Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

Arrival

February 12, 2017

art-amy-adams-arrivalArrival, a Best Picture Oscar nominee that hits home video this week, is a poem about time. That may seem a lofty description of a sci-fi movie about a dozen alien spacecrafts hovering over various parts of Earth, but that’s what it shakes out as. Its direction, by Denis Villeneuve, is sure and deliberate and hushed; Villeneuve, I’m guessing, coached his cast seldom to speak much above a murmur. That befits a movie about human communication and its limits — limits founded in our equally limited understanding of time.

This is a pensive experience that evokes something very much like awe, though on some level it’s a bit of a letdown. Unlike, say, 2001 or Solaris (either version), it hews too closely to conventional narrative, to a Hollywood knot cinching things together for the popcorn-munchers. Ultimately it acquiesces to a human viewpoint, wedded to a third-act conflict ginned up by our brusque modern boogeyman China. (Then it wipes that conflict away conveniently with the gentle spectre of grief.) I am trying to step lightly around the plot, which is, in any event, not the best reason to see nor the best level on which to process Arrival.

What I can tell you is that the aliens almost-land, and the military, represented by Forest Whitaker, recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find out what the visitors want. The visitors, when we see them, are foggily-seen critters the humans call “heptapods.” They look sinister as hell, and they communicate via inky, jagged circles drawn in the air (or their version of air — they are separated from the humans by a transparent barrier). Louise’s job is to figure out what the language-circles mean, and somewhere offscreen she devises a code. It’s clear Villeneuve and scripter Eric Heisserer aren’t interested in the linguistic nuts and bolts of how Louise deciphers the heptapods’ scribbles. The real point of the film isn’t the literal meaning of the language but its shape.

I suppose this is old news to veteran science-fiction readers; even if we discount the movie’s source material, Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “The Story of Your Life,” there’s Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and its Tralfamadorians with their apprehension of time as simultaneity. A man, or a teenage girl, who is alive now is also dead elsewhere in time, and vice versa. Arrival hints and feints at a new way of reckoning life, time, and lifetime, but then wraps it neatly in a Chicken Soup for the Soul formulation along the lines of “If you knew how your life would play out, would you do the same things?” This yokes the story’s metaphysical concerns to a comforting tale of someone who knows that certain choices she will make will lead to heartbreak eventually, but who makes them anyway.

It’s comforting because we in the audience can’t know our future, but are reassured that whatever choice we do make will be for the best — Desiderata and its “the universe is unfolding as it should” writ large (tell that to the Syrians). That remains to be seen, always. The movie falters at the end zone. I don’t know what it should have done; maybe the accumulation of awe and mystique sort of paints the film into a literalist corner. But most of it is masterfully assembled, with great near-wordless performances from Renner (whose gobsmacked smile after his first trip inside the spacecraft is perfect) and especially Adams, who conveys everything we want from a hero without stepping outside the bounds of a fallible human. “HUMAN,” reads Louise’s first volley of English language to the visitors, as if that were the most impressive fact about her instead of the equivalent of a gnat holding up a sign to us reading “GNAT.” As best I can recall, the aliens, in one of the film’s very few concessions to humor, politely let that slide.

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.

 

Cameraperson

January 8, 2017

film_853_cameraperson_originalThere’s no clearcut, conventional narrative in Kirsten Johnson’s frequently moving Cameraperson. Johnson, who has worked as a cinematographer or camera operator on many documentaries (including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), has assembled a quilt of outtakes from some of those films and presents it here as a sort of visual memoir. Shortlisted as a possible Best Documentary Oscar nominee, Cameraperson comes to DVD and Blu-ray in February via Criterion, and it’s worth watching for anyone interested in this art form and the people who have to capture life and shape it.

It is also undeniably, serenely and triumphantly female. We always feel, somehow, even if we don’t hear Johnson’s voice behind the camera, that we are seeing through the eyes of a compassionate woman. And since the subject of many of the films she works on is trauma, specifically female trauma, that matters; it matters that the women on-camera feel listened to, feel safe. Whether the speaker is a Bosnian rape survivor, an unexpectedly pregnant young woman agonizing over her decision to abort, or Johnson’s own Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, Johnson seems able to create a warm bubble in which they can breathe and tell their stories. This works even on men: a Fahrenheit 9/11 outtake expands on Corporal Abdul Henderson’s pained choice not to return to Iraq even if it gets him in deep trouble. Henderson’s hesitations when talking — something that would be edited out of a conventional documentary like Fahrenheit 9/11 that has so much else on its plate — speak volumes here.

