Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

September 6, 2020

im-thinking-of-ending-things-movie-review-2020

One question we’re left with by Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things: did Kaufman mean to cast two actors with almost the same first name except the I, or was that just a freakishly apropos accident? There are many other questions, this being a Kaufman script based on a twisty Iain Reid novel. One of them is extratextual: how does Kaufman keep getting the money to direct these whatsit movies, which in any case have been few and far between — aside from the films he only wrote (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, etc.), he previously helmed Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015). I, for one, am glad the money is still there for Kaufman’s mad-lab literary experiments, albeit from Netflix, the 21st century’s surprise patron of the arts, even stubbornly weird arts.

On the film’s literal level, not much happens. We begin with young couple Lucy and Jake (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons), who haven’t been together for very long; they’re driving through Oklahoma snow so that Lucy can meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Truthfully, the impatient will probably check out halfway through the car ride, which is filled with talk (punctuated by Lucy’s miserable thoughts, like “I’m thinking of ending things”) and clocks in at about twenty minutes. Kaufman clearly never absorbed the screenwriting truism that you gotta grab ‘em fast, although if you’re a Kaufman booster, as I am, you have faith that this is all leading somewhere. It is. But slowly, in a crabwise fashion, until you are watching a naked man in his sixties following a disemboweled cartoon pig down a high-school hallway. And at that point you simply have to see this whinnying insane beast to its conclusion.

Before that, though, I’m Thinking of Ending Things occasionally exerts an almost magnetic pull between one’s finger and the fast-forward button. I’m being honest. The film is a bracing work of art and I’m in awe of it in retrospect, but in the moment it can be a rough sit. The dinner at Jake’s parents’ house might be the most awkward since the one in Eraserhead, and the film’s resonance with David Lynch movies doesn’t end there. There are hints of Mulholland Drive as the film treks on into surreal bits of business, such as a pair of almost-identical blondes working the counter at a Tulsey Town ice-cream stand. Do they really exist? Well, of course they don’t, nobody onscreen does, it’s a work of fiction. That bit of meta-awareness often informs Kaufman’s work, as does fiction’s role in the lies we tell ourselves to cope with the big lie called life. In Kaufman, we build our own story out of other stories, out of tropes, out of corrupt mainstream notions. Bad ideas fasten onto our psyches like toxic leeches. We are all the stars in our own movies that a critic would roast as boring and derivative.

Uncomfortable though it is, Kaufman’s film sure isn’t boring, and it’s not derivative — at least not in the usual ways. Part of its scheme is to nudge us to identify which bits of pop culture have fed us. In this case, Oklahoma (the musical) takes an uncertain place onstage next to Pauline Kael, whose dismissal of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (his masterpiece, I think) is quoted by Lucy (or is that her name?) at length. Both stand next to Akiva Goldsman, Robert Zemeckis, and the poet Eva H.D. We are what we eat; we are the pop culture we consume. One way to interpret what Kaufman has done with Iain Reid’s identity-crisis thriller is to imagine it as an invitation to root around in the box of someone’s soul. What’s in there? What’s not? What should be, shouldn’t be?

Some will lack the patience for Kaufman’s woolgathering at the expense of conventional narrative. I sympathize completely even while I wouldn’t have Kaufman any other way. Expeditions like I’m Thinking of Ending Things (ending what? and how? and why only thinking?) touch the nervous system — mine, anyway — in ways nothing else can. There’s room for window-clear, expertly crafted entertainment too, of course. But I also make space at my table for the work that invites us to look inward as well as outward, that takes an odd and winding road to get somewhere. Goofball that Kaufman is — he’s essentially a comedian, if a singularly dark-humored one — he also throws in, like Lynch, elements the crowd wants, like romance and ice cream and cartoons and dance numbers. Never let it be said that Charlie Kaufman can’t show you a good time! This in the midst of an existential horror movie that cuts closer to the bone than Jason or Freddy ever could.

