Wednesday, February 3, 2016

2015 in review: effie gray

(dir: Richard Laxton) Effie Gray Ruskin Millais, one of the Pre-Raphaelite "muses", is best known for the infamous incident upon which her marriage to art-philosopher John Ruskin broke asunder: it was annulled after several years on grounds of non-consummation. Effie claimed that when she stripped off on her wedding night, Ruskin, raised on the smooth bodies of statues and classical paintings, was disgusted by her pubic hair. This is the salacious story which has survived, because it makes for stunningly good copy, and may or may not bear some truth. Probably it was one, but not the only, cause.

Ruskin, certainly one of the great thinkers of the Victorian era, as influential and well-regarded among the artists of his time as Belinsky was among the pre-Revolutionary Russian literati, has been harshly treated in recent years. First he was unfairly shunted aside as a ridiculous posturer in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, and here he is painted as a cruel, impotent freak and a mama's boy, his myriad gifts presented as a sort of whitewash behind which he hid his true, malformed nature. Even a cursory glance over Ruskin's work reveals a man of deep thought, numinous sensibility, and empathy for his fellow man. In Effie Gray, Greg Wise's Ruskin is pampered, self-involved, careless of the pain of others. Of course, the man as gleaned through his recorded words and the man in action are always two disparate beings, so where lies the truth?

In the End of the Tour, the David Foster Wallace character says, "I think being shy basically means being self-absorbed to the point that it makes it hard being around other people." Whether or not the real Wallace spoke it, it rings true when describing a human of genius, who will carry in his head a separate world, live inside a paradigm other than this dominant one we all, without thought, agree to call "reality", and the words may well apply to Ruskin. Because he approached art from a carefully preserved purity of perspective, and because he cared passionately to communicate his insights clearly, his writings inflamed his contemporaries with inspiration and helped to broaden the artistic world and hasten its evolution. He was not only a vociferous champion of Turner's, but opened the way for the much-maligned Pre-Raphaelites, whose influence largely rerouted the history of painting. He was a man with a calling; he followed it with zeal, and the path necessitated a self-imposed seclusion from the usual pleasures of society.

I do enjoy the Pre-Raphaelites, but mostly I love their WAGs. Jane Morris, Fanny Cornforth, Gray, Maria Zambaco, Elizabeth Siddal. Their collective story is a fascinating one: they did a good deal of the suffering for the Pre-Raphaelites' art and got scant amounts of the credit for it. Effie Gray Ruskin Millais was never my favorite, but she leaves a path through the history books as a practical and talented woman, skilled in art herself, able to survive a public scandal and eke out a living as "help-meet" and muse to a genius, bearing him, I swear to God, eight children. Her household with Millais provided a solid fulcrum upon which the "Brotherhood" could swivel.

The movie is disingenuous from the beginning, painting Effie's family as poverty-stricken Scots snubbed by the Ruskins, wealthy Londoners. In fact, the families were both from Perth, and friendly; the Ruskins relocated to London for business reasons. Dakota Fanning's Effie is painted as a lonely, po-faced but good-hearted girl; in fact, she was a known flirt, under-educated, always vivacious and surrounded by suitors, and she initially laughed at the idea of marrying the stilted and bookish Ruskin. The current theory has it that she relented to save her father, who had lost his money in speculation, and Ruskin, although in love, was too scrupulous to make her sleep with him until she shared his feelings. It all sounds so, well, Victorian, but viewed within the parameters of the day, it is not an absurd idea. Later, while in Italy where Ruskin was writing his groundbreaking the Stones of Venice, Effie flirted and danced with Austrian officers, inspiring more than one duel and a scandal over missing diamonds, either stolen by or given to an admirer. In any case, the abyss between the couple's opposed temperaments was horribly apparent, and it appears that ending the marriage was initially Ruskin's idea. Annulment was preferred to divorce, in that he may have thought it could be kept reasonably private. He was wrong.

