Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Russian Wunderkind Kantemir Balagov Reveals the Unwomanly Face of War in Beanpole

Tangled up in green / Kino Lorber
BEANPOLE / Dylda 
(Kantemir Balagov, 2020, Russia, 137 minutes) 

Beanpole, which takes place in Leningrad during the winter of 1945, isn't a war movie; it's more like a home front or post-war movie. As such, 28-year-old filmmaker Kantemir Balagov (Closeness) focuses on women more than men. Like Little Women, which takes place during the Civil War, it's permeated by a scarcity of food and more crucially in this case: sanity.

Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse, is taller than everyone around her--men included--and supernaturally pale. Even her eyebrows and eyelashes are white-blonde. She looks after men injured in the war, but she has an injury of her own, an epilepsy-like post-concussion syndrome resulting from her job as an anti-aircraft gunner (in the Film Club episode on Beanpole, Russian-born critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky cites the period term shell shock). Sometimes Iya just...checks out. Her body continues to function, but her mind goes elsewhere, representing a danger to herself and others.

The ward of a tiny boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), Iya lives in a building bustling with hungry people, including an elderly gent eager for companionship (she shrugs him off). Shortly after Balagov has established the contours of her life, Iya's gunner associate, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina, an inexperienced actor like Miroshnichenko) returns from the front to collect her son. Auburn-haired Masha, compact where Iya is towering, finds that the world she left behind has irrevocably changed. Instead of making a fuss, she appears to roll with it, but she's actually hatching a plan.

Iya in Vermeerian repose / Kino Lorber
Masha has a Mona Lisa smile that makes it hard to tell if she's happy, pretending to be happy, or if she might possibly be a sociopath. After unpacking her things and settling in, she expresses an urge to go dancing. When the women find the dance hall closed, they hook up with two young men instead. Things do not go well.

Though she lacks medical training, Masha gets a job at the hospital as an attendant. She and Iya report to Nikolay (Andrey Bykov, very good), a pragmatic widower who spends a lot of time giving patients, like quadriplegic father Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev), bad news. He gives Masha bad news, too--mostly to confirm what she already knows.

The women's domestic situation is complicated by the reappearance of Sasha (Igor Shirokov), one of the young men from the night on the town. After running into Masha at the hospital while visiting with his philanthropist mother, he shows up at their door. To Iya's irritation, Masha lets him into their lives, possibly because she simply appreciates the fresh produce he's able to provide. Just as pragmatic as the doctor, Masha also sets up an illicit arrangement with Nikolay in order to recreate something she lost.

Though Beanpole is hardly a predictable film, it's a given that certain things won't end well, not least because Iya's discomfort around men suggests that she's either inexperienced, uninterested, or some combination of the two. Balagov, who took inspiration from Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich's 1985 book, The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, doesn't spell it out explicitly, but it becomes increasingly clear that both women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have had issues before the war, but now they're threatening to become pathologies, and this isn't a time or a place where therapy is accessible, so they cling to each other in ways that could do more harm than good.

I'm so green / Kino Lorber













Beanpole is strikingly shot and framed by 24-year-old cinematographer Ksenia Sereda who uses color as a narrative device. Though many scenes take place at night or by candlelight, vivid red, green, and ochre add beauty to what is, essentially, a pretty grim story. In his director's statement, Balagov explains, "When I started to study the diaries of people who lived during that time, I learned that despite all the hardships and the devastation, they were surrounded by bright colors every day."

Color grows in importance as Masha paints the apartment green and borrows a green dress to impress a possible benefactor--and Iya wears a green sweater in most every scene. The color represents the potential for renewal in the women's shattered lives, but Balagov, winner of the best director award at Cannes, is enough of a realist to suggest that a storybook happy ending isn't likely for either one. But nor is a Russian-novel tragedy a guarantee. If the look of his film threatens to overwhelm the content, the filmmaker stays on the right side of that equation more often than not.



Beanpole plays SIFF Cinema Uptown Feb 14 - 16. Click here for details. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

Australian Filmmaker Kitty Green Casts a Cool Eye on a Predator's Retinue in The Assistant

Julia Garner as the hyper-efficient Jane / Bleecker Street
THE ASSISTANT 
(Kitty Green, 2020, USA, 87 minutes)

Jane (Julia Garner), who lives in Queens, wakes up so early to get to her job in the City that it's pitch black when she leaves her apartment (the better to appreciate the glittering lights of the Queensboro Bridge). Unlike most office drones, though, she doesn't bike, drive, or take the train. A chauffeured car picks her up. As the first employee in the office each day, Jane turns on the lights, makes the coffee, and gets to work.

