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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Uninformed Oscar Opinions: 2017

Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, the best two of the paltry five Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, are twin lamentations: the first, bleakly cold, white, and northern; the second, sensuously warm, black, and southern. Both deal with coastal inhabitants that hardly qualify as “élite.” Despite the settinga haven for old money on the North Shore of Massachusettsthe Chandler family in Manchester by the Sea has the sweat stains of the white working class we’re hearing so much about these days; they’re as straight and white as Chiron, from South Florida, is gay and black. And though the Atlantic has thematic significance to both, one imagines that these sets of characters would be two ships in the night, never passing nor considering one another, save for at Oscar time. That is to say, these Americans would have no rapport with one another except with a screen as mediator, and that says as much about the simultaneous importance and irrelevance of the Academy Awards in these parlous times as anything else does.

I’m even less qualified than usual to make sweeping judgments this cycle. Given the load of symbolic bricks weighted to the decision, I’m as curious as anyone to see what title is pulled from the envelope. Picking La La Land would, in any other year, be the neutral, inoffensive choiceit’s a shiny lollipop of a movie that will get just as many musicals green-lighted as The Artist churned out silent pictures. And yet, in Trumpistan, honoring such a white-telephone movie would seem very Vichy indeed. Manchester might be dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Casey Affleck, but if voters can forgive Mel Gibson, whose fall was far more public (and whose entry, Hacksaw Ridge, is pleasantly old-fashioned but not nearly as remarkable), who knows? Is Moonlight toowelp“intersectional”? (Few films pair an artist’s eyes with a social worker’s mentality as fluidly as it does, even if the sociology crowds out the dramaturgy from time to time.) Would a nod in that direction be taken to mean that Hollywood is standing up to social-progress whiplash or confirming that it’s “out of touch” with “regular Americans” (mediaspeak for folks like the Chandlers)?

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The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master makes you feel the universe expanding around you. It catalyzes in memory; there’s a stillness to the images–an immobility–that lends itself to reflection. It is borne aloft at the tempo of the romantic standards of its period, a slow dance chaperoned, chastely beautiful–the sources of beauty and chastity almost intolerably resolved in the ether of an intangible era: a sad dream one wakes up longing for. This is not so much a film about Scientology as it is about will and power and coping with the lack thereof. It is about belief as a proxy for love; a conflicted Elmer Gantry; and a G.I. who jacks off at a crowded beach. It is a masterpiece.

We meet the G.I., Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), first. World War II has just ended, and he pokes through the blanket of good feeling like a stubborn erection. When he dry humps a buxom sculpture in the sand, his fellow vets laugh at first. But he keeps at it like a dog in heat and the spectators scatter; they’ve already graduated to the Greatest Generation with chins in the air. When Freddie gets a job as a portrait photographer at a department store, he immortalizes their kind in its Sunday Best–but by then he’s as invisible to them as a mirror. He has no place in this newly minted middle class, with its ambiance of prosperity founded on Yankee good trouncing Axis evil. Like the hysterics in A Dangerous Method he’s an alien–but without the benefit of membership to a “fairer” sex. The first person we see who takes a genuine interest in him is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), on whose yacht Freddie, forever on the lam, is a stowaway. (He lost his job by picking a fight, for no explicit reason, with a customer who resembles Hoffman; he was then expelled from a commune for poisoning a tramp–who looked like his father–with a noxious cocktail of the sort that Freddie himself often partakes of.) Dodd, tellingly, is master of a cult, but not of the boat; it belongs to some member of the café society that gives this salon mystic his backing–the same perks that Scientologists currently get from their association with the movie colony. Above deck, he gives away his daughter (Ambyr Childers) at her wedding, schmoozing and oozing with studied gaiety; below, he’s hacking away at Freddie’s defenses, eye contact unwavering, repeating questions that expose such baleful truths as a sexual affair with his aunt. One might say that Phoenix is a Method-glazed ham–and his Bob Dylan bird-flip with Casey Affleck has scored him no affection from me–but I think that to say he’s overacting would be to say that Jack Nicholson overdid it in The Shining. With shadows that turn his nasal cavity into a cave, and that lopsided fighter’s snout on the verge of caving in, he’s like a cobbler in a Caravaggio: some icon of damnation on the tip of the mind’s tongue. As the fella said, it’s a wonderful day for an exorcism.

