Archive for the ‘overrated’ category

Bohemian Rhapsody

December 9, 2018

Bohemian-Rhapsody If we agree that movies — even documentaries — are not the first place to look for the unalloyed truth, the question then becomes, What story are we being told? To what ends are the facts being bent? The answer may explain why a movie is a runaway success, like Bohemian Rhapsody, the most lucrative musical biopic of all time, which takes the thorny persona of Freddie Mercury and gentles him into what he says, in the film, he doesn’t want to be: a cautionary tale. Better to say that Mercury, safely dead for the better part of three decades, is now ripe for autopsy and a moviemaker can try to divine by his entrails.

The narrative being pushed here is one of a boy, Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), who as the movie begins has already Americanized his name to Freddie. After a while he will legally change his last name to Mercury, cutting himself off from his Farsi roots. Freddie is bisexual but falls in love with one woman, Mary (Lucy Boynton). Despite his later life consisting of a blur of male partners, Mary remains his one great love. With his band Queen, Freddie reaches the stars but emotionally wallows in the gutter, until his AIDS diagnosis humbles him. He grovels his way back to the band (with their hetero lives, their wives and children), and the movie ends on the sweeping up note of Queen’s triumph at 1985’s Live Aid concert.

Never mind that the real Mercury wasn’t diagnosed until 1987; that would just end things on a bummer, and bummers don’t make almost $600 million worldwide. Bohemian Rhapsody certainly doesn’t take aesthetic risks comparable to those of its namesake single; it’s a bog-standard rise-and-fall-and-rise music biopic, and whatever affection has attached to it is pretty much the work of Rami Malek, whose resemblance to Mercury is passable — the actual Mercury had a kind of Christopher Reeve butch handsomeness interrupted by the extra teeth crowding his mouth. The way Malek’s syllables undertake the perilous journey around the fake choppers he wears is a little distracting, but a quick check of video of Mercury himself reveals that’s pretty much how he talked, right down to the frequent sucking on the front teeth.

Malek obliges the movie’s preferred narrative by enacting young, hungry Freddie, then success-sodden, druggy-orgy Freddie, then humbled Freddie ready for greatness, having suffered and renounced the catting around. He does all of this with sufficient facility, but Bohemian Rhapsody is probably better suited for people who haven’t seen this basic story a hundred times. The difference is the music, and I wonder if part of what accounts for the strong box office is that people are using the movie to see “Queen” in concert. The singing is Mercury’s, as is the band’s playing, taken, I assume, from live tapes of the era, so people might also want to hear the music in movie theaters with reasonably good sound systems as a communal event, framed by biographical re-enactments with the guy from Mr. Robot.

I’d hate to think it’s the message that’s driving repeat business. And that message? If you’re from an immigrant family, and on the queer spectrum, you can have it all, but don’t get too far above yourself. Show respect for your ma and pa (both followers of Zoroastrianism, which teaches that to be gay is to be demonic), tell your one-time white hetero female lover that she’s the love of your life (to hell with you, Jim Hutton, the lover who nursed Mercury until his death), and basically reject whatever sweaty, glittery, outlaw energy made people want to make a movie about you in the first place. Oh, and the press — enemy of the people! — is a mob of barking, salacious freaks who just want to know who you’re fucking, and gays around you will sell you out to them. “I’m not going to be anybody’s victim, AIDS poster boy or cautionary tale,” says Freddie, blithely unaware of the movie he’s in and what it turns him into.

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Suspiria (2018)

December 2, 2018

When director Luca Guadagnino says that his film Suspiria is less a remake of than an homage to Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, I believe him. The new Suspiria takes the preceding movie’s basic premise — a young American woman (Dakota Johnson) arrives at a German ballet school, and supernatural shenanigans follow — and goes very much its own way. Guadagnino doesn’t attempt Argento’s virtuosic reveries of over-the-top bloodletting. His film is gory — Suspiria ’18 pushes the boundaries of an R rating ever further — but he doesn’t try to replicate Argento’s specific showstoppers. Instead, he gives us violence rooted in pain and fear. I suppose Argento’s Suspiria is a sanguinary art bauble, high on its own color and soundtrack and ominous mood, not built to evoke more than spooky fun; Guadagnino’s Suspiria, with a straight face, works nothing less than the Holocaust into its dark fable.

