Saturday, January 08, 2022

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)



Guillermo Del Toro's Nightmare Alley turned out to be the last movie I saw in 2021, and I can hardly imagine a better farewell to this year in which the world seemed increasingly claustrophobic, much of its citizenry engaged in duping or being duped, in blinding campaigns of continual carny-level chicanery elevated to national disaster, the duped refusing to believe their own eyes (and science) over the lies that line up with what they want to believe.


Not being entirely in the director’s bag (I had reservations about his last three movies, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and even his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water) I resisted the pull of this picture for a good portion of its first half hour. But this nightmare vision sucked me in. Del Toro seems at the top of his game here, adapting the original novel and the 1947 movie classic from a script co-written with film critic Kim Morgan, and it’s a hellish, seductive vision. Moment to moment, the movie may often register as too much design, or too much physical detail, or just too much, period. But it gets into your bones, and your humanity, and your inhumanity, just as the original film did, just as all superb noirs do, and the audience that allows itself the distinct pleasure of settling into the world Del Toro conjures will be amply rewarded and unsettled.

Reports of Bradley Cooper as being miscast here (too old to be continually referred to as “young buck,” said the wags) are completely off the mark, especially when you see what the actor does with the character of drifter-turned-mentalist-phenomenon Stan Carlisle (Victor Mature in the 1947), and the harrowing inevitability of where he ends up. (I cannot shake his final image, or his final line.) But the entire cast responds to the thrall of Del Toro’s visual commitment, and to his refusal to be rushed into a overstimulated approach to laying out this fiercely beautiful and frightening milieu. Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, they’re all excellent as denizens of the carnival world Stan knows (or thinks he knows) he’s too sharp not to escape. And in crucial but smaller roles, as two of Stan’s higher-class marks, Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins make potent, indelible impressions.

However, a special place in my dark heart is reserved for Cate Blanchett, an actress I often receive as too diagrammed and distanced in her performances. But as she also proved in Thor: Ragnarok, she’s an actress who can be fully at home in cutting loose and embodying, precisely and pleasurably, the movie she’s in, and she conjures this femme fatale, a psychiatrist who ostensibly helps Stan with his entree into the world of the moneyed victims that will ultimately lead him straight to hell, with seductive, iconographic awareness, all the better for when she takes Stan in her teeth for the final bite. Her exit from this picture made me laugh out loud at the sheer audaciousness, both of the dialogue that provides her the perfect punctuation and of her instincts in the movie’s penultimate climax.

I’m not surprised that audiences at Christmastime during a pandemic are staying away from a picture whose advertising duly hints at the level of bleakness in store for them. But it’s a shame that the movie seems on its way out of theaters already— I caught the last performance at my local movie emporium— because this is a movie that knows how to deliver the goods to a receptive audience. I don’t know how well it will play at home, where distractions are aplenty, but having been happy to have submitted to it in the dark, I can’t wait to lay my hands on a Blu-ray in a couple months and find out. At the risk of sounding like a barker milling the masses to be fleeced, I’d encourage you to see Nightmare Alley on a big screen (fully masked, of course). Good show!

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FRENCH CONNECTION II (1974)

 

When I was 11 years old, The French Connection came out and joined a list of pictures I was too young to see (Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, Shaft) but would obsess over anyway. I even read the book, which somehow was okay with my parents because, I guess, it wasn’t rated R. I saw my first R-rated movie, Dirty Harry, later that year, but I never saw TFC until I was in college, and though it was among the first cassettes I ever bought for my new Betamax in 1982, once I finally did see it William Friedkin’s movie never lived up to my heightened expectations. Seeing it again last month for the first time in years only confirmed that, its landmark car chase excepted, I think of The French Connection as a fairly routine, relentless cop thriller that, despite Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning performance, is hardly the best of its kind.


In fact, I’d only ever “seen” the movie in MAD magazine (“WHAT’S THE CONNECTION?”) before I saw its sequel, French Connection II, at my hometown movie palace, the Alger Theater, sometime in late 1975. I was determined to love it, and I did like it a lot, though I remember thinking that it didn’t feel at all like what I expected its predecessor might. In fact, this would be the first of two sequels made from William Friedkin-directed megahits, both of which would stray from the path of simply ghosting the template of the original, a strategy that would not exactly endear either film to audiences or critics. The sequel John Frankenheimer made to TFC is certainly not an admirable oddity like Exorcist II: The Heretic, nor is it, like that film, a daring artistic failure, but it must have certainly frustrated those who came to theaters expecting their pulses to be pounded in the manner of the original film.