Australian filmmaker Kitty Green's narrative feature debut, after the documentaries Ukraine Is Not a BrothelThe Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, and Casting JonBenet, focuses on one day in Jane's life at a Manhattan entertainment company that resembles Miramax in its early days, before it became The Weinstein Company, and before things got ugly. Her coolly observant film journeys into the heart of that ugliness.

Jane is pleasant and professional, and because Emmy winner Julia Garner (Ozark, The Americans, We Are What We Are) plays her with a minimum of fuss, she comes across as a convincing human being, though some of her tasks aren't exactly typical, like when she writes checks for large amounts to unnamed recipients, returns an earring from the floor of her unseen boss's office to the uncomfortable woman who left it behind, or wipes down her boss's couch with rubber gloves and cleaning fluid. Why would she do such a thing? Green knows we know why, and doesn't need to spell it out.

Jane with Sienna (Kristine Froseth) / Bleecker Street
The director often shoots Jane from slightly above, an odd but not especially distracting choice. The point seems to be to show her from the perspective of a person, presumably a man, looming over her desk. The ironic part: the film is from Jane's POV. We see what she sees--except when we're watching her. Even then, though, we aren't privy to anything beyond her line of sight.

This approach stands in opposition to Casting JonBenet, in which actors auditioning for roles in a re-creation of the case of the six-year-old Colorado girl's still-unsolved murder look at the camera and talk about themselves and their characters, including the victim and her parents, Patsy and John Ramsey. The documentary also features a sweeping score, unlike The Assistant, which eschews any noticeable soundtrack--other than the garbled buzz of voices issuing from cell phones and from behind closed doors.

Toward the end of the day, Jane decides to tell HR director Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen) about the troubling things she's been noticing, because she's been cleaning up after them. Macfadyen plays Wilcock in a lower-key register than his status-obsessed Tom Wambsgans on HBO's Succession. He makes it clear to Jane that she should keep quiet if she wishes to remain employed. He ends by saying something an HR director should never say to an employee who suspects their boss of sexual harassment. It's meant to be reassuring, but only proves he knows exactly how deep the rot goes.

Matthew Macfadyen as Wilcock / Bleecker Street
The other assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) with whom Jane shares her office space also provide hints that they know about their boss's extracurricular activities and that it's best to remain as oblivious and subservient as possible. After they've left for the day, and after she's shown an attractive new assistant (Kristine Froseth) the ropes, she's the only one left.

I wasn't sure what to expect from a filmmaker best known for her documentary work, but now that I've seen The Assistant, I find myself noticing more similarities than differences, since Casting JonBenet features sequences in which actors recreate scenes from real peoples' lives, much as in the films of Robert Greene, like Kate Plays Christine and Bisbee 17. In other words, before Green made a narrative feature, she was already heading in that direction. As she puts it in the press notes, The Assistant is "a fiction film that had an intensive documentary-style research process," since Jane is a composite of the many female film workers she interviewed.

There isn't much more to her film than what I've described. Jane starts and ends her day in darkness--literally, not metaphorically. If she didn't know what she was getting into when she took the job, the five weeks she's spent at her boss's beck and call have shown her all she needs to know. During her meeting with Wilcock, she tells him she aspires to be a producer. If she stays, she just might get there; if she leaves, she just might not. She's a recent college graduate, and nothing is written in stone, but she's also contributing to a toxic environment in which women are the primary victims.

Kitty Green doesn't judge her, and Julia Garner is too savvy an actress to beg for the audience's sympathy, but it's hard not to feel conflicted. It took a lot of hard-working women, like Jane, to help Harvey Weinstein reach the pinnacle of his profession. But it also took a lot to bring him to justice.


The Assistant opens at Pacific Place on Feb 14. It is not a good date movie.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Watch Nicolas Cage Lose His Shit in Richard Stanley's Lovecraft-Powered Color out of Space

Eat your heart out, Thomas Kinkade / RLJE Films
COLOR OUT OF SPACE 
(Richard Stanley, 
USA, 2019, Not Rated, 110 mins)






"This is what you want… This is what you get."
--Public Image Ltd, "The Order of Death" (1984)

From the people who brought you Ana Lily Amirpour's Iranian vampire noir A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Panos Cosmatos's psilocybin-laced revenge thriller Mandy, comes South African filmmaker Richard Stanley's first feature in 27 years, Color out of Space. Not only is Elijah Wood's SpectreVision presenting the film as a special theatrical event before it appears on streaming platforms, but it stars Mandy's Nicolas Cage. And Stanley adapted it from a 1927 short story by H.P. Lovecraft,
so those are the primary selling points. Either you're in or you're out.

