Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Screwdriver

June 12, 2022

SCREWDRIVER

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

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

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

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

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

The Northman

May 15, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

River’s Edge

May 8, 2022

rivers edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood

April 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

CODA

March 20, 2022

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Dog

January 30, 2022

power of the dog

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

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

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

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

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

Nightmare Alley

December 19, 2021

nightmare alley

Despite its darkness and pessimism, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley is a shapely piece of entertainment that may cheer you up. Grim as it often is, it’s been put together with such obvious love and devotion that its energy carries us through Gresham’s moralistic tale of a con artist — Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle — whose imposture may or may not withstand the reality that there will always be someone shrewder, more ruthless and more powerful than he is. Gresham’s book is a sandwich of crisp bread slices surrounding a bit of soggy meat, though del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan streamline the narrative. They keep the bread fresh, and they retain Gresham’s bleak ending while importing a stellar final line from the 1947 film version. 

Stanton arrives at a carnival in 1939 and learns the ropes. He learns how to do “cold readings” as a self-proclaimed psychic; he also learns how an unscrupulous carny barker (Willem Dafoe in a brief but vivid turn) creates a “geek” — an attraction based on a down-and-out drunk’s desperate willingness to do disgusting things in exchange for booze. Stanton falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), who does tricks with electricity, and they leave the carnival to strike out on their own scams. It’s a bit of a bummer when Cooper leaves the seamy, intriguing milieu of strongmen and freaks in the company of Rooney Mara, who unfortunately remains a null presence. But the movie is still beautiful, with golden cinematography (Dan Laustsen) and richly crafted production design (Tamara Deverell) that keep our eyes happily engaged. Nightmare Alley is dark but not dreary. 

Stanton and Molly do their psychic act for rich suckers. A canny psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), pegs Stanton as a flim-flam man the minute she lays eyes on him, but is drawn to his confidence and technique. Along about the hour-and-a-half mark, Richard Jenkins enters the picture as the richest sucker of all, who is led to believe Stanton can put him in spiritual contact with a past lover. Jenkins, as he did in The Shape of Water, grounds a del Toro film in bitter humanity, though he’s playing much more of a scoundrel this time. Ultimately, nobody in this story is an innocent. The higher up you go, the more corrupt people you find. The picture of a pre-WWII America gouged by financial ruin and despair is deftly painted. Bradley Cooper, who spends a lot of his screen time with Rooney Mara and is thus casting his charisma into a vacuum, comes alive when he can play with Jenkins, or, for that matter, with Toni Collette or David Strathairn or Ron Perlman.

Gresham’s novel is a bit mechanistic in the tradition of noir, but it’s almost painfully internal; we seem to pause and hear the thoughts and feel the feelings of everyone, in Gresham’s plain prose spiked with carny slang. Gresham stops for so long to detail the backstory of Molly and her beloved carny father that he seems carried away, almost surprised at how Molly is coming alive and developing flesh. Molly is pretty opaque in the movie; del Toro and Morgan really only have time to concentrate on Stanton, even with a 150-minute length. Del Toro seems a little deflated when he has to leave the carnival (Dafoe’s lair of mutated fetuses and animals in jars is like a room in del Toro’s famous collectible-filled home) and go to swanky wartime Chicago, so he reaches out gratefully for Cate Blanchett, who banks another suave Old Hollywood performance. Lilith, true to her name, is like a fancy vampire drawn to a different kind of parasite.

In recent years I’ve remained fond of the idea of Guillermo del Toro while being disappointed in his last few efforts. But Nightmare Alley, the sort of gift a director can only give to himself on the heels of an Oscar triumph, is the real thing, physically imposing (it’s always raining or snowing outside the windows; objects have an almost pensive solidity and heft) and psychologically sound. Laid bare, the story casts the carny world as capitalism in microcosm, with misfits straining hard to make those quarters and dimes. The gawkers for the carny acts, even the geek act, are not portrayed as ghoulish or shameful — del Toro is too good-natured for that, especially since we and he are in the same crowd. The people getting bilked are in pain they’ll pay good money to stop. Stanton is quite willing to take their pain and their money off their hands, either as a slick psychic or as a cautionary figure.

The Card Counter

December 12, 2021

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Your standard Paul Schrader loner — think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Ernst Toller in Schrader’s previous film First Reformed, among many others — drifts from place to place, often at night, ears ringing with his own internal screams of guilt and dread. This loner walls himself (usually always himself — Schrader’s artistic/narrative mission is to probe toxic masculinity) off from normal human contact, pulled along by fatalistic strings of his own making. Oscar Isaac joins this bleak men’s club in Schrader’s The Card Counter as William Tillich (he goes by William Tell), who goes from casino to casino, placing and winning modest bets at poker tables with the card-counting skills he taught himself in prison.

