Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 10: The Anatomy Book

10/9/17 – 10/17/17

All right, I’m in a bad mood, so I’m going to blow through all this stuff. Which was sort of the idea behind this diary, and I’ve just let everything get long. Anyway:
On Friday, I finished reading Cops and Robbers by Donald E. Westlake. It’s about two New York cops, one a plainclothes detective, the other a uniformed beat cop, who are best friends and live very near each other. One, Joe, the beat cop, decides to rob a convenience store one night. An impulse comes over him. He confides in Tom, the detective. The two decide to pull a big heist and retire. The plan, which eventually involves $12 million in bearer bonds and the mob, if a bit goofy, but while nowhere near the darkest book Westlake ever wrote, Cops and Robbers is not the light caper I was expecting. There’s incredible tension during the job itself, and in the cops’ dealings with the mob. More importantly, Westlake shows why Tom and Joe are fed up with the job, and with New York, without ever really excusing their turn towards crime, or even bothering to make them especially likable. His empathy is at a distance. He just tells the story of what these two guys did, and you are free to judge or not, root for them or not. I thought it was pretty terrific.
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After his ridiculously titled (but not, I didn’t think, all that bad) debut Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, David Lowery defied what certainly had been my expectations for him by making a remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. “Huh,” is I think what I said when I heard the news. I haven’t seen it yet. But now maybe I will, because he’s third film, the nothing-if-not-ambitious A Ghost Story mostly won me over. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a young married couple, A Ghost Story is known, mostly, for two things: it’s the movie where Casey Affleck dies and comes back as a ghost that takes the form of the traditional low-rent child’s Halloween costume of a sheet with two holes for eyes, and for a scene where Mara, terribly aggrieved, sits on the floor eating pie. I think the sheet thing ultimately works wonders, I can’t really explain why, or anyway I don’t currently feel like trying. The pie scene is dumb, in the same way a later scene, involving Will Oldham (in, I believe, the only other speaking role) babbling on smugly about the universe and mankind, saying a bunch of stuff everyone already knows or can work out for themselves, pretty much. Both scenes fail because Lowery is suddenly reaching for profundity, telling the audience “Here’s me, being profound, or at least memorable.” They don’t fit with the rest of the film, which is slow, weirdly unassuming and unassumingly weird, eventually transforming into something huge and actually powerful. All the best stuff in A Ghost Story arrives quietly, without announcing itself through a horn bleat. It’s only gradually that I realized how original it really is.
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78/52 is a documentary by Alexandre O. Phillippe about the making of the shower scene in Psycho. It’s a talking head thing, mostly, with a bunch of critics, film historians, famous fans, and experts (like Walter Murch) explaining the importance and brilliance of the most famous murder scene in the history of movies. Sounds good to me, and a lot of it is, but to get there you have to sit through maybe a half hour of “What you have to remember about American in the 1950s” jerk-off horseshit, the kind of thin, dull sounds-smart-but-isn’t “analysis” that is unavoidable because anyone can provide it. But when the film finally deals with the technical and aesthetic achievements of the scene, and of Psycho overall, and just lets loose with pure enthusiasm for a great film. 78/52 becomes pretty winning. I’d have given them ten bucks to cut Bret Easton Ellis from the movie, though.
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I’ve been anxious to seen Noah Baumbach’s new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) ever since I first heard about it. In addition to being quite a fan of Baumbach (yes, I liked While We’re Young), it also marks the return by Adam Sandler to serious acting. This might seem like a silly thing to be excited about, but come on – we’ve all seen Punch-Drunk Love. We know what he’s capable of. And here, he proves he’s still capable of it, playing a character both similar to and quite different from Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love. As Danny Meyerowitz, son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), an elderly, prickly, infuriating artist whose career never took off either critically or commercially, Sandler again plays a shy man prone to angry outbursts, but this time he is also, shyness aside, demonstrably mature (mostly) and socially functional (mostly). His relationship with his daughter (Grace Van Patten) is very sweet, and free of the kind of blow-up/reconciliation arc that gets rubber-stamped onto most films about families. Van Patten is really terrific, too, and I love the way her character is written: when Eliza, the daughter, is present in scenes of family turmoil, and The Meyerowitz Stories has plenty of those, you can see Eliza quietly helping make things easier, even if it’s just helping someone across a room, to the degree she can. She’s a good kid, which Baumbach simply lets the audience witness.