Stanley starts by introducing us to the Gardners. After an unsuccessful sojourn in the city, they've moved back to father Nathan's family farm in Arkham, Mass. (Stanley shot the film in Portugal, though you'd never know it). The extended clan includes a dog, alpacas and horses, stoner teen son Benny, Wiccan teen daughter Lavinia, grade-school, Coke-bottle glasses-sporting son Jack, and squatter Ezra (Tommy Chong). According to Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Nathan (Cage) did too much acid back in the day and Theresa (Joely Richardson) is recovering from cancer. Lavinia wants her mom to get healthy; then she hopes to get the fuck out this podunk town.

Theresa and Nathan dreaming of Italy / RLJE Films
One night, a weird, glowing magenta object lands in their front yard. Ward (Elliot Knight, Merlin from ABC's Once Upon a Time), a handsome hydrologist in town to test the groundwater, says it looks like a meteorite (Ward also narrates; Lovecraft's story features an unnamed narrator). The Black hydrologist's full name, Ward Phillips, is a bit of a poke in the eye at Howard Phillips Lovecraft, horror/sci-fi master and known white supremacist.

Strange things start to happen. Headlights flash on and off, TVs and computers display Poltergeist-like imagery, freaky insects appear on the scene, Lavinia hears odd voices coming from her cell phone, Jack communicates telepathically with "the man" in the well, Theresa has a bloody freak-out, and otherworldly colors pulsate in the forest. As Iggy Pop's DJ Angry Bob exclaimed in Stanley’s technology-goes-berserk predecessor Hardware (1990), "Nature never knew colors like that!"

So, it's weird, except Nathan acts relatively normally, and anyone watching this movie is going to be anticipating the sort of Bizarre Cage Behavior on display in, say, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or Vampire's Kiss, the film that convinced Stanley to cast him here (not least because he previously tried to cast Cage in 1992's Dust Devil, but it didn't work out). Aside from a few eccentric line readings, Cage doesn’t lose his shit and embrace BCB until about an hour into this thing--I'll just note that it has to do with alien-infected produce--and then there's no going back. That's the point at which the scenario segues into the disturbing, body horror realm of The Thing, Altered States, and Annihilation.

Jack (Julian Hilliard) loses his shit, too / RLJE Films
In the end, I couldn't say whether Stanley and co-writer Scarlett Amaris were trying to make a statement about the nuclear family or not. The alien influence drives each family member insane in different ways, and they spend more time turning against each other than joining forces to fight the evil. Further, technology can't save them. When this isolated farm family needs them the most, their transportation and communications devices fail.

Although it may disappoint some viewers, the biggest surprise for me is that Cage, the marquee name, isn't really the star of Color out of Space. It's Arthur (ABC's The Family, Netflix's To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), and she's quite good. Similarly, Dylan McDermott isn't really the star of Hardware; it's Stacey Travis, another plucky woman with long, wavy hair.

Colin Stetson, who scored Hereditary, also brings the menace with his fine score...and Stanley makes the interesting decision to include an aptly-titled track, "Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown," from Norway's Burzum, black metal project of convicted neo-Nazi murderer and arsonist Varg Vikernes. That said, he adds a track from fellow black metallists Mayhem, "Watchers," and that's significant, because Vikernes's victim was their guitarist (Øystein "Euronymous"Aarseth). I'm not sure what to do with this information, but to quote Al Pacino in The Irishman, "It is what it is."   

Despite the surface similarities to Mandy, Stanley's cinematic return doesn't measure up to those lofty standards, but it's worth seeing if any of the factors that went into its making appeal to you. Especially with a well-lubricated audience hyped for the weird, the strange, and the disturbing.

 

Color out of Space plays the Egyptian on Jan 22 and 24-30. Click here for more information. Free Full Tilt ice cream for the first 100 people on Wed.

Monday, January 13, 2020

They Say Betty Davis Was Different, But This Documentary Doesn't Provide Enough Detail

Betty Davis / Baron Wolman / Light in the Attic
BETTY DAVIS: THEY SAY I’M DIFFERENT 
(Phil Cox, USA, 2017, 54 minutes)

The angle British filmmaker Phil Cox takes with his Betty Davis documentary, which arrives on DVD this week, is this: she emerged as a funk force in the 1960s, influenced one of the world's great musicians, and then disappeared.

