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A Cure for Wellness

February 17, 2017
A Cure for Wellness

Oh boy, has this one split the film community. Gore Verbinski’s return after the awful Lone Ranger is a lush, gorgeous nightmare shot by Verbinski’s Ring cinematographer, Bojan Bazelli. At it’s core a retelling of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg by way of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, the lurid and gory giallo elements seem to repulse more mainstream audiences. But to a fan of the genre, this is a fine modern entry, though it falls short in its more intellectual aspirations.

As in Mann’s novel, we follow a young man on a visit to a sanitarium in the Swiss alps. But Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is not visiting a beloved cousin; he’s an emissary from a rapacious multinational corporation sent by the board to retrieve their missing CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener). Initially turned away, he returns to the village below to report back, but on the way his car hits a deer and goes off the road. He wakes up with his leg in a cast, urged to relax and recover at the sanitarium along with the other patients, and of course to drink plenty of the water drawn from deep under the mountain.

Of course, the place is obviously creepy. Lockhart finds something microscopic wriggling in the water, echoing the maggots from Suspiria, and we know right away that we can’t trust head doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs). The sensational rumors Lockhart hears about the place’s history will obviously tie into whatever’s going on now, but again this is par for the course in a giallo flick.

Still, it’s only natural to want this to be more of a mystery, and it seems like that would play better into the attempt to recreate Mann’s critique of modernism. Lockhart’s corporation provides an easy target, since we’re already trained to find companies like that amoral at best. What if the story played out more like The Stepford Wives? seemingly idyllic on the surface only to reveal a dark underbelly later, after it has begun to seduce the protagonist. But there is no seduction here; Lockhart hates the place from the get-go, and his interactions with the mysterious young resident Hannah (Mia Goth) serve less to draw him in than to steel his resolve to get her out along with Pembroke.

Justin Haythe’s script is also less than coherent in its translation of Mann’s critique. The idea survives that the modern, late-capitalist world has redefined “health” as a state of sickness and need in order to drive ever-greater engagement with a system that needs consumers to exist. It’s right in the title, after all. But by painting both Lockhart’s corporation — not to mention his childhood — and the sanitarium as grim and inhumane, it fails to make a clear point. It’s possible that Haythe and Verbinski want to go beyond Mann: to admit the failures of modernism but paint his criticism as a regressive non-solution. But even if that’s the case, the movie is too bogged down in squicky episodes to really make the point clearly.

Then again, the genius of Rango aside, deep ideas have never really been Verbinski’s strong suit as a filmmaker. Striking imagery has been, and A Cure for Wellness has that in spades. The movie never misses a chance to veer off into weirdness for its own sake. Someone has to be left too long in an isolation tank, so let’s make the attendant’s distraction as outré as possible. A plot point requires someone to have an unexpected menstrual period, but a cloud of blood in a swimming pool is so much more striking than a simple mark on her bedsheets.

It’s these wonderfully weird moments that make up for the movie’s conceptual shortcomings and its sometimes confusing plot, just as the spectacle of Dario Argento’s imagination made up for stories that would be laughable around a campfire. And Verbinski’s visual talent backed by Regency’s money can pull them off with production values that Spettacoli could only ever dream of.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Great Wall

February 17, 2017
The Great Wall

Long before The Great Wall came close to release, plenty of ink was spilled in outrage over casting the white Matt Damon in a fantasy action flick about the Great Wall of China holding back an army of literal monsters. That point is only partly helped by observing that this is a Chinese-financed production directed by Zhang Yimou, and the business case is that Chinese audiences won’t show up these days without a big-name American (read, “white or Dwayne Johnson”) star as an anchor. It’s kinda racist, but it’s Chinese racism, but they imported it from us in the first place.

