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Wakefield

May 26, 2017
Wakefield

It’s not often that a literary work adapts so well to film. E.L. Doctorow’s short story, published in a January, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, shows the master of prose was still firing on all cylinders even as he approached his end. Robin Swicord’s adaptation, Wakefield, brings it perfectly to the screen, with all its dry irony intact beneath the absurd, madcap surface.

Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a successful, middle-aged.. well, it’s never really clear what he does. But it doesn’t matter. Some high-powered, white-collar job in the city, from which he takes the train back to his house in Connecticut. But one night, there’s a power outage. Howard is already feeling cynical about his job and his life and all the other people around him with their jobs and their lives, and by the time the train finally limps into his station it’s late and he’s buried deeper than ever in himself.

Rather than wait for a taxi, he simply walks to his house. But when he arrives, he doesn’t feel like going in to face his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner), and children. Not yet, anyway. He notices a raccoon running into his detached garage, and follows it up to the storage space to flush it out. From there, he notices that a large window allows him to see across the driveway into the kitchen of his house, where his family are eating. He settles down into a chair to wait a little longer.

When he wakes in the morning, he realizes he’s been away all night, with no notice to his family. Diana must be getting worried, but he notices that he takes a certain perverse glee in the idea. When the police show up, he watches as they take her statement. He imagines how worried she must be, telling them her husband is missing while never knowing he’s so close. It’s like a soap opera, and he has a front-row seat. It’s not so bad up here, anyway; he can just hide a little while longer…

And so, unbeknownst to his wife, Howard Wakefield takes up a squatter’s residence in the storage space above his own detached garage. He steals food from her garbage, at first, but then moves on to other neighbors so she won’t grow suspicious. He must deal with the extremes of summer and winter, the space not being designed for comfortable habitation. And what happens when the kids want to retrieve something for their vacation trip?

Of course, all this time along leaves Howard plenty of time to think about his previous life. Which is not to say it leads him into some deeper, more nuanced understanding of his wife or their relationship. This story understands that a man like Howard, left to his own devices, will only find ways to retrench his own position, and justify himself ever more certainly. He can even convince himself that when he does at last decide to return, he may be welcomed with open arms.

Swicord manages to pull off the delicate balancing act that Doctorow set up: to allow us to live entirely within Howard’s viewpoint, and yet make it clear that he’s wrong. Or, at least, not entirely right. And a lot of that is due to Cranston’s performance. Howard could easily have veered into being simply a bully or a buffoon, without the recognition that he must be both at the same time. It allows us to sympathize with his plight, while trusting us to recognize that it’s all his own doing.

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

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

May 26, 2017
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Why are they still making these? I mean, sure, they make money, but it’s been six years since the last resurrection of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which offered some fun but in retrospect mostly just reinforced the idea that the series was already played out when Gore Verbinski had walked away from it four years before that. But Johnny Depp racked up some big debts with his divorce settlement, so we get another oversized dose of him affecting weird mannerisms with something stupid on his head: pirate edition. This time it’s subtitled Dead Men Tell No Tales, which in fact they might, not that you could hear them over the score.

But before we get to Depp, we have two other introductory sequences: one setting up Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) as the son of Will and Elizabeth, the romantic leads from the first movies; the other bringing him face-to-face with this installment’s ghostly antagonist, Salazar (Javier Bardem). Only then do we catch up with the hapless Jack Sparrow (Depp), complete with his embottled ship, the Black Pearl, and his magic compass. The latter of which we’ve conveniently just been told is the key to releasing Salazar to chase after Jack, for reasons that won’t be explained until a later flashback sequence.

Complicating matters, there’s also Jack’s old adversary, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who seeks the same legendary treasure that will release Henry’s father from his curse. And of course we have to replace Keira Knightley, so we get Carina (Kaya Scodelario, moving up from being “the girl” in the Maze Runner series to basically the same token role here). She’s a feisty orphan and self-taught astronomer who somehow doesn’t realize that her supposed astronomical namesake is completely wrong in all respects. If Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t go on a Twitter rant about it, we can be certain that he’s firmly in Disney’s pocket. I know it’s a really minor point, but it would have been so easy to get right that it’s a great focal point for all the half-assed, slipshod writing that went into this script.