In scholar, culture writer, and Pop Con veteran Oliver Wang's introductory comments, the words recluse and reclusive get a workout (Cox neglects to mention that Wang wrote the liner notes for three Davis reissues). They aren't inaccurate, but they serve as a warning that his subject, who is still very much alive, feels more like a supporting character in her own story than a lead. Try as he might, it's a gap Cox isn't completely able to fill.

Instead, he relies on commentary from friends and associates, excerpts from interviews, music and performance clips, photos and collages, and lyrics that float across the screen. There's enough material to get a taste of her fiery shows, uninhibited lyricism, and arresting fashion sense--silver-sequin hot pants above all--but not enough to fill out the standard running time, since They Say I'm Different clocks in at just under 54 minutes.

Betty in her element / Baron Wolman / Light in the Attic 
Cox traces Davis's be-
ginnings to North Carolina and Pennsyl-
vania where she developed an interest in songwriting (she was living in Pittsburgh when Cox caught up with her). When she was ready to make music her career, she moved to New York. She enrolled in design school, worked as a model, and wrote songs. Did you know she wrote the Chambers Brothers' urban funk anthem "Uptown"? (She was only 20.) That was around the time she met Jimi Hendrix in the Village. Unfortunately, we learn nothing about their meeting, so I couldn't say what went down, but Betty proceeded to turn Miles Davis on to his music.

She met Miles when she went to see him play at the Village Gate. She told him she dug his shoes, and that was that. They got married in 1968. Out went his Italian-made suits and in came silky shirts, over-sized shades, and the other sartorial signifiers of funk. He also incorporated psychedelic-rock elements into his music, though it's possible he might have done so even without Betty's influence. Rock was an all-pervasive thing in the late-1960s, and Miles wasn't the only jazz musician to segue to fusion, though she certainly inspired his 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, which features her image on the cover and ends with the contemplative "Mademoiselle Mabry" (a reference to her maiden name). They also wrote a song together, the tender ballad "You & I," which appears on her 1975 album, Nasty Gal.

The marriage was a short-lived thing. In the film's voice-over (provided by Kim El), Davis notes that Miles could be violent. Frances Davis, his first wife, makes the same point in Stanley Nelson's documentary, Birth of the Cool, which will be coming to PBS's American Masters in February.

Betty Davis (1973) / Light in the Attic
After their divorce, Betty's recording career began in earnest. Local label Light in the Attic reissued her three albums, Betty Davis (1973), They Say I’m Different (1974), and Nasty Gal in 2007, though no one associated with any of her labels--Island, Columbia, Just Sunshine, etc.--appears in the film. Cox also neglects to mention that Light in the Attic issued her previously unreleased 1976 album, Crashin' from Passion, as Is It Love or Desire? in 2009.

There's also very little information about the recording of these albums. Interviews with more of the participants, like bassist Larry Graham (Sly & the Family Stone) and guitarist Neal Schon (Sylvester, Journey), would have gone a long way, though it's nice to hear from her still-funky backing band, Funk House, and producer, drummer, and fellow Family Stone player Greg Errico--even if we don't learn much about him. Considering that Errico has played with David Bowie (1974's Diamond Dogs tour), Weather Report, Santana, and the Grateful Dead, that seems like a strange oversight.

As for Davis, she's heard, but she isn't really seen. Though she spoke with Cox, who worked on the film for four years, she's always facing away from the camera. He mostly focuses on her hands. It's her choice, but she provides so few details about her years in exile that she ends up feeling like a ghost haunting a film about a past she doesn't especially care to revisit rather than a full-fledged participant in a comprehensive look at her life.

Wearing lingerie as clothes / Light in the Attic
The extra features include a five-minute interview with Davis, in which Cox filmed her from the back ("No one wants to see an old woman," she says) and a 16-minute inter-
view with the filmmaker. From these features, I learned that it took Cox a long time to gain Davis's trust, and I appre-
ciate his diligence, but I'm not sure he was the best person to tell her story.

When he realized she wouldn't be forthcoming in interviews, for instance, he could have lined up speakers to explain what she's been doing for the past 42 years. It's possible to do this in a respectful, non-salacious way, but he took the path of least resistance, and the film pretty much ends in 1975.

Somehow or another, Betty Davis has managed to keep herself alive since then. That is no small feat, and I'd love to know how she succeeded when so many of her hard-rocking peers, like Janis Joplin, weren't able to pull it off. Did she work a succession of odd jobs, learn a new trade, remarry...? There's a story there, and it's worth telling. Maybe someday somebody will.


