It to the Bees is a modest, satisfyingly morose drama that tries a little too hard to be poetic and literary. (It’s based on a 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw.) In 1952 Scotland, two women from opposite paths — working-poor mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger) and doctor Jean (Anna Paquin) — fall in love, and, with Lydia’s little boy Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), keep house for a while. What sets this particular tale of repressed/suppressed passion apart are its expansively bleak milieu of Scotland and its general tone of British fatalism. Things don’t go well for the lovers or for anyone (supportive or otherwise, mostly otherwise) around them. Tell It to the Bees is a collective portrait of misery, and its refusal to crowbar in a happy ending is admirable though not especially entertaining.

Yet I was held by it, by its seriousness and its honesty about poverty and intolerance. Adapted by two sisters (Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth) and directed by rock-video vet Annabel Jankel, Tell It to the Bees is suffused with a refreshing femaleness, conveying a trust and a relaxed contentedness that can really only happen between women. Lydia and Jean don’t have a great love for the ages, with wildly ripe passages of erotic gyrating. They keep each other company for a while, and feel easier around each other. Their affair — Lydia is actually married, to a saturnine bloke (Emun Elliott) who came back from the war darker and angrier from what he saw there — is not emphatic or even very dramatic. They don’t fight about anything — they don’t have time to. Outside forces drive a wedge between them soon enough.

Some of the film takes the point of view of Charlie (and is narrated at the end by Billy Boyd as an adult Charlie), who only objects to Lydia’s relationship with Jean insofar as she isn’t truthful with him about it. For the most part he’s happy enough looking after Jean’s beehives in the back yard. Ah, yes, the bees. They listen to Charlie; he tells them secrets. They also buzz, like the gossips in town who make life so fraught for women who don’t fit in. (For good measure, there’s an abortion performed by force on a young woman pregnant by a black man, as well as rape attempted and, by several boys years earlier, fulfilled.) The bees, not always physically convincing, are probably the only special effects in this first feature in 25 years by Annabel Jankel, who in another pocket of her career co-created Max Headroom and co-directed the Super Mario Bros. movie. No evolved dinosaurs or stuttering talking heads here; Jankel finds lyricism in nature and in hushed, intimate moments between adults. But the bees are also a bit much, especially when they come to the rescue during the climax.

Even there, though, I had to ask myself, Did you really want to see the alternative? At least one horror is averted. Tell It to the Bees doesn’t strike me as a film that will become avidly beloved among its target audience, but then I thought the same about Lost and Delirious and have been regularly surprised over the years by its scattered cult following. This film might follow suit, although there’s little terribly daring about it, nothing much to compel that sort of giddy “Rage more” loyalty. It is one of many, many narratives about same-sex lovers in a time and place that rejected them. A large part of why it might work for viewers can be credited to Grainger and Paquin, who play small and subtle notes. While the bees and the buzzing get louder outside (in working-class Scotland there’s mud and disapproval everywhere you look) the women address each other in breathless whispers. The very quietude of their love is convincing; they share an oasis of calm in a town that seems to care about nothing so much as crushing the joy of its women under its masculine muddy boots.

What confuses me is that this is a film that traffics in romantic daydreams (there’s a fair amount of drifty dancing to turntable big-band records) and ascribes higher retributive intelligence to bees, but that can’t quite bring itself to give its lovers a fairy-tale ending. It’s as if the filmmakers (and perhaps the novelist before them) were saying “Bees will swarm to stop an assault more credibly than women can live together unopposed in 1952 Scotland.” Or in much too much of 2019 America, for that matter. The plotting seems punitive in a way that was common back when entertainment was required to show that crime did not pay — and homosexuality was a crime. As I say, I was held by the performances and the tone, but a narrative like this seems more at home in the era it’s about than the era we live in. We need more punk now, more stories of triumph and opposition, gobs of spit in the eyes of the buzzers, and to hell with the bees.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

February 3, 2019

girl-in-the-spiders-web-trailer-claire-foy-lisabeth-salander-painted-mask It’s been almost a decade since I last saw the original Swedish trilogy of thrillers featuring Lisbeth Salander, but I don’t quite remember them being reheated James Bond, as The Girl in the Spider’s Web often is. This is based on the fourth book in the series, taken over by writer David Lagencrantz after Lisbeth’s creator, Stieg Larsson, permanently clocked out in 2004. I couldn’t tell you whether Larsson would have approved of what Lagencrantz has done with Larsson’s hero, though I wonder if Larsson’s plans for her included such pulpy touches as Lisbeth’s sociopathic twin sister emerging from the shadows to incinerate the world with the help of a vicious gang called the Spiders.

