Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

The French Dispatch

January 16, 2022

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Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is that rarity, a disappointment that I feel I need to see again. By now, we all know how polarizing Anderson’s dollhouse movies tend to be. They’re immaculately designed, obsessively symmetrical; they’re boxes within boxes, each packed in a ruthlessly tidy fashion. But generally the stories have a strong throughline, a sturdy narrative arrow with some emotional resonance. The French Dispatch feels like it came out of the bottom drawer of Anderson’s desk. It’s a trio of tales, bracketed by front and end matter; it’s about journalists writing about artists, or at least about people who express themselves in some way — through painting, manifesto, food.

One of the segments, the one about the manifesto, I couldn’t tell you much about. You see what I mean when I want to watch it again. The French Dispatch is about a titular newspaper — the film’s full title is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — that reports on happenings in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé for the enjoyment, I guess, of the millions of Francophiles in Kansas. The newspaper is inspired by The New Yorker, particularly the magazine’s self-regard as The Magazine. All the best writers write for the French Dispatch, and the paper’s editor (Bill Murray) keeps trying to whittle their pieces into shape. The writers all love and tolerate him. He dies early on — like so much else here, we’re not asked to feel one way or the other about it — and what we see is the contents of the final issue of the paper.

But none of it really took hold and commanded my attention. The first story involves an artist (Benicio del Toro) who is also serving a life sentence for murder. The second follows Dispatch reporter Frances McDormand as she gets caught up in a student protest and its players. The last has to do with the kidnapping of a little boy and a police officer who’s also a chef — most of the characters have different facets to them. Technically, the filmmaking is gorgeous, with alternating black-and-white or color photography by Robert Yeoman in two different aspect ratios. It’s all very cleverly worked out. The problem is a pit that Anderson has been edging towards for a few movies now, and in The French Dispatch he sinks right into it — there are just too damn many characters.

At this point, being in a Wes Anderson movie must be a terrific feather in an actor’s cap, and a lot of them come work with him over and over. But nothing in this movie will show you why. The teeming mass of actors here rarely get a moment to give us a reason to care about them; people like Edward Norton and Elisabeth Moss and Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe pass through, hardly even getting any lines. (The bulk of the movie is narrated by the stories’ writers anyway, further limiting the characters’ opportunity to speak for themselves.) Anderson veteran Saoirse Ronan turns up as a character credited only as “Junkie/Showgirl #1.” The impression you get is that Wes Anderson has joined the elite cadre of directors who can compel a four-time Oscar nominee to play Junkie/Showgirl #1. Well, good for him. Not so good for us, or for Saoirse Ronan.

And yet … I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Anderson’s prior films, so I’m willing to give The French Dispatch the benefit of the doubt; a second viewing, knowing what it is going into it, may not be amiss. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the movie doesn’t drill down and tell one particular person’s story. Maybe the movie is about storytelling itself, about who tells stories and who hears or reads them. The main character is the Dispatch. The style of the film is the style of the writers. The writers are self-centered to a degree that they make the stories about them — they think they have to make the stories worthy of being told by them. Running through the film is a sneaky little critique of the whole New Yorker magazine-of-record aesthetic and ethos. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s both nostalgic and timeless. It didn’t stick to me — this time — but I wouldn’t dream of discouraging anyone, especially Anderson followers, from seeing it. Just know what you’re in for.

The Card Counter

December 12, 2021

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Your standard Paul Schrader loner — think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Ernst Toller in Schrader’s previous film First Reformed, among many others — drifts from place to place, often at night, ears ringing with his own internal screams of guilt and dread. This loner walls himself (usually always himself — Schrader’s artistic/narrative mission is to probe toxic masculinity) off from normal human contact, pulled along by fatalistic strings of his own making. Oscar Isaac joins this bleak men’s club in Schrader’s The Card Counter as William Tillich (he goes by William Tell), who goes from casino to casino, placing and winning modest bets at poker tables with the card-counting skills he taught himself in prison.