MVD releases Betty Davis: They Say I'm Different on DVD Jan 17, 2020.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, Michigan Battle It Out in Jon Avnet's Fact-Based Film

Goggins, Dinklage, Gere, and Whitford / IFC
THREE CHRISTS 
(Jon Avnet, USA, 2019, 109 minutes) 

In 1959, when Jon Avnet's fact-based One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-meets-Awakenings film begins, paranoid schizophrenics were treated with prefrontal lobotomy, insulin-induced coma, electroshock therapy, and anti-psychotic drugs. Therapy wasn't considered a significant treatment option.

Dr. Stone (Richard Gere with credible Brooklyn accent) sets the story in motion when he makes the switch from professor to institutional psychologist. Concerned that state hospitals have an assembly-line approach to patient care, he believes that more humane methods can produce better results. Faced with overcrowding, under-staffing, and bureaucratic resistance--Ypsilanti State Hospital has five staff psychiatrists for 4,000 patients--he has a considerable challenge ahead of him.

Dr. Stone is just settling into his new gig when Joseph Cassel (Peter Dinklage), a patient calling himself Jesus of Nazareth, attempts to take his life with a serrated can lid. He only succeeds in cutting his arm and that of the doctor when Stone attempts to restrain him. The next two Christs include Clyde Benson (Bradley Whitford) and Leon Gabor (Walton Goggins). By the time Dr. Stone meets Leon, he has hired the Amy Adams-looking Becky Anderson (Charlotte Hope, a Games of Thrones vet, like Dinklage) as his research assistant. In the course of their interview, he notices she took a year off. She had to deal with a family issue, she explains, but neglects to provide details. It's a given we'll find out by the end of the film.

Goggins as Leon Gabor / IFC
For his next move, Dr. Stone removes the three Christs from the general population and meets with them regularly. The first group therapy session goes poorly when Leon insults Joseph, who attacks him, but no one is hurt and the sessions continue. Leon proceeds to take a special interest in Becky, starting by claiming that she's attracted to him. Then he claims that Dr. Stone is attracted to her. Both of these things may be true, but he's mostly trying to get her to react. She does her best not to take the bait.

The other Christs have their own unique characteristics: Joseph, who has an Edwardian-style vocabulary, speaks with a British accent, though Leon tells us he's from Canada, and Clyde carries a rumpled cardboard box with him that contains a photograph of his late wife. The implication: he suffered a psychotic break after her death. He's also convinced there's an ever-present stench in the air. Considering that he's confined to an overcrowded mental hospital, that may also be true.

After a few sessions in which Dr. Stone and Becky engage with the Christs, the doctor leaves them to their own devices, instructing them to take turns serving as chairman and to begin by singing a song. He and Becky continue to observe them from behind glass. Together, they decide to honor the delusions the men harbor, instead of trying to disabuse them of notions that have some basis in fact. It's against protocol, and Dr. Stone's colleagues, including the sympathetic Dr. Rogers (Stephen Root) have their doubts.

Adding to Becky's stress: Dr. Stone's wife, Ruth (Julianne Margulies), thinks she's attracted to her husband, a theory that has nothing to do with the young woman's professional deportment and everything to do with the fact that Ruth, now a mother of two, also started out as his research assistant--and that he's played by Richard Gere, who's still plenty foxy even if he's 42 years older than Charlotte Hope (then again, Gere is at least 33 years older than his current wife). Unfortunately, this story strand gets short shrift, which means Julianna Margulies gets short shrift, and that's a shame when fans of The Good Wife know just how hard she can go when given the chance. Still, she looks fabulous, and that's...something, I suppose.

Charlotte Hope as the good doctor's assistant / IFC
For the most part, though, I was on board until a development that isn't completely unexpected--it involves a collision between the unorthodox Dr. Stone and his by-the-books boss, Dr. Orbus (Kevin Pollak)--but it stops the film cold. And it never recovers. That may be why it was completed in 2017 and shelved for three years, despite the name-brand talent involved.

As for the director, Avnet is best known for 1991's Fried Green Tomatoes, and he was also one of the driving forces behind FX's Justified on which Goggins played meth-dealing antihero Boyd Crowder. I suspect that Goggins' involvement in the show led to his casting here, and he's quite good. (Plus, he looks cooler in white scrubs than any man has a right to.) If anything, the acting is good all-around; it's the writing from Avnet and co-writer Eric Nazarian, drawing from Dr. Milton Rokeach's 1964 book-length study The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, that lets this charismatic cast down.

