Archive for the ‘drama’ category

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

Screen Shot 2021-12-12 at 4.18.07 PM

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. 

Out of the Blue

November 7, 2021

out of the blue

Linda Manz had a great camera face, scarred and wary, yet open to profane as well as sacred experiences. Her face haunts the few movies she appeared in, like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and especially Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, which has been rescued with a 4K restoration and has been making the rounds. What Manz does in Out of the Blue isn’t quite acting. It’s behaving, or attitudinizing, sorting through the externals of a broken girl, Cindy Barnes, or CeBe. Her affectless tough-girl delivery takes some getting used to; at first it strikes our ears as amateurish. But as we learn more about CeBe and her bombed-out, devastated life, we learn to read her splintered disposition — closed off from the world’s harm, but drawn to whatever forlorn adventure she can glean from it, because she’s still only 15 — as elaborate armor. 

Hopper was only going to act in the film, initiated as a Canadian TV-movie. But original director Leonard Yakir faltered, and Hopper took over, refocusing the narrative on CeBe instead of on a virtuous psychiatrist’s attempts to save her. (Remnants of this plot, with Raymond Burr in a two-scene bit as a school therapist, remain in the finished film.) Hopper co-stars as CeBe’s feckless father Don, who drove his truck into a packed school bus while drunk and was sent to prison for five years (CeBe was with him at the time of the accident; Manz’ real scars are explained in the film as the result of the crash). Don gets out of prison, reunites shakily with CeBe and with her junkie mother Kathy (Sharon Farrell), and wastes no time falling back into old self-destructive habits.

Pretty much every male CeBe encounters is a creep or worse, and the girls at her school, which she attends sporadically, mostly have no use for her. So she spends a lot of time alone in her depressing room, listening to Elvis and spouting punk-rock slogans (“Disco sucks! Subvert normality!”). Manz is eminently believable as Hopper’s offspring — they share a spirit as well as some features. The tone of their scenes together is dangerous yet saddening. Don has no idea how to be a functioning human being, much less a father. Does CeBe know how to be a daughter? It’s by no means clear that anyone in her life has “raised” her. Her “parents” are too lost in their own pain and addictions. Unsupervised, CeBe drifts around the night streets of Vancouver, going to punk shows and dodging unwelcome male notice.

It’s not long before we understand this isn’t going to be the kind of movie that leads up to a redemptive finale, in which the parents get their act together for CeBe’s sake and offer her some stability; nobody else, particularly not slime like Don’s menacing buddy Charlie (Don Gordon), is going to step in on her behalf either. Out of the Blue says that some people — some entire families — are just damned, and it doesn’t take a judgmental stance about it. Hopper, as director and uncredited writer, extends no hope whatsoever, and there’s something vital and cleansing about the movie’s thorough nihilism. As played by Manz, CeBe is hurt and bleeding but still alive. We see flashes of the innocent little girl she used to be who died long ago — an unabashed grin when a punk band’s drummer lets her hammer the skins for a minute onstage; her habit of curling up with her teddy bear and sucking her thumb.

The movie ends on a profoundly downbeat note, to put it mildly, and yet it doesn’t depress us because it doesn’t lie to us. We feel that a story like this can only end in this bleak but honest manner. The events of the narrative don’t exactly please us, but Hopper’s absolute dedication to honoring the truth of CeBe’s life (not to mention casting himself as one of many demons on the side of her dark lonely road) pays off. Movies are allowed to leave us feeling something besides happy or sad. They increasingly, frequently leave us feeling nothing at all. Out of the Blue is a gritty artifact from a time, the late ‘70s, when artists could work out their feelings about unbearable ways of living. It was also a time when a spiky presence like Linda Manz, who died last year six days short of her 59th birthday, could take over a movie and leave us wondering what we’d just seen, but knowing we’d seen something strange and beautiful.

Lansky

June 20, 2021

lansky

Harvey Keitel has still got it. The 82-year-old actor reigns over the biopic Lansky despite not being in most of it. That’s partly because the movie itself is pretty dreary weak tea — though handsomely realized on what I imagine was not a large budget — but mostly because Keitel will naturally dominate everything you put him in now, with ease and little effort. In The Irishman, Keitel had scant minutes of screen time and maybe eight words of dialogue that I can remember, but in a room with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, he was the unquestioned force. As a young man, Keitel bellowed and flailed (and his torments meant a lot to us), but now all he has to do is angle his head and pitch his voice just a bit differently and he still packs a punch. Please, someone put Keitel in one last film that deserves him.

