A Ghost Story

The proliferation of streaming services and prestige TV may have the old business models shaking in their boots, but these chilling trends have fringe benefits. Namely, movies, in mysadly limitedexperience, are getting weirder. I have bellyached at length about the lobotomy of “weird” on the global-market scale, where weird is just a synonym for novelty. But there’s a flip-side: indies that don’t compete with a world that drains our attention spans, but create new experiences to contemplate it.

Case in point: David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Maybe it’s because I just saw Stalker (1979), but this film reminded me of Tarkovsky not just in its long, long takes, but in the muddy delta its streams of consciousness form. The glue between the ideas is pure intuition, so the movie reads like a collation of thoughts and feelings: a tone poem rather than a statement. And where Tarkovsky made his movies dense, both visually and verbally, Texas makes this one plain and lucent. The director, who lives in Dallas, has delivered something that’s tonally in between The Tree of Life (set in Houston) and Boyhood (set in Austin). Even its bouts of pretension seem homey.

The wisp of a plot is an inversion of the traditional ghost story: in this telling, the dead person is haunted. After moving into an unprepossessing ranch house with Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck gets into a car accident and makes her a widow. (I’m guessing here; their marital status is undefined.) Sporting the sheet that covered him at the morgue, he watches his beloved grieve and eventually move onfrom their home, if not from him. He stays behind, as marooned from his past as he is moored to it.

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The Little Hours

The two best things in The Little Hours, among many, many good ones, are Aubrey Plaza’s provocations and Dave Franco’s reactions. The latter plays a peasant who flees his manor after being caught in a tryst with its horny chatelaine. He takes refuge at a convent, where he quenches the thirst of its repressed residents. Cloaked in her habit, Plaza has the enigmatic glare of a Madonnaseething at a distance. The second she’s wrested from a moment of reflection, she becomes fiercely present and goes medieval. If Franco resembles a work of art, it’s because he’s ripped like the cover of a paperback. He has the four-pack of a Fabio and eyes that are equal parts amused and bemused by the attention that endowment brings.

Taking off from a 14th-century farce by Boccaccio, Jeff Baena’s direction and Quyen Tran’s photography stick to the period, continuously refreshing the joke: the dialogue and performances are profanely contemporary. The director’s screenplay eschews slang and modern references, so the central anachronism is the premise itself: that nuns in a convent would have all the itches and urges of bunkmates at a summer camp, their superiors no closer to God than a counselor-in-training. Blasphemy is just an ancestor of teen angst; torture a detention; and fornication a broken curfew.

If the movie itself is blasphemous, it is because it assumes that those who were drawn to the monastic life weren’t all saints; many weren’t drawn at all, but pulled in like workers consigned to middle management. (Alison Brie plays a preppy nun who’s stranded in celibacy because her dadPaul Reiser in a nifty cameobribes the Church with donations. Later on, Fred Armisen shows up as the frazzled bureaucrat who accepts the kickbacks.) But that is the extent of the clerical satire. Mostly, it’s carnal mischiefthe kind of vibe that used to be called “naughty” by people who don’t get out muchwith a pace that rolls like the Tuscan pastures, and leisurely performances from comedic actors at the top of their game.

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