Cut the Kink
“What is normal?”
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is like a Pinter or an Ionesco play from the 1960s. The film is a Grove Press paperback with movie stars and lots of CGI. The whole thing could have been done on one stage set. Instead, Aronofsky opens up this allegorical drama to the plumbing behind walls, the beating of a heart in a chest cavity, the geologic forces that turn coal into diamonds, and eventually the cosmos, where planets die and new ones are born. Aronofsky is interested in some kind of mythological physics that only he understands, which has something to do with artistic creation of the highest order. At the same time, there’s a palpable feeling he’s directing for the lulz. The end result, as usual for him, is the proud emergence into the world of another item of kitsch horror.
mother! opens itself to many interpretations, but the one inescapable fact of its plot is that Jennifer Lawrence’s character, the film’s unnamed wife and mother, gets shafted, tossed on a fire at the bottom of a well. The film is not exactly what you’d call feminist. It’s designed to be a slap in the face, or maybe a wake-up call, but a slap to whose face and a wake-up call to do what is unclear. The film is murky from attic to basement. If it has a saving grace, it’s that it’s funny sometimes, like an absurdist play, and equally prone to violence and collapse. The loud-quiet aggression and pretentiousness of the lowercase m and the exclamation point in the title prepare viewers for this kind of seesawing abuse.
The film borrows its plot from Rosemary’s Baby but moves the action to the countryside, as in the 1960s sitcom Green Acres, which was on TV when Rosemary’s Baby came out. A man escapes the city and moves to a dilapidated country house with his reluctant wife, who tries to make it nice for him. The house, plopped down in the middle of a field with no driveway, might as well be in Hooterville or Stankwell Falls. When a host of kooky characters begins to intrude on Lawrence and her husband (Javier Bardem), this parade of creeps is menacing, sure, but less satanic than obnoxious. There’s even a pair of sons who show up a-feudin’ over their inheritance like hillbillies. It would have been interesting if one of them had been played by a woman, like the Monroe brothers on Green Acres. But they are played by real-life brothers, who serve Aronofsky’s godlike vision for maximum Cain-and-Abel myth-remaking, before shuffling off so another biblical act can take their place.
Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the Rodarte sisters, designed the ballet costumes for Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Now they have written and directed their own film. Woodshock stars Kirsten Dunst as a marijuana-dispensary clerk in Northern California, the Mulleavys’ home turf. The film has the same dark aspirations toward the eternal feminine and its relation to Mother Earth as Aronofsky’s, but goes at it with more of a Lars von Trier touch. Dunst plays a woman whose moods resemble her character’s in Melancholia, mirroring that film’s grief and depression in a fizzled-out, bleary, high-as-fuck way. The men in the film, dressed as sullen NorCal woodsmen, convey a von Trierian sense of Danes-Finns-Latvians-Scots-Manxmen playing American.
As a homegrown European art film, Woodshock is not afraid to be boring, or to seem pointless, repetitive, and overlong. There is little dialogue; the film could play as gallery art. The cinematography and the music score carry the audience and glide Dunst out of her house and into the woods. Semicomatose, she levitates in nature, working through her sadness as she floats among the giant redwoods and lens flares. At the dispensary and in her depopulated town’s one bar, neon lighting and music from the late 1970s and early 1980s predominate. I’ve been to bars in that part of the country and have never once heard the Feelies, Suicide, Television, Wire, or Gary Numan, not even “Cars.” In Mulleavyville, you never have to hear anything that isn’t hip, and you never have to look crapped out in rural poverty. Even high and suicidal on the bathroom floor, dappled forest sunlight casts a glow. The film is a fantasy of the Trump era, in which being stoned all the time alleviates despondency. Woodshock would make a good double feature with another Danish-American film, The Neon Demon, which also went unappreciated, in which fashion models towered over the angst and gore instead of tall trees—scenes from the hard lives of the blondes.
Robert Pattinson dyes his hair blond midway through Good Time and things just get worse for him. An amoral thief, Pattinson’s Connie inhabits a low-down New York City where everybody exists to be used and ripped off by everybody else, including the people they love the most. His developmentally disabled brother, Nick, played without sentiment by codirector Benny Safdie as a confused, angry lug, is the only other person Connie cares about. His love for Nick comes in the form of anger at a world in which the safety net has been pulled out from under both of them. Connie seems to figure that’s OK if you’re wise like he is, but when it comes to Nick, life’s unfairness excuses any crime.
