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Tread

21 Feb

‘Tread’: They did this bulldozer owner wrong, and he’ll take out half the town to make it right

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Documentarian Paul Solet takes a newsreel curio and turns it into “Tread,” a riveting, anthropological examination of small-town life, the hairs that get curled during long legal proceedings and the psychological pathology of righteous retribution. If you dial back to 2004 you may recollect a pissed-off citizen going berserk in the podunk town of Granby, Colorado, with a bulldozer. It was no ordinary piece of construction equipment, but a Komatsu D55A tricked out with armor and automatic weapons – in essence, a tank that authorities were ineffective in stopping for a several-hourlong rampage.

But before getting to that, Solet rewinds to what would send Marvin Heemeyer over the edge. It’s important to keep in mind that Granby’s a close-knit mountain town of 2,000. In interviews, many townsfolk reflect fondly on Heemeyer, noting his amiable manner and skill as a welder and skimobile racer. During the buildup we also meet Trisha Macdonald, Heemeyer‘s girlfriend, whose sensible and reflective presence doesn’t suggest the kind of person who would take up with someone who was arguably off their rocker, let alone a brimming sociopath. But then there are tape recordings by Heemeyer himself, righteous and delusional: “God bless me in advance for the task which I am about to undertake.” In a pivotal scene underscoring the psychological mood, a re-enactor playing Heemeyer shaves his head, Travis Bickle style, before firing up the big rig.

The pushing point, we’re told, is a long simmering land dispute. Heemeyer owned and operated a muffler and welding shop, but the parcel he bought at auction was also desired by a local businessman with strong municipal and political ties. Infractions and numerous legal battles – that Heemeyer lost – added up and took their toll, forcing the 50-something craftsman to withdraw and put his skill to work. The killdozer, when you first catch a glimpse of it, seems like something out of a zany sci-fi or post-apocalyptic film. What’s also impressive is Solet’s meticulous orchestration of the narrative, especially during that final chaotic showdown when a gantlet of police, grenades, 50-caliber bullets and even earth movers couldn’t stop Heemeyer from obliterating half the town. The blend of archival footage, commentary from the participants and re-enacted dramatization builds with the taut grit of a hardboiled thriller.

Solet, born and raised in Cambridge, cut his teeth in the horror genre (“Grace,” “Dark Summer” and a “Tales of Halloween” segment). His last outing, “Bullet Head” (2017) was something of a crime thriller with an envious cast, featuring Adrien Brody, Antonio Banderas and John Malkovich. The project wasn’t quite fully baked, but perhaps a helpful warm up for “Tread,” a clear departure for Solet that’s a compelling ride and a window into the machinations of small-town life that push one of their own too far.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

21 Feb

‘What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael’: Sweet kiss for film critic with acid tongue

 

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Rob Garver’s hagiographic ode to the life and work of film critic Pauline Kael adequately covers the writer’s rise to her post at The New Yorker, her daunting (perhaps exaggerated?) influence on the film industry and her legions of A-list admirers. What distinguished Kael, besides being the lone woman in an all-male club when she got into film criticism back in the 1950s, were her uniquely punchy, eloquent and visceral reactions, many imparted in a single sentence. Kael also became famous for her embrace of graphic violence (she largely adored Scorsese, De Palma, Peckinpah and Coppola) and envelop-pushing erotica (“Last Tango in Paris”) while gouging away at sacred cows such as French New Wave icon “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and Christmas classic “The Sound of Music” (“the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”).

“What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is framed with tape recording of Kael being interviewed by a young girl who gaily asks the critic her first movie (Chaplin) and later, her favorite film is (a detail I’ll let the moviegoer discover). Kael, who lived in Great Barrington and died just before 9/11, came from humble roots in Northern California, where she attended college at Berkeley. She never graduated, failed as a playwright in New York and her one marriage ended quickly, but throughout it all she maintained a deep passion for emotion-provoking narratives, be they bound by book jacket or cinematically projected. Her early reviews were on radio and for free, but being a single mother Kael looked to get paid for her labor; before landing at The New Yorker she was at McCall’s, which ended badly. 

