Friday, June 7, 2019

SIFF 2019: Dark Meets Darker in the Under-Lit Louisiana of Phillip Youmans' Burning Cane

(Phillip Youmans, USA, 78 minutes) 

Louisiana native Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) plays the pastor at the heart of Burning Cane, 19-year-old NYU film student Phillip Youmans' feature-film debut, a downbeat affair with a strong sense of place (much as with Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, it began life as a school project). Reverend Tillman is one of three characters in a rural African-American community who intersect in significant ways.

The film opens with a woman's steady voice. Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) talks about trying every trick in the book to cure her dog of mange. Though we see her moving about her shotgun shack, we don't see her speak, a technique long associated with Texas director Terrence Malick. Helen, who favors floral-print dresses and leather boots, proceeds to chop up a chicken, filling the screen with blood, flesh, and feathers.

While she goes about her business, the widowed pastor works up a sweat at the pulpit. The gist of his sermon: loved ones are superior to material things. He takes particular offense at the saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins." Afterwards, he swerves down the road while driving home, drinking and smoking all the way. The next time Helen, a church worker, spots him getting into his car while drunk, she offers to take the wheel, but he won't have it. "God is looking after me," he explains.

If God really is looking after the pastor, the Supreme Being is doing a crap job, because Reverend Tillman ends up crashing his car. Earlier that day, he had been complaining to Helen and another woman that he doesn't feel like he's reaching the younger parishioners. He follows with a crude comment about transgender individuals, indicating that his intolerance may have something to do with his lack of reach.

In the third story strand, Helen's unemployed son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), looks after his son, Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly). They sit in silence for the most part, though a moment of levity arrives when they shake off their lethargy long enough to dance along to Robert Johnson's "Hot Tamales and the Red Hots." Like the pastor, Daniel can't resist the demon drink. He just keeps going until he throws up. And then he drinks some more. It doesn't take long to put two and two together: Daniel is like the dog with mange.

If the film ends in a way some may find shocking, it's all set up in that opening sequence. Even if it's inevitable, it doesn't feel completely earned.

Charles Mudede, staff writer at The Stranger (and my former editor), believes that the comparisons between Youmans and Malick are overstated, writing, "Too many critics have associated this startling work by a 19-year-old NYU film student, Phillip Youmans, with the films of Terrence Malick. But we can do better than that. If we really think about these brutally beautiful images of rural black life in the South, we find a much closer association with the films of the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas."

It's a flattering comparison that Youmans doesn't completely deserve. A few exterior shots recall Silent Light, the Reygadas film Mudede goes on to cite, but if the Malick comparison fits, and it does, there’s a third-hand feel to the film--as if Youmans were more influenced by the filmmakers who have followed in Malick's wake, like David Gordon Green (George Washington), Lance Hammer (Ballast), and producer Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). That isn't a terrible thing, but it isn't all that great either. And that's okay. Youmans has years to develop a more original style.

What's great is this: Wendell Pierce. Since the other, less experienced actors tend to be unsteadier on their feet, he gives the film the gravitas it needs. Pierce commands the screen when he's on it, and the film dies a little when he isn't. It doesn't hurt that the church scenes--Youmans served as both cinematographer and co-editor--are sufficiently bright that you can see exactly what's going on, whereas the other scenes are bathed in inky darkness, so when I say that Pierce lights up the screen: I mean it literally. Here's hoping Youmans achieves that level of mastery someday.

Burning Cane plays for a final time at the Uptown on Fri at 3:30pm. Director scheduled to attend. For more information, please click here.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

SIFF 2019: Cool and Hip and Angry and Sophisticated and Ultra Clean: Birth of the Cool Reveals Miles Davis in All His Complexity

Credit: Guy Le Querrec / Variety
 (Stanley Nelson, USA, 2018, 115 minutes)

"Being rebellious and black, a nonconformist, being cool and hip and angry and sophisticated and ultra clean, whatever else you want to call it--I was all those things and more."
--Miles Davis in Miles: The Autobiography

Just as Don Cheadle rasped away as Miles Davis in his underappreciated 2016 biopic, Miles Ahead, Carl Lumbly rasps away as the jazz great in Stanley Nelson's profile by reading passages from Davis's 1990 memoir.

It wouldn't work if Lumbly didn't capture Davis's grumble, so it's fortunate that he does (if anything, he sounds even more like Danny Glover, circa Sorry to Bother You). Carol Bash did something similar in her 2015 profile of Mary Lou Williams, The Lady Who Swings the Band, in which Alfre Woodard gives sympathetic voice to the pioneering pianist and composer.

Nelson (Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities) begins at the beginning with Davis's birth in Alton, Illinois in 1926. To Davis's words, he adds interviews from a wide swath of speakers, including neighbors, relatives, scholars, jazz innovators like Quincy Jones and Archie Shepp, and poet and professor Quincy Troupe, coauthor of Miles: The Autobiography (though Flea and the Roots are mentioned in the official synopsis, they appear to have ended up on the cutting room floor).

Photograph by AGIP / RDA / Everett / The New Yorker
Unlike many of his African-American peers, Davis was born to wealth and privilege, and gravitated to the trumpet as a teenager, but money and talent couldn't insulate him from the racism that permeated East St. Louis in the 1940s, and he longed to make his escape.

It wouldn't take much time. Just after graduating from high school, he was already playing with jazz luminaries Billy Eckstein, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. "The greatest feeling I ever had in my life--with my clothes on--is when I first met Diz and Bird," he remembers. "I was 18 years old."

The experience led him to move to New York in 1944, where he attended Juilliard by day and played 52nd Street clubs by night. By then, he’d already impregnated his high school sweetheart twice (unmentioned in the film, he would impregnate her a third time during a visit home in 1950).

Nelson speeds over this development quickly, possibly to avoid making his subject look worse than necessary, but stating that music always came first doesn't excuse the fact that Davis abandoned his growing family.

If we're meant to find his relationship with French singer Juliette Gréco romantic, it's hard to forget about Irene Birth, the hometown honey he discarded in favor of a more glamorous life. Through Greco, who appears in the film, Davis met the Left Bank's leading artists and intellectuals, like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, who treated him like an equal.

Andre SAS/Gamma-Rapho Getty Images
Nelson goes on to recount Davis's relationships with key collaborators like arranger Gil Evans, with whom he recorded the 1957 album Birth of the Cool, from which his documentary takes its name--and his descent into heroin addiction. After kicking the habit, he made up for lost time by signing to Prestige, putting together a quintet including John Coltrane, and then making the leap to Columbia.

Along the way, he met Frances Taylor, the dancer who adorns the cover of Someday My Prince Will Come (Emayatzy Corinealdi plays her in Miles Ahead), underwent the surgery that altered his voice, composed the score for Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour L'échafaud, and released Kind of Blue, the bestselling jazz album of all time (certified quadruple platinum in 2008).

Just as Nelson celebrated the sartorial style of the Black Panthers in Vanguard of the Revolution, he does the same for Davis in Birth of the Cool. He was always a sharp dresser, but when the serious money started to roll in, his looks grew sharper yet. Miles in the 1950s set the standard for cool with his crisp white shirts, narrow ties, and close-cut suits.

He wasn't indestructible, though, and money and talent couldn't insulate him from the racism that permeated the US in the Eisenhower Era, even in New York, "the slickest, hippest city in the world." An incident involving three NYPD detectives made headlines accompanied by images of the bandaged, blood-spattered musician. Personally and professionally, he was on top of the world, but he couldn't escape the times in which he lived.