The film covers a lot of ground, yet all the interiors, even at an amusement park, look like they were shot with different-colored lights in a store in the subway stairs. Josh and Benny Safdie, along with screenwriter-editor Ronald Bronstein and cinematographer Sean Price Williams, have created a masterpiece in Good Time, a film of nerve, audacity, and ugliness that recaptures the cheap and broken energy of color 1970s New York crime movies. It does so without being a period piece, or based on a novel or a true story, or an imitation of Dog Day Afternoon that just refers to things without embodying them, pushing them. Good Time runs right up to a certain line and crosses it. It’s the only movie I’ve seen this year that lays out the time in which we’re living in such an immediate way, with all its desperation, violence, and inequality exposed. It’s a movie about how everything sucks for everyone, whether they know it or not.
I don’t know how or where the Safdies find their actors. Even the unbandaged people in the movie look like they’ve been punched a hundred times. The Safdies’ genius is that they can fit Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Barkhad Abdi into a cast that does not include actors I’ve seen before. Taliah Webster as a teenage girl who helps Connie for no good reason, maybe just to get him out of her house or because she’s bored; Peter Verby as a calm, strange psychiatrist; Buddy Duress as Ray, a just-out-of-jail rat fink who makes a series of idiotic moment-to-moment decisions the Safdies present with a demented, drugged logic—none of them is expected, and all are great.
Connie’s priorities shift throughout the film from helping his brother, to robbing a bank, to raising bail money by selling stolen liquid LSD in a Sprite bottle. Even in its ticking-clock pursuit of money, the film’s relentless gear switching, aided by an electronic Oneohtrix Point Never score, has nothing in common with an empty film like Run Lola Run, which I kept sensing the audience wanted it to be. Like the best bank-robbery films, the Safdies’ journey to the end of the night lacks a happy or a meta-ending—it is the opposite of an action-adventure blockbuster where the biggest crime is that the actor playing the hero took home $20 million. By the end, Pattinson disappears from the film like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, leaving his messed-up brother to figure things out alone in the saddest possible place in New York City.
The Florida Project
For the past month I’ve had to watch the trailer for Goodbye Christopher Robin before almost every movie I’ve seen in theaters. It features a sad little boy with a bowl haircut moping because he’s being interviewed on the radio all the time. Since he’s the inspiration for the Winnie the Pooh books, journalists want to ask him if Hitler is dangerous or something. It’s too much pressure for this upper-class tyke, being robbed of his childhood by the nascent mass media, which used children for its own purposes without any regard for their psychological well-being—unlike the movie industry today, where I’m sure the actor playing this kid was given plenty of time-outs, properly instructed so he wouldn’t fall behind in school, and never exposed to anything untoward from producers or agents. Yes, I understand that kids resent it when they are turned into valuable literary properties. I saw Gone Girl. By the time the Goodbye Christopher Robin trailer played again before seeing The Florida Project, a movie that features mouthy children on the loose at a motel in Orlando, I had already run out of sympathy. The trailer for a Winnie the Pooh biopic had ruined childhood for me.
The Florida Project, a welcome antidote to the world of British costume drama, snapped me back to life and restored my faith in children and movies. Right now in Orlando, someone is pacing around Disney World in a Winnie the Pooh costume, sweating in the humidity to entertain tourists and their children. That’s showbiz. Nearby, off Seven Dwarfs Lane at a motel called the Magic Castle, where The Florida Project takes place, children live with their mothers in cramped rooms paid for by the week. In the slums of the Magic Kingdom, kids spend their days doing modern American kid stuff: swearing, begging strangers for ice-cream money, spitting off ledges, giving the finger, setting fire to abandoned condos.
The film depicts childhood against a contemporary landscape of access roads and the purple, orange, and green buildings that dot them, garish structures built to house businesses that siphon cash from Disney. The area is a non-neighborhood with the poor as permanent residents. Helicopters take off and land next to Walmarts and gift shops, sometimes blotting out the kids’ swearing. When she talks, the main kid, a 6-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), sounds like Ruth Gordon from Harold and Maude, wacky, cute, and old before her time.
She and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), haul bags of knockoff perfume through parking lots, trying to sell to tourists. When they get kicked out by security guards and can’t make the rent, Halley turns tricks via Craigslist. Her neighbor at the motel, Ashley (Mela Murder), a diner waitress who gives Halley and Moonee free breakfasts, finds out when she sees Halley’s ad, a “swimsuit selfie” cropped at the neck she had Moonee take in their motel bathroom. Halley denies it’s her. “Those are your tats, bitch,” Ashley points out. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Halley’s pastel mint hair and her flower tattoos stand out against the film’s acid-magenta color scheme. Shot on 35mm, The Florida Project brings to life a sticker world of rainbows and unicorns underneath a store sign that reads MACHINE GUN AMERICA. A sad-eyed Willem Dafoe, the motel’s manager, presides over the lives of its “guests,” chasing off creeps and dragging broken ice machines into the two-floor elevator. Church groups feed Moonee and her pals out of vans, while an angry Halley orders plain pizzas for her daughter and explains the facts of life: “Pepperoni costs money.” The movie is a female Good Time, just as vibrant and alive, and it ends the same way, with the principals separated by institutions whose attention they draw when it’s already too late. It joins Moonlight in a new pantheon of Florida-based cinema defined by harsh reality and beautiful sunsets.
