Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Women Talking

November 27, 2022

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If you only have two choices, how much choice do you have? That’s one of many questions raised in Women Talking (opening in the U.S. on December 23), a dialogue-driven drama about a group of Mennonite women trying to decide what to do: fight or flee. It’s recently been revealed that some of the men in the community have been dosing some of the women (and girls) with cow tranquilizer and raping them while they’re unconscious at night. The men responsible have been taken away, but they’ll be out on bail soon, and will come back to the colony — and to the women. Three initial choices are laid out for the women: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The last two options finish in a tie, so eight of the women discuss whether to stay or go, and before long the notion of staying recedes into the distance.

Women Talking is the third narrative feature directed by Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), who seems drawn to material that shows people in all their unlovely complications. Bur her gaze is warm, not cold, and here she simply provides a space for the frequently voiceless to speak. What’s compelling about the drama, aside from the ticking-clock structure and the ghastly situation itself, is the various women’s responses to the assaults and to the realities of the aftermath. If they don’t forgive the rapists, they will be denied entry to Heaven. If they do forgive the rapists, how can that possibly please God? Why didn’t He stop the violence in the first place? And so forth.

The movie, as well as the Miriam Toews novel it’s adapting, is based on an actual incident in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2011. Questions of faith are prominent in the women’s discussions, but don’t really dominate. Some of the issues, I guess, would be brought up in a less devout group of women. One particularly bitter abuse survivor, Mariche (Jessie Buckley), angrily asks another woman in the group why the assault seems to have affected her more than the others. It might seem an uncommonly callous thing to ask until you learn that Mariche is routinely beaten by her husband. The violence inflicted on her has blown out a large chunk of her ability to empathize with others’ pain. Not every victim is as kindly and “nice” as some would like them to be, and Polley knows this and shows it.

Those with the patience to sit and listen will be rewarded with some top-notch performances; Polley even gets a subtly warm turn from Rooney Mara as Ona, whose encounter with a nighttime rapist has left her pregnant. Ona is also sweet on August (Ben Whishaw), a young man from an excommunicated family who has come to the colony as a teacher for the boys. (The girls aren’t taught to read or write.) I kept expecting August to turn out to be slimy, but no, Polley does believe “not all men” (a character even says it). Her film privileges women but is more concerned with what they choose to do with the information they’ve been given. One survivor has changed their name from Nettie to Melvin, and doesn’t speak to anyone except the children; a whole fascinating movie could be made about Melvin (played by trans nonbinary actor August Winter). 

It’s not a “likable” film — it’s grim, with some dots of humor — but I don’t think it was meant to be. It grapples with the subject of women in a society where their options are limited, and that subject expands beyond the literal scenario in a Mennonite colony the more we let the story wash around our brains. It’s jarring as hell when a truck drives slowly past the community’s house, blaring the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” over a loudspeaker along with a voice encouraging the colonists to come out and be counted for the 2010 census. In a little touch typical of scripter-director Polley’s method here, the teacher August, who left the community for a while to go to university, sings softly along with the song, which he might remember from his time outside. The movie is built out of little human moments like that. If we’re waiting for the women to stop talking and start doing — as a century of male-steered movies have conditioned us to want — we might miss those moments, and the movie. 

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

September 18, 2022

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It might be amusing to think of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s idea of a superhero movie — specifically, an X-Men movie, albeit one that begins in a mental hospital and sidetracks to the strip clubs of New Orleans. Amirpour made a splashy debut eight years ago with the moody vampire indie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and followed that with the determinedly cultish cannibal dystopia The Bad Batch. Now she returns with a drifty, digressive fable about Mona Lisa Lee (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman with mind-control powers. She escapes from the facility she’s locked up in, and falls in with erotic dancer Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), who sees how Mona Lisa’s powers can be used to make money.

Some may find Mona Lisa a somewhat thin work dramatically. Aside from a limping detective (Craig Robinson) on Mona Lisa’s and Bonnie’s trail, not much happens. But I think Amirpour means the movie not as a neon-noir narrative (although it is that) but as a commentary on how capitalism drives people to self-debasement. It’s not that Bonnie dances for money, or that Mona Lisa’s power is put to work hypnotizing passersby into draining their bank accounts at an ATM and handing the cash over to her. These things are presented as what must be done to survive. It’s when Bonnie gets smug about it, literally letting twenties and fifties rain on her, that we see she’s become part of the system that holds her down. 