We soon learn why William was in jail: he worked interrogation at Abu Ghraib, and he went away for eight and a half years while his superior officer and trainer Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe) got off free. William meets a young man — “Cirk with a C” (Tye Sheridan) — who has his own past with Gordo. His father, too, worked under Gordo at Abu Ghraib, came home addicted and violently abusive, and eventually killed himself. Cirk wants revenge on Gordo: he wants to capture Gordo and torture him to death. William has other plans for Cirk; he knows what Cirk doesn’t, that once you become a torturer/killer, you can never un-become that.

Schrader’s filmmaking has become as neat and clean as William’s hair, graying but not a strand out of place. Other than the intentionally off-putting Abu Ghraib flashbacks, filmed through a distorting lens, there isn’t an ugly or discordant frame in The Card Counter. Schrader takes his time, engaging in crossfades or fade-outs. The casinos William frequents all look the same and give the impression of stinking like cleaning fluid and cigarette smoke — not hell, exactly, but limbo. William has already been to hell, and a good chunk of his soul still exists there. He may see Cirk as his chance at some sort of redemption for participating in the repulsive system that deformed him and Cirk’s father. He also has eyes for La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who runs a stable of gamblers and thinks William should be one of them.

Sometimes Schrader can be a bit on-the-nose. A lyric we hear often on the soundtrack goes “In my lonesome aberration,” which could be William’s internal theme song. (It’s a song by Robert Levon Been, son of late Call frontman Michael Been, who composed songs for Schrader’s 1992 drama Light Sleeper. A lyric from one of those songs is tattooed on William’s back here.) Tiffany Haddish can’t help smuggling in some levity, even if just in her manner or her line delivery, but otherwise the film is borderline mopey and as serious as a stroke. (The only other source of humor is Dafoe’s thick military-guy mustache.) But as I indicated above, Schrader has gotten better at working his particular side of the street, so that the immaculate, resolute unflashiness of his style is itself pleasurable. He no longer seems to be denying himself the contentments of filmmaking; he has developed a tidy, rigorous focus.

Isaac obliges Schrader with a smoldering, implosive performance rich in stillness and watchfulness. William seldom smiles, although in one of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks we see him larking around obscenely with one of the prisoners. These places, Schrader says, scorched the souls of everyone who entered them, in whatever capacity. Much of William’s shame, it happens, is because William enjoyed the terror and pain he caused. Near the end of Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack’s hit-man hero tries to account for his life choices: “You do it because you were trained to do it, because you were encouraged to do it, and because, eventually, you, you know … get to like it.” He appends hilariously, “I know that sounds bad.” William, in his lonesome aberration, also knows his past sounds bad. Whether he can become good, or at least less bad, is very much on William’s and Schrader’s mind; but because this is also a noir, it’s not entirely within William’s control. Someone always has other plans.

House of Gucci

December 5, 2021

house of gucci

For a little while — maybe its first half hour — House of Gucci feels like an early Christmas present to adult viewers. The tone is elegant yet semi-satirically unimpressed, and the actors are all dressed for the back of a limo. We settle in for a sleek, tongue-in-cheek saga of family and murder, a Godfather for the debauched cocaine-dust fashion era of the ‘70s and ‘80s. House of Gucci recounts how Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) married Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and thus married into the almost sci-fi-level wealth of the Gucci empire. Eventually, Maurizio met another woman and divorced Patrizia, who got together with her psychic friend (Salma Hayek) and a couple of Sicilian button men to take Maurizio off the board. Patrizia was caught and sentenced to 29 years in prison, of which she served 18; she was let out in 2016. 

This seems like at least two movies — one about an ambitious but jealous would-be queen who plots to murder her ex-husband, and one about the rich, famous Gucci family, which wouldn’t be all that interesting if not for the murder. They aren’t all that interesting with the murder, either. House of Gucci should be campy fun, but the director is Ridley Scott, whose name has seldom if ever promised fun. Scott knows how to set up a swanky milieu, but we knew that. He does nothing here that he or countless others haven’t done before. With a cast of hungry actors raring to play-act under latex or bad hair (something like American Hustle, come to think of it), the movie should be a quick, dirty good time, but Scott has never been an actor’s director, and the actors emote and erupt within the vast echo-chamber real estate of the very rich. They seem alone in their efforts — nobody behind the camera seems to be shaping or even enjoying their performances.

Jared Leto’s clownish Paolo Gucci seems to want to out-Fredo the infamous Corleone brother, but he’s just a delusional loser, with none of the pained humanity and frightened aggression that John Cazale brought to Fredo. Jeremy Irons as Rodolfo Gucci somehow retains his plummy English vowels through an “Italian” accent, but sadly he’s not around long. Driver plays it straight as Maurizio, though past a certain point he can’t make Maurizio make sense to us. Al Pacino enters in full goose-honk mode as old Aldo Gucci, unavoidably turning all his scenes into an Al Pacino movie instead of integrating his effects with those of his co-stars. There’s a late scene in which Aldo expresses rage and shock at something his idiot son Paolo has done, but Leto isn’t up to responding organically — he wants all his scenes to be a Jared Leto movie, and he cringes as if he were a signifying silent-movie actor — so Pacino projects into a vacuum and then, visibly deflated, seems to give up and pull Leto in for a hug.

