Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

Final Portrait

March 18, 2018

finalportraitYou don’t have to know anything about Alberto Giacometti to enjoy Final Portrait, an account of the Swiss sculptor/painter’s halting attempts to paint a portrait of his friend, the American art critic James Lord. Final Portrait is the fifth film in 22 years directed by the wonderful character actor Stanley Tucci, and the first in which he does not appear. On the rare occasions when he is moved to sit behind the camera, Tucci seems most interested in artists — their difficulties, their integrity, the ways they can drain the energy of those around them. In his filmmaking debut, Big Night, Tucci played the long-suffering younger brother of the chef (Tony Shalhoub) of the Italian restaurant he managed; his brother insisted on fashioning art with his cuisine, rather than the weak-tea “Italian food” their American customers demanded.

Here, Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) feels like a fraud because all of his art is “unfinished” — most artists know that you never “finish” a piece, you just abandon it, otherwise you’d tinker with it forever if you could (and some artists do). When James (Armie Hammer) sits for a Giacometti portrait, he soon senses that the work is becoming a tinker-fest. Giacometti roughly renders James’ features, then goes for his thick brush and slathers gray paint over everything he’s done, then starts over again. What begins as a three-hour session in Paris turns into weeks. James is often seen on the phone, repeatedly cancelling his flight home to New York.

In a lesser, crasser movie, we’d eventually see the airline employee on the other end answering with a crisp “Yes, Mr. Lord, we know.” Stanley Tucci doesn’t make lesser, crasser movies. Final Portrait isn’t cheaply jokey like that, but it is nimbly entertaining. The color scheme, mostly the grays of Giacometti’s studio, interests me; usually, of late, I’ve been honking on about the dreary monochrome of most movies. But the grays here, courtesy of cinematographer Danny Cohen, have variety and texture. The result is that Giacometti’s workplace feels weirdly cozy. We can believe in it as a place — spattered with plaster, stuffed with hidden sacks of money — that Giacometti can retreat to, and frequently gets tired of, shuffling out to get a drink with his prostitute muse (Clémence Poésy).

I wasn’t aware of Geoffrey Rush before his Oscar-winning and annoying turn in Shine. Later on, as I saw other, better performances from him, I had to confront the question: In Shine, was I watching an irritating actor, or a great actor who had played an irritating person very effectively? By now I would fall into the latter camp on Rush, and here he creates a gravely shambolic mad genius whose skyward-pointing tangle of hair recalls similarly coiffed visionaries like Eisenstein, George S. Kaufman, Barton Fink. His Giacometti is mordant, depressed: he will never be finished, he will die before reaching any closure in his work. (And indeed two years after the events here, Giacometti was dead.) Rush does especially subtle work with Shalhoub as Giacometti’s brother Diego, who gently suffers the great artist’s foibles.

James, who went on to write books about Giacometti, figures out he has to still Giacometti’s hand before he reaches again for the annihilating thick gray brush. An artist learns to listen to the editor voice inside that dictates when time is up and the piece is as done as it’s going to get. Mute that voice and you get (in David Denby’s words) a “lordly ditherer” like Kubrick, or Malick, or your choice of creatives who take eons between projects, chewing the damn thing to death, to shreds. Giacometti is a restless god, always with two or three pieces going at a time, his studio full of his own work, some of which seems to regard him balefully. (In one shot he has a wordless psychic clash with a large plaster head that resembles him in profile.) Here and in films like Big Night and Joe Gould’s Secret, Stanley Tucci shows an artist’s respect for the unfinished, the abandoned, the work someone lived with and dreamed of until it was time to send it out into the world. James may be Giacometti’s final portrait, but I sincerely hope this won’t be Tucci’s.


Signature Move

January 15, 2018

signature-move-2017-001-wrestler-masksIf you feel like registering a gentle complaint about the current leadership, you could do worse than Signature Move, a lesbian dramedy about the maybe-sort-of-something between a Pakistani-American immigration lawyer and a Mexican-American bookstore clerk. Zaynab (co-writer/co-producer Fawzia Mirza) meets Alma (Sari Sanchez) at a friendly bar; they drink, dance, and fall into bed. The proudly out Alma would like the fling to become something more. Zaynab, fairly tightly closeted, isn’t sure; she keeps her sexuality from her recently widowed mother (Shabana Azmi), who spends her days sitting in Zaynab’s apartment, watching Pakistani soap operas and spying on passersby with her binoculars.

