Sunday, February 7, 2021

Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao, 2020)

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing cinematic shutdowns throughout this past year, Chloé Zhao’s latest film Nomadland was one of the only movies that I had the pleasure of anticipating throughout 2020. Of course, the film’s release date kept being postponed, so that Nomadland wasn’t even theatrically released until well into 2021. I finally had the chance to watch it this past Friday night when the big multiplex in downtown Boston reopened for the first time since Christmas Day. Fortunately, the movie is screening only in IMAX theaters for its initial run, so I was able to enjoy its fine cinematography on a gigantic screen, which I doubt would have happened in any other year, when those screens would have been reserved for the usual blockbusters and superhero fare. Though as I think we’re all quite aware by now, no blocks around cinemas anywhere in this country are being busted anymore, and perhaps (at least from how dire things look at our present moment) they may never be again.

It’s in that same shellshocked, post-capitalist socioeconomic landscape, actually, that the stark and vital narrative of Nomadland unfolds, as the nomads of the movie’s title (based on Jessica Bruder’s eponymous 2017 non-fiction book) stop and start and scatter their way across the semi-obliterated vastness of the American west. Like Chloé Zhao’s previous film The Rider, which was among my favorite movies of 2018, Nomadland is a careful and distinctive hybrid of real-life documentary and loosely scripted fiction. Frances McDormand, in a demanding, career-defining performance, stars as Fern, who’d lived and worked for years in Empire, Nevada, a town of less than 1,000 inhabitants that shut down and essentially ceased to exist, having even its zip code discontinued after its sole industry of mining gypsum to manufacture sheetrock closed in 2011, due to lack of demand in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and housing market crisis. Fern then fled and hit the open road, living in her big white outfitted camper van, nicknamed Vanguard. The other middle-aged and older American nomads she encounters along the way, who’d made the same decision after their own lives went awry — and who now work in seasonal shifts at massive, mechanized Amazon warehouses or in cramped and busy kitchens at roadside diners — are the focus of the film and help to provide many of its most deeply moving moments.

McDormand should certainly win another Oscar for this role, a subdued yet tenacious emotional achievement that also doesn’t shy away from the rudimentary physical hardships that Fern must learn to tolerate in her daily life: urinating outdoors in frigid temperatures (one of the earliest images we see of her in the film), being stricken with dysentery and only a plastic bucket in her van as a makeshift toilet, seeing her treasured Autumn Leaf china plates get broken when she has to clean out Vanguard due to an ant infestation. It’s clear why McDormand secured the rights to the film and staked out this role for herself, though I’m not sure any other American actress working today could have or would have done that. And while she’s transfixing to watch in the movie, a film that she carries in every successive scene often just by the subtle calibrations of her gestures and facial expressions, there’s nothing showy or grandstanding about it. Her performance is entirely in service to the story and the importance of the film’s messages about freedom and capitalist exploitation at this particular moment in contemporary American history.

Some of the movie’s key scenes are filmed documentary-style around a campfire, with the transient community of nomads sharing various memories and anecdotes from their lives. One such woman recounts a male colleague who’d worked with her for decades and then was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, only to die one week before his scheduled retirement. Another woman who ends up being a fixture in the film, Linda May, recalls a similar shock and disappointment at discovering only $550 in her Social Security savings account after working for nearly her entire life and struggling to raise her children. These point-blank truths about the inherent corruption of living in a soulless capitalist system are revealed to us as testimonials, and they reminded me of the heart circles at Radical Faeries gatherings that I’ve attended, where people simply sit together and share aloud their feelings about their lives and experiences. Zhao’s empathetic direction (along with the attentive, humanizing cinematography of Joshua James Richards) both dignifies and enriches the stories of the film’s subjects, in a way that makes us feel like they could be, and perhaps even are, our own stories. As Fern connects with certain individuals, we connect with them as well, such as Swankie, an older woman who hangs a black skull-and-crossbones flag on the side of her van because she’s gradually dying from a brain tumor. After bonding with Fern, who looks after Swankie and even cuts her hair, Swankie departs for Alaska, where she sends Fern a video of the cliffside of swallows that she’s returned to see before she dies, hundreds of them who’ve built their mud nests and fly out together in dark murmurations over the water.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Fern is in her van alone late at night, staring at a wallet-sized photograph of her late husband, who we soon learn had himself died a difficult and relatively early death. With just a few changing glances that shift quietly across her face, McDormand conveys their entire relationship in a way that few actors could do. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Fern’s fixed resolve to live “houseless” on the road is a result of her unresolved grief for him, a refusal to move on from a life and a landscape that have been permanently shattered, instead preferring to reside inside that endlessly broken present as a ghost, wondering why the world can’t just return to being the way it was when things were fine. She does receive an opportunity at having a stable new home through another drifter, Dave (David Straithairn, sweetly reliable), whose son and daughter-in-law have just given him his first grandchild, for whom he retreats from living his nomadic life. Fern visits them at their idyllic home and stays in their comfortably appointed guest room, with an open invitation from their family to stay for much longer, but she chooses to return to sleeping in her van instead and then departs early one morning without saying goodbye, after watching Dave and his son play the piano together late at night and silently realizing that she feels like an intruder in their lives.

