The Invisible Man (2020)

Posted June 28, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: science fiction, thriller

mossinvisibleman Catching up: Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, I can’t help feeling, was robbed of its shot at becoming a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller that makes audiences scream happily. (As it is, the film, whose release was stunted by COVID-19 and the closure of movie theaters, still managed to scare up a decent amount via streaming and at drive-ins.) The Invisible Man is tethered to its strong lead performance — it’s probably unthinkable without Elisabeth Moss — and it’s a bit mechanical in the way that thrillers great or small can be. But I would be dishonest if I said it didn’t make me flinch and gasp. No doubt about it: the movie works. And it works on a nasty personal level; it exploits our awareness that women are gaslighted by abusive men all the time, to perpetuate and add to the abuse.

Moss is Cecilia, stuck in a suffocating relationship with wealthy scientist Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She plots her escape, spirited away by her sister (Harriet Dyer) and delivered to the safe home of her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), also a cop. The distraught Adrian kills himself, or so he wants the world to think. In reality, he’s using his beefed-up invisibility suit — he’s some sort of optics genius — to stalk Cecilia and ruin her life bit by bit. Nobody, of course, will believe Cecilia — not her sister, not James or his college-bound daughter, whose tuition Cecilia is paying for out of the money Adrian willed to her. We recognize fairly quickly that Adrian is contriving to alienate Cecilia from everyone else so that he can control her, in ways obvious and not so obvious.

Made for relative couch change ($7 million), The Invisible Man doesn’t indulge in an abundance of special effects, like Hollow Man or even Memoirs of an Invisible Man. There’s a scene where Elisabeth Moss is held aloft by her invisible attacker that might’ve been better conceived, and her subsequent being tossed around the room is needlessly crude; what was needed, I think, was a way to take us intimately inside her experience, to be worthy of the quieter, more dread-ridden moments. That writer-director Whannell actually has some integrity to betray, by way of the more flamboyant clashes, speaks well of the rest of the movie: it earns its Big Moments but doesn’t really need them. Most of the terror here works on dark, elemental levels — someone is after me but nobody will help me. Some of the emotional work, with Moss’s performance gaining power as Cecilia becomes more frightened and frustrated, is first-rate and lifts the thrills considerably.

Some of this description, of course, may read a bit stiffly because I’m trying to write around the twists. I can say that The Invisible Man has its technical ducks in a row, with Stefan Duscio’s sleek photography consorting well with Benjamin Wallfisch’s richly ominous score (though I wish Wallfisch hadn’t leaned so much on the deep rattling honking he used on Blade Runner 2049 at times it reminded me of the punitively ghastly score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the repugnant Gone Girl). This is the sort of suavely composed thriller that would’ve been not only a big hit but a water-cooler topic in a better time. The premise may be techno-pulp, but most of the movie stays with Cecilia’s choking feelings of helplessness. You may wonder what she could possibly do against her torturer.

In its last act, The Invisible Man almost lost me. It gets too plotty, introducing elements that seem to add little but padding, not to mention impatience on our part. The nobody-will-believe-me theme gets a vigorous workout, but all it leads to is gunfire and a shit-ton of “wait a minute” incidents. How convenient, for instance, that someone who has been careful to isolate and delegitimize Cecilia should leave so many people around to support her side of the story. The climax is enjoyable in an empty, guilty way, like a candy bar. But Elisabeth Moss shepherds us through it all; she stays connected to the basic nightmare of a woman with a bad ex-boyfriend in a perfect position to make her life hell. Cecilia’s ultimate act is, as written, something of a betrayal of her character, but the way Moss plays it — as the only act left to Cecilia — it isn’t. The Invisible Man is a reminder of how high a conventional thriller can be lifted with the right star, whose performance, like Betty Gilpin’s in The Hunt, deserves better than cruel fate allowed.

The Hunt

Posted June 21, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: satire, thriller

thehuntAlmost every character in The Hunt is crap. The exceptions are a skittish private-jet attendant and “Snowball” (Betty Gilpin), so nicknamed by the rich elites who are hunting her. The Hunt has had a long and winding road to distribution. First slated for release last September, it ran afoul of commentators who, of course, had not seen it; their objection was to the premise, wherein wealthy leftists kidnap and hunt “deplorables” — Trump supporters — for sport. (As it is, the movie finally limped into theaters in March, just in time for COVID-19 to shut theaters down. It hit VOD a week later, and now is finally on DVD.) There’s more to the film than that — but not much more, disappointingly. It’s a sleek, short, well-wrought horror-thriller with buckets of gore, and a sharp performance by Betty Gilpin that deserved far more notice.