The script, by Mirza and Lisa Donato, is neatly assembled. The soap operas (Alma speaks in praise of telenovelas too) as well as a seemingly discordant note — female lucha libre wrestling — form part of the movie’s theme about acting, pretending, lying. It’s maybe a little too much of a coincidence that Zaynab takes wrestling lessons from a client (as payment for Zaynab’s legal services) and then meets and beds the daughter of a once-famed, now-retired luchadora. But I didn’t mind, because metaphorically it’s sound — the universe is conspiring to show Zaynab in ways painfully emotional and physical that she has to stop acting.

Director Jennifer Reeder, an indie-film veteran, keeps Signature Move bubbling atop a low flame, occasionally turning up the heat when the lovers enjoy each other (always clothed — save for a couple of words, this could be a PG film). It’s assured work from a filmmaker who values human-scaled awkward comedy over grand passion; the movie itself could have been handled as a soap opera, but Reeder disdains cheese (this is most welcome during the climax, at a lucha libre event). The women are agreeably paired: the warm and fleshy Sanchez matches up amusingly with the angular, neurotic Mirza, whose short swept-up hair and stoic default expression give her a resemblance to the young, imperious Camille Paglia.

One odd motif is the concept of a human being “coming out of” another human, the unlikely link mothers and daughters have despite deceiving looks. It also neatly sums up the dichotomous feeling many modern LGBT folks have when trying to reconcile their heritage with their sexuality. Sooner or later Zaynab has to move on past her mother, and so on. Signature Move packs a lot under a relatively small hood; the film weighs in at a slender hour and fifteen minutes, and sometimes feels like an extended pilot for a Pakistani-American lesbian New Girl. Join Zaynab, her girlfriend Alma, and their zany friends and family every week on NBC! Certainly there are worse things to say of a film than that we’d gladly spend more hours with its characters.

That’s probably more a result of the charm of the actors (I especially liked Audrey Francis as Zaynab’s wrestling coach, sort of an Illeana Douglas with biceps) than a reflection of the filmmakers’ goals here. Signature Move is short, but sticks around exactly as long as it needs to in order to make its point about the courage of declaring oneself (or one’s self). The abbreviated length also means we don’t have to wallow in the lovers’ temporary misery for very long. The movie is a perfectly pleasant bonbon for its target audience and its allies, and likely poison to those who don’t care for Pakistanis, Mexicans, gays, or women.


November 24, 2017

luckyAnyone who has ever loved Harry Dean Stanton in one of his two hundred film and TV credits over the last sixty-three years will have to make some time for Stanton’s leading-man swan song Lucky, even though it’s a bit of a chunk of dry toast, a little too knowingly thrown as a low-key vaya con dios party for him. Stanton plays the title character, who passes his ritualistic days drifting from place to place in a small town. A diner in the morning for coffee and the crossword puzzle. Home to the TV set and Lucky’s “shows” in the afternoon. Out to a bar in the evening. Occasionally he ruminates about life and our purpose in it, and how to face death though he’s pretty sure there’s no God, just darkness. That’s about it.

Lucky is about both Lucky and Harry Dean Stanton, of course. Screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja shaped their work specifically around Stanton, his range (not the widest, but often surprising and inventive within it), and his own life. Inevitably, Stanton doesn’t really seem to be acting; we feel that he’s simply being himself in character as Lucky. Sometimes, as when the film contrives to reunite Stanton with his Alien captain Tom Skerritt, it shows its hand as a construct designed for Stanton to thrive in. On the other hand, seeing Stanton alongside Skerritt again is admittedly a kick, and they do beautiful work together, reminiscing about World War II (more details pulled from Stanton’s life).