The subject of suicide arises at two crucial points in the movie. The first is when Linda May tells Fern about the lowest point of her own despair, when she considered turning on the gas and drinking an entire bottle of alcohol, deciding that if she woke up, she’d light a cigarette to blow up everything and end her own life permanently. But compassion took over when Linda May knew she couldn’t do that to her two small dogs, and therefore she couldn’t do that to herself either. The film’s delicately sunlit and purely emotional climax is the second pivotal mention of suicide, when a wise and gray-bearded RV lifestyle guru named Bob Wells shares with Fern how he lost his son five years before, when his son tragically ended his own life at the age of 33. As someone who, at age 47, hasn’t really wanted to be alive for the past 25 years or so now myself, but who has continued to endure that feeling and wander somewhat aimlessly as a kind of living suicide, I related easily to Nomadland, and particularly to that central aspect of the film. I’m sure that there are plenty of other people who can’t relate to that or find it to be self-pitying, and therefore they may not like or might even outright dislike this movie. Maybe they’re the lucky ones.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Three Favorite Films of 2020

In a year as bizarre and unusual for cinema as 2020 was, writing my usual year-end post about my favorite films of the year was more of a challenging task this time around. In past years, I’ve written about five or six favorite movies annually. With cinemas closed and new film releases postponed for much of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, I was able (and also fortunate) to see and determine three favorite new movies this year. Actually, the most challenging part was not being able to watch nearly as many films at the cinema as I normally would. Moviegoing has been a weekly, life-sustaining habit for me for almost three decades now. In a typical year, I’ve seen at least one or two films at the cinema each week, sometimes even more, averaging somewhere around 75 to 100 movies at the cinema per year. With cinemas here in New England open only in the first quarter and final quarter of 2020, I saw somewhere between 25 and 30 movies at cinemas, so only a third of what I’d see in a standard year. To get myself through this year’s midsection, I watched movies at drive-in theaters up in Maine and down on Cape Cod almost every weekend, though only two of those were new releases (Tenet and Bill & Ted Face the Music). Most of the rest were retro screenings of movies that I loved from my childhood and teenage years, and I wrote a few blog posts and poems about several of those this past summer: The GooniesThe Empire Strikes Back, and the original 1978 Superman, among others.

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow was one of the last movies that I saw before the lockdown began in March, in a special advance screening at Harvard Film Archive, with Reichardt in attendance for a conversation and Q&A after the film. That was on March 9th, and details about the screening changed throughout the day as concerns about the pandemic set in. By the time I arrived for the screening, it was limited to 100 attendees so that audience members could easily distance themselves around the auditorium. I knew while I was watching it that First Cow would be my favorite movie of 2020, even while having no idea at that point that so few new movies would be forthcoming for the remainder of the year. A friend of mine sitting behind me who helps to run the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline expressed concern that a shutdown of only two weeks would make it difficult for the organization to survive, at a moment of uncertainty when we just didn’t know what the rest of the year would have in store. Even Kelly Reichardt voiced some surprise and uncertainty about the future just as the dire global situation had begun to unfold.

First Cow opens with a long shot of a present-day shipping vessel passing through a sound in Oregon, and a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog in a woodland area nearby. As her dog sniffs around and digs in the tall grass, she soon finds herself silently unearthing by hand the buried skeletons of two men who had lived and died there in the 1820s, during the early settler period in the Pacific Northwest, prior to the start of the California Gold Rush. Because it’s a shallow unmarked grave, we have an early sense that their shared deaths were tragic, as the film gently shifts to the scene of a woodland settlement two centuries before. Of course, the opening is also a metaphor for the kind of archaeological and historical excavation that Reichardt will herself be undertaking as the film’s director (she co-wrote the screenplay with her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, adapting it from his 2004 novel The Half-Life).

The story centers on Cookie (John Magaro, so moving in my favorite performance of 2020), otherwise known as Otis Figowitz, who’s the designated cook for an encampment of itinerant, rough-and-tumble fur trappers. While foraging for wild mushrooms in the forest, Cookie comes across another young man named King-Lu (Orion Lee, quietly magnetic), a Chinese immigrant who’s hiding out in the woods to escape a gang of Russian vigilantes who’ve been pursuing him. The two form a quick bond and devise a plan to make some money together by selling handmade donut-like pastries called oily cakes to the random assortment of drifters who wander through their encampment. To do so properly, they also pilfer milk each night from the first cow to be brought to the settlement, sneaking through the dark to a meadow beside the house of the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). “History isn’t here yet,” King-Lu accurately remarks, encouraging Cookie to take advantage of their window of opportunity to benefit from a timely, well-placed business start-up. The pair’s cakes become an overnight sensation, literally. As their bounty of earnings grows, the narrative expands to include complex themes of colonization and capitalism, specifically the notion of property, embodied in an image late in the film of the first cow (who’s listed in the film’s credits as Evie) eventually encircled by a homely wooden picket fence, after the midnight milk thefts by Cookie and King-Lu go terribly awry and their cover is blown.

The film’s final half-hour is a suspenseful chase driven by the cruel hierarchies of class and rank, one that finds King-Lu trying to escape downriver in a canoe and Cookie healing from an injury under the care of two Native Americans in a tiny shack, which Reichardt said she and her crew referred to as the “ghost hut.” Even this extended chase scene, however, takes on the laidback and tender tone of the rest of the movie (accompanied by William Tyler’s delicate, atmospheric score), as the separated characters move carefully through the autumnal hues of the landscape, with any violence lurking at the periphery yet also held at a deliberate distance. The film’s ultimate focus is the authentic love and friendship of its two central characters, once they’ve been reunited in what will be their final resting place, and I was very grateful to have the movie’s last words, “I’ve got you,” echoing in my mind throughout the months following the screening.

Because cinemas around Boston would then be shuttered almost half the year until around Labor Day weekend, Miranda July’s Kajillionaire was the movie that I looked forward to seeing the most over the next several hard months, though I was unsure of whether or not it would ever actually happen. Fortunately, it was one of the few new films that didn’t get delayed by an indefinitely postponed release. I drove much further north to see it at a cinema in Auburn, Maine, and I was the sole viewer in a gigantic auditorium of about 250 seats on an overcast Saturday afternoon, one of a number of private screenings that I was able to enjoy in 2020, even if seeing movies in empty cinemas became increasingly eerie over time. Miranda July’s previous film, The Future, was my favorite movie back in 2011, and Kajillionaire continues to stake out her distinctive cinematic terrain, where strange characterizations and awkward comedic moments directly confront life’s deeper mysteries and conundrums. From the initial scenes, we know that we’re back in her world, a universe with its own individual terms, parameters, and boundaries.

