Archive for the ‘drama’ category

War Dogs

August 21, 2016

ARMS AND THE DUDESThe wrong guy narrates War Dogs, a wannabe-wild comedy-drama about two guys who do well by doing bad — buying weapons and selling them to the U.S. military. The guy we’re interested in is Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a bullshit artist who has started his own gunrunning company. Efraim surfs into the movie on a wave of bad-boy stubble, hair gel, and Beastie Boys beats; he wants to be a Jewish Scarface, and Jonah Hill plays him as an irrepressible sleazeball smitten with the lifestyle. Unfortunately, our putative hero is Efraim’s old yeshiva buddy David Parkouz (Miles Teller), whose mopey, bewildered voice tells the tale on the soundtrack.

The way the movie tells it, Efraim offers David a 30% partnership in his company because David is financially desperate: his girlfriend Iz (Ana da Armas) is pregnant, and he can’t support a family on what he makes as a Miami Beach massage therapist. Soon enough, anti-war David is helping Efraim close gun deals with officers, while poor, deluded Iz thinks David is selling high-thread-count bedsheets to the Army. Iz is a thankless role in a mostly very male movie; she and the baby are there solely to explain why David leaps at the chance to make big bucks. Damn it, men wouldn’t have to profit off of death if you chicks didn’t keep popping out sprogs!

War Dogs is pretty much as jejune as that last sentence indicates, despite the efforts of its director, Todd Phillips (of the Hangover trilogy), to follow in the farce-to-true-life-dramedy footsteps of, say, Adam McKay (The Big Short). Phillips’ idea of making a roughhouse testosterone morality tale is to pile on the anachronistic needle-drops (the budget for the soundtrack, which includes Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, must’ve been enormous) and ape Scorsese by way of David O. Russell — so War Dogs is faux Scorsese twice removed.

Miles Teller is a fine enough actor (my respect for his craft goes back to Rabbit Hole), but he’s no Ray Liotta, nor is David anywhere near Henry Hill. David never does get any illicit charge out of what he does. He’s in it only for the money, whereas Efraim is an appetitive Id who wants to be an American bad-ass. As antically funny as Jonah Hill is in the role, his coruscating work in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street dwarfs this; he simply doesn’t have the script (or the director) to let his freak flag fly, nor does he have any drop-dead-funny lines to touch Wolf’s “Smoke some crack with me, bro” or the one that never fails to make me lose it, “I’m never eating at Benihana again, I don’t care whose birthday it is.” In the end, Efraim is a tired dark mirror on David, who doesn’t have the personality to make us care whether he gains the world or loses his soul.

Of the movies to walk down the mean streets of war profiteering (including William Friedkin’s Deal of the Century and Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War), the most resonant one, to me, was the John Cusack-meets-Naomi-Klein satire War Inc., which saw war as a ludicrous but horrid mash-up of empty pop culture and opportunistic scorpions. I wish more people would go back and look at that film. War Dogs isn’t nearly as radical. It has no point of view about the war (Iraq/Afghanistan) or about gunrunning. In what amounts to an extended cameo, Bradley Cooper turns up in a few scenes as a glowering, stubbled rock star of a gunrunner whose presence on a terrorist watchlist has reduced him to being a middle man. Cooper’s suave professionalism is welcome. It shows one committed path the movie could have taken, one in which the stakes were larger than whether a friendship-by-convenience will survive the rigors of scamming armies the world over.

Knight of Cups

June 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

The Witch

May 15, 2016

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In The Witch, out this week on DVD, writer/director Robert Eggers drops us into the 17th century and leaves us there. We spend our time with one family, whose patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) has been banished from a New England town for “prideful conceit.” William, whose sharp features and bushy beard recall Chester Brown’s visualization of a dour and angry Christ, brings his wife and four children (with a fifth on the way) to a bleak, arid-looking patch of land, surrounded by looming, frightful trees. This place is kin to the unfriendly, uninhabitable woods found in The Blair Witch Project and Antichrist. Nature itself conspires against William, killing his crops, rotting his corn.

Is there an actual witch in The Witch? For a long time, Eggers operates in darkness and ambiguity. These people fear God and also fear women (the women do, too, having internalized the gynophobia). Fear of witches is essentially fear of female wrath — and fear that one might have done something to incur that wrath, such as fearing a male god. The religious folk in The Witch trap themselves in misery, shame, terror. Everything can be blamed on Satan, but would Satan have been summoned if not for your impurity, your impiety? William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) look agonized and spiritually crushed, especially after their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes her baby brother to the outskirts of the woods and he disappears. Who did it? A witch? Satan, in the form of the family’s black goat, named Black Phillip?

