Monday, November 29, 2021


In Belfast, Kenneth Branagh returns to the time and place of his younger days for a movie based on some boyhood impressions. And that’s what we get: impressions, fragments, glimpses, scenes warmly bathed in childlike innocence against the backdrop of sectarian strife that sets his parents’ minds toward leaving home and moving somewhere new. The movie is set in this obvious state of reminiscence, as the movie starts in clinical digital color and slowly fades to shiny black and white. He remembers some discussions of Catholics against Protestants and some cultural friction between Ireland and Britain. But above all else he remembers a cozy feeling of being surrounded by loving family. The movie finds the boy (Jude Hill) tromping around their working-class neighborhood, never more than out of earshot of his dear mother (Caitriona Balfe) calling him for dinner. He adores his father (Jamie Dornan), too, though the man is often away at work. He generally gets along with his moodier older brother (Lewis McAskie). He interacts with a swirl of cousins who’re always scampering about. He looks up to his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) and grins at his grandmother (Judi Dench), two sweet old folks who give him lovely advice and good food. (His grandmother also takes him to see a play, reflected in full color in their eyes, a poignant moment from a director best known for his passionate Shakespearean adaptations.) Why, it’s just too bad that The Troubles had to mess with their perfect little world.

As the movie bumps along episodically, scenes don’t always feel complete or follow logically. It lingers in some moments and elides others, seemingly for no rhyme nor reason. It skips ahead, shifts to montage, or dawdles in minutiae. The result is, a handful of riots aside, a mild-mannered movie, gentle, soft, slight, and a little scattered. However, that feels true to its aims—not capturing a story so much as a collection of childhood memories, details, moments, conflicts, relationships, people. The sociopolitical implications are firmly background color and plot mechanic, while many supporting characters who appear and disappear sometimes at random remain at the level of surface impressions. Isn’t that just the way it is with a jumbled child’s-eye view of one’s own past? It may not build in scope or arrive at important revelation, but it’s ultimately a sweet movie about how much a grown man remembers being a little boy who loved his family with all his heart. No wonder he remembers them in gleaming black and white artifice, where his grandparents are wrinkled wisdom personified, and his father and mother are youthful and beautiful, singing and dancing, trying to do right by their little boy even as their world falls apart behind them.

Boyhood memories are much more fraught in Robert Greene’s Procession. His career as a documentarian has been concerned with performance as a way of processing reality. His Fake It So Real was about pro wrestling, while Actress and Kate Plays Christine dig deep into a performer’s process of building a role, and his Bisbee 17 had a small Arizona town reenact a 100-year-old massacre. (His work as an editor on sharply-written fictional character studies by Alex Ross Perry further bolsters his filmmaking’s psychological acuity.) His new film takes those ideas further into harrowing territory. In it, he collaborates with a group of men who have spoken about their past abuse by Catholic priests. Their stories are decades old now, but the pain is still fresh. Greene, working with a drama therapist and a lawyer, invites these men to script scenes that explore this element of their past. The documentary, then, is about filmmaking: writing, casting, location scouting. Yet every step is a journey into their pain. The men have long brainstorming sessions that double as a support group; they open up in heartbreaking ways, plumb the depths of their anger and betrayal, and share in the camaraderie and openness that only fellow survivors of such unimaginable violation can. The project gives them a way to orient their sharing toward a positive outcome. To share their stories, they think, is one more undeniable way to make a case for themselves and to give light and hope to others struggling with this burden. They talk of various court cases and legal wrangling with the Catholic Church, which, in each man’s case, has elements, if not entire claims, obfuscated, criticized, dragged out, downplayed, or ignored. Together they might be able to make art an act of grace, memory and truth an act of justice—grace and justice being two things Church officials seem slow to grant, or are unable to provide to these victims’ satisfaction.

We see the making of the men’s short films and the eventual final products—by turns testimony, nightmare, condemnation, explanation, reanimation, and act of self-forgiveness and letting go. They’ve explored their traumas, gone hunting for ways to represent the after-effects, literally retracing their steps in some cases. It’s difficult. But Greene films this so tenderly, and so plainly. He draws out their creative sides and, with professional assistance, makes art as a form of therapy. To do so, Greene doesn’t flinch from the heavy details; nor do the men hold back, though at times they pull away in self-preservation as they pick at emotional wounds that linger. A potentially upsetting variable, and yet so lovely in its act of protection and care, is the casting of a tween actor to play their stand-in. The scenes they’ve written have no explicit abuse in them, dealing more in implication, but are frank about the relational, spiritual, and emotional abuse that deviant priests inflicted upon them. (Some of the men even agree to play an abuser in these scenes, an obviously challenging prospect.) The young actor, surrounded by supportive parents and a generous crew, approaches the task with respect and care. The men bolster him, too, though all involved feel the seriousness on set. On the last day, the boy shakes the hand of a shaken older man and says in total sincerity: “I tried my best to tell your story.” That’s a powerful moment, and image—the present willing to attempt a healing of the past through the power of witness. The film finds its subjects excavating and exorcising their tragic pasts. It’s an unfailing honest and perceptive work. And it feels like nothing less than a personal reckoning that reverberates outwards and upwards towards a potential healing breakthrough.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Play it Again:

Tasked with shaping a film out of dozens upon dozens of hours of rehearsal footage, Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back is a long, shapeless thing running nearly eight hours over three parts. (The shortest episode is just over two hours; the longest is nearly three.) But the picture isn’t aimless. Taken exclusively from contemporaneous documentary footage chronicling the month of practice, writing, and recording that resulted in The Beatles’ final album, Jackson’s project of duration has an aim of scraping away the myth and rumor that has accumulated around this final period in the band’s life. This footage has remained largely unseen, despite being the foundation for director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 80-minute doc Let it Be, which has been available only as a bootleg for over four decades now. That film has lots of interesting moments, but is clearly a cramped, cut-down look at this moment—iconic melodies interspersed with fleeting glimpses at tensions between Paul, John, George, and Ringo. Jackson’s inclination toward creating spaces (and runtimes) you can wander around and get lost in—a boon to us admirers of his increasingly lengthy Middle-Earth fantasy sojourns—thus acts as an exhumation and expansion of that older film. In the process, through well-judged editing and a generous willingness to let scenes go on and on, it’s as close as a fly-on-the-wall to genius as we can get. There’s a magical moment late in the first episode where Paul is noodling on a guitar, working over a sliver of an idea with a chord, a bit of rhythm, a half-lyric. George joins in with strumming. Ringo adds some vocalizations, a bit of percussion. Then, all of a sudden, there it is. “Get Back.” One of the most iconic rock songs of all time just…appears. The film is full of moments like this as we see a variety of characters—wives, girlfriends, assistants, technicians, celebrity visitors, and so on—mill about and the band expands and contracts as petty disputes and deep tensions are nonetheless able to be resolved in real love and camaraderie. If there’s a sense that this is a band nearing the end, a jostling of artists and personalities not long for this world, there’s also an exhilaration in seeing the work before our eyes. Jackson, who has sand-blasted the archival grain to give it an unreal immediacy, lets us draw our own conclusions for the most part, correcting the record by restoring the humanity to these totemic figures of rock and roll history. Here they are as people, with silly asides, genuine fears, funny running jokes, honest reflections, exciting ideas, productive collaboration, sly banter, and, of course, brilliant talent. It’s a pleasure to spend time in this room—closed off in this rehearsal space and recording booth for hours on end—and exhilarating to see the film open up as they step up on the roof and play for the awestruck passersby one final concert.

What Todd Haynes is up to with The Velvet Underground is more expansive despite a tighter two-hour time limit. He’s out to tell the history of the eponymous short-lived rock band that infamously sold relatively few albums, but, as Brian Eno would say, ”everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." Haynes gets the information across, but he does so in a concisely sweeping cultural biography of an entire moment in the New York City modern art scene of the 60s and 70s. Haynes is no stranger to prodding the lives of musicians in unexpected ways—his infamous Barbie-starring Karen Carpenter biopic Superstar or glam rock roman à clef Velvet Goldmine—or recreating a bygone style—Far from Heaven’s Sirkian colors and modes. Here he expertly puts us in a particular time, and mindset. The movie flows with music, of course, to situate us in the influences, contemporaries, and the work itself from bandmates Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, and Sterling Morrison. We get biographical sketches and plenty of first-hand testimony from those who were there—some newly recorded from living witnesses, others taken from old interviews from those no longer with us. Haynes then layers these audio elements into an all-consuming aesthetic experience. He is constantly giving us two or more things to look at—the screen is split two, four, six, even twelve times over with separate pieces of wonderfully textured archival finds and some fresh interviews shot in generous vintage stocks. We see clips of television, amateur portraits, movies, ads, news and documentary and self-shot primary-source footage, and, above all, lots of avant-garde films from the time. We see excerpts from radical experimental films from Warhol and Mekas and Anger. We hear from critic Amy Taubin and director John Waters and actress Mary Woronov. At every moment, the screen and the sound is alive with possibility—an exciting and absorbing aesthetic experience. It has a similar entrancing effect to a great museum installation or the striking a-g works it lovingly quotes throughout. Less a dull recitation of a Wikipedia entry set to a YouTube playlist, as so many of these artist biographical documentaries become, Haynes is making a work of art. It not only communicates what the music sounded like and where it came from, it generates what it must’ve felt like to hear it emerge from this particular cultural scene. What a transportingly specific movie, worthy of standing proudly next to the very works it deploys to create its effects.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Returns and Exchanges:

