In Fabric

2 Jan

‘In Fabric’: That’s a killer dress you’ve got on, but the film around it unravels as we watch

 

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“In Fabric,” the latest arthouse horror offering from British writer-director Peter Strickland (“The Duke of Burgundy,” 2014, and “Berberian Sound Studio,” 2012), hems hard and long on its eerie, immersive style, but remains elusive when it comes to the what and why. Centering on a bloodthirsty “artery red” dress with supernatural powers and the department store staff/cult that sends it out into the world, “In Fabric” has the vibe of “Suspiria” sans the foreboding grip – because there we have an inkling of what the cult is up to.

Like the recent “Waves,” “In Fabric” is told in two parts. In the first segment we meet Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a bank teller and lonely single mother in her 50s looking to get her groove back after a divorce. A trip to a high-end boutique department store (think Lord & Taylor or Saks with a perfume wisp of the occult) nets Sheila the “risqué” red dress that she’s steered to by the freaky S&M head sales associate (Fatma Mohamed). At night, strange things go on: the dress floats menacingly about the house; Sheila, ever wandering herself, peers thorough a crack in a door to watch her son (Jaygann Ayeh) perform cunnilingus on his girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie); and down at the department store, the coven gather round a redheaded mannequin and writhe in orgasmic ritual. 

There’s a lot of moody kink and a fantastic retro ’70s horror score by the techno group Cavern of Anti-Matter that helps bind the giallo homage together. Through paper clippings Sheila learns that the former wearer of the dress (the model in the catalog) died bizarrely (death by zebra, anyone?). Perhaps the scariest part of “In Fabric,” however, isn’t the killer dress but the higher-ups, white men who question their underlings’ intent and commitment constantly. In one scene, Sheila is called in by her superiors (comedians Steve Oram and Julian Barratt) who are concerned with the sincerity of her handshake and the amount of time she spends in the bathroom. It’s a shakedown of sorts in which the knife-twisting is all done with the “fuck you” politeness  demanded by British etiquette. In the latter chapter, a nerdy washing-machine repairman named Reg who dons the dress (Leo Bill) is humiliated by his ogre of a boss and pretty much everyone else, including Sheila’s managers, who pick him apart when he applies for a loan.

Themes of ritualistic consumerism and crowd mentality are embroidered in, but so ostentatiously and without satirical substance that they feel like cheap window dressing, especially when measured against George Romero’s great “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), which proves a much more devious and effective take on constant consumption. Even as plot developments trend toward the silly, Strickland remains focused on his spellbinding effect – and not enough can be said about the vulnerable, no-nonsense approach of Jean-Baptiste (of Mike Leigh’s “Secret and Lies”). When she’s on screen, she keeps the outré tale from unraveling. “In Fabric” is a unique experience best taken in with logic left at the door.

The Top 25 Films of the Decade

29 Dec

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2010-2019 list in alphabetical order with links to reviews/articles.

  1. 12 Years a Slave
  2. The Act of Killing
  3. Birdman
  4. Blackkklansman
  5. Blue is the Warmest Color
  6. Burning
  7. Citizenfour
  8. Dunkirk
  9. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  10. The Florida Project
  11. Get Out
  12. The Handmaiden
  13. Isle of Dogs
  14. Mad Max: Fury Road
  15. Moonlight
  16. O. J.: Made in America
  17. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  18. Parasite
  19. Shoplifters
  20. Spring Breakers
  21. The Social Network
  22. The Tree of Life
  23. Under the Skin
  24. The Wolf of Wall Street
  25. Zero Dark Thirty

The Best Films of 2019

29 Dec
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THE IRISHMAN (2019) Ray Ramano (Bill Bufalino ) Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa) and Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran)

  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  2. Parasite
  3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  4. Aquarela
  5. Apollo 11
  6. The Irishman
  7. Long Day’s Journey into Night
  8. Aga
  9. Little Women
  10. The Farewell

Honorable mentions: Toy Story 4, The Nightingale, Ford v Ferrari, Bombshell, Us, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Uncut Gems, Midnight Traveler, The Mustang, Pain and Glory

Also here are the Cambridge Day’s Arts Staffs’ 2019 Top 10.

Little Women

24 Dec

‘Little Women’: The Alcott classic updated, richer in themes of feminism and family

 

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The updated version of Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical classic may prompt many to question the need, as there’s been multiple versions (TV included) of “Little Women” across the decades. But in execution, Greta Gerwig’s reworking makes good sense on many levels. First off, there’s a subtle layering in of female gaze and modern take one the era’s chauvinism. Then there’s answering the questions: Can Gerwig really make films, or was her autobiographical debut, “Lady Bird” (2017), a one-off? (A resounding yes to the first, no to the second.) And finally, this is one of the better-cast takes on Alcott’s tale. The 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong also boasted an amazing cast, led by Winona Ryder; the George Cukor 1933 and Mervyn LeRoy 1949 versions starring Katherine Hepburn and June Allyson respectively as Alcott’s alter ego, Jo March, hung it all on their leads. And might I add, this updating was shot here, with scenes in Alcott’s real Concord abode (Orchard House); the others were mostly local sites posing as Concord, shot on sound stages or north of the border, in Canada.

