Timeline of a ghost

Ghost_Mara sortingMaking A Ghost Story was a daring act by writer/ director David Lowery, and he has delivered a film that proves his worth as a true auteur. Anyone with the vision to imagine this story as a movie, let alone the creativity and courage to bring it to the screen, is an artist to keep an eye on. His biggest movie to date is Pete’s Dragon (2016), with Robert Redford. They work together again on Old Man and the Gun (2018?), which also stars Casey Affleck, who was also in Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints with Rooney Mara, who is also in this movie, A Ghost Story. Lowery may be developing a roster of players in a way that so many film directors do, from John Ford and Ingmar Bergman and Mike Leigh and Spike Lee.

Ghost_gurney

The deceased, in costume.

The plot is simple but ambitious: A modest bungalow is occupied by an unmarried couple, M (Rooney Mara, the sister with talent) and C (Casey Affleck, the luckiest actor alive, as he admitted in his Oscar speech when he thanked Kenneth Lonergan who “made this part and without this part and without his writing, I wouldn’t be here”). We don’t learn much about M and C, other than that he is a musician and composer, and is soon dead. Early on in the film, he is killed in a car accident, she returns home— and so does he, invisibly, as a ghost who rises up from a slab in the morgue wearing the sheet he was covered with (a powerful image and idea). Time passes, but he stays even after she moves away, haunting the property far into the future as well as the past, as far back as when the first white settlers arrive, and then forward again to the present, when he watches himself and M move in.

This is not a conventional movie in any way. The bold strokes include:

Ghost_in roomThe costume. The special effect here isn’t computer-generated, it’s a sheet thrown over C— but not a standard white percale. This sheet has a poetic quality, the weight of it, the way it drapes heavily and drags along after him. The eye holes are black, and they look increasingly frayed and expressive in the broad fabric that stretches over the face like an immortal skin. In itself, the costume is a work of art.

Ghost_coupleThe lack of dialogue. Most of the movie is silent. The conversation between M and C before his death is sparse and enigmatic, but it suggests trouble in their relationship. The family who takes over the house after M leaves is is Spanish-speaking. The only real speech in the film occurs with the next inhabitants, who throw a party which is dominated by a pedantic nihilist (Will Oldham) who holds forth about the meaning of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, or any art, given that the Sun will eventually become a red giant. It’s a monologue that the ghost of C listens to, and when it ends, the lights flicker, which is one of the ways C makes himself known. But it amounts to nothing. The next scene, the house is empty again, except for C’s ghost.

The music. The score by composer Daniel Hart reflects the changing mood of the story with as much variety as any film I can recall. The word, of course, is haunting.

Ghost_pieThe love story. Frankly, there isn’t one. You can try to read one into it, but M and C seem to be on the rocks, based on the scraps of dialogue we get. When he’s killed, she doesn’t break down at the morgue, she just asks for a few minutes alone. Her emotional response, however, is palpable in another scene. A female Realtor has left her a note (half sympathy, half business) with a pie. M reads the note, tosses it (pausing for 2nd thoughts), and then eats the entire pie in a single go, filmed with two camera shots, first with her standing in the kitchen, then sitting on the floor and eating forkful after forkful. It is a powerful scene if you give yourself over to it. There’s a pie. Food. What do you do with food? You eat it and when you’re in a state where you don’t want to think, where you’re overwhelmed by change and set adrift in sudden solitude, you just take cues from what’s in front of you. A pie. Eat.

Ghost_MaraThe pace. This is a slow movie, and I mean s l o w. I was ready to walk out after the first 10 minutes of stationary camera shots, but I soon realized that what I was watching was the deliberate work of a brave and visionary (if not yet masterful) filmmaker.

There are more details to be discovered and contemplated when you see the film. Among them, the ghost occupying the neighboring house, whose decorated sheet seems to be from a child’s bed. The kinetic bursts of action by C as a ghost, when he’s disturbed. And there are oddities, which unfortunately don’t add anything but confusion to an already mysterious story, e.g., C occupying the same space as his ghost, and a scene where the ghost observes himself as a ghost. Etc.