Nothing like the holidays for joyless repackaging of better times past. Why see something new when you can queue up pale echoes of the glories of Christmases long, long ago? Guess that’s what streaming programmers were thinking when they flipped the green light on what passes for new non-Hallmark Christmas movies this year. There’s an 80s-centric reworking of A Christmas Story called 8-Bit Christmas over on HBO Max and a deeply unpleasant new Home Alone over on Disney+. The former is a little better, just because it’s not actively awful. It’s far too schmaltzy and passively derivative for that. Neil Patrick Harris narrates the story of a boy who desperately wants a particular gift for Christmas. Along the way he deals with his eccentric family, neighborhood bullies, and schemes to bring the object of his affection to the top of the shopping list. It’s 1988. Instead of a Red Ryder BB gun, it’s a Nintendo. (The parents are still concerned about health effects, but at least he won’t shoot his eye out.) Instead of heart-warming carols on the soundtrack, we get a nonstop barrage of 80s pop. Instead of wry observation, we get clumsy sitcom wisecracks. Instead of the weird kid getting his tongue frozen to a pole, he repeatedly projectile vomits. (Seeing that, I nearly did, too.) It all feels a little past its sell-by date; Story isn’t as omnipresent as it once was, and these days 80s nostalgia is almost entirely supplanted by the 90s. And since a surface-level feature-length riff on those two elements are all on offer in this mild mediocrity, the thing’s a pretty empty experience. (Besides, if you want to see a Christmas comedy about scrambling for a hot ticket toy, there’s always the superior Jingle All the Way.) Even reliably funny Steve Zahn and June Diane Raphael as the parents—the source of most of the movie’s smiles and eventual sentimentality—can’t elevate such a charmless, formulaic thing.

But at least that one feels like a real movie. Home Sweet Home Alone is a cringingly ugly nothing all the way down. It’s inspired (and I use “inspiration” loosely) by the 1990 original, in which Macaulay Culkin was left home alone over the holidays and fought off some nasty burglars who tried to rob him. What plays like juvenile silliness with exaggerated violent slapstick and cloying sentiment now seems, also, like a paragon of a kind of broad Hollywood craft. Chris Columbus shot his version on a cozily dressed suburban set with filmic textures, and the warm blanket of John Williams’ score is holiday spirit aurally embodied. This new version, scripted by vets of the latest, most disappointing, SNL seasons, is shot with all the charm of an industrial warehouse. The titular home is lit and staged like a half-empty IKEA showroom. Who’d want to be there, alone or not? The family is icy, miserable, and obscenely wealthy. The kid (Jojo Rabbit's charming sidekick Archie Yates done a disservice) destined to be left alone is an insufferable brat. (They should all be lucky to be rid of each other.) Worst, though, is that the thieving villains of the picture (Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney), the ones trying to break into the home, are set up for comeuppance, but are in the right. They’re a married couple on the brink of losing their home who cross paths with the brat at an open house after which they notice a priceless doll has been stolen. Suspecting the kid, they need to break in and steal it back. He fights back with the mean-spirited contraptions you'd expect from this series. I wish it knew he was the real villain. (Better Watch Out, a holiday horror film from a few years ago, did a better spin on the evil Christmas kid, though its R-rating means it won't get family replay value.) Alas, whatever narrative convolutions are necessary to bring this to a resolution that absolves all parties of wrongdoing and contrives a real-meaning-of-the-season snow-globe final shot feels all the cheaper. Every scene from beginning to end is a total blank, dead air despite stacking the cast with one-scene comedy ringers. You almost have to want to make a bad movie to end up with something this awful. That deciding to make this was one of Disney’s first acts upon purchasing it with the 20th Century Fox sale had me wondering how deep the business objectives went. This remake is so bad, so ugly, so witless, so empty, that I started wondering if they were deliberately trying to make the original look even better by comparison.

Sunday, November 21, 2021


A fluke of pandemic scheduling found Andrew Garfield starring this year in a loose accidental trilogy of movies about ambitious people for whom others’ perceptions of them becomes their reality. In Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, he’s a social media influencer on the rise. In Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, he’s a televangelist in over his head. And in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s filmmaking debut adapting Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM!, he’s a struggling young musical playwright hoping to finally get a break on the eve of his thirtieth birthday. Garfield appears to be working out ideas of stardom and success, artistry, ambition and attention, and these films give him different notes to play and conclusions to draw. It’s fitting for a supremely talented actor looking to find the best avenues for his atypical charisma.

His career so far has been one of the attractive young man who gets stuck between character actor and matinee idol. Either way, he’s always one to watch, from artful ease in the likes of The Social Network, Silence, and Never Let Me Go, where his stubborn wet-eyed self-seriousness forms a moral backbone, to shouldering Mark Webb’s underrated Spider-Mans with a loose-limbed moodiness that sets him apart from Maguire’s sturdy earnestness and Holland’s jumpy excitement. Stuff like the flat-footed war movie Hacksaw Ridge strand him between those modes, while the loopy pop conspiracy Under the Silver Lake tapped into a wilder streak that springs from a fount of wiry, wound-up interior intensity. The through line is clear: Garfield loves to perform. No wonder he’s been drawn lately to this material that interrogates that impulse, asks what people get out of that transaction, and sees all too clearly how it’ll hollow someone out if they aren’t prepared, just as surely as it’ll be a lingering frustration to never make it there to begin with.

