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Licorice Pizza

March 6, 2022

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When you Google Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Licorice Pizza, you get a list of questions people have asked about it. The first question, amusingly, is “What was the point of Licorice Pizza?” The point, since you may have been one of many who asked, is to ramble and stroll, sink into the vibe, tone, flavor. The movie is set in 1973, but is largely unlike Anderson’s ‘70s epic Boogie Nights. There’s no sex (though there’s some crude talk about it) and the porn is limited to a glancingly seen newspaper ad. In part, Licorice Pizza is an affectionate and fairly nonjudgmental study of attitudes and personalities that possibly could only have thrived in the early ‘70s. The more one thinks about it later, the larger and more enveloping Anderson’s vision comes to seem. 

On the most basic level, it’s a study of two young denizens of the Valley, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twentysomething Alana Kane (Alana Haim) as they learn how to navigate the adult world. Some adult world: most of the grown-ups in it are either cases of arrested development or people charged with serving them and enabling their childishness. Gary may be a minor but he’s already a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood hustle, dining out on his tiny acting resume and leaping for whatever get-rich-quick scheme lands in his view: selling waterbeds, opening a pinball joint. Alana goes along with him, hitching a ride on his ambitions, since she doesn’t seem to have any. The two bicker and hang out — it’s a classic hang-out movie. 

Licorice Pizza is structured as a tall tale of youth in the land of dreams; it’s loosely based on the memories of Gary Goetzman, who grew up to produce films by Jonathan Demme and then by Tom Hanks. The movie’s Gary has a lot of drive but is also still awfully immature. However old she is (maybe 25, maybe older), Alana is hardened in some ways but soft in others; she still lives with her parents and her sisters (all played by Haim’s real family; she and her sisters form the rock band HAIM). Gary seems pointed towards legitimacy by way of working for himself, while Alana drifts into volunteering for closeted politician Joel Wachs. Gary wants, and Alana, who doesn’t know what she wants, settles for being wanted. When they’re together, they breathe the same warm air and mingle spiritually, platonically.

Oh, but Anderson sets a lot of pieces moving around the central couple. The San Fernando Valley we see in Licorice Pizza is a mostly safe playpen for aging actors (Sean Penn as a macho-idiot actor based on William Holden), crazypants producers (Bradley Cooper personifying rich white privilege as superproducer Jon Peters), an oil embargo and the resulting crisis (gas at a whopping 55 cents a gallon! To be fair, that’d be $3.48 now), plus odd details like an atheist Jew attending a shabbat dinner, or the mysterious guy with the 12 shirt who turns up a couple of times. (A Google search will bring you various theories about the 12 guy.) Licorice Pizza at times seems like a spaghetti bowl of unfinished threads, though this isn’t the sort of movie that likes its sentences trimmed and brought to a halt. It’s a moment, an eternal summer, a slice of (licorice pizza) life.

Anderson isn’t Mark Twain; persons attempting to find a plot in this movie will not be shot, though they may be disappointed, even flummoxed. Movies are so expensive, and such a risk now, that we aren’t used to a film that just eases itself into a jacuzzi alongside its characters and digs their energy. But that’s generally been Anderson’s M.O. Shaggy movies like this and Inherent Vice are content to capture a mood, the conflict or harmony of personalities. Haim gives one of the great natural, nothin’-to-it performances, almost innocent in her transparency. Sometimes, actors who are primarily musicians (Courtney Love is another) just give the audience everything without coyness or reserve. Hoffman, who from some angles bears an eerie resemblance to his father Phillip Seymour Hoffman, embraces new experience with all senses open and alive. If you don’t agree early on that these two are worth following wherever they wander, maybe the movie isn’t your thing. I was happy to be in their company in a time and place where bad or worse things were going on unchecked (the casual racism, sexism and homophobia of the day) but random magic also wafted sweetly in the night breeze.

Violet

October 31, 2021

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Olivia Munn has been on my radar since 2006, when she started as one of the hosts of G4’s goofball gamers-and-geeks program Attack of the Show. Even then, when the show had her jumping into a giant chocolate pie wearing a French maid outfit, Munn had a certain spark and wit, and perhaps an aptitude for things beyond farce. All she needed, I thought, was for someone to notice. In the years since, Munn has appeared in this and that, as a lead or as support, but it took the former actress Justine Bateman — maybe not coincidentally also underestimated — to bring the best out of Munn. 

