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

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

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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.

Introducing, Selma Blair

October 3, 2021

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As a young actress, Selma Blair developed something of a reputation for being willing to do just about any awkward or potentially thorny thing onscreen. It spoke to her honesty as a performer — we felt she didn’t do it for the attention (in her notorious red-box scene in Todd Solondz’ Storytelling, for instance) but because that was what the character did, and she was being paid to play that character. Within reason, Blair was just going to go for it, perhaps feeling she owed it to the woman she was playing to convey some sort of truth, even in a farcical construct like The Sweetest Thing

In Introducing, Selma Blair, the actress calls on the same candor to pull us into her misery following her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. Yet even when her body buzzes with pain or her speech becomes halting, Blair can usually summon her self-deprecating wit. Somewhere in Rachel Fleit’s sensitive documentary, Blair says her English teacher told her she had the makings of an actress, not, as she’d initially wanted to be, a writer. But there’s a warm clarity and humor to her language, even when she has trouble enunciating or finding the words. She could have been a writer, and still could be, if she wanted. This, after all, is a woman who begins the documentary self-satirically vamping like the past-it star Norma Desmond and ends it by floating face-down in her pool like the luckless screenwriter Joe Gillis. 

Blair is ready for her close-up, after a career that, in recent years, hadn’t rewarded her efforts. She allows Fleit access to her in her despair and pain and hope; in her hospital beds and tentatively riding her beloved horse again. (Blair’s sense of self is generally too astringent to make the movie a shameless tearjerker, but I felt a hard lump in my throat when Blair tearfully asked her riding trainer if she would adopt Blair’s horse if Blair didn’t make it through stem-cell therapy.) The narrative, for those who have dealt with the maddening ups and downs of real as opposed to Hollywood disease, can get tense at times. Time is a factor: Blair must undergo the stem-cell transplant ASAP or risk permanent brain damage. She bids a temporary (she hopes temporary) farewell to her young son Arthur and her ailing mother and heads in for grueling chemotherapy.

Here and there, Blair sardonically comments on the level of drama the disease and its undignified symptoms (imbalance, brain fog, speech bumps) have brought to her life. I wonder if her snarky self-awareness (a Gen-X icon through and through) helped her see that the role of Selma Blair, anguished MS patient, was a plum and complex role a lot of actresses might jump at. I’m not suggesting that was the impetus for the documentary; I believe Blair when she talks about feeling good that her struggles can bring comfort to others unsteadily walking a similar path — people like Christina Applegate, Blair’s costar in The Sweetest Thing, who went public with her own MS diagnosis in August. I would much rather have seen Blair acting, and only acting, these struggles in a good movie than enduring them for real. So would she have, I’d wager, but here we are.

Occasionally Introducing, Selma Blair (not sure why that comma is there) reminded me of the recent videography Val, which contrasted footage of a young, hot-shot, suave-talking Val Kilmer with the wounded man he is now. Blair’s movie doesn’t engage as much with her celluloid past, although it’s a painful irony to watch her moving with balletic grace in pre-MS clips and then witness her post-diagnosis trying to navigate stairs. We get bits from, I guess, her best-known films: Legally Blonde, Hellboy, Cruel Intentions. It was The Sweetest Thing, though — a rare-in-its-day female gross-out comedy, years before Bridesmaids or Girls Trip — that really showed me to what extent Blair was up for disregarding her pristine features and getting knee-deep in the risible muck of dysfunction and embarrassment. Any time Blair did something like that in a movie, I felt grateful she implicated herself in the eternal mess of being a person — didn’t stand aloof from it or deny it or soft-soap it. And she performs the same service here.

Roadrunner

July 18, 2021

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The suicide asks the world, “Why?” The question has levels: Why me? Why am I here? Why should I go on? And the suicide, most often, is answered by the same word with a different meaning: Why did you go? Why did you leave us? Why wasn’t I enough to save you? The messy but honorable documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain does its best work when it engages with all the whys — not only Bourdain’s final why (he took his own life in 2018) and the many whys of those who loved him, but the whys of Bourdain’s packed and perpetually in-motion life. 

A chef turned writer turned host of several food/travel shows, Bourdain seemed to mainline experiences as he once injected heroin. He was never one to err on the side of moderation. As much as we would have wanted a storybook ending for him — retiring to his beloved Vietnam, kicking back — that wasn’t in the cards for him. Director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor) sits down with a bunch of Bourdain associates and friends, who all still seem raw about losing him. The narrative picks up around the time the spotlight landed on Bourdain — when his addictive tell-all Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000. From there Bourdain wandered into television, a medium he was not initially suited for.

