Annihilation

Photo Credit: Peter Mountain - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


Left to right: Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in ANNIHILATION, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

What do you get when you cross writer/director Alex Garland with producer Scott Rudin and a facile read of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy?

When Kane (Oscar Isaac) goes AWOL from an exploratory mission of strange phenomena in Area X and inexplicably re-appears at his home, his ex-military wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), scrutinizes how exactly he got there—he is not himself.  Before we have a chance to invest ourselves in the principals, Kane and Lena are moved to a nondescript interrogation facility at Area X.  There Lena meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who ponderously exposits on the previous teams of men sent into a region called The Shimmer.  While inside, radio contact is lost, the teams fail to return and are presumed dead.

Serendipitously, Lena, whose husband was the only survivor of the prior teams, left the military to become an expert in cellular biology.  So, at 36, she spent 4 years minimum in the military, 7-10 years in school, and then another 10 to 20 years becoming a published expert in cell biology?  She must have gone through the same accelerated learning program as Amy Adams in ARRIVAL, starting from the day she was born.  It’s almost as if female characters in Hollywood are cast too young and/or poorly written.

Once more unto the breach ventures Dr. Ventress’ team—Anya, a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), Josie, a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and Cass, an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny).  Something of an enigma, Dr. Ventress’ numbness stems from more than guilt.  Once inside The Shimmer, their initial encounters are genuinely terrifying—in particular, one which I can only describe as a nightmare twist on South Park’s ManBearPig.  These scenes work as vignettes but Garland doesn’t seem to know what else to do with them.

The shimmer acts as some kind of prism which refracts everything.  Insofar as Garland skimmed the Cliffs Notes version of Gould and Eldredge’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, the biological distortions appear to be cross-mutations of homeobox (“hox”) genes.  Hox genes were found to be interchangeable in various species, giving evidence of the points at which their common ancestor diverged.  Garland invokes this to impart some kind of authenticity to the science of the movie, but gets it, and the history of cellular evolution, so wrong that he wastes screen time setting up logic that is discarded anyway.

I don’t expect science fiction to always be grounded in fact, which is challenging to do, but you can’t have your cake and eat it.  I never complained that the aliens in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS might not know what sound is if they don’t have an atmosphere in which to propagate it.  Garland would have done well sticking with either fantasy or sci-fi, but half-assed both.

In ARRIVAL, at least the entities had some kind of endgame.  It is explained away here that the aliens who caused The Shimmer may not even be sentient.  Yet rather than expanding upon accelerated natural selection as an indiscriminate process, the narrative reverses course toward a denouement that is sentient, purposeful, superfluous, and, in the final shot, entirely predictable.

Capping off the faux profundity, there’s always a camcorder exactly where you need exposition.  Strangely, the camera in question survives an explosion that, when repeated, engulfs a structure which makes you wonder why it didn’t the first time.

Ultimately, Garland cops out and what started as a fascinating science fiction like Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, pregnant with possibilities, plays out as FRIDAY THE 13th meets PREDATOR where Dutch has a Ph.D. and Jason Voorhees is a blooming fungus.

Black Panther

©2018, Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

(L-R) Lupita N’yongo, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright in Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER

“We are also mercenaries, dictators, liars.  We are human, too.”
– James Baldwin

“Who are you?”

The question of black identity and self-image in America is as complex as they come.  It’s been probed by James Baldwin, Alex Haley, Spike Lee, Ava Duvernay and most recently Barry Jenkins.  Now the question falls in the hands of Ryan Coogler, and it’s … complicated.

BLACK PANTHER opens in a style that’s become fashionable for fantasy exposition, whereby a narrator walks us through the history of a distant or mythical place whose surroundings fell to ruin, but one hero emerges victoriously to restore his (or the people’s) dignity, etc. etc.  If I hadn’t already seen it five or six other times, it might feel genuinely in its place.

For generations, Wakanda and its futuristic technologies (owing to an alien ore) have been kept secret from the world; its protector their king, whose ingestion of the heart-shaped herb gives him the strength and senses of a black panther.  Now, King T’Chaka (John Kani, THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS) has died.  His son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), must take the throne, but not before facing any willing challenger in open combat.  You can see the beginnings of democracy, or at least constitutional monarchy, in this process.

You also see the genesis of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).  Like some of Marvel’s more nuanced villains, Erik Killmonger’s genesis comes from resentment—though not entirely misplaced.  And that’s the difference.  While Erik Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto of the X-Men comics) carries great anger against humanity for the proliferation and atrocities of the Nazis, the modern world doesn’t continue to demean and damn him.  Killmonger was abandoned in a world that despises him to protect a secret—and therein lies the strife.

Where BLACK PANTHER struggles is in the space of serving two masters.  It is a movie written and directed by a black man, starring black actors, with narrative conflicts created and resolved entirely within a black community. But it is also a Marvel film.  It is also a Disney film.  Consequently, there’s a constant, nagging deference to action sequences.  But what Coogler does right, in spite of everything working against him, is almost breath-taking in context.

