Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Goodnight Mommy




We have Austrians.  Handsome and blonde Austrians!  And they sing!  Goodnight Mommy begins in such a fashion, a large family (noticeably without father) singing Brahms' Lullaby, the lovely children in black velvet dresses and lederhosen.  At the conclusion of this doctored bit of graininess, a television show that probably never was, the mother bids us a tender, "Gute nacht."  At the conclusion of Goodnight Mommy, the film's main characters, a woman and her twin boys serenade us, arm in arm, with the German hymm, "Weisst Du wieviel Sternlein stehen."  Before you consider Goodnight Mommy for your next holiday film sing-along, know that there's actually very little song between those Austrian idylls that open and close the film.  And what transpires between is much closer in spirit to the Brothers Grimm than the family Von Trapp.  


In counterpoint to the fair-haired wholesomeness on display in Goodnight Mommy, there is quickly established an air of dread.  The twin boys, Elias and Lukas, disport around the countryside in their matching little sleeveless undershirts.  They play tag through a corn field, first seen from ground level.  When the perspective changes to overhead, the stalks look irate at their displacement and snap back into place as if intent on swallowing the children.  The brothers step across the alien, shifting clots of a bog as the browned earth moans and burps in response.  First one of the lads, then the other steps into an unlit tunnel.  One of them glides almost magically across the dark glass of a lake.  Significantly, as we await some awful occurrence in all of these situations where misfortune would seem to await the boys, the only name we hear called out is "Lukas."  


What's also evident through these first scenes of Goodnight Mommy is how effectively co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala capture and precisely utilize sound to enhance the building tension of their story.  

To our surprise, Elias and Lukas do return home unscathed.  Like the nearly unpeopled village into which they will later roam, their house seems to have been plopped down from another place, right on the verge of farm fields and forest.  It also looks like something out of an Austrian version of Dwell.  As we come to see the decidedly mod furnishings of this rural retreat, including clear acrylic hanging bubble chairs and artfully out-of-focus pictures bedecking the cold walls, it also looks like the sort of joint with which the people at Unhappy Hipsters could have a field day.  

  

Hipster or not, the woman presiding amidst this cool elegance is clearly not very happy herself.  When the boys arrive at her bedroom, somewhat dirtier for their endeavors, they find their mother standing in shadow so consistent with the first half or so of Goodnight Mommy, a semi-permanent twilight of drawn blinds.  When the robed figure turns to face them, the chilling image of a head wrapped in bandages atop that body emerges from the darkness and walks toward her sons with arms extended.  Not surprisingly, Elias and Lukas do not leap for the embrace of this forbidding figure, their yeux sans visage.  Instead, they regard her - not with fear, but with an almost malevolent skepticism.  "That's a fine hello," says their mother before admonishing them to get out of their dirty clothes. 

 What ensues in Goodnight Mommy is what co-director Veronika Franz has referred to in interview as "power games within families."  It is a power game or struggle in which the stern, slightly mummified mother would seem to hold the advantage, to be the heavy.

Given that the mother's face is wrapped through the early portion of Goodnight Mommy, obvious comparisons have been made to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face.   Numerous comparisons to countryman Michael Haneke, particularly the director's Funny Games, have also been made.  Veronika Franz and her co-director Severin Fiala, don't cite any specific influence in the making of Goodnight Mommy.  They don't really see the connection to Haneke at all.  In its power struggle between an apparently single mother dealing with a fractious young son and its ultimate ambiguity as to whom is the most destructive member of the relationship, Goodnight Mommy actually has much in common with Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014).      


There has been no more encouraging evidence in the past two years for the artistic viability of horror films - not to mention evidence that horror films can actually still be scary - than The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy.  It's no accident that both films have come from abroad, outside the conservative machine that is Hollywood.  And given that both films till the dark loam in which lies the more morbid aspects parenthood, it makes sense that each has been partially, if not totally informed by women.  Who, after all, has to deal with the obvious burden of child-bearing?  Who, more often than not, has to cope with most of the challenges to sleep and sanity those early years?  The sometime isolation and challenges to identity?  Even in youth or well into adulthood of the demanding offspring, the blame for frustrated expectations?  Sorry, mom.  

Both The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy visit that fevered part of the psyche where parenthood can seem like a life and death struggle, where everyday reversals can be distorted to the realm of dark opera.  In the The Babadook, it looks as though young Samuel Vanek (Noah Wiseman) is the problem, haunted by a monster (Mr. Babadook) and generally ruining his mother's life.  With Goodnight Mommy, the mother (Susanne Wuest) both looks and acts the part of villain, apparently cold and stern, her bearing and clothing (not to mention her headdress) as lacking in warmth as her manner.  In each case, the directors build and impressively maintain a sense of ambiguity through their films as to whom the real threat, the real monster is.  The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy just happen to see their young male characters wielding self-adapted weapons - a crossbow here, a kiddie rocket launcher there - as they mount their defense against foes supernatural or domestic.  What's unclear well into the proceedings of both films is who should be protected against whom.

Could you come back and freak out later, honey?
 Mommy needs some sleep.  Essie Davis in The Babadook.  
The ambiguity present in Goodnight Mommy involves a major twist that will fool most on first viewing.  To watch the film a second or third time is to appreciate how precisely Ms. Franz and Mr. Fiala have constructed their story.  The films plays a good deal and quite skillfully with matters if identity and absence. 

Elias and Lucas simply don't believe the woman behind the bandages is their mother.  For some reason, the mother will hardly acknowledge Lukas at all.  We don't know how the family has arrived at this particular state.  We don't know if the father is absent, divorced from the mother, or no longer living.  It is revealed late in the going that there was an accident at some point (another bit of common ground with The Babadook).  This, perhaps, why the mother is recovering from what would appear to have been plastic surgery.  Of course, we also discover she's something of a television presenter in Austria, so perhaps the surgery is part of the ubiquitous industry pressure to stay young, whatever the means.  

The mother's occupation is divulged during a moment of relative detente with the boys, as they all play a game of "I Spy."  This explains the German title of the film, which early flashes on the screen: "Ich Seh Ich Seh."  The game's first line apparently, "Ich seh, ich seh, was du siehst nicht" - "I see, I see, what you don't see."  A sticky note is affixed to one's forehead with an identity that is to be guessed by clues given by those who can see it.  The boys put the mother's own identity on her forehead, but even as they give more specific clues, she struggles to guess it is her.  Yet more damning evidence it would seem that the woman is not really the mother of Elias and Lucas.  

The truth lurks in Goodnight Mommy.  Unlike the would-be scary films regularly produced by Hollywood, it doesn't come springing out of some dark closet accompanied by a thundering sound effect in Dolby Surround, creating a fright that evaporates about as quickly as one's launched ass returns to the comfort of the theater seat.  It lurks.  This is a matter of patience, discipline and skill.  It's a crucial quality that was also demonstrated by another encouraging horror film of the past couple of years, David Robert Mitchell's It Follows. 



 The darkness, the truth, lurks close by Lukas and Elias, lost in their seemingly innocent games:  a very boyish burp-off in those bubble chairs; holding their breath underwater; bouncing on a trampoline.  It's something decidedly unholy lurking behind all the trappings and representatives of piety.  We see many such tokens in Goodnight Mommy:  the boys praying at an outdoor cross; a crucifix swinging from the rear-view mirror of the priest who returns them home after they have run away; votive candles standing a kind of sentry for the sleeping boys and later surrounding the mother at the film's climax.  The truth lurks beneath the bond of the mother and son, a bond that becomes unforgettably literal as it festers through Goodnight Mommy.  All of this like a lullaby much more likely to induce a nightmare than peaceful slumber.  

We see some vivid nightmares in Goodnight Mommy.  Franz and Fiala deal very effectively in images that have seemingly little to do with plot, but everything to do with mood, waking and sleeping.  As the relationship between the mother and sons grow more openly hostile, Elias dreams of walking into her room, cutting open her stomach and seeing large, ghastly beetles emerge.  We had earlier seen the twins place one of the bugs on her face while she slept, the insect eventually slipping into the sleeping woman's mouth.  The boys collect beetles, keeping them pullulating in an aquarium.  In a strong bit of foreshadowing, Elias burns one of the insects on a cement porch with a magnifying glass.   

