Wishful Drinking

Posted January 2, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, concert film

wishfulOne of the better jokes in Wishful Drinking, HBO’s filmed version of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show, will inspire sad cringing more than laughter these days. I won’t give it away. But if anyone existed in the zone between laughter and sad cringing, it was Carrie Fisher, who at one point during the show touted herself as “runner-up for bipolar woman of the year.” Fisher, of course, will forever be known for the piece of real estate she held down in the vast suburb that is Star Wars. But her true sardonic self came out in her writing and then in her performance of her writing. Wishful Drinking, which HBO re-ran on January 1 in the wake of Fisher’s death, offers probably the purest essence of Fisher in the visual medium (you can look to her novels and memoirs for more).

Fisher’s subject is how bizarrely magical and magically bizarre it is to be “celebrity royalty” — the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, both of whose later married lives were so thick and confusing a large family-tree diagram is necessary to keep it all straight. The format is mainly anecdotal; wandering around a stage set that resembles a retiree’s cluttered but homey living room, Fisher keeps the show on the level of decent stand-up. She doesn’t go for any pathos — she’s too acerbic for that, and whenever she approaches a cliché, she backs away from it quickly with a jet-blast of snark. She doesn’t want to make the material more meaningful, or enlarge it to fit a theme; she just presents her life as comedy. I imagine the movie gives us what it might have been like to sit in Fisher’s parlor listening to her hold forth.

Fisher visits the old suburb briefly, counting the ways Star Wars has immortalized her (as a Pez dispenser, as a shampoo bottle, as a photo in a book ironically titled — no kidding — New Hope for People with Bipolar Disorder). “George Lucas ruined my life,” she says, adding “and I mean that in the nicest possible way.” I’ve seen Fisher’s Princess Leia described as the most famous female character in history; I balked at that until considering that Star Wars is quite likely the most famous film in history and that there are very few other women in Star Wars. That donut-headed hairstyle is iconic, immediately recognizable, and mortifying to a 19-year-old.        

So what happens to the human woman who played the icon and is forever linked to it? Especially a woman whose sanity had already been imperiled by being the daughter of stars? It’s a wonder Fisher never climbed a tower with a rifle, but women of Fisher’s generation didn’t do that; they self-medicated, self-deprecated, self-destructed. Somewhere in the show, Fisher proselytizes for electroshock therapy, which she later expanded on in her second memoir, Shockaholic. Fisher felt it helped with her depression, but there’s a chance it might have done some damage to her heart — along with the other punishment she dealt it over the years.

There’s a certain degree of heartlessness — not soullessness, but an ability to distance oneself — required to make witty one-liners out of the chaos of one’s life. (Fisher was a modern master of the epigram, the baby-boomer Dorothy Parker.) Some detachment is needed in order to shape the material so that it can reach others, rather than being incoherent diary entries. (Sadly, Fisher’s last book, The Princess Diarist, was sometimes that.) What brought Fisher’s later fans closer to her, though, was her vulnerability. What you hear in the audience in Wishful Thinking is laughter given gratefully and also generously. Fisher wasn’t angling for pity. She wanted to hear laughs. So much of her writing earns laughs, but they sound hollow now that she’s not here to hear them.

A Man Called Ove

Posted December 18, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, foreign, overrated

a_man_called_ove_-_2For some time, I’ve wondered why Fredrik Backman’s Swedish novel A Man Called Ove, a huge international bestseller, has captured so many imaginations. Having watched the film adaptation, which hits DVD in America next week, I think I know. Which is not to say it deserves all those imaginations, or knows what to do with them. The film stars Rolf Lassgård (Wallander) as Ove, an irascible widower pushing sixty and yearning to follow his wife Sonja, who died of cancer six months ago. Ove tries various methods of suicide, but life — in the form of his neighbors — keeps intruding. This wounded old man must, of course, learn how to rejoin the human community. And that’s about all there is to it.

