Saturday, December 01, 2018

Wildlife: Fire and Water

Primal elements, fire and water, are the catalysts that erupt into primal desires in Wildlife, Paul Dano's brilliant directorial debut adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jerry, a golf pro who gets fired as a result of getting too chummy with the club’s members. It seems that Jerry has trouble keeping down a job, and as a result he’s had to move his family around much too often. His wife Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) and their fourteen year old son Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould) have come to accept the necessity to be uprooted multiple times. However, when the club calls Jerry to offer him his old job back he refuses their offer, and instead leaves the family to take a low paying job fighting forest fires. His departure sends the family into a downward spiral that emotionally tears them apart. Jeanette and Joe are forced to get jobs to make ends meet. Joe becomes a photographer's assistant, and Jeannette takes a job as a swimming instructor. Soon enough she begins a relation with Warren Miller (Bill Camp) one of her students, a wealthy war veteran. Joe gets dragged into the affair, his mother allowing him to witness the kind of marital infidelity no young person should be allowed to see. When Jake comes back from fighting fires things get even worse.

Carey Mulligan is destined for glory at awards time. With her perfect American accent, her nuanced, meticulous Jeannette contains many layers. Somehow she is able to reveal all of them, and this is the brilliant aspect of her performance. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal is perfect as the wide-eyed dreamer, always searching for the best for his family, although most of the time he fails to recognize the many personal flaws that keep him from getting ahead. Their marital problems, already there before the narrative begins, take on classic routes. The man leaves the nest in order to prove to his family and to himself that he can do it, while the wife seeks comfort in another man she does not love just to prove to herself that she remains a desirable person with urges that must be satisfied.
Ed Oxenbould as Joe is a revelation. An Australian teenage actor with a unique young face that already shows signs of maturity beyond his years, and a pair of baby-blue eyes a la Paul Newman to die for. You won't be able to take your own eyes off him! Mr. Oxenbould joins Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges in that prestigious group of young actors with recent, memorable performances that signal a new generation with a bright future.

Wildlife is one of the finest films of the year. Great performances, outstanding actor-driven direction, and a haunting story about three real people. A film not be missed.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Burning - a film by Lee Chang-don

A film about obsession, where one of the main characters follows another in a car through the streets of an exotic city; and where the main female character disappears halfway through the film; and one of the characters keeps mementos of past relationships. This description could define an Alfred Hitchcock film. Perhaps a remake of Psycho, or more appropriately a new version of his masterpiece, Vertigo. It is also one way to describe Burning, the new Korean film from auteur Lee Chang-dong. A contemporary story involving Lee Jong-su, (Yoo Ah-in) a young drifter with dreams of becoming a writer, who meets up with childhood friend, Haemi (Jeong Jong-seo), a free spirit with plans of traveling to Africa. Both renew their friendship which rapidly becomes sexual. When Haemi comes back from Africa she introduces Lee to Ben (Steven Yeung), a well-off, mysterious young man, whom she met on the airplane on her way back, and who Lee compares to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby. During a party where the three smoke pot, and Haemi dances topless erotically as the sun sets (one of the highlights of the film), Ben confesses to Lee that he has the odd hobby of setting old greenhouses on fire. When Haemi mysteriously disappears, Lee immediately senses something wrong, and starts following Ben, partly because he is worried about his friend, but also because he is obsessed with the mysterious young man and his opulent lifestyle.

The film is based on a short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami called "Barn Burning." This is also the title of a 1939 short story by William Faulkner, the Southern author who is Lee's favorite writer. As Lee and Ben's friendship deepens, Ben decides to buy a copy of Faulkner's collected stories.

The film takes a postmodernist approach in its meandering way in which it tells this story. Scenes often do not lead to expected outcomes, thus the structure is freewheeling and loose. At 148 minutes director Lee eases us into the narrative with a sure, firm hand, an invisible camera, and a rambling mise-en scène. However, he manages to engross us in the narrative, thanks primarily to the stellar performances by the three principals.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it was a selection of the New York Film Festival, and it is South Korea's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

BOY ERASED with Hedges, Crowe and Kidman

Boy Erased is not the first film this year to tackle the thorny subject of conversion therapy. This film, featuring three Hollywood A-listers, closely follows the themes of the recent indie The Miseducation of Cameron Post. The fact that big Hollywood is taking a chance on this controversial subject makes it a film worth considering, and certainly one that will be critically discussed as we head towards the end of the year, and awards season time. Especially since the film possesses heartfelt performances by all three principals.

When Jared, played by Lucas Hedges, a young college student, comes out to his parents, a Baptist minister (an almost unrecognizable, overweight Russell Crowe) and his wife, Nicole Kidman, they decide to enroll him in a program to cure him of his homosexuality. It’s a bit like the Joan Fontaine character in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, after she marries Laurence Olivier and enters gloomy, mysterious Manderley. When Jared steps inside the Love in Action program he enters the gothic, a Dickensian institution run by Mr. Sykes, a character with a Dickensian name that Charles Dickens himself might have had fun developing, since from a literary point of view he is only a stone’s throw from Mr. Squeers, the cruel headmaster in the novel Nicholas Nickleby. The fact that this film is based on a true story verges on the unbelievably tragic.