When in doubt, Ridley Scott just pivots to Lady Gaga, who deserves more fun, more eccentricity to match her drag-queen-on-the-moon energy. When Gaga shares a scene (there are several, including a mud-bath bit) with Salma Hayek, we might wish the movie could break off and just be about them, and wish it were about them from the beginning. The scene of Gaga and Hayek issuing orders to a pair of godforsaken meathead assassins will be remembered as a classic. “If you fuck this up,” Hayek assures the goombahs, “I will put a spell on you.” I believed her. I would not want to get Hayek and Gaga mad enough at me to put a hit out on me. Gaga finds kinship and collaborative juice with Hayek that she doesn’t get anywhere else, even from Driver or Pacino. These two are twin death witches from the nightside of capitalism. I want more of the movie they’re in.

King Richard

November 21, 2021

king-richard

You may be forgiven, watching King Richard, for wondering what exactly Richard Williams’ deal was. Was he a prophet or a damned lucky delusional? As tennis fans know, Williams is the father of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time. As the legend goes, Richard planned — literally, a 78-page plan — a future in tennis glory for his daughters before they were even born. He got this notion when he caught Virginia Ruzici on TV winning a tournament. If Ruzici won a lot of money doing this, Richard reasoned, think how much two girls could win. Richard didn’t know anything about tennis, but he learned, and he taught his daughters.

Now, what possessed this man to predict that his Black daughters could dominate a theretofore blindingly-white sport, and that they would both be born with the athletic genius to do so? Did Richard receive a nighttime whispered message from a herald? Further, in King Richard, once Richard gets his girls on the right track, he consistently goes against the grain of everything he’s advised to do. The girls’ coach says they need to start playing in the Juniors? No, Richard says, they’re not ready yet. Nike offers a $3 million endorsement deal? Well, Richard says, we’re gonna hold off. Richard gambles a frightening amount on his instincts, on his sense that he’s right. (We might catch a bit of subtext that Richard, who grew up in hard times abused by racists, is wary of all the received wisdom that comes from white faces — well-meaning, but white.)

Will Smith plays Richard as a batch of conflicting signals — sometimes cramped and cynical, sometimes carried along by his dreams. People, including his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), keep telling Richard he’s heading for a fall, cruising for a bruising. But he has no fear of failure; he seems to fear regret. He doesn’t want to look back and mourn the risks he didn’t take, the money he left on the table. Smith finds something fiery in Richard’s center; the man’s entire being and sense of self are tied up in being vindicated. Through his daughters’ triumphs, the world will tell Richard Williams that he was right. Richard pisses off one elite coach (Tony Goldwyn) and moves on to another (Jon Bernthal, in the funniest performance) and pisses him off. Nobody has seen things done the way Richard wants them done. This guy is nuts. And yet the world keeps sustaining his vision. Smith uses his star charisma — which makes the audience lean towards him — to make Richard seem nourished by everyone else’s doubt. All the film’s energy is directed towards Smith; it’s Richard’s story, not Venus or Serena’s. 

Richard is an odd man to hold the center of a film that also boasts, somewhere off to the side, two lightning bolts like Venus and Serena. The story Richard tells about himself (and which this movie co-signs) has a Biblical whiff about it: God tells Richard (or Noah, or whoever) that this thing is going to happen, must happen, and you’ve got to prepare for it. The Richard of this movie (truly I know little of the man aside from what Smith, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, and writer Zach Baylin give us) is a prickly, flawed, arrogant, possibly great man whose character goes somewhat unresolved, our questions unanswered. And it’s not that the movie is trying to be the sportsball equivalent of Last Year at Marienbad or anything; it just recognizes there’s more to him, to anyone, than even two hours and twenty-five minutes can capture. 

Alas, this male’s vision is mightily supported by a woman (Aunjanue Ellis comes through with a loving, sensible turn that even in moments of quiet watchfulness is the film’s moral compass) and by, of course, two girls. If not for them, there’d be no him. King Richard plays us out with Beyoncé’s “Be Alive,” which is about Venus and Serena: “We fought and built this on our own.” True enough. But the movie needs Richard’s righteous self-regard; it would be too close to a standard sports biopic without it. All the familiar beats are there, the advances and seeming setbacks, leading up to the big game with the whole universe hanging on it, and … well, you’ve seen sports films before. But maybe you haven’t seen Richard before.