December 10, 2017

A Ghost Story

In A Ghost Story, Casey Affleck plays a man who dies in a car accident, and spends the rest of the movie a ghost, donning the stock white bed sheet with two eyeholes cut into it, like one of the trick-or-treaters from It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Much of the film involves Affleck's character, besheeted, standing inside his old house, watching his former wife, played by Rooney Mara, as she navigates her unexpected new life as a young widow. The film was written and directed by David Lowery, and its simple and austere plot and filmmaking may be a direct reaction against the big-budget Pete's Dragon, which Lowery was also working on at the time. But there's nothing in A Ghost Story to hold our attention. The film ponders life's big questions in an obvious and dull way, and much of it is simply static. We're left to fill in long scenes of people standing, staring, saying nothing, doing nothing, with our own thoughts and feelings. I like a film that gives me space to enter its world and think about it, but the world of A Ghost Story is drab and listless, and the longer the movie went on, the more I began to itch for something dramatic and over-the-top: Give me an overacted Tennessee Williams adaptation over this dismal stuff any day of the week. The film reaches some kind of philosophical head at a party scene, near the end, after even Casey Affleck's ghost has somewhat faded into the background. A guest at the party delivers a long speech about the meaningless of life. The movie's explorations of these questions, however admirable and bold, is not very interesting. Perhaps we're meant to experience some kind of catharsis from A Ghost Story, or to experience it as cinematic poetry. If it is a cinematic poem, it's from the Mary Oliver school of poetry,  brimming with self-congratulatory observations that are militantly simple and "earthy."

The Beguiled

"Bring me the anatomy book" has to be the greatest line from a movie in 2017. It comes from Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled (and I have no idea if it's originally from the novel, or the first film adaptation of this material, from 1971), and uttered with cold precision by Nicole Kidman's character, who's about to execute her very first amputation. The film is set at a girls' school in Virginia, during the seemingly endless slog of the Civil War. Several of the girls have remained at the school, under the care of its very proper headmistress (Kidman) and the one remaining teacher (Kirsten Dunst). This is essentially a finishing school, where girls learned how to be young ladies. While they do make time for academics, the real teaching that goes on is about the domestic sphere, a woman's primary place of influence and identity during this period. The film explores the ways in which the unexpected arrival of a man (a wounded Union soldier played by Colin Farrell) upsets the very carefully constructed world of these women and girls, and how their own desires come into direct conflict with the lessons they're trying to teach (or learn). The Beguiled is fueled by a subtle, unflinching irony, which may be the reason I felt a degree of cold admiration for the film, rather than genuine pleasure. It's impeccably made (Sofia Coppola continues to prove herself a truly talented and original filmmaker) and acted. The ways that Kidman and Dunst exert control over each other, and over Farrell's character (a man whose moral compass we're never quite sure about), is its own kind of mesmerizing puzzle, and these actors bring out the intricacies of sexual desire and sexual politics in the very repressed 19th century. (Farrell flirts with both of the women, and several of the students; his affection creates a tension between all of them, who have suddenly realized a desire they didn't know they had.) But The Beguiled didn't affect me on a visceral level, which may have been what I was expecting from it, and so the movie left me somewhat unmoved, despite all of its many fine elements.

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant would probably be considered a better movie if it weren't part of the Alien series, if it were not being judged against insurmountable odds: being worthy of the original Alien (1979), the masterpiece of this franchise, or even the 1986 sequel, Aliens, which is junky yet consistently entertaining. Judged on its own merit, Alien: Covenant (the first Alien sequel to be helmed by Ridley Scott, who directed the original) is passable science fiction. This time around, the crew of a spaceship, bound for some outlying planet, is awakened after a malfunction kills 47 embryos. (Their ship is carrying over 1000 human embryos which will be harvested to populate this earth-like planet, a new colony.) When the crew receives unknown transmissions from another planet in their path (one that also may be habitable), they decide to investigate. We as the audience know exactly what's going on: This is a ruse to get them into harm's way. The movie unfolds rather predictably after that, as various crew members wander into dangerous situations and are picked off in ghastly ways by the alien creatures. Michael Fassbender, reprising his role as an android from Prometheus (the 2012 Alien prequel), figures prominently here; he's as cold and inhuman as you would expect an android to be, and he figures into a rather ingenious plot twist. And even though the ending is bold for a big budget thriller, ultimately, one grows weary of Alien: Covenant, and of its the idiotic characters, very quickly.

With Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, and Billy Crudup.

November 08, 2017

The Little Hours

The Little Hours, a happily deranged comedy from writer-director Jeff Baena, doesn’t always work, but you have to admire the movie’s exuberant madness. It is by turns a Monty Python-esque period spoof, an improv comedy wet dream (the dialogue is mostly extemporized, the setting deliberately anarchic), and a philosophical meditation on the nature of existence. (It’s based on two stories from The Decameron.) The film is set in a Medieval convent somewhere in the Italian countryside, where three nuns, named Sister Alessandra, Sister Fernanda, and Sister Genevra (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci, respectively) experience a sexual awakening. These three nuns look out upon their drab, cloistered little world with a kind of yearning that they can barely put into words. Then along comes the hunky young serf Massetto, (Dave Franco), who’s on the run from his angry master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) after sleeping with the man’s wife (the delightful, snarky Lauren Weedman, whose dialogue is the equivalent of an endless series of glaring eyerolls).  

The three sisters are all immediately drawn to Massetto, partly because he’s pretending to be deaf and mute, a ruse devised by the priest (John C. Reilly) who runs the convent. Massetto’s silence is for his own protection, against the volcanic temper of Sister Fernanda. Early in the movie, when she and the others are passing by the previous gardener, she unleashes her comic fury, hurling curse words and turnips at him because she dislikes the convent food. The allegedly deaf-mute Massetto, non-threatening yet smoldering, emboldens the women to act on long-repressed sexual desires.

Then again, what would you do if the puppy-eyed, svelte Dave Franco showed up at your doorstep? Genuflect by day, and carouse by night, of course. The sisters, it turns out, are far more evolved than perhaps even they realize. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for something to set their desires into motion. And Sister Fernanda, in particular, isn't content with washing garments and tending the garden and saying her morning prayers: When she whips up a love potion using belladonna weed, she has more on her mind than romance: Sister Fernanda is part of a coven of witches, and she has her eye on Massetto as a potential sacrifice for an upcoming fertility ritual (!).

Even though The Little Hours can be jarring in its tonal shifts (the movie may be guilty of trying to be too many things), it’s never boring, and the performances have an other-worldly quality, partly because the dialogue is all modern. This anachronistic touch works especially because Baena doesn’t rely on it too much. The fact that Plaza, Brie, and Micucci talk like women from 2017 who’ve been transported back to 1398 (they curse like sailors, or perhaps teenagers posting selfies on Instagram), is a gimmick, but not the film's only source of comedy. It’s just a device made to loosen things up, so that Baena and his cast can explore and make fun of the world they've created, including the ways that the characters (and by extension, most humans) compartmentalize their lives. For example: John C. Reilly's priest, who’s in love with the soft-spoken mother superior (Molly Shannon). Their love isn’t portrayed as sleazy or clandestine; it’s longing and tender, and almost tragic in the way the romance in Brokeback Mountain was tragic, because it’s arbitrarily forbidden by the culture in which they live. The performances alone make The Little Hours worth seeing. All three of the leads seem to be harboring little sticks of comic dynamite inside them, and you never know when the next explosion will happen. All you can do is wait for one of them to get that look in her eyes.

November 05, 2017

Notes from the Underground

Hello again. Excuse me as I begin to wipe the cobwebs off this little corner of the Internet. Today, I have at long last renewed my domain for Panned Review. When the domain lapsed in July, I was unable to renew it because Google’s process is deep and mysterious, like a Christopher Nolan movie. And like Nolan, I would try to explain it to you better, only I don’t fully understand it myself. At any rate, it was not a simple one-click solution. In the midst of this, my feelings about writing movie reviews were all a-flutter, partly due to personal reasons, partly because trying to write movie reviews for fun can be a challenge when you teach English full time, and there are papers to grade and books to read. On the other hand, I’ve gotten to contribute a few pieces to another blog, Filmview, run by my friend Konstantinos Pappis. So the question loomed: Should I continue this long-running blog or not? For now, the answer is yes. I’m also happy to say that a new project is in the works: a podcast. More information about that when it’s available. For now, I’m enclosing some mini-reviews of movies I’ve seen this year but never wrote about.