This will irritate some, no doubt, but Guadagnino is using the language of cinematic horror to inquire into the horrors real humans are capable of. I could go on in this vein, but I’m doomed to be honest and say that this Suspiria has so much under its hood the vehicle barely moves. It idles for two hours and change before ramping up to Vin Diesel extremes in its last act (there are six, plus an epilogue), at which point the art-house crowd may bolt for the exit and the horror-flick crowd may have followed Morpheus into the land of dreams. Guadagnino and his screenwriter David Kajganich meditate on the Germany of 1977, a country afraid of its own shadow and scarred with the wall that abuts the ballet school. What this has to do with witches (who are rumored to run the school) isn’t clear, though I think the witches take power from collective shame and guilt.

Dakota Johnson continues to be a tabula rasa who could, in theory, be a canvas for art in an art-soaked movie like this, but isn’t. As a dancer she’s up there among a bunch of professional dancers; as an actress, she shares a lot of scenes with Tilda Swinton as the school’s matriarch (and, swathed in latex, a couple of other roles). Swinton, as always, keeps her cool, though as the movie ratchets up to a pitch of hysteria not unlike that of Hereditary, Swinton meets a fate similar to Toni Collette’s in that film. The movie is flooded with images of bodily mutilation, and after a while one stops charitably seeking subtext in the agonies of the flesh and begins to find it all just … ugly. Guadagnino’s horrors are aggressively grotesque, but also easy to shake off; when Argento at his peak used violence, the set pieces tended to leave us a bit dazed, wondering what had hit us, and it had a pop-art pizzazz. It becomes clear that Argento’s occult dread came from a different, purer section of the horror playbook than Guadagnino’s does — it isn’t tied to historical atrocities in a way that commands us to make the connection.

Guadagnino’s fixation on the supposed horrors of aged, deformed female flesh starts to make Suspiria look schlocky and reactionary. The hero of the movie is not the bland Johnson’s Susie Bannion, who in any case isn’t what she seems to be; it’s the ancient psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer, a man wounded by the Holocaust and dedicated to finding out why his patient (Chloe Grace Moretz; the movie sorely needed more of her), after speaking of witches at the ballet school, disappeared. Klemperer, as whoever cares knows by now, is also played by Swinton, who under the cloak of make-up allows Klemperer a quiet decency. The rest of it is chaos. Some will engage with it strongly enough to revisit it several times; I found it a chore to get through once, and not just because of its distended running time. It’s unpleasant; it’s not entertainment, but its art is mostly on loan.

The Christmas Chronicles

November 25, 2018

santakurtNetflix’s The Christmas Chronicles lasts, with credits, one hour and forty-four minutes, of which fifty-three minutes are worthwhile. You’re way ahead of me: those are the minutes featuring Kurt Russell as Santa Claus (he prefers “Saint Nick”), a robust, not quite jolly old elf who oddly seems to fit right in with Russell’s recent run of hirsute cowboys and rough workers with a surplus of chin and/or lip fur. (Not to mention the global twinning of Russell now having played bearded heroes of the North and South Poles.) Russell plays Santa with absolute integrity, which in this context means he plays Santa as Kurt Russell playing Santa, which is the only reason most people of legal age would want to watch this. And he delivers.

Sadly, Russell shares the movie with two irritating kids, chipper believer Kate (Darby Camp) and her sullen teenage older brother Teddy (Judah Lewis). They’re bummed because their firefighter dad died on duty, this is their first Christmas without him, and their mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley in an utterly thankless role) just wants them to get along. Because Teddy no longer has a father figure, he’s drifting towards crime (he and his buddies literally steal a car for a joyride at one point). Teddy needs to be bitter and cynical so that, of course, he can relearn Christmas Spirit over the course of the movie, but that could have been accomplished without all the grand-theft-auto stuff that can’t help implying that single women can’t raise boys without disaster.