July’s films are like post-industrial, apocalyptic fables in which enigmatic signs and events arise, ranging from magical to threatening. In The Future, a character is able to stop time and bring the planet to a standstill, while the moon speaks in the voice of an old man who appears elsewhere in the film. Kajillionaire, set in present-day downtown Los Angeles, is disrupted by a series of earthquake tremors that cause the characters to react as everything on the screen trembles and shakes for a few tense moments, culminating in a transformational cosmic blackout later in the movie, during which we the audience members float through outer space as dialogue continues undeterred on the film’s soundtrack. These devices border playfully on a kind of magical realism yet manage to come across as thoroughly integral to the action and movement of July’s films.

The movie follows the Dyne family, with their comically stoic 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood in a manically controlled tightrope walk of a role, including some trans vibes) being taught the tricks of petty crime — a trade in which the family does not excel — by serious contenders for the worst set of parents ever to appear in any film (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, both alternately hilarious and trenchant in masterful swerves). The trio of small-time crooks con, scam, and steal their way into post office boxes, airplanes, and strangers’ homes in an attempt to keep paying the rent on the tiny office cubicles where they live cramped together in a disused space adjoining a bubble factory, where the rear wall leaks thick pinkish foam that must be scooped up with plastic trash buckets every afternoon at exactly the same time, in order to avoid getting drowned out of their makeshift home.

During a quick detour to New York and back by air, on their return flight the family meets Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, fantastic and perfectly upbeat), who joins their heists based on her love for movies like Ocean’s Eleven and its ensuing sequels. Gradually, Melanie’s position on the team and her genuine affection for the totally resistant, repressed, and (until now) unloved Old Dolio, begin to challenge the authoritative hold that Old Dolio’s parents have had over her entire life and personality. Since her childhood, they’ve split the profits of every con equally three ways, so of course that’s how she inherently views every transaction, a mathematical equation that pays off grandly in multiple ways at the film’s irrepressibly romantic and liberating conclusion. Most importantly, though, the outwardly wacky surfaces of July’s films ironically allow her to get closer to difficult truths than most other artists. For instance, there’s a pivotal scene midway through the film when the Dyne family and Melanie pretend to be the actual family members of a man whose home they’ve infiltrated for a scam and who also happens to be dying alone in his bedroom. He wants to hear their familial sounds out in the living room and kitchen, asking them to watch television and clink silverware, to give him a sense of not being alone during his final moments. As someone who hasn’t had a family for thirty years now, I felt the gravity of that scene keenly, and even if it was beyond sad to witness, I also admire how Miranda July and her actors could pull off the demanding balancing act of evoking an otherwise obscured feeling to put me there in such an immediate way.

Finally, Eliza Hittman’s brave and essential drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always rounds out my short list of favorite films from 2020. (Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland may have made my year-end list as well, but its cinematic release was pushed back to February of 2021, so I haven’t yet been able to watch that one.) I loved the astute realism and grit of Hittman’s previous film Beach Rats when I saw it at the Provincetown Film Festival back in 2017, and her latest movie secures her place as one of our most promising younger American filmmakers. The well-timed and urgent storyline of Never Rarely Sometimes Always concerns the unwanted teenage pregnancy of a 17-year-old woman in high school and her right to choose an abortion, despite her surroundings in conservative suburban (and borderline rural) Pennsylvania, where parental consent is required to terminate the pregnancy that her parents are completely unaware of. Sidney Flanigan’s performance as the sullen and determined Autumn feels naturalistic, precise, and absorbing throughout, anchoring the movie and Hittman’s screenplay in a way that draws viewers directly into her character’s very personal and painful dilemma.

Equally impressive and also instrumental to the narrative is Talia Ryder’s portrayal of Skylar, Autumn’s supportive cousin, who accompanies her on a bus ride to New York City, where the two are shuffled from a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brooklyn back across the river to the clinic in Manhattan. The film becomes a bleak, picaresque journey for the two young women, who are left to fend for themselves over two unforeseen nights in the city with relatively little money (and then no money at all after the balance of the abortion is paid for by cash stolen from their job as supermarket cashiers back home), dragging their bulky rolling suitcase from Port Authority, through the maze of New York’s subway system, and then back again, dodging various potential pitfalls and dangerous run-ins along the way. The story teeters on the verge of becoming a darker tragedy without ever settling there, so that we worry about the characters and their safety almost constantly, without ever feeling that they’re imperiled. We want to try to protect them but realize that they’ll have to navigate the city and the problems that they encounter mostly on their own.

At the movie’s emotional core is the most unflinching scene of any movie from 2020, when the down-to-earth yet sisterly Planned Parenthood counselor at the Manhattan clinic asks Autumn, prior to her abortion procedure, a series of required questions on her relationships. Autumn’s hesitant replies, long silences, and heartbreaking expressions tell us all that we need to know about how her pregnancy came about. The film’s title comes from the four multiple-choice answers that Autumn can give in response to each question. Hittman’s writing and directorial approach in the scene are exactly as they should be, point-blank and matter-of-fact, to the extent that it’s the pivotal fulcrum of the film and Sidney Flanigan’s characterization of Autumn. Up to that point in the movie, we can feel her holding everything back as a way of holding herself together, and this is the key moment when she’s finally able to let go and acknowledge her own level of internal distress, at least as much as she can as someone who’s so afraid at such a young age. Then, the scene gives way to a vision of female solidarity as Autumn undergoes her abortion procedure with the women who work at the clinic by her side.

