Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

Women Talking

November 27, 2022

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If you only have two choices, how much choice do you have? That’s one of many questions raised in Women Talking (opening in the U.S. on December 23), a dialogue-driven drama about a group of Mennonite women trying to decide what to do: fight or flee. It’s recently been revealed that some of the men in the community have been dosing some of the women (and girls) with cow tranquilizer and raping them while they’re unconscious at night. The men responsible have been taken away, but they’ll be out on bail soon, and will come back to the colony — and to the women. Three initial choices are laid out for the women: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The last two options finish in a tie, so eight of the women discuss whether to stay or go, and before long the notion of staying recedes into the distance.

Women Talking is the third narrative feature directed by Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), who seems drawn to material that shows people in all their unlovely complications. Bur her gaze is warm, not cold, and here she simply provides a space for the frequently voiceless to speak. What’s compelling about the drama, aside from the ticking-clock structure and the ghastly situation itself, is the various women’s responses to the assaults and to the realities of the aftermath. If they don’t forgive the rapists, they will be denied entry to Heaven. If they do forgive the rapists, how can that possibly please God? Why didn’t He stop the violence in the first place? And so forth.

The movie, as well as the Miriam Toews novel it’s adapting, is based on an actual incident in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2011. Questions of faith are prominent in the women’s discussions, but don’t really dominate. Some of the issues, I guess, would be brought up in a less devout group of women. One particularly bitter abuse survivor, Mariche (Jessie Buckley), angrily asks another woman in the group why the assault seems to have affected her more than the others. It might seem an uncommonly callous thing to ask until you learn that Mariche is routinely beaten by her husband. The violence inflicted on her has blown out a large chunk of her ability to empathize with others’ pain. Not every victim is as kindly and “nice” as some would like them to be, and Polley knows this and shows it.

Those with the patience to sit and listen will be rewarded with some top-notch performances; Polley even gets a subtly warm turn from Rooney Mara as Ona, whose encounter with a nighttime rapist has left her pregnant. Ona is also sweet on August (Ben Whishaw), a young man from an excommunicated family who has come to the colony as a teacher for the boys. (The girls aren’t taught to read or write.) I kept expecting August to turn out to be slimy, but no, Polley does believe “not all men” (a character even says it). Her film privileges women but is more concerned with what they choose to do with the information they’ve been given. One survivor has changed their name from Nettie to Melvin, and doesn’t speak to anyone except the children; a whole fascinating movie could be made about Melvin (played by trans nonbinary actor August Winter). 

It’s not a “likable” film — it’s grim, with some dots of humor — but I don’t think it was meant to be. It grapples with the subject of women in a society where their options are limited, and that subject expands beyond the literal scenario in a Mennonite colony the more we let the story wash around our brains. It’s jarring as hell when a truck drives slowly past the community’s house, blaring the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” over a loudspeaker along with a voice encouraging the colonists to come out and be counted for the 2010 census. In a little touch typical of scripter-director Polley’s method here, the teacher August, who left the community for a while to go to university, sings softly along with the song, which he might remember from his time outside. The movie is built out of little human moments like that. If we’re waiting for the women to stop talking and start doing — as a century of male-steered movies have conditioned us to want — we might miss those moments, and the movie. 

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

September 18, 2022

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It might be amusing to think of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s idea of a superhero movie — specifically, an X-Men movie, albeit one that begins in a mental hospital and sidetracks to the strip clubs of New Orleans. Amirpour made a splashy debut eight years ago with the moody vampire indie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and followed that with the determinedly cultish cannibal dystopia The Bad Batch. Now she returns with a drifty, digressive fable about Mona Lisa Lee (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman with mind-control powers. She escapes from the facility she’s locked up in, and falls in with erotic dancer Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), who sees how Mona Lisa’s powers can be used to make money.

Some may find Mona Lisa a somewhat thin work dramatically. Aside from a limping detective (Craig Robinson) on Mona Lisa’s and Bonnie’s trail, not much happens. But I think Amirpour means the movie not as a neon-noir narrative (although it is that) but as a commentary on how capitalism drives people to self-debasement. It’s not that Bonnie dances for money, or that Mona Lisa’s power is put to work hypnotizing passersby into draining their bank accounts at an ATM and handing the cash over to her. These things are presented as what must be done to survive. It’s when Bonnie gets smug about it, literally letting twenties and fifties rain on her, that we see she’s become part of the system that holds her down. 