Handled differently, a plot development like that would nudge a movie into cult-favorite status to be ironically enjoyed. But director Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe, the Evil Dead remake) seems to be locked into the grim, dreary tone apparently required by producer Scott Rudin. Rudin also produced 2011’s American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which made a lot of money being grim and dreary, and so Spider’s Web is commanded to go and do likewise. When Álvarez can put an action scene together, he excels; the movie is full of chases and gunplay and strange torture, like the other films, but Álvarez brings something heavy and muscular to it. Towards the end, when a sniper takes out some bad guys, we feel the propulsive punch of those bullets.

A Lisbeth Salander movie is only as good as its Lisbeth, and Noomi Rapace, who fleshed out the hero in the Swedish films, leaves cavernous shoes to fill. Rooney Mara couldn’t manage it in 2011, but Claire Foy, who steps in here, is a different story. She nails the character’s essential spiky loneliness and skittishness. It shouldn’t look cool to be Lisbeth, whose lifetime of abuse from scummy men starting with her own father has mutilated her soul. Foy understands this — her Lisbeth looks more saddened than bad-ass. Her flickers of caring about others, like her friend and one-time lover, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), come across as vulnerability but also a kind of relieved reaching towards connection. Foy shows us a blunted humanity under the scabs and scars.

Put Foy up against Sylvia Hoeks (the frightening killer replicant in Blade Runner 2049) as Lisbeth’s anarchic sister Camilla and you should have an affair to remember. And in truth, it all leads to a scene between these formidable actresses that very nearly justifies the existence of the whole creaky movie. Lisbeth, it seems, ran away from home — and from her father’s sexual abuse — as a girl, leaving Camilla there to absorb his evil. Lisbeth grew up to be a brilliant hacker and remorseless avenger of abused women. This twist, though, recasts Lisbeth as a goth Clarice Starling, driven to save the lambs again and again because she failed to save one — her sister. The one who escaped is damaged enough, but the one who got left behind ended up morally diseased by years of proximity to evil. Camilla asks Lisbeth why she rescued everyone but her. It’s a fair question, and Lisbeth has no real answer.

The rest of Spider’s Web, though, feels inessential. Even though Stieg Larsson himself reportedly planned ten Lisbeth/Mikael novels, maybe the pained and rageful Lisbeth doesn’t and shouldn’t work as a franchise hero. Her whole M.O. is bringing the pain to deserving men, but here her ultimate adversary is a woman — and, of course, not just a woman. Whatever integrity this character has, it demands that she never really heal or grow, and it seems insensitive — even cruel — to keep re-animating her to face more devils and scum. (A fifth novel, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, was published in 2017.) Since Spider’s Web was a worldwide flop in comparison with its more heavily hyped predecessor, it appears likely that this latest cinematic go-round for Lisbeth will be her last; she’s a great character, but I think she’s earned retirement.

Papillon (2018)

November 11, 2018

papillonWhen I was eight or so, I had a brief fascination with the story of Henri Charrière, or “Papillon,” a French thief falsely accused of murder in 1931. Subjected to years of brutal and/or solitary imprisonment, Papillon kept escaping and being locked back up, until in 1941 he finally made it off of what was meant to be his final jail, the inescapable Devil’s Island. In all versions — Charrière’s bestselling memoirs, the 1973 film based on them, and now the remake — this material is intended to be the inspirational saga of one man who refused to let his soul be caged, and so forth. It’s a real “triumph of the human spirit” tale, with a repetitive freedom/capture/punishment, lather/rinse/repeat structure. What appealed to an eight-year-old about it? Maybe the guillotine. That was pretty cool.

The guillotine makes its appearance in the new Papillon, along with an upped quotient of bloodshed and nudity. The original film, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, very nearly got an R rating for its brutality but won a PG on appeal. The new one was never going to get a PG, from the looks of it. I’m not sure why someone felt the time was right to retell this story, except maybe that Unbroken, which shares Papillon’s high regard for masochistic endurance, had some success four years ago. Despite the advances in technology, the guillotine’s work is less convincing here than it was in 1973. The earlier film, thanks to a jump cut, gave the illusion of a man going from alive and terrified to dead and decapitated instantly, with his head tumbling down towards the camera. In the remake it happens at a distance from the camera; it might as well be a mannequin getting beheaded.