She Dies Tomorrow

August 16, 2020

she-dies-tomorrow-187190-1A single concept — that you are going to die tomorrow — lodges like a tick in the psyche of whoever hears it. Whoever hears it then passes it to more people, so it spreads like a lethal virus. There are a couple of ways to handle a premise like that. You can go the narrative, overly plotty way, figuring out what is causing this phenomenon and how best to defeat it. Or you can move in a more artsy and oblique direction, narrowing the focus to a few infected people and what the infection feels like. In She Dies Tomorrow, writer-director Amy Seimetz takes the second approach, which isn’t surprising. Seimetz is an actress as well as a director; she got her start in mumblecore, and you may have seen her most recently in Alien Covenant or Pet Sematary. So, like some of her peers before her, Seimetz marries arthouse and horror.

I truly wish I liked the result more. But I found it only sporadically enjoyable — mostly due to the actors, all of whom are on their game — and some of it just seems pointlessly obscure. For instance, near the end, one of the main characters — in terms of screen time anyway — turns up at the house of two young women we’ve never seen before. They, too, are infected. By whom? Everywhere else in the movie, we’ve seen, if you will, contact tracing — this person infects this other person, who then infects others. But here are these two random women, outside the chain of infection, yet carriers. After the fact we can justify this and theorize that this is how Seimetz establishes that the plague has spread outside the circle of family and friends we’ve been watching. But as we’re watching, it pulls us up short; we want to stop the film and say “Wait a minute, who…?”

That’s the trap of a diffuse, tonally drifty horror film like She Dies Tomorrow. The premise, it turns out, is intriguing enough to make us want answers. Seimetz isn’t offering any. She begins with Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who mopes around her new house. Her concerned friend Jane (Jane Adams) comes over, and Amy says she’s going to die tomorrow. Soon, Jane goes in her pajamas over to her brother and sister-in-law’s house while they’re having a party, and says she’s going to die tomorrow. And so on. In some respects the movie reminded me of the even more minimalist (and more effective) Pontypool, in which a “word virus” turned people who heard certain words into zombies. Here, it’s just a concept that’s contagious. The movie is spookier on a cerebral, retrospective level than in the moment. It might explain why some critics have rated it kindly for its premise and the admittedly high caliber of acting, while others can’t get past the memory of the impatience it made them feel as they sat through it. The terror is almost entirely insular; when Amy at one point says she doesn’t watch TV, we think, how convenient — that way Seimetz doesn’t have to show the endless coverage of it on the news.

She Dies Tomorrow has also been lauded for its accidental relevance to our current reality, although if you took the parallel all the way you’d end up with morons shouting “I’m gonna die tomorrow!” at people wearing earplugs in public. (Implausible; Americans in a movie wouldn’t be so pugnaciously selfish and stupid. If the virus in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion had spread faster because characters refused to wear masks, and insisted on going to bars and clubs, and sent their kids back to petri dishes calling themselves schools, we’d have laughed their suicidal behavior right off the screen. Ridiculous!) It’s possibly natural for a fearful section of viewers to hook into a film that seems to allude, however hazily, to the situation they’re afraid of.

As I said, this works almost better as an actors’ workshop than as a work of horror. (Calling it horror is almost cruel to it, since that just creates an expectation in the viewer of something, well, horrific — especially after the almost comical jump-scare of the title card.) Sheil, Adams, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Olivia Taylor Dudley — they all shine, because they’re given room to shine and an irresistible chunk of dramatic meat to gnaw on. A lot of them came up together or have worked together before or swim in the same indie-film waters; I’m never displeased to turn a corner in a movie and find Jane Adams there. The movie might best be described not as horror or thriller but as a creepy idea that its cast and writer/director then riff on. It’s like a jazz concept album, with various artists honking or tootling their soul’s response to a given theme. By all means try it, but bring all the patience you have.