Bonnie has a young son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), who views her as toxic and can’t wait to get away from her. Charlie dances off steam in his room while trash metal blares, and he’s a pretty good artist. He represents the creative urge to run away from the corruptive world and do art in solitude; he’s the hero of the piece, if anyone is. When Bonnie brings Mona Lisa home, Charlie hits it off with Mona Lisa. He doesn’t agree with how his mother is using her. He would rather watch TV with Mona Lisa or draw her — either keep her company or honor her with art. He doesn’t want anything from her. Weirdly, a skanky drug dealer named Fuzz (Ed Skrein), who helps Mona Lisa at a couple of points in the film, looks like predatory trouble but seems to be legitimately taken with Mona Lisa. He only wants a kiss from her, which she gives, knowing that’s all he wants from her. 

The movie is candy-colored and doesn’t press too hard on our nerves. Mona Lisa is potentially dangerous, but she’s not interested in killing anyone; at most she gets people to maim themselves in the leg, even a mean cracker who abuses her in the mental hospital. She only wants freedom, and we want her to have it. The movie is low-stakes but engaging and, with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Midsommar) on board, gorgeous. Other than a trio of dirtbags who corner Bonnie after she has used Mona Lisa to empty their wallets, most of the hostility towards Bonnie or Mona Lisa comes from other women, interestingly. Amirpour, though, lets us understand where that anger comes from. 

Hudson comes through with a sharp turn as a woman whose worldview has been whittled down to the hustle. Bonnie is only a vivid supporting character, though; Jeon Jong-seo takes the lead, and acts largely with her eyes, pools of melancholy in a blank face. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of the fantasy premise. We don’t know where Mona Lisa’s power comes from or what she plans to do with it once she’s on her own. She’s mostly an avatar of innocence used for corrupt ends, and Jeon conveys that with no fuss. And Amirpour remains a director to watch, picking up scraps of genre and pasting them into funky collages that share elements with a lot of things but aren’t really like anything else. 

Get Away If You Can

July 18, 2022

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Both the poster and the very title of Get Away If You Can suggest that we’re in for a psychological thriller. On the poster, Ed Harris’ face looms menacingly over our protagonists, embattled married couple Dominique (Dominique Braun) and TJ (Terrence Martin). We might assume we’ll get a love-triangle thriller. In fact, it’s a drama in which the couple try to heed the title’s warning. But are they meant to get away from each other, or from the outside influences that want to pry them apart? Once you get used to what the movie actually is, it’s a low-key indie effort with a perfect, though probably metaphorical, ending. 

Dominique comes from Argentina, and has a sister there (Martina Gusman) who wants her to give up on TJ and his toxic-masculine family and come live with her on her ranch. TJ contends with his surly dad (Harris) and his chip-off-the-old-block brother (Riley Smith), who want him to give up on Dominique and come take over the old man’s tugboat business. All of this is in the couple’s heads when they set sail (on a sailboat bought by TJ’s brother with TJ’s money) for “the Islands of Despair.” Dominique wants to explore the islands. TJ wants to continue on to a warmer, less rocky environment, where he can surf and she can scuba dive. She gets out of the boat and sets up camp on the island, and won’t get back in the boat with TJ despite his pleas.

Get Away If You Can throws in flashbacks to break up the narrative (only an hour and fourteen minutes less the end credits). Each flashback does the work of establishing the angels (Dominique’s gentle but insistent sister) and demons (TJ’s selfish, hostile family) dictating the couple’s actions. A good portion of the film was shot on location on la Isla Róbinson Crusoe off of Chile, and the directors, who happen to be the lead couple themselves (they’re married in real life also), bring back a lot of gorgeous footage that makes the case for why Dominique wants to stay there. After a while, though, we understand that the island, like the ending, is a metaphor. The title turns out to be a well-meaning nudge, not a stern admonishment or, indeed, a warning.

Towards the conclusion, when Dominique grows a marijuana garden and goes around sporting a headband adorned with dank nugs, while TJ seems to have come to terms with the escape he needs, the movie proposes a castaway, Adam-and-Eve existence in opposition to living according to rich relatives’ wishes, whether paradisiacal or infernal. We’re not meant to take the couple’s choice literally, or subject it to logical scrutiny. We’re just meant to go with it, and the script (also by the directors) subtly works out why certain things don’t work for the couple while other things do. It’s not until Dominique rekindles her creative flame and TJ becomes one with the waves that the door is opened for the ending we want for them.