The secondary characters are as fully rounded as the leads. Mr. Sykes, played by Joel Edgerton, the director of this film, is a wondrous creation: a Bible-wielding mountebank who spouts salvation while hiding from everyone his true nature. Also wondrous, as well as scary is one of Mr. Sykes’s enforcers, played with sinister gusto by Flea of The Red Hot Chilly Peppers. There is also a memorable performance by Troye Sivan, the South African-born, Australian actor/singer, whose latest pop album, Bloom, is at the top of the charts. Mr. Sivan has a great screen presence, and one of the members of the cast who is openly gay.
Although the film has many wonderful touches, it falls into a predictable pattern where the characters become recognizable figures verging on the stereotypical. So we get the young, questioning boy, who is far from being a slut, but who carries an incredible amount of guilt because of his feelings. There’s the understanding mother, and the unyielding father who just cannot come to terms with his son’s feelings. There’s also the clever boy who will play along with the conversion program just to get out of there; and regrettably there’s also the boy who is permanently scarred by the program’s abuse, and becomes its tragic victim.

Despite its artistic flaws, Boy Erased is a courageous step from mainstream Hollywood to expose a dubious system that thus far has effected 700,000 members of the LGBTQ community, and continues to be practiced legally in many parts of the country.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Guadagnino's SUSPIRIA

Luca Guadagnino, the much-praised director of Call Me By your Name returns to the theme of inter-generational relationships in his rethinking of Dario Argento's 1977 thriller Suspiria. Whereas the classic horror film was the first of a proposed trilogy depicting the theme of "Three Ancient Mothers," with the results being the familiar "giallo" style for which the Italian filmmaker is best known, Guadagnino's take on the film is a self-contained two and a half hour extravaganza taking the bare-bones story of the original, and riffing on socio-political themes not really present in the original film.

In this retelling we meet Sussie Bannion, a young ingenue from America (Dakota Johnson), aching to escape her Mennonite upbringing, who travels to a divided West Berlin to enroll in the famous Helena Markos Dance Company, a school run by a Pina Baush look-alike named Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Almost immediately the new girl falls under the spell of Madame Blanc, who recognizes in her an innate talent for dance, and the "je ne sais quoi" necessary to become a great dancer. At the same time, an elderly psychoanalyst (also played by Tilda Swinton wearing a ton of makeup), with a past dating back to the days of the Third Reich, is investigating the disappearance of one of the dancers in the company, and the alleged claims that the school is run by a coven of witches.

While all of this proves to be quite enigmatic, the movie fairly quickly falls off the rails as it tries to bite more than it can chew. Apparently in Guadagnino's mind it is not enough to just make a horror film. The new Suspiria, which is divided into acts like a German Expressionistic film of the silent era, ie, Nosferatu, features the Baader-Meinhof political landscape of Germany in the decade of the 1970's, as well as the vivid ghosts of National Socialism. This, together with a running time of 152 minutes, makes it a bladder-buster of a horror film, too long for a genre which, like comedy, works more effectively when it adheres to a shorter running time. Unfortunately, the film denouement is one of the most extravagant spectacles I have seen in quite a while. Never a good idea to outdo the original. Dario Argento is an excessive filmmaker, no one will argue with that, but in paying homage to the master, Guadagnino totally goes overboard.

So, should you bother with this remake? Try the new Suspiria if you like to be engrossed in a film that asks more questions than it answers, and if you enjoy the experience of a polemic work that's sure to spark some very interesting cinematic conversation.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

THE FERRYMAN on Broadway

From London comes last year's West End hit, The Ferryman, Jezz Butterworth's titanic play about the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the decade of the 1980's, around the time Bobby Sands and other incarcerated members of the IRA died in Maze Prison after a long hunger strike that divided a nation.

The well-preserved body of Seamus Carney, killed because he was believed to be an informer for the British, has been discovered buried in a bog, and now the kingpin of the IRA, Mr. Muldoon (Stuart Graham), must make sure that the surviving members of the Carney family do not accuse him and his cohorts of the murder. This threat is especially directed at the surviving brother of the deceased, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), the patriarch of a large rural Northern Ireland family. And what an incredible family Mr. Butterworth has created! All of them played with beautiful nuances and expert craft by a company of Irish actors under the direction of the spectacular Sam Mendes, a director who has proven again and again that he is both adept crafting films (from American Beauty to Skyfall and Spectre) to both musicals (the recent revival of Gypsy) and this masterpiece by the author of the monumental Jerusalem, one of the most exciting plays in recent days, which had a monumental Tony award winning performance by Mark Rylance.

