Playing Catch-Up — Wind River; Ship of Fools; Demolition

wind river

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017). With just a handful of credits for major creative roles behind the camera, Taylor Sheridan is already establishing a pretty compelling philosophical thesis about the way the world works. In Wind River, those who exist outside the power structure are so removed from real safety and justice that the only recourse is personally bloodied hands. While hunting predators in the remote chill of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, a U.S Fish and Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) finds the dead body of a young Native American woman (Natalie Chow). Since crime-fighting resources are scarce on the reservation — and because of a relevant past marked by tragedy — the agent winds up immersed in the investigation, especially after a neophyte FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to the case. Sheridan makes powerful points about discarded populations in his writing, but his pedestrian directing makes a compelling case for the valuable contributions David Mackenzie made in shepherding Sheridan’s Hell and High Water screenplay to the screen. Visual panache and an acutely developed sense of timing go a long way towards elevating a film.

 

ship of fools

Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965). Adapted from a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, which had been published just a couple years earlier, Ship of Fools benefits from the readily available storytelling possibilities that come with throwing a big batch of characters together in the confines of a ship on a transatlantic journey. All screenwriter Abby Mann needs to do in order to stir a scene to life is sit a couple people together at dinner or on the deck. Director Stanley Kramer was famously committed to exploring social justice issues in his cinematic efforts, and the timing of the film — a few years before the cataclysmic start of World War II — allows him to make his points in barbed, cunning ways, even if the sensibility on display is ultimately far too modern. Kramer juggles the cross-crossing plots admirably, and is wise enough to approach his skilled actors with obvious generosity. Everyone in the stacked cast performs admirably, but Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret are standouts.

 

demolition

Demolition (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2015). This drama is so disastrously bad, it boggles the mind that it was Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to the inventive, sublime Wild (not to mention its status as the director’s last big-screen effort before moving on to conquer television). Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man working in finance who is reeling after his wife (Heather Lind) is killed in an auto accident, right in front of his eyes. Davis isn’t saddled with grief, though. He’s more troubled by the indifference he feels, and the guilt (or anguish, or something) that stems from that causes his to act increasingly odd, primarily manifesting in a propensity to disassemble machinery, furnishings, and entire structures. He also befriends a women (Naomi Watts) and her troubled son (Judah Lewis). The entire thing plays as if it were constructed by space aliens taking a stab at depicting human emotions after observations conducted over a single weekend, while they were half-drunk. Gyllenhaal tries real hard, but the film is so bereft of anything genuine that his eager portrayal of a man tilting towards madness comes across as tedious showboating.

Now Playing — mother!

mother

I have my own theory about the genesis of mother!, the new film from Darren Aronofsky. My supposition is supported by no investigative evidence, and it surely isn’t accurate. But it helps me make sense of the sprawling madness that spills across the screen. In my fictionalized version of the creative process, Aronofsky wrote about half the script and surveyed what he had. He saw a gleefully devious horror thriller, following a writer and his wife in a rambling, remote house. Their solitude is disrupted when a stranger arrives, claiming he was mistakenly told there were accommodations for rent. More strangers arrive, motives are questioned, secrets emerge.

Aronofsky looks at all this material — unsettling but somewhat conventional, or at least with the tinge of the familiar — and ruminates. “What is this really about?” he asks. The answer comes to him. It is about the creative process, especially the agony of the artist — the creator — as he experiences the nourishing pleasures of mass adoration, perhaps at the expense of personal relationships. Those individuals he has deigned to let into the closer circles of his existence simply — selfishly, really — don’t understand the symbiotic relationship an artist has with those who truly, madly, deeply breathe in his work. And any artist, when you get right down to it, is basically like God. Because when operating with an inflated sense of self-importance, one may as well go all the way.

Armed with this enhanced perception of the themes he’s developed, Aronofsky starts in on the second half of the film. And he really commits to it.

