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

Nope

October 23, 2022

nope

With Nope, his third feature as writer-director, Jordan Peele solidifies his status as one of the most exciting new American filmmakers now working. He has a steady command of mood and suspense, and he knows enough to let subtext be subtext and not overexplain it. I can’t tell you how relieved I was, for instance, that the sad and terrifying story of Gordy the trained chimp, which opens Nope on an ominous note, doesn’t turn out to be connected in some way with the larger plot.¹ Yes, we meet a survivor of the incident as a grown man, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), but Peele has the sense to let the event linger and fester in the back of our minds while we watch what certainly appears to be an alien-invasion thriller.

Ultimately, Nope shakes out as a comment on Hollywood and how people are wasted, swallowed up, disfigured in the name of entertainment. But it’s also foreboding and spooky as hell, like Peele’s previous thrillers, Get Out and Us. The movie is set mostly on a ranch dedicated to training horses for use in TV, movies and commercials. The ranch is owned and run by OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), who takes care of the horses and occasionally sells one to Jupe, who now manages a Western theme park and low-key ghoulishly dines out on his traumatic experience with Gordy. 

All of this is background, and it’s a slow but compelling burn until we recognize what’s going on: a creature of unknown origin is feeding off of local life. I was reminded of Stephen King thinking about him and Louis L’Amour having separate ideas while standing at the edge of a pond: “His story might be about water rights in a dry season, my story would more likely be about some dreadful, hulking thing rising out of the still waters to carry off sheep . . . and horses . . . and finally people.” It’s OJ’s vibrant sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) who figures out what should be done about it: get it on video and get rich. For a while, nobody else comes up with any more productive notions, like how to kill it, because it takes a while to learn what might kill it.

There is one beautifully simple yet brilliant callback: the impact of a balloon popping. It’s a shame one particular character isn’t there to appreciate the second instance. Nope goes on a bit, slightly north of two hours, but is never boring, not with the amount of character and world-building detail Peele packs into the story. The people in the movie are written as utterly unique, including a Fry’s tech clerk (Brandon Perea) who helps set up surveillance and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott, with his usual gravelly growl) who rises to the challenge of capturing the thing on real film at magic hour. (Cinematographers — what are you gonna do?) Kaluuya gives us a stoic and almost comically unflappable figure — a classic Western hero — and Palmer crackles and pops as a firecracker with innumerable side hustles. 

Nope even tucks in some film history, telling us that the Black jockey who rode a horse for Eadweard Muybridge’s famous 1887 Animal Locomotion Plate 626 was the ancestor of OJ and Emerald. That’s a claim they make to boost their business; it’s also accurate inasmuch as the rider — to this day no one actually knows his name, though the fucking horse was identified — is, in a way, ancestor to all artists of color unnamed, dismissed, and ignored while they added to the history of cinema. The more we think back on Nope, the more depth it takes on; it is the work of a specifically Black sensibility fed by decades of Hollywood, for good (the influence on his own art) and ill (the reality of being non-white in the white dream factory). And Peele has fed well, and knows which bits are nourishing and which not, and he also knows the dangers of consuming too much filled with too little.

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¹Without getting into spoilers, what I mean is that Gordy doesn’t figure into the threat later on; it doesn’t turn out that he was controlled by the menace, or something. Other writers would try to tie those elements together in a neat, cheap little bow instead of allowing Gordy his own power as subtext.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

September 18, 2022

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It might be amusing to think of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s idea of a superhero movie — specifically, an X-Men movie, albeit one that begins in a mental hospital and sidetracks to the strip clubs of New Orleans. Amirpour made a splashy debut eight years ago with the moody vampire indie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and followed that with the determinedly cultish cannibal dystopia The Bad Batch. Now she returns with a drifty, digressive fable about Mona Lisa Lee (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman with mind-control powers. She escapes from the facility she’s locked up in, and falls in with erotic dancer Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), who sees how Mona Lisa’s powers can be used to make money.

Some may find Mona Lisa a somewhat thin work dramatically. Aside from a limping detective (Craig Robinson) on Mona Lisa’s and Bonnie’s trail, not much happens. But I think Amirpour means the movie not as a neon-noir narrative (although it is that) but as a commentary on how capitalism drives people to self-debasement. It’s not that Bonnie dances for money, or that Mona Lisa’s power is put to work hypnotizing passersby into draining their bank accounts at an ATM and handing the cash over to her. These things are presented as what must be done to survive. It’s when Bonnie gets smug about it, literally letting twenties and fifties rain on her, that we see she’s become part of the system that holds her down. 