What makes Lucky worth indulging is Stanton, naturally, but also the way he refuses to insult this feature-length gesture of affection towards him by giving any less than he’s ever given. He could have rested on his laurels here, coasted, stoically accepted his due — but he doesn’t. He brings levels of melancholy and odd anger to each scene; he keeps us riveted physically, letting his wrinkles and eyebags tell eloquent silent stories. We can’t take our eyes off him, but that’s no doing of point-and-shoot actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch. Nor can we say the film protects him by putting him up against boring actors, when Stanton butts heads with the likes of Beth Grant, Ed Begley Jr., and the indefatigable David Lynch. Stanton makes his sweetest music with David Lynch, as those who’ve seen Stanton in Lynch’s own films (Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, etc.) already know.

In and of itself, the movie is arid, visually null. The camera isn’t being used to express much of anything, and so we begin to wonder why, other than to raise a toast to Harry Dean Stanton, this is a movie. Though well-acted, the supporting characters in Lucky’s life feel like supporting characters; with most of them, we don’t feel that they have lives outside the scene and the frame. The exception is Bertila Damas’ store owner, who invites Lucky to her son’s tenth birthday fiesta, leading to a rare and lovely moment in which Lucky, in Stanton’s own slightly querulous but soulful singing voice, croons “Volver, Volver.” It’s a great moment — but we’re aware of it as a great moment, engineered as a great moment for the star.

I don’t begrudge Stanton the apotheosis he receives here. Few artists get swan songs this apropos, this on-the-money. (Who doesn’t despair when reminded that the accidental swan song of Gene Hackman, who has retired from acting, will be Welcome to Mooseport?) Stanton at least goes out with the same level of integrity he’d always had. Even when he showed up fleetingly in a trick of slick whoring like The Avengers, we were absurdly happy to see him, an oasis of rumpled humanity in a desert of plastic. (It spoke well of the director, Joss Whedon, that he apparently bent over backwards to find some way to get Harry Dean Stanton in there.) He elevated any and all material; Repo Man is inconceivable without him. Lucky doesn’t exist without him. Stanton leaves the sort of void that so troubles Lucky. There will not be more of him. The movie itself is aptly named — it’s lucky to have Stanton. He does more for Lucky than it does for him.


I Love You, Daddy

November 11, 2017

i-love-you-daddyWatching the edgy, abandoned-by-its-studio comedy I Love You, Daddy, which may be writer/director Louis C.K.’s last effort for a long while at least, is a saddening experience for one who has admired C.K.’s previous work in stand-up and on TV. In what has to be the most awkward case of timing since Husbands and Wives premiered after the Woody Allen scandal, this movie’s former distributor, The Orchard, mailed out its for-your-consideration screener discs; the screeners arrived a couple of days after the schlubby auteur’s acts of sexual misconduct were confirmed and attached to real names¹, and after C.K. himself acknowledged that the women’s “stories were true.” So now hundreds of critics are sitting with this damn thing, wondering whether to watch it in the first place, and wondering what the hell to do with it once they have watched it.

What I can do with it, having watched it, is to say that I Love You, Daddy requires a great deal of unpacking if one is unwilling to ignore the real life surrounding it. I can say that the movie is clearly the work of a gifted weasel — a man who writes scenes and dialogue that actors can latch onto and make sing, and also a man who has, on several occasions that we know of, pleasured himself in front of women without their stated consent. The film is about perversion and neurosis, as so much of Louis C.K.’s work is. It is also unavoidably funny, due largely to the terrific cast C.K. has assembled. It would be a true bummer if the hilarious apoplexy of, say, Edie Falco as a harried TV producer toiling against an impossible schedule, or the joie de sleaze of Charlie Day as a loutish TV comedy star, were lost in oblivion. Perhaps at some point in the future their contributions, and those of others in the cast, can be viewed and enjoyed.

C.K. plays Glen Topher, a successful television creator working on his second show, which he isn’t crazy about, but a prime-time slot was open and he grabbed it. Glen is also dealing with his rudderless 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz), who finds herself drifting into the orbit of Glen’s filmmaking idol Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), who seems to be conceived as a cosmopolitan libertine in the mold of, oh, Woody Allen (whose influence on C.K.’s show Louie and on this film is obvious). Glen is appalled that the 68-year-old genius Leslie has taken an interest in his daughter. He has endless anguished talks about it with various women in his life, most of whom tell him he’s a schmuck, a bad father, a bad man. Even the movie star (Rose Byrne) who admires Glen’s work and may star in his new show soon finds herself regarding him with distaste and frustration.