Bonnie has a young son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), who views her as toxic and can’t wait to get away from her. Charlie dances off steam in his room while trash metal blares, and he’s a pretty good artist. He represents the creative urge to run away from the corruptive world and do art in solitude; he’s the hero of the piece, if anyone is. When Bonnie brings Mona Lisa home, Charlie hits it off with Mona Lisa. He doesn’t agree with how his mother is using her. He would rather watch TV with Mona Lisa or draw her — either keep her company or honor her with art. He doesn’t want anything from her. Weirdly, a skanky drug dealer named Fuzz (Ed Skrein), who helps Mona Lisa at a couple of points in the film, looks like predatory trouble but seems to be legitimately taken with Mona Lisa. He only wants a kiss from her, which she gives, knowing that’s all he wants from her. 

The movie is candy-colored and doesn’t press too hard on our nerves. Mona Lisa is potentially dangerous, but she’s not interested in killing anyone; at most she gets people to maim themselves in the leg, even a mean cracker who abuses her in the mental hospital. She only wants freedom, and we want her to have it. The movie is low-stakes but engaging and, with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Midsommar) on board, gorgeous. Other than a trio of dirtbags who corner Bonnie after she has used Mona Lisa to empty their wallets, most of the hostility towards Bonnie or Mona Lisa comes from other women, interestingly. Amirpour, though, lets us understand where that anger comes from. 

Hudson comes through with a sharp turn as a woman whose worldview has been whittled down to the hustle. Bonnie is only a vivid supporting character, though; Jeon Jong-seo takes the lead, and acts largely with her eyes, pools of melancholy in a blank face. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of the fantasy premise. We don’t know where Mona Lisa’s power comes from or what she plans to do with it once she’s on her own. She’s mostly an avatar of innocence used for corrupt ends, and Jeon conveys that with no fuss. And Amirpour remains a director to watch, picking up scraps of genre and pasting them into funky collages that share elements with a lot of things but aren’t really like anything else. 

Carmen

September 4, 2022

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Ah, Natascha McElhone: It’s been a long time. This wonderful actor has kept busy on TV in recent years, but I find it’s been two decades since I saw her in a movie, the underrated Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris. Now McElhone assumes the center and title role of Carmen, a gentle and attentive film in which her character loses a dead old identity and gains an exciting new one, as well as a community that values her. There are certainly less pleasant ways to pass an afternoon than watching McElhone’s Carmen find peace and joy. Best of all, it unfolds on the beautiful island of Malta, given the glow and hue of Heaven itself by its writer-director Valerie Buhagiar, herself of Maltese heritage.

Carmen has spent most of her life looking after her brother, a dour priest at an ill-attended church. When he dies, another priest is sent for, as well as his sister who will look after him; there’ll be no place for Carmen at the church any more — or so everyone thinks. Carmen hides away in the building, sneaking into the confessional box and listening to the church members’ sins. Instead of sitting in judgment, Carmen offers the people advice, and they take it gratefully. It’s not that Carmen ever leaves the church; it’s that she casts off her former thankless role in it and tries on a new persona, one that may also be capable of love with a young pawn-store owner (Steven Love).

Buhagiar is said to have based Carmen’s story on the life of her aunt, but guessing what events in the film have real-world analogues won’t do much for us or for the movie. Past a certain point, aside from a detour with Carmen on a boat with a less than gracious host, what happens to and for Carmen is what Buhagiar and we want to see happen. The overriding vibe of the film is warmth, from its star and from its setting. After watching ugly people fight each other amid junk and debris in last week’s Samaritan, I was really ready to spend time with Natascha McElhone learning to smile again with a preternaturally soothing backdrop. Soothing — that’s the word for Carmen in general. The complications in the plot (including the new priest’s sister, who shows up at the church before he does) are easily overcome. The film believes in its happy ending(s), so we do too.

This friendly daydream of a movie should be seen by some of you folks who’ve been wanting something like it — it doesn’t have a rating, but I’d put this at PG at most, possibly even G. It’s set in the ‘80s but could’ve been made in the ‘50s. If you can’t stream it later this month, it hits DVD in October. But if you can find it on a big screen within a reasonable drive, Malta will not disappoint you. Neither will McElhone.

