Monday, February 11, 2019

Puzzle Pieces

Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle.

Agnes, the Bridgeport, Connecticut working-class housewife played by Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle, seems to live on the periphery of her family. We don’t know how long she’s felt remote from her husband Louie (David Denman) and (to a lesser degree) from her two sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), who works with his dad in his car repair shop, and Gabe (Austin Abrams), who is revving up for college and whose forthright – and somewhat irritating – girlfriend (Liv Hewson) professes to be a Buddhist. Agnes loves her sons; she’s the parent who exercises sensitivity with them, while Louie’s immediate response to anything they do that doesn’t fit into his old-school masculine vision is a mixture of bafflement and stubborn opposition. It’s clear that she cares for Louie, too, but his stubbornness wears her down. When he throws a birthday party for her, she does all the work, and he doesn’t make a fuss over her; if it weren’t for the birthday cake (which she has baked) and candles, you’d think it was just a get-together of friends and family.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Contrarian View: Blackkklansman, The Sisters Brothers, Shoplifters and Burning

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.

The following contains a spoiler for the film Shoplifters.
It’s always illuminating to read film critics’ year end best-of lists in specialty magazines like Film Comment and Sight & Sound as well as mainstream mags and newspapers like Time and The New York Times. Overall, the critical community tends to hew to a predictable pattern, extolling art-house films, both foreign and English-language movies, much more than accessible (but quality) American or Hollywood fare. I’m not referring to Alfonso Cuarón’s superb Roma, his semi-autobiographical tale of his family maid in the '70s, which is a masterpiece and deserves all its accolades, but to other films whose rave reviews leave me cold. Here are four movies that don’t deserve the love they’re getting from critics.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Falling: Free Solo

Alex Honnold in Free Solo. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

Feature movies about mountain climbing generally fail because they feel the need to gin up an already dramatic situation and trumpet the themes of Man vs. Nature, the Indomitable Human Spirit, etc. The 2004 documentary Touching the Void understood that these themes were implicit in its telling of the ascent of two climbers up the face of the Andean mountain Siula Grande, and thus there was no need to make them explicit. Touching the Void did court controversy because it reenacted its true tale in the Alps, using actors who were also climbers, while an interview of the real climbers recounting their horrific experience provided the movie’s narration. The film was poised between a documentary and a feature film, and some cried foul. Those who did missed out on an amazing film-going experience.

The new film Free Solo, about the climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to “free solo” (climb without the aid of ropes or tools except his own hands and feet and a bag of chalk clipped to his back) the sheer face of Yosemite’s grand El Capitan mountain, a rise of about 3,000 feet, uses actual footage of Honnold’s climb, supplemented with Google Earth shots of the mighty peak to show us Alex’s path. It also shows us something of Alex’s life and the preparation needed to accomplish his goal. This Oscar-nominated documentary doesn’t have the artistic wonder that director Kevin Macdonald brought to Touching the Void, but El Capitan provides its own grandeur, and on a scale smaller yet perhaps equally awe-inspiring, so does Hannold.

Monday, February 4, 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch on Broadway

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, now on Broadway in a production expertly helmed by Bartlett Sher, is only the latest of several stage adaptations of Harper Lee’s well-loved 1960 novel, but it may be the first one by a distinguished dramatic writer with a distinctive style. That turns out to be both a good thing and a bad thing. Sorkin has done a fine job of shaping the material dramatically. Instead of leaving it in the emotional point of view of the little girl, Scout Finch, he’s divided the narrative voice among the three children – Scout, her older brother Jem, and their summertime companion Dill (who is Jem’s best friend) – who witness the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping and beating a young white woman, and defended by Scout and Jem’s father Atticus. It’s effective because it operates simultaneously as a reminder that we’re watching the tale unfold through the eyes of impressionable kids – that it’s a coming-of-age story – and as a Brechtian device. The children take turns relaying the information to the audience as the play moves back and forth between Tom’s trial, which they view as spectators, and their lives in and around the Finch household, including their fascination with their reclusive, never-seen neighbor, Boo Radley. (In the book, Boo is also a source of terror, but Sorkin downplays that element in the service of dramatic economy.) Courtroom settings are notoriously static for stage plays; here the continual shift of focus solves the problem while the narrative jumping around feels right for a story related by young kids. Sorkin, who has an acute ear, extends the dialogue – much of it is straight from the novel – to translate Lee’s wry southern humor and folksiness, which can be as dry as a corn husk and as tart and stinging as bourbon. And he’s toughened up Atticus Finch (played by Jeff Daniels), who now has a surprising forcefulness when he’s cross-examining the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi), and an even more surprising temper when he’s dealing with her vindictive father Bob (Frederick Weller).