Everything else seems to happen at a distance, too. Charlie Hunnam, the new Papillon, and flavor of the month Rami Malek, as Papillon’s forgery-artist friend Louis Dega, make kind of a lackluster team compared to McQueen and Hoffman — who wouldn’t? A decade-spanning adventure  needs outsize personalities, grand gestures. These two aren’t bad — they turn in human-scaled, naturalistic performances, which would be fine in another kind of movie. But it’s not enough to carry a movie for two hours and thirteen minutes or to engage us for that long. Our attention shifts to broader supporting actors like Roland Møller as a violent, desperate inmate who wants in on Papillon’s escape, or Yorick van Wageningen as the Javert-like warden at French Guyana, where Papillon is kept. Aside from Papillon’s girlfriend in the early Paris scenes and a Mother Superior who sells him out, the movie is also quite the sausage-fest, which I guess is a trap of the material.

I don’t imagine this Papillon will transfix any eight-year-olds, even ones as weird as I was. It’s too grim, too poky and dreary. Which may be another trap of the material, or the prison-escape genre. You have to spend a good long time establishing the prison as a place our hero must escape against all odds. We feel trapped right along with the hero, and when he finally leaves the prison, so can we. I can’t be the only one who feels the deep urge to walk out when we get the montage showing how long Papillon spends in solitary confinement. He doesn’t want to be there, why should we want to sit there with him? A movie like Brawl in Cell Block 99, with no hope of escape at the end but with plenty else to distinguish it, is far more engaging and even exhilarating than an old-school lockdown fable like Papillon. It’s ‘30s pulp elevated to wannabe-poignant Chicken Soup for the Soul fare. As for the 1973 film, much less the books, I haven’t wanted to revisit them. Better to let that memory stay gold.

BlacKkKlansman

November 3, 2018

blackkkIn a way, Spike Lee’s filmmaking career from the beginning has been a rebuke and retort to the infamous Birth of a Nation, the movie credited with sparking the comeback of the Ku Klux Klan in America. In 1980, in film school at NYU, a 23-year-old Lee made the short film The Answer, in which a black screenwriter is hired to write a remake of the D.W. Griffith film. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee stages a screening of Birth of a Nation for an audience of hooting white supremacists, including Klan grand wizard David Duke, and intercuts it with an account of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, during which account a witness (played by Harry Belafonte) links the atrocity to the release of Birth of a Nation the year before.

Lee knows the power of cinema to influence and change. Will BlacKkKlansman do likewise? As a work of (somewhat fictionalized) protest, it’s a piece of the past (the early 1970s) passing trenchant comment on the present; time will tell if it will have much sway in the future. What it is right now is an attempt to unify rather than to divide — the movie shows black and white people working together to shut down the racists. It may begin and end with blasts at racism, but most of BlacKkKlansman is an object lesson in cooperation between different races, colors and creeds. It does this in a half-satirical way that’s as much about acting as about reality.

Black men have to pretend to be racist white men; Jewish white men have to pretend to be anti-Semitic white men. Based loosely on the adventures of a real cop, BlacKkKlansman shows rookie detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) posing, over the phone, as a white man interested in joining the local Klan chapter, so that Stallworth can infiltrate and learn about possible terrorist plans. Stallworth is black, so he can’t carry out his disguise in person; enter white Jewish cop “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who “plays” Ron in the flesh.  In a spooky basement meeting with a virulent Holocaust denier, Flip-as-Ron makes an equally Jew-hating case for the Holocaust having happened. Whichever one of the four credited writers (Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott) is responsible for this scene, it’s a masterpiece of rhetoric.

Eventually, Stallworth talks his way up to the top, securing himself (or Flip) a meeting with David Duke his own bad self (Topher Grace, teaching a master class in mealy-mouthed corporatized racism). The filmmaking heats up, changing from fluent coolness to a hot thriller mode, charging towards a climax fabricated for the movie but no less dramatically and thematically sound. Lee’s inventions don’t offend much, because even if some events didn’t happen to Stallworth, they’ve happened elsewhere, and Ron comes to stand not for himself but for the disenfranchised who have tried to negotiate a hostile territory through defensive imposture. Blacks passing as white, Jews passing as gentiles, gays passing as straight (this last doesn’t get much play in the movie, except maybe through amusing subtext).

Undercover cops have to understand the banality of evil in order to assume it as cover, which often means understanding their own self-hatred or potential for bigotry. Actors and artists do much the same, and the movie finds Lee wearing both entertainer and artist hat. BlacKkKlansman argues for a world where no one has to pretend to be anything. I think Lee would even rather racists were open about it, sunlight being the best disinfectant and all, instead of hiding behind the hypocrisy of dog whistles and three-piece suits. Lee has taken the opportunity to deliver an existentially crazy police procedural that ends up saying more about society’s disease than many a sober-sided Oscar-chaser. Not that the movie doesn’t deserve it — c’mon, Academy, can you acknowledge Spike now, please?

