Saturday, December 30, 2023

Broadway Rhythm: WONKA and THE COLOR PURPLE

Those drawing connections between the current ongoing collapse of box office for big-budget Hollywood efforts in overfamiliar genres and the similar moment in the late-1960s might be chuffed to find Warner Brothers looking around at properties they own and asking: can we make that a musical? If we really are in a late stage for the current studio system, like 60 years ago, it should be little surprise to see the return of the big, corny backlot song-and-dance show. The modern twist is that it’s not in and of itself representative of said bloated, over-tapped genres, but instead harkening back. They’re simultaneously reviving old forms of showbiz while wringing more material out of old ideas the studio owns—plunging into their vaults to re-exploit old hits, making new ones while driving some business into catalog titles, too.

So it goes with Wonka, a prequel to Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That book tells how reclusive chocolatier Willy Wonka lets a group of children tour his fantastical factory—and watches as their obvious personality defects lead them one by one to ruin. That book, with its wicked dark humor and vivid imagination, has already been adapted twice over—in 1971 starring a mercurial Gene Wilder dripping with droll Dahl dialogue, and in 2005 starring a pasty Johnny Depp in a full Tim Burton spectacle. This new movie puts twiggy it-boy Timothée Chalamet in the title role as a dewey-eyed dreamer who hopes to open a chocolate factory. That the fact he will is a forgone conclusion does little to dim the movie’s underdog spirit is due to his off-kilter charm. He never quite settles comfortably into the singing and dancing required of him, but squint a little and the boyish discomfort—the hey-that-jock-isn’t-so-bad-in-the-school-play attitude—goes a long way to charm.

The movie around him is working overtime to sell the high-spirited whimsy, too. Writer-director Paul King, he of the agreeably twee Paddington pictures, has a suitably British style that fusses with the magic and mischief in a perfectly puffed-up sense of its own twinkling wryness. There’s a discount Dickens to the setup, as Wonka finds himself in preposterous debt to transparently scamming boarding house proprietors named Scrubitt and Bleacher (Olivia Colman and Tom Davis). And he can’t pay them back by selling his marvelous, scrumptious magic chocolates because of the city’s cruel candy cartel and their ruthless rules. (Crooked cops (Keegan-Michael Key) and priests (Rowan Atkinson) keep the shops in line.) This is all fine and funny, and King keeps the plates spinning with a game supporting cast (Jim Carter! Natasha Rothwell! Hugh Grant as an Oompa Loompa!) giving swell theatrical performances. It has a bit of the cruel-and-clever blend you’d expect from a knockoff Dahl (for the real deal you’d have to go to Wes Anderson’s brilliant short film short story adaptations, dumped unceremoniously on Netflix). But Wonka’s makers can’t help but mix that bitterness with heaps of sugary sentimentality that lets you know it’ll be all right. The look is primary colors and rounded edges, fake snow and smiles, even when businessmen plot murder and pay off police with pallets of chocolates. The knowingly fake stages and pleasant melodies and soft choreography all adds up to something sweet enough to pass the time.

Warner Brothers also has a bright, backlot-looking musical of The Color Purple in theaters now. It naturally shares its plot’s structure and events with Alice Walker’s novel, and the 1985 Steven Spielberg drama that made Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey stars. This new film version is not nearly as powerful, but it has some merit. It takes the Broadway adaptation as inspiration, and it is admirably tough material from which to draw such danceable exuberance. The story follows an impoverished young black woman in early-20th century southern America as she’s separated from her sister by her cruel husband. As the decades pass, she learns about her own interests and desires and is slowly able to assert herself against the tides of abuse her family and her society push upon her. This is strong stuff about sisterly bonds and the triumph of the human spirit, and, by the end, a kind of radical forgiveness. I am not made of stone; tears welled up in my eyes during the final communal energy of a cast clad in white, raising their hands to the heavens, declaring a moral and spiritual victory as one. It makes its case loudly and broadly, with little of the nuance of a more sensitive drama, but all the obvious stage power of a big, belting one.