“Snowball,” or Crystal, has been chosen along with eleven others to be the prey while well-armed, somewhat trained richies play predator. Crystal turns out to be a smart cookie who fought in Afghanistan, and as such has a much better chance of survival than her fellow captives. Is she a deplorable? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? I don’t think so. The Hunt is better than The Oath, a dark comedy from 2018 that probed the current political bifurcation (I couldn’t get through that one), but it’s really a defense-and-retreat thriller first and political commentary a distant second. Almost everyone is an easy stereotype of virtue-signalling lefties or cap-wearing, bigoted righties. Crystal, the exception, is so shrewd about defense and retreat that the director, Craig Zobel, and writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof seem to have given her a sneak peek at the script.

In short, the movie is on nobody’s side except Crystal’s, and Gilpin rises to the occasion. Crystal keeps wanting a cigarette and never gets one; if she ever did, she’d be a perfect John Carpenter hero, someone of few words and hard action. Gilpin scarcely smiles, except ruefully, mordantly. She gives Crystal a certain southern-style wit, and she doesn’t ask to be liked. She gives us, against all odds in a taut but gimmicky thriller, a true feminist hero, and one notable thing Zobel does right is that he never tells us where Crystal does stand politically. We get to know all we need to know about her. She feels real to us. The other characters, not so much — particularly Hilary Swank as the HBIC of the elite hunters, pompously kept offscreen or with her back to us for half the movie. Swank does what she can with Andrea, a CEO with her own vengeful agenda, but Andrea isn’t really credible as a person. Whoever trained Swank and Gilpin for their king-hell battle royale in Andrea’s tasteful rented kitchen can take a bow, though.

The Hunt is weakest when it dips its toe in the waters of satire; the characters are simply too sketchy and rudimentary. It can’t touch the Clinton-era satires The Last Supper (1995) or Citizen Ruth (1996), which succeeded for reasons other than being on “the correct side.” Nowadays, those films (especially Citizen Ruth, which boasted its own great performance via Laura Dern) would be knocked on Film Twitter for both-sides-ism — or no-sides-ism, which amounts to the same thing. The Hunt would like to be a throwback to those small but thorny films, but its expertise lies with staging violence (some of the actors you expect to be around for at least a few reels are gorily dispatched early on) and with giving Betty Gilpin the breathing room to create, in the midst of this crisp but callow cartoon, a real human being.

Da 5 Bloods

Posted June 14, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, drama, one of the year's best

da5bloodsAt this point, I would sit for two hours of Delroy Lindo just monologuing into the camera, and maybe so would you after watching Spike Lee’s epic new adventure-drama Da 5 Bloods, in which there are at least three such monologues. Lindo, easily the film’s MVP, bites hard into his role as head-scrambled Vietnam vet Paul, bringing the frightening intensity familiar to those who first noticed him in Lee’s Malcolm X, Crooklyn, or Clockers. He carries this long and bruising film the way Paul totes a backpack full of gold: shakily enough to remind you of the character’s vulnerability, but steadily enough to point up his strength — and his dangerousness. It’s a large-scale performance, forceful and heartbreaking, and right now I honestly can’t see anything or anyone standing between Lindo and a Best Actor Oscar. It’s his to lose.

The film he’s in would justify its existence for enabling that performance even if it were otherwise junk, and it certainly is not. I very much enjoyed Lee’s previous feature, BlackKklansman, but that was deft entertainment and Da 5 Bloods is closer to art — impassioned, sometimes rough around the edges, a little explicit in its dialogue from time to time, but heartfelt and built out of guilt, trauma, and Marvin Gaye songs. (Gaye is almost the film’s unofficial co-composer; Terence Blanchard offers a rich, sweeping orchestral score.) I’m not sure if it’s meant to heal any wounds incurred in the Vietnam War or any rifts between Americans and Vietnamese — though one character seems designed to augment Gaye’s and the film’s message of love — but it doesn’t have to. It gives black vets as well as Vietnamese heirs of the pain we caused there a voice we don’t often hear.