Whereas Mr. Butterworth attempted to write an ensemble piece in Jerusalem, the outcome was mostly a vehicle for the talents of Mr. Rylance. With The Ferryman he has achieved this quest. With 21 speaking parts, the writing is able to create 21 fully-rounded characters which range from angry young men who dance furiously to a punk rock song by The Undertones, to a wheelchair-bound aunt, played beautifully by that great Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan, who remembers her unrequited love which left her childless. There is also a simple-minded British handyman named Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards) who works for the Carney family, and who brings the children apples, and who wrings the neck of a goose for the family harvest feast, an eerie act-ender harbinger of the violence that's bubbling under the surface of this work.

With a rousing version of the Irish fighting song "A Row in the Town," the mention of the feared legendary creatures called the Banshees, and an ending that you will never forget The Ferryman is most definitely an Irish play crafted out of ancient mythology and the violence of the times it portrays. Yet, the themes that it presents are as universal as those of the great playwrights of the English language. With this spectacular work, Mr. Butterworth joins that prestigious list.

Monday, October 15, 2018

NYFF: At Eternity's Gate

The director of At Eternity's Gate, Julian Schnabel became a sensation during the 1980s with his "plate paintings:" large scale canvases set on broken ceramic plates. He emerged as the most famous of the bad-boys of that artistic generation that also included David Salle, Keith Haring author Jay McInerney and Jean-Michel Basquiat: artists that made downtown Manhattan the epicenter of the artistic world. As a matter of fact, when Schnabel traded in his canvases for a movie camera, his first project was a biopic of the late Basquiat. Now Schnabel turns his cinematic attention to another bad-boy artist: the infinitely tragic Vincent van Gogh and his last tortured days in Arles, in the south of France: frantic days in which the artist descended into madness while at the same time capturing the light of Arles in one brilliant canvas after another. Van Gogh stayed at Arles for eighty days, and managed to paint seventy-five canvases. The large majority of them the well known masterpieces he is best known for.

Essentially the film follows the relationship between Vincent (an incredible Willem Dafoe) and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), as well as the friendship between van Gogh and artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). But like Schnabel's early broken canvases, the film is a disjointed look at the artist's downward spiral into madness, mutilation and suicide. Certainly it is not Lust for Life, Vincente Minelli's 1956 biopic starring Kirk Douglas as the tortured Dutch artist.

Willem Dafoe's understated van Gogh is the highlight of this work, and the glue that keeps this film together. Mr. Dafoe has been the darling of the Independent film sect lately, morphing from one character to another with the greatest of ease. He can be Pier Paolo Pasolini in Abel Ferrara's 2014 biopic of the murdered Italian filmmaker, or he can become Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle hotel in last year's great The Florida Project. His van Gogh might just be his greatest role since he played the Son of God in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.

If your idea of a biopic is not a definitive reconstruction of the past, and if your taste in film favors a narrative of moments, impressions and fragments, then you will certainly enjoy this arresting, luminous film.

Monday, October 08, 2018

A Star is Born: this time with Cooper and Gaga

There’s s great line in Bradley Cooper’s new film A Star is Born referring to music being just twelve notes, “and the story repeats again.” It’s a referential line to the history of this well-known show-biz story which began in 1937 with Dorothy Parker and Ben Hecht’s original script for David O. Selznick, and the talents of Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. For many this early Technicolor film is the quintessential version of this story, but the story was told again in 1954, changed to a musical to accommodate the prodigious talents of Judy Garland. This version, helmed by George Cukor remains incomplete with sections missing, but what remains intact is gold. Music also remained when the story was told a third time, this time with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, in perhaps what many consider the weakest of the three versions, although the film has its champions.

One of them is Bradley Cooper. The current version of the story draws much from this version. The story is well-known. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a hard drinking famous rocker who meets Ally (Lady Gaga) a talented, but unknown singer. Jackson gives a boost to her career, and the two fall in love and marry. But as Ally’s fame takes off, Jackson’s demons catch up to him. He horribly embarrasses Ally and himself the night she wins the Grammy award, and things go headlong downhill for Jackson to the inevitable tragic conclusion already familiar from the previous versions.

Thanks to Bradley Cooper’s intelligent handling of this material as co-screenwriter and in his directorial debut, A Star is Born has become the film to beat at the Oscars this year. The film features great emotional acting from Cooper, and shows a triple threat Lady Gaga who might just have carved out a niche for herself come Oscar night. Also giving memorable performances are Andrew Dice Clay playing Ally's father, Anthony Ramos as Ally's friend from her time when she was singing at a drag bar, Sam Elliott as Jackson's older brother, and Rafi Gavron as Rez, a music producer and Ally's manager who precipitates the tragic conclusion of the story with his unfeeling approach towards Jackson's alcoholism.

They don't write them like they used to, and Hollywood knows this. They keep resurrecting this property time and again because filmmakers know that audiences love a great tragic love story. This version of A Star is Born speaks to current audiences in a way the previous versions satisfied their particular public. And when it comes to the movies we love to see a performer who has already distinguished herself in another facet of showbiz making a kill on the big screen, and this is exactly what we get when we witness Lady Gaga's great performance.