Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Wilson

June 25, 2017

wilsonTwenty-five minutes into Wilson, the movie gets real. That’s when Laura Dern shows up, as the ex-wife of the titular character (Woody Harrelson). As David Lynch has known for the past thirty years, having Laura Dern in a film is one hell of a feather in its cap. Here, what threatens to become a merdiste tragicomedy with an irredeemably obnoxious protagonist turns on a dime into something worthwhile. Dern’s character Pippi once got pregnant by Wilson, but gave the baby up for adoption after she left Wilson. Seventeen years later, Pippi and Wilson are sitting across a table from their daughter Claire (Isabella Amara), a bullied and sardonic teen whose contempt for her vacuous rich adoptive parents is barely concealed.

While Harrelson gives his all to Wilson’s rocky emotional journey, it’s Dern whose stare of ineffable anguish makes us feel what it might be like to meet one’s almost-adult child. A simpler actress might play the joy or the heartbreak, but Dern gives us the whole cornucopia of confusing, conflicting feelings mostly without dialogue. Wilson was directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), but it’s primarily a Daniel Clowes film; as with the earlier Ghost World and Art School Confidential, Clowes wrote the script based on his episodic graphic novel. In the novel, Pippi mainly has the same deadpan-antagonistic personality everyone else in the narrative does. To appreciate how a great actress can elevate a character, I can only recommend reading Wilson and then seeing the movie.

I don’t want to kick Wilson too hard, as it’s the sort of small human-scaled drama (with comedic or absurdist elements) we never see in theaters anymore; it cost $5 million and grossed $653,951 in 311 theaters, which does not bode well for the future of films like Wilson. Still, the central narrative conceit of Wilson the graphic novel, which Clowes carries over into the film, was easier to swallow on the page. Clowes structured the novel as a series of bleak blackout skits, one per page; sometimes years passed between anecdotes, so that at the end of one page Wilson is looking out the window at the lights of a police car, and at the beginning of the next page he’s doing time for the kidnapping of his daughter. A movie structured like this could work, has worked, but Wilson doesn’t. For instance, when Wilson returns to his dead father’s storage unit after three years in prison, and finds all the stuff still there, we’re wondering who was paying the unit’s rent all that time, and if nobody was, isn’t there a whole show about people who bid on the mostly unseen contents of abandoned storage units? In California, where Wilson is set, this happens by law after only three months of nonpayment.

But then we wouldn’t be musing about such things at a more involving movie. Wilson is well-acted from top to bottom; aside from Dern and Harrelson, Judy Greer is typically fine as Wilson’s dog-sitter who becomes something more, Margo Martindale has a sourly funny date with Wilson, and Mary Lynn Rajskub has a scene of startling anger at Wilson that’s like a thunderstorm clearing out a foggy, humid night. Generally, Wilson belongs to the women, even though we can’t quite work out why women who look like Judy Greer and Laura Dern would sleep with a balding, scruffy misanthrope like Wilson. (Again, in the novel these women aren’t drawn flatteringly at all. Neither is Wilson, and Harrelson is an almost exact match for some of Clowes’ renderings of Wilson.)

Why does Wilson catch a beating from a couple of fellow inmates for being his usual cluelessly opining self, and then a couple of scenes later, people from various different prison cliques (blacks, neo-Nazis) all seem to like him? Why does the movie seem to take place in a weird universe that jumbles together technology from past and present, so that people pull up Yelp and Google on their phones but a private investigator uses a computer with a floppy drive, and Wilson takes a picture with an Instamatic with a flash cube? These things stick out but seem to call attention to themselves gratuitously, much like Wilson’s haphazardly stacked paperbacks; he fancies himself an intellectual but we glimpse potboilers by Leon Uris and Janet Dailey. Is Clowes even condescending to Wilson’s reading habits? Who knows? But again, I do endorse Wilson for Laura Dern and the other women thrusting their fists against the posts of Wilson’s — and Clowes’ — cynicism.

Alena

May 7, 2017

alena-jpgThe Swedish horror drama Alena, out on American DVD this week, is an awfully slow burn. Normally I’m behind that, but this movie makes its earlier countryman Let the Right One In seem like an explosion in a chimpanzee factory. It feels a bit padded out, perhaps because it was: It began as a 59-minute piece for Swedish TV, then got expanded a bit to feature length. Despite that, I recommend it to fans of Let the Right One In: the sullen, angsty mood is well sustained, the performances are on point, and the movie applies artsy touches to scenes that could have been sleazy retro exploitation. Well, they kind of are anyway, but it’s amusing to see them accomplished with Bergmanesque somberness.