Tommaso

May 25, 2020

tommaso2In Abel Ferrara’s 1993 autobiographical indie drama Dangerous Game, Harvey Keitel played a Ferrara-like movie director. In an especially cringe-worthy scene, Keitel confesses to his onscreen wife — played by Ferrara’s actual then-wife — that he’s had lots of on-set flings. What does it feel like directing your surrogate character to confess such things to your wife? For that matter, how did Ferrara’s wife feel about it? (Answer: the marriage was kaput within five years.) I wondered anew while watching Ferrara’s new autobiographical indie drama Tommaso. Here, Ferrara’s avatar is Willem Dafoe, whose young Moldavian wife is played by Ferrara’s current wife, Cristina Chiriac. He suspects her of infidelity; he has fantasies of hanging out with naked women and of dark, violent scenarios. For good measure, Dafoe and Chiriac’s toddler daughter is played by Ferrara and Chiriac’s toddler daughter Anna. Takeaway: either Cristina Chiriac has never seen Dangerous Game or she really trusts Abel Ferrara.

I was thinking other things, too, such as how fit Willem Dafoe is looking in his sixties (he’s been doing Ashtanga yoga for over thirty years, and does some in the movie). His instruments, as always, are precisely aligned; he’s one of the best we have. And Ferrara gives him some thick meat to chew on in Tommaso. Sober for six years after a netherworld of crack, coke and heroin — it appears Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant was more self-based than we might have thought — Dafoe’s character, whom everyone calls Tommaso (or, once, Tommy), is trying very hard to be decent, to balance family life with creative life. So Dafoe gets to enact self-doubt, self-hatred, eventually self-destruction. But the scenes feel like actors’ workshops — you’re ashamed of not being a better father to your adopted daughters from your first marriage! Go with that! And Dafoe goes with that, but meanwhile he spends a good amount of time playing opposite Cristina Chiriac, an amiable nonactress who covers her face when she has to pretend to be crying.

There are worse ways to pass a couple hours than to watch a great actor being puppeted by a great-ish director. It sure does dawdle, though, and daydreams like the one in which Tommaso is brought to the precinct in handcuffs — for speaking his truth too loudly, or some such banality — presume our patience. They feel like padding in an already overpadded movie. Tommaso goes to AA meetings and to teach an acting class and to attend Italian lessons, not so much to shed light on his day-to-day activities, we may feel, but to get him out of the apartment (which is also — what are the odds? — Ferrara’s own apartment). Tommaso’s occasional excursions to the park with his daughter seem to have no point other than to take them and us out for some fresh air in this otherwise four-walls, no-windows movie. (Well, there is a balcony, from which Tommaso has a fearful vision of his little girl getting Pet Sematary’d on a narrow street. But what a view!)

Tommaso is set and filmed in Ferrara’s stomping grounds in Rome, not that we get to see much of the great city; the point must be that a miserable artist is miserable anywhere. Tommaso is shown tinkering fruitlessly with a script that involves a bear attack, among other things; some research reveals that the project is actually Ferrara’s forthcoming film Siberia, also starring Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, and Anna Ferrara. Does this make Tommaso the Barton Fink to Ferrara’s Miller’s Crossing — the smaller meta-project about creative blockage the filmmaker(s) took on while dealing with writer’s block on a larger project? Who the hell knows. That script sounds livelier than anything in Tommaso, or, to put it more generously, Siberia ought to be a hell of a movie! Tommaso isn’t bad; Ferrara simply can’t sell out — even his Body Snatchers was a weird goddamn thing — and he hands the film to his great star and shouts “Be me! Be you being me! Be me being you!” But its “we have the actors and the locations, let’s go do it” improvisatory spirit isn’t enough to sustain our full engagement for almost two hours. When Ferrara goes, there’ll be reason to mourn; many reasons. By and large, Tommaso, for all its art-house sincerity, won’t be among them.