Whereas Popeye Doyle (and Hackman) by nature dominated the grim, burnt-out NYC milieu of the first film, FCII transplants the detective to Marseilles, where his overt racial bigotry can be directed exclusively, and in classic really-ugly-American fashion, toward his French counterparts, and where the movie can monitor Doyle’s fury at being brought over to ostensibly pursue Frog One (Fernando Rey, reprising his role as drug kingpin Alain Charnier), only to realize he’s being used as bait to lure the criminal into position to be grabbed by the local police force.


But Frankenheimer and screenwriters Alexander Jacobs, Robert Dillon and Laurie Dillon, doggedly, some might even say perversely refuse to follow in Friedkin’s footsteps. FCII is mapped out and directed as if the location (shot evocatively by Claude Renoir) seeped into their bones— it feels more like an arty policier that might have been made by any number of French directors of the time, its concerns much more in locating the core of Doyle’s blackened heart than in replicating the gritty, nihilistic thrills of Friedkin’s movie. One of the true strengths of FCII is how it conveys Doyle’s sense of abandonment, his lack of any real French connection, how he feels adrift in a culture, and more precisely a policing culture, that he doesn’t understand or respect— to that end, the movie provides no subtitles for its extensive French dialogue; like Doyle, the audience is left to fend for itself and extract meaning from context, observation and multiple conversations that lead nowhere.


Hackman may have won his first Oscar for the original film, but this is the far more rich, interesting, compelling performance. The actor courts our empathy at being lost in a language and society he doesn’t comprehend, but he’s no less blusteringly self-righteous for that; he makes a crude art of alienation, because he can’t allow himself to believe that any other method than his own could possibly be effective. Beyond all that, however, the filmmakers allow Hackman to dominate the center of the film in an entirely unexpected way— about 45 minutes in, Doyle is nabbed by Charnier’s thugs and, in an attempt to rid themselves of their American albatross, they string him out on the heroin they’re trafficking and then, when he’s entirely dependent, toss him back into the street. What follows is a long, harrowing, and strangely moving section in which Doyle, with the help of the French detective (Bernard Fresson) he refers to more as “Asshole” than by his actual name, agonizes through narcotic withdrawal on his way back toward the world and his now-elevated fury over Charnier and the way he has been used to tease the kingpin out into the open.


Perversely, or perhaps daringly, Frankenheimer and company have structured this section of the movie to be their stand-in for the prolonged car chase which is probably one of the only things people remember from the first movie. It is the film’s raison d’etre, its meaning, the polluted blood coursing through FCII, and it alters the perspective of the entire enterprise, including Doyle’s own sense of outrage and refusal to heed any precaution or safety in seeing his own personal mission to its end. It’s a gutsy, not entirely rational response to the mission of following up a well-respected Oscar-winning thriller, which is in its way, like Doyle’s, its own personal mission, and it turns what could have been a rote regurgitation designed to sell popcorn into something akin to a living, breathing creation, something made to respond to the world instead of just make furious noise within it.


FCII ends on a more definitive note than its closure-denying predecessor, but even in that definition Frankenheimer finds room to undercut any true sense that Doyle has finally completed his task. With an abrupt cut to end credits just before we can process the resolution we seem to have witnessed, we get Doyle’s shot at some measure of release, of payback, alongside the simultaneous realization after the cut that things are still moving on the water, that we can never really be sure if the prey is down or simply delayed in the game.


At a time when a tidal wave trend toward commodifying sequels was only just beginning, French Connection II, in a way perhaps more modest but spiritually akin to Coppola’s work in expanding the tale of the Corleone family the previous year, proved that it is possible to honor origins by mining character more than simply committing a hollow act of imitation. It may not be particularly well remembered in the shadow of its 1971 predecessor, but it should be.

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SHORT ENDS: LAMB and COPSHOP

 


Lamb was not at all what I was expecting, though I’m not sure what I was expecting-- the trailer suggests it might be another Midsommar-esque horror tale, and like that movie, it's also brought to you by the good folks at A24-- but thankfully even after having seen the trailer I had no idea where it was going. (Bela Tarr is listed as a producer in the end credits, so that might give you a clue as to the movie’s tone, at least.) It’s certainly not a horror film though, nor is it exactly the sort of traumatic metaphor of parental loss I anticipated (though it is in the neighborhood).

