Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

Roma

January 27, 2019

roma Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, considered the front-runner among the eight films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, comes pre-packaged with all sorts of hype about how personal and autobiographical it is for Cuarón and how artfully it has been realized. Every frame of the film could be isolated and hung on a wall, and maybe that’s what should be done with it. Roma is a beautiful boring movie. Cuarón’s laborious technique gets between us and the emotions we’re supposed to be drawing from the screen. What’s sad is that, after the accolades and awards, a fair number of people who actually sit through the thing may feel they’re the ones at fault, not refined enough to appreciate such a monumental work. To such viewers I can only say, It’s not your fault.

In outline it’s a nostalgic sketch set in 1970, when Cuarón was eight or nine, based on his family’s life in Colonia Roma, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City. The movie is dedicated to the family’s maid back then, named Cleo here and played (well and honestly) by novice actress Yalitza Aparicio. Cleo works for an educated, professional couple, whose relationship is on the rocks, and their four kids. She gets pregnant by a ne’er-do-well who, when she tells him the news, ditches her in a movie theater; the drama between them is upstaged by the far less fancy film showing on the screen (La Grande Vadrouille, a French war comedy) — my attention kept wandering to it. At least the movie within the movie moves.

Most of Roma is photographed (by Cuarón himself) in long shot, in lengthy takes. Some of the press has identified various aesthetic reasons for this, but it just keeps everything at a literal distance from us, and there’s a practical reason for the glacial pace — Cuarón wants you to see Roma in massive 70mm, the film fetishist’s preferred format (well, that or 16mm), and when you compose and edit for an image that large, the cuts can’t come too fast and furious or the movie will make everyone throw up. Meanwhile, on the home screen, which is where most of us will see Roma, it just feels pompously, pointlessly long. “Why are we watching Cleo walking this whole goddamn way,” I would gripe to myself, or “Oh goody, another slow pan across nothing much happening while yet another airplane passes meaningfully overhead.” There’s a scene where Cleo goes to find her slimy baby daddy at a martial-arts training class, and I swear we have to sit through what feels like 45 minutes of a bunch of guys doing wrathful martial-arts poses before we get to the point of the scene, which is him saying he wants nothing to do with the baby. The scene could’ve unfolded in a Burger King bathroom, but that wouldn’t have been as visually, Oscar-baitingly impressive.

I’m sorry; this all sounds harsh. Roma is, for me, a failure, but one on a higher level than a superhero movie or romcom that fails. It swings for the fences and whiffs, a big whistling whiff, but at least it swings. It’s not a cowardly bunt, and the emotionally transparent Yalitza Aparicio sustains us through a lot of it, with Marina de Tavira picking up slack as the family’s sad and angry mother. Roma has its too-facile plot points, like the revelation immediately preceding Cleo’s water breaking, and the dramatic sequence following it is blunted by, once again, Cuarón being extremely artful and clever with the camera placement. The water breaking is part of the film’s rampant water imagery, starting with the opening titles, with a window reflected off wet floor tiles — the movie is visually grandiloquent before it’s two minutes old. Every director has a polished nostalgic turd like this in them, and Roma is Cuarón’s. Now, perhaps, he can stop telling us what an artist he is and return to proving it.

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Cold War

December 30, 2018

coldwar Together with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest work of beauty Cold War reminds modern viewers how lovely and, yes, roomy a film shot in the old, squarish Academy ratio can look. Towards the end, when the film’s star-crossed lovers are dropped off by a bus beneath a massive tree, they are dwarfed by it in a way they couldn’t be in a more conventional rectangular composition. Events global and intimate weigh on the protagonists, and the images (with the help of cinematographer Łukasz Żal), with their cavernous head room, imply that the very atmosphere itself is pressing down on the people.

