Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

The Misandrists

May 7, 2018

Misandrists-7-800x499The only moment I freely enjoyed in Bruce LaBruce’s erotic satire The Misandrists comes when a woman dressed as a nun, walking on the grounds outside an all-girl school, suddenly and randomly breaks into the Charleston while music plays (coming from where? We don’t know). Then, as inexplicably as it started, the music stops, the dance is cut off, and the “nun” resumes walking. This happens roughly fifty minutes into the movie, and it’s the only bit with any spontaneity or life. The rest of The Misandrists is more porno-tinged, half-serious “radical” agitprop from LaBruce, a founding father of the queercore movement of the ‘80s, who has made this as a quasi-sequel to his 2004 film The Raspberry Reich.

For LaBruce, homosexuality is revolutionary, and he literalizes that by linking gay sex with terrorism, or at least with terrorist rhetoric. I see the point: In certain quarters of supposedly free Western societies (LaBruce hails from Ontario), if you’re LGBTQ you may as well be ISIS. So why not give homophobes something to be genuinely phobic about? Filmed in Berlin in twelve days on a Kickstarter budget, The Misandrists concerns a lesbian separatist group — the Female Liberation Army — disguised as a convent. Their leader is Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse, from Raspberry Reich), who uses gender-swapped words like “womansplain” and says things like “We must tell the world to wake up and smell the estrogen.”

If this is your cup of camp, drink up. I found it largely boring, especially a slow-motion pillow fight that goes on for eight or nine weeks, or so it seems. Filmed in early 2016, The Misandrists can’t really be faulted for not anticipating the atmosphere in which it would eventually be released (after a year or so of bouncing around festivals worldwide). You can’t read a room if you’re not expecting it to be on fire in two years. But maybe now isn’t the time for a jokey send-up of gay, female and transgender rage. Maybe it also isn’t the time for scenes like the one in which an transgender young woman is ostracized (temporarily, but still) while a wounded young man is subjected to forced gender reassignment surgery (shown in gory, leering close-ups in actual vaginoplasty footage as the man screams in pain). This may be a shot at the TERF mentality, but in this particular landscape it lands poorly. As Roger Ebert wrote about the lumberjack jokes in Blue Velvet, “Sorry, but I just couldn’t get my lips to smile.”

This sort of japery was done funnier and filthier by John Waters in the pride of his midnight-movie shining, in films like Desperate Living and Female Trouble. I’m not sure whether LaBruce wants us to chuckle politely — that dignified whitebread titter you hear in audiences for art-house flicks — or to nod in meaningful mute assent to the heavy points he’s making. One of the points is a good one: extremism used to control people is bad; used in art, as in the pornifesto the young women produce at the movie’s end, it’s good. Would that The Misandrists were an example of the latter. As it is, it employs graphic, unsimulated sex and blood for an upsy daisy assortment of self-consciously subversive blackout sketches. Which may have worked in the somewhat gentler ‘90s. These days, more is needed and deserved.

 

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Russian Doll

April 23, 2018

russiandollIt’s probably none of my business, but I have to ask anyway: How must it feel to be a first-time movie actor — a personal trainer by trade — doing a nude same-sex love scene in a movie produced by your mom and brother and directed by your father? Melanie Brockmann Gaffney might be in a position to tell us. She stars in the somewhat gimmicky whodunit Russian Doll, co-produced by her mother Suzanne Brockmann (yes, the romantic-thriller novelist) and brother Jason T. Gaffney (an openly gay actor who also appears in the movie), and written and directed by paterfamilias Ed Gaffney. Come to think of it, how does it feel to be a guy directing your daughter in a nude make-out scene, or, for that matter, directing your son as he enacts sadism and torture?

This all makes Russian Doll sound more juicy than it is, I fear. It’s a decent if heavy-handed affair, motivated, we understand, by the Brockmann Gaffneys’ desire to make female-centered LGBT-friendly movies. A noble goal, and surely the title itself indicates a person stashing his or her secret self inside the shell of a false self. None of which seems to have much to do with the heroine Brockmann Gaffney is playing — Viola Ames, a detective on the case of a kidnapping and possible planned murder connected to a play about … people hiding their real selves. The would-be murderer is doing the same thing, of course. The plot allows for one of those grand metaphors that must be satisfying to a fiction writer, but the rest of us might be less enamored of it.