In spite of of all this, writer/director Coogler strums chords where even John Singleton failed with his disastrously-jumbled HIGHER GROUND (1995).  In that film, Singelton, who struck back at racial agitprop in the year of Rodney King with BOYZ N THE HOOD, attempted to tackle so many social messages at once the film simply fell apart.

Here, Coogler hits every note.  T’Challa balances the gauge of black unity against the need for tribal diversity, while also being an honest leader who accepts and faces legitimate challenges to his authority.  He responds with mercy when his challenger yields, “You fought with honor.  Now yield; your people need you.”

Erik confronts his issues of parental abandonment and, though consumed by his anger to the point of violence, we understand him.    Undercurrents of a commentary on hyper-masculinity contrasted with nurturing leadership fuel the tension between Erik and T’Challa.  The throne, not the man, is served by the Dora Milaje—female warriors as fierce as they are feminine, smart, and several shades darker than Scott Rudin would prefer.

And that cast! Lupita N’yongo as Nakia, a spy deep-undercover rescuing Wakandan women from human trafficking; that she’s T’Challa’s ex is secondary.  Okoye (Danai Gurira), his top general.  Daniel Kaluuya (from last year’s brilliant social commentary, GET OUT) as W’Kabi, a cavalry commander.  Sterling K. Brown as N’Jobu, a spy sent to Oakland, CA, to track illicit sales of vibranium.  Forest Whitaker as the shaman, Zuri.

John Kani is a kinder, gentler King.  Only Angela Bassett could riff off Madge Sinclair’s stately Queen Aeoleon.  The standout, however, is Letitia Wright as Shuri—T’Challa’s defiantly ingenious, wisecracking sister and Q to his James Bond.  Not by coincidence, Ludwig Göransson’s score, when it’s not echoing Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man, riffs off Nile Rodgers’ regal horns and strings that herald King Jaffe Joffer’s arrival in the United States in COMING TO AMERICA.  Shot by Rachel Morrison, the off-axis close-ups of Wakandan warriors’ gorgeous ebony faces rim-lit by sun-drenched vistas make one occasionally forget this is a Marvel film.

The film also deals frankly with the perilous foreign policy of isolationism—as pertinent to us as a nation as it is to minorities in particular.  Here, Wakanda calls upon the support of a foreign government, and the whitest of white people, Martin Freeman.  The appeal made to stop a war fueled by white arms dealers is not to CIA Agent Ross, but to combat veteran and skilled Air Force pilot Ross.  Coogler’s, his characters’, and black people’s capacity for self-reflection and empathy lies in stark contrast to the caricatures painted by bigots.  As Roger Ebert noted in his 2001 retrospective of Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING, it was remarkable as “a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants.”¹

Spike, let’s face it, invented the black superhero origin story with MALCOLM X, a film that tells us how Malcolm Little discovered the answer to the question, “Who am I?”   Lee’s film concludes with schoolchildren declaring one after another, resolutely, “I AM MALCOLM X.”

This film concludes with another Little, Alex Hibbert from Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT, asking by proxy the same question.


  1. Maybe that is or isn’t more empathy than they deserve, but that’s for black filmmakers and critics to comment upon.

 

Groundhog Day

©2017, SPHE.

(L-R) Phil Connors (Bill Murray), Rita (Andie MacDowell), Debbie (Hynden Walch) and Fred (Michael Shannon) in GROUNDHOG DAY.

 

What makes a movie great is not what it is about, but how it is about it.
– Roger Ebert

Sometimes, a movie is so light of foot that its brilliance goes unnoticed.  A decade before LOST IN TRANSLATION, Bill Murray made his journey from sketch comedian to absurdist existentialist as the choleric weather reporter, Phil Connors, in Harold Ramis’ GROUNDHOG DAY.  The film is named for the annual rite in which the townspeople of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, gather to see if a groundhog will see its own shadow—forecasting a six-week extension of winter into March or, as we North Dakotans call it, Still Winter.

Diverted by a snowstorm, Phil, his segment producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) on whom he has a brewing crush, and camera operator, Larry (Chris Elliott), find themselves stranded in Punxsutawney for the day until roads are cleared.  The day passes, not without irritation for Phil who finds tolerating the local flavor an exercise in willpower—”rustic” is not a concept he embraces.  Morning arrives; the next day does not.  Phil inexplicably repeats February 2nd, again and again.

As in GHOSTBUSTERS, Murray and writer/director Ramis (who cameos as that kind of doctor who knows your vices better than you do) work exceptionally well together.  Instead of milking every scene for gags, or keeping others from believing Phil purely to fabricate tension, they execute an honest story at face-value, laying in setups and payoffs where they intrinsically belong: At the end of the second act, Phil exposes the doubts of a newly engaged couple, Debbie (Hynden Walch) and Fred (a young Michael Shannon)—you’ll see them again.  Ramis and Murray achieve a harmony of wit and wisdom that works so effortlessly on you, on us all, the phrase “Groundhog Day” in American vernacular has become a synonym for déjà vu.

