The Assassin – Hou Hsiao-Hsien (2015)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first film in eight years, The Assassin has been greeted with nearly unanimous rapture. Critics’ reports from Cannes nearly all claimed it the best film in competition, calling it beautiful and enigmatic, and stateside reviews have been just as positive. The film is Hsiao-Hsien’s take on the wuxia genre, which, in both literature and film, focuses on the doings of lone heroes, usually assassins, who wield their martial art skills for the purposes of righting wrongs or restoring the proper balance to tectonic powers. The form is largely a literary one, and Hsiao-Hsien has talked about how such books were an inspiration to him growing up. Many Asian directors do make a wuxia story at some time (usually earlier in their career), so for Hsiao-Hsien, who is now 68, this film is obviously a labor of love. While predominately a genre of Hong Kong cinema (although Hsiao-Hsien is Taiwanese), American audiences are probably most familiar with the genre by way of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers. Such films, while full of drama and intrigue, do usually fall under the category of marital arts film, and you expect at least an equal portion of action to the dramatics. Those familiar with Hsiao-Hsien’s style (he is renowned for his use of a static camera and long takes, as in Flowers of Shanghai, which is comprised of 38 lengthy shots) will not be surprised to learn that his version of the wuxia format takes a markedly, although not radically, different aesthetic tack when it comes to working through the narrative. While not as austere and immobile as his previous films, the camera is still quite static, and the takes are longer than one would certainly expect for an “action” film; the action itself is often discursively portrayed, and even when the focus of a scene, rarely feels immediate or exciting. Whereas in previous films his use of long takes and long shots allowed the story to unfold in a grounded, observational manner (even when characters spend long chunks of time in monologue), here the technique feels an odd hybrid. The cutting is comparatively quicker than in previous work, but still very slow and strange for an action film – often, a character or pair of characters will spend the first half of a shot speaking, and then the remainder of the shot features the character standing and staring, immobile, or with very little affect. I must admit I am completely at a loss as to what the aesthetic value of this technique is supposed to be. It seems intended to impress upon us the import of whatever information or emotion was just imparted or portrayed, but instead it feels leaden and pretentious, stagy and, quite honestly, boring.

The story is quite hard to follow, partly because Hsiao-Hsien does not try to bring us along easily or make relationships explicit, and partly because the concerns of the plot are quite remote to us. The film is set in China during the 7th century, and revolves around a young female assassin named Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu). Yinniang has been in exile from her family for years, training with a nun versed in the ways of treachery on a mountaintop somewhere. Previously chided by her mentor for being too soft-hearted and slow to kill, Yinniang is now tasked with proving her mettle by returning to her family and slaying her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang) who is the ruler of her home region of Weibo. The nun relates to Yinniang how Weibo previously was on the verge of splitting away from Imperial rule, and it was Yinniang’s mother (if I followed the plot fully) who restored harmony through marriage. Now the province is again on the verge of challenging Imperial rule, and so it is the daughter’s task to kill her cousin to prevent this. The problem is that Yinniang not only doesn’t want to kill her cousin because he is family, but because she is in love with him. Thus the bulk of the film consists of her oftentimes playing the good cousin inside his court, and in the remainder skulking around with the intent of killing him, but never being able to go through with the deed. For his part, Ji’an starts to feel something is not right, and intuits that Yinniang is an assassin and wants him dead – so he vacillates between a desire to prevent this eventuality and, realizing she has done nothing wrong yet, wanting to figure her out (we suspect he also harbors similarly romantic feelings towards her). The film thus becomes a strange pas de deux, with both parties neither able to commit to violence or to ravishment, and so at least this viewer was left feeling similarly unresolved and jammed up. Eventually Yinniang returns to her mentor, confesses her inability to do what she was trained to do, and the movie ends.

Many of the positive reviews of the film I’ve read comment on how wonderfully staged and exciting the action is; am I missing something? Perhaps for a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film it is fast paced, but the action is very minimal indeed. At the beginning, Yinniang jumps out of the treeline and slits the throat of a passing noble. Is there blood? No. Is the camerawork particularly interesting or more active than in a typical such film? No. Are the acrobatics more inventively staged or more dynamic than in your average Hong Kong martial arts film? No, no, a thousand times no. While the film seemingly does not make use of the stupid digital effects of Crouching Tiger, which at least keeps what is portrayed rooted in reality, I did not find the martial arts segments (which are what makes a wuxia a wuxia after all) terribly interesting. The most interesting thing about the action sequences is that the majority are abortive, unresolved, and (unlike the introductory assassination) staged at a distance. For instance, we will see, in a long shot, guards on patrol within a treeline. Suddenly we see the branches bobbing and dancing, and can just make out, within the treeline, Yinniang appearing and disappearing, apparently killing some guards. Then, just as soon as the disturbance arrived, it departs. We don’t see who died, or even have an idea if anyone did, or why the attack took place at all. (I fully admit I might have missed crucial information throughout that would clarify such things). In all, almost nobody dies in the film, and the action is there only to foreground the impossibility of acting for the protagonist. So we have a few scenes like that, and then many, many scenes set in palace interiors, with characters talking, or more often declaiming, and then posing statically until we go to the next such scene. While I will admit I am vexed by the film, and intrigued by Hsiao-Hsien’s intentions, the experience of watching it did not deliver any immediate emotional or even intellectual payoff. Yes, it is a “beautiful” film, in the way that many international art film directors can deliver a “beautiful” film (especially when dealing with a remote time period) – the lighting is rich and natural, candles make interiors dens of shifting shadows, cast in a golden hue, there is much flowing fabric and verdant natural surroundings, and the sound design is quite good. But the results are soporific. For all the accusations that it was totalitarian, I will take Yimou’s full-blooded Hero any day of the week. If this marks me as a philistine, so be it.

Two and a half stars out of five

The Forbidden Room – Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson (2015)

Guy Maddin is one of the most indelible of contemporary filmmakers. When he emerged, seemingly sui generis, from Winnipeg a little over 25 years ago, he was definitely a cult figure, and when classified, was often lumped in with David Lynch as a visionary dedicated (perhaps too stridently) to the strange and dreamlike. Lynch’s strangeness can be associated with America – his corn-fed sincerity is mixed with a fascination with the hidden, perverse aspects of America’s self-regard, an interest revealed in his tendency to mix hokum with shock, notably in Blue Velvet, but also in Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and, of course, Twin Peaks. Maddin can equally be associated with Canada, but his connection to his homeland is revealed less by the subject of his films than by their form, which makes use of a deadpan absurdity that will be familiar to fans of Canadian comedy as practiced by SCTV or The Kids in the Hall (although Maddin goes far beyond the norm in his dedication to pursuing the lesser traveled byways of his psyche). Part of what has always made it hard to pin Maddin down is that his films have always had a meta-relation to cinema’s history and catalog of stylistic devices; that is to say, Maddin has always worked with certain techniques, and sought to achieve certain effects or visual styles, that have an indexical relationship to certain eras of cinema’s history (chiefly the silent period). Maddin has never been making replicas or parodies of such films, though, but neither has he been making pastiche, rummaging through cinema’s memory bank and grabbing devices or looks simply for novelty’s sake. No, what makes him much trickier (and marks him as a true artist) is that his films have some relationship to what they are parodying, but they are also wholly contemporary; unlike many contemporary films, which would deploy such a historical relationship ironically, though, Maddin’s films do not wink at the audience, nor do they pretend a sophistication against the naivete of the “originals.” Maddin is not unlike many other directors, many of them children of the various New Waves, who took filmic influences and made them their own, but unlike those other directors, he is not afraid to always push the boundary of what an audience will accept (his humor helps in this endeavor a lot). He is not afraid to be avant-garde, and thus tends to be more interested in the surface of a film than in depth. This is not to mean his films are shallow – I simply mean he is less interested in telling a story than in thinking about how and why we tell stories, and he is less interested in having the form serve the content than the other way around. When you think of a Maddin film, the first thing you think of is how they look – and though they all look different, we can still see, in our mind’s eye, an emblem of “how a Maddin film looks.”