The movie was filmed in Framingham and Concord, Massachusetts, for about twelve cents — enough to afford an established actor, anyway, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Kristine Sutherland. I feel like a dick criticizing a microbudget film, but it has a major video distributor — Wolfe Video, which specializes in gay-themed entertainment — and, honestly, there are better options around. Aside from ringer Sutherland, the acting is a bit rigid when it isn’t hammy; the movie goes so far in establishing the play’s writer/star as an unpleasant prima donna he may as well have “red herring” written across the front of his shirt. Gaffney at least knows what he’s doing; the film is cleanly photographed and, actually, pleasingly edited, clipping scenes quickly and getting on with it.

It’s the story that feels hacky. And did I miss a meeting where it was decided that gay audiences would give a hetero male director the benefit of the doubt for nude lesbian love scenes that (A) move the story forward not one inch and (B) are all, so far as I can determine, taking place in the heroine’s morose fantasies? The scenes are more sweet than raunchy, but are still pointlessly explicit. The matryoshka metaphor doesn’t seem to apply to Viola, who’s out to everyone; her trauma has nothing to do with hidden selves, but rather with her late, lamented wife, dead almost two years now. Viola’s mother (Sutherland) sets her up with the amiable Faith (Marem Hassler), because everyone has decided for Viola that she’s mourned enough and needs to get back into the romance game. This seems tacked onto the murder-mystery plot — or maybe the other way around.

Russian Doll does — or attempts, anyway — what we want so many works of entertainment to do these days. Its heart is in the right place, I guess. Unfortunately, a lot of truly great art has its heart in exactly the wrong place. It doesn’t serve an agenda (however warmly one might agree with it). It doesn’t create a gay female protagonist only to pretend her sexual identity has zero to do with anything she does (sadly, just as we are light years away from a society that truly doesn’t see color, so we are nowhere near a society whose homophobic structure does not brand itself on gay psyches in some way). And to return to my earlier question: I don’t know how it feels to be a woman doing a nude sex scene for her director father, or to be a father directing his daughter in a nude sex scene. I do know how it feels to watch such a scene. Not so good.

Vazante

April 15, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 5.26.26 PM“Why do whites love ouija boards?” asks a particularly trenchant internet meme. “If they want to learn about demons they can just go to ancestry.com.” Sharp, but not wrong. In Vazante, the first solo-directed feature by Brazilian filmmaker Daniela Thomas, we see some demons up close. In fact, Inti Briones’ rich black and white cinematography ensures that we perceive every wrinkle, sty, nook and cranny in the faces of the oppressors and the oppressed alike. Pictorially, Vazante (translating to English roughly as “ebb tide”) is unimpeachable, and more than once I felt its images might enjoy a gainful second life in a coffee-table book. “That’s lovely,” I’d say, or “Ah, the poetry of the muddy, puddly ground underneath the bare, shivering feet of African slaves trudging towards the failing diamond mine where they work,” and the aesthetics of the slaves’ anguish outweigh, I am afraid, the politics or reality of it.

I don’t suspect or accuse Daniela Thomas of amoral motives. I simply think she fell inadvertently into a Riefenstahl-like elevation of an evocation of time and place through picture and sound, at the expense of conveying much emotion about what happened in that time and place. The similarly rigorously archaic The Witch seemed to unearth themes and modern resonances from the arid soil of its milieu (and made us feel things — sometimes deeply divided things — about its people and their actions). Vazante seems neutral, at best, about the inhumanity it shows us. The owners and drivers of slaves don’t twirl their mustaches with wretched glee, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained or even Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave. Thomas has said she wanted to avoid the sort of exploitative, eroticized sadism of many slave narratives, and yet there’s not much here to replace those tropes. We don’t really get inside anyone’s head.

Worse, the plot carries a whiff of soap opera. At the start, the initial protagonist, slaveowner Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), arrives home to find that his wife has died in childbirth, as has their child. Despondent, Antonio drifts around for a while. Then he marries his 12-year-old niece Beatriz (Luana Nastas), while dallying with (well, technically raping) his slave Feliciana (Jai Baptista). Meanwhile, Beatriz develops her own thing with Feliciana’s son Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), who may or may not be Antonio’s son out of wedlock. Antonio lying morosely in his hammock becomes an almost amusingly frequent recurring image. So do scenes of Beatriz moping around Antonio’s house. Frankly, the movie starts to seem padded out, and fetishistically devoted to its visual scheme. We’re drawn to Beatriz largely because she’s virtually the only one we see smiling ever, not that a dour countenance would be uncalled-for in this story. But it’d be nice to have some levity, some lightness, even some music (aside from sparse singing and some tones under the end credits, there is none).

