Archive for the ‘romance’ category

La La Land

February 5, 2017

la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-1Is the Hollywood musical worth saving? There may be a compelling argument to be made for it, but La La Land, I’m afraid, isn’t it. The movie is popular and is supposedly on track to win a tub of Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s full of music and color, but otherwise it’s a thin and glittery shell with a lot of hollowness at its center. It’s about two young wanna-be entertainers, actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), trying to make it in Los Angeles. They fall in love, but conflicts about artistic integrity threaten their idyll; during one such squabble, I thought, Jeez, I don’t know that I was in the mood to watch New York, New York again.

That Martin Scorsese musical, a flop when first released, still boasts a level of emotional ambition that seems well beyond La La Land. The story is almost offensively simple and streamlined, even though the movie weighs in at a punitive two hours and seven minutes. Sebastian, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, is set up as the white boy who alone can appreciate good music — he certainly appreciates it more than does the slick Keith (John Legend), whose successful, bland-pop band Sebastian is obliged to join to make some money. Mia shows some acting chops in an interrupted audition, but it’s a measure of the movie’s itchy impatience — and that of its young writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) — that when Mia rents out theater space and performs her one-woman show, we don’t see any of it.

No, Chazelle would rather stage elaborate musical numbers, many of which glisten with unmistakable flop sweat. In classic musicals, we didn’t feel (though we could infer) the hard labor that went into the music and the choreography. Here, I kept imagining how many brutal takes must have been necessary to nail such sequences as the meant-to-be-a-wow opener, set on an L.A. freeway. The movie keeps stopping dead for numbers that seem meant simultaneously to honor and to outdo the musicals of yore, with crescendos and fireworks; for a while, we get one climax after another, so it’s not surprising that the film burns itself out fairly quickly, with an hour or so left to go. Gosling and Stone try, but they just don’t speak the language of musicals natively or fluently. We’re put in the position of assessing their crooning or belting as talented amateurs.

La La Land is being predicted (even by its detractors) as the big Oscar winner because, like the equally meretricious The Artist of a few years ago, it pays loving, moist-eyed tribute to The Magic of Movies. (A clip from Rebel Without a Cause provides a few seconds of reprieve from this movie’s faux-classic scheme.) It’s comparable to old Hollywood in at least one significant way: its vision is blindingly white, with John Legend brought in to play a black music star who just isn’t as serious about black music as a white man is. This, apparently, is the sort of thing that passed muster over the six years of writing and revising that it took Chazelle to bring La La Land to the screen. For all that, for all the time and effort the movie took, very little passion comes through. Technically it’s whiz-bang — sometimes it unavoidably comes off as “Hey look Ma, I’m a director!” — but it’s an empty truffle, all sweet surface but nothing inside. A white-chocolate truffle, at that.

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Accidental Incest

May 8, 2016

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In the affably filthy sex farce Accidental Incest, the title tells the tale: the libertine couple Milton (Johnny Sederquist) and Kendra (Elyssa Baldassarri) both feel like soulmates to each other, but that’s just because they’re technically brother and sister — the separately sired results of their mutual father’s sperm-bank donation. They discover this about a third of the way into the film, and then the plot deals with the consequences, going deeper and darker though no less outrageous. Providence director Richard Griffin, working with a script by Lenny Schwartz based on Schwartz’s play, takes this taboo and good-naturedly manhandles it into service as the premise of a romantic comedy. This, heaven help us, is the ever-transgressive Griffin and Schwartz’s version of a Hollywood meet-cute.

Filmed mostly in microbudget-artsy black and white, Accidental Incest could be described as a boxing match between Kevin Smith and John Waters, with Waters handily winning and then going off to fuck Andy Milligan in a bathroom. The movie has the raffish sexual candor of Smith’s best early comedies, the prankish perversity of Waters, and the all-encompassing hostility of Milligan. Griffin keeps things jumping visually, especially in the sex scenes, edited and rhythmed for comedy rather than eroticism (which, contrasted with the usual po-faced treatment of carnality in American film, just serves to make the festivities more erotic).