We soon learn why William was in jail: he worked interrogation at Abu Ghraib, and he went away for eight and a half years while his superior officer and trainer Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe) got off free. William meets a young man — “Cirk with a C” (Tye Sheridan) — who has his own past with Gordo. His father, too, worked under Gordo at Abu Ghraib, came home addicted and violently abusive, and eventually killed himself. Cirk wants revenge on Gordo: he wants to capture Gordo and torture him to death. William has other plans for Cirk; he knows what Cirk doesn’t, that once you become a torturer/killer, you can never un-become that.

Schrader’s filmmaking has become as neat and clean as William’s hair, graying but not a strand out of place. Other than the intentionally off-putting Abu Ghraib flashbacks, filmed through a distorting lens, there isn’t an ugly or discordant frame in The Card Counter. Schrader takes his time, engaging in crossfades or fade-outs. The casinos William frequents all look the same and give the impression of stinking like cleaning fluid and cigarette smoke — not hell, exactly, but limbo. William has already been to hell, and a good chunk of his soul still exists there. He may see Cirk as his chance at some sort of redemption for participating in the repulsive system that deformed him and Cirk’s father. He also has eyes for La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who runs a stable of gamblers and thinks William should be one of them.

Sometimes Schrader can be a bit on-the-nose. A lyric we hear often on the soundtrack goes “In my lonesome aberration,” which could be William’s internal theme song. (It’s a song by Robert Levon Been, son of late Call frontman Michael Been, who composed songs for Schrader’s 1992 drama Light Sleeper. A lyric from one of those songs is tattooed on William’s back here.) Tiffany Haddish can’t help smuggling in some levity, even if just in her manner or her line delivery, but otherwise the film is borderline mopey and as serious as a stroke. (The only other source of humor is Dafoe’s thick military-guy mustache.) But as I indicated above, Schrader has gotten better at working his particular side of the street, so that the immaculate, resolute unflashiness of his style is itself pleasurable. He no longer seems to be denying himself the contentments of filmmaking; he has developed a tidy, rigorous focus.

Isaac obliges Schrader with a smoldering, implosive performance rich in stillness and watchfulness. William seldom smiles, although in one of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks we see him larking around obscenely with one of the prisoners. These places, Schrader says, scorched the souls of everyone who entered them, in whatever capacity. Much of William’s shame, it happens, is because William enjoyed the terror and pain he caused. Near the end of Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack’s hit-man hero tries to account for his life choices: “You do it because you were trained to do it, because you were encouraged to do it, and because, eventually, you, you know … get to like it.” He appends hilariously, “I know that sounds bad.” William, in his lonesome aberration, also knows his past sounds bad. Whether he can become good, or at least less bad, is very much on William’s and Schrader’s mind; but because this is also a noir, it’s not entirely within William’s control. Someone always has other plans.

The Amusement Park

June 1, 2021

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The prospect of a “lost film” from George A. Romero (1940-2017), director of Night of the Living Dead and its several sequels, may sound as compelling to you as it did to me. A word of warning, though: don’t let anyone overhype it for you. The Amusement Park, completed in 1973 but unseen until recently (it will have its streaming debut on Shudder next week), is a downer of an allegory about discrimination against the elderly. Romero, at loose ends at the time, was hired by the Lutheran Society to make the film, which they promptly rejected after getting a load of what Romero did with the concept. There are no zombies or cannibalism, though, just a stroll through a strange amusement park filled with indignities for those deemed too old — or too poor — to deserve respect.

Romero was many things, but a subtle satirist was never one of them. Some of the messagey dialogue in some of his Dead films verges on crude. In The Amusement Park, we follow a man in his seventies (played by Lincoln Maazel, who later appeared as the nosferatu-obsessed old cousin in Romero’s 1976 cult vampire movie Martin) as he wanders around the park and encounters various affronts to his humanity. These range from getting beaten up by a trio of bikers to being disregarded by a little girl he was reading a story to; we get the sense that the girl’s indifference hurts him more. The man is also ignored by doctors and priests (who close up their “sanctuary” to him as soon as he approaches). All of these anecdotes feel a bit like checklist items; Romero seems somewhat locked into the Lutherans’ assignment, toning himself down for their approval (which he didn’t get anyway).

