Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

The Assignment

March 19, 2017

assignmentWatching Another 48 HRS on TV with the sound off, for some reason, I found myself drawn into the movement, the colors, the cinema. That movie is a lazy, stupid sequel, certainly not the finest hour of its director, Walter Hill. But Hill is a visual samurai, and for a few minutes I just let myself coast on the smooth, feral images. Hill’s latest, the controversial pulp thriller The Assignment, has a few moments like that. Too few. An alarming chunk of it amounts to two people in a room swapping stiff dialogue. Given the advance anti-buzz — the very premise an affront to the struggle of transgender people — I was anticipating a good crappy time, a low-rent guilty pleasure, but the sad truth is it’s too dull to be offensive.

Hill is only as good as his script, and this one, which he and collaborator Denis Hamill tinkered with for years, doesn’t do him any favors. A hitman, Frank Kitchen, a lithe and scowling fellow with a beard, kills a lowlife who turns out to be the brother of an insane plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver). The surgeon has her revenge by having Frank abducted and brought to her operating table; before long, Frank looks like Michelle Rodriguez, with the accompanying lady parts, and of course without his former man parts. I say “his” because Frank is not transgender; he had gender reassignment surgery without his consent, so the use of trans-friendly pronouns doesn’t quite apply here.

What we have here isn’t truly transphobic. It’s really more of a gendernaut rewrite of Hill’s 1989 Johnny Handsome. In both films, the assumption is that surgery to change a scoundrel’s appearance will also change his heart; Weaver’s cracked surgeon sounds almost the same as Forest Whitaker’s much more altruistic sawbones in Johnny Handsome. In this case, it’s presumed that changing macho, cold-hearted Frank into a woman outwardly will also make him inwardly more feminine, less violent. Of course, the surgeon is also a woman, and she’s fairly cold and has no trouble getting thugs to do her psychotic bidding. Unpacking this movie for what it might say about gender will only result in clutter. It’s basically noir: people don’t change; people can’t change.

Towards the end, as Frank slaughters his way closer to the surgeon, Hill’s casual mastery of violence kicks The Assignment into gear. It’s cheaply done, and it’s depressingly clear that Hill’s days of having budgets like the ones he had for 48 HRS or Southern Comfort are long behind him. But there’s some snappy brutality. It doesn’t make up for the talkiness, though, or Hill’s habit of using corny scene transitions, or the highly expendable subplot involving Frank and a comely but unethical nurse (Caitlin Gerard). Hill was enamored of the film’s premise for decades, but he never made the premise into a movie. Weaver, sitting in a straitjacket, talks to shrink Tony Shalhoub for what seems like a lifetime, and talks and talks, and every time Hill goes back to this room and these two, we tap our feet and wait for the film to get started again.

Weaver tries for some Dr. Lecter sangfroid in bringing this arrogantly arch character to life, but it’s a monotonous, unsmiling performance from a usually good-humored actor. Rodriguez looks for something real in this pulp universe and fails, falling back into her sullen default mode. Walter Hill turned this material into a French graphic novel before he made the movie, and the movie has the same gritty, debauched tone as a European comics album for adults only. The acting needed to be heightened, the dialogue cruel and sharp as a shiv. There aren’t even quotable lines or amusing turns of phrase. The transgender community has far worse things to fear and rage against than this pallid exercise. Walter Hill alone may know why he still wanted to make this movie; the rest of us don’t know.

Who’s Crazy?

March 12, 2017

whos-crazy-1966-thomas-white-04Once upon a time, an American filmmaker in Belgium happened across a group of other Americans. The group were members of New York’s experimental Living Theatre, whose founders (Julian Beck and Judith Molina) were back in the States doing time for tax evasion. While waiting for their spiritual father and mother to arrive, the Theatre people herded into a deserted farmhouse along with the filmmaker — Thomas White — and created Who’s Crazy?, a barely feature-length attempt shown at a couple of festivals and then considered lost for decades. During that time it was known, if at all, among jazz scholars because of its soundtrack by Ornette Coleman. Finally, in 2015 a print of the film was found in White’s garage.       

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

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

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

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

We Are the Flesh

January 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The Love Witch

December 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Plays Christine

October 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Knight of Cups

June 19, 2016

knightofcupsAnd so we enter that rarefied realm again, the world of reclusive writer/director — or poet/director — or poet/poet — Terrence Malick. This confounding auteur once spent twenty years between films, but of late the 72-year-old daydreamer appears to be obeying the exhortations of Thomas Carlyle, who advised us to “produce! produce!” because “the night cometh, wherein no man can work.” So in the wake of the universe-straddling The Tree of Life (2011) and the ode to romantic love and difficulty To the Wonder (2012), we now bear witness to Knight of Cups, which, for those of you who thrilled to the voice-over musings and lamentations of To the Wonder, provides more of the same.

I used to razz Malick for his ontological excesses — the mere thought of his 1998 The Thin Red Line makes me break out in hives. But as he and I have gotten older, Malick has stubbornly borne down on his woolgathering style, drifting farther away from standard narrative, while I have grown tired of standard narrative, especially as Hollywood practices it these days. So Knight of Cups, which peripatetically follows L.A. screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) as he shuffles his deck of memories of past women, doesn’t make me want to tear my own face off the way it might once have done. Perhaps it’s just capitulating to the experience: Malick gotta Malick. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Malick gotta wander around in exquisite imagery — a painter lost in a gallery of his own paintings — while women twirl and throw their hands in the air, and men mope around weighed down by the eternal struggle between Nature and Grace.

