Monday, March 13, 2017

This week's home video releases


Elle ***½

Note: The release of this video was postponed until this date in order to capitalize on a possible Oscar win for Isabelle Huppert.


Perhaps only Paul Verhoeven would open a film mid-rape — the violent attack observed by an unimpressed green-eyed cat — and then follow up with a scene where Michèle, the rape victim, face puffy from the beating, picks up a phone and orders takeout, asking questions about the "holiday roll." She's not blasé about what happened. She's freaked out. She stuffs the dress she was wearing in the trash. She takes a bath, blood from her genital area staining the bubbles above. She does not call the police. Instead, she orders food. It's hard to picture this woman shedding a tear. Ever. The opening sequence of Elle is just the start of the demented and exhilarating experience that is this movie. Elle is a high-wire act without a net.

Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, adapted for the screen by David Birke (and then translated into French by Harold Manning),Elle is a maniacal and confident hybrid of various genres. It's a rape-revenge-ensemble-comedy-thriller-stalker mashup, if you can even picture that. But the film (with a couple of sick and twisted adjustments) is mostly reminiscent of the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and 40s, starring the shoulder-pad boss-bitches of Hollywood’s Golden Age, dominant dames like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, whose characters were put through wringers involving snake-in-the-grass boyfriends/husbands, ungrateful children, career treachery. You can picture Stanwyck stuffing her dress in the trash, lighting a cigarette and then ordering takeout after being raped in the middle of her living room. You can't imagine any of those women, or Isabelle Huppert, who plays Michèle, going to a support group or therapy. They'll gut it out on their own.

The film is crowded with characters. Michèle has a lot going on: a slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) who has an abusive pregnant girlfriend, an ex-husband (Charles Berling) now dating a young yoga teacher, a bored sex fling with a married man, an elderly Botox-ed mother (Judith Magre) carrying on an affair with a gigolo, a pressing project at work (she co-owns a video game company), a handsome married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom she stares at longingly from across the street, and a complex backstory not revealed until far into the film. This woman has too much to DO to fall apart after the rape. But then she starts getting creepy texts from the unknown rapist: he knows where she is, what she's wearing. It could be anyone. Every man she knows is a suspect. She buys pepper spray (and, on impulse, a small axe) to protect herself. She says at one point, "Nut jobs I can handle. My specialty." You believe her. Maybe somewhere she always expected something like this, that horror would reach out its tentacles to find her again.

Verhoeven unbalances the existing tension of the "whodunit" aspect of Elle by giving us some pretty obvious clues early on who probably did it. Verhoeven does not "bury the lede" because he's interested in things other than the plot cranking itself out to a "satisfying" conclusion. He’s interested in the psychology and behavior of this particular woman. His camera follows her everywhere, like a stalker, like a lover. As in life, whether we want to admit it or not, those lines are often blurred. Every interaction, not just sexual and political, contains small jostles for power, position, dominance. Who's the "top"? Who's the "bottom" in any given moment? There are competing objectives in every conversation, each side maneuvering to get what they want. Jostling for power comes in many different forms, playing out in romantic relationship, office dynamics, even in a conversation with a group of friends where you have something to say and everyone is too busy talking to give you "the floor." Elle is a dissertation on power dynamics.

Verhoeven's approach is, unsurprisingly, extremely provocative. Michèle is a woman in her early 50s, and her sexuality surges around inside her, seeking expression. It leads her into some pretty dark stuff. In real life, sex doesn't progress in a checklist of approved behaviors happening in the proper order. Sometimes people are drawn to danger, to risk. Rape fantasies are so common as to be mundane. The current view is that consent in sex is a cut-and-dry thing. Either you consent, or you don't. There is no doubt that the rape in Elle is horrifying. Verhoeven does not eroticize it. The rapist wipes the blood from Michele's vagina off of his hip bone as he gets up off of her. But later in the film, when Michèle does consent to sex, enthusiastically, watch how her lover is unnerved by a woman who wants it, who doesn't have to be talked into it. He's almost turned off by her sexual urgency. And that, ultimately, is the most cutting observation in Elle, and Verhoeven's aim is accurate and deadly. Men not knowing what to do with a woman who wants sex and knows how she wants it, men needing to be the "top," always, threatened by a woman taking the "top" role (not in sexual positions, but in attitude) … well. These issues have been with us from the beginning of time, and won't be solved overnight. But Elle is one of the smartest films about consent I've ever seen.