Atomic Blonde – Those who say a female James Bond is out of the question are quickly proved wrong by this fast-moving, neon-enameled comic book of a movie, in some ways a companion to John Wick. In both films, the action scenes are extremely well-choreographed and the tension is almost always punctuated by some little bit of humor. Atomic Blonde is ultimately a unique and fascinating movie all on its own, even if the premise (an American spy facing off with Russians in Germany during the end of the Cold War) has already been trod endlessly. Charlize Theron delivers a convincing performance as Lorraine, a mysterious woman whose allegiance is never clear to us. Theron’s performance is icy and sharp, yet vulnerable, a combination that few Bond actors have ever been able to master, and James McAvoy makes for a worthy love interest/villain. But what strikes me most about Atomic Blonde is that it’s one of the most visually interesting movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found myself tuning out the dialogue (some of which was too functional and technical at times) because I was so fascinated by the images. And of course, it’s awash in 80s references, from the music to the costumes, and resembles, in its most exciting moments, a music video right out of the the early days of MTV. Directed by David Leitch. Also starring John Goodman.

Kong: Skull IslandKong: Skull Island feels like it was made by people who obsessively watched Apocalypse Now, mining it for inspiration, but their commitment to showing the audience a good time is such a welcome thing that the film's ostentatious references to Vietnam movies hardly bothered me. Especially when so few movies like this (take note, Jurassic World) feel interesting or have any personality. Skull Island takes place in the 70s, so its strikingly ethnically diverse cast feels almost anachronistic. This motley group of scientists, soldiers, and other hangers-on embarks on a doomed expedition to the ends of the earth: Skull Island. The island is essentially concealed inside a dangerous hurricane-force atmosphere. And it's home to an ancient indigenous tribe and a variety of ghastly prehistoric monsters, not to mention the great King Kong. Kong once again feels like a lovable beast, one we truly care about, and while the film’s overstuffed Vietnam commentary may be somewhat forced and obvious, it sure does make for a colorful entertainment. Samuel L. Jackson plays a bomb-crazy colonel with the usual ideas about colonialism; Brie Larson is a war photographer, Tom Hiddleston a rogue adventurer, and John Goodman a government wonk. With John C. Reilly, who's genuinely touching as a WW2 soldier who's been stranded on Skull Island for 30 years, a godlike prize for the natives. It's a hodgepodge that works. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Mother! – Darren Aronofksy is not a director after my own heart. I disliked Black Swan immensely, and I found Mother! pretty insufferable too. Jennifer Lawrence plays the young wife of a struggling poet, (Javier Bardem). This once happy couple lives in a beautiful country estate, the home Bardem’s character grew up in, apparently. They’re expecting a baby, and Lawrence’s character is wrapped up in redecorating the whole house, which is a bit of a fixer-upper. That’s when their domestic tranquility is shattered by the appearance of a strange couple, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. The movie descends into a kind of domestic nightmare as increasingly bizarre things happen and the wife feels alienated from her husband, whose commitment to hospitality borders on the pathological. It’s a surreal experience, one that may titillate some viewers with all its literary references (to the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, among others, and its more general pap about the artist’s struggle). But Jennifer Lawrence spends the entire film reacting in horror to the admittedly horrible things happening to her; I much prefer Lawrence when she’s strong or funny (like her deliciously arch performance in the otherwise middling American Hustle). Mother! is also a maddeningly ugly film, visually speaking, a far cry from the rapturous beauty of the film below.

Suspiria (1977) – I’ve already reviewed Suspiria, but I must take a moment to rave about the experience of seeing it this October on the big screen, at Jacksonville’s own Sun-Ray Cinema. Before the movie began, we were treated to a brief intro by star Jessica Harper herself, which she recorded as a little gift to the fans. I’ve never considered myself a devotee of Suspiria, because the film’s plot is so haphazard. But seeing its garish colors on that massive screen turned me into a believer. The point of Suspiria is that it’s a chaotic, nightmarish experience, a frenetic symphony of artistic terror. Dario Argento doesn’t have the time, the patience, or the desire to nail every detail of the plot together, and why should he when he’s capturing a film this beautiful and terrifying? The horrifying double murder, minutes after the opening credits, is one of the prime examples: We never know where the threat is coming from, or what the threat is capable of. And the unreal, dazzlingly ornate set designs, which are more like the acid trips of an art major than actual movie sets, reinforce the feeling of otherworldliness. Suspiria has energy and vitality and spookiness to spare, and I’m so happy I got to see it with an audience.

