Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Pet Sematary (2019)

July 14, 2019

pet-semataryStephen King’s Pet Sematary has now had two whacks at film adaptation — one in 1989 and one this year (well, three if you count the sequel to the ’89 film). It may be that, through no fault of the respective filmmaking teams or the medium itself, King’s book is just one of those novels that resist translation. For me, it remains perhaps the closest thing in King’s catalog to a “serious work”; he approaches his greatest fear, that one of his children will die, in a sidewise manner that recalls the way Kurt Vonnegut took the traumatic material of his own World War II experience and made it easier to engage with as an author by way of genre tropes (in Vonnegut’s case, the nonlinear story and space-alien digressions of Slaughterhouse-Five).

King’s story is animated by dread and grief — the kind of powerful, deranging grief that will drive a mourning parent to do anything, anything, to make the agony stop. That sort of impact is nearly impossible to replicate in a film that also has to make room for plot and character detail and Saturday-night seat-jump scares for teenagers. Pet Sematary exists most effectively on the page, where it can enter the mind, the bloodstream, the soul with minimal interference. There are just too many factors, mostly having to do with maintaining an extremely demanding tonal balance, that make any attempt to realize it in another medium little more than a riff, a brief visit to a house of horrors instead of moving in and living with them.

I can say that Pet Sematary ’19 is better-acted than its predecessor thirty years ago. Fred Gwynne was fine and avuncular as old Jud Crandall, the son of Maine who introduces our protagonists to the Monkey’s Paw terror of the true “pet sematary,” but most of the other cast members were instantly forgettable. Here we have Jason Clarke as Dr. Louis Creed, Amy Seimetz as his death-haunted wife Rachel, and a terrific young actress named Jeté Laurence as their nine-year-old daughter Ellie. These three do as well as they can in the somewhat degraded context of a mass-market horror movie, and then there’s John Lithgow, sometimes seeming off in his own film, as the new Jud, sickened and aged by decades of guilt and grief.

The new directors (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer) and screenwriter (Jeff Buhler) don’t hesitate to alter King’s original story to make it work as a movie. I applaud this: Many of the best films based on King (including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) take large liberties with the source. So I won’t get into a book-movie comparison of events, except to note that the new film avoids the ’89 film’s biggest tonal blooper, the visual of a toddler happily walking around waving a scalpel. The workaround here is far more plausible and facilitates some chilling “came back wrong” acting. The problem is that the newly imagined climax goes back to the well, so to speak, once too often. (The original scripted ending is much subtler and sadder; it can be seen on DVD and streaming.)

I’ll also say that the new film gives a bit more time to King’s conception of the pet sematary beyond the deadfall as a sour-soiled, godforsaken place ruled by the Wendigo, which feeds on people’s grief and compels them to feed it their dead. But at one hour and forty-one minutes it can only do so much. As in 1989, Rachel’s fearful memories of her stricken sister Zelda amount only to red meat thrown (in the worst bad taste, too) at the grumbling, impatient carnivores the film studio assumes the horror audience is. Pet Sematary ’19 has left me with a strong urge to revisit the novel, with all its hints of ghastly afterlife and irrational fear: “He realized he was afraid, simply, stupidly afraid, the way you are afraid when a cloud suddenly sails across the sun and somewhere you hear a ticking sound you can’t account for.” What’s missing from any film version is that ticking sound, the dread and terror of strangeness invading a bright afternoon for a moment, and then disappearing but taking something near and dear along with it. What’s missing is the poetry of nightmare.

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The Perfection

June 9, 2019

perfection Netflix’s new thriller The Perfection (with its impossible-to-remember title) relies on the type of screaming twists and turns on a dime that can stymie a reviewer. How can you talk about a movie like this to people who may not have seen it without nuking its surprises? You can’t, so I am obliged to sketch and suggest. The Perfection is about two cello prodigies, Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning). The menacing artsiness and female trauma that inform the movie’s tone put it in the same small folder as Suspiria (either version) and Black Swan. It seems to switch not just gears but genres, several times. I would recommend going into it completely cold, and not even watching the trailer, which prankishly sets a viewer up to expect a vastly different film than it turns out to be.