Davis's seventh studio album for Columbia
He couldn't escape his own worst impulses either as he attempted to mold Frances, on the cusp of stardom, into the perfect housewife, marinated in booze and coke, and abused his wife just as his father had abused his mother. He would later regret that he hadn't treated her better, but by then it was too late. The marriage was over.

Intentionally or otherwise, it marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, since he proceeded to split with his previous group and put together a new one that included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and 17-year-old Tony Williams (all except for Williams, who passed away in 1997, appear in the film). He also met Betty Mabry who helped him to segue from the jazz world of the 1950s and ‘60s to the rock and funk world of the 1970s. Out went the dark suits and in came the low-cut tunics, the over-sized sunglasses, and the patchwork bell bottoms.

It was the era of Bitches Brew and On the Corner. Critic Greg Tate describes the blend of tabla, sitar, and distortion as "cosmic jungle music" made by the "hoodoo voodoo priest of music." It was a magical time that refilled Davis's coffers, but like every stylistic shift, it wasn't built to last. After a series of personal setbacks, he disappeared from public life. Drugs and paranoia consumed his days. Friends were afraid they'd lost him.

Just as Nelson neglected to say what became of Irene, who followed Davis to NYC, he neglects to say what became of Betty. After their year-long marriage, she launched a solo career that would find a new audience in 2007 when local label Light in the Attic began to reissue her 1970s output.

© Baron Wolman, Date Unknown
Davis's propensity to align himself with women of considerable achievement would culminate in his marriage to Cicely Tyson. With her help, he cleaned himself up and stepped into the light again, but Nelson also neglects to note when their union came to an end (they were married from 1981-1989). It's a weird pattern, especially since he treats Frances with so much respect, but that may be because she appears in the film, while Davis and Tyson, who are both very much alive, do not.

The filmmaker moves swiftly through the last several years of Davis's life, which weren't without incident, but seem a little sad, since he looked so frail. Instead of going quietly into that good night, he played every date he could handle and appeared on every talk show that would have him.

I saw him at London's Hammersmith Odeon in 1986 on the Tutu tour. True to form, he spent the bulk of the set with his sparkly back to the audience. Since it was exactly what I expected, I can't say that I was disappointed.

Photo: Getty Images / Vogue
By 1991, Miles Davis was gone. Though you'd expect his passing to mark the saddest moment in the film, the Phoenix-like Davis beat the odds by making it to the not-inconsiderable age of 65, since he was beset by numerous ailments, including sickle cell anemia.  

I don't expect a documentary, particularly one that clocks in at just under two hours, to include every fact and figure, but more details would've been ideal, though Birth of the Cool succeeds in most other respects, not least the way the editorial team (Lewis Erskine, Yusuf Kapadia, and Natasha Mottola) cut it to the rhythm of the music, particularly the montage-style year markers, which comes entirely from Davis's discography.

About her ex-husband, the late Frances Taylor Davis (1929-2018) concludes, "I don't regret, I don't forget, but I still love," which seems as fine a summation of Miles Davis's difficult and brilliant career as any.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool plays Wednesday, May 29, at the Egyptian and Friday, May 31, at the Uptown. For more information, click here.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

SIFF 2019: Mark Cousins' Storm in My Heart Interrogates Hollywood's Double Standards

(Mark Cousins, USA, 2018, 117 minutes)

Belfast-born cinema historian Mark Cousins (The Story of Film: An Odyssey), who was just in town with a documentary about Orson Welles, is back with an essay film about two very different 20th Century Fox musicals from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Storm in My Heart is the logical title for his latest effort, a diptych of 1952's Technicolor With a Song in My Heart and 1943's black and white Stormy Weather. One film features Susan Hayward and the other features Lena Horne. Though born on the same day, June 30, 1917, and in the same city, Brooklyn, New York, one woman was white and the other was black. Further, Horne was from a prominent family and Hayward wasn't.

If not for race, Cousins argues, their careers might have looked similar, and they definitely didn't. And in these films, their scenes were even shot differently. If Hayward's performance was indivisible from the film in which it appeared, Horne's was placed such that it could be removed when it played in the South. I was hoping Cousins would return to that distinction at some point, except he never does, so I don't know if this happened with other films in which Horne appeared, but I can only assume that it did.

Cousins starts by presenting the credits for Walter Lang's With a Song in My Heart in full frame before shrinking it to one-quarter size. As he turns the volume down on the Hayward picture, he adds a quarter-size version of Andrew Stone's film to the screen. Russia-born Leon Shamroy shot both films, and the same personnel provided art direction, set decoration, visual effects, wardrobe and costumes, and sound. As Storm in My Heart continues, Cousins moves the frames around the screen and continues to alternate soundtracks. He also uses the blank space for inter-titles.

The frames talk to each other, though it's easy to miss details on the left side of the screen while watching the right. Or vice versa. It's an experiment, and an imperfect one, but it's amazing how often it works, i.e. Horne sings in one frame while Hayward, portraying real-life singer Jane Froman, does the same in the other, except we hear Horne's voice. Consequently, it looks as if Hayward is miming or responding to Horne, but then the audiences, one white and the other black, clap at the same time.

If the focus is on Hayward and Horne, Cousins provides notable facts about Stormy Weather players Bill Robinson, Ada Brown, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers. They aren't the kind that will brighten your day. Waller, for instance, died five months after the film's release. He was 39. And Robinson, the highest paid black entertainer during the first half of the 20th century, died penniless.

As for Horne, she broke most every racial barrier on the road to stardom, but had to suffer most every kind of indignity in the process. In that sense, Cousins' film is about her more than Hayward, and though it may not have been his intention to make Stormy Weather look like the better--or at least more enjoyable--film, that's exactly what he's done. Granted, only one of the two is a melodrama, so fun was never on director Lang's agenda, and he's downright shameless when it comes to milking the audience's tears.

The oddest part about Cousins' project is that he doesn't give equal time to both films. When the 78-minute Stormy Weather ends, it just...ends. The inter-titles continue to refer to both women, but With a Song in My Heart plays for another 34 minutes, which doesn't seem fair, except Cousins has a final trick up his sleeve. I won't spoil it, other than to say that he doesn't just take on Hollywood's racism and sexism, but militarism, too, since both films hold a sentimental view of American wartime activity.

As essay films go, A Storm in My Heart is one of the better ones I've seen, and I've seen a lot, including those of Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Raoul Peck. If anything, the juxtaposition at the end, which makes use of the patriotic song above, recalls Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary he built around a James Baldwin manuscript--and ends with the late Doris Day as a symbol of white suburban complacency.

If there's one thing that sums up Horne and Hayward, as Cousins presents them in his essay, it's that they kept their own counsel. Though Horne had the deck stacked against her in many respects, she never stopped finding ways to make her mark--mostly outside of Hollywood--whereas Hayward had access to more movie-making opportunities, but didn't always make the most of them. I'm not sure that these particular films tell us as much about post-war America as Cousins intends, but they certainly tell us a lot.

Storm in My Heart plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on Sunday, May 19, at 1pm, and Tuesday, May 28, at 9pm. For more information, please click here.