The movie jerks its tears tastefully; there’s a minimum of schlock, because the tone takes its cue from the film’s astringent, taciturn protagonist. There seems to be a trend in recent Swedish pop culture to lionize the grouchy and rumpled; witness the success of the novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and its film version, or for that matter the detectives Wallander and Backstrom and many others. Ove slouches through the Swedish chill and fog, growling at everyone he looks at, lording it over his condo association, browbeating clerks and youths and, at one point, a clown. He’s the sort of joyless asshole who can only be enjoyed from a distance — men like him make life hell for retail workers the world over.

Of course Ove has a lot of pain in his past to explain his behavior. (So do the targets of his scorn, quite likely, but the movie isn’t interested in that possibility.) He grudgingly — always, in these movies, grudgingly — forms a bond with a new neighbor, Iranian immigrant Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), who has two cute-as-a-button daughters and is carrying a third baby. In no time he’s giving her driving lessons as well as agitating for the rights of a disabled friend and taking in a young gay man whose father has disowned him (this plot thread gets forgotten).

In this construction, a man filled with rage and despair can be healed by the warm touch of the well-meaning. (Ergo the story’s popularity from sea to shining sea.) Fredrik Backman packs his narrative with neatly relevant thematic elements, and the movie, adapted and directed by Hannes Holm, tries hard to include them all. The block association that Ove dominates and resents comes together to help him. Even a foofy old fussbudget of a cat follows him around. It’s as though dear departed Sonja had arranged for a micro-society to close ranks around her husband and keep out that Swedish cold and angst.        

People have fallen for the book and will fall for the movie. It could be worse. The film’s flashback structure is smoothly fastened together by editor Fredrik Morheden, its present-day gloom and past-glory color clearly captured by cinematographer Göran Hallberg. Bahar Pars is appealing as the voice of life, and Lassgård anchors the movie with his sad, churlish gravitas. But things are made a little too pat (for instance, Sonja is a bit idealized, and the subplot about Ove’s trying to keep his disabled friend out of a home lacks credibility), which makes this entertainment, not art, and simplistic, familiar entertainment at that. A Man Called Ove is harmless, I suppose, except for its assurance that all a miserably suicidal person needs is a family of friends. Well, the many grieving friends of the many depressives who have attempted suicide — and succeeded at it, not semi-comedically failed — might beg to differ with that diagnosis.

Hidden Figures

Posted December 11, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, drama

hidden-figures-df-04856_r2_rgbAll things considered, Hidden Figures wraps some fairly radical themes — three African-American women entrusted with important NASA jobs at a time (1961-1962) when Jim Crow was still the law of the land — in a largely unradical package. Whistle-clean, one of the few modern films to get an uncomplicated PG rating, the movie hits all the standard biopic beats. For every scene enlivened by the retro R&B of Pharrell Williams, there’s another in which Hans Zimmer’s strings try ineffectually to pluck at our heart’s. It was made, seemingly, to be shown in schools.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and Hidden Figures is affecting in ways that a less squarely conceived movie couldn’t be. It is a balm of sorts in a world in which women, people of color, and even the sciences will likely be respected far less in a few weeks. Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the movie tracks three NASA employees — math genius Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), unofficial computer supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer-to-be Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — as they face racism and sexism while slowly getting to the point where their efforts help John Glenn circle the earth. (Sadly, Glenn passed away last week, probably without getting to see himself played by Glen Powell, a blonde hunk in the Chris Evans mold.)

A white male hand passes a piece of chalk to a black female hand: the image succinctly says everything important Hidden Figures wants to say. The white man confers whiteness — importance, credibility — on the black woman. Near the end, though, a white male hand brings coffee to a black woman, as is her due. (A cynic might say, sure, give the black woman caffeine so she can continue to help white men go into space; it was 1983 before the first black man hit space, 1992 before the first black woman did.) The movie speaks of a country where a lot of things are about to flip; we get a few glimpses of the battle for civil rights. The mostly white male NASA environment is a little more enlightened than the general population, but only a little; Katherine has to run to a separate building to use the “colored women’s” bathroom.