Blade Runner 2049
The academic institution of Blade Runner studies takes a hit in this dull, belated sequel to the 1982 Philip K. Dick adaptation. Blade Runner 2049 succeeds for a while as a mood piece, like Woodshock, then does little to justify its existence. Good Time and The Florida Project, movies set in the present, are more about the future than this is. Ryan Gosling is good, underplaying as a replicant hit man named Joe K. after the Kafka character he isn’t much like. His holographic girlfriend, played by Ana de Armas as a manga Audrey Hepburn, is abandoned by the film after a three-way with Gosling and another replicant, so the film blows her up to skyscraper proportions, removing her clothes to taunt him and the film’s audience of fan boys and tenured professors. Her nebulous existence is not made more tragic by turning her into a giant translucent ghost.
The movie’s potential is also undercut by its familiar color scheme, circus-peanut orange and jazz-cup teal, just like in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and any other big Hollywood action movie. No space seems real in this movie. By the time Jared Leto appeared to manipulate floating stones reiki-style in an orange chamber, I had lost any interest in suspending my disbelief. Leto was an arty choice of sorts, but is anybody ever happy to see Jared Leto? Here he plays yet another sinister Hollywood role better suited to Jim Carrey.
Gen X was the original audience for Blade Runner, but this film is an insult to it, or maybe just an unnecessary recapitulation of how things are for that generation. Here, in a reversal of The Force Awakens, Harrison Ford survives and Gosling, his surrogate son, dies. The last shot of the film shows baby-boomer Ford creepily watching his daughter, a maker of memory implants, through a glass partition. Somehow, this generic version of the female has become the creator and repository of false memories, a scrapbooker of all the unnecessary backstories that have been weighing down screenplays since the Spielberg era. At one point we meet some official Hollywood-movie Tribal Scavengers, followed later by some official Hollywood-movie Meaningless Revolutionaries. Since at least the Matrix movies, such figures have heralded a revolution that never comes, though President Donald Sutherland did get trampled to death by rebels in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.
The happy ending in It is that a group of kids beats a clown to death. Today that qualifies as wishful thinking. The clown wanted to divide the kids by their fears, so it makes sense that this 1980s-set film awaits a sequel set in the present, with the kids grown up and returning to their Spielbergian hometown to beat the clown some more. As an evocation of ’80s childhood, It depends on the existence of prior Stephen King adaptations like Stand by Me and the earlier It TV miniseries, as well as The Goonies and recent nostalgia items like Stranger Things. Period-specific music from the Cure, XTC, and New Kids on the Block bolsters the tone, but with all the talk in the movie about how everything floats down here, it’s disappointing that the music supervisor missed Hüsker Dü’s “She Floated Away.” Maybe a check from Warner Bros. would have kept Grant Hart alive a little longer. One difference between this movie and its predecessors is that here all the adults are monsters. There are no nice families, a welcome admission from Hollywood that in the 1980s they were fudging American family life to keep the 1950s on artificial respiration.
Happy Death Day
The sole teen girl in It (Sophia Lillis) decorates her bedroom with Replacements and Young Fresh Fellows posters, for that throwback ’80s feel (plus she’s edgy). In Happy Death Day, which is set in the present, the protagonist (Jessica Rothe) wakes up every morning in a dorm room decorated with posters for the 1980s cult movies Repo Man and They Live. If the film is aiming for the semi-underground insidiousness of those films, it falls short, which is predictable in a movie that’s a self-confessed horror remake of Groundhog Day. The scariest and most mysterious thing about it is that midway through we find out the film takes place in Louisiana. That’s what you call a random reveal.