It's too bad, because I would have liked to learn more about how psychiatry can better serve paranoid schizophrenics. If you take this film literally, Dr. Stone's approach works 66.66% of the time, more in terms of relieving their loneliness than exorcising their delusions, but we're never told if it's still in practice today, not least when overcrowding, under-staffing, and bureaucratic resistance persist. Nor do we find out what happened to Becky, whose chemistry with Leon suggests mutual attraction. Did she even exist? Or was she a screenwriter's contrivance? Hope's sensitively-rendered performance makes me want to believe, but I'm left with more doubts than not. A film doesn't have to answer every question it raises, but this one leaves too many unanswered. The subject--and the actors--deserves better.

 

Three Christs opens at the Varsity Theatre on Friday, Jan 10. According to Wikipedia, "The book served as inspiration for the song 'Ypsilanti' on the Detroit band Protomartyr's debut album No Passion All Technique."

Thursday, December 26, 2019

"If You Just Love Movies Enough, You Can Make a Good One," Says Quentin Tarantino in Tara Wood's Documentary QT8: The First Eight

Reservoir Dogs / Live Entertainment/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
QT8: THE FIRST EIGHT
(Tara Wood, USA, 2019, 103 minutes) 

Instead of dancing around Quentin Tarantino's connection to disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, Tara Wood uses it to frame her documentary. There's no getting around it: Weinstein, by way of Miramax and The Weinstein Company, released Tarantino's first eight films. He and his brother, Bob, had nothing to do with Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, which marks a new era for the filmmaker, though we aren't likely to get a QT8 II: The Next Eight, since Tarantino has claimed that he plans to retire after film #10, whatever it is and whenever it may materialize (all I know is that it won't be a Star Trek entry, since he's extricated himself from that particular commitment).

Former roommate Scott Spiegel (Evil Dead II) remembers meeting Tarantino in his video-store days. Spiegel thought he was "an overzealous geek"--with the talent to back it up. He came to that conclusion after reading the screenplays for True Romance (Tony Scott) and Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone). Though Tarantino wanted to direct, studios weren't interested in handing the reins to an untested kid when these established gents were willing to step in, though producer Stacey Sher says that Tarantino would've shot True Romance in non-linear fashion, as he famously did in Pulp Fiction, and that--26-year-old spoiler alert--Christian Slater's Clarence wouldn't have survived the climactic gun battle.

True Romance crew feat. Baby Brad / Warner Bros
Filmmaker Eli Roth (Hostel), who appeared in Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds--as the infamous Bear Jew--marvels at the fact that Tarantino writes out his scripts in long hand with different colored pens (he has no interest whatsoever in computers). Let's face it: these are the kinds of things we want to hear about Tarantino, i.e. that he's been talking a blue streak since day one, like his loquacious leads, and that he's old school, like his vinyl-and-cassette-loving characters.

Using the residuals from his gig as an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls ("Sophia's Wedding"), Tarantino was able to scratch up the funds to shoot Reservoir Dogs. As far as I'm concerned, that's an origin story to rival anything in Marvel or DC comics. That said, he didn't have the budget to provide his actors with the black suits they needed to make the imposing impression that has come to characterize the film, so they had to provide their own. According to Michael Madsen, who played Mr. Blonde, the production supplied them with ties. From those humble beginnings, Tarantino's debut went on to play Cannes, and a career was born.

Wood proceeds through Tarantino's next seven films, organized by three chapters: The Revolution (1992 and 1994), Badass Women and Genre Play (1997, 2003-2004, and 2007), and Justice (2009, 2012, and 2015).

Forster and Tarantino in 2007 / Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
Wood, who co-directed 21 Years: Richard Linklater, has been down this road before, but with a very different filmmaker. QT8 represents her solo debut (worth noting: she had to wrest it away from Weinstein). If her approach is largely uncritical, I'm okay with that. If you enjoy Tarantino's work, it's an opportunity to go behind the scenes with Christoph Waltz, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Zoë Bell, Bruce Dern, Jamie Foxx, Lucy Liu, Kurt Russell, Diane Kruger, and the late Robert Forster, all of whom have worthwhile things to say. Forster, for one, credits Tarantino for giving him his career back. When he told the director he didn't think the studio would let them hire such a down-on-his-luck actor, Tarantino replied. "They let me hire who I want." Says Jackson, "Of all those films, Jackie Brown is sort of like the best one, for me, just because of the cinematic beauty and gentleness of that particular story."