Mainstream is an underwritten modern Network that noodles around Big Ideas about How We Stream Now without ever quite getting to a point. Somehow Gia Coppola, in her follow-up to her level intimate teen drama Palo Alto, is content to swirl up a storm of ideas and moods and leave it at that. Garfield plays a free range prankster whose antics catch on through the help of a bartender with a crush on him (Maya Hawke), and eventually the two get hooked up with a promoter (Jason Schwartzman) who’ll fake their way to the top of the viral charts and all the promoted content that implies. Of course it spirals out of control, fame going to the head, power corrupting, and underlying mental problems compounded, as the feedback loop between audience and star grows precariously thin. But even if the general spirit of the thing has a bleeding-edge bite, the scenarios it concocts are never convincing enough to underpin any serious social satire, from an interview show that literally puts its clownish lead between Johnny Knoxville and Logan Paul to some kind of YouTube gameshow—called “Your Phone or Your Dignity,” natch—that looks like something Paddy Chayefsky might’ve put in a first draft. It’s all so much glitter and flailing, but Garfield’s wild-eyed gesticulation sells that dead-eyed striving you see creep into these wannabe pseudo-celebs from time to time. It ends with everyone involved worse off in some way, and a towering close-up of Garfield grinning like a maniac while he’s applauded, as if to say, that’s showbiz, folks.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
is a more believable look at this kind of boom and bust celebrity. The film is based on the true story of televangelists Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, played here with sunny surface cheerfulness and an undertow of sadness by Jessica Chastain and Garfield. They inhabit them with a cheery artifice and cheek fillers. The result is a serious character study with a slight satiric streak as it watches their scrappy rise and eventual entanglement with evangelical corruption that brings them down as scapegoats while letting the worse above them off free. Showalter, a long-time comedy pro, views his central figures with sympathy and skepticism, which sometimes softens the edges and holds them at a slight remove. The style, too, is a soft and pillowy look, a critique cushioned in unlikely blurred affection. 

 His film cares about them to a point, but doesn’t quite know how seriously to take their early intentions to spread the word of God. The couple starts young and passionate, speak softly and earnestly about their missionary fervor as they meet in Bible college and, quickly married, set out on a touring puppet show that catches the attention of Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) and his burgeoning Christian television network. It’s clear they like the spotlight and the trappings of fame as their show grows into a media empire. But the movie also sees the poignancy between the distance between who they want to be and who they actually are, the blindness in their conflation of their desires and the Lord’s. Garfield, especially, leans into the sleaze that can ooze in around the edges of such an ego. Ultimately the movie enjoys the silliness of Christian kitsch surrounding them—the outlandish 80’s hair and makeup mixed with reverential semi-country ballads that are sticky as hell—while allowing for the weight of semi-secret struggles within the community—especially the plight of women and gays. I found an improbable amount of empathy for these two despite their obvious shortcomings, since eventually they’re as much victims of this system—typified by a slimy Falwell—as they are victimizers within it. Chastain and Garfield are capable of showing the pained souls underneath the layers of fakery.

Garfield’s at his best, though, in tick, tick…BOOM! Here he inhabits the bohemian energy animating a frustrated artist who believes entirely in his talent, but has run aground on worries he’ll never break through with it. You can see that tension in his posture, the moment where the carefree drains away, leaving that do-or-give-up sense of now or never. In Larson’s semi-autobiographical show, the future writer of Rent is on his eighth year working in a diner while struggling to complete a sci-fi musical opus. (That we know the real Larson would die before Rent opens gives a melancholy layer to this youthful work.) Under the direction of Miranda, it becomes a kind of doubled vision of aspiring theater-making. He knows of musical workshops and the difficulty in honing a massive vision to a kind of pop theatrical purity. (One sees his capable direction in this feature and might think, gee, does the creator of In the Heights and Hamilton need to be a solid filmmaker, too?). 

Told through the kind of conversationally anthemic songs that would make Rent itself such Gen X lightning-in-a-bottle, the musical plays out in greasy booths and corner offices, cramped apartments overflowing with struggling artists and practice spaces warmly lit. Garfield sits at a piano and invites us into his mindset—a frame story that snaps into place with a softly moving reveal near the end—while a backing band croons support. He takes us into anecdotes as he drafts songs and scrapes together money, tries to get his agent to call back, juggles friendships and romance, and, yes, takes shifts serving coffee and toast to dismissive diners. Miranda balances the tone between realist and theatrical and Garfield straddles both admirably, able to dive into an artificial flourish of magical realism as his character’s Broadway mind imagines his surroundings out into stage lighting and prosceniums, or hunker down on the arm of a tattered couch to extemporaneously sing his feelings. The rest of the cast (Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens) capably follows along as a swirling ensemble of influences, supportive yet clear-eyed. The songs are strong; the dynamics are believable; the small flights of fancy are a window into a writer’s mind where everything can be material. The constant across scenes is the simmering suspense of doubt that’ll be painfully familiar to anyone who has ever felt stuck in a life of artistic interests, in that awful double-bind of needing experience to get recognition and recognition to get experience. He just needs a break. The clock’s ticking.

Friday, November 19, 2021


How peculiar that a decades-later return to the world of a pretty flimsy comedy is now puffed up with artificial reverence. The goofy special effects comedy Ghostbusters went from being a hit lark in the summer of 1984 to a kind of revered generational classic among a slim cohort. To hear some fans discuss it, you’d think it was a movie of profound emotional development and loaded with lore. They take it very seriously, so they start thinking the movie itself did, too. But rewatch it now and you might see it is a shaggy, silly thing, always more about a fun theme song, some amusing personalities (Bill Murray chief among them), and a sarcastic tone than something spinning its mythology. Thus, after an ill-fated 2016 remake whose women-led cast somehow led to vicious alt-right backlash, the idea of the series as serious business and a generational bequeathment has found a willing vessel: writer-director Jason Reitman, son of the original’s helmer, Ivan. The result is Ghostbusters: Afterlife, an improbably enjoyable movie some of the time, although it runs out of invention and goodwill just short of its finale. That’s because it is better the more it’s just the original reconfigured as a small-town tween adventure family drama, a refreshingly small-scale effort of Amblinesque coming of age sentimentality with a dusting of low-key sci-fi awe—Spielberg’s suburbs and Netflix's Stranger Things in a blender. An ouroboros of franchise filmmaking, the thing is, even at its best, never more than inspiration and rip-off endlessly eating each other. But that is a little fun with surface shine and appealing leads.