Before its premise is undercut by its lame ending, Happy Death Day manages to encapsulate three key aspects of the Trump era. (1) We wake up every day from a recurring nightmare in which we are threatened by a homicidal man-baby; (2) a preemptive strike is necessary in dealing with the outside world, where it’s kill or be killed; and (3) we all long to see an amoral bully magically turn into a good person. Rothe is Rachel McAdams’s character from Mean Girls who, through repetitive learning, transforms herself into Glinda, the good witch of her sorority house. In the end, after dispensing with the red herring of a generic serial killer, the film’s villain turns out to be a woman of color (Ruby Modine), who is also the only student in the film with a job. Revealed to be a phony and a cheater after seeming merely obsequious and pathetic, she is done away with so Rothe and her heroic new nerdy boyfriend (Israel Broussard, from The Bling Ring) can sit in a classic diner, where he instructs her on how great Bill Murray was in Ghostbusters during the fade-out.
The Meyerowitz Stories
Noah Baumbach’s new film, with its multiple chapters, feels something like a TV series, too, and is also filled with ’80s references: Danceteria, Cindy Sherman, a clip from Legal Eagles on VHS. The film is a mild Gen X revenge fantasy, in which Baumbach once again ponders the failings of his father, here personified by Dustin Hoffman as a clueless, self-centered artist named Harold. Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller give thoughtful performances as his divorced sons, who argue over their inheritance and come to blows. Sandler is a homebody and house dad who never made it as a musician, Stiller a successful Hollywood financial manager who has moved as far away from Harold as possible. Their sister, Jean, a mousy woman who fades into the background, is nonetheless brought to life by Elizabeth Marvel with the same skill and nuance Sandler and Stiller bring to their characters. After Harold has a stroke, Stiller is able to work things out with Maureen (Emma Thompson), Harold’s fourth wife, an aging hippie who takes trips to Easter Island and Cuba. There’s a happy ending for everybody.
Baumbach’s ability as both a screenwriter and a director of actors has never been more in evidence. Everyone is so perfectly cast and operates at such a high level in The Meyerowitz Stories, including Judd Hirsch as a successful artist and family friend, that I wanted the movie to go on longer. When it went on longer than I expected, I began to feel about the film the same way I felt about Harold’s life: End it. Baumbach’s refusal to kill Harold off reflects his continuing acceptance of generational damage. Now that the next generation, represented by Sandler’s daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), is reaching college age and thriving, Baumbach’s more placid. Or maybe just contented, like the ending of the film. But if the videos Eliza makes at Bard are any indication, the generation after hers may have some issues of its own.
In the past four years, Chadwick Boseman has played Jackie Robinson and James Brown, and now he’s playing Thurgood Marshall. That is a lot of historical and cultural significance for any one actor to bear in less than half a decade. Even in the 1940s, Gary Cooper did not follow Sergeant York and Lou Gehrig with Bix Beiderbecke. Boseman is also starring as the Black Panther in a Marvel superhero movie, so maybe it’s time Hollywood got the message that it has too few black leading men.
Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, in any case, is kind of a superhero movie. We meet Thurgood Marshall in 1941, twenty-six years away from being appointed the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice. He cuts a dashing figure as a lawyer for the NAACP, traveling the country defending black men accused of crimes they did not commit, winning case after case. Betweentimes, he drinks at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where bebop was invented, and hangs out with his lady love (Keesha Sharp) and his pal from school, Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett). It’s the kind of movie where, when another woman walks into the bar, Boseman stands up Errol Flynn–ishly and shouts “Zora!” across the room. Then we meet Zora Neale Hurston, played by Chilli from TLC.
The film covers a trial in which Marshall was dispatched to territory he had never worked before—Connecticut!—where a white society woman (Kate Hudson) has accused her black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) of rape. This time Marshall has to prove a man innocent with his hands tied: a crusty WASP judge (James Cromwell) won’t let Marshall speak in court, so he enlists a local Jewish lawyer (Josh Gad) to appear with him for the defense and to follow his written instructions during the trial. For all its old-school movie élan, the film hews closely to a true story (maybe not the bar fight), and Marshall and Sam Friedman predictably win their case. Marshall should usher in a series called Two-Fisted Tales of the Supreme Court Justices, in which we learn about the early, rambling years of Felix Frankfurter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as they go from town to town, duking it out for the Constitution.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
“What is normal?” asks Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) in this biopic about the Holy Trinity–style birth of the comic book Wonder Woman. Marston, a professor and the author of a tome called Emotions of Normal People, lives with his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), who is also a psychologist, but who isn’t allowed to practice because Harvard won’t issue her a degree. Both are having an affair with one of William’s students. She is Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the niece of Margaret Sanger who, with Olive’s mother, Ethel Byrne, opened America’s first birth-control clinic, in Brooklyn in 1916.