Still, this curiosity should be seen by fans who tend to prefer Romero’s non-zombie films, like Martin or Jack’s Wife (aka Season of the Witch) or Knightriders. Its cinematography (by Bill Hinzman, the cemetery zombie in the first reel of Night of the Living Dead) and typically razor-sharp editing (by Romero himself) make The Amusement Park a pure-cinema snack; it’s the content itself (written by Wally Cook) that flirts with redundancy at times. The milieu and the theme of being neglected — not seen or acknowledged — echo Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, a cult z-budget item that predated Romero’s NOTLD by six years. Did Romero, thirty-three at the time and visible in the film as an irate bumper-car driver, care all that much about ageism, or was he just doing the best he could with the gig he got? Either way, we feel for Maazel’s character, who starts out as a white-suited dandy and ends up soiled and bloodied; he either experiences or witnesses every example of disrespect in the film. Life as an elderly person — and, let’s not forget, an elderly person of color, or an elderly disabled person, or an elderly woman — is painted here as a steady stream of insults and gatekeeping slights. A good deal of the doors that shut here in the faces of those who aren’t young, white, male, able-bodied, and/or rich persist just as thick and soundly locked today.

Which brings me back to my advice not to let your expectations get out of hand. Sometimes early work drifts off into the ether for a reason. Who, having finally screened Stanley Kubrick’s first feature Fear and Desire, would argue with Kubrick that it isn’t, as he said, juvenilia? And good luck sitting through Tobe Hooper’s Eggshells — his debut prior to Texas Chainsaw Massacre — unless you’re a die-hard completist. The Amusement Park displays Romero’s flair for cloaking social comment in nightmarish clothes. It’s of considerable interest to anyone who cares about his work. But to call it Romero’s “most terrifying film,” as his widow Suzanne Desrocher has — an assessment prominent in the film’s publicity — is to set it up for disappointment. Terrifying, no. Disturbing — and fascinating — yes. 

About Endlessness

May 9, 2021

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It is the common fatigue. That’s what my ears thought they heard during a scene in Roy Andersson’s typically deadpan About Endlessness. What I was really hearing was a priest delivering communion in Swedish: The body of Christ broken for you, or Kristi kropp bruten för dig. But, in a lot of ways, Andersson’s first film in five years, and possibly his last, is all about the common fatigue. The priest, as it happens, is going through the motions, administering the ritual with a heavy heart and hollow soul — we have just seen him in the church kitchen, swigging from the same bottle that pours the blood of Christ. He appears several times in the film, often on the edge of tears as he admits he has lost his faith. But nobody much cares, even his psychiatrist.

Sounds heavy, especially if this is your first tour through the bemusement park of Andersson (best known for his “Living” trilogy: Songs from the Second Floor, 2000; You, the Living, 2007; A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014). But About Endlessness, in the sort of irony remarked on by legions of critics by now, is in and out in 76 minutes. Andersson, who spent a long hiatus from feature filmmaking directing commercials (Ingmar Bergman was a fan of them), knows that the type and mode of story he wants to tell is best achieved with brevity. (His only film to exceed two hours, 1975’s Giliap, tanked hard and drove him out of features for 25 years.) The movie is an anthology of moments: some dreary, some distressing, some carefree. The anecdotes add up to a meditation on life as experienced individually and specifically by each subject.

Sometimes the placement of scenes does a lot of the work. Early in the movie, and then not long before the end credits, a man grumbles to the camera that a former schoolmate has been ignoring him because of something unspecified he did to the schoolmate, way back then. That this man is the second, and then second-to-last, person we hear from — bracketing a collection of vignettes ranging from the mundane to the apocalyptic — makes a quietly funny point about the ridiculousness of long-running grievances. Motifs announce themselves: water or wine pouring into glasses, overflowing the glass, or filling a vase for flowers at a dead soldier’s grave; the reality of death captured just before or just after its arrival. If there is despair here, though, there is also joy. Andersson knows that a vision without one or the other is false. The joy whisks away despair, insisting that despair doesn’t last. The despair infects our enjoyment, murmuring that joy won’t last, either. And on and on in a loop.