Images of fire recur and the distinction between reality and nightmare blurs.  When the boys run away, we seem them in a field undergoing a controlled burn.  They step dangerously close to the section aflame while the man doing the work gestures furiously for them to get away.  Elias and Lukas step literally from another field right into an apparently nearby village whose streets are abandoned, save for a lone accordion player wailing like an infernal Tom Waits.  The line between the real and the imagined is typically diaphanous when the boys watch their frustrated mother leave the house one evening and stalk into the nearby forest.  Over the verdant bed, among the black trunks she winds, ultimately stripping.  When the camera comes round for a frontal view , we see the face whipping horribly fast, a screaming blur.  


The apparent nightmares, the fanciful images, help to further the sense of dread in Goodnight Mommy.  Ultimately, the film finds its horror in very real things.  Elemental expressions predominate, start to finish.  There is fire, there is water.  The latter in the boys sport, floating and submerging to hold their breath.  They later remove the beetles from the aquarium, fill it with water and leave a dead cat submerged in the tank.  This a message to their mother, whom they believed killed the cat they earlier found in some sort of ossuary (the traipse across the piled bones yet another opportunity for Franz and Fiala to exploit sound in the crunch of those bones under foot).  When the boys won't come out and face her, the mother dumps a jar of the beloved beetles into the water to drown.  Did that accident that is mentioned in the film's closing moments involve drowning?  Did it involve fire?  Perhaps.  Does a horrible, elemental expression occur at the climax of Goodnight Mommy?  Well, yes.  

Franz and Fiala maintain the sense of ambiguity because we ultimately see the bad behavior of the boys and their mother from the other's perspective.  Like any power struggle, any war, the combatants are sometimes at their worst, regardless of who might ultimately be the greater victim.  

Beyond her severe appearance, we see several examples of less than ideal motherhood early on.  There is little warmth for the twins, none at all for poor Lukas.  When the mother pours some orange drink for Elias, he says, "Lukas wants some too."  "The he can ask me himself," is the cold response.  Lukas is ignored while the mother tears apart the boys room, searching for some sort contraband.  She is upset to find a lighter, much as she doesn't discover the cat whose box has been pushed under the bunk beds.  Finally, Elias defiantly claps his hands in his mother's face and she pins him smotheringly to the bed.

When the bandages finally come off, both the mother's dress and manner are transformed.  Gone is the almost masculine togs that had accompanied the facial bandages.  She appears in a blue dress, hair done up, makeup applied.  "Are we friends again," she asks, smiling.  


Sorry, mom.  By the time the mother emerges from her bandages and personal darkness, she has lost her sons.  None of the evidence seems to jibe.  The face isn't quite the same as before.  When the boys consult a photo album, they see the picture of their mother's friend who looks more like the woman claiming to be their mother than the one they've always known.  Elias and Lukas play a recording of their mother singing "Weisst Du wieviel Sternlein stehen." as they go to sleep one night.  But when they ask their mother at a crucial juncture what is Lukas favorite song, she can't come up with the right one.  "We want our mom back," they demand.  "You're not our mom....Show us your birthmark."  Bad news indeed when the birthmark is found to be impermanent.  


Like lesser-known versions of the folklore gathered and told by the Brothers Grimm, the simple story of Goodnight Mommy does not shy from dark themes and darker action when the time comes.  There is more bad behavior.   There is blood.  And there is worse.  Without revealing too much of the mayhem, suffice it to say that super glue is found to have even greater utility than previously imagined.  Ah, the ties that bind.  And bind.  

So maybe having kids wasn't such a good idea after all.  Elias
and Lukas Schwarz in Goodnight Mommy.

But not to worry.  The principles gather in a field at film's end, the boys having emerged from the corn a last time.  The moon is full.  They sing.  The mother knows which song to sing this time.  All are smiling.  Even as silence prevails at hymn's end, the ideal Austrian family smiles into the camera.  

There's a great upward whoosh of sparks, a last breath of fire, when the frame finally darkens.  A Lynchian coda if there ever was one.  As David Lynch has done with such chilling effectiveness in several of his films, peeling back a sense American wholesomeness like a concealing skin, first time directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala do with their own cultural heritage, which includes, by their own reckoning, an unwillingness to face difficult truths, political or personal.  Let the diseased family stand for any larger metaphors in Goodnight Mommy.  Let the fire burn.  So long, farewell....to you and you and you!  



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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Hateful Eight


It's admirable, Quentin Tarantino's continued advocacy of film.  The actual stuff.   As opposed to the digital format which the film industry has pretty well crammed down the throats of moviegoers and any theater hoping to get by.   It's slightly less admirable, the amount of celluloid that Tarantino is expending these days, his stories that are being pressed into that precious film stock.   The director's laudable resuscitation of careers given up for dead by Hollywood also continues to his credit.  Such is the case, to varying degrees, with Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen (the old charisma nearly extinguished) and Jennifer Jason Leigh in the writer/director's latest, Hateful Eight.   Alas, most of Hateful Eight transpires with Ms. Jason Leigh getting more punches (or bowls of stew) to the face than sentences to utter, made to lay about black-eyed and bloodied while the boys in the cast trade the auteur's curiously lifeless dialog, a lot of gas that only rarely finds a spark to ignite it.  And really, it's an extraordinary accomplishment, the director's eighth feature, all 187 minutes (the "Roadshow" version)  of it, complete with overture and score by Ennio Morricone and an intermission.   It's not everyone that could stake out such a vast range of filmic territory and so successfully protect it from most any incursion of style, wit, insight, or originality.  That achievement brought about with a staggering display of cheap provocation, pretension, self-parody and phosphorescent self-indulgence.  Tarantino's brilliant device of placing an African American man front and center, a badass character who enjoys the somewhat limited satisfaction of being among the last to die (having been earlier castrated by shotgun) so he can provoke the n-word about 100 times in Hateful Eight, will no doubt do for the status of African Americans and cause of race relations in this country what Inglourious Basterds heroically accomplished in decreasing the scourge of anti-Semitism and saving lives that would have otherwise been lost in the Holocaust.  The cynical among us might suggest you do something more worthwhile with those 187 minutes...like watching two whole films that aren't the product of a mind clearly operating in a state of arrested adolescence...perhaps watching six episodes of your favorite sitcom, taking a walk, reading a book, etc.  The most hopeless of these cynics might suggest your time would be better spent indulging in a long, satisfying wank.  But savvy moviegoers know that such things are better left to professionals.  It's not everyone that can pleasure himself for three hours, elicit $10, $12, even $18 per person (the cost of the Roadshow version at Chicago's Music Box Theater) to watch the performance and then be applauded in the end.  Genius.  Fucking genius.


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A postscript.   Having seen S. Crag Zahler's Bone Tomahawk on DVD (it enjoyed almost no distribution in theaters; the Music Box Theater in Chicago, on the other hand, built a special expanded screen to better flog the 70mm "Roadshow" version of Hateful Eight), I can recommend another alternative for those in the mood for a well-crafted, stylized and even violent western.  Zahler's Bone Tomahawk is all of those things and also something of a horror movie to boot.  And it just happens to feature, like Hateful Eight, Kurt Russell as its star.  Russell is one of our most underrated actors, but frankly, he's not very good in Hateful Eight.  That, apparently, what happens when you take a professional actor and give him a one-dimensional role and crap direction.  Russell actually gets to do some acting in Bone Tomahawk, as does the always-excellent Richard Jenkins.  Perhaps most impressively, almost miraculously, Zahler has drawn from Matthew Fox a performance which is actually more than glib.  Fox is quite good as a gunslinger and former killer of Indians who meets his appropriate fate (and is downright moving doing so).  By all means, seek out Bone Tomahawk.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

Spotlight




Only late in the proceedings of  writer/director Tom McCarthy's masterful Spotlight, not long before the two-hour mark of the 129-minute film, does a character really raise their voice.  Only shortly thereafter does the director make what could be construed as his first rhetorical flourish.  Given the drama inherent in Spotlight, that restraint is particularly admirable.  The sexual abuse of children on the part of Roman Catholic priests in the Boston Archdiocese as revealed and conveyed by reporters of the Boston Globe could hardly have been more damning, more outrageous.  The material could hardly be more dramatic.  And yet, a story that would seem to require the dimensions of opera is handled like a precise, heartbreaking piece of chamber music by McCarthy and his uniformly excellent cast.