Violet, which Bateman wrote and directed, is a highly interiorized psychodrama in which Munn, as the eponymous movie-production exec, deals with intrusive sounds, images, and an inner male voice, all telling her she’s not good enough. Using editing tricks as well as an effective technique of slowly turning the screen red to suggest Violet’s growing anger, Bateman puts us inside Violet’s head, feelings, wants and needs and fears. She makes it look easy, and some viewers may shrug and say “Is that all there is?” — the film is not plot-bound — but I’d like to point out how rare it is these days for a filmmaker to make time to get to know a woman. It’s a true feminist work, and it doesn’t pretend the usual suspects (men, work, family, friends) will fix what’s wrong with Violet.

And what is wrong? Violet has a flashback to her unpleasant mother chastising her as a little girl for backing out of helping a friend. We gather that Violet learned to tamp her emotions down and keep everyone else happy while ignoring her own happiness. She developed an inner critic (voiced by Justin Theroux) that keeps telling her things like “Be nice” or “You’re a baby.” Violet’s genuine thoughts and wants are written on the screen as she interacts with people who don’t really care what she wants. Since the inner voice once advised her to leave candles burning in an apartment she shared with a boyfriend, you’d think she’d stop listening to it, but such things are much easier said than done.

Charismatic and convincingly torn up inside, Munn is pretty much front and center throughout. She takes inspiration from the screen-written thoughts about feeling uncomfortable in her own skin; about the only person Violet might feel okay talking to is her lifelong friend Red (Luke Bracey), a screenwriter. If we ask why Violet’s milieu is Hollywood, the answer might be that Bateman is writing what she knows. It also allows for conflicts involving what Violet wants to produce; her pet project is a poetic indie script called Fox Run, though her boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) knows it has a slim chance of getting financed. At first, the boss seems to drop his mask and show his true misogynist colors a bit quickly, but Bateman is saying that this is what happens when a powerful man’s ego is pinpricked, his privilege challenged. We remember that insecure men are generally the ones who determine which, and whose, stories we are told in movies. Bateman’s two male co-producers must be secure indeed.

Violet is not man-bashing, though. A few women also annoy or disrespect Violet, and the root of her self-loathing appears to be her mother. Bateman’s own leanings are apparent in the casting, which brings back women who haven’t been in movies much of late — Laura San Giacomo, Bonnie Bedelia, Anne Ramsay, Colleen Camp. The crew, though, is gender-mixed, as we see in a post-credits montage of various technicians, ending with Bateman herself, passing by the camera and pausing for a smile, a pose, a peace gesture. Their efforts have given us a supple and empathetic story of a woman who needs to start listening to herself, if her self is still in there somewhere.

Pig

August 8, 2021

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Frustrated viewers may pick apart Pig until there’s nothing left. Pig is one of those quietly opaque art-house wonders, in which volumes of meaning are meant to be expressed by what’s not said. But more often than not it just comes across as muffled and boring, despite Nicolas Cage’s implosive restraint in the lead. Cage plays Robin Feld, who lives off the grid in the Oregon woods with his beloved pig. The pig is great at sniffing out truffles, and Robin sells them to a Portland food supplier (Alex Wolff), whose business is in competition with his rich, shady father (Adam Arkin). Late at night, a couple of meth-heads break into Robin’s shack and steal the pig. Robin spends the rest of the film trying to get her back.

Pig takes the form of a mystery wherein Robin goes from place to place in the big bad city, questioning various people. The subtext here is that Robin, who suffered a grave loss that pushed him into solitude, is taking a tour through his past … which turns out to be the seamy, violent underworld of … the Portland gourmet-restaurant scene. If you think about that for a minute it sounds richly ridiculous, and since the movie itself is so dolorous and glacially paced, we may not feel generous enough to supply metaphorical analysis to it. The movie is decidedly not for the sort of moviegoers who stand out in the parking lot afterwards saying things like “Why did he do that?” and “Who were all those people?”

All those people are from Robin’s past life; they also represent something or another. They would have to, because the first-time writer-director Michael Sarnoski doesn’t seem to care about them as people. One scene between Robin and a baker is filmed entirely in long shot; we never even see what the baker looks like. This sort of pompously minimalist filmmaking makes me itchy. Pig, I think, is using its obscure milieu to represent the larger capitalist society that grinds up good people, sends them grieving into the woods, and steals their pigs. But the tone is dreary and sometimes off-putting, and the camera isn’t where it needs to be half the time. We can see what Sarnoski is going for, but the drab conception trips him up. It’s depressive and logy and, even at only 92 minutes, a tough sit.