Lee and Kevin Willmott reworked a white-focused script called The Last Tour (which Oliver Stone was once going to direct), and it isn’t just black skin mapped onto white characters — the story and its tensions seem to have been rethought from the ground up to speak to specifically black angers and torments. The story concerns four black vets — Lindo’s Paul, Clarke Peters’ Otis, Norm Lewis’ Eddie, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin — who return to their old horror grounds in Vietnam for two purposes: to find the remains of their squad leader “Stormin’” Norman (Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks) and to dig up a trunk full of gold bars they’d found in a downed CIA plane back then. These are the plot things — and Boseman is electrifying as the good soldier who sometimes has to keep his men’s rage in check — but what matters to us is the journey of Paul and his grown son David (Jonathan Majors), a teacher who comes along in part to reconnect with his dad and also to keep an eye on the old hothead. The other three vets get brief bits here and there, but Da 5 Bloods is really about a reckoning not only between father and son — a common theme in Lee’s work — but between guilty survivor and the memory of the dead.

Never a shy director, Lee more or less lets his story and characters speak for themselves. Among several powerful moments is a flashback in which the soldiers hear over the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. has just been assassinated; it’s turned into demoralizing propaganda by the real-life broadcaster “Hanoi Hannah,” and four of the five almost falter in the face of it, but Norman pulls them back from self-defeat. Norman’s climactic scene might read on the page as a bit too pat, but the acting involved is first-class and earns the wet eyes the scene pursues. Lee is still doing his weird double-dolly shot (though thankfully only briefly here), and I don’t know why he feels the need to capitalize every word not only on social media but, here, in subtitled Vietnamese or French. But this is still an ambitious achievement (using at least three aspect ratios — why let Wes Anderson have all the fun?) with as much love expressed for movies as for the young black cannon fodder who left their blood and bloods over there.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted June 7, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, science fiction, sequel, star war

starwars9And so we return one final time to the Skywalker family. After Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, we are told, there will be no more stories told about the spawn of Darth Vader and their various friends, spawn, and acolytes. With this, I officially lose interest in the Star Wars franchise; even back in 1983, when I thought Star Wars was over, I couldn’t find any hunger for the comics or the “expanded universe” novels or any of the other things Lucasfilm devised to keep the brand a going concern until George Lucas revisited the saga sixteen years later. So the multimedia Joseph Campbell rewrite will have to chug along without me.

This last go-round neither disappointed nor thrilled me; it just exists. There’s always something going on, and that’s part of the problem: there’s never not something going on, no pause for breath, no beauty or poetry. We ain’t got time for that now. The Final Order, a bunch of bad guys led by the Big Bad Guy, the resurgent Emperor Palpatine, plans to subjugate or destroy every planet everywhere. The Good Guys leap to the rescue — identity-crisis Jedi in training Rey (Daisy Ridley), rash pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). Meanwhile, good-bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants to save Rey from Palpatine. His deal is as tangled as ever.

Some thematic relevance could be teased out of the previous entries, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). The latter, which I consider the best of the new trilogy, dripped some poison into the ears of the faithful. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), like Achilles, renounced the heroic code; he literally tossed his lightsaber over his shoulder in disgust. Well, we’ll have none of that now, not with non-entity J.J. Abrams (who made the first of the sequel trilogy) at the helm. Abrams’ insight seems to be that the fans want endless lightsaber duels and shoot-outs and spacecraft looping around. Some of the action has a shoot-the-works electricity, but the special effects are as hectic, busy, and essentially insecure as anything in Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Abrams strains so hard not to lose our attention that, through sheer narrative vehemence, he loses it anyway.

There are some pleasures. I felt it would be churlish to try to make out the seams in Carrie Fisher’s performance — cobbled together from unused footage — as General Leia. I was grateful for however much the moviemakers could give me of her. Billy Dee Williams, as the returning Lando Calrissian, comes through with a suave turn that helps to remind us that acting was once possible in these things. (Adam Driver just about sprains something trying to make something real out of Kylo Ren’s nightmares of conscience, but he did better under the tutelage of Rian Johnson, a real director, on The Last Jedi.) The young trinity of new stars sprint this way and that, hopping from world to world, in search of a McGuffin called “the wayfinder” that will lead them to the lair of Palpatine. This dark emperor is as boringly eeeeeevil as ever, and his connection to one of the heroes feels underdone, as if Abrams and his writers were wincing and hoping the parallels to a similar revelation in The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t strike us as too blatant.