It’s revealing, then, that the two younger women’s ultimate fearlessness bumps up against the male characters in the movie numerous times, from an uncaring stepfather in Autumn’s home to a truly sleazy boss at the supermarket where they work, from Autumn’s cruel and abusive boyfriend to a leering flasher on the subway. Even Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), a college-aged guy whom the girls first meet on the bus on their way to New York and re-connect with later in the film, turns out to be somewhat sketchy if fairly harmless, exchanging a make-out session against a pillar in Port Authority with the much younger Skylar (who lies and says that she’s twenty), after which he withdraws money at an ATM to pay for their bus tickets back home. Because I’m not a young woman myself and therefore don’t face what they do on a daily basis, I’d never say whether the film’s male characterizations seem too heavy-handed or inaccurate. But I am a gay man, so I can speak to how disappointing and problematic my own relationships with men (and often just men in general) have been over the course of my life, even if I’d hoped that wasn’t always the case, and I still do hold some hope for that as much as possible at age 47.

In thinking back over these three films while writing this post, I realized that they all share in common characters who are on the run at some point in the movie. Although that’s a standard cinematic device that builds tension and mystery and empathy, I felt like it was an appropriate through-line to connect the movies that appealed to me the most in this particular year, which so often felt like a semi-internalized nightmare from which we were all wanting to flee continually, in an attempt to find some form of self-sustaining redemption to make our quiet, solitary lives in quarantine and isolation more meaningful on our own terms. All of these characters on the run in each film come to rest eventually in quite different ways. That this extremely lonely year has finally come to an end, honestly, just makes me want to keep on running even more.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Halloween-time showing of The Shining, a revival of the Turner Classic Movies “event” screening, thankfully on a colossal screen at a remote cinema on the coast of Maine. There was only one other viewer in the theater, though fleetingly, a middle-aged woman who bolted out the door early on, as soon as Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance viciously lashed out at Shelley Duvall’s Wendy with an arch stream of verbal vitriol. I’m not sure if that woman even saw me sitting in a dark corner of the back row, so perhaps thinking she was alone with that particular film at the cinema was just too much for her to bear? More room for me then, and Kubrick’s psychological horror masterpiece (though it never rests snugly in that genre for very long) allows for plenty of interpretive space of its own. Critics have surmised that it’s about everything from colonization of the Americas to overwhelming addiction that hinders an artist from creating. Considering that the film was released in 1980, at the height of what I’ve come to refer to as the “divorce generation,” I’d say that the film is about the dread and anxiety provoked by how many young kids’ family units, including my own, were rapidly falling apart at right around that same time.

Nearly the entire film takes place inside the sprawling Overlook Hotel, a notoriously claustrophobic setting, despite how spaciously Kubrick designed almost every interior that we see in the film. The deceptively vast spaces are clearly intentional, highlighting the impossibility of intimacy between the characters, while also forcing the audience into a kind of distant intimacy with the characters inside those spaces. It’s one of the few films that transports us, indeed envelops us, so fully and immersively within its imagined, hallucinatory world. The discomfort is palpable throughout every room and winding corridor of this seemingly warm hotel as a blizzard rages outside; the Overlook is a place that’s supposed to be a home away from home, though it never feels like one. The fractured family that inhabits it for a winter, under the guise of caretakers, is rightly Kubrick’s focus, which is perhaps why Stephen King felt that Kubrick’s adaptation was the wrong fit for his 1977 novel. The scenes that shift to the typical trappings of horror — rivers of blood cascading from the elevators, the impish ghosts of identical young sisters — have now long retained their value as camp as much as horror, and they distract from the central trio of characters, momentary diversions that audiences have fixated on at the expense of the film’s core family drama. Ultimately, because Kubrick must acknowledge his source material, King’s novel haunts the film that Kubrick tried to wrest away from it.

The theme of impending divorce is indeed explicit in King’s book, and while Kubrick’s approach to the topic is more implicit, it’s clearly the one thing on Jack Torrance’s mind. Upon the film’s initial release, Jack Nicholson’s performance, along with Shelley Duvall’s, was criticized and even ridiculed for being so far over the top. But it’s also obvious from any scene in which the two actors appear together that Kubrick relentlessly pushed them there and, from accounts of how long and grueling the takes and overall shooting schedule were, intentionally exhausted them into a kind of manic overdrive. The result is a stark and darkly humorous portrait of a mother and father trapped inside a structure that’s driving both of them crazy and that they know can never last. Jack might be attempting to use his “work” of writing a novel as a smoke-screen, providing a form of escape for himself as a charade of “providing” for his wife and child, yet his ruse collapses horrifically when Wendy discovers his hefty manuscript: page upon page upon page of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” endlessly repeated and arranged differently from line to line and paragraph to paragraph.

That neurotic and empty perfectionism is the primary counterpoint and antithesis to Kubrick’s own rich and full perfectionism that’s become the film’s critical trademark over the past four decades. The performances that he coaxed from the actors within the context of strikingly meticulous visual compositions, all nestled within a semi-mythological framework of the narrative, guaranteed within a few years of the film’s release that its initial critics were wrong, which I’m sure Kubrick knew from the start. His certainty in the ambition of his vision is much of what drives the film itself, as well as what’s secured its enduring popularity. The head-on shot of Jack staring out over the small-scale model of the labyrinth of mazework hedges that lies waiting just outside the hotel is probably the film’s most revealing image. His lordlike gaze is at once imperious and uncertain, with a touch of an early bemused realization of what he’s up against. And the gleefully violent flipside of that image is his later realization, in the film’s drunken and iconic climax, that if he can’t write his way out of the maze of his own alcoholism and insanity and familial entrapment in his unwanted, conscripted role of being a husband and father, then he’ll just have to try to hack his way out of all of it with an ax.

Kubrick’s film plays with time in a way that’s unavoidable in addressing all of this as well. Jack is, of course, at odds with the decades of masculine expectations behind him for how a father is supposed to act, how his worst sin would be to be remiss in caring for the well-being of his wife and his son. It’s a duty that many men in American culture had begun to shrug off by the arrival of the 1970s and early ’80s, in the wake of a sexual revolution that made it clear to them that if the choice to be made was between working day and night as breadwinners and caretakers or sitting alone at the bar to drown their sorrows, then they’d honestly rather just be sitting at the bar. Hence, Jack’s tipsy yet forthright interactions with Lloyd, the bartender in the Gold Room prior to the flashback of the historical ballroom scene and the ghost of the hotel’s former caretaker and waiter Delbert Grady, who’s rumored to have murdered his own wife and children in the hotel, precipitating all of the hauntings of various kinds that transpire throughout the film.

