THE SISTERS BROTHERS** Turgid


SOMETIMES, IN ORDER to appreciate how effective a good director is, it’s helpful to be reminded of how dreadful a bad director can be. The Sisters Brothers is a fine example of this. It’s a gripping enough story: the brothers, Eli and Charlie (badass gunslingers both, stunningly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix as the wild one and John C. Reilly as the slow, steady one) are sent on a mission by the shadowy Commodore (Rutger Hauer) – perhaps representing the spirit of lawlessness – to kill someone (played by the always outstanding Riz Ahmed). He’s being tracked by an ace tracker (Jake Glyllenhaal…compelling as usual).

But the hunters are themselves being hunted (for complicated reasons) by a posse of other gunslingers. There are gunfights, shadowy killers emerging suddenly in the night to finish off our sleeping protagonists, amputations, sibling rivalry, showdown gunfights, honky-tonk saloon bars; even a nicely scripted idea about the emergence of law in a place of lawlessness.
And it is all as dull as dishwater.

There’s not for even a moment, a quiver of dramatic tension; never for a second do we feel the tremor of threat. It’s as though French director Jacques Audiard (of the equally boring Rust and Bone) deliberately set out to either neutralize the excitement and thrill inherent in these Western tropes or to reinterpret them through the lense of French ennui. It’s a work of dramatic castration.

He certainly works hard at fleshing out the idiosyncrasies of his two main characters. We see them riding in the night (all very poorly lit by cinematographer Benoit Debie) talking, talking, talking. But they never for a moment feel like anything other than someone’s artistic idea. The Fargo Brothers, or Tarantino have the nous to seduce us into accepting that there might be decency and humanity beneath the rough exterior of killers. Not so Audiard. His rough killers are shoehorned by his theme (of redemption and the taming of the wild wild West) into retch-worthy cutesy-ness.

That is, if you stay awake long enough to reach the end

 

THE SISTERS BROTHERS. Dir/Writer: Jacques Audiard. Screenplay: Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone) from a book by Patrick DeWitt. With: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed. Cinematography: Benoit Debie

 

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US**** “The horror. The horror”


THE MAYHEM HAVING ensued, there’s a moment when Kitty’s doppelganger (Elisabeth Moss), smeared in blood, looks up to the screen and seems to howl in agony. The howl turns into a riotous laugh. And so it is with this masterful movie. Jordan Peele (Get Out), who wrote, directed and produced, has managed to find a tone (which he has made distinctly his) that balances fear and horror with outrageous black comedy; all as an expression of a cleverly written examination of the US’ divided soul.

The story is that of a typical Black middle class family, the Wilsons (Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) on holiday in their well-appointed holiday home in Santa Cruz. It’s a place they’d not visited in years. Mom (Lupita) we know, had suffered a trauma in her childhood. She’d wandered off in a nearby fairground and, seeking shelter from the rain, found herself in a hall of mirrors; a place that promised to help you “find yourself”. What she found there scarred her for life.

This disturbing past would return with a vengeance on this first night of their holiday when a family, eerily like theirs, all dressed in (blood) red boiler suits and brandishing scissors show up outside their front door.

Here the terror begins. These people are of course the family’s darker – evil – selves. And they come not in peace. Director Peele throws all the tropes of terror at us: the usual silly people tip-toeing into dark cellars while their shadowy selves wait to do them harm; bloodied, battered bodies that disappear only to reappear at very inconvenient moments; and large scissors that snip, snip, snip.

Somehow, it’s not nearly as terrifying as it sounds…partly because Peele has such a devilish sense of humor that he always finds a laugh-out-loud moment to lighten the tension. There’s a marvelous moment just as the doppelgängers storm the home of an embattled Kitty (Moss as a bored, entitled, alcoholic lady of leisure). She commands her voice activated Alexa to call the police, but Alexa misunderstands and out booms the NWA’s hip hop Fuck tha Police.

And these evil doppelgängers are everywhere. It’s as though the entire nation has been taken over by their darker selves. Walt Whitman’s famous summation of America: “I am large, I contain multitudes” has been perverted to “I am large, I contain evil”. As the director makes clear, this evil is “from sea to shining sea”

This is a vision of an America divided unto itself…a vision of a nation co-opted by the most dangerous side of its character; by a side long buried under layers of decency and ‘middle class values’, but which have now been unleashed. And once unleashed can never be bottled up again. Welcome to the post Trump, post Brexit, post Bolsonaro world.

It’s the new Us.

Lupita Nyong’o is tremendous; a force-field holding the movie together. She’s compellingly watchable as the image of a person torn between fear, incomprehension and the resolute determination to protect her family (I am reminded of Gabrielle Union in Breaking In). She’s the one you know you can depend on to protect you.