To wit: it’s so overloaded with callback characters and artifacts that bulk up the story for little functional purpose. Carina is also looking for the same treasure as Barbossa and Henry, but almost coincidentally because it has something to do with the father she never knew. And if you don’t think he’s going to turn out to be someone we know already, you haven’t been paying attention. She also functions as a romantic reward for Henry, despite nothing in either of their stories having much to do with a romantic interest in each other until the big kiss at the end. But before that, she’s mostly there because only she can determine the location of the treasure, with no mention of why Jack’s compass couldn’t do the exact same thing, and without the overly complicated reliance on plot tokens that seems more like a bad imitation of National Treasure, or the ill-fated revival of the Indiana Jones franchise. Which, by the way, we can also lay at the feet of screenwriter Jeff Nathanson.

The core problem is that the movie lets a plug-and-play framework determine the plotting more than an actual coherent story. Henry and Carina get together at the end because the pretty young leads have to get together at the end. Barbossa is back because there has to be a secondary enemy that switches his support. Need to explain someone’s motivations? jam in a flashback sequence wherever, and if it happens to introduce an unknown — and cheap! — young actor who might set up a spin-off “Young Jack Sparrow” series, so much the better. You can practically see the boxes being checked off as we go.

One might hope that after helming 2012’s Kon-Tiki, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg would have at least brought something new to the table when it came to the sea action, but honestly there’s nothing particularly special there either. It’s the same SFXtravaganza we’ve come to expect from summer tentpoles, with the most spectacular sequences taking place at night and in the spray so you can’t actually tell quite what’s going on, and with a deafening soundtrack that hopes to distract you from that fact. I’m sure it’ll make another billion dollars world-wide, but its audience has already proven they’ll watch just about anything.

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

Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

May 26, 2017
Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

Back in 1996, guitarist Ry Cooder went to Cuba and recorded a week of sessions with local musicians. They turned up some of the original son players, the same ones whose bands in the ’40s and ’50s worked in the hotels and casinos and kicked off the Latin dance boom in America. These very same musicians were still around, playing and singing in Cuba, unheard of outside the island. Together, they captured some of the old songs in an album perfectly targeted at the rising self-consciously globalist strain of American consumerism.

Two years later, in the wake of the album’s critical and popular acclaim — including two Grammy awards — Cooder assembled the musicians for two performances in Amsterdam and one at Carnegie Hall. Wim Wenders made a documentary at the time, which itself was nominated for an Academy Award and won a number of others around the world. But it focused more on the album and the live performances, and less on the history behind the music itself.

Sixteen years after that, as the Obama administration finally began to work towards normalizing relations between America and Cuba, the five musicians who remained held one last tour. Documentarian Lucy Walker spends some time with them, and digs deeper into the history and culture behind the music itself in Buena Vista Social Club: Adios.

The first hour of the film covers the history lesson that Wenders’ documentary didn’t. The roots of son cubano in the eastern highlands around Santiago de Cuba rhyme strongly with those of blues and jazz in the American south, but with a distinctly Hispanic accent. Bantu-derived rhythm and percussion combined with Spanish canción and guitar variants that settled most commonly on the tres.

Through the early 20th century, Cuban bandleaders like Arsenio Rodríguez and Beny Moré developed the son, merging in and spinning out most of what America now thinks of as Latin dance. Rumba, mambo, cha-cha-chá, and salsa all have their roots in these Afro-Cuban dancehalls. And before the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the late ’50s, it was the hottest sound across the United States.

But the focus is always drawn back to the core group that ended up involved in the ’96 album and ’98 tour. They have some interesting stories to tell, but it can sometimes feel like their presence is due as much to being in the right place at the right time as to any sort of inherent importance to the son. Some of them, like Compay Segundo, really do occupy a central role, and were famous back before the revolution; most seem to have been hard-working and talented, but little-known before Ry Cooder needed to assemble a band. Compounding this, many of the ’96 lineup aren’t around anymore, so their stories are told through a combination of archival footage — often from Wenders’ documentary — and testimonials from the others who have survived.

By the second half of the film, the focus is entirely on the album, the tour, and what has happened to the musicians since then. If you’re a huge fan of the original tour, it may well be fascinating, but it can feel like the sort of thing you’d find in the supplemental material of an anniversary re-issue of the Buena Vista Social Club DVD.

Notably missing from the film is a serious look at how recent political developments have interacted with the son. The historical section at least glossed over the revolution and the segregated social clubs of the ’50s, but what effect is the relaxation of tensions between the United States and Cuba having?

