Monday, January 23, 2023

In Passing

Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton and Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives.

This piece includes reviews of Thirteen Lives,The Good Nurse,Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and The Pale Blue Eye.

At the outset of Thirteen Lives, Ron Howard’s dramatization of the 2018 Tham Luang Cave rescue in northern Thailand, we see the twelve pre-teen and teenage football players and their coach enter the cave and then the monsoon begin to batter it. But then Howard and the screenwriter, William Nicholson, make an unconventional choice: they don’t show us the trapped souls again until, about halfway through the picture, the British divers, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), come upon them near the mouth of the cave twelve days into the ordeal, when many participating in the story or following it on the news fear they must be dead. Naturally the filmmakers understand that presenting the facts of the narrative from the point of view of those outside the cave is dramatically effective, but I think there’s an ethical dimension to their showing us what Stanton and Volanthen discover as they discover it. Howard and Nicholson strive to avoid melodrama; they don’t want to rev up the audience by cutting back and forth between the deprivations the footballers are suffering and the efforts of the crew – a wide, disparate combination of divers, Thai Navy SEALS and other military, police officers, volunteers of every stripe and the representatives of about a hundred government agencies – to track them down. They are resolute about draining Thirteen Lives of sentimentality; I wouldn’t say there’s none at all, but given the nature of the material there’s remarkably little. It’s a film of great integrity as well as tremendous skill. And the subject matter is so gripping that you’re grateful for the foreknowledge that the coach and all the kids got out alive. (One of the SEALS, Saman Kunan, played by a charismatic young actor named Sukollowat Kanarat, did not survive the operation, and another died a year and a half later of a blood infection he contracted during it.) 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Far Country and Intimate Apparel: Identity and Remembrance

Eric Yang, Jinn S. Kim, and Amy Kim Waschke in The Far Country. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

The Far Country, recently produced by the Atlantic Theatre, begins in 1909 on Angel Island, outside San Francisco, where Chinese who seek citizenship undergo relentless, repetitive, often confusing interrogations designed to locate the tiny contradictions in their stories. In this case the candidate, Gee (Jinn S. Kim), was born in San Francisco to an immigrant who came over to America to work in the mines and an unknown mother – likely a prostitute. In his interview he explains that he went back to China to start a family, then left them behind to return to the States and begin a laundry business. Now he is seeking to visit his wife and children, already grown, in China. This story, we learn in the next scene, is a scam, at least the part about his family in the old country. In a small Chinese village Gee finds a widow (Amy Kim Waschke) in desperate straits – she owes money to a gangster she can never repay – whose son, Moon Gyet (Eric Yang), Gee wants to pass off as his own. If the boy, who is about sixteen, can memorize the narrative Gee has prepared for him and withstand the Angel Island interrogators, then Gee will pay the widow’s debts and Moon Gyet can work off the cost of his passage in his employ. Moon Gyet is bright, strong-willed and full of conviction, and though he has to stay on Angel Island for nearly two years, through two appeals of his case, ultimately he attains citizenship. Gee bankrolls the extended process (the cost includes bribes), adding years to the young man’s indentured servitude, but Moon Gyet considers himself lucky: not only has he won entrance to America, “the gold mountain,” but he’s kept his mother and siblings alive. In the second act he returns to his village, dressed as an American gentleman, in search of a young woman from a similarly destitute family he wants to pass off as his wife. He is, in the vernacular of the time, selling his name.

Monday, January 9, 2023

New from Criterion: Hôtel du Nord, Le Corbeau and Summertime

Jean-Pierre Aumont and Annabella in Hôtel du Nord (1938).

I look eagerly forward to the monthly announcements of the new Blu-Ray releases from Criterion and to viewing (or more often re-viewing) a handful of them in gleaming new prints. Here are three that came my way over the past few months. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Portrait of the Artist, Part III: Aftersun and Armageddon Time

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun.

Aftersun was inspired by the Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells’s memories of her father. It’s a first feature by someone who has made only shorts before, and it has a distinctive voice and a hazy, meandering, experimental style; the angles are unusual and the images often seem off-kilter. The main character, Sophie (played by Frankie Corio), is an eleven-year-old girl who lives in Glasgow with her mother; her parents have split, and her father, Calum (Paul Mescal), has been trying to restart his life in England, so they seldom get to see each other. Just before Sophie goes back to school for fall term, her dad takes her on a trip to Turkey.  They stay, with other English-speaking tourists, at a vacation hotel called Ocean Park, where she hangs about the pool or the game room or the arcade when she and Calum aren’t on touring the shops or out on day trips. The movie isn’t linear, and as Calum lets Sophie use his video camera, especially when they loll around their hotel room, it’s meant to evoke the feel of home movies, like Jim Sheridan’s magnificent, magic-realist In America, which has an Irish video-camera buff heroine not much older than Sophie. But whereas Sheridan’s picture has a strong narrative, Aftersun is casual, anecdotal. Not much happens. Sophie plays pool with some British teenagers and observes them drinking and making moves on each other; a boy her own age spends time with her and they indulge in a little mild petting. And she and her dad work hard to make their time together count because it’s so short.  He wants her to have a good time; she wants to find out things about him that she doesn’t know, such as what he was like when he was eleven and what sort of future he envisioned for himself.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Dylan in Winter, Part II: Greil Marcus’s Folk Music

Bob Dylan, November 1961. (Photo: Michael Ochs)

I.