We’re frequently reminded of the stakes — this needs to happen or the bad guys will be very bad and everyone will die — yet the demands of fantasy on this budgetary level guarantee there are no real stakes. People die but come back one way or another; the total outcome is never in doubt. Here and there, a bit of business tugs at the old nostalgic feelings or packs a sidewise punch: Daisy Ridley’s teardrop falling on Carrie Fisher’s (or a double’s) shoulder; a droid, cowed by past abuse, who declines a human’s touch with a prim but slightly panicked “No, thank you.” Even old Luke returns as a force ghost, reassuring Rey and us that he was wrong and it’s important for good to stand up to evil. That point is made here in the most generic of ways; it doesn’t risk resonating with the world we live in, which even Lucas’ goofball prequels at least tried to do. That much-derided “deathstick” bit in Attack of the Clones, for instance, at least tried to engage with human frailty outside the franchise, albeit in a laughable dad way. Nothing like that here.

The Grey Fox

Posted May 31, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, western

GreyFox_Still_1-768x415 For whatever reason, Kino Lorber has plucked the 38-year-old Canadian adventure-drama The Grey Fox out of obscurity, treated it to a 4k spit-shine, and given it back to us. The Grey Fox got respectful reviews in America when it arrived in 1983 but, it appears, was quickly forgotten here. Not so in Canada, where it’s regarded as a national treasure. Its director, Phillip Borsos, was only 27 when he made it; he only got to make four more features, including the bewildering One Magic Christmas, before leukemia took him in 1995 at only 41. I can imagine Richard Farnsworth shaking his head sadly at the notion of outliving his young director.

Farnsworth inhabits Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber who’s just finished a 33-year stretch in prison. When he gets out, it’s a different century — 1901 — and we learn very early on that we can trust the movie not to be cheesy, because it never makes much of Miner being a man out of his own time. Like the cowboys in The Wild Bunch who remember the Civil War but find themselves negotiating a pre-WWI world of cars and machine guns, Miner squints uneasily at technology but doesn’t let it faze him. Farnsworth, whose swan song was a beautiful performance in David Lynch’s becalmed masterpiece The Straight Story, had a high, light voice that nonetheless carried the weight of authority. Listening to Miner, we feel that this was a man who didn’t need to act hard. There’s a quiet but steely conviction in everything he says, and Farnsworth moves like a man who trusts his own body (this former stuntman was still plenty spry in his early sixties when he made this movie, riding a gorgeous black horse perilously close to a moving train).

Miner tries several times to get a real job and mend his ways. In fact, there’s very subtle comedy in the fact that he has it relatively easy when he gets out of jail. Not once but twice, women who care about him — his sister and then a suffragette named Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs) — offer him a safe haven. And there’s also subtle comedy in the fact that Miner just can’t accept their help. He can’t abide the workaday life — “I’m just no good at work that’s planned by other heads,” he says. He robbed stagecoaches, and now, after having seen the early picture The Great Train Robbery, he’s going to rob trains. That’s what he does and who he is. Nothing personal, mind you. Miner’s ethos meant neither he nor any of his men shot their guns directly at anyone. No killing. There’s a little of Miner in Seth Gecko in the Quentin Tarantino-written From Dusk Till Dawn, who insisted “I am a professional fucking thief. I don’t kill people that I don’t have to.” Miner also boasts a bit of the amiable outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and a bit of Henri “Papillon” Charriere — Miner has a habit of escaping from prison.

The Grey Fox is pictorially as satisfying as a full-course dinner, photographed in rich blues and browns by Frank Tidy. It’s a little loose and sedate, though, and our attention starts to slacken — the structure becomes anecdotal — until Miner and his two accomplices are camping out in Canada and a Mountie approaches. This is a whistle-clean, PG-rated, old-fashioned semi-Western with shootings but no bloodshed. From time to time it feels a little edgeless; the filmmaking is “respectable” almost to a fault. But then the grainy solidity of an image (Borsos and Tidy make the most of British Columbia locations) catches and holds us, or Richard Farnsworth says something, it doesn’t matter what, and we can’t imagine he could be anything less than honest. A good deal of The Grey Fox is A Great Man In Front Of A Great Sky, and that’s just about enough.

Tommaso

Posted May 25, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama

tommaso2In Abel Ferrara’s 1993 autobiographical indie drama Dangerous Game, Harvey Keitel played a Ferrara-like movie director. In an especially cringe-worthy scene, Keitel confesses to his onscreen wife — played by Ferrara’s actual then-wife — that he’s had lots of on-set flings. What does it feel like directing your surrogate character to confess such things to your wife? For that matter, how did Ferrara’s wife feel about it? (Answer: the marriage was kaput within five years.) I wondered anew while watching Ferrara’s new autobiographical indie drama Tommaso. Here, Ferrara’s avatar is Willem Dafoe, whose young Moldavian wife is played by Ferrara’s current wife, Cristina Chiriac. He suspects her of infidelity; he has fantasies of hanging out with naked women and of dark, violent scenarios. For good measure, Dafoe and Chiriac’s toddler daughter is played by Ferrara and Chiriac’s toddler daughter Anna. Takeaway: either Cristina Chiriac has never seen Dangerous Game or she really trusts Abel Ferrara.