Characteristically, Aronofsky revels in the most lunatic notions sputtered out by his toxic id, lobbing them onto the screen in flagrant defiance of good taste and — far more problematically — any sort of narrative logic. When presented with a certain amount of restraint across the film’s first half, Aronofsky’s vision earns comparisons to some admirable forefathers, such as Dario Argento and David Cronenberg (in particular, there’s an especially troublesome blood stain on a hardwood floor that could have come straight out one of the horror offerings of the latter). There’s still a disjointedness, mostly because the actors have varying levels of success injecting personality into their desperately empty characters: Michelle Pfeiffer is vividly alive, Javier Bardem is surprisingly adrift, Ed Harris is somewhere in between.

Then there’s the star of our feature. Whatever else can be said about her performance, Jennifer Lawrence isn’t timid. In a manner that undoubtedly strikes Aronofsky as uncompromising rather than untoward, the story treats Lawrence’s character as a leather speed bag. After every blow, Lawrence is required to immediately ricochet back to receive another. It looks exhausting, but — through no fault of Lawrence’s — that’s not the same as great acting. It’s a longtime flaw of Aronofsky’s, stretching all the way back to Requiem for a Dream, in which the grueling outcomes endured by the main characters had no impact that connected to them as fictional beings. Had each of the actors waved wearily, punched out, and shuffled out of the frame to be replaced by all new performers, the queasy sensation of watching the final moments play out would have been exactly the same. That’s a problem, and it’s arguably an abdication of the filmmaker’s responsibility.

But mother! anticipates these complaints — any complaints, really — and refutes them. If I don’t like what Aronofsky has crafted, then it is decidedly my own fault. Like the women who move interchangeably through the artist’s life, excavated for their love, I am foolishly blind to the gifts being bestowed upon eager crowds. I don’t properly grasp the brilliant biblical symbolism or the allegories to nature ravaged by callous humanity. Any problems couldn’t possibly be him, so they must be me. That argument so thoroughly built into mother! that the whole messy spectacle is a defense mechanism stretched to two lurid hours.

The film has been so divisive that Paramount executives have felt obligated to defend its very existence, or at least its perplexing inclusion in their 2017 slate, which otherwise includes the likes of Baywatch and Transformers: The Last Knight. While pointing out there are plenty of people ready to celebrate the film’s daring, the studio’s president of worldwide distribution and marketing, Megan Colligan, offered an acknowledgement that there is strong contrary sentiment among viewers. “The hatred is real,” she said, in part. I don’t have much help to offer the Paramount marketing team, but in this I can back them up.

From the Archive — The Fountain

fountain

On the occasion of a new film from Darren Aronofsky, arriving to acclaim and debate, and as I eagerly await my opportunity to screen said film and join in the carousing argument, it’s perhaps worth remembering that most of the director’s films simply aren’t very good. This was written for my former online home. As a nifty bonus of “From the Archive” timing, the review contains an offhand reference to a 1990 medical-based thriller that will see its remake hit theater in just a couple of weeks. 

Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Fountain is like What Dreams May Come altered so it’s less for a Mitch Albom crowd and more for a Chuck Palahniuk crowd. If all those references muddy the water a little too much, let’s put it this way: just because it’s arty and edgy and self-referential, all steeped in anger and darkness and blistering imagery doesn’t mean it’s not still a laughable piece of junk.

The film is about eternal love and endless life with science and mythology engaging in a tentative dance together around these subjects. The film moves willfully back and forth in time and between the fiction of the film and the fictions within the film. Aronofsky handles his multiple plot threads nimbly enough. It’s never especially confusing, but nor is it compelling. At its worst, the film is layered in woefully hoary conceits, stranding a talented cast to strain and emote or beam and twinkle. Poor Ellen Burstyn is reduced to the scientific equivalent of the tough precinct captain, berating obsessed doctor Hugh Jackman as “reckless” as he frantically tries to cure his wife’s illness by toiling in the most poorly lit operating rooms to grace a screen since Julia and Kiefer played with defibrillators.

Aronofsky had a wonderfully warped debut with 1998’s Pi, the wildness of the story secured by being grounded in ideas that felt right. With 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, the ideas and humanity were buried by his relentless addiction to his own techniques. It took him six years to craft a follow-up and he’s only managed to compound the misjudgments of his prior film.

