Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

mother!

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.

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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.

Who’s Crazy?

March 12, 2017

whoscrazy4-1600x900-c-defaultOnce upon a time, an American filmmaker in Belgium happened across a group of other Americans. The group were members of New York’s experimental Living Theatre, whose founders (Julian Beck and Judith Molina) were back in the States doing time for tax evasion. While waiting for their spiritual father and mother to arrive, the Theatre people herded into a deserted farmhouse along with the filmmaker — Thomas White — and created Who’s Crazy?, a barely feature-length attempt shown at a couple of festivals around 1966 and then considered lost for decades. During that time it was known, if at all, among jazz scholars because of its soundtrack by Ornette Coleman. Finally, in 2015 a print of the film was found in White’s garage.       

Like Coleman’s score — performed while Coleman and his collaborators watched the film — the action in Who’s Crazy? is largely improvised. We begin aboard a bus transporting a bunch of mental patients. The bus breaks down, an inmate escapes, and while two guards chase after him, the rest of the inmates break free and crowd into the farmhouse, where they enact various scenarios meant to illuminate or satirize societal tropes (trial, marriage, communal meals). Sometimes the inmates chant or emit barbaric yawps; other times they speak in solemn theater jive. Most often, the harried, lunging music, a boomerang spinning towards discovery, speaks for them.       

Modern viewers might have fun imposing connections between this and earlier or later works. It definitely shares DNA with Marat/Sade, King of Hearts, The Idiots, and The Ninth Configuration, not to mention the Living Theatre’s own The Brig. One actor, bearded and saturnine, could be a brother to Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis; the cast in general shares that hipster aura. We’re always aware that we’re watching a performance — the movie doesn’t make us enter into the imaginative contract, where we agree to accept the shown events as “real.” White’s camera meanders or stares at a man numbly applying greasepaint, prefiguring Lance the acid-head surfer smearing camo grease on his face in Apocalypse Now.        

What makes Who’s Crazy? more than a curiosity, a relic from the noble-lunatic era of Leary and Laing, is its spirit of play — the actors are reaching for truth, ecstasy, life in death. All very po-faced and pompous, but fun to take in small doses (here and there it reminded me of some of the elliptical little theatrical whimsies Edward Gorey used to put on in Cape Cod). Like a lot of contemporaneous avant garde cinema, the movie is a result of shooting for hours and then manhandling it into some sort of order in the editing room. There’s a loose narrative with some cross-cutting creating what we read as subplots. Ultimately it comments on its own medium — experimental narrative often staggers towards postmodernism. Maybe two or three characters take turns owning the film simply because they get more screen time; we might feel there are equally prominent characters littering the cutting-room floor. Even avant garde in 1965 has its limits: no women or black actors (there are a few seen here) assume the center.       

I value this work more than I value, say, E. Elias Merhige’s grimly archetypal Begotten (1989) because it revels so cheerfully in its own nonsense, and the illogic consorts organically and gorgeously with those Coleman riffs. (The only other movie Coleman scored was David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, and Who’s Crazy? at times feels like one of Cronenberg’s early, intimate shorts.) There’s something fascist-apocalyptic about the movie’s milieu, a cold foggy place where wild innocents are pursued by bears with badges, but within that context the Living Theatre people celebrate and exult. (Apparently Mom and Dad didn’t much care for the result: Julian Beck sniffed that the movie was false to the Theatre’s “energy vector.”) Owing as much to silent comedy as to hip new notions of confrontational drama, Who’s Crazy? pleases by its very inability to please in a conventional sense. It gives the people what they want, though — conflict, thrills, love, music, song — just not in the usual package. Known for its jazz, it’s pretty jazzy itself, and ends up being a more potent tribute to that musical form than a certain recent musical that won a few Oscars.

We Are the Flesh

January 15, 2017

wearethefleshEvery so often you need a movie that’s so defiantly uningratiating (and often unpleasant) it seems to clear the air, like an especially intense thunderstorm, and demonstrate that art doesn’t always play nice. The surreal, sexually explicit Mexican art-house horror film We Are the Flesh unfolds in a cruel universe occupied most of the time by only three characters, bringing in other people only to feed them into the meat grinder (figuratively — or maybe literally; it’s that kind of film). It is steadfastly not for everyone, yet I feel it’s important to note such work; it is also heartfelt about the point it seems to be making about the soulless squalor of society — or at least the society it depicts, which may not have a lot to do with society as we know it. Art doesn’t always play fair, either.