Or can you?

Peele textures his vision with a series of absurdist images and symbols (A room with an infinity of caged rabbits; a preacher offering a Biblical warning; the repetition of the numbers 11-11; a news report from 1986 about Hands Around America) and manages a last frame twist that M. Night Shyamalan would eat his hand off for.

All good fun; and though there certainly are a few heart stopping moments (ably abetted by Mike Abels’ tremendous sound track) this isn’t by any means a horror movie. Rather it’s a deadly serious comedy about where we now find ourselves.

Therein lies the horror.

US. Dir/Writer: Jordan Peele. With: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss. Composer: Michael Abels (Get Out). Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis (Glass). Production Design: Ruth De Jong

#movies1 #us-movie

 

 

 

CAPTAIN MARVEL*** Marvel-lous


I HAVE TO take my hat off (were I wearing one) to Marvel Studios. In the last twelve months, they’ve broken through glass ceilings of race (with Black Panther) and now gender (with the once male, now rebooted as female, Captain Marvel). OK DC Comics pipped them on the latter with Wonder Woman. But who’s quibbling. The investment in what is already a hugely profitable Black and now female led superhero franchise is some achievement. Corporate America is recognizing Black people and women…in positions of authority…worth looking up to. What will they think of next?

The movie is absolute fun. And this in no small part due to the infectious charm of Brie Larson (heartily forgiven for Kong: Skull Island) as its eponymous hero (heroine?). She’s probably the first superhero who talks, laughs, drinks, and gets pissed off like a real person. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was a magnetic presence…but always larger than life; always Amazonia. Not so Brie aka Captain Carol Danvers of Earth, aka Vers from the planet Hala, aka Captain Marvel. She’s the uber ideal of the girl next door (some neighborhood!), who looks like someone you’d like to chat up. But who just happens to be a goddess.

And that adjective is not applied lightly. Captain Marvel can not only shoot photons of energy from her fists, she can slice through most things with her laser beam eyes, fly at supersonic speeds and disable battalions of soldiers with a twirl of her arms. Eat your heart out Superman.

The story charts her rise from trainee soldier on her planet (under the tutelage of the dodgy Yon-Rogg, otherwise recognized as Jude Law) to goddess on ours via a series of vaguely understood flash-backs. Think of her journey as The Bourne Identity in Space. She crashes on earth in a Blockbuster store…in that time of very slow dial up, brick sized cell phones and a youthful Agent Fury (The, sadly, inescapable Samuel L Jackson). The earth, she is told, is being overrun by the Skrulls – a shape-shifting race (from whom she was escaping when she crashed here) who must be eradicated.

And here’s where co-writers/directors Anna Boden’s and Ryan Flack’s plot differs from the usual (militaristic, quasi fascist) super hero trope where some implacable existential evil has to be defeated at all cost. Danvers/Vers/Marvel finds herself called upon to champion the needs of an endangered group of refugees. They’re desperate people fleeing persecution at home and simply seeking a safe haven. Husbands are being separated from wives and children from parents. They’re beaten up, imprisoned, demonized as terrorists and shot.

Sound familiar?

Vers must figure out how to separate victim from perpetrator, friend from enemy. She must recognize that in a world of shape shifters and shiftier friends, looks can be deceiving.

Only then she can unleash all those photons, laser beam eyes, and energy blasts.

And she does it all with the help of Maria (English actress Lashana Lynch) her BFF, who sadly thought she’d been killed six years ago (And who is remarkedly unphased by her rebirth as a goddess). Said friend is an ace pilot, a single mother AND Black.

So imaginative, these Hollywood writers!

It’s a visually sumptuous movie as well. Production designer Andy Nicholson (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) and costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays (Star Trek Beyond) fill the screen with wonderfully imaginative space craft and sexy Wakanda-esque body suits.

Now let’s hope Brie Larson doesn’t succumb to the curse of the Marvel universe where once lauded acting talent (Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Elisabeth Olsen, Robert Downey Jr. Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo et al) strut and flex and pose and slowly die.

 

CAPTAIN MARVEL. Writer/Director: Anna Boden and Ryan Flack. Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Screenplay; Tomb Raider). With: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Djimon Hounsou. Cinematograher: Ben Davis (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Production designer: Andy Nicholson (Gravity). Costume designer: Sanja Milkovic Hays (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor)

 

 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK***Admirable and Flawed


IT’S A STORY of sweet, innocent love brought down by systemic racism and judicial corruption. In the bigoted US, hate easily defeats love and at the end of Barry Jenkins’s very tender, moving (if unduly leisurely) adaptation of James Baldwin’s book, you’re torn between tears and tearing things down.