Re-living the same day ad nauseam, Phil’s amassed knowledge serves his interests—at first mundane, then selfish, then prurient.  When he runs out of amusements, he turns to desperation.  Like a walk-through of Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, GROUNDHOG DAY takes us through Phil’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, epitomized in Phil’s repeated encounters with the dreadfully-cheery Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky).  An insurance salesman, Ned’s one of those classmates we all know, who inconveniently resurfaces with an utterly transparent motive—Amway zombies come to mind.  Phil attempts to ignore, run, and even punch out Ned.  Ultimately, Phil’s solution lies in embracing his fears.

In the depths of despair over his inescapable predicament, Phil invests so much time trying to die he doesn’t immediately see the lesson.  After Phil tries everything to no avail, including the always macabre, occasionally funny toaster-in-the-tub trick, he takes to learning the piano.  That he gains the skill of at least a good lounge tinkler suggests to us he’s re-lived February 2nd more than a few hundred times.  Eventually he exhausts the possibilities and free of the fear of both being alive and stuck or dead and gone, he starts to collect seemingly meaningless bits of knowledge that accumulate into wisdom.

Having conquered death, and Ned, the parlor tricks Phil accomplishes with infinite knowledge seem infinitesimally trivial.  Soon, his interests turn to Rita and her charms—whatever they are.  Since SAY ANYTHING, I’ve thought attempts to mythologize Andie Macdowell misplaced at best.  In his Great Movies review, Roger Ebert concluded, “There is a moment when Phil tells Rita, ‘When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel.’ The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.”

But the real revelation lies elsewhere, in an unusually-gripping scene for a comedy.  From his repeated attempts to save a dying, homeless man, Phil learns the most difficult lesson about time: Sooner or later, it just runs out.  He stops trying to game the system and the people he sees as unwitting pawns relative to his omniscience.

By evening, at the big shindig, we discover that Phil has used his infinite knowledge of how and why things work to make people’s lives better, whether he’s improving the quality of life of a dying man or buying Wrestlemania tickets for newlyweds—remember Fred and Debbie?

Finally, Phil discovers the virtue in re-living same day is not that it is the same day.  It could be a different day, but to treat each day as though time were no object, one pursues goals that have no immediate payoff.  Time is the most valuable commodity we have, and happiness the most prized outcome when time is invested wisely.  Phil’s profound triumph isn’t that he’s learned to see the angel in Rita.  It’s that he’s learned to see the past, present, and future in each of us and, most crucially, in himself.


GROUNDHOG DAY is being re-released in limited theatrical engagement for its twenty-fifth anniversary.

Stanning Stan: A Case Study

©2017, NEON.

Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly in I, TONYA

In my review of I, TONYA, I singled out Sebastian Stan’s performance as the much-maligned Jeff Gillooly:

Jeff’s masculinity is toxic and complex in a manner rarely explored in contemporary cinema.  Meek, yet monstrous, his voice pitches nasally in a way that grates; its near-femininity disarms you.  Stan walks a razor thin edge; too much, and he would be a caricature, not enough and it could be construed as almost romanticizing abuse.  In one scene, Jeff threatens Tonya in a way that is both incomprehensibly cruel and emotionally manipulative, yet you find yourself wanting to comfort him.   That level of fourth-wall manipulation requires incredible nuance and skill; Stan’s is evocative of Eric Roberts’ tour-de-force outing in Star 80.

My top pick in the Best Supporting Actor category in this year’s Dallas-Ft Worth Film Critics Association awards, Sebastian Stan has somehow eluded widespread acknowledgement by critics’ associations in this year’s run-up to the Academy Awards.  After the year of Weinstein and the tidal wave of victims’ voices against our culture’s systemic oppression and mistreatment of women, maybe my peers are reticent to reward an abusive character.

Stan’s performance employs a muted balance of humor and terror.  Radiating a disarmingly boyish docility, his prodigious bursts of violence land abruptly.  Perhaps he disappeared into the role so well, critics simply overlooked it.  As Roger Ebert used to say, the likeliest contender for laudits is who “acts most”, not finest.

At 35, with roles in television and the Marvel cinematic universe, Stan doesn’t possess the indie cred of younger comers like Timothée Chalamet, nor the résumé of a Stuhlbarg or Fassbender—the latter having played a super-villain in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and a damaged sex addict in SHAME.

A more cynical view: Stan’s fanbase is predominantly young and female, a demographic dismissed in every circle, from fandom to serious drama—hence the pejorative “chick flick”.  Film criticism, not without its own scandals last year, is now dominated not so much by erudite journalists but white, male geeks who, somewhere between their love of comic book movies and web design, decided they had the chops to write about cinema without relevant education or experience.

