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

Inhumanwich!

October 1, 2017

inhumanwich“In Soviet Russia, sandwich eats you!” is not a joke featured in the retro sci-fi/horror tribute Inhumanwich! (pronounced IN-hyoo-MAN-wich), but there are plenty of other jokes. The movie, shot in golden-oldie black and white, concerns an astronaut whose sloppy joe sandwich combines with radiation to turn him into a rapidly growing monster made of meat. This is the kind of knowingly daffy premise that can go south — and sour — but writer/director David Cornelius strikes a light tone early on and delivers, as I said, a tribute to schlock of the ‘50s, not a callow put-down. If you’re too hip for ridiculous big-monster movies, why put in the years of work to make one? To show the world you’re better than the movie you just made? Cornelius, in contrast, is not too hip for those movies or for his own movie. He loves them as I do, and his affection is infectious.

I don’t know for sure (but he’ll probably tell me) exactly which creature-double-features Cornelius is referencing, but I’ll take a stab and say Inhumanwich! is The Blob by way of The Incredible Melting Man (or, if you want to be fancy, First Man into Space), with elements and tropes from however many hours of snowy TV young Cornelius sat in front of. (There also seem to be fun nudges in the ribs of John Carpenter’s The Thing and the infamous Arch Oboler radio play “Chicken Heart.”) Astronaut Joe Neumann (amiably played by Jacque “Jake” Ransom before he turns into a blob of beef) terrorizes the Cincinnati countryside after his rocket crash-lands, and it’s up to the usual team of soldiers and scientists to stop it before it engulfs the planet.

Cornelius and editor Matt Gray keep Inhumanwich! sprinting (and short — the film crosses the finish line at an hour thirteen, including credits). As the old-timers who made stuff like Them! and Tarantula knew, you don’t want to give the audience a lot of time to think during your movie about killer turnips or whatever, and Cornelius also knows what the soul of wit is. (Look for his uncredited cameo as a Jordy Verrill-type gentleman who encounters the monster in the woods.) The scenes are clipped to punch up the punchlines; this good-hearted comedy boasts a good deal of technical savvy, of the sort that’s invisible when it’s working. There’s a bit about a character who repeats everything she hears during a phone chat, which would make a goofy sort of sense if we were just hearing her side of the conversation and we were getting exposition from it; but we also see the other side of the talk via split screen, so the redundancy becomes a surreal joke. It’s one of several gags in Inhumanwich! that you just know started with Cornelius watching some forlorn excuse for a movie with buddies and saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”

The performers are mostly encouraged to mimic the unhip flatness of ‘50s sci-fi actors. The movie doesn’t confine itself to any one era, though; some of the signifiers announce themselves as from the ‘50s, some from modern times. To that end, Jake Robinson’s stogie-chewing, growling General Graham seems to channel John Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso and the uncouth soldiers of Day of the Dead, moreso than the rigid military men you’d find in antique schlock. He seems to be of the ‘70s and ‘80s, whereas a later character (Brad Nicholas), whose competitive abilities might be of some use against the monster, seems of more recent vintage. Cornelius mashes up the decades as if to say that some things in the universe remain constant, such as humanity’s response to a killer pile of ground beef. Inhumanwich! is just the brand of inspired nonsense we need at the moment.

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mother!

September 23, 2017

mother2“Words cannot describe,” said a man loudly in the theater, “what we just saw.” What we’d just seen was mother!, the audience-infuriating new whatsit from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). As it happens, Aronofsky has many words to describe it, and he’s been unwisely sharing them in the film press. Luckily, I kept my eyes and ears virginal before sitting down to mother!, so I didn’t know — and you shouldn’t either — his allegorical explanation. Some will interpret it another way, as a male artist’s unconscious apologia for what the pursuit of his art can do to the one he loves. Others still may take the movie’s events literally, which the movie doesn’t discourage for about its first half, at which point it saunters casually for the exit in the house of logic, clears its throat, and takes a Nestea plunge into apocalyptic surrealism.

