Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Manchester by the Sea

February 19, 2017

manchesterThere are some awfully good moments in Manchester by the Sea, and there aren’t really any awful moments. The movie is a steadfast and somber swim inside the psyche of a man, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who is stoically shouldering various levels of loss, grief and guilt. To that end, it flirts with melodrama and sometimes downright kisses it, mostly in scenes where the drunken and self-loathing Lee, perhaps seeking someone to punch but more likely needing to be punched himself, starts trouble at a bar. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, generally lauded for his taste, somehow loses track of it in some of the more emotional set pieces, cranking up the music, either diegetic (a song played in a bar) or non-diegetic (classical needle-drops, heavy on the Handel).

Some of the filmmaking is overbearing — a too-conscious choice on Lonergan’s part to meet audiences halfway after the box-office immolation of his cerebral 2011 drama Margaret — but some isn’t. Some of the awkward silences call attention to themselves — look, working-class dudes like Lee have so much they can’t express! — and some seem more organic. Many have pointed to the stop-and-start, inarticulate exchange late in the film between Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Is it a great scene? It’s a great actors’ showcase for great actors, is what it is. Williams in particular sheds blood in the scene. But my irreverent brain kept pasting a neon “ACTING!” chyron over the bottom of the frame. It’s a theater-workshop exercise that does not, for me, reveal much.

Manchester by the Sea — not hyphenated, unlike its namesake town — follows Lee as he deals with being the new guardian of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose father Joe (Kyle Chandler) has recently died of a heart attack. Patrick is very hooked into his life in Manchester¹; he has school, sports, two girlfriends, and a (terrible) band with a name only pretentious high-schoolers could devise: Stentorian. “We are Stentorian,” Patrick mumbles into the mic before the band kicks into a flailing attempt at guitar pop. The thing is, Lonergan can sometimes be heard announcing that, too. Is he a little embarrassed by the larger, sloppier, more audience-squeezing emotions his film is obligated to attend to?

Lee and Patrick have the kind of combative but ultimately loving relationship — plenty of mutual mouthing off — you generally see in a lot of lesser movies. At times this is a two-handed play, with various supporting characters drifting in and out as needed (C.J. Wilson, as a bearish friend of the family, gives what I may be alone in finding the best performance in the film — solid, credible, alive, human); even a grayer, thicker Matthew Broderick — a Lonergan good-luck talisman from the first — pops in as Patrick’s shiny new Christian stepdad. Casey Affleck burns in his own hell convincingly enough, but bringing in Kyle Chandler for a few taunting flashbacks is unfair to Affleck and cruel to us. Chandler might have made Lee readable and identifiable with an economy of motion. Affleck approaches Lee as a more depressive and less manic version of the Dunkin’ Donuts lout he played on Saturday Night Live, and so Lee is opaque, shut off from himself, his loved ones, and us.

The movie is this year’s Affliction or Precious, a miserablist portrait of the working class, who lack the poetry and wit and vocabulary to voice the upheavals within — according to movies like this, of course. (A corrective: the work of Harvey Pekar.) Lee seems to have little inner life even in the flashbacks when everything is fine — he keeps hopping on top of his sick then-wife, which makes him look like an insensitive twerp. It seems as though this couple were headed for the rocks even without the tragedy that separated them. Manchester by the Sea is not a stupid or poorly constructed movie; its central horror is much more wounding for playing out realistically, almost blandly. It’s not a project that originated with Lonergan, though, and maybe that’s the difference. He does his damnedest with it, and maybe now on the heels of this critical and commercial success he can return to his own playbook.

¹Manchester only became Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989.

Moonlight

January 29, 2017

moonlightRoger Ebert, who I’m pretty sure would have loved Moonlight, had a recurring dictum: “A film is not about what it is about, but how it is about it.” Uncle Roger would probably have said the same about the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Moonlight, whose subject is an African-American man with three different names according to his level of growth. As a boy, he’s nicknamed Little; as a teenager he assumes his given name, Chiron; as an adult he takes the nickname Black, given to him by a school friend with whom he was once intimate. The movie, a second feature by writer-director Barry Jenkins, is structured as a triptych, with each portion named after whatever Chiron is called.

Plotwise, some of Moonlight feels familiar. The child Little, afraid of his crackhead mama (Naomie Harris), begins to spend more and more time staying with a couple who look after him: Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe). The twist is that Juan is a crack dealer who supplies Little’s mama. Eventually, as a man, Black goes into the same business, emulating the only male role model he ever knew. What’s different about Moonlight is the contemplative, painterly treatment that Jenkins gives the material. One could never fairly call the movie melodramatic; at times its energy is surprisingly low.