Sounding beneath Spotlight's slowly-building theme genuine tragedy - we're reminded prior to the closing credits that this was and is a global phenomenon - is an unadorned refrain, lightly cloaked in the colors of elegy, for the love of print journalism in general and the work of the Boston Globe in particular.  The film takes its name from the Spotlight team of The Globe, the longest continuously-operating investigative unit among American newspapers.



Spotlight grounds itself not only in the process of print journalism, but the particular place where its writers work, hover, to which they seem to drift more naturally than their actual homes.  We see not only the warrens of cubicles and other blandly-paletted work spaces, but stairwells, a garage area shortcut between offices, a staff lounge the size of a modest walk-in closet.  When Spotlight reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) is joined by his chief, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and the paper's assistant managing editor, Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) in a poorly-lit, dungeon of a basement storage room (which does somewhat miraculously offer cell phone reception) where they examine Catholic Church directories, Bradlee asks, "What's that smell?"  "There's a dead rat in the corner," Caroll notes matter-of-factly.  Given the foul nature of the developing story, the rodent would also seem to be redolent of metaphor or threat from the powerful organization that is being confronted.  But no, it's just a dead rat in corner.  Not a lot of glamour in this newspaper business.  All of this might look eerily familiar to those who labored in the Globe offices some 15 years ago, but the vast majority of Spotlight's shooting was done on set in a former Sears department store in Toronto, the ace work of set designer William Cheng and his team impressively recreating the Boston offices circa 2001.

There's also a sense of surrogate family, occurring sometimes to the detriment reporters non-work relationships.  After that one confrontation late in Spotlight that involves reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) screaming "This is bullshit!" at boss "Robby" Robinson when he won't run story as is, the upset Rezendes later rings the doorbell of fellow Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams).  "Tough day at work, Mike?" asks Pfeiffer's husband as he opens the door with obvious chagrin, the man clearly accustomed to his wife's work following her home, if not always in corporeal form.

It's a kind of family gathering that occurs in the film's second scene, as Bradlee and Robinson speak in honor of a departing colleague in their typically understated fashion.  There is also a joke about the paper's incoming editor and whether the retiring writer knows something that everyone else doesn't.

It is the the arrival of the new editor, Marty Baron that sets the Boston Globe in pursuit of the story of abusive priests and ultimately on a collision course with perhaps that most revered - at least in the top two or three; depending on how the locals are feeling about the Red Sox -  of Boston institutions, the Catholic Church.  As the outsider Baron, it is the voice himself, Liev Schreiber.  If you've watched many documentaries on HBO or PBS in the past decade, you have no doubt heard Mr. Schreiber's voice a good deal.  That carefully-modulated baritone goes some way toward exemplifying the tone of performances in Spotlight, just as Baron pilots the Globe calmly, but doggedly into what will be a much bigger story than anyone imagines.

Tom McCarthy was an actor for some years before he became a writer and director of films.  In all of his films (I've not seen the almost inexplicable Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler, which McCarthy might prefer to leave off his CV), that acting experience shows.  He writes rich roles for his actors and obviously creates an environment in which they are at ease to their best, most unencumbered work.  Throughout Spotlight's redoubtable cast there is plenty of that intelligent, understated, good work, particularly Schreiber as Baron and Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney bringing suits against the church.  There is also the ongoing and welcome resurgence of Michael Keaton as the Spotlight chief.

Perhaps the best measure of the writing (the screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer) and the director's way with actors is the quality of the minor roles in Spotlight.  These include relatively brief but memorable performances by Paul Guilfoyle as church representative Pete Conley and Jamey Sheridan as a lawyer friend of Robby Robinson's, hired by the church to consult on abuse cases.  Irishmen both, of course, Guilfoyle and Sheridan both evince the weight and privilege of the status quo in Boston.  Whether speaking in friendly or more aggressive tones - much as Guilfoyle's Conley is one of those powerful men who is more likely to flatten an adversary with a smile than threat - both actors sound right.  Even better, they bespeak an insider's intelligence and code of conduct without uttering a word.

The same goes for the characters on whom all of that power descends, the victims of the abuse.  Much as the larger story, as Marty Baron insists to his reporters, is the systemic abuse and cover-up, the fact that Cardinal Law and those even higher up in the church were aware of the problem, McCarthy, as ever, lets any larger themes be ground in personal stories.  Appearing only once or twice on screen we see full, memorable turns from Joe Crowley and Patrick McSorely (the first client Garabedian allows to be interviewed) as men just emerging or still struggling with substance abuse decades after their violation by priests.  Victims certainly, but in just a few minutes we get some sense of the fuller person.

The victim who serves as the most vocal catalyst for making the story public is Phil Saviano (Neal Huff).  Dismissed by Bradlee as a crackpot they had interviewed years earlier, Saviano is a man that has told his story so often that it's like a book with dog-eared pages and underlined passages. He arrives with a banker's box of information and begins by pulling out a picture that bears his name and age (9) at the time of his initial abuse.  Saviano's obvious exasperation at year's of indifference on the part of the press nearly renders him the unreliable fringe dweller that Bradlee is inclined to label him, a sobering reminder that if you abuse a person or people thoroughly enough, they come to be considered, even by themselves in some cases, unworthy of consideration or compassion.  The writing of McCarthy and Singer and the barely-bottled intensity of Huff manage to convey this exasperation almost telegraphically while avoiding the obvious pitfall of too much, too much.  So, wisely, goes the film.


The story on which the Spotlight teams sets out is the alleged abuse of numerous children by John Geoghan, a Boston-area priest.  The film begins with a scene set in 1976 with the priest and his young victim (and family) in a Boston police station.  The younger officer on duty at the desk wonders how the press will be kept away from the arraignment.  "What arraignment?" asks the older and clearly wiser officer at the precinct's main desk.  The priest is ultimately whisked away in a waiting black sedan like an untouchable mafioso.  By 2001, the number of complaints against the priest have mounted.  Thanks to the information from Saviano and others the reporters come to believe that as many as 13 priests have been involved in the abuse, which seems an extraordinary number.  When the reporters ask Richard Sipe (an uncredited Richard Jenkins) who has been studying the problem for decades if that seems right, he says no.  The number should be higher, it's usually about six percent.  One of the reporters does some faulty math and says that would be 90 priests.  It's actually 80 based on Sipe's estimate, which proves to be relatively uncanny when 77 priests are eventually identified.  

The use of Richard Jenkins own distinct and authoritative baritone it typical of McCarthy's quietly skillful direction.  The scenes in which Rezendes speaks to Sipe while alone in his apartment carry a tension and gravity that wouldn't quite be the case with a more standard interview scene.  During their first conversation, Sipe explains that sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is so widespread and long-established that it's a "a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon." 


McCarthy and Singer do employ one obvious touch of storycraft in their otherwise seamless narrative.  This something of a red herring in the form a Globe staffer having known about more widespread abuse years before the 2001 Spotlight work.  Phil Saviano explains to the Spotlight team that he had sent in an entire box of evidence to the newspaper back in the 90's.  Given that Ben Bradlee seems intent on dimissing Saviano and tries to discourage the story's development, he certainly seems like the best candidate for the person who quashed the story.

Ultimately, the point isn't who at the Globe sat on the damning information.  More a matter of the "How could you?" getting turned on all parties.  The villainy might be clear enough in the overall story, but the tacit assistance of many, including the press, allowed the tragedy to find a greater breadth and duration.  Or as Garabedian says to Rezendes during a dinner conversation,  "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one."

Garabedian's play on the Hilary Clinton book title speaks to both Spotlight's moral complexity and its deft shading of character.  The quip perfectly expresses the attorney's righteousness as well as his sense of self-importance.  Earlier in the conversation with Rezendes as the two men discussed relationships, Garabedian had said that his decision to stay single was a conscious one.  "My work is too important," he says, drawing a slight smile from the Globe reporter.