Carmen doesn’t say much; she’s not used to speaking (which I guess is what makes her a good listener). So McElhone does much of her work with her expressive face, sometimes her hands or body language. The movie feels like a gift offered to McElhone in kindness, and she reciprocates by conveying a deep kindness herself, made deeper when Carmen finds out she deserves some kindness too. In a lesser movie, Carmen would leave the church altogether, but we see here that, although a lot of her life supporting her brother was drudgery, a lot of it engaged her and gratified her. So why shouldn’t she stay and be herself within the church, improving it from there? The movie is far from Catholic propaganda; from what we see it doesn’t matter what faith, if any at all, is practiced in the building. It’s all about the community seeking wholeness there.

Get Away If You Can

July 18, 2022

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Both the poster and the very title of Get Away If You Can suggest that we’re in for a psychological thriller. On the poster, Ed Harris’ face looms menacingly over our protagonists, embattled married couple Dominique (Dominique Braun) and TJ (Terrence Martin). We might assume we’ll get a love-triangle thriller. In fact, it’s a drama in which the couple try to heed the title’s warning. But are they meant to get away from each other, or from the outside influences that want to pry them apart? Once you get used to what the movie actually is, it’s a low-key indie effort with a perfect, though probably metaphorical, ending. 

Dominique comes from Argentina, and has a sister there (Martina Gusman) who wants her to give up on TJ and his toxic-masculine family and come live with her on her ranch. TJ contends with his surly dad (Harris) and his chip-off-the-old-block brother (Riley Smith), who want him to give up on Dominique and come take over the old man’s tugboat business. All of this is in the couple’s heads when they set sail (on a sailboat bought by TJ’s brother with TJ’s money) for “the Islands of Despair.” Dominique wants to explore the islands. TJ wants to continue on to a warmer, less rocky environment, where he can surf and she can scuba dive. She gets out of the boat and sets up camp on the island, and won’t get back in the boat with TJ despite his pleas.

Get Away If You Can throws in flashbacks to break up the narrative (only an hour and fourteen minutes less the end credits). Each flashback does the work of establishing the angels (Dominique’s gentle but insistent sister) and demons (TJ’s selfish, hostile family) dictating the couple’s actions. A good portion of the film was shot on location on la Isla Róbinson Crusoe off of Chile, and the directors, who happen to be the lead couple themselves (they’re married in real life also), bring back a lot of gorgeous footage that makes the case for why Dominique wants to stay there. After a while, though, we understand that the island, like the ending, is a metaphor. The title turns out to be a well-meaning nudge, not a stern admonishment or, indeed, a warning.

Towards the conclusion, when Dominique grows a marijuana garden and goes around sporting a headband adorned with dank nugs, while TJ seems to have come to terms with the escape he needs, the movie proposes a castaway, Adam-and-Eve existence in opposition to living according to rich relatives’ wishes, whether paradisiacal or infernal. We’re not meant to take the couple’s choice literally, or subject it to logical scrutiny. We’re just meant to go with it, and the script (also by the directors) subtly works out why certain things don’t work for the couple while other things do. It’s not until Dominique rekindles her creative flame and TJ becomes one with the waves that the door is opened for the ending we want for them.

Is it bad to reveal that a movie has a happy ending? In this case, it may help a viewer get through the difficult early stretch when Dominique and TJ, still under thrall to their influences, seem to hate each other. But it’s just that they’re trapped in a frustrating stasis. Get Away If You Can ends up as a romance, not just a psychological drama (though that, too). You just shouldn’t expect a thriller — say, Ed Harris sends some goons after the couple to split them up, or the couple go through twists and turns and betray each other. It’s not that sort of film; coming as it does from a married couple, it emerges as a personal statement. Never a slouch, Harris delivers a grouchy turn visible even when he’s not around, in TJ’s cowed eyes; Braun and Martin enact a couple in love as well as at war. See it if you can. 

Screwdriver

June 12, 2022

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The minimalist drama/thriller Screwdriver, which starts doing the festival rounds this week, maintains a low, vibrating level of tension for almost its whole running time. Most of the tension is in the face of lead actress AnnaClare Hicks, who invests her character with vulnerability tied into self-hating anxiety. Hicks plays Emily, a young woman from down south whose marriage has suddenly fallen apart. Not knowing what to do, she takes a train to California to stay for a week or so with Robert (Charlie Farrell), a guy she remembers from high school. Robert is married to hard-charging corporate lady Melissa (Milly Sanders); she works at a pharmaceutical company, he does psychological research. It’s not long before we begin to suspect this couple have more on their agenda than simply giving Emily a place to bunk.