Wind River – A surprisingly effective mystery-thriller, set in a desolate, snow-encased town in the Wyoming wilderness. Elizabeth Olsen plays a hotshot FBI agent who teams up with a somber, intuitive tracker (Jeremy Renner) to investigate a very cold case – the rape and gruesome murder of a young Native American woman, whose body was found deep in the mountains. Wind River becomes less about whodunit and more about the ways a place can be so hard and harsh that its conditions wear on your very soul. And yet, Wind River never feels like an inhuman film. The characters that populate it are interesting and all too human, only they’ve been living in isolation too long. The film takes a surprising turn at the end, revealing to us everything that happened, via flashback. It feels jarring at first, but director Taylor Sheridan’s focus is on the people, not the scintillating, pulpy surface story. That’s what makes Wind River such a satisfying movie. The standoff scene, between Olsen, several other agents, and a handful of methy bad guys, is tense and well-constructed. And Jeremy Renner, as always, lends a certain anchor-like presence. I can never not enjoy him in a movie.

July 08, 2017

"The House" goes too far, which is exactly what comedies should be doing.

In The House, straight-laced suburban couple Kate (Amy Poehler) and Scott (Will Ferrell) Johansen, strapped for their daughter’s college tuition, go into the casino business with their self-destructive friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), whose wife is leaving him and whose house is about to go into foreclosure. Their venue: Frank’s nearly empty house (the wife took all the furniture except for some chairs and a TV), which looks a little bit like the one from The Brady Bunch. Their clientele: all of their friends and neighbors in the sleepy little community of Fox Meadow. Fox Meadow, a perfectly manicured hamlet of square houses and square people, feels utterly boringly real, and the movie quickly recasts both the people and the place in a new, delightfully alarming alternate universe. The House envisions suburban America as a prison in which “keeping up with the Joneses” is really just a form of self-imprisonment. The movie’s mission? Parole, for very bad behavior.

The House, though an imperfect comedy, has a delightfully dark and looney sensibility. The director, Andrew J. Cohen, co-wrote Neighbors (2014) with Brendan O’Brien, and they reunited for the screenplay on The House. Both Neighbors and The House have something that most other recent comedies lack: a willingness to descend into madness and never return. There’s no big attempt at reforming the protagonists once they delve into their bizarre business endeavor.

And this trio, Poehler, Ferrell, and Mantzoukas, is weird in all the right ways. They embrace their glamorous life of crime just as you would expect suburban people to do so: to them, it’s as if they’ve somehow traveled into an episode of The Sopranos. Their homegrown casino suggests a lurid, grown-up fairy tale, and also the adult equivalent of a Looney Toons short.

Frank is the self-destructive one, and the catalyst for Kate and Scott’s own descent into transgressive behavior. But they’ve always had this urge in them. They’re weirdos at heart who’ve been in suburbia for too long. We get hints of this by their interactions with their daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins), like when they try to inform her about date rape with an improvised “scenario” that goes horribly wrong.

The turning point is the scene in which Will Ferrell accidentally chops off a customer’s middle finger with an axe in Jason Mantzoukas’s garage. They have just caught the man counting cards, and in a hasty decision, they strong-arm him out of the casino with plans to scare him. But he’s a legit criminal who works for some tough crime boss (Jeremy Renner, who figures in a hilarious cameo in the third act), not at all intimidated by these three “soccer moms” as he calls them. Scott, who has so much repressed rage (or is it merely repressed passion from the dullness of his very normal life?) strikes, intending to scare the man, but instead hacks off his finger. And then, in full-on Italian splatter movie style, blood spurts everywhere, dousing Ferrell’s face as he screams in horror at his actions. That’s when people start calling him “The Butcher,” and acquires a new degree of fear-based respect from his neighbors.