It’s easy to overlook the key role of Danny (Danny Lloyd) in all of this. Jack’s son is gifted with frightening and telepathic abilities that give the film its title. Whether or not he’s too young to intuit everything rationally, he does realize on some level what’s coming, how doomed his family is, how doomed his father is, and what exactly he may need to do in order to salvage something for himself and for his mother, who’s tried her best and sometimes failed to succeed in protecting him. With his mother’s help, he’s able to escape from the confines of the Overlook just prior to Jack’s most dangerous moments. Danny slides his way down a steep snowdrift that’s almost entirely buried the side of the hotel, in one of the most unforgettable images from any of Kubrick’s movies, and from there Danny devises his plan to trap his father in the snow-filled labyrinth that awaits just outside the interior mazelike corridors of the Overlook. We can be liberated from the labyrinth of the family, but only into the far more difficult and potentially equally lethal maze of society and the world.

I felt like I knew that labyrinth well the first time I saw Kubrick’s The Shining at the age of nine in 1983, when it aired as ABC’s Friday Night Movie for its network television premiere here in the United States. My parents had divorced several years before, so the idea of the lost father was already quite familiar to me, and all that’s lost as collateral alongside that original archetypal loss. Even at such a young age, I intuitively understood that particular undercurrent of Kubrick’s film. I’ve written elsewhere about that aspect of my childhood and how it shaped my life then, how it continues to shape me over time, so I won’t have much else to add about it here. After Danny loses Jack inside the labyrinth’s twists and turns and again escapes to his survival, and Jack gives up to freeze to death out in the snow, we see a somewhat younger ghost of Jack enshrined in one of the Overlook Hotel’s vintage photographs of a black-tie ballroom celebration of the 4th of July from 1921, reabsorbed among the lineage of the other lost fathers and sons of history. With my own father lost, I knew that I’d always remain somewhat lost, too, while still trying to find myself in the wake of his presence.

Monday, October 12, 2020

6th Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival (October 1st - 12th, 2020)

This year’s GlobeDocs film festival, which also happened to be the festival’s biggest year so far with over 35 films, was my first time attending a film festival virtually. While I did miss the event of attending screenings in person, there’s something to be said for being able to concentrate on documentaries while watching them alone at home, especially when writing reviews of a number of films after watching them for several days in a row. This year’s excellent roster of selections was no less powerful for being viewed remotely, and the Q&A sessions between Boston Globe correspondents and filmmakers, both live-streamed and pre-recorded, were wonderful supplements to the films themselves. The documentaries that I saw ranged widely in topics from indigenous rights and the global climate crisis to the first gay rugby league, from school shootings and gun control to the inner workings of a city hall in a major metropolis.

National Geographic’s documentary The Last Ice, directed by Scott Ressler, focuses on a remote but crucial geopolitical area in terms of climate change and globalization: the far northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, an Arctic archipelago that’s still inhabited today by the native Inuit people. Bordering on Greenland across Baffin Bay, Nunavut is a contentious zone for several reasons. As Arctic sea ice continues to recede, its shipping lanes provide quicker and more direct access to North American trade routes, with over 900 industries currently vying for position, mostly from Russia and China, polluting the pristine channels of the North Pole in the wake of massive icebreaking vessels and cargo ships. Not only does the Arctic wildlife suffer as a result, but the native Inuit people, who often make their living by hunting, have also found themselves at the center of a historical struggle for their rights in their homeland, led by Aboriginal Canadian politician John Amagoalik, who’s often referred to as the “Father of Nunavut.”

Two younger subjects ground the documentary firmly in today’s contemporary realities as well and speak to a current audience among the newer generation. Aleqatsiaq Peary, a musician and hunter, is a descendant of Robert Peary, who’s believed to be the first person to reach the North Pole early in the 20th century. Aleq describes his time growing up on the remote terrain of Nunavut, as well as his unfulfilling education in Denmark, from which he returned in order to resume his hunting life, only to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease a few years later. Despite his disability, he continues to support the ancestral connection of the Inuit to the land and the ritual of hunting. Maatalii Okalik, who lived for a time in Ottawa and also returned to Nunavut after ending an abusive relationship, movingly and eloquently recounts how dreams of her ancestors guided her through a month-long depression that convinced her to reconnect with her native people in her home territory, where she served as President of Canada’s National Inuit Youth Council. The documentary ends on a note of both uncertainty and hope, in looking toward a future where indigenous people persist in trying to retain political control over their own lands.

First-time documentary director Eammon Ashton-Atkinson’s Steelers celebrates the world’s first gay rugby club, the Kings Cross Steelers, founded in London in 1995, as they pursue a victory at the annual Bingham Cup world tournament of gay rugby in Amsterdam nearly 25 years later in 2018. Under the expert and careful guidance of their female coach, Nic Evans, herself a lesbian rugby player, the team meets its many challenges head-on, giving its team members both a sense of community and a way to bond with other gay men while overcoming individual obstacles. The director was also a member of the Kings Cross Steelers until an injury sidelined him and compelled him to pick up his video camera to make this rousing documentary.

The film concentrates mainly on the journeys of four members of the team: director Ashton-Atkinson, coach Evans (whose final season with the team coincided with the making of the documentary), Simon Jones, who struggled through a lengthy depression after he came out to a straight friend he’d been in love with who’d initially rejected him, and Drew McDowell, a club promoter and drag queen on the side. A fun stretch of the documentary finds Drew organizing and hosting an annual drag event at the huge gay club Heaven in Charing Cross in central London, for which most of the Steelers appear in drag themselves for a competition and to do some fundraising. An especially touching aspect of the documentary moves Nic Evans to tears when she describes the hesitancy of many gay rugby players who are successful and confident in so many other areas of their lives but have a harder time feeling at home as gay men on the rugby pitch, and how she pushes them to overcome that sense of inadequacy in athletic arenas.

