Archive for the ‘underrated’ category

mother!

September 23, 2017

mother2“Words cannot describe,” said a man loudly in the theater, “what we just saw.” What we’d just seen was mother!, the audience-infuriating new whatsit from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). As it happens, Aronofsky has many words to describe it, and he’s been unwisely sharing them in the film press. Luckily, I kept my eyes and ears virginal before sitting down to mother!, so I didn’t know — and you shouldn’t either — his allegorical explanation. Some will interpret it another way, as a male artist’s unconscious apologia for what the pursuit of his art can do to the one he loves. Others still may take the movie’s events literally, which the movie doesn’t discourage for about its first half, at which point it saunters casually for the exit in the house of logic, clears its throat, and takes a Nestea plunge into apocalyptic surrealism.

If that sounds like your cup of art, I wouldn’t dream of dissuading you from catching mother! while you still can on the big screen (and with big speakers — the sound mix is brutal), or eventually on home video, probably sooner than its studio, Paramount, would prefer. If, on the other hand, you are spiritual kin to the middle-aged ladies who sat near me commenting at frequent intervals about how stupid the movie was, I would advise you to stay the fuck home. I came out rattled, relieved that it was done with me, and somewhat exhilarated. mother! is art, for sure, sincere and emotionally loud and taking place entirely in the landscape of a bent imagination; it is also unafraid to speak the language of schlock, and it amuses me that the climax that appalls so many viewers is actually the ending of so much bland Hollywood fare — blood and fire and bullets and explosions.

I am actively avoiding the story. I can safely reveal this much. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live together in a house that she’s fixing up. The house was once his until fire consumed it. While she plasters the walls, he sits around trying to write (he’s a poet). One day, a doctor (Ed Harris) visits, soon joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The doctor is a fan of the poet’s work, and he and his wife stay the night. Some stuff happens. Exit doctor and wife. Later, the poet impregnates his wife and starts his greatest work within the same 24 hours. His book comes out and is a major success. He gains a horde of new fans. Meanwhile, his wife is about ready to pop out the baby. She does so, amidst a cataclysm of hellfire and cannibalism and a gun-wielding Kristen Wiig. There’s more.

No doubt about it, mother! is the most audacious folly a major studio has allowed an American filmmaker to pursue since Southland Tales, which also collapsed into ecstasies of fireworks incongruously involving veterans of Saturday Night Live. The tension ratchets up deftly; the 24-frames-per-second representational recording of a movie keeps us locked into interpreting it literally from moment to moment, until it vehemently parts company with reality. The trope of the guests who won’t leave, wreaking chaos in one’s home, is robust enough to get our anxiety pumping. As the movie got crazier, I responded gratefully to the visual and aural hyperbole. But the burn leading up to the light show is slow and uncomfortable … and a little irritating.

Art has a right — an obligation — to irritate occasionally. I’m glad I saw mother! and glad it was made, but I don’t want to see it again (a reaction I also had to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, another pure horror movie that trafficked in the Biblical). Aside from Aronofsky’s deafening virtuosity, there is pleasure in the performances, especially Ed Harris’ portrait of a man in decline. I wouldn’t say mother! offers no entertainment value, but it rises to a level of unpleasantness, even as allegory, that feels punitive. I’ve respected Aronofsky’s films even when I didn’t like them. You don’t always have to like art. I didn’t like mother!, but I think I might love it, or some of it, anyway. Twice in a row now, Darren Aronofsky has made batty, antagonistic, gobsmacking swings for the fence, about what he considers the biggest problem facing humanity. In a culture that increasingly values only childish power fantasies, movies like this are to be protected and highly regarded. Just not liked.

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Split

April 30, 2017

splitThe most intriguing thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s comeback thriller Split is something I can’t reveal — or maybe I can, since Shyamalan has recently told the press that there will be a Split sequel that also follows up Shyamalan’s 2000 cult favorite Unbreakable. What I’d like to say, first and foremost, is that the usual literal-minded sorts have gone after Split for demonizing a character who lives with dissociative identity disorder — what used to be called “split personality.” But, given what we find out, it seems possible that the afflicted protagonist, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), is no more a typical D.I.D. sufferer than Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs was transgender. Something more supernatural — dare I say superpowered? — seems to be going on here.