At certain points one might feel a better title for the film would be Storyteller, since more than one person calls him that. But Roadrunner better matches up with the movie’s portrait of a man with an itchy foot. Bourdain was always running towards new worlds; he was also, we begin to sense, running away from himself. We might as well knock it out of the way now: I don’t blame Bourdain’s last lover, Asia Argento, for what he did, and I don’t think anyone who watches Roadrunner with a reasonable amount of attention could, either. Any attempt to make Argento the “why” of Bourdain’s ending runs contrary to his own ethos, his very soul. He knew nothing is that simple. This man who wrote about everything else, though, did not leave a note. He felt, perhaps, the act spoke for him.

By liberally seasoning the film with talking-heads footage of those who loved him — second wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, fellow chef Eric Ripert, many others — Neville avoids the trap of making a compilation of clips from all Bourdain’s shows, and Bourdain’s survivors help put him in context. He was generally miserable and dissatisfied with himself, which drove him to immerse himself without restraint in new passions, like jiu-jitsu — or Argento. After a while, the portrait takes shape: the profoundly sad implication is that some people aren’t meant to last — the old “light that burns twice as bright” adage — and that Bourdain escaped self-extinguishment in a few major ways (I still remember the New Zealand episode of No Reservations when an ATV flipped over onto him and, by some fool luck, he didn’t end right then and there) and in countless, everyday minor ways until it finally caught up with him. Bourdain, though, lasted long enough for millions — not just those he hung out with — to mourn him bitterly.

The big takeaway here, I think, is a brief bit when Bourdain sits across from Iggy Pop, who says that what still thrills him is being loved and appreciating that gift. Bourdain nods blankly, as if Iggy were talking about alien abduction. The entirety of the movie is in that opaque nod of incomprehension. Bourdain was stopped and praised wherever he walked in New York City and increasingly elsewhere in the world. It would have been balm for his ego, if not for the damage it did to his role as an observer and chronicler. Once he became the observed and chronicled, which on an elemental level he seemed to feel he didn’t deserve, it was only a matter of time. If you don’t feel worthy of adulation and random stranger affection, you don’t feel you belong in the world that lavishes it on you. And perhaps you act accordingly. Roadrunner shakes out not as a biography so much as an inquiry into grief.

Summer of Soul

July 5, 2021

summer of soul

If you’ve been on the fence, for whatever reason, about catching Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul, I urge you to fall on the side of seeing it. It’s a guaranteed mood-lifter. Questlove’s achievement here goes far beyond what some might take to be “just a concert film.” The bulk of the film, under the direction of Hal Tulchin, is footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. The performers included Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, Nina Simone, and Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples in a duet that generates more power than you’ll find in any Marvel movie.

The Harlem Cultural Festival ran for six weekends in the summer of 1969, and Hal Tulchin shot it all. Then, despite Tulchin’s best efforts to sell it around as “the Black Woodstock,” the footage sat unseen on tapes in his basement for the next few decades. Questlove and his team unearthed it and whittled it down to two hours, with some interview space given to people who were there, either in the dense crowd or onstage. There isn’t a dud in any of the performances Questlove selected, and many of them do double duty as great music and as great human moments. You can see that all the artists know they’re a part of something major. “We were so happy to be there,” says a visibly moved Marilyn McCoo as she watches herself and the 5th Dimension finish a number.

It becomes an almost humorous motif: again and again we hear performers and audience members say they’d never seen that many Black people in one place before. You do see the occasional white face in the crowd (or, surprisingly, on stage; one man who caught the show talks about his bemusement that Sly Stone had a white drummer), but largely it was a Black event. Some of the performers made gestures towards brotherly love between the races, but there is an overriding concern, informed by the urgency of the day, that Black people must be allowed equity before any smiley talk about equality. These were not quiet times, and the Festival was in some respects an oasis but also an opportunity to reflect on the power, pain, and pleasures of the Black soul. (I’d say the use of that word in the title has at least two meanings.) Songs were sung as much in anger and longing as in joy and togetherness.

Questlove’s main accomplishment is to thread the joy alongside whatever anguish it came out of. The energy of the music is profound and rich — the performers, especially the gospel singers, seem to tap into something direct, elemental, occasionally almost frightening in its force. I don’t know anyone still vertical who wouldn’t be wiped out by Nina Simone’s set, or a rare taste of Stevie Wonder on drums, or the moment when Mavis Staples, having scorched the air with her voice, hands the mic to the ailing Mahalia Jackson, a dragon awakened, who reaches inside herself and pulls out something annihilating yet restorative. And this almost never saw the light of day.