Cage often does manic jazz riffs, but this time he limits the number of notes he allows himself. It allows Cage to focus, bear down. The pain radiates from Robin in muted waves; two beatings early in the movie leave his face smeared with blood, which he never bothers to wash off. We empathize even though the specifics of Robin’s inner anguish are only supplied to us piecemeal. I imagine Cage reading the artfully fill-in-the-blanks script and saying “I can do something with this.” What he does with it is probably worth seeing, though honestly he’s been far better, and the movie leans too heavily on him to hold itself together. A key moment near the end — even here, Sarnoski pretentiously cuts the sound — provides the catharsis for the whole creaky contraption, and with anyone but Cage it’d be a bad joke.

Some will succumb to the taciturn literariness of Pig, and others, like me, will grow restless. The narrative arrow couldn’t be straighter — Robin wants his pig back — but the filmmaking lacks urgency. I wasn’t feeling it, and I wasn’t buying it. It happens. I’m perfectly willing to concede that Pig is a work of art that just bounces off me for whatever reason. It’s certainly not the work of the usual anonymous shmoes. Sarnoski clearly cares about this story; I don’t at all doubt his sincerity. But the connection between art and us can be so delicate, so easily broken — or stronger than a steel cable — all depending on us. Ultimately, I think, the technique — recall that long shot of Robin and the baker — kept me at arm’s length, kept me from wanting to engage it as the sort of art that requires us to finish it. Some will finish it and come away with a compelling meditation on life. I came away with fragmented memories of Cage whenever the director got out of his way.

Fear and Loathing in Aspen

July 25, 2021

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They keep dredging up Hunter S. Thompson’s bones, even as the passage of time pegs him as a cautionary tale, an Icarus who flew too close to his own inner sun. This time his skeleton is being made to speak for a good cause, I guess — the importance of voting. Fear and Loathing in Aspen is a largely fictionalized and aimless account of Thompson’s run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, in 1970. The story has been told before, in Thompson’s own “The Battle of Aspen” — his first Rolling Stone piece — and in last year’s documentary Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb. This microbudget docudrama can’t afford the star power or psychedelic imagery of previous HST cinema (Where the Buffalo Roam, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary), though it does one thing right; its mildly fuzzy-grainy look makes Aspen out as a homey idyll worth fighting for. (It was shot in Silverton, about four hours south of Aspen.)

Primarily a writer/director, the lead actor Jay Bulger bravely steps into Thompson’s Converse shoes, competing not only with those who went before (Depp, Murray) but with copious recordings of HST himself. Bulger does look the part, and he sets his body or jaw at querulous angles while his voice dips into Thompson’s gruff, rounded tones. It’s just that he isn’t tasked to move much beyond impersonation, and whatever Thompson feels about his quixotic run at the system — fear, loathing, hope, anything — remains a blank to us. His supporters seem to care more about whether he wins or loses than he does, and that puts a real damper on how much we care, especially if we remember the actual outcome. If there’s a larger story here, writer/director Bobby Kennedy III (yes, RFK’s grandson) doesn’t locate it.

The film is edited at a clip (it’s only an hour and twenty minutes plus end credits) but never really comes to rest. Too much of the narrative flips by as montage — Thompson gladhanding potential voters, the powers that be trying to squelch him — and only briefly settles down to spend time with Thompson or his family or his campaign manager (Amaryllis Fox, who is Kennedy’s wife). So the film leaves the impression that the events, which blur past, were more significant than the people involved. Thompson is always spouting rural, isolationist rhetoric (being able to drop a dookie in his own back yard seems important to him), but we don’t get a sense of what the place means to him. At some points he seems to be running just to spite the clownish cops. (Are there only two? What, if anything, do the other cops make of Thompson?) There doesn’t seem to be much at stake. A certain lack of focus is probably baked into any Hunter Thompson story, but in that case we need more than a tepidly reanimated Raoul Duke to hold our attention.

Fear and Loathing in Aspen isn’t terrible — in some ways it’s preferable to the SNL-level tomfoolery of Where the Buffalo Roam insofar as it tries to ground itself in some semblance of the real world — but it’s tough to recommend when Thompson’s own account is right there (it’s in his essential collection The Great Shark Hunt). The definitive aesthetic action painting of Thompson’s chaotic realm will likely remain Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which at least offered a surplus of bad trips (not all narcotic) for Gilliam to illustrate. This film doesn’t add to the HST tapestry of representation; Bulger tries, but lacks the inner wildness that Depp and Murray had. (Those two also had the advantage of hanging out with the real deal, something sadly denied future interpreters of Gonzo since 2005.) 