Keitel does infinitely more for Lansky than it does for him. It’s 1981, and “mob accountant” Meyer Lansky (Keitel) has recently been diagnosed with the cancer that will kill him two years later. Lansky decides it’s time to tell his story, and selects struggling, just-divorced writer David Stone (Sam Worthington) to work on the book. The Lansky we see most of the time onscreen is in his thirties and forties, and is played (well enough) by John Magaro. As the older Lansky relates his younger days in flashbacks, we hear about something that’s low-key fascinated me for years: the war between the mob and the Nazis. Look up Operation Underworld sometime and marvel at how it hasn’t yet inspired the greatest movie ever made. It takes up all of three minutes here, and I would gladly have had a whole film, with this cast and these filmmakers, treating that subject at length.

Instead we get an obnoxiously pointless subplot, dealing with the writer who, as far as I can determine, is made up out of whole cloth, and who dallies with a woman who gets him involved with the feds, and I guarantee you, every time this subplot shows its saggy, unshaven face, you will want to huck a tomato at it. It’s a whole other (and intolerably boring) movie transplanted onto a promising movie. Nothing against Sam Worthington — or Minka Kelly, who plays the woman — but this entire narrative could be lifted out and leave us with a leaner, meaner film, perhaps adding back some stuff they had to cut out to keep the film under two hours. What they have now doesn’t work on its own or in here. It’s truly awful. It turns a potentially solid film into a bad one. Take it out and put back more stuff about gangsters gouging out Nazis’ eyes at a Bund meeting.

Thematically, the writer’s subplot does make sense: it echoes Lansky’s own conviction that he did what he had to do for his family. The message, banal but not belabored, is that family is all, but if you make the wrong moves to protect it you wind up destroying it, as Michael Corleone found out. The younger Lansky has many tedious squabbles with his wife (AnnaSophia Robb) over the amount of blood on their money, as if she didn’t go into her marriage with him (as the movie tells it) knowing what he was. The director, Eytan Rockaway, keeps things moving and lively — there’s always something going on — but he should have fired the screenwriter, who unfortunately is also Eytan Rockaway.

Keitel delivers on his end of the bargain. He gets to play a lot of juicy elderly-sinner emotions, though age has subdued Lansky somewhat. It doesn’t matter. When it comes time for Lansky to show a flash of fury or cave to despair, Keitel nails it, but with the economy that wisdom brings. I don’t think he could play a frenzied dumbass anymore, like the pianist in Fingers or the elaborately suffering Bad Lieutenant. He has become, as I said, the grey eminence who quietly dominates. He was even memorable in The Painted Bird dubbed in Interslavic. I hope that he has many more performances in store, and that at least one of them is in a movie that earns him.

Minari

April 11, 2021

minari

Minari is a modest film about big things — ambition, family, immigration and assimilation. It’s based loosely on writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s experiences in a South Korean family living in rural America. In 1983, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) brings his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and two kids, and all their belongings, to what looks like a godforsaken five acres of Arkansas land, with a forlorn trailer sitting atop the dry grass. Monica hates the place on sight; Jacob hopes to raise a farm here, and one day have fifty acres. I’m not sure we understand Jacob’s life choice any more than Monica does, but it’s his dream, so we go with it, hoping for the best.

Jacob sees what others don’t: the soil is actually a rich color that tells him it may yield the crop of his fantasies. He hopes to grow all Korean fruits and vegetables, and sell them to fellow Korean transplants. In brief, Jacob has a foot in each world; he has the gumption of a dust-bowl American but seeks to bring some of his home country into his adopted country. Monica would rather go back to the city, or at least back to California, where Steven was a top chicken sexer. Which is how the Yis keep the lights on in Arkansas until the crops come in. 