It's a swell lineup, but I still would've liked to hear from Harvey Keitel, whose participation helped to make Reservoir Dogs possible, and Uma Thurman, who may feel she's said her piece. Though she claims she'd work with Tarantino again, in 2018, she told The New York Times he endangered her during the making of Kill Bill by having her do a stunt that went wrong, causing permanent injuries. Wood recounts the incident, and there's mention of a cover-up on Weinstein's part, but no explanation as to what that means. About Thurman's very physical role, stunt double Bell notes, "Uma worked her ass off… She was in pain a lot of the time."

Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill / The Weinstein Company















Austin Chronicle editor and co-founder Louis Black also praises the music in Tarantino's films, an essential element in their success, but he doesn't name Mary Ramos, the music supervisor who has worked on all eight films. It's an unfortunate oversight, but then Wood chose not to interview Tarantino (or maybe he preferred to let others speak for him). I'm pretty sure he would have given his longtime colleague her due.

Fortunately, Wood does make sure to credit Sally Menke, the Thelma Schoonmaker to Tarantino's Scorsese, though she neglects to say when and how she died: of heat-related causes in 2010. Django Unchained, which saw release two years later, represents the last film she edited.

Further, there's talk about race, something Tarantino has tackled through films in which people of color don't just take the lead—they triumph over their (mostly white) oppressors. Tarantino's use of the "n" word, however, complicates his attempts to uplift marginalized people. He and Spike Lee have been sparring about it for over 20 years, and it's an issue that will never go away, not when the word appears, repeatedly, in several films. If Foxx and Jackson, who has worked with Lee, don't have a problem with it--"Spike Lee’s that guy," Foxx quips, going on to characterize him as a "get off my lawn"-type--that doesn't mean it isn't a problem. Nor does it mean Tarantino is a racist, but it's a cruel, ugly, dehumanizing word. Putting it in the mouths of bad guys doesn't change that fact. Even in the context of the exploitation-style films he makes, it's tone-deaf at best.

Jamie Foxx is Django Unchained / The Weinstein Company
For all that Wood incorporates in the documentary, including a discussion of Tarantino's strong women characters, there's no mention of his foot fetish, though she does include the Death Proof sequence in which Kurt Russell licks Rosario Dawson's feet while she's snoozing. And...I suppose that's more than enough.

Just as the documentary opens with Reservoir Dogs, it ends with The Hateful Eight, in which Tarantino reunited again with Tim Roth and Michael Madsen (both also appear in OUATIH). As for Weinstein, his relationship with Tarantino unraveled after The New Yorker and The New York Times published revelations about his career-long history of sexual harassment. All the while, the director made Weinstein money. In turn, Weinstein offered him creative freedom. Stacey Sher confirms that Tarantino based Kurt Russell's bounty hunter in The Hateful Eight on Weinstein. In the end, and this isn't exactly a spoiler: Jennifer Jason Leigh's outlaw, Daisy, shoots him dead. It doesn't change the fact that Weinstein's name will always be associated with these films, but as Oedipal endings go: it's perfect.



QT8: The First Eight is available to rent or buy (no streaming) from Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Unstoppable Force of Adam Sandler in Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems

Sandler looking downright Mephistophelian / A24
UNCUT GEMS 
(Josh and Bennie Safdie, USA, 2019, 135 minutes)

Adam Sandler never stops moving in Josh and Bennie Safdie's vertiginous Diamond District thriller, Uncut Gems. From start to finish, Sandler's gem merchant, Howard Ratner, is barely keeping his shit together. If he lets down his guard for even a second, he could lose a fortune, and a lot of people depend on him: his family, his employees, his girlfriend (who is an employee), and his customers, especially Boston Celtic forward Kevin Garnett (who plays an especially demanding, obsessive version of himself).

Before introducing Howard, the Safdies begin with a 2010, Exorcist-inspired prologue in which two Ethiopian miners excavate a chunk of rock studded with black opals. Since one of their colleagues suffered a grievous injury in the process, it's clear that this is a literal blood opal. As one worker raises it up to the light, cinematographer Darius Khondji (Funny Games) zooms in on what looks like a starry sky in miniature. From there, he dives into the stone, leading to 2001-like special effects that light up the screen to Daniel Lopatin's magical-whoosh of a score. The interior of the opal gives way to a certain glossy body cavity, which reveals itself as Howard's colon. After his colonoscopy concludes, the film begins in earnest. The year is 2012.