A friend of mine likened watching The Master to banging his head against the wall; and so much of the movie is about running in circles–an extension of Dodd’s interrogative technique. The most striking shots, to me, were stationary images of characters gesticulating in place–such as the break-up spat between Dodd and Freddie when they’re both thrown in prison; the former’s arms are crossed wryly while the latter curbstomps the toilet–or of the camera moving to maintain its subjects’ place in the frame, such as a motorcycle zooming through the desert or a figure sprinting to catch a trundling ship or Freddie running back and forth and smashing himself against the walls in Dodd’s baroque form of therapy. Even the dreamy score, by Johnny Greenwood, skates in circles over a pane of Philip Glass. Mihai Malaimare, Jr., the cinematographer, has worked with Francis Ford Coppola and has a Dutch Master sense of light. It’s never too dense, in an opulent way; I got the sense that the performers were swimming in it as naturally as fish through the sea. Since There Will Be Blood, Anderson has been transitioning from ensemble pieces to something like the “great man” genre. (Is it homage or historical coincidence that the L. Ron Hubbard surrogate looks like Charles Foster Kane during his political period?) But even with immobility as his theme–as his visual motif–he leaves no impression of historical fixity or stiffness; there is, instead, a sense of flow–both within the images and from them. And I think the circuit between past and present is even stronger here than it was in There Will Be Blood, one of the few great works of unalloyed leftism of recent years.

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The Fighter

In On the Waterfront, a down-for-the-count Marlon Brando pined to his brother that he coulda been a contender, he coulda been somebody. And that’s basically what the half-brothers Dicky and Micky say to each other in David O. Russell’s The Fighter—substituting the past conditional for the past and future tenses, respectively. In the end, they both upgrade to the present tense. Although it’s based on the true story of Micky Ward—the Lowell, Mass., homeboy who became the World Boxing Union’s welterweight champion in 2000—the movie resembles Rocky: before Rocky lost his innocence. (To sequels—not to Adrian.) There’s a passing resemblance, too, to The Pope of Greenwich Village, with its good-brother / bad-brother dichotomy; Christian Bale seems to have based his Dicky on Eric Roberts’s wriggly, petulant hood Paulie. Dicky is himself a former champ; he became the pride of Lowell after defeating Sugar Ray Leonard back in 1978. But, by the time The Fighter is set, in the early 1990s, Dicky has devolved into a gaunt-faced crackhead; he still takes a swing every time he takes a step but his infectious swag is like a storm system brewing behind a pallid kabuki mask. The rings he now fights in are under his eyes.

Has ever an actor been more appropriately named than Christian Bale: two words that denote aery earnestness, a touch of the divine as well as a smack of malign, and even a hint of anguish? This Brit made a great American Psycho; but once he lost his mind, it looked as though he’d never recover it. Sanity appears to bore him. As The Dark Knight, he was torpid—perhaps because the director drooled over the banality of Heath Ledger’s evil and didn’t care a lick about good. But Bale looses focus, too; his wackadoodle dexterity was obvious in The Machinist, The Prestige, and Rescue Dawn—but he was spewing solar flares out of black holes. Despite being a cacophony of tweaky rhythms, his Dicky does have a core—a fallen brah’s braggadocio and a cracked sense of street humor. Mark Wahlberg’s exceptionally sweet and mannered performance as Micky seems to have grounded Bale; maybe Wahlberg’s selflessness tempered Bale’s masochism. Although Wahlberg doesn’t have any great scenes to himself, he conveys the saturnine softness of Brando; his up-turned mouth is always edging for a fight, but his eyes are far more conciliatory. It’s not a revelation by now, but he’s long since wiped Marky Mark off the marquee. He forces my mind to open wide enough to entertain the possibility that the next De Niro could be Justin Bieber.