Cold War, loosely inspired by the story of Pawlikowski’s parents, runs a brisk 88 minutes (including six or so minutes of end credits) and spans fifteen years. The next time some hot-shot blockbuster director brings a superhero movie in at north of two (or even two and a half) hours and tries to tell you the epic length is necessary, show them Cold War, which despite its brevity allows itself plenty of breathing room for ambiguity and elliptical storytelling. The couple, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), run across each other various times over the decade and a half, in Poland, in Moscow, in Berlin and Yugoslavia and Paris. Each encounter seems to make the same point about how they’re not meant for anyone else but can’t live together either.

The film’s approach to the romance (if that is the word) is a bit distanced, as though Pawlikowski had no idea what drew and bound together his own disputatious parents. Maybe he made the movie in order to find out, but I don’t think he succeeded, if so. The movie makes better sense as a metaphor for conflicting values or temperaments; she is art, he is business, she is confidence, he is fear, she is flexible, he is rigid. Most importantly, he defects to France and becomes a peripatetic session musician, while she legally goes wherever her ensemble goes and eventually builds a solo career. During all this, the music starts with peasant-authentic folk, then shifts to state-approved odes to authority, then jazz, then rock and roll; we see the evolution (or devolution, as some at the time would have said) of pop music in the mid-20th century.

Cold War has a classical old-Hollywood chiaroscuro sheen. Its black-and-white images heighten the starkness of the European settings during the titular era (1949-1964). It has its thematic and aesthetic ducks in a row; it’s an understated achievement of great elegance and awareness of the intractable illogic of people. As cinema, it’s near perfect, but there’s many another schlockier romance that actually makes us care about its lovers. Maybe if you go too far down the road of art you have to leave the basics of manipulation and pathos behind, the narrative beats that pull emotions out of us whether or not we want them to. Cold War doesn’t do that. It leaves us with a vague sadness about what might have been, and we sort of have to climb into the movie and flesh it out — imagine the dialogue we’re not privy to, the connective scenes of standard affection and attraction Pawlikowski artfully leaves out. In brief, Cold War rings the bells that respond to a gorgeous brushstroke, but ignores the basic matinee-goer’s desire to know why the boy and the girl get together, should be together, are destined to stay together.

The House That Jack Built

December 16, 2018

the-house-that-jack-builtIn Lars von Trier’s traumatizing serial-killer epic The House That Jack Built, the murders have a rough clumsiness, preceded by something that’s almost worse — the awkward chasm of build-up before the killing, when our protagonist Jack (Matt Dillon) is trying to relate to his prey, if only to keep up appearances. A textbook sociopath, Jack has photos of various facial expressions pasted around a mirror, so he can practice looking human. He is human, though; the moments when he’s trying to manipulate his way into a house, or holding forth before the mutilation begins, show us the cracks in his mask of insanity. Somewhere in there, seen only in fragments, is someone capable of compassion, staring out in horror.

The point of the film, I gather, is to draw a connection between Jack the fictional ripper and von Trier the supposedly amoral artist — and, by extension, between the acts of destruction and creation. Both leave a mark on the world, even if a mark of erasure, and Jack takes it a step further by trying to transform murder into art — sculpting corpses into tableaux of ruin and decay. Of all the atrocities we witness, possibly the ghastliest is what Jack does to the face of a frowning little boy who, in life, was nicknamed Grumpy. I’ll never forget that sight, and moments like it are why horror fans have gravitated eagerly to The House That Jack Built — von Trier finds a new way to shock, to show us fear in a handful of meat. But for the most part what they’re going to get is a sermon on art and morality before they get the gory donut.

The version of the film most Americans will see (until the director’s cut is allowed to be released in America sometime next year) is R-rated, and missing a minute or so of footage involving the shooting of children and a nonconsensual mastectomy.¹ Whether we think we or anyone need to see these things is beside the point; this muted version removes taboos that had strengthened the film’s punch as a work of Juvenalian satire. The House That Jack Built turns out to be a movie very much of this fraught, bifurcated moment. The wearing of red baseball caps in a key scene may provide a clue. Anyway, the trimmed version is mainly intact, though I recommend it for the most part only to von Trier fans, who seem to have greater tolerance for the Danish maestro’s games than do most Western critics.