Lamb
lands more squarely in the realm of a very deliberate, foreboding folk tale-- if you're prepared to laugh you probably will, but it may also get under your skin. Despite my ill response to Noomi Rapaace, an actress whose appeal seems forbidden to me, I found it hypnotic (especially the way the director uses those gloomy, gorgeous Icelandic landscapes) and weirdly moving, right up to its creepy conclusion, for which I don't think the movie lays quite enough foundation. I think I liked it most, though, because it was a movie with its own quiet world of rhythms and pace which I could settle into on a Friday night after a relentless, pedal-to-the-metal week, and for the fact that that its impulses and sympathies were unlike what movies from any country feel compelled to serve up these days. (TRIGGER WARNING: There is a bit of animal death, though not graphic. The animal births, however, are not for the squeamish…)

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Copshop is a hoot and a holler, and I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it. Both Gerard Butler as a professional hit man and Frank Grillo as his slimy mob con target hold the screen like, well, professionals. But the show is handily stolen by Alexis Louder as the bored Nevada cop who ends up in a standoff with the two of them in the titular, bullet-and-corpse-littered police station. She is the real deal— funny, sharp, believable and never quite in the zone you’d expect. Hers is, or should be, a star-making performance— we’ll see. And the movie gets a major assist from Toby Huss as the gregariously deranged contract murderer who wants to wipe them all out. In the post-Tarantino landscape, it’s unusual to see someone pull off an over-the-top piece of acting like this— genuinely creepy/funny/original and not catastrophically smug— but Huss figures out how to do it. Director Joe Carnahan makes the whole she-bang a visual hoot and a holler too. Between this and The Protege from earlier this year, that’s a lot of solid, clever, mean, female-centric action from a couple of low-flying, unexpected sources. Good show!

Saturday, August 07, 2021

FIVE FOR THE AGES: 2021 SO FAR

I haven’t seen much so far in 2021, and much of it has been either worthy, if flawed (Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain) or flat-out incoherent and reprehensible (The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard). But there have been five films released in 2021 so far which I have unequivocally loved.


1) As big leaps in visual storytelling go, David Lowery’s The Green Knight marks a significant one for him, out of the clutches of dead-end Malick homages (like 2013’s insufferable Ain't Them Bodies Saints and 2017’s emotionally effective but sometimes too precious A Ghost Story) and onto a masterful confidence that accesses a rare quality in modern movies—a sense of genuine mystery.

Lowery’s film is an adaptation of the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (you probably read it in college; somehow, I did not and never have), in which the nephew of King Arthur, young Gawain, played with almost sculpted perfection and empathy, sans a trace of cloying, by Dev Patel, accepts a Christmas day challenge from the titular arboreal nobleman to offer a blow in combat which will then be reciprocated a year later. (The film’s first line, “Christ is born,” uttered over the visage of a sleeping Gawain stunned out of a suggestive dream of chivalry by a bucket of water, grounds the narrative’s engagement of an age of magic making its transition toward another sort of mythology.) Gawain accepts the challenge and impulsively offers the knight not a laceration but a beheading. But when the knight’s decapitated body rises and rides off holding his own head, Gawain is set upon his own quest, girded by the incorporeal guidance of his sorceress mother Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), who it seems has conjured the Green Knight’s presence in the first place, to fulfill the demands of the game and meet the knight a year later so that his own violent gesture can be returned in kind.

Gawain’s journey to meet the Green Knight and his fate is, of course, episodic in nature, the young would-be knight encountering thieves, ghost, giants, mysterious noblemen and women, and even a talking fox, all with secret motivations of their own, and along the way losing gifts given (like his mother’s protective sash and the Green Knight’s enormous ax), only to be reunited with them in moments that reinforce the film’s sly doubling motifs. But Lowery mounts the entire journey with enchanting visual strategies that suggest the circularity of experience, the inevitability of time (and its possible reversal), the weight of loss, and a hallucinatory dream quality that suffuses Gawain’s pursuit of what it means to be worthy of leading a honorable life—in its way, The Green Knight is Lowery’s own Gawain-esque fulfillment of the promise of the themes of nature and temporality that were improbably raised in his most commercial project to date, 2016’s lovely and entirely unexpected remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. The director carries a willing audience along on waves of visual grammar and wit that are less related to the fevered Wagnerian blasts of John Boorman’s Excalbur and closer to the contemplative pastoral inquiry of Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, yet that grammar and wit are ultimately proven to be entirely his own. And in a film about a young man’s shadowing of his own story, Lowery even manages clever references to the process of narrative and filmmaking that for once do not come off as if we were being held hostage by the overconfident cackling of a director-raconteur seduced by his own mastery and incapable of not showing it off, to the ultimate detriment of his own creation.