Shirley

May 10, 2020

shirley The stories of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) are enjoying a bit of a fresh wash and airing out lately, what with recent treatments of The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and (on deck) “The Lottery.” So it’s not surprising that the experimental/instinctive filmmaker Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) got the go-ahead to make a movie about Jackson. Given Decker’s involvement, it also shouldn’t be surprising that the result, Shirley, turns out to be an elliptical riff on the themes that Jackson’s life and work open up; it’s far from a standard biopic. Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, adapting a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, approach Jackson as an avatar of misunderstood, squelched female creativity at a time that didn’t value or encourage it. (Trying to square the film’s hazy timeline with the real events isn’t useful; we’ll say the film is set in the early ‘50s.)

Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is beating her head against an inchoate novel she’s trying to find her way into writing, which eventually became 1951’s Hangsaman, loosely based on the disappearance of a local college girl. At first, the anguished Moss as the depressed, blocked Shirley seems like typecasting, and I wished anew that Moss weren’t shaping up to be the next Christian Bale, miserable and self-crucifying forever. But Moss finds pockets of wit and even giddy pixellated fun in Shirley’s antisocial moods and games. (The agoraphobic Jackson had no problem with social distancing.) Moss’s Shirley has a kind of mischievous though maliceless curiosity about the world around her. Much of it she sees through the prism of men’s betrayal of women and all its forms — her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (a twinkly caricature of ebullient mansplaining by Michael Stuhlbarg), beds down with legions of his female students.

Into this miasma of spoken and unspoken psychic violence drift a fictional couple — Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young). Fred will be interning with Professor Hyman, and Rose will be doing some cooking and cleaning, because Stanley and Shirley don’t. Shirley and the pregnant Rose develop a complicated rapport based on shared feelings of being overlooked, underestimated, vilified. (The movie reminds us that Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” sparked as much loathing as love; the script unfolds sometime after the heated response has more or less flattened and blocked Jackson.) The unknown fate of the missing Paula Jean Welden haunts Shirley — she recognizes that she, too, is lost, and she has visions of Rose as Paula enacting self-abnegating psychodramas, literally squirming in the soil. Paula/Rose/Shirley become a triptych of fear of female erasure. Through all this, Decker’s filmmaking is quiet, diffuse, questioning yet assured. The camera floats between the characters, gets up close, breathes along with them. The film toys with the idea of a tryst between Rose and Shirley, then withdraws it. Sex is too physical for what’s really going on here, a sort of meditation on the female oversoul in the ‘50s.

I told you this wasn’t a typical biopic. And some of it plays better in memory than it may when you watch it — a few of the scenes are awkward bordering on cringeworthy, not out of ineptitude but by design. Decker wants us to feel what her characters feel, and a lot of the conflict has to do with the manners and mores of the day. Moss and Stuhlbarg dig into each other’s soft spots so masterfully it’s sometimes easy to forget Odessa Young and especially Logan Lerman are even there. But the movie isn’t really about the male-female war. What Decker (and Jackson before her) understand is that women’s inner lives could be dark and twisted (sometimes beautifully so) even without men. Add the creative urge to that mix and the test tube might explode in your hand. Despite its egghead premise and milieu, Shirley isn’t a hostile art object. Unexpected warm breezes of intimacy waft through it. At heart it’s a fantasy about a crank, misanthrope and artist who crosses paths with a muse and sees her artistic life project laid out before her. It tells her to speak for the haunted and silent.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

April 5, 2020

cook thiefThirty years ago this month, we in America began to hear of something dark and alluring, a British film with a title worthy of Grimm: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Those of us who caught it in an art-house theater, with an actual audience, remember the hushed noises around us. It was a weird crowd. Viewers accustomed to rather more genteel and artsy fare were confronted with images of sex and violence; viewers with a thorough grounding in exploitation flicks were confronted with allusions to great painters and dramatists. Either way it was a confrontation. Does it say anything today, though? And really, did it ever?