Many things matter about Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs (Yale University Press; 273 pp.), Greil Marcus’s fourth—and, he has said, last—book about its subject. But your personal allegiance to Dylan in recent times isn’t one of those things. Whether you particularly value or even like the songs Marcus studies—in order of presentation, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1962), “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1964), “Ain’t Talkin’” (2006), “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1964), “Desolation Row” (1965), “Jim Jones” (1992), and “Murder Most Foul” (2020)—also doesn’t matter. The Dylan we surveil in these pages is not the sum of his successes or failures, or of any reader’s likes or dislikes. He is a creative force, a dark, hunched, music-producing presence prowling through decades of celebrity and centuries of history. If you retain a nerve of commitment to anything Dylan has ever done or been, that will be your point of entry, and meanings will flow even from songs you never cared about—songs you may not care about now, except as vehicles for Marcus to do what he does best. 

Monday, December 19, 2022

Portrait of the Artist, Part II: Funny Pages

Matthew Maher and Daniel Zolghadri in Funny Pages.

In the first scene of Funny Pages, a middle-aged man strips naked and hoists himself on top of the desk to pose for a teenage kid. The boy is Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), a gifted underground comic artist; the man, Mr. Katano (played by the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis), is his art teacher and the only adult he knows – besides the owner of the comics store where he works – who sees a spark of genius in his work and encourages him to quit school and pursue his art. Mr. Katano is a great model, but his eagerness to expose himself freaks Robert out, so after he’s finished the drawing he slips out of his mentor’s apartment as fast as he can. Katano chases after him in his car to make sure the incident hasn’t made it weird between them – as if there was the slimmest chance it wouldn’t have – and he’s so anxious to smooth things out with Robert that he swerves into the wrong lane and crashes fatally into another car. All of this takes roughly ten minutes of screen time. By the time you get to the end of this initial section you’re either gasping or howling with laughter, or maybe both. It may be the wildest opening of a movie I’ve ever sat through.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Christmas in Connecticut: Trimming a Moldy Tree

Matt Bogart, Audrey Cardwell and Josh Breckenridge in Christmas in Connecticut. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Christmas in Connecticut shows up on TV every holiday season, but that doesn’t make it a classic. This Jell-o-bland 1945 comedy sits on a wobbly premise. An emphatically undomesticated magazine writer (played by Barbara Stanwyck) writes a fictitious column that presents her as a family woman cooking gourmet meals for her husband on a picturesque Connecticut farm. Her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet, looking like he knows how badly miscast he is), somehow ignorant of the truth, that she’s a single New Yorker who dines in restaurants, compels her to invite a war hero (the hopelessly bland Dennis Morgan) home for Christmas. Since her steady suitor (Reginald Gardiner) just happens to own a farm in Connecticut and she and her editor (Robert Shayne) are friendly with a gifted local chef (S.Z. Sakall), they decide to try to pull off an elaborate charade. Except for Stanwyck, who gives the tepid material the old college try, no one associated with the picture – not the director, Peter Godfrey, or the writers, Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini – could be called remotely distinguished.

The notion of turning Christmas in Connecticut into a stage musical feels desperate, but it’s December and after all, there is a limited number of holiday-themed properties. The result, at the Goodspeed Opera House, is a bargain-basement confection that, like the movie, is set just after World War II but has been tricked up to look like it passes the woke test with the addition of a socialistic naysayer and a gay couple. The book by Patrick Pacheco and Erik Forrest Jackson is even worse than the original screenplay, and the score by Jason Howland (music) and Amanda Yesnowitz (lyrics) is forced and worn from the opening number, which recycles ideas from Leonard Bernstein and Comden and Green’s Wonderful Town. Seven of the eight songs in the first act are belters, culminating in a stupefying novelty number called “Catch the Ornament,” in which the protagonist, Liz (Audrey Cardwell), and her Hungarian chef buddy, Felix (James Judy), invent a game to occupy the ill-fitting dinner guests. Let’s just say that “Catch the Ornament” makes “Turkey Lurkey Time” from Promises, Promises sound like a winner in the holiday-show-songs sweepstakes. Toward the end of act one, they slip in one ballad, “American Dream,” sung by the war vet, Jefferson Jones (Josh Breckenridge), that shifts the tone from fake-cynical to fake-inspirational. We get more of that in the second-act finale, a Christmas hymn titled “May You Inherit.”