Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Madeline’s Madeline

August 11, 2018

MadelinesMadelineThose of you whose craving for experimental actors flailing around wasn’t quite sated by Who’s Crazy might want to discover Madeline’s Madeline. An elliptical art-house film, the third such effort by writer/director Josephine Decker, the movie centers on a difficult girl, Madeline (Helena Howard), who has fallen in with a New York theatrical troupe. The group’s director Evangeline (Molly Parker) keeps asking her players — all of whom except sixteen-year-old Madeline are adults — to express their inner pigs or cats or turtles while circling around a vague theme that always seems to be changing.

Madeline, who has a history of mental illness, butts heads often with her brittle mom Regina (Miranda July), who’s a bit overprotective and knows less and less what to make of her daughter the older Madeline gets. At one point, at a gathering at Evangeline’s house, Madeline confides in Evangeline’s nonplussed partner that she’s thinking of losing her virginity for her seventeenth birthday. The movie is made up of awkward interactions like that, and there’s one sequence near the end, when Madeline is encouraged to act out the part of her impatient mother while Regina sits watching in agony, that practically demands we avert our eyes in discomfort.

Is Madeline’s Madeline enjoyable? It took me a good while, maybe half an hour, to get used to its diffuse style — Ashley Connor’s cinematography takes us very close in and glides in and out of focus — and its emphasis on shrill, bouncing acting exercises, which I generally find embarrassing. Gradually, though, a portrait coalesces out of jagged pieces, of a girl casting about for a self. Who is Madeline? A daughter? An actor? A student (she goes to regular school, where we hear that kids make fun of her, but we never see her there)? Who is her real mother — Regina or Evangeline? The theater director always seems on the verge of flipping into a cult leader, but it turns out she’s just trying to hold everything together — her theater project, her life, her marriage. The evident fact that Evangeline is more or less based on Josephine Decker does not escape notice.

Most of the critical attention has focused on Helena Howard as Madeline, as well it should — hers is a guileless, open performance hungry for revelation. That climactic bit Madeline does about her mother is like a lightning bolt of clarity slashing through a humid fog of repressed, ignored emotion. It’s also something of a centerpiece, an actor’s moment handed to Howard on a platter, and she runs with it. The movie is completely an actors’ film, built to be warmly hospitable to its players — though with efforts like this, you never can tell if Decker, like Evangeline, is running all sorts of vulnerability games meant to extract raw truth from an actor like a rotten tooth out of a suffering jaw. Howard is obliged to spit out a few such teeth, not without emotional blood. The true test will be how well she aligns with a film not so snugly fashioned to her particular set of skills. (Though, please, keep her clear of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

If your first response to oblique films like this when the end credits roll is “Will someone tell me what that was about?,” you should probably give Madeline’s Madeline a wide berth. Even I, who perhaps has more patience than most for artsy doodling, sighed and checked my watch once or twice. But if you enjoy the soft-grained, difficult, probing nature of Decker’s film — and I did, for the most part — it pays off in quiet, almost peripheral ways. The various problems of the characters don’t lead to drama or even resolution; they just add to the fabric of the piece and give the actors something to work with. The ending might be ambiguously happy, Decker’s way of saying she’d be gratified if her art got out of her control and became its own thing. The last shot expresses freedom while literally leaving us behind to think about it.

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The Last Temptation of Christ

August 5, 2018

lasttemptation_89_033_current_mediumEnough, I think, was written about the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ when it opened thirty years ago this August 12. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather skip all that, except to say that the outrage showed a thunderous lack of understanding of context and of literary inquiry. The movie, and its source novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, imagined a Christ confronted on the cross by an angel (Satan) who offers him escape into the life of a normal man, a life with wives and children and, yes, lovemaking. Christ’s agonized mind turns this possibility over at length — the possibility of simple human contentment — until finally he realizes and embraces his literally God-given role, and finds himself back on the cross, radiantly happy as he passes from life into legend.