And, finally, there are the two scribbled notes– one secreted away by M in a door jamb, another left under a rock by a pioneer girl– which we never get to see or read. They remain unknown, a frustration we are left with. And that, the Unknowable, is what “A Ghost Story” asks us to come to terms with.

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About 1.5 laughs per hour

Erdmann_Simoneschek

Simian Simonischek

The opening scene of Toni Erdmann gives you fair warning. The camera lingers on the front door of a house in Germany. And lingers. A mailman arrives with a package. He rings. And rings. The door opens and Mr. Winifried Conradi appears (actor Peter Simonischek). He makes jokes about the package being for his brother, who defuses bombs. He calls into the house for his brother but gets no response. He goes inside. We wait with the postman. And wait. The brother shows up, but it’s Conradi again, in fake teeth and a wig from the Sandra Bullock collection, looking like he’d escaped from the set of War for Planet of the Apes before the makeup crew had finished. The scene eventually ends, but the movie continues at the same pace for 165 minutes, every one of which ate away at my precious equanimity. During the last 30 minutes, to revivify both brain and butt, I left my seat and took to pacing behind the back row.

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Human Simonischek

When he is in disguise, Herr Conradi introduces himself as Toni Erdmann, but with or without the get-up, he is a grotesque, ill-favored old man who would be difficult to watch even if he wasn’t a deplorable lug who treats people as if they were pawns in some grand game he’s playing. His bull’s-eye target is his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a hard-working executive stationed in Bucharest. (Most of the film was shot in Romania for no creative or artistic or even financial reason, but because the director Maren Ade thought “it’d be fun to work there.”) Conradi flies to Bucharest and, willy-nilly, begins to invade Ines’ life as Toni Erdmann,  embarrassing her however, wherever, and whenever he can. Without dignity himself, he treats no one with respect, especially not Ines. His buffoonery seems to be a tactic meant to win her over to the buffoon lifestyle. But there’s no depth, no resonance in his actions. He isn’t accessing playful inner-child stuff as his alter ego; Toni Erdmann is more like an inner-juvie—tiresome, troublesome, and immature.

Erdmann_cutting room floor please

Cutting room floor, please

The film, written and directed by 40-year-old Ade, won awards, including the European Film Award, for which I have high regard. That made me think twice about my reaction, at least until I looked at the other nominees in 2016. It was a weak year; only Paul Verhoeven’s Elle stands out (and was duly showered in awards). Still, I don’t know how Toni Erdmann even could have been nominated, flabby as it is. It could and should have been shortened by as much as half– seriously, ninety minutes is more than enough for what amounts to an untrained circus clown barging around in his daughter’s adult life. Whole scenes (e.g., the handcuffing, the seduction scene that ends with sperm-frosted pastries) could have been cut without losing any of the point– which by the way, is anything but fresh territory. Zorba the Greek leapt to mind as an obvious high-profile precursor– a comedy with undertones of drama and a two-word message: enjoy life. Both protagonists, Zorba and Toni, are aging and unkempt, but Zorba is earthy and exuberant while Toni is bogus and brash. Zorba, at the end, teaches his up-tight acolyte how to dance the sirtaki on an Aegean beach. Erdmann ends with Conradi’s daughter putting his false teeth in her mouth. So, both pupils are converted, but given my druthers, I’ll dance on a Greek beach until I drop before I suck on somebody else’s novelty dentures.

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Daughter, fed up

The multiple-award-winning, Thuringian actress Hüller holds the film together, and the scene, toward the end, when she belts out Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All, is a triumph of performance over production. That scene is pretty much it as far as affecting storytelling goes (and I’m not forgetting her prolonged and gratuitous nude scene). Without her presence, I might have walked out of the screening, which was at an art house in New York. It was a full audience, but laughs were sporadic and if more than a handful of people ever laughed simultaneously, I missed it. For my part, I laughed three times. Correction: four, because at one point I remembered the old joke about the shortest books ever written, a list that includes 1000 Years of German Humor.