As it goes on, Cameraperson reveals a sort of supernarrative tied to the humanity and responsibility of what we’ll call, for want of a more precise term, “the media.” At one point, the camera watches two Bosnian kids, one only a toddler, playing with a small but sharp axe, and though we figure the footage wouldn’t be here if it ended with an accident, we feel tension anyway, and Johnson sounds a bit tense too, hoping someone notices the kids with the axe, yet probably feeling it isn’t the white American’s place to step in. She’s just there to record. Yet whose place is it to help the Bosnians — or the Syrians?

Johnson can help to report on global pain, but obviously the traumatized people have stayed with her. They’re all pieces of her own story, and in Cameraperson she makes a movie out of the pieces. The editor, Nels Bangerter, shuffles it all together into an organic visual poem, with certain magic tricks only cinema can perform — Johnson’s mother is dead one minute, then alive again, a Tralfamadorian temporal irony (it’s been done before, of course, but in the context of this film it feels fresh). The movie is personal, yet seems to expand its purview to take in life and cinema and how one impacts the other. It’s also the portrait of an artist using the artist’s own art — we get a sense of Johnson’s compositional superego, her hands pulling away blades of grass until the image feels right to her; at other times, the imperfection of a shot is its point, such as when she films a furious documentarian (Kathy Leichter) flinging bits of her deceased mother’s belongings around the room.

You don’t want a pristine image there; you want a reflection of chaotic reality, same as when Johnson catches an enraged boxer after he has lost a fight. In the instances of the Bosnian rape survivor and the young pregnant woman, Johnson films them from the chest down, keeping their faces out of frame but focusing on their hands, twisting in torment. Johnson knows when to go for a painterly effect and when to wing it, and it always comes back to expressing life as it is for the subject — a Bosnian sheepherder, a Nigerian midwife. One nearly abstract image from Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary, seems to stand in for that entire movie and the experience of making it. The title almost invites a comma — Camera, Person — but it’s one word, one concept indistinct from the other. The person doesn’t stop where the camera starts.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

October 1, 2016

brain-wouldnt-die-122215How can anyone not love a movie in which a woman’s bitter disembodied head snarls to a mutant locked in a closet, “I’m only a head … and you’re whatever you are…”? The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is amazingly sleazy and ghastly and cheap and, yes, deeply lovable. It has as its proto-feminist heroine a woman who has been whittled down to her mind, which gives her new psychic powers that she doesn’t hesitate to use against the men of science who presume to shape her destiny. Playing this woman, Jan Compton, in the early scenes, Virginia Leith is somewhat interchangeable with the film’s other female characters; once reduced to a head, though, Leith hisses and growls in her newly husky voice, and she becomes an image of perverse beauty and strength.

What happens to Jan is that she’s decapitated in a car wreck; fortunately, or unfortunately, her fiancé Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) is a maverick surgeon obsessed with experimenting on humans. A past experiment has already resulted in the aforementioned mutant in the closet, and now Dr. Bill wants to find Jan a new body upon which to transplant her head. This appalls Jan, who simply wants to die, but while she’s kept alive she must figure she may as well wreak some havoc. She develops a telepathic bond with the hidden mutant, who is responsible for most of the movie’s inky, black-and-white bloodshed.

Brain has a sweaty, lowdown, skid-row charm. Dr. Bill keeps frequenting places of ill repute (a strip club, a beauty contest) while Abie Baker’s dirty instrumental ditty “The Web” honks and fidgets suggestively. Meanwhile, his disabled assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels) taunts Jan and cringes from the thumps made by the closeted mutant, who seems to function as Jan’s id. The movie, made in 1959 but not released until 1962, has a deep streak of misandry. Women in the film are targeted by men, abused, scarred, robbed of their agency. Jan alone, having forfeited her physique, has the power to burn the rampant misogyny down to the ground.