Monica decides to bring her own home to this new place — her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who watches the kids but doesn’t act enough like a grandma for the liking of the youngest child David. (As probably the director’s avatar, David gets a lot of screen time without necessarily seeming like the central character — it’s really an ensemble piece — and he has a sister Anne, who it’s easy to forget exists.) Minari is appealing, though short on moviemaking electricity; it’s quietly pictorial, satisfying — along with fellow Best Picture nominee Nomadland — our desire to see America as a big broad land with endless pockets of beauty.

Jacob and Monica go at each other quite a lot, the eternal clash of the pragmatic wife and the dreamer husband. Even so, the film is good-natured; even a couple of blinkered white kids who encounter David and Anne just blurt out highly inappropriate-even-in-1983 questions (“Why is your face so flat?”) not out of malice but just out of blunt curiosity. David gets a sleepover with his new friend; if Anne does, we don’t see it. Anyway, even the film’s Americans who initially set off our radar turn out okay — like ol’ Paul (Will Patton), who invokes Jesus constantly, speaks in tongues, and hauls a life-size cross around a dirt road as “his church.” Refreshingly, Paul stays a loyal farmhand to Jacob, and doesn’t turn out to be a villain. The Yis don’t encounter much racism that we can see. Minari isn’t about that; it centers on how hard it is for a foreigner to follow the American dream, how remarkable it is when they can find any kind of success. 

We are all, of course, foreigners here if we go back far enough, unless we have indigenous lineage. But Chung doesn’t make the mistake of saying we’re all the same under the skin. These are closely specific characters. Soon-ja, for instance, seems like a whole and authentic person with quirks and preferences. She isn’t ennobled, though; Chung sees her fondly but not sentimentally. Whatever way you might expect her to be drawn — strict, disapproving, old-school, secretly soft-hearted, the usual clichés — Yeun Yuh-jung steers clear of it. Her Soon-ja seems more easygoing than her daughter; she’d be a good grandma to have, cussing and teaching you card games and getting a little too involved in TV wrestling. Yet the performance is subtle, not an example of the life force, or “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” or any of that.

Chung avoids the trap of turning his experience into an omnibus of tropes. Toxic as this concept seems now, when Jacob and Monica argue, we can legitimately see both sides. Neither one is judged for their flaws or blind spots. Minari is named after an edible plant that grows wild; Soon-ja, perhaps out of solidarity with Jacob, plants some minari seeds at a nearby stream. Much is made of water in the film, the need for it, the lack of it, and finally an event that demands it. We could put on our professor hats and note the symbolism and subtext, but that doesn’t seem like an organic way to respond to a slice-of-life story whose teller wants to pay respects to his parents and grandma, who weren’t larger than life, just people playing the hand they were dealt — or dealt themselves.

Judas and the Black Messiah

April 4, 2021

judas

Someone wanna explain to me how Shaka King didn’t get an Oscar nomination for directing the Best Picture nominee Judas and the Black Messiah? King did get nods for producing and co-writing the film, but come on. The filmmaking here is fleet-footed, smooth, alive, and contains (courtesy of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) the most colorful rainy scenes I’ve seen in a movie in years. Six Black directors have been nominated for Best Director since 1991, and of those, two directed Best Picture — but the Director Oscar went to someone else. You can say people get way too serious about the Oscars and also say representation is important. You can respect other directors on the list this year and also say King was robbed.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a perhaps too-neat title for an engrossing real-life thriller about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, and Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief strong-armed by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers and report his findings. Kaluuya puts some sand in his voice and barks out Hampton’s angry revolutionary rhetoric, while Stanfield keeps his cool despite fed Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) affably breathing down O’Neal’s neck for intel. We’ve seen a lot of undercover-cop films, and I thought Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman might have put the subgenre to bed, but this film has a Shakespearean-tragedy tinge to it. The martyr doesn’t even get to confront his betrayer, nor does the betrayer unburden himself of his guilt until far too late. O’Neal talked to interviewers for Eyes on the Prize 2 about all of it twenty years later. The night the interview aired on PBS, O’Neal died under disputed circumstances thought by some, including the filmmakers here, to be suicide. He was only forty.