An enormous success at age 29 with his breakout hit The Sixth Sense before his hubris and some bad choices locked him in movie jail for a few years, Shyamalan has been working modestly and steadily back towards credibility. Split shows — as did his least-loved movies, really — that Shyamalan’s problem was never directing. He brings with him a highly welcome sense of gravitas and quietude, and every frame feels suffused with dread. Some find Shyamalan’s style tiresome, but I’ve always valued it as a corrective to the hyperbolic flailing of other directors of his generation.

Kevin, under his bespectacled and buttoned-down identity Dennis, kidnaps three teenage girls, including the movie’s heroine Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). They are meant, we gather, as sacrifices for Kevin’s as-yet-unseen 24th identity, The Beast, who disregards regular physical limitations. When you meet The Beast you might see what I mean about superpowers; if Unbreakable was the origin story of a hero, Split functions the same way for a supervillain. Back in 2000, I razzed Unbreakable a bit for its (to me) anticlimactic ending, but now I feel that assessments of both it and Split will be incomplete without seeing the end of the trilogy (to be called Glass). Usually I insist that a movie should be judged on its own merits, but in this case there seems to be a long game at hand, and why not wait to see where Shyamalan plans to take this story?

The underpopulated movie runs for a long time on the virtuoso instability of McAvoy in the several identities he gets to try on, and the contrasting survivor’s intelligence of Taylor-Joy, whose Casey, like Kevin, is the product of abuse. Every so often, Kevin — in the person of the most socially competent of the identities, Barry — goes to visit his therapist (Betty Buckley), whose study of Kevin aims to prove that the brain is capable of more power than we can imagine, to the extent of controlling the potential of the body to heal or to perform feats of strength. Is Shyamalan saying that everyone with D.I.D. is a budding mutant psychopath? No, just Kevin, although there’s talk of others with similar talents. (Maybe Kevin has a more benevolent counterpart out there, a Professor Xavier to his Magneto. The comparison is apt, since McAvoy’s largest claim to fame has been playing the young Xavier in the last several X-Men films.)

Shyamalan spent much of his thirties high on his own reputation, and he was due for (and maybe earned) a humbling stumble; get called the next Spielberg at 29 and see how you act. But how much longer are we going to hold his younger self’s ego against him? I think he’s eaten enough worms. Split is a tight thriller with Shyamalan’s usual mastery of mood, and with a dream role for any actor that McAvoy somehow — mostly — resists ramping up into camp; he finds the humanity, cracked or otherwise, in each of Kevin’s personae. Split not only makes me anticipate its follow-up but makes me want to revisit Unbreakable: If he doesn’t blow it in the last inning, the trilogy of superhero movies unfolding in the gunmetal-gray mundanity of Philadelphia could be Shyamalan’s true legacy, a quiet rebuttal to the bland vapors of the Marvel films and, Kal-El knows, the ridiculous nü-metal pomp of the DC films.

Silence

April 2, 2017

Lane-MartinScorsesesSilence-1200Silence is very likely the most Catholic movie Martin Scorsese has ever made, which makes it very Catholic indeed — mega-Catholic, über-Catholic. It’s a real high mass of a film, done with high craft in the highest seriousness. I’m seriously divided on it, but ultimately I have to lean in its favor. I feel protective of it, as if it were a pencil sketch or a mandala. Pain and guilt radiate from every frame, alongside incongruous natural beauty. I’m not sure if it’s a work of art or a tract of instruction, and certainly it couldn’t be less interested in reflecting the concerns of the day or satisfying the commercial cravings of the day. Like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, it’s timeless and placeless; its true milieu is inside Scorsese’s head.

The climate in Last Temptation was red and dusty; the one in Silence, 17th-century Japan, feels cold and wet, shot by master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto in infinite gradations of blue and gray, yet never feeling desaturated. The mood is frightened but determined spirituality in the face of violent oppression. Christianity in this land is punishable by torture and death, unless the accused voluntarily steps on an image of Christ, thus signaling their renunciation of God, their apostasy. (We hear the word “apostatize” in this film about as often as we hear a certain other word in Scorsese’s gangster films.)