Huppert does not make even an unconscious bid for our sympathy. She never has, throughout her lengthy career and it is one of the things that distinguishes her from other actresses. Even very talented actresses want to make sure that we "understand" why the character does what she does. Huppert doesn't care. She's completely beyond those concerns. It's why she's so thrilling to watch and why she is in such rare company (Anna Magnani, Liv Ullmann, Gena Rowlands, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford — it's a short list). There's always some element of mystery left intact in Huppert's work. Huppert can be frighteningly blank (The Piano Teacher, La Cérémonie), she can be human and flawed (Amour, and the upcoming Things to Come). In Elle she gets to be funny, and it's such a joy to watch! It's effortless for her. She's funny in her line-readings ("Bimbos with big tits never worried me, but the girl who's read The Second Sex will chew you up …"), in her gestures and expressions. You cannot take your eyes off of her. Neither can Verhoeven. In a Q&A following the public screening at the New York Film Festival, Verhoeven reportedly described Huppert (also in attendance) as "unique in the world." She is.

Watching Elle feels like climbing Everest without an oxygen tank. The air is dizzyingly clear up there. And dangerous, too.


Fences ***
Fences is as faithful, impeccably acted and honestly felt a film adaptation of August Wilson's celebrated play as the late author could have possibly wished for. But whether a pristine representation of all the dramatic beats and emotional surges of a stage production actually makes for a riveting film in and of itself is another matter. Having both won Tony Awards for the excellent 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson's 1986 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis know their parts here backward and forward, and they, along with the rest of the fine cast, bat a thousand, hitting both the humorous and serious notes. But with this comes a sense that all the conflicts, jokes and meanings are being smacked right on the nose in vivid close-ups, with nothing left to suggestion, implication and interpretation.

One of the most individually successful installments of Wilson's celebrated "Pittsburgh Cycle," the 1950s-set Fences alludes not just literally to the barrier middle-aged Troy (Washington) forever procrastinates about building in the small backyard of his modest city home — but to the career and life obstacles he has never managed to surmount either as a baseball player, for which he blames racial restrictions, or in his messy personal life.

It's a play of poetically heightened realism, with amusing down-home chatter, soaring monologues, boisterous drunken riffs and blunt dramatic confrontations in which Troy bitterly and sometimes cruelly draws the lines between him and those closest to him.

These include his wife Rose (Davis), who loves him, knows all his moods and yet must stoically endure his erratic behavior; teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose school football career Troy cruelly thwarts by projecting his own sports disappointments onto him; Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy's mild-mannered 30-something son by a previous marriage, a jazz musician who still comes around asking for money; and younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose wartime head injuries have rendered him childlike.

Getting off easy among Troy's intimates is his old pal Bono (Stephen Henderson), and much of the early going is genially dominated by the pair's increasing high humor as they end their work week as garbagemen with Troy taking out his flask and launching into tall life tales. Rose, having heard it all before, busies herself in the kitchen and alternately resists and succumbs to her husband's wily way with words.

But modest as his station in life may be, it's of paramount importance to Troy that he be regarded as the cock of his particular walk, and a great deal of what he does and says is devoted to emphasizing this point. He may make a meager living, but he uses his slim economic advantage and lordly personality to exert a certain droit du seigneur over his immediate circle; "I'm the boss around here," he likes to remind the others. This is particularly hurtful to Cory, whose dreams his father so unreasonably thwarts, but is also demeaning to his wife and older son. Troy withholds from his loved ones almost as if by instinct, winning on points in the short term but losing in the long run due to what can only be called spiteful meanness.