Regardless of all my historical objections, if the movie had been well-made, I'd be the first to love it. Emma Thompson's script, though, never comes much to life. Dakota Fanning's beauty is certainly the type the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood preferred, but she comes across as blank, lifeless, and unthinking. She shares no chemistry with Tom Sturridge's Millais, and when Emma Thompson as Lady Eastlake (the only lively performance in the film) takes an interest in her, there doesn't seem to be any reason for it.

IN SUMMARY: Quite beautiful, quite shallow, altogether unsatisfying.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2015 in review: diary of a teenage girl and chi-raq

Diary of a Teenage Girl: (dir: Marielle Heller) It's 1976, and a fifteen-year-old girl starts the movie with, "I just had sex. Holy shit!" Yeah, it's another coming-of-age thing, but with more truth than most and zero glamor. Minnie (Bel Powley) makes the weird, overbold choices a girl makes when she's exploring her sexual power, and the consequences are not always what you'd expect. Like in life! This is based on a graphic-novel memoir, and it's drolly unflinching. The acting is good: Powley, Kristin Wiig as her mom, Alexander Skarsgard as their mutual boyfriend, and Christopher Meloni (from one of those 10,000 cop shows on TV) is particularly good as the affected bohemian who is the father of Minnie's half-sister. It's photographed with that '70s, "super-8"-ish look, which may be a cliched choice, but it does help transport one back to a time when there were Prell commercials and people drove station wagons instead of SUVs.

They got two details weirdly wrong: in 1976, only rich people had television remotes. Those of us with librarian parents (a thing Minnie and I shared in common) stood up and crossed the room to change the channel. And the haircut the mom refers to as a "Farrah Fawcett" is by no stretch of anyone's imagination even close to it. The Farrah Fawcett haircut was a very particular and exact phenomenon; this girl just has long, kind of shaggy, bleached hair.

IN SUMMARY: Probably one of the best movies of the year.

Chi-raq: (dir: Spike Lee) Heavily stylized verse musical with a big-assed ax it's unabashedly grinding. At its best, it's a heartfelt cry for America to drag its politicians out of the NRA's pocket and get some grip on the madness. Angela Bassett is the beautiful heart of the piece, playing a woman of strong ethics and fearless activism.

At its worst, it's didactic and preachy, vulgar and insulting, often simultaneously. It's written in verse, which gives it both a flowing, hip-hop cadence and an elevated sense of the ceremonial. The main plot, culled from Aristophanes, involves every woman in the world withholding sex until the men come to their senses and stop making war. It's completely absurd, makes no sense, marches boldly into the ridiculous. (Lee pays tribute to the Warriors, a Walter Hill action flick which inspired my generation and which was also drawn from the old Greeks, from Xenophon's Anabasis. He references it both in the casting of David Patrick Kelly as the confederate officer and in the bit where the men sneak into the fortress rattling keys and chanting, "Bitches and hos! Come out to play!") The subplot, about a little girl caught in the gang-war crossfire and the hunt to bring forward her killer, rings true and culminates rather beautifully.

IN SUMMARY: The moral of the story seems to be that men are, possibly congenitally, so venal, libidinous and stupid that they are to be pitied rather than held responsible for their actions, and it is up to the female half of humanity to become Victorian "Better Angels" of the Madonna-Whore variety, manipulating men through their weaknesses into disarming and saving the world. Yeah, it's crap. Interestingly, the only man who stands fully and vocally with the women is the white priest, who, the movie suggests, is emasculated, both by his vow of celibacy and his whiteness.

Still, if you don't mind musicals, it's done in bold, aggressive strokes with a firm hand, and goes off in interesting directions you'll probably never see again.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

2015 in review: the revenant

(dir: Alejandro Inarritu) My favorite Malick film since the New World, only stuff happens and there's actual dialogue! All the elements are carefully, lovingly handled. Ryuichi Sakamoto got robbed, Oscar-wise: music so good you don't even notice it until the end, when you realize how it's been gently altering your mood throughout. Critics point to Inarritu's clumsy dialogue and metaphors (DiCaprio's wounded mountain man takes refuge in a horse carcass and emerges from this steaming womb newly healed), but the grandeur of the thing, the vastness and quiet and sheer hard work of it, it's all magnificent on the big screen.

