Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

Appropriate Behavior

January 18, 2015

The debut feature by writer/director Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior has been compared to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls. I’ve never seen the Dunham show, but I’m prepared to believe that Akhavan’s movie is as inspired by Dunham as leagues of white male nerds were by Woody Allen. The question you have to ask is: Derivative as it may be, is this film its own thing — does it have its own voice, its own concerns, its own world? Appropriate Behavior does, I think.

Akhavan also stars as the lead character, Shirin, a bisexual Brooklynite closeted to her Persian family, to the chagrin of her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). The story of Shirin and Maxine unfolds in non-linear flashbacks; the present tense involves Shirin’s attempts to move on from her breakup with Maxine, including a job teaching filmmaking to five-year-olds and an awkward polyamorous fling with a couple she randomly meets. Shirin is a typical confused twentysomething, trying to forge an identity among people who may be a little too rigid in their own identities — and not just the conservative Middle Eastern family she’s vaguely afraid of.

Akhavan’s writing/directing style is as deadpan and laid-back as her acting. The movie is the opposite of emotionally pushy, which makes an underwear-snipping, bottle-throwing argument late in the film stand out even more. Appropriate Behavior is, of course, about inappropriate behavior, but nobody is judged for it. It’s just the sort of goofiness that smart, needy people get themselves into, and nobody gets terribly hurt. The movie’s amused view of aimless artistic types in the city reminded me a little of the 1995 Parker Posey vehicle Party Girl. People ironically take stock of their neuroses, aware that their problems aren’t the end of the world, even if they feel apocalyptic.

Shirin doesn’t have a whole lot of back-up; she has one nonjudgmental friend, Crystal (Halley Feiffer), and various acquaintances and flirtations. Characters are allowed to be weird, complicated, flawed; nobody really does the expected thing. The guy who gives Shirin her job (Scott Adsit from 30 Rock) is a Louis CK-type sad sack who’s a little clueless but nonthreatening; that goes for pretty much everyone else, though they’re all clueless and nonthreatening in their own styles. The movie doesn’t seem to be up to anything larger than an amiable slice of urban life, and it doesn’t need to be.

Appropriate Behavior packs a drowsy erotic charge during a couple of its trysts, and even during those it doesn’t lose its tremulous sense of humor. Shirin teaches class alongside a blonde waif who used to be a hair model and whose “advanced” moviemaking class produces a pompous, Artistic little film called “At Park”; Shirin’s more down-to-earth class makes “Tales of the Lost Fart,” featuring zombies, boogers, and copious farts. Akhavan’s own movie is somewhere in the middle — no stranger to foo-foo self-reflection or to embarrassing physical foibles.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

January 11, 2015

Even when Spike Lee remakes a horror movie, he can’t sell out. For one thing, the “horror movie” he has remade is an artsy 1973 item named Ganja and Hess, a film nearly lost but later restored, and generally known only to die-hard cult-flick fanatics and serious students of African-American cinema. For another, Lee has taken a page from the original film’s writer/director, Bill Gunn, and made the film with a leisurely, unhurried pace, full of ennui … well, it kind of drags, if you want to know. Under the new title Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee’s movie repeats Gunn’s themes of vampirism as addiction and the painful dichotomy of a black man torn between African spirituality and American Christianity. Lee certainly doesn’t schlock things up. But, other than some left-field lesbian flirtation late in the game, he doesn’t add much excitement, either.

As before, the new film follows scholar Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) on his journey into blood obsession after his insane assistant stabs him with a cursed ancient weapon. The curse renders Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. He steals blood bags from a hospital; he preys on an AIDS-stricken prostitute, then on a young mother. Eventually the assistant’s ex-wife, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), comes looking for the assistant, and Hess seduces her into the life of the undead. There are minor and major changes — for instance, Lee disregards the climactic note of redemption on which Gunn sealed his movie — but Lee mostly traces Gunn’s template, right down to some dialogue (Gunn receives a 25-year-posthumous cowriting credit here).

I hate to say it, because I’ve always respected Lee’s work even when certain bold attempts have flatlined, but Ganja and Hess will stay with me longer than Da Sweet Blood of Jesus will. As a filmmaker, in terms of technique and talent, Lee has it all over Gunn, but Gunn was serious and passionate about this story in a way that Lee isn’t, quite. Lee is a fan of Ganja and Hess, and he decided to honor it and its maker, but the material itself doesn’t seem to light a fire in his belly. (It was a Kickstarter project, and a lot of it feels like a movie that could be reliably shot on the quick and cheap in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lee lives some of the year.) Gunn’s film, despite or possibly because of its technical ineptitude, packs more DIY charm, and even on Blu-ray it looks chewed up and bruised, adding to its dreamlike effect. Lee’s film looks slicker, but to its detriment; it’s as though someone made a pristine-looking remake of Last House on Dead End Street … or, more to the point, George Romero’s Martin, another idiosyncratic vampire movie that could go on a double bill with Ganja and Hess.