On Christmas Eve, these kids, led by Kate, find themselves in Santa’s sleigh, where they startle him and he lands them somewhere in Chicago without his reindeer or his magic hat. If he doesn’t get these items back soon, there will be no Christmas cheer, by which the movie means no presents. I kept waiting for the film to break out the old platitude that Christmas is about more than presents, but nope. It’s about presents and also about the other dude of the day — at one quiet moment in the adventure, Kate and Teddy pause outside a church and sadly reflect that they haven’t been since their dad died. Which, I guess, means their mother hasn’t brought them? So we’ll blame her for her kids being godless, too!

It’s probably useless to come at The Christmas Chronicles with politics, though there is that odd moment where Santa, denying that he actually says “Ho ho ho,” grumps “It’s just a myth. Fake news.” That’ll date the movie in a bad way, not that Netflix cares, nor its uninspired director Clay Kaytis (an animation guy who graduated to jodhpurs and megaphone with the Angry Birds movie). A good deal of the film is an excuse for elaborate CG effects, which have no magic; even a long look inside Santa’s toy bag is a multilevelled vision of card catalogs and conveyor belts of gifts — it’s like Terry Gilliam without a brain. At least Sofia Coppola’s A Very Murray Christmas had some soul (and Bill Murray).

Russell tries his damnedest, though. In a sequence that will justify the movie for some, Santa jams in a prison cell with some surprise ringers whose identities I won’t spoil (a hint: if the movie had any wit it would’ve stranded Santa in Jersey). Russell himself takes the lead on “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” and he’s in good voice, busting out his old E moves (Elvis, of course, first recorded the song sixty-one autumns ago). Now, having Kurt Russell get his Elvis on, as well as winking at some of his past roles (“Big trouble,” Santa intones), will tickle some of the audience, including yr. humble scribe. And I can’t feel sad for Russell being in a movie that’s unworthy of him in general, because he lifts all his scenes so effortlessly, bringing his own cool party with him and inviting us to join in.

I also liked the way Russell plays the many scenes in which Santa knows various folks’ childhood dreams and hopes. His Santa is a little irascible, given the circumstances, but also good-hearted. This isn’t one of Russell’s challenging performances, like those in the underrated Miracle or Dark Blue. Here, he reminded me of Jeff Goldblum, who can also get artsy and serious, but whose natural charisma is such that you can be content just watching Jeff having fun being Jeff. And the same is true of Kurt. For fifty-three minutes.

Hereditary

September 3, 2018

hereditaryA strange bird, Hereditary is. This shrill and unhappy supernatural drama starts off as a sort of psychological character study and ends up in the wild hinterland of sulfur and vile spirits. Much the same, I suppose, could be said of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, to which Hereditary has duly been likened, but the more useful comparison might be to Darren Aronofsky’s genre-smashing, audience-polarizing mother! I deeply admired that film’s art and intensity while admitting I didn’t have a great time at it — not all art is meant to be entertaining. Is Hereditary another case of a wooly bully of cinematic expression, destined to dazzle the elites while displeasing the mundanes?

In this case, I have to stand with the mundanes. Director Ari Aster, making his feature debut, wants to bowl us over with Hereditary. He reaches into a big dusty box and hauls out every trick he can find — there’s one embarrassingly “look, Ma, I’m a director” shot that puts a character upside down in the frame as she runs, and then the camera follows her and rights itself. It’s a disorienting shot, and it calls attention to itself needlessly, as so much else does in the film. I could go spelunking thematically and justify the narrative quirks, but I don’t want to. It’s an effectively made bad movie. It plays fast and loose with logical expectations, but not in a way that especially illuminates anything other than its own facile twists.

For the longest time, the movie seems to be about Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist whose mother has recently died. Annie had and has a fraught, complicated relationship with her mother, and she’s well on her way to raising two neurotic kids, the brooding stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) and the morbid Charlie (Milly Shapiro), even though her husband and their father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is usually a soothing source of calm. The movie starts to seem as though it’s concerned with the derangement of grief and trauma, especially when Annie meets a fellow in bereavement, Joanie (Ann Dowd), who teaches her how to contact the dead.