For that matter, what about the commercialism of the American and European bourgeoisie, and how they turned the original Buena Vista Social Club into a phenomenon in the first place? There’s a fascinating tension between recognition and exploitation, and a more daring documentary would pluck that string. But of course Buena Vista Social Club: Adios only exists because of that well-off Anglo audience, and it knows better than to ask them to examine their own complicity in the difficulties their beloved struggling Latinx artists have endured.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

May 26, 2017
Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

Growing up in the mid-Atlantic region, lacrosse was pretty much just the sport you played in high school if you were a bit too preppy to go out for the football team. The sort of niche now increasingly taken up by rugby. But long before the well-off suburbs picked it up from the private schools, lacrosse began in the cultural traditions of the Iroquois people, and you’d better believe that the self-consciously multicultural school systems in central Maryland drummed that little fact into our heads.

Of course, that’s about all the point they made about the game’s origins. We got nothing about how it was played or what it meant to those who played it. Or, for that matter, about what it means to those who still play it. Because despite this country’s best efforts, the Iroquois nations still exist, calling themselves Haudenosaunee and even issuing passports under that name. And they field lacrosse teams in international competition. Or at least they try to when the UK doesn’t kick them out of the country for not having fancy enough passports (seriously).

Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation focuses on the Iroquois Nationals box lacrosse team. It’s a variant that started in Canada as something to do with hockey rinks in the summer. In some venues, they set up at one end of an indoor soccer pitch, the length of the boxia field fitting neatly within the width of a full-sized field. There’s not much explanation of any other differences between box and field lacrosse, nor really an explanation of lacrosse itself. Basically it’s something like hockey or soccer, trying to get a ball into a goal, in this case by throwing and catching it with a special stick or “crosse”.

Beyond that, I can’t tell you any more after watching Spirit Game than I could have before it. If you aren’t already familiar with the sport, you’re probably not going to learn much more about it here. To be honest, I had trouble following exactly what was going on when it came to the lacrosse itself. When we saw some on-the-field action, it felt like a highlights reel with little of the narrative quality that makes sports stories inherently dramatic. The Nationals make their way to one championship after another, but without a lilting rhythm of highs and lows, their efforts flatten out into one constant drone.

The lacrosse scenes are, however, cut with talking heads talking about the sport’s history, or contemporary culture in the remaining lands of the Six Nations, or about their ongoing legal battles for respect from the United States and the international community.

The history could well be interesting if it weren’t presented so superficially. We get to see how a crosse was traditionally formed from a single piece of wood, before the modern practice of sticking a plastic head on an aluminum shaft took over. We hear a little about the mythology attached to the game, and how various styles of play are associated with different animals that were important to the Haudenosaunee. I’m certain there’s a lot more to it, but this movie doesn’t seem to have any interest in it beyond a little color to cut up the rest.

The contemporary cultural and legal challenges facing the Iroquois people also could probably make up a documentary of their own, but it’s not really clear what they’re doing in this one. To be sure, these are legitimate grievances worthy of consideration, and I’m hardly calling for them to “stick to lacrosse”. But other than the 2010 passport dust-up, the fields and the courts seem to have little to do with each other. There’s not even a parallelism like that which animates Patricio Guzmán’s documentaries about Chilean astronomy and authoritarian regimes.

And without some tighter connective tissue, Spirit Game feels like a jumble of two other movies, linked only by happening to involve the same First Nations communities. I’d be interested to see each of them fleshed out, but together they can’t make up their minds about what they want to say.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

Alien: Covenant

May 19, 2017
Alien: Covenant

Five years ago, I wrote a glowing review of Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus. Then I found out that the tide of public opinion was squarely against me. Well, I stand behind my opinion that while it may have diverged from the xenomorph-heavy sci-fi/horror thriller that the series’ audiences had come to expect, it was the thematic equal of Aliens‘ meditations on motherhood.

Still, public opinion can only be ignored for so long. It’s no surprise that Alien: Covenant pulls back towards the earlier entries’ style, down to the return of the classic egg/facehugger/chestburster/xenomorph lifecycle. And, of course the connection between Prometheus‘ “deacon” aliens and the classic forms is fleshed-out, so to speak.

But in returning to a plot- and action-heavy form, Alien: Covenant renders itself thematically weaker than its predecessor. Rather than break new ground, it digs deeper into the same creator/created tensions as Prometheus did, but specifically focused on the Luciferian tragedy of David (Michael Fassbender). Created by man, but disdainful of his creator, David saw something darkly beautiful in the bioweapon the Engineers had left in their ship. And humanity had its own misgivings, stripping the threateningly creative impulses out of later models, like Walter (Fassbender again, using his “American” accent).

