Archive for the ‘biopic’ category

House of Gucci

December 5, 2021

house of gucci

For a little while — maybe its first half hour — House of Gucci feels like an early Christmas present to adult viewers. The tone is elegant yet semi-satirically unimpressed, and the actors are all dressed for the back of a limo. We settle in for a sleek, tongue-in-cheek saga of family and murder, a Godfather for the debauched cocaine-dust fashion era of the ‘70s and ‘80s. House of Gucci recounts how Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) married Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and thus married into the almost sci-fi-level wealth of the Gucci empire. Eventually, Maurizio met another woman and divorced Patrizia, who got together with her psychic friend (Salma Hayek) and a couple of Sicilian button men to take Maurizio off the board. Patrizia was caught and sentenced to 29 years in prison, of which she served 18; she was let out in 2016. 

This seems like at least two movies — one about an ambitious but jealous would-be queen who plots to murder her ex-husband, and one about the rich, famous Gucci family, which wouldn’t be all that interesting if not for the murder. They aren’t all that interesting with the murder, either. House of Gucci should be campy fun, but the director is Ridley Scott, whose name has seldom if ever promised fun. Scott knows how to set up a swanky milieu, but we knew that. He does nothing here that he or countless others haven’t done before. With a cast of hungry actors raring to play-act under latex or bad hair (something like American Hustle, come to think of it), the movie should be a quick, dirty good time, but Scott has never been an actor’s director, and the actors emote and erupt within the vast echo-chamber real estate of the very rich. They seem alone in their efforts — nobody behind the camera seems to be shaping or even enjoying their performances.

Jared Leto’s clownish Paolo Gucci seems to want to out-Fredo the infamous Corleone brother, but he’s just a delusional loser, with none of the pained humanity and frightened aggression that John Cazale brought to Fredo. Jeremy Irons as Rodolfo Gucci somehow retains his plummy English vowels through an “Italian” accent, but sadly he’s not around long. Driver plays it straight as Maurizio, though past a certain point he can’t make Maurizio make sense to us. Al Pacino enters in full goose-honk mode as old Aldo Gucci, unavoidably turning all his scenes into an Al Pacino movie instead of integrating his effects with those of his co-stars. There’s a late scene in which Aldo expresses rage and shock at something his idiot son Paolo has done, but Leto isn’t up to responding organically — he wants all his scenes to be a Jared Leto movie, and he cringes as if he were a signifying silent-movie actor — so Pacino projects into a vacuum and then, visibly deflated, seems to give up and pull Leto in for a hug.

When in doubt, Ridley Scott just pivots to Lady Gaga, who deserves more fun, more eccentricity to match her drag-queen-on-the-moon energy. When Gaga shares a scene (there are several, including a mud-bath bit) with Salma Hayek, we might wish the movie could break off and just be about them, and wish it were about them from the beginning. The scene of Gaga and Hayek issuing orders to a pair of godforsaken meathead assassins will be remembered as a classic. “If you fuck this up,” Hayek assures the goombahs, “I will put a spell on you.” I believed her. I would not want to get Hayek and Gaga mad enough at me to put a hit out on me. Gaga finds kinship and collaborative juice with Hayek that she doesn’t get anywhere else, even from Driver or Pacino. These two are twin death witches from the nightside of capitalism. I want more of the movie they’re in.

Belfast

November 28, 2021

In his autobiographical film Belfast, writer-director Kenneth Branagh has a lot to say about the transporting power of movies, Star Trek, and the loveliness of a smart girl in one’s classroom. The movie is filmed in nostalgic black and white except for the opening and closing images and whenever we get a peek at whatever movie is playing at the cinema when the young hero Buddy (Jude Hill) is brought there. One such trip finds Buddy and his family taking in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the effect of the flying car swooping off a cliff and into the oceanside air makes everyone lean forward in their seats. In his own films since 1989, Branagh has chased that intoxicating mix of awe and engagement, and has sometimes caught it. But he doesn’t do it here.

As it happens, Belfast — told through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy — has little to say about Belfast. It seems a humble place where everyone knows each other; a chorus of chipper voices alerts Buddy when his Ma (Caitríona Balfe) calls him in for tea. But it’s also a place increasingly riven by tensions between Protestants and Catholics; Buddy and his family are the former, and his Pa (Jamie Dornan) is under pressure from local louts to take a (violent) stand against the latter. Pa has also been offered work, and a better house, in England. Ma doesn’t want to leave. After all, their lives are in Belfast, as well as Buddy’s grandmother (Judi Dench) and ailing grandfather (Ciarán Hinds). 