Then again, O’Neal was only seventeen when Mitchell offered him a way out of his charges. Hampton was 21 when he died (if he were with us today he would still only be 72). Many of the agitators for peace and equality in the ‘60s were young, but man, these folks were young. Kaluuya and Stanfield are each about a decade older than the men they’re playing, and they look it, but it works for the movie — Hampton and O’Neal seem weighed down, prematurely aged, by their responsibilities. And their responsibilities are all tangled up with the racist world they’ve been in all their lives. Fred Hampton’s rhetoric wasn’t beautiful like Malcolm X’s or darting and jabbing like Muhammad Ali’s — it was more blunt-force, incantatory in its repetitions. Where he truly excelled was in getting opposed factions — Black street gangs, a redneck group — under the umbrella of his Rainbow Coalition. The FBI was having none of that, and they put a harder squeeze on O’Neal to clear a path to Hampton’s assassination.

The movie comes in a little north of two hours but flies by. Shaka King sketches Hampton here and there, just enough to keep us invested in him as a person, not an icon. We get almost no background on either Hampton or O’Neal — they exist for us in the now, they define themselves by what they do or don’t do. The movie obliquely prompts us to think about how circumstances have shaped us: what accounts for the differences in the ways Hampton and O’Neal respond to the world? Stanfield’s O’Neal doesn’t get any big dramatic moments, but we can see it’s killing him inside. He and Hampton scarcely get any downtime for hanging out, becoming friends, but we feel warmth and mutual respect between them anyway. In some ways, though, O’Neal redeems himself even during his imposture. He helps run things when Hampton is in jail, and he pitches in to rebuild the Panthers’ office after the cops firebomb it. “We are what we pretend to be,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” That cuts both ways, though, and as O’Neal pretends to be someone helping his community, there he is, helping his community.

The Father

March 28, 2021

the father 2

“Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man, fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less; and, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind.” Anthony Hopkins spoke those words as King Lear in 1986 and again in 2018, and he voices the sentiment in different words, or with no words at all, in the devastating drama The Father. Hopkins plays Anthony, an aging Englishman who can no longer make the world stay still so that he can get his bearings. The people in his life keep changing appearance. So does his flat, which is sometimes his daughter’s flat. The movie, directed and cowritten by Florian Zeller from his play, uses subtle cinematic techniques to keep us as disoriented as Anthony is. We share his sense of being unmoored, grasping at any solidity that presents itself before it and he recede into nonsense.

The Father is not as incoherent as I’ve perhaps made it sound. The style is sturdy and sensible; it doesn’t lurch into frenzy or melodramatic notions of what insanity feels like from the inside. Anthony is, after all, quite convinced that he’s perfectly sound of mind and that everyone else, for their own dark reasons, has conspired to throw difficulties in his path. So when the inconsistencies crack the narrative — when Anthony’s daughter Anne leaves, played by Olivia Colman, and then returns played by Olivia Williams — the style remains a steady flow of information that, though neatly presented, is unacceptable to Anthony. Who is this, now? Anne? You’re not Anne. This switcheroo happens with other characters, and Williams also turns up in two other roles.

The horror of this situation is twofold: Anthony’s existential anguish over losing everything he is, and Anne’s fury and heartbreak over being erased from her father’s memory. Both Hopkins and Colman beautifully convey the nightmare of a disease that steals identity not only from its host but from everyone in his support system. The film sticks diligently to its grim mode of a confounding reality attacking and retreating. Every scene is there to establish Anthony’s decline. It reminded me of some of David Cronenberg’s more interiorized psychodramas like Dead Ringers, Spider, even Naked Lunch to the extent that what the protagonist is perceiving is not always to be trusted. We are locked in his disintegrating perceptions for ninety-plus minutes; even in scenes when Anthony isn’t around yet, and Anne is talking to her husband/not husband (played alternately by Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell), we feel we’re seeing what Anthony is overhearing but misunderstanding, or imagining but through his own filter. Eventually we come to realize that the story is about no more or less than the unreliability of any perception. Anthony is all of us, blinking slowly at new people or missing objects while holding firm to his belief that his antennae are working perfectly. 