When we first catch up with Jo (Saoirse Ronan, so affecting as Gerwig’s alter ego in “Lady Bird”) she’s barely eking out a living in New York selling women-themed serials to a publisher (Tracy Letts, perfectly intimidating here, as he is in “Ford v Ferrari”) who demands endings that place the female character in a happy marriage and/or domestic servitude. We then wind back to her days in Concord where her father (Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”), a pastor and an idealist, and mother (Laura Dern, having a banner year with a warm turn here to pair with her edgy go in “Marriage Story”) have turned the house into something of an artists’ colony for their daughters’ bohemian pursuits; Jo, the writer, Amy (Florence Pugh, from “Midsommar” who crushes it here walking a fine line between vanity and vulnerability), the artist, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), a pianist and the oldest, Meg (Emma Watson) fancying the stage. Pretty rad for the time, while across the way are the well-to-do Laurences (Chris Cooper as the staunch patriarch) whose son Theodore (a passable Timothée Chalamet, who feels a long way off from his Oscar nominated “Call Me By Your Name” turn), referred to as “Laurie,” creates something of a love triangle with Jo and Amy. When younger, he and Jo were close, and the prospect of a rekindling is ever present despite Amy lurking about when young Laurence comes by to visit.

If not for financial ills and affairs of the heart, let alone the tucking under of women – offset by Jo and the March ladies’ irrepressible spirit – “Little Women” might come off simply as first-world problems. Gerwig, who scripted as well, adds a nuanced, feminist spin that renders a new essence while embracing Alcott’s work and classic context. In her treatment, Gerwig also expands the autobiographical aspect of the material – namely about money and the unconventional pursuits of her parents and the family. Alcott’s father, Amos, was an abolitionist, radical education reformer, founder of the ill-fated Fruitlands colony in Harvard, Massachusetts, and part of the Transcendentalist movement. It was Louisa May and her tales that helped hold onto and pay for the grand Orchard House. Beyond the fine direction and performances, folks will revel in the periodization of local spots (the Crane Estate, the Colonial Theatre, Arnold Arboretum and even the Fruitlands Museum) and seeing parts of Boston and Lawrence stand in for 19th century New York.

Uncut Gems

24 Dec

‘Uncut Gems’: Scheming knows no bounds, but walls, and Kevin Garnett, are closing in

 

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Fraught with edge-of-your-seat tension, “Uncut Gems,” the latest from Boston University-educated brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, stars Adam Sandler as a shady New York City jeweler in deep with the mob for a gambling addiction that knows no limits. The brothers’ last film, “Good Time” (2017) rode a similar arc with a protagonist (Robert Pattinson) living on the criminal fringe, making unwise choices that only amped up a sideways situation. The poor decisions there felt earnest; here, as Sandler’s Howard Ratner teeters atop the tip of a needle 24/7 and so routinely choses the most cataclysmically loaded option at hand, the orchestration of edginess feels calculated and engineered for the sake of taking it up one more notch. That heavy foot takes something away, but still the film remains a scalding-hot sizzle from frame one to the surprising last shot.

Much will be made about the choice to cast Sandler in a dramatic lead – he’s known mostly for slack, sophomoric fare such as “Happy Gilmore” (1996) and “The Waterboy” (1998) – but folks can all take a deep breath; the New Hampshire native is more than fine, and feels minted for the part of an overly intense New York Jew with big ambitions, self-destructive addictions and a penchant for bad life choices.

The fun part here for Boston peeps is that old friend Kevin Garnett pops up in the cast, playing himself (KG!). If you’re thinking it’s his latter Brooklyn Nets years, think again – he’s with the Green, as the year (we’re told during a colonoscopy) is 2012, and the Cs are playing the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semis (the LeBron-led Miami Heat would win the title that year) with KG winding his way through New York between road games with Philly. What’s KG got to do with a two-bit hustler? He’s buds with a streetwise operator named Demany (LaKeith Stanfield, so good in “Sorry to Bother You”) who stores his Rolex stash at Howard’s cramped showroom in New York’s jewelry district. Meanwhile Howard gets a covert shipment (in a fish belly) of Ethiopian opals, all glommed together in a two-fist mass. Garnett catches a glimmer of the stone, feels a mystical emanation and decides he wants to hold onto it for good luck during the next game. His collateral? The 2008 NBA championship ring he won with the Cs, which Howard pawns immediately, putting the whole enchilada on Garnett and the Celtics to take down Philly, playing home court.