The story is too good for a phony sheen to stop it entirely. The performances here overflow with energy, through pain and pleasure alike. Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, and Danielle Brooks are a formidable trio of voices and personality, emoting through each note with huge melodic crescendoes and propelling each spoken line with the expression to carry it to the back row of the highest balcony. (The skilled supporting players here—from Colman Domingo to Halle Bailey—pop with the same sharp shorthand dramatics.) It helps, I suppose, that Marcus Gardley’s screenplay is generally averse to subtext—it’s all right on the surface. That makes it a good match for the obvious emotional exposition of the musical numbers faithfully recreated as stage-bound, even in flight of dream ballet fancy. Director Blitz Bazawule cuts cleanly and stages with broad blocking. Every shot, in songs and straight scenes alike, is a posed snippet of theatrical choreography. And it’s all so brightly, evenly lit in images scrubbed an uncanny digital shine, that it sparkles with its fakery even as its story works hard to sell the darkest realism. That mix of the deep and shallow, the smooth and the tough, makes it an uneven 140 minutes. But the story itself has such undeniable force that the whole movie gets pulled toward tears anyway.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

All Those Lonely, Lonely Times: ALL OF US STRANGERS

Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is a palpable portrait of loneliness and the long tail of childhood grief. It’s a film that feels haunted with the intense emptiness that comes from a solitary life. It stars Andrew Scott as a writer just south of middle age who lives alone in a small apartment in a mostly uninhabited new building in London. Though the movie will technically leave this cramped home, in all the really important ways it stays trapped there with him, and within his head. He meets another inhabitant of the building, a troubled younger man (Paul Mescal) with whom he strikes a hesitant romantic interest. They’re drawn together as two loners, clearing their throats to speak like they're unaccustomed to doing so. There’s a sense even as they open up emotionally, sharing stories of their pasts, their coming outs, and their romantic interests, that they’re holding something back. They’ve been hurt before.

The writer is currently working through some of his hurt with an autobiographical project about his parents. He imagines them as they were when he was 12 years old. They were dead before he was 13, killed in a car crash at Christmastime. How awful. Now this writer will sometimes return to his childhood home and see them. Hardly ghosts, they are flesh and blood memories he inhabits, having conversations he wishes he could’ve had, and still could have but for that fateful black ice—reminiscences explanations, apologies, a coming out. The parental presences are projections of the son, but Claire Foy and Jamie Bell play them with full personalities. These aren’t dream parents; they’re not always parroting ideas their now-grown child would hope they’d share with him. They’re real, and unreal. (There's a productively weird cognitive dissonance of seeing actors of roughly the same age playing parent and child, too.) He’s happy to see them, but there’s that spectral distance, too. They’re part of him, and yet not. Here’s a man so used to being alone he holds everything at arm’s length, from that potential new boyfriend to the grief he’s never quite addressed.

Haigh is a filmmaker always so closely attuned to the subtleties of human interactions—the way a shift in information or understanding ripples imperceptibly across a face, and then out across an entire relationship or community. It's in the intimate close-ups and spaces for quiet contemplation. He makes movies in which people sit and talk to each other, revealing as much in their silences and implications as with their conversations. There’s the hookup coupling that tentatively teases the idea of something more in Weekend or the anniversary that teeters on the precipice of a breakup in 45 Years. His works are always careful to conceal and reveal his characters interiority in conjunction with softly naturalistic performances that capture their humanity. He also expert at getting deft, delicate drama out of symbols lesser directors would fumble as obvious underlining. Here’s a movie about a man literally haunted by his grief, and has trouble bringing someone new into his lonely life. That core specificity gives its abstractions their power.