Friday, May 17, 2019

SIFF 2019: Basketball in the Yard in Michael Tolajian's Prison Documentary Q Ball

Harry "ATL" Smith: man of God and man of the Court
(Michael Tolajian, 2019, USA, 97 minutes) 

San Quentin isn't a medium-security facility, like the one my mom worked at in Eagle River, a town just outside of Anchorage (she served as an institutional counselor before transferring to the city to work as a pre-sentence reporter). Most of the men in Michael Tolajian's Kevin Durant-produced documentary are violent offenders. The director, who doubles as senior vice president for Fox Sports Films, documents a season in the life of the San Quentin Warriors.

The goal of the squad isn't just to give the men something to do with their time and energy, but to contribute to their rehabilitation through teamwork and character-building. Star player Harry Smith, 31, is the son of a policeman and a microbiologist. With only a few months left in his seven-year sentence, he hopes to play for the NBA, but if he violates his parole, he'll end up back in prison. For most of the season, the inmates play against civilian teams made up of Bay Area b-ball enthusiasts, but for the final game, they play the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's G League team. Win or lose, every player except for Smith will remain locked up afterward.

Allan "Black" McIntosh
Though it makes sense to focus on the player with the greatest skills, my heart went out to Allan McIntosh, a non-violent offender serving 25 years to life under California's 25-year-old three strikes law (he's served 21 so far). Though not as young or as GQ handsome as Smith, he came across as the deeper character.

Known as Black, he's the kind of guy who's trying to broaden his horizons by studying Spanish and poring over Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which he found relatable in terms of the protagonist's challenges. The civilian world would be a better place with a man like McIntosh in it (Smith, a self-described womanizer, was convicted for an incident of domestic violence).

Tolajian has made a worthy film about a worthy subject, but it wasn't quite as involving as I hoped, particularly in light of other more emotionally raw documentaries about rehabilitative programs, like Brad Beesley's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous's The Work (which played at SIFF '17 and aired on PBS's POV), and Signe Taylor's It’s Criminal, which focuses on a collaborative theater program between Dartmouth College and a women's facility in new Hampshire.

I wish the best for all the men in Tolajian's film, which premieres on Fox Sports on May 28, but I wonder if he didn't concentrate on the wrong one.

Q Ball plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on Saturday, May 18, at 12pm and on Tuesday, May 21, at 3:30pm. For more information, please click here.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Charlie Is Not My Darling: Mary Harron Puts a Feminist Spin on the Manson Family Saga

Behind bars, but still under Manson's sway
(Mary Harron, 2019, USA, 104 minutes)

After making a film about Valerie Solanas (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), it follows that Mary Harron would get around to Charlie Manson, a real-life figure like Solanas and an evil mastermind like Bateman (I don't recall any murderers in The Notorious Bettie Page, but Harron has consistently gravitated towards protagonists with an inability to fit into straight society).

Her first feature in eight years arrives three years after the end of NBC's detective drama Aquarius, with David Duchovny as the head of an LAPD unit investigating the goings-on at the Spahn Ranch, and two years after the release of Emma Cline's novel The Girls, a fictional take on a Manson-type follower. And it beats Quentin Tarantino's Summer of '69 epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to theaters by two months (QT's sprawling film includes many of the same characters, including Damon Herriman's Manson). 

More specifically, Charlie Says draws from Ed Sanders' 1972 book The Family and the late Karlene Faith's 2001 biography, The Long Prison Journey of Leslie van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult. I could also make a case for Olivia Klaus's Life After Manson, a 2014 documentary about model prisoner Patricia Krenwinkel that Harron is likely to have seen (not least because she thanks Klaus in the credits). All of this is to say that Manson and his bedfellows are as much a part of the cultural conversation as ever--two years after his death and 50 years after the events that put him on the map.

Martha Plimpton and Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol
The good news is that Harron's film isn't really about Manson (played by The Queen's Matt Smith), but about three of the women, Patricia (Sosie Bacon), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and especially Leslie (Hannah Murray), with whom he was most closely associated (Kayli Carter plays Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who would, as a solo operative, attempt to assassinate a famous man, a dubious distinction she shares with Solanas).

Charlie Says begins with Leslie's arrival at the Ranch where she meets Charlie and the gang, including Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (James Trevena-Brown) and right-hand man Tex Watson (Gossips Girl's Chace Crawford in grunged-up mode). Charlie dubs Leslie "Lulu," and that becomes her name, because what Charlie says goes. From there, Harron, who co-wrote the script with American Psycho and Bettie Page partner Guinevere Turner, moves back and forth in time from the Ranch, three years in the past, to the California Institution for Women where Patricia and Leslie remain today.

In the pen, the women are locked up next to each other in separate cells, isolated from the rest of the population. With the warden's encouragement, they meet with rehabilitation counselor Karlene (Merritt Wever) who attempts to extricate them from Manson's psychic hold. The backward glances at the Ranch show how they fell under his sway (coincidentally enough, Sway is also the title of Zachary Lazar's 2008 novel about Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil and his ties to Kenneth Anger and Brian Jones).

Sosie Bacon, Hannah Murray, and Merrit Wever
Unfortunately, Harron isn't able to make Charlie any more charismatic than previous filmmakers. When he isn’t singing and strumming in a decidedly mediocre manner, he's doing the hippy-dippy messianic bit we've seen so often before (and without the humor Linus Roache brought to a similar figure in Panos Cosmatos's lysergic noir Mandy). If Smith is more convincing than Aquarius's Gethin Anthony, it's hard to get the balance right with a character who has to prove irresistible to his flock and off-putting to the audience.

More than anything, Charlie is a misogynist creep. To women without any direction, he’s father, lover, and religious leader all rolled into one. In his presence, they no longer have to think; just do as he says. As Patricia tells Leslie, the goal is to kill their egos and become one consciousness--all the better for him to manipulate them into sex, theft, and eventually, murder.

Throughout, we see most everything through Leslie's eyes. Though Murray has appeared in high-profile programs like Skins and Game of Thrones, she comes across as the least experienced actress of the three; more naïve and uncomfortable than her credits would indicate. Intentional or otherwise, it works for the part. She's softer and slower than the other Manson women, aka "girls," but she's also more watchful and cautious. In my high school days, we would've called such a childlike, dreamy creature a space cadet. If the goal was to make her likable, Harron and Murray have succeeded.

Matt Smith in the 2013 stage version of American Psycho
That said, there's a difference between likable and relatable. The point of the film isn't to show how any young woman could've followed the same twisted path. There have been plenty of other cults, but there has never been one exactly like the Manson Family.

Crucial incidents include Charlie's jubilation when he finds out the Beach Boys have recorded one of his songs, "Cease to Exist" (re-titled "Never Learn Not to Love")--and his rage when producer Terry Melcher, the subject of Jeffrey Melnick's recent Pop Con paper, declines to offer him a contract. It's well worn territory, but sets the scene for the bloodshed to come. 

As American Psycho proved, Harron knows from violence. The Tate-LaBianca murders take up little of the film's running time, but they make the necessary impact; they're brutal, bloody, and empathy-free. When Sharon Tate (Grace Van Dien), who was leasing Melcher's home with Roman Polanski, begs for the life of her unborn child, Tex is thoroughly unmoved.

Harron avoids most everything that happened afterward, and that seems wise. In prison, even after all they've been through, the women still venerate the man who destroyed their lives. Just as they can't fully grasp what they've done, nor can they fully grasp what they've become.