It’s all kind of a mess on paper, but when you look at the movie itself they actually came up with a good excuse for it. Damon’s character may resemble a “white savior” enough to get American audiences to the multiplex, but in practice he’s less an example of that trope than a skilled barbarian who learns the superior (i.e. Chinese) way. The story might be a mess with six named western writers, but it has the fingerprints of the Chinese State Media all over it. The last time I saw a genre pic set up as such a naked allegory of east-Asian communism was, well, Pulgasari.

Specifically, Damon plays William Garin, a western mercenary traveling to China in search of black powder weapons that would give him a decisive edge in his European campaigns. He and his Spaniard companion, Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), are on the run from Mongolian tribesmen when they run into some monstrous thing that William manages to defeat. Or, at least, de-foot. The next day, with the tribesmen back on their trail, they run into the Great Wall, and decide it’s better to surrender to the Chinese than surely die at the hands of the Mongols.

The wall, they learn from Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), was built to keep out the ravenous Tao Tie horde, lizard-like monsters that take their directions from a central queen. They attack every sixty years, getting stronger and smarter each time, and if they managed to capture the millions living in the Chinese capital they’d have the resources to spread over the entire world. So it’s not just China, but all of humanity that the wall is defending against greedy forces that exist only to consume and destroy (hint, hint).

And the Chinese armies are there to defend the wall with all the usual modes — legions of foot-soldiers in black armor, banks of archers in red, and of course the bungee-lancers in blue — backed up with flaming catapults and other secret tricks built into the wall itself. Of course the Chinese general (Zhang Hanyu) doesn’t want the westerners to leave and take their secret technology with him. The last European to come seeking black powder twenty-five years ago (Willem Dafoe) is even still here, though he quickly starts hatching escape plans with the two newcomers.

Of course, from the movie’s perspective, escape a very western thing to do. It puts the self first and betrays trust in one’s compatriots. Naturally, William comes to understand this and begins to work with the collective rather than for his own profit. He’s very skilled, yes, but he puts that skill to the service of the defense effort, and it’s easy to imagine success without him. The most decisive element he brings is almost an accident; the Chinese could have worked it out on their own if he hadn’t shown up.

Still, that idea is about a cùn deep. The real movie is in the action, which here is aggressively okay. The battle sequences have lots of moving pieces, as you might expect from the man who brought you the opening and closing ceremonies from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but the effect is less impressive with CGI armies than with real human dancers. And after the first couple they start to wear off. Thankfully the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome, but it easily could if it went on much longer.

It’s interesting to see what a studio system dominated by still nominally-Maoist state does with the tropes of the CGI blockbuster, but there’s just not very much else going on here. It’s pretty, which helps, but lacks the truly striking visionary style of, say, Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, another one that aimed at dumb-but-fun and landed a lot closer to that mark. Damon’s role isn’t as offensive as people feared, but that doesn’t make this one worth seeking out.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The LEGO Batman Movie

February 10, 2017
The LEGO Batman Movie

After the genius that Phil Miller and Chris Lord brought to the screen with The LEGO Movie, a follow-up was inevitable, if only to get a good return on the investment in developing the brick-animation software. Miller and Lord may have passed on directorial duties to their animator Chris McKay, and writing to a team headed by Seth Grahame-Smith, but The LEGO Batman Movie pulls off something close to that same mixture of smart and zany that made The LEGO Movie such a joy.

And while it may not have the wide-ranging scope and out-of-left-field twist of its predecessor, The LEGO Batman Movie does something that’s been needed for a long time: it disassembles the Batman myth. So to speak.

For a long time now, Batman has replaced Superman at the top of the DC totem pole, in part because he’s a lot more adaptable to the “grimdark” aesthetic that many comics have adopted in order to reassure a physically-aging but emotionally-stunted fan base that it’s still okay to read comics. I mean, heaven forfend a grown-up like something silly and fun for once. It seems hard to imagine now, but Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was seen as a dark turn, and it’s a giant party next to Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not to mention Zack Snyder’s DCEU version of the character. The push has gone so far in that direction that even Superman has to go dark and gritty.