This belated sequel trades sarcastic 80’s New Yorkers for a couple of kids relocated to nowhere Oklahoma. A nerdy girl (Mckenna Grace) and her gangly older brother (Finn Wolfhard) are moved by their mother (Carrie Coon) into the creaky farmhouse of their estranged and freshly deceased kook grandfather. Guess what? He was a ghostbuster. And he was prepping the house with gear to stop a new infestation that’s apocalyptically brewing in the nearby abandoned mine. The kids are easy to sympathize with, misfits and outsiders finding some reason to hope for belonging. They’re quickly surrounded with a few more cute young people and one genially amusing science teacher (Paul Rudd). There are lots of cozy shots of the tiny main street and sunny farmlands, with some nostalgia for a crumbling storefront, drive-in-roller-skates Americana. From there, the touches of supernatural stakes—some ghostly hide-and-seek and messages from beyond, and some early splashes of effects-driven scurrying—plays out with a fine slow build and light touch. The screenplay was co-written by Gil Kenan, whose Monster House was a better version of the kid-friendly spooky movie. The moderate enjoyment I got out of this new Ghostbusters’ early going was in its earthier look and genuine interest in its stock types. The pace and tone ends up grooving on a vintage vibe—though it’s set in modern day, there’s a sense it’s playing in tribute to the sorts of blockbusters en vogue forty to fifty years ago.

The trouble really only comes when it decides to be a pure nostalgia play instead. The movie gives over what derivative originality it had to call backs and cameos. The final act of the picture finds a bunch of stuff happening, and tons of creatures and designs appearing, for no reason other than that every bit of that references the original. There’s even a ghoulish digital resurrection that’s so dripping in unearned saccharine notes that it feels all the cheaper. What started as a take on the material that plays perfectly without knowledge of the first couple Ghostbusters, becomes something leaping over gaps that really only get filled in with the logic of a myth-tending sequel. Why did they become that? Why did they go there? How’d they show up? All that’s answered with a shrug and a wink and a rush to make the long-time fans feel flattered. It’s not a million miles away from what Star Wars or Rocky or Star Trek or Halloween (or name your franchise) does from time to time, but this one feels acutely unearned because it is building its ill-fitting puffed up monument to itself on the softest and creakiest of foundations. That’s why it is so much more agreeable the more lightly it wears its legacy.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Sex, Lies, and Video: BAD LUCK BANGING

Here’s a uniquely modern movie, so up to the moment that, if it was rolled on newsprint, we’d say the ink isn’t even dry. Romanian writer-director Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is a scabrous, invasive, probing, uproarious, unflinching, and squirming look at a culture gone all to pieces. Its early sequences feature long, meandering takes up and down city streets following a sixth-grade teacher (Katia Pascariu) who has just learned a private sex tape she made with her husband has been released on the internet. And people found out. Angry parents have called for a meeting. How embarrassing. Those agonizingly wandering shots of her running errands between phone calls are suddenly fraught with the contemporary trauma of trying to go about your day while your world might be ending on the web. She trudges through Bucharest grocery shopping, picking up Xanax, and meeting with her principal. (The older woman casually explains: “The more idiotic an opinion is, the more important it is.”) Jude’s wandering camera finds sexually charged advertising on billboards, squabbling pedestrians, rude customers snapping at clerks, and the sound of cats fighting just off screen. It’s clear our lead’s dilemma is of a piece with a public of frayed nerves and short fuses—snapping, snarling, judging, lashing out—in a world falling apart.

Because it’s set in our pandemic world, the characters are usually wearing double-knotted surgical masks or decorative cloth masks. It adds characterization—what they choose to wear and how is a clear indicator of who they are, like when one character arrives late in the picture in only a face shield—and emphasizes the eyes. We’ve all had to become expert at making our meanings known through this obstacle; I find my eyes are far more expressive now than before.  Here Pascariu communicates all manner of wild-eyed disbelief and cringing mortification through bulging, rolling, squinting and glaring. She’s been violated and betrayed to have such a personal video blasted out online. It’s been taken down, but one parent downloaded it to have proof. What a world. Jude makes sure to twist the knife in the poor woman’s endless cavalcade of exposed embarrassment, to feel the casual cruelty of the mob’s entitlement to every prurient detail, no matter how lascivious the question.