About Endlessness features Hitler his own bad self, in his bunker being dusted by bomb-loosened plaster and barely acknowledged by exhausted old generals who can’t even muster a decent sieg heil. The straight-faced absurdism of the segment recalls some of Monty Python’s “historical” sketches; the flatness of the style is a wicked rebuke to Leni Riefenstahl’s voluptuous portfolio of lies, Triumph of the Will. So we meet the Devil, and he’s this dull clerk celebrated by half-dead flunkies in the most banal-looking crypt any soon-to-perish despot ever had. Where’s God? Oh, I saw Him here and there, despite the plaints of the priest. He was there in the spontaneous dancing of teenage girls and in the fatal knife wounds of another — the A to Z of human experience. 

The movie leaves us talking back to it — we don’t want it to go just yet. The brevity sometimes verges on a taunt: most of the people we meet, we’ll never see again. The rare exception, aside from the recurring faithless priest, is a dentist who gets two segments — two consecutive segments, which nobody else gets. We first see him in a sketch that seems to be making a point about how emotions can get in the way of how we engage with people personally and professionally, leaving them hurt. The next bit finds the dentist in a bar, with a gentle snowfall visible out the windows — the cozy warm comfort of the scene is palpable, and it seems to nudge one of the customers into blurting “Everything is fantastic.” As Kurt Vonnegut said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” But Andersson isn’t finished, and the last two anecdotes are bitter and desolate, respectively — yet still with glimmers of mitigation. If this isn’t life, I don’t know what is. 

Saint Maud

February 14, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-02-14 at 6.53.03 PMEvery couple of years, a little oddity emerges from the indie-cinema beat and gets lionized as the next great thing to happen to horror. Generally these films are scrupulously calibrated and express the drive and obsession that a young filmmaker — in this case, Rose Glass, a British writer-director about thirty — feels about a story or a theme. What they don’t express is true fear. Glass’s feature debut, Saint Maud, meditates on a lonely young woman burning in shame. Once known as Katie, a bit of a wildcat, she has changed her name to Maud, shifted her nursing emphasis from hospital to hospice, and given herself over to God. At this point, I’ve seen so many somber art films about the rigors and torments of faith that a movie just amiable and matter-of-fact about Christianity (and no, not one of those awful belches of propaganda that usually star Kevin Sorbo or Kirk Cameron, either) would be genuinely radical and unique.

Saint Maud follows its lead (Morfydd Clark in a tremulous, detailed performance) as she tries to take care of her client, former dancer Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), struck down by lymphoma and approaching the end. Maud tries to get Amanda to hand it over to God, but Amanda isn’t biting. She fears the void but is reasonably sure there’s nothing else for her. Amanda’s doubts make Maud’s own misgivings flare up. Aside from a few people who seem to exist only to anger Maud, the movie really only has these two characters, and once Maud cuts herself out of Amanda’s orbit, it’s just Maud, and Jennifer Ehle’s serenely mordant vibe is badly missed.

Clark performs heroically, free of self-consciousness, worrying at her flesh or kneeling on popcorn kernels (ouch, but using Legos might’ve been funnier). For her part, Rose Glass takes the dread and anguish with the utmost seriousness, as if afraid to be unworthy of Maud’s stations of the cross. Glass creates a dour, foreboding mood that nobody is really allowed to tease — not even Ehle, handed this potentially juicy role but then finding most of the juice has dried up. In Saint Maud, I can tell what I’m supposed to be responding to, but it feels tepid and frequently-told one way or another. As Maud’s visions get weirder, the quiet material takes a Nestea plunge into loud horror; the film was distributed by A24, which also gave us the work of Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, and A24 would probably like you to think of Saint Maud as the next Hereditary or The Witch. The film has already inspired comparably caffeinated songs of critical praise; I wish I’d seen the same film they did, but the one I saw, frankly, feels twice as long as it is, and it’s only 84 minutes long. The one I saw is almost punitively dreary and grim; even an anecdote of casual sex, which should be an occasion to get some fresh air and acknowledge the power of pleasure, just ends in casual rape.