The movie is literarily structured into five “incidents” and an epilogue (“Katabasis”). The “incidents” almost all feature Jack singling out some woman — he usually happens on them randomly — and bringing the pain. He’s not especially slick at it; he bumbles through the first killings we see, stashing the remains in his walk-in freezer. He takes on the nom de meutre “Mr. Sophistication,” mailing the newspapers photos of his work as David Bowie’s “Fame” comments somewhat obviously on his ambitions. He talks to an unseen man, known as Verge (Bruno Ganz), who listens to Jack’s self-justifying monologues half-heartedly, having heard speeches like them many times before. Jack is being led to Hell, and feels the need to explain himself on the way.

The House That Jack Built — immaculately acted, by the way, especially by cold-eyed Dillon and by Siobhan Fallon Hogan in the film’s most wounding but least gruesome “incident” — is enough of an evocative art-house exhibit to be about whatever you want it to be about. Jack’s hobbies and trophies could sensibly be read as the horrific logical extension of white male privilege, and its ultimate destination might make this von Trier’s most cheerful film in quite a while. Maybe Jack can kill with impunity — though not forever — and maybe, as he shouts, “nobody wants to help,” but that doesn’t mean no consequences. By the end, when we see the end result of Jack’s hoarding of his victims, we understand that we have left the realm of the literal — if we were ever in it — and entered the twistier dreamland of metaphor, icon, myth. We recall the sorrowful, stinging tone of von Trier’s previous fables about America, and we understand we all live in Jack’s house.

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¹This sequence, in the R-rated version, becomes darkly hilarious for its glimpse into what the MPAA finds beyond the limits of an R rating (showing a breast being cut off), and what is apparently acceptable (showing a disembodied breast being prankishly tucked under someone’s windshield wiper, and the other one used as Jack’s wallet). I leave it to the reader to determine which is worse.

Suspiria (2018)

December 2, 2018

When director Luca Guadagnino says that his film Suspiria is less a remake of than an homage to Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, I believe him. The new Suspiria takes the preceding movie’s basic premise — a young American woman (Dakota Johnson) arrives at a German ballet school, and supernatural shenanigans follow — and goes very much its own way. Guadagnino doesn’t attempt Argento’s virtuosic reveries of over-the-top bloodletting. His film is gory — Suspiria ’18 pushes the boundaries of an R rating ever further — but he doesn’t try to replicate Argento’s specific showstoppers. Instead, he gives us violence rooted in pain and fear. I suppose Argento’s Suspiria is a sanguinary art bauble, high on its own color and soundtrack and ominous mood, not built to evoke more than spooky fun; Guadagnino’s Suspiria, with a straight face, works nothing less than the Holocaust into its dark fable.

This will irritate some, no doubt, but Guadagnino is using the language of cinematic horror to inquire into the horrors real humans are capable of. I could go on in this vein, but I’m doomed to be honest and say that this Suspiria has so much under its hood the vehicle barely moves. It idles for two hours and change before ramping up to Vin Diesel extremes in its last act (there are six, plus an epilogue), at which point the art-house crowd may bolt for the exit and the horror-flick crowd may have followed Morpheus into the land of dreams. Guadagnino and his screenwriter David Kajganich meditate on the Germany of 1977, a country afraid of its own shadow and scarred with the wall that abuts the ballet school. What this has to do with witches (who are rumored to run the school) isn’t clear, though I think the witches take power from collective shame and guilt.