What you get for your trouble is a handsomely photographed (by Vanja Černjul, who also shot Crazy Rich Asians), feverishly written (by director Richard Shepard with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) thriller that gets you hating one character, then another, then someone else, until finally balance is bloodily, poetically, and somewhat ludicrously restored. The Perfection is therefore not the nicest movie or experience. It exists to pull the rug out from under you, repeatedly, until you mistrust the rug and the floor under it. Is it pleasurable? Here and there. It’s more gripping than entertaining; it squeezes us, it pulls on the short hairs of our temples. It establishes and maintains control — bullying control. Like most thrillers great and poor, it essentially takes a rapist’s attitude toward the audience. It gets you alone and has its way with you.

The redeeming factor here is that, ultimately, The Perfection shakes out as a #MeToo revenge thriller. Its brutality and manipulations come to seem necessary in order to convey the wounding tone required to get us, in the end, on the side of victims who at first seem like aggressors. We may feel betrayed at certain points, but so have its characters. The movie also ladles equal amounts of beauty and rancid ugliness into its hermetic aesthetic, breaking away from that only during a cold roadside scene that packs the most painful violence, which comes to be seen as an act of mercy. The events leading up to the scene — like much else in the movie, and indeed in most thrillers — won’t stand up to harsh scrutiny. The plot depends on a hostile bus driver behaving as a character secretly wants him to. I imagine there’s a deleted scene involving the close study of bus routes so as to guarantee winding up in a desolate area.

The Perfection also contains the following: a tender same-sex lovemaking scene; a few lovely if stressful music performances; a performance by Steven Weber that confirms my longstanding suspicion that he’s aging into William Fichtner; a laughable flashback (or rewind, really) that explains how a cooking instrument comes into a character’s possession (almost as funny as the preceding scene in which the character just randomly seems to produce said instrument — the movie is firmly in the tradition of thrillers that can’t possibly take themselves seriously and don’t want us to, either); a bit that had me thinking we were in Romeo Is Bleeding territory and on the exit into Long Jeanne Silver turf; a quaint confidence in various medications to have exactly the effect on someone that one hopes they will have.

There’s more, but I grow tired of avoiding writing about the story. I can finish by praising the intense performances of Williams and Browning, or the way a cello performance that must proceed without error elicits more sympathetic wincing than does the sometimes graphic violence, or the film’s nearly Cronenbergian reliance on body horror and disfigurement. The Perfection is strongly made, scene for scene, and it ends on a note of serene unity of soul through music in the face of ghastly oppression. But I can’t say I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when it was done squeezing my soft bits. I won’t claim it doesn’t have the right to play with sensitive themes and elements to get its effects; I think, ultimately, it earns that right and shows itself to be compassionate. You do have to navigate a whole lot of bear traps to get there, though, and you may not agree that it’s worth the journey, with all its hurt and vomit and maggoty visions of sickness. I can raise a glass to the skill of all involved but I’m in no hurry to feel all those things, see all those things, again any time soon.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

January 13, 2019

the-man-who-killed-hitler-and-then-the-bigfoot“It’s the Bigfoot, Ed. They want me to kill it.” That’s ol’ Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott) talking to his brother (Larry Miller) over a cup of powdered cocoa and mini-marshmallows. Some forty-odd years prior, Calvin also pulled the trigger on Hitler himself, hence the title The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, that title promises something different from what the movie delivers. A feature debut by Robert D. Krzykowski (who co-produced Lucky McKee’s The Woman), Hitler/Bigfoot has unexpected pathos and gravitas, and the titular killings are anti-climactic, almost beside the point. Calvin lost what was really important in the war — his innocence (a killer is something you can never un-become) and the love of his life.

Why did Calvin never track down his stateside sweetie, schoolteacher Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald)? Probably because he felt stained by killing a man, even if that man was Hitler. As Calvin explains to the two government suits who recruit him to deal with Bigfoot, killing Hitler didn’t matter because his words survived him; like the deadly virus that the Bigfoot carries (which is why it urgently needs killing), Hitler’s hateful ideas radiated outward from his corpse and infected millions. Hitler and the Bigfoot both turn out to be smaller and less impressive in the flesh, and more easily killable. Killing them doesn’t make Calvin any happier or even more heroic. As he says, he just did what he was told.