Is it bad to reveal that a movie has a happy ending? In this case, it may help a viewer get through the difficult early stretch when Dominique and TJ, still under thrall to their influences, seem to hate each other. But it’s just that they’re trapped in a frustrating stasis. Get Away If You Can ends up as a romance, not just a psychological drama (though that, too). You just shouldn’t expect a thriller — say, Ed Harris sends some goons after the couple to split them up, or the couple go through twists and turns and betray each other. It’s not that sort of film; coming as it does from a married couple, it emerges as a personal statement. Never a slouch, Harris delivers a grouchy turn visible even when he’s not around, in TJ’s cowed eyes; Braun and Martin enact a couple in love as well as at war. See it if you can. 

Crimes of the Future

July 4, 2022

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“Careful, don’t spill,” whispers Viggo Mortensen to Léa Seydoux in one of the more outrageous moments of intimacy in Crimes of the Future. Marking a return to feature filmmaking after an eight-year hiatus for writer-director David Cronenberg, the movie could serve as a natural companion to a good number of his other films, especially Crash, which had a similar hushed, deadpan humor. In Cronenberg, people are driven restless by the war between their minds and their bodies — the Cartesian split, as he likes to call it. Here, climate change is making bodies into numb cocoons for unprecedented mutant organs. Long live the new flesh, indeed.

Mortensen and Seydoux are Saul Tenser and his artistic accomplice Caprice. Saul’s body has been developing new organs, which Caprice extracts and tattoos, as part of their performance art for a small but avid crowd. Cronenberg may be saying this or that about his own life as a subversive artist, but Crimes has more levels than that, some of which are accessible to those not Cronenberg and some of which are not. The movie, which is full of menacing machines with scalpels as well as mutilated flesh inside and out, can be taken as a Cronenberg art installation. Here and in many of Cronenberg’s other films, people transform, their flesh rebels alarmingly, and they view it as a beautiful evolution — they can either see it that way or go insane — while others recoil in horror. (Think of Jeff Goldblum excitedly rattling off theories while slowly disintegrating in The Fly as Geena Davis kept going “What is wrong with you?”) 

As usual with Cronenberg, his eroticism is less about the friction of bodies than the pulling off of societal restraints. “I’m not very good at the old sex,” says Saul to a creepy functionary (Kristen Stewart) smitten with him and his art. It’s this same woman, Timlin, who delivers the movie’s defining line: “Surgery is the new sex.” Those who have too literal a response to that premise — like actual car-crash survivors who had a beef with Crash — may tire of Cronenberg’s metaphorical game-playing. Cronenberg’s particular thematic emphases do make it tough for some to jump past what’s being shown and click into what’s being said.

Oddly, for all the carving and fondling of body parts, Crimes is sometimes, like Timlin, too enamored of its own ideas. The decade or two that Cronenberg spent away from the body-as-fallible-meat subgenre that he practically invented resulted in some interesting push-pull between Cronenberg and whosever story he was adapting. We took pleasure in his running stories about gangsters or psychiatrists through his filter. Crimes takes him back to the old gory days, for sure, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a summing-up, a greatest-hits album. Hey, some of those hits are pretty damn great, and they play well again here. But the pleasure of Cronenberg in the past few years lay in his making magic with material you wouldn’t expect him to forge in his own image. This material is as snugly fitted to him as that weird eating chair is supposed to be to Saul, but like the chair it occasionally moves clumsily and spills things. It gets talky and plotty when we’d like to hang out and dig the world-building. 

Still, if you’ve seen a lot of movies like this lately, I want to know which theater you’ve been going to. As much as this is patented Cronenberg Cinema, he’s also having a terrific time making it, and it often shows. Cronenberg loses himself in the sets in Greece; everything looks badly used, no vision of a shiny future but one full of numbness and grime. Even apartments look like some mad doctor’s castle laboratory. Using a strictured voice, Mortensen emotes largely with his eyes or with throat-clearing, and Seydoux, with her mischievous diastematic smile, makes a great partner in futuristic crime for him. Stewart, liberated in this nightmare world, creates a compelling woman out of little but nervous tics. Cronenberg is an actors’ director, as was obvious as far back as The Brood (1979), and by creating an artsy-bloody backdrop for them to play in front of, he gets performances and moments no one else can. Crimes might strike some of us fans as been-there-done-that, but what’s wrong with being there and doing that again? 