The movie signals its stage origins by having the lead characters address us directly, a useful way to cut to the chase. Milton and Kendra have been leaving relationship wreckage everywhere they go, and it becomes clear that the reason is that they hadn’t met the right person yet — i.e., each other. Sederquist, a manic Griffin Dunne lookalike, and Baldassarri, whose smile has a hint of Anne Hathaway innocence, dive into the deep end of sin and hysteria and passion, with Griffin’s eager encouragement. Because these characters start out so scummy and irredeemable, we paradoxically believe that much more in their redemption via taboo.

Griffin’s roots are in disreputable genres — horror, sci-fi — and he and Schwartz throw in some fantasy here; there are angels and a hipster God (Aaron Andrade) who performs a rap. Accidental Incest is partly a musical, and there are some comically bitter or obscene songs here, though not enough to dominate the narrative. They’re essentially what Roger Ebert used to call semi-OLIs — semi-obligatory lyrical interludes; they’re smoothly performed and a welcome way of changing up the tone. The cast is fiercely game, and I confess I laughed hardest at Jamie Dufault’s near-psychotically closeted Alex (Kendra’s ex) and Josh Fontaine (whose comic timing is flawless) as the Gimp-like Adam. Many of the actors are Griffin mainstays, and once again he brings in Michael Thurber, who photographs so beautifully, especially in black and white, and emotes so dead-on satirically that if John Waters ever makes another film he should look to Rhode Island.

If the title Accidental Incest puts you off, truthfully Griffin and Schwartz don’t do much to win you over. It’s as cracked as it sounds. Those who respond to the title with an amused, curious attitude of “Oh, this I gotta see” are probably better-prepared for the party. It’s more sex-positive and less hung-up than the other incest comedy you may have heard of, David O. Russell’s debut Spanking the Monkey. And if it sounds like your cup of iniquity, it could use your help: the movie’s DVD distributor has been gun-shy about it due to its title — and it’s not something you’ll find in a Redbox in any event — so if you’d like to support Griffin and his brand of happy degeneracy, your best bet is video on demand or amazon.com.

The Fly

April 24, 2016

flyIt’s hard to fathom that it’s been decades since David Cronenberg was actually a horror-movie director. Yes, some of his films of recent years have had horrific elements — say, 2014’s Maps to the Stars — but The Fly, released thirty years ago, represented Cronenberg’s farewell to a certain type of sci-fi/horror movie he’d practically patented, the icky bio-horror film that treated bodily mutation not as a threat but as a source of fascination — even self-realization. Movies like Shivers, Rabid and The Brood were 101 courses; The Fly was Cronenberg’s doctoral thesis, and it turned out to be the biggest hit he would ever have.

For a brief moment in the summer of 1986, the mass audience bought what Cronenberg was selling — a doomed romance packaged as a dare-you-to-sit-through-it gross-out. The Fly was the perfect vehicle to introduce Cronenberg to the larger mainstream, which he then wasted no time alienating (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash). Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, never more charismatic) is the foxiest and most attractive of the Cronenberg avatars, a genius whose motion sickness has driven him to develop a means of teleportation. Seth shows his work to science reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis in a sharp early performance), though it isn’t quite ready for prime time — the “telepod” has trouble with organic material like flesh.

Cronenberg readies us for the nausea to come when an early experiment involving a baboon goes haywire. The Fly goes incredibly fast — Cronenberg’s regular editor, Ronald Sanders, clips the scenes to a bleeding edge, and it’s not long at all before Seth — jealous because his new lover Veronica still has contact with her old lover and magazine editor (John Getz) — gets drunk and decides to teleport himself. Of course, a fly stows away for the ride, and when Seth is re-integrated in the other telepod, the molecular-genetic structure of the fly has fused with Seth’s. He becomes Brundlefly, and he gains superhuman strength and speed before deteriorating into a lumpy, grotesque creature who has to vomit on his food to digest it. (Emetophobes are, understandably, not among the movie’s fans.) Eventually Seth begins to lose his humanity and pass over into insect consciousness, leading to his frightening monologue about “insect politics,” which serves to explain his personality change. “I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it,” Seth clarifies (sort of), “but the insect is awake.”