The Fighter is a fine piece of work, though not a work of art. It doesn’t transcend its genre, like The Wrestler did (Aronofsky is listed as an executive producer); but it hits all the familiar notes in a way that wrings out more than the familiar sentiments. The first scene made me a little antsy: the -ickys careen through the hood—M- a little abashed; D-, ghetto blaster in hand, a fistic Pied Piper taking his town in tow—both on an apparent course for working-class Capra-corn. But the beauty of this picture is its immersion into local color; Russell is never above his subject—and neither is he looking at it from below, with reverence. I rolled my eyes when Dennis Lehane’s Mass-hole exceptionalism soiled Casey Affleck’s opening narration in the otherwise mild Gone Baby Gone; but these Lowellians are too tough, and, perhaps, too insular, to buy into that brand of bunk. The few daubs of style that the director allows himself—like the bouffant-topped Greek chorus that the boxers’ sisters comprise—may be a little too coarse, because he’s dealing with real people. (Otherwise, they’re not too different from the upper-crust caricatures in The King’s Speech or 8 1/2. They make for a witty “compile character,” cool-hearted though the effect may be.) The whole family reverts to obeisant putty whenever their materfamilias, Alice, is around. Melissa Leo—yet another appropriate surname!—gives Alice the squawk of an albatross and the pride of a lioness. Her children address her by name, but maybe they should call her “Sir”; her family is an enterprise, and she’s both queen and C.E.O. Russell even makes the music-to-loose-your-virginity-to-in-the-backseat-of-an-’86-Plymouth overcome any sports-montage stigmas: These sonic ’roids may be clichés, but they’re part of the guys’ pop culture.

There is a flipside. At one point, when Dicky’s in jail, he watches a nationally broadcast T.V. special about his decline: High on Crack Street. At first, he provides a sardonic commentary for his fellow inmates—who cheer his every jeer—but he comes to see that the joke is on him, and his family. This idea of seeing oneself reflected in a highly public mirror is as contemporary as it is fascinating; but it is probably the only interesting theme that the filmmakers develop. And they make a few goofs. We’re never sure when we are in the timeline, or how much time has passed since the last scene; and it seemed strange that Micky wasn’t awarded a moment with the ladies of his life—Alice and his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams)—after winning the championship. But Russell had been suffering from Mark Romanek Syndrome—this is his first feature since I Heart Huckabees, six years ago—so maybe he needed something a little stiff (that is to say, conventional) to aid in his convalescence. His commercial strategy seems akin to his heroes’ Zen pugilism: clobber your opponent once he thinks you’re a goner. David Edelstein called The King’s Speech a “middlebrow masterpiece”; The Fighter is a nothin’-special knockout.

The Hurt Locker

The press has fallen in love with The Hurt Locker. For those of us who came of age during the combat-movie drought that wars like Iraq tend to engender—and who are typically disinclined to browse that genre at Blockbuster, besides—The Hurt Locker is like a first kiss. But I hesitate to stretch the metaphor, a.) As to not detract from the seriousness that is the movie’s desert, and b.) Because it is not quite so good as to extend to the proverbial loss of my virginity.

There’s a sense of inevitability that permeates The Hurt Locker, and though it affects us on a deeper level than most procedurals do by virtue of both skill and discretion, the film stays true to that limited form. I don’t wish to be unfair; the way the filmmakers follow the procedural lockstep is integral to their conception, and part of the movie’s power stems from the singular, sensuous way they underplay the suspense scenes—poeticizing the horrors that are, for these characters, routine. The flesh is thick, and there’s a heart beating beneath it, but we can still detect that skeleton with clichés in its marrow: the trailer-park individualist who gets the job done but puts others at risk in the process; the by-the-book black soldier whose respect the lone wolf earns; and the younger, more impressionable lad who comes to idolize the loner. There’s familiarity in all this, as well as in the lone wolf’s relationship with a young local boy (Christopher Sayegh)—an Iraqi Shia LaBoeuf who, in a nice touch, endears himself to Americans by way of curse words. (It sounds as if Lil Wayne was his English teacher.)

But the director, Kathryn Bigelow, is a pro in both the banal sense and the positive one; she knows the ropes, but knows how to tug them, too. Her focus is narrow and her methods are austere, but her targets are well embodied, and pregnant with echoes of their grander context. It’s as if she made a war film in the style of The Wrestler. She stages combat effectively, appositely—the complexity of her images is almost subliminal. Rich in its invocation of atmosphere, The Hurt Locker coats the sun-baked sands of arid Iraq with a cool iridescent gel. It’s not the kind of star-glamour antifreeze required for a bland, exploitive movie like The Kingdom (2007)—a lemon; it’s more like the psychological analgesics that professional soldiers mask their anxieties with. We aren’t given babes in the woods like Charlie Sheen in Platoon; unformed baby-men whose innocence is despoiled by war are a dramatic shortcut, as easy to sympathize with as puppies under Jack the Ripper’s knife. Bigelow lets us under her guarded soldiers’ skins with a vision that’s neither tawdry nor ironic.