As with any surprising and original work, it’s best to go into The Green Knight with only the sketchiest of expectations, although by now the sort of praise it’s been gathering comes with its own set of expectations apart of the actual action of the film. (After you’ve seen it, I highly recommend Justin Chang’s excellent full-on appraisal in the Los Angeles Times.) It’s a serious consideration of notions and  quasi-historical narratives of chivalry and honor that one would think impossibly quaint nearly 50 years after the sort of pop culture disembowelment served up by Monty Python, and it conjures a world of real and imagined magick, and that includes magick of the cinematic sort, with both surprising guilelessness and a surety that can make a jaded audience gasp. The marvelous cast, apart from Patel (making up for appearing in last year’s worst film, The Personal History of David Copperfield, by appearing in a candidate for this year’s best), includes Alicia Vikander, doubly beguiling as Gawain’s tomboyish love, whom he leaves behind, and a mysterious enchantress who may spell his doom, as well as seasoned character actors like Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Joel Edgerton, and best of all, Ralph Ineson, whose great, quarry-deep voice perfectly inhabits the grandeur of the hulking, creaking, rustling, forbidding, seductive figure of the film’s title, and who eloquently embodies its most enrooted concepts of nature and inevitability.

And they are all led by a young director who is, with any luck, apparently just now hitting his stride. Like its namesake, Lowery and The Green Knight invite us on an unexpected journey we cannot but accept, one whose sweetest and most profound rewards cannot be anticipated, one which will, if you’re like me, resonate long after the film’s soaring penultimate image and its final, sweetly ambiguous words have passed into the mists of memory, where the movie promises to live from a forgotten age, of tales and of glorious movies, for a long, long time.


2) At first I thought I might well find Carlos L√≥pez Estrada’s Summertime insufferable— it’s a celebratory comedy-drama built around sequences in which many of the 30 young characters, who float in and around Los Angeles during the film’s 95-minute running time, frequently express themselves in poetic verse (poems the actors wrote themselves). But the movie breaks down all resistance almost immediately with visual poetry that augments and enhances those recitative passages and suffuses them with what can only be considered the near-equivalent of song-and-dance sequences which might be found in a more straightforward musical. That poetry is put to powerful dramatic use as well, and by the movie’s end the tears Summertime earns are a mixture of a piercing emotionality and the rapture of seeing such material so well served, so eloquently expressed.  In its very own, unique way it’s a lovely, generational response to the sort of American expressionism that has itself frequently been marginalized, fulfilling the promise of a more fantastical work like In the Heights and adding to a legacy of social and political portraiture that has its roots in masterworks like Nashville and Do The Right Thing. (The movie shares an observational acuity toward LA with those movies and their settings too.) And I guess I needn’t have worried that I wouldn’t be transported by Summertime— how could I have ever not loved a movie that has, as one of its threads, the pursuit of a real Los Angeles cheeseburger, and locates the climax of that search in such a unifying, and yes, inspirational gesture of community and empathy?


3) “We were creating a new world…” Summer of Soul is that rare piece of work that, in its own way, seems almost as important as the event it documents, especially given the past few summers we’ve had to endure as a country, as a species. Joyous tears will likely never be too far from spilling, as they were for me, witnessing the otherworldly, yet completely of this world performances of Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and especially Mavis Staples, on her own and in rapturous duet with the great Mahalia Jackson. I love Mavis Staples, perhaps beyond reason and propriety. But I was also just as thrilled that director Questlove, in making beautiful music of both the concerts and the social context in which they occurred, managed to make time to include Moms Mabley (who gets off a great joke about the concurrent NASA moon mission which resonates today, as millionaires indulge their own space fantasies while citizens continue to be marginalized and murdered and while the planet burns), and for a moving interlude in which Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. are overwhelmed with emotion as they watch footage of their performance at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which this documentary commemorates (or should that be resuscitates?), and talk about their experience as artists perceived as not having been “Black enough.” This movie is as close to genuine cinematic bliss as I’ve experienced in years, and I’m so glad I got to see it on the big screen. Whether or not you can swing a theatrical experience, or whether Hulu is your gateway, this is a movie that should not be missed.