Amalia Holm carries the movie as the eponymous Alena, a disturbed teenager who’s just been transferred to a ritzy boarding school. There she swiftly runs afoul of resident bully Filippa (Molly Nutley), the school’s star lacrosse player, whose rich dad contributes a lot to the school’s funding. Not only is Alena a potential threat to Filippa’s standing on the team, she also attracts the cool loner Fabienne (Felice Jankell), whom Filippa wants for herself. The level of same-sex yearning here may satisfy those who enjoyed Lost and Delirious and The Moth Diaries, though those films were helmed by women and Alena was directed by a man, Daniel di Grado, who seems to have jettisoned almost every male character except a fleetingly seen kid and the lacrosse team’s easily intimidated coach.

What tips Alena into the neighborhood of horror is its treatment of a mysterious character from Alena’s past — Josefin (Rebecka Nyman), who follows Alena everywhere and who is, to say the least, more than first meets the eye. Josefin seems to bring violence whenever she shows up, especially in a potentially icky scene in which another of Alena’s classmates is confined in a locker room with Alena. Is she real, a ghost, or simply Alena’s mind luxuriating in her guilt? Could be all three, though the rules of her influence on her surroundings are murky.

The movie takes its time, creates its own chilly world run by female angels and demons. Alena is both, and Amalia Holm’s performance is properly uningratiating. She makes Alena an avatar for repressed, abused youth, like Carrie White in all her iterations, or Angela Bettis’ May. Innocence of a sort is represented not by the film’s namesake but by the rich Fabienne, who doesn’t care about Filippa’s mean-girl games and who appreciates Alena’s gauche outsider aura, complete with chopped-up hair dyed black, which might be a nod to Swedish goth-geek goddess Lisbeth Salander in either of her iterations.

Alena on some level is a compilation of tropes and influences, a calling card for its first-time cowriter/director. It won’t dazzle anyone with its originality. But it’s a sturdy, carefully wrought calling card with considerable feeling for its wounded subjects, and that’s not nothing. Di Grado has a sense of compassion for these troubled girls, even the destructive and conniving Filippa. Eventually the movie leans more heavily towards drama than horror, which is fine; it’s just the characters facing up to the consequences of their actions. The horror derives from pain and grief reaching from the past into the present.

Silence

April 2, 2017

Lane-MartinScorsesesSilence-1200Silence is very likely the most Catholic movie Martin Scorsese has ever made, which makes it very Catholic indeed — mega-Catholic, über-Catholic. It’s a real high mass of a film, done with high craft in the highest seriousness. I’m seriously divided on it, but ultimately I have to lean in its favor. I feel protective of it, as if it were a pencil sketch or a mandala. Pain and guilt radiate from every frame, alongside incongruous natural beauty. I’m not sure if it’s a work of art or a tract of instruction, and certainly it couldn’t be less interested in reflecting the concerns of the day or satisfying the commercial cravings of the day. Like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, it’s timeless and placeless; its true milieu is inside Scorsese’s head.

The climate in Last Temptation was red and dusty; the one in Silence, 17th-century Japan, feels cold and wet, shot by master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto in infinite gradations of blue and gray, yet never feeling desaturated. The mood is frightened but determined spirituality in the face of violent oppression. Christianity in this land is punishable by torture and death, unless the accused voluntarily steps on an image of Christ, thus signaling their renunciation of God, their apostasy. (We hear the word “apostatize” in this film about as often as we hear a certain other word in Scorsese’s gangster films.)

Two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrupe (Adam Driver), volunteer to sneak into Japan to look for their former mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is said to have apostatized. They find a blue, rainy place haunted by terrified Japanese Christians and the stone-faced samurai who hunt them. The problem with Scorsese’s alter egos in his movies about faith is that they, for him, are filled out with his own guilt and devotion. The rest of us may perceive these heroes as somewhat hollow, undefined. Andrew Garfield does what he can, but Rodrigues is drawn as a bit too much of a noble sufferer, only intermittently aware that his steadfast refusal to apostatize might have more to do with his pride than with any genuine love of God.

Fortunately, Scorsese acknowledges this, and throws some of our identification to a few of the Japanese characters. There’s Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas stand-in who’s also the mad fool of the piece, always moving between sacrifice and betrayal; or Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto, bad-boy director of Tetsuo the Iron Man and many others), a devout old Christian; or especially Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata, whose voice is one of the most amazing purrs of self-satisfied evil I’ve ever heard in a movie). Given that the priests are so devoted to their faith they sometimes seem completely out of touch with reality, and given that Scorsese lets the Japanese have humor and complexity — humanity — I don’t think Silence can be waved off as white-saviorism. Scorsese sees the problem with all-or-nothing thinking on either side.