These troopers constitute a bomb squad in its final weeks of deployment in Baghdad: cocksure SSgt. James (Jeremy Renner), prim Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and sensitive Sgt. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is something of a legend for having disarmed 800-something I.E.D.s in his day, and approaches each new one with an aloofness that drives his teammates batty. This is pure procedural—vindicating the competent badass (and we’re cued in immediately that he’s a badass because he smokes cigarettes) who doesn’t follow the rules but gets the job done is old-bag Hollywood heroism. But the more we see James in action, the more his strut seems abreast of a fresher truth; back on the home front, he’s either a father or some woman’s baby-daddy—his ex-wife still lives with him, so he’s not sure. He’s graceful under pressure, and in the heat of combat, he’s coolly maternal to his men; yet, as Eldridge tells him, he’s one hell of a leader, but lackluster as a people person. He needs the specter of death barking up his leg like a rabid dog; without it, he can’t be all that he can be. His ravenous addiction to war is the tragedy of war.

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

[Note: Here’s another sampling from the “olden days”—of my review for a movie that should have been, but sadly wasn’t, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.]

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is almost as long as its title, but it may be the most valiant attempt at truly literary filmmaking in a while. It is a film that earns its elegantly archaic photography (shot by Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers’ frequent cohort) and, perhaps, its slow deliberation over each and every frame. Although the setting is long past—in what remained of the Old West by the 1880s—the movie goes beyond the acceptance it may have had as simply another handsome period piece; it’s surprisingly relevant today.

The film opens with the last train robbery perpetrated by the James gang. It is here that Deakins is at his most indulgent; the dreamlike, fuzzy-edged cinematography is at an apex, pairing the sumptuousness of Terrence Malick films with the blurry decay of old photos. Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), an awkward 19-year-old raised on Jesse James (Brad Pitt) dime-novels, insists that he take part in the venture. Jesse’s father—and later his wife—get the creeps from this naïve teenager, but the boy is admitted, nonetheless, and, on the train, he gets his first taste of Jesse’s temper: an engineer who refuses to kneel down before the bandit is bludgeoned mercilessly.

Bob never gains the respect of the rest of the gang, which Jesse picks off one-by-one by for acts of treason against him. By the end, only Bob and his dim-witted older brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), remain. Bob idolizes Jesse, but he’s like a fanboy who meets William Shatner and then realizes that the Starship Enterprise has never lifted off the ground. His first-hand experience is nothing like the cheap romances that he still keeps hidden in a shoe box under his bed. The true Jesse James is lunatically violent and paranoid; in one scene, he almost tears off a young boy’s ear when pumping him for information, but, by covering his mouth, never even gives the boy an opportunity to reply. The movie, however, has the decency to not peg the icon as simply a raging monster; at the end of the scene, the celebrated outlaw breaks down and cries.

The film is just as much Bob’s as Jesse’s, though. Charley forces an anecdote out of his brother about the long list of comparisons Bob has compiled between himself and Jesse; when his hero—who constantly tests his minions’ allegiance—mocks him for this, the railway bandit’s fate is sealed. The titular assassination makes the perpetrator as well-known as the victim—just as he always dreamed—but his celebrity is tinged with infamy and allegations of cowardice. Jesse James, the romanticized brute, is immortalized as a folk hero; his slayer becomes a folk villain.

It is either remarkable fortune or the sign of pure genius that Brad Pitt, arguably today’s most established male star, performs the role of an over-hyped tabloid celebrity of yesteryear. He does not need to be Brando; as the mercurial, mysterious James, he needs his star’s presence—and, costumed in black and sporting the smile of a charming roué, he gives James the larger-than-life power that made him a myth. (In a nod to one of James’s successors, he slips into an impersonation of Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow from time to time.) But he culls the right degree of sensitivity, too, in a much practiced performance. Everything that James does is minutely tooled; he’s blasé about his celebrity, but thrives on living up to his reputation. His alpha-male instinct for self-protection eventually drives him mad and Pitt plays James as a troubled existentialist, whose unpredictable bursts of malice are intertwined with moody desperation. James’s fate has the weight a tragic hero’s; his own eccentricities lead to his downfall and the lives around him collapse like dominoes.

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