Jude, whose previous work includes the similarly pointed I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, in which a historian attempts to reenact a massacre as a performance piece, has quite the edge in his filmmaking of late. He’s unflinching in diagnosing societal problems, and explicit in laying out his shocks. He’s also sly about structuring this movie, in particular. It opens with the tape in question, enacted in tons of detail by game body doubles. (It’s one of a handful of moments here in which he’ll use an explicit sex act as a shock sight gag. He’s definitely putting the provoke in provocative.) This gives the opening act’s longueurs an extra unsettled charge. Every character glancing at our lead from the corner of the frame have us wondering if they’ve seen the clip we’ve seen. There’s an added layer of nervy cringe. I also couldn’t help but feel that, in its way, it’s a coarse, vulgar, hypocritical movie about how coarse, vulgar, and hypocritical culture has become. How dare the community want to see such a video, such tabloid transgression, such unseemly gawking. And yet, here it is, too. Jude’s willing to show us the worst and then shakes his finger at us for finding it on the screen. That the movie’s so unsparingly funny smooths over that provocation.

Jude gives the lengthy middle portion of the movie over to a “glossary.” A montage of footage—original, viral, historical—is laid out in a satiric jabbing so savage that it practically draws blood. (It’s Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary by way of Godardian tomfoolery.) Children are described as “political prisoners of their parents.” Cinema is “Athena’s shield,” able to show us gorgon truths from a safe remove. There are many references to Romanian politics and culture, and such sly definitions of concepts like “truth,” “justice,” and “social distancing,” that it’s clear our globalized culture is sharing misinformation as much as, if not more than, it is Coca-Cola and Hollywood superheroes. It’s a dizzying collage of references: the Classics, viral videos, high art, low culture, politics, poetry, philosophy, talk shows, history, and pornography. This is a brain on a COVID lockdown, I suppose, left to stew and fester and rant and rave and feel society falling apart from beyond the screen.

The final act of the film is the meeting with parents. It is outside in the school courtyard, the easier to make hearing each other difficult, and the background sound of sirens on the busy urban street off screen all the more ominous a punctuation. Everyone is masked and distant. Of course it’s off the rails almost immediately. Here’s where the comedy of mortification reaches its most absurd heights. The assembled aren’t really interested in hearing anyone’s perspective or reaching an understanding. They’ve arrived with their arguments and simply want to yell, argue, and salivate. Parents’ judgments of this unfortunate incident—their knee-jerk condemnation of the teacher moving almost immediately past the accident of an uploaded exposure to the idea that she has a sex life at all—quickly becomes recriminations about pedagogy and curriculum. One might find it painfully familiar from our shores when parents start ranting about their students being taught the Holocaust. “Why!? Are you Jewish?” one anti-Semite accuses suspiciously. Another parent barks conspiracy theories about George Soros and Bill Gates. (Ah, yet another American export.) Soon it’s clear the parents are desperately trying to take action here to feel a sense of control they’ve otherwise felt slip away in the chaos of recent times. The teacher herself barely figures into it, really; they’ve victimized her further by forgetting she’s a human at all, even when face to face.

Where’s this all going? Jude is upfront that he has three possible, incompatible endings. He shows them all. (It’s like Clue in that way.) The point is the chaos, I suppose. He ends up at a gonzo fantasy idea that only John Waters could love. (If this movie is not on Waters’ annual Artforum Top Ten list, I’ll be shocked.) It doesn’t all add up, but it’s compulsive watchable. If we ever recover, it’ll be a heckuva time capsule, unpleasant, angry, and absurd. Jude stirs up the most explicitly, intimately upsetting social satire he possibly could, watches as one woman’s life unravels before her very eyes, and all along it’s clear she’s simply a victim of the free floating outrage that’s constantly searching for reason to erupt. Jude has framed the whole thing as a bitter lark with the chaptered segments, jaunty music, pink-and-white title cards, and fancy epigraphs. (The opening quoted text: “No one understands that the world is sinking on the ocean of Time…”) He makes a most sympathetic figure out of the pitiful teacher at the center, and views bitterly the upheaval swirling around her. What a hugely upsetting comedy about the awful state in which we’re plummeting; at least we can laugh about it as we fall.

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Tie That Binds: MASS

In Mass, the heartbreaking American issue of mass shootings is examined from various perspectives in the course of one fraught conversation. (The title is more complicated than one might assume at first glance—a ritual, an extent, a weight.) It sees one of these tragedies—how sad a viewer can’t say with any certainty which one of many this story is inspired by—only through spoken details and respectfully without flashback. A middle-aged couple who lost their teenage son in a school shooting some years earlier arrive in a church basement to meet the parents of the teenage boy who was the shooter. Both couples have suffered tremendous loss, and naturally there’s regret and anger, too. A therapist has said this might help them. These characters’ lives are forever bound together by the shooting. But what will they get from such direct confrontation with what has so irreparably torn their sense of normality, and with what can never be undone? This is a movie about profound cross-currents of grief and guilt.

First-time writer-director Fran Kranz, a veteran character actor best known from genre efforts like The Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse, has created a clear-eyed work of moral perspective and intense sympathy. The movie is deceptively simple. It’s set largely in one room. It’s visually restrained, with simple staging and lots of close-ups. It has barely any score. It has just four actors for most of its run time. And yet it builds out an entire emotional architecture in which to explore, a prism methodically turned until we can see all the angles without feeling preordained or overly schematic. This isn’t cheap tell-both-sides didacticism; nor is it full-throated activism. It’s strongly and persistently human. There are no clear solutions, leaving all involved struggling to understand, after all these years, the point at which their lives were violently changed forever. It becomes a quartet of a character study in a confined space, exploring what one must tell oneself to survive the unimaginable. One subtly heartbreaking exchange: “How could you believe that?” “Because I wanted to.”