Last Temptation is director Martin Scorsese’s act of cinematic worship, the movie he had hungered to make since boyhood. Of course, most of his films have that stream of Catholic blood and guilt running through them. Again and again in Scorsese’s work we see men (he has never, with a couple of exceptions, been interested enough in women to put them front and center) sinning yet yearning for redemption, or at least respect or peace or a point at which they can rest assured that “it is accomplished,” whatever it may be. The movie is imperfect — its colloquial dialogue and casting of homely urban types and musicians (hey, John Lurie! hello, Victor Argo!) as the apostles bring it, at times, perilously close to camp. But it doesn’t need to be perfect.

Much of the movie’s soul can be traced to the long and many disputatious talks between Jesus (Willem Dafoe) and Judas (Harvey Keitel). Dafoe seems to be experiencing the same insecurity and fear playing Jesus as Jesus himself feels — Dafoe and Jesus both have to grow into their roles. Keitel, for his part, approaches Judas with the same spiritual anguish he brought to The Piano and Bad Lieutenant. In this telling, Judas is merely the guy who has to embrace his intolerable role, the betrayer, so that God’s plan for Jesus can proceed. Late in the film, when the elderly former friends meet again in Jesus’ mortal bedroom, Keitel makes us feel the betrayal Judas feels — he has betrayed his master as ordered, only to see that act of love rendered meaningless when Jesus chooses the life of a man. We first see these two together when Judas is chastising Jesus the carpenter for building crosses for the Romans. Here is a Jesus in need of redemption.

Dafoe and Keitel, and also Barbara Hershey (who gave the book to Scorsese in the first place) as the Magdalene, get to run the gamut of inflamed, wounded emotion. The rest of the cast, eclectic to say the least, sometimes falters in the face of the moment’s importance — some of them, we gather, like the late Call frontman Michael Been, are there out of their own Christian passion. And then David Bowie swans into the picture as Pontius Pilate, unimpressed with what Pilate clearly sees as (sigh) yet another Jewish troublemaker, and the conception and almost comically perfect casting transcend camp (even with Pilate’s deathless, amazing line “We have a space for you up on Golgotha”) and achieve a kind of show-biz nirvana. Bowie takes his few minutes of the film away from Jesus and Scorsese and suavely tucks them in his pocket.

The filmmaking here, though rushed and on the cheap, is a hot stew of influences; Peter Gabriel’s sometimes alarming world-music score, Michael Ballhaus’ savagely unadorned photography of a dusty and near-uninhabitable land, Thelma Schoonmaker’s gliding and intuitive editing — all of it coalesces into a cinematic essay about the violence and chaos, and also the vitality and urgency, of worldly life, the solace Jesus must renounce — the heat and hard dirt floors, the cool fleshly comforts. This renunciation would be meaningless if it were too easy and did not come freighted with self-doubt and conflicting desires. Scorsese manages to make us feel what pulls Jesus towards normality, what he has to give up. We do not see the resurrection; instead, at the climax, the very celluloid itself seems to rupture, shudder, flare into a blood-red death. How else would a director equally indebted to Christ and cinema end such an inquiry?

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You Were Never Really Here

July 22, 2018

youwereneverLynne Ramsay’s filmmaking in You Were Never Really Here is gorgeously precise. We feel there isn’t a shot or an image that isn’t there for some reason, though the reason may not at first present itself. The spare narrative follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), who, after stints in the Marines and the FBI, has fallen — backwards or sideways — into being a hired gun, or hired hammer (his weapon of choice). Joe seems to specialize in rescuing trafficked girls, and oblique flashbacks tell the story of male predators abusing women and children — in Joe’s lines of work and also in his own childhood. He lives with his mother in a modest home, and sings “A, You’re Adorable” with her in the same cracked, mumbly voice in which he accepts his bloody, lonely missions.

Who is the “you” in You Were Never Really Here? The title might be Joe’s self-admonition — he’s atoning for the crucial times he wasn’t there, wasn’t able to help. But the movie exists more as a tone poem than as a psychological portrait or, heaven knows, a plot. It’s about Joe burning a photo, tossing it into a trash bin, and then extinguishing its flame by dropping a Bible on it. It’s about how Joe and an adversary pause, on their backs, and sing “I’ve Never Been to Me” along with the radio as the assailant bleeds out and reaches for Joe’s hand — and Joe accepts it. That one image says more about what Christianity should be than a lot of the Bible does. Religions, or just male-dominated systems, put out our light.