Studio marketing, perhaps sensitive to, or even altogether unaware of, the perils of thrusting an abusive, vengeful nerd before a cadre of white male geeks, sidelines Stan in the promotional material for the film:

“Featuring an iconic turn by Margot Robbie as the fiery Harding, a mustachioed Sebastian Stan as her impetuous ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, a tour-de-force performance from Allison Janney as her acid-tongued mother, LaVona Golden…”

His performance goes without comment, in lieu of his physical appearance, an ignominy that typically falls upon women.   Yet, Stan remains stalwart, committed and gracefully deferential to his female co-stars, upon whom he regularly heaps praise, stating: “I’m happy bringing the attention where it’s due.”

In the current environment, perhaps that’s the sensible play for now.  But if I were his agent, I’d find out where Steve McQueen is having his next pitch meeting.

I, Tonya

©2017, NEON.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in an elevator in I, TONYA, courtesy of NEON.

There’s a moment late in I, TONYA in which cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis frames Margot Robbie’s makeup-caked face in a way that feels as though we’re staring at her through a prison visitor’s partition.   She desperately smiles, rictus-like, through her tears and the result is devastating.

I’ve bemoaned how the strong female character has been reduced to the most literal of definitions: an attractive, yet glib firecracker who can take down any schlub with a quick fist to the kisser.   Oh, she’s not like those other girls.  She’s just one of the boys.

Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers, I, TONYA somehow takes this exhausted formula and upends it.   An asthmatic chain smoker, Tonya Harding was the first American figure skater to conquer the triple axel at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.  She first appears onscreen a pink-cheeked, cherubic toddler with cornsilk pigtails, dressed up soft and feminine, a look as ill-fitting as her oversized winter coat.  Her stage mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), roughly tugs her along, presenting the prodigy to a skeptical figure skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson).

“How old are you, honey?” asks Diane.

“She’s a soft four”, LaVona concedes as Diane expresses hesitation.

Her daughter’s childhood lacks normalcy—no nurturing, no positive reinforcement.   LaVona purposely inflicts pain upon Tonya (emotionally and physically) under the pretense of “firing her up”.  The portentous child works best when agitated, intent on proving her nay-sayers wrong.   This dysfunctional dynamic continues into Tonya’s adolescence; Margot Robbie dons braces and heartbreakingly cheap fashion—”I have a fur coat,” made of rabbits she hunted years ago, with her estranged father, now too small to fit her adult frame—awkward yet somehow still defiant.

Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a gormless nobody, haunts the arena where she practices.  Soft-spoken, he struggles with eye contact, stuttering out compliments about her looks.  Tonya, yet fragile in her self-esteem, soaks up every word.   For a minute, you think they might be happy together.  They’re young, playful, and gently tease each other.   Soon those barbs become heated; Jeff assaults her repeatedly.  The first time almost happens too quickly to process.  One can grasp why Tonya rationalizes it as a fluke.

I, TONYA is only obliquely about the Kerrigan/Harding rivalry and ensuing scandal that coincided with the emergence of the 24 hour news cycle—FOX News, sensationalized journalism, and the culture that inexorably led us to contemporary political events.   At its core, the film examines performative femininity, toxic masculinity, and the deep-rooted misogyny inherent in both.

A defiant tomboy, Tonya tries to fit in with the rigidly pristine image cultivated by the sport she has mastered.   Her attempts are repeated, desperate, and soul-crushing.   Purple nails become perfectly manicured french tips.  She sits at her little sewing machine, overjoyed upon completing a pink tulle monstrosity of her own design.

Jeff’s masculinity is toxic and complex in a manner rarely explored in contemporary cinema.  Meek, yet monstrous, his voice pitches nasally in a way that grates; its near-femininity disarms you.  Stan walks a razor thin edge; too much, and he would be a caricature, not enough and it could be construed as almost romanticizing abuse.  In one scene, Jeff threatens Tonya in a way that is both incomprehensibly cruel and emotionally manipulative, yet you find yourself wanting to comfort him.   That level of fourth-wall manipulation requires incredible nuance and skill; Stan’s is evocative of Eric Roberts’ tour-de-force outing in Star 80.

A spray-tanned Bobby Cannavale and squinty-eyed Paul Walterhauser round out an impressive ensemble as, respectively, a Hard Copy producer and Gilooly’s idiot accomplice Shawn Eckhardt (footage of the actual Eckhardt confirms a reality more absurd than fiction).  However, Allison Janney’s performance is scene-chewing perfection.  You miss her acerbic, frigid presence whenever she isn’t on-screen, and she doesn’t hesitate to remind you when she’s not.    Robbie’s interpretation of Tonya is infuriating in the best way; she keeps fucking up, refusing to accept personal responsibility.  She wastes opportunities, repeatedly reconciling with Jeff, persuading the viewer to shout expletives at the screen.   Yet simultaneously, we fall for her fragility, a sympathetic and so tragically human antihero.

I, TONYA is morbid and humorous and deliberately self-aware; it doesn’t quite possess the deft touch of Coen brothers fare.  Comparisons to Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN are off—wrong Natalie Portman flick.  Buoyed by the strength of multiple awards-worthy performances and characters you can’t help but legitimately give a shit about, I, TONYA leaps in and out of the fourth wall in first person, third person, and even (through the unusual omnipresence of sports commentators whose faces we never see) second person—crossing the dark comedy of DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (a brilliant cult film showcasing Janney’s trashy mom persona) with the surrealism of last year’s JACKIE.