Technically, Silence is a Michelin three-star restaurant. Emotionally it’s impacted, uncertain; Scorsese never met a doubt he didn’t love to chew over. Sometimes it seems his real subject all along has been faith darkening into doubt and then brightening back towards faith, and on and on eternally. Paradise, says a woman in the film, is a place with no suffering and no work (and no taxes, she adds), but what kind of drama is that? As David Byrne said, heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. For Scorsese, it’s all about the struggle, which for him is the tension between religious asceticism and the visceral, sensual pleasure he derives from cinema — watching it and making it. His movies about faith tend to end more or less happily because the end of a film means that a film has been made. The famous cliché about Scorsese is that the movie theater is his church and vice versa. Silence is an interiorized work surrounded by, almost mocked by, flesh-punishing yet ravishingly gorgeous nature. In that respect it’s as Catholic as the blood flowing through Scorsese’s veins and his emulsion.

They Call Me Jeeg

March 5, 2017

they_call_me_jeeg_italy_390The grimly realistic Roman superhero drama They Call Me Jeeg, which swept the Italian equivalent of the Oscars last year and will soon open in America, doesn’t put any particular emphasis on its feats of power and heroism. They just happen, in a gray-blue gunmetal world, and sometimes they go viral on YouTube. The title, perhaps bewildering to some, refers to a 1975 Japanese anime called Steel Jeeg. The protagonist, career thief Enzo Ceccotti (Claudio Santamaria), falls into a submerged barrel of toxic waste and emerges with heightened strength and healing powers. Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), the mentally unstable daughter of one of Enzo’s associates, is obsessed with Steel Jeeg and sees the newly super Enzo as her long-awaited Jeeg. At first, though, Enzo does nothing more noble with his gifts than, say, ripping off an ATM. And when I say “ripping off an ATM,” I mean he literally rips it off of a building.

In a movie like this, special effects are used in a matter-of-fact way, and it often leads to strange, memorable details; in a Marvel or DC superhero movie, for instance, you won’t hear the unique hollow thud-thud of a shoe being shaken with a severed toe rattling around inside it. You’ll hear it in They Call Me Jeeg, for sure. But you’ll also see things like Enzo making a ferris wheel turn with his bare hands to cheer up Alessia, who’s in one of the cabins — it’s a nicely understated but still grandly romantic moment. The severed toe belongs, or belonged, to Enzo, who has already healed from gunshots and now assumes he can simply duct-tape the toe back onto its little stump and wait for the flesh and bone to meld. What happens the following day is a deadpan sick joke, and it establishes that this slice of fantasy in a grubby real world has its limits. Enzo can’t fly, for example, but he can survive long falls, though even then he rises slowly and has to shake off the effects of the impact.

Even a stubbly superhero like Enzo needs a supervillain, and he gets one in the form of Fabio (Luca Marinelli), a manic and preening young gangster who relishes the theater of evildoing. Fabio fancies himself a singer and used to be on Italy’s version of Big Brother. He’s always holding rallies in his head, and the numbers are tremendous. At first I thought Marinelli’s performance was cringe-worthy, but soon realized he was playing a scared kid playing a bad-ass — putting layers of identity on the character. His flashy corruption runs counter to the cracked innocence of Alessia; Ilenia Pastorelli makes her a shattered girl stronger in the broken places, with a fantasist’s desperately escapist zeal. The acting in They Call Me Jeeg is far better than it needed to be, sharper and respectful of people’s complexities and need to see themselves as the center of their stories. The movie sneaks up and bounces some satirical riffs off of the nature of fame in the selfie/YouTube/Instagram culture.

The climax involves cobwebbed tropes like the ticking bomb and the antagonists facing off one last, big time. But director Gabriele Mainetti dials down the traditional histrionics, and we end up thinking more about the people involved. On some level, They Call Me Jeeg walks the same path as previous überschmuck films like Super, Defendor, Ichi the Killer, and Chronicle. But it also comments on its own genre in a way that those films more or less didn’t. The characters’ imaginations have been fed by the same pop culture that feeds ours; everyone acts the roles of the people they would like to be, but we see the cracks in the façades. Those cracks fuel the tensions of the film far more than punches or explosions do.

Manchester by the Sea

February 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moonlight

January 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hidden Figures

December 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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