It’s about the disconnection he feels from the world around them, and from some essential part of himself and his past. So of course there’s that huge empty building, and a cozy memory place of childhood memory. The two blur. There’s a mid-80s photo from right before the incident. It becomes a vision of the past with a child actor; it’s also a recreation with the adult. Past and present are joined by the Pet Shop Boys’ swirling synths. That’s a peak of hazy sadness in a movie that’s a most tender, melancholic ghost story. Later, a simple move of the camera swaps one ghostly presence for another, although we might not quite know it until we reflect on it later. The movie builds to a climax of emotional revelation, and nods to the power of love to last. Because the performances are so natural, and the filmmaking so attentive, it gathers considerable metaphoric force. It feels heavy with depressed yearning in every gesture.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Vindication of the Rights of Woman: POOR THINGS

With Poor Things, director Yorgos Lanthimos returns to his pet themes: freedom and control, society and individualism, intellect and appetite. Within them, the Greek provocateur loves to push buttons and test the boundaries of discomfort. He sets up rigid systems and see his characters squirm under their demands. His international breakthrough Dogtooth is a tragedy set in a worst-case scenario disinformation-based homeschooling setup, while his dreary The Lobster is a depressing world of romantic pressure in which unlucky singles are turned into animals, and his gripping Killing of a Sacred Deer finds eerie body horror revenge inflicted on an alienated nuclear family unit by an unsettling interloper. Even his biggest hit to date, period piece of royal courtly intrigue The Favourite, drips with a devilishly funny satire of politicking and interest peddling within his usual concerns. In Poor Things he pushes his ideas to fanciful Frankensteined abstraction in a steampunk fantasy Europe of an imagined Industrial Revolution past—a little Mary Shelley, a little German Expressionism, a little Tim Burton, a little Jean-Pierre Jeunet. But it’s all of a piece for a work about a revived body stumbling into the world and slowly learning what life is all about.

Shot with his favored fisheye lenses and pushy, panning, zooming, looming cameras—and scored with a calliope-meets-theremin brio—the movie finds a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) bringing a beautiful corpse (Emma Stone) to life with a mind made freshly tabula rasa. Named Bella Baxter, she flails and stumbles and babbles, trying to master language and motor skills, like a grown woman with a toddler’s mind. It’s quite a spectacle, funny and sad and off-putting and compelling all at once. It might give you a sense of Lanthimos’ approach here that the mad doctor’s new assistant (Ramy Youssef) takes one look at her and gasps: “what a beautiful retard.” The movie gawks and scowls at its characters’ madnesses and eccentricities. As Bella grows into her body, society fills her mind with ideas. She strains against the confines of her experimental status and demands to be let out into the world. There she encounters a variety of men—buffoonish seducers (Mark Ruffalo) and suave cynics (Jarrod Carmichael) and nasty brutes (Christopher Abbott)—who want to have her and control her and affect her and mold her. And yet Bella is so stubbornly, persistently herself that she’s uncontainable by societal standards. She hasn’t been indoctrinated with the shame  she’s expected to feel and stereotypes to which they assume she'd conform. There’s some pointed commentary in the fact that she’s most desirable to the men when she’s at her least capable. The more she learns, the more she confounds their expectations, the more they go mad for her, in all senses of the word. She navigates a series of gross-out gags and slapstick and drama and sexual encounters with a growing awareness and a blissfully inquisitive need to take it all in and understand.

The potentially simple concept is exquisitely elaborated and vividly imagined in all its complications and contrasts. The screenplay by Tony McNamara, who brings some of The Favourite’s charmingly mean ear for dialogue, takes clear delight in running Bella through a crash course in philosophical constructs, a one-woman Enlightenment living the concepts Rousseau and Locke and Hobbes and Voltaire had to merely ponder. And it’s all so fleshy, too, with Lanthimos’ usual preoccupation with bodily fluids and functions, making her a Candide in situations that’d blush with frank vulgarity but in fact give nary a flinch. She likes to copulate as much as she cogitates. But for all the overt mixture of the highfalutin philosophizing and lowdown dirtiness, the movie’s at its most fun as it dances across that chasm. It’s a riot of production design—weird vehicles and elaborate sets—and costumes—all frills and flowing cutaways and cinched edges. And within that, the performers turn loose in masterfully silly eruptions of straight-faced shock and delicate pratfalls and casual nudity. It’s Stone’s show—a stunningly technical and deeply felt play with high drama and fearless comedy. But everyone in the cast joins in the fun. Every line reading turns into candy, and every serious swerve of intellect is chased with a grinning irreverence. Ultimately, this is Lanthimos’ most hopeful picture, embodied with a stubborn, grinning belief that the stuff of life is pleasurable and, though people may be as cruel as they are curious, the right fresh mind is capable of positive change. As Taylor Swift wrote, "we were built to fall apart / then fall back together."

