Wednesday, March 23, 2022

'The Eyes of Tammy Faye': that woman's a saint


The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Dir: Michael Showalter

Scr: Abe Sylvia

Pho: Mike Gioulakis


Is it possible to be a pure person? Guileless, full of good will, seeking only to unite the worlds of God and man? This is not a question asked in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a biopic that portrays its central character as a kind of secular saint. The spectacular central performance of Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker makes it worth the watch, but her tales of success and suffering is really an indulgence in alternative history.

Chastain is so vibrant in her rendition of the televangelist that everyone around her pales away, seems dowdy even. She loves Jesus, she wants to spread the Gospel, she wants to help people, even reaching out to AIDS patients at a time when most of society shuns them (she remains a gay icon). If only she could trust those around her! No one has cried as much, in as many ways, as Chastain does here as Tammy Faye.

But how true is any of this? The film must walk a fine line between mocking its subjects and taking them seriously, erring on the side of seriousness when in doubt. Andrew Garfield, playing husband Jim Bakker, is the architect of her doom but does not seem to have enough going on upstairs to be a criminal. The corrupt and philandering TV preacher is played as an affable doofus.

We see the on-screen confessions, the pleas for money, we see the telephones ring with incoming pledges. Conveniently, we don't examine too closely this shearing of the faithful flock – it’s means to an end, so that our principal players can agonize in vulgarly deluxe surroundings. In the end the Bakkers seem less like sinners and more like victims of bad luck.

By film’s end, Tammy Faye’s face has assumed the grotesque appearance of a Kabuki warrior. Her makeup is a shield against the harshness of the world. We feel sympathy for her, but we are sealed off from really knowing her, unless Tammy Faye was as shallow and literal-minded as she appears to be here. The Eyes of Tammy Faye gives us not a character so much as a heroine.

'The Power of the Dog': Repression on the prairie


The Power of the Dog

Dir: Jane Campion

Prod: 11 listed

Scr: Jane Campion

Pho: Ari Wegner


The Power of the Dog is a tough nut to crack. It’s a horror movie disguised as a Western.

The monster in question is Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who runs a family ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) around the turn of last century. Phil is a twisted and bitter soul, endlessly rude and demeaning to all around him. When George finds love with and marries widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), she moves into their echoing and dusty mansion with her effeminate teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Phil’s contempt blossoms into constant harassment of the two newcomers. Rose responds by taking to drink, while Peter chooses another path to dealing with Phil’s aggression. His quiet quest for vengeance leads the film in an entirely unexpected direction.

So where are we? The hills director/screenwriter Jane Campion films in stand for Montana, though they look nothing like (Campion is from and shoots in New Zealand). The trappings of the Western are there, but Campion uses the form to examine conceptions of masculinity. Phil’s secret and suppressed yearning for men feeds his simmering rage, but he turns gruffly tender towards Peter as time passes. The film is full of, and makes great play with, the contradictions.

Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner create a palette of grays and browns, emphasizing the dreary same ness of the landscape. Cumberbatch delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the conflicted Phil, and the rest of the ensemble is equally strong. The film places its focus on the repercussions of the macho ethos, its only resolution death and destruction.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

'CODA': No ordinary story



Dir: Sian Heder

Prod: 13 listed

Scr: Sian Heder

Pho: Paula Huidobro


CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults. It also means the final passage of a piece of music. The double meaning perfectly expresses the scope of this coming-of-age film, which has earned some Oscar nods along the way. Of all the Best Picture nominees this year, this comes the closest to good, old-fashioned movies of the past – straightforward and heartfelt.

Now, is it a crime to be heartfelt? Nowadays something that isn’t inherently cynical doesn’t stand much of a chance in movie theaters. CODA breaks through with a solid story and a gallery of great performances.

It’s the story of 17-year-old Ruby, the only hearing person in a deaf family of four. They fish for a living in Glouchester, Massachusetts, and Ruby is weighing her choices for after high school. She latches onto her love for singing as a way to make to the prestigious Berklee College of Music. She wrestles with her feelings of loyalty to her family, for whom she serves as an important mediary with the hearing world.

The film is itself an adaptation of the 2014 French film The Belier Family, but it is so strongly grounded in behavior and atmosphere as to be and original creation. The acting ensemble selected for this film is excellent in every respect, including Emilia Jones as the feisty Ruby, and the equally compelling Troy Kotsur as her father and Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as her mother. Daniel Durant, as her brother, and Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s snappy music teacher, are also top-notch.

Will Ruby get into Berklee? Can her family make it without her around to interpret? With humor and deep feeling, CODA is infused with humor and deep feeling, turning what could have been a run-of-the-mill story into something memorable. Kudos to writer and director Sian Heder for pulling it off.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

'Licorice Pizza' review: a shaggy dog story


Licorice Pizza

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

Prod: 8 listed

Scr: Paul Thomas Anderson

Pho: Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Bauman


Nostalgia is cheap, but it’s tough to pull off convincingly. It’s easy to stir up rosy rememberings of times gone by, and the past soon becomes a playground for the fond imagination – unless you get the details wrong. Such is not the case with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, a ‘70s coming-of-age dramedy that features the breakout performance of its new-to-film leads, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. It’s a clever, lightweight movie that is happy to tell some shaggy dog stories to while away your time.

Like many of Anderson’s films, it’s a fanciful look at a particular era, in which the San Fernando Valley serves as a kind of gas-crisis era Brigadoon, an enchanted place where things happen, but serious things don’t, where the grown-ups are all seemingly morons or maniacs. Of this milieu is 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Hoffman), an erstwhile child actor who is aging out of his profession. At his high-school Picture Day he meets 25-year-old Alana (Haim), the photographer’s assistant. For Gary, it’s love at first sight; for Alana, it’s annoying.