Given that preamble, though, Maddin has changed, as any artist is liable to, over the years. His early films, in the intensity of their communication, felt more focused; the form and the content seemed more tightly woven. You will not, for instance, mistake Careful for the kind of mountain film the movie is obviously taking as its inspiration, but you do feel that the aesthetic world of that film is very meticulous, tight, and compressed. It is a film that lends itself easily to a “reading,” as the aesthetic of the film is consistent and unified, and relates very closely to the content (that is, “Maddin’s version of a mountain film narrative,” which we feel is commenting on various, perhaps latent, aspects of the genre). Many of Maddin’s earlier films have this feel. Around the turn of the millennium, Maddin’s style began to shift. The films became looser, often making use of visual stylizations that, while perhaps internally consistent throughout the film, felt less necessarily connected to the content (this is very true of his dancing version of Dracula, to my mind). The films began to feel more contemporary in affect, while they became a bit more willing to grab styles and visuals from many points in film history within the course of one film. His Coward’s Bend the Knee is an example of this, as it in some ways points back to silent film, like much of his work tends to do, but in a fairly non-specific way. It uses those techniques to do less work than they might previously have; instead, the film’s look seems more a way to unify what is, essentially, a perverse (auto)biopic. Part of this shift may have come about as Maddin became better known, and was called to rethink his work for a variety of formats – for instance, Coward’s Bend the Knee was originally conceived as an installation piece, with the film broken up into segments, each viewed through a Kinetoscope mock-up. All of this is to say that as Maddin has aged, his work has become more overtly personal, and he has perhaps felt less pressure to unify the form and content of his films, allowing them be more associational, poetic, and intuitive. Certainly many of his later films, The Forbidden Room among them, have a shaggy dog feel, a sense of brainstorming, barnstorming, a “lets get together and make a movie” improvisation that recalls the flavor of the Kuchar brothers in their heyday.

The Forbidden Room is Maddin’s shaggiest tale, and the widest ranging of his films in terms of styles and genres sampled. (I won’t even attempt to ennumerate the stylistic references, but they range from ’50s educational/exploitation films to French impressionism of the ’20s to silent jungle epics/exotica to the Surrealist avant-garde and onward). The film begins with a send-up of salacious “educational” films (a little less like the Kroger Babb variety and a little more like what you might have seen in school) called How to Take a Bath. The narrator (Maddin regular Louis Negin) stands jauntily in a hallway, his silky golden robe matching the wallpaper, and we get cutaways to the bather practicing his technique. Soon, the association with water takes over, and we find ourselves within the belly of our tale, a story of impending doom set on the submarine SS Plunger. There is a small crew, and a crazy captain who has isolated himself and “won’t be disturbed.” The crew is fretting over a cargo of explosive jelly they are carrying, which is threatening to explode because of decompression; things are so dire that they must resort to mining old flapjacks for the air bubbles trapped inside. While things look bad, the arrival of a stranger, the forester Cesare, seems to bring the possibility of resolution. The crew explores the submarine, with each chamber or room containing a story. Really, though, this is a vast understatement. The “story” of the submarine is a framing narrative on which to hang the rest of the tales, which multiply almost exponentially. Like Wojciech Has’s magnificent adaptation of Jan Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript, this is a film about stories stacked within stories like nesting dolls. A tale will start, to be sidetracked by another story told by a character in the first, who in her story relates a dream, within which another tale begins… you get the drift. In The Forbidden Room, we have, hanging off the main submarine narrative, a story told by the forester about rescuing an “innocent” from a gang of bandits in the snowy climes of Bavaria, and another story about an amnesiac flower girl and the dread “jungle vampire, Aswang.” From these two branches sprout a thousand others (many thankfully including the wonderful Udo Kier!) featuring volcanoes, double crosses, blind mothers, talking bananas, and enough other material for hundreds of fever dreams. Most of the stories work themselves through, and we eventually end where we started, back at the tub, and the loop closes.

While perhaps his loosest film, The Forbidden Room is also Maddin’s funniest (well, too close with Cowards to call, maybe). I personally prefer his earlier, very dryly funny films as an aesthetic experience (Careful really is without peer, but even an unfunny, borderline boring film like Archangel I find incredibly strong overall), but his more recent work is just straight up enjoyable, fun with the added benefit of being a feast for the eyes. Unlike much of his earlier output, The Forbidden Room is thoroughly digital (thus co-director credit to Evan Johnson). While an impressive feat in terms of color and image composition, I must admit I did not like the melty, swirly “liquefy” effect that roams over the surface of the image consistently throughout the film. I guess it is supposed to suggest the porousness of dreams, or the instability of early film stock, but I found it distracting and too digital looking. I am unsure how familiar Maddin is to a wider audience; he seemed to have his finest hour during the release of 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World, which many hailed, but I found vastly overrated and his weakest work, an overly long Kids in the Hall sketch without heart and with a grating performance by the usually credible Mark McKinney. While I would hate to handicap it, if I had to recommend one, The Forbidden Room might be the entree to Maddin’s body of film for the unfamiliar. It has near-constant novelty, an unending stream of strangeness, it’s ravishing to look at, and features many familiar faces (Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, the aforementioned Mr. Kier). As long as you aren’t hung up on conventional narrative, realistic psychology (or realistic anything), or “meaning,” The Forbidden Room will deliver an unforgettable experience. Just don’t ask me what happened.

Three and a half stars out of five


Goodnight Mommy – Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (2015)

The original German title of Goodnight Mommy is Ich seh, Ich seh, the meaning of which you might be able to deduce even if you don’t know German. That title, while cloying, also serves as a key to the film, and so is more fitting than the rather generic renaming; all the same, if you can decode the punny reference the German title is making, you can pretty much skip seeing the movie, as you’ll already know the outcome. Yes, Goodnight Mommy is about as derivative as they get. What’s more, like in an M. Knight Shyamalan film (but without any of the bumptious stabs at poetry to make up for its faults), the meaning of Goodnight Mommy hinges on a “twist” ending, a revelation that is supposed to answer questions, but instead only leaves us questioning the point of the whole enterprise. Like last year’s The Babadook, this is “psychological” horror, which effectively means that the scares are going to tickle your cerebrum and not twitch your death nerve. At least in that film, ham handedly managed though it was, the director tried for a level of allegorical content which vainly attempted to pull the tale from the grip of irrelevance. Sadly, the makers of Goodnight Mommy have no such desires – they tell their little (oft-told) tale straight, with no chasers of emotion or humanity. The style is Haneke, but it is like a Xerox of that master’s austere playbook. Since there is no point to seeing the film at all if you already know the ending (except, as the New York Times seriously suggested, to fact check the story’s logic), I will spare a spoiler. Here is the thusly reduced synopsis: two young twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live in a modernist house in semi-rural Austria. Our story begins with the return of Mom (Susanne Wuest), wrapped in bandages as she has just had plastic surgery. The kids seem leery of Mom, and think she is an impostor, or changed by her surgery. And she seems unbalanced; often cold and angry, she treats one of the twins with rough, grudging love, and ignores the other one completely – she won’t address him, won’t feed him. Mom seems to get more and more extreme as time goes on as the boys (or rather, the favored twin) question her more strenuously on what her problem is. We do see pics of Mom from earlier in her life, and she does not look much changed by the surgery, but we must agree she does act weird. But weird enough for the boys, feeling threatened, to whittle some wooden arrows for their “toy” crossbow? As you might expect, eventually the boys feel threatened and alienated enough by Mom that they tie her to her bed, and get to the bottom of things. Sorry Mom.

If you are familiar with The Other, Robert Mulligan’s sadly little known film of 1972, you know this film, and how it goes. The Other was true psychological horror, as it made us inhabit and identify with the protagonist to a degree that when the horror of his mind is understood, we feel it, and can both sympathize and shudder – our identification works like a mirror, and we cannot turn away, as to do so would be to deny ourselves. Goodnight Mommy is like a twist film procedural – it takes the alienated portrayals of early Haneke, adds a “creepy” gotcha, and, like an experiment, examines what the resulting aesthetic is like. For if there is enjoyment within this film, it is within the aesthetic. What we watch unfold is seen as if from outer space, or underwater – it might fascinate us, but it is too distant to move us. I can see that the Times might have a point, though, as perhaps watching the film knowing the outcome in advance would humanize Mom and make her fate more affecting, or make the twins creepier. At the same time, there are only so many hours left in my life, and an inversely proportional amount of movies in the world. Save yourself $14.75 (Angelika is a harsh mistress) and watch The Other instead.

One and a half stars out of five

Sicario – Denis Villeneuve (2015)

There have been many films about drugs, and about the war on drugs. Most of them deal, a la Scarface, with the “gritty” street realities of the trade, or with power struggles within and between various factions of organized crime. (Such films are really just a variation on the more traditional gangster film, with drugs sprinkled over the top as a way to provide viewers with a vicarious high). Fewer films, such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, attempt to view the problem from a wider perspective and look at the structures that undergird the continual failure of this war, attempting to dramatize the failure of a systemic response to a systemic problem. Sicario, the new thriller from Denis Villeneuve, hews closer to this second model, but is a fresh hybrid. In some ways, it resembles an intragovernmental procedural of the Zero Dark Thirty school, with intrigues between and internecine battling among the FBI, DEA, CIA, etc. taking center stage. In other ways, though, it is a fairly straightforward revenge thriller, less Dirty Harry and more Death Wish (although we understand this only in the final quarter of the film, even if we’ve been feeling it all along). It is also an action film, and there are touches of the Western, the war film, and the bildungsroman, as we follow a neophyte officer from innocence to experience. What makes the film remarkable, though, is that it is all of a piece; the hybrid nature does not poke out, and the film does not seem a pastiche of various genres, but one sinuous, long, smoothly moving and tightly coiling snake. Unlike Traffic, which often jerks from one place, and tone, to another, and which also often becomes leaden and boring, Sicario is extremely easy to follow and consistently pleasurable to watch.