The Righteous

May 22, 2022

Righteous

You’ve heard of cringe comedy? The first half or so of Mark O’Brien’s heavy spiritual/psychological thriller The Righteous is cringe drama. That’s not really a put-down. In scene after scene, O’Brien’s camera stares at people clumsily working through grief or uncertainty, and never averts its gaze. One or two times, I had to look away from the unrelieved anguish. It may not sound like a giddy night at the movies, but The Righteous is honest about intractable despair and fear in a way few films are, and it has an ace in the hole in that longtime reliable acting wizard Henry Czerny as Frederick Mason, a former priest whose guilt and sadness more or less animate the story. 

Czerny became known internationally for his indelible performance as serial child abuser Brother Lavin in 1993’s Canadian TV movie The Boys of St. Vincent and its sequel. Here he plays a different breed of tormented man of the cloth. Frederick was a priest until he met and fell in love with Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), whereupon he left the Church and married her. They adopted a daughter, who has recently died. The two stay in their remote house, silently grieving; to blow off steam, Frederick sometimes goes out to the yard and works on disassembling their daughter’s swing set. One night, a young man, played by Mark O’Brien himself (he also wrote the script; this is his feature debut as a director after several short films), shows up outside Frederick’s house, injured and lost. 

Despite Ethel’s misgivings, Frederick offers the man — who gives his name as Aaron Smith — shelter for the night. Soon, Ethel spends time with Aaron and quickly grows fond of him, perhaps seeing him as filling the void left by their daughter. The Righteous has only seven speaking roles, but they’re all there to make points about how the effects of past sins ripple outward forever. In the first scene, Frederick, laid low by guilt, beseeches God to punish him. Aaron, it begins to seem, has been sent to deliver on that prayer. I’ve seen The Righteous described as a horror movie, but that description possibly suggests a more literal apocalypse of blood and demons than it is. Instead, the movie is shot in crisp black and white, and its chills are rhetorical (indeed, the movie would work well on the stage) and subtle. The apocalypse happens in whispered conversations between people buffeted by uncanny forces they can’t control or understand.

Like practically everyone in Canada, O’Brien must have seen and been scorched by The Boys of St. Vincent (though he was only eight when the film first aired), so when he had written a former priest sunk under the weight of sin, I would guess Henry Czerny was his first choice. Czerny is the guy you want for square men with twists and loops in their nature; the angular Clark Kent/Morrissey features of his youth have settled into the grays and lines of painful wisdom. The Righteous is probably the biggest role he’s had for a while, and he excels at putting across Frederick’s soul implosion. When Frederick tries to smile, he looks false and genuinely alarming, like an alien attempting to mimic human expressions; when someone tries to compliment Frederick, he responds with what I can only call a visceral scoff. His self-disgust is fierce but held just underneath the surface, held with great and graceful aplomb by this open-hearted actor.

As an actor, O’Brien holds his own with the master, giving Czerny something real and potentially sulfurous to sniff and respond to. (The two played father and son in the 2019 horror-comedy Ready or Not.) As a filmmaker, O’Brien lets his camera linger on Czerny as often as possible. If the director falters here, it may only be due to budget. We hear that Frederick is subject to visions, fugues. Not a lot is done with that angle, though it does serve to handwave away some of the overtly supernatural stuff we see. More than once, Frederick is shown waking up, and more than once I was confused as to whether that meant he had only dreamed the previous scene. It may not matter in the literal sense; by the end, we understand we’ve been watching one man’s inner war on himself, and everything else we’ve witnessed is sort of up for grabs. Czerny enlists in this war with all the restraint and subtextual power he’s always had, and O’Brien does everything he can to give Czerny a battlefield worthy of him.

River’s Edge

May 8, 2022

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When River’s Edge opened in America (35 years ago on May 8), reviewers and columnists chased it around like cartoon reporters waving their mics at a murder suspect. They probed it for social meaning, decided it was a commentary on the affectless kids of baby boomers (meaning, the kids of the columnists). For those of us of the generation in question, the movie was “John Hughes Goes to Hell.” It took the ethos of The Breakfast Club — “When you grow up, your heart dies”— and ramped it up. The kids in River’s Edge were born with dead or broken hearts. Generation X nodded in recognition, then probably moved on to Beverly Hills Cop II later that May as a palate-cleanser. To a greater or lesser extent, we looked at the kids in River’s Edge and said “Yeah. We know kids like this. Sometimes we are kids like this. This isn’t a social commentary, this is a snapshot.” The boomers really didn’t want to hear that.