There’s more than a hint of “The Monkey’s Paw” here, and Pet Sematary and all the other spooky pop culture that advises us not to mess with the occult: “Sometimes dead is better.” Eventually, as the omens and freaky scares add up, it becomes clear that this is all the movie is going to be about; and yet it touches on annihilating despair, and asks its cast (particularly Collette, but also young Alex Wolff) to lower themselves into an emotional meat grinder in a way that the film, I say, does not earn. I did not need to see a sad body part seething with ants on the side of a godforsaken road in the morning light, and I came to resent Hereditary and Ari Aster for making me look at it for no reason other than effect. Speaking of effects, there are a few scenes featuring the fakest-looking swarm of flies I’ve ever seen in a movie. Another scene involving a screaming character engulfed in flames is just high-pitched stupidity, as is another scene in which someone flips out in a classroom.

I called Hereditary effective, which it is; an incident at about the half-hour mark pulled a loud gasp out of me, and not only because the hopes we’d placed in an intriguing character were suddenly cut off. Ari Aster has some chops, but he uses them to make us feel, well, bad — on edge, more irritated than frightened. At two hours and seven minutes, the movie dawdles at a few points, including an early shot that tracks into one of Annie’s impossibly detailed miniature houses until it comes to a stop in Peter’s bedroom — his real bedroom. Is Annie’s art relevant to the movie thematically or narratively? No, it’s meaningless, and so is she. Pretty much anything we came close to caring about in the film is thrown away for the insipid climax, during which a character opens her mouth and cheese falls out — “Give us your knowledge of all secret things. Bring us honor, wealth, and good familiars.” At which point the viewer is either rapturous at having been so bamboozled or heading for the sweet release of the exit. Some will love Hereditary. I understand why, but I don’t understand them.

Game Night

May 20, 2018

gamenightIt’d be nice if a dark comedy called Game Night were more … playful. It has a few good laughs, and no shortage of clever little twists. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are the lead couple, united in love and marriage by their shared passion for games — tabletop, trivia, charades. Stressed out by his competitive streak tied to his resentment of his more successful brother (Kyle Chandler), Bateman is having trouble producing viable sperm, and that’s one more trait than McAdams’ character gets. Anyway, big brother Chandler invites Bateman and MacAdams’ usual game-night group over to his swanky rented house for a murder-mystery game involving kidnapping, though the kidnappers turn out to be quite real.

This is not generally my favorite brand of mash-up — when a comedy imports a crime plot. It put a dent in Date Night and ruined whatever chance Let’s Be Cops had to be worth anything. Here, though, it works for a while because all the characters are steeped in pop culture and are self-aware; once they assume everything they’re experiencing is fake, they behave accordingly, oblivious to the very real dangers, the very genuine bullets. Eventually they catch on, but the synthetic nature of the plot is dispiriting. Every little detail and flick of the brush is meant to be filed away for future reference. The whole creaky construct is so “clever” it barely breathes.

When it does breathe, though, Game Night earns its spot at the bloody-farce table, mainly by pairing the players off and watching them respond to the challenge. One couple (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) gets stuck on the possibility that she had an affair with a celebrity, whose identity she won’t share. In this sort of film, we sort of expect a real celebrity playing himself to make an appearance as the cuckolding culprit, but the joke goes another, not necessarily funnier direction. Another couple is made up of an idiot (Billy Magnussen) who usually attends Game Night with equally stupid dates, and the smart ringer (Sharon Horgan) the idiot has brought this time. Their subplot doesn’t go much of anywhere either. But all the actors are committed and fun to watch, even if, say, neither Bateman nor McAdams does anything we haven’t seen from them before.

The MVP is Jesse Plemons as Gary, a next-door police officer still grieving his divorce. Plemons has bland, mashed-potato-eating features, sort of a cross between Matt Damon and Michael Shannon, and he puts awkward pauses in everything he says. He wonders why Bateman and McAdams exclude him from their Game Nights, which he used to attend with his now ex-wife; everyone finds him creepy and hasn’t invited him. The great thing is, Plemons never violates his unhappy, suspicious character, assuring the audience that his feelings are funny. They’re very real, as real as the bullets and the kidnappers. And yet he gets laughs — uneasy laughs, weird laughs. He’s clearly been given the go-ahead to bear down on his divorced, lonely cop and ground his absurdity in painful reality.

