Archive | July, 2019

Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

25 Jul

‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’: Stardom loses some luster in dusty, bloody wilds of L.A.

 

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Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” isn’t a rescripting of historical events the way “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) envisioned the Nazis toppled by a handful of hard-hitting Jews, but there are definitely some major ripples in time. No, “Hollywood” is more a tongue-in-check, kick-in-the-pants modern fairytale with a hefty side of cinematic homage; it rambles some, to be sure, but it’s more sincere and genuine in execution than the video store clerk-turned-auteur’s last outing, “The Hateful Eight” (2015). It may be Tarantino’s most personal and intimate film to date (tying with “Jackie Brown” on the latter) as the director talks about tapping out after 10 films – which this would be if “Four Rooms” counts, but I digress.

The setting is the late 1960s. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), something of a Clint Eastwood or Chuck Connors, came to fame in a fictional hit television western called “Bounty Law” a decade earlier and now finds it hard to get lead work – he plays mostly heavies on (real) shows such as “The F.B.I.” and “Lancer.” Front and center too is Dalton’s shadow and heyday stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a smooth, angular chap with an aw-shucks facade and a deeply dark side that gets leveraged to glorious and disturbing effect. Because the two are loyal bros, Dalton, during his downward fade, employs Booth as driver and gofer. Dalton also lives next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski – and, yes, on the eve of the Manson family murders – and in a separate silo we get Margot Robbie as an ebullient Ms. Tate looking grand and fabulous as she dances poolside at a Playboy mansion gig and taking in a screening of “The Wrecking Crew,” which she stars in with Dean Martin.(At the box office, she asks if she can get a free pass, because she’s in it.) Robbie may not say much, but she’s intoxicating in every scene she’s in. Doomed in real life as a Manson victim, Tate is held up by Tarantino as the essence of a sunsetting era.

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The Art of Self Defense

18 Jul

 

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“The Art of Self Defense” is a stunning little film that comes at you like a well-placed sternum punch in a dark alleyway. It begins with a droll, grim whimper as a wimpy nebbish gets viciously mugged by a gang of motorcycle thugs and subsequently waltzes into a dojo to allay his mounting fear. The set-up feels ripe for something of a comedic “Revenge of the Nerds” payback scheme, but “Self Defense,” directed by Riley Stearns (“Faults”) veers off into areas as shocking and black as such recent needle-in-your-eye edgy fare as “Midsommar” and “Under the Silver Lake.”

Casey, the self-suppressed office wonk on the receiving end of that beatdown (Jesse Eisenberg, in a role that seems tailor made), lives mostly for the affection of his demurring dachshund. The trauma of the event (he’s hospitalized) shakes him, and a chance venture into a martial arts studio sparks a meteoric transformation. The dojo’s owner, known simply as Sensei (a deadpan Alessandro Nivola) gets him on the hook with the cool, casual promise of confidence and control – you’ve gotta learn to punch with your feet. Sure, early encounters with bullies at a shopping mall don’t go so well, but at Sensei’s urging, Casey taps into head-banging metal, stops coddling his pooch and learns German. There’s also that application for a handgun (the store owner who prattles on about checks, the perils of firearms around kids, stats on suicide and the chance of becoming a homicide victim being higher for gun owners than non-owners might be the most responsible merchandiser of instant death ever portrayed on film) and a cold karate chop to his boss’ Adam’s apple over an innocuous invitation to dinner. Beyond swagger, Casey’s found his inner Bronson – and he likes it.

Eventually Casey’s invited to the special late-night classes, and that’s when the film enters “Fight Club” territory. In grim, gruesome detail, faces get punched in, elbows are disjointed and there are missions to confront others on the street – and no, these are not acts of vigilante justice or something even slightly noble. It takes a while to sink in (a noggin banged repeatedly against a cast-iron object helps make the realization for you) just how doubly dark Stearns’ reality-fraying portrait of a dweeb tweaked out on a testosterone high is. 

“Self Defense” may amble along behind a sleepy indie guise, but at the corners it’s throwing jabs that keep you constantly off balance. Just as soon as you think you have it figured out, “Self Defense” grabs you in a cinematic jujitsu hold and throws you in another direction. You can’t fully right yourself – and that’s part of the fun. For some it’ll register as black comedic bliss, for others, the grim, bleak depictions will have you peering through splayed fingers. As gonzo as the film goes, it’s remarkably well composed, and Nivola and especially Eisenberg sell it perfectly. Imogen Poots reinforces the ensemble as Anna, the lone woman at the studio who, in earning her red stripe, reminds us what women have to confront in male-dominated spaces. She’s also one of the fiercest on the mat and the most compassionate off it. If there’s a message or parable to take from “Self Defense,” where “brute force” and “never back down” are mantras, it’s hard to find a humanistic application in these trying times. That said, the journey of empowerment for the meek is just, if just for that alone.