Phoenix is, as usual, committed and intense, with pockets of warmth and even humor that Joe shares with his mother (played by Judith Roberts, who was Beautiful Woman Across the Hall in David Lynch’s Eraserhead and is still, in her eighties, a striking woman). He does much to drain out the stagnant water of the Assassin’s Heart Restored by the Innocence of Children trope, which gets trotted out every so often (previous offender: Proud Mary with Taraji P. Henson). He’s credible as a broken man, bulky verging on flabby, who has some large and clear holes in his humanity. All Joe has left is a kind of chivalry, which ironically involves thinking of females young and old as frail creatures needing a guardian — baby birds protected from wolves by another wolf. I’m pretty sure Lynne Ramsay, as a woman, is critiquing this notion yet, as an artist, is entering into complicity with it the better to swim around in it, understand it, express it.

The story, adapted from a Jonathan Ames novella, involves a conspiracy reaching from the gutter to the senate; if handled another way it could play as an untold Sin City story, with Joe as yet another violent white knight turning human dragons into inky smears on tenement floors. Put another way, You Were Never Really Here is what Sin City might have been if an artist, not just an entertainer, had gotten her hands on it (not necessarily better or worse, I should add, just radically different). Both treatments of the essence of the story wind back to the bitter black heart of noir, though this film is so stripped down Joe doesn’t even have a dame — romantically, anyway — to throw it all over for; the closest thing he has is Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenager he has to rescue from the dragon.

Ramsay’s images spark the damnedest connections. A close-up of a woman’s bare soles reminded me of “If her horny feet protrude, they come/To show how cold she is, and dumb.” From there I wondered if Joe was the Emperor of Ice-Cream himself, bringer of death, master of the impermanent. Meanwhile, the emotional import of the scene — and it’s supposed to be a big one — passed me right by. You Were Never Really Here is a riff on a theme, a playpen for the mind and senses, but it likely won’t engage anyone’s heart — Nina is such a flat-affect blank there’s no rapport between her and her savior. But then that could be intentional as well, and thematically appropriate. It’s terrible that it takes artists like Lynne Ramsay so long between getting funding for projects — this is her first film since We Need to Talk About Kevin seven years ago, after leaving Jane Got a Gun in 2013 — because we could use a lot more movies like hers that tickle areas of our brains that usually aren’t touched.

Phantom Thread

April 8, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 4.31.39 PMPaul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a sort of upper-class pornography — without sex or nudity, though; it’s fashion porn and, secondarily, food porn. The camera lavishes its fixation on close-ups of threads, lace, mushrooms, pastries. The people onscreen focus on what goes into and onto the body, the better to avoid thinking about the body itself. The protagonist, esteemed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), surrounds himself with women but seems interested in them only as walls on which to hang his art, or assistants in making his art. He has successfully created an elegant bubble in which his various servants perpetuate his lockstep routines and he gets to play the difficult, complicated genius.

The hero of Phantom Thread is not Reynolds, or even his enabling sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville); it’s Alma Elsen (Vicky Krieps), a waitress drawn into Reynolds’ sphere after Reynolds has discarded his latest muse/lover and is possibly on the lookout for another. Alma, however, as we gradually learn, is not interested in being the typical muse, the victim, the martyr to a man’s greatness. She insists on her own humanity, perhaps because she understands Reynolds’ humanity more than most do. If Reynolds is meant in any way as an avatar for Anderson, Phantom Thread is the idiosyncratic and ambitious filmmaker’s self-satire. The character of Reynolds, though, at least on paper, feels a bit warmed-over — we’ve seen this rigid mad genius before.