I can say that the style here seems jumpier, odder, less becalmed than that of Tree of Life or To the Wonder. Rick seems to be Malick’s object lesson in how not to comport oneself as an artist and a human. He fritters away his life on empty pursuits, breaking hearts along the way. He searches, but the crass milieu of Los Angeles has blunted his perception. Rick also thinks about his dead brother, as well as his still-living brother (Wes Bentley), one of those saturnine, bitterly witty black sheep so many movie families have. Now and again, Rick’s religious father (Brian Dennehy) heaves his bulk into view; Dennehy, in his seventies, still has the most Brobdingnagian shoulders you’ve ever seen, and still looks as though he could just shrug you into the next life. Knight of Cups must be the artiest movie Dennehy has been in since Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect many moons ago.

It would probably take a hermetic band of analysts a year to unpack all the symbology in Knight of Cups, starting with its Tarot-inspired title and chapter headings. In the Tarot, the Knight of Cups card signifies love and joy; however, the same card when drawn upside down means the reverse, and the movie’s poster features Bale upside down on a card. There are also Malick’s usual favorite habitats: the beach at magic hour; water, water everywhere, though not cleansing or baptismal but weirdly isolating. Los Angeles from Malick’s viewpoint is spiritually adrift, no country for thoughtful men. Yet even such places as a nightclub or a strip club are artfully abstracted.

The interior monologues more or less take over; what few direct dialogue exchanges we see are often muted or blanketed by music. The largely improvised scenes have the tone of actors restlessly prowling a stage in some Off-Off-Off-Broadway experimental play; Emmanuel Lubezki’s mostly hand-held cinematography adds to the restlessness. There’s something insecure and almost frightened in the emulsion of the film; it seems to be making itself, finding its way in a dark room. Readily ripe for parody, Knight of Cups exists in a world of great sincerity. Snark is too easy a response to it. Reverence probably is, too. So: this is more of Malick doing more of what Malick does. He’s the only one doing work of such curiosity on this scale and this budget level. When he dies, his entire unique microgenre of filmmaking will die with him. You may be grateful for that when it happens, but I won’t be joining you, not during a period when idiosyncrasy and art are to be valued more than ever.

Anomalisa

February 21, 2016

20160221-174331.jpg
As if to show that the Oscars can still gesture towards meritocracy, the emotionally wild and tangled stop-motion effort Anomalisa is actually, amazingly, one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature. It doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning — not against a Pixar film — but I’ll be rooting for it just the same. Anomalisa is the first film in seven years by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), who shares his directorial credit with stop-motion artist Duke Johnson (the Christmas episode of Community, among other things). Kaufman’s screenplay began life as a “sound play”; that it has become something often ravishingly visual, wrought in perhaps the most tactile of animated media, is one of the film’s many ironies.

The movie follows the slumping figure of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis and sculpted to look a bit like Edward Woodward), a motivational author specializing in advice for customer service reps. Michael checks into a fancy Cincinnati hotel before a scheduled lecture, and as he interacts with various people we can perceive his problem: Everyone other than Michael, male and female, young and old, is voiced by Tom Noonan, who doesn’t do much to differentiate each person vocally. That isn’t Noonan’s fault, it’s a major theme in the movie: To Michael, everyone has begun to sound the same, as though the entire world spoke with the same vaguely creepy voice. (There’s a paranoid delusion that everyone you meet is the same person, and the film’s hotel, La Fregoli, is named after it.)

Michael wades numbly in a sea of Noonans until he meets Lisa, voiced shyly and affectingly by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lisa can’t stop putting herself down, and she has rather banal things to say, but Michael can’t get enough of her voice; it’s been so long since he’s heard anything but Tom Noonan. (No offense meant to Noonan, who does have a nice way with speech — and who has directed some underseen films that could have inspired Kaufman himself — but listening to him all the time might be like being stuck inside the “Malkovich Malkovich” scene in Being John Malkovich.) Since Lisa doesn’t sound like anyone else, she is an anomaly — hence, Anomalisa. Michael invites Lisa back to his room, they talk, she sings, he weeps, they make love. If you think Kaufman will leave well enough alone, though, you don’t know Kaufman.

Why is it Lisa, and not, say, her friend Emily, or Michael’s ex Bella, or a sullen waitress, who speaks with the voice that unlocks Michael’s soul? We’re not meant to know. She distinguishes herself by her lack of sameness — aside from her voice, she has a slight disfigurement near her right eye, hidden by a sheet of streaked hair — but though she sounds appealing, an aural oasis for Michael and for us, she doesn’t really stand apart in terms of personality or intellect. This is, if anything, an even more damning detail and nail in Michael’s coffin. Is it possible to objectify a woman by her voice the way one would with her physical attributes? If so, Michael manages it.

Anomalisa fits perfectly with Kaufman’s other oddball, theatre-of-the-absurd efforts that devote a large number of moving parts to tell small stories that are really the biggest stories. In Kaufman’s only other directorial outing, the astounding Synecdoche, New York, he focused on art as life and vice versa. Here he meditates on love and how rare it is to find the real deal, and how common it is for the lonely person to lunge at anything that seems like love. Michael sits across from Lisa at breakfast and realizes, perhaps for the first time, that it isn’t her, it isn’t any of the people who cause him pain; it’s him. This is all done — beautifully — in stop-motion because Michael is manipulated by forces beyond his control. Anomalisa is a great film. Charlie Kaufman isn’t getting any younger, though, and we’ve spent seven years without any movies from him. Here’s hoping the next one gets financed more easily.