Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

[3 stars}

We all know Mapplethorpes (both sides: people, flowers), Worhals, Lichtensteins, Michaelangelos, Calders, Pollacks, Van Gogh, Banksys, and Degas (the list can go on and on), if not by name by familiar sight. But did you ever wonder why you knew them? Why, when these artists were pushing the boundaries of art, who was it that was explaining to the world why it mattered? Or, at least, convinced the world it mattered. In centuries past, it was dynasties like the Medici. In current times it is critics and collectors who have the ear of the museums and media.

The Square attempted to tackle this question a couple years ago in fiction. But this documentary takes on the life and impact of a single man who was a fulcrum point for many artistic movements and shifts in public perception, not to mention culture: Sam Wagstaff. Not a name that comes trippingly to the tongue, but an important one nonetheless.

Learning about Wagstaff’s life and impact are the best parts of James Crump’s documentary, which is otherwise extremely staid, dry, and in its way, scholarly. In other words this 80ish minute walk through history and lives is more like a class lesson than a gripping bit of documentary. That doesn’t make it less interesting, but certainly shrinks its audience to the PBS crowd even if the subject matter might intrigue a wider group.

Despite the title, this really is about Wagstaff, with some passing information on his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe is important to Wagstaff’s story, but the title is a bit misleading. Mapplethorpe was a flashpoint in American art, arts funding, and the government. He was the tipping point that conservatives used to start killing the NEA and NEH and using it, instead, as a propaganda machine for conservative values. The terrified conservatives weren’t completely successful, but you can trace the approach and hate and battle that is going on today between government funding for the arts in a fairly straight line back to the early 80s and artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano.

This is far from a great documentary, but it is some interesting background and a huge amount of visual representation, video and stills, of the pieces involved. Many people, including Patti Smith, who knew the men well provide first-hand accounts of their lives and interactions. As a lesson in art history it is a nicely condensed overview of Wagstaff and his life and impact, with nods to Mapplethorpe. As a question raised as to the veracity of taste and what drives what is accepted, it is somewhat intriguing. As a movie, even as a first documentary for Crump, it is middling but for its willingness to show and discuss material that is often avoided.

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud)

[3.5 stars]

Louis Malle’s (Vanya on 42nd Street) second film, dating from 1958, is an entertaining look at noir. From its opening moments to its close the story spins out of control in unexpected ways, headed toward a conclusion that has many possibilities; none of them likely good. Hey, it’s noir. But it isn’t quite the noir you know and expect. This story owes much to Dassin’s Rififi, particularly its treatment of silence and its quiet building of character.

The story is primarily guided through the inner dialogue of an emotive Jeanne Moreau in her breakout roll. Moreau is a light amid the beautifully filmed, dark night of the story. It also boasts a score and performance by Miles Davis, which deepens the sense of emotion and thickens the Parisian night into something almost palpable.

Though over 60 years old, the movie manages to hold up in many ways, though it’s style feels a little forced and dated. But it is a taut 90 minutes and, though aspects feel like bad writing, much more of it comes together than you’d expect. And it is an early look at one of the huge influencers of cinema.

Capernaum

[3.5 stars]

There is a lot of hyperbole (and awards) thrown around about Nadine Labaki’s (Where Do We Go Now?) latest film. And they are deserved. As with her other work, she is brilliant at exposing humanity in the most impossible circumstances. She doesn’t give into dramatic cliche in order to rivet you to the screen, she employs simple truths and and hard choices along with quiet moments of desperation and joy to do it. She invites you into areas of the world few, if any, of her viewers would have experienced and makes you understand.

This film, more than her others, is relentless in its message and, for lack of a better term, existential horror. There are few moments of respite or joy. But it was the right choice for the story she wanted to tell. To have falsely buoyed the characters would have been to cheat the tale.

The entire story depends upon the slender thread of first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea. He is an unbelievably charismatic and powerful presence, despite his age and stature. In an intersecting story, Yordanos Shiferaw, also new to screen, delivers her own gripping tale.