At 104 minutes, Charlie Says doesn't overstay its welcome, but it takes Harron until the very end to get to that moment of realization. I'm not sure it's possible to make a completely successful film about the Manson Family, and the director dances around the edge of disaster at most every turn, but that moment--and Hannah Murray's ability to sell it--is worth the wait.

Charlie Says opens Friday, May 10, at the Varsity Theatre (4329 University Way NE). Images from IFC Films and The Stage (American Psycho photo by Tristram Kenton).  

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Her Smell: Alex Ross Perry’s Take on the Damaged-Woman-of-Rock Archetype

Elisabeth Moss as "Becky! Becky! Becky!"
(Alex Ross Perry, 2019, USA, 134 minutes)

I remember being both attracted to and repulsed by the opening credits for Alex Ross Perry's psychological thriller Queen of Earth. The key image is a shadowy close-up on Elisabeth Moss's face. As the title bisects it in elegant pink script, inky mascara pools under her eyes. It's beautiful, ugly, arresting. If you can imagine an entire film that plays like that image, then you can imagine Her Smell, Perry's third collaboration with the actress.

With the '90s alt-rock revival in full bloom, this would appear to be the ideal time for his tale of an all-female Hole-like trio (never mind that Hole was a mixed-gender quartet). Appearances, however, can be deceiving, at least to those viewers hoping for a nice, warm bath of nostalgia.

Granted, Perry, 34, was seven years old when Hole released their debut, Pretty on the Inside, and Moss, 36, who plays Becky, was nine. That isn't to say that they didn't do their research into riot grrrl-adjacent/grunge-era acts like Babes in Toyland, but they were too young to have experienced the phenomenon in real time, no matter how cool their schools or permissive their parents (Alicia Bognanno of Bully wrote the era-non-specific songs, and they're pretty good, if not especially memorable).

Moss as Catherine in Perry's 2015 two-hander
Eric Stoltz, 57, who plays Becky’s manager, Howard, probably remembers the era better than anyone else involved with Her Smell, not least because he's starred in a few music biz films, like John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful, in which he fell for Mary Stuart Masterson's drummer "Watts" (of course), and Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart, in which he played a Gerry Goffin figure opposite Illeana Douglas's Carole-King-in-all-but-name Denise Waverly.

With her bleached hair and smeared makeup, Becky looks for all the world like Courtney Love, even if Perry had other artists, like Kat Bjelland, in mind. Her alternately nuzzled and neglected daughter only reinforces the impression, though Dan Stevens, as her ex-husband, "Dirtbag" Danny--who isn't really a dirtbag at all--shares few traits with Kurt Cobain.

As chapter dividers, Perry inter-cuts home-movie excerpts of the Some-
thing She--the impressively bland name of Becky's band--in happier times, including celebratory moments with gold records, Spin covers, and Becky's proud mama, Ania (Virginia Madsen, making the most of an underwritten role). There's mention of a father, but Perry never depicts him.

Similarly, Stevens and Stoltz are fine, but Perry prioritizes the women in this woman's life, from her mother to her daughter, which sets it apart from surface-level predecessors, like Mark Rydell's  The Rose, which drew from Janis Joplin's biography, and the musical iterations of A Star Is Born

Bette Midler in smeared-mascara melodrama The Rose
Perry's film starts on stage, with an appealingly shambolic cover of the Only Ones' "Another Girl, Another Planet," before moving backstage where Becky invites a shaman to curse Danny's girlfriend, Tiffany (Hannah Gross), and rejects the offer of Zelda E. Zekiel (a brunette Amber Heard in Cleopatra eyeliner) to open for her upcoming tour. With no money-making ventures on the horizon, it's obviously a terrible decision, just like every decision Becky will proceed to make. She's rude, she's paranoid, and her ego is too big and too wounded for her to do what's right for her band and her child.

Only 20 minutes into the film, and I had had just about enough. It isn't that Moss, who also appeared in Perry's superior Listen Up Philip, doesn't give a full-blooded performance--Becky is such a drama queen that she evokes over-the-top performers from Ethel Merman to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd--but it's always a risk to build a film around such a grating character.

Olivier Assayas's Clean and Brady Corbet's Vox Lux took similar risks with their traumatized, if resilient singers, except Maggie Cheung and Natalie Portman, respectively, brought vulnerability and sass to their roles. For most of Her Smell's over-long running time, Becky is just irritating.

Maggie Chueng as a Courtney-meets-Yoko widow in Clean
She's so irritating that drummer Ali (GLOW's Sheila the She-Wolf, Gayle Rankin, giving the most naturalistic performance) quits during a recording session, while bassist Mari (Sunset Song's Agyness Deyn, a former model known to date the occasional musician), dulls the pain by way of the coke she stores in her bra. Just when it seems as if there's no one left who can take more of her shit, manager/label impresario Howard's newest signing, the Akergirls, enter the scene.

A photogenic trio featuring Roxie Rotten (Ashley Benson), Dottie O.Z. (Dylan Gelula), and Crassie Cassie (model-actress Cara Delevingne, who is also known to date the occasional musician), they're so happy to meet their hero that they don't realize she's out of her head. They figure it out soon enough, especially when she menaces Ali with a broken bottle before a show while a camera crew documents the whole catastrophic ordeal.

By the time Becky hits rock bottom, I was more relieved than alarmed. Something had to give, and after that, things finally started to get interesting. I just wish that Perry had gotten there sooner. Until then, it felt as if Becky's slow-motion free-fall was never gonna end. Of more interest to me than seeing how low a recording artist can go--pretty low, apparently--is watching what they do after they've lost everything.

The Akergirls featuring model Cara Delevingne 
Her Smell is hardly the first music-oriented film to explore that territory, since Georgia, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh played a troubled Seattle singer, and Things Behind the Sun, which reunited Allison Anders with Stoltz (this time as a really bad dude), also revolved around women musicians dealing with trauma, substance abuse, and redemption.

If Becky's breakdown was a given, Perry shifts into low-key thriller mode afterward, because when you've got nothing left to lose, death seems inevitable; more so considering all the casualties of the era in which Becky plied her trade, from 7 Year Bitch's Stefanie Sargent in 1992 to Kurt Cobain and Hole's Kristen Pfaff in 1994. Perry ups the ante by having Becky predict, earlier in the film, that she'll "probably die on stage."

Though Her Smell begins with a cover, the one that appears towards the end makes the bigger impression. After the storm has passed and Becky's friends and associates have moved on to other partners and projects, she sits down at the piano to play an acoustic version of Bryan Adams' 1984 ballad "Heaven," which topped the Billboard chart the following year.

As a singer, Moss is adequate, but I heard the song in a whole new way--a good way. It's such a touching moment that it compensates for most everything that preceded it, though I'm almost tempted to credit Adams and co-writer Jim Vallance for its success more than Perry and Moss.

Kim Dickens with Elizabeth Peña in Things Behind the Sun
Not until the final chapter does the director finally show his hand. Despite the external trappings, this isn't a movie about the '90s. Not really. It could have been set at most any time. Instead, Perry seems more interested in what we give to other people and what we keep for ourselves, a universal challenge that's only heightened by celebrity. The more Becky gives, the sicker she gets, the sicker she gets, the more she self-medicates, the more she self-medicates, the sicker she gets until she has nothing left to give. As Courtney Love once put it, "Yeah, they really want you, they really want you...and I do, too."