4) No Sudden Move, Steven Soderbergh’s piercing crime drama, based on Ed Solomon’s twisting, turning script, is a movie for grown-ups who miss the intricacies and mysteries of Chinatown or the feints and double and triple-crosses of great films noir like The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing and wish that a spirited director, one already responsible for another great example in the genre, The Limey, might return to this particular form in glory. With No Sudden Move, that’s just what happens. Inhabited with brilliance by Don Cheadle, who hasn’t been this good since his heralded intro to the popular consciousness in Devil in a Blue Dress, and Benicio Del Toro, who seems to carry the weight of the world on his sagging frame, along with perhaps the year’s richest supporting cast, including David Harbour, Julia Fox, Amy Siemetz, Kieran Culkin, Ray Liotta, and best of all, Brendan Fraser, channeling Orson Welles in TOUCH OF EVIL here (there’s even an effective cameo by a Soderbergh favorite), the film is centered on a heist scheme that goes terribly wrong and spirals into a morass of betrayals and reprisals that at times can be challenging to track, but which ultimately land in a place where comparisons to the films cited above prove not only apt but well deserved.


5) I loved Godzilla vs. Kong. My two daughters and I had a great time with it, even if it was only on HBO Max— we turned it up loud, laughing and shouting and screaming in all the right places. But then we saw it again, this time on the big screen before it left our local multiplex. The damn thing must have taken a nation’s worth of craftsmen and artists to compose, but it lumbers not— in light of the four-hour Justice League especially, this is as fleet of foot and spirit as you could hope for in a movie about giant beasts asserting their essential (but not necessarily hostile-to-mankind) beastliness and laying waste to their surroundings, including a surreally gorgeous nighttime Hong Kong that’s neon-lit for maximum eye-popping monster fun. But the highlight for me was the mind-and-perspective boggling landscape of Hollow Earth, revealed when our human heroes travel beneath the surface to find out where the ancestors and cohabitants of Kong and Godzilla have been calling home for centuries. It’s a truly spectacular vision of a hidden world within our own that itself warrants at least a couple more viewings to be even close to fully taken in. I know, I know-- if you love cinema as an art form, you’re supposed to reflexively shun a big, loud, commercial piece of work like Godzilla vs. Kong. But screw that. The big boys (plus a surprise guest) were worth that second helping, and now that I have the Blu-ray a third is surely forthcoming. Godzilla, Kong, their surprise guest, and the disorienting grandeur of Hollow Earth await my return.

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Saturday, May 08, 2021

RETURN TO MOVIE FOREVER: SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE PANDEMIC, plus GODZILLA VS. KONG

 


So we went to the movies last Sunday night. 422 days previous, to celebrate Emma’s 20th birthday, we saw our last movie in a theater. And on Sunday night, May 2, the longest drought of theatrical moviegoing I’ve ever been through came to an end with a made-to-order experience for Daddy and child. Back in August 2010, I took my daughter Emma to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. They were only 10, and I kinda expected that my wife might not appreciate them seeing a PG-13 picture like this, so we snuck away and didn’t tell Mom where we were going or what we were seeing. I remember the presentation in the cracker box cinema where we saw it being pretty shoddy, but we had a good time together and the movie, once it came out on Blu-ray, became a real touchstone movie for Emma, who has probably seen it ten times since then. I’ve seen it a few times since then too, but other than the time spent together watching it, SPVTW never meant as much to me as it did to my kid.


Until Sunday night, that is. When I bought our tickets I thought, I know Emma would love to see this, but do I really want this movie to be the first one I’ve seen on the big screen in over a year? Turns out it couldn’t have been a better choice, in terms of sheer awesome-itude of the snazzy presentation— the movie has been retooled, in honor of its 10th anniversary, specifically for Dolby Vision-Dolby Atmos Sound theaters, for maximum audio-visual impact— and, of course, as a super-platinum upgrade on our original surreptitious movie outing 10+ years ago. Naturally, we were just excited to be there, but I think I may have underrated just how high the level of anticipation for both of us really was. Just prior to unspooling a bunch of trailers that, whether or not the films themselves turn out to be any good, got us excited at just the prospect of a possible future that included going to the movies, a big ad for the theater chain came on that said simply, “AMC says welcome back to the movies!” And yeah, I got pretty choked up and shed a tear or two over that message because here we were, doing something that this time last year I seriously thought we might not ever do again.


