Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams (2015)

Star Wars has become such a massive part of our cultural heritage that it is almost impossible to get far enough away from it to have perspective. The first, and still most powerful, film “franchise,” Star Wars, like McDonald’s, is so ubiquitous we can barely imagine what the landscape would look like without it. Child of the ’80s that I am, I grew up watching the first trilogy to death on pan and scan VHS tapes (still the best way to see them, I think) and like any nerd can pretty much recite the scripts verbatim. Somewhere along the way, however, I stopped caring. Star Wars is a decent enough, if (following Pauline Kael) junky entertainment, but as I came to appreciate film more and more, the popularity of this particular set of movies began to mystify me. The series really is a bottom-drawer bricolage of a teenage nerd’s mind: the abstracted, yet neutered Medieval trappings, full of knights, princesses, and sword fights; the uncomplicated Manichaeism of a universe divided into the binary of good and evil; the uninspired Hero with a Thousand Faces narrative laden with so much trite familial baggage that it makes a Mexican soap opera look circumspect; the lame humor. Even the title is so generic that, if it were a book or a game, or discovered at the video store by some inconceivable rube who had never heard of it, it would likely be quickly reshelved in the service of something more distinct and exciting. While I can understand how the generic nature of the film and its themes is a strength, and not a liability, it still mystifies me how adults far older than I continue to venerate this narrative as their cultural lodestar, the sun and moon of their film-going lives (at the same time, I find it less mystifying than the fact that masses of grown men continue to follow the static and rigged doings of men in costumes with superpowers). I know, right now fanboys everywhere (or the three who might ever read this blog) are inserting a sharp wooden stake into my virtual ass and massing to lay siege to my abode high on Mount Adorno. If only it were that easy. I am not a hater, and honestly have no problem with the enjoyment of these films, although I will resolutely maintain that their popularity reflects a dearth of imagination in our culture. Really, if you want to hate someone, hate George Lucas. A technologist rather than a filmmaker, Lucas has gone out of his way, Vader-like, to lay waste to his legacy by milking it drier than dry while making clear he has no grasp of film aesthetics or what even makes a good story. The first trilogy was fine, with The Empire Strikes Back being the best of the three, but it must be remembered that he only directed the first film. No, Lucas’s true legacy is Episodes I-III, and they reveal him to be a completely inept mythmaker, more obsessed with pointless, and tedious, “political” doings and backstory than anyone could care for, and a ham-handed director, tone deaf to what works (ahem, Jar Jar anyone?) and obsessed with rerunning the family drama unto death within an unnecessarily elaborated universe collapsing under the weight of its garishness. Nobody likes Episodes I-III, and he directed them all. (Furthermore, he took pains to go back into the archive and destroy the original trilogy with stupid digital additions, and, even worse, wrecked his best film, the spare, relatively experimental THX 1138, by also juicing it with digital critters, making manifest what was only suggested, and powerfully so, in the original). So while I may be sour on Star Wars, it is the doing not so much of the films I watched as a child, but of a man out of ideas, who devalued his own creation more than I ever could, by making it plain his only goal was an endless stream of dollar signs, marching, Imperial style, towards his Death Star sized bank account.

So thanks be that Episode VII, aka The Force Awakens, is indeed a reboot! (I can bet you will never catch me uttering that phrase again). J.J. Abrams, he who delivered us from pointless season to pointless season of Lost (which I watched every stupid episode of), magically, and against all odds, reworks Star Wars for a new generation, and lo, it is good. The thing moves, and unlike many franchise films, even feels like it’s going somewhere! I won’t rehash the plot much, since there are a few spoilers, and in many ways it is a retread of Episode IV – a preternaturally gifted backwater nobody (Daisy Ridley as Rey) is drawn into a universal conflict that she has little knowledge of. At her side is a defected Stormtrooper (John Boyega as Finn) and a small droid (basically R2D2’s younger sibling) carrying a secret message. There is a massive weapon/planet that can destroy whole worlds which must be destroyed, a mask-wearing heavy (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren), and a master of magic in hiding on a remote world (Mark Hamill as you know who). Along the way, we are reunited with our old friends – Han Solo and Chewbacca are back to their scummy, wheeler dealer ways, but quickly give aid to the cause of the young’uns. Leia is now a general, and she and Han have split, after siring a son. I must admit, the first half of the story was so much of a repeat that I was a bit bored, and feared the worst. But there are a few things that elevate this movie, generating tension and, in the end, a lump in the throat. First and foremost the film comes equipped with a very fine supporting cast. Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, brings heart and charisma to his role as Poe, the X-Wing ace. Likewise, Domhnall Gleeson, last seen as a gentle, sentimental Irishman in Brooklyn, switches things up as General Hux, the malevolent second in command to Supreme Leader Snoke (who sounds, and looks, like a Harry Potter export). The direction is also very good, with Abrams capably melding the digital with the analog rather more seamlessly than most, and using camera movement to greater effect than Lucas ever did. The real interest, and emotional weight, of the film falls elsewhere, though. The return of the original cast could have been little more than a gimmick; a series of cameos that add little except a chance to study the ravages of time upon faces we have seen fairly little of since the originals. (Even Harrison Ford has been scarce of late). There is something unexpectedly touching, and indeed uncanny, about reuniting with Han, Leia, and Luke – it is more than just marking time, theirs and ours, and more than updating their personal narratives. It is the unexpected shock of seeing someone you thought dead, perhaps, or sealed away in a picture on the mantle, and marking not the differences, but the similarities as they return to life. We remember why we loved these characters in the first place, but the passed time is piquant; Leia, for instance, now has a raspy voice, a tight upper lip, and looks a bit like Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil. It is Harrison Ford as Han that really delivers the goods, though. Yes, the swagger of the old Han is there, but he is softer now, made more thoughtful and serene not just by the passage of time, but by the loss of his son. Ford does some fine, understated work, particularly in the reunion with his child, reminding us what a good actor he is (for my money, he has done some of his best work in his old age, and certainly outshines his thundering, dundering peers De Niro, Pacino, et al). The other innovation is the character of Kylo Ren. When we are first introduced to him, we assume he is just a replacement Vader, the unimaginative, requisite baddie. It soon becomes clear that something is off about him, though. Unlike Vader, he is not genuflected to by the Imperial generals, nor does he cause them to tremble in his presence; instead, they flinch. The Supreme Leader treats him not as a peer, but as a bit of a flunky. And he exhibits some very un-Vader like behavior. We are a bit shocked when, the droid with the intel having escaped his grasp, he throws a fit and uses his light saber (decked out, tellingly, with some pimp cross-guards) to slash the control panel in front of him to bits. Yes, this is one impetuous, ill-tempered heavy, and we soon learn why – he is a young pretender, trying to fill Vader’s shoes by faking it until he makes it. This makes him the peer, in age and maturity, of the young do-gooders, and adds an element of psychological complexity, and realism, that was absent from Vader père, while also complicating the political makeup of the Imperial side of the story. Further, it breathes life into the franchise for Millennials and comments (I must remain agnostic on how astutely) on the problems of inheriting a much degraded environment, and overly-hyped history, from a previous generation. So while The Force Awakens did not cause a disturbance in my force, it did, in the last 30 minutes, have me leaning forward, if not to the edge of my seat. While not the equal of the spring’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it did what I had previously considered impossible: it left me excited for Episode VIII.