In the end, Becky finds a way to...stop. Perry doesn't explain exactly how she got there; he just shows her acting it out, and that's enough. As a whole, Her Smell is the least successful Perry-Moss collaboration to date, but it's also the most, well, most. There's something about watching a filmmaker go for broke that's simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, even if this one leans more heavily on the negative side of that equation.

Her Smell plays SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave N) May 5 - 7 and May 10, 11, and 12. Click here for more information.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Franco Rosso's Urban Reggae Anthem Babylon Makes Its Long-Awaited US Debut

Brinsley Forde and spliff
(Franco Rosso, 1980, UK, 95 minutes) 

"If he don't wanna go, force can't hold him."
--Blue (Brinsley Forde) explaining his little brother's truancy

The sharp-dressed men in Franco Rosso's feature-film debut, resplendent in snappy headgear and wool coats with a hint of swagger, spend much of their time moving sound systems from one end of South London to the other. Primarily of Jamaican descent, they're part of a scene that revolves around gambling, ganja, and reggae, heavy on the dub. The patois is so thick that the (helpfully subtitled) dialogue plays more like music than talk.

The loose-limbed plot centers on Blue (Aswad front man Brinsley Forde, wiry and intense) and Beefy (Trevor Laird, Quadrophenia). When they find a record they like, they bring it to their garage hangout, and skank with abandon. One night, they're having a bit too much fun when a white neighbor, a wan figure in a housecoat, bangs on their door, and hurls epithets in their direction: "coons," "jungle bunnies," "mango munchers"--you name it. London was lovely, she tells them, until they arrived. She might as well have been wearing a MAGA hat. "This is my fucking country," Beefy seethes, "and it's never been fucking lovely." He's right, of course.

Trevor Laird as the track suit-sporting Beefy
If the acting can be stiff at times, Laird's anger is so palpable that it's hard to imagine the actor didn't experience similar moments in his own life, particularly when Beefy pulls out a knife and attempts to charge after an especially hateful trio of bullies. His friends have to use all of their strength to hold him back, cautioning that the price he'll pay for getting his revenge won't be worth it. They're right, too.

The pattern repeats itself whenever the black men enter majority-white spaces, exemplified by a kinetic chase through dark, rain-soaked streets (the Italian-born director has a knack for positioning bodies in space).

If the film is devoid of sexual imagery, there's profanity, mild (ganja-specific) drug use, and non-explicit--but potentially deadly--violence. Nonetheless, the British Film Board slapped the dreaded X rating on Babylon, diminishing its exposure in the United Kingdom and ensuring that it wouldn't open in the United States until almost four decades later.

This 2019 release feels uncomfortably apt. Between Donald Trump in the US and Theresa May in the UK, black people are still easy targets for bitter, resentful whites who vote against their own best interests, fail to learn from their mistakes, and go out of their way to inflict their misery on everyone they can, but especially those more vulnerable than themselves.

Then, just when it seems as if the dis-
tinction be-
tween the two camps couldn't be more stark, Blue watches in horror as his friends partic-
ipate in an act of homophobic violence. They want money, a white man has it, and they'll do whatever it takes to get it, even using his sexual orientation against him. "Money's money, innit, mate," his friend reasons. Moments later, Blue shows that he's just as capable of the same twisted logic when he threatens his lonely, neglected girlfriend.

By the end, the crew even doubts the loyalty of Ronnie (Karl Howman, Brush Strokes, Eastenders), their sole white member. Maybe he's different than the rest, maybe he isn't, but how can they be sure? If the film is refreshingly free of firearms, the knife in the first act becomes the Chekhov's Gun of the third when the anger that's been steadily accumulating culminates in the sort of vengeance the group had previously prevented.

Throughout, composer Denis Bovell's dense waves of sound saturate the scenario as surely as Tangerine Dream's pervasive score for Michael Mann's Thief (other artists on the soundtrack include I-Roy and Yabby U).

Combined with the rich, velvety imagery of Oscar-winning cinematog-
rapher Chris Menges (Kes, Local Hero, The Good Thief), who oversaw the new restoration, South London comes across as beautiful and foreboding, suspended somewhere between romantic dream and treacherous night-
mare. You may want to visit, but you certainly wouldn't want live there.

Unfortunately, many do live in such places, and escape routes for the poor and powerless are no more readily available now than they were then. Babylon is hardly a feel-good proposition, but it captures the highs--the music, the camaraderie--and lows--the homophobia, the misogyny--of an underrepresented scene with lacerating, you-are-fucking-there precision.

Babylon plays SIFF Film Center Friday, Apr 19, through Sunday, Apr 21.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Mary Kay Place Shines as Diane in Kent Jones's Haunting Elegy to an Ordinary Life

(Kent Jones, 2018, USA, 95 minutes) 

Kent Jones, former film critic and director of the New York Film Festival, introduces himself as a filmmaker who isn’t obsessed with style, at least not in the ostentatious way of other first-time fiction filmmakers eager to show off their skills (his two previous features were documentaries about Elia Kazan and Hitchcock / Truffaut). This Martin Scorsese-produced film, instead, has a plainspoken, slightly hypnotic feel, which fits his seemingly quotidian subject matter.

Mary Kay Place plays Diane, a tireless widow who spends most of the movie looking after other people in her Western Massachusetts hometown. The hypnotic feel comes from the fact that she has to drive everywhere, and Jones uses the driving sequences as a sort of rhythmic, repetitive device.

Though it’s often said that women of a certain age don’t get many opportunities to play leading roles, that isn’t necessarily true. It’s more that casting directors don’t often look beyond the usual suspects and the films with unknowns, like Sean Baker's Starlet, don't attract as much attention.

Place and Graham Jarvis in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
Place may not have the name recognition of Meryl Streep or Kathy Bates, but she’s hardly an unknown, so it still seems surprising that she hasn’t top-lined more films, particularly since she’s often garnered as much acclaim as--if not more than--the actors with whom she’s worked since the early-1970s.

In Jones’s film, which takes place in the dead of winter, she never stops moving. Diane volunteers at a soup kitchen, visits her terminally ill cousin Donna (a terrific Dierdre O’Connell), and checks in on her troubled son Brian (Jake Lacy, playing against his sweet, supportive Obvious Child type). Brian swears that he has bronchitis, but Diane’s quite certain he’s using again.

Though she lives by herself, she’s hardly alone. Some of the people with whom she can share her troubles include Bobbie (Andrea Martin in fine form) and Donna’s mother, Mary (Estelle Parsons, as impish as ever).

One night, the power goes off at the soup kitchen, the staff lights candles, and everyone eats their dinner bathed in the golden glow. Jones may not be obsessed with style, but that doesn't mean he eschews it as this sequence plays like something from out of a Renaissance painting. And when Diane visits Brian while he’s clearly on the nod, disorienting music and wobbly visuals converge to slow down time. There are also several lovely dissolves, like a fade out from a headlight-lit road to the inviting interior of a diner.

Once Brian disappears, Diane starts to disintegrate. She lashes out at a volunteer, argues with Donna, drinks too much, and breaks down in tears. Then, when Brian comes back, he's turned into a Bible thumper. It's like he's a pod person. Meanwhile, friends and relatives are dying around her.