This particular story, with its specific concerns about racial authenticity, is very much of its time. It doesn’t translate very well to 2015, when a young black man’s biggest concern is not losing his African soul but being shot by the cops. Lee’s version spends a lot of time on Ganja and Hess’s tragic love story, which indicates a misreading of what made the story unique in the first place. Stephen Tyrone Williams’ Hess is stoic and bland, lacking the brittle power Duane Jones brought to the role, but Zaraah Abrahams is fun to watch as Ganja, and she gets some heat going with the striking Naté Bova as an old flame of Hess’s. But Gunn had more on his mind and in his heart than Skinemax eroticism; his film was somehow lovable despite being completely uningratiating and stubbornly elliptical, because it felt pure. Ganja and Hess is art; Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a copy of art, and I don’t know that Gunn would be flattered by it.

Li’l Quinquin

January 3, 2015

“Open that cow’s ass,” commands a detective, “and show me what’s inside.” Before long, the growl of a chainsaw disrupts the lapping quietude of the oceanside crime scene. Welcome to the phlegmatic but askew reality of Li’l Quinquin, a four-part saga written and directed by Bruno Dumont for French TV and just now opening in America in limited release. Lengthy but never boring, the story comes divvied up into fifty-minute segments; the three hours and seventeen minutes march by like a Netflix binge-watch of your choice of quirky TV mysteries. Li’l Quinquin has drawn comparisons to Twin Peaks and True Detective, but it also shares DNA with such creepy-cool freak-of-the-week programs as The X-Files and Fringe, what with all these cow carcasses turning up with human body parts inside them.

Genetic experiments? Alien shenanigans? If you seek resolution, you’re barking up the wrong mystery. Dumont, best known for a variety of bleak, severe dramas, would rather establish the community affected by, and possibly giving rise to, these weird events. Two cops — Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his right-hand man Carpentier (Philippe Jore) — move from suspect to suspect, confronting their own irrelevance when each suspect ends up in a cow. (Sample absurdist dialogue, in case my lede didn’t sell you: “I was sorry to hear about his body in a cow on the beach.”) Followers of Dumont’s earlier work have expressed surprise at the tone of Li’l Quinquin, which hews closer to the tongue-in-cheek, or at least to cosmic bemusement.

The eponymous character (Alane Delhaye) is a complex and prickly pear, a ten-year-old boy who likes to toss firecrackers into his own house. Quinquin is civilized enough to have a tender relationship with a local girl, but is nonetheless well on his way to a life of racist violence. We aren’t told how to feel about Quinquin or about anyone else; nobody in the narrative seems quite whole. The only person around who looks remotely Hollywood is a teenage girl who wants to sing on TV; her rather tone-deaf rendition of a song called “Cause I Knew” goes on interminably at least twice, once at the funeral of the first victim, where a gigglingly inept pastor almost derails the service and the organist plays bombastically and self-indulgently. Nobody seems to care about the dead woman except her widower, and he becomes cow stuffing before long. There’s even what might be a backhanded salute to superheroes when a kid dressed as “Speedy-Man” enters the picture, climbs a wall, and exits, leaving behind a chill of incongruous weirdness that outdoes the whole of Birdman (to say nothing of Guardians of the Galaxy).

I confess this is my first exposure to Bruno Dumont (but not my last). I make this confession to assure you that, though a background in Dumont’s prior work might help Li’l Quinquin work on a deeper level, it’s not mandatory. Feel free to jump right into this epic; it’s immersive, like a good thick novel, and the widescreen compositions, by cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, showcase the enticing French countryside. It’s overall a soothing experience. The narrative isn’t heightened, and until the last half hour or so there isn’t even any non-diegetic music (why the movie finally allows some classical needle-drop is a question for more hard-nosed interpreters than I). The story stretches but is expertly paced — pacing is why a two-hour film can seem as though it’s crawling while a three-hour-plus work like this breezes by, and it’s a mystery of editing and the intuition of great moviemaking. Dumont uses the extra sprawl of his canvas and the luridness of his premise to indulge himself in the best, most playful sense. We don’t feel left out of the fun; we feel drawn in by the elliptical character-building and by the society on view, which we might say was splintered by the murders if we didn’t suspect it was pretty thoroughly splintered before.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

December 14, 2014

The title sounds like a script direction, or the beginning of a joke: A girl walks home alone at night. The information in those seven words is misleading: the girl in question (Sheila Vand) may walk home alone at night, but she is perfectly safe from harm. The girl is a vampire, and she wanders around a bleak nowhere town looking for blood, and sometimes just for company. Like Jesus, she sits with the disreputable and victimized without judgment. Unlike Jesus, she occasionally feeds on predatory men. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hasn’t much plot; its young writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour approaches it as a thickly allusive study in disaffected humanity. Here and there it drags, but mostly its deliberate pace and its stark black-and-white aesthetic are hypnotic.