The film unfolds in three acts, with very little connective tissue in between (that is, just enough) and no flab or extraneous material. We begin at the scene of a purported kidnapping, which turns out to be a cartel-owned house in a Phoenix subdivision, the walls of which are stuffed full of dead bodies. At the scene of this crime, we are introduced to Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), our avatar in this world, as well as her friend and somewhat partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and her boss (Victor Garber). Kate works for the FBI, but as a liaison for kidnapping cases; she has no real experience within the world of drug dealing. After this introduction (which ends in a trauma I won’t reveal), Kate is debriefed by a room full of drug enforcement interests from various agencies. The most powerful man in the room is not her boss, but Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the head of a task force dedicated to reducing cross-border drug violence. Matt is strange in ways that indicate he is a potential rogue presence: unlike the rest of those present, who are dressed in suits, Matt is very casually dressed (he wears flip-flops) and he takes a special interest in questioning Kate on her personal life and marital status. (We think he is hitting on her, but by the end of the movie, we understand he has a very different, and ice-cold, pretext for his questions). Kate is asked to volunteer for Matt’s task force, and after a little consideration, she does so. (Again, we spend much of the movie questioning why this seasoned force would want her on their team – it seems a Hollywood contrivance – only to have the reasoning made painfully clear in the final quarter of the film). Act two of the film involves the task force, with the aid of the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who seems unconnected to any official agency, retrieving a high level drug suspect from a jail on the Mexican side of the border and bringing him back to a military base on the U.S. side for questioning. Act three of the film takes up the search for a drug tunnel gleaned from information provided by said suspect’s interrogation. The drug tunnel operation is basically a ruse, however, to lure one of the cartel’s high level enforcers into contacting the big boss, revealing his location to the task force. The last part of the film deals with the aftermath of the tunnel raid, and the ultimate goal of everything that has occurred is revealed, both to Kate and to us.

There are many things this film does exceptionally well. First and foremost, it is structured in a very straightforward way, and with very little dialogue, but still manages to convey all of the intricacies and gray zones of the drug war, and of working across international borders and among multiple agencies, without ever belaboring it, getting bogged down in detail, or resorting to clichés (characters bemoaning inefficiencies, overly cynical explanations to newbies, etc). Fundamentally, the film is a thriller, and the structure and pacing pulls us through, tightening the ropes as it goes (in a way very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s best work). Each of the film’s acts centers on an action sequence – in act two it is the attempted assassination of the drug suspect before he can be brought onto U.S. soil, and in act three it is the infiltration of the drug tunnel. What makes the film work so well is not just the structure, but every other factor as well. First, there is the cinematography (courtesy of the always excellent Roger Deakins). It is both gritty and beautiful, and makes amazing use of available light – the darks (and there are many of them) are truly dark, night sequences are lucid yet atmospheric, and the sunsets of the southwest have rarely been more sensuously shot. At the same time, this beauty is grounded in a thoroughgoing realism, which is perhaps most on display during the trip into Ciudad Juarez to pick up the drug suspect. (The difference between Texas and Mexico is not night and day, but it is stark, grim, and the entire sequence seems to have been filmed on location at the border). A good part of the realism, and much of the lucidity of the staging, comes from the use of “technological” points of view. For instance (and especially in the unfolding of act two), we have many shots from the viewpoint of a drone; that is, a camera floating far above the action, but close enough to make clear the extent of the terrain being traveled into and through, and the exact location of all parties we need to care about. Unlike other films that have utilized such footage, Sicario does not spell it out as “drone footage” – we do not see HUD or targeting artifacts to betray to us “where” this footage comes from. In this sense, it is not jarring, and could simply be an aesthetic choice – the drone lies latent, behind this footage, unannounced. Villeneuve also makes use of infrared/night goggle footage and thermal imaging during the tunnel raid, and this footage is, while obviously tied to the equipment worn by the characters, equally seamless in its insertion. I would even dare to say it might be the first use of such footage that I would call lovely, and every use is purposeful in increasing the tension and putting us, as viewers, in the same zone of imperfect information as the characters. The music is subtle, spare, and works on us slowly, in pace with the increasing tension. The acting, like the rest of the film, is controlled and (unlike in some of Michael Mann’s work) never histrionic. (Indeed, Benicio Del Toro, who carries the last quarter of the film, has rarely been better). I suppose the film, like many actioners or thrillers, doesn’t have much of a politics beyond a weary, cynical resignation, but that does not bother me in the slightest, as it also keeps the script taut and without any unnecessary moralizing (we can see how failed things are, without needing to be told). Like Whiplash of last year, Sicario is a film that could easily appeal to a mass audience, but which also has much to offer lovers of serious film. I have no pithy or solemn words on which to end, except to recommend the film to one and (almost) all.

Four and a half stars out of five

Pawn Sacrifice – Edward Zwick (2015)

I normally espouse going into a film almost randomly, not knowing what I am getting into – keeps the experience fresh, you know. So it was with Pawn Sacrifice. I knew it was about chess, rather than having to hock your wedding ring to pay off your bookie, and I was right on that count. I did not know that it was about Fischer and Spassky, or that it was, horror of horrors, a biopic. Naive dunderhead I may be, I only knew it had gotten generally positive buzz, had something to do with the Cold War, and was fictional. Were that it were so! How will they (those phantom filmmakers, as I had not yet discovered it was directed by Ed Zwick) make chess interesting on the big screen? Short answer – they won’t. Instead of the cooler, more serene sequel to Pi I was hoping for, we have instead a rehashing of the life of Bobby Fischer, with the narrative edifice built around his legendary series in Iceland against Spassky in 1972. Does anyone not know this story? I feel like I’ve seen it on PBS, on the History Channel, read about it in Games magazine… so this is hardly freshly trodden ground (except that those were small screen exertions). For those who don’t know, and would remotely care (although I don’t know why), Bobby Fischer was a chess prodigy born in Chicago, son of a German biophysicist (although the paternity is controversial) and physician mother Regina (played by Robin Weigert). Mom, although a consummate leftist, must leave Dad in Moscow during the onset of World War II. Our film finds Regina, now a single Mom, rearing older daughter Joan (Lily Rabe) and Bobby (Tobey Maguire) in a Brooklyn brownstone that also serves as a pressure cooker of paranoia. You see, the Feds are interested in Mom due to her politics and foreign service, so they often park out front and take photos, and Bobby is schooled from a young age in the proper etiquette of putting off impolite inquiries from G-Men. Somehow taking an early interest in chess, Bobby is quickly referred to the Brooklyn Chess Club by his psychiatrist, and is taken under the tutelage of Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), its president. From there, we are only a series of montage sequences away from Fischer’s early, still relatively sane triumphs, and from there onward again through another series of montage sequences to the heavyweight match against the man most likely to wear sunglasses at the chess board, Mr. Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Of course, as anyone who knows the story of Bobby Fischer will understand, the montage sequences are just the skeleton over which the sinews of insanity will be draped. Bobby starts out paranoid (not unjustifiably, thanks to Mom), and gets more so exponentially. Obsessed with Spassky, yet also seemingly afraid to take him on, Fischer continually plays matches, gets to a high level of competition, then explodes, affronted by perceived slights and inequalities which grow more and more absurd and egotistical; he then makes demands, claims that he is the single most important factor in the chess equation, and pushes until, absurdly, his demands are always met. Thus reinforced, he then usually loses the match, but is now confident that he should wash, rinse, and repeat, albeit at an even more fevered and intense pitch. (You can always tell when Fischer is about to snap because Maguire gets a certain set to his jaw, looks up and to the right, into the distance, hands on hips, as if he were about to reveal himself to be Superparanoiaman). Accompanying Fischer in his endeavor to rise to the peak (and then retreat, over and over again) are lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), Fischer’s fixer and personal Iago, who is driven by jingoistic Cold War “patriotism,” and the not cynical Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), who sticks with Fischer (most of the time) due to a mix of compassion and deep love for the game. Eventually, we reach Reykjavik, and the movie slows to a more sluggish mix of montage sequences and hazily portrayed chess games. Yes, eventually Fischer wins, although we are spared having to see all 21 individual matches. Fischer gets a standing ovation from Spassky, which of course does nothing but arouse his suspicions (he starts going Superparanoiaman, but then realizes he has nothing to bitch about, since he is now World Champ). We then get yet another closing montage sequence detailing Fischer’s slow slide into ignominy and at least partial insanity. T h e  e n d.