The final shots leave us with an image of Thompson outdoors grinning manically up at the clean sky, the savage beast restored to nature and soothed. This beast, this giant, is too untamed and pure for politics or society. Rejected by a majority of his fellow townspeople, he retreats into solitude, and from there, in real life, a prolonged slide into solipsism and self-parody. The family of man is decadent and depraved, Thompson seemed to conclude, and he withdrew in disgust (which, as Richard Linklater told us, is not the same as apathy). Meanwhile, as the movie has it, the corrupt sheriff stays in power and things, presumably, do not improve. There’s something sour and sad behind those last shots. The movie carries the inadvertent toxic message that voting doesn’t change anything, running for office doesn’t change anything, so you might as well get blitzed and shoot at things on your back acre for all the good anything’s going to do. Well, thanks.

News of the World

January 10, 2021

news-of-the-world-universal-pictures-1“We’re all hurting. These are difficult times,” says Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) to a packed crowd in News of the World. The year is 1870, not 2020, but the words ring accidentally true for us. Captain Kidd is a remorseful Confederate veteran who now makes his living by traveling from town to town, reading newspapers to the gathered folk. This was when news was still valued, though at one point Captain Kidd runs afoul of a man who seems to lord it over his town and its news; the local paper is full of accounts of the man’s glory. This, too, is relevant to us, though perhaps not so accidentally. The movie is about atoning for one’s past through usefulness to the larger community. As Captain Kidd opines, his is not a rich man’s occupation. One hopes it will come to be valued again.

News of the World is decidedly a change of (literal) pace for director Paul Greengrass, famous for his herky-jerky Bourne movies and his stylistically fitful studies of modern historical chaos (United 93, Bloody Sunday, Captain Phillips). Here, Captain Kidd covers the miles on horseback or coach or foot, and Greengrass eases up accordingly; you’d have to go back to his 1998 romantic drama The Theory of Flight to find him this becalmed, this steady of brushstroke. Tom Hanks obliges Greengrass with a contemplative turn, tight with grief and guilt, but open to the warmth of company. On his way from one Texas dustpile to another, Captain Kidd encounters a felled coach, a lynched Black man hanging from a nearby tree, and a girl (Helena Zengel) who speaks no English — just a smattering of German, from her original family, and Kiowa, from the tribe that took her in as one of their own. Captain Kidd takes it upon himself (after several false starts) to bring her “home” to her aunt and uncle.

With the astringent Greengrass in charge and the increasingly no-nonsense Hanks in the saddle, the story is approached with minimal cuteness; a certain level of manipulation is built into the material (from a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles), but mainly the film steers around it or tamps it down. If not for a dusting of PG-13 epithets and a stretch of ugliness involving an owlhoot who seeks to buy the girl, and then comes after Captain Kidd with two other men, this could be a family Western, sharing some traits with True Grit (either version), but with the dark undertone of The Searchers. The resulting shootout between Captain Kidd and the men, bolstered by the girl’s quick thinking, is a deft piece of suspense. Even there, Greengrass doesn’t revert to his old habits of jittery handheld camera or Cuisinart editing. Post-Civil War, even gunfights take a long time. Greengrass and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski pause and gaze upon the luxurious, unspoiled expanse of New Mexico (doubling for Texas).

Given that we just watched dirtbags shuffling through the halls of the Capitol bearing the Confederate flag, it may strike some as an iffy prospect to be asked to feel for a man who fought for that side, even if he is played by Tom Hanks. But Hanks imbues Captain Kidd with an intelligence that tells us the captain was most likely conscripted into defense of his birthplace, and was not acting out of any particular fidelity to the traditions of slavery. Still, we gather Captain Kidd sent his share of Union soldiers to Valhalla, regretfully, which makes him a complicated hero. (In the book, Kidd fought in the other, less divisive but equally noxious War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.) As we saw in Saving Private Ryan and Greyhound, Hanks is a natural at painting men skilled at war who take no pleasure in it. That prior experience with Hanks does a lot of the movie’s work.

I don’t think News of the World was consciously made as “the movie we need right now” (how many films in the past year have been thus described?) — it’s a leisurely tale as much about storytelling as about anything else. One nice thing Hanks does is to refrain from making Captain Kidd any kind of great raconteur or proto-anchorman. Standing before his dusty crowds, Kidd squints through spectacles, bending almost in half over the newspaper he’s reading from. He seems to be doing this simply because it’s something he can do, not because he has any passion for it. By the end, though, the pleasures of story have brought animation to Kidd’s reading and wit to his telling. And we appreciate the happy ending because don’t we all deserve one? These are, after all, difficult times.

