Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

The Dark Tower

August 7, 2017

darktowerThe Dark Tower is a mediocre, overshort movie, but it has done what nothing else has done — it has made me want to read the books that inspired it. Stephen King’s eight-volume series is about the ultimate hero against the ultimate villain in a struggle over the titular Tower, which holds all worlds together. It’s all very archetypal, informed as much by Sergio Leone as by Tolkien. The movie is an abbreviated riff on several of the books; we’re informed that it’s not an adaptation of King’s work so much as a sequel — another “turn of the wheel,” since the entire saga was conceived as a narrative ouroboros (or became one, anyway). “The man in black fled across the desert,” begins the first book, “and the gunslinger followed” — and apparently the two men will go on fleeing and following until the end of time.

The gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), who in this iteration seeks revenge on the man in black, or Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), for killing Roland’s father. Walter goes by different names; he has turned up in various guises in King’s fiction, most prominently as Randall Flagg in The Stand. As McConaughey plays him, Walter is a saturnine Erl-King in rock-star cosplay, swaggering around and getting people to kill each other or to stop breathing with a bland command. Truth to tell, McConaughey was more sinister in those moody Lincoln commercials (the ads actually convinced me he could play the Stephen King version of Satan), and the director, Nikolaj Arcel, doesn’t even give him a juicy intro — Walter is just suddenly there, looking on as his big death machine saps psychic children of their energy and channels it into a big death ray pointed at the Tower.

When the Tower takes a big death hit, our Earth rumbles, and a boy, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), feels it in his mother’s Big Apple apartment. Jake has been having visions of Roland and Walter, and it turns out he packs enough psychic oomph to shame Danny Torrance from The Shining. The movie seems awfully front-loaded to favor Jake, creating the unhappy sense that Roland, whose casting with a non-white actor caused some consternation among those pained by such things, has been relegated to a supporting character in his own epic story because, well, he’s black. After a while the balance evens out a little, Taylor’s performance gets better as Jake becomes more useful, and Idris Elba maintains his stoic sangfroid whether reciting Roland’s Mid-World doggerel (“He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father” and so on) or performing, as Pauline Kael put it in another context, “kinetic self-realization with a gun.”¹

This Dark Tower is practically guaranteed to vex the books’ fans, who will be painfully aware of what’s missing and what a wasted opportunity it all is. Judged on its own shaky merits, the movie skims the surface of the iconic saga, and the occasional bit of strangeness — like Walter’s minions the Low Men, looking, accidentally I’m sure, like members of the Trump administration — stands out in relief against much of the conceptual dullness. But McConaughey and especially Elba have given me intriguing men to picture when I return to the books. I read the first two, in college, several thousand years ago and remember little except the lobstrosities, which sadly stay home from work here. Much is appealing about King’s good-vs.-evil superstory, and the movie, by virtue of containing at least a swallow of King’s potion, is weird and borderline acid-western enough to hold one’s interest on a slow Tuesday. I imagine, though, that it won’t be the version of The Dark Tower that endures.

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¹This was in reference to Andy Garcia’s Vincent Mancini in The Godfather Part III.

Colossal

July 30, 2017

colossal-2016-anne-hathawayColossal mashes up two such madly divergent genres — the kaiju movie and the sincere romcom — that it shouldn’t work as demonically well as it does. Partly its success owes to the willingness of its writer/director, Nacho Vigalondo, to make the characters stubbornly imperfect and idiosyncratic. The movie’s human drama has a slow, steady launch, but by the time it enters the realm of science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, or whatever you choose to call it, we are invested in these people, and we respond to the metaphors more organically and freely than we might otherwise.

Vigalondo, a sci-fi/horror man from the beginning, gives us a tenuous explanation for the premise. Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a drunken wreck of a woman, somehow inadvertently summons and controls the movements of a giant monster in South Korea. She lifts her arms, it lifts its arms. This apparently only happens when she enters a park in her hometown at 8:05 in the morning. These are the rules we need to accept in order to enter into the imaginative contract; once we sign it, Vigalondo honors our desire for an unpredictable good time. The movie eventually settles into stark drama, evoking such real-world monsters as violent jealousy and self-hatred lashing outward at friends and strangers.