There are a few (and I mean damn few) bright points. Sarsgaard is likable enough as chess priest. Liev Schreiber speaks passable Russian. Time can be spent pondering if Fischer is insane, or if he is indeed playing the greatest (meta)game of all time. (This is the film’s strongest suit). Otherwise, the film really is the poster child for everything that is horrible about biopics. It is deeply boring, as it tells us a story we already know without anything but the most superficial insights into the psychology of the tale’s actors. Spassky is a Soviet tank, lumbering ever onward, crushing all opposition, while Fischer is that most charming combination, an insecure egomaniac. Having to watch scene after scene where he builds himself up as the most indispensable man in the world, and having to watch Marshall kowtow to him, does begin to achieve some degree of impact at least, as Fischer’s arrogance, no matter what the cause, becomes totally intolerable. The film tries to provide some compassion in the form of Father Lombardy (“he’s not afraid to lose… he’s afraid to win”), but Fischer, as in real life, is bulletproof. Our sympathies cannot penetrate his force field of tooth grinding jerkiness. There are more montage sequences than in an NBC Olympics broadcast, and they are of about the same quality – reductive, and telegraphing exactly which one emotion we are supposed to feel. (Admiration during young Fischer’s speed chess wins, gritty nostalgia during the oh-lord-I-can’t-believe-I-actually-have-to-watch-a-’60s-greatest-social-unrest-hits-set-to-White-Rabbit sequence, patriotism during the canned reactions to Fischer’s defeat of the Soviet menace, etc etc). And the montage sequences are cheaply done. I mean, some are crappy beyond belief. (One features a street interview, supposedly referencing the early ’70s, although looking like an ersatz ’90s music video, with three contemporary looking tween girls stuffed into tie-dyes, a lame After Effects video separation filter slapped on top). We are forced to look at idiots waving flags in slow motion celebration of an egomaniac for far longer than anyone who is not George W. Bush should have to. Having to watch every character in the film – from Mom and Sis to the guy at the front desk of a motel Fischer once stayed at – sit in front of a TV, waiting with baited breath for Fischer’s triumph, and then having to watch their feeble celebrations of that triumph (“yippee, a guy who once paid me to screw him just won a board game!”), will make you yearn for a seven hour analytic viewing of the Zapruder film with Oliver Stone sitting in your lap. But I digress. Even if we put aside the fact that Fischer’s Wikipedia entry is more compelling (and accurate), there is the fact of the portrayal of chess. It is absolutely pitiful. Chess in this film is reduced to a bunch of Rain Man style autistics shooting rapid fire notation at each other, playing games in their heads. If you don’t know how to play chess, you are patronizingly asked to sit in slack-jawed admiration of dem damn smert peeple. If you do know how to play chess, you can only sit there in slack-jawed disgust at the shallowness of the game’s representation. It is reduced to semi-mystical mumbo jumbo, emptied of any content or interest except as a site for vacant veneration. Yes, anyone watching the Spassky-Fischer match live in ’72 might have known little about chess, but at least they would have learned something by the end of the process. This film does not even attempt to achieve the pedagogical level of Wide World of Sports. Too much work, I suppose, or too much imagination required to conceive of a way to portray the abstractions of chess on a screen. What is a pawn sacrifice? You’ll never learn, nitwit. You obviously lack the IQ to drool on Fischer’s Cliff’s Notes. The only sacrifice required of you is the two hours of your life you’ll never get back.

Half a star out of five

The Green Inferno – Eli Roth (2015)

There are without doubt many reasons to repudiate The Green Inferno, Eli Roth’s new film about a cannibalistic Amazonian tribe that makes more than eye candy out of a clutch of young, attractive, white college students. I think that one could reasonably claim that the representations within the film are racist. The film features much gory human butchery and more partaking of “the other white meat” than The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Alive, and Eating Raoul combined. Indeed, as anyone who is familiar with both Mr. Roth and the genre of cannibal films instantly recognizes, this film is an homage to Ruggero Deodato’s indelible and notorious 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust (the working title of which was, in fact, Green Inferno). And without doubt, Mr. Roth’s contribution falls far short, both in terms of power, and in terms of queasy exploitation, of that earlier title. And yet… there is something going on here. Do not be alarmed, my fellow cinephiles, when I ask you to lend me your ears, for I am indeed here to bury The Green Inferno, and not to praise it. Still, although the film deals in racist imagery, and is not making a cogent or self-aware critique, it does reflect something other than the disavowed inferiority, the desire to other strange cultures, and the unmitigated disgust of difference that forms the bedrock of true racism. For this film is not about people, but images; it does not even reach the threshold of having a relationship with reality. This is not to say that Mr. Roth knows what he is doing, nor is it an attempt to excuse or elide content which many will find repugnant. It is, instead, an attempt to understand why the film, for all its purportedly stomach-churning and repulsive imagery, is a strangely anodyne experience. For if many films, Cannibal Holocaust among them, concern themselves with the horrors of humans becoming images (call it objectification if you like, but it is, to my mind, a process more haunting and tragic than what that term implies), The Green Inferno concerns itself with images, pure and simple. Or, impure and slightly less simple.

In a move with echoes of Sade, the film opens and closes with our heroine, a young woman and upper-class college student named Justine (Lorenza Izzo), as she moves from innocence to “experience.” This seeming naif, primed for corruption (as any good cinephile can tell from the very first scene, as she rouses from her slumber underneath a poster for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 37.2 Le Matin, commonly known as Betty Blue), is the daughter of a U.N. ambassador, and an idealist who wants to make a difference. In reaction to her cynical (yet wise?) roommate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira), who mocks all things authentic, Justine is fascinated by the hunger strikers on campus who are agitating for social justice. Radicalized by classroom representations of female circumcision, and then drawn into the group of protesters by the equally idealistic Jonah (Aaron Burns), who also has a crush on her, Justine quickly embarks with them on a mission to the rain forests of Peru, in an attempt to stop an oil company from despoiling the land and destroying the native populations in its quest to exploit hidden resources. The plan is to put themselves on the front line of the deforestation, chain themselves to trees, and then use their cell phones as weapons, broadcasting outrage directly to the rest of the planet via a phalanx of social media followers, to shame the exploiters into quitting their project. And the plan seemingly works. Soon the group is on a plane out of there, celebrating their victory – or, almost everyone is. Justine is understandably bitter that the leader of the group, Alejandro (Ariel Levy), exploited her ambassador Dad, while putting her life at risk during the operation, to make sure it was a success. There is little time for her to parse the realpolitik behind these revolutionary exploits, however, as the small plane’s engine explodes over the deep jungle, and soon it is rocketing to the ground, breaking apart as it does, and leaving half the group, and all of the crew, definitively dead. The small group of survivors is quickly set upon by the local natives; it doesn’t help that everyone in the airplane is still wearing their oil company camouflage jumpsuits. The natives, mistaking them for the enemy (or maybe just looking for a solid month’s worth of eating), quickly blow-darts our group into submission, and when they awake, they are being led through the native village and into a guarded cage. Jonah, being the biggest and meatiest, is the first to go to the butcher block, but it is understood that everyone will meet a similar fate in good time. The girls are quickly pulled out and examined for signs of virginity; only Justine passes the test (of course). She is thus singled out, and saved for last, as she will be forced to undergo the procedure that also radicalized her (oh, the irony). While in the cell, the group discovers that Alejandro is not the fellow traveler they thought, but instead either a very misguided, cynical leftist, or a complete psycho. After giving a nice speech about how 9/11 was allowed to happen by the U.S. government (although the moon landing was real, I guess), he reveals that the jungle stunt he orchestrated was at the behest of a rival oil company, looking to discredit the original one just long enough to jump their claim. No worries, says Alejandro, this is just the way business is done if you want to really affect change, and further, sit tight! That rival company is on its way, and they will soon arrive and slaughter all these horrible natives, saving our skins. (Needless to say, his comrades are nonplussed to the extreme). Not content to sit tight, everyone tries to escape at various points (save one gentle youth who slits her own throat with broken pottery), and pretty much everyone dies in their attempts. By the end, only Alejandro and Justine are left, beauty and the beast in a cell, waiting for the deus ex machina to descend. And lo, it does. The oil company arrives, just as Justine is about to go under a relatively dull looking knife-like implement, and the village rushes off to wage battle. Justine, aided by a young village child she has wooed with jewelry, escapes in her ritual body paint and natural fiber microkini, leaving Alejandro sous vide. She hustles through the jungle, under the waterfall, past the black jaguar, and into the clearing where the oil company militia is taking on the tribal warriors. Faking up a redo of the earlier cell phone activism, she manages to stop the battle and get herself airlifted back home, where she vouchsafes to no one the reality of her ordeal, instead singing the praises of the native tribe, all the better to ensure that Alejandro is eaten up with regret. (But maybe he’s not?!? Possible sequel, everybody).