Donna and Diane play bridge in the hospital
Diane goes on, but there's less to do, fewer people to see. She starts writing in a journal. Or maybe she always has, but it assumes greater importance as the perimeters of her life shrink. Eventually, it becomes so small that reality and fantasy bleed into each other. I wasn't always sure what was real and what was not, but I guess that's what it's like when you do more living inside of your head than out in the world. The past comes to the fore as the present recedes.

I found my connection to Diane slipping away as the scenario segued from realism to impressionism. If was as if the ghost in the machine was Bergman, specifically the Bergman of Wild Stawberries and Cries and Whispers; the death, the isolation, the visions. I'm usually on board with that sort of thing, but two modes don't fit together as well as they could.

Fortunately, Place weathers the changes like a champ. She never asks the audience to like her; Diane isn't perfect, and she knows it. She isn't explicitly trying to make up for misdeeds, but she is trying to be a good person. If she has a failing, it's that she doesn’t know how to be happy.

There are momentary glimpses of joy in a card game with her cousin and a sloshed singalong to a jukebox, but it never seems to last. Only her son is left behind to remember her kindness, and Jones is enough of a realist to suggest that Brian may never understand how lucky he was. But we know.

Diane opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown on April 19. For more info, click here.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Hanging on by a Thread at Patrick Wang's Art-vs-Commerce Opus A Bread Factory

Dorothea and Greta ain't it / In the Family LLC
Part One: For the Sake of Gold and Part Two: Walk With Me Awhile
(Patrick Wang, USA, 2018, 242 minutes) 

"We're hanging on by a thread."
--Dorothea (Tyne Daly)

Filmed at real-life venue Time & Space Limited in Hudson, New York, the Bread Factory is the multi-disciplinary arts venue around which Patrick Wang's two-part, four-hour Rivette-meets-Wiseman film revolves.

Set in the fictional town of Checkford, the 40-year-old venue, converted from a bakery, presents plays, films, operas, and poetry readings. They bring guests to town, they encourage kids to attend performances--they serve the entire community. Director and co-founder Dorothea (the invaluable Tyne Daly, resplendent in pigtails) is the linchpin of the operation.

As Wang (In the Family) introduces his characters, he treats each scene like a play, fading to black after every conclusion. In Part Two, the musicians behind the string-based score appear on stage, much as Alan Price's combo appears on screen in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! I was also reminded of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, because the Bread Factory touches every segment of society; not just performers and audience members, but journalists, interns, waitresses, bartenders, translators (Nana Visitor of Star Trek: The Next Generation plays one), and singing tourists with selfie sticks.

Cranky director and preteen projectionist / In the Family LLC
As the film opens, a troupe rehearses a play, a poet reads his work, and a cantankerous experimental filmmaker (Janeane Garofolo having the time of her life) harangues her sparse audience. They’re all just fitting the space to their own ends when a fancy new venue opens up next door. It presents the kind of vacuous conceptual art, led by photogenic Chinese duo May Ray (married couple Janet Hsieh and George Young), that gives conceptual art a bad name ("The hierarchy of furniture is cruel, down with the hierarchy of furniture!"). Dorothea will spend most of Part One, "For the Sake of Gold," trying to convince city council members to allocate funding to the less trendy Bread Factory.

Fortunately, she isn't alone. She has Finnish-born partner Greta (Elisabeth Henry), an actress, by her side. It isn't often that a film features white-haired women, including newspaper editor Jan (Glynnis O'Connor), in leading roles, particularly one that doesn't revolve around aging. Wang is more concerned about gentrification, globalization, and the value we place on art. Dorothea's opposite number, Karl (In the Family's Trevor St. John), isn't simply a younger man, he ropes in preening Hollywood actor Troop ("I go where the art is") to help his cause, but Wang is hardly against the young, since kids plays a prominent role, too, from pipsqueak journalists and filmmakers to preteen projectionist Simon (Keaton Nigel Cooke).

If the struggle to secure the venue's future forms the film's spine, Wang does more than merely gesture at the art they produce, but rather stages entire scenes from Euripides and Chekhov. Sometimes, they take place on stage, sometimes offstage as if the people of today were grappling with the same issues as those long-ago Greeks and Russians, which seems to be Wang's point: they are. We bring life to theater, we bring theater to life.

Demy-inspired tourists with selfie sticks / In the Family LLC
In his conception, realtors break into four-part harmonies while hawking their wares and tech workers at a diner break into tap routines while checking their phones. There's just enough singing and dancing, particularly in Part Two, for the film to qualify as a musical, though it resembles a documentary in other respects, like the council meeting, in Part One, that has a Wiseman or Maysles feel, even if the humor is more pronounced in Wang's take on small-town politics (James Marsters, Buffy's Spike, plays the translator's husband, a school union representative).

If I had to choose between the two, I'd opt for the Altman-esque Part One, which moves more swiftly between stories, although you have to watch the more leisurely Part Two to find out what happens--or might happen--to the Bread Factory, and Wang found a touching, if somewhat ambiguous way to resolve that dilemma. Granted, he doesn't solve every mystery, like why Jan just up and disappears one day. Or whether the actor and the librarian ride off into the sunset--or whether she's just another quickly-forgotten fling.

More so than most movies, there's a sense that this community existed before Wang captured it and will continue after he fades to black for the final time, and Daly gives the kind of lived-in performance that rarely generates awards consideration, though it really should. As an unsympathetic council member tells her, "I have a feeling you'll keep going, no matter what."

A Bread Factory plays the Northwest Film Forum on Saturday, March 30 (Part One: For the Sake of Gold), at 4:15pm and Sunday, March 31 (Part Two: Walk With Me Awhile), at 7pm. Patrick Wang will be in attendance after both screenings for a Q&A. Images from The AV Club and Film Inquiry.

Friday, March 29, 2019

From Young Person's Concerts to West Side Story: Celebrating the Centennial of Leonard Bernstein at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival

Leonard and Jamie / Photograph from Bettmann / Getty
Leonard Bernstein didn't leave the mark he intended.

Conductor, pianist, teacher, television personality, cultural ambassador: Bernstein* (1918-1990) was all of these things and more. But he longed to be best known as a composer. That was the revelation that struck me the most while watching Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life, Centerpiece selection of the 24th annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival.

At a public TV-like 52 minutes, this 2016 documentary from German director Georg Wübbolt (Herbert von Karajan: Maestro for the ScreenSolti: Journey of a Lifetime) can't hope to cover every aspect of Bernstein's life, and it doesn't, but his desire to be more--or somewhat different--than he was comes across clearly. And yet, as one unidentified speaker notes, "Leonard Bernstein lived five lives during the short time he was on our planet."

A lengthier profile might have also explored his complicated private life, provided more context about the classical scene of his era, and taken a closer look at the physicality of his conducting. When Bernstein led orchestras, his body vibrated as his hair took flight, his mouth made strange shapes, and his arms slashed through the air like a samurai on overdrive.

At Tanglewood / Heinz Weissenstein / BSO
Unfortunately, the screener I watched didn't identify any of the speakers or provide subtitles for those speaking in German, including Bernstein (he also spoke Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, and Italian), so I didn't get everything out of it I could. I appreciated, for instance, the story about how he wanted to be loved by everybody. "That's not possible," composer Ned Rorem said. "Well, that's my tragedy," Bernstein replied, but I couldn't say who conveyed that exchange, because he isn't identified, though even casual music fans may recognize composer Stephen Sondheim and conductors Kent Nagano and Gustavo Dudamel. 