If that sounds like your cup of art, I wouldn’t dream of dissuading you from catching mother! while you still can on the big screen (and with big speakers — the sound mix is brutal), or eventually on home video, probably sooner than its studio, Paramount, would prefer. If, on the other hand, you are spiritual kin to the middle-aged ladies who sat near me commenting at frequent intervals about how stupid the movie was, I would advise you to stay the fuck home. I came out rattled, relieved that it was done with me, and somewhat exhilarated. mother! is art, for sure, sincere and emotionally loud and taking place entirely in the landscape of a bent imagination; it is also unafraid to speak the language of schlock, and it amuses me that the climax that appalls so many viewers is actually the ending of so much bland Hollywood fare — blood and fire and bullets and explosions.

I am actively avoiding the story. I can safely reveal this much. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live together in a house that she’s fixing up. The house was once his until fire consumed it. While she plasters the walls, he sits around trying to write (he’s a poet). One day, a doctor (Ed Harris) visits, soon joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The doctor is a fan of the poet’s work, and he and his wife stay the night. Some stuff happens. Exit doctor and wife. Later, the poet impregnates his wife and starts his greatest work within the same 24 hours. His book comes out and is a major success. He gains a horde of new fans. Meanwhile, his wife is about ready to pop out the baby. She does so, amidst a cataclysm of hellfire and cannibalism and a gun-wielding Kristen Wiig. There’s more.

No doubt about it, mother! is the most audacious folly a major studio has allowed an American filmmaker to pursue since Southland Tales, which also collapsed into ecstasies of fireworks incongruously involving veterans of Saturday Night Live. The tension ratchets up deftly; the 24-frames-per-second representational recording of a movie keeps us locked into interpreting it literally from moment to moment, until it vehemently parts company with reality. The trope of the guests who won’t leave, wreaking chaos in one’s home, is robust enough to get our anxiety pumping. As the movie got crazier, I responded gratefully to the visual and aural hyperbole. But the burn leading up to the light show is slow and uncomfortable … and a little irritating.

Art has a right — an obligation — to irritate occasionally. I’m glad I saw mother! and glad it was made, but I don’t want to see it again (a reaction I also had to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, another pure horror movie that trafficked in the Biblical). Aside from Aronofsky’s deafening virtuosity, there is pleasure in the performances, especially Ed Harris’ portrait of a man in decline. I wouldn’t say mother! offers no entertainment value, but it rises to a level of unpleasantness, even as allegory, that feels punitive. I’ve respected Aronofsky’s films even when I didn’t like them. You don’t always have to like art. I didn’t like mother!, but I think I might love it, or some of it, anyway. Twice in a row now, Darren Aronofsky has made batty, antagonistic, gobsmacking swings for the fence, about what he considers the biggest problem facing humanity. In a culture that increasingly values only childish power fantasies, movies like this are to be protected and highly regarded. Just not liked.

Beatriz at Dinner

September 10, 2017

beatrizatdinnerI’m not sure whether Beatriz at Dinner is, as advertised, “the first great film of the Trump era” (Get Out might beg to differ), but that’s a reductive tag anyway. Its concerns go deeper (and it was finished months before Election Day 2016), so don’t let that description scare you away or foster unrealistic expectations. The movie is not the savage jugular-punch to the current administration that some will want and others will wearily and warily expect. It’s accidentally topical — it could just as easily have been made in the mid-2000s, on the heels of the two other films by Beatriz’ makers, Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002). But director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White speak to today’s preoccupations precisely by not tying themselves to the present.

The movie is archetypal, not satirically specific. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a massage therapist and general holistic healer, and also an immigrant. Her opposite number here is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a real-estate magnate who seems to represent the values that validate Trump without actually being much like Trump. Mike White allows Doug some wit and self-awareness (he’s way too well-spoken to be a Trump parody), and Lithgow makes him quick and shrewd, but with an understanding that Doug’s self-opinion is deeply divided. Doug is reflective, even existentially aware of his place in the world. In his way, Doug is the most honest person in the movie. He’s joshingly cruel but he never pretends to be anything other than what he is.