You may be wondering, as I was, what the title meant. It isn’t a word, it is a place…and it adds an entire level of commentary to the story. But, frankly, better to discover that afterwards as it is a bit self-conscious.

This isn’t a fun film, to be honest. You’ll find yourself angry, sad, and, at times, likely yelling at the screen. The subtitles also sometimes flash so quickly (less than a second) as to be unreadable…but I didn’t find any of the gaps to be unfillable by logic and flow. Still, it was a shame to have such a simple technical blemish on the experience. Ultimately, the movie will not leave you feeling hopeless, but the trip is a little exhausting…much to Labaki’s credit, you’ll thank her for that.

The Kid Who Would Be King

[3 stars]

When Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) took on the Arthur legend, the hope was for something like Excalibur by way of Time Bandits. And while there are slight nods to both, it is really more just a solid kid’s film with some humor and light action, but none of the dark, satyric edge of his previous effort. This may not have been the film anticipated, but in some ways it is the right movie for the right audience now. And, certainly, it is a better reconception than the other recent Arthur movie.

Louis Ashbourne Serkis (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is nicely earnest in the lead, if a little lacking in levels. And his gang of knights, Dean Chaumoo, Rhianna Dorris, and Tom Taylor (Dark Tower), all turn in similarly appropriate performances for the feel of the tale.

In truth, though, Angus Imrie (Kingdom) and Patrick Stewart (Logan) steal whatever thunder there is to steal. Imrie’s performance is unselfconsciously weird and Stewart gets to play it up as well.

Denise Gough (Colette), as Serkis’s mother is suitably mother-like without being too smarmy. While Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) never really gets to stretch her wings as the big bad. She spends the entire film in a harsh whisper that is promising and foreboding, but never really comes off as entirely threatening.

But the tale itself is only part of the story here. Sure, there is adventure and action and humor, to a degree. But the message, just like the book it mirrors, is the real point. And in today’s world, perhaps that is more appropriate. I did enjoy myself through the two hour jaunt. It isn’t a simple film, fortunately, taking some pains to have some bits of reality, but neither is it really aimed at adults. So go in for the mindless fun or to share with a tween of your choosing. I think Cornish is capable of much more and much better…especially if let off his leash. The result here smacks of a studio panicking and forcing him to scale back from the very sensibility that probably landed him the job.

Fosse/Verdon

[3 stars]

I usually wait for a series to complete before writing it up. But watching the initial episode of Fosse/Verdon I was struck by a couple of aspects immediately that brought me to post.

First, if you really want to see the genius that was Fosse, see All That Jazz. The infamous movie covers many of the same questions and issues (not to mention scenes), but presents it much better. And, as meta to the whole thing, Fosse directed which gives you a real example of what a great editor Fosse was in pulling that film together.

Second, was that Michelle Williams (Venom) makes a very credible Gwen Verdon, much more so than Sam Rockwell (Vice) does Fosse. Rockwell has none of the charisma nor physicality that was Fosse, he just comes across as sweaty and slimy. Williams, on the other hand, had Verdon’s look, sound, and movement down beautifully. The story also gives Verdon her due for her own genius and contributions to what we think of as Fosse alone in the general public history.

But the bigger question is why do we need this series when there are hours and hours of archival footage, as well as some of the principals still being alive? I imagine you could argue that this was intended as a dramatization to help us see more, but the drama isn’t that gripping and the ‘impersonators’ aren’t that good…but, then again, we are still seeing some of these people walking around, so why try to imitate them. Why not wait another 10 or 20 years when a retrospective look as a drama may be less haunted by the present?

Admittedly, it is early in the series, and perhaps I know more than the average or intended viewer about this power couple that helped set the template for modern musicals. But, generally, the audience for this story is going to be older by virtue of the subject…and Fosse and Verdon aren’t history to them, they’re a part of their lives. Creators and writers Thomas Kail and  Steven Levenson certainly have a love for the subject, but they aren’t up to the task of emulating Fosse or Verdon in pulling together this story. Frankly, it is best seen as an appetizer to digging into the opus of both those artists rather than as an end unto itself. And, perhaps, that makes it valuable to a new generation of viewers who weren’t aware of these two Broadway and film greats.