I’m not a Cook, Thief hater. Its creator, writer-director Peter Greenaway, crafted an extraordinary — and extraordinarily memorable — fable about art and love adrift in a cruel world of … of what? Consumerism? Capitalism? Thatcherism? Cook, Thief can be an attack on whatever you want it to be an attack on. But is it really an attack? Certainly the second character in the title — the thief, crude gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) — seems meant to stand in for ugliness and brutality wherever we may find it. Spica sits in his favorite restaurant, which he has also bought, and spews about disgusting topics as though he were a naughty little boy testing the patience of his elders. But no one dares to push back at him; doing so may get you stabbed in the face with a fork, or taken out to the parking lot and smeared with dog excrement.

Whatever narrative tension there is in Cook, Thief derives from Spica’s abused and soul-tired wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), who loathes Spica and has her eye on a literally bookish man, Michael (Alan Howard). Michael comes to the restaurant each night, reading about the French Revolution over the meals prepared by the head chef, Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), who also hates Spica. If Cook, Thief belongs to anyone other than Greenaway, it’s Mirren, who wrestles the movie away from Greenaway’s often pompous clutches and invests it with recognizable human emotion — even during a late scene that goes on forever and spoils what might be, in a “lesser” film by Greenaway’s lights, the big twist. If you’ve never seen the movie or haven’t for years, you will come away from it with an even deeper-seated respect for Mirren, who does her damnedest in a largely unwritten role. Greenaway, it seems, doesn’t do humans any more than his opposite number — say, Michael Bay — does.

Yet it’s this very tension between humanity and the film’s rigorous scheme — between life and art — that digs its hooks into our memories. The lurid cruelties that Greenaway lingers over, out of perhaps some disdainful conviction that this is what the mass audience wants, help to file the movie on a rarefied art-exploitation shelf alongside, say, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant or Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. I don’t mind Greenaway’s fixation on art. I actually prefer his Belly of an Architect, made two years before Cook, Thief, and not just because Brian Dennehy dominates it brilliantly. There’s a compassion, a generosity of spirit, in it that’s missing from Cook, Thief. But by the time Greenaway made this film, he’d been in the business and dealing with money men for enough years that his experience, I suspect, informed the Juvenalian satire here.

Cook, Thief was the first film by Greenaway distributed in America by Miramax, which at that point was building a reputation as a tony studio specializing in prestigious works from the indie scene and from abroad. After the movie’s success — driven by all the buzz about its ghastly content — Miramax got into the Greenaway business briefly, with Prospero’s Books and Drowning by Numbers. Nowadays, of course, Miramax is associated with far more sinister things than a movie featuring vomit and shit and corpse-munching. The bearded, balding Albert Spica, with his potato face, his violently menacing swagger, his ferocious misogyny, and his deafening contempt for anything uppity while conspicuously consuming fine food (art food!) only to shit it out later, strikes me in 2020 as nothing so much as Greenaway’s prescient portrait of Harvey Weinstein. Viewed as a metaphor for Greenaway the cook’s hatred of the slimy vulgarians he had to prepare exquisite dishes for in order to continue to cook at all, Cook, Thief takes on considerable thematic weight. And who among us can object to the way Greenaway deals with his Weinstein, by putting the means of revenge not in the cook’s hand, finally, but in the wife’s?

The Reflecting Skin

July 21, 2019

reflecting skinI have been waiting for years to talk at length about The Reflecting Skin, one of my favorite movies few people have seen. Since it’s making its American Blu-ray debut in a couple of weeks (along with a new DVD), the time seems ripe. This is the feature directing debut of Philip Ridley, only 24 when he made it, and it unfolds in a distinct dream-logic world. The setting is the American midwest circa the 1950s (post-WWII, anyway), but the film exists aside from time and place. Roger Ebert’s much-quoted, accurate assessment goes like so: “It’s not really about America at all, it’s about nightmares, and I’m not easily going to forget it.”

Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), “nearly nine,” is a borderline monstrous little boy, though with a sensitivity that indicates redemption is possible (though perhaps not probable). We meet him when he and two of his friends are committing a particularly grotesque form of cruelty to animals, a detail that seems partly indebted to the kids burning a scorpion alive in The Wild Bunch and partly to Ridley fighting a fever and falling asleep, bathed in sick-sweat, in front of a TV playing The Fool Killer or Night of the Hunter while a paperback of Faulkner rests tented over his chest. The movie is suffused with a febrile, half-articulated aesthetic of American gothic — vampires and dead babies and maimed sheriffs and grinning hairless werewolves in a Cadillac.

A mysterious woman (Lindsay Duncan) who calls herself Dolphin Blue lives nearby, and Seth becomes convinced that she’s a bloodsucker and that his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), just returned from a stint in the Army, is about to be seduced and drained by her. Meanwhile, Seth’s gruesome and unhappy mother (Sheila Moore) resents her life with his father (Duncan Fraser), who reeks of the gasoline he pumps out in front of the house. All the adults have secrets, perhaps none more so than Cameron, who has seen what atomic bombs do — he has a photo in his wallet of a Japanese baby whose skin “got all silver and shiny. Just like a mirror. You could see your face in it.” This image is preceded by Seth’s ghastly discovery in a hayloft, a discovery he takes to be the angel of his friend Eben. Eben was kidnapped and murdered, most likely by the strange, suspiciously amiable hoodlums in the Cadillac. People keep disappearing, not just kids. 

The Reflecting Skin will enrapture those attuned to its wheatfield surrealism and repel, violently, everyone else. Upon its release almost thirty years ago it attracted unavoidable comparisons to David Lynch, but these days it seems sui generis. Ridley, sadly, hasn’t done much in films since (though he has kept his hand in creatively with books, paintings and plays). 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Noon (with one of Brendan Fraser’s finest unseen performances) and 2009’s Heartless are about it for those who want to see more Ridley cinema. But at least he batted three for three (though Heartless, while fine, is the weak link of the three). For some, the early lead performance by Viggo Mortensen (who also shows up in Darkly Noon) will be a draw; the then-31-year-old weighs in with a cloaked, edgy turn later elaborated on in Sean Penn’s essential The Indian Runner.

Mortensen fits right into the curdled nostalgia of the piece. Truly, though, the film is held together by young Jeremy Cooper. I think he’s the reason we don’t hate Seth after his first scene. Seth is in pain, and as we see more and more of his grim home life we can understand why, even if he doesn’t. The movie’s title, as I said, is given a literal explication, but it’s also a metaphor for how, when we look at others, we just see weird reflections of ourselves, or of our expectations or prejudices. So people are vampires or perverts, or they go around calling themselves sinners, or they just go around killing children — either in a Cadillac or in a United States military aircraft. A lot of The Reflecting Skin has to do with toxic masculinity — though that wasn’t a concept back in 1990 and definitely not at the time of the film’s setting. Almost every scene is creepy or morbid or painful or all three. The people, out there in the beauty of the unnamed pastoral country, are damned from birth. The whispering landscape crawls with demons, and the angels are fishy-smelling, maggoty corpses. The vision of hell is forceful and complete.

London Fields

May 27, 2019

london fields The beleaguered London Fields was filmed so long ago (2013!) that its lead actress, Amber Heard, was still involved with Johnny Depp. This explains why Depp turns up in a few scenes uncredited as Chick Purchase, a scar-faced darts champion. Based on a 1989 novel by eternal literary bad boy Martin Amis, London Fields ran afoul of some of its producers, who by many accounts took the film away from director Mathew Cullen and rendered it less artsy (or, if you like, less artful). The resulting recut staggered into a few theaters in 2018 and died the death of a thousand critical cuts. It’s available on physical and streaming media, if you want it.