Rose Glass brings some verve and emotional vividness to the narrative. It’s not a bad movie, just glum and unengaging. Maud’s story just feels too familiar; it spends a lot of time competing with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (another A24 film) for the championship in tragically repressive religiosity, and then towards the end it’s as though First Reformed turned into The Exorcist. Yes, it’s likely imaginary, but the tonal damage is done. The true horror lies in watching a miserable loner spiral into madness, which is well-covered ground by now anyway, but the lapse into the often-tacky visual vocabulary of genre horror just shatters the spell.

Glass has talent and sensitivity, but a lot of potential drama in the material just slips through her fingers. And we get back to my earlier point: where’s the fear? Is there anything in Saint Maud that truly scares Glass? Sometimes, at good and bad horror movies, you might get one scene that truly feels sweated over, something that emerged from a genuine nightmare. But Glass doesn’t seem disturbed by her subject; she doesn’t seem to feel one way or the other about it. The story is just an excuse for slow-burn scenes with Maud trudging through her lightless existence until she finally goes completely around the bend. Does Glass feel anything at all about Maud? I didn’t.

The Wanting Mare

January 31, 2021

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If you’re anything like me, you sometimes find the idea of engaging with difficult art — dry philosophical writing, discordant music, slow and artsy film — more appealing than the reality of it. Such might be true of Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s feature debut The Wanting Mare, which I almost feel I owe a second viewing. It’s everything I often say I want more of in movies, and so I dearly wish it had grabbed me at any point. A little humor might have helped; a darting spot of personality. But it’s an art object, and the people in it are not characters so much as concepts. Here and there it reminded me of another doodle of artsy fantasy, Begotten, although this film at least appeals much more to the eye.

Maybe too much. The Wanting Mare was shot mostly in a huge storage unit, even though more than half its scenes take place outside. Bateman then spent several years digitally painting the backdrop, or, if you will, the world. So the space the actors seem to inhabit doesn’t exist, but then the actors barely seem to exist in it either. The images have richness and depth; the characters don’t. I think we glancingly see one character laughing, during a montage in which we don’t know why she’s laughing. The scene is abstract, like the rest of the movie; the woman laughing stands in for the idea of merriment.

The montage is supposed to pull us into identification with young couple Moira (Jordan Monaghan) and Lawrence (Bateman), who meet inauspiciously when Moira happens across a bleeding Lawrence after he bungles a robbery. In this stark world, which has intimations of the apocalyptic, people speak in whispers about their dreams of the time before. Whatever that past was like, it was probably better than the movie’s present, where people kill and die for precious tickets to journey “across” to a better land. I read somewhere that Bateman wants to make further movies set in this bifurcated world of Anmaere, and again, the idea of a shared-universe series of stubbornly obscure art films is much happier than the actual films would probably be.

After a while, all the movie has going for it is its artificial environment, and sadly there’s at least one shot where you can see the seams, a car’s wheels that are clearly rolling across a flatter surface than the bumpy soil that was cooked up in a computer to go beneath the car. When a movie rests so heavily on the authenticity of its visual fakery, a glitch like that really wrenches us out of its spell. The movie hasn’t earned the simple warm goodwill we extend to the iffier shark effects in Jaws, agreeing to overlook one klutzy shot because every other one has been fantastic. The images in The Wanting Mare are gorgeous, but they don’t connect to much, and they unfold at a remove from us.

The uncharitable suspicion grows that the movie considers rumpled, ornery, funny humanity too crude for its scheme. People whisper languidly at each other. Generations pass; babies grow into women who adopt other babies who grow into women, and they’re all looking for The Dream that exists somewhere Across, from the World Before. The dialogue is almost all capitalized like that. The conversations are somberly meaningless — plot blurts that read like cookie fortunes. Part of the backstage drama of the film involves Bateman hinging everything on effects to be added later, effects he had no idea whether he could pull off. Well, mostly he has, and the movie is one hell of a calling card — proof that Bateman can craft bleakly convincing scenery. What he needs are compelling people to stick in front of it.