As the Spotlight teams purses the story and applies increasing pressure - "You want to be on the right side of this" is uttered more than once -  to its sources, they find the moral indignation turned back on them several times.  This is the case with attorney Eric Macleigh (Billy Crudup).  When Robinson rightfully points out that Macleish has made a cottage industry out of representing the families of abused children - getting them a nominal settlement and an acknowledgement of guilt in exchange for their silence - the lawyer ultimately tells him (and Sacha Pfeiffer) that he sent a list of 20 abusive priests to the Globe in the 90s.  "Check your clips, Walter," are Macleish's final words.   Similarly, Robinson's old friend, Jim Sullivan (Sheridan) asks him where the Globe had been all the intervening years while the abuse was going on and attempts were made to make the story public.  Sheridan is the one church insider the paper needs to confirm the scope of the abuse in Boston before they can run the story.  After kicking him out of his house and then following him out to the street to confront Robinson (and his paper) on his hypocrisy, Sullivan asks to see the list that Robinson practically brandished after being invited into his old friend's house prior to Christmas 2001.  Sheridan quickly scans the two pages listing the names of 77 priests, asks for a pen and then makes large circles on each page - he implicates every one of the listed priests; all of the names. 
  

So go the confrontations in Spotlight.  If they're fights, no one walks away unbloodied.  But really, there is mainly a sobering, encompassing truth that leaves no one in the mood to feel too good about themselves.  Even before the Spotlight reporters (along with Bradlee and Barron) realize their culpability in not telling the story sooner, there is virtually nothing in the way of chest thumping as they ready themselves to investigate the story, to basically take on the Catholic Church.  Instead of bravado, we see a kind of kind of wary determination, a  resigned gulp.  Robinson and Rezendes find themselves in the Spotlight office one Sunday morning.  Rezendes asks his boss if their new editor knows what he's up against.  No, Robinson says, but he doesn't think Barron is likely to be deterred.  Rezendes says he thinks that's refreshing.  "Unless he's wrong," says Robinson and both men have one of those quiet moments, considering everything that's at stake, including their careers.     


Those moments between the staffers at the Globe, particularly the Spotlight  unit, do bespeak a kind of familial intimacy, for the good and the sometimes irritating.  When Robinson urges Rezendes to keep after the elusive Garagedian, Rezendes says, "He's a pain in the ass."  "You can be a pain the ass," rejoins his boss.  Sacha Pfeffer, sitting nearby, offers a confirming "Mmm" without looking up from her work. 

That intimacy of performance and exchange is captured and mirrored by McCarthy's direction and the work of his cinematographer, Masanobu Takayangi.  The photography is close and steady, usually an unobtrusive observer in one room or another.  One of the few intervals of conscious movement occurs when Matt Carroll realizes that one of the sites used by the church to house priests that have been pulled from parishes where they have violated children is just around the corner from his home and children.  The camera follows him as he bursts out the door of his house and stalks to the inconspicuous church-owned building nearby, staring at the house in the midst of a neighborhood full of children.   Otherwise, Takayangi keeps the perspective limited, only occasionally pulling back to appropriately reveal a church looming over a playground or court building.   


The scope of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is obvious enough in its tragic breadth.  So too the reprehensible conduct of priests who became sex offenders and the church officials who protected and even enabled them.   In his version of the story we see in Spotlight, written with Josh Singer, with the restraint of his direction, Tom McCarthy avoids the very obvious pitfall of trundling out the rusty scapegoat mechanism.  The focus, when not personal, is admirably reflexive.  Only at film's end, when those aforementioned flare-ups of shouting and rhetoric finally occur, they seem earned.  Sometime after Rezendes blows up at Robinson in the Spotlight office, we hear a children's choir singing "Silent Night."  Eventually we see the choir of young singers at a holiday service.  Rezendes stands at the back of the church, an apt symbol of a man who will probably never get back to his faith.  As the camera scans the children in the choir, the story is returned to its rightful place.

On the morning when expose is finally published early in 2002, the director gives us the first broad perspective on the city where all of this sad business has taken place.  It's a shot of Boston from the harbor as if a bomb was about to fall.  Which, of course, it was.  

One of the shots of the actual Boston Globe offices in Spotlight is a seemingly insignificant view of a a parking lot with an AOL (remember them?) billboard looming just beyond its periphery.  Here perhaps that undercurrent of elegy for actual journalism overrun the by the fucked-up democracy of unmediated digital information.  The shots of those clips - old news clippings in form of yellowing paper issues and cut-out stories, microfilm, digital archives, etc. - being pulled and photocopied, of a cart of files rumbling inexorably down a hallway, of presses running, seem more than mere nostalgia, more than the conventions of newspaper films.  There's a kind of celebration of process here.  Of working to get to some greater truth or understanding, difficult as it might be to face for all involved.  With Spotlight, McCarthy also provides a celebration of the process and collaboration of filmmaking - methodical, focused, no less deeply-felt, no less compelling in its art and story for its restraint. 




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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Room


"This is the story you get!"  So, occasionally,  go the timeless, peremptory final words between parent and child at story time.  In this case, the words are exchnaged between Joy (Brie Larson) and Jack Newsome (Jacob Tremplay), who looks rather like a Jill at first glance.   As it happens, there's an explanation for the boy's feminine appearance, beyond his soft features.  Jack possesses hair that probably has never had the benefit of good shampoo or a pair of scissors during his five years of life.

If you don't know the premise of Room before you sit down in the movie theater, if you haven't seen the film's typical here's-the-entire-plot-in-two-minutes-trailer, you quickly realize that "Room,"  the compact space in which Jack lives with his mother, is the only home the boy has known.  To know that Jack is newly five, as we do by the humble birthday cake (which Jack initially rejects due to its lack of candles) that is baked early in the film, and that "Ma" has been in the shed for seven years requires only a little grim arithmetic to determine how Jack came to be.

Directed by Lenny Abrahmson , Room was written by Emma Donoghue, based on her lauded novel of the same title.   Apparently inspired by the Austrian Fritzl case, the premise is indeed dark.  Joy Newsome has been held captive for seven years in the backyard shed of a man known as "Old Nick" (Sean Bridgers) and serially raped.  What's curious and perhaps ultimately flawed about Ms. Donoghue's story, at least as it is told in the film, is that we do indeed join Joy in the seventh year of her captivity and are never privy to a flashback. 

While we first espy Old Nick from Jack's perspective through the louvered door of his "wardrobe" sleeping place (where his mother tucks him during her captor's visits) the man is eventually seen.  He's not really so old, this Old Nick, Donoghue and Abrahamson wisely presenting him as something of an everyman, as opposed to an obviously loathsome ogre.  The reality is bad enough.  And yet, this first part of the film's story is marked by routines:  Joy trying to entertain, educate, keep healthy and fit her young son, quite a challenge under the dire circumstances.  There are flashes of violence, or threats of violence,  on the occasions when we hear the man sound the password on the electronic keypad and enter "Room."  But even these encounters have an air of  undramatic routine about them, Joy obviously trying to protect her son, having learned how best to placate Old Nick.


It's quite a story that Ms. Dononghue sets out to tell, but there's little indication of revelation or originality in the telling.  Even worse, there's a sense of emotional payoff at film's end that doesn't seem earned.  There is a kind of diligence of research or imagination, an attempt to think some of the physical particulars through.  But the emotional reality of mother and son's captivity and post-captivity stress is presented as a series of almost inevitable hurdles and breakthroughs.   The story is neither organic, nor possessed of the conviction to plumb depths from which it wants to so meaningfully deliver us.  

Connecting the Newsome's captivity as well as the turbulence of their first months of freedom is narration by young Jack, this apparently the main storytelling device in Ms. Donoghue's novel.  Whether in "Room" or without, we hear Jack delineating, trying to make sense of his world, all of this to the cloying accompaniment of Stephen Rennick' s score.  It is in the mix of this neon obvious innocence and the supposed harsher realities ready to assail it where Donoghue, Abrahamson and Rennicks are derailed into a kind of pop psychology mush.  


Lenny Abrahamson and Stephen Rennicks worked together on the director's previous Frank.  There too, both struggled to manage the story's competing tones of precious indie rock retreat with the more serious considerations of mental illness and artistic integrity.  After a rural Irish detour in which Abrahamson veered toward warmed-over Wes Anderson while Rennick's score provided sugary accompaniment, the film regained its fairly singular, saturnine groove.  We leave Frank and his reclusive bandmates playing one of  their more moving tunes (the significant portion of Frank's music to which Rennicks more successfully contributed) in  a lost Texas bar.  With Donoghue's telling, there's never really a doubt that we will exit the story into the warm light of day, hints of darkness present only to provide the more obvious contrast. 