I was held, though, by the naturalistic performances and by Jenkins’ insistence on telling this story without flooding it with false emotion or incident. I imagine Juan could uncharitably be called “a crack dealer with a heart of gold,” but Mahershala Ali makes him a complex man capable of threat as well as kindness. When the sullen, almost wordless Little, tormented by bullies, asks Juan “What’s a faggot?”, he answers “It’s a word to make gay people feel bad about themselves.” The irony, in a movie loaded with ironies, is that Little’s schoolyard bullies may or may not be the ones calling him that, but his own mother does.

How Moonlight is about what it’s about is with as little dialogue as possible, and with well-judged use of color throughout (cinematographer James Laxton can take a bow). Things happen, major things, in between the three segments. We fill in the blanks of a portrait of sadness that’s not without hope. Nothing is made terribly explicit, nor is the movie particularly plot-centered. We follow Little as he becomes Chiron and then as he becomes Black; the changes in his character are presented as inevitable, unquestionable. Moonlight was shot fast, often on location in the same Miami projects where Jenkins grew up, yet it takes its time. It’s not so much a riff as a becalmed tone poem.

Jenkins’ handling of Chiron’s sexuality is as quietly oblique as everything else in the film. Chiron has a moment with childhood friend Kevin, but then is never intimate with anyone else until he meets Kevin again as an adult. Is he gay? Bisexual? Just looking for any meaningful male attention? The movie lets us grapple with the ambiguities. Jenkins trusts silence and inertia; he doesn’t move the camera needlessly — he also trusts composition and color. The achievement here is only possible in cinema, a story whose novelistic details are suggested by image and editing and what the filmmaker chooses to include and exclude. It is governed by a sure command of the medium that never insists on itself or bullies the audience. It’s a shame Ebert didn’t live to see it; he did, however, see Jenkins’ 2008 feature debut Medicine for Melancholy, which he awarded three and a half stars, and praised Jenkins’ “confidence to know the precise note he wants to strike.” I’d say Uncle Roger called it.

 

Hidden Figures

December 11, 2016

hidden-figures-df-04856_r2_rgbAll things considered, Hidden Figures wraps some fairly radical themes — three African-American women entrusted with important NASA jobs at a time (1961-1962) when Jim Crow was still the law of the land — in a largely unradical package. Whistle-clean, one of the few modern films to get an uncomplicated PG rating, the movie hits all the standard biopic beats. For every scene enlivened by the retro R&B of Pharrell Williams, there’s another in which Hans Zimmer’s strings try ineffectually to pluck at our heart’s. It was made, seemingly, to be shown in schools.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and Hidden Figures is affecting in ways that a less squarely conceived movie couldn’t be. It is a balm of sorts in a world in which women, people of color, and even the sciences will likely be respected far less in a few weeks. Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the movie tracks three NASA employees — math genius Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), unofficial computer supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer-to-be Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — as they face racism and sexism while slowly getting to the point where their efforts help John Glenn circle the earth. (Sadly, Glenn passed away last week, probably without getting to see himself played by Glen Powell, a blonde hunk in the Chris Evans mold.)

A white male hand passes a piece of chalk to a black female hand: the image succinctly says everything important Hidden Figures wants to say. The white man confers whiteness — importance, credibility — on the black woman. Near the end, though, a white male hand brings coffee to a black woman, as is her due. (A cynic might say, sure, give the black woman caffeine so she can continue to help white men go into space; it was 1983 before the first black man hit space, 1992 before the first black woman did.) The movie speaks of a country where a lot of things are about to flip; we get a few glimpses of the battle for civil rights. The mostly white male NASA environment is a little more enlightened than the general population, but only a little; Katherine has to run to a separate building to use the “colored women’s” bathroom.

Kevin Costner passes the chalk; this actor keeps trying to bridge the gap between races, but here, at least, he brings an edge of gruff pragmatism to it. His character, a composite NASA manager, needs a math genius who can think outside the box, who exists partly in the future, and Katherine is it. Katherine, though, is no John Nash or even Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons plays a sizable role in the film, as persnickety as Sheldon with a side order of racist-sexist disdain). Katherine is conceived as basically a normal woman with normal tastes and desires; I didn’t see a lot of continuity between her home life (widowed with three daughters) and her work life. She’s supposed to devise “math that doesn’t exist yet,” as per Costner, and she also uses ancient math; she’s not only a math savant but a math mystic, yet Taraji P. Henson isn’t encouraged to give her any quirks or sharp edges or even nerdiness. The same goes for Spencer and Monáe; these freakishly gifted and self-possessed ladies don’t have the stubborn oddness that many people at their intellectual level might have.        