The Louie persona has always attracted women, despite himself, and then repelled them, because of himself. Louis C.K. is more savage to himself (or to his character, but at this point it’s a distinction without much of a difference) than to anyone else in the movie, but that’s nothing new. What is new, and weird, is that I Love You, Daddy — in form an homage to Woody’s notorious Manhattan — both lionizes Allen’s work and deplores his pervy attention to women much younger. I wish I could say the movie worked as Louis’ apologia for his own skeeviness or as an artistic reckoning with it, but a late scene in which seeming justification for grossness — “Everyone’s a pervert” — is put in the mouth of China’s teenage African-American BFF (Ebonee Noel) is dodgy at best. Louis doesn’t dare voice this himself, so he has what he considers a beyond-criticism source — black and female — do it for him. It’s cowardly. It sucks.

It’s impossible to watch I Love You, Daddy except through the stained scrim of its creator’s actions — same as with Husbands and Wives, really, except that movie seemed to have more under the hood. Allen’s film also weighed in at just an hour and forty-eight minutes (generally he has never let his movies run much longer than that, with a couple of exceptions); C.K.’s goes on, often in bland, static two-shots (nicely photographed in b&w though they are), for two hours and three minutes. The movie has fleetingly interesting things to say about what men think female sexuality should be and about women’s “Oh, really?” response to that.

What if the movie had come from a sexually and personally unimpeachable artist? Then, oddly, it wouldn’t seem to have much point. I Love You, Daddy seems to want to be an excoriation of disgusting maleness from a man who knows the disgustingness all too well, who has lived in it and with it, but Glen isn’t disgusting, just a lame, opportunistic creator and an insufficiently assertive parent. The finger of scorn ultimately points not to Glen or even to Leslie (who seems imperiously sexless) but to the spoiled and flighty China, despite Moretz’s compassionate performance. The source of male agita is a teenage girl who has no inner life, has nothing much except a body to be lusted after, protected, or barely clothed. Which makes this an art-house version of the legendarily creepy ‘80s “comedies” She’s Out of Control or Blame It on Rio, and did we really need one? Even without Louis C.K.’s real-life sliminess, this movie wouldn’t sit well on the stomach.

¹As opposed to his behavior being rumored-about in blind items and such, which is where it had been for years unless you were female and in the comedy community.



September 23, 2017

mother2“Words cannot describe,” said a man loudly in the theater, “what we just saw.” What we’d just seen was mother!, the audience-infuriating new whatsit from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). As it happens, Aronofsky has many words to describe it, and he’s been unwisely sharing them in the film press. Luckily, I kept my eyes and ears virginal before sitting down to mother!, so I didn’t know — and you shouldn’t either — his allegorical explanation. Some will interpret it another way, as a male artist’s unconscious apologia for what the pursuit of his art can do to the one he loves. Others still may take the movie’s events literally, which the movie doesn’t discourage for about its first half, at which point it saunters casually for the exit in the house of logic, clears its throat, and takes a Nestea plunge into apocalyptic surrealism.

If that sounds like your cup of art, I wouldn’t dream of dissuading you from catching mother! while you still can on the big screen (and with big speakers — the sound mix is brutal), or eventually on home video, probably sooner than its studio, Paramount, would prefer. If, on the other hand, you are spiritual kin to the middle-aged ladies who sat near me commenting at frequent intervals about how stupid the movie was, I would advise you to stay the fuck home. I came out rattled, relieved that it was done with me, and somewhat exhilarated. mother! is art, for sure, sincere and emotionally loud and taking place entirely in the landscape of a bent imagination; it is also unafraid to speak the language of schlock, and it amuses me that the climax that appalls so many viewers is actually the ending of so much bland Hollywood fare — blood and fire and bullets and explosions.