What the place doesn’t have is specificity; some of the movie was actually filmed in Belfast, but it might as well be a backlot. (Reportedly, the family’s street was built for the production on an airport runway.) Branagh is competing here with some heavy hitters even in relatively recent years — say, Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997) or Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes (1999). Those films (and the books they came from) found unstable comedy or unbearable tragedy — on occasion both at once — in the traumas of the Irish childhoods in which they immersed us. Branagh’s Belfast feels lightweight other than the early set-piece of rioters’ chaos, which in itself just seems like an event to get our attention quickly. That attention soon dissipates when we’re asked to focus on tribulations not particular to the Troubles — the father running afoul of the tax man; Buddy trying to get his maths grades up so he can sit next to his beloved.

Branagh may be saying that despite the unique clashes of Belfast, it was largely peopled by folks who worried about the same things most of us do (in addition to fretting about being in the wrong place when the bricks flew). But if we go to Belfast hoping for insight into how a little Belfast lad went on to glory in theater and film, eventually being knighted, we may leave empty-handed. About the only hints of Branagh’s future endeavors are a quick shot of an Agatha Christie novel and an eye-rolling bit with Buddy leafing through an issue of Thor (Branagh has directed movies in both universes). The theme song from High Noon seems to cast a longer shadow over Branagh’s memories than Shakespeare. 

I wasn’t hoping for Easter eggs here — more like elements that would have made this resound as Branagh’s Belfast rather than anyone’s Belfast. The incidents here, including a sequence in which Buddy nicks a box of washing powder from a store in the throes of looting, feel remote and anodyne. To us, the wrestling over whether to leave the increasingly explosive Belfast isn’t a struggle at all — get the hell out. Instead of making us mourn the city, Branagh resorts to making us mourn for poor old Judi Dench left on her own. Aside from a charming little dance between her and Ciarán Hinds, Dench is kept too steadily in the background to embody the land, its joys and discontents. (The movie is generally uptempo, scored as it is with the rambunctious hits of fellow Belfast boy Van Morrison.) But Caitríona Balfe takes over, as mothers in Irish tales often do, and it’s she whose sadness makes the strongest case for the continuity of place. All Branagh can do is make us yearn for a time when a poverty-stricken family of five could still afford a matinee show.

King Richard

November 21, 2021

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You may be forgiven, watching King Richard, for wondering what exactly Richard Williams’ deal was. Was he a prophet or a damned lucky delusional? As tennis fans know, Williams is the father of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time. As the legend goes, Richard planned — literally, a 78-page plan — a future in tennis glory for his daughters before they were even born. He got this notion when he caught Virginia Ruzici on TV winning a tournament. If Ruzici won a lot of money doing this, Richard reasoned, think how much two girls could win. Richard didn’t know anything about tennis, but he learned, and he taught his daughters.

Now, what possessed this man to predict that his Black daughters could dominate a theretofore blindingly-white sport, and that they would both be born with the athletic genius to do so? Did Richard receive a nighttime whispered message from a herald? Further, in King Richard, once Richard gets his girls on the right track, he consistently goes against the grain of everything he’s advised to do. The girls’ coach says they need to start playing in the Juniors? No, Richard says, they’re not ready yet. Nike offers a $3 million endorsement deal? Well, Richard says, we’re gonna hold off. Richard gambles a frightening amount on his instincts, on his sense that he’s right. (We might catch a bit of subtext that Richard, who grew up in hard times abused by racists, is wary of all the received wisdom that comes from white faces — well-meaning, but white.)

Will Smith plays Richard as a batch of conflicting signals — sometimes cramped and cynical, sometimes carried along by his dreams. People, including his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), keep telling Richard he’s heading for a fall, cruising for a bruising. But he has no fear of failure; he seems to fear regret. He doesn’t want to look back and mourn the risks he didn’t take, the money he left on the table. Smith finds something fiery in Richard’s center; the man’s entire being and sense of self are tied up in being vindicated. Through his daughters’ triumphs, the world will tell Richard Williams that he was right. Richard pisses off one elite coach (Tony Goldwyn) and moves on to another (Jon Bernthal, in the funniest performance) and pisses him off. Nobody has seen things done the way Richard wants them done. This guy is nuts. And yet the world keeps sustaining his vision. Smith uses his star charisma — which makes the audience lean towards him — to make Richard seem nourished by everyone else’s doubt. All the film’s energy is directed towards Smith; it’s Richard’s story, not Venus or Serena’s. 