For a while, Colossal is rumpled good company. Gloria, played by Hathaway as a slightly more affable gloss on her human wreckage from Rachel Getting Married, is booted from the New York apartment she shares with her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). Tim is tired of dealing with Gloria through the haze of alcohol or post-alcohol. (Without being preachy, the movie is pretty strongly against booze and drugs, if only because they enable the creation of alternate realities in which people can get lost.) Dejected, she returns to her late parents’ empty house in Mainland and squats there. She encounters a childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), now a bartender at the place formerly owned by his late dad. He offers Gloria a job; she accepts. She hangs out at the bar after hours, mumbling late-night talk with barflies like Garth (Tim Blake Nelson), a closet cokehead, and Joel (Austin Stowell), who has a crush on her. A good portion of the movie explores what happens to orphans in their thirties, what they make of themselves (Gloria once had a writing gig in New York but blew it).

But then the monster rises in South Korea, causing chaos and sometimes death (and then, later, a kind of fascination). Gloria recognizes her connection to the creature, and partly the movie is a joke on self-absorbed people who feel their actions are more impactful and reverberant than they are. But it’s also a vindication: Gloria really is causing havoc, both here in Mainland and abroad in South Korea. As I say, the origin of all this is explained piecemeal, eventually taking in Oscar, the movie’s acidic take on Nice Guys. Hathaway’s performance is terrific, but terrific in a known-quantity way — we’ve seen her go here before — whereas Jason Sudeikis weighs in with finely shaded work that crosses over, from time to time, into pathos and even threat. I never expected to find this amiable funnyman frightening, but the movie is full of surprises.

Because Colossal follows the emotions of its characters rather than an airtight plot, it’s impossible to pin down; we never know where it’s going, and it will not please literal-minded viewers who want to hear the click of a logical explanation. Gloria’s life swamps everyone else’s with drama and problems; she’s a bit of a monster herself, stomping through the skyscrapers of other people’s lives. (At times I was reminded of a Julie Doucet self-portrait of her as a giant, heavily menstruating all over a terrified city.) The movie doesn’t linger on the South Korean kaiju scenes — they’re mostly seen in TV clips or on the internet. It all resolves in a climax of tragic, hard-won triumph. I don’t know what genre Colossal finally lands in; like Being John Malkovich, it’s so bent it fashions its own shelf to sit on.

Long Night in a Dead City

June 11, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 2.13.27 PMAre there such things as midnight movies any more? The Pawtucket, R.I. filmmaker Richard Griffin (Nun of That, Flesh for the Inferno, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) has been making them for seventeen years, and soon he will retire. That’s a bummer, but his new and penultimate feature, Long Night in a Dead City, may be the midnight-est movie he’s directed, and that’s saying something. The film feels for all the world like a bittersweet farewell, in a way — it catches the melancholy but hopeful tone of a young man wandering around the city in its artsy prime, meeting strange but alluring people, winding up in a movie theater (the same one it will have its premiere at — the Colombus, in Providence). It feels something like a glass of beer held aloft with damp eyes to the memory of Griffin’s own young adulthood spent devouring and making art — it feels, to me, autobiographical. (The script is by Lenny Schwartz, veteran of several Griffin films and an accomplished playwright himself.)

Of course, this being a Griffin film, there are the usual exploitation elements: sex, drugs, nudity, blood. I’d say rock and roll too, but the score, primarily by Mark Cutler, is a morose but uncanny solo-guitar riff that recalls Neil Young’s fuzzbox sounds for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, among others. That guitar is like wind navigating slowly around gravestones. The general tone of Long Night speaks of mortality and regret. I’d have to peg it as one of Griffin’s “serious” efforts, not a knowing what-the-hell-let’s-party pastiche, although Griffin’s many cinematic loves do inform the process here. The photography, by John Mosetich, deals in the deep, bold primary colors found in the Italian horror/thrillers that fed Griffin’s head (I suspect the title, which used to be Satan’s Children, is a nod to the industry that gave us films with such jawbreaker titles as 1972’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key).

The narrative follows young Daniel (Aidan Laliberte), who wakes up on a cold, lonely street on New Year’s Eve with his face showing evidence of a beating. He wanders around, looking for his brother. He encounters a variety of oddballs who seem to have stepped out of Eyes Wide Shut or, alternately, After Hours. Daniel eventually settles in, after a fashion, with an inviting young woman, Holly (Sarah Reed), who wants Daniel to make love to her at midnight. The reserved, frightened Laliberte and the witty, entrancing Reed make a productively unstable couple for this gory ghost-town riposte to Before Sunrise. There’s also a driver (Aaron Andrade, with his usual rough-hewn charisma) who could be a stand-in for Charon. The air seems charged with uncertainty, which for a vulnerable young man alone in a strange city can be exciting, or exciting in a bad way. Long Night is less about plot than about mood, the possibility of salvation or damnation in every weird and allusive exchange. Griffin and Schwartz create a surreal tone poem about feeling lost and alone, on a quest to find family.