Again, though, depth of portrait isn’t really on the movie’s agenda. Hidden Figures exists primarily to pay tribute to the space race’s forgotten heroes, secondarily to inspire. I don’t quite have it in me just now to come down on a film, however narratively conventional and artistically inert, that prizes the intelligence and strength of black women and the gains made possible by math and science. The Daily Beast has already called it “the movie Trump’s America needs to see,” which I suppose is true, though it’s also a relic of Kennedy’s America by way of Obama’s America, and in the chalk being passed you can almost see the line being drawn between Jack and Barack.
       

Kate Plays Christine

October 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

September 18, 2016

henry-portrait-of-a-serial-killerHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has a creepy, city-after-dark overtone, an existential chill. It carries a true grindhouse whiff while staking its claim as art. There’s a deep tension between content and context here; the movie shows you hyperbolically grotesque things, but often at a remove, with the camera tracking in or out. The tracking happens during the opening credits, when we see various (usually female) corpses left in the wake of the titular Henry (Michael Rooker). Whether we’re pulling back to take in the entire scene of the crime or pushing in for a better look at a woman’s ruined face, we’re led to look at the carnage as a series of tableaux, as works of art out of time, suspended forever in death and by death.

After making one documentary, director/co-writer John McNaughton made his feature debut with Henry — and directed nothing remotely like it in the three decades since. Despite a few genre pieces here and there (The Borrower is goofy fun), McNaughton has never worn the label of “horror director” well. Henry has more in common with Cassavetes than with Herschell Gordon Lewis, though the movie’s purest demographic exists in a Venn diagram of fans of both directors. The movie is cold and bleak, shot in the bowels of Chicago at night or on sunless days, usually in godforsaken alleys or among dead-looking roadside flora, the kind of places where corpses can be hidden, sometimes maybe found, almost never cared about.

The motor of the minimalist plot involves Henry’s roommate and “friend” Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ visiting sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Tracy grows sweet on Henry, who doesn’t know quite what to do with her feelings. Otis has a thing for Becky, but also puts his hand on the thigh of a guy he’s dealing weed to. Henry is a moral blank, but Otis is a true monster, sexually twisted, possibly by his tightly lidded homosexuality, possibly by his abusive father (who raped Becky throughout her childhood). When this pair invade a well-to-do family’s home, even Henry, recording the whole atrocity on a camcorder, is appalled by what Otis does. It’s as though proximity to Henry has unchained Otis’ demons, and the demons make him giddy. Rooker has since, of course, gone on to many different types of roles, but Towles, I think, here bravely nuked any chance he would have of playing anything other than a slimeball (he died last year).

We need the existence of Otis in order to be able to relate to Henry at all; Henry’s a killer, too, but an affectless one who never seems to enjoy it. He’s gentlemanly towards Becky, and disgusted by Otis’ incestuous/necrophiliac kinks, and that makes him the closest thing to a moral center the film offers — yes, he’s a moral blank, but he’s not actively, gigglingly evil like Otis. Towles manages to make Otis more than a caricature of redneck rabies, and Rooker smolders implosively, hardly moving his lips as he pulls out painful bits of (contradictory) memories about his mother as though prying shards of glass out of his skin. I submit that the scene in which Becky and Henry sit around the table trading familial sex-horror stories is the entire movie in microcosm — everything proceeds from this grim and grimy reality of mothers and fathers who scar their children sexually. Henry’s murders involve the soul more than the body. That’s what makes the movie more drama than horror.

Hell or High Water

September 4, 2016

Hell_or_High_Water_Large.jpgAt the end of a long, hot summer of movies for (essentially) children, there’s a tendency for critics to overrate a film that at least pretends to be for adults. The latest example is the crime drama Hell or High Water, which has just opened wide after a few weeks in limited release. The movie certainly isn’t bad; it offers some pleasures and actually has relevant things on its mind, yet wears the relevance lightly. It’s hard, though, to escape the feeling that we’ve heard this story and met these characters before. The conflicts are deftly played, decently written. There’s a terrific moment when a character makes a crucial shot and then seems torn between laughter and tears. There’s little flab but also little poetry, little reason this had to be a movie instead of, say, a novel or a radio play — it’s a bit cinematically null.

The relevance comes in with the motive for two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), to rob a string of Texas banks. They’re raising money to pay off the mortgage for the ranch that belonged to their late mother. The twist is that they’re hitting branches of the same bank that holds the mortgage — they’re robbing Peter to pay Peter. On their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s set to retire in three weeks. Marcus has an amiably insulting relationship with his Comanche partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) — he says ironically bigoted things to Alberto we know he doesn’t really mean, and Alberto razzes Marcus about his impending obsolescence.