Two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrupe (Adam Driver), volunteer to sneak into Japan to look for their former mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is said to have apostatized. They find a blue, rainy place haunted by terrified Japanese Christians and the stone-faced samurai who hunt them. The problem with Scorsese’s alter egos in his movies about faith is that they, for him, are filled out with his own guilt and devotion. The rest of us may perceive these heroes as somewhat hollow, undefined. Andrew Garfield does what he can, but Rodrigues is drawn as a bit too much of a noble sufferer, only intermittently aware that his steadfast refusal to apostatize might have more to do with his pride than with any genuine love of God.

Fortunately, Scorsese acknowledges this, and throws some of our identification to a few of the Japanese characters. There’s Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas stand-in who’s also the mad fool of the piece, always moving between sacrifice and betrayal; or Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto, bad-boy director of Tetsuo the Iron Man and many others), a devout old Christian; or especially Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata, whose voice is one of the most amazing purrs of self-satisfied evil I’ve ever heard in a movie). Given that the priests are so devoted to their faith they sometimes seem completely out of touch with reality, and given that Scorsese lets the Japanese have humor and complexity — humanity — I don’t think Silence can be waved off as white-saviorism. Scorsese sees the problem with all-or-nothing thinking on either side.

Technically, Silence is a Michelin three-star restaurant. Emotionally it’s impacted, uncertain; Scorsese never met a doubt he didn’t love to chew over. Sometimes it seems his real subject all along has been faith darkening into doubt and then brightening back towards faith, and on and on eternally. Paradise, says a woman in the film, is a place with no suffering and no work (and no taxes, she adds), but what kind of drama is that? As David Byrne said, heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. For Scorsese, it’s all about the struggle, which for him is the tension between religious asceticism and the visceral, sensual pleasure he derives from cinema — watching it and making it. His movies about faith tend to end more or less happily because the end of a film means that a film has been made. The famous cliché about Scorsese is that the movie theater is his church and vice versa. Silence is an interiorized work surrounded by, almost mocked by, flesh-punishing yet ravishingly gorgeous nature. In that respect it’s as Catholic as the blood flowing through Scorsese’s veins and his emulsion.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

October 1, 2016

brain-wouldnt-die-122215How can anyone not love a movie in which a woman’s bitter disembodied head snarls to a mutant locked in a closet, “I’m only a head … and you’re whatever you are…”? The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is amazingly sleazy and ghastly and cheap and, yes, deeply lovable. It has as its proto-feminist heroine a woman who has been whittled down to her mind, which gives her new psychic powers that she doesn’t hesitate to use against the men of science who presume to shape her destiny. Playing this woman, Jan Compton, in the early scenes, Virginia Leith is somewhat interchangeable with the film’s other female characters; once reduced to a head, though, Leith hisses and growls in her newly husky voice, and she becomes an image of perverse beauty and strength.

What happens to Jan is that she’s decapitated in a car wreck; fortunately, or unfortunately, her fiancé Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) is a maverick surgeon obsessed with experimenting on humans. A past experiment has already resulted in the aforementioned mutant in the closet, and now Dr. Bill wants to find Jan a new body upon which to transplant her head. This appalls Jan, who simply wants to die, but while she’s kept alive she must figure she may as well wreak some havoc. She develops a telepathic bond with the hidden mutant, who is responsible for most of the movie’s inky, black-and-white bloodshed.

Brain has a sweaty, lowdown, skid-row charm. Dr. Bill keeps frequenting places of ill repute (a strip club, a beauty contest) while Abie Baker’s dirty instrumental ditty “The Web” honks and fidgets suggestively. Meanwhile, his disabled assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels) taunts Jan and cringes from the thumps made by the closeted mutant, who seems to function as Jan’s id. The movie, made in 1959 but not released until 1962, has a deep streak of misandry. Women in the film are targeted by men, abused, scarred, robbed of their agency. Jan alone, having forfeited her physique, has the power to burn the rampant misogyny down to the ground.