Beatriz is brought into Doug’s sphere when she’s stuck at a client’s house by car trouble. Her client is Kathy (Connie Britton), the sort of conscientious rich white woman, blind to her own privilege, who thinks of her massage therapist Beatriz as a friend because having a woman like Beatriz as a friend makes a woman like Kathy feel warm and gracious. (She commiserates tastefully when a saddened Beatriz says her neighbor killed her goat.) Beatriz knows they’re not really friends, though she once treated and helped Kathy’s (offscreen) daughter through her chemotherapy. She knows how easily a rich white person’s affection is given, and withdrawn. Beatriz doesn’t say much until some wine loosens her tongue, but the great actress Hayek writes an entire novel wordlessly, with stares of despair or outrage.

Beatriz at Dinner has also been described as a comedy, but it isn’t really — the level of camp is awfully low (it spikes a bit in some of Beatriz’ flights of fantasy), and the few laughs are uncomfortable. There is one top-notch twisted joke: these rich people love passing grotesque photos around on their phones; it happens twice, and both times Beatriz is horrified, and finally livid. Beatriz is more or less marooned at the California mansion of Kathy and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) as an important business dinner, involving Doug Strutt, looms later in the evening. Amusingly, except for Doug, the men seem indistinct; the women come off snappy and precise. They’re intelligent and know the right things to say to continue presenting as compassionate people, but some part of their soul is gone, scabbed over. They enable their men to kill the world.

Sometimes Hayek’s Beatriz is powerful Earth Mother, other times just a slumped, small-statured woman trying to get through the day. She is the conscience of the earth, but hardly its consciousness. She feels others’ pain, even a dying octopus, and may be too intense an empath to function in a harsh world created by the rich and white. She seems to understand Doug, or would like to think so (she keeps saying she knows him from somewhere), but Doug has her number the moment he lays eyes on her. His final words to her reverberate far past the end credits. Beatriz at Dinner is being sold as some sort of Greenaway-esque satire of manners, but it’s a good deal more troubling than that. It bothers us long after it’s over, bringing us back to Beatriz’ death-haunted eyes, looking for the man who killed her goat.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 17, 2017

apes-1_1And so the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy comes to an end. I hope it’s the end, anyway — not that I haven’t immensely enjoyed and admired all three of these films, but this one just puts such a perfect period on the saga, not an ellipsis. The ending also, if you want it to, neatly feeds into the previous Apes pentalogy. Part war flick, part western, part prison escape picture, and all high-powered blockbuster, War for the Planet of the Apes borrows from a lot of sources but shuffles them into its own wounded deck of complex and subtle emotions. It runs on the melancholy power of its co-writer/director, Matt Reeves (who also helmed the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). If you forget the metaphorically robust but somewhat campy original Apes movies and let War take you where it’s going, it’s quietly devastating.

Most of the movie, indeed, is quiet, and the grand finale of explosions nevertheless has a layer of sadness underneath it. War picks up a few years after the last one left off. Caesar (voice and digitalized physical performance by Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes against the brute forces of humanity, finds his (figurative) crown growing heavier by the day. A rogue faction of soldiers, led by a bald crackpot known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), lays down some hot death and claims the lives of Caesar’s wife and elder son. Caesar permits himself little time to mourn before taking off in pursuit of the Colonel, accompanied by a few die-hard friends/soldiers who insist on going with him.

The film isn’t very “plotty.” The script by Reeves and Mark Bomback leaves room for character moments. It’s much more important that we discern exactly how Caesar fears becoming like his former, bitter right-hand ape Koba, and how he might actually resemble Koba, in terms of unquenchable rage. There’s also room for various characters, good and bad, painted in tones of gray; even the Colonel is given a backstory that explains, though doesn’t justify, his bullet-headed ruthlessness. These new Apes films have never fallen into a facile “apes good, humans bad” formula. Some apes are not good (some of them have defected to the human army, where they’re derisively called “donkeys” and commanded to help out in combat against the apes), and some humans are not bad (there’s a mute little girl who’s both a callback to and a bridge to the first two original Apes films).