Three and a half stars out of five

Chi-Raq – Spike Lee (2015)

Chicago holds a special place in my heart. I called the city home for six years, and grew to love it. I consider it my spiritual hometown, and so was very interested to see Spike Lee’s take on the gun violence that has plagued the city and filled anyone who loves the place with despair. Living on the south side in the early aughts, I am familiar with many of the places and neighborhoods portrayed in the film, although the violence was nowhere near the level then that it is now (and even so, I was living in a fairly protected enclave). Many Chicagoans have been vocal about the name of the film being pejorative, and the film itself reflecting negatively on the city; while some of this is understandable and perhaps justified, in truth it seems to have more to do with Lee’s outsider status, and positions him as a kind of carpetbagger or tourist of tragedy. The fact of the matter is that the level of violence Chicago has experienced in the past decade is staggering, and anyone with Lee’s status who wants to draw attention to the problem should be commended. Yes, his film is a polemic, and yes, its didacticism has no interest in drawing a nuanced, wide-ranging portrait of the city in full. This is not a problem, but a strength. Anyone who is concerned about the numbing level of daily (gun) violence in America should be thankful this film exists; that we might be amazed it exists is a measure of how acclimated we have become to living in a nightmare (and how easily we can deny that nightmare as long as we are able to quarantine it within certain communities).

The film works in a few different modes or registers. We begin with a straightforward sequence laying out the facts of the problem that is quite unlike anything you have seen in the past thirty years in mainstream American cinema – the frightening numbers of dead and wounded are laid out as an anguished, angry rap provides the subjective view of this violence. We then move to a nightclub, where a shooting is about to take place during the performance on stage; right before the shooting, however, the action freezes, and our narrator/chorus Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) explains, in verse, the structure of the film, and that it is based on Lysistrata by Aristophenes. Many times during the course of the narrative, Dolmedes returns to comment on the unfolding action. The narrative itself, pitched, like Lysistrata, as a farce, concerns two warring gangs, one run by rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the other by the older Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is Chi-Raq’s girlfriend, and starts the movie without much awareness of the terrible conditions of her community, and in denial about her boyfriend’s contributions to the problems. She is radicalized both by the death of a child and by her neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who encourages Lysistrata to use the power she has as a woman in a political way – that is, she starts to think about withholding sex as a way to control Chi-Raq and tamp down the violence he thoughtlessly causes in the community. At this point, Lee mixes in “documentary” sequences that highlight the present day reality of this tactic, such as the peace movement in Liberia led by Crystal Roh Gawding that sought to end that country’s civil war in a similar way. Lysistrata’s task is to convince not only her fellow gang wives, but those of Cyclops’s gang, that such a move is in the best interests of the entire community. As the action begins to take root and show some success, the movement grows not only city-wide, but worldwide, as women everywhere begin to use sex as a tool of peace. Eventually, Lysistrata and her “army” nonviolently seize the National Guard barracks in Chicago and a stand-off between the men of the city and the women ensues. On a somewhat separate track, we have the story of Irene (Jennifer Hudson), whose child was collateral damage in a gun battle. This death is partly what influenced Lysistrata, but Lee returns to Irene and her grief, making the child’s funeral a central sequence in the film – it is during this church service, led by Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), a character modeled closely on the real life Reverend Michael Pfleger, that Lee, through Corridan, gives voice to one of the most scathing indictments of the American way of death, and the economics undergirding it, that we’ve ever seen in a narrative film. Eventually, the “armies” of men and women square off in the persons of Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, with the first to orgasm the loser. Before anyone can win or lose, however, Cyclops and the other male representatives of the community (not just gang members at this point, but men from all walks of life and levels of “respectability”) intervene and force Chi-Raq to concede. Lysistrata carries the day, and in the denouement, everyone dressed in white (suggesting heaven and an ideal conclusion that cannot be realized in this world, sadly), Cyclops and Chi-Raq sign an accord to stop the violence, and Chi-Raq begs the forgiveness of Irene, confessing that it was he who killed her child. He then willingly accepts his punishment, and implores those in attendance (and, by extension, the viewers of the film) to use his case as a negative example.

I fully admit the description does not do the film justice. You might be able to tell it is a fairly radical work as far as mainstream cinema goes, especially these days, but it is pretty radical even by Spike Lee’s standards. His anger is often palpable, but what I don’t convey well is just how funny the film is. Jackson’s Dolmedes is outright hilarious, and even though we are in the realm of the serious, the film is a farce first and foremost. All the same, the ending is quite powerful, and moving, and much of that can be chalked up to Nick Cannon, a huge surprise in his controlled and astute portrayal of Chi-Raq. Really, though, the entire cast is excellent – the purely farcical characters, such as General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly, channeling a union of Generals Buck Turgidson and Jack D. Ripper from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) come off the worst, as they seem cartoonish and shallow, but those with a serious mode are very affecting. (John Cusack is unexpectedly great in this way, but I must also give a shout out to Wesley Snipes, who returns to the screen with an affected character who could easily be dismissed, but owns it, being by turns ridiculous and serious as needs be). Like many other of Spike Lee’s films, though, Chi-Raq has problems. Lee is just not good at dramaturgy, and his narratives are often lumpy, misshapen, and lack momentum. In his best work, such as Do the Right Thing, he triumphs in the end – but his best work, to my mind, is his earliest and least experimental. As he has gotten older, Lee has been willing to try new forms – Bamboozled, for instance, is audacious, but overlong and tiresome. More conventional fare, such as Summer of Sam, comes off as pointless and downright boring. So while I prefer Lee in his experimental mode, in any mode his films often have long, tedious parts. This is partly due to a lack of structure, but the greater problem is his inability to write characters that are both believable and who convey emotion and motivation through action rather than words (another reason Do the Right Thing works). Often the acting in his films seems bad, as in the embarrassingly hysterical Jungle Fever, but it is not really the fault of the actors – the characters are simply too often types or obvious contrivances, spouting dialogue that communicates Lee’s point of view straight-up. They rarely feel organic, or fully formed, and tend to lack ambiguity. We get a taste of this early in the film, especially with Angela Bassett’s character. Such ham-handedness makes the proceedings feel amateurish, like an overly earnest After School Special. In Chi-Raq, though, it works to his advantage a bit, because the whole film has an improvised air, and often seems like a piece of filmed street theater. Lee makes use of real locations, and foregrounds the artificial, and temporary, nature of the production, for instance by using fabric signs hung on the side of buildings in place of billboards or real signage. This tactic reinforces the universality of the material, suggesting that Chicago is just the most recent stop on the tour of this immortal agit-prop theater troop. Ultimately, for me Lysistrata is just a very odd choice for source material given the topic Lee wants to address. A gang war is not like other wars – as Lee makes apparent, it is the product of structural forces beyond the control of the disempowered actors in the street. And the gender aspect of the play, while providing much of the comedy, is a strange fit as well for the subject matter. Yes, it makes sense in that the mothers of the dead might ultimately be the loudest, and angriest, voices, but the sex comedy side feels odd. I would wish for a film that is angrier, tougher, and wrings tears from the audience throughout, rather than waiting for the post-climactic afterlife. Still, even though the film is uneven, and even though it does not touch a nerve as forcefully as it needs to, it is an essential film for our time, simply because it is so unique and addresses a topic that no one else of Lee’s visibility is touching.