What’s refreshing, and frightening, about The Witch is that Eggers allows no modern consciousness (scarcely any comic relief either) to intrude upon the anguish. We are not encouraged to feel superior to these antiquated people and their beliefs. We’re there with them. At times the movie is unnervingly intense and severe. I give it the highest marks as a cinematic inquiry into faith and fear, but even I have to admit breathing a sigh of relief when it was done with me. The filmmaking itself is harsh, Puritanical — we almost feel guilty for sitting there idle, when we could be milking a goat or doing something useful.

Eggers did years of research into folk tales and witchcraft, and the family’s house was built using the methods of 1630. Big whoop, you may say, but the verisimilitude pays off, and not in the showoffy manner of something like The Revenant. We believe in the people and, more to the point, in the ghastly space they occupy. Eggers was a production designer before turning to directing — The Witch is his feature debut after a couple of shorts based on “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Hansel and Gretel.” The atmosphere of dread and despair is immaculate. I’d say this is the strongest American debut expressing an utterly and stubbornly personal perspective almost entirely through image, sound and mood since Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.

That aside, is the movie “scary”? Not in the sense in which moviegoers usually mean “scary” — there’s little blood, no jump shocks. It is, however, disturbing and disquieting and many other words with the prefix “dis,” including “disgusting” at certain points, as when an apple makes an unexpected appearance, or when a witch smears herself with infant blood. Does she really, though? We return to the earlier question, is there a witch here? The literal horrors we see may not be quite so literal. As Anthony Lane suggested in The New Yorker, people who believe so devoutly — and so literally — in a god may be subject to a kind of collective hysteria or hallucination; thus the Salem terrors. Their imagination manifests as clearly-seen demons, phantasms, debaucheries. (In interviews, Eggers has also advised us not to ignore the detail of the rotting corn — i.e., ergot poisoning, to which some modern scholars have attributed the madness in Salem.) The intriguing suspicion also arises that the horrors are real, and that the family’s fear, not its sins, is what summons the blood and sulfur (as per Jaime Hernandez’s masterwork “Flies on the Ceiling”: “It’s not your sins but your guilt that allows me to come to you”). What The Witch does best of all is to whisk us back to a completely alien-to-us sensibility and the world that it interprets. The daylight is gray and chill, like the withheld love of a disappointed god, and the nights are as dark as the absence of their god.

Sold

March 27, 2016

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The India-set melodrama Sold, which inveighs against the cruelty of trafficking young girls for sex slavery, was completed in 2012, when its charismatic star, Niyar Saikia, had just turned thirteen. (It has been knocking around festivals since 2014 and is set for a slow platform release in America starting in April.) I mention the lead actress’ age during filming because in several scenes her character Lakshmi is raped, and even though it’s not shown explicitly — the movie is rated PG-13 and so the sexual violence is suggested rather obliquely, such as being reflected onto the metal of a door padlock — we still sit with the knowledge that Saikia had to simulate these scenes, even one in which she must fake sex with an American rescuer (David Arquette) so as not to raise suspicion. It’s possible that Saikia, like the similarly uncomfortably underage Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, had a body double and that she was well-protected physically and psychologically, but we know what’s supposed to be happening in the scene, and wondering about the on-set circumstances of its simulation just takes us out of the movie.

There were ways to accomplish this more tastefully, or, conversely, to throw away the chance of a PG-13 rating and jump right into the lost-innocence heart of darkness, as in Pixote or Kids. But director/cowriter Jeffrey Brown, adapting a novel by Patricia McCormick, has made his choice: the movie will pluck at liberal heartstrings, like Slumdog Millionaire or The Kite Runner, two other films that turn misery into inspirational tales designed to make us leave the theater, visit the website, and donate to charities such as executive producer Emma Thompson’s foundation to help survivors of sex trafficking. A side effect is that it inflames American indignation about the terrible things done to women and girls in countries like India — you know, those swarthy, godless people with no respect for human life — when in fact, according to one figure, there are at least 100,000 child victims of sex trafficking in the United States. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get angry about atrocities that happen elsewhere. I’m saying you shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t also happen here.

How is Sold as a movie? Mostly dreary, because once Lakshmi is separated from her parents in Nepal and delivered to a brothel in India, we’re pretty much confined to her quarters — a locked cell and then a tiny excuse for a bedroom — along with her. On occasion we go outside, accompanying a little boy Lakshmi befriends as he plays with a ball or a kite. But this is very much the slummy, ugly side of India — filmed largely in a red-light district, I understand — in contrast to the idyllic though poor mountain climate of Nepal. I would’ve welcomed a few side trips back to Lakshmi’s home, because that great and powerful actress Seema Biswas, from the ferocious Bandit Queen, is wasted in a nothing role as Lakshmi’s mother.