What Anderson and Day-Lewis bring to him is a kind of sneaky dark libido, acted on, if not sexually, then in a thousand sublimated ways. He dominates as surely as does a Dom/me in BDSM play. In that respect, Phantom Thread follows from Anderson’s 2012 Hegelian reverie The Master; in both, the student, as they tirelessly say, becomes the master. Here, though, we get a rich aroma of a gothic stew — a good deal of talk about ghosts, literal and metaphorical; the turn two-thirds of the way through into the overt macabre; the title itself, which seems to refer to the invisible string connecting us all but could also signify the unseen messages Reynolds stashes in the linings of each dress.

Phantom Thread, shown in some theaters in colossal 70mm, harks back to the super-extra blockbuster dramas of the ‘50s, the ones shot in creamy Technicolor and drenched in repressed flop sweat. The dynamic between Reynolds and Cyril, and between him and the various muses he wishes to control, carries a faint whiff of Vertigo. As in other recent Anderson films, the mood is sexually impacted and obstinately uncanny. It could also be adapted to the stage with little trouble — I think a daydream near the end is the only exterior shot in the movie — yet fluently speaks the language of pure cinema. Even if Anderson has moved on from Altman and Scorsese to Hitchcock and Ophuls, he seems slowly to be irising in on the essence of whatever overstory he wants his career to tell — getting closer to whatever he’s been getting at for twenty-odd years.

Reynolds has a preoccupation with his dead mother, from whom he learned his trade, but the movie doesn’t suggest that he’s resurrecting Mom over and over every time he sculpts the perfect dress to bring out any woman’s beauty. Rather, his ego seems to want to displace the importance of his mother, leaving footprints that dwarf hers, while dismissing his father entirely (his only meaningful exchange with a male in the whole movie is a couple of disdainful shots at a young doctor). The psychology is tangled and doesn’t always track smoothly, but aesthetically it’s usually surprising and entertaining. I think if you don’t hold the movie’s pompous style against it — if you accept its style as part of the movie’s oblique point about creativity — Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most satisfying whatsit yet about the beasts red in tooth and claw beneath the politesse of what is amusingly called society.

Journey’s End

March 25, 2018

journeys endThe necessarily melancholy Journey’s End, a World War I drama, has been around a while. How long? A 21-year-old Laurence Olivier made his first big splash in the source material, R.C. Sherriff’s well-regarded play, in 1928. The current film version is the fifth such adaptation; the first was James Whale’s debut, in 1930. And yet it doesn’t feel old, perhaps because Sherriff, an army officer in the war, left any cant out of it. No one harrumphs on about the glory of sacrifice — or the insanity of war. It’s just these men, many barely old enough to harvest whiskers, waiting for their turn to step into the bear trap. At the time the tale is told (March 1918, or roughly a century ago), the war is still eight months away from armistice — plenty of time for many thousands more men to die in the mud.

A newcomer to the material might expect Journey’s End to follow Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a wet-eared though not toffee-nosed young officer who asks to be assigned to the company commanded by a pre-war friend, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, stepping into Olivier’s big shoes). But the  story, at least as told here, focuses more on Stanhope, human wreckage trying to hold himself together with whiskey, and his friendship with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany, looking more than ever like the young Max von Sydow). Raleigh is more of an object here, a thing that introduces drama and brings Stanhope’s tensions to the fore. Stanhope, you see, was involved with Raleigh’s sister, and if Raleigh writes a letter to her mentioning what a mess her brother has become…

This string of the narrative is standard dramaturgy that could, in theory, unfold anywhere (Raleigh is off to medical school and discovers old chum Stanhope, an anxiety-ridden third-year resident popping pills to stay awake). But here it’s linked to the war and the agony of dread it causes all the men — existential dread to the nth degree, the horror of a man watching an unknown other man gurgle and die in the muck, and knowing there’s no reason he himself is alive (for now) and the other is not. A good part of the action happens offstage — or offscreen, rather — betraying the film’s origins on the boards; a major character dies out of our sight, which we don’t expect to happen in a movie. (It does, however, make for a delayed jolt that films don’t usually do, but which is part of a playwright’s bag of tricks.)