Fortunately, subtitles are sure to accompany this Sunday's screening at the Stroum Center. Better yet, Bernstein's daughter, author Jamie Bernstein (Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein), will be in attendance to help fill in the blanks. Former Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson (Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination) will moderate their conversation. Bernstein will also be at the post-screening reception to sign books, which will be on sale at the event. In The New Yorker, David Denby, notes that her book is "unique among classical-music memoirs for its physical intimacy, its humor and tenderness, its ambivalence toward an irrepressible family genius."

If, as he feared, Bernstein is better known as a conductor than a composer, he wasn't exactly a slouch in that department. West Side Story, on which he collaborated with Sondheim, opened on Broadway in 1957, led to an Oscar-winning 1961 film, and will find new life by way of Steven Spielberg's upcoming remake, which begins filming this summer--in addition to numerous Broadway revivals and regional stagings. Other notable composing credits include the scores for the Broadway musicals On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Candide and the film On the Waterfront.  

Furthermore, his work lives on in ways that he couldn't have predicted, like the six Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra pieces by Benjamin Britten and Camille Saint-Saëns that Wes Anderson combined with Alexandre Desplat's score for 2012's youth-centric Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson even includes the sound of Bernstein's deep, nicotine-burnished voice). For many film goers, these New York Philharmonic pieces may have marked their introduction to Bernstein--and to classical music in general.

In addition, Bradley Cooper has decided on a biopic, Bernstein, as his directorial followup to A Star Is Born (naturally, he cast himself in the lead). If Leonard Bernstein didn't leave the mark he intended, it seems like a safe bet that he won't be any more forgotten in the 22nd century than he is now.

*Bernstein, who was born in 1918, would have turned 101 this August, and not 100, but Centennial Plus One just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life plays Stroum Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Mercer Way on Mercer Island, on Sunday, March 31, at 4pm. Pre-sale tickets are sold out, but there will be a standby line. This year's SJFF opened on March 23 and runs through April 7 (after taking a break between April 1 and April 5). For more information, please click here.  

Thursday, February 28, 2019

In Neil Jordan’s Greta, a Single Woman's Loneliness is a Fate Worse than Death

Isabelle Huppert, piano teacher extraordinaire
(Neil Jordan, Ireland/USA, 2018, Rated R, 98 minutes) 

"For some reason, I could relate to somebody whose loneliness drives them utterly insane."
--Neil Jordan to Mark Olsen of The Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2019

There's nothing wrong with feeling lonely. It's human, it happens, and it
doesn't make anyone a loser. When it hits, there's nothing wrong with
reaching out to someone who might feel the same way, whether for a day or for a lifetime. Maybe that person is significantly younger; maybe they're significantly older. In either case, it doesn't necessarily mean that the part-
icipants are looking for a surrogate child or parent--not every relationship has to be Freudian, dammit. Maybe they just share common interests and enjoy a friendly rapport. It isn't outside the realm of possibility.

In Greta, one of Neil Jordan's most disappointing films, loneliness makes one character stupidly gullible and the other dangerously psychotic. Can a character be lonely in this film without making the worst possible choices? No, they can't, and that's a significant bummer in light of Jordan triumphs, like 1986's Mona Lisa and 1992's The Crying Game, in which seemingly mismatched characters ease each other's loneliness--at least for a time.

Greta is Jordan's second film, after 2007's The Brave One, to take place in Manhattan, though he filmed it in Dublin and Toronto. Because he prioritizes interiors over exteriors, the geographical subterfuge isn't too obvious, except when it comes to Greta's flat, which looks very European, but so is she, so I was willing to let it go, though Jim Sheridan did an even better job at transforming Dublin into Queens in Get Rich or Die Tryin' (to the extent that most viewers probably failed to peg it as an Irish production).

Frances with roommate Erica (Maika Monroe)
Chloë Grace Moretz, so good in last year's The Miseducation of Cameron Post, plays Frances, a waitress at a high-end eatery, who meets Isabelle Huppert's Greta, a retired piano teacher (shades of a certain Michael Haneke film) when she finds a malachite-green handbag on the subway. Anybody else would keep the bag--and the money inside--or call its owner, but Frances is still recovering from the loss of her mother the year before. She's stupid with grief. Or maybe she's just stupid, because she hand-delivers the bag to its grateful owner. The minute she steps across Greta's shadowy threshold, the film segues from the convivial vibe of Sean Baker's Starlet, in which a young woman befriends a significantly older one, to the studio thrillers of the Poppy Bush Interzone in which members of straight society tangled with outcasts of various kinds and paid the price for their transgression.

If you've watched the trailer--and even if you haven't--it's no spoiler to say that Greta isn't right in the head. We've seen her kind before in clammy two-handers, from Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction to Rob Reiner's Misery to Barbet Schroeder's Single White Female. The bad gals in these movies want things they can't have, like other women's husbands--or lives. They aren’t sane, they never will be, and death is the only solution to their dilemma.

At first Frances falls for Greta's old world charms, but the minute she finds out that the handbag was planted specifically to lure a sucker like her, she tries to extricate herself from Greta’s grasp, but the older woman refuses to let her go. The stalking culminates in a scene in which Greta has a table-overturning tantrum at Frances' place of employment. Her freak-out is so over the top that I lost all interest in the film right then and there. If Jordan had gone full-bore into camp, I might have enjoyed the tonal shift, but the film has a certain classy veneer--it was shot by Atonement's Seamus McGarvey--that makes the loopy stuff seem more misjudged than not. Granted, it's a fine line, and Jordan got the balance right in his full-blooded adaptations of Pat McCabe's The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto in which fantasy helps his imaginative characters to weather dark times.

No such luck with Greta. The film, which Jordan co-wrote with Ray Wright (The Crazies), abandons its intriguing premise the minute the titular character reveals her true colors. Granted, Huppert appears to have relished the opportunity to chew gum like a bratty teenager, to dance around her living room in stocking feet, and to jab a hypodermic in the neck of a familiar Jordan player, but the film has nothing to say about loneliness that you haven't heard before, i.e. it's for losers and loonies. Except that it isn't. And I wish the very talented Neil Jordan had made a film about that.

Greta opens on Friday, March 1, at AMC Pacific Place (600 Pine St) and AMC Seattle 10 (4500 Ninth Ave NE). Images from Focus Features.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Tiny Rebel Navigates Beirut's Underbelly in Nadine Labaki's Oscar-Nominated Capernaum

(Nadine Labaki, Lebanon, 2018, 126 minutes)

"I stabbed a sonofabitch."
--Zain (Zain Al Rafeea)

If it's possible for a 12-year-old Syrian refugee to exhibit all the brooding rebelliousness of James Dean at the peak of his powers, Zain Al Rafeea has got it on lock.

With his full lips and attractively-mussed hair, it's clear that he's going to grow up to be a heart-breaker. In Nadine Labaki's third film, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, he plays Zain Al Hajj, a boy who wants to sue his parents. When the judge asks why, he explains, "Because I was born."

It isn't clear at first why Zain thinks his parents are so terrible, other than that they're as poor as dirt. Labaki (who plays his mother) uses the scene to springboard into the recent past. Until he ends up in court, the undocumented boy earns his keep by making corner shop deliveries and selling juice to passersby. If he's surly to adults, he's protective of his 11-year-old sister, Zarah. When she gets her first period, he knows exactly what to do. It seems odd that he would know more than a girl, but he's a crafty kid. He's also worried that shopkeeper Assaad will attempt to buy Zarah off his parents when he finds out about her step into adulthood.