The shock of River’s Edge isn’t that it shows kids who either kill or respond to death numbly; it’s that it shows those things in an American movie. Screenwriter Neal Jimenez and director Tim Hunter are commenting, if anything, on what we usually expect young American protagonists to do, how we demand they respond. The situation here, which Jimenez based loosely on a 1981 murder case, is that one of the film’s teenagers, Samson (Daniel Roebuck), has strangled his girlfriend, for no explicable reason — meaning, with no clear motive. “Motive,” in this movie’s terms, is a fake thing that other movies do. What Coleridge called Iago’s “motiveless malignity” holds sway here. As for the other kids, for a long while nobody is sure what to do, how to respond — except for one — and the body lies out in the open, uncovered, unmoved. 

The conflict arises not from the authorities trying to prove Samson did it — for he admits to the murder to practically anyone who will listen — but from the ethical struggle between two of the other boys in this group, Matt (Keanu Reeves) and Layne (Crispin Glover), over what should be done about Samson. Layne proposes that they all close ranks around Samson, hide him, whatever. His reasoning appears to boil down to “She’s dead — we can’t help her. He’s alive; we can help him.” Matt isn’t so sure; like the others, he has a flicker of conscience and consciousness, which can either be extinguished or fanned into flame. We’re not too surprised when Matt goes to the cops fairly early on. Even 35 years ago, Keanu Reeves projected a basic kindness. But even Matt doesn’t act quickly enough for the police’s liking. Most of the adults in this movie are essentially ghosts of movies past, insisting on the clearcut morality and narrative rigidity that are irrelevant in the gray and tangled world of River’s Edge. 

The film has a hell of a lot under its hood, and not all of it was intentionally placed there, but some of it clearly was — the whole doll motif, for instance, linking a dead girl to hollow objects of male desire or destruction. I guess Matt’s new girlfriend Clarissa (Ione Skye) is supposed to be the living, breathing exception to all that, but she’s a little blank. (Someone like Allison Anders could step forward to tell Clarissa’s story.) We learn nothing about Jamie, the girl Samson killed. She’s literally just a naked body to be argued over. We never hear her speak, only briefly see her alive in a flashback, moments before she’s killed. 

My hunch is that Hunter and Jimenez are getting at something more elemental and distressing than just “these kids today” or “adults suck.” The passage of 35 years has made River’s Edge feel more timelessly tragic. Other than a few bits of score that briefly make the movie sound like a banal ‘80s thriller, it has aged very, very well. Its lineage proceeds from skid-row cinema to the JD flicks of the ’50s to Herzog’s Stroszek to Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue — Hopper is rather famously in River’s Edge, by the way, as a one-legged freako and possible killer who isn’t even the craziest galoot Hopper played in 1986. Hopper’s presence links this movie to his earlier portrait of bottom-dog life in numbed-out America. A double feature of Out of the Blue and River’s Edge is contraindicated unless under strict supervision.

I should probably deal with Crispin Glover here. Throughout River’s Edge, Layne is meant to be the “leader” who decides for everyone else what’s going to be done and tries to enforce it. Glover’s relentlessly externalized and stylized performance says that he thinks Layne is a cartoon, so he plays him without any human shadings except fear and the will to power. He’s basically the Joker to Reeves’ wounded stoner Batman. I could entertain arguments pro or con Glover’s performance, but ultimately it just doesn’t seem organic to the piece. What happens to Layne doesn’t matter to us, and maybe it’s right that it shouldn’t matter. And maybe Glover, to his credit, sensed that, and made Layne a cartoon devil to indicate that the character isn’t human on the same level as Matt and the others with still-alive morality. The effect, though, is to leave the movie lopsided. (Pauline Kael, in her negative review, put it succinctly: Glover is “giving an expressionist performance in a movie that’s trying to be ‘real.'”) You can tell that Matt and the others capitulate to Layne because it’s in the script, not because he’s persuasive or intimidating.

Samson sits next to his victim, a teenage Frankenstein not knowing why that flower petal didn’t float. We gather that murder made him feel alive, for a while, but then the adrenaline wore off and he resurfaced to a reality where everyone around him was dealing with the consequences of his action, so he didn’t have to. Layne is cut from the same cloth as those who want to protect rapists, because why ruin this young man’s future? Matt, who is almost comically courteous to Clarissa even post-coitus, is of a quieter but stronger fabric. Layne will speak for the soul-dead living; Matt will let the dead speak for herself. Like Out of the Blue, River’s Edge is depressive but piercing — it stings and leaves a bruise.