Directed by Saul Dibb (Suite Française) mostly with hushed intimacy, Journey’s End lets off a few bangs — most of the combat is reserved for the third act — but is often found picking up the sounds of a straight razor scraping off stubble, or a cigarette torching into life, or an exhausted soldier sipping tea that tastes of onions. Indeed, all the senses are engaged here, the narrative slowed down just enough for us to share in the tactility of the men’s discomfort. The actors scale down their performances accordingly; Claflin has the flashier role, getting drunk and upbraiding everyone around him (most of the men absorb his abuse with a shrug), but is also allowed quieter moments to create pockets of fear and sickness.

It’s all a bit of a lad’s tale — we’re on the movie’s home stretch before we see our first female face (with no voice) — and a white lad’s tale, too. (Someday soon we may see a film about the Harlem Hellfighters, or perhaps a biopic of Dorothy Lawrence.) Period war movies may be the only genre left that can plausibly ignore the modern (and justified) demand for diversity; the least such movies can do is reveal the cracks in the façade of privilege, and Journey’s End does so. A good portion of the film’s pathos lies in the pained smile of Paul Bettany’s Osborne, a schoolmaster in pre-war life, who has seen the apocalypse of the new mechanized way of war. In the face of the mass meat grinder of the war that was supposed to end all wars, a man can try to retain some humanity. That’s about it.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

February 11, 2018

Denzel Washington stars in ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.Public payphones have faded from the national landscape to such a degree that it brings us up short when we’re reminded they still exist. The titular hero of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) is a walking anachronism — he seems to exist in several different decades other than this one. His fro, his mashing up an iPod with nerdily large earphones, his very soul and rhetoric speak of a man who refuses to be tied down to anything so fleeting as time. He’ll plant his own roots on his own land. So in one scene you’ll see Roman checking several payphones for change, and in another there’ll be a reference to Uber. Like its namesake, Roman is ambitious and wonky and all over the place.

It’s a vibe that owes a lot to the seventies, to whose gritty, inward-directed aesthetic the writer-director, Dan Gilroy, genuflects in this movie and his previous Nightcrawler. You can say a lot about these movies, but you can’t say they’re safe or stale. Actors like Washington or Jake Gyllenhaal rove through Gilroy’s tales, white-hot and solipsistic. Washington’s Roman doesn’t really seem able to relate to whoever’s in front of him. He’s an idealist in the general sense, and he has a radical streak, but it’s wedded to his identity as an in-the-rear-with-the-gear lawyer — not a trial lawyer — with a possibly neuroatypical facility for recalling legal data. In his head, he’s a moral crusader, but in reality he’s just been dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for a failing, even corrupt, two-person law firm. Then the other person dies, and Roman’s story begins.

Roman’s firm and cases are subsumed into a larger firm headed by slickster George Pierce (Colin Farrell), Roman’s partner’s former student. In truth, Pierce has a more gratifying character arc than Roman does, or maybe a more movie-ish one. Pierce seems to exist in a more hopeful reality capable of redemption, a reality that Roman thought he lived in for decades and now rejects. Roman J. Israel, Esq. turns out to be about nothing less than a man’s mind breaking a bit when confronted with its own possible irrelevance, his values akilter, his moral compass magnetized into chaos. He loses himself, indulges in childish appetites.

Washington has been doing some hard work in the realm of idiosyncrasy lately, and in this movie he finds a kind of lyricism in a complex computer who stops computing. In opposition to the slicker but morally chaotic Roman we have Pierce, who gathers layers of compassion — he’s been looking for a Don Quixote to replace what his teacher once was to him, and almost seems to see Roman as a father figure. That’s obvious from the way Pierce responds to a breach of protocol on Roman’s part that may have cost a young client his life. Instead of firing him, Pierce comes to see Roman’s virtues and actually restructures his firm to reflect what he thinks Roman’s values are. Or were.