The performers—Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton as the victim’s parents, and Ann Dowd and Reed Birney as the shooter’s—enter the picture calm and cautious. They clearly carry heavy burdens, but are tentatively polite, unwilling at first to open up lest they break right away. They all want to simply come to a new understanding of a tragedy that haunts them. As the conversation unfolds, in the kind of heightened realism to dialogue and monologues that would make this a powerhouse of a play, we see how each new decision to share something deep from within themselves is a choice, until it’s not. Characters burst forth with sorrowful contemplations, or retreat into defensiveness. The energy in the room shifts and stirs. The movie sits patiently in this hot-button issue, clearly saddened at the inability to make it right.

Because the movie is so stubbornly resistant to visual flourish—with really only one or two touches, like a narrowing aspect ratio in a moment of intense emotion, or a cutaway to a ribbon on a fence as a kind of pregnant pause—there is a continual focus on the dance of words between its characters. They give and take; they push and they retreat; they cry and they try to clearly express their deepest feelings. The encounter ends with a moment of one final unexpected, astonishing honesty, followed by a fortuitous moment of grace. (That Franz chooses that time for a last moment of staging and sound to build a lovely effect makes it all more softly surprising—and just right.) It doesn’t solve everything, or even anything. But it holds out hope of a possibility. And that’s almost a blessing in and of itself.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Almighty Then: ETERNALS

The first thing we see in Eternals, before the first sequence and even before the Marvel Studios logo, are the words “In the beginning…” Lifting from the Bible for an opening info dump sure sets a tone. You can tell right away this is a superhero movie of unusual hubris. Here we find the creators of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, high off the smash culmination of their first multi-franchise finale, 2019’s absurdly popular Avengers Endgame, starting to mistake their comic book lore for actual mythology and take it as seriously as the ancients did.

The result is a centuries-spanning story following immortal beings sent to Earth to guide humankind’s development by protecting people from carnivorous computer-generated critters until such time that enormous intergalactic celestial masters send for their return. They’ve mostly done that job, and are in their 500th year of waiting for the next assignment, when the Eternals must confront an apocalyptic threat of which only they are aware, since the seeds of this destruction have been incubating since prehistoric times. So, although the main thrust of the movie is the far-flung members of the mostly-disbanded team wandering around collecting their compatriots one at a time to confront this crisis, the movie begins with the dawn of the Bronze Age and contains numerous flashbacks to a number of ancient cultures and modern historical moments. The mix of real myth and history with Marvel’s filigrees is sometimes fun—I liked how the Eternals are an explanation for gods and heroes of yore (Athena, Gilgamesh, and so on)—but just as often it is slathered with a phony religiosity that amplifies the sometimes chintzy visual thinking and cliched writing on display. It’s a cosmic leap with an anvil tied to its feet.

Inspired by characters from Jack Kirby, the movie lacks his spark of divine madness in dashing out incomprehensible intergalactic gods and monsters. But it does have ambition I want to admire. It stretches across time and space, concerns itself with the birth and death of the universe and the alien midwives of solar systems. That’s potentially profound nonsense. The movie is at its best when it deals casually with the intersection of the mortal and immortal. Some of their kind seems to float above it all—Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek dimming their bright star-power to intone exposition and disappear into muddy colors. But others are in direct collision between their ageless powers and human fragility. Leader Sersi (Gemma Chan) tentatively romances a mortal teacher (Kit Harington). Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) has enjoyed being every member of a Bollywood dynasty, hiding his finger-gun powers for a song-and-dance screen heroism. A perpetually-preteen Sprite (Lia McHugh) has some pathos derived from never growing older. (There are also some odd questions about her the movie just barely skirts around.) Technologically inclined Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) laments what humans have done with his gifts to them, while the mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan) wishes he could just zap the minds of the masses and quell all conflict. (Worth a shot, right?) The movie gazes at their conflicts from an inhuman remove, but the camera hovers close to their whispered melodrama and angst. We can see why they haven’t done more to help stop humanity’s problems—they’re too busy moping around about it. They love us from afar, distant gods shaking their heads and wandering away for awhile.

The movie perches this massive idea on the usual Marvel mechanics—super-beings on a MacGuffin quest in route to a final effects reel—and writing. The gears turn. The simple story is told complicatedly to preserve meager surprises. The balance is all out of whack, cosmological woo-woo cut with a soupçon of deflating quips. As the team assembles for the climactic showdown, they banter and quip and feel sorry for the state of humanity and themselves. The apocalypse is well on its way, and the only way to stop it is for them to take drastic action on the margins of our awareness. Somehow the movie gathers both real portent and dopey interpersonal japes. There are some lovely or amusing character beats bubbling up in what’s otherwise drowned in the po-faced pseudo-spirituality draped over the sunlit hero shots and awestruck sentimentality. The film comes to us from writer-director Chloe Zhao, who has so often been good at that exact balance, a neo-Malickian flair for star personas set against quotidian beauty of her cultural tourism. But here it lacks the poetic gleam that animated her indie character studies against the backdrop of the American West, like The Rider or her Oscar-winning Nomadland. It does film most of its big sequences outdoors, which does lend the images a different texture than the usual Marvel green-screen, parking-lot blandness.