Screwdriver is essentially a three-hander — Emily’s estranged husband puts in a brief appearance — that might work just as well as a play. It’s sufficiently cinematic, though; director/co-writer Cairo Smith uses the wide, wide frame to convey Emily’s isolation in her hosts’ well-scrubbed home (between this and the recent Watcher, you may get the impression that white decor hides suffocating repression and control) and, here and there, disorienting jump cuts. Emily is left home alone a lot of the day while Robert and Melissa are out at work (another link to Watcher). When they return home, they seem very interested in Emily — as a person, or as a project? Melissa keeps pushing orange juice (drugged?) onto Emily, while Robert runs psychological games on her in his office.

The performances dovetail together organically; Charlie Farrell, who resembles a cross between Tom Cruise and Bradley Cooper (and uses some of Cruise’s unctuous speech patterns), provides a seemingly laid-back buffer against Milly Sanders’ high-strung, passive-aggressive Melissa. Then they seem to switch roles — he’s menacing, she’s nurturing. All of this reads to us like a concerted effort to keep Emily unsure of her perceptions, her allegiances, her very self. They seem to want to control her — early on, the forbidding Melissa discourages Emily from leaving the house or smoking — and it seems they’ve done something similar in the past. Emily may not be the first wayward young woman they’ve tried to “rehab,” but she may be the last.

Smith and co-writer Mia Vicino keep things ambiguous. The work we hear so little about, other than teasing bits of conversation about some trouble at the office, could be the root of the couple’s treatment (grooming?) of Emily. Or it could have nothing to do with this weird dynamic we watch taking shape. The shrewdly cast Farrell smuggles in a (timely) critique of Cruise and his involvement in Scientology; his patter sometimes has a familiar “Matt, you’re glib” cadence. There’s a fair amount of anti-God talk, steering the fundie-raised Emily towards a different conception of a supreme being. Ironically, the couple find it very important to emphasize to Emily that she’s free and is, in fact, her own god. Of course, they also set themselves up as the authority figures who tell her this.

I’ve avoided using the word “cult,” because, although that seems to describe the ultimate villain here, there’s enough evidence that it possibly isn’t and that Smith and Vicino may have very cleverly caught us leaning the wrong way. Once I let go of that option and started focusing on the drama actually in front of me, the narrative played more smoothly (and more chillingly). Among other things, Screwdriver says that it really doesn’t matter who’s behind the process of rewiring Emily’s head; we can see it happening, and AnnaClare Hicks somehow communicates a woman progressively broken, with the shards pricking her on the inside. Smith keeps his camera on Hicks’ face, monitoring it for changes in temperament and emotional temperature. Screwdriver is a small, underpopulated thing, and a little more sense of Emily’s life before might have helped, but it’s sharp and memorable. And it all leads to one of the most intensely, frighteningly ironic images I’ve ever seen at the end of a movie.

The Northman

May 15, 2022

northmanTwentieth-century softies like me may experience a film like Robert Eggers’ The Northman as a contemptuous but invigorating slap in the chops. Life was hard in AD 895, and every frame of the movie is there to show it, in all its magic-hour, snow-flecked beauty and all its torn-flesh, bloody-mud-puddle ugliness. Like Eggers’ two previous films — The Witch and The Lighthouse, both of which I adore — The Northman devotes itself to recreating a time long past, along with its moods, attitudes and details of day-to-day life. It would be easy indeed to parody The Northman, with all its shrieking madmen and howling to the black sky and chanting in the Old Languages. But Eggers offers up this material so earnestly, and with such carefully crafted art, that to lampoon it would feel callow and vile.

I’m about 75% on board with the film — it runs a bit long, and we start to feel it with about half an hour left to go — but I’m glad it was made, and I hope its poor showing at the box office won’t put Eggers in movie jail. This is the sort of expensive, excessive fantasia that sniffs around in deeper, darker nooks of cinema largely forgotten about and lifts the art form. The Northman is loud, with a brooding score and metal clashing against metal, but it has more in common with silent film than with anything else around. Based on the legend of Amleth (which in turn spawned Hamlet), it seems to want to take us back to the beginning of drama, or at least the birth of many tropes. It tells the most elemental of stories, the one about the son avenging his father, and grafts a lot of pagan strangeness and gore onto it.

Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is out to get his stinky uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murdered Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and married his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). For years, Amleth grunts and growls and readies himself for the moment when he realizes his oath: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Amleth’s entire life becomes about that, after which, he guesses, he’ll just kill himself or something, because his life will no longer have purpose. Amleth does pursue a brief interest in the young sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who proposes another level of purpose to Amleth’s life. But mainly his fate seems to be mired in rage and pain and blood. It may take a little bit before a viewer recognizes that Amleth as presented here isn’t really the hero, just the protagonist.

The images appear to be charged by the post-human energies of spirits and fae. The shadows and scents of femininity seem to reduce these crude, brutal men to animals, and the women, dealing with this off-the-scale-toxic masculinity, are in danger of becoming inhuman wretches themselves. Queen Gudrún, for instance, certainly comes across as vindictive and cruel, but to what extent have the culture of 895 and its sickening rules (rape is no big deal, it’s part of every king’s victory lap) made her that way? There are other men, though, noncombatants, fools, he-witches, who have wiser heads — until they lose them to someone with a hotter head, plus a sword. The Northman seems simple, or simplistic, until we start turning it around and peering at it. 

The sensibilities we see in the movie are very remote from ours. We could almost be watching aliens. Sometimes the film has a harshly musical Icelandic vibe; Eggers recruits the Icelandic poet Sjón as his co-scripter here, and puts Björk in majestic electrocuted-penguin garb as a character called the Seeress. As I said, the narrative begins to drag a little, but the compositions and the colors of night and the cast’s dedication to exploring long-gone behaviors — all of this is first-rate. The Northman might be my least favorite Eggers project, but that means nothing — oh, it’s only a B+, or maybe even an A-. Eggers goes big here, and uses paints he hasn’t used before. His three films feel alike, in that they could all unfold in the same uncanny, demon-haunted universe at different times, but they’re also very distinct accomplishments. Eggers is still a major reason to stay interested in whatever movies are becoming.

River’s Edge

May 8, 2022

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When River’s Edge opened in America (35 years ago on May 8), reviewers and columnists chased it around like cartoon reporters waving their mics at a murder suspect. They probed it for social meaning, decided it was a commentary on the affectless kids of baby boomers (meaning, the kids of the columnists). For those of us of the generation in question, the movie was “John Hughes Goes to Hell.” It took the ethos of The Breakfast Club — “When you grow up, your heart dies”— and ramped it up. The kids in River’s Edge were born with dead or broken hearts. Generation X nodded in recognition, then probably moved on to Beverly Hills Cop II later that May as a palate-cleanser. To a greater or lesser extent, we looked at the kids in River’s Edge and said “Yeah. We know kids like this. Sometimes we are kids like this. This isn’t a social commentary, this is a snapshot.” The boomers really didn’t want to hear that.

The shock of River’s Edge isn’t that it shows kids who either kill or respond to death numbly; it’s that it shows those things in an American movie. Screenwriter Neal Jimenez and director Tim Hunter are commenting, if anything, on what we usually expect young American protagonists to do, how we demand they respond. The situation here, which Jimenez based loosely on a 1981 murder case, is that one of the film’s teenagers, Samson (Daniel Roebuck), has strangled his girlfriend, for no explicable reason — meaning, with no clear motive. “Motive,” in this movie’s terms, is a fake thing that other movies do. What Coleridge called Iago’s “motiveless malignity” holds sway here. As for the other kids, for a long while nobody is sure what to do, how to respond — except for one — and the body lies out in the open, uncovered, unmoved. 

The conflict arises not from the authorities trying to prove Samson did it — for he admits to the murder to practically anyone who will listen — but from the ethical struggle between two of the other boys in this group, Matt (Keanu Reeves) and Layne (Crispin Glover), over what should be done about Samson. Layne proposes that they all close ranks around Samson, hide him, whatever. His reasoning appears to boil down to “She’s dead — we can’t help her. He’s alive; we can help him.” Matt isn’t so sure; like the others, he has a flicker of conscience and consciousness, which can either be extinguished or fanned into flame. We’re not too surprised when Matt goes to the cops fairly early on. Even 35 years ago, Keanu Reeves projected a basic kindness. But even Matt doesn’t act quickly enough for the police’s liking. Most of the adults in this movie are essentially ghosts of movies past, insisting on the clearcut morality and narrative rigidity that are irrelevant in the gray and tangled world of River’s Edge. 