I’m glad the title was changed; Satan’s Children was a little too literal and might have raised expectations of a more straightforward, evil-cult-based horror flick than we get here. Long Night in a Dead City — not very long, really, seventy-five minutes including end credits — evokes the actual elliptical experience with far more grace. The movie is enthralling — a successful entertainment — yet it’s clear that Griffin is wearing his artist hat here, and his first concern isn’t how many people get the movie or even see it. It’s one of those films you used to be able to stumble across in the better mom-and-pop video stores … or at a midnight screening. It will find its audience and satisfy that audience. Whether you find yourself in its appreciative following depends on how much of yourself you find in Daniel. Probably by now you know how much or how little.

Louis C.K. 2017

April 9, 2017

20170114_LCK _MG_2722.CR2In his new, simply titled concert film Louis C.K. 2017, the eponymous comedian doesn’t waste any time with pre-concert sketches. He just gets right into it: “So I think abortion is, um, here’s what I think,” Louis begins, and the audience guffaws knowingly. A lot of what Louis C.K. says is in quotes — “Here’s what a clueless white guy sounds like” is the unspoken preface, followed by an observation along the lines of  “I’m not condoning rape, obviously — you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” The point, to an intelligent audience, is that there isn’t a reason; Louis also lays down a level of satire of self-justifying rhetoric. So when Louis steers his abortion bit into a statement that “women should have the right to kill babies,” the bit becomes more about the irreconcilable, eternally warring language used in the abortion debate than about abortion itself.

Louis C.K. 2017 finds Louis in his usual amiably schlubby but seriously askew conflict with life — a concept that gets no respect from him: the abortion material more or less ends with Louis saying that life is overrated anyway. (Another bit has him musing about suicide in a way that falls on neither side of that topic.) He wears a suit this time out, as he also did in his opening monologue on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live. Has he grown up, or sold out? Louis has shed his typical working uniform — a black t-shirt and jeans — in favor of an outfit that more effectively points up his opinions as those of a goofy white dude.

Louis treats his insights as throwaways; an unimpressed Generation X elder (born in 1967), he doesn’t buy into anything as the one way to look at the world, much less his own view. His bit about how Christianity “won” — pointing to the very fact of the numerical year we all agree on whether or not we’re believers (hence the title of the special, I guess) — is less confrontational than just bewildered. The broader his reach, the more timeless his comments, the closer he gets to being his generation’s George Carlin. But then he’ll take it back down to muddy earth, to the grimy and personal, linking him to Richard Pryor. Yet he comes off as an original; he doesn’t ape Carlin or Pryor so much as earn the right to be included with them in conversations about American comedy.

A good chunk of Louis’ material can be taken as depressing. Love, he says, is nice but doesn’t last; he even leaves out the usual bromide about how the finest things don’t last, which is why they’re the finest things. I suppose we can infer that, but that would violate Louis’ particular defeated weltschmerz. Carlin was angry; Pryor was afraid; Louis is just, like, whatever, this all sucks (another generational thing). There’s a cap, though, on how cynical a creative person can get — especially one operating at the level of Louis C.K., who in recent years has evolved from a comedian’s comedian to someone who can sell out Madison Square Garden. He has achieved, in this degraded pop culture, the rare distinction of being both artistically respected and wildly popular.

So how does someone whose shtick rests on himself being a skeevy bum (but hilariously honest about his bummy skeeviness) respond to being loved by his peers and by the masses? (Well, maybe not all his peers — there are still various allegations of gross behavior in front of female comedians he has to contend with.) On the evidence of Louis C.K. 2017, he just continues doing what he’s been doing. He can do five minutes on the most piddly-ass thing, and then tie it into a coherent (though frumpy) filter on the world. The subtext of his more outrageous bits is “Yeah, listen while this scuzzy idiot presumes to tell you what he thinks about [fill in the blank],” which is why his opening sentence about abortion gets a big laugh even though it doesn’t read funny on paper. A consummate actor, as proven on his dazzling and much-lamented FX show Louie, he can give the impression that his act isn’t honed and perfected over the course of dozens of gigs but just a guy riffing off the top of his head. As mopey as his material can get, the fact that Louis C.K. can work at his level and be successful is one reason to stay optimistic.