Call Me By Your Name

©2017, Sony Pictures Classics.

Left to right: Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothée Chalamet as Elio
Photo by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Amorem conatum esse amicitiae faciendae ex pulchritudinis specie.

Love is a desire of contracting friendship arising from the beauty of the object.
-Cicero, Tusc. Quaes., vi. 34

In the final scene, a Hellenic archaeologist (Michael Stuhlbarg channeling the spirit of Robin Williams’ most somber performances) comforts his son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), with a speech that every LGBTQ youth, perhaps every teenager grappling with their first love, wants and needs so desperately to hear.  The bittersweet grin on Stuhlbarg’s face, as he expresses his life’s greatest regret, channels the many tragicomic performances of Williams, a comic who once said, “The saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy.”  But this is not a Bury Your Gays movie.

Each year, Mr. Perlman and his wife Annella (Amira Casar), a translator, take in an archaeology grad student at her family’s estate in Northern Italy.

Asks the professor’s visiting apprentice, Oliver (Armie Hammer), “What does one do around here?”

Elio replies, “Wait for the summer to end?”

A James Ivory script adapted from André Aciman’s Lambda award-winning novel, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME covers a summer in 1983 in which Elio and Oliver, the two principals, forge a slow-burn romance.

Chosen in particular for his comprehension of Italian locales, director Luca Guadagnino shot the film in Crema, Italy, where he resides.  A late-period Gen-X’er like me, Guadagnino’s use of production design and music replicates the period aesthetic with an authenticity that tends to elude Millennial re-creations of the scene.

Punctuated by the percussive staccato of John Adams’ ebullient Hallelujah Junction, Part 1, isolated in the Lombardy region of Italy in a villa tucked away from the sexual politics of America, the tension of the film arises not purely from the proscribed sexuality, but the intellectual foreplay.  When he’s not listening to Giorgio Moroder, Elio reads Heraclitus’ Cosmic Fragments.

Like Hulce’s Mozart in Forman’s AMADEUS, impertinently improvising alternate arrangements of Salieri’s welcome march, Elio coquettishly dispenses cross-pollenations of Bach’s Aria di Postiglione¹, “I just played it the way Liszt would have played it if he altered Bach’s version.”

Later, Oliver, Elio, and his father salvage a Hellenic bronze once owned by Hadrian.  Drawing his fingers across the nose and mouth of Dr. Perlman’s discovery, we take in Elio’s own resemblance to Michelangelo’s David—a pardonable misdemeanor as casting anachronisms go.

From a working-class family, Oliver appears to have simpler amusements—volleyball, cycling, swimming.  However, this may be a hypermasculine façade to conceal his true passions; he can digress into the disputed etymology of the word “apricot”.  Whether freshly squeezed or on the tree, the omnipresent stone fruit’s color pops, breaking through the sleepy comfort of the green countryside.

Let’s talk about those apricots.  The apricot tree in particular is one which prefers the temperate climate of North America yet can, with adequate care, thrive in the Mediterranean climate of Northern Italy, where same sex relationships have been legal since 1887.

Like those apricots, Oliver and Elio cultivate and nurture each other.  The Perlmans source their trees from a gay couple who represent one possible future for Elio and Oliver, depending greatly upon the social climate. Elio and Oliver attempt relationships with women, Marzia (Esther Garrel) and Chiara (Victoire du Bois) respectively, but these flirtations never develop into commitments, unlike the immutable and profound attraction between the two young men.

While Elio’s apprehensions stem mostly from personal insecurities, Oliver’s are a product of his American working-class upbringing.  On a stop in Bergamo just before flying back to the States, he rushes to join a straight couple dancing to his favorite song blasting from their car radio—”Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs.  It provides him a sort of hyper-heterosexual cover for his passions—always concerned that being seen alone with Elio, they would stand out like two luscious apricots.

Today, Elio would be my brother’s age, and yet a fair bit younger than the late James Ivory, who since 1963 had produced films with his business and domestic partner, Ismail Merchant, lushly adapting to screen the Austenian trope of summer home inter-class romance.  Merchant did not live to see his partner’s screenplay realized.  But, if you’ll forgive the aphorism, James Ivory’s love letter to Ismail Merchant, beginning with 1963’s THE HOUSEHOLDER, is now forty-five chapters long and counting.

As Mr. Perlman consoles Elio, he paraphrases Montaigne:

Si on me presse de dire pourquoi je l’aimais, je sens que cela ne se peut exprimer qu’en répondant: parce que c’était lui; parce que c’était moi.

If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I.


  1.  Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother, BVW 992 in B-flat: V. Aria di Postiglione.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. L to R: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Photo: Jonathan Olley.