Aside from having a Fox-produced (and Mel Brooks-sponsored) big-movie sheen — and Howard Shore’s most dramatic score this side of Lord of the Rings — this may be Cronenberg’s most emotionally accessible film, and it really only has the three characters, other than sidebar figures who drift into Seth’s path briefly. It’s fast, and it’s also stripped down; you’re out of there in less than ninety minutes, but by then, you might be ready to go. The Fly also marks the beginning of Cronenberg’s second phase of films, the terribly sad meditations on the fragility of sanity (his next, Dead Ringers, is among the most depressing movies ever made). The movie follows Seth through the twin breakdowns of mind and body.

The transition wouldn’t work nearly so well, of course, without Geena Davis convincing us that she still loves the man underneath the monstrosity, and without Jeff Goldblum persuading us the man is still there. There’s none of Goldblum’s later grinning, apartments.com-hawking smugness in this hyperverbal turn. Seth maintains a lively scientific interest in his own grotesque transformation, more for his own edification than for posterity. Cronenberg was right to keep Seth restlessly eloquent right up to the full transformation — Seth crests on his own ersatz insights, like someone on a cocaine rush, and then collapses into rage and lust, while Veronica looks on helplessly. (Without being condescendingly dumbed-down — she does know her way around a lab, after all — Davis’s Veronica is the audience’s stand-in, staring aghast as Seth riffs mumbo-jumbo about “the plasma pool.”) Seth has a way of dancing rhetorical circles around his topic, then focusing his ire abruptly on his listener and spitting vituperation. Nobody can keep up with Seth; he’s the foremost expert on his condition because he’s its only host body.

The emotions as well as the intellect carry us through the gushers of goop. At its best, the movie comes close to the power of classic tragedy — the moods are exaltation, dread, disgust, grief. Some have taken it for an allegory about AIDS or cancer, but Cronenberg means it to be less ripped-from-the-headlines and more timeless: a meditation on anything that changes us physically, and the corresponding mental changes. After The Fly, there was really nowhere else Cronenberg could take his body-horror obsessions. It’s a remarkably economical distillation and commercial apotheosis of his pet themes, and it works brutally well in the realms of heartbreak and skin-crawl. It’s a full package.

Anomalisa

February 21, 2016

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As if to show that the Oscars can still gesture towards meritocracy, the emotionally wild and tangled stop-motion effort Anomalisa is actually, amazingly, one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature. It doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning — not against a Pixar film — but I’ll be rooting for it just the same. Anomalisa is the first film in seven years by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), who shares his directorial credit with stop-motion artist Duke Johnson (the Christmas episode of Community, among other things). Kaufman’s screenplay began life as a “sound play”; that it has become something often ravishingly visual, wrought in perhaps the most tactile of animated media, is one of the film’s many ironies.

The movie follows the slumping figure of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis and sculpted to look a bit like Edward Woodward), a motivational author specializing in advice for customer service reps. Michael checks into a fancy Cincinnati hotel before a scheduled lecture, and as he interacts with various people we can perceive his problem: Everyone other than Michael, male and female, young and old, is voiced by Tom Noonan, who doesn’t do much to differentiate each person vocally. That isn’t Noonan’s fault, it’s a major theme in the movie: To Michael, everyone has begun to sound the same, as though the entire world spoke with the same vaguely creepy voice. (There’s a paranoid delusion that everyone you meet is the same person, and the film’s hotel, La Fregoli, is named after it.)