Kevin Costner passes the chalk; this actor keeps trying to bridge the gap between races, but here, at least, he brings an edge of gruff pragmatism to it. His character, a composite NASA manager, needs a math genius who can think outside the box, who exists partly in the future, and Katherine is it. Katherine, though, is no John Nash or even Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons plays a sizable role in the film, as persnickety as Sheldon with a side order of racist-sexist disdain). Katherine is conceived as basically a normal woman with normal tastes and desires; I didn’t see a lot of continuity between her home life (widowed with three daughters) and her work life. She’s supposed to devise “math that doesn’t exist yet,” as per Costner, and she also uses ancient math; she’s not only a math savant but a math mystic, yet Taraji P. Henson isn’t encouraged to give her any quirks or sharp edges or even nerdiness. The same goes for Spencer and Monáe; these freakishly gifted and self-possessed ladies don’t have the stubborn oddness that many people at their intellectual level might have.        

Again, though, depth of portrait isn’t really on the movie’s agenda. Hidden Figures exists primarily to pay tribute to the space race’s forgotten heroes, secondarily to inspire. I don’t quite have it in me just now to come down on a film, however narratively conventional and artistically inert, that prizes the intelligence and strength of black women and the gains made possible by math and science. The Daily Beast has already called it “the movie Trump’s America needs to see,” which I suppose is true, though it’s also a relic of Kennedy’s America by way of Obama’s America, and in the chalk being passed you can almost see the line being drawn between Jack and Barack.
       

The Love Witch

Posted December 4, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, overrated

lovewitchEvery frame of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is lavishly loved and fussed over, and every frame is unquestionably Anna Biller’s: she directed it, produced it, wrote the script, edited it, designed the sets, handmade the costumes, and composed the music. The movie has a luscious dreamlike look, too, shot (by cinematographer M. David Mullen) on 35mm in radiant tribute to the Technicolor Euro-horror of the ‘60s. I would love to award it high marks in areas other than the purely technical, but the troublesome truth is that The Love Witch, while stubbornly idiosyncratic and unmistakably a vision, is also dawdling and hollow and kind of awful, really — difficult to sit through, once the creamy visuals lose their novelty. It’s a long two hours, and it could have been worse: “If I had not cut any lines out and I just kept it the way it was in the script,” Biller has said, “it would have been three hours.” Jesus wept.

The narrative, such as it is, follows lonely witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) as she sets herself up in a new town and goes about finding men to seduce and lure to their deaths. There’s a good deal of talk about how men and women differ, and all the men are blinkered or pathetic or both, which may be what the film’s supporters are talking about when they call it “feminist.” Elaine does seem to be trapped, stylistically as well as in the script’s context, in a reality in which she is defined solely by her appeal to men and her power over men. But it’s Anna Biller who traps her there, and I couldn’t work out how the polymath director felt about her heroine or her struggles. Biller seems content to photograph the externals.

Some of the movie comes close to camp or just falls in, as when Elaine is assaulted by former friend Trish (Laura Waddell in the film’s only genuine performance), whose husband Elaine has stolen. “Skank! Whore!” Trish yells, slapping Elaine while wearing a wig cap — the movie helpfully provides its own drag-show re-enactment. A sequence in which Elaine is confronted in a bar by a mob of superstitious goofballs (“Burn the witch!”) is frankly terrible and staged with incredible clumsiness. The Love Witch will be worshipped as a fetish object by a certain breed of film nerd who luxuriates in its DIY retro aesthetic, but it isn’t really a movie — it would have to move first, and the pacing is leadfooted. The plot’s pairing Elaine with a stolid detective (Gian Keys) just leads to a handfasting scene at a local ren faire that seems to go on for six, maybe seven years.