I’d say that this all covers up the fact that the character is himself, at heart, an overgrown, emotionally-stunted man-child. Except it doesn’t cover that up at all; the grimdark Batman positively revels in it, turning “I have unresolved daddy issues” from an admission at the outset of recovery to an excuse for all kinds of antisocial behavior. They couldn’t have picked a better spokesman for that particular marketing push. And fine, if people want that sort of thing they can have it, but as we’re seeing in the DCEU it’s become a cancer that metastasizes into other properties, as if this is the only way for superhero stories to be.

Some of this, ironically, originated in Alan Moore’s attempts in Watchmen to examine superhero stories critically. He tried to shine a light on the darkness that was already living inside any attempt to fuse superhero stories with realism, but the genre responded by pouting that it liked the darkness. The LEGO Batman Movie tries the other tack: since Batman is such a perfect mirror for the sort of batfan who insists that this is actually the best version of a superhero story, let’s just show how ridiculous and immature that position is.

And indeed, this Batman (Will Arnett) is his own biggest fan. Everything comes back to him, and everything he does is awesome. But he lives alone on a literal island, sharing the cavernous Wayne Manor only with his long-suffering guardian, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). He’s so insistent on remaining aloof that he won’t even admit to having a special — if antagonistic — relationship with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis).

But that starts to change when Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) takes over for her father as police commissioner in Gotham City, and right off the bat she writes off the Bat. He’s been doing this forever, and crime is still awful. As of course it must be for the myth to continue; the script of a kids’ movie obviously doesn’t go into this, but Batman is an essentially fascistic figure, invested more in the continual struggle than any sense of progress. Sounds oddly familiar, come to think of it.

Batman responds to this criticism the way he must: by throwing a tantrum. It only gets worse when the Joker and the rest of the rogues’ gallery surrender themselves, leaving him with nothing to do but care for his accidentally-adopted ward, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). And so he acts out by stealing the Phantom Zone projector from Superman, breaking Joker out of Arkham Asylum to send him away with the worst villains of all time. Which, naturally, is just what Joker wanted; we can’t break all the tropes, can we?

Of course, doing all this in the LEGO context helps us see how ridiculous this all is, and also how fun it can be when you stop worrying about whether your stories are acceptably “grown-up” enough to enjoy. It also provides the exact sort of distance that’s missing in more “serious” treatments of the character, which get so close to him that they forget how silly the whole idea is to treat him realistically in the first place.

For all my criticism about how the character has been used recently, I’m far from opposed to Batman. But he’s better as an icon, not an ideal; he stands for the ways we end up hurting ourselves when we don’t allow other people in, and for the toxicity of traditional masculinity taken to its extreme. The LEGO Batman Movie recognizes that he’s a warning, not a role model, and does its best to take this myth apart for the kids it speaks to.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

John Wick: Chapter 2

February 10, 2017
John Wick: Chapter 2

When the first John Wick came out, it was a revelation: some of the cleanest, clearest action filmmaking ever. Not just in the impeccable choreography and the relatively staid choice of camera technique to capture it all as beautifully as possible, but the marvelous efficiency of storytelling through action. Once it got going, the action never had to stop to explain things for more than a minute or so. A whole secret society of hitmen centered on the Continental hotel spilled out without giant chunks of exposition. If I were in charge of the series, it would have continued the story around the hotel, moving to a different character’s tale each time, and maybe calling back to or even including earlier movies’ leads as supporting characters in each other’s stories.

But of course, John Wick is played by Keanu Reeves, and there’s no way the studio is going to sideline a moneymaker like him, so we’ve got John Wick: Chapter 2. It retains the stylish aesthetic of the first movie, and advances the hyperviolence — even pushing into the realm of gore — but sacrifices the techniques that really set John Wick apart from the crowd. What remains is still a good action movie, but it’s a James Bond flick plus blood splatter.