Bonnie has a young son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), who views her as toxic and can’t wait to get away from her. Charlie dances off steam in his room while trash metal blares, and he’s a pretty good artist. He represents the creative urge to run away from the corruptive world and do art in solitude; he’s the hero of the piece, if anyone is. When Bonnie brings Mona Lisa home, Charlie hits it off with Mona Lisa. He doesn’t agree with how his mother is using her. He would rather watch TV with Mona Lisa or draw her — either keep her company or honor her with art. He doesn’t want anything from her. Weirdly, a skanky drug dealer named Fuzz (Ed Skrein), who helps Mona Lisa at a couple of points in the film, looks like predatory trouble but seems to be legitimately taken with Mona Lisa. He only wants a kiss from her, which she gives, knowing that’s all he wants from her. 

The movie is candy-colored and doesn’t press too hard on our nerves. Mona Lisa is potentially dangerous, but she’s not interested in killing anyone; at most she gets people to maim themselves in the leg, even a mean cracker who abuses her in the mental hospital. She only wants freedom, and we want her to have it. The movie is low-stakes but engaging and, with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Midsommar) on board, gorgeous. Other than a trio of dirtbags who corner Bonnie after she has used Mona Lisa to empty their wallets, most of the hostility towards Bonnie or Mona Lisa comes from other women, interestingly. Amirpour, though, lets us understand where that anger comes from. 

Hudson comes through with a sharp turn as a woman whose worldview has been whittled down to the hustle. Bonnie is only a vivid supporting character, though; Jeon Jong-seo takes the lead, and acts largely with her eyes, pools of melancholy in a blank face. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of the fantasy premise. We don’t know where Mona Lisa’s power comes from or what she plans to do with it once she’s on her own. She’s mostly an avatar of innocence used for corrupt ends, and Jeon conveys that with no fuss. And Amirpour remains a director to watch, picking up scraps of genre and pasting them into funky collages that share elements with a lot of things but aren’t really like anything else. 

Carmen

September 4, 2022

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Ah, Natascha McElhone: It’s been a long time. This wonderful actor has kept busy on TV in recent years, but I find it’s been two decades since I saw her in a movie, the underrated Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris. Now McElhone assumes the center and title role of Carmen, a gentle and attentive film in which her character loses a dead old identity and gains an exciting new one, as well as a community that values her. There are certainly less pleasant ways to pass an afternoon than watching McElhone’s Carmen find peace and joy. Best of all, it unfolds on the beautiful island of Malta, given the glow and hue of Heaven itself by its writer-director Valerie Buhagiar, herself of Maltese heritage.

Carmen has spent most of her life looking after her brother, a dour priest at an ill-attended church. When he dies, another priest is sent for, as well as his sister who will look after him; there’ll be no place for Carmen at the church any more — or so everyone thinks. Carmen hides away in the building, sneaking into the confessional box and listening to the church members’ sins. Instead of sitting in judgment, Carmen offers the people advice, and they take it gratefully. It’s not that Carmen ever leaves the church; it’s that she casts off her former thankless role in it and tries on a new persona, one that may also be capable of love with a young pawn-store owner (Steven Love).

Buhagiar is said to have based Carmen’s story on the life of her aunt, but guessing what events in the film have real-world analogues won’t do much for us or for the movie. Past a certain point, aside from a detour with Carmen on a boat with a less than gracious host, what happens to and for Carmen is what Buhagiar and we want to see happen. The overriding vibe of the film is warmth, from its star and from its setting. After watching ugly people fight each other amid junk and debris in last week’s Samaritan, I was really ready to spend time with Natascha McElhone learning to smile again with a preternaturally soothing backdrop. Soothing — that’s the word for Carmen in general. The complications in the plot (including the new priest’s sister, who shows up at the church before he does) are easily overcome. The film believes in its happy ending(s), so we do too.

This friendly daydream of a movie should be seen by some of you folks who’ve been wanting something like it — it doesn’t have a rating, but I’d put this at PG at most, possibly even G. It’s set in the ‘80s but could’ve been made in the ‘50s. If you can’t stream it later this month, it hits DVD in October. But if you can find it on a big screen within a reasonable drive, Malta will not disappoint you. Neither will McElhone.