Amirpour treats cinema as a chocolate factory to which she’s been given a gold ticket to take anything off the shelves. The unkind will call it derivative. I find myself not minding this sort of thing as much as I used to. There is so very little true originality possible any more — and originality, when it does appear, is greeted so often with hostility — that I cannot but applaud a filmmaker who uses cinema with love and passion and sincerity, and never mind whether we can sit on the sidelines like nerds and identify her influences. The images unfold inside a wide, wide frame, emphasizing the gulf, the dead air, between characters. The girl meets a young man (Arash Marandi) who’s caught between the needs of his junkie father and the brute who’s supplying the father, and to whom the father owes serious money. The brute takes the young man’s vintage car as payment; he will not own it for long.

The girl lives in a room with a turntable that plays forgotten synth-pop (by the way, I want the soundtrack for this movie) and walls covered with images of Madonna and other signifiers of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. A Girl is Amirpour’s feature debut after a few short films, and it’s customary among rookies to throw everything they love into their first movie, because who knows when you might ever get to share the stuff you adore with an audience at this level again? The setting is a dream Iran (actually Bakersfield, California, shot in Farsi with Iranian expats), populated by townspeople who could already be undead, drifting in search of heroin or ecstasy or other forms of oblivion. Nothing here seems literal; reality drifts like snow. A man curses a photo of his dead wife, then becomes convinced that she has been reincarnated as his son’s cat. A fake vampire hugs a real vampire. There’s not much blood, even when the girl has her ears pierced with a safety pin. Vampirism seems beside the point in a world that appears to drain everyone of life and soul.

The girl, clad in a shroud-like chador and a horizontally striped shirt, is a ready-made hip visual. She even skateboards. A Girl is informed not only by Lynch and Murnau but by graphic novels and music; it reminded me of the just-for-kicks wild fantasias Gilbert Hernandez likes to write and draw, except the wildness is restrained, ascetic, like the underwater-damned sound of Portishead. It’s trippy and poker-faced yet heartfelt; its probably tongue-in-cheek marketing refers to it as “the first Iranian vampire western” — and tonally I can go along with that description — but it’s closer to the dread-ridden romance of Let the Right One In. Aside from a chilling bit in which the girl scares a little boy into being good for the rest of his life, A Girl doesn’t deal much in horror. The vampire girl drifts through the void, flashing her fangs only sporadically, in a shadowy universe where the weary strength of women trumps the frailty of men.



November 28, 2014

Birdman is a sort of accidental metafiction dunked in surrealism or magic realism. If that loses you already, I don’t blame you, but the movie is a bit more nakedly entertaining than that. It’s a bit up itself with its talk of artistic integrity and “risking everything,” but the trick of the supremely gifted director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is that what must’ve been intensely difficult to film comes off as smooth, playful, fun. Birdman is in part a celebration of what movies can do, and despite the story’s inherent mopiness, there’s a pure-cinema jazz-riff feel to it. The movie is indeed a risk; it always seems on the edge of tumbling into pretentiousness, but the working-man self-abasement of its star, Michael Keaton, pulls it back.

Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Birdman, in three blockbuster movies. We are told, of course, that the script (by González Iñárritu and three others) did not have Keaton in mind, even though Keaton is a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Batman, in two blockbuster movies. I assume that once Keaton signed on, the script may have been tweaked accordingly, otherwise the line about Riggan last playing his superhero in 1992 — the year Keaton’s final Batman movie was released — is weirdly prescient. I also assume that Keaton in real life does not share Riggan’s occasional talent for telekinesis, though this always happens when no one else is around and may well unfold only in his head.

Riggan wants to make his big comeback, and bid for credibility, by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver stories on the Broadway stage. Disastrous circumstances lead to a difficult but brilliant actor, Mike Shiner (the brilliant and often-reportedly difficult Edward Norton), replacing an injured cast member, and the play heads into previews amid much chaos, ego, and tenuous sanity. Mike tries to have actual sex with costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) onstage. On another night, a drunken Mike tosses the script and makes a shambles of the set. A theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan that she has decided, sight unseen, to destroy his play. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, teases Mike and herself with the possibility of a hook-up. And so on.