The Year in Review

December 21, 2020

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So, how’s your year been?

If anything can be universally agreed-upon these days, it’s that 2020 has been the crappiest year in living memory (and as I write this, it still has ten days left to mess with us). Particularly battered this holiday season are those who make, distribute and exhibit movies. Now, I know it’s hard for most of us to feel sorry for stars and executives who command and get seven- or eight-figure salaries. But the working folks, from the assistant focus puller to the stand-in to the ticket-takers at the local mall, are suffering. There are a lot of folks who never get mentioned on Oscar night who are the underpaid glue that holds the entire Hollywood contraption together. They’re hurting a lot more than Christopher Nolan is.

Nolan, of course, earned his envied position as the artistic rainmaker at Warner Brothers by delivering three insanely lucrative Batman movies, as well as a number of non-Batman movies that also made money. His latest film Tenet, now available on streaming and physical home media, was the first major motion picture to open in theaters exclusively during the pandemic and its attendant shutdowns. Nolan was very adamant about Tenet being the movie that would bring people back to theaters. Result: the movie ended up as #11 on 2020’s top box-office list, behind ten movies that came out pre-pandemic  — and, in some cases, were leftovers from December 2019. The latter explains why 1917, a 2019 latecomer that didn’t get a wide U.S. release until January 2020, wound up #2 on the list.

As it stands now, Warner announced it’s going to release its 2021 movie slate on streaming (HBO Max) as well as in theaters, and Nolan and other Warner directors responded with much finger-shaking disapproval. They don’t quite get that the experience of watching a movie has changed, is not going back any time soon, and was already headed for that change even before the pandemic. COVID just hastened the exit of the genie from that bottle. But I’ve written about the logistical aspect of this before. What about artistically? What will it do to movies as an art form?

The short answer is that movies that share the sort of virtues that we associate with classic or at least top-quality cinema are increasingly moving to streaming, leaving the theaters to the tried-and-true blockbusters. It was getting increasingly hard to find a year-end box-office top-ten list that had a single film not based on existing media or a sequel or aimed at kids. Last year’s top-ten list had Disney in seven of the top eight slots. Serious drama and top-rank comedy has largely gone to TV — cable, streaming, even network TV. You’re going to find the 2020s equivalent of The Godfather Part II as a limited-series event on HBO or Hulu or Prime before you’ll find it at the multiplex. (Wanna feel really bad? In 1974, Godfather II made $57 million. That’s $313 million in 2020 money, which would have placed it at #10 on last year’s list had it been released then. But of course it wouldn’t have made that much in 2019. But it did 45 years earlier. Were movies better then, or were we?)

But then look at this year’s top ten, and Disney only appears once, for a movie it released in 2019. Let’s not get optimistic: the number-one movie of the year is still a very-belated Bad Boys sequel, which would not have happened in a year that was supposed to bring us a new Bond and two new Marvels. And you know it’s been a scrawny year for box office when the notorious flop Dolittle still made it to #7 on the list. But Dolittle came in just ahead of Little Women, with its respectable $70 million gross. The Call of the Wild is also on there, and whether or not you felt it was a decent representation of the book, what was the last year-end list where you saw Jack London and Louisa May Alcott adaptations?

I think the saddest story in 2020’s top ten belongs to The Invisible Man, which did well but could have done gangbusters. It should’ve been a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller. And indeed it covered its small budget four times over on its opening weekend. But then COVID happened, and it was whisked from theaters and onto streaming. A movie like this really loses something when you watch it at home alone (though I still found it gripping) and not in a packed theater with the usual screamers and laughers around you making it a shared experience of dread and shock. That’s the kind of experience old-timers like me mourn about the old way of seeing movies. It might come back. But will we recognize it if it does?

Psychomagic, a Healing Art

August 9, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 3.45.03 PM It has been odd, of late, to see the provocateur extraordinaire Alejandro Jodorowsky ripen from an assaultive artist to a kindly, avuncular guru who lays hands on the psychologically pained and “heals” them — or at least makes them feel heard, validated, worth something. Jodorowsky spent roughly the first half of his career spelunking in his own imagistic caves, photographing his findings (Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain). Perhaps his most famous film was one he never got to make; the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune told all about it. In recent years, Jodorowsky has pivoted to autobiographical psychodramas (The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry) in which he often appears, drifting through re-enactments of his life carried out by his own sons.