Adventures in infidelity

Permission_Stevens and Hall

First and only for both

The scene is dinner for four in a New York restaurant. It’s Anna’s 30th birthday, and she’s celebrating with her boyfriend Will, who plans to propose. The other couple is her brother Hale and his boyfriend Reece, who happens to be Will’s partner in a carpentry business, an enterprise that includes remodeling a brownstone for Will and Anna. In an awkward conversation (“Our sex life is really, really great!”), Anna and Will admit that neither of them has had sex with anyone but each other. Reece promptly declares his disapproval (“The two of you are so constant and inevitable and boring”) and admonishes them to start screwing around.

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Bare skin hug

Did I walk out of Permission at that point? Almost, and for a couple of reasons. It wasn’t Will and Anna’s quaint sex lives: unusual as total monogamy is (except among certain religious devotees), I know at least one married couple who were each other’s first-and-only (and atheists besides). Rather, it was because I knew what was coming– them, literally, on screen, with various lovers. Essentially, I’d bought into an x-rated chick flick with a lewd premise. Nobody I know (or want to know) would put up with an intrusive conversation like that, let alone be baited into adultery. It didn’t help that the characters all stammer and falter as if they were the kind of neurotics that populate Woody Allen movies. Turns out, Woody minus jokes equals Brian Crano, a name that will never find its way into my long-term memory.

Permission_Stevens

You want me to sleep around?

In subsequent awkward stuttering conversations, Will (Dan Stevens, using less than an ounce of his talent) and Anna (Rebecca Hall) wonder if Reece was right. They finally decide that he was (of course, or else no movie), and therefore they should see how other bedmates perform. And so they’re off to cruise a bar, together. He goes one way, she goes another, and soon she’s picked up by one man, who is superseded by another, better candidate, a charming young man called Dane (François Arnaud). Will watches, then proceeds introduce himself as a friend, and is eventually left to watch some more as Anna go off into the night with Dane. The result of this is predictable: Will wonders, and eventually asks, is he better than me in bed? The tables will predictably turn, causing Anna to wonder and ask of his chosen lover, is she better than me?

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Coitus comparisons

While Anna is enjoying her frequent liaisons with Dane, Will connects with a walk-in customer at his carpentry business, Lydia (Gina Gershon), a wealthy divorcee in her fifties who spends freely on home décor, plastic surgery, and younger men. She buys a table from Will, which he delivers, and it becomes their first bed. Lydia is likeable enough and, like Dane, she’s self-assured and forthright– traits that we begin to realize are lacking to some extent in Will and a much greater extent in Anna.

Over the next few weeks or months, who cares?, each of them continues their affair as well as indulges in a one-night stand (his with a barmaid memorably played by Sarah Steele). It’s movie equality: two leg-overs for each of them, so nobody’s a leg up.  Continue reading

Making faun of civil war

Pan_delT and Pan

Del Toro with Doug Jones as Pan

Long mystified by the grand reputation enjoyed by Pan’s Labyrinth, I watched it for the second time recently, and the nicest thing I can think to say, really, is: I don’t get it. Maybe that’s because I can’t easily dismiss plot devices and plot holes, even when they’re part of an elaborate fantasy. Ultimately, this film is a simple-minded fairy tale ginned up with computer graphics, gloomy lighting, and an imagination preoccupied with horror. But never mind the murkiness and the monstrosity, my problem was, what’s was the movie trying to say? That war is grotesque? that childhood is perilous? Both? Something else? What does Pan, the Greek god of mountains and forests and meadows and shepherds, have to do with war? or childhood? Grasping at straws, I note that Pan was a stalker of Nymphs, but the protagonist in this movie is a nymphet, 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and her sexuality isn’t a piece of the puzzle.