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter sets up a scenario that sometimes feels like an Off-Off-Broadway play. It appears to be the days after apocalypse. A mysterious man named Mariano (Noé Hernández) lives alone in what seems to be an abandoned asylum, building things or taping up liquids into large drums or obtaining food through a tray in the wall. Two siblings, Fauna (Maria Evoli) and Lucio (Diego Gamaliel), break in to rob him. Instead, he dominates them and makes them have sex with each other — something they warm to after some (not much) initial resistance. During his onanistic oversight of these events, Mariano dies, but then is reborn through a slimy tunnel in the wall. The siblings, especially Fauna, seem altered by Mariano’s influence.

In a way, We Are the Flesh is a contemptuous fulfillment of what voyeuristic audiences claim to want from entertainment. It’s full of sex, drugs (a substance in an eye-dropper), and violence. But these things are presented in an aggressively weird, anti-audience manner; it gives you what you want in ways you didn’t want it. The movie isn’t completely devoted to Funny Games-style game-playing, though. On another level it seems quite sincere about its message of madness, and admirably committed to it. It has an addled purity, and the purity extends to its rigorous if sometimes chaotic use of cinema to express inexpressible states of emotion. The camera trembles, spins, lurches, zooms, and other times stays pristinely still or lingers. The color scheme begins with despairing grays, the shades of a corpse, but then the corpse gradually wakes up until blood flushes its skin with red.

The movie’s very context itself is untrustworthy: what’s real and what isn’t? There’s no baseline of sanity here — it begins on a savage and dimly intelligible note and keeps playing that note. Faced with nonsense, the brain seeks the solace of allegory. Everything comes to seem abstract, everyone a representation rather than a person. That’s also how a brain can shield itself from onscreen atrocities, and there are a lot of them as We Are the Flesh winds down. Maybe it’s best simply to say we’re getting life as seen through the filter of an outraged, terrified artist, a heightened, gory reality presided over by demons.

Is Mariano the devil? Or is he a construct to give the siblings license to sin — much like God and Satan? Noé Hernández plays him as a man delighted by each potential of perversity, each corruption of innocence, he happens to run across. Mariano doesn’t go out and recruit souls; he mostly stays holed up, and the souls come to him. Is Emiliano Rocha Minter saying that we hold our souls so cheaply we’ll simply offer them to Satan? Or, in this context, is Lucifer more of a chaotic-neutral agent, happily flouting hypocritical moral codes? We Are the Flesh could inspire evenings of fervent disputation and interpretation, but first there needs to be an audience for it, and for this? I’m not so sure. There was once a time, though.

The Love Witch

December 4, 2016

lovewitchEvery frame of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is lavishly loved and fussed over, and every frame is unquestionably Anna Biller’s: she directed it, produced it, wrote the script, edited it, designed the sets, handmade the costumes, and composed the music. The movie has a luscious dreamlike look, too, shot (by cinematographer M. David Mullen) on 35mm in radiant tribute to the Technicolor Euro-horror of the ‘60s. I would love to award it high marks in areas other than the purely technical, but the troublesome truth is that The Love Witch, while stubbornly idiosyncratic and unmistakably a vision, is also dawdling and hollow and kind of awful, really — difficult to sit through, once the creamy visuals lose their novelty. It’s a long two hours, and it could have been worse: “If I had not cut any lines out and I just kept it the way it was in the script,” Biller has said, “it would have been three hours.” Jesus wept.

The narrative, such as it is, follows lonely witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) as she sets herself up in a new town and goes about finding men to seduce and lure to their deaths. There’s a good deal of talk about how men and women differ, and all the men are blinkered or pathetic or both, which may be what the film’s supporters are talking about when they call it “feminist.” Elaine does seem to be trapped, stylistically as well as in the script’s context, in a reality in which she is defined solely by her appeal to men and her power over men. But it’s Anna Biller who traps her there, and I couldn’t work out how the polymath director felt about her heroine or her struggles. Biller seems content to photograph the externals.

Some of the movie comes close to camp or just falls in, as when Elaine is assaulted by former friend Trish (Laura Waddell in the film’s only genuine performance), whose husband Elaine has stolen. “Skank! Whore!” Trish yells, slapping Elaine while wearing a wig cap — the movie helpfully provides its own drag-show re-enactment. A sequence in which Elaine is confronted in a bar by a mob of superstitious goofballs (“Burn the witch!”) is frankly terrible and staged with incredible clumsiness. The Love Witch will be worshipped as a fetish object by a certain breed of film nerd who luxuriates in its DIY retro aesthetic, but it isn’t really a movie — it would have to move first, and the pacing is leadfooted. The plot’s pairing Elaine with a stolid detective (Gian Keys) just leads to a handfasting scene at a local ren faire that seems to go on for six, maybe seven years.