It's a shame that the story of Room, if not its source material, is so dubious.  There is a lot of talent brought to bear that show no qualms about getting dirty.  Mr. Abrahamson is beginning to resemble Clint Eastwood in his directing projects, only as good as the the screenplays he selects, which vary considerably in quality.  He showed himself to be a director of coherence and rigor with the Irish production What Richard Did (like Frank, the only other Abrahamson film readily available in the United States).  That film's story about a well-to-do South Dublin teenager involved in a murder took no shortcuts along its thorny way.  With Frank and Room, he has dealt with writers who don't always demonstrate the ability or conviction to handle the difficult material they've chosen for themselves.

Abrahamson and his cinematographer Danny Cohen gracefully handle the minor magic of the film's captivity section.  Of course, they don't miraculously contract and expand "Room," but they do manage to seamlessly focus or enlarge the perspective.  The focus gives us close-ups of "Ma" and Jack, frank and unglamorous (Jack looks appropriately feral), gives us the laughter, the mother's eyes dilated in loving deception, the boy's in innocent regard for the only universe he knows.  When the perspective changes, we're made to see just how limited and dreary "Room" really is.  There are recurring shots upward toward the shed's sole portal to the outside world, a skylight, impassive as the eye of an indifferent god.

The credibility of "Ma" and Jack, their intimacy and occasional weariness with one another in the limited space of "Room," the mere look of them, certainly goes beyond any feat of makeup or hair styling (and the seeming lack therof).  Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are both quite good.  Ms. Larson has already demonstrated the kind of emotional depth into which we're given unblinking perspective, like that perpetually open skylight in Room.  Such was the case in The Spectacular Now and particularly in Short Term 12 (both from 2013).

Ms. Larson demonstrates the willingness and ability to go wherever asked, to express what she's meant to express, but too much falls upon her here.  Donoghue's story neither shows us the worst of Joy Newsome's kidnapping and treatment over her seven years of captivity, nor has the discipline to make almost tangible what is the cruelest aspect of suffering - that the painful thing, the very bad thing seems like it will never end.

To regard a film like Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014), which also shows us a woman stuck in a kind of purgatory or even hell, is to realize what an ultimately tepid piece of work is Room.  Even more than than the film at hand, "Gett" confines itself almost entirely to a single room, a hearing room in Israel where a woman tries with a futility worthy of Greek myth to obtain a divorce in a religious culture where only the husband can approve the dissolution of an unhappy marriage.   While the scenes in "Gett" are relatively brief, while the camera and actors almost never stray from the sterile chamber, we get a sense not only of the husband's intransigence and cruelty, but the absurd and seemingly endless plight of the wife (the formidable Ronit Elkabetz, co-directing and writing, as well as starrring).  It's not the easiest of film going experiences, but that's part of the point. 

Like much about the story of Room, the escape effected first by Jack at his mother's insistence doesn't bear a lot of scrutiny.  Fortunately, that's Old Nick's reaction to the plan.  When Joy Newsome decides the time is finally right to attempt the liberation of her son if not herself, she does so by feinting an illness on the part of Jack.  While undergoing the almost impossible task of altering her son's viewpoint from the lies he has been told to the bleak reality of their confinement - a change in narrative to which he responds with understandable hostility - "Ma" does explain that she once attempted unsuccessfully to knock Old Nick out with the cover of the toilet (explaining why the toilet, which Jack anthropomorphizes like all the other objects about him, has no cover).  After Old Nick refuses to take Jack to the hospital after Joy creates the illusion of fever and grave illness, she then rolls him in a rug prior to Nick's next visit and explains that her son died while the hapless man was out buying medication.  This after a hurried practice in which Jack is instructed how to wiggle free from the rug and leap from Nick's truck at the first stop:  "Truck...wiggle out...jump...run...somebody" is the kind of desperate mantra she repeats.


To consider Nick's predictable reluctance to take Jack to a hospital is to wonder at the boy's delivery into the world.  The implication is that room is the only space that young Jack has ever seen.  How likely would such a delivery - managed by the mother with only her otherwise clueless captor in attendance - occur without complications that would require a hospital stay, or at least the work of a  competent midwife?  Not very likely.  With similar plot convenience, the man who has managed to keep his prisoner for seven years, doesn't verify that Jack is actually dead before driving away in his pickup truck for a place to dispose of the body, never glances through the rearview mirror while Jack his wiggling out of the rug and then standing to leap when the vehicle comes to a stop.  

Abrahamson does handle the brief scene of Jack's escape with telegraphic urgency and even eloquence .  The very sky itself is overwhelming to Jack as he looks up from the truck's bed.  So too the sun, like Old Nick or even the man who ultimately comes to his rescue when he trips to the ground, each is a large, looming, aggressive presence.  There's an effective economy in this scene, distinct from so much else of Room where there is simply a lack of patience or conviction.  Unfortunately, the fact that Old Nick neither attempts to spirit Joy away after the boy's escape, nor do her any further violence is another consideration over which audiences must elide if they are to be carried along by Room's inevitable monorail from darkness to light.  

Perhaps a lesser version than Ms. Donoghue's might see Room end at the reunion of Joy Newsome with her mother and father in a hospital room, presumably the morning after her escape.  Here, briefly, the one instance where Room achieves the sort of power for which it otherwise half-heartedly gropes.  This may be due to the fact that this reunion requires little set-up; this is something we can imagine without being privvy to many details, the overpowering rush of emotion when a daughter is returned to parents who must have long ago assumed her dead.  The strength of this scene also has a good bit to do with the skills of William H. Macy and Joan Allen as Joy Newsome's overcome parents.  Present throughout the second part of the story, Ms. Allen, as ever, a beacon of intelligence, authority and humanity.

Donoghue does postpone her story's relative happily ever after long enough to create an appearance of psychological realism, but the eventual uplift never seems in doubt.  Along the way there are touches of nuance.  Joy's father can't bear to even look at Jack, too troubled by his origin to regard the boy.  With a minimum of dialog and time on screen, this expression of Robert Newsome would seem say much about his character and even what might have separated him from his family in the first place.  Donoghue also demonstrates subtlety with the television interview to which Joy reluctantly agrees.  The female reporter (Wendy Crewson) is all compassion as she preps Joy for the interview and even when her struggling subject breaks down.  Ultimately, the skilled correspondent doesn't hesitate to ask the most cutting of questions even as she maintains an air of parental sympathy.       


Much as it is Jack delivered into a world for which he has no conception, it is Joy Newsome who most struggles when she is returned to a version of the life she had previously known.  She had been told by a doctor that it was good she had gotten Jack out while he was still "plastic."  Young though she might still be, Joy is apparently made of less malleable stuff.  So the young mother struggles with her newfound freedom and her strange post-captivity existence, indoors away from the lurking media.  Joy loses patience, express bitterness at the uneventful existence of women she knew in high school, argues with her mother and son.  And ultimately, there is the most desperate of responses to this post-traumatic stress.  All of this makes sense.   There's little fault to be found with Brie Larson and her fellow actors  (including Tom McCamus as Nancy Newsome's kindly partner, Leo, perhaps most adept at drawing Jack out of his shell).  And yet it's like these actors and this story are being hustled along toward a heartwarming conclusion, lest anyone in the audience grow too restive.


Room might be more worthwhile if it really had the courage to linger in the darkness through which we are so hastily drawn before being delivered into comforting daylight.  If it could begin to give us (mainly men, it would seem) a sense of what it is like for so many women who must walk through this world looking over their shoulder.  It might have been, as Brie Larson has stated in interview, "....a story of love and freedom and perseverance and what it feels like to grow up and become your own person."    But with Room, that is not the story we get.    

Though not quite as risible, Room recalls Roberto Begnigni's Life is Beautiful (1997) in its avoidance of harsh reality just out of sight.  There, at least, there was the excuse, dubious though it was, of protecting a child from something horrible.  With Room, that perspective is reversed.  Through both parts of its story the narration reverts to childlike wonder and the soundtrack to cloying condescension.   The result is the infantilization of all involved, a tendency that American audiences seem all too willing to embrace.  


