Archive for the ‘drama’ category

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.

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.