All of this, like Hitchcock’s Rope, is seemingly filmed in one swooping, unbroken take, which is especially impressive when Riggan’s fantasies go whole-hog metafantastical and helicopters fall from the sky while Riggan is tormented by Birdman and eventually becomes him. González Iñárritu plays around like Welles did, a boy enchanted with his train set. Birdman is probably no Wellesian feat — it’s too intellectually amorphous for that; there doesn’t appear to be a sharp intelligence behind all the game-playing, though Emma Stone is refreshingly tart and fierce in the one scene when Sam gets to let loose on Riggan. This sort of life-vs.-theater construct certainly is a toybox for actors, just as it was in the far more challenging Synecdoche, New York.

Keaton is getting the kind of surprised acclaim that reminds me of when everyone fell backwards over Bill Murray’s work in Rushmore, as if Murray had never been good or serious in anything before then. Same with Keaton. Make no mistake, he’s terrific here, bitterly melancholic and gnarled and human, just as he’s been terrific all along. I do hope Keaton gets the comeback out of this that Murray did (though with Murray it helped that he had Wes Anderson stubbornly casting him over and over until even the densest viewer had to admit that Murray was more than a ghostbuster). Keaton “gives us range,” to quote an actorism that pops up twice in the film. The movie doesn’t have an enormous lot going on under the hood — González Iñárritu and his writing confederates aren’t Charlie Kaufman. It’s hilarious, though, that this weird, often bleak meta-whatsit might be the closest González Iñárritu can come to escapism.

The Zero Theorem

August 23, 2014

The sickly neon lighting, the relentless Dutch angles, the grab-bag mix of futuristic and steampunk design, the theme of escape from bureaucratic control through fantasy: these are all excellent indicators that you’re watching a Terry Gilliam film, and his new one, The Zero Theorem, is the Terry Gilliamest piece in his portfolio in quite a while. I wish I could say that I mean that as a compliment, but Gilliam’s flaws may be inseparable from his strengths: when he’s on, he’s brilliant, but when he whiffs, the bleak swooshing sound is deafening, and The Zero Theorem, despite my fervent desire to claim otherwise, is one whiff after another. The surprise here is that most of the ground Gilliam covers here, he already trod devilishly well in Brazil, and after a while I wondered why he didn’t know that. He’s said he considers this film the third in a dystopian trilogy begun by Brazil and continued in 12 Monkeys, but it plays like a Gilliam imitator’s crude remix of the two.

Christoph Waltz, bald and charmless, is the obsessive computer geek Qohen Leth, who toils in a cubicle for the Management, personified by a white-haired eminence (Matt Damon, seemingly doing a Philip Seymour Hoffman turn). Qohen is given the Zero Theorem assignment — he has to prove that everything in the universe adds up to nothing. “Zero must equal 100%,” we’re told by machines again and again. This nihilist math/philosophy problem has broken many other thinkers, and Qohen, who refers to himself as “we” and has the prerequisite collection of genius quirks, finds himself dangerously distracted by blonde femme fatale Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who may have been sent by Management to test his resolve or sabotage his efforts.

Pat Rushin’s script plays as if Rushin fell asleep during a Gilliam marathon, woke up, and cobbled together a screenplay from what he dimly remembered. What’s missing is any emotional charge, any urgency — what William Goldman once called “the pregnant moment,” the reason the story is being told now. Qohen is a passive character obsessed with a phone call he once missed, a phone call he thinks could have revealed his purpose in life. Aside from that, he works on the theorem and he dallies in virtual reality with Bainsley. Much of The Zero Theorem is a two-character play, spiced up by Gilliam’s Dutch angles and colors that snap, crackle and pop. One dialogue scene, between Qohen and Bainsley in the cluttered former monastery he calls home, dribbles on and on; Gilliam seems to have forgotten that editing is part of the art of cinema, the thing that moves the images and the story.

Tedium sets in fast. Gilliam makes the surroundings as candied as he can, with Satire 101 messages running across digital billboards. The Management controls everything, but except for a Mutt and Jeff team of a heavy and his dwarf companion (ah, Gilliam and his dwarves), the Management doesn’t have much of a menacing presence, or a presence at all, really. Qohen stays inside for months grinding away on the theorem, occasionally resisting cybertherapy from Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and sharing irascible dialogue with the Management’s son (Lucas Hedges), a prodigious hacker who calls everyone Bob. Little of this has any dramatic interest; it’s full of bits of sour whimsy, which we’re meant to take as a hip, cynical vision of bland, hellish tomorrow (and tomorrow in this sort of dystopian satire is always today with futuristic trimmings).