Game Night doesn’t amount to much, but it’ll make a decent rental for a Movie Night, with friends invited over for a breezy, occasionally gory spot of goofiness. There’s a cute dog, drenched in blood (someone else’s) but otherwise coming to no harm. Movies like this, where people are bashed and shot, should probably refrain from putting dogs front and center in their advertising; dog lovers may squirm through the whole thing waiting for something terrible to happen to the pooch. Nothing does, but then we wait for some sort of reckoning connected to the dog’s owner discovering all the blood on it. It gets blown off in a line of dialogue having to do with the collateral mess the dog leaves. A farce like this needs to click together mercilessly, inhumanly, uniting all its aspects into one finished puzzle of bad behavior. But we’re to believe this particular character finds his beloved doggie spattered with gore and has nothing to say about it?

I, Tonya

December 10, 2017

i-tonya-margot-robbie-850x478A rarity for me: I went into I, Tonya without knowing who the director was. As the absurdist black-comedic biopic unfurled, I thought, “Whoever made this, he’s really trying to get his Scorsese on.” (I thought “he” because female directors rarely if ever try to get their Scorsese on — they’ve worked too hard to express their own voices to want to ape someone else’s.) The major tells were the frequent (and frequently ironic) ’70s-rock needle-drops and the incessant trackings in and out — the camera almost never stops moving, except when it’s locked down in “interview segments” wherein Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) or Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) unburden themselves.

As it happens, the director is the nondescript Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), who aside from his Scorsesean gesticulations mostly stays out of the way of the star and co-producer, Margot Robbie. I would like to report that in the reviled Tonya, the media-beloved actress has found something feral, primordial, essential in herself, as Robert De Niro did in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. I would like to, but that isn’t true. Robbie is snarly and entertaining, but except for the grinning-rictus-through-tears bit she does in a mirror — and that’ll turn up in her Oscar reel if she’s nominated — she doesn’t locate any humanity except fear, rage, need. And since Robbie is more conventionally attractive than the real Harding, the makeup she wears to render her skin mottled and white-trashy suggests that, in this context where Tonya’s stupid tragedy is played for black comedy, Robbie is condescending to working-class Harding even physically.

I, Tonya left me in a mildly desolate mood. It says that dreams are shit in a country that turns everything to shit. The movie (rather brilliantly, actually) ends with Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of “The Passenger,” and that’s what Tonya is. Pushed into skating as a toddler, forever connected to a ridiculous crime, she has no agency. (She rides and she rides.) The movie’s concerns don’t seem universal — they’re belittlingly specific. We’re just watching these particular dimbulbs — Tonya, her hapless husband Jeff, his buffoonish friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) — as they fuck everything up. The characters get progressively idiotic, until, by the time we get to Shane Stant, the doofus who actually kneecapped Nancy Kerrigan, he’s so brutally inept we wonder how he manages to figure out his pants in the morning.

It’s difficult to stay engaged in a work that has so little regard for its subjects. Gillespie doesn’t display the freezing contempt of, say, an Alexander Payne, but it’s hard to know what he does feel about these people. The movie hedges its bets more than a little by casting a ringer, Allison Janney, as Tonya’s ghastly mother. Not only has Janney played this sort of role before (as a trailer-trash floozy in Drop Dead Gorgeous, in which, despite the more farcical context, she may have done subtler and more compassionate work than she does here), she’s still playing it every week on Mom. Janney is America’s sweetheart in the division of endearingly fucked-up mothers. When Tonya’s mother is abusive and hateful here, it just seems like Janney doing her usual shtick; the movie is deadpan-sarcastic about it — look at this moron woman throwing stuff at her moron daughter until finally she lobs a knife at her — and Janney hasn’t been directed to make anything real out of it. Real would be sad, sobering, anathema to the sour good time the movie wants to give us.