I wonder if any of the hipsters cooing over the film have seen George A. Romero’s 1973 effort Jack’s Wife (also known as Hungry Wives or, on video, Season of the Witch). It tells a bleak and discomfiting story about an abused wife who finds, she thinks, acceptance and family in a coven. Romero’s film is technically uneven but feminist in a way The Love Witch isn’t — it grapples with reality vs. ideals, and ultimately presents its heroine as trading one form of domination for another. The Love Witch isn’t nearly as complex or, really, as dramatic. It seems transfixed by its star, who acts in the same arch, artificial manner everyone else does (and I wish Biller had been as obsessive about the sound as she was about other things in the production — the dialogue sounds tinny, hollow, amateurish).      

Truly, witch narratives can get deep to the heart of this country’s Puritanical weirdness about women and the Other. Robert Eggers’ masterful The Witch, from earlier this year, carries an oblique (and therefore more powerful) charge of blasphemy and transgression against patriarchal force. But The Love Witch has no inner life, no deeper meaning beneath its attractive surface. People will appreciate it, if they do, on an aesthetic level or even an ironic one, but I don’t anticipate it touching anyone’s heart in the way that even teen junk like The Craft did twenty years ago. Its smug, lacquered beauty walled me off from feeling anything about it except impatience.

Jackie

Posted November 27, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic

jackie

When considering Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I remember Priam’s line from The Iliad: “I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; / I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.” Jackie, of course, was not the first First Lady to be widowed, but surely the first to be so publicly widowed, her agony magnified and reflected back to her by the media. Once the Zapruder footage was made accessible, there she was, spattered and panicked, forced to move through the motions of abrupt bereavement over and over for the edification of conspiracy theorists everywhere for all time (“Back and to the left … back and to the left”). She did not have to put her lips to the hands of Oswald (or whoever pulled the trigger), but she did, I think, endure what no other mortal woman had endured, at least on that scale.

Jackie is the latest attempt to dramatize the 20th century’s most famous widow’s experiences, anchored by an uncanny vocal impersonation by Natalie Portman, whose Jackie is appropriately brittle and confounded. Towards the finish, the movie administers a couple spoonfuls of sugar to make the existential medicine go down — John Hurt appears as a priest to explain to Jackie and us why Jackie, and we, go on in a world without meaning, and there’s a bit too much dewy-eyed romanticization of Camelot. (I swear I could hear old Gore Vidal snorting in disdain from wherever he is.) But most of the film is a delicate, trickily structured poem of sadness, the kind of sadness that recalls Aeschylus’ “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

That structure, by way of screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín, flips back and forth as Jackie talks. She talks to the country while giving a tour of the White House and her revamp of same; she talks to the aforementioned priest; she talks to presidential chronicler Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). So the woman rendered hysterically silent by that Zapruder footage is given a chance to speak copiously for herself, even if she engages in conscious mystification. (More than once, she tells White that something she’s just said is off the record or that she didn’t say it at all.) Again and again, Jackie explains herself in plain English. Past a certain point, though, words are inadequate. Her husband is gone. Her two (surviving) children no longer have a father. This experience has been shared by millions, famous and not, but the details distinguish Jackie’s unique suffering.

With the aid of Mica Levi’s boldly emotive score, Larraín distills tragedy down to a few potent drops. (Larraín has said he dislikes biopics, but he’s got two out this season — this one and the upcoming Neruda.) He pretty much hands the movie to Portman, who finds volumes of variations on Jackie’s poised and sometimes archaic speech (“I’d rather them at home,” she says of her children at one point, in the sort of syntax one seldom hears any more). The editing, by Sebastián Sepúldeva, stitches it all together firmly enough but is occasionally too fancy — there’s a cut from Jackie angrily trying to remove her wedding ring to Jackie swallowing a pill, and it took me out of the movie for a second (“Wait, did she just swallow her ring?”).