In his third outing as a big-screen director (after Antwone Fisher in 2002 and The Great Debators in 2007), Washington opens up the play's action a bit, discreetly moving out onto the street for a stickball game, to a bar and into the city to get the characters out of the house once in a while. All the same, the film cannot shed constant reminders of its theatrical roots, nor of how different theatrical playwriting is from original screenwriting in this day and age. There were periods, especially through the 1950s and 1960s, when nearly every Broadway and London play of any artistic importance or commercial viability was adapted into a film, when audiences were accustomed to lengthy exchanges and monologues during which characters would basically speechify while being photographed. Now such transfers are a rarity — the last straight play to win a best picture Academy Award was Driving Miss Daisy 27 years ago, and perhaps the three most notable non-musical plays made into films in the past few years, August: Osage County, Carnage and Venus in Fur, went nowhere commercially.

Due to Fences' star power and innate qualities, this was not the case for this film, which offers enough dramatic meat, boisterous humor and lived-in performances to hook audiences of all stripes. But just one example of a device that proved acceptable onstage but plays awkwardly onscreen is that of Troy's brain-damaged brother, who wanders through multiple scenes with a bugle strung around his neck in the manner of any number of kindly "simpleton" characters that used to pop up in plays and literature. Of far more symbolic than dramatic use to the story, Gabriel's movements and utterances come off as awkward and pretentiously meaningful onscreen in a way that they did not onstage.

As carefully as Washington moves the action around the limited locations, the abundance of long speeches, high-pitched exchanges and emotional depth charges are unmistakably redolent of the stage rather than very closely related to the way films have been written in a very long time. It was perhaps the problem with the film Steve Jobs last year that it was written more like a play than a film, and the sense of excess speechifying and calculated waves of character revelation give the piece an increasingly laborious feel one expects and wants in the theater but that seems somehow alien onscreen.

Fences deals overtly with racial issues almost exclusively in connection with Troy's resentment over employment opportunities. Insisting that being black is what prevented him from becoming a big league baseball player, he then badmouths the black stars who made the grade in the majors. Of more relevance to his current life is his eventual success in breaking down an absurd racial barrier that has long prevented black trash collectors from moving up to become garbage truck drivers, which pays better. Small victory though it is (and it's related just anecdotally, not dramatized onscreen), this breakthrough would seem to represent Troy's most purely admirable accomplishment, especially in light of the big bombshell he drops later on.

Great in these roles onstage, Washington and Davis repeat the honors here, he with quicksilver shifts from ingratiating tall-tale-telling and humor to bulldog-like demands to his wife and offspring that he be treated like the boss king he fancies himself to be. Davis beautifully illuminates the ways in which Rose has learned to live with this man, to be quiet or cut him slack when it's not worth the effort of a fight, but to make it clear that she has lines she will not allow to be crossed. Despite his delusions and pride, she clearly still loves the guy, and the two make an entirely convincing long-term husband and wife.

Henderson is a joy as Troy's easygoing straight man, who indulges his old pal's every whim, joke and complaint, while Adepo well channels the tension and rebellious desires the athletic, straight-arrow son must suck up when his father lays down the law.

Production designer David Gropman and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen create a warmly appealing lived-in ambiance. Playwright Tony Kushner receives a prominent co-producer credit, reportedly for having done the pruning and shaping to bring the three-hour play down to a more screen-friendly length.


Passengers *½
Passengers is the tale of a lonely guy in space, the drama of an ethical conundrum, a love story featuring two of the hottest actors on the planet, and a turbulent sci-fi action-adventure — and for all of that, it manages to be not a very good movie. The two stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, are both intensely gifted and easy on the eyes, and the film takes off from a not-bad idea, but the setup is way better than the follow-through. The director, the Norwegian-born Morten Tyldum, made the accomplished WWII brainiac spy thriller The Imitation Game (2014), but he turns out to be the wrong filmmaker for an amorous space opera. You can see why when he stages a scene that’s supposed to take us out of this world, but doesn’t.