Us Kids, directed by Kim A. Snyder, powerfully traces the months following the school shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14th, 2018. It’s impossible to watch this documentary and not feel tremendous admiration for the young people who rallied together to pull their community through the grieving process and then demanded immediate change from our government on a nationwide scale, culminating in the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and a cross-country tour to turn the tide in municipalities where gun violence is in desperate need of being brought under control. Familiar faces like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Sam Fuentes are matched by their own uncompromising personalities as they spearhead demonstrations and debates across a wide swath of our deeply divided (and increasingly divisive) United States of America.

These brave students’ forthright honesty about the traumas that they’ve endured and the deep authenticity of their activism easily dispel any notions that they were lured into being political symbols by national media outlets. Their aims and tactics are specific, as are the desired results. The heartbreaking footage of students’ speeches from the March for Our Lives events unleashes a torrent of sorrow and frustration at the tragic failure of adults in our culture to protect young people’s lives in their own schools and communities. We see David Hogg intelligently strategizing how to build the itinerary for their cross-country tour, in order to visit locations where they can persuade citizens to vote out of office any politicians who’ve taken campaign funding from the National Rifle Association. Very much to the credit of these determined kids, their strategy succeeds almost uniformly, proof that politicians should totally fear the blue wave of the younger generation. After the exhaustions of their travels to places all around the country, I’ll remember the peaceful image of David and Emma coasting on an airboat in the Everglades, the one landscape on the map of Florida that’s undisturbed by shootings and gun violence.

Finally, I was excited to see Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary City Hall, an inside view of government services provided in the city of Boston, where I’ve lived for over 27 years now. Clocking in at just over four and a half hours, the film provides a comprehensive picture, to say the least, especially in its heroic portrait of our current mayor, Marty Walsh, who’s successfully led the city on all levels since 2013. The son of working-class Irish-American immigrants, Mayor Walsh is seen championing all the right causes in all the right ways, promoting a truly diverse and cutting-edge city, despite its somewhat provincial remove from more sprawling metropolises such as New York. We also see many other moving parts in close-up detail: hearings on parking tickets, exchanges of same-sex marriage vows, public testimonials from veterans on Veterans Day, planning for Red Sox World Series victory parades, stocking up the city’s food pantries for Thanksgiving, and a multitude of other complexities that comprise what makes a city’s daily urban life happen.

This is the latest installment in Frederick Wiseman’s series of documentaries about various institutions, which has also included films about the New York Public Library, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the University of California at Berkeley. As noted in his live-streamed Q&A about City Hall with Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, Wiseman resists being called simply an observational filmmaker. Despite the 110 hours of footage that he filmed for City Hall, Wiseman argues that what makes his movies more active than merely observational is his rigorous editing process, whereby he structures the ideas about his subject and determines not just what the film is about, but what the film itself even is. He claims that’s not something he’s aware of at all until he arrives at that stage of the filmmaking process. Similar to his tone in his Norton Lectures at Harvard University back in 2018, Wiseman’s responses to questions are often hilariously matter-of-fact. The stately footage of Boston’s cityscape alone in City Hall shows him to be an artist of the highest order, but it’s the immersive, even meditative structure of his documentaries that demonstrates why his films are finely tuned constructions built by a masterful architect as well.

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Goonies (dir. Richard Donner, 1985)

Thirty-five years after its initial cinematic release, The Goonies remains among my favorite movies of all time, and it’s certainly one of my very favorite movies of the ’80s (second only to John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club). It’s also one of the few movies that I love as completely as I do. I love every line, every character, every performance, every action sequence, every imaginative twist and turn. For that reason, I never tire of watching it. I saw it at the cinema when it came out in 1985, when I was only 12, and I’ve watched it scores of times on video since then: as a teenager, as a young adult, and now as a middle-aged fanboy. Recently, I watched it at a drive-in theatre up in Maine, which got me thinking about the movie more deeply and made me want to write this post about it. The ’80s are long gone, but The Goonies hasn’t aged. The movie is a time machine that can whisk me right back to that time and place in a steadfast heartbeat.

The mid-’80s was the era of the fun book series called Choose Your Own Adventure, in which you made choices to determine the plot and then turned to the designated page. I owned and enjoyed several of those books as a kid, and The Goonies felt like a particularly well-crafted one. No teen movie from that decade is better cast, and I’m even tempted to say that no other ’80s teen adventure tale is better written. The Goonies isn’t perfect, but its imperfections are also part of its appeal. In spite of Steven Spielberg’s oversight as an executive producer, the movie at times retains the impish charm of semi-amateurism; it’s a film for younger fanboys made by grown-up fanboys, and this is the main reason why I still love the film and everything about it so much at age 46. The Goonies enjoys the kind of longevity that every other film of its kind that’s ever been made wishes it had. Lightning struck, and it stuck.

From the outset, the movie is crammed chock-full of campy archetypal villains: golf course developers in beige trenchcoats who are out to bulldoze homes in order to displace the Walsh family and others in their oceanside community of Astoria, Oregon; high school jocks who taunt and torture the Goonies for fun; and of course, the notoriously criminal (and fatherless) Fratelli clan, comprised of a wicked butch Mama (the late Anne Ramsey) and her two madcap sons (Joe Pantoliano and Robert Davi). The latter son even breaks out into singing opera numbers at comically inopportune or gleefully ominous moments, as if the members of the Fratelli family have wandered in from an entirely different film. The gimmick works, however, because the three actors are totally aware of just how misplaced their characters are in the movie’s script, so they just play right to that. I mean, Italian-American gangsters on the remote coast of Oregon? Go figure.