But it’s not just Ferrell’s character who’s transformed by their foray into illegal gambling. The casino brings out the Id in everybody: two men engage in a knock-down-drag-out fight, but before they can commence, the other customers turn it into a betting war, and the “house” begins to host fights between neighbors; two women, who have fired passive aggressive shots at each other in town hall meetings past, take their aggressions to the ring, in an amazingly brutal, uncomfortable scene.

So few comedies have the courage of their convictions. They want to shake things up temporarily but then restore normalcy. (This is the Judd Apotow syndrome, and it has had a deadly effect on the genre.) But The House wants to tear “normal” to shreds. The new identity that Scott and Kate have formed for themselves reignites their passion for each other, their sense of being alive. The House goes too far, which is exactly what comedies should be doing. We’ll figure out the boundaries later.

With Nick Kroll (as the tyrannical town council chairman), Michaela Watkins, Cedric Yarbrough, Rob Huebel, and Lennon Parham.

May 15, 2017

"Risky Business" Still Feels Daring, and Relevant.

Nearly 35 years later, Risky Business seems hardly to have aged at all. It was the 80s’ answer to The Graduate, a youth comedy having an existential crisis, and featuring an emerging star, Tom Cruise, who even resembles Dustin Hoffman, especially when he sports a pair of dark sunglasses atop his hawkish nose. But there’s a difference between the actors, too: Hoffman has a subdued quality that he occasionally overcomes; Cruise is manic, perpetually revved up, which makes his character, the careful, obedient Joel Goodson, all the more inviting: When his parents go away for a week, Joel turns on the stereo and struts around the living room in his skivvies to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”; it’s one of the sexiest moments in the movie, not to mention an iconic scene for the 80s.

Surely this was the moment when audiences knew a star had arrived. And say what you want about Tom Cruise (he’s taken a good bit of unfair shellacking from fans and critics for a long time): the man has star power. And he's totally believable. You have to stretch your imagination ever so slightly to believe that Dustin Hoffman’s in heat for Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, but we can practically feel Tom Cruise’s racing pulse when he encounters Lana, the upscale call girl who turns his life upside down.

When Lana, played by the startling, icy-tender Rebecca de Mornay, enters the Goodson residence (a stately WASP-nest in suburban Chicago), it’s like a fever dream, practically lifted from a horror movie, with an eerie wind blowing the French Doors open, and leaves rustling and spilling into the house, and Joel, vulnerable yet expectant, lying on the couch, waiting for his unknown lover to come and ravish him. (Not before he’s visited by a male escort in women’s clothes, in a surprisingly hip and amusing scene.)

Like Cruise, Rebecca de Mornay was unknown at the time Risky Business premiered, but her performance shapes the role into something meaningful and magnetic. She’s not a floozy. De Mornay gives Lana a cool, powerful moxie that is both a turn-on and a foil for Joel Goodson, the boy with too many desires and not enough outlets for them. He’s goaded by his buddy Miles (80s teen comedy favorite Curtis Armstrong, of Revenge of the Nerds), who gives Joel a big speech about letting go, saying, “what the fuck” every once-in-a-while. When Joel finally heeds these words, disaster after disaster unfolds: Lana purloins his mother’s priceless glass egg (a ridiculous accoutrement that sits on the living room mantel); Joel sinks his dad’s porsche into Lake Michigan; and, seeing an ideal market in Joel’s steamed-up high school buddies, Lana turns the Goodson house into a makeshift bordello. Risky Business has a deliciously complex view of American values, which are inherently hypocritical when it comes to sex: Joel imagines the police encircling his house because he’s got a girl in his bed; it’s sexual policing, and he’s been caught red-handed. (The neon sign burning over his window casts an X-rated hue over the night scenes in Joel’s bedroom.)

Risky Business has been advertised as a comedy for far too long, with that famous Tom Cruise underwear-dance suggesting a lightweight tone akin to Sixteen Candles. Not that I have anything against comedy, but Risky Business defies genre-labeling, and so to expect this movie to be Porky's, for instance, is to invite disappointment. Of course, the movie is funny at times (and its sensibility is often comical), but director Paul Brickman’s vision is darker and more complex. Unlike Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a movie that reinforces the underside of capitalism (because Ferris is a spoiled upper-middle-class kid with no conscience who gets everything he wants), Risky Business has a deep discomfort with the capitalistic age of the 80s, and Joel becomes a vehicle for that discomfort.