Greatish Performances #31

lopez

#31 — Jennifer Lopez as Karen Sisco in Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

When Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight was released, in 1998, it was revelatory in about a half-dozen different ways. It introduced the artful showman side of Soderbergh after a series of increasingly agonized indies. It set the template for proper screen adaptations of the fiction of Elmore Leonard, an author who’d been notoriously ill-served by Hollywood to that point. (I’ll leave to another theoretical piece of writing my arguments about the suitable but still severely compromised Get Shorty and Jackie Brown.) It liberated George Clooney from rancid popcorn hellscapes of the likes of Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker. Maybe most impressively, the film showed that Jennifer Lopez had great acting within her.

Truthfully, Lopez’s sterling work was one of the less surprising triumphs of the film. This was before she was J. Lo, before she was Jenny from the Block. This was before she was a pop singer and an internet-rattling fashion icon. Basically, Lopez wasn’t a brand. She was an actress who’d often been the best part of lousy movies. She also had one fiercely impressive star turn to her credit, in the 1997 biopic Selena. There was cause to believe she’d be very good in Out of Sight. She’s even better.

In Out of Sight, Karen Sisco is a tricky character to play. A U.S. Marshal based in Florida, Karen is highly capable at her job, fully prepared to stand up against thugs trying to intimidate her and psychologically astute enough to coax information out of the dim bulb aspirational criminals who are the most widespread constituency of any story that sprung from Leonard’s typewriter. She also needs to be vulnerable, a little damaged, prone to questionable decisions when it comes to the men in her life. These two pieces are wildly different, and yet they need to fit together in a clean, relatable whole. Leonard niftily achieves that on the page, with the added benefit of gentle dips into internal churning thoughts and telling hints of history. Onscreen, with a more threadbare safety net, Lopez needs to show how a person can make decisions that have a clear risk of disaster to them without necessarily being a disastrous person.

Lopez finds the needed balance by embracing understatement. She isn’t snapping off her dialogue with bravado-bolstered authority, in the manner of so many actors who are blessed with variants on Leonard’s words. She speaks them with restrained deliberateness, signaling how caution and certainty can coexist. Her Karen Sisco is never showboating. She’s just smart, which in turn heightens the power of her devotion, whether to her father (Dennis Farina) or, in the film’s chief relationship, the intriguing prison escapee Jack Foley (Clooney).

There’s a suggestion that Karen’s attraction to Jack is for little other reason than he engages her senses in a way the rest of the world doesn’t, that he can keep up when she lays out who she is and what she believes to be true. (And, yes, he looks like George Clooney in the late-nineties.) Whether sharing a car trunk during the prison-break getaway (Karen briefly lets her guard down and winds up a hostage) or indulging in a fantasy of mundane lives intertwining in a Detroit hotel restaurant, Jack wins Karen over by stepping up to her and fully expecting — and appreciating — that she’ll do the same to him. It’s one of the rare instances in which falling in love in the movies is believable, gradual, grounded in the experience presented to the audience. Clooney is strong in these scenes, but he still sometimes leans on his natural charisma to carry a moment. Lopez does something different. She shows every nuance of Karen’s emotional journey.

I haven’t seen Lopez reach this sort of gratifying intimacy with a character since. Tempting as it is to attribute the performance to the magic Soderbergh can sometimes spin, especially with actresses (the talent shown by Andie MacDowell in sex, lies, and videotape is so drastically different from that seen in any other performance in her filmography that I wouldn’t argue with a conspiracy theory positing she was replaced, Paul-is-Dead style, circa 1990). But, as noted, Lopez was good in other films before this. Instead, it seemed as though, after Karen Sisco, she simply lost interest in digging this deep. She remained invested in being a star, maybe not so much in being an actress. What I wouldn’t give to see the performer from Out of Sight return. I’d follow her anywhere.

 

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move

Playing Catch-Up: Good Morning; The Big Sky; The Witness

good morning

Good Morning (Yasujirō Ozu, 1959). I’ll admit to being underexposed to the work of the revered Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. (It’s not a good excuse, by any means, but I’ve devoted most of my relevant geographically-based cinema self-schooling to films of Ozu’s countryman Akira Kurosawa.) And since my primary connection to Ozu’s oeuvre is through the masterful Tokyo Story, I think of the filmmaker as a crafter of delicate, relatively sedate art. As that preamble suggests, Good Morning proves how wrong I was in my reductive assumption. A loose remake of a film Ozu made over twenty-five years earlier, Good Morning largely concerns a couple of young brothers operating with escalating bratty behavior in an attempt to bully their parents into purchasing a television set. Around that, Ozu expertly stages a subplot that shows how animosity and suspicion moves with stealthy passive aggressiveness throughout tight-knit community. Ozu’s film is bright, cunning, and delightfully rambunctious. It’s also beautifully structured in every way, including unfussy perfection in the staging of shots and depth of psychological understanding of all the characters that evidences warmth and wry judgment all at once.