Now there is Psychomagic, a Healing Art, in which the notorious auteur receives “patients,” if you will — people made miserable by past traumas, mostly having to do with inattentive parents — and, in effect, turns them into colorful performers in another of Jodorowsky’s cinematic journeys. His clients are asked to strip naked and be massaged by male and female therapists; they are encouraged to indulge their neglected inner child; they are directed to walk about in public dragging chains behind them or wearing their father’s jacket or covered head to toe in gold paint. They all seem, or claim, to feel better after the Jodorowsky therapy. I am rather more skeptical than they are, but who am I to judge? If they say Jodorowsky helped them, then he helped them.

It’s when Jodorowsky brings a cancer patient onstage and directs the audience to aim their healing energy at her throat that I feel less live-and-let-live about what Jodorowsky is selling. (There is no talk of fees in the movie, but I presume Jodorowsky doesn’t just work his magic on people in exchange for a warm feeling of accomplishment.) Jodorowsky offers to try to help this woman “without promising anything” — well, at least there’s that. Ten years later, the woman is still alive, and feels that Jodorowsky has something to do with that. I’m aware of the placebo effect, and it could be said that Jodorowsky guides his clients into a mental state that triggers … something that we don’t understand. It’s one thing when Jodorowsky’s technique shocks someone into a fresher way of looking at their pain; it’s another when a movie more or less implies that the man can cure cancer.

Most of Psychomagic, though, deals with the myths and archetypes that must be unlearned or learned in order to move past anxiety and depression. On this point, I’m prepared to give Jodorowsky the benefit of the doubt and say his method is about as valid as anyone else’s. He draws on lots of ancient tribal knowledge, role-playing, scenarios designed to push someone out of guilt, shame, self-loathing. Jodorowsky is a multifaceted artist, and it’s significant that he calls his way a healing art and not a science. Once or twice I caught myself seduced into going along with Jodorowsky, with his beatific smile and white guru beard; I reflected that perhaps we’re not ready to marry art and science as Jodorowsky has. It could be something only a small subset of people have access to.

But then the skeptic in me kicks in and I can’t help noticing that everyone in the movie is a success story, that nobody reverts to despondency after a while. Not that we hear about, anyway. The couple who go to Jodorowsky with individual bugaboos blocking their relationship are handled rather ambiguously; we don’t know if they stay together or if part of their revelation is that they don’t belong together after all. Some of Jodorowsky’s therapy seems to boil down to people with trust issues being touched intimately but nonsexually; this seems to give them back ownership of their bodies. How, then, given their issues, do they come to trust Jodorowsky and his assistants enough to let them cup their breasts or testicles in their hands? We don’t find out. After a while I wished Psychomagic were more of a fictionalized narrative in which the hero does what we see Jodorowsky doing — going around performing psychic miracles, something like his Alchemist in The Holy Mountain — but we’re free to interpret or question it because it’s art. Psychomagic, sadly, isn’t art; it’s advertising.

Before the Night Is Over

January 26, 2020

before night is overIf there’s anything you can be sure of, it’s that any film offering a clip from the indescribable silent oddity Dementia/Daughter of Horror has its cult-flick priorities squared away. That was true of The Blob back in 1958, and it’s true of Before the Night Is Over, the new horror film by Rhode Island director Richard Griffin (Flesh for the Inferno, Code Name Dynastud). There’s a bit when confused protagonist Samantha (Samantha Acampora) sits in the living room of an all-male bordello, watching Dementia on an old Sylvania TV, and she is joined by one of the house’s studs (Ricky Irizarry), who puts his silk bathrobe on her. Since this is also an erotic mood piece, wherever you think this act leads is probably correct.

Dementia is in there, I think, because it proceeds almost entirely through stark image and twisty dream logic, and that seems to be the direction Griffin increasingly wants to go. Before the Night Is Over is chockablock with more mystery and heavy breathing than anything this side of a David Lynch thriller, and I think I need to see it again to catch some of the plot. Or do I? The story here is not nothing — it’s firmly in the tradition of southern gothic, with intimations of the inferno — but I suspect Griffin tells the story as much because of the eerie tone it affords as anything else. It’s possibly no coincidence that many of the men who live in or frequent this house are contending with the shame of the closet in various ways. When one of the young studs goes missing, so does everything in his closet, as if…as if he’d never existed (spooky laughter).