Joel’s teenage angst is transmuted into a deeper, richer kind of angst, one that will probably stay with him past his youth. He's afraid of the future, afraid of making a mistake, and it's pretty clear that in Joel's world, one slip-up could destroy everything else. If many of those lighter 80s comedies are beloved classics in their own right, Risky Business stands apart from them in that it’s more complicated and adult in its sensibility, and as such it asks more troubling questions, without pandering to its audience like The Breakfast Club, which concludes that teenagers are right about everything. Risky Business exposes the hypocrisy of adults without congratulating the adolescents for their purity: Most of them are just as corrupt, as we see in the scene when Joel’s friends announce their plans to “make a lot of money,” and he’s struck by their brazen materialism.

But that tug-of-war between making money and being happy–and making a contribution to the world–rumbles in Joel’s mind too. He’s terrified of ruining his life, of not getting into Princeton and making a good living, but he’s also terrified of becoming his parents. And Paul Brickman does not provide easy answers. If one of the marks of a great movie is its lingering effect on us, Risky Business may in fact be a great movie. This movie transfixes us, and we wonder about the characters. What became of them? What did they accomplish? Did they end up together or apart?

The absurd (and funny) ending (another iconic moment) when Joel must buy back all the furniture from his house, which has been stolen by a vengeful pimp named Guido (Joe Pantoliano), adds to the film's otherworldly, out-of-body-experience vibe. And Brickman uses Tom Cruise’s narration, conveying a cynical hopefulness, and Tangerine Dream’s great neon waterfall of a score, to great effect. It's hard not to fall under the spell of this movie, and so we too are walking around in a dreamlike state, just like Joel. It's like a John Hughes teen comedy mixed with a Michael Mann thriller with a little Buñuel surrealism thrown in for good measure. Risky Business has the makings of great pop cinema: it is distinctly American, it is cool and sexy and bold, and it pushes us, making us feel things we don’t expect, bending genres, taking unfamiliar turns down dark alleys, and all the while, we're confident that this movie knows exactly what it's up to.

May 10, 2017

Remembering Jonathan Demme: Philadelphia

Jonathan Demme’s passing has already been noted – by writers far more qualified than me. But I want to offer a few words on his films, particularly Philadelphia, which I just recently watched. Encountering Demme’s work in the way I have, in a random and unpredictable fashion (more on that later) reminds me how much of my film knowledge has been accumulated in haphazard, almost nonsensical ways, devoid of historical context. I saw Demme’s slick, terrifying thriller Silence of the Lambs (1991) years before I saw his wacky, clever comedies Married to the Mob (1988) and Something Wild (1986). I haven’t seen Melvin and Howard (1980), the film which put Jonathan Demme on the map, or Stop Making Sense (1984), the Talking Heads concert movie that remains one of the most critically acclaimed concert movies ever. And this week, for the first time, I sat down and watched Philadelphia (1993). I knew enough about Philadelphia to feel as though I’d seen it. My parents used to watch it frequently, or at least my vague memories suggest that Philadelphia was on the rotation cycle. They like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. My family is conservative and Evangelical Christian. We were raised to believe that homosexuality is a sin. We were probably taught that AIDS was something bad people got (although I don’t remember my own parents saying this, thankfully) because they had it coming.

I sat down to watch Philadelphia partly because it was mentioned on the Slate Culture Gabfest’s recent episode about Demme. But more importantly, I needed to watch something depressing. I was in the throes of an unbearable depression, and I thought maybe if I watched enough sad movies, I could just let the pain bleed out. Is anything sadder than watching Tom Hanks, the Everyman of the 90s, die of AIDS? Is there anything more gratifying than watching Denzel Washington, the other Everyman of the 90s, defend him in court?

I wept. But I don’t think Philadelphia is a great movie. I used Philadelphia because I knew it would milk the tears out of me, and the movie did its job. But I don’t feel the same affection for it that I feel for other sad movies that I love, like Manchester by the Sea and You Can Count on Me, or Moonlight, or Ordinary People. Philadelphia exists on some other plain for me. It’s a very well-made and socially conscious movie with two great actors, and as much as this movie makes me feel its pain, it’s hard not to feel its intentions, which are admittedly very good intentions, announcing their presence.