Richard is an odd man to hold the center of a film that also boasts, somewhere off to the side, two lightning bolts like Venus and Serena. The story Richard tells about himself (and which this movie co-signs) has a Biblical whiff about it: God tells Richard (or Noah, or whoever) that this thing is going to happen, must happen, and you’ve got to prepare for it. The Richard of this movie (truly I know little of the man aside from what Smith, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, and writer Zach Baylin give us) is a prickly, flawed, arrogant, possibly great man whose character goes somewhat unresolved, our questions unanswered. And it’s not that the movie is trying to be the sportsball equivalent of Last Year at Marienbad or anything; it just recognizes there’s more to him, to anyone, than even two hours and twenty-five minutes can capture. 

Alas, this male’s vision is mightily supported by a woman (Aunjanue Ellis comes through with a loving, sensible turn that even in moments of quiet watchfulness is the film’s moral compass) and by, of course, two girls. If not for them, there’d be no him. King Richard plays us out with Beyoncé’s “Be Alive,” which is about Venus and Serena: “We fought and built this on our own.” True enough. But the movie needs Richard’s righteous self-regard; it would be too close to a standard sports biopic without it. All the familiar beats are there, the advances and seeming setbacks, leading up to the big game with the whole universe hanging on it, and … well, you’ve seen sports films before. But maybe you haven’t seen Richard before. 

Lansky

June 20, 2021

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Harvey Keitel has still got it. The 82-year-old actor reigns over the biopic Lansky despite not being in most of it. That’s partly because the movie itself is pretty dreary weak tea — though handsomely realized on what I imagine was not a large budget — but mostly because Keitel will naturally dominate everything you put him in now, with ease and little effort. In The Irishman, Keitel had scant minutes of screen time and maybe eight words of dialogue that I can remember, but in a room with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, he was the unquestioned force. As a young man, Keitel bellowed and flailed (and his torments meant a lot to us), but now all he has to do is angle his head and pitch his voice just a bit differently and he still packs a punch. Please, someone put Keitel in one last film that deserves him.

Keitel does infinitely more for Lansky than it does for him. It’s 1981, and “mob accountant” Meyer Lansky (Keitel) has recently been diagnosed with the cancer that will kill him two years later. Lansky decides it’s time to tell his story, and selects struggling, just-divorced writer David Stone (Sam Worthington) to work on the book. The Lansky we see most of the time onscreen is in his thirties and forties, and is played (well enough) by John Magaro. As the older Lansky relates his younger days in flashbacks, we hear about something that’s low-key fascinated me for years: the war between the mob and the Nazis. Look up Operation Underworld sometime and marvel at how it hasn’t yet inspired the greatest movie ever made. It takes up all of three minutes here, and I would gladly have had a whole film, with this cast and these filmmakers, treating that subject at length.

Instead we get an obnoxiously pointless subplot, dealing with the writer who, as far as I can determine, is made up out of whole cloth, and who dallies with a woman who gets him involved with the feds, and I guarantee you, every time this subplot shows its saggy, unshaven face, you will want to huck a tomato at it. It’s a whole other (and intolerably boring) movie transplanted onto a promising movie. Nothing against Sam Worthington — or Minka Kelly, who plays the woman — but this entire narrative could be lifted out and leave us with a leaner, meaner film, perhaps adding back some stuff they had to cut out to keep the film under two hours. What they have now doesn’t work on its own or in here. It’s truly awful. It turns a potentially solid film into a bad one. Take it out and put back more stuff about gangsters gouging out Nazis’ eyes at a Bund meeting.

Thematically, the writer’s subplot does make sense: it echoes Lansky’s own conviction that he did what he had to do for his family. The message, banal but not belabored, is that family is all, but if you make the wrong moves to protect it you wind up destroying it, as Michael Corleone found out. The younger Lansky has many tedious squabbles with his wife (AnnaSophia Robb) over the amount of blood on their money, as if she didn’t go into her marriage with him (as the movie tells it) knowing what he was. The director, Eytan Rockaway, keeps things moving and lively — there’s always something going on — but he should have fired the screenwriter, who unfortunately is also Eytan Rockaway.