The Farewell

11 Jul

‘The Farewell’: Reasons for a family reunion? Grandma’s going to hear the happier version

 

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“The Farewell” unfurls a bittersweet emotional journey buoyed by the complicated matter of identity that confronts many immigrants and first-gens when returning “home.” Last year “Crazy Rich Asians”played on that notion with an overlay of rom-com. Here there’s less of both as Billi (Korean rapper Awkwafina, who played a goofball in “Crazy Rich Asians”), a frustrated, out-of-work New York writer, heads back to China for her grandmother’s inevitable passing. As one ingrained traditionalist notes, “Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die.” The grand matriarch Nai Nai (played with grace and dignity by Shuzhen Zhao), does have cancer, but her family decides to keep her in the dark about the terminal prognosis; even the doctor’s in on it. As for Billi’s and other family members’ sudden presence, which makes Nai Nai purr, it’s explained away as being in town for a wedding of a distant family member. The rub: The family now has to set up and execute said wedding.

The film, as we’re told, is “Based on an actual lie” – on the real-life experiences of writer/director Lulu Wang (she recounted it on NPR’s “This American Life” in 2016). The conflict of Chinese traditional values vs. Western drive finds its way into the corners of nearly every frame, and at certain turns you can feel bits of Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” (1993) and, even more so, Peter Wang’s forgotten cross-cultural comedy, “The Great Wall Is a Great Wall” (1986), seep in.

Behind the lens, Wang builds the narrative quietly and poignantly in ever-widening strokes, from the narrow confines of Billi’s parents’ Changchun apartment to the grand – almost garish – wedding (which is where images of Lee’s “Banquet” come in). Along the way, one does wonder how blissfully obtuse Nai Nai really may be – could she be alert to her affliction and just playing along? The wedding itself is a strange yet alluring spectacle, an alcohol-infused epic replete with off-key stage performances and emotions gurgling past the brain’s normally sober governor.

The gimmick of a group-perpetuated charade may drive “The Farewell,” but the reason it resonates is its star. The comedian/performer well known for taking things to gonzo heights – just witness her and Ken Jeong (“The Hangover”) go at it in “Crazy Rich Asians” – delivers a surprising, if disarming, performance that many might not have imagined possible. Nuanced and deeply reflective, Awkwafina seems to be pulling from somewhere deep; even more affectingly, she forges a heartfelt synergy with the other members of the wonderful ensemble (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma among them as mom and dad). It’s hard to imagine “The Farewell” won’t mark Awkwafina’s breakout; it might just do the same for Wang. After all, this is her story, and one she got Awkwafina to understand from the inside out.

Marianne and Leonard

11 Jul

‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’: A muse recalled in verse long after the poet moved on

 

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Documentarian Nick Broomfield has tackled some beguiling and controversial subjects during his prolific career, be it Tinseltown escort-turned-entrepreneur Heidi Fleiss (“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam”), serial killer Aileen Wuornos (“Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer”) or the enigmatic death of grunge icon Kurt Cobain (“Kurt & Courtney”). Broomfield has a shaggy-dog quality to his approach, tending to insert himself into the story no matter his proximity or relevance, and sometimes oddly so – not overbearing like Michael Moore, but it still can be a distraction. In “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” Broomfield can legitimately ring the bell as a participant; Marianne Ihlen, the front half of the film’s title, was at one point Broomfield’s lover, and allegedly his inspiration for becoming a filmmaker.

The other half of the title is none other than iconic folk signer Leonard Cohen, who had a longtime relationship with the Norwegian-born Ihlen. The two met in the early 1960s at an artists community on the Greek isle of Hydra, back when Cohen was a writer and had yet to meet Judy Collins (he penned “Suzanne”and she made it a hit in ’67) and go on to become a major force in shaping the popular music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. (Hydra was also where Broomfield met Ihlen).

The singer and his muse had a “free” or “open” relationship (thus that brief tryst with Broomfield, who became jealous of another lover on a higher-up rung) that would span decades – several of Cohen’s songs are tributes to her. The film doesn’t center wholly on the relationship, as the title might imply, but more on the after-Hydra days when Cohen decided he needed to do something else to earn a better income. That promising partnership with Collins enters and the focus shifts from Ihlen to Cohen’s musical successes and pitfalls, as well as his self-destructive yen for women and drugs. Cohen aficionados won’t be too much they don’t know (the Hydra chapter may be the exception), but the archival footage – including some newly discovered film shot by famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker – will hit all the right nostalgia notes and likely educe a new degree of appreciation. Broomfield too tries to layer in his appreciation for Ihlen, even capturing her last, infirm moments, which, because of the remote presence of Cohen, come off more as liberating fist pump than sad, agonizing whimper.