I was thinking other things, too, such as how fit Willem Dafoe is looking in his sixties (he’s been doing Ashtanga yoga for over thirty years, and does some in the movie). His instruments, as always, are precisely aligned; he’s one of the best we have. And Ferrara gives him some thick meat to chew on in Tommaso. Sober for six years after a netherworld of crack, coke and heroin — it appears Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant was more self-based than we might have thought — Dafoe’s character, whom everyone calls Tommaso (or, once, Tommy), is trying very hard to be decent, to balance family life with creative life. So Dafoe gets to enact self-doubt, self-hatred, eventually self-destruction. But the scenes feel like actors’ workshops — you’re ashamed of not being a better father to your adopted daughters from your first marriage! Go with that! And Dafoe goes with that, but meanwhile he spends a good amount of time playing opposite Cristina Chiriac, an amiable nonactress who covers her face when she has to pretend to be crying.

There are worse ways to pass a couple hours than to watch a great actor being puppeted by a great-ish director. It sure does dawdle, though, and daydreams like the one in which Tommaso is brought to the precinct in handcuffs — for speaking his truth too loudly, or some such banality — presume our patience. They feel like padding in an already overpadded movie. Tommaso goes to AA meetings and to teach an acting class and to attend Italian lessons, not so much to shed light on his day-to-day activities, we may feel, but to get him out of the apartment (which is also — what are the odds? — Ferrara’s own apartment). Tommaso’s occasional excursions to the park with his daughter seem to have no point other than to take them and us out for some fresh air in this otherwise four-walls, no-windows movie. (Well, there is a balcony, from which Tommaso has a fearful vision of his little girl getting Pet Sematary’d on a narrow street. But what a view!)

Tommaso is set and filmed in Ferrara’s stomping grounds in Rome, not that we get to see much of the great city; the point must be that a miserable artist is miserable anywhere. Tommaso is shown tinkering fruitlessly with a script that involves a bear attack, among other things; some research reveals that the project is actually Ferrara’s forthcoming film Siberia, also starring Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, and Anna Ferrara. Does this make Tommaso the Barton Fink to Ferrara’s Miller’s Crossing — the smaller meta-project about creative blockage the filmmaker(s) took on while dealing with writer’s block on a larger project? Who the hell knows. That script sounds livelier than anything in Tommaso, or, to put it more generously, Siberia ought to be a hell of a movie! Tommaso isn’t bad; Ferrara simply can’t sell out — even his Body Snatchers was a weird goddamn thing — and he hands the film to his great star and shouts “Be me! Be you being me! Be me being you!” But its “we have the actors and the locations, let’s go do it” improvisatory spirit isn’t enough to sustain our full engagement for almost two hours. When Ferrara goes, there’ll be reason to mourn; many reasons. By and large, Tommaso, for all its art-house sincerity, won’t be among them.

Verotika

Posted May 17, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comic-book, horror, one of the year's worst

verotika A word of caution before we proceed. Some bad movies are, as they say, “so bad they’re good.” Others are just excruciatingly bad. And then there’s Verotika, the directing debut of metal musician Glenn Danzig, based on his comic books. And I’m realizing that there’s no way to describe this film that will not make some of you want to see it. I could list the endless parade of inept choices, the dialogue, the acting, the effects … Even viewed with a drunk crowd of friends, Verotika will cause pain. It was made with a great deal of sincerity, that much is clear. Danzig believes in his film. That it has become a cult film begging for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment does not make it less hazardous to your brain and soul. You have been warned.

Verotika is a horror anthology, meaning that instead of making one unwatchable short film, Danzig has made three and glued them together like a cinematic human centipede, shitting and eating shit. If the stories have a common thread, it is the kind of story one can film with a cast largely made of sex workers or similar purveyors of meretricious cheese. Most of the killing is done by female beasts; two out of the three villains are female, preying mainly on other females. It’s all part of the movie’s sub-Heavy Metal aesthetic that drenches well-endowed horror vixens in gore. None of this is uncommon in low-budget horror, which so often has to make do with what it has, and if what you have is a band of strippers and literally vats of fake blood, the result is Verotika. What’s different here is that Danzig doesn’t seem to know we’ve seen all this before. He thinks he’s really showing us something.