Michael wades numbly in a sea of Noonans until he meets Lisa, voiced shyly and affectingly by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lisa can’t stop putting herself down, and she has rather banal things to say, but Michael can’t get enough of her voice; it’s been so long since he’s heard anything but Tom Noonan. (No offense meant to Noonan, who does have a nice way with speech — and who has directed some underseen films that could have inspired Kaufman himself — but listening to him all the time might be like being stuck inside the “Malkovich Malkovich” scene in Being John Malkovich.) Since Lisa doesn’t sound like anyone else, she is an anomaly — hence, Anomalisa. Michael invites Lisa back to his room, they talk, she sings, he weeps, they make love. If you think Kaufman will leave well enough alone, though, you don’t know Kaufman.

Why is it Lisa, and not, say, her friend Emily, or Michael’s ex Bella, or a sullen waitress, who speaks with the voice that unlocks Michael’s soul? We’re not meant to know. She distinguishes herself by her lack of sameness — aside from her voice, she has a slight disfigurement near her right eye, hidden by a sheet of streaked hair — but though she sounds appealing, an aural oasis for Michael and for us, she doesn’t really stand apart in terms of personality or intellect. This is, if anything, an even more damning detail and nail in Michael’s coffin. Is it possible to objectify a woman by her voice the way one would with her physical attributes? If so, Michael manages it.

Anomalisa fits perfectly with Kaufman’s other oddball, theatre-of-the-absurd efforts that devote a large number of moving parts to tell small stories that are really the biggest stories. In Kaufman’s only other directorial outing, the astounding Synecdoche, New York, he focused on art as life and vice versa. Here he meditates on love and how rare it is to find the real deal, and how common it is for the lonely person to lunge at anything that seems like love. Michael sits across from Lisa at breakfast and realizes, perhaps for the first time, that it isn’t her, it isn’t any of the people who cause him pain; it’s him. This is all done — beautifully — in stop-motion because Michael is manipulated by forces beyond his control. Anomalisa is a great film. Charlie Kaufman isn’t getting any younger, though, and we’ve spent seven years without any movies from him. Here’s hoping the next one gets financed more easily.

Carol

February 7, 2016

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Todd Haynes has spent the majority of his career directing films that call back to the golden age of actresses — his muses have included Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, and a Barbie version of Karen Carpenter. Haynes provides primo roles for women at a time when few other filmmakers do. But does he really care all that much about the women he puts onscreen? I value Haynes as an artist, but his art isn’t revelatory or emotional; it signifies feelings rather than sharing them.

The multiple-Oscar-nominated Carol is yet another Haynes meditation on homosexuality in an era (the ’50s) that didn’t tolerate it. (He treated the topic literally in Far from Heaven, metaphorically in several other movies.) Carol (Blanchett) is a well-to-do woman in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Their differences are extremely irreconcilable: despite having a daughter with him, she’s just not that into him, or into his entire gender, for that matter. Carol has previously detained herself with “best friend” Abby (Sarah Paulson), and of late her gaze has fallen upon young Therese (Rooney Mara), toy-store shopgirl and aspiring photographer.

Therese’s artistic proclivities (including tickling the ivories with a bit of Billie Holiday) and dark, severe bangs may remind viewers of the novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose novel The Price of Salt served as the script’s basis, and who admitted that Therese was more or less her avatar. Too bad, then, that Therese’s portrayer isn’t up to the level on which Highsmith operated. Rooney Mara, I fear, is her generation’s Jennifer Connolly, a gothy but inexpressive actress deeply overrated by critics perhaps enamored of her bone structure. Therese is supposed to be a nervous neophyte, but casting this mild, emotionally null presence opposite Blanchett, who emotes ripely in the manner of classic Hollywood divas, is almost cruel. (Blanchett’s peak moment of golden-age noir efflorescence comes when she gets to point a gun and snarl “Where’s the tape, you son of a bitch?”)