Philadelphia exists to show homophobic people that gay people are human beings. It’s not the most complex depiction of gay people, and it’s certainly dated nearly 25 years later, but there’s an undeniable power in its grim slick Hollywood texture, in the choice of Tom Hanks, a comedy star, to play this lawyer who’s fired by his firm for being gay (and afflicted with AIDS). The homophobic man (or woman) is asked to identify with the Denzel Washington character. Washington plays Hanks’s lawyer, a local TV celebrity who despises gay people even as he defends one. Washington’s performance reminded me of his character in Fences, a character I really found insufferable. But, unlike so many lofty yet hollow message movies, Philadelphia has a real, beating heart, and that is the heart that Jonathan Demme infused into all of his movies. Even in something as unsuccessful as Ricki and the Flash, Demme’s final film, he could make us care about the characters. We move beyond congratulating him for having lofty social intentions, and just feeling like we’ve spent two hours getting to know a few people exceptionally well. So even when Demme doesn’t succeed, or partly succeeds, his work is always worth watching. As so many people have already mentioned, Demme cared deeply about human beings, and this is the thread that runs through his diverse body of work.

In fact, the most moving part of Philadelphia may be the opening credits, where we see a montage of different locations in the city, all of them populated by people: walking to work, cooking dinner, playing in the streets, cajoling and carrying on, hobbling with grim seriousness: the sequence is a moving portrait of all the varied pulsating little threads of human life that make up a city, punctuated by Bruce Springsteen’s moving, hymn-like pop ballad, “Streets of Philadelphia.” Where much of Philadelphia feels weighed down with grim importance, this opening sequence feels vulnerably light and almost sacred. What a gifted filmmaker we have lost, who could put so much thought and feeling into so many different kinds of movies.

As Peter, Tom Hanks gives a moving performance. (And of his two Oscar-winning performances, I'll take this one over Forrest Gump any day.) I think I admire him more for making the choice to play an openly gay man (whether it was a calculated choice or not), than I like the performance, as good as it is. (And trust me, I wept like a baby at the end of the movie.) But there are other performances that I savored more, like Mary Steenburgen as the opposing attorney, who tries to discredit him for being "reckless," or Jason Robards, playing his boss at the law firm, the typical old Philadelphia fogey who bristles at the thought of allowing a gay man into his fold, or darling Joanne Woodward, who doesn't have enough screen time, as Peter's mother.

But we must bear in mind that just because a movie has a walloping emotional effect on us, that doesn't make it a great movie. Philadelphia is a pretty good movie, with some great parts. In less capable hands, Philadelphia would have been a real mess, too content in its own liberal-mindedness to actually reach people. As it is, I think Philadelphia is the kind of movie that actually might change some people's minds, and more importantly, their hearts. Even if it's not a great movie, that's good enough for me.

May 07, 2017

"The Lost City of Z" is the adventure film to see this year.

The Lost City of Z, directed by James Gray, depicts the life of the English adventurer Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam). In the early 1900s, Fawcett embarked on several expeditions to South America in search of an alleged Amazonian civilization which he called “Zed.” The Lost City of Z, which is a classic adventure tale punctuated with humanism, is a meditation on exploration, masculinity, empire, and, ultimately, humanity. The film juxtaposes the supposed savagery of ancient tribes of Amazonian people with the supposed civilization of the Victorian English, and shots of their starched suits and tea services and their stuffy meetings in stuffy rooms frequently fade into vistas of humid jungles and the winding Amazon, where Fawcett and his team of fellow adventurers (including Costin, his right-hand man, who’s played by Robert Pattinson, concealed beneath a great bird’s nest of a beard) encounter people who’ve seldom, if ever, observed white flesh before.