One aspect of Sold does make me happy: the Americans who try to intervene, including Gillian Anderson in a glorified cameo as a photographer, don’t save Lakshmi — she saves herself. The Americans do find out where she’s being kept, they get the local police to stage a raid on the brothel, and Arquette’s character slips her a business card with the location of a shelter, but ultimately Lakshmi’s fate is in her own hands. This is good (as is the planted detail of chili powder, which is used to torture the girls, and which Lakshmi uses as a means of defense). What isn’t good is how simplistically Dickensian movies like this and Slumdog are.

The slimy men who frequent the brothel almost all have facial hair, the better to twirl their mustaches, and the women who capture and enslave the girls aren’t much better. Sushmita Mukherjee is all set to give a large-scale performance as the brothel’s matron, but the script consistently lets her down, robs her character of any complexity. Hector Babenco, who made an indelible icon of annihilated femaleness out of a cruel prostitute in his Pixote, would have known how to help Mukherjee get to where she was headed. And what’s the deal with everyone — including the people in that impoverished Nepal village — speaking English? How convenient for the American would-be rescuers and their counterparts in the audience.

Anomalisa

February 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

The Danish Girl

February 14, 2016

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Once upon a time, perhaps back in 2000 when David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl hit stores, a movie based on that book about a trailblazing transwoman might have felt fresher. Now, though, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have been in the news, and we’ve seen more challenging and advanced narratives about transfolks. Besides that, we’ve seen actual trans performers play trans characters, both well-known (Cox on Orange Is the New Black) and not (Michelle Hendley in the underseen Boy Meets Girl), so a well-meaning Oscar-bait biopic with a cisgendered male (Eddie Redmayne) as trans legend Lili Elbe smells a little fishy. Shouldn’t an actor be free to play any reality?, some may ask. Let’s reframe the question: shouldn’t an actor of an often persecuted part of humanity be able to tell the stories of his or her own experience?

The Danish Girl recounts the early struggle of Lili (née Einar Wegener) to deal with her male-to-female transition while fighting the blinkered intolerance of her milieu (1926 Copenhagen) and trying not to hurt her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who supports Lili up to an understandable point, past which Gerda genuinely can’t go with her. Vikander actually owns the movie — she effortlessly conveys the pain of a woman too enlightened to be horrified by her once-husband’s transformation, but too human not to mourn the passing of the man she fell in love with. It’s the clearest inner conflict in the movie, but it’s been done before. So has Lili’s arc, despite the Right Stuff gendernaut angle of Lili’s (allegedly) being the first to have The Surgery.

Redmayne’s frail, hairless frame does much of his work for him; how odd that he should have headlined two elite biopics in a row, the Stephen Hawking movie being the first, both detailing body’s misalignment with mind. (He’s about ready to go make a film for David Cronenberg, whose work is built upon the Cartesian mind-body split.) But he never made me feel Lili’s vertiginous fright and relief at finally presenting as her own gender. That’s because he doesn’t have the material. The movie is too genteel and antiseptic, and eventually it resolves into a dull fable of Being True to Oneself. Someday a transgender writer/director will tell her/his community’s stories on film, and it will be felt from the inside, not observed from the outside, however compassionately. We will learn more from such a film than we could from movies like The Danish Girl made by people who haven’t actually endured Lili’s pain — who don’t have skin in the game.

In my Les Miserables review I hypothesized that the film’s director, Tom Hooper, might be the worst director ever to own an Oscar for directing. After seeing what he’s done with The Danish Girl, I’m no longer sure the qualification is necessary. You can certainly tell a Tom Hooper film at ten paces. That’s the film that’ll be composed with artsy whimsy, generally with people seated way off to the side of the frame and near the bottom, or scrutinized in punishing close-up, and the shots don’t cut together with any kind of grace because of the fancy compositions (sometimes the shots don’t match each other or the camera blatantly crosses the axis), and scenes just kind of start, go on a bit, and end. That’s the Oscar-winning Tom Hooper touch. If you care at all about movies as constructions of time and rhythm as well as image and sound, the aesthetically ugly cinema of Tom Hooper may cause physical revulsion.

Pompous yet banal, Hooper’s style fits this prestigious bore of a movie. For whom has it been made? Trans audiences will yawn — Lili’s story as presented here isn’t good fodder for inspiration. Transphobic bigots won’t see it in the first place, so they wouldn’t be swayed even if the movie were persuasive. So it’s for nice cisgendered viewers (i.e., those whose gender identities align with their bodies) who enjoy watching other people’s pain if it’s done tastefully enough. No blood is shown during Lili’s two dangerous surgeries, so it won’t spoil your dinner; neither will the scene in which two louts descend on Lili in boy mode, leading to the most ineptly-staged beating I’ve seen in years. Being cisgendered doesn’t disqualify you from making a movie about transgender subjects, but maybe being incompetent should.

Carol

February 7, 2016

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

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

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

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

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


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