Keitel delivers on his end of the bargain. He gets to play a lot of juicy elderly-sinner emotions, though age has subdued Lansky somewhat. It doesn’t matter. When it comes time for Lansky to show a flash of fury or cave to despair, Keitel nails it, but with the economy that wisdom brings. I don’t think he could play a frenzied dumbass anymore, like the pianist in Fingers or the elaborately suffering Bad Lieutenant. He has become, as I said, the grey eminence who quietly dominates. He was even memorable in The Painted Bird dubbed in Interslavic. I hope that he has many more performances in store, and that at least one of them is in a movie that earns him.

Judas and the Black Messiah

April 4, 2021

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Someone wanna explain to me how Shaka King didn’t get an Oscar nomination for directing the Best Picture nominee Judas and the Black Messiah? King did get nods for producing and co-writing the film, but come on. The filmmaking here is fleet-footed, smooth, alive, and contains (courtesy of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) the most colorful rainy scenes I’ve seen in a movie in years. Six Black directors have been nominated for Best Director since 1991, and of those, two directed Best Picture — but the Director Oscar went to someone else. You can say people get way too serious about the Oscars and also say representation is important. You can respect other directors on the list this year and also say King was robbed.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a perhaps too-neat title for an engrossing real-life thriller about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, and Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief strong-armed by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers and report his findings. Kaluuya puts some sand in his voice and barks out Hampton’s angry revolutionary rhetoric, while Stanfield keeps his cool despite fed Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) affably breathing down O’Neal’s neck for intel. We’ve seen a lot of undercover-cop films, and I thought Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman might have put the subgenre to bed, but this film has a Shakespearean-tragedy tinge to it. The martyr doesn’t even get to confront his betrayer, nor does the betrayer unburden himself of his guilt until far too late. O’Neal talked to interviewers for Eyes on the Prize 2 about all of it twenty years later. The night the interview aired on PBS, O’Neal died under disputed circumstances thought by some, including the filmmakers here, to be suicide. He was only forty.

Then again, O’Neal was only seventeen when Mitchell offered him a way out of his charges. Hampton was 21 when he died (if he were with us today he would still only be 72). Many of the agitators for peace and equality in the ‘60s were young, but man, these folks were young. Kaluuya and Stanfield are each about a decade older than the men they’re playing, and they look it, but it works for the movie — Hampton and O’Neal seem weighed down, prematurely aged, by their responsibilities. And their responsibilities are all tangled up with the racist world they’ve been in all their lives. Fred Hampton’s rhetoric wasn’t beautiful like Malcolm X’s or darting and jabbing like Muhammad Ali’s — it was more blunt-force, incantatory in its repetitions. Where he truly excelled was in getting opposed factions — Black street gangs, a redneck group — under the umbrella of his Rainbow Coalition. The FBI was having none of that, and they put a harder squeeze on O’Neal to clear a path to Hampton’s assassination.

The movie comes in a little north of two hours but flies by. Shaka King sketches Hampton here and there, just enough to keep us invested in him as a person, not an icon. We get almost no background on either Hampton or O’Neal — they exist for us in the now, they define themselves by what they do or don’t do. The movie obliquely prompts us to think about how circumstances have shaped us: what accounts for the differences in the ways Hampton and O’Neal respond to the world? Stanfield’s O’Neal doesn’t get any big dramatic moments, but we can see it’s killing him inside. He and Hampton scarcely get any downtime for hanging out, becoming friends, but we feel warmth and mutual respect between them anyway. In some ways, though, O’Neal redeems himself even during his imposture. He helps run things when Hampton is in jail, and he pitches in to rebuild the Panthers’ office after the cops firebomb it. “We are what we pretend to be,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” That cuts both ways, though, and as O’Neal pretends to be someone helping his community, there he is, helping his community.

One Night in Miami…

January 18, 2021

14one-night-2-superJumbo-v2Ossie Davis famously called Malcolm X “our own Black shining prince,” and One Night in Miami… adds three other princes. Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) heads to a Black motel to celebrate with Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) on the occasion of Clay’s ascension to World Heavyweight Champion. On some level, in the words of Kemp Powers (Soul), who wrote the One Night script based on his play, these were “the Black Avengers” — a supergroup of “living Black manhood” (again as per Davis) in different but parallel ways. Each man was engaged in rising up and trying to take as many Black people as he could up with him.