A lot of things in Anthony’s shifting sense of himself can be interrogated or discussed, such as his insistence that he used to be a tap dancer, while elsewhere agreeing that he was an engineer. Well, which is it? Florian Zeller, along with screenplay collaborator Christopher Hampton, plants conflicting details and, within the tight and conventional confines of his camera blocking, refuses to give us ground beneath our feet. Anthony has, or had, another daughter Lucy, who hasn’t come to see him in some time; the shards of data we get — which, of course, could themselves be suspect — indicate that Lucy was killed in an accident. It’s certainly open to interpretation. 

Hopkins makes Anthony prickly and ungovernable, a modern-day Lear raging against the storm in his own head. Ultimately, as in Wit (with Emma Thompson’s least-seen great performance), Anthony — as will we all — comes full circle into whimpering infancy. If we shed a tear, we do so not for him but for ourselves. The long, intolerable slide into oblivion — the immovable arc of the universe. Sometimes a story like this gets told with a spoonful of genre sugar; a lot of science fiction, for instance, runs on speculation about identity and humanity. So the tale is told sidewise, to spare the viewer a direct hit of pain. The Father stays within our unremarkable reality, a world we recognize, until we no longer do.

Sound of Metal

March 21, 2021

sound of metal

The refreshing thing about Sound of Metal is that it doesn’t pretend things don’t suck when they do. Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for the two-person band Blackgammon he shares with girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), is rapidly losing his hearing. As his doctor says, it doesn’t really matter how or why; this is the fact of his life now. Cochlear implants might help, but they’re expensive, and Ruben isn’t rich. Eventually he finds himself at a place hidden out in the sticks, run by a man named Joe (Paul Raci) as a retreat for those with deafness and addiction issues, both of which describe Ruben.

Riz Ahmed brings an itchy, impatient intensity to Ruben, who just wants to fix his deafness. Joe disagrees; he feels the path to healing should focus more on sitting with the disability — and getting realistic about how it limits you and how it doesn’t — than on seeking to make it go away. This has been a conflict in every disabled community for years; I once worked with someone whose son was disabled, and who used to side-eye Christopher Reeve because he seemed, she felt, to agitate more for finding a cure for spinal injury than for, say, accessibility or generally making the lives of disabled people easier. Director/cowriter Darius Marder seems to understand this eternal heated conversation from the inside out, and has forged a gripping drama from it.

Once Ruben settles in at Joe’s retreat (after a kind of time-wasting bit where he declines to go there, and we’re sitting there waiting for this section to be over because if Ruben didn’t go to the retreat the movie would be very short), I expected Sound of Metal to go soggy and dull, like a bowl of life-affirming gruel. But it stays spiky and tough-minded; Darius Marder is a son of Massachusetts, but his sensibility seems really European in its indifference to sentimentality. Perhaps, then, it’s apropos that the third act brings in Mathieu Amalric, whose features speak of sad, intimate knowledge of the world’s cruelties, and sometimes this makes his character relatable and sometimes sinister; here, as Lou’s moneybags French dad, he manages to suggest both.

Marder also gets a great performance from Paul Raci, a character actor whose face I didn’t recognize; I simply took him for a deaf actor (he isn’t, but learned ASL to communicate with his deaf parents). Tapped for most likely the meatiest role he’s ever had, Raci underplays and puts across a kind of relaxed authenticity, such as we might associate with a Richard Farnsworth or a Sam Elliott. Joe is extremely plain-spoken, and will not bother with a less than honest statement because he knows conversation is difficult enough without having to factor lies into it. Joe’s place is church-sponsored, but there’s no proselytizing. Ruben goes in unreligious and comes out the same way, though there’s no question he’s undergone some kind of spiritual journey.

If Sound of Metal doesn’t at least win an Oscar for Best Sound, the award has no meaning. Frequently, Marder takes us inside Ruben’s experience as the aural world around him turns into muffled distortion, receding maddeningly into a cotton-candy fog of silence. The soundscape has more personality and terror than anything since Alan Splet’s work for David Lynch. We also hear what cochlear implants do to sound, piping its buzzy approximation to the brain, like the tasteless teleported steak in The Fly — it gets the basics of sound but not the warmth, the music. Sound of Metal does shake out as the inspirational tale of a guy who realizes he has to learn to live in the world he’s found himself in, but the insight is hard-won and earned. It feels specific and therefore universal.