After the opening-credits jailbreak and ensuing getaway car chase scene, we meet the movie’s central heroes, the Goonies, through a long expository sequence that’s probably the most finely composed of its kind, at least as teen movies go. Ensemble films are hard to write because it’s really difficult to balance one’s attention amongst multiple characters evenly as a screenwriter. All of the characters need to be well-developed for the audience to find them believable and feel invested in the story, so that has to happen simultaneously for all of the characters through the dialogue itself. Actors can endow the characters with personality only through the right words, and screenwriter Chris Columbus (working from a story initially drafted by Spielberg) gave these young actors a hilarious, rapid-fire set of scenes filmed throughout the Walsh home, so that they all have ample time and space to establish their own stake in the narrative. Miraculously, every single one of the young actors absolutely nails each line and expression. I know guys from my generation who have every line of dialogue memorized from that entire early part of the film.

One thing that wasn’t as clear to me as a gay kid in Ohio that’s glaringly obvious when I re-watch those scenes of young guys joking around with each other now that I’m an adult gay man: the dialogue is fully loaded with tons of implications about masculinity and homosocial relations. Brand (Josh Brolin) — the athletic older brother of Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin) — is the alpha-male of the bunch, as eager to preen and flaunt his physical prowess as he is to show that he genuinely cares for his younger brother and the other neighborhood kids. This role was all that Josh Brolin needed to demonstrate the qualities that would help him become one of the most accomplished actors of his generation. He definitely should have won an Oscar for his intense and demanding performance in No Country for Old Men, but that’s a story for another time.

Every exchange and detail of these scenes is focused on masculine posturing and boyish one-upmanship: Brand’s sweaty labor while lifting weights at his workout bench, Mikey’s tough-guy stance towards his own sadness about the impending loss of their family home out there in the “Goondocks,” and of course the brash entrance of Mouth (Corey Feldman), whose ebulliently pushy delivery of dialogue pretty much steals each of the scenes in which he speaks. Honestly, Corey Feldman’s genius as a comedic actor for me was wholly intact from this point onward in his career. Controversial though he may be, I still totally love everything about him even today. As evidenced by his omnipresent Purple Rain T-shirt, Mouth is also the coolest nerdy kid from any ’80s movie, and there were literally hundreds of those characters in mainstream films back then.

The arrival of Chunk (Jeff Cohen), their pudgy and unfailingly hilarious Jewish neighbor who can gain entrance to the Walsh household only by lifting up his shirt to jiggle his belly in what’s known as the infamous “Truffle Shuffle,” easily signals that he’s the beta-male character of the group and will remain so throughout the remainder of the film. He even misses out on much of the long central adventure-based portion of the movie due to his own skittish fears and apprehensions, though he winds up enduring far worse scenarios than the other Goonies for exactly the same reason, even if it all turns out just fine in the end. His relationship (and yes, it’s actually a full-on relationship) with Sloth (the late John Matuszak), the outcast and grotesquely deformed younger brother of the Fratelli clan, is what redeems Chunk from the eternal underdog status to which he’s relegated in the film. More on the Chunk & Sloth subplot later in my post.

Data (Jonathan Ke Quan), the Goonies’ sole member of color, flies his way into the story, crashing through the Walshes’ screen door when he rides a self-designed zipline over from his own house. He’s a child inventor, and an especially innovative and fearless one, too. His makeshift toolbelt and trenchcoat contain a multitude of handmade devices and experimental gizmos that will later save himself and the other Goonies from all forms of danger and treachery, while occasionally making their escapades even more treacherous whenever his inventions frequently misfire or malfunction. Nevertheless, he’s the mastermind of the group, and one who’s sorely needed, which does help to balance out his ideological function as the “token Asian character” in the story as well. When Data’s reunited with his father in the film’s final scenes, his true place in the tale and its larger community is finally brought full circle.

A pivotal moment comes when Data’s aerial landing in the Walsh home ends up breaking the penis off of their mother’s statuette of Michelangelo’s David. It’s one of a few key penis jokes that crop up in these scenes and deserve some attention here. Mikey has asthma, and he goes quite swiftly from holding the statue’s broken-off penis to sticking his inhaler into his mouth when his mother (Mary Ellen Trainor) walks through their front door with their new Hispanic housekeeper, Rosalita (the wonderful late actress Lupe Onteveros), who’ll be helping them pack for their possible upcoming move if their house gets foreclosed on by the golf course developers. Chunk, of all characters, glues David’s penis back on upside-down, so that it looks like fit young David is sporting an erection, though it really doesn’t seem to faze most of the other boys all that much. “If God made you do it that way, you’d all be pissing in your faces,” exclaims a flustered Brand to the other kids, to which Chunk calmly responds, “It looks fine to me.”

And it’s at this point, ironically, that the film’s narrative achieves liftoff. Because the Walsh family's dad (Keith Walker) is a museum curator, the boys decide to explore the attic of their family’s house to find a map that will lead them on an adventure-filled search for the legendary hidden treasure of an ancient pirate known as One-Eyed Willy, hoping to locate the bounty in order to have the money necessary to save their home from the golf course developers. You don’t have to think too hard (wink-wink) about One-Eyed Willy’s name to get the film’s most shameless inside joke. That’s right: the Goonies will spend the rest of the movie pursuing a very wealthy older man who shares his name with a nickname for one’s penis. The fun comes in when the Goonies learn that One-Eyed Willy hasn’t made it easy for them at all. Ingenious Rube Goldberg-like booby traps will hinder their progress every step of the way, keeping them constantly on their toes and proving that One-Eyed Willy is a wily force to be reckoned with.