And I also undersold to myself just what being in an audience who was taking social distancing protocols seriously would mean, gathered together to enjoy a movie together with other people, to hear everyone responding, engaged, laughing, having what felt like a special experience, one in which seeing a movie in public was truly appreciated, a activity no longer taken for granted, which felt like a privilege as much as entertainment. Surely I have never enjoyed or appreciated Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as much as I did tonight— it’s as much fun as I can imagine having with a movie populated almost entirely by people I would probably actively avoid in real life. (Except maybe Knives Chau!) And it’s probably the most eye-popping explosion of director Edgar Wright’s visual imagination, in service to expressing both the worldview of the graphic novel’s definitive, indulgent generational satire/wish fulfillment and the experience of what might be going on in the jittery, self-obsessed mind of the novel’s ideal reader. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an exhausting, hilarious, annoying, exuberant picture, and I can even forgive its outburst of directorial confidence for probably having led directly to the markedly inferior Baby Driver.


I’m so happy that my now-21-year-old offspring still wants to go see movies with Dad, and that said offspring is so aware and sympathetic to how much that experience means to the old man. That we seem to be on the cusp of making it a more regular experience again has filled me with a certain hope that maybe some semblance of normal might be waiting just around the corner. And when we do resume this glorious habit, maybe we won’t take it so much for granted any longer. It was a thrill to be at the movies with Emma tonight. Tomorrow, we’re headed back for our second helping of Godzilla vs. Kong. And then who knows? If our beloved Vista Theater in east Hollywood reopens, there really will be a celebration.



And while we’re at it, I might as well admit that I loved Godzilla vs. Kong. My two daughters and I had a great time with it, even if it was only on HBO Max— we turned it up loud, laughing and shouting and screaming in all the right places. The damn thing must have taken a nation’s worth of craftsmen and artists to compose, but it lumbers not— in light of the four-hour Justice League especially, this is as fleet of foot and spirit as you could hope for in a movie about giant beasts asserting their essential (but not necessarily hostile-to-mankind) beastliness and laying waste to their surroundings, including a surreally gorgeous nighttime Hong Kong that’s neon-lit for maximum eye-popping monster fun. But the highlight for me was the mind-and-perspective boggling landscape of Hollow Earth, revealed when our human heroes travel beneath the surface to find out where the ancestors and cohabitants of Kong and Godzilla have been calling home for centuries. It’s a truly spectacular vision of a hidden world within our own that itself warrants at least a couple more viewings to be even close to fully taken in.


Critic Matt Zoller Seitz is being summarily roasted in the comments following his review at RogerEbert.com for having the audacity to give this movie a four-star rating, as if he were only full-tilt slobbering over it like a Christopher Nolan fanboy. The difference being, of course, that Seitz knows that GVK is, at its heart and on its face, an undeniably silly concept, but one which he chooses to approach with good humor and more than the occasional nod to that silliness while taking entirely seriously the art and craft of the show and his own response to it. (The Nolanoids play an entirely different, poker-faced game of you either love it or deserve to die.) If you love cinema as an art form, you’re supposed to reflexively shun a big, loud, commercial piece of work like Godzilla vs. Kong, but whether or not you think he’s lost his mind (as most of those commenters where his review is posted clearly do), Seitz’s response is not cynical in the least; I read the review after I saw the movie, and now I’m all the more glad for his sincerity. The big boys (plus a surprise guest) are worth that second helping coming up tomorrow, this time on the big screen. And Hollow Earth awaits as well.


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ROBERT ALTMAN'S KANSAS CITY (1996)


Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996) has the 1934 milieu of the Midwest hub down pat, from the eye-popping production design and costuming, to the corrupt political machinations of the time (emanating from the influence of boss Tom Pendergast and a host of other shadowy operatives silently empowered by the Roosevelt administration), to the city’s fascinating musical culture, which functions as a navigational device through the film’s landscape, especially in terms of race, seeping into the film’s cracks and crevices, almost defiantly, willfully holding it together.

At the center of all this is the magnetic performance of Harry Belafonte as Seldom Seen, the gangster/entrepreneur who runs his part of KC from the back room of the Hey Hey Club, where the plot strands of the film gather to entangle and get more entangled. Seldom Seen is as much of an entertainer as the great jazz musicians gathered on his stage for an ebullient playoff contest, and he knows it— he can’t seem to stop himself from regaling stories and bleak jokes as part of his process of rule by intimidation, his genial manner never far from the flicker, and then the full emergence of menace. And Belafonte navigates his near-presidential presence with the sort of agility that is truly worthy of awe— his manner is observably informed by the truth of the times without ever becoming obvious or mannered, and you can’t, nor would you want to take your eyes off of him when he’s doing his thing.