Ye gods, what a breath-taking experience this is. Once, while two opponents are squaring off for their final battle, a wonderful flooding of sunlight falls through a ravine in the distance behind them. Another time, the characters pause to watch a flaming meteorite tumble to earth behind the horizon, or, again, to watch an avalanche triggered by gunfire rearrange a mountain face. Clumsy as the story-points might have been in lesser hands, you can let a lot of things slide when it's this awesome to behold.

It's an old-fashioned vengeance narrative, and so comes complete with a long and distinguished pedigree. Does it qualify as pain-porn, which Emmanuel Lubezki makes palatable with the magnificence of his cinematography? Maybe. Does it fail the Bechdel Test? Miserably, having only two speaking women in it, both surrounded only by men; they are both named, but we watch one raped and the other killed. Does that mean it should be avoided? No, absolutely, no.

IN SUMMARY: See it on the big screen if you can. It feels like 3-D even without the technology. The world feels real; you'll have dreams about it later.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

2015 in review: jauja and maps to the stars


Jauja: (dir: Lisandro Alonso) The title refers to a mythical paradise, a Shangri-La that nobody's ever seen, and anyone who's ever looked for it has been lost. The film is a hasteless and laggard costume-drama following a Danish engineer (Viggo Mortensen) as he tramps across the Argentine pampas after his runaway daughter and her soldier-lover. He eventually finds her when she is an old lady living alone in a cave with a wounded dog. Then the girl wakes up in modern times in a Danish mansion and you're not sure if she was just dreaming all that, because if it was her dream, why would it follow the father's journey instead of her own? It's an allegory for something, maybe the shaking off of imperial ties and urges, since a recurring symbol is a toy soldier, and it ends with the girl tossing the little guy into the crick for good and all. This is after a vet (or a dog-whisperer, some kind of expert) explains to the girl that her dog's wound has been caused by its own scratching, that the animal is worried because she stays away so long. So maybe the girl is Denmark, the soldiers are indicative of imperial transgressions into Argentina, and the dog is her own true, best nature.

IN SUMMARY: Anyway, the pampas is pretty.

Maps to the Stars: (dir: David Cronenberg) About half is Hollywood in-joke, both crude and cruel, unfunny to anyone who lives outside L.A. (which, note to Bruce Wagner, most of the world does). Where it does succeed, it's because Cronenberg's trademark deadpan, greatly diluted here, keeps the Drama-Queen hysteria from heading up to kabuki levels. It's the supernatural element, the ghosts, a thing Cronenberg takes deadly seriously, which saves the movie from its most likely destiny as shrieking, name-dropping soap-opera. A Paul Eluard poem called "Liberte" is central to the film, and I'm not certain, other than the relevance of the title, as to why. The film's climax doesn't make a lot of sense, but most of the plot doesn't, either, a boiling stew of incest and gerascophobia and nasty, desperation-inspired cruelties, and if it weren't for a great cast and the unflappable sobriety of Cronenberg in the face of surrealism, it wouldn't have been worth the price of admission.

IN SUMMARY: Someone's got issues with The Industry. I'd say read Nathanael West's Day of the Locust

Monday, January 18, 2016

2015 in review: sicario

(dir: Denis Villeneuve) All the way through this movie, I kept thinking I didn't like it. Then it was over, two hours flown by like it was a minute, and I realized I really did. The thing I liked best was the way Roger Deakins' photography and Johann Johannsson's music worked together to make a landscape -- of Juarez, or the desert, or the border -- seem truly ominous. Villeneuve uses things, commonplace things, like a dog barking out a car window during a traffic-stop, to build amazing tension.