The French Dispatch

January 16, 2022

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Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is that rarity, a disappointment that I feel I need to see again. By now, we all know how polarizing Anderson’s dollhouse movies tend to be. They’re immaculately designed, obsessively symmetrical; they’re boxes within boxes, each packed in a ruthlessly tidy fashion. But generally the stories have a strong throughline, a sturdy narrative arrow with some emotional resonance. The French Dispatch feels like it came out of the bottom drawer of Anderson’s desk. It’s a trio of tales, bracketed by front and end matter; it’s about journalists writing about artists, or at least about people who express themselves in some way — through painting, manifesto, food.

One of the segments, the one about the manifesto, I couldn’t tell you much about. You see what I mean when I want to watch it again. The French Dispatch is about a titular newspaper — the film’s full title is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — that reports on happenings in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé for the enjoyment, I guess, of the millions of Francophiles in Kansas. The newspaper is inspired by The New Yorker, particularly the magazine’s self-regard as The Magazine. All the best writers write for the French Dispatch, and the paper’s editor (Bill Murray) keeps trying to whittle their pieces into shape. The writers all love and tolerate him. He dies early on — like so much else here, we’re not asked to feel one way or the other about it — and what we see is the contents of the final issue of the paper.

But none of it really took hold and commanded my attention. The first story involves an artist (Benicio del Toro) who is also serving a life sentence for murder. The second follows Dispatch reporter Frances McDormand as she gets caught up in a student protest and its players. The last has to do with the kidnapping of a little boy and a police officer who’s also a chef — most of the characters have different facets to them. Technically, the filmmaking is gorgeous, with alternating black-and-white or color photography by Robert Yeoman in two different aspect ratios. It’s all very cleverly worked out. The problem is a pit that Anderson has been edging towards for a few movies now, and in The French Dispatch he sinks right into it — there are just too damn many characters.

At this point, being in a Wes Anderson movie must be a terrific feather in an actor’s cap, and a lot of them come work with him over and over. But nothing in this movie will show you why. The teeming mass of actors here rarely get a moment to give us a reason to care about them; people like Edward Norton and Elisabeth Moss and Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe pass through, hardly even getting any lines. (The bulk of the movie is narrated by the stories’ writers anyway, further limiting the characters’ opportunity to speak for themselves.) Anderson veteran Saoirse Ronan turns up as a character credited only as “Junkie/Showgirl #1.” The impression you get is that Wes Anderson has joined the elite cadre of directors who can compel a four-time Oscar nominee to play Junkie/Showgirl #1. Well, good for him. Not so good for us, or for Saoirse Ronan.

And yet … I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Anderson’s prior films, so I’m willing to give The French Dispatch the benefit of the doubt; a second viewing, knowing what it is going into it, may not be amiss. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the movie doesn’t drill down and tell one particular person’s story. Maybe the movie is about storytelling itself, about who tells stories and who hears or reads them. The main character is the Dispatch. The style of the film is the style of the writers. The writers are self-centered to a degree that they make the stories about them — they think they have to make the stories worthy of being told by them. Running through the film is a sneaky little critique of the whole New Yorker magazine-of-record aesthetic and ethos. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s both nostalgic and timeless. It didn’t stick to me — this time — but I wouldn’t dream of discouraging anyone, especially Anderson followers, from seeing it. Just know what you’re in for.

The Card Counter

December 12, 2021

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Your standard Paul Schrader loner — think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Ernst Toller in Schrader’s previous film First Reformed, among many others — drifts from place to place, often at night, ears ringing with his own internal screams of guilt and dread. This loner walls himself (usually always himself — Schrader’s artistic/narrative mission is to probe toxic masculinity) off from normal human contact, pulled along by fatalistic strings of his own making. Oscar Isaac joins this bleak men’s club in Schrader’s The Card Counter as William Tillich (he goes by William Tell), who goes from casino to casino, placing and winning modest bets at poker tables with the card-counting skills he taught himself in prison.

We soon learn why William was in jail: he worked interrogation at Abu Ghraib, and he went away for eight and a half years while his superior officer and trainer Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe) got off free. William meets a young man — “Cirk with a C” (Tye Sheridan) — who has his own past with Gordo. His father, too, worked under Gordo at Abu Ghraib, came home addicted and violently abusive, and eventually killed himself. Cirk wants revenge on Gordo: he wants to capture Gordo and torture him to death. William has other plans for Cirk; he knows what Cirk doesn’t, that once you become a torturer/killer, you can never un-become that.