There is no doubt that the representation of the tribe in the film partakes of racist tropes; it might be off-putting, if it could be taken seriously. The blueprint for the tribe is less Cannibal Holocaust than King Solomon’s Mines. Well, maybe even King Solomon’s Mines looks more anthropological. Perhaps a Tarzan film of pre-Johnny Weissmuller vintage? The tribe is led by what can only be called a sorceress; she has a milky eye, a chain running from her nose to her ear, and earrings that would seem out of place even in an ’80s themed camp fashion show. She wears a weird earthenware gom jabbar on her middle finger, carries a staff, and eats tongue al fresco with relish (and almost no chewing). Her chief henchman is bald, frequently bug-eyed, painted in black from head to toe, and has a nose ring the rises up, up, up around his head. We all understand that these are not people, nor anything near Amazonian tribespeople, but actors, representations of representations. The “regulars” of the village are more problematic, in that they do hew closer to what might be mistaken for reality (Hollywood style, that is, looking more like extras from At Play in the Fields of the Lord). In fact, it is not simply the tribespeople that we have a hard time taking seriously, it is the entire enterprise. Now, in one respect, this is simply the mark of a bad (or more accurately, stupid) film. But it is not laughable, nor played for laughs. In what is its closest connection to Cannibal Holocaust, Roth presents the values and ideals of these college students in a serious, if caricatured, way; similarly, he treats the classroom discussion of female circumcision with anthropological and political gravity. Indeed, given how stupid and crass the subject matter of the film is, almost nothing is played for laughs, or winked at. Is this a case of accidental “virtue,” a kind of Ed Wood “bungling?” One could make the argument. For instance, in one scene during the waiting to be eaten cage sequence, Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton), the girl who eventually kills herself, is racked with diarrhea, and has a prolonged evacuation in her jumpsuit. (The natives laugh at this, but we are not cued to join them). However, when she is later pulled forward for her virginity exam, her jumpsuit is not only not befouled, she is wearing a spanking clean pair of purple panties that shows not a stain. Did Roth really overlook this continuity error? It is quite possible. There is, however, another possibility. Perhaps this film is not even near the realm of attempting a relationship with “reality.” In the fully post-modern sense (perhaps even as far as Godard is post-modern), we are self-consciously looking at a representation from within. The characters are not people who, through their death, and its subsequent filmic record, are made into images (as in Cannibal Holocaust); they are images first and foremost, no more real, or deep, than the characters in a Coca-Cola commercial. These timeless, placeless young white bourgeoisie are tormented by, if anything, their placelessness. What are they to do? Why do they exist? Just to be flat fodder for a car advertisement? Is that all there is for them? Is that “success?” They want more – so they adventure into the rain forest to “make a difference.” In the rain forest, they are caught between an image of the past and an image of the present that supports them. They are simply puppets of the multinational corporations that are despoiling the “real” world to support our fantasy image of that world – an image of abundance, of easy access to magically produced consumer goods, of ready, easily procured, and cheap meat on our tables. They cannot accept such a situation, as it reveals them to be one-dimensional, powerless, a front for the terrible forces of the “real.” However, what is their other option? The other side of the coin is an atavism that is as alien to them as it would be to the rest of us – a world of true communism, where the individual is lost within the group will, where daily struggle must ensure survival, and where the cruel practices that mark the passage from one modality of life to another are not masked by a neuter symbolism. Thus the behavior of Alejandro, who espouses conspiracies, which run on the logic of images, and who has nothing but optics in mind. It is the hell of no-exit that The Green Inferno documents; it does it through the tropes of a genre film, and it probably does it unknowingly, but all the same, it is a movie about being caught between an image of our past (which has only an imagined connection to past realities) and the realities that support and produce our images (which are our only means of knowing present-day reality). Thus it makes perfect sense this is a movie about cannibalism, as it is a movie about images coming to awareness that they too are mere products, made to be consumed. Thus the dream-like acceptance of their fates, and the lack of horror or feeling on our parts; watching them be led away is no more than watching slips of paper fall into a bonfire. Thus too the ending, with Justine returning and projecting, for those protected and naive images back home (unaware that they are products with a use value), a false image of the tribe. She is forced to create that which does not exist – an ideal outside to the hellish closed circle of unreal existence. Cannibal Holocaust was infinitely more disturbing, as it still could claim a purchase on reality; indeed, the production and reception of the film was imbricated in reality to the degree that it was proclaimed snuff. It is a true image of exploitation. The Green Inferno fits our era as it is post-exploitation. The joke is that we sit watching this film, feeling next to nothing, not realizing it is a mirror, and we are seeing ourselves; with nothing left to exploit, we have begun consuming ourselves, and yet we still believe we do good, that things will turn around, that a resurgence of idealism will arise, ex nihilo, to save us. We can paint the red of hell green, and call it paradise, but eventually, the heat will melt away all the artifice, and reveal truth and reality on a scale we, blinded by modernity, cannot yet conceive.

Two and a half stars out of five

Black Mass – Scott Cooper (2015)

Black Mass should have been titled Grey Slab – the movie descends like a winter migraine and sits on you until, final credits rolling, you escape from the theater into (hopefully) a brighter reality. Nominally the story of how Whitey Bulger made use of FBI chumps to further his criminal career, the film is, aside from the Boston accents, about as generic and bland a mobster film as you could imagine. Yes, we are in sub, sub, sub Goodfellas territory here (I am not stuttering, unlike our dearly departed Spider). There are plenty of slow motion wiseguys walking sequences. There’s the requisite attempt, also anemic as can be, to marry period pop to the scenes of wiseguys walking. There are the wiseguys themselves, so bloated and misshapen they look like beefsteaks shot full of Botox, their cheeks stuffed so full of cotton balls that even Don Corleone would, embarrassed, shoo them away, refusing to extend his hand in friendship. And the proceedings themselves are rote, predictable, and downright tedious. Like the Brutalist architecture of lovely downtown ’70s Boston that plays such a large part in the scenery of the film, this script was not written, I do believe, but simply marked up on a page in large chunks of brown, gunmetal, and worn, pockmarked slate. “Honor,” “loyalty,” and other such terms are dropped almost as frequently, and meaninglessly, as the f-bombs, and the more coherent exchanges reach high points like “Remember the old neighborhood Jimmy?” “Yeah.” “Those were the days when loyalty meant something.” “Fucking right.” How such a deeply dull derivative attracted the talents of Misters Depp, Cumberbatch, et al. remains a mystery. For Depp, I can see the appeal, I suppose, in that it allows him to play against type, or, at least, to try out big screen psychopathy for the first time. Looking like Gollum who has been sampling too much Spice (not the bodega variety, but the finer Arrakeen stuff), but unfortunately unable to fold time, he contents himself with folding his hands around the throats of hookers and housewives, all while enfolding pathetic FBI dupe John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) into his tasteless souffle of prurience. Overall, he does a credible job of disappearing into the part, such as it is. Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s younger brother, the “most powerful politician in the state” (eat that, Gov), does a good job with the accent, and with acting smug and powerful, although why we care is a mystery. Really, though, the best acting resides with the supporting players, often strutting their moment on the stage simply so we can revel in the snuffing out. Peter Sarsgaard, as pitiful jai-alai hanger on and sometime psycho Brian Halloran, and Juno Temple, as a young prostie done in by her association with step-dad meatwad Steve (Rory Cochrane – yuck), all but steal the show. (Which is, admittedly, not hard given the competition). And Kevin Bacon, looking, unlike the rest of the cast, lean and free of lumps, at least seems to have eaten his Wheaties and has some energy about him. What else? Well, there is the cinematography, again derivative and dull. Autumn and winter in Boston, awash in hideous ’70s fashions (that is, drapes and flares of brown, black, and, you guessed it, grey non-breathable fibers) and more Chevy Novas than you can shake a pimp cane at need not be uninterestingly shot, need it? Sadly, though, Black Mass follows many similar generic crap-outs in using very shallow depth of field for all but the widest shots, meaning that we are often looking at close-ups of hideous men with a thousand (or, rather, three or four) points of light floating behind them. Perhaps the cinematographer is in hiding, if not from the Mob, then from his guild, and so shot everything with a telephoto from across the street? The score, by the recently ubiquitous Junkie XL, who did a fine job for Mad Max: Fury Road, in keeping with the aesthetic, delivers more lead, the music a lulling, lugubrious nonentity. Okay, let’s get this wrapped up. Is there not any point of light here, you ask (aside from the unfocused floating variety already discussed)? Well, not really. What little interest exists in the film lies in the relationship of Whitey to the FBI, and the desire to see Connolly, who is very weaselly indeed, get his (which he does). Otherwise, this is one of those movies that, within five minutes of the (also lackluster) opening credits, you wish were already over. Take two Excedrin, spend the rest of the day lying in curtained, twilight repose, and sleep off the hangover.