Certainly, we have hardly ever faced a world in worse shape or in greater need of the lyrical, mystical, and common-sensical. There seem to be large and perpetual pockets where fair and sustaining values are more pale than they should be. But when we consider Plato, Strabbo, and the apostles Paul and John, and many others over the centuries, we see that they also wrote about their times as being likewise devoid of proper “management and meaning.” It appears that “culture at edge of utter corruption” and “world at the edge of utter destruction” are two of the oldest themes to be found in stories of the human race.

-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., from the Introduction to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”

In my editorial, “Frank Herbert’s Star Wars,” I posited that STAR WARS, as contemporary monomyth, might reach the same conclusion that Campbell did in that final chapter of his treatise, in which the Hero transcends the temporary objects of good and evil in deference to the cosmic perspective.

Where THE FORCE AWAKENS cribs from STAR WARS (1977), director Rian Johnson repeats the Rebel evacuation plot of the THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  A tonally-inconsistent mess, it tries to balance callbacks to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK—Rebels backed into a corner, Jedi training, bad omens—with some truly brilliant ideas, particularly involving Luke, Leia (Carrie Fisher), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the Force.

While the central story concept of THE LAST JEDI, Luke’s Dharmic apotheosis and Rey’s Gnostic enlightenment, is an inspired one, it’s hounded by lopsided execution and a ham-fisted subplot involving Stormtrooper-turned-Rebel Finn (John Boyega) and a maintenance worker, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). They must disable a tracking system aboard Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) ship to evade the Imperial forces and the only man in the galaxy who can help them turns out to be Fenster from THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Benicio Del Toro).  That, I can buy.  What I can’t abide is the sloppy, last-minute romance that emerges out of this unnecessary thirty-five minute digression as if the studio executives decided at the eleventh hour to retain a sequence, otherwise extraneous were it not for the need to make something out of nothing—and the kiss still feels horribly misplaced and selfish, endangering the entire Rebellion because of a crush.

Adding insult to injury are two clumsily-doled moments:  A drab, overtly topical pep talk about #TheResistance from Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and a subtext about war profiteers in an elaborate set piece (going for Bespin by way of the STAR WARS prequels) festooned with champagne goblets—you might call it the One Percent Planet (apologies to Nicholas Meyer).  Maybe if you look hard enough, you might see a monocle-wearing peanut?  The entire bit is unnecessary as it can be slashed down to a single shot in which Fenster, I mean DJ, flips through a catalogue of Rebel and Imperial arms.

While the second and third installments of the original STAR WARS trilogy also hopped back and forth across different subplots to bridge the complex and epic span of the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire set in the backdrop of Luke’s personal journey culminating in Darth Vader’s redemption, you always knew where you were in the story and had a chance to breathe before a major shift, like the conductor resting his baton between movements of a symphony.

It’s not that Rian Johnson can’t function as a director.  BRICK was an intelligently made film, but his inexperience is overshadowed by the looming weight of the STAR WARS saga and the monocle-wearing peanuts at Disney who might have picked him for the same reason Lucas replaced Irvin Kershner with Richard Marquand for RETURN OF THE JEDI.  A seasoned director and film professor at USC, Irvin Kershner relied on his own wisdom and that of his actors to drive EMPIRE into the densely-packed chapter that cements the whole story together.  This being Johnson’s fourth feature, he’s not teaching classes at USC any time soon.

In fairness, and without spoiling anything, I’ll call out two parts that worked well: 1. An ingenious sequence that personifies the Dark Side of the Force as a duality-within-duality of independence and solitude in contrast to the Light’s unity/conformity, and 2. Mark Hamill.

Probably one of the most underrated actors of our time, beset by typecasting, a disfiguring injury, and the tendency of fans to misguidedly credit George Lucas with Luke Skywalker’s gravitas, Hamill gracefully balances out the atonality with an acting style informed by Meisner technique, never stretching so far in either direction (the dialogue often vacillates between drama and weirdly-timed wisecracks) as to give the viewer emotional whiplash in spite of Johnson’s best efforts.  Yet even the Moptop Jedi can’t save a plot in which his greatest revelation—that balance lies beyond dogma, institutions, and the very constructs of good and evil—is undermined at the last minute by a walk-back so baffling its logic is almost Trumpian.

It’s rather tragicomic that a movie whose themes revolve around lessons from failure and the social cost of colonial imperialism would be helmed by Disney, for whom owning the Marvel and STAR WARS franchises isn’t enough; they’re mulling a bid to buy Fox.  A more experienced director might have followed his or her own instincts and expertise, expanding upon the parallels between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), connecting two of the most thrilling moments in the entire saga and the inexorable bond between Luke and Leia—together besting Lucas’ own muddled (and retconned) explanations of the Force with one which Campbell himself would approve:

I am the cleverness in the gambler’s dice.  I am the radiance of all things beautiful.  I am the victory and the struggle for victory.  I am the goodness of those who are good.  I am the scepter of the rulers of men.  I am the wise policy of those who seek victory.  I am the silence of hidden mysteries; and I am the knowledge of those who know.  And know Arjuna that I am the seed of all things that are; and that no being that moves or moves not can ever be without me.  Know that whatever is beautiful and good, whatever has glory and power is only a portion of my own radiance.  But of what help is it to know this diversity?  Know that with one single fraction of my Being I pervade and support the universe.  And know that I AM.