All of this comes packaged in a movie whose technique is, to put it gently, basic. I’m annoyed by the mundane reviews calling it “inept,” though. Brain creates and sustains an eerie, clammy psychosexual mood. Dr. Bill, who resembles a cross between Vince Vaughn and a young Aidan Quinn, bops along smugly to havens of pulchritude; of course he’d go to strippers or beauty contestants when body-shopping for his fiancée. He settles on Doris (Adele Lamont), a photographers’ model with a scarred face from an abusive ex. She loathes men, but goes home with Dr. Bill because he promises corrective plastic surgery. Also, she senses that he doesn’t want her for sex, which is true; he just wants her for her body. Heh heh heh. At times Brain is interchangeable tonally with several classic E.C. Comics horror tales, the vicious and morally polluted kind written so indelibly by Al Feldman.

The mutant, when we see him finally, is played by Diane Arbus giant Eddie Carmel wearing make-up that turns his entire head into a riot of mismatched patchwork flesh. He’s supposed to be a failed experiment, but seems more like something pinched together like Play-Doh out of leftover meat by a bored, spiteful god. The mutant, who kills every man he sees and rescues Doris under Jan’s command, is the movie’s only sympathetic male — or is he male? Anyway, he or she is Monster, allied with no-bodied Jan and disfigured Doris, maimed by man, or created as their current ruined selves by man. I’m sorry, but a movie that tucks this many discordant but reverberant subtexts and ideas into a grindhouse narrative deserves so much better than to be derided by hipsters. A refugee from the mad-lab Z-budget pictures of the ‘50s, Brain in its seamy and leering way agitates more loudly for the then-nascent second-wave feminism than a squarer, more conscientious work could hope to.

The Maltese Falcon

September 26, 2016

the-maltese-falconHumphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is a likable bastard, someone you might come to with your troubles but not with your power of attorney. Sam is a private detective in San Francisco on the cusp of wartime (the movie was released about two months before Pearl Harbor), dealing with shady characters of vague and various nationalities. The Maltese Falcon is less about Dashiell Hammett’s plot than about the interplay of cynical villains and anti-heroes, and first-time director John Huston (who also wrote the script) was savvy enough to know that. The Maltese Falcon itself is, as Sam might say, hooey; it’s what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin, the thing nobody has that everyone wants.

This is a great and unmistakably American entertainment, and might lay claim to being the best directorial debut of 1941 if not for a modest little film called Citizen Kane. As it is, The Maltese Falcon more or less inaugurated film noir as it came to be known in Hollywood, even though Huston doesn’t do all that much show-offy with the lighting or compositions — his effects are subtle, a sturdy cage enclosing a menagerie of creatures. Aside from a couple of scenes dealing with the murder of Sam’s partner Archer, the movie stays confined to offices and hotel rooms — it’s claustrophobic, with the boxy Academy format hemming everyone in further. At times we seem to be viewing the world through a keyhole — the movie turns us into detectives.

A woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) drifts into Sam’s office, speaking of a dangerous man threatening her sister; there is no sister, and no Ruth Wonderly either — her real name, or at least the one she settles on, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Sam pegs Brigid as trouble from the start, yet still develops feelings for her, and is self-aware enough to be bitterly amused by them. There’s a reason Sam didn’t quite turn into a running character for Hammett (he appeared in three other short stories) — he’s less a serial hero than a flawed portrait of wised-up urban manhood, complete with the prejudices of the day. He enjoys slapping around Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in his iconic American role), whose homosexuality was more explicit in the 1930 book, and he enjoys needling the touchy thug Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) by referring to him as a “gunsel,” which pointedly did not mean what the squares of 1930 or 1941 (or 2016, possibly) thought it meant.

Cairo and Wilmer work for “fat man” Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who yearns to possess the titular bird statue, or “the dingus” as Sam dismissively calls it. By this point in the narrative it hardly matters what the Falcon is or what it’s worth. All these vipers want it, and Sam says he can get it, but he’s just weaving his own web of deceit. The Maltese Falcon is a comedy-tragedy about liars (the only straight shooter in the movie is Sam’s secretary Effie, played as a wry sunbeam of morality by Lee Patrick); the comedy derives from the sharp back-and-forth in the dialogue, as the liars assess each other and figure out who knows what and what can be gained, and the tragedy is bundled in at the end, when, as Danny Peary pointed out in the first book of his Cult Movies trilogy, one character goes quickly to Hell, while Sam proceeds more slowly but will get there sooner or later.