The brothers are mostly harmless, though Toby is capable of quick, decisive violence and Tanner has done time for killing their abusive father. For a while, they go from bank to bank without hurting anyone much. Then things go bad in a hurry, and the movie loses what garrulous Texan sprawl it had. There are a couple of funny scenes involving waitresses — flirtatious Katy Mixon, no-nonsense Margaret Bowman — which also, alas, points up that except for Marcus’ replacement toward the end and Toby’s ex-wife, waitresses and bank tellers are about all the women we see in this masculine world of guns, casinos and beer.

Fargo is missed in more ways than one, not only because Marge Gunderson is a more original hero than Marcus, but because Hell or High Water feels like an amalgam of Coen brothers films — Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, even True Grit with Bridges doing his gruff unintelligible shtick again — without the Coens’ sense of wit or play. Director David Mackenzie never does anything discordant but never does anything genuinely surprising, either. The comfort and pleasure many may derive from the film might issue from its very been-there-done-that quality. It is very much “a movie like they used to make in the ’70s,” only they used to make them with a bit more idiosyncrasy, a little more art.

The movie seems to want points for telling a small story about regular people, except that these are the kind of regular people one meets only in movies: the desperate but noble bank robber, his half-crazy brother, the soon-retiring good ol’ boy after them. These men could come across as archetypes rather than clichés, but they don’t. Chris Pine and especially Ben Foster try to make something dangerous yet relatable out of the brothers, and there’s a nifty bit of quietly combative dialogue at the end that would probably go down better if it didn’t seem so pleased with itself for drawing from the same well as Heat, American Gangster and many other movies in which adversaries sit and take each other’s measure. Hell or High Water is so busy taking inspiration from earlier movies that it forgets we’ve seen them too.

Chimes at Midnight

August 28, 2016

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Orson Welles was just 49 when he started filming Chimes at Midnight in 1964, but he looked 70 — the age he was when he died, in 1985. Partly that’s due to make-up, and partly it’s because he always seemed older than he was. The movie, one of Welles’ finest works and a personal favorite of his, has been difficult to find outside of dodgy bootlegs until it was restored recently, and this week it appears on shiny new Criterion DVD and Blu-ray editions. It’s essential viewing for fans of Welles and of Shakespeare, whose great comic-tragic buffoon Falstaff is at the film’s center, played by Welles as though he knew he might never again get such a juicy opportunity.

As director, Welles contended with a puny budget, which resulted in some infamous issues with dubbing. The words and the images aren’t always in sync; sometimes the characters, played by stand-ins, face away from the camera to hide the fact that Welles didn’t have a particular actor that day. None of this matters, though, because what comes through is Welles’ passion — and, of course, his genius, which presents here as creative workarounds. In the end, Chimes at Midnight is as radiant an example of film-love as any of Welles’ other train sets. Somehow, the movie gods smiled down on Welles’ efforts, and what could have been an embarrassing boondoggle takes its place as a classic.

Falstaff was close to Welles’ heart. At its core, Chimes at Midnight tells the story of an old scoundrel who loves a young man — Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), destined to become King Henry V — as though he were Falstaff’s son. The young man must eventually reject Falstaff and the juvenile antics he represents, in order to earn the gravitas that being the king demands. That Falstaff understands this doesn’t make the rejection any easier, and there may be no more heartbreaking moment in Welles’ career as an actor or as a director than when the former Hal rejects Falstaff and Falstaff’s expression speaks of both pride and despair. The entire dark, stylized movie leads up to that moment, which in its original context as a two-part play about the passing of power from Henry IV (John Gielgud) to his son might come off more as a sad footnote about a supporting character.

The movie is famous for its ahead-of-its-time depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury, filmed in chaotic fragments that nonetheless cohere into a vision of the horrific nonsense of war. Pauline Kael pointed out that the sequence was the only one in the film in which Welles could use editing as an artist rather than as a magician trying to misdirect us from budget problems. It’s ferocious and saddening without an ounce of schmaltz, leading up to the duel between Hal and the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway). The movie gives the impression that this is either the first life Hal has taken or the first one that means something to him, and it sets the stage for his maturing and his rejection of his surrogate father. Thus does war destroy anything decent in its path.

Welles said that the movie was less a study of the passing of Falstaff than of the passing of a way of thinking about England. Chimes at Midnight, whose very title resounds with awareness of mortality, is stylistically a bleak and cold vision, with steam often visible on the actors’ breath in the frigid air. At one point, John Gielgud’s ailing Henry IV exhales steam through his nose disdainfully, like a dragon in repose. In opposition to this is the warmth of Falstaff, who in this telling is only incidentally a clown, waddling into battle in his armor and then hiding behind bushes. Falstaff’s “cowardly” response to war seems the only sane reaction to it, and his subsequent attempt to take credit for killing Hotspur reads as a way for him not to gain glory but to forestall the reality that Hal is no longer the Hal he knew. It’s a great, sad, exhilarating, stinging accomplishment.