Friday, April 30, 2021

LIMBO ROCKS

In theaters this weekend:

Limbo--The title refers to a beautiful, bleak Scottish island on which a handful of refugees, young men seeking asylum in the UK, are held until a decision is made on their cases. Their detainment isn't overtly cruel; they aren't tortured, except by boredom, homesickness, lack of purpose and the occasional casual bigotry of their neighbors.

They watch TV, squabble about the finer points of Friends, and wait for Godot in the form of the mailman in hopes of word on their status, or use of the phone booth to call home. They also sit, blank-faced, through near-surreal classes intended to introduce them to their new culture.

The focus is on Omar (Amir El-Masry), a handsome, deadpan young Syrian. The misery of Omar's situation is compounded by a physical factor: he's lugging around the family oud, a guitar-like musical instrument. He's reputed to be a master of the oud, and his doleful-eyed Afghan friend and self-appointed manager Fahrad (Vikash Bhai) would like to arrange a concert for the islanders. But Omar can't bring himself to play it in his new circumstance on the grounds that "It doesn't sound the same."

Written and directed by Ben Sharrock, this comedy-drama is quiet in tone, at times achieving an almost Beckett-esque atmosphere of comic suspension. But there's a humane hopefulness under the melancholia that keeps the movie from becoming downbeat.

It should also be said that some of the native islanders speak a Scottish dialect so nearly opaque to the American ear that the refugees, with their comparatively mild accents, would probably seem less alien to us. All those Friends reruns seem to have been good practice.

Available on Vimeo:

YouthMin: A Mockumentary--Pastor Dave, or "Pastor Deee," is a youth minister who, to put it mildly, tries too hard. Every year, he takes a small group of sullen teens to a Bible camp in Massachusetts.

The low turnout for his camp excursions may be due to Patror Deee being, well, intolerable. A bouncing-off-the-walls, energy-drink-guzzling maniac, he is also furiously competitive, determined to win every camp competition from tug-of-war to ice cream eating to "Bible Jeopardy." He's a trash-talker, too; the one Biblical teaching that he isn't sure of, he says, is that stuff about turning the other cheek.

Jeff Ryan, who plays Pastor Deee, also co-directed, with Arielle Cimino, this comedy in the Christopher Guest mode. Considering that it seems to have been made at least somewhat within a churchy context, it's surprisingly candid and self-deprecating about the moral issues people might have with this version of Christianity, and it's (blessedly) foul-mouthed and sexually frank. It's also full of sharply-observed details about the Bible camp experience--like "Pharaoh, Pharaoh" sung to the tune of "Louis, Louis"--that seem like spoofery but probably aren't, and anyone who has spent any time within that culture will find much in this movie recognizable.

The supporting cast is capable, playing characters ranging from an intelligent goth girl to a quiet loner to the pregnant (but unwed) and much more sensible youthmin that's been sent along to temper Pastor Deee's mania. Mostly these characters serve as appalled foils to the wound-up Pastor, who is sometimes too cringeworthy to be funny. As broadly played and wacky as YouthMin is, as a character study it borders, at times, on pathos.

Also on on Vimeo and YouTube, another charming low-budget oddity from New England:

Sam & Mattie Make a Zombie Movie--Sam is Sam Suchmann and Mattie is Mattie Zufelt, inseparable teenage brothers from other mothers in Providence, Rhode Island. Both have Down syndrome--they met at Special Olympics--as well as an exuberant love for guy-oriented pop culture. This documentary, co-directed by Sam's older brother Jesse, chronicles how these guys got the Providence community, as well as some film-industry heavy hitters, to help them write and star in a twisted, extremely gory, free-associational and genuinely hilarious 45-minute horror flick called Spring Break Zombie Massacre.

The first half shows how, having committed to making the movie, Sam and Mattie's collaborators made sure that the finished product truly was the boys' work; we see the script conferences in which they craft the dialogue and defend their artistic choices, sometimes pretty contentiously. In the second half, we're shown Spring Break Zombie Massacre, with an occasional pause in the action so that Jesse can offer some behind-the-scenes explanation on Sam and Mattie's process.

The movie-within-the-movie, deftly directed by Robert Carnevale, is the story of how the Devil storms into the delivery room while our heroes are being simultaneously born, from different mothers but the same father (!). Deeply offended by being told to "grow up," the Devil kills both mothers, and shows up years later to stalk Our Heroes with his army of "zombies, demons and zombie demons" (these identities are assigned to his minions by a show of hands). He also urinates, first on the floor of the delivery room, and later in the punchbowl at the prom.

Without exaggeration, I can say that I have seen "professional" horror and action movies with dialogue and situations no less disjointed, and not nearly as pungent and witty. This movie has troubled passages, as older brother Jesse expresses doubts about the project--it's up to Peter Farrelly of There's Something About Mary, for instance, to advise Sam and Mattie that they should be sure to respect women--and its aftermath. But overall, this is a joyous, inspiring ode to the power of the movies to render life not as it is but as you think it should be.

Monday, April 26, 2021

FIGHT CLUB PART II

Now in wide release:


Mortal Kombat--Introduced as a video game in 1992, Mortal Kombat became a feature film in 1995. It went on to spawn a variety of TV shows, animated and live-action, comics and other spin-offs. I never saw any of them. I went to this new movie reboot with no real knowledge of or nostalgia for the series; my only emotional response at all was a slight cranky resentment that something from as recently as the '90s could be an object of nostalgia.