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Friday, November 6, 2015

99 Homes

Often pulsing with a score of ominous, insistent electronica, Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes seems an echo from the fictional side of the story telling divide opposite documentaries of tragic economic chicanery like Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9 and Inside Job.  All are films, whether apparent truth or fiction, concerning themselves with the deregulation of the financial industry that found its most devastating expression in the Global Financial Crisis (the swath of destruction vast enough that we can now grant it capital letters, like a world war) of 2008 and beyond.

We're not given a specific date when we're dropped into the midst of the action, the great reversal, taking place in the U.S economy, but the setting is Orlando Florida (with unrecognizable suburbs of New Orleans standing in).  What's clear is that the economic crisis, initiated largely by a multitude of doomed mortgages, is quickly fanning and settling like a gangrenous rot.  This is quickly signaled from the site of a cookie-cutter house construction whose framing is abruptly halted when word arrives that the company funding the building has gone bankrupt.  The word is given to Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, late of the Spiderman suit), apparently something of a foreman on the site.  He stops the progress of his nail gun, whistles and informs his crew members that the job is over and no one is getting paid for the previous two weeks' labor.

As he has done through his five feature films, Ramin Bahrani grounds his stories of crisis and people on the economic margins in very credible specifics.  We're made privy to any number of disturbing particulars through the 112 minutes of 99 Homes, some relating to the mortifying plight of those unceremoniously thrown out of their homes, many others to the opportunists who continued to feast on the carcass of our outsized and tragically compromised banking industry even as political leaders made great shows of addressing the problem.  Real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is one such shrewd character, arriving on the scene of personal tragedies in a series of linen blazers, glib if authoritative declarations at the ready about the inevitability of such encounters, a Glock pistol in an ankle holster in case the former owners of homes take the evictions particularly badly.

Even as he has graduated in a sense to larger budgets and name actors with 99 Homes and his previous At Any Price (2013), Mr. Bahrani hasn't lost his eye for (or discipline in finding) detail, nor, apparently, his sympathy for those on the margins of the economy involved in a kind of hand to hand combat to survive.  Nonetheless, that score by Anthony Partos and Matteo Zinageles rumbles like an approaching, reckoning storm in 99 Homes. The problem is that these big, broad American stories tend to arrive with their drama already built in.  The showdown to which 99 Homes builds certainly results in a tense climax, but to what end?  


As it happens, Dennis Nash, skilled though he may be, is one of the legion of Americans just several paychecks from the street.  The loss of the construction job we see at the outset of 99 Homes marks one such fateful surcease of income.  In short order, the desperate man finds himself before a not-terribly-sympathetic judge in a "rocket docket" in which the case is quickly decided against him, making phone calls to lawyers in an attempt to stop the foreclosure of his family home and, within days, answering the door to that dapper grim reaper of Orlando real estate, Rick Carver.

In a ritual that Bahrani effectively repeats in 99 Homes, we see a stunned family literally given minutes to collect their most valued items before being accompanied by waiting law enforcement out of their homes.  If they linger on the front lawn, as does Dennis Nash, his mother (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax), they are told that they actually need to move to the street curb.  The helpless Nash, must watch as Carver's team swarm in after him to change the locks and even poke through his toolbox standing in the driveway.  The entire scene - fear at the summoning knock on the door, the initial disbelief and bargaining with the eviction agent, the inevitable anger as the action takes on its galling momentum and ultimately the helpless staring at a home suddenly not one's home - is powerful and involving.

The Orlando setting was apparently chosen because Florida was one of four states most profoundly affected by the mortgage crisis.  Mr. Bahrani went on runs with real estate agents (all armed, he says) as they evicted homeowners.  As does Rick Carver in 99 Homes, the real real estate folk lamented the upturn of their vocation; those who took jobs to put people in houses found themselves primarily evicting stunned individuals and families from their homes.  Of course, some embrace chaos with more enthusiasm than do others, the crisply attired Mr. Carver being one such member of the new economic vanguard.

Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi weave together the fates of remover and removed, a clear contrivance on its surface which echoes the strange bargains and bedfellows littered throughout our economy.  When Dennis Nash goes to Carver's office to confront the flunky he believes stole an expensive tool, he instead finds himself accepting an offer to assist on a particularly unpleasant job.  Occupants of a house on the verge of eviction have not only stripped the establishment of anything valuable and hastily spray-painted "Kill BANkers" on an interior wall, they have also blocked the septic system, causing its contents to back up into the house.  Young Nash's job, should he choose to accept it:  literally shoveling shit.  Like a whispered, insistent chorus, those dark questions of capitalism assail the principals in 99 Homes - "What are you willing to do?" "How much is it worth to you."  Demonstrating that he's of harder stuff than Carver might first have reckoned, Nash bargains the initial offer up to $200, recruits a couple of the crew to join him, covers his nose and sets to work.  Having surveyed this scene and allowed us to imagine the stench, Mr. Bahrani doesn't dwell too much in these unsavory particulars.  We next see Dennis Nash show up at the motel to which his family has relocated, proudly waving the cash he's earned.  Somehow he's clean.  His workingman's clothes, which likely would have had to have been burned, betray no sight or smell of his disgusting labors. 


The motel to which Nash, his mother and son are forced relocate is another of those details of which Mr. Bahrani was made aware doing his research for 99 Homes.  Those without other recourse find themselves in this kind of housing limbo, amongst other such evictees, fellow transients of the economy and even cheek by jowl with blatant criminals.  Such motels, like the real estate business of the time,  given darker purpose, like check cashing joints and convenience stores providing their dubious sustenance even as they keep the poor in their place.  Nash's family does also find some measure of community (there are so many such stranded families that a local school bus stops at the motel) at this weigh station, Connor finding playmates, Nash's mother plying her hair styling business in the open air.

The family's one-room residency ultimately seems protracted for effect for some time after their enterprising young breadwinner starts to make serious money with Carver.  The ostensible reason is that Dennis Nash wants to reclaim his modest home, despite his mentor's repeated admonition, "Don't get emotional about real estate."  What the longer than necessary stay at the hotel really accomplishes is a confrontation between Nash and a man whose family had recently been evicted. Confronted in the motel parking lot by the man, Nash screams in vain, "I don't know you!"  "I know you!" comes the rejoinder, which might as well emanate from Dennis Nash's own shit-smeared soul as from the incensed man trying to get a piece of him.


There's an apt puppy dog eagerness about Andrew Garfield, playing this young man so desperate to keep his family in a home, whatever it takes.  Those brown eyes spend much time dilated in concern, to importune, to await reinforcement.  Glamorous as the movies may elsewhere make him, he seems to embody through his very pores and make particular what is a common type of American young man, his striving and even his sense of honor like a piece of newly-poured iron, dangerously capable of being ill-formed while relatively new and hot. 

Young Nash is able to graduate from t-shirts and ball caps to polo shirts (or a long-sleeve shirt rolled restively up from the cuffs) and black jeans, working man's dress clothes which seem to chafe a bit even in their relative comfort, as he quickly wins the trust of Carver by proving himself skilled not only at all manner of home construction and dismantling, but with an enterprising kind of ruthlessness.  When the real estate agent asks him to relocate, as it were, air conditioning units from vacant homes, Nash swipes the pool pumps as well, knowing their resale will bring extra cash.  The shifting around of such pumps and condensing units, the moving of kitchen cabinets from one home to another like a shell game.  Here more convincing, dire detail from the script of Bahrani and Naderi as Carver frequently defrauds Fannie Mae, the Government Sponsored Enterprise, like Freddie Mac, operating at the time with all the effectiveness of Victorian governesses trying to police a maximum security prison.

When Dennis Nash is slowed by misgiving, Carver has convincing speeches at the ready, all the more effective because he's smart and elouquent enough to point out everything that is broken in the American economy and the government's deregulation of banking.  With these insights, Carver adds rhetorical flourishes which also bear the stench of underlying and rarely-aired truth, "America doesn't bail out losers. America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners."

Later, Carver adds the weight of Biblical metaphor to his exhortations "Only one in a hundred is gonna get on that ark, son.  Every other poor soul is gonna drown."  Michael Shannon has frequently proven that he has a scene stealing, even a film-carrying (as in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter) presence.   With Rick Carver, his charisma is as dangerous, even as mad as anything he's portrayed because of its apparent normalcy.  There's certainly a powerful charm, even a kind of humility when he chooses to go in that direction.  Bahrani and Naderi have created a character who can conveniently give eloquent voice to their story's dark sub-themes.  And yet, there are men like Carver out there.  Many less polished, but our country produces them in undending supply. 