I wonder if any of the hipsters cooing over the film have seen George A. Romero’s 1973 effort Jack’s Wife (also known as Hungry Wives or, on video, Season of the Witch). It tells a bleak and discomfiting story about an abused wife who finds, she thinks, acceptance and family in a coven. Romero’s film is technically uneven but feminist in a way The Love Witch isn’t — it grapples with reality vs. ideals, and ultimately presents its heroine as trading one form of domination for another. The Love Witch isn’t nearly as complex or, really, as dramatic. It seems transfixed by its star, who acts in the same arch, artificial manner everyone else does (and I wish Biller had been as obsessive about the sound as she was about other things in the production — the dialogue sounds tinny, hollow, amateurish).      

Truly, witch narratives can get deep to the heart of this country’s Puritanical weirdness about women and the Other. Robert Eggers’ masterful The Witch, from earlier this year, carries an oblique (and therefore more powerful) charge of blasphemy and transgression against patriarchal force. But The Love Witch has no inner life, no deeper meaning beneath its attractive surface. People will appreciate it, if they do, on an aesthetic level or even an ironic one, but I don’t anticipate it touching anyone’s heart in the way that even teen junk like The Craft did twenty years ago. Its smug, lacquered beauty walled me off from feeling anything about it except impatience.

Kate Plays Christine

October 30, 2016

960At the beginning and end of Kate Plays Christine, as the lead actress Kate (Kate Lyn Sheil) is prepped by make-up artists to film her character’s suicide, I think we’re meant to remember Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Kate wears a wig cap that makes her look bald, and her expression bespeaks despair in expectation of doom, yet relief that the despair will be over soon. The image is allusive and electric, an anomaly in an otherwise rigidly interiorized film with bland visuals to match. Kate Plays Christine is a sort of documentary, or a mockumentary (though mostly laughless), about an actress researching her role in a movie that doesn’t exist outside of the movie being made about it.        

The role is Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV reporter who was notorious for a while back in 1974, when she put a gun to the back of her head and pulled the trigger while sitting at her newsdesk on live television. She prefaced her act with this deathless contemptuous snark: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.” That’s some heavy-duty nihilism, and Chubbuck, cast from the same dark mold as Susan Sontag and Anne Sexton, had a hooded and harrowed look. Some people are unreachable; nobody was ever going to reach this woman or get behind those pained, inward-focused eyes.       

For whatever reason, Chubbuck’s story — a lonely woman, a virgin at 29, driven to public self-execution by the demons she heard gibbering in her head after sundown — has inspired two films this year, the other being Christine, a more conventionally structured biopic. Kate Plays Christine questions its own existence and, by extension, that of any movie that presumes to speak for the dead, or any male director who tries to interpret a female subject. The writer-director Robert Greene likes to play with format and interrogate performance, and his work here is no different. He uses Chubbuck’s tragedy and Kate’s immersion in it as a way to critique the inherent voyeurism of movie-watching as well as the inherent exploitative nature of moviemaking.       

We watch Kate, an earnest 31-year-old actress with soft, sad features, drift around doing research and asking questions. Kate is convincing as this meta-version of herself, but the footage we see from the movie in which she plays Christine looks — intentionally? — amateurish. Greene may be saying that this flat, clumsy footage, or something like it, is the natural result of any attempt to trap the wildness of true experience in the amber of narrative. This may all sound intriguing on paper, but in practice it’s often dull and strained, and we get the queasy sense that this woman, likable enough, is beating herself up doing something that Kate Plays Christine essentially says is not worth doing.        

Whatever the intentions, Kate steeps herself in morbid homework, reading up on suicide, buying a gun from the same place that sold Chubbuck her gun, swimming in (and ruining her wig in) the same waters that Chubbuck swam in. In brief, the movie answers any possible criticism of itself by pre-emptively including that criticism in its DNA. In the end, Kate profanely sums up the movie’s own self-hatred and lashes out at its audience for good measure. Boy, she sure told us. This, at least, feels true to the saturnine Christine Chubbuck, but it still gives us nothing about her except the surface. For all its self-aware shame, the movie doesn’t have the balls to ask the biggest question: if making a movie and performing a role with a suicide at its center is morally dodgy and not worth doing, what then makes it worth watching?