Friday, December 9, 2016


Opening today:

The Love WitchAfter a brief run at the Valley Art, this labor of obsessive love from writer-director Anna Biller has resurfaced downtown at FilmBar. It’s an attempt to re-create the look and sound of a drive-in or grindhouse erotic supernatural melodrama of the early ‘70s, something along the lines of Daughters of Satan or Voices of Desire or Simon, King of the Witches. It also has a strong dash of Russ Meyer to the hair and clothes and the saturated colors of M. David Mullen’s lush cinematography—the film was shot and cut, incredibly, on actual 35mm.

Simply as a stylistic forgery, it’s a remarkable achievement. In the opening scene, as our heroine Elaine (Samantha Robinson) drives up the California coast, in blue-green eye shadow with raven hair rising over her head, smoking cigarette after cigarette, with the road receding behind her clearly a back-projection, it’s a marvelous evocation of an earlier era of moviegoing.

And strictly on a visual and aural level, Biller sustains this impressively. If it weren’t for the contemporary cars on the streets of Eureka, California, where Elaine settles, or for the occasional cell phone or computer, you might just believe it if somebody told you that this was a genuine relic.

As the title implies, Elaine is a witch, of the Wiccan, non-Satanic variety—which is not to say she couldn’t be called a wicked witch. Her interest in magic, as she tells us in solemn voice-over narration, is simply as a means to obtain the love of a man. But several times in the course of the film, her potions and rituals reduce the objects of her seduction to sniveling, emotionally helpless wrecks, and she promptly loses interest in them.

It’s a pretty good feminist joke, if a self-conscious one. But the plot wanders around from one strand to another with little rising tension and many interminable digressions—like a Ren-Faire-style wedding ceremony—that leave the movie at least twenty minutes too long. To be fair, of course, the movies that Biller is imitating weren’t always models of disciplined storytelling, but it’s still a shame—had Biller been able to shape the story a bit more tightly and less episodically, to build some suspense and some investment in the outcome, The Love Witch could have been a crazy instant classic instead of an interesting curio.

Having said that, it’s a really interesting curio. A fascinating curio. The women are gloriously beautiful, the men are almost all appropriately repellent, and the defiant emotion behind Biller’s satirical pose…well, no way around it, it casts an undeniable spell. 

JackieNatalie Portman stars, as the most iconic of American First Ladies, in this richly colored but otherwise austere historical drama. Directed by the Chilean Pablo Larrain from a script by Noah Oppenheim, the film focuses on the days just after that fateful motorcade in Dallas—arguably the least mysterious chapter in the title character’s life. The story is told through flashbacks, as Jackie narrates, rather testily, to an equally edgy journalist (Billy Crudup).

As with Peter Landesman’s Parkland a couple of years ago, Jackie doesn’t really tell us anything controversial about the assassination or its aftermath. The ostensible point of the film, insofar as it has one, seems to be that behind the indelible public persona of Jackie Kennedy in the wake of the killing—harrowed yet dignified and stoic in blood-spattered pink Chanel—was an intense anger with no healthy outlet. Her circumstances—the mores of her social class, her celebrity position, her beauty, her pride—closed off every avenue by which this fury could be acceptably expressed.

The movie suggests that even Jackie’s personal mannerisms may have militated against any response except shocked, meek bereavement. As depicted here, she’s an intelligent, well-read, reflective woman trapped behind a breathy, ethereal voice that could come across, quite frankly, as vapid, even simple.

Throughout, the people around her, men and women alike, treat her like a child, with gentle condescension and looks of embarrassed discomfort whenever she asserts herself. The exceptions are the equally infuriated Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard)—though even he insists on keeping the news that Lee Harvey Oswald has been murdered from her—and a befuddled old priest (John Hurt), who speaks comfortingly to her without talking down.

The real point of the film, of course, is to provide an actress with an award-bait showcase role, and Natalie Portman rises to the opportunity, capturing that airy voice as well as the raging human being behind it. There are other strong performances—Sarsgaard and Hurt, Greta Gerwig as Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman, John Carroll Lynch as LBJ, Beth Grant as Lady Bird, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, Richard E. Grant as William Walton—but most of them are little more than bit players. Jackie feels curiously like a funereal pageant, with the Pageant Queen at its center simultaneously rebelling against, resenting and relishing the spectacle.

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