The first story, “The Albino Spider of Dajette,” concerns a prostitute with eyes for nipples. Her nipple tears transform a spider into a six-armed killer the police dub “Le Neck Breaker” (the story is set in Paris). Le Neck Breaker breaks les necks, all women victims, before the police finally catch up to him and plug him with lead. How anyone can make a bonkers premise like this so flat and stupefyingly dismal is beyond me, but Danzig manages it.Next up is “Change of Face,” about a stripper with a scarred face; she deals with this by killing pretty women, removing their faces, and hanging them on her wall. The press calls her either the Face Collector or the Face Ripper — Danzig apparently couldn’t decide. Finally, there’s “Drukija, Contessa of Blood,” wherein the titular woman bathes in virgins’ blood (pronouncing “virgin” to rhyme with “Bergen”). The virgins are always nude, of course, and Drukija is often topless. A virgin tries to escape, gets caught, is beheaded; Drukija adds the head to her collection of heads. Oh, and all the segments are introduced by Morella, who plucks out women’s eyes and calls us “darklings.”

If you wanted to imagine a movie fed on adolescent fantasies grounded in comic books and movies flooded with gore and T&A, what you imagine will undoubtedly be more entertaining than Verotika. That’s because Danzig takes his material so grindingly seriously he drains the fun out of it along with the blood. Danzig hasn’t learned that you have to insert comic relief or the audience will laugh at whatever else presents itself, and that’s why the movie is gaining purchase as a doofus party item. There are problems with camera movement — one time you can see the camera jiggle — and the middle segment, about the face-stealing stripper, is often bisected by harsh horizontal flare beams, sometimes three or more in a shot. I don’t know why. Neither will you.

Something like Verotika really tests me, because I have grown to believe that there can be value in even the most moth-eaten, bereft crap. Someone cared enough to make it, and there can be accidental moments of art and revelation. I refuse, for instance, to call Ed Wood’s films “bad”; no films so passionate, and with so much to express, can be called bad. Verotika might be passionate in that it scratches Danzig’s itch for babes and blood, but it really doesn’t express anything except that itch, over and over — the movie is repetitive and, finally, dull. It takes a lot of doing to take a movie full of the sort of things teen hetero boys love and make it so lifeless and dreary. Was Danzig even aroused by his own film? Russ Meyer filled his movies with buxom women, and you could feel he loved them so much it hurt, and therein lay the art. What does Glenn Danzig love so much it hurts? Women covered in blood, apparently. But he doesn’t have the art to make us love it, too. He just pulls it out again and again, flaccidly.

Shirley

Posted May 10, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, biopic, drama, one of the year's best

shirley The stories of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) are enjoying a bit of a fresh wash and airing out lately, what with recent treatments of The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and (on deck) “The Lottery.” So it’s not surprising that the experimental/instinctive filmmaker Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) got the go-ahead to make a movie about Jackson. Given Decker’s involvement, it also shouldn’t be surprising that the result, Shirley, turns out to be an elliptical riff on the themes that Jackson’s life and work open up; it’s far from a standard biopic. Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, adapting a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, approach Jackson as an avatar of misunderstood, squelched female creativity at a time that didn’t value or encourage it. (Trying to square the film’s hazy timeline with the real events isn’t useful; we’ll say the film is set in the early ‘50s.)

Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is beating her head against an inchoate novel she’s trying to find her way into writing, which eventually became 1951’s Hangsaman, loosely based on the disappearance of a local college girl. At first, the anguished Moss as the depressed, blocked Shirley seems like typecasting, and I wished anew that Moss weren’t shaping up to be the next Christian Bale, miserable and self-crucifying forever. But Moss finds pockets of wit and even giddy pixellated fun in Shirley’s antisocial moods and games. (The agoraphobic Jackson had no problem with social distancing.) Moss’s Shirley has a kind of mischievous though maliceless curiosity about the world around her. Much of it she sees through the prism of men’s betrayal of women and all its forms — her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (a twinkly caricature of ebullient mansplaining by Michael Stuhlbarg), beds down with legions of his female students.