I am actively avoiding the story. I can safely reveal this much. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live together in a house that she’s fixing up. The house was once his until fire consumed it. While she plasters the walls, he sits around trying to write (he’s a poet). One day, a doctor (Ed Harris) visits, soon joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The doctor is a fan of the poet’s work, and he and his wife stay the night. Some stuff happens. Exit doctor and wife. Later, the poet impregnates his wife and starts his greatest work within the same 24 hours. His book comes out and is a major success. He gains a horde of new fans. Meanwhile, his wife is about ready to pop out the baby. She does so, amidst a cataclysm of hellfire and cannibalism and a gun-wielding Kristen Wiig. There’s more.

No doubt about it, mother! is the most audacious folly a major studio has allowed an American filmmaker to pursue since Southland Tales, which also collapsed into ecstasies of fireworks incongruously involving veterans of Saturday Night Live. The tension ratchets up deftly; the 24-frames-per-second representational recording of a movie keeps us locked into interpreting it literally from moment to moment, until it vehemently parts company with reality. The trope of the guests who won’t leave, wreaking chaos in one’s home, is robust enough to get our anxiety pumping. As the movie got crazier, I responded gratefully to the visual and aural hyperbole. But the burn leading up to the light show is slow and uncomfortable … and a little irritating.

Art has a right — an obligation — to irritate occasionally. I’m glad I saw mother! and glad it was made, but I don’t want to see it again (a reaction I also had to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, another pure horror movie that trafficked in the Biblical). Aside from Aronofsky’s deafening virtuosity, there is pleasure in the performances, especially Ed Harris’ portrait of a man in decline. I wouldn’t say mother! offers no entertainment value, but it rises to a level of unpleasantness, even as allegory, that feels punitive. I’ve respected Aronofsky’s films even when I didn’t like them. You don’t always have to like art. I didn’t like mother!, but I think I might love it, or some of it, anyway. Twice in a row now, Darren Aronofsky has made batty, antagonistic, gobsmacking swings for the fence, about what he considers the biggest problem facing humanity. In a culture that increasingly values only childish power fantasies, movies like this are to be protected and highly regarded. Just not liked.


The Transfiguration

March 26, 2017

transfigurationMilo (Eric Ruffin), the African-American teenager whose struggles animate The Transfiguration, is enamored of vampire movies. He has a stash of them on videotape in his bedroom closet, and he prefers the “realistic” ones — like George Romero’s Martin or Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Milo might also enjoy The Transfiguration, because it, too, is realistic — vampires don’t burn in sunlight, and they definitely don’t sparkle. They just go around preying on the vulnerable, punching a hole in their carotid arteries and slurping up the gore. When I say “they,” though, I really only mean Milo, in the literal sense. The movie is full of metaphorical bloodsuckers, stealers of innocence, abusers and sociopaths. Such is life in New York City.

Since the movie isn’t religious at all — Milo would no doubt be unaffected by a crucifix or holy water if they were used against him — one might wonder why writer-director Michael O’Shea titled it The Transfiguration, other than that it sounded cool and dark. Nobody is really transfigured here in the Christian sense, although some might say the movie itself transfigures schlock into art. It’s funny about vampire films — they lean into the artsy mode, the elegant and the expressionist, far more easily than, say, werewolf films or zombie films. Just recently we had Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and O’Shea’s film joins their number, reveling in the glum goth mood, the awkward silences, the gurgle of blood in the dark.

Milo meets a newcomer to his building — Sophie (Chloe Levine), an abused girl almost as affectless as Milo is, though she’s quicker to laugh. Milo is almost always clenched and blank-faced, but around Chloe he loosens up a bit. For a while, hanging out or watching violent videos, they seem well-matched, one’s psychological/emotional blank spots complementing the other’s. Milo’s even more dour older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), an Army veteran, is at least happy to see Milo comfortable around someone, even if she’s a white girl. That fact makes Milo even more of an object of derision for the local gang, who enjoy tormenting him.

Milo’s connection with the gang doesn’t end up where you’d expect it to in a vampire film, and his relationship with Sophie doesn’t, either. The Transfiguration is bound to be called a cross between Martin and Moonlight, though it’s not as erotic as those films. What it seems to have under the hood is something about how inhuman conditions can produce inhuman people (or, as Stephen King would put it, “this inhuman place makes human monsters”); almost everyone we see exists in some spiritually null zone. There might also be something about how black teenage males are demonized, made the monsters of the media narrative. Milo might be the result of generations of neglect benign and not-so-benign. He doesn’t seem to have much race consciousness, though. He’s too deeply into his vampire fixation — like Martin, he believes he is one, so in terms of effect he pretty much is one.