The irony is that all four men gained their fame and power in front of audiences; only one, Malcolm, did so before largely Black audiences. The rest had to function as entertainers or gladiators for white viewers, who bestowed prestige and money on them as long as they knew their places. But Malcolm appears as the other men’s conscience, often an irritating one for them. Malcolm is always going after them for compromising themselves. What he doesn’t realize — since he’s caught up in his own identity crisis — is that they, like Malcolm, are souls in flux. Clay wants to join Malcolm in the Nation of Islam. Malcolm, who has butted heads with Elijah Muhammad, wants to leave the Nation of Islam. Brown wants to pivot from football to movies. Cooke wants to write songs that mean more.

One Night in Miami… ends before the men all get what they want; it also ends before two of them, Malcolm and Cooke, were killed, months apart, under still-disputed circumstances. Director Regina King proves the old saw that actors turned directors tend to be the best actors’ directors. She creates a comfortable vibe for the cast to stretch and project — the movie is leisurely paced, bordering on but never really crossing over into slow. The tempo was different then, not because the need for change wasn’t urgent but because everything took longer. The narrative reflects that, but King varies exteriors and interiors smoothly enough that the story doesn’t feel as stagebound and talky as it might.

Besides, most of the time, what the words are about is much larger than four guys in a room, and the guys all know that. Having the culture’s magnifying glass pointed their way has given them all some level of self-awareness. That they’re consciously playing roles doesn’t make them less sincere; the point is that Black people in America have had to play roles to survive for 400 years. And these four men, in the peak of their prime, the pride of their shining, want to renounce, fully or in part, their heroic roles. They want authenticity in their words and their lives. The actors give us the faces the rubes see, but then quiet down for their private moments as men, not icons. There are some stretches when you can forget you’re watching these specific legends — you’re just seeing four men wrestling with changes that will anger everyone in their lives. As if it weren’t hard enough being Black in a place that continually reminds them of that.

Of the four, I found myself most drawn to Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X. The movie seems to be about him, though the story doesn’t happen without Clay’s victory and subsequent get-together. Like I said, Malcolm is the ghost haunting the attics of the other three men. Malcolm himself, as we know from his memoir and Spike Lee’s film of it, was constantly in a state of change right up until his murder. He recognizes this in his three friends — especially Cooke, whom he comes down on particularly heavily — and tries to goose them along, sometimes breaking out his electrifying street-speech cadences, which the others respond to with “Man, shut the fuck up.” One Night in Miami… is a comedy of friendship as well as a drama about how change has to come because that’s what living things do. When you don’t change, you’re in the grave.

Mank

December 6, 2020

mank-1David Fincher’s Mank is a real Christmas-tree ball — shiny as hell and just as empty. The most human thing about it is that it derives from a screenplay by Fincher’s late father Jack, although the son may have inadvertently shown up the father by mounting on a large scale a story that has been written to fit in a shot glass. And like a shot, the script is clear, bitter and numbing. It’s talky and weaves politics into its portrait of ‘30s-‘40s Hollywood; it’s acrid and unsentimental, and could have made a fine comedy. But it doesn’t warrant the treatment it gets from Fincher, who, it seems, knows only one way to deal with a given story: throw tons of technique and grim-faced style at it. Sometimes it has worked, but in a story about a stumble-drunk screenwriter?

Gary Oldman has rumpled humor to spare as Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, best remembered for co-writing (or writing solo, some say) Orson Welles’ directorial debut Citizen Kane. Oldman waddles into a scene, drawls some drunken bitter nonsense, and takes his swaying leave, sometimes not by choice. It’s a plum part, and Oldman relaxes into it, never asked to express much besides affable cynicism. He gives an entertaining, person-scaled performance in an enormous vacuum. Fincher frames this as a deathless Hollywood tragedy; the gleaming black-and-white (and pompously widescreen) compositions by Erik Messerschmidt create nothing so much as a coffee-table book of images of actors immaculately framed and lighted.

