Friday, April 9, 2021

ARE WE HAVING FUNGUS YET?

Opening in theaters this weekend:

The Truffle Hunters--Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw directed and shot this documentary-ish portrait in the mountain forests of Piedmont, Italy. It chronicles some elderly men who, aided by their dogs, search for and dig up the elusive fungus that commands thousands of Euros per kilo from the upscale restaurant market. The men, some of them in their eighties, are marvelous, peculiar, vital characters, and they bring the movie a warmth and humor that balances the poignant sense that we're seeing a dying culture.

The action shots of these "hunts," sometimes seen from the POV of dog-mounted cameras, are kinetic and exciting; Dweck and Kershaw's static images of the men in their homes, by contrast, are beautifully composed, with Caravaggio-worthy chiaroscuro. The filmmakers are clearly infatuated with these guys and their hearty engagement with the planet, but they also seem aware of the irony that this profession depends on a decadent high-end "foodie" market and the greedy truffle pirates it spawns, who, the hunters complain, are not above poisoning dogs. Nothing in the movie is as strong as the scenes of these hunters bonding with their dogs; as so often in the movies, the dogs steal the show.

Voyagers--A big spaceship is carrying a group of very attractive test tube babies from Earth to a habitable planet almost a century away; their grandchildren are the intended settlers. About the time the gang hits adolescence, they figure out that they're being drugged to keep their hormones in check. They stop taking the drug about the same time they lose their grown-up chaperone (Colin Farrell), with the predictable result: sex and violence. Eventually one wound-up, wild-eyed kid (Fionn Whiehead) forms his own lawless faction; the morose responsible hero and heroine (Tye Sheridan and Lily-Rose Depp) in favor of rules and reason form another, unsurprisingly much smaller.

Written and directed by Neil Burger, this blend of The Blue Lagoon and Lord of the Flies, with agreeable echoes of earnest '70s-era sci-fi spectacles like Silent Running, starts a little slow, but in its second half becomes fairly tense and gripping, with flashes of eroticism. Eventually it starts to take on allegorical resonances too, about how easily reactionary fear-mongering and mob rule can sprout in society, that seem all too relevant these days. The movie's suggestion that the rationalist and democratic impulse is a recessive human trait feels distressingly plausible.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

SKIRT TALE

Dockyard Press, which also publishes my novel The Night Before Christmas of the Living Dead...

...has run my short story "Three Days in Skirt World" on their website. Please note that the narrator's sentiments are not representative of the author's.

Monday, April 5, 2021

CLEESE CALL

Last week I was lucky enough to see one of my idols, the great John Cleese, perform at House of Comedy with his daughter, stand-up Camilla Cleese. They've been held over for one more night...

...Tuesday, April 6, so this weekend I got the chance to interview them both, by phone, for Phoenix Magazine.

Friday, April 2, 2021

A FEW AMERICANS IN PARIS

Opening today in theaters:

French Exit--Frances, an elegant, widowed Manhattanite played by Michelle Pfeiffer, finds herself broke at around 60. She’s been warned for years about the impending collapse, but she blithely assumed she’d expire before her finances did.

A kind friend offers her the use of an apartment in Paris, so Frances liquidates her art, books and other valuables. She, her twentysomething son (Lucas Hedges), and her rather marvelous black cat Small Frank make the crossing to the City of Light. Her plan is to exhaust what’s left of her money, then end her life.

Adapted by Patrick deWitt from his own novel and directed by Azazel Jacobs, this wistful comedy of the unconscionably upper class is carried by Pfeiffer’s brittle, enchanting performance, and by the dialogue, as polished and carefully curated as the d├ęcor in the socialite homes we see. Pfeiffer gives her lines an edge of polite impatience behind the dizziness, as if Frances can’t believe that she’s expected to deal with these irksome details of reality. But she’s too essentially good-natured to make a fuss about it.

In 2017 Jacobs wrote and directed The Lovers, a terrific marital comedy that I thought was one of the more original films of its kind in years; I put on my list of the best of the ‘teens. His directorial touch here is light and smooth as well. He gets delightful performances not just from Pfeiffer but from Hedges as the helplessly enthralled son, Valerie Mahaffey as an eccentric Paris widow who insinuates herself into the drama, and Danielle Macdonald as a sullen psychic. Jacobs even brings off a mild supernatural element, connected to Small Frank the cat, with amusing urbanity.

But there was something about the skewed fatalism by which Frances lives, and that I seemed expected to admire, that I couldn’t help but find off-putting from my view in the cheap seats. French Exit is a comedy, and at times it’s laugh out loud funny. But there’s also an aching sadness to it, and a sense of wounded entitlement that’s almost infuriating.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

BEAST PICTURE

Opening in theaters and on HBO Max...