The performances are uniformly natural and unaffected; O’Shea understands that quiet desperation speaks louder than hysteria. (He also has the wit to give cameos to Troma schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman and art-house horror auteur Larry Fessenden, whose disparate styles influence this film’s.) People will sit together on the side of the wide frame, isolated yet united. The compositions are thoughtful, though always a little jiggly. O’Shea takes his time and creates an allusive atmosphere whose meanings are up for grabs. The Transfiguration could have snapped into sharper focus; it remains a bit thematically diffuse, a little underdone. But at its most haunting it earns its place in that bedroom closet next to Martin and the rest.


The Assignment

March 19, 2017

assignmentWatching Another 48 HRS on TV recently with the sound off, for some reason, I found myself drawn into the movement, the colors, the cinema. That movie is a lazy, stupid sequel, certainly not the finest hour of its director, Walter Hill. But Hill is a visual samurai, and for a few minutes I just let myself coast on the smooth, feral images. Hill’s latest, the controversial pulp thriller The Assignment, has a few moments like that. Too few. An alarming chunk of it amounts to two people in a room swapping stiff dialogue. Given the advance anti-buzz — the very premise an affront to the struggle of transgender people — I was anticipating a good crappy time, a low-rent guilty pleasure, but the sad truth is it’s too dull to be offensive.

Hill is only as good as his script, and this one, which he and collaborator Denis Hamill tinkered with for years, doesn’t do him any favors. A hitman, Frank Kitchen, a lithe and scowling fellow with a beard, kills a lowlife who turns out to be the brother of an insane plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver). The surgeon has her revenge by having Frank abducted and brought to her operating table; before long, Frank looks like Michelle Rodriguez, with the accompanying lady parts, and of course without his former man parts. I say “his” because Frank is not transgender; he had gender reassignment surgery without his consent, so the use of trans-friendly pronouns doesn’t quite apply here.

What we have here isn’t truly transphobic. It’s really more of a gendernaut rewrite of Hill’s 1989 Johnny Handsome. In both films, the assumption is that surgery to change a scoundrel’s appearance will also change his heart; Weaver’s cracked surgeon sounds almost the same as Forest Whitaker’s much more altruistic sawbones in Johnny Handsome. In this case, it’s presumed that changing macho, cold-hearted Frank into a woman outwardly will also make him inwardly more feminine, less violent. Of course, the surgeon is also a woman, and she’s fairly cold and has no trouble getting thugs to do her psychotic bidding. Unpacking this movie for what it might say about gender will only result in clutter. It’s basically noir: people don’t change; people can’t change.

Towards the end, as Frank slaughters his way closer to the surgeon, Hill’s casual mastery of violence kicks The Assignment into gear. It’s cheaply done, and it’s depressingly clear that Hill’s days of having budgets like the ones he had for 48 HRS or Southern Comfort are long behind him. But there’s some snappy brutality. It doesn’t make up for the talkiness, though, or Hill’s habit of using corny scene transitions, or the highly expendable subplot involving Frank and a comely but unethical nurse (Caitlin Gerard). Hill was enamored of the film’s premise for decades, but he never made the premise into a movie. Weaver, sitting in a straitjacket, talks to shrink Tony Shalhoub for what seems like a lifetime, and talks and talks, and every time Hill goes back to this room and these two, we tap our feet and wait for the film to get started again.

Weaver tries for some Dr. Lecter sangfroid in bringing this arrogantly arch character to life, but it’s a monotonous, unsmiling performance from a usually good-humored actor. Rodriguez looks for something real in this pulp universe and fails, falling back into her sullen default mode. Walter Hill turned this material into a French graphic novel before he made the movie, and the movie has the same gritty, debauched tone as a European comics album for adults only. The acting needed to be heightened, the dialogue cruel and sharp as a shiv. There aren’t even quotable lines or amusing turns of phrase. The transgender community has far worse things to fear and rage against than this pallid exercise. Walter Hill alone may know why he still wanted to make this movie; the rest of us won’t know from watching it.