Three and a half stars out of five

Suffragette – Sarah Gavron (2015)

While preparing to write this review, I wracked my brain trying to think of any other films I knew that concerned the history of the feminist movement or the battle for women’s right to vote. And I came up bone dry. Even films that are generally feminist in perspective, at least mainstream films, are pathetically hard to come by. (I exclude such films, more prevalent in the past 15 to 20 years, particularly within the genre of comedy, that would claim the feminist mantle by snarkily proving that women can be men too, while doing nothing more than celebrating the status quo of white upper middle-class life and winner-take-all capitalism). So even if Suffragette were not a very good movie, it would be notable and worth seeing simply because it tries to portray an era of history almost never portrayed, and a political movement that is almost never considered within popular culture, even as it is the foundation, in many ways, of huge swaths of what is taken for granted about the modern world. Happily though Suffragette is a good movie; it is not pedantic, and conveys the historical detail and political stakes of its subject in a naturalistic, fluid way while also connecting on an emotional level. While it does have its problems (mostly on a formal level), it also is powerful in that it pulls no punches, and does not lamely celebrate how far we’ve come, as you might expect such a film to. Instead, it is happy to paint the suffragettes realistically, as angry agitators willing to break the law, destroy property, and reject slow, incremental change in favor of direct action even at the risk of inciting violence. In this, it speaks to our own moment more so than a film that, like so many in the last few decades, dare only portray the fight against political injustice through the lens of passive resistance. It is a film unafraid to be angry.

The story concerns the political awakening and radicalization of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wage slave toiling non-stop in a laundry in turn of the century London. She and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) work together and, we assume, live in factory housing with their son George (Adam Michael Dodd). One day while out delivering some laundry, Maud is surprised when two women smash a shopfront window with rocks while yelling political slogans. Awakened to the idea of women’s equality, but still ignorant of the details, Maud is educated by her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is generally a thorn in the side of management, and set to testify before Parliament and Prime Minister Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) about the generally deplorable working conditions of the laundry, and particularly the condition for women, ahead of a general vote on women’s suffrage. Unable to testify because she has been beaten by her husband, Maud steps into her place and gives extemporaneous testimony. Present at a rally that hopes to mark the announcement of suffrage, Maud and the other women are outraged when Lloyd George announces the proposal did not pass. Maud’s affinity for the movement is cemented when the police, under the supervision of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), beat and arrest many of the women at the rally. Unable to bail herself out of jail, Maud is forced to stay in prison for a week, her husband and son at home only able to guess where she is. Freed, and all the more committed to the cause, Maud joins up with a more militant arm of the suffrage movement under the direction of Dr. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a rare female physician who cares for many of the workers at the laundry. They begin a campaign of bombing post boxes and breaking shop windows; at the same time, Inspector Steed begins to tighten the dragnet in an attempt to put down the suffrage movement. Sonny eventually sides with the law against his wife, and presses his claims to custody of their child, while shutting her out of the household. Maud is forced to live in a church attic which provides sanctuary for suffragettes, and visits George on the sly. Sonny, unable or unwilling to care for George without Maud’s support, puts him up for adoption, and after blowing up Lloyd George’s soon to be completed summer home, Maud and her cohort plan to use the upcoming Epsom Derby to get their message before the film cameras there to photograph King George V.

What makes the film powerful is that it ties together several threads that are often considered separately, or left dangling, in the popular imagining of what women’s suffrage means. Chief among them is the connection between economic justice and the vote – Maud is not interested in having the vote as a means to achieve some abstract equality with men, or to be able to exercise political power for its own sake, or to be the equal of her husband socially, but because it is the only road she can see to a less miserable life for herself and her family. Before he decides to take recourse in the law and deprive her of her maternal rights, Sonny and Maud are de facto equals in that both are wage slaves and both have little opportunity to change their circumstance, or provide a better one for their child; Maud’s testimony importantly makes concrete that poverty is not just deprivation of leisure and pleasure, but indeed a life lived in physical pain and an early trip to the grave. Where Sonny and Maud are not equal is in their treatment at the laundry, as the foreman, who controls the employees from an early age, the status quo begetting generations of misery, is free to sexually molest the female workers from a young age. So the film does well to tie together economic power and biopower, and to show how limits on one helps guarantee a limit on the other (and thus keeps bodies docile). Another strength is that the film portrays agitation in a realistic manner; the police are shown to be a tool of state repression, and the portrayal of officers beating up women in the street is an effective counter to the image that tends to be propagated, in popular culture, of the Victorian era and its long sunset as an age of decorum, patronizing chivalry, and of women kept prisoner in gilded cages. (Again, when do we see working women of this era portrayed? Almost never, and even when we do, they are still too often idealized, a la Downton Abbey). When Inspector Steed confronts Maud with the violence implicit in her act of helping to blow up Lloyd George’s country estate, she does not pause and is not chastened, but instead vehemently rebukes him, offering a critique of the state’s monopoly on violence, and effectively making a case that when deprived of figurative representation before the law, bodies must use the only force they have access to – that is, physical force. The film portrays Maud not as a woman who is nobly willing to sacrifice her family and child for her cause, as we might expect, but instead as a woman who has already been forsaken by society, her previous status of wife and mother just the scrim of propriety the social order has cast over a person who was born without power, without choice, and without recourse. She is driven, from point to point, to survive and work against this system by asserting whatever power she can find – be it in the indecorous use of her body, or in the raising of a rock, or the planting of a bomb. And the ending does not seek to tidy up the picture in any way. This is not a tale of triumph; it might shock those who don’t know, or remember, that the rights being agitated for at the end of the film are still 20 years in Britain’s future. The film is not without fault, but one cannot accuse it of overly sentimentalizing its subject matter. It does lack historical context in that we are dropped into 1908 and don’t understand where the movement arose from materially. This might not matter, but such emphasis is placed on the figure of Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, who does stick out a bit), a fixation not only of the police, but of the film itself, which treats her as an enigma and as an avatar of the movement, without allowing us to understand her involvement, where she came from, or why she is important. The camerawork is also problematic in that it is of the shaky, handheld faux documentary style familiar to the work of director Paul Greengrass, but without much motivation. Do directors even think about motivation for camera placement anymore? The handheld shakiness would make sense in the crowd scenes, if we take the camera to represent the point of view of a member of the rally – but why is the camera moving otherwise? The framing is often sloppy as a result. These are minor distractions, though. Overall Suffragette not only does justice to its subject matter, it sobers us with the realization that so little has changed.