True to that Bond form, it starts off with a big set-piece, continuing from the previous film. Wick leads a one-man assault on a chop-shop to recover his car from the brother of the Russian crime boss from last time. Fifteen onscreen minutes later, the brother is the only person left alive in the place, and John returns the wreck of his car to his house in New Jersey. He re-buries his suit and weapons in the basement, intending to return to his retirement.

But of course then we wouldn’t have a movie. Soon he receives a visit from Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). John bought his retirement by giving Santino a marker. Since he came back to take down the Tarasovs, Santino wants to call it in. When John refuses, Santino blows up his house.

Winston (Ian McShane), manager at the Continental, says there’s nothing to be done. Markers must be honored, after all. So John agrees to do what Santino asks: murder his sister, Gianna, so Santino can take her place at the High Table, a sort of international crime syndicate. So John leaves his nameless dog with the Continential’s concierge (an underused Lance Reddick), heads to Rome, and re-equips himself for the mission ahead.

And this all looks great. The gear-up scene uses a series of stylish Q analogues, and the infiltration into the D’Antonio palace is very pretty. But all told it’s forty solid minutes of exposition, putting the pieces in place and explaining explaining explaining about the world rather than showing us through action what we need to know.

After Gianna is finally dead, John must escape, targeted by both her chief bodyguard (Common) and Santino’s own (Ruby Rose), since a man who had his sister killed can’t leave any loose ends. From there it’s ten minutes up and ten down, constantly dragging out story and exposition rather than getting back to the action, until the longer closing sequence.

And for all the style on display in the costume and set design, the action mostly falls short of the beautiful work from the previous movie. The first half of the closing sequence is the closest match to the full-body, wide-angle work that John Wick used to such marvelous effect, and when former-stuntman director Chad Stahelski gets it, he really gets it. Most of the other sequences are closer, bumpier work that doesn’t quite tip over into chaotic territory, but definitely moves in that direction. Other than the sprays of blood, it’s the sort of thing you can see in plenty of other action movies.

I give credit that at least each one has a clear concept. There’s the car battle, the catacombs battle, the close-in knife fight, and the “creative” battle where they pull out the goriest bits alluded to when characters tell each other the legends of the Boogeyman John Wick. The most stylish has to be the hall-of-mirrors battle, which shows off cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s technical chops, but conceptually it’s more psychological cat-and-mouse than action, and psychology is far from John Wick‘s strong suit.

Still, all this is not to say that Chapter 2 is bad per se; it’s just not as good as the first one. But then, when you set the bar so high out of the gate, it’s hard not to fall short the second time around.

Worth It: yes, if you have a strong stomach.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Salesman

February 3, 2017
The Salesman

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is a master of his craft, despite the constraints put on him by his government. But rather than seek out the cracks, pushing at the boundaries and criticizing them as Jafar Panahi does, Farhadi works within them to craft dramas that aren’t much different from what an American or European director of his caliber might. And with one Academy Award already under his belt for A Separation, he’s a serious contender to win a second for The Salesman.

The obvious reference for the title is Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman. Rana and Emad (Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini) are starring in a production of the play when they find themselves looking for a new apartment. Construction next to their building has rendered it structurally unsound, forcing an evacuation of their now literally broken home.

Their friend and fellow cast-member Babak (Babak Karimi) comes to the rescue with an apartment he was renting to a woman who recently vacated, though she’s left all her stuff there until she can find a new place. But shortly after moving in, another shock. As Rana prepares to take a shower, she hears the intercom buzz. Expecting Emad home soon, she hits the button and cracks the apartment door for him, stepping into the shower. By the time Emad actually arrives, he finds bloody footprints on the stairs, signs of struggle in the apartment, and Rana missing.