The Wolf House

September 27, 2020

wolf_still7-1024x576It helps to bring some basic knowledge of Chile’s Colonia Dignidad into the strenuously experimental animated feature The Wolf House, though that’s not really necessary to decipher what’s going on — to the extent that you can decipher it. The history of the Nazi-founded Chilean colony functions more or less as backdrop, or in visual hints here and there, such as some lines on a wall that momentarily become a swastika before resolving into a window frame. The Wolf House appears to unfold in one unbroken take, whatever that means here, because of course there were thousands of takes — the movie is primarily stop-motion animation, with various other media paying visits. Its herky-jerky, unstable style seems to represent what life in a repressive, abusive colony might feel like. The very celluloid is breaking down, decaying, burning itself. The technique is truly apocalyptic, while the narration is hushed, mesmeric.

Directed by Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León, making their feature debut after several shorts, The Wolf House observes Maria, who has escaped from the colony and has sought refuge in a remote house in the woods. There she finds two pigs, who become two children known as Pedro and Ana. The three humans/humanoids melt, come apart, reassemble, while the house — really just one room — keeps changing around them. The movie’s conceit is that it’s a propaganda film made by the colony’s leader to prevent further escapes. Therefore we’re getting moral instruction from an immoral system. Film being what it is, though, we are drawn into the happenings, even if we can’t always read them. We forget we’re seeing propaganda and just respond to the vibe of dread and revolt. The wolf waits always outside. We are trapped in the changing house along with the changing people. Only we stay the same.

The style will not be for everyone. The twisted, spackled physiques recall something out of a painting by David Lynch, who has said he strives to create art that people want to bite. There’s a bit of Lynch’s 1966 sculpture/animation loop Six Men Getting Sick in there, too. And the flickering, dreamlike horrors of the inconstant flesh reminded me of the aggressively grotesque Sloaches Fun House segment Animalistic Times (1995). There’s probably a bunch of stuff in there — Francis Bacon, etc. Of course, some of the style is simply what happens when you do stop-motion but leave in all the telltale stuff animators usually painstakingly avoid. It’s intentionally rough-hewn, like the accidental folk art it purports to be. I imagine some viewers, though, won’t need context or prior history in order to get lost in the whirl and seethe of this chaotic universe, where things living and unliving perpetually destroy and remake themselves.

Others may feel the tug of time passing; even at just 73 minutes, The Wolf House feels a bit overextended and, at some points, exhausting. If you don’t have to take in the whole thing in one gulp, it will likely play better parceled out across a couple days. It could also be the old trap of strongly pictorial short-film directors not adjusting the pace for feature length. There’s only so much visual dazzlement I can manage in one sitting before my eyes glaze over and I become numb to the fireworks. (Subsequent viewings help, because you know what to expect.) Something like The Wolf House earns high marks just on the strength of its restless images — sometimes the movie seems dissatisfied with itself, always in motion, always shape-shifting. But a little of that can go an awfully long way.

Some of it gives the impression of being something ungovernably weird that you catch out of the corner of your eye on late-night TV — Adult Swim more or less hung its shingle on that aesthetic. In this case, though, it’s not stoner-weird but the fractured, nonsensical perceptions of a prisoner — more Painted Bird than Harvey Birdman. It leaves us unsettled, as though we’d looked into a random passerby’s darker emotions and seen something we weren’t supposed to see. I can’t really fault The Wolf House for giving us exactly the insecure, not-always-pleasant experience it means to give us. It took five years to make, and has been kicking around film festivals since 2018, so … it was begun when life was far less dark, released when things were darker, and now comes to American home video in the darkest moment many of us have lived through. And maybe some viewers might eschew a film that so effectively reflects our inner world today, and others may find catharsis in it. Whatever it is, it’s not remotely easy.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

September 6, 2020

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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.