What’s real in the movie and what isn’t? If you need that nailed down for you, I’m not sure this is your cup of mint julep. The movie’s influences include ‘70s made-for-TV horror, but it feels to me like the sort of R-rated ‘70s horror film you used to see on TV in the afternoon (on Dialing for Dollars, say), cut for time and content. Before the Night Is Over runs just 73 minutes, including credits, and I wonder if it could’ve stood to be a reel or so longer, if only to luxuriate in the morbid decay of the setting, with its locked rooms and peeling wallpaper. Samantha Acampora makes a solid, wide-eyed navigator through the sinister goings-on, and when the madams of the house start cooing over an imminent guest by the name of Wheatstraw, we have a better idea where we are. This bordello is a place of shadows where secrets — sexual or homicidal — squirm and fester. There’s a whiff of the eternal here, as in The Shining, and it seems as though the houseful of figurative vampires and zombies are here solely for Samantha.

The rare filmmaker equally indebted to Lucio Fulci and James Baldwin, Griffin has, in recent years, felt himself pulled towards more queer-positive subjects, in answer to the current regime. The horror in Before the Night Is Over, as in William Friedkin’s Cruising, has less to do with gayness than with the type of violence to body and soul that a closeted atmosphere makes possible. The movie is set in 1973, and well-to-do men show up at the door to scratch an itch they can’t legally scratch out in the world (sodomy laws were big and bad in the ‘70s, especially down south). There may or may not be a murderer picking off studs and clientele, and the house itself may or may not be a limbo for the unquiet dead, but all of the narrative uncertainties drive towards the subtext of secrets guarded with steel and blood. This is the sort of gothic that, back in old Tennessee Williams’ prime, might have been coded so that the hot action was nominally hetero but in spirit very much not. Griffin gets to promote the subtext to text and empty the closets.

The Lighthouse

January 12, 2020

lighthouse2 Among about 51 other things, The Lighthouse may be Robert Eggers’ idea of a stoner comedy. This writer-director, who debuted with 2015’s indelible The Witch, has decided this time out to move away from severely pious 16th-century Puritans and shake hands with severely strange 19th-century “wickies,” or lighthouse keepers. The excessively bearded Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is in charge — “I tend the light,” he growls — and the younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is his assistant, charged with such chores as swabbing the floor and making sure the cistern is free of human waste and seagull carcasses. The two men quarrel and drink and share many sullen meals and drink and fight and drink and dance. Eventually they run out of drink and get into the turpentine, which Ephraim cuts with honey. Shit gets trippy.

The Lighthouse was shot old-school — like, ancient-school — on black-and-white 35mm film, in the square Academy ratio of 1.19:1. So it looks like an experiment from the silent era, except that it isn’t silent; a foghorn rattles and hums throughout the proceedings as it might in a David Lynch movie, and indeed The Lighthouse might be one of the few films imaginable on a plausible double bill with Lynch’s Eraserhead. In both movies, the universe — a shared, understood reality — seems dizzyingly akilter, the world a lump of Play-Doh shaped by incomprehensible and inhuman hands. Both are works of gnarled beauty, rooted in the muck and runoff of human industry, almost atremble with fierce sexual impaction. You could say that The Lighthouse is the story of men driven mad by the encroachment of post-humanity, and Eggers might be fine with that. You could say it’s about repressed homosexuality and how it surfaces as fear of women — mermaids, seagulls, tentacles — and Eggers might nod at that, too.

With a few brief exceptions, the whole movie is Dafoe and Pattinson, who dig hungrily into the situation and the opportunities it affords to go hog-wild. Dafoe’s Thomas is a blustering, one-legged stereotype of a sea dog, but the actor burrows into it and makes Thomas a man of guttural poetry. Pattinson counters with an almost entirely physical performance (“I ain’t much fer talkin’,” says Ephraim) that ramps up into fear and loathing. Both men, Eggers hints, may or may not be dangerous. When they come to blows, we fear for Ephraim the most, even though Thomas is older and disabled, because Dafoe is traditionally intimidating. But Pattinson’s Ephraim has the edge in terms of delusion fed by horror and guilt. The creatures of nightmare around them may be supernatural or psychological, but the implication is that the men, individually, have played this battle out before, and were only awaiting each other so that the lunacy could come to full fruition. A thousand thousand slimy things live on, and so do they.