That Hitler/Bigfoot is more subdued, humanistic and poignant than the title indicates doesn’t mean it’s a cult classic like Bubba Ho-Tep, though. It’s a little underdone, with an elaborate flashback structure that sometimes confuses us — we’re watching Calvin (played as a young man by Aidan Turner) during the war, then as a nail-tough codger in the ‘80s, then as a young man again before heading off to war. I suppose this structure is justified by being a tall tale about a man looking back on an eventful life. Krzykowski, though, either neglects or forgets about narrative beats we’re expecting. What happened to Maxine? Why does Calvin fake his own death if he’s just going to be seen publicly with Ed later on? And what’s that in his shoe that bothers him for the whole movie? A tracking device, I’m guessing — how the government keeps tabs on him. (It’s also implied there’s a painting in his parlor that’s bugged.) But Krzykowski has Calvin dump it out of his shoe in a medium shot, and we never get a good close look at the thing. For all we know, it’s the ring he never got a chance to give Maxine.

Still, if you enjoy Sam Elliott and his rich baritone, there are worse ways to spend your evening. Calvin is the sort of flawlessly ethical American who finds a $100 scratch ticket on the sidewalk but refuses to collect the winnings himself; who lives modestly with his trusty ol’ dawg and kills brain cells at a bar, saying he’s thinking about giving up the booze but knowing he won’t. Elliott puts all of this across effortlessly — he’s an iconic presence playing an iconic man who would rather just be obscure. “This is not the comic-book story you want it to be,” he tells the somewhat starry-eyed younger agents who pull him back in. The unemphatic directorial style promises that much, but it’s Elliott — his sad, measured voice the sound of a bruised soul who has seen more blood than you — who really delivers on the promise.

Bird Box

January 6, 2019

birdbox The news informs me that, having watched the new Netflix film Bird Box, people nationwide are taking the “Bird Box challenge.” This involves wandering around wearing a blindfold, copying the characters in the film. Sadly, it does not involve aping the film’s other following behaviors: carrying birds around, listening to upbeat Dionne Warwick oldies, or taking pity on refugees escaping from terrifying hazards. It would be nice if more of us took that last Bird Box challenge in the weeks to come. Anyway, if you don’t expect it to make literal sense on a scene-by-scene basis, Bird Box is a fairly tense metaphorical thriller, though with a fatal structural flaw.

Well, since you asked so nicely: When a narrative has fancy flashback architecture — if it goes back and forth between what we understand as “now” and what we’re told was “five years ago” — it’s very hard for any of the flashbacks to pack any suspense. We begin with our emotionally prickly artist heroine, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), preparing two children we assume are hers for a dangerous rowboat trip down a river. We then go back to five years earlier, when the apocalypse comes in the form of creatures who drive their victims suicidally insane if looked upon. Malorie, who is pregnant, makes her way through the chaos to a house holding several other survivors. Right off the bat, we figure Malorie had to survive whatever threatens her in the flashbacks we see, and we figure she lives to have at least one kid, too. But wait, one of her fellow survivors is also pregnant. So either Malorie ends up having twins, or this second pregnant woman is destined for the dirt and Malorie has to adopt her kid, and…

Well, like I said, it’s metaphorical. Bird Box was directed by Susanne Bier, who has made several acclaimed, even Oscar-nominated dramas in her native Denmark and elsewhere. If Netflix is to be believed, Bird Box has been watched 45 million times, which, even if we buy only a third of that number, represents millions more eyes than have been on any of Bier’s previous features. Bier isn’t really interested in the monsters, or in survival either; she seems more intrigued by how people in extremis treat one another. To that end, we get a fair number of scenes dealing with the tension, or relative lack thereof, between the survivors in the flashbacks. This has the unfortunate effect of making the few characters all seem to be symbolizing something or other — John Malkovich’s unhospitable character, for instance, reps callous paranoia — and there’s a potentially distasteful element wherein the mentally ill, immune for some reason to the monsters’ influence, become violent predators who want the unafflicted to look at the monsters and die. Then again, that may be part of a subtler point that we must empathize with the mentally ill or suffer accordingly.

Anyway, the film continues to flip back and forth, without many surprises. Since kids are involved, we have a hunch there’s a limit to how dark the story can get, and we are correct. Bird Box has been around in a variety of forms for decades. The most we can do is look under the hood of this year’s model, kick the tires, and see how it runs. The characters are basically delivery systems for the film’s metaphors, and the actors can’t access much beyond the basics — fear, love — in the moment. I most enjoyed the sequence dealing with the crisis finally arriving in America, which provides a cascading chill of mores and taboos exploding everywhere we look. But even here, we get Sarah Paulson as Bullock’s acerbically pro-social sister — for all of five minutes. I would cheerfully have swapped a few of the gray, cold, repetitive rowboat scenes for a few more minutes with Paulson.