For the most part, though, Jackie keeps things clear and preserves its subject’s sadness in amber. Some people forget she had a whole other marriage and life after JFK; for them, she is forever defined by her first marriage and its brutal end. Portman brings the icon of widowhood to sharp, sometimes prickly life — her Jackie will control how her story is told, thank you very much. After a while, we see how the pieces fit together. The reporter, the priest, the TV tour of the White House hosted by Charles Collingwood (father confessors all) — it all speaks of a woman who did everything a mid-20th-century woman was supposed to do: married well, made a beautiful house for herself and her family, but then lost it all. Like a lot of women in the ‘60s, she then had to find meaning without all those things to define her, and she did, though beyond the movie’s purview.

Miss Sharon Jones!

Posted November 20, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

sharonjonesBarbara Kopple’s compassionate documentary Miss Sharon Jones! was completed in 2015, got a limited theatrical release last summer, and hit DVD earlier this month. It is newly relevant for a saddening reason: its subject and star, the retro “queen of funk” singer Sharon Jones, passed away just last week. That makes watching Miss Sharon Jones!, which follows Jones as she deals with her first bout with pancreatic cancer and finishes up her Grammy-nominated album, more bittersweet than it might have been. It is well worth the watch, though, especially for viewers/listeners (like me) who hadn’t been familiar with Jones and her work with her band the Dap-Kings.

In recent years, Kopple, whose early work tended towards the political (1976’s Harlan County USA and 1990’s American Dream both won Best Documentary Oscars), has focused on female entertainers in extremis: films about Mariel Hemingway (Running from Crazy) and the Dixie Chicks (Shut Up and Sing). Miss Sharon Jones! devotes about as much time to Jones undergoing chemotherapy as to her music. Though there is some cookin’ footage of her and the Dap-Kings onstage and in the studio, the movie isn’t primarily a concert film; it’s a portrait of a woman and her art and the sickness that temporarily — and then, outside the reach of the film, permanently — stopped the music.

Intimate but not invasive, Kopple’s camera takes us close to Jones and her fear and pain. But Jones perseveres, and her strength permeates not only her singing but the movie itself, so that we don’t feel gross or exploitative for watching a dying woman. For, of course, at the time of filming, and possibly right up until the end, Jones was very much a living woman. I’ve heard and read many performers talk about whatever awful physical or mental torment they may have been going through, and as soon as the lights and applause hit them, all was forgotten. Sharon Jones frequently dances in this film, dances like a woman half her age and with none of the illness. The force of her will is exhilarating and, at times, a little intimidating. I would not have wanted to get between her and whatever she wanted. I would almost feel sorry for her cancer if the fucker hadn’t caught up with her in the end.

The movie shows us the power of art and music to transform Jones from a suffering middle-aged woman to a volcanic goddess of song. It does this with a minimum of cant or bathos. Jones is seen to have been a devout Christian, and one of the extended examples of her singing and dancing, as the shackles of her disease slip visibly from her body, takes place in a church. Kopple doesn’t underline this; it’s just part of the DNA of so much African-American music. Jones was a uniter: her fans are racially mixed, as are her band and her friends — her best friend, a white nutritionist, gladly put Jones up at her home for a while. Again without pushing too hard, the movie speaks gently for kindness between diverse people. It’s a message I don’t mind hearing just now.

In brief, Miss Sharon Jones! has more on its plate than just Miss Sharon Jones. In just 93 minutes, the movie encompasses a good deal of experience and truth, and we get to hear some mighty fine retro funk while we’re there. Like the Dixie Chicks film, whose subject was the backlash after Natalie Maines voiced anti-Bush sentiment during the run-up to the Iraq War, the movie captures the impact of one band member’s problems on many other people. Jones knew she had to go on — the Dap-Kings depended on the income from performing. She also knew she couldn’t just sit home and mope — the music was perhaps a more vital therapy than the toxins pumped into her veins. And now, in this year that has taken so much from us, she is gone, too. She was not a household name (despite doing the talk-show rounds to support her album), but a lot of people felt her loss sharply. She meant something to more people than she might have realized. I hope she did realize.