– Bhagavad Gita 10:36-41

 

 

 

The Disaster Artist

(L-R) Dave and James Franco as Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau in A24’s THE DISASTER ARTIST. Photo by Justina Mintz.

In 2003, almost a decade after I discovered ZARKORR: THE INVADER at a local video rental on the University of Minnesota campus, an unknown named Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, financed, starred in and produced a film so inexplicably stupid it failed its way to cult status.

Directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau, THE DISASTER ARTIST tells the story of the aspiring actor/filmmaker—an eccentric with a vaguely Eastern European accent and seemingly bottomless pit of finances, the source of which is unclear yet rumored to be a sub-TJ MAXX clothing line, Street Fashions USA.

The film re-creates, as best as possible, the backstory and working conditions of the bizarre melodrama, THE ROOM, from the point of view of Wiseau’s acrid relationship with aspiring actor, Greg Sestero (Franco’s brother Dave).  Wiseau’s third-rate, love triangle flick ran up $6 million, mostly due to his abject ignorance of industry best practices—knowing the difference between leases and capital expenditures would have been a nice start.  Entire rooftop sets are created in Los Angeles and San Francisco, two cities with no shortage of rooftop terraces.

As the production costs spiral out of control, so too does Wiseau’s strained relationship with Sestero who admires Tommy’s off-the-wall passion at the cost of his own bona-fide television opportunity alongside Bryan Cranston (playing himself in a cameo).

While THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t mince words about Wiseau’s harassment of cast and crew, it does underhandedly speak to a kind of geek subculture that appropriates kitsch value in all the wrong places.  It’s difficult to cheer on Wiseau as an anti-hero when it’s not clear exactly what, other than a vehicle for his own narcissism, he was championing.

In one instance, Wiseau’s inability to get through a single line reading becomes intolerable to a point where the director seems ready to walk.  This would be funnier for me if I hadn’t watched ten straight hours of the real thing on a location shoot, resulting in an actor’s trip to the ER and a day’s worth ($250,000) in lost productivity.

One feels no unease knowing that no humans were harmed during the filming of the Funny or Die sketch “Acting With James Franco“, which might as well have been James’ inspiration for taking on this project.  But THE DISASTER ARTIST, driven mostly by a near shot-for-shot re-creation of THE ROOM (excerpts shown side-by-side in the end credits), was already beaten to the punch before THE ROOM was ever a thing.  In 1999, Steve Martin and Frank Oz collaborated on BOWFINGER—about an equally hard-luck gang of Hollywood wanna-bes.  After perfecting his craft through two decades of stand-up, SNL and cinema, Martin reportedly spent fifteen years developing and two months writing that script.

It shows.

The Post

© 2017 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORPORATION AND STORYTELLER DISTRIBUTION CO. LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham) in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

There are two types of courage involved with what I did. When it comes to picking up a rifle, millions of people are capable of doing that, as we see in Iraq or Vietnam. But when it comes to risking their careers, or risking being invited to lunch by the establishment, it turns out that’s remarkably rare. -Daniel Ellsberg

About 20 minutes into Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, The Washington Post publisher Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) emerges from his office to meet with Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to discuss the Watergate lead.  One of the fastest kinetic tracking shots at the time, it’s punctuated by the Eastman 5254 100T film stock, “pushed” in chemical processing resulting in a slight, diffuse glow of the grid of overhead lights—a shot that sticks in my mind as surely as it stuck in the mind of a young filmmaker who had just come off directing JAWS.  His next film, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, about a man’s relentless pursuit of the truth to the incredulity of all those around him, took on a decidedly different look.

In THE POST, director Steven Spielberg fluidly mirrors this shot with a SteadiCam following Bradlee (Tom Hanks) through the newsroom as the drama begins to unfold around Daniel Ellsberg’s (Matthew Rhys) 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers—a decades-spanning intelligence assessment which betrayed administration doubts about success in Vietnam, highlighting the influence of what Eisenhower warned was a growing Military Industrial Complex.

When Ellsberg returns from Vietnam after conducting part of the intelligence assessment for the State Department, Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) concludes with his advisors that the Vietnam situation is worsening, “We put another hundred thousand troops in the field, things are no better.  To me that means things are actually worse,” then does an about-face before the press.

This bald-faced lie sets Ellsberg’s mind to providing The New York Times with morsels of the study that demonstrates Presidents dating back to Eisenhower committed U.S. forces to military actions in Southeast Asia that were nonetheless doomed to failure.

THE POST also tells the story of the paper’s beleaguered owner, Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who inherited the paper from her husband Philip following his untimely suicide.  At loggerheads with Bradlee, Kay agonizes over whether or not to publish Ellsberg’s find amidst skepticism that the paper can be run as profitably as competing publishing entities Gannett and Knight/Ridder, the latter of which was purchased by McClatchy in 2006.