And for what? Even a scene between Mank and a suicidal friend who has Parkinson’s is curiously cold, as if directed by an android who had to extrapolate the emotional tone the scene was supposed to have. (The scene is contrived and false anyway, loosely based on a man who actually outlived Mank by over a decade.) At least Mank doesn’t look like a sickly green latrine, like Fincher’s last feature Gone Girl six years ago, but both films left me in a terrible mood. Fincher has in the past directed films I’ve enjoyed (Se7en, Zodiac), but I don’t trust him or his motives, and I wouldn’t trust him around anyone I care about. His work has become shifty and sleazy, and he tries to win us over not by appealing to our common humanity but by frigid razzle-dazzle. I had hoped that Mank was far enough outside his shadowy-thriller wheelhouse that it might surprise me, but as it is, Fincher does film-monk stuff like the cigarette burns that used to appear in the corner of the theater screen to signal a reel change, or sound design that even in exterior scenes makes everyone seem recorded on a soundstage.

The movie’s jumpy time scheme, of course, is a tip of the hat to the famously nonlinear Citizen Kane, which has a small amount of cool calculation in it, but also tremendous passion. This supposed hatchet job on William Randolph Hearst actually spends almost every second trying to understand him and humanize him. Charles Foster Kane’s great man of mystery is peeled layer by layer. But Mank is a different sort of movie, one that shows you a man and says that’s all there is to him. Mank drinks and occasionally writes (and engages in the writer cliché of lying amidst a clutter of crumpled script pages), and gets into mildly witty badinage with whoever he finds standing next to him, and that’s all. He has no shadows, no depths. Everyone else can read him better than he can read them.

Fincher’s deepest sin against the gods of cinema here: he actually shows us the girl with the white parasol. Yes, there’s a bit when Mank has his assistant (Lily Collins) read aloud Mr. Bernstein’s story, one of the great achievements in writing for the screen, in no small part because, like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” it invites you — no, compels you — to see it in your mind’s eye. Welles knew that no actual girl in a white dress with a white parasol that he could film would carry half as much imagistic weight as your own personal vision of that girl, that symbol of the things of this world that snag our attention and stay in our memory forever. And along comes David Fincher to kill the butterfly and pin it to a board, giving us a banal pretty image of that girl. Who asked him?

The Trial of the Chicago 7

October 19, 2020

chicago 7If the titular trial of the Chicago 7 hadn’t happened, writer-director Aaron Sorkin would’ve had to invent it. It has everything that brings a spring to Sorkin’s step: the hostile contrapuntal duets of the courtroom, the urgently witty walk-and-talks, the blind spot for women. (Women exist here generally to tell their men to be careful or to entrap men while undercover for the police. Because it’s Sorkin, they do get to be as snarky as everyone else.) I’d be dishonest if I said The Trial of the Chicago 7 wasn’t engaging, though it feels a little … light. The stakes don’t seem as high as they might. We spend most of our time with eight men (if we count, as we should, Bobby Seale) and their defenders, and that’s essentially why we don’t want them to go to jail. The larger point, that the system was trying to make dissent unlawful, is somewhat glossed over in favor of the combustible (or square) personalities in play.

The movie is framed and edited so that it goes like a shot and doesn’t, for the most part, feel like a filmed play, which it unavoidably is. It’s constructed as candy for actors, and for all the showboating on display, the strongest presence is John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, the sort of activist you put on the stand because he looks like the bland folks you’ve got to convince. Lynch plays Dellinger as the glue, the lifelong agitator (he was a conscientious objector during WWII) who knows exactly how far to push before the authorities will push back. He doesn’t get any grandstanding speeches. He doesn’t need them. The movie says that if your anti-war movement needs media clown princes like Abbie Hoffman, it also needs reliable potatoes like Dellinger.

Hoffman the sardonic Yippie gets the red-carpet treatment from Sorkin and from Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays him as an attention junkie who’s smarter than he lets on — and that’s part of his media image, too, the stoned goofball who can whip out quotes from Lincoln and scripture. If the movie has a lead, though, it’s Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden, the presentable young man who only misspoke, telling the crowd at a heated point, “Let us make sure that if blood flows, it flows all over the city,” when he meant to say “if our blood flows,” meaning not the cops’ blood. Abbie Hoffman’s diagnosis of this statement as a grammatical whiff on Hayden’s part — dammit, man, you always forget your possessive pronouns! — is perhaps the movie’s weirdest moment of triumph.