The film has a hell of a lot under its hood, and not all of it was intentionally placed there, but some of it clearly was — the whole doll motif, for instance, linking a dead girl to hollow objects of male desire or destruction. I guess Matt’s new girlfriend Clarissa (Ione Skye) is supposed to be the living, breathing exception to all that, but she’s a little blank. (Someone like Allison Anders could step forward to tell Clarissa’s story.) We learn nothing about Jamie, the girl Samson killed. She’s literally just a naked body to be argued over. We never hear her speak, only briefly see her alive in a flashback, moments before she’s killed. 

My hunch is that Hunter and Jimenez are getting at something more elemental and distressing than just “these kids today” or “adults suck.” The passage of 35 years has made River’s Edge feel more timelessly tragic. Other than a few bits of score that briefly make the movie sound like a banal ‘80s thriller, it has aged very, very well. Its lineage proceeds from skid-row cinema to the JD flicks of the ’50s to Herzog’s Stroszek to Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue — Hopper is rather famously in River’s Edge, by the way, as a one-legged freako and possible killer who isn’t even the craziest galoot Hopper played in 1986. Hopper’s presence links this movie to his earlier portrait of bottom-dog life in numbed-out America. A double feature of Out of the Blue and River’s Edge is contraindicated unless under strict supervision.

I should probably deal with Crispin Glover here. Throughout River’s Edge, Layne is meant to be the “leader” who decides for everyone else what’s going to be done and tries to enforce it. Glover’s relentlessly externalized and stylized performance says that he thinks Layne is a cartoon, so he plays him without any human shadings except fear and the will to power. He’s basically the Joker to Reeves’ wounded stoner Batman. I could entertain arguments pro or con Glover’s performance, but ultimately it just doesn’t seem organic to the piece. What happens to Layne doesn’t matter to us, and maybe it’s right that it shouldn’t matter. And maybe Glover, to his credit, sensed that, and made Layne a cartoon devil to indicate that the character isn’t human on the same level as Matt and the others with still-alive morality. The effect, though, is to leave the movie lopsided. (Pauline Kael, in her negative review, put it succinctly: Glover is “giving an expressionist performance in a movie that’s trying to be ‘real.'”) You can tell that Matt and the others capitulate to Layne because it’s in the script, not because he’s persuasive or intimidating.

Samson sits next to his victim, a teenage Frankenstein not knowing why that flower petal didn’t float. We gather that murder made him feel alive, for a while, but then the adrenaline wore off and he resurfaced to a reality where everyone around him was dealing with the consequences of his action, so he didn’t have to. Layne is cut from the same cloth as those who want to protect rapists, because why ruin this young man’s future? Matt, who is almost comically courteous to Clarissa even post-coitus, is of a quieter but stronger fabric. Layne will speak for the soul-dead living; Matt will let the dead speak for herself. Like Out of the Blue, River’s Edge is depressive but piercing — it stings and leaves a bruise.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood

April 3, 2022

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The key to Richard Linklater’s deft reverie Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood comes early, when Linklater’s young avatar of memory, the Houston fourth-grader Stan, gives a show-and-tell presentation for his class, leaving out the “show.” Stan talks about walking down the street and encountering a robot with attached wires reaching up into the sky. Stan is what they used to call an imaginative boy, and the world events of the late ‘60s are filtered through his brain, which teems with pop culture. The big news story, apart from Vietnam, is America’s attempt to land a man on the moon before the Russians do. Stan imagines himself part of the process; he tells us (in the adult voice of Jack Black) that NASA, who’d built their lunar module too small for a grown man, recruited Stan for a top-secret preliminary trip to the moon.

That, of course, is based on a daydream common among Linklater, who was around the same age as Stan in 1968 and 1969, and many other kids. Apollo 10 1/2 flips between Stan’s moonshot fantasia and the actual launch and landing. By the time Neil Armstrong is leaving footprints where there were none before, Stan is asleep on the family couch. He’s done it already (if only in his head). What’s fun about the movie — which is as amiable as most of Linklater’s work — is that we often forget and mix up reality with fiction. The adult Stan is an engaging narrator, and Linklater threads Stan’s story with enough convincing nostalgic details that the narrative of Stan’s flight is just one more thread alongside playing with baseball cards in the garage or getting free ice cream cones at the parlor where Stan’s sister works.