All of this comes packaged in a movie whose technique is, to put it gently, basic. I’m annoyed by the mundane reviews calling it “inept,” though. Brain creates and sustains an eerie, clammy psychosexual mood. Dr. Bill, who resembles a cross between Vince Vaughn and a young Aidan Quinn, bops along smugly to havens of pulchritude; of course he’d go to strippers or beauty contestants when body-shopping for his fiancée. He settles on Doris (Adele Lamont), a photographers’ model with a scarred face from an abusive ex. She loathes men, but goes home with Dr. Bill because he promises corrective plastic surgery. Also, she senses that he doesn’t want her for sex, which is true; he just wants her for her body. Heh heh heh. At times Brain is interchangeable tonally with several classic E.C. Comics horror tales, the vicious and morally polluted kind written so indelibly by Al Feldman.

The mutant, when we see him finally, is played by Diane Arbus giant Eddie Carmel wearing make-up that turns his entire head into a riot of mismatched patchwork flesh. He’s supposed to be a failed experiment, but seems more like something pinched together like Play-Doh out of leftover meat by a bored, spiteful god. The mutant, who kills every man he sees and rescues Doris under Jan’s command, is the movie’s only sympathetic male — or is he male? Anyway, he or she is Monster, allied with no-bodied Jan and disfigured Doris, maimed by man, or created as their current ruined selves by man. I’m sorry, but a movie that tucks this many discordant but reverberant subtexts and ideas into a grindhouse narrative deserves so much better than to be derided by hipsters. A refugee from the mad-lab Z-budget pictures of the ‘50s, Brain in its seamy and leering way agitates more loudly for the then-nascent second-wave feminism than a squarer, more conscientious work could hope to.

The Green Inferno

September 26, 2015

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Ah, what a bracing slice of throwback nastiness is Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. This overdue fourth feature from the writer-director of Cabin Fever and the first two Hostel movies takes its time getting to the grue, but when it does, you can see what Stephen King meant when he called it “bloody, gripping, hard to watch.” A husky young man makes the acquaintance of a village of grateful cannibals, and he keeps them busy for quite some time. His colleagues, watching from inside a cage, vomit and scream as the flamboyantly accoutred tribal elder takes his eyes, then his tongue, then each limb, and finally his head. His torso, resembling nothing so much as a huge pork roast, slides right into the communal oven.

Roth has a reputation as a ravenously thirsty gorehound, but in truth he just knows when and how to deploy the money scenes so they count for more; the unfortunate young man’s fate is about the worst thing Roth makes us look at, and even then the editing snips the carnage into digestible bacon bits. Whether cannibalism should be digestible is another question; Roth’s film is openly indebted to Ruggero Deodato’s genuinely disquieting 1980 splatterfest Cannibal Holocaust, which in addition to people-eating is loaded with rape and animals being killed on camera for real. (In the filmmakers’ defense, the animals were eaten after their close-ups.) The Green Inferno doesn’t go nearly as far as a film from 35 years ago did, but then that film wasn’t obligated to nab an R rating and play in a thousand theaters nationwide, as Roth’s movie is.

The set-up gives us a group of campus lefties who fly to the Amazon to save a village from being bulldozed by an oil company. After being threatened by gun-toting mercenaries, our heroes go down in a plane crash, and the survivors are captured by the villagers. Now, I don’t think Roth is saying anything as jejune as “This is what happens when you try to help savages” or “This is why lefties are idiots.” Certainly there’s a huge problem with the way these crusaders go about their business; they are (mostly) not as insufferable as the film crew in Cannibal Holocaust, but there’s something distasteful about how their American privilege leads them into a situation they’re unprepared to handle and fatally uninformed about — looked at with a squint, the movie could almost be a satire of American military intervention.