After Zarah exits the scene, just as Zain predicted she would, he raises a ruckus, so his mother slaps him around and curses him with impunity. It's the last straw. He steals a bag of groceries, hops on a bus, and finds himself at an amusement park where he befriends Ethiopian migrant worker and single mother Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw, a potent mix of mystery, vulnerability, and resilience), who invites him to stay with her and her baby, Yonas, in their corrugated-tin shack.

At this point, Labaki switches the focus to Rahil's increasingly desperate attempts to remain in the country. When she fails to return home one day, Zain is left to figure out what happened to her and to look after Yonas. It would be a tall order for anyone, but especially for  a 12-year-old without a cell phone and very little money. It's a tall order for Al Rafeea, too, since he has to spend a substantial amount of time dodging aggressive pedestrians on crowded city streets while holding a hungry infant. If he has a good, strong grip, it's nerve-wracking watching him try to navigate a single block.

The longer Rahil is away, the more impoverished Zain becomes. If he's resourceful as hell, he's no miracle worker, and in time, he runs out of water, food, and shelter. By opening Capernaum in a court room, Labaki signals to the audience that he'll emerge from her film alive, but Zarah, Rahil, and Yonas are another story (to which she will eventually return).

By the time Zain ends up in court, it comes more as a relief than a disappointment, since his days on the streets were surely numbered, though I never bought the suit against his parents. If Labaki uses it as a framing device, even she seems to lose interest, since she speeds though it so quickly, but she makes up for it with an array of colorful characters like the milky-eyed baby merchant and the uniquely elegant Cockroach Man. She paints a multi-faceted portrait of life among Beirut's underclass. No wonder she named her film capernaüm, aka chaos.

And then there's Zain, who never stops being engaging. He's clever, funny, and can swear like a man four times his age. He isn’t perfect, and he makes mistakes, but Labaki gives every indication that he isn't going to follow in his parents' footsteps. His future may be unwritten--but at least he has one.

Capernaum plays SIFF Cinema Uptown from Friday through Thursday, February 7-14. Images from Women and Hollywood ("Capernaum Director Nadine Labaki Discusses the Film’s Chaos and Empathy") and Film Forum.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Trouble With Harry in Charles Burnett's Modern Folk Tale To Sleep With Anger

(Charles Burnett, US, 1990, 101 minutes, new restoration)

"When you're made to feel half a man, what do you think the other half is?"
--Harry Mention (Danny Glover)

It says everything about Danny Glover that he co-produced To Sleep With Anger three years after 1987's Lethal Weapon solidified his stardom. Instead of more big-budget genre fare, he took the time to work with Charles Burnett. If Burnett's 1977 debut, Killer of Sheep, is now considered a classic, it was rarely screened for 30 years, largely due to music rights issues (the National Film Registry added To Sleep With Anger to its ranks in 2017, 27 years after Killer of Sheep). Glover, in other words, was taking a chance, no matter how well respected the LA Rebellion director was at the time.

In Burnett's third film, which the Criterion Collection will be releasing on February 26, Glover's Harry Mention doesn't make his entrance until the 14:49-minute mark, time enough for the filmmaker to shape the contours of a middle-class black family in South Central Los Angeles. Harry, a Southern family friend traveling from Detroit to Oakland, says that he could use a place to stay (Glover's hair has been dusted with grey to make him appear older than his 44 years). He's a superstitious gentleman with strange beliefs, but Suzie (Mary Alice) appreciates his old fashioned courtliness. Her husband, Gideon (Paul Butler), is just happy to reminisce about old times.

The audience knows better. Minor, if troubling events transpire just before Harry gets to town, and the phenomenon intensifies upon his arrival. The way Burnett keeps returning to an ominous flock of birds gathering around the house brings Daphne du Maurier's 1952 short story (and Alfred Hitchcock's subsequent film) The Birds to mind. They know what’s up.

Henry G. Sanders and Kaycee Moore in Killer of Sheep
As Harry goes about his business, he discomforts every member of the family, including Gideon and Suzie's sons, Junior (Carl Lumbly, star of Burnett's 1996 TV movie Nightjohn) and Sam, aka Babe Brother (Richard Brooks, seconds away from his role as ADA Paul Robinette on Law & Order), and their wives, especially Babe Brother's spouse, Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph). If the insecure Babe Brother is susceptible to Harry's charms, the self-assured Junior is not. Other skeptics include Hattie (Ethel Ayler), a former lover who has found God. The more Harry needles her, the saltier she gets. He has a way of reminding people about things that they'd rather forget, and whenever he pulls out his knife to cut an apple or to clean his nails, he seems to be taunting those who believe him capable of murder.

The longer he stays, the more the situation devolves. If anything, Harry seems to be feeding off of the family's energy as if it were blood (at which point I have to mention that the delicately pretty Vonetta McGee, who plays Junior's pregnant wife, previously starred as the love interest in Blacula). As they grow more fatigued and take to fighting among themselves, Harry becomes more powerful and persuasive to the extent that Babe Brother is tempted to follow him right our of town, wife and child be damned.

Does Harry represent the way black Southerners can never truly escape a past rooted in slavery? Or is he a devil in the shape of a man? It's to Bur-
nett's credit--and the film's benefit--that he doesn't spell it out, though the word "devil" is right there in the script (spoken by Suzie, if I'm not mistak-
en), so that's part of it, but since To Sleep With Anger isn’t a conventional horror film, possession doesn't answer every question his presence raises.

Brooks, Glover, Ralph, and DeVaughn Nixon as Sunny
If the film wasn't a hit, mostly because it played in few theaters and didn't have the chance to reach many viewers, it's only grown in stature since. That said, Burnett has never been much of a visual stylist and the performance quality is variable, which may come as a surprise, since he was working with an experienced cast for the first time, but the bit players bring a certain charm to the scenario. Harry's friends, who all gather for a seemingly endless house party, are all under his sway, so it only makes sense that they're a little stiff and awkward--hypnotized, you might say (they also provide a lot of the film's humor with their odd manners, cock-of-the-walk outfits, and colloquial sayings).

But Danny Glover! I don't want to say that he's the reason to see the film, because that isn't fair to Burnett, who wrote and directed it, but if Glover wasn't able to master Harry's dual persona, the real and the supernatural, it wouldn't work, but it does, because he never overplays his hand. Harry isn't a mustache-twirling villain and any violent tendencies are merely implied or suggested. Together, Burnett and Glover created an indelible character out of the most rudimentary elements. Harry doesn't bring evil into the lives of the family. The evil is already there; he just holds the key to unlock it.

Whether Glover sees the film as a turning point in his career, I couldn't say, but through his production shingle, Louverture Films, he's ushered in an array of well-crafted films on social issues, most recently Matt Porterfield's Sollers Point and Nadine Labaki's Capernaum. He's also taken small, but pivotal roles in films from emerging directors, like Tom E. Brown (Pushing Dead) and Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You). Chances are, the desire to be a force for good in the filmmaking world was always there, but Charles Burnett, much like Harry Mention, provided the key that he needed.

To Sleep With Anger plays Northwest Film Forum February 13, 15, and 16.