Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

Kate Plays Christine

October 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Knight of Cups

June 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Anomalisa

February 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Carol

February 7, 2016

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Todd Haynes has spent the majority of his career directing films that call back to the golden age of actresses — his muses have included Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, and a Barbie version of Karen Carpenter. Haynes provides primo roles for women at a time when few other filmmakers do. But does he really care all that much about the women he puts onscreen? I value Haynes as an artist, but his art isn’t revelatory or emotional; it signifies feelings rather than sharing them.

The multiple-Oscar-nominated Carol is yet another Haynes meditation on homosexuality in an era (the ’50s) that didn’t tolerate it. (He treated the topic literally in Far from Heaven, metaphorically in several other movies.) Carol (Blanchett) is a well-to-do woman in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Their differences are extremely irreconcilable: despite having a daughter with him, she’s just not that into him, or into his entire gender, for that matter. Carol has previously detained herself with “best friend” Abby (Sarah Paulson), and of late her gaze has fallen upon young Therese (Rooney Mara), toy-store shopgirl and aspiring photographer.

Therese’s artistic proclivities (including tickling the ivories with a bit of Billie Holiday) and dark, severe bangs may remind viewers of the novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose novel The Price of Salt served as the script’s basis, and who admitted that Therese was more or less her avatar. Too bad, then, that Therese’s portrayer isn’t up to the level on which Highsmith operated. Rooney Mara, I fear, is her generation’s Jennifer Connolly, a gothy but inexpressive actress deeply overrated by critics perhaps enamored of her bone structure. Therese is supposed to be a nervous neophyte, but casting this mild, emotionally null presence opposite Blanchett, who emotes ripely in the manner of classic Hollywood divas, is almost cruel. (Blanchett’s peak moment of golden-age noir efflorescence comes when she gets to point a gun and snarl “Where’s the tape, you son of a bitch?”)

Haynes hit his own peak of erotica in his feature debut, Poison, during its Genet-inspired prison sequence, and it’s been down a cold hill ever since. When Carol finally takes Therese to bed, we get oblique fragments of their lovemaking, and it’s as dry and po-faced as anything else in their relationship. Their love involves, as far as I can determine, being somber in close proximity; there are no shared jokes, no mutual interests. Therese is a proto-bohemian without the sullen attitude of one, and Blanchett nicely conveys Carol’s tickled attraction to her, but Mara doesn’t have the tools to do likewise. Therese’s big emotional moments amount to her staring off and sobbing while Mara is obviously thinking of something really sad. (By contrast, consider Kyle Chandler’s empathetic turn as a husband who could come off as a monster, but instead presents as a pained man sunk in incomprehension and insecurity.)

Yet maybe that makes Mara the ideal new muse for Todd Haynes: she signifies rather than feels, and so does he. Carol looks terrific, as all Haynes films do; working in Super 16mm, cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a master class in the seethe and texture of grain. (In a late moment when Therese and a co-worker are painting her apartment walls blue, the surface looks like the screen of a staticky TV.) But the score, by the usually superb Carter Burwell, sounds like unused music for a Godfrey Reggio travelogue — the tone is a bit too tastefully lachrymose. I’m all for Haynes making throwback dramas that great actresses like Blanchett or Julianne Moore can tear into, but I’d like to think the deluxe emoting they do is in service to anything besides Haynes’ deadpan appropriation of ancient styles and tropes. Tarantino, for instance, works this way but giggles in appreciation; Haynes rubs his chin and says “Interesting.”

Appropriate Behavior

January 18, 2015

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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

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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

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“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.