One star out of five

The Visit – M. Night Shyamalan (2015)

Gather around, all ye children, and join me at the virtual bonfire, ones and zeroes crackling and sparking in the autumn breeze, as I recount another tale brought to us by Uncle Shyamalan. It is a tale of horrible, weird old people, and precocious young ones, stuck together in a rural farmhouse. It is a story that will leave no head unscratched, no heart unpoked, and no surprises experienced. Yes, if you deign to sit and listen, do be aware you will encounter that dread artifact of reviewerdom, the spoiler; yet rest assured, it will make no difference. Go, see this film regardless, as you will sit, a seeming amnesiac. I guarantee you will not feel a thing one way or the other. Yes, this is supposedly what Shyamalan was put on our dear earth to do: provide experiences that are so fragile they will be destroyed, like a crystalline cathedral, composed of dried hummingbird saliva, placed at the apex of a volcano at the onset of a typhoon, if one gives utterance to the “secret” they contain. The problem, as anyone who has sampled his concoctions will verify, is that Shyamalan’s so easily spoiled “secrets” are often self-evident, dumb, or mind-boggling in their tedium and contrivance. (They are mere shifts of the frame, not ontological earthquakes). His reputation having been built on The Sixth Sense, it has been all downhill from there; indeed, that hill only looks like a mountain from the bottom of the chasm he’s been mining ever since. Yes, I will admit I enjoyed The Village, although I swear I cannot remember if its twist had any artistic merit or not; indeed, I can’t remember much at all about that film, except the general contours of the plot (that is, the twist). And I have not sampled all of Mr. Shyamalan’s rather regularly proffered elixirs, but I can attest that Unbreakable, The Happening, and now The Visit all rank among the most profoundly mindless and artless films of my now rather less than brief existence. But is that a pan?

So what have we here? If you’ve seen the trailer, which looked more like a comedy than a thriller, you were perhaps intrigued as to how our director could knit such seemingly ludicrous moments into an afghan of terror. The short answer, of course, is that he doesn’t. No surprise there, but what does continually surprise me is that Shyamalan somehow manages to keep the movie on track, and moving forward, and gives the characters some depth, despite what could be called, at best, the “concept” that gives the movie its animating spark (or at least animated it some time ago in his adman’s brow). We have a pair of kids, charming if a bit overly verbose, who live with their single Wal-Mart employee Mom (Kathryn Hahn). Mom is estranged from her own parents over a never-to-be-revealed altercation, and the kids are estranged from their Dad over Dad’s own disappearing act. This family steeped in multi-generational trauma splits apart, amoeba-like, yet again, as Mom goes on a Caribbean cruise she really deserves with her new boyfriend, and the kids go to some unspecified New Englandish area to stay with their estranged grandparents. Said grandparents are now volunteer counselors at a mental hospital. (Hmm). The kids have never, ever seen them before, not even in photographs. (Hmmmmmmmm). Mom has prepped them, with her teasing tale, to expect some drama. So, the kids arrive, and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a little weird to say the least. Nana is a good cook, but seems a bit uneasy and fragile. Her hobbies include chasing the kids through the crawlspaces under the house, wandering the abode during the evening hours vomiting, along with moaning, skipping, running, and clawing, also after dark, and often stark naked. Pop Pop, the more communicative of the two, is often absent, out and about on the farm, but when the kids do track him down, he is frequently cleaning his shotgun with his mouth, getting dressed for parties that existed, if ever, decades ago, stacking his used Depends in a pyramid in the shed, or, in the finale, playing Yahtzee like a man possessed. The kids are also quite a pair, but a bit more contained. The older one, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), is the spearhead of this campaign of familial bonding, mostly because she wants to sort out what happened back in the day and get Nana to confess her love for Mom on camera. This is not just for posterity, but because Becca is also a budding documentarian, and so records the entire trip on one of two cameras. The other camera is often in the hands of her younger brother, an aspiring rapper named T-Diamond Stylus (Ed Oxenbould), also known as Tyler, who suffers from microbial phobial OCD (at key moments). Thus the conceit of the film – all the footage we see is part of this documentary, shot on one of the two cameras, almost always held by either Becca or Tyler. The kids spend most of the film trying to alternately bond with and investigate Nana and Pop Pop. What’s in the shed? Poop diapers. What’s at the bottom of the well? Water. What’s in the basement? Mold (or so we are told). A few times, Becca tries to get Nana to grace her with an interview, revealing on camera what went wrong with Mom, and it becomes crystal clear that Nana has firm limits, and wants her questions screened in advance. Result of not doing so? Nana starts to spaz, froth at the mouth, twist and shout. For a week the visit goes on, with Nana getting weirder as the days go by, Pop Pop getting more morose and distant (until Yahtzee, that is), and, once or twice, strangers popping in to say hi. Somehow Nana and Pop Pop are never around when the nice doctor from the asylum where they volunteer stops in, or the nice lady who Nana and Pop Pop counseled through her rehab, or that other guy who I can’t even remember why he was there. Nope, never around. What could be going on? Is Nana a werewolf? Is Pop Pop some strange cultist? A religious nut? Are they aliens, invaded by body snatchers? (Nana recounts, in lieu of interview, a story about beings from another world who keep people in a deep sleep underwater). Why is Nana seemingly homicidal? (She runs around with a butcher knife, but never commits herself). Why does Pop Pop seem so depressed and confused? According to Mom, it’s because they are old. Nana has Sundowners Syndrome (according to Pop Pop), and Pop Pop has early onset dementia. Or maybe schizophrenia. (Thanks for this great trip, Mom!). Finally, while Skyping their mother and begging her to come get them, they happen to flash the webcam at Nana and Pop Pop powwowing in the side yard, and all is revealed. Duh duh dunnn… “That’s not your grandmother and grandfather!” Nana and Pop Pop are impostors? Oh snap! Guess who recently escaped from the local mental asylum? Guess where the real Nana and Pop Pop are? (Serves those middle class busybodies right for volunteering at an asylum). Once the cat is out of the bag, the kids do their best to play it cool, but eventually Becca winds up locked in a bedroom with Nana, and soon enough locked in mortal combat with her. Tyler is held at bay for just long enough while Pop Pop rubs his dirty Depends in the young’un’s face (sending him into microbial phobial catatonia), but soon enough the kids have fake gramps down and are pulping his head with the fridge door. Mom shows up just as the kids escape, and in the denouement, the reunited family waxes sad over Dad’s abandonment, Mom reveals what happened back in the day (she hit her own mother!), and the kids are encouraged to let go of anger. T-Diamond raps us out.

What always amazes me about Shyamalan is that he can manage such an accumulation of details and then somehow ensure they add up to not one damned thing. As you can probably tell, the film does not work as a thriller. Okay, maybe we don’t care, as we have some very meaty tropes to chew over. There is family trauma and the relationships between the generations. There is the problem of aging, which, in an apparent long con to try to make the twist at the end work its magic, is treated quite seriously by the screenplay. (Uh, just take my word on that one). There is the topic of acting – on the train ride to the grandparents’ house, and upon the visit from the doctor, the kids are regaled with failed actors reciting Shakespeare. (That’s twice in 45 minutes!). There’s grandma’s nudity. There’s her story about aliens, and forced slumber. Shyamalan doesn’t know the difference between a red herring and a real one. And this is what, ultimately, is so frustrating about his work, and so fascinating too, for he is, almost uniquely among contemporary directors, a flummoxed and failed magician. He is not a hack. The camerawork in the film is often quite beautiful and impressionistic. The characters have life, wit, charm, and intelligence. (At least, the children do). The story is overabundant with symbolism. So we keep waiting for the magic to happen. We keep waiting for the threads to connect, even accidentally. We keep waiting for a second level to develop in his films, for the symbols to begin to resonate, for a subtext to emerge, or a supertext to descend. But it never does. Ever. Across all his films, meaning is relegated to plot. The “meaning” is the twist. Yes, in the case of The Visit, there is the boilerplate message of moving on and releasing anger at the end, but it has nothing to do with anything that preceded it. No matter how hard you try to connect the dots in his films, to find some deeper resonance, or even a hoary old hidden message, you end in exhaustion and, often, tears (of laughter). His films are close to conceptual art – or better, stage magic – as practiced by a precocious 13 year old. He comes up with what he considers an amazing concept, the perfect “gotcha” (“What if you woke up as a bedbug and nobody said anything!”) and then extrapolates backwards, sewing distractions along the way. He is obviously intelligent, and talented, so why is his oeuvre so consistently samey? In a way, the thing he resembles most is a contemporary practitioner of the Grand Guignol; his is a theater not of meaning, but of effects. The Grand Guignol, however, was, if not art in the way we normally think of it, at least connected to the world it emerged from (that is, it was often working out, in its nightmare mirror, the fresh anxieties of modernity). Shyamalan does not have that. He is, seemingly, an amateur lacking self-awareness. Strangely, he brings to mind, with his campy theatrics that split the difference between horrible and funny, the films of John Waters (another poo lover, incidentally), the difference being that Waters knows exactly what he is doing, his anti-aesthetic being a political and artistic weapon. Waters is a showman, and knows the point of his tricks. Shyamalan is the only director I can think of whose work is bat-shit bonkers and deeply tedious at the same time. In this way, he is beyond (or is it beneath?) aesthetic evaluation.