Linklater also adds a stylistic brushstroke to make the real and the imaginary visually equal. As with his Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), Linklater has mapped a layer of rotoscoped animation over the live-action footage he shot. The result looks a bit like some of the Marvel comics Stan would’ve been leafing through back in the day, though probably not TV cartoons of the time, many of which had cheap, basic animation. In a way, Apollo 10 1/2 is a movie both of its narrative moment and of its moment of release. A divided and fraught country is united by a common absorption in the moon shot, though even then — as we also saw in Summer of Soul — people were questioning the government’s spending billions on the space race when it could be helping humans here on the ground. Now the American race is run by competing billionaires, but the objection among many remains largely the same.

One amusing and rather prominent thread is the sheer amount of danger that parents blithely subjected their kids to, because nobody knew any better. Linklater doesn’t look back on this in horror; he shakes his head mildly and chuckles. This director may have the soul of a Gen-Xer (the movie that got him noticed is literally called Slacker) but he’s actually a late boomer, just old enough to be there at the moment when nostalgia surfaced in the culture for real. Stan rattles off all the hits on TV — particular emphasis here on Dark Shadows and all the kids rushing home to see it — as well as reruns of older shows like I Love Lucy. It was the start of seeing pop culture as a continuum, where the same box that brought you Cronkite also gave you the Three Stooges, where visions of the past, present and future seemed to mingle and converse. As they do here. 

Linklater uses all that Netflix money for a near-constant stream of needle-drops, ranging from Pink Floyd to Hugh Masekela to the Monkees, who are also seen on The Johnny Cash Show and given a little time as the focus of Stan’s sisters’ crushes. As in Dazed and Confused and other films, Linklater wants to evoke a period, a mood. Somehow, he manages to avoid tonal or behavioral anachronisms. Everyone talks and acts the way you remember or assume they would have in 1968, or 1976, or whenever. The storytelling, as I said, is convincing and smooth, the pacing just short of a blur, which may reflect how Linklater remembers that time. It’s a lovely film, really, full of good tunes and hope and excitement and the awe of the dream-dappled night sky.

CODA

March 20, 2022

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The well-meaning CODA, which has unexpectedly pulled into the lead in the race for the Best Picture Oscar, seems designed to make skeptics feel like bullies. It’s about a family — mother, father, son, daughter — in which all but the daughter are deaf. The father (Troy Kotsur) and his kids Leo (Daniel Durant) and Ruby (Emilia Jones) go fishing for a living — the film is set in Gloucester — while the mother (Marlee Matlin), worried about bills, just seems to want to sell the boat. Looking for a gut elective her senior year of high school, Ruby drifts into choir, partly because singing is something she enjoys doing while flinging fish, partly because she’s crushing on choir kid Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). 

The presence of the Shaggs’ immortal record Philosophy of the World in Ruby’s room shouldn’t fool you. Ruby doesn’t seem to have a passion for music; the plot just dictates that she enter an art her family can’t share her experience of. (The script, by director Sian Heder, proposes a couple of ways deaf people can enjoy music, but still has the mother ask Ruby, “If I were blind, would you paint?” Well, Mom, for starters, visual art can also be tactile; and a movie about such a family developing ways to process their daughter’s expression sounds a lot more interesting than CODA is.) Eugenio Derbez, huge in Mexico and slowly penetrating American film for the last decade, gets to play the plum role of the choir teacher who’s a checklist of traits: impatient, arrogant, a terror to unserious students but a believer in Ruby’s talent. He tells her not to try to sing pretty. She sings pretty anyway.

An exercise in irony, CODA makes a big ally show of putting deaf characters on the screen, casting actual deaf actors, and establishing the parents as sex maniacs, which goes so far in the other direction from the standard depiction of disabled people as sexless that it’s kind of crude and campy — but the movie isn’t really about them. The movie shouts it out loud: Deaf people — it’s like they’re people or something! They get drunk and high, they boink, they get in barroom fights. The one thing they can’t do, apparently, is make a living without Ruby as their free interpreter. Intentionally or not — since it centers Ruby and her dilemmas — CODA ends up saying: Deaf people — what pains in the ass! Ruby’s loyalty to her family threatens to derail her destiny as a great singer (even though that destiny was unknown to her during the first 16 years of her life). Now, a lot of movies have set up the conflict of the talented kid who needs to get out of the small town, the house, the needs of his family. The family, though, usually isn’t three-quarters disabled. Having your young lead resist leaving home because she can’t abandon not one, not two, but three disabled family members is, I’m sorry, overkill. The deaf people in this movie are unavoidably plot obstacles on the cute abled kid’s path to glory.