Thankfully, Rana isn’t dead. The neighbors heard a commotion and found her. One of the women dressed her, and they took her to the hospital to treat a nasty head wound. It’s not long before the couple start hearing the rumors about the previous tenant. “She had a lot of acquaintances,” they say, carefully talking around the suggestion that she was a prostitute. Unspoken but understood is the question of why Rana would leave the apartment open while doing something as intimate as showering.

Emad is, naturally, incensed. He looks for any clue he can find; there’s a wad of cash on a shelf in the living room, a pair of socks on the floor, and a set of keys and a phone between the cushions of a chair. The phone has already been disconnected, but the keys lead him to a pickup truck parked outside, which he moves in the hopes of at least flushing out the attacker, if not using it as evidence for the police.

But Rana doesn’t want to go to the police. Shame would be understandable enough in a western setting, but it’s doubly a factor in Tehran. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the pickup. She wants to go on with the play, but she freezes up when she sees someone in the audience who reminds her of her attacker. Everything is tainted, and how could Babak not tell them about the previous tenant before they moved in?

The film plays out its tension at a slow boil. Dense and layered, and ironic down to the title, echoing both itself and Miller’s play, Farhadi elicits powerful performances from his leads, as usual. Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are veterans of his films, and they were even paired up in About Elly. They each have a wide emotional range here; Rana goes from hurt and shame to a survivor’s strength, while Emad’s anger fades into despair over his inability to protect his wife, and then a mean, vindictive streak when he senses a chance for vengeance. To this Salesman, attention must be paid.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Chapter & Verse

February 3, 2017
Chapter & Verse

Antoine Fuqua’s main career may be directing Denzel Washington actioners like The Equalizer and last year’s remake of The Magnificent Seven, but he’s evidently got a sideline producing and promoting low-budget, independent Black films. Case in point: Chapter & Verse, co-written by director Jamal Joseph and poet Daniel Beaty, who also plays the lead as an ex-con trying to integrate back into his community after his time in prison.

S. Lance Ingraham — his father wanted to name him “Sir Lancelot” — used to run the streets in Harlem. He went down for twelve, “being stupid,” served eight, and is out on parole in a halfway house. If he can get a job, that is. He hits the streets looking anywhere he can use his two computer repair certificates. Maybe he earned them inside, but he seems to have had the knack for it already. But skills or no, nobody’s hiring. Desperate to get any job, he starts working at a food bank, cleaning the kitchen and delivering meals.

That’s how he meets Ms. Maddy (Loretta Devine), an older woman living in the projects, raising her grandson, Ty (Khadim Diop). Ty, for his part, has started to fall in under local gang leader B-Rock (Marc John Jefferies), and Lance worries the boy is about to make the same mistakes he once did. He sees Ty’s talent for drawing and design, and wants to encourage him to pursue that, not fall into the life of the streets.

Of course it’s hard going. Even an elevator ride to deliver a meal could put Lance next to a delinquent hotboxing the place, and if he fails the next drug test, halfway house manager Mr. Morris (Gary Perez) could violate his parole and send him back to Attica for months at the least. His boss at the food bank, Yolanda (Selenis Leyva) comes on friendly and helpful, but she might want more from Lance than a good day’s work. His closest ally might be his old street buddy, Jomo (Omari Hardwick), who’s already been in and out of the joint and now cuts hair and runs a “workout” crew.

Joseph may have cribbed from his own experiences, serving time in Leavenworth for his part in an armored car robbery, though his previous trial as part of the “Panther 21” might have added a political dimension to his case. Be that as it may, he wrote his first play in prison, and after leaving he started teaching theater and film, eventually becoming chair of Columbia University’s graduate film program. Beaty got his B.A. from Yale, and his M.F.A. from the American Conservatory Theater, winning awards for his composition and poetry along the way.

Between the two of them, they’ve got more creative credits than most filmmakers ever dream of. Producers should be throwing themselves at this movie, but after a few festivals in 2015 it’s only now getting a small theatrical and streaming release, in February, naturally.