The problem with Kansas City is that Belafonte’s story is not at the forefront. He’s essentially the impetus behind the film’s primary focus, a melodrama kicked into gear when Seldom Seen foils an attempted robbery of one of his money shipments and holds one of the would-be robbers, a Caucasian in blackface by the name of Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney) for tortures yet to be revealed. (Seldom dispatches the other, a Black man, with a brutal reckoning in an alley.) When she gets wind of Johnny’s predicament, his wife, a delusional cosmetics counter worker named Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), concocts a scheme to leverage Johnny’s release by kidnapping the wife of a powerful local politician, who has ties to Pendergast and Roosevelt, in an attempt to blackmail him into using his connections to help free her two-bit criminal husband.

As the kidnapping victim, Miranda Richardson starts off playing up the most obvious notes of her troubled character, a woman who has sunk into an opium haze as a way of dealing with the humiliations and neglect dealt to her by her ambitious and often absent husband, essayed with typically cool emotional brutality by Altman favorite Michael Murphy. But Richardson’s characterization becomes warmer—she avoids the pitfalls of an absence of audience sympathy by her ability to orchestrate levels of humanity and sympathy which begin to work their way up through the drug-induced fog as she is forced to spend more and more time observing another form of fragility in the personage of her abductor, whose own relationship to reality is tenuous at best.

The movie’s central conceit is how the kidnapping story reflects the sorts of political machinations and racial stratification that spur on life in Altman’s beloved hometown just after the turn of the century, but if that story is going to function as part of the sort of mosaic Altman could typically conjure, then it has to hold its own against the seamy underworld of Seldom Seen,  the Hey Hey Club, and the commentary on the inequity of structures and everyday life between Black and white. Altman and co-scenarist Frank Barhydt structure Kansas City to flirt with bringing some of these elements into sharp relief— a home for “wayward” women figures into its third act, populated mostly by African American tenants, and a substory involving a young Black musician who befriends a girl who takes up residence in the home—but those elements never find their focus. And despite the details of both the political world and the world of Seldom and the club being easily the more fascinating and potentially rewarding in dramatic terms, they ultimately serve only as background for a story which is itself undermined by the oddly stylized performance of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Blondie, who keeps blunting our empathy regarding her increasing desperation and her slippery grasp on sanity with her own brand of acting histrionics.

Blondie sees herself as a Jean Harlow wannabe, and Leigh chooses to go whole-hog with that fantasy. She plays the character, presumably with the director’s assent, not in the style of realism which the rest of the movie indulges, but as if she really were in one of those rat-a-tat pre-Code pictures she frequents during her copious time off from her department store job. Leigh’s immersion in this sort of stylistic affectation isn’t exactly unprecedented—she took a lot of heat when she essentially conjured Katharine Hepburn for the Coen Brothers’ wild ‘40s-era comedy The Hudsucker Proxy two years earlier, in 1994. But the Coens’ picture, in its overheated approach, matched Leigh’s style syllable for rapid-fire syllable—what she did there was an integrated piece within that movie’s overall energy. In Kansas City, her commitment to the idea of Blondie’s delusions sets her adrift in Altman’s meticulously crafted milieu—she stands out, but not in a way that serves the material, or even her own story. She plays Blondie with such lunatic determination that it seems like she barely unclenches her jaw for the entirety of the picture. The way Leigh plays her, Blondie seems, in contrast to those around her, borderline insane, yet her behavior is never noted as anything particularly strange or hostile-- her pals process her as quirky, unpredictable, and the audience is asked to process her movie-star delusions as just another facet of the ambered past Altman conjures, which is what the conceit of the character is surely meant to convey. But Leigh can only bring attention to her actorly tics, and the performance never gels as anything beyond a curiosity, a misstep, and her story never meshes with the other parts of Kansas City in the way it surely should have.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had from revisiting the gorgeous Arrow Blu-ray of Kansas City. The movie has probably never looked better, and it features a typically droll and informative Altman commentary, presumably ported over from an earlier home video release, as well as enjoyable appreciations by critics Geoff Andrew and Luc Lagier. Unfortunately, Arrow was not able to secure the one element that would have made their Kansas City package one for the ages—missing is Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34, the documentary Altman filmed for the PBS Great Performances series as an accompaniment to Kansas City which focuses entirely on the musical performances from Joshua Redman, Ron Carter and others which keep the Hey Hey Club hopping. These performances serve as the glue which binds Altman’s vision together, yet they blaze, gloriously, in this documentary on their own. On its own, Altman’s feature drama falls short of being the sort of late-period masterwork the director seemed to be able to summon at will so often during his career. But even so, on the wings of its music, these musicians, the riveting presence of a now 94-year-old star who owned the screen like never before in this picture, and yes, on the guidance of its director’s innovation and method of societal inquiry, there are moments when Kansas City, as wedded to the ground as it sometimes seems, still soars.