War is pure megabudget cinema done right; Michael Seresin’s lush photography and Michael Giacchino’s epic, emotive score make the case for this being the kind of emotionally gratifying summer blockbuster Steven Spielberg no longer makes. Serkis can rest assured he’s added a great, conflicted hero to the pantheon, and there’s a terrific comic-relief performance from Steve Zahn (of course) as an easily frightened ape who calls himself Bad Ape — am I crazy or is Zahn channeling Elisha Cook Jr.? The movie has taken some flak for being predominantly male, which it is, except for its Newt-like orphan girl and the fact that Caesar’s orangutan adviser Maurice is voiced/performed by a woman, Karin Konoval. That seems backward in the summer of Wonder Woman, but one movie can’t address all inequities.

It’s probably enough that the paranoid Colonel wants to build a wall — not to keep out apes but to keep out other humans. Caesar may be Willard to the Colonel’s Kurtz (a line of graffiti just comes right out and name-checks Apocalypse Now) — and at least the Colonel doesn’t scrawl anything as obvious as “Exterminate all the brutes” — but he’s not a numb killer like Willard. He feels himself sliding into that territory, but when the moment of truth comes, he does not kill. “It’s a hard heart that kills,” shouts the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (another of this film’s influences), but despite everything that the world has thrown at it, Caesar’s heart has not hardened. War is about mercy and empathy, which makes it a nicely organic anti-war film.

Get Out

May 28, 2017

getout“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They are different from you and me.” Jordan Peele’s political horror movie Get Out, which he describes as a “social thriller,” tells us just how the very rich (and, mostly, very white) are different. This paranoid masterpiece has also been an old-school-style horror success story, earning back many, many times its cost. It hit a nerve; it is also legitimately frightening at times, and deeply funny at others, and always both entertaining and wince-inducing. It is not, perhaps, as radical as some have made it out to be — screen Fight for Your Life or The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for such people — but it’s still an electrifying achievement.

Peele reveals himself as an intuitive director early on, when our protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) arrives with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to visit her affluent parents. The parents, we are told before the trip, have not been briefed on Chris’s blackness. They are, we are also assured, the furthest thing from racists. So when they meet Chris, we wonder what subtle tics of anxiety the camera might impart in close-ups. Peele leans away from this trope and shoots the whole scene at an across-the-street distance; we hear the voices, the cloying dadness of Bradley Whitford and the patrician rich-white-lady tones of Catherine Keener. Peele is encouraging us to look beyond appearances and to avoid putting too much weight on visual cues.

The movie will likely play better a second time; Peele must have planted a thousand little Chekhov’s guns, and the performance of one actress in particular, Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid Georgina, almost demands further scrutiny. Georgina and another servant, the oddly spoken Walter (Marcus Henderson), are both black, and Rose’s dad sheepishly acknowledges the problematic optics. Rose’s parents engage in a sort of meta-narrative, commenting on the likely appearance of things as if self-awareness were itself redemptive. It’s a tried and true way of deflecting criticism about privilege.

Get Out ramps up gradually — for the longest time there’s very little blood, a drop here, a headlight smear there — and, as Chris becomes more and more menaced and baffled, the plot rolls inexorably into paranoid sci-fi/horror. Black writers trying to account for white perfidy have from time to time engaged with metaphor or conspiracy-myth; it goes back at least as far as the story of Mr. Yakub. The metaphor-myth Peele creates and parcels out bit by bit has to do with the different style of racism practiced by wealthy white liberals. Peele doesn’t say that underneath outwardly genteel white liberals are racist demons. He says that genteel white liberals can also be racist demons, side by side in one person, one shading into the other. For good measure Peele throws in a Japanese man, who asks Chris if his experience as an African-American has been an advantage or disadvantage.

That detail, like many others in Get Out, has been unpacked in thinkpieces from sea to shining sea. For a while, it was the biggest gotta-see-it-and-talk-about-it movie in too many years. Written during the Obama years, filmed when a female president seemed likely, premiering at Sundance three days into Trump’s presidency, the movie does collide productively with the zeitgeist while never abandoning the story’s more timeless horror elements — the tension of our hero trapped in a ghastly situation. The narrative goes way over the top; anyone still taking the story literally will end up on the side of the road. Metaphor and myth can also power satire, and that’s where Get Out ends up — has been all along, really. For black audiences, the true horrors on the screen are nothing new, except in movies. White liberals take a few hard shots in the chops. It’s not as if we didn’t have it coming.

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.

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.