99 Homes heads propulsively into its climax with a storyline about Frank Green (Tim Guinee), like Nash, being evicted from his home.  Carver is trying to arrange a deal for 100 homes, which will lead to even grander things for he and his reluctant protege, Nash.  But Green refuses to go easily into foreclosure and mounts an effective legal defense, leaving Carver one "box" short of his planned 100.  This one and ninety-nine relationship lends the film its title, echoed also in Carver's remark about the determined one percent aboard the ark.  Of course, there is also the 99 percent rallying cry which emerged from the Occupy movement.  

Like Nash, Green is presented as a good man pushed to extremes.  He's first seen when Carver confronts him after catching sight of a power card and water line running between Green's home and one of Carver's vacant properties.  Green assures Carver that he's an honorable man, this is not who he is.  Green is unsurprisingly unforgiving when finds that Nash is an agent of Carver and all that he has come to despise.   The proud man disdainfully dismisses Nash when he subsequently comes to check on him.  Ultimately, Nash is charged with delivering a forged document that will undo Green in court.  Nash's moral dilemma and its ramifications then determine the film's final, violent confrontation.     


In addition to the tortured Nash pacing around a courthouse rotunda with the poison document in his hand, we also get images at the same site of Green and Nash's children affably recognizing one another.  At this point, we might as well be in some story of endless, tragic bloodshed in the Middle East, children of Arab and Jew alike in oblivious foreground play.   Which is to say, we're in the realm of the cliche.

It is with this last foreclosure gone very wrong that Mr. Bahrani's story overheats in such a way that he can't recover it.  Even with a slightly ambiguous conclusion, there's a kind of all-clear catharsis that lingers as the closing credits appear in 99 Homes.  It's effective enough in terms of film script convention, leaving audiences (particularly American) where they prefer to be left, as if stepping off a frightening but ultimately contained amusement park ride.  

Which reminds one of that great bit on the Simpson's about Enron stock ownership, the "Enron Ride of Broken Dreams" seeing its riders soar toward the heavens - "We're all gonna be rich!" - before they're sent crashing down into the poor house.  That, of course, not a kind of satire in which Mr. Bahrani is interested. 

Unfortunately, the director and writer loses focus with 99 Homes, much as his concern for the disenfranchised of our economy seems clear enough,  his characters Dennis Nash and Frank Green standing proxy for many similarly afflicted.  Through his first four films, Ramin Bahrani has not strayed far from the personal and the specific.  This was the case in his first two features - Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007),  featuring first generation immigrants truly laboring on the outskirts of America's massive economy.  Even the more dramatic dimension - a man planning his suicide - of Goodbye Solo (2008), maintains its proportion with it very personal stories.  

Ramin Bahrani's progress to larger projects has been more problematic.  Somehow, the farming and stock car story At Any Price (2013) works, Dennis Quaid's stylized performance symbolic of the film's ultimate success, the often emblematic actor still somehow affecting despite  his Henry Whipple being composed of found bits of character and line delivery.  At Any Price sheds it's big story and equally broad themes in time for a consideration of personal responsibility, guilt and compromise.  

With 99 Homes, the sense of personal suffering of its men - and it's almost exclusively about men and a kind of enraged impotence - ultimately serves a larger, contrived drama, not the other way around.   Mr. Bahrani's drama is very effective, but when we're drawing off the suffering and iniquity of our hopelessly imbalanced economy, is catharsis really what is called for?     


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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Tangerine




There are in a big city many cities happening all at once.  These simultaneous cities are overlaid,  in places intersect.  And yet they exist almost separate unto themselves, share as they might some sidewalk or stretch of asphalt with another version of the city more readily known.  Such is the Los Angeles captured and imagined by filmmaker Sean Baker in Tangerine.

The world, the city of Tangerine exists mainly in West Hollywood, not so far from those thoroughfares whose sidewalks are inlaid with stars, above the river of the 101 freeway.  But in experience, practically a planet removed from the destination of most tourists who swarm to Hollywood with a far more sterile, prepackaged experience in mind.

The Los Angeles of Tangerine is one of strip malls, cheap motels, diners and doughnut shops where all manner of business is transacted.  It's an L.A. where people actually walk and ride the bus (sorry, Ms. Didion).  Rather bleak if you look at it in a conventional way, but incontrovertibly pulsating with life and color (the film apparently takes its title from the preponderance of orange that makes its way into the frame) as seen in Mr. Baker's film.


Tangerine also shows us a city within the greater city frequented by transgender sex workers.  We meet two such individuals at the outset of Tangerine who turn out to be our co-heroines: Sin-Dee Rella (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor).

Sin-Dee Rella is fresh out of jail as the two share one of the offerings at the doughnut shop that inspired Baker's film.  "Are we supposed to share it? asks, Alexandra, laughing.  "Yes, we're supposed to share it, bitch, I'm broke!"  So frequently go the verbal exchanges between the two, words sharp as their determined gait, perfectly extended hair or flawless ensemble draped on lean physiques; the word "bitch" like a hand that can caress as readily as it can give you its back and slap.


The genial catch up takes a turn for the ominous when Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee's pimp and main man, Chester (James Ransome), has been cheating on her with "some white fish" (a cisgender woman).   "Chester's fuckin' cheating on me with a real fish?," says Sin-Dee, frequently pounding the table with a makeup brush as if she's brandishing a dagger.  "Yeah bitch like a real fish girl like vagina and everything."  Alexandra confirms the bad news and then must follow her best friend on a long day's revenge odyssey into the Los Angeles night, leaving her side only to dispense flyers for her singing gig that night and later wait for Sin-Dee to show up at the bar, offending real fish in tow.

While Sine-Dee and Alexandra prowl this nether Hollywood, we also are taken inside the cab of an Armenian immigrant, Razmik (Karren Karagulian).  Like Mickey O'Hagan who plays Dinah, the slight, woeful woman who is the subject of Sin-Dee's wrath, Karagulian is a Sean Baker veteran, part of the fairly seamless mix of professional and non-professional actors in Tangerine.  Initially the story simply cuts from the propulsive hunt of Sin-Dee to the travails of Razmik, transporting a series of eccentrics (including pink-haired style blogger and Hello Kitty enthusiast Francis Lola, making a non-speaking cameo) on the day before Christmas.  The most humorous of these passengers is played by Clu Gulager, explaining his feminine name while he slouches in the back seat.  To those who recognize Gulager, his presence is almost surreal in Tangerine, reminder not only of that other Hollywood where the big films get made, but a Hollywood that doesn't quite exist any more, Tangerine demarcating cities in space as well as time.


The series of Christmas Eve fares, seemingly a kind of filler to remind us just how colorful is this world into which we are peeking, quickly gets to a point of diminishing returns, reaching its nadir with two men who vomit all over Razmik's back seat. "Animals," he practically hisses, after dragging them to the curb and driving off in his befouled cab.  What looks to be a West Hollywood Slacker by way of Taxicab Confessions actually has a more organic connection to the life of the film than Baker initially reveals.  The scenes with Razmik, his family and other Armenian immigrants show us yet another Los Angeles subculture.  We also find out that the taxi driver not only knows the transgender sex workers as part of his rounds through the streets and alleys of their common neighborhood, he's sometimes their customer.  The lives are indeed connected and we see an example of  infidelity in Razmik's life as we do in those of Sin-Dee and Alexandra.


As Tangerine begins in Donut Time with Alexandra and Sin-Dee, it's not clear whether Baker and his cast are really going to draw us into their world.  Sin-Dee taps the metal window frame with yet another makeup implement and offers the sort "Hi" that's a playful two-syllable come on.  Alexandra hoots in response, and its as though their director had just said "Okay...go," without any preparation, any thought to script and character.  But once the pair quit the doughnut shop and begin their various quests, the story gains its momentum and texture.  More significantly, all the characters we see - major and minor - seem fully formed and much more of the Los Angeles street than movie studio. 