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The wartime origins of Hellboy

I stand ready to be persuaded otherwise, but as far as I can tell, the Mexican-born writer/director Guillermo del Toro is trying to have it both ways— a fantasy based in the reality of a tragic historic event. Ofelia is growing up in Spain after the Civil War, when Franco’s forces faced continuing resistance in from rebel guerrillas called the Maquis. We don’t see much of the rebels, but we see plenty of the sadistic army Captain hunting them. The story boils down to him, Ofelia, and just a few other characters: a doctor and a housekeeper in relatively minor roles, and Ofelia’s pregnant mother, a widow now married to the Captain. More memorable by far is the array of grotesque creatures who appear only to Ofelia. The action is all played out with a relish of repulsiveness and cruelty that makes Hannibal Lecter seem like a faintly decadent gourmand. Del Toro has done this before, of course, most successfully when he used heavily stylized Nazis in the brilliant opening sequence of his pure fantasy, the wild and witty Hellboy.

Pan_Ofelia and insec

Ofelia’s fairy is a stick insect

Here, del Toro dispenses with stylizing the warmongers. That’s a problem. We’re supposed to simultaneously believe that we’re in the guerilla war in Spain, with genuine soldiers doing genuine harm, and we’re in a fantasy. The biggest failure is with those characters, because at  no point did I take any of them seriously, especially not the relentlessly evil Colonel (Sergi López). He is as hard to believe as the monsters because he’s the equivalent of a cruel stepmother. There is no depth, no complexity, no nuance. He’s a bad guy. Are we supposed to chalk that up to a child’s viewpoint? I want to say yes, but there’s no indication the mother, the housekeeper, or the doctor see any other side to him, nor do any of his actions suggest an evolved human being. He’s plot-device evil.

As disappointing as ill-developed characters are, other things troubled me, not all of which can be written off as fantasy and/or a child’s viewpoint— if it is a child’s viewpoint: adolescent Ofelia is the heroine, but powerful Pan is the voice-over narrator. Four problems in particular made me impatient for the movie to be over: Continue reading

Why not a comedy?

Battle_riggs and King

Billie Jean and Bobby, enjoying the sex-in-sports spotlight

The 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was quite a lot of fun when it happened; if it hadn’t been appealing as such, it wouldn’t have sold out and drawn 50 million viewers besides.  All the more mysterious, therefore, is the fact that Battle of the Sexes is so little fun.

Battle_Riggs and Carrell

Smiling Bobby, sour Steve

The themes feel mostly manufactured: King’s necessarily closeted homosexuality, and Riggs as an inveterate hustler and gambler. Riggs and King, in real life, were so friendly that hers was one of the last voices he heard the day before he died in his comfortable home in Encinitas. In this film, Steve Carell does a skillful job as Riggs, and he’s got comic chops like nobody’s business, but the character he’s given is a gambling addict, an irresponsible husband and father, and a desperate self-promoter.

Battle_Stone Riseboroguh

Stone and Riseborough

As for Billie Jean King, she was not only game for tennis, but game for the grandstanding “Battle of the Sexes” that Riggs rigged up. She was both amused and amusing, and Emma Stone plays her well. Her character is written as the intelligent, witty, determined person that King is– except when it comes to her sexuality. Then it’s gloom and tears. Even with the extraordinarily gifted British actress Andrea Riseborough as her girlfriend, the role of Billie Jean as written locates none of the joy that she showed before, during, and after the showcased Battle of the Sexes.

If there is one thing feminists need to do, it’s deploy their wit. Billie Jean King’s story is the real thing: a woman who actually effected change, and she did it with light-hearted flair, which is in very short supply in this tedious film.

Misdirection

Prestige_Jackman, Bale

Before the feud: Jackman as Angier, Bale as Borden

“If your hate could be turned into electricity, it would light up the whole world.”