It’s a shame that so few people are likely to see Chapter & Verse. Scene after scene is infused with a poetry that lives and breathes the real streets the movie was shot on. Even the small-scale riot that breaks out against a young boy’s arrest wasn’t scripted; it just happened as the crew were filming, and they incorporated it more naturally than most verité documentarians. It’s a movie from a community telling a story about that community, and it exudes an honesty that can’t be denied.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Comedian

February 3, 2017
The Comedian

An aging stand-up comic in New York City with a checkered romantic past struggles to maintain his career. He’s best known for a toothless, lowbrow sitcom decades in his past, which he desperately wants to leave behind, but his fans won’t let him be anyone else. No, it’s not Louie or Bojack Horseman, both of which are infinitely more nuanced and insightful than anything to be found in The Comedian.

This stand-up is Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro), born Jacob Berkowitz, and famous as Eddie from Eddie’s Home, a seeming mashup of The Honeymooners and All In the Family, produced either in the ’70s or ’80s. His manager, known only by her last name Miller (Edie Falco), is the daughter of his first manager, the guy who got him the TV gig and was promptly dumped. And most of the gigs she can get him are TV nostalgia bits, like the one hosted by Jimmie “Dy-no-mite!” Walker where his set followed Brett Butler. No, the actress, not the baseball player.

That’s the show where a couple professional hecklers — O brave new world that has such YouTubers in it — get under his skin and he gives one of them the mike straight into his nose. After thirty days in jail he has a hundred hours of community service to work off, and that’s where he meets Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), who has her own deep-seated issues.

If this were Louie or Bojack Horseman, the movie would admit that this is a train-wreck, and maybe tease out some sort of insight into the human condition of existing and going on with our broken lives. But Art Linson, who also wrote the inside-showbiz movie What Just Happened that starred De Niro as a blatant author-insert, isn’t remotely equipped to plumb such depths. And while Linson may have been able to draw on his experiences as a producer to write that screenplay, he’s evidently not a stand-up comedian, leading to punch-up credits for Comedy Central roastmaster Jeff Ross, veteran screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman, whose writing credits are dominated by awards-show patter.

De Niro isn’t much of a stand-up himself. He can run with a bit fine, but all the laughs come from the pros around him. It’s never clearer than when he gets into a live patter with Jessica Kirson at the Comedy Cellar and she runs rings around him. It’s hard to imagine him getting unscripted laughs, even with professionally-written material.

Which material isn’t exactly funny either, at least to me. I understand the idea that pro comedians build up a resistance to tamer jokes — movie critics get bored of unimaginative schtick too — but Jackie aims at Don Rickles and lands with about as much bite as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. If that’s your thing, great, but it doesn’t do much for me.

And yet everywhere he goes, people love him. He holds up the line at the soup kitchen doing his bits, and nobody complains. His niece (Lucy DeVito) begs him to speak at her wedding, and only old sticks-in-the-mud like his brother (Danny DeVito) and sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) have a problem with him going blue. It’s hard to buy him having career trouble with the universally positive response he gets from every single crowd.

Maybe if the movie stuck to this romp through one clump of Comedy Central stars and Friar’s Club members after another, it might be a neat little medley. It could even bear the eyebrow-raising May-December romance between Mann and De Niro. Maybe it would work better as a series: one episode he takes her to Brittany’s wedding; the next she takes him to meet her father (Harvey Keitel) the Eddie’s Home fan; the next he tries to get a spot at the roast of a grand dame comedienne (Cloris Leachman). It still wouldn’t measure up to Louie or Bojack, but it might be entertaining.

But the only emotional depth here is centered on Jackie and Harmony’s relationship, which takes sudden swerves into territory the movie has not remotely laid the groundwork to support. They come up out of nowhere, drastically changing the tone, and with no commitment to follow-through on the issues they raise. From his producing career, Linson knows that comedic movies and television can be used to come at painful subject matter in a different way, but he hasn’t the slightest clue of why or how they do it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.