Howard’s an impulsive sort. Did I mention he’s big into a loan shark (Eric Bogosian, excellent) who has close family ties with Howard (they do Passover together, which is awkward, to say the least)? Then there’s Howard’s discerning wife (Idina Menzel), hot and onto it all, and the kept woman he puts up in a posh pad (Julia Fox, who should ride a breakthrough wave after this) and the two sons he hardly ever sees as he bounces from one dicey situation to the next, buying just enough time to make the next poor choice, ever adding to a mounting shitstorm of lies and imminent retribution. Continue reading

Bombshell

19 Dec

‘Bombshell’: Trio has news for Fox and Ailes, coming in form that seems fair and balanced

 

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We’ve already had “The Loudest Voice” miniseries on Showtime to show us just how full of hubris and sexual entitlement was Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, so why do we need “Bombshell”? Well for one, we get the sordid tale primarily from the perspective of the women who were bellowed at and belittled into accepting the media honcho’s sexual overtures, lest their careers be canceled (“You gotta give a little head to get ahead”). Also too, there’s some pretty amazing performances, most notably Charlize Theron as Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who went to war with Donald Trump (“blood coming out of everywhere”) during the 2016 presidential campaign, and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, who after being kicked down the ladder by Ailes for her age and liberal leanings on assault weapons (by conservative standards), decides to kick back. Margot Robbie, so good in “I, Tonya” (2017), is also in the mix lower down the chain as newscaster, as is SNL’s Kate McKinnon, doing well in a serious role. But this is really Theron and Kidman’s show, with a major contribution from John Lithgow, charged with the unsavory task of portraying the conservative news prick who helped get Nixon and Reagan elected by manipulating the media (Trump too, some would argue).

The high-wire act that “Bombshell” performs is its ability to humanize Ailes without letting him off the hook (vs., let’s say, “Vice,” which hung Dick Cheney up as a nefarious puppet master from start to end). Lithgow should be given a medal for wallowing in such muck. He shares a scene with Robbie’s Kayla (a composite character) that should make anyone with a shred of humanity very uncomfortable, if not outraged, as she pushes for and gets a one-on-one meeting with Ailes (through his secret backdoor entrance to his office suite) in which she’s asked to stand and show him her form (“news is a visual medium”), hiking her skirt higher and higher. In the end you feel that there’s so much more tawdriness, let alone criminality, that doesn’t get splashed across the screen. Much of what Kelly does in the film is strategize with Ailes on Trump, and once Ailes is under investigation by the Murdochs (Malcolm McDowell as Rupert) wrestles with how to roll with the swirling storm against the man who made her. Carlson is more of a clear-cut matter, the fired newscaster portrayed by Kidman not self-righteously or as an outright victim, but as conflicted and seeking respect in the wake of long-endured indignities. It’s a nuanced performance that many will overlook, whereas Theron’s Kelly, makes tart asides to the audience (think “The Big Short,” which is no coincidence; see below) that gives us the inside scoop on how things operate at Fox, but not on what’s in her head. Theron’s emulation of Kelly, her voice and mannerisms, is off-the-charts uncanny

Much will likely be made about what’s not on the screen in “Bombshell” though the script by Charles Randolph, who penned “The Big Short” (2015), gets to delve into the lurid now that Ailes has conveniently departed us. Like “The Irishman” and “Richard Jewell,” for that matter, “Bombshell” makes for a compelling fact-based narrative, but is it a bona fide testimonial or a skewed version of the truth? In terms of balance, Kelly isn’t let off the hook for silence in the face of accusations against her mentor, or poor judgment in calling out the notion of a “black Santa” on air and sticking with it. It makes her human, flawed and endearing. These are not heroic actions. Carlson’s the real hero, putting it on the line and against all odds. 

The film is directed by Jay Roach, who’s known mostly for his light “Meet the Fockers” romps. It’s a bold step out for Roach, much like Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” films did this year with “Joker.” Sometimes stories of such sordid and heinous happenings require a droll, dark comedic hand to pack it all into a digestible pill.

Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker

19 Dec

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’: Full galaxy of goings-on packed in a 42-year escapism pod

 

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More than 40 years in the making, the “Star Wars” trilogy of trilogies finds its way to the end – kind of. Not that we (those who saw the original “Star Wars” in theaters in the days before Fandango or the Internet) ever thought it would really be made into the extended triple trilogy envisioned by George Lucas. But with Disney managing the final three of “The Force Awakens” (2015), “The Last Jedi” (2017) and now “The Rise of Skywalker,” there’s been a revival of excitement that went missing when the inert, Lucas-helmed prequel series of the late ’90s and early 2000s neutered the frenetic fandom of the original “Star Wars” (1977) and the enterprise’s crowning jewel, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). Continue reading