What follows are the somewhat random adventures of the two on their way to a forseeable future together. Anderson spices up the story with star character turns – Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, Sean Penn – that keep the audience alert. It’s all in good fun. Gary tries to become a waterbed entrepreneur; Gary opens a pinball arcade. Alana drifts from job to job and tries out various men for size; they don’t suit her.

The biggest reason to see the film is to watch the lanky, awkward, and beautiful Alana Haim. She’s obviously a new actress, but she’s refreshingly readable, open and disingenuous to a degree not seen since Richard Linklater’s cast of unknowns in his ‘70s high-school saga Dazed and Confused. Haim is a heart-stealer, and her presence keeps the interest alive even when the movie ambles down some dead-end paths.

Those looking for a linear story will be quite frustrated, but for those with patience, Licorice Pizza is rewarding.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

'Nightmare Alley' review: a delicious darkness


Nightmare Alley

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

Prod: Bradley Cooper, J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro, T.K. Knowles, John O’Grady

Scr: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan

Pho: Dan Laustsen


Guillermo del Toro’s new film Nightmare Alley is for mature audiences only, as it deals in human darkness. It’s downbeat, definitely not in the escapist mood so many of us seem to want in our movies these days. However, it’s a gem.

Del Toro is a director whose new work I race to go see. His mythic imagination and his consummate skill behind the camera leads to dependable, memorable results. Such is the case of his newest effort, a perfectly pitched film noir packed with acting talent, a dark parable about overreaching ambition, power, cruelty, and delusion.

The film is descended from the 1946 noir novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. It also stands in the shadow of a riveting 1947 film adaptation by Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power, which lost its punch at the end as it strove to avoid a downbeat ending. Del Toro doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the original story; he restores its bitter conclusion.

The story is set in America on the eve of World War II. In a refreshing touch, everyone smokes. All the time. In this universe, it’s either raining or snowing. Vagabond criminal Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), on the run from a mysterious and sadistic past, joins a seedy traveling carnival. There he finds other outcasts from society, including Willem Dafoe as “outside talker” Clem and Ron Perlman as Bruno, the strongman and carny boss. The casting is impeccable, and del Toro puts A-list actors into even the seemingly smallest parts (Mary Steenburgen as a grieving mother, Richard Jenkins as a ferociously twisted tycoon), giving the film a weight it might otherwise have lacked.

Carlisle is manipulative and ambitious. He finds out about a fake mentalist act crafted by Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her washed-up, drunken partner Pete (David Strathairn), and schemes to run it himself with his paramour, the young and innocent “Electrical Girl Molly (Rooney Mara). Soon, the two are entertaining high society and headlining fancy clubs

It’s a modern version of the Rake’s Progress, the upward arc and downward collapse of a wayward man. Stanton gets greedy, planning on a “spook show” (fake spiritualism) to make even more money off his rich clientele. He soon runs afoul of a cold, calculating femme fatale, the shady psychotherapist Lilith Ritter (the marvelous icy Cate Blanchett)

It’s also the classic noir plot – conniving woman leads man to his doom – and save for the color photography, it could be a film from the 1940s (save for a savage moment with a live chicken). In fact, de Toro and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen prepared a special black-and-white cut of the film for re-release, a tribute to the pre-color aesthetic.

The film noir is processed through del Toro’s imagination and expands into something closer to a morality play, much as it processed Hammer Studios-type horror into the hallucinatory trippiness of Crimson Peak, and turned the Creature from the Black Lagoon into a romantic hero in The Shape of Water.

“Is he man or beast?” is the question posed at the start of the show, and in Nightmare Alley, del Toro comes down firmly in favor of the latter. It’s not for everyone, but will richly reward those unafraid of the dark.

Friday, March 11, 2022

'Dune' review: a meticulous epic



Dir: Denis Villeneuve

Scr: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth

Pho: Greig Fraser


World-building is exhausting. It takes a dogged individual to achieve a tremendous, big-budget vision on film. This Denis Villeneuve has done in this most recent iteration of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune, a project that has daunted such imaginative directors as Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch. In the process, conjures up an epic that is at its best majestic and at its intermittent worst is ponderous and glum.

That there are 24 producers listed on Villeneuve’s new adaptation of, is testament to the scope of the new project. In that way also it attests to how this new Dune has an industrial feel to it, something consciously engineered rather than inspired. It is an efficient entertainment.

The director and his team craft a unified, believable world, or worlds, rather. For this saga involves a spacescape populated by a vast assortment of characters. It is at heart a romantic fantasy, populated with rival houses, as in Game of Thrones. The House Atreides (Oscar Isaac is the paterfamilias, Duke Leto; Timothee Chalamet plays his son Paul, the linchpin of the story) is dispatched by the galactic Emperor to the desert planet of Arrakis aka Dune. There it is to produce and control the mining and distribution of a hallucinogenic “spice,” a magical substance vital to the functioning of interstellar travel, found only there.

Intrigue derives from the sinister attentions of House Harkonnen, led by an unrecognizable Baron (Stellan Skarsgard). It seeks the downfall of Leto by means of surprise attack. Paul and his mother, the concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are thrown into the hostile environment of Dune. And this, 2 hours and 35 minutes later, is as far as we get in the story, for indeed this is only Part One.

The story’s leisurely pace allows us to feast our eyes on the lush cinematography of Greig Fraser and on Patrice Vermette’s elaborate and well-conceived production design. But the pace is deadening, even as characters issue exposition and set up conflicts with a kind of dull obedience. This Dune is a somber affair. It lacks even the hallucinatory intensity of Lynch’s failed 1984 version of the story, which has remained despised critically, but maintains a shaggy vitality not present here.

This Dune is impeccably crafted, but its immensities mute the human story within it.