Attractive, athletic-looking warrior types of various races and genders do battle across various locations and dimensions. Each of them is a master of martial arts or swordsmanship, but each also has his or her own distinctive superpower; one can throw flames from his hands, another can shoot a ray from his eye, another has a big metal hat that he can throw like Oddjob's bowler in Goldfinger, or Captain America's shield. Another, dubbed "Sub-Zero," can turn on the chill like Elsa in Frozen. There's a giant four-armed ogre that comes across like a Harryhausen monster on crack, minus the charm. Somehow the fate of the earth is at stake in their bloody clashes.

That's about as coherently as I feel like summarizing the plot. How faithful it is to the game or to earlier dramatizations, I couldn't say. The cast, entirely unfamiliar to me, is pleasant enough company overall, but the standout was an Australian actor named Josh Lawson, as the eye-laser guy; he spits out his vitriolic lines amusingly.

As long as debuting director Simon McQuoid keeps the action and carnage coming, it's possible to enjoy this nonsense, in a mindless sort of way. The fights are staged cleanly and lucidly, and with some degree of choreographic panache.

Be forewarned, however: This movie isn't kidding with its R-rating. Dismemberment, disemboweling and other gory fates are graphically depicted throughout. And the language is full-blast obscene, too. It's not for the little ones, though adults are unlikely to be overly shocked by these splatter effects. They don't have enough dramatic weight to seem truly mortal.

Friday, April 16, 2021

A JOURNAL OF MY PLAGUE MONTH

Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday this past February. In the week that followed, I developed a bad cough.

By Wednesday afternoon, it had gotten severe and constant enough that I left work early. The Wife was also feeling ill, so on Thursday we went to an Urgent Care near our house and both got tested for COVID. It came as no surprise at all when, Saturday morning, we were told that both tests were positive.

The Wife shook it off after a few days of relatively mild flu-like symptoms. I did not. Throughout the week that followed, I was sleeping 20 to 22 hours a day, though it was a shallow, dream-troubled, unsatisfying sleep. For a couple of hours a day, I would drag myself to the couch to watch reruns of The Andy Griffith Show or whatever, but sitting up gave me a headache that felt like somebody splitting my head open with a hatchet and then ladling purple lava—in my imagination, the lava was always purple for some reason—into the crack.

I never lost my senses of taste or smell, as so many people report, but I did lose my appetite. Looking at food made me feel ill. I was getting down maybe a piece of toast or a slice of cheese a day. I would think about getting up to do some work or answer some emails, but after dragging myself out of bed to go to the bathroom or get a drink from the fridge, all I could do was collapse into bed again.

A kind friend sent me a little fingertip pulse-oximeter, and I was told that if my blood’s oxygen saturation level fell below 88, I should go to the emergency room. By Thursday of the second week, my readings were in the 84 and 85 range. By Friday they were in the high 70s. The Wife called 9-1-1, and I was loaded into an ambulance and driven to the hospital.

I anticipated a nightmarish ordeal waiting to be seen to at the ER; it wasn’t the case. I was placed in a comfortable private waiting room with a TV, an oxygen mask was put on my face, and I lay there for hours watching Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in the original Coming to America while sweet young nurses came in periodically to check on me. A nice chatty technician came in and took an x-ray of my chest. A while after that, a harried-looking young ER doctor came in and said “Yeah, we’re going to admit you; your lungs look like crap in that x-ray.”

Bluntly put, no doubt, but I appreciated the candor.

I hadn’t stayed in a hospital as a patient since I was six years old and got my tonsils out. But I spent the next eight days alone in a room, hooked up to IVs and wires, with oxygen tubes up my nose, watching Turner Classic Movies.

I was able to stumble to the bathroom once or twice a day, the wires trailing behind me, but could manage little activity beyond that. My big excursion out came when they took me to get a CT Scan; it was startling to see the scary stern warnings about the dangers of entering my isolated realm that were posted on the outside door of my room.

I can’t say that I felt sure I was going to die, but I did feel like it was possible. For the first few days I wasn’t sure if I’d get out of the hospital; early on I wasn’t even sure how much I cared. In retrospect I can see that I had an uncommonly fortunate bout of this illness; I was never placed on a ventilator, for instance, which often indicates a plummeting chance of survival.

The care I got was excellent, skilled and kind. I was given daily treatments of the antiviral Remdesivir, as well as steroids, and gradually began to feel stronger. My appetite returned, almost as soon as I was admitted; maybe it was the increased oxygen, but in any case, the skimpy “cardiac control” meals they gave me became the highlights of my day (this may also have been due to boredom and absence of reading material), and I developed an unaccountable craving for Fig Newtons, a cookie I had never much cared for previously. Encouraging nurses took me for walks up and down around the hallways, and though I found them embarrassingly arduous, I showed enough improvement that I was sent home the following Saturday evening, with an oxygen concentrator.

About two weeks after I was released, I got my first vaccination at State Farm Stadium. By the end of March, I felt well enough to return to work. This past Friday I got my second shot. I still get winded and fatigued easily, but the pulmonologist tells me that this will likely continue for at least a couple more months.

My big takeaways from the experience? One is gratitude for the first-rate treatment I received, both from the health care professionals and from The Wife and The Kid and my family and friends, who showed me so much support and encouragement through daily phone calls and texts.

Another was a new respect for the health care profession. At some level I probably always understood, but now have seen first-hand, that the nurses, doctors and aides do more for humanity on any given day they work than I’ve done in my whole life.

My other big takeaway is a concrete, non-theoretical respect for this virus that I didn’t have before. So that’s my advice: wear a mask, stay socially distanced, and get your shots. As somebody who didn’t get anywhere near the worst that this disease can give, I promise you that you don’t want even the second-worst.


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.