The script by Roth and Guillermo Amoedo plants a lot of Chekhov’s guns early on, all surrounding the innocent-faced main character Justine (Lorenza Izzo): a flute necklace, a lecture on female genital mutilation, and, perhaps most obscurely, a poster for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s anguished epic Betty Blue tacked above her bed back home. (Well, that film had an eye-gouging in it, too.) Justine is recognized by the tribal elder (whose brute ministrations apparently out her as a virgin) and by a little tribal boy as someone special, someone not to be snacked upon, but what? A bride for the fearsome village bad-ass, maybe? The storytelling could be clearer at times, but the fear on view is always accessible.

Roth, like King, knows that horror has no business being politically correct. Its job is to deal harsh slaps to the nerves, to the lizard brain. It cuts through the hypocrisy of someone who, say, volunteers for organizations to aid the homeless but who might be frightened by a chance encounter, after dark alone in the city, with an actual homeless person. Fear doesn’t mix well with social conscience. The Green Inferno isn’t without humor, some of it perfectly ghastly (a stomach-challenging visual gag involving tattoos, for example), but Roth isn’t some callous prankster, either. The terror here has more to do with the ancient feeling of being in a place one doesn’t belong — think of Bluebeard’s admonition to his latest wife — than with xenophobia. Those who consider Roth an obnoxious gore-bro, horror’s answer to Tucker Max, will find little in The Green Inferno to sway them. But if you believe, as I do, that he’s trying to do more with the genre than just pay gleefully bloody homage to his ancestors, enjoy the meal.

The November Man

September 14, 2014

The-November-Man-trailer-2-750x310Has it really been twenty years since Pierce Brosnan was officially announced as the then-latest James Bond? (Brosnan’s debut, GoldenEye, marks its twentieth anniversary next year.) Now 61, Brosnan seems interested in interrogating the cold 007 archetype from different angles, whether farcical (2005’s The Matador) or serious, as in his new thriller, The November Man. The movie is based on the seventh in a largely overlooked series of spy novels by Bill Granger about Devereaux — no first name, though in the film he goes by Peter — a former agent who keeps getting pulled back in to contend with international crises. Here, Devereaux must protect a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who possesses dangerous information about a piece of rapist slime who’s being groomed for the presidency of Russia.

The newsworthy thing about The November Man, directed with old-school grit and clarity by Roger Donaldson, is how emotional its violence feels — and there’s plenty of blood spilled. The fights and gunshots seem to burst forth out of rage and contempt — and that’s when the good guys do it. Well, “good guys” according to whatever definition means anything in this gray context. Devereaux is brought in by old handler Hanley (Bill Smitrovich, doing his best Peter Boyle), who soon turns on Devereaux, takes over from section chief Weinstein (Will Patton, doing his best J.T. Walsh), and sends Devereaux’s former protege Mason (Luke Bracey) after him.

What we’re never allowed to forget is that the convoluted plot is powered by those who perpetrated war crimes on vulnerable girls and those who want to bring the perpetrators to justice. Devereaux is already nursing a painful personal loss at the callous hands of his employers. Later in the film, he will present a harsh and bloody choice to Mason. In part, the movie is about the misogyny at the highest levels of government and federal intelligence. Usually women in spy movies are bargaining chips or femmes fatale or, with 007, a motivation for the hero to press onward vengefully. Here, Olga Kurylenko is allowed central importance, with back-up from Caterina Scorsone as an agent, Amila Terzimehic as a fierce and unstoppable assassin, and Eliza Taylor as Mason’s warm, cat-owning neighbor.

Brosnan’s Devereaux is cool, abrupt, coiled for action. Not suave like 007, he’s closer to a spy version of Donald Westlake’s Parker, brutal and pessimistic. Combined with Julian Noble of The Matador, Devereaux is Brosnan’s way of telling us that he understands that a 007 in the real world would be a monster, or at least monstrously desensitized. Still, Devereaux isn’t far enough gone to see that a woman who seeks justice should have it. And again, somehow the violence Devereaux commits in the movie feels like an expression of anger at what the world of dirty international politics does to innocence and to women (Devereaux, it’s revealed at some point, has more than one personal reason for being angry). The November Man is structured like a routine spy thriller — and it sure goes like lightning — but it means more than meets the eye.