Oscar Night 2017

February 27, 2017

oopsThe most enduring image of last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony will not be that of a tearful, grateful recipient of the golden bald man. Nor will it be clips from any of the winning films. No, the picture that will persist for many years, haunting the nightmares of every future producer of the Oscars show, will of course be the shot of a card held aloft — a card pronouncing Moonlight the Best Picture winner instead of the erroneously announced La La Land. This was, globally, perhaps not a significant moment, but in the context of Oscar Night it was seismic. People from La La Land had time to get up onstage and begin their acceptance speeches, for fuck’s sake, before the error was clarified and made known. Even a Moonlight booster and La La Land detractor like myself couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for the hard-working creatives whose dream had been so decisively and publicly ripped away.

Well, drama and excitement were things the Oscars had been missing for too many years, and here were drama and excitement, all right. It was nice to see that the ceremony was still capable of surprise, albeit accidental. After all, La La Land was considered the favorite to sweep, the flagbearer for the Magic of Movies and the Beauty of Artistic Dreams. The irony is that while La La Land paid fawning lip service to those qualities, Moonlight actually embodied them, finding poetry in despair. That it not only won but literally wrested victory from the jaws of defeat will only add luster to the narrative of the little movie that could.

Aside from all that (and the lesser-known goof listing The Piano producer Jan Chapman among the dead in the In Memoriam segment instead of costume designer Janet Patterson), it was a competent enough evening. Jimmy Kimmel had some decent barbs in his pocket, and as usual he got considerable mileage out of his faux feud with Matt Damon. (I can imagine baffled Oscar-night viewers unfamiliar with the Kimmel-Damon beef that’s been going on for over a decade on Kimmel’s late-night show. “Why is he being so mean to Matt Damon?” they might have said.) Kimmel’s Mean Tweets were amusing as always, the bit with the bus tour maybe not so much.

The thing about Moonlight’s win — sorry, but this was the night’s big story — is that it garnered a Screenplay (adapted) award, while La La Land, over in Original Screenplay, lost to Manchester by the Sea. Hindsight is always 20/20, but La La Land not winning a writing trophy may not have been a positive sign for its Best Picture win. A Best Picture not winning a Screenplay award is not unprecedented — it isn’t even that rare (The Artist was the last film to do so) — but it doesn’t exactly help. In the end, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins had to be content with his shared Screenplay Oscar and the knowledge that he’d helmed the big winner, while La La Land director Damien Chazelle settled for Best Director and the five other Oscars it won.

One last thing. Many fans of Bill Paxton, who died right before the Oscar ceremony, grumbled that he wasn’t included in the In Memoriam piece. The reason is simple: the montage is created weeks in advance, and generally covers the period from February 1 of the previous year to January 31 of the current year. This is also why Alan Rickman and David Bowie weren’t acknowledged this year — because they were included last year. Paxton will, one hopes, be remembered during Oscar Night 2018. Know what else will be remembered next year? That card being held up, declaring La La Land’s brief reign as Best Picture winner as dead as Paxton.

I Am Not Your Negro

January 22, 2017

iamnotyournegro520x300A recurring image in I Am Not Your Negro, a wounded but finally hopeful documentary, is of forward movement — street lights or palm trees passing by from the POV of a car’s passenger, and so on. It expresses, I think, the state of mind of its wounded but finally hopeful subject, the writer James Baldwin. In 1980, Baldwin signed a contract to write a book, Remember This House, about his friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, all martyrs to the civil-rights cause. In 1987, Baldwin died, having completed just thirty pages. I Am Not Your Negro uses that text, and others from Baldwin’s public and private writing, to construct the story of a man’s soul under lifelong pressure from living in a racist society.

Despite its forward motion, the movie flits back and forth in time, making the point that Baldwin’s concerns in the ‘50s and ‘60s are, if anything, more relevant today. Things have changed in some ways, not in others. Baldwin refused black responsibility for “the race problem” — he thought that the “problem” was created by white people and that they needed to own it. To the extent that whites have failed to assume responsibility for the systemic racism that benefits them, much of the tension prevalent in Baldwin’s prime is still very much with us.

In an intimate voice approaching a whisper, narrator Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s diamond-sharp words. A multiple outcast, Baldwin was gay as well as black. Conceivably, he could find himself among fellow black men who would condemn his sexuality, and find himself among fellow gay men who hated his race. It’s no wonder, then, that Baldwin often wore what I would call a sad yet sardonic expression. His consciousness was unavoidably ironic and also informed, or warped, by the highly combustible tropes of the Hollywood movies of his youth. The movie takes the opportunity to interrogate Hollywood’s culpability in American racism, leading up to what I considered the single discordant element: cutting directly from footage of Doris Day emoting to a stark photo of a lynching victim. It’s mean and uncalled-for; it grates aesthetically and morally. Yes, Baldwin did call Day and Gary Cooper “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen,” but I mean, c’mon.