But now the director’s cut has been making the rounds among critics, and while I haven’t seen the producers’ cut to compare, I can say the restored version works as a brooding mood piece, haunted by Oppenheimer and looming nuclear catastrophe, structured as a trippy whodunit, or more like a “who’s gonna do it.” In this form, London Fields might take its place alongside other cult Chandler-bogarting-that-joint crime whatsits like The Big Lebowski, Brick, Inherent Vice, and Under the Silver Lake. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Samson Young, a blocked novelist trading flats with a British writer. He encounters Nicola Six (Heard), a psychic who has predicted her own murder; she just doesn’t know who’s gonna do it. Nicola might be meant to represent all of us in the post-Hiroshima world, who know, or at least darkly suspect, that collectively we will be murdered — we just don’t know who’s gonna push the button.

Like other shady ensemble pieces circling a corpse, the movie dots the landscape with saps, sleazes and sluts. The sleaziest, sappiest slut is Keith Talent, a scruffy driver and would-be darts king. Jim Sturgess plays Keith on about the same cartoonish “OI, ROIGHT THEN” level as the scrofulous roomies on The Young Ones. He lurches into every scene, shoves his face into someone else’s face, and screws his expression into an open-mouthed sneer. At first I found Sturgess hard to look at — he seemed to be giving the worst performance in a movie that also includes Cara Delevingne and Amber Heard — but the idiotic Keith gains layers of pathos. The performance came together for me when Keith showed up to a big darts championship (where he hopes to whip Chick Purchase’s ass in front of everyone) and discovered it would be filmed in a cavernous, empty studio, with audience roars to be added later. Sturgess’ rendering of Keith’s disappointment helps link the darts stuff with the rest of the movie’s stuff: In this film violet, nobody gets what he or she wants.

Thornton’s morose writer narrates as the miscast Heard flits from one bed to another, trying to manipulate her own murder. Suicide? Not really; she knows it’s going to happen, she just wants some control over how and whom. An English non-entity (Theo James) drifts into the picture, repping all the googly-eyed “nice guys” in noir history who eventually learn how nice they aren’t. If I had to guess, I’d say Amis, and then Cullen, use the mechanics of a thriller to muse on a future of mass incineration. (The actual London Fields had the crap bombed out of it in the Blitz.) Who cares about one murdered woman — a “murderee” — in a reality where we could all be murderees? “Charging a man with murder in this place,” observed Martin Sheen about Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, “was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” And as Robert Aldrich’s bebop-atomic Kiss Me Deadly knew, nuclear holocaust is about the last word in noir.

Amis played with metafiction and the concept of unreliable narrators. That’s hard to convey on film, so Cullen leans on apocalyptic stock footage and hopes for the best. (There’s reportedly no stock footage in the producers’ edit, which must really make that version seem pointless.) I responded to the jagged and despairing mood, and there’s a nifty though too-brief bit with Jim Sturgess dancing to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” in the rain near a dumpster. It’s a cynical, grimy rewrite of “Singin’ in the Rain,” of course, but Sturgess and Cullen make it vivid and almost transcendent. Too bad about Amber Heard, whose appeal continues to elude me, but London Fields as its director intended it is a noble attempt, ravishingly shot by Guillermo Navarro and dotted with ironically sprightly needle-drops (mostly absent from the producers’ cut). By all accounts, the version that’s out there right now is a botch, a massacre; I hope you get to see Cullen’s version, which while no masterpiece at least seems to have larger things on its mind and a nice control of jittery yet resigned mood — a mood that may have seemed prescient in 2013 and today feels like looking in the mirror.

Dragged Across Concrete

March 23, 2019

DAC_D02_00415.dng Can a noir film be two-thirds noir? If so, welcome to Dragged Across Concrete, the third movie and second noir by writer-director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99). This film is a bit more realistic — which is to say less baroquely pulpy and gory — than Zahler’s earlier efforts, but it’s similarly concerned with holding toxic masculinity up to the cold morning light. Why should Zahler explicitly condemn the retro notions some of its characters express? He trusts us to know those ideas are racist, sexist, homophobic. Zahler’s project, in movies anyway (he also writes novels), is to take blinkered, limited (white) men and allow them enough time to show us their humanity as well as their limits. We may not “like” them (as if drama were a popularity contest) but we understand them.