That quote is from Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), it’s not from the dialog spoken by David Bowie as Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 feature, The Prestige. But I think it summarizes what is wrong with the film, which was co-authored by Nolan’s brother and frequent collaborator, Jonathan. In brief, the action of the movie arises from nexus where science meets illusion, which is a fascinating avenue into metaphysics. But the science is little more than elaborate window dressing in what boils down to a melodrama about the all-consuming hatred between two illusionists the 1890s, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

Prestige_Big Bulb

“White light could kill me now…”

I’m not a fan of reviews that say what filmmakers should have done. Better to judge artists on the choices that they did make in the writing, casting, production, etc., and how successful those choices were in the finished work. But The Prestige is particularly frustrating because the Nolan brothers are obviously talented men, and I’m convinced that they missed opportunities both large and small.

Let’s start with the science. They featured Nicola Tesla as a character, and added three stagecraft engineers, Cutter (Michael Caine) and Borden/Fallon (Christian Bale in a dual role), but none of them really add to the story, which, again, is ultimately about nothing more than a feud. It could be argued, I suppose, that Tesla and the engineers are an allegorical element: they reveal the reality behind illusion. But this movie doesn’t rise to either metaphysics or allegory.

Prestige_Caine, Jackman

Cutter cuts to the chase, using a body double.

Furthermore, the feud, which is so vicious that both men end up handicapped, is undermined by an elemental flaw in the plot. Angier is determined to duplicate Borden’s most phenomenal trick, teleportation (same as being beamed to another location in Star Trek). Angier’s engineer, Cutter, after seeing Borden perform it on stage, immediately and convincingly concludes that he uses a body double for the illusion. Angier stubbornly refuses to believe it, and at least two problems result: Continue reading

Spirituality as mental illness

Beatriz at work

Immigrant as healer

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a Mexican-born physical therapist at a medical treatment center in Los Angeles. She also has private clients, including the socialite (Connie Britton) in whose driveway her aging Volkswagen breaks down. Invited to stay, she becomes Beatriz at Dinnerthe 7th guest at a table of plutocrats.

So the next thing to say is, I get it. It’s 2017, and we’re watching a movie about a female immigrant at a table of Donald Trump’s peers. In the hands of the right director and writer, that idea could make for a fine satire, or as Justin Chang said, and wrote, “a barbed allegory.”  That, indeed, seems to be the intent here, but in the hands of Miguel Aterta (director) and Mike white (writer), it is not the result.

Beatriz_hug

Not fluent in body language.

Beatriz keeps dogs and goats in the city, to the understandable annoyance of at least one neighbor, whom she accuses of killing one of the goats. When she lists her professional healing skills, I began to wonder if she was delusional because she reels off a substantial list that includes massage, Reiki, and Rolfing, and, in a montage of her work, we see her administering aromatherapy. Yoga is not out of the question, what with a Buddha doll on her dashboard, smiling obliviously beneath a crucified Jesus that dangles from the rear-view mirror. The script presents Beatriz as an exquisitely sensitive individual, but her sensitivity does not inform her actions toward the people she meets, nor apparently bring much understanding of human nature, including how to read body language. The idea of bearing love toward humanity is– well, let’s just say that “love thy neighbor” doesn’t inform her actions either. Hug thy neighbor, though, whether they want it or not.

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Uh-oh. More gabachos.

She is also humorless– not in the sense of joking or laughing, but just being good-natured. It’s as if her sensitivity is too pure, and too self-righteous, to allow tolerance into her heart, let alone forgiveness of people she disapproves of. She has little self-control, not with drinking, nor even with managing basic courtesy as a guest in someone’s home during an important dinner party. She is not particularly warm toward the household servants, either, including at least one who is also Spanish-speaking. Indeed, she exudes judgment, with little to balance out a grim personality. I sensed no lightness, no playfulness, no alegría de vivir…. Continue reading