Three 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

 

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

Love and Mercy – Bill Pohlad (2015)

Our year has thus far provided an embarrassment of riches for fans of the biopic. And good for them! Me as well, as normally I would skip most biopics, but this year, soldiering on in the name of variety rather than cherry-picking, I have been exposed to many a chronicle of lived reality. Thankfully, they have been worthy of consideration, not a mediocrity among them. At first glance, Love and Mercy seems an oddity, as it scopes out a life that, while worthy of consideration, has not pressed itself upon us of late with its necessity. I hope we can all agree that Brian Wilson is a musical genius, and not in need of rehabilitation or, as the credits to this film suggest, publicity. The film does not labor extensively to prove his mettle, nor does it serve as a hit parade except in the most minor of ways. Indeed, the film feels slight in scope; really, though, it is simply a focused, fairly quiet and gentle film, which, like Mr. Wilson, might have its humility mistaken for lightness. The movie focuses on two Brian Wilsons, without feeling the need to tie the two together, or make any heavy causative moves connecting one to the other. The majority of the film is dedicated to portraying a particularly unglamorous, and perhaps even undramatic, time in Wilson’s life, during which he was under the control, mentally and, it seems, legally, of one Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a squat, paunchy Svengali with a temper and a weird haircut. This Brian (John Cusack) is far beyond his heyday, and while still creative, spends much of his time battling his demons with no particular help from the doc, whose therapeutic techniques were developed at the school of fighting fire with gasoline. We have a feeling the good doctor is shady, but we are unsure, as we don’t know Wilson enough to tell if he’s as bad off as the doctor says he is. Wilson certainly doesn’t disagree with him, so how would we know? Enter one Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswomen and soon to be girlfriend of Mr. Wilson, who is our cinematic avatar within the weird world of So-Cal post-fame. She meets Wilson while he is shopping for a car, and despite the ever-looming presence of Dr. Feelbad, manages some alone time with him while they proceed to date. The tale of how she manages to liberate him from the constraints of not only the doctor, but of his own inner demons, comprises the main narrative thread. The film often cuts back in time, portraying a younger Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) in the period of his ascendancy, slightly before Pet Sounds until slightly after Good Vibrations and the aborted release of Smile. The film smartly does not attempt to explain the more recent Wilson with reference to the past one; even better, it does not use the past Wilson as a vehicle for mindless genius worship or the petty psychology we often get in such films. Instead, this past tale serves as a primer on Wilson, not just for the uninitiated (although for them too) but by way of showing where his particular problems began as counterpoint to where he winds up. This past thread also has the purpose of explicating his particular type of creativity, showing it in full force and also portraying the kinds of problems, social and not just mental, that resulted from his unique talents. There is not much suspense involved – really, the only question the film asks, narratively, is whether old Wilson will get the girl, be free of the evil doctor, and live happily ever after.

What is refreshing about the film, aside from its lack of pretensions, is that it places Melinda Ledbetter front and center, not only as our way into this world, but as the reason for, and star of, this film. Just as much as this is a portrait of Brian Wilson, it is a picture of romantic love that we don’t get much in popular culture these days. Melinda is not a particular fan of Brian’s work, nor the handmaiden dedicated to renewing his genius; we get the feeling that she cares about his abilities only insofar as they are part of who he is. She is not his foil, nor his steadfast, loyal support (although she is that as well); she is partly his savior, but only insofar as anyone who cared about him deeply might be. She is, in fact, not extraordinary in any way (okay, she does look like Elizabeth Banks), but simply a woman who, although in love, is mature enough to realize it might not work out. At the same time, what she cannot abide is leaving someone in a bad place when she has the power to help them out. And she does help him out, aiding him not just because she loves him, but because Landy is a blot that needs to be wiped out. Thus, she is a powerful woman who is also an everyday person, and by the end, we feel like this film is Wilson’s love letter to her. The great thing is that her power is not represented as a contrast to Wilson’s “weakness.” A strong aspect of the film is its suggestion that what made Wilson a sonic innovator also made him inclined to social maladaptation. Indeed, the sonic landscape of this film is its strongest suit; the sound design is subtle and incisive, with great secondary music as well as sculpted collages of Wilson’s output that provide portraiture of his interiority. The scene where Wilson loses it at a dinner party, unable to stop himself from obsessively focusing on the continual clatter of cutlery against china, is a great example of the melding of genius and madness. In most films, the clatter would build increasingly, perhaps underscored by the menacing thrumb of some ascending bass strings; here, however, we share in Wilson’s vision, as the clatter is musical, fascinating and unnerving. It gives us insight into Wilson’s musical interior, and also humanizes him, all by performing his reality for us. Partly due to Cusack’s strong performance (his best in ages), partly due to Banks, and partly to the script, we never feel that Wilson’s weirdness is particularly weird; there are no rote sequences of Melinda being shocked by Brian, of having to get over his quirks, or being put off by his manner in any way. This is a film about real people, not stereotypes, and while the ending is typically happy, it feels earned. Sometimes the universe does send the person you need at just the time you need them. Sometimes it helps to be a one-of-a-kind genius, too.