If there’s one thing Broomfield’s deferential redial of a man, a woman and a career does, it’s to show that creative genius does not brew exclusively in one soul, and that nurturing and encouragement from others is needed. There’s also the epiphany that the man, mostly regarded as a cool, croaky crooner with an avuncular exterior, roamed in some dark places chasing artistic self-indulgence.

Midsommar

5 Jul

‘Midsommar’: Hands-on anthropology studies reveal how dark it can get under midnight sun

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As a kid I went to this Danish town north of Los Angeles called Solvang where it was Christmas year-round and the waffles were extra large and strangely exotic, and everyone dressed like they were from “The Sound of Music.” I tell you this because Solvang reminds me so much of the Swedish commune where four Americans wind up for a nine-day fertility festival “Midsommar,” the thrilling new chiller from Ari Aster. Everything so old school Lapland you half expect to see the Ricola folk or Max Von Sydow among the elders welcoming the group.

Two of the four Americans dropping in – Josh (William Jackson Harper, TV’s “The Good Place”) and Christian (Jack Reynor, the poor person’s Chris Platt) – are anthropology grad students, and the midnight sun rites are fodder for their theses. It helps that stateside buddy Pelle (Vilhelm Blongren) is from the remote village that feels like pieces borrowed from the sets of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” and Robert Egger’s “The Witch” with a bit of Ikea retrofitting tossed in. Rounding out the U.S. crew is loudmouth Mark (Will Poulter, the dirty cop in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit”) and Dani (Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”), Christian’s girlfriend and a tag-along whom the other lads in the posse aren’t so keen about.

The film begins and ends with Dani. There’s a prolonged opening about her clinginess to Christian, her bipolar sister and a family tragedy that would send anyone to therapy in double time– a hauntingly fraught meander worthy of Paul Thomas Anderson. Once up in the Swedish enclave, Dani freaks out on organic hallucinogens, Pelle clearly has eyes for her and the age-old cult ordains her as the dark horse in the May Queen dance-off.

Early on in the anthropological exploration—which doesn’t feel so scientific or methodical—we get a glimmer into just how dark this eternal summer day can get. Once you’re 72 in the commune, you’re ready for renewal, which has something to do with a swan dive onto a stone pallet or a wedding reception line of celebrants wielding a medieval mallet. It’s not easy to drink in, but it’s when Aster – who played on audiences’ sense of comfort and composure with the equally grim “Hereditary” – lets us know shit just got real. The American scholars, as smart as the allegedly are, don’t take note of such omens, even as their ranks thin. But when things begin to feel a bit “Wicker Man” predictable, Aster focuses on the fractured dynamic between Christian and Dani, and the choices the characters make are telling.

The final scene, just as with the reveal of the fate of Dani’s family, is gorgeously framed and flawlessly choreographed. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but Aster has again put a new, gory bow on a genre we know too well. If you can make it to the end, you’ll walk out on edge and agape.

The Third Wife

5 Jul

 

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Recently I had the opportunity to rewatch the taboo, erotic drama “Adore” (2013) starring two very compelling actresses – Naomi Watts and Robin Wright – as mothers having relations with each other’s 18-year-old sons. A hypnotically alluring WTF, “Adore” pulls you in and makes what’s off the moral compass seem rationally right by immersing you in the characters and their desires. The same applies to Ash Mayfair’s compelling directorial debut, “The Third Wife,” though besides the forbidden fruit and foreign soil (it takes place in Vietnam; “Adore” is set in Australia) there’s little other tether: “The Third Wife” takes place a century and more ago, when money and position allow men to have their way, in this case engaging in outright polygamy – thus the title.

The film focuses on the inclusion of May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as the new third wife in question, barely a teenager. When we meet her, her husband Hung (Long Le Vu) sucks an egg yolk from her belly before taking her. It’s a painful, erotic and disturbing scene. Set in the rural setting of a silk farm (worms, webs and lush green bamboo imagery fill the screen) during the colonial era, the women are isolated and subjected to the rule of tradition, but Hung is not an overtly oppressive head of house and the three women (the other two wives played by the stunning Nu Yên-Khê Tran and Mai Thu Huong Maya) and Hung’s pubescent daughter Lien (Lam Thanh My) interact freely and forge a knowing sisterhood. 

Other subplots causing friction on the plantation flow through Hung’s son, named Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), having an affair with his second wife, Xuan, and the budding same-sex attraction between a very pregnant May and Xuan. It’s the kind of quiet tension that so completely filled Zhang Yimou’s fantastic early works (“Raise the Red Lantern” and “Red Sorghum”) or the first film out of Vietnam to earn Academy Award recognition, “The Scent of Green Papaya” (1993). 