Sunday, December 10, 2023


Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron—though I prefer its more evocative Japanese title: How Do You Live—is a movie that feels intensely and beautifully like the work of an elderly man. This is hardly a negative when you’re in the hands of a master. The 82-year-old animator has given us such magical movies as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, pictures that sing with the simplicity of childhood fables and spin out with the elaborate emotional growth of complex and true feelings. He situates his magic within real natural worlds, with care taken to show us the pulse of wind through a field of grass, the ripples in a pond, the steam off a hot meal, the soft shift of a person’s weight from one foot to the other. All the better to gently and then suddenly unfurl his fantastical delights. Whether his movies are action-filled or more sedately contemplative, there’s always that tension between the slowed-breath awe and the sensationally unexpected. There’s a moment early in The Boy and the Heron in which a character runs toward a massive fire and, as the typically fluid and expressive movements of his style rushes forward, the image ripples with the intense heat of the flames. Ah, I thought, here’s once more the comfort of a picture full of the attentiveness to which we’ve become accustomed with this filmmaker. Every frame is lovingly placed and painted. And the rest of the film itself continues to unfold with a patience and a confidence—pulling us along through a winding experience. It’s slow and slippery and a bit scattered, but imbued with a pulsing dream logic and a purity of purpose through its magical realism.

It’s also, appropriately for its elderly qualities, haunted by death. World War II is raging just beyond the frame. The fire in the beginning claims of the life of a young boy’s mother. He then moves with his father to live with his aunt in a palatial country home, where all the servants are tottering, chattering old women. This is where he sees a heron, who lurks around trying to get the boy’s attention, slowly revealed to have an old man’s face drooping out from under the beak. This creepy bird tells him there’s a place where his mother’s still alive. I know it’s a lie, the boy will say, and yet I have to see. Isn’t that just the way to enjoy a fantasy? So off they go, into a dilapidated tower in the dark forest where an ancestor—who was maybe a wizard—disappeared. This is clearly a place rich in spells and magic. But the movie never explains itself or sets forth rules for its imaginary spaces, even as the boy tumbles into a phantasmagoric world of odd landscapes populated with strange creatures—giant birds, blob spirits, shadowy phantoms, a fiery little girl, and a labyrinth of doors. Here’s a movie about a boy lost in a world he can’t understand, hazily trying to find his way out in an inscrutable dream-logic. It’s a film of dazzling visual designs and unusually compelling confusion. The sheer force of its ideas pull the story along.

Here is Miyazaki once again telling us: children are innocent but wily, adults can be chaotic even when they mean well, society can be painful, nature is often a balm, and the spiritual power of a fantasy can be the invisible string that holds our sense together. But here the telling is more fraught than ever, shrouded in mournful doom. That’s not only true for the characters, but the teller, too. When we eventually see the wizened figure of an old wizard wrinkled at the end of time, locked in a tower of his own making, he’s quite ambivalent about the worlds he’s created. We meet him in the end, after a winding, episodic journey, as he’s hunched over a spare table wondering if it’s worth keeping his fantasy going. How moving, then, for a film so robust and so frail, so funereal and familial in its concerns, that such oblique self-doubt comes at the climax of a movie that’s a perfect amalgamation of Miyazakian interests. Its setup is by turns semi-autobiographical and right out of a Victorian children’s book imbued with Shinto spirits, and then there’s a dizzying drop into a flurry of fanciful figures moving at their own pace and working through their own eccentric agendas in their own closed loops of logic. So does the film. It makes meaningful connections and spins strange tales, made all the stronger for all involved knowing they’re fleeting, destined to melt away, fade to nothing, and be forgotten. But the emotion might linger all the same. If this is really his last film, he’s given us a movie hushed and haunted, pushing through pain and confusion, hanging on the power of a story to reunite ghosts and revive one sad child’s will to go on.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Notes on a Scandal: MAY DECEMBER

