Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

Mandy

September 23, 2018

Mandy-1-Nicolas-cage-1200x520 Roger Ebert’s most enduring maxim, perhaps, is this: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Jesus fuckin’ Christ, is Mandy ever not about what it’s about. It is full-metal, full-throttle how it is about it. The story is one we’ve seen a million times — a lone man avenges his lost love. But what director-cowriter Panos Cosmatos does with it makes all the difference. The movie is not of this earth; almost every frame of it could be painted on the side of a van, or appear on a death-metal band’s double live album cover. The story is tragic and pauses to take proper measure of what has been lost and what might be lost, but more than once I still cackled at the demonic-purple Heavy Metal aesthetic, presided over by Nicolas Cage with his Dwight-Frye-meets-Timothy-Carey efflorescence dialed up past 11.

Cage is Red, a lumberjack who lives in a secluded house (that seems to be made largely out of windows) with his love Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, creating a complexly vulnerable character in her pittance of screen time). Mandy catches the eye of diabolical cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who sends his band of eye-rolling numbfuck sadists to kidnap her. Mandy displeases Jeremiah, and is extinguished in front of Red’s tormented eyes. After a while, he goes after the “crazy evil.” On the face of it, this seems like a fine example of what female comics fans snarkily refer to as “fridging” — killing a woman to kick the male lead into vicious, self-righteous, vengeful action. But again, it’s about how it’s about it, and the very retro style (the movie is set in 1983, when Reagan is on the radio and women can unironically wear Mötley Crüe baseball shirts) seems to comment on how dusty the trope is. For instance, Mandy is no conventional fridged prettyface but a literally and figuratively scarred woman who we often see reading for pleasure. You might laugh and say showing a woman (or anyone) reading for pleasure in a pop entertainment isn’t so uncommon as to merit comment. You’d be mistaken.

Cosmatos, son of the late schlock director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo, among others), uses the basic plot to throw in anything he finds cool and/or interesting. Mandy is such a specific woman you just know she’s based on someone Cosmatos values in real life. Red, on the other hand, is a standard-issue stoic hero that Cage riffs on in his customary manic-expressionist manner. I do have to say, however, that Mandy is deliberate bordering on poky for at least its first hour. Scenes and shots go on far longer than necessary — to establish a mood, though, not to convey information. The prolonged shots, wedded to the trippy colors and aggressive soundtrack, start to come across as hypnotic. We are steering into a point of no return, past which — courtesy of a bathroom meltdown that will stand among many others in Cage’s greatest-hits reel — the movie becomes dark and grimy, faster-paced, a rock opera about revenge.

I mention Mandy’s slow first half because, first, I want to acknowledge that my patience was tested and yours might be too, and second, to emphasize that once the film turns on a dime into a pop apocalypse that might have been illustrated by Richard Corben at his most feral, the first half comes to seem like an oasis whose relative calm we failed, like Red and Mandy, to appreciate at the time. (Although on repeat viewings, going into it knowing its initial tempo, we might occupy the film’s open spaces more willingly.) Mandy becomes about grief and its deranging aspects; the movie’s garish, psychotronic vibe is a combustible and original filter through which to view loss and guilt. The growing legion of folks who love Mandy are responding to something deeper in it than its badass violence, Cage camp, or retro-irony. It sinks its emotional hooks into us while we’re not looking, while we’re distracted by the beauty and art of this hellscape and its mythic denizens, the surrealism of a TV commercial featuring “Cheddar Goblin” (the fans have already sung Cheddar Goblin’s fervent praises; next comes the Funko Pop Cheddar Goblin, no doubt), the phallic hilarity of an opponent wielding the longest chainsaw you’ve ever seen. This midnight movie, this spiritual bastard child of a thousand drive-in flicks, ultimately takes its place in the halls of art. It’s purple and inflamed, like a fireworks show or an abscess.

Advertisements

Madeline’s Madeline

August 11, 2018

MadelinesMadelineThose of you whose craving for experimental actors flailing around wasn’t quite sated by Who’s Crazy might want to discover Madeline’s Madeline. An elliptical art-house film, the third such effort by writer/director Josephine Decker, the movie centers on a difficult girl, Madeline (Helena Howard), who has fallen in with a New York theatrical troupe. The group’s director Evangeline (Molly Parker) keeps asking her players — all of whom except sixteen-year-old Madeline are adults — to express their inner pigs or cats or turtles while circling around a vague theme that always seems to be changing.

Madeline, who has a history of mental illness, butts heads often with her brittle mom Regina (Miranda July), who’s a bit overprotective and knows less and less what to make of her daughter the older Madeline gets. At one point, at a gathering at Evangeline’s house, Madeline confides in Evangeline’s nonplussed partner that she’s thinking of losing her virginity for her seventeenth birthday. The movie is made up of awkward interactions like that, and there’s one sequence near the end, when Madeline is encouraged to act out the part of her impatient mother while Regina sits watching in agony, that practically demands we avert our eyes in discomfort.