Ghostbusters (2016)

Posted November 13, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy

kateThe key to the Ghostbusters reboot is that it works not so much as a comedy (it’s fitfully amusing) or as a big-budget adventure but as an unforced celebration of feminism. The four heroic women suffer some sexism, but not enough to get in their way significantly (they mostly power through and do what they want anyway). If they’re not taken seriously, it’s not because they’re female but because they insist in a secular age that ghosts exist. At heart it’s a story about two friends since childhood, who grew up to be scientists Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), and who have grown apart since co-writing a book on the paranormal, which Erin has disavowed. The whole creaky, noisy spectacle leads to the moment when one of these women literally jumps into the abyss to save the other.

That’s what it’s all about, in the end; saving the world is okay, but sisterhood matters more. Ghostbusters has a sketchy script (by director Paul Feig and Katie Dippold), which functions largely as a clothesline for supernatural gags, but then so did the script for the sacrosanct 1984 original. (Aside from Peter McNicol’s performance, I’d just as soon forget about the wanting 1989 sequel.) I think Feig and Dippold, probably with the encouragement of the actresses, really just wanted to tell a small-scale story about the bond between smart women, and in Ghostbusters they seized the chance to do it on a massive scale, on a $145 million budget. God knows most of the legitimately funny bits could have been filmed in a one-bedroom flat for five dollars. But movies like that don’t get greenlit any more. Movies that cost $145 million and have a connection to a beloved franchise do.

Feig enjoys stories about friendships between women, and he has told them again and again in the last few years, in Bridesmaids and The Heat and Spy. Two minority women, the African-American subway worker and armchair city historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and the crypto-gay nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), round out the quartet of ghostbusters, and they all go to the limits of existence for each other. They’re afraid but forge ahead anyway, the true definition of bravery. Ghostbusters was not as big a hit as it should have been, or else McKinnon would have handily stolen the summer and perhaps the year. She gives us a scientist highly entertained by the buzz of her own brain; weird noises and asides keep leaking out of her — she’s placidly unstable and very much giddily alive. Jones’ Patty largely recalls Richard Pryor’s routine about black people’s comically pragmatic response to the supernatural (get the hell out) while managing to feel much less like a token afterthought than Ernie Hudson’s black ghostbuster in the original.

This Ghostbusters doesn’t feel like its predecessors, or look like them; it lacks the original’s cool, slick ‘80s lamination — the director of photography is Robert Yeoman, who provides the warm, bright hues of every Wes Anderson film (and all the aforementioned Paul Feig movies). The phantasms glow sickly green, and spew green slime; the improved technology gives us more visually elaborate ghosts but can’t give us a reason for their ghosting around. There’s a plot thread about some nerdy mad scientist trying to start the apocalypse (ah, that old thing), and the movie itself seems fatally uninterested in everything to do with it. This nerd gets killed about an hour in and spends the rest of our time hopping from body to body, eventually settling inside the ghostbusters’ hunky but dim secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, enjoying being stupid). I don’t imagine Paul Feig cared about the whys and wherefores of the ghosts; I know I didn’t.

Yet Ghostbusters is commendable for its respect for intelligence, its regard for friendship; its Stronger Together emphasis feels like a balm in the cold days post-Hillary. (It may be best apprehended as an artifact of the era when a female president seemed tantalizingly imminent.) Unlike the original, it doesn’t proceed from a writer’s genuine hungry obsession with all things inexplicable. The ghosts symbolize loud, chaotic elements seeking to split up our heroes, so they have more going on under the hood than they did in the original, where the ghosts didn’t mean much of anything except gag fodder. Here, the ghosts have a certain beauty and pathos, and are sometimes scarier than their ancestors (though Slimer makes an appearance, as do many other fan-service ghoulies and actors). The movie is more readily comparable to Feig’s other work than to its forefather. It’s a comfortable night out (or in), pleasing and unchallenging.