One wants to root for Gilliam and his stubbornly uncommercial work, especially if we’ve enjoyed his earlier movies. I get no pleasure from swatting a new Gilliam film — there aren’t going to be very many more of them, he’s not getting any younger, and he has a hell of a time getting these oddball things financed as it is. A salute, then, to Gilliam for staying true to himself, not even knowing how to sell out. But the irony of The Zero Theorem is that it’s a parable about finding meaning in life, but it doesn’t mean much itself. It’s a doodle, a riff on Gilliam’s pet themes, but emotionally and dramatically it’s an inverse of the theorem: 100% of it equals zero.


May 4, 2014

20140504-211138.jpgDavid Gordon Green, it appears, has sweated out whatever troglodyte fever inspired him to detour into grossout comedies. Hailed as a successor to Terrence Malick (or at least a skilled acolyte) for his 2000 debut George Washington, Green in recent years had fallen in with a bad crowd of dudebros, hitting his nadir with the stoner romp Your Highness. As if putting away childish things, though, Green has rebounded with the seriocomic Prince Avalanche and now the grim Southern gothic Joe. The Malick influence obtains here, too, showing us what it might be like if Malick’s camera caressed the swamplands and itinerants’ detritus of Texas instead of its suburbs and plains. Green, however, gives us more finely-etched characters than Malick can. Adapting a Larry Brown novel, Green and scripter Gary Hawkins hang out in the morning chill and evening swelter of the rural south, observing without comment.

Nicolas Cage, sweating out his own schlocky fever, plays the eponymous Joe as a man weighed down by his own past (violence, prison time) and his temper that keeps threatening to make his past the present. Joe supervises a crew of men who poison trees so that new ones can be planted — a perhaps too on-the-nose metaphor for godforsaken communities like Joe’s, plundered and abandoned and financially butchered. A local 15-year-old, Gary (Tye Sheridan), emerges from the woods and asks for a job on Joe’s crew. Gary seeks money almost as much as he needs a reason to get out of the house, away from his out-of-it mother and his vicious drunk of a father.

Gary Poulter plays the father, Wade, a backwoods boogeyman whose veins seem to be pumping with cold acid; he beats Gary, steals from him, and later does even more irredeemably beastly things. Poulter was one of several actors in Joe who have no previous film credits; a homeless man, he was found by Green on the streets of Austin, and died there before the film was released. If Poulter only had this one performance in him, it was a stellar one to come in with and go out on. Wade is vile, but Poulter somehow locates the sad humanity in him. We’re seeing the wreckage of too much booze crossed with too many bad brain chemicals — the man Gary will probably never be but Joe is ever vigilant against becoming. Two other inexperienced actors — Aj Wilson McPhaul as a sympathetic sheriff and Brian Mays as Joe’s right-hand man on the crew — bring effortless authority and reality to the movie. Joe is full of amazing camera faces, such as a homeless man (Elbert Hill Jr.) who unfortunately crosses paths with Wade. As in George Washington, Green deftly casts local non-actors for the authenticity — the palpable sense of having lived hard — they offer.

Does the movie really need the stinky psycho Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has a grudge against Joe and ultimately joins forces with Wade? It threatens to tip Joe into conventional thriller territory, and surrounding Joe with mean men he wants to differentiate himself from is sort of gilding the lily. It gives Cage fresh raw meat to chew on, though, and he consistently underplays. We don’t catch him cartoonishly straining to keep a lid on his rage, as in Wild at Heart or the Ghost Rider movies. Cage here is closer to the ballpark of Nick Nolte in Affliction, forever haunted by the ghost of his own DNA.

Joe isn’t flawless — I’d file it on the “poky but compelling” shelf — but it’s a real movie, for grown-ups, fighting for table scraps in a marketplace dominated by spider-men and x-persons. It arises from a genuine wounded artistic sensibility; it respects talk and sadness and the irresolution of life. It’s also a man-cave movie, where women are whores or drunks and innocence is represented by Gary’s nonverbal sister, though they’re also seen to be living inside an apocalyptic reality created in large part by corrupt and violent men. (What I said about Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor also holds true here: Joe isn’t a feminist work but it really isn’t masculinist either.) Thematically the movie is simplistic but sound — sometimes the two go together — and Green, along with ace cinematographer Tim Orr, finds the beauty in the squalor in which these people love and hate and work and kill. It’s a work of quiet substance.


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