Feb 212019
 

My favorite scene in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel is basically every scene where Glenn Close is speaking quietly and sparsely to a man who doesn’t realize he’s not the smartest person in the room and who is not catching on to what Joan Castleman is carefully not saying.

The choice to rely on a journalist to carry the historical content of Joan’s narration in the novel is clever and well done. It leaves Close the freedom to expose the difference between being unseen and being effaced, between standing off to the side and being pushed there. The film zeros on that subtle emotional distinction and in a brisk, focused hour-and-a-half shows a fiercely intelligent and grounded woman refusing to become a thing defined and moved about by others. She refuses too to love one bit less than she feels. It’s a beautiful performance of a beautiful character.

Feb 212019
 

A light but cleverly done movie about the composition and first performance of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Nothing ever bogs down, the performances are lively, and the direction hews a balanced line between creation and hagiography. The digital landscapes of 19th century Paris are beautifully done.

This film is a better biopic than something like Bohemian Rhapsody.

Feb 192019
 

A movie that crafts a portrait of a strong woman by turning three of its characters—the father, the daughter, and the son—into clichés ready-made for epiphany. Surely Elastigirl and Void don’t need the help? I mean, why would Pixar stack the deck in this way?

Feb 192019
 

A boy named Jared is the son of a pastor and doesn’t seem as into his high school sweetheart as she is into him. He also has a tendency to look a second too long at other boys. At university, he is raped by a friend, and his assailant, afraid Jared will speak out about what has happened to him, tells Jared’s parents he’s gay. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Jared uses this moment to admit that he might be and agrees to go to a conversion camp. There everything is obviously terrible and abusive and Jared seems to see this and to reject the whole idea of conversion pretty quickly despite some early talk about wanting to “change.” Eventually he tells his mother he wants to leave the camp, that he is who he is, and the mother takes him away and works to convince his father to accept him as he is. The boy then moves to New York, finds love, and writes the memoir that becomes the basis of the movie.

I found this movie to be devastating but not, I think, because of the movie. It’s the subject and the bald presentation of the religious world view that makes conversion camps possible that got to me. The people in this film really are living in a different world, and it is a world where a rapist can catch his victim and bind him into silence by confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness in the moments following the assault. It’s a sick world in which religious delusions distort everything and it’s a world tied to particular places, especially the South. (In the film, Arkansas.) I’ve been inside this world, and I’m not convinced there’s any way to show the people living there that what they see and believe isn’t real or good. Watching the film, knowing what I was seeing was true was devastating.

The film itself though—the dramatic narrative performed on my screen—had a point of view problem that manifested as a third act problem and it’s hard for me to see a way around these. Jared’s story has very little drama. He’s oddly untouched throughout. He embraces a gay identity as he enters the camp and leaves because the camp wants to change that identity. The film has to show the camp and what happens there because without those images there’s no reason for the film really, but there is no drama in those scenes, only horror because the boy isn’t there to struggle. He observes. He witnesses. Like the film, like the viewer, he knows what he is seeing is wrong and that the people around him are misguided. The only question is how long he’ll put up with it.

To the extent the film generates drama it involves the mother and to a lesser extent the father, both of whom must confront the consequences of their beliefs and both of whom must change in the final act for the film to come to a proper end. They do change. Yet because the film focuses on the boy, their change happens off screen and out-of-sight. The problem this causes is captured nicely by the film’s trailer. The film clearly is being marketed as a dramatic (if saccharine) social issue film, but in order to generate sellable drama, the trailer has to rely on footage of the parents drawn almost exclusively from the final moments of the film. Again, I don’t see how the film gets around this without jettisoning its source, and ultimately, as flat as the film is, the horror of what it does show is enough to make it powerful. So ultimately, the film is what it is, dramatic problems and all, and what it is isn’t terrible.

Gloomy and bland as everything else is, there are two visually beautiful moments in the film. These are:

  1. Jared standing in front of a photograph of a male model—it’s an ad at a bus stop—and he reaches out and places his hand on the man’s face, then steps back, and, angry, throws a rock shattering the glass; and
  2. Jared staying over at a ridiculously gorgeous young artist’s ridiculously gorgeous apartment, but doing nothing except chastely staring into each other’s eyes in bed together.

The film knows these are pinnacle moments of beauty and sets them off as such in the narrative. The marketers do as well: both are given pride of place in the trailer.

For someone watching from Quebec, the film had one additional loop of interest. Let’s call it the “Xavier Vortex.”

First, cinematic wünderkid and world-class sex-pot, Xavier Dolan plays a deeply fucked up resident of the conversion camp who is always there to say something creepy and damaged to Jared. Second, the artist Jared spends the night with—named Xavier, but not Dolan—is played by Montreal actor Théodore Pellerin.

So the quebecois invasion of Hollywood continues apace…

Feb 072019
 

Roma is beautiful and heartfelt. I enjoyed it a lot. Like good art often does, it made me want to make something of my own.