 

big sky

The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952). This Western centers on a group of ramshackle fellows who race against a menacing trading company to form an agreement with the Blackfoot tribe in the commerce of the day. Along the way, Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) find themselves in a bit of a love triangle with a Native American woman named Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt). The story isn’t always compelling, but Howard Hawks, as usual, builds the film with personality spilling out of its sprocket holes. It’s especially entertaining to see him bring a bleak humor to the depiction of the physical horrors that routinely befell those who took it upon themselves to tame the frontier. Arthur Hunnicutt received an Academy Award nomination for his role as the cynical hand who provides a moral compass, albeit one with a slightly bent pointer. It was a deserving nod; Hunnicutt’s performance is the highlight of the film.

 

witness

The Witness (James Solomon, 2015). Increasingly, I find it likely that Ezra Edelman’s terrific O.J.: Made in America points to the future of documentary filmmaking, if only because so many features seem to be straining for the same exhaustive examination of interconnected concerns. Director James Solomon covers an immense amount of sociological and deeply personal sub-topics in The Witness, but must largely for doing so in a glancing fashion, finishing with a film that is both impressive ambitious and mildly dissatisfying. First and foremost, the film is about the murder of Kitty Genovese, infamous more for the documented indifference of her New York City neighbors to her cries for help than the street-side crime itself. As Solomon painstakingly shows, the circumstances of Genovese’s death have become emblematic of social apathy, help as a metaphorical tool to make points about everything from day-to-day small town lawbreaking to the devastation delivered against the city of Aleppo. But Genovese was more than a social studies lesson. She was a person, and she left behind a heartbroken family. One of those family members, her brother William Genovese, is the heart of the documentary as he obsessively seeks understanding and closure. (The latter goal contributes to the film’s one flat-out terrible stretch, a sequence in which William hires an actress to recreate Kitty’s screams on the street where she was killed, an inexplicable gesture that Solomon treats as so logical it requires no further exploration.) Solomon has an immense amount to say with him film — some of it powerful, some of it challenging, much of it deeply insightful. In the end, more than anything else, I wish he’d had more time to say it.

From the Archive: Running with Scissors

scissors

I really should be dropping an old review of a Stephen King adaptation into this space, but I believe I’ve exhausted my supply of writing on the often-dire translations of the prolific author’s work. Instead, I’ll take as my prompt the season debut of the latest sprawling exercise in lavish provocation from Ryan Murphy’s television empire. I have no informed opinion to offer on Murphy’s recent television creations, except to say that I’m grateful to the FX Network for keeping him busy enough that he doesn’t have time to make more movies.

You can probably pull out any two or three scenes with Annette Bening from the new film Running With Scissors and make a case for some splendid acting going on, but the performance doesn’t really cohere within the film. That’s certainly due in part to the character Bening is playing: the mentally ill mother of future writer Augusten Burroughs. She is a writer, enchanted with her own creativity and consumed by her own misery. She’s also under the sway of a psychiatrist of questionable merits who keeps her well-stocked with mind-altering pharamaceuticals, so, to a degree, it makes sense that there’s not much of a through-line to the character. But just because something is understandable (or within the scope of audience rationalization) doesn’t make it satisfying. What’s worse, the problems hindering Bening’s performance are apparent elsewhere. Inconsistency and offputting exhibitionism may be suited to her chracter, but those are also apt, unfortunately descriptions for the rest of the film.

