Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Art and the Limits of Morality: The Night Porter (1974)

Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter (1974).

Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (Il portiere di note, 1974) is probably the most twisted film I've seen in my twenty-eight years of life on Earth. Not, it should be said, because of the sexual kinkiness, or even the portrayal of a twisted psyche, but because of what it threatens to do with the viewer’s identification with the protagonist. From an artistic perspective, it's a pity the film doesn't follow through.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Song and Dance, Part II: Fosse/Verdon

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon.

Sam Rockwell’s portrait of Bob Fosse – the legendary director-choreographer whose body finally succumbed to drugs, alcohol, nicotine and workaholism at the age of sixty, in 1987 – in the eight-part F/X miniseries Fosse/Verdon is one of those rare dramatic reincarnations of a celebrity that you feel, as you watch, you will retain forever in your mind alongside the work of the real one. (Some other examples: Judy Davis as Judy Garland and Geoffrey Rush as Peter Sellers, both also in TV dramatizations, and Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame in the 2017 movie Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.) I saw Rockwell was at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2000 in the supporting role of the desk clerk in a production of Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore, which is set in the lobby of a low-rent residential New York hotel. The director, Joe Mantello, staged a pre-show during which some of the members of the ensemble wandered on and improvised behavior that sketched in their characters before we heard any of the dialogue Wilson had scripted for them. I can’t remember what any of the other actors did because Rockwell made his simple tasks so interesting – so detailed and so quirky – that my companion and I kept our eyes on him the whole time. And nearly twenty years later, his performance, in the margins of the show, is the only one I still recall. I had already started spotting him in movies like Galaxy Quest and Michael Hoffman’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he exhibited the same distinctive combination of focus, precision and humor, all guided by an unpredictable perspective, as if his character occupied some space in the world that no one else had ever noticed before. Both those movies came out in 1999; Rockwell has played dozens of roles since, many of them in bad or forgettable movies, and I haven’t always liked him. (I hated his Oscar-winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but it would be unfair to pin the blame on Rockwell, since nothing in that repellent movie made an iota of sense.) But I think his gifts are both outsize and off-kilter, and when he’s good he can be sensational. He was the best thing about Vice, for instance, drawing on impressive resources for satirical impersonation to play George Bush Jr. But what he does as Bob Fosse goes way beyond impersonation, though he gets down the man’s slouching grace and his sexy slightness and the way the cigarette tucked insouciantly in the corner of his mouth completed him as definitively as it completed Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart. Rockwell gets inside Fosse – his compulsions about work and sex, his ambition and unsatisfiable perfectionism, his cynicism about show business and about his own talents, the erotic charm that was generated as much by his world-weariness as by his persistence and the appeal of being around his genius.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Fog: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. (Photo: Peter Prato/A24)

Director Joe Talbot’s feature film debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, would appear, from all the press and rapturous reviews, to have captured the San Francisco zeitgeist, portraying the city’s uneasiness with its supposed trajectory, in which gentrification and homelessness are erasing a gloriously funky history and ushering in a sleek, soulless, Tech-driven dystopia. Talbot, a native of San Francisco (his father is David Talbot, a founder of and author of the well-regarded SF history Season of the Witch), co-wrote the script (with Joe Richert, also a first-timer) based on stories and biographical details from the movie’s co-lead actor, Jimmie Fails, playing a character named Jimmie Fails. (Fails also gets a story credit.) The film definitely has an elegiac feel and a mythopoetic tone, along with some surrealistic touches: the opening sequence follows a young black girl skipping by Haz-Mat-suited workers until she reaches a street preacher on a literal soap box holding forth loudly to an audience of zero. But rather than a transcendent experience, what I encountered was an underpopulated, amateurish effort with glacial pacing, no real narrative drive, and characters that are merely a collection of odd, disjointed gestures, not living, breathing people.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Song and Dance, Part I: Wild Rose and Yesterday

Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose.

The review of Yesterday contains spoilers.
As Rose-Lynn, the young Glaswegian woman determined to make it as a country singer in Nashville in the new Wild Rose, Jessie Buckley has a fresh, totally unaffected camera presence and the instinct to hold the camera, sometimes for medium-long, pensive reaction takes that transport us directly into the character’s complicated feelings. Rose-Lynn is raucous and uncensored, and though in her early twenties she doesn’t initially show much more practicality or awareness of responsibility than she probably did at sixteen, she has a life-embracing personality that naturally draws people to her, and it captivates us too. When the movie starts, she has just been released from prison, where she served a short sentence for being the middleman in a drug deal. Her two young children – Wynonna and Lyle, both named for musical idols of hers – were both born before she was eighteen. During her absence, her widowed mother, Marion (the peerless Julie Walters, typically folding the character around her to make it a perfect fit), has been caring for them, but though she’s happy to continue helping out, she expects Rose-Lynn to take the lead – to land a job to support them and put them first, before her social life and the country-singer dreams Marion hasn’t much patience for – and figure out how to parent them wisely and thoughtfully. This last is a struggle for Rose-Lynn, who loves her kids but has never learned to settle down or think far beyond her own desires and impulses. (The first thing she does when she’s sprung from jail isn’t to rush home to Lyle and Wynonna but to get herself laid.) But she’s lucky. Her lawyer convinces a judge to lift her curfew – enforced by an ankle monitor – so that she can perform at a local club. And when she hires out as a house cleaner (“daily woman,” in Glasgow parlance), her employer, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), turns out to be a kind, sympathetic woman who is so encouraging of Rose-Lynn’s aspirations that she stages a big birthday party for herself and asks her guests, in lieu of gifts, to make donations to get her cleaner to Nashville. (Rose-Lynn conceals both her jailhouse past and the fact of her children from Susannah, who holds onto a romantic vision of her.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner

“Physical strength in a woman, that’s what I am. If you’re unhappy with anything, get rid of it. When you’re free, your true creativity and true self comes out.”  – Tina Turner, in I Tina, 1986
Here are three things about the notorious and incredibly creepy Ike Turner, and three reasons why he is still important even after living a long life of self-destructive disgrace through drug abuse and domestic violence. One, he recorded an incredibly raucous song, “Rocket 88,” in 1951, long before there was something even remotely identifiable as rock 'n' roll.  His indefinable and prehistoric vibe preceded not only Bill Haley and The Comets but also Chuck Berry and Little Richard, the recognized black co-creators of rock music.  He also long predated Elvis Presley, the white genius who borrowed all their vibes and led us directly into the waiting arms of The Beatles. Ike heard the future coming. And he flagged it down to jump on board.

Two, he was of course a tormented talent on a huge scale himself: musician, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, talent scout and record producer of considerable skill, especially as the commanding leader of The Kings of Rhythm, until meeting a certain young tornado from Tennessee and forming his famed co-named revue. Most notable among his early accomplishments was working with the equally notorious Phil Spector in 1965 to create the masterfully booming “River Deep, Mountain High.”

But we could surmise that it is indeed number three that makes us still utter his name at all today: he invented Tina Turner. While watching his band play one night, the diminutive Anna Mae Bullock approached the stage during an intermission and audaciously asked to sing with them. Then in 1960, Ike used Anna Mae, whom he had re-christened Tina (weirdly named after Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a character he admired), and her throaty voice for his tune “A Fool in Love,” which launched their careers together.

Monday, July 29, 2019

New Plays: Tell Me I’m Not Crazy and The Hunt

Mark Blum and Jane Kaczmarek in Tell Me I’m Not Crazy. (Photo: Joseph J. O'Malley)

The four characters in Sharyn Rothstein’s new play Tell Me I’m Not Crazy, playing at the Nikos Stage in Williamstown, represent two shaky marriages and two generations of a contemporary Jewish-American family. Sol (Mark Blum) is at loose ends after coming to the end of a career in human resources. His wife Diana (Jane Kaczmarek), an elementary-school teacher, hoped that Sol’s retirement would allow them to spend the kind of quality time together that his job has prevented but is dismayed to discover that they’re more distant than ever – and that their sex life has dwindled to nothing. Their son Nate (Mark Feuerstein), having failed to find his niche in the photography world, has been playing the role of caregiver for his two young children while his wife Alisa (Nicole Villamil) pursues a career in advertising that demands more and more time away from the family. When their three-year-old’s behavioral problems at daycare prompt immediate action, it’s Nate who has to carry the ball. Both marriages threaten to implode when Sol, distressed over some recent home invasions in their nice middle-class neighborhood, purchases a gun. Alisa and Nate stop bringing their kids over to his folks’, Diana throws Sol out of the house, and rather than back-pedal on his vow to take extreme steps to keep his family safe, Sol exacerbates the problem by joining a neighborhood vigilante group.

Rothstein has a talent for funny one-liners, and for the first half-hour or so (the play runs an hour and forty minutes without intermission) you think she’s onto something: a satirical comedy about couples trying to negotiate gender roles in the twenty-first century – as well as racial realities, since Alisa is Hispanic and Sol’s anger and paranoia about the danger to his suburb provokes him to assume that the perpetrators must be illegal immigrants. Rothstein keeps piling on more and more issues and revelations, and the only way the play could possibly support all of them is in the form of a nutty absurdist comedy that keeps threatening to go off the rails, like the ones Christopher Durang is famous for. Instead it gets more and more serious and you stop believing in it at all. I think that happens as soon as Sol comes clean about joining the neighborhood enforcers, a totally implausible development for this character except in an absurdist work. The play is a mess. The dramaturgy falls apart completely in a series of second-act scenes where each of the characters makes an announcement that, we find out five minutes later, is actually a lie. It feels as though Rothstein is making it all up as she goes along.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

On Nonverbal Cinema: Obscure (2019) and The Color of Pomegranates (aka Sayat Nova, 1969/2014)

Kylr Coffman in Obscure (2019)/

Cinema began as a record of physical movement. The advent of sound brought it more in line with the naturalism of everyday life, but it also de-emphasized the camera’s possibility for intimacy. The last half-decade or so has seen a reversal on that front, with renewed arthouse attention to microgestures and minute shifts in affect. I’m thinking of films like Her (2013), Gone Girl (2014), 45 Years (2015), Moonlight (2016), A Ghost Story (2017), and Phantom Thread (2018) , among others. (A Ghost Story would fit perfectly in this piece, too.)

The latest film to join the trend is writer-director Kunlin Wang’s debut Obscure (2019), which has only one line of dialogue in 92 minutes, and it’s in a reinvented version of “an obscure European language,” to boot, Wang told us in the Q&A following the festival screening I attended. Everything else is conveyed through framing, staging, facial expressions, visual situations, and score. Wang said that the script was originally written with dialogue, but when revising she cut all the lines she felt were unnecessary and ended up with just one, the only moment of exposition that couldn’t be avoided.