Otherwise, the film’s critique of American culture and society, following Baldwin’s lead, is more than fair (including Baldwin’s revulsion at such cinematic Uncle Toms as Stepin Fetchit — although that performer has since been re-evaluated). The Haitian director Raoul Peck stitches the timelines and footage together smoothly — the result is an engaging riff on Baldwin’s themes. It’s the opposite of dry and academic; the style is jazzy and allusive, with a strong mix of movie clips. Baldwin’s point about Hollywood is that one of the ways you learn a society’s nature is by looking at the stories they tell themselves about themselves.

So what story does I Am Not Your Negro tell? It’s not strictly a biographical piece; Peck assumes you know who Baldwin was and why he managed to rub elbows with so many African-Americans of note, serving as a “witness” more than taking direct action. It’s not a balm in frightening times; it endorses Baldwin’s thesis that the American problem must be faced. It brings some lesser-known Baldwinisms to a larger audience, and may lead people to his books and essays. (Maybe begin with The Fire Next Time, a true classic that influenced Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me among others.) It begins with the concept Baldwin had of a book about Evers, King and Malcolm, and ends up irising outward to take in the world that formed them, held them aloft for a while, and then took them.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

November 7, 2016

amnd2Sixteen years ago, the Rhode Island filmmaker Richard Griffin made his feature debut with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Now he comes full circle with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Griffin had wanted to make for years. Artists as diverse as Peter Brook and Neil Gaiman have tackled this supernaturally-tinged romantic comedy, and Griffin, who usually leans dark whether he’s dealing with horror or comedy, lightens up and opens his palette. He and his frequent cinematographer Jill Poisson are like little kids with a big bucket of Crayolas; everything is bold, vividly colorful, magic seen at magic hour.

The play itself I have mixed feelings about. We needn’t go into them. What matters is what an adapter does with it, and Griffin makes high entertainment out of it. He isn’t in the least intimidated by Shakespeare, perhaps because he started out making one of the Bard’s less prestigious plays. (“I knew you when, buddy,” Griffin might be saying to Shakespeare; “I was there when you were hacking off hands and feeding people their own children.”) And he’s comfortable with the story’s otherworldly aspects; he builds an atmosphere where people — whether regular humans or faeries — can be theatrical, stylized. Nobody here goes small. Johnny Sederquist, for instance, creates a Puck in anarchy shirt and rave-club makeup, endlessly amused by what fools these mortals be.       

There’s an element of cruelty in the premise, in which faeries use magic to turn hapless mortals into romantic puppets. The faeries, of course, are romantic love itself, the most simple and baffling of emotions, turning people into animals, or a literal donkey. Almost subliminally, in a matter-of-fact way, the openly gay Griffin turns Midsummer Night’s Dream into a queer-friendly, inclusive ode to l’amour fou. The play toys with gender to begin with; Griffin recasts “rude mechanical” Peter Quince as Rita Quince, who in the person of Christin Goff kept reminding me of Elizabeth Warren.

Griffin’s casts are always eager and robust — his joie de cinema rubs off on them — and the standout here is Ashley Harmon, whose Hermia is vulnerable, rageful, driven to frustrated dementia by her near-complete lack of agency. Harmon grounds Hermia’s suffering, and the play itself, in something real. Without Hermia you don’t have the darkness that the light of the play is designed to dispel; she might be the play’s backbone, its unsung hero. The rest of the cast bathes in Griffin’s and Poisson’s creamy Argento/Bava colors, having a grand old time and sharing it with us, but Harmon comes at things more sharply, speaking for the common woman (who isn’t so common).

A lot of foolishness unfolds under the dappled purple sky, a lot of poetry in the charged night air. Griffin sets the movie in “Athens, Massachusetts, 1754,” but the spirit feels modern, playful. (The occasional anachronistic gag is sprinkled into the mix, giving weight to the idea that the play’s concerns straddle the centuries.) As usual, Griffin manages to make a movie that looks — and also sounds, thanks to Daniel Hildreth’s lush score — as though it cost about a thousand times more than it did. As before, he brings the Bard to the screen with no fuss or pomp. If you’ve heard me go on about Griffin before, but you were too bashful for his naughtier films and too squeamish for his gorier efforts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as fine an introduction as any to his raffish charms.