Mayfair, who grew up in Vietnam but was Western-educated from an early age, crafts a composition that feels masterful beyond her slim CV in emotional complexity, plot and orchestration. Of course, it helps have on hand artistic adviser Tran Anh Hung (director of “Green Papaya,” and husband of Nu Yên-Khê Tran), formal recognition and support from Spike Lee (the Spike Lee Film Production Award) and Chananun Chotrungroj’s dewy and glorious framing of erotic meanderings amid verdant backdrops. The film stumbled into a bit of a controversy when Mayfair cast a 12-year-old in the role of May. That aside, Nguyen Phuong Tra My and the whole cast deliver deep, heartfelt performances, conveying effectively what the laconic script has intentionally left to thespian heft. If the notion of a 14-year-old bride, or actor roughly that age playing such, disturbs you, think how the women relegated into such roles without a choice felt.

Under the Silver Lake

5 Jul

‘Under the Silver Lake’: A distracted detective searches for the frequency in ambitious oddity

 

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For folks who dig seedy sagas that wind through the underbelly of Hollywood’s dream factory – say “Neon Demon” or “Inherent Vice” – David Robert Mitchell, who hit it big in the horror genre with “It Follows” back in 2014, has a strange one. “Under the Silver Lake,” something of a personal odyssey-cum-mystery, moves in skitters and tics containing a flood of cinematic homage (nay, make that overt: “Did you see that? That’s my Hitchcock”). And while not all of it sticks, it does add spice to the layer cake as it gets thicker and more pungent.

Sam (Andrew Garfield), our hero – or antihero, as is more the truth – is a mopey, shaggy dog, at best underemployed and most likely lacking a job at all no matter how many times he responds “good” or “busy” when asked about said occupation. He lives a lackadaisical existence ambling about a motel complex that has “Rear Window” views; across the way a comely occupant coos to her parrot, sans top. Like Jimmy Stewart, Sam’s got binoculars handy to drink it all in, and what’s this? Down by the pool lounges Sarah, another fetching lass in a bikini (Riley Keough) with a fluffy white toy pooch. Before Sam has a chance to pursue Sarah (the gal at the pool) a friend with benefits shows up, and headboard-banging thumps ensue. What to make of Sam? The dude’s clearly a libertine under the sheepish, aw-shucks demeanor used when fielding calls from his mother, who likes to jabber on about the virtues of Janet Gaynor (I like his mom). Besides paying hypnotic witness to Sam’s self-indulgent, voyeuristic proclivities, not much really transpires for a while. There’s some noise on the TV and a local zine about a canine serial killer (yup, a doggie mass murderer) and a billionaire who dies in an enigmatic crash around the corner. Then Sarah goes missing and things get weird. David Lynch weird. 

What follows is a seductive, disjointed downward spiral as Sam sets off searching for Sarah. Along the many strange pit stops are a crypt party at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (hello Janet!), a dance club where Sam, on some type of hallucinogen, becomes wildly inspired by R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and at every turn there’s Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten), an aspiring actress and more who saunters through the film in a bathing suit, high heels, a red ballon and tight, tight piggy tails – in short, Lolita incarnate. Perhaps not intentional, but come on, onetime Spider-Man star Garfield recursively gets goo on his hands, be it the egging some kids lay on his car (his retribution to which is over the top and disturbing) or the masturbation session to his dad’s classic 1970s Playboy issue, and at one point (overt nod and wink) a Spidey comic book gets stuck to his hand. Hmm. In a more audacious scene, Sam kicks in the bathroom door on a pop star (he needs the secret code behind a hit’s lyrics) and drags the icon off the commode, but not before we get a long glimmer of the chart-buster’s fecal output, and beats him like Dan Rather in that R.E.M. song. 

As gonzo as much of that sounds, the edgy, “did that really just happen?” bounciness of “Under the Silver Lake” becomes its appeal. Without such it might not have worked. If there’s any downside, it’s Sam’s passive-aggressive ebb and flows (not the psychological definition): He’s largely passive, with extreme eruptions of delusional rage. It doesn’t all hold together, and even if it did, would Sam be the kind of guy I’d want a beer with? The real bell ringer here is the exceptional cinematography by Mike Gioulakis (“It Follows” and “Us”) and the stylistic verve he and Mitchell cook up – it’s transfixing and transportive beyond all rights. As an erotic thriller, “Under the Silver Lake” might not quite achieve its money shot, but it is an ambitious, titillating spectacle, and a promise of more alluring things to come.