It’s clear from the flashbacks to the event that the police herded the protestors into a fight-or-flight position, except that flight wasn’t possible. Sounds quite a bit like the tactics used by the Portland police last summer, though of course the film was written (Sorkin started work on the script in 2007) and shot (last fall) long before the widespread protests that made the movie and its story feel freshly relevant. Unlike, say, Spike Lee or Oliver Stone, Sorkin has resisted the temptation to use contemporary news footage to comment on the past (which, as Stone reminded us at the end of JFK, is prologue). Sorkin isn’t a hot-blooded activist like those two men; it’s combative dialogue and not injustice that gets his creative juices going.

Generally, Sorkin’s debates come down to two people, like Tom Cruise versus Jack Nicholson. Here, the two voices raised in anger are essentially on the same side, disagreeing on the style of revolt. You have Tom Hayden, the principled young man you’d bring home to meet your mother. And you have Abbie Hoffman, no less principled but scruffy and redolent of weed and media stunts. These opposed egos almost render Judge Julius Hoffman (in a contemptuous, near-Nixonian turn by Frank Langella) irrelevant to the fracas. Judge Hoffman can only confine the left’s bodies; Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden are fighting for their hearts and minds. In the end it’s Abbie the hound and doper and mischief-maker who takes the stand and quietly speaks for reason, while Hayden does his own brand of grandstanding by reading aloud in court the names of the American dead in Vietnam (did he really? yes and no, mostly no). Sorkin doesn’t do anything so gauche as to depict a grudging but firm climactic handshake between Tom and Abbie before the end credits, but that doesn’t mean we don’t see it.

Shirley

May 10, 2020

shirley The stories of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) are enjoying a bit of a fresh wash and airing out lately, what with recent treatments of The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and (on deck) “The Lottery.” So it’s not surprising that the experimental/instinctive filmmaker Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) got the go-ahead to make a movie about Jackson. Given Decker’s involvement, it also shouldn’t be surprising that the result, Shirley, turns out to be an elliptical riff on the themes that Jackson’s life and work open up; it’s far from a standard biopic. Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, adapting a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, approach Jackson as an avatar of misunderstood, squelched female creativity at a time that didn’t value or encourage it. (Trying to square the film’s hazy timeline with the real events isn’t useful; we’ll say the film is set in the early ‘50s.)

Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is beating her head against an inchoate novel she’s trying to find her way into writing, which eventually became 1951’s Hangsaman, loosely based on the disappearance of a local college girl. At first, the anguished Moss as the depressed, blocked Shirley seems like typecasting, and I wished anew that Moss weren’t shaping up to be the next Christian Bale, miserable and self-crucifying forever. But Moss finds pockets of wit and even giddy pixellated fun in Shirley’s antisocial moods and games. (The agoraphobic Jackson had no problem with social distancing.) Moss’s Shirley has a kind of mischievous though maliceless curiosity about the world around her. Much of it she sees through the prism of men’s betrayal of women and all its forms — her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (a twinkly caricature of ebullient mansplaining by Michael Stuhlbarg), beds down with legions of his female students.

Into this miasma of spoken and unspoken psychic violence drift a fictional couple — Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young). Fred will be interning with Professor Hyman, and Rose will be doing some cooking and cleaning, because Stanley and Shirley don’t. Shirley and the pregnant Rose develop a complicated rapport based on shared feelings of being overlooked, underestimated, vilified. (The movie reminds us that Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” sparked as much loathing as love; the script unfolds sometime after the heated response has more or less flattened and blocked Jackson.) The unknown fate of the missing Paula Jean Welden haunts Shirley — she recognizes that she, too, is lost, and she has visions of Rose as Paula enacting self-abnegating psychodramas, literally squirming in the soil. Paula/Rose/Shirley become a triptych of fear of female erasure. Through all this, Decker’s filmmaking is quiet, diffuse, questioning yet assured. The camera floats between the characters, gets up close, breathes along with them. The film toys with the idea of a tryst between Rose and Shirley, then withdraws it. Sex is too physical for what’s really going on here, a sort of meditation on the female oversoul in the ‘50s.

I told you this wasn’t a typical biopic. And some of it plays better in memory than it may when you watch it — a few of the scenes are awkward bordering on cringeworthy, not out of ineptitude but by design. Decker wants us to feel what her characters feel, and a lot of the conflict has to do with the manners and mores of the day. Moss and Stuhlbarg dig into each other’s soft spots so masterfully it’s sometimes easy to forget Odessa Young and especially Logan Lerman are even there. But the movie isn’t really about the male-female war. What Decker (and Jackson before her) understand is that women’s inner lives could be dark and twisted (sometimes beautifully so) even without men. Add the creative urge to that mix and the test tube might explode in your hand. Despite its egghead premise and milieu, Shirley isn’t a hostile art object. Unexpected warm breezes of intimacy waft through it. At heart it’s a fantasy about a crank, misanthrope and artist who crosses paths with a muse and sees her artistic life project laid out before her. It tells her to speak for the haunted and silent.