Spielberg and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer reinforce the “feet on the ground” aspect of traditional journalism as we watch people running, from office to office, building to building, out at dawn on a Sunday morning to grab the first copies of The New York Times issue featuring Neil Sheehan’s report on McNamara’s study.  Like Pakula’s Director of Photography Gordon Willis, Janusz Kaminski shoots frequently from low angles to capture those drop ceilings at The Post and the The New York Times.  Spielberg contrasts this nose-to-grindstone milieu with the aristocratic boardroom drama of the pending initial public offer of Washington Post stock on the American Exchange.

“You think this is really necessary…. taking the company public,” says Donald Graham, who later sold Washington Post Co. to Jeff Bezos for $250 million in 2013.  Bezos was admonished in the press for lacking due diligence in his acquisition; in retrospect this compels one to scrutinize Donald Graham’s disposing of a key pillar of the family’s political and social presence.  A contentious end to a paper that serendipitously landed in the hands of his mother.  The paper’s founder, Eugene Meyer, passed control of The Post to Philip and not Kay—a fact that Board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) dredges up as he balks at the IPO, which the underwriters price $3 million less than planned.  Restraining anger, Kay responds fulsomely, “Thank you, Arthur, for your frankness.”

Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) follows leads to locate Ellsberg—now off the grid as the Nixon administration secures an injunction against The Times, the first such censure of the free press in America.  Kaminski echoes the closeups (minus the split diopter) of Woodward (Redford) hitting up all his contacts to track down Ken Dahlberg and the $25,000 check that connected Nixon’s re-election campaign to the Watergate break-in.

These moments, however, are beset by numerous Spielbergisms.  Returning to D.C. with the classified documents on an Eastern Airlines flight, a stewardess asks about the large box in the window seat, “Must be precious cargo.”

Ben replies, “Yeah. It’s just… government secrets.”

Later, as the team of journalists scramble to reassemble the un-numbered pages of the classified study, they’re paid a visit by Senior legal counsel Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons).  Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson), Ben’s wife, counts heads to make them sandwiches.

“Tell me these aren’t the pages from the McNamara study,” says Clark.

“Four thousand pages of it,” concedes Bradlee.

Just then, Tony enters with the sandwiches, and the punchline, “Anybody hungry?”

Spielberg atones, barely, bestowing Tony with the “Oh please” speech that’s important, especially now, to differentiate the task Kay has as a woman entrepreneur from that of her male publisher. But the point is to further Bradlee’s arc and, while it’s made in one sentence, Spielberg throws in four more.

Later, the plot crescendoes—a montage of the presses and trucks rolling, accentuated by the portentous bombast of John Williams’ score.  And, aside from a conclusion I won’t spoil except to say that it plays exactly like the meta-film twist at the end of Altman’s THE PLAYER, Spielberg can’t resist to inject a Gumpian “brush with history” as then Assistant Attorney General Rehnquist, a future Justice of the Supreme Court, calls to advise Bradlee the publication of the papers is prohibited by the Espionage Act of 1917—just a beat too late to stop the story going to print.

I grapple with Spielberg’s directorial ethos.  An immensely talented filmmaker, he tries too hard to please audiences when he doesn’t have to—I get why.  Like a publisher bristling to print the most important story of our time, threatened by exogenous forces, he buries his own lede an hour into this 109-minute crowd-pleaser:

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks might be the two most overrated and yet simultaneously most talented actors sought by such Generals of the Arts as Spielberg.  Before making her historic decision, Kay presses Ben about his palling around on Kennedy’s yacht, “Hard to believe you would’ve gotten all those invitations if you didn’t… pull a few punches.”

Streep subtly accents the pause with a dismissive twirl of her wrist.

Later, Bradlee admonishes Kay, “I never thought of Jack [Kennedy] as a source.  I thought of him as a friend, and that was my mistake.  And it was something that Jack knew all along.  We can’t be both.  We have to choose, and that’s the point.”

In February, The Washington Post adopted its new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  Coined from a quote by Judge Damon J. Keith whilst ruling from the bench of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that warrantless wiretaps were illegal, it’s ironic that Bezos pushed the slogan.  His Amazon empire commands the new technocratic state, accompanied by Facebook, Google and Twitter, the legal counsels of which were grilled by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees for their role in enabling Russian disinformation campaigns in the 2016 U.S. election.

The new technocrats understand page views, they understand ad-based revenue, but do they understand editorial guidance?  Do they understand protecting sources?  Do they respect the role of the “investigative journalist”, a phrase that became a mockery before the blogosphere thanks to the advent of 24 hour ad-funded network news.

Yet in the past week we witnessed the due diligence of editorial guidance in the firing of Brian Ross from ABC; The Washington Post rejected a fake source backed by Project Veritas.  The wheels of justice may be slow, but the hammer-stroke of responsible journalism is swift.