Small pleasures in an enormous, occasionally confused bore is par for the course with this mega-franchise lately, but this one wrestles over it more than most. The issue sits in the unbalanced approach, spinning wildly, if cheaply, to humanize characters who are themselves entirely apart from us. The usual Marvel cutting-down-to-size works with heroes who deal with real human emotion. Here, though, we’re in the realm of myth, and the lightness sometimes clangs. So, too, the attempts to stare up at these deities, which is the more interesting cosmic philosophical tussling—faint echoes of Snyder’s DC approach. (Interestingly Superman and Batman are referenced as often as Iron Man and Captain America in this movie.) It literalizes the latent authoritarianism that sits uncomfortably beneath the MCU’s worst impulses of the sort that assure us the powerful have our best interests at heart and we should just let them take unilateral action on our behalf. (It still chafes that Civil War made this argument flat out.) Eternals wrestles with the idea, with a calamity that truly only these heroes could address, and makes the villain ultimately think bringing about the end of the world will benefit him personally. (He must vote Republican.) But it also goes easy on its Eternals, with obvious decisions to make amid jokes and juggling tones that cheapens the film’s fleeting ideas. The machinery doesn’t let the movie express its philosophy visually, dumping it into the cast’s poses and monologues before making them just another set of action figures to move around the board. It ends as they all do, with last-minute rescues, slam-back fisticuffs, swirling pixels, and a chain of teases for future MCU projects. So it goes.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Always Something There to Remind Me:

Edgar Wright is one of our cleverest pop art filmmakers. He’s honed a hyperactive hall-of-mirrors approach in which editing can be half the joke, and blocking builds great gags. That allows his films like zombie yuckster Shaun of the Dead, satiric cop comedy Hot Fuzz, alien invasion lark The World’s End, and video-game-as-metaphor-for-dating rom-com actioner Scott Pilgrim vs the World to get huge laughs as they buzz with hilariously drawn characterizations and a layered and wry referentiality. (Even the less overtly goofy, his clever heist picture Baby Driver,  has a breathlessly edited tempo that grooves and cuts on the beat.) That his movies build snappy plots that click into place just so is icing on the zippy cake. So when he begins his latest film, Last Night in Soho, taking his time introducing sweet, sad Eloise, a young woman (Thomasin McKenzie) leaving her grandmother’s small-town home in order to start fashion school in the big city of London, there’s a slight shock of the new. Here Wright is pushing himself to greater patience in his visual expressiveness, dialing back comedy to dial into a character’s individual plight almost single-mindedly.

Though filled with plenty of excellent actors, it’s a haunted, interior work made compellingly exterior, knocking about one character’s mind as its expressed in her surroundings. She—timid, socially awkward, more comfortable in the trappings of 60s culture she cherishes like an old soul—has a rough time adjusting to college life in the big city. She finds herself escaping loud, obnoxious dorm mates to get cozy in a small room for rent in London’s West End. She likes that Soho atmosphere and the elderly landlady (Diana Rigg) quite likes hearing her vintage vinyls’ melodies floating through the walls. So ensconced in her nostalgia for a time she didn’t even see, Eloise starts having vivid dreams. In them she’s Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), a blonde bombshell hoping to make it as a nightclub singer in Swinging Sixties London. At first these dreams are a joy, and Wright is sure to make them gleaming in buttery smooth tracking shots with seductive twinkling lights and bustling period detail. You can see why the time looks so appealing. 

As the dreams continue, they start drifting into our lead’s waking life, an increasingly eerie blending of reality and dream, past and present. It has a dizzying mirrored structure co-written by 1917's Krysty Wilson-Cairns, saturated colors from cinematographer The Handmaiden's Chung-hoon Chung, and a constantly flowing stream of music and performance—both on stage and for others’ benefits. This is primo doubling Persona by way of Bava by way of Blowup, to really jam in the sixties cinema references. It escalates as the dreams start to peel back surface pleasures and see the seediness of the underworld underneath—especially a predatory boyfriend played by Matt Smith—eventually becoming a mystery Eloise feels she might need to solve. What she once turned to for comfort has become yet another anxiety.

Wright builds a picture of this porous dream-state by letting superimpositions and reflections become a visual motif. With style and look, the two women even begin to resemble each other. In the first flush of excitement, Eloise changes her hair to match her dream persona. As she begins to suspect she’s not just imagining, but actually seeing a window into the past, and as the dreams become nightmares—and daymares—there’s a clean psychological interest drawn in wondering if these are mere intrusive thoughts and panic attacks, or supernatural visions and visitations. For a young aspiring fashion designer dreaming about a fresh-faced lounge singer, it’s clearly a movie wondering how one constructs an identity in one’s formative years. Placing the film’s suspense in the cauldron of the first few weeks of freshmen year finds a potent fluidity and nervousness roiling under the shock of the new and the comforts of the old. Wright’s velvety pace and sinister underpinnings are so hooked into the leads’ fractured emotional state, and he confidently communicates tons of plot with the slipperiest of camera moves and cleverest of cuts. It leaves a slick unsettled feeling, and lets neither past nor present off the hook.