Josh Brolin, of course, could play this smirking asshole-in-chief with his eyes closed. Emily Blunt has a tough role, spending the bulk of the film trying to figure out what the hell kind of acid-trip rabbit-hole she's jumped down. Plus, men keep wrestling her to the ground, telling her to stop struggling, which is crazy-making just to watch. (SIDE-NOTE: Still, as satisfying as it can be watching an 80-lb Angelina Jolie toss a gargantuan assassin across a room, as comforting as it can be knowing that Jessica Jones is always going to hold her own in any thrash-fest, it's also nice to see a 100-lb woman, tough and trained, actually LOSE her fights against men twice her size, because THAT'S LIFE, most of the time. The body-strength is different, and I wonder if our culture's obsession with Super-Badass Woman might not be making us feel wrongly about our own natural limitations.) Anyway, Blunt is strong, and lost, and flawed, and genuine. Her FBI agent puts me in mind of Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff in No Country for Old Men, a younger version, that crashing disillusionment and horror coming at an earlier juncture.

It's Benicio del Toro who has the most interesting role, a Mexican lawyer embarked on a personal vendetta, allowing himself to be used by whatever governments and soldiers will help him to his vengeance. I'm a big del Toro fan from way back, so believe me that it hurts to say he's the fellow who lets down the side here. Everything about his portrayal is entirely predictable. The character never springs to life. He does lots of extreme things, sure, says some interesting ones, but nothing the actor ever does, with his voice, his body, any of it, is at all unusual. (OK, one thing: at the beginning, when he's asleep, having the nightmare, and wakes up, that was the one interesting thing he did. And even the effectiveness of that, now I think of it, was mostly in Blunt's reaction to it.) This, from the guy who gave us Che, and Dr. Gonzo, and Fenster in the Usual Suspects, for chrissake. Any actor would have killed for this role. Benicio, man, all you had to do was get the strength of presence down, make sure your gestures were completely controlled, give a few unusual line readings, and you'd have us in the palm of your damn hand. You couldn't pull that off? What's happened to you?

Still, like I said, two hours flew past in a minute.

IN SUMMARY: My sense is that this movie wants to leave you with the kind of hollow, existential pit of despair in your belly that Parallax View or Chinatown or the Conversation did. Instead, it's more like when you're sitting next to a guy in a hipster bar who defines himself by his cynicism, and he winds up looking at you with eyebrows slightly lifted, forehead slightly furrowed, head slightly shaking, lips pulled back in a patronizing smirk, all because you refuse to accept the fact that all is lost, the world is doomed, and there is no hope, no hope, not one single wan ray of it. That's what this movie leaves you with, and you kind of just want to get up and move to the other end of the bar.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2015 in review: spy and mistress america

Spy: (dir: Paul Feig) As usual with this type of comedy, I fast-forwarded through a lot of it: the shit jokes (of which there are thousands. Are we a toddler-nation at heart?) and most of the self-debasing stuff Melissa McCarthy has to do to set-up the pay-off when she comes out, guns-blazing, at full power. But although about half of it is embarrassing and awful, the other half is so great that it's worth the slog. You could call it kindred to Ghosts of Mars, as all its true powerhouse characters are women. Some of them are bitches, others downtrodden neurotics, but they all grow and balance until nobody's all good or bad. You get fond of a couple of the bitches by the end (Allison Janney as the CIA boss, Rose Byrne as the sleek, nuke-selling villain), the neurotics (McCarthy and Miranda Hart) get to find valid routes to their own powers, and the men are just kind of along for the ride. Speaking of the men, Jason Statham is hilarious, sending up his usual foul-mouthed, cockney bad-ass.

IN SUMMARY: If you can make it through the first half and all its mortifications, the second half is worth it. Point of interest: apparently when the ratings board warns of "graphic nudity", they mean you're going to see a dick. Can they not just say "male nudity" instead? I guess I'm curious why men are graphic and women are... what's the opposite of graphic? Are we 'implicit' in our nakedness? Somehow 'vague'?

Mistress America: (dir: Noah Baumbach) It's glib to say that Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are the new Allen and Keaton, right? Hard not to, since the fruits of their alliance (this and Frances Ha) could be construed as love songs composed for New York City, made out of fast-paced, deadpan comedy from over-educated, chronically-anxious, ever-self-thwarted would-be overachievers. These movies are missing the smooth grace of Annie Hall and Manhattan, or maybe it's more accurate to say they move with a clumsier kind of grace, the same strange, loping anti-grace that Gerwig brings to dancing and walking and, indeed, to every gesture. They're funny, these films, not in laugh-out-loud ways, but in a constant rumble of amusement which hums beneath the action. They're also largely concerned with the vagaries and oddness of girl-crushes between heterosexual women, which, in terms of exploring uncharted territory, is kind of like launching the first Apollo missions.