A motif through all of this is the major brick-like thing Roman has been toiling on for years, the legal brief that calls out the entire system itself. With help from a Farrell performance that starts icy but warms up, Pierce seems poised to help Roman carry the weight. The movie ends up saying that ideals will survive the cracked human containers who cart them around. On a thematic level, this resounds and makes intellectual sense to us. On a basic plot level, it seems pointlessly downbeat, even nihilistic. The movie seems to be in conflict with itself, in harmony with its hero. Like many of those ‘70s films cherished by film nerds, Roman is more beautiful for its flaws; it’s cantankerous and possibly insufferable and the sort of shot in the dark that grows in memory.

A Fantastic Woman

February 4, 2018

fantasticwomanThe low-key but affecting Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman, one of 2017’s Best Foreign Language Film nominees, restores the smooth melancholic power of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Time,” long a staple of easy-listening radio. Here it feels like a deep bruise of loss. A Fantastic Woman uses the common grief narrative and the less common transgender narrative to illuminate each other. Marina (Daniela Vega) is involved with an older but smitten businessman, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After a night out for Marina’s birthday, followed by a loving night in, Orlando wakes up feeling ominously poorly. Within hours he is dying of an aneurysm, while she is symbolically locked out of the room where he is being ineffectually treated. The Parsons ballad plays twice — first during their last dance, when the song carries less meaning because we don’t yet know it’s their last dance, and then under the end credits, when it may bring a tear.

Marina is a transgender woman, and it becomes apparent that Orlando’s family hates her and considers her a freak — though I imagine they would also hate her if she were cisgender. Marina’s being transgender just gives Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) and adult though childish son (Nicolás Saavedra) something to fixate on. Others make it an issue, too, and against the dramatic backdrop of Marina’s grief and loneliness, A Fantastic Woman shows the thousand cuts transgender people weather daily, the endless, casually dealt challenges to their dignity and humanity, the misgendering and prurience about their bodies.

What sets the movie apart and may make it a cult favorite is that the director, Sebastián Lelio, gives Marina a poker face that hides a more flamboyant view of herself. A fantasy sequence finds her doing one of those empowering Living Out Loud center-of-(positive)-attention dances in a club; right afterward, she walks home alone in the rain, but for a while, anyway, Marina transcends her world. A waitress by day, Marina is also an up-and-coming singer (Daniela Vega, also a singer as well as transgender herself, has a lovely voice); this seems to indicate the partitioned lives and identities of transpeople. Marina’s case attracts the attention of a detective named Adriana (Amparo Noguera), whose curiosity about Marina seems ambiguous. In a roundabout way, Adriana seems to think Marina killed Orlando in self-defense. Adriana has seen many cases involving transpeople, you see, and she knows how often they are assaulted. I can’t decide whether this reasoning is transphobic or bitterly realistic or both. But because her job demands it, Adriana must think in this way, and Marina must contend with many other people who think that way, or worse.

The scene in which Orlando’s belligerent son and other family members take Marina for a non-consenting ride is uniquely upsetting, even though, other than wrapping Scotch tape around her head (a weird, weird detail that’s meant to silence her and temporarily deforms her), they don’t physically harm her. It’s good, I guess, that this and a few standard epithets are all they have in them; their bark is worse than their bite, and even that is a tinny “arf.” It’s debatable whether that’s worse than the scene in which she’s forced to bare first her upper half, then her lower half, for the camera of a police doctor. Or when she has to show her ID, which legally still displays her “deadname.” Or when Orlando’s ex-wife deadnames her. People like Marina of necessity develop a wary relationship to society, and the one person who loved her for who she was is dead.

A Fantastic Woman is and isn’t an ironic title; Marina strives to be read as an average, un-fantastic woman, but there’s that chanteuse side of her, the side that fantasizes being lifted up on the dance floor. Marina daydreams about the glamour she thinks she can’t have, but there’s a serene glamour in keeping one’s composure despite minute-by-minute chips taken out of one’s self-esteem, a million microaggressions. These concepts, obscure to the cisgender viewer, are smoothly advanced by way of a tragic tale of lost love. Essentially, like Living Out Loud and Truly, Madly, Deeply and a ton of others, it’s about a grieving woman who learns how to move on; such movies’ success depends more on what they do with this subject than on how original the subject is. A Fantastic Woman lets us see grief through a fresh pair of eyes.