Vazante plucks at some plot threads only to lose track of them. The most egregious example is Lider (Toumani Kouyaté), a rebellious slave nobody can understand because nobody speaks his language. We don’t understand him either, because unlike the Portuguese-speakers in the movie, he isn’t subtitled. His character barely makes sense — one minute Lider is saving the life of the interim master he’s just escaped from, the next minute he’s back in chains, eventually ending up insane and eating mud and meeting his fate offscreen. The disregard for Lider, easily the film’s most intriguing creation, is chillingly thorough. Vazante wants to be a visual riff on the various souls destroyed by slavery, but it also can’t help shaking out as a study of a white man’s agony at being betrayed by everyone. There are memes about white people tears, too, though the movie’s final scream of horror might actually be funnier than any of them.

Phantom Thread

April 8, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 4.31.39 PMPaul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a sort of upper-class pornography — without sex or nudity, though; it’s fashion porn and, secondarily, food porn. The camera lavishes its fixation on close-ups of threads, lace, mushrooms, pastries. The people onscreen focus on what goes into and onto the body, the better to avoid thinking about the body itself. The protagonist, esteemed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), surrounds himself with women but seems interested in them only as walls on which to hang his art, or assistants in making his art. He has successfully created an elegant bubble in which his various servants perpetuate his lockstep routines and he gets to play the difficult, complicated genius.

The hero of Phantom Thread is not Reynolds, or even his enabling sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville); it’s Alma Elsen (Vicky Krieps), a waitress drawn into Reynolds’ sphere after Reynolds has discarded his latest muse/lover and is possibly on the lookout for another. Alma, however, as we gradually learn, is not interested in being the typical muse, the victim, the martyr to a man’s greatness. She insists on her own humanity, perhaps because she understands Reynolds’ humanity more than most do. If Reynolds is meant in any way as an avatar for Anderson, Phantom Thread is the idiosyncratic and ambitious filmmaker’s self-satire. The character of Reynolds, though, at least on paper, feels a bit warmed-over — we’ve seen this rigid mad genius before.

What Anderson and Day-Lewis bring to him is a kind of sneaky dark libido, acted on, if not sexually, then in a thousand sublimated ways. He dominates as surely as does a Dom/me in BDSM play. In that respect, Phantom Thread follows from Anderson’s 2012 Hegelian reverie The Master; in both, the student, as they tirelessly say, becomes the master. Here, though, we get a rich aroma of a gothic stew — a good deal of talk about ghosts, literal and metaphorical; the turn two-thirds of the way through into the overt macabre; the title itself, which seems to refer to the invisible string connecting us all but could also signify the unseen messages Reynolds stashes in the linings of each dress.

Phantom Thread, shown in some theaters in colossal 70mm, harks back to the super-extra blockbuster dramas of the ‘50s, the ones shot in creamy Technicolor and drenched in repressed flop sweat. The dynamic between Reynolds and Cyril, and between him and the various muses he wishes to control, carries a faint whiff of Vertigo. As in other recent Anderson films, the mood is sexually impacted and obstinately uncanny. It could also be adapted to the stage with little trouble — I think a daydream near the end is the only exterior shot in the movie — yet fluently speaks the language of pure cinema. Even if Anderson has moved on from Altman and Scorsese to Hitchcock and Ophuls, he seems slowly to be irising in on the essence of whatever overstory he wants his career to tell — getting closer to whatever he’s been getting at for twenty-odd years.

Reynolds has a preoccupation with his dead mother, from whom he learned his trade, but the movie doesn’t suggest that he’s resurrecting Mom over and over every time he sculpts the perfect dress to bring out any woman’s beauty. Rather, his ego seems to want to displace the importance of his mother, leaving footprints that dwarf hers, while dismissing his father entirely (his only meaningful exchange with a male in the whole movie is a couple of disdainful shots at a young doctor). The psychology is tangled and doesn’t always track smoothly, but aesthetically it’s usually surprising and entertaining. I think if you don’t hold the movie’s pompous style against it — if you accept its style as part of the movie’s oblique point about creativity — Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most satisfying whatsit yet about the beasts red in tooth and claw beneath the politesse of what is amusingly called society.

Final Portrait

March 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Signature Move

January 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky

November 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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