Eventually Gillespie drifts away from imitating Scorsese and starts imitating Scorsese’s imitators. The last reel or so has the spun-out, dirge-like melancholia of the last act of Boogie Nights, where people wound up beaten up, in jail, dead, soulless. Here, everyone starts dropping around Tonya like brainless flies, whisked off to jail, and the camera lingers on Tonya in her devastation after she is sentenced to life without professional ice skating. Then we see a bit of Tonya’s career as a celebrity boxer spitting blood all over the ring. Ah, finally she’s found an arena that lets her release her rage. But then, stupidly, the movie cuts to footage of the real Tonya skating, and we see, through the context of the life we’ve just watched, the aggression and fury in Tonya’s movements, the fierce determination, the itchy underclass energy that the upper-class skating establishment was never going to be able to accept. Tonya quite elegantly and wordlessly speaks for herself in this footage, and leaves the callow jeering movie in her dust.

Lucky

November 24, 2017

luckyAnyone who has ever loved Harry Dean Stanton in one of his two hundred film and TV credits over the last sixty-three years will have to make some time for Stanton’s leading-man swan song Lucky, even though it’s a bit of a chunk of dry toast, a little too knowingly thrown as a low-key vaya con dios party for him. Stanton plays the title character, who passes his ritualistic days drifting from place to place in a small town. A diner in the morning for coffee and the crossword puzzle. Home to the TV set and Lucky’s “shows” in the afternoon. Out to a bar in the evening. Occasionally he ruminates about life and our purpose in it, and how to face death though he’s pretty sure there’s no God, just darkness. That’s about it.

Lucky is about both Lucky and Harry Dean Stanton, of course. Screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja shaped their work specifically around Stanton, his range (not the widest, but often surprising and inventive within it), and his own life. Inevitably, Stanton doesn’t really seem to be acting; we feel that he’s simply being himself in character as Lucky. Sometimes, as when the film contrives to reunite Stanton with his Alien captain Tom Skerritt, it shows its hand as a construct designed for Stanton to thrive in. On the other hand, seeing Stanton alongside Skerritt again is admittedly a kick, and they do beautiful work together, reminiscing about World War II (more details pulled from Stanton’s life).

What makes Lucky worth indulging is Stanton, naturally, but also the way he refuses to insult this feature-length gesture of affection towards him by giving any less than he’s ever given. He could have rested on his laurels here, coasted, stoically accepted his due — but he doesn’t. He brings levels of melancholy and odd anger to each scene; he keeps us riveted physically, letting his wrinkles and eyebags tell eloquent silent stories. We can’t take our eyes off him, but that’s no doing of point-and-shoot actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch. Nor can we say the film protects him by putting him up against boring actors, when Stanton butts heads with the likes of Beth Grant, Ed Begley Jr., and the indefatigable David Lynch. Stanton makes his sweetest music with David Lynch, as those who’ve seen Stanton in Lynch’s own films (Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, etc.) already know.

In and of itself, the movie is arid, visually null. The camera isn’t being used to express much of anything, and so we begin to wonder why, other than to raise a toast to Harry Dean Stanton, this is a movie. Though well-acted, the supporting characters in Lucky’s life feel like supporting characters; with most of them, we don’t feel that they have lives outside the scene and the frame. The exception is Bertila Damas’ store owner, who invites Lucky to her son’s tenth birthday fiesta, leading to a rare and lovely moment in which Lucky, in Stanton’s own slightly querulous but soulful singing voice, croons “Volver, Volver.” It’s a great moment — but we’re aware of it as a great moment, engineered as a great moment for the star.

I don’t begrudge Stanton the apotheosis he receives here. Few artists get swan songs this apropos, this on-the-money. (Who doesn’t despair when reminded that the accidental swan song of Gene Hackman, who has retired from acting, will be Welcome to Mooseport?) Stanton at least goes out with the same level of integrity he’d always had. Even when he showed up fleetingly in a trick of slick whoring like The Avengers, we were absurdly happy to see him, an oasis of rumpled humanity in a desert of plastic. (It spoke well of the director, Joss Whedon, that he apparently bent over backwards to find some way to get Harry Dean Stanton in there.) He elevated any and all material; Repo Man is inconceivable without him. Lucky doesn’t exist without him. Stanton leaves the sort of void that so troubles Lucky. There will not be more of him. The movie itself is aptly named — it’s lucky to have Stanton. He does more for Lucky than it does for him.