Todd Haynes is a modern master of melodrama, with films that thrive in the tension of societal norms straining to restrain his characters’ natural drives toward it. In his latest film May December, an actress arrives at the home of a family that was once the center of tabloid controversy in hopes of shadowing them for her latest movie role based on their scandal. The actress (Natalie Portman) has only surface-level questions to ask, and a kind of guileless confidence in her ability to soak up something real from the quotidian observations she’ll grok just by hanging around. The matriarch of the family (Julianne Moore), a dotty housewife with a flailing bakery business and a wispy lisping affect, just hopes the movie star won’t be rude (like Judge Judy), and that she’ll play fair with the facts of her life as she sees them. You see, her affair with her much younger husband (Charles Melton) started when he was in 7th grade. They got married after her release from prison, where she had their first child, and weathered a storm of national news attention. She doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with that. Now he’s barely cracked his mid-30s and their offspring are graduating high school. For his part, he really loves his teenage kids, but it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that these fresh-faced youngsters are now older than their dad was when they were born. As the movie draws out his hobby of raising caterpillars to release as butterflies, it’s clear he’s been stunted in his cocoon by the unacknowledged abuse that’s shaped the majority of his life. Meanwhile, when not interviewing the woman’s estranged first family, the actress hovers on the margins of family life for a few weeks, watching in scenes of live wire discomfort as the dysfunction inherent in this family dynamic ripples and bubbles beneath metric tons of denial. The homogenizing force of suburban normality is stretched to the breaking point for these people—and the Savannah setting gives it a sense of oceanfront Southern Gothic as two phonies circle each other and the rest are adrift in the consequences.

Haynes stages scenes with elaborate framing for straight-faced jaw-dropping confessions and twisting entanglements of exploitation. (In tone, it’s somehow the perfect equidistant midpoint between Douglas Sirk’s Eisenhower-era stiffness and John Waters’ lurid vulgarity, right next to Pedro Almodovar in its tightly controlled stylish displays of repressions and unspoken depravities of character.) The lines between actress and her subjects get blurry, especially as the women seem to trade traits—listen to how that lisp drifts between them!—and Haynes loads the frames with mirrors and reflections and cameras and lenses. It’s all about image in that ineffable way. Isn’t that a typically Haynes subject, though? Here’s another of his seductively unsettling melodramas about the tragedy of being unable to recognize your true self behind the artifice you’ve built up around yourself. Like the Barbie doll Carpenters in his experimental Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story or the frosty domestic noirs of his Mildred Pierce or Carol, or the suffocating Sirkian vibrancy in Far From Heaven, he’s once more pinning his characters down with empathetic archness. Here it’s simultaneously moving and at a distance, and often darkly hilarious, in a gripping style pulsing with raw emotion beneath the surface. He uses stinging, borrowed piano cues on the score and a kind of hazy softness to the frames, like he’s dredging up dark truths through the scrim of a 90s ripped-from-the-headlines made-for-TV movie. And yet, by Samy Burch’s emotionally complex screenplay setting the action of the story two decades past its central scandal, and making explicit the ways in which attempting to fictionalize such sensationalized real world melodrama inevitably falls short, it makes for a movie using that distancing effect to be more invested in the long ugly aftermath. That roils underneath the apparent, twisted normality that’s settled over the pain, and no empty gestures of family life or hollow Hollywood artifice can fill that emptiness.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Infinity and Bey-ond: RENAISSANCE