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

THE FATHER (2020) + OSCAR PREDIX



The Father (2020) begins with classical music on the soundtrack and glimpses into a quiet, spacious, generously decorated flat occupied by a man (Anthony Hopkins) who has the carriage of one who prefers his moments alone. Right away, his daughter (Olivia Colman) comes to visit and, despite the film's tasteful trappings and cool, confident visual style, the ground beneath the feet of the viewer (to say nothing of the characters) begins loosening, shifting, becoming less reliable, ever more so mapping the tenuous connection to the reality that the man is apparently holding onto, the degree to which he is increasingly, against his dwindling will, ever more alone . The writer-director Florian Zeller (adapting his own play) seems to have an instinctive feel for how the camera can be used to both provide a foundation for and to undermine that reality, yet as the depths of Hopkins' character's condition becomes clear-- he's suffering from Alzheimer's disease-- Zeller also demonstrates how democratic his sympathies are. In fact, rather than just telling the story of how difficult the awful slide into dementia is for those whose responsibility it is to care for the one suffering, Zeller, and Hopkins, keep us connected with the disorientation, the strange euphoria that turns on a dime into hostility, loss of pride, confusion and desperation which characterizes the common experience of losing one's mental capacities.

What you've undoubtedly heard about Hopkins-- that this is a career-best performance minus even the slightest whiff of untoward ostentation or sentimental pandering-- can be said of the rest of the cast too, from Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss as, respectively, Colman's husband and a man who claims to be the same (though we remain as unsure of his actual identity as Hopkins for the bulk of the film's lean 97-minute running time); to Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots as the women who are in various capacities charged with Hopkins' care; and especially Colman, who probably has the most expressive, inviting, empathetic face in movies right now. Colman draws you in with her agonized loyalty to a father who can't seem to keep straight who she is or what she's telling him, but she also effortlessly connects with her character's varied layers of anger, guilt and even the slight spark of joy that comes in those increasingly rare moments when she seems, if only momentarily, to make a connection with the father she loves, the father she wants to escape, the father who is helplessly slipping away. The Father forces a confrontation with a horror that many viewers may already be familiar with, one which for some of us might well be lurking in the shadows of family history. But it is the actor's art, the ability of Hopkins and Colman to convey the tiptoe terror of confronting such darkness without ever strangulating the audience with signifiers and histrionics, that prevents the movie from becoming an unbearable, unpleasant wallow. It's not likely to happen, but it wouldn't hurt my feelings one bit to see either or both of them take home another little gold man a few hours from now. ******************************************

Before I go, a revised look at my best-of for the past year, now that I've seen a few more contenders:

FIRST COW
COLLECTIVE
EMMA.
LOVERS ROCK
AMERICAN UTOPIA
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
MINARI
ZAPPA
THE FATHER
DA 5 BLOODS
And my don't-bet-the-house Oscar predictions too! What follows is a list of the nominees I think will win, followed by my preferences in (parentheses). And remember, I'm no fan of NOMADLAND, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN or MANK...
PICTURE: NOMADLAND (MINARI)
DIRECTOR: Chloe Zhao (Lee Isaac Chung)
ACTRESS: Carey Mulligan (Viola Davis)
ACTOR: Chadwick Boseman (Anthony Hopkins)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Yuh-jung Youn (Yuh-jung Youn)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Lakeith Stanfield (Paul Raci)
ANIMATED FEATURE: SOUL (no preference-- I ain't seen none)
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (THE FATHER)
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (MINARI)
SONG: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, I guess...)
SCORE: SOUL (DA 5 BLOODS)
SOUND: SOUND OF METAL (SOUND OF METAL)
COSTUME DESIGN: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (EMMA.)
ANIMATED SHORT: BURROW (no preference)
LIVE-ACTION SHORT: THE LETTER ROOM (no preference)
CINEMATOGRAPHY: NOMADLAND (THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7)
DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: TIME (COLLECTIVE)
DOCUMENTARY SHORT: HUNGER WARD (no preference)
EDITING: PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (THE FATHER)
INTERNATIONAL FEATURE: COLLECTIVE (COLLECTIVE)
MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (EMMA.)
PRODUCTION DESIGN: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (THE FATHER)
VISUAL EFFECTS: TENET (LOVE AND MONSTERS) ***********************************