I’ll be giving it an other episode or so to see if they can pull me in, but my first impressions aren’t overly enthusiastic, even if they aren’t completely negative.

 

Hellboy (2019)

[2 stars]

I made every effort to go into this remake with an open mind. But, I admit, it wasn’t easy. I happen to love Guillermo Del Toro’s work, whether it is fantastical love stories like Shape of Water, Keiju madness like Pacific Rim, Gothic horror like Crimson Peak, or the comic book, wry insanity of Hellboy. In other words, this reboot had a long row to hoe for me…especially as we never (and will likely never) get the completion of Del Toro’s trilogy of the character. Add to this that Ron Perlman made Hellboy his so completely that David Harbour (Stranger Things) was at a double disadvantage.

To be honest, Harbour does fine as a younger version of Perlman’s Hellboy…except that isn’t the story that is being told. The root of the story isn’t horrible, however ham-handedly constructed. But for some insane reason Andrew Cosby (Eureka), rather than write a prequel or some kind of sequel, decided to rehash and rewrite the origin story Del Toro had already put on screen. That alone ate up about 20 minutes or more of the screen time. And the structure of the movie is weak as well. Cosby’s lack of skill had him telling huge chunks of the story in flashback because he couldn’t find a way to put the information into the current time frame of the movie. Flashbacks are useful tools, but they are also the fallback for a lazy writer. Director Neil Marshall (Doomsday) does what he can with the junk tale, but is as much at fault for accepting the script in the first place.

But flashbacks are only part of the problem. The movie has no heart and no real relationships. It has fight scenes and blood. Allowing or assuming that action can replace character work is a huge error. Del Toro’s movies had plenty of action (though a LOT less gore) but were very much about the people. This story gives us no connection, no purchase, and very little appreciation of the relationships.

In the end, it it’s a waste of Milla Jovovich (Shock and Awe), Ian McShane (John Wick: Chapter 2), Sasha Lane (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), and Daniel Dae Kim (Mirai). Even the smaller parts are diminished for Thomas Haden Church (John Carter) and Sophie Okonedo (Mayday, Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka). Kim and Lane come closest to having a storyline and characters that we can invest in, but they are never fully developed. And Hellboy himself is an empty cipher.

So, in short, skip this. It doesn’t deserve your time. Go back to the original or even just  the comics. Frankly, there are just better ways to spend a couple hours, despite any earnest attempts by the cast to spin gold from moldy flax.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything

[3 stars]

As his first feature directing and co-writing (with Luke Matheny) Rob Meyer put together a sweet coming-of-age tale. It isn’t particularly better than many others of its genre, but it is certainly enjoyable and has some very good moments and humor.

The story centers around Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Apocalypse) and his struggle with his father and soon-to-be step-mother. The parents are played nicely by Daniela Lavender (Learning to Drive) and James LeGros (Nostalgia) but the script doesn’t really help them much. The situation and conversations are a little forced, and the parenting skills suspect, at best.

Smit-McPhee is joined by a motley collection of, well, nerds. Alex Wolff (Hereditary) and Katie Chang get some nice stories of their own. While Michael Chen is little more than a sad cliche.

The best, smaller role is unsurprisingly brought in by Ben Kingsley (The Jungle Book). Kingsley, with barely 5 minutes on screen, puts together the most memorable character of the film.

When this released in 2013, it was more unique and interesting. But a lot has happened in the intervening years. The world is more stressed and the expectations for films about young love have shifted. But, while it may not be best in class, it is certainly 90 minutes well spent. You won’t be sorry you got to know these characters, but it isn’t a movie you’re likely to come back to again.

Mirai

[3 stars]

Mamoru Hosoda’s (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) latest is hard to pin down. Despite the trappings of a children’s movie, this is an adult film about raising children through the eyes of a child. But the tight perspective of a two year old isn’t exactly complete. The result is somewhat mixed as it whips back and forth between a very honest look at parenting, intense sexism, and the tantrums and fantasies (maybe) of the older sibling when their new, baby sister is brought home.