Schrader’s filmmaking has become as neat and clean as William’s hair, graying but not a strand out of place. Other than the intentionally off-putting Abu Ghraib flashbacks, filmed through a distorting lens, there isn’t an ugly or discordant frame in The Card Counter. Schrader takes his time, engaging in crossfades or fade-outs. The casinos William frequents all look the same and give the impression of stinking like cleaning fluid and cigarette smoke — not hell, exactly, but limbo. William has already been to hell, and a good chunk of his soul still exists there. He may see Cirk as his chance at some sort of redemption for participating in the repulsive system that deformed him and Cirk’s father. He also has eyes for La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who runs a stable of gamblers and thinks William should be one of them.

Sometimes Schrader can be a bit on-the-nose. A lyric we hear often on the soundtrack goes “In my lonesome aberration,” which could be William’s internal theme song. (It’s a song by Robert Levon Been, son of late Call frontman Michael Been, who composed songs for Schrader’s 1992 drama Light Sleeper. A lyric from one of those songs is tattooed on William’s back here.) Tiffany Haddish can’t help smuggling in some levity, even if just in her manner or her line delivery, but otherwise the film is borderline mopey and as serious as a stroke. (The only other source of humor is Dafoe’s thick military-guy mustache.) But as I indicated above, Schrader has gotten better at working his particular side of the street, so that the immaculate, resolute unflashiness of his style is itself pleasurable. He no longer seems to be denying himself the contentments of filmmaking; he has developed a tidy, rigorous focus.

Isaac obliges Schrader with a smoldering, implosive performance rich in stillness and watchfulness. William seldom smiles, although in one of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks we see him larking around obscenely with one of the prisoners. These places, Schrader says, scorched the souls of everyone who entered them, in whatever capacity. Much of William’s shame, it happens, is because William enjoyed the terror and pain he caused. Near the end of Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack’s hit-man hero tries to account for his life choices: “You do it because you were trained to do it, because you were encouraged to do it, and because, eventually, you, you know … get to like it.” He appends hilariously, “I know that sounds bad.” William, in his lonesome aberration, also knows his past sounds bad. Whether he can become good, or at least less bad, is very much on William’s and Schrader’s mind; but because this is also a noir, it’s not entirely within William’s control. Someone always has other plans.

The Amusement Park

June 1, 2021

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The prospect of a “lost film” from George A. Romero (1940-2017), director of Night of the Living Dead and its several sequels, may sound as compelling to you as it did to me. A word of warning, though: don’t let anyone overhype it for you. The Amusement Park, completed in 1973 but unseen until recently (it will have its streaming debut on Shudder next week), is a downer of an allegory about discrimination against the elderly. Romero, at loose ends at the time, was hired by the Lutheran Society to make the film, which they promptly rejected after getting a load of what Romero did with the concept. There are no zombies or cannibalism, though, just a stroll through a strange amusement park filled with indignities for those deemed too old — or too poor — to deserve respect.

Romero was many things, but a subtle satirist was never one of them. Some of the messagey dialogue in some of his Dead films verges on crude. In The Amusement Park, we follow a man in his seventies (played by Lincoln Maazel, who later appeared as the nosferatu-obsessed old cousin in Romero’s 1976 cult vampire movie Martin) as he wanders around the park and encounters various affronts to his humanity. These range from getting beaten up by a trio of bikers to being disregarded by a little girl he was reading a story to; we get the sense that the girl’s indifference hurts him more. The man is also ignored by doctors and priests (who close up their “sanctuary” to him as soon as he approaches). All of these anecdotes feel a bit like checklist items; Romero seems somewhat locked into the Lutherans’ assignment, toning himself down for their approval (which he didn’t get anyway).

Still, this curiosity should be seen by fans who tend to prefer Romero’s non-zombie films, like Martin or Jack’s Wife (aka Season of the Witch) or Knightriders. Its cinematography (by Bill Hinzman, the cemetery zombie in the first reel of Night of the Living Dead) and typically razor-sharp editing (by Romero himself) make The Amusement Park a pure-cinema snack; it’s the content itself (written by Wally Cook) that flirts with redundancy at times. The milieu and the theme of being neglected — not seen or acknowledged — echo Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, a cult z-budget item that predated Romero’s NOTLD by six years. Did Romero, thirty-three at the time and visible in the film as an irate bumper-car driver, care all that much about ageism, or was he just doing the best he could with the gig he got? Either way, we feel for Maazel’s character, who starts out as a white-suited dandy and ends up soiled and bloodied; he either experiences or witnesses every example of disrespect in the film. Life as an elderly person — and, let’s not forget, an elderly person of color, or an elderly disabled person, or an elderly woman — is painted here as a steady stream of insults and gatekeeping slights. A good deal of the doors that shut here in the faces of those who aren’t young, white, male, able-bodied, and/or rich persist just as thick and soundly locked today.