Into this miasma of spoken and unspoken psychic violence drift a fictional couple — Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young). Fred will be interning with Professor Hyman, and Rose will be doing some cooking and cleaning, because Stanley and Shirley don’t. Shirley and the pregnant Rose develop a complicated rapport based on shared feelings of being overlooked, underestimated, vilified. (The movie reminds us that Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” sparked as much loathing as love; the script unfolds sometime after the heated response has more or less flattened and blocked Jackson.) The unknown fate of the missing Paula Jean Welden haunts Shirley — she recognizes that she, too, is lost, and she has visions of Rose as Paula enacting self-abnegating psychodramas, literally squirming in the soil. Paula/Rose/Shirley become a triptych of fear of female erasure. Through all this, Decker’s filmmaking is quiet, diffuse, questioning yet assured. The camera floats between the characters, gets up close, breathes along with them. The film toys with the idea of a tryst between Rose and Shirley, then withdraws it. Sex is too physical for what’s really going on here, a sort of meditation on the female oversoul in the ‘50s.

I told you this wasn’t a typical biopic. And some of it plays better in memory than it may when you watch it — a few of the scenes are awkward bordering on cringeworthy, not out of ineptitude but by design. Decker wants us to feel what her characters feel, and a lot of the conflict has to do with the manners and mores of the day. Moss and Stuhlbarg dig into each other’s soft spots so masterfully it’s sometimes easy to forget Odessa Young and especially Logan Lerman are even there. But the movie isn’t really about the male-female war. What Decker (and Jackson before her) understand is that women’s inner lives could be dark and twisted (sometimes beautifully so) even without men. Add the creative urge to that mix and the test tube might explode in your hand. Despite its egghead premise and milieu, Shirley isn’t a hostile art object. Unexpected warm breezes of intimacy waft through it. At heart it’s a fantasy about a crank, misanthrope and artist who crosses paths with a muse and sees her artistic life project laid out before her. It tells her to speak for the haunted and silent.

Peeping Tom

Posted May 3, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, horror, one of the year's best, thriller

peeping tom Perhaps the most shocking thing about Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom, sixty years now after its premiere in England, is that it looks respectable and classical and almost sedate — until it doesn’t. The movie genuinely appalled critics of its day, who must have assumed they were getting a delectable, harmless thriller from the director who, solo or with Emeric Pressburger, had presented many of England’s most prestigious films. (Critics already knew pretty much what to expect when Alfred Hitchcock unveiled his near-contemporaneous Psycho.) But no. Peeping Tom, written by Leo Marks, may look and play “normal” but is drenched with the flop sweat of sexual mania. I think if it had been made by anyone else, possibly in America, in the poverty-row style of something like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, it might still have kicked up a fuss, but not as much rage.

Peeping Tom turned out to be part of a wave of thrillers in the ‘60s, including the better-known Psycho but also movies like William Castle’s Homicidal, that focused on a killer’s psychological damage inflicted by cruel parents. Here, our subject is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), who acts as a focus puller on movies and takes naughty photos for a local bookshop. He also has an elaborate fetish involving women looking frightened. He films them at the moment they realize they’re going to die, and he adds a vicious touch that should remain unspoiled for newcomers to the movie, though the most horrifying moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 Strange Days owes most of its punch to it.

Mark has been doing his thing unimpeded for a while now — in the opening scene, he disposes of a prostitute, who screams in her room though nobody cares enough to look in until he is long gone — but when he meets Helen (Anna Massey), a tenant in the building Mark inherited from his father, his thing deflates a bit. He shows the kindly Helen footage his demented shrink father (Powell himself) shot of himself tormenting the young Mark at night. She feels for him, and part of him responds to her sympathy. He promises he will never photograph her. He seems to want to cordon his psychosis off from her, but we and he know that’s not going to work. He has a run-in with Helen’s blind mother (Maxine Audley), who senses what he is but can’t do much about it. Helen, who has just turned 21, may be falling for Mark precisely because of his pain.

I imagine part of the vehemence of the response to the film was due to Powell’s pre-punk indifference to what his more monocle-dropping viewers would think. For instance, Powell takes Moira Shearer, beloved star of his The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, and contrives an undignified fate for her comparable to Janet Leigh’s. Yet always, the filmmaking is smooth, assured, suffused with cinematographer Otto Heller’s sumptuous palette. Powell shows us pretty pictures but uses them to lure us into a dark, seedy alley where two-quid whores loiter and warped men get them alone. It’s a classic bait and switch, and the trope of the voyeuristic beast locked in the city with his own misery until a beauty comes along may have informed Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, whose reverence for Powell almost matched his reverence for Christ.