For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close

March 22, 2020

for-madmen-only-185820The current situation being what it is, I have no idea when you’ll get to see For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close — it was supposed to premiere at the cancelled SXSW festival last week — but you should keep an eye out for it. It’s as worthy of its subject as any movie that isn’t completely shambolic and unconventional can be. The improvisational-comedy master Del Close, who died in 1999 five days shy of his 65th birthday, is probably better known for the comedians he taught and/or inspired than for his own performing. Anyone who was anyone on Saturday Night Live (from the Belushi years to the Fey years), SCTV, and more passed through the turbulent gates of Close’s cracked guidance and wisdom. A guru to hundreds, he was also a self-destructive, self-mythologizing flaming wreck of a human, one who burned bridges while still standing on them.

For Madmen Only combines the usual talking-heads approach with tongue-in-cheek re-enactments. The skilled comedian James Urbaniak steps in as Close in the latter segments; it must have been as daunting a task as Michael Chiklis wandering into enemy fire to play Belushi in the awful Wired, but in this case it pays off — Urbaniak has a strong resemblance to Close in the first place, so he’s free to play an idiosyncratic but occasionally successful collaborator. The segments have to do with Close’s late-period project Wasteland, a short-lived cult comic book from DC, and that’s where I first heard of Close and the many tales, tall or otherwise, about him — his various drug trips, his brushes with Hollywood, his beginnings as a carny performer, or just surreal reveries with himself and sometimes his writing partner John Ostrander as hosts.

Around that same time (the late ‘80s), Close was wandering into major films — you may have seen him in The Untouchables, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the remake of The Blob. Once seen, he’s not easily forgotten; he had a leonine, authoritative presence. More and more over the years, though, he used that presence not to hit his own marks on the stage but to make a mark as a behind-the-scenes Svengali, directing youngsters like Stephen Colbert or Mike Myers to reach inside themselves, connect with their stagemates, and produce … well, laughless crap, some of the time. Some of the time, the result was brilliance you couldn’t tap into any other way. Forming his own theater, with longtime creative partner Charna Halpern, Close seasoned his students with a decades-old improv technique he’d developed and insisted on, known as “the Harold.” Despite reading about it on several occasions and hearing about it anew in the movie, I still don’t quite understand the Harold’s intricacies, but then I’m not an improvisational comedian. A comics and sci-fi reader, Close probably enjoyed a concept that enabled extended fantasizing within a context of rules; in that sense, he was the Gary Gygax of comedy, the dungeonmaster.

Close never rose to the level that many of his students felt he wanted to. He had the mind of a teacher but the soul of a performer, a renegade artist. If you know him, it’s from that brief window when directors like Brian De Palma and John Hughes were hiring him. That was him, probably, at his most presentable, the wizard a movie director could wheel out for hipster cred (and to add a few volts to a scene — Close brings avuncular menace to his reading of “You fellas are untouchable, is that the thing?”). Mostly, though, he was simply too unstable for even the unconventional employment of an actor. What this documentary underlines is that Close found his métier as a prophet and visionary, touching the faithful on their fevered foreheads and dispensing grace.

closeuntouchThe shots of Close’s cluttered, dilapidated ashtray of an apartment square with the portrait I remember from the best two books about him, The Funniest One in the Room by Kim “Howard” Johnson and Guru by Jeff Griggs. In person, I gather, Close was the classical irascible old genius with an appetite for stimulation. This was a man capable of telling an interviewer (Bob Odenkirk) that he’d kicked cocaine and heroin, but of course still smoked weed and had a few hallucinogenic trips a year (“Those are health drugs!”). The movie’s mix of anecdotes, dramatizations and animation points up the subtitle — the stories of Del Close. For certainly such a crowded house of a man would not have only one story. We finish with a pair of debunkings of Close legends, and Charna Halpern refers to the “jerky reporter” who broke one of them — the one about Close bequeathing his own skull to play the role of Horatio in future productions at a Chicago theater. Well, as the saying goes, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.