Film clips spruce up the narrative, sometimes to echo Kael’s thoughts and other times simply as illustrating the film being trumpeted or impaled. We get Kael’s personal reflections from letters and other scrawlings read by Sarah Jessica Parker in voice only, evoking a smooth, husky Hollywood starlet persona that feels warmly congruent with the actual Kael we hear at the bookends, and in interview clips with Dick Cavett and other TV talk show hosts of the era. Plenty of celebrities lend their talking heads to the project, most prominently screenwriter/director Robert Towne (“Chinatown”), Alec Baldwin and film-nerd-turned-auteur Quentin Tarantino. Continue reading

Love is Not Love

16 Feb

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Stephen Keep Mills, a character actor for decades, now in his spry early 70s, makes his feature directorial debut with this tres meta contemplation about love, desire and the actualization of. Shot in stark black and white, Mills’s satire “Love is Not Love” rambles through the streets of New York as we drop in on dicey shards of dialogue ranging from the weird, “He wants to lick my arm pit,” to the provocative, “I could love more than one man at the same time. Even the same day, no problem!” and as one might expect, the sophomoric, “Dude, jacking off is not cardio.”

Yes, Mills is looking to give us a kick in shins and he does so effectively until we settle in with Frank (Mills) our protagonist, a silver maned lion with sad eyes, well past his prime and no longer king of a pride. We follow him along somberly as he lags behind two Irish construction workers debating the merits of women and Thomas Mallory’s seminal work, “Tristan and Isolde.” Frank seems invisible to the two like Bruno Gantz’s rueful angel in “Wings of Desire.” Interestingly too, “Love is Not Love” is rendered in a similar lush, matted black and white texture, a mood accentuating signature of Wim Wenders’s international masterpiece. Wenders shot as much of his 1987 film on location as the East Germans would allow him (Germany was not united at the time and shooting scenes at the Berlin Wall was denied and required sets). Mills on the other hand, shot his New York story on a sound stage in Los Angeles using old rear-screen projection for the backdrop imagery that for all its antiquated gimmickry provides tremendous field of depth and virtuosity. The lo-fi effect’s not only impressive, it’s aesthetically mesmerizing. Continue reading

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

14 Feb

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’: Sparking ache, painter is also responsible for capturing it

 

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For those still mulling awards season, Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was by far the best film that wasn’t up for consideration at Sunday’s Oscars party. The French romance (award eligible last year, yet coming here aptly in time for Valentine’s Day), for all its impressive accomplishments in cinematography, direction, riveting performances and more, wasn’t its country’s selection for Best International Feature Film (“Les Miserables” was).

Somber, strong and palpably felt, the staid aura of “Lady on Fire” echoes its setting on the eve of the French Revolution, when maintaining one’s posture as a “lady” is practically all society registers. We never drink in that society – though we do feel its effects – and see barely any men. Most of the film takes place in a spare chateau atop the oceanic cliffs of Brittany, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait artist, has been summoned to paint the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), betrothed by her mother (Valeria Golino) to a Milanese nobleman. The young woman and man of station have never meet. The painting is in essence Héloïse‘s Match.com profile pic and calling card. So far, par for the course, but there’s a few complications: Héloïse’s older sister had been promised to the same noble and for reasons never fully illuminated, yet wildly provocative, may have taken her life to avoid the ceremony. Héloïse, next in queue, has vehemently opposed both the painting and the arrangement, making Marianne‘s task something of a challenge beyond her professional expertise. To circumvent such obstacles, Héloïse‘s mother suggests Marianne embed herself as companion and something of a handmaiden, employ observation and, later, commit the evocation to canvas when in solitude. Continue reading

Birds of Prey

8 Feb
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Looking back at my dismissal of “Suicide Squad” (2016), I pined for a vehicle that would bask in the glorious kitsch and kink of Margot Robbie’s infectious sociopathic supervillain, Harley Quinn. Well, here we are with “Birds of Prey,” and I’ll just say that sometimes one’s desires are best left unrealized. In that DC spinoff, Quinn (say her name fast, Harley Quinn, Harlequin, i.e. a comedic servant), an S-Squad front-villain, was also the gal pal of the Joker (Jared Leto). Here, in a film with a subtitle celebrating the “emancipation” of Harley Quinn, we never glimpse the green-haired “jester of genocide” that Joaquin Phoenix so recently elevated to Oscar-worthy fare; instead we begin with Harley’s breaking up with him in hyper explosive fashion.

That freedom, however, means it’s open season on Quinn, who in her drunken celebration breaks the kneecaps of the driver of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), the owner of the nightclub she’s taken over, and Gotham’s biggest organized crime boss. Everyone’s out to get Quinn: the cops, those she wronged while under the auspices of the Joker, even the brother of the exotic pet shop owner Quinn buys a breakup hyena at – creepy guy comes onto her, she feeds him to her new furry bestie. In her hungover state, all Quinn wants is the perfect egg sando from her favorite greasy spoon, but before she can have a curing bite, boozy Gotham detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, fantastic) corners her and we’re off to the races with Quinn giving us fourth-wall narrative asides, “DeadPool” style. Continue reading

The Assistant

7 Feb

‘The Assistant’: Movie producer has a system, and it’s entirely too simple to become part of it

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Kitty Green’s bold, stage-like office drama couldn’t be more timely. It’s about a low-level assistant to an unnamed, never really seen New York film producer who’s demanding, vitriolic and, worse, casts a long shadow of perpetual dread – in short, the unseen force of fear is Harvey Weinstein. Through karmic justice and a deep sense of ironic circumstance, the once ballyhooed champion of indie cinema is in the middle of a milestone sexual abuse trial just as “The Assistant,” hot out of Sundance, hits theaters.