Dakota Johnson continues to be a tabula rasa who could, in theory, be a canvas for art in an art-soaked movie like this, but isn’t. As a dancer she’s up there among a bunch of professional dancers; as an actress, she shares a lot of scenes with Tilda Swinton as the school’s matriarch (and, swathed in latex, a couple of other roles). Swinton, as always, keeps her cool, though as the movie ratchets up to a pitch of hysteria not unlike that of Hereditary, Swinton meets a fate similar to Toni Collette’s in that film. The movie is flooded with images of bodily mutilation, and after a while one stops charitably seeking subtext in the agonies of the flesh and begins to find it all just … ugly. Guadagnino’s horrors are aggressively grotesque, but also easy to shake off; when Argento at his peak used violence, the set pieces tended to leave us a bit dazed, wondering what had hit us, and it had a pop-art pizzazz. It becomes clear that Argento’s occult dread came from a different, purer section of the horror playbook than Guadagnino’s does — it isn’t tied to historical atrocities in a way that commands us to make the connection.

Guadagnino’s fixation on the supposed horrors of aged, deformed female flesh starts to make Suspiria look schlocky and reactionary. The hero of the movie is not the bland Johnson’s Susie Bannion, who in any case isn’t what she seems to be; it’s the ancient psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer, a man wounded by the Holocaust and dedicated to finding out why his patient (Chloe Grace Moretz; the movie sorely needed more of her), after speaking of witches at the ballet school, disappeared. Klemperer, as whoever cares knows by now, is also played by Swinton, who under the cloak of make-up allows Klemperer a quiet decency. The rest of it is chaos. Some will engage with it strongly enough to revisit it several times; I found it a chore to get through once, and not just because of its distended running time. It’s unpleasant; it’s not entertainment, but its art is mostly on loan.

Mandy

September 23, 2018

Mandy-1-Nicolas-cage-1200x520 Roger Ebert’s most enduring maxim, perhaps, is this: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Jesus fuckin’ Christ, is Mandy ever not about what it’s about. It is full-metal, full-throttle how it is about it. The story is one we’ve seen a million times — a lone man avenges his lost love. But what director-cowriter Panos Cosmatos does with it makes all the difference. The movie is not of this earth; almost every frame of it could be painted on the side of a van, or appear on a death-metal band’s double live album cover. The story is tragic and pauses to take proper measure of what has been lost and what might be lost, but more than once I still cackled at the demonic-purple Heavy Metal aesthetic, presided over by Nicolas Cage with his Dwight-Frye-meets-Timothy-Carey efflorescence dialed up past 11.

Cage is Red, a lumberjack who lives in a secluded house (that seems to be made largely out of windows) with his love Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, creating a complexly vulnerable character in her pittance of screen time). Mandy catches the eye of diabolical cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who sends his band of eye-rolling numbfuck sadists to kidnap her. Mandy displeases Jeremiah, and is extinguished in front of Red’s tormented eyes. After a while, he goes after the “crazy evil.” On the face of it, this seems like a fine example of what female comics fans snarkily refer to as “fridging” — killing a woman to kick the male lead into vicious, self-righteous, vengeful action. But again, it’s about how it’s about it, and the very retro style (the movie is set in 1983, when Reagan is on the radio and women can unironically wear Mötley Crüe baseball shirts) seems to comment on how dusty the trope is. For instance, Mandy is no conventional fridged prettyface but a literally and figuratively scarred woman who we often see reading for pleasure. You might laugh and say showing a woman (or anyone) reading for pleasure in a pop entertainment isn’t so uncommon as to merit comment. You’d be mistaken.

Cosmatos, son of the late schlock director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo, among others), uses the basic plot to throw in anything he finds cool and/or interesting. Mandy is such a specific woman you just know she’s based on someone Cosmatos values in real life. Red, on the other hand, is a standard-issue stoic hero that Cage riffs on in his customary manic-expressionist manner. I do have to say, however, that Mandy is deliberate bordering on poky for at least its first hour. Scenes and shots go on far longer than necessary — to establish a mood, though, not to convey information. The prolonged shots, wedded to the trippy colors and aggressive soundtrack, start to come across as hypnotic. We are steering into a point of no return, past which — courtesy of a bathroom meltdown that will stand among many others in Cage’s greatest-hits reel — the movie becomes dark and grimy, faster-paced, a rock opera about revenge.