Ryan Murphy, creator of the FX series Nip/Tuck, wrote the screenplay (adapted from the bestselling memoir by Burroughs) and directed the film, demonstrating little facility for either task. It’s easy to pick out individual directorial transgressions — Bening pops her first pill in import-heavy slow-motion so preposterous and cliched that it must be awkward and ill-chosen parody; a time transition achieved through a fast-motion static shot of a movie theater exterior — and dismiss them as the missteps of first-time feature director anxious to create something artistic and challenging and different. What’s really dreadful is the mangled tone that the script and the direction conspire to create.

For the bulk of the film, Augusten Burroughs (played adequately if unimpressively by Joseph Cross) is in his early teens, and the life he’s living is a series of horrible challenges. Besides the fragility of his mother’s psyche, his departed father wants nothing to do with him and he’s dispatched to live with the warped therapist in a giant, filthy house stacked high with the discarded detritus of life, from empty food cans to ancient Christmas trees. He bonds with one of the man’s daughters and falls into a sexual relationship with another adopted son, a disturbed man in his thirties. This is a troubled and troubling journey, but Murphy clearly strives to balance the discomfort with a sort of bleak humor (consistent with the approach Burroughs took in the original book, I believe). Those sort of tone shifts require great deftness, and Murphy just doesn’t have it. The resulting wreck relies on sitcom-style set-up and punchline gags, cheap scatalogical jokes and pushy art direction to squeeze laughs from the 1970’s costumes and decor (look there’s a can of Tab! And avocado-colored appliances! What a riot!) The humor is too self-satisfied to be funny and it leeches any power out of the dramatic moments. These are sick, lost people, and its sometimes hard to sympathize when them after the movie had so aggressive prodded us to laugh at them first.

Early on, the voiceover narration announces this is based on a true story, adding that without that assurance no one would believe it. There’s some cause for this as the film never does feel authentic. It’s not because of the extreme circumstances, though; it’s because of the incredible bungling of the filmmakers.

My Writers: Billy Wilder

The Apartment US Half Sheet Linen-backed

Until Woody Allen came along, Billy Wilder had more screenwriting Academy Award nominations to his credit than any other individual. Counting Oscar nominations and wins makes for a faulty metric of excellence, but the implicit message is sound in the case of Wilder. The Austrian emigree to the bizarre wonderland of Hollywood is one of the true greats of U.S. cinema, a man who earned an endless stream of accolades and yet remains somewhat underrated, unlikely to be evoked with the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks as a defining voice in the medium. He should be considered a true peer of those greats as a director. As a writer, though, I’d argue Wilder was unmatched in his time. When I think of how screenplays are supposed to work, I think of Wilder.

Venerating Wilder in this respect is complicated by the fact that Wilder was almost always a collaborator in the writing process. I.A.L. Diamond is the most famous co-writer of Wilder’s film, but there is a small battalion of others whose names appear next to the director’s in the opening credits, such as Edwin Blum (Stalag 17) and no less than Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity). But there is an unmistakably unifying quality to the writing in Wilder’s films that can only be reasonably attributed to him. His films are sharp, bleakly funny, cunning, and deeply authentic.

Cameron Crowe’s hefty collection of interviews with Wilder remains one of the best books about filmmaking I’ve ever read. For as much discussion as Wilder rightly devotes to casting, image framing, and other mechanics of directing, it’s clear that the core of his philosophy is locked in on the writing process. The ten rules of filmmaking he provides are almost entirely connected to the screenplay.  In modern cinema, there is no quality that is more rare and endearing than this one, defined perfectly by Wilder: “The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.” As no maxim is more ignored — to the point of supreme irritation — than the one Wilder acknowledges he borrow from his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.”

Wiser, more refined cineastes that me have observed that characters in film noir don’t talk like real people, but their banter represents the way people should talk. Wilder triumphed in practically every genre, including film noir. And his pinnacle effort in that subgenre, the phenomenal Double Indemnity, provides insight into what Wilder did better than anyone, before or since. He somehow created dialogue that was recognizably wiser and wittier than most real world discussions, and yet it felt honest and true rather that jaggedly aspirational. That cascade of lines didn’t match how people talked, and yet it did. In Wilder’s words exists the big messy us of the American experience, one he entered into rather than inherited, which likely gave him a keener insight.

There’s one more cinematic storytelling tip that’s worth sharing: “Know where you’re going.” Wilder always did. Of course I was — and am — always eager to follow.