What we take with us, perhaps even more than the warming memory of the music, is the vibe passed back and forth between artists and audience. That exchange of spirit is common in concert films, whether the exchange is cool (Jazz on a Summer’s Day) or toxic (Gimme Shelter). Here, the give-and-take is a bit more complex. Some of the faces in the crowd are wary, closed off; some are wide open, embracing the experience. None of the music is insular or wise-ass (they had comedy bits for that — Moms Mabley and Willie Tyler turn up briefly); it’s all transportive, reaching out to community and to life. If you were in that crowd, you would have had to work at it not to be won over. Questlove has a light touch, alternating historical gloom with aesthetic elation. This is a beautiful work of restoration and tribute.

About Endlessness

May 9, 2021

abtend

It is the common fatigue. That’s what my ears thought they heard during a scene in Roy Andersson’s typically deadpan About Endlessness. What I was really hearing was a priest delivering communion in Swedish: The body of Christ broken for you, or Kristi kropp bruten för dig. But, in a lot of ways, Andersson’s first film in five years, and possibly his last, is all about the common fatigue. The priest, as it happens, is going through the motions, administering the ritual with a heavy heart and hollow soul — we have just seen him in the church kitchen, swigging from the same bottle that pours the blood of Christ. He appears several times in the film, often on the edge of tears as he admits he has lost his faith. But nobody much cares, even his psychiatrist.

Sounds heavy, especially if this is your first tour through the bemusement park of Andersson (best known for his “Living” trilogy: Songs from the Second Floor, 2000; You, the Living, 2007; A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014). But About Endlessness, in the sort of irony remarked on by legions of critics by now, is in and out in 76 minutes. Andersson, who spent a long hiatus from feature filmmaking directing commercials (Ingmar Bergman was a fan of them), knows that the type and mode of story he wants to tell is best achieved with brevity. (His only film to exceed two hours, 1975’s Giliap, tanked hard and drove him out of features for 25 years.) The movie is an anthology of moments: some dreary, some distressing, some carefree. The anecdotes add up to a meditation on life as experienced individually and specifically by each subject.

Sometimes the placement of scenes does a lot of the work. Early in the movie, and then not long before the end credits, a man grumbles to the camera that a former schoolmate has been ignoring him because of something unspecified he did to the schoolmate, way back then. That this man is the second, and then second-to-last, person we hear from — bracketing a collection of vignettes ranging from the mundane to the apocalyptic — makes a quietly funny point about the ridiculousness of long-running grievances. Motifs announce themselves: water or wine pouring into glasses, overflowing the glass, or filling a vase for flowers at a dead soldier’s grave; the reality of death captured just before or just after its arrival. If there is despair here, though, there is also joy. Andersson knows that a vision without one or the other is false. The joy whisks away despair, insisting that despair doesn’t last. The despair infects our enjoyment, murmuring that joy won’t last, either. And on and on in a loop.

About Endlessness features Hitler his own bad self, in his bunker being dusted by bomb-loosened plaster and barely acknowledged by exhausted old generals who can’t even muster a decent sieg heil. The straight-faced absurdism of the segment recalls some of Monty Python’s “historical” sketches; the flatness of the style is a wicked rebuke to Leni Riefenstahl’s voluptuous portfolio of lies, Triumph of the Will. So we meet the Devil, and he’s this dull clerk celebrated by half-dead flunkies in the most banal-looking crypt any soon-to-perish despot ever had. Where’s God? Oh, I saw Him here and there, despite the plaints of the priest. He was there in the spontaneous dancing of teenage girls and in the fatal knife wounds of another — the A to Z of human experience. 

The movie leaves us talking back to it — we don’t want it to go just yet. The brevity sometimes verges on a taunt: most of the people we meet, we’ll never see again. The rare exception, aside from the recurring faithless priest, is a dentist who gets two segments — two consecutive segments, which nobody else gets. We first see him in a sketch that seems to be making a point about how emotions can get in the way of how we engage with people personally and professionally, leaving them hurt. The next bit finds the dentist in a bar, with a gentle snowfall visible out the windows — the cozy warm comfort of the scene is palpable, and it seems to nudge one of the customers into blurting “Everything is fantastic.” As Kurt Vonnegut said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” But Andersson isn’t finished, and the last two anecdotes are bitter and desolate, respectively — yet still with glimmers of mitigation. If this isn’t life, I don’t know what is.