The Year in Review

December 24, 2018

wakanda Setting aside 2018’s global turbulence, what did the year mean for movies? I suppose African-American film fans have more reason to be of good cheer than they might have had a year ago. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther finished domestically with $700 million, far and away 2018’s top grosser. Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time got mixed notices and just barely made back its cost worldwide, but it was still the first film directed by an African-American woman to hit a $100 million domestic gross (and was definitely the first movie so directed to boast a nine-digit budget). Spike Lee had his biggest hit in years with BlacKkKlansman, whose domestic earnings tripled its cost. Other success stories include Charles Stone III’s Uncle Drew ($42m gross against $18m cost), Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (cost $3 mil, grossed $17 mil), and Malcolm D. Lee’s Night School (made back four times its budget globally).

Add in some wins for Asian-Americans (Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians and James Wan’s Aquaman) and gays (Bohemian Rhapsody is the top-grossing movie about an LGBTQ+ person in history despite its attempts to straightwash Freddie Mercury) and you have a better-than-middling year for diversity. What you don’t have, for the tenth year running, is cinema for grownups. 2008 gave us a sea of blockbusters pointed mainly at teens, and it’s been the same story every year since. Now, some movies aiming higher on the age spectrum finished just outside this year’s top ten: A Star Is Born, say, and the aforementioned Crazy Rich Asians. But even the triumphant Black Panther, despite its sky-high level of craft and imagination all around, is finally just another brick in the Marvel/Disney wall, and I can imagine Paul Mooney chortling ironically at the fact that the big-deal black superhero got finger-snapped into nonexistence just one movie later, in Avengers: Infinity War.

Nobody seriously believes any of those superheroes won’t be brought back next April in Avengers: Just Messin’ With You, We Ain’t Killing Off a Dude Who Made Us $1 Billion Worldwide. Disney isn’t exactly hurting (it can brag about 2018’s top three grossers, tossing in The Incredibles 2), but it got stung a little with the relatively weak grosses of A Wrinkle in Time and also Solo: A Star Wars Story, the first movie in its historically lucrative franchise to come out in the red column domestically (even though it wound up at #9 on the top ten). Warner’s Fantastic Beasts sequel is showing some Potterverse fatigue (or maybe newfound audience wariness about Johnny Depp). Universal has Jurassic World, The Grinch and Halloween to dry its tears over Skyscraper, Pacific Rim Uprising, and the one-time Oscar hopeful Green Book, a meant-to-be-heartwarming road-trip drama much criticized for its retro approach to race relations, which stalled badly in theaters.

Yes, I said Halloween. Finishing at #17 on the year-end list, the reboot/sequel opened huge and ended up the biggest-grossing film in the history of its franchise; even adjusted for inflation, it only came in about $20 million behind the 1978 original. A sequel to this sequel is already planned, though I wish they wouldn’t go ahead with it — people came out for this one because it promised closure and brought back Jamie Lee Curtis, and a follow-up would just be more of the night he came home … again. In general, horror remains strong as a genre; A Quiet Place (#12) was this year’s Get Out in terms of word-of-mouth success (no pun intended), if not in terms of social relevance. Threats to the nuclear family, whether visually challenged monsters or disgruntled white males, were the main boogeymen in 2018’s films; the year’s “Look out! Brown people!” movies, Sicario 2 (#53) and Peppermint (#75), performed barely above their costs and will not likely be asked back for a third or second dance.

It can be instructive to look at what scares moviegoers, but it’s just as useful to consider what makes us laugh (Deadpool 2, at #5, is essentially a meta-superhero comedy, perhaps bespeaking the first rustles of superhero fatigue) and what makes it dusty in the room (A Star Is Born remains stubbornly effective tearjerker material after eight decades). The popular myths of the day tell us where our heads and hearts are at. Of course, the big breadwinner of twenty years ago was Saving Private Ryan; of thirty years ago, Rain Man. It has been a while (fifteen years, in fact) since a #1 grosser, like Rain Man, was also crowned Best Picture at the Oscars (for those playing at home, it was The Return of the King). Will Black Panther break the streak and join the ranks of Titanic and Forrest Gump? We’ll see in February, I guess.

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.

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.