I mention Mandy’s slow first half because, first, I want to acknowledge that my patience was tested and yours might be too, and second, to emphasize that once the film turns on a dime into a pop apocalypse that might have been illustrated by Richard Corben at his most feral, the first half comes to seem like an oasis whose relative calm we failed, like Red and Mandy, to appreciate at the time. (Although on repeat viewings, going into it knowing its initial tempo, we might occupy the film’s open spaces more willingly.) Mandy becomes about grief and its deranging aspects; the movie’s garish, psychotronic vibe is a combustible and original filter through which to view loss and guilt. The growing legion of folks who love Mandy are responding to something deeper in it than its badass violence, Cage camp, or retro-irony. It sinks its emotional hooks into us while we’re not looking, while we’re distracted by the beauty and art of this hellscape and its mythic denizens, the surrealism of a TV commercial featuring “Cheddar Goblin” (the fans have already sung Cheddar Goblin’s fervent praises; next comes the Funko Pop Cheddar Goblin, no doubt), the phallic hilarity of an opponent wielding the longest chainsaw you’ve ever seen. This midnight movie, this spiritual bastard child of a thousand drive-in flicks, ultimately takes its place in the halls of art. It’s purple and inflamed, like a fireworks show or an abscess.

Madeline’s Madeline

August 11, 2018

MadelinesMadelineThose of you whose craving for experimental actors flailing around wasn’t quite sated by Who’s Crazy might want to discover Madeline’s Madeline. An elliptical art-house film, the third such effort by writer/director Josephine Decker, the movie centers on a difficult girl, Madeline (Helena Howard), who has fallen in with a New York theatrical troupe. The group’s director Evangeline (Molly Parker) keeps asking her players — all of whom except sixteen-year-old Madeline are adults — to express their inner pigs or cats or turtles while circling around a vague theme that always seems to be changing.

Madeline, who has a history of mental illness, butts heads often with her brittle mom Regina (Miranda July), who’s a bit overprotective and knows less and less what to make of her daughter the older Madeline gets. At one point, at a gathering at Evangeline’s house, Madeline confides in Evangeline’s nonplussed partner that she’s thinking of losing her virginity for her seventeenth birthday. The movie is made up of awkward interactions like that, and there’s one sequence near the end, when Madeline is encouraged to act out the part of her impatient mother while Regina sits watching in agony, that practically demands we avert our eyes in discomfort.

Is Madeline’s Madeline enjoyable? It took me a good while, maybe half an hour, to get used to its diffuse style — Ashley Connor’s cinematography takes us very close in and glides in and out of focus — and its emphasis on shrill, bouncing acting exercises, which I generally find embarrassing. Gradually, though, a portrait coalesces out of jagged pieces, of a girl casting about for a self. Who is Madeline? A daughter? An actor? A student (she goes to regular school, where we hear that kids make fun of her, but we never see her there)? Who is her real mother — Regina or Evangeline? The theater director always seems on the verge of flipping into a cult leader, but it turns out she’s just trying to hold everything together — her theater project, her life, her marriage. The evident fact that Evangeline is more or less based on Josephine Decker does not escape notice.

Most of the critical attention has focused on Helena Howard as Madeline, as well it should — hers is a guileless, open performance hungry for revelation. That climactic bit Madeline does about her mother is like a lightning bolt of clarity slashing through a humid fog of repressed, ignored emotion. It’s also something of a centerpiece, an actor’s moment handed to Howard on a platter, and she runs with it. The movie is completely an actors’ film, built to be warmly hospitable to its players — though with efforts like this, you never can tell if Decker, like Evangeline, is running all sorts of vulnerability games meant to extract raw truth from an actor like a rotten tooth out of a suffering jaw. Howard is obliged to spit out a few such teeth, not without emotional blood. The true test will be how well she aligns with a film not so snugly fashioned to her particular set of skills. (Though, please, keep her clear of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

If your first response to oblique films like this when the end credits roll is “Will someone tell me what that was about?,” you should probably give Madeline’s Madeline a wide berth. Even I, who perhaps has more patience than most for artsy doodling, sighed and checked my watch once or twice. But if you enjoy the soft-grained, difficult, probing nature of Decker’s film — and I did, for the most part — it pays off in quiet, almost peripheral ways. The various problems of the characters don’t lead to drama or even resolution; they just add to the fabric of the piece and give the actors something to work with. The ending might be ambiguously happy, Decker’s way of saying she’d be gratified if her art got out of her control and became its own thing. The last shot expresses freedom while literally leaving us behind to think about it.