Deadpool 2

August 19, 2018

deadpool-negasonic-teenage-warhead-girlfriendThe Deadpool movies are more or less the only superhero films I’ll sit still for these days. Filthy and irreverent, splattering the camera lens arterially with great gusto, these are not remotely elegant examples of what the medium can do, nor are they conceived as such. They’re parties, all winks and grins and farts and jostling elbows. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) their raunch and gore and in-jokey tone, the movies occasionally achieve real pathos, as in Deadpool 2, when the eponymous anti-hero (Ryan Reynolds) mopes around suicidally after his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) exits the picture early on, or when new antagonist Cable (Josh Brolin), a grim ass-kicker from the future, reveals his true motivation for trying to kill burgeoning, unhappy mutant teen Russell (Julian Dennison).

Some deaths and agonies are a lark; others are to be mourned or avoided. Hypocritical? I prefer to think that Deadpool 2, despite its meta clownishness, has a grasp of conflicting priorities. The plot demands that a bad character not be murdered by a character poised on the line between good and evil; however, there’s nothing saying the bad character can’t die some other way, preferably abruptly and hilariously. That’s not really a spoiler, because at a Deadpool film you know anyone who deserves an ignoble reduction to a fine red mist will get one. Because nothing in the movie is actually real, and because the moviemakers (Reynolds gets a cowriting credit along with original Deadpool scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) know this, there’s a freedom to play, to bend reality.

Director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) uses the CG palette to turn the movie into a roughhouse live-action Looney Tunes romp. It’s easy to create amusing chaos with a character cursed with bad luck, but how about a hero — Domino (Zazie Beetz) — whose superpower is good luck? An entire concussive sequence follows Domino as she casually sidesteps certain death at multiple turns, and it’s a lot funnier than misfortune plaguing someone relentlessly. (Unless it’s the lottery winner in Final Destination 2. Nothing will ever be funnier than that.) Deadpool himself has a healing power that renders him pretty well unkillable, though the same can’t be said for other members of Deadpool’s team X-Force, including regular guy Peter (Rob Delaney) — whose function here is similar to the comically bland human Stu in What We Do in the Shadows — and an invisible hero called the Vanisher, who brings us one of the film’s many cameos, references, and gags. (A subtle one is Deadpool’s fixation on a song from Yentl, a musical by Barbra Streisand, who’s married to Josh Brolin’s dad.) I’m sure I didn’t catch all of them, and Deadpool 2 may well be funnier for viewers who get the joke about “a guy who can’t draw feet” (a common fan complaint about Rob Liefeld, the original Deadpool’s co-creator). But as in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the fun here doesn’t depend on a grounding in nerd trivia.

Famously, Reynolds hungered for years to play Deadpool, even settling for playing a ridiculously muted version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Now that he’s on his second outing with the preferred iteration of Deadpool, Reynolds still seems grateful and happy to be a part of this unexpectedly lucrative franchise, which, being a 20th Century Fox enterprise and not helmed by Marvel/Disney (well, until this past July, when Disney slurped up Fox), is off to the side with the X-Men, playing in a goofball backyard far away from Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America and the rest. Deadpool seems to take place in a reality where people watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the DC Universe movies, or maybe it’s just Deadpool, whose powers might include the ability to comment on all entertainment, including that which features himself — or features Ryan Reynolds. (Keep watching through the end credits.)

The movie spreads its fun around; not only white hetero males get to bring the pain. Aside from Domino, there’s the very welcome return of the deadpan-hostile Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who turns up with her new girlfriend Yukio (I assume a variation on Yukio from The Wolverine). The casual and, dare I say, mature way the movie handles NTW’s sexuality — there are neither jokes nor hubba-hubba leering — is refreshing and good-hearted. And despite all its hip mayhem, directed both at anonymous thugs and at well-thumbed pulp tropes, Deadpool 2 is also good-hearted. It doesn’t strike me as nihilistic or even cynical (the way some parts of the Kick-Ass movies and, God knows, their source comics did). It doesn’t want to punish you for enjoying the boomies and the splats and such spectacles as an enormous prisoner-transport vehicle tearing through cars like a bullet through wet Kleenex. It just wants to have a disreputable doofus good time and share it with us.