The American voice cast is actually a seamless substitution, so I stuck with that this round. John Cho (Searching) and Rebecca Hall (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women) deliver a believably strained couple that are still devoted to one another and their family, despite obvious issues. There are also a number of smaller roles. Daniel Dae Kim (Insurgent) has the most interesting, if brief, appearance and effect on the tale. And Jaden Waldman, as the tantrumming todder in question, drives it all believably in his first major role, if a bit shrilly at times.

I’m not really sure who the audience is for this movie. It will strike chords for many. It will make others cringe. And even with the multiple fantasy sequences, I can’t see it really holding the attention of children, who would find the story more than a little obscured. The animation itself is also a mixed bag, with computer generated moments conflicting visually with more traditional looking animation. It is an interesting story, if not as gripping as Hosoda’s previous offerings, at least for me. The sum total of all that left me not unhappy that I saw the film, but not overly enthusiastic with recommending it. For those with young children, or had them recently, it will probably resonate best. But if you’re in the mood for a new and magical animation experience, wait till you’re ready for more of a family drama with a bit of fantasy.

Cold War

[3.5 stars]

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski follows up his 2013 Ida with another black and white masterpiece that looks at the personal tragedy of politics and war. Evoking the likes of Bergman, Bertolucci, and Felini, in the composition if not the story construction, Cold War examines where love fits into war and repressive society. Or it looks at the struggles of love with that as the metaphor…it really depends on how cynical you are.

Unlike Ida, this story is seen primarily through the perspective of Tomasz Kot rather than Joanna Kulig (Hanna), the strong woman at the center of the script. Using Kot as the story lens feels a little odd as Kulig drives most of the action; but it is more his story than in the end. And, despite the historical context, the story could easily have happened anywhere in the world. The film stays very focused on couple as their relationship ebbs, flows, and evolves. However, the struggles of Eastern Bloc politics provides some interesting historical insight and emotional tension without becoming the typical thriller.

One of the films greatest strengths, and conversely its weaknesses, is just how beautifully it is filmed. Much like Ida, every shot is gorgeously composed. So much so it is self-conscious, rather than the very real, open, and equally beautiful work done by its Oscar competitor Roma. That choice keeps you at a distance, making you consider the action rather than be absorbed into it. It works for the intent, but it makes it a little emotionally distant; more a painting to observe than a film to escape into. It is ultimately still very effective and well executed, but this self-conscious aspect may not work for some.

We the Animals

[3 stars]

A deep and disturbing look at growing up and how much children pick up from their parents. But this story never quite goes where you expect it to, keeping what could have been an overwhelming drudge something darkly magical.

The three leads, Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian work beautifully together as free-range sibs. Only Gabriel had any previous credits, but they all come across as natural and with a sense of craft. The story is primarily from Rosado’s point of view, but without his onscreen brothers, the story wouldn’t have worked.

In a supporting, but brutal role, Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) gives us a mother surviving and loving while stumbling through life. Likewise, as their father, Raúl Castillo (Atypical) delivers an honest, destructive, and somehow still loving role model. Neither parent is going to win awards, but neither is so devoid of love and compassion as to be utterly evil in our eyes. That complexity is part of what sets this story apart.

In his first feature, Jeremiah Zagar drew on his documentarian roots in directing and co-writing this adaptation. He creates an atmosphere that is part Florida Project, part Kings of Summer, and maybe a dash of the atmosphere of Moonlight. It is deliberate and nearly poetic as it follows the three brothers through their days and lives over the period of about a year. It also managed to stack up a number of awards.

Honestly, this isn’t an easy film to watch. It is emotionally challenging and it flows at a low energy, allowing everything to feel very natural (which can border on naturally boring). But it pulls you along inexorably to the final moments. While it isn’t an entirely dark and depressing story, do save it for a night of catharsis or when you’re already feeling well centered. But see it for Zagar’s efforts and the performances, all of which will have an impact.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…