The book (and the movie) shows us a world circa 1974. After forty years and a Black President, precious little has changed; with Trump in power, things have moved backward, hate has risen and guilty of living while Black is an even more entrenched ‘crime’

Tish (Kiki Lane in her first major movie role) and Fonny (Stephan James: Selma) have known each other since childhood. They live in a bubble of each other’s love with a chemistry between the two actors that feels authentic and heartfelt. Fonny is a craftsman in wood (He can’t bring himself to be called an artist) and like all artists, he must create something out of nothing…a life, a family, a future. Like the empty loft space they plan to rent, they must both imagine the walls, imagine the furniture, imagine the home for their family idyll.

What they couldn’t imagine is that Fonny would get Liam Neeson-ed (the need to find any Black man guilty for an individual Black man’s crime) by a racist cop (Ed Skrein: Deadpool) and sent down just as Tish becomes pregnant with his child.

Jenkins (Moonlight) tells his story through a series of flash backs, alternating between the innocent sweetness of their naive love and the terrible tragedy of a system stacked against the likes of a young Black man who’d pissed off a cop. He intercuts the story with actual news photos of Black men being beaten up, harassed and chain-ganged. It’s a means of paralleling the actual with its fiction, the facelessness of institutionalised racism with the more moving reality of people we get to know.

This of course was Baldwin’s brilliance: his ability to make tangible the Black experience through seducing us into their lives, not as political exemplars, but as real people.

And here’s my problem with this film. Though Jenkins’ directing impressively brings the audience very up-close with his characters, as though we’re there in the room with them, only the mother (a wonderful Regina King) and the father (Colman Domingo: The Butler) feel real.

Tish and Fonny are bland, cutesy lovers who never rise above an idea, above their thematic intent. Jenkins’ use of newsreel ups the anger. But it’s also a cop out…as though he lacked the self-confidence of his (or Baldwin’s) creations to illustrate the idea and the anger driving the story. They’re a charming couple, but they feel inauthentic; the story offers us no pathways to their inner lives, to the ways circumstances are shaping their world-views. They remain mere figureheads in service of a polemic.

Of course as our coarsened world regresses, any popular entertainment, from Black Panther to Get Out to …Beal Street, that celebrates that Black lives do matter, is worth celebrating. There was a time not long ago when it was anathema to show Black people kissing on the screen. In …Beal Street, they’re actually screwing (clumsily, awkwardly).

Progress I suppose

 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. Dir/Writer: Barry Jenkins (from the book by James Baldwin). With: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo. Cinematographer: James Laxton (Moonlight). Production designer: Mark Friedberg (The Amazing Spider-Man 2)

 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME***** Yes


“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?”

THIS IS A well told, fascinating story (in the “watching a car crash” type of fascination) of Lee Israel, a cranky, friendless alcoholic biographer, fallen on hard times (MeIissa McCarthy in her most compelling role to date). In order to pay the rent, she turns the sale of a letter to her from Katherine Hepburn and the chance discovery (and petty theft) of one from Fanny Bryce into the full-blown business of literary forgeries. She basically invents convincingly ‘real’ letters from famous (and dead) authors, forges their signatures and flogs them to any one of a swath of mainly dodgy dealers.

Along the way, she hooks up – “befriends” is too strong a word – with an old acquaintance and fellow drunk, Jack (Richard E Grant as a charismatically engaging loser)

Two unlikeable reprobates, on the wrong side of the law, sharing their booze and their misery.

She, in particular, is the kind of person you try hard to avoid. She’s selfish, abusive, and hostile to any attempt at friendship or empathy (other than to her dying cat). Even her many years as a modestly successful biographer – immersing herself into and channeling the lives of others – was really just a way of escaping herself, her own life.

Even Lee didn’t like being around Lee.

Jack, who bumps into her in a bar (naturally), is more naturally charming: a homeless, ageing, gay libertine with a shady past and no future, still clinging to his fading looks to seduce whoever’s within reach.

This isn’t a feel-good movie. There is no hidden inner core of decency just waiting to be unveiled in a moment of heart-warming redemption. The (brilliantly constructed) movie, based on Ms. Israel’s autobiography is too honest to fall for that Hollywood con.

And perhaps this is what makes it such compelling viewing. There’s an authenticity to it; it pulls no punches, offers no sermonising, arrives at no artificially shaped, life-ennobling moral. It simply leads us into this sordid world of personal dishonesties, and lets us come to our own conclusions. Lee -honestly- feels no regrets for her dishonesty; for having bamboozled collectors (seen as a generally shifty bunch of underhand wheeler-dealers anyway). And she’s never anything but honest in owning up to her dishonesty…to pay for her crime.