Three and a half stars out of five

While We’re Young – Noah Baumbach (2015)

Noah Baumbach’s new film by and large carries forth the good feelings evident in 2012’s Frances Ha. An intelligent and keen observer of human foibles and follies (keen to the point of keening, often), Mr. Baumbach started his career strongly, with the fairly gentle and modestly ambitious portrait of post-collegiate angst, Kicking and Screaming. That film reminded me of the work of Whit Stillman, the great and under-appreciated chronicler of young white privilege, partly due to the presence of Chris Eigeman, and partly due to the similarly sympathetic yet sharp portraits of bourgeois young adults presented in both films (although Mr. Stillman’s bourgeois are definitely more haute than Baumbach’s). I missed Mr. Jealousy, Baumbach’s stab at mainstream relevance, but adored his following film, 1997’s Highball, a somewhat loose and grungy Gen-X screwball comedy that for reasons I cannot fathom he has disowned. Yes, Mr. Baumbach was sitting high on my brow in those days… and then, after a too long break of seven years, he returned with two “dramedies” that were blood curdling exercises in misanthropy and ugliness. The Squid and the Whale had little sympathy for its characters, and Mr. Baumbach’s grim enjoyment of dragging the audience along on the Bataan death march that was his awkward adolescence was too palpable. One got the distinct impression that for him, pain equals truth – or rather, that his characters were authentic because they were so awful and unpleasant. Perhaps not knowing where to go after that, it must be admitted, almost universally hailed tour de force of embarrassment and frowns, Baumbach made a film with a similar form (that is, “confessional”) but without the underlying salve of autobiography. Margot at the Wedding plays like Bergman by way of Todd Solondz if both had been kidnapped, blinded, locked in a basement, and forced to write a script for Henry Jaglom. The characters in that film come in two varieties – intelligent and incredibly awful, or unintelligent (i.e. “normal folks”) but incredibly ineffectual and annoying. The behavior of Margot makes Hitler seem misunderstood and jolly in comparison. Shrill, egomaniacal, mean, static, without remorse or pity, she really is the worst person ever to visit Long Island. (I rest my case). Baumbach revels in the ugliness of the whole situation, his “honesty” communicating that families are nothing more than sewers into which unwilling participants are slung from time to time, forced into a battle royale of painful revelation and one-upsmanship. Having finally recovered from this gleeful nightmare by locking myself away with naught but Peepshow for the next month, I skipped Greenberg, figuring it would be more of the same – if I could barely abide Nicole Kidman as a self-lacerating (and everyone else lacerating) megalomaniac, Ben Stiller would put me over the top, and I’d be watching Rocky II on a loop for the rest of my days. Okay, I’m thankfully winding up my sad tale of Mr. Baumbach’s effect on my psyche, as Frances Ha brought into N.B.’s misanthropic little world the spunky, klutzy, yes, annoying in her own way but also life-loving and un-ironic presence of Greta Gerwig. With her on board as co-writer and star, Baumbach finally brushed that chip the size of a large, festering wedge of Stilton off his shoulder, got back in touch with his ’90’s self, and delivered his best film in 15 years. A bit slight, perhaps, but who needs seriousness if it comes in the form of concrete getting poured down your throat? All of which is to say, I had mixed feelings about While We’re Young when I saw the trailer. It looked pretentious and overly-intellectual, a return to “form,” yet it also looked somewhat silly and self-effacing, maybe a good time. It is, after all, about a middle-aged grump who gets a new lease on life by meeting some hopeful youths, right? Well, actually, no. It is more self-righteous than that, as the middle-aged grump turns out to be a minor version of the dreaded “last angry man,” and the youths turn out to be narcissists at best, and outright frauds at worst. And yet… the film is genuinely funny, and reveals some truths about getting older and figuring out what matters in life.

The synopsis is uncomplicated. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a 40-something couple, Josh and Cornelia, who are beset by a midlife crisis of sorts, brought on by the recognition of their own professional mediocrity (he is a struggling documentarian, she is… the daughter of a documentarian) and the realization that they have no baby ballast to help them through this stormy period, as many of their friends do. After giving a bland lecture at a local college, Josh is set upon by two young hipsters from the audience, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who seem to be fans of his work. Flattered, he and Cornelia are pulled into their orbit, feeling revitalized and refreshed by these youngsters who seemingly eschew the material trappings of success and the social strivings that make such success possible. They watch VHS tapes, listen to vinyl, eat bar-b-q in the street, and do ayahuasca together. After a while, this relationship alienates them from their peers, who they no longer have time for, as the couple insinuate themselves further into the world of tattooed post-authenticity. Josh, now Joshie, buys a hat, Cornelia dances lamely to hip-hop, and in return, they provide entree for Jamie into the world of documentary credibility and financing. (Darby is pretty much just along for the ride). Josh soon discovers, however, that the seemingly spontaneous documentary he has helped Jamie construct is, in fact, a web of contrivances, and that Jamie perhaps arranged the happenstance meeting after the lecture, as he has so much else in his life, with optics in mind, as a way to access the prestige and vast sums of financing held by Cornelia’s father, a renowned documentary filmmaker of the “direct cinema” era (played with understatement by Charles Grodin). Aghast at the ease with which these youngsters play fast and loose with “truth,” and saddened that there seems to be no difference for them between a “real” and a “useful” friendship, Josh renounces his ways, and his hat, and fully accepts his old man status, although almost at the cost of his marriage, and at the grudging realization that authenticity never was what it used to be. (It turns out that Jamie and Cornelia’s dad have more in common than Joshie can bear). Returning to middle age, the couple discovers that they can finally attain adulthood by refocusing on something other than eclecticism in musical taste and memories of Cookiopuss. Unable to conceive, they decide to adopt a child from abroad, and the film ends with them heading toward happiness by way of accepting their inevitable irrelevance, forgiving Jamie his sins (“he’s not evil, he’s just young”), and horrified by the coming tide of children weened on screens within screens.