Godzilla vs. Kong--The colossal ape of the title, plodding groggily toward a morning shower under a waterfall, scratches his butt. On the soundtrack is Bobby Vinton singing "Over the Mountain, Across the Sea." This was the point, barely a minute in, that I was pretty sure this movie was going to be fun. I wasn't disappointed.

I was indeed disappointed by the 2014 Yank version of Godzilla, but the 2017 Kong: Skull Island and the 2019 Godzilla: King of the Monsters were both big improvements. This clash of the titans, their first movie meeting since the 1962 Japanese King Kong vs. Godzilla, may be the best of the latter-day lot. It's certainly the silliest, which works to its benefit.

After years of peaceful coexistence, the gargantuan reptile of the title is turned from heroic protector of humankind back into a menace, for purposes of the main event; he attacks a shadowy corporate facility in Pensacola, Florida. A conspiracy-minded podcast host (Brian Tyree Henry), a teenager (Millie Bobby Brown) and her best friend (Julian Dennison) investigate the sinister reasons behind the incident.

Meanwhile, those same corporate interests have Kong transported--in chains, by ship, just like back in 1933--from Skull Island to Antarctica in hopes that he'll lead them into the Hollow Earth. Traveling with him are a Hollow Earth expert (Alexander Skarsgard), a "Kong Whisperer" scientist (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted native daughter (Kaylie Hottle), who communicates by sign language. The two strands converge, via an actual hole to the center of the Earth, in Hong Kong, where the title monsters plus one other kaiju icon clash in the streets.

As you can tell from this synopsis, director Adam Wingard and his screenwriters certainly don't let utter preposterousness get in the way of telling this tall tale; they loot sources from Verne and Burroughs to pro wrestling. When Kong socks Godzilla in the jaw for the first time, it reminded me of Alex Karras punching the horse in Blazing Saddles. This pop pilferage has the feel, at times, of kids improvising a make-believe monster game in their back yard.

Yet there are moments, like the scenes involving Kong negotiating the gravity deep underground, that have a near-poetic wonder. And the monsters, especially the soulful, fed-up Kong, are truly vivid characters, engaging our sympathies more than any of the human actors.

Absent profound, meaningful filmmaking and drama--and maybe, sometimes, in preference to it--this is what I want my summer blockbusters to be: fast, funny, unpretentious, with dash of heart. It clocks in at under two hours, but it didn't leave me feeling cheated.

Monday, March 29, 2021

CLEESE IN OUR TIME

Check out my brief encomium, online at Phoenix Magazine, to John Cleese...

The great man is slated to take the stage (!) tonight at House of Comedy on High Street, with his stand-up daughter Camilla Cleese.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

OH, FOR CRISIS SAKE

In theaters and streaming:

Crisis--With so many to choose from in the world right now, let me narrow it down: The title refers to the opioid crisis. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (of Arbitrage)  bounces between three strands, two of which eventually converge. The settings are Detroit and Montreal, tacitly making the point that while the southern border of the U.S. gets the hype as a sieve for drug trafficking, probably mostly for racist reasons the same activity, rapidly rising at the U.S./Canada border, gets much less attention.

Armie Hammer plays a wound-up undercover FBI agent trying to set up a complicated fentanyl bust between Armenian gangsters on the Detroit side and a powerful Montreal kingpin. His younger sister, played by Lily-Rose Depp, waiflike daughter of Johnny, is a junkie. Evangeline Lilly plays a single mother, herself a recovering addict, who loses her adored 16-year-old son to an apparent overdose. The devastated woman begins to probe the tragedy and soon learns that there may be more to it.

The third and most Ibsen-esque of the plotlines involves Gary Oldman as a college professor with a long history of more or less rubber-stamping studies for a big pharma company. When, thanks to a bit of over-diligence by one of his assistants, he gets an ominous result on a test for a new, supposedly non-addictive painkiller, the company tries to suppress his finding and he quickly finds himself bribed with funding and simultaneously threatened with loss of tenure, character assassination, etc.

Currently beleaguered by creepy scandal, Hammer gives a strong performance. I've sometimes found him a lackluster presence in his earlier films, but he has a bristling, vivid anger here that gives his scenes a charge, even though they're the most cop-movie conventional. Evangeline Lilly (whose name somehow sounds like a big pharma company) shows serious chops, getting across the woman's grief with painful believability. 

Even so, it's Oldman, in the least demonstrative of the three lead roles, who effortlessly walks off with the movie. With zero telegraphing, he shows us a person of ordinary character, maybe even a bit of a smug hack, who winds up in a deeply frightening position requiring moral courage.

Finally, a word should be said for the bad guys; Greg Kinnear as Oldman's boss, Veronica Ferres and Martin Donovan as the pharma honchos and Guy Nadon as the Quebecois gangster are all scary. They're as close as a realism gets to supervillians, and they're entirely convincing.