The Lighthouse has echoes of Melville and Lovecraft as well as Coleridge and Greek mythology, all stirred together in a psychedelic stew, or a cup of turpentine and honey. The honey is the film’s sumptuous aesthetic — Jarin Blaschke’s sharp, finely grained photography; Mark Korven’s score, shrieking like seagulls or booming like a kraken; Craig Lathrop’s unfriendly-to-human-consciousness production design. (The lighthouse itself, it surprises me not at all to learn, was built for the film.) There is also fart humor — I told you this was Eggers’ stoner comedy — and squalor involving human and seagull scat, and a prosthetic that, we are told, was “based on shark labia.” If, by this point in the review, The Lighthouse sounds like your thing, it most assuredly is; if not, then boisterously not. By the end of the film, when we see the lighthouse’s working Fresnel lens — historically accurate, we are assured, though it looks like a spaceship engine — the luminescent awe and horror recall the soul-blasting finales of 2001 as well as Eraserhead, before the very final shot, which evokes the legend of Prometheus. The Lighthouse is like an entire literature-and-film course whittled down to an hour and forty-nine minutes, but fun as all get out, capped off with an (of course) authentic shanty that will corkscrew its way into your temporal lobe for a day or so. Go look for this thing, or don’t; you know where on the spectrum you fall.

Rabid (2019)

December 8, 2019

Rabid-2019-3If you’re going to remake a David Cronenberg film, you’d better not try to ape his ideas, because Cronenberg’s ideas are inextricable from his filmmaking. They are the source of the horror: in much of his work, a disease is a misunderstood monster, just doing what it has to do to survive. Jen and Sylvia Soska, who like Cronenberg are Canadian, have now remade Cronenberg’s 1977 cult favorite Rabid, and they have filled it with their own notions about surgery and transhumanism and fashion. The Soska sisters don’t try to be Cronenberg, but they sure pay tribute to his films throughout their own. Their Rabid, a project that was offered to them and possibly would have been made with or without them, expresses more than anything their deep and abiding love for Cronenberg’s work. As Cronenberg is one of my movie gods, I’m on board with that.

The new Rabid takes off from a premise similar to the original. A woman, Rose (Laura Vandervoort), is badly disfigured in a motorcycle accident. Her case is taken up by a surgeon (Ted Atherton) who applies experimental skin grafts. Rose’s looks are restored; the procedure even smooths out scar tissue from a previous, less extreme accident. But Rose is also left with a craving for blood, and when she feeds off of a victim, that person in turn is infected with the blood delirium. It all boils down to the doctor trying to cheat death (aren’t they always?) by developing this grotesque parasite that perpetuates itself violently. But in the Cronenberg aesthetic, the horror is that this new thing — this new flesh — brought to life is not in itself evil. It just evolves incidentally into a threat to humans. In the Soska playbook, it’s simply one of many things that twist mind and flesh, generally to the detriment of women.

The script, by the Soskas and John Serge, puts Rose to work for a fey, decadent fashion designer. The Soskas seem to liken the fashion world to the moviemaking world: in both, art and transgression are possible — a post-infection Rose produces some tormented gothy dress sketches that her boss flips over — but so are body dysmorphia, drug abuse, and a self-destructive quest for perfection. The Soskas’ interests and emphasis deviate from Cronenberg’s own, but the end result honors his work. There are any number of Easter eggs for Cronenberg fans, such as a wink to the famous “college of cardinals” scene in Dead Ringers, and others I will leave you to discover. Eventually the action leaves the realm of Cronenberg and incorporates elements of, if I’m not mistaken, Re-Animator and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Like many young filmmakers, the Soskas like to pile everything they’ve been obsessing about into the latest film because there’s no guarantee they’ll be granted the keys to another.

Ultimately, Rabid has a warmer center than the original — Cronenberg had to make do with adult-film actress Marilyn Chambers as Rose (he’d wanted Sissy Spacek), and about the most you could say about Chambers was that she was surprisingly competent. Laura Vandervoort brings a lot more vulnerability and pain and spiky anger to Rose, and when the action around Rose gets outlandish, Vandervoort grounds it all in credible female angst. When Rose feeds on a loutish, abusive man, it’s partly you-go-girl revenge, but it’s also pragmatic: a dude this stupid and single-minded makes the perfect prey. Vandervoort doesn’t play it like Zoë Tamerlis in Ms. 45; Rose is driven by her need for blood, and this idiot makes himself known to her.

There was a certain way-before-its-time non-binary/intersex thread in Cronenberg’s Rabid — his Rose was left with what read as male and female sex organs in her armpit (!), with which she fed on blood. We see a bit of that in the new film, but since it deals far more organically with a female point of view, the threat is mainly and viscerally phallic. The Soskas’ 2012 body-horror original American Mary showed they had more on their minds than grrl-power snarls and splatter, and Rabid confirms it. It ends on an image comparable to the bleak nihilism with which Cronenberg sealed his film, only with a distinct nightmarish Gilead tinge to it. As in Alien: Resurrection, perhaps the most Cronenbergian (and most underrated) of the Alien films, a woman isn’t even going to be allowed the peace of death if her existence will benefit men.