While the film does indeed follow a fairly stereotypical, almost mainstream comedy progression, and is intelligent in the Baumbach way (that is, referential to the nth degree), it also has a heart and some wisdom as well. Baumbach smartly concedes that, in the world of documentary, and in the world at large, it has always been thus that authenticity takes a backseat to effectiveness, and that entertainment wins out over truth most any day. This is the source of Josh’s upset; he realizes that he was seduced, and hates that he was taken in by the trappings of no trappings. Further, Baumbach posits, mostly via Grodin’s character, that the ruthlessness necessary for success is not mutually exclusive with actual feeling, and that friendships can be both useful and authentic; perhaps Josh’s problems are rooted more in how he relates to himself, and what he has chosen to value in the outer world, than within a search for authenticity that has been stymied. All the same, the film also acknowledges that our age is different from past eras primarily in the easy access to both people and images that technology provides us. Jamie feels he is entitled to every relationship just as he is entitled to make any artifact of the past, or any image he can capture or discover, his own, as he has come of age in a time of overabundance of access and a scarcity of meaning. For him, the self is the only guarantor of credibility, and so he is not shy about bending all narratives to reflect his own needs, and his own interiority, although, paradoxically, his interiority is made up of nothing but hand-me-down narratives and tchotchkes from a “culture” where truth is no longer contested, a field of battle, but instead a hall of mirrors, each reflection crystallizing its own “truth.” Josh, who perceptively yells “There is no documentary when you film everything – it’s only footage,” is put off by this realization, but at the end of the film finds a way out of the funhouse. How? He simply stops caring if his image reflects. He refocuses on his marriage, and the film maturely suggests that it is the love relation that can provide refuge from the noise of the world; the couple, allied together, can know a truth that does not need to be proved, or contested, and indeed can, as a private reality, exceed any reward the material world can provide. At the same time, it is not sufficient. To be truly happy, and “old,” that is, to remain sane over time, one must turn one’s attention away from the self and back out into the world – not as a proving ground of the self, but as a realm of others who need true connection and love. While this does come in the form of a baby for Josh and Cornelia, it need not; but the film does suggest, wisely, I think, that while a couple doesn’t need a baby to fulfill itself, it does need more than a great collection of vinyl or trips to the Riviera to stave off existential decay.

Three and a half stars out of five

Starry Eyes – Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (2014)

The horror genre has exploded in the past few years, thanks to the same technological and funding possibilities that have made other genres (such as mumblecore) feasible. One need only look at Netflix to understand that there is a flood of new genre filmmaking out there, films shot on video and sold directly to on-demand or streaming services without ever reaching a theater (or with very limited local releases). I am a horror fan, but have not touched many of these films, as they look like derivative time wasters. They often feature electronic scores, and reference horror films from the ’70s, primarily the Italian stylists (Argento, Fulci, et al) who also made relatively early use of electronica, or perhaps zombie or body horror films from the ’80s, Cronenberg and Romero leading the list of influences in that department. I have not ignored this body of work, but merely sampled it. An early entry, the anthology film V/H/S, in which mumblecore directors explored their video influences, was quite good – the sequel was also strong, if a bit spottier. (I have not watched any of the further entries in the series). Mostly, though, these films are long on style and short on substance. The catalog of Ti West remains preeminent in this regard; he has a good sense of the look of a genre film, but somehow can’t deliver actual scares or much tension. Yet, he is considered an auteur and his films taken seriously even though, to my mind, they have declined in quality since his most well-known film, 2009’s The House of the Devil. Other runners in this race include Beyond the Black Rainbow, by Panos Cosmatos, a mash-up of Cronenberg’s clinical settings with the plot of Blue Sunshine, which, aside from a decent soundtrack, a great mid-film high contrast drug trip sequence, and nice set design was quite dull and, in the end, utterly ridiculous; Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s pretentious mishmash of body and eco horror (although some would consider this too “refined” a film to be included in this bunch, as it does set a trotter in art film territory); and You’re Next, a nothing-special home invasion/giallo thriller that I nonetheless found compelling and which at least built up to a tense surprise ending.

Starry Eyes fits squarely into this group of films, yet rises above mere stylization. Part of the reason for this is that it’s not particularly stylized; it hints at the era of influence noted above, primarily in its title sequences and with its soundtrack, but otherwise it looks more like a contemporary indie movie rather than a pseudo-relic. What is interesting about the film is the way it fits body horror elements into what is a critique of the Hollywood image machine and the allure of stardom, while acknowledging that such an allure is, in many ways, anachronistic and bygone in this era of DIY filmmaking and the Internet’s intervention in traditional notions of celebrity. The plot of the film centers on Sarah, an aspiring actress who lives in L.A. and spends her days, when not auditioning, working as a waitress at a fast food restaurant that exploits her sexuality. Sarah is something of a misfit. She doesn’t seem to have any real friends (most of her socializing is with her roommate and her friends, millennial bohemians who seem satisfied making their own opportunities, or making none) and her bedroom wall is plastered with pictures of the stars of Old Hollywood: Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and other glamour queens of the 1940s. Sarah aspires to be something that doesn’t really exist anymore, a movie star. Not a celebrity, or a successful and popular actress, but a star – someone who leaves behind their past, and their quotidian self (body included) to become a pure object of desire, an image. Perhaps obviously, she’s having a hard time fulfilling this goal, and tends toward the neurotic – when things don’t work out, as when she has a bad audition, she tends to pull her hair from her head and let out a hearty yell or two. Something is not quite right with Sarah, but she has no backstory, so we don’t know what it might be, and further, she manages to pass in her contemporary world, if not particularly successfully. All of this changes when she goes on an audition for a rather generic seeming horror film, called The Silver Scream; we see her act, and she has chops, but the creepy casting crew (a young man and a middle-aged woman) appear uninterested. Uninterested, that is, until the woman happens by the bathroom stall in which Sarah is self-abusing, and then she gets called back in, to audition her “fit.” A bit unnerved, but wanting to please, Sarah does so, and a few days later, gets a call-back, during which she is instructed to disrobe, and, standing in a pitch-black room illuminated only by spotlight, auditions a fuller version of the fit, in which she fantasizes about being a star. This leads to an interview with the producer of the film, a nameless man who runs a production company called Astraeus Pictures; Sarah’s “friends” are jealous, and the more knowledgeable among them validates that this is a real, prestigious company, albeit a bit old and without more recent successes. This jealousy soon evaporates, however, as when Sarah turns up at the producer’s mansion, she is offered the leading role only in exchange for unnamed sexual favors proffered to the leering, slightly goggle-eyed, tan, and 60ish producer. She flees the scene, and settles for a starring role in the DIY film being put together by the millennials, but after dropping some E, along with her inhibitions, she heeds the old man’s admonitions to “do,” not just “tell,” and goes for the unsavory deal rather than settle for the slow, self-contented paths of her cohort. She does indeed give the producer some head, and passes out as hooded, masked, and robed unknowns come hither out of the shadows. When she awakes, she begins a process of transformation which will lead to the destruction of her old body (as foretold by the producer), along with requisite blood sacrifices. By the end of the film, she will have attained her dream, but at the cost of her identity, “Sarah” being nothing but an empty signifier left behind.