Beyoncé is the auteur of Beyoncé. She’s the director, on screen and off. Her public persona has been tightly controlled as she’s been able to consolidate all that power herself. She makes music, yes—among the catchiest of pulse-pounding danceable pop and soaring melodic ballads this century. But she’s also fashionable, political, and historical, alive and aware to her continuity as a brand, as a person, and as the latest in a long lineage of cultural figures. She’s an icon and knows it. Ever since she started directing her own film projects, she’s more or less stopped giving interviews. Her movies are the message. Think of the stirring visual album Lemonade, and the echoes in the similar project Black is King, engaged with a fluidity of persona in conversation with the solid truths of Black womanhood in America and in diaspora. Her Homecoming captured her career capstone Coachella performance—her own Eras-spanning set—clad in the garbs of Bey-centric Greek-life sweatshirts and short-shorts riffing on looks from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, complete with a brassy marching band and rat-a-tat drumline for backup. Throughout, these cinematic works prove Beyoncé has a keen directorial eye, staging eye-popping images and resonant symbolism with the same layered pleasures she brings to her music. She knows how to pose, how to style, how to draw the eye, and make it all swell with meaning. She’s cultivating an image, to be sure. But just when we might start wondering about the slick elisions (she's strangely vague about the "difficult times" we've been through lately; supply your own cultural context, I guess), the music starts pumping again—the thudding, insistent, endless beat booming with the force of subwoofer in your rib cage and begging you to bust a move.

When it comes to Renaissance, a rebirth into a self-proclaimed looser, freer Beyoncé, and a shared space for her fans to celebrate themselves in the presence of her self, she’s building on all she’s shown before with a new openness. It’s still brand management. The modern star on her level is also a corporation, after all. But here she’s more willing than ever to show us the whole ecosystem it takes to help her look and sound this good. And how hard she’ll fight for her vision. The spine of the movie is a loud, energetic capture of her latest tour—a massive arena undertaking bringing her latest album to the stage. Throughout she threads behind-the-scenes vignettes. We see rehearsals, meet backup dancers and singers, technicians on stage and off. We see her family—none cuter than her kids mimicking her dance moves from some anonymous room behind the show. She talks about her inspirations, about growing up, references moments from her career. We see archival footage, sometimes popping as flashes of memory echoing a big hit—a glimpse of filming the “Crazy in Love” music video, of TV appearances, of a little girl dancing in the backyard. Look where I’ve been, she seems to be saying. And look what I can do now—a mature artist fully embodied in herself and comfortable with what she can bring and say to the world.

This all deepens and enriches the experience of the main event. She’s a performer of remarkable consistency. It’s a show of sweat and energy and propulsive dancing and soaring vocals. The fashions are elaborate—and with a myriad of costume changes even between shows, and she loves showing that off with satisfying match cuts between nights revealing new stunning outfits, a Homecoming trick oft and well repeated here to more elaborate effect. She’s in full control, even when celebrating a concert and album, and her house music tribute within, that pounds with a sweaty club beat dripping in modes of shimmery disco and drag ballrooms and girl groups—all manner of eclectic and authentic tastes synthesized in a style all her own. The concert itself embraces the contradictions of Beyoncé. She’s somehow fresh and retro. She’s a soft-spoken private person and a brilliantly loud show-off performer. She’s a pneumatic technical hard-edged Afro-futurist precision machine—literal digital robots tower on video screens over her in snaky glows. And she’s a warm, soft, organic mother imbued with and empowered by a rich cultural heritage. She’s a vulgar, earthy sensualist and a shimmering spiritual beacon of pure love. She’s a bootylicious twerker and a beatific familial homebody. She’s a benign cult leader unto herself and totemic conduit for bigger ideas outside herself. Renaissance—the movie, the tour, the album—doesn’t resolve these tensions, but expresses them, explodes them, explores them. And it has that huge walloping beat urging us to pop ecstatics.