We’re on the Avalon, a corporate starship that’s shaped like a spidery double helix. The spacecraft, which is headed for a prefab interplanetary colony called Homestead II (in the future, it seems, off-world lands will become franchises for those tired of life on earth), is carrying 255 crew members and 5,000 volunteer passengers, all of whom are in a state of suspended animation and set to stay that way for 120 years. That’s how long the voyage will take. But two of the passengers get woken up early: Jim Preston (Pratt), a mechanical engineer who’s jostled to consciousness in his hibernation pod after the ship hits a meteor, and Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a journalist whom Jim deliberately rouses from her slumber so that he’ll have someone to keep him company.

The two have all the food, alcohol, and entertainment they could want; there’s a basketball court, a video dance floor, and an elegant if empty bar presided over by a red-jacketed android named Arthur, played by Michael Sheen like the chipper robot cousin of Lloyd the bartender in The Shining. But unless either Jim or Aurora manages to live another 90 years or so, this voyage is going to eat up the remainder of their existence, and they’ve got no one but each other to keep each other company. Since they happen to look like Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt (stranded in space, you could do worse), it starts to seem like things will work out.

They get to know each other and go on a "date," at which point Jim tells Aurora that he’d like to take her to a place that’s "the best show in town." He’s talking about a deep-space walk. The two don heavy-duty suits and, hanging by a tether, venture outside the ship, into the starry vastness, at which point you may flash back to other visions of flying human rapture — Christopher Reeve whisking Margot Kidder through the night sky in Superman, or George Clooney and Sandra Bullock (though they were just pesky colleagues) bobbing around in the awesome void of Gravity. In different ways, both those movies made your heart skip a beat. But in Passengers, the big romantic spacewalk is so perfunctory and visually rote that it’s about as stunning as a glimpse out the window of an airplane cruising over Cleveland. The scene is a harbinger of what’s to come, since the two actors spend the rest of the movie going through the motions of what turns out to be a flavorless and rather predictable fable.

Too bad! Because for its opening 45 minutes or so, Passengers is a reasonably cunning slice of commercial sci-fi, even as it overtly recycles the strategies of films like The Martian and Moon. When Jim first wakes up, he thinks the voyage of the Avalon is complete (the passengers are scheduled to come out of hibernation four months before the end of the journey). It doesn’t take long for him to realize, though, that something is amiss. He’s surrounded by chirpy holograms and talking food dispensers — but there’s no other live human.

The Avalon is like an abandoned cruise ship, and the movie serves up some witty tweaks of top-down corporate culture, like the way that Jim can’t order a first-rate cup of coffee (because he’s not a Gold Star passenger), or the fact that he can’t get through to anyone back on earth, because everything on the ship is programmed to stonewall you. (No information leaks out, even if your life depends on it.) The situation Jim finds himself in is a gnawing nightmare; it’s as if he’d been sentenced to die alone, in 50 years, of boredom. Pratt, beneath the jock sexiness, is a fine actor who lets his eyes dance with playful intent, and with a dash of panic. Jim tries to make a go of things, but after too many days of eating, drinking, and one-man hologram dance-offs, he enters his Jim Morrison-on-the-skids phase. The question is: Will he rouse a fellow passenger, 90 years before she’s scheduled to wake up, in order to save himself?

He knows that doing so is indefensible (it’s like playing God), but he also knows that if he doesn’t make the decision to screw someone else over, he’s going to go crazy. The way that Passengers forces Jim to weigh his choice, and puts the audience in his shoes, seems responsible enough. Yet that still doesn’t make it an infectious thing to build a movie around. Jim’s whole relationship with Aurora is based on a selfish and rather creepy act, as well as a lie (the implication that she woke up accidentally, the same way he did). He’s crafty about it, but we’re waiting for their romance to crash. Lawrence and Pratt match up nicely, because they’re such naturally responsive actors; they’re fast, with mutual radar. Lawrence, though a bit less vivid when she’s this blonde, gives Aurora a core of survivalist moxie. She will do what the circumstances demand. But can Jim keep his secret?