Marston’s theory of human behavior, which he calls DISC theory, holds that people can only be happy when submitting to some kind of discipline, which they must learn to accept and love in a mature, responsible way. Angela Robinson, who wrote and directed the film, follows Marston’s line of thinking as he and Elizabeth observe a humdrum spanking party at Olive’s sorority and struggle to invent the first functional lie detector, which finally works when they strap Olive to it and ask her which of them she loves. (Both of them, as it happens.)
After the Marstons are dismissed from Harvard for their sexual nonconformism, William studies a bunch of Tijuana bibles he picks up in a Manhattan sex shop that also sells bondage gear. The idea for Wonder Woman hits him in a eureka moment, at least in the movie. Then Elizabeth modifies it and Olive models the costume. In 1941, the same year Thurgood Marshall was defending that innocent chauffeur in Connecticut, the publisher of Superman and Batman began printing copies of Wonder Woman in New York. Starting then, the Marstons hope, the masses will come to lead healthy lives by reading cleaned-up smutty comics featuring a female superhero who comes from a Sapphic island, wears a skimpy star-spangled outfit, and is frequently depicted tied up when she’s not using a lasso to get the truth out of men.
Instead, Marston’s heroine is accused of promoting “violence, torture, and sadomasochism,” three things, along with patriotism, that become more prominent during wartime. The film, to its detriment, plays such things down. In the early 1950s, Marston’s publisher orders him to tame his Wonder Woman stories and “cut the kink,” the same way the film already has. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women makes an argument for the emancipatory effects of polyamory, but the whole thing comes off as quaint, with the hulking Evans a John Wayne in Wayne’s tweed suit from The Quiet Man, Hall a desexualized intellectual Olive Oyl mixed with 1930s character actress Edna May Oliver, and Heathcote as much Kewpie doll as proto-superhero.
Harry Dean Stanton
The reopened Quad Cinema in Manhattan is still so new that the ticket seller asks if you want a senior discount even if you’re only middle-aged and have gray hair. Take it from someone who once had your job, kid: even if Warren Buffett shows up to see something in your Greta Gerwig Selects series, he’ll be all too happy to ask for the senior discount himself.
Harry Dean Stanton, existential journeyman of marginal movies, died in September at age 91, old by any standard. The youthful Quad had already programmed a retrospective of this singular actor’s films in anticipation of Lucky, a new one starring Stanton, which the theater premiered in New York. I went to see Death Watch, a 1980 French-British coproduction directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Tavernier casts Stanton against type as a TV executive who hires Harvey Keitel to film Romy Schneider’s last days. She’s dying from a fatal illness, a rarity in this futuristic setting. Stanton’s exec thinks her decline would make good television, in this movie made two decades before the onset of reality TV. After the film, my date and I went to the Quad bar for a drink, where David Bowie’s Blackstar was playing on the sound system.
In Lucky, Stanton plays the resident of a desert town in Arizona who follows a rigorous schedule of exercising in his underwear, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee in a diner while doing the newspaper crossword puzzle, buying more cigarettes, then watching game shows at home before going to a bar, where he isn’t allowed to smoke but tries to anyway. As a valedictory for Stanton’s life and career, the film is minor and low-key, a less fussy Jarmusch film in which Stanton’s Lucky muses on his past as a child in Kentucky and as a Navy man during World War II. He faces his future by proclaiming there is no soul and that nothing matters after you’re dead.
As a character actor in the 1970s, Stanton already looked death-haunted, his gaunt face a signal to leading men that he had seen things they hadn’t. When he got his chance as lead himself, in 1984 in Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, he did not change. He ramped up his character actor’s severity, a kind of sliding (or burrowing) into scenes, and came off more worse for the wear than ever, more fatalistic, his drawl more deadpan and serious, more intense—a word his character associates with his life and his profession in Repo Man.
His battered soul, or whatever it was, and his haggard face found their equivalent in the long silences in Wenders’s film, but more so, I think, in the cracked speeches Cox wrote for him. “Not many people got a code to live by anymore,” he told Emilio Estevez in Repo Man, becoming a father figure for the deadbeat-dad generation as he conned Estevez’s Otto into helping him repossess a car. The car, he tells Otto, using the most fake-sincere voice he can muster, is in “a bad area.” Stanton plays against Cox’s sarcasm throughout the movie, becoming parental when Otto irks him. “Not happy in your job?” he asks him in mock concern, unlit cigarette in hand. “I feel like we’re not communicating anymore.” Unceremoniously shot by cops after violating his code, Stanton asks for a cigarette as he’s dying. Earlier in the film, driving around at night, looking out on the LA freeway, he summed up the milieu he was in but not of: “All these people, man. They all have one person in each car. The city wants us to carpool. Nobody gives a shit.”