Carmen doesn’t say much; she’s not used to speaking (which I guess is what makes her a good listener). So McElhone does much of her work with her expressive face, sometimes her hands or body language. The movie feels like a gift offered to McElhone in kindness, and she reciprocates by conveying a deep kindness herself, made deeper when Carmen finds out she deserves some kindness too. In a lesser movie, Carmen would leave the church altogether, but we see here that, although a lot of her life supporting her brother was drudgery, a lot of it engaged her and gratified her. So why shouldn’t she stay and be herself within the church, improving it from there? The movie is far from Catholic propaganda; from what we see it doesn’t matter what faith, if any at all, is practiced in the building. It’s all about the community seeking wholeness there.

Crimes of the Future

July 4, 2022

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“Careful, don’t spill,” whispers Viggo Mortensen to Léa Seydoux in one of the more outrageous moments of intimacy in Crimes of the Future. Marking a return to feature filmmaking after an eight-year hiatus for writer-director David Cronenberg, the movie could serve as a natural companion to a good number of his other films, especially Crash, which had a similar hushed, deadpan humor. In Cronenberg, people are driven restless by the war between their minds and their bodies — the Cartesian split, as he likes to call it. Here, climate change is making bodies into numb cocoons for unprecedented mutant organs. Long live the new flesh, indeed.

Mortensen and Seydoux are Saul Tenser and his artistic accomplice Caprice. Saul’s body has been developing new organs, which Caprice extracts and tattoos, as part of their performance art for a small but avid crowd. Cronenberg may be saying this or that about his own life as a subversive artist, but Crimes has more levels than that, some of which are accessible to those not Cronenberg and some of which are not. The movie, which is full of menacing machines with scalpels as well as mutilated flesh inside and out, can be taken as a Cronenberg art installation. Here and in many of Cronenberg’s other films, people transform, their flesh rebels alarmingly, and they view it as a beautiful evolution — they can either see it that way or go insane — while others recoil in horror. (Think of Jeff Goldblum excitedly rattling off theories while slowly disintegrating in The Fly as Geena Davis kept going “What is wrong with you?”) 

As usual with Cronenberg, his eroticism is less about the friction of bodies than the pulling off of societal restraints. “I’m not very good at the old sex,” says Saul to a creepy functionary (Kristen Stewart) smitten with him and his art. It’s this same woman, Timlin, who delivers the movie’s defining line: “Surgery is the new sex.” Those who have too literal a response to that premise — like actual car-crash survivors who had a beef with Crash — may tire of Cronenberg’s metaphorical game-playing. Cronenberg’s particular thematic emphases do make it tough for some to jump past what’s being shown and click into what’s being said.

Oddly, for all the carving and fondling of body parts, Crimes is sometimes, like Timlin, too enamored of its own ideas. The decade or two that Cronenberg spent away from the body-as-fallible-meat subgenre that he practically invented resulted in some interesting push-pull between Cronenberg and whosever story he was adapting. We took pleasure in his running stories about gangsters or psychiatrists through his filter. Crimes takes him back to the old gory days, for sure, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a summing-up, a greatest-hits album. Hey, some of those hits are pretty damn great, and they play well again here. But the pleasure of Cronenberg in the past few years lay in his making magic with material you wouldn’t expect him to forge in his own image. This material is as snugly fitted to him as that weird eating chair is supposed to be to Saul, but like the chair it occasionally moves clumsily and spills things. It gets talky and plotty when we’d like to hang out and dig the world-building. 

Still, if you’ve seen a lot of movies like this lately, I want to know which theater you’ve been going to. As much as this is patented Cronenberg Cinema, he’s also having a terrific time making it, and it often shows. Cronenberg loses himself in the sets in Greece; everything looks badly used, no vision of a shiny future but one full of numbness and grime. Even apartments look like some mad doctor’s castle laboratory. Using a strictured voice, Mortensen emotes largely with his eyes or with throat-clearing, and Seydoux, with her mischievous diastematic smile, makes a great partner in futuristic crime for him. Stewart, liberated in this nightmare world, creates a compelling woman out of little but nervous tics. Cronenberg is an actors’ director, as was obvious as far back as The Brood (1979), and by creating an artsy-bloody backdrop for them to play in front of, he gets performances and moments no one else can. Crimes might strike some of us fans as been-there-done-that, but what’s wrong with being there and doing that again? 

The Northman

May 15, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood

April 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Dog

January 30, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Nightmare Alley

December 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

The Card Counter

December 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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.