Roma is also a film made by someone steeped in a certain history of European art cinema. Rossellini and Fellini are the principle touchstones but there are others. What I can’t sort out is what purpose these touchstones serve. Citationality and influence are fundamental to art but here it’s unclear to me whether the film imagines a viewership that recognizes the citations and thinks through them intertextualy or whether it it includes them simply as signs in a performance of “quality” within a new mass distribution system.

For me, the references too often felt like winks or like a cribbed aesthetic. Neither are necessarily faults: winks are fun and the working within an established aesthetic—especially one this gorgeous—can be admirable. But I kept wondering what the references meant rather than what they pointed to or looked like. Roma—even the name is a citation—is not Nights of Caberia or Journey to Italy. It’s something else. It’s somewhere else. And I keep wondering if the Neo-realist intertext says anything about these characters and their stories or whether instead it simply marks them as “legitimate” by announcing that “these stories, these characters, this place are as serious and valuable as those stories, those characters, that place.”

I would like to see more films with the depth and beauty of Roma. As much as I love sci-fi, fantasy, the Marvel and DC behemoths, the thrillers and action-adventures, there’s a mammoth absence in the contemporary cinema. What I love and what I miss are those dramatic films that run the gambit from the earnest mid-budget quality films of studio subsidiaries to the small, sometimes cheeky sometimes ambitious festival independents of auteurs both new and established.

Roma offers me that kind of film and I really love it. Yet it also has the feel of a floor sample designed to showcase what streaming as a distribution and funding model might make possible for filmmakers. I’m not sure I buy what it’s selling in this regard (despite wanting to) but the fact that I perceive the sell so clearly and can see that sales pitch as the object of the intertextual references gives me pause.

Feb 072019
 

A joke gets out of hand when people, angry and lashing out, reveal thoughts, feelings and dalliances they’d previously kept to themselves. The baby name—which I expected to be the focus of the film—is simply a first step in a chain of events.

I don’t know if people outside the drama, meaning the people I pass by in the streets or work with or count as friends, have relationships that could survive exchanges like those shown here, but these characters do. And the fact that they do, feels life affirming. I think most people are too small to survive them with friendships intact.

…which is much too bleak and much too serious a comment for a film based on comedic theatre. Generically, the film will necessarily be about relationships made more sure by threats to their continuance overcome together. My tragic sensibility is out-of-step and misplaced…

Feb 052019
 

I’ve never written about this film except in side comments made in other logs. Mostly this is because I don’t know what to say. The film overwhelms me and continues to do so each time I watch it. And now, a year and multiple screenings later, I’m still not able to separate myself from the experience enough to pull it apart. I simply love the look sound people and story of this movie and it touches me deeply enough that after all this time, I can still wind up in tears while watching it.

What I can say after my most recent screening, is that three moments stood out to me as capturing the moral or ethical stance of the film.

The first: the father’s rightly celebrated and nearly too beautiful and honest to seem possible talk with Elio on the couch at the film’s end. The father doesn’t reduce love to make it easier. Instead, he loves fully, offering himself up and showing as best he can by example and words why love’s worth the struggle and the pain. He points the way toward love, offers encouragement, but also leaves Elio the dignity of his own search and of his own way. The speech is lifted nearly word for word from the novel, but Michael Stuhlbarg’s and Timothée Chalamet’s performances in this moment make that speech on its own a work of art.

The second, again at the end of the film: as Elio returns from the train station, the young woman he had sex with while he struggled with his feelings for Oliver tells him she’s not mad, says as a question that they will be friends. Her love is not only about her and not only about need. Neither is his. They are for each other even if they are not everything for each other. So Elio responds “pour toujours.”

The third: a man and a boy in love but unable to speak except to pick and to annoy. Elio holds out the arm of a Greek bronze, asks “Truce?” Oliver shakes the beautiful bronze hand, says “Truce.” The boy, the man and the father end the day swimming together in the lake. They are people with bodies and feelings, minds and desires, finding their way to themselves and to each other through art and through the nearness of the world.

These moments capture I think something of the sensibility of the film. There’s more to say, surely, but I don’t know how to say it. Maybe later.

Feb 032019
 

Despite the guns the women are carrying, this is quiet science fiction and reminded me of Arrival. As in that other movie, the framing here is military and the threat of violence looms, but here as in Arrival, violence is framed as failure rather than as a challenge to be overcome with stronger, more effective violence. Understanding the Other is the goal and jumping to conclusions—from fear, from greed, from paranoia—is the real danger. Part of the film’s power is that I’m not sure the story ends badly: transformation is life, no? The future?

In terms of its use of locations and the integration between the narrative and place, the film reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979): both films rely on ordinary but ruined landscapes that offer few signs of the fantastic yet are recast by the narrative as menacing. The resulting tension manifests as a deep sense of dread organized around a basic confusion: is the danger of the scene objectively there in the world or is it all in the characters’ heads? Now there is obviously real danger here—a crocodile with shark teeth, a bear with a woman’s voice, a snake thing crawling beneath a man’s skin— but overall “the Shimmer” is banal space with strange plants. Yet not since The Shining have I found topiary so horrifying.