It’s not all Sandler and Van Patten, though. Ben Stiller plays the other Meyerowitz son, the successful one who moved from New York to Los Angeles. This is a cliché, but plays as real. For example, simply because Stiller’s Matthew is successful, this doesn’t mean he’s an asshole. He and Danny are two distinct people who still feel like siblings, who have a difficult father and are just trying to get through it. As their sister Jean, Elizabeth Marvel feels like an outsider, because she is. She’s not one of the sons, so the drama does not revolve around her. Of course, it does, as it revolves around everybody, but she alone knows that.
Everyone’s great. This is one of Stiller’s best performances, too, and one of Hoffman’s best in years. Emma Thompson plays Hoffman’s alcoholic new-ish wife, and she not only plays it with great authenticity, but the way everybody mostly just lets her go in favor of just getting on with their day felt right, too. Also, it’s funny.
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I also watched Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, and I’m going to be blunt about this: I loved it, and as each day passes I feel like I love it more. I have a reasonably good memory of Don Siegel’s original (itself an adaptation of a novel by Thomas Cullinan), and this one seems pretty faithful, in terms of plot and whatnot. But visually, Coppola heightens, to great effect, the Gothic nature of the story, about a Union soldier (Colin Farrell) during the Civil War who has been wounded, and fled the Virginia battlefield. He’s found by a young girl who is one of the few students left at a local girls’ school. The school is run by Nicole Kidman, seconded by Kirsten Dunst, and they agree to take the soldier in. What happens after that might inspire the use of words like “hothouse” and “repression.” Ferrell, a handsome man, uses his charms to both seduce, or try to, the women and older girls (including a rather snotty Elle Fanning), for his own pleasure and for the game of it all. This may or may not go down well with Kidman, etc.
Which makes The Beguiled sound like a horror film, but it isn’t. Everything that happens happens not because of evil intentions but rather human failings. You could describe the set up of the story, and a reasonable person could predict a lot of the rest of it, just due to having lived in a world of people. Farrell is a villain, of a sort, but no one in the film suffers more than he does, and it would be hard to argue the he deserved every bit of it. There’s a critical phrase that I believe has turned into a cliché, and I don’t know which film it was originally applied to, but in any case it applies here: watching The Beguiled is like watched a slow-motion car crash. It’s all insanely green, drooping trees and dim white pillared mansions, and wounds, and lack of medical experience, and terror, and pragmatic violence. It’s so good.
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Brawl in Cell Block 99, writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s follow up to his horror-Western cult hit debut Bone Tomahawk, is fuckin’ nuts. Which fans of Bone Tomahawk might have expected. I certainly did, but this? It stars Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a former addict gone straight with his former addict wife (Jennifer Carpenter). In the first scene, Bradley loses his job. He comes home to discover that his wife has been having an affair. After beating the living shit out of a car, Bradley calms down and he and his wife talk about their problems. It’s decided – well, Bradley decides – that he’s going to go back to dealing drugs. Eventually he’s earning good money – his boss is rich – and his wife is pregnant. Then a job goes wrong, but instead of bailing on a bad situation, Bradley puts his freedom on the line to help the cops who’ve busted their deal, so that none of those cops are killed.
Once in prison, everything gets worse and worse (prison is not depicted favorably) until he’s ordered by Udo Kier to get put in maximum security prison so that he can kill a man held there in cell block 99, thereby squaring the books with the cartel guys who lost out big on the ruined deal, and saving his wife, who’s been kidnapped, and is being threatened with absolutely hideous tortures, to be administered by a black market Korean abortionist.
So Brawl in Cell Block 99 is that kind of movie. Bradley’s hardships are so intense, and the villains are so incredibly vile, that any audience member who doesn’t find their bloodlust to be whipped into an absolute maelstrom by the end of this may not be a human person. What I found odd about the film is how for a while it seems to want to strike a more or less realistic tone, until, that is, Bradley ends up in maximum security. That prison is not like any prison that exists on Earth, but neither, I eventually decided, is it meant to resemble one. Rough verisimilitude in the first half or no, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is finally a lunatic exploitation cavalcade, with just enough of that realism (helped along by Vaughn and Carpenter, who are both very good) lingering to make this crazy thing actually kind of moving at times. But moving in a way that fucks with you. That last shot, man…

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