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)
ChloĆ« 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 capernaĆ¼m, 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.