In its own idiosyncratic way, this honesty about her dishonesty opens up the pathway to the discovery of her authentic voice. Instead of hiding herself in the lives of others, she finally finds her own life one worth living and writing about. In a sense, crime does pay.

Both actors are riveting. Both are deserving of their Oscar nominations. (It’s impossible to imagine the roles in any other hands. Apparently Julianne Moore was initially considered for the lead role. Terrible thought. ). And they both deliver such fully convincing portraits that it’s impossible not to be hooked…not to be one with the director (Marielle Heller in her first major movie) and fall in love with her subjects, disreputable though they may be.

Heller’s movie is as brilliant a piece of portrait ‘painting’ as any Rembrandt. The portrait may be of two sad, depressing people. It’s far from a sad, depressing portrait.

Such a miss on the part of the Oscar’s that this heralded movie was not nominated for Best Movie

 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? DIR: Marielle Heller. Writer: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty. With: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant (Logan, Jackie), Jane Curtin (The Spy Who Dumped Me). Cinematographer: Brandon Trost (Bad Neighbours)

 

 

GREEN BOOK****Hits the right notes


THIS MARVELLOUS MOVIE deftly pulls off an incredible sleight of hand. This is thanks to some superb writing by Peter Farrelly (who also directed) and Brian Currie (from a memoir by Nick Vallelonga) and the tremendous chemistry between Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. The (reality based) story set in the early 60’s, pairs Tony Vallelonga aka TonyLip, a casually racist Italian bruiser (Mortensen) with Dr. Don Shirley, a fastidious Black pianist (Ali). Tony has been employed by Dr. Shirley’s record company to chauffeur him around (and protect him) as he and his trio meander down into the segregationist South performing to sell out and increasingly racist audiences. The Green Book refers to the guide to the hotels Black people were allowed to stay in.

This is buddy movie heaven. Two opposites thrown together to snipe at each other and eventually bring out the best of each other, in a typical opposites-attract Hollywood bromance.

It shouldn’t work. We can guess at the arc of the story from the very beginning (slyly at the Copacabana where bouncer Tony beats up a drunk while the resident MC/crooner belts out “That Old Black Magic”. Get it?). We know somehow Shirley’s erudition will help smooth Tony’s (very) rough edges. We know his music will sooth Tony’s savage beast; and we know Tony’s community rootedness will reintegrate Shirley into his own community.

The movie transforms these clichéd tropes into something quite surprisingly up-lifting. It works because at the thematic level, it’s a nuanced exploration of racial identity and belonging, largely seen through the eyes of the two protagonists. Tony boasts that he’s lived in and belongs to the same neighbourhood that his parents and their parents lived in. He’s almost the clichéd Italian-American: the spaghetti eating, family-loving, wise-guy hobnobbing, Italian-speaking expression of his community. He has no doubt whatsoever of his sense of self; his identity.

Shirley is the opposite. He has no community. He belongs nowhere. He’s a haunted, depressed, highly controlled, lonely man who doesn’t identify Black. And can’t identify White. In one telling scene, he sits at the back of his limo, nattily dressed in his perfectly fitting suit and looks out with a mix of puzzlement and perhaps shame at the poor, ill-shod, Black cotton pickers in the fields across the way. They regard him with curiosity and contempt as if he’s some alien being. Here’s the brilliant musician unfamiliar with the Black music of his time (Little Richard, Aretha Franklyn etc).

He’s not even straight.

Unlike Tony, there’s no community in which Shirley can possibly fit. Even the music he so brilliantly plays (a sort of high class jazz) isn’t the music he’d rather play: Handel and Liszt better suite his temperament and creative spirit (But who wants to hear that?).

Identity is belonging. Without it, you’re little more than a nowhere man.

Beyond this intellectual dimension, the two characters – in no small part due to the superb performances of Mahershala Ali, and especially the weight-gained Viggo Mortensen – come across as engagingly real. Their bond feels like the genuine thing, not an artificial construct. Tony is a quick-tempered thug. But he’s also a loving husband and father; an essentially decent and open-minded person. We witness his early racism slip away the more he sees beyond the race to the person. This in direct contrast with Shirley’s White Southern audiences, who only ever see a Black entertainer. The classical pianist tolerated as an exotic circus performer.

Shirley meanwhile, firmly locked in the castle of his skin, hides his loneliness and frailty beneath a mask of patronising hauteur, crisp diction and Scotch.