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Rage Against the Dying of the Light: Dealt (2017)

Richard Turner in Dealt. (Photo: Geoff Duncan)

I thought I’d just about finished reviewing documentaries after that last piece. After all, documentaries aren’t usually known for their aesthetic innovations. But then along comes Dealt (2017), about Richard Turner, the world’s most renowned card mechanic (i.e., white-hat card shark), who just happens to have 100% vision loss, and the way that it introduces its subject, follows him through a turning point in his life, and conveys it all with a purposeful cinematicity just begs to be unpacked.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Front Runner: Satire and Beyond

Hugh Jackman (centre) in The F.ront Runner.

Movie-wise, 2018 culminated in the lamest Christmas season in years; aside from Mary Poppins Returns, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, three of the six segments in the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Peter Jackson’s extraordinary World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, I didn’t see a single film I could get behind. And the dim slate of Academy Award nominations for Best Picture confirm the widespread disgruntlement about the caliber of last year’s releases. Actually, it wasn’t quite as terrible a year for movies as the list of nominees indicates. It’s just that in 2018, even more radically than in most years, the majority of the interesting films were sidelined – they opened only briefly, and only in a few cities, and didn’t draw the attention they deserved. (Ironically, the other cadre of movies worth checking out resided at the other end of the spectrum: the franchise movies that saturated the cineplexes over the summer, most of which were immensely enjoyable.) This was the year of Blaze, Hearts Beat Loud, The Sisters BrothersPaddington 2, Leave No Trace, Juliet, Naked, Christopher Robin, The Death of Stalin, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and Journey’s End. And of The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s movie about Gary Hart’s doomed bid for the Democratic presidential candidacy in 1988, which a friend helpfully steered me to a couple of weeks ago. It’s amazing that a movie as good as this one, by a respected director and with a major star (Hugh Jackman), released at the beginning of prestige-movie season (it came out Thanksgiving week), could have slipped by virtually unnoticed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

It’s Been a Hard Day’s Life: Growing Up Berman

Tosh Berman (left) gesturing tantrically with family friend Allen Ginsberg. (Photo: Wallace Berman)

Review of the new memoir, Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World by Tosh Berman, published by City Lights Books.

"If the first movie your father takes you to as a child is . . .  And God Created Woman, you can be sure of two things. First, that your father is an extraordinary person. Second, that you are destined to lead an extraordinarily interesting life." – Ron Mael, Sparks
Both of Mael’s observations ring totally true in this engaging, endearing, and surprisingly modest chronicle of a life lived under the white hot lights of a radical couple of proto-hippie parents: Wallace and Shirley Berman, an avant-garde artist famed as one of the originators of “assemblage art” and his gorgeous and exceedingly generous (for letting him be who he was) wife and muse. The Bermans were obviously not your average family, and their son Tosh (from the Russian Antosha) is partly the living evidence of a life lived for reasons far beyond the quotidian behavioral realm of domestic security or conventional social structures. His father , and the legendary works of art he made, as well as the stratospheric friendships he cultivated, were a vital transitional link between the beat culture of the '50s and the hippie counterculture of the '60s. Thus young Tosh grew up on the circus high-wire in the big-top tent of accelerated Change.