Which brings me back to my advice not to let your expectations get out of hand. Sometimes early work drifts off into the ether for a reason. Who, having finally screened Stanley Kubrick’s first feature Fear and Desire, would argue with Kubrick that it isn’t, as he said, juvenilia? And good luck sitting through Tobe Hooper’s Eggshells — his debut prior to Texas Chainsaw Massacre — unless you’re a die-hard completist. The Amusement Park displays Romero’s flair for cloaking social comment in nightmarish clothes. It’s of considerable interest to anyone who cares about his work. But to call it Romero’s “most terrifying film,” as his widow Suzanne Desrocher has — an assessment prominent in the film’s publicity — is to set it up for disappointment. Terrifying, no. Disturbing — and fascinating — yes. 

About Endlessness

May 9, 2021

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It is the common fatigue. That’s what my ears thought they heard during a scene in Roy Andersson’s typically deadpan About Endlessness. What I was really hearing was a priest delivering communion in Swedish: The body of Christ broken for you, or Kristi kropp bruten för dig. But, in a lot of ways, Andersson’s first film in five years, and possibly his last, is all about the common fatigue. The priest, as it happens, is going through the motions, administering the ritual with a heavy heart and hollow soul — we have just seen him in the church kitchen, swigging from the same bottle that pours the blood of Christ. He appears several times in the film, often on the edge of tears as he admits he has lost his faith. But nobody much cares, even his psychiatrist.

Sounds heavy, especially if this is your first tour through the bemusement park of Andersson (best known for his “Living” trilogy: Songs from the Second Floor, 2000; You, the Living, 2007; A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014). But About Endlessness, in the sort of irony remarked on by legions of critics by now, is in and out in 76 minutes. Andersson, who spent a long hiatus from feature filmmaking directing commercials (Ingmar Bergman was a fan of them), knows that the type and mode of story he wants to tell is best achieved with brevity. (His only film to exceed two hours, 1975’s Giliap, tanked hard and drove him out of features for 25 years.) The movie is an anthology of moments: some dreary, some distressing, some carefree. The anecdotes add up to a meditation on life as experienced individually and specifically by each subject.

Sometimes the placement of scenes does a lot of the work. Early in the movie, and then not long before the end credits, a man grumbles to the camera that a former schoolmate has been ignoring him because of something unspecified he did to the schoolmate, way back then. That this man is the second, and then second-to-last, person we hear from — bracketing a collection of vignettes ranging from the mundane to the apocalyptic — makes a quietly funny point about the ridiculousness of long-running grievances. Motifs announce themselves: water or wine pouring into glasses, overflowing the glass, or filling a vase for flowers at a dead soldier’s grave; the reality of death captured just before or just after its arrival. If there is despair here, though, there is also joy. Andersson knows that a vision without one or the other is false. The joy whisks away despair, insisting that despair doesn’t last. The despair infects our enjoyment, murmuring that joy won’t last, either. And on and on in a loop.

About Endlessness features Hitler his own bad self, in his bunker being dusted by bomb-loosened plaster and barely acknowledged by exhausted old generals who can’t even muster a decent sieg heil. The straight-faced absurdism of the segment recalls some of Monty Python’s “historical” sketches; the flatness of the style is a wicked rebuke to Leni Riefenstahl’s voluptuous portfolio of lies, Triumph of the Will. So we meet the Devil, and he’s this dull clerk celebrated by half-dead flunkies in the most banal-looking crypt any soon-to-perish despot ever had. Where’s God? Oh, I saw Him here and there, despite the plaints of the priest. He was there in the spontaneous dancing of teenage girls and in the fatal knife wounds of another — the A to Z of human experience. 

The movie leaves us talking back to it — we don’t want it to go just yet. The brevity sometimes verges on a taunt: most of the people we meet, we’ll never see again. The rare exception, aside from the recurring faithless priest, is a dentist who gets two segments — two consecutive segments, which nobody else gets. We first see him in a sketch that seems to be making a point about how emotions can get in the way of how we engage with people personally and professionally, leaving them hurt. The next bit finds the dentist in a bar, with a gentle snowfall visible out the windows — the cozy warm comfort of the scene is palpable, and it seems to nudge one of the customers into blurting “Everything is fantastic.” As Kurt Vonnegut said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” But Andersson isn’t finished, and the last two anecdotes are bitter and desolate, respectively — yet still with glimmers of mitigation. If this isn’t life, I don’t know what is.