Two stars out of five

Mistress America – Noah Baumbach (2015)

It is less than six months since While We’re Young graced our nation’s screens, and already we have another offering from Mr. Baumbach? Incroyable! This time around Baumbach has re-teamed with his real life teammate, and Francis Ha collaborator, the indomitable Greta Gerwig. Like that film, Mistress America concentrates on Gerwig as a seemingly unflappable striver, besotted with more ambition than good sense, and focuses on her attempts to climb, if not every mountain, at least the social ladder of the Big Apple, such as it is in 2015 (that is, there’s a lot of horizontal clamoring from one social media platform to another). The mode of Francis Ha was a bit more down to earth, a bit more realistic, a bit more subdued in its portrayal of a woman trying to exceed herself – the performances were relatively toned down, the main character more vulnerable, the city more shaded in grey (indeed, Mistress America is the only case I can think of with a reverse bait and switch, as the trailer I saw earlier in the summer was in black and white, but the resulting feature in color). So, yes, if you are expecting Francis Ha Part Deux, you will be disappointed, but there are many moments of bleed over. A more useful comparison might be the more recent While We’re Young, however, as it allows us to sample Baumbach solo against Baumbach plus femme. And let me break it to you right up front – for the most part, Baumbach is better with Gerwig as a cowriter. One of the problems with While We’re Young (and, come to think of it, almost all of Baumbach’s films in the past 15 years) is that the female characters are underwritten and have little to do except act as sounding boards and useful narrative devices for the male characters. (Yes, there is Margot at her sister’s wedding, but the less we speak of her, the better, for both our own and Mr. Baumbach’s sake). With Gerwig on board, females move front and center – in Mistress America, it is the men who serve as backdrop and mirrors for the female characters. The plot concerns a neophyte New Yorker, Tracy (Lola Kirke), an 18 year old recently arrived at Barnard from suburban New Jersey. The first quarter of the film concerns her attempts to get her bearings at college, where she feels out of place and struggles to fit in (whatever that might mean). She strikes up a friendship with Tony (Matthew Shear), a similarly literary type who also shares her seeming middle-class roots; over screwdrivers, they swap stories which they hope to get into Columbia’s literary magazine. At first this alleviates her alienation, but she soon discovers, much to her chagrin, that Tony has a girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Feeling rootless once again, Tracy takes her mother’s advice, and contacts her soon to be step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brooke immediately takes Tracy out for what is supposed to be a crazy, enchanting introductory night on the town, and by the end of the evening, Tracy is smitten, crushing on older, charming, “kooky” Brooke while Brooke relishes having a protege and an always interested ear. Soon Tracy is crashing at Brooke’s place in Times Square (which is zoned commercial – yowza!) and, while not ignoring her studies, is definitely more invested in living vicariously through Brooke than striking out on her own. Her early story rejected by the literary mag, Tracy makes use of Brooke as a character in a new composition, an act of self-assertion that will eventually come back to bite her. The rest of the movie revolves around Brooke’s attempt to get a fledgling restaurant (to be named Mom’s) off the ground, as the financing originally provided by her unseen Russian boyfriend falls through when he, apparently, breaks up with her (she returns to the edgy domicile one night to find the locks changed, but somehow seems to continue living there, after having to pathetically crash in Tracy’s dorm room for an evening). To secure the now absent financing, she is directed by a medium to travel to Greenwich, Connecticut, for a visit to a well-off frenemy who formerly stole Brooke’s even richer fiancé, along with a golden idea for graphic t-shirts. The second half of the movie portrays this road trip, with Tony and Nicolette along for the ride (as Tony provides the ride, and jealous, suspicious Nicolette won’t let Tony out of her sight). The quartet arrive just in time to crash an art discussion group slash pregnancy coffee klatch, and during a long, awkward afternoon, Brooke pitches her idea first to her former friend, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), and then to her more enthusiastic ex-fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus). Banter zings and pings off the walls, and the occupants of this modernist house on a green hill are joined by expectant lawyer waiting for a ride home Karen (Cindy Cheung) and intruding neighbor Harold (Dean Wareham, making the most of his return to official Baumbach supporting player status). The core group, observed and commented on by this peanut gallery, work over past animosities, try to reconcile old grievances, and make new plans for the future. Some hatchets will be buried, and others will be brandished; by the end of the evening, all will have turned against Tracy, as Nicolette reveals to the group the former’s unflattering “fictional” portrayal of Brooke, and Brooke will reveal that she and Tracy are no longer step-relations to be (as her father has called off the impending marriage to Tracy’s Mom, who apparently does not have it going on). In the denouement, Brooke returns without her restaurant money (as Dylan is willing to give it to her only if she does not start a restaurant, instead proposing, not so subtly, that she take on the role of his city lady in waiting), and Tracy gets into the literary society she yearned for. Tracy feels unsatisfied, though, and rather than sell out as a literary phony, she rejects the Columbians and files to start her own society of letters the next semester. She makes up with Brooke, who she once characterized as a failure, now recognizing her as a success in providing the zing, not to say the tang, to the unimaginative, bored rich who are her obvious inferiors.

The first half hour of the movie is, like Brooke, very striving. The cutting is so fast, and the dialogue piles up so quickly, that we could be forgiven for thinking we are still watching the trailer; we begin to wonder if the movie will ever take a breath, settle down, and recognize what the word expose is doing inside expository. It has the form of an ersatz screwball comedy, but without the laughs, or the debonair sheen of old Hollywood money. It is “witty,” but like much Baumbach, it is hard to detect if this is the real McCoy, or a simulacra of intelligent humor (we suspect the later, as we are rarely laughing). This reveals what is perhaps the key feature of Baumbach’s work, for good and for bad – the inability to discern if his characters are parodies, if he is a satirist and is using his characters as a means to splay open the unattractive guts of upwardly mobile wannabes, or if he is identifying with them, and takes their foibles and follies to be endearing, humanizing traits. Perhaps an example will help illustrate what I mean. Early in Brooke and Tracy’s whirlwind romance, they are in a bar having a drink (in Baumbach’s world, IDs never figure, apparently) and are approached by a woman who happened to have gone to high school with Brooke. At first it seems like it will be a pleasant reunion, but the woman soon takes Brooke to task for having tormented her back in the day by continually approaching her with a similarly too cool male pal, touching her skin, tasting it, and saying, “Mmm-hmm, bitter.” Brooke has no recall as to who the woman is until this jogs her memory, but her response to the woman’s request for an apology is, to say the least, no. (No luck with sympathy or recognition of grievance either). After a few rounds of yelling at each other, Brooke returns to her conversation with Tracy, dismissing the whole thing by rationalizing, “Everybody’s an asshole to someone else sometimes.” (A classic from the great American songbook, if I do recall). Tracy seems to pause over this for a second, then quickly accepts it and moves on, as does the movie. What are we, as the audience, to make of the exchange? The behavior is off-putting; we already understand that Brooke is not the type of person for deep reflection, but this introduces a negative aspect to what has been, up to this point, the key to her “charm.” Is Baumbach identifying with her – that is, can he imagine a world where no, not everyone is an asshole to someone at some time? (There is a difference between treating someone poorly with regrets and being purposefully and unapologetically cruel). Or is Baumbach satirizing the type of person so ensconced in her own cocoon of privilege, or so self-involved, that she is blind to another’s suffering? Baumbach does not portray the aggrieved as being unreasonable, and goes to pains, via the woman’s monologue, to elaborate the negative effect the teasing had on her. This would lead us to believe that Baumbach is in the later mode, satirizing blindness and narcissism, but the fact that this is pretty much a one-off, and that nothing ever builds from it, makes it seem as if it’s yet another quirky nugget, another facet of Brooke’s “charm” to be mined for warm laughs and cuteness. I won’t say it leaves a sour taste, but it does recall the flavor of his earlier films where being mean, being funny, and being close and intimate are all pretty much the same thing.