There’s only one place for Passengers to go, and once it gets there, Jon Spaihts’s script runs out of gas. Tyldun handles the dialogue almost as if he were doing a stage play, but he turns out to be a blah director of spectacle; he doesn’t make it dramatic. (He does create one cool image, though, of a swimming pool freed from gravity.) There isn’t much to Passengers besides its one thin situation, and there are moments when the film could almost be a very special episode of Star Trek, because Pratt, with his golden-boy smirk, has a Kirkian side, and the voyage they’re on is grandiose yet amorphous (like the Enterprise’s). The ship itself has a variety of chambers and communal spaces, but it all seems overly familiar and sterile. What’s lackluster about Passengers isn’t just that the movie is short on surprise, but that it’s like a castaway love story set in the world’s largest, emptiest shopping mall in space.


Collateral Beauty ½*
Collateral Beauty" should win some kind of award for Best Execution of a Truly Dreadful Concept. Chock-a-block with magnetic movie stars, and shot beautifully by talented cinematographer Maryse Alberti, all twinkling lights and Christmas in the city, it looks like an important and meaningful film. That's all smoke and mirrors. Stars and cinematography can't save the story, which is a misguided tale filled with armchair philosophizing and ultimately meaningless twists.

It feels as though screenwriter Allan Loeb thought up the term "collateral beauty," thought it was neat, and then reverse-engineered a story where the characters could say "collateral beauty" a lot. "Look for the collateral beauty," they say. Does that refer to Rogers's idea of looking for the helpers in a crisis? Not really, nope. It's a phrase that seems like something the teenage Wes Bentley from American Beauty would have invented while chasing a plastic bag down the street with a camcorder.

To even explain the premise feels like spoiling the movie, but, seriously, you gotta hear this. Will Smith plays Howard, "poet philosopher of product," or as we would say, an advertising executive, who gives inspiring but empty speeches to his staff demanding to know "what is your why?" and blabbing about the "three abstractions" of love, time and death. That's what advertising is all about, baby.

The death of his child sends him into a downward spiral, until he's nearly catatonic, leading a life of angry bicycling, extensive domino set ups, and letter writing to love, time and death. This regime is obviously not great for business, so his partners (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena) decide the best course of action is to shakedown his majority voting shares by proving he's mentally incompetent to make decisions. They hire a private eye (Ann Dowd), and the strangest theater company of all time, Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to pretend to be the three abstractions and confront Howard on the street. This plan, it's cockamamie.

The far more interesting movie would be the one that explains just how Brigitte and Raffi came to be in a theater company together, but alas, the plot skitters around as we watch Howard emerge from his fugue state. This "devastated and unstable" vibe is not Smith's best zone as an actor, so it begs the question why he still chooses these cheesy, quasi-uplifting, high-concept projects such as Seven Pounds or The Pursuit of Happyness every few years.

There's never any real definition of "collateral beauty," just some vague aphorisms that "we are all connected." But the movie, obsessed with its own twists and inane mysticism, essentially robs the meaning from that idea. If the film explored how strangers and loved ones managed to overcome emotional obstacles and learn things from each other, that would be poignant. Instead we have a demented tapestry of bizarre interactions and strange choices that results in a bigger picture that reveals absolutely nothing at all.

Perhaps the idea was this half-baked from the get-go, or maybe the film was edited within an inch of its life and lost all meaning. Whatever the case, for all of its faux-deep gesturing, Collateral Beauty is much more shallow nonsense than anything else.

This week’s other releases
Being 17 ***½ André Téchiné intuitively favors movement over chatter, and he directs his young actors toward intimate, yearning performances.
The Love Witch ***½ Anna Biller’s movie, like its heroine, presents a fascinating, perfectly composed, brightly colored surface. What’s underneath is marvelously dark, like love itself.
Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America **½ It may lack focus in its approach to its subject, but Davis’s compelling character and powerful message keep the viewer engaged.
Solace * The directorial pyrotechnics keep this film from "dragging" in a narrative sense; the very real boredom it nonetheless elicits is more existential.

RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

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