Gray paints a vivid picture of the post-Victorian English world and all its political and social problems, without succumbing to preachiness. Or, perhaps it is a new kind of preachiness, one that feels more palatable than direct soapboxing. When Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller, giving a fine, tough performance) asks to come along with Percy on his second voyage, he lectures her on a woman’s role in the family (in this case, to stay behind and pick up the pieces if he never comes back) and on women’s inherent physical inferiority, unconvinced by his wife even after she’s born him three children. Nina relents. Gray isn’t telling us what to think, but he’s conscious of the wrong-headed thinking of the period.
And the allure of male power and the lies of empire remain a dominant force in the world even today. But part of Gray’s talent as an artist is his ability to depict humans in all their complexity. On the third, fateful voyage, Percy’s now-grown son Jack accompanies him, and when they realize they may never return to England, a kind of mystical peace sweeps over Percy as he reflects on the deeper implications of their journey: they’ve left all the silly, superficial machinations of society behind and have discovered something primally beautiful and true: the inherent mystery of life, and the immutability of destiny.

Gray has a healthy love for the adventure genre, and he provides the usual touches we’ve come to expect from these movies (going all the way back to Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines): the bugs, the storms, the snakes, the raging river, as men seemingly travel back in time to confront some kind of mystical destiny. In one scene, the men are forced to jump out of their raft to avoid the sharp arrows being fired at them by natives, only to be accosted by a school of piranha. As I think back upon this scene, what strikes me most is Gray’s elegance even in the midst of something as frightening as this moment. Those arrows swoop down like little rockets: he shows us just how terrifying it would be to face a shower of pointy spears coming down on you; and yet, Gray resists the urge to sensationalize this moment. (In my mind, I couldn’t help thinking of that 1978 horror movie, Piranha, which probably added to the tension.)

The intensity lasts but a minute, and then they’re back on the raft, back on their long, long journey into the unknown. These moments of sensationalized terror, which would be the high points of an Indiana Jones movie, are not the focal point of Z. The thrill of discovery drives Fawcett on, despite the man-eating fish and the spear-throwing natives and the bugs and the starvation.

But within that act of discovery is the deeper realization that, as Fawcett says in the movie, the world is unknown to us; there is so little that we really know, so much left undiscovered. The obsessive need to understand everything is probably folly, and probably arrogance, as Gray’s film shows us often: Fawcett himself is a man dogged by feelings of inadequacy (his father was a notorious drunkard that left a blight on the family name); we see him in the beginning of the film rounding up a bunch of Irish soldiers as they hunt for a sleek, impressive buck in the woods; It’s Fawcett’s gun that kills the animal dead, but at the party of Irish and English military personnel, Fawcett’s excluded from the honorary table with the big dogs, because he’s from a bad family.

It’s English class snobbery which initially compels Fawcett into the South American jungle, even though his smart, independent, and loving wife Nina knows she may never see him again. Each time he comes back to England is like a dream: another child has been more, each of them discovering their father like some phantom, whom they’ve only heard about. When Jack, the eldest boy, by now an adolescent, who’s watched his father go off on multiple failed missions to the Amazon, jeers, “You’re a failure!” and Percy strikes him, we’re stunned, but not surprised. Empire is nothing but the perpetuation of fatherly dominion taken to the macro level, and we can imagine a million English fathers experiencing similar feelings of dissatisfaction and failure in turn-of-the-century England.

The Lost City of Z recalls Martin Scorsese’s difficult but unforgettable film, Silence, the story of two 17th-century Jesuit priests searching for their mentor, a priest who left for Japan (where Christians are being killed for refusing to denounce their faith) and has never come back. These young priests confront their own doubts as they search for the man who gave their faith its meaning. Both of these films examine the dangerousness of inquiry: When Percy Fawcett argues for the existence of an ancient civilization in South America, he rattles the calcified hearts and minds of the old fogies at the Royal Geographic Society, threatening British religion with British rationality.

The Lost City of Z ponders these questions with poetic grace. Gray isn’t dogmatic or pedantic: he cares deeply for these characters, as he cared for Marion Cotillard’s prostitute in The Immigrant, a woman who went to confession and wondered if God could ever forgive her for the things she had done to help get her sister out of Ellis Island. Z goes one step further, in a sense, by wondering if we can dismantle our own beliefs and still look around us with a sense of dazzled wonder at the world, even though our own smallness becomes increasingly obvious. In James Gray’s films, the answer is yes. Or as Nina Fawcett puts it, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

Co-starring Tom Holland as the grown-up Jack Fawcett; Angus Macfayden as a wealthy British explorer who betrays Fawcett and his men; Edward Ashley, Ian McDiarmid, Franco Nero, and Harry Melling.