Thus the tone of the film never resolves, even as the plot does, and we are left wondering if we should actually care about these characters (as it certainly doesn’t come naturally) or if we should laugh at their lack of insight and general self-satisfaction. The problem is further amplified by the fact that, while many of the characters do lack insight and are self-satisfied insofar as nothing will deter them from their generally static natures, they are vulnerable. If there is one great theme to Baumbach’s work, and one that he elaborates with some nuance, it is masked insecurity – which, at the other end of his dialectic, becomes a preoccupation with intellectual, artistic, or social status, and with characters who are, or fear they are, legends in their own minds. In his films from earlier in the millennium, this masking might take the form of cruelty and meanness, whereas lately its form (pace Gerwig) has been charm, klutziness, and befuddlement. In both modes, though, it expresses itself through a preoccupation with a kind of arrested development, which is why his first film, Kicking and Screaming, about post-collegiate angst and anomie, somehow remains the genetic blueprint for all further films. It certainly helps explain why he rarely makes a movie about anyone over the age of 30. He is quite effective at portraying the limitations, which go hand in hand with the expectations, of our current age, and the frustration that smart, creative people feel in a world of constant exhibitionism when their talents are recognized by few and often left unrewarded. But what is he saying about this problem? It is hard to tell. We end Mistress America with Tracy’s recognition still waiting in the wings, as she is too young and unresolved to feel herself a failure (although the prospect preoccupies her, which is part of her interest in Brooke). Brooke ends up not speaking for herself (yet another movie with voice-over, yippee!), but is proclaimed fabulous by Tracy as a kind of diamond in the rough, an occult tchotchke whose powers those lessers she encounters, who lack her moxie and verve, make use of as a kind of talisman. But it is also quite possible that Tracy and Brooke are an army of two, clueless and static, legends in their own minds because they are unable to adapt to the world as it is, or, even more mundanely, simply two people who can’t accept that they might not be as great as they’d like to think they are. In this way, Baumbach is our leading expositor of the fear of mediocrity. Or is he? Perhaps he thinks that Brooke has it all figured out in her continual thrashing about. Like Woody Allen, a filmmaker he resembles in passing (the banter in the second half of the film is very Allen-like, and often very funny), one senses that it is Baumbach’s self-doubt that drives his representations. Unlike Allen, though, Baumbach seems to be hedging his bets, and playing it coy – “I’m not all that,” he seems to say, “unless you’d like to think I am!” Both Allen and Baumbach make films driven by a kind of autobiographical impetus, but Allen has always been firmly in the mode of self-abnegation (or at least self-deprecation). Baumbach is too, on the surface, but with a bitterness that makes one feel he is insincere about it; he’s going through the motions, but secretly he’d be happy to discover that he’s great, the hero of his own story, the genius who everyone loves and lavishes praise on despite his (not so?) hidden churlishness. Is he, in this way, the great reflexive filmmaker of his generation? I’m sure he’d like to think so – but it is this very characteristic that leaves his films feeling light, fluffy, and unsatisfying, even as they feel heavy and leaden in their misanthropic undertones.

Three stars out of five

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Marielle Heller (2015)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is without doubt one of the most honest and nuanced portraits of unabashed feminine sexuality in the history of (mainstream) American film; it is probably the best, and most sex positive, portrayal of specifically adolescent female desire we have had in this country. There have, of course, been other films that treat this subject matter, such as Larry Clark’s Kids or Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, but most of those films have been perceived, often unfairly, as chronicles of threat, gritty warnings of the perils about to befall our children. In a recent positive review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Amy Taubin compares the film to the work of Catherine Breillat in which the sexuality of girls is treated with all due honesty and without pulled punches or a fear of giving offense (that is, Taubin sees Diary as an American counterpart to such work). While I take her point, it is also the case that Breillat is a provocateur, and that films such as A Real Young Girl, 36 Fillette, and Fat Girl are transgressive avant la lettre. (Those films, devoid of such niceties as Diary‘s animated flowers and winsome heroine, are interested in serving as aggressive critiques of larger chunks of social terrain than the film before us, which functions more as a mostly gentle corrective). Which is to say, although its success with audiences is hardly assured, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an appropriately American film, in which its strengths are also, to my taste, its limitations.

Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner (who also illustrated the RE/Search edition of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, which I was obsessed with while in college), The Diary of a Teenage Girl chronicles the coming of age (or, more bluntly, the quest for sexual experience) of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a budding 15 year old artist living in San Francisco with her divorced Mom (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister (Abby Wait) during the swinging ’70s. Mom is a semi-wreck, having recently parted ways with her (second?) husband, and Minnie’s surrogate father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni, always a treat), who now lives in New York. Mom parties too much, does drugs unabashedly in front of her kids, and is dating a semi-layabout dreamer named Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Monroe is the object of Minnie’s sexual fascination, so when Mom suggests that he take her out drinking with him one night, as she is too tired to attend, Minnie takes advantage of the opportunity to plant the not so subtle seeds of her desire within his mind. Pretty soon, Minnie and Monroe are having an affair behind Mom’s back, which sends Minnie not into a tailspin, but on to further sexual adventuring as she satisfies curiosity while at the same time exploring the reach of her powers. She does this by, for instance, hitting on and then sexually dominating one of the boys at her school, dropping her drab nerdy wardrobe to dress up for a Rocky Horror midnight screening, and, in what she and her girlfriend both concede is a bridge too far, giving random guys in a bar blowjobs for $5 each (holding hands with each other while kneeling on the bathroom floor). Eventually Monroe starts to lose his luster (in proportion to how quickly he reveals himself to be a real person, and possibly in love with her) and Minnie, empowered by a correspondence with cartoonist, and riot grrrl touchstone, Aline Kominsky, seeks to move on – but not before Pascal gets the drift of what is happening, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down as Mom takes a listen to Minnie’s audio diaries. Minnie skirts dangerously close to leaving home for good as Mom tries to work through this revelation, but eventually things smooth over (if not for Mom, then for Minnie) and the film ends with Minnie vowing that, unlike her mother, she will never need a man to be happy.

I fully admit that I am not doing the film justice with my synopsis. It is very funny in many parts (perhaps unintentionally so at times), coming close to a non-juvenile sex comedy, and also transgressive in its own way. Indeed, the opening, which features Minnie sauntering in slow motion through a park laden with big breasted joggers and topless sunbathers, who she ogles, happily exclaiming (internally) “Wow! I just had sex!,” obviously elated at that fact, skirts close to the tropes of pornography. It would not be surprising if this libidinous teenager, comfortable in her wielding of phallic power, made male viewers equally and oppositely uncomfortable. According to Taubin’s report, one male audience member at the Sundance festival screening asked the filmmaker to address the fact that the film was “obviously about pedophilia.” (He was met with laughter from many female members of the audience). There should be little doubt that the film is not about pedophilia, as we are quite clearly inside Minnie’s head and point of view for the entirety. The film communicates this not only through the narrative structure, but by the use of Minnie’s voice-over and by bringing Minnie’s art to life on the screen, animating moments of her affective response. This is part of what sets the film apart from the work of Breillat; here, we are with Minnie all the way, and rooting for her, as we are inside her head. There is none of the distance, and irony, that Breillat often employs to question the points of view of her protagonists, even as she is sympathetic to them. (Her protagonists tend to be “unsympathetic” to begin with anyway). For instance, Diary ends with Minnie, in voice-over, rejecting her mother’s apparent need for a man, and basically saying, “This is for all the girls out there like me.” While perhaps an important political move on the part of a filmmaker trying to communicate to a particular audience, it also has the impact, and tone, of pat after-school-special messaging. A director like Breillat, even if she deployed such a device, would not allow us to forget that this “you go girl” wisdom comes from the mouth of a 15 year old; we would be left with the bitter understanding that time proves most of us, no matter how spunky, wrong. Another “problem” which could be considered a feature for an American audience is the setting. Although it adheres to the reality of the graphic novel, setting the film in the 1970s allows the director a certain license for honesty and, hence, the audience a certain distance, that setting such events in a contemporary setting would not. Yes, Minnie is a 15 year old who does drugs with her Mom and has an affair with her boyfriend, but after all, it is the 1970s, and San Francisco. The setting helps naturalize what should, rightfully, cause question, regardless of Minnie’s maturity and empowerment. The director has stated that she’d really like teenage girls to be the audience for the film, and I don’t disagree – girls need images that show their desires as normal, powerful, and their sexuality as fully their own. At the same time, where is the film that addresses these same issues for today’s teenage girl, in her own milieu? (That is, post Reagan-era sexual repression and paranoia, and post-Internet double standard of valorized exhibitionism coupled with To Catch a Predator prurience). While these issues niggle at me, they mostly do so on the level of aesthetics – I happen to dislike the rampant use of voice-over in contemporary film, and feel that directors of serious (American) films often take refuge from our present era these days. I fully recognize that on some level it sounds like I’m complaining that an apple is not an orange (or that the United States is not France… although I might plead guilty on that count). It is hard to make a work that is serious, addresses a (sadly) taboo subject like this, contains nuance, and is still a feel good, funny, and happy film that sends a message of empowerment to a population that gets far too little along those lines. On that count, Marielle Heller has done a superb job, and her film deserves to be widely seen.

Three and a half stars out of five