π

June 24, 2018

pi-2Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut π, which observes its 20th anniversary on July 10, follows in the tradition of other artsy first films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man, and E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten. It’s short — mercifully short, we might say, while acknowledging its ornery brilliance — visually harsh, shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white that eventually rubs sandpaper-like against the eye. And it is entirely devoted to its own vision, its own interiorized world. It’s probably not coincidental that anguish and mutilation are on the menu in all four of these movies; you have to be a certain kind of viewer to want to watch them very frequently. Of the four, though, π seems the most interested in the world outside itself, even if only fleetingly and fearfully.

An exacting artist, Aronofsky has made only six films since this one — Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), Noah (2014), and mother! (2017). Many have been polarizing, and I was probably in the minority when I declared the frantic fable mother! the great American film of its year. Aronofsky’s art does not always work for me — I found Requiem and Black Swan pompous and conceived in bad faith — but he consistently takes such chances, swings so hard for the fence, that I can absorb and even respect the two out of seven films that didn’t land for me. π is a workout, no question, and not for everyone, but it has intellectual and spiritual fervor, and even when it stops dead for some mystical exposition, at least it assumes our intelligence (though also our patience).

The movie follows Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematical savant who thinks numbers are everything — are in everything, explain everything. He lives in a crappy, ant-infested apartment with a rickety computer he calls Euclid, which he uses to try to game the stock market. Instead, it spits out a 216-digit number, which Max disregards; then various folks ranging from Hasidic Jews to Wall Street agents descend on him. They all want what he knows; he doesn’t even know what he knows. This aspect of π is sort of a wry indie rewrite of the standard detective story, where the scruffy gumshoe is menaced by people wanting the MacGuffin or the dingus or whatever. Max is a gumshoe of number theory, and the MacGuffin is in his head. Then again, so are paranoia and migraines and, in the notorious but abbreviated climax, a drill bit.

The soul of π, though, isn’t in its thriller tropes (there’s a hectically-staged chase scene that’s as boring as any other chase scene) but in the scenes with Max and his old friend Sol (Mark Margolis), a math warhorse who got a little too close to the flame of numerical truth and had a debilitating stroke. Margolis is 78 now and has always looked 78, even 20 years ago in this film, and we believe him as an exhausted old man who has forsaken math obsession; we also appreciate seeing him as something other than a cold-blooded mobster. The two men sit and talk quietly in Sol’s equally rumpled apartment while they play Go or Sol feeds his fish. It’s top-drawer stuff, and proved that Aronofsky wasn’t just some hip hotshot but an artist engaged with his characters’ emotional readings. (Margolis has gone on to appear in almost every Aronofsky film since, like a lucky charm, except for mother!)

Max is surrounded by people, benevolent or very much otherwise, who want something from him; aside from Sol, the only person he has time for is a little Chinese girl who loves to throw calculations at him. She reminds him, I guess, of a time when his particular strange acumen might have been fun. Enjoyment, relaxation, a rare computer chip — people keep offering Max things to pull him away from his own obsessions, his own head. But he can’t, and won’t, be distracted. He is the damaged loner as outlaw artist, a theme Aronofsky has returned to again and again, or has at any rate lived in his own life. Coming back to π after his subsequent pieces puts them all into perspective — even the hornéd beast mother!, which I would gladly recommend on a double bill with π if it wouldn’t make you come after me with a drill.