The arc of the narrative traces his inner journey as he slowly discovers his own racial identity, and, through Tony, an embryonic sense of belonging.

There are some scenes that border on the corny (He’s reluctantly introduced to KFC by Tony; and then re-introduced to fried chicken by one of his Southern White hosts who deems it appropriately ethnic. Shirley is disdainful of this kind of racist type casting; but to Tony, food is culture. Be proud)

The movie is funny, insightful and often, without schmaltz, quite heart tugging. It’s been accused of over-simplifying the complex issue of US race relations (and indeed, it would be interesting to imagine the same story directed by a Black director). But its central focus -retain your dignity; never resort to violence- offers the refreshing perspective of race relations seen not through the perspective of politics but through that of art’s intimate, healing touch.

The result is something that’s magical and never maudlin. It’s a tough balancing act, sensitively finessed by director Farrelly, whose past successes (The Three Stooges, There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber) were less, let’s say, nuanced.

 

GREEN BOOK. Dir/Written: Peter Farrelly. Co-Writer: Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga. With: Viggo Mortensen, Maherslhala Ali, Linda Cardellini (Avengers, Age of Ultron). Cinematographer: Sean Porter (Green Room), Production Designer: Tim Galvin (The Butler), Composer: Kris BowersDear White People; TV)

 

 

 

 

VICE***Whatever


 

IT SEEMS a new category has slipped into the Oscars: best prosthetics-added portrayal of a fat personage. Gary Oldman successfully did it last year as Churchill, portrayed as a rough on the outside, tender on the inside, diversity-loving quasi liberal. This year, we have John C Reilly as jolly Olive Hardy; and now, Christian Bale as the Dark Lord, Dick Cheney. Bale is the winner! And a very definite potential statuette lifter.

Vice is a serio-docu-comedy. It certainly tries hard to be all three, and ends up being none of them. It’s an entertaining (because the Devil is always more fun than God), and entirely drama-free skim through of the life of an odious person. The story, apart from a few flashbacks here and there, begins with a young, dissolute and loutish Cheney and ends with the Darth Vader that we all know, still claiming to be doing his darnedness to keep America safe (Where have we heard that recently?). According to writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Anchorman 2), the power behind him and the catalyst of his lust for power at any cost was his wife, Lynn, played with steely conviction by Amy Adams.

The story offers us a whistle stop tour of American policy circa 1965-2006. Here are Nixon/Kissinger secretly plotting to bomb Cambodia (with a young Cheney interned to Rumsfeld); Bush Sr. pops up briefly; and then good old boy, Bush Jr. is ushered in to yield power and authority to Cheney (and inadvertently usher in an Imperial presidency). Cheney finds a way around congressional oversight to run things once the election against Al Gore is well and truly stolen. Then 9-11 offers him his big chance to sate the public’s need to bomb somewhere (Al Qaeda was too elusive an enemy), resulting in the Iraqi invasion, along with the torture, the lucrative contracts for Halliburton etc.

And the gangs all there: a befuddled Bush (Sam Rockwell, still befuddled from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri it seems), a hawkish Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), an outfoxed Powell (Tyler Perry), an invisible Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), a devious John Woo (Paul Yoo as the lawyer that claimed torture was OK since the US didn’t do it) along with Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, David Addington, George Tenet, Antonin Scalia and a seemingly endless rogue’s gallery of White House power brokers.

It was an unpleasant ‘trip down memory lane’ to revisit all those old faces and their vile programs. And Bale’s Cheney, with his sneer and whispered plots, makes him the unquestioned leader of the gang, the bona fide Prince of darkness.

But, despite the bizarre use of a semi-comic choric figure guiding us through the story (Jesse Plemons of America Made), McKay’s noble attempts to introduce the throb of blood, the human drama behind high stakes negotiations and covert maneuvers, the whole enterprise feels curiously bloodless. It’s like a really, really well done, liberal-leaning History Channel bio-pic.

If you didn’t like Cheney before (did anyone?), you’ll really hate him now. But here there’re no new insights, no crazy Oliver Stone conspiracy theories, no never before known stories, no world-view reinterpreted with the passage of time. If one role of art is to help you re-see the world through new eyes, Vice has left me metaphorically blindfolded.

It’ll offer you a fun time wallowing in the past and silently hissing at a pantomime villain. But unless you were asleep from 1965-2006, and thought Kissinger, Cheney et al were lovely honourable men, you won’t find much here to either enrich or modify your world-view.

 

VICE. Dir./writer: Adam McKay. With: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Eddie Marsan, Jesse Plemons. Cinematographer: Greig Fraser (Rogue One). Production Designer: Patrice Vermette (Gringo)