Archive for the ‘underrated’ category

Final Portrait

March 18, 2018

finalportraitYou don’t have to know anything about Alberto Giacometti to enjoy Final Portrait, an account of the Swiss sculptor/painter’s halting attempts to paint a portrait of his friend, the American art critic James Lord. Final Portrait is the fifth film in 22 years directed by the wonderful character actor Stanley Tucci, and the first in which he does not appear. On the rare occasions when he is moved to sit behind the camera, Tucci seems most interested in artists — their difficulties, their integrity, the ways they can drain the energy of those around them. In his filmmaking debut, Big Night, Tucci played the long-suffering younger brother of the chef (Tony Shalhoub) of the Italian restaurant he managed; his brother insisted on fashioning art with his cuisine, rather than the weak-tea “Italian food” their American customers demanded.

Here, Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) feels like a fraud because all of his art is “unfinished” — most artists know that you never “finish” a piece, you just abandon it, otherwise you’d tinker with it forever if you could (and some artists do). When James (Armie Hammer) sits for a Giacometti portrait, he soon senses that the work is becoming a tinker-fest. Giacometti roughly renders James’ features, then goes for his thick brush and slathers gray paint over everything he’s done, then starts over again. What begins as a three-hour session in Paris turns into weeks. James is often seen on the phone, repeatedly cancelling his flight home to New York.

In a lesser, crasser movie, we’d eventually see the airline employee on the other end answering with a crisp “Yes, Mr. Lord, we know.” Stanley Tucci doesn’t make lesser, crasser movies. Final Portrait isn’t cheaply jokey like that, but it is nimbly entertaining. The color scheme, mostly the grays of Giacometti’s studio, interests me; usually, of late, I’ve been honking on about the dreary monochrome of most movies. But the grays here, courtesy of cinematographer Danny Cohen, have variety and texture. The result is that Giacometti’s workplace feels weirdly cozy. We can believe in it as a place — spattered with plaster, stuffed with hidden sacks of money — that Giacometti can retreat to, and frequently gets tired of, shuffling out to get a drink with his prostitute muse (Clémence Poésy).

I wasn’t aware of Geoffrey Rush before his Oscar-winning and annoying turn in Shine. Later on, as I saw other, better performances from him, I had to confront the question: In Shine, was I watching an irritating actor, or a great actor who had played an irritating person very effectively? By now I would fall into the latter camp on Rush, and here he creates a gravely shambolic mad genius whose skyward-pointing tangle of hair recalls similarly coiffed visionaries like Eisenstein, George S. Kaufman, Barton Fink. His Giacometti is mordant, depressed: he will never be finished, he will die before reaching any closure in his work. (And indeed two years after the events here, Giacometti was dead.) Rush does especially subtle work with Shalhoub as Giacometti’s brother Diego, who gently suffers the great artist’s foibles.

James, who went on to write books about Giacometti, figures out he has to still Giacometti’s hand before he reaches again for the annihilating thick gray brush. An artist learns to listen to the editor voice inside that dictates when time is up and the piece is as done as it’s going to get. Mute that voice and you get (in David Denby’s words) a “lordly ditherer” like Kubrick, or Malick, or your choice of creatives who take eons between projects, chewing the damn thing to death, to shreds. Giacometti is a restless god, always with two or three pieces going at a time, his studio full of his own work, some of which seems to regard him balefully. (In one shot he has a wordless psychic clash with a large plaster head that resembles him in profile.) Here and in films like Big Night and Joe Gould’s Secret, Stanley Tucci shows an artist’s respect for the unfinished, the abandoned, the work someone lived with and dreamed of until it was time to send it out into the world. James may be Giacometti’s final portrait, but I sincerely hope this won’t be Tucci’s.


Roman J. Israel, Esq.

February 11, 2018

Denzel Washington stars in ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.Public payphones have faded from the national landscape to such a degree that it brings us up short when we’re reminded they still exist. The titular hero of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) is a walking anachronism — he seems to exist in several different decades other than this one. His fro, his mashing up an iPod with nerdily large earphones, his very soul and rhetoric speak of a man who refuses to be tied down to anything so fleeting as time. He’ll plant his own roots on his own land. So in one scene you’ll see Roman checking several payphones for change, and in another there’ll be a reference to Uber. Like its namesake, Roman is ambitious and wonky and all over the place.

It’s a vibe that owes a lot to the seventies, to whose gritty, inward-directed aesthetic the writer-director, Dan Gilroy, genuflects in this movie and his previous Nightcrawler. You can say a lot about these movies, but you can’t say they’re safe or stale. Actors like Washington or Jake Gyllenhaal rove through Gilroy’s tales, white-hot and solipsistic. Washington’s Roman doesn’t really seem able to relate to whoever’s in front of him. He’s an idealist in the general sense, and he has a radical streak, but it’s wedded to his identity as an in-the-rear-with-the-gear lawyer — not a trial lawyer — with a possibly neuroatypical facility for recalling legal data. In his head, he’s a moral crusader, but in reality he’s just been dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for a failing, even corrupt, two-person law firm. Then the other person dies, and Roman’s story begins.

Roman’s firm and cases are subsumed into a larger firm headed by slickster George Pierce (Colin Farrell), Roman’s partner’s former student. In truth, Pierce has a more gratifying character arc than Roman does, or maybe a more movie-ish one. Pierce seems to exist in a more hopeful reality capable of redemption, a reality that Roman thought he lived in for decades and now rejects. Roman J. Israel, Esq. turns out to be about nothing less than a man’s mind breaking a bit when confronted with its own possible irrelevance, his values akilter, his moral compass magnetized into chaos. He loses himself, indulges in childish appetites.

Washington has been doing some hard work in the realm of idiosyncrasy lately, and in this movie he finds a kind of lyricism in a complex computer who stops computing. In opposition to the slicker but morally chaotic Roman we have Pierce, who gathers layers of compassion — he’s been looking for a Don Quixote to replace what his teacher once was to him, and almost seems to see Roman as a father figure. That’s obvious from the way Pierce responds to a breach of protocol on Roman’s part that may have cost a young client his life. Instead of firing him, Pierce comes to see Roman’s virtues and actually restructures his firm to reflect what he thinks Roman’s values are. Or were.

A motif through all of this is the major brick-like thing Roman has been toiling on for years, the legal brief that calls out the entire system itself. With help from a Farrell performance that starts icy but warms up, Pierce seems poised to help Roman carry the weight. The movie ends up saying that ideals will survive the cracked human containers who cart them around. On a thematic level, this resounds and makes intellectual sense to us. On a basic plot level, it seems pointlessly downbeat, even nihilistic. The movie seems to be in conflict with itself, in harmony with its hero. Like many of those ‘70s films cherished by film nerds, Roman is more beautiful for its flaws; it’s cantankerous and possibly insufferable and the sort of shot in the dark that grows in memory.


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.



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.



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

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.