What unfolds in the second half of the movie is a combination of body horror in the service of a somewhat sketchy alternative history of Hollywood, in which the movers and shakers are a cult of immortals who have traded in their original identities, and bodies, for eternal life and a place in the firmament. Like many of the films I mentioned earlier, all of this is not explicitly fleshed out, and the details are indeed vague. At the same time, unlike the films mentioned above, Starry Eyes manages to walk that thin line between overly explicit exposition, which can lead to plot holes, ridiculousness, and hence disappointment on the one hand, and under-baked symbolism, which can lead to pretentiousness and an outcome that we could not care less about. For instance, the film names the cult, and hints, through plot developments and the visuals, at the (quite real) occult history of Hollywood, without explaining where its powers come from, or dragging hoary old Satan into the mix. We also understand that Sarah is transforming, and that the outcome will vault her into the company of these elect, without really having to understand how she is changing, or being asked to believe that these elect are really existing players in the film community – they are representative of the eternal power of the image, rather than actual people (that is, we don’t see Veronica Lake and friends at the eventual cult shindig during which Sarah casts off her old form). While some of the processes of transformation Sarah undergoes are a bit overdone and trite (she looses her fingernails, and vomits up some maggots, for a second causing viewers to fear she might be auditioning for the role of Mrs. Brundlefly), by and large the changes she undergoes are in her demeanor. We suddenly feel like we are seeing the “real” Sarah, the hidden, angry, and assertive person only hinted at before. The bloodletting that occurs as Sarah sacrifices her “friends” calls to mind the Manson murders (another significant piece in the puzzle of old Hollywood occultism) without any explicit visual punning. Be warned, the last part of this film is very gory indeed; even I, jaded old hand at such effects that I am, winced and groaned a few times. The movie does not satisfy completely, as it reads more as an allegory than as a story we become invested in (Sarah is a bit too remote and strange for us as well), but it is an effective allegory, and, I might even venture, a poetic one. In its positioning of Sarah as an avatar of a bygone golden age of filmdom, the movie questions the nostalgia we screen lovers feel for the allure of such lost glamorous beings; perhaps the current era, more critical, reflexive, and honest in its idol making (and breaking), is not so bad after all. Perhaps.

Three and a half stars out of five

Still Alice – Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (2015)

As I watched Still Alice, I thought it would be interesting to see the same script (or at least the same material) as directed by a woman – Claire Denis, perhaps, or Catherine Breillat, whose Abuse of Weakness came to mind. That was the tougher of the two films, the more nuanced, perhaps, and the more probing, but in the end, I found Still Alice more affecting. In some ways, the film is not far from a Lifetime made for TV movie (or at least a Lifetime movie before the network became obsessed with domestic violence); the travails of a successful career woman, and of her family, as she is forced to submit to her human frailty far too early. And yet, especially in the last half-hour or so, Still Alice rises above weepy melodrama (not that I have anything against weepy melodramas) to ask serious questions about the nature of identity, and the value of life if it is lived without the ability to self-reflect, or to inhabit the world meaningfully. That it rises above is in part due to the script, the simplicity of which allows it to usefully tighten and focus in the end, but more so because of the acting, which is truly the reason to see this film. Julianne Moore well deserved her Oscar win (although she should have won for many other roles too, especially what I still consider her finest hour, as Carol White in Todd Haynes career-best Safe), as she moves with amazing skill from eloquent and smooth star professor to terrified thousand yard stare to almost complete emptiness as Alice’s personality evacuates. It is not a one woman show, however. Alec Baldwin gives a much more nuanced and gentle turn than expected as her sympathetic and kind husband, and Kristen Stewart, who could be the weightiest actress of her generation if she is given the opportunities, inhabits her wanna-be actress daughter, a role that could have easily been one note, with an easy grace, moving from sulky tension to mature understanding and compassion very convincingly.

The film, if it isn’t already obvious, deals with a woman and the ramifications of a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s on both her life and her family’s. Alice is a celebrated linguist who teaches at Columbia; her husband, John, also teaches there, in the hard sciences. They have three grown children: Anna (Kate Bosworth, the weakest link acting-wise) and Hunter (Tom Howland), who both also live in New York, and Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the youngest, and family black sheep, who skipped college to move to L.A. and pursue her desire to act (the main source of tension with Mom). Alice begins to notice that certain things drop out of her memory and her experience; it is not simply forgetfulness, as she enters a kind of somatic panic when she loses her way on a jog around campus. After some testing by her neurologist (Stephen Kunken), it is discovered that she not only has early onset Alzheimer’s, but that it is of the genetic variety, making her children susceptible. Anna, who has been trying to conceive with her husband Charlie (Shane McRae), will get the disease; Hunter will not; Lydia prefers not to find out and does not get tested. The rest of the film follows Alice’s increasing, and fairly rapid, degeneration, as well as the impact on the lives of her family (foremost on her husband’s career). Lucid Alice leaves a testing system, accompanied by an instructional video, to direct afflicted Alice to commit suicide, via an overdose of sleeping pills, when she has reached the point of not being able to answer a series of basic questions. Afflicted Alice, accidentally stumbling across the video (the test itself long since forgotten), tries to follow through, but botches it and loses her chance. Eventually, John moves to Minnesota for a job at the Mayo Clinic, leaving Alice in the care of Lyida, who voluntarily returns from California to live with her mother. The film ends, affectingly and poetically, to my taste at least, with a shot of Lydia reading a passage from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America aloud, and then asking her mother what it means. After much effort, Alice manages to work out the word “love.” “Yes,” says Lydia, “it means love.”