The tone seems off: the family seems selfish for not wanting Ruby to go; Ruby seems selfish for wanting to go; then Ruby seems selfish for not wanting to go. The emotions of the story feel unresolved, almost ignored. Do the parents and the brother come up with some other way to have a hearing person on board? (According to the movie, they need ears aboard because the father and brother can’t be relied on to pay attention to the flashing alert lights on the boat. Deaf people: they get into such wacky mix-ups! Anyway, this is a dramatic distortion of a real 2003 case: google “Coast Guard Cites Deaf Boater.”) Does Ruby still want to leave for Boston when her sweetie won’t be going? And does anyone who’s seen a movie before doubt what the outcome of Ruby’s audition will be? The acting here is aces across the board, and it’s nice to see a majority-disabled family in a movie who’s also working-class. But the movie didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about Deaf culture (except for the mother delivering a brief speech, which Matlin sells beautifully, about how she’d wanted the newborn Ruby to be deaf — which flirts with emotional complexity far, far beyond this film). It’s a movie about a cute kid who wants to go off to Fancy School in the City. The deafness is very much incidental.

The Power of the Dog

January 30, 2022

power of the dog

It’s been a while since I saw a movie that catches us leaning the wrong way as far as The Power of the Dog does. That could be due to the source novel, by Thomas Savage, but a lot has to do with the film’s master writer-director Jane Campion, who keeps things becalmed and subtle, even nuanced. In outline, The Power of the Dog sounds like a number of other stories, but it is its own story, and Campion uses its tropes and our expectations to tell it mainly through visuals and through the tiniest gestures and reactions. The movie requires patient attention, otherwise its mini-explosions might look like a lot of nothing on the screen.

We’re in Montana 1925, at a cattle ranch owned by brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). Soon enough, George meets and marries widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who has a teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) readying himself for medical school. George’s money sends the boy, Peter, to college. George is kindly but doesn’t have much going for him other than that and his money, and he knows it, and so does Phil. Boy, does he ever. Phil is one of those brilliant rats we meet all the time in fiction, practically never in life. He’s intelligent — a product of Yale — but also mean as a scorpion, the kind of guy who always wants to tell the destructive truth the way he sees it, which is of course darker than most others see it. He may also be one or more of the following: a bigot of all stripes, a deeply closeted gay man, a potential murderer or rapist.

Campion’s steady hand and Jonny Greenwood’s anxious score combine to create a highly unstable, almost insecure film. Everyone else in the movie seems focused on Phil, afraid of him. But should they be? Cumberbatch weighs in with a portrait that can be studied in many ways, and will almost certainly play radically differently if viewed a second time. We gather that Phil, who initially mocks Peter’s effeminacy, has something in mind for him, but what? Clues surface here and there, involving Phil’s one-time mentor Bronco Henry, who apparently taught Phil the ways of ranching as well as several other things. Bronco Henry’s name is enunciated with almost as much reverence as Randolph Scott’s in Blazing Saddles. But the saddles here don’t blaze, and while we have our distrustful eye on Phil, someone else might be taking advantage of our distraction. 

Phil might well be a bad man who is not only a bad man, and the frame is otherwise filled with folk who are neither good nor evil but just flawed, weakened by life and its indifferences. George is about as understanding as any man circa 1925 can be expected to be; he takes the labor of women and men as his due, without malice. Rose has her private miseries that she has taken to dipping in liquor. Peter may or may not be gay — the question of his sexuality seems less relevant as the movie goes on — but there may be gaping holes in his good nature, put there in large part when he discovered his father dead, a suicide. Peter recounts this trauma without much feeling; it’s Kodi Smit-McPhee’s moment of triumph. Peter, we see, may grow up into another Phil. Phil certainly seems to think so. If he can be for Peter what Bronco Henry was for him, he might have a purpose — or he might become a monster.

The Power of the Dog can thus be debated long into the night — the characters’ paths not taken, the dramas interrupted. After several things we’re led to expect to happen don’t happen, we realize we have little idea where the movie is taking us, yet we trust Campion to take us somewhere, and she does. Campion excels at tension between people — largely between men and women, but not always. Here it’s tension between one person and everyone else, but most everyone takes a turn creating that tension. We gather that the mix of these particular personalities and all their painful baggage is combustible, though, in this movie’s terms, quietly combustible. We see that what happens is inevitable yet far from predictable, except maybe when we think back on it.