Is Madeline’s Madeline enjoyable? It took me a good while, maybe half an hour, to get used to its diffuse style — Ashley Connor’s cinematography takes us very close in and glides in and out of focus — and its emphasis on shrill, bouncing acting exercises, which I generally find embarrassing. Gradually, though, a portrait coalesces out of jagged pieces, of a girl casting about for a self. Who is Madeline? A daughter? An actor? A student (she goes to regular school, where we hear that kids make fun of her, but we never see her there)? Who is her real mother — Regina or Evangeline? The theater director always seems on the verge of flipping into a cult leader, but it turns out she’s just trying to hold everything together — her theater project, her life, her marriage. The evident fact that Evangeline is more or less based on Josephine Decker does not escape notice.

Most of the critical attention has focused on Helena Howard as Madeline, as well it should — hers is a guileless, open performance hungry for revelation. That climactic bit Madeline does about her mother is like a lightning bolt of clarity slashing through a humid fog of repressed, ignored emotion. It’s also something of a centerpiece, an actor’s moment handed to Howard on a platter, and she runs with it. The movie is completely an actors’ film, built to be warmly hospitable to its players — though with efforts like this, you never can tell if Decker, like Evangeline, is running all sorts of vulnerability games meant to extract raw truth from an actor like a rotten tooth out of a suffering jaw. Howard is obliged to spit out a few such teeth, not without emotional blood. The true test will be how well she aligns with a film not so snugly fashioned to her particular set of skills. (Though, please, keep her clear of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

If your first response to oblique films like this when the end credits roll is “Will someone tell me what that was about?,” you should probably give Madeline’s Madeline a wide berth. Even I, who perhaps has more patience than most for artsy doodling, sighed and checked my watch once or twice. But if you enjoy the soft-grained, difficult, probing nature of Decker’s film — and I did, for the most part — it pays off in quiet, almost peripheral ways. The various problems of the characters don’t lead to drama or even resolution; they just add to the fabric of the piece and give the actors something to work with. The ending might be ambiguously happy, Decker’s way of saying she’d be gratified if her art got out of her control and became its own thing. The last shot expresses freedom while literally leaving us behind to think about it.

π

June 24, 2018

pi-2Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut π, which observes its 20th anniversary on July 10, follows in the tradition of other artsy first films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man, and E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten. It’s short — mercifully short, we might say, while acknowledging its ornery brilliance — visually harsh, shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white that eventually rubs sandpaper-like against the eye. And it is entirely devoted to its own vision, its own interiorized world. It’s probably not coincidental that anguish and mutilation are on the menu in all four of these movies; you have to be a certain kind of viewer to want to watch them very frequently. Of the four, though, π seems the most interested in the world outside itself, even if only fleetingly and fearfully.

An exacting artist, Aronofsky has made only six films since this one — Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), Noah (2014), and mother! (2017). Many have been polarizing, and I was probably in the minority when I declared the frantic fable mother! the great American film of its year. Aronofsky’s art does not always work for me — I found Requiem and Black Swan pompous and conceived in bad faith — but he consistently takes such chances, swings so hard for the fence, that I can absorb and even respect the two out of seven films that didn’t land for me. π is a workout, no question, and not for everyone, but it has intellectual and spiritual fervor, and even when it stops dead for some mystical exposition, at least it assumes our intelligence (though also our patience).

The movie follows Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematical savant who thinks numbers are everything — are in everything, explain everything. He lives in a crappy, ant-infested apartment with a rickety computer he calls Euclid, which he uses to try to game the stock market. Instead, it spits out a 216-digit number, which Max disregards; then various folks ranging from Hasidic Jews to Wall Street agents descend on him. They all want what he knows; he doesn’t even know what he knows. This aspect of π is sort of a wry indie rewrite of the standard detective story, where the scruffy gumshoe is menaced by people wanting the MacGuffin or the dingus or whatever. Max is a gumshoe of number theory, and the MacGuffin is in his head. Then again, so are paranoia and migraines and, in the notorious but abbreviated climax, a drill bit.

The soul of π, though, isn’t in its thriller tropes (there’s a hectically-staged chase scene that’s as boring as any other chase scene) but in the scenes with Max and his old friend Sol (Mark Margolis), a math warhorse who got a little too close to the flame of numerical truth and had a debilitating stroke. Margolis is 78 now and has always looked 78, even 20 years ago in this film, and we believe him as an exhausted old man who has forsaken math obsession; we also appreciate seeing him as something other than a cold-blooded mobster. The two men sit and talk quietly in Sol’s equally rumpled apartment while they play Go or Sol feeds his fish. It’s top-drawer stuff, and proved that Aronofsky wasn’t just some hip hotshot but an artist engaged with his characters’ emotional readings. (Margolis has gone on to appear in almost every Aronofsky film since, like a lucky charm, except for mother!)

Max is surrounded by people, benevolent or very much otherwise, who want something from him; aside from Sol, the only person he has time for is a little Chinese girl who loves to throw calculations at him. She reminds him, I guess, of a time when his particular strange acumen might have been fun. Enjoyment, relaxation, a rare computer chip — people keep offering Max things to pull him away from his own obsessions, his own head. But he can’t, and won’t, be distracted. He is the damaged loner as outlaw artist, a theme Aronofsky has returned to again and again, or has at any rate lived in his own life. Coming back to π after his subsequent pieces puts them all into perspective — even the hornéd beast mother!, which I would gladly recommend on a double bill with π if it wouldn’t make you come after me with a drill.

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.

 

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.