Much of the action takes place in a generically dull office where Jane (Julia Garner, so good in “Ozark”) lands as the new hire in a pool of three who staff the mogul’s gateway to heaven and hell. The film, aptly low-fi, possesses the same absurd nihilistic texture that made Neil LaBute’s blistering 1997 tale of office-sanctioned misogyny, “In the Company of Men,” so riveting. The only way we experience Jane’s boss is through muffled barbs from the earpiece of her phone, murmurs and inaudible loud shouts from behind the door and a few emails that come to Jane after she’s shared too much information about his whereabouts (which is usually a hotel room with an aspiring actress) to his suspecting wife. The response to such angry emails is always along the lines of “I’m sorry … I won’t let you down again,” with phrasing provided by two male counterparts who vary in their support of Jane but regularly dump menial duties down the ladder and onto her desk.

There’s not a lot of movement in “The Assistant.” Comely young women waltz in and out, the wife continues to make loaded inquiries and we hardly leave the confines of that outer office. Garner, who’s stock is clearly on the rise, tucks Jane’s appalled humiliation just under the surface as her assistant comes to a slow understanding of having to balance career aspirations with male-dominated office culture. Push comes to shove when Jane sets up a young waitress from Boise (Makenzie Leigh) in a posh hotel room – and later at the empty desk across the way to be the next “new” assistant. No longer able to rationalize away the odious events, Jane grabs an impromptu meeting with the head of HR (Matthew Macfadyen, from “Succession”). It’s a telling encounter that Green, as screenwriter with knives out, carves with masterful gamesmanship.

In the end, “The Assistant” isn’t didactic; nor does it wave the #MeToo flag. It doesn’t have to. Green, whose short CV holds mostly documentaries such as “Casting JonBenet” (2017) – about the slain 6-year-old beauty princess – embraces a cinéma vérité style. In long shots, we observe as if a fly on the wall. In one scene as Jane washes dishes in the corporate kitchenette, two women in heavy conversation about a project ignore her as she listens attentively while trying to appear disinterested; when done with their chatter, the women dump their dishes on Jane without acknowledging her. As with “Bombshell” last year, the power dynamics in “The Assistant” are chilling. In the former we know how that went for Roger Ailes; we’ll find out about that movie guy soon enough.

 

The Gentlemen

26 Jan

‘The Gentlemen’: Guy Ritchie gangster crew hashes out their differences to deadly ends

 

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It feels somewhat weird that this boldly minted Miramax offering from Guy Ritchie hits theaters just as the Harvey Weinstein trial kicks off in New York. Miramax, for those with short-term memories, was the studio Harvey and his brother founded back in 1979. The name remains synonymous with the notorious abuser, which is why in Ritchie’s return to the British gangster romp it’s so strange to see the moniker not only up there in lights, but as part of the plot. Perhaps the studio thought of it as something of a whitewash, but the timing makes the connection just too hard to shake.

That bit of ignominious history aside, “The Gentlemen” is quite entertaining, sharper and more focused than Ritchie’s “RocknRolla” (2008) though not in the same class as “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) or “Snatch” (2000). (Also hard to believe Ritchie just helmed the recent “Aladdin” adaptation). The ensemble here is a stroke of genius, with Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson, an American transplant who runs a half-billion-dollar cannabis operation, Hugh Grant owning the picture as a conniving P.I. and aspiring screenwriter named Fletcher and hunky hot ticket Henry Golding as Dry Eye, a foot soldier with big ambitions. Then there’s Colin Farrell as “Coach,” a saucy sort who runs an inner-city gym, and Charlie Hunnam as Ray, Mickey’s fixer. The uber-twisted plot essentially rides on the rails of Mickey in the process of selling his business (because of his criminal past, when weed goes legal he likely won’t get a seat at the table) to a fellow American (Jeremy Strong). From there, the chess match of double dealings and plots within plots spews forth, the whole endeavor framed brilliantly by some deliciously dicey dialogue between Fletcher and Ray over a few bottles of scotch and Wagyu steak – what’s that in your freezer, the son of a Russian oligarch? Continue reading