To keep the gender dynamic more interesting (and also less homosocial), two female Goonies do join the group as well, just as their adventures get underway: high school cheerleader Andy (Kerri Green) and bespectacled tomboy Stef (Martha Plimpton). They’re equally well-drawn and fully inhabited characters, unlike in most ’80s teen movies that simply made young women second-tier characters or objectified them. Andy and Stef, while not immune to the effects of the frightful scenarios they encounter as the film goes spelunking through underground caves and grottoes, are spunky, driven, and self-aware young women with plenty of willpower and minds of their own to boot; Green and Plimpton, both ahead of their time, knowingly and winningly portray them that way. Of course, Andy also happens to be dating Brand, because a teen movie with no heterosexual romance or build-up of sexual tension wouldn’t be a full-fledged teen movie.

The film’s real wildcard female character, however, with some hints at transgender energy, is Mama Fratelli. Anne Ramsey, at this late point in her career (she acted in her first movie at age 42 in 1971 and died in 1988), was known mostly as a character actress, so the role of Mama Fratelli was a goldmine for her, as was her Oscar-nominated turn as the raucous title character of 1987’s Throw Momma from the Train, another movie that I loved and watched many times throughout my youth. Whenever I consider these two roles in tandem, I think no other actor’s pair of crowning ’80s film roles could be as potent. Through those two campy characters and her distinctive and exacting take on them, Ramsey single-handedly shaped the youths and childhood fears of millions of young people worldwide. Nobody else even came close to accomplishing that in the ’80s, not even someone like Vincent Price, as hard as he may have tried to achieve it. Ramsey’s sly command of camp in these performances to some degree overrode and exceeded camp itself, so that she achieved a truly rare combination of the comical, realistic, and visceral.

Cutely maniacal Joe Pantoliano and calmly menacing Robert Davi also made a permanent mark on the culture as the bumbling Fratelli brothers. In their slip-sliding and head-bonking antics, they were drawing on a rich film tradition from the Marx Brothers to Laurel & Hardy, while giving it some contemporary spins and updated innovations of their own. I doubt that anybody else in the movie had as much fun with their roles, and it shows in their pair of performances on camera. It’s a very tricky line to walk, one that requires the audience (particularly much younger viewers) to be scared of the villainous Fratelli brothers while also being able to laugh out loud at them and their ongoing rounds of cutting up and sparring with one another out of sibling rivalry. The brothers hamper the Fratelli clan’s pursuit of the Goonies but hope that they’ll catch up with the youngsters and be able to swipe One-Eyed Willy’s bounty for themselves. I have a feeling that Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern must have been drawing directly on these two performances for inspiration when they acted as a similar bad-guy duo in Home Alone just a few years later.

As memorable as its stellar performances make The Goonies, the inventive action sequences are really what drive the film the most, as well as the element that persuades frequent viewers to return to the movie. From suspended falling boulders to deep pits with tall spikes sticking straight up from the bottom, One-Eyed Willy has secured his treasure for centuries by making it almost impossible for outsiders to locate. We hear early in the film about how older adventurers like Chester Copperpot tried and failed to find the bounty, which is gruesomely confirmed when the kids stumble upon his skeleton at the very first round of booby traps in One-Eyed Willy’s labyrinthine underground lair. By the time the Goonies have outwitted several more of Willy’s traps, we arrive at the steepest challenge, which fans refer to as “playing the bones,” a skeletal piano that Andy has to rely on her childhood piano lessons to play, as she decodes the chords hand-written in ancient notes on the backside of the map of Willy’s lair. With each wrong note, a segment of the rock platform on which the Goonies are standing collapses into a bottomless pit, providing the movie with its most memorable and suspenseful images in a film that’s absolutely brimming with them. Andy succeeds, culminating in a group waterslide ride with a rewarding splashdown into a glowing blue-green lagoon, right beside One-Eyed Willy’s huge pirate ship.

Chunk, who’d opted out of the kids’ adventures to fetch adult assistance, only to get re-captured by the Fratelli clan, again escapes from the bad apples of the Fratelli family with the help of their younger and painfully neglected son Sloth, unforgettably portrayed with fearsome and infinite heart by former National Football League player John Matuszak. Chunk and Sloth, both outcasts, form an immediate and nearly intimate sort of bond that keeps them close on the heels of the other Goonies throughout the film. By the time they finally catch up with them, Sloth, with his combination of physical strength and emotional bravery, has been well-primed to become the movie’s ultimate hero. Matuszak’s performance is the most demanding one in the film, mainly because he has to emote through many layers of make-up, latex, and electronic prosthetics. In doing so, he also becomes the movie’s most loveable character, the antithesis of when Chunk first discovers him loudly howling while chained to a wall in the Fratelli family’s basement.

The movie’s true emotional center of gravity, however, is Sean Astin’s Mikey Walsh. Quite young and seemingly fragile, he’s also the Goonies’ finest and most persistent schemer, keeping all of them on a steady path throughout the duration of the film, arguing for the importance of their mission of saving their homes from foreclosure whenever the other Goonies are too afraid or ready to give up. Astin delivers numerous moving monologues — in the Walsh family’s attic, then surrounded by the underground waterfalls of their town’s old wishing well, and finally alone at One-Eyed Willy’s table full of treasures — with the expertise, timing, and maturity of actors four or five times his own age at the time. He’s the son of actress Patty Duke, and watching those touching scenes again always makes me wonder what in his childhood gave him access to that kind of resonant emotional depth. Because of it, he was able to craft a childhood film performance that will continue to live on for many more decades, and probably well beyond his own lifetime.

Without giving too much else away (for those who may not yet have seen the film), I’m happy to say that everything else in the movie works out just fine for the Goonies, as well it should, of course. It’s a fantasy, after all, one in which the greedy and inhumane golf course developers get duped by a group of determined kids and wind up with the short end of the deal, never the way things work out in the everyday world, where we seem to suffer small or substantial losses more or less continually and often struggle to survive. That makes the breathtaking final sight of One-Eyed Willy’s grand sea-vessel sailing from its crumbling hidden cavern at long last and out onto the open ocean all the more gratifying to behold. As the Goonies and their families stand on the beach together to cheer on the great ship and their own victory over their mindless enemies, so do we.