Garnett, Stanfield, and Sandler admire the rock / A24
From there, the Safdies introduce the major players in short order, starting with the girlfriend (the amazing Julia Fox, matching Sandler measure for measure) who would rather party than work, the regular customers, like Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who serves as Howard's unofficial PR flack, and the thugs pressuring him pay his debt to their loan shark boss, Arno (a chilling, dead-eyed Eric Bogosian). Howard, it turns out, is a gambling addict, who doesn't know when to quit.

When Kevin visits his store, Howard sees a chance to make a dent in his debt, but what the towering athlete wants more than a diamond-encrusted Furby pendant is the opal-studded rock from the prologue. It took Howard 17 months to track it down after he saw it on a History Channel special about Ethiopia's Jewish tribe. "They say you can see the whole universe in opals. That's how fucking old they are," he exclaims. When Kevin refuses to leave without the rock, which Howard had intended to sell at auction, he lets him hang on to it in exchange for his clover-bedecked championship ring, which he promptly pawns, so he can increase his bet on that night's Celtics vs 76ers game. Kevin is convinced the rock will bring him luck, but it will prove to be unlucky in ways that none of its guardians can anticipate.

Once the Safdies, who wrote the script with co-editor Ronald Bronstein (Heaven Knows What, Good Time), have set the wheels of the plot in motion, it's up to Howard to figure out how to make it out of this mess alive. If he creates every problem that arises--"You did this to yourself," his exasperated brother-in-law, Arno, sighs--Sandler makes Howard just likable enough that you want to take this ride with him. Though Uncut Gems isn't exactly a comedy, the dialogue is consistently colorful, if not cuttingly funny, which makes the relentless pace easier to take. The same goes for Lopatin's score, which differs from his more drone-oriented work in Good Time. In this case, he adds a wistful, flute-infused motif that alternates with a gentle, whistled reverie, recalling the smeary character pieces of the 1970s--The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow--that clearly served as an influence.

Julia as Julia bets it all on Howard / A24
When Kevin fails to return Howard's rock on time for the auction, he cajoles Demany into driving him to Philadelphia to collect it, even though his whole family, including estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel, miles away from Frozen and Wicked) is expecting him to join them for his sullen teen daughter's play. In Howard's world, the domestic obligations don't stop as he ping-pongs between his house in Long Island and his apartment in Manhattan. When Howard admits he fucked up their marriage, Dinah counters with a less ambiguous assessment: "You are a fuck-up." If Menzel's character comes off as a bitch, you know she's right, just as you know the Safdies love this guy anyway. He has a lot of their father in him, a man they fictionalized with a similar degree of affection and frustration in 2009's Daddy Longlegs (it's too bad Bronstein appears to have left acting behind, because his performance in that film couldn't be better). In his Times of Israel interview with the brothers, Jordan Hoffman notes that they "modeled him after associates of their father."

As the film hurtles towards its conclusion, Howard suffers one indignity after another from the loss of his clothes to the bloody nose featured on the film's arresting B&W poster. Just when it seems as if things can't get worse, a light appears at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, just maybe, he can pull out of this nosedive into death and destruction. One way or the other, the final 10 minutes will completely wreck your nerves. The first time I watched the film, I felt pummeled by the pace and the cacophony of yelling and pounding. The second time around, I was able to more fully appreciate the editing as the Safdies cut between Howard in his shop trying to keep the beasts at bay, Julia tasked with a very tricky maneuver, and the opal-powered Celtics game which will determine the fortunes of most everyone in Howard's orbit. The way they bring these stories home is nothing short of masterful.

"Well, we all fall in love, but we disregard the danger" / A24
Equally masterful is Adam Sandler, building on his work in PT Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Noah Baumbach's under-seen--or at least underappreciated--Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017). Because I know him best from these finely-wrought films, rather than his mainstream comedies, I'm not surprised he can act; I'm just surprised to see him give a white-knuckle, Roy Scheider-in-Scorcerer-level performance. Except funnier.

Though it opens in Seattle on Christmas Eve (and halfway through Hanukkah), Uncut Gems is a Jewish movie. That's not just my take on it; the Safdies have only encouraged the impression by the gemological-meets-pornographic title and by setting the action during Pesach. It seems perfect, really, that Sandler, performer of one of the best known Hanukkah songs--will now be associated with a Passover classic. Or that's my hope for this film, which takes a critical, yet sympathetic look at a seriously flawed, but not completely un-redeemable human being. An uncut gem indeed.


Uncut Gems opens at SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Dec 24. The annual Fiddler on the Roof Sing-Aong plays the next day at SIFF Cinema Uptown with Chinese food and live klezmer music. For more information, click here.