Walter exists only to serve his masters’ purposes, like being the only one “awake” on a long-haul colonization mission. At least until an accident forces him to wake the crew. The captain (James Franco) doesn’t make it, leaving his wife, Dany (Katherine Waterston), distraught and depressed. The first mate, Christopher (Billy Crudup), takes command, though his reliance on his faith makes him an outlier in the group. He’s unsure of his position, and overcompensates in asserting his authority. When they pick up signals coming from a habitable planet mere weeks away — rather than the years it will take to reach their original destination — he decides to go with his gut and land there to check it out.

Of course, the planet is far from the paradise it seems. And by the time the crew come under attack, the mothership is held at bay by a huge storm. Not that chief pilot “Tennessee” (Danny McBride) will let that stop him forever. Fortunately, David shows up, having figured out how to survive the last ten years after the Engineers’ ship from the end of Prometheus landed here. Unfortunately, Dr. Shaw didn’t survive as well.

The dynamics here aren’t exactly difficult to suss out, and most of the turns are easy to predict. The biggest and most confusing flub comes with a flashback scene that only later is clarified as a memory of David’s rather than a story he’s telling the rest of the crew. If you want a haunted-house mystery like the first movie in the series was, this is no more the place to look than it is for philosophy.

In fairness, that’s not what it’s trying to deliver. What it wants to be is another thriller build around the lurid, Giger-inspired imagery that has defined the series since its inception. And in that effort it succeeds admirably. The alien world is gorgeously rendered, and the aliens themselves are fantastic. It may offer less to think about than other entries, but it’s no less a nightmare. And if that’s what you want out of an Alien movie, this may well satisfy you more than the one did.

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

The Lovers

May 12, 2017
The Lovers

Tracy Letts is probably best known to film fans as a screenwriter, especially since he won a Pulitzer Prize for the stage version of the ensemble drama August: Osage County. His screen acting, on the other hand has been mostly small supporting parts, with the notable exceptions of one section of Todd Solondz’ Wiener-Dog and a two-year stint on Homeland. On stage, however, he’s had plenty of critical acclaim, including a Tony for his portrayal of George in the Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

His role in Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers isn’t too far off from that frustrated, embattled husband. But rather than elevating beyond minor skirmishes, Michael and his wife, Mary (Debra Winger), have settled into a cold war of a marriage. The hostilities may be below the surface lately, but they haven’t escaped the notice of their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), who warns his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula) before they visit. “They hate each other,” he says, “Watch them carefully, and if you ever see me acting like either of them, punch me in the face.”

The visit will bring more to a head than even Joel cynically expects. Both Michael and Mary have been having affairs, and both of their side pieces have been pressing for a commitment. Michael promises Lucy (Melora Walters) that he’ll tell Mary about her as soon as Joel leaves, so it doesn’t ruin their whole weekend. Mary promises Robert (Aiden Gillen) that she’ll tell Michael about him as soon as Joel arrives, so they can have their discussion out in the open, and face-to-face.

But the predictable train-wreck gets interesting when, a few weeks out from Joel’s visit, to their mutual surprise, Michael and Mary begin to have another affair, this time with each other. Soon they’re sneaking around, making excuses to their lovers to carve out time for a clandestine marital romp, each unaware that the other is in the same boat.

As with his previous feature, Terri and the television series Doll & Em he produced with stars Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, Jacobs draws us into the sometimes weird and uncomfortable spaces where the lines between social roles get blurred. The story is less about surprising us with what we find, than in getting us to spend some time there with these characters at all. Characters who, in Michael and Mary’s case, are brought to life by a pair of consummate actors.

Letts and Winger are each capable of communicating volumes in silence, transmitted solely through shifting facial expressions and body language. Jacobs wisely gets out of their way, letting long stretches of screen time elapse without any dialogue at all. Watching either member of this couple sitting alone, turning over the latest developments in their mind can be as fascinating as any overwrought monologue. And when Jacobs gets them both doing it in the same shot, the superficial stillness masks truly turbulent depths.

I should point out that I say “stillness” here, rather than “silence”. The lulls in dialogue are filled with swells of the lush score by Jacobs regular Mandy Hoffman. The music can sometimes seem more appropriate to an old melodrama — or a Moody Blues album that Michael and Mary might have listened to during their first courtship — than this intimate indie. Still, it doesn’t take long for it to draw you into its own emotional rhythms, which reflect the characters’ own.

Is that manipulative? maybe. It’s at least the kind of manipulation that it’s hard to mind so much, since it’s such a nice ride. The same can be said for The Lovers as a whole. You may not be surprised where things end up, but it’s charmingly bittersweet to get there.