The movie is beautiful—even those topiary—and it wears its aesthetic and narrative influences on its sleeve. Alien looms large, especially in the darkest moments of body horror, but the horror evoked by certain famous news photographs is clearly a reference as well.

Ultimately, the film was a surprise and evoked the same reaction as I watched the credits as Passengers: why did none of the marketing or reviews give me a clue as to how good this movie would be? And again, I found myself wondering if we’ve lost our ability to imagine science fiction or fantasy films that are not action-adventure movies?

More personally, I love seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh perform and Tessa Thompson is becoming one of my favorite stars. So this movie was a treat.

Jan 302019
 

This film began screening on the festival circuits and in cinemas around the same time as Call Me By Your Name. So perhaps inevitably, many people I knew took sides, arguing that one or the other was extraordinary and the other dishonest posturing. Now I love a heated movie debate over a second pint as much as the next guy, but this particular one annoyed me for two reasons.

First, there still aren’t enough smart movies about gay experiences, even today with all the progress of the past few decades. Yet, here, suddenly, are two great movies out at the same time, and rather than rejoicing and reveling, the conversation becomes a fight over which one “counts” and which one doesn’t, often based on something as ridiculous as whether we see dick or we don’t. (Yes, Merchant Ivory, as much as I love him, made himself a stooge for the wrong side of these dust-ups.) Now, again, don’t get me wrong. Arguing the relative merits of dick versus no-dick over a second pint can be fun, but when that pint is gone, I want everyone to come together to thank the cinema gods that we have both options beautifully projected on our screens and I want us to enjoy them both.

Second, too often, the debate seemed to ignore how different the two films’ stories are. Call Me by Your Name is a classic and moving story of coming out and first love. God’s Own Country is a movie about a young man—very much out to himself and seemingly out-ish to family and friends—finding love, unexpectedly, across lines of cultural and regional prejudice and then struggling to turn that love into a stable relationship. The man’s sexual habits, his unhappy family situation and his general immaturity all threaten to sabotage the budding relationship. The film’s deep beauty emerges from his honest confrontation of his shortcomings and genuine efforts to overcome them.

What I love about Call Me by Your Name is the nuanced portrait of the amorous freedoms of the green space, which I think of as a realm of magic and possibility evoked by countrysides and forests seemingly untouched by social systems consigned for a moment to an “elsewhere” hidden beneath the horizon.

What I love about God’s Own Country is its willingness to acknowledge the need for apologies, to imagine their intricate difficulties, and to trust in their power to heal. I watched its last fifteen minutes waiting over and over for the sad parting shot I expected it would use to skip out before the heavy work of making things right had to be confronted, but that shot never came, and the two men end their story together in a farmhouse trying to make a life from what they find there. The beauty of it left me overwhelmed, but—and I guess this is the final example of my point—that beauty takes nothing away from the equally beautiful but fundamentally different closing shot of Call Me by Your Name‘s Elio crying silently by the fire as his heart breaks for the first time.

…despite their posturing I’m guessing (hoping?) my friends understood that as well.

Jan 292019
 

A familiar classic that I watched on the fly the other night. It’s a Cold War paranoid fantasy perfect in both its conception and execution. This is not news.

What caught my attention throughout the film was—unexpectedly and disorientingly—Dana Wynter’s costumes, which are just great. She enters the movie in a beautiful sleeveless confection with a bodice that reminded me of tissue paper stuffed into a gift bag.

Why is she wearing this fancy affair mid-afternoon in this sleepy California town? But then she slips on the matching shrug jacket and everything makes sense. What had seemed like a provocation becomes a smart and snappy ensemble perfect for slipping into and out of this store and then that one. And there are so very many errands to run. Wynter however has the look of someone ready to tackle and to conquer her to-do list. With this much spunk, it’s no wonder Kevin McCarthy looks at her the way he does.

The least interesting of her dresses was a classic black number with gloves and a fur stole that she wore for the souper manqué in the second act. It’s beautiful but depressingly appropriate. Still, watching her walk away from a fresh martini to stare anxiously at a budding (haha) human form made me wish my sleepy Quebec town had a fancy restaurant so that the Beav and I could drop in for elegant nights out.

Scene from the 1956 movie Invasion of The Body Snatchers, starrring (L-R) King Donovan, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Carolyn Jones is in the background. (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Later Wynter wears a sweater tucked into a belted skirt, a look introduced to me by Olivia Newton-John singing “Summer Nights” in Grease. I fell in love with it then and have never recovered. Wynter considers this an outfit made for running from emotionless alien mobs. Excepting the heels and the hose, perhaps it is.

Wynter’s best outfit appears only briefly early on, and for reasons I cannot fathom, the Internet doesn’t care enough to have produced a single still of the scene. McCarthy has stayed the night and when he gets up Wynter is making breakfast in the kitchen. She cracks eggs at the stove for an omelette as they talk and is wearing a cowboy shirt tucked into high waisted jeans. It is pure butch play, casually done with cool disregard. The scene lasts only a minute but was the high point of my screening. If I can figure out how to pull a still from the iTunes movie I’ve purchased, I’ll post it. But for now, the outfit will remain undocumented. Alas.