Haynes hit his own peak of erotica in his feature debut, Poison, during its Genet-inspired prison sequence, and it’s been down a cold hill ever since. When Carol finally takes Therese to bed, we get oblique fragments of their lovemaking, and it’s as dry and po-faced as anything else in their relationship. Their love involves, as far as I can determine, being somber in close proximity; there are no shared jokes, no mutual interests. Therese is a proto-bohemian without the sullen attitude of one, and Blanchett nicely conveys Carol’s tickled attraction to her, but Mara doesn’t have the tools to do likewise. Therese’s big emotional moments amount to her staring off and sobbing while Mara is obviously thinking of something really sad. (By contrast, consider Kyle Chandler’s empathetic turn as a husband who could come off as a monster, but instead presents as a pained man sunk in incomprehension and insecurity.)

Yet maybe that makes Mara the ideal new muse for Todd Haynes: she signifies rather than feels, and so does he. Carol looks terrific, as all Haynes films do; working in Super 16mm, cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a master class in the seethe and texture of grain. (In a late moment when Therese and a co-worker are painting her apartment walls blue, the surface looks like the screen of a staticky TV.) But the score, by the usually superb Carter Burwell, sounds like unused music for a Godfrey Reggio travelogue — the tone is a bit too tastefully lachrymose. I’m all for Haynes making throwback dramas that great actresses like Blanchett or Julianne Moore can tear into, but I’d like to think the deluxe emoting they do is in service to anything besides Haynes’ deadpan appropriation of ancient styles and tropes. Tarantino, for instance, works this way but giggles in appreciation; Haynes rubs his chin and says “Interesting.”

Madam Satan

September 5, 2015

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Pre-code Hollywood films tend to be over-the-top, and the one that sails highest over is generally agreed to be Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 wonder Madam Satan. Granted, it takes an hour and fifty-six minutes to tell a story that could be told in ten; bloat was ever DeMille’s weakness. But bloat can also encompass other, zestier forms of excess. Madam Satan treads water for about its first hour, but then we board a zeppelin for 1930’s most ostentatious costume party, and pretty much all is forgiven. It becomes something of a squarer American version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with singing and dancing and, I’m sure, plenty of illicit sex in the dark nooks and crannies of the dirigible. We don’t see the orgies, of course, but we can certainly infer them, as audiences just emerging from the Roaring Twenties likely did.

We begin with marital tension: husband Bob (Reginald Denny) returns home with his friend Jimmy (Roland Young) after a night of painting the town red. We’re to believe that Bob, whose wife Angela (Kay Johnson) is a bit too cold for his taste, has been doing the Humpty Dance with bad girl Trixie (Lillian Roth). But judging from the way Bob and Jimmy engage in a mostly clothed shower together, gradually disrobing each other, the competition Angela has to worry about isn’t Trixie. Homosexuality was notoriously coded in pre-code movies, though I wonder if DeMille or his two (female) screenwriters had that remotely in mind. It was a more “innocent” time, after all, and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes two men showering together is just two men showering together.

Anyway, we spend an awful lot of time on the Bob/Trixie/Angela triangle, with heavily overextended farce involving Trixie pretending to be Jimmy’s wife when the suspicious Angela comes to visit and decides to stay the night, and so on. It’s not terrible, but one does twitch impatiently, waiting for the good stuff to hurry up and get here. The stodgy Angela swears to the crassly disdainful Trixie (sounds like Gollum’s “tricksy”) that she’ll heat up her act to win back Bob’s heart and libido. As if on cue, the film’s second half arrives, along with the dirigible and a character called Electricity who seems to rule the evening; perhaps we can number Madam Satan among David Lynch’s influences.