Sean Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch apparently met Mya Taylor at a Los Angeles LBGT center.  At subsequent meetings, Taylor would share stories from the neighborhood.  Baker's initial idea to make a film about the bursting-with-life doughnut shop at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue began to find the dimension and depth it needed.  The writer and director was wise enough not to impose his vision about a community of which he had only superficial knowledge.  The conversations at a Jack in the Box restaurant also eventually included Kiki Kitana Rodriguez.  Baker had his stars.  

So, we have these by turns formidable and vulnerable women.  Baker and Bergoch's dialog was kept real by input from Taylor and Rodriguez , an example being the phrase, "What's your tea?  - meaning What's your problem? or What's your deal? -  apparently common currency in the neighborhood.  It was apparently Ms. Rodgriquez's idea that the story take the form of woman scorned narrative.  Overall, instead of sassy stereotypes, we have full, flawed people.  It's hard to imagine watching Tangerine and not loving these characters, but both are shown at their best and near-worst.

Sin-Dee's scorches a good bit of barren L.A. earth on her way to finding Dinah, dismissing if not bowling over everyone in her path.  When the unfortunate Dinah is at last yanked from the depths of a particularly seedy motel, Sin-Dee drags and occasionally smacks her down streets, against buildings, in and out of a bus, unconcerned that the ill-used women has only one shoe for most of the journey.  And yet this is the same Sin-Dee who later, almost tenderly, applies makeup to Dinah's face in the bathroom of the bar in which Mya performs.

For much of Tangerine, Alexandra is certainly the calmer of the pair, almost a long-suffering older sister to Sin-Dee.  However, Alexandra does a little dragging of her own when a client doesn't come forth with the $40 owed her.  As the two begin to struggle, she says, "You forget, I've got a dick too!"  Ultimately, the hapless man is hectored within sight of the amused members of the L.A.P.D.  Like many interactions in Tangerine, this adjudication runs not to pat drama (nor hobnailed authority), but to wry dismissal.

For all their moments of documentary-like authenticity, Sean Baker's films neither wallow in any found darkness, nor resort to pessimism which seems readily at hand.  Tangerine's sometimes serious, sometimes decidedly comic tone was apparently a conscious desire on the part of Baker, one with which Mya Taylor in particular agreed.  That humor at times draws us in while demonstrating a kind of survival mechanism for those living these challenging lives.  We hardly see this facet of the sex trade at its most dark or dangerous.  Instead, the few transactions we witness are more expressions of comic misunderstanding or exasperation (Alexandra's sort-of hand job for which she doesn't get paid; Razmik's unwelcome discovery of a vagina beneath a female prostitute's skirt), or, a rare stylistic flourish on the part of Sean Baker.  Not that harsher realities are entirely banished.  When Sin-Dee is doused with a cup of urine flung from a passing car at key point late in the the film, that is apparently an echo of a kind of assault that has actually befallen more than one sex worker in the neighborhood.


The stories of Alexandra, Sin-Dee and Razmik are allowed to flow where they might -  realistically, fancifully; comically or quite dejectedly - while Tangerine impressively captures its smaller details and lesser characters.  The first motel scene alone is like a mini-documentary.  When Sin-Dee bursts into the "party room," it's like we have shone a light on some little seen nocturnal world, all the more so for the warren of sub-rooms and their very unglamorous inhabitants.  The woman, Madam Jillian (Chelcie Lynn, whom Baker discovered on the Vine video platform),  who serves as a kind of gatekeeper to this party is one of many secondary characters that are brought fully to life with just a few lines of dialog and a well-directed performance.  Madam Jillian is less howling Cerberus than a woman canny enough to know just how much toughness is required to survive in her world.  

Apparently it was Karren Karagulian (Razmik), a long-time collaborator of Sean Baker, who recommended that Tangerine also use its subplot of the cab driver as a window into the Armenian immigrant community in Los Angeles.  The narratives ultimately come crashing together in a climactic scene both cutting and humorous at Donut Time, where Razmik's mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian) pursues him to prove his infidelity, while Sin-Dee is doing the same, having reunited Chester and Dinah.  A conversation between the mother-in-law and another Armenian cabbie (Arsen Grigoryan) on the way to the Donut Time showdown demonstrates what a rich, detailed piece of work is Tangerine.  The mother-in-law speaks critically of having Christmas in such a place as Los Angeles.  The city is, she ultimately says, is "a beautifully wrapped lie."  We see an ambiguous smile on the cab driver's face.  "Agree to disagree," he says.  He adds that he's still learning English.  More subtlety to be found in that little shimmer from this small film than many a indie feature in its precious entirety.  


So yes, Tangerine was actually shot on an iPhone 5s.  This apparently invention born of economic necessity.  But as Sean Baker has said in interview, having a hand-held device that will accomplish a lot of the work of shooting hardly precludes the need to utilize a hundred years of filmmaking know-how.  One still must understand lighting, the vagaries of sound.  And the phone themselves were not quite enough.  Baker was able to acquire prototypes of anamorophic adaptors which made a wide screen perspective possible.  A Steadicam device was also necessary at times.  But the darting mobility of the phones did allow the director to do things like circle or pass his actors on a ten-speed bike.  There's an excellent example of this early on when Sin-Dee departs Donut Time to begin her hard target search for Dina.  Sine-Dee's crisp, take no prisoners stride (and cruel intent) find perfect sonic accompaniment in "Team Gotti Anthem," by DJ Heemie & DJ Lightup, complete with martial clicks and simulated shots fired in rhythm, the momentum of this accentuated as the camera speeds at Sin-Dee then past.  Too look at Tangerine, you certainly wouldn't guess that it was filmed on an iPhone.  Among other post-production touches, Baker added grain to the appearance of the film, while also more deeply saturating the color which was already present.  

Clearly, Sean Baker knows how to direct a film, much as he rarely feels the need to remind us of this fact.  The camera sweeps here and there, but almost never for simple effect.  Tangerine lets itself get a bit drunk with style only once and it's woozy ride worth taking.  This a carwash scene in which Alexandra has to get Razmik off before the cab reemerges into Los Angeles daylight.  Perhaps it's been done before, but it probably hasn't been done more effectively, the sense-obscuring wash of soap and water, the sensuous, overwhelming caress of brushes and wraparounds a near-perfect analog to sexual abandon.      


Tangerine is Sean Baker's fifth feature, and his second impressive foray into a parts of Los Angeles rarely seen on film.  His previous film, Starlet (2012), recounts an unlikely friendship between a young porn actress and a solitary older woman, avoiding, as with Tangerine, the very obvious potential for something more exploitative.  Baker's two New York films (like the excellent early features of Ramin Bahrani, Man Push Cart  and Chop Shop), Take-Out (2004) and  Prince of Broadway (2008) are stories of the immigrant experience that have a similar documentary feel melded with a minimalist if slightly optimistic storytelling touch.  Baker apparently made Tangerine (with seed money help from the Duplass brothers) because he couldn't make something bigger, the sort of film for which one's crew might actually get paid in a timely manner....

Given the results so far, one almost wishes such continued financial constraints on Sean Baker, selfish though the thought may be.  His body of work to this point is like a great dive bar where all are welcome, a place teeming with all manner of humanity.  Given the relative success of Tangerine, he might get to make that bigger film next time out. 

In the meantime, Tangerine is more of the admirable same from Sean Baker.  We see people on screen that we don't normally get to witness in American film.  That transfer to film or video occurs without loss of humanity or dignity (and in this latest case, with a good bit of humor).  Baker clearly respects his subjects and his characters.  There is perhaps no better example of this in Tangerine than when Alexandra's performance takes place, a privilege for which she, not the bar owner, pays.  Instead of some expected bit of camp lip syncing, we get Mya Taylor in closeup with a sweet, moving rendition of "Toyland."  

Tangerine is ultimately just a human and humane story.  The late rift and subsequent reconciliation between Sin-Dee and Mya is actually one of the film's more nakedly engineered twists.  And yet there's no lack of depth in the ultimate shot when the two sit in a darkened laundromat at film's end.  This owing to the execution of Sean Baker, but mainly to the personality and vulnerability that Kiki Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor invest in these memorable characters. Doused with urine, Sin-Dee has to surrender the entire ensemble for washing, including - most troublingly - her impeccable hair.  Before the two join hands, Mya takes off her wig and gives it to Sin-Dee.  It's like a transfer of armor, a sharing of identity.   



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