Before I get into the mainstream of the plot, I’d like to detour, much as Zahler does about an hour-twenty into the film, and consider a minor character whose presence in the narrative is not immediately clear. She is a new mother, torn apart inside at the thought of ending her maternal leave and returning to work. She is played by Jennifer Carpenter, who always seems on the verge of an epic ugly-cry, and she eventually tears herself away from her baby and goes back to work — at a bank that houses gold bullion that has attracted the attention of some armed robbers. Aside from giving some backstory to this woman, and therefore audience sympathy, before she is placed in danger, Zahler uses her to explain why things happen as they do during the robbery. What she says at the end of her scene prefigures what others will say later. A sock, a ring, a new apartment: it’s all for the family, or for the hope of one. Your morality depends on what you ask for when you think your time is up.

Mel Gibson is top-billed as Detective Ridgeman, a dyspeptic and brutal cop, and he’s very fine here, as he often has been. He gives Ridgeman an exhausted awareness of his own barbaric stink; he’s “scuffed the pavement too long,” as his boss (Don Johnson) says. Ridgeman’s partner is the younger, snarkier Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), who denies his racism — his girlfriend (Tattiawna Jones) is black — but being decent to one person of color doesn’t mean you’re going to behave likewise towards the many other such people you run across in the line of duty, and those in the enforcement and correctional fields often see people at their worst. These two are suspended following Ridgeman’s too-rough handling of a drug dealer — it’s been recorded and will hit the evening news. They need money, and when Ridgeman starts tailing a non-local crime bigwig (Thomas Kretschmann) to see if there’ll be any ill-gotten gains in it for him, Lurasetti joins him. In a separate thread, ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) signs up as a driver for the same bank robbers associated with the bigwig. Eventually Henry, Ridgeman and Lurasetti face each other across the concrete of a junkyard.

Despite the marquee value of the two white guys, a good case could be made that the true protagonist of Dragged Across Concrete is Henry. His motives in attaching himself to the bank robbery are more poignant and urgent than those of Ridgeman or Lurasetti, whose tragic flaws are their unquestioned prejudices. That this film is being called racist, or even right-wing, is laughable; like Zahler’s other movies, it exists beyond politics in a gray area where art and reality reside. Zahler gets top-shelf performances from Gibson, Vaughn (again), and Kittles, with another fun drop-in from Udo Kier. The scenes are protracted and talky without being in the slightest boring. Quirks and revelations crop up in the long dialogue passages. We spend a full minute looking at Vince Vaughn devouring an appalling sandwich while Mel Gibson stoically endures the smacking sounds and the stench. The timing is dead-bang; a second longer or shorter and the joke would be lost.

Maybe one of the ruder, subtler jokes in the movie is that the rules of noir only apply to the white men, perhaps because the black character’s life thus far has been quite noir enough (in the classical sense meaning a world-weary fatalism). Henry’s final moments in the movie evoke a dream of literal whiteness — the walls, the decor. Henry’s character arc suggests not a corrective to racism but an acknowledgment that racism can be a tool a smart black guy can use against its wielders. As Henry says, “It’s good to be underestimated.” In Zahler’s cinematic world so far, men are trapped by the white-knight-like obligation they think they have to women, and women are trapped by the same, in the name of protection and provision.¹ Zahler lobs in racial/cultural tensions for good measure. One movie can’t resolve the issues Zahler pokes around in; a thousand movies couldn’t. But I look forward to continuing to watch Zahler try.

¹ Of course, Jennifer Carpenter’s character, the breadwinner in her family, refutes that idea. But if she had stayed home with the baby…

Roma

January 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

Cold War

December 30, 2018

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

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

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

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