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

3 Generations

May 12, 2017
3 Generations

At some point since its initial festival screenings, About Ray changed its title to 3 Generations. Which is probably for the best, since “Ray” is pretty much the last thing it’s about. For a movie trying to ride the crest of public — well, bourgeois liberal — awareness of trans stories, it’s all but uninterested in the actual experience of the trans character at its center.

That character being Ray (Elle Fanning), whose mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), struggles to refer to with male pronouns. But at least she tries more than her own mother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon), who doesn’t see why Ray can’t just stay “Ramona” and be a lesbian. If this were a 101-level story there might at least be some basic recap of gender theory to cover the difference between a lesbian — a cis woman who likes women — and a trans man who likes women.

Instead, it exists at the level of awareness achievable from a reflexive hatred of regressive Republican policies. Like, did you hear that trans youth have been forbidden from public bathrooms in their own schools? It’s an outrage! You should feel outraged and sad for Ray, who has to go to a nearby restaurant. Except that New York, where the movie is set, has a policy in place explicitly allowing students to use the bathroom that aligns with their own gender identity. But writer/director Gaby Dellal isn’t about to let facts like that get in the way of her sense of indignation. She clearly doesn’t need to do any research about the problems a trans boy like Ray would actually face.

And like I said, it’s not really about him anyway, as is clear from her comments about Ray being “a girl, presenting in an ineffectual way as a boy”, as if the validity of someone’s gender identity depends on how convincing their appearance is. The movie is far more concerned with Maggie’s conundrum: the permission forms she needs to sign also need the signature of the man listed as Ray’s father on the birth certificate (Tate Donovan), and Maggie is conflicted about seeing him again. And when she does track him down, he’s not sure if he’s on-board. All of this against the ticking clock of Ray wanting to get on testosterone therapy at least six months before transferring to a new school in the fall.

None of this holds together. First of all, if the father isn’t even paying child support anymore — she says as much when she has to track him down — why does his signature matter so much? Surely it’s just a legal formality to sever whatever claim he might have on paper. But that’s where the ticking clock comes in, which itself is artificial. The forms are not some secret that was sprung on them at the last minute, and realistically there was plenty of time to get all these ducks in a row, except that Dellal needs to inject drama and pressure on Maggie, her real protagonist.

Or maybe they just haven’t paid attention to the paperwork until this point? I don’t buy it. Sixteen-year-olds are practically paralegals when it comes to the ins and outs of what exactly is required to obtain a driver’s license. For something like gender dysphoria therapy, Ray certainly knows these forms backwards and forwards, inside and out. There are whole online communities and support groups; he must be in communication with them, or who is he making his transition progress videos — the only possibly interesting parts of the movie — for? He’s seen the line asking for his father’s signature, and yet has done nothing to make sure it won’t present a problem.

But Dellal isn’t interested in engaging with the sort of community young trans people might craft for themselves. Tumblr itself might be a bit hazy for a woman in her 50s, and it distracts from what she’s really interested in: the tribulations of their middle-aged mothers. Even there, the characterization is awkward; Maggie is a woman who is willing to have serious conversations about gender identity with her teenager, and yet is afraid to tell him about the legal complications with his father.

Which brings us back to Dellal’s true perspective: Dolly, played by Sarandon as a well-off, well-meaning, but clueless and outspoken bumbler who lets her ideals run roughshod over the lived experiences of people around her. She’s the one who changes her mind to earn the Woke Merit Badge, which is more important to Dellal than an accurate portrayal of a trans experience. Like Dolly, the script is mired in second-wave feminism as it is dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern gender landscape. It even manages to get in a healthy dose of hetero-slut-shaming along the way: “don’t be loose with men, girls, or your own children will pay the price!”

And all of this misguided exploitation of trans experiences comes with one of the sloppiest executions I’ve seen outside of a student film. The acting is fine; Fanning does as well as any actress might, though I’m certain that a good casting director could have found an aspiring trans actor just beginning his transition. But the editing is a giant mess, patched over with truly awful ADR work to add or alter lines. To some extent this is the result of a hasty re-cutting a year ago, but there’s still no excuse for letting it get released in this form.

But the show must go on, as a monument to Dellal’s self-congratulation. If she didn’t push this out into the world, how else would everyone know how down with the trans struggle she is? Never mind the actual trans people saying there are huge problems with it; what would they know about their own lives that Dellal can’t explain to them better? That’s what they’re really here for: a target for well-off ladies to show just how open-minded and progressive and accepting they can be.

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