The spectacle that follows isn’t exactly Busby Berkeley. DeMille plants his camera in front of a lot of people dancing, and for the most part there’s no pattern or choreography to it. It’s just teeming movement. More excitement and amusement can be found when various women are introduced to the other partygoers, each getting a chance to show off her outrageous get-up. Women, I reflected, no longer get opportunities to slip into insane, shiny, wonderful costumes in movies; even the outfits in Maleficent and Snow White and the Huntsman leaned towards the grimdark. The closest we’ve come recently was the flappers in The Great Gatsby. The most aggressively batty costume of all, of course, adorns the mysterious Madam Satan, who is, obviously to us and to no one else, Angela in disguise (and using a thick Hollywood idea of ze French accent). Bob doesn’t recognize his wife, perhaps under the Batman principle that a person’s nose and chin are insufficient prompts for identification as long as the mask has pointy ears or pointy horns.

It all builds up to a thunderstorm, courtesy of our buddy Electricity I guess, that severs the zeppelin from its moorings and endangers all aboard. So what begins as marital uptightness about infidelity shades into bitter, jealous mask-wearing at an orgiastic bash of one-percenters before sliding into apocalypse — Madam Satan, I was delighted to discover, was Eyes Wide Shut seventy years early. Could Kubrick’s swan song owe as much to DeMille as to Schnitzler? Regardless, the revellers float gently from harm to land (or water) via parachutes, thanks to special effects that, considering their vintage, aren’t half bad. Madam Satan was an expensive flop, and its sportive star Kay Johnson, a DeMille protégée, didn’t enjoy much of a career when all was said and done. (Co-star Lillian Roth, of I’ll Cry Tomorrow fame/infamy, had a longer fifteen minutes.) And that frumpy first half needed trimming and needs patient viewers. But once it starts to sparkle, it doesn’t stop until it stops.

Brace

July 5, 2015

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Brace is a pocket-size (24 minutes) romantic anecdote that engages an under-represented group: female-to-male transgender people. Adam (Jake Graf) is searching. Fresh out of a relationship with a woman, he drops into London’s gay nightlife to see if the company of men works any better for him. He meets Rocky (Harry Rundle), a delicate-looking young man so nicknamed because of the fights he’s been in (“I didn’t say I started them”). Both people have a secret — the same secret, as it turns out. Adam and Rocky are both transmen.

Adam is a bit further along, having obviously started on testosterone treatment and gained manly stubble. He looks like a cross between Jeremy Renner and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, two actors whose soulfulness plays against their masculinity. Adam seems like your typical brooding gay man. Rocky is smooth-skinned and wide-eyed, an innocent. One can see what Adam sees in Rocky, and vice versa.

Written by Graf, and co-directed by video artist Sophy Holland and actress Alicya Eyo, Brace is a compact story of difficult love that segues organically into a tale of violent intolerance. The gay-bashing scene at about the two-thirds point isn’t there only so that we can feel sad; it moves the plot along as the victim of the beating effectively becomes outed. The directors stage the violence so that we wince, but don’t rub our noses in it. The nightlife scenes, by entertaining contrast, are brief but punchy; unlike similar scenes in feature-length films, they don’t drone on long past the point at which we want to go home.

Adam’s ex Zoe (Georgia Winters) stays friends with him and even accompanies him and his friends to clubs; when the boys plan to go to a men-only joint, Zoe graciously bows out, even though she must be aware of the irony. (Adam is pre-op.) The directors handle Zoe as though they’ve been in her shoes, while Jake Graf has been saying in interviews that Brace has a strong element of autobiography. The story and dialogue feel lived, authentic.

I sometimes say a feature-length movie needed to be shorter, or to stay a short film if it had begun life as one (see Eat with Me). This movie needs and deserves to be fleshed out to regular length. It ends somewhat abruptly, and I wanted to know more — about Adam and Rocky, and whether they overcome their secrets. From Boy Meets Girl to Transparent to Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, we’ve seen the male-to-female journey so often lately it’s almost in danger of becoming a trope. Female-to-male is relatively fresh in narrative film, and it brings up a whole other volume of interesting things to say about gender and its performative aspects in culture. I’d welcome a longer Brace, a longer visit with these people.

Brace is viewable now on Vimeo.