What is so intelligent about the film, and what prevents it from being overly sentimental, is that, due to the focus and simplicity of the second half, double meanings abound, and we can see the hard questions answered from both sides. For instance, we fully understand Alice’s desire to commit suicide; not only is it a fundamental way to deal with the anguish of losing her identity and purpose, but it also saves herself, and her family, the pain of lingering on far, far beyond what a normal patient of the disease might endure. That said, when the “time comes,” we cannot be sure that it is time. Is she far enough gone? She is fairly debilitated, yet she has just managed to have a video chat with her daughter, alone in the house, her caretaker off for the day (a fact which dismays Lydia). She stumbles upon the video, but has not the judgement to make a choice; she is simply carrying out the commands of a friendly, helpful, and familiar face. We feel that either way it goes has merit, but in the end, fate intervenes, Alice fumbles the pill bottle, and just as the caretaker arrives on the scene. What is so lovely and tragic about the sequence is that it presents a gentle and uncomplicated argument for life – when she signs off from the video chat, and finds the video, Alice has just made toast and tea for herself, and those humble enjoyments, set aside for the new stimulus of the suicide pact with her past, are tragic. The argument for life boils down to tea and toast. She can still enjoy the buttered bread, and the warming heat of the tea, in a sensuous way; need there be more reason to live? Is personality, or identity, necessary to exist at that level? After all, the “purely animal” is good enough for animals. Later on, as she orders a Pinkberry with her husband at one of their final outings (Pinkberry being a favorite), she snuggles against him at the counter, gently rubbing her cheek on his thick, furry flannel collar. Again, this gesture of love and comfort redeems the sadness (and perhaps amplifies it) through the purely phenomenological. The last scene, where Lydia reads to her, also works similarly. On the one hand, there is nothing left of Alice as she was – she can barely speak, and we can’t know if she understands her situation or recognizes her surroundings. When Lydia asks what the passage she read means, Alice could be responding with some level of cognition. Or, much more likely, she is simply responding to a loving face, looking upon her with kindness; she is responding to presence. Whether she understands or not, or can have a life with “meaning,” the fact that others care for her, and that she can respond at all, in the moment, to such care, makes her existence worthwhile. Lydia fully recognizes this, as her response mirrors the facticity of the moment while leaving open the question of what is understood – love is the answer in either case. Yes, the movie has problematic elements. Especially early on, the directors use a very shallow depth of field to mirror, in a too literal way, the haziness of Alice’s memory, the loss of focus; it is an overly obvious metaphor, and furthermore, aesthetically it grates, in some scenes making the actors pop out of their surroundings in a very distracting way. It is also the case that this story, like many we get from Hollywood, presents us with a best-case scenario, with the deck fully stacked in Alice’s favor: successful, affluent, and surrounded by a loving family, she is hardly the usual Alzheimer’s patient. The positive of such a portrayal is that it perhaps allows the audience to relate, and staves off the distance or denial that can easily take hold in a more “realistic” scenario (“that’s not me”). All the same, the negatives are abundant, and we wind up close to glamorizing a very unglamorous condition. Regardless, though, the gentleness and honesty with which the movie asks the question, “Is this life worth living?” and the nuanced and thoughtful, if unsurprising, answer of yes that it provides, sets it apart. The enjoyment of the senses, the presence of another, even stripped of understanding, is perhaps a rebuke to the idea that life without identity is the equivalent of a death without dignity.

Three and a half stars out of five

A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor (2014)

I’ll admit it: I dislike Jessica Chastain. Like most prejudices, there is no very good reason behind this one. She’s not a terribly versatile actress – and she never struck me as a sincere one either. (The tabloids have made some small fodder about her actual age, which she’s been coy about; this bothers me not a whit, as actresses need to be cagey given the crap they have to deal with to find work. All the same, playing a teenage orphan at age 31, as she did in Jolene, which “introduced” her to a wider viewing public, is pushing it, given that she looks close to her age). Her role in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life summed up her range: attractive in a porcelain kind of way, competent enough, but not much there there. No heat or depth, and “warm” and “caring” in that aloof way that fails to charm or convince. Her subsequent work in Zero Dark Thirty and, to a lesser extent, Interstellar, ostensibly gritty roles, did nothing to modify my view. A lot of strident striding around, being “tough” in a cardboard kind of way which also somehow verged on chewing the scenery. It is with some relief that I can thus report that her turn in A Most Violent Year, in the role of a Brooklyn mafioso’s streetwise daughter (scary to contemplate, I know) actually comes off with some subtlety. The accent is a bit dodgy, but her performance is, dare I say it, convincing, and even a little bit sexy. Her part, while well written, is somewhat underwritten too – or, at least, not the narrative driver that we expect. Many things about the film are unexpected, though.

What’s this movie about? I had no idea. It looked like a gangster movie, and the little I’d read didn’t dissuade me from that evaluation, except to add that the film was slow and had no plot. Okay, so what? (I like it better already, probably). In reality, this is a drama about the dog eat dog world of the heating oil business circa 1981 New York. Yes, this probably accounts for the mystique surrounding the promotion of the film. We keep expecting it to be a gangster movie, or at least, for heating oil to meet up with Chastain’s Dad in a back alley to seal the deal. No dice. Oscar Isaac, looking like the love child of Al Pacino and Armand Assante, plays Abel Morales, one of the larger players in said industry, on the verge of making it to the big leagues – he’s just put down his life savings on an oil import terminal, and now has thirty days to clear the money to own it outright, or lose his deposit and the property. The film is basically a portrait of those thirty days, and of his quest to secure the funds against the machinations of his competition (and the District Attorney). Chandor does not play this out the way you might think, however – little overt “suspense” or action, just time passing and bad news piling up. This is not a flaw, though, for the low-key portrait is plenty compelling and fits with the larger purpose of this tale. Morales, in some ways a false echo of Pacino in Godfather III, is set on playing it straight, doing things in an above-board way, and not solving violence with violence. The backstories to all the characters are alluded to, but never fully fleshed out (again, all to the good, at least in my mind). We get the feeling that he owes his business opportunity to his father-in-law, and that, since then, he has worked to differentiate himself from that path. Working against him, in smallish ways, are his wife, who instinctually reverts to the family way of solving problems, and his lawyer, played by an excellent Albert Brooks, who we come to understand is also Dad-in-law vestigial. The film keys us to expect that, given the continual road blocks thrown up to Abel’s plans, eventually he will turn to bad Daddy for help, and this will be his downfall. If not that, we think perhaps he will reveal his true colors, and the film does develop some tension along the lines of “how far can a good man be pushed?” And also: “is this a good man in a bad position, or a bad man trying to go good who, unable to change his ways, will pay for denying his true nature?” Without giving anything away, I will say that the film answers those questions without satisfying any expectations. More than anything, this is a film about how little distance there often is between being a businessman and being a thug; or rather, that being in business often means doing things the wrong way, grinding people down, and acting like a mafioso, because that’s the nature of making money, and that the firewalls society sets up to supposedly prevent this from happening are indeed disingenuous, obfuscations that allow us to pretend “civilized” behavior and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. As a portrait of life in (an admittedly shadier than average) business, and of New York in the early 1980s, it is extremely well done, always compelling and interesting without ever feeling trite or falling into generic expectations (as it is not a genre film after all). The ending, while a bit contrived and expected, is symbolic of the whole enterprise, and of Morales’s untenable position. On the whole a very satisfying, unexpected pleasure.

Three and a half stars out of five