Redwood Highway

June 22, 2014

11945_388969124578176_5236639086043232091_nJudi Dench is fantastic, but there are other septuagenarian actresses. One such is Shirley Knight, who turns 78 in a couple of weeks, and who provides the rock-solid center for the perfectly pleasant comedy-drama Redwood Highway. Knight is Marie, a widow and grandmother who passes the days at an Oregon retirement community. The place looks comfy as such places go, but Marie hadn’t planned to die there. She takes off, unannounced and without her resented cell phone, for lengthy walks by herself. This drives her adult son Michael (James Le Gros) nuts; she has a spiky, unstable relationship with him and with her granddaughter Naomi (Zena Grey), who’s about to get married.

The embittered Naomi, who knows Marie doesn’t approve of her fiancé, leaves her a message saying not to bother to come to the wedding. Marie, alas, is not the type who will do what she’s told to do, or told not to do. She sets out on foot, again unannounced, with a backpack and a bit of food swiped from the community snack table, on the eighty-mile journey to the wedding site. The premise may sound similar to last year’s overrated Nebraska, but I assure you this is the far better film, starting with the fact that Shirley Knight — who’s in almost every scene — wipes the floor with Bruce Dern’s monotonously irascible performance. Marie is what used to be called a “tough old broad,” but also vulnerable and eventually grateful for help. Fairly quickly, she figures out she’s not going to be able to make the trip solely on her own steam.

Knight’s Marie may be the sort of stubborn person it’s difficult to have in one’s own life — there’s some degree of sympathy for Michael, who moves heaven and earth to track Marie down once she goes missing from the community — but she’s terrific company for an hour and a half. Marie moves briskly and with purpose, and she speaks the same way to people she isn’t sure of. Knight makes her a tragicomic figure leaning towards comic; Marie doesn’t pity herself, so we don’t either. It helps that with one exception, when Marie happens across a couple of meth-heads at a deserted motel out in the boonies, everyone she meets is nice to her (and even one of the meth-heads doesn’t want to cause her any trouble — she reminds him of his grandma). Redwood Highway thus becomes a fable of kindness. It’s soothing, and no big points are being made for or against Marie or her rural surroundings (another reason I prefer it to Nebraska, which was nasty to everyone and everyplace on the screen).

Director Gary Lundgren picks the supporting cast well. Marie meets a widower played beautifully by Tom Skerritt, who reminds us of his effortless command of decency. There’s one moment when Skerritt rests his head on Knight’s shoulder, and it’s incredibly intimate and romantic even though the plot steers clear of romance. Michelle Lombardo is warm and nurturing as a young bartender who insists on giving Marie a bed to sleep in for a night. Twin Peaks fans will be happy to see Catherine E. Coulson, the Log Lady herself, as Marie’s best friend at the retirement community; her appearance is brief but winningly tremulous. None of these people are ridiculed; the script, by Lundgren and James Twyman, allows each character his or her humanity, and we feel they all have lives outside of Marie’s story, perhaps worthy of their own movies. About Skerritt’s character, who still tends the “artisan art” shop he and his wife once started, I would happily know more. And what about one of Marie’s old flames, a deaf old duffer who lives off the grid with, unaccountably, a Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” sticker in the front window of his cabin?

Redwood Highway moves at Marie’s pace, strong and purposeful, and arrives smoothly at its conclusion. Shirley Knight’s bullheaded performance reassures us that Marie will carry out her adventure, that she isn’t going to expire of a heart attack out in the woods or something stupidly melodramatic like that. Sometimes we don’t want to have to worry about what’s going to happen next in a movie; sometimes we just want to be pleasurably curious about what happens next, and we like Marie and want to be with her on her journey. The film’s synopsis tells us that Marie “discovers that you’re never too old to learn something about life and about yourself”; please ignore that, because it makes the movie sound much more softheaded than it is. It is, among other things, a sharp distaff rejoinder to the male-centered, sour-faced Nebraska; it’s what Nebraska might have been if it had forgotten about Bruce Dern and Will Forte and gone off to follow June Squibb.