We also sniff a Scorsesean element in the finale: a beauty cannot redeem the monster; only submission to the same treatment he has given his victims might do that. Roger Ebert mused that Peeping Tom’s real crime in the eyes of its early haters was that it implicates the viewer — it uses its own medium to wrench us into complicity with a killer. It wasn’t the first film to pull this rug, but it did it with such blunt-force trauma that it has been called the first slasher film. I don’t know about that; proto-slasher, maybe, or even proto-giallo — it predated Mario Bava’s seminal The Girl Who Knew Too Much by three years. In any event, Peeping Tom survived its initial shower of spit and rotten tomatoes — largely due to Scorsese, who spent some artistic capital to restore and re-release it in 1979 — to become a feverish cult object among horror acolytes and classic film buffs alike.

The Wretched

Posted April 19, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

wretchedAnyone who’s been watching a lot of horror movies during the shutdown because they prefer to be frightened by something fun that has an end in sight may want to know about The Wretched. A second effort by the brother filmmaking team of Brett and Drew Pierce (2011’s zombie comedy Deadheads), the movie is about as comforting as a film can be that deals with an ancient witch that steps into people’s skins, kills their babies and makes them forget they ever had babies. Perhaps the grim premise is mitigated by its young heroes, who — along with Conor Murphy’s handsome widescreen compositions and Devin Burrows’ robust score — remind us of the ‘80s as seen through the magic-hour filter of Steven Spielberg. It’s all confidently crafted, even if some of the plot points could be better laid out; if you have to stop to remember why a character would have a gun, it hinders the momentum of the thrills.

The setting is both soothing (a lakeside marina where some of the characters work) and eerie (a forest that hosts a dreadful-looking tree whose existence seems conditional). Our young anti-hero is Ben (John-Paul Howard), a typical teen, smart but emotionally turbulent, moping over his parents’ divorce. This summer Ben is assisting his dad at the marina, lining up the boats at the dock just so, giving the little kids sailing lessons, along with pal-and-maybe-more Mallory (Piper Curda). Next door to Ben and his dad lives a family with mysteriously dwindling numbers. The Wretch, you see, has gotten into one of them, and … Well, the Wretch lives in the aforementioned ghastly tree, and likes to kidnap children, probably for food. I mean, why else would a Wretch want kids around?

Again, some of the storytelling leaves us in the lurch. If we’re wondering why a father seems unaware his infant child is missing, it takes us out of the movie momentarily, even if it’s explained later. When a baby is gone and his father doesn’t know or care, we need the context now or the fragile, fragile imaginative contract is broken. The explanation arrives alongside the movie’s twist, and it isn’t my favorite aspect of The Wretched, although it does pull us inside the confusion of the affected character. But much of this gets a pass from me because the leads, Howard and Curda, are so low-key appealing; Mallory is funny and sometimes seems to be tickling the film’s somber lore on its tummy, and Ben is realistically wounded but not obnoxious. We are (there’s that word again) comfortable in these kids’ company. Not only do we root for them to prevail over skin-shedding, baby-munching evil, we want them to be happy. And some of the relationship stuff — say, between Ben and his dad’s new girlfriend — feels authentic enough that we expect it to continue, until the movie reminds us it’s a horror movie and pulls us up short.

At just over an hour and a half, The Wretched doesn’t presume our patience. You didn’t ask, but my feeling is that the best horror movies work along the lines of a good horror short story — punchy, potent, to the point. And one thing the recent mode of season-long arcs in television has taught us is that if you want the equivalent (or a successful adaptation) of a horror novel, it’s best accomplished now as a season of TV, or at least a miniseries. (This isn’t new, of course; 1977’s Roots was an early “novel for television” whose story couldn’t have been told in a feature film’s two hours.) You can do things in that elongated medium that you can’t do in movies; you can develop dread in depth, and layer your characters. But pacing is as important at length as it is in works of greater brevity, and there’s a reason Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (146 minutes) is more fondly remembered than the one Stephen King himself wrote for television (273 minutes of po-faced fidelity to the source, in word if not in tone).

Anyway, The Wretched is a fine horror short story. It confines itself to a few locations and a few people; if converted to prose, it would fit nicely in an anthology alongside, say, Let the Right One In and It Follows and The Babadook and, if you insist, Hereditary. Oh, and the original 1981 Evil Dead. That this film seems to have some Sam Raimi in its quiver, in terms of theme and milieu but not style, is probably no accident; like Evil Dead, it was shot in Michigan, and the directors’ dad is Bart Pierce, who was on Evil Dead’s FX crew. So we have here a film that more or less successfully channels Spielberg, Raimi, Grimm and Dahl. That’s not bad company to be in, either.