Seventy-five years old on October 3 (when it comes to the Brattle in Cambridge for a four-day 35mm screening), The Maltese Falcon feels evergreen, not so much in style or attitude but in mood. It was the first of five films Huston made with Bogart, though I’m not prepared to say it’s the best — The African Queen and especially Treasure of the Sierra Madre pose hefty competition. It is, though, the movie from which a lot of blessings flow; its influence may feel fainter in this era of romcoms and caped crusaders, but look for it and it’s there. Its calloused urbanity comes from Hammett, its cheerful cynicism from Huston, its peculiar human gravity from Bogart, that odd, tooth-baring presence who excelled at men with dark corners, who was seldom less than compelling. Huston sets about surrounding this man of gravitas with a circle of moral gremlins, all of whom try their best to steal the picture (Lorre comes closest) while Bogart heavily stands his ground and fends them off not with a gat but with a gibe and a sneer.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

September 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

Dr. Strangelove

September 11, 2016

screenshot-med-01What does Dr. Strangelove say to us today? We’re more worried about terrorism than about the bomb — that is, about stateless radicals wanting to kill us, instead of an entire country ranged against us. Has the film kept its power to shock? I suppose its cool, detached amusement in the face of armageddon remains shocking in the sense of a revivifying splash of cold water. Fifty-two years on, the movie is still more hip than most of what American filmmakers — Hollywood or indie — can muster. Like Tom Lehrer, Stanley Kubrick chortled darkly at the idea of us killing ourselves off en masse. Mankind’s developing the brains to devise a weapon that could render ourselves extinct is perhaps the great cosmic irony, and Dr. Strangelove dances gaily (yet coolly) inside that irony.

The world dies screaming because of one sexually hung-up man — General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who sends word to a B-52 to commence Wing Attack Plan R, essentially a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. Why? The commies, of course, have released fluoride into the water to corrupt our precious bodily fluids. As Ripper explains to his captive, Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), he will have sex with women, but he denies them his “essence.” This from a movie that kicks off with a pornographic sequence of a bomber refueling in flight (images that may have haunted J.G. Ballard). Sexuality is a joke, swiftly diverted into military violence by way of repression. Bombers and bombs are the only things that really get off in this brave new future.

Kubrick’s attack isn’t on anything as simple as the military but on masculinity (only one woman is seen onscreen) and, incidentally, on the hubris of humanity itself, its evolved but still bestial brain. Man’s inability to deal with its own existential terror, which clouds its judgment and prevents its further evolution, was Kubrick’s main theme. Every idiot man in Dr. Strangelove exists to illustrate it — the ineffectual American president Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), the rip-roaring General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the hee-hawing bomber commander Major Kong (Slim Pickens), the leering Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). Women don’t figure into the movie’s vision except as thwarted sexual opportunities; they’re almost invisible but at least, in 1964 anyway, they don’t send people to war.

Dr. Strangelove himself (né Merkwürdigliebe) is perhaps the crowning creation of both Sellers and Kubrick, a toxic-hipster ex-Nazi patterned partly on Wernher von Braun (“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” as Lehrer characterized von Braun’s stance) and partly on Rotwang from Metropolis. Strangelove’s accent navigates dangerously through bared teeth, wafting out in a strangled hum of platitudes about the survivability and even preferability of a nuclear war. Putting all his creative, chameleonic eggs in this basket, Sellers is riveting, and Kubrick lets him run with his instincts. (Some Kubrick detractors have suggested that once he lost Sellers he lost Sellers’ questing, improvisational quality of play.)

At a sleek, quicksilver ninety minutes, Dr. Strangelove proceeds in snappy, surgical edits; the only dissolve I can recall accompanies the movie’s most slapstick moment, involving a Coke-bottle machine. (Kubrick was right to axe the legendary pie-fight scene; it would’ve been just too vaudeville for the eventual cool tone of the film.) Slight dutch angles abound, jazzing up a movie that is roughly 85% dialogue, but also giving us the simultaneously hilarious and intimidating image of General Ripper, phallic cigar jutting out, seemingly photographed from the general region of … his crotch. The audience is thus put in a submissive, fellatial position before the man who essentially makes himself God, who waves his hand (or a code) and kills us all off to the musical stylings of Vera Lynn. Kubrick knew what he was doing.