Baumbach's characters are grating and selfish and difficult at first to like, but, again, as in the old Allen works, the saving grace is the honesty. People spend enough time saying, spontaneously and quickly, exactly what they think and mean, even when it reflects badly on themselves, that it eventually engenders a level of trust with the audience. There's a genuine innocence to these characters, existing in tandem with their cringe-inducing capacities for cruelty and selfish behaviors, so it winds up feeling like the cruelty of children who are desperately trying to grow into adulthood.

IN SUMMARY: A low-key pleasure, and not for everybody. Baumbach is a genius, no question, and Gerwig may very well be, too.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

2015 in review: mission impossible rogue nation and paper towns

Mission Impossible--Rogue Nation: (dir: Christopher McQuarrie) It's partly because I watched it after bingeing on Terriers eps, I know. THAT great writing pointed up the flaws in MI:RN which might possibly have been obscured some had I been watching, you know, Star Trek Next Generation instead. But the flaws are huge! The dialogue is clunky as hell. The humor doesn't work, the interchanges aren't endearing, there is no chemistry between the characters, or, if there was at one time, it is no longer apparent because the conversation is limp and they're all just too exhausted thinking about the action scenes to actually give any thought to the characters. The exposition is long-winded, without panache, and because the things they have to accomplish exist so entirely in a world beyond this one, -- absolutely impossible tasks, seriously, -- it's difficult to invest any care. They're obviously living in a world where the laws of physics are different, so we can just assume everything is going to come out unshrunk from the wash. It's disappointing. And the gizmos, the mechanical whatsits they go up against, the ridiculous technology: one thing Bond films always do is capture the wonderful whimsy of advanced technology, which is entirely lacking here. The mechanical things are, like the rest of the movie, without humor, without caprice, each serving a single plot-point, no more.

And I find it troubling that although the MIF team has found its steadfast crew of dudes (Cruise, Renner, Pegg, Rhames), the chicks still never last past the film at hand. Could it be because men are allowed to age (Cruise, Rhames) and the one crucial aspect of the MIF chick is that she remain young, lithe and gorgeous in addition to retaining her ridiculous levels of toughness and agility? Rhames is even allowed to get winded during a chase scene. The chick (Rebecca Ferguson, whom I liked, very much), however, is required to be superhuman and completely inappropriately dressed while she's doing it. Seriously? She wears a single, slinky, yellow-as-hell piece of satin cut all the way up to her midriff? This is what she wears when she's infiltrating the Vienna Opera to take out the Prime Minister? This is how one blends in, avoids drawing attention? This is the kind of nonsense this movie calls sense. Bond films do it whimsically, so it works (sometimes). This movie does it woodenly, humorlessly, without heart, without soul. I was truly sorry I spent the time watching it.

IN SUMMARY: I found no joy here. Except in the use of the "Nessun Dorma". That was nice.


Paper Towns: (dir: Jake Schreier) You know this one. It's the coming-of-age, end-of-high-school movie narrated by Dweeby Everykid (this one more boring than most) in sardonic tones, detailing his true love for the perfect beauty who lives across the street. She is Mystery, probably symbolizing The Eternal Feminine; she emits enigmatic utterances and flirts just enough to keep him entangled. Although they must separate (because if he settled down with her, she would cease to be Mystery and become a human being), she brings him, for the first time, fully to life with the breath of her magical anima-energy.

One of his two best friends wants very much to be the young John Cusack and really, really isn't. Regardless, all three of these dweeb-masters will, by the end of the movie, wind up within kissing range of the three hottest girls in school. Just like in real life. The movie ends with the three of them parting, sweetly nostalgic, to head into their shiny, shiny futures.

IN SUMMARY: It was five hours long. Or, if it wasn't, it sure as hell felt like it.